Tales From Vanessa’s Birthday Weekend.

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 19 March 2016.

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

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

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

“And now the end is near.”

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

And there would be the usual laughs along the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good times.

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

Good times then, good times now.

This was another mightily busy pre-match.

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

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

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

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

Team news filtered through.

“John Terry is playing.”

Fist pump.

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

The beer garden was packed.

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

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

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

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

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

Different times.

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

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

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

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

This was not going well.

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

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

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

“Happy?”

“Extremely.”

“Bless.”

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

“Ah, he’s always nervous around me.”

Not so today, Ness.

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

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

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

Remy, twisting, forced a save.

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

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

Bollocks.

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

Traore replaced Remy, who had struggled.

Over in the far corner :

“Fawchunes always idin.”

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

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

The time was passing.

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

Keep plugging away boys.

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

Fabregas coolly sent Adrian the wrong way.

2-2.

Phew.

Vanessa’s man did it again.

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

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

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

Lovely stuff.

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

Oh Stamford Bridge, I will miss you.

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

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

It would turn out to be a simply wonderful weekend.

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Tales From Four Games In One Day.

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 5 March 2016.

“I just hope that – and it might be just me that thinks this – the whole day doesn’t slide by with people, fans and players alike, more concerned about the game against PSG on Wednesday. This game against Stoke has kinda snuck up on me to be honest and I’m a bit worried. It’s a game we can win, but I just hope we are all focussed.”

These were my words soon into the drive up to London for the visit of Stoke City. Without a doubt, the return leg of our Champions League tie with Paris St. Germain was certainly looming large. I think that the extra week between the two games has added to the sense of drama, and the tie couldn’t be more evenly poised. It promises to be a tremendous occasion.

But the game against Stoke City was in my sights now, and I was hopeful that this would be our main focus.

We had our first snow of the winter overnight, but there was just a residual dusting left on the fields around my home as I set off to collect the two Chuckle Brothers en route to SW6. We had just enjoyed two of the most enjoyable away games for a while, in Hampshire and Norfolk, and we were now set for two games at Stamford Bridge in five days. The games are coming along in bitesize chunks for me at the moment; two home, two away, three home, three away, three home, two away and now two at home.

The games against Stoke City and PSG would certainly be something to get my teeth into.

Elsewhere, three other games were occupying my thoughts. There was the lunchtime North London Derby. A draw was my preferred result for this one, though if there was to be a winner, my choice was going to be with Arsenal. For any game there are three points up for grabs and I always say that between rivals, a draw is always best, since one of the three points disappears into the ether. And of course, I am talking here as an advocate of Leicester City winning the league. A draw between Arsenal and Spurs would be fine by me. A Spurs win would invigorate them again, and – for fuck sake – we do not want to even think about Tottenham winning the league after fifty-five years. Even with an Arsenal win, I couldn’t see them having the mental strength to win the league. So, a draw for me please.

There was also Leicester City’s game at Watford in the evening. We’re all Leicester fans now, and a win there would be bloody superb. Even if we took out the Claudio Ranieri factor, who wouldn’t begrudge the Foxes a first-ever title. It would be the most sumptuous fairy story for decades and decades.

My mind was also on my local non-league team Frome Town and their home game against Biggleswade Town. A much-needed win would boost our chances of surviving in the seventh tier of English football.

So, four games.

And I was worried about focussing on one.

It was the usual busy build-up before the game, with meet ups with Chelsea fans from near and far. Down at the stadium, I picked up a programme, and was pleased with the retro cover, in the style of the 1969/1970 edition, in deference of the anniversary of Peter Osgood’s passing ten years ago. In and around the stadium, I chatted to friends from places as far flung as Atlanta, Edinburgh and Bangkok. It is always a treat to see the look of excitement on the faces of supporters who are not able to see the team quite as often as my usual cronies.  On the way back to The Goose from Stamford Bridge I couldn’t help but notice a swarm of yellow-jacketed stewards demanding that supporters showed them their tickets. I had never noticed this before, and it seemed out of place, almost rude. I couldn’t see the point of it. It was especially galling when touts – with plenty of bloody tickets – were plying their trade a few yards away. I approached a callow youth, entrusted with a loudhailer, and vented :

“Excuse me mate, I think it’s a bit off, asking for genuine supporters to show you their tickets. Why don’t you ask the touts to show you theirs?”

He mumbled something about plain clothes policemen monitoring them, but I simply did not believe a word of it. You can be sure that the same leeches will be out in force on Wednesday night.

In the pub, for once, the televised game was getting stacks of attention, although I only occasionally glimpsed at the score of the Tottenham vs. Arsenal match. The reactions of the Chelsea fans in the pub was interesting and a litmus test of loyalties. I entered the pub with Arsenal 1-0 up.

“Oh well, better than Spurs winning.”

While I chatted to Kev and Rich from Edinburgh, no noise at all accompanied Tottenham’s two goals, and I was simply not aware that they had scored on either occasion. Arsenal’s late equaliser, however, was met with a resounding cheer. There was little doubt that we were all thinking the same things.

“A draw, great, come on Leicester, but Tottenham must not – MUST NOT – win the league.”

I was inside Stamford Bridge in good time. Around one thousand Stokies had left their houses in North Staffordshire and were ensconced in the away section. I spotted Brenda, the guest from Atlanta, up above me in the Matthew Harding Upper. I popped over to see her, but she looked petrified.

“I’m scared of heights. I daren’t move.”

I grimaced and replied :

“You’re scared of heights? So are fucking Arsenal.”

As the teams entered the pitch – or just after – a large “Osgood 9” banner appeared in the Shed Upper, with a lengthy banner, draped over the balcony wall, below :

“OUT FROM THE SHED CAME A RISING YOUNG STAR.”

I always went with the other words – “The Shed looked up and they saw a great star” – but top marks for effort.

Guus Hiddink was forced to rest Diego Costa as he had a niggle. Instead, the so-far impressive Bertrand Traore was picked ahead of Loic Remy, who was on the substitute bench along with Alexandre Pato. Matic was picked to play alongside Mikel, but no Fabregas, who Hiddink was presumably resting for Wednesday.

It was rather a cold day in SW6, and I noticed that the stadium took ages to fill up, but even after a good few minutes of play there were occasional gaps. The Shed upper, certainly, had a fair few empty seats dotted around. There were a couple of early renditions of “Born Is The King” but the atmosphere soon quietened to its usual muted levels.

My fears seemed to have been validated, as we lacked focus and really struggled to impose ourselves on the game. Stoke City, with the skilful Shaqiri catching the eye early on, have morphed into a more modern team these days, and do not really on the “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” style of football of Tony Pulis. Arnautovic looks a handful though. We toiled away in the first half, occasionally finding our rhythm, but it was our black-clad visitors who had the best of the chances. Thibaut Courtois saved well from Afellay. Then a fantastic ball from Diouf, with a perfect amount of fade, allowed Arnautovic to play in Diouf, who had supported the attack well, but his touch was heavy and the ball thankfully cleared the bar.

Willian fired wide soon after, but we were hardly threatening Jack Butland in the Stoke goal. Shaqiri, who had given Baba a torrid time in the league game in November, swept a ball in from the right, but Diouf again wasted a fine chance. In my book, we could have been 2-0 down.

With the first-half coming to its conclusion, Betrand Traore – a peripheral figure until then – received a pass from Nemanja Matic, and confidently swept past a defender before leathering it hard and true into the Stoke goal from around twenty yards out. It was a sweet strike, and Stamford Bridge roared its approval.

“Get in.”

At half-time, I read a few of the many pieces devoted to Peter Osgood in the match programme. It seems that my memory of Ossie’s Chelsea trial, recounted previously, was slightly askew, although the main gist was correct. Here are the words, then, of the great man himself :

“I got the forms back saying report to Hendon (Chelsea’s training ground at the time) on a Saturday morning about 11.30am. I said to Dick Foss “I’m Osgood, down from Windsor, is there any way I can play in the first half hour of the trial game because I’ve got a cup game for Spital Old Boys in the afternoon?” and he said “certainly.” And after half-an-hour I came off and it was “can you sign here?” And I’d actually signed for Chelsea. It was as simple as that.”

At half-time I heard that Game Three was going well; Frome Town were winning 2-0.

Into the second-half, and again our intensity was missing. Courtois parried an Arnautovic effort. The same striker then broke through in the inside left channel but was robbed of the ball with an exquisite tackle from Gary Cahill. It was simply sublime. However, just after, Cahill allowed Shaqiri a little too much space and we watched, nervously, as his low shot narrowly missed Courtois’ far post.

Cahill, in the thick of it at both ends, found himself free on the edge of the Stoke box and his fine turn and shot was saved by Butland.

Hiddink replaced Hazard – resting him, eyes on PSG – with Loftus-Cheek, and then Traore with Remy.

We were able to get players in wide positions – Oscar, Baba, Willian, even Mikel – but on many occasions there was nobody in the killing zone of the six yard box. How we missed Diego Costa.

Stoke, however, were constantly stretching us, and I was worried.

Oscar fell to the floor after a clumsy challenge by Muniesa but Clattenburg waved away the howls for a penalty.

Hiddink then caused Alan and myself to scratch our heads. He brought on Fabregas for Matic, and we were certainly not expecting that. It softened our midfield, but also exposed Cesc – surely a starter on Wednesday – to injury.

“Answers on a postcard.”

With the game entering its closing moments, my fears were again confirmed. A cross from the right by Shaqiri, ever-troublesome, was punched inadequately by Courtois. Disastrously for us, Diouf made up for his earlier misses and sent a header back in to the empty net.

Ugh.

The Stokies celebrated and we watched in silent annoyance. With that one equalising goal, Alan soon informed me that we had plummeted from a healthy seventh place to a much more mundane eleventh.

Ugh again.

Fabregas flicked an Oscar corner over from close range, but the final whistle soon blew.

A draw was undoubtedly – and sadly – a fair result.

