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.

Tales From The Heart Of Chelsea

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 8 April 2018.

I had just left work on Wednesday afternoon when my mobile phone flashed a horribly brief news update.

Ray Wilkins, my boyhood hero, our Chelsea captain, an England international, a Chelsea assistant coach, had died.

There were no immediate tears, but certainly an excruciating, horrible silent numbness. I drove home in a state of shock. I was as subdued as I can remember. Ever since we had all heard that Butch had suffered a heart-attack, and had been in an induced coma, we had of course feared the worst. The future did not promise too much hope, and with every passing day, I feared imminent news.

On Wednesday 4 April, it came.

Ray Wilkins. Just the name sends me back, somersaulting me through the decades to my youth, to a time when Chelsea probably meant more to me than I realised, and to the very first few moments of my fledgling support.

In season 1973/1974, Ray Wilkins had made his debut at the age of just seventeen as a substitute against Norwich City in the October. However, I have to be honest, living in Somerset, I don’t think that I was aware of his presence that campaign. I certainly can’t remember seeing him play in any of the – few – games which were shown in highlights on “Match of the Day” or “The Big Match.” In the March of 1974, I saw my first-ever Chelsea game. I like the fact that we made our debuts in the same season. The very letter which accompanied the match tickets for that Chelsea vs. Newcastle United match was signed by “Miss J. Bygraves” and this young girl would later become Ray Wilkins’ wife and mother to their two children. By that stage, my then favourite player Ian Britton had been playing for Chelsea a couple of seasons. In that first game, neither played, and I would have to wait a whole year to see my two boyhood idols play, sadly in a lacklustre 2-1 defeat by soon to be Champions Derby County. Chelsea were managed by Ron Suart at the time of that match, but soon after former defender Eddie McCreadie took over. Very soon, he spotted the leadership potential of Ray – or “Butch” as he was known – and made him captain at the age of just eighteen despite the presence of former captains Ron Harris and John Hollins being in the team. Those last matches of the 1974/1975 season were marked by the manager flooding the first team with youngsters; alongside Ray Wilkins and the comparative “veteran” Ian Britton were Teddy Maybank, John Sparrow, Tommy Langley, Steve Finnieston and Steve Wicks.

With the influx of youngsters, playing against the backdrop of the sparkling new East Stand, I hoped that the future was bright despite our eventual relegation. If anything, it all got worse. A cash-strapped Chelsea were unable to buy any players for a few seasons, and at one stage it looked like we would be forced to sell both Ray Wilkins and Ian Britton. We finished mid-table at the end of 1975/1976, and promotion back to the First Division seemed distant.

It is an odd fact that although I have taken thousands upon thousands of photographs at Chelsea games over the years, in the period from my first game in 1974 to the start of the 1983/1984 season I took just one. It marked the return of Peter Osgood with Southampton in March 1976, but instead of an image of Ossie, the camera is fixed upon the young Chelsea captain, leaning forward to shake hands with his Southampton counterpart Peter Rodrigues.

Ten seasons, twenty-seven Chelsea games, but only one photograph.

And that photograph is of Ray Wilkins. It seems, with hindsight, wholly appropriate.

For season after season, in those dark years of false hope, the threat of financial oblivion, of wanton hooliganism and occasional despair, our young captain seemed to be our one beacon of hope.

He was our Ray of light.

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At the end of that mediocre 1975/1976 season, I can remember being absolutely thrilled to hear that young Butch would be making his England debut.

At the remodelled Yankee Stadium in New York on Friday 26 May, Butch played a full ninety minutes against Italy, playing against such greats as Dino Zoff, Giacinto Facchetti, Roberto Bettega and Franco Causio. I can vividly remember seeing the highlights on the following day’s “World of Sport” (I specifically remember the blue padded outfield walls, and the dirt of the baseball diamond).

Butch had arrived.

That summer, I sent off to the “Chelsea Players’ Pool” – remember that? – and acquired a signed black and white photograph. It was pinned close to my Peter Osgood one. Two real Chelsea heroes.

The following season, Chelsea stormed to promotion with Ray Wilkins the driving force. The man was a dream. Equally gifted with both left and right feet, he had a wonderful balance, and a lovely awareness of others. He didn’t merely touch the ball, he caressed it. He made everything look so easy. There was a languid looseness to him. But he was no slouch. Although not gifted with lightning pace, he had the energy and guile to tackle when needed, but to break forward too. His long-range passing was his party-piece. I have no single recollection of one Ray Wilkins pass, but the buzz of appreciation – cheering, applause, clapping – that accompanied a searching Wilkins cross-field pass, perfectly-weighted to a team mate, is what sticks in my mind. And there were many of them. Those were the days when supporters used to clap a great pass. It doesn’t happen much these days.

And he just looked like a footballer. My Dad always commented how Butch had thighs like tree trunks. There was a certain confident strut to him. I always thought that it was a plus point that his legs were slightly – ever-so slightly – bowed, though not as noticeable as, say, Malcolm MacDonald or Terry McDermott. Many footballers did in those days. I am sure it was not in a ridiculous body-sculpting homage to him, but as I grew up, I noticed that my legs were slightly bowed too. Nobody ever took the piss out of me, and what if they did? I would have an easy answer.

“If it’s good enough for Ray Wilkins, it’s good enough for me.”

I am told he melted a few female hearts too. I remember a few girls at Oakfield Road Middle School mentioning Butch to me.

It must have been the stare from those dark brown eyes when Butch was at his most serious.

Back in the First Division, we finished mid-table in 1977/1978 under the tutelage of Ken Shellito. Before the thrilling 3-1 win over European Champions Liverpool in March 1978 (often over-looked in favour of the 4-2 FA Cup win over the same opposition a couple of months before), I was able to obtain Ray Wilkins’ autograph as he came on to the pitch for the kick-about at around 2.30pm. Access to the players at these moments were an added bonus to getting seats in the East Lower. In those days, I would rush over to the curved concrete wall, spending up to twenty minutes or more reaching over towards the players as they passed. To be so close to Ray Wilkins, within touching distance, as he signed by little black autograph book just thrilled me. Forty years on, just writing this, I am getting goose bumps.

Magical, magical times.

Sadly, the elation of promotion in 1976/1977 and consolidation in 1977/1978 was followed by relegation in 1978/1979. During that campaign, we never looked like climbing out of the drop zone. It was such a depressing season. I went through a tough year at school too. It was not a good time in my life.

And I can always remember the pain that I felt during the very last time that I saw Butch play for us, a home game versus QPR in March 1979. It was a miserable day – we lost 3-1, some mouthy QPR fans were sat in front of us in the East Lower – but I was horrified to hear Ray Wilkins getting a fair bit of abuse from the Chelsea supporters around me. It was obvious that the team was at a low ebb, and perhaps too much was expected of our captain, who was still only twenty-two, but every mis-placed Wilkins pass drew loud boos and moans from those close by. Rather than support for a hero when he needed it there was derision. It made such an impression on me that I can remember the sense of betrayal that I experienced thirty-nine years later.

I only saw Ray Wilkins play twelve times for Chelsea, but from March 1975 to March 1979, he was ever-present in all the games that I saw. He wore the number eight shirt in every single one of them. I saw him score just one goal, against Blackpool, in 1975.

He was one of the most revered footballers in the Football League. He was an England regular. It thrilled me each time I saw him play for the national team. He was our sole England international from Peter Osgood in 1973 to Kerry Dixon in 1985. In 1979, he played his twenty-fourth game for England as a Chelsea player, thus beating his former manager McCreadie’s record as a Chelsea internationalist.

In 1979, despite appearing in the Chelsea pre-season team photograph, Ray Wilkins was sold to the hated Manchester United for £825,000. It was on the cards. I knew that we would never keep him. Chelsea certainly needed the money. But to Manchester United? This was just too much. There was a memory of a home programme from 1975 with Butch holding a Manchester United mug at his family home. Had he been hiding some dark secret from us all along?

In the following years, I watched from afar as Ray Wilkins played for the Old Trafford club. From 1979 to 1984, United were an under-achieving team under Dave Sexton and then Ron Atkinson. His goal against Brighton in the 1983 FA Cup Final was not celebrated by me.

It still hurt.

Thankfully, he never played for United against us.

And the nickname “Butch” never really followed him to Old Trafford.

He then moved over to Italy to play for Milan from 1984 to 1987.

I saw him play for England – as captain – at Wembley in November 1985 against Northern Ireland on a night which saw a young Kerry Dixon make his home debut, and on a night when the cry of “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” could memorably be heard at the tunnel end.

As the years passed, he played for Rangers and then QPR. I can recollect seeing him early in 1989/1990 at Stamford Bridge, and looking as classy as ever. He was only thirty-three. It would have been lovely to see him come back in West London to play for Chelsea and not QPR, who he later managed, but it was not to be. He then played on with other teams – Wycombe, Hibernian, Millwall, Orient – and then retired to manage Fulham. So near and yet so far.

There were the famous “Tango” commercials.

