Tales From City, Chips And Gravy

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 23 November 2019.

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

Exit 19.

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

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

Is everyone still awake?

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

Northerners love gravy.

It was bloody lovely.

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

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

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

I am nothing if not consistent.

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

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

Some notes to add.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We should sing this to them :

“Where were you when you were good?”

Enough of 1985/86.

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

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

“T’ls F’rm M’cr” anyone?

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

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

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

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

Frome at Moneyfields.

Chelsea at Moneyfields.

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

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

Arizzabalaga

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Zouma – Emerson

Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante

Pulisic – Abraham – Willian

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

The night had fallen by kick-off time.

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

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

Yeah, Frank Lampard at Manchester City.

What the fuck was all that about?

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

Blue Moon boomed.

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

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

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

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

Both clubs despise each other alright.

United and City.

Reds and Blues.

Munichs and Bitters.

A City most definitely not united.

A City divided.

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

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

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

If only City had kept to blue socks.

The game began.

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

“Here we go again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well done, Tammy, son.”

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

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

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

He touched it, and it slowly rolled goalwards.

I remained remarkably calm.

Tammy followed it home.

City 0 Chelsea 1.

I was calm no more.

I exploded with noise.

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

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

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

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

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

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

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

But then.

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

City 1 Chelsea 1.

Fackinell.

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

The game had been turned on its head.

And now the score line had a sadly typical feel.

City 2 Chelsea 1.

Sigh.

Now City’s fans roared.

“City. Tearing Cockneys apart. Again.”

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

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

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

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

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

Cough, cough, cough, cough.

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

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

Reece James replaced Emerson, with Dave swapping wings.

“It worked last time, Scott.”

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

Michy Batshuayi for Tammy.

Mason Mount for Jorginho.

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

Sigh.

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

Fuck VAR.

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

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

And there really were no real complaints.

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

There were steady 7/10s across the board.

I met the boys outside.

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

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

Not the glory of 2014 nor 2016 this time.

At 8pm I began the long drive home.

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

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

It had been a good day out.

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

And I will see some of you there.

Talking of the ‘eighties…

Tales From The Birthday Club

Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers : 10 March 2019.

A common phrase uttered by Paul, the two Glenns and little old me over the past few days, and certainly on the drive to London, was this :

“Wolves won’t be easy, mind.”

I have been impressed by Nuno Espirito Santo’s team all season. They have consistently garnered points from both home and away games. I was not in attendance at our 2-1 defeat at Molineux in early December, but at all other times their spirit, attacking zip and defensive tightness has been impressive. They would, I was convinced, be a tough nut to crack.

This was a special day.

Our game at Stamford Bridge would come on the one-hundred and fourteenth anniversary of the formation of Chelsea Football and Athletic Company. There was an early start – I left my village at 6.45am – to enable a busy pre-match. The other three made their way to “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge, but I headed for Stamford Bridge, arriving at just after 10am. It made a change to walk along the Fulham Road without being accosted by touts. I was too early for even them. In the Copthorne Hotel, I met up with a few of the supporters from the US who have been visiting these shores the past week or so. Not only were the Ohio Blues in town for this match, but a few other fans from the US too. I soon met up with Mike from the New York Blues who many people at Chelsea know. It was a pleasure to see him again. There were twenty-five more folk from the New York, Connecticut, Boston and Pittsburgh supporters’ groups attending the Wolves game. It’s always splendid to see some friends from over the water. The Ohio Blues were out in force and they were getting a major hit of adrenaline from being able to mingle informally with such Chelsea legends as Ron Harris, Bobby Tambling and John Hollins from our original “golden era” and those such as Colin Pates, Kerry Dixon, John Bumstead and Paul Canoville from “my era.”

While there were broad smiles from Andrew, Kristin, Steve, Billy, Clint, Rafa and Jessica as they posed with photos with our former players, there was a very pleasing birthday present for myself. None other than Pat Nevin appeared and chatted to his former team mates. I could not resist having a few words with Pat. From memory it was only the fifth or sixth time that I have spoken to him. The first time was before the Fulham match at Stamford Bridge in March 1984 when he signed my programme and this brief interchange took place.

Chris : “Blimey. I am taller than you.”

I am not taller than many.

Pat : “That’s not difficult.”

The next time would be on a rainy day in Moscow in 2008.

Anyone who knows me will know that Wee Pat is my favourite footballer – ever – bar none.

It was a thrill, a real thrill, to see him again.

A funny thing happened on the way to “The Eight Bells.” I needed, at some stage, to meet up with my friend Jason who had two Everton tickets for me. As I made my way to Fulham Broadway tube, we exchanged a few texts, but soon realised that our pre-match meanderings would be taking place in separate parts of Fulham. We arranged, then, to meet up after the game at the Peter Osgood statue to exchange tickets and monies. I made my way down on to the southbound platform, and as an incoming train approached and then stopped, who should be looking out, right by the door, but Jason. His carriage stopped right where I was standing. The doors slid open. We had no time to stand on ceremony. Out came wallets, out came tickets, out came three crispy twenties, job done.

“It’s all about timing, Jase.”

I laughed as I hopped into the train as it carried me south.

For those who know Chelsea Football Club, this might raise a wry smile, as one of the opening scenes of the film “Sliding Doors” was filmed at Fulham Broadway.

Down at “The Eight Bells”, things were already in full flow. The lads had commandeered a table, roasts had been ordered for midday, and I sidled in next to Glenn and opposite PD and LP. The pub was full of Wolves fans and on my return to the table after ordering my food, I could not help talking to one chap in his sixties. He was wearing the old Wolves shirt from 1974.