“Not good enough today I’m afraid.”

Wednesday, evidently, was on everybody’s minds after all.

Back in the car, with Parky and PD, we slowly made our way out of London. I was so pleased to hear that Frome Town had hung on to get three points against Biggleswade. Survival now beckons. We heard snippets of the evening game on the radio as we drove back home. As we passed Reading, we punched the air as a Riyad Mahrez goal sent Leicester City on their way to a hugely important win at Watford. It reminded me so much of a win at Norwich in 2005, on a day when Manchester United only drew at Crystal Palace and we, ourselves, went five points clear of the pack.

Leicester’s goal cheered us no end.

They are now nine games away from history and I, among many millions more, wish them well.

“Anyone but Tottenham.”

On Wednesday, we reconvene again at Stamford Bridge for a potentially historic night of European football.

Under the lights.

A tale of two cities.

London and Paris.

“Let’s Go To Work.”

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Tales From The Coach And Horses.

Norwich City vs. Chelsea : 1 March 2016.

I can well remember being at work on the afternoon of Wednesday 1 March 2006 and opening up an email from my friend Daryl. In a brief sentence, he had written that Peter Osgood – my childhood hero – had been taken very ill at a family funeral in Slough, close to his native Windsor. Other emails and texts from close friends quickly followed. Within a very short space of time, my head began spinning as I tried to take in this horrible news. I remember one friend, Andy I think, commenting “it doesn’t look good.” That one phrase sent me reeling. I very soon feared the worst. My mind suddenly began preparing my body for some sad news. The announcement quickly followed.

Peter Osgood was dead.

He was only 59 years old.

There was a horrid sense of loss. It seemed to be so unfair. He was taken from us at a relatively young age. For a whole generation of Chelsea supporters, although the mid-‘sixties to early-‘seventies team was crammed full of fan favourites, there was only one Ossie. For me, like thousands of others, in the school playground, when I played football among mates, I was Peter Osgood. I had the number nine on my shirt. My mother had sewn a “home-made” number nine on my shorts to match. He was everything to me and many others.

Losing Ossie hurt so much.

That evening at Anfield, England played Uruguay in a friendly and there was a minute’s silence for Peter Osgood and also former England manager Ron Greenwood, who had died a few weeks earlier. Fittingly Joe Cole scored a last minute-winner.

The Chelsea community soon came together to remember Peter Osgood. There were emotional eulogies and resonating testimonials to one of our most cherished and admired footballers. On the following Saturday, I was so grateful that I was going to our away game at West Brom (I only went to half the aways in that season, so my attendance wasn’t guaranteed) so that I could grieve among friends. Before the game, we held up black and white photographs from 1970, and there was another minute of silence.

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Our next game was against Tottenham, and I wanted to honour Peter Osgood in my own way. I spent many hours producing a banner of Ossie’s face, based on that classic photograph of him at the Mitcham training ground in around 1972/1973. A few friends and myself posed with it in the beer garden of The Goose, before I unfurled it during the minute of applause for him before the game.

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William Gallas’ thunderbolt in the last minute sent us all delirious that afternoon. It was such an emotional day, and certainly a fitting send-off for our much-loved idol.

I was also proud and privileged to attend the memorial service at Stamford Bridge on Sunday 1 October, when around one thousand Chelsea supporters watched from The Shed as Peter Osgood’s ashes were laid to rest under the penalty spot. It was a very classy affair, fit for The King. The service was attended by Chelsea Pensioners and Grenadier Guards. Peter Kenyon, Ron Harris, Tommy Docherty and Peter Bonetti spoke of their former friend and colleague. It was a blustery and rainy day, and everyone there will remember how the sun shone just as the ashes were laid to rest.

In 2007, I took my Peter Osgood banner on tour in the USA, but after a long session after a game against Club America in Palo Alto, I carelessly lost it. I was dumbstruck with sadness when I woke up in my motel room, and realised that my pride and joy was missing. I had presumed that I had left it in a cab. I was gutted. Imagine my surprise when Mike, who runs the New York Blues, presented it to me at a baseball game in San Diego a few days later. I had evidently just left it pinned to a wall in the “Rose & Crown.” I thanked Mike, shrugged, and said :

“I guess that Ossie just didn’t want to leave the pub.”

Ten years on, these memories were recalled as our away game at Carrow Road drew near. As fate would have it, the tenth anniversary of Peter Osgood’s passing would coincide with a match against one of his former teams. In 1976/1977, Ossie played three times for Norwich City in the top flight, on loan from Southampton, who were alongside us in the Second Division.

And I had decided to mark the occasion by taking along my Peter Osgood banner too.

This was our second away game in just four days, and four of us had decided to make a trip out of it, due the long distances involved. I had booked a hotel near the stadium and I was really relishing the chance to relax and unwind in the fine Norfolk city. I would be treating it as a mini-Euro Away, but without time-differences, tear gas and Toblerones.

I collected PD as early as eight ‘clock and Parky soon after. The drive to Norwich, nine counties away, was just a few miles shy of 250 miles in length. And although league points were at stake, a lot of my thoughts were focused on Peter Osgood as I drove east through horrible driving conditions.

At around 10.30pm, my car slowly edged past Windsor and Slough.

I made slow progress around the M25 – constant rain, hideous – but then the weather brightened up just as the first road sign for Norwich came in to view as we exited the M11. I was able to relax further, and I enjoyed driving on the relatively-newly improved A11. It was a lovely road in fact. Norwich was in our sights, the music was blaring, and we were nearing the end of a five-and-a-half-hour drive.

At 1.30pm, we were parked up outside our hotel, and a few minutes later we joined up with Dave, the fourth member of the day’s Away Club, in a boozer just over the road called “The Coach & Horses.” Pints were quickly demolished, and a few Chelsea pals joined us. This was not planned, but the train station was only five minutes away. Within thirty minutes or so, it was plainly obvious that the pub would be one of the main Chelsea boozers of the day.

Via a tip-off from a mate, who had heard on the Chelsea grapevine that a few PSG tickets were back on sale, Dave was able to quickly call the box office and order a couple.

Job done.

The idea, originally, was to head off up the hill in to the centre of the city on a little pub crawl of our own, but we had heard rumours that many pubs, like at Southampton on Saturday, were for home fans only. We decided to cut our losses and stay put.

“Another San Miguel, please.”

We stood at the bar and chatted away, welcoming friends from near and far. The place became rammed. And yet the game seemed hours away.

I briefly chatted to Callum, who had taken the notion of marking the ten-year anniversary of Peter Osgood’s passing to the next level. He had brought along three five metre banners, spelling out “Ossie The King”, but was a little concerned about smuggling them in to the stadium. I wished him well.

I chatted to Tom.

“Terrible drive up, Tom. Horrible conditions. Wet, spray, and that was just inside the car.”

The only surprise was that none of the local constabulary, nor the fine upstanding gentlemen of the Fulham OB, had called to visit. Nobody within the pub was looking for trouble, for sure, and there was a lovely relaxed feel, but you might expect the police to call by, especially since it was only a ten-minute walk to Carrow Road. Hardly anyone was wearing Chelsea colours of course. On away days such as these, when it is all about blending in and not making a scene, I always wonder about the sanity of others – few in number to be fair – who smother themselves in Chelsea regalia, then wonder why they are not allowed in to pubs and, on very rare occasions these days, get the occasional “slap” from a wannabee hoodlum from the host city.

“Another San Miguel, please.”

Amid the banter and laughter, Peter Osgood filtered through my thoughts. Everyone has an Ossie story, and it has been wonderful reading about some of his escapades the past few days. I always remember a story that he told at an evening in Warminster in around 1997. Peter was in great form that night and this one story is not often shared. It went something like this.

“I was an Arsenal fan as a boy, to be fair, and when I was around fifteen I was playing for a team in my home town of Windsor called Spittal’s Old Boys. One day I had heard that Chelsea had sent a chap down, a scout, to watch me play, but I had already played a full game in the morning. I ended up only playing a half. I scored a couple. I thought I had done OK, but maybe not enough to impress the Chelsea representative. Believe it or not, ladies and gentlemen, he had been impressed with what he had seen, and had decided to sign me up for Chelsea there and then. Well, this was fantastic. Only half a game, and I was going to Chelsea. Fantastic.”

There was a pause, and I had an idea there would be a punchline.

“So, that just goes to show how easy it was, in those days, to sign for Tottenham.”

The crowd erupted in laughter. Nice one Os.

The pints were flowing, and the clock behind the bar appeared to be standing still. More fans arrived. We could hardly move. Laugh after laugh, pint after pint. Eventually, the time passed and it was time to move on. It was around 6.45pm.

We walked down to Carrow Road which sits alongside the River Wensum underneath a bluff of higher land to the west. There was a nod to a few familiar faces outside and then the bag check.

Camera – in.

Ossie flag – in.

Thankfully, inside, I soon saw that Callum had successfully smuggled the three large flags in.

PD appeared.

“Pint Chris?”

We were in our seats, nearer the front than usual, with time to spare, but Alan and Gary – who were travelling up on the official club coaches – were not in.

With kick-off approaching, the Peter Osgood flags were unwrapped and hoisted above heads.

“OSSIE

THE

KING”

It was time to unwrap my banner. Parky and myself easily persuaded our neighbours to hold it aloft, taught in the Norfolk air, for a few minutes.

I was more than happy. Job done.

Peter Osgood : RIP

The teams entered the pitch, and amidst the frantic folding of my banner, sorting out my camera for the ensuing game, thanking those around me and answering texts from friends in the USA that had seen my flag on TV, I unfortunately missed our opening goal.

Bloody typical.

The cheers of the Chelsea faithful were a heartening sound. Such an early goal – Kenedy, shot – was just what we had needed in our quest for three points and – whisper it – the heady heights of eighth place should we be successful.

Guus Hiddink had surprised a few people by including Kenedy and also Bertrand Traore. I was also a little surprised that Nemanja Matic had been recalled too.

