Tales From Our National Game

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 30 December 2018.

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

“Not very busy is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love football like life itself.

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

It’s the bollocks.

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

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

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

More familiar faces, more bonhomie.

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

“Stand where you want.”

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

Kepa

Dave – Toni – David – Marcos

N’Golo – Jorginho – Ross

Willian – Olivier – Eden

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

Oh my.

Oh bloody hell.

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

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

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

Roy Bentley.

Phil McNight.

Derek Saunders.

Ken Shellito.

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

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

Rest In Peace.

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

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

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

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

Thankfully, the Chelsea support had read the script perfectly.

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

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

Fucking hell, football.

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

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

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

There was rising frustration with our reluctance to shoot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll win this, Gal.”

“0-0 I reckon Chris.”

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

The game recommenced with Chelsea on top.

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

“GET IN.”

We were treated to an N’Goalo.

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

I turned to Parky.

“Who passed to him?”

“Luiz.”

“Ah excellent.”

I looked at Alan.

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four minutes of extra time were signalled.

My eyes were on referee Craig Pawson.

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

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

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

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

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

Job done.

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

“I enjoy potholing.”

That made me chuckle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales From The Chuckle Bus

Chelsea vs. Swansea City : 29 November 2017.

After thousands of miles of travel for away games against West Brom, Qarabag and Liverpool, Chelsea Football Club were now due to play three consecutive home matches within the space of just seven days. The first of this little stretch of games was against Paul Clement’s ailing Swansea City. After this midweek match, pushing us on in to the month of December, there would be a further nine matches; it would be one of our busiest months. Beginning with this Swansea City game at Stamford Bridge, there seemed to be a line of eight league games which were – on paper, if not grass – definitely “winnable.”

I’ll be honest here. I was hoping for a vast haul of points from these encounters against teams which were mainly in the lower-half of the table.

Could we win every one? Possibly. Quite possibly.

At 2pm, I left work. I had been awake since 5am, and at work since 6am. It would be a long day for me. Five minutes later, I was sat in the pub opposite with PD and Lord Parky, waiting for Glenn to join us, who had also left work at two o’clock. Outside, the weather was bitterly cold; the coldest of the season thus far. After enjoying a pint of Peroni – “cheers, Parky” – and a bite to eat, PD steered The Chuckle Bus towards the M4. We left Melksham at around 3pm. On the drive to London, I thankfully grabbed an hour of sleep.

We were parked up at around 5.15pm.

Coats on. We were all layered-up.

I headed off to Stamford Bridge to meet up with a couple of folk. Outside the megastore, Eric – who I first met at our game in Ann Arbor in Michigan last summer – was waiting for me. Eric had just arrived in London from Toronto and this would be his first ever game at Stamford Bridge. It was lovely to see him again. His smile was wide and I gave him a hug. There is a gaggle of people that I know from the Toronto Blues, and I had promised myself that I would give Eric a little tour before we joined up with the boys in the boozer.

[ For those who have been reading these match reports for a while now, you can be excused if you decide to skip the next few paragraphs. I always tend to point out the same selection of sights for the many first time visitors who it has been my absolute pleasure to show around Stamford Bridge. ]

I retraced some very familiar steps.

We started under The Shed Wall, and there was a brief re-cap of the stadium redevelopment, and then up to the Copthorne Hotel where I met up with my good friend Gill. We had sadly arrived just after the former-players who now take care of hospitality at Chelsea had departed. I was hoping to get a few photos of Eric with some of our most famous names.

“Maybe next time, Eric.”

I pointed out the “Butcher’s Hook” – aka “The Rising Sun” – where our club was formed in 1905 and we strolled down past the stalls on the Fulham Road. I spotted friends Michelle and Dane tucking in to some pie, mash and liquor outside a food stall by the Oswald Stoll Buildings; this is a new feature, I must give that a go one day soon. We purposefully avoided the grafters selling “half and half scarves”. We stopped off at the programme stall outside the tube station which is manned by my friend Steve – who only lives ten miles away from me in Evercreech in Somerset – and we flicked through a few of his vintage programmes. I told Eric how I dropped off a few boxes of programmes at his house a few years back, and I was dumbstruck with the amount of Chelsea memorabilia that he had stored in his double-garage; floor to ceiling shelves, just ridiculous. In my youth I used to collect Chelsea programmes – my oldest one dates back to 1947, the days of Tommy Lawton – but I only buy home programmes these days. I have no double-garage to store stuff, though I wish I did. We crossed the road and chatted to DJ, Mark and Tim at the CFCUK stall. I spoke about the nearby Fulham Town Hall, where the cup celebrations of 1970 and 1971 took place, and also how we joined in with the joyous celebrations of 1997 – and to a much lesser extent, 2000 – with thousands of other Chelsea fans at the junction of Fulham Road and Vanston Place. We peered down the now disused “match-day overflow” exit steps of the old red-bricked Fulham Broadway tube station and personal memories came flooding back. I pointed out the many pubs and bars which cluster around our home. Past “The Broadway Bar & Grill”, past “McGettigans” and past “The Elk Bar”. These are three bars that we seldom ever use to be honest. Our little tour stopped at “Simmons Bar” just a few doors down from “The Cock Tavern.”

Inside, The Chuckle Brothers were crowded around our usual table. I quickly introduced Eric to the boys.

I had joked that for one night only, Eric would be an honorary Chuckle Brother.

“Two pints of Estrella please, mate.”

My mates warmly welcomed Eric to the fold. There were laughs – chuckles – aplenty.

Eric’s ticket was just a few blocks away from us in The Sleepy Hollow. He is going to the other two games in our home stand too, and has tickets in three separate stands as he wanted to experience different views and perspectives. I warned him that the atmosphere against Swansea would be, in all probability, pretty dire.

Sadly, I am unable to go to the away game at Huddersfield Town in a fortnight; my friend Daryl was looking for a ticket. I was very happy to oblige.

Eric needed me to clarify something.

“How come the Chuckle Brothers don’t wear Chelsea shirts?”

My first thoughts were :

“Where to start? So much to say in so little time.”

I briefly gave a potted history of the cult-with-no-name (Liverpool 1977, the end of the skinheads, the wedge, my personal epiphany during season 1983/84, fighting and fashion, the waxing and waning of certain labels, the whole nine yards) and Eric lapped it all up. As we were set to leave, I pointed out someone a few yards away tying an Aquascutum scarf around his neck before setting off for the match.

