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 The Heart Of London.

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 29 August 2015.

As is so often the case after the draw for the autumnal group phase of the Champions League, conversations in the beer garden of The Goose before our match with Crystal Palace were centred upon travel plans rather than the upcoming game. In fact, our chats would have been better suited to a conference on budget air travel.

On the Thursday evening, once I had learned of the dates of our games, I quickly booked a flight from Bristol to Porto for our game at the end of September. I made a call to Parky and he soon joined me, happy to be repeating our fantastic excursion to the same country last September.

I then, to my horror, realised that I had booked a 6pm flight from Bristol on an evening when I would still be in Newcastle (after our away game there on 26 September) until 9pm that night.

“Balls.”

I quickly booked myself onto an earlier flight home from Newcastle. Sometimes the clamour to book up European trips can cloud judgements. I escaped, on this occasion, by the skin of my teeth. I get back from Newcastle at 2.15pm and then set off from the same airport four hours later. Those five days following the great unpredictables will be as fun as it gets.

Later on Thursday evening, I persuaded myself that a trip to Tel Aviv would not be as hazardous as I initially thought, and in light of the fact that a good number of friends had already booked flights, I decided to go ahead too.

So, Porto and Tel Aviv adventures to follow.

I can’t wait.

In comparison, a London derby with Crystal Palace seemed rather mundane.

I had travelled up to HQ with a full car load; Parky, PD and Deano were the fellow Chuckle Brothers.

The laughs that we enjoyed in the car continued in the beer garden. Early morning sun gradually faded, and it became comfortably cooler.

After a particularly stressful week at work, it was time to chill.

British summer time, lagers and lime.

The news eventually broke through that the team chosen by Jose Mourinho was the same starting eleven as at West Brom, save for the enforced change in central defence which meant that we were playing with Gary Cahill and King Kurt in the middle.

The continued presence of current “boo boy” Branislav Ivanovic would, I was sure, cause ructions amid some of our support. Of course our Serbian has not enjoyed the best of starts this season – I noted a sub-par performance as early as the game in New Jersey – yet it came as no surprise that Jose decided to play him. He is one of Mourinho’s men. It would be easier to tear out a fir tree from a Serbian hillside with human hands than oust Ivanovic at the moment. All eyes would be on his performance throughout the afternoon. Against the pace of our visitor’s wide men, I was a little concerned that Brana would cope.

The rest of the team picked itself, but that is possibly a critique. With Oscar injured, there are little other creative options at our disposal.

On the walk in to the stadium, after stopping to buy the match programme, I paid a little more notice to the wording chosen for this season on the “Chelsea Wall” which overlooks the West Stand concourse. This marks the western boundary of the grounds of Chelsea Football Club, and separates it from the red brick buildings of the Oswald Stoll Foundation. Just inside the entrance, there is a sign which says :

Welcome To Stamford Bridge.

Home Of Chelsea Football Club.

Heart Of London.

And I suddenly wondered if someone at Chelsea had seen the tag line at the top of this website, but yet wondered why “The Heart Of London” wasn’t used.

And it got me wondering, just fleeting moments of thought, as I bustled past the crowds to take my place at the back of the queue for the MHU turnstiles.

The heart of London.

Were we actually the closest to the very centre of the nation’s capital?

I always remember my father telling me as an intrigued young boy that the centre of London, from where the mileages to other towns and cities are calculated, is not Buckingham Palace nor the Houses of Parliament, but Charing Cross.

And yes, the evidence does suggest that Chelsea Football Club is at the heart of London. It is the closest to Charing Cross, but only by the slightest of margins, with Arsenal and Millwall being just a few hundred yards further out. By contrast, Crystal Palace, out in suburbia, are miles away.

I was handed the match programme and shown a photograph of eighty-seven year old Joe, who has been sitting alongside us since the three of us bought season tickets in 1997. He was featured in one of the “fan pages”, and detailed his history of supporting the boys, as a season ticket holder for over fifty years, but as a spectator since 1933. Sadly Joe has not been well enough to attend the two home games so far this season, but I certainly hope that he can rejoin us soon. Every Christmas, he makes a point of writing a card to “Chris and the Chelsea Boys.” He is a lovely man.

The three-thousand Palace fans were in good voice as the teams lined up. The players were wearing a slight variation of the first Crystal Palace kit that I can ever remember, back in the days of Don Rogers and Alan Whittle in around 1972, when they sported an all-white kit with two West Ham style claret and blue vertical stripes on the shirt. The 2015/2016 version is similar, but with the tones slightly different.

Alan Pardew has developed a promising team down in the Surrey hinterlands since he joined them from his tough time on Tyneside. I looked down and saw Yohan Cabaye playing for them. Here was living proof that this league of ours is getting tougher – top to bottom – than ever before.

Crystal Palace began well and won two quick corners. We took quite a while to find our feet. An incisive break inside by Pedro followed by a sharp curler which narrowly swept past the far post was our first real effort on goal. And that was on twenty minutes.

Diego Costa was often spotted on both wings hunting for the ball, but I would have preferred to see him more central. We struggled to find him, regardless. A shot from Willian went wide. There was a suspicion of offside as Palace broke free past our static defence, but Thibaut Courtois did well to block. Soon after, Palace broke through again in the best move of the match but our tall goalkeeper again did well, falling quickly to push away. Both moves were down our right flank.

Just as I commented to PD that I could see no indication that we would be able to pierce the Crystal Palace defence, we stepped up our game. A cross from Azpilicueta zipped across the box, just beyond the lunge of Diego Costa. Just after, at last a penetrating run from Diego Costa in the inside-right channel, and his shot tested McCarthy. The ball pin-balled around in the resultant melee but Pedro was just unable to prod home. At last, there was a murmur from the Matthew Harding.

Then, a fine dribble from Nemanja Matic and a rare shot.

But.

And a big but.

And no time within that opening period were the team nor fans exhibiting any of the intensity shown during the first-half at The Hawthorns the previous weekend. At West Brom, there was a very real sense of togetherness, and a great sense of “we must win this game.”

Against Crystal Palace, no pushover at all, I never got that same feeling.

In a nutshell, the atmosphere was horrendous.

At the break, a friend agreed.

“It’s flat.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Yes mate.”

The atmosphere was as flat as a steam-rollered flatbread lying on the flat lands of Van Flattenberg in The Netherlands.

At least there were no boos at half-time. I half-expected some.

On the pitch, Bobby Tambling, waving and smiling. In the programme, a lovely piece on Pat Nevin standing firmly behind Paul Canoville after a game at Selhurst Park in 1984, when some Chelsea supporters still chose to give our first black player a hard ride.

Soon into the second half, Diego Costa went down in the box, but PD, I and maybe a few other Chelsea fans were not convinced of his vociferous penalty shout. The referee agreed. Chances were exchanged and the noise level increased slightly. There was another fine save from Courtois.  Just before the hour I heard The Shed for the first time.

A couple of Chelsea chances, but there was no luck in front of goal.

Amid all of this, Cesc Fabregas played little part. I am not one for lambasting Chelsea players, our heroes, our dream-makers, but our number four is having a torrid time. At times, his passing was atrocious.

