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.

IMG_9917

 

Tales From The Gang Of Four / 四人帮派故事

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 22 July 2017.

I remember when I first heard about our game in Beijing. We were hopping between some familiar pubs in the West End of London before our home game with Tottenham way back in late November. I was with Glenn, Parky and PD, plus a few Chelsea lads from Kent that we had bumped into en route. The news of the game suddenly popped up on social media. It immediately piqued our interest.

“Beijing. Fancy that Glenn?”

“Too right.”

There and then, Glenn and I mentally signed-up for a trip to China’s capital, secretly hoping that there would be a secondary game – maybe in Shanghai – too.

As the months passed, the game in Beijing dominated our thoughts – I can’t exactly remember when our opposition was announced as being Arsenal, but that seemed almost irrelevant. Eventually, the rest of the Chelsea tour took shape. After our game in China, we would play two games against Bayern Munich and Inter in Singapore. Glenn and myself chatted about options. Although it would be a long way to go for just one game, we soon realised that we were happy with just a Chinese holiday, with a few days in Shanghai after our stay in Beijing for the football. An onward flight to Singapore – another six hours of travel – would have added extra expense and lengthened our holiday. And although I am sure Singapore is a fine destination, it didn’t tick too many boxes for me. It has a reputation for being rather staid and bland, plus supremely expensive, and I wasn’t too enamoured about seeing two games in the same stadium. My dear parents had stayed in Singapore, after a few days in Hong Kong, on their round-the-world trip in 1991, and even they commented that it was a rather sober destination.

Back in March, I took the bull by the horns and booked us on a Finnair flight from Heathrow to Beijing via a small stopover in Helsinki. The price was pretty reasonable. Since then, the holiday took shape, and I loved how excited Glenn was getting with each passing week. We decided, indeed, to head down to Shanghai for three nights after Beijing – travelling by bullet train to save money, but to also add to the sensory experience. I just fancied seeing what China was all about. I booked a day trip to The Great Wall; regardless of the footy, this would make Glenn’s holiday since he has always wanted to visit this famous landmark, one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Hotels were booked, again at very reasonable prices; around £50 per night for single rooms. Lastly, there was the visa application process. A day trip up to London resulted in myself appearing in person at the visa application centre deep in the city, but despite sweaty palms and a beating heart, our completed forms were accepted, and we were on our way.

Our good friend Big John, who sits a few rows in front of us in the MHU, would be attending the game in Beijing too. Every time that we chatted at a game, our conversations would consist of these two phrases :

“How’s Glenn? Excited?”

“Excited? Like a dog with two dicks, mate.”

My mate Foxy, from Dundee, who I last saw at the Middlesbrough away game, just before Beijing was announced in fact, also decided to join us. He too was not bothered about Singapore; he had visited it many times before, but had not visited China. He was happy to join us in Shanghai after the game in Beijing too. Foxy would be able, also, to squeeze in an extra day to visit the famous Terracotta Army in the ancient city of Xi’an.

So, the plans were set in stone.

The days and weeks ticked by.

The League Championship was won. The FA Cup Final was lost. The long dull days of summer reached out in front of us.

My last act was to book the bullet train tickets, which only went on sale three weeks before the date of travel.

China. The mere mention of the word made me slightly light-headed. This would, surely, be one of my most wonderful adventures.

On the way over to Tokyo in December 2012, I had spent five long hours at Beijing airport – deep snow outside, a horrible meal inside – and I suppose that it didn’t realistically count as a proper visit. At the time, though, I remember being highly excited about being locked inside Sir Norman Foster’s huge sweeping terminal, just twenty miles from Tienanmen Square.

In July 2017, I would be able to – gulp – step outside.

In the build-up to the holiday, I bought a couple of guide books to the cities of Beijing and Shanghai. I also purchased a fine piece of travel writing by Rob Gifford called “China Road” which, although published in 2007, contained a lot of pertinent historical information about the changes which have been experienced in the great nation – empire – of China over the years. His book details his travel from east – Shanghai – to west on route 312, and he interspersed his modern day experiences along its length with fascinating sections about China’s rich and interesting past. Within the opening chapter, Gifford referenced “The Grapes Of Wrath” and also “On The Road” and so I immediately knew that I’d be on to a winner. There was so much to take on board though. I felt like I was only skimming the surface of China. Thankfully, help was at hand. In the very last week, we were lucky to see TV programmes devoted to Beijing’s Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army, and a re-run – from 1997 – of a Michael Palin travel documentary involving a rapidly changing China. Memorably, his short stay in Shanghai involved him looking out past the tug boats and barges on the Huangpo River at the new builds across the water in Pudong. In 2017, that same view is much changed and I could not wait to see the updated view in person.

China. This mysterious nation, the world’s most populous at 1.3 billion, and one which was changed by the hard hand of Mao Zedong from 1949 until his death in 1976, and has since been bitten hard by capitalism, but which is still a one party state. This complex behemoth of the east would surely bewitch and beguile me.

Visiting from the far more liberal and relaxed west, I would be an occidental tourist.

The days evaporated. We were on our way.

I collected Glenn in Frome at 5am on Tuesday 18 July. We had a perfect drive up to Heathrow, an easy flight to Helsinki, and a pretty reasonable flight over Finland, Russia, Mongolia and we landed at Beijing International airport at around 7.30am on Wednesday 19 July. I remembered the terminal from my visit in 2012. It was wonderful to be back. We quickly made our way through the immigration checks and hailed a cab to take us to our city centre hotel. It was early morning rush hour. My eyes – not tired – were on stalks. My first observations on that hour long cab ride? –

Road signs in Chinese and also English.

Car registration numbers with western style letters.

No advertisement hoardings along the road sides, nor on street corners, nor anywhere.

Shiny Western cars – Audis, BMWs, VWs – alongside unknown Chinese makes.

Cars weaving in and out, hardly bothering with indicators.

Huge high-rise apartments. Like Moscow. Almost brutal.

A clogging urban haze enveloped the city, making visibility difficult.

Massive skyscrapers – some under construction – in the financial district to the east of the city centre.

Traffic. Traffic. Traffic.

We arrived at our hotel, paid the cab driver – 129 yuan, or around £15, get in – and I practiced the only words of Chinese that I had learned.

“Xiexie” is pronounced like a gentle, soft sneeze, and I thought it was difficult to get it right. The cabbie seemed OK with it.

The hotel was rather dated, but suited our needs. It didn’t seem particularly busy. For this reason alone, I suspect, we were upgraded to a suite apiece on the seventh floor. Downstairs, we bumped into Cathy, who was staying in our hotel too. She had arrived via Warsaw an hour before us. Cathy had already booked a couple of local tours. The three of us hoisted the first beers of the trip – the crisp and tasty Tsingtao – before disappearing upstairs to our suites for some power naps.

In the late afternoon, Glenn and myself slapped some sunscreen and mozzy repellent on, and marched out along Qianmen Street. Unlike in 2012, Tienanmen Square was just a ten-minute walk away. The first few minutes were difficult. The heat was stifling. We walked on. We reached the square at its southern edge, alongside the imposing Mao mausoleum. The square was very impressive and it took my breath away. I could not – honestly – believe that I was there. It is, allegedly, the largest public square in the world. In the middle, a large column, surrounded by red flags. They were not Chinese flags, with gold stars, but plain red ones. The effect was stunning. To the east and west, two huge authoritarian buildings, the one to the west the largest building I think I have ever seen. And to the north, the dark red – almost vermilion – walls of the Forbidden City. In the centre, just about discernible, the face of Mao Zedong.

Gulp.

We were in China. In Beijing. In Tienanmen Square.

Not surprisingly, there were thoughts of that ridiculously iconic image of the lone student protesting against an army tank in 1989. In those protests, hundreds were slain in the very square in which I was stood. The world whirled around me. In my thoughts leading up to this trip, I reached right back to my earliest memories. Before Chelsea even. Pre-1970. My earliest memories. Before I went to school in 1970, my father used to return home from his shop in Frome for lunch every week day – apart from Wednesday, market day – and we used to have lunch (the biggest meal of the day in those days, how times change) while listening to “The World At One” on the radio. Although this takes me back to the age of three or four, I can always remember the exotic sounding names of various places and people to this day and how I used to love the way the announcer pronounced them. For a while, it was something I listened in for.

Mao Zedong.

Chiang Kai-Shek.

Hi Chi Minh.

I was joining up some pretty old dots on my life-journey on this trip for sure.

We took some photos – there would be hundreds more – but the ones from that very first evening in Tienanmen Square will remain very precious to me. On the walk back across the vast space, we kept bumping in to a family from Glasgow and it soon became apparent that the husband was Rangers, and Chelsea. He was visiting his son, who had been studying Mandarin at a local university since September. He loved the city and wished us well. Without a word of warning, he started singing “Blue Is The Colour” and we joined in.

The red flags were flying above us but, for a while, Beijing was blue.

Foxy, newly arrived from Dubai, was booking in as we strode back in to the hotel. It was fantastic to see him again.

That evening, Cathy joined us in the bar for a beer and we ended up across the road in a local restaurant. The portion sizes were huge – oh, and cheap – and we had a fantastic feast. The food was, actually, remarkably similar to the Chinese we are used to back in England. For some reason, I expected marked differences.

Sweet and sour pork, Kung Pao chicken, spicy prawns, fried rice, sweetcorn soup – in a huge bowl – and of course Peking Duck.

And bottles of Tsingtao.

Bang on.

Foxy, Glenn and myself walked a mile or so east and then north and found ourselves in the main shopping street of Beijing – all the Western shops you can think of, plus more – and soon settled for bottles of Yanjing adjacent to a street market. Just a few yards away wer stalls selling scorpions, skewered and fried, grubs, and all sorts of oddities. I was glad that I was not hungry. Wanting one last beer, we marched on to an Irish bar, only because it seemed that bars and pubs were very rare in central Beijing. We sat in the dark boozer, sipping at cool beers, and chatted about various things, with the whole of Beijing within our sights. Funnily enough, I had spotted only one sports jersey of any description during the first five or six hours in the city. One Chinese lad was spotted wearing – oddly – an Atletico Madrid shirt. Not only were there no Chinese team jerseys being worn, nor were there any foreign teams’ jerseys. Nor – tellingly – any US team paraphernalia that still seems de rigueur in most cities around the world.

On the Thursday, Foxy, Glenn and myself assembled at around 9am, gulped down a couple of expensive coffees in the hotel and set out on our very own version of Mao’s long march.

We visited Tienanmen Square. We visited the Forbidden City. For each separate part of the vast area – thousands upon thousands of rooms – there were lines for tickets. We decided on just the main courtyard and the Meridian Gate, which overlooked Tienanmen Square to the south. The haze spoiled the view but it did not matter too much. We made sure we hydrated throughout. While seated on a bench within the first courtyard, Foxy tapped me on the shoulder and pointed quickly.

A mother was holding her daughter up as the youngster peed in to a rubbish bin.

