Tales From Glorious Bournemouth.

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 8 April 2017.

The game of cat and mouse was continuing. Try as we might to free ourselves from the clutches of Tottenham, we were being forced to strive for a further three points from our game with Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth. While the pints were being sunk with regularity in the big and breezy “Moon On The Square” in Bournemouth’s sunny town centre, Tottenham were scoring goals for fun at home to Watford. They went three-nil up by half-time, and eventually won four-nil. The gap was back to four points. It was up to us to regain the seven-point advantage.

It was certainly a day of pints and points alright.

After missing out on the pre-match fun in the corresponding fixture last April – I had to work in the morning and only made it to the Vitality Stadium at about 2pm – I was hoping to make up for it this time around. Although several friends had traveled down on the Friday night, Glenn and myself had driven down on the day of the game. A pint of San Miguel on the pier at about 11.30am – clear blue skies, the sun glistening on the ocean, a warm day getting warmer, memories of family holidays in the neighbouring resort of Southbourne –  had been a perfect start to a day of football. It could have been even better; the team were staying at the Hilton Hotel, just a stone’s throw away, and Alan explained that the management staff and players had recently appeared in the perfectly manicured Lower Gardens about an hour earlier for their pre-match “walk.”

Breezing past the lads would have been a lovely start to the day.

As the drinking continued, we were joined by a smattering of friends from near and far. There was no rush, the game was hours away.

Pint, chat, laugh, pint, chat, laugh, pint, chat, laugh.

Eventually it was time to move. Outside the weather was perfect.

“Dear Footballing Gods. Please do all you can to keep AFC Bournemouth in the top flight of English football for as long as possible. Additionally, please do your very best to ensure that Chelsea Football Club keep paying them a visit in April. Or May. Or August. Or September. We’re a bit fussy about things like that. You see, we love the idea of palm trees and beaches on an away day. Thanks. Stay in touch.”

Inside the Vitality Stadium, it was clear that we were not the only ones that had been enjoying the hospitality of the local pubs. There was a raucous noise in the small concourse beneath the seats. While others squeezed in “one more pint” before the match kicked-off at 5.30pm, we took our seats in row E, just five from the front. Since our last visit to the Vitality Stadium – capacity barely over 11,000 – I had seen stories of the football club wanting to re-locate to a new build stadium. I can understand the reasons why. As it stands at the moment, the stadium formerly known as Dean Court, makes a nice change from the usual identikit new-builds that we visit. If only more away fans could be admitted. With our numbers limited to around 1,200 we were the very lucky ones. Many Chelsea had travelled without the slightest hope of getting in.

The team news was dominated by the return of Victor Moses. Who would have ever thought that this man would be so missed when injured recently? It was a very strong Chelsea team, and was proof that we needed to keep grinding out results.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill.

Moses – Kante – Matic – Alonso.

Pedro – Costa – Hazard.

For the fans in the single-tiered stand, we were battling the elements all game. The falling sun was right in our eyes. Even with sunglasses, everyone was having trouble. Hands were brought up to the head to shelter our eyes from the glare. From such a shallow viewpoint, I found it difficult to follow not only the ball but the movement of the players too. It was like watching football in two dimensions. I found it difficult to judge the depth of play.

Bournemouth began the brightest. Always neat and tidy, they attacked with pace too.  A cross from the right from Fraser in the very first minute was met by an errant swipe at the ball by David Luiz. A crazy deflection forced Thibaut Courtois to react well. Fraser then forced another effort on goal, but the ball spun wide. Unlike last season’s 4-1 victory, maybe this would not be a walk in the park that I had hoped.

The Chelsea support urged the team on.

In the early evening sun – everything so hazy, and not just alcohol induced – we slowly edged our way in to the game. Then all of a sudden we were in among the goals. The ball was worked to Diego Costa, who was able to twist around and prod the ball towards goal. A fateful deflection off a luckless defender steered the ball in off the post, but also robbed Diego of the goal.

Our cheers were still ringing around the stadium when N’Golo Kante released Eden Hazard a few minutes later. He broke away, evidently just beating an offside shout, and drew Artur Boruc before slipping the ball past him.

Two nil, too easy?

Not at all.

The home team, with Wilshere starring for the Dorset team, kept playing to their strengths. Afobe crashed a volley on to the woodwork, down low, with Courtois beaten. Chelsea then dominated for a little spell. It was turning into a very competitive game.

One song dominated.

“Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

How we love this slight and stylish man from Lecce.

Just before half-time, Bournemouth moved the ball out to King, who only took a couple of touches before whipping the ball in past Courtois at the near post.

Game on.

Bollocks.

At the break, there was no mass-exodus. I was so happy that everyone was staying inside the stadium to watch the game, unlike last year when many left at the break to continue their drinking session in the town centre.

With the sun disappearing behind the stand to our right, I was happier with my sight lines as the second-half began. Yes, this was a better feeling for sure. The action was clearer. And it helped that we were attacking our end. It was a very pleasant evening.

But still the home team threatened. Thankfully we rode our luck and withstood any attempts on goal. In front of us in the away seats, Alonso and Hazard were seeing a lot of the ball. It is always an absolute joy to see their skills so close.

Halfway through the second-half, Diego Costa was fouled. From about twenty-five yards out, just beyond the centre of the goal, Marcos Alonso stood alongside Nemanja Matic. There was only one person who was taking this one, surely. Alonso clipped the ball over the wall with his trusted left foot and the dipping curve was perfect, past a stranded Boruc. It was a sublime goal.

We were three-one up.

GET IN.

Deliriously, the scorer raced over to our seats and was mobbed by his team mates. The smiles on their faces were mirrored by ours.

They were only yards away. A fantastic moment.

“Oh Marcos Alonso, oh Marcos Alonso.”

Moses the journeyman. Alonso the journeyman. Now much-loved stars of a team chasing a championship. Funny game, football, eh? As the game continued, the nerves had been calmed. We played with a little more composure and a little more flair. A few late chances would have flattered us, since the home team gave us a nervy test at times, but we fully deserved the 3-1 win. One song – a new one – dominated the latter part of the game.

“We’re coming for you. We’re coming for you. Tottenham Hotspur. We’re coming for you.”

I loved that. I first thought that this had lovingly turned the Spurs chant at us on its head – since they are seemingly always below us, no matter what year – but I then realised that it was, more mundanely, referencing the FA Cup Semi-Final. Whatever, it summed things up nicely. Last year, at Bournemouth in the sun, we urged the players to “beat fucking Tottenham” and now, a year later, they were in our thoughts again.

Some things will never change I guess.

Back in Bournemouth town centre, the “pint, chat, laugh” routine continued on.

And on. And on.

Eventually, I went for a wander and by the time I had returned to meet up with the boys, they had made their own way back to the hotel.

The next morning I awoke without the slightest hint of a hangover – a miracle – and I noticed that Glenn had previously posted an update on Facebook at just before midnight :

“Chris Axon we’re looking for you.”

What a crap song. That will never catch on.

IMG_4180

Tales From An Evening Of Cat And Mouse.

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 5 April 2017.

There is no need for a fanciful and overly-elaborate scene-setter for this one.

The loss to Crystal Palace on April Fool’s Day was an unwanted shock to the system. As a result, Tottenham Hotspur were – if not breathing down our neck, yet – then at least shouting abuse at us from a shorter distance than before. The home game with Manchester City was a – cliche #418 – must-win game.

