Tales From The Jacksonville Five

Chelsea vs. Slavia Prague : 18 April 2019.

There was a flurry of annoying late emails at work but, at just after 3pm, I left the office. I exhaled deeply. A four-day break was just starting and what better way for it all to begin than with a Chelsea game? I drove over to meet up with PD and Parky in the car park opposite work. We now try to avoid the usual delays on the M4 on these midweek bursts to London and, instead, head south-east towards Stonehenge and then in to London on the A303, M3 and the A316. PD made good time and we were parked up at about 5.30pm.

This was my fiftieth game of the season. Should we reach Baku, the season will top out at fifty-six, a total only bettered in the two other recent “European Final” seasons of 2011/12 and 2012/13. To confirm, I will not be able to attend the Europa League semi-final, but I am free for the final – should we make it – in Baku. I owe my manager – “United” – a big favour for that. Phew.

The Goose seemed quite quiet.

There was time for a single pint of “Peroni” and more time to relax. Although there were signs on the windows of the pub of “Home Fans Only”, a lone Slavia sticker had been planted to the wall inside the gents’ toilets. Something about “Slavia Destiny” was written with the cartooned shapes of ultras. Standard fare I guess.

We stood in the beer garden and spoke with a few friends and European travel was the obvious topic.

Rob : “I love the buzz of these trips, getting good flights, good deals. I often enjoy it more than the games these days.”

Parky : “We have our hearts set on Lisbon via Bristol.”

Kev : “Baku will be a nightmare if Arsenal get there too. You’re talking a grand.”

Brian : “I’d expect the club to run some trips. And there will be agencies chartering flights. But remember the Scousers were moaning about £900 trips to Kiev last time. And that was just to Kiev. Baku is almost twice as far.”

Chris : “Imagine going all that way and seeing those bloody Gooners over there. All those replica shirts and hipster beards. Nightmare. I hope Napoli stuff them. King Carlo in the final. Lovely.”

Brian : “And the Super Cup is in Istanbul. On a Wednesday.”

Chris : “Istanbul? Bollocks. Nice and easy for all of us then. Wankers. What was wrong with a Friday night? Nice flight in on the day of the game, back on the weekend. Just one day off work. But a Wednesday is at least two days off work. Fucking hell. UEFA. They just don’t care.”

There was little chat about the evening game. Glenn and I had watched the tedious – and ultimately very lucky – game from Prague at a pub in Frome the previous Thursday. It was grim stuff. But as I walked down the North End Road, I mentioned the away goal and we expected an easy passage into the semi-finals.

In “Simmons”, the usual suspects were gathered together, but I spent most of the time with a gaggle of five Chelsea supporters from Jacksonville – America’s most populous “unknown” city – in Northern Florida. I had met Jennifer and Brian in Charlotte in 2015, and again on their first-ever visit to Chelsea last season for the West Ham United game.

“How can that be over a year ago? Seems like last month.”

I asked the three stock questions – “let’s get these out of the way, then we can relax”- to Jennifer and Brian.

When did you get in?

“This morning.”

Are you jet-lagged?

“No. Red Bull.”

Where are your tickets?

“Shed Upper.”

Jennifer and Brian were with three other Chelsea fans from Jacksonville – “the first coast” – and I immediately forgot all their names. Let’s call them Danny, Danny and Danielle. I chatted with Danny One how my first night in Florida in September 1989 was spent in a tent on the side of a road in Jacksonville (Heckscher Drive – he knew it well) outside a fish bait store. My mate and I had simply run out of steam after a lengthy cycle ride from our previous night in Georgia. We needed somewhere to flop. Not for us the glitzy hotels of Walt Disney World or the comfortable motels in Orlando and Kissimmee.

Our first night in Florida? A tent by the side of the road. No food and drink close by. We were bitten by mosquitoes that night. Living the dream, eh?

I spoke with Danny Two and how he was originally from Bosnia, and how he got into watching us on TV in the US in around 2003. I am always intrigued how foreign fans find us. I am glad that it wasn’t through FIFA. It helped that his is team back home – Zeljeznicar – played in blue too. These three visitors from the Sunshine State were having a blast. Their enthusiasm was priceless. This would be their first game at Stamford Bridge. Their first-ever Chelsea game ever, I think.

They were having a lovely time.

And then they met Parky.

We knocked back a few bottles of “Staropramen” – how apt on this night – but it was, alas, soon time to move on.

I took a few photographs outside the West Stand. I noted that there was signage for something called “The Europa Lounge” at the main entrance to the West Stand. A few “welcoming” personnel in Chelsea blazers and a couple of rather ridiculous roped “VIP” barriers gave the area much more importance than it really warranted. But we all know the score. The Europa League isn’t the Champions League no matter how anyone butters it up. This was an ersatz version of the real deal. I had visions of the guests drinking the 2019 equivalents of Kestrel Lager, White Lightning and Panda Pops.

Inside the stadium, the away fans were virtually all in. Slavia are one of the great old names of European football. I remember talking to a work colleague in Prague over a decade ago who was an avid Slavia fan. He always told me that they were the older, established club of his home city and he hated Sparta who were the newly-moneyed upstarts.

It was a warm evening in London. A little muggy. My camera tried to take photographs of the Jacksonville Five – and the Slavia crowd – in the distant Shed but everything was a little misty, grey, the details blurred. I couldn’t spot them.

Andreas Christensen was in for the injured Rudiger. Eden Hazard was starting. N’Golo Kante was in, Jorginho was out. Olivier Giroud was up front.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Kovacic

Barkley – Kante

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

A full moon rose over the Shed as the teams entered the pitch. Another – almost – full house was in attendance. These £30 tickets for Thursday nights are perfectly pitched. The bright blush of red on the Slavia tracksuit tops stood out. Their kit was an odd one. A Feyenoord-style shirt, red and white halves, with white shorts. Crisp so far. But with insipid light blue socks, which they also wore in the home leg.

We were quick out of the traps and other clichés.

On just five minutes, we watched a lovely move unfold. We kept possession well. Pedro was heavily involved and sprinted in from the right to play a perfect “one-two” with Olivier Giroud. Pedro’s dink over the Slavia ‘keeper Kolar was excellent and we were 1-0 up on the night.

A mazy run from Hazard – a photograph I took ended up being titled “The Hunted” on Facebook – ended up with a block.

Just four minutes after the first goal, we watched a really lovely move down our left with Hazard pushing the ball on to Giroud, who held the ball well before feeding the run of Hazard. The cross across the box was aimed at that man Pedro. From our vantage point over one hundred yards away, it looked like his second goal and he reeled away in delight. It was, in fact, an own goal, but we did not care one iota.

We were 2-0 up on the night.

The away fans, a mob of red and white, were quiet. Alan had told me that their ultras were banned from the home leg which is why those two large, and lovely, banners of two former players took up so much space in their home end in Prague. Tonight, there were a few sings and banners, and most were for their ultras.

On seventeen minutes, a beautiful pass into space from Kante found – guess who? – Pedro who selflessly knocked the ball square to an unmarked Giroud who calmly tapped home.

Chelsea 3 Slavia 0.

Four up on aggregate. This was too easy.

With Frankfurt and Benfica at 0-0, this was looking good for PD and Parky, who were relishing the thought of a few days in the Portuguese capital. With the game surely in the bag, I eased off. I let my mind wander a little. Eventually, I was able to spot Jennifer, Brian and the three Dannys in The Shed.

And then Slavia got into the game a little. Kepa kept out a header in a rather unorthodox fashion, the ball fortuitously hitting him on the knee. From the resulting corner, the ball was drilled into an open area and Soucek – completely unmarked, Anfield, cough, cough – headed it firmly in.

“You scored one? We’ll do the same.”

Barely a minute later, Hazard broke down the left and played the ball out to the overlapping Emerson. His low cross, right on the money, was pushed goal wards by Giroud. The ‘keeper fumbled the ball out and Pedro was on hand to slam it in. Pedro was having quite a game. He was involved in all four of our goals. I took a photo of the Floridian visitors celebrating in The Shed. My job was done.

Over in Frankfurt, we heard that the hosts had scored against Benfica.

In Naples, Arsenal were 1-0 on the night.

Bollocks.

The rest of the first-half came and went. At half-time, all was well. The only annoyance was the away fans, who had found their voices, and were singing their sodding version of “Allez, Allez, Allez” ad infinitum. It obviously reminded me of the noise at Anfield and I moaned to JD about it.

“Anfield has been erased from my memory. Thanks for bringing it up.”

Talk moved to The Europa Final and the thought of us having to share a beautiful European city with twenty thousand Arsenal fans.

I said “Moscow was bad enough with United.”

JD : “That has been erased too.”

I replied “OK. Got it. I’d best fuck off right now.”

The game restarted. If I had tended to drift off at times in the first-half, it was the turn of the players to do the same in the second-half. What a bloody mess. On fifty-one minutes, I captured the shot – from just outside the box – from Sevcik that, somehow, maybe it swerved, ended up beating Kepa at the near post. His view, admittedly was blocked by both Kovacic and the Luiz lookalike Kral.

It was now 4-2 and my thoughts wandered back to the Viktoria Zizkov game in 1994. Our first UEFA game since 1971 against another Czech team had ended-up with that same score line.

It got worse.

Just three minutes later, the same player – with the away fans marking each pass with an “ole” – unleashed an unstoppable drive across Kepa and into the top far corner.

Fackninell.

Chelsea 4 Slavia 3.

What a bloody mess.

In pubs, in living rooms, in bars, on the internet, at Stamford Bridge, the same question was asked :

“What does Sarri fucking talk about at half-time?”

We went to pieces, and the support grew unsurprisingly restless.

For PD and Parky, it got worse. Eintracht had scored again. They held the advantage. Lisbon was looking unlikely.

A lightning break down our right ended up with a ball being drilled into the box. That man Sevcik – in acres of space – had his own Devon Loch moment and lost his footing just as he was about to connect with yet another effort on goal from the inside right channel. Kepa sprinted out to gather the loose ball. This was ridiculous. I only remember a bungled volley from Giroud as our sole effort on goal in that awful second period.

By now, Willian had replaced Hazard. Jorginho had replaced Barkley, and quite how Kovacic remained on the pitch is a mystery to me.

