Tales From Dixie Land

Chelsea vs. Everton : 7 December 2019.

Not long in to the long drive north for our game at Everton, I admitted to PD and Parky about my thoughts :

“Of course, we can’t really be sure how this one is going to go.”

Despite Chelsea sitting in a pretty decent fourth place, and with Everton having just sacked their manager Marco Silva, Goodison Park has been a tough place for us over the last decade. Additionally, we have been limping along of late and have struggled to find consistency. Everton, under caretaker manager Duncan Ferguson, would be fired up. It was, in my mind anyway, a difficult result to predict.

The journey from rural Somerset to urban Merseyside was completed in a very good time; a little under four-and-a-half hours. At just after 10.30am, I was at the large car-park in Stanley Park, a quarter of a mile from the towering main stand at Anfield, where the league title looks increasingly like residing in May. We walked through the park, and I found it difficult to believe that we were last in this particular part of the world almost two years ago, just before Christmas, when we ended-up walking back to my car in the same car-park after a dismal 0-0 draw. Last season – last March, St. Patrick’s Day, a 0-2 loss – we had travelled to and from our hotel near Lime Street via cabs.

It would be my twentieth visit to Goodison Park, and as many know, this particular stadium at the northern end of Stanley Park is easily my favourite away venue in domestic football. While PD – Bullens Road, Lower – and LP – Bullens Road, Upper – made the short walk to the away turnstiles, I had a little time to kill before kick-off, so had a customary wander. For certain, I was in no need of alcohol since I wanted to remain fresh for the return journey later that day. I had been awake well before the 5am alarm. The day, for me anyway, was all about staying alert for the demands of the road.

I soon found myself at the Dixie Dean statue. It is a formidable structure and depicts the legendary Evertonian as a strong and determined individual, his eyes focussed and with a fist clenched. His record of 349 league goals in just 399 league games for Everton is one of the greatest records in English football. Growing up as a boy, my father – who was not a football fan at all, really – would often talk of Dixie Dean. He was the superstar of the inter-war years. I always liked the fact that his haul of 60 league goals in 1927/28 was matched by Babe Ruth’s haul of 60 home runs in 1927 for the New York Yankees. Both were the superstars of their eras. And I thought that both records would never ever be beaten. The Ruth record has been surpassed, but Dixie Dean’s sixty will surely stand forever. I took a few photographs of the area, which is backed by plaques commemorating the seven Everton players who were killed in the two World Wars. There were bouquets of flowers at the base of the statue, and it was the focus for many of the match-going fans.

I disappeared off, past the Everton club shop, and headed over to Walton Road where I hoped to meet up with a Chelsea mate of mine and his Everton-supporting brother, but they were delayed en route. Instead, I made my way back to Goodison, passing the Everton Community School, which has enjoyed much success in the local area in recent years. I spotted a long-haired lad knocking a ball against an end of terrace brick wall, the outline of a goal white-washed against it. These sort of scenes are rare in England these days. Ball games are usually not allowed. It was a pleasing sight. I almost wanted to join in. It brought back memories of me endlessly kicking a tennis ball against the large expanse of wall opposite my house in my home village, honing my timing, my technique – and my silent commentary.

“Hollins, outside to Cooke. To Osgood. Goal!”

As always, I circumnavigated Goodison Park, and was very pleased to spot a new addition since my last visit. On a wide pavement outside the famous church of St. Luke The Evangelist stood statues of Howard Kendall, Colin Harvey and Alan Ball, Everton’s “Holy Trinity.” It is sensational. I love that it might resemble three fans heading along Goodison Road from a distance, but once close, it becomes apparent that the figures are footballers.

I took some photographs. It was again the focus of much attention from Evertonians.

I remembered how, on my second visit to Goodison Park in the winter of 1986/87, I had walked not more than ten yards away, along the pavement, alone, and had immediately regretted my choice of jacket. A little group of scallies had scuttled past me and one hissed :

“That jacket is so fuckin’ red.”

I thought I was in for some grief, but nothing came of it. Just a little later, some younger lads started talking to me – much to my annoyance, I thought they were spotters – but I managed to avoid any trouble. I remember they spoke about getting in at Everton under the turnstiles, or by often using some free tickets that someone at the club gave them. They were at first an irritating gaggle of kids – they must have been around fourteen or fifteen – but as I chatted to them, they were just keen to talk to me about football, despite me being on guard.

“What’s your firm called?” I remember one kid asking me.

I pleaded ignorance. I didn’t fancy getting slapped by his elder brother, possibly lurking around a corner.

Later that season, a month or so later, I bumped into the very same group of four or five kids at Anfield for the away game against Liverpool. One of them recognised me.

“Alright, mate?”

I smiled but kept my head down.

Merseyside in 1986 was a tough gig.

The welcome from Evertonians in 2019 was a lot cheerier.

A chap in his ‘sixties moved so I could take a photograph of Alan Ball. I thanked him and said “great statue, that.”

He replied :

“We could do with them today.”

We both smiled.

I had timed my ritualistic pre-amble to perfection and was inside the historic Bullens Road stand with about a quarter of an hour to spare. I could not resist some photographs of the blue and white interior. Once up in the Upper Tier, the wooden floorboards hint at its antiquity. It is a magical place, a great perch from which the full glory of Goodison Park is visible down below.

Those Chelsea supporters who boorishly talk about Goodison Park being a “shit hole” can never, ever, be true friends of mine.

Opposite, the main stand, a double-decked behemoth, acted as a quick reminder of my childhood when its towering presence used to enthral me as I watched the Everton players on TV. In those days – “oh bollocks, here he goes again” – I used to love the idiosyncratic nature of many football grounds. Each one imbued its own personality on the clubs. In fact, the two were one of the same.

Everton was Goodison.

United was Old Trafford.

Arsenal was Highbury.

I thought back on the variety of stands opposite the TV gantries.

The multi-span roof at Molineux.

The trim art deco stylings of the East Stand on Avenell Road at Highbury.

The low pitched roof of the Kemlyn Road Stand, with its line of floodlights above, at Anfield.

The low, small stand at Filbert Street.

The huge and brooding Kippax terrace – a rarity in itself – along the side of the pitch at Manchester City.

The structured modernity at Old Trafford; terrace at front, seats in the middle, executive boxes at the rear.

The tightness of the small structure at The Dell.

It is such a shame that these individualistic beauties have, by and large, been replaced by tiers of seating in lookalike rebuilds. Thankfully, Goodison Park remains (but not for too much longer) and its two Archibald Leitch stands became the early focus of my attention as the game progressed.

Kick-off time approached. Time for one of the highlights of modern day Chelsea away days.

“Z Cars.”

I love it. I fucking love it.

I beamed a very wide smile.

Chelsea were unchanged from the Aston Villa game on the previous Wednesday.

Arrizabalaga

James – Christensen – Zouma – Azpilicueta

Kante

Kovacic – Mount

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

Chelsea in black, black, bright orange.

There were more than a few empty seats in the Upper Tier. Everyone was stood.

The game began.

In the very first few minutes, a couple of loose passes from Dave had a few supporters mumbling and grumbling. But Mason Mount looked busy and involved, running into pockets of space. As a ball was worked out to our right and a pull-back followed, I imagined an Ivanovic or a Costa thumping the ball in for an early lead. It was a promising start. But then, a full scale calamity. We gave up possession way too easily and Everton were all over us like a rash. They moved the ball quickly and purposefully, and we were – cliché warning – chasing shadows. The ball reached their right wing, under the towering double-decker, and Djibril Sidibe punched a fine cross into our box and it was met by the free leap of Richarlison. Our centre-backs were absent without leave.

Only five minutes had been played.

“Oh for fuck sake.”

Chelsea tended to dominate possession, but with little danger to Jordan Pickford in the Everton goal. Everton seemed a little more dangerous on the rare occasions they had the chance to hurt us. There was more space in our defensive third than theirs. A cross from Walcott just evaded Richarlison and there was a save from Kepa from an Everton shot on goal. But we had moments when we looked half-decent. In the middle of the first-half – if not mirroring the purple patch against Villa, perhaps a lavender or violet patch – we started to build a little momentum. Willian managed a few forceful dribbles out of our half, and there was some reasonable linking together of passes. One textbook breakaway down our right came to nothing, and on more than one occasion it felt that we were too frightened to pull the trigger on goal.

Pulisic was on the periphery. I heard a million voices in the US shout the exact same thing :

“Shoot the ball!”

The highlights of the first-half involved our two best players.

N’Golo Kante stretching, but able to cushion a ball into the path of a team mate with just the correct amount of weight. Just perfection.

Mateo Kovacic fighting like a demon for the ball as he kept possession during an extended dribble, even after running into defenders, showing great spirit and determination. It was like something from another era.

As the second-half began, I admitted to Gary “it’s strange not seeing Hazard down below us at this ground, twisting and turning.”

After just two minutes of the half, further catastrophe. I had commented to Gary that it was good to hear the Evertonians applaud Kurt Zouma’s defensive clearance in the first few seconds of the half. He was well-liked at Goodison last season. And yet it was his far-from-convincing hoof into the air which caused panic in the heart of our defence. Christensen and Zouma took it in turns to fall over themselves as the ball fortuitously fell at the feet of Dominic Calvert-Lewin (more a bespectacled member of the clergy than a footballer) and we watched, horrified, as he thumped the ball in from close range.

It felt like we had shot ourselves in the foot yet again. Two goals in the first five minutes of each half.

Bollocks.

No way back from this?

It certainly felt that way.

And yet just a short period of time followed – three minutes – and we were miraculously back in it. A raiding Kante touched the ball to Azpilicueta. His intended pass to Willian was cleared, but it reached Kovacic some twenty-five yards out. His low shot was supremely well-placed. It nestled in the bottom corner with Pickford well beaten.

Game on.

There had been a VAR check for both second-half goals, but both stood.

“ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.”

We continued to dominate the game, and I think it would be safe to say that most of us expected an equaliser at some stage. But we just lacked the final touch. And the noise in our section wasn’t great to be honest. Theo Walcott’s pace had the beating of Kante on one occasion, but then our little prince fared better in a second duel.

But Alan wasn’t impressed.

“Walcott’s had more dribbles than Stephen Hawking.”

There were efforts from Kovacic, from Mount, a drive from outside the box from Christensen. As the game continued, our exasperation increased. Another shot from Mount, a flash from Azpilicueta that was finger tipped over by Pickford.

On seventy minutes, Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced Willian.

On eighty-two minutes, Michy Batshuayi replaced Reece James.

Frank played with two up top.

Sadly, the game was decided with eighty-four minutes on the clock. Kepa tried to find Zouma but his long pass was poor. Theo Walcott collected it, and found Calvert-Lewin. I immediately growled. This looked dangerous. A back-heel from him found Tom Davies, a substitute, and as he stumbled Calvert-Lewin pounced to stab home the loose ball.

Everton 3 Chelsea 1.

Fackinell.

Despite a day of rainbow flags, rainbow armbands and rainbow laces, the Park End then sang about rent boys.

Original, eh?

The game ended.

The home crowd roared “Duncan, Duncan Ferguson” and I thought back to the “dogs of war” team of his era when players like Barry Horne, Dave Watson and Paul Rideout showed no mercy in every game they played. It was a similar performance from the home team on this occasion.

There was the shaking of heads and the pursing of lips in the Bullens Road. It was another strange one. A game of defensive lapses, and a game of goal-shy forwards. Pulisic was lightweight and had a shocker. The defensive four were individually poor and collectively worse. Kante and Kovacic shone like beacons. The game passed Tammy by. And our support wasn’t great.

I spoke to a couple of mates.

“Didn’t seem like a 3-1 game.”

And it didn’t. We weren’t too far away from a draw, but a loss was sadly predictable. We have now lost three of the last four league games. And we play Lille at home in the Champions League on Tuesday, a game that might well affect our self-confidence over the next three months.

We walked back to the car, a little downbeat, but a little pragmatic too.

“Frank is still testing his ideas, testing his thoughts on the best formations, the best mix of players. It’s still a work in progress.”