“Smashing.”

He was often the co-commentator on the Italian games which were shown on Channel Four.

“Hello everyone.”

He seemed so pleasant, so decent, so natural.

In 1998, Butch finally returned home to coach alongside Gianluca Vialli. He worked alongside Luiz Filip Scolari. He took charge for one game at Vicarage Road. He then memorably assisted Carlo Ancelotti – his Milan team mate – and helped us win the double. He was a steadying influence, and a much-loved member of the Chelsea family. His sacking by the club – I am guessing – might well have sent him towards a publicised alcohol addiction.

We felt numbed. For some alcohol is never the right answer, and alcoholism is a horrid disease.

But it felt as though Ray Wilkins has always been part of this club. The red devil mug from 1975 was obviously a red herring. He was not only a season ticket holder, but an away season ticket holder too. There were numerous sightings of our former captain at away grounds – I can recollect photos of him posing happily with some friends of mine – at various away sections, despite the fact that he could have spent those afternoons on the golf course, at home with his family, or out with friends.

It is a cliché, but he was one of us.

My good friend Glenn and I only bumped into him at Stamford Bridge a couple of months back. He was warm and friendly, happy to spend time with us, and I am blessed that I was able to see him one last time.

Just writing those words.

Oh my.

…the days passed. Wednesday became Thursday, Thursday became Friday. Friday became Saturday. Saturday became Sunday. Over these days, many stories were told of his decency and his humanity. But this all added to the sense of loss.

Sunday 8 April 2018 would be another emotional day for us all. On the drive to London, it seemed almost churlish to talk about our game with West Ham. We muddled our way through some conversations and predictions. At many moments, my mind was elsewhere.

We had set off from Somerset earlier than usual so that we could visit one of Parky’s old haunts from the days when he served in the army in the early ‘seventies. It was something of an anniversary. Forty-five years ago last Friday – 30 March 1973 – Parky stepped foot inside Millbank Barracks in Pimlico for the first time. An avid Chelsea fan despite being born near Arsenal’s stadium, Parky’s first Chelsea match was as a six-year-old in 1961. Being stationed so near to Stamford Bridge in Pimlico was a passport to football heaven. We had booked a table for 12.30pm at his then local “The Morpeth Arms”, which overlooks the river and the M16 building on the opposite bank.

But first, we popped in to “The Famous Three Kings” near West Kensington station at eleven o’clock for a quick pint and I made a toast.

“Ray Wilkins.”

We then tubed it to Pimlico, and had a lovely time in Parky’s old local. We met up with some pals from Kent and the nine of us had a relaxing and enjoyable time. During the two hours that we were in The Morpeth Arms, we spotted two boats heading west on the river which were bedecked in West Ham flags and favours. Often teams from London take a cruise down the river before a game at Chelsea. The game flitted into my mind, but only briefly, at the sight of the West Ham flags.

Glenn and I then split from the rest, and headed back to Fulham Broadway. In “The Malt House” we had arranged to meet up with pals from Bournemouth, Los Angeles, Jacksonville and Toronto. In the meantime, we soon learned that a main West Ham mob had caused a fair bit of havoc in The Atlas and The Lily Langtree, just half a mile or so away. There had been talk of them having a bash at The Goose too. We often frequent those pubs. I am glad we had avoided any nonsense.

It was lovely to meet up with the Jacksonville Blues once again; it was Jennifer and Brian’s first visit, though their pals Jimmy and Steve had visited Stamford Bridge before. Brian had presented me with a Jacksonville Blues scarf while I was over in Charlotte for the PSG game in 2015. It wins the prize as the Chelsea scarf with the finest design that I have seen, bar none. We met up with Tom from LA again, and bumped into Mick from Colorado too. There was a quick hello to Bill, a pal from Toronto who was over for the game. The famous Tuna from Atlanta was in town, but our paths just failed to connect.

“Next time, Fishy Boy.”

Overseas fans sometimes get a rough ride from certain sections of our support, but many are as passionate as fans from these isles. They have tended to add to my experience as a Chelsea supporter, not taken away from it.

There was horrible drizzle in the air. The Floridians were finding it a rather cold few days. But their enthusiasm for the game was bubbling over, or was it the alcohol?

On the walk to Stamford Bridge, we were soaked.

There was just time to pay a few moments of silent respect to the little shrine that the club had set up for Ray Wilkins. His photo had been moved along to a more spacious section of The Shed Wall. I was pleased to see the armband that John Terry had left was still in place. The photo of a young Butch in that darker than usual kit from 1977 made me gulp at the enormity of it all. The thought that both Ian Britton and now Ray Wilkins are no longer with us is – I will admit – a very difficult thing for me to comprehend.

I had a ticket in the MHL for this game – alongside Bristol Pete – and it was my first game there since Olimpiakos in 2008. But I was happy that I’d be getting a different perspective at a home game. We were stood, level with the crossbar and just behind the goal.

Very soon, it became clear that some fans in The Shed would be holding up a few banners, and I steadied my camera. The teams entered the pitch, and the spectators rose as one. There were no words from Neil Barnett – in hindsight, I suspect that he might well have decided that the emotion of the occasion would have got the better of him – and very soon both sets of players were stood in the centre circle. The TV screens provided some images, and the words Ray Wilkins 1956-2018 chilled me. We all applauded. Very soon, a blue flag passed over my head. I would later learn that it was a huge tribute to Butch, so well done to the club for producing it in such a short timescale. There was a chant of “one Ray Wilkins” and the clapping continued.

And then the applause softened, and the noise fell away. The game soon started, but my head was not really ready for it. All of that raw emotion squeezed into a few minutes had taken my focus away from the game. I tried my hardest to concentrate on the play, but I found it difficult. There was an extra constraint; I was not used to witnessing a home game from anywhere other than seat 369 in The Sleepy Hollow. I struggled with the perspective.

Antonio Conte had stayed with the choice of Alvaro Morata up front, and all was to be expected elsewhere on the pitch, apart from the return of captain Gary Cahill instead of Andreas Christensen. The first part of the game seemed pretty scrappy but Eden Hazard threatened with a low shot, and we hoped for further chances.

On eight minutes, there was more applause for Ray Wilkins. I spotted the image of the floral bouquet on the Chelsea bench.

“Blimey, that’s poignant.”

We feared the worst when Marko Arnautovic managed to get his feet tangled and Thibaut Courtois blocked from close range. It would be the visitors’ only real effort on goal during the entire first-half. I was so close to the action; the nearest I have been to the pitch at Chelsea for years. Being so low, both side stands seemed higher than ever. I wondered what the first-time visitors from Florida’s First Coast thought of their first visit to Stamford Bridge.

There was occasional neat passing in the final third, but our chances were rare. Already there was a feeling of nervous tension starting to rise within the massed ranks of the MHL, who were stood throughout. I can’t remember the last time the MHL and the Shed Lower sat throughout a game; a long time ago for sure. But there wasn’t a great deal of noise either. The usual shout of “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” was noticeably missing. On a day when I had flitted around Stamford Bridge – to the north, to the west, to the east, momentarily to the south – it felt that I was watching the match from the heart of Chelsea. The reduced capacity Shed is not the same place as it was in years past, and the MHL has usurped it in many ways as the epicentre of our support. I looked around and, although I did not spot many faces I knew, I certainly felt that I was in the heart of it.

The away fans were boring me rigid with their version of the Blue Flag, and their ridiculous nonsense about “no history.”

A beautiful move ended with a chance from Morata going just past the post. Then, another delicate move ended with Willian forcing a fine save from Joe Hart. With half-time beckoning, and with West Ham more than happy to sit deep, at last there was a reward for our possession. A short corner – which normally I detest – was played back to Moses. I remember thinking “this is usually Dave’s territory and he usually finds the head of Morata.” Well, Moses found the head of Morata and it was none other than Cesar Azpilicueta who managed to get the slightest of touches to stab the ball home – the crowd roared – before running away towards the away support and slumping to the floor.

Up in the MHU, Alan texted me : “THTCAUN.”

In the MHL, I soon replied : “COMLD.”

And that was that. A deserved one goal lead at half-time against an opponent that had rarely attacked, and I just wanted the second-half to produce some more goals. Our recent form has been abysmal. We desperately needed the three points.

Into the second-half and I was thrilled to be able to witness our attacks from so near the pitch, with the full panorama of a packed Stamford Bridge in view. It was a spectacular sight. Throughout the second-half, there were back-heels and flicks aplenty from several of our players – alas, most were to no avail and drew moans – but a deft touch from Eden Hazard set up Willian, who went close. There were more moans – and a growl of consternation from me – when a cross from the raiding Marcos Alonso was touched back by Morata into the path of Victor Moses. With no defender closing him down, and with time for him to concentrate on getting his knee over the ball, he panicked and thrashed the ball high over the bar.

“FORFUCKSAKE.”

We continued to create chances. Morata headed over from a corner, and had a goal disallowed for offside soon after. It looked close from my viewpoint, and it did not surprise me that the linesman had flagged.