There was a fair bit of applause for Sevcik – from me, for sure – as he was substituted. On came Miroslav Stoch, our former winger, and he was given a warm welcome back at The Bridge. I expected great things from him way back in 2008/9 and he scored some screamers for Fenerbahce. He’s twenty-nine now, and looks older. Luiz, back-peddling, headed the ball back to safety but in doing so, the ball hit his arm. A free-kick seemed really harsh. Stoch took aim with a free-kick but thankfully blasted it against the leg of Willian.

Callum Hudson-Odoi made a cameo appearance in the last five minutes, replacing the first-half hero Pedro.

We held on.

But it was far from clever. This must rank as our least convincing run to a European semi-final ever. This was a 4-3 European game that surely didn’t match the previous night’s encounter in Manchester.

We won ugly.

It seemed that this one match had encapsulated – distilled – the one-hundred and fourteen year history of Chelsea Football Club. The good and the bad. Comedic defending. Periods of pleasure. Long periods of pain. Lady luck. Goals. Ultimately a victory.

Oh boy.

I am sure that the guests from Florida loved it – those first-half goals right in front of them for sure – but it was really painful. It is – stating the bloody obvious once again – proving to be a ridiculous season. After Fulham and Cardiff City, here was yet another win that seemed like a loss. And yet those two League Cup defeats at Wembley seemed like wins.

Oh my poor brain.

The news came through that the nearly men of European football Benfica had lost 2-0 in Germany.

We would meet Eintracht Frankfurt in the semi-final.

On Monday, we reassemble for the battle for league points with the visit of Burnley. We have another pub-crawl planed. The Floridians have been told to bring their drinking boots.

See you in the pub.

 

Tales From The Last Laugh

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 27 February 2019.

Tottenham at home. Do they come any bigger than this? I don’t think so. But the games are coming thick and fast now, and this season’s match at Stamford Bridge against “that lot” was tucked in after an emotional League Cup Final. The mood among our support base was changed, though. There was a noticeable uplift. Not so long ago, there were people whispering “lose to Man City, lose to Tottenham, and he’ll be gone.” But even if there was a loss at Wembley, the team displayed so much fight that the negativity had abated since Sunday.

We travelled to London with hope in our hearts but I was the pragmatic one, not the dreamer. I remembered the awful loss to them last season – almost eleven months ago – and just wanted to avoid a defeat.

I uttered the famous phrase “I’ll take a draw now.”

There was a lager in “The Goose” where our extended post-game drinking had finished on Sunday evening, and a couple more in “Simmons” with friends from near and far. Lads from Salisbury, Trowbridge and Melksham in the former, friends from California, Texas and Michigan – and London, fackinell – in the latter. Charles – the Texas connection – was with us again, last mentioned within these reports for the Barcelona away game last season, and whose last Chelsea game was over in Greece for the PAOK match in the autumn. Andy and Brett, still in town after Sunday, were present. These two Californians were joined by Josh – one of the OC Hooligans (sic.) – and it was a pleasure to see him again. Pride of place went to Mehul and Neekita from Detroit, their first-ever visit to Stamford Bridge, and plainly shaking with excitement. I had told them that “Simmons” would be packed full of long-standing Chelsea supporters, and joked that there would be nobody wearing Chelsea colours. I wasn’t wrong, and we shared a laugh about it.

Charles looked at me, very seriously, and showed me his match ticket.

“I shouldn’t have this.”

I wondered what he meant and had to ask him.

“This game should be sold out before I get a chance.”

I knew what he meant, bless him. This game has always been a “hot ticket” and maybe he did not feel worthy to have his hands on one, or was just shocked that he had one at all. It would be his first-ever sighting of Tottenham, and I could sense his anticipation. The same could certainly be said of Andy – the San Diego connection – who was attending a game at HQ for the first time. His enthusiasm was palpable too.

Outside the West Stand, I stopped to take a few photographs of the Peter Osgood statue. The great man always loved playing Tottenham. The thirteenth anniversary of his passing would very soon be upon his. It was deeply symbolic that our first home game after his passing on 1 March 2006 was against Tottenham. Who can forget that William Gallas winner? I never saw The King play for Chelsea, and I do not have any Tottenham-specific memories involving him.

But I can easily remember a story that he once told the assorted guests at Ron Harris’ pub in Warminster in around 1998.

Ossie had us in the palm of his hands as he spoke of his first-ever trial for Chelsea. The small room was deadly quiet. You could hear a pin drop. The King was talking. We were mesmerised. He spoke how he had played for a local team called Spital Old Boys, and how his uncle had written off to a few clubs, including Chelsea, asking that a trial be given to the raw fifteen-year-old. Chelsea replied positively and he attended a trial at Hendon, where the team trained at the oddly-sounding Welsh Harp, but he was rather dismissive of his chances of being noticed due to the huge number of other boys present. The young Osgood scored early in one of the first two sessions, but did not think he had impressed. Imagine his surprise when Dick Foss, the legendary Chelsea scout, approached him and said “sign here, son.”

Ossie then paused, looked at us, savouring the moment and uttered the immortal line –

“And that just shows you how easy it was, back in those days” – another slight pause for dramatic effect -” to sign for Tottenham.”

There was uproar. We were in stitches. His story, like so many of his runs, had taken a subtle turn right at the end. I was in awe of him. Not only a Chelsea icon, a great footballer, a childhood hero, but a fantastic story-teller, with Tottenham the fall guys of this wonderful tale.

God bless him.

Inside the stadium, there was a noticeable buzz, Seats were being filled. Mehul and Neekita – husband and wife – had single tickets down below us in the Matthew Harding Lower, and I wondered if they were far apart. Over in the far corner, “that lot” were filling their allotted three-thousand places but without a flag or banner to their name. JD walked past – “I’m not up for this” – and I almost believed him.

I took a photo of the match programme – Gonzalo Higuain the cover star, but his Nike boot seemingly the main attraction – and posted it on Facebook with a caption.

“They made me cry in 1975. I have been laughing at them ever since.”

Thankfully, there had been no protracted debate about the Kepa / Sarri  / Caballero farce from Sunday during the evening. At work, I had tried to avoid it. The club needed to move on. If anything, I felt for Sarri. The sight of him storming towards the tunnel was surely an unpleasant few moments. Who remembers The Simpsons and Bart talking about the hapless Ralph?

“Watch this Lisa. You can actually pinpoint the second where his heart rips in half.”

I felt his anger and his frustration and his sense of isolation. I wanted to support him on this night, whereas before my support was, broadly speaking, more team-based. I was well aware how quickly things can change in football. Football is never an exact science, is it?

On this night, Maurizio Sarri had chosen Caballero over Arrizabalaga and that was OK with me.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

This was certainly a more expansive team than at Wembley and a more typical Sarri formation.

Tottenham had Kane, but were they able? I fucking hoped not.

The lights dimmed, more theatrics, but surely not needed for Chelsea versus Tottenham, SW6 versus N17, royal blue versus navy blue, lions versus cockerels, Osgood versus Chivers.

The game began, and thankfully some noise.

Very soon into the match, there was a free-kick for Marcos Alonso on our right but his firmly-struck shot just ricocheted back off the Tottenham wall. Not so long after, a deep cross from Dave eventually fell at the feet of Gonzalo Higuain, and his snatched shot spun away from Loris but smacked against the right-hand upright. At the other end, David Luiz flung himself to block and tackle and ate up space like his life depended on it. The initial signs were encouraging. We definitely had the best of the first fleeting minutes. Higuain was again involved but his speculative curler was forever bending away from the target.

What of them? Without Alli, all eyes were on Eriksen and Son, with the latter looking the livelier of the two.

There was some aggression between Luiz and Kane when the latter did not give the former time to control a high ball played back to him when a Tottenham player had received some treatment. This riled everyone up. The noise levels increased. I thought of the two from Detroit below me, and was pleased that there was a proper buzz to the night. I had spotted that JD in the front row below me was soon involved. Swearing. Good old JD. He was up for it now alright. Tottenham had a little spell and Dave did well to block a Kane shot.

We aired our “Barcelona, Real Madrid” anthem, but the chant petered out with a muffled “ssssssshhhhhhhh.”

That war has been won.

A dipping shot from Winks from a long way out smacked the cross bar and caused it to wobble like rubber. It reminded me of the Eriksen opener for them last season. Shudder. There was a whipped-in cross from out on their right moments later which thankfully evaded everyone. Chances were at a premium, but they were back in this. It was bubbling away and was becoming an enthralling match. I thought Kante was our star yet again for all of the four-hundred-and-eighty-six previously-mentioned reasons. Marcos Alonso was getting up and, more importantly, getting back. I liked the industry of Kovacic. Eden, by contrast, was struggling to make an impact. Pedro was Pedro, always moving.

I found myself standing on many occasions. Everyone was on their feet in the MHL, but hardly any in the MHU. But for a nervous game like this, I can’t help standing.

We must not lose.

At the break it was even. Maybe we had the slight advantage. Both teams had enjoyed little spells of dominance. There had been, probably not surprisingly, no chants for Kepa nor Caballero nor Sarri. It was all about supporting the team.

Early into the second-half, a high lofted chip from Jorginho had found the run of Higuain. It was offside all day long, and the subsequent deft lob over Loris was of no consequence. It was a little cat-and-mouse for a while.

On fifty-seven minutes, Dave pushed a ball into space outside of the full-back Davies to Pedro. The Spanish winger had been nimble all evening and he totally flummoxed the taller Alderweireld who was tied up in knots, his feet like fins. Pedro nudged the ball inside, made space for a low shot, away from a Tottenham defender’s lunge, and we watched – breathless – as the ball flew through Loris’ unlucky legs.

The ground exploded.

Oh the photos.

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

I captured the billing and cooing between Eden and Pedro.

Beautiful.

The noise levels increased.

“CAREFREE.”

“CHAMPIONS OF EUROPE, YOU’LL NEVER SING THAT.”

Tottenham were silent.

On the hour, Willian replaced a quiet Hazard.

Tottenham then came at us. A long, hopeful, shot from Kane did not bother anyone. After Eriksen was allowed to waltz into our box, who else but Pedro – fucking Pedro! – was able to drop and tackle, robbing the ball impudently from behind with a curl of the foot and then a spritely dummy past another fool. The crowd roared and we boomed his name.