The escape route out of Stanley Park, down Utting Avenue, past the Liverpool pennants on the lamp posts, and onto Queens Drive was the quickest ever. Maybe the Evertonians were still ensconced in Goodison celebrating their surprising win.

I made good time on the way home, yet I missed a turning from the M6 and down onto the M5. I found myself driving past Villa Park – on the day that their former boss Ron Saunders passed away – but still had time to head over to “The Vine” at West Bromwich which is one of the most famous football pubs in the UK.

Chicken jalfrezi, mushroom rice, peshwari naan.

It took my mind of the football. Just.

I reached home at about 8.30pm, but found myself falling asleep during the “MOTD” coverage of our game. It was probably just as well.

Later, I looked at the record of my twenty visits to Goodison Park. It made for sobering viewing.

The first ten games : 1986 to 2011.

Won 5

Drew 5

Lost 0

The last ten games : 2011 to 2019

Won 2

Drew 1

Lost 7

It has become, ridiculously, a huge bogey ground for us.

Right.

Tuesday.

Lille.

See you there.

Tales From City, Chips And Gravy

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 23 November 2019.

At around 1pm – bang on target, just as I had predicted, have I mentioned I work in logistics? – I pulled into the car park of The Windmill pub just off the roundabout on the M6 which crosses with the A556.

Exit 19.

It did not seem five minutes since we were last there. It was, in fact, three months ago that we stopped for an hour or so as we met my old college mate Rick before the league opener against Manchester United. On this occasion, ahead of our enticing game with Manchester’s other team, we were stopping for considerably longer. I had enjoyed the trip north; grey skies, but no rain, a clear run. The usual three – PD, Parky and little old me – were joined by PD’s son Scott. This would be his first visit to Manchester, for football or for anything else for that matter. The drive was four hours in length, and we chatted intermittently about all sorts of shite. The game itself was touched upon but only fleetingly. We mentioned that it was likely that Frank Lampard would go for a little more robust midfield three than against other teams; Jorginho, Kovacic, Kante. But other topics of conversation were wide, and wild, and various. This is often the case. I have mentioned before that on match days we often treat the game itself as a discussion topic as if it was the eye of a storm – tranquil, peaceful, calm – while other games are voraciously discussed, with whirlwinds of memories cascading around of past matches and past battles, with the future games discussed at length too, with plans and itineraries debated ad nauseam.

We ordered drinks – three ciders and a diet Coke, no point in guessing which was mine – and studied the varied menu. For some reason that I cannot recall, one of the various “non-football” chats en route to the north-west was of types of food, maybe from our childhood, I can’t remember. I had mentioned steak and kidney pudding – home-made, with suet – and lo-and-behold, a steak and ale pudding was on the menu. PD and I ordered it. Parky chose lasagne. Scott chose ham, eggs and chips.

Is everyone still awake?

The suet pudding was crammed full of steak, the chips were authentic chip-shop style, the garden peas were sweet and juicy, and in typical Northern fashion, everything was set off with thick gravy.

Northerners love gravy.

It was bloody lovely.

Although the City stadium was twenty miles away, and we didn’t think that we would see anyone we knew, after an hour or so Mark from Slough spotted me and came over to sit nearby with two fellow Chelsea mates. I bump into Mark occasionally, but our paths do not cross too often. The most memorable occasion was in China when he was a late addition to the coach trip to the Great Wall of China that I had booked in 2017. Mark, like me, follows his local non-league team. For a few moments we bored the others rigid with stupefyingly dull talk of the two Towns, Frome and Slough, respectively.

After three diet Cokes and a large cappuccino, I was raring to go to the game.

We left there at just after 3.30pm. It was an oh-so familiar drive to the Etihad, and it took us right past the site of Maine Road. Now then, dear reader, I have already detailed two of my three visits to this much-loved old stadium in these reports before so it is appropriate that I complete the story with some notes from the away game in 1985/86.

I am nothing if not consistent.

In fact, on this occasion I am lifting some words straight out of my 1985 diary.

“Caught the 8.32am to Manchester. A pleasant journey through the usual South Cheshire towns. Arrived at Piccadilly at 9.30am. Saw football coaches pull up at the station, so hopped on one. A chap from Stafford had a natter; definitely remember him from the Chelsea vs. Sunderland train. Let inside at 10.30am. A 60p hot dog and up on to the small corner terrace. I suppose we had 2,000, maybe 2,500. A pretty poor turn out really. Chelsea had seats behind the goal. Didn’t see any of the lads. Chelsea began well, causing City’s defence many problems. In about the tenth minute, Speedie flicked the ball to Dixon who, by the penalty spot, calmly lobbed the ball over the ‘keeper. A super little goal really. Chelsea had a good spell, then City put in some long crosses but didn’t cause Eddie much of a problem. The game deteriorated in the last fifteen minutes of the half. I can’t honestly say the second-half improved at all. Only Canoville – on for Hazard – seemed to want to take the play to the home team. We were made to look very plain by a team that were not exactly high on confidence. The highlights were three great blocks by Eddie which saved us from a boring draw. I think he was our best player, always a bad sign. He didn’t put a foot wrong. We were kept in for a while. Spotted our firm waiting to my left as I boarded the bus back to the station. Spotted Winkle. Eventually back to the station for 2pm. A quarter-pounder. Caught the 2.42pm back to Stoke, getting back at 3.45pm. Many flared cords today. Even Chelsea.”

Some notes to add.

I was living in Stoke-on-Trent at the time. Far be it for me to suggest that its location slap-dab between the football “awayday” cities of Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester might have, perhaps, influenced my decision to live there for three years.

My proclivity to record fine detail of train times, and timings in general,  continues to this day. Did I mention I work in logistics?

The early kick-off? Probably, no undoubtedly, a result of our reputation at the time of being Public Enemy Number One, and on the back of the previous visit, in late 1983/84, which resulted in seven thousand Chelsea roaming Moss Side and taking unbelievable liberties.

I travelled alone and did not chat to any close friends. Sometimes it was like that.

Winkle. A young lad, a bit of a face, who was pointed out to me by Alan – probably – and who was in and around the firm at the time. I learned quite recently that he had passed away some time ago; a relatively young death, a heart attack I believe. He is often mentioned on a few chat sites.

Flared cords. After the bright sportswear of 1983/84, it all went a little undercover and muted in 1984/85, and even more so in 1985/86. I have recently seen reference to this period in terrace subculture as the “anti-suss” era. After the skinhead and boots era passed, and as casualdom took hold, it eventually dawned on the police that those lads in smart sportswear with expensive trainers and the wedge cuts were hooligans. Lads needed to divert further. Out came plain pullovers, darker trainers, black leather jackets, darker jeans. Less gregariousness, and still one step ahead of the authorities. In the north-west, and Leeds – always Leeds – this manifested itself in slightly flared cords and jeans, a new trend after tight and faded jeans of the early ‘eighties. In fact, it all looked – hugely ironically – quite mainstream. But the devil was in the details. Heavy Armani pullovers, Hard Core jeans, Aquascutum and Burberry, Berghaus and Boss.

Hot dogs and hamburgers. The fodder of football. Nobody asked for a salad at games in 1985, and nor do they do now.

The gate on that Saturday morning was just 20,104, but this was especially low because – I do not doubt – it was at such an early time. In addition, I have a feeling our allocation was all-ticket, a rarity for those days. That season was eventually won by Liverpool despite Manchester United going on a nine or ten game winning streak at the start. As if it needs stating again, no leagues are won in October nor November. Low gates predominated in our football at this period, a time when football hooliganism had scared many away. Those that went were often treated shamefully. Out of interest, the top ten average gates from that season are featured below.

  1. Manchester United – 46,322 (4)
  2. Liverpool – 35,319 (1)
  3. Everton – 32,388 (2)
  4. Manchester City – 24,229 (15)
  5. Arsenal – 23,813 (7)
  6. Newcastle United – 23,184 (11)
  7. Sheffield Wednesday – 23,101 (5)
  8. Chelsea – 21,986 (6)
  9. West Ham United – 21,289 (3)
  10. Tottenham Hotspur – 20,862 (10)

It always makes me giggle to see that West Ham’s highest ever league placing still resulted in a lower gate than ours.

“Where were you when you were shit?” they ask us.

We should sing this to them :

“Where were you when you were good?”

Enough of 1985/86.

I made my way through the city. The traffic flowed surprisingly well.

I always find it odd that Manchester is often abbreviated to “M’cr” on many road signs.

“T’ls F’rm M’cr” anyone?

I dropped the lads off outside The Etihad at about 4.15pm and then drove on to park up. For the first time ever, my away ticket had failed to materialise and so I had needed to call Chelsea the previous day for a reprint to be arranged. I soon collected it at the away end ticket office. We bumped into others; Deano from Yorkshire, the Bristol lot, Scott and Paul. Everyone excited about the game.

PD and LP were in the middle tier. Scott and I were up in the third tier. This added a little frisson of excitement for me; my first time in the lofty heights of Level Three since the stadium was expanded in 2015. Others were sampling the top tier too, and were equally looking forward to it.

My seat – as if I’d be seated, none of us were – was in row W, but this was only halfway back. The tier goes on forever. But due to the layering of tiers, and the steepness of the rake, the pitch honestly does not seem too distant.

We had heard horrible news from elsewhere; a Tottenham win, a Liverpool win, and my local team Frome Town had let a 2-0 lead in Portsmouth evaporate against Moneyfields, who themselves were down to ten men, conceding an equaliser in the final minute. It is not known how Slough Town did.

Frome at Moneyfields.

Chelsea at Moneyfields.

I’d be more than happy with a 2-2 in Manchester.

The team had been announced. No real, huge, surprises.

Arizzabalaga

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Zouma – Emerson

Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante

Pulisic – Abraham – Willian

Barkley and Pedro are way down in the pecking order now, eh? It is clear that Frank loves Willian. He is enjoying a fine season, again, after an indifferent start.

The night had fallen by kick-off time.

I waited as the minutes ticked by. Scott ascended the stairs after squeezing in a final lager. There were a surprising number of people that I knew settling down alongside me.  I had incorrectly presumed that most ASTs would have been located in the other levels. With no cameras allowed at The Etihad, I was planning to utilise my ‘phone and I therefore knew that my match photographs would be limited to broad panoramas. There was the usual audio visual countdown to kick-off, but how many times can the world hear Martin Tyler scream the word “Aguero!” without feeling slightly jaundiced by it all. Yeah, I know, even if that goal was a kick in the solar plexus for Manchester United and its millions of fans.

I am surprised, actually – knowing how City like to “one step beyond” wind us up – that Frank Lampard’s goal against us in 2014 was not part of the countdown on the TV screens.

Yeah, Frank Lampard at Manchester City.

What the fuck was all that about?

At last, the final minutes. A huge City banner – “125 years” – welcomed the teams onto the pitch. To the side, an equally large banner declaring “This is our city.”

Blue Moon boomed.

As at many stadia, banners covered every inch of balcony wall. I am always bemused by the small flag to the left on the Colin Bell Stand that simply says “Reddish Blues.”

For the geographically-challenged, Reddish is a part of the Manchester conurbation.

In another universe, it might represent a small band of Mancunians who like United and City.

And it would be a very small band, marooned in Reddish for eternity.

Both clubs despise each other alright.

United and City.

Reds and Blues.

Munichs and Bitters.

A City most definitely not united.

A City divided.

I looked over at Frank Lampard, track suited, and wondered if he ever gave his bizarre stint as a City player much thought. Guardiola in the other technical area was casually dressed as always.

City in blue (with an odd hint of purple on the sleeves) shirts, white shorts and white socks. They seem to change that blending every year. I prefer them in the blue socks of my youth.

Chelsea in royal blue shirts, royal blue shorts, royal blue socks out of necessity.

If only City had kept to blue socks.

The game began.

I had mentioned in the pub, or the car, how City often start peppering our goal at The Etihad from the off. And it invariably involves Sergio Aguero. On this occasion, soon into the game, it was Kevin De Bruyne who flashed a low shot from an angle just inches past Kepa’s far post. I looked to the skies, or at least the towering stand roof above my head.

“Here we go again.”

But as the game developed, we showed no cowardice in taking the game to City. The last two league games at the same stadium had produced different game plans, but still the same result.

