Tales From A Very Local Affair.

Chelsea vs. Brentford : 28 January 2017.

We honestly do not have too much to moan about as Chelsea fans, do we?

In the words of the new chant – of which I am not too sure if I am a huge fan – “we’ve won it all.” And indeed we have. Additionally, we currently have a top drawer manager providing wonderful weekly results, a plush new stadium just around the corner and a solid financial base.

But it never ceases to amaze me how many repetitive and downright dull our FA Cup pairings seem to be. I guess we should be used to this. In Europe, it is well documented how often have we been drawn against Barcelona, Liverpool, Paris St. Germain, Porto, Schalke and Valencia in recent seasons.

I hear Tottenham fans shouting abuse from afar : “”We’d love that problem you miserable bastards.”

Quite.

But we love fresh fields at Chelsea.

And along with many fellow fans of a certain vintage, I have reached the stage where I crave new grounds in our quest for further FA Cup glories. Yet, over the past decade, I can only remember a few instances where I was thrilled at the prospect of us visiting a new stadium; Preston North End in 2010, Brentford in 2013 and Milton Keynes Dons in 2016.

Conversely, there have been a dull procession of home FA Cup games. We have played matches against Birmingham City, Everton, Huddersfield Town, Ipswich Town, Scunthorpe United, Stoke City and Watford on two occasions since 2005.

I’m not sure about hot balls, or cold balls, but it would appear that some FA Cup balls are stuck together. Sorry – horrible image.

It was time for a change.

Yet our third round home game against Peterborough United – yep, we played them at home in 2001, what a shocker – was followed by a home tie against Brentford, who we only met four years ago. Sigh.

So. You get the message. Not a new away stadium. Not even a new team at home.

In truth, my head was full of the trip to Anfield on Tuesday night. That trip can’t come quick enough. The Chuckle Brothers are staying a night in Liverpool. It will hopefully be a legendary night.

For our pre-match drinks for the Brentford game, we were drinking in another new pub, “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, a full thirty-minute walk away from Stamford Bridge. I can feel my US friends recoiling at the very thought of that.

Fidget. Fidget : “Thirty minutes? Can we take an uber?”

It’s a big old pub, on several levels, with a couple of snugs and a fine selection of ales, ciders and lagers. Parky told us that it was the venue which used to hold many punk gigs in the ‘seventies when it was called The Nashville Rooms. The Sex Pistols, The Stranglers, The Buzzcocks and Siouxsie and The Banshees all played there. With the new “Trainspotting” film in the news, I was reminded that in the 1996 original, a scene takes place in a flat opposite the pub when the main character Renton tries his hand at being an estate agent. It seems like a pub with a definite Chelsea past, a Chelsea feel. After leaving The Goose recently, I think we may have found a new permanent home, or at least the starting point for a few North End Road pub crawls.

A few Brentford fans were spotted walking down the Talgarth Road and past the boozer. With Griffin Park just a few miles to the west, this had the feel of a very local affair.

On a big screen, the Liverpool vs. Wolves game was being shown. The visitors scored within a minute.

I turned to The Chuckle Brothers and said “I think it’s going to be a good day, lads.”

Just as I was getting a round in, Wolves scored a second and the pub roared in appreciation. What a poor succession of home results for Liverpool. A humiliating loss to Swansea City in the league was followed by a League Cup loss to Southampton. A subsequent loss to Wolves would surely mean that the atmosphere at Anfield on Tuesday would be a little more subdued and a little easier to tame.

We set off in good time for the ground, popping in to The Elm – a first-time visit for me – on the way through. On the walk, we heard that Liverpool had lost 2-1.

Beautiful.

There were six thousand Brentford fans in The Shed, but just two small flags draped over the balcony wall. No streamers. No balloons. No tin-foiled cardboard FA Cups. But it was yet another full house for an FA Cup game. Chelsea fans in respect for FA Cup shock.

The programme cover was another of our retro-styled editions. It was based on an old Edwardian Chelsea Chronicle, and the old pensioner was shown high-fiving Antonio Conte. It was a nice idea, but the line drawing of Conte was really poorly executed. A twelve year-old could have done better. But I love these old-style editions. They’re fantastic.

The manager had changed things around a little, not surprisingly.

Begovic.

Azpilicueta, Terry, Zouma.

Pedro, Fabregas, Chalobah, Ake.

Loftus-Cheek, Batshuayi, Willian.

It was especially pleasing to see Nathan Ake playing for us again. It has been a while. I wasn’t sure about Loftus-Cheek playing in a wide position upfront, but maybe the idea was for him to drift in and support Michy.

The game began. We attacked the away fans in The Shed. A shot from Pedro had them all ducking for cover. The same player, playing wing-back remember, rather than in the forward three, was then blocked as he attempted to twist past his marker. This felt like a great position, possibly for Willian or Cesc. Indeed, it was Willian who curled the ball over the wall and past the Bees’ ‘keeper Bentley at his unguarded near post. It was a lovely goal, and reminded me of the same player’s trademark efforts of last autumn. After the celebrations, I turned to Alan.

We smiled.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Only thirteen minutes were on the clock.

Not long after, we quickly countered with Michy Batshuayi planting a perfectly placed ball at the feet of Pedro – with Reuben Loftus-Cheek running alongside – and it seemed almost implausible for him to miss. Pedro tucked it away.

Chelsea 2 Brentford 0.

We were dominating possession. Brentford were hardly involved. Loftus-Cheek shot wide, Batshuayi went close. Loftus-Cheek rattled a fierce shot at goal, but the ‘keeper arched back to tip over. It was a fine shot and a fine save.

Former prospect Josh McEachran was warmly applauded when he came over to take a couple of corners down below us.

This was another relatively quiet game. There were no lasting bellows of support. Often – to my annoyance – the away fans would chant something, and the Chelsea fans would use it as a catalyst for our own version of the same song. Reactive and not proactive. Using the away fans as our own cheerleaders. Micky Greenaway would not be happy.

Our chances continued to pile up, and Brentford at last tested Begovic.

At the break, Ron Harris and Tommy Baldwin were on the pitch with Neil Barnett. I had forgotten that Baldwin had ended-up at Brentford. During the week, I had spotted an old team photograph of Brentford from when Chopper was a coach. The team included the likes of Chris Kamara, Stan Bowles and Terry Hurlock.

Just like in the previous round against Peterborough United, we were 2-0 up. And memories of our game against Bradford City in 2015 would not go away.

These concerns continued as Brentford began brightly. But Loftus-Cheek, put through by the excellent Willian, thrashed a shot which skimmed the Brentford bar.

At the other end, there was a rare Brentford chance, but the alert Begovic was able to drop to his knees and palm away a loose ball before an attacker could pounce.

There was still very little noise. The loudest chants of the day seemed to be for the now idolised manager Conte. Loftus-Cheek had another shot, which was again deflected wide of the target. It was proving to be a frustrating day for him, but he never gave up.

A rainbow appeared fleetingly above the London skies.

Conte replaced Willian with Branislav Ivanovic. Within just a few minutes, a pass from Pedro set up the substitute. The ball was perfectly played for Brana to swipe home. What a sweet strike. As he reeled away, I wondered if this would be his parting shot, since he has been strongly linked to a move away in this transfer window. His celebrations seemed quite muted. He was playing the cards close to his chest. I wondered if there would be any tell-tale waves at the final whistle.

Batshuayi had been toiling away all afternoon and I wondered if he was at all frustrated that Ivanovic had scored within just four minutes since his appearance in the game.

Kenedy replaced Azpilicueta. Dave – playing to the left of John Terry on this occasion – had been as steady as a rock. To Terry’s right, Kurt Zouma had enjoyed a game in which he was not really tested, but still seems rather stiff and ungainly at times. I am not totally convinced that he might be a suitable fit in a defensive three.

Kenedy, who was full of running on his appearances last season, is now the illustrated man, with his arms blue with ink.

A huge swirl of cloud – turning delicate pink, billowed behind the East Stand. It was an afternoon of easy distraction.

Diego Costa replaced Pedro, probably our finest player of the day. My friend Rick in Iowa has a lovely nickname for Pedro : El Colibri. The hummingbird. It perfectly illustrates his constant fluttering and delicate movement.

More chants aimed at our manager.

“Antonio. Antonio. Antonio. Antonio.”

He did a 360 degree salute to all of the stands.

Man of the moment Ivanovic was fouled inside the Brentford box and Michy Batshuayi grabbed the ball. He comfortably slammed the ball home. His smiling leap in front of me was lovely to see.

Chelsea 4 Brentford 0.

Another home win in the FA Cup.

At the end, my eyes were focussed on Branislav Ivanovic. There were no waves, no claps, no sign that this was indeed his last game for us. He simply strode off the pitch, the day’s job completed. The mark of a true professional.

At various stages in the afternoon, Tottenham were 2-0 and 3-2 down to Wycombe Wanderers, but our day was spoiled when we learned that they had won 4-3 in the last minute.

I hate a sad ending.

img_2256

Tales From Albert Dock And Gwladys Street.

Everton vs. Chelsea : 12 March 2016.

IMG_6470 (3)

It seems to be all about away games at the moment. Whereas home matches at an increasingly sterile Stamford Bridge are continuing to lose their appeal, trips to various away stadia still manage to thrill me. After trips to Southampton and Norwich, here was another classic Chelsea Away Day. Our FA Cup Quarter Final against Everton had all the hallmarks of a very memorable day out in support of The Great Unpredictables.

There was an invading army of six thousand and we were planning on making a day of it.

I collected the usual suspects; first PD, then Glenn, then Parky.

The Fab Four were heading to Merseyside in The Chuckle Bus.

“All aboard.”

As we headed north, the weather was magnificent – blue skies – and the day stretched out in front of us, expectant with moments to treasure.

We were loving the buzz of it all.

“Happy days, boys.”

Six thousand supporters. It was some number, yet there would be similarly large away supports at Old Trafford and The Emirates on Sunday too. Whereas league allocations are always locked at 3,000, at least domestic cup games can evoke times past when away supporters would often travel up to 10,000 strong for league games. For this, I am grateful for the FA Cup. There is nothing better than being in a strange town, and being able to support the club in such numbers.

At Chelsea, we love the FA Cup.

Although my ticket was marked £35, Everton had taken the decision to only charge Chelsea £30 for season ticket holders, to mirror the price they had charged their own season ticket holders; a fine gesture. Additionally, Chelsea had taken an additional £10 off all tickets. My ticket therefore only worked out at £20 plus a £1.50 booking fee.

£21.50 for a Cup quarter final.

Superb.

Of course, there has been a lot of talk in the media about the £30 cap on away tickets to be phased in over the next few seasons. This has been met with unilateral approval; without a substantial number of away fans acting as a catalyst to generate noise from home fans, the atmosphere at games in 2016 would be dead. Although the Football Supporters’ Federation has been campaigning for a few seasons for a “Twenty Is Plenty” limit, one wonders if the sight of ten thousand Liverpool supporters leaving en masse a month or so ago was the tipping point.