With my tongue firmly in my cheek, I said to Alan :

“This time last year, his football was on another planet. Now, we just wish he was on another planet.”

Then, a break down the Crystal Palace left, attacking you-know-who, and the ball was played in. Dave did ever so well to block, but the ball bobbled free and Sako was able to smash home.

Immediately after, the ground managed to rouse itself from its torpor with the loudest “Carefree” of the afternoon.

Falcao for Willian.

Kenedy for Azpilicueta.

With new signing Baba Rahman – a left-back – on the bench, it surprised me that Jose chose Kenedy to fit in at Dave’s position. However, straight away, the kid from Fluminense looked energised and involved. His willingness to burst forward with pace is something that we are not used to these days. After only a few moments, a thunderous low drive from around forty yards made us sit up and take notice. Sadly the effort was right down McCarthy’s throat.

I wondered if it might be slightly unnerving if thousands of Chelsea fans shout “shoot” to Kenedy during future games.

Loftus-Cheek for Matic.

An error from Ruben allowed Sako to fire in a cross. With Courtois scrambling back from his near post, we gulped. Bolasie arrived with the goal at his mercy, and Ivanovic panting behind him, but his shot was off target.

Phew.

Kenedy continued to impress, and Loftus-Cheek, too.

With fifteen minutes remaining, at last a good Chelsea move. Fabregas picked out Pedro out on the right. He crossed relatively early and his fine ball was met with an Andy Gray-style dive from Radamel Falcao. The Bridge erupted and we were back in it. It was a fantastic goal.

Just two minutes later, a deep cross from the left was knocked back across goal by that man Sako, unmarked at the far post, and some two bit nonentity called Joel Ward headed in from close range.

We collapsed into our seats.

In the last ten minutes, the attempts on the Palace goal mounted up but a mixture of poor finishing, blocks and bad luck worked against us. However, our goal had lived a charmed life throughout the match and we could have conceded more than two.

This was Jose Mourinho’s one hundredth league game at Stamford Bridge, with one solitary lose before. Now there were two.

This was certainly a shock to us all. There were hardly any positives to take away from the game. Many players are underperforming, across all positions. Without Thibaut, to be fair, we could have conceded three or four. As if to heighten the depressing mood, rain met us as we sloped away and back along the Fulham Road. The jubilant away fans contrasted greatly. This was their best performance at Chelsea since that FA Cup game in 1976.

We had been poor.

Players and fans.

Of course those who know me will know that I hate the notion of lambasting players and our manager after just – count them – four league games. Yet there is clearly plenty of work to do. As we reassembled back at the car, I lamented the fact that we had a whole fortnight to stew in our juices, under scrutiny from the rat-like British press, with no chance to rectify our reputation on Tuesday, nor Wednesday, nor Saturday, nor Sunday, nor the following Tuesday and Wednesday. It is going to be a long two weeks.

But I’m not going anywhere. My friends too. We are too long in the tooth to give up this easily. Dean and I soon began making plans for a classic Chelsea away game, under pressure at an old school stadium – a proper away day – at Everton.

In the evening, I noted with disbelief that some fans were already writing off our league challenge.

With thirty-four games to be played and one hundred and two points still up for grabs.

It is not even September.

Give me fucking strength.

Later in the evening, I watched the Football League Show on TV and noted many mid-sized teams, with fine support and storied histories, now struggling in the lower reaches of our league pyramid.

Sheffield United, Portsmouth, Notts County, Coventry City, Luton Town.

It stirred me to see these teams hanging on to their identity and their support despite a change in fortunes and I honestly wondered how many of our suffering and emotional fans, and not necessarily “new” fans at that, traumatised by our poor start, would stay the course under such circumstances.

I hope the majority, I suspect not.

So, two weeks away from it.

See you on the other side.

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Tales From Johnny Neal’s Blue And White Army.

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 3 December 2014.

In my book, there is no bigger game each season than Chelsea vs. Tottenham. This was a match that I had been relishing for a while. Midway through my working day, the excitement was rising with each “match-day thought” that entered my mind. There were the usual nerves, too. I’m more nervous about Spurs at home than any other. There’s that unbeaten run – stretching back to 1990-1991 – which needed to be preserved. I am sure that other Chelsea fans would only be happy at 9.30pm with a win, but I was a little more pragmatic;

Anything but a loss please Ye Footballing Gods.

That is not to say that I was unduly worried too much.

The only negative thought fluttering in and out of my consciousness as the hours raced by was the thought that our team would be missing Diego Costa.

I wondered who Jose Mourinho would turn to.

Didier Drogba?

Loic Remy?

Only time would tell.

When I left the office at 3.30pm, there was a supreme sense of joy that I would soon be on the road with three good friends – Glenn, PD and Lord Parky – and an evening’s football lie ahead.

To paraphrase Tommy Johnson – “Tottenham At Home – Love It.”

PD, bless him, kindly volunteered for driving duties and so I was able to relax a little. The four of us had enjoyed the From The Jam gig in Frome ten days previously and our spirits were buoyed by a cracking ‘eighties compilation CD which accompanied our trip east. I remember mentioning to somebody at the gig that there was a spell a few years ago that as soon as we hit the traffic at Hammersmith, The Jam would always seem to be playing on my CD player. On this occasion, PD had changed the CD and to a “Suggs Selection” and, yes – lo and behold – as soon as we neared the church underneath the M4, “Beat Surrender” came on.

“Come on boy, come on girl.
Succumb to the beat surrender.
Come on boy, come on girl.
Succumb to the beat surrender.

All the things that I care about.
Are packed into one punch.
All the things that I’m not sure about.
Are sorted out at once.

And as it was in the beginning.
So shall it be in the end.
That bullshit is bullshit.
It just goes by different names.”

We were parked just before 6pm and The Goose was predictably heaving.

As soon as I walked in, I was pleased to meet up with Danny and his girlfriend Sonja. I got to know Danny , who hails from the wonderfully named Rancho Cucamonga in California – through my trips to the US over the past ten seasons and I first met him – to talk to – in Texas in 2009. This was his third trip over to England to see the boys play – he was at Sunderland on Saturday – but this was Sonja’s inaugural visit to London and England. I introduced them to my closest Chelsea mates and I had to smile when Sonja exclaimed that she was the “token female.” I quickly looked up and scanned the pub. Of course, Sonja wasn’t wrong. In a pub full of Chelsea fans, no more than 5% were female. I presume this came as a slight shock to Sonja. It reminded me of a similar comment by another American female last season who was amazed by the lack of the fairer sex in and around the pubs at Chelsea.

I quickly remembered some of my many visits to various baseball stadia – plus the Chelsea games I have seen too – in the US over the years. There were, indeed, many more females at the games in the US than there are at football in the UK. No time for too much social commentary on this, but I would suggest that this shows that football is still predominantly a male preserve in the UK.

In Chelsea’s case, it remains a preserve of middle-aged men with receding hairlines and a predilection for trainers, polo-shirts, lager and taking the piss out of each other.

Proper.

As we left the pub on a cold, but thankfully not bitter, evening, we all wanted to make sure that we were in the stadium well in advance of the minute of appreciation and applause for our former manager John Neal, who sadly passed away at the age of 82 the day after our last home game against West Brom.