“OH PEDRO RODRIGUEZ.”

Another lame effort from Kane. Balls dropped and dolloped into our box but without threat. Very often David Luiz was able to scurry over and chase a ball away. He was enjoying a game for the ages.

On seventy-seven minutes, Ruben Loftis-Cheek replaced Kovacic.

“His best game for ages.”

There was a curler from Pedro, the man of the moment, but it was high and wide and not particularly handsome.

On eighty-four minutes, Olivier Giroud for Gonzalo Higuain.

A ball was lofted towards the substitute’s napper. Was it his first touch? Possibly. It fell at the feet of Keiran Trippier. He pushed the ball back towards the advancing Loris.

My thought process.

0.2 seconds – blimey, that’s going past the ‘keeper.

0.3 seconds – fackinell.

0.4 seconds – that’s going wide.

0.5 seconds – no it ain’t.

0.6 seconds – fackinell.

0.7 seconds – that’s not going to reach the line.

0.8 seconds – keep running Willian.

1.1 seconds – no, it has enough legs.

1.5 seconds – it’s going in.

2.0 seconds – fackinell.

By this stage, I was up by the barrier to my left. I had stood as soon as the ball had started on its inexorable course. Was I shouting and screaming?

No. I was just laughing.

Oh my bloody goodness.

I was not alone.

I shot a few photographs of Willian and Giroud walking away, almost apologetically, with Alderweireld holding the ball like some sort of exhibit from a crime scene. I turned around to see a beautiful mass of smiling and laughing faces. I took a photo of my pals Alexandra and the two Bobs. Their faces, and those of the others, were a picture.

Ha.

And then, the song of the night, and just perfect.

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

Stamford Bridge had seldom been louder.

That was it. They were off. Even they beat their record for clearing an end. Chelsea used to clear ends in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties by dubious methods. The modern way, and saved especially for Tottenham, is far more agreeable.

Oh my aching sides.

I took a photo with maybe four hundred of the three-thousand left. I have to say that there were far more Chelsea left in the away section at the end of the ninety-minutes at Manchester City after our 6-0 gubbing than there were Tottenham after this 2-0 loss. The final whistle blew and the inevitable “One Step Beyond” boomed out, and with it a sea of fifty-year olds bouncing awkwardly – it is never a good look, arms all over the shop – to the nutty sound of Madness.

“Hey you.”

I spoke to Alex and the two Robs about the photo that I had taken, and Rob had, without me knowing, taken a photograph of me, during one of my standing moments, arms outstretched. Our smiles were just as wide as we trotted out onto the West Stand forecourt and one song lit up the night.

“Tottenham Hotspur. You’ve done it again.”

Indeed, they bloody well had. We had surely deserved that. A mention for the often derided Alonso, his best game for ages, but they were all stars. Did Willy Caballero have to make a save? Not really. It was a pragmatic and hybrid performance, defensively sound but with just the right amount of flair. My pre-match quote about Tottenham making me laugh continually, year after year, decade after decade rang true. What is the old saying?

“He who laughs last, laughs longest.”

They had raced into an early lead this season with the 3-1 win against us in November, we edged past them in the League Cup semi-final and we had now beaten them 2-0 at home in the league. Over the four games against Tottenham in 2018/2019, we were on top.

“He who laughs last, laughs longest.”

I was reminded of the Dick Emery skinhead of the early ‘seventies who, after various efforts to impress his skinhead father with an array of nefarious schemes, inevitably managed to get one crucial detail wrong time after time :

“Dad, I fink I got it wrong again.”

There was an exuberant walk along the Fulham Road and a hot dog and onions from “Chubby’s Grill” had never tasted better. Our ridiculous sequence continued on.

Won. Lost. Won. Lost. Won. Lost. Won. Lost. Won.

After the aberration of 2017/2018, our next unbeaten home sequence against “that lot” had begun. If it follows the same longitude and attitude as the last one, the next time that we will lose at home to Tottenham in the league will be in 2047 when I will be eighty-two.

See you at Fulham.

 

Tales From Saturday Tea Time

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 12 January 2019.

This was another 5.30pm kick-off and so PD, Parky and I took the train to London once again. One subject dominated our chat on the journey; the decision to hold the FA Cup tie against either Sheffield Wednesday or Luton Town at 6pm on Sunday 27 January.

Six o’clock on a Sunday evening.

What a ridiculous time.

“And there was much wailing.”

But, the FA had made another crazy decision to play an FA Cup game at a similar time some seventeen years earlier. In 2002, Fulham objected to their allocation for the first-choice venue of Highbury for our FA Cup Semi Final against them. So – and I still can’t fathom the madness of this – the FA chose to send both sets of fans up to Villa Park in Birmingham for a 7pm kick-off on a Sunday. And then, the deepest irony, Fulham failed to sell out, and in fact sold less tickets for the Villa Park game than their initial allocation at Highbury.

Altogether now : “For fuck sake.”

I don’t dislike Fulham Football Club one bit, but this has really tested me over the years.

5.30pm on a Saturday tea time is OK, there is at least Sunday to recover. In fact, it is rather agreeable as it allows for a good session in various pubs beforehand. But six o’clock on a Sunday is just wrong. At best, I would not return home until 11pm – 11.30pm is a more realistic prediction – and I would need to be up early for work the next day.

So, did I get a ticket when they went on sale on Thursday?

Yes, of course I did, but I partially hated myself for it.

File under “I am a twat” ( sub-section two thousand, nine-hundred and seventeen).

Maybe we can walk in after ten minutes, maybe we can turn our backs for the first five minutes, maybe we can produce banners. Some sort of protest would be good. But I won’t hold my breath on this. It would be nice, just once, for the club to see how much these mistimed kick-off choices affect the rank and file Chelsea support. I note that the Chelsea Supporters Trust wasted no time in condemning the time. Let’s see what transpires over the next fortnight.

It was the usual routine; a Paddington breakfast, a tube to Putney Bridge, into “The Eight Bells” for 11.30am.

We had decided to visit the southern tip of Fulham for the fourth time this season as a few friends from Scotland had sorted out tickets and had chosen the Premier Inn opposite the pub as their base. We had met John and Gary in a fantastic pub before our game at Sunderland in 2016 – “that Courtois save” – and had stayed in touch ever since. They touched down at Stansted at 11am and joined us in the cozy boozer at about 1.45pm. They were joined by their two mates Dave and Colin. All four are Heart of Midlothian supporters. It was fantastic to see John and Gary again. We sat chatting about all things football, though not all things Chelsea, and then moved on to “The Kings Arms” around the corner.

After a very enjoyable pre-match sesh we caught the District Line tube back up to Fulham Broadway.

As I have so often mentioned, my first-ever game was against Newcastle United in March 1974. First, my grandfather in 1920 – I think – and then my mother and myself in 1974. I am a third-generation visitor to Stamford Bridge, and doesn’t that sound good?

We were inside Stamford Bridge with a good twenty minutes or so to spare. John was alongside us in The Sleepy Hollow. It was his first visit to the “modern” Stamford Bridge since the rebuilding was completed in 2001. He was enamoured with our seats. We are truly blessed with our view.

But how the stadium has changed over the years. I can remember getting to Stamford Bridge really early before our game with Newcastle United in 1984/85 with the sole intention to take some photos with my little Kodak camera before any spectators were present. I walked up the steps at the back of The Shed and took several photos of a Stamford Bridge lying dormant. From memory, it was a bitterly cold day during a bitterly cold winter. But I am so glad that I took those photographs; I only wish that I had taken more of the old stadium over the years.

The Geordies were at their usual three thousand level despite a solid block of around one hundred and fifty left unused in a top corner. But this was a fine turnout from them.

There was the usual darkening of the lights before the teams entered. More flags, flames and fireworks, which are at least better suited to a 5.30pm kick-off than a midday one.

We half-expected another “false nine” role for Eden Hazard. And Maurizio Sarri did not disappoint :

Arrizabalaga.

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso.

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic.

Pedro – Hazard – Willian.

There was a reunion of former Napoli managers underneath the East Stand. But Benitez only flitted in and out of my consciousness; it is almost six years since he left us. If only those who claimed that they – still – don’t care about him would stop bloody singing songs about him.

Sigh.

I watched the Newcastle players down below me in a huddle on the pitch as the floodlights came on and the pitch was cleared of banners and the paraphernalia of the pre-match handshakes. It shocked me that I did not recognise many. Twenty years ago, I would have been able to spot a Warren Barton, a Robert Lee, a Temuri Ketsbaia, a Luis Saha, a Philippe Albert.

I have recently come to the conclusion that with so many overseas players – or specifically those signed from overseas teams –  in our game these days, my identification of them has dwindled. I still find it easier to note, identify and track a player that has bedded down in the English leagues for a while and then moves, than a player picked from a team in Europe and parachuted in to a team here. Back in the days of when I used to collect football cards as a child, my knowledge of teams’ players was encyclopedic. This continued as I started attending games, reading ‘papers and buying magazines. And it certainly continued as I subscribed to “Sky” for the best part of ten years.

But these days, I am rather lost, and have probably entered the most recent of “phases” that I briefly mentioned a few weeks ago.

I find it easier to remember a youngster from Torquay United or Tranmere Rovers who joins a Premier League team – I think my love of geography helps, in that I can pinpoint names to places – but I am floundering, if for example a Spaniard playing for an Italian team signs for another top team. There is just something untethered about these players. Give me a player like Chris Wood who played for Leeds United before joining Burnley and I might have a chance. So, unless I make the effort, they are just names to me. Most importantly neither myself nor virtually any of my Chelsea mates spend endless hours playing “FIFA” either, which would – I suppose – aid my knowledge of players, but there are just some things that are best left well alone, like Star War films, the books of J.K. Rowling, cruises and Jeremy Clarkson. Of course, if players take my eye when I see them play and have that something about them – that unquantifiable “je ne sais quoi” – then that makes them endear themselves to me and I track them.

But, Lascelles, Lejeune and Longstaff? Who?

The away team were playing with black socks, which made them look like the Newcastle of old rather than the white-socked team we played at St. James’ Park in late August.

The game began with Chelsea attacking the northern goal for a change.

