Tales From Bristol, Bath And London.

Chelsea vs. Bristol Rovers : 23 August 2016.

The last time that I saw Bristol Rovers play was in February 1993 when I was lured to Bath – my nearest city and the place of my birth – to see the visit of Tranmere Rovers and, more specifically, Pat Nevin, in the second tier of English football, which was then called the First Division of the Football League. This was a season when I didn’t attend too many Chelsea games in the latter part of the season, since I was saving for a bumper trip to the US in the autumn of 1993, but I managed to gather enough money together to drive to Bath on a bitterly cold afternoon to watch my favourite ever player play one more time. Since I was supporting Pat, I took my place in the sparsely-populated away end at Twerton Park – Rovers’ home from 1986 to 1996 – among the Tranmere fans, and watched, with my extremities getting colder and colder as the game progressed, with decreasing interest in a game that neither excited me or even mattered too much. The home team won 1-0, thus pleasing the vast majority of the 5,135 crowd, but it did not save them from relegation that season. I looked on, disconsolate, as Pat Nevin struggled against the Bristol Rovers defence and I was left wondering how such a gifted player was now playing in the yellow and green away colours of Tranmere Rovers.

That I was lured to Bath for a Bristol Rovers game all those years ago was pretty typical of many like-minded souls from my local area around that time. When Bristol Rovers were forced out of their traditional Eastville Stadium, their temporary exile in the Roman and Georgian city of Bath at the home of Bath City resulted in many football fans in the Frome area adopting Rovers as a second team, or even a first team. There is no doubt that Rovers’ support – traditionally the northern areas of Bristol and neighbouring parts of Gloucestershire – took on new characteristics in that ten years of alternative domicile. Their demographics definitely shifted east. I know of several local lads who now support Rovers ahead of other, larger, teams, and I think their base in Bath for ten years sparked this. I remember watching a couple of other games at Twerton too; against Middlesbrough in 1986 and Notts County in 1988. It was a poor ground to be honest, but suited Rovers’ needs.

Growing up, the two local football teams to me were Bristol City and Bristol Rovers. My father always contended that City were always a second division team and Rovers, the scrappy underdog, a third division team. I hardly knew any supporters of the two Bristol teams. They must have existed, but it wasn’t until I began middle school in the autumn of 1974 that I met one.

On my very first day at Oakfield Road Middle School in Frome, I happened to sit opposite Dave, a lad from Frome, whose roots were in Bristol. It is very likely that some of the very first words that we said to each other were of our two football teams. I was Chelsea and he was Rovers. I had been to my very first Chelsea game in the March of that year, but I quickly learned that Dave had been to many Rovers games over the previous few seasons. In 1973/1974, Rovers had won promotion to the Second Division – I can still hear Dave extolling the virtues of the “Smash and Grab” striking partnership of Alan Warboys and Bruce Bannister – and he was full of stories of games at the endearingly ramshackle Eastville Stadium, especially involving the rough and tumble which used to accompany football in those days. We used to talk about our two teams. We even used to draw detailed drawings of Eastville and Stamford Bridge – both were oval, both had hosted greyhound racing – and our friendship grew and grew.

In the autumn of 1974, I played in my first-ever 11-a-side football match; it was a house match, Bayard – blue – versus Raleigh – red – and both Dave and myself were in the Bayard team.

We won 2-0, and I opened the scoring with a left-footed volley, while Dave followed up with the second goal as we won 2-0.

As football debuts go, it was damned perfect.

Bayard 2 Raleigh 0.

Chris 1, Dave 1.

Chelsea 1, Rovers 1.

Blue 2 Red 0.

The next season – around March 1976 if memory serves – the two of us were selected, as mere ten year olds, to play in the school team against a team from Bath, the only two from our year to be selected. It was a proud moment for me, yet – looking back with hindsight – it probably represented the high water mark of my footballing career. I would never reach such heights again, eventually dropping to the “B team” by the time I reached the age of fourteen, right at the end of the 1978/1979 season, unsure of my best position, and riddled with a lack of confidence in both myself as a person and as a player. Dave turned out to be a far more rounded footballer – a combative midfielder with a good pass – and played football at a reasonable level for many years. My mazy runs down the wing soon petered out against tougher opposition.

I will say something, though – and I was only speaking to Dave about this a couple of months ago after a “From The Jam” gig in our home town – there was a ridiculous chemistry between the two of us on a football pitch, which probably stemmed from the hours we played with a tennis ball in the schoolyard. I was a right winger and Dave played in midfield. We seemed to be able to read each other’s minds.

I would play the ball to Dave, set off on a run, and he would find me. After a while of this – time after time, game after game – it almost got embarrassing.

Dave agreed.

“Baker – our games master – would say “what is it with you two?””

Good times.

No, great times.

Leading up to our League Cup tie against Bristol Rovers, I was in contact with Dave, though was sorry to hear that he would not be attending. I had to bite my lip from uttering the classic schoolboy line “shall I get you a programme?”

This would – hopefully – be a fun evening for myself, perhaps for Dave, and for the others from my home area who are afflicted with Chelsea and Rovers devotion.

As I caught a glimpse of the local BBC TV news bulletin at 6am on the day of the game, there was a brief mention of the game at Stamford Bridge. The graphic came up on the TV screen :

“Chelsea vs. Bristol Rovers”

I shuddered and had a second look. It brought back immediate memories of when the two clubs were in the same division – the old second division – on a few occasions in my youth. But more of that later.

After another torrid day at work, I collected the Chuckle Brothers and we were on our way. Talk was all about the game at the start of the drive to London. A few friends would be in the Rovers end. News came through that a lot of Rovers’ fans had made a day of it and had been on the ale all day. This was brewing up nicely. A Chelsea game of course, but a game with a lovely local interest for us all. Whisper it, but Glenn often used to go and watch Rovers with his brother and a few other Frome rapscallions from 1986 to 1993, but he has since seen the light and now regards Rovers as an afterthought; a fling which had no long-lasting meaning.

Bristol Rovers. The Pirates. The Gas. The blue half – or maybe quarter – of Bristol, and therefore more palatable to me than Bristol City. Rovers spent most of their existence in the second and third divisions, before cascading down to the fourth division in the early-eighties along with their hated city rivals. Whereas City have enjoyed a little more success of late, Rovers were relegated from the Football League as recently as 2014. It was Dave’s worst ever moment. However, successive promotions have now hoisted Rovers back in to the third tier. Things are looking up for The Gas, a relatively recent moniker from the ‘eighties, which originated firstly as “Gasheads”, a derisory term from the City end of town, since an old gasometer used to stand over Eastville. The Rovers fans have now adopted it as a badge of honour.

Some stories to tell.

Of my first-ever twenty Chelsea games, four were against Bristol Rovers, at Eastville.

Because so much of who I am as a Chelsea supporter stems from my childhood passion for the team, I always say that my first one hundred games are the bedrock of my devotion. I can remember distinct details, most probably, from all of my first one hundred games. And as I am about to demonstrate I can certainly remember oodles from my first twenty.

Game 5 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 29 November 1975.

My first-ever Chelsea away game, and I can distinctly remember waiting outside my grandparents’ house in my local village for a lift to take my mother and I to the game. My father, a shopkeeper, was unable to get time off, but he had arranged for one of his customers, a Rovers season-ticket holder from near Cranmore, to take us to the game, along with his wife and daughter. I can remember the drive to Bristol, and the chat with the attractive blonde girl – a couple of years older, phew – to my right. I always remember she wore a blue satin jacket, edged in tartan.

“Blue for Rovers, tartan for the Bay City Rollers.”

Mum and myself took our seats in the main stand, and I loved being able to see Eastville in the flesh, at last, after all of Dave’s diagrams and related details. Chelsea wore the lovely old Hungarian red, white, green, and we won 2-1, despite Bill Garner getting sent off. I remember the angled flower beds behind the Tote End goal. There were outbreaks of fighting in the stadium. It was a fantastic first away game. The gate was a pretty healthy 16,277. Oh – I also remember a Chelsea fan getting a little too interested in my mother – awkward – and I remember seeing the very same bloke at Ashton Gate later in the season, this time with my father on the scene. My mother and I would have a knowing glance and smile at each other.

Game 9 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 5 October 1976.

I always remember that my parents and I travelled up to see the Chelsea vs. Cardiff City game on the Saturday, and were amazed to read in the programme that our away game at Eastville, originally planned for later that autumn, had been brought forward to the following Tuesday. Tickets were hastily purchased – again in the main stand – and this time it was a full family carload that left my village after my father had picked me up outside my school on the way home from work. Both my parents and, from memory, my grandfather (his only Chelsea game with me) watched us on an autumnal evening in Bristol. I remember Dad got a little lost nearing the ground, but that was the least of our troubles. We lost 2-1 after getting it back to 1-1. Chelsea in red, red, blue. My first midweek game. More crowd trouble. A gate of 13,199. Despite the sad loss, we were promoted at the end of the season,

Game 16 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 23 February 1980.

An iconic game, for all the wrong reasons. On my travels around the country with Chelsea, I bump in to many of our fans from the West of England. It seems that every single one of them, to a man, was at this game. We were riding high in the second division after relegation in 1978/1979, and I was relishing the visit to Eastville to see a good Chelsea team against a mediocre Rovers eleven. I watched from the main stand yet again, and was thrilled to see my friends Glenn – yes, the very same – and his brother Paul, with their grandfather, watching from a few rows behind me. There was untold fighting before the game, with Chelsea in the Tote End, and police horses in the Tote End too. It was pandemonium. On the pitch, a below-strength Chelsea team (Bob Iles in goal, for starters) lost 3-0 to a fine Rovers performance. The crowd was a feisty 14,176. There must have been 4,000 Chelsea there. Debutant Dennis Rofe was sent off. Tony Pulis – yes, him – scored for Rovers. It would eventually cost us our promotion place at the end of the season and we would not recover until 1984. A grim day.

Game 19 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 14 March 1981.

This was a poor season and this was a poor game. This time, my father and two school friends stood on the small terrace in front of the main stand. We were drifting towards a lowly position in the second division while Rovers were on their way to relegation. The atmosphere, for want of a better word, of the previous season, had dissipated. The stand on the other side of the pitch – where I had watched a couple of speedway matches in 1977 and 1978 – had been burned down the previous summer and the gate was just 7,565. We were woeful. We lost 1-0. I remember Micky Droy playing upfront in the last ten minutes and hitting the bar with a header. A dire afternoon of football.

So, those paying attention will realise that of the last three times I have seen us play Bristol Rovers, we have lost every one.

In 2016, bizarrely, it was time for revenge.

We didn’t see many Rovers fans on the M4. I expected an armada. It was just a trickle. Most were already in the pubs and hostelries of London. A former boss, up for the game with his two sons, texted me to say they had been asked tom leave The Goose. No trouble. Just, I guess, for safety’s sake.

I was parked-up at about 6.30pm. The ridiculously warm London air hit me hard. It was like a sauna. PD, Parky and Glenn had chosen shorts. I wish I had done the same. In The Goose, there were a residual few Rovers fans, but everything was quiet. It was not as busy as I had expected. We had heard that some of the 4,000 were drinking at Earl’s Court, quite a common occurrence these days.

