Tales From September 1982 And Forty Years Later

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 3 September 2022.

September 1982.

Due to the timings of games and thus match reports this season, my personal recollection of 1982/83 in this edition encompasses two consecutive home games at Stamford Bridge.

On the evening of Tuesday 31 August 1982, Chelsea played Wolverhampton Wanderers at Stamford Bridge. After winning the Football League Cup in 1980 against the then European Champions Nottingham Forest, Wolves suffered relegation just two years later. They dropped down into the Second Division alongside Leeds United and Middlesbrough. I suppose that they must have been one of the favourites for promotion that season. Our team was the same one that had played at Cambridge United on the Saturday. The game finished 0-0. The gate of 14,192 was a pretty decent one considering our predicament at the time. In the previous season we had averaged 13,133.

Next up was a match with Leicester City on Saturday 4 September. I was seventeen and just back at school. I was now in the Upper Sixth, with a worrying year ahead with A Levels in Geography, Mathematics and Technical Drawing on some hideous distant horizon. It was a horrible time. At Frome College, everywhere I looked I saw Julie’s face but she was now living in a little village to the east of Reading. At the time, Reading seemed like being a thousand miles away. A few years ago, I had a little sigh to myself when I heard that a mate’s schoolgirl daughter was seeing a boy in Reading. Distances seem to be squashed these days. It didn’t really help matters that the Westbury to London Paddington line took me to within half a mile of Julie’s house on that trip up to see Chelsea play Leicester. As the train whizzed past Charvil, I peered out of the window with a lump in my throat and a pain in my heart.

In those days, my school mates rarely went to football, proper football. My pal Steve often used to go to see his Bristol City play on their nosedive through the divisions. He also watched many Frome Town games. Steve would have been with me at the Wellington game the previous Saturday, just as he is alongside me at Frome games forty years later. He is currently the club’s official historian. Another mate, Francis, saw his Liverpool team at Ashton Gate in 1980.  Another mate, Kev, went to see his Tottenham team around 1980 too, but that was it. I was one of a very few who used to go to league football. The Leicester City game would be my twenty-fourth Chelsea match. I didn’t have a part-time job in those distant days. I just saved my pennies to watch my team. Chelsea was my life.

Living over a hundred miles away, I could only afford a few games each season. From 1981/82, I started going up alone by train. The independence that I gained on those trips to London put me in good stead for further travelling adventures in the future. But in 1981/82 and 1982/83, I became closer to the club by subscribing to the club programme. I loved the small programmes of that era, nicely designed, they had a stylish look about them I thought. I used to love the arrival of the postman in those days. I have no idea why I stopped in 1983/84 when the programme became larger but lost a little of its style in my opinion.

My father would have dropped me at Westbury train station to catch an 8am train to The Smoke. It would arrive in Paddington at about 9.45am from memory. In those days, with no spare money and plenty of time to kill I usually walked over to Hyde Park and sat beside The Serpentine on a park bench – it became a superstition in 1981/82 – and I probably did the same on this occasion. Then a walk to Lancaster Gate tube and the journey down to Stamford Bridge. In those days, I knew nobody at Stamford Bridge, not a soul. Before the game, I bought the newly published “The Chelsea Story” by John Moynihan with money that my mother had given me. The book cost £5.95, a costly sum in those days. I watched the game in The Shed, my usual place towards the tea bar, but under the roof.

I am not honestly sure if I bought a programme on the day of the game. It cost 50p. I have a feeling I would have waited until I received one through the post.

Times were hard.

On viewing that same programme forty years later, I am reminded of the perilous financial predicament that we were in. Although Ken Bates had bought the club for “only a pound” in the Spring of 1982, we were still struggling to balance the books. On the rear cover of the programme, in a space reserved for sponsors, there is a stark message against a black, and blank, page :

“We’re known by the company we keep, we’d welcome your company on this full colour back page. For full details please contact the Club’s Marketing Department.”

It’s hard to believe I support the same club in 2022 where every square inch of the club’s body and soul is sold for profit.

The team was almost unchanged again, but with debutante Tony McAndrew replacing Clive Walker, although not by position. The game ended 1-1 with Micky Droy scoring for us in the fiftieth minute and then Gary Lineker equalising in the last five minutes. The gate was another respectable one of 14,127.

The old joke about the crowd changes being announced to the players at Stamford Bridge did appear in this case to be spot on.

I have one distinct memory from the game. I looked over to the Whitewall and the Middle and thought this :

“We may be in the Second Division with a slim chance of getting promotion, and this ground might look a third full but still around 15,000 supporters have gone out of their way to come and support the team today. There is something rather noble about that. It feels right that I am there.”

On the way back, I devoured the new book. I loved the introduction by athlete Seb Coe.

“Following the club could be as frustrating as chasing spilt mercury across a laboratory table.”

I was a quiet and world-shy teenager, but I remember a smile from within and me nodding in agreement, as if I was a footballing sage.

My diary for the day reports “probably one of the most boring games I have seen – a shame really after spending all that money.” There was talk of a party when I returned to Somerset although I am not sure where this was. My diary continues “enjoyed it, only slightly drunk, but soon sobered up.” It is probable that my father would have picked me up at the end of the night.

So there we have it. My twenty-fourth Chelsea game. My twenty-fourth Chelsea day. My Dad at the start of it. My Dad at the end of it. How I miss those times.

Forty Years Later.

The build-up to this game was way different. There was a drive to London with friends, a quick visit to Stamford Bridge to take some early scene-setting photographs, a spot of breakfast in the café and then my usual seat in the pub.

Outside Fulham Broadway, DJ had thrust a copy of “CFCUK” into my hands and I read a little of it in the café. While I waited for my food, I couldn’t help but notice the characters already sitting at tables. There was one loud voice, an American with the voice of a woman, sharing his thoughts a few tables away. Two English chaps close to me were deep in conversation and one appeared to be re-writing a script or manuscript of some description in between bites of a bacon sandwich. A group of younger folk were behind me, gregarious and chatty. The café owner, foreign by birth, my guess was Italian, bellowed orders and chivied his staff as if he was the conductor in an orchestra.

I devoured a piece in “CFCUK” by Walter Otton who wrote about his experiences of the Tottenham game which he watched in a pub after a tortuous day spent walking for miles and miles in the hinterlands of suburbia with friends. He detailed the people he observed while waiting for a train at Worcester Park, a station that I know well after parking at a mate’s near there for football between 1991 and 1993. I loved these words :

“To my right, I study a haunted young man with high cheekbones as he stares directly at his feet. He’s got the regretful face of man who last night had a vacancy sign up, but then he went and let the wrong person in.”

I messaged Walts to say how much I loved this. I had seen him briefly after the debacle at St. Mary’s on Tuesday.

I spent two-and-a-half hours in the cosy “Eight Bells” and I was surprised how quiet it all was at 11.30am. It took an hour to fully reach respectable figures. The Norwegians called in again, this time with an extra fan from Bergen, the wonderfully nicknamed Einstein. The Kent lads were close by, as were three young lads from Ilminster in Somerset who we had not seen before, but were dead chatty about the current malaise in the team. Steve from Salisbury appeared alongside Simon from Andover, another new face.

Andy and Sophie arrived and I spent some quality time at their table.

Andy and I raised a glass to “Ginger Terry.”

With a great deal of sadness, I learned on Thursday that Terry O’Callaghan had passed away that day. He was a lovely man, softly spoken, a true gent and was well-loved by those at Chelsea who knew him. I would bump into him at all sorts of odd, and far-flung, locations. He always stopped to say hello. Ironically, I first met Terry on a coach from Gothenberg in Sweden to Oslo in Norway alongside Andy for our match against Valerenga in 1999.

During the summer, I was shocked to hear of the passing of another of life’s good guys. I first met Henry Hughes Davies out in New York on a trip to see the New York Mets play a baseball game alongside around ten other Chelsea supporters. Unfortunately the game was rained-off but I remember how pleasant he was on that occasion and during the two or three other times I met him in “The Goose” with other US-based Chelsea fans. From London, Henry was killed in a road accident out in South-East Asia and it hit me hard.

RIP Terry.

RIP Henry.

I also, sadly, need to mention the passing of Depeche Mode member and life-long Chelsea supporter Andy Fletcher. During the summer, I attended a lecture by Chelsea Communications Director Steve Atkins at his former school in Warminster – he came across well – but the night was soured when, immediately after, I heard that “Fletch” had suffered a heart-attack and had passed away at the age of just sixty.

The music of Depeche Mode first thrilled me in 1982 – that year again – and has been a constant companion to me over the years. I have seen the band in 1993, 2001, 2006 and 2017.

RIP Fletch.

Andy, Sophie and I had a very enlightening “state of the nation” chat about Chelsea Football Club and other clubs.

How sometimes it can be a bit hard to get “up” for some games for example.

“I woke with the alarm at 5.45am this morning. I know exactly what you mean.”

How we have 22 million followers on Twitter yet we were outnumbered by Arsenal in Baku in 2019.

“They, Arsenal, are still the biggest club in London.”

How we only sold six-hundred for Dinamo Zagreb.

“Too early for me, for sure.”

How we might struggle to pack in 60,000 at a refurbished Stamford Bridge in light of Tottenham playing to capacity crowds at their new stadium.

“Saw some Tottenham at Fleet Services and also some at Putney Bridge tube, no doubt on their way to the Fulham game. Admittedly, there is the “wow” factor of a superb new stadium but their crowds have been constantly full-houses. They have a huge support in the home counties.”

How the pricing structure at West Ham is paying dividends.

“After a dodgy first season, they seem to have got it right. Full houses now, eh?”

How some Chelsea fans want Thomas Tuchel gone.

“But come on. We have only played five bloody games.”

How Sophie was looking for a spare for Crystal Palace in a few weeks.

“Might have one. Will let you know.”

We marched off to the tube station together and I spotted ex-England cricketer Alex Stewart chatting at Fulham Broadway.

I was inside with around fifteen minutes to go.

It was time to focus on the team.

Alas, a fleeting look at Billy Gilmour pre-match at Southampton on Tuesday would be the last that I would see of him in Chelsea colours. His permanent move to Brighton disappointed me. But at least this sad news was tempered by the fact that Armando Broja had signed a new multi-year deal. But, to our annoyance, Thomas Tuchel still went with the “after you Claude” false nine with Broja on the bench. A debut for Wesley Fofana in defence. We had all tried to remember if he had played against us in the 2021 FA Cup Final. I hoped for a more successful career for Wesley Fofana than Tony McAndrew. Mason Mount and Kai Havertz were both dropped and I was OK with that. It was generally accepted that in Southampton they were sinners, no saints.

No Jorginho, either.

A brave Tuchel?

Maybe.

Here we were :

Mendy

Fofana – Silva – Koulibaly

James – Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – Gallagher – Cucarella

Sterling – Pulisic

I had to laugh when Clive appeared in a claret-colured Stone Roses T-Shirt. Both PD and I were wearing light blue T-Shirts; Paul, Lambretta, me, Paul & Shark.

“Bloody West Ham.”

“Jesus.”

I thought back to a photo that I had taken in the hotel bar looking out onto the forecourt earlier in the day. The plastic flowers on show there were shades of purple in light blue vases.

Good job, I’m not superstitious, cough, cough.

West Ham kicked off and a high ball was pumped forward. After four seconds, the new boy Fofana had his first touch as a Chelsea player, a strong header putting the ball back whence it came.

Alan : “I hope Fofana is more Kante than Drinkwater.”

Clive : “Drinkwater had one good season for Leicester.”

Chris : “I had one good season. Summer 1982.”

It wasn’t much of a first-half. And the atmosphere was very poor for a London derby.

The highlights?

How about the lowlight first?

Marc Cucarella failed to beat the first man on two early corners down in Parkyville.

“Bloody shite, should be fined for that. No excuses.”

Despite our almost total domination of possession – it was absolutely all us in the first fifteen minutes – West Ham packed their defence solid and we soon seemed to look flat.

There was a shimmying run from Raheem Sterling into the box but the resulting corner was a Cucarella special.

Reece James out on the right fizzed a low ball into the danger area, pinball ensued, but Christian Pulisic’ effort was blocked for another corner.

Finally, we were treated to a flowing move with passes hitting runners into space.

Then, a low shot from Mateo Kovacic but he drove the ball just wide.

It wasn’t as bad as Southampton, but it was all pretty dire stuff.

I suspect that the first-half against Leicester City in 1982 was no better.

At the half-time break, the three of us posed in our claret and blue shirts, the shame.

For the record, during the first-half Kurt Zouma was neither clapped nor booed. It was if he had never played for us.

The second-half begun with a still woeful atmosphere in the stadium. I was surprised how quiet the three thousand West Ham fans were. I wasn’t surprised how quiet we were.

There was a clash between James and Michail Antonio; both booked. This stirred some emotions within the stadium.

At last, the atmosphere improved and it felt like a proper game of football rather than some computer-generated monstrosity.

There was a very loud and piercing “Amazing Grace” :

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

Exactly on the hour, Tuchel changed it around.

Armando Broja for Gallagher.

Mason Mount for Pulisic.

At the Shed End, a corner to West Ham.

Chris : “You know what’s coming.”

It was hoofed away by Reece James.

A second corner was fisted high and away by Mendy. The ball was then volleyed back at goal by Jarrod Bowen. This effort from distance was nervously palmed away by Mendy again. This was the first real scare for us, but also the only meaningful shot on target for either side. However, from the corner that followed, there was an almighty scramble with Mendy not exactly covering himself in glory. His jump and save from under the bar only kept the ball alive. The ball landed at the feet of a West Ham player who prodded the ball back into the six-yard box. That man Antonio slammed it in from close range.

Fackinell.

Thomas Tuchel’s doubters were sharpening their pencils.

The new man Broja was soon sniffing inside the box, and I was purring with his intent. We now had a natural striker up front, a physical presence, a predator. Whereas Sterling was like an eel, slithering into space, Broja was shark-like, ready to snap at anything.

On seventy-two minutes, another double-switch.

Kai Havertz for Kovacic.

Chilwell for Cucarella.

The noise levels were ever-increasing now. We prayed for an equaliser.

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

Havertz almost had an immediate impact, trying to reach a through-ball but Lucasz Fabianski foiled him with a brave challenge on the edge of the six-yard box.

Just after, a lofted chip from the cultured boot of Thiago Silva from deep found the on-rushing Chilwell down below us in The Sleepy Hollow. His head beat the rather stunted leap of two defenders and the ball dropped nicely for him to run onto. In the blink of an eye, he had touched the ball through the legs of a star-jumping Fabianski and I could hardly believe my eyes as the ball continued over the line.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Chilwell’s leap was perfect for me.

Snap, snap, snap.

He celebrated with Broja but I was impressed that nobody else joined in. There was business to be done. Top marks.

This was a real game now and the Chelsea hordes had now found their voices.

With four minutes to go, a huge scare and a massive “get out of jail card.”

Alan and I were actually mired in the middle of a pun fest.

Alan : “Surprised Cornet ain’t wearing number 99.”

Chris : “That’s a flaky comment.”

Alan : “Saucy.”

Chris : “You got hundreds and thousands of these, mate?”

With that, a cross from the West Ham left found the leap of that man Cornet but his free header hit the post.

Fackinell.