In 2017/18, Antonio Conte played ultra-defensively, lost 1-0, and lost many friends, despite it almost paying off.

In 2018/19, Maurizio Sarri attempted to play City at their own game and lost 6-0, one of the worst days out of my life, so thank you for that.

In 2019/20, Frank Lampard’s team played with great spirit, good movement, a fast tempo, and for a while it looked like we could pull off a wonderful victory.

A Willian shot from the inside the box in the inside-right channel missed Ederson’s far post by the same margin as the De Bruyne effort a few minutes earlier. Tackle for tackle, pass for pass, punch for punch we were matching them.

I focused on Tammy Abraham for a while. There always seems to be an element of doubt about how successful Tammy will be when he receives a ball. I am never sure of his intentions, and I am not sure if he is either. Did he really mean to keep possession or did he really intend to control it quickly and then distribute it to a team mate? Did he mean that flick? However, one scintillating feint and a quick turn into a sudden patch of space left his marker questioning his career choice. This was just wonderful.

“Well done, Tammy, son.”

Willian was full of intelligent running, sometimes the overlap option and often the underlap option, and saw much of the early ball. Christian Pulisic looked in fine form on the opposing flank. A shot from Fikayo Tomori went close.

A rare City foray into our box was met by not one but four Chelsea defenders lining up to block a goal bound shot. Magnificent.

With twenty minutes or so gone, Mateo Kovacic released a magnificent ball right into the heart of the City defence. It dropped majestically into the path of N’Golo Kante, who touched it on. I felt myself relax, as if I knew a goal was coming. I sensed that he only needed to poke it past a manically exposed Ederson.

He touched it, and it slowly rolled goalwards.

I remained remarkably calm.

Tammy followed it home.

City 0 Chelsea 1.

I was calm no more.

I exploded with noise.

This place has not been a happy hunting ground for us of late. We usually lose. Could we repeat those – magnificent – rare wins in 2013/14 and 2016/17?

Scott hoped so; he had bet £50 on us at 13/2.

City had been quiet all game, and were silent now.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

We looked imperious. City’s defence looked porous. We prodded and teased all over the pitch. This was a great game. I was loving it.

Out of nowhere there was a ridiculous “Fuck Off Mourinho” and I was pleased that very few joined in.

We were playing with skill, speed, purpose and pleasure.

But then.

We lost possession poorly and the ball was quickly threaded through to De Bruyne. A shot from outside the box drew the attention of three or four defenders willing to throw their bodies towards the ball, but on this occasion luck was not with us. A shot was cruelly deflected off a limb and Kepa was beaten.

City 1 Chelsea 1.

Fackinell.

The home team was roused and we gulped as a De Bruyne shot was slashed narrowly over. Just eight minutes after the first goal, Mahrez cut inside – past Pulisic and Emerson, both dumbfounded by the trickery – and we watched as his low shot nestled inside the far post.

The game had been turned on its head.

And now the score line had a sadly typical feel.

City 2 Chelsea 1.

Sigh.

Now City’s fans roared.

“City. Tearing Cockneys apart. Again.”

Our play grew nervous. Kamikaze back-passes, nervy touches. A shocking clearance from Kepa went straight towards that man Aguero – “here we fucking go” – but to our relief (not pleasure, this was not pleasurable) his shot struck the bar full on.

At the break I muttered some usual phrases from the earlier part of this season.

“Naïve defending. We need to know when to clear our lines, we are just inviting them on. Silly mistakes.”

The first quarter of the game, with us playing so well, had seemed like a cruel false dawn, a fib, a lie.

I bumped into some good pals at half-time and their smiles cheered me. It was great to see Dave from Brisbane, over for this and Valencia, again. In the toilets, I involuntarily began smoking for the first time since my schooldays.

Cough, cough, cough, cough.

Sadly, the second-half was a poor shadow of the high-tempo attack and counter-attack of the first period.

N’Golo – a real force of nature in our purple patch – struck at goal down below us but his shot was blocked. It would be our only goal bound effort for ages.

Reece James replaced Emerson, with Dave swapping wings.

“It worked last time, Scott.”

City came close at the other end. We were riding our luck. We found it hard to repel City, who were growing stronger with each passing minute.

Michy Batshuayi for Tammy.

Mason Mount for Jorginho.

A dipping effort from Willian caused a fingertip save from Ederson, but it seemed that we would never score. Mason Mount took responsibility for a very central free-kick in the dying minutes but the effort drifted well wide.

Sigh.

Just after, Raheem Sterling slotted home, but VAR ruled it offside. Nobody in the away end celebrated it, nor should they.

Fuck VAR.

It ended at approaching 7.30pm with our first league loss since the home game with Liverpool.

As I slowly began the slow walk down many flights of stairs, I muttered “no complaints” to many.

And there really were no real complaints.

In the grand scheme of things, we played OK, but no more. At times we were fantastic, at times not so. But City – “Stating The Bleeding Obvious Part 859” – are a very fine team. They are not firing on all cylinders just yet, but when they do…

There were steady 7/10s across the board.

I met the boys outside.

“At least we have pissed off ninety-five billion Liverpool fans this evening.”

We walked along Ashton New Road in the rain, in Raintown, as is so often the case.

Not the glory of 2014 nor 2016 this time.

At 8pm I began the long drive home.

I made good time as I headed south, stopping off at Stafford Services where we feasted on a ridiculous amount of junk food. Jason Cundy was spotted in the adjacent “Costa” though I did not have the energy to say hello.

The rain continued for hours. But I was cocooned in my car. I had no concerns, of the game nor my long drive home. We had seen worse, eh? I eventually arrived back home – no rain, now – at 12.30am, the day’s total mileage hitting 420 miles.

It had been a good day out.

I am not going to Valencia – safe travels to all – so the next instalment will feature the home match with West Ham United.

And I will see some of you there.

Talking of the ‘eighties…

Tales From Modern Football

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 22 September 2019.

I really don’t want to mention VAR every bloody week, but…

It comes to something when a Chelsea supporter such as myself feels genuinely aggrieved when Tottenham get a good goal chalked off when one of their players is adjudged to be offside by around twenty millimetres.

As I watched “Match of the Day” on the Saturday night, ahead of our game with Liverpool on the Sunday, I saw Manchester City dismantle a hapless Watford by eight goals to nil. But I knew that the Leicester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur game might well wrestle more attention. I had heard that VAR had played an integral role in that game as the scores dripped into my consciousness during Saturday afternoon and early evening. I watched as a Leicester City goal was called back for offside and, although I am generally against VAR, I thought to myself “fair play with that decision, I can’t complain at that.”  However, it was the Tottenham goal that made me see red. I watched the goal being scored and wondered where on Earth the offside had occurred. I couldn’t see it at first glance. And then, good grief, it was shown that a Tottenham player was marginally – see above – offside. Yeah, we don’t like Tottenham, we love seeing Leicester City – if not us – beat them, but for fuck’s sake.

Modern football, eh?

Everyone knows my thoughts.

Saturday evening and Saturday night turned to Sunday morning. There was an early start as we wanted to be up in London early enough to secure a table at “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge. I collected PD at eight o’clock, collected Glenn’s season ticket, and then picked up Young Jake – he’s getting on a bit now, he’s thirty-one – and headed east. The weather seemed to pose a conundrum. It was going to be warm but with a threat of rain. Rain jackets were selected.

The pre-match ran to plan. Three pubs, a Sunday Roast, chat with friends from near and far, plenty of giggles. It was glorious. Although there were moments when the sky was dark and brooding, the rain had mainly held off.

Inside Stamford Bridge, though, my light jacket was placed on my seat back. It was certainly not needed. It was warm and muggy – a bit sticky – and not particularly pleasant.

Here we were, then.

As many friends had commented, Liverpool presented us with a real test. In the car and pub, we had all agreed that we’d be more than happy with a draw against the league leaders. There had been a couple of wilder projections involving a Chelsea win, but I was not in that camp.

I wasn’t getting carried away.

There was good news in Frank Lampard’s team selection. N’Golo Kante was in, as was Mason Mount. Alas, Toni Rudiger was not available. But this was a good enough team for sure.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Christensen – Emerson

Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante

Willian – Abraham – Mount

We had briefly discussed Liverpool; a very able defence, a quick and nimble front three, but a seemingly average midfield. It was, we surmised, a team that was greater than the sum of its individual parts. Previous Liverpool teams, God knows, had certainly possessed greater individual players. But here was a team that certainly worked to a plan with great determination.

I commented to Alan “I’ll take a 0-0 now.”

Prior to the teams entering the pitch, we had embarrassingly witnessed the Eden Hazard flag float over the heads of the spectators below us in the MHL. That wasn’t a good sign; somebody must have made an error. We hoped and prayed that the manager’s choices were better.

There were, of course, three thousand away fans in the far corner, but hardly a flag or banner to accompany them. What? No six stars to be seen anywhere? Others had made poor flag choices too, it seemed.

The game began. It was a lively start. Liverpool probably edged possession, and we were on the back foot a little. We did have periods of positive play. However, with approaching a quarter of an hour played, Liverpool were presented with a little too much space in the middle of our half and the ball was played through to Sadio Mane who was chopped down by Andreas Christensen.

I was comforted by the fact that the position of the free-kick seemed too central to get an angle past the wall, and too close to goal to chip the ball over and down. Sadly, we watched as a well-constructed free-kick saw a Mo Salah back-heel set up Trent Alexander-Arnold to smash the ball past Kepa. The silence all around me was deafening and other clichés. I didn’t like the way that he ran towards the Chelsea supporters to celebrate. Git.

There was a tedious reply from the home stands : ”Murderers.”

I thought we’d all moved on. I hadn’t heard it at a Chelsea / Liverpool game for a while.

There was, however, a rasping “Carefree” soon after and we did our best to get behind the team.

An enforced substitution took place, with Marcos Alonso taking over from Emerson at left-back. We kept plugging away. Now that Tammy Abraham has secured his place as Frank Lampard’s preferred striker, I have mentioned to friends that we can now concentrate on meshing him into the team, playing to his strengths, and perhaps releasing him early as he gets to understand how his team mates work around him. Indeed, there was a signal from Tammy to a midfielder to release the ball into the inside-right channel but as the ball was played he momentarily paused. It was a chance lost. However, not long after, a carbon copy ball was played from deep by Christensen, and the striker’s run into space was perfect. He advanced but annoyingly shot straight at Adrian.

Approaching the half-hour mark, we worked the ball down our left and a cross from Willian hit the danger area. Abraham made a lunge at the ball, and after the effort hit Fabinho, Adrian clawed it off the line. The ball was begging to be pounced upon. Dave swept it in and we screamed our pleasure.

GET IN.

I watched the captain’s joyous run down towards the corner flag, and he was soon mobbed by his team mates. The Bridge was jumping. There were photos aplenty.

Lovely.

And then, a sword to the heart. We spotted on the TV screen above the Micky Mousers that there was a VAR review.

“Why?”

“What for?”

We waited.

We held our breath, what an odd sensation.

Strangely, the away fans seemed to be celebrating before an announcement was made. This wasn’t good. This wasn’t good at all.

The TV screen told the story : “NO GOAL.”

A little part of me died again. But what could I do? I stood silent, surprisingly calm, but in truth I was just weak with what had just happened.

If I was Spanish, I might have reached for a white handkerchief.

Not long after, what looked like an innocuous challenge between Dave and a Liverpool player – the ball was hanging in the air, both players jumped – went against us and the resultant free-kick was swept in towards the six yard-box. Roberto Firmino rose unhindered and powerfully headed past Kepa.

We were now 0-2 down and seemingly out of it. What a rotten few minutes for us and for Honest Dave especially. I really felt for him.

The rest of the first-half is pretty much a blur. We were deflated, players and supporters alike. It was a horrible sensation.

The Liverpool supporters aired an old song, and if it was because of the VAR incident, they exhibited far more intelligence than they are usually credited.

“Luis Garcia, he drinks sangria.”

Memories of that bastarding night at Anfield in 2005, that ghost-goal, The Kop, and no goal-line technology, the sardonic bastards.

