Tales From The Top In The Middle Of England

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 20 November 2021.

After the away game on Tyneside, I was going to miss the trip to Malmo, and so my next planned game was going to be Burnley at home. Then, sadly, I tested positive for COVID and was forced into self-isolation for ten days. I was lucky though. My symptoms were similar to a mild head cold, and I was easily able to work from home for a week. I was back into work, and the office, last Monday. The International break could not have happened at a more convenient time.

Instead of Chelsea, two games at Frome Town – the first before I tested positive, the second after I tested negative – gave me my football kick. The home games against Barnstaple Town and Plymouth Parkway were won 9-2 and 1-0, thus cementing my local team’s undefeated position at the top of the Southern League Division One South. When I am either unable or unwilling to attend Chelsea games in the future – I think I know deep down that it is coming – at least I have an exit strategy. But let’s not dwell too much on that right now.

Leicester City – away – was now primed for my first Chelsea game in three weeks.

I set the alarm for 5.45am. Many others throughout the Chelsea Nation had equally early starts. All over Facebook, two words dominated.

“And Leicester.”

The idea was to collect PD at 7.30m, then Parks, and arrive at our usual spot just off Saffron Lane to the south of the King Power Stadium at around 11am.

Obviously I had not seen the two lads for a while. Like me, PD had succumbed to a mild variant of COVID since Newcastle. Parky had experienced a more painful COVID not long after Belfast and was still suffering, a little, from long COVID.

Sadly, Parky had lost his ninety-three-year-old mother last Monday. As I picked him up at 8am, we both shook his hand and offered him words of comfort.

Outside, there was drizzle in the air.

At Melksham, a breakfast, and then the drive straight up the Fosse Way to the middle of England. Although the roads were fringed with autumn colours, there was a grey murkiness outside. The Fosse Way remains my favourite road for an away game, though not on this occasion.

Although this would be my first Chelsea game for three weeks, I was suffering a little with a general malaise. Whether this was born out of my recent COVID attack – a re-focussing on priorities, maybe – I am not sure. In a nutshell, I was not as fired-up as I ought to have been. I just hoped that this feeling would turn out to be a little blip in my love of the game, of Chelsea, of this lifestyle.

I am fifty-six. I have seen over 1,300 Chelsea games. “We’ve won it all” (no, we haven’t). We won the European Cup last May in what turned out to be an emotionally-distanced cake-walk. That experience alone caused my brain to fry.

Clearly I am still struggling to get my pre-lockdown levels of passion, involvement, fanaticism – call it what you will – back.

Sigh.

I guess I am allowed the occasional off-day.

As I ate up the miles I was reminded of a drive up the Fosse Way, with my parents in early 1983, which was surely my most pointless journey ever. I was taking my “A Levels” in the June of that year and had applied to a few colleges, including Sheffield Polytechnic. As part of the process, I had to attend an interview up in South Yorkshire. The problem was that I was miss-firing in all three subjects and I was convinced that I wouldn’t get the necessary grades for a degree course in geography, nor did I particularly want to spend three years in Yorkshire should a miracle happen. The journey took forever. It was a bitterly cold day. The countryside was covered in the remnants of a snowfall. My poor Dad had taken a day off work to ferry me north. I hated every minute of the entire day.

What a waste of a day.

For the record; yeah, I did bomb my “A levels” but took them again in the November with a much better set of results.

1982/83 and 1983/84 were vastly different years for both myself and Chelsea Football Club.

I was parked up in Leicester at 11.05am and there would normally follow a trite remark from me about working in logistics.

I’m not one to disappoint.

It had been a mild start to the day in deepest Somerset, despite the drizzle, but things were a little colder in The Midlands. Not to worry, the fifteen-minute walk north warmed us a little and brought some colour to our cheeks. An elderly Leicester fan spoke to us for a few minutes.

“Chilwell is doing well, ain’t he? I didn’t rate him here.”

We were all soon inside the larger-than-usual concourse underneath the away stand. I spoke to a few friends and was happy to pass on the good news about my recent ill-health. I was getting back into the groove, step by step, fist bump by fist bump, handshake by handshake, smile by smile.

“Leicester away. What else yer gonna do on a Saturday?” or something like that.

We had far from great seats, sadly. Right in the corner, third row, even behind the goal line. One hundred and eighty degrees around the bowl of the stadium my friend Sally – former logistics colleague, I am sure her timings were bang on – was sat in the front row of The Kop, but in the corner too.

I expected a tight game. But hoped for a win.

“Absolute top pre-match analysis, that pal…fucksake.”

Romelu Lukaku was still unable to re-join the fold, but our starting eleven wasn’t half bad.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah

Chilweel – Kante – Jorginho – James

Hudson-Odoi  – Havertz – Mount

The teams entered the pitch on the far side. Our away kit of yellow-black-yellow was to make an appearance for the first time this season. I found it amazing that the club had decided not to parade it previously; it is not unknown for an away kit to be worn even when there isn’t a clash in colours. As the players lined-up, I spotted the geometric shapes from the blue kit monstrosity mirrored in a chest panel on some black tracksuit tops.

“Now that’s not bad. That I can warm to. Everything in moderation. Less is more.”

Only the previous evening, I had watched a BBC programme about Bridget Rily, a leading light in the Op Art movement in the ‘sixties, and I was – naturally – reminded of the abomination that has currently happened to our home kit, shudder.

Generally speaking, I appreciated the paintings of Op Art – I think all of us at Frome College dabbled in geometric shapes during our art class in 1978/79, “another crap season” – but what place does it have on a fucking football shirt?

Eh? Tell me.

As I watched on Friday, I had stumbled upon with a far more agreeable design. If – and I mean if – an homage to Op Art was of absolute necessity, then why not a simple panel of Zigger Zagger mayhem, but everything else plain? Certainly the shorts needed to remain plain.

Whoever ordained the geometric pattern on the home shorts needs shooting.

So, lo and behold, the panel of slip-sliding squares (the kitchen floor after a night of excessive alcoholic intoxication?) on the plain black top not only met with my approval but had me wondering if I was absolutely in the wrong job.

The game began, and Borussia Dortmund attacked Sally and The Kop.

Despite an early start, the away choir had clearly been on it. Alcohol-inspired community singing rang out from the 3,300 in the expansive away corner; the seats go a long way back at Leicester. There was a little jabbing from both sets of supporters, with our left-back a natural target for the home fans, but then an uppercut onto the chin of the home fans :

“Ben Chilwell’s won a European Cup.”

We began ever so brightly.

And, yeah, the away kit looks fine. Not particularly “Chelsea” but that doesn’t seem to matter one iota these days.

The first chance arose when Jorginho took a quick free-kick from the middle of the pitch. The perfectly-flighted ball out to the left hand side of the penalty box was met by that man Chilwell. A touch to control, but the shot smashed against the top of the cross bar.

“Alonso would’ve volleyed that.”

It was end-to-end stuff in the first ten minutes, with a couple of lightning quick Leicester raids causing us concern, but we were equally strong in our attacking third.

Just on the quarter of an hour, we won a corner in front of Sally on our right.

Alan : “Get your camera out. Rudiger likes corners up here.”

I smiled. Indeed he does. Only on the drive up, we remembered his two headers here in 2020, just before lockdown struck. No surprises that none of us could remember the result up here in 2020/21.

“If a tree falls in a forest, but nobody sees it fall, does it make a sound?”

My camera was poised.

A Chilwell corner. On the money. A leap from Rudi. Click. I watched the ball drop into the net.

“YES.”

We were back, I was back, Rudi was back, Alan was beaming and so was I.

“That’s going in your blog.”

Ha, what joy.

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

Chris : “ Come on my little diamonds.”

I was genuinely worried about this one. The Cup Final had been on my mind. But here we were a goal up already.

I found it odd that during the Chelsea choir’s early chants, the home fans did not respond with one song about the game in May.

“Did it mean nothing to you?”

The hero of that game, Kasper Schmeichel, made a super save from the unlikely boot of N’Golo Kante.

We were rampant.