“I used to love that shirt. Quality. Tell me, what do most fans think of the new kit? Too yellow?”

“Ah. Too yellow, ah.”

Glenn had been talking to a Wolves fan and his young daughter. Both had been at all their games this season. After a short while, the Ohio Blues arrived and squeezed in at an adjacent table. The Wolves fans were then politely asked to leave. I guess the bar staff wanted to look after their regulars. Most popped next-door to the roomier “King’s Head.” As he left, Glenn’s Wolves mate thanked him for “taking care of us.” This made me smile. They were proper football people. I have loads of time for them, like others, no matter who they support.

The food arrived.

Roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, parsnips, swede, thick gravy and horseradish sauce.

Ten out of ten.

On the TV, the roar went up as Burnley scored at an increasingly icy Anfield. Sadly, that story did not pan out as we would hope. The laughter roared as our US friends relaxed and enjoyed this most intimate of pubs. It was, I will admit, ridiculously busy. It was rammed solid. Getting up to go to the bar was like moving in a real-life Tetris puzzle. The Kent boys arrived. Kristen taught them the Ohio Blues song. Another little group of friends arrived and stood by the doors. “The Eight Bells” could surely not accommodate any more people if it tried. There was not a spare inch anywhere. What a blast.

“Shame we have to go to the game.”

…mmm.

The team news came through.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

We made our way up the steps at Putney Bridge tube and onto the northbound train. There was a blustery wind that almost blew my face into April. We said our goodbyes to the Ohio contingent who had been great companions over the past week.

Inside the stadium, three-thousand Wolves fans were in position. Overhead were clear blue skies. In the sheltered Stamford Bridge, the wind could not cut us in quite the same way. I was pleased to see that the visitors did not chose a change kit. I would be able to make up my own mind about the effectiveness of Wolves’ new kit colour. The pensioner in the pub was right. It was too yellow. Old gold is a very subtle colour. For too long, Wolves’ shirts were too bright, too lurid, too orange. But this edition was certainly off too.

“Must try better.”

In the first quarter of the game, such was the paucity of entertainment on show on the pitch that Alan and I talked through our plans for Kiev, and we also reviewed how our two respective local non-league teams are faring (Alan’s Bromley far better than my Frome Town). Suffice to say, we did not miss much.

It was all so damned slow.

Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass.

Like an idiot on “Mastermind.”

Added to the poor standard of play, it was a dreadful atmosphere. The away supporters chided us :

“Can you hear Chelsea sing? I can’t hear a fucking thing.”

In an effort to conjure up a goal from somewhere, Glenn, Alan and I took it in turns to repeat my move from Thursday evening and took turns to visit the toilets. Even the two lads in front joined in. It did not work. The Wolves team, boasting two towering centre-backs, defended deep from the off, and they simply did not allow us room to roam. We needed to get behind them, and we didn’t. Mateo Kovacic was especially useless. Pedro was all spins and juggles and twists but with no end product. Eden Hazard was quiet. Gonzalo Higuain had a couple of very vague half-chances. That was it, that was the first-half. Wolves hardly bothered attacking at all.

At half-time, I turned to Alan and said “that was dire.”

Sigh.

“If anybody was to mark our players in that half (and I always quote the Italian sports paper system of scores ranging from three to seven most of the time, rarely an eight nor certainly not a nine), nobody apart from Kante would get more than a three or a four. Kepa would be unmarked as he hasn’t touched the ball.”

Surely we could not play so poorly in the second period.

Hazard was fouled right on the line of the penalty box – a large shout went up for a penalty, my photo was inconclusive – but David Luiz slammed the free-kick at the wall.

After ten minutes of lackluster football, Wolves suddenly found their compass and Ordnance Survey map and charged forward after a timid Chelsea move petered-out. We were completely exposed as their two strikers raced into our half. Raul Jimenez was able to dink the ball – slow motion in full effect – over Kepa and into The Shed goal. The Wolves players huddled in front of their supporters who were, of course, somersaulting with joy.

Before the game I had expected a more open match and, with it, the chance for Chelsea to cut Wolves to threads in the spaces provided behind them. Well, that shows how much I know about anything. Wolves did exactly this to us. Damningly, horrifyingly, the goal came from their very first effort the entire game.

Bollocks.

There were two quick changes and on came the youth, moves which were met with approval from all.

Our Ruben for the awful Kovacic.

Our Callum for Pedro.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

Then, a miracle, Jorginho was replaced by Willian.

Kante withdrew a few yards. Hazard slipped inside alongside Loftus-Cheek. Pedro and Callum were out wide and saw a bit more of the ball. The substitutions breathed a little life into our support. A couple of shots tested the Wolves ‘keeper. There were efforts from Higuain and a curler from Willian. A flick on from a corner went past ten players in the Wolves six-yard box and also past a lunge from Higuain at the far post. But our play was poor. I lost count of the times that I looked up and saw a player looking for a pass but nobody – and I really mean nobody – bothered to shift their ‘arris and move into space, which surely has to be the most important aspect of this manager’s playing style. It was deeply disappointing and the crowd were restless, but quiet, an odd combination. Willian blasted two free-kicks which ricocheted back off the wall. A shot from Dave was blocked.

Frustration, frustration, frustration.

This really was turning into an unhappy birthday.

I could not see us scoring in a month of Sundays. The two central Wolves strikers had occasional breaks which thankfully petered out. There was another shot from Willian. Time was running out and quickly. We stepped up the pressure a little. Four minutes of extra-time were signaled.

“COME ON CHELS.”

