Tales From The Pride Of London

Chelsea vs. Fulham : 2 December 2018.

I was inside Stamford Bridge in good time. In those minutes before kick-off, with “Park Life” by Blur initiating the pre-game activities, the Fulham fans in the far corner were already voicing their dislike of us.

“We are Fulham. We are Fulham. We are Fulham. FFC. We are Fulham. Super Fulham. We are Fulham. Fuck Chelsea.”

So much for brotherly-love, eh?

This was Fulham’s first appearance at Stamford Bridge since the 2013/14 season. I personally like the idea of them being back in the top flight. An away game at Craven Cottage is always a treat. It’s good to have them back. But when I was growing up, I only ever really envisaged a Chelsea vs. Fulham league encounter taking place in the second tier. They were a club that wobbled between the old Second and Third Divisions. As recently as 1997, they were in the basement of the Football League. They have enjoyed a resurgence, then, in recent seasons, but when they disappeared from the Premier League in 2014, I did wonder if we would ever see them again in the league.

So they have done well to bounce back after just four seasons beneath us.

Ironically, ex-Chelsea midfielder Slavisa Jokanovic was recently sacked as their manager, and was replaced by Claudio Ranieri a week or so ago. In his first season as Chelsea manager, Jokanovic was the bete noire of Ranieri’s team, a one-paced misfit, who drew nothing but ire from the Chelsea fans at games all over England. He was seen as Ranieri’s man. His totem. His man. Jokanovic was known as “the Joker” and Ranieri was similarly mocked by many. In that first season, it took ages for the Chelsea support to warm to the Italian.

With large flags being waved on the pitch, each one indicating the numbers of the starting eleven, the Chelsea PA welcomed back Claudio Ranieri – dear, dear Claudio – to Stamford Bridge, and an image of him appeared on the large TV screen hovering over the away support.

It then got a little nasty.

“He comes from Italy. He fucking hates Chelsea.”

That was out of order.

It is, of course – nothing new here – a fact of life within SW6 that Chelsea fans have historically nurtured a distinct soft spot for Fulham. What is there to hate about Fulham after all? In years gone by, in the days when the terraced streets between Stamford Bridge and Craven Cottage housed a solidly working class population, people would alternate between the two grounds each week. It was a distinct “Fulham thing”, this sharing of the borough’s two clubs. But not QPR, further north. Never QPR.

Fulham had brought three thousand, of course, as would be expected. As the teams entered the pitch, we were treated again to flames and fireworks. But this was a midday kick-off, and it seemed even more preposterous.

Fireworks for Fulham? Give me a break.

We had spoken about the potential line-up on the drive to London and we naturally presumed that Alvaro Morata would be playing up front. But what did we know? Instead, manager Maurizio chose Olivier Giroud. Elsewhere, Pedro got the nod over Willian and Mateo Kovacic still kept Ross Barkley out of the starting eleven.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

Former blue Andre Schurrle did not feature in the Fulham team, out with an injury. We all remembered the second-half hat-trick the German scored at the Cottage in 2014, our last game against them.

Around the stadium on signage, on the captain’s armband, on the match programme and on bootlaces were the seven colours of the rainbow, mirroring the pastel shades of the various Nike, Puma and Adidas footwear.

The game began with a few songs emanating from the Matthew Harding.

It was a very mild Winter’s day.

We started magnificently. Jean Michael Seri was pick-pocketed by N’Golo Kante, and the French midfielder advanced before setting up Pedro in the inside-right channel. Our little Spaniard – “the hummingbird” as my mate Rick in Iowa suitably calls him – cut back on to his left foot and poked the ball past Sergio Rico.

Pedro raced away past the supporters in the Shed Lower and celebrated with a hop and a skip and a jump. His smile lit up the stadium. It was a typically lovely nimble finish from Pedro.

Perfect.

SW6 East 1 SW6 West 0

The sun was breaking through some cloud as the first-half developed and there were some strong shadows forming on the pitch. I kept looking over at the two managers, both former Napoli men, managers separated by more than twenty years; Ranieri, impeccably dressed, Sarri looking like a bloke on his way to a Wetherspoons.

Alan and I briefly discussed the famous game between the two teams at Christmas in 1976. We were on our way to promotion that season – a beguiling mix of mainly home-grown youngsters with a few steadying influences too – and Fulham boasted George Best and Rodney Marsh. A ridiculous crowd of 55,003 attended that game. I was not at the game but I asked Alan of his recollections of the day. He replied that it was ridiculously packed in the forecourt, and he was genuinely concerned about getting crushed. He was sure that many were locked out. I can remember seeing the gate in the following day’s newspaper and it made me gulp.

55,003.

In the Second Division nonetheless.

What a club we were. Or rather, what a potentially huge club we could become.

I was warm and fuzzy at the age of eleven and I don’t think that feeling has ever really left me.

On the pitch, we dominated play, but without many clear scoring chances. Olivier Giroud threatened and forced a save from the Fulham ‘keeper. A poor David Luiz free-kick was struck against the wall. Pedro looked full of drive and energy, and Kante was covering lots of ground. But there were a few patchy performances. Eden Hazard struggled to get involved. And Marcos Alonso was having his own personal hell. There were misplaced passes, and poor control. He was often released on the left, but his final ball was usually substandard.

It was a generally scrappy affair. The sun was getting brighter still, but the play was grey.

It was, of course, ridiculously quiet.

There were occasional chants from the away fans.

“Haven’t you got a boat race to go to?” bellowed Alan.

There were two chances for Giroud, close in on goal, but the tight angles and conflux of opposing players worked against him.

There seemed to be an unwillingness to put a tackle in from our players. In these days, the buzz word in football is the word “press”. You can’t walk two yards or read more than five words about football without hearing or seeing the word “press.”

I remember the closing of space being called “pressing” by Arrigo Sacchi in his Milan years around thirty years ago. It was one of those words of English origin that the Italians often shoehorn into their language. I think at the time the English version was known, loosely, as “getting stuck in” but it has become the word of the season, or possibly the decade.

And the gentlemen of the press and fans alike love it.

The printing press. The trouser press. The cider press. And now the football press. There is no fucking escaping it.

What it means for much of the time is a lot of closing of space but tackling – that black art – being condemned to the pages of history.

Oh well.

I just wanted to see a well won tackle.

It would at least stir the fans.

Modern football, eh?

However, we were by far the better of the two SW6 combatants. There had only been very rare attacks on our goal. Kepa had enjoyed a very quiet game. I am sure there was one moment when I saw him hunting down by his right-hand post for one of Thibaut Courtois’ old word search books.

The half-time whistle blew.

It had been a generally quiet and tepid affair.

I wondered what a few friends from afar had reckoned to the game thus far. We had welcomed the visitors from Toronto and Atlanta again to our pre-match. We met up in The Goose. In addition to Prahlad and his wife Nisha, and Brenda and Ryan, there was another Atlantan too; Emily, who I last saw in Vienna for our friendly in 2016, was visiting from Austria for one game only. Memorably, as we walked past the entrance to Fulham Broadway, Emily bumped into another Chelsea fan from Vienna, over for one game only himself.

As I have so often said, the Chelsea World is indeed a very small world.

We began pretty poorly in the second-half. Fulham forced an attack but Antonio Rudiger was able to block a shot. Then, from the ensuing corner Arrizabalaga reacted so well to thwart a Calum Chambers. To my liking, the whole ground replied with a roaring with a defiant “Carefree”. It had taken almost an hour for Stamford Bridge to raise a song, but at last we were back to our best, supporting the team as we should. And I loved this. We knew the team were struggling collectively and we rallied behind the team. Eric, from Toronto, and Emily were watching from the front row of the Matthew Lower, but from different sides of the goal. The Atlantans were up in the Shed Upper. I hope they appreciated the sudden burst of noise.

Another effort from Chambers. Another Kepa save.

In the stadium, the fans grew restless. Our play was slow, ponderous, tedious. Nobody shone in my mind apart from Pedro and Kante. And Kepa was certainly keeping us in the game. But we were passing to oblivion and the Chelsea fans were getting more and more frustrated. It was a very odd half of football. We were begging for a second goal. But there were more misplaced passes, and mistimed tackles.

Who expected Fulham to get an equaliser?

We all did.

There were moans aimed at Jorginho and Kovacic, neither of whom were playing well.

Some substitutes were soon warming up under the East Stand.

Within a few seconds of each other, Big John and I independently bawled the same thing.

“Get yer boots on Zola.”

How we missed a little of his creativity.

The manager, thankfully, looked to bring in fresh ideas and fresh legs into our midfield by replacing Kovacic with Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who was given a hero’s welcome.

He was very soon running at the heart of the Fulham defence. He was warmly applauded. Just after, Giroud – no service in the second-half – was replaced by Alvaro Morata. A shot from Hazard was parried by the Fulham ‘keeper but from only six yards out, Morata shinned the ball way over the bar. There were groans and Chelsea eyes looked heavenwards. Emily would have got a good view of that. I wondered what her thoughts were.

A Hazard free-kick was hit straight at Sergio Rico.

The mood inside Stamford Bridge was becoming stiflingly nervous. We just needed a win to get our season back on track, to stay tucked in, on a day when three of our main rivals were playing too.

Davide Zappacosta replaced Marcos Alonso and Dave switched flanks.

I wondered if Jorginho – Sarri’s kingpin – would ever be substituted. I wondered if he would be known in some quarters as the modern multi-million-pound equivalent of Ranieri’s Jokanovic.

With the nerves still jangling, the ball was worked adeptly between Hazard, Pedro and Loftus-Cheek. The ball stood up nicely for Ruben to strike purposefully past the Fulham ‘keeper. It had easily been our most effective move of the half.

Get in.

Emily would have loved her view of that.

I watched as Ruben ran over to the far corner and as was mobbed by his team mates.

SW6 North 2 SW6 South 0.

So this was certainly a strange game. We absolutely struggled in that poor second-half. And all of us admitted that we had rarely felt more underwhelmed – possibly even deflated – after a win. Feelings seemed confused, messy. I think that in the back of our minds the horror of Wembley the previous week would not subside, and we knew that Manchester City, to say nothing of a potential banana skin at Molineux, were looming in the distance.

