Tales From A Christmas Choir

Brentford vs. Chelsea : 22 December 2021.

After the game at Molineux on Sunday in which we just couldn’t find a way to pierce the Wolves resistance, we were now set to play West London neighbours Brentford with a further-depleted starting eleven in the League Cup quarter final.

I again worked an early shift – up at 5.45am, in at 7am – in order to be able to meet up with the troops and drive them to London at 3pm. With the emergence of an extra ticket via my friend Steph, we were able to move tickets around so that the four of us – PD, Parky, Glenn and I – were all able to attend. This was a repeat of those attending the league game in October, though the pre-match was vastly different.

In October, Glenn was at the wheel, and we enjoyed a superb pre-match pub crawl along the river that took in five boozers. This time, once I had parked-up bang on schedule at 5.20pm a mile or so to the west of the Brentford Community Stadium, the pub-crawl was a lot more local to the game and a lot less extensive.   

At around 5.45pm, the four of us dipped into the dimly-lit back room of “The Steam Packet” a few yards from the river at Kew Bridge but we soon decided to head on to another. Just a two-minute walk away stood “The Bell And Crown” and we sidled in. Some friendly Brentford lads made room for us at the front of the pub. It looked a cracking boozer, full of Christmas decorations, and a few fellow match-goers. Brentford’s support might miss the old ground with the pubs on the four corners but the little knot of hostelries at Kew Bridge are a fine replacement. My diet-Coke was served in a plastic Brentford logo-d cup, the first time I had ever seen such a thing. My friend Trev and his son Luke arrived and it was great to see them. I had only mentioned Trev in this blog – for the Leeds United game – a few days back and here he was, appearing right in front of me. The last time I saw him was at a mate’s fiftieth in Bristol in 2016.

I whispered to Trev “maybe if I mention Jennifer Anniston in the blog for this game, I’ll see her in the pub before Brighton.”

Trev lives in nearby Twickenham – we probably drove within a few hundred yards of his house on the way up – and although he is a Leeds United fan, he has a membership at Brentford. This would be both his and Luke’s first game at the new stadium.

There was a nice pre-match buzz and I was enjoying the vibe in our little corner of the pub. We had heard Thomas Tuchel mention that a few youth players would be given a chance in the game. If Brentford were to field a full strength team, the match would be a real test. The memory of our slightly fortuitous win in October was fresh in all of our minds.

I needed to excuse myself and spirited myself away from the charms of the warm and welcoming boozer. I backtracked and met up with Steph outside the away end at around 7.15pm. Steph now lives in Portland, Oregon. I first met her – we worked out later – in 2007 in “The Elk Bar” at Fulham Broadway before a Champions League game with Valencia when the then leader of the New York Blues, the famous Mike Neat, pointed me in her direction. We have stayed friends ever since. I last saw Steph in New Jersey when we lost 4-2 to what was ostensibly the New York Red Bulls youth team in 2015.

We made our way into the stadium; our seats were in the slim North Stand, two rows from the rear, but not too far away from where I had watched the league game in October. After that first game, I had made the point that it felt that many old school Chelsea fans had managed to attend that game; I hope those who had missed out then were luckier a second time around.

There was a flashing light show well before the entrance of the teams with accompanying music. I wondered if I had stumbled into a Beyonce concert. It was easy to spot empty seats in the home areas despite Brentford camouflaging them in various colours. There were no such gaps in the away section.

The away support was raucous well before the game began.

It was a cold night, but not too cold.

The Chelsea team was shown on the screen above the main stand.

Arrizabalaga

Chalobah – Saar – Azpilicueta

Simons – Kovacic – Saul – Alonso

Barkley – Soonsup-Bell – Vale

So, three debuts.

Xavier Simons, starting as the right wing-back down below us.

Harvey Vale, alongside Ross Barkley and supporting the main striker, with the looks of a ‘fifties film star.

Jude Soonsup-Bell, a youngster from Chippenham – not so far from us – and asked to lead the line.

There were the requisite photos of Steph brandishing her New York Blues scarf, and we were ready to go.

Right from the off, the Chelsea choir were in fine form. In fact, as early as the first fifteen minutes, I was stunned with the number of different songs and chants being aired. I will go as far as to say that it might well have been the best ever.

Really?

Yes really.

“We love you Chelsea we do, oh Chelsea we love you.”

“Carefree wherever you may be.”

“We’re the only team in London with a European Cup.”

“We’ve got Tuchel, we love bugle, Chelsea’s won the Champions League.”

“Hello, hello we are the Chelsea Boys.”

Chelsea began bright and eager. We had all of the ball in the first few opening minutes. But Brentford threatened with the first of a few lightening breaks. After an initial ball in was blocked by Trevoh Chalobah, a deep cross was hooked up towards Wissa who was completely and damningly unmarked. His weak header was punched out by Kepa. The ‘keeper was dressed all in orange, how Spanish. The away crowd roared.

“He’s Kepa you know. He’s better than fucking Thibaut.”

Saul, thankfully, started really well, winning tackles and looking more at ease. One turn and beautiful pass out to Marcos Alonso drew warm applause. The songs and chants continued to cascade down the terracing from that higher section behind the corner flag. The next section triumphed individual players, including one that nodded towards the awful news that one of our dearest former players now has to battle cancer all over again.

“Vialli! Vialli” Vialli! Vialli!”

We wish Luca all the very best. Everyone loves him at Chelsea.

“Oh Dennis Wise, scored a fucking great goal, in the San Siro…”

“It was Wayne Bridge’s goal that sent us out of control and knocked Arsenal out the euro.”

“Oh Roman do you know what that’s worth? Kai Havertz is the best on earth.”

And it’s always nice to hear this one at Christmas.

“Osgood, Osgood, born is the king of Stamford Bridge.”

We were teasing them down the left flank with Alonso always involved. A cross to Ross Barkley but an easy save. There was a build-up of pressure but only really what could be called by the most optimistic of Chelsea supporters as half-chances. Saul was arguably our best player of the first thirty minutes.

Brentford always looked threatening on the break. Thankfully most of these petered out. But there was another save from Kepa, at stretch to keep out another header, this time from Jansson.

For the first time that I can ever remember, a certain pub song made it in to the away end.

“There’s a girl who I love best…”

The “Chelsea Ranger” continued on.

Other songs followed.

“One man went to mow, went to mow a meadow.”

“Marcos, Marcos Alonso runs down the wing for me (crashing Beamers, scoring screamers).”

“Zigger Zagger, Zigger Zagger.”

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel.”

The home fans, in comparison, were absolutely quiet.

This was proper “men against boys” stuff.

They must have looked on in absolute awe.

Vale flung himself at a cross from Dave, and perhaps should have done better with what was effectively a free header. A late flurry of activity at the same end resulted in more half-chances from Vale, Chalobah and Simons. Hand on heart, we didn’t look like scoring and I half-wondered if this tie would end up being decided on penalties. The half-time whistle blew. For all of our domination, Kepa had kept us in the game.

At the start of the second period, two substitutions.

Jorginho for Kovacic.

Pulisic for Soonsup-Bell.

I was pleased for Steph. It gave her the chance to see more of our time line players.

An effort from Saul almost caused an embarrassing own goal from Pinnock.

The Chelsea choir reacted.

“If Saul scores, we’re on the pitch.”

And the chants, if not the chances, continued on.

“Feed the Scousers, let them know it’s Christmas time.”

Ah, Ross Barkley. He wasn’t having the best of games but his song was still aired.

“Viva Ross Barkley.”

And there were more.

“He could’ve been a scouser but he said get fucked”

And more.

“Tsamina mina zangalewa, he comes from Senegal.”

“Fabregas is magic, he wears a magic hat.”

More substitutions.

Mount for Vale.

James for Simons.

More “A listers” for Steph.

“Reece James, he’s one of our own.”

The momentum swayed even more our way. Again, Alonso was so often used as an attacking option. He rarely gave the ball away.

A free-kick down below us and a direct effort from Reece James caused problems in the Brentford goalmouth. Barkley steered a shot just wide of the far post. The former Evertonian just wasn’t on it.

With fifteen minutes to go, he was yanked.

On came N’Golo Kante.

Steph was happy.

Our little maestro had an immediate impact, eating up space as he ran past defenders.

“He’s indestructible, always believing.”

On eighty minutes, it was Kante’s adroit control that set up Reece James on an overlap. His studied cross was fired in and the leg of Jansson deflected the cross high into the red and white chequered net.

Get in.

Time for jubilation in the tiny away segment.

“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Oh what fun it is to see Chelsea win away.”

This was followed by :

“We’re gonna bounce in a minute.”

Five minutes later, Mount pushed the ball forward for Pulisic, who was clumsily upended by the ‘keeper. An easy penalty.

Jorginho. A skip. A goal.

Brentford 0 Chelsea 2.

“Jorginho, Jorginho, Jorginho.”

As the players swarmed around the scorer down below us, there was time for one more song.

“Azpilicueta, we’ll just call you Dave.”

For those counting, that’s twenty-eight songs.

Throw in “Chelsea, Chelsea” to the sound of “Amazing Grace” and the standard “Come on Chelsea” and that’s a nice round thirty.

A superb effort by everyone.

Outside in the concourse, the boys met up with Steph, and we then went our separate ways. The four of us headed west, and I reached home at about 12.45am.

Tottenham await us in the two-legged semi-final in January; shades of 2019 and not 2002 I hope.

But first, Villa away on Boxing Day.

See you there.

Tales From A Long Game And A Long Day

Watford vs. Chelsea : 1 December 2021.

It had taken me two-and-a-half hours to drive up to Watford from Melksham. We were parked up at the northern end of Watford’s pedestrianised high street and were soon ordering drinks at the bar inside “The Horns” public house. It was around a quarter to five on another cold winter day. The match was due to kick-off at 7.30pm, the second of three games in the London area within seven days. I was driving to all of them; a total of 670 miles.

Just as I had arrived in Watford, a text from a long, lost mate.

Jesus from California was in town. Parky and I first met him at a game at Goodison Park in May 2011 – the Carlo Ancelotti sacking debacle – but he was a major fixture in that amazing 2011/2012 season when his university sent him on an internship to London for a few months. We met him a few times at Stamford Bridge, but also at Manchester City, Fulham, Arsenal and Napoli. He went to the Champions League games at Benfica and Barcelona too. But then he returned to Calexico and, despite me trying to get him to head back to Chelsea, his studies ended and his new business venture started, and getting away was proving difficult.

The years passed.

A month or so ago, he told me he was heading over – without match tickets – for the games at Watford and West Ham.

Fackinell.

PD and Parky sipped on Stellas while I sipped a Diet Coke. We eagerly awaited his arrival. It was all a bit ironic really, since I had two extra tickets in my wallet but which were already promised to another. We waited for Andy to arrive at “The Horns” too. Sadly, he was running late.

At around 5.30pm, Jesus and his mate Rafael arrived. What a joy to see him again. A hug and handshakes. They had been down near Vicarage Road in a pub called “The Red Lion”, trying to source a ticket or two. There was a rushed update on our lives – and football – but I explained that they really needed to head down to the main Chelsea pub, “The Moon Under Water”, and put the feelers out for spares. They set off at about 6pm.

Andy was caught in traffic so I arranged to see him outside the ground.

Suddenly, it was all about tickets.

There is absolutely no doubt that the football public are mad for football once again; for away games especially so. The buzz of away games far outweighs home matches. We all love them.

This was going to be a long day. I was up at 4.45am to enable me to get in to work to do a very early 6am to 2pm shift. We were glad we had set off at just after two o’clock. We had been caught in some heavy traffic as we wended our way around the notorious M25 and Andy was stuck in that same slug of traffic. Apart from the delay on the London orbital, it was a painless drive up to Hertfordshire; the highlight being the sight of two intense rainbows as we drove through rain clouds on the M3.

Ahead, dark grey brooding clouds. Behind, an intense yellow wash over the clouds in my rear view mirror. Above, multicolours.

We set off – coats buttoned, that winter chill was a frightener – at around 6.30pm. We arrived at Vicarage Road just before 7pm. I stayed outside and left PD and Parky to get inside. There was no news of tickets for Jesus, nor any news from Andy battling the M25.

I positioned myself right under the sign at “The Red Lion” and waited for news.

The match-goers rushed past, the short walk from the pubs of central Watford almost over. I love that little walk; it’s absolutely packed full of cafes, restaurants and take-aways of every variation and from every nation. There was a wide variety of spectators too. Young and boisterous youngsters. Middle-aged men with coat collars turned up with scarves tight against necks, the cold biting away. Couples. Little groups. Many solo figures. Folk walking with stares down at the pavement and road, watching out for any uneven bumps. Watford scarves, but hardly any Chelsea colours. A few familiar faces.

“Alright Zac?”

“Hello Dan.”

“Hello Mark, alright mate?”

“Hi Paul.”

The floodlights were turned away from these faces but the light they gave off helped illuminate the night. Hot-dog stands. Gulps from tins. The neon signs of the last couple of take-aways. The quick shuffle of feet. Kick-off approaching.

At last a text from Andy. He was parking up and would be around ten minutes. I kept looking at my watch. This was our first of nine games in December. It was looking like I’d miss the first few minutes of the first one.

At 7.25pm, he arrived with his son, full of apologies.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry. You’re here.”

I squeezed into the away end with the match clock showing “1.11” having elapsed.

I found my seat next to Al, Gal and Parky my pal.

Phew.

The next few minutes were spent acclimatising myself to everything though I was soon aware that we were enjoying none of the ball on the pitch.

Alan : “you ain’t missed much.”

This was my eighth visit to Vicarage Road. I quickly spotted a rainbow effect in the Elton John Stand to my left. Multicolured T-shirts in deference to the diversity campaign had been placed on all of the seats. However, this highlighted – more than ever – how many of the available seats were empty. And not everyone was wearing the T-shirts. I am not surprised. Donning a T-shirt over a chunky jacket would not have been the easiest task. The two sunsets of the M3 had evidently followed me up and around the M25 and down the A411 to Watford.

No news from Jesus.

I looked at the team, evidently floundering on the pitch against a Watford team looking decidedly waspish in their yellow and black hoops.

From “The Horns” to the Hornets and it looked like we were getting stung. Mendy was soon called into action.

Yeah, so, the team.

Mendy

Rudiger – Christensen – Chalobah

Azpilicueta – Loftus-Cheek – Saul – Alonso

Mount – Havertz – Pulisic

“No Lukaku, then Gal.”

With many key players unavailable, Thomas Tuchel had been forced to shuffle the pack.

Then it all became rather surreal. Play was stopped with about eleven minutes on the clock and everyone’s attention was drawn to the upper tier of the small Graham Taylor Stand to our right. It was clear that a spectator was receiving some medical attention. I am sure in previous seasons this would have taken place with no break in play but in today’s climate, the game was stopped for a few minutes and then the referee led the players off.

There was a row going on close by; a couple had arrived a little late and it seemed that others were in their seats. Some stewards were trying to quell another intra-Chelsea squabble a few rows behind.

Stingray was stood next to Tombsy, talking gibberish to himself as is his wont.

We stood around, not wholly sure of how the evening would continue. As minutes passed, a few folk nearby were quickly redrawing their plans on how to get home. Andy and Tombsy were thinking hard about leaving the game early in order to catch trains to their homes in the north. Dave was thinking about an early exit too. We were fine; we had my car parked up and ready to be used whenever we needed it. The minutes ticked by.

Gallows humour, of course, was to the fore.

“With the start we had, not unhappy we had to go off.”

The short chap helping the Watford ‘keeper Daniel Bachmann warm-up again caught Gal’s eye.

“Oh Danny DeVito, oh Danny DeVito, oh Danny DeVito, oh Danny DeVito.”

For those of you who know Gal, this song was more than ironic.

Al : “Gary doesn’t do irony, mate.”

Word got out that there had been a cardiac arrest. With my heart-attack of last October, you can imagine the thoughts that were running through my mind. The person receiving attention was seemingly taken away and the crowd mildly applauded.

Half-an-hour passed before the teams re-appeared. We then had the odd sight of both sets of players warming up again. Even more bizarrely, Watford made a substitution, with Danny Rose coming on. The ex-Tottenham full-back was roundly booed for the rest of the night.

The game restarted with Watford continuing their domination.

Bluntly, we weren’t in it.

Then, out of nowhere on eighteen minutes, a break in front of us, and Mason Mount slammed a shot from a very acute angle against the near post.

“That was our first attack, Al.”

The game continued on, and I sighed as I said to Alan “we have hardly put four passes together mate.”

Watford were more aggressive and we lacked intensity off the ball and quality on it. Saul was reliving his nightmare debut.

“Shades of Bakayoko up here” lamented the bloke behind me.

Oh God, that performance by Bakayoko in that 4-1 loss in 2018.

Shudder.

Over on the touchline, managers old and new.

Claudio Ranieri.

Thomas Tuchel.

I adapted the song of the moment.

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel. He knows exactly what we need. Thiago at the back. A stupid baseball cap. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

But the trademark cap was exchanged for a ski hat on this particular night. Ranieri chose the same. Ranieri edged the sartorial battle though, if only because Tuchel’s trackie bottoms looked like they had shrunk in the wash.