If Tottenham were to win, out west in Wales, and we were to lose to City – God forbid – then our once impregnable lead at the top would be cut to just four points, with eight games left. Even a draw against City, in my mind, would not be enough.

“Three points or bust, Chelsea.”

Before the possible dramatic events at Stamford Bridge were able to unfold, I was embroiled in my own little moment of drama at work. As the day rolled on – with work piling up – I wondered if I would be able to get away on time. At just after 2pm, I called over to see PD and LP who were just about to launch into their traditional pre-Chelsea home game gammon and chips at “The Milk Churn.” I passed over Glenn’s season ticket to PD so he could in turn pass it on to Bournemouth Steve. Reluctantly, I had to tell PD to make his own way up. There were severe doubts that I would be able to make kick-off, at best, or the game itself, at worst. Thankfully, things fell in to place during the next two hours and, with a big chunk of onerous work being able to be delayed for others in the morning, I was able to leave for SW6 at 4pm. I could relax a little, even though I would now hit all of the traffic going in to London. A journey that usually takes two and a quarter hours would now take three. And it felt odd to be driving to a game alone. It unsurprisingly felt like a potentially seismic Champions League night. A massive game, for sure.

As is so often the case, I noted one car – a red mini – that I constantly passed on the tedious last ten miles, as we accelerated and then slowed, passing each other every few minutes, and I wondered if this was a metaphor for the final stage of the season. Would one team slow right down, allowing another to catch up, before their positions changing over the very final stretch? I remembered a similar instance a few years back when I played one particular bout of cat-and-mouse with one car on the last few miles of the M4, before eventually seeing it lose me at Chiswick. It rather freaked me out when I saw it was parked up just a few yards away from my usual parking space at Chelsea. As I saw the little red mini disappear over the Hammersmith flyover, I waited with baited breath to see if I would spot it again in the streets that surround Queens Club. Thankfully I didn’t. My own little bout of football madness was over. And in any case, the girl who was driving the red mini was unlikely to be a Spurs supporter, right?

Bloody hell, relax.

It still took me a further ten minutes to find a parking spot in the usual areas. At around 7pm, I was evidently one of the last ones to arrive. Bramber Road, Normand Road, Chesson Road, Archel Road, Turneville Road were all chocker. I eventually parked up on Star Road, a good few hundred yards from where I saw PD’s car.

I briefly met up with the troops in The Goose. Time for a bolted “Peroni” and the briefest of chats. Bournemouth Steve eventually arrived to collect the ST card. Rush, rush, rush. A few US pals were still in town and I wanted to meet up with them briefly in “The Cock Tavern” before they disappeared into the ether of international travel. They were leaving just as I arrived; perfect timing. No time for a beer, the time was racing on. We walked to the stadium together.

The Chelsea team had been re-arranged by the manager since the previous game.

Courtois.

Zouma, Luiz, Cahill.

Azpilicueta, Fabregas, Kante, Alonso.

Pedro, Costa, Hazard.

My first worry – perhaps there were many – was that the guile of the slight Aguero, Silva, Sane and De Bruyne might be too much for the tall trio at the back. A big test for Kurt Zouma. He just needed to stay tight to his man and do the simple stuff. I was concerned.

My second worry was that I would be suffering an intense migraine by the end of the night after being blinded by the shocking orange of the Manchester City kit. Bloody hell, if that is an indication of our upcoming life with Nike, I might even pine for the days of the Chelsea Collection of 1986/1987. Kevin de Bruyne, the strawberry-blonde and rosy-faced winger, must bloody well hate it, in exactly the same way that David Hopkin must have detested wearing the tangerine and graphite debacle of 1994 to 1996.

Shudder.

City had three-thousand away fans. As they should. One poxy flag : “Kidderminster.” Must do better.

The atmosphere was buzzing at the start. Ripples of noise grew louder as each chant enveloped the stadium. This felt like a proper game of football.

I wondered if Chelsea would spend the entire night confirming one of modern football’s oxymorons –

“The Manchester City defender.”

City had the infrequently-used Kompany alongside the maligned Stones, with the attack-minded Clichy and Navas on the flanks. Going forward, they looked fearsome. But our team looked top-heavy too, with Cesc in place of Matic. It looked like N’Golo would have his work cut out.

I whispered to Steve : “Never mind, if any man can, Kante can” and immediately sounded like Suzi Quatro.

Almost astonishingly, we heard that Swansea City were 1-0 up against “that lot.”

I wondered if this might, just might, turn out to be a legendary night.

We certainly began well. I soon spotted that we kept hitting early balls out wide in an attempt to stretch their defence. After just ten minutes, the ball was worked forward by Azpilicueta to Pedro on the right. Pedro held the ball momentarily, but Dave had pushed on and Pedro slipped the ball through to him. A quick look up, and the ball was ably played into the path of Eden Hazard. Much to my surprise, his low shot ended up flashing past Caballero.

In my mind I was thinking “how the hell did that go in?” but outside I was shrieking a loud and sustained roar of pleasure. I soon turned to Alan and said “of course, on bloody Saturday, that would have been deflected wide.”

In the replay, it was unclear to me that the slightest of deflections off Kompany’s shiny pate had edged the ball away from Caballero’s sway to his left. Football games are often won and lost by inches.

However, I turned to Alan and admitted my worry : “You know it won’t stay 1-0?”

The crowd were roaring, but Manchester City began working the defensive three, five, seven. Their movement impressed us all. It seemed that everyone of their attacking players were never seen in the same place twice. They tested Thibaut a few times.

A pass from the excellent Hazard to Fabregas resulted in a shot which deflected high off a defender and dropped on to the crossbar. This was such an open game. Sadly, on twenty-six minutes, a dithering Courtois hacked a clearance away, but it fell right at the feet of the neat and tidy David Silva. We groaned the hugest groan. He advanced and shot straight at Courtois. The ball travelled only a few yards from Thibaut’s block and now ended up at Aguero’s feet. He easily dispatched the ball home.

Luiz comforted the ‘keeper with a slapped handshake, but Thibaut must have been hurting.

It was an equaliser that, if I am truthful City, warranted. I remembered that their play in the opening segment of our 2-1 win against them in 2011/2012 was as good as I could recall by an away team at Stamford Bridge over the years, and this was an updated version of it. Constant movement everywhere. On the touchline, the two suited Europeans Guardiola and Conte were stood the whole game.

Courtois shifted his feet well to tip over a Leroy Sane lob. We were under the cosh alright.

For a few fleeting moments, the City fans could be heard.

“We’re not really here.”

With thoughts of keeping it tight and reaching half-time – a Conte half-time masterclass from us to counter a Pep-talk from them – the ball found Pedro inside the City box. A crude chop by Fernandinho made referee Mike Dean quickly point to the spot.

“Nailed on penalty, that.”

Without any need of a prompt, Albert – who sits in front of me – upped and visited the gents. We have lost count of the number of times over the years that we have scored when he has disappeared off to turn his bike around.

Eden placed the ball on the spot. We waited. His shot was low and saved by the ‘keeper. Thankfully, the ball rebounded right in to the path of Eden and as Caballero dived to his right, the ball was stroked to his left.

GET. IN.

Albert returned to his seat, beaming.

“Job done, saahn.”

A few more City attacks were thwarted. After a few dodgy moments by both, both Luiz and Zouma defended well.

It was still Swansea City 1 Tottenham 0.