The game continued.

Broja was up against Vladimir Coufal down below us. He teased and cajoled the West Ham defender before finding some space with some fine control. His pass to Chilwell on the overlap was perfect. The ball was drilled into a packed box. Havertz was waiting to pounce.

BOSH.

Chelsea 2 West Ham 1.

GET IN.

I caught the celebrations on film too. Havertz brought his finger up to his mouth, no doubt a reaction to some doubters among the Chelsea support. I found it a little odd, a little disrespectful.

Was he right to do so?

Answers on a postcard.

But, directly after, West Ham broke and I watched aghast. This all happened so quickly. Mendy rushed out, went down, the ball ran to Cornet. He lashed it home.

Fackinell.

West Ham screamed :

“You’re not singing anymore.”

Back to 2-2, bloody hell.

But then, a delay, and it slowly became apparent that VAR was being summonsed. Yet again, the spectators in the stadium – no commentary for us of course, as if it needs to be stated – seemed to be the last to know what on Earth was happening.

Yep, VAR.

The referee Andrew Madley eventually walked over to the pitch-side monitor. I didn’t like the way that he was being hounded by players of both teams.

After an age – but with each passing second, I felt more positive – he signalled “no goal.”

I was relieved but honestly did not feel like celebrating.

Bollocks to VAR.

Elsewhere, the Chelsea support was howling :

“YOU’RE NOT SINGING ANYMORE.”

We hung on.

This wasn’t a great game of football, but we kept going which is all you can ask for. The stupor of the first-half gave way to a far more entertaining spectacle in the second-half as we loosened the shackles and played, what I am going to term, a more emotional type of football.

There were relieved smiles at the end, but only at the end.

I am not going to Zagreb, but Alan is going. He is one of the six-hundred. As he wriggled past me, I said.

“Have a great time in Croatia. You’d best split.”

He groaned.

Immediately after the game, we received texts from others…

It looked like we got away with murder.

Next up for me, our home away from home.

Little old Fulham.

See you there.

Tales From A Typical Day At The Office

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 27 August 2022.

There is one positive that came out of last Sunday’s humiliating defeat at Elland Road. As I stood in the upper section of our away area until the referee blew his whistle, I was at a low ebb, deflated. But it struck me that at least the fortunes of this great club still mattered to me. I was still emotionally attached to Chelsea. In an era when I am still occasionally doubting my devotion to the cause – have I ever said I hate modern football? – the defeat against Leeds certainly made me smart. I hated conceding three goals. It felt like a triple kick in the bollocks. I also hated us being the target of the large-scale piss-taking from those lads in the South Stand.

I also found it harrowing that many fellow fans had left the away enclosure way before the final whistle. I reacted that this was a further slight on my team, my club. However, as we sloped back to the car last Sunday, I realised that my season, only three games in for me, had been reset.

I was emotionally locked-in again. I cared.

Our next game would be at home to Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City, a bête-noire for us in recent years. On the face of it, this was a rather mundane match, but one that was engendering a new level of importance for me.

As an aside, my local team Frome Town were playing pre-season promotion favourites AFC Totton at home at the same time. I have commented before that there might well become a time when I have to choose between an important Frome Town game and a run-of-the-mill Chelsea game. This wasn’t going to be that occasion.

Chelsea needed me and I needed Chelsea.

Chelsea vs. Leicester City it was.

As an hors-oeuvre to the game, the Champions League draw had taken place on Thursday evening. We had briefly discussed options outside “The Drysalters” in Leeds on the Sunday.

“Bloody hell. Imagine Celtic. It would be like a military operation. We’d have to collect our match tickets in Motherwell and be flown in by police helicopter.”

On Thursday morning, I sent a message to a few friends.

“Milan and Glasgow please.”

With the San Siro due to be replaced by a new state-of-the-art stadium in its current car park, a visit to Milan was undoubtedly priority “numero uno” for me. With Milan and Inter in the draw, we had a chance. Even though I watched Internazionale play against Empoli in 1987 and Bologna in 1990, I unfortunately missed the Chelsea Champions League games in 1999 and 2011 due to work commitments. There was an earlier friendly in 1995 against Milan too, but that was never on my radar.

Parky and I were at a Chelsea wedding reception – congratulations Gemma and Ludo – on Thursday evening and as we stopped at a pub close to the venue in Maidenhead, I finally checked my ‘phone and was so pleased that we had drawn Milan.

Bloody magnificent.

We just had to wait for the dates to be finalised. My only doubt involved Matchday 2; there was already someone away on holiday from our small office that week. Surely work wouldn’t bugger things up for me yet again?

Saturday arrived. Alan would be unable to attend the Leicester game – work buggering things up for him on this occasion – and so Glenn was able to take his ticket.

In the low countryside around Frome, everything was shrouded in mist. Tree tops pierced the white blanket. It was a stunning scene. Away in the distance, the hills past Trudoxhill and Chapmanslade stood like islands above a white foaming sea.

At road level, thankfully visibility was fine. As I drove east, my car was fully loaded.

The two Glenns and Ron at the back, Paul and me up front.

“Some five-a-side team, this.”

The weather was decent, the chit-chat provided a lovely back-drop to my driving. All was good in the world. Glenn – he has a ticket for Southampton away, on his birthday, on Tuesday – will be starting a new job next week and he is happy about that.

“You played at the San Siro in the ‘sixties, right, Ron?”

“Yeah, we got through on the toss of a coin.”

It sent a shiver down my spine when I realised that one of my passengers had played against Milan legend, their golden boy, Gianni Rivera.

The pattern for pre-match at Stamford Bridge is well set these days.

I drop the boys off on the Fulham side of Putney Bridge. I park up on Bramber Road and walk down to Fulham Broadway with Ron, who dives off to wait at the hotel bar until his corporate gig starts. I have a chat with a few early risers and then catch the two-minute train down to Putney Bridge before joining up with the lads in “The Eight Bells.”

At Steve Smyth’s stall, I picked up a copy of “Soccer The Hard Way” by Ron Harris. It’s pretty rare so I didn’t mind paying a fair bit for it. I’m friends with Steve, so he kindly gave me a decent reduction. In an ironic twist, Ron’s petrol money helped to pay for it.

In case any Americans are getting excited about the use of the word “soccer” in the title of the book, I need to comment that for a decade or so, from the mid-‘sixties to the mid-‘seventies, the word “soccer” often appeared in the UK media; on TV programmes, in books, in magazines. I have no explanation for this. In the school playground and in the workplace, pub and stadium, it was always football.

There was a nice chat with Marco and DJ outside the “CFCUK Stall“ and I then made my way south.

There was a breakfast in the café opposite the tube station at 11am. There’s just something about a fry-up (I don’t have many for those concerned) in a London caff on match days. It’s timeless. I checked my phone to see that the Footballing Gods had smiled on me. Everything was clear for Milan in early October. Zagreb was just too early for me to get my head around it and work is busy at the moment. Salzburg is a likely trip too.

We’re lucky people.

I decided that I would check Milan flights and suchlike when I returned home later that evening but knew that all of the cheap deals would have been snapped up quickly.

I thought back to the first-ever time that I saw Leicester City play us. It was early on in the 1982/83 season. I will detail that game later this season, but as a lead-in to my memories of that season, our worst-ever, I am heading back to Sunday 22 August 1982.

I was mid-way through the Sixth Form at Frome College and hardly relishing the final year. I would take “A Levels” the following June. Emotionally, I was rather low. I was lamenting the departure of my first-ever girlfriend Julie who had moved away to the Reading area not long after we first started going out. For those wondering, these two facts were not linked. Smiley face.

Her father had been working in Bath for the Ministry of Defence but had taken up a new position in Berkshire. I needed some cheering up and I had talked my parents into taking me up to Stamford Bridge for a family day a week before the season began. I remember that I had asked Julie if she fancied coming along for the day, my Dad picking her up en route, but her letter that declined the offer resembled a bullet to my heart. The end was nigh. Her family were more into rugby anyway. It would never had lasted. Another bloody smiley face.

I have a feeling that my parents went shopping while I spent a few hours at Stamford Bridge. My memories aren’t particularly strong. I certainly remember getting quite a few autographs; assistant manager Ian McNeil and players Gary Locke, new signing Bryan “Pop” Robson, Mike Fillery, Alan Mayes, Bob Iles, Colin Pates, Gary Chivers, and Peter Rhoades-Brown. I remember I ascended the upper tier of the East Stand for the first time and thought that the old stadium looked an absolute picture.

There were funfairs and sideshows dotted around the stadium and the highlight was a practice match at three o’clock.

As a pre-curser to that, and I have no recollection of this, I was probably chasing players for autographs :

“Sherriff Danny Arnold Wild West Demonstration.”

No smiley face.

Tickets for the upcoming home game with Wolves started at £3.50 and the most expensive were £7.

I bought a photo of the squad. I loved that Chelsea shirt. I still have it,

The one thing I do recollect is a small chat with Colin Pates, amazed by the turn out.

“God, if it’s like this now, what will it be like if we actually win anything?”

Two years later Colin found out.

I strolled into the pub at about 11.30am. The boys had been in there since opening time at 10am.

We were soon joined by Even, Ray and Hans from Oslo who have been relatively recent additions to my Facebook friends list, lured in by this very blogorama.

Thanks boys.

It was a pleasure to spend some time with them. They are over for a week or so and will be at Southampton on Tuesday and at the West Ham game next weekend. They have all been Chelsea since the early-‘seventies. Ray and Hans are season-ticket holders in the MHL, and from what I could work out sit relatively close to the Kent Boys – Kim, Andy, Dan, Graham and more – who were nestled around another table in the boozer.

“I’ll try to keep a look out for you.”

Ray and Hans come over for fifteen to twenty games every season.

Top class.

We were joined by Sophie – fresh from her enjoyable trip to Milan of all places – and Andy and then we all left for the game at two o’clock.

Parky made his way to join his pals in The Shed. PD, Glenn and I continued on to the familiar stairs of the Matthew Harding. Inside, we were joined by Gary – who sits a few yards away from me in the MHU but is within earshot of those sitting in The Shed Upper – and Clive.

So, alongside me was Glenn, then Clive, then PD.

The Famous Four.

A Saturday league game at three o’clock. Weekends were made for this.

A typical day at the office.

Let’s go to work.

On the pitch, the team lined up with Edouard in goal, what seemed like a back four of Reece, Thiago Silva, Trevoh and Marc, a midfield of Ruben, Jorginho, Conor and Mase, with Havertz and Raheem up top. But it wasn’t always easy to see exactly who occupied what part of the pitch. Where’s my heat map when I need it? The Famous Four’s heat map was mainly four dots the entire first-half with one solitary excursion to the gents for Clive. Thomas Tuchel’s heat map must have been a single dot too, banished to the stands after the altercation with Antonio Conte after the last home game.

We attacked the Matthew Harding in the first-half. It always seems odd.

Early on, Raheem advanced centrally and rolled an absolutely perfectly-weighted ball into the path of Ruben – I expected a goal, I was up on my feet – but Leicester ‘keeper Danny Ward was able to recover and block well at his near post.

On twelve moments, we were awarded a penalty after a clumsy challenge on Ruben by Youri Tielemans – our 2021 FA Cup Final nemesis – and I was up on my feet again. For some reason, I immediately glanced around me and was shocked (shocked, I tell ya) to see that 90% of my close neighbours in the MHU were fully seated.

What? We have just been awarded a penalty! Good God. Has our support become that dull and unresponsive?

Ah, but maybe they knew something. After a few seconds, VAR was called into action. We waited with that dull ache of inevitably.

In the build-up, Kai had been spotted in an off-side position.

Those watching on TV at home – the important ones – probably had a much better view, and explanation, than us in the stadium.

We had definitely begun the better team, with Raheem buzzing about nicely, but then our play drifted and we lost a lot of intensity and Leicester came into the game.

I think I heard a “Dennis Wise is a wanker” chant from the Foxes. Answers on a postcard. I guess he wasn’t particularly liked when he played for them after leaving us.

On the half-an-hour, Marc wasted a corner on the far side and the ball was punted away. Conor then made a terrible lunge on Harvey Barnes in his own half. The youngster – again seemingly eager to impress –  had begun the game with a lovely crunching tackle, but I apparently missed a yellow that he had received earlier. This absolutely silly tackle was rewarded with a second yellow. While Clive fucked off to the little boys’ room, Conor fucked off to the dressing room.

Silly boy.

I lamented the fact that we were down to ten men for the second successive game and had mustered just one shot on goal in just over thirty minutes.

Next, Edouard jumped at a ball from corner and the appeared to fluff his lines completely. The ball was turned in but thankfully a foul on Mendy had been spotted.

On forty-two minutes, a ball dropped nicely for Reece but his powerful strike hit the angle of near post and cross-bar.

Two shots. Oh boy.

Next, a pass from Tielemans sliced through our last line and the advancing Jamie Vardy – his wife is a grass – scuffed his shot wide and this reminded me so much of the Kane miss a fortnight earlier.

This was a pretty poor performance from us. It was a pretty poor game. The atmosphere was not worthy of the name. Sigh.

I turned to Clive : “our link up play just doesn’t hurt anyone.”

Just before the half-time whistle, Dennis Praet was in on goal and there was a fear of impending gloom. Thankfully Edouard raced from his line and made a very fine save indeed.

At the break, the doom mongers were out, including me.

“0-0 – can’t see us scoring…”

One of the bright spots in the first forty-five minutes had been Trevoh’s solid showing. I said to Gal  “is Fofana really £70M better than Chalobah?”

As the second-half begun, I saw Dave in his number twenty-eight shirt, on the pitch. I missed the fine detail of the substitution. I soon worked out that Mason had been replaced and I realised that he had hardly played any part in the first-half. Weird times.

Dave played in a three with Reece and Marc moving to wing-backs.

After just two minutes of the second-half, the game changed. A very fine ball from Marc found Raheem in the inside left channel. A little shimmy, some space gained, and then a shot that was subtly deflected up and over the despairing leap of Ward in the Leicester City goal.

The crowd roared.

One-nil to Chelsea.

At last Stamford Bridge boomed.

“Sing when we’re winning? Yes.”

Soon after, another lucky deflection – this time on another Marc to Raheem pass – set things up nicely but his shot cannoned back off the far post with Ward well beaten.

I loved how Trevoh twisted in mid-air to stretch and head a dangerous cross out for a corner, his braids flying every which way.

A break from Ruben with Marc in acres of space outside him but he chose to continue on and attempt to beat a man, one of his “things” that annoys me. The ball was lost.

Half-way through the second period, we witnessed a fine move. Jorginho guided a ball out wide. Havertz, almost walking, played a ball forward into space down in Parkyville for Reece. His smart cross was zipped across the goal and Raheem was beautifully positioned to tap in.

Chelsea two-up.

Wow.

With no James Maddison, it was Harvey Barnes who was causing us a few problems. Not long after our second goal, he played a neat one-two with Vardy and smashed the ball past Edouard at his near post.

That wasn’t on the script. Fackinell.

This, then, set up a very nervy final quarter of the game.

There were worried looks in the Matthew Harding as the away team attacked our end. But it was a major plus that we possessed the calming influence of Thiago Emiliano da Silva in our defence. He was putting on another sublime performance. A sliding tackle on seventy-seven minutes was worth the admission money on its own. The applause boomed around the stadium.

