Tales From A Day Of Heroes

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 5 November 2017.

It was approaching 4pm and I was walking towards Stamford Bridge a little earlier than usual. I wanted to ensure that I was nicely settled before the annual display of remembrance that Chelsea Football Club always does so well, but which would take place a full six days before Saturday 11 November and a whole week before Remembrance Sunday. We had already stood for a minute of silence at Bournemouth last weekend to show our appreciation for those who had fallen while serving in our armed forces. It is right that football pays its respects. With each passing season, the displays become more impressive. I am sure that twenty years ago there was just a toot of the referee’s whistle, a minute of silence, and that was all. There was, of course, nothing wrong with that. I would hate to think that clubs want to “out-do” each other – that is surely not the point – but at the moment the balance seems to be just right.

I had purchased a paper poppy in the morning, but as so often happens, I soon managed to lose it as I walked down the North End Road. I then purchased a “1917 – 2017” enamel badge from a serving soldier underneath the old Shed wall in the early afternoon. I would have felt naked without a little splash of red on such a day.

As I approached the CFCUK stall outside the Fulham Town Hall and opposite the Fulham Broadway tube, I called in to say “hi” to a few of the Chelsea faithful. I chatted to Neil. Our paths have crossed a fair bit of late. I admitted that there seemed to be a general air of nervousness around the streets and pubs – I had visited three of them, but was on driving duties so was limited to “cokes” – and on the drive up to London, I think that the general view was “anything but a defeat.” But then I turned a little more optimistic.

“Imagine we get a win, though. It’ll be celebrated like the Chelsea of old. Say we win 1-0 with a goal in the second-half. The place will go wild.”

With a smile, I went on my way.

Thankfully, we had heard that N’Golo Kante had returned from injury and there were a few other changes too. Davide Zappacosta was in at right back. Andreas Christensen was in. But there was no David Luiz amid a sniff of a bust-up with Antonio Conte. There was no place for the wide men Pedro and Willian. But Bakayoko and Fabregas retained their spots. As I headed inside the stadium, I decided to wait until I saw the players line up at the kick-off before I could fathom out the shape of the team to face Manchester United.

Ah, United. I had picked them to finish in second place this season, behind their City rivals and ahead of us, but they have faltered lately. All three of us expected a defensive game-plan from the ultimate pragmatic strategist Mourinho. After two defeats at Stamford Bridge last season in league and cup, a third defeat for Mourinho’s new charges would be a tough pill to swallow.

But we lived in hope.

In the other Sunday games at the top, City continued to impress with a win against Arsenal while Spurs crawled over the line against Crystal Palace.

While wolfing down a McBreakfast in Melksham, we spotted two replica-kit wearing Arsenal fans, a father and young son. They were off to Manchester.

“Is it your son’s first away game” I enquired.

“No, no. We go to all the games. I’m teaching him to be a thug” – and a loud laugh.

I turned to PD and Parky and rolled my eyes.

Once I heard that Arsenal had lost 3-1, I quickly thought of Thug Life and Thug Lite and hoped that they were suffering a thoroughly miserable return journey from The Etihad.

I was inside Stamford Bridge at just after 4pm. A quick scan of the away end. A couple of flags from the visiting hordes caught my eye.

“Immerse Me In Your Splendour.”

Yet another musical reference from the United support; this time The Stone Roses.

Another one was a little more basic and direct : “UTFR.”

The Chelsea flags were out in force too. Over at The Shed, the white banner with a red poppy was on show again:

“Chelsea Supporters Will Remember Them.”

The place filled to capacity.

It had been a busy day for me, flitting around, taking a few photographs, soaking in the atmosphere, “tut-tutting” at friendship scarves.

Earlier, I had met Janette – visiting from Los Angeles – in the Copthorne Hotel, but her visit back home to England was heart-wrenchingly emotional. Her brother, who I had briefly met a few seasons ago in The Goose, has been ill with cancer for some time and is now in a hospice in South London. It was difficult to know what to say. The two of them recently celebrated their birthdays – on consecutive days – and I am sure that this brought a small but priceless morsel of joy in tough times.

Janette certainly touched a nerve when she admitted that it would be fitting for him to leave as a “champion.”

It was good to see Janette again, albeit in tough times.

With ten minutes to go, with no real introduction, “Heroes” by David Bowie was played. It provided the understated backdrop as members of the armed forces carried a large banner on to the centre-circle, then stretched it out. A Chelsea crest and a scarlet poppy was featured and it mirrored a large banner pinned to the upper heights of the hotel above The Shed.

This was just right.

“I, I will be king.

And you, you will be queen.

Though nothing will drive them away.

We can beat them, just for one day.

We can be heroes, just for one day.”

It brought back memories of Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode singing the same song as his tribute to David Bowie at the concert I saw at the London Stadium in the summer. In the opposite corner of the Matthew Harding, another large flag bearing club crests and a poppy appeared over the heads of supporters. On the pitch, members of the air force, army and navy stood between large letters denoting “Chelsea Remembers.”

Just enough.

The teams appeared from the tunnel. I looked up to see a few Chelsea Pensioners in the East Middle. A penny for their thoughts. The teams walked past the poppy in the centre circle. The red of the visiting United team seemed apt on such an afternoon.

Then, a few moments later, the shrill sound of the referee’s whistle.

Silence.

Not a sound.

Perfect.

I hoped that a few Chelsea heroes would shine on this bristling afternoon in West London, but the focus was really on the heroes who have gone before and on those who protect us today.

I turned once again to football.

Nemanja Matic received a pretty decent round of applause from the home supporters. Not so much the opposing management team.

The game began.

It took me a few moments, but it looked like we had packed the midfield, with Eden Hazard playing off Alvaro Morata in attack.

So much for a dour and defensive game. After Rome – I still contend that we were well in it until the second goal was conceded – I was absolutely gushing with praise for the way that the manager had re-energised his troops. It was a breathless start to the match.

The returning hero Kante struck from distance within the first few minutes, but De Gea saved easily. Then, with us breaking at pace, Marcos Alonso crossed into the box and from my position one hundred yards away, the ball was seemingly steered into the United goal by Morata. I celebrated wildly, but soon realised that the goal had been disallowed. Offside? Handball? A foul?

At the other end, Rashford – full of running – dolloped a ball over Courtois but on to the roof of the net.

With Romelu Lukaku attacking our end, I was reminded how much weight he has put on since he was with us. He is a huge unit. With a touch of a refrigerator.