At the break, Neil Barnett spoke of the recent passing of former goalkeeper John Phillips, who played 149 games for us in the days of my childhood. In fact, he played in goal in my very first game : Chelsea vs. Newcastle United, 1974. You could argue he is the first Chelsea player I saw play. He is certainly the first-name entered in the 48,762 cells of my ever-increasing “Chelsea Games Spreadsheet” which sits proudly in my computer at home.

Garry Stanley – he of the US Tour this summer – toured the pitch as images of three players from the ‘seventies were featured on the TV screen.

John Phillips.

David Stride.

Ian Britton.

There was clear structural changes to our team at the break. Simply put, Nemanja Matic replaced Kurt Zouma, but the pack was significantly re-shuffled.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahil,

Pedro, Kante, Matic, Alonso

Fabregas, Costa, Hazard.

And what a half of football. Chelsea chances were at a premium as City swarmed at us throughout the forty-five minutes. I seemed to spend the entire period clock-watching. Thankfully, the Chelsea defence was proving a tough nut to crack, but that didn’t stop everyone’s’ nerves from jangling.

The first major worry involved a header from a deep City free-kick that bounced on to the bar with Dave right underneath if needed. We heaved a sigh of relief, but City kept us worried. For all of their possession, however, they did not pepper our goal. As tackles crunched, Fernandinho volleyed ridiculously wide and Stones headed right at Courtois.

We were nervy in the stands, but there was a great reaction to a Marcos Alonso pass to Eden which was miss-hit and went off for a throw-in. Rather than howls of derision, the Matthew Harding replied – loudly, with encouragement – “CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

It warmed my heart.

But generally we were too nervous to sing constantly. There were great “Carefree” moments when the whole ground were together, but the nerves were in control alright. I watched the clock, tick-tock.

A rare Chelsea chance but a David Luiz free-kick went to waste.

Then, a gift-wrapped chance after a fine move, starting with a break from the inimitable Hazard down our left. The ball was moved across the pitch, several players involved, and eventually played back by the intelligent Pedro towards the central Hazard. He kicked through the ball, but it flew over. It was the hat-trick goal that never was. Bollocks.

Sadly, it got worse.

Late on – FUCK – we heard that Spurs had not only equalised at the Liberty Stadium, but had scored two and then three.

That car in the rear view mirror – white, navy trim – was getting closer.

A ten-point gap had shrunk to seven within minutes.

Whether or not it was because of Pep Guardiola’s reappearance again at Stamford Bridge, but as City kept searching for a late equaliser, I kept thinking of that Iniesta heart-breaker in 2009. The linesman on the far side continually flashing the red and yellow flag of Catalonia clearly did not help.

It was evident I was suffering. We all were. I have never seen Alan look so nervous.

Willian replaced Cesc.

Tick tick tick tick.

A long searching ball towards the far post was ably reached by the lunge of Aguero. We could not see if his toe-poke was saved by ‘keeper or post.

“Not long left now, Chelsea, keep going.”

Loftus-Cheek replaced Hazard, our best player on the night.

One last corner was swung in. The ball evaded everyone at the front post – all it needed was a nod – and Stones stabbed at it from a few yards out. Ridiculously, miraculously, the ball thumped against the turf and ballooned over. It was another of those “clasp the back of your neck with your hands” moments.

“Phew.”

The three minutes of added-time were running out. The ball was deflected for a Chelsea goal-kick. My eyes, and camera, was on referee Dean.

I snapped at the moment he blew up. It seemed the most significant moment of the entire night.

“Thank fuck for that.”

Another “phew.”

“One Step Beyond” boomed around The Bridge, but I let others bounce up and down. I was just grateful that it had ended in our favour.

As you were. Seven points. Catch us if you can.

Big John looked up and smiled.

“Didn’t enjoy one bit of that.”

I knew what he meant.

Outside, Andy admitted City had been impressive. Over the past two home games, we bossed one yet lost, and were dominated in another yet won. Such is football, such is life. We even spoke about how Spurs don’t give up; they deserve a little praise from us for that. Ugh.

“But imagine how gutted they must feel. Coming back to score three late goals to win. Get inside the dressing room. Wait twenty minutes for our result. And then hear that we hung on. Ha.”

Outside, as a trip to a curry house was aborted, I waited to hear from a few US friends. I spotted Claudio Ranieri brush past and I seized the moment. We posed for a selfie. I don’t know who was more embarrassed, him or me.

I was able to meet up with a few pals – Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Pennsylvania – in “The Butcher’s Hook” for a while. The place was packed and buzzing at first, but eventually thinned out a little. The visitors had enjoyed two varying games at Stamford Bridge from the supporters’ club section of the Shed Lower over the past few days. They had seen both of our goals at The Shed tonight of course. They loved the atmosphere. It was reassuring to hear. Neil Barnett popped in and we had the first real chat since Minneapolis in the summer. Like me, he did not predict us to win the league this season. I had us finishing third behind City and United. Neil had us finishing sixth. This season has fooled us all, eh?

Late on, I scoffed down a late night kebab with Frank from Queens, New York and Taryn from Reading, Pennsylvania. It had been Taryn’s birthday and what a lovely result for her. I soon realised that the premises of the kebab shop on Fulham Broadway were the same as the “Wimpy” restaurant where my parents and I stopped for burger and chips after my very first game all those years ago.

At 1.30am, I left London. At 3.45am, I reached home, tired but contented.

Eight games to go, four at home, four away.

Keep it tight Chelsea.

On Saturday, this busy week finishes with the jolly to Bournemouth.

I will see some of the very lucky ones there.

IMG_3991

Tales From A Fool’s Paradise.

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 1 April 2017.

We had whispered a final farewell to winter and spring was upon us. The clocks had sprung forward during the previous weekend, which was amid the most recent tedious international break, and the sun was shining down on a perfect Stamford Bridge. Just as in those black and white French films which seemed to feature regularly on BBC2 in the ‘eighties, when there was an extended period of complete blackness between one scene and another – signifying a time for reflection on what had just been witnessed – it seemed that Stamford Bridge was awakening from an enforced slumber and we were waking with it. A stretch here. A yawn there. A remembrance of the toils of winter before a final push towards the days of destiny in April and May.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture, as it often does in the first blush of spring.

It looked like paradise.

The pre-match had been busy.

Due to a section of the M4 being closed, I chose to divert via a more southerly route, and came in via Stonehenge, the A303, the M3 and past Twickenham. From BA11 it to SW6 it took me three and a quarter hours. Not to worry, The Chuckle Bus was providing laughs-a-plenty throughout. The game against Crystal Palace was the first of three games in a week. Travel plans had occupied our thoughts for a while. After Manchester City’s visit on Wednesday, we are staying the night in Bournemouth – just like a huge section of the Chelsea away support – and there are then away games at Manchester United and Everton to get excited about. Sandwiched in among these league matches, we have the FA Cup semi-final against “that lot”; Parky has us all booked-up for train tickets for that one. A rare break for me and I can’t bloody wait. There have also been long and sustained thoughts of foreign travel.

Part serious, part-whimsical, I told the boys on the drive up :

“You know what, I’m more focussed on our first European away game together in the autumn than I am about us being champions.”

How we have missed Euro aways this season; they are surely at the pinnacle of my experiences following this team over the past twenty-five years.

At just before midday, I joined the usual suspects at “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington. Our mate Bob was over from California and Dave was over from France. I quickly knocked down two pints of Peroni. But time was marching on.

