Tales From Tyne And Wear

Sunderland vs. Chelsea : 7 May 2016.

The four of us were in town. I had traveled up from the West of England with PD and Parky. Kev had traveled down by train from Edinburgh. The plan was to enjoy a little pub crawl in Newcastle, where we would be staying that night, before heading off by metro to the game in Sunderland. First up – my choice – was “The Strawberry” right outside the Gallowgate End at St. James’ Park. Away fans rarely get a look in on match days, hence my desire to visit it on this particular day. What a fantastic pub; small and cosy, with Newcastle United photographs and memorabilia on every wall. We continued our little trip, heading down the hill towards the station, and called into “Rosie’s Bar” and then “The Mile Castle.”

We bumped into a few Chelsea fans at the train station, then grew frustrated as our journey was delayed by a slow-moving train.

“Don’t think we’ll make the kick-off, boys.”

The walk from the Stadium of Light metro station to the ground took around ten minutes. We found ourselves walking through the alleyways between red-bricked terraced streets. The white steel supports of the Stadium of Light were shrouded in mist. It might have been May, but it seemed like the month of November. There was no time to waste. We could hear the crowd’s muffled sounds from inside the stadium’s white casing. Deep inside there was a voice begging Chelsea not to score until we were in. It was a deep irony that even though I had been awake before the alarm at 3.40am, I would still miss the bloody kick-off. The eight or ten flights of stairs were eventually navigated and – deep breaths – we were in. I glanced up a TV screen inside the concourse. We had missed just eight minutes.

Phew.

I am a very rare visitor to Sunderland. I never ever made it to Roker Park. This would only be my third visit to the Stadium of Light. My first visit was in 1999, when a Kevin Phillips hat-trick helped inflict a 4-1 defeat on the boys. In 2009, the last game of the season, we won 3-2 in a game which brought me a fair bit of pride at the time; it marked the first time that I had watched all thirty-eight league games, home and away, the full set. On that day, while we were battling Sunderland, their fierce local rivals Newcastle United were losing at Aston Villa, a result which relegated the Geordies. I can well remember the home fans booming with joy when they heard the Newcastle result. Damian Duff, if I am not mistaken, assisted in the loss, scoring an own goal.

In 2016, seven years on, fate had transpired to replicate the set of fixtures.

Aston Villa vs. Newcastle United.

Sunderland vs. Chelsea.

The joke during the week had been that Chelsea would win at Sunderland, Newcastle would win at Villa – of course – and we would get back to a jubilant Newcastle town centre, where friendly locals would buy us drinks all night.

That was the idea.

Before these two twin games, we heard that Norwich City – the other protagonists attempting to avoid the relegation trap door – had narrowly lost 1-0 at home to Manchester United. I wasn’t exactly sure of how that left things. At one stage it appeared that our weekend on Tyne and Wear might well be a “so long farewell” to the region’s two teams. Now, with Norwich looking unlikely to avoid the drop, the script had further changed.

I shuffled along the row to stand beside Alan and Gary, with Parky soon joining me. Our away end seemed pretty full. It was a good showing. In the previous two visits, the away section was in the southern end; the single tier. In 1999, to the left, in 2009, to the right. Since then, shades of St. James’ Park, the away crowd has been banished to an upper tier, behind the goal to the north. It was a fine view to be fair. The crowd was virtually a sell-out. A few pockets of empty seats around and about, but a good show by the locals.

Sunderland in their famous red and white stripes, black shorts and black socks.

Chelsea – keeping it simple – in the traditional blue, blue, white.

Time to quickly scan the starting eleven.

Courtois – Dave, JT, Cahill, Brana – Matic, Mikel – Willian, Fabregas, Hazard – Diego Costa.

In 2014/2015, this would have been regarded as our strongest starting eleven. This season, we have been wondering why the same eleven have rarely showed up en masse. What a year it has been.

Just as I was settling, getting my bearings, warming up my vocal chords, we pushed deep in to the Sunderland box, and Diego Costa picked up a loose ball down below us. An instinctive shot at goal – one touch – had Mannone beaten. As easy as that, we were 1-0 up.

Alan : “They’ll have to came at wo’now, like.”

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

How nice of the boys to wait until we had settled in before scoring.

The game opened up a little, with Chelsea in the ascendancy, but there were a number of half-chances for both teams. Ivanovic zipped a low cross right the way past the goal, but there was no Chelsea body close enough to convert. Down at the far end, the Chelsea defence was well-marshaled by John Terry, and Courtois was able to gather any high balls lofted towards him.

However, a free-kick was not sufficiently cleared, and it fell to USPA (Unknown Sunderland Player A). Although a long way out, USPA steadied himself, and took a swipe at the ball. We watched mesmerised as the ball flew into the Chelsea goal.

Bloody hell. What a goal. I didn’t applaud it, but I felt like doing so.

“Cracking goal. The way he kept it down.”

It brought me no satisfaction to see USPA – Wahbi Khazri, I think I prefer USPA – celebrate with the home fans, who hadn’t been as loud as I had expected until then. It ignited them, but we were soon back on top. Just a few minutes later – deep in to injury time in fact – Sunderland’s defenders were at sixes and sevens, allowing Dave to set up Matic. He had not had a great first-half, in the same way that he has not had a great season, so it was odd to see him calmly advance and slot home. We celebrated wildly, while he was mobbed by his team mates below us.

Phew. We rode our luck a bit, but in we went at the break.

2-1 up.

Those free drinks back in The Toon were on my mind.

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles to the south, it was 0-0 at Villa Park.

We began the second-half in relatively fine fettle. We dominated possession, and looked at ease. However, time and time again, we seemed intent on taking one extra touch, and one extra touch especially in front of goal. We were getting behind the Sunderland defensive line, and creating a few chances. Hazard seemed to be full of tricks, and set up Diego Costa, but his shot was blocked by the ‘keeper.

Another lovely move, reminiscent of our play from last season, involving Hazard and Fabregas, and then Diego Costa, had us all on our feet, expecting a goal.

It went something like this.

Eden Hazard.

Pass.

Cesc Fabregas.

“Shoot, for fuck sake.”

One touch.

Pass.

Diego Costa.

“Shoot, for fuck sake.”

One touch.

Shot.

Smothered by Mannone.

“Bollocks.”

Although I was stood in the first half, now I was sat, resting my feet. It had been a long old day. I had already been awake for more than twelve hours. I was awake before the alarm sounded, and awake even before the dawn chorus. Our early-morning flight from Bristol to Newcastle seemed ages ago. Our singing wasn’t great as the game went on. There was one song which dominated, and – if I am honest – it is starting to annoy me a little.

Frank Lampard. Two hundred. West Ham United.

Sunderland weren’t giving up, and they grew stronger. I noticed that Branislav Ivanovic was on the floor on the half-way line, and it was easy to spot that a few Chelsea players were distracted. As the move developed I sensed fear. Patrick Van Aanholt – when he first broke in to our team, I rated him more than Ryan Bertrand – was able to pull the ball back for Fabio Borini – another former Chelsea player – to strike. Courtois, not exactly flavour of the month in the away section, seemed to react slowly, and the ball half-heartedly, apologetically, squeezed past his late dive.

2-2.

“Bollocks.”

Hiddink replaced Ivanovic with Baba Rahman, with Azpilicueta switching to right back.

Within a few seconds, we were all regretting the substitution. A rash, poorly-timed challenge by Baba, set USPB – DeAndre Yedlin –  up to cross from the right. We again sensed fear. A deflection set the ball up perfectly for Jermaine Defoe to smack home.

The Stadium of Light boomed. I watched as the folks sitting in the front row of the main stand to my right– plus those on the Sunderland bench – jumped to their feet and raced a few yards ahead, energised and electrified. I knew how they felt. On Monday, we had felt the same against Tottenham.

Hiddink replaced a very quiet Willian with Oscar, and Mikel with Traore. We still kept pressing, but a goal never ever seemed likely. Baba continued to make hopeless, ill-timed challenges. I want him to do well, but he looks so green it hurts. Our play stalled. We lost all drive. The mood among the away support was deteriorating with every minute. Bloody hell, Chelsea.

Things would get worse still.

I had missed Gary Cahill’s booking in the first minute.

I witnessed John Terry’s booking on the eighty-seventh minute.

As yet another Chelsea attack looked like petering out, the ball was cleared and was bouncing in no man’s land on the halfway line. I saw John Terry racing towards the ball, along with Sunderland’s Sebastian Larsson. My thoughts were this :

“Good on you John. At least you care. Good to see you trying your damnedest to keep the ball alive, to keep the ball in our possession, go on my son!”

Both players leapt for the ball, both legs were high. My honest appraisal at the time was this :

“50/50 ball. Maybe our free-kick.”

Both players stayed on the floor.

My next thought.

“Not like JT to stay down. God, hope his Chelsea career hasn’t ended right there.”

I then saw referee Mike Jones brandishing a yellow card at John Terry, scrambling to his feet, and then – the enormity of it all – a red card.”

Oh no.

Thoughts whizzed through my head.

There had been no news about a contract extension over the past few months. The silence had been deafening. No news from the club. No news from Antonio Conte. No hint of another year. Silence. Damned silence.

A red card. A two game ban?

That’s it.

We had – surely – just witnessed John Terry’s last-ever game for Chelsea Football Club.

I watched through my telephoto lens as he walked, stony-faced, past Hiddink and down the tunnel.

Photograph one.

Photograph two.

No more.

No more John Terry.

My heart sank.

The game ran its course. It was a horrible loss. After the euphoria of the draw against Tottenham on Monday – football at its best, Chelsea at our best – we stood disbelieving at the lack-lustre show from the team in the second-half. Outside, with the wind bitterly biting at us from all directions, we met up, and began a slow march in to Sunderland town centre. Alan and Gary were due to catch the subsidized Chelsea special back to London at 6.45pm, so we decided to share a couple of pints with them in a central pub. Sunderland fans, of course, were boiling over with joy. We edged past the lovely statue of Bob Stokoe – Wembley 1973 – and then out on to the main road. The bridge over the River Wear, a poor man’s version of the grander one over the Tyne, was shrouded in mist. Whereas Newcastle is a grand city in every sense of the word – architecturally pleasing, an iconic and photogenic setting on that deep gorge, with fine shopping, nightlife, attractions – Sunderland pales by comparison. Its town centre resembles a ghost town. It is no wonder Geordies look down their collective civic noses at their near neighbours.

Inside “The William Jameson”, we raised pints to John Terry.

Reports came through of him throwing his armband down, of a two game ban, of this being his last game.