In quiet moments, the West Ham ‘keeper was mercilessly taunted by the front rows of the MHL.

“England’s number four. England, England’s number four.”

“You’ve got dandruff, you’ve got dandruff, you’ve got dandruff. And you’re shit.”

…there’s a terrible pun coming soon, by the way…you have been warned.

We still dominated possession. From my viewpoint, all that I could see was a forest of bodies blocking our passage. As I said, there were many attempted “one-twos” and suchlike, but the West Ham defence did not have time for such frivolous play. They blocked, blocked, and hacked away to their hearts content. The groans were growing as the game continued. Hazard, always involved but unable to produce anything of note, was nowhere near his best. He lost possession way too often. His pass selection was off. There was the usual proto typical display of midfield greatness from N’Golo Kante, but elsewhere we struggled. Morata hardly attempted to pull his marker out of position. Moses was as frustrating as so often he is. Fabregas was not the creative influence we needed. Alonso ran and ran down the left flank, but the much-needed second goal just eluded us.

Moses sent a shot curling narrowly wide.

At the other end, the distant Shed, West Ham created a rare chance. A half-hearted header from Cahill was chased down by Arnautovic and he was allowed time to cut the ball back for the onrushing Chicarito – a recent sub – to score with a low shot at Courtois’ near post.

It was, I am sure, their first real shot on goal in the second-half.

“BOLLOCKS.”

There were around twenty minutes’ left.

We urged the team on.

At last, the first real stadium-wide chant roared around Stamford Bridge.

A rasping drive from Alonso forced a magnificent finger-tipped save from Hart, and the ball flew only a matter of feet past my left-hand side. The manager replaced Moses with Pedro, Morata with Giroud. There were shots from Hazard, but there were gutsy West Ham blocks. At the other end, I watched in awe as Kante robbed Arnautovic – showing an amazing turn of pace – inside the box. There was another lovely chase-back from Marcos Alonso to rob a West Ham player the chance to break. A fine looping high cross from Willian found the leap of Giroud, who jumped and hung in the air like a centre-forward of old. We were just about to celebrate the winner when we saw Hart – agonisingly – collapse to his left and push the ball away via the post. It was a simply stupendous save. He was head and shoulders their best player.

There you go. You’re welcome.

The game continued but there was no late joy. A meek header from Cahill and a wild swipe from an angle by Pedro did not bother Hart.

Sigh.

There were boos from inside the MHL at the final whistle.

I had the misfortune to time my exit just as the main slug of away support marched past the West Stand gates. I just walked through them all. Their further taunts of “no history” just raised a laugh from me. And there were moans, of course, once we all met up inside my car on Bramber Road long after the final whistle. As I drove us all home, we chatted about the game, a game that we should have won easily. Those moments when we lack concentration had hit us hard once again. We had our post-game post-mortem. We chose to keep our thoughts to ourselves. Elsewhere, of course, many other Chelsea fans were not so private. As ever, there was much wailing.

I had a sideways look at our current state of affairs.

“We finished tenth in 2016. If somebody had said that we would finish in fifth place and as champions over the following two seasons with Antonio Conte in charge, we would have been ecstatic with that.”

The boys agreed.

“Conte just got his seasons mixed up, the silly bastard.”

The inevitable gallows humour helped us in the immediate aftermath of yet another disappointing result.

It had been a strange day. A day of wild extremes. A day of immense sadness. A day of fine friendships. A day when The Great Unpredictables lived up to their name. A day of memories. A day of melancholy. A day of remembrance. A day of frustration. A day of contemplation.

Meanwhile, this most typical of Chelsea seasons continues.

See you all at Southampton.

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In memoriam.

Ray Wilkins.

14 September 1956 to 4 April 2018.

 

Tales From Twenty-Eight Games

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 1 April 2018.

As Saturday became Easter Sunday, I awoke with a heavy heart. I dreaded looking at my phone, or switching on the TV. Late on Good Friday, we had received the shocking news that club legend Ray Wilkins had suffered a heart-attack, and had fallen. He had been rushed to a hospital in Tooting and was in an induced coma. Suddenly, with so much pain and worry, the upcoming London derby with Tottenham did not seem as important. It seemed – I don’t know – almost irrelevant.

In the build-up to the game, in which we were not only attempting to claw back some points in the league table but were looking to extend our unbeaten home record against Tottenham to a ridiculous twenty-eight games, I was my usual nervy and edgy self. Tottenham at home always gets me like this. I can’t fight it. In some ways, the home record is a magnificent albatross around our necks; I never get as nervous about any other fixture. I just wanted it to continue on and on and on and on.

Or at least maybe until 2020. Get to three decades, Chelsea, then retire. Thirty years would be a fantastic achievement.

“Three more years, three more years.”

But the Ray Wilkins news dominated everything as I collected the boys in the morning and drove up to West London. Glenn and I had only bumped into Butch a few weeks back, before the West Brom game. We had the briefest of chats, and a photo with the former Chelsea captain and assistant coach to Carlo Ancelotti. The timing could not have been more eerie. When I chatted to him in the Copthorne Hotel, I mentioned that the last time that I had seen him was at his former team mate Ian Britton’s funeral at Burnley in 2016. The former Chelsea midfield dynamo had passed away on 31 March, and throughout the Saturday I was scared to hear of any update about Butch in case he had passed on exactly the same date. It was all too horrifying for words really. I always remember being on holiday in the summer of 1975 in Dorset, and visiting an aunt in my father’s home town of Wareham. I can remember the sense of sadness that I felt when I read on the back page of her “News of the World” that Manchester United, newly-promoted to the First Division, had made a seismic offer of £500,000 to cash-strapped Chelsea for both Wilkins and Britton. If Ian Britton was my favourite player at the time, Ray Wilkins was a very close second. I was devastated that Chelsea might accept the offer. Thankfully, they resisted, and both players were part of a very revered team for many a season. The two of them would always be linked together in my mind.

Thankfully, Easter Saturday passed with no tragic updates.

I hoped and prayed that we would hear only encouraging news as the day and days passed.

Inside Stamford Bridge at around fifteen minutes before the scheduled kick-off time of 4pm, Neil Barnett spoke emotionally about Ray Wilkins and urged him to keep fighting.

“COME ON RAY. COME ON RAY. COME ON RAY.”

The thirty-thousand or so spectators in the stadium clapped for quite a while.

It was such a strange feeling. The shadow of it all loomed over the day.

But it was time, oddly, rudely, to think about the football.

Inside the stadium, the Spurs fans – navy blue darkness, no light, a couple of flags, expectant – were massed in the far corner. The home areas were filling up. In the pre-match, I had dipped into three pubs and had met up with a little assortment of Chelsea fans from near and far. I was pleased to be able to run into three lads from the US who run the “London Is Blue” podcast – and who very often use some of my photos on their various media platforms – down at “The Cock Tavern.” Although I was only on cokes, it was a sign of my pre-match nerves that I inadvertently picked up a stranger’s glass of “Peroni” and took a sip, before realising the error of my ways. The team had been announced and I was in general agreement. I was hopeful that Eden Hazard would give us a strong performance. It has indeed been a while.

On the rear of the hotel and the apartment block behind The Shed, two new banners have recently appeared.

On the hotel, a picture of a Nike adorned girl with the words “Loud. Loyal. Blue. Together.”

Then, on the apartment block, the oddly-worded “Expect thrilling.”

This struck me as odd a phrase as I have seen in the world of football hype and bluster. It just didn’t scan. It is as if the phrase was originally developed in another language and awkwardly translated with no thought. It mirrored the legend “Thrilling since 1905” on the stadium balconies and the front of the West Stand. Again, odd and awkward.

As the teams entered the pitch, I was pleased to see six flags depicting our six championship seasons draped from the MHU balcony; I had paid a little towards these a while back, and they looked fantastic. Down below, the usual MHL flag appeared. At The Shed, more flags and banners.

Stamford Bridge looked perfect.

Stamford Bridge was ready.

The old enemies appeared once more. My first-ever Chelsea vs. Tottenham game was my second-ever Chelsea game. October 1975 and a John Hollins penalty. Since then, so many memories…

The game?

I am not going to dwell too much on our twenty-eighth home game in the league against Tottenham Hotspur since December 1990. I have no doubt that the vast majority of readers saw the game, and have their own opinions. At the end of it all, walking silently down the Fulham Road, so disconsolate, I have rarely felt worse after a Chelsea home match. I just hated losing to them. For me – I missed the 1990 loss as I was in Canada at the time – it was the very first time that I had experienced a loss at home to Spurs since a meek 2-0 capitulation in December 1986 in front of a miserly 21,576.

Thirty-two years ago!

So, rather than spend too much time going over in fine detail how Chelsea’s ridiculous record came to an end, I would rather take time to celebrate one of the outstanding periods of domination in European football.

It has been quite a ride.

