Tales From One Billy Gilmour And One Decent Scouser

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 3 March 2020.

In the pubs beforehand, there was not one Chelsea fan that I spoke to who thought that we would be victorious in the game with Liverpool.

“They’re so far ahead in the league that they can afford to play their first team, rather than rest players.”

“They’re light years ahead of us.”

“We’ll be lucky to get naught.”

“Expectation level is nine below zero.”

“Could be another Bayern.”

But complete and total negativity was not the order of the evening.

There were a couple of pluses.

In “The Goose”, Parky, PD and I chatted to some of the lads from our home area. Does anyone recollect the story of Sir Les, and a few others, getting stuck in a lift before a home game before Christmas? They were stuck in there for virtually the entire first-half. Well, I am pleased to report that Chelsea rewarded these fans with a corporate style package for the Everton home game which is coming up in Sunday.

Well done Chelsea Football Club.

There was also some good work from the club regarding the pricing of this FA Cup fifth round tie with Liverpool. Initially, as with previous seasons, it was announced that all FA Cup ties would be priced at £30. When Liverpool came out of the hat, the club decided to up the tickets to £40. There was an immediate uproar and the Chelsea Supporters Trust, alongside the original Supporters Club I believe, soon petitioned the club to re-think. Within twenty-four hours, there was a statement to the effect of the club getting it wrong and the price returning to the £30 level.

Well done again Chelsea Football Club.

We made our way down to Simmons to chat with the others. It wasn’t as busy as I had expected. As I waited for friends to arrive, I spotted that the 1970 replay – often a favourite at “Simmons” – was being replayed on the TV screens. It is still the fifth most viewed TV programme in the UK, ever.

That’s right. Ever.

During the few days leading up to the evening’s game, it dawned on me that the last time we played Liverpool at home in the cup was the famous 1997 game. Many of my generation mention the 1978 third round win – 4-2 – when an average Chelsea side surprisingly defeated the then European Champions. I was not at that game, but can remember the joy of hearing about our win as the news came through on the TV. Next up, in the story of games in the cup at Stamford Bridge between the two teams, was the equally memorable 2-0 win in 1982. Chelsea were a Second Division team that season, and Liverpool were again European Champions. I was at that one. And I have detailed that game on here before. It was seismic. What an afternoon.

Next up was a fourth round tie in 1985/86 that we lost 2-1 which is probably best remembered for Kerry Dixon injuring himself and, probably, not quite being the same player ever again.

It’s worth noting that we haven’t played at Anfield in the FA Cup for decades.

The last time was in 1966.

Then came the fourth round tie on Sunday 26 January 1997.

It is a game that evokes wonderful memories among most Chelsea supporters; it was a real “coming of age” moment for club, team and fans alike. Chelsea, under new manager Ruud Gullit, were still finding our collective feet under the talisman and Dutch legend. During the league in 1996/97, we had lost 5-1 at Anfield in the autumn but a Roberto di Matteo strike gave us a deserved 1-0 on New Year’s Day. In October we had suffered the sadness of the loss of Matthew Harding. We were winning more than we were losing, but by no great margin. Liverpool were a better team than us in 1996/97. They would go on to finish fourth, we were to finish sixth. We had easily defeated First Division West Brom at home in the third round.

We – Glenn, my mate Russ and little old me – watched the Liverpool game unfold from the last few rows of the Matthew Harding Lower. It was a terrible view to be honest, the overhang meant that we watched the game through a letterbox.

Chelsea started with Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli up front. We played with Scott Minto and Dan Petrescu as wing backs. Liverpool fielded players such as David James, Jamie Redknapp, John Barnes, Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore. They were a tough team. But, with us having the home advantage, it was evenly matched. Or so we thought. With Liverpool attacking the temporary seats in The Shed in the first-half they soon galloped to a 2-0 lead after just twenty-one minutes. I think it was McManaman who missed an easy chance to make it 3-0. Chelsea were out of it, and the atmosphere in Stamford Bridge had quietened severely after the early promise.

It was as flat as I had ever experienced.

At half-time, Gullit replaced Scott Minto with Mark Hughes, went to a 4/3/3 formation, and Sparky proved to be the catalyst that sparked a revolution. He turned and smashed a long range effort in on fifty-minutes.

“Game on.”

Then Gianfranco Zola slammed in an equaliser eight minutes later.

The atmosphere was red hot by then.