There was a nice piece devoted to John Neal in the night’s programme. He was a much-loved man by us Chelsea fans of a certain generation.  I only met him in person on one occasion. Back in the autumn of 1995, Chelsea celebrated the 25th anniversary of the 1970 F.A. Cup win with a pre-match gathering of former players in the bar which used to be called “Drake’s” (named after our 1955 Championship-winning manager). In those days, only CPO share-holders were allowed in to “Drake’s” (which nestles under the north-east corner of the Matthew Harding, but is renamed these days and is, presumably, one of the many corporate suites at Stamford Bridge). On that particular day – before a game with Southampton – Chelsea legends such as Peter Osgood, Tommy Baldwin, Alan Hudson, Peter Bonetti and Ron Harris attracted the attention of the Chelsea fans in attendance. Away in a quiet booth – I can picture it now – sat John Neal and his assistant manager Ian McNeill, quietly eating a meal, generally being ignored by the majority. A few fans dropped in to say “hello” – I am sure that it was John Neal’s first visit back to Stamford Bridge since his early retirement in the mid-‘eighties – but I was shocked that these two figures from our relatively recent past were being generally shunned.

My only conclusion was that the Chelsea fans present were so in awe of the heralded 1970 team, that the appearance of John and Ian was – wrongly, of course – overlooked.

I made sure that I said a few words of welcome and gratitude and was very pleased that they allowed me to have my photograph taken with the quietly spoken former manager and his trusted Scottish assistant. I did – to be blunt – wonder why the two of them had been invited on a day when a different team was being honoured. In retrospect, the two should have had been the centrepiece of a ten year anniversary of the 1983-1984 season a year previously, but that is a moment lost forever.

Looking back, John Neal had a very mixed reign as Chelsea manager. He joined us after a spell as the Middlesbrough manager, and his teams were relatively steady, occasionally entertaining, but playing to low attendances in the First Division. Chelsea, in 1981, were dire and entrenched in the Second Division. I remember being hardly enamoured by his appointment. I can easily recollect attending John Neal’s first ever league game as Chelsea manager in August 1981 and the photograph of him on the front cover of the programme, standing proudly by the newly-adorned Chelsea crest above the tunnel, is quite an iconic image. After two years of poor performances, narrowly avoiding relegation in 1983, it is – with hindsight – a miracle that Chelsea maintained the services of John Neal over the summer of 1983.

1983-1984 was a different story of course. We plundered the lower leagues for talent during the close-season and John Neal’s true worth as a man-manager bore fruit from the very first game. For anyone who was at the 5-0 annihilation of promotion favourites Derby County, wasn’t it fantastic?

Kerry Dixon scored twice, we triumphed 5-0 and the tube was literally bouncing back to Earl’s Court after that one.

John Neal – for that 1983-1984 season alone – must rank as one of my favourite Chelsea managers.

It is a shame that we never saw him back at Stamford Bridge over the past twenty years or so. I believe that he suffered from dementia towards the end.

The Boys In Blue From Division Two would have loved to have said “thanks” one more time.

Thankfully, the timings were fine and I was inside Stamford Bridge with five minute to spare. As I stepped inside the seating area, I noticed that the main flood lights had been dimmed and, instead, the advertising boards were shining bright along with smaller strip lighting in and around the stadium. It was a scene which was quite similar to the pre-match routine at Manchester City a few seasons back, with the lights dimmed and blue moons appearing on the TV screens.

It looked stunning to be honest – other worldly – though my immediate reaction was “what the bloody hell is this, more contrived nonsense?”

The two teams appeared from the tunnel, but the lights were still dimmed. Only when all the players were walking on the deep green sward of the pitch were the main lights turned on.

Another full house, though the Tottenham section took forever to fill.

The two sets of players assembled in the centre-circle and Neil Barnett spoke. The minute of applause in memory of John Neal, bless him, was loud and heart-felt. A chant of “Johnny Neal’s Blue And White Army” sounded out from the Matthew Harding.

God bless you, John.

Of course, Jose Mourinho had decided on Didier Drogba to lead the line. My choice would have been the nimbler Loic Remy, but – once again – what do I know?

Right then, game on, and a near twenty-five year record to defend.

We had agreed in the chuckle bus on the drive to London that Tottenham were a “hot and cold” team thus far this season. In the first twenty minutes, they were warmer than us. Harry Kane (“he’s one of our own” sang the away fans, as if it mattered) threatened Thibaut Courtois’ goal with a header which rattled the crossbar. The same player twisted away from Gary Cahill and screwed a shot wide. My pre-match nerves were seemingly vindicated. It took a while for a Chelsea player to threaten the Spurs goal; a Cesc Fabregas shot curled into Loris’ clasp.

At around 8.02pm, I decided to take a comfort break.

At around 8.04pm, I approached the refreshment stand with a pie in my sights. I glanced up at the TV set above the servers (blimey, imagine that in 1983 – a TV set by the tea bar) and spotted Eden Hazard clean through. Before he had struck the ball, I heard the roar of the crowd. The TV had a split-second time delay and I then saw the ball flash past Loris into the net.

I returned back to Alan and Glenn with a chicken and mushroom pie and a very big smile on my face.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Before I could let it all sink in, Oscar had tee’d up Didier – mmm, maybe offside? – who calmly slotted the ball past Loris.

2-0 to Chelsea and my magic pie had done the trick.

I confided in Alan…”you know, to be honest, over the years…there have been times when Tottenham have played pretty well here. How they have never beaten us here is a mystery. And here they are again. Playing well, but now 2-0 down. I know we say we hate Spurs, but they must fucking loathe us.”

Alan agreed.

And then we both smiled.

The highs and lows of the rest of the half?

The high was a sublime volleyed cross field ball by Fabregas to Hazard – I think – which was pinpoint perfect and with just the right amount of dip and fade.

The low was me finishing my magic pie; no more goals ensued.

The noise was pretty decent in the first forty-five minutes, though the volume noticeably fell away towards the end.

At half time, two stalwarts from the John Neal era were on the pitch with Neil Barnett; Pat Nevin and Nigel Spackman. Nevin is still much revered, Spackman not so, after his sporadic comments about his spell at Liverpool and a few thinly-disguised digs at Chelsea.

Neil then spoke about “two girls from America – Lisa and Sonja (yes, that Sonja) who are at Stamford Bridge for the first time tonight, with their blokes Joe and Danny (yes, that Danny)…enjoy the match.” There was a picture of Joe and Lisa in the programme; I remembered Joe from a few pre-season tours too.

A nice touch. I texted Danny to see if Sonja was OK.

“Sonja is singing more than the chaps in the row in front.”

Good work.

Prior to the second-half, Kurt Zouma replaced Gary Cahill, who had battled on after an early collision with Vertonghen, but who was obviously unable to resume.

Nemanja Matic, possibly my player of the season thus far, was stupidly booked for a clumsy challenge on Kane.

“Silly Alan. Just silly. We’re two-up, for heavens’ sake. What’s the likelihood of them scoring from that move? 5%? Silly challenge.”

The Spurs dirge “Oh When The Spurs…” was roundly booed, but there wasn’t a great deal of Chelsea noise to take its place.

