Tales From Holloway Road

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 19 January 2019.

Chelsea together? Hardly. During and after this game, it certainly seemed like Chelsea divided. This is going to be another difficult one to write. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Looking ahead to the game at Arsenal, I always feared the worst. Bizarrely, I have positive vibes about the Tottenham game at Stamford Bridge on Thursday – don’t ask me why, football is not an exact science, I just have a hunch – whereas the Arsenal match filled me with dread. They were on the “up” – generally speaking – but we were stalling.

This was another 5.30pm game. Just two of us travelled up from the west of England for this one. I picked up PD at 10.30am, and we approached London via the “southerly” route of the A36, the A303 and the M3. I was at Barons Court at 1pm. On the drive up – the misty rain cleared, eventually – I mentioned to PD “I’ll take a draw, now.”

I spoke about how I had enjoyed the game against Tottenham in the League Cup at Wembley. It was a game that we had lost, but not without a fight. We had shown a great deal of vim and vigour – it surprised me to be honest – and I felt involved all of the way through. Conversely, the win at home to Newcastle United a few days after had left me cold. The performance was dull, the atmosphere worse. I had thus enjoyed a Chelsea loss, but not a win. What did I say about football not being an exact science?

We had been tipped off to make our way to a new boozer for this match. I have mentioned before how I loathe large and cavernous pubs. Therefore, I did not mind one iota that the huge “Shakespeare’s Head” at Holborn was thus swerved, and we headed instead for a much more intimate pub near Highbury & Islington station. After bumping into Alan and Gary, we set off. On the walk to this new destination, we spotted one pub called “The Library” and this raised a chuckle. We met up with Daryl, who was the first to arrive, and the pub looked like ticking all the boxes, although it was awkwardly borderline-hipster. There were high tables and craft ales, but no knobhead Arsenal fans, and we settled down for a good two hours of Chelsea chat and a few pints. It had been the venue that had hosted Madness, The Specials and The Stranglers in the dim and distant. I definitely approved.

At 4.45pm, we set off for The Emirates. We were walking up part of the A1, and this became Holloway Road at Highbury Corner. It brought back a fragile memory from 1983 when I attended an open day at the then North London Poly, before my “A Levels” and with thoughts of attending that particular institution for a three-year geography degree. On that day, I was well aware of how close the campus was to Highbury, Arsenal’s venerable stadium. Maybe it was the thought of spending three years in the shadow of Arsenal that resulted in me fucking up my “A Levels.”

There were no surprises at all with the team that Maurizio Sarri chose. There was neither room for Alvaro Morata, so shorn of confidence, nor Olivier Giroud, so lacking in playing time and also goals.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

I was inside with about five minutes to spare. There did not seem to be too many empty seats anywhere, unlike the last few months of the Wenger regime. I soon spotted two Chelsea supporters to my immediate left wearing the hated and infamous half-and-half scarves. I tut-tutted once again. You have to wonder about the mentality of some of our “fans”. Surely these people must know how we dislike these damned things. Many of my US fans acknowledge how ridiculous these scarves are. Surely nobody among our rank and file buys them. What I can’t understand is if a friendship scarf is purchased as a memento, why bloody wear it, and if it is worn, why not just show the Chelsea half? Virtually all friendship scarves are worn with both halves on show – both teams on show – draped vertically and limply around the neck. Don’t these people know how to tie a scarf?

It does my nut.

We were just a few rows back from the corner flag. In front of us several fans held up a banner –

“THANK YOU PETR – CHELSEA LEGEND.”

So, The Emirates. On many counts, a magnificent stadium, but on other counts it still leaves me cold.

Even though we knew that a win would put us a mighty nine points clear of our North London opponents, I was hardly going dizzy with the thought of that coming into fruition. I am nothing but a realist.

Up close, I realised how truly awful both kits were. Those flecks on our shirts and a very odd block of red on their jerseys.