Callum was clipped just as he was about to ping a shot on goal after cutting in from the left, and Mason Mount dipped the resulting free-kick over the wall but over the bar too.

A rare Leicester attack, and a tap in from Ademola Lookman, but the linesman’s yellow flag soon went up.

I looked over to the Chelsea section next to the home fans. In front, tied to the rails was a flag from Zurich and two from Bulgaria. My good friend Orlin, one of the strong Bulgaria contingent, had called by to say “hi” before the game. I last saw him in Porto, ah Porto. But I also spotted Jonesy, from nearby Nuneaton, in that section too. Over the course of the game, I spotted not only Jonesy, but Andy and Sophie – Porto, ditto – and also The Youth, Neil, Jokka and Chopper, all Nuneaton Chelsea. Good work everyone.

Leicester were nibbling away at us in the first part of the game, but the referee resolutely avoided bookings.

I liked the look of Jorginho, pushing the ball on as quickly as he could. Right from the off, Thiago Silva looked so cool, so calm, and his class immediately shone. Our passing was quicker and more incisive than is often the case. Our cross-field switches were inch-perfect. Havertz looked lively, Callum too. We were simply on top, in control, playing some gorgeous stuff.

Just before the half-hour mark, the ball was won on our right and pushed inside to Kante. He was allowed so much space and so simply did what anyone would; he advanced, and advanced, and advanced.

I watched as he took a swipe at the ball with his left foot. I’ll be honest, I did not immediately react. I – for some reason – thought the ball had drifted past the post and hit a supporting stanchion.  But no, the roars of the away fans told me that he had hit the target.

Fackinell.

I spoke to Gal : “Best we have played all season.”

We eased off a little as the break approached, but the singing certainly didn’t. Nobody can accuse us lot of only singing one song.

So many positive comments at the break. Lovely.

Brendan Rodgers made two substitutions at the break, and on came Maddison and Iheanacho. Edouard Mendy, not needed for most of the first-half, made a low save from Maddison, but the Chelsea attack were soon causing problems again. Hudson-Odoi did well and squirmed into the box before setting up Chilwell. Schmeichel made a magnificent save.

On the hour, Callum shaped well but curled one over the bar.

A double substitution from our manager.

Hakim Ziyech for Mount, Christian Pulisic for Havertz.

Mason had been one of our quietest performers I thought. Havertz had impressed. I was a little cautious.

…”mmm, two key players…the game ain’t won yet.”

The home team became a little stronger, and we had to rely on another stunning leap and save from our ‘keeper to foil a rising drive from Daniel Amartey. The home team dominated for a short period, but we were always a threat. The substitute Pulisic looked lively and went close from fellow substitute Ziyech’s cross. Both subs looked keen, looked energised, what do I know about football?

On seventy-one minutes, a wonderful quick break, with Leicester scampering around us, found Ziyech down in front of us on the right. A deft movement past a defender and the ball was played into space. Pulisic arrived with perfect timing and prodded the ball in.

3-0, game over.

Sadly, Jorginho was injured – replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, what a bench – and as he walked past us in the north-west corner, he was serenaded by all.

“That’s the World Footballer Of The Year, there, Gal.”

Those sorry days of Sarri are well behind him, and us, right?

Incredibly, we hit the back of the net on three further occasions late in the game, but the goals scored by Hudson-Odoi, Pulisic and James were all – rightly – chalked off for offside.

There was still time for another cracking save from our man Mendy.

I have commented of late that, despite our fine run of results, we seem to be several steps away from our potential. Well, this game hinted at that level. It reminded me of a game at Fulham in November 2004 when everything clicked and we began to seriously think about a league title.

It was a decent drive home, and we were cheered – to the point of laughter – at Manchester United’s 4-1 defeat at Watford.

Good old Claudio, eh? Loved at Chelsea, loved at Leicester and maybe Watford too.

We have a busy week ahead.

Juventus and Manchester United.

Do they get any bigger?

I will see some of you there.

Valerie Jayne Crespin : 24 April 1929 to 15 November 2021.

Goal One : Rudi’s Leap.

Goal Two : N’Goalo.

Goal Three : Teamwork.

Tales From Beneath The Whispering Gallery

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 19 September 2021.

I have said it before and I suspect that I will say it again and again; to me Tottenham is our biggest away game. It’s certainly the one that I look forward to more than no other. It has history. It has substance. It has animosity. It has hate. With Chelsea flying high, and Tottenham faltering, I couldn’t wait to set off for their new spanking stadium that soars over the more down-at-heel shops and houses on the Tottenham High Road and its associated neighbouring streets.

But first an FA Cup tie.

Yes, dear reader, this was another weekend of football that was to give me the twin gifts of League and Cup.

I assembled at Frome Town’s ground Badgers Hill for the 3pm kick-off on the Saturday for a game against National League South outfit Oxford City, a team that we had recently played in the same step of the football pyramid. Since then, the Hoops have advanced one step, while the Robins have descended one.

What transpired was a stunningly perfect afternoon of FA Cup football, played out under a mottled sky, warming sunshine and with a really gratifying attendance of almost six hundred spectators. Frome soaked up some steady pressure in the first-half and an Oxford goal was called back for offside. Two stunning breakaway goals by James Ollis and Joe O’Loughlin gave the home team a surprise 2-0 lead at the break. Frome then improved further, with more attacks, more efforts on goal. But just at the very moment that my mate Francis uttered the immortal words “they look like scoring” and I replied “you’re right” – they did.

Despite an increasingly nervous last quarter of an hour, manager Danny Greaves’ side held on to win 2-1.

My friend Steve, the newly-crowned club historian, believed this to be Frome’s first win in the Cup against a team two divisions higher than us since a 1984 win against Bath City.

So, into the Third Qualifying Round we go. I remember watching Frome Town play against Team Bath at the same stage around ten years ago; a 2-2 draw at home, a heavy 0-4 loss away, at Bath City’s Twerton Park.

We would await the draw on Monday with keen interest.

I collected PD and Parky at 9.15am on the Sunday morning and pointed my Chelsea Blue Chuckle Wagon eastwards. We tend to break up the journey with a Greggs breakfast – being on a diet ain’t easy with all of the miles we travel for football – just before the A303 meets the M3. The woman serving us at Popham Services – Eddie Large in drag – has got to know our ugly faces the past two seasons and there is usually a little football banter while we order baps, baguettes and slices. She’s a Liverpool fan. Yes, you can only imagine.

Just as I slid the car away, PD announced :

“Jimmy Greaves has died, then.”

Oh no. What sad news. I know that he had been ill for some time.

“Did he pass away today? Bloody strange if he did, what with Tottenham playing Chelsea.”

I ate up the miles, and we were parked up at Barons Court tube at 11.45am; as quick and as easy a journey in as I can remember. We would eventually hope to catch the 3pm over ground service from Liverpool Street up to White Hart Lane, but we didn’t particularly care to be surrounded by coke’d up wannabes in the pubs that cluster around that station for a few hours, drinking out of plastic glasses and under the eye of the OB. I fancied somewhere different. We changed from the Piccadilly to the Central at Holborn, then alighted at St. Paul’s.

We made “The Paternoster” our base for a couple of hours or so. In a break from the light drizzle and then steady showers, I sped outside for twenty minutes to take a few photographs of Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece. I looked up at the huge and impressive dome, and remembered tales of The Whispering Gallery. I had been past St. Paul’s Cathedral once or twice by bus in recent times, but the last time that I had actually stood outside it was on a family trip to London in 1981. While my parents and an aunt toured inside the cathedral, I just walked to Stamford Bridge. It seemed the most logical thing to do in the circumstances.

From one cathedral to another.

I can distinctly remember reading the Jimmy Greaves autobiography “This One’s On Me” around that same time and, thinking back, it was undoubtedly the first footballer’s autobiography that I ever read. I can remember reading how he hated his time in Milan after his forced move from Chelsea. His decline into alcoholism was quite harrowing for a sixteen-year-old to read.

I wasn’t going to have a single beer, but I bought a single “Peroni” to toast his memory.

“Oh, he did die today. How uncanny.”