“You don’t see that outside Buckingham Palace, Foxy.”

We took photographs of the vast walls, the golden pagoda roofs, and the innate stillness, despite the crowds. Outside, the surrounding moat thankfully cooled the air. Everywhere were green-shirted army guards and black-shirted security guards. It was a fascinating walk. We walked south and spotted the huge modern curve of the national centre for performing arts. We sought sanctuary from the heat for an hour. Inside, there was a small art gallery. We stopped for a light snack. The main auditorium housed opera. Within an hour we had experienced ancient and modern Beijing. We walked on, heading towards the serene Temple of Heaven, maybe a mile or so to the south. However, we were soon side-tracked.

One of Beijing’s most beguiling features are its hutongs; single-story working class dwellings which surround the central area, and which – I am amazed – have not yet been bulldozed away in the name of progress. We spent an idyllic hour wandering past houses, motorcycle repair shops, grocery stores, cafes, clothes shops, fishmongers, butchers, all the time having to move out of the way of bicycles, tuk-tuks, scooters, mopeds, and some of the most ridiculously small cars on the planet. Overhead electricity cables swayed low over side-alleys.

At the lovely, peaceful Temple of Heaven we were virtually the only Westerners. The deep midnight blue of the roof contrasted well with the white marble of the steps. We were mesmerized by its beauty.

We caved in – I for one was exhausted now – and caught a tuk-tuk back to our hotel. Of course we almost collided with various people on bicycles and scooters, but – hey – nobody was killed. Back at our digs, Glenn reliably informed us that we had walked nine miles during the day. I almost feinted.

That evening, we disappeared over to our local restaurant – “the freak show is back” – and gobbled more local cuisine. I tried the Peking Duck – when in Rome, eh? – and very nice it was too. Not crispy as we have in the UK, but simply roasted. It hit the spot. At around 9pm, the three of us met up with Big John, newly arrived at his hotel, only a ten-minute walk from our accommodation. We began with a beer on the terrace overlooking central – hazy – Beijing, but soon disappeared inside as the rain began to fall. We had a few bottles of Tsingtao, plenty of laughs, and we made plans for the rest of our stay.

The Gang Of Four had finally assembled.

On the Friday, we had arranged to meet up at John’s hotel at 10am. The temperature had decidedly cooled, thank heavens. There was a “McDonalds” next to his hotel, and – let’s be truthful – I soon came to the realisation that I could not survive for nine days of Chinese food only. I dived in for a breakfast. It hit the spot. We dived in to a cab and headed off on the elevated inner ring-road to the east of the city to collect our match tickets. It was a simple transaction, but a relief to have them in our hands.

We then headed further out towards the Danshanzi district. I had highlighted the 798 Art District as a venue that I fancied visiting; I didn’t expect it, but – bless ‘em – the other three fancied it too. It was delightful. The sight of many old military industrial units, factories and warehouses, the whole area now houses a rather off-the-wall arty area featuring galleries, cafes, bars, shops, venues, but also a few businesses; I spotted both a Volkswagen HQ and an Uber HQ abutting its periphery. It was an interesting area. The relics of its industrial past were left to provide a somber backdrop to the modern artworks on show – rusting pipes, darkened towers, tall brick chimneys, red brick buildings. Many of the artworks were funky and humorous. Graffiti was allowed, unlike – presumably – elsewhere in the city. We stopped at two cafes and enjoyed beers in both, along with wide-ranging Chelsea chat. The second café was housed in a former train station – an old-style loco outside – and was named after the Ace Café, formerly a bikers’ café on the North Circular in London, which I had read about on the internet only a couple of months previously. The area was certainly atmospheric. At times it felt that we were walking through an Anton Corbijn photoshoot for a Depeche Mode album. It was as if the Chinese state had detailed this little parcel of land for avant garde expression, well away from the city centre, the masses, the rest of the city.

“Here. You can express yourself here.”

I loved it.

We assembled again – Cathy too – in the evening, and headed north. We had been tipped-off by…um, someone we met wearing an ironic green Mao uniform and smoking a Gauloises cigarette in the 798 District and answering to the name Agent 1905…that the Chelsea team were staying in a hotel adjacent to the Birds Nest Stadium. We dressed accordingly – smart, er, casual – and hoped to be able to meet up, however briefly, for a chat with either the management team or the players. Luckily, our route – never to be forgotten – swept us past a floodlight Forbidden City, with an illuminated Mao looking down on us, and out on one of the five-lane boulevards which then joined up with an elevated expressway, past modern hotel blocks as we zoomed north. The night had now fallen. It was an intoxicating ride. We soon spotted – to our right – the red and gold of the Birds Nest Stadium and the cool blue of The Water Cube, both used during the impressive Beijing 2008 Olympics.

We were deposited right outside the hotel. We spotted barriers to our left, with local Chelsea supporters awaiting the arrival of the team coach from a training session. Inside, in the large lobby, were more Chelsea fans. We waited outside. Nobody approached us; I think we were under the radar. We spotted former England manager Roy Hodgson arrive with a couple of colleagues. We called out his name – he is a decent football man – and he seemed genuinely happy to be spotted. His eyes twinkled. A local lad, wearing an Arsenal shirt was roughly manhandled away from the area. Soon, the Chelsea coach arrived just yards away from where we stood and the players quickly entered the hotel. It was pandemonium inside. Lots of shrieking. I think a fair few players stopped to sign autographs, but we really could not see what was happening. After a while, the security people were forcibly pushing back the frenzied Chelsea supporters. It was all done and dusted within four or five minutes.

Upstairs, in an open area, we spotted the staff signing various items laid out on tables. I seized the moment. I drifted past a hotel worker and slowly – I’d say nonchalantly if I meant it – walked up some wide stairs. A photo of Antonio Conte – boom. Before I was chased away, I edged forward.

“Antonio.”

He looked up and I approached…thinking, “oh bollocks, what shall I say to him?”

“Grazie mille.”

He smiled, almost bashfully, and said – as quiet as you like – “prego.”

With that, a Chelsea club official asked who I was. I suspect that he didn’t know who Agent 1905 was, so I said “just a fan.” He politely asked me to leave. We were to find out, later that evening, that the club were hosting a Q and A with some local supporters – complete with lanyards et al – and I suppose this is par for the course these days. I found it typical that Antonio and the players were signing, in addition to the usual shirts, a couple of Yokohama tyres.

Downstairs, Cathy, John, Glenn, Foxy and myself spent a good few hours chatting about Chelsea and football in general. It was a lovely time, actually. We spotted Carlo Cudicini walk past and take his seat a few yards away alongside several other coaching staff, including Antonio’s assistant Angelo Alessio. I took a photo of Carlo with Cath and Glenn. I spoke to Angelo – can I call him that? – about me being a Juve fan too and seeing him play in Turin in the late ‘eighties. He seemed very amicable. A lovely moment. Around eight of the Chelsea staff were in this little group, and they stayed together for around an hour. Of course, we hoped that Antonio might join them, but he never did. This was at around 10.30pm I guess. The chap that had shooed me away appeared with a bagful of Chelsea 2017 Asia Tour badges. A nice gesture on the face of it, but how nice would it have been for the club to recognise those who had traveled out from the UK on this trip. Just a five-minute session with a few players? That would have been superb. On the US tours, it is only the US based fans who ever get to meet the players at any formal event.

But, it is what it is. For a couple of hours, sharing the same space as a few Chelsea faces, it felt lovely. And I mentioned this to Cathy. That it was lovely how we all still got excited, like kids in a sweet shop, about chatting to Carlo Cudicini, for example. May I never lose that childlike awe of meeting our heroes.

So. What about this season? Prior to setting off for China, the internet was in meltdown about our lack of new signings. Within days, the signings of Rudiger and Bakayoko calmed things. Just before leaving, Morata was snatched from Real Madrid. We chatted a little about the transfer dealings and the much-debated academy process. There are many different opinions here and I have always tried my best to be a fan and a supporter rather than a tedious expert. If I was an expert on football, I wouldn’t spend forty hours a week shipping office furniture around the globe. Opinion is clearly divided. Some lambast our academy – and Emenalo, especially, though many can’t even pronounce his name correctly – and the clear lack of youngsters making the first team whereas others have a different approach, backing the club to an extent, and realising that the academy is there, in the main, to provide a professional career for the lads who come through the ranks. Where do my thoughts lie?

Of course, it would be lovely, bloody lovely, to see a Chelsea team populated with our own academy players. No doubt. There is always a tangible connection with our own boys. But this is not 1977. Our team does not contain the likes of Clive Walker, Tommy Langley, Ian Britton, Ray Wilkins and Gary Locke. In 1977, we were cash-strapped and in the Second Division. Now, in 2017, forty years on, we are cash rich and a buying club.

I tried to put my thoughts into words. I tried to explain things as best I could after a few pints of Stella Artois.

“At this exact moment in time, the manager – perhaps the whole club – has a vision about where the team is going and what style of football it is looking to use, involving an exact mix of various types of players, with various degrees of skills and experience. We have a squad, a base of players. To add to that, do we select from just the relatively young set of academy players we have, which might number just twenty or thirty – at this exact time – or do we look elsewhere, at potentially hundreds of players currently employed by other teams?”

Answers on a postcard.

Roy Hodgson ambled past and, now all of us a little chattier due to the beer intake, posed with him as his colleague took a few photographs of us with him. I like Hodgson. Woefully out of his depth at times, but still a decent man. I told him, boozily I suspect, how his eyes lit up when we had called out to him outside the hotel.

“Blimey, someone recognizes me.”

Foxy asked me to take one last photo of him with Carlo.

“Do you still drive motorcycles?”

“Yes.”

“Which ones?”

“Harley Davidsons.”

It was time to head home. We ordered a cab and returned back to our respective hotels. Glenn, using his phone, provided the soundtrack. On came “The Liquidator”, “Blue Is The Colour” and a smattering of ska and reggae from the ‘seventies. As we whizzed past the lights of the skyscrapers of central Beijing, one song got us all singing, Ken Booth’s “Everything I Own.” It was a surreal few moments. My childhood raced up to meet me once more. A song from 1974. The year of my first Chelsea game.

“If there’s someone you know
That won’t let you go
And taking it all for granted?
You may lose them one day
Someone takes them away
And you don’t hear the words they say.

And I would give anything I own
I’d give up my life, my heart, my own
And I would give anything I own
Just to have you back again
Just to talk to you words again
Just to hold you once again.”

It had been a fine night.

On Saturday 22 July our season was to begin. I thought back to the first game of last season, the completely dire defeat at Rapid Vienna. What a shocker that was. I hoped for a better start in 2017. I had the chance for a little lie-in and did not get up until around 10am. It was a gentle start to the day. Thankfully, the weather was again cooler than Wednesday and Thursday. In many ways, it resembled a typical Chelsea Saturday. But it was a strange mixture of a standard Saturday game with a midweek kick-off time. The game was to start at 7.45pm.

