Tales From The Naughty Section

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 19 May 2018.

So, the last game of the 2017/2018 season.

The final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

It simply did not seem one whole year ago that the four of us were catching a train to Paddington to attend the 2017 Final. Where has the time gone? Where has it indeed? Life seems to be accelerating away, almost out of control at times, and shows no signs of slowing down. This would be my fifty-sixth game of the season – bettered only twice, 58 in 2011/2012 and 57 in 2012/2013 – and even the first one in Beijing in late July only seems like last month. It has been a demanding and confusing campaign, with many memories, and fluctuating fortunes. There was a crazy period in January and February when it seemed that I was heading up to London for football every midweek for weeks on end. It was a particularly tiring period. Looking back, it has not been a favourite season but I have enjoyed large chunks of it. We have rarely hit anything approaching the heights of last year when we took the football world unawares and stormed to a Championship. This season has been riddled with poor performances, the usual soap-opera of conflict between players, manager and board. And, of course, there has been a couple of moments of deep sadness. We lost two thoroughbred captains in Ray Wilkins and Roy Bentley. But in the depths of darkness, there have been glimpses of glory.

Chelsea Football Club. It seemed that all of human life was here.

Would the last game of the season, seemingly stacked against us, provide us with a day of silverware and joy?

We bloody well hoped so.

However, as we left St. James’ Park last Sunday, there was a genuine fear of us not only losing but losing heavily. Our performance on Tyneside was truly mind-boggling in its ineptitude, and I honestly feared for the worst. A repeat of 1994? God forbid.

The day did not begin well. Glenn, PD and little old me were stood, impatient, excited, on the platform of Frome train station, intending to catch the 8.07am to Westbury and then on to Melksham, where Lord Parky would join us, and to Swindon and eventually London. Glenn then noted that the train was running late. We needed to get to Westbury. So, we hopped into a taxi which took us over the state line and in to Wiltshire, despite the dopey cab driver declining our protests to “stop talking and drive faster” and idling his way through Chapmanslade and Dilton Marsh.

He was as annoying a person as I have met for some time.

“Going to the Cup Final, eh? Oh nice one. Don’t worry, I will get you there for twenty-to.”

“TWENTY PAST!”

“Oh, thought you said, twenty-to. Ha.Ha. I’d best hurry up. Ha ha.

“Stop talking and drive faster, mate.”

“Go on Chelsea. I hope they win. Ha ha. Do you think you will win? Ha?”

“Stop talking and drive faster.”

“I hate United you see. I’m a Liverpool fan.”

“Stop talking and drive faster.”

“Go on Chelsea! Ha ha.”

…this inane nonsense continued for what seemed like ages. Thankfully, we reached Westbury station with a few minutes to spare to catch the 8.22am train to Swindon.

Parky joined us at Melksham, we changed at Swindon, and arrived on time at Paddington at 10.14am. I love those arches at this famous old London station. It has played a major part in my Chelsea story. All of those trips to London – sometimes solo – from 1981 onwards. I remember sitting on a barrier, desolate, after the 1988 play-off loss to Middlesbrough, wondering if Chelsea would ever return to the top flight, let alone – ha – win anything.

That moment is a defining moment in my Chelsea life. That seems like five minutes ago, too.

Our 2018 Cup Final pre-match jolly-up was planned a week or so ago. At 10.45am, the four of us assembled at the “Barrowboy and Banker” outside London Bridge. There was talk of surprise guests. Glenn ordered the first round.

“Peroni please.”

I popped outside to take a shot of the pub and the modern towers on the north side of the river. I was just finishing the framing of a second photograph when I heard a voice in my ear.

“Those hanging baskets are lovely, aren’t they?”

My first, initial, thought?

“Oh bollocks, weirdo alert.”

A nano-second later, I realised who it was; my great friend Alex from the New York Blues, who I had arranged to meet at 11am. He quickly joined us inside. I had last seen him over in New York on a baseball trip in 2015. He kindly let me stay in his Brooklyn apartment for the 2013 Manchester City game at Yankee Stadium while he was visiting Denmark with his girlfriend.

“Still waiting for the special guest.”

Alex : “It’s not me? I’m mortified.”

The Chuckle Brothers roared.

Next through the door were Kim, Andy and Wayne – aka “The Kent Lot” – who have been stalking us on numerous pub-crawls now. We reminisced about the laugh we had in Newcastle last weekend.

“Get the beers in boys, don’t talk about the game.”

Next to arrive was former Chelsea player Robert Isaac, who had been chatting to Glenn about pre-match plans during the week. We occasionally bump into Robert at The Malthouse before home games, and it was an absolute pleasure to spend some time with him again. Robert is a Shed End season ticket holder and we have a few mutual friends. When he broke in to the first team in 1985, no player was more enthusiastically cheered; he had been the victim of a near-fatal stabbing at the Millwall League Cup game in September 1984.

I can easily remember a game in which he started against Arsenal in September 1985 when the entire Shed were singing :

“One Bobby Isaac. There’s only one Bobby Isaac.”

What a thrill that must have been for a young player who grew up supporting us from those very terraces.

Next to arrive was Lawson – another New York Blue – who I had last seen on these shores at the Cardiff City away game on the last day of the 2013/2014 season. He had been working some music events in Brighton on the two previous nights and was officially “hanging.” A pint of Peroni soon sorted him out. I have a lot of time for the New York Blues, and we go back a while. It is always a pleasure to welcome them to games over here.

We spoke a little about the difficulties of some overseas supporters getting access to tickets; Chelsea has tightened things across the board of late. I knew of a few – but no more than seven or eight – Chelsea mates from the US who were over for the game, and who had all managed to secure tickets from one source or another. There would be supporters’ groups meeting up all over the world to watch. Yet I know from a few close friends in the US that, often this season, the FA Cup has failed to draw much of a crowd at some of their so-called “watch parties.” I can feel their frustrations. I know only too well from the viewing figures provided for this website that the FA Cup reports, for a while now, have attracted significantly fewer hits than for regular league games. And it is especially low in the US, for some reason, usually a stronghold of support for these blogs. I can’t fathom it. It seems that the FA Cup, for those who have not grown up with it, nor have witnessed it at length, seems to exist in some sort of parallel universe.

And yet I would be sure that many of the FA Cup Final “watch parties” would be packed to the rafters.

Big game hunters? Maybe.

At last, the special guest, who I had kept secret from the three other Chuckle Brothers, just for the thrill of surprise on their faces as he walked through the door. As of last Sunday in Newcastle, Rich from Edinburgh was without a ticket. Luckily, our mate Daryl jumped in to get him one of the extra thousand tickets that had surfaced during the week.

There were hugs all around for Rich, who had quickly negotiated a couple of last minute flights to London. It was great to see him again.

We took our party, a dozen strong, over the road to “The Bunch of Grapes” under the shadow of The Shard. Here, we were joined by the final piece in the jigsaw, Dave, who had just missed us at the first pub. Dave is one of the “Benches 1984” reunion lads from the Leicester City home game not long in to the New Year. It was just fantastic to have so many good folks around me. It had been a very testing time for me at work during the week. My stress levels had gone through the roof. I certainly needed a little of my own space to “chill.”

And a lunchtime drinking session on FA Cup Final day with the dirty dozen was as perfect as it gets.

We then walked through the bustling Borough Market and rolled in to “The Old Thameside Inn” which is one of my favourite pubs in the whole of the city. The terrace overlooking the river was bathed in sunshine, and the drinking – and laughs – continued. It was great to see everyone getting on so well, although many had only met for the first time a few hours before.

“Don’t talk about the game though, for fuck sake.”

A few of us then split up, and some went on to meet others. The four Chuckle Brothers stopped momentarily in the market for some sustenance.

“Ein bratwurst mit sauerkraut und senf bitte.”

On Munich Day, it seemed wholly appropriate.

We then spilled in to “The Southwark Tavern” for one last tipple. The time was moving on, and we needed to head up to Wembley.

We caught the Jubilee line to Wembley Park, thus avoiding the Mancs at Wembley Stadium. This would afford a fantastic view looking down Wembley Way, which I remember visiting with Alex and a few other NYBs before the 2010 Portsmouth FA Cup Final.

The team news came through.

Antonio had decided to pack the midfield, but the scene was set for Eden Hazard to set Wembley alight. Gary Cahill, sensibly, had got the nod over young Andreas.

Thibaut

Dave – Gaz – Rudi

Vic – Cesc – N’Golo – Timmy – Marcos

Eden – Olivier

It was the same team – our strongest eleven, maybe – that had played so well against Liverpool a few weeks back. My spirits were raised a little, but time was moving on and we were still a while away.

Sadly, there were unforeseen delays up to Wembley Park, and we were struggling to make kick-off, let alone see any of the orchestrated nonsense that goes before any event at Wembley these days. Luckily, we had managed to avoid Manchester United fans throughout the day. On walking up Wembley Way, there was a little banter between a United fan and me, and I offered a handshake but his response shocked me :

“Fuck off, you Chelsea prick.”

I just laughed.

Close by, I bumped into another United fan, who was a little better behaved.

“Good luck pal.”

“And you mate.”

We slowly edged up and to the left, the clear blue sky above the arch bereft of any cloud cover. I scrambled towards our entrance.

We were some of the last ones in.

Tickets scanned.

Security pat-down.

Camera bag check.

Security tie threaded.

Five minutes to go.

Up the escalators.

The stadium was hazy from all of the smoke of the pre-match bluster.

We were inside just before United kicked-off.

Just like in Munich six years’ previously, we had arrived in the nick of time.

We were right at the back of the upper tier bar one row. The players seemed minute. In the rush to get in, my sunglasses had gone walkabout. This would be a difficult game for me to watch, through the haze, and squinting.

I hope that I would like what I would see.

The game kicked-off.

I looked around. Virtually everyone in our section, high up, were stood. There must have been some empty seats somewhere, but I could not see any.

But the haze was killing me. And the strong shadows which cut across the pitch. It made for some rather dramatic photographs, but it made viewing difficult.