How typical of this mess of a season. It was the perfect metaphor for the campaign. And how typical for John Terry too. Undoubtedly he has enjoyed a wonderful career at Chelsea; a fantastic leader, a respected captain, and well honoured in his time at Stamford Bridge. And yet. And yet. John missed our most famous game – Munich 2012 – due to an indiscretion in Camp Nou. He missed the Europa League Final too. His most famous moment, in some circles, was the infamous slip in Moscow. It has not been a career without blemishes. There have been indiscretions. And how typical, how Terryesque, that his Chelsea career would end with a sending off. There would not even be a grand finale at Stamford Bridge against Leicester City.

Bloody hell.

Newcastle had only managed a 0-0 draw at Aston Villa. Sunderland were now in the ascendency. A win for them against Everton on Wednesday would keep them up.

All of a sudden, I wanted the season to end. The trip to Anfield on Wednesday hardly enthused me; it would surely prove to be one of the least anticipated trips with Chelsea for ages. There would be the bittersweet last game of the season against the new champions, but I was ready for the summer.

We said our goodbyes to Alan and Gary, then headed back in to Newcastle. There were laughs on the return journey, and the four of us were soon enjoying pints in a number of town centre pubs. Newcastle is such a fantastic city that our poor loss against Sunderland soon drifted away from our collective thoughts. “The Bridge Hotel” overlooking the river, and live action on the TV of Leicester City’s celebrations. “Akenside Traders” and an ‘eighties sing-song, and some Burnley fans celebrating a promotion. A quiet pint in the “Pitcher & Piano” overlooking the floodlit Millennium Bridge. Then up in to town and yet more drinks at “Sam Jack’s” and laughs with a few Chelsea fans out on the town. Then down to “The Rose & Crown”, with a karaoke, and a chat with a Leicester City fan – so happy – and a Brighton fan – so low after only a draw at ‘Boro. The lagers gave way to gin and tonics. Our chats became blurred. After a day in Tyne and Wear, we were getting a little tired and weary. The night continued but there were no free drinks for us Chelsea fans this time. In fact, I think I bought the Leicester City fan a drink, but it’s all a bit hazy.

Ah, the madness of a night on the toon.

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Tales From An Evening Of Fireworks And Flags

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 13 February 2016.

It had been a bitterly cold afternoon in SW6. My pre-match had run along pretty typical lines; sorting tickets for future games, meeting up with mates, flitting between Stamford Bridge and the pub. Match day at Chelsea, although so familiar to me, always throws up a nice few surprises. On this occasion, there was a few brief words with Colin Pates and John Bumstead, stalwarts from my youth. I briefly mentioned that I had seen that the two of them had popped in to “The Chelsea Pensioner” after a recent home game, and it was evident that they had clearly enjoyed themselves. Colin, once our captain, laughed as he said “it was 1984 all over again.”

Ah, 1984.

1984 was one of the great Chelsea years, and it straddled two classic seasons. On a day when our old foes Newcastle United were visiting the Fulham Road once again, I didn’t need much persuasion for my mind to travel back to the home game in 1983/1984 against the Geordies when a dribble from Pat Nevin still sends shivers down my spine, and the away game, when five thousand away fans descended on St. James’ Park.

Just recently, I spotted some action from that away game, in March 1984, on “You Tube” and it managed to get me all excited and wistful at the same time. This piece of grainy film, just over a minute in length, brought back some lovely memories. I had no recollection of ever seeing this clip before. It’s wonderful. It includes a fleeting shot of Colin Pates, it includes a wonderful Pat Nevin to Kerry Dixon to David Speedie passage of play which lead to our goal, it includes a magnificent shot of the Pringle-clad Chelsea hordes going mental, it includes a classic back heel from Kevin Keegan setting up Terry McDermott’s equaliser, and it includes a beautiful Peter Beardsley shimmy. What memories from almost thirty-two years ago.

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

In the pub, there was time for a little examination of our current woes. Both Daryl and I concluded that the club, not for the first time in the reign of Abramovich, has no direction. We seem to be a rudderless ship, adrift. We spoke of Allegri and Conte, but of no three or five year plan. We wondered what the future would bring. Mike, from New York, was with us, and the three of us were able to chat briefly about the last time we had been together, in New York, watching the Mets, in the warmth of a June evening.

On the walk back down to Stamford Bridge, I was lamenting my choice of jacket. I had chosen a rain jacket, but there was no rain. I should have opted for something warmer. I was bloody freezing. On a day when I was driving, I had chosen not to drink once again. My pre-match tipples were coffees and “Coke.” How typical that on a day that Singha were providing a free bottle of lager for every fan, I had chosen to stay dry.

I was inside in good time. I was aware that there would be fireworks before the game, so I wanted to be positioned to take a few photographs. I’m not honestly sure what I felt about all this. I normally roll my eyes at this sort of nonsense. It would be the first time that Chelsea would be setting fireworks off before a game, though in the depths of my memory, I recalled a game from 1995 where something similar was planned. For the return leg of our ECWC tie against Bruges, the now defunct Chelsea Independent Supporters Association had asked if they could let off some fireworks from the remains of The Shed, in the days when there was just that temporary stand at the southern end of the stadium, as the players entered the pitch. From memory, the Health & Safety Executive had said “no.” That was a shame, but the atmosphere from that cracking game still ranks as one of the best-ever at Stamford Bridge in my forty-two years of attending matches, despite the crowd being limited to just 28,000.

Neil Barnett announced the team. With Kurt Zouma injured and out, sadly, for months, Gary Cahill was recalled to start alongside John Terry. Fabregas was chosen to start in a deeper role, allowing Willian, Hazard and Pedro to support Diego Costa.

The stadium lights dimmed, and the fireworks flew above both the East and West Stands. In just over five seconds, it had finished. It was hardly November 5th or July 4th.

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The smoke from the fireworks lingered for a while and this added to the sense of coldness and greyness.

Over in the far corner, one and a half thousand Geordies – one flag – were singing the praises of their team. The traditional black and white shirts have been altered to include splodges of light blue this season; heaven knows why.

A fantastic move set us on our way after just four minutes. Willian, on the half-way line, burst away from his marker and raced up field. With Bournemouth Steve and myself urging him to shoot, he continued deep in to the Newcastle half before expertly playing in Diego Costa, who touched the ball past the advancing Newcastle ‘keeper. It was a fine goal.

“Get in.”

Diego raced over to the corner flag, and I snapped away. Such is my vantage point that on many occasions, the flags being brandished in front of the west stand almost appear to wrap themselves around the huddle of players.

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Soon after, we were recreating that scene. A terrible pass from a Newcastle defender was pick-pocketed by Pedro, who advanced on goal alone. His steadied left foot shot was firmly planted inside the waiting goal. More celebrations, more cheers, more flags.

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Newcastle had, to be fair, a few corners to their name, so it was not all one-way traffic, but our attacks were rapier-like and clinical.

Soon after, Diego Costa chased a long ball and my first thoughts were that Coloccini would easily beat our masked raider to the ball. Instead, the floppy haired defender appeared to be treading in quicksand. Diego ably won the race, beat his man, and then played in the onrushing Willian with a ball that dissected the two defenders. His shot was slammed in at the near post. Rather than complete a hat-trick of players wrapped in swirling flags, Willian decided to celebrate in front of the away fans. He went to toon.

Seventeen minutes had passed and we were three-nil up.

Phew.

Immediately I thought back to past games. Newcastle United have been on the receiving end of some horrific score lines over the years at Stamford Bridge. Everyone from my generation focusses on the 4-0 in 1979/1980, the 6-0 in 1980/1981 and the 4-0 in 1983/1984. But from seasons 2002/2003 to 2005/2006 we recorded scores of 3-0, 5-0, 4-0 and 3-0.

I daydreamed of further goals.

To be fair to the travelling away fans, they never stopped singing.

“Newcas-ul, Newcas-ul, Newcas-ul.”

“Is this a library?”

“Three-nil and yez still don’t sing.”

Newcastle were all at sea defensively and Diego Costa came close, and Pedro finished meekly when more likely to score. Only Andros Townsend and Jonjo Shelvey appeared to have any desire and skill within the Newcastle ranks.

Sadly, we were concerned when John Terry was substituted before half-time. We hoped that it was a precautionary measure ahead of Tuesday’s trip to Paris, rather than a real threat. Ivanovic shuffled over to partner Cahill, with Dave playing at right back and the new boy Baba at left back.

Willian went close with a trade-mark free kick, but Elliot scrambled down to save well.

Although it was clear that we were up against a pretty poor team, there was a buoyant mood at the break. Our play was crisp and incisive, with Willian, Pedro and Diego Costa pressing high. Full marks to all. I hoped for further fun in the second-half.

Newcastle United began the stronger in the opening period of the second-half, but a lightning break gave us our fourth goal on the hour. Fabregas was in acres of space. A perfectly weighted high ball dropped sweetly for Pedro, just avoiding the ineffectual challenge of the last man, and he calmly right-footed it past the ‘keeper.

4-0.

Shades of 1980, 1984 and 2004.

Betrand Traore replaced Diego Costa, who received a magnificent reception in acknowledgment of his fine performance. The memory of Costa getting booed by a section of the crowd is a distant memory.

The Newcastle fans kept singing. There was even a small but noticeable round of clapping from the home support acknowledging it. I like the Geordies. A fine footballing race.

Shelvey, clearly frustrated, lashed out and was booked, but he was able to still play a few beautifully architectured balls out to team mates. He has a nice touch despite his thuggish appearance.

Baba seemed to be a little more relaxed, a little more at ease in his own skin. But, of course, it is amazing what a little confidence can do to a team. If only we had enjoyed a few early goals in our opening league game of 2015/2016, perhaps we would be experiencing a quite different season.

A fine low cross from Dave found Traore at the near post, and he swept it in, before racing over to the far corner to celebrate with a leap in front of the fans.

Hazard, slowly getting back to his best, came close, but his effort bobbled wide.

Sadly, Andros Townsend – widely booed for his Tottenham past – messed up the score line with a well taken goal on ninety minutes. Seeing Newcastle score really annoyed me.

I thought to myself…”when they get beaten heavily at Chelsea, they never bloody score.”

5-1 seemed odd. Strange. Out of place.

5-0 would have worked so much better.

It was an enjoyable game, though. It would be churlish of me to hark on about the inadequacies of our opponents. We had played well. I fear for Newcastle United though. I hope they stay up. We go back a long way, the Geordies and little old me. Plus, “Newcastle away” is one of the very best trips still left for us to enjoy.

This was my thirty-ninth game of the season. I have only missed the away game in Kiev. Already this season, there have been eight plane trips, cars, cable cars, trains, tube trains and coaches. It has been a blast. However, I soon decided not to travel to Paris after we were drawn again with PSG, and so I will miss my second game of the season on Tuesday.