I loved the way the home crowd got behind the team in those last nervy minutes.

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

There was a fine Mendy save from Barnes, down low.

Two substitutions :

Mateo for Jorginho.

Christian for Raheem.

These freshened things up nicely.

Late on, I spotted Ray and Hans in the MHL.

The most worrying moment occurred on eighty-two minutes when that man Vardy raced away and clear of Trevoh. Our last defender made a valiant effort to stop him, chopping high, but the ball ran on. He rounded Mendy but with a heavy touch. His slashed shot thankfully only hit the side netting.

Ben for Marc.

With continental-style whistling and the constant “CAM ON CHOWLSEA” combining for a deafening finish, Leicester broke through one last time. Ayoze Perez ran through and slammed a fierce shot goal wards. But Mendy had stayed tall, narrowing angles, closing free space, and the ball thundered against the underside of the bar.

Phew.

Four league games. Two wins. A draw. A loss. A solid start, nothing more.

I will see some of you at Southampton on Tuesday evening.

Gallery

Chelsea Norway

1982/1983

Tales From The Damned United

Leeds United vs. Chelsea : 21 August 2022.

We had to wait around eighteen years to attend a league game at Elland Road and we were then able to visit it twice in just shy of fifteen weeks.

Our last away game of 2021/22 and our second away match of 2022/23?

OK, so be it.

Let’s go to work.

In May, it was all rather rushed; a hard slog on the motorways of England after a half-day at work, and a quick meet-up at the pub before disappearing inside to witness a pretty decent night of football in front of the Leeds hordes.

This time was a little more relaxed. I was up at 5.45am and collected PD at 7am and then LP at around 7.20am. I stopped twice en route but arrived in the car park of “The Drysalters” on the Leeds ring road at 11.15am. The 240 miles had been covered in just four hours of driving. I was happy with that. The pub was allegedly scheduled to open at midday but it was already serving pints when we arrived. I soon spotted a couple of Chelsea acquaintances. Within a short time, the place was mobbed with both home and away supporters. It felt odd to be back so soon after the recent visit. Pints – double pints for the drinkers – were purchased and the weather outside was pleasant. Deano – from West Yorkshire, now Lancashire, but steadfastly Chelsea – soon arrived and joined us. I asked a copper to take a photo of us together.

“That’s ‘Crimewatch’ sorted” laughed Parky.

An Uber cab drew up outside and there was a bit of a commotion.

“Is that your pizza just arrived” I asked the two policemen.

Soon, Goggles from the Fulham branch arrived on the pavement.

“Alright Paul? Alright Parky?”

I still found it a little odd that this once “home fans only” pub now welcomed away fans, and that Chelsea songs were being heartily sung by a few. It wasn’t quite as noisy as in May though. The times have certainly changed over the last twenty years. Looking back to that game in May, I remembered the only trouble that we had encountered took place at Woolley Edge Services on the M1 after the game. Parky and I were drying our hands after using the facilities when we felt a splash of cold water directed at us from behind. Evidently, a Leeds fan must have spotted Parky’s little Chelsea badge on his polo shirt and had decided to take retribution after his team’s loss against a dreaded enemy.

Yeah, how times have changed.

Since my last Chelsea game against Tottenham last Sunday, I had seen two Frome Town games. There was a disappointing 3-3 draw at home to Willand Rovers in the league on Tuesday followed by a fine 3-0 away win at Buckland Athletic in the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup on the Saturday. The two footballing journeys of the weekend to Devon and West Yorkshire would total 650 miles – just over 1,000km for those reading in Ireland, the rest of Europe and Canada – and it is doubtful that I have ever driven further for two football games on consecutive days.

In May, I didn’t have time to attempt much of a look at Elland Road but, with tons of time to spare on this occasion, I set off with Deano at about 12.30pm. Deciding that the queues in the boozer were too long, PD and LP soon caught up with us. I walked past the stadium, past some stalls – there was already a healthy pre-match buzz – and up a footpath to a vantage point that looks down on the whole area.

Before a game in 1995/96, I had been drinking in the middle of Leeds with my Rotherham United mate Ian and his Leeds United pal from school days. We took a cab to Beeston and I remembered the short walk down that footpath, past the Old Peacock pub, and the grand old view that it afforded. I wanted to recreate a photo that I took before that game.

The walk up to Beeston was a good cardio-vascular workout for me. Once at the top, I positioned myself along a terraced street with the white steel roof supports of the huge East Stand in the distance. Down below, fans were winding their way down the footpath to the busy roads below. I took plenty of photographs. I was pleased with this. It set the scene nicely. Elland Road is a good three miles out of the busy city centre, and the vista afforded me from Beeston included lots and lots of greenery. Unlike stereotypical northern grounds such as Burnley and Blackburn Rovers, this stadium was never hemmed in among tight terraced streets. Beginning life as Leeds City, Leeds United then came to life in 1919 and have always played at Elland Road. It was an “out of town” ground before such stadia recently become de rigueur.

An odd fact; I always used to think that the home end – now the Don Revie Stand – from the ‘seventies and onwards was simply known as “The Kop” but only recently, the past few years, realised that it was known locally as The Gelderd End.

They love those classic white, blue and yellow bar scarves at Elland Road. They also love the iconic Admiral shirt from the mid-‘seventies. I must have seen a fair few before the game in May and I spotted many on this visit too.

Around Elland Road, street side electric boxes have been painted in various shades of white, yellow and blue depicting many of the club’s moments by local artist Andy McVeigh. Maybe that can be next season’s photo project.

I bumped into Deano outside the East Stand. This was once the largest capacity club stand in the UK, built during the 1992/93 season for the then champions, only for it to be overtaken by the other United along the other end of the M62 soon after. It holds some 17,000. I remember that at the 1995 FA Cup semi-final between Everton and Tottenham (4-1), there were Everton fans on three sides of the ground with all the Tottenham lot in the one stand.

I digress.

As fate would have it, I was sat – stood – in virtually the same place as in May. Last time, I was in seat 48 of the front row of the upper level of the main stand, the John Charles Stand. This time, I was in seat 50 of the same row. There was an empty seat so PD joined us.

The front five : Davidson, Phillips, Daniels, Parkins, Axon.

The sun was out and those opposite in the Jack Charlton Stand – the East Stand, the former Lowfields Stand and terrace, the family stand in the lower tier – must have felt that they were being baked alive. Everything was cool in the shadows of the away section.

Thomas Tuchel, unable to call on N’Golo Kante, selected the following team :

Mendy

James – Silva – Koulibaly

Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – Gallagher – Cucarella

Mount – Havertz – Sterling

We would again be using falsies up front and it was all or bust.

Leeds? It pains me that I didn’t recognise many of the home team. Such is my fading awareness of football outside of SW6 these days that my knowledge of opponents’ teams is scant.

I bet I can name most of that 1991/92 team though.

From memory…

John Lukic in goal.

Mel Sterland at right-back, Tony Dorigo at left.

Chris Whyte in the middle. Who was the other centre-back? Dunno.

The famous midfield of Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister, David Batty and Gary Speed, God rest his soul.

Upfront, Brian Deane and Lee Chapman.

With Eric Cantona as a late addition.

Who was that bloody centre-back? No, can’t remember.

Ah, it has come to me. Chris Fairclough.

I am pretty sure that their squad was the smallest-ever to win a league title. And it was also the last team to lift the Football League version.

Dear reader : football did not start in 1992/93.

Back to 2022/23, thirty years on.

The teams lined-up.

“Marching On Together” boomed.

Chelsea were wearing navy socks. Answers on a postcard.

It was both a lively and a scrappy start to the game. We were attacking the old Kop, once the home of the most vociferous section of the Leeds support, but now playing second fiddle to the rabid hard-core to our right in the South Stand, or rather the Norman Hunter Stand. Raheem Sterling went close early on after good link-up play. Then two chances for the home team, Daniel James and Jack Harrison getting shots in on goal.

I am not convinced that we will ever see the best of Ruben Loftus-Cheek as a wing-back, but we found him coming into the box on an angle. Unfortunately, he dallied too long and the space evaporated and he was soon confronted by three Leeds defenders who halted his progress.

The noise from both sections of the crowd was impressive.

“Dambusters” was aired in the John Charles Stand.

“Father’s Gun” countered in the Norman Hunter Stand.

Is there much of a rivalry these days? The problem is that we just haven’t played them enough in the past twenty years for that classic, almost legendary, rivalry to have held firm all of the way through those years. It was bubbling along nicely in the ‘nineties when both clubs were jousting at the top table, but Leeds then got themselves relegated.

Let’s say it’s a dormant rivalry, awaiting to explode, awaiting ignition. The battles off the pitch kept the rivalry at such an intense level in past times. Those lads who stood toe to toe in the good old bad old days are probably grandfathers now and not involved. The new breed is aware of the history, but there is simply no recent history.

Leeds were full of energy and closed us down as soon as we had the merest sniff of the ball.

I was celebrating wildly on a quarter of an hour when Sterling slotted home after a pass from Cucarella but the goal was called back for off-side. I felt a proper divvy. I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

On twenty minutes, a fine move ended with Mason Mount poking a shot at the Leeds goal but their ‘keeper Illan Meslier reacted well to keep it out.

We were edging possession but were not creating a great deal. I thought that Conor Gallagher was possibly trying too hard to impress and he found it difficult to knit things together. It did not help that Jorginho alongside him seemed to be slowing things down as soon as we sensed a break. There was one moment when he received the ball just inside our half with no Leeds player ahead of him for a good five yards. On receiving the ball, he reverted to type with that cradling of the ball and a slow movement to turn towards his defence and playing the ball back. Safety first was always his mantra.

“Attack you fucker.”

Koulibaly seemed to be rather discombobulated at times. He was bamboozled with the quick turn of pace from an unknown Leeds attacker and grabbed the player’s shirt in desperation. He was suitably booked.

“Embarassing.”

Then, a fucking calamity.

A Thiago Silva back-pass to Edouard Mendy. Everything seemed to be in slow motion now. There was a dither. He lost possession when an attempt to dummy the Leeds attacker Brenden Aaronson backfired and the ball was thumped into an empty net from mere inches.

Fucksake.

Mendy’s frustration was mirrored by that of ours. And then some. We have seen this before, right? And we have all commented before.

“Kick it away! Safety first! Get rid!”

As the scorer wheeled away in ecstasy, my eyes were unavoidably drawn to the scene to my right in the South Stand. It was madness. In all my times of going to football, I can never remember seeing such a reaction to any goal being played out in front of me. Bodies were falling in every direction. Limbs everywhere. Screams. Ecstasy. Complete madness.

It was – actually – despite the horrible sinking feeling of conceding a killer first goal a magnificent sight.

A horribly magnificent sight.

Fackinell.

Shockingly, just two minutes later, we conceded a second goal. A whipped-in free-kick from the Leeds left found the perfect leap from Rodrigo. His bullet header found the back of the net with ease.

Fuck.

There was another predictable riot in the South Stand.

Limbs again. I drew my camera and reluctantly took a photograph or two; sometimes, a moment simply has to be captured. Ugh.

Thirty-seven minutes had elapsed. Some Chelsea supporters in the lower tier, I noticed, left and did not return.

“Thanks then…”

I turned to Parky.

“Mountain to climb.”

We didn’t create much in the rest of the half, a Cucarella effort barely troubling the Leeds custodian.

Only Sterling was a half-success. Havertz and Mount were so quiet.

As the second-half began, there was a change to the system but this only became apparent after a while. We played with a four at the back. A nice piece of skill from Loftus-Cheek in front of us allowed a Cucarella effort on goal and we hoped for an upturn in our play. Yes, we dominated possession but didn’t really create too much. On the two occasions that we were in on goal, one on one, we not only misfired but both chances were offside anyway.

On sixty-four minutes, changes.

Christian Pulisic for Gallagher.

Hakim Ziyerch for Jorginho.

We now had Pulisic, Ziyech and Sterling to run and twist their way into dangerous positions. In theory. This never looked like a decent game plan to this casual observer. We needed a focal point, a Broja.

Pah. What do I know?

A low shot from James was turned around his post by Meslier.

We continued to dominate but Leeds gave us no time to develop anything worthwhile. Our jousting thrusts needed to be augmented by an occasional hammer at the heart of the defence. But our artillery was without suitable weaponry. A towering leap by Koulibaly – occasionally excellent blocks making up for his malfunctioning sat nav – from a corner was easily claimed by Meslier.

Our play stagnated. Leeds never stopped running.

It was to get worse. A rapid break down their left and a cross from James, and Harrison picked up the pieces.

The ground exploded again.

May : Leeds United 0 Chelsea 3.

August : Leeds United 3 Chelsea 0.

Yet more Chelsea fans drifted away.

Earlier, we had goaded the home fans with “you’ve only got one song” but this was an empty sentiment.

We were being out sung, and how.

“We are Leeds. And we’re proud of you.”

“All Leeds aren’t we?”

“Marching on together.”

“And shoot the Chelsea scum.”

At times, the noise was electric.

It was bloody horrible. Here I was, stood exposed in the front row of the top section of the away end in full view of the tormenting home support. Loads of Chelsea had drifted away as the game progressed. Gaps appeared in the seats.

“Your support is fucking shit.”

I stood silent. We had no answer. Our pants were being pulled down here.

I looked over at the three thousand in the South Stand – where I once stood when it was the away section in 2001 – and I could not help but notice that virtually all were in their twenties, virtually all were lads – by design? who knows? –  and all were up for it. We do not have a section like that at Chelsea and haven’t had one for decades.

And we were fair game. We had no real response to the piss-taking. We were being schooled both on and off the pitch. This was truly horrific.

I’ve attended games where we have been gubbed before – the 0-4 loss at Old Trafford in Lampard’s first game was particularly painful, Daniel James involved then too – but this one felt like one of the worst.

A Cucarella block averted a fourth after an effort on goal from Rodrigo. If anything, the noise increased further with the Kop now being heard too.

Ben Chilwell replaced Mount.

Then, a second yellow for Koulibaly.

Off he went.

Bollocks.

Azpilicueta for Sterling.

I had lost interest by then. I just wanted to get back to my car. I wanted to scoff that waiting Ginster’s Cornish Pasty. I wanted out.

At the final whistle, relief.

I chatted to a few friends close by, and we all agreed about the amazing antics and booming noise from the home fans.

Grudging respect.

This, though, was a deafeningly poor show from us.

So much for us playing with falsies up front. We just looked like tits.

Tales From Munich Day

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 19 May 2022.

The finishing line was in sight now. With Champions League qualification already achieved, the next target was to attain third spot in the Premiership, a position that I have been saying all season long would be our rightful place in May. If we couldn’t win the league, let’s at least finish as the pyramid’s top London team. And the pain of another FA Cup Final defeat was behind us now. But I did wonder how the exertions in the baking sun would impact on an already tired squad against Leicester City. I certainly wasn’t expecting a spectacle of scintillating football.

But this game, on this date, meant a little more than a run-of-the-mill match at the arse end of the season. On the tenth anniversary of our monumental Champions League victory in Munich, what no better way to celebrate than all of us being together for an evening game at Stamford Bridge.