There was the usual probing from us in the first portion of the match but without too much end product.

Then, on just nine minutes, David Luiz sent a ball from deep inside the Chelsea half into a space where Pedro was running. For so long I have asked that we send in an occasional early ball, just to keep the opposition back-line on their toes more than anything else. A team expecting us to pass through them all the time will not be expecting a long bomb. And this certainly was a long bomb from Luiz. It was sensational. Luiz played it with an almost nonchalant air, a sideways sweep. Pedro took the ball out of the sky and clipped it over the startled Newcastle United ‘keeper Martin Dubravka.

Whatabloodygoal.

At least I captured the celebrations if not the goal itself.

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

Chris : “Howay Pet, come on m’little diamonds, like man.”

With Arsenal suffering a surprising loss at West Ham United in the early-kick-off (it had been “on” in the pub but we did not bother watching), here was a fantastic start to our game. If we won, we would go a healthy six points clear of them. All of us have been well aware that we have an intimidating amount of away games to endure in 2019 and that we have to win as many home games as possible.

We still have to play at Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and, to a lesser extent, Everton and Leicester City.

Tough games all.

But we did not capitalise and there was growing frustration as we struggled to get past a resolute back five. Our corners were especially poor. There were rare forays up-field from the Newcastle United players.

After half-an hour of huff and puff, Azpilicueta was fouled just outside the box and Willian floated in a cross which Luiz headed over.

There was a shot from Lejeune, but straight at Kepa. Salomon Rondon – “I know him!” – received a ball from Christian Atsu – “I know him!” – but he blazed over. Pedro shot meekly at the other end and then Perez did similarly at The Shed End. But the warning signs were there. With five minutes to go until half-time, a towering corner from Matt Ritchie was headed home by Ciaran Clark. It was a free header.

Bollocks.

The Toon Army went Loony.

It was a rare goal for The Geordies at Stamford Bridge.

I have seen the last thirty consecutive league encounters with Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge – this was game number thirty-one, undoubtedly the longest stretch out of all the games that I have seen – and they had won only two of those. In the pub, I chatted briefly to three Toonistas and it did not take them long to mention the two incredible Papiss Cisse goals that gave them their first win at Stamford Bridge in twenty-six years when they beat us 2-0 in 2012.

But that was it. One win since 1986.

A meek effort from Willian and then a wild volley from Ritchie brought the first-half to a close. It was a very mundane performance from us and there was much shaking of heads at half-time. Eden Hazard had been especially ineffective.

Early in the second-period, Kante set up Pedro but Dubravka spread himself well to block. We looked a little more dynamic during the opening moments of the second-half and Kante was the one driving the team on. But we only had half-chances. A Luiz air shot and a scuffed Pedro effort did not worry the Geordies’ goal.

On fifty-seven minutes, the ball was worked over to Willian after some sublime skill from Hazard. He stood, with two defenders blocking his sight of the goal. Not to worry, his trademark hippy-hippy-shake bought him a yard of space and his curling missile found the net, just clipping the post before making the net bulge.

Whatabloodygoal.

With over half-an-hour to go, we obviously hoped for more goals, or at least more efforts, and indeed effort. Pedro had gone close with another chip, but the Newcastle ‘keeper did enough. And although the manager rang the changes – Barkley for Kovacic, Hudson-Odoi for Pedro, Giroud for Hazard) – no further goals followed.

Sarri is under the microscope now, and his man Jorginho is not particularly loved among the Chelsea match-going support. I am still trying my best to work it all out, I am trying to get my head around his philosophy, I am trying to give him the benefit of doubt.

It worked in Italy. Can it work in England?

Time will tell.

For all of the negativity during the game, the match game ended with a 2-1 win for Chelsea which solidified our fourth-place position.

Outside Stamford Bridge on the Fulham Road, after collecting some tickets for some upcoming games, PD and I bit into a couple of hot dogs with onions – the best of the season – as light rain dampened the evening air. Opposite us were a line of seven away coaches, taking the Toonistas back to Ashington, Long Benton, Swalwell, Byker, Jesmond and Gateshead. They would not get back home until 2am or 3am.

I tipped my cap to them.

“One win since 1986, bloody hell.”

We made our way back to Paddington where we met up with Parky. Although the game had been difficult to watch – I think it was John who called it “turgid”, a good word – we now enjoyed a healthy six-point gap on Arsenal.

And we play at The Emirates next Saturday tea-time.

I will see some of you there.

Tales From The Three Wise Men

Watford vs. Chelsea : 26 December 2018.

There were times, probably quite some years ago now, when I used to get a considerable tingle with the thought of a Boxing Day game. A post-Christmas treat, there always seemed to be a certain something in the air, an unquantifiable buzz. Something different for sure. Growing up, Boxing Day crowds often used to be the biggest of the entire season. In some campaigns, way before my time, games were played on Christmas Day itself. That practice has long since passed. But in my youth, it would not be odd for Chelsea to play games on Boxing Day and the following day too. From my Ron Hockings’ bumper book of Chelsea games, I see that the last time this happened was in 1986/87 when we played at Southampton on 26 December and at home to Villa on 27 December (two wins which kick-started our season after a very poor first few months). In 1993/94, there was no Boxing Day game, but we played at The Dell on 27 December and at home to Newcastle the following day (a win against the Geordies similarly kick-started a season in which we were in the relegation places under Glenn Hoddle after the Southampton game, thank you very much Mark Stein.) This was the last time we played in consecutive days over Christmas. Our Boxing Day record of late has been exceptional; our last loss on the day after Xmas was a 4-2 defeat at the Valley in 2003. I can remember watching it at home on TV, in the last few weeks of me having Sky. So, here was a fine record to uphold as we made our way to Watford for the evening kick-off.

I was on driving duties and I collected the gruesome twosome, PD and LP, and we then treated ourselves to a Boxing Day lunch – OK, a late breakfast – at a canal side café in Bradford-On-Avon in Wiltshire. I ate up the miles and we were parked at our usual place at the bottom end of the A411 in Watford at about 3.45pm. As with last season, we dipped into “The Horns” pub for a few drinks. A local band were doing a sound check ahead of a tea-time gig and we decided to stay on to see if they were any good.

They played “Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)” at the sound check. A few levels were adjusted. The band were soon happy. If only football was as easy.

They began with “Message In A Bottle” and then replayed “Make Me Smile.”

“Bloody hell, PD, if they play ‘Message In A Bottle’ again, I’m fucking leaving.”

We stayed for ten more songs, I fell in love with the gorgeous lead singer – she possessed the voice of an angel and everything else to match – and it made for a lovely little start to the evening. We Three Kings then walked along the pedestrianised High Street, which was bedecked in Christmas lights, one bar after another. I am told it is quite lively on a weekend evening. We eventually settled at the packed “Moon Under Water” on the pedestrianised High Street, where many Chelsea faces were based. I was not even allowing myself a single lager, so for the second game in a row, I would be watching without alcohol. After four and a half pints of “Coke” I was bouncing off the walls of the boozer. We sadly learned that both Liverpool and Tottenham had won, yet Manchester City had lost at Leicester City. This made for grim reading. I predicted a dour draw against Watford. At least Arsenal were only drawing at Brighton.

We set off on the short walk to Vicarage Road. My good friend Lynda, now living in Brooklyn, was with us.

“When you were growing up in Pennsylvania, I bet you never envisaged yourself walking through the streets of Watford on Boxing Day.”

Lynda and her husband T had travelled up on the solitary Chelsea coach which had left Stamford Bridge at 4pm. T had stayed at Vicarage Road, where they were dropped-off, so he could watch the players go through their pre-match shuttles and routines. T coaches football in the US and I had visions of him with a notebook and pen, possibly even chewing on some dog ends.

Outside the away end at Vicarage Road the brickwork of the stand rises only twenty feet. Once inside, and once the ridiculously cramped concourse has been navigated, the pitch is way below. I am not sure if it is because a lot of the paintwork in the stadium is black, but Vicarage Road always seems darker, more claustrophobic, than others. It always used to be an untidy stadium in the ‘eighties, with odd stands, shallow terracings some way from the pitch which emphasised its use as an occasional greyhound stadium. But it is a neat stadium these days, quite the right size for the club. To my left, the Sir Elton John Stand, to my right the Graham Taylor Stand. Our end was split between home and away fans. There is infill in the four corners. To my left, a sensory area for those unable to contend with a full-on match experience. In one corner a TV screen. In the opposite corner a corporate area – “The Gallery” – where the stadia’s floodlights were reflected, bending out of shape, in the large windows of the viewing boxes.

I suppose that there was no real surprises that Fag Ash Lil kept the same team that lost to Leicester City. It was, in Sarri’s eyes, his strongest eleven.

Arrizabalaga – Azpilicueta, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso – Kante, Jorginho, Kovacic – Pedro, Hazard, Willian.

Defenders apart, we are such a small team. I wasn’t quite sure how we would match up against the more physical Watford team who handed us a demoralising 1-4 defeat on bleak evening in February last season.

For once, the home end was not a swirling mass of flags as the teams entered the pitch for this 7.30pm kick-off. Watford are now kitted out in yellow and black stripes, for the first time, presumably a nod to their “Hornets” nickname. In my mind, Watford still needs a fleck of red in their home uniform.

The game began. We were close to the front and close to the corner flag. Not only were there occasional gaps in the stand to my left but in our section too. Not many, but enough to be discernible. In the first few moments, with Chelsea controlling possession, Pedro worked a fine opening, coming inside and using Willian, but flashed a shot wide of Ben Foster’s post. Kepa made a hash of a clearance amid howls from the Chelsea support, but no Watford player could capitalise. The Chelsea crowd were in good voice.

But then a song began which immediately caused me concern.

“The shit from Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see The Pope…”

I thought “oh fuck” and feared the worst.

Surely not, Chelsea.

The song continued. I didn’t join in. It surprised me how long it lasted…it was torture. Eventually we reached the denouement.

“Barcelona, Real Madrid.”

In that Nano-second, I felt like all of our collective lives flashed before us.

There might have been the odd “Y word” but the overwhelming sound was of people audibly shouting “sssssssshhhhhhh.”

Phew. We had passed the test. Phew again.

