Tales From High Above And Down Below

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 18 January 2020.

We reached Bristol Airport at 7pm on the Friday and we soon spotted three familiar Chelsea fans nestled together, pints on the go, awaiting the 8.50pm flight to Newcastle. One of them (from Weston – I think they are all from Weston) used to sit right behind me in The Sleepy Hollow for the best part of ten years, but I never got around to asking his name. We got to know the other two on a flight back from Newcastle in 2015, but again never got around to finding out their names. We joined The Weston Three for a last pint before take-off. All six of us were relishing the trip north. Newcastle is the granddaddy of all away trips. If Goodison is my favourite away stadium, Newcastle is everyone’s favourite away town.

Talk soon turned to previous trips and to mutual friends, and the usual smorgasbord of football banter. Not for the last time on this three-day trip to Tyneside would we be chatting about how we just can’t stop this addiction to travel, to watching live football – the drinking, OK the drinking – and the camaraderie. I mentioned that to many younger fans, football is watched on TV and tablet, in pub or at home, and the nearest involvement some get to active participation is by betting on accumulators.

Not for us. We love being balls-deep in live football. But compared to some, we are novices. Some fans seemingly take it to ridiculous extremes.

One of the Weston Three mentioned that he got to know a rabid Coventry City supporter, sadly now living in a hospice with not long to go, whose trips around England and Europe in search of live football took obsession to a new level. Very often this chap would find himself driving through the night in order to link up games, to meet kick-offs, to get grounds ticked-off the list. In order for this to take place as smoothly as possible, he had three cars parked at strategic places around England to help facilitate quick movement between airports and train stations.

“Bloody hell. I thought I had it bad.”

Parky, PD and I could hardly believe it.

It made my simple collection of the two of them in Frome at just after 6pm that evening pale by comparison.

The easyJet flight left on time, and we landed at Newcastle twenty-five minutes early at 9.30pm. We soon jumped into a sherbet dab, we were soon headed south, soon headed to the wonderful city on the Tyne.

It was superb to be heading over the Tyne Bridge once more.

We were back. At 10.15pm we were booked in.

“It’s bloody magic to be sat here in a lovely hotel in Newcastle on a Friday night, after a good week at work, with good mates, with a cracking weekend to look forward to. Cheers boys.”

To be honest, it felt extra special. I loved the fact that for once my driving only totalled an hour, up over the Mendips, so easy. And now it was time to relax. We could relax further when our pal Foxy, newly-arrived from Dundee, eventually joined us. It was the first time that we had seen him since Budapest in 2018. Since then his hair colour has changed from Russ Abbot ginger to Eminem blonde. It is always a joy to see him no matter where we are. He was down for the corresponding fixture last season too.

The “Becks Vier” was flowing nicely. But we wanted to keep it relatively “light” as we knew we had a heavy day of drinking ahead of us. Again talk was dominated by football fandom rather than plain football itself. Foxy is well-travelled, and he has a little jaunt over to – as he put it – see his “great Uncle Bulgaria” in a few weeks.

He has a Levski vs. CSKA derby lined-up, one of the hottest games in European football. He is going with a lad we both know at Chelsea, who we would later discover was staying in the very same hotel on the southern banks of the River Tyne. It was in fact, just a hundred yards from the apartment where we stayed for the last league game of 2017/18.

Talk of football games, of football cities, of football people, mutual friends, of excessive alcohol intakes.

A year or so back, Foxy and I were talking about going over to East Belfast to see a Glentoran game. Foxy has been a few times, and has even sponsored a game at their Oval ground.

“It’s braw, eh? Nae more than eighty pound. Food. And ye can get blootered. But it’s rough, eh? Efter the gemme, eh hed tae walk through a crime scene tae get tae the chippy.”

He had me howling.

Good old Foxy.

We were up at about 9am on the Saturday and after a leisurely breakfast, we walked over the Millennium Bridge from Gateshead on the south side to Newcastle on the north side. The idea was to hit a few pubs – maybe some new ones – before getting a cab up to St. James’ Park. My camera went into overdrive.

As with our last two visits we settled at “The Slug & Lettuce.”

Newcastle is set on two levels. The Bigg Market and the football stadium at the top of the hill, The Quayside way down below. It works as a city on more than these two levels, though. It has history in abundance, a real working class vibe cuts through it, cracking architecture, the night life is legendary, the locals almost too friendly.

I have said it before…”if I wasn’t a Chelsea fan.”

At bang on 11am, we got the first round in. We settled in a corner at the front of the spacious pub overlooking the river and the famous Tyne Bridge, and then waited for troops to arrive.

We spotted a couple who were sat in the row in front on the plane up. She was a Newcastle supporter, it was her birthday – her uncle was Ollie Burton, a name I can remember from my 1972/73 bubble gum cards, a Newcastle United and Wales player – and we had a giggle.

The day was off to a fine start.

We were then hit with an overwhelming bout of inertia. Different sets of pals from all over the Chelsea Kingdom – and beyond – came to spend time with us and we just decided to stay in the one boozer.

“So much for the pub crawl.”

Eck and his son from Glasgow, Julie from Stafford, Fiona from Bedfordshire, Mark and his family from Westbury, Luke and Aroha from Ruislip, Andy from Trowbridge, his Newcastle mate Russ – featured last season – from Swalwell, Gillian, Kev and Rich from Edinburgh, Kim and Andy from Kent, Sean from New York, Andy from California, Neil from Belfast, bloody hell it was never-ending.

In the middle of all this was an Everton supporter. Chris lives locally, but is a native of North Wales. He travelled up to a Sunderland vs. Everton game many years ago, met a local girl on the way to the game, fell in love and has remained ever since. I had not met him before. But he is the brother of my great Chelsea pal Tommie, who still lives in Porthmadog. Both Chris and Tommie have travelled to watch football in Buenos Aires in the past two years. And Chris has been giving me valuable insights – and his still usable Buenos Aires travel card from 2018 – over the past two months. It was a pleasure to see him, and to listen to his tales from Argentina.

“My first game was Chacarita Juniors. Everyone warned me not to go. Well rough. But I went. Didn’t regret it. Came out of the train station. And there’s a line of police with sub machine guns. And remember there are no away fans. I just kept my head down and avoided eye contact. I asked a local “stadio?” and he said “solo?” pulling a face as if to say “are you mad?” but it was OK. I got a ticket, I got in.”

Midway through the sesh, I realised I needed to slow down a little. Almost six hours of necking lager could easily leave me too light headed to be of use to anyone.

But damn those “Peronis” were hitting the spot.

The pub was quiet at 11am, by 4.30pm it was full.

Geordie lasses.

Say no more, like.

We caught two cabs up to St. James’ Park. A quick walk past the Alan Shearer statue, underneath the huge Milburn Stand, around to the lift. Up we went. I was clicking away as I walked, eager to capture the small pieces which help to build the whole picture.

The weather was cold but not unbearable. We were three thousand strong, as ever. With Rangers playing on the Friday night, there would no doubt be a few “Weegies” – as Foxy termed them – in our ranks.

This was my twelfth visit to St. James’ Park. A low number compared to many. But until the cheap flights turned my eye a few years back, this was often a game too far for me. It’s a dramatic stadium all right. The roof above seems to be floating in space. Everywhere is cool grey, maybe like the Earl Grey statue at the top of that fine Victorian street in the town centre.

The team lined up as below :

Arrizabalaga

James – Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Kante – Mount

Willian – Abraham – Hudson-Odoi

It kind of picked itself I guess.

“Local Hero” is so evocative, so Newcastle, it always brings a smile. I like the way it has entwined itself into the St. James’ Park match day experience.

The game began.

As always, we attacked The Gallowgate in the first-half. Early on we were dominating and this is how it stayed. But this was all too familiar. Tons of possession, but with very few real chances of note. At times the frustration of Jorginho and Kante, looking for runners, was mirrored by the frustrations among the standing three-thousand behind the Leazes End goal. We were dominating play, but there seemed – already – no way through the massed ranks of Newcastle defenders.

The noise wasn’t great. I’ve never known the Geordies to be so quiet.

Unlike in the past two visits, at least all – or damned near – of the seats were occupied. The protests have seemed to have waned as Steve Bruce has cajoled his team into eking out results in a very pragmatic way.

Then, out of nowhere, Newcastle enjoyed a little spell of possession, and I wondered if our defenders might be caught out, such was their lack of prior engagement.

A punch from Kepa foiled one attack, the crossbar was the saviour soon after.

“Fucksakes Chelsea.”

A high shot from Tammy drew moans from our support. We all want him to succeed, but he just needs to work on the physical side of his game. He needs to toughen up. To ask questions of his markers.

Maybe he just hasn’t got it in his locker.

After a great pass by Reece James, a chance for Kante came to nothing, a weak shot at Dubravka.

And that was that.

My half-time notes on my mobile ‘phone were rather brief.

Reece James had showed willing, N’Golo Kante was full of running, but elsewhere it seemed that we were lacking drive and desire. And St. James’ Park was as quiet as fuck.

Some in our midst had sloped off for a cheeky half-time pint and would not return.

The second-half began, and Willian seemed to dominate the focus of my camera – always a photogenic target with his stops, starts, twists and shots – if not the game itself. As often, his dribbles and runs came to nothing. A few tentative shots whistled past defenders’ legs but also past posts. We were again dominating play, but hardly grinding them down to submission. They were hardly on the ropes.

It was, bluntly, a bloody rotten game of football.

And it was so quiet.

On seventy-minutes, Ross Barkley replaced the very poor Mason Mount. He kept the ball well, and for a few minutes it looked like that he might be able to unlock the door to the defence. I was really disappointed with the wing-play, or lack of it, from Callum Hudson-Odoi.

I lost count of the times I bellowed “get past yer man.”

A chance, of sorts, came Tammy’s way down below us but his off-balance stab ended up as a comical aside.

Reece James hobbled off, Emerson replaced him.

The ball was pumped into the box from out wide and Azpilicueta rose well to cushion a header into Tammy, but his lunge at the ball resulted in a brave save from Dubravka.

I would have liked to have seen Michy alongside Tammy, just to change things a little, but instead there was a straight swap.

By now, everything was grim.

One last chance maybe? A quick break, the ball fell to Emerson. A clear run, a clear sight of goal, but the powerful effort was always going wide.

Bollocks.

The home team had a rare effort on goal as the ninety minutes approached, but Joelinton miscued. It was, I am sure, their only chance of note in the entire second-half.

A 0-0 draw looked the obvious conclusion, the result of a dire ninety-minutes.

“No punch upfront, Gal. No zip. No runners. Nothing.”

Four added minutes were signalled.

I subconsciously began thinking about my first post-game pint.

Callum at last broke through a crowded box to the left of the goal as I watched, but crashed it over.

On ninety-four fucking minutes, fucking Newcastle won their fucking very first fucking corner of the entire fucking match.

Willian headed it out. It came in again.

Slow…motion…the cross…a leap…no Chelsea challenge…the ball was in…

Ninety-four minutes.

Newcastle United 1 Chelsea 0.

Fucking hell.

I was numb, as numb as I have felt for ages at football. How had we lost that? How was that bloody possible? They had defended well, but had created very little all game. It was as cruel a finish to a match that I can ever remember.

Ninety-four minutes.

Good grief.

I stood silent for what seemed too long. I could not comprehend it. I was wallowing in the misery of it all.

[inside my head : “at least it means I still care, I haven’t reached the dreaded next stage just yet.”]

Sigh.

A big sigh.

Others drifted away. I was shell-shocked, bamboozled, Loony-Tooned.

Fackinell.

