Tales From Boxing Day 1996 And Boxing Day 2021

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 26 December 2021.

We don’t always play on Boxing Day, but when we do it’s usually at Stamford Bridge. However, for once this was going to be a rare trip to the Midlands for this particular festive fixture and that suited me. Sometimes Boxing Day fixtures at Stamford Bridge, especially the dreaded early kick-offs, can be eerily quiet affairs.

Back when I was younger, attending Boxing Day football was fraught with logistical problems. I didn’t see my first Boxing Day Chelsea game until as late as 1992 when, at last with a car to drive, I made my way up from deepest Somerset to see us play Southampton at home.

Since then, I haven’t attended every Boxing Day game; most but not all.

However, the game at Villa Park on Boxing Day 2021 would only be the fourth away game out of twenty Boxing Day fixtures that I would have watched. The league computer certainly favours us to play at Stamford Bridge on this most traditional of footballing days. We missed out on an away game at Arsenal last year; and that was probably just as well.

I set off at around 9.15am but instead of heading off to collect PD, Glenn and Parky, I was headed due south for half an hour to collect Donna in Wincanton, a town in Somerset that I rarely visit. I fuelled up, then drove through Bruton and I soon realised that unless we play Yeovil Town in the FA Cup it’s unlikely that I would ever take this road to see Chelsea ever again. It was mightily heavy with fog as I crept past the Wincanton Race Course, opening up for its annual Boxing Day Meet. I collected Donna at 10am, then made a bee-line for Frome. I’ve known Donna for a while – I spent some time with her and some other friends in Porto in May – but even though I had seen her at various Chelsea games over the past ten years or so, I only found out from Parky that Wincanton was her home relatively recently.

Donna’s first ever Chelsea game was a pre-season fixture against Bristol City in 1995 just after Ruud Gullit signed for us. I remember that I eagerly travelled down to Devon to see us play Torquay United and Plymouth Argyle during the week before the game in Bristol on the Sunday. Supporters of our club that were not around in the summer of 1995 will, I think, struggle to comprehend the excitement that surrounded the Gullit signing. It absolutely thrilled us all. We both remembered it as a swelteringly hot day – we drew 1-1 – and Donna reminded me that for a long period during the pre-match “kick in”, our new Dutch superstar wandered around the pitch talking on his mobile phone. It just felt that only he would ever be allowed such a privilege.

Twenty-six years ago and a Chelsea pre-season tour in the West of England.

I can’t see that ever happening again, eh?

The first Chelsea away game that I attended on a Boxing Day was at Villa Park too; in 1996/97, a nice 2-0 win, two goals from Gianfranco Zola , and I even won some money on him as the first scorer. Our lovely “1997 FA Cup Final” season was just gaining momentum and times were good, now with a team including Gianluca Vialli, Gianfranco Zola and with Ruud Gullit now as the player-manager. The greatest of times? It absolutely felt like it.

Only the previous April we had assembled at Villa Park for an ultimately agonising FA Cup semi-final with Manchester United; the memory of walking back to my parking spot amidst a sea of United fans haunts me to this day.

But Boxing Day 1996 was a cracking day out; twenty-five years ago to the day. Blimey. File under “where does the time go?” alongside many other games.

I collected the remaining passengers and we were on our way. There was fog, but not as heavy as on the trip up the same M5 to Wolverhampton a week earlier. I made good time and I pulled into the car park of “The Vine”, tucked under the M5 at West Bromwich, for the second time in a week at bang on 1pm. We had enjoyed our meal there so much after the Wolves game that we had decided to do so again.

“The Vine” – good food, a quiet chat, a few drinks – would do for us.

Curries and pints were ordered. Chelsea tales were remembered. Three hours flew past. A trip to Villa Park was long overdue. It has been a mainstay on our travels for decades, but the last visit was as long ago as April 2016 when Pato scored. We remembered that, ironically, I had plans to take Donna to Villa Park for our game in March 2020 – Donna had broken her wrist and was unable to drive – but of course that game was the first one to be hit by the lockdown of two seasons ago. Like me, Donna kept the tickets for that game on her fridge as a reminder that, hopefully, football would be back in our lives again.