Instead of the Gang of Four consisting of Lord Parky, PD, Glenn and myself and the day beginning with a breakfast in either McMelksham, McChippenham or McFleet, it began with a breakfast in McBeijing. Foxy, Glenn and myself then toured a local shopping mall. Next door to each other, on maybe the third floor, were two shops selling MLB and NHL gear. This really surprised me. This was not some key city-centre shopping mall, but yet here were two US-themed stores. It made me wonder why I had not seen anyone wearing a New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox or Los Angeles Dodgers cap, to say nothing of an NHL team cap. I was still keeping score and, until the day of the game, the number of football shirts spotted thus far had numbered –

Arsenal 3.

Atletico Madrid 3.

Chelsea 2.

Barcelona 1.

We were trying to work out – to put it bluntly – if Beijing was a sports town. We weren’t so sure.

Within the shopping mall, there were Timberland, Fila, Umbro, Kappa, Adidas and Nike stores. The prices were comparable to home, so there was no chance of picking up too many bargains. Outside, on a side street, was a little boutique which sold mainly women’s items, but with a little section for men. We could not resist a peek inside. We poured over a selection by Moncler, Vivienne Westwood, Victorinox and Armani but although the prices were quite reasonable, my goodness the sizes were small. All along, we were chatting about football.

Football and clobber. What Saturdays were made for.

We met up with John at 4pm and again caught a cab. They were so cheap that we did not use the subway throughout our entire stay. We were dropped off right outside the stadium. We were assailed by a number of touts, waving bunches of 100 yuan notes at us. We were not sure if they were buying or selling at the start but we soon realised that they had tickets to sell. I was annoyed to see red shirts in the majority. I then realised that we were probably outside the southern Arsenal end. We spotted a few locals selling Chelsea shirts – at knock-off prices – and we leered over them, taking a couple of photographs. The stall holders must have thought that we were on the lookout for fakes, as they soon bagged their wares and disappeared. I was surprised at the complete lack of a black market economy in Beijing, especially outside the stadium. If only other cities were the same.

We posed with my “VINCI PER NOI” flag in a couple of locations. At the second one, in the middle of a long expanse of open promenade to the west of the stadium, we were told to put the banner away by some very down-at-heal looking security types. I think they were also on litter duty. Talking of which – there might be nine million bicycles in Beijing, but there is certainly no litter. If only other cities were the same. We also posed with Foxy’s lovely “Charlie Cooke’s Flying Squadron” flag, marking the Dundee-based fans who support Chelsea. We enjoyed a nice relaxing wander between the Cube and the Birds Nest. A few beers were taken. John, who is around six feet seven clearly won the prize for “most photographed.” I will never forget the look on a young Chinese boy’s face – no older than three – who looked up at John in stages, his mouth growing wider and wider. A look of comic-book astonishment. So funny. For a few moments, a local TV crew were in attendance and some Arsenal fans began chanting. My guess that this would not be a sell-out. The stadium held 85,000 and there clearly were not 85,000 milling around. We hoped for a reasonable gate. The ticket prices were pretty steep though; £82 for a lower tier seat. After a minimal bag check, we were in.

My camera too – phew.

We were inside at 7pm. Scott and Mark chatted to us at the Chelsea merchandise stall. Punky Al and Stan drifted past. Glenn and I bought a tour t-shirt apiece at 230 or around £26. I was able to utter the immortal phrase –

“230. Chinese dentist.”

Parky would have been proud of me. Glenn groaned.

He soon perked-up : “Gonna be wearing this in the pub first game of the season.”

I have to say that the stadium did not look too full when we first arrived. Arsenal were up the other end. There were not many in the top tier. We guessed at around 40,000 maybe. All of the Chelsea supporters had been issued with the God-forsaken thunder sticks, which many were feverishly bouncing together, in addition to a Chelsea-themed fan – again for clacking together to make noise – the like of which we have had once, just once, at Stamford Bridge.

What’s wrong with just clapping?

Both teams were out doing training drills when we got in. The place filled-up. The lower tier was virtually full at kick-off. From the outside, especially when illuminated from within, the Birds Nest Stadium is stunning. The strips of dull grey steel wrap themselves around the inner shell of the structure, and the effect is wonderful. From the inside, it’s a fine stadium, but an athletics stadium. The pitch is too far from the spectators, a problem that West Ham United are now experiencing in their new pad. But whereas London’s Olympic Stadium is a relatively wide and shallow stadium, Beijing’s version is at least tall, steep and intimidating. The three tiers reach up into the sky and the roof curves high and then low. Of course, Herzog and De Meuron are tasked with designing our new stadium. I am sure that the only thing to say at this stage is that, like the Birds Nest, it will be iconic, unique and designed to the highest standard. I, for one, can’t bloody wait.

“Blue Is The Colour” was played by the PA, and I was impressed that so many locals knew the words. Of course, virtually all were wearing Chelsea gear, fake or not. There were not so many Nike shirts in the stadium. We were then treated to “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer with the Arsenal fans singing along. Is that a Gooner song, now? Bloody hell.

The teams were announced.

Antonio Conte had chosen a very strong starting eleven.

Courtois.

Dave. Luiz. Cahill.

Moses. Kante. Cesc. Alonso.

Pedro. Batshuayi. Willian.

Arsenal included Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mertesacker, Ramsey, Monreal, Xhaka, plus new boy Laazette. If it matters. Which it doesn’t.

For some reason, there were plenty of boos for Kenedy. We had no idea why. No idea at all. Did he play for a team in China at some stage in his career? We were completely flummoxed. The Arsenal fans – thunder sticks too – produced two crowd-surfing flags. Our two were bigger. Before the game began, Carlo and Hilario paraded the League trophy, while at the other end the FA Cup was on show. The weather was great; it wasn’t sticky at all.

The game, and our season, began.

We began very brightly indeed, attacking the southern goal away in the distance. The Chelsea fans around us were well-involved, chanting from the start. Cathy, who was sat next to me, waited for her moment. There was a sudden lull.

“10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.”

“Zigger Zagger – Zigger Zagger.”

“OI OI OI.”

“Zigger Zagger – Zigger Zagger.”

“OI OI OI.”

Cathy was away, and Glenn, John and myself joined in. Surprisingly, not many turned around to look. Cathy continued on.

“Zigger.”

“OI.”

“Zagger.”

“OI.”

“Zigger Zagger – Zigger Zagger.”

“OI OI OI.”

We continued to play well, full of energy. Arsenal looked sluggish. This was such a difference to Rapid Vienna last summer. Pedro was full of tricks on the left. We were dominating and carving out a few chances. A Moses shot was saved by Ospina. The locals in our end were going for it, no doubt aided by those bloody thunder sticks.

“Clap clap – clap clap clap – clap clap clap clap – Chelsea.”

Willian drove hard into the heart of the Arsenal box but his shot flew past the far post. Our support was certainly into the game. They loved cheering us on when we attacked. At times the whole lower tier seemed to be chanting together. I turned to Cathy and whispered :

“Hate to say it, but they’re noisier than in the US.”

Michy Batshuayi, with a trim haircut, went close on two occasions.

The new kit looked wonderful, although we were spared a complete 1970 re-boot because of the blue socks. I noticed – as did many – how much the pitch was cutting up. Quite poor, really.

Midway through the first-half, the ball was pumped forward for Pedro. From memory, the ball fell in no man’s land, but Ospina clattered into Pedro. It immediately reminded me of Schumacher’s horrific foul on Battiston in the 1982 World Cup. He was down for some time, but was replaced by Jeremie Boga, a forgotten man. He looked eager.

We continued to dominate. There seemed to be lots of shots but mainly weak finishes. Batshuayi struck but the goal was ruled offside. The Chelsea players seemed annoyed at that.

On thirty-one minutes, the Chelsea fans – or a small section of them – donned Antonio Conte face masks and, in unison, started singing “Antonio Antonio Antonio.” Again, we were completely flummoxed. We were to later learn during the night that this was to celebrate the manager’s birthday on 31 July.

“OK.”

John commented : “the noise is good, they just need to work on the melody.”

As the first-half continued, and despite occasional Arsenal attacks, Thibaut Courtois did not have a save to make really.

The lively Willian controlled the ball wide on our left and danced into the box. As he struck a right-footed curler, I snapped. I watched as the ball evaded the lunge of the ‘keeper and we went 1-0 up. There was a loud roar. Soon after, a lovely solo goal from Batshuayi gave us a wholly deserved 2-0 lead. On the rare occasions that Arsenal threatened, they over passed. I remember an excellent block by Gary Cahill – who lead the team out – plus there was the usual solid stuff from David and Dave. Kante was his usual smothering self. This was great stuff indeed. At last, right at the end, Thibaut made a save.

Only Willy Caballero came on at the break.

We were now attacking our end and this seemed to enthuse our support even more. Although the fans were limited to a few songs, the whole end was singing together.

“CHAMPIONES – CHAMPIONES – OLE OLE OLE.”

“CHELSEA – CLAP CLAP CLAP.”

It was still all us. There was tons of play down our left. After a pass from Fabregas, there was a fine pull back from Alonso to Michy on the edge of the box. His crisp swipe flew past the ‘keeper. Oh, how he enjoyed that one.

3-0 and game over. We were surprised that there were still no immediate subs. Antonio Conte was as animated as per usual on the side-lines. He is worth the admission money alone, these days.

The local fans began singing in unison, but the chant did not register with us.

“What are you singing?”

“Subio” – or something similar – was the word being sung and it translated as “one more (goal).”

“CHAMPIONES – CHAMPIONES – OLE OLE OLE.”

Arsenal came into the game a little, but we were never really under threat. Conte rang some changes as the game continued.

Kalas, Christensen, Clarke-Salter, Tomori, Scott, Pasalic, Kenedy – more booing – Baker and Remy all played.

Pre-season is an odd-time. A sighting of Remy here, a sighting of Kalas there. Will they play a part in our future?

Answers on a postcard.

The all royal blue kit ended up virtually navy blue with the perspiration of the players.

The boos for Kenedy seemed to affect him; he looked rattled and struggled to get involved. Boga, among the other subs, looked pacey. One for the future, maybe?

Lewis Baker produced a fine effort right at the end from a free-kick – I’m tempted to say Arsenal’s wall was far from great – but the shot was well saved.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

Job done.

Glenn, especially, looked so thrilled to have witnessed this, his first Chelsea game outside of Europe. It had been a pleasure to be there with him. There seemed to be some sort of presentation at the end of the game, and the players certainly looked pleased with their endeavors as they slowly walked down to our end to applaud the fans.

It was again surreal to see and hear so many Chinese supporters singing along to “Blue Is The Colour” at the end of the game.

We slowly walked outside. We were all very happy with the performance and result. We looked fit. We looked hungry. All positives really. The only negative was Pedro’s injury. The official crowd was given as 55,000; we were pretty pleased with that. I’d say the split was around 50/50.