It was such an odd game. And we had a quiet and reflective drive home. I battled the rain and the traffic of the M4. We were quiet. I remembered back to Jose Mourinho’s first league game as Chelsea manager, way back in the August of 2004 when a 1-0 win against the might of Manchester United could not disguise our sense of bewilderment that a team so rich in attacking verve could kill the game at 1-0.

“Fucking hell. We’re not going to win the league playing like this, are we?”

It is one of those sentences I always remember saying.

But, in 2018, are we unnecessarily tough on Sarri and his new system? Quite possibly. This is a learning curve for all of us. As fans, we have been given the task of adapting to a new modus operandi too. It might not be easy. As I said to Glenn, regardless of the merits of a new style, we have won the league two out of the past four seasons. I’m not sure if that makes us spoiled or ultra-critical. But I know the sense of frustration from the stands for our underperforming players was no illusion. In the end the history books will say that we won 2-0 but it was almost in spite of ourselves.

I’m still working Sarri out. It might take a while yet.

We have a testing week ahead. Let’s hope we can regroup for the two games. Maybe we, as fans, need to show a little more patience, but that is easier said than done. At least the next game is away, when the fans are usually a little more supportive, and certainly a whole lot noisier.

Right then. Wolverhampton Wanderers on Wednesday.

See you there.

 

Tales From Black Saturday

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 24 November 2018.

There was a moment, soon into the second-half I think, when a Chelsea move broke down in a particularly pathetic and unsurprising way. A voice behind me in the lower tier at Wembley loudly bellowed in frustration :

“Come on you cunts!”

I knew that I had to say something, I knew that I could not let the moment pass. I calmly turned around and realised that the voice belonged to a lad in his early ‘twenties. In a quiet voice I spoke.

“They’re not cunts, mate, are they? They’re our players. They’re not cunts.”

There was not much of a reaction from the lad. I think my calmness shocked him a little. Maybe he was expecting a louder or more strident tone. However, a few moments later, the lad was uttering the same phrase.

I turned around again, and repeated virtually the same words all over again.

“I won’t say it again, mate. They’re not cunts.”

At that particular moment in time, with Chelsea losing 2-0 to our arch rivals, but in a stadium which was only two-thirds full, and with the Chelsea fans not exactly rallying behind the team, it all seemed to be rather bleak and grey, if not black. It had been a strange atmosphere from the off. There were yawning gaps in the top tier at Wembley, and despite the home team racing to an early lead, and peppering our goal throughout the first-half, the atmosphere was surprisingly tepid. Where was the red-hot buzz of a London derby? It was hardly in evidence. As the game continued, with very rare moments of the intensity from Chelsea players and fans that we are familiar with, the evening became quieter and quieter. There were only sporadic outbreaks of song. It was a most listless performance from the terraces, but which mirrored that of the team.

But fans calling our players “cunts”? I didn’t get it, and I never have. And I have to say I have heard the same name calling uttered by many Chelsea fans, some too close for comfort. It always makes me squirm. I suspect that my own personal view is not shared by everyone, but I still regard Chelsea players as heroes, as our heroes, as my heroes. We need to support them in their battles against our foes.

Our performance against Tottenham was poor, it was collectively poor, and whose fault that was is hard for me, as an outsider, to fathom. But it has always been my view – “oh you silly, old fashioned twat” – that we can run down our players outside of the ninety minutes, in private, but at the game there needs to be encouragement.

It’s all about supporting the team, right?

Maybe it isn’t.

These days, nothing seems straightforward to me. Or am I over-analysing it all?

I don’t know.

The day had begun as early as 6.30am with an alarm call. My initial thoughts were of concern.

“Hope we don’t get mullered.”

PD, Glenn and I assembled at Frome train station at 7.50am, but soon spotted that our connecting service to Westbury was delayed. Outside, a stranger spotted us looking troubled and asked if we needed a lift to the neighbouring town.

“My husband will be here soon. I am sure we can fit you in the back seat.”

“Oh that is great, thanks” uttered Glenn.

“He’s not a Spurs fan, is he?” I wondered.

We made it in time to Westbury, then waited for Parky to join us at Melksham. He has had a testing time since we last all met up a fortnight ago. After his fall at half-time against Everton, he was diagnosed with having a fractured eye socket, and was quite bruised. Then, last weekend he lost his father at the grand age of ninety. But nothing keeps Parky down. He is as resilient as they come.

On the train to Paddington, we were sat opposite a woman in her sixties who was from Bristol, and a Spurs supporter. The look on her face when we told her that we were a) going to Wembley and b) Chelsea fans was priceless. We had a good old chat as we headed east. I had to confine my thoughts to myself when she admitted that she followed Manchester United when she was younger. Originally from Ireland – the north, I believe, her accent was very feint, only hinting at its origin – she admitted that it was almost expected of you to be a United fan if you came from Ireland. I blame George Best.

She feared for Tottenham against us.

“We haven’t been playing well and we’ve got players out.”

This made me a little more optimistic.

We had all said that we would settle for a point among ourselves.

There was talk of Roman Abramovich – she spoke with a rather bitter tone, what a surprise – and also talk of Tottenham finding it hard to compete against teams with “sugar daddies.”

We arrived in Paddington, under the impressive curves of the station roof, with an expectant air.

There is something about arriving in London by train.

Maybe my grandfather and Ted Knapton walked on that exact same platform in the ‘twenties on their way to Stamford Bridge.

I had planned another pre-match pub-crawl, centered on The Strand, and which I had been looking forward to, possibly even more than the football, for ages.

Since the last Chelsea match, England have taken centre stage, but not in my life. I have to admit that I have still not seen a single second of the games against the US and Croatia. Last Monday, I did not even know England were playing Croatia until someone in the US mentioned it on Facebook. Instead, as with the previous international break, I took in two Frome Town games. On the Saturday, I drove up to London to see the game against the Metropolitan Police – we lost 2-1 – and on the subsequent Tuesday, I watched as Frome lost 2-1 at home to the wonderfully named Swindon Supermarine.

My travels around the south of England with Frome occasionally involve a Chelsea connection – Nick Crittenden and Dorchester Town as an example – but my visit to Imber Court in East Molesey last weekend reunited me with three Chelsea stalwarts, and nobody was more surprised than me. As soon as I arrived at the home of the Met Police, I took a photograph of the two imposing floodlights at the covered end of the stadium. I posted the photograph on “Facebook.” Quick as a flash – the wonders of modern communication – my friend Neil, from nearby Walton On Thames but watching England play cricket in Sri Lanka, commented that the floodlights previously belonged to Chelsea.

I quickly gazed up at them and my mind did summersaults and cartwheels back through time to picture them standing proud at Stamford Bridge. These three ladies of the night – legs splayed, how brazen – were, I guessed, from the West Stand side, the last three to exist. The fourth one at Imber Court was a poor relation, a single spindle. I joked with some Frome pals that this last insipid one was from Loftus Road.

While Frome laboured on the pitch, often my gaze wandered to my left and I spent more than a few moments lost in thought as I imagined the sights that the two “ladies” had witnessed over the years at Stamford Bridge. I could so easily have been unaware of the link with Chelsea.

Yet there was more. Behind the goal to my right were a few football pitches. And I recognised the houses in the background from Chelsea magazines and programmes in the ‘seventies. I knew that we had trained at East Molesey – after Hendon, after Mitcham, before Harlington – and here it was. I wondered if the Chelsea players used the changing facilities in the Imber Court clubhouse. Just like Everton at Bellfield and Liverpool at Melwood, I always thought it odd that normal houses overlooked the players of Chelsea Football Club as they trained at Mitcham and East Molesey in the ‘seventies. Everything is under lock and key these days, behind security gates and put of reach.

After a bite to eat at Paddington, we began our march through London with a pint on the River Thames, on the Tattershall Castle, moored on the north bank of the river near Charing Cross.

“The only other time I have been here was with my Italian mate Mario before we saw Leverkusen win against Tottenham at Wembley two years ago. What a night that was.”

I was clearly looking for good luck omens.

We then walked to “The Ship & Shovel”, even closer to Charing Cross. This was the best pub of the day and quite unique; it straddles a narrow passageway, so looks like two separate pubs. We settled in the smallest of the two bars, and awaited the appearance of our good mate Dave, who we had not seen at Chelsea for the best part of two years. Dave now lives in France, and was back on a rare weekend to see friends and family. It was a joy – to use his lovely turn of phrase – to see him once more. He is now a father, and there is a magnificent Chelsea story here. Jared was born an hour or so before our Championship-winning game at The Hawthorns in 2017.

What a great sense of timing.

We had a blast in that little bar. It was fantastic to see him again. Dave was really pleased to see me; I owed him thirty quid. From  there, we walked up to the Coal Hole – a favourite of ours.

“Last time we were here? Before the 2-1 win against Tottenham two years ago.”

“You and your omens.”

Outside, there were Christmas shoppers, and a distinct chill to the air. It was a magical few hours.

From there, “The Lyceum”, “The Wellington”, “The Coach & Horses” and “The Marquis Of Anglesey.”

All of the pubs were full, and we were having a blast.

Seven pubs and another gallon of lager.

Happy daze.

Throughout all of this, we were sadly aware that Glenn and Dave did not have match tickets, such is the clamour for away tickets, and for Tottenham away tickets especially. But the day was all about meeting up and having a giggle. And a giggle we certainly had.

While we left Dave and Glenn to find a pub to watch the game on TV, PD, Parky and I nipped into a cab which took us to Marylebone and, from there to Wembley.

It’s all a bit of a blur to be honest.

Then a little tale of bad luck, maybe another omen. On the train to Wembley, I learned that a friend had two spare tickets, but time was moving on and there was no way to sort it all out. Glenn and Dave had been left stranded in the West End. There was no way they could reach Wembley in time. I received a text from another friend – a Chelsea fan visiting from LA, match ticket in hand – who had missed out on getting a train to London because someone had plunged in front of a train.

Another – hideous – omen.

