Tales From An Old Gold Adversary.

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Chelsea : 18 February 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe it is all they have.”

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

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

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

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

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

Tales From A Dark Night : 5 January 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales From A Work In Progress : 2 January 2012.

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

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

I reached Molineux unscathed and rewarded myself with a cheeseburger.

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

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

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

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

Happy with that.

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

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

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

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

“And it’s hi ho – Wolverhampton.”

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

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

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

“Who’s the wanker in the pink?”

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

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

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

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

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

Phew.

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

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

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

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

“Get in, game over.”

Into the last eight we went.

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

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

It had been a fine day in the Black Country.

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Tales From My Second Home.

Chelsea vs. Hull City : 22 January 2016.

Sunday at half-past-four. What a bloody annoying time for a game of football.

The lads had been deposited in The Goose – “see you later” – while I had to pick up some tickets for a couple of future away games down at the stadium. We were in town ridiculously early – midday – but with a little time to kill, I thought I would spend a while with my trusty camera and take a smattering of photographs of Stamford Bridge. This would be our first home game since the announcement that the local council had approved the plans for the rebuild, and it made sense for me to pay homage to Stamford Bridge’s current hotchpotch of stands, irregular angles and unique aspects. The new stadium will be very different of course; there will be one design, one style, one theme, one vision. The current stadium, built between 1972 and 2001, is typical of many stadia in England at the moment. There have been piecemeal additions over the years and although the interior hints at a common design, the overall result – especially from the outside – would suggest otherwise.

As I walked down behind the East Stand, now a grand old lady of forty-three years of age, I was struck with how little room had originally been set aside for extra-curricular activities such as restaurants, bars and corporate suites.  From the rear, it reminded me of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, with all of its skeletal construction, heating pipes, air-conditioning units, roof supports and associated infrastructural necessities all on show. Although this stand won a few architectural awards in its day – London had never seen a three-tiered stand of such size and scale before – it remains rather ugly from the rear. My memory from watching games inside the East Stand – especially the East Upper – is of how cramped everything was behind the scenes. And yet, when the current stadium is razed to the ground in just a few years’ time, I will miss the East Stand more than any other. When I saw my first-ever game at Chelsea in 1974, watching from the wooden benches of the West Stand enclosure, the East Stand was still being built opposite. It dominated Stamford Bridge in those days in a way that is difficult, now, to imagine. It dwarfed all other parts of the ground, and certainly the adjacent low and rambling North Stand terrace and Shed End. I watched football from the East Lower from 1974 to 1980 with my parents – a total of thirteen games – and it will always have a place in my heart.

As I continued my walk around the outside of The Bridge, I remembered “Drakes” on the corner of the Matthew Harding Stand – now re-named the Champions Club – and how it was the sole domain, when it opened up in 1994, of CPO shareholders only, and how Glenn, Alan and myself used to frequent it for a pre-match meal and pint. It used to be remarkably quiet and an enjoyable place to meet-up. In around 1996, it was opened up for club members and suddenly became ridiculously busy, and we soon moved on to The Harwood for our pre-match festivities.

The outside of the West Stand is vastly different to the East Stand. All of its pre-match function rooms are concealed in a huge wall of brick, but I have to say it would hardly win any design awards. It serves a purpose I suppose, but I am not a huge fan. I love the way that the Peter Osgood statue always casts a shadow on its lower reaches.

The Shed End is lost within the guts of the Chelsea offices, the apartment block and the Copthorne Hotel. From the forecourt, Stamford Bridge doesn’t even resemble a football stadium any more.

How everything has changed over the past twenty years. It is one of my big regrets that I didn’t take as many photographs – both outside and inside – of the old Stamford Bridge in its last few years as I ought. How I wish I had captured those little kiosks embedded within the supporting wall of the Shed terrace as it swept its way around to the East Stand. Or those huge floodlight pylons. Or the corrugated iron of the away turnstiles behind the West Stand. Or the dark and moody walkways which ran behind the main body of The Shed terrace. Or the steps leading down from the top of the West Stand to those extra turnstiles within the stand before you reached the benches. Or the unique angled aisles of the old West Stand. Or the Bovril Gate, a gaping hole, in the large Shed terrace. Or that exit walkway that lead down at an angle behind the West Stand. Or those fading advertisements which were etched on to the rear of the shops on the Fulham Road. All of those images, lost and gone forever, but my memory of the old place remains strong.