There was a photograph on the internet of Jimmy Greaves, from around maybe fifteen years ago, being presented pitch side at Stamford Bridge. I must have been there, yet – alas – I have no recollection of it.

Outside, the rain, but only a few spots. At 2.40pm, we whizzed up to Liverpool Street, and then found an empty carriage at Liverpool Street for the last leg of the journey. It was the earliest that we would be arriving in N17 for ages. On the twenty-five-minute journey, PD surprised us all and began chatting to some Tottenham fans. Parky and I kept our silence. To be fair, they were decent lads and we wished each other well, although I am sure none of us fucking meant it.

I wanted to take a few photographs of the stadium, so excused myself. Let’s not waste any time here; the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is a stunner, an absolute beauty, surely the finest football stadium in Europe. That it sits cheek by jowl alongside the same fried chicken joints, nail shops, kebab houses and grimy pubs as the old White Hart Lane gives the place a very odd feeling, as uneven a setting as there is ever likely to be. It might be on The High Road, but it overlooks The Low Road.

Simple black and white images of Jimmy Greaves MBE appeared on the outside and inside of the stadium. His presence was everywhere. Again, how odd and yet fitting that he should pass away on the day of the derby between his two main teams. I was reminded of Dixie Dean passing away at Goodison during the Merseyside derby in 1980.

I whirled away, bumped into some Chelsea acquaintances from Bristol and New York on the High Road, then spun around to enter the away turnstiles in the north-eastern corner.

Just as I entered the away concourse, there was an almighty commotion and I couldn’t quite work out what was occurring.

United were winning 2-1 at West Ham, but there was a late penalty for the home team. Noble then missed. Bollocks.

How’s that for a match report?

This was Parky’s first visit to the new place. I looked at the towering South Stand and could hardly believe how high it extended.

The troops arrived.

Alan, Gary, Foxy and Drew from Dundee, Margaret and Pam, Calvin, Becky and Cath. There were a few chats with many of the usual suspects.

Turin dominated.

I had succumbed on Friday to a four-day trip to the home city of Juventus for our game in a couple of weeks’ time.

I chatted with Patrick, then Ali and Nick, then Alan, then Tim. There were differing levels of understanding of what testing and procedures were required. It would, no doubt, be a stressful time over the next week or so. Preparations for Porto proved to be a drain on my brain and I am sure Turin will be too.

“Mendy’s out.”

Bollocks.

The stadium filled. I couldn’t work out if the seats are all muted slate grey or a dull navy. Regardless, virtually all were filled. We were in row four, right down the front, not far from our spot in the 2019/20 season.

It shows how disconnected we were last season that neither Alan nor Gary nor myself could remember how we did at Tottenham last season.

“Draw, wannit?”

One of the former players being interviewed for the in-house TV Channel was Gary Mabbutt, his Bristol twang taking me back to when he used to play for Bristol Rovers, then Tottenham, then England.

Gary : “Good player, Mabbutt.”

Chris : “His father, Ray, used to play for Frome.”

The team was announced. Not only no Mendy, but no Kante either.

Kepa

Rudiger – Silva – Christensen

Dave – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Lukaku – Havertz

Just before kick-off, that same image of Jimmy Greaves appeared on the TV screens in the four corners of the stadium, high above the pitch. Both sets of fans roundly and solidly applauded his memory.

He was loved by the fans of both clubs and the whole of the football world.

Jimmy Greaves was the greatest ever goal scorer produced by the English nation.

I remembered that in 2019, Martin Peters – unlike Greaves, a player in the 1966 World Cup Final – was similarly remembered.

Glenn Hoddle appeared out of nowhere and was given a fine reception by the 3,000 Chelsea fans in the corner as he walked around the edge of the pitch.

The game began. Tottenham attacked our northern end. With them playing in navy socks this year, we were allowed to wear our white socks. I approved. I soon found myself being distracted a little by all of the constant messages being blitzed across the various balconies. Supporters clubs from all over the world were featured. One made me double-take.

Baku Spurs.

Baku? Bloody hell. Probably just one bloke with a Tottenham mouse mat.

There is no denying it. Tottenham were quicker out of the traps than us in the first quarter of the game. We plodded along, and struggled to link passes through our midfield, whereas the home team looked sharper and created a little more.

With the home crowd singing “Oh when the Spurs”, Tottenham were given a central free-kick. The singing continued as the build-up seemed to take forever. Harry Kane was to take it. The singing grew louder.

“Fuck, if he scores now, after that song as a pre-curser, this place will bloody explode.”

He hit the wall.

Phew.

A rapid break in the inside right channel involving Mason Mount got us on our toes – the rail seating is excellent at Tottenham, I was able to lean forward on many occasions – but after a messy one-two with Lukaku, the chance was spurned, pardon the pun.

This was a tight game, and the home team were edging it. Havertz looked out of sorts, and on too many occasions Tottenham were able to cut through us. However, the away support was full of all the old favourites which we love to air in this particular part of North London.

“We’re the only team in London…”

“We won 6-1 at The Lane…”

“And the shit from The Lane…”

Alas, the players were not as entertaining. Tottenham managed a few set pieces, but corners were steadfastly headed away by various defenders. It was all a little underwhelming. After Tottenham – players and fans alike – were found to be bellowing at any perceived Chelsea foul or piece of wrong-doing, the noise levels increased. Gary had his usual response.

“Fackinell. More appeals than Blue Peter.”

Kepa saved well at the feet of the raiding Son, and was injured. Thankfully he recovered. Then an errant back-pass by Rudiger had only just been despatched in time by Kepa. Only a couple of shots from distance – wide and blocked – were forthcoming from the Chelsea attack the entire half. Their ‘keeper Hugo Loris had hardly had a shot to save.

That would soon change.

I turned to Gary : “Well, they can’t play as well as that in the second-half.”

I returned a little late at the break and missed the restart.

“Kante on? Who’s off? Mount?”

As much as we all love Mason, he had not enjoyed a great half at all. In came our tigerish tackler to replace him. I couldn’t quite work out how the new addition would fit in alongside Jorginho and Kovacic, but soon into the second-half I didn’t care.

There soon followed a sublime piece of football that had me purring. Thiago Silva pinged a wonderful ball into space for the on-rushing Marcos Alonso. It cut out everyone. A trademark volley at an angle from the left wing-back was superbly saved by the cat-like reflexes of Loris.

“That’s more like it Chels. Come on!”

The Chelsea pressure mounted. A few corners were whipped in just in front of us by that man Alonso. One more corner was then aimed centrally, from the other side of the pitch, and the silver hair of Silva was seen to rise above all those around him and the ball flashed past Loris into the Tottenham goal.

FUCKINGGETIN.

The goal on film, I remained steady to capture his exuberant run towards the Chelsea fans who had now been let loose into a wild orgasmic frenzy of arms and legs, or “limbs” as the kids say. Such joy. Such happiness.

This is why we go to football.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Donna and Rachael suddenly appeared in front of us after having disappeared a few minutes before the break for some bevvies. They had missed the first goal. But they did not miss the second one. Just after Dier blocked a shot from Alonso on the goal-line, a shot from distance from N’Golo – it could only be termed, at its most optimistic, as “speculative” – took a wicked deflection off Dier. The ball spun goal wards, hit the base of the post nearest us, and we watched – eyes on stalks, balancing on toes – as the ball skewed itself over the line and into the goal.

Laugh? I almost bought a round of drinks.

Oh that was beautiful.

“Tottenham Hotspur, it’s happened again.”

Kante looked, of course, so bashful. Bless him.

Just twelve minutes into the second-half, and we were now well on top. The home fans were now completely muted.

The whispering gallery had been moved from inside the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral to the top tier at Tottenham.

One of the many messages flashed all over the LED displays on the balconies at Tottenham mentions the Spurs Skywalk. This takes the unfortunate supporter out onto the roof, where – if they look well – they can just make out the East Stand at Stamford Bridge, the home of the only club in London with not one, but two, European Cups.

I thought to myself :

“Those Tottenham players had best book themselves onto that skywalk. It’ll be the highest they will ever fucking get.”