We reached the away section at Wembley on a cold and dark evening in good time for once. There were handshakes with many in the concourse.

Parky and I met up with Alan and Gary near the corner flag, only a few rows from the front. To our immediate right was the aisle where we had rigorously and feverishly celebrated Marcos Alonso’s late winner – “oh look, there’s Parky’s crutch” – last August.

The teams soon appeared and Chelsea were oddly dressed in yellow.

The size of the gaps in the upper tiers shocked me. Red seats everywhere. It seems that the “thrill” of playing at Wembley has lost its appeal for Tottenham, but of course there must be a great deal of frustration felt about the lingering problems with their new stadium.

I shudder to think how our support might haemorrhage if we have to move to Wembley for three, four, five years.

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Morata – Hazard

Being only four or five rows from the front, my viewing position was poor. With the fumes of alcohol wafting around me, I knew that I was in for a tough time watching, and appreciating the finer points of what could turn out to be a fast paced game.

I need not have worried.

The football soon sobered me up.

Within just over a quarter of an hour, we were 2-0 down and we were fully expecting more goals to follow. After just eight minutes, Eriksen zipped in a free-kick which was headed in by Dele Alli. We watched silently as he celebrated in our corner. But I watched the fans in the home section, around twenty yards away; they didn’t seem ecstatic, and it shocked me. There were a few fist pumps, but it was all pretty tame.

Spurs were on fire to be honest – it hurts me to say – and were causing us all sorts of problems. A shot over, then a great save from Kepa.

“COME ON CHELSEA. GET IN THE FACKIN GAME.”

On sixteen minutes, the ball broke to Harry Kane, outside our box. With what seemed like virtually no back lift, he drilled a shot into the corner of our goal, low and purposeful. Kepa appeared unsighted and was motionless. Only at half-time – with Alan alongside me incandescent – would it become apparent that David Luiz moved to get out of the path of the ball.

The Spurs fans roared again, but there was not an almighty din befitting a 55,000 or 60,000 crowd.

We had a couple of chances, and I noted a slightly improved attitude. The Chelsea fans in the lower tier tried to get behind the team. There were small signs of recovery.

But we had to rely on Kepa to keep us in it. Another fine save – a quick reflex palm away – was roundly applauded.

Up the other end, at last a shot worthy of the name.

Hazard forced a save from Loris.

There were penalty claims, but the action was so far away…

There were long faces at the break.

Time for a few more photographs.

The second-half began and a shot from Willian was deflected over. We looked a little livelier and the away fans responded. But any thoughts of a Chelsea reaction to such a poor first-half were extinguished just ten minutes into the second period.

To my utter bewilderment / frustration / disbelief, Son was able to waltz through our defence like a hot knife through butter. His low shot was destined to go in.

Tottenham Hotspur 3 Chelsea 0

Oh bloody hell.

This was turning into a very dark day.

I thought back to our set up last season at Wembley against them. An extra shield in the middle with Kante, Bakayoko and Luiz, all superb on the day.

This season, we looked so lightweight.

The manager decided to change things a little. Ross Barkley replaced the ineffective Mateo Kovacic and Pedro replaced Morata. We were now playing without a spearhead, with the three diminutive attackers asked to swarm in and around the Spurs box. But Barkley impressed me straight away. His physical presence alone seemed to stiffen our midfield. Kante tried his best to win tackles and get things moving. But we then drifted a little and the game seemed lost.

With half an hour still to go, I looked around and saw many empty red seats in our section.

Respect to those who stayed to the end.

Funny how we take the piss out of Tottenham – especially – when they leave early and yet we do exactly the same.

Here we go again – “oh you silly, old fashioned twat” – but that isn’t what being a Chelsea fan is all about is it?

Is it?

The game continued.

Apart from the occasional song of defiance from myself and a few others, the noise dwindled in our end. But I have to say the home end was pretty quiet too. It was such a strange atmosphere.

Tottenham had a couple of chances to extend their lead. Thankfully no goals followed. With fifteen minutes to go, Sarri replaced Willian with Olivier Giroud.

With five minutes remaining, a cross from Dave was met with a high leap by the Frenchman and the ball was headed down and into the Tottenham goal. I didn’t even bother celebrating. Nobody did.

From memory, it was a little similar to the very first Chelsea goal I saw scored; an Ian Hutchinson header against Newcastle United in 1974; “up and downer” as it was described in the following game’s programme.

A Pedro goal – alas not, he blazed it over – would have made things a little interesting, but not for the hundreds of fans who had decided to head home before the final whistle.

Any ridiculous fantasies about the most improbable and unwarranted comeback in living memory amounted to nothing. At the final whistle – “see you Thursday” – we knew we were lucky that it had been kept to 3-1.

In the concourse, I met up with my good mate Andy from Nuneaton, who was at the game with his daughter Sophie. The frustration was there. We exchanged words. We weren’t happy. It had been a truly pitiful performance. Without heart. Without fight. It was so reminiscent of the 3-0 drubbing at Arsenal in 2016.

“I’m a big Conte fan, Andy. He’s a winner. We won the league, we won the Cup. Not good enough. Sacked.”

“I’m not convinced about this bloke, Chris. What has he won?”

“I keep hearing that the players are all very happy in training. All well and good. We play nice football. But sometimes you have to have players who can mix it.”

“He’ll be gone, mate. Even if someone like Allegri came in and won the league his first season, but then finished third the next, he’d be off too.”

We smiled and shook hands.

“Take care, mate.”

The only plus point was that there was hardly a line at the train station. We were soon on the over ground train back to Marylebone, back to Paddington, back to Bath, back to Westbury, back to Frome, eventually at 12.45am.

Of course, the words that Andy and I shared in the eastern concourse at Wembley on Saturday evening were emotive and no doubt reactionary. But they summed up our immediate post-game frustrations. And I have witnessed the reactions of many supporters since the game finished. My thoughts are still being formed as I write.

There are those who say that Sarri is another Scolari.

There are those who say that our football this season is akin to The Emperor’s New Clothes.

There are those who say he needs time to shape a team in his own style.

Many bemoan the use of N’Golo Kante in his current role.

For the first real time this season, the tide of opinion is turning on Jorginho.

I will be honest. I still haven’t warmed to Maurizio Sarri and I can’t even really explain why that is.

I am sure he is a decent man, but I am still trying to work him out.

There just seems to be too many square pegs in too many round holes at the moment. Parts of our play this year have been excellent, but mainly against weaker teams. I am still trying to work out if our generally good run of results is due to the largely fine players that we have at our disposal or the result of this new methodology. To me, and a few others, there have been times when our play hasn’t been too dissimilar to the last campaign.

My thoughts on this season are rather confused and incomplete.

Like Sarri, I need time to work it all out.

 

 

In Memorium

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Richard Garry Parkins 1929 to 2018

 

Tales From Ninety-Six Minutes

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 20 October 2018.

With the international break over – I watched Frome Town capitulate to Harrow Borough last weekend, thanks for asking – it was time for arguably the biggest match of the season. Say what you like about Manchester United, or the Forces of Darkness as I occasionally call them – but they are always a huge draw. Personally, I’d probably rate the visit of Tottenham as our biggest home game each season, but there is not much between them.

Just the three of us headed east to London early on Saturday morning; Parky, PD and little old me. There was early morning patchy fog as I headed through Somerset and Wiltshire, but the sun occasionally cleared. On the M4 in Wiltshire, the fog and mist descended again. Away in the distance, the view of a line of monochrome trees atop a slightly sloping horizon was so pure that I even got PD agreeing with me as to how stunning it looked.

The sun soon evaporated any moisture as we headed into Berkshire and beyond. It was to be a stunning day for football. We had set off at 7am so as to maximise pre-match drinking time. We settled on “The Goose” for ease more than anything else. As the other two shot on, I stopped to take a photo of a mackerel sky high above the old school flats of the Clement Atlee Estate just off the Lillee Road. These high-rise blocks of low-cost accommodation, hovering over The Goose, The Wellington and The Rylston pubs, must have housed thousands of Chelsea supporters over the years. I would not be surprised if some of the “North End Road mob” of the late-‘sixties and early-‘seventies were housed within. A friend of mine, Paul – now living in North Devon, and a Chelsea supporter – lived within one of the towers. There is a lot mentioned of “proper Chelsea” these days, and I often think, as I gaze up at the windows and balconies of the Clement Atlee, named after the leader of the Labour Party and the Prime Minister of the coalition government for a few years after the Second World War, that this is a good example. Occasionally, I see a Chelsea flag hanging from one of the balconies – there used to be a dusty and weather-beaten “Munich 2012” one a few years back – but I wonder how many inhabitants get to see Chelsea Football Club play these days.

Not so many as in the late ’sixties I’d guess.

In The Goose – I had limited myself to a couple of Peronis – and the beer garden outside, I spent a good hour talking to friends from far and near. There was, as is always the case, little talk of the game ahead.

Deano from Yorkshire, Welsh Kev from Port Talbot, the boys from Kent, Eck from Glasgow, the lads from Gloucester, the Bristol lot, Rich from Loughborough.

I was aware that several friends from the other side of the Atlantic were over for the game.

And we chastise United fans that don’t come from Manchester.

Oh, the irony.

It was a pleasure to meet up with Brad, now living in New York but originally from Texas, and his father who was attending his first-ever Chelsea game.

I say this to everyone : “if we lose, you ain’t coming back.”

Pride of place during this particular pre-match meet-and-greet went to my friends Leigh-Anne and John from Toronto, now married, and dipping into see us play again after a busy holiday in Ireland. I last saw them in DC in 2015. They were to announce the fact that Leigh-Anne was pregnant to all their friends back home – baby due in March – with a photo of them holding up a little Chelsea shirt outside the West Stand.

Now that, my friends, is proper Chelsea.

The time flew past. I supped the last few sips and headed to the ground.

We were sure that Olivier Giroud would start. It was a foregone conclusion.

He didn’t.

I hoped that man-of-the-moment Ross Barkley would start.

He didn’t.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Morata – Hazard

My main concern was that we might be out-muscled by Matic and Pogba in midfield.