After Birmingham, the skies became full of cloud, but there was no rain, thankfully. As we continued to head further north, we replayed Parky’s mix of Northern Soul which served the four of us so well on the trip to Old Trafford just after Christmas.

One of the highlights this time was Judy Street’s “What.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmPb95SUZF0

Just before we passed over the Manchester Ship Canal, I commented to the boys that we had not seen a single Chelsea car, which surprised us all. Then, within a few minutes, my mate Andy passed us.

Onto the M62 and the excitement was rising.

A song from R. Dean Taylor : “A Ghost In My House.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jG700BojpH0

And one from the Just Brothers : “Sliced Tomatoes.”

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

Music and football, music and football, music and football, repeat to fade…

I headed in to town, down the hill past the huge red brick cathedral, and I was parked-up at the Albert Dock at around 1.45pm.

This mirrored the pre-match that Parky and I enjoyed last season prior to our surreal 6-3 win at Goodison. We headed in for a drink at a very busy “Pan Am Bar”, as in 2014. It was crowded, and ridiculously warm. We spun out for a little walk around the Albert Dock, and I found out from Glenn that his grandfather – like my father – had undergone his RAF training at nearby West Kirby on The Wirral. Before our game at Goodison in 2012, Parky and myself had paid it a visit.

We then popped into “Vinea”, a wine bar overlooking the dock. This was all very pleasant. Our party was joined by Kev, down from Edinburgh for the day, and newly arrived from Lime Street.

I ordered pints of “Warsteiner” and awaited for the next guests to arrive.

My friend Kim, visiting from Florida, arrived with her friend Eddie, who – apart from being an avid football fan, like us all – plays guitar in China Crisis, a band who I loved back in the ‘eighties, and who still tour to this day. I saw China Crisis just after I came back from Tel Aviv in November. The song “African And White” had a certain resonance that night. It was a fantastic gig. Kim – who has been working with the band recently – introduced me to Eddie after, and it was a pleasure to see them both once more.

Fate and ridiculous coincidence seem to play an increasingly large role in my life these days. Before the home game with Arsenal in the autumn, I had flippantly thrown the phrase “flaunt the imperfection” into a conversation with my mate Daryl – I forget the context – and Daryl immediately knew that I was referencing a China Crisis album. For a few minutes, we chatted in The Goose beer garden about the band. I had three of their albums; I was a fan and so was Daryl. He had seen them years ago in London. Lo and behold, I briefly mentioned this in my match report a few days after. One or two weeks later, I was chatting to Kim, and I remembered that she had seen China Crisis in concert recently. I wondered if she had read my Arsenal match report and had spotted my brief comment about the band; she hadn’t so I decided to sent Kim the link. At this point, I was completely unaware that Kim was friends with the band. Imagine my surprise when Kim informed me that she was with Eddie at that very match.

Football and music, football and music, football and music.

For an hour, we were able to relax, old and new friends together, and talk about these two great passions of ours. Kim was especially keen to hear how the five of us had all met. Of course, Glenn and I go back to 1977. It’s a lifetime of friendship. I met PD on a train back from Cardiff City in 1984. I met Parky at work in 2000. I met Kev for the first time in Lisbon last season. Eddie, although a Liverpool a season ticket holder for thirty years – the old Kemlyn Road, now the Centenary Stand – was enjoying our tales of friendship and fandom. We spoke about games that we had both attended; the two games in 1986 at Stamford Bridge, Kerry getting injured in the FA Cup tie on a Sunday, then Kenny scoring the championship clincher in May. We spoke of ticket prices, the Liverpool protest on 77 minutes recently, and we occasionally spoke about the antipathy between the two sets of fans.

Eddie : “When did it really start?”

Chris : “That Luis Garcia game. That bloody song about history.”

Eddie : “To be fair, you’ve given it to us since then.”

He was at Heysel and Hillsborough, and he shared a few harrowing tales from those two days. Heysel distressed him so much, that he has not traveled in Europe with his team since. I told him about my friend Mario, Juventus, having a ticket, but not travelling to the game due to an overload of school work that week. Incredibly, Eddie told me that the very first time that he had heard about the deaths at Heysel was when he was back at the airport before catching a flight back to the USA. I found that staggering. These days, the news would be all around the world in seconds.

Eddie was particularly fearful of Everton, with new backers, enjoying an imminent period of dominance in the city. Despite our different allegiances, we were getting on fine.

“Another beer?”

There was limited talk about the upcoming game, though all of us were confident that we could prevail against a typically hot and cold Everton team, whose supporters were starting to turn against the manager Martinez. We were subconsciously dreaming of a Wembley semi-final.

But maybe that was just wishful drinking.

Kev and the boys were talking about further away games at Bournemouth and Liverpool. We might be having a poor season, but these away days are still to be treasured.

Eddie spoke to Parky, the Chuckle Bus’ resident DJ, about music, sampling, and a few other related topics. Somewhere over the hill, past Everton and Anfield and Stanley Park, a game of football would be taking place very soon, but we were enjoying the chance to be together and talk – and laugh, there is always laughter – about football.

I suppose that you could call it a “Crisis Meeting.”

Sadly, we had to move on. Kim and Eddie set off to hunt down a cab, before taking their places in the lower tier of the Bullens Road stand at Goodison in the Chelsea seats. I drove up the hill towards the cranes at Anfield and found a very convenient place to park.

Just £6.

This was indeed a cheap day out.

The walk towards Goodison brought back memories of my first couple of visits in 1986.

We arrived with about twenty minutes to kick-off. I was looking forward to be able to watch the game, for once, without being stuck in the corner, and usually behind the goal line.

By a strange quirk of fate, my seat in row P was directly in front of Glenn and PD. Things were decidedly cramped in the rear rows of the upper tier, with little leg room among the tight wooden seats. Not that anyone was sitting of course. Everyone among the six thousand strong travelling army of Chelsea supporters was standing. I suppose that the split was 60% / 40% with most in the lower tier below. We had heard that the club had decorated each of the 6,000 seats with a Chelsea scarf; a nice touch. And there they were, neatly draped over the seat-backs.

On one side “Chelsea FC” and on the other “Over Land And Sea.”

Maybe the club expected us to hold them aloft, “YNWA”-style, to wind up the Everton fans.

…mmm, that was never going to happen.

So, there we were, perched at the top of the antiquated Bullens Road stand, loathed by some but loved by me, almost on the halfway line, with the haphazard struts and supports of the TV gantry blocking our view of the grand old main stand opposite. Alan and Gary were in the same row, but a few seats along. Their trip to Goodison, on the club coach, was free in lieu of them arriving late at Norwich City last week. The six thousand Chelsea fans were in fine voice.

Away to my right, the classic and old-fashioned Gwladys Street Stand was packed full of Evertonians. I love the way that the Leitch balcony has been left alone, bare, with no advertisements, and no hindrances. I love the way that the stand bleeds into the Bullens Road.

As the teams entered the pitch, I couldn’t even hear the “Z Cars” theme tune.

This felt like a proper cup tie, a proper game of football, a proper football stadium.

What followed was a proper let down.

Our team looked good on paper. Hazard was out, but some would argue that might be a blessing. At least we had Diego Costa, recovered from the PSG game, to lead the line. If he was playing, we would always have a chance of scoring.

We were in all white and attacked the Gwladys Street in the first-half.

A shot from Tom Cleverley was easily claimed by Thibaut early on, and I wondered if that early shot might set the scene.

How wrong I was.

It was such a poor first-half and I can barely recall more than three efforts on the Everton goal. An early effort from Kenedy flew over the bar. There was a Willian effort, charged down by a defender before it had travelled more than a few yards, and there was a free-kick from the same player right at the end of the half, which Robles tipped over. Apart from those two efforts, it was a football desert. As I kept looking up at the BBC commentator – Guy Mowbray? – I wondered what on Earth he had to talk about. We enjoyed a fair amount of the ball, but just looked so bloody lethargic.

Amid all of this, tackles were being ignored on one hand by Oliver, then punished with little rhyme or reason. It was a niggly game of football. The support in the upper tier quietened a little. No doubt they were still roaring downstairs, but I could not hear them.

The most disappointing aspect for me was our lack of movement off the ball. It was so frustrating. I urged Pedro on.

“Come on Pedro, move.”

At that moment – he must have heard me – he spun away from his marker into space and Fabregas played in a lovely ball. Sadly, he overrun the ball and the move petered out.

Everton hardly caused us any real danger, despite Ross Barkley parading the central area with a fine touch. An errant header from Lukaku was the only effort of note.

It was dire.

I wondered what the watching millions at home were thinking.

After the half-time break, in which a racehorse was bizarrely paraded around the perimeter of the pitch – “and I thought I had a long face” – Everton began the brighter, with a Funes Mori header flying over from a corner. Gary Cahill, after his Parisian walkabout on Wednesday, tackled Lukaku in a danger area with superb timing and composure.

As the game continued, the support grew weaker. Everton were quiet too. The game needed a spark. I lost count of the number of times that Matic advanced, taking too many touches, before playing a safe ball square. I lost count of the number of times Pedro cut back on himself. Fabregas offered little. And Everton hardly shone. Lukaku, the threat, seemed to be well marshalled by our central pairing.

Just before the hour, at last a good ball from Cesc found Diego Costa, who did ever so well to hone in on goal, and although he was forced wide, he managed to get a shot in on goal from a ridiculously acute angle. We were sure he had scored. The ball slowly ran across the goal line, virtually all six yards of it, but did not cross the line.

Bollocks.

Oscar came on for a quiet Willian.

We still struggled to break through. A few crosses from Pedro were not met by any threat from our attacking players. Oh for a Drogba or a Dixon. Our unwillingness to shoot really gets me. It eats away at me. Why don’t we do it? Why are we so scared to put our laces through the ball and to cause chaos in opposition defences?

It was the substitute Oscar who tamely lost possession in our attacking third, and we then watched – aghast – as the ball was worked out to Lukaku. With a deceptive turn of pace, he swept inside past Azpilicueta, Mikel, Cahill, Ivanovic, Terry, Desailly, Pates, Harris, McLaughlin, Hinton, Dempsey, Carvalho, Droy, Clarke, Elliot, Thome, Hogh, Wicks, Duberry, Sinclair, Leboeuf and Alex to strike a fine shot past Courtois.

Ugh.

There were just over ten minutes left and we were heading out of the cup.

At last the Evertonians made some noise.

“And if you know your history.”

History. That word again.

Remy for Matic.

“Come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea.”

Four minutes later, with our defence flat footed and half-asleep, Barry played in that man Lukaku again, and his low shot thundered past Courtois.

2-0.

No way back now.

The Gwladys Street were bumping now, making absolutely tons of noise. Although I was silent, annoyed, hurt, I had to admit that it was an impressive sight.

Ugh.

Over on the far side, after a flare up, I saw Diego Costa nudge his head against an Everton player.

“Silly bastard.”

He had to go. A second yellow was waved towards Costa, quickly followed by a red.

A few Chelsea began to leave.