The ironic thing is that before the Raheem Sterling incident three weeks’ ago, the song would have ended in its usual fashion and the whole world would have continued on its way. But maybe it is correct that the song has had its day, or at least in its usual form.

Jorginho found Kavacic, who played the ball forward to Willian on the left. His pace set him free but was forced wide and rounded Foster, and his shot struck the outside of the near post. Watford retaliated with the widely booed Deulofeu allowing Doucoure to attempt a shot on goal but Jorginho superbly blocked. Another chance for Watford after a Rudiger error, but Doucoure shot high. Despite their chances, we were still dominating possession.

In front of me, all eyes were on David Luiz, who was involved more than most during the first thirty-minutes. He was often taking control of the ball. Sometimes his passes across the box drew derision from the fans around me. But he was the main passer out of defence, and usually his low balls found their targets. Against Deulofeu, he battled and battled. Going into the game, I had noted that as he fell to his knees to tie his bootlaces, many team mates made a point of walking over to him, to hug him or to shake his hands, sometimes just to touch him, a pat on the back here, a shake there. It felt like he was our talisman, an icon on the pitch for the super-superstitious Sarri.

It was Christmas after all.

But for all of our possession, and movement in the final third, the Watford defence was proving a very tough nut to prise open. It was all about finding pockets of space. But it was a tough task.

“There’s no cutting edge.”

How we longed for a late-arriving midfielder – Frank Lampard, cough, cough – to pounce on a ball played back from the bye-line. But we were hardly reaching the bye-line. This was constipated football with no signs of an outlet. It was as if there was a force field around the Watford goal and we could not penetrate it.

Intricate footwork from the effervescent Pedro allowed Dave set up Hazard who fluffed his lines right in front of the goal, mere feet away. Until that point we had created half-chances. We were turning the screw but I was still not convinced a goal would follow.

A fine Luiz block stopped Troy Deeney from scoring at the other end. Bizarrely, Watford were probably edging the goal-scoring chances.

Things had quietened down now. The home support was ridiculously subdued.

Sadly, Pedro was forced to leave the field with what looked like a thigh strain. He was replaced by Callum Hudson-Odoi, who was then volubly well supported by the away support. Soon after, a break reached Kovacic who advanced before releasing Hazard at just the right time. He was forced wide, like Willian earlier, but he saw enough of the goal once he had rounded Foster and slotted home.

Watford 0 Chelsea 1.

It was goal one hundred in Chelsea colours for our Eden. Team mates joined him and I watched him as his stocky frame jogged over to the bench to embrace Cesc Fabregas. He was full of smiles. It was splendid.

Half-time was just a few moments away.

We had learned that Arsenal had only scratched a 1-1 in Sussex. Suddenly, fourth place was ours.

Right after, Kepa smothered a close shot from Doucoure. From the short corner, we watched in agony as a high ball bypassed everyone and fell at the feet of the completely unmarked Pereyra who met the ball on the volley. It crept into the goal. There was nobody on the posts. Everyone were intent on clearing their lines, like the charge of the light brigade. It was criminal that nobody had picked him up.

Watford 1 Chelsea 1.

Forty-eight minutes had passed.

Bollocks.

The second-half began.

Now it was the turn of our attackers, those who often crowded the corner of the pitch in front of me and my camera, to be the focus of my attention. We moved the ball well in that corner, with Hazard, Hudson-Odoi and Willian often involved. A lofted ball from Luiz – did someone mention “quarterback” or did that phrase die with David Beckham’s retirement? – fell for Kante but he was unable to reach it. Our star David was involved in his own box, shoulder-charging away Deulofeu, much to the chagrin of the now roused home support. Goal scoring chances were rare in this opening third of the second-half.

Just before the hour mark, a cute chipped pass from Jorginho – hurrah! – played in Hazard. He appeared to be sandwiched twixt defender and ‘keeper. In the end he was  unceremoniously bundled over by Foster, who seemed to push him. The referee Martin Atkinson had an easy decision.

Penalty.

Our Eden waited and waited before sending the goalie to his left. Eden went the other way.

Watford 1 Chelsea 2.

Eden was now up to one-hundred and one Chelsea goals.

For much of his career at our club, Hazard’s tag line could well have been “Eden : Everything But The Goal”  but things are hopefully changing. And maybe for longer than just this season.

Chelsea were in full voice again.

Willian, who was steadily improving throughout the second-half scraped the post. Then Kante swiped at goal from outside the box, but his shot went narrowly wide. Although there were not huge amounts of quality on display, the game certainly had enough going on to keep my interest. I was enjoying it. With just one goal between the teams, there was always an edge to the game.

Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic on seventy-eight minutes. We needed to solidify the midfield.

A magnificent ball, a reverse pass, into the box from David Luiz – to whom, I cannot remember – was sublime.

A few more chances fell to Chelsea – punctuated by the substitution of Hudson-Odoi by Emerson, an injury? – came and went with both Willian and Hazard still both driving on deep into the night, and there was more action in our corner in the last moments. Out came the trusty Canon again.

Willian had been involved more and more in the last twenty minutes. On more than one occasion, I saw him breathing heavily, clearly exhausted. He had clearly put in a mighty shift. There is little to choose between Willian and Pedro, but for as long as the manager disregards Morata and Giroud, a decision does not need to be made. The trio of Hazard, Pedro and Willian will suffice. For now we can even call them The Three Wise Men.

Very late chances for Jorginho, Willian and Hazard, had they been converted, would have flattered us a little.

On this night in Watford, a one goal lead would suffice.

At exactly the midway point in the campaign, and after the penultimate game of 2018, fourth place is ours.

See you at Palace.

Tales From Five From Five

Chelsea vs. Cardiff City : 15 September 2018

During the recent international break, England played matches against Spain on Saturday 8 September and against Switzerland on Tuesday 11 September. On both of those days, I did not see a single kick of the England games. Instead I chose to attend my local team Frome Town’s FA Cup matches against Winchester City, first at home – a 1-1 draw – and then the subsequent replay – a 1-2 loss – and that just about sums up my feelings about international football in the current climate. I would rather make the effort in supporting my local team, pay the money at the turnstiles, travel to games, feel connected, than gormlessly gawp at the international game in a rowdy pub full of people who would probably annoy me no end.

I feel like I am the footballing equivalent of a music lover with one of those yellow “Keep Music Live” badges on his rucksack.

To me, in 2018, football is all about the live experience.

And it always has been, ever since I was bitten by the bug – I hope there is no cure – in March 1974, at Stamford Bridge.

Or maybe even earlier still.

With help from my fellow Frome Town friend Steve, we worked out recently that my first Frome Town game was in the autumn of 1970, when I was aged just five.

Another game is worth talking about too.

In around 1971 or 1972 – I can’t be certain – my village team Mells and Vobster United won the Mid-Somerset League and I can vaguely remember watching the championship-decider on the Saturday. At school on the Monday or Tuesday, I was to learn that the team were to take part in the “Cup Final” at nearby Stoke St. Michael on a weekday evening. I can vividly remember excitedly pleading with my parents to take me to the game. My mother would undoubtedly have said, in that time honoured fashion, “wait until your father comes home”, as she prepared my tea after school. I can honestly remember saying the phrase “everyone is going to be there” – knowing full well that I was exaggerating somewhat – and then managing to persuade my father to drive the five or six miles towards the Mendip Hills to the nearby village, which was chosen as a neutral venue. There is no doubt that I would have taken my ball with me – I went everywhere with my white plastic football – and I can certainly remember the sense of pride and involvement in seeing my team at an away game. I can’t remember the opposition. But I am sure that Mells won the game, and hence “the double.” It is a memory which has remained with me for decades. It is, I am sure, where my passion of seeing live football, and supporting my team, was born.

Sadly, after a proud history of one-hundred and thirteen years, Mells and Vobster United are no more. Last season was their final tilt at glory. The news really saddened me. My grandfather played for the village team in the 1920’s, and I played a smattering of games for the reserves from 1978 to 1981. I always remember my first game, when I was only thirteen – playing against men more than twice my age – and being full of pride when I told my parents about it when I returned home. I had just shown up at “the rec” with my boots and my ball on a Saturday afternoon just intending to watch from the side-lines. The manager asked me if I fancied coming on as a “sub” during the game. I was not a very confident footballer – I would eventually slide out of the school first team and into the dreaded “B team” later that season – but I jumped at the chance. Fifty years after my grandfather represented the village, I was playing too. It was against Ashwick and Binegar. But there is no fairy-tale ending; I am sure that we lost.

At the end of May, I retraced my steps and stood for a few solitary minutes behind one of the goals at Stoke St. Michael’s football pitch, and my mind cartwheeled back to around forty-seven years earlier when my footballing journey had taken a massive step. It was the first time that I had been back since that evening with my parents – in Dad’s green Vauxhall Viva, and my football – and it was, of course, such a bittersweet moment.

This football life, eh?

Visits of Cardiff City to Stamford Bridge do not come around too frequently. This would only be the fifth time that I would be seeing “The Bluebirds” play at Stamford Bridge. And as the saying goes, you never forget your first time.

On the second day of October in 1976, a Chelsea team which included old hands Peter Bonetti, David Hay and Charlie Cooke, plus a smattering of youngsters including both Ray and Graham Wilkins met the visiting Cardiff City. For once, Ian Britton didn’t fill the number seven berth; that position was filled by Brian Bason.  Stalwarts of that promotion-winning campaign Ken Swain and Ray Lewington scored as we won 2-1 in front of a healthy 28,409. Lewi – recently assistant manager to Roy Hodgson at England –  didn’t score many, but his goal was a net buster from 30 yards. I can distinctly remember watching the action from the lower tier of the East Stand, with me peering over at the sizeable following from South Wales. I can definitely recollect punches being thrown at the Cardiff fans as they attempted to get at the waiting Chelsea fans as we walked past the old North Stand entrance after the game. I remember my father telling me –

“Always rough, that Cardiff lot.”