It didn’t take me long to drop my four passengers off near Villa Park before I doubled-back on myself and parked up on the same street that I have been using for years and years. We used to drop into “The Crown And Cushion” pub on the walk to the stadium but that is no more; razed to the ground, only memories remain. We had mobbed up in that very pub for the Fulham semi-final in 2002; there is a photo from that day of a very young-looking Parky and a very young-looking me.

I stood outside the away end, a few “hellos” to some friends. I had a spare ticket but couldn’t shift it. Unperturbed, I made my way inside the Doug Ellis Stand. I was rewarded with a very fine seat; the very front row of the upper deck. Alas, Alan wasn’t able to attend again, but Gary and Parky were alongside me.

I dubbed it the “Waldorf & Statler” balcony.

Villa Park is a large and impressive stadium. I looked around at the familiar-again banners, flags, tiered stands and other architectural features. Was I last here almost six bloody years ago?

Tempus fugit as they say in Sutton Coldfield.

The stadium was full to near capacity. The players appeared from that quaint “off-centre” tunnel that Villa decided to keep as a motif from the old, and much-loved, Trinity Road stand of yore. Chelsea as Borrusia Dortmund again; yellow, black, yellow.

The team?

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

James – Jorginho – Kante – Alonso

Hudson-Odoi – Pulisic – Mount

We were up against Ings, Mings and otherlings.

Let battle commence.

The first thing of note during the game was the realisation that I had forgotten to include a good four of five songs and chants from the Chelsea catalogue at Brentford on the previous Wednesday. I had mentioned thirty; a few friends had added a few more later, yet I was hearing some others too, repeated in The Midlands. It’s a fair assumption that the tally at Brentford must have reached forty.

I doubt if it has ever been bettered.

On the pitch, there were some early exchanges and Thiago Silva continued his lovely form from the previous Sunday at Wolves. The singing in the two-tiered Doug Ellis quietened down as our play deteriorated a little.

But we were still the loud ones.

“Shall we sing a song for you?” was robustly answered on around twenty minutes by the home fans in the North Stand, which was met with sarcastic clapping from the away section.

No surprises, we were dominating possession but Villa were looking decidedly useful when they countered with pace. A run and strike by Ollie Watkins was ably blocked by the nimble reactions of Trevoh Chalobah, and the away fans applauded.

We were having a little difficulty in building our attacks. Reece James struggled with crosses and gave away the occasional ball. From a wide position on the left, Mason Mount slung in a ball that tickled the crossbar; I am not sure if the attempt on goal was intentional.

Sadly, Villa themselves were breeching us too often for our liking. Just before the half-hour mark, a cross from Matt Targett was flicked on – in an effort to block the cross – by James. The ball spun up and over Mendy’s head and outreached arms. Our goalkeeper was stranded and the ball nestled in the net. Villa probably deserved their lead.

At that time, we were looking a little weak as an attacking threat, with only Kante – “imperious” the bloke next to me called him – living up to his billing. Callum Hudson-Odoi seemed as reticent as ever to take people on and Christian Pulisic just looked lost. Thankfully our response was quick and a little surprising. Marcos Alonso pushed the ball forward and Matty Cash lunged at Callum inside the box. It was an ugly challenge and a clear penalty.

Despite Martinez’ merry dance on the goal line, Jorginho rarely misses and he didn’t this time.

1-1.

Back in the game.

The first-half ended with a period of huff and puff with not much real quality.

At the break, the fifth cavalry appeared on the horizon. Although Chalobah had performed admirably, it was his place that was jeopardised in favour of Romelu Lukaku. Pulisic, out-fought and out-puzzled in a central attacking role “of sorts” was pushed back to right wing-back. Soon after the restart, Silva slowly walked off to be replaced by Andreas Christensen.

There is no doubt at all that the changes resulted in a noticeable improvement in our play, the vast majority of which seemed to take place down below us on our right wing. Pulisic looked a lot more potent and of course it was a huge advantage to have a target, a hit-man, a goal scorer on the pitch.