My next one will be the Manchester City FA Cup game on Sunday.

Until then, for anyone travelling to Parc des Princes, please stay safe.

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Tales From The Toon

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 26 September 2015.

When I left the office at around 5pm on Friday, and slowly paced across to my waiting car, there was a rising feeling of contentment. My week’s work completed, I would now be on holiday for five days, with a couple of Chelsea trips, to Newcastle and Porto, thrown in for good measure. Five days of relaxation with a few good mates and The Great Unpredictables.

Life rarely gets much better.

On the Saturday morning, I needed to be up early. I set the alarm for 4.30am, and meticulously packed for two trips. On the Sunday, the schedule was tight. I would be arriving back from the North-East at Bristol airport at 2.15pm, but heading out from the same airport to Portugal at 6pm. It is just as well that some good friends of mine live but a five minute car ride from the airport. It meant that I could leave my car, and bag for the European leg, at their house without having to drive back home.

I left home on the Saturday at around 6.15am. There was a great feeling of escape. The Mendip Hills were waking, and the air was crisp and perfect, with mist hugging the lower levels of land. Childhood memories flooded my mind. At Burrington Combe – a less dramatic version of Cheddar Gorge – one distinct memory returned. When I was a young’un, from the age of four or five onwards, whenever we went on a trip, I always seemed to take my football. There might be a lawn at the house of an uncle and aunt where I could pop out and kick a ball around while conversations inside continued. I always took my ball to beach visits. It was a constant companion.

A boy and his ball.

On one particular occasion, when my parents and I visited Burrington Coombe – I was surely no more than six years of age – we walked up to the top of a hill overlooking a deep valley. Until then, my father would always kick the ball back to me. On this occasion, I always remember that my mother joined in too. And I always remember being really impressed with this. It showed my mother in a new light, happy to join in a previously “father and son” activity, with dear Mum laughing and smiling as we kicked the ball between ourselves. That afternoon always sticks in my mind. It was one of those early moments of my childhood that brings me great pleasure in remembering.

A father, a mother, a son and a ball.

It has been a tough year, but these memories bring me great sustenance.

On the short drive from Pete’s house to the airport, we chatted about football, family and work (possibly in that order, I can’t remember) and it is ironic that Pete supports Newcastle United. When Newcastle United were newly-arrived in the Premier League in 1993, we always said that we would drive up to Newcastle for a game against Chelsea. We never did. I hope we can do it over the next few seasons, especially since air travel between Bristol and Newcastle has made this such a great option. Sadly, Pete has – like many Newcastle supporters – become totally disillusioned with the way the club is run of late. He would be tuning in to the England versus Wales rugby match after the game between our two clubs, and I had a horrible feeling that I knew which game he was looking forward to more.

I had to laugh when we spotted a gathering of magpies in the middle of a country lane as we approached the airport. They soon flew off. I quickly counted them.

“Five.”

“One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl and four for a boy.  Five for silver.”

“Silverware, Pete.”

“You’re joking aren’t you?”

“Yes, perhaps you are right. Silver hair maybe.”

As Pete dropped me off at Bristol airport, we exchanged pleasantries.

“Cheers mate. Enjoy the Toon. See you tomorrow.”

“Cheers Pete. Enjoy…the rugby.”

The flight left Bristol at 8.40am and I recognised a smattering of West Country blues on board. I don’t attend every Chelsea game at St. James’ Park – far from it – due to the long distances involved. This would only be my ninth such trip. But I have enjoyed them all. Newcastle is one of my favourite away destinations. In 2013, I flew up for the first-time and, despite the 0-2 defeat, had an enjoyable time, though I am still struggling to remember how I managed to get back from the centre of the city to my hotel that evening. In 2015, there would be no boozy repeats; I needed to keep a clear head for Sunday.

On the metro in to the city, I chatted to a Chelsea fan from Weston-Super-Mare who was on the flight. He used to sit right behind me in the MHU for around five seasons. I see him sporadically. It was great to see him again.

Although the West of England was full of early morning sun, a bank of cloud enveloped the North of England as we crossed the Pennines. Newcastle was grey, but thankfully not cold. As soon as I reached the city centre at around 10.15am, I retraced my steps from 2013 and headed down to the quayside where I enjoyed a late breakfast, overlooking the River Tyne.

This area is wonderfully photogenic, with four or five bridges of various styles traversing the river. My camera clicked away madly, especially when the Gateshead Millennium Bridge was raised to allow a yacht pass underneath.

The iconic rail bridge was adorned with a “Rugby World Cup 2015” banner and I noted many rugby fans drinking in the river-side bars. Maybe there is a game at St. James’ Park on the Sunday. I really would not know, nor even care. I enjoyed a pint in the “Hop and Cleaver”, which is a wonderfully renovated old pub, with exposed brickwork and high ceilings. I then huffed and puffed my way up the 107 steps to the high land by the site of the original castle. Porto, too, is a city located on a river with high gorges and iconic bridges. It will be a theme for these few days.

At around 1pm, I met up with Kev from Edinburgh in “The Victoria Comet.” I passed over his match ticket, and we chatted about our trip to Porto. I first met Kev over in Lisbon virtually a year ago and here we were again. I then met up with Joe and Michelle, from Chicago, who I first met in Turin in 2009, and – most recently – in Charlotte in the summer. Another ticket was handed over, amid talk about their plans for Porto, too. Joe and Michelle distribute “CFCUK” in the USA and it was a pleasure to see them again.

I excused myself and headed up to my hotel in West Jesmond to check in. I enjoyed a pint in a local pub, The Lonsdale, as I waited to catch a metro train back in to the centre. I overheard a group of Newcastle fans bemoaning the state of their club. I had a quiet chuckle to myself when I heard one of them recount the famous story of the loathed Joe Kinnear, as their director of football, hearing good stories from a club scout about a player playing in a foreign team and making tentative requests to sign him. This player, infamously, already was a Newcastle player and was merely on loan with this team.

As they say :

“You couldn’t make it up.”

On the walk to the stadium, on that little cut through in the Chinatown area, I happened to spot “The Back Page” which was an Aladdin’s Cave of football memorabilia, and not just of the home town team. I have mentioned before in these reports of my fascination with the former Newcastle United and Chelsea player Hughie Gallacher, a ticking time bomb of a centre forward, who starred for both teams in the ‘thirties. I have long wanted to buy a book written on the 5’ 6” firebrand by Paul Joannou, so I thought I would try my luck. At first, I was met with a negative response from Kev, the shop owner.

“Maybes on Amazon like, and then yez talking silly money, maybes £150.”

We continued talking and he could tell that I knew my football. He then seemed to think they might have copies and so disappeared downstairs. He came back with not one but three copies.

“We have so many Newcastle books down there. I had this inkling we might have one.”

I was ecstatic, but the price was a £50.

“Put it to one side and I’ll be back after the game.”

On the short walk up to the stadium, I stopped to take a photograph of the Bobby Robson statue.

After the 107 steps earlier in the day, I was now confronted with 140 steps to the top of the towering stand at the Leazes End. I had forgotten how small the pitch looks from the top tier. The Chelsea support, as always in Newcastle, was swollen by a large number of Rangers – and Hearts – fans, who took over the bar areas with some of their songs and chants. I momentarily spotted Simon’s son Milo – eighteen now, and travelling independently of father – soaked in beer. His face was a picture, though.

We had tickets for three thousand and there were only a few empty seats.

The home areas took forever to fill up. At 5pm, the ground looked empty.

Newcastle were in a terrible run of form, and many conversations that I enjoyed throughout the day included these words :

“Surely we will win today.”

The news was that Jose Mourinho had again decided to go with Cahill and Zouma; no JT. Upfront, I was glad to see Loic Remy given the start. Elsewhere, there were few surprises.

Begovic.

Ivanovic, Cahill, Zouma, Apilicueta.

Matic, Fabregas.

Oscar, Hazard, Pedro.

Remy.

There were unfamiliar faces aplenty in the home team. At last the home areas were populated, but I spotted many empty seats; those of disinterested and disenfranchised Toon fans.

We began OK – lots of the ball – but as the first-half progressed, there were rising levels of frustration within the Chelsea support at our general play. After our three consecutive wins and a presumed upturn in our confidence, we were showing exactly the types of problems inherent within our poor start to the season.

Lack of movement off the ball.

No pace.

No width.

A lack of intensity.

No pressing.

Defensive frailties.

Exposure down our right.

Possession with no penetration.

A lack of leadership.

The nine deadly sins.

As the half progressed, our noisy support waned. I remember a Remy snapshot and a fine effort from Febregas. But Newcastle were creating more chances than us, and we had to rely on Asmir Begovic to keep us from going behind. The mood in the away seats was of disbelief and at times anger.

“Cam on Chowls, get in to them.”

Blame the first goal on me. I stupidly commented to Gary :

“Oh God, the last thing we want is to conceded just before half-time.”

With that, an innocuous cross from the Newcastle right from Anita drifted over the head of Kurt Zouma and Perez, to our disbelief, was able to bring the ball down, with Ivanovic too far away to act, and adroitly touch the ball in off the post.

It was a goal which absolutely summed up our woes in 2015.

The home support roared, we were gobsmacked.

During half-time, this typical of my comments :

“Shite. Absolute shite. We had two or three chances, they have had six or seven. Have we won a tackle? We have made a very poor team look good. With City losing again, here was a chance for us to make a statement.”

In the second-half, the roundly booed Remy (who played for Newcastle in 2013/2014 and scored against us in the corresponding fixture that season) had two headers, though one was offside. Our play improved, with a little more drive, but a goal seemed as distant as ever. After a fine run by Hazard, the move broke down, and Newcastle immediately broke away in one of their first real attacks of the game. A corner ensued and we watched – absolutely aghast – as Wijnaldum managed to get his stooping head to a low cross to head home past Begovic. I am not usually angry with our heroes, but on this occasion I screamed “free header” in absolute anger.

I was silent, stewing in my own juices, for minutes after.

“For Fuck Sake.”

I wondered what John Terry was thinking.

So, here we were.

0-2 in 2013.

1-2 in 2014.

0-2 in 2015.

Despite our slight improvement in our play, we were staring defeat in the eyes. The away end was now full of supporters who were venting more and more scorn on the manager and the players. The manager had been wanting to bring on Falcao – for Remy – and Willian – for Matic – for a while, but they now appeared.

“To be honest Kev, I can see them getting a third.”

Our play was still frustrating us all. Some supporters left to return to the bars of The Bigg Market.

Ramires replaced Oscar. His impact was great.

