Tales From Twenty-Eight Games

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 1 April 2018.

As Saturday became Easter Sunday, I awoke with a heavy heart. I dreaded looking at my phone, or switching on the TV. Late on Good Friday, we had received the shocking news that club legend Ray Wilkins had suffered a heart-attack, and had fallen. He had been rushed to a hospital in Tooting and was in an induced coma. Suddenly, with so much pain and worry, the upcoming London derby with Tottenham did not seem as important. It seemed – I don’t know – almost irrelevant.

In the build-up to the game, in which we were not only attempting to claw back some points in the league table but were looking to extend our unbeaten home record against Tottenham to a ridiculous twenty-eight games, I was my usual nervy and edgy self. Tottenham at home always gets me like this. I can’t fight it. In some ways, the home record is a magnificent albatross around our necks; I never get as nervous about any other fixture. I just wanted it to continue on and on and on and on.

Or at least maybe until 2020. Get to three decades, Chelsea, then retire. Thirty years would be a fantastic achievement.

“Three more years, three more years.”

But the Ray Wilkins news dominated everything as I collected the boys in the morning and drove up to West London. Glenn and I had only bumped into Butch a few weeks back, before the West Brom game. We had the briefest of chats, and a photo with the former Chelsea captain and assistant coach to Carlo Ancelotti. The timing could not have been more eerie. When I chatted to him in the Copthorne Hotel, I mentioned that the last time that I had seen him was at his former team mate Ian Britton’s funeral at Burnley in 2016. The former Chelsea midfield dynamo had passed away on 31 March, and throughout the Saturday I was scared to hear of any update about Butch in case he had passed on exactly the same date. It was all too horrifying for words really. I always remember being on holiday in the summer of 1975 in Dorset, and visiting an aunt in my father’s home town of Wareham. I can remember the sense of sadness that I felt when I read on the back page of her “News of the World” that Manchester United, newly-promoted to the First Division, had made a seismic offer of £500,000 to cash-strapped Chelsea for both Wilkins and Britton. If Ian Britton was my favourite player at the time, Ray Wilkins was a very close second. I was devastated that Chelsea might accept the offer. Thankfully, they resisted, and both players were part of a very revered team for many a season. The two of them would always be linked together in my mind.

Thankfully, Easter Saturday passed with no tragic updates.

I hoped and prayed that we would hear only encouraging news as the day and days passed.

Inside Stamford Bridge at around fifteen minutes before the scheduled kick-off time of 4pm, Neil Barnett spoke emotionally about Ray Wilkins and urged him to keep fighting.

“COME ON RAY. COME ON RAY. COME ON RAY.”

The thirty-thousand or so spectators in the stadium clapped for quite a while.

It was such a strange feeling. The shadow of it all loomed over the day.

But it was time, oddly, rudely, to think about the football.

Inside the stadium, the Spurs fans – navy blue darkness, no light, a couple of flags, expectant – were massed in the far corner. The home areas were filling up. In the pre-match, I had dipped into three pubs and had met up with a little assortment of Chelsea fans from near and far. I was pleased to be able to run into three lads from the US who run the “London Is Blue” podcast – and who very often use some of my photos on their various media platforms – down at “The Cock Tavern.” Although I was only on cokes, it was a sign of my pre-match nerves that I inadvertently picked up a stranger’s glass of “Peroni” and took a sip, before realising the error of my ways. The team had been announced and I was in general agreement. I was hopeful that Eden Hazard would give us a strong performance. It has indeed been a while.

On the rear of the hotel and the apartment block behind The Shed, two new banners have recently appeared.

On the hotel, a picture of a Nike adorned girl with the words “Loud. Loyal. Blue. Together.”

Then, on the apartment block, the oddly-worded “Expect thrilling.”

This struck me as odd a phrase as I have seen in the world of football hype and bluster. It just didn’t scan. It is as if the phrase was originally developed in another language and awkwardly translated with no thought. It mirrored the legend “Thrilling since 1905” on the stadium balconies and the front of the West Stand. Again, odd and awkward.

As the teams entered the pitch, I was pleased to see six flags depicting our six championship seasons draped from the MHU balcony; I had paid a little towards these a while back, and they looked fantastic. Down below, the usual MHL flag appeared. At The Shed, more flags and banners.

Stamford Bridge looked perfect.

Stamford Bridge was ready.

The old enemies appeared once more. My first-ever Chelsea vs. Tottenham game was my second-ever Chelsea game. October 1975 and a John Hollins penalty. Since then, so many memories…

The game?

I am not going to dwell too much on our twenty-eighth home game in the league against Tottenham Hotspur since December 1990. I have no doubt that the vast majority of readers saw the game, and have their own opinions. At the end of it all, walking silently down the Fulham Road, so disconsolate, I have rarely felt worse after a Chelsea home match. I just hated losing to them. For me – I missed the 1990 loss as I was in Canada at the time – it was the very first time that I had experienced a loss at home to Spurs since a meek 2-0 capitulation in December 1986 in front of a miserly 21,576.

Thirty-two years ago!

So, rather than spend too much time going over in fine detail how Chelsea’s ridiculous record came to an end, I would rather take time to celebrate one of the outstanding periods of domination in European football.

It has been quite a ride.

1990/1991 : A cracking game of football involving a Tottenham team which included Italia ’90 superstars Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne for Spurs and Italia ’90 squad members Dave Beasant and Tony Dorigo for Chelsea. Chelsea triumphed 3-2, with goals from Kerry Dixon, John Bumstead and Gordon Dure. Lineker blasted a penalty over the bar for Spurs and I watched from the old West Stand. At the end of the season, Chelsea finished in eleventh place in the table, equal on points, but one place below our North London rivals.

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1991/1992 : I was in The Shed for this one as a poor Spurs team were easily beaten with former Tottenham striker Clive Allen and Dennis Wise giving us an easy 2-0 win.

1992/1993 : With David Webb in temporary charge, Tony Cascarino gave us an equaliser in a 1-1 draw. I remember Peter Osgood being on the pitch at half-time; his first appearance at Stamford Bridge for years and years. I watched from the lower West side of The Shed in a poor gate of just 25,157.

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1993/1994 : I didn’t attend this one unfortunately. An incredible game, which ended up 4-3 in our favour with a last-minute Mark Stein penalty. The attendance was a shockingly bad 16,807.