Fuckers.

Just before half-time there was another enforced substitution; Kurt Zouma on for the injured Christensen.

“It gets worse” I thought.

At half-time, VAR dominated our thoughts and our conversations. Information eventually reached us. The incident leading up to our “goal” that was adjudged to have been offside involved an early pass to Mason Mount, quite some time before the goal was turned in. Of course, us spectators in the stadium are, ironically, the last to know about all of this.

I vented to a few people.

It seems to me that there is a huge discrepancy between how VAR is judged by fans that go to games (JD opined “I don’t know anyone who likes it”) and those who tend to watch at home or in bars and pubs on TV. It seems that the chasm between match-goers and those who consume football via TV has grown even wider thanks to VAR.

And that is a shame. The football family should be as one.

My views on all this have been well documented over the past ten years or more. I was even against goal-line technology because I knew damned well that this would just be the tip of the iceberg. I knew full well that before long there would be intrusive video replays holding up the flow of the game. But even I could not have foreseen the madness that has developed this season.

Chaos theory ain’t half of it.

Sigh.

It almost seems that VAR was created for those watching at home. It almost seems that VAR has been brought in under the guise of “fairness” but is just a thinly-disguised extra for the watching millions. I have long said that very soon we will have commercial breaks during VAR hold-ups. It happens in North America, where the native sports tend not to have the sense of flow of our national sport. I can see it happening during the 2022 World Cup, for sure.

The mood at half-time was rotten.

In other seasons, that ball to Mount would have passed without incident. There would have been no appeal for offside, just as there was no appeal by any Liverpool players on this occasion. The moment, that split second, would have been lost in the ether of time. But on this day, the move was deemed illegal, the goal was cancelled, our celebrations quashed.

Some tedious fuckers might whine that “well, actually, he was offside.”

But these little moments are being given far too much weight, far too much importance.

VAR produces decisions which – and here is my final word, for now – seem to be against the spirit of the game.

We’re on a slippery slope here, and some of us are losing the will to stay on our feet.

At the break, losing 0-2, I was reminded of a similarly grave situation at half-time against the same opposition in the Cup in 1997. Losing 0-2, we witnessed one of the most amazing come-backs as we won with style and guts, eventually winning 4-2.

Into the second-half, I truthfully hoped for damage limitation above anything else. We were soon on the back-foot, and only a sublime stop at full stretch from Kepa stopped that man Firmino from increasing the Scousers’ lead. It was a bloody magnificent save. A similarly excellent save soon followed, but an offside flag had ruled out any real concerns. Kepa was at last showing that he had strong wrists.

We then started playing, and the crowd responded. A cross from Dave on the right was delicately touched forward by Abraham, but we watched as it drifted well wide. Before I knew it, it suddenly dawned on me that we were totally dominating possession and Liverpool’s attacks had almost petered out.

With twenty minutes to go, Kante collected the ball centrally. I bellowed for his team mates to move into space, to offer options, but our little prince did not require assistance. He turned into a little parcel of space, cut through with a Hazard-esque shimmy and struck a shot – almost a toe-poke, certainly no back-lift, shades of Ronaldinho at the same end in 2005 – and we watched as it floated beautifully past Adrian.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

The manager replaced Tammy with Michy.

The crowd roared and roared.

On one occasion, with what seemed like the entire crowd as one, a “Carefree” united us all and it was spine-chilling stuff.

Bollocks to VAR.

This is fucking football.

We raided again and again.

Headers from Alonso – drifting wide, losing a marker, but ultimately offside – and then from Batshuayi – just past the far post – brought hope but also agony.

Another effort from Michy, a back-to-goal flick. Wide.

But this was how football should be played. Honest, with determination, with integrity. It was becoming a pulsating match to be part of.

“Liverpool fans are dead quiet, Al.”

We hadn’t heard from them throughout the second period.

We kept coming.

There was one moment when we knocked in a ball, and Liverpool were all over the show, collectively ball-watching, hopeless.

There for the taking.

COME ON CHELSEA.

Right on ninety minutes, Alonso – who was becoming an increasingly important and involved player on the left, often a spare man, a welcome addition to our attack – played in Mount. His first-time effort was snatched and flew high over the bar.

Oh we groaned.

We begged for another goal and kept trying.

It was a fine effort, a great game.

Alas, the whistle blew.

As I filed out – “see you Wednesday” – I could not help but be touched and moved as the home support clapped the manager and players, who – along with the nearby Liverpool players – were applauding back. We were not fooled. We knew that this emerging team had given its all. We were taught a lesson in the first-half, but once we found our feet, we produced a thoroughly pleasing performance. It was beautiful to see us supporting the team despite the loss.

Well done everyone.

On the walk back to the car, there were a few conversations.

To Duncan and Lol : “Fucking hell. It comes to something when I am genuinely upset that Spurs had a perfectly good goal cancelled.”

To Louise, Denise and Stacey : “We know what Frank is doing. We’re together. We’re on the same page.”

To Mark : “VAR is killing football, mate. Seems like the TV viewers need to be entertained. But we don’t go to football to be entertained. We go to support our team. We spend our money and we travel God knows how many hours getting to games and we just want to lose ourselves watching football.”

On Wednesday night, I’ll try to lose myself once more.

Stay tuned to this channel for our game with Grimsby Town.

Cheers.

 

Tales From A Happy New Season

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 18 August 2019.

So there we were. Four of us in our row, re-united at Stamford Bridge for the first time since the Watford game towards the tail end of last season.

From the left, facing the pitch; myself, Alan, Glenn and PD.

PD has been sitting alongside us since inheriting dear Tom’s season ticket midway through 2015/16, but the other three of us have been season ticket holders in The Sleepy Hollow since the first game of 1997/98.

So, our twenty-third year of sitting together, and always in our own seats. We never swap around. That wouldn’t be right, would it? I love my seat – number 369 – as it is right next to some steps. I am not hemmed in. I don’t have to whisper an apologetic “’scuse me” as I get up to turn my bike around. And I can jump up onto the little viewing platform to my left, should the gravity of the occasion warrant it, to rigorously celebrate a goal. I have some memorable moments within those few square yards. You had better believe it.

In front were Albert and Paul, themselves season ticket holders like us from the glorious summer of 1997. Behind us, other pals dotted around.

Rousey, Lee, Mick, the two Robs and Alex, Frank, Tim, Gary, Dane, Nick, Big John in the front row, The Sleepy Hollow’s some-time cheer-leader (the dent in the advertising hoarding is his sole responsibility), Mark, Gary…and several whose names are not known to us even after all these years, we are English after all.)

There were a few empty seats in our section, but not many.

We were all in early. I was in at about 4pm, just after having a lovely photo with Andy, my long-time mate from Yorba Linda in Southern California, and one of the two Robs outside the West Stand, under Peter Osgood’s gaze.

In the last quarter of an hour before the kick-off, the stadium rapidly filled and – with it – came an increase in noise levels, of anticipation, of excitement. I am not sure if the atmosphere could have been cut with a knife because they, along with selfie-sticks, flares, cans, air horns and celery are banned.

But you get my drift.

The atmosphere was bubbling along nicely.

No surprises, it had been a lovely day thus far.

We had set off from our home town early; eight o’clock early. Within five minutes of parking up near Queens Club, I soon bumped into Eck from Glasgow and then Rob from Essex. I can walk around my home town for an hour and see nobody that I know. On match day at Chelsea, it is a vastly different story. Over the course of the day, I would meet around one-hundred fellow Chelsea devotees. It is a lovely feeling. To many I simply shook their hands and wished them a “happy new season.”

We met up with a reliable gaggle of friends – Aroha and Luke from Harrow, Kev and Rich from Edinburgh – in “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge at just after 11am. It was a joy to be back. Kev and Rich had been present for the Watford game in May; it seemed like just five minutes ago that we were huddled around a table a few yards away from where we were now ensconced.

Aroha, Luke and little old me reminisced about Baku and the time our pub reverberated to the same song for what seemed like an eternity :

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor, Lyon down to Rome. Tottenham get battered everywhere they go. Everywhere they go.”

There was talk of desired destinations in the Champions League. Luke thought we might well finish third in the group, but go all of the way to Gdansk and win back-to-back Europas. You read it here first.

PD and Parky were just happy to be knocking back some lagers. Aroha, Glenn and PD ordered roasts. The chat continued – but mainly the laughs continued.

Football was back.

And it felt bloody marvellous.

We then caught the tube up past Fulham Broadway to West Brompton and eventually met up with Daryl, Alan, Gary, Duncan, Lol – and a few others, unplanned, Ray and his daughter Gaby, Tom, Woody, some just nodding acquaintances – in The Old Oak, only the second time that I have ever visited it. Capacity was a big issue though, and it was a strict “one out, one in” policy. I sauntered over to where four of the lads were waiting to be allowed in, and I quipped “fackinell, if Tommy Murphy leaves, all four of you can enter.”

Daryl soon retorted –

“Done that joke five minutes ago, mate.”

What a giggle.

Inside the stadium, the minutes ticked away towards kick-off. Aroha and Luke had spent three hours of their Saturday morning along with a dozen other supporters arranging mosaics for The Shed’s supporters to create a chequered mosaic before kick-off, to be augmented by a huge “tifo” – banner – to honour the return of Frank Lampard to SW6. In truth, it was his fourth homecoming since his last game for us at Stamford Bridge in 2014.

January 2015 – in the colours of Manchester City, a ridiculous moment.

February 2017 – as a guest at half-time, suited and elegant, and able to receive absolute adoration.

October 2018 – as the manager of Derby County, but with banners to honour his Chelsea past.

Our team had been announced of course. There was a surprise, in my mind and many others’ – that Frank Lampard had chosen Olivier Giroud over Tammy Abraham, especially after all of the positive noise emanating from the manager, and elsewhere within the club, about how we need to back the striker after Tammy’s unfortunate penalty miss against Liverpool in Istanbul.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Zouma – Emerson

Kante – Jorginho

Pedro – Mount – Pulisic

Giroud

In the pub, we had discussed how to pronounce Christian’s name. I had presumed that it mirrored the pronunciation of Stanic, Matic, Ivanovic, Jokanovic and Kovcic.

“Pull-a-sitch.”

Oh no. My good made JR from Michigan confirmed that the natives of the US were instead opting for “Pewl-a-sick.”

Righty-oh.

As long as nobody calls him “Pool-o’-sick.”

Not good.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture as the teams entered the pitch. Way up on the orange brick of the hotel and apartment were two new additions; a square, slightly blurred, photo from The Shed circa 1982 – if I have to guess, Tottenham at home in the FA Cup – and I had to note that the photo hardly embraces the ethos of diversity that the club wants to foster inn 2019.

All of the faces were male, all apart from one was white.

There was also a photo of Kerry Dixon wining a header against Watford at home in 1984; another odd ‘photo.

Still, it sure beats “Thrilling Since 1905.”

There were flames to add – or detract – to our moment of seeing the team stride across the pitch. The mosaics were raised. The banner unfurled.

“Welcome Back Super Frank.”

Bizarrely, the additional spot lights under The Shed and under the Matthew Harding Upper were on, despite it being an August afternoon.

Frank went smart casual with a fetching white tracky top and royal blue bottoms. He looked ten times the part compared to Sarri, the paraffin.

We were wearing the shirt of a thousand roof supports while Leicester City – and a fair few of their fans – were wearing a light pink shirt, and it looked alright but nothing more.

The game began.

And how. We were on fire. Not the chess-like moves of the previous regime. But high-tempo action, with the crowd involved and loving it. We were all so pleased to see Kurt Zouma looking far more relaxed in his first few touches than at Old Trafford. And we applauded those touches. As we should. It was a very energetic start indeed. Very early on, Pedro slammed a shot just wide of The Shed End goal, with many in the crowd thinking that a goal had been scored. There was a shot from the lively Mason Mount, whose inclusion had surprised me too.

On six minutes, Casper Schmeichel gently rolled the ball out to Wilfred Ndidi, but the central defender dillied and dallied, dallied and dillied, lost his way and didn’t know where to roam. Mount pounced and robbed the defender before steadying himself before a potential stumble and prodded the ball past the luckless ‘keeper.