50% Chelsea, 50% knobheads.

Outside, the stadium was lit from underneath with warming orange and red. It looked simply stunning. I wonder if our new pad will be lit similarly with blue (suggestion – only when we win).

We waited for Foxy, who along with his flag, had watched from the other side of our half.

Avoiding the immediate rush for cabs, we retired back to a local restaurant. It seemed that nobody spoke English, but we were thankfully aided by a lad from the US who had recently graduated from a university in South Dakota but who was visiting to set up his own travel guide company. He had been at the game too. He helped us order some lamb and chicken skewers, rice and noodles but only 2.6 percent beer. We all agreed that it had been a perfect evening. Apart from the 2.6 percent beer.

At around midnight, we caught a cab back to our hotel, the roads clearer, the buildings still immense, the city huge, the holiday not even halfway through.

Ahead, there would be a simply unforgettable trip to The Great Wall Of China, a memorable bullet train, the historic city of Shanghai, with its history of trade and commerce – a different beast to the more conservative Beijing – and the towering skyscrapers of Pudong.

But that is another story.

 

 

Tales From Goodison Park

Everton vs. Chelsea : 30 April 2017.

I know that it seems quite ridiculous and implausible now, but there might have been the slightest of chances that my team would turn out to be Everton and not Chelsea. Until I started school in the spring of 1970, I had not shown much of a liking for football, or so my parents were to admit to me later. However, at the village school, after only a few weeks if memory serves, I chose Chelsea. I have told this story many times before so I won’t waste much time on this but this was possibly on the back of our FA Cup Final win against Leeds United. It might have been because some school pals had mentioned that Chelsea were a good team. It might have been because I just liked the name. Let’s face it, Chelsea is such a warm and lovely word, isn’t it? It might have been because the first football game that I played in during the lunchtime kick about was for the Chelsea team. The exact reasons are lost in the mists of time and the midst of time. However, one thing is absolutely certain. My interest in football had been piqued in April and May 1970 and my life – a thunderous orchestral crescendo please – would never be the same again. But, think about it. Everton won the league in 1970. I wonder if they ever entered my consciousness?

As I get older and look back on a life of Chelsea support, I often think back on those early months and years. I am always looking for clues as to why Chelsea hit me and hit me hard. And I have since tried, on here and elsewhere, to piece it all together.

I always remembered that I ended up with a couple of booklets, given away in packets of cereal, which detailed a couple of football teams in the early-seventies. The teams? Chelsea and Everton. I remember opening out the booklets and pouring over the snippets of information, though I am sure that I must have had to ask for assistance from my parents with reading some of the longer words.

Chelsea were my team by then, of course – no turning back – but I can distinctly remember looking at the word Everton, maybe spelling it out and writing it in my thirst for knowledge. Chelsea and Everton. I wonder where it all could have ended. For decades, I presumed that these feint memories of these giveaway booklets would be just that. Then, amazingly, to mark our centenary in 2005, Chelsea brought out a memorabilia pack featuring many facsimile replicas of items from our history, including programmes, cigarette cards, club documents, and – yes, you have guessed it – a full colour copy of that little booklet from the early ‘seventies. I immediately recognised it – oddly, Ian Hutchinson was on the cover – and I was transported right back to my childhood.

On the evening before our game at Goodison Park, I dipped into the memorabilia pack once more, and turfed out the booklet. It dated from 1971. I did a Google search. Within a few clicks, my childhood had returned again. The booklets were featured in packs of Shredded Wheat. And there, right before my eyes, was the cover of the Everton one, with Alan Ball on the front. Eight teams were in the series, oddly named “Cup Soccer 71”; Arsenal, Chelsea, Derby County, Everton, Leeds United, Liverpool, Manchester United and Newcastle United.

And it got me thinking all over again about Chelsea and Everton. Around the time that the booklets were published, presumably before the FA Cup Third Round of January 1971, Peter Osgood had further embedded my love for Chelsea, but a year earlier it might have been oh-so different. If only my father had mentioned to me, in detail, that his only visit to a football stadium had been to Goodison Park during his World War Two training, my life might have turned out to be quite different.

But Chelsea I was in 1970 and Chelsea I am now.

And our game at Goodison Park on the last day of April in 2017 would be a real test. Someone somewhere – TS Elliot, which team did he play for? – once labelled April the cruellest month. April 2017 has certainly been a busy month, with seven Chelsea games, starting on the first day of the month and ending on the final day. For a while it looked suitably cruel. It began with two league defeats in four games against Crystal Palace and Manchester United. Then came salvation with two victories against Tottenham and Southampton.

With Tottenham still breathing down our necks, the thought of our game against Everton made me excited and nervous in equal measure.

Worry, worry, worry.

In The Chuckle Bus on the long four-hour drive to Merseyside, Glenn was very laid back, almost to the point of annoyance.

“We can only win our games. Don’t worry about them.”

I felt like slapping him around the noggin. Surely this approach, by not worrying about Tottenham and their threat to our sixth league title, is not how it should be done. To get maximum elation from any potential title win, surely one has to acknowledge all worst case scenarios? Glenn’s approach surprised me. Or maybe, me being me, I was taking this all way too bloody seriously.

I had made good time. I had started my collection of the boys at 8am. Just after midday, we stopped off at a Toby Carvery on Queens Drive and soon funnelled £8.95 worth of a Sunday Roast down our throats. At 1pm, I was parked up in Stanley Park, with both of the city’s football stadia close by. The huge new stand at Anfield dominated the skyline, but the equally dominant main stand at Goodison Park was just visible at the bottom of the gentle slope north.

The team?

As strong as it gets.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill.

Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso.

Pedro, Costa, Hazard.

I bloody love Goodison, again for reasons well documented in these match reports for many a season. With news that the club are to move to a new 50,000 capacity stadium at Bramley Moore Dock, a few miles to the north of the city centre, I may only have a few more visits left. There will be sadness on my last visit. A link to my father’s personal story will be extinguished.

Inside, up in the wooden floor boarded upper tier, Goodison looked very familiar. Back in 1971, I always remembered the semi-circles cut out behind both goals to stop rowdy spectators throwing objects at the players. Or – at least – making it more difficult for them to hit anyone should they chose to do so. The first Everton team that I ever remember – playing in white socks, which were brought back only recently – included players such as Howard Kendall, Gordon West, Jimmy Husband, Joe Royle and Alan Whittle.

With a few minutes to spare, I was able to pin my well-travelled “Vinci Per Noi” banner to the balcony wall, covering some of those famous Archibald Leitch cross-struts in the process. My plan was for Antonio Conte to spot it during the game, make a bee-line for it at the end of the match – with us victorious, obviously – and to point madly at it. He would hunt me down, phone me, arrange to meet up before the next home game at the Chelsea Harbour Hotel, and we would soon become close friends. I would holiday at his summer villa on the shores of Lake Como. We would talk about his time at Juventus. The 1996 Champions League Final in Rome. That goal against Fiorentina in 1999. We’d sip Peronis. We’d laugh at Jose Mourinho. He’d advise me on hair transplants. We’d have a right old giggle.

Alternatively, the banner would fall at the first gust of wind, be trampled on by those underneath, and would be ruined beyond repair.

You’re right. I do worry too bloody much.

The kick-off, at the odd time of 2.05pm, soon came around. There was a muted response from the Everton fans to the pre-match “Grand Old Team” which is sung in the style of Lily Savage, and even “Z Cars” seemed quieter than before. However – no surprises – the Chelsea fans around me and below me were in fine voice. We all knew how important this one was. We were all, unequivocally, up for it. Someone had mentioned that Everton had won their previous eight home games.

Worry, worry, worry.

We spotted the Everton supporters struggle to drape a large banner of Alan Ball – him again – from the top tier of the Gwladys Street. The display marked the ten year anniversary of his passing in April 2007.

Goodison Park has been a tough old venue for us of late, with only that crazy 6-3 win in 2014 to give us any joy. There have been four league losses and one FA Cup loss too.

There was hardly an empty seat in the house.

Everton in 1971 blue, white and white. Chelsea in 2017 black, black, black.

The game had a crazy first few minutes. Ross Barkley moved the ball to Dominic Calvert-Lewin (what is it with double-barrelled names in football these days?) and he rattled the base of Thibaut’s near post. The ball bounced up and thankfully Gary Cahill was able to beat Romelu Lukaku to the ball. Less than sixty seconds had passed. We then enjoyed a little pressure, with Cahill hitting a low raking shot from distance. Stekelenburg fumbled, but nobody was close enough to pick up the pieces. It was certainly a lively opening.

Lukaku chose to wander over to the right, which meant that Dave had the onerous task of marking him. His physique demanded that I kept focussing on him. He is such a size. But Dave stuck close to him.

Eden Hazard was the next Chelsea player to go close, but after collecting a pass from Diego, he was forced wide by the Everton ‘keeper. His snatched shot rippled the side netting. We were definitely on top, and the Chelsea crowd were roaring the boys on. All three of our forward players were taking it in turns to run into space. Alonso on the left was often involved but had trouble in picking out players from out wide. Moses on the right was underused. There was a tendency to over-pass, but we were on top. Diego was holding the ball well.

The challenges were going in hard from both sides. After a Chelsea tackle was met with howls of anger from the Everton players close to the action, there was a classic from Gary :

“More fucking appeals than Blue Peter.”

Nemanja Matic strode forward and unleashed a low shot at the Everton ‘keeper.

Then, the next chance for Lukaku but his shot was dragged wide.

At the other end, Diego set himself up with a header, which bounced high off his head. The whole world seemed to momentarily stop as the ball came down. Unmarked, Diego snatched at it and ballooned it high into the packed stands.

Everton had their moments. I liked the look of Barkley but his impact was nulled by some great tackling from N’Golo Kante and Matic.

At the break, I was able to check that my banner was still in situ. Phew.

During the entire first-half, there had not been a single peep out of the Everton supporters.  I know that they are not known for their volume, but this was a pitiful showing. For a top seven club, not one single song. Shocking.

As always at Goodison, we attacked the Park End – ironically, the newest stand but easily the blandest– in the second-half. We were able to see how ridiculously close Eden Hazard was being marked by Idrissa Gueye. There was a lovely short corner – a Chelsea original – but Moses scuffed wide. Down below us, our raids were becoming more daring. There was nice play between Alonso, Hazard and Pedro. An hour had passed. At last, an Everton song. We plugged away.

A lone voice behind me :

“Don’t worry, it’s coming.”

I replied :

“So is Christmas.”

On sixty-five minutes, Pedro collected a ball from Matic. He turned and shifted the ball on to his left foot. From thirty yards out, he let fly. We watched and prayed that the white netting would bulge.

It bulged.

GET FUCKING IN.

Inside, I was boiling with joy, but I remained cool and snapped away, and hoped that the resulting flurry of photographs were not as blurred as I felt. I caught the pitch invader, mid jump, with Pedro, and snapped away as the ecstatic scorer – and the entire team – raced down to celebrate in front of the lower tier of the Bullens Road. I have not witnessed scenes of complete and unadulterated mayhem like that for ages.