I soon met up with Parky, with PD, with Foxy. By the time we had eventually descended the fourteen flights of stairs that took us to street level, it seemed that we were some of the last to leave the stadium. We found ourselves walking behind the old East Stand – I am that old that I can remember it as the most modern of the stands at St. James’ Park – and we eyed-up a burger van. While PD and Parky got their orders in, I took advantage of the lack of fellow spectators and took a few mood shots of the iconic concrete supports, which I have been meaning to photograph for a while. For all of Newcastle’s fine Victorian buildings, it is also infamous for its fair share of brutalist ‘sixties and ‘seventies architecture. Think “Get Carter” and the car parks and high-rises still visible today. The concreted pillar supports – like the unique concrete crush barriers of the old Gallowgate terrace – tie in with that era.

Back in the day, as the kids say, the little rat run from “The Strawberry” up to the away end, past those pillars, used to be termed “Suicide Alley.”

I can see why.

We made our way slowly down into the town, down into The Bigg Market.

The hamburger was superb by the way; £4 and the best of the season thus far.

The drinking continued, and after a few pints in three more gorgeous pubs in the heart of the infamous Bigg Market – “Filthy’s”, “The Beehive” and “Pumphrey’s” – we were back on track.

I even managed, God knows how, to get the number of a local girl, a local heroine maybe, but there was – just like with Chelsea Football Club at this moment in time – no instant gratification.

Some things don’t happen overnight.

The work in progress continues.

On Tuesday, Arsenal await.

I will see some of you there.

BLUE SKIES HIGH ABOVE THE QUAYSIDE

UP IN THE GODS AT ST. JAMES’ PARK

WAY DOWN BELOW

UNDERNEATH THE EAST STAND

Tales From The Cosy Corner

Chelsea vs. Burnley : 11 January 2020.

The home game with Burnley was our tenth match in thirty-seven days, a very intensive period for players and supporters alike. To continue a theme of recent weeks, by the time I would drop off Parky, PD and his son Scott at the end of the day, these ten games would equate to eight trips to London, one trip to Liverpool and one trip to Brighton.

Sixty-five hours of travelling by car to see Chelsea in just thirty-seven days.

Did someone say “gulp”?

I thought I heard it.

But as we have said so many times before :

“It’s what we do.”

This was a typical Chelsea Saturday in many ways.

Another early start for sure. I collected the lads by 7.30am, we Greggsed a breakfast en route, and I was parked up at just after 10am.

I was soon walking down the North End Road with the main intention of grabbing hold of a pair of those magnificent 1970 shorts. Once in the “Megastore” – my fist steps inside for maybe two years – I spotted many shirts, linked T-shirts and tops, but not one single pair of shorts.

“All the shorts have gone.”

Bollocks. Obviously many others of the same demographic group were of the same opinion as me vis a vis Majorca, Bodrum, Ko Samui and Orlando. I guess I will have to wait. And wait I will. I dislike the notion of having to spend £100 for an online order to facilitate a free delivery when I can pick the shorts up in the shop – “call me old fashioned” – for nothing.

In my never-ending quest to capture every nook and cranny of Stamford Bridge, at least I was able to devote myself to a little camera work. At about 10.30am, the forecourt was virtually devoid of supporters. I could pick my moments. Those Peter Osgood boots have scored a few goals, eh?

I took a District Line train down to Putney Bridge and met up with Parky, PD and Scott in “The Eight Bells” at 11.30am. We were in our usual spot, the cosy corner. During the week, a clip of the much-loved BBC comedy “Steptoe & Son” from the late sixties was aired on a Chelsea-related Facebook group and it showed the two protagonists exiting “The Eight Bells”, rather Brahms & Liszt, and getting collared for being drunk and in possession of a horse and cart.

We were sat right next to the same double-doors that Wilfred Bramble had stepped through fifty years ago.

No lager for me. I wanted to stay fresh. I was up at 6am, I would not be home until around 8.30pm. The procession of ice-cold Diet Cokes began.

I have to say that at times, in the now familiar confines of this little pub, it often feels that we are hosting a chat show. After guests this season from Perth in Australia, Edinburgh, Brighton, Chicago and Germany, we were joined by my good friend Russ from Melbourne in Australia.

“I’d like you to put your hands together and give a good Chucklevision welcome to Russ Saunders everyone.”

“Hi.”

“Russ, welcome. Take a seat. You look well, have you been ill”?

“Thanks Chris. It’s great to be back in London.”

Russ is originally from Wokingham and was with his brother Nick. Both would be watching in the rear rows of The Shed Upper. The Reading / Bracknell / Wokingham axis is a particularly strong Chelsea heartland. I first met Russ in Perth in 2018, but our paths must have unknowingly crossed out in Tokyo in 2012 too. I was with him on several memorable nights in Baku in May.

Russ heads up the Melbourne Supporters Group and for many a minute we discussed the very complex ticketing policies that the club has in place for the overseas groups. It seems that many of the club’s relatively new fans in Australia mirror those of many in the US; some have no real grasp of reality.

“This one fan comes up to me and asks for ten tickets for Manchester United at home.”

I smiled and groaned. Then groaned and smiled.

And then we got on to the very contentious and emotive subject of tickets for Chelsea away games.

A lot more groaning this time. And not so much smiling.

Nick wondered how we would fare against Burnley.

I summed things up.

“We’ll begin well. They will defend deep. But the crowd will get frustrated when we don’t score and we’ll try to nick a goal.”

The pub was getting packed now. Thoughts turned to the next two away games. PD, Parky and I are flying up to Newcastle next Friday for the Saturday evening game. Please note that I will not be on Diet Cokes. The Edinburgh and Dundee connection will be with us. The following weekend brings us the FA Cup game at Hull City. I seized while the iron was hot and booked a ridiculously cheap set of rooms to enable PD, Scott, Parky and little old me to stay the Saturday night.

We have around 4,200 tickets for this game. And they are competitively priced at just £12.

Hotel : £7.50.

Ticket : £12.

Superb.

We played against Hull City in the FA Cup in 1982. These prices echo that era.

“I can get used to this retro-themed FA Cup run this season.”

However – there always seems to be a however these days – the choice of 5.30pm on a Saturday night was a poor one, and certainly backs up the commonly-held view that the FA do not give a flying fuck about match-going fans.

On the wall on the forecourt, I had photographed these soundbites for modern football.

“Back at The Bridge. All fans coming together in blue. We’re here for the season-ticket holders and first timers. Without fans football wouldn’tt be the Beautiful Game.”

Maybe there should be an asterisk stating “*kick-off times permitting.”

The Chelsea Supporters Trust quickly issued a statement.

“The FA Cup is the oldest association football competition in the world. It is a competition attended and enjoyed by many. Chelsea’s (CFC) 4th round tie has been selected to be shown on television. Subsequently, the KO time for the game is 17:30. The CST is frustrated by the continued disregard towards match-going supporters. Over two back-to-back Saturdays, CFC KO in the North-East at 17:30 (18th vs. Newcastle United & 25th vs. Hull City). The CST would like to place on record with how disappointed it is. A 17:30 KO for games over 250 miles away from London continues to be widely opposed by supporters.

This has been exacerbated by no trains running back to London after the Hull City game. This is unacceptable. The train timetable was in place when deciding the KO time and as a result, has left many CFC supporters in a challenging position.

The Chelsea Supporters Trust would urge the FA to select more appropriate ties to be shown on television in future. Managers have been widely criticised for “not taking the FA Cup seriously.” The board believe that if unnecessarily difficult KO times are being chosen, supporters may follow in the same manner.

The CST would also like to thank Chelsea Football Club for its continued subsidised coach travel. For many supporters, it continues to be the only realistic option to attend away matches. The CST hopes that this will continue in its current format.

The team news came through.

“Barkley is starting.”

Arrizabalaga

James – Christensen – Rudiger – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Barkley – Mount

Willian – Abraham – Hudson-Odoi

The Crystal Palace versus Arsenal game was on TV behind us. A David Luiz own-goal resulted in a 1-1 draw, more dropped points, lovely. The time absolutely flew past. It was soon time to draw stumps and head north two stops on the District Line.

Fifteen minutes later we were at Stamford Bridge. Perfect.

I walked through the West Stand forecourt – much more crowded now – with Kim, who had been with us in the pub. Kim would me meeting up with me at the Peter Osgood statue after the game to sort out his Newcastle United ticket which I had sorted out with a friend.

“Does it get busy here after the game, Chris?”

“Too right it does. We need another meeting point. They should erect a Trevor Aylott statue too. It would be a lot quieter.”

I looked again at the words on display to my left.

“Without fans football wouldn’t be the Beautiful Game.”

Quite right. It would be rugby.

Inside our home, I soon spotted a yawning gap of around four hundred spare seats in the Burnley section. Everywhere else seemed at capacity.

No pristine 1970s kit this week, rather the children’s geometric stencil set aberration of the regular league shirt.

The game began.

A shot at Kepa was well wide in the opening move of the match but we began to get hold of the ball.

I spotted that within the first few minutes, in which we were treated to a couple of Willian bursts, much of our play seemed to be concentrated within a very congestion area down our left, Burnley’s right. Often play would run itself into a cul-de-sac and would have to be played out and then back in again. Meanwhile, often standing alone in lots of unguarded territory on the other wing stood Reece James waiting to run at the Burnley left flank.

“Let’s use him more, Al.”

Frank must have heard me. We began using him more, and a couple of crosses caused worry in the Burnley defence.

A Burnley goal was flagged as offside and – how dull – VAR upheld the decision.

“Move on, nothing to see here” as they say on the internet.

Tammy hesitated when seemingly clean through, but our play was drawing appreciation from the home stands. The first stadium-wide chant came within just fifteen minutes this time.

Good work everyone.

(He said sarcastically.)

On twenty-five minutes, a ball was played into Willian. He entered the penalty box. From one hundred yards away, I saw him touch the ball, then go down. It looked like the ball had got away from him and the defender’s touch – if there was one – was of no consequence. But the referee soon pointed at the spot.

Alan and I looked at each other.

Old fashioned looks.

Really?

Jorginho, like a dressage horse, all choreographed, skipped and hopped, then unseated Pope.

We were 1-0 up.

The race down to Parkyville and smiles from Ludo, Rachel, Donna, Parky and the two Daves.

GET IN.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

Burnley, to their credit, had a go at us. The game opened up a little. A great spawling save from Kepa, a hack off the line from Ross Barkley.

We grew in confidence. I liked Barkley’s involvement.

On thirty-seven minutes, a ball was played forward with pace to catch an overlap from Our Reece. It looked a tall order. With defenders closing him, and the ball hurtling towards the by-line, I yelled “dig it out Reece.”

Dig it out he did. He sent over a long cross – and Tammy was perfectly placed.

I have to be honest, it reminded me of a cross that I dug out on the right wing, stretching to reach it, in football training for my village team on a dusky summer evening in 1979 for Nige Ashman to head home. This was probably my favourite ever cross from my playing days and undoubtedly the best remembered. The comments of appreciation from the senior players in the team really meant a lot. I was never a confident player, especially for my school, and I remember thinking “bollocks, if only Mr. Freeman had seen that.”

Tammy’s downward header seemed to surprise Pope, who seemed flat-footed, and it fell into the goal.

“Super goal.”

How often have we seen headers fly off the top of our players’ heads in recent weeks?

“Head like a fifty pence piece.”

This one was right on the money.

Ker-ching.

We were treated to a rasper from Reece James, after twisting and turning nicely in the area – almost shades of Gianfranco Zola and Juian Dicks on the same piece of terra firma in 1996 – but Pope was no dope and saved it.

We were 2-0 up at the break and all was well with the world.

The second-half began and we were soon rewarded with some fine attacking play.