On ninety-two minutes, with hopes fading fast – I felt for the US fans in the Shed Lower, a few of whom were watching their first-ever game at Stamford Bridge – Eden Hazard moved the ball square some twenty-five yards out. He looked up and took aim. His low shot traced its unhindered way through a packed penalty area. The ball nestled in to the far corner. It was the one moment of class of the entire sorry game.

GET IN.

Eden took the handshakes of thanks from his team mates and Kirsten waved a “Ohio Blues – Full Of Booze” scarf in The Shed.

Phew.

At last we roared but, despite some noise at last, there was no chance of a second. It had taken us ninety-two minutes to score one. There was little likelihood of us getting another.

It had been a poor game, but we had at least salvaged a point.

On Thursday, Chelsea Football Club play in Kiev.

I might bump into a few of you out there.

Давайте підемо на роботу.

Tales From The Quiet Neighbours

Fulham vs. Chelsea : 3 March 2019.

It seemed to be all about sequences.

We were playing the fifth of seven consecutive games in London. We were playing the seventh match in a row of fourteen that did not include a Saturday game. And we were due to play the tenth game in a run in which there had been alternate wins and losses in the previous nine.

Oh, and in the pub, having mentioned that Slavisa Jokanovic, Claudio Ranieri, Scott Parker – their three managers so far this season – were all former Chelsea personnel, I could not resist yelping

“Bloody leave us alone Fulham.”

Ah yes, the pub. Parky, PD and I had set off early on the morning of the game in order to get ourselves lodged into a pub between 10am and 10.30am. I had completed some research and it looked like “The Rocket” in Putney would be open at 10am. Those following along with these rambles this season will know that we have often enjoyed some splendid pre-match drinks in a few pubs at the southern tip of Fulham – “The Eight Bells” and “The King’s Head” mainly – but our plan was to avoid those two because they would be undoubtedly rammed with supporters, probably of both clubs, as they were so near Craven Cottage. As has been the case on every single visit that I have made to Fulham Football Club, the plan in 2018/19 was to drink in Putney.

We were parked-up at just after 10am. There was light drizzle. The sky overhead was grey and threatened more rain. As we headed towards “The Rocket” on the south bank of the River Thames, we met up with Andrew from Columbus in Ohio who was visiting for three games. I had last met Andrew in Ann Arbor in 2016 for the Real Madrid friendly although he was over for the Palace home game last March. We located the pub easily but I was gobsmacked when the barman uttered the infamous line “we are open yes, but we are not serving alcohol until midday because of the football.” We could hardly believe it. And this was a “Wetherspoons” too; hardly the classiest of joints.

I uttered the first “fackinell” of the day. There would be a few more later.

In days of old, before more modern means of communication, the telex address used by Fulham Football Club was “Fulhamish London” and I immediately thought of this. A “Wetherspoons” pub not opening until midday because of football? How Fulhamish.

For those whose interest is piqued; our telex address was the far less whimsical “Chelstam London SW6”.

We back-tracked a little, closer to where we had parked-up in fact, and settled on “The Duke’s Head” – again on the banks of the river – where we had visited on many other occasions. We were inside when it opened at 10.30am.

Phew.

The troops started to arrive. Brad and Sean from New York appeared, as did Nick and Kim from Fresno. From closer to home, Alan and Gary from London, Duncan and Daryl from Essex, then Jim from Oxfordshire. We were spilling over onto three tables now. Mehul and Neekita from Detroit met up with us again, fresh from seeing the West Ham versus Newcastle United match on Saturday. I met two chaps from the US for the first time; Steve from Ohio, another Steve from New York. There was the usual chatter, banter and laughs. Brad and Sean had watched John Terry and Frank Lampard go head to head at Villa Park the previous day. This would be their first official Chelsea away game. And they were loving every damn minute of it.

With the US friends huddled close by, I spoke about some events which took place in the first few years of the twentieth century.

“I suppose we need to be thankful that Fulham said “no” to playing at Stamford Bridge, or none of us would be here today.”

And there was a moment of silence and clarity.

A few people seemed to gulp.

Indeed, we were grateful.

“If they had said “yes” there would have been no Munich, Peter Osgood may never have been a footballer, and Gianfranco Zola might never have been a crap manager for Watford and Birmingham City.”

“Blimey, that last bit didn’t pan out the way I was expecting” replied Andrew.

We laughed.

The chit chat continued.

“Another beer, lads?”

When Andrew had posted the obligatory “airport photo” on Facebook on leaving the US, alongside his passport and a pint of Peroni, there was a Chelsea badge styled on The Clash’s “London Calling” album cover. My great friend Daryl had produced these, so I introduced the two lads to each other.

“Chelsea World is a small world” part two hundred and fifty-seven.

I hinted to the lads that I had already come up with a title for the match blog.

“Remember when City started to threaten United and Alex Ferguson called them ‘the noisy neighbours’? – well, Fulham are far from noisy.”

It was a shame to leave the cosy confines of this great pub, but time was moving on and, at just past 1pm, so were we. Outside, the weather was murky. I had visions of being blown to bits on the walk across Putney Bridge, but the predicted high winds were still gathering elsewhere and the rain was only a slight hindrance.

On walking towards Craven Cottage – past the All Saints Church where we stood on Remembrance Sunday in November, past the Fulham Palace, and up into Bishop’s Park – I bumped into Kenny, who reminded me that I said that I would include him in the blog at Wembley, but then didn’t. This time, I am making amends for it, and as the date becomes closer, I will include Kenny’s sponsorship link for the London Marathon. I first met Kenny on tour in the US in DC in 2015, and he was also in Ann Arbor the following year. To say that he has lost some weight since 2016 would be a massive understatement. He deserves our support on 28 April. Watch this space.