Stay still my beating heart.

There were songs about winning the league, but Alan and I – at least – did not join in.

Lukaku curled a shot high and wide from a free-kick after a foul by Hazard on Barkley.

Hazard was able to eke out inches of space on the left, and he drew a foul from Gueye. We watched – me with my camera poised – as he whipped in a low cross. The Everton ‘keeper, perhaps distracted by those around him, could only fumble again. Captain Gary Cahill bundled the ball over. We erupted once more.

GET IN.

Again, I snapped away like a fool. Gary’s run was almost as euphoric as Pedro’s. There was no pitch invasion this time, but the wild scenes were the same. Cahill’s wonderful smile was captured on film by TV camera and by my camera alike.

There was a little worry as David Luiz fell to the floor after a previous knock took its toll. Not long after, the manager brought on Nathan Ake for Luiz, with Pedro being replaced by Fabregas at the same time.

Willian then replaced Hazard.

On eighty-six minutes, a pass from Diego Costa found Cesc Fabregas who picked out Willian inside the box, and the substitute effortlessly guided the ball into a virtually empty net. Now the game was certainly safe. The Chelsea section roared once more. I clicked away again.

The last photograph taken, I roared unhindered.

The lower tier down below me was a bubbling mass of humanity. Such scenes are a joy to behold.

At the final whistle, a triumphal roar, and then my eyes were focussed on Antonio Conte. He hugged all of the Chelsea players, and slowly walked over to join his men down below us, only a few yards away from the touchline. With just four games remaining, and our lead back to seven points, the joy among the team and supporters was palpable. Conte screamed and shouted, his eyes bulging. He jumped on the back of Thibaut Courtois. His smiles and enthusiasm were so endearing.

Altogether now – “phew.”

The songs continued as we slowly made our way out into the street. A message came through from my good friend Steve in Philadelphia –

“Chris, the image that just flashed on my screen was beautiful. A shot of a cheering Antonio Conte, cheering the away fans, with the Vinci banner in the background. Absolutely perfect shot.”

We reached the car, still bouncing, and I began the long drive home. It had been a fantastic afternoon at Goodison. We had inched closer. We discussed the game. All players had fought tooth and nail for the three points. Pedro had been excellent. Diego had held the ball up well, ran the channels, and had been his usual bundle of tricks. Captain Cahill was excellent. It had been a well-rounded performance after a few scares in the first-half. In the end, Everton were well beaten.

We listened to the Tottenham versus Arsenal game as we headed south, battling some typically slow traffic on the M6. Just north of Stoke-on-Trent, Spurs scored two quick goals. We sighed and we swore. The fuckers won’t go away will they?

With the lead back to four points again – “cat and mouse” – we now have to wait until Monday 8 May for our next game. By then, the lead could be just one point.

During the next week, the worrying will start all over again.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Tales From An Old Gold Adversary

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Chelsea : 18 February 2017.

After two easy home wins against Peterborough United and Brentford in this season’s FA Cup, we were on our travels. I would have preferred a new ground – Huddersfield Town, Sutton United, Lincoln City, not Millwall – but the Football Gods had given us an away fixture at Wolverhampton Wanderers. This was fine by me. Our last visit was five years ago and, since then, a new stand has been built, so there would be something new to see. Wolves away is an easy drive for me too; after the arduous trek to Burnley last weekend, this would be easy.

I remembered our last game against Wolves in the F. A. Cup in the spring of 1994. Our game at Stamford Bridge – on TV, on a Sunday – was only our second FA Cup quarter final in twenty-one years, and the stadium was bouncing. Memorably, there were blue flares in The Shed before the game, and the old – and huge – original “Pride Of London” flag made its first-ever appearance that day. From memory, it was the biggest “crowd-surfing” flag ever seen at a London stadium at the time. The 2,500 Wolves fans were allocated a large section of the East Stand because the North Stand was recently demolished. I watched from the old West Stand as a Gavin Peacock lofted chip gave us a 1-0 win. We were on our way to an F.A. Cup semi-final for the first time since 1970 and – boy – how we bloody celebrated. We flooded the pitch afterwards; in fact it would be the last time thst I would walk on the hallowed turf. However, the one thing I really remember from that game was the noisy repetition of “The Blue Flag” which really became an immediate and legendary Chelsea song on that particular day. It had not really been sung much until then. On the Monday, at work, I could not stop singing it to myself. The photographs from that day show a much different Stamford Bridge and a much-changed support. Of course I miss it.

Twenty-three years later, the four of us (Parky, PD, Scott and myself) were in Wolverhampton over four hours before the game was due to commence at 5.30pm. We darted into the first pub we saw, The Wheatsheaf, and once inside, soon realised the errors of our ways. We didn’t mind that it was a home pub – there were Wolves shirts pinned to the walls and ceiling – but the clientele soon began to change. We stood to one side of the bar supping our pints and watched as a few Wolves lads came in. We wondered if they were in the “Yam Yam Army”. I was certainly being eye-balled by a young chap. You could tell they had us sussed. One bald lad sauntered in – blue Stone Island jacket – and we soon decided to cut our losses. A few minutes later we were settled in an “away fans only” pub – big gothic columns outside, formerly “The Walkabout” which we have visited before, now renamed and re-branded as a nightclub – and we could relax a little. There were a few Chelsea “faces” of our own on a table on the back wall, and a few more friends and acquaintances soon arrived. I had a laugh with a local copper about the previous pub.

“Didn’t you think it odd there were Wolves shirts there?”

“Yeah, but there are home pubs and there are home pubs. This one was a little – pause – tense.”

“Ha. Bet your arse was twitching like a rabbit’s nose.”

Songs were soon bellowing around the cavernous and dark boozer. There were only a precious few “away only” pubs in Wolverhampton and I was glad we had stumbled across one of them. We had heard that – quite a miracle – non-league Lincoln City had won at Burnley with a goal in the last minute of play. What a stunning result. At around 3.45pm, I left the others to it and departed for the stadium. Outside the pub was a sport shop owned by former player Ron Flowers. I walked past a pub called “The Billy Wright.” I wondered if another pub called “Slaters” was named after the former Wolves defender Bill Slater. I did wonder, in fact, if there were other such places in Wolverhampton, a town famous – only? – for its football team.

“Maybe it is all they have.”

Maybe in other streets there are the George Berry Tea Rooms, the Sammy Chung Bowling Green and the Kenny Hibbitt Bingo Hall.

In a previous edition, I briefly flitted through Wolves’ history.

Tales From The Old Gold And Black Country : 20 February 2010.

“The stadium in Wolverhampton is right at the heart of the city and I like it. The long natural incline leading down from the town centre once formed the basis of the huge Kop until the ground was slowly – very slowly – remodelled in the ‘eighties. When I think of the Wolves of my childhood, not only do I think of players such as Jim McCalliog, David Wagstaffe and Derek Dougan, but I also I think of the idiosyncratic Molyneux stadium. There was the immense Kop to the right and the unique multi-spanned roof opposite. All of these individualistic stadia are long gone these days and it’s a shame. I can also hear the gentle burr of the ‘seventies ATV commentator Huw Johns telling of some action on the pitch. He had such an evocative voice and often commentated on Wolves games. Before my time, Wolves were the team of the ‘fifties – winning three league titles – and they captured the imagination of the nation with their unique set of friendlies against teams such as Honved. In their distinctive old gold shirts, they were some team, led by England captain Billy Wright. If the Munich air crash had not happened in 1958, catapulting Manchester United into the nation’s hearts, maybe Wolves would be a major player these days.”

By the time of my next visit, I was able to update on Molyneux’ expansion plans.

Tales From A Dark Night : 5 January 2011.

“Wolves almost went to the wall around 1985 as a result of their relegation to the old fourth division and debts caused by the messy redevelopment of their stadium. For many seasons, the Steve Bull Stand – built in 1979 and very similar to the Spurs West Stand of the same year – stood way back from the pitch, with the rest of the crumbling stadium unable to be rebuilt and moved to meet up with the new stand’s footprint. The three new stands were eventually completed in around 1993 and it’s a neat and compact stadium, with the iconic old gold used on stand supports and seats. It feels right. Alan and Gary had been talking to a Wolves fan as they waited for me to arrive and he told them that there were plans to build again, with the end goal being a 50,000 stadium. I guessed that relegation might halt such grandiose plans.”

I was looking forward to sitting in the upper deck of this new stand, which was still being built on my last visit. However, the Wolves of previous eras were dominating my thoughts as I walked past pub after pub of home fans, each one with bouncers outside.

The Wolves of the ‘fifties were indeed a grand team. And the game against Honved in 1954 – during our first league title season – was shown live on BBC; a very rare event in those days. Played under new floodlights, Wolves played the game in special shimmering old gold silky shirts to add to the drama. Many observers have credited the series of Wolves friendlies against Honved, Tel Aviv, First Vienna and Spartak Moscow as kick-starting a pan-European knockout competition. In the very next season, Chelsea were advised, of course, not to take part in the inaugural European Cup by the curmudgeons in the English FA. One can only imagine how spectacular the Wolves vs. Honved game seemed at the time. The Honved team included six of the Magyars who had defeated England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and again 7-1 in Budapest in 1954 including the legendary Ferenc Puskas. Watching on a TV in Belfast was a young lad called George Best, who chose Wolves as his team. The game must have had a similar effect on many; my next-door neighbour Ken is a Wolves fan and would have been a young lad in 1954.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxoI4AjgokU

Of course, Wolves were our nearest rivals back in that 1954/1955 season. A Billy Wright handball at our game at Stamford Bridge is the stuff, as they say, of legend.

Our paths memorably crossed during the 1976/1977 Second Division season too, when a 3-3 draw at Stamford Bridge was followed by a 1-1 draw at Molyneux. Wolves were promoted as champions that year, with Chelsea also going up just behind them. I wrote a few words about this during our last visit.

Tales From A Work In Progress : 2 January 2012.

“Alan and Big John were reminiscing about their visit to the same ground in April 1977 when our fans were officially banned, but around 4,000 fans still attended. A Tommy Langley goal gave us shares in a 1-1 draw and secured our promotion. Those were heady days. That was a cracking season. I only saw three games in our promotion push, but the memories of those games against Cardiff City (won), Bristol Rovers (lost) and Millwall (drew) are strong. On the day of the Wolves match, I can vividly remember running up the slope outside my grandparents’ house once I had heard that we had secured promotion and jumping in the air. But then the realisation that, as the lone Chelsea fan in my village, I had nobody to share my enthusiasm with.”

So, 1954/1955 and 1976/1977 and 1994/1995 – three instances when the two clubs have been thrown together. I wondered what 2016/2017 would bring. I approached the stadium from the south, and used the infamous subway, much beloved by home fans who used to ambush away fans in previous eras. It has something of the feel of “A Clockwork Orange” and it spawned the Wolves firm “Subway Army.”