As the game continued, the text messages kept rolling in. We live in such a small world these days. I was soon showing a young lad in front a video clip of the flag which was sent to me from Pablo in Pennsylvania.

Fantastic stuff.

Alan and Gary appeared, ten minutes in, having been delayed on their coach, thus missing the banners and, most importantly, the goal.

They were fuming, and quite rightly.

On the pitch, we occasionally played some nice football, with Eden Hazard involved in some attacks at the Norwich defence. Traore was involved too. In the stands, the Chelsea support was not setting the world alight. It was as if the long distances involved in getting to the game had made us tired and weary. A free-kick from Cesc Fabregas, and Ruddy – in pink – saved well. Just before the break, Traore played the ball in to Diego Costa, who carefully flicked the ball over Mr. Pink.

2-0, you beauty.

Game over?

Not a bit of it.

Norwich began the livelier in the second-half and journeyman Cameron Jerome had two early chances to score. His second effort flew off the top of the bar. The warning signs were there and the Chelsea support grew edgier.

The manager replaced Traore and Oscar with Mikel and Willian.

Shortly after a well-worked goal cut through our defence and Nathan Redmond firmly struck past the man in black, Thibaut Courtois.

2-1 and the game, sadly, was back on.

With the last quarter approaching, the Chelsea support grew even more agitated.

Baba replaced Kenedy.

Chances were at a premium, especially at our end, where there was a little banter between both sets of fans. An old favourite from 2005 was aired.

“We’ve got Abramovich, you’ve got a drunken bitch.”

Fabregas came close. We attacked with a little more conviction. Matic headed over from a Willian corner. Then Diego raced at the nervous Norwich defence, showing the guile and tenacity of last season, but his efforts were thwarted.

Some had to leave the game early to catch the 10pm train to London.

The nerves were jangling.

“Come on Chels!”

Norwich threatened again.

“Fackinblowupref.”

Relief at the final whistle, and knowing looks from everyone.

Phew.

Up to the giddy heights of eighth place.

Phew again.

This had been a rough and tumble affair, and reminded me a little of our more – what word can I use? – pragmatic performances of the latter part of last season. But, as we headed back to the centre of the pleasant city for a fine Chinese meal, we were just so grateful for three points. It had been an increasingly nervy affair and we agreed that the support was a little “off” too. It was an altogether odd evening on the banks of the Wensum. And how we would have loved to have seen a little more of the wonderful qualities of someone like Peter Osgood on show.

Bless him.

 

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Tales From St. Mary’s.

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 27 February 2016.

I should dislike Southampton Football Club a lot more than I do. When I was a mere eight-year-old boy, they stole my childhood hero Peter Osgood away from Stamford Bridge a mere couple of weeks before my very first Chelsea match.

That is reason enough to carry a lifetime of dislike for them – hatred would, of course, be far too strong – surely?

Looking back at this event some forty-two years later, although I can well remember the sense of pain that I felt at the time, my memories are rather sketchy, not surprisingly. But here are the facts :

My first ever Chelsea game was on Saturday 16 March 1974. Peter Osgood’s last ever Chelsea game was on Saturday 29 December 1973, although he appeared in a friendly at Aberdeen on Friday 16 February 1974.

He left Chelsea a couple of weeks before my first-ever game.

How cruel.

In those formative years of my fledgling support for Chelsea, Peter Osgood was my favourite player, my hero and my idol. He was our charismatic goal scorer and the focus of my adoration. I’ve told the story before of how some family friends, who worked alongside Peter Osgood’s sister Mandy at an office in Windsor, managed to obtain a signed 8” by 10” black and white photograph of Ossie in around 1971 or 1972, and that the excitement of opening up that brown buff envelope containing the photograph was one of the most wonderful moments of my childhood. I still have the autograph of course. It is a treasured memento to this day. Incidentally, I recently spotted a photograph of Ossie’s sister Mandy planting an oak tree in a park in Windsor in memory of her brother, and it brought my childhood memories racing back.

http://www.windsorexpress.co.uk/News/Areas/Windsor/Oak-tree-planted-in-memory-of-England-footballer-Peter-Osgood-08022016.htm

I once spoke to Peter Osgood about the signed photograph and he explained that Mandy was a fine footballer in her own right, and an England international to boot. He laughed when I suggested that she used to sport a fine pair of sideburns, too.

But in 1974, Southampton – and Peter Osgood – broke my heart.

I can vaguely remember the stories in the ‘papers and on the TV about the infamous fall out between our manager David Sexton, and a few of our star players – most notably Alan Hudson and Peter Osgood – and as the day of my first ever game approached, there was this horrible gnawing realisation that I would not be seeing Ossie play. Hudson’s last game for Chelsea was also against Liverpool in December 1973, and he was sold to Stoke City in the first few weeks of 1974. The 1970 and 1971 cup winning team was falling apart in front of my eyes, and – to my sadness – my hero Peter Osgood would be the next to leave. There are hints of an olive branch being pointed towards Ossie with his appearance in the Aberdeen friendly at Pittodrie and possibly a chance of reconciliation, but my idol was sold to Southampton for £275,000 in the first few days of March 1974.

I would never see Ossie play for Chelsea.

Although Chelsea’s 1973/1974 was far from impressive – we only just staved off relegation – it is with a certain amount of melancholy that I note that Ossie’s new club were duly relegated in the May. I am sure that this must have been a huge blow to Ossie, and I am sure that he wistfully looked on as Chelsea stayed up. With a cruel twist, I saw him play against us in March 1976 in a Second Division game, and can sadly remember the furore in the media about The Shed chanting an unsavoury song towards our former hero, and Ossie “flicking some Vs” back at them.

It wasn’t meant to be like this.

When Ossie returned for some games in 1979, our paths sadly never crossed, and his time as a Chelsea player ended with me never seeing him play in our club colours.

It is one of the few regrets that I have as a Chelsea supporter.

As we approached the tenth anniversary of Peter Osgood’s sad passing, how fitting that the Premier League fixture list should pair Southampton and Chelsea together.

For the first-ever time, we had decided to take the train to Southampton. The four of us – Parky, PD, Glenn and myself – met up at Westbury station and caught the 9.01am train down to Southampton Central. Other local blues Les and Graham were on the train too. Opposite us were four Bristolian Chelsea supporters. Throughout the day, we would bump in to many West Country Blues. It is one of the nicest attributes of Chelsea fans that Londoners very rarely take umbrage to Chelsea fans coming from other areas, unlike a couple of Northern teams that I could mention.

Soon into the trip, through rolling countryside, and then the spired city of Salisbury, Parky and PD opened up a couple of cans. I was just happy to share a few laughs as the day unfolded. It was time for me to relax. Leaving work on Friday, I was able to look forward to two fine away games within the space of just four days.

We rolled in to Southampton, breakfasted at a local café, and then joined up with many familiar Chelsea fans in “Yates’s” in the city centre. I am not particularly smitten with Southampton. Right outside the train station, there are a couple of brutal concrete tower blocks, more akin to those on show in the former communist cities of Eastern Europe, which hardly create a welcoming impression. The civic buildings and the Guildhall are fine, but the city centre seems jumbled.

As I worked my way through six pints of San Miguel, such matters disappeared from my mind.

I was able to relax, to chill out, to unwind.

It was important for me to just sit upstairs with Glenn, chatting and relaxing, rather than join in with others in the crowded ground floor, packed to the rafters, and scene of a Chelsea karaoke.

On the previous day, I had silently marked the first anniversary of my mother’s passing by taking some flowers to my parents’ grave, and I was in no mood for too much ribaldry before the game.

I remembered the time in 1981, when my mother and I watched a Southampton vs. Nottingham Forest game from the lower tier of the cramped bench seats in the East Stand at The Dell, lured by the chance to see another hero of my youth, Kevin Keegan, when a work colleague of my father gave us their two season tickets for the day.

Outside the weather looked cold. There seemed to be a biting wind. More than a few of the local police force were watching us. Only two of the central pubs allow away fans.

“Yates’s” was heaving. The lagers were going down well. Good times.

On the walk to St. Mary’s, I joked with Mick that it was lovely to see him holding hands with Pauline.

“It’s not romantic, Chris. I just needed to prise her out of the pub.”

We laughed.

St. Mary’s, positioned next to the River Itchen to the east, but hemmed in by industrial units to the south and two rusty gasometers to the north, is a rather bland stadium. It is no Dell.

There was not a lot of time to spare and I joined up with Alan and Gary in our seats just in time.

All of a sudden, among the beers, and the laughter and the song, it was time to pay attention to the actual match. Guus Hiddink, quietly going about his business and without the squealing histrionics of our previous manager, had chosen the same starting eleven that had defeated Manchester City the previous weekend. In the home team were former blues Ryan Bertrand and Oriel Romeu, both involved to varying degrees on a certain night in Munich in May 2012.

Southampton, winners at The Bridge earlier in the season, and finding their feet again under Ronald Koeman would be a tough proposition.

The Chelsea support, rising up from the darkened concourse in to the light of the stadium, were in fine voice from the start. However, an early injury to Pedro – improving of late – caused Hiddink to reconfigure. On came Oscar.

Chelsea seemed to control much of the possession during a rather tame first-half, yet Southampton were able to carve out the clearer goal scoring chances.

Thibaut Courtois seemed to be a little unsure of himself on a couple of occasions, and dithered once too often for my liking. Shane Long, the journeyman striker, headed over with our ‘keeper stranded. At the other end, the masked marksman Diego Costa went close. Southampton just seemed a little more dynamic in the final third. Whereas we passed the ball without a lot of purpose, the Saints seemed more clinical. Charlie Austin, the steal of the season, struck a firm shot past our post.

Sadly, on forty-two minutes, two defensive blunders resulted in us conceding. A high ball was weakly headed square by Baba Rahman, and Shane Long pounced. His rather heavy touch seemed, to my eyes, to be within reach of Courtois to race out and clear, but the tall Belgian seemed to react slowly. As he raced off his line, Long delicately clipped it in.