Barry then was yellow carded for a silly challenge on Fabregas and was sent off for this second caution.

The forlorn figure of John Terry replaced Kenedy and played upfront for the final eight minutes.

At the end of the game, only four or five Chelsea players had the balls to come over and thank the travelling away support for our efforts. John Terry looked close to tears. Fabregas and Azpilicueta looked dejected. I knew how they felt.

Whereas we had to hold our hands up on Wednesday against PSG and admit that the better team had won, this game was so much more damning. We hadn’t been up for the fight. Hardly any player did well. It was a tragedy. It was a mystery.

Out in the Liverpool night, we gathered together and slowly walked back to the waiting car. The Evertonians were singing a favourite from 1984 :

“Tell me ma, me ma, to put the champagne on ice, we’re going to Wembley twice, tell me ma, me ma.”

A few youths had an impromptu “set to” on the main road – one lad was punched to the floor – but it soon died down. We walked, slowly on. I found myself walking next to an elderly Evertonian couple – “I mean we’ve been coming here since 1959” – and I wished them well at Wembley.

“I hope you win it.”

This was met with smiles and a word of thanks.

The lady, all bobble hat and teeth, then amazed me :

“I thought it was a good game, like, both teams kept attacking, they didn’t sit back.”

Sometimes, I truly wonder if I watch the same game as others.

It was a poor game and we were a poor team.

We said our goodbyes to Kev, and then edged out of the terraced streets of Anfield.

We stopped oft for a pint in one pub and then a curry in an Indian restaurant, just outside the city, near the rugby league towns of St. Helens, Widnes and Warrington. We had the briefest of post mortems over poppadums, pickles and pints. Then, the long drive home. The first signpost on the approach road of the southbound M6 always puts a shudder in to me after an away game in Liverpool.

“Birmingham 96 miles” – not even bloody half way.

While others dozed, I listened to music, music, music.

The football could wait.

I reached home at 1.30am.

It had been a long day.

IMG_6461

Tales From Lambeth And Leicester.

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 14 December 2015.

In all of my Chelsea days past, present and future, this one would surely stand alone. It would be a day of mixed emotions in two cities, remembering the past, appreciating the present and contemplating the future. At lunchtime, there was the sadness of dear Tom’s funeral in South London, with three of my closest friends. Then, a drive north for an evening match in the East Midlands. In between, and after, all points of the compass; heading east, heading north, heading south, and heading west. A circle of life in sixteen hours.

Sadness, joy, hope, fear.

And Chelsea.

Here are my recollections of the day that we said goodbye to Tom.

I collected Glenn from his house in nearby Frome just after 9am. Of course, despite the sadness of losing Tom, who sat alongside us at Stamford Bridge in the North West corner for almost eighteen years, there was a very tangible element of relief that the Footballing Gods had aligned Tom’s funeral on the very same day as a Chelsea game. Glenn and I were thankfully able to take a day’s holiday to combine the two. Alan, the fellow South Londoner who regarded Tom as his “football Dad” was able to do the same. The moons had aligned and we were so thankful. Alan had commented that Tom would have been livid if the three of us would miss a Chelsea game because of his funeral. To that end, there was a deep contentment that we were all able to attend both. Parky, not quite as familiar with Tom as the rest of us, was collected at 9.45am and we made our way east into London.

We all knew that this would be a testing day.

From my perspective, it was all about Tom.

With the M4 devoid of rush hour traffic, we made good time. We stopped at Heston just as the news of the Champions League draw came through at about 11.15am. Fate had drawn the cities of London and Paris together once again, for the third year in a row. In 2014, great memories of a trip to Paris and a fine Chelsea victory at Stamford Bridge. This year, darker memories with both of the games coming either side of my own mother’s passing. I had already decided that I would not be bothering with an away game at Parc des Princes in 2016 should we draw PSG again. I was nervous enough about Tel Aviv. Paris for a game of football? Thanks, but no thanks.

I pressed on, down the Fulham Palace Road and past Craven Cottage. Over the River Thames at Putney Bridge and further south, I was in relatively unfamiliar territory, but ironically in Chelsea heartland. Outside Lambeth Crematorium, stood Alan, awaiting our arrival. I wound down the window and shook his hand. I gripped it strongly. I was glad to see a sizeable crowd had gathered in the car park.

Also representing Chelsea Football Club were Steve and Frank, faces from our section of the Stamford Bridge stadium, who originally sat with Tom in the old West Stand in the ‘seventies. A hug for Tom’s daughter Debbie, who is now living only half an hour or so from Glenn and myself in Somerset, alongside her daughter Anna, and other family members. We watched as the hearse slowly drove towards the chapel. Heads were bowed.

As we took our seats in the small chapel, “That’s Life” by Frank Sinatra was played.

“That’s life (that’s life) that’s what all people say.
You’re riding high in April.
Shot down in May.
But I know I’m gonna change their tune
When I’m back on top, back on top in June.

I said that’s life (that’s life) and as funny as it may seem.
Some people get their kicks
Steppin’ on a dream.
But I just can’t let it, let it get me down,
‘Cause this fine old world, it keeps spinnin’ around.

I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate,
A poet, a pawn and a king.
I’ve been up and down and over and out
And I know one thing.
Each time I find myself flat on my face,
I pick myself up and get back in the race.”

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

A Chelsea flag was pinned on the platform where Tom’s coffin rested. It was a lovely memorial service. Tom’s story was told. Born in Battersea in 1936, his national service was in Kenya. Tom worked many years for Watney’s, the brewers, in Whitechapel, before moving on to work for Hammersmith and Fulham Council. He lived in Sutton, further south, and was truly a proper South London Chelsea man and boy. The word “Chelsea” in fact dominated the eulogy. His love for the club shone through. It seemed that his TV was perpetually tuned to Chelsea TV.

Of course, no surprises, “Blue Is The Colour” was played in the middle of the ceremony.

My eyes were moist. I am sure I was not alone.

At the end, “We Are The Champions” by Queen – probably not Tom’s favourite, but chosen by Debbie because, well, just because – was played and the curtains in front of the coffin were closed.

We all said a little silent prayer for Tom.

“God bless you mate.”

Outside, there were a few bouquets, but three blue and white floral tributes stood out.

“DAD.”

“TOMMY.”

“CFC.”

12360218_10153812884732658_4469647923026430119_n

Alan, bless him, had planned and purchased the last one, and the words are shared here.

“To a loyal and true blue and friend to many. You are very much missed by all of us who had the pleasure of knowing you. Keep the blue flag flying high in heaven. From your friends Alan, Chris, Glenn, Frank, Joe, Gary, Alan and Steve. Rest in peace Tom.”

After, there was an hour or so spent reminiscing about our own particular memories of Tom at the Leather Bottle pub, a lovely old Victorian boozer, smelling of mulled wine ahead of Christmas. I spoke to his daughter –

“Looking back, I’ve only ever seen Tom in two places. Stamford Bridge and Wembley. That says a lot about our football club the past few years.”

“What I remember about Tom, more than one particular thing, is his childlike and giddy enthusiasm for Chelsea.”

And how true this was. I can picture him now, rosy cheeked and bubbling over with joy as he retold a particular goal, or a described a favourite player. Alan joked that he had a particular dislike for West Ham, maybe born out of the years working at Whitechapel, and how Tom would have got a chuckle out of the West Ham fans in the chapel having to sit through “Blue Is The Colour.”

We were some of the very last ones to leave. At around 2.30pm, I rustled up the troops and looked back at Debbie and Anna as I said “come on, let’s go and win this for Tom.”

I wended my way back through Lambeth, Wimbledon and Wandsworth and over the Thames once more. Out through Hammersmith and past Griffin Park, out towards Heathrow, then a quick stop at Heston to change from suits and black ties to jeans and trainers. North on to the M25, then north again on to the M1. The four of us were on the road once more, following the love of our lives.

Parky, who had opened up his first cider of the day not long after a McBreakfast in Chippenham at 10am, passed a can to Alan who was alongside me in the front. This was a rare treat indeed for Alan, usually cocooned without alcohol, and with little leg room, in a Chelsea coach on away days such as this.

I was now heading north – the second leg of a triangle – on the M1, which was quite an unfamiliar road for me, at least this far south. The rain began to fall, but our spirits were raised with some music from Parky’s Magical Memory Stick. There was talk of the evening game against high-flying Leicester City.

“If someone had asked a thousand football fans before the season began which team out of Leicester City and Chelsea would be on one defeat and which would be on eight in the second week of December, not one would have guessed correctly.”

In fact, the sample size could be increased to 10,000 and a winner would not be found.

I eventually pulled in to the anointed parking place about a mile to the south of the King Power Stadium at around 6pm, just as “Up The Junction” by Squeeze sparked up on the Memory Stick. A little bit of South London in deepest Leicestershire. Without missing a word, Al and and I sang along to every single verse. I turned the engine off. We had arrived.

The rain had eased, and we had a good period of time to relax before we needed to turn our attentions truly to the game at 8pm. There were immediate memories of returning to the car, triumphant, after our 3-1 win at Leicester last May when a rather subdued first-half performance was followed by a fantastic second-half, with goals from Didier, JT and Rami. Fabregas’ hat was never lauded so loudly. It was one of the games of the season. As we marched towards the stadium, all four of us were wise enough to know that a repeat would be a very tall order. Leicester City were ahead of us in the league with good reason; from my viewpoint they seemed to boast all of the very qualities that we had so far lacked in this most disheartening of seasons.

Vim, vigour, pace, confidence, togetherness, fight.

If only Chelsea Football Club had shown even half of these attributes thus far in to 2015/2016.

On the flipside, the team had showed signs of the Chelsea spirit of old in the reassuring 2-0 win over Porto the previous Wednesday. All four of us hoped that Fabregas would again not be selected to start. How that hat has lost its magic since May. We plotted up at The Local Hero, a busy bar, looking out on a car park. The view wasn’t great, but the beers were going down well. My two bottles of Peroni were the first of the day and gave me the chance to properly toast Tom.

We gathered together and Alan took a photograph of the four plastic glasses touching.

“Team Tom.”

With the rain falling again, we quickly moved on.

The stadium was only a ten minute walk and we were soon outside the away end. Leicester City’s stadium is one of those much-maligned identikit stadia which have been built over the past fifteen years or so. Outside, it is nothing special. Inside, although it is neat and tidy, there is not one single design feature which lets you know that you are at the home of Leicester City. How different it is from the lop-sided and intriguing Filbert Street, which once stood not more than a few hundred yards away. Filbert Street’s large main stand and double-decker behind one goal contrasted wildly with the ridiculously petit stands on the other two sides. Ironically, the one feature that sets the King Power Stadium apart from all others is seen only by spectators within the concourses. Oddly, the steps leading up from the ground level to the upper level, double back on themselves to provide a viewing platform of the lower concourse, and from where I got sprayed with beer when over-excited members of The Youth went a bit doolally before the game.