“You’ll see that scarf a lot at Chelsea over the next week.”

The chat continued as Alan, Eric and I walked past a few coffee shops along Jerdan Place.

The weather was bitter.

Outside the West Stand, a Chelsea Christmas tree dominated the scene. The West Stand was lit up with thousands of white lights.

“Bloody hell, was it a year ago that we were met with this same view?”

I made sure Eric bought a match programme for his first game at HQ. I also made sure that I captured his first sighting of the inside of Stamford Bridge. Inside, there was another photo with the Chuckle Brothers in The Sleepy Hollow. I was keen to hear of Eric’s first thoughts, and almost drowned in a tide of “awesome overload”.

Bless.

The teams entered the pitch and Eric took his place in Block 11 of the Matthew Harding, no more than twenty yards away. Over in the far corner, there were gaps among the Swansea City support. I suspect they brought around one thousand.

The first meaningful moment of the evening was heart-wrenchingly sad.

The players assembled in the centre-circle to remember the former Chelsea youth team coach Dermot Drummy who had tragically passed away at the age of fifty-six on Monday. Dermot was well-loved at Stamford Bridge. He was particularly friendly with my friend Gill, who has followed the young lads for many seasons.

Rest In Peace Dermot Drummy.

The home programme also remembered the sad passing of Allan Harris, who passed away on 23 November. I wondered if his loss would be remembered on Saturday.

It had been a busy pre-match for me.

I quickly checked the team, which was aligned in the 3-4-3 of last season. I like it that Antonio can change it around.

Courtois

Rudiger – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Pedro

So, there was a rest for both Cesar Azpilicueta and Eden Hazard. I wondered what the future holds for David Luiz. I will certainly be sad if he moves on. He is one of those characters that divides opinion but last season he was exemplary, proving many “experts” wrong. But Andreas Christensen has excelled this season; he does not deserve to be dropped.

The game began. Despite many spares floating around on the internet, there were not as many empty seats dotted around that I had feared. Coats and jackets were worn buttoned to the chin. It was shockingly cold.

An early shout of “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” soon petered out and the noise levels were indeed as low as I had expected.

Sigh.

We dominated possession and were well on top. Swansea City, in all Welsh red, rarely struck more than a few passes together. Their recent halcyon days under Brendan Rodgers and then Michael Laudrup seem distant. A shot from an angle by Alonso was deflected over. Willian then spun a free-kick in from over by the East Stand and it curled just past the far post, evading everybody. It was Willian who looked the busiest of our players in the opening period, though we were soon treated to a few Duracell Bunny escapades up the right flank from Davide Zappacosta. A header from Morata here, a blocked shot there. On many occasions in the first-half, the final ball from the right flank – from either Willian or Zappacosta or Fabregas was aimed at Morata on the far post, but there was neither pinpoint accuracy nor the required numbers in the box to guide the ball home. On a couple of occasions, the ball flashed untouched across the six-yard box. The best move of the entire first-half was just wonderful; Andreas Christensen harnessed the ball under his control down below us, then played a crisp ball out to N’Golo Kante. A few one-touch passes worked the ball out to the waiting Marcos Alonso on the left, before more crisp passing moved the ball out to the right flank. The resultant cross – typically – just evaded Morata’s leap.

Midway through the first-half, apart from the chant for the manager at the start, there had not been a single coherent song from the home support. I wondered what Eric made of it.

A lovely cushioned effort from Morata, meeting a cross on the volley, drew a reflex save from Fabianski. It reminded me – kinda – of Fernando Torres’ goal at Arsenal in 2012.

Down below us, Thibaut Courtois popped behind the goal at the Matthew Harding and borrowed a pen from a Chelsea supporter, and then pulled out a word search paperback from his kitbag. He leaned against the near post and set to work, occasionally flicking the pen up and down to get the ink flowing on this coldest of evenings.

After only ten minutes, I spotted him punch the air and throw the book back into his net.

Another one nailed. Good work Thibaut.

At the other end, Alonso reached row ZZ of The Shed Upper.

As the half-continued, I lost count of the number of balls that were zipped in by Zappacosta and whipped in by Willian but alas no goal was forthcoming. One cross appeared to be deflected behind by a Swansea City player but a goal-kick was signalled by referee Neil Swarbrick. Over on the far touchline, there was a melee (the word “melee” is surely only used in football reportage) and Antonio Conte was sent-off, presumably for dissent.

Oh great.

Angelo Alessio took over the work of the manager in the technical area.

I mentioned to Alan that the same Alessio played, and scored, in the very first Juventus match that I witnessed in person, just over thirty years ago. I wish that I had realised this when I briefly chatted to the very pleasant Alessio at the Chelsea hotel in Beijing in July.

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

I never tire of how football keeps providing odd little moments like this; watching Juve high on the Curva Maratona in November 1987, I would never have thought that the relatively unknown midfielder would, for an hour, be coaxing my beloved Chelsea from the touchline in 2017.

At the half-time whistle, we wondered if Thibaut had even touched the ball with his hands.

We thought not.

On another day, Morata would have already had a hat-trick ball in his possession.

During the break, a lovely moment. Neil Barnett introduced Paul Canoville, recovering now from a worrying health-scare, and he looked blown over by the reception. In 1983/84, Canners scored a hat-trick against Swansea at Stamford Bridge. A few photographs were inevitable.

After my comments about 1983/84 to Eric, I was pleased to see that the season was featured at length in the evening’s programme.

Soon into the second-half, at last a concerted Chelsea song, to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea – Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

After a fine set-up by that man Willian, Pedro repeated Alonso’s effort in the first-half and shot wildly over.

With ten minutes of the second-half gone, a short corner on our right was played square to Kante. Every Swansea City player was positioned within their penalty box and his fierce shot, not surprisingly hit a Swans defender. The ball was deflected on, and Toni Rudiger was well placed to head home.

His celebrations down in our corner – especially for Eric, ha – were undeniably euphoric.

Get in.

Alan – “They’ll have to come at us now, boyo.”

Chris – “Come on my little diamonds, bach.”

