Tales From Dixie Land

Chelsea vs. Everton : 7 December 2019.

Not long in to the long drive north for our game at Everton, I admitted to PD and Parky about my thoughts :

“Of course, we can’t really be sure how this one is going to go.”

Despite Chelsea sitting in a pretty decent fourth place, and with Everton having just sacked their manager Marco Silva, Goodison Park has been a tough place for us over the last decade. Additionally, we have been limping along of late and have struggled to find consistency. Everton, under caretaker manager Duncan Ferguson, would be fired up. It was, in my mind anyway, a difficult result to predict.

The journey from rural Somerset to urban Merseyside was completed in a very good time; a little under four-and-a-half hours. At just after 10.30am, I was at the large car-park in Stanley Park, a quarter of a mile from the towering main stand at Anfield, where the league title looks increasingly like residing in May. We walked through the park, and I found it difficult to believe that we were last in this particular part of the world almost two years ago, just before Christmas, when we ended-up walking back to my car in the same car-park after a dismal 0-0 draw. Last season – last March, St. Patrick’s Day, a 0-2 loss – we had travelled to and from our hotel near Lime Street via cabs.

It would be my twentieth visit to Goodison Park, and as many know, this particular stadium at the northern end of Stanley Park is easily my favourite away venue in domestic football. While PD – Bullens Road, Lower – and LP – Bullens Road, Upper – made the short walk to the away turnstiles, I had a little time to kill before kick-off, so had a customary wander. For certain, I was in no need of alcohol since I wanted to remain fresh for the return journey later that day. I had been awake well before the 5am alarm. The day, for me anyway, was all about staying alert for the demands of the road.

I soon found myself at the Dixie Dean statue. It is a formidable structure and depicts the legendary Evertonian as a strong and determined individual, his eyes focussed and with a fist clenched. His record of 349 league goals in just 399 league games for Everton is one of the greatest records in English football. Growing up as a boy, my father – who was not a football fan at all, really – would often talk of Dixie Dean. He was the superstar of the inter-war years. I always liked the fact that his haul of 60 league goals in 1927/28 was matched by Babe Ruth’s haul of 60 home runs in 1927 for the New York Yankees. Both were the superstars of their eras. And I thought that both records would never ever be beaten. The Ruth record has been surpassed, but Dixie Dean’s sixty will surely stand forever. I took a few photographs of the area, which is backed by plaques commemorating the seven Everton players who were killed in the two World Wars. There were bouquets of flowers at the base of the statue, and it was the focus for many of the match-going fans.

I disappeared off, past the Everton club shop, and headed over to Walton Road where I hoped to meet up with a Chelsea mate of mine and his Everton-supporting brother, but they were delayed en route. Instead, I made my way back to Goodison, passing the Everton Community School, which has enjoyed much success in the local area in recent years. I spotted a long-haired lad knocking a ball against an end of terrace brick wall, the outline of a goal white-washed against it. These sort of scenes are rare in England these days. Ball games are usually not allowed. It was a pleasing sight. I almost wanted to join in. It brought back memories of me endlessly kicking a tennis ball against the large expanse of wall opposite my house in my home village, honing my timing, my technique – and my silent commentary.

“Hollins, outside to Cooke. To Osgood. Goal!”

As always, I circumnavigated Goodison Park, and was very pleased to spot a new addition since my last visit. On a wide pavement outside the famous church of St. Luke The Evangelist stood statues of Howard Kendall, Colin Harvey and Alan Ball, Everton’s “Holy Trinity.” It is sensational. I love that it might resemble three fans heading along Goodison Road from a distance, but once close, it becomes apparent that the figures are footballers.

I took some photographs. It was again the focus of much attention from Evertonians.

I remembered how, on my second visit to Goodison Park in the winter of 1986/87, I had walked not more than ten yards away, along the pavement, alone, and had immediately regretted my choice of jacket. A little group of scallies had scuttled past me and one hissed :

“That jacket is so fuckin’ red.”

I thought I was in for some grief, but nothing came of it. Just a little later, some younger lads started talking to me – much to my annoyance, I thought they were spotters – but I managed to avoid any trouble. I remember they spoke about getting in at Everton under the turnstiles, or by often using some free tickets that someone at the club gave them. They were at first an irritating gaggle of kids – they must have been around fourteen or fifteen – but as I chatted to them, they were just keen to talk to me about football, despite me being on guard.

“What’s your firm called?” I remember one kid asking me.

I pleaded ignorance. I didn’t fancy getting slapped by his elder brother, possibly lurking around a corner.

Later that season, a month or so later, I bumped into the very same group of four or five kids at Anfield for the away game against Liverpool. One of them recognised me.

“Alright, mate?”

I smiled but kept my head down.

Merseyside in 1986 was a tough gig.

The welcome from Evertonians in 2019 was a lot cheerier.

A chap in his ‘sixties moved so I could take a photograph of Alan Ball. I thanked him and said “great statue, that.”

He replied :

“We could do with them today.”

We both smiled.