Down below us, Mason Mount was strong and held off some challenges and fed the ball to Dave. His cross was aimed towards a rising Tammy, who appeared to get a glance. The ball fell at the feet of Tammy who slip it home.

I did not celebrate. And this was not solely because of VAR. Let us not forget that there were times in the pre-VAR world when goals would be scored and I would choose not to celebrate too much because, well, the goal either looked like being offside or for some other reason, a nudge or a foul maybe. Alan wasn’t celebrating either. Everyone else was. I captured Tammy’s slide for his first league goal. And then came VAR. And the predictable wait. I wondered if the photographs for the goal celebrations would need to be deleted.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

Goal.

More old-fashioned looks twixt Al and me.

“How was that not offside?”

(On “MOTD” later, I would learn that Tammy did not get a touch.)

Hey ho.

Three-up, great stuff.

The cosy corner in the boozer had now been transplanted to a corner of the Matthew Harding Upper. All certainly was cosy in our little world. It was a sudden joy to be able to relax a bit and enjoy an easy win.

The rest of the second-half really should have resulted in more goals. We were utterly dominant. I loved the way that Callum – Our Callum – grew in confidence after his goal, and some of our touch play, movement, and spirit – for the want of a better word – was excellent.

Bloody hell, there was even some audible chanting.

Steady on, everyone.

Pope saved from Tammy and then Tammy was frustrated as he saw a relatively easy header drop wide. Shots rained in from Willian, from Mount. Barkley continued his confident play. But I was so impressed with Reece James, supplying quality cross after quality cross to order. Let’s see how he develops over the next twelve months. He looks mustard.

Once all fit, our young Lions could form a new group to lead us forward.

Reece, Callum, Mason, Tammy maybe, Ruben maybe.

A wild shot from Mason drew some sarcasm from the MHL.

“What the fackinell was that?”

Knowing that we let a 4-0 lead slip at Turf Moor in late October, I joked “it’ll soon be 3-2.”

But we held on. Wink.

A fine game. I enjoyed it.

Positivity!

Waiting at the base of the Peter Osgood statue, I waited for Kim. I picked up two other Newcastle tickets for the Edinburgh connection from another mate and I observed that two other sets of Newcastle United away tickets found new homes as strangers met to pass on to fellow fans. After a short wait, Kim was sorted too.

Job done.

Right. Newcastle away it is, then. We are flying up on Friday evening from Bristol. A quayside pub crawl is planned.

Bring your wallets. See you there.

Tales From The Second-Half

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 December 2019.

I was sitting in a cosy corner of “The St. James Tavern” just off Piccadilly Circus with PD and Lord Parsnips. There was just time for a couple of scoops before it was time to head on up the Piccadilly Line to Arsenal. Pints of Peroni had been poured, but not just any pints. At £6.30 a go, these were – I am quite sure – the most expensive pints in the UK that we had ever purchased. Bloody hell, they must have seen us coming. In fact, they certainly had seen us coming; we had popped in at 11.30am but had been unceremoniously told “no alcohol until midday” so we just had a little meander to kill some time, so imagine our annoyance when we re-entered at 11.55am to see some punters with pints three-quarters imbibed already.

“Oh, so you were serving alcohol before midday then.”

The bar staff chose to ignore me. To be honest, two pints was ample, but it was a shame they were a little rushed. The day had started off quietly – I was away at 8am – and the weather outside was mid-winter bleak, but at least with no rain. We had again parked-up at Barons Court – like last Sunday, bang on time at 11am, a three-hour trip exactly on target – and I liked the fact that right in front of me was a car with a Chelsea number plate – JC03 CFC – and I wondered if the owner had driven in like myself or was a local. Either way, I looked on it as a good omen.

There was a good deal of symmetry about the game at Arsenal.

We had played nineteen games. The end of the first-half of the season had been completed. The last away day of the first-nineteen games was also in North London, at Tottenham, and the first away game of the second nineteen games was just four miles away in Islington. Heading into 2020, our twentieth league game of the season was just a couple of hours away.

There and then, I decided to call this particular match report – number 597 – “Tales From The Second-Half.”

It would be rather prescient.

We arrived at a sunny Emirates bang on time at 1.15pm. To be honest, this made a refreshing change. Arrivals at Arsenal are usually ridiculously hurried. Very often, we get in with seconds to spare. I was able to take my time and take a few mood shots outside. Walking over the southern bridge, a statue of Herbert Chapman greets supporters.

It’s a fine statue. I imagined that many of our new supporter base – FIFA ready, eager to impress, scarves and replica shirts at the ready – do not know who Ted Drake is, let alone Herbert Chapman. Mind you, it’s quite likely that many of Arsenal’s new supporter base – FIFA ready, eager to impress, scarves and replica shirts at the ready – do not know who Herbert Chapman is. It is a major shame that many believe that football began in 1992, and is even more galling to hear those in the media forever banging on about Premier League records as if all other data has been expunged from the record books.

I was hanging around to make sure the safe transfer of a spare ticket had taken place OK. Although I didn’t need to meet the two parties, I didn’t want to leave them stranded.

At about 1.20pm, I got the OK by text. I could relax a little. I bumped into a few mates. Took some more photos. We weren’t sure, collectively, how to regard this match.

“At Tottenham last week, I would have been happy with a draw. No question. With Arsenal, I feel we need to beat them. We are away, after all. Less pressure. Hopefully more space. But, it could go one of any three ways – a win, a loss, a draw. They’re poor though. Worse than Tottenham.”

Inside the stadium, everything was so familiar. This would be my fourteenth consecutive league visit to this ground; the only game I have missed was when we took 9,000 in that League Cup game in 2013. There was also a ropey League Cup semi in 2018.

It has been a stadium of mixed results.

Thus far in the league –

Won : 4

Drawn : 5

Lost : 4

Stepping out of the Arsenal tube, I am always reminded of how magnificent Highbury was. Those art deco stands were beauties. And on the corner of Gillespie Road, as it turns into Drayton Park, is one of my favourite art deco houses of all. I just never seem to have the time to stop and take a photograph. Maybe next season. Can somebody remind me? I consider it a failing of whoever designed the new Arsenal stadium (and that is what it should really be called, it won’t be sponsored by Emirates in twenty years’ time will it?) that there is no reference to the old Highbury ground. Not a single nod. Not one.

It’s an Arsenal Stadium Mystery.

And, I know it sounds silly, but compared to Tottenham’s new home, Arsenal’s pad looks less impressive with every visit. Yes, there is comfort. Yes, every seat is padded (imagine that in 1984 when we scurried out of the Arsenal tube and queued up at the Clock End to squeeze our young bodies onto that large terrace – padded seats in the away end!), yes it’s modern, but it lacks a visual impact, it lacks charm, it lacks intimidation. As my mate Daryl commented in the concourse “it’s like a shopping centre.”

Indeed.

Kerching.

We were down the front for this one, row three. I met up with Alan, Gary and Parky. I tried to remember if the stewards at Arsenal gave me a hard time with my camera; I think I would be OK.

The team news filtered through.

Another outing for the 3/4/3.

I guess it worked at Tottenham.

Arrizabalaga

Rudiger – Zouma – Tomori

Azpilicueta – Kovacic – Kante – Emerson

Willian – Abraham – Mount

I had been in contact with two Arsenal lads that I had met on the outbound trip to Baku in May – it still seems like a dream – but I would not be able to meet up with them for a quick handshake as they were both pushed for time. I wished them well.

Kick-off soon arrived.

As always, we attacked the North Bank in the first-half.

First thoughts?

Yes, it was odd seeing David Luiz in Arsenal red and white. Very odd.

In fact, our former defender was heavily involved in the very first few minutes, jumping and narrowly missing with a header from a cross, attempting an optimistic scissor-kick from inside the box, and a trademark free-kick from outside it. Thankfully, Kepas’s goal remained unscathed. Sadly, despite our manager’s emotional and heartfelt protestations about his under-performing players against Southampton, it was sadly business as usual for the early part of the game. Arsenal seemed more invigorated, livelier, and they put us under pressure from the off.

We managed to create a chance for Mason Mount at the North Bank, Willian working a short free-kick, but his tame shot was saved by Bernd Leno.

Shortly after, a whipped-in corner from Mesut Ozil was headed on at the near post and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang nodded in, with our marking awry.

“One nil to The Arsenal” sang the home areas. It was the first real noise of the entire game.

With their nippy winger Riess Nelson looking impressive on the Arsenal right and with their other players closing space, we drifted in to a very uncomfortable period of play. Our passing was strained, and there was a lack of movement off the ball. Yet again, Toni Rudiger was given the task of playmaker as others did not have the time and space to do so. But he, like others, found it difficult to hit targets. I’d imagine that teams have sussed out the diagonal to Emerson by now. Arsenal were full or funning and intent. They looked by far the better team. To be brutally frank, a better team than Arsenal would have punished us further, because we were not at the races, the amusement arcade, the pantomime or the family outing to Ramsgate. It was dire stuff and the fans around me were huffing and puffing their disdain.

Nothing vitriolic – we save that for the home games – but noticeable.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

The usual terrace regulars were regurgitated.

“Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that.”

“We’ve won it all.”

(We haven’t.)

No, this was poor football. Only Kante and, possibly – only possibly – Kovacic seemed up for the task ahead. Tammy was not involved; of course there was a drought of service, for sure, but there was poor involvement through being unwilling to move his marker.

Just after the half-hour mark, Frank changed it. Off came Emerson, to be replaced by Jorginho. And a change of formation. Dave switched sides, Tomori moved to right back. There was, of course, immediately more solidity in midfield. Emerson was always a steady player – I rated him, generally – but his form has certainly dipped of late. I struggle with his reluctance to take players on when “one-on-one” and he has recently been a subject of the boo boys at games and the ranters on social media.

Our attacking abilities noticeably changed and we, arguably, had the best of it over the last ten minutes of the half. There were half-chances for both teams. However, over the course of the entire half, I think, generally, we had got off lightly. And yet. How many times did Kepa have to scramble to save shots, to tip over, to lunge at an attacker’s feet? Not many.

It wasn’t the best of games.

It was 100 % doom and gloom in the crowded concourse and in the padded seats at the break.

Inside my head : “Frank is new to this game. It’s only his second season as a manager. Has he got it in his locker to motivate the players, to get across his ideas, but to remain calm and focussed too?”

I bloody hoped so.

For all our sakes.

Soon into the second-half, I whispered to Alan.

“Seems like a proper game now, this.”

Tackles were being won, passes were being threaded through, players were running off the ball, this was more fucking like it boys.

A special mention for Jorginho. Excellent.

How to accommodate both him and Kante in their strongest positions?

This season’s $64,000 question.

On the hour, fresh legs and a fresh player for that matter. Making his debut as a replacement for Tomori was Tariq Lamptey.

Bloody hell, he looked about twelve.

Even I would tower over him.

He was soon involved, and impressed everyone with a turn and run into the heart of the Arsenal defence before slipping a ball right into the path of Tammy Abraham. The steadily improving striker’s first time shot was blocked by the long legs of David Luiz. There was the usual noise of discontent about Tammy not shooting earlier, but – honestly – he struck it first time and I am not sure he could have reacted any quicker.

Dave headed tamely over.

The final substitution took place; number 20 Callum with 20 to go.

Again, he looked lively from the off, and seemed more comfortable in his own skin, dancing past players and intelligently passing to others. Behind all this was the magnificent work rate of Kovacic, Kante, Jorginho – some splendid tackles, one nasty one, unpunished – and Willian looked a different player.

“Come on Chelsea.”

“Come on you blue boys.”

“Come on Chels.”