Eden Hazard was showing a little more spirit, and he played the ball square to our Brazilan number seven. Without hardly a thought, he ripped a fine shot high past Krul in to the top corner.

“Get in.”

It was as surprising as it was impressive.

The spirit raised within our ranks, our support levels climbed several notches. Hazard led the way, but was often crowded out. A magnificent ball from deep from Fabregas, his head bandaged now, picked out a run from Pedro, but his touch was heavy and the chance gone.

With three minutes remaining, Willian swung in a free-kick towards Krul’s goal. I had my camera poised and clicked just as the ball evaded Ramires’ lunge and dropped in past the dithering Newcastle ‘keeper. It was a goal which was so similar to the one against Tel Aviv recently.

“YEEEES.”

Kev and I grabbed each other around the waist and bounced up and down for ages.

We were loud now.

“Champions Of England. We Know What We Are.”

There was joy and also disbelief in our and. It was an amazing turnaround. We even had the chance to win it in the last few minutes, but Ramires’ header was dramatically clawed away by Krul.

Two points dropped or a point gained?

We will know in May.

I bounced down the 140 steps and we were out in to the Newcastle night. I said my goodbyes to Kev outside “The Back Page” – it billed itself as “A Football Pervert’s Paradise” – and went in to purchase the book on Hughie Gallacher. The shop owner slipped in a couple of other books too. That was a nice gesture. We had a good old chat about the game and our two respective clubs. Perfect.

It had been a fine day on the banks of the River Tyne.

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Tales From The Blue, The Black, The White

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 10 January 2015.

There is something essentially timeless about a Chelsea vs. Newcastle United match at Stamford Bridge. Other opponents engender far greater passions and there are certainly deeper rivalries, but – for me, anyway – I always love it when it is the turn of the black and white hordes to descend upon SW6 from Ashington, Wallsend, Byker, Hexham, Gateshead, Gosforth, Jarrow and Hebburn. As I never tire of saying, my first ever game at Stamford Bridge – March 1974 – was against the Geordies, and that match, plus a few others, are always in my mind when we play them afresh each year. Before the trip to London, I did some investigating, using my 1,000 game plus spreadsheet – you didn’t think I had one, shame on you – and it became apparent that I have seen every single one of the past twenty-two league encounters at Stamford Bridge between the two teams. The game on Saturday 10 January would be game number twenty-three. From season 1986-1987 to this season, I’ve seen them all. All have been in the top flight, but there are a few yearly gaps, as both teams have “missed” each other by doing the unthinkable and getting relegated and playing in the second tier; most recently them in 2009-2010 and us in 1988-1989. However, in many seasons in the early ‘eighties, we were in the second division together, like bosom buddies. There is simply no escaping them. Newcastle United are always there.

They are, in fact, my second-most viewed team at Stamford Bridge. The current totals are –

  1. Liverpool – 38
  2. Newcastle United – 33
  3. Manchester United – 32
  4. Tottenham Hotspur – 32
  5. Arsenal – 29

Quick, someone get hold of Liverpool…they’re top of something.

I really admire one thing about Newcastle United; the simple fact that they have always showed up at Stamford Bridge in their first choice black and white kit.

Year after year, season after season.

To be honest, they have only beaten us twice in that run of league games…1986-1987 and 2011-2012…you might think they would try another kit, if only as some desperate measure to reverse their fortunes.

I travelled up to London with LP and PD. My pre-match was rather hectic. Firstly I passed on match tickets to a couple of friends and I then met up with Helena and Iain outside the Peter Osgood statue at just before 1pm. Helena was at the tail end of a fortnight-long visit to London from her home in Nashville, Tennessee, while Iain was visiting for the day from Glasgow. I had not met either before, but it had been suggested by one of my US Facebook pals that I meet up with Helena to give her a little pre-match tour. Helena had bumped into Iain at their local in Nashville while he was over in the US. One or two clicks on a Facebook page, and a meet-up was arranged. I was more than happy to hear that both were keen to join me back at The Goose…

“It’s only fifteen minutes away at the most, but the way a lot of Americans talk, it had might as well be in Neasden.”

As we walked up the North End Road, I mentioned a few snippets of Chelsea folklore. For me to get everything in, we would have needed to crawl to a snail’s pace, but I did my best. It was a busy Saturday lunchtime in SW6. Supporters were milling around, popping from bar to street to bookie, and there seemed to be more than the usual share of touts in attendance.

Inside The Goose, I think that the sight that greeted Helena took her aback; she had probably never seen so many Chelsea supporters in one pub before. And, my, it was bloody crowded. I fought my way to the bar, and it seemed to take an age to get served. Of course, in reality, a relatively small percentage of supporters were actually wearing Chelsea colours; it is something that we, as a club, tend not to do. Apart from PD, nobody in my little band of amigos ever wears a Chelsea shirt. Chelsea fans not wearing Chelsea shirts?  It must be one of the biggest head fucks which first time visitors to a Chelsea game are forever asked to deal with.

It seems to me that supporters from Adelaide, Bangkok, Chicago, Dubai and Everywhere apart from the UK tend to cover themselves head to foot in royal blue favours. One presumes that it helps to forge bonds in faraway places. Yet I personally stopped doing this when I was about sixteen, along with many others. I used to wear Chelsea shirts occasionally, maybe a retro one for a Cup Final, but hardly ever over the past fifteen years. Frequent visitors to this site will know how a sea change happened within football subculture in the late ‘seventies, and most of my generation still adhere to these principles.

Less is more.

While I had been roaming the streets of Fulham (head fuck number two – “Chelsea” is in Fulham), the rest of the boys had been diving head first into copious amounts of alcohol. It was time to ask Helena the all-important question :

“How did you become a Chelsea supporter?”

Well, I may have got the story a little wrong, but it seems that Helena had been a fan of football – not many of my US pals call it soccer, thank heavens – for a while and was wondering which team to support. Her then boyfriend favoured Arsenal, but that wasn’t a valid enough reason. After watching a few of our games, Helena plumped for us.

“So you chose Chelsea to piss-off your boyfriend. Excellent.”

“We’re not together anymore.”

“No. Obviously.”

There are a regular bunch who show up in Nashville to see our games early on Saturday morning each week. This is tremendous.

As soon as Parky heard that Iain was “fae Glasgow”, Iain had to quickly say that he supported “neither of them, just Chelsea.” There always seems to be an easy assumption that all Scottish Chelsea fans favour Rangers. This is simply not true. Helena was enjoying herself in the pub. I kept telling her that everywhere you looked in The Goose, you would see fans who go week in and week out, home and away, wherever. I think that this impressed her. She was keen to mark her attendance with a team photo.

A rose among thorns could never be more apt.

Daryl and I spoke, wistfully, about the two thumpings that we served to Newcastle in the year of 1980…4-0 in January and 6-0 in October. Daryl was at both, I was at the latter. We agreed that the last time Newcastle played with anything other than a black and white kit was the January game.

The memory of the October game still gives me goose-bumps.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wdHleV7I7pw

At 10.24, in about the fifth row of the East Lower, my blue and white bar scarf is just about visible.

“This first time football of Chelsea is a joy to watch.”

Last week, I mentioned a Gary Chivers goal…this was it.

Incidentally, listen to the noise of that buoyant home crowd…it makes me yearn even more for those days.

On the walk to the ground, more bloody touts. They had ventured even further out than normal and were looking to buy extras rather than just sell spares. This obviously suggested massive demand. As I have said before, even though our attendance is always around the 41,500 mark, we don’t always sell-out. There are usual empty seats here and there. On this occasion, a sell-out would be on the money.

All £2.5M of it.

Opposite the West Stand entrance, some graffiti honoured those murdered in Paris.

As I was lining up at the turnstiles, I flicked through the match programme and was very pleased to see a long feature on Hughie Gallacher, our star centre-forward, who bewitched and beguiled fans of both Chelsea and Newcastle United in the inter-war years. Those black and white photographs of Gallacher, who committed suicide in 1957, haunt me and fascinate me in equal measure. Gallacher, along with Lawton and Greaves, has achieved mystical and mythical status in my mind. He is a player that I am intrigued with. He is one of many superstars who were lured to The Bridge in that period; there always was an allure to Chelsea Football And Athletic Company, as it was then known, despite the fact that for fifty years we won nothing.

I might be talking nonsense here, but there might be a very strong case for Chelsea and Newcastle United to be the two teams in England with the biggest average home attendances up until the start of World War Two in 1939. I am positive that the Geordies constantly had the highest attendances until the Tottenham boom in the ‘fifties and then the Manchester United boom soon after. Maybe Arsenal might have threatened to be in that top two, but we would certainly be in the top three until 1939.

Maybe I’ll do some further investigating.

Whatever, it is very unlikely that fans of other teams, once we had secured our first piece of silverware in 1955, were ever presupposed to politely enquire :

“Where were you when you weren’t quite so good, old chap?”

Inside – yes – Stamford Bridge was full to bursting. Not so much a Toon Army this time though; as Daryl commented in the pub…”more like a platoon army.”

Not 3,000 this time – nearer 1,500.

And not one single flag. They don’t do flags, the Geordies. Not sure why.

We had heard that Courtois had injured his finger and so Petr Cech was recalled. A change in the middle of the defence too, with Gary Cahill rested and Kurt Zouma taking his place. Elsewhere, we fielded a team with familiar names. And yet it was the away team who carved out the best chances throughout a mundane, from our perspective, first-half. We had much of the ball, but found it difficult to prise open the Newcastle defence. Once we had the ball, our movement was poor. Even Diego Costa was found lacking.

“Move’em about” yelled Alan.

I thought of previous years and previous strikers. I remembered how Gianluca Vialli, especially, was a constant blur, with all of his selfless running, pulling defences out of shape.

And it was bloody quiet too. It was as if the quietness of the Watford game last Sunday had continued into this one.

On seventeen minutes, the away supporters remembered John and Liam, the two fans killed over the Ukraine as they traveled to Kuala Lumpur last summer to watch their team play. Alan, PD and I joined the applause for a few moments, but we were the only Chelsea fans in our section that did. In 2011, I traveled to Kuala Lumpur to see Chelsea, so their deaths certainly hit home. As Alan remarked :

“It could have been any of us.”

Remy Cabella was the main thorn in our side in that worrying first-half period, showing great endeavor and skill, raiding at will and prompting others with fine passes. Only a last-ditch clearance from John Terry stopped the visitors taking a deserved lead.

A Chelsea break, involving the relatively quiet Eden Hazard and Diego Costa petered out when our centre-forward elected to pass rather than fire on sight. The home crowd moaned.

A fine low shot from Cabella produced an equally fine save from Cech, who collapses on low shots so well for a tall man. Then, Sissoko slammed the ball against the upright. We were struggling. Amid the worry, an injured Azpilicueta was replaced by Filipe Luis.