But there were the usual moans and grumbles when Hudson-Odoi fluffed a goal scoring opportunity in his favoured inside-left channel. However, those chastising our youngster were soon eating humble pie. His perfectly floated cross towards the incredible bulk of Lukaku just outside the six-yard box was nigh-on perfection. Our number nine lept and angled the ball past the Villa ‘keeper.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

Our play improved. We looked more confident, more at ease. There was greater intent.

On the hour, Mateo Kovacic replaced Kante and we hoped our little miracle-worker wasn’t badly hurt.

A fine long ball from Christensen played in Mount. He drew the ‘keeper on an angle but with two team mates in good positions, decided to go for goal. With the ‘keeper having over-run his challenge and in no man’s land, Mount’s effort didn’t hit the target. The ball kissed the side netting.

There were howls from the Chelsea support.

At the other end, a rare Villa attack and – if I am honest – a cumbersome challenge looked a definite penalty but we were saved by an offside flag.

A strong run from Lukaku eventually tee’d up Callum again. But this was followed with a weak finish but also an excellent low save from Martinez.

More howls.

Late, very late, in the game, I was poised with my camera as Lukaku started a chase to reach a ball pumped forward by Hudson-Odoi. I watched through my lens as he quickly made up ground on Targett, and raced past. The defender lost his footing and ended up stumbling around like a newly born fawn. Our striker raced on, seemingly ripping up the turf as he sprinted away. It was simply a glorious sight. It was an instant classic, a reminder of older days when strikers were unshackled and free. He advanced into the box, and I was preparing for a Roy Of The Rovers – or Hotshot Hamish – thunderbolt. Instead, Ezri Konsa took his legs away.

Another penalty.

We waited.

Jorginho again.

Goal.

Phew.

But that run from Lukaku. The highlight of the season? Possibly. More of the same please. The second half had been a fine turnaround. Everyone was happy. I kept saying “round pegs in round holes, square pegs in square holes” as we made our way down the many flights of stairs to street level.

As we all walked back to the car, a group of Chelsea fans were singing in the dark distant night.

“Oh what fun it is to see Chelsea win away…”

Boxing Day 1996.

Boxing Day 2021.

Tales From Zig Zag Hill

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 27 July 2021.

Just fifty-nine days after our European Cup triumph in Porto, we were back in business. Or rather a thousand or so other Chelsea supporters and I were back in business. Some players had been back for a few weeks, and the management team rarely rest, but for the rank and file match-going addicts among our multi-million strong support base, this was Day One of the new season.

By a strange quirk of fate, the last domestic away game played by Chelsea Football Club where away fans had been able to attend took place at Bournemouth on Leap Year Day last year, Saturday 29 February 2020. And here we were again headed for the same town on the Dorset coast on Tuesday 27 July 2021.

I like a bit of symmetry as I never tire of saying.

When we left the Vitality Stadium last year, how many of us could have possibly dreamt that we would not be able to go to a single away game in almost seventeen months?

Not me. Not you. Not the next man. Not the next woman.

One abiding memory from that day is of me – quite by fate – stumbling into the players as they ambled through the Lower Gardens by the pier and beach on their mid-morning walk. I offered my hand to Antonio Rudiger for him to shake and for me to wish him “all the best” for the game but he was almost embarrassed as I saw him shoo me away with the ominous words “Corona Virus”.

The interim has tested us all. It has certainly tested my love of football, maybe of Chelsea, and I have experienced fluctuating opinions of football, fandom and the universe. It certainly has not been easy. Season 2020/21 was my least enjoyable football season ever – OK, maybe tied with the dire 1978/79 campaign – and yet we reached two Cup Finals and ended up as winners of the biggest prize in club football in the whole world. And universe.

Rationalising football was never easy, right?

I watched the European Championships recently with middling interest. International football just isn’t for me these days. I can’t even be arsed to explain why. My focus was always about getting back to the love of my life; Chelsea Football Club.