1994/1995 : I watched from the lower tier of the new North Stand as Dennis Wise stooped low to head in an equaliser. Phew. It ended 1-1.

1995/1996 : This game took place in the midst of the great Ken Bates vs. Matthew Harding “stand-off.” Matthew was famously banned from the Directors’ Box and so watched from the front row of the stand which he had personally financed. This was a very poor game. I watched from the temporary green seats at The Shed End and both teams were lucky to get 0.

1996/1997 : One of the most emotional games ever. Matthew Harding, who died on the Wednesday, was remembered on a very sombre day at Stamford Bridge. Goals from Roberto di Matteo, Ruud Gullit and David Lee gave us a 3-1 win. We watched from the North Stand, which was soon to be re-named. The image of a pint of Guinness on the centre-spot before the game was as poignant as it ever gets.

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1997/1998 : With Jurgen Klinsmann back with Spurs for an end-of-season loan, we watched as goals from Tore Andre Flo and Gianluca Vialli gave us an easy 2-0 win. I was now watching games from my own seat in the Matthew Harding Upper. These were great times to be a Chelsea supporter.

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1998/1999 : This was another 2-0 win with goals from Gus Poyet and Tore Andre Flo. This pre-Christmas treat was even more enjoyable because it meant that the win put us top of the league for the first time in eight years. Yes, eight years. I think this match was the game where Spurs only wanted 1,500 tickets. They refused the other 1,500. Insert comment here.

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1999/2000 : George Weah arrived from Milan in the afternoon, came off the bench in the last twenty minutes and headed home a late winner at the Shed End as we won 1-0. This was getting too easy. It was almost a case of “how shall we beat Spurs this time?”

2000/2001 : Two goals from Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink and one from Gianfranco Zola gave us an easy 3-0 win.

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2001/2002 : Following our 4-0 win at Three Point Lane on the Sunday in the FA Cup, we repeated the scoreline on this Wednesday night which was was memorable for the magnificent hat-trick from Hasselbaink. A right foot thunder strike, a bullet header and a left-foot curler. I will never see a more astounding “perfect” hat-trick. A goal from Frank Lampard gave us the fourth goal. I watched, mesmerized, in the East Upper. One of the great Chelsea versus Tottenham games.

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2002/2003 : Spurs went ahead but Gianfranco Zola scored another magnificent goal, sending his free-kick curling in at the very top right hand corner of the Spurs goal. It was as perfect a free-kick as anyone could possibly imagine. This 1-1 draw broke Spurs’ losing sequence of six consecutive losses at Chelsea. I suspect that they regarded it as some sort of moral victory.

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2003/2004 : I missed this game, but not to worry. Chelsea won 4-2 in only Roman’s third home game as the new Chelsea owner.

2004/2005 : This was Jose Mourinho’s first-ever taste of a Chelsea versus Spurs derby and it will be remembered for how he chose to describe their approach to the game. The bus was parked and the phrase entered into the lexicon of football. A dire 0-0 draw resulted.

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2005/2006 : Peter Osgood had sadly passed away ten days earlier and the game with Tottenham was the first home game since we lost our much beloved hero. This was another emotional day at Stamford Bridge. I took my Ossie banner to show my love for my childhood hero. We scored first through Michael Essien, only for Spurs to draw level. In the very last few minutes, William Gallas latched on to a loose ball and struck a venomous bullet into the Spurs goal. Stamford Bridge exploded like never before. For anyone there, they will never forget it.

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2006/2007 : I remember little of this game apart from the wonder strike from Lord Percy himself, Ricardo Carvalho, which sealed a 1-0 win.

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2007/2008 : Juliano Belletti scored a screamer from the inside-right channel. I don’t remember Shaun Wright-Phillips’ goal. Yes, that’s right; even Shaun Wright-Phillips scored. An easy 2-0 win.

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2008/2009 : This was a poor game. Belletti again scored for us but Darren Bent equalised on half-time. It ended 1-1. At least Luiz Filipe Scolari kept the unbeaten home record intact.

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2009/2010 : With Carlo Ancelotti in charge, we romped to an easy 3-0 victory with goals from Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack and Ashley Cole.

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2010/2011 : This was a lovely time to be a Chelsea fan. We had beaten West Ham one Saturday and we played Tottenham the next. In between, we had the Royal Wedding and an extra day’s holiday. Sandro scored with a long-range effort in the first but Frank Lampard “just” edged the ball over the line at The Shed End in first-half stoppage time. Salomon Kalou – an unlikely hero – got the winner for us in the very last minute. Again, the old place was rocking.

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2011/2012 : This was a poor 0-0 draw and Spurs had an effort cleared off the line, and they also hit the bar with a Bale header. The record was hanging by a thread. The mood was quite sombre on the walk down Fulham Road after the game.

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2012/2013 : Chelsea were managed by Rafa Benitez. Tottenham were managed by Andre Vilas-Boas. The pessimistic among us grew nervous. If the record was going to go, how hideous if it was to be with these two managers involved. Oscar opened the scoring but Adebayor equalised. Ramires toe-poked a second, but a late equaliser gave Tottenham a share of the points in an entertaining 2-2 draw.

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2013/2014 : Demba Ba with two goals, with others by Samuel Eto’o and Eden Hazard gave us a resounding 4-0 win under the tutelage of the returning hero Jose Mourinho. This game was memorable for the rapidity with which the three-thousand Spurs fans vacated the away section. It was so empty at the end of the game. Business as normal. Fantastic.

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2014/2015 : On a day that we remembered the recent passing of former manager John Neal, we romped to an easy 3-0 win. There were two early goals from Eden Hazard and Didier Drogba, with a late Loic Remy goal wrapping it all up.

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2015/2016 : Chelsea’s season might have been something of a disaster, but this iconic 2-2 draw – with caretaker manager Guus Hiddink in charge – will be remembered as one of the all-time classic Chelsea vs. Tottenham encounters. Two-nil down in the first-half, and with Spurs still in with a shout of the league title, a goal from Gary Cahill gave us hope. In the eightieth minute, Eden Hazard volleyed a Worldy and the stadium exploded. A blissful night of noise, tribalism, shattered dreams and unadulterated joy.