Tottenham were continuing to have a lot of the ball, but on the instances when we picked them off and moved forward we just looked more cohesive. Drogba shot from outside the box, but it was an easy save for Loris. Jose then replaced Didier with Remy. We enjoyed some sublime twists and shimmies from Eden Hazard throughout the night. I enjoyed the energy of Willian too. With around twenty minutes remaining, Dave played in Remy inside the box. Showing great strength to hold off Vertonghen, he nimbly side-stepped a challenge and passed the ball into the Spurs goal.

3-0 and the game was safe.

Fantastic stuff.

1 December 1990 to 3 December 2014.

25 games, 25 seasons, undefeated.

15-10-0

In the south-east corner, there was a fire-drill.

Happy days.

We saw off the last minutes of the game with the minimum of fuss, though the news of Manchester City’s 4-1 win at Sunderland was disappointing. As, of course, was the news that Arsenal had beaten Southampton 1-0 with a goal in the very last minute.

Not to worry. We’re the ones to catch.

Let’s keep this beautiful thing going.

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Tales From A Lucky Escape.

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 9 November 2013.

One of my earliest footballing memories as a small child was being informed by my father that my chosen football team’s nickname was “The Pensioners.” The year was 1970, or maybe 1971, and the club’s link to those famous scarlet-clad residents of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea was explained to me. Of course, in reality, this nickname – our original nickname – was dropped in the ‘fifties by the then manager Ted Drake in favour of the more generic “The Blues.” My father, not really a football fan, was probably unaware of this change. As my support for Chelsea grew with each passing season in the early ‘seventies, I seem to remember that I soon adopted the newer nickname despite “The Pensioners” being mentioned in various schoolboy football magazines and on bubble gum cards. With each year, though, the usage declined.

There had clearly been, if you will excuse the pun, a changing of the guard since the ‘fifties.

“The Pensioners” were out and “The Blues” were in.

I’ll be honest; in all of my time of going to football at Chelsea, I cannot recall a single instance of a supporter yelling “Come on you Pensioners.”

It’s a shame really. One of football’s more charismatic and romantic nicknames is no more. I can remember writing a letter to Ken Bates c. 1982 asking if “The Pensioners” could be reinstated in place of the bland and ubiquitous “Blues.” It was met with a swift rebuff from the chairman. He cited Ted Drake’s reasoning that “The Pensioners” made the club sound like a music hall joke.

And yet, the link between Chelsea Football Club and the Royal Hospital still exists. At every home game, free tickets are given by the club so that up to eight former soldiers can attend. I always remember – back in the late ‘eighties – a Chelsea Pensioner, “Geordie”, dropping in to our favoured hostelry of the time, The Black Bull, and enjoying a pre-match tipple. I loved seeing him in there. He was a Newcastle fan through birth, but a Chelsea fan through fate. Although our colour is blue, there is something quite beautiful about that rich red tunic. Maybe this is because red is such a rare colour at Stamford Bridge. The contrast always strikes me as quite endearing.

One of my favourite memories of recent years at Stamford Bridge was the perfectly choreographed Championship celebrations after the match against Charlton Athletic, following on from the win at Bolton. The Chelsea Pensioners played an integral role that day. It was magnificent, stirring stuff.

So, although the nickname is consigned to history, the vivid scarlet uniforms and the neat black caps of the Chelsea Pensioners still play a role in the public face of Chelsea Football Club. And long may it continue.

It had been a rather long-winded journey up to Stamford Bridge from Somerset. I had collected Parky and then Bournemouth Steve en route to the capital. An England vs. Argentina rugby game at Twickenham had forced me up on to the M4, where I managed to get embroiled in heavy traffic. Eventually, I was parked-up at 12.30pm.

Parky and I fancied a change and so dipped into “The Rylston” – formerly the Normand Arms – on Lillee Road for an hour. Previously, the pub had looked rather rough and ready in its former guise, but has recently experienced a makeover so typical of many pubs in and around the Fulham area. There was new décor with a classic retro feel, black and white tiles, black and white photos, a food menu and some great brews on tap. Although it was only four hundred yards on from the football-mad “Goose”, there was little evidence of any Chelsea fans inside.

At 1.30pm, we had moved on and the difference in “The Goose” was all too evident.

A packed pub, a boisterous crowd, familiar faces – and cheaper prices.

Outside in the beer garden, it was a pleasure to see Mike from NYC once again, alongside Dave the Hat, both full of beer and bollocks.

The laughter rang out.

On the walk down to Stamford Bridge, it was a typical scene on a Saturday match day. Although Londoners were going about their usual routines – queuing up at the busy market stalls along the North End Road, dipping in and out of betting shops, catching the tube into central London at Fulham Broadway, dining out along Vanston Place – the area was dominated by the football match soon to commence a few hundred yards away. The hundreds marched towards Stamford Bridge as three o’clock neared. And so shall it always be.

An image from Chelsea’s history once again; a black and white photograph of Stamford Bridge just after World War One, many former soldiers, in wheelchairs, in front of the old East Stand on the old dog track, blinking in the afternoon light, their bodies weakened by the ravages of conflict, but now smiling at the camera, contented to be watching their footballing heroes once more. One wonders what stories those fellows could tell; of brothers no longer able to embrace the gentle caress of the autumn sun, of glorious battles won and the searing pain of loss.

I’m sure I am not the only Chelsea supporter who can’t escape linking the early years of our club, formed just nine years before the outbreak of what was called “The Great War”, with our country’s military history in those tumultuous years. We were, after all, participants in the “Khaki Cup Final” of 1915. I wonder how many Chelsea followers from our first few years only enjoyed the briefest of lives.

Let’s remember them.

The roar of the crowd ushered the end of the perfectly-observed minute’s silence and the four Chelsea Pensioners slowly walked from the Stamford Bridge pitch to take their seats in the East Stand, just like their predecessors throughout the years.

Time to check the team – Frank Lampard and Eden Hazard returning. Time to check the crowd – another full house, and 1,500 away fans. The return of Steve Clarke but no Nicolas Anelka.

The first-half was a hum-drum affair. West Brom were well drilled and made life difficult for us. A few chances were exchanged at either end. The Shed End could be heard singing at various times, but generally the atmosphere was quiet. The away fans were not in the same caliber as the visiting Schalke contingent on Wednesday.

With Mourinho yet again favouring Ramires and Lampard at the base of the midfield, we looked towards the three of Hazard, Oscar and Willian to unravel the Baggies’ well-marshalled defence. Chelsea again relied on the advanced runs of Ivanovic, who was often a full fifteen yards further upfield than Oscar; it didn’t always pay off. There was yet more over-elaboration and a reluctance to hit Eto’o early with intelligent through balls. It was turgid stuff. Willian, though new to the club, looks willing yet at this stage is only a link player – moving the ball on – rather than an impact player. We’ll give him time.

I missed Shane Long’s follow through on John Terry, though the crowd wailed in displeasure.

On the half-hour, Oscar lined up a free-kick from a central location. His wildly dipping shot was easily tipped over by Myhill.

Just before the break, Hazard at last decided to run at pace at the West Brom defence. He cut inside and watched as his low shot was clawed away by the Albion ‘keeper. The ball was not cleared and Samuel Eto’o slammed the ball in from behind the hesitant Ridgewell.