A simple header from Tammy at a corner was straight at Leno. A yard either side and we would have been celebrating.

At the other end, a rare Arsenal chance, but Joe Willock, the silly pillock, swept it wide.

A second goal then would have killed us.

Throughout the game, I thought the home areas were dead quiet. Only when they sensed a home victory did they bother.

“We’re the North Bank. We’re the North Bank. We’re the North Bank Highbury.”

“We’re the Clock End. We’re the Clock End. We’re the Clock End Highbury.”

“We’re the North Bank. We’re the North Bank. We’re the North Bank Highbury.”

“We’re the Clock End. We’re the Clock End. We’re the Clock End Highbury.”

Seems the Arsenal fans have remembered the old stadium in the new stadium, even if the architects hadn’t.

The minutes ticked by.

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

On eighty-three minutes, I steadied my camera to snap Mason as he weighed up the options before taking a free-kick just fifteen yards from me. He swiped and I snapped. I saw the ‘keeper miss the flight of the ball and I exploded as Jorginho tapped the ball in to an empty net.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

That I managed to get any photo at all of the delirious scenes is a minor miracle.

Beautiful.

Three minutes later, Chelsea in the ascendency, we found ourselves momentarily defending deep. The ball broke, and I thought to myself “here we go” and brought the trusty Canon up to my eyes. Over the next thirty seconds or so, I took twenty-seven photos – and the better ones are included. The strong and purposeful run from Tammy – up against Shkodran Mustafi – and the pass outside to Willian. The return pass.

I steadied myself, waiting for the moment – “We’re going to fucking win this” – and watched as Tammy turned a defender – Mustafi again, oh bloody hell – and prodded the ball goal wards.

Snap.

Right through his legs.

FUCKING GET IN.

Pandemonium in the South Stand, pandemonium in South Norwood, pandemonium in Southsea, pandemonium in South Korea, pandemonium in South Philly.

I felt arms pushing against me – I steadied myself – but missed Tammy’s slide. But I captured the rest, more or less. What a joy to see the players – Tammy especially – so pleased.

Tales From The Second-Half?

You had better fucking believe it.

Screams, smiles, roars.

“Scenes” as the kids say.

I prefer to call it “Chelsea Soup.”

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

We were in our element. One song dominated. It dominated at Tottenham a week previously and it took over the away end at Arsenal.

“We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

(I whispered an add-on – “but not this season.”)

“We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League. We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League. We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League. We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League. We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

It was our Christmas carol for 2019.

Tammy fired over in the last few minutes, but we did not care one jot.

The whistle blew and we roared.

We had done it.

No, wait, Frank had done it, Tammy had done it, the players had done it.

We had played our part, but the players had stepped up.

Top marks.

Inside my head : “So, so pleased for Frank. These have been worrying times. And so pleased for Tammy. He may not be a Didier or a Diego, but he gets goals. Well done him. Until it changes and we have an alternative, let’s sing his name.”

Won : 5

Drawn : 5

Lost : 4

The players came over. As some returned to walk towards the tunnel, Frank turned them around. The manager wanted his charges to thank us. I clambered onto my seat and snapped away. Smiles everywhere. Just lovely.

Tottenham Mark Two.

Franktastic.

There was no rush to leave the stadium. My car at Barons Court was safe. As with last January’s game, we dropped into a Chinese restaurant on the Holloway Road for some scoff. We made our way slowly back, via the tried and tested Piccadilly Line once again, reaching my car at 6.30pm. We eventually made it home for 9.30pm, another six hours in the saddle.

No doubt many Chelsea supporters / fans / wannabees had been venting huge displeasure on every platform available about our ropey first-half performance, but I think that they might have failed to realise that a game is just not a first-half, a season is not nineteen games, this project will not be finished in May.

Chelsea is for life, not just for Christmas.

Next up, we play our first game of 2020 at Brighton.

Another away game.

Frankie says relax.

Postscript 1.

I recently joined in with the Facebook Ten Football Images In Ten Days “thing.” One of them was the cover of the “Shoot” annual of 1973. I chose it for a couple of reasons. I was in hospital in December 1972 for a minor operation. Gleefully it meant that I was able to miss taking part in the school nativity play which would have bloody terrified me. I can distinctly remember – as a pre-Christmas present I guess, a “pick-me-up” – a copy of this said publication. I remembered buying a normal copy of the weekly “Shoot” earlier that autumn while on holiday in North Wales (I can even remember that an Arsenal vs. Manchester City game was featured in the centre pages; a game that I had seen on “The Big Match” that involved Brian Moore getting very opinionated about an Arsenal handball on the line that stopped a City goal, but was not given as a penalty. I remember a very irate Francis Lee. VAR anyone?) This annual featured a photograph of my Chelsea hero Peter Osgood climbing high in the Highbury sun to win a header against Frank McLintock, the rugged Scottish centre-back. This book played a big part in my growing love of football. I can even remember a feature.

“Chelsea’s Deadly H Men.”

Step forward John Hollins, Peter Houseman, Ron Harris, Ian Hutchinson, Marvin Hinton and Alan Hudson.

Sadly, I lost my copy.

Imagine my happiness when I spotted an edition in the shop window of a second-hand shop in Frome about twelve years ago. What luck.

I snapped it up.

It brought back some lovely memories.

Frank McLintock, whose eightieth birthday was on the Saturday, was featured in a half-time chat on the pitch during the game. It was good to hear his voice. These players of our childhood are starting to leave us now. It’s so sad.

I almost thought about renaming this “A Tale Of Two Franks” but that has already been taken.

Postscript 2.

As we leave one decade, and enter another, time to reflect a little. It has been a wild time. Late on, after I had flicked through some photos and just before I settled down to watch “MOTD2”, I posted this on Facebook and I think it struck a chord because it has been shared twenty-two times already.

“2010 : League & FA Cup.
2012 : FA Cup & Champions League.
2013 : Europa League.
2015 : League Cup & League.
2017 : League.
2018 : FA Cup.
2019 : Europa League.

10 trophies in 10 seasons. Please excuse me if I am not too bothered about winning fuck all for a bit.”

May I wish everyone a happy new decade.

Keep the faith.

See you all at Brighton.

Tales From The Temperance

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 26 December 2019.

At just before seven o’clock in the morning, I made my way into the darkness. I stood, alone with my thoughts, hood up on my jacket, a light drizzle in the air. I was waiting for Glenn, the day’s designated driver, to arrive to pick me up ahead of the Boxing Day game against a slightly rejuvenated Southampton. I heard the village church bell’s strike seven. I wondered what was in store for us.

Glenn duly arrived, with PD alongside him. We soon picked up Lord Parsnips and were on our way. As we headed east, the rain increased making driving difficult for him. I had not seen Glenn for a while; the last time was on the aborted away game against the same opposition in early October. With Glenn driving, this allowed me to indulge in a few drinks – OK, a sesh – for the first time at Stamford Bridge all season. The stretch of largely non-alcoholic home games stood at fourteen. There had been the odd pint here and there, but nothing too wild.

Fourteen games. Bloody hell. That has to be a record.

So, I had been relishing this for a while.

I had awoken early, at 4.30am, and knew that I wouldn’t be getting back to sleep again. My early morning thoughts, evidently, were about pints as well as points.

The rotten rain continued all of the way to London. At just before ten o’clock, Glenn dropped us off at West Brompton tube station and we soon caught a train to Putney Bridge. I had arranged to meet some friends from Germany at “The Eight Bells” and as the train left Parson’s Green, I looked ahead to the compartment in front and there they were.

Ben, Jens and Walt.

The day was off to a good start. Both Ben and I work in logistics. It was perfectly logical, therefore, for us to be on the same train.

I have known Ben for a good six or seven years. He used to work for a company that assists with getting our office furniture delivered in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. I managed to get tickets for the three of them for the Stoke City game just after Christmas in 2017, and Ben and Jens bumped into us after the Crystal Palace away game during the Christmas break last season. It was great to see them again. For this game, a friend had come up trumps for three tickets together in the Matthew Harding Lower.

At about 10.10am, I was the first one to enter “The Eight Bells.”

It felt good to be able to get the beers in.

We soon settled in our corner and the drinking, and not too much thinking, began. Jason Cundy popped in before his busy day ahead working for the Chelsea media team. I quickly pulled up his photo from 1991/92 to show the visitors. On this trip, the lads were again going to the darts on the Friday, and they had picked the West Ham United vs. Leicester City game on the Saturday. Ben supports Borussia Mönchengladbach, Jens supports Hamburg and Walt supports Bayern Munich. I did edge towards asking the three of them which English team they follow but Walt’s answer “not Arsenal” was good enough for me. We were joined by Mark from The Netherlands and his sister Kelly from High Wycombe, who we had not arranged to meet, but who often pop in. Next in were three from the US; Mehul and Neekita from Michigan, Matt from Illinois.

So, modern day Chelsea; England, Germany, The Netherlands and the United States. During the game, I would bump into a mate from Thailand who comes over once or twice a season.

All of us together, all sharing a beer, all having a laugh.

Good times.

I know that overseas supporters often get a rough ride at Chelsea – and elsewhere – but I get bored reading about it. I know plenty of passionate and clued-up foreign supporters of our club. The problem, at Stamford Bridge specifically, are the tourists – not Chelsea fans – who add us to the list of things to do in London without doing any research or background checks on what is likely to occur at games. That said, it still saddens me that many of the fans from overseas supporters’ clubs still buy game day scarves; surely they are aware of the hatred of these monstrosities?

In February, the boot will be on the other foot.

Let me explain.

I recently booked a flight to Buenos Aires to catch as many games as I can – but no darts, cough cough – and it will be interesting to see how I am treated by the locals.

Why Argentina? Why Buenos Aires?

It is no secret that I love visiting different football stadia, and I am a big fan of Simon Inglis, who has been the doyen of football architecture in the UK for decades. His book “Sightlines” (2000) featured stadia around the world and not just football; stadia devoted to baseball, cricket, rugby union among others are painstakingly detailed. However, underpinning the entire book – every couple of chapters – is the author’s attempt to visit as many of Buenos Aires’ twenty-five professional football stadia as he can in a crazy few days. This entranced me all those years ago, and I recently re-read it all again. And it started a train of thought.

I wanted to experience South America and I wanted to experience, for sure, South American football.  I craved Argentina. It is, undoubtedly, one of the last remaining countries where passionate, to the point of irresponsible and bordering on violent, support still exists. I wanted to delve deep into Buenos Aires but I soon realised that their season runs concurrently with ours and so that would be difficult. I couldn’t realistically plan to miss a few Chelsea games, although I have done so in the past.

This Chelsea thing. I’ve got it bad, right?

So, thoughts turned to Brazil and Rio de Janeiro. Theirs is a summer season. I tentatively looked at going over to see Flamengo or Fluminense or Botafogo or Vasco da Gama this summer, but Baku took over.

And then, it dawned on me that for the first time ever, there would be a winter break in English football in 2019/20. This meant that there would be a window of opportunity to visit Argentina. I looked at the dates. I preliminarily booked two weeks off in February to cover all eventualities. Around ten days ago, the TV games were firmed up for the Premier League reaching into February, and our free weekend would come between an away game against Leicester City and a home game with Manchester United.

I honed in on the Primera Division games planned for the weekend of Saturday 8 February, knowing that there would be a spread of games over four or five days.

I threw caution to the wind and booked my flights and I booked a hotel.

With superb timing, the very next day – Christmas Eve – that weekend’s games were confirmed and it meant that I would, hopefully, get to see four games, probably five, during my stay.

Friday : Estudiantes vs. Defensa Y Justicia.

Saturday : Lanus vs. Newell’s Old Boys.