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2016/2017 : This was a 5.30pm game and another fine London derby. We were on a six-game winning streak, and hoped to make it seven. Eriksen scored early for Spurs and they bossed the first-half, but an exquisite goal from Pedro just before the break levelled it. A Victor Moses winner soon into the second-half gave us the points. Another season, another demoralising Tottenham defeat at Stamford Bridge. The unbeaten home record against them was extended to a mighty twenty-seven games.

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What a period of domination. Joy for us. Humiliation for them. In that time, I realised that the old Stamford Bridge has been – almost – completely rebuilt, albeit slowly.

Very very slowly.

And whether Tottenham showed up in all white kit, or with navy shorts with white socks or navy shorts with navy socks, or with chevrons, or navy sleeves, or splashes of yellow, or tyre-track swooshes, they never ever defeated us.

In that period, my personal favourites would be :

  1. 2015/2016 – no League title for you Tottenham.
  2. 2001/2002 – a perfect Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink hat-trick.
  3. 2005/2006 – the William Gallas thunderbolt on the day we remembered Ossie.

In 2017/2018, we had enjoyed – I think – marginally the better of the first-half. The highlight of the early part of the game was a fantastic and flowing move which began deep inside our own half and developed through the middle with exceptional passing and movement. Willian’s effort was well saved by Hugo Loris. It had been an even start to the game, but Chelsea carved out more threatening chances. A volley from Marcos Alonso was flagged for offside and I had to cut short my celebrations. Spurs had a lot of the ball, but we seemed to have the better chances. On the half-hour, a perfect cross from Victor Moses picked out Alvaro Morata, and with Loris at sixes, sevens, eights and nines, the Spanish striker guided the ball down and in.

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The stadium erupted.

“GET IN YOU FUCKER.”

Alan, watching at home on TV in South London – unable to attend due to a broken shoulder – soon texted.

“THTCAUN.”

I replied “COMLD.”

Chelsea were in full voice for a while, but the away fans were noisy too.

That risible Spurs song kept getting an airing :

“We sang it in France.

We sang it in Spain.

We sing in the sun and we sing in the rain.

They’ve tried to stop us and look what it did.

The thing I love most is being a knobhead.”

With Spurs giving us a high press, I was amazed how often Willy Caballero kept playing the ball short, inviting Spurs on. It made no sense. With a few minutes of the half remaining, I whispered to Glenn; “I am worried every time Eriksen gets the ball.”

With an added two minutes of extra-time signalled, Moses down below us failed in an effort to clear. The ball was pushed square to that fucker Eriksen, who lived up to my dreaded expectations, and thumped a dipping shot up and over the strangely stranded Caballero.

OH FUCK IT.

Just before half-time, our world had taken a definite turn for the worse. There were knowing glances throughout the half-time break.

The second-half was as tough a forty-five minutes that I can remember. I noted that in the first few minutes, our resolve to win the ball had left us. N’Golo Kante was putting in his usual exceptional shift, but Tottenham looked at ease with the ball, and began dominating. Eriksen as ever was in the middle of it, but we were giving him too much space and respect. We looked over-run in midfield. Fabregas was there to create, but how we needed another ball-winner. I remembered how impressive David Luiz was in a deep role at Wembley in August. We had to thank Caballero for a stunning flying save from Son. On the hour, calamity. A long ball from Eric Dier was chased by Dele  – our central defenders nowhere – and the horrible little bastard took a sublime touch, sweeping the ball in off the near post. His run down to Parkyville – his ear cupped – was one of the worst moments in recent memory.

The Spurs support roared and roared and roared.

Six minutes later, we could hardly believe how the ball was not cleared – not once but twice – in our six-yard box, and Alli struck again.

“Oh…when…the…Spurs…”

This was hideous stuff.

I was reminded of my second-ever Tottenham game. November 1978, Tommy Langley scoring with an overhead kick, but Spurs coming back to win 3-1.

And one song ringing in my ears all afternoon.

“We are Tottenham…from the Lane.”

Ugh.

Sadly, rather than get behind the team and roar them on – I remembered being 3-1 down to them in a FA Cup tie in 2007 and Kalou getting an equaliser late on – our response was sadly tepid. There were only a few half-chances from us in the resulting twenty-five minutes, and we struggled to break down an obdurate Tottenham defence. The manager Antonio Conte took so long to make any changes. The introduction of three, so late, did not pay dividends. In the last ten minutes, home supporters left in their droves. And it made me feel quite sick.

It was not to be. The run was over.

There would be post mortems for hours on end.

As we drifted, silently, down the Fulham Road, I heard a couple of Chelsea fans chatting behind me. They spoke about the dreaded half-and-half scarves – aka “friendship scarves” – which usually sell for a tenner before the game, and the hawkers and grafters usually knock them out for a fiver after games. Well, on this particular day of days, punters were paying twenty quid for them. And it would certainly not be Chelsea who were buying them.

I had a stifled laugh to myself.

Does it really mean that much, Tottenham?

On the first day of April, they were the fools after all.

But all was quiet on the car drive home. There is much to think about as we head into the final period of the season. It looks like the Champions League will be beyond us, but there are points to fight for in the league and an FA Cup Final to reach too.

Amid all the calamitous negativity of “soshal meeja”, I could not help but note a few supporters utter the ridiculous words “I can’t wait for the season to end.”

What tripe.

I’ll have their spare Cup Final tickets if they don’t fancy it.

See you next Sunday.

Tales From Our Rejuvenation

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 23 October 2016.

We all remember where we were when we heard that Matthew Harding had died. For a generation of Chelsea supporters, it is our Kennedy moment.

On the morning of Wednesday 23 October 1996, I was at work in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, in a factory’s quality assurance office. I had not been present at the previous evening’s League Cup tie at Bolton, where we had lost 2-1. I tended to mainly go to just home games in those days. In fact, another sport was occupying my mind during that week as I was in the midst of watching my New York Yankees playing in a World Series for the first time since 1981. I had listened to the League Cup game on the radio before catching a few hours’ sleep before waking at around 1am to watch Game Three from Atlanta. The Yankees won that night, and after the game had ended at around 4am, I squeezed in a few more hours of sleep before waking at 6am for a 7am start at work. While setting off for work that morning, I briefly heard a mention about a helicopter crash involving Chelsea fans returning from Bolton. It was possibly just a rumour at that stage. With me being rather sleep deficient, I possibly wasn’t giving it the gravity that it deserved.