Then, the game changed.

It was all a blur really.

A corner was conceded by Newcastle and Willian reacted incredibly quickly. With the defence half-asleep, the ball was quickly played in to the path of Ivanovic – that most forward of defenders – and he played the ball back for Oscar to thump home. Krul was at sixes, sevens, eights and nines and could only slam the ball into the roof of the net once he had realised what had happened behind his back. The Stamford Bridge crowd roared. But I knew the score; our lead was quite undeserved.

Wor Alan : “They’ll have to come at wo’now,like.”

Wor Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

In the last moment of the half, Krul made amends by saving well from a Willian free-kick.

We were leading, but it had been a poor half. I walked past Gal and heard him say three words which I thought would never pass his lips :

“We’re missing Mikel.”

Soon into the second-half, Coloccini – he of the David Luiz comparison – stopped a ball from entering the danger zone with his raised arm, but the referee waved play on. Maybe it was “ball to hand” but why was his arm raised so high if his intention was not to stop the ball?

Alan : “Who is the referee?”

Chris : “Roger East. Should be Roger North-East.”

We were driven on by the devilish skills of Eden Hazard and the tenacity of Diego Costa, and we stepped-up in the second period. It was a much more pleasing performance. On the hour, a delightful move right in front of me involving Hazard and Oscar, worked the ball in to the path of Diego Costa. He was afforded just a little too much space and he rolled the ball square. Time seemed to stand still, and he took an extra touch – just to be sure – before drilling the ball back across Krul into the corner.

The stadium jumped to life in adoration as our scorer ran, arms outspread, in an arc, with Willian joining his celebratory run, before he joined up with the rest of the Chelsea brothers in blue. I managed to stay as calm as I could and snapped this most joyous of moments.

Fantastic.

The game was, now, surely safe.

Newcastle rarely threatened, save for a speculative cross shot from Ameobi, which Cech turned over. As our dominance continued, Matic impressed with his typical shows of defensive prowess and tireless running. Young Zouma hardly put a foot wrong all game and there was something inately reassuring about his simple clearances and strong challenges. A mesmerizing run by Hazard set up Costa, who glided through the Newcastle defence, only for his goal-bound shot to be cleared. News came through that Manchester City had gone ahead, only for Everton to equalise soon after. Loic Remy, sadly underused thus far into his Chelsea career, replaced Costa and his one effort buzzed across the six-yard box.

It remained 2-0 and it was, no doubts, a well fought win.

However, on a day when our play in both halves was as different as black and white, we were to thank our brothers in blue to help us back on to the top of the standings, with no need for numeric or even alphabetic assistance.

It had been a fine day.

Next up – one of my favourite away trips at the moment.

Over the water to Wales. Tidy.

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Tales From The Garden Of Eden

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 8 February 2014.

After our monumental and, possibly, season-defining triumph at Manchester City on Monday, I was chomping at the bit to see us play Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge. However, for the first part of this particular Football Saturday, my focus was again elsewhere. I shot in to Bath in order to pay a visit to my rapidly-improving mother at the hospital.  At 11.30am, I collected His Lordship from Parky Towers. However, our short trip over to Trowbridge to collect Young Jake was beset with flood-induced traffic congestion at Bradford-on-Avon; I have never seen the river so high. We were held up for quite some time. This was not good. Eventually, Jake was collected and we were on our way. However, more slow-moving traffic in Westbury caused me to momentarily wonder if we’d be able to make the kick-off.

It was 12.20pm and I still had a hundred mile drive ahead of me.

Thankfully, once I veered around Warminster on the A36, and then shot past Stonehenge, I was eating up the miles. London was reached in good time; at 2.20pm I was parked-up and we were on our walk to The Bridge.

A Chelsea vs. Newcastle United fixture is a common one for me. Allowing for Newcastle’s one recent relegation season, I have seen every single one of their games at Stamford Bridge since they re-joined the top-flight, under Kevin Keegan, in 1993.

This game, therefore, would be the twentieth consecutive league fixture between the two teams at Stamford Bridge that I would have seen. I always enjoy the visit of the black and whites from Tyneside. It’s always a special fixture for me. I am rapidly approaching the fortieth anniversary of my very first Chelsea game. That too, was against Newcastle United.

…let’s go back.

…way back.

I became a Chelsea supporter just after the 1970 F.A. Cup Final. From that moment on, what are my memories? They are, not surprisingly, vague. I began looking out for Chelsea’s results, but my recollections are not particularly great about individual games, on TV or otherwise. I certainly can’t remember the 1971 Final in Athens for example. To be honest, my parents were not particularly big sport fans…I think that my football genes came from my maternal grandfather who had played football and cricket for the village in his youth (and incidentally, visited Stamford Bridge when he was a young man, the only ground he ever visited). Additionally, I am sure that he said on a few occasions that he favoured Newcastle and Aston Villa for some reason.

In those first few years of the ‘seventies, in my small Somerset school classroom, the alliances were starting to emerge. Leeds United led the way with three supporters in David, Tony and Wayne, while Andy was Arsenal and Paul was Liverpool. However, as far as I can recall, I alone was Chelsea, out on my own, on a limb. I wonder if there was any peer pressure to choose one of the other teams. Looking back – and I haven’t thought long and hard about this ever before – I’m rather proud of myself to pick a team which had garnered no other support at school. There was, however, a vague memory of some neighbours who lived opposite – a family, who soon disappeared to live in Gloucestershire. There was a son, also called Christopher, quite a few years older than me – maybe a teenager – who I think favoured Chelsea too. Maybe it’s in the name.

An important event happened around 1971 or 1972. A friend of ours in Windsor worked with Peter Osgood’s sister Mandy at a factory making Caterpillar vehicles and he said that he could obtain Ossie’s autograph for me. Once my father had explained what an “autograph” was, I was so excited and couldn’t wait for it to arrive. The only two names that I knew at Chelsea at the time were the two Peters, Osgood and Bonetti. I still have that signed photograph and it really cemented my affection for Peter Osgood and Chelsea Football Club.

I have no recollection of the 1972 League Cup Final loss to Stoke, but I do remember hearing “Blue Is The Colour” on the radio at around that time and that really affected me too. Just to hear the name “Chelsea” sent me dizzy. I obviously saw Chelsea on TV on Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoon highlight programmes but I only have vague recollections of the old East stand which came down in the summer of 1972. Incidentally, the first F.A. Cup Final that I can remember was the 1972 one; Leeds United beating Arsenal in the Centenary Final.

The first Chelsea game that I can honestly remember seeing on TV was the 1972 opener against mighty Leeds. Their goalie was injured and Peter Lorimer replaced him; Chelsea won 4-0. Peter Osgood, my hero, scored.

What other memories do I have in those nascent years? I remember – specifically – the build-up to the March 1973 F.A. Cup game with Arsenal. I remember Ossie’s goal in the first game and then watching the action on the 9.30pm news of the replay at Highbury. The sadness from that night still lives with me. I remember Bobby Charlton’s last ever game – at Chelsea – being shown on TV highlights in May 1973.

Anyway – you get the picture…I loved playing football at school break times, on Saturdays at the village recreation ground (“the rec”) and in the street. I was a football fan and Chelsea was my team. My first Chelsea kit was purchased – with a number nine sewn on shirt and shorts – and then football boots and a leather football. Football was taking over. Every Saturday morning, I would walk down to the village shop to collect a loaf of bread and then spend a few pennies on packets of football cards. Imagine my absolute elation when – without prompting from me – my parents announced (either on Christmas Day 1973 or soon after) that they would take me to see Chelsea play.

In London.

At Stamford Bridge.

I still get chills when I think of that feeling almost forty years later.

By a cruel twist of fate, of course, both my idol Peter Osgood and also Alan Hudson had left Chelsea in February of 1974, a month ahead of my Chelsea debut on March 16th against Newcastle United. I was upset, but the thought of seeing the team in the flesh more than made up for this. My mother wrote to the club asking for ticket and travel information and I still have the letter that the club sent back, nicely embossed with the club crest. In due course, the West Stand benches tickets arrived…priced at just 60p each.

Just to hold those little match tickets…

Looking back, I don’t think that any of my school pals could actually believe I was going to see Chelsea play. This was unheard of amongst the village kids. I was only eight remember. At last the great day arrived and it is amazing that I remember so much. My father was a local shopkeeper and so he pulled a few strings with his co-owner to get the Saturday off. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in great health at the time. He had been diagnosed with throat cancer and was due radiation treatment in the May. Thankfully, this was eventually successful, but he was feeling a bit under-the-weather throughout the journey to and from London.

One small memory; on trips to London, my father always drove north and joined the M4 at Bath. After consultation with others, it was decided that an alternative would be used on that particular day. Instead, Dad would drive east on the A4 and picked the M4 at Hungerford. There was a little part of me – the worrier – that hoped that this new itinerary wouldn’t backfire and we’d end up getting lost.

“Not on my first trip to Chelsea, surely Dad!”

Leading up to the game, there had been a pitch invasion at Newcastle United’s F.A. Cup game at home to Nottingham Forest on the previous Saturday and, during the week at school the hooliganism – or at least, over-exuberance and a little vandalism – had been the talk of the classroom.

This heightened the frisson for my first-ever Chelsea game.

We had arranged to park our car at a nursing home at Park Royal, where an uncle had recently been staying. I suppose we reached there at around 12.30pm. We then walked the short distance to Park Royal tube station and caught the train to Fulham Broadway. I visited Park Royal station recently and it did bring back some memories…I recalled walking over the footbridge over the tracks and the art deco façade of the station. In March 1974, my heart must have been beating fast as we boarded the eastbound train. I had been on a tube train before, but this felt so exciting – doing what thousands of Chelsea fans do each week…this is what stuck with me the most I think; a small boy from Somerset being a Londoner for the day.

My first game sticks with me for so many reasons. I can recall waiting in line at the bottom of the West Stand steps at the turnstiles. As the West Stand was the stand with the TV gantry, I wasn’t particularly sure what the stand looked like. I distinctly remember walking up the banked steps as if it was yesterday…I can recall the sense of anticipation, the noises of the crowd and specifically the blue paintwork at the back of the stand, the blue of the turnstiles, the blue of the souvenir huts…just writing these words I am transported back to my childhood. We bought a match programme, which I still have. I remember that the smudge from my mother’s wet leather glove is still visible…strange, though, I remember the day as being sunny.

We walked behind the West Stand, right to the end (the seats were laid on top of the terraces and the access came right at the top of the stand) and I caught a glimpse of the pitch and the inside of the stadium which had previously been obscured from view. I was mesmerized. We walked down the access steps and found our seats…six rows from the front, level with the penalty spot at the North Stand end.

