Tales From The Naughty Section

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 19 May 2018.

So, the last game of the 2017/2018 season.

The final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

It simply did not seem one whole year ago that the four of us were catching a train to Paddington to attend the 2017 Final. Where has the time gone? Where has it indeed? Life seems to be accelerating away, almost out of control at times, and shows no signs of slowing down. This would be my fifty-sixth game of the season – bettered only twice, 58 in 2011/2012 and 57 in 2012/2013 – and even the first one in Beijing in late July only seems like last month. It has been a demanding and confusing campaign, with many memories, and fluctuating fortunes. There was a crazy period in January and February when it seemed that I was heading up to London for football every midweek for weeks on end. It was a particularly tiring period. Looking back, it has not been a favourite season but I have enjoyed large chunks of it. We have rarely hit anything approaching the heights of last year when we took the football world unawares and stormed to a Championship. This season has been riddled with poor performances, the usual soap-opera of conflict between players, manager and board. And, of course, there has been a couple of moments of deep sadness. We lost two thoroughbred captains in Ray Wilkins and Roy Bentley. But in the depths of darkness, there have been glimpses of glory.

Chelsea Football Club. It seemed that all of human life was here.

Would the last game of the season, seemingly stacked against us, provide us with a day of silverware and joy?

We bloody well hoped so.

However, as we left St. James’ Park last Sunday, there was a genuine fear of us not only losing but losing heavily. Our performance on Tyneside was truly mind-boggling in its ineptitude, and I honestly feared for the worst. A repeat of 1994? God forbid.

The day did not begin well. Glenn, PD and little old me were stood, impatient, excited, on the platform of Frome train station, intending to catch the 8.07am to Westbury and then on to Melksham, where Lord Parky would join us, and to Swindon and eventually London. Glenn then noted that the train was running late. We needed to get to Westbury. So, we hopped into a taxi which took us over the state line and in to Wiltshire, despite the dopey cab driver declining our protests to “stop talking and drive faster” and idling his way through Chapmanslade and Dilton Marsh.

He was as annoying a person as I have met for some time.

“Going to the Cup Final, eh? Oh nice one. Don’t worry, I will get you there for twenty-to.”

“TWENTY PAST!”

“Oh, thought you said, twenty-to. Ha.Ha. I’d best hurry up. Ha ha.

“Stop talking and drive faster, mate.”

“Go on Chelsea. I hope they win. Ha ha. Do you think you will win? Ha?”

“Stop talking and drive faster.”

“I hate United you see. I’m a Liverpool fan.”

“Stop talking and drive faster.”

“Go on Chelsea! Ha ha.”

…this inane nonsense continued for what seemed like ages. Thankfully, we reached Westbury station with a few minutes to spare to catch the 8.22am train to Swindon.

Parky joined us at Melksham, we changed at Swindon, and arrived on time at Paddington at 10.14am. I love those arches at this famous old London station. It has played a major part in my Chelsea story. All of those trips to London – sometimes solo – from 1981 onwards. I remember sitting on a barrier, desolate, after the 1988 play-off loss to Middlesbrough, wondering if Chelsea would ever return to the top flight, let alone – ha – win anything.

That moment is a defining moment in my Chelsea life. That seems like five minutes ago, too.

Our 2018 Cup Final pre-match jolly-up was planned a week or so ago. At 10.45am, the four of us assembled at the “Barrowboy and Banker” outside London Bridge. There was talk of surprise guests. Glenn ordered the first round.

“Peroni please.”

I popped outside to take a shot of the pub and the modern towers on the north side of the river. I was just finishing the framing of a second photograph when I heard a voice in my ear.

“Those hanging baskets are lovely, aren’t they?”

My first, initial, thought?

“Oh bollocks, weirdo alert.”

A nano-second later, I realised who it was; my great friend Alex from the New York Blues, who I had arranged to meet at 11am. He quickly joined us inside. I had last seen him over in New York on a baseball trip in 2015. He kindly let me stay in his Brooklyn apartment for the 2013 Manchester City game at Yankee Stadium while he was visiting Denmark with his girlfriend.

“Still waiting for the special guest.”

Alex : “It’s not me? I’m mortified.”

The Chuckle Brothers roared.

Next through the door were Kim, Andy and Wayne – aka “The Kent Lot” – who have been stalking us on numerous pub-crawls now. We reminisced about the laugh we had in Newcastle last weekend.

“Get the beers in boys, don’t talk about the game.”

Next to arrive was former Chelsea player Robert Isaac, who had been chatting to Glenn about pre-match plans during the week. We occasionally bump into Robert at The Malthouse before home games, and it was an absolute pleasure to spend some time with him again. Robert is a Shed End season ticket holder and we have a few mutual friends. When he broke in to the first team in 1985, no player was more enthusiastically cheered; he had been the victim of a near-fatal stabbing at the Millwall League Cup game in September 1984.

I can easily remember a game in which he started against Arsenal in September 1985 when the entire Shed were singing :

“One Bobby Isaac. There’s only one Bobby Isaac.”

What a thrill that must have been for a young player who grew up supporting us from those very terraces.

Next to arrive was Lawson – another New York Blue – who I had last seen on these shores at the Cardiff City away game on the last day of the 2013/2014 season. He had been working some music events in Brighton on the two previous nights and was officially “hanging.” A pint of Peroni soon sorted him out. I have a lot of time for the New York Blues, and we go back a while. It is always a pleasure to welcome them to games over here.

We spoke a little about the difficulties of some overseas supporters getting access to tickets; Chelsea has tightened things across the board of late. I knew of a few – but no more than seven or eight – Chelsea mates from the US who were over for the game, and who had all managed to secure tickets from one source or another. There would be supporters’ groups meeting up all over the world to watch. Yet I know from a few close friends in the US that, often this season, the FA Cup has failed to draw much of a crowd at some of their so-called “watch parties.” I can feel their frustrations. I know only too well from the viewing figures provided for this website that the FA Cup reports, for a while now, have attracted significantly fewer hits than for regular league games. And it is especially low in the US, for some reason, usually a stronghold of support for these blogs. I can’t fathom it. It seems that the FA Cup, for those who have not grown up with it, nor have witnessed it at length, seems to exist in some sort of parallel universe.

And yet I would be sure that many of the FA Cup Final “watch parties” would be packed to the rafters.

Big game hunters? Maybe.

At last, the special guest, who I had kept secret from the three other Chuckle Brothers, just for the thrill of surprise on their faces as he walked through the door. As of last Sunday in Newcastle, Rich from Edinburgh was without a ticket. Luckily, our mate Daryl jumped in to get him one of the extra thousand tickets that had surfaced during the week.

There were hugs all around for Rich, who had quickly negotiated a couple of last minute flights to London. It was great to see him again.

We took our party, a dozen strong, over the road to “The Bunch of Grapes” under the shadow of The Shard. Here, we were joined by the final piece in the jigsaw, Dave, who had just missed us at the first pub. Dave is one of the “Benches 1984” reunion lads from the Leicester City home game not long in to the New Year. It was just fantastic to have so many good folks around me. It had been a very testing time for me at work during the week. My stress levels had gone through the roof. I certainly needed a little of my own space to “chill.”

And a lunchtime drinking session on FA Cup Final day with the dirty dozen was as perfect as it gets.

We then walked through the bustling Borough Market and rolled in to “The Old Thameside Inn” which is one of my favourite pubs in the whole of the city. The terrace overlooking the river was bathed in sunshine, and the drinking – and laughs – continued. It was great to see everyone getting on so well, although many had only met for the first time a few hours before.

“Don’t talk about the game though, for fuck sake.”

A few of us then split up, and some went on to meet others. The four Chuckle Brothers stopped momentarily in the market for some sustenance.

“Ein bratwurst mit sauerkraut und senf bitte.”

On Munich Day, it seemed wholly appropriate.

We then spilled in to “The Southwark Tavern” for one last tipple. The time was moving on, and we needed to head up to Wembley.

We caught the Jubilee line to Wembley Park, thus avoiding the Mancs at Wembley Stadium. This would afford a fantastic view looking down Wembley Way, which I remember visiting with Alex and a few other NYBs before the 2010 Portsmouth FA Cup Final.

The team news came through.

Antonio had decided to pack the midfield, but the scene was set for Eden Hazard to set Wembley alight. Gary Cahill, sensibly, had got the nod over young Andreas.

Thibaut

Dave – Gaz – Rudi

Vic – Cesc – N’Golo – Timmy – Marcos

Eden – Olivier

It was the same team – our strongest eleven, maybe – that had played so well against Liverpool a few weeks back. My spirits were raised a little, but time was moving on and we were still a while away.

Sadly, there were unforeseen delays up to Wembley Park, and we were struggling to make kick-off, let alone see any of the orchestrated nonsense that goes before any event at Wembley these days. Luckily, we had managed to avoid Manchester United fans throughout the day. On walking up Wembley Way, there was a little banter between a United fan and me, and I offered a handshake but his response shocked me :

“Fuck off, you Chelsea prick.”

I just laughed.

Close by, I bumped into another United fan, who was a little better behaved.

“Good luck pal.”

“And you mate.”

We slowly edged up and to the left, the clear blue sky above the arch bereft of any cloud cover. I scrambled towards our entrance.

We were some of the last ones in.

Tickets scanned.

Security pat-down.

Camera bag check.

Security tie threaded.

Five minutes to go.

Up the escalators.

The stadium was hazy from all of the smoke of the pre-match bluster.

We were inside just before United kicked-off.

Just like in Munich six years’ previously, we had arrived in the nick of time.

We were right at the back of the upper tier bar one row. The players seemed minute. In the rush to get in, my sunglasses had gone walkabout. This would be a difficult game for me to watch, through the haze, and squinting.

I hope that I would like what I would see.

The game kicked-off.

I looked around. Virtually everyone in our section, high up, were stood. There must have been some empty seats somewhere, but I could not see any.

But the haze was killing me. And the strong shadows which cut across the pitch. It made for some rather dramatic photographs, but it made viewing difficult.

Chelsea attacked the United hordes at the west end, which is our usual end. As ever, there were United flags – the red, white, black “Barmy Flags” standard issue – everywhere, and from everywhere.

On a side note, there is nothing as ironic as Chelsea fans in Chicago and Los Angeles – or Sydney or Brisbane – taking the piss out of United fans coming from Surrey.

As the kids say : “amirite?”

Down on the pitch, Eden Hazard was soon to be seen skipping away down the left wing, after being released by Bakayoko, and forced a low save from David de Gea at the near post. In the early part of the game, we matched United toe to toe. Although my mind was not obsessed with Jose Mourinho – my mind was just obsessed with beating United, fucking United – I could not resist the occasional glance over to the technical areas.

Antonio Conte – suited and booted. Involved, pointing, cajoling.

Jose Mourinho – tie less, a pullover, coach-driver-chic. Less animated.

There were some Chelsea pensioners seated behind the Chelsea bench; they must have been sweltering in their scarlet tunics.

The heat was probably playing its part, as most of the play was studied and slow. Both teams kept their shape. There was no wildness, nor a great deal of anything in the first twenty minutes. Olivier Giroud was moving his defenders well, and we were keeping possession, but it was an uneventful beginning to the game.

Everything was soon to change. Moses won a loose ball just inside our half, and he spotted Fabregas in space. Hazard was in the inside-right channel now, and Cesc spotted his run magnificently. Hazard’s first touch and his speed was sensational and he raced alongside Phil Jones. Just as he prodded the ball onto his right foot, just as he saw the white of de Gea’s eyes, the cumbersome Jones reappeared and took a hideously clumsy swipe at him.

Eden fell to the floor, crumpled.

We inhaled.

Penalty.

“GETINYOUFUCKER.”

There were wails from all around us that Jones should have been sent-off.

Regardless, he was just shown a yellow.

We waited and waited.

“COME ON EDEN.”

At last, the United players drifted away and the referee Michael Oliver moved to allow the penalty to be taken.

De Gea looked left and right.

Hazard with a very short run up.

Eyes left, a prod right.

Goal.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

At 5.37pm on Saturday 19 May 2018, Manchester United were royally fucked.

Meghan’s moment would come later.

These photographs show the goal and the celebrations.

Between the sixth and seventh photographs, I screamed and screamed.

Get in you bastard.