On the half-hour, at last we looked like ourselves. A long searching ball from Rudiger found the galloping Alonso. His first touch flummoxed his marker and he switched the ball inside to Havertz, surprisingly free. He decided not to shoot, but instead played the ball square to Mason Mount. He smashed the ball in.

Get in.

He celebrated down in front of us. There was the usual tumble of bodies towards the base of the terrace.

Limbs.

“There’s the four passes, Al.”

There was euphoria but also the knowledge that this was absolutely against the run of play.

Mendy saved well from a low drive from an angle from Rose five minutes later. Sadly, just before half-time, the very disappointing Loftus-Cheek lost the ball and Watford moved the ball quickly and with purpose.

“I don’t like this” I said to Gal, almost impersonating Graham Taylor’s most famous line without even meaning to. Emmanuel Dennis advanced and slotted home.

Bollocks.

There were five, I think, extra minutes of time to be played at the end of the half. The half should have ended at 8.15pm. It came to a halt at around 8.55pm.

“Well, that was crap.”

During the break, Tuchel rang the changes.

Thiago Silva for Our Saul.

Chalobah moved into midfield alongside Ruben.

Thankfully, we began brighter in the second period and Silva’s calming influence shone as brightly as the Vicarage Road floodlights. But it comes to something when a common or garden shoulder charge by Havertz gets a round of applause from the away faithful.

Mendy rushed out to intercept a ball but crashed into Tom Cleverley. The ‘keeper was down for a while. There were concerns for his health, but the break in play allowed a new chant to be aired in his honour.

I’ll be honest, I had not heard it before and was both shocked and surprised how many supporters knew it. It was a bloody tough one to work out though. I got the “Edouard Mendy” bit and the “he comes from Senegal” bit but the rest was a mesmerising flow of undecipherable syllables.

It got louder and louder.

I felt like a spare prick at a wedding.

John Redwood mouthing the Welsh national anthem?

No, not that fucking bad.

At least I joined in with the clapping.

With Mendy recovered, the medical team then turned their attention to Chalobah, lying prostrate on the halfway line.

“Fuck sake. This game won’t finish until 11pm.”

Hakim Ziyech replaced Chalobah. The reaction around me was of disbelief to be honest. We needed to toughen up the midfield. We wondered why Ross Barkley wasn’t chosen.

There was a brief chat about the team.

“Nobody has done well tonight really, but Havertz has done the most. At least he has showed for the ball, moved the ball on, an odd dribble.”

Another substitution, Romelu Lukaku for Dave, so the very quiet Pulisic shifted to wing-back.

Within three minutes, a cross from Mount on the left and the ball was flashed into the net. The strike was hit right at the ‘keeper but with just too much pace. But I just saw a confluence of blue in the box; I had no idea who had tucked it in.

As I tracked the celebrations, I realised – gulp, humble pie please waiter – none other than Ziyech receiving the adoration of others.

Get in.

The rest of the game resembled a battleground. I can hardly remember a game in which so many players were on the floor receiving treatment. This was a game that truly did not want to end.

One last Watford chance, a thunderous free-kick from Juraj Kicka was flicked over by Edouard Mendy and this ensured a noisy replaying of his song.

Six extra minutes.

Fackinell.

At last – at last! – the whistle.

“Got out of jail there, mate.”

“Lucky as hell.”

“How did we win that?”

“How much do we miss Kante?”

We slowly walked back to the car, stopping off on the high street for a dirty hot kebab.

Perfect.

I eventually got home at 1.30am.

It had been a long game and a very long day.

4.45am to 1.30am.

But job done and on we go. I am amazed we are still leading the pack. If pressed – high – I still think we will finish third behind City and Liverpool. But we’ll see.

Oh, by the way, Jesus and Rafa got in.

West Ham away next. It won’t be easy. See you there.

Outside.

Inside.

Tales From Saturday And Sunday

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 28 November 2021.

Chelsea drew 1-1 as the team failed to capitalise on almost total domination against a defence-minded Manchester United team on a bitterly cold afternoon at Stamford Bridge. The goals that were so forthcoming against Juventus in the previous home game never materialised and the points were shared when a penalty by Jorginho equalised a goal from Jadon Sancho that was scored earlier in the second-half.

Right, that’s the game sorted. What else happened?

Some numbers. The game against Manchester United was to be my twentieth match of the season. By the end of December, that total would – hopefully, health and lockdowns permitting – be up to twenty-eight. Starting against Watford on the Wednesday, December was going to be a very busy month indeed. And this obviously does not include the away game against Zenit, which may not even take place in St. Petersburg if the current rumours are true.

This would also be my seventy-seventh game against Manchester United.

“That’s more United games than all of my United acquaintances’ games combined.”

That’s almost a true story. My former college friend Rick, who occasionally gets a mention when we play at Old Trafford, is a season ticket holder at United and skews the figures. But apart from him, of the ten or so United fans that I know of, hardly any have seen United play more than a handful, at best, of times.

This was the second game in SW6 in six days. Juventus and Manchester United, eh? What a lovely double of home fixtures.

But first, a Saturday night in Old London Town. When I heard that my mate Jaro and his son Alex were coming over from the US for a week, we soon conjured up a plan to spend a little quality time with them around the United game. We would only see them for an hour at the Juventus match. I booked Parky, PD and yours truly into an apartment – a flat in usual parlance, right? – in Fulham for the Saturday night and I got to work on a pub-crawl in a part of town that would be new for all of us. I drove up to London in the early afternoon and thankfully the rumoured snow showers did not amount to anything. However, we were waylaid by some heavy traffic around Twickenham and didn’t get up to the apartment, where Lillie Road meets the Fulham Palace Road, until just after 2.30pm.

Not to worry, by 3.30pm we were sipping our first bevvies in a pub which we often spot on our drive-in to SW6 for match days.

“The Distillers” – on our walk to Hammersmith tube – and “The Duke Of Cornwall” – on our walk back to the flat late at night, a few doors down from the first pub, were to be the two book-ends of a hugely enjoyable drinking session. It lasted from 3.30pm to around 12.30am. The main action took place around St. James’ Park tube; “The Old Star”, “The Adam & Eve”, “The Buckingham Arms”, “The Albert” and “The Greencoat Boy.”

Jaro joined us for five hours in the last four pubs.

We had a blast. There had been a constant worry, of course, that both Jaro and Alex would succumb to COVID on this trip, but I can confirm that after the Saturday night with Parky and PD, Jaro became infected by a far more agreeable virus :

CHUCKLE19

There is no cure.

Sunday, and game day, soon arrived.

As I was the dedicated driver for the return journey, there was no match day boozing for me. I dropped Parky and PD off at West Brompton tube and they sauntered down to “The Eight Bells” for the second heavy session of the weekend. They were to be joined for a couple of hours by two United lads from Frome – I was only vaguely familiar with them – and who, much to PD’s amusement, had to be constantly assured that they would be “safe”.

Meanwhile, I parked up and then spent a couple of quiet hours in and around Stamford Bridge itself. I was outside the ground as early as 10.30am. It was a bitter morning in London town. I took a photo of the Peter Osgood statue with a clear and deep blue sky above. Jaro and Alex duly arrived and there were chats with Ron Harris and Colin Pates, the captains of my childhood and late youth.

They then needed to head back to their Earls Court hotel so we said our goodbyes, but not before a couple of photos in front of the old Shed Wall.

I backtracked and caught the tube down to Putney Bridge tube to catch up with the lads again.

I had been doing a lot of back-tracking in preparation of this game.

A current total of seventy-six games against United put them at the top of my list of opponents, with Liverpool a close second on seventy-five.

41 at Stamford Bridge.

25 at Old Trafford.

8 at Wembley.

1 at Villa Park.

1 in Moscow.

Won 25.

Drew 20.

Lost 31.

A quick top five of favourites?

Chelsea 5 Manchester United 0 – 1999/2000

Manchester United 1 Chelsea 2 – 2009/2010

Chelsea 4 Manchester United 0 – 2016/2017

Manchester United 1 Chelsea 2 – 1985/1986

Chelsea 1 Manchester United 0 – 1993/1994

There is a famous photo that does the rounds on social media of that last game, a shot taken above the North terrace at Stamford Bridge looking towards The Shed. It appeared recently and took me back to that game. The match took place in early September 1993, with Chelsea playing its first few tentative games under Glenn Hoddle. Manchester United were rampant and in their pomp. They had been crowned English Champions in the May, their first title in twenty-six long years. I was in The Shed early, watching with the younger brother of my oldest mate Pete, both United fans. I had taken Kev up to three Chelsea vs. United games, once with Pete too, in the early ‘nineties.

My one abiding memory that day was of United fans being led out of The Shed and into the North terrace before the game began. There had been no hint of trouble, as far as I was aware, but the word must have got out that there were packs of United in amongst the home fans and the police must have acted with thoughts for their safety. I am guessing that the queues had been so long to enter the North terrace that many United fans had simply diverted to The Shed instead. I have since been reliably informed that the game at Chelsea in 1993 was the very last “pay on the day” away game for Manchester United Football Club.

Back in the days of less than full attendances at Chelsea, it was always – always! – part and parcel of the match day experience to guess, pre-match, how many away fans would dare to attend, and then guestimates of numbers immediately after. The huge sprawling North Stand held up to 10,000 in those days, and it was always impressive when away clubs filled it.

From personal memory, the best away followings I have personally seen at Chelsea were :

Liverpool 1985/1986

Tottenham 1978/1979

Manchester United 1993/1994

West Ham 1984/1985

Manchester United 1984/1985

Another memory from days out at the old Stamford Bridge. Very often the away team coach would appear in that gap between the derelict part of The Shed and the towering East Stand. It’s appearance always drew ribald abuse from The Shed regulars.

To complete the picture, we won 1-0 on that day in September 1993, a Gavin Peacock goal – a nemesis for United that season – and it remains as one of my favourite games against United.

Down in the “Eight Bells” PD and Parky had been joined by Rich and John from Edinburgh, and – yes – a full on session was in progress. Danny and Nick from Minnesota called in too. The pub was rammed.

It was still oh-so cold as we made our way to Stamford Bridge. I wolfed down a cheeseburger with onions outside the stadium in a vain attempt to get some (lukewarm) food inside me. It almost worked.

I was inside by around 4pm. For once the United end – 3,000 not 10,000 this year – was not festooned with flags and banners.

A solitary “One Love” banner timidly peeked out.

The Chelsea team?

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah

Alonso – Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – James

Hudson-Odoi – Werner – Ziyech

A big game for Reuben. Not a big game for Ronaldo, relegated to the bench.

We dominated early in the game, and we dominated all of the first-half. Timo Werner looked lively but continued his frustrating ability to freeze in front of goal. Hakim Ziyech, starting the game well, forced a save from De Gea. There was a fine shimmy from Callum Hudson-Odoi, running with that stooping style of his, his centre of gravity falling with each yard covered, and he slid a low shot across the goal that the United ‘keeper did ever so well to save. There was a header from Rudiger and another effort from Ziyech. A long cross from Reece to Alonso, but for once it was not met with a volley.

The atmosphere, I have to be honest, was not great.

In days of yore, a huddle of bodies on a packed terrace helped maintain not only noise, but assisted against the cold. On this day, I was just so aware of how cold a plastic seat could be.

The temperature was dropping, and the noise levels were dropping alongside.

On the half-hour mark, a strong dipping shot from Rudi forced a fingertip save onto the bar from De Gea.

As for United, there was just a lazy shot from Fernandez that drifted well wide and a couple of Rashford-led breaks that caused us minimum concern.

There were further efforts on the United goal; from Werner, from Callum, from James, from James again. If only Gavin Peacock was playing.

At the break, at Stamford Bridge and elsewhere, Chelsea fans were lamenting our failure to break the deadlock, and we hoped – and prayed – that such profligacy would not haunt us.

Oh dear. Just five minutes into the second-half, following a Chelsea corner, the ball was hoofed into our half. The lone figure of Jorginho was holding the fort. Sadly, a poor touch splayed the ball into the path of the otherwise quiet Jadon Sancho. His was an easy task. He raced up the pitch and knocked it past Mendy. The roar from the United support chilled me further.

To my absolute joy, the Chelsea support immediately bellowed a magnificent response to going behind.

“COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.”

A half-volley for Werner, fail. A pattern was emerging. Sadly, Ziyech, so full of promise in the first-half, seemed to be nervous and unsure of himself.

Ronaldo replaced Sancho the scorer, but did little.

We regained our dominance.

We seemed to be enjoying corner after corner. After one, Wan-Bissaka chopped at Thiago Silva. To be truthful, I missed the challenge, but was overjoyed – if not a little surprised, Anthony Taylor was having his usual odd game “against” us – when a penalty was rewarded. Seventy minutes were on the clock. Jorginho stepped forward.

Albert in front of us, slid past and said “I’ll take one for the team, lads” and sprinted off to the gents. On many other occasions over the last twenty-four years, an Albert Toilet Break has resulted in a Chelsea goal.

Alan asked me : “Skip, or no skip?”

I gave it some thought.

“Skip.”

A skip it was, and the ball flew to De Gea’s right.

Chris : skip.

Albert : to the loo.

Jorginho : my darlin’.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

“Al, when he does his skip, he usually goes to the ‘keeper’s left. But it’s almost like Pavlov’s Dog now. A ‘keeper sees the skip and goes left. He’s won the mind games.”

The noise was, then, at last, stratospheric.

Superb.

We kept firing in, but continued to miss-fire. An odd cross-shot from Werner, and another miss from the same man. On a good day, he could have nabbed a hat-trick. Those good days are few and far between.

Three substitutions:

Christian Pulisic for Alonso

Mason Mount for Hudson-Odoi

Romelu Lukaku for Werner

“The stage is set, Al.”

Despite a continuation of corners and crosses, the winning goal proved elusive.

At the other end, a Mendy error almost gave United an undeserved win. The United attacker’s lob was poor and our ‘keeper gathered. In the very last move of the game, a suddenly impressive Pulisic crossed for Rudiger but his first-time volley blazed way over.

“Coulda, woulda, shoulda.”

A frustrating game, a game devoid of real quality, with a United team that had rarely – ever – been set up so defensively.

Next up, Watford on Wednesday.

See you there.

Gallery

Game 77

1993

Mister 795

Tales From The Loony Toon

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 30 October 2021.

At 1.37am on Saturday morning, I posted this on “Facebook” :

Get Daniels. Get Parkins.

And then a six hour drive to The Loony Toon where a team awaiting transformation lie in wait.

“You’re a big club but you’re in bad shape.”

I watched “Get Carter”, the 1971 original and not the US remake, a few months ago. I was shocked with how shocked I was. The film’s subject matter featured the criminal underworld of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and the brutality of a few scenes matched the brutal architecture that appeared in the ‘sixties in that particular city.

For the second time in around six weeks I was heading to a black and white city, a favourite along with Turin, and to a place where Michael Caine had starred in films. In the build-up to the bank raid in Turin, his famous line about “blowing the bloody doors off” is well-remembered. In “Get Carter” the line about a fellow gangster, altered slightly on this occasion to describe our opponents, is equally memorable.

Anyway, enough of this waffle.

We usually fly up from Bristol for games in the North-East. On this occasion, the prices of flights were much higher than usual, so after a little deliberation, I decided to take the bull by the horns and drive up. I wangled an early shift at work on the Friday, finished at 3pm, and was asleep by 6pm.

The alarm woke me at 12.30am. I fuelled-up en route to collect PD at 2am. We collected Parky at 2.20am. What God-forsaken times, eh? Needs must.

We were on our way to The Toon.

I had booked an apartment in the city’s West End, around a twenty-minute walk from St. James’ Park, and hoped that the rain that was expected to fall later in the day would not drag on until the evening. The aim was to get to Newcastle at around 9am, then join in the pre-match fun on the quayside, but then have a relaxing evening, not go too crazy, in preparation for the return journey on the Sunday.

Now then, there are many who take the time to read these match reports who appreciate the most minute details of these trips. For those living far away from these shores, and especially those who have not been able to see us play, I love the fact that many like being able to experience my match days and my match day routines. The word that I hear most is “vicarious”.  These next few paragraphs are for those who live vicariously through my words ( he says rather pompously)…

For the others, feel free to skip ahead. I won’t be offended.

Driving to Newcastle from my part of the world is around a three-hundred and thirty-mile journey. With non-stop driving, it’s five-and-a-half hours. It’s a long one. I have driven to Newcastle for Chelsea games on two other occasions; once for our 1-3 loss in the spring of 1997, and again in early autumn for a dire 0-0 draw, a game that would mark Gianluca Vialli’s last game in charge.

Incidentally, the longest trip that I have undertaken without stopping over was Middlesbrough in 2008. That topped out at 580 miles and I vowed “never again.”

I soon found myself bypassing Bath and by 3am I was joining the M5 from the M4. There was a little rain through Gloucestershire but nothing too heavy. PD had managed five hours’ sleep, Parky four. I fully expected them both to “drop-off” at some stage on the long haul north. There were two diversions, near Gloucester on the M5, and near Tamworth on the M42, the result of roadworks. A few more minutes were added to our travel time. PD was in charge of the mobile tuck shop and as I wended my way through some quiet Warwickshire roads, I wolfed down a couple of treats that he had prepared for the journey. We hit the M1 at around 5am and I was happy with our progress. Outside the night was black, and the traffic – even on the M1 – was pretty sparse. Parky was asleep in the back.