I had timed my ritualistic pre-amble to perfection and was inside the historic Bullens Road stand with about a quarter of an hour to spare. I could not resist some photographs of the blue and white interior. Once up in the Upper Tier, the wooden floorboards hint at its antiquity. It is a magical place, a great perch from which the full glory of Goodison Park is visible down below.

Those Chelsea supporters who boorishly talk about Goodison Park being a “shit hole” can never, ever, be true friends of mine.

Opposite, the main stand, a double-decked behemoth, acted as a quick reminder of my childhood when its towering presence used to enthral me as I watched the Everton players on TV. In those days – “oh bollocks, here he goes again” – I used to love the idiosyncratic nature of many football grounds. Each one imbued its own personality on the clubs. In fact, the two were one of the same.

Everton was Goodison.

United was Old Trafford.

Arsenal was Highbury.

I thought back on the variety of stands opposite the TV gantries.

The multi-span roof at Molineux.

The trim art deco stylings of the East Stand on Avenell Road at Highbury.

The low pitched roof of the Kemlyn Road Stand, with its line of floodlights above, at Anfield.

The low, small stand at Filbert Street.

The huge and brooding Kippax terrace – a rarity in itself – along the side of the pitch at Manchester City.

The structured modernity at Old Trafford; terrace at front, seats in the middle, executive boxes at the rear.

The tightness of the small structure at The Dell.

It is such a shame that these individualistic beauties have, by and large, been replaced by tiers of seating in lookalike rebuilds. Thankfully, Goodison Park remains (but not for too much longer) and its two Archibald Leitch stands became the early focus of my attention as the game progressed.

Kick-off time approached. Time for one of the highlights of modern day Chelsea away days.

“Z Cars.”

I love it. I fucking love it.

I beamed a very wide smile.

Chelsea were unchanged from the Aston Villa game on the previous Wednesday.

Arrizabalaga

James – Christensen – Zouma – Azpilicueta

Kante

Kovacic – Mount

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

Chelsea in black, black, bright orange.

There were more than a few empty seats in the Upper Tier. Everyone was stood.

The game began.

In the very first few minutes, a couple of loose passes from Dave had a few supporters mumbling and grumbling. But Mason Mount looked busy and involved, running into pockets of space. As a ball was worked out to our right and a pull-back followed, I imagined an Ivanovic or a Costa thumping the ball in for an early lead. It was a promising start. But then, a full scale calamity. We gave up possession way too easily and Everton were all over us like a rash. They moved the ball quickly and purposefully, and we were – cliché warning – chasing shadows. The ball reached their right wing, under the towering double-decker, and Djibril Sidibe punched a fine cross into our box and it was met by the free leap of Richarlison. Our centre-backs were absent without leave.

Only five minutes had been played.

“Oh for fuck sake.”

Chelsea tended to dominate possession, but with little danger to Jordan Pickford in the Everton goal. Everton seemed a little more dangerous on the rare occasions they had the chance to hurt us. There was more space in our defensive third than theirs. A cross from Walcott just evaded Richarlison and there was a save from Kepa from an Everton shot on goal. But we had moments when we looked half-decent. In the middle of the first-half – if not mirroring the purple patch against Villa, perhaps a lavender or violet patch – we started to build a little momentum. Willian managed a few forceful dribbles out of our half, and there was some reasonable linking together of passes. One textbook breakaway down our right came to nothing, and on more than one occasion it felt that we were too frightened to pull the trigger on goal.

Pulisic was on the periphery. I heard a million voices in the US shout the exact same thing :

“Shoot the ball!”

The highlights of the first-half involved our two best players.

N’Golo Kante stretching, but able to cushion a ball into the path of a team mate with just the correct amount of weight. Just perfection.

Mateo Kovacic fighting like a demon for the ball as he kept possession during an extended dribble, even after running into defenders, showing great spirit and determination. It was like something from another era.

As the second-half began, I admitted to Gary “it’s strange not seeing Hazard down below us at this ground, twisting and turning.”

After just two minutes of the half, further catastrophe. I had commented to Gary that it was good to hear the Evertonians applaud Kurt Zouma’s defensive clearance in the first few seconds of the half. He was well-liked at Goodison last season. And yet it was his far-from-convincing hoof into the air which caused panic in the heart of our defence. Christensen and Zouma took it in turns to fall over themselves as the ball fortuitously fell at the feet of Dominic Calvert-Lewin (more a bespectacled member of the clergy than a footballer) and we watched, horrified, as he thumped the ball in from close range.

It felt like we had shot ourselves in the foot yet again. Two goals in the first five minutes of each half.

Bollocks.

No way back from this?

It certainly felt that way.

And yet just a short period of time followed – three minutes – and we were miraculously back in it. A raiding Kante touched the ball to Azpilicueta. His intended pass to Willian was cleared, but it reached Kovacic some twenty-five yards out. His low shot was supremely well-placed. It nestled in the bottom corner with Pickford well beaten.

Game on.

There had been a VAR check for both second-half goals, but both stood.

“ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.”