The match highlights – of which there were more than these three minutes – appeared on that evening’s “Match of the Day” with the trainspotter-esque squeals of John Motson accompanying the action.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sxspfc1NzBY

Since then, our meetings have been rare. I first saw Pat Nevin in a Chelsea shirt on a windswept and rainy Saturday afternoon at Stamford Bridge in 1983. There was no TV coverage of that game, so no match action is available, although there are a few grainy images of both sets of fans running at each other outside the North Stand – once again – on the internet – from a news programme – should anyone feel the need to get nostalgic. My next Cardiff game was the notorious 2010 Cup game, when hundreds of hours of film of the various members of the Soul Crew and the CHH – or the 388 as they are now apparently known – bouncing towards each other on the Kings Road and elsewhere resulted in banning orders for many.

The 2013 league game at Stamford Bridge – the season when Vincent Tan became public enemy number one in Cardiff for his desire to kit out the team in red and black rather than blue and white – passed without incident. I am no fan of Cardiff City – why should I be? – but at least their fans have the pleasure of seeing their team in the hallowed top flight wearing the correct colours this season.

In 2018, a sunny day in September welcomed both teams, and supporters, to Stamford Bridge once more.

In the build-up to the game – drinks in the Famous Three Kings and The Goose – I had unfortunately spotted a few people wearing the new third kit. Apparently, this design is meant to pay some sort of – non-ironic – homage to the tangerine and graphite kit from 1994 to 1996.

They have done a great job.

They have referenced the worst fucking Chelsea kit ever with a messy and insipid tribute.

Up close, the images of “Landon Tahn, Fackinell” are out of focus and made my eyes hurt.

It’s bloody shocking.

But Nike have surpassed themselves this season. The even more ridiculous checked warm-up gear featuring blue, red and white squares, is truly horrific. I wonder if it was intended to confuse the opposition by making their eyes twist out of shape.

Modern Football…you know the rest.

Amidst all of these negatives, a word of praise for the match programme this season. It is now £3.50, but seems a lot more stylish. There is a spine – like the European ones of recent memory – and the covers have a certain gleam to them. The cover for the Cardiff game features a stylised photograph of Kepa Arizabalaga, with an image akin to that of a sporting poster from the former Eastern Bloc, all angles and strength.

I approve, anyway.

There was no surprise that the boyos from Cardiff, the valleys and the Vale of Glamorgan took their full three thousand. But there was just one flag; the red, white and green of Wales with the legend Llanishen Bluebirds.

Over on the East Stand, a banner – from the West Ham game in March – remembered Ray Wilkins – RIP – who would have been 62 on Friday. A nice touch.

Maurizio Sarri made the slightest of changes to the team that had defeated Bournemouth; in came Olivier Giroud for Alvaro Morata and Pedro replaced Willian.

Yet more nonsensical flames and fireworks went with the entrance of the teams.

Good fucking grief.

The game began, and the Welsh legions were in good voice. Thankfully, we did not have to wait too long for the home support to get going, even though the noise was hardly stratospheric. We dominated the early moments, and Cardiff were happy to sit back and soak it all up. A Giroud header dropped onto the roof of the net. We kept moving the ball, with much of the play coming down both flanks. For two defenders, both Alonso and Azpilicueta certainly found themselves in high areas on many occasions. Another chance came and it was an Alonso cross which was headed wide by that man Giroud.

A leaping Bamba wasted a good chance from close in, misdirecting a header down rather than on target. Sadly, we did not heed this warning sign. A long cross from a free-kick found Morrison who easily out-jumped the back-peddling Alonso, who was the wrong side of his man. The ball was headed into the six-yard box, and the Chelsea defenders looked startled as the ball dropped. The tall Bamba pounced, nipping in to cause havoc amidst our defence. We looked as ill-equipped to counter the threat of high balls into our box as Amish kids at a gaming show.

The net rippled and the Welsh legions roared.

Bollocks.

“One nil to the sheepshaggers” sang the Cardiff City supporters.

Alan noted, and I agreed, that the shock of a goal conceded woke up both players and supporters alike. There was now a real sense of urgency from both.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

The stadium woke up.

We struck at Cardiff’s goal via Hazard and Kovacic. Our play improved. When needed, N’Golo Kante would shine. In exact copy of what happened against Bournemouth, he chased an attacker down from his usual right-midfield berth to a position just in front of the left-back Alonso. He accomplished it with such a minimum of effort that it had me purring.

What a player.

A curling effort from Pedro went close. Our chances were piling up. Pedro again, at his best, twisting and turning, leaving defenders in his wake.

My friend Rick, in Iowa, has a great nickname for Pedro.

“El colibri.”

The hummingbird.

It is a perfect description.

Yet another effort from Pedro.

Surely a goal would come.

Twenty minutes after the Cardiff goal, we watched a beautiful move develop. A Rudiger pass was left by Hazard so that Giroud could collect. A divine touch from the centre-forward played in Hazard. A delicious feint – “see you later, a bientot” – gave him space to move away from a marker.

As he broke on goal, my mind leaped into gear.

“Come on Eden. You are a fantastic player. But you are not a great goal scorer. To move on, to improve, to become an even better player, you need to get more goals. Come on. Score this.”

He drilled a low drive into the goal, as perfect a finish as there could ever be.

Chelsea were back in the game.

Just before half-time, we worked an opening down their right, and a subtle touch again by Giroud allowed Hazard to poke a ball home, albeit off a luckless Cardiff defender.

We were in front.

“YYYYYEEEEESSSSS.”

Tidy.

As the second-half began, with Chelsea attacking our end at the Matthew Harding, I fully expected more chances and more goals. After just five minutes, Mateo Kovacic – injured – was replaced by Ross Barkley, who immediately looked keen and involved.

After the constant activity in the last moments of the first-half, the second half took a while to warm up.

Cardiff rarely threatened our goal. But for all of our possession, we struggled to get behind their defence. As the game wore on, I kept thinking “2-1 is not enough.”

We needed that elusive third goal.

David Luiz, on more than one occasion, looked rather lackadaisical. How much better a player would he be with John Terry alongside him?

Pedro created some space and curled one wide. Then another from Pedro squirmed wide.

With twenty minutes remaining, Peds was replaced by Willian, and there was a hearty show of support for our little Spaniard.

The clock-ticked on.

A low shot from Reid narrowly missed the framework of our goal.

We again found it hard to create anything of any substance. Our chances all seemed to come in that first-half. We still bloody needed that third goal.

With ten minutes remaining, Willian charged into the box, but was scythed down by Bamba. A penalty was an easy decision for the referee to make.

Jorginho handed the ball to Eden.

Eden gave the Cardiff ‘keeper the eyes and planted the ball in the corner.

A hat-trick for Hazard.

Glorious.

A minute later, Willian created some space for himself and – despite a bobbling ball – crashed a fantastic curling effort past the hapless ‘keeper and into the goal.

His run towards us was just too good an opportunity to miss.

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

There was even an impromptu Brazilian dance-off twixt Willian and Luiz, all under the disbelieving gaze of Rudiger.

Late on, there was a fine full length save from Arizabalaga, but in truth the young lad had not really been troubled during the second-half.

There was more raucous applause as Davide Zappacosta replaced Eden Hazard, who had undoubtedly been the star of the show. His dribbles have always made us dribble, but on this occasion, his goals had been a very welcome addition to his armory.

So, another 4-1 win for Chelsea at home to Cardiff City; the same result as in 2010 and in 2013. They must be sick of us.

With Liverpool winning at Spurs 2-1, we needed that extra goal to prise our way onto the top of the pile.

Perfect.

I looked back on the game. The visitors were a poor team, but we had to persevere to get past them. Five wins out of five is a very fine start to the season, but I am not getting carried away at all with any of it. We still look frail defensively, while we honestly have not been tested by any of the tougher teams yet. I will reserve judgement for a few more matches.

No trip to Greece for me this upcoming week; stay safe those of you who are making the pilgrimage.

Next up for me is our away fixture in Deepest East.

See you there.

 

Tales From Pure Football

Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 20 February 2018.

There is no bloody doubt about it. I simply cannot lie. When I awoke at just before 5am, my first thoughts were of the game against Barcelona, but these were not positive thoughts. I was so worried that our Chelsea – living up to my nickname of The Great Unpredictables this season – might suffer a calamitous humiliation at the hands of Messi, Iniesta, Suarez et al. Let us face the truth; Barcelona are a hugely talented football team.

“I’ll be happy with a 0-0” I told colleagues at work.

As the day progressed, this was my mantra; keep the buggers from scoring an away goal. Keep it tight. Maybe, just maybe, nab a 2012-style 1-0 win.

Ah, 2012.

That game seems so fresh in my mind, but it is almost six years ago. And there have been so many more. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen all our Champions League matches against the Cules from Catalonia at Stamford Bridge.

Let’s wander down memory lane.

5 April 2000 : This was a fine Chelsea team, but we were under performing in the league, and would go on to finish fifth. In the pub beforehand – in the front part of The Goose for a change, I can remember it to this day – we were pragmatic at best and pessimistic at worst. We seriously doubted our progress over the two legs of this quarter final. But what did we know? We stormed into a stunning 3-0 lead with all goals in an eight-minute spell during the first-half.  I remember racing up the steps behind my seat when the third one went in to expel some energy. Two came from from Tore Andre Flo and one from Gianfranco Zola. A goal from Luis Figo midway through the second-half took the smile off our collective faces. Fackinell, Chelsea. But what a night. The atmosphere crackled all night long. Superb.

8 March 2005 : We were 2-1 down from the first-leg and this was as good a game as any I have witnessed in forty-four years of Chelsea games. We repeated the feat of 2000, accelerating away to a 3-0 lead, but such was our dominance that all goals came in the first twenty-minutes. Stamford Bridge was again shaking thanks to goals from Eidur Gudjohnsen, Frank Lampard and Damian Duff. And then the game turned against us. A Ronaldinho brace – a penalty and then that gut-wrenching toe-poke – before the break meant it was advantage Barca. We roared the team on. A towering John Terry header from a corner (pictured) gave us the win and the place erupted. There have been few nights at Chelsea like that one.

22 February 2006 : The two clubs were drawn together in the knock-out phase, and this game was a tetchy affair. This was our first viewing of Lionel Messi – just eighteen – and the Argentine’s scuffle with Asier del Horno over in the corner of the Matthew Harding and the East Stand resulted in our full-back getting sent-off early in the game. But we re-grouped well and went ahead when Thiago Motta headed an own-goal from a Frank Lampard free-kick (pictured). Sadly, this was cancelled out by a John Terry own goal. Samuel Eto’o then headed a late winner. In the return leg in Catalonia, the two teams drew 1-1 and out we went.