Chelsea attacked the United hordes at the west end, which is our usual end. As ever, there were United flags – the red, white, black “Barmy Flags” standard issue – everywhere, and from everywhere.

On a side note, there is nothing as ironic as Chelsea fans in Chicago and Los Angeles – or Sydney or Brisbane – taking the piss out of United fans coming from Surrey.

As the kids say : “amirite?”

Down on the pitch, Eden Hazard was soon to be seen skipping away down the left wing, after being released by Bakayoko, and forced a low save from David de Gea at the near post. In the early part of the game, we matched United toe to toe. Although my mind was not obsessed with Jose Mourinho – my mind was just obsessed with beating United, fucking United – I could not resist the occasional glance over to the technical areas.

Antonio Conte – suited and booted. Involved, pointing, cajoling.

Jose Mourinho – tie less, a pullover, coach-driver-chic. Less animated.

There were some Chelsea pensioners seated behind the Chelsea bench; they must have been sweltering in their scarlet tunics.

The heat was probably playing its part, as most of the play was studied and slow. Both teams kept their shape. There was no wildness, nor a great deal of anything in the first twenty minutes. Olivier Giroud was moving his defenders well, and we were keeping possession, but it was an uneventful beginning to the game.

Everything was soon to change. Moses won a loose ball just inside our half, and he spotted Fabregas in space. Hazard was in the inside-right channel now, and Cesc spotted his run magnificently. Hazard’s first touch and his speed was sensational and he raced alongside Phil Jones. Just as he prodded the ball onto his right foot, just as he saw the white of de Gea’s eyes, the cumbersome Jones reappeared and took a hideously clumsy swipe at him.

Eden fell to the floor, crumpled.

We inhaled.

Penalty.

“GETINYOUFUCKER.”

There were wails from all around us that Jones should have been sent-off.

Regardless, he was just shown a yellow.

We waited and waited.

“COME ON EDEN.”

At last, the United players drifted away and the referee Michael Oliver moved to allow the penalty to be taken.

De Gea looked left and right.

Hazard with a very short run up.

Eyes left, a prod right.

Goal.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

At 5.37pm on Saturday 19 May 2018, Manchester United were royally fucked.

Meghan’s moment would come later.

These photographs show the goal and the celebrations.

Between the sixth and seventh photographs, I screamed and screamed.

Get in you bastard.

The game, really, floundered for a while, and the fact that United had no real response surprised me. What also surprised me was the lack of noise emanating from the 26,000 fans in the opposite end. I heard nothing, nothing at all. And although I am sure that United were singing, there was simply no audio proof. But I also saw no arms raised, nor clapping, to signal songs being sung, which I found just as strange. The Chelsea end was – or at least bloody well looked like being – a cauldron of noise, with both tiers singing in unison.

Our two previous finals against Manchester United were recalled.

That 4-0 loss in 1994, do I have to talk about it?

The 1-0 win in 2007, revenge for 1994 of sorts.

I remembered more noise in 1994 for sure.

The noise was a bit more sporadic in 2007.

But this was quieter still.

Modern football, eh?

United rarely threatened. The match drifted past Paul Pogba. Alexis Sanchez, the star for Arsenal against us last year, was quiet too, save for occasional corner kicks.

A Pogba shot from outside the box was well wide, but Courtois surely would have covered it.

After a little Chelsea pressure, Fabregas could only hit a free-kick against the wall. We were happy to sit back and let United pass into cul-de-sacs and into dead-end turns.

A Jones header dropped wide. Thibaut had hardly had a shot to save. It was not an afternoon for him to get his “Word Search” out, but not far off it.

Our midfield was strong – Kante on form, thank heavens – but the three defenders were even better. A couple of Rudiger challenges – strong, incisive – were magnificent and drew rapturous applause.

“Rudi, Rudi, Rudi, Rudi.”

At the break, we were halfway to paradise, but there was still a long way to go.

United, perhaps unsurprisingly, began on the front foot as the second-half began. The sun was starting to drop, causing more shadows to appear on the pitch, and it all became a lot clearer. Marcus Rashford – I can’t honestly believe how Mourinho chose to roast the young lad in his pro-Lukaku rant a few weeks back – was the first to trouble Thibaut, but his shot was easily saved. United pushed with more urgency now, but we generally defended with great shape and resilience.

Just after the hour, that man Phil Jones managed to get his constantly gurning head on to a free-kick and this drew a brilliant late, swooping save from Thibaut. The rebound was pushed home by Sanchez.

The Mancs roared, I stood silent.

Then, a split second after, we saw the raised flag for an offside.

Phew.

But the pattern had been set now, with United controlling possession but not really forcing us into compromising positions.

The Chelsea end were on it.

“And it’s super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC.”

But then, with twenty minutes to go, a tantalising run by N’Golo Kante deep into the United box released Marcos Alonso outside him. He seemed to take a touch that wasted time and allowed de Gea to close down the angles. A save was almost inevitable, with Victor Moses unable to dab in the rebound.

Courtois raced out to deny Rashford.

A save from Matic, who had been one of their better players.

From a corner in the last few moments, the hidden man Pogba suddenly rose unhindered and headed down and wide. We all breathed a heavy heavy sigh.

There were too very late substitutions;

Alvaro Morata for the tireless Olivier Giroud.

Willian for the spirited and game-changing Eden Hazard.

I watched with sorrow as Juan Mata came on to play a bit part; I am sad that we let him go, he should still be a Chelsea player.

The minutes ticked by.

The Chelsea end still kept going.

“CAREFREE.”

We thankfully enjoyed a fair proportion of the added minutes playing “keep ball” in the United half. Eventually, the referee blew up.

At just past 7pm on Saturday 19 May, a huge roar echoed around the east end of Wembley Stadium.

The FA Cup was ours once more. Our eight victories now put us in third place – equal with Tottenham – and behind only Arsenal and Manchester United.

1970 – Leeds United.

1997 – Middlesbrough.

2000 – Aston Villa.

2007 – Manchester United.

2009 – Everton.

2010 – Portsmouth.

2012 – Liverpool.

2018 – Manchester United.

Chelsea Football Club rarely get any praise for treating this historic competition with nothing but respect. We rarely play weakened teams, we treat it with earnest attention from round three onwards, and we play to win every game. It has seemed like a long old campaign this one; from the dull draw at Norwich – but what a great weekend away – to the elongated extra time and penalties in the replay, to the home games against Newcastle United and Hull City, to the away game at Leicester – which I missed due to being snowbound – and the semi-final against Southampton, to the final itself.

It has almost summed up Chelsea’s season.

A lot of troublesome opponents, a few dodgy results, a couple of fine performances, and ultimately, glory.

We watched the trophy being lifted, of course, but drifted away before the after-match celebrations took hold. We had, I guess, seen it all before. We walked – slowly, blissfully – up Wembley Way with another piece of Silverware in our back pocket. We caught the underground to Paddington, the train to Bath, the train to Westbury, the bus – a Chuckle Bus, of sorts – to Frome.

On the bus – the last logistical link of the season – were a few local girls who had been in Bath on a hen night. One of them saw my Chelsea flag, which is going to Alphie, the young lad I spoke about a while back – and she piped up.

“Did you go to the wedding?”

“Blimey, no. We’ve been to the Cup Final.”

She giggled and seemed excited.

“Ooh. Were you in the naughty section?”

Yes. I suppose we were. And proud of it.

Ha. The naughty section. Is that how some people think of football and football fans? How odd. How quaint. Fackinell.

It was an odd end to a pretty odd season.

So, what now?

Who knows.

There always seems to be trouble afoot at Stamford Bridge. There are constant rumours, counter-rumours, whispers, accusations, conspiracy theories, unrest, but – ridiculous, really – tons of silverware too. I hate the unrest to be honest. I would much rather a Chelsea of 2016/2017 with a quiet Conte charming us along the way, than a Chelsea of 2017/2018 and a disturbed manager at the helm. But who can blame him? This has turned into the very first year that he has not won a league championship. For the hard-working and intense Conte, that must have hurt.

But there seems to be a slight groundswell in support for Antonio Conte. I have always been in his camp. Winning the 2017 League Championship and the 2018 FA Cup Final is fucking good enough for me.

But oh Chelsea Football Club. It would be so nice, just for once, to win trophies in a harmonious way. As I was thinking about what to write for this last match report of the season, and the last one of my tenth season, I thought back to the last time that Chelsea Football Club seemed to be run in a harmonious way, with everyone pulling together, with the chairman and chief executive signing fine players with no fuss, with a well-liked manager, and loved players. I had to venture back to the wonderful season of 1996/1997 with Ruud Gullit as manager, with Gianfranco Zola as our emblem of all that is good in the game, and when – this is true – Chelsea were often cited as everyone’s second favourite team.

A perfect time? Our first silverware in twenty-six years?

Those days were mesmerizing and wonderful. And yet, within nine months, Ruud Gullit was sacked as Chelsea manager. As they say somewhere, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And never is that more true than at Stamford Bridge.

Sigh.

Thanks for everyone’s support throughout the season.

I sincerely hope that everyone has a fine summer and that we can all do this all over again next season.

I will see a few lucky souls in Perth, but first I need a bloody rest.

 

 

 

…and yes, it was revenge – again – for 1994.

Tales From The Likely Lads And Lasses

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 13 May 2018.

On the evening of Sunday 13 May, at various moments and locations – exiting St. James’ Park, at a pub in the city centre, in a cab back to the airport, on the plane back to Bristol – one phrase kept reoccurring, time and time again, spoken by ourselves and many others :

“Fantastic weekend, apart from the football.”

And it’s a bloody good job that these match reports, ten years old now, are never ever just about the football.

We went in to the match with Newcastle United with an outside chance – a 10 per cent shot at the very most – of playing Champions League football next season, but only if Liverpool lost and we won, but we came out of it as demoralised as I can remember for some time. It was truly abject .

But, it never is just about Chelsea Football Club.

And rather than obsess about a very poor performance, I’m using this last league report of the season as an homage to a great weekend away with great mates in a fine city, and as a tribute to the lads – and lasses – who share my weekends, and weekdays, with the love of our lives.