Sunday : Independiente vs. Arsenal Sarandi and River Plate vs. Banfield.

Monday : Huracan vs. Aldosivi.

And it got me thinking about football tourism. I began to question why the Premier League seems to be the main destination for visitors outside our national boundaries. Is it because of our historical role as the birthplace of the sport? Is it because of the way the Premier League is marketed? Is it because of the language? Everybody speaks English, right? Is it because, by and large, we are a friendly lot? I do not know of the figures, but English football has always attracted visitors from Europe, but it seems to be the main footballing destination for visitors outside Europe too. Yet, for me, there are valid alternatives for visitors from Brisbane, Beijing, Bangkok and Baltimore. Certainly for a more visceral experience, visitors from distant lands might be better placed to visit the leagues of Germany and Italy or even the former communist countries of the old Eastern Bloc. The noise and intensity. The real deal. Not some watered down version. Because I will say it, yet again. Apart from away games, following Chelsea these days gets quieter and quieter with every passing season. And fans at Old Trafford, The Emirates and other venues say the same.

How about a Belgrade derby, a match in Moscow or a Legia Warsaw vs. Widzew Lodz battle?

Thought not. I think those games might be just a little outside many peoples’ comfort zones. I am keen to hear if Borussia Dortmund supporters are getting slightly weary of all the football tourists heading over to be part of “The Yellow Wall” which has to be a bit of a cliché by now. And what of the thoughts of Barcelona and Real Madrid fans? There must be just as many football tourists who plot up at the Nou Camp and the Bernabeu as at Old Trafford, Anfield and Stamford Bridge these days?

Of course it could be a double-edged sword all of this. A quick immersion in to the passionate and noisy nature of Argentinian football might make me realise how anaemic our football has become. A couple of mates, seasoned travellers themselves – Tommie from Porthmadog in North Wales and Foxy from Dundee in Scotland – have assisted in my plans for Buenos Aires, and two others, who I have not yet met, have both declared that it is the best place to watch football these days.

Watch this space.

We popped over the road to “The Temperance” and the drinking continued. Mark, who is local to the area despite having lived in The Netherlands for ages, spoke of how the pub used to be a snooker hall, and how he remembers playing there many years ago.

The Temperance.

What a great name for a boozer. None of us fancied joining any latter day temperance movement, though, and the drinking continued at a pace.

On the drive to London, we had briefly touched on Southampton. Not so long ago, it seemed that Southampton, Norwich City and Watford were certs for relegation, but the Saints had shown a sudden resurgence under Ralph Hassenpfefferstadenschnitzelheimerhuttel. None of us were making grandiose comments about a sure fire win, despite the magnificence of our play at Tottenham.

This was Chelsea, after all.

On the final few hundred yards to the stadium, the rain had stopped but the skies were dull and full of cloud.

OK, the game…once again : “do I have to?”

Please bear in mind that this was a very poor match from start to bloody finish and I had been knocking back “Birra Moretti” and “Peroni” since 10am, so this one isn’t going to win any prizes.

Here goes.

My guess after Tottenham was that the 3/4/3 might well be replaced for the standard 4/3/3 but Rudiger, Zouma and Tomori kept their places.

We lined up as below –

Arizzabalaga

Rudiger – Zouma – Tomori

Azpilicueta – Kante – Jorginho – Emerson

Willian – Abraham – Hudson-Odoi

The Sleepy Hollow lined up as below –

Chris – Alan – Glenn – PD

The old team were back together again for the first time since Brighton in September.

Southampton had a full three thousand, an easy away game for them. Rather than their usual red and white stripes, they showed up in a waspish black and yellow. The “Munich Two” were involved, with Ryan Bertrand starting but Oriel Romeu only on the bench.

Chelsea again dominated possession early on but were met with a solid wall of deep-lying midfielders and a solid defence. It was clear that we needed a little intuition and some pace out wide to get through the massed ranks of Southampton players. They were solid and defended tenaciously. It was like trying to manoeuvre a way through a variant of The Terracotta Army.

“They shall not pass.”

Soon into the game a beam of sunlight lit up a small section of the East Upper, but this also exposed the fact that there were pockets of empty seats throughout the stadium. And the absent foreign supporters from all over the world surely couldn’t be held totally responsible for every single one of those.

Our build up play was slow and ponderous, and it took an age for our first shot on target of note. My camera was hardly used in the first part of the game, but I miraculously caught Callum Hudson-Odoi’s swipe at the ball which was deflected wide.

The game struggled to get out of first gear.

Ten minutes later, a Southampton attack down our left flank resulted in Michael O’bafemi  – the young Irish lad – being allowed to twist into space and we watched as he ripped a fine effort high past Kepa to give the visitors a surprising lead, and a blow to us.

Bollocks.

The Southampton players celebrated down below us, the gits.

Was there a reaction?

Not really.

The crowd stood and sat in some sort of Turkey, roast potatoes, Brussel sprouts, parsnips, peas and carrot induced torpor, and the players looked out of sorts too. It was brewing up to be another frustrating match at Stamford Bridge. The moans and grumbles continued throughout the first half as we struggled to break down the resolute defence.

I took a photo of my pal Rob, sitting a few rows behind me, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his very first game at Stamford Bridge; Chelsea vs. Southampton, 1969.

He was with his son Joe.

Well done Rob. Fantastic stuff.

Down below us on the Stamford Bridge pitch, there was stagnation. It was all very dull and all very predictable. There was no spark. It was shocking stuff. We hardly caused the Southampton ‘keeper to make a save in anger. There was a real reluctance to shoot on target and the extra wide men simply did not deliver.

Sigh.

At the start of the second-half, Frank reverted to a 4/3/3 as Mason Mount came on to replace Kurt Zouma. We hoped for some forward runs, some penetration, and soon into the second period, my infrequently-used camera miraculously captured our second real attempt on goal. Tammy Abraham was set free but lashed wide from an angle, only bothering the side netting.

Southampton became a little more adventurous and then Hudson-Odoi struck from outside the box, but the ball touched the top of the net, and the Saints ‘keeper was untroubled. By now, the mood in the home camp was deteriorating.

My very first Boxing Day game at Stamford Bridge came along as late as 1992. Until then, with no car and few local Chelsea mates that I knew, and with my parents solidly staying at home on every Boxing Day, and with no train service to London, I had been unable to attend a single game on all other Boxing Days. When I eventually did attend a game, it felt as if I was attending some sort of “Londoners only” event, a special match for invited guests only. It felt lovely. On that occasion – I have written about it before – I managed to smuggle my father’s bulky camcorder into the East Upper and my over-riding memory of that day – enhanced by playing the ten minutes of film that I shot – was the real increase in noise (clapping, shouts, voices from the crowd, encouragement) as the ball was sent into the Southampton half. In those days, it was a massively different style of football and much of it involved midfield battles. But as soon as there was a sniff of an attack, the crowd were on it and involved. Even in the East Upper.

In 1992, the gate was 18,344 but it felt as though everyone present was there to support the team. We had won nothing in twenty-one years and a trophy was still five years away, but it felt as though we were all in it together.

On Boxing Day in 2019, any fan involvement was not worthy of the name.

The game continued in front of a quickly worsening atmosphere.

Christian Pulisic came on for a very poor Hudson-Odoi.

Nathan Redmond should have made it 2-0 but Kepa saved well after a quick break.

Groans.

With twenty minutes or so remaining, the dangerous Redmond finished off a long Southampton move with a delicate touch past Kepa.

Chelsea 0 Southampton 2.

Fackinell.

Pedro replaced Willian late on.

Pulisic created the final shot on goal, but typically off target, screwing a low shot past the right hand post.

By this time, the atmosphere around me was caustic and abrasive.

I wanted to go home.

Sadly, this was another woeful performance. Whereas a couple of months ago, match-going fans were supremely positive with the way things were going, now many have changed their tune. Fair enough, each to their own. But this is still a long term project and we need to stick with it. And I’d like to see a more positive atmosphere at Stamford Bridge, but that’s just me.

Postscript 1 :

Glenn would later tell me that while he was waiting in the concourse with Les from Melksham before our match, the Tottenham vs. Brighton game was on TV. As Tottenham scored a second goal, a voice – a Chelsea fan, from England – was heard cheering. Les reprimanded him, rather strongly.

“What are you doing?”

“He’s in my fantasy team.”

I hate modern football.

Postscript 2 :

On the two other recent occasions of Chelsea losing at home to poor teams – West Ham United and Bournemouth – at least wins on both occasions for Frome Town helped raise my spirits slightly. On this occasion, no such luck; a 4-1 loss at Les’ Melksham Town.

Postscript 3 :

In the after game interview, involving Jason Cundy pitch side with Frank, there were no punches pulled. But Frank took everything on the chin. He answered all of the questions honestly and without serving up silly excuse after silly excuse. I totally admire his approach in these interviews. I am longing for us to turn the corner. For him, for all of us.

Postscript 4 :

At the halfway stage in the league season, we are in fourth place.

See you at Arsenal.

 

Tales From A Lilywhite Christmas Present

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 22 December 2019.

On the drive to London, PD and I were not confident at all about our chances of drawing, let alone winning, at Tottenham Hotspur’s glistening new stadium, that they have decided to name – showing amazing intuition and originality – the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. We were on a dismal little run of games and “that lot” had – heaven knows how – managed to score goals for fun under their new manager Jose Mourinho, picking up wins in most of the games under his tutelage.

The signs did not look good.

I had spent the previous afternoon at Badgers Hill watching a Betvictor Southern League Division One South game between Frome Town and Thatcham Town. I had met up with a pal in the town centre, bustling with Christmas shoppers, for a pre-match drink and had assembled at the Frome ground with close on four hundred others for a top of the table clash, pitting my local team against the team in second place. Despite blustery and difficult conditions, Frome Town flew into a deserved 2-0 lead at the break, but the recent rain had left areas of mud all over the pitch. With around twenty minutes remaining, a crunching tackle took place in a particularly sticky and dangerous patch of mud, for which the word quagmire could well have been invented, and the referee brandished a yellow card, and had no real option but to abandon the game.

It was the first game in my match-going life that had been abandoned during play.

My mind had whirred into gear :

“…mmm, I wonder if I will be wishing for an abandonment at Tottenham tomorrow?”

Deep down, I wondered if the abandonment was a foretaste of gloomier things on the Sunday.

Some more bad news; Parky was unable to come with us. Not only was he unwell, his village was unreachable, isolated by flooded country lanes. So, a double whammy.

As I drove towards Stonehenge I saw a tailback and wondered if my finely-tuned journey to London was about to be disrupted and that the gloom would continue. There were police cars ahead.

“What’s this PD? Hunt saboteurs?”

No, I was quickly reminded of the date. The Winter Solstice. Within a minute or so, we were flagged through by the police as they then returned to their task of funneling the revellers away from their designated car park.

I continued on.

At least the weather was fine. The roads were clear. There was a hint of winter sun. I was grasping at positives.

“Should be a clear drive in, mate.”

PD and I chatted about the Champions League draw, and our plans for getting to Munich. I won’t bore everyone this far out, but it will be a carbon copy of 2012; flights from Bristol to Prague, a night in Prague, coach to and from Prague to Munich, a night in Munich. That’s still three months away. It will take ages to finally arrive. But it is a lovely “gift” at the end of a potentially cold winter spell.

At around 10.45am, we stopped for a bite to eat at a “Greggs” on the A303, and then I drove straight in to London, the roads ridiculously clear of traffic. At midday – exactly as I had planned – we were parked-up outside Barons Court tube station.

Inside my head : “at least this was a perfect start to the day.”