At around 8am, the news broke that Matthew Harding had been aboard the helicopter, and that he had been killed, along with the fellow passengers. I was full of sudden and overwhelming grief. I had been so impressed with Matthew since he had arrived on the scene at Chelsea in around 1993, and saw him as “one of us.” I remember I had seen him on a Sunday morning politics programme just a few weeks before, lending his support to the New Labour campaign. He seemed to be perfect for Chelsea’s new vision; young and enthusiastic, one of the people, but with a few bob to spare for our beloved club. It almost seemed too good to be true.

Soon after I heard the news, I received a phone-call on the office phone from a friend and journalist, who lived locally in Chippenham, and who had – with Matthew’s assistance – written a book about Chelsea’s 1994 FA Cup Final appearance and consequent European campaign the following season (“Blue Is The Colour” by Khadija Buckland). Within seconds, we were both in tears. My fellow co-workers, I think, were shocked to see such emotion. Khadija had only spoken to Matthew on the phone on the Monday. My head was in a spin. I was just devastated.

I had briefly met Matthew on one or two occasions, but I felt the loss so badly. I remember shaking him by the hand in The Gunter Arms in 1994, the night of the Viktoria Zizkov home game. My friend Glenn and myself watched from the Lower Tier of the East Stand that game, and I remember turning around, catching his eye in the Directors’ Box, and him giving me a thumbs up. His face was a picture of bubbly excitement. I am pretty sure that I met him, again briefly, underneath the East Stand, after a game with Bolton in 1995, when he appeared with Khadija, and we quickly shook hands before going our separate ways. In those days, both Glenn and myself would take Khadija up to Stamford Bridge where she would sell copies of her book in the corporate areas of the East Stand.

We all remember, too, the outpouring of emotion that followed on the Saturday, when Stamford Bridge was cloaked in sadness as we brought bouquets, and drank pints of Guinness in memory of Matthew, before a marvellously observed minute of silence took place before our game with Tottenham. The Spurs fans were magnificent that day. We won 3-1, and the victory seemed inevitable. It had been the most emotional game of football that I had ever witnessed. Later that Saturday night – in fact in the small hours of Sunday morning – I watched as the Yankees came from 2-0 down to win the World Series 4-2. At the end of that sporting day / night doubleheader, I was an emotional wreck. It had been a tough week, for sure. Sadness and joy all tumbling around together. Later, my mother sent a letter of condolence to Matthew’s widow Ruth, and I have a feeling that she replied.

I remember how happy a few friends and I were to see Ruth Harding in a Stockholm park ahead of our ECWC Final with Stuttgart in 1998.

Matthew would have loved Stockholm. He would have the triumphs that he sorely missed over the past twenty years. He would have loved Munich.

As our game with Manchester United, and the return of you-know-who, became closer and closer, I thought more and more about Matthew. And I was enthralled that the club would be honouring him with a specially crafted banner which would be presented to the world from the stand which bears his name.

Tickets were like gold dust for this one.

It promised to be a potentially epic occasion.

I had missed a couple of our most recent games – both the matches against Leicester City – and nobody was happier than myself to be heading to Stamford Bridge once again.

We set off early. In the Chuckle Bus – Glenn driving, allowing me to have a few beers – there was caution rather than confidence. Despite the fine performance against Leicester last weekend, Mourinho’s United would surely be a tough nut to crack. I am sure that I was not alone when I predicted a 0-0 draw.

“Just don’t want to lose to them.”

Once at Chelsea, we splintered in to two groups. PD, his son Scott and Parky shot off to The Goose, while Glenn and myself headed down to the stadium. I met up with good friends Andy, John and Janset from California, and Brad and Sean from New York, over for the game, and trying to combat jetlag with alcohol and football.

It was a splendid pre-match and the highlights were personalised book signings from both Bobby Tambling and Kerry Dixon. Glenn was able to have quite a chat with Colin Pates, and it is always one of the great joys of match days at Chelsea that our former players are so willing to spend time with us ordinary fans. It really did feel that we were all in this together, “Matthew Harding’s Blue And White Army” for sure. Into a packed “Chelsea Pensioner” (now taking over from “The Imperial” as the place to go for pre-game and post-game music) for a beer and then along to “The Malthouse” for a couple more. We chatted to former player Robert Isaac – a season ticket-holder like the rest of us – once more and shared a few laughs.

A couple of lads recognised Glenn and myself from “that night in Munich” and it was bloody superb to meet up again and to share memories of that incredible day in our lives. We had all caught the last train from the Allianz Arena at around midnight, and we were crammed together as the train made its painfully slow journey into the centre of Munich. They were Chelsea fans – ex-pats – now living in The Netherlands, and it was great for our lives to cross again after more than four years.

With a few pints inside me, I was floating on air as I walked towards The Bridge.

The match programme had a retro-1996 season cover, with Matthew featured prominently. The half-and-half scarves were out in force, and I aimed a barb at a dopey tourist as I made my way through to the turnstiles.

The team had been announced, by then, and Antonio Conte had kept faith with the same team that had swept past Leicester City.

So far this season, our usual 4-2-3-1 has morphed into 4-2-4 when required, but here was a relatively alien formation for these shores; a 3-4-3.

Conte was changing things quicker than I had expected.

Thankfully I was inside Stamford Bridge, in the Matthew Harding, with plenty of time to spare. The United fans had their usual assortment of red, white and black flags. There was a plain red square, hanging on the balcony wall, adorned with Jose Mourinho’s face. It still didn’t seem right, but Jose Mourinho was not on my mind as kick-off approached.

The stadium filled. There was little pre-match singing of yesteryear. We waited.

The balcony of the Matthew Harding had been stripped of all other banners, apart from two in the middle.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

I noted the phrase “Matthew Harding – One Of Our Own” stencilled on the balcony wall too. That was a nice touch; I hope it stays.

Of course, should the new Stamford Bridge come to fruition, the actual stand will be razed to the ground, but surely the club will keep its name in place.

Without any fuss, a large light blue banner appeared at the eastern edge of the Matthew Harding Lower. It was stretched high over the heads of the spectators and slowly made its way westwards.