We continued to dominate the game, and I think it would be safe to say that most of us expected an equaliser at some stage. But we just lacked the final touch. And the noise in our section wasn’t great to be honest. Theo Walcott’s pace had the beating of Kante on one occasion, but then our little prince fared better in a second duel.

But Alan wasn’t impressed.

“Walcott’s had more dribbles than Stephen Hawking.”

There were efforts from Kovacic, from Mount, a drive from outside the box from Christensen. As the game continued, our exasperation increased. Another shot from Mount, a flash from Azpilicueta that was finger tipped over by Pickford.

On seventy minutes, Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced Willian.

On eighty-two minutes, Michy Batshuayi replaced Reece James.

Frank played with two up top.

Sadly, the game was decided with eighty-four minutes on the clock. Kepa tried to find Zouma but his long pass was poor. Theo Walcott collected it, and found Calvert-Lewin. I immediately growled. This looked dangerous. A back-heel from him found Tom Davies, a substitute, and as he stumbled Calvert-Lewin pounced to stab home the loose ball.

Everton 3 Chelsea 1.

Fackinell.

Despite a day of rainbow flags, rainbow armbands and rainbow laces, the Park End then sang about rent boys.

Original, eh?

The game ended.

The home crowd roared “Duncan, Duncan Ferguson” and I thought back to the “dogs of war” team of his era when players like Barry Horne, Dave Watson and Paul Rideout showed no mercy in every game they played. It was a similar performance from the home team on this occasion.

There was the shaking of heads and the pursing of lips in the Bullens Road. It was another strange one. A game of defensive lapses, and a game of goal-shy forwards. Pulisic was lightweight and had a shocker. The defensive four were individually poor and collectively worse. Kante and Kovacic shone like beacons. The game passed Tammy by. And our support wasn’t great.

I spoke to a couple of mates.

“Didn’t seem like a 3-1 game.”

And it didn’t. We weren’t too far away from a draw, but a loss was sadly predictable. We have now lost three of the last four league games. And we play Lille at home in the Champions League on Tuesday, a game that might well affect our self-confidence over the next three months.

We walked back to the car, a little downbeat, but a little pragmatic too.

“Frank is still testing his ideas, testing his thoughts on the best formations, the best mix of players. It’s still a work in progress.”

The escape route out of Stanley Park, down Utting Avenue, past the Liverpool pennants on the lamp posts, and onto Queens Drive was the quickest ever. Maybe the Evertonians were still ensconced in Goodison celebrating their surprising win.

I made good time on the way home, yet I missed a turning from the M6 and down onto the M5. I found myself driving past Villa Park – on the day that their former boss Ron Saunders passed away – but still had time to head over to “The Vine” at West Bromwich which is one of the most famous football pubs in the UK.

Chicken jalfrezi, mushroom rice, peshwari naan.

It took my mind of the football. Just.

I reached home at about 8.30pm, but found myself falling asleep during the “MOTD” coverage of our game. It was probably just as well.

Later, I looked at the record of my twenty visits to Goodison Park. It made for sobering viewing.

The first ten games : 1986 to 2011.

Won 5

Drew 5

Lost 0

The last ten games : 2011 to 2019

Won 2

Drew 1

Lost 7

It has become, ridiculously, a huge bogey ground for us.

Right.

Tuesday.

Lille.

See you there.

Tales From Wet Watford

Watford vs. Chelsea : 2 November 2019.

…although I did not watch a single second of the game, I soon learned that England Rugby had mirrored Chelsea Football Club in failing to become World Champions in Yokohama.

There. That’s my first rugby reference for a few years out of the way.

This weekend was all about football. It was all about Watford away. This was an early evening kick-off at 5.30pm. This meant that I didn’t really need to leave at the crack of dawn or the crack of anything for that matter. I picked up PD at 11am and then made my way to collect Parky. All evidence suggested a stunning autumnal morning. For a while – over an hour – the fine weather continued. It was one of those mornings that made driving a pleasure. Bright skies, a sky bursting with differing cloud formations, the fields rimmed with various autumnal hues, leaves on the change. A perfect football day. The slip-up against Manchester United during the week had been confined to the past. The immediate future was all about league points, and away points, which we have regularly amassed since the loss at Old Trafford. We were looking for our fifth consecutive away win in the league.

I stopped for a coffee at the halfway point, Reading Services, but then the rain started. It was a horrible reminder of the previous weekend’s drive to Burnley.

Nevertheless, I was parked-up in our usual spot in Watford at just before 2pm. Unlike the mighty seventy-five games against Manchester United, this was only game number nineteen against Watford, and only my seventh away game, all since 2007, at Vicarage Road. I am a late bloomer when it comes to Watford.

As far as I have worked out thus far, the Hertfordshire town does not offer too much to the football visitor aside from the ridiculously well stocked High Street; many bars and restaurants, cafes and nightclubs sit cheek-by-jowl on this pedestrianised road and we have noted a new shopping centre that has risen at the southern end during our past few visits. We have generally fared well at Vicarage Road but the 4-1 shellacking in 2017/18 still hurts.