I reached Molineux unscathed and rewarded myself with a cheeseburger.

There were Chelsea supporters milling around the Steve Bull Stand, whose lower tier would house 3,000 of our 4,500 supporters. But I headed on and took a few photographs of the stadium, which has changed so much over the past few decades.

It was soon clear that many away fans had been drinking heavily from London to the Black Country; the concourse in the lofty Stan Cullis Stand was soon full of Chelsea song and football-style rowdiness. One fan collapsed on reaching the final step, overcome with alcohol. Some younger lads could hardly stand. I made my way to our seats – black in this visitors’ quadrant, as opposed to old gold elsewhere – and I loved the view. A new perspective on Molineux. Many other away regulars had chosen seats in this section too. I noted that the Steve Bull Stand was so far from the pitch, but Molineux remains a neat stadium. We watched the sun disappear to our right and the air chilled.

Antonio Conte had chosen a relatively experienced team; our attacking options did not lack any punch. There was all change in the back three though, with the manager choosing John Terry, Kurt Zouma and Nathan Ake.

Begovic, Moses, Zouma, Terry, Ake, Pedro, Chalobah, Fabregas, Willian, Costa, Hazard.

Happy with that.

I liked the wordplay of the slogan on the balcony of the Stan Cullis Stand :

“This is our love and it knows no division.”

From Champions to the depths of Division Four, Wolves have seen it all.

The stadium took a while to fill, but with a few minutes to kick-off, the place was packed. Although Wolves play to gates of around 18,000 to 24,000 for most league gamers, this one would be a 30,000 capacity. Wolves used to play “Fanfare For The Common Man” before the teams entered the pitch, but we were treated – oddly – to “The Wonder Of You.” More than a few Chelsea fans joined in. That drink again. As the teams appeared, the PA played the customary “Hi Ho Silver Lining” and the place roared.

“And it’s hi ho – Wolverhampton.”

Soon in to the game, the Wolves fans to our right bellowed “The North Bank!” and it sounded like something from another era. The home fans were the first to be treated to a chance on goal when a loose header from Kurt Zouma allowed the unmarked George Saville a shot on goal. I sucked in some cold air and expected sure disappointment. Thankfully, his firm strike hit a post. The danger was still there, but again thankfully Andreas Weinmann ballooned over.

Just after, a fantastic pass from Fabregas found Willian in a central position, but he took a little too long to control the ball, and the chance was wasted. I sensed that Victor Moses had the beating of his opposing defender; an ugly tackle was clear evidence that he was a threat. Eden Hazard, despite plenty of willing support from the overlapping Pedro, was quiet. Nathan Ake oozed class and was easily the best of the three at the back. Kurt Zouma still looks so stiff. He did enjoy one “balls out” run deep in to the Wolves half though and – it reminded me of those barnstorming runs that Michael Duberry used to love. I have a feeling that King Kurt will one day score an absolute screamer following a typical run.

One fan in the Steve Bull Stand was clearly enjoying his five minutes of fame; he was spotted gesticulating to the away hordes, and he was soon singled-out.

“Who’s the wanker in the pink?”

(For those who remember, this is a famous chant from 1983 – even mentioned in “The Football Factory” by John King if memory serves – when the pastel-clad casuals from Portsmouth’s 6.57 arrived en masse on our North Terrace and one similarly-attired lad was picked out by the scallywags on The Benches. I know because I was one of them.)

Wolves were carving out occasional chances and Begovic saved low from Helder Costa (hair c. 1991). There were certainly grumbles throughout the first-half. I can only really remember another effort on goal; a cross from Moses was unable to be tucked in by the quiet Diego Costa. Wolves must have been annoyed as hell that their slight dominance did not result in a goal. But I was so confident that we had enough quality in our ranks to be victorious. What we did not want, almost as much as a defeat, was a horrible replay. But ours was a very patchy performance and we needed Antonio to fire up the troops.

There was another “hi ho – Wolverhampton” and the second-half began.

With Chelsea attacking our stand, things began to brighten. There were speculative efforts from Zouma and Pedro and then Diego carved out a fine chance for himself but his strong shot hit the side netting. On sixty-five minutes, we were warmed by an excellent move involving Cesc, Diego, Hazard and then Willian. As he paused momentarily, I spotted Pedro racing in at the far post and I hoped that Willian had seen him too.

No need to worry; an inch-perfect cross was sent over to the far post and The Hummingbird jumped, hovered in mid-air, and headed home. There was an enormous roar and soon the away end was covered in a blue sulphurous haze of a flare – the second of the day, how 1994. Wolves tried their best to mount a counter but rarely threatened again and the home atmosphere died. In one surprisingly dramatic race, we watched as John Terry just about reached a through-ball a mere  nano-second ahead of an attacker.

Phew.

The away fans were now in good voice. This was much better. There were songs of Wembley.

Antonio made three late substitutions involving Dave, Kante (all Wolves fans : “ah, bollocks”) and Loftus-Cheek.

We enjoyed a few more chances; Willian slipped while inside the box, Fabregas shot wide and Zouma went close with a header.

In the final minute, a loose ball was slammed home inside the box by Diego Costa.

“Get in, game over.”

Into the last eight we went.

The temperature had greatly-dropped in the second-half, but after the tundra of Turf Moor, this was no real issue. There was a rare event of a police escort back in to the town centre. Such must be the problems in keeping home and away fans separated in Wolverhampton. The police were out in force and the “Yam Yam’s” day was over.

On the drive home, we wondered about the draw for the quarters, while looking ahead to the league game against Swansea City next Saturday.

It had been a fine day in the Black Country.

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Tales From The King Power Stadium

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 14 January 2017.

The Chuckle Bus was on the road again. There had been a breakfast at a canal-side café in Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, a lunchtime drink at a pub with a roaring fire in Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire while watching a few moments of the televised Tottenham vs. West Brom game, and a further pub stop in the Warwickshire village of Wolvey. We were taking our time. The kick-off in Leicester was not until 5.30pm. There was no rush. In all honesty, the mood in the car was a little pessimistic. I think it shocked us.

The reason for our noticeable solemnity was due to the rumours flying around the internet, the radio and the TV about Diego Costa. There was no absolute ratification from Chelsea regarding the reasons for Costa not travelling to Leicester. But the rumours were rife. Was he genuinely injured? Was he seeking a change in China? Was he the centre of a media-led campaign to unsettle us? We didn’t know. We tried not to get sucked in to a maelstrom of negativity, but it was difficult.

In a nutshell, Diego Costa is currently at the peak of his game. If he was genuinely injured, no problems. If there were darker Machiavellian reasons for his absence, what a mess.

Either way, it darkened the mood considerably. After a loss at Tottenham ten days previously, we briefly considered a team affected by the loss of Diego, a subsequent second successive loss in the league in 2017 and storm clouds gathering ahead of tough games against Liverpool and Arsenal. Well, Liverpool anyway. I simply do not fear playing Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. The match at a hostile Anfield will be a different kettle of fish, or dustbin of cats.

But by the same token, we trusted Antonio Conte to enliven his troops against a Leicester City team which would be missing a few key players. Against the immobile rugby-players Huth and Morgan, I fully expected the three-pronged attack of Hazard, Pedro and Willian to turn them inside and out.

We were parked up in good time. Although I had dressed for the Baltic – quilted jacket, and warm pullover, Timbers – the walk to the stadium was not as cold as I had expected.

The three sporting stadia in Leicester are clustered together to the south of the city centre; cricket’s Grace Road, rugby’s Welford Road and football’s King Power Stadium. They are all within a twenty-five-minute walk of each other. The latter, replacing Filbert Street, is a typical new build. A single-tiered identikit stadium. Replace the blue seats with red, and it could be Southampton’s St. Mary’s. It perfectly suits Leicester City, but it’s hardly an interesting site, or sight.

Our own beloved Stamford Bridge had been at the forefront of my mind since the last game. On Wednesday evening the local Hammersmith & Fulham Council met to vote on the planning application for our spectacular re-build.

At around 10pm it was announced that they had said “yes.”

What wonderful news.

I remembered the black days of autumn 2011 and the invigorating “Say No CPO” campaign, which defeated the club in their attempt to buy our shares, but which then forced the club to do a complete 180 degrees on a re-build at Stamford Bridge.

Just magnificent.

Thank you so much for listening Roman. And thank you so much for taking every care in choosing a team of architects that has produced such a breath taking and iconic design. I think the design, bearing in mind the considerable constraints forced upon it, is wonderful. It will break the mould of football stadia in this country. No copycat stadium for this club. Not everyone is a fan, but I feel that the detractors are focussing on the aerial view. But that misses the point. From street level, I believe that the structure – London brick, rising high, strong, iconic, unique – will be mesmirising. At night time, for an evening game, with the roof under lit, the stadium will be spectacular.

Of course the negative in all of this will be a hiatus at Wembley, in all probability, but compared to the dark days of the “Save The Bridge” campaign in 1986 – buckets outside The Shed End – and the attempted land grab in 2011, we should not be too disheartened. It is up to the club to be creative in its match day pricing during our seasons among the red seats at Wembley in order for us to maintain our level of support.  My real fear is of a mediocre team with sub 30,000 gates for lesser opponents.

No pressure, Antonio.

I rewarded myself for getting the lads to yet another game with a pint of lager. In the bar area below the steps to the stadium, there were the usual faces, and the Chelsea fans were in good voice. Yet more Aquascutum scarves.

A text came through on my phone : Frome Town were beating Redditch United 6-1. It soon became 8-1. My hometown team are currently enjoying their best ever season, a nine-game unbeaten run, and now their biggest win at that level. Good times indeed.

Back in the rarefied atmosphere of the Premier League, the main two results went against us; there were easy wins for Tottenham and then Arsenal.

The team was announced. Conte had opted for solidity with Nemanja Matic alongside N’Golo Kante.

We had seats down low by the corner flag. Just before kick-off – out of nowhere – my mate Tuna from Atlanta suddenly appeared, bouncing down the steps. What a small world.

This would be my first sighting of Leicester City this season; I had missed the 4-2 League Cup win and the 3-0 home victory in the league. On a dark evening, Gary and myself wondered why we were wearing black and not white. Thank goodness the home fans had not been issued with those damned noise-makers.

Not long in to the game, the away fans roared our support of a missing player.

“Diego, Diego, Diego, Diego, Diego,”

I approved.

The home team started on the front foot and Thibaut Courtois was called on to thwart an early attempt on our goal. We reacted superbly well to this early threat. After just six minutes, a cross from Cesar Azpilicueta reached Pedro. He was falling, under pressure, inside the box, but was able to touch the ball to Eden Hazard. The away section held our breath. A goal was on the cards. Eden played it out to Marcos Alonso, who smashed the ball past low Kasper Schmeichel.

Get in.

Wild celebrations, get off Tuna.