1990/1991 : A cracking game of football involving a Tottenham team which included Italia ’90 superstars Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne for Spurs and Italia ’90 squad members Dave Beasant and Tony Dorigo for Chelsea. Chelsea triumphed 3-2, with goals from Kerry Dixon, John Bumstead and Gordon Dure. Lineker blasted a penalty over the bar for Spurs and I watched from the old West Stand. At the end of the season, Chelsea finished in eleventh place in the table, equal on points, but one place below our North London rivals.

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1991/1992 : I was in The Shed for this one as a poor Spurs team were easily beaten with former Tottenham striker Clive Allen and Dennis Wise giving us an easy 2-0 win.

1992/1993 : With David Webb in temporary charge, Tony Cascarino gave us an equaliser in a 1-1 draw. I remember Peter Osgood being on the pitch at half-time; his first appearance at Stamford Bridge for years and years. I watched from the lower West side of The Shed in a poor gate of just 25,157.

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1993/1994 : I didn’t attend this one unfortunately. An incredible game, which ended up 4-3 in our favour with a last-minute Mark Stein penalty. The attendance was a shockingly bad 16,807.

1994/1995 : I watched from the lower tier of the new North Stand as Dennis Wise stooped low to head in an equaliser. Phew. It ended 1-1.

1995/1996 : This game took place in the midst of the great Ken Bates vs. Matthew Harding “stand-off.” Matthew was famously banned from the Directors’ Box and so watched from the front row of the stand which he had personally financed. This was a very poor game. I watched from the temporary green seats at The Shed End and both teams were lucky to get 0.

1996/1997 : One of the most emotional games ever. Matthew Harding, who died on the Wednesday, was remembered on a very sombre day at Stamford Bridge. Goals from Roberto di Matteo, Ruud Gullit and David Lee gave us a 3-1 win. We watched from the North Stand, which was soon to be re-named. The image of a pint of Guinness on the centre-spot before the game was as poignant as it ever gets.

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1997/1998 : With Jurgen Klinsmann back with Spurs for an end-of-season loan, we watched as goals from Tore Andre Flo and Gianluca Vialli gave us an easy 2-0 win. I was now watching games from my own seat in the Matthew Harding Upper. These were great times to be a Chelsea supporter.

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1998/1999 : This was another 2-0 win with goals from Gus Poyet and Tore Andre Flo. This pre-Christmas treat was even more enjoyable because it meant that the win put us top of the league for the first time in eight years. Yes, eight years. I think this match was the game where Spurs only wanted 1,500 tickets. They refused the other 1,500. Insert comment here.

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1999/2000 : George Weah arrived from Milan in the afternoon, came off the bench in the last twenty minutes and headed home a late winner at the Shed End as we won 1-0. This was getting too easy. It was almost a case of “how shall we beat Spurs this time?”

2000/2001 : Two goals from Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink and one from Gianfranco Zola gave us an easy 3-0 win.

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2001/2002 : Following our 4-0 win at Three Point Lane on the Sunday in the FA Cup, we repeated the scoreline on this Wednesday night which was was memorable for the magnificent hat-trick from Hasselbaink. A right foot thunder strike, a bullet header and a left-foot curler. I will never see a more astounding “perfect” hat-trick. A goal from Frank Lampard gave us the fourth goal. I watched, mesmerized, in the East Upper. One of the great Chelsea versus Tottenham games.

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2002/2003 : Spurs went ahead but Gianfranco Zola scored another magnificent goal, sending his free-kick curling in at the very top right hand corner of the Spurs goal. It was as perfect a free-kick as anyone could possibly imagine. This 1-1 draw broke Spurs’ losing sequence of six consecutive losses at Chelsea. I suspect that they regarded it as some sort of moral victory.

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2003/2004 : I missed this game, but not to worry. Chelsea won 4-2 in only Roman’s third home game as the new Chelsea owner.

2004/2005 : This was Jose Mourinho’s first-ever taste of a Chelsea versus Spurs derby and it will be remembered for how he chose to describe their approach to the game. The bus was parked and the phrase entered into the lexicon of football. A dire 0-0 draw resulted.

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2005/2006 : Peter Osgood had sadly passed away ten days earlier and the game with Tottenham was the first home game since we lost our much beloved hero. This was another emotional day at Stamford Bridge. I took my Ossie banner to show my love for my childhood hero. We scored first through Michael Essien, only for Spurs to draw level. In the very last few minutes, William Gallas latched on to a loose ball and struck a venomous bullet into the Spurs goal. Stamford Bridge exploded like never before. For anyone there, they will never forget it.

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2006/2007 : I remember little of this game apart from the wonder strike from Lord Percy himself, Ricardo Carvalho, which sealed a 1-0 win.

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2007/2008 : Juliano Belletti scored a screamer from the inside-right channel. I don’t remember Shaun Wright-Phillips’ goal. Yes, that’s right; even Shaun Wright-Phillips scored. An easy 2-0 win.

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2008/2009 : This was a poor game. Belletti again scored for us but Darren Bent equalised on half-time. It ended 1-1. At least Luiz Filipe Scolari kept the unbeaten home record intact.

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2009/2010 : With Carlo Ancelotti in charge, we romped to an easy 3-0 victory with goals from Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack and Ashley Cole.

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2010/2011 : This was a lovely time to be a Chelsea fan. We had beaten West Ham one Saturday and we played Tottenham the next. In between, we had the Royal Wedding and an extra day’s holiday. Sandro scored with a long-range effort in the first but Frank Lampard “just” edged the ball over the line at The Shed End in first-half stoppage time. Salomon Kalou – an unlikely hero – got the winner for us in the very last minute. Again, the old place was rocking.

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2011/2012 : This was a poor 0-0 draw and Spurs had an effort cleared off the line, and they also hit the bar with a Bale header. The record was hanging by a thread. The mood was quite sombre on the walk down Fulham Road after the game.

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2012/2013 : Chelsea were managed by Rafa Benitez. Tottenham were managed by Andre Vilas-Boas. The pessimistic among us grew nervous. If the record was going to go, how hideous if it was to be with these two managers involved. Oscar opened the scoring but Adebayor equalised. Ramires toe-poked a second, but a late equaliser gave Tottenham a share of the points in an entertaining 2-2 draw.

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2013/2014 : Demba Ba with two goals, with others by Samuel Eto’o and Eden Hazard gave us a resounding 4-0 win under the tutelage of the returning hero Jose Mourinho. This game was memorable for the rapidity with which the three-thousand Spurs fans vacated the away section. It was so empty at the end of the game. Business as normal. Fantastic.

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2014/2015 : On a day that we remembered the recent passing of former manager John Neal, we romped to an easy 3-0 win. There were two early goals from Eden Hazard and Didier Drogba, with a late Loic Remy goal wrapping it all up.

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2015/2016 : Chelsea’s season might have been something of a disaster, but this iconic 2-2 draw – with caretaker manager Guus Hiddink in charge – will be remembered as one of the all-time classic Chelsea vs. Tottenham encounters. Two-nil down in the first-half, and with Spurs still in with a shout of the league title, a goal from Gary Cahill gave us hope. In the eightieth minute, Eden Hazard volleyed a Worldy and the stadium exploded. A blissful night of noise, tribalism, shattered dreams and unadulterated joy.

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2016/2017 : This was a 5.30pm game and another fine London derby. We were on a six-game winning streak, and hoped to make it seven. Eriksen scored early for Spurs and they bossed the first-half, but an exquisite goal from Pedro just before the break levelled it. A Victor Moses winner soon into the second-half gave us the points. Another season, another demoralising Tottenham defeat at Stamford Bridge. The unbeaten home record against them was extended to a mighty twenty-seven games.

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What a period of domination. Joy for us. Humiliation for them. In that time, I realised that the old Stamford Bridge has been – almost – completely rebuilt, albeit slowly.

Very very slowly.

And whether Tottenham showed up in all white kit, or with navy shorts with white socks or navy shorts with navy socks, or with chevrons, or navy sleeves, or splashes of yellow, or tyre-track swooshes, they never ever defeated us.

In that period, my personal favourites would be :

  1. 2015/2016 – no League title for you Tottenham.
  2. 2001/2002 – a perfect Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink hat-trick.
  3. 2005/2006 – the William Gallas thunderbolt on the day we remembered Ossie.

In 2017/2018, we had enjoyed – I think – marginally the better of the first-half. The highlight of the early part of the game was a fantastic and flowing move which began deep inside our own half and developed through the middle with exceptional passing and movement. Willian’s effort was well saved by Hugo Loris. It had been an even start to the game, but Chelsea carved out more threatening chances. A volley from Marcos Alonso was flagged for offside and I had to cut short my celebrations. Spurs had a lot of the ball, but we seemed to have the better chances. On the half-hour, a perfect cross from Victor Moses picked out Alvaro Morata, and with Loris at sixes, sevens, eights and nines, the Spanish striker guided the ball down and in.

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The stadium erupted.

“GET IN YOU FUCKER.”

Alan, watching at home on TV in South London – unable to attend due to a broken shoulder – soon texted.