Despite the gate being just 27,950, the place was booming.

Gianluca Vialli scored on sixty-three and seventy-six minutes – euphoria – and we ended up as 4-2 winners. Liverpool, their fans all along the East Lower in those days, did not know what had hit them.

I would later watch that second-half on grainy VHS again and again and again.

Up until that point, my two favourite Chelsea games – out of the then total of two hundred and sixty-five – were the FA Cup games in 1982 and 1997.

Lovely memories.

That win over Liverpool in 1997 gave us confidence and with further games against Leicester City at home (I went), Pompey away (I couldn’t get tickets) and Wimbledon in the semi-final at Highbury (I was there) we marched triumphantly towards Wembley for the 1997 FA Cup Final with Middlesbrough. And through it all, Matthew Harding’s presence was with us all.

Heady and emotional moments?

You bet.

My friend John, a lecturer at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, arrived at about 6.30pm. I last saw him at Ann Arbor for the Real Madrid game in 2016. He was visiting London, Liverpool and Manchester for a few days with some students who were on a “Soccer: Media, Art & Society” course that would go towards their various degrees.

“Soccer: Media, Art & Society.”

Yeah, I know. What a course. Where can I sign up? It sure beat the “Cultural Geography” and “Transport Geography” sub-courses I took at North Staffs Poly from 1984 to 1987.

John was keen for me to talk to his six students – three lads, three lasses – for a few minutes about football, its heady sub-culture, its fads and fancies. I enjoyed it, though I can’t see myself as a lecturer in the near future, not without a bit more practice anyway, and not without a script.

I briefly mentioned the story of my grandfather attending a match at Stamford Bridge, and how I genuinely think it could well have been the 1920 FA Cup Final, one hundred years ago this year.

I hoped that the atmosphere would be good for them on this night in SW6. I always remember a League Cup semi-final in 2015 between the two teams and the noise was sensational all night. I hoped for a repeat. Apart from John, who comes over every season, this was the students’ first ever game at The Bridge.

At about 7.15pm, I downed the last of my two small bottles of “Staropramen” and headed off to Stamford Bridge.

There were six thousand Scousers in the area, though I was yet to see one of them. I guess they were doing their drinking in the West End and Earl’s Court.

Alan and I soon realised that the place was taking an age to fill up. There were yawning gaps everywhere. Even with ten minutes to go, we wondered if the paranoia over the Corona Virus had deterred many from travelling into The Smoke.

“Chelsea will be the death of me.”

The team news came through.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Zouma – Alonso

Gilmour – Kovacic – Barkley

Willian – Giroud – Pedro

So, Kepa back in, an enforced change in personnel, a rather aged front three, and a start for young Billy Gilmour.

Like the 1997 game, this was live on BBC1.

I spoke to a few friends close by in that period before the pre-match rituals kick in and, again, nobody was hopeful.

Nobody.

Within the last few minutes, the place suddenly filled to capacity.

There was more 2020-style pre-match nonsense. The lights dimmed, almost darkness, fireworks, the teams appeared.

Blues vs. Reds.

South vs. North.

Chelsea vs. Liverpool.

(In the slightly off-kilter parlance of the modern day: “Chels vs. Red Scouse.”)

As the floodlights returned to full strength, I spotted white socks. As the tracksuit tops were taken off, I spotted the dogs’ dinner of the normal 2019/20 kit. Where was the promised 1970 kit, the beautifully understated blue with yellow trim?

Where the fuck was it?

My heart sank.

It seems that Chelsea Football Club – two steps forward, one step back – had been less than truthful about our 1970 kit.

Who thought that we would be wearing it throughout this season’s FA Cup campaign?

Everyone?

Yeah, thought so.

What a fucking disgrace.

So, this season – three kits, and one kit to be worn just once.

I only bought the shorts, and I am yet to wear them, but I felt for those significant others who bought the range. They shot off the shelves, didn’t they?

And, the sad thing is, I was really looking forward to seeing us in that kit once again.

I vented on “Facebook.”

And here are a few responses :

Michelle : So wrong I’m sure it was marketed as an FA Cup kit ! The club have taken the fans for mugs yet again,

Lottinho : Absolute joke. Pathetic on the club. Strictly for £££.

Karn : It’s bollocks. Still, glad I bought it though – lovely shirt.

Alex : As predictable as it is disappointing

Kelvin : So cynical how Chelsea avoided making that clear when they were marketing it.