For once the league computer had dealt us a tidy hand. With our last league game of the season announced as an away game against Newcastle United, a date that we knew would not change, I just sat and waited for EasyJet to announce its summer 2018 flight schedule. Way back in late September, I pounced.

Saturday 12 May : Bristol – 8.35am, Newcastle 9.20am.

Sunday 13 May : Newcastle 9.45pm, Bristol 10.30pm.

Tickets were just £55.

The four Chuckle Brothers would be on our way to Geordieland.

I was up at 4am, and quickly packed ahead of collecting PD and Glenn at 5.30am and then Parky at 6am. I guided my car in and around Bristol in the early morning hush, and was parked-up bang on time at 7am. At the bar were fifteen Chelsea faces from Trowbridge, Melksham and Swindon. A few others from further afield – Wincanton, Teignmouth – were spotted too. In total, around twenty-five Chelsea were en route north. It was no surprise that so many were there. Who can resist a trip to The Toon? As we waited to board, Paul from Swindon spotted a fellow-passenger who had won the FA Cup in two consecutive years as a manager? Who was it? Have a guess.

The flight to Newcastle only took forty-five minutes, and we were full of laughter. I was feeling merry and I had only had a coffee at the airport.

We took the metro in to town, through some familiar stops, and then walked down the steps past The Bridge Hotel pub to the Quayside.

It was fantastic to be back.

As I have so often said, Newcastle United plays an important part in my Chelsea story. My first game was at Stamford Bridge against them in 1974, and my first away trip of note – aside away games against the two Bristol teams from 1975 to 1981 – was the equally famous and infamous trip to St. James’ Park in 1984. This would be my tenth visit to Newcastle with Chelsea; many have visited more times than me, but for many years the twin constraints of money and distance were against me.

My first memory of Newcastle, the town – or toon – was as a child of around seven years of age watching “Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads” starring James Bolam and Rodney Bewes. Strangely enough, I have found myself watching a fair few repeats of late, and it brings back some rich memories of my childhood, the opening sequence especially, featuring old terraced streets and hideous new tower blocks as metaphors for contrast and change. Even then, I was critically aware of cities around the UK, the local accent, the local flavour, the sense of place, their history.

I can remember watching the very first episode in 1973 – it was a reprise of “The Likely Lads” from the ‘sixties – when the two pals meet again by chance in a darkened train carriage. They had both left Newcastle to join the army, but Bewes had wriggled out of it, leaving Bolam jettisoned and alone. Once Bolam realised who he was sharing a compartment, there was a strong reaction :

“You bastard.”

And this was met with stern words from my parents, and I often watched further episodes secretly since some TV shows were deemed too “colourful” for one so young.

Now, I find it odd that James Bolam was the only real Geordie featured; everyone else exhibited a generic “northern accent” although Bewes and Brigit Forsyth made good stabs at the Geordie lilt.

The series theme tune still haunts :

“Whatever happened to you? Whatever happened to me? What became of the people we used to be?”

The most famous episode involves the two of them trying to avoid the result of an England game so they can watch the highlights later in the evening. Two years later in 1975, Bolam starred in “When The Boat Comes In” – a grim post World War One tale of social unrest, unions, class, and poverty set on Tyneside – and again the sense of place dominated my thoughts.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Gritty. Working class. Northern. Football mad.

A proper Loony Toon.

Saturday was just fantastic. We darted in and out of several bars from lunchtime to night time.

“The Redbarn.”

“The Pitcher And Piano.”

“The Slug And Lettuce.”

“Akenside Traders.”

“The Crown Posada”

“Livello.”

The Somerset and Wiltshire contingent were reunited again at the “Pitcher And Piano”, which sits right on the Quayside, next to the Millennium footbridge, and opposite the Baltic Art Gallery, with our apartment just beyond. Our good friend Kev and then our equally good friend Deano joined us, and a superb afternoon evening of beers, laughter, and chit-chat ensued, with us bumping into the Kent lot yet again. The day was panning out just as we had hoped. We bumped into Donna, Rachel and Rob – only on “nodding terms” for me until now – and they followed us from bar to bar.

Chelsea here, Chelsea there.

There were a few attractions along the way.

“Where have those two girls from Middlesbrough gone?”

The drinking continued.

“And a bottle of Peroni for me, please.”

We kept to The Quayside. It is such an evocative location, the deep gorge running through the heart of the city, and with bridges every hundred yards or so. It is one of my favourite places in all of the United Kingdom. We were last there together for the last away game of 2015/2016 when we played down the coast at Sunderland.

“And a bottle of Peroni for me, please.”

In “The Akenside Traders” there were stag parties singing, hen parties dancing, girls with shot trays weaving in and out of us all, tons of boisterous laughter, and the place was packed.

It was only 6pm.

“Bloody hell, what is it going to be like at midnight?”

In “Vivello” a DJ played some fantastic music.

“Ain’t Nobody” by Rufus and Chaka Khan.

1984 again.

There was some Chelsea chat among the beers – “where has it all gone wrong?” – but that didn’t stop us all having a blast.

“Don’t think I’ve seen so many Lacoste polo shirts.”

Glenn entertained us all with an impromptu dance routine in which he utilised some props; namely the contents of a nearby umbrella stand.

One minute, Gene Kelly.

One minute, Mary Poppins.

You had to be there.

No – really – you had to be there.

In “The Crown Posada” we chatted to some local Newcastle United lads and they were warm and friendly. This was my favourite bar of the lot; a long and narrow Victorian boozer but with a high ceiling. There were stained-glass windows and evocative black and white prints of the city covering the walls. It oozed character. It was fantastic.

“Canny, but.”

Beer. Football. Mates. Laughs.

It had been a bloody perfect night out in The Toon.

On the Sunday, we checked out of our apartment, but not before realising that the away tier of St. James’ Park could be spotted, just past the Earl Grey Monument, at the top of the town. Everything is so immediate in Newcastle. There was just time for a photo of Deano, PD, Glenn and Parky on the apartment balcony, where a pigeon was quietly nesting.

Parky : “That thing was bloody pissed-off this morning, mind.”

PD : “Why?”

Parky : “I had its eggs for breakfast.”

We strolled down to another pub – “The Quayside” – and this was another fine building; no doubt an old warehouse in days of yore, it probably remained derelict for decades, but was now restored, with more high ceilings, exposed beams, red bricks, and endless coffee refills. Alan, Gary, Daryl, Ed and Rich joined up with us, and we relaxed in the sun. It was another fine time.

Deano is originally from Yorkshire and he chatted to a friend from Huddersfield, who looked awfully familiar.

“Aren’t you?” we both said…

I had met Mick at Manchester airport en route to Istanbul with Chelsea in 2014. There were a gaggle of Yorkshire Chelsea fans outside in the sun. We seem to have a fair few from Yorkshire. It is always odd, to me, to hear Chelsea fans with Yorkshire accents. Deano, on Saturday afternoon, had stayed in our apartment for a while to watch the Castleford vs. St. Helens rugby league game.

“Castleford are the reason that I support Chelsea, Chris…in 1970, my father told me that I couldn’t support Leeds.”

The 1970 FA Cup Final has a lot to answer for. I have heard of Chelsea fans from Yorkshire supporting us in 1970 because of football reasons – “anyone but Leeds” – but this was the first time that the hatred of Leeds’ rugby league team being used as a catalyst for support.

(The FA Cup answer was Keith Burkinshaw, Tottenham manager in 1981 and 1982)

We caught a cab up to the stadium, past those solid, grey buildings of Grey Street. There were memories of Glenn and I being walked along these same streets in 1984, when the welcome was decidedly colder than in 2018.

We were deposited outside The Gallowgate, and we walked past the familiar sights of St. James’ Park. Immediately outside are many new apartment buildings. The town is certainly thriving now. Everywhere we looked were the famous black and white jerseys. We took a lift up to the top of the world, or rather, the away section at St. James’ Park.

One steward made me giggle.

“Aye, everyone says, like, they have a great time here, and we are friendly, but if youse want it, ye can find it.”

It was the Geordie version of the Wealdstone Raider.

“If you want it. I’ll give it yer.”

So, the last league game of 2017/2018.

It would be my thirty-sixth league game out of thirty-eight. I sadly missed games at Huddersfield Town and Burnley due to work. It would be my fifty-fifth Chelsea game of the season.

St. James Park looked as huge as ever. It was a stunning day, and I could see for miles.

Some wind turbines away in the distance. Some yellow cranes at Tynemouth. And closer to home, the green of the Tyne Bridge, the Earl Grey monument, the Baltic Art Gallery, and a pigeon nesting on the balcony of 182 Baltic Quays,

The team contained one or two surprises.

Thibaut Courtois

Cesar Azpilicueta – Andreas Christensen – Gary Cahill

Victor Moses – N’Golo Kante – Ross Barkley – Tiemoue Bakayoko – Emerson Palmieri

Olivier Giroud – Eden Hazard

There was no “Blitzkrieg Bop” this season, but before the teams entered the pitch, we were treated to the classic “Blaydon Races”, a song that my father taught me ahead of my first game in 1974, or was it for the Liverpool vs. Newcastle United FA Cup Final a couple of months later?

“Ah – me lads. Ya should have seen us gannin’.

Passing the folks along the road, just as they were stannin’.

All the lads and lasses there. All the smilin’ faces.

Gannen’ alang the Scotswood Road.

To see the Blaydon Races.”

Then, “Local Hero” by Dire Straits. I have to be honest, it took me twenty minutes to realise that we were wearing the new kit. What a monstrosity it is. I like the idea of basing it on the iconic 1983/84 kit, but the shirt is just awful.

The game?

If it wasn’t for Thibaut Courtois, we would have been three-nil down at half-time, at least. We were shocking. The home team swarmed around our players every time that we had the ball, and we looked tired and listless. The manager – I am always worried when he wears a tracksuit and not a suit – began by encouraging the players, but soon gave up once the first goal went in. Shelvey and Diame – robbing Kante in the build-up – forced superb saves from Courtois in the first fifteen minutes.