“THTCAUN.”

I replied “COMLD.”

Chelsea were in full voice for a while, but the away fans were noisy too.

That risible Spurs song kept getting an airing :

“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.

The thing I love most is being a knobhead.”

With Spurs giving us a high press, I was amazed how often Willy Caballero kept playing the ball short, inviting Spurs on. It made no sense. With a few minutes of the half remaining, I whispered to Glenn; “I am worried every time Eriksen gets the ball.”

With an added two minutes of extra-time signalled, Moses down below us failed in an effort to clear. The ball was pushed square to that fucker Eriksen, who lived up to my dreaded expectations, and thumped a dipping shot up and over the strangely stranded Caballero.

OH FUCK IT.

Just before half-time, our world had taken a definite turn for the worse. There were knowing glances throughout the half-time break.

The second-half was as tough a forty-five minutes that I can remember. I noted that in the first few minutes, our resolve to win the ball had left us. N’Golo Kante was putting in his usual exceptional shift, but Tottenham looked at ease with the ball, and began dominating. Eriksen as ever was in the middle of it, but we were giving him too much space and respect. We looked over-run in midfield. Fabregas was there to create, but how we needed another ball-winner. I remembered how impressive David Luiz was in a deep role at Wembley in August. We had to thank Caballero for a stunning flying save from Son. On the hour, calamity. A long ball from Eric Dier was chased by Dele  – our central defenders nowhere – and the horrible little bastard took a sublime touch, sweeping the ball in off the near post. His run down to Parkyville – his ear cupped – was one of the worst moments in recent memory.

The Spurs support roared and roared and roared.

Six minutes later, we could hardly believe how the ball was not cleared – not once but twice – in our six-yard box, and Alli struck again.

“Oh…when…the…Spurs…”

This was hideous stuff.

I was reminded of my second-ever Tottenham game. November 1978, Tommy Langley scoring with an overhead kick, but Spurs coming back to win 3-1.

And one song ringing in my ears all afternoon.

“We are Tottenham…from the Lane.”

Ugh.

Sadly, rather than get behind the team and roar them on – I remembered being 3-1 down to them in a FA Cup tie in 2007 and Kalou getting an equaliser late on – our response was sadly tepid. There were only a few half-chances from us in the resulting twenty-five minutes, and we struggled to break down an obdurate Tottenham defence. The manager Antonio Conte took so long to make any changes. The introduction of three, so late, did not pay dividends. In the last ten minutes, home supporters left in their droves. And it made me feel quite sick.

It was not to be. The run was over.

There would be post mortems for hours on end.

As we drifted, silently, down the Fulham Road, I heard a couple of Chelsea fans chatting behind me. They spoke about the dreaded half-and-half scarves – aka “friendship scarves” – which usually sell for a tenner before the game, and the hawkers and grafters usually knock them out for a fiver after games. Well, on this particular day of days, punters were paying twenty quid for them. And it would certainly not be Chelsea who were buying them.

I had a stifled laugh to myself.

Does it really mean that much, Tottenham?

On the first day of April, they were the fools after all.

But all was quiet on the car drive home. There is much to think about as we head into the final period of the season. It looks like the Champions League will be beyond us, but there are points to fight for in the league and an FA Cup Final to reach too.

Amid all the calamitous negativity of “soshal meeja”, I could not help but note a few supporters utter the ridiculous words “I can’t wait for the season to end.”

What tripe.

I’ll have their spare Cup Final tickets if they don’t fancy it.

See you next Sunday.

Tales From A Day Of Heroes

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 5 November 2017.

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

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

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

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

With a smile, I went on my way.

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

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

But we lived in hope.

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

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

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

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

I turned to PD and Parky and rolled my eyes.

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

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

“Immerse Me In Your Splendour.”

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

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

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

“Chelsea Supporters Will Remember Them.”

The place filled to capacity.

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

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

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

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

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

This was just right.

“I, I will be king.

And you, you will be queen.

Though nothing will drive them away.

We can beat them, just for one day.

We can be heroes, just for one day.”

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

Just enough.

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

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

Silence.

Not a sound.

Perfect.

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

I turned once again to football.

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

The game began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Although I had not been drinking, I soon exclaimed –

“Kante I fucking love you.”

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

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

“Viva John Terry.”

A rare shot from Lukaku was saved by Courtois.

I was really in to this game.

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

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

United sang “Twelve Days Of Cantona.”

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

“Carefree, wherever you may be…”

Deafening stuff.

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

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

What a load of cock.

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

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

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

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

Pandemonium in SW6.

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

What a moment.

Not long after, The Bridge was in unison.

“Super Chelsea FC…”

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

“Rudi, Rudi, Rudi.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

We held our breath.

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

“What a save.”

Still chances came and went.

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

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

It came to nothing.

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

Crisis. What fucking crisis?

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Tales From Sunshine On A Rainy Day

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 9 September 2017.

With the international break behind us – I watched a total of around ten whole minutes from England’s two matches – we were thankfully back to proper football; football that means something, football that raises our spirits, football that brings us all together. An away game at Leicester City was in fact just what the doctor had ordered. From my home in the South-West of England, my route would take me right into the heart of England, mainly following the course of the old Roman road The Fosse Way, and through some achingly beautiful countryside. A perfect road trip lay ahead. It would, in fact, be our first domestic game outside London since the league championship clincher at West Brom last May. And it was an ideal game to get back into the swing of things; difficult but not insurmountable. However, the month of September would be a testing time for sure, with seven games lined-up, and it seemed that the football season was beginning to heat up.

Our visits to the King Power Stadium over the past few seasons have tended to be defining moments in each campaign. In 2014/15, a dominant performance and a 3-0 win set us up for the league clincher four days later. In 2015/16, a dismal evening of “betrayal” and a 1-2 defeat resulted in the sacking of Jose Mourinho the following day. In 2016/17, Antonio Conte declined the services of Diego Costa and with vultures gathering overhead, a potentially huge banana-skin was avoided as another 3-0 victory pushed us away from the pack and towards an eventual second title in three seasons.

Of course, that Leicester City were the surprise champions in that middle season, and that N’Golo Kante and now Danny Drinkwater, had since swapped the royal blue of Leicester for the royal blue of Chelsea added a certain extra piquancy to the game.

The Chuckle Brothers were buzzing for it.

Our journey had taken us from Somerset to Wiltshire to Gloucestershire to Warwickshire and to Leicestershire. We had set off with sunny skies overhead, but with warnings of scattered showers throughout the day. We stopped for a pint at a pub at Charlecote, just off the Fosse Way, and soon into our hour-long drive in to Leicester, the heavens opened. What a downpour. The surface water made driving difficult. Thankfully, the storm soon passed and although huge billowing clouds were gathering on the horizon, the remaining miles were covered with no further rain. As we parked up at our usual place on Shakespeare Street – William, not Craig –  the sun was out and warming the air. Coats were worn, but rather reluctantly.

We were soon inside the away end.

“Time for a quick beer, Parky?”

We had chatted about the possible starting eleven on the journey, and the team that Antonio Conte chose contained few surprises.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Pedro – Morata – Fabregas

The Chelsea crowd, three-thousand strong in the corner, seemed full of voice as the minutes ticked down to kick-off.

An extended toot of the fox hunter’s horn sounded and the teams appeared. There was disdainful chatter about Everton’s “dirty grey” shirts a fortnight ago, but our “white” away colours hardly look pristine. The shirts and shorts were decidedly off-white. Only the socks looked crisp. It just looked odd.

Leicester City, in all blue these days, were on the back foot in the first few moments of the game. A forceful run from Bakayoko set up the prowling Morata, who steadied himself before curling a shot at Schmeichel. We looked impressive, and there was some good early pressure. A superb ball from Fabregas, playing a little deeper than his usual position – maybe it was a different formation that I had thought – released Morata but the ball did not drop favourably, allowing a smothering save from the Leicester City ‘keeper.

A new song – for me anyway, though I suspect others have been aware of its presence – swirled around the away section.

“Marcos. Marcos Alonso runs down the wing for me.”

I approved, and joined in.

Another new song then appeared from the ether.

“He came from Real Madrid. He hates the fuckin’ yids.”

My heart sank. It sank further as I looked around and spotted, sadly, hundreds joining in.

Suffice to say, I did not.

I whispered to Alan :

“Well, that will get a load of people nicked.”

That word is just not welcome at Chelsea games. Its presence shocked me to be honest. Over the past few seasons the Chelsea crowd has almost policed itself and kept that word to a minimal level. I remember back to around 2006 or 2007 when “The Bouncy” first appeared en masse at Chelsea. Originally a Rangers song, its first edition at Chelsea included the “Y” word. Over a couple of seasons, this was replaced and the set up was changed to “we’re gonna bounce in a minute.” It was an intelligent way of changing the focus. There is another famous Chelsea song that begins “We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea” but I always stop myself from singing the next line after “Barcelona, Real Madrid…”

I know some sing it. I choose not to. I just don’t fancy getting CCTV’d singing that word.