Jake :  All about the money, mate. That was a class kit

Lee : Utter bastards

The game began.

Liverpool were an instant reminder of another team in all red from last Tuesday. I silently shuddered. The away team, with a heady handful of familiar players but also a couple of unfamiliar ones, began the livelier and moved the ball in and around our defence. There was an early, relatively easy, save from Kepa following a strike from Sadio Mane. But at the other end, The Shed, Willian drove at the defence and forced a good save from Adrian in front of the Liverpool hordes.

They had their usual assortment of flags, including one of Bill Shankly who – I cannot lie – I used to love to hear talk about football was I was a mere sprog.

The game heated up.

A Willian corner from our left was glanced on my Dave, and the ball spun wide. Only on the TV replay were we able to see how close both Olivier Giroud and Antonio Rudiger got to adding a decisive touch.

Liverpool, despite their large numbers, were relatively quiet and it surprised me.

We enjoyed a great little spell. Ross Barkley thumped centrally at goal, but Adrian saved.

A lovely flowing move, instigated by the poise of young Billy Gilmour, cruising through a pack of red shirts before coolly releasing Pedro, resulted in a fierce shot from Willian, but Adrian was again able to save well.

“Gilmour. Excellent there, Al.”

This was turning, early, into some game. It had all of our full and undivided attention. I wondered what John was making of it in the West Upper.

After twelve minutes, I leaned over towards PD.

“Open game, innit?”

There was a reassuring nod of agreement from him and also Alan alongside me.

Barely after me commenting, the game stepped up a gear. Attempting to play the ball out of defence, we put pressure on the wall of red. Barkley forced a slip and the ball fell to Willian. His optimistic shot flew at Adrian, but whereas just thirty seconds before he had saved well, this time the ball bounced off him, and flew into the goal.

GET IN.

Willian danced away and in front of the livid Liverpudlians.

Livid Liverpudlians. Is there any other type?

Stamford Bridge was bouncing. What joy.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds, la.”

Could we make it three out of three in the FA Cup against reigning European Champions?

1978, 1982 and 2020?

We were going to give it our best shot by the looks of it.

The game continued to thrill, and we could – ever so slightly – begin to enjoy it all with that slender lead.

Gilmour, getting into it, tackling hard, kept the ball alive and helped win a free-kick after a foul on Ross Barkley. A fine effort from Marcos Alonso sailed narrowly wide.

On around twenty minutes, pure pinball in the Chelsea box as shot after shot tested Kepa. A double save, a save, another save. All within a few seconds. It was dramatic and glorious stuff, though in the light of day two of the shots were hit straight at him.

What a game.

Mane, the biggest Liverpool threat by some margin, wriggled through our defence like a little eel and forced another excellent save from Kepa who was, dramatically, the centre of attention. Williams made a poor effort to connect with the rebounded shot. We had survived another scare.

A lot of the standard Chelsea and Liverpool songs were getting aired towards the end of the first-period and it absolutely added to the occasion.

“Fuck off Chelsea FC, you ain’t got no history.”

“Steve Gerrard Gerrard, he slipped on his fucking arse.”

There was gutsy defending from our players, and this was turning into a rather old-fashioned game of football with a lovely balance of cut and thrust, raw energy and honest attacks. Pedro was as involved as anyone, and after a few early miss-fires, was causing all sorts of problems. Giroud was a one man battling-ram. But the undoubted star of the first-half was young Billy Gilmour. Billy the kid was everywhere. An absolutely stunning performance.

Mateo Kovacic was injured, to be replaced on forty-two minutes by the fresh legs of Mason Mount.

Liverpool, after a string start, were visibly starting to become less of a threat.

As the first-half came to a close, I had a question for Alan.

“Wasn’t Lalana in the Teletubbies”?

At the break, all was well with the world. Previously worried faces had changed. There was a lovely buzz in the air.

On Saturday 24 April 1920, on this very same site, if not this very same stadium – but certainly one which was in situ for the 1982 game, those lovely packed terraces – my grandfather stood on the great slug of the West terrace with his old school friend Ted Knapton alongside him. It was half-time, and the score between the two teams – Aston Villa, who he favoured, and Huddersfield Town – was 0-0. It had been an exhilarating game of football for my grandfather, though the spectacle of seeing fifty-thousand spectators in one sports ground had proved to be the one abiding memory that he would take away with him.