I got the impression that Morata was missing his usual partner Hazard, but an Osgood-esque header forced a fine save from Fabianski, who was by far the busiest goalkeeper. The game continued, and we had occasional shots on goal. We needed a second to settle the nerves, but our finishing seemed sub-standard. There was just something about us that didn’t seem right; but, as Alan said, maybe the three away games were having an effect. The supporters hardly made a peep the entire night; something was amiss there, too.

Throughout, Kante and Christensen were exceptional. I liked Willian’s efforts. Without Eden, he was our spark, our catalyst.

Thibaut at last had one save to make.

The night grew colder, the noise faded.

Victor Moses replaced Zappacosta, then Drinkwater and Hazard replaced Willian and Pedro.

There was the slightest of responses from the visitors. A cross from substitute Routledge should have tested us, but it drifted past the far post. Make no mistake about it, Swansea City had been dire all night long. In the circumstances, despite an average showing from us, we could have won 4-0 or 5-0.

Swansea City were that bad.

On the way out, one phrase dominated.

“We made fucking hard work of that.”

The Chuckle Brothers feasted on late night treats on the North End Road – ah the simple pleasure of hot food. However, the news of a late late winner for Manchester City brought collective groans. I would love our consecutive win streak from this time last year to remain for a few years yet.

Sadly, the trip home was a nightmare. Closures of the M4 forced The Chuckle Bus onto the M3, but that had closures too. We were pushed onto the M25, then through diversion signs and onto the southerly A3. Eventually, after skirting Guildford – yes really – we found ourselves back on the M3 and then the A303. Even that bloody road had a small diversion at Andover. I tried to grab some sleep, but gloriously failed.

PD eventually reached the pub car park at 1.30am and, after de-frosting my car, I reached home at the unearthly time of 2am.

I would be up again at 5am.

Midweek football. I bloody love it.

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Tales From Vanessa’s Birthday Weekend

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 19 March 2016.

PSG hurt. And Everton really hurt. Those were two tough losses.

Heading in to our game with West Ham United, our season suddenly felt rather flat. Season 2015-2016 now had an end in sight. We had nine games left – four at home, five away, all in the league – and I was wondering where on Earth our season had gone. From a results perspective, it had clearly gone up in smoke, but this has seemed a very quick season, despite the troubles along the way. It did not seem five minutes ago that I was catching a train with my friend Lynda en route to the season’s first game in New Jersey in July.

And now I could hear New Jersey’s favourite son Frank Sinatra singing.

“And now the end is near.”

Nine games left. These games would soon fly past. And yet I’m still relishing each and every one of them. The five away games would be enjoyable just because they are away games. The four home games would be important, for varying reasons.

And there would be the usual laughs along the way.

There was an extra-special reason for me to be relishing the visit of West Ham to Stamford Bridge. My friends Roma, Vanessa and Shawn – often mentioned in dispatches – were visiting London for five days, lured by the chance to see our captain John Terry one last time before he, possibly, heads west to the US or east to China. I have known Roma since 1989, when my cycling holiday down the East coast of the US took me to her home town of St. Augustine in Florida. Since then, there have been many laughs along the way, and also many Chelsea games too.

Roma announced to me a couple of months back that she was planning a visit to London, specifically Chelsea-centred, with her daughter Vanessa and son Shawn. Tickets were hastily purchased, and we waited for the day to arrive. Vanessa, fourteen years after her first game at Stamford Bridge against Fulham in 2002, was especially excited. She would be celebrating her twenty-fifth birthday while in London. This was very much her trip.

And I so hoped that John Terry, side-lined for a while, would be playing. He was the reason, in a way, why the three of them had decided to visit us. I was so relieved when our captain made a late appearance off the bench at Goodison last weekend.

I made an early start. I left my home town as early as 8am. Just after 11am, I turned the corner outside the West Stand and spotted my three friends from North Carolina and Tennessee walking towards me. It was lovely to see them again. Shawn was wearing not one but two Chelsea shirts, plus a Chelsea tracksuit top. His favourite player is Diego Costa and he was wearing a “19” shirt. Vanessa favours Cesc Fabregas and was wearing a “4.”

My love of Chelsea Football Club has certainly rubbed off on Roma’s family. Her other daughter Jenny now has a two-year-old boy, who himself yells “Chelsea” at the TV set whenever we are playing. This is all too crazy for me to comprehend at times. Back in 1989, Chelsea were off the radar in the US.

We spent a lovely hour or so mixing with a few of the former Chelsea players who meet up in the Copthorne Hotel before each and every home game. The three visitors first met Paul Canoville at Yankee Stadium in 2012; there was an updated photocall in 2016. The girls loved being able to meet Bobby Tambling again too. They recreated a photograph from Charlotte. John Hollins and Colin Pates gave them signed photographs.

Good times.

My friend Janette from LA was also in town, excited at getting a last minute ticket, and it was great to meet up with her at last. Elsewhere, there was a contingent from the New York Blues honing in on The Goose. Chopper – the NYC version – called by at the hotel before moving on. There was talk of how I picked up Chopper and two others at Bristol airport on a Saturday morning in 2007, before our Carling Cup win against Arsenal in Cardiff, and how – just over an hour later – we were drinking fluorescent orange scrumpy in a Somerset cider pub.

Good times then, good times now.

This was another mightily busy pre-match.

On leaving the hotel, I spotted Kerry Dixon and offered a handshake. It was good to see him again, especially at Stamford Bridge, and he appreciated my well wishes. Back in 2005, Roma had posed for a photo with Kerry in “Nevada Smiths” before a game with Milan, but there would not be time, alas, for a repeat in 2016.

Back at The Goose, more New York Blues arrived. I think around twenty were over in total. It was lovely to see some old friends once again. Mike, the NYB’s chief bottle-washer, was over from NYC for a bare twenty-four hours, flying in at Heathrow at 10.30am and leaving on Sunday morning, his birthday. Such dedication is truly heart-warming. There was whispered talk of the upcoming 2016 US summer tour, and the inevitable moans from some “huge” stateside Chelsea fans about the club not playing in their part of the country. Some of them should take a leaf out of Mike’s book.

We worked out that Shawn, only nine, would be seeing his seventh Chelsea game.

“Seven! You are a lucky boy. When I was nine, I had only seen three, and you live four thousand miles away!”

Team news filtered through.

“John Terry is playing.”

Fist pump.