We walked down the North End Road and briefly popped in to “The Cock Tavern” to quickly say “hello/goodbye” to a few friends over from various parts of the US. It was fantastic to see them all again – too many names, too little time – but I took great pleasure in seeing Dave meet up with several New York Blues again, since he used to live in that great city for a good few years. Clearly his smiles and laughter were mine too. Bloody fantastic.

In the packed pub – an old haunt of mine, it was the very first pub I had a beer at Chelsea – there were supporters from New York, Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Elsewhere, fans from Chicago and Fresno were around and about.

Many of the supporters’ groups within the US have set off on a life of their own, attempting to absorb Chelsea fan culture as best they can, but ultimately many cities always seem to have developed an overwhelming American twist. One supposes that this is to be expected. In some respects, the last thing that anyone wants to see is anyone trying too hard to fit in to a perceived notion of what it is to be a Chelsea fan.

But it’s the subtle things that I notice. I like to see US fans meeting us halfway; or at least attempting to learn of our history, our rituals, our style.

With the New York group, I always feel that there are enough ex-pats involved to still provide a distinct cultural backbone to their fandom, whether it be behaviour, attitude, humour, songs, clobber, or a general Chelsea sense of self-deprecation induced by many years of suffering. When the New York Blues show up at tour stops in the US, they get the beers in and they know the score. As an added plus for this particular Chelsea fan, I like it that not all of them are ritually bedecked in Adidas tat nor Chelsea scarves ad nauseam. I like the New York Blues. I have a lot of time for them.

Just before I left, I bumped into Frank from Queens. We always share some ribald banter each other with our support of the Italian teams Napoli – Frank – and Juventus – myself – and I couldn’t resist passing on a little morsel of news from my work. Over the next month or so, we have to plan to deliver four of five artics of office furniture to none other than Juventus Football Club.

Frank’s response – “awesome!” – was quickly followed by a big hug.

Love it.

The next stop took in “The Malt House.” I promise not to bore the living daylights out of everyone between now and the end of the season with talk of the summer tour, but four of us had a little chitchat about the trip to Beijing in July. Bob, Glenn and myself were able to meet up with Big John, and we had a fruitful thirty minutes. The flights, hotels and match tickets have been paid for. Next on the agenda is the visa application and plans for a visit to The Great Wall.

OK – enough!

Amid the busyness and business of this particular pre-match, I had not heard about the team news.

There was only one change in the starting eleven; in came Cesc Fabregas for Victor Moses, but obviously this was not a straight swap. Pedro was shifted to wing back, with Cesc pushed up to a place in the front three.

The away fans were initially the centre of our attention. They had arrived with many a flag and banner draped over the balcony. Most notably of all, around one hunded– mainly young – black-clad supporters (the self-styled Holmesdale Road Ultras) were placed right above the banners at the epicentre of their block. Alan and myself pondered why a club like Crystal Palace could easily designate a block of away tickets to a distinct set of fans yet Chelsea Football Club continually finds this simple task beyond their ken. Countless times over the past few seasons, members of the away season ticket scheme have ended up in poor areas at various stadia all over the country.

The ultras, if not everyone within the block of three-thousand, were soon making a racket. Their favourite was a chant that took me right back to my night with two thousand Leverkusen fans at Wembley last November.

“La la – la la la – la la – Crystal Palace.”

However, they soon fell silent. A gorgeous long range pass from Fabregas allowed Eden Hazard to gather and reach the goal-line in front of the Palace fans. He seemed to be gifted too much time to skip past his marker and pick out a team mate. I had spotted Diego Costa supporting the attack, so imagine my surprise when I saw Cesc arrive with Lampardesque timing to touch the ball high past Hennessey.

Only five minutes had passed and we were one-up.

Get in.

Not long after, just as I was extolling the virtues of our team ethic as Pedro charged down a ball and then David Luiz cleared – chatting away to Alan, but watching the play – I then suggested it would just be our bloody luck that, after all this praise, we would concede. We both watched, aghast, as Wilfried Zaha twisted among several Chelsea defenders and struck a fine shot past Thibaut to equalise.

Just as my words floated off into the afternoon air, Alan was able to say “like that.”

Bollocks.

Only two minutes later, we watched as Palace broke with pace and we were cruelly exposed. The once lampooned Christian Benteke ran at David Luiz, with N’Golo Kante too far away to challenge. After a poorly-timed Luiz nibble, the ball broke fortuitously for that man Zaha to play in Benteke, with our defenders at sixes, sevens, eights, nines and tens. With Courtois scrambling out to block, Benteke craftily lifted the ball over our ‘keeper and into the net.

One-nil up, two-one down, we were a terrace chant gone wrong.

In the away section, a red flare appeared behind the flags. The ultras were making even more noise now. If I am honest, it was an impressive sight. They might be lampooned by some, but I can’t fault their desire to make some vibrant noise in support of their team. There is a distinct possibility that they are more famous than their players these days, just in the same way that the social misfits who appear on Arsenal Fan TV are more famous than the Arsenal players at the moment. I know who I favour.

We were 2-1 down.

But only eleven minutes were on the clock; surely more goals would follow?

We enjoyed much of the ball during the rest of the half. We had tons of possession. Oodles of it. But there seemed to be a noticeable lack of incisiveness. I lost count of the number of times that a diagonal was played wide left to Marcos Alonso. This might have been part of Conte’s game plan, but it honestly felt like we were painting by numbers, without individual thought. I was too far away to spot a potential penalty appeal in our favour. Diego tried his best but was not finding space. A Luiz free-kick was wasted. Alonso fizzed a ball across the box but nobody was near. I brought my hands up to my head; it was a reaction that would be repeated again and again as the game progressed. Dave smashed over, Matic forced a finger-tip save from Hennessey, Luiz again wasted a free-kick. Pedro was up and down the right flank like a demon, perhaps – actually – covering too much ground. Elsewhere the bite was missing. Hazard was a little peripheral.

But Palace were defending well.

At the break we were 2-1 down. Damn.

Sadly, there wasn’t a great deal of noise at Stamford Bridge. There were pockets of song, but in general our supporters were losing too.

At the break, a few supporters were presented with their CPO shares and we were treated to a walk around by Celestine Babayaro, who graced our team from 1997 to 2005. He formed a great left-wing alliance with Graeme Le Saux for a few seasons.

We found it inconceivable that the first player to be booked by referee Craig Pawson was Diego Costa. Palace had been swiping at our players throughout the first-half. Diego stretched to reach a ball, but Hennessy reached the ball just before he could get a touch. Diego then had a shot blocked by Scott Dann, who stayed down for an eternity. He was eventually carried off.

Conte replaced Matic with Willian and we went to a four at the back. I bet Pedro never ever thought that he would play right-back when he joined us last year.

Despite us dominating the ball, Palace broke down our right and Zaha, their star player, forced a great save from Thibaut. They had a little period when they caused us a few worries. We kept attacking, moving the ball between our players, but again without a killing pass. I thought our final ball in to the box, from Marcos Alonso especially, was very poor. Balls were swept in low, but defenders cleared. Lofted balls were played deep, but with nobody in Chelsea blue near. A clear chance fell to Diego from a Hazard cross. His header not only lacked power but direction too. It landed, pathetically, yards wide.

The pass of the day from Fabregas between the centre-back and the right-back was a thing of beauty but it amounted to nothing.

The time passed. I had a little chat with Alan, thinking back to previous home games against Palace.

“Bloody hell mate, have we ever lost to Palace in the league in our memory? I remember the FA Cup game in 1976, but have they ever beaten us here?”

PD looked over and said “last season.”