Leicester City responded well to be honest. Although Chelsea maintained high levels of possession, pushing the ball around well, the home team caused us a few problems. A ball from out wide often caused us concerns, but on every occasion, the defensive three plus the reliable Courtois were able to clear.

On ten minutes, the stadium lit up with mobile phone spotlights as a nod of support to former player – and now match day host – Alan Birchenall, who suffered a heart-attack on the previous Thursday. Birchenall once played for Chelsea, and one of his ports of call after leaving Leicester City was to manage Trowbridge Town from my neck of the woods back in their hay days, when they battled away in the Conference for a few heady seasons. The ups and downs of non-league football; Trowbridge Town are now many levels below Frome Town.

Mark Albrighton, Danny Drinkwater and that man Jamie Vardy looked dangerous at times. I was able to focus on Vardy’s battle with Gary Cahill; a good old-fashioned drama.

Over on the far side were two loved Italians; Claudio Ranieri and Antonio Conte.

The home fans to our left were engaged in a bit of banter with us. They were clearly enjoying their post-championship European campaign.

“Are you going to Seville?”

While we patiently played through our midfield, with Alonso overlapping well and enjoying a fine game, Leicester played the role of counter-attacker. Vardy caused more anxiety for Courtois. There were few chances for either side, though. A free-kick from Pedro failed to test Schmeichel just before the break.

Six minutes into the second-half, we struck again. A Willian corner from down below us was only partially-cleared and the ball fell invitingly to none other than Marcos Alonso. He swiped at the ball – using his left foot this time – and he kept the ball down well. A slight deflection steered it away from Schmeichel.

Bloody hell, Alonso again, get in.

I caught his joyous run down to our section on film.

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It was all Chelsea now, with everyone playing to their maximum. Kante seemed to win every 50/50. He was inspired. Matic was solid. Alonso and Moses were full of graft and running. Every time that Alonso received the ball, he was urged to “shoot” by the away faithful. What fun.

Gary Cahill had an outrageous overhead kick which surprised us all, and then Alonso had a big moment. The ball ballooned up in the air. At that moment in time, Alonso had two options.

“Do I hit it on the volley? Do I score my first-ever hat-trick since I was in Senorita Ramirez’ class in secondary school, that sunny day in Madrid, I can still see it now, Juan Martinez you did not stand a chance, you horrible little twat, the Chelsea fans will love me, it will make up for Tottenham, not my best game, yes I’ll plant this into the goal and the match ball will be mine. Or do I trap it and lay it off? Am I confident? Too bloody right I am. I’ll hit the fucker. Here I go.”

It whistled narrowly wide.

We were purring. I lost count of the one-touch angled passes played into space by Hazard, Pedro and Willian. It was spectacular stuff.

With twenty minutes to go, we scored a lovely third goal. More dogged perseverance from Moses, a clean and crisp ball from Kante, an impudent back-heel from Pedro. Willian reached the ball just before Schmeichel, and his lofted chip was headed home by Pedro.

3-0, get off Tuna.

More lovely celebrations in front of us.

Pedro had enjoyed another fantastic game for us. One moment sticks in my mind. After the third goal, he flung himself in front of a Leicester defender as he attempted to clear from just a few yards outside their penalty area. It summed up the spirit coursing through the veins of our whole team this season. Top marks.

Conte made some late change; Cesc Fabregas for Eden Hazard, Michy Batshuayi for Willian, Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Pedro.

It stayed at 3-0.

At the end of the game, the entire team walked over to us. The away support were bouncing in praise of the manager and his troops.

The memories of our match at the same stadium last season – that bleak night, Mourinho speaking of “betrayal” and his last-ever game as our manager – seemed from another age, another era.

In 2016/2017, there is a new leader of our team.

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

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Tales From The Clarence

Chelsea vs. Peterborough United : 8 January 2017.

In the pub, there was only the briefest most-mortem of the loss at Tottenham on the previous Wednesday. A few of us had been present at the game; others had watched on the TV. We all agreed that we hadn’t been atrocious. We all agreed that Tottenham hadn’t ripped us to shreds. In the circumstances, a run-of-the-mill 2-0 loss at one of our toughest away venues of the season was met with a gentle acceptance. A few mentioned that Marcos Alonso – I honestly could not remember him from his spell in England with either Bolton or Sunderland – has not performed too well of late, and I had to agree. There was a slight mention of the transfer window, but nobody had too much to say about that. Where does our squad need strengthening? Maybe a left-back, then, and maybe another striker. With Kurt Zouma about to return against Peterborough United later in the day, and – presumably – with Andreas Christensen due to return from his very successful spell at Borrusia Moenchengladbach in the summer – there is surely no need for the club to sign a central defender, despite the constant rumours linking us with Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci, in the January window.

Around ten of us were trying out a new pub for the first time. After the demise of The Goose – it’s still frequented by some, but some of us fancy fresh pastures – we are still trying out new options. On this occasion, it was the turn of The Clarence. Heading north along the North End Road from The Goose, are three similar old-style pubs; The Elm, The Old Oak and The Clarence. These are small parlours and are strikingly similar in many ways. Old-fashioned décor, tired carpets, darkened wooden panels, fixtures from the ‘seventies, no frills and thrills, faded framed paintings and packets of crisps as the only bar snack. There was a time when all match-day pubs were like this. Our old haunt The Harwood Arms – 1995 to 1999 – certainly was.  The Seven Stars is no more, but that used to line the North End Road too, just opposite The Clarence. Then up at West Kensington is The Famous Three Kings. Since The Clarence housed only around twenty customers on this particular pre-match, we surmised that this pub just about marked the most north-westerly outpost of Chelsea drinkers on match days. It was OK. At least the beers were served in glass pints. To be honest, it filled a need but it was anything but posh.

I had spotted only a handful of Peterborough United supporters on my pre-amble to the boozer. They were to be six thousand strong, but I didn’t see any of them in any of the pubs around the stadium. I suspect a lot of them were doing their drinking around Earls Court. There had been a brief chat with some usual suspects at the CFCUK stall about the game at White Hart Lane – “I’d prefer this to be a league game to be honest, let’s get back in to the routine and get some points in the bag” – alongside talk of Adidas trainers and the imminent new stadium planning presentation to the local council on Wednesday evening.

That will surely prove to be one of the most historic nights in our history.

I spotted a new selection of royal blue pennants lining Fulham Broadway and Fulham Road. There were images of our silverware, along with pennants showing the words to two Chelsea standards; “Blue Is The Colour” and “The Blue Flag.”

Inside the stadium, the six thousand away fans took up the entire Shed End. Parky had been pushed to a seat in the West Lower, the poor bugger.

I approved of the retro-style programme cover which mirrored that of our 1965 FA Cup Quarter Final against Peterborough United; a nice touch.

We had been told that both Kurt Zouma and Michy Batshuayi would start against The Posh. In the pub, the starting eleven chosen by Antonio Conte, puzzled us a little. We found the thought of Branislav Ivanovic as a starting wing-back too weird for words. And Pedro, too, for that matter. Who would ever have thought that these two players would be playing the same role in a Chelsea starting eleven? We live in tactically-interesting times, eh?

Begovic.

Zouma, Terry, Cahill.

Ivanovic, Fabregas, Chalobah, Pedro.

Loftus-Cheek, Batshuayi, Willian.

It was obviously lovely to see King Kurt back after a very lengthy spell out. I wasn’t sure about Ruben playing in a wide position, but it gave him a chance to impress.

We played Peterborough United in the same round of the competition in 2001 and won 5-0. On that occasion, the visitors wore a lurid lime green kit. This time, it was a lurid yellow. The game began, and I was a little disappointed that the away fans seemed quiet from the off. Despite a bright start from their home town heroes, they mainly stayed seated. There were no FA Cup balloons, another dying tradition.

Our first chance came from a near post flick from Gary Cahill after a low Willian corner, which caused an immediate scare in the away end. The ball bounced back into the arms of the ‘keeper – lurid pink – off the post. At the other end, a scare for us. A fine cross into our box was met by a lunge from a Peterborough striker. Asmir Begovic’ point blank stop looked exceptional, though this was just a save brought about by exceptional positioning than dynamic ability. A volley from John Terry ended up being planted straight at the Posh keeper’s stomach, and then Peterborough threatened Begovic again. It was quite a start for them.

Zouma reached row Z of The Shed with one effort, and then Willian reached row W with another. It was a very bright opening.

Following a shot from Chalobah which was palmed back out by the ‘keeper McGee, Pedro controlled the loose ball, lost his man with a deft shimmy, and smacked the ball in – high – at the far post.

Get in.

Pedro made a point of running down past the away fans to the far corner. Somebody obviously failed to tell him that The Shed wouldn’t be housing any home fans on this occasion. He looked a bit sheepish.

We put the Peterborough goal under pressure, with efforts from Batshuayi and Loftus-Cheek. Pedro, in a copycat move, slammed the ball high, but this time the ball crashed against the bar.

Just before the break, a fine move involving a hooked past from Willian to an advanced Ivanovic, resulted in Batshuayi calmly slotting home after a delicate lay-off from Loftus-Cheek.

Coasting now, 2-0, but I whispered to PD and his son Scott : “remember Bradford City in 2015.”

Willian had enjoyed an excellent first-half, full of running and intelligent passing.

It felt odd watching JT, the returning war horse. I watched on, seeking to praise him at every opportunity, in the same way that I would a youngster from the ranks. In this, surely his last season, I do not want to see him embarrassed again in the same way as he was at West Ham in the League Cup.

At the break, misty rain appeared. Neil Barnett introduced winger Bert Murray from that 1965 game, which we won 5-1.

Not long in to the second period, we broke with ease up the left flank. A marvellous pass from Cesc to Pedro who pushed it on to Willian. A touch inside his marker, and the ball was adeptly dispatched low past McGee. There was a lovely little celebratory dance with Kurt Zouma.

I turned to PD : “there will be no Bradford City today.”

We kept pressing at every opportunity. However, I had to admire how everyone chased and harried once the opponents threatened. I lost count of the number of times that Pedro ran at pace at defenders one minute, but was then seen deep in our own penalty area clearing an attack, or making a timely tackle. If it had been Willian’s first-half, it was surely Pedro’s second. There was one run which I captured on film – click, click, click – which featured a ridiculous high-speed step-over. I almost fell over just watching it. He is surely having one of the best seasons.

Ola Aina – perhaps unlucky not to start – replaced Gary Cahill on the hour.

A rare Peterborough break then caught John Terry unawares. Angol pushed the ball past him, and Terry lunged. It looked awfully messy, but my immediate thought was that, although a red card was possible, Ivanovic was covering. The roar from the away fans put paid to that notion.

A red card for John.

In a reshuffle, Dave replaced Loftus-Cheek, who had been steady rather than spectacular. Of the other youngsters, Zouma looked a little rusty. Batshuayi held the ball up well and a goal for him will boost his confidence. Chalobah was fine.