I worked until 3pm. Dan, from Frome, joined us on the trip to London. Dan had taken my ticket for the Tottenham league game back in January when I was hit with a bug and this would be the first time that I would be sat with him at Stamford Bridge. He has played for my village team in the Mid-Somerset League for a few years now – I turned out in the reserves on a few occasions from 1978 to 1981 – and I was aware that the team had recently won three trophies.

PD drove to London and he made good time. Parky was with us too. It was a typical mid-week pre-match. First, a pizza for me on the North End Road at about 5.30pm. At the end of my meal, I spotted two tables of Chelsea supporters near the door and so approached them.

“Happy Munich Day!”

All four looked at me as if I had grown an extra head and I silently wished that I hadn’t fucking bothered.

I popped next door for a meet up with a few pals in the beer garden of “The Goose” and a nice and relaxing time ensued. A special mention to Kev from South Gloucestershire who was clocking up Chelsea game number 1,500 against Leicester City.

Great effort, mate.

This would be number 1,352 for me.

Finally, a quick chat with others in “Simmons”. Both boozers were as quiet as I have ever seen for a Chelsea home game. There were spares floating around all over the place. Daryl had recently enjoyed a wonderful trip up to the outer reaches of Scotland with his wife Pam, but it was typical that ninety-five percent of his recollections about the holiday detailed how he had bumped into Ally McCoist at a hotel on the Isle of Lewis, as far away from the mainland as it is possible to get.  Daryl confirmed that the Rangers legend is a Chelsea supporter,

Outside “Simmons” a pop-up bar has opened over the past six months and, with hindsight, we really ought to have added that to the itinerary too. “Biergarten” is a little bar in the style of those German Christmas market huts that now appear all over Europe, resplendent with light blue and white Bavarian flags and steins of beer. I recognised a couple of mates quaffing some lager at a table.

We were inside with a good ten minutes or more to spare, but there were too many yawning gaps everywhere, sanctions notwithstanding. It was clear that Leicester hadn’t sold their allocation of 3,000; it was nearer 2,000.

What with the sanctions hitting hard – still – I was pretty sure that the club would not be able to fly any of the glorious 2012 squad over and, indeed, the celebrations of Munich just involved a paltry video show on the TV screens before the entry of the teams. In days gone by, the sadly-missed Neil Barnett would have been in his pomp, and it annoyed me that the club had been unable to celebrate Munich in a proper fashion. Before the game, a huge crowd-surfing “tifo” – a bit of a misnomer really – appeared over both tiers of The Shed honouring Thomas Tuchel. However, could that not have waited until next season? We only had one opportunity to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Munich and it turned out to be a damp squib.

This was our Munich Day and we messed it up.

Typical Chelsea.

The fading sun again turned the light brickwork of The Shed hotel into a warmer hue and the sky was a mix of blue and white. I spotted the saddest of all Chelsea flags draped from the Shed and overlooking the West Lower. Kyle Broadbent and his father Tony travelled together to Munich on that iconic day ten years ago. Not many years after, Kyle died in a horrific accident at work, while labouring with his father. Then, sadly, Tony passed away from cancer. I did not know Kyle. Tony was a friend on “Facebook” and I met him once or twice in “The Goose.”

RIP.

The teams entered the pitch.

Thomas Tuchel chose this starting eleven :

Mendy

Rudiger – Siva – Chalobah

James – Jorginho – Kante – Alonso

Pulisic – Lukaku – Ziyech

Not too many changes from the marathon on Saturday; only two players were dropped, Mount and Kovacic.

I accepted that this might be a struggle from the start. People can moan all they like about “players on £100,000 a week playing two games in six days” but the sixty-three games this season must surely have taken its toll.

Leicester appeared in a jade green kit that looked half-decent. Thank God I only had to endure our jaw-dropping monstrosity for two more games this season.

The English Football Gods : “Sorry, Chelsea. You’re not collecting any fucking silverware this season looking like that.”

We attacked the Matthew Harding as the game began. I always feel uneasy when that is the case. The match got off to a slow start but one which we were easily dominating. However, after just seven minutes, a long throw out from Kasper Schmeichel into space down their right was not dealt with properly. Marcos Alonso dawdled and Antonio Rudiger dallied. Neil Maddison was able to move the ball in to space and – damn it, I hate it when this happens – I was in line with the flight of the ball and able to see a firmly-struck shot curve in at the very last moment. It was a superb strike. I guess that why they are paid hundreds of thousands of pounds per week.

In “The Goose” before the game, Andy from Nuneaton and I were talking about the noisy Leeds support the previous Thursday. I liked how they immediately got behind their team when they conceded the first goal.

“Just like we used to do. We don’t do that anymore.”

Well on this night, we did.

A loud and defiant “Carefree” echoed around Stamford Bridge and I liked that a lot.

I liked our response too. There was a trademark shot from distance from Trevoh Chalobah – “shooooooooot” – that Schmeichel – a thorn in our side, a hero in theirs, for years now – did ever so well to tip over. Then Kante won the ball and slid in Lukaku but a defender recovered with a sliding block.

But then we reverted to type and were guilty of the two Chelsea cardinal sins of the latter part of this season; runners not running, passers not passing.

Alan : “Jorginho has more square balls than Sponge Bob Square Pants.”

Midway through the half, I was stifling a few yawns.

“If they get a second, it’s game over, Al.”

I spotted advertisements for the upcoming US Tour splashed over the electronic signs at pitch-level.

16 July : Chelsea vs. Club America, Las Vegas, Nevada.

No thanks. I’m not a fan of Vegas. I hate it in fact. I prefer real cities.

20 July : Charlotte FC vs. Chelsea, Charlotte, North Carolina.

No thanks. I saw Chelsea play PSG there in 2015 and see no point in returning.

23 July : Chelsea vs. Arsenal, Orlando, Florida.

No thanks. Florida in the height of summer? Are you taking the piss?

On thirty minutes, a shot from Ziyech was blocked. From the corner that followed, Silva headed over. Five minutes later, Kante prodded the ball on to Reece James and – I was in line with the ball, but more enjoyable now – lofted a ball out wide towards the on-rushing Alonso. It was absolutely perfect.

“Have a bash, Alonso.”

Wallop. It was a trademark Alonso finish, another volley, another goal. That boy owns that part of the opposition penalty box, eh? I just wish he owned more of the defensive left-flank too.

The game limped along until half-time. I was sure that their only shot on goal the entire game thus far was the one from Maddison for their goal.

Sigh.

At the end of half-time, Dan left us in The Sleepy Hollow and watched from the front row of the MHU, utilising one of the many vacant seats nearby. Throughout the stadium, gaps were everywhere. This was easily the worst-attended game in recent memory. Sadly, Dan’s new prime viewing position did not mirror prime viewing. It was to be a sluggish half.

On fifty-two minutes, the much-maligned Lukaku showed great perseverance to win the ball back and push on down into Parkyville, but his low cross into the six-yard box went begging with nobody set to pounce.

“Shouldn’t he be in there, Al?”

A few minutes later, there were two weak Ziyech efforts. The first from a free-kick, the second after cutting in but hitting centrally. Then just after, Lukaku fed Pulisic with a square pass but much to everyone’s consternation, the patchy American made a complete hash of a relatively easy finish.

The crowd howled.

“Fucksakechels.”

We sought pleasure elsewhere.

“Jamie Vardy. Your wife is a grass.”

We had a few chances. We were absolutely dominating this half, even more so than the first. Leicester’s lack of desire was depressing.

A couple more efforts came our way. A glancer from Lukaku at the far post, wide, after a fine pass from Ziyech that really should have tested the ‘keeper. A shot from Rudi in the inside the box was then saved well by Schmeichel.

Some substitutions.

Dave for Christian.

Ruben for N’Golo.

Chalobah rose inside the box from a corner but his header was easy meat for the Leicester ‘keeper.

Kai for Romelu.

Time was running out now, and so were the chances. Havertz’ legs seemed to become entangled as he was fed by Ziyech inside the box, and couldn’t get his shot away.

However, with just four minutes remaining, Edouard Mendy needed to put down his crossword puzzle and come out to smother a rare, very rare, Leicester attack when it was case of one versus one.

In a show of solid defiance, despite the poor fare being offered on the pitch, the Chelsea choir were loud and constant during the closing minutes of the game.

“Chelsea. Champions. Chelsea. Champions. Chelsea. Champions. Chelsea. Champions. Chelsea. Champions. Chelsea. Champions. Chelsea. Champions. Chelsea. Champions.”

It ended 1-1.

On descending the steps to street level, a little gloom.

“We’ve not really pushed on this season.”

In the car back to Wiltshire and Somerset.

“More questions than answers at the moment.”

Tales From Stamford Bridge To Wembley

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 14 May 2022.

I am sure that I wasn’t the only Chelsea supporter who wasn’t a little fearful going into the 2022 FA Cup Final against Liverpool at Wembley. On the early morning drive into London – I collected PD as early as 6am – the feeling was of worry and impending doom. As has been proven by the league table – “the league table does not lie, it just sits down occasionally” – we are a fair distance behind both Liverpool and Manchester City this season, as we were last season and the season before it. Additionally, a defeat at the hands of the Scousers would mean a record-breaking third consecutive FA Cup Final loss. And that thought was just horrible too.

But, bollocks to all that, we were off to Wembley again and we kept ourselves contented with the usual badinage of wisecracks as I ate up the miles. I was hopeful that one of the great FA Cup Final weekends was upon us. We all live in hope, right?

But first, a walk down memory lane.

1972.

The first FA Cup final that I can ever remember watching took place in 1972. It was between Arsenal and Leeds United. My best friend Andy was an Arsenal fan, though I can’t honestly remember wanting them to win. I was a neutral. I can still remember a few bits about the day. I was six, coming up to seven, and already a mad-keen Chelsea supporter. I remember that it was the centenary of the first competition that took place in 1872, though of course not the actual one-hundredth final due to the wartime interruptions. I remember representatives of all of the previous winners parading around the perimeter of the old Wembley pitch with flags. I was proud to see the Chelsea flag. Leading up to the final, Esso were running a promotion celebrating the game. Collectible coins – to go in an album – were rewarded for petrol purchases. Suffice to say, I must have pleaded with my father to only fuel up at Esso for a few weeks. I still have the album, completed, to this day.

I remember Allan Clarke, from around the penalty spot, scoring with a diving header and David Coleman exploding “one-nil” as if the game was over at that exact moment. I can recall Mick Jones dislocating his shoulder as he fell awkwardly attempting a cross and hobbling up the steps to the royal box, bandaged like a mummy. Fifty years ago. Bloody hell. Looking back, this is the very first club game I can remember seeing live, though I am pretty sure the England vs. West Germany game just one week before it is the first full game I saw live on TV. Or at least the first I can remember seeing.

I think.

1973.

The FA Cup Final was huge in those days. It was the only club game shown live on TV – both channels – and would remain that way until 1983 apart from rare one-offs. On a trip to London in the autumn of 1973 we called in to see Uncle Willie, my grandfather’s brother, at either his house in Southall or at a nursing home at Park Royal (where my father would park for my first Chelsea game in 1974, but that is – and has been – another story.) After the visit, my father granted my wish to drive up to see Wembley Stadium. That I had not asked to see Stamford Bridge is surprising from fifty years away, but I am sure that my father would have been intimidated by the thought of traffic in those more central areas.

Wembley it was.

I can vividly remember sitting in his car as we wended our way up to Wembley. On that fateful cab trip to Wembley for the “aborted” FA Cup semi-final recently, I half-recognised the journey. I have always had a heightened sense of place and a recollection and memory of places visited in other times.

I remember Dad parking off Olympic Way and me setting eyes on the magnificence of the historic stadium. It sat on top of an incline, and the twin towers immediately brought a lump to the throat of the eight-year-old me. I remember walking up to the stadium, the steps rising to the arched entrances, the dirty-cream colour of the walls, the grass embankments. I veered left and possibly tried to peer down the tunnel at the East End, an end that would become known as the “lucky tunnel end” for FA Cup Finals over the next few decades. The stadium was huge. However, it needed a bit of a clean-up. It looked a bit grimy. But I loved the way it dominated that particular part of North London. The visit has stayed etched in my mind ever since even though I was only there for maybe twenty minutes.

“Come on Chris, we need to head home.”

I can almost picture my father’s worried look on his face, chivvying me on.

1997.

Our appearance in the 2022 FA Cup Final provided a perfect time to recollect our appearance in the much-loved 1997 FA Cup Final; the quarter of a century anniversary.

Here are my recollections.

The 1996/97 season was a beautiful one, but also a sad one. The death of Matthew Harding in October 1996 hit all of us hard, and the immediate aftermath was tough on us all. Remarkably, our spirits rose not so long after Matthew’s tragic death when we signed Gianfranco Zola from Parma. It felt like, in the same way that getting Mickey Thomas in 1984 completed that wonderful team, the signing of the Italian magician helped complete the team being assembled by Ruud Gullit.

The FA Cup run was the stuff of legends. I went to most games.

West Brom at home : an easy win, 3-0.

Liverpool at home : the greatest of games, losing 0-2 at half-time, we turned it round to triumph 4-2.

Leicester City away : a 2-2 draw, I watched on TV.

Leicester City at home : Erland Johnsen’s finest moment and a Frank Leboeuf penalty gave us a 1-0 win in extra-time.

Pompey away : a 4-0 win in the mist, I watched on TV.

Wimbledon at Highbury : 3-0, a breeze, Zola’s twist to score in front of us in the North Bank.

On the Thursday before the Cup Final itself, we watched Suggs perform “Blue Day” on “TOTP” and the pleasure it gave us all is unquantifiable. Everything was well in the world, or in my world anyway. In the January of 1997, I was given a managerial job in my place of employment, a bit more dosh to follow the boys over land and sea, and maybe even Leicester next time.

On the Saturday of the final, a beautiful sun-filled morning, Glenn drove to London with two passengers; our friend Russel, eighteen, about to sit his “A Levels”, and little old me. I was thirty-one with no silverware to show for years and years of devotion to the cause. We parked-up at Al’s flat in Crystal Palace, caught the train at the local station, changed at Beckenham Junction and made our way to “The Globe” at Baker Street via London Bridge. We bumped into a few familiar faces from our part of the world – can you spot PD? – and enjoyed a sing-song before heading up to Wembley Park.

Funny the things I remember.

Lots and lots of singing on the way to Wembley. We felt unbeatable, truly. Ben Shermans for Daryl and myself. Lots of Chelsea colours elsewhere. I had just bought a pair of Nike trainers and I had not worn the bastards in. They pinched my feet all day long. We posed for my “VPN” banner underneath the twin towers. However, I tried to hoist it once inside, using small sticks, but was immediately told to hand it all in at a “left luggage” section in the concourse. Our seats were low-down, corner flag. Unfortunately, I had a killer headache all bloody game.

The Roberto di Matteo goal after just forty-three seconds was insane. Limbs were flailing everywhere. Oh my fucking head.

The dismal 1994 FA Cup Final was recollected, briefly. For that game, we only had about 17,000 tickets and it seemed that all neutral areas were United. In 1997, all the neutral tickets seemed to be hoovered up by us. Not sure how that worked to this day. I remember virtually nothing about the game except for Eddie Newton’s prod home at our end to make it safe at 2-0.