However, a lovely little present afforded itself to me on my birthday in the first week of July. My first Frome Town game since the cessation of matches last November saw me attend the Frome Town vs. Bath City friendly on Tuesday 6 July; the town of my domicile versus the city of my birth on my birthday. Perfect, eh? It was a lovely evening, even though Dodge lost 4-1. A couple of friends made a surprise visit from Bristol and Portsmouth, we all had a lovely catch-up and I survived my first session since Everton at home last March. Evenings like that are priceless.

I was tempted to attend the home friendly against Tottenham but the whole thing seemed like a massive waste of energy. My take on it was that I would be haring up to London on many other midweek evenings in the autumn, arriving home late, waking up tired for work the next day, and so why bother with an overpriced – £30 – friendly where there wouldn’t even be any away fans to abuse. No thanks. A lovely little dip down to Dorset – just fifty-five miles away – to be followed by a jaunt over to Belfast for the UEFA Super Cup (Parky and I re-joined the UEFA Away Scheme recently so are assured tickets) and then the Grand Reunion with all the familiar faces against Crystal Palace a few days later.

That will do me nicely thank you very much nurse.

So, AFCB versus CFC on Tuesday 27 July. It soon came around. And here was a first for me; my first-ever Chelsea trip after working at home for the day. I set off at 4.40pm, alone – none of the other Chuckle Brothers were available – but with my mind full of being part of a genuine match day experience once again. I was hoping for a full house and a 1,200 away contingent. Great though they were, both Cup Finals at the end of May were odd affairs, almost surreal, certainly strange.

The drive down to Bournemouth didn’t take long. How nice of the football Gods to bestow upon me the easiest of away trips. Over the past year and a half, I have spent many an hour out walking in England’s “Green and Pleasant” and I have fallen in love again with our countryside, often taking too many bloody photographs. On the way to Dorset, I was at it again. I stopped off momentarily at a few choice locations – at Longleat, on the chalk uplands near Longbridge Deverill, ascending Zig Zag Hill – not on the scale of L’Alpe D’Huez, the famed climb of the Tour de France, but with a series of acute turns – and overlooking Cranbourne Chase. It was a glorious drive.

Nearing the outskirts of Bournemouth, though, the ominous gloomy clouds darkened the early evening light. Down came the rain.

The first “fackinell” of the season.

But on the dual carriageway, I had my first “moment” of the new season.

As I accelerated away and overtook a car, I realised that I have a decent job, a nice car, my own house, my friends, my health – God, my health – and I was about to see Chelsea play. Hardly a life-defining moment but important enough for me to mention it three evenings later.

And although I have spoken with some close friends how I might be in a situation this season when I might have to choose between a classic Frome Town away day and a common or garden Chelsea trip, deep down I knew that there would only be one winner.  

I was parked up on a pre-booked private driveway on Littledown Avenue at 6.30pm. The ninety-minute drive had been lengthened by twenty minutes as I stopped to snap, snap, snap. I include a few of the photos.

The air was a little muggy outside. I had brought a light rain jacket. The walk to the stadium only took ten minutes. I spotted a chap wearing a Flamengo shirt – Bournemouth colours, but turned ninety degrees – alongside his mate who was wearing a Chelsea top. I couldn’t resist walking over to say a few words, but I avoided mentioning that, if I was pressed, I favoured their rivals Fluminense. After my jaunt to Buenos Aires last year, I have Rio in my sights too, though perhaps only after another trip to Buenos Aires.

File under : “Too many stadia, not enough time.”

I will be honest, it felt odd being among a crowd who were, in the main, not wearing masks.

I chatted to Long Tall Pete and Liz outside the familiar away turnstiles, the first of around a dozen friends or so that I would talk to during the evening. Big praise to Scott who would endure a 590-mile round trip from his home in Lancashire for this friendliest of friendlies. Just amazing.

There were three security checks to get into the stadium; a scan with an electronic device, a bag check, a body frisk. It seemed all a bit pointless. Anyway, my camera was in, unlike on 27 July 2019 when it was banned from a friendly at Reading.