The game, really, floundered for a while, and the fact that United had no real response surprised me. What also surprised me was the lack of noise emanating from the 26,000 fans in the opposite end. I heard nothing, nothing at all. And although I am sure that United were singing, there was simply no audio proof. But I also saw no arms raised, nor clapping, to signal songs being sung, which I found just as strange. The Chelsea end was – or at least bloody well looked like being – a cauldron of noise, with both tiers singing in unison.

Our two previous finals against Manchester United were recalled.

That 4-0 loss in 1994, do I have to talk about it?

The 1-0 win in 2007, revenge for 1994 of sorts.

I remembered more noise in 1994 for sure.

The noise was a bit more sporadic in 2007.

But this was quieter still.

Modern football, eh?

United rarely threatened. The match drifted past Paul Pogba. Alexis Sanchez, the star for Arsenal against us last year, was quiet too, save for occasional corner kicks.

A Pogba shot from outside the box was well wide, but Courtois surely would have covered it.

After a little Chelsea pressure, Fabregas could only hit a free-kick against the wall. We were happy to sit back and let United pass into cul-de-sacs and into dead-end turns.

A Jones header dropped wide. Thibaut had hardly had a shot to save. It was not an afternoon for him to get his “Word Search” out, but not far off it.

Our midfield was strong – Kante on form, thank heavens – but the three defenders were even better. A couple of Rudiger challenges – strong, incisive – were magnificent and drew rapturous applause.

“Rudi, Rudi, Rudi, Rudi.”

At the break, we were halfway to paradise, but there was still a long way to go.

United, perhaps unsurprisingly, began on the front foot as the second-half began. The sun was starting to drop, causing more shadows to appear on the pitch, and it all became a lot clearer. Marcus Rashford – I can’t honestly believe how Mourinho chose to roast the young lad in his pro-Lukaku rant a few weeks back – was the first to trouble Thibaut, but his shot was easily saved. United pushed with more urgency now, but we generally defended with great shape and resilience.

Just after the hour, that man Phil Jones managed to get his constantly gurning head on to a free-kick and this drew a brilliant late, swooping save from Thibaut. The rebound was pushed home by Sanchez.

The Mancs roared, I stood silent.

Then, a split second after, we saw the raised flag for an offside.

Phew.

But the pattern had been set now, with United controlling possession but not really forcing us into compromising positions.

The Chelsea end were on it.

“And it’s super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC.”

But then, with twenty minutes to go, a tantalising run by N’Golo Kante deep into the United box released Marcos Alonso outside him. He seemed to take a touch that wasted time and allowed de Gea to close down the angles. A save was almost inevitable, with Victor Moses unable to dab in the rebound.

Courtois raced out to deny Rashford.

A save from Matic, who had been one of their better players.

From a corner in the last few moments, the hidden man Pogba suddenly rose unhindered and headed down and wide. We all breathed a heavy heavy sigh.

There were too very late substitutions;

Alvaro Morata for the tireless Olivier Giroud.

Willian for the spirited and game-changing Eden Hazard.

I watched with sorrow as Juan Mata came on to play a bit part; I am sad that we let him go, he should still be a Chelsea player.

The minutes ticked by.

The Chelsea end still kept going.

“CAREFREE.”

We thankfully enjoyed a fair proportion of the added minutes playing “keep ball” in the United half. Eventually, the referee blew up.

At just past 7pm on Saturday 19 May, a huge roar echoed around the east end of Wembley Stadium.

The FA Cup was ours once more. Our eight victories now put us in third place – equal with Tottenham – and behind only Arsenal and Manchester United.

1970 – Leeds United.

1997 – Middlesbrough.

2000 – Aston Villa.

2007 – Manchester United.

2009 – Everton.

2010 – Portsmouth.

2012 – Liverpool.

2018 – Manchester United.

Chelsea Football Club rarely get any praise for treating this historic competition with nothing but respect. We rarely play weakened teams, we treat it with earnest attention from round three onwards, and we play to win every game. It has seemed like a long old campaign this one; from the dull draw at Norwich – but what a great weekend away – to the elongated extra time and penalties in the replay, to the home games against Newcastle United and Hull City, to the away game at Leicester – which I missed due to being snowbound – and the semi-final against Southampton, to the final itself.

It has almost summed up Chelsea’s season.

A lot of troublesome opponents, a few dodgy results, a couple of fine performances, and ultimately, glory.

We watched the trophy being lifted, of course, but drifted away before the after-match celebrations took hold. We had, I guess, seen it all before. We walked – slowly, blissfully – up Wembley Way with another piece of Silverware in our back pocket. We caught the underground to Paddington, the train to Bath, the train to Westbury, the bus – a Chuckle Bus, of sorts – to Frome.

On the bus – the last logistical link of the season – were a few local girls who had been in Bath on a hen night. One of them saw my Chelsea flag, which is going to Alphie, the young lad I spoke about a while back – and she piped up.

“Did you go to the wedding?”

“Blimey, no. We’ve been to the Cup Final.”

She giggled and seemed excited.

“Ooh. Were you in the naughty section?”

Yes. I suppose we were. And proud of it.

Ha. The naughty section. Is that how some people think of football and football fans? How odd. How quaint. Fackinell.

It was an odd end to a pretty odd season.

So, what now?

Who knows.

There always seems to be trouble afoot at Stamford Bridge. There are constant rumours, counter-rumours, whispers, accusations, conspiracy theories, unrest, but – ridiculous, really – tons of silverware too. I hate the unrest to be honest. I would much rather a Chelsea of 2016/2017 with a quiet Conte charming us along the way, than a Chelsea of 2017/2018 and a disturbed manager at the helm. But who can blame him? This has turned into the very first year that he has not won a league championship. For the hard-working and intense Conte, that must have hurt.

But there seems to be a slight groundswell in support for Antonio Conte. I have always been in his camp. Winning the 2017 League Championship and the 2018 FA Cup Final is fucking good enough for me.

But oh Chelsea Football Club. It would be so nice, just for once, to win trophies in a harmonious way. As I was thinking about what to write for this last match report of the season, and the last one of my tenth season, I thought back to the last time that Chelsea Football Club seemed to be run in a harmonious way, with everyone pulling together, with the chairman and chief executive signing fine players with no fuss, with a well-liked manager, and loved players. I had to venture back to the wonderful season of 1996/1997 with Ruud Gullit as manager, with Gianfranco Zola as our emblem of all that is good in the game, and when – this is true – Chelsea were often cited as everyone’s second favourite team.

A perfect time? Our first silverware in twenty-six years?

Those days were mesmerizing and wonderful. And yet, within nine months, Ruud Gullit was sacked as Chelsea manager. As they say somewhere, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And never is that more true than at Stamford Bridge.

Sigh.

Thanks for everyone’s support throughout the season.

I sincerely hope that everyone has a fine summer and that we can all do this all over again next season.

I will see a few lucky souls in Perth, but first I need a bloody rest.

 

 

 

…and yes, it was revenge – again – for 1994.

Tales From The King’s Road Club

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 10 March 2018.

After two tiring – in more ways than one – journeys to Manchester in the previous two games, the home match against Crystal Palace provided a chance for a more relaxing day at football. With our trip to Catalonia now getting very close, here was a nice little pre-cursor. The reason for this upbeat mood? Parky had booked us day return rail tickets which meant that there were no driving duties for me, and there was an added bonus of an elongated pub crawl down the King’s Road before the game.

Bloody perfect.

We caught the 7.56am train from Westbury, and the memories of previous Chelsea trips flooded back. Not much has changed at Westbury over the years. It could easily have been a scene from 1982, 1985, 1988 or 1991. There was plenty of chit-chat between the four of us – PD, Glenn, Parky and little old me – and the familiar stations of Pewsey, Newbury and Reading were reached in what seemed like no time at all. We were joined by another Chelsea supporter on the journey to London, a chap around the same age as us – maybe a little older – who must have spotted PD’s little Chelsea badges, or overheard our Chelsea-related chatter. He sat next to us and we soon got chatting.

“Are you going to the football?” he asked.

“Yeah. Chelsea Palace” I replied.

“Are you Chelsea or Palace?” enquired Glenn.

I smiled and said “he’s too well dressed to be a Palace supporter.”

“Oh, I’m a season ticket holder in the East Stand.”

I had spotted him on the platform at Westbury; waxed Barbour jacket, mustard cords, brogues. I had – erroneously – presumed that he was a rugby fan from his attire. How wrong I was.

“I’m part of a syndicate; three of us share a season ticket” Shane replied.

It transpired that he lives just outside Frome, in a little village called Chapmanslade. I was thrilled that there was another Chelsea season ticket holder from our neck of the woods. I was even more pleased that one of the syndicate lives in Great Elm, a village only one and a half miles away from my house. We chatted away and he told us a little about his past; like Parky he had been in the Army. Parky was in the Grenadier Guards. Shane was in the Coldstream Guards. But whereas Parky went to a local comprehensive, Shane was an Old Etonian. But he was Chelsea and that was good enough for me. And he went up in my estimations when he showed disdain for “egg- chasing.”

“Never judge a book by its cover” I thought to myself.

We chatted about our recent experiences of following our team in the recent weeks and months. There was indeed much to talk about. I am not sure why, but the talk turned to Mo Salah, and Shane asked us the name of “that other Egyptian, who played for Spurs, the one with the big nose.” We struggled to name him.

From the passenger sitting across from Shane – tapping away silently on his laptop – came the word “Mido.”

And I had a little smirk to myself.

I wondered if the chap was a Spurs fan. I wondered if he had been biting his lip during the previous thirty minutes, wanting to interrupt our Chelsea-centric chat, but fearful that he would be shot down in flames as a fan of the team from North London that we always seem to get the better of.

We pulled into Paddington at about 9.30am. The buzz of a day in London was apparent as we walked beneath the arched roofs of the fine old station. After a breakfast of champions, we caught the Bakerloo to Embankment and the District to Sloane Square. The military theme of the day continued as we walked past the former site of Chelsea Barracks, which Parky was familiar with, although during his stay in the army in the early ‘seventies he was based in nearby Pimlico.

I had planned a six-pub crawl, but we exceeded expectations. From just after 11am to around 4.30pm, we visited a total of ten hostelries either along – or just off – the famous King’s Road.

The King’s Road was always linked to the swinging ‘sixties and the swinging football team that went with it, but in all my years of going to Stamford Bridge, I have never walked its length before a game sampling its pubs and boozers. Most Chelsea match day pubs along the King’s Road have historically been located “over the railway bridge” in Fulham and I have very occasionally visited a few of those Chelsea staples, though – again – on very few occasions. Most of my – our – drinking has been in Fulham proper, the North End Road, Fulham Broadway and those pubs near the stadium.

We had spoken about a pub crawl down the most famous street in Chelsea for years. At last we were going to do it justice.

“The Fox & Hounds.”

Much to my annoyance, the first one that I had planned was closed. So although, we visited ten, it was something of a false ten. Or a false nine, maybe? Where have we heard that before?

“The Rose & Crown.”

This pub is described as “unpretentious” and I could not have summed it up better. When I walked into the pub, I was met by a pungent aroma of disinfectant, which is surely not the best of starts. Still, they sold “Peroni” and so I was happy. The boozer had a distinct ‘seventies feel to it. No frills, no thrills, but plenty of spills. I wondered, in all honesty, now such a downmarket boozer could exist in such a high rent location. The toilet door was reassuringly etched with many football scribbles  :

MFC.

Up The Boro.

CHELSEA.

MCFC.

WHUFC.

We moved on, and our route took us close to the Royal Hospital, the home of those famous scarlet tunics.

“The Phoenix.”

This was an unplanned stop, just off the King’s Road on Smith Street, but much-needed after the austerity of the first one. Another “Peroni” and – with Parky and PD sampling an “Estrella” apiece –  there were a few a few thoughts about Barcelona. To our left were three Chelsea supporters from Norway, who mentioned they were looking forward to seeing a Norwegian called Alexander Sorloth play for Palace. I had not heard of him.

“The Chelsea Potter.”

Here was a famous Chelsea pub, one that I have often heard mentioned in despatches. The single saloon was packed, and I would soon learn that it was packed with both Manchester United and Liverpool supporters, awaiting the start of the game from Old Trafford. As luck would have it, my stool at a high table was turned away from the TV screen. I did not bother to watch; I shunned it completely. Another “Peroni” helped numb the pain of United racing to a 2-0 lead. We had hoped for a draw.