In Bishop’s Park, we came across a selection of food stalls – some looked fantastic – and quite a few match-goers stopped to soak up some pre-match alcohol. Bizarrely, however, there were a few stalls that would not have looked out of place at a Farmers’ Market. One stall was selling fresh fruit and vegetables.

How Fulhamish.

We reached Stevenage Road at about 1.40pm and I had just enough time to take a few “mood shots” outside Craven Cottage. The red-bricked turnstiles, the rear of the cottage itself, the Johnny Haynes statue, the carved stone plaques, the black and white timber, the crowds rushing past, the match-day scene in all its glory. Craven Cottage rarely disappoints. The main stand on Stevenage Road – renamed the Johnny Haynes Stand after their most-loved player – is a Grade II listed building and is so protected from demolition. And it is a beauty. I have mentioned it before – and I mentioned it to Sean in the pub before the game, in a little segment devoted to the guru of stadium design Archibald Leitch – that the dimensions of Fulham’s oldest stand are exactly the same as the old East Stand at Stamford Bridge which lasted from 1905 to 1972. The two stadia in Fulham could not be more different, now nor in the past. Of course Craven Cottage is a gem, but part of the reason why the old Stamford Bridge was so loved by us Chelsea supporters was that it felt like a proper stadium, and to be blunt, there was so much of it. It was a rambling beast of a stadium with huge rolling banks of terracing, two forecourts, ranks of turnstiles, cobbled alleyways, ivy-covered offices, huge floodlight pylons, everything befitting the name “stadium.” Craven Cottage has always been slight. It has always been small. It has always only had that one stretch of entrances on Stevenage Road, that long expanse of warm red-brick.

On the old East Stand at Chelsea, the large painted letters “Chelsea Football Club” – in block capitals, mirrored on a wall of The Shed today – used to welcome all to Stamford Bridge and at the rear of the cottage to this day are the words “The Fulham Football Club” – in block capitals too. Like big brother, like little brother. Of course it is a cliché now that Fulham hate us but we are ambivalent to them. In fact, if pressed, most Chelsea have a soft-spot for Fulham, which infamously winds them up even more…bless ‘em.

There was the most minimal of security checks and I was in. Such is the benign nature of Fulham Football Club that home fans in the Riverside Stand use the same turnstiles as the away fans. And there is only one stadium in the realm of UEFA that has a designated “neutral zone”, a nod to Fulham’s non-segregation history of the Putney End.

And that is as Fulhamish as it gets.

I made my way to the back of the stand. I had swapped seats with PD as I had visions of my allotted place at the front being a tough place for cameras, and there was also a very strong threat of rain. Rain and cameras certainly do not mix. As it happened, I was in row ZZ, the very back row.

Row ZZ, but I am sure that I would not be tired of this game.

Fulham versus Chelsea, a very local affair, and a pretty friendly rivalry if truth be told.

“London Calling” boomed but it seemed odd that Joe Strummer’s most famous song was being used by Fulham. Joe Strummer was a Chelsea fan and if Chelsea are The Clash, then Fulham are…well, Neil Sedaka.

“I live by the river.”

The teams walked out from beneath the cottage to my right, the red-bricked chimney pots of the terraced streets behind. I quickly checked the team that manager Maurizio Sarri had chosen. The big news; Kepa was back in. Again, OK with me, move on.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Christensen – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Barkley

Willian – Higuain – Hazard

The management team took their positions in the dug outs in front of the stand to my left. It was announced before Christmas that Fulham would at last move ahead on extending the Riverside Stand in May, thus increasing the capacity of their tidy stadium from 25,700 to 29,700, and opening up the rear of that stand so that there would, at last, be an unrestricted walk from Hammersmith Bridge to Putney Bridge. The images of the new stand looks sensational. During the game, there would be rolling adverts on the perimeter of the pitch for the boat race in April, with Craven Cottage a prime site to bring in some extra income.

I did not attend the game, but I can remember Paul Canoville scoring at Craven Cottage in 1983 on the same afternoon as the boat race. I bet the pubs in Fulham were a very odd mix of clientele that day.

Chelsea in all blue. Fulham in white and black.

I soon noticed that the Fulham support were brandishing those damned cardboard noisemakers.

File under “Fulhamish” once more.

With Tottenham and Arsenal eking out a draw at Wembley on the Saturday, here was a fantastic chance to tighten things at the top. A few weeks ago, we were all adamant that we would finish sixth. As Kepa walked towards us, he was loudly clapped, and he responded similarly.

“It’s Kepa you know. He’s better than fuckin’ Thibaut.”

The game began.

Chelsea began well and were backed with some noisy and boisterous singing. The Putney End at Fulham goes back a surprisingly long way, and the last section consists of metal platforms which are extended past the natural bank of terracing below. It allows for a formidable bounce once the away stand gets going.

There was an early outing for the “Barcelona, Real Madrid” chant, but this sadly finished with more than a few adding the “Y” word at the end…maybe that battle is not yet won, after all.

Gonzalo Higuain was involved early, but dawdled with a chance in front of goal and took an extra touch. He then headed well wide. Down below us, a typically selfless block from Dave stifled a goal scoring chance for Fulham. We were on top, but only just. There was almost a calamity when Kepa rose for a ball, with the red-headed Ryan Babel bowed beneath him. He could only fumble and we watched with a degree of horror as the ball came free of his clutches and bounced. Thankfully, the former Liverpool player was oblivious to the loose ball, our ‘keeper quickly clutched the ball and the moment of panic had gone.