Kante was everywhere and I mean everywhere. The whole team had been revitalised by his appearance at the start of the second period. Elsewhere, we suddenly had runners, and our attacking performance reached lovely levels.

A lone shot from the hidden, or hiding, Kane was well saved by Kepa. Silva, our man of the match, was foiled by Loris, who was easily the Tottenham man of the match. Yet more saves followed from Alonso – again! – and Timo Werner, a late substitute for Havertz. Lukaku enjoyed a late surge, running centrally on a few occasions at the disillusioned Tottenham defence, twisting and turning, turning defenders’ legs into jelly, Dier and Romeiro pleading for salvation, but Loris foiled both him and Kovacic. The Croatian was one of the stars of that second period. We were on fire.

If it had been the Bernabeu, white handkerchiefs would have been waved.

There was even time for a “Bouncy Bouncy” : how 2013.

Right at the end, with many of the home fans having decided that “enough was enough”, the ball was picked up and Timo Werner did ever so well to pull the ball back for Rudi to pick a corner and drill the ball in.

Tottenham 0 Chelsea 3.

The crowd erupted once more.

There was another ridiculously jubilant run by the scorer to our corner, and with Jorginho absolutely pissing himself, the photos were a joy to snap.

I turned to Gary again.

“We top?”

“Yeah.”

Parky and I met up with PD, who had enjoyed a great view in the back row of our section, and we slowly walked away from the ground. I overheard someone say “three league wins out of three here” – oh, it wasn’t a draw last season? – and maybe it is time to well-and-truly rename the new gaff Three Point Lane.

The Stadium.

The Game.

Us.

Our exit strategy was the same as at Christmas 2019; find a fast-food place for a chicken burger and wait for the crowds to disperse. We caught the 7.48pm train from White Hart Lane back into town, and the carriage was full of moaning Tottenham fans. A heavily made up woman with lips that looked like they had been filled with air was the main noisemaker :

“Right. I’ll say it. Don’t care. We are shit. We just gotta acclimatise ourselves into realising we ain’t that good.”

I looked at PD. Parky looked at me.

I whispered : “She’s got a point.”

Unlike Tottenham.

On we go, Villa next, see you there.

The End.

Tales From Porto : Part Two – Reach Out, Touch Faith

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2021.

Just as in Moscow in 2008 and Munich in 2012, I travelled the last few miles to the venue of the Champions League Final by tube. In Moscow, the carriage was full of noisy fans of both clubs. In Munich, the stifling air of the U-bahn made singing uncomfortable for the Chelsea fans who almost filled the entire carriage. This time, Charlotte and I stood the few miles in comfort as there was space to both talk and think. Only Chelsea fans were inside this carriage. We were on our way to Combatentes tube station to the west of the Dragao Stadium to the north east of the city centre. The Manchester City support would be heading to a different station. In Moscow, the Chelsea hordes were housed in the southern end of the Luzhniki Stadium. In Munich, we took our place in the three tiers of the Nord Kurv. In Porto, Chelsea would again be located at the northern end.

Charlotte and I, both from Somerset, continued our match day chat and touched on our early memories of going to games. Charlotte’s first game at Stamford Bridge was a 3-1 win over the then European Champions Liverpool in 1978, a game that I attended too. I liked that. We spoke of how Chelsea had become a major part of our lives, and how people “on the outside” probably never come close to understanding the pull that it has on us all. I only met Charlotte for the first time in Kiev in 2019, but have bumped into her and her husband Paul – injured for this final, a broken ankle – at a few games since.

As in the crowds outside the bars near the fan zone, one song dominated the ten-minute journey north. I have often maintained that the football song that stems from the Depeche Mode song “Just Can’t Get Enough” should always have been a Chelsea song long before Liverpool and Celtic, and then others, grabbed hold of it. Band members Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher are big Chelsea fans. It should have been The Shed and not The Kop “do, do, do, do, do, do, do”-ing these past ten years. But this song was now – at last – a new and vibrant part of the Chelsea songbook. Timo Werner is the subject matter of our version and the song was being bellowed out with gusto as the Chelsea faithful exited the train and clambered up the stairs. Tube stations are always fine locations for a pre-match sing-song, the bare walls echoing nicely.

On the coach down to Munich from Prague with Glenn in 2012, one song got inside my brain, the iconic “The Model” by Kraftwerk. We kept singing it to each other. A real ear-worm for that day. By the time we joined up the rest of the lads in a sunny Munich beer garden, Alan had changed the words slightly.

“Gal’s a model and he’s looking good. He loves his main course and he loves his pud.”

Alas neither Alan nor Gary would be in Porto this time around; nor the other members of our Munich tour party, Daryl, Neil, Glenn, Simon and Milo.

Kraftwerk in Munich, Depeche Mode in Porto. A nice progression.

As we reached the top of the stairs, I spoke to Charlotte :

“Never before in the history of football has a song been sung so loudly and so devotedly in honour of a striker who has scored such a paltry number of goals.”

Outside, the air was perfect. We slowly walked east to the stadium which eventually appeared in the distance, it’s large roof trusses discernible through some trees and over some rooftops. This was a well-to-do part of the city. A tree-lined road, with decent houses nearby, steadily dipped down to the stadium. We bumped into Scott, Gerry and a very giggly Paul, who was looking like he had imbibed one too many ports. It was great to see them; they go everywhere. I remember chatting to Scott and Paul in Australia in 2018.

At just before 6pm, it was my big moment. At the turnstiles outside the north-west corner of the stadium, I scanned my match ticket and showed my yellow bracelet, which basically took the place of my printed negative test result email.

I was in.

A little rush of adrenalin. I then moved towards the security guard inside the perimeter of the stadium. While a chap next to me was sounding off about not being allowed to take his “ever so slightly bigger than A4 size” bag in to the stadium, I pushed through. I had my mobile phone in my left jeans pocket and my new camera in my right pocket. The steward brushed them without really being too bothered. He was more concerned for me to open up the three compartments of my newly-purchased CP bag. Inside was my passport, my medication, my glasses, my boarding passes, a pen, some wet wipes and a couple of chargers. He barely looked inside.

My camera was in too.

Another adrenalin rush.

We walked on, and I took a few photographs of the stadium, it’s bright curving stands beneath a perfect Portuguese sun.

It was a gorgeous evening. I had been pleasantly surprised how many Chelsea had taken head of the warning to travel to the stadium in good time. I was inside the grounds of the stadium before 6 o’clock. Too sensible by far. In Munich, we all got in with ten minutes to spare.

I bought myself an espresso and slowly walked down to my seat in block 23.

The stadium opened up before me, the green turf ahead, blocks of concrete, the colour blue, great expanses of steel overhead.

It was as if I was waking from a complete season in hibernation. My alarm clock had sounded very late; it allowed me to watch the FA Cup Final on that wet and dreary Saturday two weekends ago, but there was such insipid performance that day that it soon became distant. That game was so difficult for me to rationalise. In retrospect, that whole day seemed like a dream. In fact, I have almost sleepwalked through the past nine months, aware that my interest in the love of my life was waning with each passing week.

But I was awake now.

As I have said on many occasions recently, the thought of us reaching a European Cup Final and me not being present had haunted me all season long. Others were excited by our European run. I was not so enthusiastic. The thought of me being absent from the final was killing me.

But here I was. In Portugal. In a pandemic. With my face mask and my camera and a head full of emotions to last a lifetime.

I guzzled that coffee and toasted absent friends, sadly too many to mention.

To get my bearings I quickly looked up to my left and spotted the section of the upper tier of the east stand where I watched us play Porto in 2015. I noted that the black netting that spoiled our view six years ago was tied back under the roof for this game.

The stadium looked a picture. Large multi-tiered stands to the side, topped by huge curving roofs. Behind both goals, a single tier but in two sections. The roof above both end stands floated in the air, supported only from the sides and not from the rear. I have rarely seen a stadium with such a feature. The colour scheme of royal blue seats met with my approval, and the deep blue sky above completed a perfect setting.