We had a black and white TV set at home and of course it was breath-taking to see Stamford Bridge bathed in spring sunshine and in glorious colour. The East Stand was still mid-construction on the other side of the pitch. There was a smattering of away fans mixed in with Chelsea fans on the North terrace to my left. I remember the closeness of those fans to me.

The Chelsea team included such players as Ron Harris, John Phillips, John Hollins, Steve Kember, Dave Webb, Ian Hutchinson and Charlie Cooke. Newcastle United fielded Malcolm Macdonald, Stewart Barrowclough, Terry McDermott and Terry Hibbitt amongst others.

The gate was 24,207 on that day in March 1974.

What do I remember of the actual game? I remember the middle part of The Shed twirling their blue and white bar scarves. I remember the goal after ten minutes…a header close in from Ian Hutchinson, which bounced up off the ground before crossing the line. I remember two or three Newcastle fans, resplendent with black and white scarves, being sat right in front of me. I remember shouting out “we want two!” to which one of them replied “we want three!” I remember actually thinking “did I stand up and celebrate the goal correctly?” after the Chelsea goal. I promised myself that if there was to be further goals, I would celebrate better…I guess I wanted to fit in. Of course, a second goal came along and I stood up and shouted, but it was disallowed.

I think that the two Geordies smirked as I quickly sat down.

I remember a “Topic” chocolate bar at half-time. I remember Gary Locke doing many sliding tackles in front of us in the second half. I remember debutant Ken Swain (previously unheard of by me) as a substitute. I paid just as much attention to the songs coming out of The Shed as to the play on the pitch. Generally, I remember the overwhelming feeling of belonging…that this was right, that I should be there.

As the game ended and the crowd drifted away, I know that as I reached the very top of the steps, I looked back at the pitch and the stands with wonderment and hoped I would be back again. My mother bought me a “Chelsea The Blues” scarf at one of the souvenir huts behind the West stand as we slowly walked out. I wore that same scarf in Stockholm for the 1998 ECWC Final and then in Moscow ten years later for the CL Final.

I can remember that we enjoyed a hamburger meal at the Fulham Broadway Wimpy Bar (a big extravagance, believe me) – the site of a café to this day. We caught the tube train back to Park Royal and then home to Somerset, but that is a blur.

So, Saturday 16 March 1974…it was the day that my love affair with Chelsea Football Club jumped a thousand notches. In truth, my life would never be the same again.

Back to 2014…

Despite fine weather on the approach to London, there was a sudden shower as we started our walk towards The Bridge. Up above the Empress State Building, a striking rainbow lit up the grey sky. I wondered if a pot of goals would be at the end of it. Very often the visit of the Geordies has resulted in a heavy loss for them in SW6. Their team would be depleted. They have had a tough time of it recently. I was supremely confident that a Chelsea win would be forthcoming. We bypassed The Goose and reached the turnstiles for the MHU in good time. This was a strange pre-match for sure, though. When was the last time I had attended a home game on a Saturday and had not set foot in a pub? Maybe 1984.

The half-and-half scarves on sale next to the CFCUK stall were matched overhead by a half-and-half sky. One part was brilliant blue, one part was grey cloud. The rainbow had disappeared. I quickly bought a programme and flicked through it as I waited in line at the turnstiles. Club historian Rick Glanvill had written a piece on the Newcastle game in 1980 which I had attended with a couple of school friends and, ironically, my father and his then retired co-owner at the shop. A 6-0 win that day is fondly remembered.

Over in the corner, Newcastle had brought 2,000 away fans; the same as West Ham United. It seems there is a change in Chelsea’s policy on away tickets. It used to be solidly set at either 3,000 or 1,500. The away fans began singing about a fat cockney bastard leaving their club alone, but other, more rousing, songs were not forthcoming. Back in 1974, I thought it implausible that Newcastle fans could travel such a distance to see their team play; I remember being suitably impressed. These days, the friction of distance seems to be of little importance.

John Terry wasn’t in the line-up. Mourinho still fancied Dave ahead of Ashley, so the defence was rejigged with David Luiz alongside Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic at right-back. Frank Lampard returned alongside the impressive Nemanja Matic. The midfield “attacking three” were Oscar, Willian and the new all-conquering idol Eden Hazard. Samuel Eto’o led the line. As expected, the visitors’ line-up was depleted and contained a couple of players of whom I knew nothing.

Chelsea began on the front foot and dominated the first part of the game. However, Ben Arfa found space but fired at Petr Cech to sound out a warning to a perhaps complacent home crowd. The atmosphere seemed to be one of expectation, with the home support unwilling to provide a noisy backdrop, despite our early dominance. The half-chances continued for Chelsea.

Eden Hazard advanced with the ball and played it out wide to Ivanovic. The Belgian dynamo continued his run and when Brana returned the ball, he whipped it low past Krul into the far corner. It was as simple as that.

Eden ran away to the far corner to celebrate and The Bridge rejoiced. I hoped for a little pay-back for our defeat up at St. James’ Park in November; our second-half performance that day was quite shocking in its lack of desire.

A lone Newcastle effort at the Matthew Harding was abated by Cech, but we were soon on the attack again. Eden Hazard, the crowd buzzing whenever he touched the ball, ran deep into the Geordie penalty box. He played the ball in to a heavily marked Eto’o, who charmed us with an exquisite back heel into Eden’s path. A simple stroke of the ball into the goal gave us a 2-0 lead. A slide on his knees, right in front of Parky, then another gathering of players down in the corner. We love our corners at Chelsea. Does any other team always celebrate with a run to the corners after almost every goal? I can’t think of any.

In the after-goal glow, the spectators in the Matthew Harding took a moment to honour our manager, under a little criticism before Christmas, but now lauded by the loyalists –

“Stand Up For The Special One.”

At the break, Tommy Baldwin appeared on the pitch alongside Neil Barnett. I only ever saw The Sponge play once for Chelsea; not in game number one in 1974, but against Tottenham in game two in 1974. He was the leader of the team…

While Alan and I joked about 20,000 spectators not knowing who he was, sadly it seems Chelsea Football Club didn’t either. Alongside Tommy’s career stats on the TV screen was a picture of Charlie Cooke.

Oh boy.

Soon into the second-half, the Newcastle ‘keeper rushed out to meet a Luiz high ball, slipped, but was relieved to watch the ball speed away past the post before Oscar could reach it. Then a whipped Frank Lampard free-kick from an acute angle brought a fine save from Krul. A corner was swung in by Willian and the ball was knocked away. Although I didn’t spot the offence, the wonderfully-named Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa was adjudged to have pulled down Eto’o inside the box. The much-maligned Howard Webb pointed to the spot. It didn’t even occur to me that Frank Lampard would normally take it; all thoughts were on Eden Hazard and his opportunity to score his first-ever Chelsea hat-trick. While I remonstrated with an over-zealous steward about using my camera, the penalty was easily dispatched.

Chelsea 3 Newcastle United 0.

After a relatively quiet start to this season under Mourinho, despite a steady supply of goals, Eden Hazard is now the darling of the Chelsea support. I am mesmerized every time Eden has the ball at his mercy. I get a lovely rush of adrenalin as I watch him run at defenders, scuttling back to try to annul his threat. I love his sudden acceleration. I admire his tenacity. Above all, I love his confidence with the ball at his feet. When he is at the top of his game, Eden has the ability to turn any moment into a great moment.

Let all of us stand up and enjoy it.

Back in 1980, Colin Lee had scored a hat-trick in the 6-0 rout. With almost half-an-hour remaining, I hoped for a similar score line. In reality, we eased off a little. Newcastle instead managed to carve out a couple of half-chances but their finishing was poor. Mourinho rang the changes; Ba for Eto’o, then new buy Mohamed Salah for Willian and then Andre Schurrle for the magical Hazard. Within a few minutes of his Chelsea debut, Salah had one half-chance and one fine chance in which to score, but failed to hit the target. He impressed me in the games against Basel in 2013; I’m sure he will prove to be a fine addition to our squad.

As the game wore on, all eyes and ears were focussed on score updates from Carrow Road where, amazingly, Norwich City were managing to hold Manchester City to a 0-0 score-line. Howard Webb signalled the end of our match and the crowd applauded the players off. It immediately felt like an easy win. In fact, it felt like a typical Chelsea versus Newcastle United result; a few Chelsea goals and a clean sheet. As I packed away my camera, it was announced on the PA that Manchester City had indeed dropped two points at Norwich.

It meant that Chelsea were top.

Get in.

We’ve all seen a list of our remaining league games. We will have a tough one at a resurgent Liverpool, plus a couple of home derbies against the North London teams might stretch us, but all of the others seem…whisper it…”winnable.”

Maybe, just maybe…

…with Eden Hazard in our team, we have a chance.

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Tales From Tyneside

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 2 November 2013.

Damn it. Damn it. Damn it. There are many occasions when I just wish that the football didn’t get in the way of a football weekend. This was clearly one of those times.

This was only my eighth trip up to St. James’ Park to see Chelsea. There are simple reasons of economy and geography for this; to put it bluntly – too expensive and too far. My last trip to Tyneside was in 2008-2009. When the season’s fixtures were announced way back in June, I quickly decided that a visit was long overdue. No six hour drive up and six hour drive back for me though – for the first time ever, I had decided to fly to a game in England.

A return flight from nearby Bristol to Newcastle was duly booked for £63 and I counted the months and days until it was time to head north to the mad city on the banks of the River Tyne. I was clearly treating this as an equivalent to a European away game.

Excited?

Why, aye pet.

At just after 5.30am, I texted Alan to let him know that I was – once more – on the road.

“Wor Jackie Kerouac.”

The reply?

“Wor Georgie Stephenson.”

As I headed over the Mendip Hills once again towards my most local airport, I was reminded of the special significance of flying to Newcastle – of all places – for a game of football. In the ‘seventies, Chelsea Football Club produced a yearbook and one of its most tantalising features was the listing, towards the back covers, of many miscellaneous facts and figures pertaining to the club. I was a glutton for such items of trivia and often used to devour the contents. There are a few items which still stick in my head to this day.

  1. Chelsea’s youngest ever player was Ian “Chico” Hamilton.
  2. Eddie MacCreadie – at the time – was our most capped player with twenty-three appearances for Scotland.
  3. Our record aggregate score was 21-0 versus Jeunesse Hautcharage in 1971.
  4. Newcastle United’s record gate was 68,000 to see the return of Hughie Gallacher in a Chelsea shirt to St. James’ Park in the ‘thirties.
  5. Chelsea were the first English team to use air travel for a football match; or to be more exact, to travel back from a football match. The venue? Yes, you’ve guessed it – Newcastle.