The team news broke.

Begovic – Dave – Cahill – Brana – Aina – Matic – Cesc – Pedro – Moses – Loftus-Cheek – Batshuayi.

A mixture. A chance for some to shine. We presumed Ruben would play off Michy.

The air was thick and muggy on the walk down the North End Road, along Vanston Place and up the Fulham Road. There were Rovers fans about – in their iconic quarters – but there was no hint of 1980-style nastiness.

Inside Stamford Bridge, I was more than happy with the crowd. Only a few rows at the top of the East Stand remained empty. For some reason, like Liverpool in 2015, the away fans had the western side of the upper tier of The Shed, in addition to the whole of the bottom tier. Only three flags; a poor effort to be honest.

It was clear from the onset – and no real surprise to anyone – that the good people of Frenchay, Easton, Yate, Pucklechurch, Mangotsfield, Kingswood, Fishponds and Bradley Stoke would be making all the noise.

Very soon I heard the familiar sound of the Rovers’ theme tune.

“Irene, Goodnight Irene.

Irene, Goonight.

Goodnight Irene, Goodnight Irene.

I’ll see you in my dreams.”

More bloody silly flames were thrown up in to the air from in front of the East Stand as the teams entered the pitch. For a League Cup game. In August. Do me a favour, sunshine.

Chelsea in blue, Rovers in yellow.

The game began. It was still ridiculously warm.

It was all Chelsea for the first part of the game. With Moses and Pedro out wide, and Ruben alongside Batshuayi, we moved the ball well, and – cliché coming up – the Rovers players were chasing shadows. Chances piled up in the first twenty minutes with shots from all areas. Batshuayi dragged his shot wide after a fine move, and Ruben drove a low drive hard against the far post. In The Shed, the away fans were singing away.

“I’ll see you in my dreams.”

Rovers hardly threatened. They put together a crisp move featuring over twenty passes, but got nowhere.

On the half-hour, Loftus-Cheek played in Matic, and his ball in to the box was deflected towards the waiting Batshuayi; he swivelled and lashed it high past Steve Mildenhall in the Rovers’ goal.

Fred Wedlock : “CHTCAUN.”

Billy Wedlock : “COMLD.”

Soon after, a cross from Dave was played right across the goal and Victor Moses had the easiest job to touch it home.

It was 2-0 to us, and we were well on top.

But, no. Just before the break, Rovers swept in a fine ball from a free-kick in front of the East Stand and Peter Hartley rose to head the ball past Asmir Begovic, who until that point had not been tested.

The Rovers end ignited and, no bias, the version of “Goodnight Irene” that greeted their goal was truly deafening. Good work, my luvvers.

They then aimed a ditty at City and Glenn and myself thought about joining in.

“Stand up if you hate the shit.”

City call Rovers “Gas Heads.”

Rovers call City “Shit Heads.”

It’s all very colloquial in Brizzle.

Ellis Harrison then went close with a header.

Thankfully, we soon restored the lead when Batshuayi turned in a Loftus-Cheek pass, again from close range. It was good to see us getting behind defenders and hitting the danger areas.

We lead, then, 3-1 at the break.

It was still a sultry and steamy evening as the second-half began. It was Rovers, though, who began on the front foot and a deep run by their bearded talisman Stuart Sinclair caused us problems. A clumsy challenge by Pedro – yeah, I know – gave the referee an easy decision. Harrison dispatched the penalty with ease.

Rovers soon started singing Billy Ray Cyrus. Fuck off.

We rather went to pieces, and for the next twenty minutes, the away team held the upper hand. Their reluctance to attack for most of the first-half was cast aside and they caused us a few problems. Moses twisted and turned but shot wide. Then, the loose limbed Harrison unleashed a fine shot from distance which Begovic did well to turn over. It was becoming quite a competitive match.

We slowly got back in to our stride, but our finishing was quite woeful. I watched Ruben Loftus-Cheek as our moves developed, but his movement was non-existent. On more than one occasion, I was begging him to make an angle, to lose his marker, to create space, but he did not do so. I guess that instinct is not inside him.

Dave Francis would have found Chris Axon in 1976, no problem.

Thankfully, Rovers began to tire in the final quarter. By then, almost ridiculously, the manager had brought on Eden Hazard for a poor Pedro, John Terry for Ola Aina – sadly injured – and then Oscar for Loftus-Cheek. Our play was invigorated again, but no further goals followed, despite Michy bundling the ball in after good work from Hazard; sadly he was offside.

The away end was still bristling.

“We’re Bristol Rovers, we’ll sing to the end.”

Batshuayi had impressed me throughout the game. He is strong, does not lack confidence, is mobile and has a good first touch. I have a feeling he will be among the goals this season. It was a pretty reasonable game, save for our second-half dip, and I am sure that the travelling Bristolians enjoyed themselves. I was in contact with Dave throughout the match, and I am sure he was proud of his team, and supporters.

However, for the blue and white quarters – the travelling Gas Heads – it was “Goodnight Vienna.”

We set off home, on the M4, along with thousands of others heading west. At Reading Services, the Rovers fans outnumbered us, but they were in good spirits. After delays at a couple of spots on the journey home, I eventually pulled into my drive at 1.15am. These midweek games, Chuckle Brothers or no Chuckle Brothers, do not get any easier.

It had been thirty-five years since my last Chelsea game against Rovers. I wonder if I will ever see another one.

If so, I’m looking forward to it already.

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Tales From A Heavy Loss And A Heavy Win.

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 2 April 2016.

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I sometimes wonder what on Earth I am going to find to write about in these match reports, which now number over four hundred. What story? What angle? What back-story? With an upcoming game at Villa Park coming up, after a two-week break, I began thinking about possible subject matter. I was tempted to head off on a tangent and rant about my growing dissatisfaction with the way that certain parts of the football world is headed. I thought about several options. I was going to quote a few words from the recent edition of “When Saturday Comes” about the sense of a shared footballing history that people of my generation have, but does not seem to be prevalent today. And then, late on Wednesday evening, I spotted something on “Facebook” that turned my thought-processes upside down. I read that Ian Britton, one of my favourite all-time players – who I knew was battling prostate cancer – was in a poor way. The next few words struck me down.

“He’s not got very long.”

Oh my. How very sad. Thoughts whirled around in my head, and I must admit that there were a few tears. I braced myself for some imminently sadder news.

The very next day, the last day of March, we all learned that Ian Britton had passed away.

As we all get older, and as we all advance in years, it is an unavoidable truth that more of our idols, our peers, our friends, our close family members will pass.

In my time as a Chelsea supporter, I can remember the sadness of the Matthew Harding tragedy in October 1996 and the sudden death of Peter Osgood in March 2006. Of course, other players – and just as importantly fellow fans – have passed away too. It was only in November that we lost Tom, who sat next to us from 1997.

But the sadness that I felt on hearing that Ian Britton had died was as deep as any Chelsea loss. This one felt very personal. It hit me sideways.

It brought back memories of my childhood, when I was Chelsea daft, and doted on players. They were my absolute idols and my heroes. I can remember the very first time that Ian Britton came in to my consciousness. During the 1973/1974 season, I used to get “Shoot!” magazine and would always hope that there would be Chelsea players featured. One week, there was an article about two young Scottish youngsters – Ian Britton of Chelsea and Jim Cannon of Crystal Palace – finding their feet in the English game. I cut the article out and stuck it with drawing pins on the wall beside my bed, along with other Chelsea photographs. There was something about the photograph of the cheeky grin of the nineteen-year-old from Dundee that struck a chord. Those early recollections are slightly hazy. Ian’s debut had been against Derby County in December 1972, and although I have recently seen footage from that game, which involved a sparkling goal from Peter Osgood and a horrific miss from Derby’s Roger Davies, which I can remember, I have no recollection of Ian Britton’s substitute appearance.

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

In truth, it took me a while for Ian Britton to become a common name. The fact of the matter is that in those days, my only exposure to Chelsea Football Club was via rare highlights on TV – when Ian would not always appear – and magazines such as “Shoot!” In my grandparents’ “Sunday Express” not every Chelsea game was featured since we ended up with the West of England edition, focussing on the Bristol teams and Plymouth Argyle.

Living in Somerset, I was in the Chelsea wilderness.

So, that “Shoot!” article proved totemic. As the 1972/1973 season gave way to the 1973/1974 season, I guess I became more and more aware of the young lad from Dundee, only five feet five inches tall, and with his trademark hair, and as my first Chelsea hero Peter Osgood departed early in 1974, I surely hoped that Ian Britton would play in my very first game in March 1974. Alas, he didn’t. At the start of the 1974/1975 season, Ian Britton was now my personal favourite. Again, he didn’t play in my next game against Tottenham, but I was very happy to see him play in my third-ever game against Derby County on a wet Saturday in March 1975.

Alas we lost 2-1, but I was excited to have seen my new favourite play.

The relegation team of 1974/1975 stalled in the Second Division in 1975/1976 but Ian was now a regular. I can remember being on holiday in Wareham, Dorset in August 1975 and being horrified to read on the back page of a Sunday tabloid that Manchester United were putting in a £600,000 joint bid for “starlets” Ray Wilkins and Ian Britton. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

In 1976/1977, Ian was a star as we took the Second Division by storm and gained promotion behind Wolves. I remember being upset – “gutted” in modern parlance – that Ian didn’t play in two of the three matches that I saw that season.

He was such an energetic and honest player. I loved his work rate and his attitude. He played wide, and had a lovely pass. He scored his fair share of goals. He was always so neat and tidy. For such a small player, he scored a fair few headers. I remember how giddy I was hearing him speak – yeah, I know, we were all football daft at one stage – on “The Big Match”, answering questions from Brian Moore about an Achilles injury.

He played through another relegation, then starred in 1979/1980 as we came so close to automatic promotion. I was so thrilled to see Ian score a match winner against Orient in March of that season, watching in the East Lower alongside my parents.

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

As we became mired in the Second Division, other players caught my eye…Clive Walker, Mike Fillery…but Ian Britton was still a favourite. I last saw him play against Wrexham in October 1981. He left us in 1982 after 263 games in royal blue and signed for his childhood team – which I knew from that “Shoot” article in 1974 – of Dundee United. At that time, Dundee United had signed a few former Chelsea players – Peter Bonetti, Eamonn Bannon, Jim Docherty – and they became my Scottish team. While Chelsea were battling relegation to the old Third Division over Easter and then in to May of 1983, I was exhilarated to watch from afar as Dundee United won the Scottish Championship for the only time in their history.

It felt just right that Ian Britton had played a part. He played a couple of games for Arbroath, then played 106 games for Blackpool before finishing his career at Burnley, playing 108 games. At Turf Moor, he became a Burnley legend.