18 October 2006 : We were becoming regular foes by now. This time, the two teams met in the autumnal group phase set of matches. A stunning solitary Didier Drogba goal gave us a narrow 1-0 win, and our striker celebrated in fine fashion down below us (pictured). After injuries to both Petr Cech and Carlo Cudicini at Reading four days earlier, this was a game in which Hilario started. To be fair to him, he pulled off a few great saves to see us hang on to the win.

6 May 2009 : We held out for a gutsy 0-0 in the first leg of the semi-final at Camp Nou, and travel plans were afoot among our little group of friends in the pub before the game. It felt like we were favourites to progress. We took the lead through a stunning Michael Essien volley after just ten minutes into the first-half. We held off Barcelona and their constant probing with a fantastic performance. Then came calls of conspiracy after penalty appeal after penalty appeal were turned down. The referee waving away the hand-ball against Gerard Pique sent me into meltdown. Barcelona were reduced to ten men with Eric Abidal sent-off for a clumsy challenge on Nicolas Anelka. We were heading to our second successive Champions League Final against Manchester United, this time in Rome. And then Andres bloody Iniesta scored with virtually their only shot on target with seconds remaining. This was heartbreak. Gut-wrenching, nauseous, sickening heartbreak. It felt like we would never ever win the Champions League.

18 April 2012 : Another heady night at Stamford Bridge. This was turning out to be the most bizarre of seasons, with us faltering in the league under Ande Villas-Boas before finding our feet under new gaffer Roberto di Matteo. But this was still a stunning Barcelona team, and our squad seemed to be aging together. We were blowing hot and cold. I held out little hope of us reaching the final if I am truthful. In another never-to-be-forgotten night at Stamford Bridge, Didier Drogba swept in a cross from Ramires at the near post just before half-time and the stadium exploded. We held on for the narrowest of wins, and with the return leg in Barcelona less than a week away, we began to dream.

In a bar before the game, there was a typical mix of Chelsea faces from near and far. The usual suspects – Parky, PD, Daryl, Chris, Simon, Calvin, Milo, Ed, Duncan, Lol – were gathered around one table. Andy and Antony from California were back from their mini-tour of Europe and were joined by Sean from New York and Steve from Dallas. Friends from near and far. A spare ticket was given a good home. The banter was rife. After a good hour or so, Andy whispered in my ear :

“You realise that nobody is talking about the match?”

I smiled.

As I have said before : “the first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.”

There was simply too much other stuff to talk about, especially how many we would take to the away leg in three weeks. I had expected a sell-out of 4,850 but sales had allegedly been slower than expected. Maybe some supporters were waiting to see how the first-leg would pan out. In 2012, we took that number, but it was a semi-final. As ever, I regarded the away game as a test for us, a test to see how far we had come as a club.

By the way, the cynical me had a little thought for the millions of new Chelsea fans the world over who chose us primarily because our club could “guarantee” – probably their words and not mine – them Champions League football each season.

“This game’s for you.”

The bar was full for this game. Stood quietly at the bar for a while was former player Alan Hudson. A fine footballer for us in the early ‘seventies, he rarely finds anything good to say about us these days. I nodded a “hello” to him which he reciprocated, but that was about it. Most fellow fans were blissfully unaware who he was, or were going down the same path as myself. I remember seeing him in a pub in Stoke around ten years ago. To be fair to him, after a spell of ill health, at least he looked healthier than the last time I saw him.

There were groans of discontent when news of the starting eleven came through on mobile phones.

“No centre forward, fackinell.”

It was indeed a surprise.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

Sadly, Mike from New York was caught up in a personal battle to secure match tickets and was unable to join us. Andy was worried since whenever Andy and Mike meet up for a game, we always win.

I was inside the stadium with a good twenty minutes to go. I need not have worried about not seeing Mike from NYC; he was sat just ten feet away from me.

The away section would fill to only around two thousand, which was a huge surprise for arguably a club which are one of the biggest three clubs in the world. They usually bring three thousand, no questions asked. There seemed to be an absence of colour this time around too. Maybe the scarves and shirts were hidden under the darker coats and jackets. Not so many puffa coats as the Italians. Only a few flags on show. The stadium filled.

There were blue flags on every seat with blue and white bar scarves for those in the East Middle; nice to see the eight Chelsea Pensioners wearing them.

Red. White. Blue.

“Blue Is The Colour” played with ten minutes to go and the flags were waved…not by me, nor too many around me for that matter. The highest percentage of flag wavers were in the West Lower, maybe due to the dynamics of the demographic of that particular sub-section of support; a higher percentage of young’uns, a higher percentage of tourists, but a far lower percentage of cynical bastards like us in the MHU.

The teams entered the pitch.

In 2012, Cesc and Pedro were among the opposition.

Now we had to contend with Suarez, Rakitic, Ter Stegen, Umtiti, Roberto, Alba and Paulinho who were first time visitors to Stamford Bridge. Messi, Busquets, Iniesta and Pique were returning to SW6 once more.

Barcelona were in an untidy camouflage kit of burgundy. At least there was no bright yellow to remind me of 2009. I noted Lionel Messi and Eden Hazard embrace and maybe share a word.

“You stay here, Eden. Real Madrid are SHITE.”

The game began.

I snapped away like a fool as the game began but soon realised that I needed to slow down, and enjoy the football. The first few minutes were very promising for us, and the atmosphere was equally fine.

“ANTONIO” rang out and the manager showed his appreciation.

After a few minutes, Eden Hazard let fly with a rasping and rising shot which certainly energised the crowd. The noise was hitting fine levels. There were songs for Frank Lampard and John Terry; see my comments for the Hull City match. In the early period, it was Iniesta who was seeing more of the ball, and I wished that we could close him down. Rudiger went close with a header from a corner. This was a very bright start from us and I could not be happier. At the other end, Paulinho headed meekly wide from a Messi cross.

Ah, Lionel. I could not help but focus on the little man. His shirt seemed too large for him, and he shuffled around when not in possession, but I could not take my eyes off him.

After twenty minutes though, Barca had recovered and were now enjoying much of the ball. But there was resolute defending from everyone in royal blue. Messi was unable to find Suarez, nor anyone else. Willian burst from deep – the crowd roaring him on – before getting clipped. Alonso for once did not score from the centrally-located free-kick. This was fascinating stuff and I was loving it.

I popped down to have a quick word with Big John who sits a few rows in front of me. I told him that I had a bet on how long it would take him to shout :

“Come on Chelsea. They’re fucking shit.”

Alan was handing out the Maynards wine gums – always a lucky charm on these European Nights – and he was wearing his lucky Ossie badge on The King’s birthday. We had a fine spell of play on the half-hour and the crowd responded well. Hazard found Willian, who moved the ball on to his right foot and unleashed a gorgeous effort which slammed against a Barcelona post.

Head in our hands time.

But this was a lovely game and a pleasure to witness.

On forty minutes, the crowd sang “The Shed looked up and they saw a great star” – God Bless you, Ossie – and as the song continued, Willian struck the other post with another venomous effort.

Fackinell.

The support was now hitting the high volumes.

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

In the pub, Calvin and I had warned Texas Steve that the atmosphere at The Bridge is poor these days, but there are always games when we can rank with the best of them. Over in the far corner, the Cules were quiet. A Fabregas free-kick was cleared and Hazard volleyed over. We were playing so well – as a team – and I was so relieved. All this talk of the manager losing the dressing room and of players “downing tools” – my most hated, my most reviled phrase of the past two seasons – seemed just silly and just wrong.

The half-time whistle blew. Alan, quite correctly, noted that no trainer had been on the pitch, there had been few bad tackles, so that the assistant linesman had not signaled a single minute of added time. I think I have never seen that before. This was testament itself to the quality of football being played before our eyes.

Pure football.

And I bloody loved it.

Fine vibes at half-time. We should, undoubtedly, been ahead. Fantastic.

Soon into the second period, that man Andres Iniesta let fly from around the same patch of terra firma that produced heartache in 2009. The shot flew wide.

“Not this time sunshine, not this time.”

Luis Suarez – booed, of course – then went wide and forced a finger-tipped save on the floor from Courtois. It was a miracle that nobody was present in the six-yard box to pounce. The away team were enjoying tons of the ball but our defending was still a match for the trickery of Messi and the intelligence of Iniesta. N’Golo Kante was having a particularly fine game, and top marks for Antonio Rudiger too, who was enjoying a storming match.

Suarez – the villain for this match and many more – was the subject of a loud personal attack from the home support.

“Suarez – you’re a cunt.”

Quite.

The game continued.

There was half an hour remaining when Hazard, out wide, picked out the central Willian. He stopped the ball still. He then flashed away from his marker – such ridiculous acceleration – and thumped the ball low into the net.

Pandemonium in Stamford Bridge.

Magical, magical scenes.

Alan : “Hauran d’arribar a nosaltres ara.”

Chris : “Vine als meus petits diamants.”

Oh my oh my. The Great Unpredictables were at it again.

Now the noise really got going. I stood and roared. “Carefree wherever you may be we are the famous CFC.” This was surely the loudest so far this season. Fantastic.

“He hates Totnum and he hates Totnum.”

On the game went. Barcelona with the ball, Chelsea covering space and defending. A lot of their attacks were at virtually walking pace; it was all about moving the ball early. When they lost possession, they hunted in packs to retain it. I remember a ball being pushed into the path of Eden with four Barcelona players haring after him. Quite an image.

Sadly, with a quarter of an hour to go, a Chelsea defender deep in Parkyville chose to play the ball across the box.  We gasped. We feared the worse. It reached Iniesta. He played it back to Messi. The ball was slammed low into our goal.

Chelsea 1 Barcelona 1.

Bollocks.

Messi looked ecstatic and celebrated wildly in front of the hordes from Sabadell, Sant Cugat del Valles, Montcada I Reixach, Cornella de Llobregat and Vilassar de Dalt.

All the Chelsea nerds deleted their “Messi still hasn’t scored against Chelsea” memes.

There was a quick most mortem.

“Who played the ball across the box?”

“Dunno. Alonso?”