I continued the long road north. It seemed that signs for Leeds appeared often, too often, like ghosts from the past. As I veered off the M1 near Sheffield, I thought I had seen the end of them, but Leeds still appeared for many miles.

Up and onto the A1, I soon stopped to refuel at Beverley Services. The traffic thinned out further as we saw signs for Scotch Corner and Teeside. At around 7.30am, just south of Durham, I decided that I needed a rest. My eyes were heavy and a “power nap” was in order. I dropped off for about thirty minutes. When I awoke at 8.15am, it was light. I soon realised that I had done the right thing. That thirty minutes would see me well for my final approach into Newcastle, but would also give me fresh energy for the rest of the day.

Anthony Gormley’s “The Angel Of The North” overlooks the main approach road through Gateshead and into the city centre. It looked dark and foreboding on this visit, its usual rusty colour now blackened in the morning murk.

I spotted, for the first time, road signs for Low Fell, and it brought a lump to my throat. Here, on the main London to Newcastle railway line, former Newcastle United and Chelsea legend Hughie Gallacher committed suicide in 1957 by throwing himself in front of a train. One day, on one visit to this area, I will pay my respects. He remains the one player from our distant history that I wish I had seen perform.

On the train home after the famous 1-1 draw in March 1984, on the same line, our train carriage was “bricked” by locals. I remembered a young lad getting bloodied from the shattered window. About a year or so ago, on a “Chelsea In The ‘Eighties” forum on “Facebook” I happened to mention it, and the actual chap who had been hit soon replied to my comment. How often do I mention how small our Chelsea World can be?

So, here I was; on the cusp of driving over the River Tyne in my own car for the first time since 2000. The A184 served me well. A slight curve and there she was; Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in all her glory. The buildings rising up from the quayside, the wonderful array of seven bridges traversing the river, and the glass and steel edifice of St. James’ Park perched at the top of the hill. Everything so clear, everything so immediate. It was a wonderful sight. It took me back to the first time I ever crossed the River Tyne for that game in 1984. Wild times then, not so wild now. But the city was still so dramatic. It was super to be back.

The route took us to within five hundred yards of the stadium, but we then veered west. At just before 9am, as per my planning, we had arrived. We left our bags in my car, ‘phoned for a cab – which never arrived, so a second call was needed – and at just before 10am we had ordered our breakfast at the already busy “Wetherspoons Quayside” pub.

We had made it.

A few familiar faces were already inside and we were to be joined by a few more.

A special mention for our pals Gillian and Kevin from Edinburgh. Kev had proposed to Gillian the previous evening – Newcastle is a favourite city of theirs too – and Gillian was sweetly, and proudly, flashing the silver engagement ring.

“Ah, congratulations you lovebirds.”

Unfortunately, they were not fortunate enough to get match tickets. I had heard a familiar story from others. The demand wasn’t able to be met. I guess a fair few had travelled to Tyneside without the hope of a ticket. This just shows how much fellow fans have missed matches since the game was taken from us in March 2020, but also illustrates the lure of a night in Newcastle, and on Halloween weekend to boot.

We wolfed down the breakfast but outside the rain became worse by the minute. The idea was to hit five or six quayside pubs. But the rain stalled our plans. We stayed put for an hour and a half. Two “San Miguels” and a lighter “Coors” went down well. More and more Chelsea arrived; Pauline, Mick, Paul, Rob, Dave, Alex, Chay, Dave, Rich, Donna and Rachel.

Then Andy, from our area, with his mate Russ, who we have met a few times. Russ is from Newcastle and a fan of his home town team. Like many, he was relieved to see the back of Mike Ashley. We didn’t talk too much about the Saudi takeover. It’s too much of a moral minefield in my opinion. I am just glad that my club isn’t now owned by a group from Saudi Arabia. Shudder.

This would be my twelfth visit to St. James’ Park with Chelsea. For many years, I just couldn’t afford these trips. Thankfully, my financial situation has improved over the past twenty years and I try to make it each season. As everyone knows, our recent record up there is rather wobbly. But this game never felt like a potential banana skin to me.

On that visit in 2000 to Newcastle, I travelled up with Mark, a former work colleague who went to university in the city in the late ‘eighties. He was, and is, a Blackburn Rovers fan, and just fancied revisiting his old stomping ground for the first time in a while. Memories of that weekend got me thinking.

I haven’t seen too many non-Chelsea games in my life. I have seen half a dozen at Stoke City, plus a handful at Fulham, Swindon Town, Derby County, Brentford, Portsmouth, York City, Port Vale, Bristol City, Bristol Rovers, Yeovil Town and Blackburn Rovers within the English league structure. A grand total of around twenty games, as opposed to over 1,300 Chelsea matches.

However, in 1992/93 I actually saw Newcastle United at three away venues during their Second Division promotion campaign. Around that time, I wasn’t in a particularly well-paid job and in the seasons 1990/91 to 1993/94 I only averaged around twelve Chelsea games per season.

I think a little explanation is required, don’t you?

My good friend Pete – a college friend living nearby in Bristol then and just outside Bristol now – and a lifelong Newcastle United fan coerced me into the away game at Brentford when I was visiting mates in London. He also asked me to attend the more local matches at Bristol City and Swindon Town.

I am sure it’s not too uncommon for fans of one club to watch other teams, though I definitely haven’t made a habit of it.

“Chelsea one week, Fulham the next” as the saying went in days of yore.

Pete is from Scunthorpe, and he memorably went to see us win the Second Division Championship on the final day of 1983/84 with our game at nearby Grimsby Town. He was also present, of course, at that game in Newcastle in 1984.

At the game against Brentford at Griffin Park in October 1992, Pete watched in the away end, but I watched the match with two other college mates in the home end. Memorably, we bumped into Kevin Keegan and Terry McDermott hours before the game began outside the stadium. Newcastle won that 2-1. In January 1993, I was in the wet away end with Pete to see Newcastle beat Bristol City 2-1, with Andy Cole playing for City. In March, I watched with Pete in the packed away end at Swindon Town as Andy Cole made his Toon debut, but Swindon won 2-1.

I also saw Chelsea beat Newcastle United 2-1 in the League Cup at Stamford Bridge in the October of that season – 30,000 and a good 5,000 Geordies – so I actually saw them play four times that season.

I enjoyed the experience of watching them in 1992/93. It was something different. Under Keegan, they were a very entertaining outfit.

In fact, in around 1996/97, I’d hazard a guess that Chelsea and Newcastle vied for being most fans’ “second favourite team.”

Strange but true.

The rain abated slightly, so we moved on down the river. I had discovered a new pub – or at least one not previously visited by us – and on the way to the “Head Of Steam” we bumped into Kimmy and Andy. Three pints in there – “Angelo Poretti”, a relatively new kid on the block – and we were joined by Jack and Andy too.

I was feeling a little light-headed, but oddly after one pint of the tried and trusted “Peroni” in “The Slug And Lettuce” I was feeling fine again.

Outside “The Akenside Traders” we were so lucky to catch a cab up to the stadium at around 2.30pm.

Unbelievably, despite leaving home at 2am, I reached the seats in the upper tier a mere few seconds before 3pm.

“Just in time” logistics at your service.

My first view of the pitch way down below me allowed me to see the two teams standing silently in the centre-circle in memory of the fallen.

I soon located Alan and Gal. Parky and I took our seats (*we obviously stood) alongside them.

The game started and I had to play “catch up” to take everything in. A full house, but not much immediate noise from the home fans. I was expecting more. The team?

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Christensen

James – Kante – Jorginho – Chilwell

Ziyech – Havertz – Huson-Odoi

But then.

Those hours of driving through the night, the time spent down on The Quayside and then the rushed cab ride seemed to be pointless. The first-half was a damp squib. What a let-down. Newcastle, no surprises, sat back and let us attack and grimly hoped that their defence would hold out. This was their Plan A, but there was no hint of a Plan B. They did occasionally offer a rare attack, but for most of that first forty-five minutes their team were so deep that every punted or hoofed clearance did allow support to Wilson nor Saint Maximin, their undoubted two stars.

Chelsea, of course, dominated the game yet there was little to admire. I have mentioned before how dull modern football can be at times, especially when one team is so defence-orientated. With players’ fitness levels so good these days, space in the final third was at an absolute premium. However, what space there was, we didn’t really exploit.

Many Chelsea fans hate being so high up at Newcastle. I don’t mind it at all. It only happens once per season. This time, as with many others, I usually get a very central viewing position. It does, undoubtedly, offer a very unique perspective on the positioning and placement of the attacking and defending teams.

I also love that it allows a view of the outside world, squeezed between The Gallowgate and the horizon. In days gone by, this was often the case. The Thames at Fulham, the church at Goodison, the tower blocks at Upton Park, Earls Court at Stamford Bridge. The stadium as a part of the city.

It’s lovely that so many of the city’s landmarks can be seen from inside St. James’ Park.

Our first real chance of note came on around the half-hour mark, but Hakim Ziyech’s goal after a lovely Jorginho pass was called back for off-side. I saw the flag early so wasn’t guilty of premature jokulation.

The same player then skied a shot wildly over the bar.

Fackinell.

I pleaded with Hudson-Odoi to stretch the defence, to get past his marker. I found him particularly frustrating.

Our only other notable effort was again from Ziyech. It looked like Reece James was shaping to take a centrally-placed free-kick just outside the “D” but it ended up in The Gallowgate. Maybe Reece should have demanded the ball.

I sent this message to a few friends in the US at the break.

“No intensity. No passion. No invention. No nuffing.”

Into the second-half, and somewhat surprising for someone who certainly hasn’t really impressed too much at Chelsea thus far, it was Ziyech who again threatened Darlow in the Newcastle goal down below us. A couple of shots, with a save and the post saving the home team. Shots from Havertz and James stirred the crowd.

The manager had obviously said a few things at the break.

A new chant was aired at a game for the first time and, although I wasn’t too happy that the Frank Lampard chant had been re-jigged, it certainly gathered momentum in that second-half.

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel. He knows exactly what we need. Thiago at the back. Timo in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

Funny, when we sang it about Frank winning the Champions League, it did seem somewhat preposterous. But Tommy has already won the bastard.

Crazy, right?

On sixty-four minutes, a double-swap.

Barkley for Ziyech.

Loftus-Cheek for Kante.

Within a minute, at last a devilish wriggle down the left from Callum and a cross into the box. The ball eventually fell to James. A touch with his right foot, a smash with his left. The ball flew into the net from an angle. What a clean strike.

GET IN.

Would the single goal be enough? I suspected so. However, around ten minutes later, the ball ricocheted back off a Newcastle defender after a shot from Loftus-Cheek. It ended up, rather quickly, at the feet of James again. No time for thought, he smashed it in with his right foot this time. Two amazing goals. Euphoria in the top tier of The Leazes.

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel. He knows exactly what we need. Thiago at the back. Timo in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel. He knows exactly what we need. Thiago at the back. Timo in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel. He knows exactly what we need. Thiago at the back. Timo in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

Frank’s version had Tomori and Tammy. The new song kept the theme going.

The Teutonic technician Thomas Tuchel – plus Thiago and Timo – at the top in The Toon.

Phew, I need a drink.

Maybe a tea.

Not long after, a clear foul on Havertz gave Paul Tierny no option.

Penalty.

“Give it to Reece!”

No, Jorginho claimed the ball.

Alan : “A skip or no skip?”

Chris : “A skip.”

No skip, but a goal.

Newcastle United 0 Chelsea 3.

Love it.

Saul came on for Callum, but by then the vast majority of the home fans were heading, er, home.

The final whistle blew.

And Newcastle was blue.

Superb.

With Manchester City, incredibly, losing 2-0 at home to Crystal Palace and with Liverpool letting a 2-0 lead slip with a draw at home to Brighton, this was a magnificent day. We were, unbelievably, three points clear at the top.

The three of us slowly walked back to our digs and then reconvened at “The Bridge Hotel” at just after 7.30pm. A relaxing few drinks with Gillian and Kev was then followed by a curry. It topped off a perfect day in The Loony Toon, which was clearly living up to its reputation as the UK capital of alcoholic excess, debauchery and hedonism. I am not quite sure what the Saudis would make of it.

We set off for home as early as 9am on the Sunday. Despite some truly horrific driving conditions during the first two hours or so – so much spray, so much rain, but then when blinding sun arrived it was like driving through snow – I made it home at 4pm.

Seven hours up, seven hours down, three points in the bag.

See you, I hope, next season Newcastle.

My next game is at home to Burnley on Saturday.

See you there.

Under The Tyne Bridge.

Autumn In The Toon.

The Gallowgate.

Sir Bobby.

The Baltic Art Centre, Grey’s Monument And The Millennium Bridge.

All Saint’s Church, Sage Gateshead, Autumn Colours And Wind Turbines.

Windscreen.

Hakim Ziyech.

The Tyne Bridge.

In The Air.

The High Ground At Gateshead.

Swipe.

Second-Half Panorama.

Crowded Out.

Jorginho.

A Goal One Celebration.

A Goal Two Leap.

A Goal Three Certainty.

Let’s Gan, Like.

Tales From The Eight Bells, Seven Goals And One Matthew Harding.

Chelsea vs. Norwich City : 23 October 2021.

This was pretty much a perfect day of football.

Where to start?

How about 5.30am? Early enough?

My alarm sounded and I was soon up. This was another early kick-off at Chelsea. Our second of five matches in fifteen days matched us against Norwich City, a team who – along with Watford, West Brom and Fulham – seemed destined to spend their eternity bouncing between the top two divisions.

This trip to London was going to be slightly different. A little explanation is needed.

Back in the days when I was working in a factory’s Quality Assurance department in the nearby town of Westbury, I started to hear stories of Chelsea legend Ron Harris running a small holiday complex centered around a fishing lake in the nearby town of Warminster. On the eve of our 1994 FA Cup Final with Manchester United, I visited “The Hunter’s Moon” with my copy of the 1970 Cup Final programme, intent on meeting Ron – who I had never ever met before – and getting him to sign it. I remember walking in, and my first view of Chopper was of him clearing some plates away from the small dining room next to the bar area. He duly signed the programme and I can easily remember his words.

“You’re a Chelsea fan, then?”

“Yes.”

“Bad luck.”

I spent a fair bit of time talking to his wife Lee, who I remembered from a couple of player profiles in match programmes from the ‘seventies. I was, of course, hoping that the meeting of our 1970 captain would bring us luck; so much for that plan as we were walloped 4-0 in the Wembley rain. Over the next few seasons, we began calling in at “The Hunter’s Moon” en route back from Chelsea. On one memorable occasion, Ron cajoled us into continuing our drinking and volunteered to drive us back to Frome later that night. We would return to collect Glenn’s car the following morning.

Glenn’s voice of disbelief as we reached his front room lives with me to this day.

“Ron Harris drove us home!””

I remember Ron invited Glenn up to the club’s ninetieth anniversary celebrations with him in 1995, and there were chats with both Peter Osgood and Tommy Langley at Ron’s over the years. He drove Glenn and I up to a game at Chelsea in around 1999.

I didn’t see Ron too much for a while after he moved out of “The Hunter’s Moon” – there was one memorable night with Ron, Ossie and Kerry in 2005 – but I then began seeing him again on the odd occasion at Chelsea. In February 2009, he was due to do a gig before our game at Anfield and asked me if I fancied a lift up to Liverpool. I, of course, jumped at the chance. Although I reported on that match in a blog at the time, I didn’t fancy coming over as a Billy Big Bollocks, so referred to Ron as “Buller” – the nickname bestowed upon him by the players, which was used rather than “Chopper” – and nobody guessed who was driving me to Merseyside. We lost 0-2 that day, those two bloody Torres goals right in front of us.

Meeting up with Ron in Manhattan in 2012 before a Chelsea game at Yankee Stadium was – looking back – a rather special moment. Ron played in the first game that I ever saw in 1974. He played in each one of my first seven games from 1974 to 1976. In fact, of the seventeen games that I saw Chelsea play during his time at the club, he started thirteen, came on as a sub in one, was a non-playing sub in one and missed only two.

Mr. Chelsea ain’t half of it.

There was a Chelsea vs. PSG supporter’s five-a-side game at Chelsea Piers during those few days in New York. I was lucky enough to play for the Chelsea team and after the game I couldn’t help a cheeky dig at Ron.

“I saw you play thirteen games for Chelsea Ron. Didn’t see you score a single goal. You’ve seen me score today. Just one game.”

We both laughed.

After moving south to the coast at Mudeford, Ron returned to Somerset at Shepton Mallet a few years back and now lives just nine miles away from me in Wiltshire, between Westbury and Trowbridge. A few weeks back, his daughter Claire contacted me and asked if I fancied sharing the driving on match days. We agreed midweek games would be difficult due to my work times and Ron’s need to be at Chelsea a few hours before kick-off. We agreed that I could take him to as many weekend games as possible.

Chelsea versus Norwich would be the first one, a tester for timings if nothing else.

So, when I set off at 6.30am, my first port of call would be for Paul at 6.40am, my second would be for Ron at 6.55am and the third one would be for Parky at 7.15am.