When Wisey lifted the famous silver pot, twenty-six years of waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting were evaporated.

It was always going to be “Matthew’s Cup” and so it proved. At the time, it was the best day of my life. Since, I have had two better ones; Bolton in 2005 and then Munich in 2012. But for anyone that was supporting the club on Saturday 17 May 1997, it was a feeling that was pretty indescribable.

So I won’t even try. Just look at the fucking pictures.

After the game, I remembered to collect my banner but I don’t remember how we reached Fulham Broadway. It seemed that all of the bars around the stadium had closed. We weren’t sure if this was because there was no beer left or if the police had said “enough.” One image stays in my mind. The Fulham Road was still closed for traffic and a sofa was sat in the middle of the road. Thankfully, we de-camped to our pub of choice that season, The Harwood Arms, and Pat and his three “Sisters of Murphy” let us in.

If there is a more blissful photo of Chelsea fans from that day – Neil, me, Daryl, Alan, Glenn outside the pub – then I would like to see it. We made it back to South London via Earls Court and God knows where else. We watched the game, taped, when we reached Alan’s flat late that night. We fell asleep happy.

On the Sunday morning, the big man made us breakfasts. We all hopped into Glenn’s car and made our way back to Fulham with “Blue Day” playing on a loop the entire day. Both Alan and I took our camcorders for the parade. The film I have of us driving along Wandsworth Bridge Road, Chelsea bunting everywhere, is a wonderful memory of another time, another place, lost in time.

We plotted up outside the old tube station. The double-decker with Chelsea players stopped right in front of us. Photographs. Film. Everyone so happy. Fans wedged on shop roofs. Almost hysteria. Chelsea shirts everywhere. A wonderful weekend.

2022.

I made good time heading East. The roads were clear. As I was lifted over the Chiswick flyover, we all spotted the Wembley Arch a few miles to the north. Maybe it thrills the current generation in the same way the Twin Towers used to thrill others…

In the pub against Wolves, some friends from the US – step forward Chad, Josh and Danny – said we could kip in their AirB’n’B for the Saturday night. The plan was, originally, for me to drive up and back and therefore be unable to partake in a few bevvies. This kind offer solved that problem. But this wasn’t just any AirB’n’B…this was a little studio flat right underneath the old Shed Wall at Stamford Bridge.

“From Stamford Bridge To Wembley” was about right.

But first a magic breakfast at a café in Hammersmith.

Sausages, fried eggs, baked beans, bacon, hash browns, mushrooms, two rounds of toast and a mug of Rosie Lea.

I looked over at PD.

“I say this so often. Hope this ain’t the high spot of the fucking day.”

We weren’t sure.

I drove to Baron’s Court, parked up, then we caught the tube to Fulham Broadway. We soon bumped into the Minnesota Triplets. We left our bags in the apartment and set off. The Americans were waiting, nervously, for their tickets to arrive via royal mail post.

Time for a photo outside the Bovril Gate.

“From Stamford Bridge To Wembley.”

I had planned a little pub-crawl that mirrored the one in 2018 that we had enjoyed before our win against Manchester United. We made our way to London Bridge. “The Mudlark” next to Southwark Cathedral was closed, so at just after 11am we made our way to one of London’s glorious pubs “The Old Thameside Inn” where we met up with Russ from Melbourne, the Kent boys, Steve from Salisbury, Dan from Devon and the three Americans. The weather was red hot. There were the usual laughs. After an hour or so, we sought shade in “The Anchor At Bankside”, another riverside favourite.

Six pints of “Peroni” hardly touched the sides.

But we were still all loathe to talk about the game.

Thankfully, I had seen very few Liverpool supporters at this point; just one in fact.

At around 2.15pm, we set off for Wembley. A Jubilee Line train from London Bridge took us straight up to Wembley Park, a repeat of 1997.

I lost PD and Parky, and walked with Steve up towards Wembley for a while. Whether it was because of the abhorrent abundance of half-and-half scarves being worn by many, or the fact that the famous vista of Wembley from distance is no longer as spine-chilling as in decades gone by, or just…well, “modern football”; I was having a bit of a downer to be honest.

Wembley is now absolutely hemmed in by flats, hotels, restaurants. There is no sense of place about the new gaff at all.

After my issues with getting in against Palace, this one was easy. No searches, straight in. I took the elevators up to the fifth level, with no bloody Scouser sliding in behind me like at the League Cup Final.

We were in ridiculously early, at about 3.30pm or so.

I was so pleased to Les from nearby Melksham. He had ‘phoned us, distraught, at 6.30am and asked us to keep an eye out for a spare. His ticket had gone ten rounds with his Hotpoint washing machine the previous evening and was much the worse for wear. Thankfully, he kept the stub – there’s a stub? – and Wembley were able to reprint it.

As the seats filled up around us, a surprising number of friends were spotted close by.

The two Bobs, Rachel and Rob, Kev, Rob Chelsea, Dave and Colin.

I was, in fact, in a Wembley section that was new to me; the north-east corner of the top tier. This would be my twenty-fourth visit to Wembley with Chelsea apart from the Tottenham away games. Of the previous twenty-three, I had only been seated in the lower deck on five occasions. And the East/West split has provided vastly differing fortunes.

The West End 14 : Won 11 and Lost 3

The East End 9 : Won 4 and Lost 5

So much for the lucky “tunnel” end. The West End at new Wembley was clearly our luckier-end.

Pah.

The seats – the ones in our end, or at least the ones in the lower tier, would be baking, with no respite from the sun – took ages to fill up. It annoyed the fuck out of me that every spare foot of balcony wall in the Liverpool end was festooned with red flags and banners. Our end was sparsely populated.

Chelsea tend to go for geographical locations on our flags honouring fan groups in various parts of the UK and beyond.  Liverpool tend to go with white text on red honouring players and managers. Obviously, you never see St. George flags at Anfield, nor at Old Trafford for that matter.

The kick-off approached.

With about half an hour to go, we were introduced to a spell of deafening dance music from DJ Pete Tong, who was visible on the giant TV screens, seemingly having a whale of a time. The noise boomed around Wembley. This annoyed me. Rather than let fans generate our own atmosphere in that final build-up to the game, we were forced to listen to music that wasn’t football specific, nor relevant to anything.

It was utter shite.

“Pete Tong” infact.

With minutes to go, the Liverpool end was packed while our end had many pockets of empty red seats. Surely not the biggest ignominy of all? Surely we would sell all our Cup Final tickets? I had a worried few minutes.

The pre-match, the final moments, got under way.

The pitch was covered in a massive red carpet. Ugh. More bloody red.

I joined in with “Abide With Me” though many didn’t.

“In life. In death. Oh Lord. Abide with me.”

The only surprise was that said DJ didn’t mix it with a Balearic Anthem from the ‘eighties.

With the teams on the pitch, and Chelsea in all yellow – why? – it was now time for the national anthem. Again, I sang heartily along to this even though I am no fervent royalist. I wanted to be respectful and to add to the occasion.

With my awful voice booming out, I did not hear the Liverpool end booing it. But I was soon reliably informed by many that they were.

There was a time in the ‘seventies, at the height of the era of football fans revelling in being anti-social, that supporters often sang club songs over “God Save The Queen” but no team actually booed the national anthem at Cup Finals.

Liverpool seem to love doing it. It’s their “thing.” And while I can understand that some sections of the United Kingdom feel unloved and disenfranchised, it is this feeling among Liverpool Football Club supporters of them being “special cases” that grates with me and many. Do supporters of clubs from other currently and previously impoverished cities throughout England take such great pleasure in such “anti-Royal / anti-establishment” behaviour?

Save it for the ballot boxes, Liverpool fans.

Stop besmirching the name of your club and your city.

As Tracey Thorn once sang “narrow streets breed narrow minds” and there must be some awfully narrow streets around Anfield.

There were flames as the pre-match nonsense continued. It meant the opening minutes of the game was watched through a haze.

Those seats were still empty in our end.

FUCK.

We lined up as below :

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

James – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Lukaku – Pulisic

A big game for Trevoh. A big game for Christian. A massive game for Romelu. Happy to see Mateo starting after his gruesome injury at Leeds United.

Liverpool began very brightly, attacking us in the east, and at the end of the first ten minutes I was supremely grateful that they were not one, or more, in front. They peppered our goal. We were chasing shadows and other clichés. However, Chalobah did well to recover and thump a goal-bound shot from Luis Diaz away from inside the six-yard box after Edouard Mandy had initially blocked the shot. A rebound was flashed wide. At the end of this opening flurry, I counted five decent attacks from the men in red.

We were hanging on.

Thankfully, ten minutes later, all of our seats were now occupied.

That temptation of “one last pint” at Marylebone is always a tough one.

I have often thought that our current team lacks a little personality, undoubtedly compared to certain teams that we have known and loved over the years. It often feels the current crop are missing charisma – even Quaresma would be half-way there – and I really wanted the team to show some mettle and get back into this game. The Liverpool fans were by far the loudest in the opening quarter and I wanted us, the fans, to show some charisma too.

We improved, both on and off the pitch.

A decent move down the right, probably the best of the match thus far, involving James and Mount set up Pulisic but his delicate shot rolled just wide of the far post. Next up, Pulisic set up Alonso but Alisson blocked after a heavy first touch from our raiding wing-back,

Chelsea were now much louder while Liverpool had quietened down considerably. It became a cagier game in the last part of the first-half, but I thought it a good game. This is however based on the fact that we weren’t getting pummelled, that we were in it.

My worst, worst, nightmare was for us to lose…pick a number…3-0? 4-0? 5-0?

But this was fine. Silva was looking as dominant as ever. With him in the team, we had a chance right?

More of the same please, Chelsea.

Into the second-half, we blitzed Liverpool in the opening few minutes, mirroring what had had happened in the first-half, though with roles reversed.

A smart move allowed Alonso, always a threat to opposing teams in the opposition box, but so often a threat to us in our own box, drilled one wide. Pulisic then wriggled and weaved but Alisson again foiled him. The scorer against Arsenal in 2020 – a game I often forget about for obvious reasons – was getting into good positions but needed to find the corners.

The third of three decent chances in the first five minutes of the second-half came from a free-kick from a tight angle, with Alonso slamming a direct hit against the crossbar.

“Fucksakechels.”

The wing-backs were often the focal points, and we were finding space in wide areas. This was good stuff.

Diaz screwed one just wide.

“CAREFREE” absolutely boomed around Wembley.

A young lad standing behind me initiated a loud “Zigger Zagger”; good work, mate.

We were in this game. All along, I had toyed with the Football Gods by silently wishing for a penalty shoot-out win as revenge for this season’s League Cup Final defeat.

The game continued, but we couldn’t quite keep the attacks going. There were only half-chances. But I still thought it a decent tight game.

On sixty-six minutes, N’Golo Kante replaced Kovacic.

Diaz, again a threat, bent one wide of the far post.

A few players were looking tired now, as was I. My feet were killing me. With less than ten minutes to go, Diaz cut in on our left and slammed a shot against Mendy’s near post.

A largely ineffectual Lukaku was replaced by Hakim Ziyech with five minutes to go.

A deep cross from the horrible Milner, on as a substitute, evaded everyone and David Robertson hot the back post. Another curler from Diaz always looked like going wide. It is so weird that even from one-hundred yards away, the trajectory of shots can be surmised.

I guess I watch a lot of live games, eh?

The referee blew up for full-time.

My wish for penalties – down our end please – looked a strong possibility.

The red end sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before the first-period of extra-time and we prepared for an extra thirty-minutes of terror.

Football, eh?

More tired bodies on the pitch and up in The Gods. The two periods of fifteen minutes were not of high quality. Were both teams hanging on for penalties? Were we all?

We went close from a cross on the right but a Liverpool defender hacked it away before Pulisic could make contact. I loved how Kante chased down a Liverpool attack out on their right. What a player.

I painfully watched as Alonso just didn’t have the legs, try as he might, to match the pace of his marker as a ball was pushed past him.

Dave replaced Chalobah and Ruben replaced Pulisic.

The players were now dead on their feet and so was I.

Then, a bizarre substitution in the last minute of the game.

Ross Barkley for Ruben.

I think that I last saw him at Bournemouth, pre-season.

The referee blew up.

Another 0-0.

I got my penalties, and – thankfully – at our end too. I hoped that Liverpool would lose in the most tragic way possible.

Alas, alas…

We began OK with Alonso striking home. Then Thiago scored. Dave hit the post and our world caved in. I was dumbstruck as I saw more than a few Chelsea fans walk out. Wankers. We then exchanged goals – James, Barkley, Jorginho – with Liverpool but with their last kick, Sadio Mane’s strike was saved low by Mendy.

Hugs with the stranger next to me.

He beamed : “That’s for those that walked out.”

Sudden-death now.

Ziyech : in.

Jota : in.

Mount : saved.

Tsimikas : in.

We were silent. The Liverpool end roared. Red flares cascaded down onto the pitch. We trudged silently out, up to Wembley Park, a horrendous wait in a warm train, oh my bloody feet, and back – trying to rely on gallows humour to get us through – eventually to Earl’s Court for a few drinks and some food. It was our year in 1997 but not in 2022.

Nor 2021.

Nor 2020.

Three FA Cup Final defeats in a row. We have now played in sixteen of them, winning eight and losing eight. After our dominance from 2007 to 2012 – four wins – we need our fucking lucky West end back.

The three of us eventually got back to Fulham Broadway at about 10.30pm and met up with Josh, Chad and Danny.

From Wembley to Stamford Bridge, the return journey over, we fell asleep under The Shed Wall.

1997

2022

Tales From The John Charles Stand

Leeds United vs. Chelsea : 11 May 2022.

This was it, then. The long-awaited trip to Elland Road. My last visit was towards the tail end of the 2000/1 season, although the club’s last League visit was in 2003/4. I didn’t go to the League Cup game in December 2012; it came too soon after the jaunt to Japan. Of course, last season the game was behind closed doors, a phrase that I hope that we never have to hear ever again.

Was I looking forward to it?

“By heck as like” and other Yorkshire clichés.

As soon as the weekend had finished and the collapse against Wolves was behind me, I could not wait to be pounding the tarmac once more. I had booked two half days for this one. I left work at midday and deviated south to collect Parky and then PD. We set off from Frome at just before 1pm. It was a 7.30pm kick-off in West Yorkshire. Plenty of time.

It was mainly a decent enough trip north. There were rain showers to start but these cleared soon enough. The rest of the journey was spent with me gazing at a Simpsons sky and hoping that any ominous billowing and darkening clouds on the horizon would not ruin our trip. We stopped at Strensham, just south of Worcester, on the M5 at around 2.30pm and then at Woolley Edge, just north of Barnsley, at around 5pm. We then hit a fair bit of slow-moving traffic which meant that our arrival time at “The Drysalters” pub by Elland Road took place at 6pm rather than the envisaged 5.30pm. I dropped the boys off in the pub car park and soon found a cheap place to park nearby.

As I locked my car, a Leeds fan called out.

“Here we go again.”

I replied “yeah, maybe.”