Suffice to say, Stamford Bridge roared.

The players raced over to Parkyville.

Alan looked at me.

“They’ll have to come at us naaar.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

We laughed and Alan gave me a lovely hug.

“It’s fucking great to be back, innit?”

“It fucking is mate.”

A lovely moment.

“Hopefully no VAR.”

“Nah.”

Ah…VAR.

We all just hoped and prayed that we were in for a VAR-less afternoon.

Because we all fucking hate it.

On ten minutes, not nine as planned, a sizeable section of the crowd sang in praise of Tammy Abraham.

Good work everyone.

We played some lovely stuff in the first twenty minutes, with everyone on song. The noise was good, if not constantly thunderous, and there was a lovely vibe. Our next real chance again fell to the youngster Mount, but his snap header was straight at Schmeichel. A yard either side and we might have been two to the good. A shot from Kante was blocked close in.

Watching Kante is a joy.

I shared my thoughts with Alan.

“I don’t want to talk in clichés about black athletes, but Kante looks so graceful, his limbs are so loose, he has such perfect balance. He glides over the surface of the pitch.”

Until midway through the half, we had oozed confidence, and our play was warmly appreciated. At that point, Pedro – energetic as ever –  and Pulisic – neat and tricky – swapped wings.

There is a joke there, surely, about a Christian right winger from the United States, but I am buggered if I can think of one.

Leicester, on the other hand, had been rank, just voyeurs of this wonderful blue movie. They had hardly touched the ball. Our relentless pressure on them once they had the ball was impressive.

Please note that I am trying to avoid, like the plague, the word “press” – the buzzword of the moment – in these reports. I will try to find alternatives. Oh, and “block” too.

Leicester slowly awoke from their stupor, though. They began moving the ball and threatened with one or two rare attacks. Jamie Vardy is always a threat. I certainly felt that we needed the all-important second goal. But as Leicester improved, we seemed to stall. It looked like we needed a second wind.

However, at the break, the home fans were pretty contented. Claude Makelele was briefly introduced to us all as he stepped on to the pitch. There were a few words. Bless him.

The away team began the second half by far the livelier, and I waited for them to fade. But to be fair to them, they never did. With Vardy always pushing into space, James Maddison began to shine in the inside-left channel. He really impressed me as the second period developed. On one occasion, he rounded an unsure Kepa, but was unable to finish. The warning signs had certainly been sounded and the warning shots were not far behind.

A rare Giroud header at the Matthew Harding did not trouble Schmeichel. Leicester kept attacking us.

For Fox’ sake.

An effort from Hamza Choudray was saved by Kepa, a Maddison effort was swept across the face of the goal.

I held my head in my hands.

On the hour, Tammy replaced Giroud and he was warmly applauded as he took to the field. We all urged him on at every opportunity and, as we tend to do with our youngsters, overly-applauded his every touch.

Positive discrimination? I guess so.

On sixty-six minutes, though, that man Maddison looped a fine corner into the danger area and Ndidi rose to head the ball, way too easily, into the goal.

Did he celebrate?

Yes, Ndidi.

We sighed.

“Free header.”

The away team were emboldened now, absolutely bursting with confidence, with the two danger men Vardy and Maddison spurning golden chances.

“They’re ripping us to shreds, here.”

With twenty minutes to go, Willian replaced the fitful Pulisic and Kovacic replaced Jorginho. Our play didn’t really get the jolt that we were hoping for. We stumbled and bumbled along. Our play had certainly dropped off from the first quarter of the game. Was this due to the extended play in Istanbul? Almost certainly. Leicester still kept raiding away.

“I’ll take a draw now.”

Willian was particularly disappointing in his twenty minutes on the pitch. Wearing the vaunted number ten shirt might may well be hazardous for him if our expectations continue to be dashed. A terrible corner here, a misplaced pass there.

Must do better.

If only we could meld together the positive attributes of Pedro and Willian (oh, I await the negative comments).

Tammy toiled away, but his only run into the channels was when he forlornly chased a back-pass. He tried, but had no service. One loose shot was blazed ridiculously high.

“How many minutes’ extra time?”

“Hopefully not many. Blow up ref!”

In the last heart-in-stomach moment, Kepa raced out to, just, clear before Vardy could pounce. It summed up the day.

We were grimly hanging on.

There were, dear reader, a few boos at full-time.

No words.

No fucking words.

On the walk out of the stadium, across the forecourt, I spoke briefly with Mark, a fellow-dweller of The Sleepy Hollow.

“I bet loads of people, fans, are giving Frank grief right this very minute. But we’re not experts. We need to get off his back, we need to give him time, we need to let him breath.”

It had been an odd game. We began like a shooting star, but one which soon fizzled out. Leicester City had been well worth the point. In truth, they could’ve won it.

But our first point was on the board.

Next up is Norwich City on Saturday lunchtime.

I will see some of you there.

 

Tales From The Final Shot

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 24 January 2019.

This season has, thus far, been quite the mixed bag hasn’t it? Our last three games perfectly exemplify this; an encouragingly optimistic performance, but a loss against Tottenham at Wembley, a very dull home win against Newcastle United and then a limp and depressing defeat at Arsenal. Overall, in these three games, we would be scored as “must do better – much better” and the mood of the Chelsea support was in negative territory. How would we perform against Tottenham in the League Cup semi second leg? Would our play take us back into the positive for the first time in a while?

When we realised that we had been drawn against “that lot” – it seems ages ago now – my thoughts were this.

“At home, a one-off tie, we could beat them. But over two legs, I don’t fancy our chances.”

But things change. Our spirited first game a fortnight ago swung the balance our way. I sensed we’d beat them. When we heard that our bitter rivals had lost Kane and Ali to injury and Son to the Asia Cup, our spirits were lifted further.

As I left work at 3pm, my mood was worryingly optimistic.

It was a typical midweek pre-match. PD had driven Parky and little old me to London, and we had enjoyed the North End Walk, which links The Goose and Simmons Bar. There were tons of familiar faces in both and even the same faces in both; it seems a common choice on match days to combine drinks at the two hostelries. There was a noticeably buoyant and expectant air in both pubs. It felt fine. It felt good. Guest of honour was Pete, originally from North London, but now living in San Diego, and lucky enough to get his hands on a ticket at the last minute for the game. I last saw him in DC for the Barcelona friendly in 2015. I am sure Pete will not mind me mentioning that he is Jewish, and he soon showed me – rather coyly – his Chelsea kippah, which he produced from his breast pocket.

We both laughed.

“…mmm, best not wear that tonight mate, might get the wrong reaction.”

We laughed again.

I reminded him of the flight I took to Tel Aviv in 2015.

“I looked up and saw that the chap sitting in front of me was wearing a Manchester United skull cap. Fucksake. Then I spotted a woman to my left, across the aisle, one row ahead, was breastfeeding her infant. So I had a tit in front of me and a tit to my left too.”

Pete gave me an old-fashioned look.

“True story.”

There was just a little team talk.  I wasn’t confident that Maurizio Sarri would begin with Olivier Giroud, and neither was Simon but Daryl thought that he would.

In the build up to the semi-final against Tottenham, I was well aware of our two previous encounters with them at the same stage of the competition.

Our 1971/1972 semi-final was just before my time, not as a Chelsea fan per se, but I certainly can’t recall the build-up nor the two games themselves at all. After all, I was only six. I since learned that we overcame Tottenham, and that the first-leg was quite a game. A poke-in from Ossie followed by The King giving the away fans a “V”, a first-ever goal in our colours from Chris Garland and a Johnny Hollins penalty. We drew the second-leg 2-2 and progressed to the final. But we don’t talk about that.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7m68Fvvlyk

In 2001/2002, we beat Tottenham 2-1 at Stamford Bridge with a brace from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, the first one a prod past Kasey Keller down below me, the second an absolute screamer at The Shed, and I certainly remembered that match. We then reconvened at White Hart Lane two weeks later and I was able to hook up a portable TV to watch while I worked the evening shift at a portakabin in Trowbridge. But we don’t talk about that.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2drkUtSCj4

Two other games are worthy of note I think.

In 1990/1991, this time at the quarter final stage, we again drew Tottenham in the League Cup. This was a classic game, but only insomuch that it is, without doubt, the most one-sided 0-0 that I have ever seen. I watched from the West Stand seats, a bit of a treat really since I was on the dole that season, but towards the Spurs fans in the curving North Stand. Graeme Le Saux was absolutely on fire that night, and I had a prime position to see him roast the Spurs defence time after time. It was one of those games when you thought “we’ve got a real talent here”. Even though I travelled back by train that night, and therefore would not have seen the TV highlights anyway, this game has gone down in Chelsea history because the scheduled TV programme was cancelled due to the outbreak of the Gulf War and action from the game was never aired. That night, Baghdad came under a horrendous attack, but it paled into comparison to the blitzkrieg we had rammed into Tottenham a few hours earlier. It’s likely very few have seen these rare highlights, recently unearthed by a chap on a Facebook group that I am in. I love the involvement of the crowd and the noise from this game. Just 34,000 were officially present, but it was a common view that Ken Bates massaged the crowd figures in those days. Just what we needed, really. From a period that opposing fans refer to when lambasting our historical attendances, the bloody Chelsea chairman was making out we had less fans at games than we actually did. Nice one, Ken, you silly old duffer. Anyway, fill yer boots.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwqOjP2s58c

One more Chelsea / Tottenham midweek memory. With the signing of Gonzalo Higuain – never saw that one coming, cough, cough – and the thought of him possibly starting the game, many of us remembered the signing of George Weah in the 1999/2000 season. On a memorable evening, he had jumped off a plane at Heathrow and then appeared a few hours later to score the only goal of the game against Tottenham in the league. It was very much a case of “mmm, how shall we beat Tottenham this time?” It was fantastic. George Weah and his white boots, what an impact player for us in those last few months of that season. In 2019, we have witnessed another Milan to Chelsea loan signing, but alas there was no chance of another “Hig-Whea-in” winning goal.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egOgvkpHgF4

For this game, Tottenham had around four thousand in The Shed. This meant Parky was forced to buy a seat elsewhere. I decided to swap with him so he could watch alongside Alan and PD, while I took his seat in a central area of the same tier. As I took position, I realised that it was the first time that I had watched a game from behind the goal in the MHU since Bruges at home in 1995. It cunningly gave me a new vantage point for my photographic endevours.

And it was some view.

I loved the team that Sarri had chosen. In came Emerson, Barkley and Giroud.

Kepa

Dave – Rudi – Geezer – Emerson

N’Golo – Jorginho – Ross

Peds – Olivier – Eden

I got chatting to Vince, a season ticket holder for decades, who was with two friends, sitting to my immediate right. I warned him of my habit of taking photographs and hoped it would not spoil his enjoyment of the night. Surprisingly, the seat to my left was empty. It looked a full house, but if you looked hard enough there were odd seats not being used.

More dimmed lights and firework and flames. At night games, it adds to the drama, but what next I wonder? Thank God the club hasn’t implored us to turn our phone torches on prior to the entrance of the teams. You heard it here first, sigh.

The teams came on. I love the sense of drama as they walk across the pitch to the West Side. No Premier League flag getting in the way this time. A straight and purposeful walk to the other side of the pitch. And I was staring down the four thousand Tottenham fans. They were, awfully, in our Shed, but somehow the sight of a solid block of away fans – flanked by several hundred empty seats on each side – gave the evening a proper “Us Versus Them” feel.

Whisper it, but it gave the game an added drama. Three stands us, one stand them, just like the old days, but swung around one-hundred-and-eighty degrees.

There was not one single Tottenham flag on show.

The game began.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

Spurs were weakened on paper, and they began weakly on the grass too. We began well, bossing it, and got better. A divine full body shimmy from David Luiz suggested that he was full of confidence, and I only hoped that the others shared his positivism. We absolutely dominated the first five, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. We moved the ball quickly, but into danger areas with more urgency than recent memory. For once, I noted that Jorginho was not hogging the ball. For once, it was not solely about him. We moved the ball long and short, and runners were hit. Once or twice, Eden played deep-seated playmaker and propelled lasers to the feet of a wide man. This was good stuff indeed, and the crowd – that vital component – were involved from the off.