On twenty-three minutes, Courtois did ever so well to claw out a Murphy lob from a Ritchie cross, but Gayle tapped in.

The home support boomed and we sat in shocked silence.

The pattern continued.

I remember one instance of Eden Hazard breaking in the inside-left channel with no less than five Newcastle United players running after him. The home team were full of energy and passion. And this was a team who, I am lead to believe, had been in holiday mode since their safety was assured a while back. The first-half continued on and I do not remember a single attempt on the Newcastle goal. Ross Barkley showed a neatness at times, but then quickly faded.

Our support started off in good voice, but one chant annoyed the fuck out of me.

If fans really “don’t care about Rafa”, I would fucking suggest that they don’t continue to sing songs about him five years since he left Chelsea.

Move on, boys and girls, lads and lasses.

Shelvey – their playmaker – went close again, and further chances flew past our goal frame.

At half-time, there were obvious moans everywhere I looked. I have never seen Alan look so quiet and disconsolate.

We seemed to improve slightly after the break, but Emerson annoyed me with his unwillingness to burst past his defender and get into some space behind. We are so high at St. James’ Park, so maybe we see space where there isn’t any, but we hardly attacked out wide all afternoon, or at least in a way that got the defenders back-peddling and worried. A Barkley cross from our right was whipped in, and the otherwise subdued Giroud did well to manufacture a deft touch. The Newcastle ‘keeper Dubravka – who? – tipped it over. We sensed that we were back in the game. I remembered our far from impressive record at Newcastle United over the past few years, but there was a great comeback to draw 2-2 on my last visit in 2015.

We were heartbroken when a poor Bakayoko clearance only reached as far as Shelvey. His long-range drive was touched home by Perez.

Fuck.

Some Chelsea left.

“Thanks for your support.”

Just after, a rare Chelsea attack, and the ball was worked in to Barkley who seemed destined to score and put us back in to the game. He seemed to hesitate slightly and the shot was blocked.

And just after that, a Shelvey free-kick was volleyed back by Lejeuene – who? – and Perez touched home again.

Newcastle United 3 Chelsea 0.

Goodnight Vienna.

More Chelsea “supporters” left.

We only attacked sporadically, and despite using three substitutes, we never ever looked like scoring. A shot from Pedro is still rising over the Town Moor. Our performance left us all confused and jaded. It was as dire a performance as I could ever remember. Courtois was the only one who had played OK. And there is an FA Cup Final next.

Our lack of desire and intensity beggared belief.

In the last few minutes, my pal Jason from Dallas appeared behind me, and shared our pain. He then joined us as we slowly marched around the stadium. We drifted past the listed buildings of Leazes Terrace; these were able to be spotted in the ‘fifties when that side of the stadium was an open terrace. It is the reason why the stadium has such a lop-sided appearance as that stand is unable to be raised any higher. We joked with a couple of locals, but they weren’t happy as Rafa Benitez might well be off before the next season begins. Football fans are never happy, eh?

We ended up down on The Quayside once again. There was time for a bite to eat, and a few last drinks, and a last look at the arse-end of many a stag and hen party.

This was Jason’s fourth Chelsea game in England and he had flown in from Gothenburg in Sweden on the day of the game. We last saw him at an away game at Anfield in 2016. It was great to see him once more, and we chatted feverishly about the worrying tendency of the North American colonisation of Europe via regular season NBA, NFL, NHL and now MLB games.

I abhor these.

They are a version of the hated “Game39” and I will boycott them all, even if it means avoiding the New York Yankees in London next summer.

We caught a cab up to the airport, and caught the 9.40pm flight back to Bristol.

The 2017/2018 season was over, and we had finished fifth.

It seemed about right.

Our next game – the grand finale – is at Wembley when we meet Manchester United in the FA Cup Final.

…just writing those words, just writing those words.

I hope to see many of you there.

Tales From Another Semi

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 22 April 2018.

It was around 7.30pm and we had just bought a round of drinks in “The Swan”, a high-ceilinged public house placed between the two buildings which form Hammersmith tube station. It had taken a while to leave Wembley Stadium, what with the wait for our eventual train south, and then changes onto the underground system and we were momentarily paused on our way back to Barons Court where my car was parked. We sat on stools at a high table, soon toasted ourselves – “the final” – and quietly chatted about the day. There had been blue Chelsea flags for everyone in the Chelsea section at Wembley, and Glenn had placed our four on the table. They would eventually be handed out to young Chelsea fans that we know; a nice little gift for the youngsters. Only last week, I had called in to see a neighbour who was looking after eight-year-old two twin boys for the day – the sons of my once next-door neighbours who moved to a nearby village a few years back – and I passed over a blue and white chequered flag from a few years back to Alphie. His face was a picture. I did feel a little embarrassed that I had nothing for his brother Isaac – who purportedly favours Manchester City – but I had to laugh when Isaac told me that he liked Chelsea too. I quickly put him in his place

“You can’t support two teams!”

And then I felt guilty that I had publicly chastised him.

Anyway, I had plans to give one of the Chelsea flags from Wembley to Alphie  – “you’ve made the wrong choice, Isaac, sorry” – and send the other one over to a young relative in Australia, who I recently learned was a Chelsea supporter. They would be nice reminders of yet another semi-final victory.

It had been a long day. I was awake at around 7am and I had collected the three other Chuckle Brothers by 8.30am. We would not be home until 10.30pm at least. This football lark can be tiresome.  The chat slowed and we stared at our drinks. Then, a chap with a Boss T-shirt and a pint of Guinness spotted the four Chelsea flags and approached us. It looked like he had enjoyed a few drinks as he was slurring his words slightly, and his girlfriend was hanging back a little.

“Why are you looking sad? You are Chelsea fans. You won, right?”

It was clear from his accent that he was from mainland Europe – I initially thought he was Dutch – and his words touched a nerve. Although I smiled in response, inside I was hurting. Had we become something that we had long hated? Had we become so used to success at Chelsea that we were blasé about yet another semi-final triumph? Was I at that stage in my long journey of Chelsea support that I had secretly dreaded? Was I taking all of this for granted? I experienced a few uneasy seconds as I tussled with the severity of the thoughts in my head. We replied that – indeed – it had been a very long day, and that he had caught us, maybe, at a weak moment. After all, what would he really want us to be doing? Constant somersaults and cartwheels on a Sunday evening? Anyway, we chatted about the game – “never really looked in trouble, just took a while to make it safe” – and the chap revealed that he was from a small town in Southern Denmark. He was in absolute awe that we went to every game – “a three-hour drive home, wow” – and he told how he was at Stamford Bridge for the Manchester United game last autumn. It seemed that they had watched from a corporate area. I wasn’t sure if he was a Chelsea fan too but his friend had been solemnly told that he couldn’t wear a Chelsea shirt – “that’s bullshit” – and we pulled faces of shock and astonishment, though I had heard long ago that colours are indeed not allowed in such areas. He gleefully admitted that his girlfriend – still keeping her distance – was a Manchester United fan, and he seemed happy that United had lost that game. I looked over at her and smiled but deep down I thought “it’ll never last.” For some inexplicable reason, none of us mentioned the FA Cup Final which would pit Chelsea and Manchester United once again. After a few more minutes, our drinks finished, we excused ourselves and left to head back to Barons Court.

At exactly 8pm, I pulled away from Barons Court, and pointed The Chuckle Bus west. Ahead was a fine drive home in the aftermath of another lovely day in the nation’s capital, with the sun slowly dipping beyond the horizon – but first a quick glimpse of the Wembley arch shining away in North London – and a clear night sky.

It had indeed been a good day.

After missing the excellent win at Turf Moor on Thursday – which was followed by the ridiculous over-reaction by many to that Alvaro Morata’s miss – it meant that it would be two consecutive Chelsea versus Southampton games for me. We had certainly been given a fantastic chance to reach an FA Cup Final with a semi against the relegation-threatened team. As for the first semi-final, played the previous evening, I could not have been happier. I was travelling back from a Frome Town game at Gosport Borough – the less said about that the better – and did not even listen to the match on the radio. But I was very happy that Spurs had lived down to expectations. A potential final against Manchester United would be absolutely fine. The thought of losing to Mourinho’s team in the final would be tough, but not nearly as horrific as a loss in an FA Cup Final to Tottenham. Beating them, of course, would be wonderful, but it was just too much of a risk. The stakes would be too great. A loss to Spurs in the final would go straight into a top three of most miserable Chelsea games.

But – wait!

This is Tottenham we are talking about.

1993 : Arsenal 1 Tottenham 0.

1995 : Everton 4 Tottenham 1.

1999 : Newcastle United 2 Tottenham 0.

2001 : Arsenal 2 Tottenham 1.

2010 : Portsmouth 2 Tottenham 0.

2012 : Chelsea 5 Tottenham 1.

2017 : Chelsea 4 Tottenham 2.

2018 : Manchester United 2 Tottenham 1.

The pleasure in avoiding Spurs was a view shared by the Kent lads – yes, them again, they love a Chuckle Brothers pub crawl – as we enjoyed our first pints of the day in “The Swan”, a former coaching inn from the eighteenth century at the northern edge of Hyde Park, adjacent to Lancaster Gate tube station, and close to the FA’s former HQ. The pub was dotted with a few Chelsea fans, and one or two Southampton fans too. We then walked out into the bright London sunshine towards Paddington Station, popping into “The Sussex Arms” for one, and then on to “Fountains Abbey” where the London chaps had been based since midday. There was little talk of the semi-final, as so often is the way. We were so sorry to hear that one of our friends – John, who lives very close to Paddington / Marylebone / Edgware Road – had lost his mother on the Wednesday. Gillian, Kev and Rich were down from Scotland and it was great to see them once more. Kev told me that it was his first-ever visit to Wembley. I could tell he was excited. We had heard rumours that neither Chelsea nor Southampton had sold all the tickets available to both teams. This raised a few eyebrows. There was talk of high ticket prices, but I had a distinct feeling that if we had drawn Tottenham or Manchester United, our allocation would have been snapped up. I definitely got the impression that for many it was a case of “Southampton? Can’t be bothered.”