Against the run of play, Peterborough worked the ball down our left-flank and a low cross was turned past Begovic by Nicholls.

A slight Bradfordesque tremor? Not really. Conte played a strong card from the bench, replacing the excellent Willian by the redoubtable N’Golo Kante. Aina pushed the ball up to Batshuayi, who set up the waiting Pedro. The man of the match quickly slotted the ball home, low past McGee.

Chelsea 4 Peterborough United 1.

We still kept going, searching for more goals. There is no mercy rule in English football, and why should there be? Goals breed confidence, and despite no more ensuing goals, there was certainly a feel-good atmosphere bouncing around Stamford Bridge at the final whistle.

On Saturday evening, it’s back to the league campaign with an away trip to Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City.

Just champion.

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Tales From The Top Of The Pyramid

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 26 December 2016.

There was a time when Boxing Day crowds were the largest of them all. It was a general rule of thumb that the much-loved FA Cup tended to produce gates which were bigger than domestic League games, and that the crowds which poured through the turnstiles on December 26th each season tended to produce the highest attendance figures each year.

Of course, these days in the user-friendly, high-octane, internationally-branded, ultra-commercialised and well-loved world of English football – or at least the Premiership, the pinnacle at the top of the league pyramid – gates are usually sell-outs, with near-capacity crowds commonplace. These days, Boxing Day games are – sadly – just another game. Sure, there is the tingle of football the day after Christmas Day, but that extra-special buzz of the game being one of the biggest days of the season has largely gone.

The FA computer has tended to give us home games on recent Boxing Days. Our 2016/2017 appointment with Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth would be our tenth home game on Boxing Day in thirteen seasons (in 2010/2011, there was no game on Boxing Day.) This suits me. I’d rather travel to SW6 on the day after Christmas than have to drive to other points of the compass. On Boxing Day 2012, the computer paired us with Norwich City and I just could not be arsed. But I haven’t missed too many over the past twenty seasons. In 2014, I stayed at home and missed a home game with West Ham United, in order to spend a last Boxing Day with my dear mother.

Boxing Day 2016 gave us the chance to win a club-record twelfth consecutive league game.

Would we do it?

The mood in the Chuckle Bus was positive.

A few games back, I talked about the chance to win our five games against West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and Stoke City, but never really expected it to happen. But here we were on the cusp of twelve, maybe thirteen.

With Costa and Kante out, it seemed obvious to us who Conte would bring in.

“Batshuayi and Fabregas – easy.”

It seemed odd that we were playing at 3pm on a Boxing Day. Often our games are early kick-offs. In the pubs beforehand, it took a while for things to get busy. Ironically, we live three hours away, but have easier journeys in than Londoners on Boxing Day, with public transport so severely hit.

We popped into “The Goose”, “The Pensioner” and “The Fox & Pheasant.” There were drinks with friends from near and far.

Rob was celebrating the fortieth anniversary of his first-ever Chelsea match, give or take the odd day. Like me, Rob was eight when he saw us play for the very first time. His match was the iconic home game against local rivals Fulham in a Second Division fixture. The attendance that day has become more famous with every passing season. Although we won 2-0, the gate of 55,003 won all of the awards. As an eleven-year-old schoolboy, it amazed and thrilled me that my club could draw such numbers for a game in the second tier of English football. Ironically, it was our last-ever home gate of over 50,000. But it is typical of the size of crowd that was enticed to football stadia over the Christmas period.

Another example of this is a game that I attended, and again against Fulham, and which took place in December 1982. We were dire at the time, sinking fast towards the relegation zone, and previous home gates numbered 6,903, 8,184 and 8,690. The game against Fulham, who were enjoying a fantastic season, drew a gate of 29,797. I was ecstatic that we could pull such numbers. I can remember that I watched from The Shed – it was a 0-0 draw – and I can still remember standing out in the forecourt at the end of the game waiting for my parents to appear from their seats in the East Upper. Thousands of fellow fans streamed past before I spotted my parents. I was numbed – and again thrilled – that so many people could be lured from their warm and cosy homes to watch us in the second tier.

Moments like that evidently stick with me.

We were able to talk to a few friends from the US – John from Los Angeles, Nick from Fresno and Austin from Houston – and it’s always a joy to see their obvious enthusiasm. It would be Nick’s first-ever game at Stamford Bridge.

Chris 1974, Rob 1976, Nick 2016. It goes on.

The team news broke through and we were pretty shocked.

No Batshuayi.

Glenn summed things up : “That will do nothing for the young lad’s confidence. He obviously doesn’t rate him.”

I told Austin of my feelings : “I’ve only just got my head around 3-4-3, I can’t get my head around this false nine stuff.”

It has never convinced me.

I wondered if it would be like ninety minutes of foreplay.

And if so, would we keep a clean sheet?

We walked along Fulham Road – from the East, it doesn’t happen too often – and it was magnificent to be out and about on such a crisp, bright and expectant Boxing Day.

Here was the buzz that I was hoping for. Fantastic.

As the day would progress, I would be keeping an eye on my local team Frome Town’s progress at home to Basingstoke Town in the seventh tier of our national game. It would be a good day for gates in that league too. Frome are currently in sixth place – a highest-ever league position in 112 years.

Bournemouth had brought a full three-thousand. There was a full house, or as near as could be expected. A few no-shows. The Peter Osgood banner in The Shed always seems more relevant over Christmas.

“BORN IS THE KING.”

Eddie Howe’s team are known for their football being played “the right way” but for the first fifteen minutes his players pushed, hacked, tripped and clipped anyone in royal blue. The ire of the home fans rose with each bad challenge. At last, Jack Wilshere was booked for an assault on Eden Hazard.

The atmosphere inside Stamford Bridge was typical of a Boxing day of late; morgue-like. A loud and proud chant of “Red Army” was repeated rhythmically from the far corner and the home support momentarily responded with song.

It was all Chelsea for the majority of the first quarter of the game, with Moses and Pedro creating chances, but with no real threat on goal. Bournemouth were unsurprisingly packing their defence, but on twenty-four minutes, we were treated to a little Christmas magic. Cesc Fabregas touched the ball to Pedro, who was hemmed in, with red and black shirts ahead of him. He twisted, created a little space and chipped the ball, with pace, up and over Artur Boruc. I watched open-mouthed as the ball hit the net.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

Just after, the loathed Wilshere broke into a little space inside our box and forced a fine save from Thibaut Courtois. For all of our attacking prowess over the past few months, Thibaut has been as good as any. In the match programme, there was a sublime photograph, taken at pitch level behind the goal, of his finger-tipped save at Sunderland.

Hazard broke from deep, twisting and turning like a snake, and was creating merry hell for Howe’s players. Just as impressive was Pedro, a picture of relentless motion, never still, always moving. We gasped as a loose ball on the edge of the box was met by a rabona from Hazard. The shot was aiming for the top corner but Boruc was able to claw it away. Wilshere then followed up from a blocked Bournemouth free-kick but thankfully his low shot was cleared. This was turning into a fine game of football. Matic was impressing me with his tackling and tracking. Willian was full of energy. There were, however, a number of times that a ball fizzed across the box yelling out for a Diego Costa touch.

Rob, the birthday boy, sits just a few rows behind me in the MHU, ironically on roughly the same piece of terra firma that he watched forty years ago, and he wanted me to take a candid photo of him on his anniversary.

“I want it you to take it without me knowing, au naturel.”

“Well, I’m not taking my clothes off for you or anyone, Rob.”

Shortly after, I snapped away.

A Fabregas free-kick just cleared the bar.

Just before half-time, the referee Mike Jones allowed Bournemouth to play the advantage after a foul, but after a shot was hit high and wide, he annoyed us all by giving them a free-kick too. Howls of derision were still ringing around the stadium as the resulting shot hit the wall.

At half-time, Frome were 0-1 down.

There were still crisp blue skies overhead as the second-half began. A typical run from Eden Hazard deep in to the Bournemouth penalty area caused Simon Francis to make a clumsy challenge. Eden calmly slotted the penalty home, low to Boruc’ left.

We were 2-0 up and coasting now. The atmosphere had not exactly been tense, but at last we could relax a little. The twelfth win in a row was on the cards. Our play remained high quality. Shots from Hazard, Moses and Willian came close. We hounded Bournemouth when they had possession, and broke with menace when we were able to steal the loose ball.

Although Hazard was showing – dare I say it – world class form, Pedro really caught the eye with his energetic display. Willian, though not able to create a great deal, was able to support his team mates well. Fabregas was a calming presence throughout. On more than one occasion I was mesmerized by our one-touch football. At the back, David Luiz was again exceptional.

The Shed, especially, had a great second-half, with a constant array of songs. On one or two occasions, their noise threatened to envelope the entire stadium. The Matthew Harding showed willing, but the spectators in the East and West Stand were still waiting for formal introductions to take place before joining in.

I’m certainly not a fan of the dirge-like “Chelsea Till I Die” song though; myself and a few mates always said that it used to be sung by middling teams from lower divisions. It’s hardly sung by any of the bigger teams. Let Birmingham City, Derby County and Ipswich Town have it. It’s not a Chelsea song. It was, if I am honest, the very first time that I can ever remember it being sung loudly enough at Stamford Bridge for me to hear it. Which is why I mention it now.

There was one lovely moment towards the end of the game. Fabregas had been fouled and fell right in the path of Eden. Rather than stop and await the referee’s whistle, Eden just flicked the ball over Cesc’s body. What a giggle.

In a rare attack from Bournemouth, substitute Afobe’s low shot was superbly blocked by Courtois. Every one of our damn players are playing at such a high level.

Time was moving on, and it looked like our domination was only being rewarded with two goals.

Glenn wanted another one, to aid our goal difference.

I turned to him and said “I am bloody convinced that we will score a late third.”

Lo and behold, a run from Pedro, the ball seemingly attached to his boots, ended up with a twist and a shot. The ball struck a defender and Boruc was stranded. The ball crept over the line, but there was that third goal.

Perfect.

Chelsea and Kensington 3 Bournemouth and Boscombe 0.

Chalobah had replaced Willian on 83 minutes, Aina had replaced Moses on 89 minutes, but Batshuayi only saw around five seconds of action after replacing Pedro on 94 minutes. It seemed almost cruel. But who are we to grumble? Our fears of the false nine were unfounded, and Antonio Conte continues to enchant us all with his team selections.

I can’t really believe that I am saying this, but let’s go for win number thirteen. Stoke City will present a different test, but with N’Golo and Diego back, I am confident.

Down in Somerset, Frome had managed to nab a 1-1 draw against Basingstoke. The gate was a fine 366, compared to a season average of 225. Elsewhere in that Southern League, on a day of mainly local derbies, a huge 2,033 saw Dorchester Town play Weymouth, and there were also similarly large gates at Leamington (805), Merthyr (784), Kettering Town (656). In fact, all games drew larger-than-normal crowds. Our national game is healthy, and no team is healthier right now than ours.

Let’s enjoy it.

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