The flight was over in a flash; just time for a cursory glance through the inflight magazine and a coffee. Within fifty minutes, the plane had dipped its wings – I glimpsed a pristine white lighthouse guarding the Tyne estuary as the plane banked – and the descent into Geordieland had begun. Although there had been a cold shiver down everyone’s spine when the pilot had gleefully announced that the temperature in ‘Castle was “minus one”, in truth the temperature outside was a minor disturbance.

I was soon on my way into town on the city’s metro. A few fellow football fans were on board. The buzz had begun. As I headed into the city, eventually beneath the streets, I felt that Chelsea were impregnable. We had found our feet, we were scoring goals, we were playing some great stuff. I felt an echo to our dominant form of November 2004, when things really started clicking under Jose Mourinho the first time around. And what an away game to revel in our new-found invincibility.

Newcastle away.

Fantastic.

I had a superb time wandering around along the banks of the River Tyne for a few hours. From the area around the central train station, it is a steep descent down to the quayside. There is almost a gorge-like feel to the river. The iconic Tyne Bridge dominates, but the recent addition of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge augments the view rather well. There are three more bridges which cluster together linking Newcastle to the north and Gateshead to the south. It’s all too photogenic to resist. I happily snapped photographs as I walked in the fresh winter morning air. To be honest, there was a dull grey stillness to the early hours, but it seemed to encapsulate the mood of the city perfectly.

I always remember my first-ever trip to St. James’ Park in March 1984; a Chelsea special, my first proper Chelsea away game, a 1-1 draw and the likes of Kerry Dixon, Colin Pates, Mickey Thomas, David Speedie and Pat Nevin playing for a mythical Chelsea team. I remember crossing the Tyne, high on the railway bridge to the west, and spotting the magnificent and striking Tyne Bridge away to my right. What fantastic memories from almost thirty years ago.

I dipped into a hotel and soon devoured a fulfilling breakfast and then continued walking towards the converted Baltic Flour Mill which has been rejuvenated over the past fifteen years and is now renamed the Baltic Art Centre. I ascended to the viewing platform on the fifth floor and what a vista greeted me.

The Tyne River, the bridges, the spires, the layers upon layers of streets, the deep gorge, the city.

And there, right at the top of the hill to my right, the towering stands of St. James’ Park, where I would be positioned in under three hours for the game.

I retraced my steps and sheltered from the rain in The Redhouse pub right under the shadows of the Tyne Bridge. A pint of Erdinger went down well; I toasted absent friends and supped away. The pub was magnificent; it had darkened rooms, dingy alcoves and there were echoes of its historic past at every turn. My mind cascaded back to when the nearby quayside would have been manically busy with ships, traders, sailors, rogues and thieves.

The rain had thankfully subsided as I began a slow walk north towards the stadium at the top of the town. There are several fine Georgian streets in the city centre and none is more elegant than Grey Street which slowly curves up towards the monument to Earl Grey. From here, the stadium is but a few hundred yards away.

Here was Newcastle United’s saving grace; a city-centre location. It’s the real heart of the city.

The rain began falling again as I sidestepped protests against Mike Ashley under the massive steel structure of the Gallowgate Stand, with the famous Strawberry pub nestled underneath, quite out of place, like an historic throwback to a more simple time.

As I headed around towards the away entrance, I spotted the statue in honour of Newcastle United’s most loved son, Sir Bobby Robson, standing proud and looking out into the Tyneside mist. Above was the towering steel of the Milburn Stand; quite astonishing in its scale.

The fourteen flights of stairs at St. James’ Park are always a test; I passed this time, but without flying colours. A plastic bottle of Coors – hardly on the same scale as an Erdinger – was my reward as I waited for Alan and Gary to arrive. We had three thousand tickets for this game and we had sold out. With no Rangers game on the Saturday, our legions were bolstered by many from their royal – and loyal – blue ranks. I spotted a few friendly faces, but many amongst our support did not register.

Eventually, Alan and Gary arrived and we entered the away section. We were in row V, maybe only around six or seven rows from the very top. The view which greeted me was, despite the dull grey weather, quite phenomenal.

Away in the distance, on the horizon, was the high ground of Gateshead. A solitary spire broke the line of where land met sky in a fuzzy grey smudge. Sadly, only a few miles to the west from that high land, in 1957, Hughie Gallacher – the fiery and tormented former Newcastle United, Chelsea and Scotland centre-forward – took his own life by descending from a footbridge and walking out in front of a train. Hughie Gallacher is a Chelsea player that fascinates me. One of these days I will try to hunt down a biography written by Newcastle fan Paul Joannou about this most loved of players.

Down below, way down below, to my left, just visible through the perspex glass screens of the Leazes Stand can be seen the Georgian terraced houses of Leazes Terrace. In the days when St. James’ Park was virtually all standing, these houses overlooked the eastern terrace at the stadium. They were very distinctive. In around 1972, a new concrete stand was constructed on that eastern terrace, thus blocking their view of the stadium. It is their presence today, though, that gives St. James’ Park such a lop-sided feel. That 1972 stand – the most modern aspect of the stadium when I visited in 1984 – can’t be enlarged due to the fact that the houses on Leazes Terrace are listed buildings; some are used for university students, some are in private hands.

They can’t however, be demolished. In the meantime, the monolithic west and north stands at St. James’ tower over all. Their size is truly mesmerizing.

Ahead of me, the home end – the Gallowgate. Once a relatively slight terrace, containing very distinctive concrete crush barriers, this end was dismantled and built anew around 1993. I can always remember a sight from the days when Kevin Keegan reinvigorated the club when he joined them from Southampton in 1982. At the time, this story was unheard of – an England international signing for a struggling team in the second division. I remember a winter’s game, rain lashing down on the open Gallowgate terrace, the stadium packed with Geordies and steam coming up of their boiling bodies, piled high on the crush barriers.

Truly amazing.

In the distance, clearly visible was the curving green iron of the Tyne Bridge. The traffic was heavy, the cars’ lights were on and I wondered if they were tuned in to the match.

The unlucky ones outside. The lucky ones inside.

The teams entered the pitch. There was an impeccably well-observed minute of silence for those who have fallen.

The grey Tyneside air turned darker.

We quickly ran through the Chelsea team and there were few surprises.

Juan Mata was playing. David Luiz was playing.

The Chelsea support, massed high on the upper tier of the Leazes Stand stood the entire game. It is something that we do without even thinking about these days; a subconscious statement of defiance to those who try to sanitise and sterilise our beautiful game.

To the memory of those ten thousand Geordies huddled together in the rain in 1982.

Chelsea certainly had most of the possession in that first-half, but sadly had nothing to show for it all at half-time. Our play at times was slow. There were occasional thrusts from Hazard on the left and Torres on the right, but Krul was hardly tested apart from at a succession of corners midway through the half. A John Terry header crashed against the bar. A deflected Torres effort too.

The home support during the first-half had been dire. We had begun well with the new Moyes & Wenger song getting some airtime along with the Willian effort. Our support, like the form of the team, drifted away as the half continued.

At the break, there were the usual murmurs of discontent, but we knew we were in good hands.

“Just hope Mourinho weaves his magic at the break and we change things in the second-half.”

I wandered down to the toilets at half-time, the concourse absolutely packed with away supporters. In the middle of the crowd, quietly talking to a fellow fan, was Pat Nevin, sporting a blue and white Chelsea scarf. A quick handshake for that most wondrous of Chelsea players. I reminded him that he was my favourite player of all time.

The rain continued to fall as the game continued. Mourinho surprisingly replaced Torres with Eto’o. Although Torres had not enjoyed his best of games, his level of service in the first hour was poor. I was surprised when he was substituted. Additionally, Juan Mata was replaced by Willian. This was another surprising move by Jose. We all thought that Oscar – and maybe Hazard – was more deserving to be replaced. Elsewhere, Lamps struggled to get a foothold. In defence, David Luiz was having one of those games which left even me mouthing expletives at his reckless challenges.

A couple of half-chances for the home team suddenly galvanised the home support and there was a definite change in the sway of the game. This was now getting tougher by the minute. Our play was deteriorating fast.

A header from an unmarked Gouffran on 68 minutes gave the Geordies a deserved lead and the stadium rocked.

Mourinho immediately replaced Frank with Andrea Schurrle, whose initial industry promised an upturn in our fortunes. Half-chances for Willian and Eto’o didn’t convince the away support that our luck would change.

Only the barnstorming Ivanovic and the solid defensive play of Terry provided any comfort.

A late goal from Remy, cracked in off the near post settled the game for sure. With that, hundreds of Chelsea fans decided to head into the bars and pubs of the city centre. Five minutes of extra time was signalled but we all knew that we wouldn’t score if we had played all afternoon.

That was as clear as black and white.

It had undoubtedly been a very poor Chelsea performance. We were lost for words to be honest. Our fine form of the past month – wins, flair, goals – had shrivelled up in the Tyneside rain. We looked for answers. In the warmth of The Union Rooms opposite the train station, a few of us tried to put together an explanation of our failures, but we struggled.

“It’s not as if they’re a great time.”

Alan and Gary then left for London.

“See you Wednesday, boys.”

The night was still young. I chatted away to a couple of locals. There were warm memories again of 1983-1984 and the tantalising forward line of Keegan, Beardsley and Waddle. I mentioned the very memorable hip-shake move that Peter Beardsley used to effectively confuse and befuddle opposing defenders. The locals talked about their loathing of Joe Kinnear and Mike Ashley, the painful wait for silverware on Tyneside, the skill of former midfielder Tony Green and the talk went on and on and on.

And then, alone, out into the craziness of a Newcastle night.

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Tales From A New Dawn

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 25 August 2012.

My very first Chelsea game was over thirty-eight years ago. The opponents on that life-changing afternoon were Newcastle United. Since then, our paths have crossed with alarming regularity, including some very memorable battles in the old second division. Our third Premiership game of the new 2012-2013 season would be my 31st Chelsea vs. Newcastle United match at Stamford Bridge. I have only seen Liverpool on more occasions at HQ. In those thirty previous games, our record was excellent; just four defeats. Our 2-0 loss to the Geordies in early May was our first league loss to them at home since a 3-1 defeat in November 1986.

There was a sense of revenge in the air. That game will be remembered, of course, for those two wondrous Cisse strikes. Strangely enough, while I was over in New York recently, I got chatting to a Newcastle United fan at the New York Yankees game on my last night. She had been at the game in May, one of the 1,500 away fans who had been rewarded for their support by a rare away win at Chelsea. I told her that there aren’t many times that I want to check out an opponents’ goal as soon as I reach home, but that was one occasion. We haven’t seen a goal like Cisse’s second strike at The Bridge for quite a while. Its trajectory seemed to defy all laws of physics. It was a cracking strike.