Time was now accelerating away, and it was time to move. We legged it to Marylebone, bumped into the usual suspects at the Sports Bar outside, but then had to wait a while to catch the 2.30pm train. We were certainly leaving it late, in time-honoured Chelsea fashion.

We alighted at Wembley Stadium station at just after 2.45pm.

“Be a miracle if we see kick-off.”

There seems to be more and more construction at Wembley with each visit. Hotels are going up at a fair rate of knots. There is already a designer outlet nearby. If, as seems likely, we will be residing at Wembley in the near future – a subject worthy of a wholly separate piece in itself, maybe even a separate website – then maybe we will eventually decide to drink at the hotel bars nearby. Wembley was festooned with huge advertising. I still loathe the new national stadium. It is as charming as an aircraft hangar.

I took a photograph of Kev with the curve of the arch behind him.

“Enjoy Wembley mate. And don’t break the crossbar.”

We made it inside the upper tier with about five minutes gone, thus missing out on the pre-match presentations. That Chelsea tradition of “one last pint” had done us again. Just outside the seating area, in the concourse, there was an “oooooh” as Chelsea went close.

We had seats halfway back in the top tier, above the south-east corner. Southampton had our usual western end. Bloody hell, there were swathes of empty seats in their top tier. And bizarrely, these were the cheapest seats, at just thirty quid. How very odd. There were hundreds and hundreds of empty seats dotted around our two tiers. I looked around and spotted familiar faces in our section; Dutch Mick and Gary, the two Bobs, Scott, Mark, The Youth and Seb.

A quick check of our team.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

A quick check of the supporters.

In the lower tier of the western end, it looked to me that every single Southampton supporter was standing.

In the opposite end, down to my right, only the supporters in the sections behind the corner posts were standing.

This, in simple terms, suggested to me that they were more “up for it” than us.

There certainly seemed to me more noise being generated by their red and white bedecked supporters.

Sitting next to me was a young family, parents with two children under the age of seven. The two kids soon looked bored. Over the course of the game, the mother hardly spoke to the kids. I wondered why they were there. Elsewhere, despite the first part of the game being dominated by Chelsea, there was little noise.

I tried to join in when any semblance of a chant tried to get going, but all around me people were sat on their hands.

Watching not supporting.

Fucking hell.

The stadium is so huge, so impersonal, with few – if any – unique features, that it just deadens any enjoyment for me. The Club Wembley level was only half-full at best. Down on the pitch, Chelsea were still dominating, with tons of possession and pretty patterns, moving the ball this way and that, and with Kante the metronome in the middle, keeping the rhythm, and with Willian and Hazard stretching Southampton, we looked like the only team that would score.

Willian, in Willian territory, dipped a free-kick just over the bar.

The Saints fans were still making more noise. Their song reminded me of Tottenham, shudder. Although I live only sixty or so miles from Southampton, I have only known three friends/workmates/acquaintances that have been Southampton fans. One of them, Duncan – a workmate from twenty years ago, who I see once every few years – was not at the game, but he posted a lovely photograph on Facebook of his mother at the game, smiling, flag in hand, Saints scarf around her neck. Her beaming smile was wonderful. She was certainly “up for the cup.”

A rare chance for Southampton came on twenty-five minutes, but Caballero saved from Lemina.

We only created a few half-chances though. Our play seemed to run out of ideas a little, in the same way that we had run out of songs.

Olivier Giroud teed up a chance for himself with a deft flick from a Fabregas cross but his follow-up volley was wide.

At the break, all was quiet in Wembley Stadium.

There had been so much swearing emanating from the mouth of one of the Chuckle Brothers throughout the first-half, that when I got back to my seat midway through the halftime break, and saw the family of four to my left were missing, I did wonder if they had left early, never to be seen again. Imagine my surprise when they returned with hot dogs and crisps costing half a weekly wage. These people were in it for the duration and I was somehow soothed.

The game restarted, and I spoke to Glenn about the huge section of empty seats behind the dugouts – the “Club Wanker” section – and bemoaned, for the fifty seventh thousand time, the state of modern football.

“Twats.”

A Chelsea move built and then a foul. Cesc Fabregas sent over a lovely cross towards Hazard, who did ever so well to pass the ball onto Giroud. My next thought was purely personal.

“Bollocks, I haven’t got my camera at the ready and this looks like a goal to me.”

With that, Giroud seemed to stumble and yet maintain possession. Everything happened in slow motion as he fended off a few challenges, and stabbed a leg out to send the ball home.

Camera or no camera, I roared and we all roared.

GET IN.

Giroud spun away and celebrated with team mates and then the manager.

Almost immediately, there was the usual text exchange with Alan.

“THTCAUN.”

“COMLD.”

Perfect.

There was a salvo of song from the Chelsea end – about bloody time – but we were quietened when Shane Long took a very heavy touch with only Caballero to beat. The ball raced away for a goal-kick and we heaved a sigh of relief.

The first change took place on the hour, and Conte – the pragmatic Italian – went for safety first in an attempt to shore up our shape, replacing the effervescent Willian with the boo boys’ favourite Tiemoue Bakayoko. The boos rang around Wembley. I wasn’t surprised.

Hazard moved forward alongside Giroud, with the midfield bolstered by an extra man. Only the second Southampton chance of the entire game resulted in a Caballero save – somehow, I am not sure how, or with which body part – from Redmond. The game was opening up and, surely, this would be to our advantage. A Hazard thunderbolt was tipped over by McCarthy. The little Belgian then sent over a perfect rabona which Victor Moses just failed to reach. Hazard was at his teasing best, the certain star. Two more substitutions took place.

Pedro for Fabregas.

Morata for Giroud.

After being on the pitch for just three minutes, Morata was able to wiggle between two defenders and head home from another sublime Azpilicueta cross. I managed to capture this on film. The ball seemed to take forever to drop, and it looked like it would eventually go wide from our view high up in section 521. At last the net rippled and the goal was wildly celebrated.

Chelsea 2 Southampton 0.

We felt safe now, but Austin hit the base of the far post from an acute angle. Morata then went close on two occasions at the other end.

At last, the referee Martin Atkinson whistled the end of the game.

Phew.

It was hardly comparable to the semi-final against Spurs exactly 365 days previously, but we had done it. It was the worst atmosphere I have ever experienced at a semi-final and that definitely detracted from the day. But we had reached our sixth FA Cup Final in twelve seasons. What a record. Quite phenomenal. One more win would put us at joint-third in the all-time list of winners – alongside Tottenham of all teams – and only behind Arsenal and Manchester United.

In the queue for the trains back to Marylebone, Pat Nevin waltzed past and it made my day. As the line slowly zig-zagged along, I spotted my friend Duncan’s mother only a few yards away. I had never previously met his Mum, although both Duncan and I grew up just a couple of miles apart, but I was sure it was her. Duncan had told me that his mother had recently been bitten by the football bug and was now a season ticket holder at their home games. The line shuffled along, and eventually I was able to catch up with her and say “hi.” I took a selfie of us and sent it to Duncan. Lovely.

We eventually took the train south, and things felt very familiar indeed.

And here’s a well-used sign-off.

“See you at Wembley.”

For John’s mother : RIP.

Tales From The King’s Road Club

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 10 March 2018.

After two tiring – in more ways than one – journeys to Manchester in the previous two games, the home match against Crystal Palace provided a chance for a more relaxing day at football. With our trip to Catalonia now getting very close, here was a nice little pre-cursor. The reason for this upbeat mood? Parky had booked us day return rail tickets which meant that there were no driving duties for me, and there was an added bonus of an elongated pub crawl down the King’s Road before the game.

Bloody perfect.

We caught the 7.56am train from Westbury, and the memories of previous Chelsea trips flooded back. Not much has changed at Westbury over the years. It could easily have been a scene from 1982, 1985, 1988 or 1991. There was plenty of chit-chat between the four of us – PD, Glenn, Parky and little old me – and the familiar stations of Pewsey, Newbury and Reading were reached in what seemed like no time at all. We were joined by another Chelsea supporter on the journey to London, a chap around the same age as us – maybe a little older – who must have spotted PD’s little Chelsea badges, or overheard our Chelsea-related chatter. He sat next to us and we soon got chatting.

“Are you going to the football?” he asked.

“Yeah. Chelsea Palace” I replied.

“Are you Chelsea or Palace?” enquired Glenn.

I smiled and said “he’s too well dressed to be a Palace supporter.”

“Oh, I’m a season ticket holder in the East Stand.”

I had spotted him on the platform at Westbury; waxed Barbour jacket, mustard cords, brogues. I had – erroneously – presumed that he was a rugby fan from his attire. How wrong I was.

“I’m part of a syndicate; three of us share a season ticket” Shane replied.

It transpired that he lives just outside Frome, in a little village called Chapmanslade. I was thrilled that there was another Chelsea season ticket holder from our neck of the woods. I was even more pleased that one of the syndicate lives in Great Elm, a village only one and a half miles away from my house. We chatted away and he told us a little about his past; like Parky he had been in the Army. Parky was in the Grenadier Guards. Shane was in the Coldstream Guards. But whereas Parky went to a local comprehensive, Shane was an Old Etonian. But he was Chelsea and that was good enough for me. And he went up in my estimations when he showed disdain for “egg- chasing.”

“Never judge a book by its cover” I thought to myself.

We chatted about our recent experiences of following our team in the recent weeks and months. There was indeed much to talk about. I am not sure why, but the talk turned to Mo Salah, and Shane asked us the name of “that other Egyptian, who played for Spurs, the one with the big nose.” We struggled to name him.

From the passenger sitting across from Shane – tapping away silently on his laptop – came the word “Mido.”

And I had a little smirk to myself.

I wondered if the chap was a Spurs fan. I wondered if he had been biting his lip during the previous thirty minutes, wanting to interrupt our Chelsea-centric chat, but fearful that he would be shot down in flames as a fan of the team from North London that we always seem to get the better of.