Arsenal were like greyhounds out of the traps. It is some time since I have seen an opposing team create so many chances with such gusto in the first five, then ten minutes. We were suitably shell-shocked, and – for the want of a better footballing cliché – were chasing shadows. There were errors everywhere, with a wayward pass from David Luiz signalling the first of much wailing which took over the three-thousand loyalists in the south-eastern corner with growing regularity throughout the evening.

They were all over us like a bloody rash.

Shots and crosses rained in on us. Aubameyang shot wide from close in, then Sokratis headed wide from point blank range. Kepa was rather lucky to see a header from Koscielny hit him on the chest. In the midst of all this Arsenal pressure, a meek shot on a rare attack from Eden Hazard did not test the Arsenal ‘keeper Bernd Leno.

On fourteen minutes, a corner on the far side was worked to the menacing Lacazette, who danced past a ridiculously half-hearted challenge from Marcos Alonso, and from a tight angle, the ball was lashed high into the net, beating Kepa at the near post.

Fuck.

Kepa then managed to block an effort from Aubameyang. This was hurting.

But I have to say the noise levels at the Emirates were poor. Despite their lead, the home fans hardly raised the roof. Our support was sporadic at best. There were more groans and grumbles and moans and mumbles from us than a defiant wall of noise.

Then, out of nowhere, a sublime long ball from David Luiz to Pedro – a replica of sorts of the first goal against the Geordies last week – but Peds’ chip dropped just outside the frame of the goal. To be honest, we enjoyed a little resurgence, but this was relative. In the first twenty minutes, we had been merely spectators. There appeared to be an abundance of space on our right which we continually failed to take advantage of. That man Aubameyang went close with an acrobatic flourish, and this was a hint of further damage. A ball was played into our box with too much ease and Koscielny jumped at the ball, and we watched as the ball looped up and over Kepa.

Fuck.

Again, a roar from the home fans, but they then went back to knitting, playing with their I-Pads, and lining up for half-time coffees.

By now, the mood in our section was rife with shouts and screams at players and manager alike.

Jorginho – never flavour of the month at Chelsea right now – was getting pelters from many.

Two chaps to my left were heavy on criticism, but not so eager to sing and shout in support of the team.

Willian was the centre of attention for one of them.

I had to speak out again, just like at Spurs in November.

“He’s not a cunt though, is he, mate?”

Just before Anthony Taylor blew up for half-time, a Willian header was met full on by a leap from Marcos Alonso which edged against the far post and went off for a goal kick.

It had been a grim old half of football.

At half-time, I wandered around the concourse for a few minutes, almost punch drunk from the onslaught that we had suffered in the first opening period, and spoke to more than a couple of good Chelsea people. A common line was “bloody hell, we could be 4-0 down” – or maybe more. None of us were relishing the second forty-five minutes. But I shuffled back to my standing position next to PD, Gal and Alan in row seven, and waited for the Arsenal players to join up with the Chelsea players who had been sent out of the dressing room early.

If nothing else, in the second-half at least we stemmed the flow of goals. But it was another frustrating forty-five minutes. At no stage was I confident that we would even score one goal. N’Golo Kante was his usual self, or rather his usual 2018/19 self and effectively this means several notches below his 2016/17 self and his 2017/18 self. Eden Hazard looked disinterested at times. Mateo Kovacic huffed and puffed but did little to change things. Pedro was keen and full of running, but often by himself and without runners alongside him. It was Peds who had an early chance from a set up by Willian on the left in front of us, but he skied it with his shin.

Mateo Kovacic was replaced by Ross Barkley.

Altogether now “like for like.”

But nobody liked this.

Why not bring on Olivier Giroud? Answers on a postcard.

What upset me most was that we were not creating space off the ball. Too often we were loath to lose our markers, and create a little pocket of space for a positive pass. We kept moving the ball around and Arsenal surprisingly let us play. The home team were well on top. They defended in a great shape and were first to too many fifty-fifties. I was slightly surprised that they did not push on and endeavour to score more goals, but I have an inkling that they wanted us to have the ball and stifle ourselves, rather than let us have space to counter.