In 1986/1987, the Football League decided to move on from the much derided voting system for admitting non-league teams in to the league, and on the final day of the season, Burnley – Football League Champions in 1960 – were facing the prospect of being the first club to be automatically relegated from the league. Ian Britton scored – with a header – as Burnley overcame promotion hopefuls Orient. Burnley went 2-0 up with his goal, but let Orient back in at 2-1. History books will show that it was Ian Britton’s goal which kept Burnley safe.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2sQG_f1fLU

I can well remember seeing a huge photograph of Ian Britton from that game in 1987 as part of a mural on the main stand as I visited Turf Moor for the very first time in 2010. During that game, Ian made the half-time draw and he waved over to us, with that endearing cheeky smile of his. We responded with a chant from the ‘seventies –

“Ian – Ian Britton – Ian Britton on the wing.”

Later in 2010, I travelled down to Eastleigh with my mother to watch a Southampton Old Boys team take on the Chelsea Old Boys. Not only did I see Ian Britton play one last time, I also got to meet him for the very first time in the bar afterwards, and I do not mind admitting that I was uncomfortably giddy – for a forty-four-year-old man – as I chatted to Ian for a few moments. It was one of my Chelsea highlights. I found him to be very friendly and I really appreciated that he called me “Chris.” It meant a lot. That he was so personable. It was a lovely memory to take away from that day. I mentioned Dundee United. It was a lovely few moments.

As the sad news swept around the Chelsea family on Thursday and Friday, one thing became clear.

Nobody ever had a bad word to say about Ian Britton.

I made a vow to try to attend his funeral, even if it would mean that I would only stand outside the church or crematorium. These players – these special players, these special people – touch our lives in ways that people outside the football world can only vaguely understand.

So, with all of this Burnley claret and blue flowing around in my thoughts, I drove to Villa Park and was met with more of the same.

There was not a great deal of enthusiasm for this game with the doomed Villains. As Parky and Young Jake – his first game this year, his first trip to Villa Park – dropped in to the Witton Arms, I had decided upon a different pre-match. I have been visiting Villa Park since my first game in 1986, but for some reason I had yet to take a look at the nearby seventeenth century Aston Hall, which sits on a small hill overlooking Villa Park, and is but a ten-minute walk away. With Aston Villa’s future looking rather bleak, I wondered if this would be my last visit for a few seasons. It was high-time I paid a visit, however fleeting.

Whereas it might be debated about Aston Villa being a big club, despite their rich history, there is no doubt that Villa Park is a grand dame of English football stadia. There is red brick everywhere at Villa Park. On the walk to the away turnstiles on Witton Lane, I passed an old tramway shed, with another red brick building opposite. As I walked past the bleak concrete of the North Stand – which housed our support in the 2002 semi against Fulham – I was struck with how much room Villa have behind that goal. Should they ever wish to expand, unlikely at the moment, they could build a huge stand at that end, perhaps mirroring the huge Holte End to the south. When it was built, the Villa North Stand was the latest in modernity with its darkened executive boxes. At the time of my first visit, Villa Park was a very piecemeal stadium. The low Witton Lane, the huge Holte End terrace, the classic and ornate Trinity Road, the ultra-modern North Stand. Since then, all three stands have been altered and the North Stand is now the antique. Although there was an outcry from Villa fans when the unique Trinity Stand was bulldozed, at least Villa have kept the red-brick motif in the new builds.

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Back in 1991, when this photograph was taken, who new how the Taylor Report would systematically change how people thought about new stadia? Out with terraces, in with seats and executive areas. The charming Trinity Road entrance did not stand a chance.

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Ah, 1991. This was our last game of the season and I had traveled up by train for the game. It was memorable for being Bobby Campbell’s last game in charge. It had been another season of underachievement but the Chelsea hordes were going to make a day of it. I took my position in on the terraces, which had been recently seated. I remember seeing white socks again for the first time in six long years and hoping that this would be repeated in 1991/1992. The old Trinity Road Stand – with those lovely curved balconies – really was a treasure.

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At the end of the game, which we drew 2-2, a few Villa rapscallions raced on to the pitch, but Chelsea – there in huge numbers – soon chased them off. At the height of the rave culture, the pitch was awash with baggy Joe Bloggs jeans, Chipie sweatshirts, baggy pullovers and Umbro Chelsea shirts. Bobby Campbell, ironically I felt, was chaired off. It was a crazy day.

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The entrance to the Holte End brought back memories of our 1996 semi-final against United, when the Chelsea fans descended on Villa Park with balloons and banners and – in fact – I had not visited this south side of the stadium since. The steps, the stained-glass windows and the gables bow their heads in a nod towards the old Trinity Road stand.

Up the hill, and outside Aston Hall – a lovely structure built between 1618 and 1635 – I was able to take it all in. It really was a fine view, a gracious Villa vista. Aston Hall is constructed of red brick too. Everything blends in so well. I will no doubt be taking an increasing interest in various types of bricks over the next few seasons, on visiting stadia near and far, since our new proposed stadium is said to be using particular London brick – various shades, but generally a warm yellow – on all of its outside surfaces. I could not help notice that I have been approaching mighty Villa Park from completely the wrong direction in all of these years. For ease of access to the M5, I park to the north and head in past terraced streets and shops. It’s all rather tawdry. From the south, however, with Aston Hall and its pleasant park to the left, and with the Edwardian splendour of the large Holte pub ahead, Villa Park looks fearsome and yet aesthetically pleasing at the same time. It is just a shame that acres of ugly grey cladding blot the stand roofs.

But I think the new Stamford Bridge will be fine. No cladding there.

I sorted out some tickets outside the away turnstiles. As kick-off approached, I spotted Peter Bonetti over the road, looking good at seventy-four bless him. The troops arrived and we ascended the steps.

Last season, I missed our narrow win at Villa Park as my mother had been taken ill that morning. There was an air of melancholy inside me. There were haunting thoughts of that particular day. I remembered how my mother’s father had a soft spot for Villa, though I am sure that he had never visited Villa Park.

Villa Park was hardly half-full. Sure, we had sold our three thousand tickets, but elsewhere there were thousands of claret and sky blue seats clearly visible. I know their team are going through a really rough spell, mismanaged from board level down, but even so. The poor crowd really shocked me. I am sure that the advertised gate of 31,120 included thousands of “no shows.”

Guus Hiddink, I am sure, surprised many with his team selection. At last the kids, were being given their chance to shine. A Chelsea debut was given to the American Matt Miazga. I envisioned the Chelsea chatter boards among the various supporter groups in the US going into meltdown.

“Awesome” – Nate, New Jersey.

“Awesome” – Ian, Idaho.

“Awesome” – Calvin, California.

“Way To Go” – Grant, Georgia.

“Awesome” – Micky, Minnesota.

“Awesome” – Phil, Pennsylvania.

“Awesome” – Bubba, ‘Bama.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Miazga, Baba – Mikel, Fabregas – Pedro, Loftus-Cheek, Kenedy – Remy.

Scott Sinclair did not even make the Villa starting eleven. What a waste of a once promising career. I wonder if I will eventually see him playing alongside his brother Jake for my local team Frome Town.

The morning rain had stopped and the pitch was soon bathed in sunshine. Villa, heaven knows how, tested Thibaut with a few efforts, but we soon got in to a groove. Pedro, looking our liveliest player, tested Guzan then was offside soon after.

An injured Loic Remy was substituted by the forgotten man Alexandre Pato. The appearance of the Brazilian instilled a little life into the rather subdued Chelsea support. There was a little ironic cheering. I was just intrigued to see what he had to give the team.

Soon after, a lovely move gave us the lead; Mikel kept possession well and released Azpilicueta, who played in Loftus-Cheek. His low shot swept pass Guzan. Mikel’s fine play soon warranted his own chant from the travelling hordes.

A bizarre chance for Villa next, when Courtois saved from Gill, and then again as the ball bounced back off Ayew. Villa then kept their momentum going, but our defence coped well, with Miazga only rarely out of position. Baba drove in on goal but shot weakly. Kenedy promised much but, like Pedro at times, chose to either hang on to the ball or slipped on the wet surface.

Pato was bundled to the ground and the referee had no option but to give us a penalty.

Fair play to Pato for having the balls to step up and take it. His strong shot evaded the ‘keeper’s dive. He looked overjoyed as he ran away, jumping in the air in front of the half-empty Holte End.

The Chelsea support had an easy response to this :

“We were there when Pato scored.”

Awesome.

At the break, Oscar replaced Kenedy. We soon broke down the Villa left and Pato played in Oscar, who slid the ball to Pedro. It was a very fine goal. Gary remarked to Alan that it was very similar to Frank’s record breaker in 2013.

Villa, it has to be said, were bloody awful by now. They were demoralised and pathetic.

Their fans, those in the stadium, seemed to be a mixture of anger and disconsolation. Throughout, they bellowed “Villa Till I Die” – almost as if they were warming up for The Championship, since it is a proper Championship song, bellowed by the likes of Barnsley and Derby and Forest for years – and the Chelsea fans, to my surprise to be honest, applauded them.

Alan wondered if there would be a protest.

“Maybe they will stage a walk-in on seventy minutes.”

Ha.

Joleon Lescott was the target for much of the Villa fans’ ire, in light of a horrible piece of gloating a while back.

“Joleon Lescott – he’s got a new car.”

I piped up –

“Joleon Lescott – he wants a new face.”

Pato forced a save from Guzan, but Pedro slotted home from the tightest of angles. His kung-fu kick on the corner flag showed how excited he was. Who says our players do not care?

4-0 and I hoped for more. There was still half an hour to go.

The Chelsea crowd bellowed “catch the ball” to Courtois after he flapped at a high ball and I noted a rising air of disquiet among our ranks about our young ‘keeper’s attentiveness. I have noticed it too, of late. Too often he seems to resemble a fielder at third man, idling by his time thinking about tea, rather than being on his toes in the slips.

This was becoming an odd game though. Villa were so poor. And rather than push on, we seemed to be happy to play within ourselves. Another debutant, Jake Clarke-Salter, came on for Baba, who was pushed forward. He went close as the game dragged on.

Villa fans held up small placards with the words “Proud History, What Future?” but they honestly looked like white flags.

Alan Hutton was dismissed for a second yellow.

It was not Villa’s day or season.

Miazga had looked competent all game and Pato showed a neatness which I found gratifying. Elsewhere, Loftus-Cheek put in a sound performance. And Pedro too.

As I drove away, I didn’t take too much comfort in our win. A four goal triumph surely should have elicited greater joy?

No. It was only Villa.

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Tales From St. Mary’s.

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 27 February 2016.

I should dislike Southampton Football Club a lot more than I do. When I was a mere eight-year-old boy, they stole my childhood hero Peter Osgood away from Stamford Bridge a mere couple of weeks before my very first Chelsea match.

That is reason enough to carry a lifetime of dislike for them – hatred would, of course, be far too strong – surely?

Looking back at this event some forty-two years later, although I can well remember the sense of pain that I felt at the time, my memories are rather sketchy, not surprisingly. But here are the facts :

My first ever Chelsea game was on Saturday 16 March 1974. Peter Osgood’s last ever Chelsea game was on Saturday 29 December 1973, although he appeared in a friendly at Aberdeen on Friday 16 February 1974.