People can bleat as much as they like about Tottenham singing it. That is simply their choice, their concern, their problem. There is a strong argument about that club now using it in a positive light as a defence mechanism after decades of negativity from outside. There are easy parallels within the black community and the equally divisive “N” word. And I do feel slightly queasy about non-Jewish Spurs fans singing it. But my thoughts are that Chelsea fans should not even be thinking about using the “Y” word, especially with our sadly dubious record with racism over the decades, let alone be singing it.

As I looked around at our support joining in, giggling, I wondered if the camera might be turned on them. Beside the use of the “Y” word, it is a pretty dull song anyway. And it doesn’t really scan. There are too many syllables for a start; always a bugbear of mine. Chelsea fans from the US especially – bless’em – seem to have immense difficulty with this. They seem to love shoe-horning too many syllables into any standard song.

Alan quickly came up with an alternative.

“He came from Real Madrid. I’m glad he fucking did.”

I laughed.

I offered an alternative.

“We bought him from Madrid. For sixty million quid.”

It scanned. The right number of syllables. It rhymed. No offensive racial slur.

It’ll never catch on.

The game continued with Chelsea dominating possession. Kante – who was warmly applauded by the home fans before the game when his name was announced – patrolled the middle of the pitch, with Bakayoko providing a fine foil alongside. We pinged the ball around nicely. Morata looked at ease, with a lovely first touch. He brought others into the game well and it was a pleasure to see. Alonso offered great width down the left. Indeed, as the game progressed it honestly seemed that we had an extra man on the pitch, which is always a good sign. Rudiger again impressed, as if he has been playing for Chelsea for years, not weeks.

A Luiz free-kick produced an easy save for Schmeichel. Our attacks continued. The Leicester defence was being continually stretched.

Leicester are always a threat on the break though. The once impressive Mahrez – I am surprised that he is still playing for them – played in Jamie Vardy. His rapid shot thankfully screamed past the far post. If memory serves, he scored from a similar position in 2014. Another chance fell to the home side but thankfully Thibaut Courtois parried the shot from Islam Slimani.

With half-time beckoning, an intense rain shower forced some to don jackets, though some headed inside for cover. Under my hood, I watched as a fantastic cross from Cesar Azpilcueta picked out Alvaro Morata. The cross was right on the money. Morata leaped and seemed to hang in the air. He headed it past Schmeichel.

GET IN.

It was a suitable reward for those who had stayed in the stands.

Thankfully, the rain subsided as the second-half began. After five minutes, a Chelsea move developed but my attention was on Morata, twisting and turning and trying to get away from his hefty marker Maguire. Out of nowhere, a shot flew past Morata and Maguire and miraculously crept in at the far post, past a late dive from the ‘keeper. I had not seen who had struck it, so imagine my surprise when I looked over to see players running towards that man Kante, who – typically – was not celebrating at all. Kudos to him for that.

With Chelsea winning 2-0, the pressure seemed to be off, and our third win on the bounce was on the cards.

On the hour, my attention was again diverted. Over on the far side, new signing Danny Drinkwater was warming up on the touchline, and as far as I could see he was getting a pretty good reception from his former fans. I had predicted, perhaps, a slightly more acerbic reception. A roar then went up from the home stands, and I saw the referee pointing to the spot. Vardy slammed it past Thibaut.

Leicester City 1 Chelsea 2.

The game changed.

We had to hold on to our lead for around half-an-hour.

Pedro, one of our quietest players, was replaced by Willian.

Antonio Conte then replaced Moses with debutante Davide Zappacosta.

I whispered to Alan : “It’s always good to have a Frank in the team.”

The changes disrupted our play a little, and Leicester enjoyed more of the ball. For a while, we were on the receiving end of a little pressure and the mood grew tense in the away end, or at least in my row. We did not help ourselves. A lot of our play seemed sloppy and our choices of pass seemed to be off-kilter.

A big cheer greeted the sight of Eden Hazard replacing Cesc Fabregas. He immediately lifted us. Just to see him caress the ball, and look up, assessing options, was enough to warm us. He began on the left but then appeared down in front of us on the right. For a while, it was all of the play was nicely in front of us. Zappacosta was involved, but looked a little nervous. He seemed to take forever to settle himself for a shot but the ball was drilled wide.

Leicester had rung the changes at the start of the half with King and Gray coming on and Craig Shakespeare then introduced the former City striker Iheanacho with fifteen to go. They kept pushing for a goal. I was convinced that we would let in an equaliser. But we were still pushing ourselves. I had a brief thought that a Mourinho team of around 2005 would be just moving the ball around the back four for minutes on end. There was an appeal for handball by Maguire from a Morata header. Willian curled one just past the post. There was another save from the same player as the game reached its conclusion.

There was an element of relief at the final whistle. Phew.

It had been a workmanlike performance, peeking in the first-half, but it was one which confirmed the aberration of the first forty-five minutes of the season. This is a fine team, and we will surely enjoy a fine season. The players – all of them, well done – came over to thank us for our support. I predictably focused on the manager. There was the usual applause for us, but with a straight face, quite solemn. He knew we had eked out a good win, but there was still room for improvement.

A good day at the office? Oh yes.

But the month of September has only just begun and we have a heavy schedule.

On Tuesday evening, Champions League football thankfully returns to SW6.

I will see some of you there.

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Tales From The Cup

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 13 March 2017.

Here was my mindset for this game.

“An evening game on a Spring weekday. This almost feels like a European home game. We are so used to those in March, April and May. Manchester United at home in the FA Cup. But it’s all about the League this season. This game feels odd. Whisper it and with caution, but it almost feels like an inconvenience. It’s not my fault that the FA Cup has lost its gloss. Blame the FA for that. Semi-finals at Wembley. The final being played during the season. The final being played on the same day as league games. The final being played at 5.30pm. Wembley Stadium has lost its appeal and it has lost its mystique. Wembley being used for the play-off finals. Wembley hosting Arsenal and Tottenham’s European games. We can also blame the Champions League and the shift in prestige to that competition. We can blame the FA for belittling the FA Cup with sponsorship and commercialism. We can even blame Chelsea too. We have won it in four of the new Wembley’s ten finals. The rush of adrenalin that used to accompany those 1997, 2000 and 2002 FA Cup runs seem an ancient memory. Blame our success.”

But this was Manchester United and Jose Mourinho. Plenty of anticipation there, right?

“Yes, of course.”

This game almost seemed more about beating United – and Mourinho – than the FA Cup.

After a torrid day at work, there was the release of getting away, and driving to my freedom. But the worry of work, I will freely admit, stayed with me throughout the evening. I had been swamped at work the previous Monday, and it was the sole reason why I was reluctantly forced to miss my third game of the season against West Ham United.

Our pre-match was well away from Stamford Bridge, in The Colton Arms near Queens Club. I remembered that our one previous visit was before the crazy 3-3 with United on an icy day in early 2012, with Villas-Boas (remember him?) still in charge. Two pints of “Birra Moretti” went down well. The pub was cosy and it was good to momentarily unwind for a while. There were brief memories of other FA Cup games with United at Stamford Bridge. The horrid memory of being 0-5 down to them in 1998 still haunts me to this day.

We bumped into some pals on the walk to the stadium.

“Seen any United?”

“None.”

“Wonder where they are drinking. Up in town, maybe. Six thousand of the buggers. They will be noisy tonight, alright.”

The four of us made our way in to the stadium.

PD, Alan, Walnuts and myself.

As we reached our seats, there were plumes of dry ice wafting around the touchlines.

“Fuck knows what all that is about.”

I looked towards The Shed, and there they all were. The dark wall of United’s away support, with only occasion hints of scarlet. The banners were out in force.

“Edinburgh Reds.”

“Bring On United.”

“Mockba 2008.”

“Buxton Reds.”

“Jose Mourinho’s Red Army.”

“I may be a wage slave on Monday but I watch United when they play.”

I knew of course that they would be in good voice. Even the truest bluest Chelsea supporter, blue-tinted spectacles and more, must surely acknowledge that United’s away support ranks right up there in terms of noise, variety of songs and balls out swagger. The massed ranks of United from near and far were already making a din. I recalled previous eras. The Red Army of the ‘seventies. The Cockney Reds and the Inter City Jibbers of the ‘eighties. The Men in Black. The whole story. On a night of Conte and Kante, six thousand similarly-named fuckers were making their presence felt in The Shed. There is, of course, a great irony when Chelsea fans around the world take the piss out of United fans not living in Manchester. I knew of at least three Chelsea fans from the US who were in the stadium. I used to dislike – is hate too terrible a word? – United more than any other, but other clubs nurture strong feelings of contempt too, and for different reasons.  But although I still have little time for United fans who watch only from their living rooms, I have a grudging respect for those who go, support, sing and bawl.

The news of the team had filtered through to us. A strong team for sure. A team based on the League campaign. But no room for Pedro nor Cesc.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill – Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso – Willian, Costa, Hazard.