“Oh bloody hell. Yes. Of course.”

Had I shoved the trauma of last season so far in to my memory that I had forgotten that 2-1 reverse?

Evidently so.

Michy Batshuayi entered the fray as a replacement for Alonso. Balls from out wide were continually whipped-in, but Palace players blocked everything.

At last – on about the eightieth minute – the whole of Stamford Bridge eventually united in a single song.

“About bloody time.”

Shots from Willian, Cesc and Pedro were saved by Hennessey, who was having a storming game. As the referee’s assistant signalled a massive seven minutes, we willed the team on. But, unlike in previous games, when I felt that a goal would definitely come, on this occasion I wasn’t convinced.

The seven minutes soon passed. In our last attack, we urged Thibaut to join the attack as we awarded a corner. He did so. Dressed in black, he lined up to challenge for the ball among the blues and yellows. It is always the oddest of sights. Typically, Hennessy punched the ball clear.

At the whistle, at least there were no boos. That would have been the last straw.

So, on April Fool’s Day, we had dropped a clanger. This was a very surprising defeat. After we had all met up back at the car, it did not take long for us to thrash through our thoughts of the game. It wasn’t as if any player had performed particularly poorly, it was just that not enough had enjoyed those little moments of top quality.

I was the fool for thinking that our big week of football would begin with three easy points.

And I won’t be making that mistake again in a hurry.

On Wednesday, we face Manchester City at home in a game that could define our season; a Chelsea win, and our position will look a little more secure.

See you there.

IMG_3662

Tales From An Old Gold Adversary.

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Chelsea : 18 February 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe it is all they have.”

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

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

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

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

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

Tales From A Dark Night : 5 January 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales From A Work In Progress : 2 January 2012.

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

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

I reached Molineux unscathed and rewarded myself with a cheeseburger.

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

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

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

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

Happy with that.

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

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

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

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

“And it’s hi ho – Wolverhampton.”

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

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

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

“Who’s the wanker in the pink?”

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

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

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

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

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

Phew.

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

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

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

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

“Get in, game over.”

Into the last eight we went.

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

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

It had been a fine day in the Black Country.

img_3054

Tales From A Liverpudlian Pub Crawl.

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 31 January 2017. 

It had been a horrid time for Liverpool Football Club. In addition to a loss at home to Swansea City in the league, they were ousted from the two domestic cups within a few days. Not only were they “out” but they were Micky Flanagan “out out.” As for us, after our easy win in the FA Cup on Saturday, we were careering towards a huge game at Anfield, and it was a game that had thrilled and excited me for weeks, especially since Liverpool’s league campaign had faltered over recent months. The Chuckle Brothers, with no European adventures this season, had decided to stay over on Merseyside for this midweek match. And after overnight stays in Middlesbrough and Sunderland already this season, this one had the potential to be the best of the lot. Parky, PD and myself were joined on our trip north by my old school mate Francis, who has been an occasional visitor to Chelsea games over the years. I had collected all of the lads by 6.30am and made slow progress underneath cloudy skies; the rain was incessant. Eventually the skies cleared. I dropped down into the city of Liverpool and was parked-up at our city centre hotel by 11.15am. The trip to Liverpool had taken a full five-and-a-half hours.

The idea was for Francis and myself to head off on a little tour around the city before joining up with Parky and PD – who was celebrating his fifty-fifth birthday – in the afternoon. Francis had recently visited the city with his daughter, but – like me – had hardly seen much of the place over the years. I knew the stadia, and the area around the revitalised Albert Dock, but not much in between.

“Let’s just have a pint in a pub, come up with a plan and take it from there.”

The game was to kick-off at 8pm. At just after 11.45am, the four of us were settled in a magnificent old pub with wooden panels, stained glass, a low ceiling – “Rigby’s” – and I had a little chuckle to myself.

“Good effort boys – over eight hours to kick-off.”

Well, the first pint hardly touched the sides. One pint became two, then three, then four. Francis and I and soon decided to postpone the walk around the city centre until next time. Behind the bar was a black and white photograph of Dixie Dean, and this initiated a lovely chat with the landlord – a mad-keen Evertonian – who was soon taking the piss out of his city’s rivals.

“Well, you won’t hear many Liverpool fans going to the match tonight who will be speaking English. Norwegian, Danish, Swedish maybe.”

The landlord traded stories and memories of games and players with us, and a couple of Evertonians – supping pints on their lunch break – joined in.

Brian Labone, Pat Nevin, Colin Harvey, Alan Ball, Tommy Lawton.

I mentioned how my father had visited Goodison Park during World War Two, and talk centred on Everton’s stadium for a while. I mentioned that I had once seen a game from the top deck of the main stand – when Robert Fleck scored in 1992 – and the landlord mentioned that he had seen a few games at Goodison during the 1966 World Cup. I mentioned Archibald Leitch, the structural engineer who had planned many of football’s stadia over one hundred years ago, including Goodison Park, Anfield and Stamford Bridge.

“Archibald Leitch’s office was in that red brick building opposite just a few yards away. You probably walked past it this morning.”

What a small world and, indeed, we had. I had spoken to Francis about its imposing façade as we had walked along Dale Street earlier.

As he disappeared into the other bar, he commented that I should read a book called “Engineering Archie” which detailed Leitch’s life.

“I’ve got it mate.”

He smiled and said “you’re good, you.”

I laughed.

To our left were two Liverpool supporters from Austria. To our left were two Liverpool supporters from Germany. The landlord was right.

As the beers were downed, the landlord told the story of how he had not seen Everton play for a few years due to his increasing dislike of the way the club was being run. But he then had the chance to go to a game with a mate who he bumped into a few months back. Guess which one? It was the game at Stamford Bridge back in the autumn when we annihilated them.

He pulled a face.

“Youse lot were amazing that day.”

Interestingly, he mentioned that the girls serving food and drink in the away section at Chelsea wore Dixie Dean T-shirts. A nice touch, I thought.

From Dixie Dean to Dixie Dean, a circle was completed.

Steve, newly-arrived from Lime Street, joined us and it was great to see him again. He has been working over in Vietnam for a few years but still makes it back for a few games each season. We remembered our time together in Tokyo for the 2012 World Club Championships and also the time in Philadelphia when we posed with the club banners on the city’s famous Rocky Steps. Before we left, the landlord posed us a question. Apparently, in around 1968 or so, Everton played Chelsea and all six half-backs in the game had surnames that began with the letter “H.” We quickly came up with Harris and Hinton for Chelsea, but had no hope of getting any of the Everton ones. This brain-teaser soon morphed into the old question of naming the seven Chelsea players from the ‘seventies with surnames beginning with “H.” We all chirped in.

“Harris.”

“Hollins.”

“Houseman.”

“Hinton.”

“Hudson.”

“Hutchinson.”

“Are you sure there were seven?”

“How about Hosgood?”

We giggled.

We moved a few yards down Dale Street to pub number two, “The Vernon Arms” which oddly had a sloping floor. To our right there were two Liverpool fans from Dublin.

“No English accents.”

We had to laugh, the landlord from the first pub showed up on his break.

“It’s cheaper.”

The beers were certainly flowing now. We moved on to pub number three, “The Exelsior” and the drinking continued. We bumped into a couple from Dundee – Chelsea fans down for the game – and we soon found out that they knew our mate Foxy, he of the Dundee-based “Charlie Cooke Flying Squad.” Again, a comment about a small world is surely in order.

The next pub – just a few more yards along Dale Street – was “The Ship & Mitre.”