This would be my thirty-second Chelsea vs. Manchester United league game at Stamford Bridge. My first one came in our first season back in the top flight after a five-season break – I like to think of it as our “this relationship is going nowhere and we need a bit of space” phase – when I assembled with 42,000 others just after Christmas Day in 1984. I don’t know about anyone else, but I was super-excited. After my first game in 1974, Chelsea then played seven of the next ten seasons in Division Two, and my sightings of top teams was severely limited. It seems incredible these days, but from March 1974 to August 1984, I only ever saw us play seven home games in Division One.

Newcastle United – 1974

Tottenham Hotspur – 1974

Derby County – 1975

Aston Villa – 1977

Liverpool – 1978

Tottenham Hotspur – 1978

Queens Park Rangers – 1979

(…it would appear this random sample would support my theory of Tottenham being the biggest game each season in my mind.)

December 1984, with me on the benches with Alan and Glenn, and a few other close friends, and the visit of Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United. It was a huge game. We were doing well in the league, and United were in the mix too. There was an expectant buzz before the game, and we were in The Benches early, as always, and watched the large and sprawling North Stand fill up with United fans.

“Not as many as Liverpool earlier this month” I remember thinking at the time.

These days, we are so used to inflated gates with clubs being scared to death to publish actual “bums on seats” at games, instead going for the number of tickets sold. It is why Arsenal always announce gates of 60,000 despite swathes of empty seats in the latter years of the Wenger reign. In those days, it was the exact opposite. Why pay tax on the income generated by 45,000 if you can announce the figure as 35,000? Nobody would ever check. So, in those days with that cunning old fox Ken Bates in charge, there were many times when we scoffed at some of the gates which were announced. In May 1984, Stamford Bridge was packed to see us beat Leeds United to clinch promotion but the gate was only 33,000.

“Yeah right, Batesy.”

Sitting in The Benches in those days, I always used to keep a check on the top row of the East Stand. If every seat was taken, I expected a 42,500 capacity figure to be announced.

Very often it wasn’t.

Sadly, we lost 3-1 that day and I was as disappointed as I had felt for a good few years as I exited Stamford Bridge and took the train back to Somerset. It was our first big loss at home after promotion the previous year and the little doubts about our place in the new world order were beginning to peck away.

Our home record against United used to be bloody awful, and yet paradoxically our league record at Old Trafford was excellent; from 1966/677 to 1987/88 we were unbeaten in thirteen league matches, a very fine record. And we have intermittently nabbed good wins at Old Trafford in the past thirty years.

Our home form has certainly improved.

From that game in December 1984, we lost eight out of seventeen league games at Stamford Bridge.

Since 2002, we have lost just one of sixteen.

For once, I was confident – not even quietly confident – of a Chelsea win.

“God knows where our goals will come from, but I am sure we’ll win.”

It has been a mystery to me why the movers and shakers at Adidas decided to jettison the classic Manchester United red / white / black in favour of a red / black / red this season. It was a classic kit. Why the change? All I know is that none of the United fans that I know have bothered to mention it. Perhaps they haven’t noticed.

After the usual “Park Life” and “Liquidator” segment gave way to the flag waving and flame-throwing bollocks of the immediate pre-match, the teams appeared.

United oddly chose to wear white shorts for this one match. But the kit still looked a mess.

A new Eden Hazard flag – simplicity itself – surfed over the heads of those in the tier below me.

I looked around. Ken Bates or no Ken Bates, nobody could lie about the attendance for this one. It was a full-house for sure.

Except for a few of the boxes in the West Middle.

Empty.

The mind boggles why these tend to be empty every game.

Another TV game. The nation, and parts of the world, was ready.

The game began and there was a decent buzz in the stadium. I only rarely looked over to spot Mourinho and Sarri. The red of the United substitutes was very light, almost pink. Liverpool have gone darker, United have gone lighter. Anything to distance themselves from each other. By comparison, there was more immediate noise at the Liverpool home game, but everyone was in the boozers, all fifty-two of them, for much longer three weeks ago. These lunchtime starts are usually quieter affairs.

United were singing, as they always do, in the far corner, but Chelsea had the best of the opening period of the game. There was far greater fluidity from our ranks. Hazard was hacked down by Young, but no card was shown. Soon after, Eden was fouled just outside the box, but Willian curled the free-kick way over the bar. United had a little spell; it made a change to see them in our box. Lukaku headed wide. It would be the last that we would see of him for a while.

At the other end, we dominated again.

On twenty minutes, we won a corner. Willian struck a firm cross over towards the penalty spot where Toni Rudiger rose, seemingly unhindered and at will, to thump a header past De Gea. Again, I had a clear view of its trajectory. I knew that it was a goal straight away.

BOOM.

Blue / Blue / White 1 Red / White / Red 0.

Alan – in a Mancunian Red Army accent : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Chris – in a Cockney Reds accent : “Come on my little diamonds”

Young chipped away at Hazard again; this time a card.

Next up, a sublime pass from Rudiger – lofted from afar – caught the run of a raiding Alonso, but the defender’s first touch was heavy as De Gea approached.

A similar lofted pass from David Luiz was so well disguised, none of his team mates went for it.

“That ball had a moustache and false glasses on it, Al.”

For virtually all of the first-half, while Juan Mata was involved in occasional bursts and a couple of dead-balls, the other two former Chelsea players Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku struggled to get involved at all. Matic was his usual ambling self and of little consequence. And Lukaku, sporting ridiculous XXXXL shorts – “If Gary was wearing those, he would have to have turn-ups” quipped Alan – was hardly noticeable. I was mesmerized, though, by the size of Lukaku. His arse must have a postcode all to itself. How times change; when he first joined Chelsea, I wanted him to bulk up a little as he didn’t seem to have the physical prowess to dominate defenders. Bloody hell, since those days, he has bulked up quite considerably. He must eat at every greasy spoon, twenty-four-hour truck stop and all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant between Bournemouth and Tyneside.

It was lovely to see Juan Mata applauded by the home support as he took his first corner over in the far corner. I would expect nothing less, to be honest. Mata is a class act, and will always be a blue in my eyes. There was no show of love or appreciation for Matic and Lukaku.

The play continued to pass Lukaku by. He seemed slow and disinterested, and of no consequence.

In fact, he looked like the biggest pile of shite to be seen on TV from a location in West London since Lulu the elephant had stage fright in the Blue Peter studio.

The first-half came to an end, with Chelsea well in control, but without creating a great deal of chances. It gives me no comfort nor pleasure to report that Alvaro Morata was his usual self; playing in name only. Not much movement, not much guile, not much anything really.

In the much-improved programme, there was time to dip into the contents. Oddly, the Red Banner game that I covered a couple of games back was featured in depth; I learned that the game, on a Wednesday afternoon in 1954, was shown “live” on the BBC.

A Pat Nevin column detailing his love, like mine, of the Manchester music scene, was excellent. Pat has a musical column in the programme this season, similar to his piece in the old “Bridge News” of the mid- ‘eighties and it is well worth reading. There have been a couple of excellent pieces on the internet about Wee Pat of late.

After reading one of them during the morning, Glenn – who was missing the game due to work – sent me a message to say that “Pat is just like you.”

I half-guessed what he meant.

I presumed that there would be a comment about the Cocteau Twins.

“I like driving. I can listen to music. And think about football.”

Sadly, there was no hope of me playing for Chelsea Football Club nor going out with Clare Grogan, so that is where the comparison ends.

The second-half began. Early on, Morata would frustrate us further. A Jorginho through ball set him up, he did all the right things, but then meekly shot wide.

With us in charge, but desperate for a second to wrap things up, I hoped the miss would not haunt us.

David Luiz, raiding in the inside-left position, supported the attack and did well to exchange passes with Eden, but his shot was deflected for a corner. I loved the bursting runs of Kovacic which continued to breathe life into our play.

The game then, sadly, changed.

With ten minutes of the second-half played, Kepa did ever so well to push out a firm strike from Mata, but the ball was kept alive. The ball was dolloped back inside the box and although Luiz got a head to the ball, I sensed danger – “they’ll score here” – and it fell to Martial who nimbly poked it home.

London 1 Manchester 1.

Bollocks.

United roared, singing some song about Liverpool, if my hearing was correct.

Chelsea then seemed to crumple. Matic started dominating the midfield and Mata looked influential. Lukaku roamed from his central position and caused problems. Suddenly, we looked half the team we were in the first-half.

I grew more annoyed with Alvaro Morata.

Every player has a trademark play – the John Terry chest-pass, the Frank Lampard thumbs up run, the Eden Hazard 180 degree turn, the manic Pedro run, the Willian burst, the David Luiz feint – but it seems to me the Morata speciality is holding the back of his head after yet another half-hearted jump at a high ball.

“FUCKSAKE.”

David Luiz seemed to be having a hit and miss game, but I lost count of the times his fantastic interceptions stopped United causing further damage. One run to shield the ball away from the lump of Lukaku was sublime.

A Luiz header went close from a Willian free-kick. The flight of the ball was almost perfect, but the stretching Luiz just had too much to do. But his leap was well-timed. His was an increasingly important role in the game.

Ross Barkley then replaced Kovacic. A round of applause for both.

Kante – not as involved as I would like if I am honest – then let fly outside the box but De Gea scrambled the ball away.

This was a tight game, if not high on real quality. Eden had been shackled all afternoon, often with three players hounding him, but we hoped his moment of genius would come.

Then, seventy-three minutes, a calamity. Luiz mistimed an interception out wide (there had been other similar ones during the game where his timing was spot-on) and this allowed the mercurial Mata to set up Rashford, then Martial. Moving the ball quickly out of his feet, he effortlessly struck a low shot right into the bottom corner of our net.

Nike 1 Adidas 2.

The United hordes roared again.

“U – N – I – T – E – D, United are the team for me.”

And then a song which United have taken on board as a badge of honour over the past fifteen years or so :

“Who the fuck are Man United, as the reds go marching on, on, on.”

Their thought process must be this : ”as if anyone should question who United are.”

It honestly boils my piss when I hear our fans singing this.

It’s their fucking song these days.