“The Drysalters” pub is well known to me. I have parked in the car park on two occasions before. We soon spotted Deano, and his son-in-law Steve – a PNE fan – and also three lads from Wiltshire. The three amigos from Northampton were drinking outside in the sun too. There were Chelsea fans everywhere. This sort of scenario would not have happened in the ‘eighties or even ‘nineties when survival was the key pre-game buzzword. Next, Josh appeared with a pint of Diet Coke for me, along with his two mates from Minnesota, Chad and Danny.

A younger set of Chelsea fans were loudly singing the praises of Thomas Tuchel, Thiago Silva, Timo Werner and Edouard Mendy.

“He comes from Senegal.”

After just one drink apiece to quench our thirsts, we walked over to Elland Road.

Previous visits came to mind.

The first one came in early May 1987. One of my mates at college, Bob, was a Leeds United supporter and had visited Stamford Bridge with me to see a couple of games in 1985/86 and 1986/87. It was time for me to repay the honour. We travelled up by train from Stoke, had a couple of pints near the central station and watched Leeds beat West Brom 3-2 in their final home game of a Second Division season. The gate of 24,688 was their highest that season. What do I remember? The day began with an excellent pint of Sam Smith’s bitter in the pub beforehand. We watched with all the Leeds loons in the infamous South Stand. I remember a pitch invasion at the end and John Sheridan being carried on fans’ shoulders. And of course I remember them singing about us.

“Shoot the Chelsea scum.”

That season would end disappointingly for Leeds. They had already lost to Coventry City in an FA Cup Semi-Final at Hillsborough and they would go on to lose in the play-offs to Charlton Athletic.

My first visit with Chelsea was in September 1988 when both clubs found themselves in the Second Division again. I was working in the cold store of a local dairy and as was the case with my other long trips north by train that season – Stoke City and Manchester City too – I was coming off a night-shift. I remember struggling to stay awake on both legs of the journey to Leeds. We were yet to win a match after five games in the league and the match at Elland Road – with me watching in the South Stand, now given to away fans much to the consternation of the locals – would be a tough test. Thankfully, an early John Bumstead goal – off his ‘arris – and one from Gordon Durie gave us a surprising but deeply enjoyable win. I don’t remember any trouble at that game despite hundreds of Leeds fans milling around as we caught buses back to the station from right outside the away end.

Next up was a game in November 1995 in which I drove up from Somerset, met up with my mate Ian – Rotherham United – at Stafford and watched from the main stand using tickets that Bob, I think, had bought for us. It was a pretty decent performance and I believe I am correct in saying that it was the first time that Glenn Hoddle had switched to us playing with wing backs – Dan Petrescu and Gareth Hall – outside a back three – Erland Johnsen, David Lee and Michael Duberry – only for us to succumb to a late sucker punch from the boot of Tony Yeboah. I can’t recollect moving a muscle when Leeds scored that goal. Having a mate from South Yorkshire next to me probably disguised my allegiances.

A year later, in December 1996, a Sunday game – live on the TV – and a meek 0-2 loss to a Leeds United team that included Ian Rush. He even scored against us. We were pushed up into the quadrant of yellow seats by the South Stand for this and I can remember our away following was awful, maybe only around 1,000. It was a long old drive home that Sunday evening with work in the morning.

My final visit took place in April 2001. I had driven up with Glenn and had collected Alan at Stafford en route to save the boy some money. I often did that in those days. Leeds United were a force to be reckoned with at that time. We were back in the South Stand, played decently enough but lost 0-2 to two very late Leeds goals from Robbie Keane and Mark Viduka, with the goals coming in the final five minutes. A tidy roast at Brighouse after the game almost made up for our defeat.

With relegation threatening Leeds, I decided to make the most of my visit to Elland Road and sped off to take some shots of the stadium. If relegation follows in a few weeks, who knows when I would return. It really was hard to believe I was last outside the South Stand over twenty-one years ago.

Many home fans were wearing the iconic bar scarf from the ‘seventies. I have to say – and my pal Gary agreed with me at the game – that it still looks class. Those tri-colour bar scarves of Leeds United – white, yellow, blue – and Manchester United – red, white, black – and even us – red, green white – were fantastic. I remember the “smiley” badge too, a real ‘seventies classic. Gary and I would mention the Admiral kits. They defined the mid-‘seventies. And the numbered tie-ups on the socks. They were unique. I remembered the “Leeds United AFC” frontage to the West Stand. Bob and I were photographed outside there in 1987, me with a jade Marc O’Polo sweatshirt, one of my favourites, and of course it brought back memories of that classic scene from “Porridge” too.

I spotted a few columns of ‘seventies concrete as the South Stand disappeared around a corner. That a few pillars of brutalist architecture should please me so much is something that I don’t really want to dwell on too much, but it is a sure sign that on these away trips to altered stadia there is no doubt that I love seeing hints of a past.

“The Old Peacock” pub – as iconic a Leeds United sight if ever there was – is now temporarily renamed “The Bielsa” and I remembered walking down the hill towards it from Beeston for the 1995 game, deposited there in a taxi with Ian after a drink in the city centre. There’s a statue of Billy Bremner on the corner, with floral tributes all around. The East Stand is huge. It was built in 1993 on the site of the Lowfields Stand. For a short time, it was the largest stand in the United Kingdom, holding some 17,000, before being overtaken by Celtic and then Manchester United. I can remember the whole of Elland Road being shunted twenty yards to the north in around 1972 with the South Stand being built.

It was time to get inside.

There was a bag check outside the away turnstiles and my SLR was waved through. The old main stand, the West Stand, is now named the John Charles after the Leeds United – and Juventus, among others – centre-forward. I made my way upstairs…the steps were carpeted, as was the away bar area.

Carpets in the away end. In Yorkshire.

Whatever next?

I had a cracking seat. Parky, Gary, Alan and I were in the very front row of the upper section. Sadly, the shunting of the pitch in the early ‘seventies meant that those to my far right – geographically, not politically – were left with a shocking view of the pitch, way past the goal line. I had a great view and even I was behind it.

I spotted many familiar faces. It was lovely to see so many mates.

The sun was still out, catching the East Stand and making it come alive. I looked around. The Kop is now the Don Revie Stand. The East Stand is now the Jack Charlton Stand. The South Stand is now the Norman Hunter Stand. They still dote on that ‘seventies era. It is as if Howard Wilkinson’s League Championship in 1992 never happened. Oh wait, the away bar at Elland Road is called “Howard’s Bar” and that seems a mite disrespectful.

I would talk to Gary about that team during the game.

“Great midfield. Gary Speed, David Batty, Gary McAllister, Gordon Strachan. Had it all.”

“Fanfare For A Common Man” was played on the PA, just like at Wolves. Then came the Leeds anthem “Marching On Together.” Despite my dislike of Leeds throughout my life, my friendship with Bob and Trev – mentioned in a Brentford game this season – means that I am afraid to admit that I knew the words to a few of the songs I would hear during the evening.

The teams entered the pitch.

Leeds in all white. Chelsea in all blue.

Stay still my beating heart.

Our team?

Mendy

Christensen – Rudiger – Chalobah

James – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Pulisic – Lukaku – Mount

Pre-match, I feared the worst. I need not have worried. We began so brightly and, with memories of Johnny B’s early goal in 1988, we were soon jumping around like fools. A fine move down our right and the ball was played in sweetly by Reece James for Mason Mount, shades of Frank Lampard at his peak, arriving at just the right time to strike the ball firmly past the Leeds ‘keeper Illan Meslier, aged twelve and three-quarters. Mase raced over to wind up the Leeds fans in the far corner.

Ha.

Alan and I resurrected our “THTCAUN / COMLD” routine.

We were playing some lovely expansive stuff and were finding lots of space out wide. We were playing one-touch football where we could, and I had to ask Alan for some smelling salts. To their credit, all of the Leeds fans in The Kop, the stand opposite and the South Stand – old habits die hard – were standing throughout, and contrasted wildly to the Everton fans in the Park End a couple of weeks ago.

“Marching On Together.”

We were purring, and Lukaku was much improved. His movement, his work rate, his involvement. It was good to see.

On around twenty-five minutes, Daniel James – a scorer in that horrible 0-4 loss at Old Trafford in 2019 – scythed down Mateo Kovacic, who up until that point was arguably our best player, and I told Gary “I reckon that’s a red.”

The referee had soon made up his mind.

Red.

Kovacic, full of running, could run no more. After trying to run off his injury, he was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

“That might mean less movement, Gal.”

But again I need not have worried. A super run from the sub soon after looked so graceful and it certainly cheered us.

From the Chelsea choir :

“Leeds. Leeds are falling apart. Again.”

There was a glancer from Lukaku on thirty-three minutes that narrowly missed the far post. This was heart-warming stuff indeed. The cross had come from the trusted boot of Reece out on the right, who was finding even more space to exploit. The exact same could be said of Marcos Alonso on the left.

In our packed section, we were at our Dambustering best.

“We all fucking hate Leeds.”

Kalvin Phillips then hacked down Christian Pulisic. This game was living up to the hype, an old-fashioned affair with pulsing runs from deep, mis-timed tackles, battles in key areas.

I turned to Alan : “remember that game at Chelsea in 1997 when they had two sent-off?”

When the home team was rewarded with a rare corner in front of me, I was surprised that the home fans didn’t respond with their old “Leeds! Leeds! Leeds! Leeds!” with associated chest beating. That must have fallen from grace since my last visit.

They had, instead, turned into a crowd of scarf-twirlers.

The game was halted for a good few minutes when it became apparent that there had been a medical emergency in the lower section of the away support to my left. Sadly, the home fans sung throughout and even dirtied their name further with a couple of offensive comments about “soft southern bastards.”

On a day that marked the anniversary of the Bradford Fire, this sadly reminded me of a typically shocking moment involving Leeds supporters in the autumn of 1986. Sixteen months after the fire at Valley Parade in May 1985, and with Bradford City hosting Leeds at the Odsal Stadium, some Leeds fans set fire to a chip-van high on the terracing at one end of the stadium.

To this day, I am left shaking my head.

Just at the end of the half, Trevoh Chalobah sent in a scuffler that went wide of the Leeds goal.

It was a fine first-half performance, but was I the only one who was a little worried that we hadn’t created more chances?

The second-half began with Chelsea even more on top and full of running against a Leeds team that were looking like they had already given up on the game, on survival, on life itself. But the home fans were still singing. To be fair, we couldn’t hear the other stands, but from the evidence from The Kop – no gesticulating, no clapping in unison, nowt – it as just the rabble to our right that were making the noise.

“The Yorkshire Republican Army. We’re barmy. Wherever we go. We fear no foe.”

Two chances showed our intent. A header from Lukaku was high, a volley from Loftus-Cheek went wide.

Then, on fifty-five minutes, a beautiful move involving Jorginho and Mount set up Pulisic on the edge of the box. He took a touch…I said out loud “he can find the corners” and my pulse quickened…

The low shot was perfectly struck, down low, to the left, “corners.”

GET IN.

The scorer almost grabbed a second, curling one just wide and as I found myself looking up at the TV screen to my right, both he and myself were pulling the same pained expression.

Next up, Lukaku – full of spirit – took on his marker and rifled just wide too. His play was getting better and better. Yet only as recently as just before the Wolves game had kicked-off, Oxford Frank and I had binned him off.

There were wildly loud renditions of “Que Sera Sera” – the “Wembley” version by us and not the “Father’s Gun” version by them – and then “Carefree.”

Carl from Stoke, down below me, turned up towards us and yelled :

“ONE MAN WENT TO MOW”

And we all followed.

This was a noisy old game.

I turned to Al : “To be fair, the South Stand haven’t stopped singing all night.”

We continued.

“We all hate Leeds scum. We all hate Leeds scum. We all hate Leeds scum. We all hate Leeds scum.”

Though this was tame stuff compared to the “witty” interchange about one of Leeds’ sons, but that’s not for here.

On seventy-eight minutes, a double substitution from Thomas Tuchel, who was now flavour of the month again.

Hakim Ziyech for Pulisic. The American had certainly enjoyed a fine game.

Dave for Reece. Saving our star man for the next game no doubt.

On eighty-three minutes, Mount robbed the ball and passed to Ziyech. He then found Lukaku inside the box. What followed was doggedness personified. Surrounded by Leeds defenders, he turned and tried to create an opening for himself. He moved the ball, eventually, onto his left peg and smashed the ball in.

BOSH.

Talk about drama.

His euphoria after was matched by all of us in the John Charles Stand.

I took about twenty-five photos of the move, the goal, the celebrations. I was exhausted as he was by the end of it all.

Fackinell.

Leeds were still singing at the end, but so were we.

“You’re going down. You’re going down. You’re going down. You’re going down. You’re going down.”

I remember only one Leeds effort on our goal in the entirety of that one-sided second-half, a header that was rising high before it left the bloke’s head. It was a deeply satisfying performance. And yet a little voice in my head kept saying –

“It’s only Leeds, mate.”

For the first time that I can remember at a domestic game in decades, we were penned in after the match had ended. After twenty minutes we were let out onto the streets of Beeston. On the walk back to the car, there was time for a tasty cheese burger with onions. It rounded off a wonderful night out in West Yorkshire.

I said to PD : “Makes it all worthwhile, nights like this. We travel some miles, we don’t always get the results, or sometimes it’s all a bit flat. This was bloody superb. A great night out.”

It also meant that I had accomplished a full set of league aways for only the third time in my life.

2008/9 : 19/19.

2015/16 : 19/19.

2021/22 : 19/19.

I eventually reached my home a few minutes after three o’clock.

Next up, the FA Cup Final at Wembley on Saturday.

Leeds United can only dream of such things.

1988

2001

2022

Tales From The Last Days Of Roman’s Empire

Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers : 7 May 2022.

After the defeat at Goodison Park, the end-of-season run-in stared us in the face. Five games to go. Four league games and the FA Cup Final. Of the league games, three were at home with one away. It was all about finishing in the top four.

Over the past ten seasons, it is a goal that has been reached with a grinding regularity.

2012/13                Third

2013/14                Third

2014/15                First

2015/16                Tenth

2016/17                First

2017/18                Fifth

2018/19                Third

2019/20                Fourth

2020/21                Fourth

The two seasons of us not hitting a Champions League place stick out like two huge sore thumbs. It has been a pretty decent decade. And yet, the previous ten seasons were even more successful.

2002/3                  Fourth

2003/4                  Second

2004/5                  First

2005/6                  First

2006/7                  Second

2007/8                  Second

2008/9                  Third

2009/10                First

2010/11                Second

2011/12               Sixth

The past twenty years has clearly brought an incredible and sustained period of success for us all. But with the Roman Abramovich era coming to an end, there will be continued question marks about Chelsea Football Club’s ability to remain in the lofty positions that we have become accustomed. When questioned about all this by a few non-believers, my response was always the same :

“Ah, it won’t really matter. I’ll still go.”

The next step in our fight to remain at the top table was a home match with the old gold and black of Wolverhampton Wanderers.

In SW6, there were developments.

Late on Friday, a photograph of Todd Boehly outside Stamford Bridge, smiling contentedly, appeared on the internet. Early on the Saturday morning – the day of the Wolves match – the club issued an official statement.

“Chelsea Football Club can confirm that terms have been agreed for a new ownership group, led by Todd Boehly, Clearlake Capital, Mark Walter and Hansjoerg Wyss, to acquire the club.”

So this was it, then. The last days of the Roman Empire were here.