There was no Ibrahimovic and that was a good thing. Although he has surprised me with his prowess this season, I still loathe him and it irritates the bejesus out of me when fellow Chelsea supporters call him “Zlatan” or “Ibra”. Less of the sycophancy you fucknozzles. He is not our player.

Rashford was playing up front instead and 35,000 Chelsea fans yawned at another Mourinho mind game.

There was the now familiar darkening of the lights and the Stamford Bridge lighting technicians put on a show for the sell-out crowd and the watching millions – we hoped – at home.

I remembered back on the Chelsea vs. Manchester United match in October when – long in to the game – I suddenly realised that I had not purposefully looked over to Jose Mourinho once. On this occasion, soon into the game, I watched both managers in their technical areas, and I realised how our affections have done a 180 degree turn as dramatic as those of Eden Hazard.

The king is dead, long live the king.

There is something classic about the blue, blue, white and the red, white, black of a Chelsea versus United game. In all their visits, I have never known United to wear anything else. Both of the Adidas kits were festooned with the biggest numbers seen on sports jerseys since the 1970’s Irish rugby team.

In the opening quarter, United seemed on top. They were more dynamic, more focussed. They moved the ball well. A very early chance for Rojo was headed over. Then Mkhitaryan went wide. The fans around me were on edge.

The United fans were standing and singing.

There was a “Na na hey hey” from them – not heard that one before – and a “Hey Jude” from us.

It was up to our creative genius to single-handedly get us involved. A sublime turn – on a sixpence – from Eden Hazard left Smalling wondering why and how he ever left Fulham. Eden sprinted away, with defenders fearful of diving in, and he skipped deep in to the box. His low drive was ably finger-tipped away by De Gea. The noise followed as the dormant Stamford Bridge crowd awoke.

“What a run.”

From Willian’s corner, Gary Cahill did well to change shape to connect. The ball seemed destined to go in, but De Gea again clawed it away. It was a stunning save.

We were back in this now, and our play vastly improved. There was a beguiling battle between the lofty Pogba and Kante, our diminutive destroyer of dreams, if only in terms of physicality. It seemed Kante was on top throughout.

United seemed to be intent on fouling our men whenever the chance arose. Herrera was booked, but the tackles still came thick and fast.

Eden Hazard fired over. He was our main threat. United knew it.

Jones crashed into Hazard, and we were amazed that a booking did not follow. With the crowd still baying, Herrera then quickly fouled Eden from behind, and the noise level increased. The referee Michael Oliver had clearly had enough and the second yellow for Herrera was quickly followed by a red.

“Off you go, knobhead.”

The Stamford Bridge crowd roared.

I looked over at Mourinho, and there was that familiar false smile as if to say “I know what you are all doing, it’s all a big conspiracy.”

There had been loud cries of “Fuck Off Mourinho” from the home areas already in the game. I cringed when I heard that to be honest. He’s not our favourite grouchy Portugueser right now, but that was not warranted.

Mkhitaryan was replaced by Fellaini. Walnuts bellowed “Hair Bear Bunch” and I giggled. It’s something when you are known for your hairstyle rather than your footballing abilities. Isn’t that right, Paul Pogba?

This was turning into a compelling game of football, but even during the match, work concerns kept flitting in to my head.

“Concentrate on the football you twat.”

The half ended with us well in control but I wondered if the reduction in their numbers would make United even more difficult to break down, as is so often the case. Courtois had hardly been forced to make a save. Moses was full of running and Willian full of ingenuity.

In the concourse, I watched a TV screen to see that Frank Lampard, among others, was discussing Mourinho and Conte coming together after the sending off. It felt odd that Frank was so close, but yet so far away.

I watched as Peter Houseman was remembered during the half-time break – it would soon be the fortieth anniversary of his tragic death – as his sons and grandsons walked the pitch. I remembered their last appearance; was it really ten years ago?

“One Peter Houseman, there’s only one Peter Houseman.”

I always thought that he never ever looked like a footballer. In the age of sideburns and moustaches, long hair and fringes, Peter Houseman looked like a librarian, a draughtsman or a geography teacher, bless him.

Not long in to the second-half, with Chelsea attacking the Matthew Harding, N’Golo Kante – finding himself involved in an attacking position quite frequently now – steadied himself and, although with Pogba close by, rattled a low strike past De Gea’s dive. The ball nestled in the corner and we went doolally.

“YES.”

We bristled with fine play for a while, moving the ball from wing to wing, intent on tiring United.

Then, a potential calamity. David Luiz jumped and mistimed a clearance, leaving Rashford with acres of space. He advanced, steadied himself, and I was convinced that he would level it. His low shot was blocked by Thibaut.

“Fantastic save.”

Chelsea created chance after chance as the half progressed. We were relentless. Dave had two long-range efforts. Willian went close. Costa headed wide from close-in. At one stage I had to remind myself that Pogba was even on the pitch. United were – cliche warning – chasing shadows by now, but I was very wary that one goal would change things dramatically. With another hard day at work on the Tuesday, I obviously feared extra-time, penalties, then getting home at 2am.

United created nowt.

Everyone in the media seems to be fawning over Mourinho’s United of late – I would say that, wouldn’t I? – but there doesn’t seem to be too much identity in the United team at the moment. And there doesn’t seem to be too much steel nor too much style either. It is a very sub-par United team compared to the ones of previous eras such as those of 1994, 1999 and – fuck – 2008.

Conte replaced Willian with Cesc Fabregas. We hoped he could open up the close spaces in and around the United box. There was one United attack of note remaining; Fellaini rose to an insane height and headed down, but Pogba could not pounce.

Conte replaced the tireless Moses with Zouma, and then Costa with Batshuayi. The four minutes of injury time only delayed United’s exit.

The final whistle went and we were through to our twelfth FA Cup semi-final in the past twenty-four seasons.

In the first of those (Wolves 1994, detailed only recently), we invaded the pitch and were euphoric. In 2017, we clapped, put our hands in our pockets, and exited.

Sigh.

Not far down the Fulham Road, we learned that we had been paired with Tottenham in the semi-finals.

My immediate thoughts were of dread – “imagine losing to that lot, is hate too strong a word?” – but then I let reality sink in.

“We’re by far the best team in English football this season. Why worry?”

After a customary cheese burger with onions at “Chubby’s Grill”, I grabbed PD by the arm and said –

“On to Saturday, now, and a bigger game. Stoke away in the league.”

Suddenly, the league became the important focus again.

I reached home at 1am, and briefly watched a post-match interview with the Manchester United manager, who – in all seriousness, with no hint of irony – claimed that Paul Pogba had been, unequivocally, the best player on the pitch.

Well, well, well.

I just had one solitary thing to say to that :

“Fuck off, Mourinho.”

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Tales From A Simple Saturday

Chelsea vs. Burnley : 27 August 2016.

Oh dear. How soon people forget. It wasn’t long into the journey to Stamford Bridge that – despite our struggles against most teams last season – I was heard to comment that I expected us to easily win our game against Burnley, despite their recent surprising 2-0 win against Liverpool. This was based on the assumption that our manager Antonio Conte had managed to reverse the malaise of the previous campaign, which in itself was based on a handful of pre-season games, a narrow win against Bristol Rovers, and two equally close victories in two league games. Two league games. My – our, the other three Chuckle Brothers shared my view – new found optimism in all things Chelsea was, really, based on our performances in just two league games.

After such a troublesome season in 2015/2016, I wondered if my optimism was misguided. Was I overdosing on positive-thought? Surely, there are no games in the top division these days which should be taken as lightly as I evidently was taking this one? The others had predicted theirs scores, and I don’t usually join in with these parlour games. I jokingly retorted “7-0”, not wishing nor wanting to be taken seriously.

As the day unfolded, I was to find out if all of this new-found confidence in the manager and team was warranted.

There was something strikingly satisfactory about the game against Burnley. It would start up a three-day bank holiday weekend and it was a three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. There is just something about this; the traditional kick-off time for all football games in the United Kingdom before the TV companies got their grubby hands on the TV schedules, sending fans off around the country to witness ridiculous games at ridiculous times in ridiculous places.

3pm, Saturday, simple.

Glenn and myself had our own little pub-crawl before the game. We started off with a quiet drink in the newly re-opened “Wellington” on Haldane Road, tucked away behind the busy North End Road. We recently heard that the landlords at “The Goose” (our regular pub, in the main, since around 1999, apart from a few months of exile in “The Mitre” and the “Fulham Dray”), were to leave at the end of September and I suppose there will be a chance we will move on too, if the new incumbents do not run the pub in the way that we have been accustomed with Lorraine and Reg.

We spoke about the transfer policy of the club, or lack thereof.

I almost feel that everyone within the Chelsea Nation feels – roughly – the same way about all of this, so I have nothing much to gain from sharing my own particular views.

Ake, Bamford, Christensen, plus twenty-three others, an A to Z of confusion and mess.