“Chelsea Till I Die” is another one. Hardly ever sung at a Chelsea game of any description, home or away, at any time. A song of Football League teams. A dirge much beloved by smaller clubs. A song which seems to have found a firm footing among our overseas fans, though God knows why.

Please stop it.

Immediately, Pedro replaced Willian. Soon after, Olivier Giroud took over from the non-existent Morata.

But he mood had certainly darkened around me. Just like in 1984, we were about to be handed our first big home defeat of the season. And I had a flashback to the Tottenham game last Spring, when an early goal at The Shed was eventually wiped out and overtaken.

Eden became a little more involved. The intensity rose.

I spoke to Alan.

“Barkley to get a goal.”

The referee signaled a whopping six minutes of extra-time.

Hope, however small, existed.

The clock ate up the minutes. A few fans decided to leave.

With time surely running out, Dave swung in a high and deep cross towards the far post. I snapped as David Luiz climbed a step ladder to jump higher than two United defenders. We watched as the ball slowly looped towards the far post.

The ball struck it.

The disbelief.

The ball cannoned out and Rudiger headed towards goal.

The anticipation.

David De Gea magnificently saved.

The agony.

Ross Barkley was on hand to smash the ball in.

The pandemonium.

The noise.

Chelsea 2 Manchester United 2.

By this time, I was at the top of the steps to my immediate right and I snapped away as Ross Barkley celebrated wildly. I felt my head spinning.

I was light-headed.

I grabbed hold of the hand rail in front of me and steadied myself.

Such joy.

I looked over to see Al and Bournemouth Steve shouting, smiling and pointing.

Alan’s face says it all.

All around me, there seemed to be another wave of noise and then, I wasn’t sure why, a loud “FUCK OFF MOURINHO.”

I immediately thought that this was a little distasteful. Yeah, I know the bloke is – now – a knob head but there were some good times too.

We tried to piece together what had happened, and over in the tunnel, there was a lot of handbags being thrown. Players on the pitch were pushing and shoving each other.

I didn’t care.

The whistle went and it had seemed like a win. After the ninety-sixth minute goal conceded against Liverpool, this was a lot more enjoyable. And Ross Barkley, our token Scouser, making all those Mancunians miserable now?

“Sound, la.”

Unbeaten in nine league games, a nice round dozen in total, we are doing just fine.

And Brad’s father enjoyed the game so much that he soon asked around for a spare for Thursday against BATE Borisov.

He will be sitting, apparently, two runs in front of me.

I’ll see him there.

 

Tales From Deep East

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 23 September 2018.

With Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham all winning on Saturday, it seemed imperative that we should be victorious on Sunday afternoon – at West Ham United – too. Not that I have realistic thoughts about winning the league again this season but just that, well, a win is a win is a win. Why not keep this run going for as long as is humanely possible? So far, our perfect start to the league campaign – five out of five – had certainly surprised me, and here was a game that was immensely “winnable.”

The drive through Somerset, Wiltshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire and into London had been memorable for only two reasons. The bastard weather was awful, the worst of the season. Saturday had been horrible; wind and rain. And Sunday was just the same. I drove into three hours of rain and spray. It was not fun. Slightly funnier, though, was the sight – around Maidenhead I think – of a cyclist heading east in the near lane of the M4, quite illegally, and signalling with his left arm to leave the motorway at the next exit. The Chuckle Brothers all had to rub our eyes at the sight.

At just after 11am, I turned off the A4 and parked up outside Barons Court tube station. Waiting for us outside were my two Czech mates George and Petr, who live in Prague, and who I last bumped into together at the Rapid Vienna friendly two summers ago. They had contacted me over the summer about their unquenchable desire to see a Chelsea away game and, although I was far from confident of being able to come up with tickets for the West Ham match, some good fortune came my way a month or so ago and the boys were in luck. They then booked flights, and then accommodation. Their enthusiasm for the day’s events, despite the dreary conditions, was palpable.

As we headed east on the Piccadilly line, and then the Central line, we were surprised at the lack of West Ham, or Chelsea fans. But, for once, we were early. We always seem to leave it unfashionably late at West Ham. At Stratford – tons of home supporters now – we doubled-back on ourselves and alighted at the wonderfully-named Pudding Mill Lane station. At last, the rain had virtually stopped.

Although from the Czech Republic, make no mistakes where George and Petr’s affections lie. They are thoroughbred Chelsea fans. I asked them how the Czech league was shaping up, and it warmed me a little to hear that they were not honestly sure about the placings; Petr thought it was Viktoria Pilzen, Slavia and then Sparta. But it seemed an irrelevance to both of them. I approved.

They were, as if it needed proving, proper Chelsea.

I had mentioned to the lads – The Czechle Brothers – as we passed through Bethnal Green and Mile End, that the area is, or at least was, the stereotypical East End, from which West Ham garnered much of their local support. There is nowhere else in London which is so tied to a football club; Arsenal and Tottenham might share north London, and much of its hinterlands, and Chelsea might draw support from the west and south, and share it with other clubs too, but from the traditional East End out to Essex, that acute angle of support is solidly West Ham.

As we alighted at the final station, with modern high-rises surrounding the former Olympic village, the contrast between the tight terraced streets around Upton Park and West Ham’s new neighbourhood could not have been greater. It is, simply, a stark, modern, airy environment. Everywhere you look are vast blocks of concrete. However, I am sure that the vast majority of West Ham fans still prefer the claustrophobic tightness of Green Street, the Queens Market, the Barking Road and the pubs which made West Ham the club it once was, but is no more.

There was time for a couple of drinks of overpriced lager from plastic glasses in the bar area outside the away sections. With George and Petr lapping up the pre-game thrills of a London derby, I nodded to the two hundred or so Chelsea fans within the area.

“No Chelsea colours.”

In fact, I was exaggerating for effect; there were in fact two people with Chelsea shirts.

“Probably tourists”, I joked, and they laughed.

They probably didn’t get the email.

Weeks ago, I had warned Petr and George about not wearing Chelsea shirts, scarves or hats. But they already knew the score and were well-versed in the dos and don’ts for a London derby.

The team had been announced.

No risks being taken with Pedro. Willian came in. And it was Olivier Giroud’s turn to lead the line.

No complaints. Happy with that.

With a quarter of an hour to go until kick-off, I walked up the steps and into the upper section of the away end. This time, better seats; we were in the fourth row back.

PD and Glenn were low down in the tier below and The Czechle Brothers were way beyond us in the last few rows of the upper section. I had warned them it would be a fight to get much noise flying around the away section. That huge void between the sections is no help.

I noted some signage on the main stand to my left :

“This Is The World’s Stage. This Is For Everyone. This Is London Stadium.”

It seemed the stadium was the star attraction and not the team.

And throughout the afternoon, electronic advertisements flashed constantly on the balcony walls between tiers; music concerts, events, baseball games.

Ah yes, baseball games.

I had to double-take when I saw my team, the New York Yankees, flashed up to my right.

It is the sort of thing I simply do not expect to see while watching Chelsea. In London.

There it was, in broad daylight.

New York Yankees V Boston Red Sox.

My mind wandered, briefly, to next June when the two teams will meet at West Ham’s new home stadium for a two game series. I tried to visualise where home plate would be; probably right in front of the nearest goal to where I was standing. And then I thought of the likely spectators. Yankee fans and Red Sox fans would only make up a relatively small percentage. There would be UK baseball fans from all over; Cubs shirts, Braves shirts, Dodgers shirts, Mets shirts, Phillies shirts. And I paused, again briefly, to imagine a similar scene should our league mirror Major League Baseball and cross the Atlantic.

Imagine a Chelsea vs. West Ham United game in, say, Chicago. It would not only attract fans of those two teams. If my experience is anything to go by, there would be supporters – wearing shirts and scarves – of Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Everton and others, to say nothing of the usual smattering of Bayern, Milan, Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid fans. And each little pocket of fans might well find themselves sitting cheek by jowl with rival fans. It is a scene which brought a wry smile to my face.

70,000 in Chicago.

A 15,000 section for Chelsea. A 15,000 section for West Ham. And a 40,000 neutral zone for all the other top fifty teams in Europe.

No thanks.

As the teams appeared, I spotted a phalanx of people crowding the two teams, separated by black fences. I presumed that this was the West Ham equivalent of Manchester City’s tunnel club, where people pay a dividend to get up-close-and-personal with their heroes.

I was happy that the lanky bugger Arnautovic was not playing.

Don’t we look great in that yellow / yellow / blue?

West Ham added to my thoughts about abandoning their heritage by wearing plain claret shirts, rather than with the blue-sleeves of yore. Maybe it was to honour their highest-ever finish, of second, in 1986.

If we sing about being Champions of Europe, and we sing about London, there is – I am sure people will begrudgingly agree – a slim chance of Arsenal and even Tottenham eventually lifting that trophy, although hopefully not in any of our lifetimes. But what of West Ham? They are easily London’s fourth biggest club, but it would be a minor miracle should they even qualify for the Champions league.

And to think, from 1979 to 1984, they seemed our natural London rivals.

How times change.

This would be my fourth visit to the London Stadium, but I was yet to see Chelsea win. A League Cup defeat, a League defeat and a Depeche Mode concert. I sadly missed our one win which came during our Championship season under Antonio Conte.

Behind me was a chap wearing a “Bulgarian Blues” polo shirt. He seemed involved all through the game. As George and Petr prove, not all of our foreign fans are gormless tools. Far from it in fact.

As the game commenced, I made it a priority to try to analyse the involvement of Jorginho during the next ninety minutes. I also vowed to try to try to keep an eye on Giroud. I confided in Gary alongside me :

“You know what, Gal? It honestly took me a while to warm to Giroud last season, for obvious reasons. But he’s a bloody good player, isn’t he? His lay-offs to Hazard have been excellent of late.”

I thought we played really well in the first twenty minutes or so.

A shot from Hazard forced Fabianski to save low. Our movement was great, full of one touch football, and we were stretching the home team nicely. But chances were certainly at a premium. For all of our attacking verve, it was West Ham who enjoyed the two best chances of the game. Firstly, Antonio broke in on the West Ham left but fired over. Then, Yarmolenko – similar in build to Arnautovic – fired low but Kepa Arrizabalaga smothered well.