United struggled to cope with our energy and vibrancy in the first-half. I loved the way that we pressed every United player caught in possession. The constant nibbling by Kante and company meant that United players struggled to get the ball under control, and were forced into errant passes, which were pounced upon by our players. From the off, Andreas Christensen was so cool on the ball. Davide Zappacosta stretched out the United defence with a few gut-busting runs down the right.

But the star, even early-on, was N’Golo.

Although I had not been drinking, I soon exclaimed –

“Kante I fucking love you.”

His selfless harnessing of the United threat enabled Bakayoko to gallop forward. At once, the new purchase looked like the player of September and not October. He looked to be enjoying himself too. A shot wide from a Zappacosta pass hinted at greater things from him. Another shot soon followed. Cesc Fabregas, playing deep at times, played the ball short, then long, then high, then angled into space. I purred at the sight of Alvaro Morata’s first touch. It was sublime. One pass, shades of Rene Higuita’s scorpion kick at old Wembley, was ridiculous.

Over in the far corner, United were remembering a night in Moscow.

“Viva John Terry.”

A rare shot from Lukaku was saved by Courtois.

I was really in to this game.

“Close him down. Great pressure. Play it square. Use the width. Go on son. Go on. Touch it. Pick a man. “

A firm effort from Hazard was pushed out by De Gea but Fabregas, following up, never looked like getting his header on target from an angle.

United sang “Twelve Days Of Cantona.”

The Chelsea choir then really got our act together towards the end of the half.

“Carefree, wherever you may be…”

Deafening stuff.

No goals in the first-half, but I was oh-so pleased and proud of our performance. At that moment in time, I had to laugh when I thought that some sections of the media were talking about our manager either –

  1. Not enjoying life in London.
  2. Losing the trust of some of the players.
  3. Being in a strained relationship with Roman.
  4. Losing his motivational edge.
  5. Close to getting the push.

What a load of cock.

Doug Rougvie was on the pitch at the break, and a clip from 1984 of that tackle with Viv Anderson on his debut at Highbury was shown on the TV screen. What memories.

Eden Hazard was constantly getting fouled – assaulted, molested, chopped – throughout the first-half and it continued in the second-half. Phil Jones – a player more famous for pulling faces than his footballing abilities – was rightly carded for such a foul. That horrible little player Ander Herrera, a latter day Nicky Butt, then fouled Hazard and his name was taken too. The noise levels were raised.

Fabregas played in our little Belgian but his opportune volley on the edge of the box was straight at De Gea. Was this turning in to Roma all over again?

Just after, a deep but perfect cross from the trusty Spanish boot of Cesar Azpilicueta picked out the unmarked leap of Alvaro Morata. I was amazed how much space he had. He jumped, so gracefully – shades of Peter Osgood – and headed the ball back across the goal, so that it nestled, quite beautifully, in the far corner.

Pandemonium in SW6.

There was the goal. It was what we deserved. Morata raced over to the corner, followed enthusiastically by Bakayoko and posed a la Fernando Torres in Amsterdam as an archer.

What a moment.

Not long after, The Bridge was in unison.

“Super Chelsea FC…”

We continued to dominate, but the game changed as first Mourinho brought on Fellaini and Martial. Antonio replaced the tiring Zappacosta with Rudiger, his Roman moment forgotten.

“Rudi, Rudi, Rudi.”

We continued to pepper De Gea’s goal. There were shots from Bakayoko and Hazard. United looked tired and listless. They resembled us in 2015/15. We were still firing on all cylinders and – ironically – reminded me of the Ferguson team at their peak in around 1998, when their midfield terriers chased all game long. Matic? I thought he was very poor. As leggy as ever. Lukaku was hardly involved. In fact, hardly any United players warranted more than a 5/10 apart from De Gea. This is simply not a typical United team.

And for once, the usually noisy and vociferous away support were very quiet. I heard an occasional song mocking Merseyside, but that was it.

Danny Drinkwater added some solidity – alongside N’Golo for the first time since Leicester City – and replaced the majestic Fabregas, who was given a standing ovation. His performance was a real surprise after floundering of late.

N’Golo kept going and going and going and going. He was our star.

It then got a little nervy. No, I tell a lie, it got very nervy.

Mourinho regurgitated an old Chelsea tactic of his – memories of Robert Huth and John Terry playing upfront in the final few minutes – and his players lumped the ball high towards Fellaini and Lukaku. There is no doubt that Fellaini is useful in the air, all elbows and afro, and he did cause us some shaky moments. A rasper from Rashford flew past the far post.

We held our breath.

In the very last few minutes, the oh-so-predictable Fellaini equaliser looked to cruelly rob us of a deserved three points. Thankfully his swivel and volley was pushed away by our man Thibaut.

“What a save.”

Still chances came and went.

Willian – on for Hazard – played in Morata but with only De Gea to beat, he fell over himself and the chance went.

United were awarded a free-kick, centrally. I mused that it was a bloody good thing that David Beckham no longer wears their number seven shirt. Rashford’s effort was belted over, but a deflection meant that we had to endure a further corner.

It came to nothing.

On an afternoon when Chelsea Football Club showed the same indomitable spirit of last season, the simple shrill sound of the whistle was met with a resounding roar. It had been our most rounded league performance of the season, and I was just so proud.

Crisis. What fucking crisis?

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Tales From Saturday’s Boys

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 28 October 2017.

The Chuckle Bus bumped and swerved through picturesque tree-lined country lanes en route south from Salisbury to Bournemouth. There had been a road closure on the usual direct route, so Glenn – the driver – was forced into a Plan B. Sitting in the back of his VW Chuckle Bus, I was tossed around like a buoy on the ocean wave. I craved for dry land so I could steady myself.

It wasn’t a day out on the South Coast in the April sun of the two previous seasons, but The Chuckle Brothers were still happy to be on our way to Bournemouth on a pleasant autumnal morning for our tea-time encounter with the underperforming Cherries. We would be spending a lot of time in each other’s company over these last few days of October. There is a trip to Rome coming up for PD, Parky and myself. And the four of us had spent a very enjoyable evening together on the Friday night; for the third time in three years, we saw From The Jam in Frome’s much-prized musical venue, The Cheese & Grain (terrible name, great setting for music.) Over the past ten years or so, I have seen a fantastic array of gigs there; The Damned, Stiff Little Fingers, Glenn Tilbrook, Big Country, Toyah, Inspiral Carpets, The Blockheads, Hugh Cornwall and Grandmaster Flash. Not bad for a small town with a population of just 27,000. Famously, Frome hosted the Foo Fighters this year. It’s a town which continually punches above its weight and I bloody love it.