“The Trafalgar.”

There are a quirky mix of building styles along this stretch of the King’s Road, and a mix of shops too. Parky was pleased to see that the Curzon cinema was still in business, although the art deco frontage suggested that it is now houses a Habitat department store too. Next door was a large blue-bricked boozer, and we dived into its dark and quiet interior. Yet another “Peroni” and it was only one o’clock or so.

“The Builders Arms.”

We walked north a few hundred yards and plotted up inside the elegant and classy interior of “The Builders Arms.” No “Peroni” so I chanced a pint of “Birra Moretti” which is not as crisp as my favourite. Here we went through the events at Manchester City the previous Sunday. For once, we were talking football. Glenn had watched Antonio’s press conference the previous day and I was pleased to hear that he had seemed, apparently, more relaxed and at ease.

“The Sydney Arms.”

On the short walk to the next pub, we were stunned to see the gorgeous warm stone of the surprisingly huge St. Luke’s Church, a hidden jewel. I had not seen it before. It was a lovely treat. The next pub was packed, and many eyes were watching the Ireland vs. Scotland rugby game from Dublin. Here, it was a pint of “Sagres”. There was a small amount of banter with a couple of Chelsea supporters. But this still didn’t seem like the world outside was aware that Chelsea were playing a mile or so down the road.

Out onto the King’s Road, we caught a cab to the next destination. To our right I spotted the benches on Dovehouse Green which I always remember being the meeting – and posing – place of the punks of my adolescence and beyond. In around 1984, I noted it was Carnaby Street for mods and the King’s Road for punks, though time was moving on for both of those cults.

“The World’s End.”

Any pub crawl down the King’s Road, surely has to encompass this pub. We all remember the iconic black and white photograph of Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti, high on a London double-decker bus, holding aloft the newly-acquired FA Cup with the Worlds End pub behind. Here was a pub that I had visited just once before – the opener against home in 1991 – but is now much changed, and effectively a restaurant and a pub no longer. But the hosts made us feel welcome. During his days in the army, Parky would often walk the length of the King’s Road and would end up in this pub. It was just excellent to be back. I was evidently starting to falter; just a bottle of “Peroni” this time. Just before we crossed the bridge into Fulham, we walked past Slaidburn Street, another location of a famous photograph or two from 1970. Decidedly working class in those days – how times change – this terraced street was festooned with the blue and white banners wishing Chelsea well in the FA Cup Final and a few iconic photographs were taken. I wondered how many residents were Chelsea fans today.

“The Jam Tree.”

Pub number eight was not particularly busy, but it is a boozer that I am sure a few of us visited on an end of season mini pub crawl in 2000. Another pint of “Peroni” please Parky. The game was still over ninety minutes away. I suspect a few of our more local fans – do we have many? – were setting foot outside to make their way to the game. There was talk of this pub featuring in the hideous “Made In Chelsea” TV show.

“The Imperial.”

Another classic Chelsea pub, and visited on a few occasions previously, though each time I visit the bar seems to be in a different place. I was reaching my limit, so went for a bottle of “Corona.” We sat in a quiet corner, but I soon spotted an old workmate from over twenty years ago. Roger now lives in Devon, and I saw him last at that crazy 5-4 League Cup win against Manchester United in the autumn of 2012 when we travelled up together. It was lovely to see him again. He was with his mate Andy, who I last saw in 1997 when he refereed a game at Warminster which involved a Peter Osgood select team including such players as Tommy Langley, Graham Wilkins and Jimmy Case. Where does the time go?

So, nine pubs. Phew. Of course, if I had any sense I would have made sure that we popped into “The Butcher’s Hook” on the club’s one-hundred and thirteenth birthday, to pay homage to where the club was formed.

Maybe next year.

Inside the stadium, I soon spotted Alan and Gary Buchmann who have seats in the same section as us. Sadly, their dear father Joe passed away last Sunday, aged ninety. Joe had been a season-ticket holder for simply decades, and I liked him a lot. I remember he used to give me a Christmas card every year, and on the very first one that he gave me – in December 2004 – he addressed it :

“To Chris and the Chelsea Boys. Chelsea will win the league this season.”

Prophetic words, indeed.

For the best part of twenty seasons we sat with him. We sadly lost our pal Tom in 2015. In 2018, we lost Joe. He was a lovely man, and although he did not attend a game over the past two seasons, he was always in our thoughts. One memory from three years ago is strong. It came after Willian’s last minute winner against Everton in February 2015 :

“I looked over at Joe, a few seats away, past Alan. Joe is around eighty-five and his face was a picture. He too was stood, arms out-stretched, looking straight towards me. We just looked at each other, our faces and our bodies were mirror-images of each other. Wide smiles but arms wider. It was a fantastic and magical moment. Chelsea smiles everywhere.”

I gave Alan and Gary a hug – “your father was a lovely man” – and took my seat.

The early-evening air was mild. There had been no gulps when we learned about Antonio Conte’s team selection, though there was a place for Gary Cahill.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

I was aware that there were a few trans-Atlantic friends visiting and there were mainly watching from The Shed Lower. I hoped that the Ohio Blues, the Atlanta Blues and the New York Blues enjoyed the next ninety minutes.

The crowd assembled, though our dear pal Alan was not with us. He had fallen on his way to work during the week and was housebound. Gut-wrenchingly, he will miss the soiree to Barcelona.

GET WELL SOON T.

Before the match began, there was a minute of applause for a former champion, a star from 1955, the ginger-haired Derek Saunders, who – like Joe – had reached the grand age of ninety.

RIP Derek.

RIP Joe.

After the defensive shackles against Manchester City last Sunday, there was much more – obviously – attacking intent against Crystal Palace. A shot from Kante was almost flicked into the Palace goal by Giroud. A Zappacosta effort caused Wayne Hennessey to drop to his knees to gather. There were two or three “sighters” from Willian. From a Crystal Palace corner, Christian Benteke was left alone behind a gaggle of players in the middle of the box, but he headed tamely over. Palace, of course, had won 2-1 against us in 2015/2016 and in 2016/2017. It was so good to see our man N’Golo back in our starting eleven once more. Maybe if he had played at City, our game plan might have been slightly different. Andros Townsend fired over.

But it was mainly Chelsea.

On twenty-five minutes, Willian collected the ball and moved effortlessly inside. His low shot took a slight nick off the defender Martin Kelly, and we were ahead. I hope that the transatlantic visitors in Parkyville enjoyed Willian’s celebrations.

From Alan : “THTCAUN.”

I replied : “COMLD.”

Not long after, a nice move increased our lead. The ball was swept into the box by Marcos Alonso. Willian hopped over the ball, after presumably receiving a shout from Eden Hazard, who set up Zappacosta to his right. It was hardly Pele to Carlos Alberto, and the shot took a deflection or two off the hapless Kelly, but it was a deserved second-goal. The celebrations from the players seemed a little sheepish, but that did not matter. The crowd roared its approval.

The Matthew Harding started singing :

“One Martin Kelly. There’s only one Martin Kelly.”

There was certainly not the nimble footwork of Gene Kelly from the Palace defender.

Giroud had been involved throughout the first-half and it felt so much better to have a focal point for our play. There had been some fine movement from all of our attacking players. Only a crazy touchline clearance from James Tomkins stopped our new striker from opening his account. Another Zappacosta effort was saved well by the Palace ‘keeper. A Hazard goal was ruled offside. But all was well at the end of the first-half.

We hoped for further goals to build confidence ahead of the game of the season against Barcelona, but the second-half was more arid despite a fair few Chelsea efforts.

In the first noticeable moment of the second-half, the Nowegian Sorlath crashed a shot against the post after a defensive lapse by Andreas Christensen. Willian went close after switching passes with Giroud. A Hazard effort was saved by Hennessey. Willian caused the Palace ‘keeper to scramble to his left to save from a central free-kick. Willian – the main threat – then created for Zappocosta and Giroud.

We were once again treated to some lovely up close and personal trickery from Eden Hazard. One sequence shows his control over ball and defenders alike.

As space opened up, a run down the left flank by Alonso found Giroud, who steadied himself, but his side-footed shot came back off the far post. It seemed his luck was certainly against him. He was replaced by Alvaro Morata with twenty minutes to go. Palace had a goal disallowed via Sorleth, but that was our signal to leave.

We needed to leave the boys to it in order to make sure our train connections worked. We gathered together and headed down to Fulham Broadway. A quick tube up to West Brompton allowed us to connect at Clapham Junction for our train home, which was taking the southern route via Salisbury. While we waited at West Brompton, we heard that Patrick van Aanholt had scored a late Palace goal. We had, apparently, squeaked it 2-1. At Clapham Junction, the narrow passages echoing to “Chelsea”, we raided the Cornish Pasty concession stand. A Palace fan chatted to us and wished us well on Wednesday. Rival football fan in fair-minded and generous comment shock. Whatever next?

Our train connections went well and we reached Westbury at 10.30pm. We soon caught a cab back to Frome.

It had been a fine day.

On Wednesday, Barcelona await.

I will see many of you out there.

 

Tales From A Fool’s Paradise

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 1 April 2017.

We had whispered a final farewell to winter and spring was upon us. The clocks had sprung forward during the previous weekend, which was amid the most recent tedious international break, and the sun was shining down on a perfect Stamford Bridge. Just as in those black and white French films which seemed to feature regularly on BBC2 in the ‘eighties, when there was an extended period of complete blackness between one scene and another – signifying a time for reflection on what had just been witnessed – it seemed that Stamford Bridge was awakening from an enforced slumber and we were waking with it. A stretch here. A yawn there. A remembrance of the toils of winter before a final push towards the days of destiny in April and May.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture, as it often does in the first blush of spring.

It looked like paradise.

The pre-match had been busy.

Due to a section of the M4 being closed, I chose to divert via a more southerly route, and came in via Stonehenge, the A303, the M3 and past Twickenham. From BA11 it to SW6 it took me three and a quarter hours. Not to worry, The Chuckle Bus was providing laughs-a-plenty throughout. The game against Crystal Palace was the first of three games in a week. Travel plans had occupied our thoughts for a while. After Manchester City’s visit on Wednesday, we are staying the night in Bournemouth – just like a huge section of the Chelsea away support – and there are then away games at Manchester United and Everton to get excited about. Sandwiched in among these league matches, we have the FA Cup semi-final against “that lot”; Parky has us all booked-up for train tickets for that one. A rare break for me and I can’t bloody wait. There have also been long and sustained thoughts of foreign travel.

Part serious, part-whimsical, I told the boys on the drive up :

“You know what, I’m more focussed on our first European away game together in the autumn than I am about us being champions.”

How we have missed Euro aways this season; they are surely at the pinnacle of my experiences following this team over the past twenty-five years.

At just before midday, I joined the usual suspects at “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington. Our mate Bob was over from California and Dave was over from France. I quickly knocked down two pints of Peroni. But time was marching on.

We walked down the North End Road and briefly popped in to “The Cock Tavern” to quickly say “hello/goodbye” to a few friends over from various parts of the US. It was fantastic to see them all again – too many names, too little time – but I took great pleasure in seeing Dave meet up with several New York Blues again, since he used to live in that great city for a good few years. Clearly his smiles and laughter were mine too. Bloody fantastic.

In the packed pub – an old haunt of mine, it was the very first pub I had a beer at Chelsea – there were supporters from New York, Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Elsewhere, fans from Chicago and Fresno were around and about.

Many of the supporters’ groups within the US have set off on a life of their own, attempting to absorb Chelsea fan culture as best they can, but ultimately many cities always seem to have developed an overwhelming American twist. One supposes that this is to be expected. In some respects, the last thing that anyone wants to see is anyone trying too hard to fit in to a perceived notion of what it is to be a Chelsea fan.

But it’s the subtle things that I notice. I like to see US fans meeting us halfway; or at least attempting to learn of our history, our rituals, our style.

With the New York group, I always feel that there are enough ex-pats involved to still provide a distinct cultural backbone to their fandom, whether it be behaviour, attitude, humour, songs, clobber, or a general Chelsea sense of self-deprecation induced by many years of suffering. When the New York Blues show up at tour stops in the US, they get the beers in and they know the score. As an added plus for this particular Chelsea fan, I like it that not all of them are ritually bedecked in Adidas tat nor Chelsea scarves ad nauseam. I like the New York Blues. I have a lot of time for them.