Our most famous match at Vicarage Road was – possibly – in 1981/82 (and my match day companion Alan would mention it during the game) when Chelsea supporters were on an away ban yet around three thousand Chelsea showed up, and the local police decided that it would be far wiser to let them all in to the stadium than have them roam around the town centre – pubs closed at three o’clock in those days – for hours on end.

On Tuesday night, it has been decided that Ajax will not be allowed in to Stamford Bridge after previous misbehaviour, but the Watford policy of 1982 will not be followed. We have all been warned to bring along photographic identification with our match ticket prior to entering Stamford Bridge.

They – the Dutch –  shall not enter.

It all seems a bit draconian to me. And with no away fans to stir up some energy and emotion in the stadium, we will probably witness the flattest ever atmosphere for a Champions League home game.

The Watford High Street might well have been crammed with pubs and bars, but we chose our usual hostelry right on the northern boundary. It would be our third visit to “The Horns” and two good friends were waiting for us.

Ollie and Julien, two proud Frenchmen from Normandy, had been in the pub since midday. As soon as I walked in, I welcomed them.

“Bonjour, mes amis.”

They were last with us for a pre-match drink at home to – ironically – Watford last Spring. In fact, the first time that I ever met Ollie, after being Facebook friends for quite a while, was before the Watford away game in 2016/17, just before Antonio Conte got it together with his 3-4-3.

We spent a fine hour and a half in their good company before they had to head off to sort out Julien’s match ticket. We delved back in to Ollie’s personal Chelsea story. I am always pleased to hear from our many overseas’ supporters about their individual journeys. They can be wide and varied. Ollie’s story began in around 1984, listening in to our football on the old Radio Two in his home village in Northern France. He was drawn in with talk of the atmosphere in and around our games, but also he hinted that the rowdier nature of our support beguiled him, as it did many at that time.

I agreed.

“There was an edge to football. It made for a raw atmosphere. But it was also pretty scary at times.”

Olllie’s first Chelsea match was at home to Sheffield Wednesday in August 1989. He just loves the club. And he has some fine credentials. He comes over three or four times every year. He is a familiar passenger on the crossings between Dieppe and Newhaven. We listened intently as he spoke of his deep passion for our club.

I joked with him.

“You are our most famous French fan.”

Tattoos were shown. PD and LP joined in.

Shirts were taken off.

I stepped nervously from one foot to the other.

“OK. Moving on.”

Regardless, it was magical to hear of his Chelsea past.

Conversely, any journey that begins “I started playing as Chelsea on FIFA” is not so well received.

Outside the weather had deteriorated significantly. We watched aghast as new customers entered the busy pub with their outer layers completely drenched. On the twenty-minute walk to Vicarage Road, past pubs teeming with people, we were drenched too. It was as bleak an afternoon that I can remember.

At about 4.45pm we met up with friends from Yeovil and PD’s match ticket was sorted. There were ridiculous rumours floating around about Aston Villa beating Liverpool at home and Southampton winning at Manchester City. Sadly, these games ended up being won by the usual suspects. At least Arsenal dropped points at home to Wolves.

We were inside Vicarage Road good and early for a change. In the same way that it had not seemed possible that it had been ten full months that I had sat at the bar in “The Horns” – on Boxing Day 2018, hanging my coat on the “fighting octopus” beneath the bar, supping a lager – neither did it seem wholly believable that it was ten months that we had all last visited this now familiar away stadium, these same seats too, more or less. It seemed closer, maybe a few months back, not almost a whole year ago. All of these games, these away games, getting joined up – dot to dot – and I wondered how long all of these dots would continue to be joined. If Watford didn’t buck their ideas up, this sequence might not be continued next season.

Out in the ridiculously packed concourse at the top of the away seats, four fans were singing a previously unheard of song that referenced – painfully – David Luiz, Fikayo Tomori and the size of the latter’s manhood.

Good grief.

Thank heavens I never heard it during the game.

The minutes ticked by. Familiar faces everywhere.

“Z Cars” played on the PA, but it seemed out of place. Everton, yes. Watford, no.

The rain was still lashing down as the teams emerged from the Elton John Stand. There were considerable numbers of unoccupied seats in all home areas. As this was the nearest Watford home game to Remembrance Day, we observed a minute of silent appreciation, all players with their arms linked.

I bowed my head.

Sadly, some late arrivals in the away concourse needed to be “shushed.”

Our team lined up as below –

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Zouma – Tomori – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic – Mount

Pulisic – Abraham – Willian

Watford have ditched the yellow and black stripes of last season and now wear yellow and black halves. I like neither.

We began attacking the home end. After just five minutes, we were in rapture. The ball was played back to Jorginho, quite deep, and without so much as a blink of an eye or a break in step, he played a curling, sweeping ball over the heads of a few Watford defenders and – right on the money – in to the path of Tammy Abraham, who was in a dead central location inside the box. Tammy met the ball just before it became within Ben Foster’s reach and he guided it over the Watford ‘keeper and into the now vacated goal. The net rippled. We roared. Tammy raced over to the goal-line in front of the home fans and slid on his knees.

What a bloody pass. What a bloody goal.