There were familiar faces in the away corner, which seemed to be deeper than that of most of the new stadia. We quickly learned that – yes! – the team was unchanged from Porto. At last Mourinho and the fans were on the same page, even if it did have several names scratched out and then written over again. Alan was especially confident that we would win. I was not so sure. Anything but another defeat for me please.

Kick-off approached and I sensed a palpable air of expectation from the home ranks. The touchlines were lined with youngsters waving flags. The unique sound of the “Post Horn Gallop” was piped through the PA. As the teams entered, the corner section away to my left – I noted they were the noisiest of all back in May – held up shiny blue and white mosaics. I also noted – sigh – that the home fans had been given thousands of those damned noise-makers again.

So much expectation and so much build up, but what a shocking first-half. It left us at half-time fully depressed and lamenting, again, our demise into woeful mediocrity.

As the game began, the home fans were constantly pounding out noise to support their team. We were in good voice too though, quickly singing across to our beleaguered manager.

“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”

Across the technical area stood our former manager Claudio Ranieri, unbelievably back in England with his quaint version of the English language, but also even more unbelievably looking to take his team back to the top of the table.

The lively Mahrez quickly forced a fine save from Thibaut Courtois and I worried every time that Leicester City broke in to our half. There were echoes of last May as Leicester quickly lost a player, Danny Drinkwater (who?), replaced by Andy King (who?) but they never looked perturbed.

We struggled to find any rhythm as the first-half progressed. Our main attacking threat seemed to be – not finding Diego Costa early, nor playing in Eden Hazard – pushing the ball eventually out to Branislav Ivanovic, who tended to take a touch before hitting the back of a defender’s head. As every sideways pass was played, the sense of frustration increased in the away corner.

“Fackincomeonchels.”

Hazard was fouled and received treatment. It is such a rare event to see our Belgian disappear from the pitch, except for a late substitution, that we looked on with horror as he appeared to be too injured to continue. He then seemed to step back on the pitch. But then walked away. There was confusion among the Chelsea fans. I think – I hope – some were jumping to the wrong conclusions.

“Hazard didn’t want to know.”

Regardless, Pedro replaced him.

Then, calamity. A rapid Leicester break out to their right and Mahrez was able to whip in a waist-high cross towards the penalty spot. Jamie Vardy, who else, appeared from nowhere – or rather with John Terry and Kurt Zouma nowhere near him – to majestically volley past Courtois.

“Bollocks.”

That feeling is all too prominent this season. Leicester had harried and chased us all evening but had not created a great deal. One gilt-edged chance and a goal conceded. Here we go again. All eyes were on John Terry really. A player of his distinction should have got closer to Vardy. The away end muttered three thousand swear words.

I turned to a couple behind with a pained expression.

“Confidence is draining out of us at every turn.”

At the other end, miracles of miracles, Matic rose to meet a header, but the ball flicked away off the bar. We were not fooled though. In a first-half of dwindling penetration, our play was tepid. Matic looked slower than usual, and the attacking players around him only rarely provided any moments of intelligent passing.

You know the score, we’re losing.

I’ve not seen so many long faces at the break in a long time. Although it is always lovely to bump in to many good friends at half-time, it seemed that all of us were going through some sort of post-Armageddon zombie-like state, trying to work out how we had reached this stage in our Chelsea life. Some were hiding the feeling through beer, but the sense of befuddlement was still there. Some didn’t even come back for the second-half, preferring to drink and chat down in the concourse with a few others. Grasping at straws, Alan and myself reminded each other that we were 1-0 down at half-time in May.

Soon in to the second-half, Ramires lost possession with a weak header and Leicester moved the ball from wide left to wide right. The mercurial Mahrez twisted in front of Azpilicueta and dispatched a firm shot which elegantly curled past Courtois.

We were losing 2-0.

For fuck sake, Chelsea.

Leicester’s support had mocked us throughout with cries of “going down with the Villa” and taunts of “worst champions we’ve ever seen.” However, much to my chagrin, sections of our away support began singing “we’re fucking shit” which annoyed me. That sort of talk is best left outside the stadium. There was also the self-mocking “you’re nothing special, we lose every week” which would have been funnier if it had been original rather than stolen from other teams’ fans.

All in all, not two of our greatest moments.

But not all was negative. There were no boos for Mourinho. At times our support tried to get behind the team.

Jose made a bold substitution, taking off John Terry and replacing him with Cesc Fabregas. We went with three at the back. The manager sometimes does this, but not usually so far out. Remy then replaced the woeful Oscar. To be fair, we enjoyed a lot more of the ball, but with the home team 2-0 up, they did not need to attack at will. A few crosses caused Schmeichel some moments of worry, but often our crosses were easily dealt with by the massive Germanic forehead of Robert Huth.

There was no doubt that lour play was improving and, with it, the away support rallied too. Now I was truly proud of the away support. The noise roared around the stadium. We went close again and again.

“Get a goal now and we are right back in this.”

The goal came. A delightful cross from an improving Pedro picked out the leap of Loic Remy who headed firmly in past the despairing block of Schmeichel.

2-1.

And the Chelsea crowd roared.

“Come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea.”

The mood was of sudden optimism and of that four letter word “hope.”

“Let’s have a repeat of Geordies away. Two late goals.”

If anything, our goal strengthened Leicester City’s resolve to keep things tight and our players were simply unable to offer further threat. A few late chances were exchanged and despite a further five minutes of extra-time, we slumped to our ninth league defeat of the league campaign.

“See you Saturday, boys.”

As I exited the seats, I looked down to see just Branislav Ivanovic, Cesar Azpilicueta and Thibaut Courtois walk over to thank the loyal three thousand for our efforts on a wet night in Leicester. A lot of us had taken half days and whole days off from work, a lot of us would be back in at work after minimal sleep. Some players would be wrapped up in their warm beds as I would be dropping Parky and then Glenn off in the small hours.

As a quick glimpse at the ailments within Chelsea Football Club at this exact moment in time, the fact that just three could be bothered to walk thirty yards to say “hey, we know we lost again but bloody hell, thanks” speaks volumes.

Maybe we just don’t have that sense of collectiveness anymore. We might be a team, but maybe we are not a family. Maybe the players – despite the quotes of togetherness and spirit – just don’t get on. Maybe there are cliques. Something has to be wrong. Maybe that spirit of 2004 to 2012 is gone and lost forever. And that is so sad.

I soon met up with Glenn and Parky outside and we sloped off back to the car. I was soon spinning around the city by-pass before heading west, then south – the last leg of the triangle – on the M69, the M42, the M5, the M4.

As the night rolled on, I grew tired. I battled the roads.

Our mood was not great. I am sure every Chelsea supporter was equally confused and disappointed with our latest poor performance. Glenn wanted to talk football, but I was simply too tired for that. On a day when we said a final farewell – physically, never emotionally – to dear Tom, it would be easy for me to brush aside Chelsea’s latest capitulation and talk about putting things into some sort of “football, life, death” perspective. However, I am sure that dear Tom, watching from above, would have hated to have seen yet another defeat and I trust he won’t object at all if I say that the loss hit us all hard.

Glenn played me a “You Tube” segment from a post-game interview with Jose speaking about betrayal and my mood slid further.

There is the gnawing realisation that this season will not only be trophy less, but will probably result in our first campaign without European football since 1996/1997. I do not sense that relegation will worry us, but who knows where this season will end?

On Saturday, it’s back to Stamford Bridge and a game with Sunderland.

See you there.

IMG_4779

Tales From A Litmus Test.

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 16 August 2015.

It was around 8.30am. Parky and I were briefly summarising our start to the season, and our hopes for our game at Manchester later in the day. I was being truthful when I told him that I wasn’t looking forward to the day as I ought to be. There was no specific reason, but I suspect that the fear of defeat was breathing heavily down my neck. Was there anything else, more sinister perhaps, to be the reason for my melancholy about another trip north? I honestly wasn’t sure. I know that I have often spoken about the thoughts that I have regarding my level of support for Chelsea Football Club and the – whisper it – inevitably that it might start to wane. As I entered the M4 on the slip road a few miles to the north of Chippenham, I admitted to Parky “that moment will come.”

Like King Canute and the incoming tide, once that moment strikes, there will be little I will be able to do to stop it. As I headed north, with the weather turning sunny one moment and cloudy the next, I wondered if the day, and the key encounter with one of our biggest title challengers, might prove to be some sort of litmus test for my support over the coming season.

I was ready to be tested.

Of course the football season of 2015/2016 was only in its infancy, but there were already thoughts about the madness of modern football, with all of its associated nonsense. At Chelsea, of course, in addition to the dropping of – shock horror – home points against Swansea City, we had to endure the fall out of the “Eva-Gate” revelations during the rest of that first week. Sometimes, I just have to shake my head at the antics of those connected with football. Sometimes I wish it really was “only a game.” As the week unfolded, with respective factions taking pot shots across the bows, I watched from behind my sofa, through my fingers held up to my face, just as many children of my generation apparently did when “Doctor Who” was shown on TV. Oh to be a psychiatrist with Jose Mourinho as a patient, trying to understand his complex personality. Is everything that he does stage managed to perfection? Is everything part of some grand Machiavellian plan? Does he have an “edge” on everyone? Is this desire to lay blame elsewhere a natural or manufactured trait?

In an email to some pals on the Friday, I jested that I would ensure that I was given a parking ticket in Manchester on the Sunday, so that it would give Mourinho something to get the media talking about rather than the inadequacies of his players during a possible defeat against City.

Yes, it had been a crazy first week of the season alright. There had been some daft knee-jerk reactions from parts of the media – lauding Claudio Ranieri after two wins, castigating Dick Advocat after just two losses, even niggling away at Louis Van Gaal after just three shots on goal – but the media’s obsession with Eva Carneiro just about tipped me over the edge. Thankfully, acting as a lovely balance against the madness of modern football and its obsession with the cult of personality, I watched my local non-league team Frome Town eke out a creditable 1-1 draw with a very impressive Merthyr Town side on a lovely Wednesday evening. It stirred my spirits and I almost enjoyed it as much as the Chelsea game against another Welsh side, Swansea City, a few days before.

As an aside, it irritated me that Carneiro was erroneously portrayed as a club physio on at least one BBC news report. The corporation should know better.

Additionally, I have never been able to fathom the hold that Carneiro has on some of our support. Have these people never seen a woman before?

Back to the football.

The trip north – oh so familiar over the past ten years – was going well, but I was still not getting that match day tingle. We drove past The Hawthorns, scene of our last domestic away game in May, and a three-nil defeat which meant little. Up on to the M6 and the traffic was fine. We spotted a Manchester City car, boasting a sticker for the Weymouth Blues. The skies cleared and I ate up the miles. It was a familiar drive in to the city of Manchester and one which has almost become automatic for me; the Manchester Orbital, past Old Trafford, past Salford Quays, past the Salford Lads Club, right in to the city centre.

I parked up at midday, four hours after collecting Parky.

Out in to the bright Mancunian sun, surrounded by the familiar red brick, I suddenly got the kick that I was hoping for.