I just hope that Kurt Zouma – the last on the A to Z, but the first in my mind – recovers as soon as possible this autumn. Most fans recognise that we need extra bodies in defence, but if Kurt can recover soon, and it is the biggest worry that he will not, we might – just might – be able to get through all of this without spending typically silly money on a panic buy. Daryl and myself spoke about this on Tuesday. This was before the promising Ola Aina had a knock.

I mentioned to Glenn it is the strangest thing that with all of our Italian managers, dating back to 1998, we have never bought a tried and tested Italian defender, apart from the short-lived and unsuccessful loan of Christian Panucci in 1999. You would have thought that an Italian manager at Chelsea would love a trusted defender from his own country. They know how to defend, those Italians.

In The Goose, there was a cast of thousands, seeping out from the bar and into the packed beer garden. There was the usual alcohol-induced banter, apart from me, a miserable bastard on “Cokes.” Daryl was knocking out a nice line in new Chelsea badges, while Gary was chatting away to two South London “sorts” and was the subject of much piss-taking.

“They’re from my area, Chris; Croydon.”

“Oh nice – are you talking about chip shops you all frequent?”

Wayne pointed at Gary and said “he’s quite the magnet, isn’t he?”

“Yeah,” I said. “You’ll always find him near a fridge.”

There were a few – around twenty – claret-and-blue clad away fans in the beer garden, minding their own business. We wondered if, given that the most away fans pay for away games is now £30, they would take their full 3,000 allocation.

Glenn and I also called in to “The Malthouse,” just as the team came through on our phones, before continuing our walk to the stadium. We had heard on the grapevine that the “Lillie Langtry” at West Brompton had recently re-opened, and I noticed that the pub on Fulham Broadway previously known as “Brogan’s” has re-opened, or re-branded as they say these days, as “McGettigan’s.” It is a pub that I have only ever visited once and I don’t know of anyone that goes there. Odd. I guess we all have our favourites. If “The Goose” fails to impress, we might need to find alternatives.

As for the starting-eleven, Antonio Conte had kept Oscar instead of Fabregas and this surprised me, especially after his assists at Watford.

Courtois.

Brana – Gary – JT – Dave.

Kante.

Willian – Matic – Oscar – Hazard.

Diego.

There were a few spots of rain as we waited in line at the turnstiles this would soon pass. Inside, a quick glance over to The Shed, and only 1,500 Burnley fans.

Oh well, I have to remember how small the town of Burnley actually is. It has a smaller population – 73,000 – than places such as Bath, Gloucester and Eastbourne.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, Neil Barnett said a few nice words about Ian Britton, who sadly featured in these match reports last season.

I applauded his memory but the vast majority decided not to.

Thankfully there were no flames being thrown up in to the air from in front of the East Stand as the teams emerged. I looked over to see if Roman Abramovich was present. He had watched the Rovers game on Tuesday, with Andre Shevchenko sitting a few seats in front, but he was not able to be spotted for this game.

“Typical JCL, picking and choosing his games.”

It was a perfect afternoon for football.

For the second successive home league game, our opposition was in claret and blue. We hoped that Burnley would go the way of West Ham.

The pre-match drizzle had given the pitch an extra zip, and we were soon celebrating. With the game not even ten minutes old, Nemanja Matic released Eden Hazard inside his own half. He had the entire right flank of Burnley’s defence at his mercy and he drove on in to acres of space. He teased and toyed with his markers, but effortlessly drifted inside with his trademark drop of the shoulder and softly curled a beautiful low shot beyond the dive of goalkeeper Tom Heaton. As the team gathered around him to celebrate, he was soon to thank Diego Costa for a run which took the attention of other defenders away from his own run. It was textbook stuff.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

We were then treated to a period of sumptuous football from Chelsea, if not a little over-indulgent on occasion. Both Willian, stopping, then darting past his marker, on the right, and Hazard, gliding with 2014/2015 ease past everyone, were the main stars going forward, but that man Kante soon impressed me with his energy, work rate and industry. It would turn out to be a masterclass from him.

Burnley were simply not in it.

Hazard again went close. A Gary Cahill volley, which reminded me of that scissor-kick goal from JT at The Shed a few years back, was deflected for a corner. Dave went close. A Terry header was at Heaton.

With Kante anchoring the midfield, Matic was able to move further up the field. He needs to be teased out of his defensive shell. He needs support from everyone to reach his 2014/2015 level, when he was magnificent. Maybe we can help him. Support him. Cheer him on. That’s our job, right?

Fair play to their fans, though. From mid-way through the first-half for a good fifteen minutes, they supported their team well. They sang non-stop, presumably about the hated Blackburn Rovers, and it was a fine performance. I didn’t catch much of it, nor – more to the point – was able to decipher it, save for their most famous song.

“And it’s no nay never.

No nay never no more.

Till we play Bastard Rovers.

No never no more.”

I am sure that all of the other songs and chants uttered in thick Lancastrian were similarly aimed at the fans and players of Blackburn Rovers.

Songs about how the Burnley Womens’ Institute regularly get more gold medals in the Lancashire frock making competition than that of Blackburn. Chants about how the “Pig and Whistle” darts team in Burnley whip the arse of Blackburn’s “Red Rose” pub every year. Ditties extolling the virtues of the fair maidens of Burnley as opposed to the gin-addled whores of Blackburn. It’s a local vibe in that part of East Lancashire, alright.

Fantastic play between Willian and Oscar set up Diego, who shot low, and Heaton was able to parry. There was a little frustration, certainly within me, that our domination – total – was not being rewarded. Thankfully, we were soon to be rewarded with a deserved second goal. Diego had time to play a lateral ball out wide to Willian, who quickly assessed the situation. He moved the defender out of his way with a shake of the hips, then guided a low shot towards Heaton’s far post. It was a beautiful goal. It was what we had deserved.

Bloody lovely stuff, Chelsea.

Burnley – let me say – had been poor and it was not until the forty-second minute that they attempted a shot on goal. Scott Arfield, who had scored against us on that drizzle-filled day in Burnley in 2014 – ah that pass from Fabregas to Schurrle still warms me – banged in a low shot which fizzed past Thibaut Courtois’ far post.

At the break, all was well. We had played some sumptuous stuff at times. It could easily have been 4-0 at the break. Maybe my “7-0” would not be such a stupid remark after all.

As the second-half began, it was more of the same. High intensity everywhere across the midfield, and constant forays into the Burnley defence. Burnley were twisted this way and that. They probably didn’t know what day of the week it was. Diego failed to hit the corners of the goal after a fine passing move found him in the box. Heaton, a fine young goalkeeper, kept thwarting our efforts with a few fine saves. From a pin-point Willian corner, Hazard volleyed at goal, but Heaton saved well, down low, after probably seeing the ball late. John Terry blazed over, from inside the six-yard box, and we all wondered “how.”

Hazard broke in on goal once more, but another fine Heaton save, damn it.

Kante continued to impress during the second-half. It seems sacrilegious to even write these words, but this small, slight player, so much like Makelele in many respects, could even turn out to be a better player than our former midfield legend. I have mentioned it previously, but I love the way he wastes not one second of time in moving the ball on. He covers space, he tackles, he blocks, he hustles, he harries, he chases, he destroys. He is bloody magnificent.

Typically, a mere minute after I said to Alan “Kante has not put a foot wrong all day” he miss-played a simple pass to Diego.

The exception that proves the rule? Possibly.

With the end of the match approaching, I could hardly believe that Burnley had managed to keep it to 2-0. There was the usual flurry of late changes. With Willian having played well all game, he was given a good ovation when he was replaced by Victor Moses. Soon after Michy Batshuayi and Pedro replaced Diego and Hazard; much applause for them too.

Batshuayi made room for himself well, but blasted over, wildly. He needed ice in his veins at that last crucial moment. It looked like a third goal would be elusive.

At the death, I applauded the fact that Mark Clattenburg – never flavour of the month at any time of the year – allowed play to continue after a late challenge on Oscar by Tarkowski. Batshuayi played the ball out to a raiding Pedro. Burnley were wide-open.

“We’ll score here” I whispered to Alan.

A few touches from Pedro, and a perfect ball was played towards the on-rushing Moses, who prodded the ball home perfectly.

Alan and myself, smiles as wide as the gaps in Burnley’s defence, looked at each other with glee.

Three goals, three points and a perfect day.

It seemed that my pre-match concerns about being overly-confident were wide of the mark. Burnley, for all their huff and puff, were poor. They did not have a single effort on target the entire game. Thibaut has surely never had an easier day at the office.

Although the noise from the home sections did not match the quality of football on the pitch, thankfully Chelsea did not bother with that Conte chant from Watford – hopefully resigned to a place in the list of “Chelsea One Hit Wonders” – and Burnley, God bless’em – didn’t do a Billy Ray Cyrus.

There was another feel-good vibe as we slipped back to our car. Parky was even waiting for us on Lillie Road with a pizza for us to share.

Three games, nine points, simple.

Top of the league, having a pizza.

Good times in SW6.

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