Who would have guessed that Loic Remy would have been given the nod over Bertrand Traore? There was no Eden Hazard, injured. The surprise was that Kenedy, who Roma, Vanessa and Shawn saw make his debut in DC, was playing in an advanced midfield role. Elsewhere there were the usual suspects. There were grumbles that Ruben Loftus-Cheek was not involved from the start.

The beer garden was packed.

There were memories of last season’s game against Southampton, when Shawn was filling The Goose beer garden with bubbles from a toy. I joked with Roma then that it was a West Ham thing. Suffice to say, there were no bubbles in The Goose beer garden in 2016. There were, however, a small group of West Ham fans, wearing no colours, minding their own business. As we left the pub, early, at just before 2pm, I sensed that another little mob of West Ham walked past. I decided to hang back and let them walk on. The last thing that I wanted was for my guests to witness any match day silliness. To be fair, I didn’t see any trouble the entire day.

It is not always the same story when West Ham come visiting.

Roma, Vanessa and Shawn took their seats in the rear rows of the West Stand, underneath the overhang. They would soon be posting pictures. Fantastic.

The stadium slowly filled. How different this all is to the “pay on the gate” days of yesteryear, when the terraces often became full a good hour before the kick-off oat some games. In those days, the atmosphere would gradually rise with each passing minute. There would be songs from The Shed. On occasion, the pre-match “entertainment” would involve scuffles in the North Stand as opposing fans battled for territory.

In 1984, the ICF arrived very early in the seats of the old West Stand, causing me – a teenager on the benches – to worry about my safety.

Different times.

Prior to the game, Ron Harris presented John Terry with a memento marking his seven-hundredth Chelsea game the previous week. For a while, I wondered if Ron’s 795 might come under threat. Unless the club have a change of heart regarding John Terry, that record will go on forever.

There were three thousand away fans – three flags – in the far corner. They were mumbling something about “pwitty bahbles in de air” as the game began.

The first-half was a poor show to be honest. From the moment that Manuel Lanzini looked up twenty-five yards out and fired a fine curling effort past Thibaut Courtois on seventeen minutes, we struggled to get much of a foothold. A few chances were exchanged, but I felt that West Ham looked a little more focussed when they attacked. A penalty claim was waved away by new referee Robert Madley as the ball appeared to strike the arm of Enner Valencia. I am not one to moan about referees as a rule, but this was one of the first of many odd decisions made by the man in black.

We plugged away, but it was hardly entertaining or productive. I was slightly surprised that West Ham didn’t hit us further; they seemed to resist the temptation to attack at will, despite having a one-goal cushion.

This was not going well.

Aaron Cresswell struck a shot wide, Willian hit a free-kick over.

In the third minute of extra-time in the first-half, we were awarded another free-kick and I am sure that I am not the only one who presumed that Willian would take another stab at goal. Instead, Cesc Fabregas struck a magnificent free-kick over the wall and past the flailing Adrian.

Vanessa’s man had done it. We exchanged texts.

“Happy?”

“Extremely.”

“Bless.”

I instantly remembered Vanessa’s funny comment in Charlotte after Fabregas had fluffed an easy chance against Paris St. Germain…

“Ah, he’s always nervous around me.”

Not so today, Ness.

I am not sure what magical dust Guus Hiddink sprinkled in the players’ half-time cuppas, but it certainly worked. Pedro replaced the injured Kenedy, and we then upped the tempo. Apart from a John Terry goal-line clearance from the mercurial Payet in the first attack of the half, we dominated the second-half right from the offset.

An effort from Oscar, a header from JT. We were getting behind the West Ham full backs and causing problems.

And yet…and yet…completely against the run of play, Sakho played in the overlapping Cresswell who smacked a shot against the bar with Courtois rooted to the floor.

Remy, twisting, forced a save.

The crowd sensed a revival but the noise was not thunderous as I had hoped.

Andy Carroll, who scored the winner at Upton Park earlier this season, replaced Sakho. His first bloody touch turned in Payet’s through ball.

Bollocks.

With West Ham going well this season, I almost expected a few to get tickets in the home areas of The Bridge. When they nabbed this second goal I looked hard to see if there were any odd outbreaks of applause from away fans in home areas – the corporate West Stand especially – but there was nothing.

Traore replaced Remy, who had struggled.

Over in the far corner :

“Fawchunes always idin.”

We rallied well, and the West Ham goal suddenly lived a very charmed life. A Fabregas header went over, an Oscar shot was blocked, and Fabregas’ bicycle kick flew over. Corner after corner. A Terry header went close.

Carroll then twice tested Courtois, but the threat was averted.

The time was passing.

This would be Guus Hiddink’s first loss in the league.

Keep plugging away boys.

At last Ruben Loftus-Cheek appeared, replacing Oscar, who had another indifferent game. Ruben’s run into the box was curtailed by Antonio. It looked a clear penalty to me.

Fabregas coolly sent Adrian the wrong way.

2-2.

Phew.

Vanessa’s man did it again.

At last…at last…the noise bellowed around Stamford Bridge.

I thought that we had definitely deserved a draw on the back of a more spirited second-half show. The first-half had been dire. We kept going. I thought JT was excellent, as was Mikel. Elsewhere, I liked Kenedy and Loftus-Cheek. They must be given more playing time in the remaining eight games.

At the Peter Osgood statue, my three American friends were full of smiles.

Lovely stuff.

As I drove towards Barons Court, I realised that there would be no home game, now, for four whole weeks.

Oh Stamford Bridge, I will miss you.

“Oh wait. Hang on. I’m back again tomorrow.”

On Sunday, there would be day two of Vanessa’s birthday weekend, with a stadium tour, a quick call at the highly impressive Chelsea museum – and my first sighting of the excellent 3D model of the new stadium – a Sunday lunch on the banks of the Thames at Chiswick and a couple of hours under the shadow of Windsor Castle in Peter Osgood’s home town.

It would turn out to be a simply wonderful weekend.

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Tales From Benny’s First Game

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 3 October 2015.

This was our homecoming after three games on the road at Walsall, Newcastle and Porto. It would also be our last game for a fortnight, with another international break looming. After the disappointment of our game in Portugal – the stinging defeat on the pitch allied with the spate of robberies off it – I was hopeful that the game against Southampton would put us back on track.