Here, it certainly felt like we were enacting The Pied Piper Of Hamelin, as we were joined by Kev, who loves his real ales and who sits very near me at Chelsea, and Jeremy, from Kansas, who I last saw in the US. More drinks, more laughs, oh bloody hell, what a giggle.

We asked Kev about the riddle involving the Chelsea players.

“Hosgood?”

We laughed again.

The Chuckle Brothers were in town alright.

Time was moving on. At around 7pm, we took two cabs up to Anfield; PD, Parky and myself in one, Francis and the Charlie Cooke Flying Squad in the other. The accumulative effect of a ridiculously long drinking session began to take its toll. There were a few fraught minutes when I thought that I had mislaid my match ticket. I made my blurry way over to “The Arkles” at about 7.15pm where I had hoped to meet up with a couple of friends. Sadly, they were nowhere to be seen. Francis suddenly appeared in the bar and we hurriedly wolfed-down a couple of large gin and tonics.

With only a few minutes to spare, I made my way in to the away end and finally edged my way along to meet up with Alan and Gary. The Kop was full of scarves and flags, but my attention was taken up by the huge new stand to our right which dwarfed the other three structures at Anfield. The dull grey roof sloped down in sections towards The Kop and the Anfield Road. The rain was sleeting down. It was a horrible night but the green carpet glistened. Our end was packed. Elsewhere, I could hardly see any empty seats.

It was time for me to quickly assess the team that Antonio Conte had chosen. Matic was selected alongside Kante. Willian had got the nod ahead of Pedro. Mark Clattenburg whistled the start of the game and it felt so odd to see Liverpool attacking The Kop in the first-half. In all of my years of attending games at Anfield – this was game number twenty-two – I could not remember many other matches that had begun in a similar fashion. One stood out, for all of the wrong reasons; that Louis bloody Garcia game in 2005. I tried my best to focus and concentrate on the action being played out in front of me. Liverpool certainly enjoyed a huge amount of early possession and I think that it surprised us all. The ball was moved across the pitch at will by Liverpool but to be truthful they rarely breached our defensive line nor exposed us.

Not long into our game, news filtered through that Arsenal were losing 2-0 at home against the might of Watford. Oh my aching sides.

We began to grow into the game. A run by Eden Hazard was abruptly stopped and we waited for the resulting free-kick. Willian stood over the ball. I took a photograph of him waiting. The referee whistled and David Luiz – not Willian – raced at the ball. His customary side-on strike caught everyone unawares. It certainly caught me unawares as he was too quick for my trusty camera. The ball dipped and curled at all the right places and made the net ripple, with Mignolet miles away.

My first thought; David’s first goal for us since his return.

This was followed a nano-second later with another thought.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

It was our first real effort on goal.

The three-thousand Chelsea supporters roared as Luiz reeled away and sprinted over to the Chelsea bench. Thousands of inhabitants of the new stand looked down in dismay.

Chances were at an absolute premium as the play continued. The ball zipped over the wet surface and although the two teams tried their best to engineer chances, the play was of great intensity but of little guile and craft. Liverpool again had most of the ball, but Thibaut Courtois was largely untroubled in front of The Kop.

Soon into the second-half, Firmino wasted a great chance for Liverpool, blasting high and wide.

At the other end, Moses scraped the outside of the post in a rare Chelsea attack.

Just before the hour, a deep cross from Henderson found Milner, only a few yards away from us in the away section. His header back across the six-yard box was subsequently touched home by Wijnaldum.

Bollocks.

I feared the worst, to be honest and kept glancing at the clock, willing the clock to keep moving on. We tackled and closed space. This really was a war of attrition. Kante won tackle after tackle.

With twenty minutes to go, Conte replaced Hazard with Pedro.

In one of his few forays into the Liverpool box, Costa was caught by Matip and – yes! – Clattenburg pointed to the spot. I can’t imagine what it must be like to step forward and take a penalty in front of The Kop, but sadly Diego shot weakly to Mignolet’s right – a very poor effort – and the ball was pushed away for a corner.

Fabregas replaced Willian in the closing moments and he added some steadiness amongst the frantic pin-ball. Both sets of fans were baying for a winner. Pedro, adding extra pace to our attacks, came close and then Firmino headed weakly at Thibaut. Batshuayi replaced Diego Costa.

The whistle blew. There was rapid confirmation that Arsenal had indeed lost against Watford, but also Tottenham had only garnered a draw at basement dwellers Sunderland. It had been a game that never really delivered its share of excitement, but it did not matter. We had increased our lead at the very top of the table to a massive nine points.

Outside in the cold night air, we all treated ourselves to burgers outside The Kop, before we piled in to the final pub of the day “The Valley” which sits at the end of Walton Breck Road as it meets Everton Valley. I can remember being marched en masse by the local “bizzies” past this big old pub on many occasions during the dark days of the ‘eighties. It looked a grim old place in those days and I always used to think that an ambush by battle-hardened locals was only a few seconds away. There were more drinks – more gin and tonics – and quiet chat among the four of us. It had been a fantastic pub crawl alright. Six pubs all told. We caught a cab back in to town, down the famous Scotland Road, and finally reached our hotel. There was time for one last nightcap, and a chat with two more Chelsea lads from Scotland, Andy and Graham, in the hotel bar.

After a long hard day it was time to call it a night.

img_2397

Tales From A Very Local Affair.

Chelsea vs. Brentford : 28 January 2017.

We honestly do not have too much to moan about as Chelsea fans, do we?

In the words of the new chant – of which I am not too sure if I am a huge fan – “we’ve won it all.” And indeed we have. Additionally, we currently have a top drawer manager providing wonderful weekly results, a plush new stadium just around the corner and a solid financial base.

But it never ceases to amaze me how many repetitive and downright dull our FA Cup pairings seem to be. I guess we should be used to this. In Europe, it is well documented how often have we been drawn against Barcelona, Liverpool, Paris St. Germain, Porto, Schalke and Valencia in recent seasons.

I hear Tottenham fans shouting abuse from afar : “”We’d love that problem you miserable bastards.”

Quite.

But we love fresh fields at Chelsea.

And along with many fellow fans of a certain vintage, I have reached the stage where I crave new grounds in our quest for further FA Cup glories. Yet, over the past decade, I can only remember a few instances where I was thrilled at the prospect of us visiting a new stadium; Preston North End in 2010, Brentford in 2013 and Milton Keynes Dons in 2016.

Conversely, there have been a dull procession of home FA Cup games. We have played matches against Birmingham City, Everton, Huddersfield Town, Ipswich Town, Scunthorpe United, Stoke City and Watford on two occasions since 2005.

I’m not sure about hot balls, or cold balls, but it would appear that some FA Cup balls are stuck together. Sorry – horrible image.

It was time for a change.

Yet our third round home game against Peterborough United – yep, we played them at home in 2001, what a shocker – was followed by a home tie against Brentford, who we only met four years ago. Sigh.

So. You get the message. Not a new away stadium. Not even a new team at home.

In truth, my head was full of the trip to Anfield on Tuesday night. That trip can’t come quick enough. The Chuckle Brothers are staying a night in Liverpool. It will hopefully be a legendary night.

For our pre-match drinks for the Brentford game, we were drinking in another new pub, “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, a full thirty-minute walk away from Stamford Bridge. I can feel my US friends recoiling at the very thought of that.

Fidget. Fidget : “Thirty minutes? Can we take an uber?”