All aboard the Chopper Bus.

We usually stop for a bite to eat on the A303 on the way to London, but after hearing that Ron needed to be at Chelsea for his corporate activities at 9.30am, we made haste and made a beeline for Stamford Bridge. I have known for years that Ron is a stickler for being on time – “I’m only ever late for my tackles” – so this didn’t faze me.

There was quality chat in the Buller Bus all the way to London. I kept looking in my rear view mirror as I sped past Stonehenge and all of the familiar sights and saw Ron sat alongside Parky.

Yeah, it was surreal.

Ron ran through some stories and talked of a few managers. He was no fan of Danny Blanchflower – new fans, Google away now – nor Geoff Hurst. As we rose up onto the M3 at just about the same location I heard “That’s Entertainment” last Saturday I remembered one particularly awful season.

“Yeah, in 1978/79 we were shit weren’t we?”

After a few seconds, I realised what I had said. Ron had played virtually every game that season, often as a defensive midfielder.

“Fucking hell Ron, just realised you were playing that season.”

Ron’s smile in the rear view mirror was wide.

As we passed Twickenham, Ron told the story of how manager Dave Sexton took the players one afternoon to the home of rugby to see the Varsity game between Oxford and Cambridge universities. He wanted to show the players how the rugby backs used the overlap as a potent form of attack. For those not into rugby, like me, it is so odd that the attacking players play at the back.

Stupid bloody sport.

Ron was full of praise of Sexton, by far his most admired manager in his nineteen years in the first team at Chelsea. He was certainly one of England’s first tactical gurus, who would win two cups while at Chelsea with Ron his captain.

At 9.20am, I dropped the three passengers off opposite the CFCUK stall at Fulham Broadway.

Perfect.

I went off to park up on Normand Road and then caught the tube down to Putney Bridge. I had booked a table for 10am. I arrived at 9.50am to see around twenty regulars waiting for the boozer to open.

Again, perfect.

Did I say that I work in logistics?

For just a tad under two hours, we relaxed and enjoyed the pre-match. I could chill out now. I won’t deny that there was a little extra pressure on my driving on this particular day. The three of us ordered breakfasts. I will be honest; it was my first full-blown breakfast since my heart attack just over a year ago. The food was bloody lovely. As is so often the case, we were joined by a few mates from near and far.

Shawn – who I met for the first time at that New York weekend in 2012 – and his brother Dan are from Boston and lucked-out on utilising some cheap flights and then coming up trumps on the ticket exchange. They sat alongside us and tucked into a full English too. We were joined by Rich from Edinburgh and Ed from Essex. We had a whale of a time.

The dedicated driver, I was on coffees and Cokes. The time whizzed past. Up onto the platform just as a train pulled in. We were soon at Fulham Broadway, we were soon inside.

Perfect.

At around 12.15pm, I was relieved to hear the PA announce that there would be a minute of applause in the memory of Matthew Harding before the game.

The crowd sang.

“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”

Our much-loved vice-chairman was killed twenty-five years ago. Where does the time go? It remains one of the most horrible times of my life. Only the deaths of my parents, my gran, and maybe of Peter Osgood, have left me more desolate. There was a montage of images of Matthew and a few reflective voice-overs. I am not sure if anyone remembers, but on the Saturday before the helicopter crash on the Tuesday, we lost 2-4 at home to Wimbledon. Before that game, there was a minute’s silence in memory of a stadium disaster in Guatemala during the previous few days. I often thought it poignant that Matthew Harding would have stood silent that day.

I have written about Matthew Harding before here; about how I met him once, how his wife Ruth replied to my mother’s sorrowful letter after his death, of what he meant to us all at Chelsea.

On the Saturday after the crash, I placed a bouquet amongst many others in the East Stand Forecourt.

“Matthew.

With Love And Appreciation.

We Will Never Forget You.”

Before the game with Tottenham, emotions were high. We decamped to Matthew’s favourite pub, The Imperial on the King’s Road, and I raised a pint of Guinness to his memory. This would soon become my drink of choice at Chelsea for many years (I think, as my own special mark of respect) and the minute’s silence before the game – the second in eight days – was pure emotion.

High up in the stand bearing his name, twenty-five years on I had a little moment to myself.

Rest In Peace, Matthew Harding.

With fifteen minutes to go, “London Calling” and then “Parklife” changed the mood a little.

The team news came through.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah

James – Kovacic – Jorginho – Chilwell

Mount – Hudson-Odoi

Havertz

With five minutes to kick-off, the Matthew Harding banner surfed the lower tier while the balcony confirmed “One Of Our Own.”

The players stood in the centre circle. The crowd applauded.

It took me back to those years of Hoddle, Harding, Hughes, Gullit and – for Glenn and little old me – Harris. To complete the reworking of the “Harris, Hollins, Hudson, Houseman, Hutchinson and Hinton” years, we drank in The Harwood in those days too.

These were great – it has to be stated – “pre-success” times at Chelsea. I loved the team in that era. It was the saddest thing that Matthew died just six months before our first success in twenty-six years.

How he would have enjoyed Wembley 1997, Stockholm 1998, Bolton 2005, the double in 2010, Munich in 2012, Amsterdam in 2013, Baku in 2019 Porto in 2021.

The song again.

“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”

Sigh.

The game began.

Norwich City only had around 1,500 I think. I bet they soon wished that they hadn’t bloody bothered. Malmo on Wednesday were poor, but I think Norwich were even worse.

We began brightly.

The visitors didn’t look interested from the off. Their players looked off the pace. They lolloped around like zombies in a film, unwilling to walk faster than they need to, almost in a trance-like state. Their fight was absolutely missing. How Billy Gilmour has only played four games for them this season is a travesty. Of their players, I only recognised Krul and Pukki, a sure sign of my fading knowledge of football outside of SW6 these days. It’s an age thing.

We were jabbing away nicely at the flabby gut of the Norwich defence from the off, and our play brought applause on a mild autumnal day. Callum Hudson-Odoi was involved early on and we began trying to puncture the back-line. On just nine minutes, crafty approach play from Callum ended up with a cross into the box. Mateo Kovacic won a second ball and played it to Mason Mount on the edge of the box. His well struck swipe flew low into the goal, and I was in right in line with its path.

Get in.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Norwich’s response was lukewarm. We had virtually all of the ball and were finding spaces to exploit. There were a few poor choices of final balls, but we were purring when Kovacic released a superb pass from deep into the path of an on-rushing Hudson-Odoi. He relaxed, looked at the goal, and adeptly threaded the ball past Krul and into the waiting net.

“Brilliant.”

Two-nil and coasting.

More please.

Callum found Mount, but Krul saved.

A first shot from Norwich via Ozan Kabak on thirty-six minutes troubled those in the Harding Upper more than Edouard Mendy.

The noise in the stadium had quietened. These early starts often follow this pattern.

We then witnessed one of Dave Sexton’s overlaps. This one involved Mason Mount playing the ball to Reece James and this allowed the rampaging wing-back to advance and deftly chip the ball over Krul. It was a fine goal, but one I almost missed as I was mid-conversation with Clive.

But 3-0 it was.

And three academy players too, though it wouldn’t dawn on me until later. It’s an age thing.

There had been goals, but Alan and I had spoken about how often we seemed to be wanting to wait and play a perfect ball, rather than shooting on sight. How we missed a Frank Lampard. We were happy with three, of course, but we could have scored more for sure.

At the break, in the Matthew Harding Upper :

Me to Tim : “after Wednesday, when we should have scored six, we simply have to score six today.”

At the break, in the away dressing room :

“Farke knows how we’ll win this.”

The second-half began and we certainly improved, though soon into the game the noise at Stamford Bridge had reduced almost completely.

Fackinell.

We peppered the Norwich goal with a few teasers, but had to thank that man Mendy once again as a Ben Chilwell played in Rashica who ran onto the ball and it appeared that he just needed to round Mendy to score. However, our magnificent man intercepted with an outstretched limb. The crowd roared and so did our ‘keeper.

Just before the hour, Norwich afforded us way too much room and a move involving James and Kovacic played in Chilwell down below me. No volley this time, but a drilled carpet-burner flew into the net.

Four.

Keep’m coming Chels.

Our Callum was finding oodles of space on the left and, five minutes after our last goal, he broke inside the box once again. A low cross was deflected in off the luckless defender Aarons. The ball was just out or reach of the equally luckless Krul and the ball spun into the net.

Five.

Callum looked embarrassed.

Next up in this action-packed demolition job, Norwich were down to ten men after a rugged tackle on James by Gibson saw the referee Madly reaching for a red card.

The crowd were involved now alright. The atmosphere was bubbling away nicely.

On the hour, the loudest chant of the day thus far.

“Champions Of Europe, We Know What We Are.”

A minute later, louder still.

“Carefree.”

The game safe, on came three substitutes.

Ruben Loftis-Cheek, Ross Barkley and Hakim Ziyech replaced Jorginho, Havertz and Hudson-Odoi.

There was a lovely sing-off in The Shed.

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

I was just waiting for the Whitewall…

On the pitch, our team was suddenly full of Frank Lampards. Shots from new boys Barkely and Ziyech – with three whipped-in efforts – caused Krul to leap every which way possible to stop further embarrassment.

But there was time for yet more drama.

A neat one-two played in Rudiger and his shot seemed to be blocked by a defender’s arm. We waited for the VAR decision.

Penalty.

Mason Mount waited, and shot strongly but Krul saved well.

After a few seconds, we realise that the referee was told that the ‘keeper had stepped off his line. Therefore, a re-take, and this time Mount bashed it home.

Six.

During these routs, there is often an injury-time goal and this was one of those occasions. A sweet move involving Ziyech, who looked inspired in his twenty-minutes on the pitch, set up Loftus-Cheek, who advanced, drew the ‘keeper before selflessly squaring for Mason to prod home for his hat-trick.

Seven.

Another VAR wait; a suspicion of offside. No. Seven it was.

Bloody hell.

On reflection, even though the last two games had yielded eleven goals, the tally ought to have been so much more. On Wednesday, we could have scored seven. Against Norwich, we could have scored ten. I can’t remember two more one-sided, consecutive, home games. Norwich City, it pains me to say, were the worst league team that I may well have ever seen us meet at Stamford Bridge.

They were lucky to get naught.

I met up with Mister 795 outside the hotel and we slowly made our way back to the car on Normand Road. Ron was equally scornful of the opposition.

“The club should dip their hands in their pockets and pay for those tickets.”

There was a message from Steve in Philly.

“Chris, if you could travel back in time and tell your teenage self that one day you would be taking Ron Harris to and from Chelsea matches, what would teenage Chris have to say”

The answer was easy.

“Fackinell.”

I battled the traffic to get out past the M25, but made great time on the return journey. There was a lovely mixture of chit-chat and laughs all the way home. Ron Harris will do well in our Chuckle Bus.

I dropped Parky off at 6.10pm, Ron at 6.30pm, PD at 6.45pm, and I was home at 7pm.

The perfect day continued as I found out that Frome Town, who were 0-2 at half-time at Cinderford Town came back to win 3-2 with a Kane Simpson hat-trick. And I was also able to sort out a couple of tickets for mates for the United game next month. It really was a nigh-on perfect day.

Next up Southampton at home on Tuesday and then the long-awaited expedition to Tyneside on Saturday.

Good times, everyone, good times.

Oh by the way, Lukak-who?

Tales From A West London Affair

Brentford vs. Chelsea : 16 October 2021.

I needed that recent international break. After seven Chelsea games in just twenty-one days, involving almost twenty-one thousand words here, for once I was most relieved that there would be a fallow period of a fortnight with no match.

(Things I never thought I’d write #127.)

Last weekend was still spent watching football though. I drove into Oxfordshire to see Frome Town recover from conceding an early goal to wallop Didcot Town 5-1 in the FA Trophy. This almost made up for the 5-0 defeat suffered at the hands of Bath City in the FA Cup, a game that took place at the same time that we played Southampton. By the way, an infinitesimally small amount of time was spent weighing up the chances of me attending a local derby at Bath as opposed to the Saints in a run-of-the-mill league game at Stamford Bridge. It was a no contest to be honest.

Frome Town has been good to me of late, but Chelsea is still number one in my affections.

The away league match at Brentford had been a long time coming. Seventy-four years in fact. Yes, dear reader, the last time that the two West London clubs met in a league encounter was in March 1947. Our meetings with the red and white striped Bees from along the A4 have been ridiculously rare. Aside from friendlies, the two clubs had only met on fourteen previous occasions. There was a flurry of games before the outbreak of the Second World War and in the first of these seasons – 1935/36 – Brentford ended up as the top team in London.

Since those halcyon days, Brentford have toiled away in the lower reaches of the Football League. If I am honest, apart from Ray and Graham Wilkins’ father George and our own Ron Harris, I would be hard pressed to name any of their players apart from those in the current team.

Do Bradley Walsh and Rod Stewart count?

In the grand scheme of things, our relatively recent meetings with Brentford in the FA Cup campaigns of 2012/13 and 2016/17 represent a real flurry of activity.

On the same day that we became European Champions in Porto, Brentford swept past Swansea City in the play-off final to gain promotion to the top tier, and I for one – when I heard the news in the stadium before our game – was very happy. I love the football pyramid, I love the rise of smaller teams (Wigan, Blackpool, Bournemouth in recent years) and I love visiting new stadia. Driving in to London on the elevated section of the M4 over the past five years, we have watched how the new Brentford Community Stadium has risen, not so far from Griffin Park, and the arrival of Brentford in the Premiership was just perfect.

With the game moving to a 5.30pm kick-off, we salivated at the prospect of a Hammersmith to Chiswick River Thames pub-crawl before the game. Yet for weeks and weeks, only Parky and I were guaranteed match tickets. Then, what luck, two tickets became available from a couple of friends who could not attend, thus allowing PD and Glenn to join us. Glenn quickly volunteered to drive. Plans were drawn up, pubs were checked out, a parking slot opposite the new stadium was sorted.

This was going to be a cracker.

But then (I have warned that these days there is often a “but then”) one of my mates caught COVID19 – nothing too horrible, it soon passed – but it meant that I needed to take a PCR test in Bath the day before the game. My very real fear was that I would be informed of a positive test result en route to London and would then be forced to self-isolate in Glenn’s van while the others made merry. It didn’t bear thinking about. My contingency plans for the day now included freeing up my ticket, if needed, to enable my good friend Daryl to attend in my absence should the need arise.

Heading into London at around 10.30am, up on the M3 before it drops down into Twickenham, Glenn was playing a few songs from The Jam in his van.

One song struck a chord.

“That’s Entertainment” is much loved. It charted in 1983 after the band split, and I have always loved its lyrics, an homage to melancholy days in humdrum England, a nod to working class life and culture. The mundane is celebrated, almost embraced. Paul Weller’s words drifted over the semi-detached houses of the outer reaches of south-west London.

“A police car and a screaming siren.”

The skies had darkened a little since we had left our homes and for the past twenty minutes there had been rain. We hoped the wet weather would not last.

“The screech of brakes and the lamplight blinking.”

Glenn drove on and I wondered if the day’s events would turn out to be mundane – surely not – or magnificent and memorable. Again I thought of the millions of Chelsea fans who would be wishing that they were the lucky ones with a match ticket on this day in West London.

“That’s entertainment.”

There had been no PCR test result thus far in. I pondered my day ahead. I would be controlled by outside forces.

“Lights going out and a kick in the balls.”

No, let’s be positive here. I had experienced no symptoms. No symptoms at all. My mood cheered with each of Weller’s squeezed together lines.

“Opening the windows and breathing in petrol.”

The Jam coexisted alongside Chelsea Football Club for me in those exciting and yet horrible adolescent years and here they were again.

“Football, music and clobber” was it Mr. Weller?

“That’s entertainment.”

Glenn drove on into Richmond, up to Chiswick and we were parked up, more or less on time, at around 11am.

There had been a few messages to and from Daryl. We had decided that he would be best placed to look for other entertainment; he was off to see Guernsey’s match down in South London against Chipstead, his non-league team’s first away game since January 2020.

From around 11.30am to around 4.30pm, we visited five pubs on the northern bank of the River Thames, replicating a pub-crawl that Parky and I first enjoyed before an Arsenal away game in 2015. With each pub, we bumped into more and more friends and acquaintances. At “The Blue Anchor” we were joined by the two Robs, then Luke, Aroha and Doreen – the last time that I have seen all three since Porto, smiley face – and we then sauntered next door to “The Rutland Arms”. We joined forces with Rob Three, Feisal, Brian, Pete and a few more at “The Dove”, and I chatted to Nick and James – Dublin, 2019 – out on the small terrace overlooking the river. By the time we had reached “The Old Ship”, the party was almost twenty strong. It seemed that we were not the only ones who had come up with the idea of this most wonderful of pub crawls. Around the corner at “The Black Lion” were five or six familiar faces from our local area who had honed in on this idyllic spot in West London.

That’s entertainment.

We had sat alongside a few QPR fans at the “Blue Anchor”, no doubt heading off to see their team, and eventually lose, at Craven Cottage. We all thought how odd it was for the Met Police to sanction all of West London’s four teams to play – against each other – on the same day.