I was enjoying my little chats with Vince. We delved into a few previous games. Bruges in 1971 and in 1995. That Le Saux game in 1991. The flat semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday – which followed the Spurs tie that year – at noon on a Sunday when we were undone by the same bloody free-kick routine – John Sheridan? – on two occasions. Another infamous game. Fackinell Chelsea.

Throughout the first-half, there were no end of rugged and miss-timed challenges on our players, which the referee Martin Atkinson shrugged off, and the home crowd bellowed and roared our disapproval. Each time the referee chose not to card a Spurs player, the otherwise quiet and bespectacled lad to my left exploded with a tirade of abuse; top notch swearing in fact. It was the sole time he seemed to get involved. There was no roaring of support for any of our players from him. He seemed an odd character. But more of that later.

Tottenham’s main song of the night was clearly one intended to entice a response from us, or at least some in our ranks.

“We sang it in France.

We sang it in Spain.

We sing in the sun and we sing in the rain.

They’ve tried to stop us and look what it did.

Cos the thing I love most is being a ***.

Being a ***.

Being a ***.

The thing I love most is being a ***.”

But we are made of stern stuff and we did not lower ourselves.

There was no Y-Word-Nonsense from Chelsea’s three stands.

Well done us. Again.

However, as the game progressed, I was rather worried that for all of our dominance, we had not really tested their ‘keeper Gazzaniga. But Tottenham had rarely ventured into our half.

“Where’s Chris Garland when you need him?” I chirped to Vince.

On the half-hour mark, a Hazard corner from our left ended up bouncing towards Kante, some twenty yards out. He steadied himself, arms balanced, and did well to keep his shot down. Somehow it squeezed through a packed box, and we were 1-0 up and level in the tie. The crowd roared and the players quickly raced back to our half.

Game on.

From Alan : “THTCAUN”.

To Alan : “COMLD.”

A replay would show how the ball had miraculously travelled betwixt the legs of three opposing players.

I wonder if the French word for “nuts” or “megs” was uttered by our man.

I turned to Vince : “The mention of Chris Garland did it.”

The Bridge was buzzing now.

The crowd roared N’Golo’s song at a home game for the first time that I can remember.

“Ngolo – ohh!

Kante will win you the ball.

He’s got the power to know.

He’s indestructible.

Always believe in.”

Pure gold.

There was a close chance for Giroud, but his legs seemed to become tangled.

Ten minutes after the first goal, a fantastic move involving crisp passes from Barkley, Hazard, Pedro and Azpilicueta meant that Spurs were a little slow to spot the movement of Hazard, who appeared in the box as if by magic – like Mr Benn –  to calmly steer the ball home.

More wild noise, bloody fantastic.

I turned to Vince :

“Spurs are not bloody singing now.”

The game opened up further. A heavy Pedro touch meant that a fine run was wasted, and there were blocked shots as we piled on the pressure. There were only rare Tottenham attacks. Luiz played the ball out to his wide man Emerson with aplomb on many occasions. In the last moment of the first-half, Hazard was tackled from behind by Alderwiereld – I was not convinced – but befitting the rest of the first-half, no action was taken.

Vince : “one of the best halves of football we’ve seen down here for ages.”

The second-half began with “Where’s Wally” to my left nowhere to be seen. However, he eventually ambled back to his seat and – I am afraid that I am not exaggerating here – for a good eighty percent of the second-half he stared at his phone as he reeled off text message after text message, rarely looking at the game for minutes on end. And it really wound me up. It shouldn’t, should it? But it did. It is a miracle of self-restraint that I chose not to bite and say something bitterly sarcastic to the prick.

The first few minutes passed and – just as I thought to myself “mmm, Eriksen has been quiet, bet he misses his usual targets”- the ball was whipped in by Danny Rose, an early substitute, from their left and Llorente prodded home.

The away fans roared now, and a Star of David was spotted being fluttered like a red rag to a bull in the Shed Upper.

The game opened up again. This season, there would be no extra time if scores were level over both games and the game would go straight to penalties. We begged for a third goal on the night. And to be fair, we certainly gave it our best shot, if not one that hit the target.

Over the next forty minutes there was shot after shot. Giroud wriggled free and lashed an effort low but Gazzaniga saved at the near post down below me. Giroud, – undoubtedly under threat with Higuain on board – had not created much for himself up until then, but his presence had allowed others to make use of space around him.

The home crowd urged the players on. I will be honest, I was especially loud – “rasping” – and aimed my voice towards Wally to my left, but there was no reaction from the twat. He had the sort of face that was begging out for a slap, glasses or no glasses, and even though I am not a violent person…mmm, my voice fades into the ether, best not say anything, I’m honestly not a violent person, but…

Unbelievably, Jorginho and Kante were booked despite the rotten Tottenham challenges, and the reaction of Sarri to a bad tackle resulted in him getting a yellow too.

“Good lad.”

Llorente messed up a great chance from close in, and there was much wailing at the Tottenham end.

We attacked again. Great play from Hazard and Emerson. A shot from Pedrio.

Moura then hit the side netting and the away fans roared just as the Chelsea fans roared when Kerry Dixon hit the side netting in 1991 (have you watched the clip yet? Go on…)

And then Dave was carded too.

Three Chelsea players carded. And not one opposing player. This seemed bloody ridiculous. This brought Wally to life and he again spewed out some fuckwords into the evening air at the referee.  But there were still no signs of support for his team.

Back to your texts, lad.

Willian replaced Pedro, who had stretched his marker all night.

My favourite part of the game, in one way, took place on the East Stand touchline. There was a foul on a Chelsea player – Kante I think –  but many players continued, and Kante himself had clearly not heard the whistle (or maybe he had, wink), and he made a firm but fair tackle, leaving a Tottenham player on the floor and clasping his shin. It was sheer poetry. This certainly galvanised our support further.

At last a Tottenham booking; Sissoko, and much sarcastic cheering.

“COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.”

Hazard pelted one in from outside the box and it missed the target by inches. He repeated this shortly after, but another chance went begging. Mateo Kovacic replaced the tiring Barkley, who had begun well but was fading. We still pushed on. There were further chances though. Another messy effort from Giroud at the far post had us all frustrated, but worse was to come.

Emerson, finding great energy from somewhere, flew past Aurier and sent over a peach of a cross towards a leaping Giroud. His effort cleared the intersection of post and bar. I actually turned around and double-stamped in absolute frustration.

…”mmm, I haven’t done that before” I self-consciously thought to myself.

So, penalties.

I said to Vince :

“Simple. If it is up there, we’ll lose. If it is down here, we’ll win.”

Thankfully, it was at the Matthew Harding.

Great for us, great for the fans, great for me, great for my camera.

We waited.

Tottenham :  Eriksen – IN.

Chelsea : Willian (currently one of the boo boys, please don’t give them extra ammunition to have a go at you) – IN.

Tottenham : Lamela – IN.

Chelsea : Azpilicueta (didn’t like his over-enthusiastic run up) – IN.

Tottenham : Dier – OVER.

Chelsea : Jorginho (that stop, like at Huddersfield) – IN.

Tottenham : Moura – SAVED.

Chelsea : Luiz (a hero from the spot in Munich, another long run up, initiated by a Jonny Wilkinson-style stop, sorry about the rugby reference) – IN.

Stamford Bridge roared once more.

GET IN.

It was the final shot.

The final shot of the game.

A shot to get us into the final.

And my final shot of the action.

The penalties had taken place and we had done them four by two.

Phew.

Hugs with Vince.

“See you at Wembley.”

David Luiz had been featured on the programme cover and it was fitting that he had brought us home. He had enjoyed a great match along with Hazard, Rudiger, Pedro and – of course – the loved Kante. But Luiz was the centre of attention as “One Step Beyond” boomed around Stamford Bridge. I glanced over to The Shed, and many had quickly disappeared.

It was a beautiful sight indeed.

I slowly made my way to the exit and outside the West Stand one song dominated.

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

And indeed it fucking had.

It had been…clears throat…a great night.

On Sunday, another cup competition awaits.

See you there.

 

Tales From Our National Game

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 30 December 2018.

So, the last game of 2018. Whereas some teams were given a normal Saturday match, Chelsea Football Club ended the calendar year with a game on the Sunday at South London rivals – kind of – Crystal Palace. The game seemed typically out of sync at this odd time of year where nobody really knows what day it is, what to do, nor what day is coming up next. To add to the discombobulation, our game was kicking-off at midday. So, this was another early start for the Fun Boy Four. I set my alarm for 5.30am and was up not long after. I was on driving duties again, but I did not mind one iota. By 7.30am, the fellow Chuckle Brothers were collected and we were soon tucking into a McBreakfast at Melksham.

“Not very busy is it?”

“Not bloody surprising, who else is up at 7.45am on a Sunday?”

Saturday had been a big day football-wise. While I was watching my local team Frome Town capitulate to yet another league defeat at home to Tiverton Town, I was overjoyed to hear that Tottenham had surprisingly dropped points to Wolves at Wembley. Later that evening, we hoped that Arsenal could dent Liverpool’s charge to their first league title since 1990, but an early Arsenal lead was soon overtaken. On Saturday evening, myself and many looked at the bleakest of scenarios. With Manchester City suffering a recent tumble at Leicester, the thoughts of either Liverpool or Tottenham winning the league made many of us shiver.

For Chelsea fans like me, this is a “no-win” scenario. If pushed, and as much as it hurts, I would pick Liverpool over Tottenham. But – grasping at long straws – there is still the prospect of Manchester City, 2014 style, overhauling them both. Chelsea will not win the league this season; like many others, I am hoping that City find some form to pip the other two – hideous – contenders, preferably on the last day and with as much pain to both as possible.

Getting to Selhurst Park in South London from our base in the South-West of England is not the easiest of journeys. From my home, I headed east, then north, then east, then south-east, then north-east, then south-east, then south. At 10.30am, after a journey of three-and-a-half hours, I was parked on a pre-paid driveway within sight of the oddly-shaped barrelled roof of the Holmesdale Road stand, a mere ten-minute walk away. The first friend of many who we met throughout the day – Welsh Kev – caught up with us as we slogged up the hill past the main stand and the busy intersection at the top. The immediate area around Selhurst Park is surprisingly hilly. On this Sunday morning, there were no options to drink in local hostelries. The other three headed inside for a drink while I took a few photographs of a typical pre-match. The floodlights were on at 11am and the air – although mild – was full of an atmospheric glaze of mist. Down the Park Lane, police horses trotted back and forth. The away turnstiles at the bottom of the hill were busy. Programmes were hawked. Lottery tickets were sold. A few good friends walked past. A photograph of Alan and Daryl against the stark red-bricked backdrop of the low wall of the Arthur Wait Stand.

Some stadia are antique and charming – step forward Goodison Park, Craven Cottage and Fratton Park – but Selhurst Park does not thrill many. There are grandiose plans to completely redevelop the main stand – a virtual copy of the Archibald Leitch stand at Fulham, and of the old East stand at Chelsea – and turn it into a curving three-tiered edifice, with plenty of glass to honour the original palace which was dismantled at Hyde Park and rebuilt nearby at Sydenham Hill before being destroyed by fire in 1936.

Many would advocate the modernisation of the dark and cavernous Arthur Wait stand as quickly as possible too.

After bumping into many other friends and acquaintances outside the away turnstiles, there was a slight wait for a body search and bag check. In those few moments while I waited in line, and with the mist hanging heavily over the rising terraced houses of the immediate vicinity, and the chitter-chatter of the Chelsea supporters filling the air, a beautiful bonhomie, I found a new love for this enduring game of ours, still enticing thousands and thousands out of their warm houses every week of the season. Football truly is our national game in this historic and magical land of ours and nothing comes remotely close.

I love football like life itself.

The camaraderie. The banter. The friendships. The laughs. The trips. The players. The teams. The heroes. The stadia. The rivalries. The songs. The humour. The smiles. The tears. The routines. The superstitions. The drinks. The fads. The fashions. The clobber. The game itself.

It’s the bollocks.