One tackle, sliding, beautifully timed, from David Luiz had us all purring.

The grey skies had turned blue and at last there was a blast of sunlight.

I had warned Petr and George that the stadium had no architectural delights. With the slight rake of the lower tier especially, I find it a very bland stadium. It is not dramatic. It has no “wow” factor. The only part of it that seems worthy of comment is the cat’s cradle of steel which supports the roof and the triangular floodlights. Other than that, Upton Park trumped it hands down.

Our best chance of the first-half fell to the head of N’Golo Kante, after a finely volleyed cross from Willian allowed him a clear view of the goal. It was not to be. The ball skidded wide.

At the break, there were grumbles among the three thousand.

Our positive start had not continued. There was a tendency to over-pass. I had been watching Giroud; there was not much to report. He was hardly moving his markers at all. I had been watching Jorginho too. Lots of the ball – pass, pass, pass, – but yet again no flights of fancy to unlock the door. There had been little running off the ball either – the “third man” was lost in Vienna, or Budapest, or Amsterdam. He was nowhere to be seen in East London.

In the stands, the noise was not great. Only once in the first-half did the home fans make a din.

Chelsea chastised them in the time-honoured fashion.

“You’re not West Ham, anymore.”

“You sold your soul…”

Chelsea attacked us in the southern end in the second-half. Amid the chants of encouragement, there were moans and cries of despair too. In truth, it was pretty pedestrian stuff, for all of our possession. And we totally dominated. And yet Willian and Hazard failed to really make their talents pay off. Hazard kept dropping deep. And he rarely hugged the touchline.

More of the same from Jorginho. Not his best game for us. He often lost possession. His passes were to the side or to players being marked. I was getting frustrated with him.

Giroud, under my watchful gaze, rarely made a move into space. He seemed to continually move towards the man with the ball rather than attempt a blind-sided run (oh, Hernan Crespo, are your ears burning?) to create space.

With twenty-five minutes remaining, Sarri replaced Giroud with Morata.

My thoughts :

West Ham were for the taking. Why not play both up front for a quarter of an hour?

Hazard, in on goal, chose to back-heel to Moratra rather than shoot himself.

“Fackinelleden.”

Then, from a corner, the ball fell at the feet of Morata. He had no time to think; he pushed a foot towards the ball but we groaned as the shot hit Fabianski in the face.

“Bollocks.”

The frustration rose.

An injured Rudiger was replaced by Gary Cahill.

As the game continued, and as West Ham enjoyed a little spell, I whispered to Gary.

“Fackinell Gal, I bet they will get the ball out wide, we’ll lose concentration, they will hit a ball in to the box, and one of their fuckers will head home.”

Within twenty seconds, Robert Snodgrass (“more clubs than Peter Stringfellow”) crossed into our box and Yarmalenko rose at the far post, completely and utterly unmarked, but thankfully his firm header veered past the post.

“Fucksakechelsea.”

We then came on strong in the final period.

We begged for a goal.

“Fackinellcomeonchels.”

Ross Barkley came on for Kovacic, and I liked the look of him immediately. He sprayed balls out to the wings with aplomb. Then, a big moment. Collecting the ball from wide, he looked up and curled a ball towards Fabianski’s far post. The bend on it was phenomenal. We were all about to celebrate when the ‘keeper scrambled down low to save.

Then, the last two chances.

A Willian volley, evading a tackle, but it was sent well wide.

Hazard, a tame shot across Fabianski.

At times, that lone cyclist on the M4 had shown a much better understanding of how to negotiate heavy traffic than our attackers.

It finished 0-0.

This had been our poorest performance of the season. As is always the case, we chatted about everything on the slow trudge across London, and then furthermore on the drive home.

What’s the expression? “More questions than answers.”

That seems about right. The Jorginho / Kante dilemma rumbles on.

On the M4, I summed up my feelings.

“Never mind Saturday. Say we are playing the biggest game in our history. Tottenham in the European Cup Final. A game we had to win. You would want Kante shielding the defence, right? In his best position. Not Jorginho. You’d want Kante there.”

The lads agreed.

And, not for the first time in our recent history, we have ineffectual strikers.

“Morata is half a striker. Giroud is half a striker.”

Just like in 2013/14.

“Torres was half a striker. Ba was half a striker. Eto’o was half a striker.”

Yep.

More questions than answers.

There is no trip to Anfield for me on Wednesday, but let’s hope we can find some positive answers to these questions on Saturday when we meet Liverpool for the second time in four days.

I will see you there.

 

Eyes On The Ball.

 

A Volleyed Cross.

 

Keeping It Alive. 

 

Working The Space. 

 

Early Ball. 

 

Signs.

 

Face Off.

 

Daisy Cutter.

 

Wide Man.

 

Bend It Like Barkley.

 

Well Wide.

 

My Ball.

Tales From November In August

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 26 August 2018.

Not so long after I picked up Parky from his Wiltshire village at around 6am on Saturday, my car slowed to allow a black cat, leaping from one hedgerow to another, to cross the narrow country lane. PD and I could not immediately decide if a black cat crossing one’s path was deemed as good or bad luck, though we feared the latter.

I thought about Sunderland’s relatively new, and quite ridiculous, nickname as being certified evidence that it was indeed bad luck, a warning of misfortune at best or something graver still at worst. The Black Cats was surely dreamt up by some marketing consultant for Sunderland so as to instil fear into their opponents.

Beware the Black Cats. Although not in their current third tier predicament.

The Black Cats. Destined to strike fear into Sunderland’s opposition.

Meow bloody meow.

But the message was clear. Black cats were definitely seen as a bad omen. It was just what I bloody needed at the start of our trip to Tyneside. I had not seen us win at St. James’ Park since 2009, and our last win up there was in 2011.

I needed all the good luck charm I could find.

And then, just moments after, it just got worse.

A single Magpie flew past.

Sunderland’s menacing Black Cats and Newcastle United’s sorrowful Magpie.

I felt like turning the car around there and then.

But I drove on. I wasn’t going to let such irrationality influence another, hopefully, memorable jaunt to the North-East.

My alarm had sounded at 4.15am, and I collected PD at 5.30am. It was safe to say that we were the only ones on the road. It did not seem five minutes ago since we were last headed to Bristol Airport, and then to Newcastle. Our last league game of last season was of course against the same opposition. The two fixtures were fifteen weeks apart, but in league football terms, just one hundred and eighty minutes apart.

At the airport, we faced a two-hour delay.

Bollocks.

The flight would eventually leave at around 10.45am.

Maybe we should have taken heed of the Black Cat and the Magpie after all.

Not to worry, we soon landed at the airport, took a cab into town and booked into our hotel down on the quayside, right under the darkened shadows of the green ironwork of the Tyne Bridge. We were out and about – “The Slug & Lettuce” – by about 12.45pm. The first three pints of the day – “Peronis” – did not touch the sides. We were soon joined by Andy, a friend from back home, and his good friend Russ, who is a Newcastle season ticket holder, and who we met back in May. Russ and Andy were in the army together, and I have known for a few years that Andy always stays with Russ when Chelsea play in the north-east. We then dropped into the “Newcastle Arms”, a first-time visit for me. Here was another delightful Geordie pub, stripped bare to expose its red brick, but with comfortable chairs and good food too. The plastered walls of dingy pubs of the past have long since been banished from this part of the Toon.

And it is a fantastic little area, right under the high arches of Newcastle’s famous bridge, full of pubs and bars, with rowdiness and laughter, with shrieking females and strutting lads, not so mad as the Bigg Market atop the hill, but a wonderfully evocative location.

On a whim, Russ invited us back to his local pub to continue the drinking session. We were more than happy to head out of the city centre. I, for one, didn’t want this trip to be a simple repeat of the one in May. We hopped into two cabs outside the “Akenside Traders”, and were soon “ganning” over the Tyne, into Gateshead, past Paul Gascoigne’s home town of Dunston and past the Metro Centre. After only ten minutes, we found ourselves in The Sun at Swalwell, where we met the landlord Dave, who quickly bought us a round of lagers.

We chatted to the locals, who were more than welcoming, and we had an absolute blast. We bloody loved it. I chatted to Russ about all sorts of football stories, and the beers and laughter flowed. There was an impromptu photo call with one of the locals, who proceeded to take off his shirt to expose his NUFC tattoos. Bit of a Geordie tradition that, I fear.

Dave, the landlord, was wearing a Bobby Robson shirt. Bless him.

Amid the laughter, there was one sad story. In 2014, two Newcastle United supporters – John Alder and Liam Sweeney – perished when the plane on which they were passengers was shot down over the Ukraine in a sickening act of terrorism. They were on their way to see their team play in New Zealand.

John Alder, who only missed one Newcastle United game in forty years, and who was affectionately known as “the undertaker” because of the black suit that he wore to games, often used to drink in “The Sun” at Swalwell.

RIP Bonny Lads.

Dave bought us a round of Sambucas as a leaving gift and we jumped back into a waiting cab to take us back into town.

At the Redhouse, we again met up with Kev, Gillian and Richard from Edinburgh– no strangers to these tales – and then Alan and Jo from Atherstone. We nipped over the road for a curry, and then the drinking continued at the “Akenside Traders” and then up the hill at the oddly named “Colonel Porter’s Emporium.”

We had been “on it” – and had valiantly stopped ourselves from falling “off it” – for around ten hours.

Although The Toon was still bouncing, we decided to call it a night at around 11pm.

On the Sunday, in an exact copy of May, we breakfasted at “The Quayside” pub. We were first joined by Foxy, from Dundee, who last appeared in these tales for the Barcelona away game, and it was a pleasure to see him again. He had only decided to come down to the game at 6am that morning. I was happy to offer him my one spare ticket. We were also joined by my work colleague Craig who, with his young son, had driven up from Wiltshire in the wind and rain on the day, a horrific journey which had taken him seven hours. Outside, the rain was lashing down. The difference between May and August was black and white.