It was a brilliant gig, featuring the bass player from the iconic band The Jam, Bruce Foxton.

All the old favourites. The place was truly rocking.

“Saturdays boys live life with insults.
Drink lots of beer and wait for half time results.”

Yes. That’s us alright. The Saturday boys.

Once parked-up in Bournemouth, we only had to walk for five minutes before we found ourselves in the same pub as last season, The Moon On The Square. We walked past the hotel where the team, and a few lucky supporters, had stayed on the Friday night. We had missed another “walk in the park” by the players, but we were not too bothered.

We spotted a few of the usual suspects and sat ourselves down for around four hours of chat and laughter.

I was still feeling sea-sick from the voyage down on the Good Ship Chucklebus, so my first couple of pints were non-alcoholic.

An hour later, I was on San Miguel. Everyone was chilled and relaxed. There was a nice vibe.

The news that United had beaten Tottenham was met with a shrug off the shoulders, but Glenn observed that a win at Bournemouth would put us just a point behind Tottenham.

At 4.30pm, with other scores confirmed and with no real surprises, we caught cabs to the Vitality Stadium a mile or so to the north.

This was my second football match in the county of Dorset within five days. The day before our League Cup game with Everton, I drove down with my old friend Francis – school, five-a-side football, concerts, football – to watch my local team Frome Town play at Weymouth. Frome have been playing in the Evostik Premier – formerly the famous Southern League, once a rival to the Football League itself – for seven seasons now, but I was yet to visit Weymouth’s Wessex Stadium. It was a fixture that I was longing to tick-off.

We had a blast. A real blast. It seemed like a proper away game. We had both attended the reverse fixture at the start of the season, when a quick and skilful Weymouth handed Frome a crushing 4-1 defeat. The visiting away fans from the resort town on the Dorset coast bolstered the crowd to over 400.

The drive down took about an hour and a half. The fog thickened over the last few miles. We prayed that our first visit to their stadium would not end with a postponement. This would be a tough old game. Weymouth were on a six-game winning run. After a poor start, Frome have enjoyed a recent resurgence in the league.

But just the buzz of an away game was enough. I loved it.

Weymouth are a large club within the non-league scene. Somerset and Dorset are two counties which are certainly not known for their footballing heritage, but there are signs of growth. Yeovil Town, with a rich history and a county-wide catchment area was promoted to the Football League in 2003. For many years, The Glovers were the best-supported non-league team in the country. They were promoted to the heady heights of the Championship a few seasons ago – quite a story – but are now in the Second Division. I keep a look out for their results, nothing more than that. They remain my home county’s sole members of the Football League. To ignore them would be plain rude.

It could have been a very similar story for Weymouth over the past decade or so. They too have always been very well supported. Until Yeovil Town, their fierce rivals, joined the footballing elite, Weymouth too enjoyed a large catchment area. There were no Football League teams nearby. Exeter City was fifty miles to the west, the two Bristol teams were seventy miles to the north and Bournemouth was forty miles to the east. They have a neat stadium on the edge of town. It holds a creditable 6,600. They are a Football League club in terms of set-up, support and “clout.” Previous managers over the past fifteen years have included Steve Claridge and our own John Hollins.

We had passed through Dorchester, just fifteen minutes away from Weymouth – another sizeable club with better-than-average gates with a fine stadium – and I remembered my trip there in 2015 with Frome when a 1-1 draw was a fair result. I always remember that a “Chelsea XI” opened-up Dorchester’s new stadium in 1990.

When Weymouth visited Dorchester this season, over 1,500 attended.

In this footballing backwater of England, in a straight line from Yeovil through Dorchester to Weymouth, maybe there will be a continuing resurgence. I certainly hope so.

Francis and I enjoyed a pre-match lager in the club bar and then made our way into the seats of the impressive main stand. We shared some chips. The misty rain threatened. The pitch was greasy, but immaculate. It was a perfect night for football. High above the pitch, which has old-style covered terracing on the three other sides, we were able to watch unhindered as Jake Jackson prodded the ball home on eighteen minutes. Frome put in a fine performance for the rest of the game. Nobody had poor games. At half-time, we walked all around the stadium, and bumped into some of the forty or so away fans who had made the journey. Buoyed by cheap admittance prices for children – taking advantage of half-term – the attendance was a healthy 805. In the closing minutes, the home team threw everything at the Frome goal. Their ‘keeper twice came up for a corner. One Weymouth effort was cleared off the line. We were under the cosh. Another corner followed, deep in injury time, and the Weymouth ‘keeper volleyed straight at his Frome counterpart Kyle Phillips, who miraculously saved. What drama. But more soon followed as the ball broke and Frome substitute Darren Jeffries found the ball at his feet with the entire pitch ahead of him, with a chasing pack of Weymouth players, proper Keystone Kops, huffing-and-puffing behind him. From thirty yards out, he steadied himself and swiped at the empty net. We watched as the ball trickled over the line. It was hardly Fernando Torres in the Camp Nou, but it brought the same guttural roar from myself.

Weymouth 0 Frome Town 2 – bloody fantastic.

I honestly cannot remember a better Frome Town performance.

It had proved to be a hugely enjoyable first-visit to Weymouth. Driving away, I joked with Fran that it reminded me of my first-ever trip to Old Trafford in 1986 when Kerry nabbed a late winner.

You can’t beat a good away game, at any level.

The cab dropped us right outside the neat Bournemouth stadium. Its capacity is listed as 11,360. It seems even smaller. There was contradictory talk from a couple of locals during the day about the club’s plans to either enlarge the stadium or find a new location. The problem is that the ground is in the middle of a residential area. I’m not so sure it could cope with an extra ten thousand visitors on match days. To be frank, the current set-up is crying out for a return to terraces at both ends, increasing the capacity to around 15,000 and seeing if that would suffice. Of course, that will never happen. Maybe a new build, further out, is the logical conclusion.

We were inside with a good thirty minutes to spare.

The players were doing stretches and shuttle runs. After a while, I noted four of the substitutes – Ampadu, Cahill, Drinkwater, Christensen – laughing and smiling as they knocked the ball about between them.

Player unrest at Chelsea? No evidence of it there.

Clearly “bullshit.” Ask the manager.