It’s a rum old state of affairs when the opposing manager knows our strengths and weaknesses, and not our own manager.

At last the manager introduced Giroud, who came on for the poor Willian.

We were still shot-shy. The moans increased. Only occasionally was there a sustained chant from the away crowd.

Pass, pass, an Arsenal tackle.

Pass, pass, an Arsenal block.

When we were within shooting distance, I kept shouting “buy a raffle ticket!”

The ball was being moved along the same lines, between the same players.

In a cartoon chase, remember how the background was repeated every few seconds?

A tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate.

At the Emirates, the ball saw the same players ad infinitum.

Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso.

The bloke in front of me shouted “shoot!” and a voice behind him whispered “shoot the fucking manager.”

Ah, the manager. Do we give him the benefit of a massive amount of doubt and wait until he gets his players in during the summer? We should do, right? We would plead for time on any other occasion. But it grates with me that for all of his fanciful philosophy, I would love to see him adapt to his current squad and arrange his team to the benefit of our stars, no names and no pack drill.

At last Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced Pedro wide on the right but he was not really involved too much. It was more of the same, more of the same, is anyone bored yet?

I said to PD “I bloody hope their ‘keeper isn’t on piece work. He hasn’t made a save.”

As if to prove the ineptness of our play, substitute Giroud swung and missed when only ten yards out.

Fackinell, Chelsea.

To be fair to ourselves, I was really pleased – and proud – that very few of our support left until the last five or ten minutes, and even then it was a trickle and not a rush. There was a mighty six minutes of extra time but I had decided that we would not score in a month of Saturdays and Sundays and packed my camera and lenses away for the day. At the final whistle, we were put out of our misery.

And it had been a dire performance.

We shuffled out.

PD and I decided to wait for the queues to die down and so we popped into a Chinese restaurant on Holloway Road for a bite to eat. The food was good, but the conversation soon dried up. We were now only three points ahead of the twin threats of Arsenal and Manchester United, with many a tough game on the horizon. As we made our way across London – due south, then due west – we heard that the manager had publicly lambasted his players, which surprised me.

“Keep all that in house, Sarri.”

There was talk of the current squad being unresponsive to his ideas.

I wonder if a common response from any one of our players might be this –

“What have you won? We’ve won the league twice in four years. You dress like a regular at William Hill and you eat cigarettes.”

On Thursday, we have to fucking beat Tottenham.

See you there.

Tales From The Three Wise Men

Watford vs. Chelsea : 26 December 2018.

There were times, probably quite some years ago now, when I used to get a considerable tingle with the thought of a Boxing Day game. A post-Christmas treat, there always seemed to be a certain something in the air, an unquantifiable buzz. Something different for sure. Growing up, Boxing Day crowds often used to be the biggest of the entire season. In some campaigns, way before my time, games were played on Christmas Day itself. That practice has long since passed. But in my youth, it would not be odd for Chelsea to play games on Boxing Day and the following day too. From my Ron Hockings’ bumper book of Chelsea games, I see that the last time this happened was in 1986/87 when we played at Southampton on 26 December and at home to Villa on 27 December (two wins which kick-started our season after a very poor first few months). In 1993/94, there was no Boxing Day game, but we played at The Dell on 27 December and at home to Newcastle the following day (a win against the Geordies similarly kick-started a season in which we were in the relegation places under Glenn Hoddle after the Southampton game, thank you very much Mark Stein.) This was the last time we played in consecutive days over Christmas. Our Boxing Day record of late has been exceptional; our last loss on the day after Xmas was a 4-2 defeat at the Valley in 2003. I can remember watching it at home on TV, in the last few weeks of me having Sky. So, here was a fine record to uphold as we made our way to Watford for the evening kick-off.