Our ten game unbeaten run in the league was under threat against a capable Southampton team. Our attempts on goal were minimal. It was a deserved lead for the home team at the break. At the interval, the ruthless Hiddink replaced Baba with Kenedy.

We slowly improved. Cheered on by the loyal three thousand, who have taken to singing about Frankie Lampard’s goal against West Ham in 2013 with ever-increasing zeal, we began stretching the Saints’ defence.

Mikel headed over.

Diego volleyed wide.

I said to Gary : “Although we have players in wide positions, we don’t really have wingers any more.”

A few tackles resulted in Martin Atkinson brandishing some yellows. Diego Costa looked like a man “in the mood” and some of his industry seemed to inspire others.

At the other end, a rare Southampton attack ended with a robust challenge on Austin by Cahill. From my position some one hundred yards away, it was clearly not a penalty.

Cough, cough.

Eden Hazard, finding pockets of space, played the ball out to a rampaging Diego Costa. He managed to pull the ball back to Cesc Fabregas, who advanced. He played the ball – almost lazily – in to the box, and I was right behind the course of the ball as it avoided a lunge by Hazard and a late reaction by Forster. It nestled inside the net and the Chelsea support screamed.

What a strange, odd, easy goal.

It had was a fine reward for our increasing urgency in the last portion of the game.

In the eighty-ninth minute, we won a corner and Willian – often unable to get his corners past the first man – sent over a fine ball with pace. The warhorse Ivanovic timed his jump to perfection and his thundering header crashed down past Forster.

Get in.

The Chelsea support again screamed.

Hiddink shored things up with the late addition of Nemanja Matic, and the game was safe.

On a day of late goals, we were more than grateful to hear that Leicester City had grabbed an 89 minute winner of their own.

Get in.

There were songs as we walked back towards the train station. This doesn’t happen too often. It seemed to underline the new sense of belief and happiness within our ranks at the moment.

We had time to relax before catching the train home. There was time for two more pints, and a lovely assessment of our resurgence, not only in the last quarter of the game, but over the past few months.

Back in Frome, Glenn and myself finished off the day with a few more drinks, with more reflections on our fine time among good friends, and then, finally, a late night curry.

It had been a wonderful away day.

On Tuesday evening, we reassemble at the home of Norwich City, another of Peter Osgood’s clubs, and our most famous number nine will again be in our thoughts once more.

See you there.

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Tales From My Football Timeline.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 18 April 2015.

For the first time in ages, I spent a Saturday morning at work in Chippenham. However, with the Chelsea vs. Manchester United game not kicking off until 5.30pm, I was still able to finish at midday and reach London in good time. Glenn had collected PD and Parky en route. I then took over and headed in to London.

If I am honest, I was slightly nervous about the early-evening game. Without Diego Costa to cause panic and concern in the United ranks, and with a few key players hitting a dry spell, I was very wary that we just might be catching an in-form United at the wrong time. I soon commented to my three companions that a draw would suffice. A win would be lovely, of course, but I was aware that we were not, collectively, setting the bar too high. We were becoming as pragmatic as our manager.

“A draw against United this weekend and a draw at Arsenal next weekend and we can start thinking that the league really is ours.”

The game at Stamford Bridge, however, was not the only football match troubling me. My local team Frome Town had lost on the previous Wednesday to a gut-wrenching last minute goal at local rivals Paulton Rovers and with two games left of the season, were only three points clear of relegation from the Southern League. A little part of me toyed with the notion of watching the first-half of the Slough Town vs. Frome Town game before heading in to London.

I decided against it. Who the hell watches halves of football games? Not me.

Heading east along the M4, the weather was magnificent. It was a lovely day for football. I spotted a few Reading scarves and immediately dismissed the afternoon’s FA Cup Final as unimportant, and not worthy of further thought. This, in a nutshell, shows how the importance of that once revered competition has decreased.

The game at 5.30pm would be my thirty-third Chelsea vs. Manchester United match at Stamford Bridge, dating back to a Saturday just after Christmas in 1984 – Glenn was with me on the benches, and I am sure many readers were there too  – when I set eyes on those famous red shirts for the very first time.

Thirty-three games. It’s quite a number. I have only seen the reds of Liverpool more often than the reds of Manchester at The Bridge. Interestingly – or not, as the case may be – a split of the first sixteen games and the second sixteen games against United reveals a seismic shift in results.

1984 to 2002.

Chelsea wins : 3

Draws : 5

Manchester United wins : 8

2002 to 2014.

Chelsea wins : 9

Draws : 5

Manchester United wins : 2

The two losses against United in that second period are quite recent too; a Champions League defeat in 2011 and a League defeat in 2012. For quite a while at Stamford Bridge, we have held the upper hand.

Among the wins, two stand out.

The 5-0 annihilation in 1999.

The 3-1 title-clincher in 2006.

Two of the happiest of days in almost forty-five years of supporting Chelsea.

Where does the time go?

Where did the time start?

I am sure that I am not the only Chelsea supporter who often thinks back upon the first few moments of our support and attempts to discover the defining moment when Chelsea became our team and our club. I’ve personally tied this down to a moment in my primary schoolyard in the first few weeks of spring term 1970 and those events have been detailed here before. As I have been coming to terms with the events of the past two months, there have been many hours spent thinking back on my childhood years.

Another trip down memory lane coming up everyone.

I am sure that I am not alone in my quest to attempt to assemble some sort of time-line of devotion, possibly involving memories of certain early games, conversations with friends, TV clips, pictures, favourite players and the like, which aid us to remember those critical moments when Chelsea became our team.

After my first game in 1974, it’s easy, remarkably easy. Before that, things get a little blurred.

Of course, some of my earliest memories involve Chelsea’s appearances on TV and of other games too. Knowing my parents, it is very likely that I was not allowed to stay up to watch “Match of the Day” on Saturday nights on BBC1 in the first few years of my growing love of football – let’s say 1970 to 1972 – because of the 10pm start. My TV-watching in these years was, I think, limited to watching ITV’s “The Big Match” on Sunday afternoons. Yes, the memories of this are clearer. I even have feint recollections of a sun-drenched Stamford Bridge in the days of the old East Stand, prior to its destruction in the summer of 1972. The earliest football game per se that I can ever remember seeing is the 1972 FA Cup Final, when an Alan Clarke header gave Leeds United a 1-0 win over Arsenal. Which is the first Chelsea game that I can remember watching? I’m pretty sure that it is the Chelsea vs. Leeds United home opener in August 1972 – with me, just over the age of seven – when 51,000 crammed in to a three-sided Stamford Bridge to see a 4-0 win, no doubt abetted by the fact that Leeds’ goalkeeper was injured and was replaced by Peter Lorimer. Typically, Peter Osgood scored.  In that season, I can also remember the Chelsea vs. Arsenal FA Cup game in March 1973, when there was an incredible buzz in the village school leading up to the match. Peter Osgood’s screamer in that game won the goal of the season that year. I also remember seeing the highlights of the replay on the nine o’clock news the following midweek, after pleading with my parents to allow me to stay up later than normal to watch. I can remember the sadness of defeat from that evening forty-two years ago.

I also recollect the very last game of that season, which involved the visit of Manchester United to Stamford Bridge. After the scenes of chaos at the Leeds game – which must have involved trying to force 41,000 into two end terraces – it was decided to limit the attendance at Stamford Bridge to a more reasonable figure. From memory, 44,000 still assembled for the United game. I am sure that it was not the first time that I had seen United on TV, but it is the first United match that I can remember – which is the point here – seeing. Both teams were struggling that season, but the large attendance was mainly due to the fact that it would be Bobby Charlton’s last ever game for Manchester United. Although Chelsea won that afternoon – Peter Osgood again, scored – my abiding memory is of the hullabaloo surrounding Charlton. I can distinctly remember the Stamford Bridge crowd – no doubt bolstered by thousands of visiting United fans, maybe not all wearing red favours – singing “We all love you Bobby Charlton.”

I am sure that this song was sung at the village school on the Monday, possibly by the younger children watching us older boys playing football on the school yard. I am also positive that a few of us re-enacted Peter Osgood’s goal in that game too, when he almost stumbled as he forced the ball over the line. His “to camera” shrug of the shoulders, as he was kneeling in The Shed End goal, was impersonated by me for sure.

I was lucky enough to meet Peter Osgood on several occasions and I was very honoured to be able to shake Sir Bobby Charlton’s hand as he brushed past me at Old Trafford last season.

Two iconic players from my early football world remembered.

Bless them both.

A Chelsea vs. Manchester United match first appeared on my football timeline, then, in April 1973.

Incidentally, while at the Frome Town match on Wednesday, I was rather taken aback when my friend Steve announced that the very first Frome Town game that I had seen – with my mother – was neither in 1971 nor 1972 as I had first thought but, in all probability, as early as 1970, when I was just five. Let me explain. During a summer holiday at a Dorset caravan site, I often played football with a former Bristol Rovers player called Mike Brimble, who was now playing for Frome. My father didn’t tend to like kicking a ball around with me – I remember he often used to “toe poke” the ball, which I didn’t approve of – ha – but I spent many hours kicking the ball to-and-forth with this chap from the adjacent caravan. There is no doubt that, during the kick-abouts with Mike, on hearing that I was a Chelsea supporter, that he would have mentioned our cup win against Leeds United that spring. And there is no doubt that this would have left a lasting impression on me.

After a week or so, my mother took me to see Frome Town play…we lost heavily…and I can remember to this day the little conversation I had with Mike at the end of the game.

“Nice to see you could make it Chris.”

I was so happy that he remembered my name.

I always thought that it was in 1971 or 1972, but Steve told me on Wednesday that Mike’s last season for Frome was 1970-1971. So, that game – with my mother – was undoubtedly as early as early autumn 1970.

1970 was obviously a defining year in my life.

It was the year that I chose Chelsea Football Club and it was the year that I saw my very first football match.