He left Chelsea a couple of weeks before my first-ever game.

How cruel.

In those formative years of my fledgling support for Chelsea, Peter Osgood was my favourite player, my hero and my idol. He was our charismatic goal scorer and the focus of my adoration. I’ve told the story before of how some family friends, who worked alongside Peter Osgood’s sister Mandy at an office in Windsor, managed to obtain a signed 8” by 10” black and white photograph of Ossie in around 1971 or 1972, and that the excitement of opening up that brown buff envelope containing the photograph was one of the most wonderful moments of my childhood. I still have the autograph of course. It is a treasured memento to this day. Incidentally, I recently spotted a photograph of Ossie’s sister Mandy planting an oak tree in a park in Windsor in memory of her brother, and it brought my childhood memories racing back.

http://www.windsorexpress.co.uk/News/Areas/Windsor/Oak-tree-planted-in-memory-of-England-footballer-Peter-Osgood-08022016.htm

I once spoke to Peter Osgood about the signed photograph and he explained that Mandy was a fine footballer in her own right, and an England international to boot. He laughed when I suggested that she used to sport a fine pair of sideburns, too.

But in 1974, Southampton – and Peter Osgood – broke my heart.

I can vaguely remember the stories in the ‘papers and on the TV about the infamous fall out between our manager David Sexton, and a few of our star players – most notably Alan Hudson and Peter Osgood – and as the day of my first ever game approached, there was this horrible gnawing realisation that I would not be seeing Ossie play. Hudson’s last game for Chelsea was also against Liverpool in December 1973, and he was sold to Stoke City in the first few weeks of 1974. The 1970 and 1971 cup winning team was falling apart in front of my eyes, and – to my sadness – my hero Peter Osgood would be the next to leave. There are hints of an olive branch being pointed towards Ossie with his appearance in the Aberdeen friendly at Pittodrie and possibly a chance of reconciliation, but my idol was sold to Southampton for £275,000 in the first few days of March 1974.

I would never see Ossie play for Chelsea.

Although Chelsea’s 1973/1974 was far from impressive – we only just staved off relegation – it is with a certain amount of melancholy that I note that Ossie’s new club were duly relegated in the May. I am sure that this must have been a huge blow to Ossie, and I am sure that he wistfully looked on as Chelsea stayed up. With a cruel twist, I saw him play against us in March 1976 in a Second Division game, and can sadly remember the furore in the media about The Shed chanting an unsavoury song towards our former hero, and Ossie “flicking some Vs” back at them.

It wasn’t meant to be like this.

When Ossie returned for some games in 1979, our paths sadly never crossed, and his time as a Chelsea player ended with me never seeing him play in our club colours.

It is one of the few regrets that I have as a Chelsea supporter.

As we approached the tenth anniversary of Peter Osgood’s sad passing, how fitting that the Premier League fixture list should pair Southampton and Chelsea together.

For the first-ever time, we had decided to take the train to Southampton. The four of us – Parky, PD, Glenn and myself – met up at Westbury station and caught the 9.01am train down to Southampton Central. Other local blues Les and Graham were on the train too. Opposite us were four Bristolian Chelsea supporters. Throughout the day, we would bump in to many West Country Blues. It is one of the nicest attributes of Chelsea fans that Londoners very rarely take umbrage to Chelsea fans coming from other areas, unlike a couple of Northern teams that I could mention.

Soon into the trip, through rolling countryside, and then the spired city of Salisbury, Parky and PD opened up a couple of cans. I was just happy to share a few laughs as the day unfolded. It was time for me to relax. Leaving work on Friday, I was able to look forward to two fine away games within the space of just four days.

We rolled in to Southampton, breakfasted at a local café, and then joined up with many familiar Chelsea fans in “Yates’s” in the city centre. I am not particularly smitten with Southampton. Right outside the train station, there are a couple of brutal concrete tower blocks, more akin to those on show in the former communist cities of Eastern Europe, which hardly create a welcoming impression. The civic buildings and the Guildhall are fine, but the city centre seems jumbled.

As I worked my way through six pints of San Miguel, such matters disappeared from my mind.

I was able to relax, to chill out, to unwind.

It was important for me to just sit upstairs with Glenn, chatting and relaxing, rather than join in with others in the crowded ground floor, packed to the rafters, and scene of a Chelsea karaoke.

On the previous day, I had silently marked the first anniversary of my mother’s passing by taking some flowers to my parents’ grave, and I was in no mood for too much ribaldry before the game.

I remembered the time in 1981, when my mother and I watched a Southampton vs. Nottingham Forest game from the lower tier of the cramped bench seats in the East Stand at The Dell, lured by the chance to see another hero of my youth, Kevin Keegan, when a work colleague of my father gave us their two season tickets for the day.

Outside the weather looked cold. There seemed to be a biting wind. More than a few of the local police force were watching us. Only two of the central pubs allow away fans.

“Yates’s” was heaving. The lagers were going down well. Good times.

On the walk to St. Mary’s, I joked with Mick that it was lovely to see him holding hands with Pauline.

“It’s not romantic, Chris. I just needed to prise her out of the pub.”

We laughed.

St. Mary’s, positioned next to the River Itchen to the east, but hemmed in by industrial units to the south and two rusty gasometers to the north, is a rather bland stadium. It is no Dell.

There was not a lot of time to spare and I joined up with Alan and Gary in our seats just in time.

All of a sudden, among the beers, and the laughter and the song, it was time to pay attention to the actual match. Guus Hiddink, quietly going about his business and without the squealing histrionics of our previous manager, had chosen the same starting eleven that had defeated Manchester City the previous weekend. In the home team were former blues Ryan Bertrand and Oriel Romeu, both involved to varying degrees on a certain night in Munich in May 2012.

Southampton, winners at The Bridge earlier in the season, and finding their feet again under Ronald Koeman would be a tough proposition.

The Chelsea support, rising up from the darkened concourse in to the light of the stadium, were in fine voice from the start. However, an early injury to Pedro – improving of late – caused Hiddink to reconfigure. On came Oscar.

Chelsea seemed to control much of the possession during a rather tame first-half, yet Southampton were able to carve out the clearer goal scoring chances.

Thibaut Courtois seemed to be a little unsure of himself on a couple of occasions, and dithered once too often for my liking. Shane Long, the journeyman striker, headed over with our ‘keeper stranded. At the other end, the masked marksman Diego Costa went close. Southampton just seemed a little more dynamic in the final third. Whereas we passed the ball without a lot of purpose, the Saints seemed more clinical. Charlie Austin, the steal of the season, struck a firm shot past our post.

Sadly, on forty-two minutes, two defensive blunders resulted in us conceding. A high ball was weakly headed square by Baba Rahman, and Shane Long pounced. His rather heavy touch seemed, to my eyes, to be within reach of Courtois to race out and clear, but the tall Belgian seemed to react slowly. As he raced off his line, Long delicately clipped it in.

Our ten game unbeaten run in the league was under threat against a capable Southampton team. Our attempts on goal were minimal. It was a deserved lead for the home team at the break. At the interval, the ruthless Hiddink replaced Baba with Kenedy.

We slowly improved. Cheered on by the loyal three thousand, who have taken to singing about Frankie Lampard’s goal against West Ham in 2013 with ever-increasing zeal, we began stretching the Saints’ defence.

Mikel headed over.

Diego volleyed wide.

I said to Gary : “Although we have players in wide positions, we don’t really have wingers any more.”

A few tackles resulted in Martin Atkinson brandishing some yellows. Diego Costa looked like a man “in the mood” and some of his industry seemed to inspire others.

At the other end, a rare Southampton attack ended with a robust challenge on Austin by Cahill. From my position some one hundred yards away, it was clearly not a penalty.

Cough, cough.

Eden Hazard, finding pockets of space, played the ball out to a rampaging Diego Costa. He managed to pull the ball back to Cesc Fabregas, who advanced. He played the ball – almost lazily – in to the box, and I was right behind the course of the ball as it avoided a lunge by Hazard and a late reaction by Forster. It nestled inside the net and the Chelsea support screamed.

What a strange, odd, easy goal.

It had was a fine reward for our increasing urgency in the last portion of the game.

In the eighty-ninth minute, we won a corner and Willian – often unable to get his corners past the first man – sent over a fine ball with pace. The warhorse Ivanovic timed his jump to perfection and his thundering header crashed down past Forster.

Get in.

The Chelsea support again screamed.

Hiddink shored things up with the late addition of Nemanja Matic, and the game was safe.

On a day of late goals, we were more than grateful to hear that Leicester City had grabbed an 89 minute winner of their own.

Get in.

There were songs as we walked back towards the train station. This doesn’t happen too often. It seemed to underline the new sense of belief and happiness within our ranks at the moment.

We had time to relax before catching the train home. There was time for two more pints, and a lovely assessment of our resurgence, not only in the last quarter of the game, but over the past few months.

Back in Frome, Glenn and myself finished off the day with a few more drinks, with more reflections on our fine time among good friends, and then, finally, a late night curry.

It had been a wonderful away day.

On Tuesday evening, we reassemble at the home of Norwich City, another of Peter Osgood’s clubs, and our most famous number nine will again be in our thoughts once more.

See you there.

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Tales From The Holy Land.

Maccabi Tel Aviv vs. Chelsea : 24 November 2015.

This was a unique game for me. For the first ever time, I had decided to attend more than just one of the autumnal group phase away games. Until now, my forays in to foreign lands have been limited to one game before Christmas – due to financial constraints and annual leave limitations – but on the evening of the Champions League draw in August, I soon followed up an EasyJet booking to Porto with one to Tel Aviv.

Games like this do not come our way too often.

As the weeks passed, my sense of anticipation grew steadily, although there were several moments of self-doubt, too. I would be attending a game in Israel, a country which has had a history of internal strife with different factions inside its borders and external conflict with its immediate neighbours. Conversations took place with trusted friends – fellow travellers – and these issues were discussed. Yes, there were concerns, but at no point did I think about staying at home. Then came the events in Paris on the evening of Friday 13 November, and my mind became agitated with all sorts of worries for my safety. I am sure that I was not the only one. My worries, thankfully, slowly decreased again.

In the pub before the game with Norwich City at the weekend, my good friend Alan mentioned that he had booked himself on a day tour of Jerusalem and Bethlehem for the day after the game. I quickly followed suit.

I was going to Israel. I was going to Tel Aviv, to Haifa, to Jerusalem, to Bethlehem.

This would surely be one of the trips of my lifetime.

Three days of work (Chelsea in Haifa), rest (the beaches of Tel Aviv) and play (the Holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem).

This would be one for the ages.

My trip to the Holy Land began in the small hours of Tuesday 23 November, the day of the game. I had booked myself on the 7am flight out of Luton, which would get me in to Ben Gurion airport at 2pm. This is not normal for me; I usually have a night in a foreign city to acclimatise, but I would be staying on after until Thursday evening to compensate. As I drove west through neighbouring counties, with the rain lashing down outside, all was surprisingly calm. I think that I was subconsciously trying to put my security and safety fears to one side. Thoughts flitted in and out of my mind.