1-0.

This sort of predatory goal from Eto’o seems to be his trademark in his early Chelsea career. More of the same each week please. The goal brought the home support to life, but it didn’t fool anyone; it had been a poor half.

During the break, former midfield stalwart, captain and manager John Hollins was on the pitch with Neil Barnett. It was time for me to quickly scan the match programme. There were lovely words for Steve Clarke from Jose Mourinho –

“I have to publicly say thanks to a great man who gave me all of his support in my first period at Chelsea, a man of values, a family guy, a hard worker and a loyal man.”

A few friends and I were discussing Steve Clarke only recently. I had posed the question as to “who was the last Scot to play for Chelsea?” and, although I initially thought it was Craig Burley, of course the answer – unless I am mistaken – was Steve Clarke, whose last match in royal blue was in Stockholm in 1998. Our history has been littered with Scottish players throughout the years, yet it is over fifteen years since a Scot appeared in a Chelsea shirt.

No pressure, Islam Feruz…

The Scottish players reel off the tongue…Jimmy Croal, Hughie Gallacher, Tommy Walker, Eddie MacCreadie, Charlie Cooke and Ian Britton . Ironically, elsewhere in the programme,  Rick Glanvill chose to pick a game from the 1984-1985 season, against West Brom, which highlighted the presence of several Scottish players of that era; the three internationals Pat Nevin, David Speedie and Doug Rougvie, plus the steady Joe McLaughlin.

Elsewhere, a whole article was devoted to one of my favourite Chelsea matches of all; Chelsea vs. Newcastle United, November 1983. Thankfully, the programme mentioned in great detail the one absolute highlight.

“Nevin’s run.”

Just before half-time, Pat Nevin won a loose ball from a Newcastle United attack in The Shed penalty box on the West Stand side. “When Saturday Comes” founder Mike Ticher, in a great article about the run a few years later,  claimed  that Pat had nut-megged Kevin Keegan at the start of the move, but I can’t confirm this. However, Pat then set off on a mesmerizing dance down the entire length of the pitch, around five yards inside the West Stand touchline. This wasn’t a full-on sprint. Pat wasn’t that fast. At five foot six inches he was the same height as me. Pat’s skill was a feint here, a feint there, a dribble, a turn, a swivel, beating defender after defender through a body-swerve, a turn…it was pure art, a man at his peak…he must have left five or six defenders in his wake and I guess the whole run lasted around thirty seconds…he may well have beaten the same man twice…each time he waltzed past a defender, the noise increased, we were bewitched, totally at his mercy…amazingly he reached the far goal-line…a dribble of around 100 yards. He beat one last man, looked up and lofted a ball goal ward. Pat’s crosses always seemed to have a lot of air on them, he hardly ever whipped balls in…his artistry was in the pinpoint cross rather a thunderbolt…a rapier, not a machine gun. The ball was arched into the path of an in-rushing Kerry Dixon. We gasped…we waited…my memory is that it just eluded Kerry’s head and drifted off for a goal-kick, Kerry may have headed it over. Whatever – it didn’t matter. On that misty afternoon in West London, we had witnessed pure genius. I loved Pat Nevin with all my heart – he still is my favourite player of all time – and most Chelsea fans of my generation felt the same.

Alongside Bournemouth Steve, Alan and I was Gary’s father Ron, who has been going to Chelsea for decades. He had no recollection of Pat Nevin’s master class against Newcastle in 1983, though he was surely there, but mentioned an equally impressive run by Horatio “Raich” Carter, who played for Derby County against Chelsea in the ‘forties.

So many games, so many memories.

The second-half began. Oscar found Eden Hazard with an absolutely sublime through ball which arched over the West Brom defence and ended up on Hazard’s toes. Sadly, the reinstated Belgian struggled to control the exquisite ball – the best pass of the season thus far – and the ball squirmed away.

West Brom began to exert some pressure on our defence and a fine, firm cross from Amalfitano found the leaping Shane Long, whose header had Cech beaten, but bounced up and away off the post.

Our play was faltering, and I shouted out in frustration –

“Someone take some responsibility.”

Soon after, the visitors – perhaps deservedly – equalised when a header from McAuley was parried high by Cech from close range, only for Shane Long to do “an Eto’o” and squeeze home from a leap between our dithering defenders.

1-1.

The away fans sang “The Lord Is My Shephard.”

Mourinho replaced the poor Lampard with Demba Ba, while Oscar moved back alongside fellow Brazilian Ramires. Sadly, a second away goal soon followed. Ivanovic, forever pressing up field, was caught in possession (illegally to my, no doubt, biased eyes) and West Brom broke. Our defence was now back-peddling and we struggled to pick up the rampaging attackers. It was one of those moments when I sensed fear; I was sadly correct. The ball was worked quickly to the impressive Sessegnon, whose weak shot managed to evade Cech’s rather pathetic attempt to block.

1-2.

Mourinho rolled his dice once more; on came Mikel and the much loved Mata. A shot from Ivanovic was saved by Myhill, a header from Willian flew over, a cross from Cahill was aimed at Ba and he couldn’t connect. The frustration amongst the home fans was now apparent as we struggled to fight our way back. Yet, the noise levels slowly grew, as we pounded the West Brom rear guard. Corner after corner were met with resounding headers from Olsson and the rest of the visiting defenders who seemed able and willing to rebuff all of our attacking notions with vigour.

Then – heart in mouth. A West Brom break and we were staring a third goal in the face. We were outnumbered, but thankfully Brunt chose to shoot himself rather than play others in.

Four extra minutes were signalled and we willed the team on. Big John banged the balcony wall once more.

Thud, thud – thud, thud, thud – thud, thud, thud, thud – “CHELSEA!”

A ball was pushed into the path of Ramires, running alongside Reid. The Brazilian fell and I looked at the referee Andre Marriner. In truth, there wasn’t a great shout for a penalty and I fully expected the referee to book Rami for diving. After a momentary stall, the referee unbelievably pointed to the spot. Everyone around me – we had a perfect view – shook our heads and mouthed “never a penalty.” One chap in front of me clearly couldn’t take the tension and hurriedly clambered over the seats to leave before the penalty was taken.

After what seemed like ages, we watched as Eden Hazard calmly waited and slotted the ball in. There was a guttural roar from the Stamford Bridge crowd and I caught Hazard’s ecstatic leap and spin on camera as he raced away.

2-2.

Phew.

This was clearly a ropey performance from Chelsea, albeit against a pretty reasonable team. One can only hope that the manager, players and supporters react well and move on. This is clearly a season of transition and evolution, rather than whole spread change; a season where Mourinho is trying to identify strengths and weaknesses in his squad, in order to provide a stable future. There will be periods of growth and periods of fallow. So be it.

I’m not going anywhere.

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Tales From Tyneside.

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 2 November 2013.

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

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

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

Excited?

Why, aye pet.

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

“Wor Jackie Kerouac.”

The reply?

“Wor Georgie Stephenson.”

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

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

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

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

Newcastle away.

Fantastic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truly amazing.

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

The unlucky ones outside. The lucky ones inside.

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

The grey Tyneside air turned darker.