My football timeline had begun.

While out in the full-to-overflowing beer garden of The Goose, Alan and I spoke about these early moments in our football, er Chelsea, life. The first game that Alan can remember seeing on TV was the 1970 FA Cup Final.

1970.

I’d bet that many Chelsea fans’ timelines began in this year.

1970 and Peter Osgood. One and the same.

I mentioned to Alan about the nervousness that I had with the Frome Town game. His local team, Bromley, were on the brink of promotion from the Conference South to the Conference. We hoped for a triple of wins during the next few hours; Bromley, Frome Town and Chelsea. A text from a Frome Town follower in California – yes, really – informed me that Slough were 1-0 up against Frome. I groaned. He then texted me to say that the team three points below Frome, Arlesey Town, were a goal up at the high-flying Truro Town. I groaned again. If it stayed like this, it would all go to the last game of the season and relegation would be a distinct possibility.

Elsewhere in the beer garden, there were mixed thoughts about the upcoming game. Some were positive, some were cautious. We prayed for a fit Loic Remy leading the line. When we heard that Didier Drogba had been chosen, our spirits sank a little. At 36, he is not the man of 2012. I reconfirmed my view that a draw would be good enough for me.

Then, better news…Frome town had equalised at Slough Town.

“Yes.”

Then, just after 4.30pm, came some wonderful news.

Truro City 2 Arlesey 1 .

I punched the air.

Fantastic. In the end, Frome drew 1-1 and Arlesey lost 3-1.

Safe, barring a deluge of goals next Saturday, for another season. Bromley, meanwhile, had beaten Weston-Super-Mare 3-0. Beautiful.

Outside the West stand, I took a long-overdue photograph of Alan in front of the Peter Osgood statue.

We were inside with fifteen minutes to spare. The United hordes were already in good voice. I noted two flags playing on the point of United fans being “Manchester Born & B(red)” as if they have to constantly state, to the point of tedium, about Manchester being their territory and not City’s. Anyway, the United fans always put on a good show and they didn’t disappoint, singing loudly, in the first-half especially.

There was nothing but pure blue skies overhead. Despite the bright sun, there was a cold wind which blew in and around Stamford Bridge throughout the game. As the sun lowered, changing shadows formed different geometric shapes across the pitch and the towering East Stand.

So, the team.

Courtois – Dave, JT, Cahill, Ivanovic – Zouma, Matic – Hazard, Fabregas, Oscar – Drogba.

The big news was King Kurt alongside Matic, with Fabregas pushed forward. We presumed Jose wanted to toughen up that area, with a nod towards the improving Fellaini.

The first-half was a mainly frustrating affair. We began well, but United soon started pushing the ball around, and I lost count of the number of times that our right flank was exposed. Ivanovic, the former centre-back, tends to drift inside too often for my liking. Ahead of him, Oscar provided little cover. United peppered our goal with a few long range efforts, but thankfully their shooting was amiss. I noted how deep Wayne Rooney was playing. We gave him, and others, too much time and space. I longed for our midfield to get closer. It was Rooney who struck a shot against the back stanchion of the goal, and it looked to me – and the away fans – that it was a goal. I looked at Alan in disbelief.

As Juan Mata, much loved during his relatively short spell with us, walked over to take a corner down below us, the Matthew Harding stood and clapped generously. It was a fantastic moment. I am trying hard to remember the last time we gave a former great a hard time.

A run by an energised Fabregas deep in to the penalty box at the Shed End raised our spirits. But, our chances were rare. Drogba battled on, but often his touch ran a yard too short or too long for the supporting midfielders. United continued their dominance of the ball, and only rarely did our midfielders bite at their heels. The atmosphere was good, though. The underperforming Chelsea team was thankfully not matched by the support in the stands.

We roared the boys on.

With the half-time interval in sight, John Terry broke up another United move and fed the ball to Fabregas, who in turn passed to Oscar, now central. As soon as Oscar adeptly back-heeled the ball in to the path of a raiding Hazard – a magnificent touch – I sensed a goal. Eden calmly advanced and slotted the ball in to the United goal.

Inside, my body buzzed. There was only one thing for it. There is a walkway right behind where I sit and I leapt up the three steps to my right, took off my sunglasses, and just jumped up in the air continually for a few seconds.

Joy unbounded.

…while thinking “I bet I look like a right twat, I’m almost fifty, not five, but what a bloody goal.”

There were smiles of relief everywhere and The Bridge boomed.

“We’re top of the league.”

At half-time I sent a text to a mate ;

“Bit lucky. Only got closer to them in the last quarter. Cesc looks a bit livelier. Great goal. Utd have too much space down our right. But…halfway to paradise.”

Into the second-half, the first big chance fell to us. Matic won the ball and played the ball on for Drogba. I immediately wished for a time machine that could send Didi back to his powerful and absurdly potent form of five years ago, fearing that Smalling would easily deal with him. To be fair, Didier assembled just enough strength to stab a ball at De Gea, despite Smalling’s attentions. The ball took a bizarre path towards goal, deflecting off both United players, but landing just too far past the far post for the on-rushing Hazard to control. In the end, he did so well to get any attempt in on goal. Bizarrely, his flick touched the ball up on to the bar.

Zouma grew throughout the game. His war of attrition with Fellaini was pure box office. Ramires replaced  Oscar. Juan Mata did not create too much for United; good lad.

Falcao, not firing on all cylinders, cut in on goal in a similar to position to Hazard’s goal, but his powerful shot rose and hit the side netting. The atmosphere remained noisy throughout the second half, but there was incredible tension as the game grew older. United still dominated. Chelsea constantly defended well. It was, no doubt, a typical Mourinho performance. I would have liked to have seen more attacking verve, of course, but our time for that had passed. The salad days of autumn are over; it’s now all about putting meat on the plate.

Juan Mata received a fantastic and heartfelt round of sustained applause as he was substituted.

United continued to attack. Shots were dealt with. Nerves were continuing to be frayed.

The last meaningful moment caused immediate concern. Herrera and Cahill met in a corner of our penalty box. From over a hundred yards away, it looked a penalty, to Glenn, to Alan, to me. However, miracles happen and the referee Mike Dean – who had been the target of increasing levels of abuse from the home fans as the game continued – waved it away.

Four minutes of extra time.

We waited, but with fantastic noise continuing to boom around the packed stands.

The final whistle.

Euphoria.

I captured a few shots of players hugging, smiling, and enjoying the moment.

“One Step Beyond” boomed out.

After clapping us, they began to walk away, but John Terry dragged them back and, in a tight line facing the Matthew Harding, they stood.

Their joy was our joy. United in triumph.

One step closer. Ten points clear. Mind the gap.

There was another notch on my football time line.

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Tales From The Garden Of Eden.

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 8 February 2014.

After our monumental and, possibly, season-defining triumph at Manchester City on Monday, I was chomping at the bit to see us play Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge. However, for the first part of this particular Football Saturday, my focus was again elsewhere. I shot in to Bath in order to pay a visit to my rapidly-improving mother at the hospital.  At 11.30am, I collected His Lordship from Parky Towers. However, our short trip over to Trowbridge to collect Young Jake was beset with flood-induced traffic congestion at Bradford-on-Avon; I have never seen the river so high. We were held up for quite some time. This was not good. Eventually, Jake was collected and we were on our way. However, more slow-moving traffic in Westbury caused me to momentarily wonder if we’d be able to make the kick-off.

It was 12.20pm and I still had a hundred mile drive ahead of me.

Thankfully, once I veered around Warminster on the A36, and then shot past Stonehenge, I was eating up the miles. London was reached in good time; at 2.20pm I was parked-up and we were on our walk to The Bridge.

A Chelsea vs. Newcastle United fixture is a common one for me. Allowing for Newcastle’s one recent relegation season, I have seen every single one of their games at Stamford Bridge since they re-joined the top-flight, under Kevin Keegan, in 1993.

This game, therefore, would be the twentieth consecutive league fixture between the two teams at Stamford Bridge that I would have seen. I always enjoy the visit of the black and whites from Tyneside. It’s always a special fixture for me. I am rapidly approaching the fortieth anniversary of my very first Chelsea game. That too, was against Newcastle United.

…let’s go back.

…way back.

I became a Chelsea supporter just after the 1970 F.A. Cup Final. From that moment on, what are my memories? They are, not surprisingly, vague. I began looking out for Chelsea’s results, but my recollections are not particularly great about individual games, on TV or otherwise. I certainly can’t remember the 1971 Final in Athens for example. To be honest, my parents were not particularly big sport fans…I think that my football genes came from my maternal grandfather who had played football and cricket for the village in his youth (and incidentally, visited Stamford Bridge when he was a young man, the only ground he ever visited). Additionally, I am sure that he said on a few occasions that he favoured Newcastle and Aston Villa for some reason.

In those first few years of the ‘seventies, in my small Somerset school classroom, the alliances were starting to emerge. Leeds United led the way with three supporters in David, Tony and Wayne, while Andy was Arsenal and Paul was Liverpool. However, as far as I can recall, I alone was Chelsea, out on my own, on a limb. I wonder if there was any peer pressure to choose one of the other teams. Looking back – and I haven’t thought long and hard about this ever before – I’m rather proud of myself to pick a team which had garnered no other support at school. There was, however, a vague memory of some neighbours who lived opposite – a family, who soon disappeared to live in Gloucestershire. There was a son, also called Christopher, quite a few years older than me – maybe a teenager – who I think favoured Chelsea too. Maybe it’s in the name.

An important event happened around 1971 or 1972. A friend of ours in Windsor worked with Peter Osgood’s sister Mandy at a factory making Caterpillar vehicles and he said that he could obtain Ossie’s autograph for me. Once my father had explained what an “autograph” was, I was so excited and couldn’t wait for it to arrive. The only two names that I knew at Chelsea at the time were the two Peters, Osgood and Bonetti. I still have that signed photograph and it really cemented my affection for Peter Osgood and Chelsea Football Club.