Just before I left, I bumped into Frank from Queens. We always share some ribald banter each other with our support of the Italian teams Napoli – Frank – and Juventus – myself – and I couldn’t resist passing on a little morsel of news from my work. Over the next month or so, we have to plan to deliver four of five artics of office furniture to none other than Juventus Football Club.

Frank’s response – “awesome!” – was quickly followed by a big hug.

Love it.

The next stop took in “The Malt House.” I promise not to bore the living daylights out of everyone between now and the end of the season with talk of the summer tour, but four of us had a little chitchat about the trip to Beijing in July. Bob, Glenn and myself were able to meet up with Big John, and we had a fruitful thirty minutes. The flights, hotels and match tickets have been paid for. Next on the agenda is the visa application and plans for a visit to The Great Wall.

OK – enough!

Amid the busyness and business of this particular pre-match, I had not heard about the team news.

There was only one change in the starting eleven; in came Cesc Fabregas for Victor Moses, but obviously this was not a straight swap. Pedro was shifted to wing back, with Cesc pushed up to a place in the front three.

The away fans were initially the centre of our attention. They had arrived with many a flag and banner draped over the balcony. Most notably of all, around one hunded– mainly young – black-clad supporters (the self-styled Holmesdale Road Ultras) were placed right above the banners at the epicentre of their block. Alan and myself pondered why a club like Crystal Palace could easily designate a block of away tickets to a distinct set of fans yet Chelsea Football Club continually finds this simple task beyond their ken. Countless times over the past few seasons, members of the away season ticket scheme have ended up in poor areas at various stadia all over the country.

The ultras, if not everyone within the block of three-thousand, were soon making a racket. Their favourite was a chant that took me right back to my night with two thousand Leverkusen fans at Wembley last November.

“La la – la la la – la la – Crystal Palace.”

However, they soon fell silent. A gorgeous long range pass from Fabregas allowed Eden Hazard to gather and reach the goal-line in front of the Palace fans. He seemed to be gifted too much time to skip past his marker and pick out a team mate. I had spotted Diego Costa supporting the attack, so imagine my surprise when I saw Cesc arrive with Lampardesque timing to touch the ball high past Hennessey.

Only five minutes had passed and we were one-up.

Get in.

Not long after, just as I was extolling the virtues of our team ethic as Pedro charged down a ball and then David Luiz cleared – chatting away to Alan, but watching the play – I then suggested it would just be our bloody luck that, after all this praise, we would concede. We both watched, aghast, as Wilfried Zaha twisted among several Chelsea defenders and struck a fine shot past Thibaut to equalise.

Just as my words floated off into the afternoon air, Alan was able to say “like that.”

Bollocks.

Only two minutes later, we watched as Palace broke with pace and we were cruelly exposed. The once lampooned Christian Benteke ran at David Luiz, with N’Golo Kante too far away to challenge. After a poorly-timed Luiz nibble, the ball broke fortuitously for that man Zaha to play in Benteke, with our defenders at sixes, sevens, eights, nines and tens. With Courtois scrambling out to block, Benteke craftily lifted the ball over our ‘keeper and into the net.

One-nil up, two-one down, we were a terrace chant gone wrong.

In the away section, a red flare appeared behind the flags. The ultras were making even more noise now. If I am honest, it was an impressive sight. They might be lampooned by some, but I can’t fault their desire to make some vibrant noise in support of their team. There is a distinct possibility that they are more famous than their players these days, just in the same way that the social misfits who appear on Arsenal Fan TV are more famous than the Arsenal players at the moment. I know who I favour.

We were 2-1 down.

But only eleven minutes were on the clock; surely more goals would follow?

We enjoyed much of the ball during the rest of the half. We had tons of possession. Oodles of it. But there seemed to be a noticeable lack of incisiveness. I lost count of the number of times that a diagonal was played wide left to Marcos Alonso. This might have been part of Conte’s game plan, but it honestly felt like we were painting by numbers, without individual thought. I was too far away to spot a potential penalty appeal in our favour. Diego tried his best but was not finding space. A Luiz free-kick was wasted. Alonso fizzed a ball across the box but nobody was near. I brought my hands up to my head; it was a reaction that would be repeated again and again as the game progressed. Dave smashed over, Matic forced a finger-tip save from Hennessey, Luiz again wasted a free-kick. Pedro was up and down the right flank like a demon, perhaps – actually – covering too much ground. Elsewhere the bite was missing. Hazard was a little peripheral.

But Palace were defending well.

At the break we were 2-1 down. Damn.

Sadly, there wasn’t a great deal of noise at Stamford Bridge. There were pockets of song, but in general our supporters were losing too.

At the break, a few supporters were presented with their CPO shares and we were treated to a walk around by Celestine Babayaro, who graced our team from 1997 to 2005. He formed a great left-wing alliance with Graeme Le Saux for a few seasons.

We found it inconceivable that the first player to be booked by referee Craig Pawson was Diego Costa. Palace had been swiping at our players throughout the first-half. Diego stretched to reach a ball, but Hennessy reached the ball just before he could get a touch. Diego then had a shot blocked by Scott Dann, who stayed down for an eternity. He was eventually carried off.

Conte replaced Matic with Willian and we went to a four at the back. I bet Pedro never ever thought that he would play right-back when he joined us last year.

Despite us dominating the ball, Palace broke down our right and Zaha, their star player, forced a great save from Thibaut. They had a little period when they caused us a few worries. We kept attacking, moving the ball between our players, but again without a killing pass. I thought our final ball in to the box, from Marcos Alonso especially, was very poor. Balls were swept in low, but defenders cleared. Lofted balls were played deep, but with nobody in Chelsea blue near. A clear chance fell to Diego from a Hazard cross. His header not only lacked power but direction too. It landed, pathetically, yards wide.

The pass of the day from Fabregas between the centre-back and the right-back was a thing of beauty but it amounted to nothing.

The time passed. I had a little chat with Alan, thinking back to previous home games against Palace.

“Bloody hell mate, have we ever lost to Palace in the league in our memory? I remember the FA Cup game in 1976, but have they ever beaten us here?”

PD looked over and said “last season.”

“Oh bloody hell. Yes. Of course.”

Had I shoved the trauma of last season so far in to my memory that I had forgotten that 2-1 reverse?

Evidently so.

Michy Batshuayi entered the fray as a replacement for Alonso. Balls from out wide were continually whipped-in, but Palace players blocked everything.

At last – on about the eightieth minute – the whole of Stamford Bridge eventually united in a single song.

“About bloody time.”

Shots from Willian, Cesc and Pedro were saved by Hennessey, who was having a storming game. As the referee’s assistant signalled a massive seven minutes, we willed the team on. But, unlike in previous games, when I felt that a goal would definitely come, on this occasion I wasn’t convinced.

The seven minutes soon passed. In our last attack, we urged Thibaut to join the attack as we awarded a corner. He did so. Dressed in black, he lined up to challenge for the ball among the blues and yellows. It is always the oddest of sights. Typically, Hennessy punched the ball clear.

At the whistle, at least there were no boos. That would have been the last straw.

So, on April Fool’s Day, we had dropped a clanger. This was a very surprising defeat. After we had all met up back at the car, it did not take long for us to thrash through our thoughts of the game. It wasn’t as if any player had performed particularly poorly, it was just that not enough had enjoyed those little moments of top quality.

I was the fool for thinking that our big week of football would begin with three easy points.

And I won’t be making that mistake again in a hurry.

On Wednesday, we face Manchester City at home in a game that could define our season; a Chelsea win, and our position will look a little more secure.

See you there.

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Tales From Vanessa’s Birthday Weekend

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 19 March 2016.

PSG hurt. And Everton really hurt. Those were two tough losses.

Heading in to our game with West Ham United, our season suddenly felt rather flat. Season 2015-2016 now had an end in sight. We had nine games left – four at home, five away, all in the league – and I was wondering where on Earth our season had gone. From a results perspective, it had clearly gone up in smoke, but this has seemed a very quick season, despite the troubles along the way. It did not seem five minutes ago that I was catching a train with my friend Lynda en route to the season’s first game in New Jersey in July.

And now I could hear New Jersey’s favourite son Frank Sinatra singing.

“And now the end is near.”

Nine games left. These games would soon fly past. And yet I’m still relishing each and every one of them. The five away games would be enjoyable just because they are away games. The four home games would be important, for varying reasons.

And there would be the usual laughs along the way.

There was an extra-special reason for me to be relishing the visit of West Ham to Stamford Bridge. My friends Roma, Vanessa and Shawn – often mentioned in dispatches – were visiting London for five days, lured by the chance to see our captain John Terry one last time before he, possibly, heads west to the US or east to China. I have known Roma since 1989, when my cycling holiday down the East coast of the US took me to her home town of St. Augustine in Florida. Since then, there have been many laughs along the way, and also many Chelsea games too.

Roma announced to me a couple of months back that she was planning a visit to London, specifically Chelsea-centred, with her daughter Vanessa and son Shawn. Tickets were hastily purchased, and we waited for the day to arrive. Vanessa, fourteen years after her first game at Stamford Bridge against Fulham in 2002, was especially excited. She would be celebrating her twenty-fifth birthday while in London. This was very much her trip.

And I so hoped that John Terry, side-lined for a while, would be playing. He was the reason, in a way, why the three of them had decided to visit us. I was so relieved when our captain made a late appearance off the bench at Goodison last weekend.

I made an early start. I left my home town as early as 8am. Just after 11am, I turned the corner outside the West Stand and spotted my three friends from North Carolina and Tennessee walking towards me. It was lovely to see them again. Shawn was wearing not one but two Chelsea shirts, plus a Chelsea tracksuit top. His favourite player is Diego Costa and he was wearing a “19” shirt. Vanessa favours Cesc Fabregas and was wearing a “4.”

My love of Chelsea Football Club has certainly rubbed off on Roma’s family. Her other daughter Jenny now has a two-year-old boy, who himself yells “Chelsea” at the TV set whenever we are playing. This is all too crazy for me to comprehend at times. Back in 1989, Chelsea were off the radar in the US.

We spent a lovely hour or so mixing with a few of the former Chelsea players who meet up in the Copthorne Hotel before each and every home game. The three visitors first met Paul Canoville at Yankee Stadium in 2012; there was an updated photocall in 2016. The girls loved being able to meet Bobby Tambling again too. They recreated a photograph from Charlotte. John Hollins and Colin Pates gave them signed photographs.

Good times.

My friend Janette from LA was also in town, excited at getting a last minute ticket, and it was great to meet up with her at last. Elsewhere, there was a contingent from the New York Blues honing in on The Goose. Chopper – the NYC version – called by at the hotel before moving on. There was talk of how I picked up Chopper and two others at Bristol airport on a Saturday morning in 2007, before our Carling Cup win against Arsenal in Cardiff, and how – just over an hour later – we were drinking fluorescent orange scrumpy in a Somerset cider pub.

Good times then, good times now.

This was another mightily busy pre-match.

On leaving the hotel, I spotted Kerry Dixon and offered a handshake. It was good to see him again, especially at Stamford Bridge, and he appreciated my well wishes. Back in 2005, Roma had posed for a photo with Kerry in “Nevada Smiths” before a game with Milan, but there would not be time, alas, for a repeat in 2016.

Back at The Goose, more New York Blues arrived. I think around twenty were over in total. It was lovely to see some old friends once again. Mike, the NYB’s chief bottle-washer, was over from NYC for a bare twenty-four hours, flying in at Heathrow at 10.30am and leaving on Sunday morning, his birthday. Such dedication is truly heart-warming. There was whispered talk of the upcoming 2016 US summer tour, and the inevitable moans from some “huge” stateside Chelsea fans about the club not playing in their part of the country. Some of them should take a leaf out of Mike’s book.

We worked out that Shawn, only nine, would be seeing his seventh Chelsea game.

“Seven! You are a lucky boy. When I was nine, I had only seen three, and you live four thousand miles away!”

Team news filtered through.

“John Terry is playing.”

Fist pump.

Who would have guessed that Loic Remy would have been given the nod over Bertrand Traore? There was no Eden Hazard, injured. The surprise was that Kenedy, who Roma, Vanessa and Shawn saw make his debut in DC, was playing in an advanced midfield role. Elsewhere there were the usual suspects. There were grumbles that Ruben Loftus-Cheek was not involved from the start.