The team?

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger

Zappacosta – Bakayoko – Fabregas – Alonso

Pedro – Morata – Hazard

Although my bag was thoroughly searched outside the turnstiles, and my camera waved in, my position in the second row, next to the exit – surrounded by stewards and police – made me wonder if I would quickly be told to put my trusty Canon away. Thankfully, I was able to snap away to my heart’s content.

One-nil to me.

The game began.

Chelsea in a reverse of the home kit.

White – white – blue.

We dominated possession in the first-half, with Zappacosta overlapping well down the right, and Morata freeing himself from the attentions of the Bournemouth defenders, who of course included our very own Nathan Ake. The steward next to me said that he hasn’t set the world alight since his move to Dorset. In goal was Asmir Begovic and he was much busier of the two ‘keepers. Pedro slashed high after a run into space, but this was our only real chance of the first fifteen minutes. The Chelsea support started in good voice. Saturday boys bemoan the movement away from traditional 5.30pm kick-offs, but love the fact that it results in more beers and more boozy songs. Bournemouth’s attacks were rare and David Luiz, especially, always seemed to do enough to keep trouble at bay. He was ably supported on his flanks by Rudiger and Azpilicueta.

A miss-kick by Begovic ended up at the feet of Eden Hazard, who set up Alvaro Morata, but he inexplicably shot wide when the entire Chelsea support of 1,200 were seemingly celebrating the net rippling.

The home fans to my left chortled :

“You thought you had scored, you were wrong, you were wrong.”

It was the loudest they would be all evening.

Just after, a Luiz shot was blocked and Morata bundled the ball in, only for an offside flag to be raised.

Another chorus of “You thought you had scored, you were wrong, you were wrong.”

The Chelsea choir belted out some old classics throughout the first period; there were songs for Matthew Harding, Dennis Wise and Salomon Kalou.

Bakayoko, his hair now a ridiculous shade of blue, was not as involved as I would have liked. The game was passing him by. And Eden was having a quiet one. Another chance fell for Moata, but Begovic saved well. Although we were dominating play, there was a spark missing. There were no groans at half-time, but we knew we had to step up in the second period.

With Chelsea attacking “our goal” in the second-half, I was able to witness as close hand the speed and skill of our attacking threat. On fifty-one minutes, a mistake by a Bournemouth player was pounced upon by Hazard. He advanced on goal, shot with unnerving accuracy at the near post with his left foot and we roared as the net finally rippled.

GET IN.

Eden’s run towards us – tongue out, slide, swagger – was caught on film.

I moaned at Eden’s inability to grab the game at Selhurst Park by the scruff of the neck, but he had done so under the floodlights at Bournemouth. The celebrations on the pitch were mirrored by us just yards away. I love the fact that the pitch is so close to the fans at the Vitality.

However, rather than push on, we allowed the home team a few half-chances as the game wore on. The appearance of substitute Callum Wilson was heralded by the home support as the second coming of Christ. I wondered what he had in store for us.

A lovely ball by Hazard, sometimes playing deep, in the centre, set up Pedro but his return pass was blasted over by Eden.

Into the final quarter, I kept thinking “bloody hell we are making hard work of this.”

Danny Drinkwater replaced Pedro for his league debut.

Michy Batshuayi replaced Morata.

A similar run to Hazard’s goal found him deep inside the Bournemouth box but his movement ended up being blocked by resolute defending. He then set up Fabregas, in close, but his shot was blasted over from an angle.

Willian replaced Hazard with five to go and looked willing to punish the home team further. His sudden bursts are the last thing that tiring defenders need late in the game. However, as the minutes ticked by, I almost expected a late equaliser. Bournemouth, to their credit, kept going and in the last few minutes a shot was easily saved by Thibaut. It would be, I was to learn later on “MOTD” his only save the entire game. We deserved to win, no doubt, but a 1-0 margin is always a nervous ride. I immediately likened it to our narrow 1-0 at Middlesbrough last season.

After the Roma draw, I hoped for three consecutive wins. Thankfully, we got them.

Ah Roma.

The eternal city awaits.

Andiamo.

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Tales From The Working Week : Friday

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 12 May 2017.

Our week of work had begun with a win against Middlesbrough on Monday evening. This was a pleasing and reassuring performance; an easy 3-0 win – the second in succession – and it meant that we needed just one more win at West Brom on the Friday to secure our sixth League Championship. My Friday started well. The first four hours flew past. But then, as I noted hundreds of Chelsea supporters heading up to the West Midlands, the time slowed to a standstill. It was as if everyone else’s burst of freedom compared miserably to my last four hours of work. It seemed that I was the very last to head north. At 3.30pm, I eventually left work. As I reached the village where Parky lives – only a ten-minute drive away – “Three Lions” by The Lightning Seeds was booming out of my car. We were looking to bring the Premier League trophy home. It seemed wholly appropriate. Soon after, Glenn and PD arrived. Glenn had kindly agreed to drive up to The Hawthorns. We poised for a photo outside Parky Towers, with “Vinci Per Noi” fluttering in the breeze. There was a hint of rain in the air. At around 3.45pm, we set off.

“Let’s Go To Work.”

There was a threat of rain throughout the drive north and this added a little gloom to my thoughts of what might happen over the next few hours. For a few moments, I wasn’t optimistic, but I kept my feelings to myself. Elsewhere in the Chuckle Bus, the mood was good. I blamed it on the cider.

Glenn made good time, and we were soon turning off the M5 at around 6pm. As always, we use the parking facilities at the Park Inn – where I am reliably informed that Chelsea used to stay for their games at West Brom in days gone by – and we soon met up with a few familiar faces. We guzzled back two pints of lager and chatted to a plethora of fellow Chelsea fans. There were long lines at the bar. While I was waiting to give Parky a hand with his drinks, I spotted Kirk Brandon, lead singer from the ‘eighties bands Theatre of Hate and Spear of Destiny. I had known that he was a Chelsea supporter for a while and he was featured in a recent Chelsea magazine. I popped over to say a few words. I had only just recently seen him support Stiff Little Fingers in March in Bristol. We had arrived fashionably late to just catch the very last song “Do You Believe In The Westworld?” Little did I think that I would soon be chatting to him before a Chelsea game. I didn’t ask him if he had a ticket; I hoped he had. Many in the bar didn’t. Parky chatted away about his time in London in the ‘seventies, watching as many punk bands as he could. Kirk seemed genuinely pleased to chat to us. I mentioned to him that I am friends with SLF frontman Jake Burns – albeit only on Facebook, though our paths almost crossed in Chicago in the summer – and for a moment it was all a bit surreal. I sent Jake a little message to say that I had been chatting to his mate and he soon replied “good luck for tonight.”