Stamford Bridge really was – and is, and hopefully shall be in the future – my second home.

There was a couple of drinks in “The Goose” where Daryl and myself chatted with Mick, a fellow-Chelsea supporter who we had not seen for quite a while, possibly for the first time in ten years. We remembered a lovely trip to Rome in 1999 for the Lazio game and how we were drinking brandies in Piazza Venezia at an ungodly hour as early morning risers were coming in for their “wake me up” espressos. After that game, we somehow found ourselves getting a lift back to the centre of Rome on the same coach as Ron Harris and Peter Osgood. I had forgotten, but Mick said that he had sat next to Ossie on the coach and what a lovely memory for him.

We watched on a TV screen as an image of Diego Costa arriving at the stadium was shown. And just like that, Diego was back in the fold, and the China crisis was over. The game had been discussed but only very briefly throughout the day. I think it is very fair to say that three points against Hull City was absolutely expected. On the Saturday, we had been enlivened by Swansea’s surprising lunchtime win at Anfield and then, in the evening, points had been shared between Manchester City and Tottenham. The fact that Manchester United had dropped points at Stoke City seemed inconsequential.

The team was announced.

Courtois.

Cahill, Luiz, Azpilicueta.

Alonso, Matic, Kante, Moses.

Hazard, Diego Costa, Pedro.

Daryl and myself then had another drink in “The Malt House” before heading in to the stadium. I peered into The Broadway Bar & Grill and uttered an obscenity as I saw that Arsenal had taken a 1-0 lead at home to lowly Burnley. On walking towards the MH turnstiles, a fan announced that Burnley had miraculously equalised. I gave him a hug. By the time I had reached my seat, my mood had completed a 180 degree switch; Arsenal had scored a ridiculously late winner.

Not exactly a Carlsberg weekend, but maybe a Carlsberg top weekend.

Within the very first few seconds, Diego Costa raced on to a long ball from David Luiz and belted a low shot just past the Hull post.

It’s hard to believe that Tom Huddlestone is still playing football; he seems to have been around for ages. However, much to my chagrin, he seemed to be at the heart of a lot of Hull’s moves. I was soon getting annoyed at how much space we were giving him.

“Come on. Get on him. He’s their playmaker.”

His shot narrowly missed Thibaut’s post.

Hull City had brought around 1,200 fans, but were hardly noisy. Neither were we. In fact, it was ridiculously quiet.

Not long in to the game, Gary Cahill rose for a high ball, but only connected with Ryan Mason. Both fell to the floor. Both seemed immobile for a while. There was genuine concern as players from both teams swarmed around their two team mates. The minutes ticked by. Thankfully Gary Cahill stood, then walked off to the side line. Ryan Mason had evidently fared worse as a stretcher took him off for attention. The entire stadium rose as one to clap him off. Chelsea fans in laudable behaviour shock.

The extended delay seemed to affect Chelsea more than Hull City, who enjoyed a little spell. Marcos Alonso saw his effort from outside the box take a wicked deflection and dip alarmingly, but the Hull ‘keeper was able to scramble back and tip over. In all honesty, Chelsea were enjoying a lot of the ball, but were finding it difficult to break Hull down. Eden Hazard, very often the main threat, seemed to have a lot of the ball, but kept being forced wide. Pedro was quiet. Moses was often used, but wasn’t at his best. Still the atmosphere was morgue like. At times, I am sure there was complete silence.

Harry Maguire, who sounds like a petty criminal from a ‘sixties film – “I never did nuffink, see” – forced a fine save from Courtois.

This was not going to plan at all.

Bollocks.

A weighty nine minutes of injury time was added to the first-half. Can anyone remember anything longer? Not me.

The silence continued, a few disappeared off for half-time pints.

Sigh.

Then, with time running out, Moses was able to get behind Hull’s defence and send over a low ball. It miraculously ended up at the feet of Diego Costa who calmly slashed the ball home.

Chelsea 1, Hull City 0, thank fuck.

Diego danced over to Parkyville. Of all the people it had to be him. The Chelsea team mates mobbed Diego. What a moment.