Ever since Roman decided to sell up on the evening of the Luton away game and after the introduction of sanctions were imposed on the club on the morning of our game at Norwich, I have of course been concerned about the immediate and long-term future of the club. Yet I have not had the time nor the patience to delve too deeply into all of the options that may or may not be available for the club.

I implicitly trusted the club to make the best decision.

In the meantime, there were games to attend. Players to support. Noise to be made. The home game against Wolves was no different.

Pre-match was pretty typical. I stopped for a breakfast at a lovely old-fashioned café opposite Putney Bridge station. There was a heady mix of laughter and banter with old and new friends from near and far in “The Eight Bells” at the bottom end of Fulham. Andy and his daughter Sophie – or Sophie and her father Andy, take your pick – joined us for the first time. It really pleased me to see them walk into the already crowded pub. There was plenty of dialogue about the past, present and future. Sharing our table were three lads from Minnesota – Chad, Josh, Danny – and my old pal Rich from St. Albans. Five or six of the Kent lads sat at the bar. Steve from Salisbury was with us again.

We made plans for next Saturday’s Cup Final.

It was a fine and sunny day in SW6. Jackets were not required. We made our way to the stadium. At Fulham Broadway, I spoke to Steve about the Chelsea supporter who had so sadly committed suicide in front of a train in the evening after the West Ham game two weeks’ earlier.

What a sad, sad tale.

Up at street level, I stopped for a chat with a few Chelsea characters outside the “CFCUK Stall” which is a required pit-stop for many on match days. On the walk to the West Stand forecourt, I spotted Steve and PD scoffing a quick burger to soak up some of the pre-match ales.

This would be another gate of around 32,000. I had managed to sort out three spares for a few people. Our match day companions Gary, Alan and Clive arrived.

Clive, without knowing it I am sure, sported the colours of the long-time rivals of Todd Boehly’s Los Angeles Dodgers. He was wearing a black and orange Fred Perry polo-shirt, the colours of the San Francisco Giants. Rob, who sits behind me, and has a passive interest in the Dodgers, suggested he should bring his Los Angeles cap to a game.

Let’s hope that this US / UK tie-up – if approved by the powers that be – proves to be fruitful. I have a baseball past and my comment at this stage – there will be more, no doubt, stay tuned – is this.

In 1955, the Brooklyn Dodgers won their first ever World Series.

In 1955, Chelsea won our first ever League Championship.

I like that fit. I have often said that if the Dodgers still played in Brooklyn, I would be a fan.

Let’s just hope that Boehly and his chums don’t decide to relocate us to the west coast. The town of Aberystwyth, despite it hosting our pre-season training camps there in the ‘eighties doesn’t really need a Premier League club does it?

I hadn’t clocked the teams on the TV screens, so as the players assembled down below it was time to work it all out.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Dave

Alonso – Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – James

Pulisic

Werner – Lukaku

I liked the idea of us playing two up front.

How ‘eighties.

Albert from the row in front spotted Petr Cech, all alone, in the underused executive tier. I snapped him. Soon into the game, Dave – at home – somehow knew that Todd Boehly was a few seats along. I snapped him too. Like Roman, a proper scruffy get.

It was all Chelsea, attacking the Shed, in the first ten minutes with the visitors hardly getting the ball over the halfway line.

There were two half-chances in that opening flurry. A shot from an angle by Werner but saved by Jose Sa. Next up was a shot by Romelu Lukaku at the near post but he didn’t get enough on it. There was a little weave from Christian Pulisic and a curler that drifted wide. We were utterly dominant.

On twenty-three minutes, we applauded the memory of Kyle Sekhon.

Rest In Peace.

By the time of the half-hour mark, Wolves were slowly getting a foothold in the game. Their fans were doing their best too.

“Fight, fight – wherever you may be. We are the boys from the Black Country.”

Our play had deteriorated.

A Werner goal was called back for a push. I heard the whistle so didn’t celebrate. Just after, we were up and celebrating a goal and doing the whole “THTCAUN / COMLD” routine. After the ball seemingly missed everyone, the lone figure of Ruben Loftus-Cheek at the far post nimbly slotted the ball in from a difficult angle.

GETINYOU BASTARD.

After a good few seconds – thirty seconds? – the ref signalled a VAR check.

“Ah bollocks. These things always result in a disallowed goal, Al.”

The review took forever. God almighty, how is that possible? It should be done and dusted within a few seconds.

No goal.

Pantomime boos.

The play deteriorated further. If the first-half against West Ham was a shocker, this was worse. With a minute of play remaining, the best chance of the game went to Wolves. There was a super save from Edouard Mendy from Pedro Neto and then Leander Dendoncker followed up by thrashing the ball over the bar.

Then, at the other end, the ball was played into Lukaku and he did well to spin and shoot low but Sa saved. Then, another Wolves break and another shot blazed over.

There were moans from me with Oxford Frank at the break.

“Not sure if any of those players out there today could even be classed as mediocre.”

The second-half began with us attacking the Matthew Harding.

Werner went close in the opening minute and then Reece James went even closer with a direct free-kick when everyone was expecting a curling cross.

On fifty-one minutes, Lukaku did ever so well to hunt down a ball and win it from a defender. He appeared to be tripped right where the penalty area meets the goal line. Play carried on and I was bemused. Thankfully the dreaded VAR worked in our favour.

Penalty.

Lukaku, with a small break in his run, slotted home.

GET IN.

Another “THTCAUN / COMLD.”

There was a fine run from Werner down below me but with Lukaku screaming for the ball AND IN SPACE, Timo lazily misfired elsewhere.

We were suddenly on fire. Just two minutes after our goal, a lovely ball into space from Pulisic FOR LUKAKU TO RUN ONTO and a sweet and easy finish. Just bloody lovely. Lukaku sprinted away. I caught his jump. Happy with that. We were purring.

Chelsea Dodgers 2 Wolverhampton Midgets 0.

The MHL chanted to the West Stand.

“Boehly give us a wave. Boehly, Boehly – give us a wave.”

There was no wave.

Chances were exchanged. This was a much better half than the first. But it truthfully could not have been much worse. Thankfully the noise levels from our support rose too. With twenty minutes or so to go, there was indecision from Antonio Rudiger but Mendy saved well. A Chelsea break, but Sa saved well from Kovacic. A cheeky lob from Lukaku dropped onto the top of the net with Sa back peddling. We sung his name and he clapped back. If Chelsea is a conundrum this season, then our purchase of Lukaku is the biggest piece of the puzzle.

By now, we ought to have been clear and with three points in the bag. But that elusive pass still eluded us. In the pub, with Andy and Rich, I had said that we were a team of runners – Pulisic, Werner, Kovacic, Ziyech, even Kante and Mount to an extent – but we missed someone that could hit those runners with a pass.

Come back Cesc Fabregas.

On seventy-nine minutes, we lost possession and Wolves – who had been improving steadily – broke with pace. Francisco Trincao dribbled and cut inside.

I uttered the immortal words “don’t let him shoot.”

He shot.

The flight of the ball seemed to befuddle Mendy. It didn’t befuddle me; I was right in line with its bloody flight.

2-1, fackinell.

They continued to run at us. I fully expected a goal a few minutes later but Trincao saw his shot deflected just wide of the goal. A toe-poke from Raul Jiminez went wide. We were hanging on here.

Two late substitutions.

Sarr for Dave.

Havertz for Lukaku.

Odd choices in hindsight. Should we not have packed the midfield?

A massive seven minutes of extra-time were signalled. The substitute Havertz shimmied and slid a shot just wide of the near post. We were apparently chasing a third goal when three points were all.

For a team not known for its attacking devil-may-care attitude, this was odd, it was out of control. Who was leading the team out there? Who were the talkers? Who was taking charge?

Sadly, nobody.

In the ninety-seventh minute…

Inside my head : “Why didn’t we clear it? Worried now. Has to be a goal. Cross. Header. Simple.”

We were crushed.

At the final whistle, boos.

Yes, it felt like a loss, of course it did.

Moans. Rants. Grumbles. Annoyance. Disbelief.

On my slow trudge through the crowds, behind the Megastore and onto the West Stand forecourt, I walked with one of my passengers to our car. Over the course of just five minutes, around ten fans said the same thing :

“We could have done with you out there today, Ron.”

It was a quiet drive home, but we soon put the result behind us, kinda. It was a gorgeous evening with the countryside as I headed west looking beautiful during the first blush of spring. That Manchester United were getting gubbed at Brighton certainly helped. Coming up in a seismic week, we have Leeds United away on Wednesday and Liverpool at Wembley on Saturday.

Odd times, but still good times. And don’t be told anything else.

Postscript :

On the Sunday morning, it was a typical time for me. A cuppa, some tunes, and the task of choosing and editing some of the one-hundred plus photos from the match to share on social media. I spotted the figure of Saul, late in the game, going up for a header.

What?

Was he playing?

Maybe I missed this late substitution.

I checked the match details. He had come on as a replacement for Marcos Alonso at half-time. Bloody hell. How is that possible for me to miss that? I hadn’t even been drinking. I honestly felt like I should head off for a lie-down in a quiet corner and ponder my very existence. Thankfully, two friends hadn’t noticed him either. I didn’t feel quite so foolish.

This match report is dedicated to Saul : Mister Invisible.

With just four games left now, every game is huge.

I will see some of you at Elland Road on Wednesday.

Come on Chelsea.

Tales From The Ticket Man

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 24 April 2022.

After our third consecutive home loss against Arsenal on the Wednesday, the phrase “our worst-ever home run” was heard a few times. With eleven goals conceded in just those three games, it certainly felt like it. Alas, there was no confirmation from anywhere if this was true, but I thought I’d take a look at the games that I, at least, had seen in the flesh. I brought up my “games attended spreadsheet” and ran a couple of filters.

Yes, there it was in all its damning glory.

I found it hard to believe, but I it became apparent that I had never before witnessed three consecutive home defeats at Stamford Bridge. And to be doubly clear, on this occasion the three losses against Brentford, Real Madrid and Arsenal were not only the sole three consecutive losses I had ever seen, but the only three consecutive losses that I had ever seen regardless of if the actual games were consecutive in “real time” too, not just games I had seen. A double whammy, if you will.

Bloody hell. It amazed me that I had never seen three in a row before. That I had been so lucky.

I didn’t attend many games in the truly abysmal seasons of 1978/79 and 1982/83 – two and four respectfully – but it truly shocked me that I had never personally witnessed three home defeats on the spin.

A grand total of eight-hundred and fourteen games at Stamford Bridge and only one run of three consecutive home losses.

Altogether now :

“Fackinell.”

Next up was another home game, this time against another London rival; West Ham United. This would be no easy fixture, nor any semblance of one. A defeat at the hands of David Moyes’ Irons in the autumn still smarts.

But before all that on the Sunday, I had a bonus game on the Saturday. Frome Town’s regular league season was to end with an away game at Lymington Town. I drove down to Hampshire and the last segment took me through the ethereal beauty of the New Forest – it’s unique scenery of yellow gorse, mossy shrub land and gnarled and ancient trees, and of course the wandering and unattended sheep and ponies – and then enjoyed a very entertaining 5-0 win for the visiting team. It was a glorious day out.

Early on the Sunday, I set off for London and the District Line Derby.

Very soon into the trip, with Mr. Daniels and Mr. Harris already on board, non-league football entered my head again. Our route took us past the current home of Trowbridge Town Football Club, now toiling in the Wiltshire League, a few levels below Frome Town who are at level eight in the football pyramid. Yet in 1981, Trowbridge Town played at level five – in the old conference – and were light years ahead of Frome who were entrenched in the Western League. In those days, Trowbridge were managed by former Chelsea player Alan Birchenall – “good lad, Birch, quite a character” chirped Mr. Harris – but since then the fortunes of the two teams have taken different trajectories. Such is life in our amazing football pyramid.

The football pyramid had recently witnessed a shocking fall from grace. Oldham Athletic – Chelsea’s first opponents in the newly-carved Premier League in August 1992, they did the double over us in 1993/94 – had just been relegated from the Football League.  The Latics had thus fallen from level one to level five in just under thirty years. There have been quicker descents – Bristol City in four years from one to four, Northampton Town rising those levels in five seasons and then falling those levels in five seasons too – but this one seemed particularly grotesque.

But we must cherish the fluidity of the pyramid. It is what makes English football.

With Mr. Parkins joining us soon after a drive through the town of Trowbridge, we were on our way.

The weather looked half-decent and the day lay stretched out in front of us.

The back-story to this game concerns a quest to get hold of five match tickets. I found out a while back that some good friends from Jacksonville in Florida were on their way over for the West Ham game. However, as their trip drew closer, things took a nosedive. Even though they had paid the club for tickets, the club were not releasing them.

No, I don’t understand it either.

So, from about two weeks out, I began searching some channels. Luckily, just in time, I was able to get hold of all five. Thanks to Gary, Ian, Calvin and Dan, the job was done.

For our personal merriment, Jennifer, Cindy, Brian, Anel and Eugene would be called The Axon Five for the duration of this trip.

In truth, it was as frantic a pre-match as I have had for a while. The plan was to meet up at Stamford Bridge at ten o’clock. Jennifer and Brian were able to meet a few of the players who take care of the corporate work at Chelsea on a match day. We met up just as Sir Bobby Tambling arrived. This was a lovely moment for the two visitors since they had first met Bobby in Charlotte for our friendly with PSG in 2015 and had subsequently bumped into him on a previous visit to SW6 too. In North Carolina, Bobby was persuaded to partake in what the Americans call “jello shots”, much to the amusement of the two Floridians.

With a Chelsea tour to the US – sanctions permitting – being spoken about, it was a good time for me to host a few Chelsea fans from across the pond. Of course, Jennifer and Brian will be attending the friendly against Arsenal in Orlando, but I am not tempted. The other two rumoured cities are Las Vegas and Charlotte, again, ironically. As it stands, I shan’t be bothering to travel over for this tour. After experiencing Buenos Aires in 2020, my sights are focussed on slightly more exotic climes.

Well, South America and where ever Frome Town are playing to be precise.

While Jennifer and Brian set off to meet up with PD and Parky in “The Eight Bells”, I set off for “The Blackbird” at Earl’s Court to collect a ticket. I walked past “The Courtfield” – the one away pub at Chelsea these days, a good mile away from the ground, how we like it – but there didn’t seem to be too many West Ham inside. It was around 11.15am. As luck would have it, I bumped into another little knot of Chelsea supporters from the US; this time, the left coast, California. I had met Tom and Brad a few times before. This time they were with their wives and two friends too. It seemed that another couple of mates – Steve and Ian – were hosting some Chelsea tourists too. It was great to catch up with them once again.

I then set off for the bottom end of Fulham. At around 12.15pm, I eventually made it to “The Eight Bells” where another ticket was collected. Things were dropping into place nicely.

Yet Cindy, Anel and Eugene were yet to appear.

Tick tock.

We stayed about an hour or so. At last all of the five Floridians were together and we could relax. Brian spoke about how their local Chelsea pub on Jacksonville Beach – I must have cycled past it on my Virginia to Florida cycle trip in 1989 – was at last bursting to the seams for our Champions League Final in Porto. Such is life, eh? Everyone shows up for the big ones. We sat outside “Eight Bells” as it was heaving inside. I think the girls got a kick out of the “Home Fans Only” signs in the boozer’s windows.