We set off for the ground. We were about to liberate the Premier League trophy.

It was a murky old night in West Bromwich. We marched past the hamburger and hot dog stalls. We bypassed the souvenir stalls. However, I had seen on a TV programme earlier in the season that Albion have produced a set of programme covers this season which feature albums and bands. Once I spotted six of their academy players lined up a la Madness, with the headline “One Step Beyond”, I knew I had to buy a copy. I quickly flicked inside. It looked a substantial read. In the centre of the programme was a complete set of programme covers from this year. Album covers by Blur, Bruce Springsteen, Oasis, Phil Collins and the Sex Pistols – plus others – were tweaked with a football twist. It was very effective. I especially liked the Sex Pistols cover. It was for their FA Cup tie against Derby County, but references an infamous loss that West Brom suffered against Woking many years ago, when Tim Buzaglo scored the winner.

“Never Mind The Buzaglos, Here’s The FA Cup.”

There were handshakes with many in the concourse – which oddly has wooden laminate flooring, interesting fact #574 – and then out into the seats. The cumulative intake of gallons of alcohol throughout the day had resulted in plenty of song. The four of us Chuckle Brothers were right behind the goal, down low. My camera would struggle focussing through the netting all evening. My pessimism had subsided – maybe it was the lager. Surely, so close, we would win this.

We had heard the team and although N’Golo Kante was not starting, we had no issue with Cesc Fabregas playing alongside Nemanja Matic. Elsewhere, the side picked itself.

In a previous edition, I have talked about the home supporters relatively new usage of the twenty-third psalm, and I spotted that the words were now stencilled on the low stand to our left.

“The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want. He makes me down to lie. In pastures green, he leadeth me, the quiet waters by.”

Only a few minutes before the game began, I received a text message from Dave – often featured in despatches – in France to announce the birth of his first child, a son, only an hour previously. What fantastic news. And this was on a day when my pal JR – in Detroit – was celebrating his son’s first birthday. The signs were good. We surely could not fail.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, the PA boomed out “Liquidator” and both sets of fans roared.

It was turning into an evening of songs and singers.

Our end was packed to the rafters. We had heard that many Chelsea had gambled on tickets in the home areas. This would be our first chance to win the league at an away ground since that momentous early evening game in Bolton in 2005. Tickets were like gold dust. But I loved the idea of Chelsea swarming the ground. Just like the old days.

And then the football began in earnest.

Chelsea, the all-blacks, were soon on the back foot when a looping header from Salomon Rondon caused Thibaut Courtois to back-peddle and tip over. Barely twenty seconds had elapsed. To our left, sharing the Smethwick End, the home fans were having an occasional dig at us – “WWYWYWS?”, how original – but were also singing about their two most hated local rivals.

“Oh wanky, wanky. Wanky, wanky, wanky Wanderers” for those to the west and “shit on the Villa” to those to the east. Birmingham City must feel peeved; “no song for us?”

After that initial threat, Chelsea dominated possession. But it was clear from our very first attack that West Brom were to defend deep, resolutely, and space in the final third was at a premium. We only had a succession of half-chances, maybe only quarter-chances. In the away end, the night of song continued as a new ditty aimed at our double Player of the Year was repeated again and again.

“N’Golo. Oh. Always believe in your soul. You’ve got the power to know – you’re indestructible. Always believing.”

It rumbled around for some time.

Altough not aired, I prefer this other one which will hopefully gain traction before now and the FA Cup Final.

“His name’s N’Golo. N’Golo Kante. He always wins the ball. His name’s N’Golo. N’Golo Kante. He always wins the ball. He wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball, he wins the ball.”

The home team only occasionally threatened us, with the runs of James McLean drawing boos whenever he approached the away quadrant. It is safe to say he is not the most liked opposition player.

We tried to release Moses – “Is Vic there?” – but only occasionally did he get a ball across the box. We were dominating possession, but we were playing Chelsea Rules and not Arsenal Rules; we needed a goal. The West Brom players were targeting Eden Hazard and he was clumped several times.  Shots were blocked. Shots were miscued. At last a clean strike from Cesc, but it drifted past Ben Foster’s far post. Next up, Pedro unleashed a shot wide. It was all Chelsea, but with little to show for it. A rare Albion attack ended the first-half. It amounted to nothing.

The noise in the Chelsea section, loud at the start, had gradually subsided throughout the first-half.

“Can you hear the rent boys sing? Can you hear the rent boys sing? Can you hear the rent boys sing? We’ll sing on our own. We’ll sing on our own.”

I whispered – “we’re just nervous.”

At the break, out in the concourse, we were still confident of getting a victory.

“We’ll suck the ball in.”

I remembered back to Bolton in 2005 and we certainly struggled in the first-half during that momentous match. During this game in 2017, we had performed better, but only marginally. Oh where was Frank Lampard when you need him?

Soon in to the second period, Moses lost his marker and zipped a firm low shot at goal, but Foster reacted well to fingertip the ball away. Then a shot from a twisting Costa. It was backs-to-the-wall stiff for the Baggies. We watched, urging the boys on. Please let us, somehow, find a way through. Hazard struggled to produce much quality on the left. I kept urging Cesc to unlock the door. But our dominance was increasing. Surely we would score? The first fifteen minutes of the second-half flew past. I looked over to the scoreboard to my right.

“Fucking hell, an hour.”

We went close when a deflected shot squirmed wide. Another Moses shot. Another Foster save.

“For fuck sake.”

The nerves were starting to jangle now. Time moved on.

Seventy minutes.

Glenn turned to me –

“It’s not going to happen is it?”

I was stony-faced –

“No.”

A rare West Brom chance soon followed, when Rondon broke, but great defending saved the day. Then, just after substitute Nacer Chadli – ex-Spurs, oh no – was clear in on goal but stroked the ball wide of Thibaut’s far post. It was a sign for the away end to wake up and increase the volume.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” – how sweet the sound.

Seventy-five minutes.