The beer garden was packed.

There were memories of last season’s game against Southampton, when Shawn was filling The Goose beer garden with bubbles from a toy. I joked with Roma then that it was a West Ham thing. Suffice to say, there were no bubbles in The Goose beer garden in 2016. There were, however, a small group of West Ham fans, wearing no colours, minding their own business. As we left the pub, early, at just before 2pm, I sensed that another little mob of West Ham walked past. I decided to hang back and let them walk on. The last thing that I wanted was for my guests to witness any match day silliness. To be fair, I didn’t see any trouble the entire day.

It is not always the same story when West Ham come visiting.

Roma, Vanessa and Shawn took their seats in the rear rows of the West Stand, underneath the overhang. They would soon be posting pictures. Fantastic.

The stadium slowly filled. How different this all is to the “pay on the gate” days of yesteryear, when the terraces often became full a good hour before the kick-off oat some games. In those days, the atmosphere would gradually rise with each passing minute. There would be songs from The Shed. On occasion, the pre-match “entertainment” would involve scuffles in the North Stand as opposing fans battled for territory.

In 1984, the ICF arrived very early in the seats of the old West Stand, causing me – a teenager on the benches – to worry about my safety.

Different times.

Prior to the game, Ron Harris presented John Terry with a memento marking his seven-hundredth Chelsea game the previous week. For a while, I wondered if Ron’s 795 might come under threat. Unless the club have a change of heart regarding John Terry, that record will go on forever.

There were three thousand away fans – three flags – in the far corner. They were mumbling something about “pwitty bahbles in de air” as the game began.

The first-half was a poor show to be honest. From the moment that Manuel Lanzini looked up twenty-five yards out and fired a fine curling effort past Thibaut Courtois on seventeen minutes, we struggled to get much of a foothold. A few chances were exchanged, but I felt that West Ham looked a little more focussed when they attacked. A penalty claim was waved away by new referee Robert Madley as the ball appeared to strike the arm of Enner Valencia. I am not one to moan about referees as a rule, but this was one of the first of many odd decisions made by the man in black.

We plugged away, but it was hardly entertaining or productive. I was slightly surprised that West Ham didn’t hit us further; they seemed to resist the temptation to attack at will, despite having a one-goal cushion.

This was not going well.

Aaron Cresswell struck a shot wide, Willian hit a free-kick over.

In the third minute of extra-time in the first-half, we were awarded another free-kick and I am sure that I am not the only one who presumed that Willian would take another stab at goal. Instead, Cesc Fabregas struck a magnificent free-kick over the wall and past the flailing Adrian.

Vanessa’s man had done it. We exchanged texts.

“Happy?”

“Extremely.”

“Bless.”

I instantly remembered Vanessa’s funny comment in Charlotte after Fabregas had fluffed an easy chance against Paris St. Germain…

“Ah, he’s always nervous around me.”

Not so today, Ness.

I am not sure what magical dust Guus Hiddink sprinkled in the players’ half-time cuppas, but it certainly worked. Pedro replaced the injured Kenedy, and we then upped the tempo. Apart from a John Terry goal-line clearance from the mercurial Payet in the first attack of the half, we dominated the second-half right from the offset.

An effort from Oscar, a header from JT. We were getting behind the West Ham full backs and causing problems.

And yet…and yet…completely against the run of play, Sakho played in the overlapping Cresswell who smacked a shot against the bar with Courtois rooted to the floor.

Remy, twisting, forced a save.

The crowd sensed a revival but the noise was not thunderous as I had hoped.

Andy Carroll, who scored the winner at Upton Park earlier this season, replaced Sakho. His first bloody touch turned in Payet’s through ball.

Bollocks.

With West Ham going well this season, I almost expected a few to get tickets in the home areas of The Bridge. When they nabbed this second goal I looked hard to see if there were any odd outbreaks of applause from away fans in home areas – the corporate West Stand especially – but there was nothing.

Traore replaced Remy, who had struggled.

Over in the far corner :

“Fawchunes always idin.”

We rallied well, and the West Ham goal suddenly lived a very charmed life. A Fabregas header went over, an Oscar shot was blocked, and Fabregas’ bicycle kick flew over. Corner after corner. A Terry header went close.

Carroll then twice tested Courtois, but the threat was averted.

The time was passing.

This would be Guus Hiddink’s first loss in the league.

Keep plugging away boys.

At last Ruben Loftus-Cheek appeared, replacing Oscar, who had another indifferent game. Ruben’s run into the box was curtailed by Antonio. It looked a clear penalty to me.

Fabregas coolly sent Adrian the wrong way.

2-2.

Phew.

Vanessa’s man did it again.

At last…at last…the noise bellowed around Stamford Bridge.

I thought that we had definitely deserved a draw on the back of a more spirited second-half show. The first-half had been dire. We kept going. I thought JT was excellent, as was Mikel. Elsewhere, I liked Kenedy and Loftus-Cheek. They must be given more playing time in the remaining eight games.

At the Peter Osgood statue, my three American friends were full of smiles.

Lovely stuff.

As I drove towards Barons Court, I realised that there would be no home game, now, for four whole weeks.

Oh Stamford Bridge, I will miss you.

“Oh wait. Hang on. I’m back again tomorrow.”

On Sunday, there would be day two of Vanessa’s birthday weekend, with a stadium tour, a quick call at the highly impressive Chelsea museum – and my first sighting of the excellent 3D model of the new stadium – a Sunday lunch on the banks of the Thames at Chiswick and a couple of hours under the shadow of Windsor Castle in Peter Osgood’s home town.

It would turn out to be a simply wonderful weekend.

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Tales From The Tar Heel State

Chelsea vs. Paris St. Germain : 25 July 2015.

The very first time that I visited North Carolina, I was on a bicycle.

Let me explain.

After I left college in 1987, I wasn’t set on a clear career path, and my main desire in those days was to travel and experience different cultures. I had already criss-crossed Europe on several inter-rail marathons, but needed to expand my horizons. From May 1988 – relegation to the second division, ugh – until August 1989 I worked in the cold store of a local dairy in order to save several thousand pounds to head over to North America with my college mate Ian. We had a rough plan; east to west, ending up at my relatives in Vancouver in time for Christmas 1989. Travel would be by bus, train and bicycle. Yes, that’s correct; we planned to cycle our way around at least a part of the gargantuan continent. We had both cycled as kids, as teenagers, but I had not owned a bike since 1981 when I was sixteen.

What the hell. Cycling would be a cheap mode of transport, it would enable us to see proper America and proper Americans, and it would add a sense of adventure to our stay.

Our adventure in North America began in September 1989. We spent a week in New York, a few days in Washington DC, then bought our bicycles and our camping gear in Richmond, Virginia. After three days of cycling through that state, we crossed in to North Carolina just south of a state park in Clarkesville, where I remember cooking up some bacon and beans on our little camping stove, and sharing a joke with the resident park ranger when she explained how she came to learn that the word “fanny” in English is – ahem – slightly different to its American meaning.

We crossed the state line into North Carolina on route 15, and cycled over sixty miles through rolling countryside on small roads through little villages and towns such as Bullock, Oxford and Creedmoor, before staying the night in another state park, this time in the relatively unknown city of Raleigh.

After that, we headed further south, but our path was severely disrupted by the course of Hurricane Hugo which brought severe destruction and desolation when it hit land at Charleston, South Carolina. We were holed up in a cheap motel just off I-95 in a place called Dunn for two nights, and thankfully missed everything. After cycling further south to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, we ended up cycling 120 miles in order to get through the disaster area.

Our cycling adventure was real. We laughed at the timing of all of it.

“We buy bikes on the Saturday. A week later, a bloody hurricane strikes.”

“What a couple of schmucks.”

However, it has to be said…it was an amazing few days.

Eventually, we ended up cycling around nine hundred miles down that Eastern seaboard of those historic and at times troubled South-Eastern states. We cycled through Georgia, then reached the promised land of Florida just north of Jacksonville. It had been a tough, but magnificent three weeks.

As an aside, and with typical irony, I only saw two Chelsea games in that 1989-1990 season – just before I left for NYC in September – and therefore missed our highest-placed finish since around 1971.

I wasn’t too bothered however. My first experience of the USA – and Mexico, and Canada – more than made up for that.

Almost twenty-six years later, I was again heading south to North Carolina.

After our surprising 4-2 loss to the New York Red Bulls on the Wednesday, I caught a New York Yankees game on the Thursday afternoon – an easy 9-3 win against the Baltimore Orioles – and then set off on my mammoth ten hour drive south to the city of Charlotte and our game against our new and seemingly bitter rivals Paris St. Germain. After five hours of driving through generally busy interstates, I stopped off at a hotel in Martinsburg, West Virginia. I then pushed on, heading south-west on the glorious interstate 81 which runs parallel with the Shenandoah Valley. The views were spectacular. This was a Chelsea road trip on another level. It was slightly longer than my drive from North Carolina to Chicago in 2006 for our game against the MLS All-Stars, which topped out at around 630 miles. I did that in one session though.

This one, from Yankee Stadium, New York to Charlotte, North Carolina would be 660 miles.

Ah, the American road. For those who know me, my love of driving is clear, even on the jam-packed and bottle-necked roads of England. If there is a Chelsea match at the end of it, even better.

As I pulled off I-81 and then headed due south in to North Carolina – “hello again” – it wasn’t long before we descended down from an Appalachian ridge down into the North Carolina piedmont on I-77. The vista, looking out over thousands of acres of greenery, was stunning.

Oh happy days.

Unfortunately, my original planned arrival time in to Charlotte of around 1pm never materialised due to traffic problems leaving New York City, several delays en route, and then further congestion to the north of Charlotte, with its city centre skyscrapers tantalisingly in view.

At around 5pm, I pulled up outside my friend and fellow Chelsea fan Brian’s gorgeous house a few miles to the south of the city centre.

I had arrived.

Phew.

Brian and I go back a few years; maybe a decade. He was, in fact, one of the first – if not the very first – US based Chelsea fan that I ever emailed. As soon as it was announced that our beloved team would be playing in his home city, Brian wasted no time in inviting me to stay with him and his family for a couple of days.

Fantastic.

I met Brian’s wife Jenny, their three lovely children – all Chelsea, all going to the match – and his good friend Leo, who I had met in previous tours. Perhaps I just needed someone to talk to after being alone in my car since 8.30am (please do not tell Parky that I missed him…) that I soon wasted no time in talking about all sorts of football, Chelsea and sport-related subjects. In their huge kitchen, I gabbled away manically like some sort of fool, as I ironed a shirt to wear for the evening’s pre-game activities.

Brian, Leo : I hope it all made sense.

We soon headed in to the city through indescribably picturesque tree-lined streets, and within ten minutes, were being deposited right outside the little park which links the city centre proper and the city’s two sport stadia. The sun was glinting off the towering skyscrapers, the weather was hot, but not unbearable. It was perfect. I was buzzing yet again.

Chelsea were in town.

In the same way that I knew virtually nothing of the city of Raleigh in the autumn of 1989, I am ashamed to say that I knew little of the city of Charlotte as this summer tour approached this year. I had visited its large airport twice before, in 2004 and 2006 on visits to see my friend Roma and her family in the mountains of North Carolina to the west, but Charlotte itself was virgin territory. I mentioned to Brian and Leo that, to be truthful, Charlotte is an almost unknown American city to us over in England. I was stunned to read that it is the ninth most populous city in the US. And yet, I would suggest, people in England would be hard-pressed to say which state it is in, let alone tell of its history and character. It would be a major disappointment on this trip that I would only be in town for three days.

During the hour or so that we spent chatting in the kitchen, I was reminded that the big college rivalry within North Carolina, despite being in the football-obsessed south-east, is in the sport of college basketball. Brian smiled when I explained that I have owned, in the past, a couple of items in support of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. Their rivalry with the despised Duke is intense.

Elsewhere in Charlotte, the NFL Panthers – a relatively new franchise – and the NBA Hornets – now returned after exile in New Orleans – battle for affection. There is also a soccer (there, I said it) team called Charlotte Independence which competes at the sub MLS level.

As we walked to the little knot of pubs and bars opposite Romare Bearden Park, Charlotte looked just perfect.

This was going to be a great night.

And so it proved.