I thought about our only ever previous trip to Israel, which came only a month or so after the awful attacks in the United States in the September of 2001. On that occasion, several first-team regulars chose not to fly to Israel, and came under considerable scrutiny. My view at the time was that I had great empathy with those who chose not to fly out. For the players that were husbands and fathers, I could understand why they felt they should not go. Marriages could have been threatened if a player and his wife disagreed on this. It was a tense time. Other Chelsea fans were not so forgiving. As far as I can recollect, a very small away contingent – around 150 – followed the team out for the game against Hapoel Tel Aviv, which we lost 2-0.

On a personal level, there was a story too.

My dear father, who I have often mentioned in these tales of my Chelsea life, was in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. Back in the celebrated 2011/2012 season, I managed to involve part of my father’s wartime history during two match reports. For the away game at Everton in the February of 2012, I wrote about my father’s training at RAF West Kirby on The Wirral at the very start of his RAF career. For the away game in Naples, just ten days later, I wrote about my father’s stay in Naples in 1944, when he was billeted at the San Carlo Opera House for six months. In the space of ten days, I had covered two landmark locations in my father’s wartime story. There were other locations that my father visited, including Algeria and Malta, but my father’s very first overseas posting was – yes, you have guessed it – in the city of Jerusalem in July 1944. Not for the first time in my Chelsea travels, I would be walking in my father’s footsteps.

Like myself, Dad was an avid photographer and as I look back on his life and the many wonderful memories that I can easily recollect, one of the biggest gifts that he has been able to provide me with is a small photograph album which contains an image of his squadron badge on the inside cover – Squadron 283 “Attende Et Vigila” – and around one hundred of his war time photographs, taken in locations as diverse as Maison Blanche in Algeria, Taormina in Sicily and Marseilles in France.

Prior to my departure to Israel, I easily hunted out this precious set of photographs and focussed on the ones at the very start of Dad’s story, when he was just twenty-one years of age.

The album contains fascinating photographs of the garden of Gethsemane, the Dome of the Rock, the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Rock, Arch of Ecce Homo, St. David’s Tower, the Wailing Wall, Via Dolorosa, Damascus Gate, the tomb of Jesus, the Temple area and a panoramic view of the whole city. Interestingly, also, there is a fabulous photograph of my father and his eventual best man Hank, sitting on the roof of the Abyssinian Consulate, in RAF regulation shorts, but bare-chested and seemingly enjoying the view, with their smiles wide.

There is also a single photograph of my father, with Hank and three other friends, at Hadera in the September of 1944. Hadera is near the cost, between Tel Aviv and Haifa and I therefore deducted that my father would have entered and exited Israel – or Palestine as it was called until 1948 – through the ancient port of Haifa.

By October 1944, the photographs were of Naples and my father had moved on.

One photograph among those mentioned piqued my interest.

Via Dolorosa.

Maybe because of the Italian sounding name. Maybe because it was a named street – in Dad’s pen, beneath the photograph – rather than just a “street in Jerusalem.”

It stayed in my mind.

At Luton Airport, I soon met up with Kev from Edinburgh, who was with us in Porto not so many weeks ago. He too had booked himself on to the tour of the holy cities on the Wednesday. It was around 5am on a cold winter morning in Bedfordshire, and we would soon be jetting off to a sunny city on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. However, both of us were suddenly a little confused and ill at ease.

“Why are we doing this?”

“I dunno mate.”

“Me neither.”

The flight lasted around four and a half hours. There were only a few fellow Chelsea supporters on the trip. We were greatly outnumbered by many orthodox Jews, in their distinctive black hats, skull caps, black jackets and white shirts, some travelling alone, some with their families. Here was proof that this would be a Chelsea away like no other. With my eyes getting tired, I was thankfully able to catch up on some sleep. We flew over Germany, Hungary and beyond. Refreshed, I was then also able to read sections of the guide book to Israel that I had bought a fortnight previously, but which had been untouched until now.

Of course, the book confirmed several thoughts about Israel. I was reminded of its complex and confusing political history. I tried to understand the geography. My guide book focussed on Israel, with only a minimal mention of the Palestinian lands of the West Bank and the infamous Gaza Strip. And then there was the religious aspect. If any city can claim to represent the cradle of religious beliefs it is Jerusalem. But as soon as I thought that I was getting to grips with a particular train of thought, the words on the page in front of me would flow away on some bizarre tangent and I would have to go back and re-read the section again. Many a moment was spent trying to understand the complexities of the Jewish religion. I was still trying to unravel the notion of the Jews as a race or a religion, or both, when I was met with the conundrum of secular Jews. And then there was the equally baffling notion that not all Arabs living in Israel were Muslim (only 83%, with 9% Christian and 8% Druze.) This was getting all too confusing, but made me all the more excited to think that I would soon be able to see all of this for myself. Then things got a little strange.

I looked up and noted that the chap in front of me was wearing a Manchester United skull cap. I sighed. Then I noted that the Jewish woman to my left was breastfeeding her infant.

There was a tit in front of me and now one to the left.

Oi vey.

I resumed a little sleep and woke with only an hour to go. The flight had zoomed by. At Ben Gurion airport, passport and custom checks were quick and easy. Kev and I hopped in to a waiting cab. We were on our way in to Tel Aviv. The immediate scenery did not look to dissimilar to a city in Southern Spain at first glance, with modern roads and high-rise apartments. As we delved into the city, though, things became more alien.

“Kev, why are we here, mate?”

A pause.

A solemn answer.

“Not sure.”

My first thoughts about the city of Tel Aviv were of contrasts. Modern shops and cars, but shabby buildings. We drove on. Suddenly, the atmosphere changed significantly. Buildings were more modern, the shops sleeker. We spotted the Mediterranean Sea to our left. We reached our hotel, overlooking the city’s small marina, at around 3pm. We soon met up with Alan, who had travelled out the previous day. A serious drinking session had taken place among those Chelsea fans already in town, but I knew that this would be a day of few drinks, such were the time constraints involved. I freshened up, then set off for a local bar, overlooking the sandy beach.

We placed our sunglasses on as we slowly walked past towering palm trees towards the twin bars of “Jessica’s” and “Mike’s Place.”

The weather was fantastic. That first beer would go down well.

“Chelsea away. Love it.”

We bumped in to a few familiar faces at “Jessica’s” and sat inside for a couple of “two for one” dark Tuborg ales. The sun, a huge ball of flame, was setting over the sea – it disappeared so quickly – and we just revelled in the moment.

This was just perfect.

In all honesty, I could have stayed there for a few more hours, but we needed to move on. Big John, who was staying in a hotel around a mile to the south, had arranged for a coach to take around forty of us up to Haifa.

On the walk to the hotel, we spotted Millsy and two mates, shorts on, sandals on, beach towel over their shoulders, licking at ice-creams. It was a surreal sight, and not one that usually accompanies Chelsea in Europe. They were heading off to get the train north to Haifa.

We set off a little later than planned, at around 5.30pm, by which time night had almost fallen, and we were snared in rush hour traffic for a while. The coach was full of familiar faces, but there was little chat or revelry as we slowly moved north. It was so quiet, in fact, that it almost seemed like we were on our way back from a game. The dark evening outside and whispered conversations inside. I don’t think that this was because we were nervous; more likely that the sustained drinking session of the previous night was still affecting some.

The game didn’t kick-off until 9.45pm local time. It seemed that we were going to arrive in Haifa way too early. However, a journey which should have taken an hour took two. We were deposited outside the sleek and photogenic Sammy Ofer Stadium in the southern outskirts of Haifa at around 7.30pm. Around fifteen of us were still without match tickets though. After a little walk out to the main road, Kev and I managed to flag down a cab and we hopped in. The taxi driver hardly spoke a word of English and there were a few moments of concern as we tried to tell him where the Chelsea ticket collection hotel was based. Thankfully, his GPS kicked in and we were headed in to town on a twenty minute ride which would cost us eighty shekels or around £15.

Once the cab driver realised that we were in town for the football, he began annoying us both.

“Chelsea bad (smile), yes?”

“Arsenal good (smile), yes?”

“Chelsea not so good (smile), yes?”

“Leicester good (smile), yes? Jamie Vardy good!”

“Ferguson good (smile), yes?”

“Wenger good (smile), yes?”

“Mourinho not so good (smile), yes?”

I whispered to Kev…”the fucker ain’t getting a tip at this rate.”

As we neared the city centre, we drove past a throng of local Chelsea fans, all bedecked in all types of royal blue, with Israeli Chelsea Supporters banners and scarves on show. I thought that I recognised my mate Dom from New York who was in town for the game. With our tickets firmly in our hands – phew – at around 8.15pm, we walked back to the bar where the locals had been spotted. Bizarrely, the place was like a bar after a gunslinger had visited. They had all just left.

We backtracked to another bar, where we quickly sipped another dark Tuborg with Kev, from London, who sits near me in the MHU. The three of us then caught a cab – no football chat from the cab driver this time, thank heavens – and back to the environs of the stadium. The place was heaving with the yellow and blue of the team from Tel Aviv. With a capacity of 30,000 I presumed that it was chosen as a venue ahead of Maccabi’s own Bloomfield Stadium, which holds half that number.

Kev summed it up.

“It’s like Hearts playing at Celtic Park. Different city, main rivals. Crazy.”

There were about forty-five minutes to the kick-off, so we had a little time to take it all in. I love the hustle and bustle of match-going crowds, especially in foreign lands, and Israel was no different. There was little chanting outside, but I could tell that the locals were exhilarated to host the English Champions. We each bought a couple of – straight, not circular – bagels for ten shekels, but they were a tough chew. Outside the stadium, there is a rather graceful statue of a young woman in flowing robes holding a dove, and the night lights reflected off its shiny metallic surfaces. In the distant, spotlights shone high in to the night, and a full moon shone down on the stadium, which is shrouded in old gold metallic cladding. It is a stunning sight. My camera whirled into action.

We approached the turnstiles by the away sector. I was dreading a repeat of Porto, when my camera was not allowed entry. Thankfully, after a very quick glance in to my camera bag – “no bottles”? – and a cursory pat down, we were in.

A hot dog with sauerkraut, ketchup and mustard went down well, and we took up our seats in the lower tier. Although sleek and visually appealing outside, the two-tiered stands were quite mundane once inside. It was “sit/stand” where you like, so Kev and I shuffled up next to Alan and Raymondo – who had spent their pre-match at a bar in a local shopping centre – alongside Brighton Tony’s group. Above me, a set of familiar flags were draped over the balcony wall.

Ontario Canada (Burger and Julie).

Hastings Chelsea (Mark).

Hayes Chelsea (Kenny).

Studham Loyal (Ronnie).

Badgercrack Nebraska (Sergei and Dmitry).

Down at the front, easily spotted due to their near unanimous wearing of Chelsea replica shirts (not really our “thing” on tour in Europe), were a gaggle of around forty young local fans. To our immediate right was a larger section of local fans too.

Skull caps and Chelsea scarves.

One chap even had a Chelsea / Tottenham half-and-half scarf.

The irony.