No, let’s be honest and exact here, this was a game we had to win. I knew that the Saints, continuing their fine play from last season under Ronald Koeman would be no pushover, but I was adamant that we could – and should – prevail.

However, my main focus as I drove up to London with Parky and Bournemouth Steve was centred upon seeing my close friend Ian and his young son Ben, who would be watching from the East Lower. It would be Benny’s first ever Chelsea game; a present for his eighth birthday during the late summer.

Ian and I go back to 1984, when we found ourselves on the same human geography course at North Staffs Poly in Stoke. Our friendship slowly grew over the three years, aided by our love of football and music, and was solidified on a trip around Europe on a three week Inter Rail holiday in the September of 1987. Ian was with me, memorably, on my first ever European football match, an Internazionale vs. Empoli game in the San Siro. During that trip we also visited the Bernabeu, Camp Nou and Munich’s Olympic Stadium. Our first afternoon in London after that Inter Rail trip was spent at Stamford Bridge – a good 2-2 draw with Newcastle United, Paul Gascoigne and all – and this was Ian’s first game at Chelsea.

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Ian has watched a few more games with me at The Bridge since. In our thirty plus years of friendship, football has never been too far away.

Ian is from South Yorkshire and a lifelong Rotherham United fan. Ian was at one of the most infamous games in Chelsea’s history; our 6-0 loss at Millmoor in the autumn of 1981. A few of my close Chelsea mates were there too, though I wasn’t. I can remember playing a school football match on that particular day, strangely on a Saturday afternoon, and coming in at half-time in our match to find the boys three-nil down at Rotherham. I can distinctly remember – always an optimist – thinking to myself that we would come back to win 4-3 with Alan Mayes scoring the winner. Sadly it was not to be. For those newish Chelsea fans who think that our current run of poor form entitles them to proudly boast that they can claim that they were there when we are “shit”, watch this and think again.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nZfwdx9zLA

In 2015, we are League Champions, League Cup Winners, in the Champions League and one of the top twenty clubs on the planet.

In 1981, we were a struggling Second Division team, with no trophy of any description for ten years.

Later in the season, the same Rotherham United beat us 4-1 at Stamford Bridge.

Compared to 1981, 2015 doesn’t even come close.

Since leaving college, Ian and I met up again in 1989 for our never-to-be-forgotten adventure in North America; cycling down the East coast, visiting city after city, living some sort of American dream. We drove down through France for a Juventus vs. Sampdoria game in 1992. Ian now lives in Fareham, close to Portsmouth, with his wife Maria – I was the best man at his wedding in 2006 – and their two boys Tom and Benny. Both boys have teams; Tom is Arsenal, Ben is Chelsea. Once I managed to secure match tickets for the Saints match, I am sure that Ben has been so excited. But so was I. I couldn’t wait to meet up with him for the game.

We had arranged to meet up at the Peter Osgood statue at 1.30pm. It was magical to see them both, smiling and full of anticipation of the day ahead. Benny was wearing a blue and white bar scarf, and it made my day. During all of our years of friendship, who on earth would have predicted that Ian’s son would be a Chelsea fan.

Lovely.

We spent an hour in the hotel foyer. I am not honestly sure if Ben will remember too much of his first ever Chelsea game, nor the people that he met, but I made sure that I took enough photographs to help. Although it seemed that a camera was always on hand to take key photographs of my formative years, it is one of my big regrets that neither of my parents took any photographs of my first Chelsea game in 1974.

We chatted with Bobby Tambling, as always a lovely man, and it was good to look back on the summer tour in the US. I explained to Ben that Bobby scored 202 goals for Chelsea and Ben’s face was a picture. Coming from Hayling Island, Bob explained how everyone naturally presumed that he would play for Portsmouth after his impressive English schoolboy career. Instead, they made no offer, and despite an approach from Wolves, Bobby ended up at Stamford Bridge.

There were photographs with John Hollins, and Ben predicted a 10-0 win for Chelsea, and our former captain and manager loved the optimism.

There was a prolonged chat with former captain Colin Pates concerning his current job at the Whitgift School in Croydon, where he spotted the potential in a young Victor Moses, and also a few words from Colin which answered Ian’s enquiry about how difficult it was to make the transition from player to another trade.

“Put it like this. It’s like being at the best party you have ever been to. Then someone comes along and says it’s over.”

Ian and I knew exactly what he meant.

I commented back, looking at Ian –

“Colin found it so difficult, that he ended up playing for Arsenal.”

Colin and Ian laughed.

However, I chose not to talk to Colin about the Rotherham game in 1981, since he had played in that game. Neil Barnet called by and reminded us that it was Petar Borota’s last ever game for the club. What a wayward player he was, but loved by all. Bless him.

Paul Canoville joined us and I explained that this was Ben’s first-ever game. Paul spent a good few minutes with the three of us, welcoming Ben to the Chelsea family, and entertaining Ian with anecdotes from his various travels over the past summer.

I really appreciated the time that these three former players took in spending time with young Ben. And I am sure that Ian got a kick out of it too. Outside the main reception, there was time for a team photo with Ron Harris.

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Back in The Goose, it was lovely to see Alan and Gary again after their tribulations in Porto. I also bumped into a cheery Stan, too, and he seemed unperturbed, and showing no signs of distress after temporarily losing his passport. It was a sublimely beautiful Saturday evening and it was hard to believe that it was October now. The team news came through via various ‘phone updates.

John Terry was back.

Parky bought a round of amaretto shots and we then set off for the Bridge.

Southampton opted for the smaller away allocation for this fixture; around 1,500.

After the initial sparring, we were awarded a free-kick to the left of the Southampton goal. Willian swung in a looping free-kick which bamboozled Stekelenburg in the Saints goal. The ball struck the far post and rippled the net. For what seemed the umpteenth time already this season, we had scored with a free-kick from the left, and this was yet another one from Willian. He ran off to the East Stand and I can only imagine how excited young Ben must have been. Ian Hutchinson scored after ten minutes in my first game in 1974 and Willian did exactly the same for Ben in 2015.

Alan and myself attempted the Hampshire burr of cricket commentator John Arlott as we went through our “come on my little diamonds / they’ll have to come at us now” routine.

Chances were rare. Oscar and Eden Hazard struggled to find the target. Southampton burst through our ranks on several occasions. Sadio Mane was booked for diving. On more than one occasion, the alert Asmir Begovic saved our blushes.