From around 7pm to midnight, and beyond, the small courtyard which hosted several bars, became increasingly full of Chelsea supporters from various parts of the United States, plus a few of us from England.

Songs, beer, handshakes, laughter, smiles, piss-taking…fun.

The Bayou City Blues from Houston and their charismatic leader Jesus.

The Chicago crew.

The ex-pats Simon and Tuna from Atlanta.

A little group from Jacksonville, Florida; kind enough to give me one of their very stylish chapter scarves.

Familiar faces everywhere.

Andy from Detroit.

Rick and Beckie from Iowa.

The Bobster from Fremont, California.

Beth. Always Beth.

Sam, Phil and Chris from Iowa.

Samantha and Larry from New Jersey.

Tim from Philly.

Charles from Texas, so thrilled at meeting Paul Canoville for the first time.

Steve from New Orleans.

Natalie from Kansas City.

Mark, David, Cathy from home.

Danny and a few of the infamous OC Hooligans.

Bobby Tambling.

Mario Melchiot.

JR from Detroit.

Pete from Florida.

Hoss from Oklahoma.

The beers were flowing. It was superb. This night was rivalling Baltimore in 2009 for the best Chelsea piss-up in the US. I dotted in and out of the packed bars, taking photographs, chatting away. It was lovely to receive a few words of genuine appreciation from many folk who I had never met who thanked me for my efforts in posting my thoughts on this website.

I was touched.

[Parky’s voice from three thousand miles away : “who by, you fucker?”]

I darted off for a pizza, and sat outside chatting with Steve from New Orleans, Robert from London and Neil Barnet. Brian and Leo called by. Chelsea talk dominated.

I dropped back over to the bar area around 1pm but people had drifted away. There were just a few left. I caught a $10 cab and headed home.

Out on the porch, until 4am, Brian, Leo, Leo’s brother Vince and I chatted away.

The Cocteau Twins played in the background.

“Heaven or Las Vegas?”

I’d take Charlotte anytime.

I slept well, from 4am to 11am, and amazingly woke without the merest hint of a hangover.

Due to the fact that I needed to keep on top of these match reports – and with three games against Arsenal, Fiorentina and Swansea City coming up in rapid succession on my return home – I spent a while writing up “New Jersey.”

It was early afternoon on game day. While others decided what Chelsea shirts to wear, I reverted to type. Brian smiled.

Lacoste Watch.

Chris – white.

Brian’s parents, with his father wearing a Chelsea away shirt from 2004-2005, a fine vintage, arrived and we set off in two cars for the local train station. On the short ride in to town – how English – the train compartment comprised of around fifteen Chelsea supporters and two PSG. This ratio was a good pointer for the rest of the day.

At around 4pm, we reappeared at the scene of devastation the previous evening. There had been reports of a little altercation earlier in the day. There had been a blue-smoked flare let off. The local police were in evidence. I again met up with the usual suspects. The notable arrivals were the New York Blues, unchained for a weekend on the loopy juice.

Mike, Frank, Lawson, Eliot, Julian – top lads one and all.

As I had a long drive ahead of me on the Sunday, my “intention” was to keep it light.

A couple of cans of “Blue Moon” later, I wasn’t so sure.

One special group of Chelsea supporters arrived at around 4.30pm.

Roma, her daughter Vanessa, hair dyed Chelsea blue especially, her son Super Shawn, plus Ness’ new boyfriend Dave and their friend Justin – who I remember as a three year old in 2004 – had driven in from their homes on the Tennessee and North Carolina border.

Just a three hour drive for them.

It was fantastic that Chelsea should be playing so close.

We waited for JR’s mother – her first Chelsea game – to arrive and then walked over to the stadium, the corporately-named Bank Of America Stadium, which is a typical NFL structure, with two tiers, and little charm.

Outside the main entrance, two statues of snarling panthers about to pounce, were the only feature which seemed to worthy of note. It was a modern and efficient stadium, but oh so bland. Thankfully the new Stamford Bridge, God-willing, will set new standards in design.

In Roman Abramovich – and his architectural design team – we trust.

As game time approached, the heat was still intense. I took respite in the dark and cavernous concourse. I walked past a merchandise store and it was unbelievably manic. Both Chelsea and PSG goods were on sale. The lines at the tills were ridiculously long. Maybe I would buy a tour T-shirt in DC. Not today. Too busy. All around me, folk in Chelsea shirts darted past me. Further evidence yet again of how our global reach has touched so many.

Again, to go back.

When I travelled up to Pittsburgh with Roma and Vanessa and a few others in 2004 – and when I printed up seven “North Carolina Blues On Tour” T-shirts, the Chelsea section was no more than 150. The gate in Pittsburgh was no more than 15,000, despite more tickets being sold, hence the 25,317 official figure. This game would be around the 60,000 mark.

Stunning.

To see so many Americans wearing Chelsea shirts blew my mind.

The PSG tagline for their tour was quite clever.

“PARIS LOVES US.”

In to the stadium and the team were going through their drills. However, as often happens, my focus was 180 degrees opposite and I observed the massed ranks of the Chelsea fans behind me. My camera clicked. I was sat just behind Bobby Tambling and his wife Val. Fantastic.

It was clear that there were many more Chelsea fans than those of PSG. There appeared not to be any specific PSG section. We were in Block 122, right behind the goal, with the New York Blues. Other supporters groups were behind me and to my left. There then seemed to be a general level – general sale, not Chelsea only – in 121, before some recognisable faces appeared in 120. This was Chelsea central then. If there were – what? – 50,000 folk favouring Chelsea in the sky-blue stadium of the Carolina Panthers, the hard core behind the goal numbered a couple of thousand.

But this is not black and white, nor even blue and white. For example, right in front of Bobby Tambling were two chaps wearing Arsenal jerseys, and one of them had “Fabregas” on the back.

Work that out.

In the stadium, other English jerseys were spotted, notably – and with no surprise – Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City. In this sky blue state, the colours of the Panthers and the Tar Heels, maybe Brian will see an upturn in City shirts.

Even in our Chelsea section, there were sporadic shouts of “PSG” during the game. More of that later.

The teams walked out on to the pitch several minutes later than intended. The US national anthem was played, people stood, caps were removed. I am not one for the bluster of nationhood, but even I joined in.

“…and the home of the brave.”

The game started around ten minutes late.

Roma and Shawn had witnessed the Chelsea and PSG game at The Bridge in March. Who would have possibly thought that we would be all here together in Charlotte only four months later? Shawn, still sporting his David Luiz locks, is one lucky boy.

Jose fielded a very strong team, though Asmir Begovic was selected ahead of Thibaut. In came Matic, in came Hazard,in came Diego.

Begovic – Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta – Mikel, Matic – Moses, Fabregas, Hazard – Diego Costa.

All eyes were on David Luiz – once a hero, now a figure of fun, but sadly booed by many in our ranks in the first-half – and also the talismanic Ibrahimovic.

Chelsea began reasonably well, but as the first-half progressed, PSG tended to enjoy more of the ball. We began probing from out wide, but a lack of quality in to the box was present. PSG, however, looked a more rounded outfit.

The Chelsea support, in pockets, rather all together, was trying their best.

After about ten minutes, with things quiet, I struck.

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

(I always try and do eight…I was counting them up…ugh…keep going son…I was smiling towards the end)

“ZIGGER”

“OI.”

(Slowing right down now…)

“ZAGGER”

“OI.”

(Phew…one last one.)

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER.”

“OI OI OI.”

My job was done.

Smiles all round.

Sadly, my endeavours were not rewarded on the pitch.

Twenty-five minutes in, Mikel sadly lost possession and Augustin snapped a fierce shot against Begovic’s right post, but to our dismay the ball rebounded to the feet of Ibrahimovic, who slammed the ball into a virtually empty net.

That hurt.

There were – bizarrely – cheers from within the Chelsea sections. I cannot explain that.

America…over to you.

Right from the offset, everything about this game seemed to be much more important and relevant than our game on Wednesday. These were two massive clubs, with a recent history of animosity.

This one counted.

Diego Costa crashed a shot against the woodwork, but our chances fell away.

Sadly, PSG continued to dominate as the first half continued on. The rest of the half will be remembered for three stunning saves – all different – from Begovic. He received resounding applause from us as he walked away at the break.

At half-time, a beer, and a cool down in the concourse.

The noise thus far had been patchy. I hoped for greater things from both players and supporters alike in the second-half. At least we would be attacking our end.

On came Courtois, Zouma, Ramires.

There had been strong challenges throughout the first-half and this continued as this tale of two cities continued. After Cesc Fabregas took too many touches, dallied and saw his shot blocked, Vanessa – who thinks Cesc is gorgeous – remarked –

“He’s always nervous around me.”

Oh, that made me smile.

Nice one Vanessa.

For a few moments, we were treated to the “Let’s Go Chelsea, Let’s Go” chant.

Awesome.

Nobody in the central core sung this.

The NYBs continued to sing a huge variety of songs, but with not many people confident enough to join them..

I sang “We Are Blue, We Are White, We Are Fackin’ Dynamite” to a sea of blank faces. For an odd few moments, there was an odd game of pinball between the two factions of support in the stadia, initiated by the other three stands I hasten to add.

“CHELSEA / PSG / CHELSEA / PSG / CHELSEA / PSG.”

A little similar to the “UNITED / SHIT / UNITED / SHIT” chant of old.

With Chelsea getting back in to the game, Fabregas picked out the movement of Victor Moses, who volleyed home from close range. There was a massive roar – GET IN! – and who says these pre-season games do not count. Victor’s somersault was spectacular. We bathed in his glory. It was magnificent.

Radamel Falcao was introduced to the proceedings and the roar was heartfelt. Chelsea grew in confidence and chased the winner. Willian, Oscar and Cuadrado entered the fray. A shot from fellow sub Loic Remy was pushed away. We roared them on. Sadly, amongst all this, the wave wrapped itself around the stadium for a few minutes.

Sigh.

This was excellent stuff, with the Chelsea fans around me full of smiles and encouragement. A few half chances were all we had to cheer, however. The last meaningful action of the game was a fine save up the other end from Courtois.

At least we didn’t lose.

Then, to all of our amazement, it was announced that there would be penalties, in a strange hark-back to the NASL days when no game ended in a tie.

“Damn, let’s take a draw and head back to the boozer” I thought.

We had a little think in our section.

Would this be our first penalty shootout since Munich?

I thought so.

I watched, calmly, and photographed the ensuing drama through my camera lens. I watched some penalties on the huge HD TV screen behind the goal.

As Cuadrado stepped up…”he’ll miss.”

Others agreed.

He missed.

Thankfully, that man Thibaut saved twice from Baheback and then, during sudden death, against Thiago Silva. Before we had time to think, we saw the tall figure, head to toe in 1987 jade, place the ball on the spot and smash the ball high into the goal.

GET FUCKING IN.

Oh boy, such a bizarre feeling, but one which was heartfelt.

We did it.

A win is a win is a win.

I sadly lost contact with Team Roma; they had to shoot off to their homes as they had to work in the morning. I slowly walked back past the post-game crowds. I was alone with my thoughts.

Rather tired, rather exhausted, my throat hurting after those rasping “Zed zeds” but supremely happy with my lot.

I bought another can of “Blue Moon” and waited for friends to arrive. I spotted Bob, then JR. The atmosphere was lovely. Charlotte had been very good to us. Then, out of nowhere, three lads from the Chelsea Fans Channel – one of whom I had met in New York on Tuesday – enticed JR and myself for a few opinions on our performance.

Here we go :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=vqCX3E4Tbcw&app=desktop

As soon as we had finished, I commented to JR “I called us schmucks. I never use that word.”

“You’ve been in New York too long.”

“Not used that expression for years. Maybe not since Hurricane Hugo.”

We returned back to a lovely restaurant under the towering central skyscrapers for a good old Carolina BBQ.

Great times.

Thank you Charlotte.

Your city, your stadium, our club.

IMG_1308

Tales From New Jersey

New York Red Bulls vs. Chelsea : 22 July 2015.

Ah, the passage of time.

Ten summers ago, I was lucky enough to travel to the United States of America to watch two out of three Chelsea tour matches when we travelled as league champions for the first time in fifty years. I attended a match in the capital city of Washington against DC United and then at the Meadowlands in New Jersey against Milan. In 2015, I was repeating myself; a return trip to the nation’s capital and another game at the Redskins’ Fedex Field and then another game in New Jersey, this time at the purpose built home of the New York Red Bulls of the MLS. There would also be a third game in Charlotte, North Carolina. And again, we would be returning to North America as English Champions.