I would normally trawl the concourse to chat to some familiar faces, but – I think that I felt at risk slightly – I decided to avoid the closeness of the crowded bar areas and head inside.

For the third game in a row, I was positioned in row three; clearly not my favourite viewing position. The evening sun was still glaring. I chastised myself for leaving a perfectly fine pair of sunglasses in my car.

The players – in a set of training gear sponsored by a completely different company to the playing kits – warmed up in front of us. There were a few familiar faces, but some strange ones too. I find it amusing that I can rattle off fringe players from 1983/84 – Phil Priest, Terry Howard, Perry Baldacchino, Paul Williams, Stokely Sawyers and Robin Beste – but struggle with the current crop.

With five minutes to kick-off, the PA played “Life Is Life” by Opus. I had a little smirk to myself. I was reminded of that classic film of the one and only Diego Armando Maradona’s pre-match warm up to this very song in 1989. If you have not seen it, do yourself a favour.

I wondered who on Earth could replicate that breath-taking performance at Bournemouth in 2021.

The 7.45pm kick-off soon arrived. So much for a 12,000 full house. The home areas were half empty and our section wasn’t full. There was a line of ten empty seats right behind me. So much for the lure of the current Champions of Europe. A few friends had notably lost a few pounds over the previous eighteen months; well done Jayne, Sam and Rob.

Just before the game began, probably just as the teams were being announced – hence my confusion with the starting eleven – I saw a deeply tanned Pat Nevin rush past. I shouted out to him and told him that I had loved reading his recent autobiography. We shook hands – another weird feeling – and he went on his way to take up a commentary position.

Lovely. My favourite-ever player. A fine start to 2021/22.

I was tempted to ask the PA chap to replay “Life Is Life” and get Pat on the pitch.

It was a nice thought…

Our team?

Kepa.

Sterling / Baker / Sarr.

Hudson-Odoi / Drinkwater / Gallagher / Alonso.

Ziyech / Pulisic.

Abraham.

The game began and Chelsea attacked the “home end” to my right, the scene of those devastating four second-half goals in early 2019.

First thoughts?

“I wish that bloody sun would soon disappear behind those towering clouds.”

“I don’t recognise a couple of these players.”

“That new kit is truly horrific.”

Zig fucking zag.

My heart has sunk over the summer as I have witnessed from afar – oh my disbelieving eyes – how a notable number of acquaintances throughout Chelsea World had succumbed to the dog’s dinner of our new Nike abomination.

We can’t be friends, real friends, now.

I am sorry.

But you should be the ones apologising.

Fackinell.

The effect that it has on me, if I may offer some sort of comparison, is as if those Hawaiian shirts favoured by our American cousins – I never know if they are worn ironically or not – are matched with the same pattern on accompanying shorts.

Get my drift?

The Chelsea crowd – some who had evidently been on the ale for a few hours – were lively in the first quarter of an hour. There were two early songs in praise of Frank Lampard. The Timo Werner one was soon aired and there were a few hearty renditions of “The Only Team In London With A / Two European Cups.” I joined in and tried to warm my vocal chords up for the new season. My view from row three was tough. Everything looked so flat.

Now then dear reader, let’s get this clear. This was a pre-season game in which virtually all of the Chelsea protagonists would be bit-part players throughout the upcoming season. Some – Kepa, Mendy, Alonso, Barkley – would have parts to play, but others would find themselves elsewhere. Some might get the odd League Cup game. Some would inevitably go out on loan. Some would begin a zig-zagging journey down the football pyramid. Some – sadly – would find themselves as footballing equivalents of the unclaimed black pram on the baggage carousel at airport arrivals.

The game against Bournemouth was always about getting game time for as many players as possible. I’m certainly not going to go into nerd mode and produce a deeply analytical report of each of the players’ performances. What would be the point of that?

That said, I was looking forward to watching Conor Gallagher – alas no relative of oor Hughie – to see what the hype was all about.