Fifty thousand people.

And virtually all were men, and so many had fought in the Great War.

My grandfather was twenty-five years old. He silently gazed out at the main stand on the far side, the open terraces behind each goal, and looked behind him at row after row of fellows in caps and hats, some with the colourful favours of the two competing teams. A claret and blue rosette here. A light blue hat there.

Fifty-thousand men.

It struck home.

My grandfather had just that week spotted a local girl, a few years younger than him, who was beginning work in the manor house of his home village. She was a young cook, with a lovely smile, and had caught his eye.

My grandfather was a rather quiet man. He looked out at all those faces. He did not speak to his friend Ted, but he – at Stamford Bridge on Cup Final day 1920 – had decided that the stadium, indeed the whole of England was full of men, and the thought of one of them asking the young cook out before he had a chance to utter a shy “hello” ate away at him.

He had survived the Great War. He lived in a great village and now this great spectacle had stirred him in a way that he had not expected.

“You had better get your act together, Ted Draper. On Monday at lunch time, I think I will ask Blanche if she would like to accompany her to next weekend’s village dance. I can’t be second in that race.”

Almost one hundred years later, the players of Chelsea and Liverpool reappeared on the pitch. Could our lively form continue into the second-half? We bloody hoped so, but there was another enforced change early on. Willian, injured – oh our bloody injury list – was replaced by Jorginho, and there was a shift of Mason Mount out wide.

The game continued with the same noisy support cascading down from the stands. The Matthew Harding seemed particularly up for it, no doubt aided by some interlopers from The Shed who had been displaced by the northern hordes. The game had lost little of its attraction in the first half. On the hour, a fine cross field ball from Dave opened up the Liverpool defence but Mount was scythed down. I honestly thought that the position of the resulting free-kick would be too central, too flat. But to my surprise, Mason dug one out. Sadly, the fine effort bounced on top of Adrian’s bar.

So close.

On the hour, too, a loud and beautiful chant was aired for the very first time.

“One Billy Gilmour. There’s only one Billy Gilmour.”

Just three minutes later, with Chelsea defending, Pedro – bless him – nipped in to win the ball and Giroud jumped so well to move it on. The ball fell at the feet of Ross Barkley, still in his own half. I reached for my camera.

“Here we go.”

I sensed a huge chance.

Barkley ran on, and on, and with Pedro in acres to his right, I half-expected a slide rule pass. But he kept running, despite being chased by two defenders, and with one recovering defender goal side. He kept going. A shimmy, a shot – CLICK.

Adrian was beaten.

A goal.

Oh get in you bastard.

I was full of smiles, but clicked away. I had only recently mentioned to Alan that “I bet Barkley would love to score tonight.”

His slide was euphoric.

Up the fucking Toffees, up the fucking Chelsea.

Chelsea 2 Liverpool 0.

Just beautiful. The goal had come at just the right time. Liverpool had been clawing their way back into it a little.

Another lovely chant was bellowed from the lungs of the Matthew Harding Lower.

“One decent Scouser. There’s only one decent Scouser. One decent Scouser.”

Bliss.

Incredibly, from a Liverpool corner, Rudiger headed strongly out and Pedro – bless him – picked up the pieces, and his little legs went into overdrive. I reached for my camera once more.

“Here we go.”

His legs pumped away, but as he ate up the ground I sensed he was tiring. His shot, after a long run, lacked placement and Adrian easily saved.

In the last segment of the match, with Liverpool fading, Giroud capped a very fine performance indeed by forcing himself to reach a lovely pass from Dave, strongly fighting off challenges, but Adrian was able to touch the effort onto the bar and down.

Liverpool were chasing a lost cause now. Late substitutions Firmino and Salah added nothing.

It was Chelsea who finished the stronger, with shots from Mount and Giroud continuing to test Adrian. Gilmour had a quieter second-half, but one dribble late on made us all so happy.

“One Billy Gilmour.”

Indeed.

Reece James replaced the fantastic Giroud in the final few minutes.

The final whistle signalled the end.

“One Step Beyond.”

It had been a game for the ages.

As we bundled down the steps, and onto the Fulham Road, everything was fine in our world.

Into the last eight we went.

Yet another FA Cup appearance? It’s a possibility.

In 1920, the FA Cup Final stayed at 0-0, and Aston Villa – much to my grandfather’s approval – won 1-0 in extra-time with a goal from Billy Kirton.