It depicted that famous image of Matthew leaping to his feet at a pre-season game in the summer of 1996.

MATTHEW HARDING

ALWAYS LOVED

NEVER FORGOTTEN

There was no minute’s silence, nor applause, the moment soon passed, but it suited the occasion very well. There was no need for excessive mawkishness much beloved by a certain other club. Matthew would have hated that.

The teams appeared, but my pals in the Sleepy Hollow did not; they were still outside as the game began. To be fair, I was still settling myself down for the game ahead – checking camera, checking phone, checking texts – as a ball was pumped forward. It fell in the middle of an equilateral triangle comprising of Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling and David De Gea. Confusion overcame the three United players. In nipped the raiding Pedro, who touched the ball square and then swept it in to an open goal, the game just thirty seconds in.

The crowd, needless to say, fucking erupted.

The players raced over to our corner and wild delirium ensued. It was like a mosh pit.

Shades of Roberto di Matteo in the Matthew Harding Final of 1997? You bet.

This was a dream start.

Alan, PD and Scott appeared a few moments later. There were smiles all round.

I was so pleased to see us a goal up that the next few minutes were a bit of a blur. The crowd soon got going.

“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”

Luiz jumped with Ibrahimovic and the ball sailed over Thibaut Courtois’ bar.

Eden Hazard – his ailments of last autumn a distant memory – drove one past the United post. So much for a dour and defensive battle of attrition that myself and many others had predicted.

After around ten minutes, it dawned on me that I had not once peered over to see what Jose Mourinho was doing. Apart from taking a few photographs of the two managers, the men in black, on the touchline with my camera, I did not gaze towards Mourinho once the entire match.

This was not planned. This was just the way it was.

I loved him the first-time round, but grew tired of his histrionics towards the end of his both spells with us. When he talks these days, the Mourinho snarl is often not far away; that turned-up corner of his lip a sign of contempt.

My own thought is that he always wanted the United job.

Conte is my manager now.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

Twenty minutes in, a little more Chelsea pressure forced a corner. Hazard centered, and the ball took a couple of timely touches from United limbs before sitting up nicely for stand-in captain Gary Cahill to swipe home.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Two bloody nil, smelling salts please nurse.

Gary ran over to our corner and was again swamped with team mates.

United had the occasional chance at The Shed End, but our often criticised ‘keeper was in fine form.

A swivel and a shot from Diego Costa was blocked by a defender.

At the half-time whistle, all was well in the Matthew Harding.

Neil Barnett introduced Matthew’s three children to the crowd, along with former legend Dan Petrescu. We clapped them all as they walked around the Stamford Bridge pitch. The travelling Manchester United support duly joined in with the applause and this was a fine gesture. Of course, such disasters have united both clubs over the years.

Like Tottenham in 1996, respect to them.

As the second-half began, Alan and PD were showing typical Chelsea paranoia.

“Get a third and then we can relax.”

Although I was outwardly smiling – we were well on top – I agreed.

Juan Mata joined the fray at the break, replacing Fellatio, who had clearly sucked in the first-half.

Soon into the half, the little Spaniard came over to take a corner down below us and we rewarded him with a lovely round of applause. I still respect him as a person and player. He will always be one of us.

The second-half began with a few half-chances for Chelsea, and a few trademark Courtois saves thwarting United. Just past the hour, a lovely pass from the revitalised Nemanja Matic played in Eden Hazard. He dropped his shoulder, gave himself half a yard and curled a low shot just beyond, or below, the late dive of De Gea.

Three-nil, oh my bloody goodness.

Thoughts now of the 5-0 romp in 1999 when even Chris Bloody Sutton scored.

It was time to relax, now, and enjoy the moment. Every time Courtois and Ibrahimovic went up together for a cross, I had visions of their noses clashing in a football version of the rutting of stags, bone against bone.

We continued to dominate.

Ten minutes later, we watched with smiles on our faces as N’Golo Kante found himself inside the box with the ball at his feet. He sold a superb dummy with an audacious body swerve and cut a low shot past the United ‘keeper to make it four.

Chelsea 4 Manchester United 0.

Conte, who must have been boiling over with emotion, replaced Pedro with Chalobah, Diego Costa with Batshuayi and Hazard with Willian.

Willian, after losing his mother, was rewarded with his own personal song.

The noise was great at times, but – if I am honest – not as deafening as other demolition jobs of recent memory.

Courtois saved well from Ibrahimovic, but the game was over.

“Superb boys – see you Wednesday.”

There was a lovely feeling of euphoria as we bounced away down the Fulham Road.

There was a commotion over by the CFCUK stall, and we spotted Kerry Dixon, being mobbed by one and all. The excitement was there for all to feel.

“One Kerry Dixon.”

Back at the car, we had time to quickly reflect on what we had seen.

“It’s hard to believe that Arsenal, when we were dire, was just four weeks away.”

Sure enough, we were awful on that bleak afternoon in North London. I am almost lost for words to describe how the manager has managed to put in a new system, instil a fantastic work ethic, and revitalise so many players. It’s nothing short of a miracle really. Antonio Conte has only been in charge of nine league games, but he has seemingly allowed us to move from a crumbling system to a new and progressive one in just three games.

What a sense of rejuvenation – from the man who once headed the Juve Nation – we have witnessed in recent games. The three at the back works a treat. Luiz looks a much better defender than ever before. Cahill is a new man. Dave is as steady as ever. Courtois has improved. On the flanks, Alonso has fitted in well, but Moses has been magnificent. Matic is back to his best. Kante is the buy of the season. Hazard is firing on all cylinders. Pedro and Willian are able players. Diego is looking dangerous again. It’s quite amazing. And the manager seems happy to blood the youngsters.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

A fantastic result to honour a fantastic man.

The five teams at the top of the division are now separated by just one point.

All of a sudden, there is confidence and enjoyment pulsating through our club.

Matthew would certainly approve.

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Tales From World Series Week

Chelsea vs. Bolton Wanderers : 28 October 2009.