On several occasions, I spoke in hushed tones about how fearful I was of the game at Brentford. It had all the hallmarks of a Chelsea banana skin. I likened it to our game in the autumn of 2011 – one week away from being ten years ago exactly – when we went to newly-promoted neighbours QPR and lost 1-0. I am sure I was not the only one in our ever-growing party, or worldwide, who had this fear of defeat. Brentford had certainly settled with ease this season. They would be no pushover. Their fans would be, er, buzzing.

The lager was hitting the spot. But time was moving on. Just as we were thinking about mustering the troops together to head west to our pre-paid parking spot on the A4, I received a text message. I nervously looked.

“Negative.”

Phew.

“You shall go to the ball.”

We said our goodbyes as others worked out their best ways to travel the two miles or so to the game. We shoehorned nine of us into Glenn’s Chuckle Bus and off we went. I wasn’t sure about getting a cab nor travelling on buses, and there were no slashed seat affairs.

This was a West London affair and we were on our way.

We were soon parked up. Luckily, the stadium was just a ten-minute walk away. I was just so relieved that we had the sense, after surely a gallon of lager, to leave the Thames side pubs in good time, and that we could now relax and enjoy our walk all of the way around the grey cladding of the stadium and reach the away turnstiles in good time. It was around 5pm.

Good job I work in logistics.

Once inside the away concourse, virtually the first person that I bumped into was Daryl.

“Wow. You got a ticket then mate!”

Fantastic.

“Yeah, it would appear that rocking horses do occasionally go to the toilet.”

We had evidently not been the only little group of Chelsea fans enticed into West London hostelries for a few bevvies. The singing in the concourse was loud, and it continued into the stadium itself.

I knew what to expect of the Brentford Community Stadium. A few years back, as a certified stadium buff, I subscribed to updates from Brentford Football Club as their new stadium took shape. This mirrored my fascination with its steady growth with each trip in to see a game at Chelsea. Imagine my shock when, presumably because of my free subscription to these stadium updates, I started to receive offers to become a Brentford season ticket holder at the new place.

Easy now.

It’s a decent stadium. Every inch of available space has been used, and the stands abut roads and railway lines. Sound familiar? The stadium holds 17,250. The main stand dominates everything, but its upper reaches are an ugly mix of dull grey roof trusses and unsightly executive areas. I like the way that the tower of the Kew Pumping Station can be glimpsed between the main stand and the western home terrace, a much slighter structure. The roof drops down drastically at two of the corners. The seats are multi-coloured – no doubt to give the impression of them being filled even when they aren’t – but as kick-off time approached it was clear that this would be another full house.

Our away take was around 1,600.

Thankfully many faces that I recognised were in. Behind me was Rob Three, who was joined at various times by H, and then Des, who seemed intent on popping up in every section in the entire away end at various intervals of the entire match. A special mention for Clinton and his son Bailey who were stood a few rows behind me. Hailing from Stirling in central Scotland, Bailey played football during the morning before they flew down to Gatwick in the afternoon and then took a cab to Brentford. There was Luke in the front row of the top section, joining in with the chanting, arms spread. I spotted Daryl in the front row behind the goal. Faces everywhere in fact.

We knew there would be changes due to injuries and as the kick-off approached, the team was flashed on the TV screen which was perched rather precariously atop the main stand roof.

Mendy

Sarr – Christensen – Chalobah

Chilwell – Kovacic – Loftus-Cheek – Kante – Azpilicueta

Werner – Lukaku

I was alongside Alan, Gal and Parky in a jam-packed quartet in row five.

“They shall not pass.”

My first thoughts as the game began were two-fold.

Firstly, after games where we had been rather reticent at the start, I was just so pleased that we were able to take the game to Brentford in the first five, ten, fifteen minutes.

Secondly, bloody hell, we were making a racket. From a good few minutes before kick-off, and into those first twenty minutes, the noise from the 1,600 Chelsea fans in the north-eastern corner was non-stop.

“That’s more like it.”

And I couldn’t believe how quiet the home fans were. It shocked me.

As the two managers, Thomas Frank and Thomas Tuchel, cajoled their troops from the side-lines, the Chelsea choir let it rip.

“Super Chelsea FC.”

“We are the Champions, the Champions of Europe.”

“Timo Werner.”

But the loudest and – ahem – proudest (?) chant was directed at the referee, Anthony Taylor.

Look away now if you are easily offended.

“You’re a James Hunt, you’re a James Blunt, and you’ll always be a Stephen Hunt, you’ll always be a Berkshire Hunt, Taylor, Taylor.”

It seemed to go on forever.

It might sound stupid, even childish, but this chant reinforced the notion that despite modern football’s desire to cleanse and sanitise the current football experience, the faces in the away section, cheering loudly and at times with profanity, have been the heartbeat of the club for decades. In short, unlike at some home games, it felt that the right fans were at this game.

The every-gamers, the loyalists, the ones with one thousand, two thousand Chelsea games to their names, the faces you know, the names you might not know, the drinkers, the thinkers, the old school, the Shed, the North Stand, Gate Thirteen, The Benches, the Matthew Harding, The Shed Lower.

Chelsea on tour.

We dominated the play and Ruben Loftus-Cheek looked like he wanted to take the game by the scruff of the neck. One strong run through the middle was enjoyed by us all. The new boy Sarr looked decent, and didn’t look out of place. The hustle and bustle of Kovacic and Kante, the Kryptonite Kids, ensured that loose balls were charged down and Brentford could not develop many passing routines.

However, after a series of Brentford corners and free-kicks, the home team obtained a foothold. A high ball in from their right was kept alive by their attackers, and the ball fell to Mbeumo whose volley ricocheted back off the near post. From here, the ball was shielded by Ruben before Kovacic took it away from the defensive third with the Brentford team having left many up field. The ball was played wide to Werner. His low cross was turned in by Lukaku, but he had strayed – diabolically – offside.

Bollocks.

We regained control and a Kovacic free-kick threatened Raya in the home goal. A shot from Timo just swept past the post. It was all Chelsea, but there was frustration in the away end as our domination often petered out. Right on the stroke of half-time, a breakthrough came. A sustained spell of pressure, pegging the home defence back, resulted in a cross from Dave. Lukaku got something on it, and the ball dropped invitingly for Ben Chilwell. His volley was well controlled – not unlike the goal against Southampton in that respect – and the ball flew into the net.

Brentford 0 Chelsea 1.

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

Phew.

The night had fallen by the time the players returned onto the pitch for the start of the second-half. Whereas the first-half belonged to us, if only in terms of possession despite the goal, the second-half absolutely belonged to Brentford, and I wondered how or why they were allowed to dominate us for such long periods. This was the Brentford that I had been expecting to see all along, and at last the home fans were involved too.

Tuchel replaced Kovacic with Mason Mount half-way through the half. Lukaku wasted a golden opportunity after a Werner shot was blocked. Lukaku’s blast over the bar was met with groans and wails.

Brentford, by then, were warming to the task of getting back into the game. The previously quiet Toney looked lively, and Mbeumo saw his weak shot hit the left-hand post. Mendy was being called into action to safeguard our slender win, and he rose to the challenge magnificently.

Our ‘keeper was able to smother a shot as Ghoddos attacked from an angle and, oh Ghodd, we watched in pain as the ball was kept alive by a few desperate Brentford tackles. Thankfully, Chalobah was suitably switched-on to be able to hack a resultant shot off the line.

Brentford were making a racket now.

“About time.”

Next up a point blank save from Jansonn; the man Mendy was having an immense game.

Fackinell.

By now, our nerves were being strained and pulled and stretched in all different directions. Kai Havertz had replaced Lukaku and I felt that our attacking options had effectively been turned off.

Hang in there, boys.

Reece James for Dave.

At the death, an overhead kick from Norgaard drew an incredible reflex save from our goalkeeper. Mendy reacted so quickly, his fingers touching the ball over the bar.

This drew immediate and loud applause from us.

Just who is the five o’clock hero? Dunno, but Edouard Mendy was the seven o’clock one.

At last the final whistle.

This was hardly a classic, we knew that. Our play promised great things in the first quarter of the game, no doubt. But we just couldn’t switch through the gears when we needed to. Credit goes to Brentford for a great second-half performance, and – let’s be honest – they deserved a point.

I checked the scores again. A Manchester United loss at Leicester City. Liverpool had won at Watford. A Manchester City home win against Burnley.

But, it was true, we were top of the league. Gulp. At present we are surely a team whose total value is less than the sum of its constituent parts.

I posted, almost hard to believe in the circumstances, on Facebook :

“Catch Us If You Can.”

The way this season is going, it might take me until May to work out if this current Chelsea team are any good. And by then, who knows, we might even be League Champions.

See you on Wednesday.


Tales From Three Stadia In Turin / Racconti Da Tre Stadi Di Torino

Juventus vs. Chelsea : 29 September 2021.

Are you ready to go to the match with me?

“Let’s go. Andiamo!”

It was just after four o’clock. This was a full five hours before the Juventus vs. Chelsea game was due to start at the Allianz Stadium in Continassa to the north of Turin’s city centre. But I was heading south. I had decided that I would undertake a magical mystery tour of the city’s footballing past before our second Champions League game of the autumn. I was ready to immerse myself once more in the city’s footballing heritage and in my football history too. I had sorted out the timings. I was sure it would all work itself out. I would have five hours to soak myself inside Turin’s story.

I was ready.

There was no need for a jacket or top. The weather in the Northern Italian city had been exemplary, a surprising antidote to the increasingly changeable weather back home. I set off out into the warm afternoon wearing the football staples of a polo, a pair of jeans and trainers. In my camera bag, in addition to my Canon SLR and lenses, was the small Sony camera that I had purchased specifically for Porto in May, just in case the stewards at the Juventus stadium were overzealous and would decide that my long lenses were unable to be taken inside. Also inside the bag was my passport, my match ticket and my proof of two vaccinations against COVID19.

My hotel was tucked into the narrow grid of streets to the immediate south and east of Turin’s Porta Nuova train station, and I walked a few hundred yards to the Marconi tube station. The city’s one tube line would serve me well. I caught the train to Lingotto, the site of the famous old Fiat factory with its test-track on the roof, so memorably featured in the wonderful “The Italian Job” from 1969. On my last visit to Turin in 2012, I had enjoyed a very fine meal at the rather posh restaurant on the roof terrace, and had walked around the test-track, a life-time wish fulfilled.

Lingotto was the nearest metro station to my first footballing port of call; Stadio Filadelfia which was around a mile or so to the west. However, when I checked the quickest way to reach this famous old stadium, I was mortified to see that there was no quick walking route from Lingotto.

Bollocks.

It was perhaps typical that my plans had quickly taken a turn for the worse. In the build-up to this away game, there had been much anxiety as I struggled to come to terms with what exactly I needed to do to get myself to Italy. There had been tests, forms, emails, pdf attachments, vouchers, and stress at every turn. For example, when I sat down to take my “pre-flight” lateral flow test at home on the preceding Sunday, I discovered that the liquid within the vial had leaked in transit and so I had to use the kit intended to be used in Turin for my flight home. This would mean that I would need to locate a chemist’s near my hotel to take my second test. What a palaver. Even on the seemingly straightforward drive from deepest Somerset to Stansted in the small hours of Tuesday, there was extra worry. With many garages short of fuel, I became obsessed at how fast my fuel gauge was fading. I was sure that I was OK for the trip to Stansted, but I needed to fill the car with petrol in readiness for my return trip on Friday evening. Four filling stations on the A303 had no fuel. Thankfully, Fleet Services on the M3 were open and fully stocked. There was a heavy sigh of relief. With a section of the M25 closed, I then ludicrously spent twenty minutes following diversion signs that then deposited me back to where I had left the M25 and I found myself heading west and not east. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Thankfully, I arrived at my pre-booked parking spot bang on my allotted start time of 4.45am.

Phew.

Undeterred, I returned to the Lingotto subway station and quickly took a train north – retracing my very recent steps – to Carducci Molinette. From here, the stadium was around a twenty-five-minute walk away. I made haste and sped westwards. My route took me over a wide bridge that rose over the train tracks into the city’s main station.

It was along these very tracks that I would have travelled on my inaugural visit to Turin in November 1987, the city bathed in a grey mist that would not disappear all day. I remember sitting alone in the great hall of the main train station and pinning some British football badges onto a board that I had constructed at home prior to my latest Inter-Railing extravaganza. I had bought several hundred football badges from a company in Blackburn and aimed to sell as many as I could at games in Italy and Germany to help finance my travels in Europe. The Juventus vs. Panathinaikos UEFA Cup game later that evening would be my first opportunity to test the water. I had high hopes for this venture, and was equally as excited about seeing Juve, my favourite European team, for the first time.

Why Juve? A quick re-cap. They were the very first “foreign” team that I remembered seeing on TV, a European Cup game in exotic Turin against Derby County in April 1973. I made friends with Mario on an Italian beach in 1975; a Juventus fan, I had found a kindred spirit. In 1981, at the same beach resort, I met his friend Tullio, also a Juve fan. We have been friends ever since. I last saw Mario in that home town in 2019. I last saw Tullio in London in 2018. But these are just the essentials. Our three lives have intertwined for decades now.

As I walked south on Via Giordano Bruno, I stopped at a small shop to buy a “Coke” as my throat was parched. The previous day had been a long one; up at midnight, a flight at 6.45am, a tiring walk from Porta Sousa train station to my hotel, and then two spells of drinking, the second one long into the night with friends old and new at “The Huntsman” on the main drag. I was awake, in total, for around twenty-five hours. The “Coke” gave me just the kick I needed as I approached Stadio Filadelfia.

This stadium was the home of the all-conquering Torino team of the 1940’s, Il Grande Torino, who were so cruelly killed in the Superga air disaster of 4 May 1949. Growing up in England, I had heard Superga mentioned many times. At first I presumed that Superga was a small town near Turin where the plane, returning from a friendly in Lisbon, had crashed. Only later did I realise that Superga was a hill right on the eastern edge of the city. I then, with a mixture of amazement and horror, realised that the plane had crashed into the rear of a basilica perched right on top of that hill.

I always say it was akin to the successful Arsenal team of the ‘thirties crashing into Big Ben.

On the bus from the Turin airport at Caselle on Tuesday morning, I was telling this story to Pete, who along with my great pal Alan (and a host of other familiar Chelsea faces including a fanzine editor, an erstwhile Chelsea media man, a former Headhunter and a porn star) had been on the same Ryanair flight as myself. Just as I mentioned Superga – “you probably can’t see it in this haze” – Pete immediately spotted it away in the distance.

“Is that it?”

Indeed, it was.

As I approached the stadium, which has recently been painstakingly updated after decades of neglect, the memories of a previous visit to Turin came flooding back. In May 1992, three college friends – Pete, Ian, Trev – and I drove through France to attend a Juventus vs. Sampdoria game at Stadio Delle Alpi. On the day after the game, we drove up to Superga on the forty-third anniversary of the crash. We spent some time there. I remember I took my father’s new, and huge, camcorder on this trip and I shot a few segments of our visit. After, we drove down into Turin and parked up outside Stadio Filadelfia and hoped that we could peek inside. In 1992, the terracing on three sides were still intact, if very overgrown. The old main stand was held up with scaffolding. But we were able to walk onto the famous pitch and we even found a football to kick around for a few joyful minutes. The goal frames were still intact. Goals were scored at La Filadelfia. What fun. We then sat on the east terrace in quiet contemplation; Superga in another haze in the distance, the old Fiat factory nearby, the stadium still surrounded by tight working class flats on three of its sides. I imagined the roar of the crowd in those halcyon days. We took it all in.

Then, out of nowhere, we spotted two middle-aged women appear on the far side underneath the faded burgundy of the antiquated main stand. They were carrying two wreaths, and strode slowly on to the pitch, before stopping at the centre-circle to place the flowers on the turf.

It remains one of my most special football memories.

Torino played at Stadio Filadelfia from 1926 to 1960 and then shared the larger Stadio Communale with Juventus from 1961 to 1990. For many years, as the two teams hopped around stadia in the city, it was hoped that Torino would eventually return to their spiritual home. A while back, I was truly saddened to see it was in a very poor condition. So imagine my elation when I recently found out that a startling metamorphosis has taken place. A new main stand has been constructed, and a new pitch has been sewn. It now houses 4,000, and in addition to housing the club HQ, it also hosts the club museum and the team’s youth teams play games on this most sacred of sites.

As I circumnavigated the stadium, I remembered how decrepit the place had become. Its resurgence since 2015 has been sensational. I chatted to a Toro fan as I walked around and took some photographs. He was even wearing a burgundy – officially pomegranate – T-shirt and I thought to myself –

“You can’t get much more Toro than that.”