I stood the entire time and kept a lookout for friends and acquaintances. I soon spotted Ali and Nick from Reading around ten rows behind me. Andy and Sophie too. Aroha, Luke, Doreen close by. Then Big John appeared, dressed in all black, but far from impressed with his seat for the evening. He was located right in the corner, as low as me, but John had paid a higher priced ticket than everyone else in the section. We briefly spoke again how crazy this season had been. And this night in Portugal was typically odd too.

“Surreal, innit?”

Fellow spectators slowly entered the stadium. Music played on the PA. There were a few rare chants. At our seat, there was another Chelsea goody bag. I had already been given a Chelsea badge in the fan zone and here, in a specially logo’d Porto royal blue kitbag was a jacquard Final scarf. A flag was propped up by my seat too. The kit bag soon housed all my goods and chattels. It came in very useful. I dropped my top on the back of my seat and tried to take it all in.

In the build-up during the previous week, I had mentioned to a few friends that in 2012 it seemed that we were a well-established team, long in the tooth when it came to the Champions League. It seemed that 2012 was “the last chance saloon” for many; for Drogba, for Terry, for Cech, for Cole, for Lampard. In reality we really should have won the biggest prize in world club football in any year from 2005 to 2010.

So 2012 came along at just the right time. And how.

Since then, despite Amsterdam in 2013 and Baku in 2019, I had admitted to myself that we simply would not win the European Cup again, or at least not in my lifetime. Going into this season I certainly felt that. Last season, as youngsters, we were torn apart by a hugely impressive Bayern ensemble.

This season? It has been sensational. First, Frank getting us out of the group phase. Secondly, Thomas navigating the stormy waters of the knock-out phase, which included a couple of games against Porto – of all teams – in Seville.

But here is the sad fact. I never felt close to this team. I never felt that involvement. I was emotionally distanced from it all. Until Wembley, I had never seen Timo Werner, nor Ben Chilwell, nor Kai Havertz, nor Edouard Mendy, nor Thiago Silva, nor Hakim Ziyech. Not in Chelsea blue anyway.

None of them.

What a fucking mess.

It felt that this team was only just beginning. It was in its formative stage. A baby turning into a toddler, no more. Yet here we were at a Champions League Final. Whisper it, but it almost didn’t seem right to me. I have been saying for a few months “we’re not even a team” insomuch as apart from a couple of sure-fire starters – N’Golo, Mason – not many Chelsea fans would be even able to name their favourite eleven. We never had this problem in 1983/84, 2004/5 nor 2016/17.

And there was a considerable feeling of personal guilt too. It would appear that thousands of Chelsea fans were more involved than me this season. Yet here I was in Porto at the Champions League Final. What right did I have to be here?

Champions League Final Wanker? Quite possibly.

I knew only this; I had to be in Portugal, in Porto, at Estadio do Dragao, in the north terrace, in section twenty-three, in row three, in seat fourteen for my sanity.

At around ten minutes to seven, two UEFA officials brought the Champions League trophy – daintily decked in one royal blue ribbon and one sky blue ribbon – to the adjacent corner flag. It was placed atop a clear plastic plinth. The press photographers nearby took a photo as did many fans. The photographs that I took, on my new Sony camera and my Samsung phone, were sadly not great quality. Maybe I panicked.

One thought raced through my head.

“I can almost reach out and touch it.”

Then my mind re-worked it.

Reach out.

Reach out, touch faith.

Faith. This football lark is all about faith isn’t it?

I uploaded my phone photo to Facebook, with the simple caption.

“Reach Out, Touch Faith.”

I stood and checked that it had uploaded. Within maybe sixty seconds, my ears detected an oh-so familiar electronic beat on the stadium PA.

The jarring of synthesisers and the pounding of a drum machine…

“Feeling unknown and you’re all alone, flesh and bone by the telephone.”

My brain fizzed, my senses sparkled.

“Things on your chest, you need to confess, I will deliver, you know I’m a forgiver.”

Oh my bloody goodness.

“Reach out, touch faith.”

At that moment, at that fucking moment, I knew that we would win the 2021 European Cup Final. Depeche Mode had come to the rescue and “Personal Jesus” boomed around the stadium. Now, let’s get serious, it would take a bloody fool to openly declare Chelsea Football Club as some sort of sporting personal Jesus to many of us : to cheer, to bring sustenance, to provide warmth, to bring succour, to provide nourishment, to add depth to our lives.

I am that bloody fool.

Football. Fackinell.

The Chelsea team was announced, and was met with cheers from the ever growing band of supporters.

Mendy.

Dave. Silva. Rudiger.

James. Jorginho. Kante. Chilwell.

Mount. Havertz. Werner.

It was the team that I would have selected. Maybe Kovacic for Jorginho. But I wanted Havertz to start.

I mentioned to two lads to my left : “Everyone is talking about Werner having a big night tonight, but I think Havertz is the man. He has an edge.”

From 7.15pm to 7.30pm, the players trotted on to the pitch and went through a few drills to warm their bodies up further. The messy training top that they were wearing was less hideous than both the 2019/20 kit and the 2021/22 kit.

The minutes passed by.

I had presumed that the stadium would be split down the middle; northern section Chelsea, southern section City. However, not only was the entire top section of the stand to my left City but there were City fans mixed in with Chelsea fans in the presumably CFC section of the lower tier too. We all know that City sold 5,800 but we had only sold 5,000 (rumours of Chelsea unable to move the extra 800 to independent travellers due to stringent UEFA rules were yet to be ratified), but City seemed to have more than an extra 800. It worried me. I hated the thought of this being their final, their evening.

But we had spoken about all of this during the day. This was City’s biggest ever game. Someone had likened their boisterousness in the city during the day to our type of support when we took over Stockholm in 1998. We must have had 25,000 in the 30,000 crowd against Stuttgart. It was the biggest airlift out of the UK since World War Two, but was sadly beaten by United in Barcelona the following year.

In recent years, we have enjoyed UEFA finals in 2008, 2012, 2013 and 2019. Without sounding like knobheads, or being blasé, we were used to this. But I hoped our support would match City’s which was starting to call the shots in the stadium.

Two songs on the PA : “Blue Moon” first and then “Blue Is The Colour”.

I sang along to every word.

…”cus Chelsea, Chelsea is our name.”

At around 7.45pm, a firework show took over the pitch and the Champions League anthem roared via the PA. Both the City and Chelsea support booed throughout, but I am not so sure the result was particularly loud nor noticeable to those watching at home and the executive areas. My real wish was for both sets of fans to come together with a loud and constant chant during the game.

Two sets of four letters.

Have a guess.

The teams entered the pitch; two hues of blue under a sensual sky.

Flags were enthusiastically waved in distinct parts of the stadium; City in the top deck to my left, City in the far end of the lower tier to my left, Chelsea to my right in our end.

The players met the dignitaries, the huge silver trophy glinting in the distance.

The City team didn’t really interest me. I knew who to look out for. Both teams were playing without a centre-forward and a sizeable part of my brain struggled with the basic concept of this, but then jerked back into life as I imagined experts talking about “pockets of space” and “creating space” and maybe even “space the final frontier.” Football is supported by more and more nerds these days after all.

The 2021 Champions League Final began.

There was a lively start to the game, and within the first fifteen minutes it seemed that we had enjoyed more strikes on goal than in the entire final in Munich. I immediately liked the look of young Mason Mount as his energy shone. And Timo Werner was making those trademark runs out wide, taking players with him. Ben Chilwell really caught my eye throughout the opening quarter, staying tight to Mahrez and Walker, robbing both of the ball, flicking the ball on to team mates, showing great skill and tenacity. Thiago Silva – his name sung probably more than any other Chelsea player at the start – looked in control.

I glanced at the two coaches. Tuchel, at last not festooned in royal blue, and looking smart in black. Guardiola, so slight, but a master tactician too.

The City support had been dominant in the city and also in the half-an-hour leading up to kick-off. Their noise boomed out in the first quarter of an hour of the game too.

“Blue Moon, You Saw Me Standing Alone.”

“City, City, The Best Team In The Land And All The World.”

“We’re Not Really Here.”