Not long in to the half-time interval, Neil Barnett – in hushed tones – spoke of the recent death under highly suspicious circumstances of the Chelsea supporter Carl O’Brien. He spoke of how Carl once worked on the ground staff at Stamford Bridge, and how he attended games at Chelsea for decades. An image of Carl appeared on the large TV screens, and Neil spoke of the planned minute of applause which was to commence on fifty-five minutes. It would mark Carl’s age on his passing. Fifty-five; it is a very Chelsea number, but it represents a terribly young age to be taken from us. Carl was one of probably hundreds of Chelsea supporters who I knew by face only, and who float in and out of my life at various stages, various moments, various games. I remember first spotting him on a terrace in Zaragoza way back in 1995 when the Spanish police decided to baton charge us. He was a tall chap, with long hair; quite distinctive really. I can remember seeing him only a few months ago at Stamford Bridge. According to the eulogies, he was a gentle giant, a lovely man. I just hoped that the minute of applause on the fifty-fifth minute would be well-respected. I also hoped that it wouldn’t get lost in, for example, a cacophony of abuse being aimed at the referee, or maybe even a rousing song or chant, which would cloud the moment.

The two teams exchanged efforts on goal in the first ten minutes of the second-half. Huddlestone was still a main threat for Hull.

On fifty-five minutes, with the ball in a neutral area, Stamford Bridge celebrated the life of Carl O’Brien. Many stood, including myself.

“God bless, Carl, memories of Zaragoza in the sun.”

At the end of the minute, I realised that the Shed had held up a banner in memory of him too.

The game continued, but with the visitors dominating for a while. PD was feeling the frustration of an eerily quiet Stamford Bridge, often joining in alone with chants emanating from other parts of the stadium. I joined in too, but it’s difficult to keep it going when there are only two or three singing in a section of several hundred.

This was turning into a proper struggle, both on and off the pitch.

I must’ve thought “we need a second” many times.

Conte replaced the ineffectual Hazard with Cesc Fabregas and Pedro with Willian with twenty minutes to go. I struggled to see if there was a slight adjustment to our formation and after trying to see where Fabregas fitted in I gave up. To be fair, both additions revitalised us a little.

Willian was upended after a fine run down below me. We waited for Cesc to take the free-kick. His delivery was Postman Pat perfect and Gary Cahill rose unhindered inside the six-yard box to head home.

There was that second goal.

Phew.

Gary ran over to our corner, fell to the floor, and was then mobbed by his team mates.

The joy was palpable.

Just after, Fabregas – running the show now – fed a sublime ball through for Diego. We expected a third goal, but his shot was blocked by the ‘keeper.

Michy Batshuayi then replaced Diego, and the Stamford Bridge crowd rose again.

At last there was some noise worthy of the occasion.

“Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego!”

This was clearly not a memorable Chelsea performance, but if ever we needed to win ugly, with Diego Costa we certainly have the man to do it.

And with points being dropped by three of our main rivals, our hard-fought win had put us eight points clear.

Catch us if you can.

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Tales From A Day Of Chelsea Smiles.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 22 March 2014.

In many ways this Chelsea Saturday was similar to so many other Chelsea Saturdays that I have been detailing over the past five or six seasons in this series of match reports. As the words tumble out of my head and onto my laptop and then eventually onto the internet, it is quite likely that veteran readers will spot familiar themes and possibly even repeated sentences that I have aired before. This, I suppose, is the result of my Saturday routine being relatively constant; it is also the result, thankfully, of supporting a hugely successful football club.

I was up early. The crisp morning air was so refreshing and it stirred me. After waking at the ridiculous time of 6am and having walked out to my car to deposit my match day essentials – coat, camera, coffee cup – within it, there was a noticeable spring in my step.

I felt like “Spring-heeled Jim” – or something similar.

It was a gorgeous sunny morning, we were playing Arsenal and London was calling to the faraway towns. This was going to be a good one.

Lord Parky was collected bang on 7.30am and even this simple act brought me a ripple of pleasure. It was lovely to see his smiling face; he too, was excited about the day ahead. The usual routine was followed; a breakfast en route, strong coffees, the M4 east, the Wiltshire countryside racing by, New Order’s “Technique” album on the CD player, Parky’s voice booming, talk of Palace next Saturday, then Paris soon after.