“Schoolboy error, fucking hell.”

The away support were still not too loud, but their upper tier was one bouncing mass.

A text from Glenn in Frome :

“Christensen FFS.”

Ugh.

Alvaro Morata came on for Pedro. Danny Drinkwater replaced Cesc Fabregas.

Unlike in 2009, thank high heavens there was no last minute heartache from Iniesta, nor anyone else. The assistant referee signaled three minutes, and these passed with no incident. This was indeed a lovely game of football. We had gone toe-to-toe with one of the finest teams of the modern era and we  – let’s again be honest – surely deserved the win. For all their possession, Barca had hardly caused Thibaut any worries. There was that daisy-cutter from Suarez, but little else. He had claimed a few high crosses, but had not been really tested. Willian had enjoyed a wonderful match, and on another day could have returned to his flat with the match ball. Every player had performed so well. Huge respect to the manager too. I hope Roman, watching from his box, took heed.

We assemble again, deep in Catalonia, and high at the Nou Camp, in three weeks.

“Anem a trebellar.”

Tales From The Late Show

Chelsea vs. Watford : 21 October 2017.

Expectations were high. Although we knew that Watford were quickly evolving into a pretty decent team under the tutelage of Marco Silva, the first of three very “winnable” games in eight days had us all dreaming of three points. Watford at home, Everton at home, Bournemouth away. Three wins, six points, consolidation in the top four, and into the last eight of the League Cup? We really hoped so.

Due to the game kicking-off at the early – and disliked – time of 12.30pm, there was a very truncated pre-match in the rarely-visited “The Cock Tavern” at the bottom end of the North End Road. The place was well-packed. It is an important pub at Chelsea for me; it is the boozer where I had my very first pint at Chelsea, when it was known as “The Cock”, on the day of the 1984 promotion-decider with Leeds United. A couple of lager and limes if memory serves. How ‘eighties.  I was aware that it was the first time, I am sure, that I had visited the pub with PD since that particular day.

“Over thirty-three years ago, mate.”

“Amazing.”

I remember the place absolutely rocking that Saturday lunchtime. The song of the moment, more so than now, was “One Man Went To Mow” and I remember us all standing on the sofas at “ten.” I had travelled up from Somerset with four other lads. I have season tickets with two of those chaps. I see a third every month or so. It’s wonderful how we have all stuck together over the seasons. Brilliant memories. May they stay strong.

The four of us quickly quaffed some early afternoon drinks and made our way to the stadium. We were in early.

The team was a familiar one, though I have a feeling that the presence of Gary Cahill will have upset many.

Courtois

Rudiger – Luiz – Cahill

Azpilicueta – Fabregas – Bakayoko – Alonso

Pedro – Morata – Hazard

Such is the way of my world these days that it soon became apparent that I was able to reel off Watford’s players from the early ‘eighties (Steve Sherwood, Kenny Jacket, Wilf Rostron, Steve Sims, Nigel Callaghan, Luther Blissett, Ross Jenkins, John Barnes…) than the current team. In 1982/83, Watford finished behind only Liverpool, ahead of all other teams, including the big-hitters of London. It was a mini-miracle to be honest, and probably the finest finish from a small club since Leicester City came along in 2016.

I expected to see Watford in the yellow and black of that period. That they showed up at Chelsea wearing all red is typical of modern football.

There were a few empty seats around Stamford Bridge. Watford had the higher three-thousand allocation.

I wasn’t expecting a barrage of noise, what with reduced drinking times and the opposition.

This was Watford 2017, not Leeds United 1984.

The game began.

The first thing that I noted was that Gary Cahill seemed to start in the middle of the back three, which surprised me, but David Luiz soon moved in from the left. Alvaro Morata was very neat in the first few minutes, adeptly bringing the ball under his command, and laying if off to others with the minimum of fuss. One instant turn and long ball out to the left wing was worth the admission money alone.

The crowd quickly showed support of the manager.

“Antonio. Antonio. Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

Despite the hiccups of late, we are – obviously – with him.

After twelve minutes, a corner was awarded to us when it certainly looked like Eden Hazard had the last touch. Fabregas played a short corner – usually the bane of my life – to Hazard, who rolled the ball to Pedro. His first time effort curled high over everyone, wildly so, and struck the far post before crossing the line. It was a magnificent opportunist strike. We roared, and watched as Pedro raced over to Parkyville. The effervescent scorer was quickly surrounded by his team mates. It was a perfect start.

Not long after, that man Morata picked out Fabregas, who probably had too much time. He slowed, and decided to try to dink a delicate lob over the Watford ‘keeper Gomes. The derided former-Spurs player stood up to the challenge and saved easily.

Watford’s fans were soon goading us.

“Is this a library?”

I could not disagree.

Our advantage continued and Pedro smacked a low drive past Gomes’ far post. A Luiz shot from distance was straight at the ‘keeper. But then we eased off a little. Watford managed to get themselves back in to the game. Courtois seemed to move late but was able to punch out a firm free-kick from Tom Cleverley. Watford dominated for a while. Our play seemed to lack direction and intent. On the half hour there was a flurry of Watford shots. Pedro was our standout player, with his usual movement and enthusiasm, plus some crisp passing. Everyone else seemed to dip.

We seemed to want to play the early ball for a change, but only rarely did it cause Watford much distress.

A corner was met on the volley by David Luiz, but his body shape was completely wrong. He side-footed it towards Henry Forbes-Fortesque and his son Jonty in row seven of the Shed Upper, resplendent in matching Watford shirts. It knocked them sideways. They were bloody livid.

Just before half-time, a long throw was headed out by David Luiz, but the ball took an unfortunate deflection off Bakayoko – my “good header” exclamation was sadly premature – and Doucoure blasted in at the near post. He could not have hit it sweeter, spinning away from Thibaut’s dive.

The Forbes-Fortescues were up on their feet.

The Chelsea support groaned. It was certainly a crushing blow. Over the course of the first forty-five minutes, Chelsea had enjoyed spells of dominance but the visitors had little periods of fine play too. It had been an odd half. It was like a curate’s egg. We hoped that Antonio Conte would inspire the boys during the break.

In the opening few minutes of the second-half, Pedro had a fine run and his drive from outside the box was narrowly wide. Morata squandered a chance from six yards. These two chances were a false dawn.

We then went to pieces. Watford broke with pace down our left and Femenia crossed and we watched, open mouthed, as Richarlison met the ball with the goal at his mercy. The Chelsea defenders were nowhere to be seen. Incredibly, his effort was poked wide. Just after, Richasrlison seemed to drag our complete defence out of position, so that when his ball into the box was met by Pereya, no Chelsea players were located within the same post code area. I rolled my eyes to the skies. I brought them down to see the net ripple.

Fackinell.

A brief “COME ON CHELSEA” suggested that the crowd would react to this calamity, but no.

It got worse. Britos crossed, only for Richarlison to head down but past Courtois’ charmed goal.

For fifteen minutes or so – believe me it seemed longer – our play was simply rotten. The defence, as described, were at sixes and sevens, and probably eights and nines too. In that period, even the previously impressive Rudiger and Bakayoko were shadows of their former selves. How we missed the human metronome Kante. Cahill was the usual mixture of brave challenges and nervy distribution. Fabregas was quiet. Hazard too.

And Stamford Bridge was like a morgue, as bereft of noise as I can ever remember. There was just no reaction from the home supporters at all. At least there were no boos, but none were expected. A repeat of the severe “you don’t know what you’re doing” which was a chant aimed at Villas-Boas and Benitez among others in our recent history, was never likely to happen. There is too much love for Conte, too much goodwill, and too much trust, for that.

But when Alan turned to me and, noting Conte’s body language – hands in pockets, shoulders a little slumped, not so many animated gestures – he wondered if the manager had given up. So, that depressed me further. The black dog, if not vultures overhead, had momentarily returned. How I wanted the supporters to get behind the team. It was a horrible few minutes.

Morata was substituted by Michy Batshuayi, and we thought back to his less than stellar showing at Selhurst Park. The portents were not great. Another chance for the impressive visitors came and went. Soon after, Willian replaced Alonso. I thought that we changed to four at the back, but I did not have much time to dwell on it. Thank heavens our play improved.

On seventy minutes, Willian pushed the ball out to Pedro in some space. His cross – right on the money – was perfect for Batshuayi to barge past a couple of defenders and to rise unhindered. He steered the ball past Gomes with a flick of the neck. We were back in it.

You beauty.

Conte was more animated now. We all were.

Michy curled a low shot just past the far post. He then blasted over from inside the box after an innovative free-kick from Fabegas. The noise thankfully increased. We had found our voices at last.

But Watford still threatened as the game opened-up further.

The clock tick-tocked.

Zappacosta replaced Pedro at right-back. His first touch, a cross, was sublime.

With just three minutes remaining, a shake of the hips from the mercurial Willian on the right allowed him space to cross. The ball was whipped in and Michy shaped to head home, but the ball took the slightest of deflections. Of all people, Dave was immediately in line to head home.

The…place…went…wild.

I yelled like a fool. What noise.

With my body boiling over, I needed to focus. I don’t honestly know how I did it but I managed to snap Dave’s run towards us, the smile wide, the eyes popping, the point at the badge, the leap, the euphoria, the joy.

What a fucking player.

Everybody loves Dave.

My captain.

What a moment. He was lost in a mosh pit of emotion down below me, engulfed by players and fans alike.

It’s very likely that the manager jumped so high that he was able to pat George Hilsdon on the head.

After the chaos had subsided, I stood and leaned on the barrier adjacent to my seat. I was quiet and still for a few moments. I wallowed in the sweetness of the moment. My emotion got the better of me and it quite honestly surprised me. There were no tears – not for Watford – but I was pretty close to it. It’s mad, quite mad, how football can take me to another place.

As I have said once or twice before, I fucking love this club.

A cross from Willian just evaded Rudiger.

Lo and behold, deep into the five minutes of extra time, Bakayoko lobbed the ball forward after a Watford clearance went awry, and Michy was strong enough to hold off a strong challenge and slot the ball past Gomes. It was a very fine goal. What an enigma, this Michy.

More celebrations. More smiles. Everyone happy. A wild swagger from Batshuayi as he trotted over to the East Lower.

Phew.

The game was safe.

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