Just after, the move of the match thus far developed below us. Rudiger to Willian, then to Dave. He whipped in a low ball towards the near post. Higuain met the cross and dispatched the ball effortlessly past the Fulham ‘keeper Sergio Rico with one touch. He jumped high in front of the seated denizens of the Hammersmith End.

SW6 0 SW6 1

“One team in Fulham, there’s only one team in Fulham” sang the Chelsea hordes.

We were on our way. Or were we?

After only a few minutes, Fulham tested us. Mitrovic swung a left foot, swiveling, and forced a really excellent save from Kepa, but a corner thus followed. In front of the filigree of the balcony, the grey slate of the roof and the red brick of the chimney stacks of the cottage away to my right, the ball was played short and then long, very long. The cross found the unmarked Calum Chambers at the far post. His down and up shot bounced past Kepa and Fulham had equalised.

SW6 1 SW6 1.

The noisemakers were heard. Just.

“Where was the marking?” I screamed.

Two or three minutes later, Jorginho managed to win the ball and knocked it outside to the shuffling Eden Hazard. Jorginho had continued to support the attack and Hazard easily spotted him. Just like Higuain, he did not need more than one touch. I was right behind the course of the ball as it was slotted high into the net. It was almost too easy.

SW6 1 SW6 2.

I watched as the scorer raced over to celebrate with Emerson, and I am surprised that any photographs were not blurred, such was the bounce in the metal flooring below me.

“Jor-jee-nee-oh. Jor-jee-nee-oh. Jor-jee-nee-oh, Jor-jee-nee-oh, Jor-jee-nee-oh” sang those to my right.

“You fickle bastards” I shouted.

Then, just after, a lovely chipped through-ball from Jorginho met the run of Higuain perfectly. The disappointingly wild shot – blasted over – from the striker could and should have made the ‘keeper work. Hazard then ran and shot right at the ‘keeper. Virtually the same move as our opening goal – almost identical – involving a pass from Willian, a low cross from Dave, enabled another first-time shot from Higuain but this time the Fulham ‘keeper scrambled low to his left to save.

At the break, I had memories of the 4-1 win at Craven Cottage in the early winter of 2004, when we – Alan, Gary, Daryl and I from the 2019 party – had met at the Duke’s Head and had witnessed one of the games of the season in Jose Mourinho’s first triumphant campaign at the helm. Would there be a similar score line this time around? I hoped so.

In truth, we struggled for most of the second period and even though we created a few half-chances, there was growing frustration in the Chelsea ranks as the game progressed. Eden struck another low shot at Rico. Willian went close at the near post. There was a strong penalty appeal down below us, but it was waved away. Azpilicueta held his head in his hands and squatted in an odd show of disbelief. I could hardly believe it as the referee Graham Scott repeated Dave’s actions in a clear case of Micky-taking.

“Never seen that before. What a twat of a referee.”

Willian went close but hit the side-netting. A ball was pumped across the face of the goal by Hazard – “too good” I complained to the bloke next to me – but there was nobody close to get a touch.

We found it difficult to create much more. If anything, Fulham finished the far stronger of the two teams. Mitrovic thumped one over and the noisemakers were called into use again.

Sarri rang the changes.

Kovacic for Jorginho.

Pedro for Hazard.

Loftus-Cheek for Barkley.

All were surprising in their own way.

By now, the rain was falling in SW6 and the wind blew the rain in gusts. The River Thames was cutting up, visible in two slithers to my left. The rather odd corporate boxes at Fulham have been likened to large filing cabinets, and they inhibit the views of the outside environs at Craven Cottage. A few chimney pots and a few rooftops close by to my right, a tall block of flats further away. The river and some trees on the far bank to my left. The top floors of the Charing Cross Hospital above the roof of the Hammersmith End. Craven Cottage is hardly claustrophobic but there is not much to see of the outside world.

On the pitch we were, bluntly, holding on.

Kepa saved low from Cairney and then again from Bryan. The nerves were jangling in the Putney End.

With the clock ticking, we were chasing shadows as Ayite found Mitrovic with a quick cross. The strong striker’s instinctive header was met by a very impressive leap from Kepa and the ball was pushed away.

Fackinell.

I had memories of a late Fulham equaliser from Clint Dempsey in 2008. Remember that?

Fulham had thought that they had repeated this feat in the very last move of the match when their young starlet Ryan Sessegnon tucked the ball in, but I – and possibly three-thousand or more Chelsea supporters – saw the raised yellow flag of the linesman on the far side. The clacking noisemakers were soon silent.

With that, the final whistle.

Phew.

We met up outside the turnstiles on Stevenage Road.

“Made hard work of that, eh? I grumbled.

“Did we ever” replied PD.

The rain lashed against us on the walk back to the car. We walked silently through the park. I had the worst-ever post-game hot dog and onions. At last there was the comfort of my warm and dry car waiting for me on Felsham Road. We eventually made our way home. This game on the banks of the Thames will not live long in the memory. But at last we had two back-to-back victories. But, I have to say that Fulham look like they are down, though. And I think that is a shame. I love our little derby. I love a trip to the southern tip of the borough. I wonder who their next manager will be. He’s due to be appointed very soon.

Teddy Maybank, anybody?

On Thursday, we play Dynamo Kiev in the Europa League at Stamford Bridge.

See you there.

 

Tales From Wednesday On Sunday

Chelsea vs. Sheffield Wednesday : 27 January 2019.

Sunday Six O’Clock.