I was on driving duties and I collected the gruesome twosome, PD and LP, and we then treated ourselves to a Boxing Day lunch – OK, a late breakfast – at a canal side café in Bradford-On-Avon in Wiltshire. I ate up the miles and we were parked at our usual place at the bottom end of the A411 in Watford at about 3.45pm. As with last season, we dipped into “The Horns” pub for a few drinks. A local band were doing a sound check ahead of a tea-time gig and we decided to stay on to see if they were any good.

They played “Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)” at the sound check. A few levels were adjusted. The band were soon happy. If only football was as easy.

They began with “Message In A Bottle” and then replayed “Make Me Smile.”

“Bloody hell, PD, if they play ‘Message In A Bottle’ again, I’m fucking leaving.”

We stayed for ten more songs, I fell in love with the gorgeous lead singer – she possessed the voice of an angel and everything else to match – and it made for a lovely little start to the evening. We Three Kings then walked along the pedestrianised High Street, which was bedecked in Christmas lights, one bar after another. I am told it is quite lively on a weekend evening. We eventually settled at the packed “Moon Under Water” on the pedestrianised High Street, where many Chelsea faces were based. I was not even allowing myself a single lager, so for the second game in a row, I would be watching without alcohol. After four and a half pints of “Coke” I was bouncing off the walls of the boozer. We sadly learned that both Liverpool and Tottenham had won, yet Manchester City had lost at Leicester City. This made for grim reading. I predicted a dour draw against Watford. At least Arsenal were only drawing at Brighton.

We set off on the short walk to Vicarage Road. My good friend Lynda, now living in Brooklyn, was with us.

“When you were growing up in Pennsylvania, I bet you never envisaged yourself walking through the streets of Watford on Boxing Day.”

Lynda and her husband T had travelled up on the solitary Chelsea coach which had left Stamford Bridge at 4pm. T had stayed at Vicarage Road, where they were dropped-off, so he could watch the players go through their pre-match shuttles and routines. T coaches football in the US and I had visions of him with a notebook and pen, possibly even chewing on some dog ends.

Outside the away end at Vicarage Road the brickwork of the stand rises only twenty feet. Once inside, and once the ridiculously cramped concourse has been navigated, the pitch is way below. I am not sure if it is because a lot of the paintwork in the stadium is black, but Vicarage Road always seems darker, more claustrophobic, than others. It always used to be an untidy stadium in the ‘eighties, with odd stands, shallow terracings some way from the pitch which emphasised its use as an occasional greyhound stadium. But it is a neat stadium these days, quite the right size for the club. To my left, the Sir Elton John Stand, to my right the Graham Taylor Stand. Our end was split between home and away fans. There is infill in the four corners. To my left, a sensory area for those unable to contend with a full-on match experience. In one corner a TV screen. In the opposite corner a corporate area – “The Gallery” – where the stadia’s floodlights were reflected, bending out of shape, in the large windows of the viewing boxes.

I suppose that there was no real surprises that Fag Ash Lil kept the same team that lost to Leicester City. It was, in Sarri’s eyes, his strongest eleven.

Arrizabalaga – Azpilicueta, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso – Kante, Jorginho, Kovacic – Pedro, Hazard, Willian.

Defenders apart, we are such a small team. I wasn’t quite sure how we would match up against the more physical Watford team who handed us a demoralising 1-4 defeat on bleak evening in February last season.

For once, the home end was not a swirling mass of flags as the teams entered the pitch for this 7.30pm kick-off. Watford are now kitted out in yellow and black stripes, for the first time, presumably a nod to their “Hornets” nickname. In my mind, Watford still needs a fleck of red in their home uniform.

The game began. We were close to the front and close to the corner flag. Not only were there occasional gaps in the stand to my left but in our section too. Not many, but enough to be discernible. In the first few moments, with Chelsea controlling possession, Pedro worked a fine opening, coming inside and using Willian, but flashed a shot wide of Ben Foster’s post. Kepa made a hash of a clearance amid howls from the Chelsea support, but no Watford player could capitalise. The Chelsea crowd were in good voice.