So, here was a great chance to compare the two trips, and to note how both the global spread of Chelsea Football Club has impacted upon another continent, but to also check on how the football scene in the US has changed over the ensuing decade. It would be a trip that will bring me face to face with many good friends, but also face to face with football’s steady rise in a once barren football nation.

Season 2015-2016, I guess, would begin in the little-known town of Harrison, New Jersey, across the Hudson River and the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan.

“Let’s go to woik.”

Most of my summers away from the constant beat of football – or at least Chelsea – follow the same pattern. After following the team extensively during the previous nine months, I usually feel exhausted and in need of a break. The summer of 2015 was certainly no different. As 2014-2015 closed, I felt myself shutting-off. I needed to re-charge those batteries.

However, I was in no doubt that the upcoming US Tour, with matches against New York Red Bulls, Paris St. Germain and Barcelona, plus the fun of meeting a few good Chelsea mates, would be the kick-start that I would need.

And yet this tells only half the story.

In my closing words from the last game of season 2014-2015, I mentioned that it had been the least enjoyable of the four league championships that I had witnessed. I don’t really want to go over old ground, but in the circumstances I feel it is appropriate. There are probably several reasons for the melancholy which greeted title number five, but two are paramount. After our win against Bayern Munich in the European Cup Final of 2012, I sagely suspected that any success which followed would not reach those same heights of emotion and satisfaction. And although the lovely journey towards our fifth league championship was often exciting and entertaining, the deciding win against Crystal Palace was slightly anticlimactic.

Also, of course – and most importantly of all – in the closing months of last season, I sadly lost my mother after a short but yet distressing illness. In the period immediately after this devastating loss, football seemed at times irrelevant – and silly, banal and ridiculous – and yet at times it acted as the force which kept me sane. It was, undoubtedly, a strange and confusing time.

For both of these reasons, and more, it felt like I almost sleepwalked through the months of March, April and May.

Without being too melodramatic, season 2015-2016 represents a new challenge for me.

Of course I am genuinely intrigued to see how the new season will pan out, not only in terms of the team’s success – which, worryingly, seems assured in some optimistic quarters of our support – but also how I react to having a different set of circumstances under which I find myself supporting the club. Will my support for the club step up a few notches, will it remain constant, or will it begin to decline, with an almost imperceptible inevitability? If I am honest, I have felt that I have reached some sort of plateau of support over the past few seasons. I guess that is a pretty high plateau. I have averaged around fifty games over the past ten campaigns and it is unlikely that I will be able to maintain that level of support – some would call it addiction or obsession, rather than simple support – over the ensuing decade. But I’m not sure. This is why I find this season rather intriguing.

All of these thought, plus many more, formed a backdrop as I prepared mind, body and soul for yet another season supporting the team of royal blue on the Fulham Road.

After landing at Dulles International Airport at 3.30pm on Monday 20 July, my latest American adventure began. I picked up a hire car and soon found myself heading north. How I love the American road. The weather was perfect, the scenery magnificent. I zipped over an iconic iron bridge over the Potomac River; I was buzzing.

I was headed for my friends’ house in Flemington New Jersey. I have known Stacey since 1989. I first met her husband Bill in 2001. They kindly invited me to stay the first night with them. After five hours of driving, I eventually reached their fantastic house at around 10.30pm. The last time that I had seen them was at Gettysburg when I visited that wonderful and historic Civil War site with my dear mother in 2010. As we chatted – a bottle of Peroni never tasted better – I could not help think back on the few hours that my mother spent in their house five years ago. Lovely memories. The next morning after breakfast, we spoke about a few current issues occupying our minds, but – typically me – I managed to chat about football too. Stacey and Bill are no football fans, although Stacey accompanied me to our 1-1 draw with Milan in New Jersey in 2005 – but I enjoyed our conversation about how football has taken hold in an increasingly rapid fashion in the US in the time that I have been visiting.

During the previous evening, I had driven past the Pennsylvania town of Bethlehem, and I spoke to Stacey and Bill how that town used to house a US football powerhouse back in the ‘twenties called Bethlehem Steel. It was lovely that I drove past such an important town in the history of US football. The late David Wangerin penned an intriguing book called “Soccer In A Football World” which detailed the rise – and fall – and then rise again – of our sport in the United States. In the early twentieth century, everything was up for grabs, with various sports clamouring for national attention. For several reasons – some more nefarious than others – football missed its opportunity to stake a hold in the hearts and minds of the US nation. The other four major sports left football in their wake. It has taken a long time – via the boom and bust era of the NASL – for football to reach its current place in the hierarchy of US sports. The growth has been exponential in even the eleven years since my first Chelsea game in the US, the 3-0 win over Roma in Pittsburgh, when the Chelsea section was only around 150 in number.

The growth of the MLS – now with the fifth highest league attendances anywhere in the world – has grown year on year. New teams are created, new markets explored, new superstars added. It is an interesting story.

I often think that the US is a fantastical social experiment; “add various races from Europe, then add other races from Asia, then Africa. Mix and observe.”

It seems to me that the US football fan culture has evolved under similar lines; “add banners from Italy, songs from England, standing areas from Germany, scarves from Spain, chants from Mexico. Mix and observe.”

On the Tuesday, I drove to River Edge in New Jersey. I was staying with another couple – Lynda and Tee – for two nights, which would encompass the first of our tour matches. I have known Lynda, via the New York Blues, since 2010 and I first met T in 2012. Sadly, Lynda lost her paternal grandfather on the Sunday; it would be a tough time for her, but I was welcomed with open arms. Tee coaches football and soon arrived back from a “gig” in Hoboken.

It was Tuesday afternoon – around 5pm – and we sped over the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan. Our excitement was palpable; we would soon be meeting up with many friends in a bar under the shadow of the Empire State Building, but there was an added – and wondrous – twist. Not only would former players Bobby Tambling, Mario Melchiot and Paul Canoville be making an appearance, but arrangements had been made – hush hush and all that – for Frank Lampard to make an appearance too.

What excitement.

My friend Roma, with her friend Peggy, from Tennessee arrived at about 6.30pm. Roma is a familiar figure in these Tales, and has been a fantastic friend over the past twenty-six years. Roma has attended games at every one of Chelsea’s previous eight US tours (she is “one up” on me, since I missed the 2013 tour), and was doing all three of this summer’s games. However, when I calmly informed her that her hero Frank Lampard would be in the bar later in the evening, her reaction was lovely. To say she was excited would be an understatement. She almost began crying with joy. Bless her.

What a lovely time we all had. In addition to being able to reconnect with many good Chelsea friends, including the usual suspects from the UK, we were treated to an hour or so of valuable insights into the four guest’s views on various subjects. Munich often dominated the questions. Frank was very gracious and answered each question carefully and with wit and sincerity. I loved the way that he listened attentively to the other players. Near the start, the New York crowd began singing :

“We want our Frankie back, we want our Frankie back.”

Frank smiled and responded :

“I’ll be back.”

It was these three words which would be reported all of the way around the world the next morning.

I took a few photographs, but could not get close to Frank. However, it was just lovely to be so close to a Chelsea legend. Frank signed some shirts and photographs, but he needed to shoot off to meet up with his former team mates later in the evening. As he slowly exited amid scenes of adulation, it did not surprise me to see Roma right next to Frank, with her camera poised.

Snap.

Roma and Frank, New York 2015.

Picture perfect.

A few of us stayed chatting until gone midnight. To be honest I expected a later night, but then I realised;

“Not everyone is on holiday.”

Tomorrow, game day, would be a normal working day for most.

I spent all of the Wednesday in New Jersey. I was not tempted, for once, by Manhattan’s many attractions.

I had, actually, only been in New York in June, on a joint fiftieth birthday trip with my two good friends Daryl and Neil. We had planned that particular trip, encompassing two New York Yankees games, a New York Mets game and a Brooklyn Cyclones minor league game, for five years. We had a lovely time. The back story is particularly amusing.

In addition to being Chelsea fanatics, Daryl and I follow the Yankees. For many years we had said that should Chelsea ever experience a decline in fortunes, and specifically a prolonged absence from European games – with all associated expenses – then we would be able to go over to see some Yankee baseball. This plan was spoken about for many years.

Well, Chelsea kept winning.

Damn it.

The baseball trip never looked like happening.

European trips to Champions League cities prevailed.

Typical Chelsea.

In 2010, we decided that “enough was enough.”

In June 2015, we eventually made it to The Bronx for some baseball. We loved every minute of it. We even bumped into a few New York Blues at “Legends” after one game. It was fantastic.

On the Wednesday morning, I drove up to Woodbury Common in New York State, where there is a huge outlet centre. Always on the lookout for suitable additions to my football wardrobe, I picked up a few snappy shirts.

“It would be rude not to.”

In the afternoon, at just after 4pm, Lynda and I walked to the local suburban train station near her home. I was flagging slightly and, appropriately, guzzled back a refreshing tin of Red Bull. At 4.26pm, we caught the train to Secaucus Junction.

Season 2015-2016 was about to begin.

We then caught another train to Newark Penn Station. Outside, at around 5.30pm, we popped into the oddly-named “mmmBello’s” pub, which is often frequented by those of my New York mates who are not only Chelsea supporters, but fans of the Red Bulls too. This would surely be an odd game for them. What would be my equivalent? Frome Town versus Chelsea I suppose. It seemed we could not escape football. The US versus Jamaica game from Atlanta was on TV. The US would eventually lose 2-1, much to the complete joy of T, who had joined us, who is from Jamaica.

There was football everywhere.

On the Tuesday, the Red Bulls had played a US Cup – their equivalent of the FA Cup – match against Philadelphia Union. However, this meant that in all likelihood the Red Bull team against us would be a weakened team. This also meant that, unfortunately, the attendance would not be so great. This immediately disappointed me. I wanted to see a full house, with cheering NYRB fan groups going for it. I wanted a “proper” away game. As I met with more and more familiar faces, I was surprised how quiet the pub was. I expected it to be buzzing.

The “Rolling Rocks” were going down well though. It was a mellow time. I spoke with a few about the exciting plans for the new Stamford Bridge. Expect a running commentary about that subject this season.

One sight made my heart miss a beat. At the end of the street, past a huge graffiti mural on an old red brick building, the street opened up with a view across the Hudson River. There, all alone in the distance, was the World Trade Centre, standing tall on the southern tip of Manhattan.

Welcome to New York.

We were – typically Chelseaesque – running late for the game. We bolted down last beers and quickly walked the mile or so to the impressive Red Bull Arena. It is one of the new breed of purpose-built stadia, ideal for MLS, which have been built in recent years. It is a fine stadium. The sun glinted off the curving roof panels as we hurriedly entered the turnstiles. Up and into the guts of the stadium, and I was again impressed. The navy blue seats contrasted well with the silver of the exposed steelwork. Making our way towards the Chelsea section high up in the far corner, I glimpsed down just as Loic Remy kicked-off our season.

I soon joined the massed ranks of the blue-shirted loyalists and tried to take it all in.

Camera poised, I took a few panoramic shots, before focussing on the line-up. All of this was rather rushed. I would have preferred more time to settle myself. We were wearing our new Yokohama shirts.

Blue shirts, blue shorts, blue socks.

Chelsea appeared to be on top in the first few exchanges. All around me were familiar faces from New York and beyond. However, somebody was missing.

Where was Roma? She was meant to be sitting alongside me. I hoped that she was safe.

We bossed the first-half, with Victor Moses looking particularly lively, and with Mikel and Fabregas dictating the midfield. It was our first sighting of the much vaunted Bertrand Traore who fitted in well. We dominated the early play, with a few chances drawing excited gasps from the fans around me. On twenty-six minutes, Oscar found an unmarked Loic Remy, who was able to steady both himself and the ball, and slot home.

Get in.

The Chelsea section, although predominantly seated – unlike at Chester in 2012, the high water mark in terms of noise at any Chelsea game in the US – were in good form. Cathy initiated a hearty “Zigger Zagger” and there were outbreaks of that song and others throughout the first-half. It was great to hear.

The loudest chant of the first-half was the US-styled “Let’s Go Chelsea, Let’s Go” which used to annoy me, but I know accept it.