During the day, my head was full of the first game of the 2009 World Series. I found myself thinking about this possibly more than the evening game against Bolton Wanderers. Here we were, in the middle of six Chelsea games in eighteen days and my head was in The Bronx. Throughout the drive to London and while at the game, my twin loves of football and baseball flip-flopped into my consciousness at various stages with both sports vying for attention. At least part of me was spiritually at Stan’s Sports Bar, adjacent the old Yankee Stadium, even if I was physically tied to England.

I left work at 4.30pm and, via a refuelling stop at Reading services that Jenson Button would have been proud, I entered The Goose at 7pm. I noted that, on the approach to The Goose, all of the other pubs were pretty empty. The Goose, however, was rammed solid. I bought a lager and headed out for a quick chat with the lads. We were full of gossip about our upcoming trip to Madrid, but Daryl and myself spent a few minutes discussing the Yankees. Daryl is a fan too and has been so for a bit longer than me. He has visited NYC on a few occasions. We were both relishing the Series – and even planning on trying to catch a game while in Spain on the Monday night.

Throughout the day, I kept thinking back to the first World Series that I saw live on TV. I bought a Sky TV package especially to watch the 1996 Series and it turned out to be an emotional week. I saw Chelsea get gubbed 4-2 at home to Wimbledon on the Saturday, then the first game at Yankee Stadium that night was rained off. Not a great start to the week! Atlanta took the first two games on the Sunday and Monday night. By the time I got into work, exhausted, on the Tuesday I was pretty low. The Yanks were 2-0 down and Chelsea had just been exposed by the physical nature of Wimbledon ( Frank Leboeuf especially ). I caught up on some sleep during Tuesday evening, woke up to find out that Chelsea had won at Bolton in the League Cup, then settled down to watch a phenomenal Game Three, with a Jim Leyritz homer inspiring the Yanks to a win. The game ended at about 5.30am. I caught an hour’s sleep. While at work, I heard from a mate that Mathew Harding had been killed on his way back from Bolton, no doubt just before Game Three had begun. I was dazed. Matthew was a great director – well loved – and it seemed that our brave new future, with him at the helm, was no more.

We were all devastated.

The Yanks tied the series on the Wednesday and went ahead in Game Five, the last ever game at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium…this took me up to Friday morning. On Friday night – at last – I could catch up on sleep. On Saturday, we reconvened at a sombre Stamford Bridge, armed with a blue and white floral tribute for Matthew, and paid our respects. I had a few pints of Matthew’s favourite Guinness and remember being numbed. The opponents that day were Tottenham Hotspur. Everyone stood silent for a minute before the game…a pint of Guinness on the centre circle…it was the most emotional I have ever felt at a game.

Chelsea beat Spurs 3-1 and, that night, in the small hours, the Yankees won their first World Series since 1978. When Charlie Hayes caught that fly ball down by third base, I yelped for joy.

What a night. What a day. What a week.

The fact that – here we were, thirteen years on – we had another Chelsea vs. Bolton League Cup game and another New York World Series Game was not lost on me.

Yet more lines at the scanners outside the MHU meant that I got in a couple of minutes late. I spotted lots and lots of young kids in and around me. This was a good sight indeed. I was impressed that Bolton filled their 1,400 allocation. Not bad for a weekday game. Compare this with Blackburn’s paltry 400 on Saturday. Proof if any was needed that the financial climate affects attendance. The ticket prices for League games are £45, for League Cup games it’s £19.

We opened the scoring with a great Kalou header and it looked like being an entertaining game. Juliano severely misjudged a cross, but the Bolton striker’s shot was bravely blocked by Hilario. Our reserve ‘keeper was soon replaced by home debutant Ross Turnbull. We scored our second when a ball took a deflection off Zat Night’s knee for the previously quiet Malouda to smash home. Two-nil and coasting.

I wanted us to soften Bolton up ahead of the second game in our double-header against them and it looked like more goals would follow as we carved them open. Joe Cole was again buzzing and looked as though he was making up for lost time.

Throughout the match, Alan and myself spoke further about our plans for Madrid, while Rousey behind us kept telling us of a lap dancing club in Madrid called, temptingly, Chelsea Girls. At half-time, Chelsea TV was previewed on the big screens and I spotted Jonny Gould, who used to host the Channel Five MLB coverage from 1997 to 2008. Bizarrely, he was sat a couple of rows behind me I Moscow. Small world. Back came the Yankees into my consciousness once again. Also at half-time, our U12 and U13 teams paraded around the pitch with two cups we had recently won in Eindhoven. They were roundly applauded.

I noted that the guy sat in Glenn’s seat, between Alan and Tom, sat through the entire game without talking, without singing, without doing anything. I wonder if he even bothered clapping our goals.

We weren’t really sure why Essien and then Drogba came on during the second-half…especially as we were in the middle of such a busy period. Sorry Carlo – couldn’t fathom that one. We all felt sorry when Daniel Sturridge shot twice from similar positions within a couple of minutes. A goal there would have done his confidence the world of good. A nice move down below me was finished off with a well placed Deco strike and – with Bolton quickly losing interest – Didier headed a fourth. Thirteen goals in three home games…superb stuff. Does anyone else realise that, from Seattle onwards, we have scored in all our games this year? Long may it continue. It was a good game. It seemed that at times Joe and Deco were trying to out-do each other, but why not? Let’s entertain the kids!

I stayed in the stadium for about ten minutes at the end. I noticed that, like Saturday, Juliano headed towards the MHL at the end of the game and presented his match shirt to an adoring young fan…a nice touch indeed. With only a few hundred souls left in the stadium, one last moment catapulted me from SW6 to North America. On the stadium PA, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” was played and I had a laugh to myself. This was the song chosen for the final scene in The Sopranos ( how my mates and I loved that show…for me, it helped cement my love for that whole NJ / NY area ) and I also, poignantly, remember it being played in Stan’s Sports Bar after my last ever game at old Yankee Stadium in June 2008.

I believe that the White Sox chose it as their anthem in their march towards their pennant and World Series in 2005, too.

So yet again on this strangest of nights for me, football and baseball intertwined.

I listened to Radio Five Live on the drive back to Somerset and it was lovely to hear former footballer Steve Claridge contrasting Liverpool with us. Liverpool seemed a confused club, whereas Chelsea ( he had been at The Bridge for the game ) had “great togetherness.” Music to my ears. It is always so nice to hear positive stuff about us from a neutral.

Despite a few foggy patches on the A303, I reached home at midnight.