Chelsea away in a northern city, four hours to kick-off, boom.

The buzz was back.

Fantastic.

Parky and myself spent an hour or so enjoying a couple of bottles of beer apiece in the bar of The Lowry Hotel, right in the heart of the city, overlooking a narrow “cut” of The River Erwell as it winds its way out to Salford and beyond. We had visited this hotel before our famous win at City in the 2013/2014 season – one of the best away days of recent memory – and I suppose it was the superstitious part of me that made me want to revisit. Just as we were about to leave, I spotted the black and gold of an Ellison coach pull up outside the main entrance. This was a sure sign that Chelsea, as I had hoped, had been staying in the hotel. We loitered around for a while, despite the overzealous questioning of a few hotel staff, and were able to wish the players well as they quietly walked through the lobby in their white Adidas tracksuits and on to the waiting coach.

Chris : “Good luck, Eden.”

Parky : “Score two for me today, Eden.”

There was no response, no eye-contact, from him, nor the others. They looked, as you probably might expect on such an important day, focussed and serious. From another direction, came the suited Mourinho, again deadly serious. He looked straight ahead as I wished him well. A gaggle of fans, no more than ten, were waiting outside and only John Terry and Diego Costa had stopped to sign and pose for photographs.

Back at the city centre car park – no word of a lie – a young attendant was sheepishly waiting by my car and handed me a £25 parking ticket.

“I blame Mourinho and his bloody team talk Parky.”

Bollocks.

“Is that a bad omen, Parky? Shall we bugger off home now?”

We were caught in a little traffic, but were parked up in our usual place – a £5 spot at a car wash on the Ashton New Road – only ten minutes from the stadium.

Since the last visit of almost twelve months ago, another Sunday afternoon game, Manchester City’s stadium had been enlarged by a further seven thousand seats, with a high third tier now sitting on top of the south stand. The San Siro style exit ramps still exist at the sides, but the new stand has an encased look, with dull grey cladding at the bottom and windows above. It hardly adds to the aesthetic appeal of The Etihad. Down below, many familiar Chelsea faces were milling around. I met up with Alan and Gary. Alan handed me my match ticket, plus the one for West Brom the following Sunday. It was just after three o’clock. There were handshakes and a few grimaces.

“Take a draw today, son.”

More than one acquaintance admitted that Mourinho had been “a bit of a tit” regarding his outburst against Carneiro and Fearn.

There was ample time for a meet and greet with a few more friends in the bar area of the concourse of the middle tier. Inside the stadium, I was immediately met with the sight of five huge banners, held aloft by helium balloons, yet tethered by some folks at pitch level, announcing the new tier on the south stand. There was quite a festive feel. The new structure would bring the capacity up to around 55,000.

Two things to note.

City have been quite crafty in allowing away supporters into the new top tier too. The support, three thousand strong (at £58 a ticket, no less), was now split in to three tiers, thus making it rather difficult for all of us to synchronise the singing. I always thought that slicing our away section in to two at City resulted in a sub-standard noise level. With three thin sections, piled high upon each other, it would be even more difficult to get our support together.

As I have said before, I have always linked City and Chelsea historically; loyal, yet undervalued support, a sprinkling of trophies over many years, now powerhouses in the new order, with foreign investment bringing new levels of success and expectation. I will watch with great interest to see if City manage to fill those extra 7,000 seats on a weekly basis, what with our new stadium plans taking shape at the moment. It’s a litmus test for City, and maybe one for us too.

The team was announced.

Begovic – Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta – Matic, Fabregas – Willian, Hazard, Ramires – Diego Costa.

The loud PA stoked up the home support, with various players featuring on the TV screens – “I play for you” – interspersed with the faces of fans – “I sing for you.”

“I play for you.”

“I sing for you.”

“I play for you.”

“I sing for you.”

“I play for you.”

“I sing for you.”

I remember commenting on something similar last season.

As the teams entered the pitch, the banners moved infield, and streamers cascaded down on to the pitch from the excited Citizens in the new tier above. With so many sky blue and white streamers filling the air, it reminded me of Argentina 1978.

Alan, Gary and I were in the middle of the middle tier, but right next to the home support.

“Lovely.”

The Chelsea support stood the entire game, which is nothing new.

From the whistle – Diego Costa to Willian – I was in to it.

Reports of my demise had been exaggerated.

Sadly, we lost possession straight away and a sublime ball from David Silva reached the run of Sergio Aguero. We held our breath, but Asmir Begovic saved well.

At the other end, Diego Costa fell in the box but I was unsighted. Down in front of us, City were coming at us at will, but Begovic saved magnificently on two separate occasions from the tormentor in chief Aguero. Our possession always looked like it would soon be coming to an end. A rare Matic header was our only effort which caused Hart to save. City were in the ascendency. Another Aguero chance went begging and as I looked across at the baying City fans, one chap was signalling “it could be 4-0.”

I silently agreed.

Just after the half-hour, the ball found Aguero yet again and he edged himself past Gary Cahill to fire City in front, the ball agonisingly coming off the inside of the far post.

We threatened momentarily, but City had dominated the first period. Our play was laboured and slow. Hazard was quiet. Fabregas, save for a couple of rare tackles, woeful. There were few positives.

Then, in the closing minutes, pure comedy.

An injured Gary Cahill needed attention in the goal mouth down below.

“Oh no.”

On came two unknown Chelsea assistants, scurrying like mad, and attended to our defender. The home sections of the stadium erupted in mirth.

“Sacked in the morning, you’re getting sacked in the morning.”

Only the hardest of Chelsea souls could not find that just a little amusing. I caught Alan having a little smirk to himself. In the lower tier to my right, the City fans were singing “Eva, Eva, Eva.”

After us singing Frank Lampard’s name last season and City singing Eva Carneiro’s name this season, this was getting pretty surreal.

What next?

Chelsea singing the praises of Eddie Large?

Next to receive attention was Diego Costa, clumped by a City defender, but away in the other half. Again, I was unsighted. As he walked off, head bandaged, he seemed to be overly agitated and Ivanovic – I think – had to steer him away from a City player.

At the break, there was the grim realisation that it could have been 4-0 to City. There were long faces everywhere I looked. After dismissing City as a main threat for our title before the season, I was having to re-evaluate, but yet a little voice inside my head kept saying “this is only the second game, don’t judge just yet.”

At the start of the second period, it was announced that Kurt Zouma was coming on as a substitute. My immediate thought was that Mourinho was looking to strengthen the midfield and maybe take off Ramires, put Zouma alongside Matic, and move Fabregas forward.

No. I got that wrong.

Kurt Zouma replaced John Terry.

What?

I had to think back to see if JT had received a knock. That was Gary Cahill injured before the break, surely. I just couldn’t compute that John Terry had been substituted.

Thankfully, much to our surprise, we enjoyed an upturn during the first part of the second-half. The increase in aggression and passion quickly inspired the away contingent to rally. We did our best to support the boys.

A break found Fabregas down below us in the inside-left channel and his lofted pass found Ramires, who controlled the ball and stabbed the ball past Hart. There was an instant roar of approval, but then the gnawing realisation that a linesman had flagged for offside. The City fans alongside us became animated and agitated. They mocked us for our false joy. I just looked across at them and mocked them similarly.

“Alright, calm down for fuck sake.”

Our play had improved since the first-half. Our chances on goal were rare, but we had definitely stepped up a gear.

Mourinho then replaced Ramires, one of the biggest improvements in my mind, with the much-maligned Juan Cuadrado. I am sure that there was a communal shake of the head among the Chelsea supporters inside the stadium and out. Our winger was much-heralded when he signed for us in February for around £24M. Since then, he has disappointed in nearly all of his subsequent games. There is a little part of me who thinks that Mourinho sees him as the 2015 version of Tal Ben Haim, a player so suspiciously “un-Chelsea like” in quality as to warrant the view that Mourinho only bought him, and kept picking him, as a mark of bitterness towards the lack of funds afforded him by the board.

Or is that me being too cynical?

With twenty minutes remaining, and the game delicately poised, a fine move – our best of the match – involving Eden Hazard and Diego Costa almost brought dividends. Diego lost his marker and played in Hazard, who made space well with a typical body shake, but Hart saved well.

We groaned a million “fackinells.”

Radamel Falcao, booed by City for his past season in Salford, entered the fray, replacing Willian, who had begun to tire. There were calls, tongue in cheek, for Falcao to replace Cuadrado. I was always told that it is not advisable to make substitutions before defending a corner. Falcao’s first three seconds of match action resulted in Kompany rising high above Ivanovic.

Bollocks.

2-0.

No way back now.

Insult was added to injury in the last five minutes when Fernandinho fired home from an angle. The home fans exploded in untold glee.

3-0.

Ugh.

In the dying embers, Diego Costa hit the post.

The City fans were in their element.

“Champions of England, you’re having a laugh.”

At the final whistle, a couple of the lads in front of me reached over to shake hands with the City supporters with whom they had been enjoying some good old-fashioned banter throughout the game. It was good to see. Despite a gut-wrenching defeat, I was deeply proud that not many Chelsea fans left before the end of the game.

I met up with Parky outside.

“That’s our second successive 3-0 away league defeat, Parky.”

Parky was with Kev, from Edinburgh, who last featured in these tales on our trip to wonderful Lisbon last autumn. I had managed to get a ticket for Kev before the game, and despite the loss, was full of thanks. Parky, maybe getting a little carried away, was looking forward to relegation and games against Bristol City and Cardiff City.

“Steady on, Parky, it’s not that bad mate.”

Our walk back to the car was alongside joyous sky-blue clothed locals. It was a strange feeling, to be honest. Despite the shifting sands of club rivalries, I still find it hard to genuinely hate City.

I ask you. If Chelsea fall short this season, would you rather that Arsenal, United, Liverpool or Tottenham won it?

Nah.

I wondered what Frank Lampard, in New York, thought about it all.

As with many trips to Manchester, music was in my thoughts throughout the trip. I had opened up the day on Facebook with a few lines from New Order :

“I feel so extraordinary.
Something’s got a hold on me.
I get this feeling I’m in motion.
A sudden sense of liberty.”

After a painful defeat, with home more than five hours away, I quickly decided upon a new update.

On this particular Sunday, it was now time to quote another Manchester son :

“Trudging back over pebbles and sand.”

On the drive south, with parts of the Chelsea supporter base no doubt going in to meltdown, Parky and myself were soon relaxing, enjoying each other’s company and looking forward to the next few games. As we sped past The Hawthorns, we made plans for our pre-match next Sunday. As Parky drank his ciders, I sang along – badly – to some music from the grim old ‘eighties.

I ate up the miles.

I was my usual philosophical self. It had been a tough game, but I was just so proud to be part of it. Hats off to those who continue to travel, to support, to keep the faith. I was so relieved that I had enjoyed the match day experience. I need not have been worried. Maybe the players had failed their test, but at least I had passed my own personal litmus test. I was happy for that at least.

After setting off for Manchester at 7.30am, I reached home at 11pm. It had been a long, tiring day.