A Chelsea Saturday.

Mile, mile, mile, smile, smile, smile, zoom, zoom, zoom.

After only two hours since I collected His Lordship, we were parked up. There was a cold wind blowing down the North End Road, but the brilliant blue sky suggested warm weather as the day unravelled. Not for the first time I had made arrangements to meet up with a first-time visitor from the US for this game.

While I waited for Natalie and her mother Sandy to arrive outside the megastore, Parky chatted to a steward that he knows from The Shed. She mentioned that Chelsea received a pat on the back from UEFA because no pyrotechnics were spotted within the ranks of the Galatasaray fans at last Tuesday’s game.  I presumed that some Turkish fans had tried to smuggle some flares in to the game, but had lost this battle with the stewards during the usual search of coats, pockets and bags. Ironically, I had my own personal battle with a steward in the MHU last Tuesday. As most people are surely aware, I take many photographs on a typical match day. Officially, cameras are not allowed in football stadia because they breach copyright laws; officially, that is. As everyone knows, thousands of photographs are taken at every game by fans these days, using a variety of cameras and phones. A blind eye is usually turned. However, one of my lenses literally “sticks out a mile” and so – despite using it at games for the past few years – a steward has recently spotted me and a battle of wits has ensued. On Tuesday came another warning.

What disappointed me most on Tuesday was the way that the steward spoke to me. I am a season ticket holder of some seventeen years, yet was rudely warned of a letter from the club and even the confiscation of my season ticket. It left me annoyed and dismayed to be honest. Only at football are customers treated so poorly. However, I am no fool; for the next few games I am going to lie low and only use my normal wide-angle during games. It is a small price to pay.

Outside the busy megastore, I looked up and spotted a familiar face from far away. I first met Jon, an ex-pat who now lives in Boca Raton in Florida, out in Chicago in 2006 and again in New York in 2012. He was here with his wife and two boys and his father. This was a nice surprise for both of us; it was the first time we had bumped into each other at Stamford Bridge. This was a big day for him; his youngest son Kyle was one of the two mascots. I always remember first meeting Jon outside the Chelsea hotel in Chicago. I had been tipped-off by a friend that Chelsea were staying close to where I was lodging, just off the Magnificent Mile. Jon, who is a travel agent, had a more unique way of working it out. He picked out the three most expensive hotels in downtown Chicago and decided to call each in turn. He phoned the first one – I think it was the Grand Hyatt – and gambled. He asked to speak to Mr. Frank Lampard. To his pleasure, he was put straight through.

Frank : “Hello?”

Click…

Ten minutes later, Jon was outside on the pavement, chatting to me.

Good times. Of all my visits to the US following the club, Chicago was one of the best.

Natalie and her mother Sandy soon arrived and we quickly departed up into the hotel bar. Unfortunately we had just missed meeting a couple of former players, but we still enjoyed the pre-game routine. There was the usual toast –

“Friendship And Football.”

Natalie had already seen three Chelsea games – New York 2012, St. Louis 2013 and Miami 2013 – but this would be her Stamford Bridge debut. Natalie used to play football – a striker – but suffered the same injuries as our own Fernando Torres. She said that she felt a bond with him; he is her favourite player. I was keen to find out what Natalie had made of her first week in London; it was all positive. There was talk of the game ahead, mutual friends, rivalries, the NFL in London, the dreaded 39th game, London itself, friendship scarves, hooliganism, past players, college basketball; no stone was left unturned.  While I escorted Natalie out as kick-off time approached, Parky guided Sandy out into “Frankie’s” where she would watch the ensuing game; I had, unfortunately, been unlucky in my search for a second ticket. There was a longer-than-usual wait at the turnstiles of the Matthew Harding and I felt annoyed with myself. Not only would Natalie miss a little of the immediate pre-match routine, but I would miss out on getting some photos of Kyle for Jon. However, I joked that this indeed was turning out to be a normal Chelsea match day; it is typical Chelsea to stay in the pub for “one last pint” and only reach our seats with seconds to spare.

“Proper Chelsea.”