We made our way in to town. Throughout all the years of going to Tottenham, there has never been a set routine. I know that a lot mob up at Liverpool Street at “The Hamilton Hall” or “Railway Tavern” but on the one occasion that I did that, it did not look an awful lot of fun; packed pubs, loons chanting, the OB filming everyone. Not for me.

I had other plans.

We had a few hours to kill.

Leading up to my planning for this game, I remembered a pub crawl that I had sorted for the lads for our home game with Manchester City last season; it was centered on Whitehall. Sadly, I was too ill to attend, so the pub crawl never happened. Bearing in mind that we won – against all odds – that day, the superstitious part of me decided to have another stab at it.

So, from 12.30pm to around 2.45pm, PD and I visited “The Clarence”, “The Old Shades”, “The Silver Cross” and “Walkers of Whitehall”, all of which are within one hundred yards of each other. It was a lovely and relaxing time, away from the madness of Liverpool Street.

We toasted absent friends – not just Parky, there were friends that had missed out on tickets for this, the most sought-after away game in years and years – and chatted about European games past, European games present and European games future.

One thing struck me.

“Still not seen any Tottenham fans, nor Chelsea fans for that matter.”

London would be full of 61,000 match-goers, but we had seen not one of them the entire day, or at least nobody sporting club favours, more to the point.

As we walked from one glorious boozer to the next, pub two to pub three – a full six yards – PD moaned.

“I do wish you wouldn’t make me walk so far between pubs, Chris.”

Our drinking over – I was mixing my drinks, lagers and cokes, the designated driver – we moved on. We walked to Charing Cross station and then caught the Northern Line to Tottenham Court Road. From there, the Central Line to Liverpool Street.

“Still no Tottenham. Still no Chelsea.”

At Liverpool Street, up on the concourse, I looked around and saw a familiar face.

Les from Melksham, but no club colours of course.

We hopped onto the 3.30pm train with only a few seconds to spare.

Perfect timing.

On the train – at last a few Tottenham scarves – we sat with Les and some Chelsea mates, no colours. We ran through the team.

“Three at the back, then.”

“Alonso.”

“Mason.”

This train seemed to take forever.

At just before 4pm, it slowed and we pulled into White Hart Lane station, which – in order to cope with an extra 25,000 match-goers every fortnight – had undergone a fine upgrade.

In the distance, high above the shop fronts on the High Road, a first glimpse of the steel and glass of their new gaff.

We approached the stadium, time moving on now, ten past four, but realised that there was no noticeable signage for away fans. We were shooed north, through a supermarket car park – ambush anyone? – and out on to Northumberland Park. Another glimpse of the outer shell of the stadium, and then the approach to the away section. But here, it seemed that the planners had realised way too late that the away turnstiles were several feet higher than pavement level, resulting in some short steep steps being required to lift fans the final few yards.

An odd arrangement. I have no doubt that the Tottenham stadium is better than the Arsenal one, but it certainly seems cramped. There is not the space nor sense of space that you encounter at The Emirates.

Amid all of this rush to get in, I needed to collect tickets for future games.

Twenty past four.

Thankfully, I spotted one friend – “three for Southampton” – right at the top of the steps from the pavement.

Perfect.

I spotted lines of stewards all lined up, patting people down, and with tables for bag searches too. I had no time for that. I gazed into the distance, avoided eye-contact and shimmied past about eight stewards, with body swerves that JPR Williams would have been proud. Not one single search. Get in. I flashed my ticket against the sensor and I was inside.

The first person that I saw in our cramped concourse was the other friend – “Brighton away” – and I was sorted.

A double dose of “perfect.”

Twenty-five minutes past four.

Chelsea were banging on the metallic panels of the concourse, kicking up a mighty fine racket. I needed to use the little boys’ room. Rush, rush, rush.

Phew.

As I entered the seating bowl, I saw the Chelsea players break from the line-up and race over to us.

Chelsea in all blue. Love those red, white and blue socks.

We had made it.

Two minutes to go.

Perfect.

More positivity.

Initial thoughts about the stadium?

Impressive.

They have obviously learned from Arsenal’s mistakes (seats too far from the pitch, a shallow rake in the lower tier, corporate tiers that get in the way of a continuous wall of noise) and – bloody hell – that single tier at the South End reaches high into the sky. It is very impressive.

(A note to the fools who still blather on about a similar single tiered Shed End at a revamped Stamford Bridge – where are we going to get the room to do that, then?)

I really do not know why the place isn’t still called White Hart Lane though. If anything, the new stadium is nearer the street by the same name by a good fifty yards.

Naming rights, I guess.

I Hate Modern Football Part 519.

Everyone – apart from Parky – was in, and the 3,000 away fans in our section around the north-east corner flag seemed more.

We were ready.

But first, a moment to remember a hero from 1966, Martin Peters, who sadly passed away the previous day. I am not old enough to remember Peters as a West Ham player, but I certainly remember him as a Tottenham player alongside Chivers, Gilzean, England, Jennings and all. He is a strong link to my childhood, so he is another one will who be sadly missed.

There was warm applause from both sets of fans.

RIP.

The game began, and how.

In the first two minutes it was all Chelsea, in the first five minutes it was all Chelsea, in the first ten minutes it was all Chelsea.

It was as if we were the home team.

And I’ll say this. I was expecting great things from the wall of support from the opposite end – after all, they hate us right? – but the lack of noise from the Tottenham fans really surprised me. They had been right on it at Wembley in 2008, and at virtually every game at the old White Hart Lane around that era, but this was a very poor show.

On the pitch, everyone shone, confidently passing to each other, with the wide full-backs stretching play nicely. There were a couple of half-chances from us and yet nothing from Tottenham. From my lowly position – row seven – I did not have a great view of our attacks down the left, but it was from this area that provided some early cheer.

A corner played short by Willian to Kovacic was returned to him. The Brazilian received the ball, fleet-footed it into space and in prime territory, curled a shot (I was right behind the course of the ball once again) past Paulo Gazzaniga into the goal in front of seventeen thousand of the fuckers.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

Just before the goal, a fan had tapped me on the back to tell me that Andy from Trowbridge had spotted me; he had prime seats above the exit to my right. I seized the moment and snapped Andy’s euphoric celebrations.

And then it was time for me to smile, to scream, to celebrate.

Good on you, Willian.

Braziliant.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Phew.

This was a dream start.

We continued on in the same vein for the next portion of the game; always in control, always looking to puncture the Tottenham defence with incisive passing, always determined to halt any approach by the home team. We had chances throughout that first-half, with Tammy looking vibrant, but they had to wait for their first one.

On the half-hour, Harry Kane skied a chance from close in, and not long after Son Hueng Min walloped a shot high too, though from a tighter angle.

The three defenders looked in control and relaxed. This might not be our standard formation for much of the remainder of this season but here it worked a treat.

Tomori. Zouma. Rudiger.

“Young, gifted and at the back.” (…thanks for the inspiration John Drewitt, the cheque is in the post.)

Tottenham – damn, another cliché – really were chasing shadows.

They were simply not in it.

At all.

Chelsea were in fine voice. One song dominated.

“We’ve got Super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

And it repeated and repeated. I am sure the watching millions heard it on TV because it was deathly silent in all of the 58,000 seats of the home areas.

Another tried an tested chant was aired :

“Champions of Europe. You’ll never sing that.”

On the balcony walls between the tiers, electronic messages flashed.

“THE GAME IS ABOUT GLORY.”

Snigger snigger.

“THIS IS MY CLUB, MY ONE AND ONLY CLUB.”

Yes, and you are fucking welcome to it.

“COME ON YOU SPURS.”

Fuck off you Spurs.

There was a worrying moment when Kepa hesitated to reach a ball into the box and he was clattered by Moussa Sissoko. Just after, there was a kerfuffle involving Kovacic, Kane, Rudiger, Zouma and Delle Ali. It was clear that tensions were rising.

Over on the far touchline, Frank Lampard was the more animated of the two managers by far, constantly cajoling and encouraging his players whereas Jose Mourinho looked unresponsive.

Some in the Chelsea end roared “Fuck off Mourinho” but that chant was not for me.

Forty-five minutes were up, but the first-half was far from finished. Willian lobbed the ball in to the box but the Tottenham ‘keeper bizarrely, and dangerously, chose to claim the ball with a ridiculously high challenge (reminiscent of Schumacher versus Battiston in 1982) and almost decapitated Alonso. For reasons known only to the referee Anthony Taylor, he awarded a free-kick to Tottenham.

We were rightly incandescent with anger.

“His legs were up before Alonso even got close. For fuck sake.”

Then, VAR.

I made a pact with myself – as did Alan, two seats along – not to cheer if the decision went our way.

VAR – penalty.

All eyes on Willian. A halt in his run, but his shot was to the ‘keeper’s left as was the first goal.

GET IN.

What a half of football.

The referee blew up and the Chelsea faithful roared. It had been, make no mistake, a beautiful half of football. At half-time, as I gleefully trotted through the away seats and out to the concourse, shaking hands with a few, and hugging a few more, and I can rarely remember such a joyous bunch at half-time anywhere. And it was great to see a few old stagers present – you know who you are – who had managed to beg, steal or borrow to get in.

Good times.

On the way up in the car, we had highlighted Son as probably Tottenham’s most influential player, but Christian Eriksen was surely not far behind. It was a surprise that Mourinho had not picked him to start, but he replaced Eric Dier as the second-half began.

There were two early attempts on goal from Tammy, and as the game continued it was the away team who still dominated.

Inside my head : “bloody hell, we can do this.”

Willian was bundled off the pitch, and found himself way below the pitch behind the goal. Just like at Old Trafford, there is a marked “fall-off” from the pitch to the surrounds of the stands. I was reminded that there was a retractable NFL – another reason to hate the twats – pitch under the grass pitch for football at this new stadium.

Inside my head : “and below that, a fucking full size circus ring.”

At around the hour mark, my visibility not great, I was vaguely aware of the “coming together” of Son and Rudiger down on the Spurs left. I honestly did not see anything, and perhaps my mind was elsewhere.

Out of nowhere, VAR became involved. Nobody around me really knew what was going on. The TV screen displayed “possible violent conduct” but we were clueless. After a good minute or so, probably more, came the message :

“Decision Red Card. Violent Conduct.”

And Taylor brandished the red to Son.

Oh my days.

Could life get any better?

In the aftermath of this incident, we spotted a few Tottenham fans getting up from their seats and it appeared that they were doing one of three things :

Heading off to try one of the craft ales on sale at the “Moustachioed & Bearded Hipster” bar.

Heading off to buy some Christmas presents at one of the ninety-seven retail outlets at the new stadium.

Heading home.

I suspect the latter, don’t you?

There were a couple of long announcements about “racist chanting” on the PA, but I did not think that this was in any way related to any one incident that had just taken place. I only learned about this while heading back in to London long after the game had finished. For the record, there was only a barely audible “Y” word at the end of the “Barcelona, Real Madrid” chant from the Chelsea contingent, most people deciding not to join in, and many deciding to “sssshhhhh.”

The game continued. It was eleven against ten, we were 2-0 up at the home of our bitterest rivals on our first-ever visit to their new gaff.

Oh, and our Frank was having the best of it against a formerly-loved, but now derided, manager.

“We used to love you Jose, but you’re a bit of a twat really aren’t you?”

Although there was not the high quality of the first-half, everywhere I looked there were sublime performances. Kante was his usual self, winning virtually all the 50/50 battles. One strong run was the stuff of legend. Mount ran and ran and ran, his energy just fantastic. Willian was sublime, the man of the match by far. One piece of control on the far side was worth the admission money alone. Special praise for Marcos Alonso too, a game that reminded me of his special role in 2016/17. I loved the spirited Azpilicueta too. I admired how he stretched – and reached – for a high ball that was going off for a throw-in, thus keeping the ball “live.”