But then a song began which immediately caused me concern.

“The shit from Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see The Pope…”

I thought “oh fuck” and feared the worst.

Surely not, Chelsea.

The song continued. I didn’t join in. It surprised me how long it lasted…it was torture. Eventually we reached the denouement.

“Barcelona, Real Madrid.”

In that Nano-second, I felt like all of our collective lives flashed before us.

There might have been the odd “Y word” but the overwhelming sound was of people audibly shouting “sssssssshhhhhhh.”

Phew. We had passed the test. Phew again.

The ironic thing is that before the Raheem Sterling incident three weeks’ ago, the song would have ended in its usual fashion and the whole world would have continued on its way. But maybe it is correct that the song has had its day, or at least in its usual form.

Jorginho found Kavacic, who played the ball forward to Willian on the left. His pace set him free but was forced wide and rounded Foster, and his shot struck the outside of the near post. Watford retaliated with the widely booed Deulofeu allowing Doucoure to attempt a shot on goal but Jorginho superbly blocked. Another chance for Watford after a Rudiger error, but Doucoure shot high. Despite their chances, we were still dominating possession.

In front of me, all eyes were on David Luiz, who was involved more than most during the first thirty-minutes. He was often taking control of the ball. Sometimes his passes across the box drew derision from the fans around me. But he was the main passer out of defence, and usually his low balls found their targets. Against Deulofeu, he battled and battled. Going into the game, I had noted that as he fell to his knees to tie his bootlaces, many team mates made a point of walking over to him, to hug him or to shake his hands, sometimes just to touch him, a pat on the back here, a shake there. It felt like he was our talisman, an icon on the pitch for the super-superstitious Sarri.

It was Christmas after all.

But for all of our possession, and movement in the final third, the Watford defence was proving a very tough nut to prise open. It was all about finding pockets of space. But it was a tough task.

“There’s no cutting edge.”

How we longed for a late-arriving midfielder – Frank Lampard, cough, cough – to pounce on a ball played back from the bye-line. But we were hardly reaching the bye-line. This was constipated football with no signs of an outlet. It was as if there was a force field around the Watford goal and we could not penetrate it.

Intricate footwork from the effervescent Pedro allowed Dave set up Hazard who fluffed his lines right in front of the goal, mere feet away. Until that point we had created half-chances. We were turning the screw but I was still not convinced a goal would follow.

A fine Luiz block stopped Troy Deeney from scoring at the other end. Bizarrely, Watford were probably edging the goal-scoring chances.

Things had quietened down now. The home support was ridiculously subdued.

Sadly, Pedro was forced to leave the field with what looked like a thigh strain. He was replaced by Callum Hudson-Odoi, who was then volubly well supported by the away support. Soon after, a break reached Kovacic who advanced before releasing Hazard at just the right time. He was forced wide, like Willian earlier, but he saw enough of the goal once he had rounded Foster and slotted home.

Watford 0 Chelsea 1.

It was goal one hundred in Chelsea colours for our Eden. Team mates joined him and I watched him as his stocky frame jogged over to the bench to embrace Cesc Fabregas. He was full of smiles. It was splendid.

Half-time was just a few moments away.

We had learned that Arsenal had only scratched a 1-1 in Sussex. Suddenly, fourth place was ours.

Right after, Kepa smothered a close shot from Doucoure. From the short corner, we watched in agony as a high ball bypassed everyone and fell at the feet of the completely unmarked Pereyra who met the ball on the volley. It crept into the goal. There was nobody on the posts. Everyone were intent on clearing their lines, like the charge of the light brigade. It was criminal that nobody had picked him up.

Watford 1 Chelsea 1.

Forty-eight minutes had passed.

Bollocks.

The second-half began.