The away end roared some more.

The assist from Jorginho, utterly perfect in strength and trajectory, was the pass of the season thus far. And it was warmly appreciated by all. In the Norwich match report, I noted how our passes into the final third were much more varied than the claustrophobic monotony of last season. Here was proof. A ball swung in from deep, the defenders unable to cope, a striker waiting to pounce.

Boom.

It was some goal.

“Oh Tammy, Tammy. Tammy, Tammy, Tammy, Tammy Abraham.”

So, we were 1-0 up early on. Before the game, I had joked with a few mates how we were likely to be treated to another 4-1 or 4-2 away day goal fest. We dominated possession, but on the rare instances that Watford summoned up enough courage to attack us our defence looked in control. In fact, at times our defence looked too calm. I know we like to smother the ball and pass it out, but sometimes our tendency for Kepa, especially, to play balls to defenders who have opponents breathing the same air as them is inviting trouble. Sometimes an agricultural “hoof” up field is quite acceptable.

It really is.

I turned to Alan :

“This new rule about goal kicks being allowed to be played to defenders inside our box. It doesn’t mean that they have to every single time.”

There was a rare Watford poke at goal which was easily saved by Kepa.

Still the rain came down.

“Jorginho. Jorginho. Jorginho, Jorginho, Jorginho.”

Watford are not known for their support and I noted that I had not heard a single shout from their fans all game. Watford are such an inoffensive club. They are the chicken korma of the Premier League.  I waited and waited for a song from them.

I love to see Mason Mount running at defenders – he is so natural – and one such run resulted in a shot on goal. From the block, Tammy pestered the Watford goalkeeper but Foster saved well again. From a corner, a fine leap from Christian Pulisic forced a very fine acrobatic save from a back-peddling Foster.

All this before twenty minutes.

We were loving it.

Out of nowhere came a loud chant from within the travelling two thousand supporters in support of Gianluca Vialli, who is battling cancer. We all joined in.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

He was, of course, manager at Watford for a while after he left us in 2000.

Just in front of us, down towards the corner flag, there was a ridiculous few seconds of showboating between Kovacic and Jorginho. The ball was kept alive with a tantalising medley of flicks and kicks. It paid off, but I had to wonder if that sort of stuff should best be saved for when we are 4-0 or 5-0 up. Regardless, we got away with it.

There was another rare Watford attack, and a low shot from Gerard Deulofeu that whizzed past the far post. In truth, Kepa had been rarely tested.

We watched as Mount wriggled in from the left-wing, hopscotched past challenges, and then whacked a fine shot at goal. But the resolute Watford goalkeeper thwarted us once more, leaping high and touching the goal bound shot onto the bar. He had been, undoubtedly, our first-half nemesis.

I wished that Foster had fucked off to Gloucester in this shower of rain.

Reaching my seat at the end of the interval, I spotted Ollie and he came over to join us in row HH for twenty minutes or so.

Still the rain fell.

Deulofeu ran at our defence early in the second-half and he rolled the ball square to Andre Gray but a brave block by Kurt Zouma – no longer the nervous wretch of the first few games of the season – came to the rescue.

As the game developed along similar lines as the first-half, it seemed that Mateo Kovacic was everywhere; twisting and turning out of trouble, striding confidently with the ball, allowing others to move before passing to their feet. The away crowd soon rewarded this very fine masterclass in midfield dominance.

“Kovacic. In the middle of our pitch.”

Willian burst through the midfield and set up Mount with a perfect pass. Doctor Foster clinically removed the threat with yet another fine save.

Just after, a very similar run from Willian in the same area and the ball was dispatched out to Tammy right in front of us. His low cross into the six-yard box was prodded home by Pulisic. It was another lovely move. Tammy waited for his team mates to celebrate with him. I was pretty lucky to be able to snap away as the players swarmed a mere thirty-feet or so away.

“Ole, ole, ole, ole – Chelsea, Chelsea.”

Lovely.

Fun and games in the way end were then abruptly halted.

“USA. USA. USA. USA.”

No. Just no.

Kovacic, in the middle of his pitch, dribbled forward and set up Pulisic. Another great stop from Foster. We were attacking at will now, with Kovacic himself and then Tammy – twice – going close.

I was still – honestly – waiting for the first Watford chant of the day, as indeed were many more in our support.

“Watford – give us a song. Watford, Watford – give us a song.”

(a quick reality check. I am a fifty-four-year-old man detailing how one set of football supporters were goading another set of football fans into singing support of their team. Is this a reasonable thing to do? All a bit childish, innit? Yep. Guilty.)

With a quarter of an hour to go, how we all wished that Kovacic or Jorginho had “hoofed” the ball away, but instead the “to me, to you” nonsense inside the Chelsea box resulted in a challenge between Jorginho and Deulofeu.

The referee firstly seemed to signal a goal-kick.

Then, a delay.

Then, VAR.

Then, a delay.

It is of my opinion that there should be a twenty-second-time limit on VAR decisions. If nothing can be decided within twenty seconds, nothing is clear, therefore the original decision stands.