We had apparently sold around one thousand tickets for this game, but my take was that around a third of these were to Israelis.

It was a warm night, and designer polos with shorts were the order of the day. On the far side, the more vociferous home fans were making a din. Fair play to them, this was their big night. The teams entered the pitch and the whole stadium held up plastic yellow and blue mosaics. It was a fine sight. The Champions League anthem was played, and a middle-aged chap to our left held up a Tottenham Hotspur scarf towards us.

Fuck off.

Two banners were on show at the north end.

“Ultras Tel Aviv.”

“Maccabi Fanatics.”

I was reminded of how the two common names of Maccabi and Hapoel came in to fruition in Israel. Nothing as simple as “United” or “City” in Israel; these two addendums derived from the political stance of the clubs at their inception. Teams featuring Maccabi stem from the Liberal party, those with Hapoel from the Labour party. Of the fourteen teams in the Israeli first division, all but three contain either of these two words.

There was also a banner crying out for attention.

“Europe Wake Up! Zionism Is Not A Crime!”

All of a sudden, the game was upon us.

Begovic.

Azpilicueta – Terry – Cahill – Baba.

Matic – Fabregas.

Willian – Oscar – Hazard.

Diego Costa.

Within the first few minutes, an unmarked Maccabi player – Iglebor – evaded all defenders and headed over from a central position inside our box. In truth, he should have scored. It was soon apparent that the pitch was cutting up very easily and divots soon started appearing all over. We seemed to enjoy attacking down our right, with Dave heavily involved. This suited me since this is where the Chelsea fans were settled.

Snap, snap, snap.

We enjoyed the majority of the ball, as ever, but we wondered if our shot shy attacker Diego Costa would cause the Tel Aviv ‘keeper much activity.

On twenty minutes, Willian sent over a corner. Gary Cahill rose high, possibly using a defender as a step ladder, and headed goal wards. Radkovic reacted incredibly well but could only push the ball on to a post. Cahill’s momentum carried him forward and he stabbed the ball home.

Get in.

His run towards us was captured on film and it was lovely to see all of the team join him.

We continued to dominate the game. Again we could be accused of over-passing, though. That incisiveness, so missing this season, is still not with us. Eden Hazard, on the back of a warming performance against Norwich City, seemed lost. We had a few attempts on goal. A shot from Fabregas, and one from Willian. An extravagant bicycle kick from Diego, a ball played in to Hazard but his jump and stretch mistimed. On one memorable occasion, with Chelsea attacking hard, Baba was further up the left flank than Diego Costa.

“Get in the box, Costa!”

We were winning, but the mood in the away end was hardly euphoric. There wasn’t too much noise either, save from a few rousing verses of “Willian.”

In the closing moments, the lump of Israeli rock that is Tal Ben Haim kicked out at Diego Costa – I was unsighted – and the ridiculously young looking referee from Turkey produced the red card. Ben Haim – I can never remember warming him to him as a Chelsea player – slouched off the field, his misery complete.

If I am honest, once the second-half began, I found myself losing interest. Chelsea were now attacking the far goal, and I was starting to get increasingly tired. I occasionally sat in my seat and rested my legs. I started to think of how many hours sleep that I would be getting ahead of our trip to Jerusalem on the Wednesday, when we would be leaving our hotel at 7.15am. I was so glad that I had not been drinking.

“Leave here at midnight, maybe 12.30am, a two hour journey, back at 2.30am, maybe sleep at 3.00am, up at 6.00am. Three hours. Bollocks.”

A fine save from Begovic was warmly applauded by the Chelsea ranks. A close-range volley from Dave was well saved, and then Begovic was at his very best again. Despite the one man advantage, Chelsea were far from impressive. As the night drew on, I began dreaming of my hotel bed.

The home fans put on a fine show, with both ends taking it in terms to rally behind their teams, as shouts of “Maccabi” bounced back to and forth.

Pedro replaced a very lacklustre Hazard.

“No more than 4/10 tonight. You can be one of the top ten players in the entire world, but if your confidence is shot, it means nothing” I said to a chap nearby.

Sadly, John Terry crumpled to the floor and was stretchered off. I watched him as he left the field; I could tell he was in pain. There was no clenched fist salute to the away fans, a sure sign that he was troubled.

“God, just what we need with Tottenham on Sunday.”

He was replaced by Kurt Zouma.

A free-kick in “Willian Territory” had us all hoping and praying. He did not disappoint. A curling effort dipped over a weak wall and in to an unguarded net.

2-0.

The game was safe now and we could relax.

In Portugal came the surprising news that Kiev were winning.

Shortly after, a fantastic deep cross from the somewhat maligned Baba Rahman was headed home by Oscar. Towards the end of the game, I eventually met up with Dom, from NYC, albeit for just a few words. He had travelled over with no ticket waiting for him, but one of the local Israelis had sorted him out.

Our victory was complete when Kurt Zouma headed easily past Rajkovic from an Oscar header.

4-0.

It matched the result in the home leg.

If Willian made all of the headlines with another excellent goal allied to a typically bullish performance, I thought that Cesar Azpilicueta was also outstanding, combining a fine defensive display with many forceful runs at his opposing full-back. Diego Costa was as frustrating as ever, but – overall – this was a decent enough showing.

Job done troops.

However, I was a little dismayed that only two or three of the players made much of an effort to thank the travelling Chelsea supporters for our efforts. Only Gary Cahill and Asmir Begovic appeared to go out of their way to walk a few steps towards us.

This wasn’t Watford. Or Leicester. Or Southampton.

This was Tel Aviv, for fuck sake, boys.

Disappointing.

Thankfully, the coach driver made great time on the return trip. I was back in my bed just after 1.30am. It had been a long, long day.

I dropped off to sleep.

On the Wednesday, I stumbled out of bed after just over four hours’ sleep. A shower soon revitalised me. With the work behind us, it was now time to rest and play. While the team no doubt headed home to Blighty straight after the game, and some fans were not far behind them, I still had two days left. A quick breakfast at the hotel was followed by a mini-bus calling to take us to Jerusalem and then Bethlehem. It would be a day that would be the highlight of the trip; who says it is only about the football? Not me.

Our tour guide, a chap who lived on a kibbutz in a winery called Ossi, was soon detailing facts about Tel Aviv, Israel, and then Jerusalem as we drove east and up towards the hills. We were caught in a little traffic on the busy road, which was occasionally lined with the metal shells of army vehicles, no doubt in remembrance of lives lost in previous periods of conflict. We stopped for a much needed coffee just as all three of us were starting to nod off. It revived us instantly. A Chelsea fan from Hillingdon, Suk, was on our mini bus and we had a little chat about the game. He had been one of the few at the 2001 game in Tel Aviv. I was honestly surprised at how many minarets, indicating the site of mosques, were visible on the drive in to the city. Up to 20% of the population of Israel are Muslims, and here was the proof. Before we knew it, we were heading past the 9/11 monument on the outskirts of Jerusalem before heading in from the north, past the impressive British Military Cemetery. We were soon parked up on Mount Scopus, which affords a magnificent panoramic view of the seven hills of Jerusalem. What is it about cities built on seven hills? Rome is the same. They say that Bath, my place of birth, is too.

Jerusalem looked spectacular.

I spoke to Kevin, reminding him of the conversation that we had shared on several occasions on the previous day regarding our visit to Israel.

“Right. That is why we are here.”

We looked down on the city once more.

I was in awe.

The shining gold semi-circle of the Temple Mount dominated the vista before me, but this would be off limits on this trip, as non-Muslims are not allowed to enter. My father, in 1944, had visited it, but times had changed since then. I gazed down at the various locations as Ossi pointed out their part in the complex and interesting story of Jerusalem. For the first of many moments throughout my stay, I began questioning what I was hearing. The Temple Mount is allegedly where Mohamed ascended from earth to heaven, a fact that was alien to me before this trip. So, in addition to being the city where Jesus Christ was crucified and rose again – the epicentre of all Christianity – this was Mo Town, too.

And yet, my thoughts on all of this were swirling around me.

I have never mentioned my faith, nor my religious thoughts, in these Chelsea tales ever before – why should I? – and I very rarely talk about such topics with anyone but my very closest friends. But on a visit to the Holy Land, it seems churlish for me to keep my thoughts to myself. My parents took me to church every Sunday throughout my childhood and although I rarely attend these days, I usually pray each night…a few words…and so I guess that I would be called a Christian. I’m certainly spiritual.

However, my rational nature always tends to disrupt my thoughts concerning religious fundamentalism and I can see through the vast majority of the religious bombast which sadly dominates some areas of various faiths.

I knew that my travels through Jerusalem might make me feel uneasy as the day progressed.

Back in the coach, we glimpsed the arid bleakness of the Sinai Desert to the east. I could have stayed looking out at its ethereal bleakness for ages. Then, sadly, the time just went too quickly for me to take everything in. In only ten minutes, the coach drove past the Garden of Gethsemane, the Kidron Valley, the city of David, various churches, a huge Jewish cemetery, all interspersed with a rapid fire commentary. By the time that we had stopped to park near the Jaffa Gate to the west of the ancient walled city, I was in need of a few moments to take it all in.

But there was no time to rest. We began our walking tour of the cramped ancient city.

At times my memories of bible studies at primary school and Sunday school fought with images and lines from “The Life Of Brian.”

“Now you listen here. He’s not the Special One. He’s a very naughty boy.”

We spent around four hours in Jerusalem. We visited the Armenian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter, and finally the Jewish Quarter. Soon into the tour, we were taken down narrow cobbled streets, with shops selling all kinds of wares and souvenirs. As I spotted a few tacky T-shirts (“Guns & Moses”) I was reminded of my father’s comments about Jerusalem. He was expecting a spiritual enlightening, but instead was dismayed at the amount of “tat” being peddled. Seventy-one years later, it was a lot worse.

I kept looking out for Via Dolorosa. Ossi kept mentioning it. As the day unfolded, it came to light that this was the route taken by Christ as he carried his cross to the site of his crucifixion at Calvary. More of that later.

We passed a little enclave of Ethiopian Jews, and visited their very small church, then stopped at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is where – it is alleged – Christ was crucified. My father had visited here in 1944. This is odd, because I always presumed that Calvary – “there is a green hill far away without a city wall” – was some distance from Jerusalem, but here it was, right in the heart of the old city.

I was overwhelmed by the various facts which Ossi regaled us with. We saw a slab of marble which was used as a resting place for the body of Christ. People were stooping to kiss it and touch it. I wasn’t so sure. My faith was being sorely tested.

All the time my camera was recording these amazing images.

Then, outside, a piece of pure drama.

While Kev, Alan and myself rested outside the large and imposing church, and while we had a little discussion about our beliefs, or lack of them, a microphone was broadcasting a call to Islamic prayer. Then, a little group of Jewish pilgrims carried a cross into the little square and a rabbi began saying a few words too.

Muslim and Jewish prayers were taking place simultaneously outside the church where it is alleged that Jesus Christ was crucified.

Some moment.