Inside my head : “if I had tried that, I would have sprained seven different muscles, two of which weren’t even mine.”

Jorginho for Kovacic.

A Kante swipe from distance went close.

Reece James for Azpilicueta.

Michy Batshuayi for Abraham.

Fresh legs.

We dominated still. Tottenham were now launching balls high from deep.

“Hoof.”

Or “Huth” to be more precise. Remember Mourinho playing him upfront a few times? I think we should have seen that as a warning sign way back in 2005.

Eight minutes of added time were signalled.

Oh boy.

There was still time for a couple of lightning breaks – Willian usually involved – and Michy went close with a left-footed strike from outside the box. At the other end, the stadium now full of empty seats, Kane – who? – forced Kepa to make his very first save of the entire game.

I watched as the referee blew up and a forest of Chelsea arms flew into the air.

There was a little lull…a feeling of “I can’t believe this” permeated the mild North London air, and then the players and managers walked over towards us. I clambered up on to my seat (I noted that there are horizontal retaining bars above the back of each seat, almost paving the way – I suppose – for safe standing…well done Tottenham) and waited. I then photographed the frenzy of smiles, laughs, hugs and fist punches.

Then, ridiculously, the Tottenham PA chose to play the de facto Christmas song from my childhood (I can vividly remember sitting around the lunch table at my primary school in December 1973 when Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody” took over the number one slot).

“Are you hanging up a stocking on your wall?
It’s the time that every Santa has a ball.
Does he ride a red-nosed reindeer?
Does a ton-up on his sleigh?
Do the fairies keep him sober for a day?

So here it is, Merry Xmas.
Everybody’s having fun.
Look to the future now.
It’s only just begun.”

It wasn’t quite ten thousand Jocks singing “Rocking All Over The World” at half-time at Wembley in 1996, but it felt good enough.

What a giggle.

Frank was a picture. Look at the evidence below.

No words.

Outside, PD and I darted into “Sam’s Chicken” on the High Road to let the crowds subside. The food warmed us, and the dead man’s stare of many a Tottenham fan made me giggle some more.

We had not let them play, and they had been oh-so poor. It was a lovely Christmas present from them on our first-ever visit to their new home.

We caught a train back to Liverpool Street at about 7.30pm. Who should scuttle past me on the platform but Dan Levene? I would soon learn about the “racist chanting” and I wondered what spin he would put on it all.

Inside the train compartment, I spotted the actor Matthew Horne who plays Gavin in the excellent “Gavin & Stacey” comedy series on the BBC. He is a Tottenham fan in the show and I knew that he was a Tottenham fan in real life too. He was with his girlfriend so I left him alone. He was, oddly, combining a white and navy bar scarf with a Stone Island jacket.

Inside my head : “typical Tottenham.”

I overheard him say :

“We just didn’t show up today.”

That raised a giggle too.

After changing tube lines a few times, we eventually reached Barons Court at 9pm. It was a quiet but peaceful ride home and we reached Frome at 11pm.

It was, after all the initial worry, a bloody perfect day out.

Next up, Southampton at home on Boxing Day.

See you in the pub. Don’t be late.

Tales From Frank, Incensed

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 14 December 2019.

A Figure In Black And White.

Our home game with AFC Bournemouth, to give them their full name, would be my twenty-fifth match of the current season. I was in London, in Fulham, early and I had a little time to kill. I had dropped the lads off at West Brompton tube station at around 10am, and had then parked the car outside the mews on Bramber Road where James Hunt, the former Formula One champion, had lived for a while. I needed to be in The Goose to collect a ticket for a mate at 11am, and had about an hour to kill. I decided to head down to Stamford Bridge and pop in to the Copthorne Hotel for a coffee and to see who else was around and about.

Everything was pretty quiet. It was a bitterly cold morning. It felt like it was yet to become a match day in these familiar streets. As I neared the site of the old red-bricked Fulham Broadway tube station, I was surprised how still and silent it all was. The long expanse of pavement outside the Broadway Bar & Grill, which then lead on past the former entrance hall of the station, was totally devoid of people. I was touched by the serenity of the scene. I decided to take a photograph with my ‘phone as a scene-setter for my day at Chelsea. I had decided to mention that I loved the fact that my grandfather had probably exited that very same station in the early part of the twentieth century as he made his way to Stamford Bridge, the only stadium he would ever visit apart from a midweek trip with my parents and I to see Chelsea at Bristol Rovers in 1976. I love that on every trip to our home stadium, I walk in his steps.

I steadied myself and was just about to “shoot” when I noticed the figure of a man, cigarette in hand, white silk scarf around his neck, like a figure from the inter-war years. I then realised that it was no ghost from the distant past. It was none other than Tommy Baldwin who I had seen play just once, my second-ever game against Tottenham in 1974, but who was a huge part of our famous team of the ‘seventies.

He was the leader of the team, after all.

I approached him, shook his hand, and he seemed surprised that anyone would recognise him.

It was a lovely little moment.

I continued my advance to Stamford Bridge. It was so early that the fellows on the “CFCUK” stall were only just setting up shop. I walked on, into the forecourt, underneath the old Shed Wall. Past images of our former stars; Bobby Tambling, Kerry Dixon, Peter Osgood, Frank Lampard, Ron Harris and all. And one of Gianluca Vialli – the first one if the walk begins outside the hotel – who is still battling cancer. I took some photographs.

So many memories.

I have said before that I can often walk around the centre of my local town for thirty minutes and recognise nobody, but already on this morning in SW6 I had spoken to Mick and Pauline, Tom, Raymondo and the leader of the team.

At Chelsea, I feel like I am at home and I love that feeling.

In the hotel, I chatted to some others, then picked up the ticket at The Goose.

I was then on my way to Putney Bridge, to The Eight Bells, to my “local” some one hundred miles away from my house.

The Chelsea Social.

I arrived at about midday and my travelling companions – Simon, PD and Parks – were already on their fourth pint. Guests of honour were Gillian and Kev from Edinburgh – their second home game in a fortnight – but we were also joined by Gary and John from Edinburgh too. I chatted to Gary and how his local team, Hearts, have instigated – along with many other league teams north of the border – a “keep fit” campaign based at their Tynecastle stadium. I love the fact that Gary is able to use the stadium as a backdrop to his efforts to lose weight; up and down the terraces, stretches against the seats, press-ups in the tunnel. It is inspired. As an adjunct to this, Gary took part in a half-time shootout at Hampden Park during the Scottish League Cup tie with Rangers. He played in goal – in front of 52,000 – and saved three out of five shots on goal. What a great story.

Later, Mike and Courtney from Chicago joined us, and I spent an unusually long time talking to them both about baseball. I admitted to them that part of my fading love of that sport is the simple fact that my team – and Mike’s, definitely not Courtney’s – the Yankees moved out of their historic home in 2008 – dramatic, fearsome, cramped – and into an anaemic and watered down version in 2009.  I am always aware of the role that stadia play in our appreciation of sport. Too many resemble shopping malls these days. Balls to shopping malls. Give me stands that drip history, ooze memories and reverberate to the sound of honest fans and not consumers and wannabees. At old Yankee Stadium in 2008, I struggled to squeeze past fans in the claustrophobic concourses which reeked of sweet popcorn, salted pretzels and beer. In 2009, at the new pad, I was able to watch as a butcher took great delight as he went to work on rare cuts of beef behind a glass screen, as some sort of entertainment, and – fuck me sideways – I know what version I preferred.

And it is getting worse.

My good friend Steve in South Philly – while we were talking about the new riverside stand at the wonderful Craven Cottage – sent me notice that in his part of that great city, there are plans for a $50M e-Sports venue where – let me get this right – people go to watch people gaming.

I am glad I’ll be dead in thirty years.

The Game.

We made our way to the stadium. Mike and Courtney were in the Shed Upper – using the same season ticket seats belonging to a friend that Mike met while living in Richmond upon Thames for a year in around 2008 – and I promised that I’d try to spot them with my zoom lens. I did. The four from Edinburgh were dotted around the Matthew Harding. I took my place alongside PD and Simon in The Sleepy Hollow.

The team? Mason Mount in for Mateo Kovacic.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Zouma – Emerson

Jorginho

Mount – Kante

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

As a contrast to our league of nations, Bournemouth fielded a team consisting of solid, and relatively unknown, Anglo-Saxons

Ramsdale, Stacey, Francis, Mepham, Billing, Cooke, Gosling, Fraser and King. It all sounded like a school register from my childhood.

“Yes miss.”

Bournemouth only average 10,000 home fans so it was perhaps no surprise that there was a section of their three-thousand unfilled.

We attacked The Shed End as the game began.

Fraser on the Bournemouth left immediately made an impression and looked the liveliest of the away team. But we were soon on the attack, and a sublime ball from deep from Jorginho found the advanced run of Mount. From an angle, it was always going to be a tough ask, and his shot drew a save from Ramsdale in the Bournemouth goal.

Little did we know that this effort inside the first ten minutes or so would be our main effort on goal during the entirety of the first half.

The atmosphere was morgue like, and the away fans made more noise.

“Red Army.”

A lone voice in the Matthew Harding Upper was heard to mutter :

“Fuck off back to your care homes.”

Guilty.

Chelsea were faced with a packed final third as players took it in turns to pass their way around the danger zones as if there was a force field centered on the penalty spot. There were shades of last season – pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass – and the home fans sat in sombre silence. On too many occasions players failed to take ownership to make a killing ball. Yet there was poor movement off the ball too. A shot from Tammy midway through the contest narrowly missed the target.

It was all very humdrum.

And, to reiterate, the away team were unwilling to attack and open the game up, more’s the pity.

We were forced to trudge slowly over quicksand.

It was dull stuff.

I willed the boys on, but chances of any real quality were rare. Eddie Howe’s team, on a very poor run of form, seemed to grow more resolute as the tedious half progressed. On their rare forays up field though, such is our fragility these days, it always seemed that they might score.

Sadly, I have to report that there was not one single “stadium wide” song of support and encouragement throughout the first forty-five minutes.

We’re all getting older, we’re all getting quieter, we’re all fighting a losing battle.

The most repeated ball of the half was a long diagonal from Rudiger to Emerson or Pulisic on the left, but I wished that there was the occasional quick ball over the top for Tammy to eat up. On one occasion, nearing the end of the half, a gap was yawning to Tammy’s left, but the ball was played elsewhere and our young striker flung his arms up in frustration. He had a point. In the last dying embers of the first period, a corner from the boot of Willian found the leap of Tammy but the striker could not get over it and it flew over the crossbar.

It had been, definitely, a tough watch.

At least there were no boos at half-time.

Inside my head : “we tend to play better in the second-half, Frank will sort them out, we often make amends for a lacklustre first period with a more determined second-half show. Come on Chels.”

To a pal : “the last time we went in 0-0 at half-time against this lot, we let in four in the second-half.”

The second-half began and, alas, there was no noticeable improvement. If anything, we had deteriorated further, and the away team were more involved in attacking play.

Inside my head : “that will help us, draw them in then counter-attack them with pace.”

But this never really happened.

Rejoice – on fifty-one minutes, at last a Chelsea song joined us all together. It was hardly deafening, but it was a start. Willian struck the red and black wall from a far-too-central free-kick and then Pulisic broke through with a trademark burst but seemed to lose his footing as a shot skidded wide.

But the mood in the Stamford Bridge stands was not good at all.

I kept silent – lips pursed, hands in pockets, the occasional scowl, the look of a worried man – but elsewhere others were happy to howl and swear and yell obscenities. That upset me a bit. I hate that a misdirected pass – of which there were an increasing number – drew five times as much noise as a fine touch.