We waited.

And waited.

A cure for cancer was found, Parky bought a round, Brexit negotiations reached a conclusion, World poverty was no more, oil companies acknowledged climate change, Lenny Henry was funny again, Israelis and Palestinians signed a peace-pact, Donald Trump said something insightful and Tottenham won a trophy.

Then, a penalty.

A replay – just once – of the “challenge” was shown on the TV screen in the stadium.

The Chelsea crowd were incandescent.

“FUCK VAR. FUCK VAR. FUCK VAR, FUCK VAR, FUCK VAR.”

(a quick reality check…I am a fifty-four-year-old man…is this a reasonable thing to do? All a bit childish, innit? Yep. Guilty.)

Deulofeu rolled it home.

Game…as they say…on.

Despite this lifeline, many Watford fans decided to join those that had already left at 0-2.

Morons.

There was an instance, not long after the Watford goal, when some – many – in our section were shouting for VAR after a decision went against us.

For.

Fuck.

Sake.

The world is full of fucking idiots.

Michy Batshuayi came on for Tammy with two minutes to go, and spun himself in to space, but was thwarted.

Deep in injury-time, a free-kick to Watford was awarded around thirty-five yards out. Foster joined the attackers inside the box. Our nerves were being tested. I was tempted to use my sports-mode setting on my camera, but – always so superstitious – I remembered the United goal last Wednesday.

“Nah.”

The ball was sent in. The ball was flicked on. It found a Watford head – Foster, it had to be him – and the ball was, in my mind, goal bound.

We had fucked it up.

But no. We saw the jade green of Kepa lunge to the left and the ball was spooned away.

Phew.

With that, the referee blew the final whistle.

We had consolidated our place in the top four on top of a pretty pleasing performance.

And then we witnessed one of the highlights of the day. The players came over to thank us for our support and there were smiles aplenty. But all eyes were on Frank Lampard. He walked over, sedately at first, but with each photograph that I took, his emotions took over.

He smiled, he clapped, his eyes twinkled, his smile grew wider, his face was one of pride and joy.

It was – I’ll be honest – quite wonderful.

How good did this all feel?

It felt Franktastic.

NB : No trophies were won by Tottenham.

Tales From Hammersmith Bridge To Stamford Bridge

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 18 August 2018.

Even though I had set my Saturday morning “first home game of the season” alarm as early as 6.30am, and even though I caught the first of two trains to take us up to Paddington from Frome station at 8.07am and although I left the last of four pubs that we chose to visit at just before 5pm, I still managed to miss the bloody kick-off.

That takes some doing, eh?

It would, if I was pressed, be something that I might term “Proper Chelsea.”

I remember that even on our greatest night in our history, I still only arrived at my seat in the Nord Kurv of Munich’s Allianz Stadium with barely more than five minutes to go until kick-off.

I usually manage to time it just right, often slipping into my seat a few minutes before the teams enter the pitch. Not on this occasion. There had been another fantastic pre-match pub crawl, but then a little delay at Earl’s Court, and then again as we climbed the steps at Fulham Broadway, when tempers ran a little high between both sets of fans. At just before 5.30pm, I grabbed a programme, shook Kerry Dixon’s hand outside the West Stand – he appeared to be in just as much a rush as I was – and made my way up to the Matthew Harding Wraparound.

Just after kick-off, I was in.

I had missed the pre-game show. Alan showed me the banner that had surfed over the supporters in The Shed Upper, a celebration of Roman’s fifteen years in charge and of the fifteen major trophies within that time span.

Other teams – no names, no pack drill – could only dream of such success.

I was back at Stamford Bridge for my forty-fifth season of match-going Chelsea support.

And it felt great.

As always, there was a quick scan of the Chelsea team – “same as at Huddersfield” – and a scan of the away support – “same as always Arsenal, more than the usual amount of replica shirts in their three thousand compared to, say, Spurs or West Ham.”

The ridiculous “Thrilling Since 1905” had thankfully disappeared from the signage at Stamford Bridge.

We were left with “The Pride Of London” and I can’t find fault with that.

I had mentioned to Glenn on the train journey to London that I fancied a Chelsea win. There was no real scientific theory behind this – the season is far too early for any real prognosis of our overall chances just yet – but I just had this feeling that we would be sending Arsenal away with their second successive league defeat of the season. The morning train ride into London had been a real pleasure. There were thoughts of the game, but also – of course – thoughts of meeting up with some good Chelsea people along the way too.

After a breakfast on Praed Street, we caught a train down to Hammersmith. Not for the first time, we had planned a pub crawl by the side of the River Thames. At just after midday, we met up with Kim and Dan, then settled in at The Old City Arms, right on Hammersmith Bridge, its green wrought iron just outside the pub windows. Andy and Phil joined us, and then Dave. The counties of Somerset, Wiltshire, Kent and Northampton shire were represented.

And we were then joined by the state of Michigan.