However, a certain amount of sleepiness in our defence allowed Pelle to chest down for Davis to strike a low drive past Begovic.

At the break, Nemanja Matic replaced Ramires.

Southampton bossed the early moments of the second period. They are a fine team these days and they continually exposed the increasing self-doubt within our team. Then came a major talking point. Fabregas played in Falcao, who stretched to go past the Southampton ‘keeper, but fell. A penalty was not given, but the referee added insult to injury and booked Falcao for simulation. Our Colombian beat the Stamford Bridge turf in frustration.

The visitors were on the front foot now and several periods of Keystone Cops defending from our back line began to turn an already edgy Stamford Bridge crowd over the edge. With too much ease, Mane broke through after we lost possession, twisting past the recalled Terry to score.

Pedro replaced Willian.

There were boos.

Hazard, so obviously lacking any sort of confidence, gave the ball away and Southampton broke with pace. There was a feeling that this break would result in another goal. The ball was played outside to Pelle, who struck a low shot past Begovic from an angle. It was no more than Southampton deserved.

1-3.

Bollocks.

To my dismay, many spectators decided to leave.

Fuck them.

The substitute Matic was replaced by Loic Remy.

More boos.

I was just surprised that consistently underperforming Fabregas managed to avoid the manager’s axe yet again. Of all the disappointments this season, Cesc must rank as one of the biggest. Despite us losing 3-1, and despite hundreds of Chelsea supporters having vacated their seats, I was really pleased with the way that most Chelsea fans responded.

First of all, though, I noted a few hundred Chelsea fans in the Matthew Harding Lower singing – to my annoyance – “we’re fucking shit” and I really am lost for words to explain that.  However, a far greater number throughout both levels of the MH really got behind the team with rousing renditions of several Chelsea favourites. The noise boomed around Stamford Bridge and I so hoped that the watching millions around the globe could hear us.

Although we came at Southampton towards the end, a goal never really looked like coming.

So, no surprises, at the final whistle, there were loud boos.

We’re in a bad moment, no doubt.

We’re in a bad moment together and we’ll hopefully get out of it together too.

If we lose a few of our number along the way, so be it.

I have no logical reasons for our current malaise and I am not sure that many fellow Chelsea fans do either. We are a team so obviously low on confidence, and without that elusive “spark.” However, as I said to one or two others on the walk back to the car, it doesn’t really matter.

“I’ll be here next game, and the one after.”

However, it saddened me to receive a text from Ian later in the evening to say that Ben cried his eyes out at the end of the game.

At the age of eight, my first game, I would have done the same.

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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 The Malt House

Chelsea vs. Swansea City : 8 August 2015.

The same four Chelsea supporters that had battled the awful traffic for last season’s league opener at Burnley were back together, twelve months later, for the first league game of 2015/2016. I was joined on my trip to London, the home of the champions, by three good friends; Glenn, PD and Lord Parky. And although the early evening game against Swansea City would be my sixth Chelsea match of the season, there was no doubt that all of the other encounters, to various degrees, were much less important than this one.

This one would matter.

Game one.

Game on.

Slowed by some traffic around Swindon, I sped away and made good time. Although we had been chatting away like mad at the start, by the time we had reached Reading, the conversations had dwindled. As I pulled out of the M4 services, almost apologetically – everyone knows how much I dislike discussing upcoming games ad nauseam – I suggested that it was appropriate that we ran through our projected line-up for the game ahead.

I took the lead.

“Well, the back five picks itself surely? Courtois, Dave, JT, Cahill, Brana. I think he’ll go with Matic and Fabregas. I am thinking Willian, Hazard and Oscar. And let’s hope he is fit, Diego Costa.”

Glenn agreed. Parky and PD stuck to their ciders.

“There’s the team sorted then.”

We passed the town of Slough, where my local team Frome Town were opening up their league campaign of 2015/2016.

It was a full on day of football.

The waiting was over.

After calling in at The Goose, with the beer garden sun kissed and overflowing but with fellow supporters being rather guarded about how well they thought Chelsea would fare this season, Glenn and I popped down to The Malt House. By that time, John – an acquaintance visiting from Los Angeles – had joined us. He has been living in London since March working on the score of the latest of the Mission Impossible series of movies.

“Mission Impossible.”

I wondered if our defence of the league championship might be similarly-named. Some friends in The Goose might have agreed with that working title. As for myself, I was relatively confident in our chances, though expected Manchester United to press us harder than any. I felt that Arsenal would flatter to deceive – that lovely football phrase – while I had doubts about Manchester City’s team spirit. Above all, we have Mourinho. He may irritate me at times with his outbursts, but lest we forget that he is one of the very best coaches in world football.

We bumped into Big John and his son Chris in The Malt House, which was decidedly less popular than The Goose, due in part perhaps to the more expensive prices. We enjoyed a good hour or so of banter. I chatted about my enjoyable trip to the US for the summer tour and we discussed the rise of football in that part of the world. John, clearly happy to be among some Chelsea “lifers,” spoke about how he became a Chelsea supporter and cited Gianfranco Zola as a deciding factor in choosing us, over Arsenal especially, in 1996. Big John was keen to hear about our support on the other side of the Atlantic. I warned him that many of the US supporters appear to love talking about tactics and trades. John smiled, and I know him well enough to know where he was going :

“I know a lot about Chelsea, but I know fuck all about football.”

We laughed.

For a change, we left enough time to calmly reach Stamford Bridge before the crush.

The news had filtered through about the team.

“Costa starts.”

It was the same team that I had named earlier.

Inside, I was saddened to see a large wedge of empty seats in the Shed Upper. They were obviously some of the 3,000 away tickets which Swansea City had not managed to sell. This is disappointing. It meant that around five hundred tickets were left unsold.

As the teams entered the stadium, I spotted a large and Italian-style banner, being held aloft by the inhabitants of the first few rows of the Shed Upper.

“We Are The Shed.”

Sadly, the two pensioners in our row – Joe and Tom – were not present. We wondered if they would be well enough to attend many more matches at all.