After our maximum six points being garnered from our two league matches, and our play improving over the past three games against City, Wigan and Reading I was truly relishing this one. Newcastle United would be a stern test. It had the makings of a classic. And this brought me a great deal of joy; I love the fact that teams outside of the big four or five have their moments. How boring it would be if our only tests each year were the same opponents.

With the evening kick-off, there was no need to leave until lunchtime. Out shopping in Frome in the morning, I bumped into Dave and Karen, fellow Chelsea fans and season ticket holders for around six or seven years. Regretfully, Dave informed me that they didn’t renew for 2012-2013. A few years ago, there used to be six season ticket holders travelling up from Dodge each game; Dave, Karen, Frank, PD, Glenn and myself. Only the latter two remain.

I collected Young Jake from outside Trowbridge train station at 1pm and Old Parky from his house soon after. There was a look of joyful glee on Jill’s face when I collected Parky; she often calls me her respite carer.

“Don’t worry, Jill, I’ll take care of the old bugger today. Send the cheque to my office.”

We chatted away as I headed east. Parky was fortified by a four pint pack of Foster lager. I made use of the new “Starbucks” drive-in at Membury Services near Swindon; another American innovation that has found its way over the Atlantic. The weather was bizarre; fine one minute, rain showers the next. We must have had twenty individual rain showers on the drive in.

As I drove past Slough to the north and Windsor to the south, it was obvious that London was in the middle of a pretty intense rainstorm. The sky was wild and wonderful. A great towering cumulonimbus cloud dominated the vista in the centre, but huge billowing white and grey clouds were everywhere I could look. We spotted occasional lightning forks. It was like a gatefold album cover from some hideous prog rock group in the ‘seventies. I almost expected to see dragons, serpents or bare-breasted Nordic goddesses.

Calm down Parky.

But then it got serious. The rain became heavier. We got drenched as we had a quick pit stop at Heston. The last twenty miles into town were painful. The rain came down in a never-ending deluge and the traffic slowed. The spray made visibility difficult. We drove past Brentford’s Griffin Park and saw that the floodlights were already on, even though it was only 3.15pm. Heading around Hammersmith, the rain bounced back up off the road and we saw great puddles of surface water.

“Honestly can’t see the game taking place, Parks…all this rain, bloody hell.”

The streets and pavements were virtually deserted. The sky was a brooding, dark shade of grey. It felt like a mid-winter evening, not a summer afternoon. The lightning strikes grew more frequent. There were even thunderclaps.

At least there were no text messages to say that the game had been postponed. We spoke about the last time that a match was called-off on the day of the game at Chelsea; we have been lucky, it was as long ago as 1998. Jake needed to meet Mick down at the Copthorne Hotel and so I decided to drive down to Stamford Bridge as the poor tyke would get soaked if he was to walk from The Goose. I turned left at the bottom of the North End Road and onto the Fulham Road. Where was everybody? Again, the streets were deserted.

It was, without doubt, a very eerie sensation. As I headed past the Hammersmith & Fulham town hall, the rain continued to fall. There was an apocalyptic air to what was before me; these familiar streets, usually so full of brightly coloured pedestrians and football supporters, were virtually devoid of people, save for a few poor souls sheltering under shop fronts and secluded nooks and crannies.

Dark skies, incessant rain, the wind howling and solemn streets devoid of life.

Like a terrible vision from the future.

Is this what Fulham Broadway will be like when Tottenham next win the league?

We dropped Young Jake outside the main entrance -“go, go, go!” – and I then drove around the block, past The Black Bull, The Finborough and up to the Brompton Road. Then, miraculously, the rain eased. By the time I drove past West Brompton tube, the newly-arrived passengers were briskly walking towards the gaggle of pubs as if the thunderstorm had not happened.

I then saw a sight which saddened me and stirred me in equal measure. Chelsea fan Kyle Broadbent tragically passed away during the week. He was just 26. Although I did not know Kyle, the eulogies being posted on Facebook during the week were enough for me to know that he had touched so many lives and was loved by many people in the Chelsea fraternity. Draped over the metal railings of the “Prince of Wales” pub, I spotted a damp, limp flag which simply stated –

“Kyle Broadbent 1986-2012.”

Several of his friends had walked that morning in his honour from Euston Station, some three miles away, to Chelsea. It seems that Kyle often went on wild and wondrous walks at various Chelsea games; it was his thing.

Oh boy. What to say?

Rest in peace, Kyle.

Miraculously, the rain stopped just as I parked up on Bramber Road. A few minutes later, Parky and I were with the usual suspects in The Goose. Another pint of Peroni. I’ll get a new nickname at this rate; “One Pint Axon.” I guess it’s better than “Half Pint Axon.”

The scores were being monitored on the TV screen. The place was packed. A little group of around ten away fans were spotted a few yards away. No malice, times have moved on. However, I don’t think Chelsea have any real problems with Newcastle. Everton fans are sometimes spotted in the pub. West Brom, Blackburn too; no big deal. None of our main rivals would take these same liberties, though.

It simply wouldn’t be allowed to happen.

For once, The Goose was rocking with loud and boisterous singing, no doubt inspired by the presence of the away fans. We all joined in. We couldn’t let the Geordies win that battle. With our trip to Monaco for the UEFA Super Cup coming up, Andy and I spoke about our memorable coach trip to the 1998 game in Monaco when we beat Real Madrid 1-0.

The coach broke down on three separate occasions on that trip; it was, however, a great excursion which was full of many great memories. A few lads from Burnham-on-Sea in my county of Somerset were on the coach and soon got stuck into many flagons of “Rich’s” cider. One of the lads, attending his very first football game, unfortunately bore a striking resemblance to the notorious killer Fred West and his experience on the night of the game proved to be the funniest moment of the whole trip.

Fred West – I can’t remember his name – was out on the Nice seafront in the small hours after the match had long finished, chatting with a few ladies of the night. After things got a little boisterous, one of the street-walkers approached Fred and, to his absolute horror, pulled her skirt down to reveal that “she” was in fact a “he.”

With that, Fred started to recoil in horror, only for the same individual to pull out a shotgun, which was fired into the air.

The image of a startled Fred West sprinting back to the hotel had his friends roaring with laughter. I bumped into one of Fred’s mates at the Reise game at Anfield in 2009; Fred hasn’t been to a football game since.

Ed bought Parky a double Jack Daniels and Coke. I wondered if he should have bought me a shovel, to allow me to scoop Parky out of my car when I would eventually drop him off later that night.

We left the pub just as the Tottenham let in a late – a very late – equaliser.

Happy days.

At “the stall” I had a quick chat with a few acquaintances. Mark W had lost a lot of the new edition of “CFCUK” during the deluge’ leaving Dave to try to hawk a few dry copies of the August edition. Cliff A gave me a flier about a “test the water” meeting to look at setting up a Chelsea Supporters’ Trust. The meeting is scheduled to take place after the Stoke game; watch this space. I accompanied Steve M on the walk to the ground; we spoke about the great time we had in the States.

Despite the torrential downpour which had hit south-west London, the pitch looked stunning. There was no surface water at all. Well done the ground staff. Neil Barnett introduced the new signings Victor Moses and Cesar Azpilicueta before the game. There were team changes from Wednesday; the big surprise was Raul Meireles partnering Mikel at the base of our newly-evolving midfield.

The game was indeed a cracker.

Despite the concerns over the summer about the new players taking a while to settle, we produced a very mature performance, with all players interacting well, against one of the fancied teams of the division.

The Bridge was soon rocking to the newest song of the moment. Out on the pitch, our play flowed in a way that was missing for vast tracts of last season. We simply purred. We began the livelier, with a few chances being carved out, with only sporadic Newcastle retaliation. In the 22nd minute, Fernando Torres spun into space and prodded the ball past a Newcastle defender. An outstretched leg, a fall, a penalty.

Three games, three penalties.

With Lamps side-lined, we pondered the options. Mata has missed a few penalties of late and so it was no surprise when Eden Hazard stood up.

A short run, a confident finish.

1-0 to the European Champions.

Alan and I had our “YHTCAUN – COMLD” exchange in a Geordie accent and, indeed, spoke in Geordie accents for the vast majority of the game.

The 1,500 away fans in the corner were clearly not impressed with the volume of our support and hit us, predictably, with the boring “Your Support Is F***ing S***.”

We yawned.

Fernando Torres, clearly now enjoying his permanent role at the front of our team, touched the ball past Coloccini and fell. Much to our horror, not only was a free-kick not awarded, but the Spaniard was booked.

Revenge came soon after. Although Alan was full of moans about Phil Dowd’s decision to allow five minutes of extra time at the end of the half, we were smiling in the 50th minute. A quite delightful move, which resulted in a Hazard back-heel into the path of an on-rushing Torres, ended with a delicate flick from the outside of Torres’ right boot. The ball simply flew into the net and The Bridge erupted.

Two goals in two games; Fernando Torres, you know what you are.

We all agreed how well we had played amidst our half-time chat. Out on the pitch, Neil Barnett was with former striker Joe Allon – famous for his jump over the Shed End advertising hoardings during a 2-2 draw with Wimbledon in 1991…but not much else.

Newcastle came at us in the first part of the second period. Our flow had been interrupted by the half-time break and the visitors’ new found thrust. But, in all honesty, we were hardly troubled the entire game. Ryan Bertrand hardly put a foot wrong. Both Mikel and Meireles covered a lot of ground and were the unsung heroes.

Three moments to cherish from the second period.

As the heavens opened again, a delightful back heel from Eden Hazard which almost reached Torres. I think we can expect similar moments of inspiration from our new Belgian as the season progresses. I noted that he has a very low centre of gravity – always an advantage for a dribbler – and, once he sets off on a forward run, he almost hugs the turf.

Fernando Torres was a man reborn and often ran at the Newcastle defence. His close control is one of his brightest assets. When he was on the edge of the Newcastle box, he fooled everyone by crossing the ball with his right foot from behind his standing left foot. Lovely stuff.

Eden Hazard, now full of running, teased Coloccini down below me and left him for dead over ten scintillating yards. His change of pace was amazing.

Newcastle had two or three goal scoring chances at the Shed End. We were slightly edgy, knowing that a goal from the visitors would bring them right back into it.

We held on. It had been a lovely game, which augers so well for the rest of the season.

With no trip to Monaco for me next weekend, I now have to wait three whole weeks for my next game; a feisty trip to our neighbours at Loftus Road. Who knows, by the time we reconvene there, we might still be top.

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