Safe!

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Tales From Yet Another Chelsea vs. Porto Game

Chelsea vs. Porto : 15 September 2009.

During the day, one of my bosses thought it would be funny to wind me up. At about 10am, this little beauty ended up in my inbox –

Hi Chris

We have decided to do a presentation tomorrow…so could you make yourself available at 6 at the hotel to do a couple of practice run throughs? It will be no more than 25 slides so we should be finished at about 8 to 8.30 and you could grab a bite to eat with us afterwards if you like if you have nothing on?

Thanks in advance…

Mike

For a split second, I thought that my home run ( stretching back to Watford, January 2004 ) would come to an end, but I soon sussed that this was a wind-up…it’s a good job my bosses appreciate I need to zip up the M4 to The Bridge every few weeks. I guess one day it will come to an end…

I left work later than normal at 4.30pm. As I headed east, the skies got darker and the heavens opened…the radio had reported terrible rainstorms in London. It then got even worse – a vehicle had broken down on the A4 and the tail-back was stretching back to Heathrow. Oh great. I soon realised that there would be no pre-match beers with the usual suspects. The stretch from the M25 into London ( no more than 20 miles I guess ) took 90 minutes. I tried not to get too frustrated. To be honest, my mind was full of “work stuff”, but I did think back to a few previous European games. Maybe it was the rain, but my mind was centered on my first ever European game back in 1994 when we met Viktoria Zizkov from the Czech Republic. On that night, too, there was heavy rain. I remembered that I shook hands with Matthew Harding in The Gunter Arms with only about 45 minutes to go before the game began. He was no ordinary supporter, eschewing the Director’s Lounge. I remember that Glenn and myself had awful seats right behind Glenn Hoddle’s bench that night and we had to watch the entire game through perspex. Right before kick-off, I looked up and there was Matthew, now alongside Bates, smiling at me. That was a lovely moment. We raced into a 2-0 lead, they got it back level, but we won it 4-2. The gate was only 22,000, but the place was rocking. Our first European game in 23 years. Just imagine it!

I wondered if the noise levels on a September night in 2009 would match those of fifteen years previous.

I parked up at 7.10pm – rush, rush, rush. I picked up four more copies of “Chelsea Here Chelsea There,” for friends, from the stall…the rain had lessened, but I was already soaked. I had to get a reprinted ticket from the box office as the post had mislaid the original. The lines for the stadium were massive – clearly not aided by the new scanning system – and I joined the back of the queue for the MHU. Then the rain increased…oh great. I peered out at the fans lining up for the MHL and thought to myself –

“What am I doing here?”

I eventually got in eight minutes late and Alan was soon to tell me that Neil Barnett had mentioned Vic’s sad passing before the teams came onto the pitch. A round of applause was forthcoming.

Bless him.

My first sight was of JT out cold down at The Shed End…thankfully he soon recovered. There is something about JT wearing white boots, though, that just isn’t right. Chelsea began well, making good use of an advanced Ashley Cole on the left, but our form soon left us. Frank and Ballack were poor in the first period, but nobody shone. Michael Essien seemed to have a lot of the ball, but there were too many square passes and no movement upfront. We clearly missed Drogba. Porto were so typical of many European teams we see at Chelsea in that they were full of movement and passed the ball well. We had a few defensive lapses – space on their left down below me especially – but the first half ended with not many real chances for both sides. We had seemed to tire as the half progressed.

As 72 year old Tom brushed past me at the interval I said “get yer boots on Tom – you’re playing second half.”

Tommy Baldwin – The Sponge – was on the pitch at half time. He’s the leader of the team, you know.

Thankfully, our goal soon came…I thought Anelka was offside, but he shot on instinct. The goalie did well to block, but Anelka did even better in squeezing the ball in from an angle on the rebound. Soon after, Kalou shaped well and headed towards the goal, but Helton saved. As the game drew on, Porto got more and more into it. They were really positive, unlike a lot of European teams at The Bridge. They had many long shots, thankfully usually all at Cech, but they kept moving the ball intelligently. We seemed to be tiring again. Cech did well to claw out a shot from Hulk. Our support was poor and I seemed half-hearted too. Maybe I have just seen two many games. The Porto fans’ noise was constant, but never loud. It was a muted kind of evening. The rain never stopped.

When the PA announced an added two minutes, I couldn’t help think back to our last European game…the shocker against Barcelona…winning 1-0, the opposition attacking The Shed, Chelsea tiring fast, the ball being played in and around our box. Ring any bells?

Shudder.

Both Alan and myself agreed that Porto were worth a point. At the final whistle, we breathed a sigh of relief. This had been a sub-standard Chelsea performance. We looked tired. We had missed Drogba. We had lacked creativity.

As I had taken so long to reach London, I was in no mood to rush home. I took my time leaving my seat and I slowly walked back to the car. The mood amongst the home fans was far from the euphoria of 1994. I stuffed myself with a disgraceful array of junk food and drove home, weary and tired. I got home at 12.45am. A quick read of the programme enabled me to realise that this had been our 75th European game at The Bridge. Our record is phenomenal.

Played – 75
Won – 53
Drew – 19
Lost – 3
For – 158
Against – 43

Quite phenomenal.

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Tales From A Special Place

Bolton Wanderers vs. Chelsea :6 December 2008.

My twenty-first game of the season. This is how it panned out.

Set off from home at 8.45am, the fields and hedges dusted with frost. But a clear, blue sky and that was how it stayed. I drove the ten miles to pick up Andy from Trowbridge, just over the county border in Wiltshire. There are a number of medium-sized towns near me, but I would say Trowbridge has proportionately more Chelsea fans than Frome, Westbury, Warminster, Radstock and the like. Andy ( 48 ) is good mates with Parky ( 52 – the grand daddy of the Trowbridge mob ) who I have travelled up to HQ with this season.

I first met Andy in a Frome pub in the summer of 1984 and although we always say “hi”, this was the first time I really have had to spend an extended amount of time with him.