Our tour continued around and down, through increasingly small and cramped streets. We entered the Muslim Quarter. Shops seemed busier, the pathways narrower. At last, we entered Via Dolorosa. Ossi spoke about the fourteen Stations of the Cross which marked the half a mile or so that Christ carried his cross, and which today is marked by Via Dolorosa, although the original street would have been many feet below the current level.

So, this is why my father was so specific.

I had kept an image of my father’s photograph of Via Dolorosa on my camera’s memory card. As we walked down, I kept referring to it. I wanted to replicate that image. I would soon be rewarded.

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So, here were two images taken by my father and by myself, some seventy-one years apart.

Dad was 21 and I am 50.

71.

Spooky, eh?

As we continued along Via Dolorosa, Ossi came to a point where pilgrims were placing their hands on a stone on a wall to our right. Ossi didn’t sound too convincing as he explained that this is where Jesus Christ touched this very wall. And yet the original street was several feet below us. Call me agnostic on that one. It suddenly dawned on me that I was far less excited about walking the same street as Jesus Christ as walking the very same street that my father had visited in 1944.

We found ourselves at the base of the hill. We were asked to place our goods and chattels through a metal detector and then found ourselves outside the Western Wall. Again, my father had visited here. Alan, Kev and myself donned special souvenir “kippahs” and walked towards the holy wall, which actually abuts the Tomb of the Rock.

It was surreal to visit such a famous and spiritual location.

I honestly can’t remember if I prayed for a win at Tottenham on Sunday.

We made our way back up the hill, through the Jewish Quarter, which tended to contain a greater proportion of newer buildings, before stopping for a bite to eat. While eating, one of our tour party spotted my Chelsea US Tour T-shirt and commented that he was present at our MLS All-Star Game in Chicago in 2006. I responded that I was there, too. What is it I have said about Chelsea World being ridiculously small?

There was one final look over the rooftops of Jerusalem’s sacred centre, and we then retraced our steps up to the Jaffa Gate.

Our little mini-bus then headed south, passing a variety of more modern, and rather sturdy, buildings before things started to get a little tense. We were headed for Bethlehem, which is situated just inside the West Bank. Call me naïve, but I stupidly presumed that Ossi would stay on the bus and we would disappear into Bethlehem for an hour or so before returning to Jerusalem.

It soon became evident that I was wide of the mark, like a Radamel Falcao volley.

Oh no, nothing as easy as that.

Our mini-bus would park on the Israeli side of the security wall, constructed in 2000, and the ten of us were to walk over to the West Bank, where we were to be met by a Palestinian.

Ossi : “Yes, you will meet your guide there. His name is Osama.”

Inside the mini-bus, you could have heard a pin drop.

“Fackinell.”

Ossi : “I will not join you. I will go back to the Western Wall to pray for your safe return.”

He turned to us and smiled. He was likable chap, in his ‘seventies, with a splendid comb-over which resembled a skull-cap, but on this occasion he was laughing alone. We fidgeted a little, then set eyes on the thirty foot security wall which wended its way for quite a considerable way in to the distance.

Gulp.

Ossi pointed us towards a metal fence and we passed through a series of walkways before walking across an expanse of concreted open land. In to the next set of gates, then down a narrow path, to be greeted by a smiling Osama. The ten of us quickly darted into two waiting vehicles, which then drove us – rather quickly – through the narrow streets of Bethlehem. There was a vastly different vibe here. Osama, who was only the driver and not the guide, pointed out two young boys in front of us.

“These Palestinian boys are bad. They throw stones at Israeli police cars.”

We were met by a fantastic guide called George – a Palestinian Christian – who guided us through the various chambers and rooms of the Church of the Nativity, which is a conglomeration of three churches on the very spot, allegedly, where Jesus Christ was born. There was no stable, only caves. We were way underground and mired in Christianity; up to our eyes in the most famous story of them all. To be frank, George was a more compelling and believable guide than Ossi and he listed a whole host of – possible, only possible – pieces of evidence which backed up the notion of a holy birth on that exact spot over two thousand years ago.

Again, my religious side was battling my rational side and I wasn’t sure which would come out on top.

After the visit was over, we darted into a souvenir shop, then sped back towards the security fence. Bethlehem is ridiculously hilly and the buildings perch precariously on the hill tops. Osama walked us up to the gates and pointed us onward. As we crossed “no man’s land”, many Palestinian migrant workers were heading back after a day’s toil in Jerusalem. What happened next, was pure farce.

We found ourselves in a hall, maybe a holding area, and were met with some unmanned turnstiles. There was no way to get through. We spotted a large sliding door, and after a little deliberation, pulled it back, not quite expecting what would greet us. It was another holding area. And more unmanned turnstiles. One chap decided to push his way through, but there seemed to be no way through. And he was stuck. We were all stuck. We had no idea what to do. Go back? What would greet us? After about three or four minutes, at last a voice called out and we piled through the last turnstile, putting our cameras and wallets through a security scanner. More migrant workers walked past. I avoided eye contact, just for safety sake. At last, we spotted Ossi.

We scrambled into the waiting van, and headed back in to Jerusalem.

“Out of my comfort zone there, boys. Don’t mind admitting it. Away games at Tottenham and West Ham will be easy compared to that.”

We were back to the relative comforts of Tel Aviv by 5.45pm.

“Tell you what, Tel Aviv looks bloody normal compared to what we have seen today.”

Back at our hotel, the three of us met up with Tony – now living in my home town of Frome – and we set off for a meal and some beers. Who should spot us but Suk, and we aimed for “Mike’s Place.” We enjoyed a great meal and chatted about Chelsea, Israel and all sorts. I had forgotten, but Suk reminded us that “Mike’s Place” was attacked by a suicide bomber – from Britain – in 2003, and three unfortunate souls were killed. We moved on to another bar, with the laughter flying around, before calling it a night at around midnight.

Alan and Kev were off to the airport in the morning and so, after another fine breakfast, I had some time to kill. I changed into some shorts and headed down to the beach. It was just after 10am, but the sun was already warm. I swam in the Mediterranean Sea and relaxed on the beach. Never before had there been a Chelsea trip quite like this one. The water was lapping at the sandy beach behind me as I remembered all of the family holidays that I had enjoyed with my parents in various Italian resorts, and the sound of the water slowly rolling over the sand brought back a host of memories.

A light lunch was followed by a relaxing time back at the hotel as I waited patiently for four other friends – Pauline, Digger, Fiona, Ronnie – to return. Together, we took two cabs to the local train station before heading back to the airport. Before I knew it, I was looking down on the lights of Tel Aviv, and they slowly disappeared from view as we headed west over the Mediterranean.

The football had only taken up a small part of my three days in The Holy Land. However, I was just so thankful that the football – no, Chelsea – had taken me to see such a scintillating part of our world.

Thank you Israel.

Shalom!

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Tales From The Toon.

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 26 September 2015.

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

Life rarely gets much better.

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

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

A boy and his ball.

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

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

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

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

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

“Five.”

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

“Silverware, Pete.”

“You’re joking aren’t you?”

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

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

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

“Cheers Pete. Enjoy…the rugby.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As they say :

“You couldn’t make it up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Surely we will win today.”

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

Begovic.

Ivanovic, Cahill, Zouma, Apilicueta.

Matic, Fabregas.

Oscar, Hazard, Pedro.

Remy.

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

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

Lack of movement off the ball.

No pace.

No width.

A lack of intensity.

No pressing.

Defensive frailties.

Exposure down our right.

Possession with no penetration.

A lack of leadership.

The nine deadly sins.

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

“Cam on Chowls, get in to them.”

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

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

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

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

The home support roared, we were gobsmacked.

During half-time, this typical of my comments :

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

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

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

“For Fuck Sake.”

I wondered what John Terry was thinking.

So, here we were.

0-2 in 2013.

1-2 in 2014.

0-2 in 2015.

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

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

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

Ramires replaced Oscar. His impact was great.

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

“Get in.”

It was as surprising as it was impressive.

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

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

“YEEEES.”

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

We were loud now.

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

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

Two points dropped or a point gained?

We will know in May.

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

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

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Tales From New Jersey.

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

Ah, the passage of time.

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

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

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

“Let’s go to woik.”

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

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

And yet this tells only half the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What excitement.

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

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

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

Frank smiled and responded :

“I’ll be back.”

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

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

Snap.

Roma and Frank, New York 2015.

Picture perfect.

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

“Not everyone is on holiday.”

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

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

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

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

Well, Chelsea kept winning.

Damn it.

The baseball trip never looked like happening.

European trips to Champions League cities prevailed.

Typical Chelsea.

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

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

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

“It would be rude not to.”

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

Season 2015-2016 was about to begin.

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

There was football everywhere.

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

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

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

Welcome to New York.

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

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

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

Blue shirts, blue shorts, blue socks.

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

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

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

Get in.

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

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

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

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

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

Jon from Florida.

Karen from Connecticut.

Brian from North Carolina.

Tim from Pennsylvania.

Frank from New York.

Keith from New Jersey.

Brenda from Georgia.

Fantastic.

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

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

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

I could relax.

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

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

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

1-1.

2-1.

3-1.

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

“Oh bloody hell Chelsea.”

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

3-2.

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

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

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

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

Ugh.

I quickly tried to explain everything to myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All three of us were rather lost for words.

Then New York took over.

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

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

The sight was stunning.

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

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Tales From Tinsel Town.

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 24 May 2015.

This was it, then. The last game of the season. To be truthful, it was a game in name only. With the league already won, the day was all about one particular moment which would happen at around 5.15pm.

The sun glinting off the Premier League trophy as John Terry lifts it high above his shoulders.

In fact, there was a part of me that wanted to fast forward through the actual match in order to just reach that point. Sure, there would be friends to meet and memories of the season to share along the way, but I just wanted to see the trophy back in SW6.

Best not to wish my time away though. Surely it would be best to relax and enjoy the day as it unfolded before me. That was the plan.

However, it was perhaps inevitable in this most difficult of seasons for myself, what with the recent loss of my mother overshadowing almost everything, that even this most potentially joyous of all days should be tinged with sadness.

On Wednesday, we sadly learned that one of the Bristol group, Clive, had sadly passed away. Although Clive was not in my immediate circle of close Chelsea friends, he was one of the many acquaintances that I have enjoyed talking to over the years, whether it was in The Goose or at any home or away game. That Clive lived in Bristol, relatively close to me in the West Country, meant that there was an empathy with him. He was a fine man, a very loyal Chelsea supporter and, for the want of a better phrase, one of the undoubted “good guys.” He has featured in these tales over the years as one of the un-named members of “the Bristol boys” and, to be honest, his unexpected passing hit me for six. Although the Chelsea family has lost a few well known supporters of late, Clive was the only one that I can honestly say that I knew. That he passed away on 19 May is an irony that was not lost on any of his close Chelsea friends. In the packed beer garden of “The Goose”, I had a quiet few words – a difficult few words – with Clive’s sons Kelvin and Rich. We raised a glass to their father and to my mother.