I have no recollection of the 1972 League Cup Final loss to Stoke, but I do remember hearing “Blue Is The Colour” on the radio at around that time and that really affected me too. Just to hear the name “Chelsea” sent me dizzy. I obviously saw Chelsea on TV on Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoon highlight programmes but I only have vague recollections of the old East stand which came down in the summer of 1972. Incidentally, the first F.A. Cup Final that I can remember was the 1972 one; Leeds United beating Arsenal in the Centenary Final.

The first Chelsea game that I can honestly remember seeing on TV was the 1972 opener against mighty Leeds. Their goalie was injured and Peter Lorimer replaced him; Chelsea won 4-0. Peter Osgood, my hero, scored.

What other memories do I have in those nascent years? I remember – specifically – the build-up to the March 1973 F.A. Cup game with Arsenal. I remember Ossie’s goal in the first game and then watching the action on the 9.30pm news of the replay at Highbury. The sadness from that night still lives with me. I remember Bobby Charlton’s last ever game – at Chelsea – being shown on TV highlights in May 1973.

Anyway – you get the picture…I loved playing football at school break times, on Saturdays at the village recreation ground (“the rec”) and in the street. I was a football fan and Chelsea was my team. My first Chelsea kit was purchased – with a number nine sewn on shirt and shorts – and then football boots and a leather football. Football was taking over. Every Saturday morning, I would walk down to the village shop to collect a loaf of bread and then spend a few pennies on packets of football cards. Imagine my absolute elation when – without prompting from me – my parents announced (either on Christmas Day 1973 or soon after) that they would take me to see Chelsea play.

In London.

At Stamford Bridge.

I still get chills when I think of that feeling almost forty years later.

By a cruel twist of fate, of course, both my idol Peter Osgood and also Alan Hudson had left Chelsea in February of 1974, a month ahead of my Chelsea debut on March 16th against Newcastle United. I was upset, but the thought of seeing the team in the flesh more than made up for this. My mother wrote to the club asking for ticket and travel information and I still have the letter that the club sent back, nicely embossed with the club crest. In due course, the West Stand benches tickets arrived…priced at just 60p each.

Just to hold those little match tickets…

Looking back, I don’t think that any of my school pals could actually believe I was going to see Chelsea play. This was unheard of amongst the village kids. I was only eight remember. At last the great day arrived and it is amazing that I remember so much. My father was a local shopkeeper and so he pulled a few strings with his co-owner to get the Saturday off. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in great health at the time. He had been diagnosed with throat cancer and was due radiation treatment in the May. Thankfully, this was eventually successful, but he was feeling a bit under-the-weather throughout the journey to and from London.

One small memory; on trips to London, my father always drove north and joined the M4 at Bath. After consultation with others, it was decided that an alternative would be used on that particular day. Instead, Dad would drive east on the A4 and picked the M4 at Hungerford. There was a little part of me – the worrier – that hoped that this new itinerary wouldn’t backfire and we’d end up getting lost.

“Not on my first trip to Chelsea, surely Dad!”

Leading up to the game, there had been a pitch invasion at Newcastle United’s F.A. Cup game at home to Nottingham Forest on the previous Saturday and, during the week at school the hooliganism – or at least, over-exuberance and a little vandalism – had been the talk of the classroom.

This heightened the frisson for my first-ever Chelsea game.

We had arranged to park our car at a nursing home at Park Royal, where an uncle had recently been staying. I suppose we reached there at around 12.30pm. We then walked the short distance to Park Royal tube station and caught the train to Fulham Broadway. I visited Park Royal station recently and it did bring back some memories…I recalled walking over the footbridge over the tracks and the art deco façade of the station. In March 1974, my heart must have been beating fast as we boarded the eastbound train. I had been on a tube train before, but this felt so exciting – doing what thousands of Chelsea fans do each week…this is what stuck with me the most I think; a small boy from Somerset being a Londoner for the day.

My first game sticks with me for so many reasons. I can recall waiting in line at the bottom of the West Stand steps at the turnstiles. As the West Stand was the stand with the TV gantry, I wasn’t particularly sure what the stand looked like. I distinctly remember walking up the banked steps as if it was yesterday…I can recall the sense of anticipation, the noises of the crowd and specifically the blue paintwork at the back of the stand, the blue of the turnstiles, the blue of the souvenir huts…just writing these words I am transported back to my childhood. We bought a match programme, which I still have. I remember that the smudge from my mother’s wet leather glove is still visible…strange, though, I remember the day as being sunny.

We walked behind the West Stand, right to the end (the seats were laid on top of the terraces and the access came right at the top of the stand) and I caught a glimpse of the pitch and the inside of the stadium which had previously been obscured from view. I was mesmerized. We walked down the access steps and found our seats…six rows from the front, level with the penalty spot at the North Stand end.

We had a black and white TV set at home and of course it was breath-taking to see Stamford Bridge bathed in spring sunshine and in glorious colour. The East Stand was still mid-construction on the other side of the pitch. There was a smattering of away fans mixed in with Chelsea fans on the North terrace to my left. I remember the closeness of those fans to me.

The Chelsea team included such players as Ron Harris, John Phillips, John Hollins, Steve Kember, Dave Webb, Ian Hutchinson and Charlie Cooke. Newcastle United fielded Malcolm Macdonald, Stewart Barrowclough, Terry McDermott and Terry Hibbitt amongst others.

The gate was 24,207 on that day in March 1974.

What do I remember of the actual game? I remember the middle part of The Shed twirling their blue and white bar scarves. I remember the goal after ten minutes…a header close in from Ian Hutchinson, which bounced up off the ground before crossing the line. I remember two or three Newcastle fans, resplendent with black and white scarves, being sat right in front of me. I remember shouting out “we want two!” to which one of them replied “we want three!” I remember actually thinking “did I stand up and celebrate the goal correctly?” after the Chelsea goal. I promised myself that if there was to be further goals, I would celebrate better…I guess I wanted to fit in. Of course, a second goal came along and I stood up and shouted, but it was disallowed.

I think that the two Geordies smirked as I quickly sat down.

I remember a “Topic” chocolate bar at half-time. I remember Gary Locke doing many sliding tackles in front of us in the second half. I remember debutant Ken Swain (previously unheard of by me) as a substitute. I paid just as much attention to the songs coming out of The Shed as to the play on the pitch. Generally, I remember the overwhelming feeling of belonging…that this was right, that I should be there.

As the game ended and the crowd drifted away, I know that as I reached the very top of the steps, I looked back at the pitch and the stands with wonderment and hoped I would be back again. My mother bought me a “Chelsea The Blues” scarf at one of the souvenir huts behind the West stand as we slowly walked out. I wore that same scarf in Stockholm for the 1998 ECWC Final and then in Moscow ten years later for the CL Final.

I can remember that we enjoyed a hamburger meal at the Fulham Broadway Wimpy Bar (a big extravagance, believe me) – the site of a café to this day. We caught the tube train back to Park Royal and then home to Somerset, but that is a blur.

So, Saturday 16 March 1974…it was the day that my love affair with Chelsea Football Club jumped a thousand notches. In truth, my life would never be the same again.

Back to 2014…

Despite fine weather on the approach to London, there was a sudden shower as we started our walk towards The Bridge. Up above the Empress State Building, a striking rainbow lit up the grey sky. I wondered if a pot of goals would be at the end of it. Very often the visit of the Geordies has resulted in a heavy loss for them in SW6. Their team would be depleted. They have had a tough time of it recently. I was supremely confident that a Chelsea win would be forthcoming. We bypassed The Goose and reached the turnstiles for the MHU in good time. This was a strange pre-match for sure, though. When was the last time I had attended a home game on a Saturday and had not set foot in a pub? Maybe 1984.

The half-and-half scarves on sale next to the CFCUK stall were matched overhead by a half-and-half sky. One part was brilliant blue, one part was grey cloud. The rainbow had disappeared. I quickly bought a programme and flicked through it as I waited in line at the turnstiles. Club historian Rick Glanvill had written a piece on the Newcastle game in 1980 which I had attended with a couple of school friends and, ironically, my father and his then retired co-owner at the shop. A 6-0 win that day is fondly remembered.

Over in the corner, Newcastle had brought 2,000 away fans; the same as West Ham United. It seems there is a change in Chelsea’s policy on away tickets. It used to be solidly set at either 3,000 or 1,500. The away fans began singing about a fat cockney bastard leaving their club alone, but other, more rousing, songs were not forthcoming. Back in 1974, I thought it implausible that Newcastle fans could travel such a distance to see their team play; I remember being suitably impressed. These days, the friction of distance seems to be of little importance.

John Terry wasn’t in the line-up. Mourinho still fancied Dave ahead of Ashley, so the defence was rejigged with David Luiz alongside Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic at right-back. Frank Lampard returned alongside the impressive Nemanja Matic. The midfield “attacking three” were Oscar, Willian and the new all-conquering idol Eden Hazard. Samuel Eto’o led the line. As expected, the visitors’ line-up was depleted and contained a couple of players of whom I knew nothing.

Chelsea began on the front foot and dominated the first part of the game. However, Ben Arfa found space but fired at Petr Cech to sound out a warning to a perhaps complacent home crowd. The atmosphere seemed to be one of expectation, with the home support unwilling to provide a noisy backdrop, despite our early dominance. The half-chances continued for Chelsea.

Eden Hazard advanced with the ball and played it out wide to Ivanovic. The Belgian dynamo continued his run and when Brana returned the ball, he whipped it low past Krul into the far corner. It was as simple as that.

Eden ran away to the far corner to celebrate and The Bridge rejoiced. I hoped for a little pay-back for our defeat up at St. James’ Park in November; our second-half performance that day was quite shocking in its lack of desire.