We pulled into Paddington at about 9.30am. The buzz of a day in London was apparent as we walked beneath the arched roofs of the fine old station. After a breakfast of champions, we caught the Bakerloo to Embankment and the District to Sloane Square. The military theme of the day continued as we walked past the former site of Chelsea Barracks, which Parky was familiar with, although during his stay in the army in the early ‘seventies he was based in nearby Pimlico.

I had planned a six-pub crawl, but we exceeded expectations. From just after 11am to around 4.30pm, we visited a total of ten hostelries either along – or just off – the famous King’s Road.

The King’s Road was always linked to the swinging ‘sixties and the swinging football team that went with it, but in all my years of going to Stamford Bridge, I have never walked its length before a game sampling its pubs and boozers. Most Chelsea match day pubs along the King’s Road have historically been located “over the railway bridge” in Fulham and I have very occasionally visited a few of those Chelsea staples, though – again – on very few occasions. Most of my – our – drinking has been in Fulham proper, the North End Road, Fulham Broadway and those pubs near the stadium.

We had spoken about a pub crawl down the most famous street in Chelsea for years. At last we were going to do it justice.

“The Fox & Hounds.”

Much to my annoyance, the first one that I had planned was closed. So although, we visited ten, it was something of a false ten. Or a false nine, maybe? Where have we heard that before?

“The Rose & Crown.”

This pub is described as “unpretentious” and I could not have summed it up better. When I walked into the pub, I was met by a pungent aroma of disinfectant, which is surely not the best of starts. Still, they sold “Peroni” and so I was happy. The boozer had a distinct ‘seventies feel to it. No frills, no thrills, but plenty of spills. I wondered, in all honesty, now such a downmarket boozer could exist in such a high rent location. The toilet door was reassuringly etched with many football scribbles  :

MFC.

Up The Boro.

CHELSEA.

MCFC.

WHUFC.

We moved on, and our route took us close to the Royal Hospital, the home of those famous scarlet tunics.

“The Phoenix.”

This was an unplanned stop, just off the King’s Road on Smith Street, but much-needed after the austerity of the first one. Another “Peroni” and – with Parky and PD sampling an “Estrella” apiece –  there were a few a few thoughts about Barcelona. To our left were three Chelsea supporters from Norway, who mentioned they were looking forward to seeing a Norwegian called Alexander Sorloth play for Palace. I had not heard of him.

“The Chelsea Potter.”

Here was a famous Chelsea pub, one that I have often heard mentioned in despatches. The single saloon was packed, and I would soon learn that it was packed with both Manchester United and Liverpool supporters, awaiting the start of the game from Old Trafford. As luck would have it, my stool at a high table was turned away from the TV screen. I did not bother to watch; I shunned it completely. Another “Peroni” helped numb the pain of United racing to a 2-0 lead. We had hoped for a draw.

“The Trafalgar.”

There are a quirky mix of building styles along this stretch of the King’s Road, and a mix of shops too. Parky was pleased to see that the Curzon cinema was still in business, although the art deco frontage suggested that it is now houses a Habitat department store too. Next door was a large blue-bricked boozer, and we dived into its dark and quiet interior. Yet another “Peroni” and it was only one o’clock or so.

“The Builders Arms.”

We walked north a few hundred yards and plotted up inside the elegant and classy interior of “The Builders Arms.” No “Peroni” so I chanced a pint of “Birra Moretti” which is not as crisp as my favourite. Here we went through the events at Manchester City the previous Sunday. For once, we were talking football. Glenn had watched Antonio’s press conference the previous day and I was pleased to hear that he had seemed, apparently, more relaxed and at ease.

“The Sydney Arms.”

On the short walk to the next pub, we were stunned to see the gorgeous warm stone of the surprisingly huge St. Luke’s Church, a hidden jewel. I had not seen it before. It was a lovely treat. The next pub was packed, and many eyes were watching the Ireland vs. Scotland rugby game from Dublin. Here, it was a pint of “Sagres”. There was a small amount of banter with a couple of Chelsea supporters. But this still didn’t seem like the world outside was aware that Chelsea were playing a mile or so down the road.

Out onto the King’s Road, we caught a cab to the next destination. To our right I spotted the benches on Dovehouse Green which I always remember being the meeting – and posing – place of the punks of my adolescence and beyond. In around 1984, I noted it was Carnaby Street for mods and the King’s Road for punks, though time was moving on for both of those cults.

“The World’s End.”

Any pub crawl down the King’s Road, surely has to encompass this pub. We all remember the iconic black and white photograph of Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti, high on a London double-decker bus, holding aloft the newly-acquired FA Cup with the Worlds End pub behind. Here was a pub that I had visited just once before – the opener against home in 1991 – but is now much changed, and effectively a restaurant and a pub no longer. But the hosts made us feel welcome. During his days in the army, Parky would often walk the length of the King’s Road and would end up in this pub. It was just excellent to be back. I was evidently starting to falter; just a bottle of “Peroni” this time. Just before we crossed the bridge into Fulham, we walked past Slaidburn Street, another location of a famous photograph or two from 1970. Decidedly working class in those days – how times change – this terraced street was festooned with the blue and white banners wishing Chelsea well in the FA Cup Final and a few iconic photographs were taken. I wondered how many residents were Chelsea fans today.

“The Jam Tree.”

Pub number eight was not particularly busy, but it is a boozer that I am sure a few of us visited on an end of season mini pub crawl in 2000. Another pint of “Peroni” please Parky. The game was still over ninety minutes away. I suspect a few of our more local fans – do we have many? – were setting foot outside to make their way to the game. There was talk of this pub featuring in the hideous “Made In Chelsea” TV show.

“The Imperial.”

Another classic Chelsea pub, and visited on a few occasions previously, though each time I visit the bar seems to be in a different place. I was reaching my limit, so went for a bottle of “Corona.” We sat in a quiet corner, but I soon spotted an old workmate from over twenty years ago. Roger now lives in Devon, and I saw him last at that crazy 5-4 League Cup win against Manchester United in the autumn of 2012 when we travelled up together. It was lovely to see him again. He was with his mate Andy, who I last saw in 1997 when he refereed a game at Warminster which involved a Peter Osgood select team including such players as Tommy Langley, Graham Wilkins and Jimmy Case. Where does the time go?

So, nine pubs. Phew. Of course, if I had any sense I would have made sure that we popped into “The Butcher’s Hook” on the club’s one-hundred and thirteenth birthday, to pay homage to where the club was formed.

Maybe next year.

Inside the stadium, I soon spotted Alan and Gary Buchmann who have seats in the same section as us. Sadly, their dear father Joe passed away last Sunday, aged ninety. Joe had been a season-ticket holder for simply decades, and I liked him a lot. I remember he used to give me a Christmas card every year, and on the very first one that he gave me – in December 2004 – he addressed it :

“To Chris and the Chelsea Boys. Chelsea will win the league this season.”

Prophetic words, indeed.

For the best part of twenty seasons we sat with him. We sadly lost our pal Tom in 2015. In 2018, we lost Joe. He was a lovely man, and although he did not attend a game over the past two seasons, he was always in our thoughts. One memory from three years ago is strong. It came after Willian’s last minute winner against Everton in February 2015 :

“I looked over at Joe, a few seats away, past Alan. Joe is around eighty-five and his face was a picture. He too was stood, arms out-stretched, looking straight towards me. We just looked at each other, our faces and our bodies were mirror-images of each other. Wide smiles but arms wider. It was a fantastic and magical moment. Chelsea smiles everywhere.”

I gave Alan and Gary a hug – “your father was a lovely man” – and took my seat.

The early-evening air was mild. There had been no gulps when we learned about Antonio Conte’s team selection, though there was a place for Gary Cahill.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

I was aware that there were a few trans-Atlantic friends visiting and there were mainly watching from The Shed Lower. I hoped that the Ohio Blues, the Atlanta Blues and the New York Blues enjoyed the next ninety minutes.

The crowd assembled, though our dear pal Alan was not with us. He had fallen on his way to work during the week and was housebound. Gut-wrenchingly, he will miss the soiree to Barcelona.

GET WELL SOON T.

Before the match began, there was a minute of applause for a former champion, a star from 1955, the ginger-haired Derek Saunders, who – like Joe – had reached the grand age of ninety.

RIP Derek.

RIP Joe.

After the defensive shackles against Manchester City last Sunday, there was much more – obviously – attacking intent against Crystal Palace. A shot from Kante was almost flicked into the Palace goal by Giroud. A Zappacosta effort caused Wayne Hennessey to drop to his knees to gather. There were two or three “sighters” from Willian. From a Crystal Palace corner, Christian Benteke was left alone behind a gaggle of players in the middle of the box, but he headed tamely over. Palace, of course, had won 2-1 against us in 2015/2016 and in 2016/2017. It was so good to see our man N’Golo back in our starting eleven once more. Maybe if he had played at City, our game plan might have been slightly different. Andros Townsend fired over.

But it was mainly Chelsea.

On twenty-five minutes, Willian collected the ball and moved effortlessly inside. His low shot took a slight nick off the defender Martin Kelly, and we were ahead. I hope that the transatlantic visitors in Parkyville enjoyed Willian’s celebrations.

From Alan : “THTCAUN.”

I replied : “COMLD.”

Not long after, a nice move increased our lead. The ball was swept into the box by Marcos Alonso. Willian hopped over the ball, after presumably receiving a shout from Eden Hazard, who set up Zappacosta to his right. It was hardly Pele to Carlos Alberto, and the shot took a deflection or two off the hapless Kelly, but it was a deserved second-goal. The celebrations from the players seemed a little sheepish, but that did not matter. The crowd roared its approval.

The Matthew Harding started singing :

“One Martin Kelly. There’s only one Martin Kelly.”

There was certainly not the nimble footwork of Gene Kelly from the Palace defender.