Our match in the fourth round of the FA Cup against Sheffield Wednesday was to begin at 6pm. This was just a ridiculous time for a game of professional football. As I have mentioned before, there was a part of me that just wanted to swerve it. But this was the Cup. It wasn’t just any game. Regardless, it had felt bizarre to be collecting PD and then Parky for a game on a Sunday and saying to both of them “good afternoon “as they slipped into my car. It felt bizarre to be heading to London on the M4 midway through the afternoon. And it felt bizarre to be entering the pub – “The Famous Three Kings” – at 3pm.

And it certainly grated to be watching a London derby between Crystal Palace and Tottenham on TV which had kicked-off at 4pm. Why the bloody hell that one could not have started later – virtually all the spectators would be back home by 10pm – and we could have had the earlier spot is beyond me. But it is further damning evidence that the Football Association only ever plays lip service to the needs of the match-going fan. Of course, I felt for the away supporters – six thousand strong – more than anyone who would not be back in South Yorkshire by midnight at the very earliest. The fixture was so very wrong on so many levels. I’m getting irate just typing this.

I always remember that in the middle of the match programme of my very first game in 1974, the programme editor had debated the spectacle of Sunday football, which had been trialed for a number of reasons that season, and there was a selection of letters from Chelsea fans both in the “for” and “against” camp. Those “against” often cited religious reasons – “the day of rest” et al – and so heaven knows what they would have thought about a Sunday evening kick-off.

But the three of us were there.

We decided that, should we be successful against Sheffield Wednesday, our favoured draw in the Fifth Round would be an away game at Doncaster Rovers, but please not at six o’clock on a Sunday please. We briefly mentioned Millwall. No thanks. There were comments about the scrapping between the ne’er do wells of Millwall and Everton the previous day. None of us bother with the fighting these days – well, I never did, what is the point of hitting someone who simply does not like the same team as myself?  – but we had to admit that Everton earned some Brownie Points for heading straight into the eye of the needle in “Deep Sahf.” Not many firms do that. But rather them than me. We have only played away at Millwall four times in my life and I have mitigating circumstances for avoiding all of them. In 1976, I was eleven. In 1984, I was scared shitless. In 1990, I was in Canada. In 1995, my car was knackered. Maybe next time, there has to be a next time, I will run out of excuses.

We met up with a few others, and settled to watch Palace humble Tottenham with two first-half goals. We took especial glee when Tottenham missed a penalty. I roared as if we had scored a goal in fact, and the pub roared alongside me. It wasn’t their week for penalties, was it? Over in the far corner of the pub was a group of well-dressed Sheffield Wednesday fans – virtually all males, but a few kids too – and I spoke to a couple of them. One lad had never visited Stamford Bridge before. How could he? He was about twenty years old, and their last visit was in the last few days of the twentieth century. It was never like this in the ‘eighties.

The ‘Eighties.

It seems odd now, and especially to our legions of new fans, but for two or three seasons the rivalry in the mid-‘eighties between Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday gave the matches between the two teams a very special edge. Sheffield Wednesday have always been a big club – the bigger of the two teams from the steel city – but in my first ten years of being a Chelsea fan, we never met since they were mired in the old Third Division. When they eventually won promotion to the Second Division in 1979, just as we were relegated from the First, we would play them incessantly for the best part of the next twenty seasons.

The rivalry built as Chelsea, with perfect dagger-in-the-heart timing, overcame all-season-long league leaders Wednesday on the very last day of the iconic 1983/84 season to become Second Division Champions, and the mutual dislike continued the next season as we were embroiled in a famous trio of games in the League Cup quarter-finals. I went to both the league games in 1984/85, but did not attend any of the League Cup games due to finances and travel limitations. But I certainly watched on with glee as we came back from trailing 3-0 at half-time to lead 4-3 at Hillsborough in the first replay – it was Paul Canoville’s finest hour – only for Doug Rougvie to scythe down a Wednesday player in front of our travelling support at the fated Leppings Lane to force a second replay. We won that game 2-1, and we were heading to our first semi-final of any description in thirteen long seasons. In those days, under the tutelage of Howard Wilkinson – before he was given his “Sergeant Wilko” moniker by the Leeds fans, with whom he won a League Championship in 1992 – Sheffield Wednesday were known for rugged defending, no frills, no thrills, route one football, a Northern Wimbledon. In 1983/84 and in 1984/85, our more skilful and entertaining football gave us a deserved edge. We had Pat Nevin. They had Gary Shelton. It was simply no contest in the entertainment stakes. Wednesday were Friday to our Crusoe, Watson to our Holmes, always subservient. We dominated them and they disliked us for it, though there was never a Leeds level of pure hatred.

They had good gates at Hillsborough though. I remember being annoyed when our league game at Hillsborough in 1984/85 attracted a whopping 29,000 but the return fixture down at Chelsea only drew 17,000. I remember feeling let down by my fellow fans. And annoyed with myself for missing the two League Cup games at Chelsea earlier that season. A few grainy photographs of that day, inside and out, are featured in this report.

Only on rare occasions did they have the better of us. They prevailed over us during our League Cup semi-final in 1990/91, when we assembled at noon on a Sunday – another silly time, see above – and the virtually silent crowd watched as we were ripped apart by the same free-kick routine within the same half of the first game. It was a massive anti-climax that one, especially having beaten Tottenham in the previous round, as mentioned in my previous match report. We did get some sort of revenge during the 1993/94 season when we beat them away in the FA Cup on the way to our first FA Cup Final in twenty-four years. But we don’t talk about that.

So, Wednesday. Yeah, we remember you well.

I can certainly remember chatting on many occasions to a lad called Dave during my time at college in Stoke, and he was a Sheffield Wednesday supporter, from Yorkshire, and we always kept it light-hearted, even when – after too many pints in our students’ union – he accosted me, semi-seriously, and said –

“You support a fascist football club.”