Thankfully, I just missed our game on “Match Of The Day 2.”

Next Sunday, a Chelsea goal at West Bromwich Albion will be roared like a goal from our ne’er do well past. The noise will be deafening and the earth will shake.

See you there.

IMG_2288

Tales From The Chelsea Die-Hards.

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 22 November 2014.

Although it was only two weeks since our last game at Anfield, the gap of inactivity seemed a lot longer. Not to worry. As so many Chelsea friends remarked on Facebook, with the home game against West Bromwich Albion cheering us all up, “proper football is back.” I had been relishing Saturday 22 November for quite a while. Not only a Chelsea home league game in the afternoon, but there was a From The Jam gig to attend with some mates in my home town in the evening.

Ah, the twin obsessions of football and music (in that order)…the passions which constantly bring enjoyment to millions of Englishmen (and women). I always used to say that if I met somebody new, either through work or mutual friends, and that person didn’t care for either football or music (in that order), then I knew we wouldn’t hit it off. I think that this still holds true. So, if, dear reader, you have stumbled across this website and your two passions are cricket and cars, or science fiction and soaps, or golf and gardening, it’s probably best that you scarper. And it is probably best that you check your search engines on your computer.

The drive to London was uneventful, but it was just pleasurable to heading to Stamford Bridge again. If the game at Anfield seemed like ages ago, then the QPR home match seemed ridiculously distant. The weather outside was grey and murky; it was, in fact, typical November weather. Before the game, there was a busy period of meeting up with friends in a couple of pubs. It was a pleasure to sort out a ticket for Ryan, a native of New Hampshire, who was visiting Stamford Bridge for the first time on this overcast November afternoon. It was also a pleasure to meet Kevin, an ex-pat now residing in Connecticut, who was back at HQ for the first time for a few years. It seems that every year – every match maybe – my Chelsea family grows and grows. In both pubs, the air was warm and muggy. Outside, too, it was surprisingly mild. The onset of winter was holding off for at least one more day. There was the usual banter in the pub. Yep, proper football was back. Although my interest in international football continues to wane – thank heavens that the third of the international breaks are behind us now – it still throws up occasionally interesting or mildly entertaining stories.

[Clears throat, coughs, adjusts tie and looks around the room to see if anyone is still paying attention]…

Around ten years ago, when I used to work for a different logistics company, I used to book consignments for my client for Spain and Portugal through our office which was based in Dover. The small team in Dover was managed by a chap called Allen Bula, a likeable and affable man, who also used to do some scouting for Dover Athletic. His team was Arsenal, so amid many phone calls from myself which used to involve booking full loads to Madrid, or smaller consignments to Barcelona, Cadiz, or Valencia, there would be the inevitable banter between the two of us. I met him on a couple of occasions. In around 2006, he left P&O Ferrymasters to work for a logistics company in Slovakia called Steeltrans. Allen still stayed in touch and there was the occasional email, but we only used his new company a few times. After a while, I heard that his company were sponsoring the MFK Kosice club, one of the provincial teams in Slovakia. We then heard that Allen was working for Kosice as their football and academy manager. I was suitably impressed. A few years ago, lo and behold, we heard that Allen had landed the job of Gibraltar team manager. Allen was originally from that rocky outcrop at the base of Spain, and we guessed that he had “gone home” to answer the call. Imagine my joy when we heard that Gibraltar had been given full UEFA status and that Allen was now a fully-fledged international football manager. It’s quite a story. Of course, I have been watching Gibraltar’s progress on the international stage over the past two years with growing fondness; some recent heavy defeats have been hard to take, but I’m almost tempted to travel up to Hampden Park to see how they fare against Scotland in the current Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. A recent 0-4 loss in Germany was a mighty improvement after two back to back 7-0 defeats against Poland and Eire.

[This is all very well, mate, but what has this got to do with Chelsea?]…

While at MFK Kosice, Allen Bula uncovered the talents of none other than Nemanja Matic.

So, Allen has gone from freight forwarder to international football manager. He was even featured in a documentary about Gibraltar on Channel Five during the week. There’s hope for me yet. I fancy applying for the Swedish women’s beach volleyball coach. Watch this space.

On the walk to Stamford Bridge, I spotted a facsimile of a World War One recruitment poster which was displayed in the middle of the Fulham Road. The club historian Rick Glanvill was stood close by. What a lovely touch; it was a fine tribute to those young men who gave their all during that most calamitous of conflicts.

DO YOU WANT TO BE A CHELSEA DIE-HARD?

IF SO JOIN THE 17TH. BATT. MIDDLESEX RGT.

“THE OLD DIE-HARDS”

And follow the lead given by your Favourite Football Players.

(Incidentally, I found it interesting that the term “die-hard” was used in this 1914 poster. It is hardly used in England these days, but I do note that it is used more regularly in North America to describe fandom. I wonder why.)

I noted several Chelsea supporters, scarves on – they looked like tourists – heading away from Stamford Bridge, scowling. I presumed that their search for tickets had not been successful.

I made it inside the stadium with just a couple of minutes to spare; phew. I looked around and – yes – the ground was packed to the rafters. Although attendances are often given as sell-outs these days, the more attentive fan can soon spot the odd empty seat here and there. On this occasion, with no home game for three weeks, Stamford Bridge was bursting. It is no wonder that those fans outside were looking miserable.

Again it was a very settled Chelsea team. The regulars were there. From Thibaut Courtois in goal through the spine to Diego Costa at the front, there was stability. It was a reassuring line-up. Not much had been said about the game thus far. There was the memory of the lucky 2-2 draw last season when…come on, let’s admit it…we were gifted a penalty after a “foul” on Ramires, but my view was that a win was vital, if not 100% expected.

Chelsea began well and John Terry forced a fine save from Ben Foster in the Albion goal after just four minutes. After eleven minutes, a cross from Oscar was played in to the penalty area. From my position, watching in the MHU, it seemed that not only me but the entire West Brom defence presumed that Diego Costa had strayed offside. In one movement, the striker chested the ball down and volleyed home. Offside, right? I hardly moved, let alone celebrated. But there was no flag and no whistle. Goal.

We were 1-0 up and I had hardly celebrated. Weird times.

Chelsea then peppered Foster’s goal, with Costa coming close on two further occasions, the second of which went agonisingly close. On nineteen minutes, a short corner was played in by Fabregas to Hazard, unmarked, and the Belgian maestro settled and shot low. It was as easy and as simple a goal as I have seen all season.

2-0.

On this occasion the Albion defence were again sleeping. This was very promising.

In an undoubted reaction to Jose Mourinho’s comments after the QPR game, the home crowd were in excellent form during this period of the first-half. It was lovely to hear. I joined in with gusto. In my mind, every fan should leave a game with a sore-throat. There was a dirty sky above, but a great atmosphere inside Stamford Bridge.

The positivism sweeping the stands increased further when Claudio Yacob – who? – was sent off for a horrible lunge on Diego Costa. The crowd roared.

Some of the football that Chelsea played in that sumptuous first forty-five minutes was just wonderful. The range of passing, the movement of the players, the fluidity, the style…it really was mouth-watering. Was it the best of the season thus far? Yes. In the middle were the two ever-presents; the intelligent brain and skilful passing of Cesc Fabregas and the tireless running and blocking of Allen Bula’s boy Nemaja Matic.

I commented to Bournemouth Steve : “Matic is just the sort of player that Arsenal have been crying out for.”

A couple of Foster saves towards the end of the first-half denied us further. With the score 2-0 in our favour at the break, and with the visitors down to ten men, there was a high degree of expectation for a sack full of goals in the second period.

Sadly, the second-half rarely reached the heights of the first period. Nemanja Matic was especially profligate, but our long-range shooting was very poor. Foster continued to make some great saves and blocks, but the West Brom players – neatly stationed in two deep banks of four, with the much heralded Berahino a lone striker, hardly involved – maintained a great shape throughout the second-half. I guess it was all a little anti-climactic really. And I hated myself for thinking it.

Yes, Chelsea are playing some lovely stuff at the moment and – yes – we are everyone’s championship tip, but I’d hate to think that I was taking any of this for granted. I was just glad that Ryan and Kevin, the visitors from afar, got to enjoy that blistering first-half display, plus the two goals, down at their Shed End.

I made great time on the drive home and was back in Frome at around 8pm. As Parky and I strolled in to the Three Swans, with an evening of music from our youth ahead of us, the excitement was palpable.  I met up with a few other Chelsea mates – Glenn and PD – and a few school friends – including Fran, he of the Anfield game in 1992 – and also a few friends from my school days who I haven’t seen for over thirty years (“do you still support Chelsea?”)

It was a stupendous evening. From The Jam, including original Jam member Bruce Foxton on bass, were in great form, playing the Setting Sons album in its entirety before treating us to all of The Jam’s greatest hits. The beers flowed and the laughter rung out. I always smile when I go to watch my local team, Frome Town, and the teams come on to the pitch to the sound of The Jam’s “Town Called Malice.” That song, plus all the others, made us sing and made us dance.

It was one of Frome’s greatest nights.

Football and music.

That’s Entertainment. IMG_9958 Dedicated to the memory of John Neal, the manager of Chelsea during my favourite ever season of 1983-1984. Rest In Peace.

Tales From No Nay Never Land.

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 18 August 2014.

My first ever Chelsea game took place in 1974. I’ve detailed that match on a few occasions before. I don’t think it’s being too pompous for me to say that it changed my life. On that day in West London, I became part of Chelsea Football Club. The abiding memory of Ian Hutchinson’s high leap at the North Stand end and scoring past the Newcastle ‘keeper is a strong one.

IMG_9399

I occasionally wear the “Chelsea the Blues” scarf that my mother bought me after the game. I still occasionally flick through the tattered 5p programme. That game was a key moment in my life.

As the last few months of last season progressed, I kept calculating – and recalculating – if I would reach my one thousandth Chelsea game before the end of the 2013-2014 campaign. Sadly, we fell one match short. We just ran out of games. Our defeat against Atletico Madrid – match number 997 – meant that there would be no Champions League Final in Lisbon for me to celebrate my landmark moment. Games against Norwich City – 998 – and Cardiff City – 999 – left me hanging, stranded over the summer, awaiting news of our 2014-2015 fixture list. I wasn’t tempted with any of the pre-season friendlies. There would be European trips in the Champions League to savour instead. I’d best save my money for those. I didn’t fancy hitting one thousand against Real Sociedad in a home friendly either. Nope, I’d wait for the league opener. Our first league game of 2014-2015 would be it.

Number one thousand.

I silently hoped for a home match. I love my synchronicity and a game against Newcastle United – our opponents on 16 March 1974 – would have been perfect.

Alas not.

Burnley away it was and Burnley away it would be.

Not exactly Lisbon is it?

As the summer meandered by, with the World Cup in Brazil an enjoyable distraction (but nothing more than that) my focus gradually turned towards the opening weekend of the new season. Fate had dealt us travelling fans a rough hand. Our game – over two hundred miles from HQ – was to take place at 8pm on a Monday evening.