Erica and Victor – on a whirlwind European tour including a wedding (not theirs I hasten to add) in Frankfurt, and quick visits to Valencia and Paris – were in town for Chelsea and Chelsea only. I had met them both in Ann Arbor for the Chelsea vs. Real Madrid game in 2016 and we had stayed in touch ever since, and especially since they told me of their imminent visit to these shores. It was a pleasure to welcome them to our little tour party. In a week when La Liga announced its intention to play regular season games in the United States in the near future, it was fitting that Erica and Victor, bless ‘em, had travelled over land and sea to London to watch us. Another friend, Russ – who I had met for the first time in Perth in the summer – was also in town especially for Chelsea from his home in Melbourne.

And this is the way it should be.

For those of you who have been reading these match reports the past ten years, my views on all of this are well known. Like many Chelsea supporters in the UK – and I am basing this on those who I know, who are mainly match-goers, I don’t know many Chelsea who do not go to football – the idea of Chelsea playing a league game outside of our national, and natural, borders both saddens and repulses me.

My message is crisp and clear.

“You want to want to watch English football?”

“That’s great. Come to England.”

Of course, Richard Scudamore and his money-chasers at the Football Association originally proposed the “39th Game” in 2008, and – thankfully – the idea was shot down in flames by supporter groups the length and breadth of the country. This cheered me no end. I felt that the football community had said “no” in a forceful and coherent way. Of course, since then, all manner of US regular league games have been played out in the UK – er London, does any other English city exist in the minds of the average American? – and with each passing NBA and NFL game which takes place in our capital city, my spirits weaken. I have no doubt that the FA look on and rub their hands with glee. It will surprise nobody, I hope, to know that I am already boycotting the New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox baseball series at The Oval next June.

It would not feel right for me to attend. That’s just my personal choice. I’ve seen the Yankees play thirty times in The Bronx and nine times on the road. But the thought of seeing the Yankees playing in some sort of ersatz environment (I dread to think, I dread to think…) does nothing for me, and it would be supremely hypocritical.

Major League Baseball got the ball rolling with this concept – “sporting colonialism” – around twenty years ago with regular season games in Japan and then Mexico. It has been the American way. I made the point to Erica and Victor that US teams seem to hop around from one city to another at the drop of a hat (or at the hint of a new stadium), and so there seems to be an immediate disconnect between teams and supporters. There is an ambivalence to the fans. I do not seem to see too many NFL season ticket holders, for example, in the US campaigning against the loss of home games to London.

In England and in the UK, supporters are a lot more tribal, more political, more strident, and I bloody hope it continues.

My secret wish is that a couple of our football clubs – let’s name names, Liverpool and Manchester United – who have very politicised support bases and pressure groups (“The Spirit Of Shankly” and the “Manchester United Supporters Trust” to name two) will lead the way in fighting against any new proposals for “overseas games.”

I have always said that if the FA, and if Chelsea are implicit in their plans, decide to play a regular season game outside of England and Wales, then that will be the last straw for me.

An idle threat?

I am not sure. It would be a heart-breaking decision for me to turn my back on the love of my life, but nobody enjoys getting the piss taken out of them.

We will wait and see.

Down on the River Thames, we hopped from The Old City Arms to The Blue Anchor and then to The Rutland.

The pints were, of course, going down rather well. The time raced past.

Erica and Victor were staying near Earl’s Court, and they had tried to pop into a local pub during the morning. From their story, I believe that the pub was “The Courtfield”, which stands right opposite the tube station, and is one of the main “away” pubs at Chelsea. Victor was wearing a 2010/2011 home shirt, and he was advised by a policeman to avoid going in to the boozer as it was full of Arsenal. This totally shocked Erica and Victor. In the US, home and away fans in team colours mix easily and freely outside stadia and in nearby pubs. The cultural differences between sport in the UK and the US were spoken about once more. Victor, forced into a corner somewhat and maybe fearing all sorts of mayhem at Stamford Bridge, chose to wear a grey pullover over the Chelsea shirt instead.

There then ensued a little chat with Erica and Victor about “the cult with no name” and our ongoing predilection for designer clobber at football. As we stood overlooking the River Thames, watching rowers and paddle boarders, I gave the two visitors a crash course in the casual movement from 1977 to date. I looked over at the lads in our tour party and, quite fittingly, everyone was wearing football schmutter. In fact, we could not have been more colour-coordinated. But not a single Chelsea shirt, scarf or favour, save from a couple of very small pin badges.

“Less is more.”

But I then commented to Erica that if any other football fan – “in the know” as we say – were to walk past, they would immediately know that we were all going to football.

More beers, more stories, more Tales From The Riverside.

The idea was to head up to “The Dove” – the best pub of the lot – but time was against us. We caught the tube to West Kensington, and dived into “The Famous Three Kings” which was awash with Juventus Club Londra fans watching their game against Chievo.

I could not resist.

“Forza Juve, Vinci Per Noi.”

So, that was the pre-match. The big thrill for me was to see Erica and Victor enjoying themselves so much, and sharing jokes and laughter with my mates. In the four hours that they were with us, they sampled a great range of alcohol too; cider, bitter, lager, “Guinness”, and even a “Pimms”.