A gamble from the manager. Willian replaced Pedro. Michy Batshuayi replaced Hazard. This surprised me, I have to be honest. Although Pedro had tired a little and although Eden was not at his best, the introduction of Batshuayi especially seemed a risk. He had begun his season well, with a smattering of goals against Bristol Rovers and Watford, but had rarely featured since. Over the next few minutes, the frustration grew as Batshuayi gave away one foul, then another, then another. A wild shot from Dave did not bother Foster.

This did not look good. The mood in the away end was detiorating. Not sombre, but just a little quiet. It looked like we would have to wait until Monday. I felt for Glenn, who would be working.

Eighty minutes.

“Bollocks.”

Just after, with more Chelsea possession, and the defence suitably packed, a ball was headed back towards Gary Cahill. His rushed shot from twenty yards, spun away into part of the penalty box which was free from defenders. Maybe, just maybe, the West Brom defenders switched off momentarily. We watched as Dave raced towards the ball and was just able to whip a ball in, hard and low. The action was only fifteen yards away from me. We watched as Batshuayi flung himself at the ball. For a split second, the ball was within the frame of the goal, but of course I had no idea if it would result in a late winner.

Twelve yards away from me, the ball rippled the side netting.

We went berserk.

I turned to the bloke to my left and we just roared and roared, jumping as one.

I was only able to utter one word.

“Batshuayi! Batshuayi! Batshuayi! Batshuayi!”

What a moment. The away end was a boiling pot of ecstasy. The noise was deafening. The relief flowed over all of us. I struggled to hop up on to my seat in order to photograph the scenes of wild abandon to my left. I was only able to take a couple of shots of David Luiz, his face pulsing with joy, arms out-stretched.

Hugs with Glenn.

I shifted over to see Alan.

“They’ll av’ta com at uz neow.”

“Cum on moi little dimunz.”

The rest of the game is a blur. Kurt Zouma replaced Moses, but the away end was bouncing in adoration of the manager and team.

“Antono, Antonio, Antonio!”

“We’re gonna win the league.”

“Campioni, campioni” – or at least, this is what it should have been – “ole, ole, ole” – a mixture of Spanish and Italian. How apt.

We bounced in a minute.

Over in the far corner of the Birmingham Road Stand – the home end – a few Chelsea fans were obviously causing havoc, and were lead out. We have all sat or stood in home areas over the years – I have done so at Everton, Liverpool, Leeds United and Arsenal among others – but it must be impossible to keep schtum when your boys have just won the league. For a few fleeting moments, The Hawthorns was transported to 1983.

There were five minutes of time added on.

At the whistle, I was slightly subdued. I then pointed to the sky.

“Thanks Mum, thanks Dad, thanks for game one in 1974.”

Game 1,140 had ended with us with our sixth league championship and our fifth of my lifetime. Our fifth in thirteen seasons.

Crazy. Just fucking crazy.

For half-an-hour or so, the players and management team raced over to join in our party. My eyes were on Antonio Conte. His face was a picture of joy. Elsewhere, the players were enjoying every second. I struggled to capture it all on film because hands were pointing, arms were waving, a line of OB were in the way. But I managed to capture a few nice moments. I loved that Antono Conte, John Terry, Pedro and then N’Golo Kante – his song booming – were given the bumps.

The bumps in Boing Boing Land.

Willian was serenaded with “his song” and he gleefully danced a little jig, his hands covering his mouth, as if sniggering.

This felt fantastic.

The pitch was flooded with Chelsea personnel. In the middle, Antonio Conte alongside Angelo Alessio – I remember seeing him play for Juve in the late ‘eighties – but also with a cast of thousands. Everyone involved. Everyone happy. Frank Lampard was somewhere, though I did not clock him. A song for Roman.

All of us, there.

Together.

Almost lost in the middle of everything was a small green flag :

“Premier League Champions 2016/2017.”

Get in.

We bounced out of the away end. Handshakes and hugs all round. We strolled down that old-style exit ramp which lead down to a nearby road. Time for another cheeseburger with onions.

It tasted champion.

At the Jeff Astle gates, I took one last memento of the night. As we drive past exit 1 of the M5 on every Chelsea trip north in the future, we will gaze east and spot the angled floodlights of The Hawthorns.

And we will smile.

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Back at the Park Inn, the mood was of relief but mainly of pride and joy. Two more pints, a gin and tonic. The Bristol lot gave me a little plastic cup of champagne. We posed with flags and banners. I was able to wear my “Chelsea Champions 2016/17” badge which Big John gave me on Monday.

It felt fantastic.

This felt better than in 2015. Miles better. It felt better than in 2006. I’d say it was on a par with 2010, only behind that evening at The Reebok in 2005. This one was just so unexpected. At the start of the season, there were probably four – maybe even six – teams that could win the league. I, perhaps optimistically, guessed that we would finish third. Remember, in 2015/2016, we finished tenth. After Arsenal – or ground zero – I would have been ecstatic with a top four.

But we did it. We won the bloody thing.

Fackinell.

Dedicated to those who shared 12 May 2017 with me :

Parky, Glenn G., PD, Nick H., John R., Mark Boswood., Zac, Big John, Kevin A., Kevin H., Ian, Long Tall Pete, Liz, Julie P., Tim P., Rich, Kev, Brian, Charlie, Tim R., Mark Barfoot, Callum, Jason, Carol, Welsh Kev, Alan, Gary, Pam, Becky, DJ, John C., Maureen, Allie, Nick, The Youth, Seb, Scott, Neil S., Andy, Sophie, Jokka, Chopper, Neil P., Glenn D., Mark C., Ludo, Rick, Steve, Burger, Julie F., Rob, Peter, Jim, Trizia, Paul, Dan, Millsy.

And a special mention to those non-Chelsea supporters who wished me congratulations :

Sally, Leicester City.

Francis, Liverpool.

Jake, Newcastle United.

Ian, Rotherham United.

Rick, Manchester United.

Michael, Arsenal.

Tim, Leicester City.

Mimmo, Juventus.

Pete, Manchester United.

Mark, Cardiff City.

Rick, Portsmouth.

And – especially – for Harry Lotto, born 12 May 2016 and Jared Easter, born 12 May 2017.

Tales From A Humdrum Town

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 16 April 2017.

I awoke early, and I will admit that I felt slightly agitated. I wasn’t particularly calm. My nerves were jangling. The massive game at Old Trafford had obviously dominated my thoughts as the Easter Weekend had approached. It not only represented our toughest remaining league fixture of the 2016/2017 campaign but there were some heavy sub-plots, too. We had already beaten Jose Mourinho’s new team twice this season, and by the law of averages alone, it would be no surprise for United to give us a tough old time. In fact, I was damned sure that Mourinho would be making sure that a third defeat of the season at the hands of our new man Antonio Conte would simply not happen. Jose, for all his faults, is no mug in these big matches. A draw – I reconciled – what be totally acceptable in the circumstances.