To hear someone close by call our players “fucking wankers” was one of the low points of my year.

Aren’t supporters meant to rally behind our team when players need encouragement? I get the frustration, but at times it was too much, too audible, and I am adamant that it affected the players’ collective confidence. It reminded me of the “you don’t know what you’re doing” phases of the Scolari, Villas-Boas and Sarri eras when it was possible to see players undergo some sort of meltdown with misplaced passes and poor control as they fell apart.

But that’s my standard view. It hasn’t fucking changed in years.

Managers manage. Players play. Supporters support.

It took a fantastic last-gasp tackle from Kurt Zouma to get the crowd in a positive mood. But elsewhere, everything seemed to be falling apart. We over-passed, and at times the passing was so poor. Misplaced balls from Rudiger and Zouma from deep, misplaced passes from Jorginho, and even from Kante who was – a tell-tale sign – being dragged down to the level of others after a strong start to the game. Rudiger, actually – everyone’s favourite when he was side-lined – had a ‘mare and to see his form deteriorate over the second forty-five minutes was equally surprising and shocking in equal measure. In fact, nobody played well.

On sixty-five minutes, a double substitution.

Mateo Kovacic for Pulisic.

Callum Hudson-Odoi for Willian.

After a ridiculous bout of pinball in the penalty area below me, Emerson headed straight at Ramsdale. From the angle where I was watching, it looked like it hit the bar. The crowd groaned.

Fackinell.

Abraham stretched but saw a header go wide. But we barely created anything of note.

Frank went for two upfront as Michy Batshuayi replaced Jorginho.

With ten minutes to go, a Bournemouth attack and the ball was lofted up into the box.

An offside flag.

But the ball was lobbed goal wards.

Dave seemed to clear it.

The Bournemouth fans celebrated.

I did not react.

“Offside, you wankers.”

Oh no.

A delay.

Oh bollocks.

VAR.

A wait.

A bad sign.

Goal.

And nobody that I was sat with really knew what was going on. We presumed the bloke wasn’t offside, but there was no real clear explanation.

Great.

CFC 0 AFCB 1.

Only in the fading moments of this dire game did we seem to want to go at their defence. A couple of thrusting runs from Hudson-Odoi hinted at the kind of football that we should have been producing all afternoon but it was too little and too late.

At the final whistle there were boos.

Really?

I know – I am not stupid – this was a bloody poor performance, but are people so mean spirited that the “give our kids a chance, we’ll be happy with tenth this season, Frank knows the club” mantra has been so easily jettisoned?

For many, it would appear so, eh?

But there again, the league table doesn’t lie, and we are fourth from bottom and out of the Champions League. And we have spent £200M on new players since the end of last season.

Frankly.

As I drove home, I was relieved – so relieved – that my ‘phone was off and I was not able to see the reaction – over reaction? – of so many on social media. Again, I get the passion, and I get a lot of constructive analysis, but some comments I would later discover were just excruciating.

I trust Frank. He knows football. He knows more about football than you and I. I’ve never wanted a Chelsea manager to succeed more than Frank.

In his post-game interviews, he was clearly rattled, as he should be, and – again – I loved his honesty and intelligence, and how we need to improve all over the pitch for the game at Tottenham. Despite his annoyance, his desire to get it right shone through. And unlike last season under Sarri, at least Frank understands what it means when we play at Tottenham.

I will see some of you – the lucky ones – there.

Tales From A Group Of Death

Chelsea vs. Lille : 10 December 2019.

Twenty-Two Hours.

The fact that PD takes a turn driving to Stamford Bridge for weekday games is a real Godsend. It means that I can have a very welcome snooze if I need it on the way to London, and – most definitely – on the return journey west. On this particular journey to SW6, I managed to crash out for over an hour as P-Diddy battled the rain and traffic. At about 5pm, I emerged from my slumber at around Twickenham. There was a little message from Jaro, now back in the US after his “work” trip last week, waiting for me. He must have been bored because he had worked out that in the previous seven days, the three of us – P-Diddy, Lord Parsnips and little old me – had spent twenty-two hours in cars en route to and from Chelsea games. I must admit it startled me.

Wednesday : Villa at home – six hours.

Saturday : Everton away – ten hours.

Tuesday : Lille at home – six hours.

It all added-up. And I am not honestly sure how I felt. Was it some sort of pride that we had evidently devoted so much of our time to the support of our club, or was there an inkling that we might well take some perverse pleasure out of all of this, or – worse – that this was all too obsessive, and not natural, not healthy, not normal?

Answers on a postcard.

Two Pubs.

At about 6pm, we eventually made it in to “The Goose.” I made my way to the bar to get the first round in. To my right, quietly standing at the bar, were three lads in their late twenties, evidently Lille supporters, one with a “LOSC” logo on his tracksuit, and another with a scarf hidden from view. There were signs on the pub windows proclaiming “Chelsea fans only” and I had presumed that they had slipped through the net. I whispered “bon chance” to the one standing close to me and ordered some drinks. I had no intention of wanting to drop them in it. My drinks arrived, but just as the last of the three drinks were being handed to the Lille supporters, the landlady caught a glimpse of the red Lille scarf (I suspect that the “LOSC” logo on the other supporter’s top meant nothing to her) and they were politely asked to leave. Damn. I felt for them. I was sure that they were not going to cause one bit of trouble. The place seemed quiet. We chatted to a few friends from our local area – “don’t get caught in the lift this week, Les” – and then headed off to “Simmons”. This little bar seemed quiet too. More beers were ordered, a few more chats with mates, a few more laughs.

Eleven Men.

I made it inside the stadium with just a couple of minutes to spare, and missed the entrance of the teams and the usual pre-match Champions League rituals. I quickly scanned our team. The big news was that Toni Rudiger was returning.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Zouma – Emerson

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

Three Teams.

We knew that we just – “just” – had to win to secure our safe passage into the first knock-out phase of this season’s Champions League. I think most of us presumed that there would be home wins for Chelsea and Ajax. But Valencia, who beat us on match day one, were no mugs, and were in with a shout of qualifying too. Of course I wanted progression to the final sixteen – it would undoubtedly provide a timely fillip for the players and managers, a lovely confidence boost going into the new year – but if we were to fail, then a potentially longer and arguably more enjoyable tour of fresh cities in the Europa League was not a bad second prize. So; Ajax, Chelsea or Valencia. Who from this little list of three teams would miss out?

Eight O’Clock.

The game began and for a few minutes I was mesmerized by the shifting patterns created by the cascading rain against the back-drop of the East Stand. It was a foul night in SW6 alright. I had rarely seen such atrocious conditions at Stamford Bridge. I felt sorry for those in the first few rows. They were going to get soaked. We began well and soon started to slither our way through the Lille defence with Christian Pulisic looking at home on the left-side of our attack. I admitted to Al that he had been surprisingly poor at Everton and it was good to see him showing signs of improvement. Within a few minutes, Rudiger was making strong and sturdy challenges and we were instantly reminded of what we had missed for many weeks.

Nineteen Minutes.

There was a break in play and I needed to shoot off to see a man about a dog. I was alone with my thoughts in the nearby gents when I heard an increase in noise emanating from inside the stadium. A split second later, a roar and it was clear that we had scored. Over the years, I don’t miss many, though I am sure I missed one earlier this season at home too. I quickly wrote “1-0” on the steamed-up mirror and re-joined Alan and PD in The Sleepy Hollow. Alan explained how Tammy had scored. I was so pleased that our young striker had nabbed another. Excellent. I will be honest, the pressure was off – or so it seemed – and we looked in control for much of the first period. On only rare occasions did the opposing team pose any danger.

The midfield three of Jorginho at the base, and with Kovacic and Kante to the left and right, worked well, and provided the motor for more luxurious play further ahead. I loved how N’Golo Kante sized up his options as a ball became loose and a gullible Lille player looked to lunge in. It seemed that Kante was one, or maybe two or three steps ahead, as he decided to let the other player attempt to win the ball, but then struggle to control it, allowing Kante to pick up the pieces with the minimum of effort. At the same time as all this was happening, he was probably aware of all Chelsea players within a 360-degree sweep of the pitch, of their individual directions of travel, their nearest foe, each of their chances of ably controlling the ball should he decided to pass to them, the wind direction in all parts of the stadium, taking into account localised eddies caused by the juxtaposition of the stands, and he also was thinking ahead to half-time and if he fancied a sports drink, a simple sip of water, or a hot cup of tea, and there were probable thoughts too about how he really needs to master that latest piece of music that his piano teacher has detailed, how he needs to come up with a suitable twist to the end of the first chapter of his first novel and then, of course, there are always Christmas presents which need to be sorted. In the blink of an eye, he passed to Willian, simplicity itself.

I commented to Alan.

“You simply can’t teach that.”

N’Golo is a rare footballing talent, and it is an honour to be able to watch him play every few days. He is already one of our greatest ever players.

Thirty-Five Minutes.

It was all Chelsea, and Kepa had rarely touched the ball. We won a corner and Emerson, way down the other end of the pitch, struck a firm ball into the box. It landed right into a juicy few yards of emptiness and Dave arrived with impeccable timing to head it home past a poorly protected Maignan in the Lille goal.

Superb.

We were 2-0 up.

I caught Dave’s gleeful little trot in front of Parky and Parky’s People in The Shed Lower. We had struck twice in the first-half, had dominated the game, and Lille had not mustered a single shot on goal.

Easy.

Rousey was quick to chime in :

“See you in Barcelona.”

However, only after this second goal was there a rousing stadium-wide chant from the Chelsea supporters.

Over in The Netherlands, Valencia were – surprisingly – winning one-nought. If it stayed like this, Ajax would be playing in the Europa League in 2020. But it would mean that Chelsea would finish second in the group. We hoped for an Ajax equaliser.

The Second Forty-Five.

The rain had relented, but it was still a wet night. We continued to control the game and a few chances came our way. Pulisic looked lively, a slippery customer on this wet night in London, and his presence in our attack drew applause as he dribbled into the box with ease. A free-kick from Willian was on target but was saved. We kept attacking. At times, Dave’s bursts into the Lille box were astonishing. I think his goal must have possessed him to grab more.

Frank chose to replace the impressive Pulisic with Callum Hudson-Odoi.

“At least the pressure is off him. Often when he comes on as sub, he is expected to change things. Let’s see what he can do.”

Lille replaced their injured ‘keeper.

Michy Batshuayi replaced Tammy.

Our play stagnated.

Lille had – just – began to show a few signs of life in the latter part of the game and they produced a fine move which cut into our right flank, resulting in a pull-back for our former striker Loic Remy to blast high into the net.

It was still 1-0 in Amsterdam.

It was 2-1 in London.

An equaliser for Lille would mean that we would be knocked out of the competition. And so things started to get tense. Mason Mount replaced Kovacic, another great performance from him. There was another rare chance for the visitors, but it did not cause Kepa any worry. At the other end, Michy controlled well, but blazed over. A wild shot from Callum was worse, much worse. In the dying embers of the game, Remy shot meekly at Kepa.

It was over.

Phew.

The Final Sixteen.

Walking out of the ground, everyone was just relieved. A mate galloped past me.

“Seen who we got?”

Our opponents in the New Year had already been decided; Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Paris St. Germain or Red Bull Leipzig.

It’s a horrible, hated, club but Leipzig please.

Walking down the Fulham Road, I shared a thought on Facebook.

“When we lost our first match at home to Valencia, it seemed that we were in a real group of death. But we are still breathing. We are still living. Let European adventures at the top table continue.”

 Twenty-Four Photographs.