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

Juan Mata was playing. David Luiz was playing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was as clear as black and white.

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

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

Alan and Gary then left for London.

“See you Wednesday, boys.”

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

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

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Tales From Home.

Chelsea vs. Cardiff City : 19 October 2013.

The phases of the moon were providing a timetable to this season; another full moon, another home league game. Aston Villa on 21 August, Fulham on 21 September, Cardiff City on 19 October. At this bloody rate, the 2013-2014 season won’t be finished until 2015. It has been an odd first two months of the campaign. There seems to be an odd rhythm to this season and I can’t be the only one who thinks that this one hasn’t really begun yet. Thankfully, the latest – disliked – international break was over and Chelsea, recently competing at four away venues, were now heading home.

Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. 3pm. Saturday.

Just like it always should be.

I didn’t reach the pub until 12.30pm. Parky and I edged our way through the packed bar and eventually ordered two pints of Peroni. There were familiar faces at the bar. After a month’s absence, it was good to be back home. All of my mates were outside in the beer garden; they were eschewing the Newcastle vs. Liverpool game which was being watched half-heartedly by the clientele inside. Within a few minutes of meeting up with Daryl, Alan, Rob and everyone, the rain started. Clearly, there was not room inside for the seventy or so souls in the beer garden, so we stood stoically under the large awnings of the beer garden as the rain sheeted down , nestling pints, shuffling from side to side, maybe like a pack of penguins, keeping warm, on an Antarctic ice field.

“Your turn to stand on the outside, Ed.”

It was a scene which was begging for someone to take a photograph; looking down on the group of Chelsea supporters nestled together as the rain tormented us. For those around the world who mock the miserable weather of England – what? How dare they! – this was a self-deprecating photograph waiting to happen.

“Greetings from England.”

Rob had represented us at the Ian Britton fundraiser in Cheam on the Friday night. If I lived closer, I would have gone. Rob reported back that it was a brilliant night and many of Ian’s team mates attended including Ray Wilkins, Colin Pates, Ray Lewington, Paul Canoville, Tommy Langley, Steve Finnieston and Garry Stanley. After Peter Osgood left Chelsea, Ian Britton was my favourite Chelsea player for years and years. We all loved his energetic style and his cheeky smile. I followed his fortunes after he left us, which included a Scottish Championship medal at Dundee United in 1983, and a goal for Burnley which kept them from relegation out of the Football League in 1987. Meeting him at an old boys’ game at Southampton in 2010 was one of the highlights of recent years. The news that he is battling prostate cancer hit me hard.

We all wish him well.

Talk was of the upcoming away games. Many were heading out to Germany on Monday and Tuesday; the internationalists were buzzing with talk of Dusseldorf, Dortmund, Gelsenkirchen, Cologne and Bochum. I chatted to Andy, boasting a fine new brown Barbour, and Ed about the away game at Newcastle in a few weeks. I am staying overnight in that mythical city on the banks of the Tyne. I have stayed overnight up there for a game on a couple of other occasions – 1997 and 2000 – and am quite giddy with excitement about doing so again in 2013. I’m treating it as a European away.

Andy : “It’s like the wild west, mate. You won’t see anything like it anywhere else in Britain.”

Chris : “Someone punched a police horse after the Sunderland game last season.”

Ed : “A group of us stayed up there a while back. The only town I’ve visited where cab ranks are policed.”

Andy : “Yeah, better get a cab back to your hotel early. You’ll see fights over cabs at 2am.”

Ed : “And the women…”

Chris : “I remember locals wearing black and white kilts up there in 1984.”

Andy : “You know when you look around a bar, late at night, and you see one or two people grimly hanging on to the bar, wavering, clearly pissed out of their heads…in Newcastle, everyone is like that.”

I let my imagination run riot…I pictured a scene, at a Chelsea game in the near future.

“Anyone see much of Chris these days?”

A hushed silence…

“Um…you didn’t hear? Grab yourself a pint mate, have a seat.”

“What happened?”

“Newcastle away.”

“What about it?”

“Well – it’s like this. He was spotted before the game drinking with some locals. Someone said they saw him knocking back some whisky, which he hates. Nobody saw him at the game. Alan reckoned he had a text from him  midway through the game saying he was in the directors box…the story goes that he was mixing with Geordies, one thing lead to another…there was a bet…there was a netball team involved…Mike Ashley’s niece, it got messy…seems he ended up in a casino down by the river late on….for ten minutes, he actually owned Newcastle United Football Club, but Ashley bought it back when Chris wanted to change the team colours to blue and white…with the profit, it seems he ended up buying a house up there…no, actually, three houses…and a cab firm. And a nightclub. And a ship. And a zoo. He tucked Ashley right up.”

Andy and I also spoke about the more subdued Mourinho of 2013, compared to the more bombastic Mourinho of 2004. Maybe – deep down – there is less bravado because, simply, Jose believes that silverware is no certainty in this current campaign.

“Why look like a fool?”

Despite the hooliganism which surrounded the Cardiff game in 2010, I saw no evidence of any anti-social behaviour this time. The police in the four vans at Vanston Place were apparently minding their own business. Thankfully, the rain had stopped on the walk to the ground. I quickly scanned the match programme; again, there is an in-depth article from our glorious, fabled, 1983-1984 campaign. On 15 October 1983 – oh God, over thirty years ago – we played Cardiff City on a wet and windswept afternoon. The game was memorable for me in that it was my first sighting of Pat Nevin in a Chelsea shirt. Pat scored the opening goal and Colin Lee, partnering Kerry Dixon upfront for one of the very last times, scored the second. I can remember the feeling of being under The Shed roof, sheltering again like penguins, on that autumnal day three decades ago like it was yesterday. Ah, memories.

Another Chelsea vs. Cardiff City memory was from October 1976…even further away, yet the reminiscences remain strong. I had travelled up to London with my parents and an uncle. For once, Ian Britton didn’t fill the number seven berth – that position was filled by Brian Bason, remember him?  Stalwarts Ken Swain and Ray Lewington scored as we won 2-1 in front of a healthy 28,409. Lewi didn’t score many, but his goal was a net buster from 30 yards. In those days, I always seemed to manage to choose Chelsea home games that were marred by football hooliganism. Earlier in 1974, there had been trouble at the Spurs home game. Later in 1976-1977, we witnessed untold agro at the Chelsea vs. Millwall game. Then, more of the same at the Chelsea vs. Spurs game in 1978. I think my parents weren’t fazed by it; it never took place in the new East Stand. I can definitely remember punches being thrown at the Cardiff fans as we walked past the old North Stand entrance after the game. I remember my father telling me –

“Always rough, that Cardiff lot.”

Another strong memory was the presence of TV cameras at the Cardiff game in 1976. Ah, the excitement of spotting a huge TV camera – the ones with the cameraman sitting on the back of it, ready to pivot around and follow the action – behind The Shed goal was magical in those days. It meant that the game – the game that I had seen in person – would be shown on TV, usually “The Big Match”, and much chat at school on the Monday would no doubt follow. On one memorable occasion, I even saw myself on TV. What a thrill.