However, as my dear grandfather Ted Draper travelled back by train with his pal that evening, back to beautiful and bucolic Somerset, he had another match on his mind.

On the Monday, he met with his new love, and nervously chatted.

He would later marry Blanche in the summer of 1925. My mother Esme would arrive in 1930, and the rest, as they say in Liverpool, is history.

Tales From A Day On The Road

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 28 October 2018.

Not for the first time on a Chelsea away day, I was awake before the alarm clock was due to ring at 4.30am. Initially, though, I was in no mood for football. The sad events of the Saturday evening involving the helicopter owned by Leicester City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha spiralling out of control and crashing in a shocking fireball outside the King Power Stadium hung heavy in my mind. This was so eerily similar to the tragic events of October 1996 in which our very own Matthew Harding and four others were killed on the return from a League Cup tie at Bolton. I was to set off on a long drive north for our away game at Burnley – we guessed at five hours in total – with no concrete news about the Leicester tragedy, but deep down we all knew. It had certainly been a sad footballing Saturday. During the day, our former Chelsea player-manager Glenn Hoddle had collapsed in a TV studio and had been termed seriously ill. It is no wonder that the thought of football on such a bleak weekend had left me numb.

There had been warnings of a bitterly cold day awaiting us in the old cotton town hiding underneath the moors. I chose some warm clothes and began to prepare myself for the longest drive of the footballing season. A coffee, as always, stirred me to life.

A five-hundred-mile round trip lay ahead.

I departed just before 6am and soon collected PD. Young Jake – his first game of the season, and resplendent in Napapijri and Moncler finery, he had evidently been busy in the close season – joined us at 6.20am, and the old warhorse Parky joined us at 6.45am. Just before 7am, Young Jake opened up a can of Southern Comfort and lemonade. Even the seasoned drinkers LP and PD were impressed. This was the first time up the M5 and M6 since the visit to Manchester City in the first week of March over seven months previously. But this was a well-worn path and all of the road-side views seemed so familiar.

The two Severn Bridges from the ridge of high land just before we joined the M4 at Tormarton. The ski slope at Gloucester. The abbey at Tewkesbury and the Malvern Hills in the distance. After a stop for food at McStrensham, Parky and PD washed things down with some breakfast ciders. “Autumn In The Neighbourhood” – a China Crisis album from 2015 – was given a spin. Parky and I had seen the band in Bristol on the Friday. It would be another weekend devoted to music and football. We neared Birmingham and there were more familiar markers. The floodlights of The Hawthorns. The Bescot Stadium. There were stretches of reduced speed limits between Birmingham and Manchester. Another stop at Stafford Services and Jake treated us to a round of bacon butties. We flew past Stoke and hit the flat lands of Cheshire, passing close to the site near Middlewich where the helicopter returning south from Burnden Park perished in 1996. Outside the skies were mainly clear. It looked a decent day, but we were cocooned in a warm car. We feared the worst. We climbed over the Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal and the Pennines were easily visible ahead. Winter Hill at Bolton and the memories of an early-evening game at the Reebok Stadium in April 2005. The Heinz factory at Wigan. The road flattened out again, but then climbed and I spotted Blackpool Tower on the horizon to the west. The visibility was stunning. On the M65, high over Blackburn, the view was spectacular. The hills of the Lake District in the distance and the Forest of Bowland. The trees turning from shades of green to the wilder colours of autumn. Darwen Tower high on the hills to the south. And then the approach into Burnley. The bleak moorlands in the distance. The grey terraced houses. Occasional chimney stacks standing proud as a last lingering testament of a more prosperous time. The sunlight catching the rounded towers. Light and dark. Ancient and modern. A town trying its best to adapt. A quintessential Northern town. A town that loves its football.

“Smallest town or city to ever house Football League Champions, Jake.” It was his first visit. If I was honest, I wanted to wax lyrical about how happy I was to be back in one of the wilder outposts of our travels this season. Here was a “proper” football town, something that Bournemouth and Brighton could never claim.

I was parked up outside the modern curves of the town’s bus station at about 11am. It was my fourth visit to Turf Moor for a Chelsea match. It was fantastic to be back.