I wished the troublesome steward a courteous “good afternoon” and we took our seats alongside Alan.

We were in.

I quickly scanned the team and saw that David Luiz was partnering Nemanja Matic at the base of the midfield, with Andre Schurrle alongside Oscar and Eden Hazard. Sadly for Natalie, Mourinho went with Samuel Eto’o and not Fernando Torres. I cared not who was playing for Arsenal. Natalie was impressed with the view; she had been on the stadium tour during the week, but this was the real thing.

A packed house, sunny blue skies, a London derby.

Let’s go.

Arsenal – ironically in the circumstances – created the game’s first chance when Giroud broke into the box and shot low to Petr Cech’s left. Thankfully, our tall goalkeeper was able to drop quickly and touch it away; it was a fine save.

Our response was immediate and dramatic. We broke at speed with Schurrle playing in Samuel Eto’o on the right. Just like against Galatasaray on Tuesday, Eto’o advanced into the inside-right channel and aimed. On this occasion he chose his left foot rather than his right. He curled a delightful shot past Scizieszcznnsy into the far portion of the Arsenal goal. I was right behind the path of the ball and was yelling my approval as it hit the back of the net.

YEEEEEESSSSSSSS!

I turned to Natalie; joy unbounded.

I turned to Alan.

In an unemotional, impassive voice –

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

In a dull voice, Arsenalesque –

“Come on my little diamonds.”

What a start. Just like Tuesday, an early opener from our number twenty-nine. Noticeably, I celebrated this one ten times as much as the one in the Champions League. The Matthew Harding roared –

“Samuel Eto’o – Samuel Eto’o – Hello’o – Hello’o.”

More followed, immediately. Matic won a ball and played in the raiding Schurrle. He quickly dispatched the ball into the same far corner. Only six minutes were on the clock. I lost my footing and fell into the row in front. Half of me wanted to scream in pain – ow, my bloody shin – and half of me wanted to scream in pleasure.

Natalie was in blue heaven.

The stadium erupted in mocking song –

“Are You Tottenham In Disguise?”

Sadly, Samuel Eto’o was substituted after a knock, but Natalie was more than excited to see her man Nando replace him.

Another goal was soon on its way…

A move down our left found Torres, who neatly tee’d up Eden Hazard to shoot. To our eyes in the Matthew Harding, the ball fizzed past the far post and I exclaimed in pain. However – and this came as a complete surprise to me – the referee not only gave a penalty to us, but brandished a red card to an Arsenal player. The reasons were unclear to all of us. Gibbs was creating merry hell, but took my advice – “get off, you prick.”

Eden Hazard steadied himself and slotted the ball in.

After just sixteen minutes : Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

I had to run through my memory bank of previous Chelsea-Arsenal games. Have I ever enjoyed such a score line at Stamford Bridge?

The Chelsea crowd were now in party mode.

“Arsene Wenger – We Want You To Stay.”

“Specialists In Failure – You Know What You Are.”

“Arsene Wenger – A Thousand More Games.”

Just grand.

Then, miracle of miracles, the often derided Arsenal support – search for “Arsenal Away Boyz” on “You Tube “if anyone doubts me – engaged in a little bit of humorous banter.

Chelsea : “Robin van Persie – he left ‘cus you’re shit.”

Arsenal : “Michael Duberry – he left ‘cus you’re shit.”

We enjoyed more possession and Arsenal were nowhere. Just before the break, Fernando Torres advanced into the box and picked out Oscar, who prodded the low ball in at close range.

Chelsea 4 Arsenal 0.

Ho ho ho ho.

There was an air of joyous disbelief at the break. Natalie, quietly taking it all in, was lost for words. Elsewhere, others were more effusive. This was just lovely stuff from us and the second-half lay ahead…just lovely.

At the break, former defender – and one time goalkeeper – and manager David Webb, wearing a garish raincoat, walked with Neil Barnett around the Bridge. He was warmly applauded. We don’t see much of him at Chelsea, which is a shame. You get the feeling he is a “one-off”, a unique character, his own man, a maverick. You rarely see him at Chelsea functions. For me, seeing him was bittersweet; it reminded me of the dark days of 1993, when Webby took charge of the club for a couple of months, steering us clear of relegation, but it was a time when I lost my father too.