There is another Torino story, and one that tends to give the city an air of sadness in terms of football, and specifically with regards to the Torino club. I recently read the excellent “Calcio” book by John Foot. One chapter concerned the life and subsequent death of the Torino player, a real maverick, called Gigi Meroni. He joined Torino in 1964 and soon became the idol of the team’s supporters. A skilful and artistic ball-player in the style of George Best – a flamboyant playboy off the pitch, much admired by both sexes – he was out with a team mate after a Torino home game in 1967. Crossing the road near his flat on Corso Re Umberto, he was hit by two cars. He sadly died later in hospital. Bizarrely, the driver of the first car lived thirteen doors down from Meroni on that very street, and idolised Meroni, even adopting the same hairstyle. Over 20,000 people attended the funeral. In a bizarre twist, in 2000 the Torino club appointed a new president; a native of Turin, an executive at Fiat. His name was Attilio Romero, who just happened to be the driver of the first car that had hit Meroni in 1967. On my walk to my hotel on the previous day, I had stopped by the memorial on Corso Re Umberto to pay my respects. With the Juventus tragedy at Heysel haunting many in the city, Turin certainly has its share of sadness.

It was approaching 5pm now and I walked a few blocks west. Next up was Stadio Olimpico, formerly Stadio Communale, and the current home of Torino. The two stadia are only a quarter of a mile apart. I walked past a bar where two friends and I had visited in 1989. This was another trip into Turin for a Juventus game with college friends. We caught a bus down to have a mosey around the stadium on a sunny Saturday morning before the game with Fiorentina on the Sunday and spent a couple of hours chatting and drinking and basically enjoying each other’s company. I was twenty-three, we had just won the Second Division Championship, and I was off to the US in the September. At the time, it seemed like a dream weekend in the middle of a dream summer, and it does even more so now. Bob was Leeds, Pete was Newcastle, I was Chelsea. But for that weekend we were all Juventus. I remember we all bought Juventus polos in the ridiculously small Juve store within a central department store.

Memories were jumping around inside my head now. I walked along Via Filadelfia and the years evaporated.

On my first visit in 1987, I arrived outside the home turnstiles as thousands of Juventus fans were singing and chanting a full three hours before they made their way inside the preferred home end of the Curva Filadelfia. I set up shop outside and sold around thirty badges – Chelsea and Liverpool the best sellers – before then plotting up outside the Curva Maratona, selling a few more, then heading inside to see Ian Rush and Juventus defeat Panathinaikos 3-2, but sadly get eliminated due to away goals. I remember the pink flares before the game, I remember the noise of the passionate bianconeri, I remember I was positioned in the very back row of the Maratona, right next to the main stand, Gianni Agnelli and all. Antonio Conte’s right-hand man Angelo Alessio scored one of the three Juventus goals that evening. It is a night I will never forget, my first European night, and my first visit to the home of Juventus, a sprawling stadium with those iconic curved goal stanchions, and the team with those baggy white shorts.

I remembered March 1988 and the visit of Internazionale, their masses of fans packing out the Maratona, while I proudly stood on the Filadelfia for the first time. Two banners in the Maratona : “WIN FOR US” and “RUSH – YOUR WIFE IS FUCKING.” Juve won that game 1-0 with a Marino Magrin penalty.

A visit in November 1988, my first flight into Europe for football, and I watched with my friend Tullio on the distinti as Napoli – with Diego Maradona at the very heart of its team in light blue shirts – defeated Juventus by the ridiculous score of 5-3. Tullio, aware that his Napoli friend Giorgio was in the Maratona, memorably wanted to leave at half-time when the visitors were already 3-1 up.

The game against Fiorentina in 1989, and the memory of piles and piles of the magazine “Guerin Sportivo” lying at the base of the Curva Filedelfia, intended to be claimed by home fans and then torn up as the teams entered the pitch. Instead, I gathered three different copies to take away from the game and to add to my collection. In those days, I would often buy “La Gazzetta” in Bath or “Guerin Sportivo” in London to keep up-to-date with Italian football. In 1988/89, I could probably rattle off most starting elevens of the dominant teams in Italy. In 2021/22, I struggle with the starting elevens of the main English teams.

I guess I have seen too much.

Also from that game, Roberto Baggio, of Fiorentina, getting sent-off in a 1-1 draw, but also the 2,000 strong visiting Fiorentina fans leaving early, possibly to avoid an ambush or perhaps to carry out an ambush en route back to the main station.

As with the scene that greeted me in 1987, there was masses of graffiti adorning the wall opposite the turnstiles. In 2021, all football related, and undoubtedly inflammatory against certain teams. In 1987, graffiti of a more political nature; the names Pinochet and Hess hinted at the rumoured right-wing bias of some dominant Juve supporter groups.  The old adage was Juve, Lazio and Inter right, Torino, Roma and Milan left though those rules seem to have diluted and changed in the subsequent years.

I turned the corner and peaked inside at the main stand. From our 1992 visit, I remember the four of us had sidled into the Stadio Communale unhindered – our version of “The Italian Job” – and had scrambled over to the main stand as easy as you like. The stadium was deserted, it was used occasionally for athletics, and I remember I even spent a few minutes sitting in the old directors’ box, possibly the seat used by either the owner Agnelli or the president Giampiero Boniperti.

As I turned north, with the turnstiles to the Curva Maratona in view, I remembered my very last visit to the stadium, in March 2009, with Chelsea. As you can imagine, what with my Juventus side-line, the meeting of the two teams was pretty much my dream tie. I remember I had gambled on Bristol to Turin flights – £37 – and I well remember my old boss coming into a meeting one morning to tell me “Juventus” when the draw was made. My gamble had paid off. While the unloved Delle Alpi was being demolished and then the new Juventus Stadium rebuilt on the same site, both Turin teams decamped to their former home, now remodelled and upgraded for the 2006 Winter Olympics. Now with a roof, and a deeper distinti – but bizarrely looking smaller than the Communale – around 3,000 Chelsea loudly supported the boys on a fantastic evening in Turin, a 2-2 draw enough for us to advance on away goals. It was, indeed, the game of my life.

By the way, the Juventus manager that night? Claudio Ranieri. I wonder what happened to him.

It was now around 6.30pm and I needed to move on. But I liked the view of the Stadio Olimpico from the north. The marathon tower, which I believe was once known as the Mussolini Tower – the stadium was once known as Stadio Benito Mussolini – looks over the roofed stadium and there are huge sculptures by Tony Cragg, similar to those that I saw outside that wonderful art gallery in Baku in 2019. On my hurried walk back to Carducci Molinette – past joggers and cyclists and power-walkers, and folk practising tai-chi – I walked alongside a park that I remembered from my very first visit in 1987, saddened with Juventus’ exit from the UEFA Cup and not sure where – on what train – I would be sleeping that night.

Who would have possibly thought that thirty-four years later, I would be preparing myself for my third Juventus vs. Chelsea game of my life? Certainly not me. That season, Chelsea were relegated to Division Two.

We’ve come a long way baby.

And this was the crux of this whole trip. Despite this trip to Turin coming too soon in a COVID-confused autumn – the first away trip of the campaign – and with the pandemic still active throughout Europe, with all of the allied concerns and stresses, it was the lure of Chelsea playing Juventus that did it for me. I am not bothered about going to Malmo. A trip to St. Petersburg in December would be superb, but maybe too expensive and too “involved”. But Juventus? I just had to be there.

At around 7.10pm, I was headed into the city on the subway and the evening’s game was now in my sights. At every station, I expected more fans to join. But there were hardly any. Admittedly, the attendance would be clipped at around the 20,000 mark – we had allegedly sold 500 of our allotted 1,000 – but I just expected more fans to be on their way north. It was all very odd.

At around 7.30pm, I exited at Bernini station. Here, we had been told on the official Chelsea website, to take a shuttle bus to the stadium. Again, hardly any match-going fans were in the vicinity. The stadium was a good two and a half miles away. I began to worry. What if there was no bus? I toured around all points of the compass and eventually spotted a few likely match-goers at a bus stop. Phew. The bus took maybe twenty-five minutes to finally reach the stadium. Three young Chelsea lads in full replica-shirt regalia were sat close by.

Too noisy. Too full of it. Too eager. Too annoying.

God, I am getting old.

Just after 8pm, the bus deposited us at the northern end of the stadium and I made my way past a few street vendors selling fast food, panini, hot dogs, crisps, wurst, drinks, and also various Juventus trinkets. Outside the away turnstiles, a ring of police guarded our entrance. Ahead stood the two “A” frame supports that are effectively the sole remnants of the old Delle Alpi stadium which stood on the site from 1990 to 2009.

My first visit here was during that 1992 trip; we watched high up along the western side in the upper tier towards the home Curva Scirea. Sadly, the game with Sampdoria – Gianluca Vialli in attack – was a poor 0-0 draw. A couple of years earlier, of course, the stadium witnessed Gazza’s tears amid the tumultuous England vs. West Germany World Cup semi-final.

My only other game at the old Delle Alpi came on a Sunday after Tullio’s wedding to Emanuela on a Saturday in May 1999. Rather bleary-eyed from the excesses of the wedding reception, I caught a cab to the stadium and arranged with the cab driver to pick me up right after the game with Fiorentina, yes them again, and whip me up to Caselle to catch the flight home. Juventus had just lost to Manchester United in the Champions League semi-final the previous midweek, and the mood was a little sombre. I nabbed tickets in the other side stand, again near the Curva Scirea, and watched as Juventus – Zinedine Zidane et al – beat the hated Viola 2-1 with a very late goal from none other than Antonio Conte. Our former manager went into Juventus folklore that afternoon. After scoring, he ran towards the 1,000 or so away fans located, stranded, in the middle tier, and taunted them by pulling out the corner flag and waving it at them in a show of braggadocio.

The time was drawing on and there was a crowd waiting to enter the Allianz Stadium.

“Good job we have time on our side.”

I patiently waited in line, and spotted a few friends amid the Chelsea faithful. This was where it could have gone all so wrong. After I had picked up my match ticket at the city centre hotel at around 3pm – a police van parked outside just to keep us company – I returned to my hotel room. I almost put my passport to one side – “won’t need that again” – but then remembered that in Italy a passport is required at the turnstiles. Time was moving on but the line didn’t seem to be diminishing too quickly. Tempers were getting a little fraught. Just three stewards checking five-hundred passports. Police spotters – Goggles and his cronies – were loitering, and a few unidentified persons were filming our every move. It did feel a little intimidating.

A familiar voice :

“Hurry up. Only two euros.”

Eventually, I made it to the front of the huddle.

The first check married up my passport with my COVID19 pass, and then there was a temperature check.

OK so far.

Then a passport check against my match ticket.

OK.

Then a quick pat down and a very quick check of my camera bag.

OK.

Then, further inside, another passport and match ticket check.

OK.

I walked on, up the steps, a quick visited to use the facilities and I was inside at around 8.35pm.

“Good job I work in logistics.”

I made my way into the sparsely populated lower tier and chatted to a few friends. A quick word with Ryan from Stoke, with whom I had enjoyed some mojitos the previous night.

“Good night, wannit, Ryan?”

“Was it? Can’t remember getting in.”

I soon spotted Alan and Pete and made my way over to see them. We would watch the match from almost the same position as the November 2012 game.

At the time of that visit, the Allianz Stadium was known as the Juventus Stadium and had only opened in 2011. It was a horrible night, Chelsea suffered a lame 0-3 loss, and the game signalled the end of Roberto di Matteo’s short reign as Chelsea manager. I remember the sadness of the following morning and a text from a work colleague that informed me of the sudden news. Nine years later, I remember little of the game. I know we played with no real striker, a false nine, and Juventus were well worth their win. The loss would cost us our place in that season’s competition.

Oh well. We just sailed full steam ahead and won the Europa League in Amsterdam instead.

First thoughts?

It is a decent stadium. But it was odd to see it at half-strength. I had forgotten that there are odd corner roof supports that rise up and cause an irritating intrusion to an otherwise fine view of the pitch. The stands rise steeply. There are more executive areas on the far side, the East Stand, than on the adjacent West Stand. Down below us, the goal frame where – approximately – Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle saddened us in 1990 and where Antonio Conte scored in 1999 stood tantalisingly close.

The colour scheme is, of course, black and white, and there are three yellow stars – denoting Juventus’ 36 title wins – picked out in the seats of the southern Curva Scirea.

The trouble I have with the new pad is that it is still jettisoned out on the northern reaches of the city away from – in my mind – the club’s historical roots to the south of the city. I first fell in love with that amazing team of the ‘seventies of Zoff, Scirea, Gentile, Tardelli, Bettega, Causio, Cabrini et al…then Boniek, Platini, Laudrup, those Ariston shirts, the Stadio Communale, the old lady, the old team, the old club. Juventus at the Allianz Stadium – all flash, all corporate boxes, all show – just seems all rather false.

Modern football, eh?

My visits to the stadia of Turin was now updated.

Stadio Communale : 4 games, 1 visit inside on a non-match-day and 1 visit outside on a non-match day.

Stadio Delle Alpi : 2 games.

Juventus Stadium : 1 game.

Allianz Stadium : 1 game.

Stadio Olimpico : 1 game and 1 visit outside on a non-match day.

Stadio Filadelfia : 1 visit inside on a non-match day ( and at least 1 goal…) and 1 visit outside.

Five stadia, but only three sites. It’s a confusing story, isn’t it?

But there’s more. I helped to arrange a delivery of office chairs to Juventus on Corso Gaetano Scirea a few years ago. And only on the day before I left for Turin, I learned that a company that I use for express vans around Europe takes care of delivering VAR equipment around Europe for UEFA and had just delivered to Juventus.

Small world, eh?

The clock quickly approached the nine o’clock kick-off time. Just as the Juventus anthem was starting to be aired – “La Storia Di Un Grande Amore” – Alan whispered to me.

“Don’t want you singing along.”

I smiled.

“I know the words.”

“I know you do!”

As I changed lenses on my camera, I could not help lip-synching a little. Both teams appeared in blue tracksuit tops. The Champions League anthem played. I was surprised to see a few folk wearing Chelsea replica shirts in the home area to my left, beyond the plexi-glass. They were soon moved along, or out, I know not which.

As the game began, I could hardly believe the amount of Juventus fans wearing replica shirts. There has certainly been a sea change in Italian terrace fashion in the years that I have been attending games in Turin. Just as in England in the late ‘eighties and early ‘nineties, hardly anyone bothered with team shirts. In Italy, more than in the UK, it was all about the scarves in those days. Trends change, and there are more replica shirts on offer than ever before these days, yet a huge section of match-going regulars in the UK refuse to be drawn in. For the English connoisseur of football fashion, many look upon the Italians – “Paninaro, oh, oh, oh” – as excellent reference points in the never-ending chase for style and substance. Yet here we all were, a few of us decked out in our finery – Moncler, Boss and Armani made up my Holy Trinity on this warm night in Turin – yet the locals were going 180 degrees in the opposite direction and opted for replica shirts with players’ names.

Et tu Brute? Vaffanculo.

The Chelsea team?

We had heard that King Kante had succumbed to the dreaded COVID, while Reece James was injured. The manager chose an eleven that we hoped would fare better than in the miserable capitulation to Manchester City a few days previously.

Mendy.

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Ziyech – Havertz

Lukaku

The match began and we started decently enough. There was a stab at goal from inside the box by Roemelu Lukaku from a corner by Marcos Alonso but this did not cause the former Arsenal ‘keeper Wojciech Szcezsaczsaeisniey any anxiety. Soon into the game, the Chelsea loyalists in the tiny quadrant decided to go Italian and honour some of our former Italian greats.

“One Di Matteo, there’s only one di Matteo.”

“Gianfranco Zola, la, la, la, la, la, la.”

“Vialli! Vialli! Vialli! Vialli!”

There wasn’t even a flicker from the black and white fans to my left.

Then a memory from a night in Milan.

“Oh Dennis Wise scored a fackin’ great goal in the San Siro with ten minutes to go.”

We lost possession via Kovacic and Chiesa broke away in the inside right channel, but his speculative shot from an angle was well wide of the far post.

Chelsea enjoyed much of the possession in that first-half. Whereas City had been up and at us, pressurising us in our defensive third, Juve were going old school Italian, defending very deep, with the “low block” of modern parlance. And we found it so hard to break them down. It became a pretty boring game, with few moments of skill and enterprise.

I spoke to Alan.

“There’s not much space in their penalty box. In fact, there’s even less space when Lukaku is in it.”

Despite Romelu’s weight loss from his days at Manchester United, he still resembles the QE2 with a turning circle to match.

It just wasn’t going for us. Very rarely did we get behind the Juventus back line. Balls were played at Lukaku, rather than to him, and the ball bounced away from him on so many times. It seemed that he often had three defenders on him.

He was full of De Ligt.

At the other end, Federico Chiesa looked to be Juventus’ main threat, and a shot flashed wide. He followed this up with another effort that did not trouble Mendy one iota. A rising shot from Rabiot was well over. The former Chelsea player Juan Quadrado rarely got involved. Juventus were easily leading in terms of efforts on goal.

At our end, there were hardly quarter chances let alone half chances.

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

The players couldn’t hear us. This was a dull game, and getting poorer by the minute. At half-time, I received a text from Tullio, now living in Moncalieri, a few miles south of Turin, but watching in a Turin pub with friends :

“Boring.”

Tuchel replaced Alonso with Ben Chilwell at the break.

It is my usual modus operandi to mainly use my zoom lens once the action starts, but I often take a few panorama shots with my wide angle lens just at the start of the second-half just to vary things a little. Thus, once the Spanish referee instigated the restart, I lifted my camera and took one and then two shots of the stadium with the game being played out below it. The first photograph was of a Juventus break; the second photograph was of a Juventus goal.