As the game began under a perfect London sky, the atmosphere was bubbling. There was cut and thrust in equal measure from both teams in a lively start. The hulk of Bafetimbi Gomis rose to meet a corner, but his header thankfully passed the post. As he was defending the part of the Stamford Bridge pitch closest to my seat, I could not help but notice that the first four times that Branislav Ivanovic was involved in the game, he either miss-controlled, lost his marker or missed a tackle. After a far from impressive start, I felt I had to keep an eye on Brana throughout the game. Usually so reliable, his form has worried me thus far this season. I’ll give him the benefit of time, though.

Good old Brana.

We looked impressive as we attacked the Shed End, with fine movement and intricate passing. Oscar again looked in fine form.

A lovely Swansea move, involving the strongly-booed Shelvey, found Gomis and a magnificently-timed tackle from John Terry saved our skins. Courtois then saved well from Ki Sung-Yueng. This was evidently a good game of football. The crowd were so obviously paying great attention to every twist and turn, in a way that was so missing from the previous couple of games.

A chance for Diego Costa, and a tumble inside the box, but no penalty. Soon after, a foul on Dave resulted in a Chelsea free-kick. Oscar punched a low cross in to the heart of the Swansea box, and the ball appeared to go unaided in to the far post.

The net rippled.

We rubbed our eyes.

Goal.

Alan and I had our first “THTCAUN / COMLD” moment of the nascent season.

However, on the half-hour mark, Swansea attacked our goal once more and after a fine Courtois block from that man Gomis, it was the nimble-footed debutant Ayew who managed to slide the ball in from the resulting melee.

Just as the Welsh hordes were celebrating with hymns and arias, we worked the ball out to Willian on the left. His attempted cross was wickedly deflected up by Fernandez and over the flat-footed and stranded former Goon Fabianski.

The hymns and arias stopped.

The Chelsea roar took over.

It had been a fine half of football. Despite Swansea’s resolute play, Chelsea had done just enough at the break to go in ahead.

As Paul Canoville – after New York, Charlotte and DC, there is no escaping him – walked the Stamford Bridge pitch at half-time, I dipped in to the match programme in search of entertainment.

Two statistical nuggets to share.

Our opening day results were listed, from 1992. Though, this in itself annoyed me. I had only recently seen someone, at Wembley I think, wearing a T-shirt in “Sky” font stating –

“Football Did Not Start In 1992.”

Anyway, twenty-three games and only three defeats, the last two at Coventry City in 1997 and 1998.

Also listed were the six highest attendances for overseas friendlies. Games in Baltimore, DC, Jakarta, California, Sydney were listed, but top of the pile was the game in 2011 that I was privileged to attend in Kuala Lumpur.

84,980.

Great memories.

Other than that, nothing much has changed in the design of the programme from last season and the season before that and the season before that. Maybe, like the megastore – which I had neither time nor inclination to visit – it needs a major overhaul.

I’ve always fancied myself as our programme editor.

Swansea came out guns-a-blazing in the second period. They peppered Thibaut’s goal with several efforts. Then, a ball from Shelvey released Gomis, who had beaten an offside trap and found himself free. As he approached the edge of the penalty box, Courtois swung a leg and Gomis tumbled. Admittedly, I was not particularly well sighted, being around one hundred yards away, but not only did it look a penalty, I was not surprised to see a red card being brandished.

Ugh.

Asmir Begovic replaced the unfortunate Oscar, who had impressed thus far.

Gomis coolly rolled the ball in from the penalty spot.

2-2.

Begovic, who some in the Chelsea fraternity have decided is not up to the job after only a handful of games, did well to save from Montero. To placate some of our fans, who apparently seem justified in pontificating about the prowess of our players despite not having much football knowledge outside of X-Boxes and Playstations, surely is a “mission impossible.”

Chelsea pressed on. At times the urgency was breathless, though not always with the required degree of skill to accompany it. Willian attacked down the right. Hazard, the little darling, attacked down the left. Without an extra man, though, we found it difficult to work the ball in to the brooding menace of Diego Costa. We urged the team on.

“Cam On Chowlsea.”

Brana headed over. At the other end, a Gomis goal was adjudged to be offside. Begovic saved well again. The ball was worked well to the dancing Eden Hazard, but his angled shot was parried away.

Despite Mourinho ringing the changes in the final quarter with King Kurt replacing a listless Fabregas and Radamel Falcao replacing the ever-willing Willian, in truth our best chances had come and gone. An errant foul by Williams on Costa drew howls of derision from others, but no penalty decision from Michael Oliver. I had noted that Costa had gone down too easily on other occasions throughout the half. Maybe that had worked against him.

In the circumstances, although I was obviously disappointed that our title defence had not opened up with three points, it is obvious that we did well to scramble a draw against a highly proficient Swansea City team, especially as we were reduced to ten players so early in the second-half. There won’t be many better teams than Swansea City who visit us in SW6 this season.

On the drive home, I stopped at Reading Services to refuel car and body. I briefly checked in on what the Chelsea Nation thought about the evening’s game via my smartphone. Although some were calm and pragmatic, others were sensationalist – “we drew against Swansea, therefore we will struggle this season” – and tiresome – “this player was rubbish, that player was rubbish” – in equal measure. For those among us who get pre-menstrual about a draw against a fine team such as Swansea City, I have to wonder if they are really suited to the life of a Chelsea supporter. In that long list of opening day results, there is a line which details a 0-0 draw at Stoke City in August 2011. I seem to remember that season ending rather well.

Next Sunday, we travel to the city of Manchester for an early-season heavyweight bout with one of our title contenders.

See you there.

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Tales From Chelsealand

Chelsea vs. Hull City : 13 December 2014.

With the talk of an “invincible” league season now behind us, I was hoping for business as usual with the home game against Hull City. Thus far in the league, Chelsea had racked up seven straight wins at Stamford Bridge and, at least on paper, win number eight appeared to be within our grasp.

“Not being disrespectful to our opponents, blah, blah, blah…”

I was back in the driving seat after having Wednesday “off” after the trip to The Bridge with PD and Parky for the Sporting game. I can’t tell you how lovely it was to be simply able to fall asleep in the car after a Chelsea match for once. Sheer bliss. It was a crisp and sunny winter morning and I soon picked-up Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. The three ghosts of Chelsea past, present and future were on our way to Chelsealand once again.

On the way in to town, Sham 69 were the band of choice.

“Hurry up Chrissy, come on – we’re going down the pub.”