It is a US chant, not a Chelsea one, but so be it.

We continued to dominate the first-half, with only a silly blunder by Thibaut Courtois causing us any anxious moments.

At half-time, I descended down into the concourse and had a wonderful time meeting many Chelsea fans who it has been my absolute pleasure to get to know over the years.

Jon from Florida.

Karen from Connecticut.

Brian from North Carolina.

Tim from Pennsylvania.

Frank from New York.

Keith from New Jersey.

Brenda from Georgia.

Fantastic.

Behind the stadium, the night was falling and there were the bright lights of Manhattan. What a sublime view.

I missed the start of the second-half due to my prolonged hand shaking, hugging and suchlike on the crowded concourse. Thankfully, at the top of the steps were Roma and Peggy. They had watched the first-half from behind the goal. It was a relief to see them both.

Eliot thrusted a can of cider into my hands and I took my seat alongside Roma, Peggy, Tom, Samantha and Larry.

I could relax.

Jose had rung the changes at half-time and it took me forever to work it all out. Only Zouma, Oscar and Dave remained from the first period. However, in addition to my throat being rather sore, my mind was a little muddled. This pre-season is a work out for us fans too.

Roma joined in with the “Diego” chants. It was great to see him on the pitch. We need him to be back to his fearless – and fit – best throughout the campaign.

I won’t dwell on the events of the second-half. However, the equaliser set the pattern for an almost comedic array of defensive blunders which allowed the vastly under-strength Red Bulls team to surge past us.

1-1.

2-1.

3-1.

There was growing disbelief with each calamity. All around me, stunned silence. The home crowd, particularly quiet throughout the whole game, greeted each goal with woops of pleasure.

“Oh bloody hell Chelsea.”

The deficit was reduced when Eden Hazard cut inside and drilled a shot home.

3-2.

The Chelsea support was stirred. The songs began again. One song made me smile.

“One Bobby Tambling. There’s Only One Bobby Tambling.”

Bobby was watching among the New York Blues just a few rows behind me.

Sadly, our hopes were extinguished when the home team struck again and made our misery complete.

Ugh.

I quickly tried to explain everything to myself.

“Sigh. It’s only pre-season. Jose will not be happy though. Defensive blunders. Pretty good singing. The half-time social was magnificent. A defeat still hurts though. Ugh.”

No doubt some – hopefully not many – of our fans would be reading too much in to this surprising defeat. They ought to log on to Ebay and get themselves a life.

I took a photo of Bobby Tambling with Roma and Peggy with the quickly-emptying stadium as a backdrop.

We all then descended down and out into the New Jersey night.

I said some farewells to some. Sadly many were only watching this first game.

I would see others, many others, in Charlotte and DC.

After taking a while to exit the immediate area by the stadium, which like Stamford Bridge is rather hemmed in, Lynda drove us home.

All three of us were rather lost for words.

Then New York took over.

Heading north on I-95, that long and never-ending highway that hugs the US coast from Maine to Florida, we were treated to the bewildering and ridiculously photogenic sight of Manhattan, just a few miles away across the Hudson.

Scintillating blurs of reds, whites, yellows and blues fizzed and popped into view.

The sight was stunning.

All of a sudden, the football didn’t seem to matter.

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Tales From The Best Seats In The House

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 5 April 2014.

It is a familiar theme in these match reports for me to contrast the fortunes of Chelsea Football Club for the period of time before – let’s pick a famous date – 1997 and for the period since. There are simple reasons for this. I always like reminding myself, if not others, how damned lucky I have been to be a Chelsea supporter during the previous seventeen years. This is obvious. Other reasons are more tangential to the story. There are contrasts in the atmosphere on match days. There is the bewildering difference in our fan base. On a more personal level, there are massive differences in my circle of Chelsea friends and acquaintances. In 1997, I thought it to be wildly cosmopolitan to number Chelsea fans from Brighton, Southend and Nuneaton in my closest group of match-going mates. In 2014, at the Stoke City match, my fellow supporters came from as far flung places as California, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

As I stood outside the Copthorne Hotel at Stamford Bridge just before 1pm, I spent a few moments trying to visualise how the same piece of terra firma used to look back in the days when I was, fleetingly – for no more than three seasons – a Shed Ender. I concentrated on the site of the former blue gates and took the open space now to be my reference point. Looking left, I visualised the dirty brown brick work of the shops which abutted onto Fulham Road. I remembered the old portakabin of a club shop which was so miniscule that it could probably only hold around fifteen people before an unplanned sexual act took place.

“Sorry love.”

I remembered the open space of the forecourt – nothing grand, but it represented as far as we were allowed to go without paying admission, a sort of holding area for our emotions on match days – and the ivy-clad walls of the modest two-storey club offices where I would often get players to sign autograph books as they hurried between there and the East Stand. I reminisced on the turnstiles, virtually unchanged, in essence, since the ‘twenties and the memorable “click click” as I entered. I remembered the laughable gents’ toilet – another bloody portakabin – and then the steps to The Shed; a veritable stairway to heaven.

And then I looked around and saw the modern bricks of the hotels, the restaurants, the modern “Chelsea brand” signs, the rush of foreign tourists with blue and white scarves, the arrival of taxis outside the hotel, the TV crews, all the accoutrements of modern day football. I wasn’t sad. I was just happy that I had witnessed both. I took comfort that my memories were strong; of when we waited in line behind former Arsenal ‘keeper Bob Wilson before a game with Southampton in 1976, when Millwall and Chelsea ran at each other in 1977, when Glenn tried to chat up the two blondes who used to run the programme stall under the wall to the far right, when I spoke to Pat Nevin for the first time before a game with Fulham in 1984 and when we were locked inside the forecourt for our own safety when the ICF came calling later that year.

Within an hour or so, I had met up with Nick – Massachusetts – and Tim – Pennsylvania – and we had enjoyed a quiet chat in the equally quiet hotel bar. Luckily, we just met Ron Harris before we left. I then gave the two chaps a tour around the periphery of the stadium. This was Tim’s second visit, but the game represented Nick’s first Chelsea match at The Bridge. I had met Nick in NYC twice before, plus the game in Philly too. He was – without wishing to state the bleedin’ obvious – very excited about the whole day. I was intrigued and partially saddened to hear that one of the deciding factors behind his trip was to see Stamford Bridge – I am unsure if I should call it the “old” Stamford Bridge since the current incarnation is only thirteen years old – before it is either redeveloped further or we end up playing in Battersea, Earls Court, Brighton, Southend or Nuneaton. I told the story of the CPO and how “my generation” of Chelsea fans can vividly remember the thought of losing Stamford Bridge for good due to the ruinous East Stand; we remembered “Cash For Chelsea” buckets on the forecourt in 1977 and “Save The Bridge” buckets in 1986.

“Save The Bridge.”

It seems almost implausible that mighty Chelsea Football Club ever had to contemplate such a campaign, yet the same three words could well have been used during the “Say No CPO” campaign of 2011.

We live in changed times, we live in the same times.

In The Goose, there was a gathering of like-minded Chelsea souls. I had travelled up with three Chelsea stalwarts who were most definitely pre-1997; Glenn, Lord Parky and PD. Outside, two supporters’ groups from the other side of the Atlantic were swelling the numbers in the beer garden. I was introduced to a gaggle of Chelsea “first timers” including three from the proud city of Pittsburgh. I was also introduced to Leke from The Bronx. With my New York baseball past, I wondered if Leke was a follower of the Yankees too.

He wasn’t. He cared not a jot for baseball. Not to worry. We had Chelsea to talk about.

Leke, like Nick, ended up sitting close to me in The Shed Upper for the game with Stoke City. I was among the twenty-five strong party of New York and Pittsburgh Blues; it was a privilege to be among them. I had, no surprises, left it fashionably late to squeeze in through the Shed Upper turnstiles and arrive at my allotted seat in the fourth row just in time to see the two large flags in the Matthew Harding disappear from view. This was my first game in the Shed Upper since our F.A. Cup game with Stoke in 2010. I was immediately struck with how good the view is from the first ten feet of the Shed Upper. The Shed End is ridiculously small and intimate compared to both towering side stands at modern day Stamford Bridge. I was ridiculously close to the action. The first few rows of the Shed Upper are arguably the best seats in the house. Before me, the stadium looked magnificent. It was, of course, another full house. The Stoke fans, without a win at Chelsea in the league in forty naughty years, were already making a din.

“GOOO ON STOKE – GOOO ON STOKE.”

Beside me was Andrew, a former New York resident now living in Kent. He commented –

“They’re only singing so much because the game is on TV.”

I think he had a point.

Our team contained a few surprises with Salah, Willian and Schurrle behind Torres. I am sure that the US visitors were happy to see Frank start. It was clear from the kick-off that the Stoke fans to my immediate right were going to be consistently noisier than the Chelsea fans around me. This, as we all know, is the norm.

Away fans sing, home fans watch.

I’m sure that there was a Norwegian fan group sitting behind me; a song soon into the match contained no English words at all. A father and son behind me kept saying “Let’s Go Chelsea, Let’s Go” and I’m thankful that nobody joined in. An irate Irishman behind me soon drew my ire by calling one Chelsea player an “eejit” and then loudly criticised another. I bit my tongue. There are a fair share of moaners around me in my normal seat over one hundred yards away so I am used to “tut-tutting” to myself during games. It would also be too simplistic for me to say that my presence among the tourists of the Shed Upper was a metaphor for the new Chelsea. We have always had a fair share of visitors at The Bridge for as long as I can remember.

But something wasn’t right. Maybe it was the noisy Stoke fans. Maybe it was the constant use of smart phones and cameras by the surrounding visitors.

“But you take lots of photos at games, Chris.”

“I know. I was being ironic.”

It just felt…I don’t know…it just felt different. I just think I missed my usual seat, my familiar view for the best part of eighteen years, my usual companions. In all honesty, despite our dominance from early on, the atmosphere was quite muted. Surely the result on Wednesday in Paris and the up-coming game on Tuesday were both counter-productive to producing a noisier atmosphere. On more than one occasion (OK, fifty-six to be exact), I let my mind wander…

“2-0…we just need to win 2-0.”

After a noisy song from Stoke City about the joys of eating oatcakes, spinning a piece of Wedgewood on a potter’s wheel or some such other Stoke tradition, the Chelsea choir behind me responded with a hearty chorus of –

“You Never Won Fuck All.”

I again tut-tutted and explained to Bob –

“Wrong on two counts. Double negative. And they beat us in the 1972 League Cup Final.”

Andrew had his own particular take on this –

“We’re just politely reminding them that they have won something.”

“Yeah, and what thanks do we get?”

Before I knew it, Chelsea were completely dominating the game and were starting to pepper one-time target Begovic’ goal. Just after half-an-hour, the ball was played out to Mohamed Salah by Nemanja Matic and the Egyptian’s low shot thudded in despite a slight touch from the Stoke ‘keeper.

It was time to celebrate and time to relax. I think most Chelsea fans had written off the league title, but it was important to keep the pressure on the reds of Liverpool and the blues of Manchester. A header from Branislav Ivanovic was wildly celebrated by us in the Shed Upper and it took us all a rather embarrassing amount of time to realise that it had been called back, presumably for offside.

Our dominance was total, but the noise was half-hearted. I have often wondered what it must feel like to finally attend a game at Stamford Bridge after years of support…all of that yearning, all of that longing…only for the atmosphere to be slightly subdued. I guess this, sadly, was one of those days.

In the second-half, we were treated to a substitute appearance by the snarling Scot Charlie Adam who soon chopped down Andre Schurrle. On the hour, Salah was unceremoniously hacked down by Wilkinson. Although Eden Hazard, scorer from twelve yards in Paris on Wednesday, had replaced Schurrle, Frank Lampard called rank and took the penalty instead. His rather poor effort was blocked by the ‘keeper, but Frank was on hand to slam home the rebound in a scene similar to Claude Makelele’s first ever goal for us in 2005.

“2-0…yes, 2-0.”

Not long after, Willian capped a fine display by squeezing the ball around a Stoke defender and into the goal. As soon as he moved the ball onto his right foot, I sensed a goal.

And there it was.

As easy a 3-0 win as I can remember.

Ashley Cole and David Luiz appeared in late cameo appearances and the US guests were surely happy with that.

Job done.

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