And just like that, crash, bang, wallop, we were losing 1-0.

Fackinell.

The goal was conceded after just eleven seconds of play in the second-half. It was a wicked smash and grab raid by that man Chiesa. The goal shocked and silenced the away fans. In reality, I doubted very much that Juventus, with Bonucci on the pitch and Chiellini waiting in the wings, would let this slip.

We still created little.

On the hour, more substitutions.

Jorginho, Dave and Ziyech off.

Chalobah, Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi on.

Juventus, mid-way through the half, really should have put the game to bed when a long ball was cushioned by Cuadrado into the path of Bernardeschi, but his heavy touch put the ball wide.

The final substitution with a quarter of an hour to go.

Barkley on for Christensen.

We had all the ball but never ever looked like scoring. I just willed Callum to get his head down and get past his man but he rarely did. There was a lame header from Lukaku, and after Barkley – showing some spirit and a willingness to take people on – tee’d up Lukaku, the Belgian striker fluffed his chance close in on goal.

“We won’t score, mate.”

Late on, a lazy header from Havertz only bothered the ball boys and press photographers at the Curva Scirea.

It was, again, a rotten night in Continassa.

In the last few minutes, Chelsea supporters in the top tier had decided to throw beer on the Juve fans to my left, but ended up soaking myself and a few fellow supporters.

For fuck sake.

We made our slow, silent way out to the waiting fleet of around seven buses that took us back to the centre of the city. Sirens wailed as we were given a police escort, with blue lights flashing.

Did I imagine it, or did someone spray “Osgood Is Good” on one of the buses?

I chatted with a bloke who I had not seen before. He told me that of his seventeen trips to Europe with Chelsea, he had seen just three wins. I begged him to stay away in future.

It was, after the stresses of getting out to Turin in the first place, such a disappointing game. We all walked en masse back into the pubs and hotels of Turin. I chatted briefly to Neil Barnett as we slouched along Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, and we agreed –

“That was a hard watch.”

A chat with Cal.

“Fancy joining us for a beer at The Shamrock?”

“Nah mate. My hotel is just around the corner. I am off to bed.”

It was approaching 12.30am. I darted into a late night café and devoured a kebab, washed down with two iced-teas. It was my first real meal of the day.

It was time to call it a night.

My trip to Turin stretched into Thursday and Friday. On Thursday, there was a quick “tampone rapido” test at a nearby chemist, and thankfully I was negative. I met up with my work colleague Lorenzo and his wife Marina. Although they are both natives of Milan, this was their first ever visit to Turin, despite being in their late ‘fifties. I remarked to Lorenzo, an Inter fan, that it’s “because of Juventus isn’t it?” and he was forced to agree. That Inter / Juve “derby d’Italia” animosity runs deep.

We met up with Serena, who works for a furniture dealership in Turin, and she gave us a super little tour of a few of the palaces and piazzas of the city centre. We visited Palazzo Reale, the former royal palace of the governing Savoy family, and enjoyed an al fresco lunch in the September sun. We later visited Superga – of course – and Lorenzo loved it, despite the sadness. One last photo call at Monte Dei Cappuccini, and he then drove me back to my hotel.

In the evening, saving the best to last, Tullio collected me outside my hotel and picked up his mother en route to an evening meal at Tullio’s apartment in Moncalieri. Sadly, Tullio lost his father last year, so the evening was tinged with a little sadness. But it was magical to see his family again. His daughters Sofia and Lucrezia are into canoeing and rowing. At seventeen, Sofia – who practices on the nearby River Po – is a national champion in the under-23 age group.

We reminisced about our past and remembered the times spent on the beach in Diano Marina in those lovely days of our youth.

Ah, youth.

Juventus.

Maybe that’s it.

On Friday, it was time to leave Turin. It had been, “assolutamente”, a simply superb four days in the sun. At Caselle airport, there was time for one last meal – gnocchi, my favourite – and one last bottle of iced tea. There was a quick chat with a couple of the Juventus women’s team en route to an away game against Roma. And there was time for a raid on the Robe Di Kappa shop, that famous logo reminding me so much of the Juventus kits of yore. There was even a photo of Roberto Bettega in his prime behind the till.

I walked a few yards across the tarmac to board the waiting 3.30 plane home, and I spotted Superga away on the hill in the distance.

Until next time, Turin, until next time.

Stadio Filadelfia

Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino

Allianz Stadium

Postcards From Turin

Tales From The Club With Two Stars

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 25 September 2021.

Just another Saturday? Hardly.

Even without the added weight of Porto, this was always going to be one of the games of the season. The current European Champions versus the current English Champions. Undoubtedly the biggest game in club football over the weekend, not just in England, but the entire World, was due to kick-off at 12.30pm at Stamford Bridge. And that was the only downer; that such a big game was being played at such an awful time. Well, I hope that the watching millions in Malaysia, Japan, The Philippines et al appreciated the match goers getting up at silly o’clock for them.  I am not so sure the TV viewers in North America were quite so excited; in California this meant a 4.30am kick off. Ouch.

The biggest game in the entire world. That’s quite something. When you grow up with a football club and try to get to as many live games as is physically, economically and geographically possible – why? That doesn’t need an explanation does it? – sometimes it is easy, too easy, to take the match day experience for granted. The grizzled old “every-gamers” can be a curmudgeonly lot at times, and we can sometimes forget to realise how excited those fans who only get to see us live once in a blue moon – sorry, poor analogy that – when the moons align – ditto – and they too join the match-going crowds at Stamford Bridge or elsewhere.

But this never felt like any other game.

I had been relishing it all week. City are a well-established team, tutored by the Catalan Pep Guardiola, and worthy champions in three of the last four seasons. They are still the team to beat this season. Although Chelsea has made great strides – leaps – the past eight months since Frank Lampard was jettisoned in favour of the Teutonic teacher Thomas Tuchel, we are still a work in progress, a team finding its feet, its optimum way of playing, its groove.

And I will say it once again. We are a team that is in a building phase, yet we are European Bloody Champions.

Weird ain’t half of it.

In the packed “Eight Bells” at the bottom end of Fulham, we were all enjoying a lovely, yet brief, pre-match. I had booked a table for five at 10am. PD and Parky were on time. After I had parked the car, I bumped into Kev and Rich on the District Line train as it pulled into Putney Bridge. We joined the fray at 10.20pm. It would leave us barely ninety minutes of “pre-match” but we were not fazed. Kim, Dan, Andy and the Kent boys (including three brothers, the Loaders, a load of Loaders) were already ensconced in the corner, and the three late-comers sidled in alongside. I was driving, so on Diet-Cokes. But that’s fine. The laughs ripped through the cosy pub. We chatted with enthusiasm about the upcoming game, and the pub was noisier than usual. There was a real buzz to the place. One of the most overworked words in modern parlance – along with shenanigans, are you paying attention America? – is “proper”, so excuse me if I lazily use it here.

The “Eight Bells” is a proper football pub.

It is so old school, traditional, working class, call it what you will, that of the one hundred or more Chelsea fans squeezed inside, or overflowing onto the seated area outside, there was not one single woman. I realised this as I walked through as we exited at just after 11.45pm. To be truthful it shocked me. I am all for the fairer sex attending games, but the complete lack of females took me by surprise. To be blunt, I was shocked.

We caught the train, and we were soon walking along the Fulham Road. Rain had been threatening to make an appearance, but thus far all was fine. On the West Stand forecourt, scarves bearing the name of a company – I won’t bother saying which one – and the two club crests were being handed out by a few happy smiley types, who were also trying to persuade the match-goers to take a concertina’d noise-maker too.

I walked by and said “no, no, no, no, no, no, no.”

This ain’t fucking Disney World, this ain’t Fulham, this ain’t Leicester.

As club historian Rick Glanvil pointed out as he walked alongside me they were even the wrong bloody colour; light blue, but light blue was the corporate colour involved.

Fuck that.

Anyway, suffice to say, I did not spot one single noisemaker inside the stadium.

Good work everyone.

As the teams took to the pitch – I have to say I miss the walk towards the West Stand – two flags floated above the heads of spectators at both ends of the stadium; a simple outline of the European Cup in The Shed, the “Pride of London” one in the MHL now adorned with two yellow stars.

I absolutely love that the club badge that I grew up with from 1971 to 1986 – with two stars either side of the lion rampant – has now developed a new meaning. If I had my way, this old lion would be reinstated in favour of the 2005 badge which already looks a little jaded.

It was our best badge.

I can well remember visiting a menswear shop in the nearby town of Warminster with my father in around 1971 or 1972. I had already been gifted a plain blue cotton shirt, but there was nothing to signify that it was “Chelsea.” While my father was talking business with the shop owner, my gaze was fixed on what looked like iron-on patches of a few football crests on display way above the counter. The Arsenal gun, the Tottenham cockerel, the Liverpool bird. I looked at a patch with a lion with “CFC” below and wondered if that was the Chelsea badge. On walking back to my father’s car, I mentioned the badges to him, and to my great surprise and undoubted joy, he marched me back into the shop and bought me the Chelsea patch badge. My mother would affix to my royal blue shirt, but alas it was soon to fade. There must be hundreds of Chelsea fans from that era with a faded Chelsea badge on their shirts.

It’s nice that those two stars, signifying the twin cup successes in 1970 and 1971, now represent the grander triumphs of 2012 and 2021.

Proper.

The minutes soon ticked by to kick-off.

Our team was with a new formation, albeit that which took command in the second-half during that heady game at Tottenham last Sunday.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – James

Alonso – Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante – Dave

Werner – Lukaku

One suspects that there were few complaints about this line up and personnel at kick-off. Be honest with yourself here. It was OK for me, though the duo up front was obviously a gamble as they had only played together in the Wednesday game against Villa late on.

The game began and I wish it hadn’t.

I soon wished that the coach bringing the City players into town had not been able to be refuelled and was stuck on the M25 near Watford. There had been a sudden mania for filling up cars with diesel and petrol amid rumours of a lack of tanker drivers being able to re-fil bunkers of fuel at garages all over the UK. We had witnessed a few queues on the way into London that very morning.

But no. The City players were at Stamford Bridge and were soon running amok. They absolutely bossed the first-half. Jack Grealish, the pantomime villain, was enjoying tons of the early ball down below us, and the energy and running of the City players made our movements look insipid and half-paced. While Tuchel had gone back to the ‘nineties with a twin pairing up front, Guardiola had gone the other way, backing into the future with a false nine in the guise of the diminutive but nimble Foden.

They shook us to our foundations in that first forty-five minutes.

Although we goaded the City entourage with songs from Porto, the City players did the fans’ talking on the pitch. They buzzed around like fireflies, and put us under immense pressure once we had the ball.

Alas, we did not show the same willingness to close them down.

In days of old I would shout “put’em under” and I am resisting to shout the ridiculously over-used word “press” with every sinew in my body. But they did. They pressed us all over the pitch as if it was going out of fashion, and God I wish that phrase would. They hunted in packs like the great United midfield of Beckham, Scholes, Keane and Butt. They were relentless.

Early on, maybe five minutes into the game, a ball was launched forward and Romelu Lukaku rose to head it at an angle in the general vicinity of Timo Werner. But it didn’t work, nor did it really come off for the rest of the game.

I turned to Al :

“What did I just see? A big central striker trying to play in a slighter second striker? Can you explain that to me, mate? I have a vague memory, but…”

City gathered momentum and our attacks were rare. Timo Werner bent a forward run to perfection on fifteen minutes to receive a ball from the trusted left boot of Marcos Alonso, and the German prodded the ball in to Lukaku but his effort was blocked. There would be not much else to give us hope and sustenance in that arid first half.

City were penning us in and we were lacking ideas on how to attack once we had the ball. The midfield three that had rampaged at will against Tottenham looked tired and weary. The front two upfront were stranded.

“I’ll take a draw now.”

Sadly, just on the half-hour, Reece James was forced to leave the field. He was replaced by the calming presence of Thiago Silva. After being substituted in Porto, it was ironic that he would now enter the pitch in this game with City.

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

For all of City’s possession, and it was impressive, Mendy was virtually untroubled. A mixture of wayward shooting from City and some excellent blocks, often from close in, from many Chelsea defenders meant that the game continued without a goal. There was City corner after City corner. A wild finish from Rodri just before the break summed up City’s profligacy.

We were really struggling. There was a massive gap between the midfield three and the two upfront. Nobody was breaking to support.

“Lukaku’s second touch is a tackle.”

City’s defenders had hardly been turned all of the first-half; all of the play was in front of them. This was too easy for them.

It had been a really poor half.

“Have we had a single shot on goal? I can’t remember one.”

It was time for a technical master class from our manager at half-time. While fellow supporters chatted with worried expressions in the stands, I hoped that Tuchel was conjuring up a change of system, or at least a change in attitude.

“Tell you what, Guardiola is going to be gutted, annoyed even, they are still without a goal at the break.”

Chelsea needed to change things around.

What would I have done?

No idea. I am a mere supporter.

Over to you, Tommy, lad.

Sadly, and seamlessly, City’s dominance absolutely continued in the first opening minutes of the second period.

At last an invigorating run from Timo down our right brought a ray of hope.

Al : “Need something like that to get the crowd involved.”

The noise from the Matthew Harding had been sporadic; loud at times, but not often enough.

Not long after, Grealish wriggled free in the inside-left channel and buzzed a low shot just past the far post. The deflection earned a corner which was taken short. Sadly, the inevitable happened. Gabriel Jesus was able to turn and prod the ball home inside a packed Shed End goa. From the northern end, I was unable to pick out an apparent deflection. It appeared to be in slow motion.

But the goal was on the cards.

The City legions boomed :

“We’re not really here.”

Mendy did so well to tip a shot from Grealish past the post.

An Alonso corner summed up our afternoon; it didn’t clear the first man but when the ball ended up at the feet of a tired N’Golo Kante, the French midfielder could only shuffle the ball all of the way back to Mendy.

“Fackinell Chels.”

Silva cleared off the line.

“Fackinell Chels.”

On the hour, Kai Havertz for Kante. I focussed on his chiselled features as he took position up front on the left and dreamed of Porto.

Back to a 3-4-3 formation.

I was up celebrating a Lukaku tap in from an early Havertz ball, but the German had strayed into an offside position.

Bollocks.

On sixty-seven minutes, our first shot on goal. But this would be an Alonso free-kick, in prime territory, that hit the wall. Soon after, at last, a bursting run from Kovacic warmed our spirits, but it all petered out rather too predictably.

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

Edouard Mendy was keeping us in the game, or so we naively hoped, with a succession of fine saves. To be truthful, all of the defenders in that central three had been excellent; no complaints. It was just our attacking players that had struggled all day long with the tenacity and hunger of the away team.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced the very poor Jorginho with a quarter to go. The noise increased as the crowd sensed that a sudden late upsurge in our play might entice a slightly unwarranted goal from someone in our midst. Despite some nice flourishes and a little more bite and energy from our Ruben that had been sadly missing, the late substitute just couldn’t ignite the team. The other substitute, Havertz, had offered little.

Mendy made one last save, a super one at that, from that man Grealish, but the game was done, the game was over.

City had totally deserved the win. A hundred thousand post-mortems would suddenly be happening at once all over the world. But the manager is no fool, no simpleton, and he will be soon at work to identify what decisions, including his own, engendered such a poor performance.

Don’t worry. We are in good hands.

We reconvened in the austere beer garden at “The Goose” to meet up with Kev and Rich before their evening return from Gatwick to Edinburgh.

Poor Kev’s last three visits to Stamford Bridge – Bournemouth, West Ham and now Manchester City – have all ended up as 0-1 Chelsea losses.

Imagine what Tottenham fans must feel like.

We headed home, philosophical, but pleased that both Manchester United and Liverpool had dropped unexpected points. However we couldn’t disguise how poorly we had played. On a day when the United Kingdom scurried around in search of fuel, it certainly seemed that Chelsea had been served two-star petrol, while City had been issued turbo-charged four-star.

Before I returned home, I was pleased to be able to fill my tank at my local garage in preparation for my early morning jaunt to Stansted on Tuesday for my, hopeful, flight to Turin.

I just need to get a negative reaction to a lateral flow test.

Juventus lie in wait.

I will see some of the famous five hundred out there.

Andiamo.

Tales From The B Team

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 22 September 2021.

This was our – literally, the team’s and my – fourth game out of five in London in just fifteen short days. What with my decision to go to Turin next week, the Aston Villa game in the League Cup (Carabao, my arse) would be the midway point of seven matches in a run of twenty-two days. After that little lot, I’ll need the next International Break.

Unlike the team, I had no alter ego, no reserve, no Chris-Lite, no twelfth man, no substitute to take my place for this game in a competition which was undoubtedly the lowest priority for the team, domestically, this season. What a great trick that would be, eh? To summon up a personal substitute at times during our lives when our full attention can’t be guaranteed.

Listening to a pub bore drone on, attending a dull meeting at work, watching a sub-standard film, watching England play football, listening to Queen. That sort of second-grade activity.

“No Real Chris, today?”

“No, he’s saving himself for the John Cooper-Clarke gig.”