A lone Newcastle effort at the Matthew Harding was abated by Cech, but we were soon on the attack again. Eden Hazard, the crowd buzzing whenever he touched the ball, ran deep into the Geordie penalty box. He played the ball in to a heavily marked Eto’o, who charmed us with an exquisite back heel into Eden’s path. A simple stroke of the ball into the goal gave us a 2-0 lead. A slide on his knees, right in front of Parky, then another gathering of players down in the corner. We love our corners at Chelsea. Does any other team always celebrate with a run to the corners after almost every goal? I can’t think of any.

In the after-goal glow, the spectators in the Matthew Harding took a moment to honour our manager, under a little criticism before Christmas, but now lauded by the loyalists –

“Stand Up For The Special One.”

At the break, Tommy Baldwin appeared on the pitch alongside Neil Barnett. I only ever saw The Sponge play once for Chelsea; not in game number one in 1974, but against Tottenham in game two in 1974. He was the leader of the team…

While Alan and I joked about 20,000 spectators not knowing who he was, sadly it seems Chelsea Football Club didn’t either. Alongside Tommy’s career stats on the TV screen was a picture of Charlie Cooke.

Oh boy.

Soon into the second-half, the Newcastle ‘keeper rushed out to meet a Luiz high ball, slipped, but was relieved to watch the ball speed away past the post before Oscar could reach it. Then a whipped Frank Lampard free-kick from an acute angle brought a fine save from Krul. A corner was swung in by Willian and the ball was knocked away. Although I didn’t spot the offence, the wonderfully-named Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa was adjudged to have pulled down Eto’o inside the box. The much-maligned Howard Webb pointed to the spot. It didn’t even occur to me that Frank Lampard would normally take it; all thoughts were on Eden Hazard and his opportunity to score his first-ever Chelsea hat-trick. While I remonstrated with an over-zealous steward about using my camera, the penalty was easily dispatched.

Chelsea 3 Newcastle United 0.

After a relatively quiet start to this season under Mourinho, despite a steady supply of goals, Eden Hazard is now the darling of the Chelsea support. I am mesmerized every time Eden has the ball at his mercy. I get a lovely rush of adrenalin as I watch him run at defenders, scuttling back to try to annul his threat. I love his sudden acceleration. I admire his tenacity. Above all, I love his confidence with the ball at his feet. When he is at the top of his game, Eden has the ability to turn any moment into a great moment.

Let all of us stand up and enjoy it.

Back in 1980, Colin Lee had scored a hat-trick in the 6-0 rout. With almost half-an-hour remaining, I hoped for a similar score line. In reality, we eased off a little. Newcastle instead managed to carve out a couple of half-chances but their finishing was poor. Mourinho rang the changes; Ba for Eto’o, then new buy Mohamed Salah for Willian and then Andre Schurrle for the magical Hazard. Within a few minutes of his Chelsea debut, Salah had one half-chance and one fine chance in which to score, but failed to hit the target. He impressed me in the games against Basel in 2013; I’m sure he will prove to be a fine addition to our squad.

As the game wore on, all eyes and ears were focussed on score updates from Carrow Road where, amazingly, Norwich City were managing to hold Manchester City to a 0-0 score-line. Howard Webb signalled the end of our match and the crowd applauded the players off. It immediately felt like an easy win. In fact, it felt like a typical Chelsea versus Newcastle United result; a few Chelsea goals and a clean sheet. As I packed away my camera, it was announced on the PA that Manchester City had indeed dropped two points at Norwich.

It meant that Chelsea were top.

Get in.

We’ve all seen a list of our remaining league games. We will have a tough one at a resurgent Liverpool, plus a couple of home derbies against the North London teams might stretch us, but all of the others seem…whisper it…”winnable.”

Maybe, just maybe…

…with Eden Hazard in our team, we have a chance.

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Tales From The Black And The Blue.

Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 18 April 2012.

There is a delicious irony in Chelsea’s recent love affair with the Champions League over the past ten years. Way back in 1955, just after our first ever Football League Championship, Chelsea could have been the very first winners of the inaugural European Cup which was played during the 1955-1956 season. However, for whatever reason, the out-of-touch octogenarians in the English F.A. strongly advised the club to forego participation. Instead, Real Madrid won the first ever European Cup (and the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth) in 1956 and Chelsea had to wait until 1999-2000 to participate again. There have been few games which have produced the same “buzz” of anticipation than that of that first ever game against Milan in September 1999; a pulsating 0-0 draw at The Bridge was a classic.

If only we knew then what we know now; we have since taken to the competition like the proverbial duck to aqueous solution. We reached the quarter-finals in that first season before losing to (guess who?) Barcelona. Since then, we have been one of European football’s top performers in the World’s premier cup competition. Our semi-final against Barcelona this season would be our sixth since 2003-2004. These have been heady days. Spring time at Chelsea has recently involved football on multiple fronts. It’s a beautiful period in our history; breath it in, let it fill up your senses, these days will not last for ever.

…but oh, the memories.

2004 – a defeat by AS Monaco, fresh on the heels of that game at Highbury in the previous round. Claudio Ranieri at his infuriating worst, tinkering to distraction, just to prove a point to the club management who had already hinted he would be leaving the following season.

2005 – a nauseating defeat to Liverpool. The result of Mourinho not “going for it” in the home leg, the result of the Luis Garcia “ghost” goal at Anfield. We were the best team in Europe that season, having discarded FCB in the quarters.

2007 – another hateful defeat to Liverpool, this time on penalties at Anfield after Joe Cole and Daniel Agger goals gave both teams 1-0 home wins. Again, Mourinho failed to attack Liverpool sufficiently. Would we ever get to the final?

2008 – joy unbounded as we drew 1-1 at Anfield and then won 3-2 at a pulsating Stamford Bridge on one of the most emotional nights that English football has ever witnessed. Frank Lampard inspired us and we were on our way to Moscow.

2009 – a resolute performance by Chelsea at Camp Nou and a 0-0 draw. A despicable performance by a certain Norwegian referee at The Bridge. Michael Essien scored his best ever goal, but Iniesta equalised with virtually Barca’s only shot on goal. Pure, unadulterated sadness.

Our record in the Champions League semi-finals is therefore 1-4. Throw in our ridiculously close defeat in the final in 2008 and has ever a team come closer to winning the World’s greatest club competition, yet failing, than Chelsea?

During the day, I pondered our chances for 2012 against the mesmeric talisman Lionel Messi and his Barcelona team mates. Not even our stupendous win against Tottenham on Sunday could dispel many of my very real worries and concerns. My biggest fear was that of humiliation. This has been a strange old season; our team was creaking under Villas-Boas, but has been rejuvenated under Roberto di Matteo. Our form has returned, yet we are still an old team in transition. In my mind, there was a real chance that this would turn out to be one game too far for the battle-scarred veterans. After our fortuitous refereeing decisions against Wigan and Spurs, I was also aware that all of our Lady Luck Tokens had been used for this season. And yet, I can easily recall a conversation that a few friends and I had in The Goose before that 2000 game against Barcelona; we had performed miracles during that CL season and we decided that we were realistically not going to progress further. That Barcelona team, including Figo and the like, was a class act. What did we know? On that incredible night we stormed into a 3-0 lead and produced a breath-taking performance. A late Figo goal took the edge off the night, but it had taught me not to write off Chelsea Football Club.

I hoped for a similar response in 2012. However, I was still uneasy. In an email to some friends, I summed-up our chances on the night as follows –

Barcelona win 50%
Chelsea win 25%
Draw 25%

I added that I thought that we had a 20% chance to progress to the final over both legs.

These were my thoughts before the trip to London.

I pulled out of Chippenham at 4pm. Parky and I were headed east once more. It was a drizzle-filled Wiltshire evening. I wondered if the extra zip to the pitch in London would assist Barcelona’s quick passing.

As I approached Reading, my thoughts on the night’s game were waylaid; my friend Rob, who had been tasked to collect my ticket for the away game in Catalonia, called me on my phone. He was very agitated and told me that the Chelsea box office had no record of my purchase.

“What?”

Surely I applied for my ticket last week?

“Oh fcuk.”

For thirty minutes, I tried to recollect if I had bought the £73.50 ticket. It has been a busy old spell, with many match tickets needing to be purchased; maybe I had, indeed, forgotten to get one? I tried to call the box office, but they were closed. I mulled over my options. I realised that I could pop into the internet café opposite The Goose and apply there. Rob confirmed that the box office would be open for thirty minutes after the evening’s game for collections. I could relax.

Phew.

I parked up at 6.45pm. By 6.55pm, I had purchased my away ticket and Parky had bought me a pint of Peroni in The Goose. I thanked Rob for his efforts and he handed me back the form I had filled out detailing my travel details; I would need that to claim my ticket. I met up with Alex, a work colleague, who had asked me if I had the chance of getting him a ticket as soon as we had beaten Benfica. Alex works for one of the hauliers that my company uses to move our client’s products in Europe; he is from Vienna and has been working in England for a year or so. We had spoken on the ‘phone, but had never met before. He has no team in Austria; Chelsea is his team. He is typical of the new type of supporter our club has attracted of late; not from Ashford, but Austria, not from Cheam, but from California, not from Gravesend, but from Germany. He was clearly ecstatic to be able to see only his second ever Chelsea game. He was off back to Vienna in May. It was great to see him so happy.

I was in a rush to head down to The Bridge as I wanted to get some banners up in good time. I was in so much of a rush that I sped off with Parky’s match ticket still in my bag. He caught up with me, but then disappeared into The Maltsters for “just one more pint.”

Alex and I rushed down to The Bridge; the half-and-half scarves sellers had been busy. I can understand the allure of a friendship scarf for European games; in fact, Parky often gets one for Jill. The St. George flag on the FCB badge always looks great in my mind. Monday is St. George’s Day, of course, and a few Chelsea fans will be celebrating our patron saint’s day deep in the heart of Catalonia.

We reached our seats at 7.35pm just as Neil Barnett announced “the anthem”; the recording of “Blue Is The Colour” by an opera singer. I personally wish they would stick with the original 1972 recording to be honest; this new version is slightly too slow, slightly too forced. Alex and I scrambled up to the back row of the MHU and we pinned my two banners up.