There were fleeting thoughts of Selhurst Park which cascaded through my mind. There were images and recollections of previous encounters at the same ground going back into history; the iconic photo of Eccles being lead out by the Old Bill in front of the main stand in around 1969, an infamous game in 1982 involving a certain Paul Canoville, my first-ever visit to Selhurst in August 1989 when thousands of Chelsea descended on the Holmesdale Road after two wins out of two but were humbled 3-0 by a Charlton Athletic team which absurdly contained both Colin Pates and Joe McLaughlin in the centre of their defence, a dull 0-0 against Palace in 1991 when I watched from near the former grass bank in the corner between the Arthur Wait and the Holmesdale, the rain sodden League Cup quarter final in 1993, an equally misty evening in 1996 when we defeated Wimbledon in the FA Cup against a bellowing backdrop of noise from the Chelsea support, a win against Wimbledon in 1999 when I watched from the “Sainsbury’s End”, a Geremi free-kick beating Palace in a pre-season friendly in 2003, the first game in England of the Abramovich era, the recent losses, the recent wins, the constant chanting of “we’re top of the league” in 2014, getting soaked in 2016, and getting abruptly turned over by a previously pointless Palace in 2017.

This had the feel of a very old-fashioned football occasion.

Once inside, I struggled to shuffle through the crowds who were massed in that little area in the corner, where quite commendable dance music was booming out over Chelsea fans nursing plastic bottles of cider and lager, and with occasional community singing for good measure.

More familiar faces, more bonhomie.

The Arthur Wait Stand goes back forever. The view from the rear is horrific – I watched the 2003 friendly from this area, it is like watching the game from inside a post-box – and I am not surprised it is the reason why the font rows are always over-subscribed.

“Stand where you want.”

The team news had filtered through; Olivier Giroud was in, as was Ross Barkley.

Kepa

Dave – Toni – David – Marcos

N’Golo – Jorginho – Ross

Willian – Olivier – Eden

I shuffled down to row six and took my position alongside Gal and Parky. But Alan met me with some grave news. The wife of one of our extended band of Chelsea supporters had passed away overnight. I was silent with grief.

Oh my.

Oh bloody hell.

I stood, unable to think, unable to talk. What a cruel world.

My mind was spinning as the teams entered the pitch ten minutes later, and I struggled to get motivated. The teams lined up on the centre-circle and the PA announced that there would be a minute of silent remembrance for all of those Crystal Palace supporters that had passed away in 2018. This was a nice touch, and as the whole crowd stood still and in complete silence, around forty names were displayed on the TV screen above the executive boxes of the “Sainsbury End” to my right.

At the end, the names of the Chelsea players who were sadly taken from us this year was shown too, again a very fine gesture.

Roy Bentley.

Phil McNight.

Derek Saunders.

Ken Shellito.

And then, at the end, a photograph of Ray Wilkins.

My memory recalled that he played – fleetingly – for Crystal Palace too. I still find it hard to believe that Ray Wilkins is no longer with us. On this day, how raw, I remembered one other member of our Chelsea family who was no longer with us.

Rest In Peace.

In truth, I didn’t really feel much like football as the game began. Thoughts of our own, my own, immortality crept into my head.

Chelsea, in all yellow, attacked the Holmesdale Road in the first-half.

Almost immediately, without really thinking – my mind certainly was elsewhere – I found myself singing along to “The famous Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see the Pope” and my mind again went into overdrive, quickly equating what the outcome might be.

“Right, we didn’t sing the word on Wednesday at Watford and a lot of beer had been consumed. Nobody has had much to drink this morning; I can’t see it being sung today either.”

Thankfully, the Chelsea support had read the script perfectly.

“Barcelona, Real Madrid, Tottenham are a load of ssssssshhhhhhh.”

And then I felt like admonishing myself for honestly caring about a song when a good mate’s wife was no longer with us.

Fucking hell, football.

Being so low down, the action in front of the men in black, the Holmesdale Ultras, in the corner to my left was a mystery to me. I struggled to get in the game. At the Frome Town game on Saturday, I had revelled in being able to stand behind the goal at the club end and move to my left or right to get a better view. It felt natural. Here, hemmed in my seats and fellow fans, I was stuck in a poor-viewing position, and it did not help my enjoyment of the game. The pitch had been well-watered before the game and was slick. I wished that our passing was slick, too. For all of our possession – apart from a few early forays into our box, Palace were happy to sit back and defend deep – we struggled to hurt their defence.

Wilfred Zaha began as their main threat – a very nimble skip past three Chelsea challenges even drew muted applause from a few fair minded individuals in the Chelsea section – but as is his wont his role soon diminished.

Chelsea attempts on goal were rare throughout the first-half.

There was rising frustration with our reluctance to shoot.

“Bloody hell, shoot. The pitch is wet. If the goalie fumbles, we can pounce on the rebound.”

We were limited to a few speculative efforts. We had been especially hard on Jorginho, to either release the ball early or to shoot. With that, he took aim from distance and thumped a ball ridiculously high and wide of the target. This was met with howls of self-deprecating laughter.

“Ah, fuck it, you’re right, don’t bother next time.”

Ross Barkley was neat and tidy, economical in possession, moving the ball well. Eden Hazard tried his best to twist and turn, to run at players, to cajole others into action. Willian was under-used out on the right wing, a spare part. Olivier Giroud struggled to get involved. N’Golo Kante was everywhere, chasing balls, nicking possession, moving the ball early, just magnificent.

A foul on Hazard, surprise surprise, allowed Willie to clip a ball against the post, just beyond the dive of the Crystal Palace ‘keeper. Bizarrely, the referee gave a corner. From this, my view was blocked but Barkley hot the same post. Another effort from us forced a bona fide save from the ‘keeper Guaita.

A fine shot, from an angle, from Giroud which beat the ‘keeper was flagged for offside, but my view was impeded that I hardly saw the shot nor the flag.

At the break, there was a noticeable gloom amidst the Chelsea support in the murky twilight of Selhurst Park.

“We’ll win this, Gal.”

“0-0 I reckon Chris.”

As the half-time break continued, I turned my back to the choreographed Lycra nonsense of the Palace cheerleaders and the lame penalty shoot-out, and tried to spot a few friends in the crowd. I had already spotted Lynda and T from Brooklyn a few rows behind us before the game. In the depths of the Gents, I had bumped into Mick from Denver, over for just one game. Somewhere in the home section of the Arthur Wait was my work associate Ben, from Germany, who was visiting these shores again. To the day, it was a year ago that I welcomed him to Stamford Bridge for the Stoke City game, when with his friends Jens and Walt, we enjoyed a lovely pub-crawl around Fulham before the match.

The game recommenced with Chelsea on top.

After six minutes of action, with Palace massed in defence and closing our players down, we watched as Kante spotted an avenue of space, and ran from deep. For us in the Chelsea section, this was great viewing, as his run was in line with all of us. He ran past several blue and red shirts and a perfectly lofted ball – not sure from whom, my eyes were on Kante exploiting the gap – was chested into a yard of space and then the ball was turned low past Guatia. The ball just about rolled over the line.

“GET IN.”

We were treated to an N’Goalo.

He was mobbed by his team mates and with good reason. The run and finish was quite exceptional.

I turned to Parky.

“Who passed to him?”

“Luiz.”

“Ah excellent.”

I looked at Alan.

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

Over Christmas, I had re-watched the famous clip of Tommy Doc in the press box at Stamford Bridge after a Chelsea goal when he uttered his famous phrase –

“Go on my little diamonds. They’ll have to open out now.”

We had joked about how we managed to get it all wrong, all arse about face, but agreed that our little superstition would continue on regardless. I am sure Docherty would not object, it is not like we are paying him royalties.

Was there a reaction from the home side? Not at all.

The game rumbled on but still with little likelihood of us increasing our slender lead. The noise around us was quiet, but louder towards the rear. A couple of efforts, from Willian – out of sorts in this game – and Barkley peppered the Crystal Palace goal. The long lost, and probably forgotten, Connor Wickham came on for Palace. There was another disallowed goal for Giroud, who cleanly converted a Willian pass, but then injured himself in the process. He was replaced by Alvaro Morata, cue lots of hilarious “bants.” We still waited for Palace to “come at us now.”

Eden walked towards us and, on hearing his name being bellowed, clapped and gave us a thumbs-up.

Two late substitutions followed; Emerson for Willian (an odd game for our number twenty-two, he really struggled to get involved) and Mateo Kovacic for Barkley (“he’s not given the ball away much, but he hasn’t done much with it”).

A wild shot from Palace went the same way as the Jorginho effort an hour earlier. But things were now getting nervy in the away section. If we could hang on, we would be a mighty five points ahead of Arsenal. In the last five minutes, Palace at last found their compass and their attacking boots. That man Wickham thankfully slashed a rising ball over after a headed knock-down.

Four minutes of extra time were signalled.

My eyes were on referee Craig Pawson.

With a cheer, he blew up and the game was won.

There is a common phrase, possibly “proper Chelsea” – please God, not “Proper Chels” – and maybe even Chelsea-esque which is doing the rounds these days and it is this :

“Bloody hell, we made hard work of that.”

And dear reader, without more quality in front of the goal, we will hear this phrase again and again.

The players came over to see us, but Sarri did not join them. He likes to keep his distance, which I find a little odd. Alonso threw his shirt into the crowd and there were waves from Luiz and a defiant “Keep the Faith” from captain Dave.

Job done.

We slowly made our way to the top of the stand, and dived in to use “the facilities” one last time. The gents’ toilets at Selhurst are rather primeval, and you need a certain constitution to use them. There were jokes about having to wear Wellington Boots, and to avoid the deep end, but as I descended into hell, I met Alan coming up the steps and he chirped :

“I enjoy potholing.”

That made me chuckle.

Outside, as we gathered together and turned to set off up the slope, Ben from Germany suddenly appeared with his two mates. It was perfect timing. They had attended the darts on Thursday, the Fulham game on Saturday and had now seen Chelsea play once more. It was great to see them again. I had been certain that I would bump into them some when during the day.

We trudged back to the car, and I then headed slowly north and our escape route took us tantalisingly close to Stamford Bridge. Over Wandsworth Bridge, the Thames looking greyer than ever, and then up towards Fulham Broadway. We stopped for food on the North End Road – “can’t keep away” – and I pointed the car west for one last time in 2018.

As I deposited Parky, Glenn and PD off at each of their homes, I said the same thing to all of them.

“Thanks for your friendship this year. See you on Wednesday.”

It has been a great year again. I remember gasping earlier this week when I saw one Chelsea fan describe it as “difficult”; well fuck that, we won the FA Cup in May.

Turning inwards, a word of real appreciation for those of you who continue to support me in my efforts with this website. Just before Christmas – on Christmas Eve no less, almost perfect timing – I was happy to see that I had reached one hundred thousand views since I set this all up in the summer of 2013. And, over the next few hours, last year’s total of 23,847 views will surely be eclipsed (currently on 23,835) although total visitors this year is down.

In those five years, I have seen the UK viewing figures increase and that means a lot to me. Originally on the “Chelsea In America” website from 2008, I have witnessed a decrease in views from the US, but levels have grown elsewhere. I like that. So, thanks to all once more.

For those interested – who does not like a list? – here is the Top Ten.

  1. USA – 41,409
  2. UK – 38,568
  3. Canada – 2,471
  4. Australia – 2,018
  5. Ireland – 1,197
  6. India – 1,002
  7. Germany – 965
  8. Indonesia – 841
  9. Belgium – 679
  10. France – 606

Here’s to 2019. I hope that everyone stays healthy and happy. After a particularly stressful year for me – in a nutshell, work – I am looking forward to a more relaxed twelve months ahead. It really is all about staying healthy and well. Everything else really is gravy.

I will see some of you at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday.

Tales From Deep East

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 23 September 2018.

With Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham all winning on Saturday, it seemed imperative that we should be victorious on Sunday afternoon – at West Ham United – too. Not that I have realistic thoughts about winning the league again this season but just that, well, a win is a win is a win. Why not keep this run going for as long as is humanely possible? So far, our perfect start to the league campaign – five out of five – had certainly surprised me, and here was a game that was immensely “winnable.”