In the programme, there was an article by Rick Glanville about the “82,905” game, with previously unseen photographs. Splendid stuff.

So, the second-half. While every single one of us wanted more goals, I think most knew that it is very rare for a team to keep scoring at such a rate over the complete ninety minutes. I kept looking over towards the away support to see if many had decided to leave

To be fair, only a few had left at half-time.

The game, typically, died a little after the break. There were moments of inactivity. We prayed for at least one more goal. Torres set up Oscar whose rasping shot was tipped over. Just after the hour, out of nothing really, the ball was played to Oscar on the edge of the box. With that lovely movement of his – neat, minimal effort, so natural, so efficient – he moved the ball onto his right foot and shot at Szcizciesncny. The effort was hardly powerful, so imagine my surprise when the ball kicked up and flew past his pathetic dive.

Chelsea 5 Arsenal 0.

Ho ho ho ho ho.

Mohamed Salah – the forgotten man of late – then replaced Oscar. After only a few minutes, the strong and determined Matic  guided a great ball through the haphazard Arsenal defence and Salah was through on goal. He steadied himself. We waited.

“Go on my son.”

Chelsea 6 Arsenal 0.

Ho ho ho ho ho ho.

Now it was time for the Arsenal supporters to head home. The replica-shirted Goons soon left. They came to Stamford Bridge to celebrate Arsene Wenger’s 1,000th game in charge of their team, but endured Arsenal’s worst ever defeat at the hands of Chelsea in 107 years.

Natalie – you certainly picked a good one for your Stamford Bridge debut.

Arsenal are a bloody strange club. Let’s be honest; they are run on sound financial lines, but the club seems to be headed to eternal mediocrity due to their reluctance to gamble and to invest in the right areas. Occasionally it pays to dream. Wenger seems incapable of changing though. In many ways, the Arsenal club is still in love with him because of his ground-breaking training methods and his style of football which once charmed North London – so used to pragmatic and boring football over the years – in 1998, but now seems to be too rigid, too easy to counter, too predictable.

As if I care.

After the game, I was able – at last – to get a photograph of Natalie and Sandy with Mr. Chelsea himself, Ron Harris, back in the crowded hotel. Then, we slowly walked past a few Chelsea pubs to the familiar area outside The Lillee Langtry, where we met up with a few of the usual suspects. Natalie had loved her Chelsea day. It had been perfect. There was already talk of her next visit.

On a day of goals, the only negative – apart from the shower of hail stones which accompanied our walk back to the car – were the big wins for both Manchester City and Liverpool. They aren’t going away are they?

Crystal Palace – my first visit to Selhurst Park in almost eleven years – next.

See you there.

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Tales From 24 Photographs From The Round Of 32.

Chelsea vs. Sparta Prague : 21 February 2013.

On the evening of Thursday 21st. February, I took 58 photographs at the Chelsea vs. Sparta Prague game. I uploaded 24 of these to my latest Chelsea album on Facebook. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. Here are a few words about these photographs.

Photograph 1 : 8.01pm.

A close-up shot of the Europa League banner. This had been placed on the Stamford Bridge pitch in front of the West Stand, awaiting the arrival of the two teams. The Europa League represents a new competition for Chelsea Football Club although we took part in its predecessor, the UEFA Cup, in 2000-2001, 2001-2002 and 2002-2003. In the pub beforehand, my mate Daryl commented that he was tempted to miss the night’s game, but he has attended every single one of Chelsea’s European home games since our return in 1994, so felt compelled to buy a ticket. I’ve missed a few; the last one was, ironically, against Sparta Prague in November 2004, when I was tied down at work. I think I’ve missed five home games over the years; Vaalerenga, Hapoel Tel Aviv, MSK Zilina, Helsingborgs, Sparta Prague.

Photograph 2 : 8.03pm.

The two teams standing in a line. A TV cameraman is taking those up-close-and-personal shots of the players. Chelsea in their kit, Sparta wearing tracksuit tops. It was great to see John Terry back in the line-up.

Photograph 3 : 8.03pm.