It’s a big old pub, on several levels, with a couple of snugs and a fine selection of ales, ciders and lagers. Parky told us that it was the venue which used to hold many punk gigs in the ‘seventies when it was called The Nashville Rooms. The Sex Pistols, The Stranglers, The Buzzcocks and Siouxsie and The Banshees all played there. With the new “Trainspotting” film in the news, I was reminded that in the 1996 original, a scene takes place in a flat opposite the pub when the main character Renton tries his hand at being an estate agent. It seems like a pub with a definite Chelsea past, a Chelsea feel. After leaving The Goose recently, I think we may have found a new permanent home, or at least the starting point for a few North End Road pub crawls.

A few Brentford fans were spotted walking down the Talgarth Road and past the boozer. With Griffin Park just a few miles to the west, this had the feel of a very local affair.

On a big screen, the Liverpool vs. Wolves game was being shown. The visitors scored within a minute.

I turned to The Chuckle Brothers and said “I think it’s going to be a good day, lads.”

Just as I was getting a round in, Wolves scored a second and the pub roared in appreciation. What a poor succession of home results for Liverpool. A humiliating loss to Swansea City in the league was followed by a League Cup loss to Southampton. A subsequent loss to Wolves would surely mean that the atmosphere at Anfield on Tuesday would be a little more subdued and a little easier to tame.

We set off in good time for the ground, popping in to The Elm – a first-time visit for me – on the way through. On the walk, we heard that Liverpool had lost 2-1.

Beautiful.

There were six thousand Brentford fans in The Shed, but just two small flags draped over the balcony wall. No streamers. No balloons. No tin-foiled cardboard FA Cups. But it was yet another full house for an FA Cup game. Chelsea fans in respect for FA Cup shock.

The programme cover was another of our retro-styled editions. It was based on an old Edwardian Chelsea Chronicle, and the old pensioner was shown high-fiving Antonio Conte. It was a nice idea, but the line drawing of Conte was really poorly executed. A twelve year-old could have done better. But I love these old-style editions. They’re fantastic.

The manager had changed things around a little, not surprisingly.

Begovic.

Azpilicueta, Terry, Zouma.

Pedro, Fabregas, Chalobah, Ake.

Loftus-Cheek, Batshuayi, Willian.

It was especially pleasing to see Nathan Ake playing for us again. It has been a while. I wasn’t sure about Loftus-Cheek playing in a wide position upfront, but maybe the idea was for him to drift in and support Michy.

The game began. We attacked the away fans in The Shed. A shot from Pedro had them all ducking for cover. The same player, playing wing-back remember, rather than in the forward three, was then blocked as he attempted to twist past his marker. This felt like a great position, possibly for Willian or Cesc. Indeed, it was Willian who curled the ball over the wall and past the Bees’ ‘keeper Bentley at his unguarded near post. It was a lovely goal, and reminded me of the same player’s trademark efforts of last autumn. After the celebrations, I turned to Alan.

We smiled.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Only thirteen minutes were on the clock.

Not long after, we quickly countered with Michy Batshuayi planting a perfectly placed ball at the feet of Pedro – with Reuben Loftus-Cheek running alongside – and it seemed almost implausible for him to miss. Pedro tucked it away.

Chelsea 2 Brentford 0.

We were dominating possession. Brentford were hardly involved. Loftus-Cheek shot wide, Batshuayi went close. Loftus-Cheek rattled a fierce shot at goal, but the ‘keeper arched back to tip over. It was a fine shot and a fine save.

Former prospect Josh McEachran was warmly applauded when he came over to take a couple of corners down below us.

This was another relatively quiet game. There were no lasting bellows of support. Often – to my annoyance – the away fans would chant something, and the Chelsea fans would use it as a catalyst for our own version of the same song. Reactive and not proactive. Using the away fans as our own cheerleaders. Micky Greenaway would not be happy.

Our chances continued to pile up, and Brentford at last tested Begovic.

At the break, Ron Harris and Tommy Baldwin were on the pitch with Neil Barnett. I had forgotten that Baldwin had ended-up at Brentford. During the week, I had spotted an old team photograph of Brentford from when Chopper was a coach. The team included the likes of Chris Kamara, Stan Bowles and Terry Hurlock.

Just like in the previous round against Peterborough United, we were 2-0 up. And memories of our game against Bradford City in 2015 would not go away.

These concerns continued as Brentford began brightly. But Loftus-Cheek, put through by the excellent Willian, thrashed a shot which skimmed the Brentford bar.

At the other end, there was a rare Brentford chance, but the alert Begovic was able to drop to his knees and palm away a loose ball before an attacker could pounce.

There was still very little noise. The loudest chants of the day seemed to be for the now idolised manager Conte. Loftus-Cheek had another shot, which was again deflected wide of the target. It was proving to be a frustrating day for him, but he never gave up.

A rainbow appeared fleetingly above the London skies.

Conte replaced Willian with Branislav Ivanovic. Within just a few minutes, a pass from Pedro set up the substitute. The ball was perfectly played for Brana to swipe home. What a sweet strike. As he reeled away, I wondered if this would be his parting shot, since he has been strongly linked to a move away in this transfer window. His celebrations seemed quite muted. He was playing the cards close to his chest. I wondered if there would be any tell-tale waves at the final whistle.

Batshuayi had been toiling away all afternoon and I wondered if he was at all frustrated that Ivanovic had scored within just four minutes since his appearance in the game.

Kenedy replaced Azpilicueta. Dave – playing to the left of John Terry on this occasion – had been as steady as a rock. To Terry’s right, Kurt Zouma had enjoyed a game in which he was not really tested, but still seems rather stiff and ungainly at times. I am not totally convinced that he might be a suitable fit in a defensive three.

Kenedy, who was full of running on his appearances last season, is now the illustrated man, with his arms blue with ink.

A huge swirl of cloud – turning delicate pink, billowed behind the East Stand. It was an afternoon of easy distraction.

Diego Costa replaced Pedro, probably our finest player of the day. My friend Rick in Iowa has a lovely nickname for Pedro : El Colibri. The hummingbird. It perfectly illustrates his constant fluttering and delicate movement.

More chants aimed at our manager.

“Antonio. Antonio. Antonio. Antonio.”

He did a 360 degree salute to all of the stands.

Man of the moment Ivanovic was fouled inside the Brentford box and Michy Batshuayi grabbed the ball. He comfortably slammed the ball home. His smiling leap in front of me was lovely to see.

Chelsea 4 Brentford 0.

Another home win in the FA Cup.

At the end, my eyes were focussed on Branislav Ivanovic. There were no waves, no claps, no sign that this was indeed his last game for us. He simply strode off the pitch, the day’s job completed. The mark of a true professional.

At various stages in the afternoon, Tottenham were 2-0 and 3-2 down to Wycombe Wanderers, but our day was spoiled when we learned that they had won 4-3 in the last minute.

I hate a sad ending.

img_2256

Tales From The Clarence.

Chelsea vs. Peterborough United : 8 January 2017.

In the pub, there was only the briefest most-mortem of the loss at Tottenham on the previous Wednesday. A few of us had been present at the game; others had watched on the TV. We all agreed that we hadn’t been atrocious. We all agreed that Tottenham hadn’t ripped us to shreds. In the circumstances, a run-of-the-mill 2-0 loss at one of our toughest away venues of the season was met with a gentle acceptance. A few mentioned that Marcos Alonso – I honestly could not remember him from his spell in England with either Bolton or Sunderland – has not performed too well of late, and I had to agree. There was a slight mention of the transfer window, but nobody had too much to say about that. Where does our squad need strengthening? Maybe a left-back, then, and maybe another striker. With Kurt Zouma about to return against Peterborough United later in the day, and – presumably – with Andreas Christensen due to return from his very successful spell at Borrusia Moenchengladbach in the summer – there is surely no need for the club to sign a central defender, despite the constant rumours linking us with Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci, in the January window.