The first real chance of the match followed a laser-like missile from the boot of the City ‘keeper Ederson, dressed in all pink, and my muscles tightened as Raheem Sterling edged past Reece James but our right back recovered well and robbed the winger of a worthwhile strike on goal. It was a warning for sure.

At the other end, Kai Havertz played in Werner but this resulted in a shank, an air-shot, a fluff. City countered and a Sterling chance was blocked by that man Chilwell. Then, the tide seemed to turn a little. Within a few minutes, Werner had two chances. The first although straight at Mr. Pink, at least hit the target. His second slithered against the nearside netting.

At around this time, the Chelsea support grew.

One song dominated and was our call to arms.

“He’s Here. He’s There. He’s Every Fucking Where. Joey Cole. Joey Cole.”

He had to be in the stadium I surmised.

“Carefree, Wherever You May Be.”

The old stalwart.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

A nice touch. Do we even have a song for Thomas Tuchel? See what I mean about a team that is not yet a team?

“Oh Dennis Wise.”

This song continued for a while, longer than usual, I wondered if he too was in the stadium.

I turned to the two lads to my left (I realise I will never recognise them if I see them again because they, like me, were mask-compliant) and said that the City support had quietened.

“The beer buzz is gone.”

But I sensed that they were far from happy that we were now dominating play. A rare break, a shot by Phil Foden and a sublime block by Toni Rudiger only emphasised the rarity of their attacks.

Kante found himself dribbling inside the box and set up Havertz but his shot was smothered.

Chelsea were letting City have it from both barrels now.

“Your support is fucking shit.”

It had certainly quietened, no doubt.

“You’re only here on a freebie.”

Love it.

There had been a worry when Thiago Silva stopped not once but twice, in pain with what looked like a strain of some description. Sadly, with around ten minutes of the first-half remaining, he could carry on no more. I felt for him. He covered his head with his shirt. There must have been tears.

Chelsea in adversity, but we have found a way past that imposter in previous European triumphs. Andreas Christensen joined the fray.

Not so long after this substitution, I looked up to see a ball touched inside to Mount. He was in space, but so too was a rampaging Havertz. The ball that Mount played through to our young German was inch perfect. The City defence, loitering towards the halfway line as is their wont, were asleep.

They weren’t really there.

One touch from Havertz.

I was able to move slightly to my left – ah, the joy of being able to move on a terrace – to see him move on past Ederson, and knock the ball in to an empty net. I was in line with the ball. I saw the net bulge.

That glorious sight.

I turned to the lads to my left, my two forearms stretched out, tight, my muscles tense, and I screamed.

“Fucking, yeeeeees.”

The lad in the front row looked at me, pointed to me :

“You called it. Havertz.”

I turned to my right and snap, snap, snapped as fans tumbled down to the front row.

Limbs everywhere.

Off the scale.

Fackinell.

Euphoria.

Joy.

Relief.

Pandemonium in the North Stand.

I updated Facebook.

“THTCAUN.”

Garrett in Tennessee was the first one to reply correctly :

“COMLD.”

Noice one, shun.

I had a little laugh to myself…

“Manchester City 0 Adversity 1.”

The half-time whistle soon came. What a magnificent time to score a goal. Beautiful. There was an air of bewildered disbelief at the break, but also one of joy and hope. I spoke to a few friends :

“Savour these moments. They don’t come around too often.”

I dreamed of a second goal.

The half-time break shot past.

I soon realised, and it was regardless of the goal, that I was back. Football had got me. The months of wandering in the wilderness was over. My first game against Leicester City was difficult. I couldn’t concentrate, I was too easily distracted, and I didn’t know the players. On this night, in lovely Porto, I was kicking every ball, watching the movement of the players, singing songs, laughing and joking with nearby fans, listening for new chants.

I was in my element.

Throughout the second period, I watched the clock in the far corner and announced to the bloke to my left when a five-minute period had elapsed. It helped the time pass quicker, no doubt.

“Five minutes.”

“Ten minutes.”

“Fifteen minutes.”

Of course City enjoyed most of the possession. But did they really enjoy it? I don’t believe their fans enjoyed it at all. Their silence was deafening.

And their players did not create too much at all. My abiding memory of the second-half is of an array of truly awful crosses into our box from various City players. Rudiger seemed to head every single one of them away. Reece James kept Sterling at bay with an absolutely brilliant display of cool and resolute defending. N’Golo Kante just got better and better and better all game. I was convinced that with City on the attack, he would pinch the ball on the half-way line and play the ball in to Havertz a la Claude Makelele and Frank Lampard at Bolton in April 2005. To say Kante was everywhere would not be too much of a ridiculous over statement.

I did not see the challenge by Rudiger on De Bruyne. But I was more than happy when he exited the field. I certainly saw the rising shot from Sterling that struck Reece on the chest in the penalty box. No penalty and quite right too.

“Carefree” rung out.

We really were loud now. I was so happy. To be truthful, when the gate of almost 15,000 was announced, I could hardly believe my eyes. It certainly seemed so much more. And yet an empty stadium, with empty seats echoing the noise away rather than the fabric of clothes muffling it, surely helped.

“Twenty minutes.”

“Twenty-five minutes.”

I watched with a mixture of hope and panic as a City shot was miraculously scooped high over the bar by Dave. I remembered, exactly at that moment, a similar clearance – under his bar – by a lad called Wayne Coles in a Frome College game against a team from Chateau-Gontier, a twin town, in the spring of 1979, with me watching from the centre-circle. Both were astounding.

Christian Pulisic for Timo Werner.

“Thirty minutes.”

Our best, perhaps only, chance of a tight second-half fell to Pulisic, raiding the City half and put through by Havertz, but his dinked lob dropped wide of the far post.

“Thirty-five minutes.”

Mateo Kovacic for Mason Mount.

“Forty minutes.”

The nerves were starting to bite now. Please God, no fucking Iniesta – Spanish or Scottish – moment now.

“Forty-five minutes.”

But by now an awful seven minutes had been added. I stopped counting. I was focussed on the game, but needed to expel some energy.

“Carefree Wherever You May Be, We Are The Famous CFC.”

Seven minutes…tick, tock, tick, tock.

The last chance, very late, fell to Mahrez. His tired shot never looked like troubling Mendy, who – apart from reaching a few crosses – hardly had to stretch for a shot all night.

In the last minute, I clock-watched again. I wanted to photograph the exact moment that the referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz blew his whistle. But I wanted to capture the fans, who had serenaded the team all night long, in the north stand. I wanted them – us – to be the Final stars. I stood up on the seat in front of my row. Arms aloft. Camera poised. The fans still sung. A quick look to the field. Another City attack. I saw the referee bring a hand up to his mouth.

Tales From A Group Of Death

Chelsea vs. Lille : 10 December 2019.

Twenty-Two Hours.

The fact that PD takes a turn driving to Stamford Bridge for weekday games is a real Godsend. It means that I can have a very welcome snooze if I need it on the way to London, and – most definitely – on the return journey west. On this particular journey to SW6, I managed to crash out for over an hour as P-Diddy battled the rain and traffic. At about 5pm, I emerged from my slumber at around Twickenham. There was a little message from Jaro, now back in the US after his “work” trip last week, waiting for me. He must have been bored because he had worked out that in the previous seven days, the three of us – P-Diddy, Lord Parsnips and little old me – had spent twenty-two hours in cars en route to and from Chelsea games. I must admit it startled me.

Wednesday : Villa at home – six hours.

Saturday : Everton away – ten hours.

Tuesday : Lille at home – six hours.

It all added-up. And I am not honestly sure how I felt. Was it some sort of pride that we had evidently devoted so much of our time to the support of our club, or was there an inkling that we might well take some perverse pleasure out of all of this, or – worse – that this was all too obsessive, and not natural, not healthy, not normal?

Answers on a postcard.

Two Pubs.