I hope they remembered the match.

In the opening salvos of the game, honours were pretty even. A couple of chances for us, and a couple for them. David Luiz, wearing plain black boots – weirdo – tried to lob Cech, but was unsuccessful. Thankfully, we did not have too long to wait. A beautifully weighted through ball from Jorginho picked out the run of Marcos Alonso down our left. He soon spotted the figure of Pedro to his right, in oodles of space, and his pass was perfection itself. Right in front of the Arsenal support, Pedro slipped a low ball past Petr Cech, the man in black.

One-nil to The Chelsea.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

I admired the touch and movement of Ross Barkley in the first moments of the game. He seems to have grown in stature over the summer; in self-confidence, in presence. He may yet be a fantastic buy. I always liked him in his first few seasons at Everton.

Aubameyang forced a save from Kepa Arrizabalaga.

I’ll just call him “Save.”

Then, a ridiculously easy chance for Aubameyang again, but he ballooned the ball over from a very central position. Our defence, it seemed, had not been introduced to each other before the game. Then, another rapid break into the Arsenal half. A long ball from Dave was played beyond the Arsenal line and Alvaro Morata was able to race away, twist past his marker and wrong foot Peter Cech. His finish looked easier than it was. He raced away to Parkyville and wildly celebrated.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

I must admit that I found it odd to see N’Golo Kante in a more forward position; it is a role that we are not used to see. How often have we seen him over the past two seasons patrolling that central section of the park, and causing a massive hindrance to opposing players? It is his role, his position.

On his day, he gets as close to his opponent as a wet shower curtain.

And now, within the manager’s new plan, he is asked to change his game, and I am not sure if we will see the best of him. In our old system of 3/4/3, I would imagine that a midfield “two” of Jorginho and Kante would have been ideal. But what do I know?

Next, another gilt-edged chance for Arsenal but another line fluffed. Mkhitarian repeated Aubameyang and the ball flew high over our bar.

“Phew.”

This was open a game as I had seen for a while.

Maurizio Sarri, bedecked in head to toe royal blue, was not as animated as the previous manager, but he studiously watched from the technical area and the bench. If you squint, and think “sepia”, he looks a little like Billy Birrell, our spectacled manager from both sides of the Second World War.

Morata forced a save from Cech.

While my concentration was devoted to demolishing a chicken katsu pie, its contents as hot as molten lava, I looked on as Mkhitarian popped a low shot past Arrizabalaga from outside the box after we gave up possession rather too easily. Then, horror upon horrors, a ball was whipped in from our left and Iwobi struck from close-in. Our defenders were not even close. It reminded me of the low crosses from which Manchester United often used to punish us twenty years or so ago.

So, all even at the break and many a scratched head in the Matthew Harding.

I popped down for a very brief chat with Big John in the front row.

“So, if we play a league game in the US, is that it for you, John?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

“It’s a pact then.”

We laughed.

The second-half began. With us attacking the Matthew Harding, the play stagnated a little. Ross Barkley broke through but Cech saved well. We needed an extra push. On the hour, Sarri decided to shake things up.

Mateo Kovacic for Ross Barkley (a shame, I though Barkley had been fine) and Eden Hazard for Willian.

We were treated, almost immediately, to some pure sparkle from Eden Hazard. He immediately looked the part. Mateo Kovacic instantly impressed too. In fact, I can rarely remember a more impressive home debut as a second-half substitute, Joe Allon excepted (you had to be there.)

He was all energy, full of movement, skillful in tight areas, and a lovely awareness of others.

OK, I was joking about Joe Allon.

Marcos Alonso and Eden Hazard lined up alongside David Luiz as a free-kick was awarded, but the Brazilian’s effort was saved by Cech.

On seventy-five minutes, Olivier Giroud replaced Alvaro Morata.

We seemed to tighten our grip on the game.

A chance for N’Golo. Over.

Throughout the game, Alan – bless him – had been tough on the defensive frailties of Marcos Alonso, who had often been caught out of position or ball-watching. With ten minutes remaining, an exquisite burst from Eden Hazard enabled him to drift easily past his marker and drill a low cross right into the box. Who else but Alonso arrived just at the right time to flick the ball through Peter Cech’s legs.

“Nuts.”

The Stamford Bridge crowd erupted as one. I jumped up and punched the air, then quickly looked back at Alan and we found ourselves smiling and pointing at one another.

The joy of the moment.

A late winner.

Against Arsenal.

Marcos Alonso.

Fackinell.

We were, believe it or not, top of the league.

We exchanged a few last chances but Arsenal disappeared off into the West London evening with no points in their first two games under their new manager. Yes, we had ridden our luck in the first-half, but thank heavens for Eden Hazard. Arsenal do not have anyone like him, and nor do many others. Let’s keep him for life.

We began the day with a breakfast at Praed Street and we finished it with an Indian on Praed Street.

We caught the 9.30pm train home, and the beers had taken their toll over the day, and a couple of us, ahem, rested our eyes.

We finally reached Frome at midnight.

It had been a top day.

See you at Newcastle next Sunday.