Inside the ground, I met up with Bournemouth Steve, who was sitting alongside Alan, Tom and I. Although Steve isn’t a Chelsea fan, I was pleased to hear him refer to Chelsea as “we” on a number of occasions.

Unlike in 2010 when 6,000 Cardiff fans attended the game, barely 1,500 were present. There was one solitary Welsh flag. A poor show.

After the initial buzz of seeing the team back on home soil for the first time in a month, the atmosphere was typically muted. At least the rain had headed off to cause misery elsewhere. The sun was out. It was a fine day for football.

In 1976 and 1983 – more strong memories – Cardiff played in all yellow due to the colour clash. Due to the ludicrous decision of Malaysian owner Vincent Tan to change the Bluebirds’ colours to red and black in 2012, a change was not required.

Ryan Bertrand was in for the wounded Ashley Cole and Samuel Eto’o was preferred to Fernando Torres. Frank Lampard and Ramires again paired up in the deep-lying midfield positions. It seems to me that Jose likes this pairing. He also prefers Brana to Dave at right back. Elsewhere in the team, there are still question marks. With JT recalled after being ignored by Benitez, Jose seems unable to choose between partnering him with Luiz or Cahill. Does the midfield of Oscar, Hazard and Mata pick itself? Clearly not. Up front, I think that Mourinho favours Torres, but don’t quote me.

Chelsea’s first chance fell to Juan Mata, but Eto’o’s pass was met with an “air shot” from our little number ten; from the follow-up, Branislav Ivanovic blasted over.

My mind was distracted for the Cardiff goal, thinking about 1983 or 1976 maybe, so I only caught the Luiz / Cech “after you Claude” manoeuvre which resulted in Jordon Mutch – who? – being able to chip an effort into our goal.

In the far corner, the Welsh were buoyant :

“One nil to the sheepshaggers.”

Oh boyo.

We were rusty for most of the first-half. John Terry came close with two headers from corners. At the other end, Peter Cech leapt high to turn a Cardiff free-kick past the far post. Apart from a couple of rare excursions into our half, Cardiff offered little. It was a half to forget, though. I spent an inordinate amount of time watching the airplanes on their approach into Heathrow, just like we all did during those grim days in the ‘eighties.

On 32 minutes, I was watching one of the famous Chelsea pigeons swoop through the sky and settle on the north stand roof; I therefore momentarily missed Marshall lose control as Eto’o pounced. I only saw the ball with Eden Hazard – up to then, quite invisible – and wondered what on earth had happened. Then, the disbelief as Eto’o buggered up his chance, to be quickly displaced with relief as Hazard slammed home the loose ball.

I’d missed the build-up to the first two goals, though; not good enough.

Luiz was booked for a silly block; he had endured a poor first-half.

We all had.

There was a treat at half-time. Pat Nevin, my favourite ever Chelsea player by a ridiculously wide margin, was on the pitch with Neil Barnett.

A nice bit of 1983/2013 symmetry Chelsea. Thank you.

There was one of those lame half-time competitions, this time involving various star struck youngsters dribbling and – mainly – scoring past Stamford at the Matthew Harding end. Neil Barnett then demanded that Pat tried his luck; for a few seconds we were transported back in time as Pat dribbled towards goal. Alas, almost typically, his shot was saved.

Don’t worry Pat; at least it wasn’t as bad as that penalty against Manchester City in 1985.

The second-half began and I relied on my mantra of “we always play better attacking our end in the second period” to see us through. I had been cheered by Liverpool’s dropped points at Newcastle, but this was a “must win” for us. Marshall was booked for time-wasting, which had been noted by the referee and home supporters alike. A shot from Eto’o straight at Marshall but other Chelsea chances were rare. Mourinho replaced the subdued Mata with Oscar. Soon after, Torres entered the pitch, replacing Ryan Bertrand.

Jose was clearly going for it, with just three at the back now.

Mourinho was seemingly sent to the stands for an argument with the fourth official; at the time, the reasons were unsure.

After a Lampard corner had been cleared, a pass from Hazard right down below me found Eto’o inside the Cardiff penalty box. He moved his body to the right, caught the defender off balance, and drilled his shot home, low just inside the near post. I caught his exultant sprint, arm-raised Shearer-like, and his jump into the air over in the far corner. At last, a Chelsea striker had scored a league goal for us. Get in you beauty.

Alan, as Tom Jones : “THTCAUN.”

Chris, as Rob Brydon : “COMLD.”

Tidy.

Typical Mourinho now; with a lead, he reverted back to playing four at the back as Dave replaced Eto’o. Although Cardiff substitute Kim ran at the heart of the Chelsea defence, causing Petr Cech to save on a couple of occasions, we increased our lead in the last quarter of an hour.

Firstly there was a gorgeous goal by Oscar. Our Brazilian picked the ball up and went on a little run before chipping an exquisite dipper that just grazed Marshall’s bar before bouncing down and into the net.

Secondly, Eden Hazard danced into the Cardiff box, shooting low. His shot hit Marshall. Just like at Carrow Road, the goalkeeper took the sting out of the shot, but was helpless to stop the ball roll over the line.

I’ll be honest. The 4-1 score hugely flattered us.

However, our record in the league is now a healthy 5-2-1.

We’re in second place.

And we haven’t even “clicked” yet.

Very tidy.

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Tales From London And Donetsk.

Chelsea vs. Nordsjaelland : 5 December 2012.

So, the day of destiny had arrived. I’m not sure how many days of destiny the average Chelsea supporter faces in his or her life, but this was the latest one. I had travelled up to London, alas, without Lord Porky once again. For the last hour of the journey, my thoughts had been not of the imminent game, nor the consequences of elimination from this season’s Champions League, but of my imminent trip to Japan. In truth, I really haven’t thought too much about it until just recently. Flights and hotels were booked during the summer, but my usual meticulous planning hadn’t really advanced too much. Ironically, I received a disturbing email during the day which told me that one of my connecting flights (from Beijing to Tokyo) had been cancelled.

What?

Thankfully, a phone call later and I had been booked onto a slightly later flight. Sorted.

So, to sum up my feelings as I neared central London; I had already “moved on.” I didn’t really have much hope of Shakhtar beating Juventus. In truth, I just wanted the game to come and go – regardless of the result – and for there to be as little “bad atmosphere” at the Bridge as could be hoped. Our chances of progressing (involving Chelsea and Shakhtar wins) was personally ranked by myself at 10%.

As I slowly edged around Hammersmith roundabout, the evening commuters swarmed all around me. I quickly made the connection; I immediately thought of the thousands of pedestrians who habitually use the iconic Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, underneath acres of shimmering neon. In ten days I would be one of those pedestrians. I caught a little buzz of excitement, and then continued on my safe passage around the busy roundabout, navigating it safely before hitting the Fulham Palace Road and my final approach into home territory.

It was another bitter night in London. The wind chilled me to the bone. I needed warming and so I popped into my old favourite, The Lily Tandoori, and enjoyed a king prawn bhuna while I defrosted. The place was virtually empty. I chatted with the Fulham-supporting waiter about the state of play at my club. Was it me, or did he slightly resemble Rafa Benitez?