Four more pints of lager to the good, I hopped into one of the two cabs that took us to the ground.

We took our seats way up in the upper tier of the Leazes End.

Everything was grey, the seats, the stadium, the steel of the roof, the city outside, the hills on the horizon.

We all had jackets on. It wasn’t ridiculously cold, but when the wind blew you knew about it. It was like November in August.

The kick-off approached. There had been changes from the Arsenal game.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante

Pedro – Morata – Hazard

Eden’s inclusion surprised me; Sarri had hinted that he would be rested further.

The Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop” thundered around the stadium, complete with images of Newcastle victories over us in recent seasons on the TV screens. This then gave way to Mark Knopfler’s “Local Hero”, a song which I find particularly stirring. I always remember that after England’s exit to West Germany in Italia ’90, as a precursor to our third/fourth place play-off against Italy in Bari, the BBC team aired a five-minute segment in which the rich and varied talents of the wunderkind Gascoigne were featured, and the instrumental “Local Hero” was chosen to illustrate it. It was as one of the most evocative pieces of imagery that I had ever seen. It captured my imagination in 1990, and hearing the same song, high up and above St. James’ Park in 2018 I was again stirred.

It was just a lovely moment. I stood and looked out over the grey rooftops of the ancient city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and breathed it all in.

Football.

Music.

Mates.

History.

Chelsea.

“It’s not a bad life is it, this?”

I had a little smile to myself, only for myself, but now shared with everyone.

The moment fair took my breath away.

Behind me, the yellow “away” flag fluttered past.

Memories of my first game up in Newcastle in 1984 when Kerry, Wee Pat and Speedo wore the famous “lemon” hoops.

This would be my eleventh trip to St. James’ but nothing compares to my first time.

This little clip brings the memories tracing back.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8yqG0IfPYI

In 2018, Chelsea were in all blue. We were far enough away from the kit for it to look semi-respectable. The Newcastle United kit this season jars a little too; thin stripes, not their style, and white socks too, not their usual black. It did not look right. It did not look like Newcastle United to me. I noted a surprisingly number of unoccupied seats in the directors’ box area of the main Milburn Stand, plus many empty ones in the top tier to our right. The locals’ displeasure with Mike Ashley is obviously continuing.

The game began. A kick on Eden Hazard in the first minute was not punished.

It was quickly evident that Newcastle were quite happy to sit deep. We absolutely dominated possession. With Jorginho and Hazard seeing a lot of the ball, we tried to cut in to the massed ranks of the thin-striped black and white shirts.

Ironically, the only effort that troubled either of the two goalkeepers came from the boot of Murphy, but his low speculative shot was ably saved by Arrizabalaga. A deep cross, into the corridor of uncertainty – which sounds to me like it should be in a hospital where doctors carry out gender-reassignment – from the trust right foot of Azpilicueta could not – quite – reach the not so trusty foot of Alvaro Morata.

We passed and passed. We passed and passed. It was rather one-paced, and not exactly thrilling. But the away fans were in very fine voice in the first thirty minutes of the game. But one song grated, as it always grates.

Rafa Benitez last managed us over five years ago.

If Chelsea fans really do not care about Rafa, why do they bloody sing about him to this day?

How about a song for the current manager or – shock horror – current players?

A song about Rafa, in 2018, is as fucking tedious as it gets.

We still controlled the game, with little quick triangles played in an attempt to create space, or at least a diversion, from which space could be gained. A Rudiger effort was well wide. Hazard curled one past the post. A Morata effort was driven wide. The Toon ‘keeper still had not made a save in anger.

Then, a rare Newcastle effort, a deep cross from a free kick, but Rondon headed well wide.

“Free header, though, Alan” I muttered.

On thirty-four minutes, the home fans eventually raised a song for their home town heroes.

“Newcasuuuuul, Newcasuuuuul, Newcasuuuuul.”

I had never known them so quiet.

In 1984, their mesmeric “Howay The Lads” sent shivers down our spines, and made our knees tremble. But on this drizzly August afternoon in 2018, this was post-modern support at its most timid, lukewarm and insipid.

A Pedro effort cleared the bar. But space was at an absolute premium. Only once did I remember us playing an early ball, out to Pedro, but nobody else reacted quick enough for us to seize an advantage by gambling and drifting past players. After some luxurious tip tap toe shuffling from Hazard, a Pedro shot at last made the Geordie ‘keeper make a save.  At half-time, despite us having so much of the ball, I did wonder if we would ever pierce their defence.

The second-half began with the script unchanged. If anything, Newcastle defended deeper still.

Kante often attacked his area of the pitch, but it seemed to me that this was – at the moment – like a square peg in a round hole. One of the best holding midfielders of his generation, worldwide, being asked to go into uncharted territories seemed odd to my layman’s eyes. In contrast, Jorginho was hardly asked to do much defending, but he acted as a metronome for our play – pass, pass, pass – and I noted that he grew a little frustrated with the lack of movement of his runners ahead of him. Azpilicueta shot at the ‘keeper. And then a heavy touch from Morata and the moment was lost.

On the hour mark, I spoke to Alan.

“This is like a game of chess, but we have too many pawns. We are missing knights, rooks and queens.”

We were missing movement off the ball. We were devoid of pace. Of course, they were closing down all space and suffocating us, but I wanted a little more craft, a little more vision, a little more magic. And we then seemed to stretch them, just as I had wanted. I suspect that the home team were tiring. Hazard and Alonso were now turning their men inside and out.

With twenty-five minutes to go, Olivier Giroud replaced Alvaro Morata.

Then Willian came on for Pedro. There is surely not much to choose between these two wide men.

Rudiger, who had been a calming influence alongside the more tempestuous Luiz, crashed a howitzer against the bar from the southern banks of the River Tyne.

The support turned up the notches.

It was only us making the noise.

The locals were not vocal.

With fifteen minutes to go, Hazard played in the raiding Alonso. From my vantage point – through my telephoto lens, “snap” – it looked like the trailing leg of a defender had stopped him in his tracks.

Penalty.

Eden Hazard flicked the ball past the ‘keeper’s dive and how we – and he – celebrated.

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

Chris Donald : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

Without irony, the Geordies sung.

“Sing when you’re winning.”

Sickeningly, our lead – deserved, surely – only lasted a few minutes. Out on the right flank, an agricultural challenge by Yedlin on Giroud – from our vantage point some five miles away, it looked like a forearm smash, as much loved by Mick McManus and Kendo Nagasaki – and some Chelsea players appeared to stand like pillars of stone, waiting for a free-kick that never came. Yedlin whipped in a cross towards the near post and with David Luiz horribly flat-footed, substitute Joselu headed strongly past our kid to equalise.

“Bollocks.”

The home support at last roared.

The clock ticked on.

With three minutes remaining, a long searching (as in “slightly over hit”) ball found Giroud, who did ever so well to head the ball back towards Marcos Alonso on his wrong wing. He volleyed the ball through the legs of a defender and we watched, open mouthed, as the leg of Yedlin – karma – diverted it into the yawning goal.

“GETINYOUBASTARD.”

Newcastle United 1 Chelsea 2.

A huge celebration took place in the upper section, three-thousand strong, of the Leazes End. We had won our third consecutive league game of the season.

Nine points out of nine.

Well done, lads.

We met up outside the away end, and slowly walked down to the Quayside. The three of us were joined by Raymondo, who tends to favour Chelsea colours, unlike us. As we walked past Sunday evening revelers, lads full of bravado and beer and girls in short skirts and high heels, past bar after bar, a local man in his ‘seventies, spotted Raymondo and approached him. I looked back and saw him shake Raymondo’s hand, wishing us well this season.

Canny people, the Geordies, like.

 

 

At last we had beaten the Geordies.

And, for those upset with my comments about Rafa Benitez, here is a photograph of him walking alone.

 

 

Tales From Hammersmith Bridge To Stamford Bridge

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 18 August 2018.

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

That takes some doing, eh?

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

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

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

Just after kick-off, I was in.

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

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

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

And it felt great.

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

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

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

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

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

And we were then joined by the state of Michigan.

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

And this is the way it should be.

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

My message is crisp and clear.

“You want to want to watch English football?”

“That’s great. Come to England.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

An idle threat?

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

We will wait and see.

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

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

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

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

“Less is more.”

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

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

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

I could not resist.

“Forza Juve, Vinci Per Noi.”

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

I hope they remembered the match.

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

One-nil to The Chelsea.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

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

Aubameyang forced a save from Kepa Arrizabalaga.

I’ll just call him “Save.”

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

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

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

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

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

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

“Phew.”

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

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

Morata forced a save from Cech.

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

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

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

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

“I think so, yes.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

“It’s a pact then.”

We laughed.

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

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

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

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

OK, I was joking about Joe Allon.

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

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

We seemed to tighten our grip on the game.

A chance for N’Golo. Over.

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

“Nuts.”

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

The joy of the moment.

A late winner.

Against Arsenal.

Marcos Alonso.

Fackinell.

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

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

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

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

We finally reached Frome at midnight.

It had been a top day.

See you at Newcastle next Sunday.

Tales From Life In A Northern Town

Huddersfield Town vs. Chelsea : 11 August 2018.

The new league season was upon us. The disappointment of last Sunday’s Community Shield loss was quickly swept under the carpet and all thoughts centered upon our away game at Huddersfield Town. This was a perfect start for me personally. I only missed two league games last season – both due to work – and these were the two trips to Huddersfield and Burnley. I was certainly upset to miss the Huddersfield game just before Christmas because I had never seen Chelsea play there before, either at Leeds Road or their new stadium. In fact, I had only ever visited the town en route to a couple of games at Elland Road in the late ‘eighties. As Huddersfield flirted with relegation for a while, I was pulling for them to stay up. I desperately wanted to cross another ground off, in that worryingly train spotter style of us football supporters. In the circumstances, I loved the fact that the often temperamental league fixtures computer had churned out an ideal match for us to get the ball rolling.

Saturday 11 August : Huddersfield Town vs. Chelsea – 3pm.

It was bloody perfect.