Around ten of us were trying out a new pub for the first time. After the demise of The Goose – it’s still frequented by some, but some of us fancy fresh pastures – we are still trying out new options. On this occasion, it was the turn of The Clarence. Heading north along the North End Road from The Goose, are three similar old-style pubs; The Elm, The Old Oak and The Clarence. These are small parlours and are strikingly similar in many ways. Old-fashioned décor, tired carpets, darkened wooden panels, fixtures from the ‘seventies, no frills and thrills, faded framed paintings and packets of crisps as the only bar snack. There was a time when all match-day pubs were like this. Our old haunt The Harwood Arms – 1995 to 1999 – certainly was.  The Seven Stars is no more, but that used to line the North End Road too, just opposite The Clarence. Then up at West Kensington is The Famous Three Kings. Since The Clarence housed only around twenty customers on this particular pre-match, we surmised that this pub just about marked the most north-westerly outpost of Chelsea drinkers on match days. It was OK. At least the beers were served in glass pints. To be honest, it filled a need but it was anything but posh.

I had spotted only a handful of Peterborough United supporters on my pre-amble to the boozer. They were to be six thousand strong, but I didn’t see any of them in any of the pubs around the stadium. I suspect a lot of them were doing their drinking around Earls Court. There had been a brief chat with some usual suspects at the CFCUK stall about the game at White Hart Lane – “I’d prefer this to be a league game to be honest, let’s get back in to the routine and get some points in the bag” – alongside talk of Adidas trainers and the imminent new stadium planning presentation to the local council on Wednesday evening.

That will surely prove to be one of the most historic nights in our history.

I spotted a new selection of royal blue pennants lining Fulham Broadway and Fulham Road. There were images of our silverware, along with pennants showing the words to two Chelsea standards; “Blue Is The Colour” and “The Blue Flag.”

Inside the stadium, the six thousand away fans took up the entire Shed End. Parky had been pushed to a seat in the West Lower, the poor bugger.

I approved of the retro-style programme cover which mirrored that of our 1965 FA Cup Quarter Final against Peterborough United; a nice touch.

We had been told that both Kurt Zouma and Michy Batshuayi would start against The Posh. In the pub, the starting eleven chosen by Antonio Conte, puzzled us a little. We found the thought of Branislav Ivanovic as a starting wing-back too weird for words. And Pedro, too, for that matter. Who would ever have thought that these two players would be playing the same role in a Chelsea starting eleven? We live in tactically-interesting times, eh?

Begovic.

Zouma, Terry, Cahill.

Ivanovic, Fabregas, Chalobah, Pedro.

Loftus-Cheek, Batshuayi, Willian.

It was obviously lovely to see King Kurt back after a very lengthy spell out. I wasn’t sure about Ruben playing in a wide position, but it gave him a chance to impress.

We played Peterborough United in the same round of the competition in 2001 and won 5-0. On that occasion, the visitors wore a lurid lime green kit. This time, it was a lurid yellow. The game began, and I was a little disappointed that the away fans seemed quiet from the off. Despite a bright start from their home town heroes, they mainly stayed seated. There were no FA Cup balloons, another dying tradition.

Our first chance came from a near post flick from Gary Cahill after a low Willian corner, which caused an immediate scare in the away end. The ball bounced back into the arms of the ‘keeper – lurid pink – off the post. At the other end, a scare for us. A fine cross into our box was met by a lunge from a Peterborough striker. Asmir Begovic’ point blank stop looked exceptional, though this was just a save brought about by exceptional positioning than dynamic ability. A volley from John Terry ended up being planted straight at the Posh keeper’s stomach, and then Peterborough threatened Begovic again. It was quite a start for them.

Zouma reached row Z of The Shed with one effort, and then Willian reached row W with another. It was a very bright opening.

Following a shot from Chalobah which was palmed back out by the ‘keeper McGee, Pedro controlled the loose ball, lost his man with a deft shimmy, and smacked the ball in – high – at the far post.

Get in.

Pedro made a point of running down past the away fans to the far corner. Somebody obviously failed to tell him that The Shed wouldn’t be housing any home fans on this occasion. He looked a bit sheepish.

We put the Peterborough goal under pressure, with efforts from Batshuayi and Loftus-Cheek. Pedro, in a copycat move, slammed the ball high, but this time the ball crashed against the bar.

Just before the break, a fine move involving a hooked past from Willian to an advanced Ivanovic, resulted in Batshuayi calmly slotting home after a delicate lay-off from Loftus-Cheek.

Coasting now, 2-0, but I whispered to PD and his son Scott : “remember Bradford City in 2015.”

Willian had enjoyed an excellent first-half, full of running and intelligent passing.

It felt odd watching JT, the returning war horse. I watched on, seeking to praise him at every opportunity, in the same way that I would a youngster from the ranks. In this, surely his last season, I do not want to see him embarrassed again in the same way as he was at West Ham in the League Cup.

At the break, misty rain appeared. Neil Barnett introduced winger Bert Murray from that 1965 game, which we won 5-1.

Not long in to the second period, we broke with ease up the left flank. A marvellous pass from Cesc to Pedro who pushed it on to Willian. A touch inside his marker, and the ball was adeptly dispatched low past McGee. There was a lovely little celebratory dance with Kurt Zouma.

I turned to PD : “there will be no Bradford City today.”

We kept pressing at every opportunity. However, I had to admire how everyone chased and harried once the opponents threatened. I lost count of the number of times that Pedro ran at pace at defenders one minute, but was then seen deep in our own penalty area clearing an attack, or making a timely tackle. If it had been Willian’s first-half, it was surely Pedro’s second. There was one run which I captured on film – click, click, click – which featured a ridiculous high-speed step-over. I almost fell over just watching it. He is surely having one of the best seasons.

Ola Aina – perhaps unlucky not to start – replaced Gary Cahill on the hour.

A rare Peterborough break then caught John Terry unawares. Angol pushed the ball past him, and Terry lunged. It looked awfully messy, but my immediate thought was that, although a red card was possible, Ivanovic was covering. The roar from the away fans put paid to that notion.

A red card for John.

In a reshuffle, Dave replaced Loftus-Cheek, who had been steady rather than spectacular. Of the other youngsters, Zouma looked a little rusty. Batshuayi held the ball up well and a goal for him will boost his confidence. Chalobah was fine.

Against the run of play, Peterborough worked the ball down our left-flank and a low cross was turned past Begovic by Nicholls.

A slight Bradfordesque tremor? Not really. Conte played a strong card from the bench, replacing the excellent Willian by the redoubtable N’Golo Kante. Aina pushed the ball up to Batshuayi, who set up the waiting Pedro. The man of the match quickly slotted the ball home, low past McGee.

Chelsea 4 Peterborough United 1.

We still kept going, searching for more goals. There is no mercy rule in English football, and why should there be? Goals breed confidence, and despite no more ensuing goals, there was certainly a feel-good atmosphere bouncing around Stamford Bridge at the final whistle.

On Saturday evening, it’s back to the league campaign with an away trip to Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City.

Just champion.

img_1614