Oh dear, I think I was losing the plot. On leaving, I said “I usually come in here after a Champions League game. Should a miracle happen tonight and we go through, expect me in here ordering king prawn bhuna for the rest of this season before each Champions League game.” My comment drew a hearty laugh from the other two customers – Chelsea – in the restaurant.

Over in The Goose, things were quiet and subdued. There were rumours of plenty of “spares” for the night’s game. Out into the night, there was the usual volume of football-going traffic along the Fulham Road. Inside the stadium, thankfully the crowd looked pretty reasonable. This was to be another near full-house. I spoke with John and we both shared the same sentiments –

“Let’s just get this over with, whatever the result.”

I briefly chatted to Kevin and Anna, who will both be in Tokyo. Like me, they took some convincing to do the trip, but are really looking forward to it. No doubt our paths would cross in Japan.

Despite the cold weather, Pensioner Tom was sat alongside Alan. All credit to him for endeavouring to drive up from Sutton on such an inclement night for football. The game began and Chelsea attempted to inflict some early damage on the Danish visitors. However, on a clearly odd evening, the Chelsea support in the Matthew Harding Lower had one eye on events in the Ukraine. On more than one occasion, we supported another team.

“Come on Shakhtar, come on Shakhtar, come on Shakhtar, come on Shaktar.”

We managed to get the ball played into the opposing penalty area on a number of occasions, but our luck was not with us. Chances for Torres and Hazard went begging. At times, I lamented the lack of movement in our midfield. I was reminded of the great Tony Hancock line –

“I thought my mother was a bad cook but at least her gravy used to move about.”

At times our gravy was solid.

Then, a Nordsjaelland attack and Gary Cahill handled. Oh fcuk.

Thankfully, Stokholm’s penalty was struck at a good height for Petr Cech to move to his right and save. As in Munich, he had come to our rescue once again. The crowd roared and Alan commented that maybe this was just what the crowd needed in order for some noise to be generated. It had been another quiet evening. There had been a small amount of booing as the TV screens showed Benitez taking to his seat at the start of the game. I had clapped throughout the sixteenth minute, but there was thankfully not much negative noise. The Chelsea fans are still trying to find their feet – a common ground – after the calamitous events since Black Tuesday in Turin.

Soon after, we were awarded a penalty, but Eden Hazard’s low shot was saved too.

Oh boy.

Bizarrely, another penalty was awarded to us for yet another handball, but this time David Luiz confidently struck home, the ball tearing a path high into the net. We breathed a massive sigh of relief.

Alan and I went through our usual post-goal routine, with accents coloured with a Scandinavian lilt. In the last kick of the first-half, Torres broke and poked a ball home after seeing his initial effort saved. It was a fine piece of intuitive goalscoring, so sadly missing from Torres’ play of late. It was his twentieth goal for Chelsea and – yes, here I go again – I’ve seen every one of the buggers.

20/20 vision.

Pat Nevin was on the pitch, briefly, at half-time and commented about the three penalties. He couldn’t resist a self-deprecating dig at himself, mentioning this beauty from 1985.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0u4lTUl39I

Proper Chelsea.

In Donetsk, it was still 0-0.

After just twenty seconds into the second period, our visitors broke down our left and Cech was beaten by a crafty lob.

Soon after, I asked Alan –

“With the way things have gone here with the three penalties, do you get the feeling this could be one of those crazy nights of football?”

I was clearly grasping at straws.

A Gary Cahill header – looping up and in and over the line – from a Mata free-kick restored our two-goal cushion. Surely our game was won. Soon after, a strong run down the left down below me from Hazard and the ball was pulled back from the bye-line for Torres to prod home. Get in.

21/21.

However, I soon received a text from Tullio in Turin. It ruined my celebrations.

“0-1.”

We were virtually out and in to the Europa League.

A nice move involving Ramires, Hazard and Mata gave us our fifth goal after Mata followed up after his initial shot was parried. There was tons of Chelsea possession in the second half and some of it was lovely to watch. Flicks and turns, albeit against secondary opposition, at least warmed me a little. Eden Hazard even attempted to play a ball back to Oscar by turning and letting it him firmly between the shoulder-blades.

Prowling in the Chelsea technical area was the figure of Rafa Benitez, but I largely chose to ignore him. This is how I am dealing with all of this at the moment. There have been two vaguely similar scenarios to the di Matteo sacking in my memory; the Vialli sacking in 2000 and the Mourinho “mutual agreement” in 2007. Both were horrible affairs, both bring me moments of pain in remembering them.

I loved Vialli as a man, as a Chelsea player and as a Chelsea manager. In his place came the unknown figure of Claudio Ranieri. It took ages for me – and other Chelsea fans – to warm to him. I can well remember a horrible trip to The Valley (some new fans might have to Google this stadium) in November 2000 when we lost 2-0 and the Chelsea support was wailing in displeasure. Didn’t Dennis Wise play wing back for a period in this game? I don’t know. It was a bleak old time. Ranieri’s predilection for playing Slavisa Jokanovic (remember him?) really infuriated the support at the time. Jokanovic was Ranieri’s man and we never warmed to him. The poor bloke was the most hated player of that odd 2000-2001 season.

We then experienced the move from the sublime to the ridiculous in September 2007 when the idolised Jose Mourinho was replaced by the shambolic figure of Avram Grant. Dark days again. It’s no bloody wonder us Chelsea fans sometimes have to throw our hands up to the footballing gods and yell “what the hell is going on?”

In the current climate, Chelsea fans are split into various factions. Some support the team, but boo Benitez. Some support the team but stay silent on the manager. Some support the team at games, but want the team to lose in order for Benitez to be sacked as quickly as possible. Some support the board and the team regardless. Some stay silent. Some even boo players.

A common ground will eventually be found, but – in my mind – not for a while. This could well turn out to be the ultimate winter of discontent.

At 5-1, I spotted a gaggle of tourists in the corner of the Shed Lower continually attempt to initiate the loathed “wave.” Thankfully, it never made it past a third of the way down the lower tier of the West Stand. We don’t do waves in England. It shows utmost disrespect for the players on the pitch and it detracts from the reason why supporters attend games. I pulled my telephoto lens up to my eyes just in time to see a Chelsea lad remonstrate with the entire section and I can easily imagine what words were spoken. I have the bemused reaction of the “happy clappy” tourists on film.

This match report is dedicated to that lone Chelsea fan. Good work son.

On the pitch, Oscar side-footed home to make it 6-1. Mata was replaced by Paolo Ferreira and both players were given a great reception. More chances came to Chelsea, who were now hitting the visitors hard. I captured a perfect rabona by Fernando Torres down below me on film. Torres’ confidence has taken a massive hit since those halcyon days of – when? – October (ha!) but I hope he recovers and recovers quickly. His play, let’s be honest, in the past month has been shocking.

The game ended with a 6-1 win, but we were out of the Champions League. I stared in disbelief at the end, but I soon ended up being annoyed with myself. I had clearly been guilty, in our embroilment with the Champions League since 1999, to have been rather dismissive of the other trophies on offer. The Europa League is the second most prestigious prize in the UEFA portfolio. Back in 1977 or 1983 or 1990 or 1993 I would have given the world to take part in any European competition. Let’s win the Europa League in Amsterdam.

As for the Champions league, at least we had Munich.

We’ll always have Munich.

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