We decided to stay the Saturday night too. I wondered if they might last more than two seasons. This might be my only chance to visit the town for a while. It would give me the chance to have a little poke around the former mill town. A chance to get under its skin. The other lads – Glenn, PD, Parky – hardly needed any persuading. Tickets were purchased, hotels were booked.

We set off from home at 6am. The traffic was light. We drove right through the heart of England and as we neared our destination, the road signs on the M1 were a reminder of a time when we were playing teams in a lower division.

“Leicester, Derby, Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley, Leeds.”

It was the ‘eighties all over again.

The weather had kept fine. It was a reasonable drive. I ate up the 240 miles and we were soon knocking back the first pint of lager in “The Crown Hotel” in the town centre.

Mission accomplished.

The pub was a mix of Saturday shoppers, home fans and a smattering of Chelsea supporters, with only one wearing colours. We stayed two hours and it was a lovely time, apart from the fact that Tottenham, in a lurid green strip, won 2-1 at Newcastle United in the televised game.

We had obviously dissected our chances for the new season during the five-hour drive in the morning. The general consensus was that we thought it might take a while for the new manager to get his players to fully understand the high tempo and high press style of football he wanted. We were pragmatic and philosophical. If it took a few months, even a whole season, so be it. As for predictions, I thought we might struggle to finish in the top four, and hinted at a similar position to last season. Unsurprisingly, I chose Manchester City to win it again, with Liverpool a reluctant pick as runners up. Then, perm any two from Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and us. My gut feeling was a repeat of last season; fifth.

We left the boozer at just after two o’clock, with a nice warm buzz from the four pints of lager. We didn’t go mad; we wanted to be able to savour the game. On the walk to the stadium, a mile or so to the north, the vibe was certainly of a typical Northern town. There was occasionally ornate stonework on some of the larger shops and civic buildings, but all in that rather dull cream hue which is typical of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Nearby, there were old mill buildings and canals. The flow of home supporters in their light blue and white shirts guided us to the stadium. I noted the reintroduction of the Umbro diamonds on their shirts; this time as a trim to the cuffs, unlike the piping which used to adorn the sleeves of our Umbro kit from 1977 to 1981. Hardly any away fans were wearing colours.

Oranges, pinks, light blues, greys, racing greens, dark blues, lime greens, whites, the light beige and cream of Huddersfield stone.

The garb of a typical away fan in the UK in 2018.

In its day the current Huddersfield Town stadium, which opened in 1994, was seen as quite a departure from the more mundane new builds. It originally had just three sides I seem to remember – the away end came at a later stage – and its arched roof trusses were quite unique. A couple of work colleagues, who had visited the stadium on a number of occasions with Swindon Town, had warned me that it was looking rather tired after almost a quarter of a century and was overdue a lick of paint. In fact, I was totally impressed with it. It looked every inch a fine stadium, not unlike the new builds at Bolton and Brighton, and it certainly pleased me. It was nestling beside a hill, festooned with trees. It was a fine sight.

Just half a mile further north is the site of the team’s former Leeds Road stadium, which was a sizeable ground in its day, with its famous Cowshed stand along one side. It was the home of the league championship in three consecutive years from 1925 to 1927, before the manager Herbert Chapman sullied his reputation by joining Arsenal.

It is also, regrettably, the sight of a very sad day in the history of Chelsea Football Club. On the first day of October in 1983, Chelsea won 3-2 at Huddersfield Town, but the day will be remembered when a young student from Stroud in Gloucestershire, Richard Aldridge, was killed during a fracas after the game when he was hit over the head with a pool cue. He was an innocent, sadly caught up in a typical moment of stupidity which was sadly all too prevalent in those days.

A lot of nonsense has been written about football hooliganism over the years, but I am afraid this incident shamefully spotlights the insanity of a large part of it.

Richard Aldridge, a Chelsea supporter and a student from the west of England, attending a game due to his love of football.

The parallels with me are just too scary for words.

RIP.

Thankfully, in 2018, everything was super-relaxed. There was a little good natured chat with some of the locals as we neared the stadium. We talked to many friends in the bar area outside the stadium, which is cut into the hillside. It was great to be back amongst it once more. There is nothing like an away game with Chelsea.

The minutes ticked by.

We had tickets in row F, just behind the goal. The attendance would be around 25,000. We had 2,500 away fans.

The minutes ticked by.

The team had been announced earlier.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz- Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Pedro – Morata – Willian

The skies were clear overhead. A fine day. Not oppressively hot. Just right.

The players entered the pitch.

2018/2019 was just minutes away.

The yellow, yellow, blue of our away kit looked simply stunning. It is a winner. I wish I could say the same for the flecked nonsense of the home kit.

Ross Barkley kicked off the new campaign.

My fear was of 0-0 draw from which no assumptions could be drawn for the season ahead, rather like the Villas-Boas opener at Stoke in 2011.

Over the course of the first quarter of an hour, I quickly spotted that the Chelsea players were very quick in releasing the ball to others. This really was high tempo. It was if the ball was a hot potato. More than two touches and there would be a scalding pain.

Touch, touch, pass. Touch, touch, pass. We were moving the ball into space with Ross Barkley and Pedro especially involved. It was interesting to see N’Golo Kante in a more attacking role. He was afforded a fair bit of space. This was a fine start.

Throughout the opening section of the game, the home fans were making a right racket. Sadly, they were aided by those bloody hideous cardboard noisemakers and there was one monotonous drum in the home half of the end that we were sharing. But there was noise, and the Huddersfield fans should be commended for that.

Willian looked lively on the left, but it was our new ‘keeper from Athletic Bilbao who was forced to make the first real save of the afternoon. He handled a long shot with ease. The home team went close again, and then we enjoyed a little spell.

The Chelsea support was trying its best to counter the noise of the home fans.

“He came from Napoli.

He said fuck off City.

Jorginho – wha – oh.

Jorginho – wha – oh – oh – oh.”

Oh well, at least it is better than the infamous Morata one.

With half-time approaching, Willian raced past his full back and played a ball into the box. Beyond the angle of the six-yard box, the ball ended up in the vicinity of N’Golo Kante. His quick reaction guided the ball goal wards, but not before looping up after hitting the turf.  To everyone’s surprise – not least N’Golo Kante – the ball nestled in at the far post.

Get in you bastard.

Shortly after, Alan and I enjoyed the first “THTCAUN / COMLD” of the new season.

Right after, in virtually the next move of the match, Huddersfield hit the post after a flick-on at a corner fooled everyone.

Just before half-time, Ross Barkley – who had looked nimble and involved – passed to Marcos Alonso with a lovely back heal. Just as the Spaniard was about to let fly, Schindler took him out with an ugly tackle.

Penalty.

The locals were far from happy.

We waited an age.

Jorginho slowly approached, sold the goalkeeper Hamer a ridiculous dummy. It was so convincing that the ‘keeper hopped in to a cab to take him to Halifax.

Jorginho simply slotted the ball into the empty net.

We were winning 2-0.

Love it.

At the break, all was positive in the packed away end. We had hardly peppered the home goal with efforts – far from it – but we were just happy to be ahead. In the first-half, I was impressed with David Luiz. Does the phrase “calm efficiency” seem right? Whatever, welcome back David.

Chelsea dominated the opening exchanges of the second period, with Willian and Alonso getting behind the right full back in front of the main stand time after time. But chances were at a premium. Morata’s movement improved and space opened up a little. A deep corner from Willian was met with a fine leap from the impressive Rudiger, but Hamer dropped to push the ball past his post. From another Willian corner, Rudiger was again involved, with his header teeing-up an overhead swipe from Alonso which skimmed the Huddersfield bar.

It seemed to be all Chelsea.

After a foul on Morata, an Alonso free-kick was smacked too centrally and too high of the target.

On sixty-eight minutes, Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Ross Barkley.

The most bizarre part of the entire game took place right in front of us when our new keeper touched a header over.

“Goal kick” said the referee.

The natives grew even more restless.

A wild shot from substitute Depoitre hardly troubled Arrizabalaga, our new kid in the box.

On seventy-five minutes, Eden Hazard replaced Willian. He looked energised and “up for it” in the fifteen minutes that he was involved. A trademark run deep into the home third set up a square pass to Pedro, who clipped his shot past Hamer.

Huddersfield Town 0 Chelsea 3.

Game, set and match.

I loved the fact that Pedro went straight to Eden and hoisted him up onto his shoulders.

Victor Moses then replaced Pedro. He had been one of our stars. Always running, always smiling, I am a big fan. Another trademark run from Eden was ended with a rugged challenge, and then after yet another run deep into their final third, the ball was played out to Morata who should have at least hit the target.

No further goals followed.

So. That was easy, eh?

My pre-match worries were ill-founded. The boys done good. I especially liked Luiz, Kante and the quiet efficiency of the new boy Jorginho. I also liked the way that our new ‘keeper was actively shouting instructions at corners and free-kicks.

Thibaut who?

The players thanked us for our support, but the new manager Maurizio kept his distance, as did Gianfranco Zola.

Let’s hope we can build on this steady start to the season.

After the game, we wandered back in to town and enjoyed some relaxing drinks at four different pubs and bars, of admittedly varying standards. We ended up in a part of town which was worryingly called the Beast Market.

“Sounds like a nightclub.”

The evening ended with pizza and Peronis in a nearby Italian restaurant. We were sat next to a Huddersfield Town season ticket holder – I have a feeling that his wife was used to him talking football with strangers – and he spoke about his aspirations for the new season. He was hopeful that his team could stay up, but was just enjoying the ride to be honest. I thought it was noticeable that although he had gone to see two England games in Italia ’90, he too had struggled to get too wrapped up in this summer’s World Cup.

We asked him about Leeds United, the wicked witch of West Yorkshire, and – yes – he did regard them as a very special foe. They still dominate the support in that part of the world, and – yes – he couldn’t stand them.

Eerily, he knew the Huddersfield Town fan that had killed the youngster from Stroud way back in 1983.

We chose a few words to sum up the absurdity of it all.

Sigh.

We caught cabs back to the hotel and the night was over.

Our next game is at Stamford Bridge against Arsenal.

I will see many of you there.