The drive through Somerset, Wiltshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire and into London had been memorable for only two reasons. The bastard weather was awful, the worst of the season. Saturday had been horrible; wind and rain. And Sunday was just the same. I drove into three hours of rain and spray. It was not fun. Slightly funnier, though, was the sight – around Maidenhead I think – of a cyclist heading east in the near lane of the M4, quite illegally, and signalling with his left arm to leave the motorway at the next exit. The Chuckle Brothers all had to rub our eyes at the sight.

At just after 11am, I turned off the A4 and parked up outside Barons Court tube station. Waiting for us outside were my two Czech mates George and Petr, who live in Prague, and who I last bumped into together at the Rapid Vienna friendly two summers ago. They had contacted me over the summer about their unquenchable desire to see a Chelsea away game and, although I was far from confident of being able to come up with tickets for the West Ham match, some good fortune came my way a month or so ago and the boys were in luck. They then booked flights, and then accommodation. Their enthusiasm for the day’s events, despite the dreary conditions, was palpable.

As we headed east on the Piccadilly line, and then the Central line, we were surprised at the lack of West Ham, or Chelsea fans. But, for once, we were early. We always seem to leave it unfashionably late at West Ham. At Stratford – tons of home supporters now – we doubled-back on ourselves and alighted at the wonderfully-named Pudding Mill Lane station. At last, the rain had virtually stopped.

Although from the Czech Republic, make no mistakes where George and Petr’s affections lie. They are thoroughbred Chelsea fans. I asked them how the Czech league was shaping up, and it warmed me a little to hear that they were not honestly sure about the placings; Petr thought it was Viktoria Pilzen, Slavia and then Sparta. But it seemed an irrelevance to both of them. I approved.

They were, as if it needed proving, proper Chelsea.

I had mentioned to the lads – The Czechle Brothers – as we passed through Bethnal Green and Mile End, that the area is, or at least was, the stereotypical East End, from which West Ham garnered much of their local support. There is nowhere else in London which is so tied to a football club; Arsenal and Tottenham might share north London, and much of its hinterlands, and Chelsea might draw support from the west and south, and share it with other clubs too, but from the traditional East End out to Essex, that acute angle of support is solidly West Ham.

As we alighted at the final station, with modern high-rises surrounding the former Olympic village, the contrast between the tight terraced streets around Upton Park and West Ham’s new neighbourhood could not have been greater. It is, simply, a stark, modern, airy environment. Everywhere you look are vast blocks of concrete. However, I am sure that the vast majority of West Ham fans still prefer the claustrophobic tightness of Green Street, the Queens Market, the Barking Road and the pubs which made West Ham the club it once was, but is no more.

There was time for a couple of drinks of overpriced lager from plastic glasses in the bar area outside the away sections. With George and Petr lapping up the pre-game thrills of a London derby, I nodded to the two hundred or so Chelsea fans within the area.

“No Chelsea colours.”

In fact, I was exaggerating for effect; there were in fact two people with Chelsea shirts.

“Probably tourists”, I joked, and they laughed.

They probably didn’t get the email.

Weeks ago, I had warned Petr and George about not wearing Chelsea shirts, scarves or hats. But they already knew the score and were well-versed in the dos and don’ts for a London derby.

The team had been announced.

No risks being taken with Pedro. Willian came in. And it was Olivier Giroud’s turn to lead the line.

No complaints. Happy with that.

With a quarter of an hour to go until kick-off, I walked up the steps and into the upper section of the away end. This time, better seats; we were in the fourth row back.

PD and Glenn were low down in the tier below and The Czechle Brothers were way beyond us in the last few rows of the upper section. I had warned them it would be a fight to get much noise flying around the away section. That huge void between the sections is no help.

I noted some signage on the main stand to my left :

“This Is The World’s Stage. This Is For Everyone. This Is London Stadium.”

It seemed the stadium was the star attraction and not the team.

And throughout the afternoon, electronic advertisements flashed constantly on the balcony walls between tiers; music concerts, events, baseball games.

Ah yes, baseball games.

I had to double-take when I saw my team, the New York Yankees, flashed up to my right.

It is the sort of thing I simply do not expect to see while watching Chelsea. In London.

There it was, in broad daylight.

New York Yankees V Boston Red Sox.

My mind wandered, briefly, to next June when the two teams will meet at West Ham’s new home stadium for a two game series. I tried to visualise where home plate would be; probably right in front of the nearest goal to where I was standing. And then I thought of the likely spectators. Yankee fans and Red Sox fans would only make up a relatively small percentage. There would be UK baseball fans from all over; Cubs shirts, Braves shirts, Dodgers shirts, Mets shirts, Phillies shirts. And I paused, again briefly, to imagine a similar scene should our league mirror Major League Baseball and cross the Atlantic.

Imagine a Chelsea vs. West Ham United game in, say, Chicago. It would not only attract fans of those two teams. If my experience is anything to go by, there would be supporters – wearing shirts and scarves – of Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Everton and others, to say nothing of the usual smattering of Bayern, Milan, Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid fans. And each little pocket of fans might well find themselves sitting cheek by jowl with rival fans. It is a scene which brought a wry smile to my face.

70,000 in Chicago.

A 15,000 section for Chelsea. A 15,000 section for West Ham. And a 40,000 neutral zone for all the other top fifty teams in Europe.

No thanks.

As the teams appeared, I spotted a phalanx of people crowding the two teams, separated by black fences. I presumed that this was the West Ham equivalent of Manchester City’s tunnel club, where people pay a dividend to get up-close-and-personal with their heroes.

I was happy that the lanky bugger Arnautovic was not playing.

Don’t we look great in that yellow / yellow / blue?

West Ham added to my thoughts about abandoning their heritage by wearing plain claret shirts, rather than with the blue-sleeves of yore. Maybe it was to honour their highest-ever finish, of second, in 1986.

If we sing about being Champions of Europe, and we sing about London, there is – I am sure people will begrudgingly agree – a slim chance of Arsenal and even Tottenham eventually lifting that trophy, although hopefully not in any of our lifetimes. But what of West Ham? They are easily London’s fourth biggest club, but it would be a minor miracle should they even qualify for the Champions league.

And to think, from 1979 to 1984, they seemed our natural London rivals.

How times change.

This would be my fourth visit to the London Stadium, but I was yet to see Chelsea win. A League Cup defeat, a League defeat and a Depeche Mode concert. I sadly missed our one win which came during our Championship season under Antonio Conte.

Behind me was a chap wearing a “Bulgarian Blues” polo shirt. He seemed involved all through the game. As George and Petr prove, not all of our foreign fans are gormless tools. Far from it in fact.

As the game commenced, I made it a priority to try to analyse the involvement of Jorginho during the next ninety minutes. I also vowed to try to try to keep an eye on Giroud. I confided in Gary alongside me :

“You know what, Gal? It honestly took me a while to warm to Giroud last season, for obvious reasons. But he’s a bloody good player, isn’t he? His lay-offs to Hazard have been excellent of late.”

I thought we played really well in the first twenty minutes or so.

A shot from Hazard forced Fabianski to save low. Our movement was great, full of one touch football, and we were stretching the home team nicely. But chances were certainly at a premium. For all of our attacking verve, it was West Ham who enjoyed the two best chances of the game. Firstly, Antonio broke in on the West Ham left but fired over. Then, Yarmolenko – similar in build to Arnautovic – fired low but Kepa Arrizabalaga smothered well.

One tackle, sliding, beautifully timed, from David Luiz had us all purring.

The grey skies had turned blue and at last there was a blast of sunlight.

I had warned Petr and George that the stadium had no architectural delights. With the slight rake of the lower tier especially, I find it a very bland stadium. It is not dramatic. It has no “wow” factor. The only part of it that seems worthy of comment is the cat’s cradle of steel which supports the roof and the triangular floodlights. Other than that, Upton Park trumped it hands down.

Our best chance of the first-half fell to the head of N’Golo Kante, after a finely volleyed cross from Willian allowed him a clear view of the goal. It was not to be. The ball skidded wide.

At the break, there were grumbles among the three thousand.

Our positive start had not continued. There was a tendency to over-pass. I had been watching Giroud; there was not much to report. He was hardly moving his markers at all. I had been watching Jorginho too. Lots of the ball – pass, pass, pass, – but yet again no flights of fancy to unlock the door. There had been little running off the ball either – the “third man” was lost in Vienna, or Budapest, or Amsterdam. He was nowhere to be seen in East London.

In the stands, the noise was not great. Only once in the first-half did the home fans make a din.

Chelsea chastised them in the time-honoured fashion.

“You’re not West Ham, anymore.”

“You sold your soul…”

Chelsea attacked us in the southern end in the second-half. Amid the chants of encouragement, there were moans and cries of despair too. In truth, it was pretty pedestrian stuff, for all of our possession. And we totally dominated. And yet Willian and Hazard failed to really make their talents pay off. Hazard kept dropping deep. And he rarely hugged the touchline.

More of the same from Jorginho. Not his best game for us. He often lost possession. His passes were to the side or to players being marked. I was getting frustrated with him.

Giroud, under my watchful gaze, rarely made a move into space. He seemed to continually move towards the man with the ball rather than attempt a blind-sided run (oh, Hernan Crespo, are your ears burning?) to create space.

With twenty-five minutes remaining, Sarri replaced Giroud with Morata.

My thoughts :

West Ham were for the taking. Why not play both up front for a quarter of an hour?

Hazard, in on goal, chose to back-heel to Moratra rather than shoot himself.

“Fackinelleden.”

Then, from a corner, the ball fell at the feet of Morata. He had no time to think; he pushed a foot towards the ball but we groaned as the shot hit Fabianski in the face.

“Bollocks.”

The frustration rose.

An injured Rudiger was replaced by Gary Cahill.

As the game continued, and as West Ham enjoyed a little spell, I whispered to Gary.

“Fackinell Gal, I bet they will get the ball out wide, we’ll lose concentration, they will hit a ball in to the box, and one of their fuckers will head home.”

Within twenty seconds, Robert Snodgrass (“more clubs than Peter Stringfellow”) crossed into our box and Yarmalenko rose at the far post, completely and utterly unmarked, but thankfully his firm header veered past the post.

“Fucksakechelsea.”

We then came on strong in the final period.

We begged for a goal.

“Fackinellcomeonchels.”

Ross Barkley came on for Kovacic, and I liked the look of him immediately. He sprayed balls out to the wings with aplomb. Then, a big moment. Collecting the ball from wide, he looked up and curled a ball towards Fabianski’s far post. The bend on it was phenomenal. We were all about to celebrate when the ‘keeper scrambled down low to save.

Then, the last two chances.

A Willian volley, evading a tackle, but it was sent well wide.

Hazard, a tame shot across Fabianski.

At times, that lone cyclist on the M4 had shown a much better understanding of how to negotiate heavy traffic than our attackers.

It finished 0-0.

This had been our poorest performance of the season. As is always the case, we chatted about everything on the slow trudge across London, and then furthermore on the drive home.

What’s the expression? “More questions than answers.”

That seems about right. The Jorginho / Kante dilemma rumbles on.

On the M4, I summed up my feelings.

“Never mind Saturday. Say we are playing the biggest game in our history. Tottenham in the European Cup Final. A game we had to win. You would want Kante shielding the defence, right? In his best position. Not Jorginho. You’d want Kante there.”

The lads agreed.

And, not for the first time in our recent history, we have ineffectual strikers.

“Morata is half a striker. Giroud is half a striker.”

Just like in 2013/14.

“Torres was half a striker. Ba was half a striker. Eto’o was half a striker.”

Yep.

More questions than answers.

There is no trip to Anfield for me on Wednesday, but let’s hope we can find some positive answers to these questions on Saturday when we meet Liverpool for the second time in four days.

I will see you there.

 

Eyes On The Ball.

 

A Volleyed Cross.

 

Keeping It Alive. 

 

Working The Space. 

 

Early Ball. 

 

Signs.

 

Face Off.

 

Daisy Cutter.

 

Wide Man.

 

Bend It Like Barkley.

 

Well Wide.

 

My Ball.