We hit The Goose at around midday. I bought a round of drinks – “Come on Scrooge, you tight git” – and we said hello to a few pals. The usual suspects were huddled together in the back bar and a few fellow drinkers were watching the game on TV. Patrick Bamford soon scored for Middlesbrough in their match against his former team – and our League Cup opponents on Tuesday – Derby County. I approved of ‘Boro’s white diagonal on their red shirt, though it is far from traditional.

There were a few moments spent talking about Munich with a couple of mates; I don’t know about anybody else, but just the mere mention of the city elicits a warm glow.

Three special guests popped in to say “hi.” Steve and Sonia, with their young daughter Yasmin, live just outside Sacramento, the state capital of California. Steve was last over for the run-in to the 2010 Double. He was a lucky man; over on work for a couple of months, his stay was extended because of the volcanic ash cloud. This would be Yasmin’s first ever game at Stamford Bridge. She was a picture of excitable giddiness. Yasmin plays football in the team which Steve coaches and is quite a rabid fan. It was fantastic to see them all again. They soon shot off though. Obviously, the lure of a hot portion of chips from a nearby café was stronger than staying in the pub to hear how Parky took on a train carriage of Southampton fans in 1971. Not to worry, I would see them all again at a few more matches over the next three weeks.

On the walk to the stadium, I noted a few changes to the shops lining the North End Road. One of the recent additions is an “Argos.” For those readers not from the UK and therefore not au fait with this particular retail establishment, “Argos” is a unique type of shop over here. There are no – or at least very few – products on show in the shops, but all of the goods are tucked away in a stock-room behind the counter. You check products for sale in a catalogue within the store and fill in a docket, which you hand to an assistant. Ten minutes later, your purchase is handed to you. It’s a rather peculiar, but typically British, and perhaps rather eccentric shop. If I am honest, I am surprised it still exists. Fancy buying products without actually seeing them?

I have reason to believe that Brendan Rodgers buys his Liverpool players from “Argos.”

I was soon inside Stamford Bridge. Hull City were well-supported with 1,400 away fans; a good showing. I soon spotted Steve, Sonia and Yasmin; they had fantastic seats in the very front row of the Shed Upper. I promised Steve that I’d take a few, admittedly long-range, photos of them during the match. It is a big regret that my parents didn’t bring along a camera for my first-ever Chelsea game way back in 1974. To be honest, this is very surprising, since we have hundreds of photographs of “my early years” to this day. In fact, in all of my first ten seasons of match-going, I have one solitary photograph – Butch Wilkins shaking hands with the Southampton captain in 1976 – and it annoys me no end. However, I have certainly made up for it since. Along with a few others – Dave, Peter, Cathy and my mate Alan – I revel in taking my camera along to each and every game I attend. Without a camera, I’d feel odd. I guess we are known as “the Chelsea photographers”. I have to chuckle when some of my photographs appear on various internet forums; it’s nice though. Who’d have thought that the grainy photo I took of The Shed in 1994 would have people reminiscing about terraces twenty years on.

“The Liquidator” played and the teams marched on.

So, the Lions versus the Tigers, a match-up which must make the fellows in the Detroit branch of the Chelsea Family feel slightly odd.

There were new faces, as expected, from Wednesday. We began brightly. After just six minutes, Mikel – doing what he does best – robbed a dithering Hull midfielder of the ball and Matic – doing what he does best – advanced a few yards and passed the ball to Oscar. Our slight but skilful Brazilian looked up and – doing what he does best – sent over an inch perfect cross into a parcel of space for Eden Hazard to attack. Eden rose unhindered and headed down and past McGregor in the Shed End goal.

My immediate thought was :

“He has headed that right towards Yasmin and her parents in the Shed Upper. How perfect.”

My second thought was :

“That wasn’t too dissimilar to the first goal that I ever saw at Stamford Bridge when a Mickey Droy cross found a leaping Ian Hutchinson, unmarked, at the North stand end, and whose header went down into the Newcastle goal past Iam Mcfaul way back in 1974.

Snap.

The only difference is that nobody was on hand to photograph my joyous reaction. In 2014, I did the honours.

Snap.

Little Yasmin’s face was a picture.

With Chelsea a goal to the good, we enjoyed a pleasing spell of football, but then lost our way a little. Hull City enjoyed a little possession, though never really troubled our defence. On the half-hour mark, the Matthew Harding Lower tried its best to get The Shed to sing. After a poor response, they turned their attention elsewhere.

“East Stand, East Stand, give us a song.”

Blimey, good luck with that, I thought.

Well, what a surprise. Several fans in the East Stand responded and within seconds the whole stadium was echoing to the sound of Lord Of The Dance.

The East Stand as cheerleaders? Another miracle at Christmas.

To be blunt, it was a disappointing half after the early goal. Not for the first time this season, Ivanovic seemed to be our most active player, forever involved on that right flank. After an initial flurry, the creative midfielders created little.

Paul Canoville was on the pitch at half-time. Was it really over 32 years ago that I saw his home debut in a 2-1 defeat to the hands of a fine Luton Town side?

The second-half began and referee Chris Foy continued to hand out seasonal cards. I didn’t really see the Willian “dive” in the first-half, but I must admit I thought that Diego Costa’s fall to the ground in the second-half was rather theatrical. Soon after, Filipe Luis stretched out a leg to claim a loose ball, and Tom Huddlestone went “over the top.” To me and PD – not best placed, obviously – the tackle looked 50/50. How wrong were we?

OK, with our visitors down to ten men, let’s go to work.

However, rather than capitalise, our play became increasingly ragged and the atmosphere turned rather nervy with every misplaced pass and back-pass to Petr Cech. We again lacked real, punishing, width.

Thankfully, salvation came on 68 minutes. Eden Hazard collected the ball and danced into the Hull defence before playing a one-two with Ivanovic (Joey Jones was never this far forward) before playing in Diego Costa with the ball of the match. Diego Costa delicately clipped the ball past McGregor and the ball trundled over the line, to be met by a triumphant roar from all four stands.

The game was safe.

Jose made three late substitutions but we failed to add to our goal tally.

It had been a tough game to watch and not particularly pleasing on the eye. However, with Manchester City winning at Leicester – for now “Frank” or “Lamps” has been replaced by the little less cosy “Lampard” – another home win was hugely valuable.

We go again at Derby and Stoke.

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