But we live for days like these, don’t we? The stakes were high. This was going to be one of the away trips of the season, or any season for that matter.

Before I set off, I began with a post on Facebook. I had arranged to meet up before the game with my old college friend Rick – a United season ticket holder for many a year, and like me, a fan of The Smiths – and with this in mind, I referenced one of the band’s iconic images. It came from a United away game in 2006 (a 1-1 draw, a Riccy Carvalho header) when I dropped in to visit a local landmark that was famously featured on the band’s “The Queen Is Dead” album of 1986.

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With the game resting heavily on my mind, I added a comment which hoped that our charming manager would prevail.

In fact, I  soon thought about the two men in charge of the respective teams. Compared to the sour-faced Mourinho – with that dismissive smirk never far away these days – our manager is a picture of positivity and light. Indeed, with Mourinho – totally unlovable at United – now ensconced at Old Trafford, I could not help come to a quick conclusion about our former boss.

He was looking for a job, and then he found a job, and heaven knows he’s miserable now.

I collected The Chuckle Brothers and we headed north. The traffic was surprisingly light. The day had begun with clouds but sun too. Just north of Birmingham the rain started. By the time I pulled in to the car park of “The Windmill” pub just off junction 19 of the M6, the drizzle was continuing. This was going to be a typical football day out in rain town. I got a round in and looked up to see my pal Rick approaching. I had my opening line sorted :

“The rain falls hard on a humdrum town.”

Rick smiled and we set about a good old natter about our respective football teams. Rick was with his eight year old son Frazer, who has just started going to games with his father. Rick had recently been in Brussels with 1,200 United fans for their game with Anderlecht. I told Frazer that over thirty years ago his father and myself played upfront in our departmental football team, with Rick as the elbows out battering ram and with me feeding off the scraps. I asked Rick what United thought of Mourinho. His answer was favourable, but he did mention that at times the entertainment value has only just surpassed that of the Van Gaal era. Before we knew it, the time was pushing on – 2.15pm – and we needed to be on our way.

The new A556 road – which was mid-construction for the City game in the autumn – helped our approach to Old Trafford. I was parked-up at the usual £10 garage at around 2.45pm. Just right. The rain was easing slightly but there always seem to be dishwater skies in Manchester.

We plodded off to the stadium. We met up with Big John on the way – “take a draw now” – and we were soon on the famous forecourt. I took a few photographs of the match-day scene. I know they sell half-and-half scarves at Stamford Bridge, but at Old Trafford it is on a different scale.

“Ten pound yer match day scarf.”

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before, but I noted with sadness that there was a huge advertisement for one of United’s commercial partners – Aeroflot – right behind the statue of Sir Matt Busby. In fact, who else but United would place such a statue of their much-loved former manager right in front of their megastore?

We had heard rumours that Thibaut Courtois was out. We then heard talk that Cesc Fabregas was in.

“Going for it.”

At the turnstiles, I was met by an over-zealous team of stewards who stopped me from taking my camera inside. This is the second time that this has happened at Old Trafford and it meant I had to traipse around to a “bag drop” porta cabin behind the Alex Ferguson Stand. On the walk underneath the Stretford End, I noted many supporters holding those God-forsaken noise-makers, much-beloved at Leicester City and Fulham. I tut-tutted. Modern bloody football.

I eventually made it in with ten minutes to spare. The away support was strong in number and voice. Not so many women. Hardly any kids. Hardly any colours. Just a couple of divs away to my right with half-and-half scarves.

Not only was Courtois out, but Marcos Alonso too, apparently injured during the warm-up. This had resulted in a last minute shift of personnel which must have greatly disrupted everyone’s thoughts.

Begovic.

Zouma – Luiz – Cahill.

Moses – Kante – Matic – Azpilicueta.

Pedro – Costa – Hazard.

No Fabregas, then. Maybe just as well. I was surprised that Ibrahimovic was relegated to a place on the bench. I tried, briefly, to work out Mourinho’s game plan.

Old Trafford is a huge stadium these days. I am told they are looking to enlarge it further. Up, up and away, reaching up in to the sky.

To my right, the famous “Manchester Is My Heaven” banner.

A new song has been doing the rounds at United of late and the tune on which it is based, “I’m Into Something Good.” by Herman’s Hermits was played on the PA with a few minutes to go. There were banners everywhere – too many to mention. As the teams entered the pitch – a smudge of blue in the far corner – I spotted a forest of flags on sticks over to the opposite corner of the old “K Stand” just where Rick has his season ticket. Chelsea are trying to do the same in The Shed. Think The Kop, if you must, but on a smaller scale. To the left of the Stretford End – presumably the corporate section – I spotted hundreds of those damned noisemakers. They must have contained a message or a slogan, because many were being held aloft.

It probably said –

“I don’t really like football. I’m here on a freebie. I haven’t a clue.”

The two managers took their places in the technical areas. Antonio Conte chose to wear a baseball cap with his usual smart suit. It jarred. I wondered what on earth possessed him to do so. Ugh.

United were the first out of the traps. Marcus Rashford was allowed a run in on goal, with Luiz floundering, but screwed the ball well wide of Asmir Begovic’ far post. I grimaced and exchanged words with Alan. His reply summed up the mood of the hour :

“Please, please, please let me get what I want, this time.”

A Chelsea attack petered out, but we spotted a handball. Sadly, the referee Bobby Madley waved play on. Ander Herrera stroked an inch-perfect ball in to the path of that man Rashford. David Luiz was nowhere, and the United striker pushed the ball through Begovic’ legs. That horrible sight – the ball hitting the back of the net – was met with a huge roar from the home support. The game was but seven minutes old.

“Oh fuck.”

For a few moments, Old Trafford was a cauldron of noise.

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

We had spoken in the car of how, if asked to choose between a win against United in the league, or a win against Tottenham in the cup, all four of us chose the former, since the league is the more prestigious one to win. Now I was renegotiating with the Football Gods.

“A draw, please.”