At about 6pm, we eventually made it in to “The Goose.” I made my way to the bar to get the first round in. To my right, quietly standing at the bar, were three lads in their late twenties, evidently Lille supporters, one with a “LOSC” logo on his tracksuit, and another with a scarf hidden from view. There were signs on the pub windows proclaiming “Chelsea fans only” and I had presumed that they had slipped through the net. I whispered “bon chance” to the one standing close to me and ordered some drinks. I had no intention of wanting to drop them in it. My drinks arrived, but just as the last of the three drinks were being handed to the Lille supporters, the landlady caught a glimpse of the red Lille scarf (I suspect that the “LOSC” logo on the other supporter’s top meant nothing to her) and they were politely asked to leave. Damn. I felt for them. I was sure that they were not going to cause one bit of trouble. The place seemed quiet. We chatted to a few friends from our local area – “don’t get caught in the lift this week, Les” – and then headed off to “Simmons”. This little bar seemed quiet too. More beers were ordered, a few more chats with mates, a few more laughs.

Eleven Men.

I made it inside the stadium with just a couple of minutes to spare, and missed the entrance of the teams and the usual pre-match Champions League rituals. I quickly scanned our team. The big news was that Toni Rudiger was returning.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Zouma – Emerson

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

Three Teams.

We knew that we just – “just” – had to win to secure our safe passage into the first knock-out phase of this season’s Champions League. I think most of us presumed that there would be home wins for Chelsea and Ajax. But Valencia, who beat us on match day one, were no mugs, and were in with a shout of qualifying too. Of course I wanted progression to the final sixteen – it would undoubtedly provide a timely fillip for the players and managers, a lovely confidence boost going into the new year – but if we were to fail, then a potentially longer and arguably more enjoyable tour of fresh cities in the Europa League was not a bad second prize. So; Ajax, Chelsea or Valencia. Who from this little list of three teams would miss out?

Eight O’Clock.

The game began and for a few minutes I was mesmerized by the shifting patterns created by the cascading rain against the back-drop of the East Stand. It was a foul night in SW6 alright. I had rarely seen such atrocious conditions at Stamford Bridge. I felt sorry for those in the first few rows. They were going to get soaked. We began well and soon started to slither our way through the Lille defence with Christian Pulisic looking at home on the left-side of our attack. I admitted to Al that he had been surprisingly poor at Everton and it was good to see him showing signs of improvement. Within a few minutes, Rudiger was making strong and sturdy challenges and we were instantly reminded of what we had missed for many weeks.

Nineteen Minutes.

There was a break in play and I needed to shoot off to see a man about a dog. I was alone with my thoughts in the nearby gents when I heard an increase in noise emanating from inside the stadium. A split second later, a roar and it was clear that we had scored. Over the years, I don’t miss many, though I am sure I missed one earlier this season at home too. I quickly wrote “1-0” on the steamed-up mirror and re-joined Alan and PD in The Sleepy Hollow. Alan explained how Tammy had scored. I was so pleased that our young striker had nabbed another. Excellent. I will be honest, the pressure was off – or so it seemed – and we looked in control for much of the first period. On only rare occasions did the opposing team pose any danger.

The midfield three of Jorginho at the base, and with Kovacic and Kante to the left and right, worked well, and provided the motor for more luxurious play further ahead. I loved how N’Golo Kante sized up his options as a ball became loose and a gullible Lille player looked to lunge in. It seemed that Kante was one, or maybe two or three steps ahead, as he decided to let the other player attempt to win the ball, but then struggle to control it, allowing Kante to pick up the pieces with the minimum of effort. At the same time as all this was happening, he was probably aware of all Chelsea players within a 360-degree sweep of the pitch, of their individual directions of travel, their nearest foe, each of their chances of ably controlling the ball should he decided to pass to them, the wind direction in all parts of the stadium, taking into account localised eddies caused by the juxtaposition of the stands, and he also was thinking ahead to half-time and if he fancied a sports drink, a simple sip of water, or a hot cup of tea, and there were probable thoughts too about how he really needs to master that latest piece of music that his piano teacher has detailed, how he needs to come up with a suitable twist to the end of the first chapter of his first novel and then, of course, there are always Christmas presents which need to be sorted. In the blink of an eye, he passed to Willian, simplicity itself.

I commented to Alan.

“You simply can’t teach that.”

N’Golo is a rare footballing talent, and it is an honour to be able to watch him play every few days. He is already one of our greatest ever players.

Thirty-Five Minutes.

It was all Chelsea, and Kepa had rarely touched the ball. We won a corner and Emerson, way down the other end of the pitch, struck a firm ball into the box. It landed right into a juicy few yards of emptiness and Dave arrived with impeccable timing to head it home past a poorly protected Maignan in the Lille goal.

Superb.

We were 2-0 up.

I caught Dave’s gleeful little trot in front of Parky and Parky’s People in The Shed Lower. We had struck twice in the first-half, had dominated the game, and Lille had not mustered a single shot on goal.

Easy.

Rousey was quick to chime in :

“See you in Barcelona.”

However, only after this second goal was there a rousing stadium-wide chant from the Chelsea supporters.

Over in The Netherlands, Valencia were – surprisingly – winning one-nought. If it stayed like this, Ajax would be playing in the Europa League in 2020. But it would mean that Chelsea would finish second in the group. We hoped for an Ajax equaliser.

The Second Forty-Five.

The rain had relented, but it was still a wet night. We continued to control the game and a few chances came our way. Pulisic looked lively, a slippery customer on this wet night in London, and his presence in our attack drew applause as he dribbled into the box with ease. A free-kick from Willian was on target but was saved. We kept attacking. At times, Dave’s bursts into the Lille box were astonishing. I think his goal must have possessed him to grab more.

Frank chose to replace the impressive Pulisic with Callum Hudson-Odoi.

“At least the pressure is off him. Often when he comes on as sub, he is expected to change things. Let’s see what he can do.”

Lille replaced their injured ‘keeper.

Michy Batshuayi replaced Tammy.

Our play stagnated.

Lille had – just – began to show a few signs of life in the latter part of the game and they produced a fine move which cut into our right flank, resulting in a pull-back for our former striker Loic Remy to blast high into the net.

It was still 1-0 in Amsterdam.

It was 2-1 in London.

An equaliser for Lille would mean that we would be knocked out of the competition. And so things started to get tense. Mason Mount replaced Kovacic, another great performance from him. There was another rare chance for the visitors, but it did not cause Kepa any worry. At the other end, Michy controlled well, but blazed over. A wild shot from Callum was worse, much worse. In the dying embers of the game, Remy shot meekly at Kepa.

It was over.

Phew.

The Final Sixteen.

Walking out of the ground, everyone was just relieved. A mate galloped past me.

“Seen who we got?”

Our opponents in the New Year had already been decided; Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Paris St. Germain or Red Bull Leipzig.

It’s a horrible, hated, club but Leipzig please.

Walking down the Fulham Road, I shared a thought on Facebook.

“When we lost our first match at home to Valencia, it seemed that we were in a real group of death. But we are still breathing. We are still living. Let European adventures at the top table continue.”

 Twenty-Four Photographs.

Tales From Dixie Land

Chelsea vs. Everton : 7 December 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That jacket is so fuckin’ red.”

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

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

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

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

“Alright, mate?”

I smiled but kept my head down.

Merseyside in 1986 was a tough gig.

The welcome from Evertonians in 2019 was a lot cheerier.

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

He replied :

“We could do with them today.”

We both smiled.

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

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

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

Everton was Goodison.

United was Old Trafford.

Arsenal was Highbury.

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

The multi-span roof at Molineux.

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

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

The low, small stand at Filbert Street.

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

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

The tightness of the small structure at The Dell.

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

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

“Z Cars.”

I love it. I fucking love it.

I beamed a very wide smile.

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

Arrizabalaga

James – Christensen – Zouma – Azpilicueta

Kante

Kovacic – Mount

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

Chelsea in black, black, bright orange.

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

The game began.

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

Only five minutes had been played.

“Oh for fuck sake.”

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

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

“Shoot the ball!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bollocks.

No way back from this?

It certainly felt that way.

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

Game on.

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

“ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.”

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

But Alan wasn’t impressed.

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

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

On seventy minutes, Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced Willian.

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

Frank played with two up top.

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

Everton 3 Chelsea 1.

Fackinell.

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

Original, eh?