Outside, the weather wasn’t so severe as we had all expected. We were impressed with the nearby display at the town’s war memorial; a riot of red poppies and white crosses. It was a short, but brisk, walk to Turf Moor. On a sign depicting Yorkshire Street, there was a Huddersfield Town sticker. On the bridge carrying a canal over Yorkshire Street, the colours of Burnley were sprayed, as if marking territory. The roadside pubs warned “home fans only.” A couple of grafters were selling badges, hats and scarves. Several local shops had claret and blue signage. Everything chimed football, and Burnley Football Club seemed at the centre of everything. For a town of less than 80,000 to support its football team to the tune of 20,000 every two weeks is a highly commendable feat.

There was a strict search outside the away turnstiles. Alas, my camera was not allowed inside and so I was forced to make use of my camera phone.

We had plenty of time to kill, and so we spent the time chatting to a cast of what seemed to be thousands. Familiar faces everywhere. There was a nice pre-match buzz. The team news filtered through.

Arrizabalaga.

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso.

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley.

Pedro – Morata – Willian.

Unlike in previous visits when I was positioned way down and almost pitch-level, here I was about halfway back. A different viewpoint allowed me to see the high moorland behind the stand to my right and beyond the stand at the other end of the ground. Turf Moor is a mix of ancient stands with wooden seats bolted to concrete risers – the old stand to my right had no more than twenty rows – and two newer, but blander, stands. The away stand is cramped but atmospheric. I remember it from the ‘seventies in the days of Steve Kindon, Dave Thomas and Leighton James.

The troops arrived and settled, but nobody sat the entire game. Everyone seemed dressed for the occasion. Puffa jackets, warm tops, ski hats, gloves, Aquascutum scarves wrapped high around the neck.

I looked over at the moors in the distance and my mind whirled back in time. Just after the completion of the Second World War, my mother spent a week in Burnley at the house of a friend that she met while working the land in Sussex. I can’t begin to think how different Burnley must have seemed to my mother, born and raised in a bucolic Somerset village.

The harsh accents. The terraced streets. The mill-workers. The industry. The hustle and bustle. The grey drabness of post-war austerity. The same bleak moors overhead. I looked to my right.

“Wonder if my mother ever set eyes on that exact piece of moorland?”

Muriel, Mum’s friend, would marry Joe Chadwick and they would go onto run a B&B in Blackpool, and we stayed there once or twice in the ‘sixties. I remember seeing Muriel when she visited a mutual friend in Frome in the summer of 1979. The lives of Muriel and Joe are now lost in time – I am sure they did not have any children – but they are remembered every time I revisit Burnley.

The teams entered the pitch from the corner to my left. I was aware that a line of servicemen had positioned themselves alongside the pitch. Although Remembrance Sunday would not take place for a fortnight, here was Burnley Football Club’s ceremony.

But first an announcement about the tragedy at Leicester.

So sad,

The teams stood at the centre-circle.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning.

We will remember them.”

Parky and I repeated the last line.

“We will remember them.”

The “Last Post” was played. There was complete silence. It was awfully poignant.

In the stands, the weather seemed OK. Cold but not uncomfortably so.

Chelsea – in the lovely yellow and blue – went through their pre-match rituals of hugging and embracing. I spotted a chest bump between David Luiz and Toni Rudiger. The team spirit looked exceptional.

The game began.

Alvaro Morata was the only outfield Chelsea player wearing gloves.

Insert comment here.

In the first ten minutes or so, it was the home team – claret and sky blue shirts, pristine white shorts and socks – who dominated. They had obviously been told to “get in among them” and we were decidedly off the pace. For all of their possession, though, we managed to limit them to few chances. We slowly managed to get hold of the ball. On twelve minutes, the game’s first real chance came our way. A cross from N’Golo Kante found Ross Barkley, and his shot bounced high off the turf towards Alvaro Morata, loitering in front of goal. He diverted the ball towards the goal only for Joe Hart to arch himself up and to his left and he tipped it over. It was a great reaction save.

We traded efforts. A Brady shot wide. A Willian shot at Hart.

On twenty minutes, a fine pass from Alvaro Morata resulted in Willian guiding a low shot against the far post.

The home supporters sharing our stand were making quite a din; not surprisingly songs about “Bastard Rovers” dominated.

On twenty-two minutes, we worked the ball quickly through our midfield – everyone took a touch – and the ball ended up at the feet of Ross Barkley, who played a perfectly-weighted ball into space for Morata. A clip past Hart and we were one-up.

“GET IN.”

I was just so relieved that our much-maligned striker had scored.