It was the era of racism, hooliganism, political extremism, the miners’ strike, Thatcher and Scargill, and Dave was – like many at my college, in fact – of a socialist persuasion, and I could not summon the energy nor wit to defend my club, so I just retorted –

“Yeah, and you support a fucking shit one.”

I remember he simply smiled and hugged me.

Those were the days.

Sheffield Wednesday. Bloody hell, where have you been? It reminded me of that school friend that I once had – not a close friend – but a protagonist for the same starting spot in the school football team, and a rival in a pathetic pursuit of the prettiest girl in class, who had suddenly moved a few miles and, as a result, had been forced to change schools. I’d see him every day for four years, then all of a sudden, nothing. You wonder what sort of life he was living. In the case of Sheffield Wednesday, it has been a case of life in a parallel universe with trips for them to Yeovil Town, Burton Albion, Southend United and Bristol City rather than trips to Manchester United, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint Germain for us.

Two Ghosts.

The three of us left the pub and caught the tube to Fulham Broadway. We changed onto the District Line at Earl’s Court. Standing on the platform waiting for the Wimbledon train always takes me back to my first visit to Stamford Bridge. I wonder if my grandfather and his pal stood on that same platform on their sole visit to Stamford Bridge in the ‘twenties. It is quite likely. Outside the Oswald Stoll Foundation, while PD and Parky went on to the stadium for another pint, I stopped for a bite to eat at the busy match-day pop-up café. Damn it, they were out of pie and mash, but I devoured a salt beef – and gherkin – roll, as I sat outside for a few moments. A slug of away supporters marched past, full of noise, but no maliciousness, singing the praises of former Chelsea youngster Sam Hutchinson, who was now a regular in their blue and white stripes. I looked up at a tablet of stone whose words commemorated a visit by the Duchess of Wessex to the Oswald Stoll buildings – for ex-servicemen – in 2009. It mentioned a respect for the “fortitude and resilience” of those soldiers of both World Wars. I looked up and saw the sepia figures – “ghosts” – of Ted Draper and Ted Knapton marching purposefully towards Stamford Bridge for the 1920 FA Cup Final.

The salt beef was thick and succulent, the gherkin was juicy, the brioche roll was soft. The evening was getting darker. I needed to move on.

Six Thousand.

I was inside Stamford Bridge at 5.30pm. Tottenham would soon be out of their second cup competition within the space of seventy-two beautiful hours. What a lovely hors-d’oeuvre before the main meal, a high tea at six.  For the second successive game, Parky was forced out of his seat in The Shed. For the second successive game, I let him swap with me. For the second successive game I was behind the goal in the Matthew Harding Upper. With hindsight, I was incorrect in saying that my last game in that section before Thursday was the 1995 game with Bruges. It was in fact a year later against, of all teams, Sheffield Wednesday, when their bright orange shirts matched the rust of the Lots Road gasworks that were visible in the distance behind the slowly rising Shed. Facing me was a wall of six thousand away supporters, already noisy. There would be no doubt that this would be their day, their noise would dominate. We had matched Tottenham on Thursday, but I doubted if we could counter the Wednesdayites on this occasion. There was a smattering of flags draped over The Shed Balcony. Their nickname is due to the part of Northern Sheffield where one of their first grounds was placed, Owlerton.

“Salisbury Owls.”

“Worksop Owls.”

“Chapeltown Owls.”

Walking up from the city’s train station in the middle of Sheffield to Hillsborough on that wintry day in 1984, I was surprised how far out I had to walk, a good three miles. In the pub, we had admitted that however lengthy and arduous a replay would be, we would nonetheless go. Hillsborough is still a classic stadium – my last visit was in 1996 when we toppled them off the top of the Premier League with a very fine 3-0 win – and it is such a shame that the name will always and forever be tainted with what happened on Saturday 15 April 1989.

I soon spotted the self-styled “Tango Man”, bare chested and tattooed, in the front row.

Two Teams.

The players were announced. In addition to Sam Hutchinson – admirably recovered from a seemingly-career ending injury in our colours – the Wednesday team included familiar names Keiren Westwood, Steven Fletcher and George Boyd. The Chelsea starting eleven included Willy Cabellero – on the cover of the programme – Ethan Ampadu in the deep midfield berth, Callum Hudson-Odoi on the right, and a debut for our new striker Gonzalo Higuain. Supporters of a nervous disposition must have been squirming at the sight of current boo boys Marcos Alonso and Willian appearing on the same flank. I spotted Gianfranco Zola pose for photographs with a couple of young lads sporting Cagliari scarves in the front few rows of the Matthew Harding Lower. I get that, I like that. Despite no apparent link with us, Cagliari – because of Zola – will always be linked with Chelsea. One day I might wear my royal blue and white Moscow Dynamo scarf to a game. In the upper reaches of the East were hundreds of empty seats. Also – incredibly so, I think – five corporate boxes in a row, stretching for fifty yards or more, were completely devoid of spectators, including the one belonging to our owner. On the pitch, on Holocaust Memorial Day, was a “Say No To Antisemitism” banner.

The First Forty-Five.

Songs about Blades dominated the first few minutes as the away team carved out an early chance, with Adam Reach hardly testing Caballero from an angle down below me. We could not believe that Westwood in the Shed End goal was wearing a dark kit, virtually the same as the outfield players’ uniforms. Brian Moore would be turning in his grave; he used to love a clash of kits to obsess about on “The Big Match.” It is no bloody wonder my generation struggles with the styles and techniques of modern day football. Instead of talking catenaccio, liberos, wingless wonders and total football, Brian Moore and Jimmy Hill were forever rabbiting about teams having the same colour socks.