The game ended.

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

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

I spoke to a couple of mates.

“Didn’t seem like a 3-1 game.”

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

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

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

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

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

Chicken jalfrezi, mushroom rice, peshwari naan.

It took my mind of the football. Just.

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

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

The first ten games : 1986 to 2011.

Won 5

Drew 5

Lost 0

The last ten games : 2011 to 2019

Won 2

Drew 1

Lost 7

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

Right.

Tuesday.

Lille.

See you there.

Tales From City, Chips And Gravy

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 23 November 2019.

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

Exit 19.

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

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

Is everyone still awake?

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

Northerners love gravy.

It was bloody lovely.

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

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

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

I am nothing if not consistent.

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

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

Some notes to add.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We should sing this to them :

“Where were you when you were good?”

Enough of 1985/86.

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

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

“T’ls F’rm M’cr” anyone?

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

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

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

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

Frome at Moneyfields.

Chelsea at Moneyfields.

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

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

Arizzabalaga

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Zouma – Emerson

Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante

Pulisic – Abraham – Willian

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

The night had fallen by kick-off time.

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

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

Yeah, Frank Lampard at Manchester City.

What the fuck was all that about?

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

Blue Moon boomed.

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

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

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

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

Both clubs despise each other alright.

United and City.

Reds and Blues.

Munichs and Bitters.

A City most definitely not united.

A City divided.

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

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

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

If only City had kept to blue socks.

The game began.

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

“Here we go again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well done, Tammy, son.”

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

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

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

He touched it, and it slowly rolled goalwards.

I remained remarkably calm.

Tammy followed it home.

City 0 Chelsea 1.

I was calm no more.

I exploded with noise.

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

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

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

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

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

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

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

But then.

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

City 1 Chelsea 1.

Fackinell.

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

The game had been turned on its head.

And now the score line had a sadly typical feel.

City 2 Chelsea 1.

Sigh.

Now City’s fans roared.

“City. Tearing Cockneys apart. Again.”

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

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

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

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

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

Cough, cough, cough, cough.

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

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

Reece James replaced Emerson, with Dave swapping wings.

“It worked last time, Scott.”

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

Michy Batshuayi for Tammy.

Mason Mount for Jorginho.

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

Sigh.

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

Fuck VAR.

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

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

And there really were no real complaints.

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

There were steady 7/10s across the board.

I met the boys outside.

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

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

Not the glory of 2014 nor 2016 this time.

At 8pm I began the long drive home.

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

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

It had been a good day out.

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

And I will see some of you there.

Talking of the ‘eighties…

Tales From Modern Football

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 22 September 2019.

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

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

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

Modern football, eh?

Everyone knows my thoughts.

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

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

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

Here we were, then.

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

I wasn’t getting carried away.

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

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Christensen – Emerson

Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante

Willian – Abraham – Mount

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GET IN.

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

Lovely.

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

“Why?”

“What for?”

We waited.

We held our breath, what an odd sensation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Luis Garcia, he drinks sangria.”

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

Fuckers.

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

“It gets worse” I thought.

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

I vented to a few people.

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

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

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

Chaos theory ain’t half of it.

Sigh.

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

The mood at half-time was rotten.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GETINYOUBASTARD.

The manager replaced Tammy with Michy.

The crowd roared and roared.

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

Bollocks to VAR.

This is fucking football.

We raided again and again.

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

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

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

“Liverpool fans are dead quiet, Al.”

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

We kept coming.

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

There for the taking.

COME ON CHELSEA.

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

Oh we groaned.

We begged for another goal and kept trying.

It was a fine effort, a great game.

Alas, the whistle blew.

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

Well done everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers.

 

Tales From A Happy New Season

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 18 August 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you get my drift.

The atmosphere was bubbling along nicely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Football was back.

And it felt bloody marvellous.

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

Daryl soon retorted –

“Done that joke five minutes ago, mate.”

What a giggle.

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

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

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

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

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

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Zouma – Emerson

Kante – Jorginho

Pedro – Mount – Pulisic

Giroud

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

“Pull-a-sitch.”

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

Righty-oh.

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

Not good.

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

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

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

Still, it sure beats “Thrilling Since 1905.”

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

“Welcome Back Super Frank.”

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

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

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

The game began.

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

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

Suffice to say, Stamford Bridge roared.

The players raced over to Parkyville.

Alan looked at me.

“They’ll have to come at us naaar.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

We laughed and Alan gave me a lovely hug.

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

“It fucking is mate.”

A lovely moment.

“Hopefully no VAR.”

“Nah.”

Ah…VAR.

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

Because we all fucking hate it.

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

Good work everyone.

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

Watching Kante is a joy.

I shared my thoughts with Alan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Fox’ sake.

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

I held my head in my hands.

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

Positive discrimination? I guess so.

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

Did he celebrate?

Yes, Ndidi.

We sighed.

“Free header.”

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

“They’re ripping us to shreds, here.”

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

“I’ll take a draw now.”

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

Must do better.

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

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

“How many minutes’ extra time?”

“Hopefully not many. Blow up ref!”

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

We were grimly hanging on.

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

No words.

No fucking words.

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

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

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

But our first point was on the board.

Next up is Norwich City on Saturday lunchtime.

I will see some of you there.

 

Tales From The Final Shot

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 24 January 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We both laughed.

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

We laughed again.

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

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

Pete gave me an old-fashioned look.

“True story.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two other games are worthy of note I think.

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

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

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

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

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

And it was some view.

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

Kepa

Dave – Rudi – Geezer – Emerson

N’Golo – Jorginho – Ross

Peds – Olivier – Eden

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

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

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

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

There was not one single Tottenham flag on show.

The game began.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

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

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

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

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

“We sang it in France.

We sang it in Spain.

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

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

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

Being a ***.

Being a ***.

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

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

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

Well done us. Again.

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

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

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

Game on.

From Alan : “THTCAUN”.

To Alan : “COMLD.”

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

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

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

The Bridge was buzzing now.

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

“Ngolo – ohh!

Kante will win you the ball.

He’s got the power to know.

He’s indestructible.

Always believe in.”

Pure gold.

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

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

More wild noise, bloody fantastic.

I turned to Vince :

“Spurs are not bloody singing now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good lad.”

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

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

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

And then Dave was carded too.

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

Back to your texts, lad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, penalties.

I said to Vince :

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

Thankfully, it was at the Matthew Harding.

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

We waited.

Tottenham :  Eriksen – IN.

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

Tottenham : Lamela – IN.

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

Tottenham : Dier – OVER.

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

Tottenham : Moura – SAVED.

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

Stamford Bridge roared once more.

GET IN.

It was the final shot.

The final shot of the game.

A shot to get us into the final.

And my final shot of the action.

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

Phew.

Hugs with Vince.

“See you at Wembley.”

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

It was a beautiful sight indeed.

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

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

And indeed it fucking had.

It had been…clears throat…a great night.

On Sunday, another cup competition awaits.

See you there.

 

Tales From Our National Game

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 30 December 2018.

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

“Not very busy is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love football like life itself.

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

It’s the bollocks.

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

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

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

More familiar faces, more bonhomie.

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

“Stand where you want.”

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

Kepa

Dave – Toni – David – Marcos

N’Golo – Jorginho – Ross

Willian – Olivier – Eden

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

Oh my.

Oh bloody hell.

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

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

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

Roy Bentley.

Phil McNight.

Derek Saunders.

Ken Shellito.

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

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

Rest In Peace.

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

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

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

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

Thankfully, the Chelsea support had read the script perfectly.

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

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

Fucking hell, football.

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

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

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

There was rising frustration with our reluctance to shoot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll win this, Gal.”

“0-0 I reckon Chris.”

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

The game recommenced with Chelsea on top.

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

“GET IN.”

We were treated to an N’Goalo.

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

I turned to Parky.

“Who passed to him?”

“Luiz.”

“Ah excellent.”

I looked at Alan.

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four minutes of extra time were signalled.

My eyes were on referee Craig Pawson.

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

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

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

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

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

Job done.

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

“I enjoy potholing.”

That made me chuckle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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