There was neat football from us in the first-half. Danny Drinkwater, of all players, started well, pushing the ball intelligently. Up close, I appreciated the pace of our right-sided defender (later identified as Dujon Sterling, ah of course…) and Malang Sarr (the other player who I was hard pressed to recognise) certainly possessed an impressive shape. Conor Gallagher was involved. Nice to see the old war horse Alonso again. Chances fell to Hakim, Callum, Tammy, Tammy and Tammy but our finishing was off the mark.

The singing from the away section quietened as the half progressed.

I wanted Our Callum to burst past his marker, but there always seemed to be a reticence from him. A shame.

Interceptions from Sarr and Baker thwarted Bournemouth, whose main threat on our goal was a series of deep free-kicks and corners. Dominic Solanke was upfront for the home team. We had high hopes for him a while ago, eh? For all of our possession, we went into the break without a goal to show for our dominance.

As the players lined up for the second-half, I spotted some changes, although not wholesale.

Mendy.

Miazga / Chalobah The Younger / Clarke-Salter.

Hudson-Odoi / Gallagher / Loftus-Cheek / Alonso.

Barkley.

Abraham / Broja.

Things were a bit disjointed, off the pitch as well as on it. This is pre-season for us fans too. Whereas we all stood during the first-half, many began the second-half sitting. Were we jaded already? Surely not. The home fans were a quiet bunch, though and there was little noise from them. However, a little riposte from the otherwise silent area to our left resulted in an embarrassing chant from us.

“Champions of Europe. You’ll Never Sing That.”

Fucksake.

I rolled my eyes so far backwards I almost saw Tottenham. Then I looked up at the roof, if not the heavens.

I turned to the young lad to my left.

“Fucking hell. Mugging off Bournemouth. Bournemouth!”

This football lark can be testing at times. By all means take the piss out of our main rivals, but not lovely and cuddly – hardly rivals to us, hardly anything to us – benign Bournemouth.

It was lovely to see Our Ruben back in royal blue again. For a big man, he certainly has a lovely touch. But he struggled a bit to get into the game. He played a deeper role than usual. He was pulled back – one of my most hated aspects of modern day football – so many times. So frustrating. It was his lazy pass to the covering Gallagher that set up David Brooks but his shot thankfully glided past the left-hand post.

A lad behind me roused the away contingent with a loud “Zigger Zagger” and the noise leapt a few levels.

“We’re The Only Team In London.”

A fine save from Mendy thwarted Bournemouth from close in. Alonso, urged to “shoot” by us, did so but his effort whistled wide.

Zappacosta – last seen by my eyes at Reading in 2019 – replaced Our Callum, Baba Rahman – just wow – replaced Alonso and Ugbo replaced Tammy.

Sadly, just after these changes a cross from the right found the head of Emiliano Marcondes and Mendy was beaten.

The crowd went mild.

Our reaction was immediate. A brilliant cross from that man Baba was whipped in immaculately into the “corridor of uncertainty” and the new man Armando Broja took a neat touch and avoided a Tammy-like entanglement of limbs to slam the ball home. Broja then charged down a clearance from the Bournemouth ‘keeper but the ball whizzed past the far post. Shortly after, that very rare thing; a crisp near post Chelsea corner – from Ross Barkley – that cleared the first man and Ike Ugbo was able to head home from mere inches.

Bournemouth 1 Chelsea 2.

In the final fifteen minutes, the home team made many changes and the game petered out.

At the final whistle, the Chelsea players soon headed for the tunnel. No signs of celebration at all. After all, it was only Bournemouth right? Fans take note.

I walked back to the car just before the rain came again. It took me an age to get out onto the main road out of town. But within the hour I had retraced my steps and was winding my way down the intense bends of Zig Zag Hill once again, the night now dark, my headlights on full beam.

“Steady as you go Chris.”

I was home at midnight and I was immediately reminded of my midweek football routine.

Get home. Try to relax a bit. Scan my photos. Chose one for Instagram. One for Facebook maybe. Check a few social media posts. Watch the game highlights on YouTube. Work in the morning. Bollocks. Head full of football. Try to get some sleep…

…ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.