After lots of laughs, we – reluctantly? – set off for the game. Outside the Peter Osgood statue, at about 1.40pm, the last ticket was gathered.

Cindy – her first Chelsea game – and Jennifer joined me in the MHU while the three lads took position in the MHL.

Phew.

The kick-off at 2pm soon arrived.

I had hardly had time to think about the game itself.

We heard that Andreas Christensen was injured pre-match and so Dave took a new position, in the left of a back three. Trevoh Chalobah returned.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Azpilicueta

Loftus-Cheek – Kante – Jorginho – Alonso

Mount

Werner – Havertz

There were, of course, the same spaces as for the Arsenal game and this elicited the same song from the away fans.

“Just like the old days, there’s nobody here.”

At least Chelsea conjured up a quick response this time.

“Just like the old days, you’re still fucking shit.”

That made me chuckle.

Three FA Cups and one European trophy.

Is that it West Ham?

There was a Ukranian flag on The Shed balcony wall; maybe a nod to their player Andriy Yarmolenko.

“Glory To Ukraine.”

Let’s hope so.

Further along, a much more light-hearted flag.

“East End Girls. Forever Blowing Bubbles.”

Ooh, matron.

The game began and I wish it hadn’t. What a shocking first-half, eh? It had to be one of the worst forty-five minutes I have endured for a while.

Alan nailed it.

“They have a big game Thursday. They don’t want to risk anything.”

Indeed. Declan Rice, Michael Antonio and Jarrod Bowen were all rested ahead of their Europa League semi-final against Eintracht Frankfurt, shades of us in 2019.

The visitors in claret and light blue sat behind the ball, closed space, and rarely threatened our goal. We looked half-paced and still tired from Wednesday. Our play was turgid, lethargic and without flair and imagination. We looked unable to think outside the box, nor to play inside the penalty box.

It was all so fucking dull.

And it was as if Wednesday hadn’t happened. There seemed no desire to win back our approval after the shocking defending against Arsenal.

Chalobah made an error in our half, allowing a rare West Ham attack, but soon recovered and enjoyed a good first period. Kante was full of running, but there was nobody moving to create anything. I lost count of the number of times we were in good positions to shoot but didn’t. The frustration in the stands was overpowering.

The game was so dull that I resorted to wondering why the floodlights were turned on during an early afternoon game in April.

The first forty-five minutes ended with neither side having a single shot on target. Surprisingly, knowing our support these days, there were no boos at all at half-time. Does that mean that season ticket holders tend not to boo?

Answers on a postcard.

I wondered what Cindy was making of it all, just a few yards away in row two of the MHU alongside Jennifer.

The pour souls.

Sigh.

The second-half got going and there seemed to be an immediate improvement. At long last, there were shots on goal. One from Timo Werner, a volley, was blocked but the actual sight of a player willing to take a chance – “buy a raffle ticket” – was ridiculously applauded. A blooter from Kante was similarly blocked. This was better, much better. The crowd responded. I looked over to see the two girls joining in with a very loud “Carefree.”

A fine strike from Chalobah – such great body shape – caused Lukasz Fabianski to make a fine save to his left.

The game had definitely improved. On seventy minutes, Ruben Loftus-Cheek set up Mason Mount but Fabianski was saved by another defensive block.

With fifteen minutes to go, wholesale changes from Thomas Tuchel.

Romelu Lukaku for a quiet Havertz.

Christian Pulisic for the energetic Werner.

Hakim Ziyech for the steady Loftus-Cheek.

We looked livelier. Lukaku looked eager to impress, but – for fuck’s sake – his sprints – sprints I tell ya! – into space were not spotted by those with the ball. That was about to change, thankfully. With about five minutes to go, a move found that man Lukaku breaking into the box. An arm from a West Ham defender seemed to pull him back. The referee Michael Oliver quickly pointed to the spot.

Then…blah blah blah…VAR…blah blah blah…a delay…the referee went to the TV screen…the yellow card became red.

There seemed to be a long delay.

Jorginho.

Alan : “skip?”

Chris : “yes, skip.”

He skipped.

The shot was tamely hit too close to Fabianski.

Groans, groans, groans.

I can’t really explain it, but I still had a strong notion – a sixth sense – that we would still grab a late winner.

Ziyech let fly from his usual inside-left position but the shot flew over.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

On eighty-nine minutes, the ball was played beautifully out to Marcos Alonso on the left. He played the ball perfectly in to the box, right towards Pulisic and the substitute sweep it in to a corner.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

Absolute pandemonium in the North-West corner.

I looked over to Cindy and Jennifer.

The American had scored in front of the Americans.

Superb. Magic. Fantastic. Magnificent. Stupendous.

Alan : “They’ll have ta cam at us nah.”

Chris : “Cam on moi li’ul doimuns.”

The final whistle blew.

A huge roar, smiles all around, absolutely bloody lovely. That was a hugely enjoyable end to a mainly mediocre game of football.

Altogether now : “phew.”

And the song remained the same :

“Just like the old days, you’re still fucking shit.”

Outside, I was the ticket man again, sorting tickets for Manchester United away, gathering tickets for Everton away…

It had been a good day.

…see you at Old Trafford.

Pre-Game Blue

A Late Late Show

From Jacksonville To Axonville

Tales From All The World In One Place

Chelsea vs. Brentford : 2 April 2022.

This was a game that, if I am honest, I wasn’t particularly excited about. Work had been busy since our previous game up at Middlesbrough – a cracking day out, a classic away trip – and with everything else in the world dragging us down, this match at home to Brentford just wasn’t doing it for me. Nonetheless, as always, the pre-match was excellent. I spent it with friends from California, Oregon, Virginia and Vietnam – the returning Steve, last seen in Perth, Australia – and also from Edinburgh, Kent and, nearer home, Salisbury and Bristol.

At “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge, it seemed all of the world was in one place.

Even though I was in the ground early enough, I didn’t make a note of the team line-ups when they were announced by the PA and shown on the screen. So when the game began my mind went into “scurrying around mode” trying to put a plan of attack – and defence – together with the players that I saw lining up on the pitch below me.

I tried to piece it all together.

“Mendy in goal. Now then, was that a back four with Alonso and Dave the full backs with Silva and Rudiger in the middle? Surely Ziyech out wide isn’t a wing-back in a 3-4-3? Nah, that’s a four. Right, the midfield. That’s easy; Kante, Loftus-Cheek and Mason. But Ruben seems to be starting quite deep, almost as an anchor. His tour of the ten outfield starting positions continues, eh? Upfront, a recalled Werner on the left with Havertz in the central role and that man Ziyech out wide on the right. Is that it? Is that ten outfield players? Check.

My first assignment of the game was concluded with only a minute or so gone. It was a good job that I hadn’t been drinking.

No room for Rom. Again. We have all made up our own conclusions about our miss-firing and miss-fitting (is that a word?) Belgian and these have tended to converge. Indeed, all of the evidence honestly suggests that Thomas Tuchel agrees with us.

Bugger. It wasn’t meant to be like this was it?

Brentford were in all yellow. Why? Who knows.

The game got going and after an early Chelsea attack down our left, Brentford quickly got into their groove. In the first two minutes, Christian Eriksen fancied his chances with a free-kick from distance but Mendy was untroubled. The Danish international’s return to the game is both magnificent and yet shocking at the same time. I remember watching in stunned silence as his fate appeared to be in the balance during the Denmark vs. Finland game last summer, one of the few games that I bothered with in the whole of the 2020 European Championships. Yet here he was playing professional football once again.

I turned to Alan.

“Fuck that. If I had almost died on a football pitch, it would be pipe and slippers for me.”

When the former Tottenham midfielder appeared below us to take a corner, I joined in with the hundreds of Chelsea fans around me who showered some warm applause upon him. But we only did it the once. We knew our limits.

There were mainly blue skies overhead. It was a decent day in SW6. It wasn’t warm, but the sunshine gave the afternoon a Spring-like feel.

On the pitch, the visitors were warming up quicker than us.

We love Edouard Mendy but oh! His distribution at times is catastrophic. Ivan Toney – when he first appeared on the scene, and without seeing him play, I wondered if he was a relative of Luca Toni – intercepted an errant pass from Mendy but his lob was high. The same Brentford player then made space for himself inside our box but Mendy fell to his right to push the ball nervously past his near post. Toney’s third effort in quick succession was a header but thankfully it did not trouble us.

So, in the first ten minutes it was Brentford who were setting the pace. On another day, we could easily have been 1-0 down or worse. We, meanwhile, were struggling to get out of first gear.

In the first quarter of an hour, our sole attack of note resulted in Werner collecting the ball thirty yards out and dribbling the ball forward, but forgetting to stop dribbling past the goal line.

Fackinell.

A much more refined feint and dribble from Ziyech on the right was easier on the eye, but that was again full of false promise.

Chelsea’s attacks were rogue at this point; not wholly convincing, not well planned.

In fact, it took a whole twenty minutes – count’em – for our first real strike on goal. Mount took the ball, advanced and struck a curler that flew narrowly past David Raya’s right-hand post.

All was quiet.

It took until the twenty-eighth minute – again, count’em – for me to hear a credible chant from the home support; the Matthew Harding Lower rumbled a half-hearted “Come on Chelsea” and I, and a few others in the Upper, joined in. But the game was being played out in front of a thoroughly tepid atmosphere. Not even the away fans could be bothered.

Another fackinell.

Suffice to say, there were no “Roman Abramovich” chants, but there were hardly any other chants either.

I heard a pigeon coo in Brompton Cemetery.

On the half-hour mark, there was a nice dribble, centrally, from Ruben but his shot was hit straight at their keeper’s midriff. Next up was a beautiful lofted pass from Kante into Mount but his volley was aimed at the ‘keeper again. We were slowly getting the upper hand but it was hardly stirring stuff.

“Wednesday on their minds?” offered Alan.

Our best effort of the first-half came from the boot of Ziyech but his fearsome shot was tipped over by the Brentford ‘keeper.

Down in front of us, I purred at the way Thiago Silva calmly brought a ball down and delicately tapped a ball over the limbs of an onrushing Brentford player to Dave in a few yards of space. The man makes everything look so easy. Utter class.

The first-half apologetically ended.

Brentford had enjoyed the best of the first quarter of the game while we slowly engineered some sort of reaction in the second quarter.

But, really, this was lukewarm stuff.

As the second-half began, nobody within Stamford Bridge could possibly have predicted the events of the ensuing forty-five minutes.

Chelsea were now attacking us in the Matthew Harding and after three minutes of play, the ball was pushed square towards Antonio Rudiger. He must have been thirty-five yards out. With one touch to set himself up, he swiped at the ball and we watched as the missile flew goal wards. It looked on target. So often his efforts are wild. But on this occasion the ball hit the left-hand post before glancing in.

Delirium.

And not just from the fans, but from the goal scorer too. After my initial scream of joy, I quickly harnessed the camera that was hanging around my neck at the time – I don’t always have it “up and ready” – and snapped away at the scorer’s uninhibited and ecstatic run of celebration. From my vantage point – behind him – it looked like he was losing it, and possibly gesticulating and gurning in a way that he might later regret. He ran, maniacally, towards the Chelsea bench and flung himself into the arms of the manager.

“Get a room, lads.”

It was some strike. Because of where it was on the pitch, it immediately reminded me of a Frank Leboeuf screamer against Leicester City in 1997. That late goal gave us a1-0 win. This goal, almost twenty-five years later, sadly signalled the start of a crazy period in the game.

After our goal, I left my seat and sauntered off to turn my bike around. Just as I was about to disappear into the North Stand concourse, I heard a roar and looked around to see a Brentford player reeling away in front of The Shed with the Brentford fans celebrating wildly behind him.

Bollocks.

I got back to my seat and Alan filled me in with the details; a sweet strike from Vitaly Janelt. This had come after barely a minute of play since our goal.

We immediately attacked but a Werner effort was blocked easily. Sadly, Brentford broke with pace as they attacked The Shed again, and three Chelsea defenders sprinted towards the ball-carrier Bryan Mbeumo. This left two yellow perils unmarked inside the box – spotted by myself with an impending sense of doom – and it was no surprise when one of them, Eriksen, slotted the ball in.

Oh crap. What terrible defending.

Our fine recent form was now facing a rude awakening.

Reece James replaced Marcos Alonso and the defence was shuffled.

But only a few minutes later, a quick and concise move down the inside-left channel by Brentford caused us more pain. They cut through us so easily – “after you Claude” – and Janelt nabbed his second of the game with a strike high past Mendy. Brentford had scored three times in just over ten minutes.

Ugh.

The away fans could finally be heard.

“We are staying up. Say we are staying up.”

Two more substitutions followed.

Romelu Lukaku for Werner.

Mateo Kovacic for Kante.

Werner had been so poor. I am pretty fair with most players and heaven knows I have wanted the German to finally hit some form but – oh my – the bloke seems to be getting worse. I’m getting pretty fed up with people saying, and quoting Porto as an example, that his moves off the ball allow space for others. If I was a footballer, an attacking player, I would be pretty ashamed to have to write that in bold at the top of my curriculum vitae.

All of a sudden, Kai Havertz became the centre of attention. Firstly, he tucked the ball in from a cross, but the goal was disallowed for handball, although it also looked offside to us. Then, he closed down on a clearance from Raya and the ball spun just wide. Then, and again in quick succession, an effort from the same player drifted just wide of the far post after good work from Loftus-Cheek and Kovacic.

A goal or two then might have turned it our way a little.

After scoring one goal, Rudiger tried his best to get his shooting boots into action again with a succession of increasingly extravagant efforts on goal. None came close unfortunately.

As the game continued, many of the home support set off for home, or maybe some nearby bars. I have rarely seen Stamford Bridge so empty in the last ten minutes. In the dying embers of the game, there was more Keystone Cops defending in The Shed penalty area as we failed to clear the ball and Youane Wissa smacked home a loose ball.

Chelsea 1 Brentford 4.

Good God, bloody hell.

At least there were no boos at the final whistle.

Those more likely to boo had already fucked-off home by then.

As I walked down to the Peter Osgood statue to pick up some tickets for next Saturday’s game at Southampton, I was just bewildered and not mad. I had mentioned to Walts at half-time that we hadn’t really pushed on since last season, and this game was evidence enough. But we’re decent enough to finish third this season and, cup glories aside, that has to be our goal. We’re a team slowly growing, nothing more. Give us time.

I soon bumped into four of my overseas guests, and Kathryn – from Vienna, Virginia – was almost in tears as she told how there just wasn’t any noise at all in her part of The Shed Lower.

“We tried to get everyone singing but nobody knew the words.”

Sigh.

Welcome to Chelsea 2022.

Walking towards the car, I passed the wine bar on Vanston Place, and at last, as I peered in, I spotted Dutch Mick on his first trip to Chelsea in over two years. I had seen him to talk to Abu Dhabi but I told him then that I missed seeing him and his mates in that bar every time I walked by. I pointed to him and he came out for a hug. It was a nice end to a far from nice afternoon at the home of the World Champions.

Next up, Real Madrid at home and they surely don’t come any bigger.

I’ll be up for that alright.

See you there.