I had travelled up from the West Country for the final league game of the season with Southern Parky and Northern Dean. At the Chelsea hotel, The Copthorne, we had joined forces with a few good friends from the United States – Kathryn and Tim from DC, Tom from Los Angeles – and had met a first time visitor to Stamford Bridge, Jim, also from the DC area, too. Jim was over with his son CJ, and was supremely happy that I had managed to sort out a spare match ticket for him. On the way to “The Goose” we had stopped off at a ridiculously quiet “Malt House” for a pint and a chat about all things Chelsea. In “The Goose” the atmosphere was predictably boisterous.  The beer garden was rammed. Burger, Julie and Andy, veterans of many a Chelsea US tour, joined the celebrations. It was lovely.

The sun was shining and the championship was ours.

The beer tasted even better than usual. It was perfect, just perfect.

Sadly, we left the pub just a little too late for my liking. There was a typical melee at the turnstiles and I sadly missed the pre game presentation to the crowd of several members of the 2004/2005 championship squad. Alan, who was in early, was able to tell me that even William Gallas, probably the only ex-Chelsea player of recent memory who has received a tough time during his subsequent outings against us, was on show.

I was absolutely elated to see Tom alongside Alan. Tom is in his late ‘seventies and his health has not been too good of late. His presence was one of the high points of the day.

I noted that everyone had been given blue card mosaics and a royal blue flag to hold and wave before the teams had entered the pitch. Sadly, that infamous Chelsea tradition of “one last pint” had backfired further. I had missed all of that too.

Balls.

And so to the game.

Ah, the game. Yet again, all of the various pre match chats had managed to avoid the game itself. The first big surprise was that Eden Hazard, rumoured to be out due to the lingering side-effects of a dental operation, was playing. We had learned that this would be Didier Drogba’s last ever game for us and he was playing from the start. Also in was Petr Cech; would this be his last game, too? The back line in front of Big Pete was the standard four of 2014/2015, but Jose Mourinho chose Jon Obi Mikel – maybe his last game too? – alongside Nemanja Matic. The attacking three were Hazard, Willian and Cuadrado.

The traditionalist in me was just happy that the men in suits had not decided for our players to jettison the current playing kit for next season’s. It is always a pet peeve of mine. Dare I mention Moscow?

With the Chelsea support in fine form, I soon texted Jim from DC to see how he was doing.

“I’m in heaven.”

With the sun shining – perfect “Chelsea weather” – we began well and Drogba almost touched home a low Cuadrado cross at the near post. The crowd were vibrant and the party was on.

“We want you to staaaaaay. Petr Cech, we want you to stay.”

Two pieces of action involved our rampaging full-back / winger / battering ram Ivanovic. Firstly he tumbled in the box after a challenge but a penalty was not given and then, with a shot mirroring a similar effort against a recent opponent at home, a blistering drive from distance.

Sadly, despite having the majority of the ball, we conceded on twenty-six minutes. A corner was played in to the box and the ball’s path seemed to confuse and bewilder our entire defence. The ball bounced up,  just missing John Terry’s desperate attempt to intercept, allowing Stephen Fletcher to nod the ball down and in past Cech. To say we were stunned would be an understatement. The Mackems in the opposite corner, relatively quiet until that point, roared after a tantalising split second of silence; I suspected that they could not believe it either.

Bollocks.

Next, came a moment of pure theatre. Mourinho signalled for Diego Costa to replace Didier Drogba. The crowd began applauding our hero of Munich – and of course of many other moments too – but then we became aware of something strange. We saw Cech race out of his box and join the rest of his team mates in hoisting Didier up and carrying him, in a blue-shirted chariot, off the pitch. None of us had witnessed anything like this before. It was partly corny, partly magnificent. Didier turned, waved a palm to the stands, then took off his shirt once his chariot ride had finished. An embrace with Diego and Jose and his Chelsea career was over. I am still in two minds about his return to us, but here was a send off fit for a king. I have pictures of his last seconds as a Chelsea player on the Stamford Bridge pitch in 2012.

The pictures from 2015 seem more appropriate.

“Thanks Didier. You take care mate.”

Just after, Cuadrado tempted John O’Shea to lunge as he offered the ball as a prize. The lunge was ill-timed and the referee Lee Mason was left with no option. A penalty.

Diego Costa calmly stroked the ball in.

Unlike in 2005/2006 when our league campaign, after the title-clincher versus Manchester United, ended with two limp defeats, I was convinced that the 0-3 reverse at The Hawthorns would not be followed with another defeat here. We had, after all, another undefeated home record to defend. And there have been a few.

Sadly Cuadrado, enjoying his best game for us – “not hard” I hear you say – was injured and replaced by Loic Remy just before the break.

At the break, there was an air of disbelief around me when we heard that Stoke City were pummelling Liverpool 5-0. Oh dear, Stephen Gerrard, what a shame,  never mind.

We began the second half well, with Remy looking interested. A rare shot from Gary Cahill took us all by surprise. Willian went close too. Then, forty yards out, Hazard turned on a sixpence and ran in that unfettered way of his at Larsson. He gained a few yards and then played in Remy. The ball was moved sideways, then struck firmly. The shot was not particularly hard, but there was enough on it to evade Vito Mannone. I caught this third goal of the game on film too. The crowd roared again.

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

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

With a win now looking more likely, the crowd toasted Chelsea legends past and present. There was also a wave from the bashful owner in the middle tiers of the West Stand.

We heard that Newcastle United had managed to win and so their presence in the top flight would be assured for another season. Newcastle fans have their detractors ( I wonder what they make of Alan Pardew’s fine spell at Crystal Palace) but the Premier League is not the same without them.

Andreas Christensen replaced Mikel. We were coasting now and a bright line of stewards began to line the pitch as the seconds ticked away. We sealed the win when Remy appeared unmarked at the near post to delicately touch home a low cross from Matic. Another goal – the last of the season – on film, captured for posterity.

At the final whistle, hugs from the players.

Another win.

Job done.

The players returned to the sanctuary of the dressing rooms, and we waited. It seemed to take an eternity to construct the special stage on which the trophy was to be presented. Lucky me; not only would this be at our end of the stadium, unlike in 2005, but the players would be facing my way too. My memory card was full, so I spent a few moments deleting some unworthy photographs.

A fair proportion of the Sunderland fans, to their credit, stayed on to watch the post-game pageantry. With their safety assured only within the past week, perhaps they looked on and took some sort of vicarious pleasure in our superbly choreographed celebrations. In the very first few moments of the match, the away supporters in the lower tier had tossed around – if that is the correct phrase in the circumstances – an inflatable penis.  I couldn’t tell if an image of Mike Ashley’s face was added for good measure.

The wives and girlfriends walked on to a strange fenced-off area on the pitch in front of the West Lower. This gave Alan an easy laugh :

“That’s the John Terry area…”want, want, got, got, want, want, want, got…”

The minutes ticked by but eventually the stage was set. With Neil Barnett at the helm, players were announced, and cheers rang out. Although the Barclay’s corporate colour, and that of the stage and assorted props, is of a lighter blue than we normally see at Stamford Bridge, I was not too concerned.

I was hoping for a splash of red in the procedings, though. The presence of a smattering of Chelsea Pensioner scarlet always adds a sense of history and perspective to these occasions at Chelsea. Alas, the Royal Hospital was not represented.

As Jose Mourinho walked towards the platform, he looked towards Roman Abramovich and gave him a prolonged “thumbs up”and an extra wave.

“Thanks for having me back. Waitrose eggs never tasted better.”

There were extra-special cheers for Cech, Fabregas, Hazard, Drogba and Terry. Our captain, of course, was the last in line.

We waited.

With everything set, with the cameras poised, with 40,000 sets of eyes inside the stadium centered on the huge chunk of silver, with millions watching worldwide, with Kathryn, Tim, Andy and Jim watching too, our captain hoisted the 2014/2015 Barclay’s Premier League trophy high.

From above, royal blue and white tinsel cascaded down. There was tinsel in 2005, in 2006, in 2010 and at all of our Wembley cup wins too. It seems that where ever we go these days, blue and white tinsel is not too far away. Long may it continue. Great plumes of orange flame fired into the air from in front of the East Lower. Everywhere there were smiles. Soon, the players reassembled together for obligatory team photographs.

Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap.

And then, Neil Barnett spoke :

“Didier wants a word.”

The crowd hushed as Didier took the microphone.

“I don’t really know what to say…”

He spoke for a minute or so, about his two spells at the club, his thanks to Jose Mourinho, his love of his team mates and of us, the fans. There was also a kind and thoughtful word for Frank Lampard too. It was classy stuff.

I watched, with Dave, Alan, Gary and Tom, as the players walked past us. Their children accompanied them. I took special care in photographing John Terry and Didier Drogba with the trophy. Petr Cech too. Will we see him again in Chelsea orange or yellow or white? Probably not.

The players headed off to The Shed where Parky and others were dutifully waiting. It was a familiar scene this; for the fourth time in my life, the fourth time in eleven seasons, we were parading the championship trophy at The Bridge.

And yet, if I am honest, I was finding it difficult to fully embrace this particular triumph. This has been a tough period of my life. February was the toughest month of all. A lot of my focus over the past three months has been on other far more important matters. The football has been a backdrop to my life rather than the centrepoint. To be blunt, this championship season, running from Burnley in August – game one thousand – through the autumn and in to winter, then out the other side into spring, has been increasingly difficult for me to relate to. If it matters, this one has been the least enjoyable of the four championships that we have won in these past ten years. Yet I am sure that this is no surprise to any. Losing my mother in February has overshadowed everything this season.

But I am sure that I will come back stronger next season. I am already looking forward to a full pre-season in the US in July. There are games in New Jersey, in North Carolina, in DC. It will be the perfect start to a new campaign, with maybe slightly a different focus this time around. I am so looking forward to seeing some good – no, great – friends in all three American cities. I am also looking forward to reminding American fans that there is no real need to wear Chelsea scarves in ninety degree heat in the summer, nor is there any need to refer to Chelsea as “Chels” every five fucking seconds. It will be a great trip. Then there is the Community Shield at Wembley and a home friendly with Fiorentina. By the time of the opening league game of the season, I should already have five games behind me. This season, my mark was just forty-two games. From a high of fifty-eight in 2011/2012, this is a rather low total. Our early dismissals in two cup competitions clearly did not help. By the way, if it matters, our brief foray in the Champions League gave me my most treasured memory this season; drinking Morangoska cocktails in the packed side streets of Lisbon on a magical Monday night alongside some dear friends was truly magnificent, as was, in fact, the entire three days in that historic and charming city.

What of the future, then?

We are in a very strong position here. We have the best manager in England. We have an interested and involved chairman. We have a top-notch academy. We have a great youth team. We are Youth Cup winners again. We will strengthen the squad further in the summer. We seem to be keen to redevelop our Stamford Bridge stadium rather than move to a soul-less stadium elsewhere.

All is good.

What could possibly go wrong?

In closing my reports for 2014/2015, a few words of thanks to our players for keeping the desire to win throughout the season and, of course, thanks to many fantastic mates for supporting me through my dark days.

Thanks also for the support for CHELSEA/esque too.

It is appreciated.

See you in New Jersey.

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