Sigh.

I booked a half-day as soon as the fixture change was announced, and waited.

Thoughts about the new season centered on our new players. How would they settle in? Which of the new acquisitions would we immediately “take to” and fully embrace as Chelsea players. For some reason, we regard some of our players as “more Chelsea” than others. Is there any fathomable reason for this? Is it due to personality rather than talent? Is there some secret unquantifiable element to some players’ psyche which endears them to us more than others? I wanted the new season to begin; I wanted to assess Diego Costa’s body language, Cesc Fabregas’ demeanour, Filipe Luis’ passion and Thibaut Courtois’ personality in addition to their playing strengths.

The summer of 2014 was imbued with a healthy dose of positivism in the Chelsea camp. There was a general feeling of hopeful optimism among the Chelsea ranks, both locally in the UK and elsewhere. There was a feeling that a fine new team was taking shape, with a healthy competition in all positions. Prolonged debates were held over the relative merits of our twin goalkeeping giants. Some loanees were brought back to the fold. Others were passed over. Meanwhile, Chelsea fans in Nerdistan were getting all sweaty at the thought of Didier getting his number 11 shirt back.

Predictions? I kept telling friends that we had a great chance to win the title for the first time in five years. My guess was that it would be between us and the new powerhouse in Manchester.

“Between us and City. Too close to call. But those two teams will be clear of the rest.”

Elsewhere, I was wondering if my passion – for the want of a better word – for football was subsiding a little. I always have these troublesome worries every summer; that the next season could be the one where football loosens its grip and I go off and live a more sedentary lifestyle. For example, I had already written off the twin games in the North-East this winter…too far, too much money, within one week of each other. I was thinking about knocking Man City on the head too; 4pm on a Sunday, stuff that. Due to a change in my working hours, plus the need to assist with the care of my mother who has dementia and arthritis, European and domestic midweek games might take a hit this year too. After all these years, there has to be a moment when Chelsea means that little bit less, doesn’t there?

Doesn’t there?

We’ll see.

A few weeks ago, I saw one of my favourite bands Stiff Little Fingers in Bath. I enjoyed it, of course. However, I had only seen them in Exeter in April and I explained to my mate Pete that I was having trouble getting “up” for the gig. Two SLF gigs in four months had resulted in me questioning myself, and inevitably comparing my ability to get “up” for football. In a nutshell, I don’t ever want Chelsea to be a chore. Let’s see how this season goes.

At 2pm on Monday 18th August, I set off from my home town in Somerset. Alongside me were Glenn, PD and Parky. I allowed four-and-a-half hours to reach Turf Moor, sheltering beneath the bare moorlands of The Pennines. After only a few miles, PD selected one of a few compilation CDs that he had brought for the trip. Parky slipped it in the CD player. The first track?

“One Step Beyond.”

The others knocked back some ciders.

We were on our way.

In truth, it was a dreadful trip. Just shy of Birmingham, the signs on the M5 warned of slow-moving traffic ahead. For two hours, the traffic slowed. It was a grim trip North.

Accelerate – brake – slow down – stop – wait – moan – accelerate – brake – slow down – stop – wait – moan – accelerate– brake – slow down – moan – stop – wait – accelerate – brake – slow down – stop – wait – accelerate – brake – slow down – stop.

With each passing mile, I could see the pained expressions on my fellow travellers worsening and worsening.

“I can see why I don’t do too many away games now.”

We sighed when “I Don’t Like Mondays” was played not once, but twice, on two consecutive CDs.

Bristol Tim was ten miles ahead of us and advised us to avoid the M62 around Manchester. This always was my plan. Thankfully, the traffic quietened after the signs for Liverpool and then Wigan. I veered off on to the M65, past Blackburn, and the sudden release of a clear road resulted in me venting my pent-up frustration on my accelerator pedal. I almost took off on a brow of a hill. The music CDs were from the punk / ska / mod revival days of the ‘eighties and I wondered if a Stiff Little Fingers – yeah, them again – song would appear before Burnley.

They didn’t let me down. Racing past Accrington, I sang along to “At The Edge” and I smiled…

“It’s exams that count not football teams.”

I’ve only ever visited Burnley once before; that 1-0 win back in 2009-2010, when a John Terry header created headlines just as the Vanessagate story surfaced. In all honesty, that solitary trip to the heart of Lancashire was one of my favourite trips of that season. Our paths have rarely crossed in the league. Those two encounters in 2009-2010 have been our only games against Burnley since 1982-1983. Glenn and PD were yet to visit Turf Moor. Parky had been once.

At 7.30pm, I eventually parked up. It had been a tedious journey; if I’m honest, one of the worst in those forty-odd years.

Turf Moor was reached in around ten minutes. The weather had been changeable en route. At least the rain held off as we raced to meet Gary, who had tickets for Glenn and PD, outside the away end. Burnley, a small town of around 75,000, could well be the stereotypical northern town. Its grey stone buildings exude weather-beaten bleakness. Its mills have closed and it faces unemployment and austerity. Racial tensions have blighted the area’s recent social history. However, at the heart of the city, possibly binding it together is Burnley Football Club, league winners in 1920-1921 and 1959-1960. On the wall outside Turf Moor is a collage of former players. Just along from the away turnstiles is a fuzzy photo of ex-Chelsea midfielder Ian Britton, caught in an ecstatic pose after scoring a goal which helped keep the team in the Football League when they faced relegation in 1987. Ian Britton, after Peter Osgood left, became my favourite Chelsea player as a child and he is well respected by my generation. Meeting him after an old boys’ game in 2010 was a real thrill. Today he lives in Burnley and is fighting a battle against prostate cancer. Everyone at Chelsea wishes him well.

Gary was full of moans because the match programmes had all gone. He too, like hundreds of others, was snarled up on the M6 too. I said “hi” to a few mates and headed inside with only minutes to spare.

Despite the evening kick-off, some four thousand Chelsea foot soldiers had battled work commitments, family pressures and the motorway network.

We were there in force.

We had the entire David Fishwick Stand; a single-tiered structure dating from the early ‘seventies, full of surprisingly wide wooden seats. Parky and I were right behind the goal in the front row. I looked around and spotted a few mates. A nod here and there.

The Chelsea choir were in fine voice.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, from a corner this time, rather than from the centre of our stand as in 2010, the home fans in the opposite stand held up claret and light blue mosaics:

“OUR TURF – BFC.”

The clouds were gathering overhead and the evening was turning murky.

Within seconds, the teams appeared.

The big news was that Thibaut Courtois was starting ahead of Petr Cech.

Elsewhere, Cesar Azpilcueta held off the challenge of Filipe Luis and started at left-back.

Cesc Fabregas lined up alongside Nemanja Matic, with a “three” of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Andre Schurrle, whose last competitive game was the World Cup Final.

From the Maracana to Turf Moor.

Upfront was the swarthy Diego Costa, our new number nineteen, looking trim and no doubt eager to impress.

To be honest, the pleasure of the first sightings of all these new Chelsea players was balanced by the realisation that my mate Alan, my away match companion for years now, was not at the game. He was unable to get time off work. He doesn’t miss many. It felt odd not seeing him.

It also made me feel sad for me to report to Parky that I did not know a single Burnley player. Long gone are the days when I could reel off the starting eleven of most teams in the top division, maybe even a few in the old second division. The Burnley team of my childhood featured players such as Leighton James, Frank Casper, Peter Noble and Bryan Flynn. They were a cracking team. I think I almost had a soft spot for them.

I have strong memories of that old open terrace at Turf Moor, packed with spectators, with those bleak moors behind. It is a shame that modern football stadia now separate the game and spectators from the immediate setting of the club. I always enjoyed seeing the buildings which abutted old Stamford Bridge, or the trees over in Brompton Cemetery. They added to the character of a stadium.

The game began. My view of the match was through the nets of the near goal. Despite the close proximity of several stewards I was able to snap away with impunity. A little drizzle fell.

Chelsea were roared on by the away contingent, virtually all standing.

A couple of chances were exchanged before the home team took the lead. Our defence was caught flat-footed and a ball was played into the box where the waiting Scott Arfield, given time to take a touch by the closest defender, drilled a rising ball hard past a possibly unsighted Courtois. I was right behind the path of the ball. The net rippled a mere fifteen feet away.

Turf Moor boomed.

This was not good. This was not how this was meant to be.

“Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea.”

The home support, with memories of an opening day victory over Manchester United in 2009, was laughing, but they were not laughing for long.

Within minutes, an attack resulted in Ivanovic drilling in a low cross which bizarrely evaded everyone, before rebounding off the base of the far post. Luckily for us, it fell right at the feet of the waiting Diego Costa who slashed it high into the net.

Phew.

Our new striker couldn’t have wished for a better start to his league career at Chelsea. The thoughts of Fernando Torres at this exact juncture would have been interesting to hear.

A blue flare was set off to my right.

Within minutes, another Chelsea goal.

Eden Hazard, afforded time and space, ran at the home defence before setting up Ivanovic. His pass in to the waiting Cesc Fabregas was met on the volley by our new Spanish midfielder. His fantastically weighted ball into the onrushing Andre Schurrle made me gasp. It was simply magnificent. It disrupted the time space continuum. It was sublime.  Schurrle slotted in and we were 2-1 up. In the away stand, we erupted.

I turned to a chap behind me:

“Whatafackinball.”

So mesmerised were the Burnley players by this incredible feat of fantasy football, which defied all spatial logic and temporal reasoning, that they suddenly found themselves in the 1930’s wearing heavy cotton shirts, chasing shadows in blue, and calling each other names such as Grimsdyke, Ogglethorpe, Sidebottom, Blenkinsopp, Eckersley, Butterworth, Snotter and Crump.

Never mind his Arsenal past; in one special moment, Cesc Fabregas had arrived.

For a while, we purred.

Diego Costa was then booked for a dive in the box, according to the referee, after he broke free.

Alan, watching in South London, texted me.

“Penalty that!”

Not to worry, a third goal was soon scored by a dominant Chelsea. A Fabregas corner evaded everyone and Ivanovic prodded in from close range.

3-1 and coasting.

The Chelsea choir aired an old favourite from the late ‘eighties.

“OLE, OLE, OLE, OLE – CHELSEA, CHELSEA.”

With the team on top, the noise continued with loud songs of support for heroes past and present; Frank Lampard, Dennis Wise, Peter Osgood, Willian, Diego Costa.

With the new ‘keeper in earshot…”Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut!”

A quick nervous wave was cheered by the away fans.

The oddest moment of the entire night was the continued sight of the blue-shirted number 8 playing for Chelsea; the slight body of Oscar. On many occasions, my mind quickly saw Frank Lampard, so engrained is he in my football memory.

I met up with a few of the usual suspects at the break.

“A few more goals, boys?”

“I’m confident.”

Parky had predicted a 4-1 win.

“I fancy six.”

“Definitely more goals to come.”