I remembered the equally exquisite pass from Cesc Fabregas to Andre Schurrle on the opening day of 2014/15 – from almost the same piece of terra firma – and there was a warm glow.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

Chances were again exchanged. A Tarkowski header over. Another Willian shot, just wide.

On the half-hour, Pedro left the pitch in some discomfort, and was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

On the car ride up in the morning, we had mentioned the thousands of FIFA nerds who must have ran off to their game consoles to play Ruben upfront after his three-goal haul against the Byelorussians on Thursday. The clamour for him to displace either Alvaro or Olivier up front as the sole attacker seemed to reach ridiculous levels. Not sure how that would work to be honest. There is more to playing as a sole striker against defenders in the most competitive league in world football than ghosting in from deeper positions against European lightweights. I was never close to being sold on that idea.

An excellent move from our penalty box, which included a forceful run at the Burnley defence from Marcos Alonso, resulted in Morata poking a ball past the post. A lofted pass found the same striker then shot straight at Hart – in the thick of it now – and we were well on top. The home fans had quietened from their opening volley in the first quarter of the game. The mood at half-time in the crowded concourse was upbeat. It had, thus far, been a great game of football.

Joe Hart, the poor bugger, was met by his own personal song which was bellowed at him by the Chelsea faithful.

“England’s number five. England’s, England’s number five.”

Ten minutes into the second-half, Willian made space and crossed from the right, but a Morata header at the near post narrowly missed the framework.

Two minutes later, a sublime move developed with rapid passes twixt Jorginho and Kante. The ball was played to Barkley, who looked up and planted a left-footed strike into the Burnley goal, with Hart unable to get close. The ball zipped low across the goal and the net rippled a few yards in front of us all.

“GET IN.”

His knee-slide was euphoric.

“Bloody superb goal.”

The away end was enjoying this. Smiles all around.

As I have mentioned before, I’m not a fan of the “viva Ross Barkley” chant though. How a song pandering to hackneyed Scouse stereotypes is going to make a Scouser feel loved is beyond me.

Just after Barkley’s goal, a trademark Willian wiggle to his right allowed him enough time and space to pick his spot, again down low to Hart’s left, in the far corner. We whooped with joy once again. More fantastic celebrations. Poor Joe Hart was undone again.

My mate Mark, a Blackburn Rovers supporter, texted me :

“Make it seven.”

We were coasting now and playing some bloody lovely stuff. There was a moment which stood out for me; the tall and strong Loftus-Cheek turning and running at pace in a central position, right at the heart of the Burnley defence, with the equally strong and robust Barkley alongside him. We may not see this too often under this new manager – his mantra is pass and move – but it was a breath-taking spectacle.

Two English midfield lions running at a defence.

Long may it continue.

Olivier Giroud replaced Alvaro Morata. There was applause for both. The Frenchman soon went close.

Cesc Fabregas replaced Jorginho and tried to spot a run from Andre Schurrle.

“Not this time, Cesc.”

Hart made a stunning save from a Giroud, palming his fierce header from inside the six-yard box onto the bar. Loftus-Cheek hit the side netting. It was all Chelsea and we did not let up. In the closing minutes of the game, a run from David Luiz – who had headed away many a Burnley cross in his own half – found Marcos Alonso, who adeptly back-heeled the ball into the path of Loftus-Cheek. Our Ruben smashed it home.

Burnley 0 Chelsea 4.

Just beautiful.

We bounced out of the ground, and there was such a positive vibe.

“Loved that. Great performance.”

I retrieved my camera, met up with the lads, and then we trotted back to the car, alongside fans of both sides. Many thousands of the home supporters had left before the final whistle. On Yorkshire Street, I narrowly avoided stepping into several dollops of police horseshit.

“Weirdest game of hopscotch I ever played.”

We edged out of Burnley town centre and I slowly began my return trip home. We were on our way by 4.15pm, soon zooming along, and down, the M65. As I headed west, the white steel roof supports – looking very European – of Deepdale could be seen in the distance.

If you know where to look, there is football everywhere.

After stopping at Stafford at our favourite Chinese restaurant on our football travels – where we bumped into three other match-going Chelsea supporters, much to our mutual amusement – I kept driving on and on, before eventually getting home at 11pm.

6am to 11pm.

It had been a long old day, but what an enjoyable long old day.

Thanks Chelsea.

 

 

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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