“Vinci Per Noi” dates from the summer of 1996.

“Peter Osgood” dates from March 2006.

The blue and white flags had been handed out once again and were being waved furiously as the last few bars of “Blue Is The Colour” gave way to “The Liquidator.” Then, the two teams strode out onto the wet turf, past the Champions League flag, on to the west side of the pitch.

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What a rushed pre-match. However, as I took my seat next to Alan and Tom, I took off my jacket and tried to settle down just for a few moments. I worked out who was playing for Chelsea a few moments into the game. The only surprise was Meireles; this just signifies how far Michael Essien is off his game.

Chelsea were in blue, Barcelona were in black.

In the far corner, the 3,000 away fans presented a vivid and varied scene. Not only were the FCB colours of blue and claret represented, but also the Catalonia colours of red and yellow. Lots of replica shirts, lots of scarves, lots of colourful banners draped over the balcony wall.

Let battle commence. Let the nerves be tested. Let us play. Let us pray.

Despite our wishful thoughts about us “taking it” to Barcelona, it soon became apparent that the away team simply took over the game, strangling us with possession, for us to enjoy any real periods of dominance. All eyes were on Lionel Messi, the World’s greatest footballer, who was there in person, no more than twenty yards away from me at times. I was transfixed by this little man – quiet, unobtrusive, walking around the pitch, head low. How could such a benign looking figure have the potential to cause us so much heartache? It all seemed to be about him. I followed his movement in and amongst our players, his movement at times no more than a slow walk. We would have to stifle his every move. Elsewhere, there were familiar faces, all equally-placed to cause anxiety to defenders and fans alike. Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas.

The Barcelona players pushed the ball around at will and the passes were usually inch perfect. Short passes were common, but even cross-field balls were inch perfect. In contrast, Chelsea chased and harried, closing down space, avoiding rough tackles. I got the impression that we were being slightly too reverential. I longed for a 50-50 challenge – not a dirty foul, no need to draw a booking – but a hard, strong tackle that would let Barca know we were serious. It would also help to involve the crowd. When I play five-a-side, I am not great a great tackler – I am more a nibbler, someone who can get a toe in to rob the opponent of the ball, someone who can read a pass and intercept.

However, when the need arises and I can sense a pure 50-50, there is no greater feeling that hitting the ball and player’s leading foot together with a strong tackle.

Slam.

I longed for Chelsea to do the same.

The first chance of the game fell to the men in black. Andres Iniesta picked out the on-rushing Sanchez, who nimbly beat the offside trap and delicately lobbed the ball over the ghostly figure of Petr Cech.

“Here we go” I thought.

We waited to see where the ball would end up – time stood still, that old cliché – and were mighty relieved to see the ball drop against the bar. Soon after, Messi’s first real involvement took him in to the penalty area with one of his breath-taking runs, the ball seemingly no more than six inches from his toes throughout. A Chelsea challenge could easily have sent another Barcelona player tumbling, but to his enormous credit, the little Argentinian stayed on his feet. He passed to Iniesta but his close-range shot was wonderfully parried by Cech. The rebound seemed to take Fabregas by surprise and we sighed again.

On 19 minutes, a rare Chelsea chance resulted in Juan Mata slashing over the bar.

Soon after, Barcelona were awarded a corner down below me. As Messi slowly walked towards the corner flag and stooped to collect the ball, more than a few Chelsea fans in the MHU clapped his appearance and I was suitably impressed. We don’t usually do this sort of thing in England – apart from inside cricket grounds where opposing “boundaries” are often clapped by opposing fans – and this was a sure sign that the Chelsea public recognised talent when they saw it. Messi – so young, but so great – is already knocking on the door of Pele and Maradona.

As Barcelona’s possession mounted, I really wondered if we could keep up this constant defending for ninety minutes. Barcelona’s away support was relatively quiet; the only three chants I heard were “Bartha, Bartha, Batha”, “Meeeeee-si” and the club anthem which ends “ Bartha, Bar-tha, Baaaaaaaar-tha.”

Drogba was putting in a typical performance; strong in the air and winning defensive headers one minute, rolling around like he was the victim of a sniper’s bullet the next. He was clearly disrupting Barca’s flow, though whether he had been told to do this by club management is a moot point. I suspect not; I suspect it comes natural to him. I had hoped he could channel the frustration he felt after the 2009 “it’s a fcuking disgrace” game in the right way. However, despite his physical strength, he wasn’t a threat offensively and we were getting a little annoyed with his antics during the game.

The sky filled with misty rain as Barca passed the ball at will. The otherwise dependable Mikel lost possession amidst growls of discontent and the mercurial Messi set up Fabregas. His goal bound effort flew past Cech but slowed slightly, allowing the excellent Ashley Cole to back-pedal, re-adjust at the last minute, and hack the ball to safety with his favoured left peg.

Phew.

At 8.30pm, I received this text from Del, a Liverpool fan from work –

“Be nice to see you nick one. Reckon your boys have set up pretty well, great shape and rode your luck a couple of times. Only downside is that useless prick up front – twenty two and a half minutes on the deck, the other twenty two and a half offside.”

Within twenty seconds of receiving this text, Lampard robbed Messi on the half-way line and quickly pushed the ball to the rampaging Ramires. This was our chance and we knew it. I snapped a photo as the little Brazilian switched feet to play in a ball towards the six yard box. That man Didier arrived to sweep the ball in to the net, just missing the despairing dive of Valdes and we were 1-0 up. Despite a rush of blood, I remained calm enough for five seconds to snap the ensuing huddle down near where Parky resides. After, I bellowed a euphoric “YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSS!”

And then, at 8.32pm – a text to Del.

“You were saying?”

Oh boy…one shot on goal, one goal, one delirious Stamford Bridge.

At the break, Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink was on the pitch, and Journey were on the PA.

“Don’t Stop Believing” is a totally incongruous song to be played at a football ground in England; it certainly says nothing at all about our life as UK Chelsea fans. But I can understand why the club chose to play it.

“Don’t Stop Believing” indeed.

The second-half performance by Chelsea will go down in the annals of our club as one of the most resolute and brave performances the spectators at Stamford Bridge has ever seen.

Barcelona began again strongly. Adriano drew a superb save from Cech. Sanchez shot inexplicably wide of Cech’s post. Alves blasted over. Block after block – Cahill, Terry, Mikel – stopped Barcelona’s goal-bound efforts. Despite his detractors, even Meireles was putting in a solid shift. The only player under-performing was Juan Mata, but he is not built for defensive duties and can hardly be blamed for the game passing him by. Barcelona enjoyed several centrally-placed free-kicks, but shots were either blocked (Messi) or ballooned over (Xavi). This was proving to be almost too difficult to watch; it was certainly too tense to enjoy. I was still in my shirt-sleeves. I avoided putting my jacket on as I superstitiously thought it would jinx things.

“We scored with my jacket off, let’s leave it off.”

When I was a kid, watching games with my parents, I had the same superstition with chewing gum. If we were winning, I’d keep the same piece of gum in my mouth. If we were losing, I’d discard it.

Old habits die hard.

The noise levels grew throughout the match as the crowd sensed that the boys needed our help. “Amazing Grace” was re-worked once again and this Proper Chelsea classic provided the backdrop to the second-half master class in defending –

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

The crowd did the boys proud. We didn’t neglect the watching Tottenham fans at home, either –

“We won 5-1,Wembley.”

“Harry For Tottenham.”

I was amazed how quickly I felt the time was going…60 minutes, 65 minutes, 70 minutes. The manager replaced Kalou for Mata – fresh legs. The Barcelona pressure continued. Our only chances in the second period involved a Frank Lampard corner, whipped in, but avoiding the trio of Chelsea players at the far post and a break involving a great pass from Drogba finding Kalou who dinked over Valdes’ bar.

Tick…tick…tick…

Another Messi free-kick with five minutes remaining. He chipped the ball in towards Puyol, who flicked the ball on with the deftest of touches. I was right in line with the flight of the ball as it bounced up towards the goal. It was surely the equaliser. Out of nowhere, Cech scrambled across to turn the ball away for a corner.

Superb. The save of the match.

Bosingwa on for the magnificent Ramires – more fresh legs.

The assistant linesman signaled just three minutes of time to be added on. I looked at my phone and it was 9.33pm.

9.36pm and we’re halfway to paradise.

Time for one last agonising moment as Messi moved the ball out to Pedro. He was well outside the box, at an angle, but his low drive avoided all players in the packed penalty area and struck Cech’s far post with a dull thud. The ball rebounded out to Busquets, who ballooned it high into the Chelsea fans in The Shed Upper.

It was 9.36pm.

The referee blew.

The Bridge roared and Alan, Alex and I smacked each other’s backs. I, for one, could not believe it. I had just witnessed a miracle. Of course, we had ridden our luck, but what a gutsy performance. I lost count of the number of blocks which our defenders used to thwart Barca. I was breathless and almost light-headed as the players clapped the crowd from the centre-circle. There was no overblown triumphalism from the team at the end. They knew we were only half-way there. But we have a foothold in this tie and we will, I am sure, go out to Barcelona with a plausible reason to be optimistic of our chances.

“One Step beyond” got us all bouncing.

I skipped past the Peter Osgood statue – I made the point of touching his leg as I passed – and quickly joined the line of around 100 fans collecting Barcelona away tickets. With great relief, I was handed my ticket. I met up with Steve from the NYBs, who was close to tears with emotion.

“That’s the best noise I’ve ever heard at Chelsea.”

The London night was now dirty and wet with rain, but inside our heads we were drugged-up with Chelsea. We met up with Parky and Jesus in The Goose to let the traffic subside. Rob and Les from nearby Melksham were enjoying “one last pint” and these two scallywags will be on the same 6.55am flight from Bristol as me on Tuesday.

What a beautiful night in Catalonia that could be.

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