Sadly, the second-half was a let-down. The undoubted highlight was the fine leap and finger-tipped save from our young ‘keeper which stopped Blenkinsopp from scoring. The noise fell away and at times Turf moor was silent. Jose Mourinho rang the changes with Willian and Mikel replacing Oscar and Schurrle.

The two sets of fans exchanged a volley of antagonistic, lame and predictable chants at each other as the game wore on.

“Where were you when you were shit?”

“Here for the Chelsea, you’re only here for the Chelsea.”

“We support our local team.”

“You’ve had your day out, now fcuk off home.”

“Your support is fookin’ shit.”

It was abuse by numbers and the home fans soon gave up, preferring to turn their attention to their most hated, local, rivals.

“And it’s no nay never.
No nay never no more.
Till we play bastard Rovers,
No nay never no more.”

Didier Drogba had sprinted past me – a mere ten feet away – at the start of the second-half and the sight of him, so close, thrilled me. Indeed, all eyes were on our returning hero throughout his warm-up and subsequent appearance as a late substitute for Eden Hazard. One sublime touch and volley wide was a hint of his prowess, though if I am honest, I was as surprised as anyone to see him return to Chelsea.

At the final whistle, I watched as the management team, with the substitutes, walked across the pitch. They acknowledged our support. There was a shake of the hand from Mourinho for Diego Costa. Torres and Costa shared a joke. Petr Cech, smiling too, bless him. Didier threw his shirt in to the crowd and there was a mad scramble.

Outside, we assembled.

“We’re top aren’t we?”

“Yeah, top, deffo.”

We walked back to the waiting car amidst subdued locals. Ahead, another long journey was waiting.

Thankfully a sudden downpour on the M6 amounted to nothing. My spirits dived when I saw a sign for Birmingham (not even half-way home) :

100 miles.

The roads were quiet. Only fools – and Chelsea fans – are out in the small hours of Tuesday mornings.

Eventually I reached home at 3am.

Here’s to game 1,001.

The Story So Far : 

Played – 1,000

Won – 578

Drew – 227

Lost – 195

For – 1,817

Against – 934

IMG_9359

Tales From A Day Of Pints And Points.

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 1 January 2014.

Outside, the rain lashed against the van windows in irregular gusts. The damp winter air was shrouded in a deadening blanket of dense cloud. There were many puddles of dirty grey rain water alongside roadside kerbs and pavements. The streets around Southampton Central train station were virtually deserted. The station car park was practically empty too. The New Year was only eleven hours old and the game was still four hours away, but here we were; ready for the first Chelsea match of 2014.

While it may be true that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, one wonders if anybody or anything accompanies Chelsea fans in a late morning downpour in the middle of winter.

Ducks, maybe.

“Nice weather for ducks.”

“Right then boys. Shall we go for it? Head up to the first boozer and shelter there a bit?”

“Let’s go.”

Glenn had collected me at 9am and Parky had been picked-up from an equally deserted Warminster station at 9.30am. The A36, a main trunk road which links Bath with Southampton, was almost devoid of vehicles. For once, there was no traffic jam in the city of Salisbury. However, it was 10am on New Year’s Day; what other idiots would be out and about at that time?

Chelsea fans, ducks, mad dogs and mad ducks.

The first pub – “The Encore” – was closed until midday.

“Oh great.”

“Let’s just aim for the main drag, then. Button up.”

The brisk walk from the station took us close to the city’s large civic centre, where I once saw Everything But The Girl in 1999, and which has a rather stunning white stone Italianate clock tower. It reminded me of a few of Mussolini’s brutal civic buildings in Italy.

Ten minutes later, having been buffeted by the wind and rain as we pitifully scampered across roads and pavements, we arrived at “Yates’s.”

“This will do, chaps. Base camp. Becks Vier for you Parky?”

We soon found a cosy corner upstairs and settled ourselves for three hours of drinking and community singing. Outside, looking through steamed-up windows, pedestrians were rare. The rain continued to fall. It seemed that every person baring the elements was headed for “Yates’s” too. The central area of Southampton was badly bombed by the Luftwaffe during World War Two; the result is a strange mix of open green space where buildings originally stood and a charmless shopping centre.

The pub soon filled with match-goers. Chelsea fans were in the majority. There were a few familiar faces from near and far. Very soon, the music began pumping out some songs much loved by the football-loving clientele.

The Jam, The Clash, Madness, you can guess the rest.

“Another pint, Chris?”

“Be rude not too, Porky.”

With Glenn driving, this was a chance – at last! – for me to unwind and enjoy a few game day liveners.

Soon, the Chelsea fans downstairs were singing along to “It Must Be Love” by Madness.

“I never thought I’d miss you
Half as much as I do.
And I never thought I’d feel this way.
The way I feel
About you.
As soon as I wake up
Every night, every day.
I know that it’s you I need
To take the blues away.”

Ah, the “Blues Away.”

Love it.

In the adjacent booth, five foreign student types – presumably unused to an English match day vibe – were giggling to themselves at the sound of two hundred Chelsea fans singing about love, love, love.

Next up, “The Liquidator” and the whole pub was up.

“We hate Tottenham. Chelsea!”

Then, later, K.C. and the Sunshine Band got an airing.

“Michael Essien, Essien – Michael Essien.”

Rob, Graham, Dan and Kirsty – all from my home area – joined us. I last saw Graham on the lookout for tickets to the final in Amsterdam. It was great to see him again. Then, from down below, a loud voice took the lead for “Chelsea Alouette.”

Then “Three Little Birds.” I remember the Chelsea faithful singing that particular song – and meaning it – just down the road at an equally rain-soaked Fratton Park in 2010 when our league campaign took a sudden jolt with a fantastic 5-0 win. Good times then, good times now.

2014 was off to a good start. I was loving every minute of it.

At 2.15pm, we set off for the stadium, past the park, through the subway, past some down-at-heel shops. Thankfully, the rain wasn’t quite so strong on the fifteen minute walk to St. Mary’s. We were soon inside.

“One last pint, Parks?”

The youngsters serving pies and pints were wearing special blue Chelsea t-shirts; a nice touch, I thought.

The area beneath the away stand at St. Mary’s is a particularly dark and dismal place, but the Chelsea fans weren’t worried. The songs were coming thick and fast.

Inside the bowl of the stadium, the floodlights were on, the spectators were assembled and I giddily made my way to join up with Alan and Gary right behind the goal. It looked like virtually every seat was sold for this one. Chelsea were in good voice as the teams entered the pitch. Hopefully the game would follow our 5-1 F.A. Cup win last season – almost a complete year ago – rather than the lame 2-1 defeat in the league a few months after.

The rain was still falling. Despite being under the cover of the roof, we experienced the occasional splash of windswept rain. I pitied the poor fellows in the first few rows. At the same stadium in 2002, in similar circumstances, I was one of the unfortunates getting drenched down the front.

I quickly glanced at our starting eleven; with a few forced changes, we knew there would be a different selection from against Liverpool. Notably, in came Juan Mata, Andre Schurrle and Fernando Torres.

We began very brightly, with Fernando Torres the immediate star, dribbling his way into the Southampton penalty area on a number of occasions. Shots from Schurrle and Ramires, after a fine dribble from deep, suggested that the songs emanating from the Northam Stand would soon be replaced by cheers. However, I couldn’t help but notice that our play seemed to be mainly down our left flank. Very often Juan Mata, in acres of space out on the right, was not picked out. I felt his frustration. Slowly, our dominance seemed to fade as Southampton, strangely minus Ricky Lambert, grew more dominant. A succession of timely interceptions and brave blocks kept Southampton at bay.

On the terraces, there were plenty of songs.

Chelsea : “We’re the only team in London with a European Cup.”

Saints : “Johnstone Paints Trophy – you’ll never win that.”

Chelsea : “You’re only here for the Chelsea.”

Saints : “Live round the corner, you only live round the corner.”

At the break, I squeezed in another pint.

“I’m only here for the Carling.”

With us now attacking the three thousand predominantly neutrally-dressed away followers – I’ve never seen so few wearing Chelsea colours, Gourlay must hate us – we hoped for greater things in the second-period. Soon into the half, the manager made changes, replacing Schurrle and Mata with Willian and Oscar.

The away end was soon up in arms.

With Oscar clean through inside the penalty area, charging in on Davis in the Southampton goal, he attempted to push the ball to the ‘keeper’s right. He appeared to be swept off his feet and, in that split moment of thought, I was shouting with glee at an obvious penalty rather than being upset that he had not scored. I watched as Martin Atkinson reached for a card, so my immediate thought was “sending off or at least a booking for the ‘keeper.”

Well, we were incandescent with rage when – instead – Oscar was shown a yellow for a dive.

Soon, however, the texts came in to say that the little midfielder had indeed dived.

Oh you silly boy.

I was just filled with disbelief.

Surely…just try to bloody score?

On the hour, the same player jinked and weaved in from the left and his chipped effort was pushed onto the far post by a scrambling Davis. The ball bounced back into play and Torres was able to readjust quickly to head home.

1-0 Chelsea.

Get in!

The Chelsea fans screamed delight.

The supreme irony of no Chelsea striker scoring away in the league throughout 2013 and yet Nando taking just an hour into 2014 was not lost on me, nor the three thousand other away fans at Southampton nor the countless millions around the globe.

Chelsea : “You’ve had your day out. Now fuck off home.”

Southampton brought on Lambert to replace former blue Jack Cork. The bustling centre-forward was soon involved, but Chelsea added to our lead on seventy minutes.

Oscar enjoyed another lovely run, with gorgeous close control, to the edge of the “D” and then picked out Willian. A quick body swerve to throw the defender off balance and a fine low shot found its way inside the corner of Davis’ goal.

2-0 Chelsea.

More screams of pleasure.

Chelsea : “Gone to the sales. You shoulda gone to the sales.”

More Chelsea pressure followed and Oscar capped a fine performance with another run into the Southampton box following a lofted ball into space from Eden Hazard. He struck quickly this time and the ball took a slight deflection before ending up in the Southampton net.

3-0 Chelsea.

With that, there was a mass exodus.

Chelsea : “Oh when The Saints go walking out.”

With three points secure, there was just time for a cameo from Michael Essien and the chance for us to serenade him with his own personal song.

“Give it up” for The Bison.

Lovely stuff.

The Mourinho magic – the substitutions, early in the second-half – were perfect. It’s unlikely that two substitutions will pay off so perfectly again for a while. Oscar and Willian added fresh drive to our team. They were simply superb.

Christmas 2013 and New Year 2014 had been excellent. We had tasted victory on three occasions and had shared the spoils at a title contender’s home stadium.

Ten points out of twelve.

Not perfect, but bloody good enough.

Just to complete the perfect away game, the DJ at St. Mary’s chose – bizarrely – to air a favourite song from the pen of Stephen Patrick Morrissey as we slowly descended the crowded steps. Alan’s face was a picture. And so was mine…

“You have never been in love until you’ve seen the stars reflect in the reservoirs.”

Sometimes, some moments are just there to be savoured.

I think 2014 is going to be fine, just fine.

See you at Derby.

IMG_4123