As we darted through Bradford-On-Avon, past Bath and up onto the M4, we began chatting about our own individual Chelsea histories. The time absolutely flew past, as I am sure you can all imagine. His first game was in October 1971. We swapped stories as we ate up the miles. He still goes to most home league games. His best effort was way back in 1981-1982 when he went to 41 out of 42 league games during a mediocre second division season, notable only for an extended FA Cup run. He used to travel to all of the games my train ( we all did ) in those days – the era of cheaper prices, young persons railcards and Persil vouchers. We both agreed that as a teenager, a train trip from the South West up to Sheffield or Middlesbrough was a major event in those days. He spoke of a few hairy moments from those days – an incident when he found himself, quite innocently, in the midst of Chelsea’s main mob ( Icky et al ) in Middlesbrough, legging it into a pub, then emerging two hours later, buoyed by alcohol, into a waiting crowd of locals…a salvation army band playing, Saturday shoppers fleeing from the fighting.

Then the predictable stories of trains getting bricked by Geordies at Newcastle. I experienced this myself back in 1984 – that story will follow later this season.

As the talk slowed, I put the new Killers album on the CD player.

Before we knew it, we had sped past Stoke and were only 45 minutes from Bolton. We stopped at Sandbach for a Wimpy burger and fries. Wimpy is our very own UK fast food chain and I mention it’s name for all of the Ex-pats…still pretty dodgy and not as good as McDonalds or Burger King. In-n-Out Burger it ain’t!

This was the sixth trip up the M6 for me this season alone. Those motorway service stations fall off my tongue like a mantra…Michael Wood, Strensham, Frankley, Hilton Park, Stafford, Sandbach, Knutsford, Lymm. I was in contact with both Alan and Beth, on separate Chelsea coaches and as we hit the Manchester orbital, I knew we couldn’t be too far behind them.

Indeed, as we exited the slip road for The Reebok, I spotted the Chelsea coaches a few hundred yards ahead. I had made good time – I covered the 211 miles in three and a half hours.

So – Bolton. I still get goose bumps when I think of the name. I was there in April 2005 and every time I go back ( this was my fifth visit to The Reebok ), I think back to that momentous day when I saw Chelsea become league champions. The stadium is quite a way out of town, a good 6 miles, and nestles under Winter Hill, adjacent to a shopping mall. Quite a bizarre location, really, for such a momentous day in our history. At the time, we all acknowledged the significance of winning the league at Bolton. Think back to 1983 and Clive Walker’s goal which fought off relegation to the Third Division ( arguably the most important goal in 103 years ) and therefore provided the lift-off for 1983-1984 and the successes which followed. I remember Alan ( who went to the game ) telling the story of famous Chelsea fan Breda attending the game with four-leaved clovers, rabbits feet, lucky heather and a crucifix. Breda used to look after the disabled section at Chelsea with John Bumstead’s Mum – anyway, all of the various lucky charms worked a treat. I mused on the fact that all of these fans have played such an integral role in our story. In comparison, of all the books I have read on baseball, the only famous fan I can name is the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Hilda Chester and her cow bell. Over here, in the UK, every club has its legion of fans…some more famous than the players! It is this interaction between club, player and fan that you must all find so intriguing.

On a more sombre note, let us also remember our league cup game at Bolton in 1996 and the helicopter crash which robbed the club of Matthew Harding.

Bolton plays a significant role in our history. More so than any other city in my opinion.

I parked up at the stadium and walked towards The Beehive pub, where we were joined by Alan, Gary and Beth. We stayed there about an hour. A couple of pints. Thank heavens Beth is over here – I think her recent spending spree in London has boosted our ailing economy. A quick chat with the Nuneaton boys.

I had a quick word with Ron Harris outside the entrance to the away seats…he was up to do an evening at a local club. He often goes to away games. Made my way up to our seat in the top tier…we had amazing seats…as central as it was possible to be, the very back row. Alan, Gary and me stood the entire game. The self-appointed “John Terry’s Barmy Army” were in front of us. It was still sunny – and not too cold either.

I snapped away as the teams came onto the pitch. I noted many St.Georges cross flags at the other end, but also a Stars and Stripes…a large flag was hoisted over the Bolton fans – “We are the one and only Wanderers.” Dave Johnstone’s Chelsea away flag passed close by too. The war of the flags! One massive Bolton flag intimated – via symbols – that they love gravy. This comes from the “Soccer AM” show in which “Northern boys love gravy.”

Quality!

OK – game on. Let’s see if we could get our eleventh successive away victory. Beth ( along with Andy, Rey and Cynthia ) was present for the first one, way back at Manchester City in April. By a twist of fate, the top three clubs were all playing within 40 miles of each other…Liverpool up the road at Blackburn and Manchester United at Old Trafford. Our formation seemed to be 4-1-3-2…with Mikel deep and Kalou upfront with Anelka.

Before we had a chance to settle, Davies ( always a blooming handful ) had headed over an easy chance. Thankfully, a lovely cross from Bosingwa found Anelka and we were 1-0 up. Then a lovely Deco goal soon after. We were coasting. Not great noise from our support from us to be honest…we had 2,800 up there, but it wasn’t brilliant. The Bolton mascot was getting on my nerves, but also amusing me at the same time – he rolled over on the floor, imitating Bosingwa’s reaction to a foul, then I saw him flicking Vs at other Chelsea players. He was strutting around, not happy at all. Pretty funny.

Bolton came back into the game after the break, but despite a few half chances, they never convinced me that they would score. Cech, despite some woeful kicking, played well with some timely saves. After last week’s poor show, Deco impressed me immensely, controlling the midfield, pushing the ball around intelligently. Did anyone spot McCann and Ballack getting very close while play was stopped, eye to eye, giving verbals to each other? Soon after, Ballack was smacked and had to wear a bandage.

I thought he resembled Sesame Street’s Bert.

The final whistle and we quickly reached the car, only to be sat motionless for twenty minutes until a few cars in front left. We heard that Liverpool had won, then listened to the United game on Five Live. As I passed through Birmingham, Vidic poked home a late winner and I smacked the car door in frustration.

Never mind. Our eleventh away league win on the trot. Happy with that.

On the way home, my NYC correspondent texted me to say that Roman was at “Nevada Smiths” in NYC.

I dropped Andy off at Trowbridge and then drove through a deserted Frome – the credit crunch was hitting, all of the pubs seemed deserted. I stopped off for a Chinese takeaway. It was freezing outside.

Home at 9.15pm. The big game against Cluj awaits.

Bring it on.

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