I finished work, at home, bang on 3pm and – as with the game against Zenit last Tuesday – PD was parked on my driveway, with Parky riding shotgun, ready to whisk me away for an evening of football in deepest SW6.

Unlike last week, I grabbed a few minutes’ kip in the back seat as The Mother Road was devoured mile by mile. We were parked up at 5.20pm alongside the pot-infused Normand Park and we were in the first rub-a-dub at 5.30pm. As I walked through The Goose to the waiting beer garden, there seemed to be a discernible case of deja-vu. Both Robin and Russell were sitting at exactly the same places around the same table as last week. This week, though, I just didn’t fancy a beer. In “The Goose” and “Simmons”, I drank diet-Coke and PD, the conscientious driver, just drank water.

“How the mighty hath fallen.”

There was a little Frome / Westbury / Trowbridge / Melksham reunion in the beer garden of “The Goose.” Good to see chat to those lads, friends with each other for decades and decades.

There was also a chat with Kev, Brian, Julie, Tim and Rich in The Bristol Corner. Kev – a very seasoned traveller, he was recently in Vilnius in Lithuania – has been a great help in sorting out my pre-Turin plans and I bought him a pint of Doombar in recompense for his services.

In “Simmons”, a smaller, briefer Chelsea Chicago reunion.

Thankfully, there was no nightmare wait at the turnstiles before this midweek game and I was inside at around 7.30pm ahead of the 7.45pm kick-off.

This would be a nice test for our support. But the club always seems to get the pricing of these League Cup games just right; only £25 for tonight’s game against, almost certainly, the respective B teams of Chelsea and Villa. I was pleasantly surprised with the crowd; not a full house, but pretty damn close. I had noted that Leeds United had visited the borough on the previous night and had packed out the entire end at Craven Cottage; a very respectable 5,000 in the Putney End. And tonight, for the second time in September, Villa had sold their allocation of 3,000 at Stamford Bridge. Well done to them.

I definitely noted a different dynamic among the home support in and around the Matthew Harding, if not all the other areas; a younger support, many more replica shirts than usual, almost a boisterous air. I surmised that, for many, this might well be the first sighting of Chelsea for some time. There is no doubt the cheaper tickets entice a different fan base than the league games – where tickets are scarcer – and the European nights, which seem to entice a more cosmopolitan support. Tonight’s crowd was younger, more local, noisier.

After the sad passing of Jimmy Greaves on Derby Day, it came as no surprise that Chelsea were honouring our greatest ever homegrown goal scorer – Ossie was a creator too, a slightly different breed – and his face appeared on the cover of the programme, and on the TV screens before the match as the players from both teams circled in the centre of the pitch before kick-off.

The applause for Jimmy Greaves was heartfelt.

Tottenham had Greaves, but we had him too. And we had him first. Let’s not forget that.

He was, and is, one of ours.

Bless him.

Time for a quick run through of our team.

“Bloody hell, Kante is playing. What a strong side, so much for a B team.”

Kepa

James – Chalobah – Sarr

Hudson-Odoi – Saul – Loftus-Cheek – Kante – Chilwell

Ziyech – Werner

As the game began, it seemed that Ruben was the rock at the back of a packed midfield with Kante playing surprisingly forward and often wide. But this was a pretty fluid formation. We hoped Saul would enjoy a better game than in his debut against the same team a few weeks ago. In these days of COVID, not so sure Sarr is well-named. I hear we have cooled in our interest in Ronnie Tuberculosis and Tore Andre Flu.

[editor : “for fuck sake”]

For the first quarter of an hour, the game was played out down below me but I was in deep discussion with Alan about the process and protocols of the ball ache that is involved in following Chelsea to Turin. Hopefully, all of the tests and forms will be sorted out and uploaded in the necessary time-frame to enable me to see the team in Italy. At various times since me booking the trip last Friday, I have solidly wondered “is it bloody worth it?” and I am still not convinced.

The game started quietly, and struggled to “get going” throughout the first period. There was gentle sparring in the first twenty minutes, with the two defences only suffering minor tickling. But the home crowd were definitely in good voice and the Matthew Harding, as early as this, had already goaded The Shed, the East and the West to “give us a song”, admittedly with mixed results.

There was some good running from Timo Werner upfront, and we showed patches of good play but as the first-half progressed, it was the visitors who enjoyed most of the goal chances. It was odd to see Kante as an auxiliary winger, especially with Hudson-Odoi, and even Reece James in the line-up.

“Bollocks, let’s play with three right wingers.”

Ruben made some strong advances from deep and the game warmed up slightly. A rare shot on goal from the otherwise quiet Zyech was easily claimed by Steer in the Villa goal. The clearest chance of the first-half fell to Villa. On a break, Archer forced a fine block from Kepa as he was one-on-one with our ‘keeper, and as El Ghazi prodded a rebound towards the goal, Reece James was able to recover and hack the ball away.

I wasn’t sure why the Villa player Buendia was roundly booed each time he came over to take a corner. Any ideas?

A Villa player was substituted by a lad called Chukwuemeka.

Alan : “He gets knocked down, but he gets up again.”

[editor : “I’ll give you that one.”]

At the break, I was just a little underwhelmed by it all.

There was a change for the re-start; a reversal of Tuchel’s decision at Tottenham.

Then, Kante for Mount. Now, Mount for Kante.

We went on the front foot in the second-half.

I soon realised that the Villa left-back, out of sight in the first period, was none other than forty-seven-year-old Ashley Young, back at Villa after his league win with Inter last season. He was only the third Englishman to win the “Scudetto” in Italy; one of the others was Jimmy Greaves, for his truncated role in Milan’s 1960-61 win.

Our Callum began to look a bit lively – “don’t forget the ball mate” – and the atmosphere seemed to improve. There were a few rousing choruses of everyone’s favourite hymns. You can’t beat a bit of community singing on a midweek night in London.

There was a deafening chorus of “Stand Up If You Hate Tottenham.”

Our increase in possession came to fruition on fifty-four minutes. A pinpoint cross from Reece – Al and I had lamented that his crossing hadn’t lived up to the promise that we saw in his first few games for us – picked out Timo Werner who rose with the whole goal in front of him. An emphatic header had Steer well beaten.

He enjoyed that. We enjoyed that.

The TV screen boomed “GOAL.”

We hit a little purple patch and Timo looked as though he wanted to be the recipient of every ball into the box. A shot from Ziyech. A half-chance from Timo.

However, just nine minutes later the game changed.

Just as the Matthew Harding were droning on about “your support is fackin’ shit” – it wasn’t to be fair, for the second time this month the Villa support was solid – the visitors hit a claret patch of their own. After a few fine saves from Kepa, Cash whipped in a long and deep cross that found Archer free at the far post. His header was even better than Timo’s, finding the very top left hand corner of the Shed End goal.

Bollocks.

This was an open game now and chances were exchanged at both ends. Buendia blasted over the bar and with twenty minutes to go, a sublime dribble by Ruben set up Mase with a gilt-edged chance inside the six-yard box. His toe-poke wriggled just wide.

“How the fuck did he miss that, Al?”

More substitutions from Tuchel and the Ross and Romelu show.

Lukaku and Barkley replaced Saul and Ziyech.

Two upfront, bloody lovely.

Dixon and Speedie.

Jimmy and Eidur.

Romelu and Timo? A work in progress.

Shots were powered in on Steer from Mason and a lively Ross. A header down into the ground from the leap of Ruben was our last real chance but it drifted wide.

Thankfully, there was no midweek extra-time, and no late night finish in deepest Somerset.

The game went to penalties.

Villa : El Ghazi – scored.

Chelsea : Lukaku – scored.

Villa : Young – crossbar, missed.

Chelsea : Mount – scored.

Villa : Nakamba – saved.

Chelsea : Barkley – scored.

Villa : Konsa – scored.

Chelsea : Chilwell – crossbar, missed.

Villa : Buendia – scored.

Chelsea : James – scored.

GET IN.

Chelsea edged it 4-3 and we won our second penalty shoot-out of the season.

The second-half, just like at Tottenham on Sunday, was a far more pleasurable forty-five minutes than the first-half. A pretty decent game, a tidy performance, a pleasing atmosphere.

Outside on the Fulham Road, the two sets of fans milled past each other.

“Cheeseburger with onions and chips please.”

On walking back to the car, I heard that we had drawn Southampton.

“Away?”

“No, home.”

“Ugh.”

I fancied a midweek jaunt down to St. Mary’s. Oh well, another League Cup game at home awaits. PD made good time on the drive home and dropped me off, in another mirror image of last week, at 1am. Another win, another decent performance, no injuries. All good.

On Saturday, an early kick-off against Manchester City awaits. You can all start dusting off your Porto songbook now.

See you in the pub.

Tales From A Hard Watch

Chelsea vs. Zenit St. Petersburg : 14 September 2021.

I remember that in the first few tormenting weeks of lockdown in March and April of last year, there was a craze for lists to be shared on the global phenomenon that is Facebook. There were a fair few football-based lists. When it came to naming an A-Z of teams that I had seen Chelsea play against, I stumbled on one beginning with Z and named Real Zaragoza. Now, in the first group game of this season’s defence of the Champions League, Zenit St. Petersburg was able to be fully added.

I worked at home from 7am to 3pm and – I think for the first time – PD was able to provide me with a door-to-door, or at least a door-to-pub, service for the evening encounter with the moneyed upstarts from the glorious city on the Baltic Sea. There is no doubt that St. Petersburg is way up there on the list of cities that I would love to visit. UEFA may have gifted me two bites of the cherry this season; if the away game later this autumn proves impossible, there is always the hope that we might get a pop at the final next May which is planned to be held at Zenit’s Krestovky Stadium.

Football and travel.

Nothing comes close.

PD made super time as we headed up The Mother Road once again. By 5.20pm we had flashed around the roundabout at Hammersmith and had tucked ourselves in on Bramber Road. By 5.30pm, we were entering “The Goose” for the first time since the Liverpool game in the FA Cup in the Spring of last year.

The Goose is a gathering place for many on match days, especially those from the West of England. We waited in the beer garden for friends and tickets to arrive. Sadly, since our last visit, buildings have shot up out of nowhere at the rear of the pub, so that the once airy beer garden is now enclosed on all four sides. It has the feel of a prison yard, oppressive and claustrophobic.

My friend Mark from nearby Westbury arrived at about 6pm with a couple of printed-off tickets for PD. We chatted about all sorts; it was the first time that I had seen him – and Andy from Trowbridge – for ages. Soon into the chat, I updated him on my health issues of late. It then got rather spooky. I told him of my heart attack last autumn, and how I had two stents fitted on 12 October in a hospital in Bath. Mark replied that he had four stents fitted on 7 October in a hospital in Bournemouth. You can imagine how surprised we both were. Life can be very odd at times.

The two pints of Peroni hit the spot. It was a lovely treat to be able to unwind and to enjoy a few beers on an evening game, knowing that I would have no more driving to do later.

Next up, we sauntered down to “Simmon’s” where a few bottles of “Sol” were quaffed. The usual faces were there, give or take a few. My first sighting of father and son Simon and Milo since two seasons ago was a great treat. I chatted for a while with Andy – as mentioned in the Porto adventure – and we chuckled about some of the things I mentioned in the Aston Villa report.

Andy : “What gets me is…walking out of the ground after the game, and you overhear someone close by getting all excited because Harry Kane has scored a couple, because he is in their fantasy team.”

Chris : “They don’t say it to my face, but I think more than a few people at work regard me as a bit of a freak because I actually go to watch my team play.”

Modern football, eh?

My desire to finish off the last bottle of lager meant that I didn’t leave the second boozer, with Parky, until just gone 7.30pm.

Talking of Sol…

I presumed that there would be no place in the starting eleven for Saul. I am sure that, after his far from impressive debut on Saturday against Villa there might well be a chance for him to win us over against the same team on Wednesday.

Let’s hope that his road to Damascus begins next week.

Alas, there were huge lines at the turnstiles for the West Upper and also the Matthew Harding. I appeared at the end of the queue at around 7.40pm. While we were waiting in the mass of fellow spectators, I quipped that we needed Timo Werner to suddenly appear and take some people away to create some space for the rest of us.

After a few minutes, there were loud bangs inside the stadium, and the bright white flashes of fireworks inside lit up the sky. This momentarily confused me. The kick-off was 8pm, right? What’s this? Fireworks already? Surely the teams aren’t coming onto the pitch for a 7.45pm kick-off?

I checked my ticket.

20:00.

Phew.

I eventually reached my seat at 8.06pm. I was annoyed to have missed the anthem though. Bollocks.

Alan : “You ain’t missed much.”

I glanced around and about.

First thoughts?

“Blimey, a full house. Magnificent stuff, Chelsea. I had thought that, maybe, folk may have bought tickets for loyalty points with no intention of attending. But no, hardly an empty seat in the house. A small band of away supporters were grouped in the Shed Lower. They must be Russians now living in London, or at least the UK. Fair play to them.”

I ran through the team; a few changes from the Villa game.

Mendy

Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

James – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Ziyech – Lukaku – Mount

Al explained all about the fireworks and the presentations that I had unknowingly missed. Oh well. The Russians were decked out in a neat mirror image of our blue / blue / white. I immediately admired their badge cum logo; it resembled a kind of Cyrillic equivalent of the slanted Los Angeles Dodgers logo. Kinda. If you looked at it quickly.

Moving on.

I soon heard that United, despite going 1-0 up while we were in “The Goose” had contrived to lose 2-1 to Young Boys.

Splendid.

Chelsea dominated most of the possession in the first-half without ever really posing much of a real threat. The Russian defence was well-marshalled and they seemed content to soak up all of our pressure.

It was, it has to be said, hardly a spectacle.

Only on a few occasions did the visitors attempt an attack.

Mason Mount seemed the liveliest of our attacking options, happy to burst through and take players out of the game. Yet for the most part, our approach play was laboured and rarely got out of second gear. We enjoyed only half-chances, or quarter-chances if I am brutally honest. A shot from the slight Ziyech was blocked.

Was that it? There wasn’t much more to shout about.

Late on in the first-half, the crowd awoke from their slumber.

“Carefree” boomed around Stamford Bridge, as welcome as a goal on nights like this, a sign that the support was willing to get behind the underperforming players. An equally loud blast of “Soopah Frank” quickly followed. Just before the break, Zenit recorded the game’s first shot on goal, a curler from distance from Rakitskyy but Mendy easily claimed the ball. A few late corners hinted at better things – a header from Romelu Lukaku flew over the bar – but the game was crying out for a goal.

It was scoreless, and possibly pointless, at the break.

The second-half began with Chelsea attacking, as is our wont, the Matthew Harding. A shot from Ziyech gave us a little comfort, but then on the fifty-minute mark, an enterprising and entertaining run from deep from Antonio Rudiger continued on and on and on. With each touch, with each stride, the excitement – and disbelief – increased. His final movement took him to his right and he unleashed a fierce shot that just whistled past the post.

“Didn’t he have a run and shot just like that two years ago?”

“That was Zouma.”

“Ah yeah. Of course. Row Z, wannit?”

We were improving in this half, no doubt.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of supporters in the Matthew Harding were soon applauding a Reece James goal, apart from the fact that the ball hit the side netting.

On sixty-three minutes, Kai Havertz replaced Ziyech.

Warm applause.

“Oh Roman, do you know what that’s worth?”

There was a Bobby Moore versus Pele style tackle by Rudiger just as a Zenit attacker was just about to let rip. Oh, we loved that.

I was preparing myself for a 0-0 draw when, with twenty minutes remaining, a cross from deep from the fine right foot of Cesar Azpilicueta picked out Lukaku to perfection. Leaping at the far post, with two defenders close by but not close enough, the Belgian guided the ball down and past the keeper’s dive.

1-0.

On 69, the Russians were licked.

It almost seemed too easy, too obvious, almost cruel. The scorer reeled away and I captured the celebrations on film if not the goal itself.

Get in.

There was a sublime turn and shot from Marcos Alonso, but chances still remained at a premium.

With ten minutes to go, a rare break by Zenit caused our hearts to flutter, but the outstretched leg of Dzyuba guided the ball wide of the left-hand post when it looked easier to score. Mendy was injured as he came to challenge and he hardly moved for a few minutes. Thankfully he played on.

Two late changes from Thomas Tuchel.

Thiago Silva for Dave, Ben Chilwell for Alonso.

An even later change.

Reuben Loftus-Cheek for Lukaku.

A goodbye to Alan :

“See you Sunday, mate.”

The referee blew up and there was a feeling of relief.

“Thank God we won. And thank God that’s over.”

A word from an exiting Lee :

“Two thousand words on my desk in the morning.”

Blimey. This was a hard watch and this has been a hard write. But this was so typical of many of our first games on the European trail. Three points are all that matter on nights like this.

PD and I joined the crowd as we all made our way back along the busy Fulham Road. I have never seen the area right outside the West Stand so full of people.

“Covid, let’s have you.”

There was just time to call in on a re-vamped and re-named “Chubby’s Grill” for the first-time in a year and a half.

“Cheeseburger with onions please, mate.”

Next up is the most eagerly awaited away game of this season, of every season, of any season; a Sunday jaunt up the High Road for a London derby with that lot.

Time to drop Kane from those fantasy teams.

See you there.