We dominated the early stages, and Higuain – hair thinning to match his once considerable paunch – did well to engineer a shot which drifted wide of the far post from close in. Mateo Kovacic looked lively – for once, cough, cough – as he chased balls and tackled well.

With about twenty minutes played, the ball was played through to Reach by Fletcher, and Ampadu robbed him of the ball. The referee Andre Marriner pointed straight at the spot and I immediately doubted my sanity and football-spectating skills. Surely he had got the ball? While Ethan was down, clutching his shin, and with trainers on, it dawned on us that VAR was being called into action. Marriner was wrong, no penalty. With that Marriner gave himself a yellow card and booked himself in at his local “Specsavers.”

Not long after, a move inside their box came to an end when we lost the ball to a challenge, some hundred yards away from me. There was a delayed reaction from our players, the referee and our supporters alike, but Marriner signalled towards the spot. Was VAR used? I had no idea.

“Quite a week for penalties” I whispered to the chap to my right.

Willian seemed to offer the ball to new boy Higuain, but it was Willian who placed the ball above Ossie’s ashes. Another staccato step, another successful penalty to us.

Chelsea Sunday 1 Sheffield Wednesday 0.

Out came the chorus from The Shed.

“VAR is fookin’ shit, VAR is fookin’ shit.”

Quite.

For all of the online and offline moans about Callum Hudson-Odoi, there was a considerable buzz when he had the ball at his feet. Despite our ridiculous amount of possession, we struggled to create many more chances of note. There was little service to Higuain. The away fans had provided a fair proportion of the entertainment in the first-half. There was even a Sheffield version of the Derby County chant that Frank Lampard loves so much.

“If you don’t fookin bounce, you’re a Blade.”

It must be a Derbyshire and South Yorkshire thing.

The Second Forty-Five.

The first real action of the second-half almost embarrassed Caballero, who scrambled back to protect his near post when a, presumably, miss-hit cross from the Wednesday right caught him unawares. It was only their second effort on goal the entire match.

Soon into the second period, we were treated to some sublime skill from Willian, who killed a ball lofted towards him with the outside of his right foot, before a “now you see it, now you don’t” shimmy took him away from his marker. He created enough space to send over a cross but Alonso wasted the opportunity. There was a wild shot from Kovacic shot which almost hit the roof above my head. I did notice on two occasions in quick succession a massive gap in the middle of their defensive third – enough for a game of bowls – but neither Higuain spotted it, nor our midfielders ran into it. At times, we chose to play the ball to the nearest man, the easiest option, rather than hit a killer ball into space.

There was a header from Higuain, just wide.

But the play was opening up on both flanks now; we were simply going around Sheffield Wednesday’s Siegfried Line. Willian and Hudson-Odoi were becoming the main players. Indeed, on sixty-four minutes, a great ball from Andreas Christensen released our Callum, who brought the ball down perfectly and turned inside with an ease of movement that defies description. His finish was almost a formality.

Chelsea Sundaes 2 Sheffield Puddings 0.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Ampadu, and Kovacic was realigned deeper. Still the pace of Callum and Willian had Wednesday chasing shadows. I did like the look of their diminutive number ten Barry Bannan, though. He was their best player by a country mile.

Higuain was replaced by Giroud with ten minutes to go. Jorginho replaced the quiet – again – Ross Barkley.

A pacey run from Hudson-Odoi and the ball was played in to Willian. An alert one-two with Giroud and the ball was side-footed, but with a firm prod, past Westwood.

GET IN.

Chelsea 3 Sheffield Wednesday 0.

Wednesday’s children were full of woe.

At last a forward pass from Jorginho tee’d up Giroud in the box but his over-ambitious bicycle kick was shinned wide.

Throughout the game, I had been warmed by the words issuing forth from a young lad – no more than ten or eleven – who was sat right behind me and who gave his father a running commentary.

“What are you DOING Willian? Why don’t we shoot more? No wonder we don’t score enough goals. Come on Chels!”

At the end of the game, as easy a match as I could ever imagine, I gathered my things and turned. I caught the father’s eye and said –

“Love your boy’s take on the game. A perfect mix of enthusiasm and frustration.”

Round Five.

Into the last sixteen we went, into Round Five, it had been an enjoyable evening.

There was a definite case of “After the Lord Mayor’s Show” after Thursday, but we could ask for no more from our players. I bumped into the trail of away supporters as I made my way slowly down the Fulham Road. They seemed a bit subdued. It is not surprising. I did not envy their trip home. I would be home, God-willing, at around 11pm.

Outside the town hall, I overheard a bloke who was chatting to someone on the ‘phone. He was a middle-aged Wednesdayite and philosophical.

“It was a good day out, that’s all.”

On Wednesday, the cups behind us and on hold for a while, we reconvene on the South Coast at Bournemouth.

I will see the lucky ones there.

1984/1985 : Kerry Dixon On The Prowl.

1990/1991 : A Rumbelows Cup Anti-Climax.

1996/1997 : The Shed Rises As Sheffield Steel Goes Rusty.

2018/2019 : A Willian Spot Kick.

2018/2019 : A Free-Kick In Front Of The Wednesday Away Support.

2018-2019 : The Debutant.

2018/2019 : Burst.

2018-2019 : Pace.

2018-2019 : Nike Football.

2018-2019 : The Third Goal.

2018-2019 : A Winning Smile.

2018-2019 : Together.

2018-2019 : Duel.

 

 

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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