A photograph of the yellow and burgundy Europa League flag. While the unfamiliar Europa League anthem was played, the flag was being fluttered in the centre-circle by a dozen UEFA clad helpers. With a new colour scheme – no more Chelsea blue and white on European midweek games for now – and with unfamiliar advertising hoardings around the circumference – Hankook, HTC – the night seemed strange from the off-set, like a game being played in a parallel universe. During the anthem, the away section lit up with a hundred or so mobile phone lights – like Napoli last season – and I noticed a few Sparta fans in other parts of the stadium too.

Photograph 4 : 8.04pm.

Another shot of the two teams, the Europa League banner in view. Although the first game at the Letna Stadium was poor, Sparta didn’t offer too much of a threat to Chelsea. I expected a comfortable passage to the next round – the awkwardly titled “Round of Sixteen” – and I had even gambled on flights to Amsterdam, expecting both Chelsea and Ajax to progress.

Photograph 5 : 8.04pm.

A close-up photograph of the Sparta Prague players shaking hands with the Chelsea team. I wondered what the Sparta “game-plan” would be. Contain or attack? Stick or twist?

Photograph 6 : 8.05pm.

A close-up shot of the away fans. In the pub before the game, there were around ten Czech fans, quietly chatting and drinking around a table. A couple were wearing Torino-esque pomegranate coloured Sparta scarves, but their match-day attire was understated and normal. There was even a couple of classically “high-cheek boned” Czech girls in the group. I approved.

Photograph 7 : 8.05pm.

Another close-up of the Czech fans. As soon as I had walked into the stadium, I noticed an orange glow emanating from the away corner. This surprised me since I knew that the Sparta kit colours were – like Roma – burgundy, white, black. After zooming in on the away section, the reason for the orange glow was apparent. Virtually every single one of the three thousand Sparta fans was wearing blue, yellow and red woollen hats. I had never seen this at a game before. Top marks to them. The Sparta crest is blue, yellow and red. Overall, the away end looked orange. What with the Europa League banners in the stadium too, this was turning out to be quite a new visual experience.

Photograph 8 : 8.05pm.

A photograph of the upper tier of the away section. More ski-hats, more colour. Of the three-hundred fans in the photo, there is only one without the hat. Typically, a few “half-and-half” scarves but, as this was a game between teams from two different leagues I saw no problem with that. It was a bitterly cold night in SW6 and everyone was wrapped up in warm jackets. A few wre wearing their Sparta shirts over their outer jackets; maybe their mothers weren’t around this morning to dress them properly. There was an absence of shiny puffer jackets, much beloved by the Italians. Maybe they haven’t reached Prague yet.

Photograph 9 : 8.15pm.

A shot of eight Chelsea pensioners, resplendent in their rich scarlet overcoats sitting at the rear of the East Middle. In front, there was an array of unoccupied seats. I had noted during the day that the Chelsea website had declared the match “sold-out.” This both pleased me and surprised me; the last thing that I wanted was the football world poking fun at Chelsea’s possibly spoiled fan base turning their collective nose up at the Europa League. However, although the rest of The Bridge was full, this corporate area – of some 2,000 seats – was predominantly unoccupied. The question to ask here is; did the corporates decide that this game was not worthy of their presence or did Chelsea get their pricing structure wrong?

Photograph 10 : 8.32pm.

A photograph just before the point of contact of Juan Mata’s boot as he aims a free-kick goal wards goal. The Sparta wall is just about to leap. By this stage in the game, despite a promising start with Torres squandering two good chances, Sparta had gone ahead via a quick free-kick and a goal from Lafata.

Photograph 11 : 8.34pm.

A photograph of the action inside the Chelsea penalty area from a Sparta corner. The ball is just about to be headed clear by Gary Cahill. Despite Chelsea dominating possession during the first-half, Sparta were clearly not just sitting back. The tie was now level and a Sparta away goal would put them at a huge advantage.

Photograph 12 : 8.44pm.

The Prague ‘keeper Vaclik, who had a poor first game, is photographed catching the ball from a Juan Mata corner. Just before the break, Fernando Torres headed over. It clearly was not going to be his night.

Photograph 13 : 9.19pm.