United dominated the play. It wasn’t that they flooded our half every time that they won possession, it was just that with Rashford and also Lingard attacking at will, we just looked so fragile. On the far side, I really needed Victor Moses to assist Kurt Zouma. That looked a problem area straight away. Elsewhere, we struggled to get any sort of pattern to our play. Eden Hazard was marked to oblivion. We were struggling all over. After only twenty minutes, Conte decided to swap the wing-backs, with Dave disappearing over to the far side and Moses taking up a position in front of us.

Ashley Young went close on two occasions. Moses slipped inside the box, allowing Rashford to cross. Cahill watched as his headed block looped up and on to the bar.

Diego Costa was getting in to all sorts of bother with players and officials alike. I have spoken up for him over the past few weeks, but in this game, he seemed to be channelling everything towards confrontation rather than towards the team ethic. There were wails of protest from the Chelsea support every time that referee Madley gave a decision against us. However, I have to say that many of our tackles in that first-half were poorly timed and poorly executed. They summed up our performance. We couldn’t even tackle.

A shout from Gary : “Matic, you couldn’t pass water.”

In fact, our only shot at goal during the entire first period was a wild shot from distance from Diego Costa which went well wide. That came in about the forty-third minute. This just wasn’t good enough. In the closing seconds, Ashley Young shot wide again. Nobody, with the possible exception of N’Golo Kante, had played well during the first-half. A typically spirited run from him in the closing seconds of the half hinted at a better second-half of football.

But there were bleak faces in the Chelsea quadrant during the break. I tried to look for positives.

“Put it this way, surely we can’t play as bad in the second-half.”

The Chelsea players were out a good two minutes before the United players for the start of the second period. The Manchester United mascot Fred The Red was gesticulating to both sets of fans right in front of us for a few moments. Hand signals were exchanged. The mascot was trying to wind us up.

Another gem from Gary : “That’s Mourinho.”

The second period began. A United free-kick from out wide on the right appeared to be going off, and I thought the whole team had momentarily switched-off. United kept the ball alive and the ball eventually fell to Herrera. He took a swipe inside the box and we watched, aghast, as the ball took a wicked deflection and spun over Begovic, stranded forever. Only four minutes were on the clock.

This was awful. The United hordes boomed again. It seemed like 72,000 were gazing and smiling at each and every one of us. We were right in the firing line. Hateful stuff.

“With a nick nack, paddy whack, give a dog a bone, why don’t City fuck off home?”

We stood silent. We had been kicked in the bollocks. Bigmouth had struck again.

In those moments, there are really no places to hide. The lead down to four points. Tottenham chasing us. Sky TV and BT Sport would be salivating. Tottenham on Saturday. Panic on the streets of London. Sigh.

But then, out of nowhere, we responded. For ten, eleven, twelve minutes – maybe more – we sang and sang and sang.

“We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league.”

I kept looking around at my fellow fans and was pleased to see smiles among the defiance. It made me proud. We sang on. This seemed to inspire the United fans too, who themselves responded. The atmosphere was electric. Louder than bombs.

Sadly, on the pitch, everything was still flat. Conte replaced Moses with Fabregas and there was a change in formation. To be fair, we dominated possession for the rest of the game, but never really looked like scoring. Diego – sorry, but I have to single him out again – kept coming too deep. We needed him on the last man, ready to explode in to space. Pedro ran his socks off in the second-half and went close on two occasions, but still De Gea did not have a shot to save. Elsewhere we lacked any real cohesiveness. Hazard was the centre of most of our attacks but Mourinho knew what he had to do. The supporters’ coaches from Devon, Surrey, North Wales and Norfolk were parked in front of the United goal.

Matic was replaced by Willian. It was really nothing.

Lingard went close, hitting the side netting with a long-range effort and then the lively Rashford forced Begovic to block down low. Our passes went astray with scary regularity. The confidence had been knocked out of our side early on and we never ever recovered.

You know it is a bad day at the office when Fellaini bosses the midfield.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Kurt Zouma. I had lost the will to work out the formation by then.

We still never looked like scoring. In fact – let’s be blunt here – a goal would have flattered us. De Gea never made a save.

The final whistle signalled the end of a pretty miserable game. The lads made their way back to the car while I – oh deep joy – walked through thousands and thousands of United fans to reach the bag-drop. The rain was falling now. My shoes stepped through the puddles. The United fans were in full voice and I hated every minute of it as they brushed past me.

“Woke up this morning feeling fine. Got Man United on my mind. Jose’s got us playing the way like United should. Oh yeah. Something tells me I’m in to something good.”

I retrieved my camera. The heavens opened again. Splash. Splash. Splash.

As I bought a cheeseburger on Sir Matt Busby Way, I bumped into Neil Barnett, himself looking drenched with both weather and our poor showing. He quickly told me that Thibaut had allegedly been injured during the filming of an advertisement for the NBA. Oh bloody hell. We chatted away, then went our separate ways as the rain continued.

Splash. Splash. Splash.

I posted on Facebook once again : “Soaked to the skin. Worst cheeseburger of the season. Two hundred miles from home. Oh Chelsea we love you.”

I eventually reached the car, threw my soaked jacket in the boot, pulled out on to the Chester Road and headed south. Over the next four hours or more, we spoke about the game, our poor performance, our remaining games. As always, there is usually a prolonged chat when things do not go our way. If we win, the game is not dissected quite so much. The lads had heard the rumour about Courtois. We spoke about all sorts. Of the game, we concluded that Conte was undoubtedly rushed into making those last minute changes. With more time to think about things, maybe he would have chosen different personnel. We mentioned the recalled Nathan Ake. Maybe he should have played. It just looked to us like Conte was never at ease with his eventual team selection, nor were the players themselves.

We spoke about how odd it was, really, to see such a team as Manchester United, with its rich history of attacking flair, to be so happy to play spoilers. But that is not to take anything away from them. They did a job on us, no bloody doubt.

Six huge league games are left. They are the undoubted priority. But we are four points clear of Tottenham and we have a better run in. We didn’t think that Spurs would win all six of their games. It’s certainly “advantage us” still, although it doesn’t bloody feel like it. We are not used to this. In 2005, 2006 and 2015 it was a procession. In 2010, it was us doing the chasing. We are not used to being the ones being chased. What difference does it make? Only time will tell.

However, in the final month or so of the season, the next game in the FA Cup might well define our campaign. Win, and we might just knock the stuffing out of Tottenham, the new media darlings. If we lose, it will be a different story.

See you at Wembley.

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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.

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Tales From Albert Dock And Gwladys Street

Everton vs. Chelsea : 12 March 2016.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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