Now it was the turn of our attackers, those who often crowded the corner of the pitch in front of me and my camera, to be the focus of my attention. We moved the ball well in that corner, with Hazard, Hudson-Odoi and Willian often involved. A lofted ball from Luiz – did someone mention “quarterback” or did that phrase die with David Beckham’s retirement? – fell for Kante but he was unable to reach it. Our star David was involved in his own box, shoulder-charging away Deulofeu, much to the chagrin of the now roused home support. Goal scoring chances were rare in this opening third of the second-half.

Just before the hour mark, a cute chipped pass from Jorginho – hurrah! – played in Hazard. He appeared to be sandwiched twixt defender and ‘keeper. In the end he was  unceremoniously bundled over by Foster, who seemed to push him. The referee Martin Atkinson had an easy decision.

Penalty.

Our Eden waited and waited before sending the goalie to his left. Eden went the other way.

Watford 1 Chelsea 2.

Eden was now up to one-hundred and one Chelsea goals.

For much of his career at our club, Hazard’s tag line could well have been “Eden : Everything But The Goal”  but things are hopefully changing. And maybe for longer than just this season.

Chelsea were in full voice again.

Willian, who was steadily improving throughout the second-half scraped the post. Then Kante swiped at goal from outside the box, but his shot went narrowly wide. Although there were not huge amounts of quality on display, the game certainly had enough going on to keep my interest. I was enjoying it. With just one goal between the teams, there was always an edge to the game.

Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic on seventy-eight minutes. We needed to solidify the midfield.

A magnificent ball, a reverse pass, into the box from David Luiz – to whom, I cannot remember – was sublime.

A few more chances fell to Chelsea – punctuated by the substitution of Hudson-Odoi by Emerson, an injury? – came and went with both Willian and Hazard still both driving on deep into the night, and there was more action in our corner in the last moments. Out came the trusty Canon again.

Willian had been involved more and more in the last twenty minutes. On more than one occasion, I saw him breathing heavily, clearly exhausted. He had clearly put in a mighty shift. There is little to choose between Willian and Pedro, but for as long as the manager disregards Morata and Giroud, a decision does not need to be made. The trio of Hazard, Pedro and Willian will suffice. For now we can even call them The Three Wise Men.

Very late chances for Jorginho, Willian and Hazard, had they been converted, would have flattered us a little.

On this night in Watford, a one goal lead would suffice.

At exactly the midway point in the campaign, and after the penultimate game of 2018, fourth place is ours.

See you at Palace.

Tales From Ninety-Six Minutes

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 20 October 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, the irony.

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

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

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

Now that, my friends, is proper Chelsea.

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

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

He didn’t.

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

He didn’t.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Morata – Hazard

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

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

Newcastle United – 1974

Tottenham Hotspur – 1974

Derby County – 1975

Aston Villa – 1977

Liverpool – 1978

Tottenham Hotspur – 1978

Queens Park Rangers – 1979

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

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

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

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

“Yeah right, Batesy.”

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

Very often it wasn’t.

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

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

Our home form has certainly improved.

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

Since 2002, we have lost just one of sixteen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empty.

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

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

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

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

At the other end, we dominated again.

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

BOOM.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I half-guessed what he meant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The game then, sadly, changed.

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

London 1 Manchester 1.

Bollocks.

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

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

I grew more annoyed with Alvaro Morata.

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

“FUCKSAKE.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nike 1 Adidas 2.

The United hordes roared again.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s their fucking song these days.

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

Please stop it.

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

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

Eden became a little more involved. The intensity rose.

I spoke to Alan.

“Barkley to get a goal.”

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

Hope, however small, existed.

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

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

The ball struck it.

The disbelief.

The ball cannoned out and Rudiger headed towards goal.

The anticipation.

David De Gea magnificently saved.

The agony.

Ross Barkley was on hand to smash the ball in.

The pandemonium.

The noise.

Chelsea 2 Manchester United 2.

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

I was light-headed.

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

Such joy.

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

Alan’s face says it all.

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

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

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

I didn’t care.

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

“Sound, la.”

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

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

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

I’ll see him there.

 

Tales From 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?

IMG_0781 (2)

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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