A photograph of the photographers. Dressed in Sparta burgundy, they are poised with their long lenses to capture that elusive Chelsea equaliser at the north end of the stadium. The second-half had begun with Oscar, now showing what a well-rounded and accomplished midfielder looks like – strong in the tackle, good balance, tremendous close skill, great vision – dancing through the Sparta defence with a tremendous run. His ball found Ramires whose shot on goal was deflected onto a post. A lovely turn from Torres was not matched by the finish. He found himself one on one with the ‘keeper but his attempted flick over – with all of ready to celebrate – was amazingly swatted away by Vaclik.

Photograph 14 : 9.21pm.

Push and shove inside the Sparta penalty area. Juan Mata’s cross is out of shot, but players of both teams are moving in every direction possible to elude each other. John Terry is seen pulling a sleeve. One defender is facing away from the ball, creating a block for Mikel. I really wonder why the much-lampooned goal-line officials bother showing up; when have they ever spotted any of these illegal activities during a match? As the second-half developed, the Chelsea fans – already out-shouted by the away fans – began getting more abusive. On the hour, there was a loud shout of “Jose Mourinho” from the Matthew Harding Lower.

Photopraph 15 : 9.23pm.

The ball is headed away by a Prague defender, with Ryan Bertrand challenging. I commented to Alan that Ryan needed a good game; if I’m honest he hasn’t developed particularly well since his surprising involvement in the game in Munich. Ah, Munich. Just the word sends me dizzy.

Photograph 16 : 9.35pm.

John Terry in attack, heading back across goal from another Mata corner. By now, we had wasted many free-kicks in and around the box and Sparta had threatened on a few forays up field. Benitez replaced Oscar – our best player in my book – with Eden Hazard. The dice were being thrown.

Photograph 17 : 9.35pm.

A photo of the Prague fans in the Shed Lower raising their scarves above their head. With their constant chants of “Sparta! Sparta! Sparta!” sounding similar to “Barca! Barca! Barca!” and their yellow and red of Catalonia plus the burgundy and blue of Barcelona, I wondered if there might be an Iniesta-like strike to send us packing. An away goal now and it would be Czech, mate.

Photograph 18 : 9.35pm.

Eden Hazard, in extreme close-up, down below me, shaping to zip a free-kick goal wards. Our domination continued but Torres’ poor night was summed up when a Ramires effort hit him in the chest.

Photograph 19 : 9.50pm.

Juan Mata caught taking yet another free-kick. One after another they came. The frustration rose with every missed opportunity. Ramires wide. A Hazard free-kick was parried by Vaclik. Ramires kicked and missed.

Photograph 20 : 9.53pm.

Bodies in the box. Victor Moses is photographed attempting to latch onto a loose ball. The Prague defenders heads clear. By this stage, we had heard that Ajax was losing 1-0. My flight to Amsterdam was looking in jeopardy. A Gary Cahill block stopped a crucial Sparta goal.

Photograph 21 : 9.55pm.

The captain John Terry is photographed booting the ball goal wards. He had already come close with an impudent flick from close in. At the other end, a Sparta Prague break had caused me to look away – I hardly ever do that – but an effort from Kadlec was zipped wide. That chance really should have sealed the tie. Apilicueta shot high from an angle. Penalties were looming large.

Photograph 22 : 9.58pm.

Eden Hazard is engulfed by ecstatic Chelsea players down below me. In extra-time, the substitute had cut inside a defender, using that lovely low centre of gravity body swerve and worked the ball onto his left foot. A thunderbolt flew past the redoubtable Vaclik and, although I at first thought that Hazard’s thunderstrike had rippled the side-netting, the roar from the Stamford Bridge crowd told me otherwise. I continued snapping the players’ celebrations below.

Photograph 23 : 9.58pm.

A close-up of Torres, Ramires, Mikel, Moses, Hazard and Bertrand. Beside me Alan was shouting for joy – and relief. Phew. It was virtually the last kick of the game. We were through. Phew again.

Photgrapho 24 : 10.01pm.

A photograph of the Sparta Prague team, lined-up, arms around each other, basking in the warm applause of the colourful three-thousand away fans. Soon after, the entire away end was bouncing in joyous abandon. This had clearly been an enjoyable night for them in London. Their players’ performance had been very brave; they almost pulled off the unexpected. The Sparta supporters’ performance was even better. I take my hat off to them.

The 24 Photographs –

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?…1&l=87464ec3a7

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