Giroud had been involved throughout the first-half and it felt so much better to have a focal point for our play. There had been some fine movement from all of our attacking players. Only a crazy touchline clearance from James Tomkins stopped our new striker from opening his account. Another Zappacosta effort was saved well by the Palace ‘keeper. A Hazard goal was ruled offside. But all was well at the end of the first-half.

We hoped for further goals to build confidence ahead of the game of the season against Barcelona, but the second-half was more arid despite a fair few Chelsea efforts.

In the first noticeable moment of the second-half, the Nowegian Sorlath crashed a shot against the post after a defensive lapse by Andreas Christensen. Willian went close after switching passes with Giroud. A Hazard effort was saved by Hennessey. Willian caused the Palace ‘keeper to scramble to his left to save from a central free-kick. Willian – the main threat – then created for Zappocosta and Giroud.

We were once again treated to some lovely up close and personal trickery from Eden Hazard. One sequence shows his control over ball and defenders alike.

As space opened up, a run down the left flank by Alonso found Giroud, who steadied himself, but his side-footed shot came back off the far post. It seemed his luck was certainly against him. He was replaced by Alvaro Morata with twenty minutes to go. Palace had a goal disallowed via Sorleth, but that was our signal to leave.

We needed to leave the boys to it in order to make sure our train connections worked. We gathered together and headed down to Fulham Broadway. A quick tube up to West Brompton allowed us to connect at Clapham Junction for our train home, which was taking the southern route via Salisbury. While we waited at West Brompton, we heard that Patrick van Aanholt had scored a late Palace goal. We had, apparently, squeaked it 2-1. At Clapham Junction, the narrow passages echoing to “Chelsea”, we raided the Cornish Pasty concession stand. A Palace fan chatted to us and wished us well on Wednesday. Rival football fan in fair-minded and generous comment shock. Whatever next?

Our train connections went well and we reached Westbury at 10.30pm. We soon caught a cab back to Frome.

It had been a fine day.

On Wednesday, Barcelona await.

I will see many of you out there.

 

Tales From The Hurting

Watford vs. Chelsea : 5 February 2018.

It was just past two o’clock. I had parked my car outside “The Milk Churn” which sits on the A350 just south of the small Wiltshire town of Melksham. It is a new boozer, no older than a couple of years, but is built to resemble an old rustic farmhouse, heavy on tiles, brick and wood. It is run by “Hall and Woodhouse”, a brewery based in the Dorset town of Blandford Forum. My grandfather used to work at the brewery before he left his home town of Wareham to head up to Frome. The pub has acted as a starting point, a base camp, for a number of our Chelsea matches of late. My place of work is opposite. As I joined PD and Parky at their table in the pub lounge, they welcomed me.

“You look a bit happier than last week.”

Last week, last Wednesday, had been a very stressful day at work, and the lads had noticed that I was still in “the zone” after a hectic 6am to 2pm shift. It had taken a good hour or so for me to stop thinking over a few work-related issues as PD drove to London for the Bournemouth game.

On this day, a Monday, I certainly felt a little more relaxed. I ordered some food, gammon steaks all round, and supped at a pint of “Peroni.”

I relaxed with each passing sip.

“Yes. On the face of it, a bit easier today. A bit worried that I’ve had a few chest pains at work this morning though.”

“Blimey, take care, mate.”

“Yeah, I will” I replied, but rather unconvincingly, bearing in mind the stresses that might be forced upon me during the evening’s match at Vicarage Road.

We tucked into our food, and the mood was rather quiet.

“Need to win this one tonight, lads.”

“Certainly do. Especially as Liverpool and Spurs drew yesterday.”

The 2-2 draw at Anfield had presented us the opportunity of going third if we could win at Watford. It was a challenge that I trusted the players to overcome. I did not see any of the game at Anfield. I believe that it was quite a humdinger. I had the best of intentions to watch the highlights on “Match Of The Day 2” on Sunday night, but I chose instead to continue watching an archived programme on the BBC i-Player detailing a storm which had caused havoc in Glasgow in 1968 but caused a rethink on the city’s plans to tear down tenements. This simple choice of viewing encapsulated my thoughts of football these days, or at least football not involving Chelsea Football Club.

Grainy images of Glasgow, social history, town-planning and architecture 1

The Kop, Klopp, Kane and Tottenham 0

After a relaxing lunch, PD set off for Watford. We were in the middle of a ridiculous stretch of nine games with not one of them being played on a Saturday.

Wednesday, Sunday, Wednesday, Monday, Monday, Friday, Tuesday, Sunday, Sunday.

It is a bloody good job that we didn’t draw Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup. I think that my head might have exploded.

I was able to grab a little sleep on the way up to Watford. PD was parked-up at about 5.15pm. Outside, the weather was bitterly cold. Knowing my dislike for large and impersonal superpubs, I managed to coerce the lads to pop into a local called “The Horns” where we enjoyed a pint apiece. It was a smashing boozer, evidently a venue for much music, and there was a permanent stage wedged into a corner. It had the feel of a Western saloon from the cowboy films of my childhood. Behind the till were hundreds of plectrums from live performances. There were musical memorabilia everywhere. But there was no hint that there was a topflight football match taking place a mile or so to the south.

We moved on to “The Moon Under Water” on Watford’s pedestrianised high street. Here was a different story. There was wall-to-wall Chelsea everywhere. I immediately thought back to our away game at Vicarage Road last season when a Michy Batshuayi goal gave us a late 2-1 win, but also where the same pub was reverberating to the short-lived “Antonio Conte does it better” chant before the game. We met up with Alan and Gary, calmly sat towards the rear, and we discussed the current ailments at our club.

I read out the team. I suppose there were two talking points. Marcos Alonso was not involved. Olivier Giroud was on the bench.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Zappacosta

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

The time soon passed. The air in the pub wasn’t exactly electric. A few of the younger element were trying to get some songs started in the main bar, but there were few takers. If anything, they annoyed me.

“As long as you buggers remember to sing in the stadium.”

We set off for Vicarage Road, a simple twenty-minute walk away, past the array of fast food joints, takeaways and restaurants of every hue. In previous visits to Vicarage Road, we have always arrived late and I have always headed straight in. On this cold night, I was able to have the briefest of wanders. Vicarage Road is certainly a cramped venue, wedged into side streets just outside the town centre. It’s a pleasant enough stadium.

We were down low, not far from the front. To my right, the Sir Graham Taylor Stand. To my left, the Elton John Stand. Tucked between the away end – we had around two thousand seats – and the side stand was the stadium’s “Sensory Room.” Despite us being the reigning champions, there were empty seats dotted around the stadium. As the teams entered the pitch, the Watford fans unveiled a large banner at their home end of club owner Gino Pozzo. Rather than provide banners for each and every Watford manager, this was obviously cheaper. They are up to ten – I think – since the Pozzo family took over in 2012. That’s going some. Compared to Watford, Chelsea under Roman Abramovich resembles a steady ship.

The game began. The away fans were in great voice. As ever one song dominated.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

He acknowledged our support for him straight away with some applause for us.

But from the very first few minutes of action, we really struggled to get a foothold in the game. There was a ball-to-hand heart-in-the-mouth moment as the ball struck Gary Cahill. Not long after, the irksome winger Gerard Deulofeu saw his snapshot hit the side netting. The warning signs were there. We were watching from the left of the goal and Gary Cahill was in my sights. I wanted to see how he performed up close. He seemed to marshal his team mates reasonably well at set pieces, but looked ill-at-ease in open play. Very often he played the ball to a Chelsea team mate who was heavily marked. He just does not exude any calmness. Watford came again. Troy Deeney was left unmarked at the far post at a corner but his studied prod at goal was well wide.

Our attacks, so obviously lacking a focal point, floundered time after time. Pedro was full of running but with nobody moving off the ball ahead of him, the resulting pass was often played back or square. We looked utterly impotent in attack. Victor Moses was often left in acres of space, but was reluctant to release the ball early. David Luiz tended to vary things a little, choosing to play balls to the feet of Eden and others, but often a ball was hoofed up field to our three midgets. The away end was getting frustrated.

A wild shot from Willian blazed over the bar. It was our only real effort on goal. Watford kept attacking and Thibaut’s goal was under threat.

The noise from the away section remained impressive.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

Although I was trying my best to encourage Tiemoue Bakayoko when he did something half-decent – “go on my son” – he was having a nightmare. He gave up balls so cheaply. His night and our night was soon to darken. After a foul on Etienne Capoue by Bakayoko and a yellow card, there was a lunge on Richarlison in the middle of the pitch. I have to admit, from our perspective, it looked like there had been a foul on Bakayoko, but as Richarlison stayed down, and players swarmed, there was that horrible moment of hurt as referee Mike Dean flashed a card at Bakayoko.

Off he went.

Fuck it.

Only thirty minutes had passed.

Antonio Conte was furious and had to be calmed by the referee.

After a few minutes of wondering how the manager would react, I was frankly amazed that he chose Cesc Fabregas to replace Willian. I thought about moving Luiz into midfield and going 4/2/3 or bringing on Danny Drinkwater. But what do I know? I’m just a transport planner for an office furniture company. The addition of the lightweight Fabregas seemed odd. Very odd. It felt harsh on Willian who can always be relied upon to put in a shift.

Our play did not improve. Just before half-time, a ball was played forward to the lively Deulofeu who touched the ball on. Out rushed Courtois and I just knew what was going to happen next. A touch, down he went, a nailed-on penalty. Two knobhead fans chose to walk past me just as Deeney took the penalty. I would have missed the save if there had been one. There wasn’t. The home crowd roared and we were one-down.

Shite.

There was a run and shot from Pedro in the inside-left channel, but it blazed well over. To be honest, a goal then would not have reflected the balance of play. Watford were full of running, full of pace, and were well-deserving of their lead. We looked devoid of confidence. There was nobody willing to take ownership of the ball and create. Down to ten men, we stared a second successive league defeat in the face.

The second-half began.

I was so happy that the away fans were trying our hardest to get behind the team. One song dominated. It was a song which, I always remembered, seemed to be aired specifically during the second-halves of games, and especially away games, when the team needed it. This game certainly fitted the bill.

“Amazing Grace” was given the full Chelsea treatment.

“CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.”

I was joining in. So were many others. But I looked around, and back, at others to see how many were actually joining in too. It was at about the 50% level at best. It sounded like more were singing. But those that were involved were keeping it going for a fair few minutes. I was sure that the noise was carrying and that the TV millions would hopefully be impressed. The home fans, by comparison, were ridiculously quiet. Despite winning, the folks to the left of me in the Elton John Stand hardly sung all night.

Modern football.

Despite a clash of heads with a Watford defender, Moses began to get a little more space in front of us down the Chelsea right. At last we were playing to our strengths; intricate passing, movement off the ball, a ball into space, a cross. Moses broke through, glided past a couple of defenders and played the ball across the six-yard box.

Guess what?

Nobody was there to meet it.

Chelsea were trying to get into the game, and there was a definite improvement as the second-half progressed. But at the other end, Watford again and again broke through. Shots curled past the far post. Thibaut was forced to strongly save on two occasions. They were out-gunning us.

We still kept singing though, we still kept going.

We spotted Olivier Giroud warming up on the touchline. One nasty little outbreak of Billy Ray Cyrus down to my left thankfully failed to gather momentum. With twenty-minutes left, the former Arsenal target man made his Chelsea debut. His beard appeared to have been trimmed a little. Good. Fucking good.

He went up for a header, which he won, and he began his journey from Arsenal wanker to Chelsea player. We urged the team on. All of a sudden, we looked more like a team. More options. More drive. More energy. We enjoyed a few half (quarter?) chances but the mood was rising.

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

Eden Hazard, in the same channel that Moses had ploughed earlier, flitted away from markers and suddenly looked like his old self. He buzzed into the box, and the ball reached Fabregas. This was our big chance, our big moment. The shot was weak, low and an easy save for the Watford ‘keeper.

The howls rang out from the away end.

Just after, Hazard – clearly buzzing now after his confidence-boost of a run earlier – collected the ball around twenty-five yards out, broke into a little space and guided a magical shot around the defender, using him as a block for the ‘keeper, and into the side of the goal.

We went ballistic.

GET IN.

The celebrations were wild and unfettered. Eden pointed towards us. We were back in the game. At that moment, oh the stupidity of it all, it felt to me like we would go on to win.

The Chelsea support roared again.

There was maybe ten minutes or so left.

“COME ON CHELS.”

Bizarrely – there was no explanation – the play returned to the other end. Another Watford effort slid past the far post. I then watched with growing concern as a fine Watford move spread across the box from right to left. I yelled, in vain, as a Watford player appeared to tiptoe into a danger area.

“Don’t let him shoot.”

There was no tackle. There was no block. Janmaat shot. Janmaat scored.

Watford 2 Chelsea 1.

The hurt was palpable. I remained standing but inside I slumped to the floor. Thankfully there was no chest pains, just an emptiness.

Four minutes later, their star player Deulofeu was able to shoot after a short run at the heart of our defence.

Watford 3 Chelsea 1.

With that, many Chelsea fans decided to leave. A swathe of empty yellow seats soon appeared in front of me. I was fuming. Two lads motioned to me to let them pass. I did not move. They had to squeeze past me. I glowered at them. They glowered back.

Fuck them.

The night became even more bizarre. A lone spindly youth ran on to the pitch, I think from the side stand, and bounced up and down on the pitch, seemingly on the ‘phone to somebody. No stewards bothered with him. He stayed on the pitch, gurning like a fool, for what seemed like thirty seconds or more. With my eyes drilling in to him, I missed the build up to Watford’s fourth goal.

Watford 4 Chelsea 1.

Bloody hell.

In a show of defiance, the remaining Chelsea fans collectively thought “well, fuck this” and got behind the team once more.

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

A half-chance from that man Giroud almost brought a cheer, but the game ended with no further incident.

But there here was still time for another round of “Antonio.”

And there was even a relatively loud “Three Little Birds” as the game ended.

At the final whistle, I watched as Antonio Conte darted down the tunnel. I honestly wondered if I would see him again as a Chelsea manager. I gathered my stuff, as stony faced as I have been for a while. Parky was surprisingly upbeat alongside me and for a few seconds I wanted him to be quiet, be still, be solemn. His obvious indifference to defeat annoyed me, but then I had to smirk as we met up with others and headed up the steep terrace. There was a chat with a few good people.

Mark from Hastings was fuming :

“Those people who left, I just don’t get it. Us losing should make them want to stay, to stay and cheer us on. What is the point in them leaving?”

I agreed. We smiled and shook hands.

Mark from Westbury put everything into some sort of perspective :

“We’ve seen worse, Chris.”

I smiled.

“Yes, we have mate. Not at Watford, though.”

It was Mark’s time to smile.

We were some of the last to leave.

There would be a time to evaluate the current dip in form at Chelsea at a later date, a later time. Maybe things will be crystal clear in my mind for the West Brom game, but I doubt it. These waters are muddied. And my mind is addled with the constant rumour and counter-rumour which surrounds this club, as ever.

At around 10.45pm, Parky, PD and me were sitting in a “Subway” on the Watford High Street. Although my jacket had kept me warm at the game, the winter chill had bitten hard on the walk back from the stadium. We silently devoured some food. The moment, oddly, reminded me of a late night snack in a small café in Rome after an equally shocking defeat. In Rome, we were able to look out on a piazza and monuments, and enjoy the moment. In Watford, we looked out on waste bins, concrete paving slabs and “Poundworld.”

“At least there were no chest pains.”

The hurt on a cold night in Hertfordshire was only mental, but it was real enough.

PD set off for home at 11pm. Thankfully, I managed to get some sleep once we left the M25 and hit the M4. We were back at “The Milk Churn” at 1am. I was home at 1.30am. I was asleep at 2am. The alarm would ring at 5am.

At 6am, co-workers would be asking me if I was at the game at Watford.

“Yep.”

The three of us agreed that we all needed a break from football. In the pub, even Gary had commented that he had enjoyed having the recent weekend off as it gave him some precious time to get a few things done away from Chelsea. At the moment, this football lark is hard and relentless. On players and fans alike. The next game is on Monday. There is time for a rest. There is time for a break. There will be time to re-focus and to re-charge the old batteries.

I’m going to enjoy it.

The race for second place will begin again soon enough.

IMG_4680

 

Tales From Two Halves

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 24 January 2018.

It has taken me a while to realise it, but I have an aversion to large and impersonal pubs. From now on, I am going out of my way to avoid them. The prices of the ales, ciders and lagers might be cheaper at a “Wetherspoons”, “Walkabout” or a “Yates”, but everything else about them leaves me cold. Many are on the site of former large shops and banks. Many of these “super pubs” are blandness personified; rectangular voids with no charm and no fun. And I realise that we have frequented a few of them in recent seasons; “The Moon Under Water” in Watford, “The Shakespeare’s Head” for Arsenal, “The Admiral of The Humber” in Hull, “The Thomas Frost” at Everton. The list goes on. I’m not a fan. So it was with a bounce in my step that I ascended the steps at Piccadilly Circus tube station at around 5.30pm. I had completed my homework and had hand-picked a traditional London pub for our pre-match drinks for the League Cup semi-final against Arsenal. Three weeks ago, we had alighted at the same stop and chosen “The Duke’s Head” on Denman Street. This time, we walked a minute further up Sherwood Street and turned into “The Crown.” It immediately took my fancy; busy, dark, a little cramped, but full of atmosphere and with attentive bar staff. We shuffled through the main bar and found a spare corner, and relaxed on some old leather seats under some dark wooden wall panels. The four of us – Young Jake, Oscar Parksorious, P-Diddy and I – settled in for an hour and-a-half of drinks and giggles. I’d be doing no driving this night; there would be the chance for a few pints of “Peroni.” We had already run through our opinions and thoughts about the upcoming game.

“I suppose Arsenal will be favourite. They’re at home after all.”

“Hope we play 3/4/3.”

“At least Sanchez has left. Always does well against us it seems.”

“Just hope there’s no extra time and penalties.”

Indeed. With a little foresight and planning, I had taken care of that most unloved of outcomes. Fearing the worst, and remembering well from the extended Norwich City replay the preceding week, I had taken some precautions. If the game at The Emirates would go to extra-time and then penalties, the game would likely finish at 10.45pm. We would not be back to the car until around midnight. A two-hour trip back to Melksham. A further thirty minutes to my house. I’d not get to bed until 2.30am. And I’d need to be up at 5am for work.

Screw that.

I had booked myself into the hotel opposite work for the night and looked forward, whatever the result, to an extra hour in bed. With the football only costing a tenner, I figured I could easily justify it. At times my life of late has involved only sleep, work and football. This would certainly be no exception.

This would be Young Jake’s first trip to The Emirates. I’ve only missed one; the time we took nine-thousand up there for the League Cup game in 2013. On this occasion, we were taking 5,500, and all four of us had been given tickets in Section 25, which would normally be a home area. I wondered if the facilities in the concourse would offer an improvement to the pokey confines of the away sector. The drinks were going down well. The pre-match banter was a fine antidote to further stresses at work. I shared some insider knowledge about the pub.

“Mozart played here when he was nine. In this very pub.”

For once, there was silence from The Chuckle Brothers.

“Anyway. Moving on.”

At seven o’clock we caught the tube north. It was, of course, a familiar ride now. We had travelled the same journey three weeks earlier. It annoyed me that there was an announcement that “this train will not be stopping at Holloway Road, next stop is The Arsenal.”

The Arsenal. I could hear Alan moaning at the mere mention of it.

“The Arsenal. Like it’s some sort of bloody institution.”

On the walk up through the rabbit warren at Arsenal tube, there were a few chants from both sets of fans. I spotted a Chelsea supporter with a blue “Patagonia” rain jacket. I was reminded of the catchy “Brightonia” banner at “The Amex” that I spotted last weekend, using the same font and logo.

There were a few – hardly loud – chants of playing football “the Arsenal way” but I was far from convinced. For all of their crisp-passing under the early Wenger years, the spectre of decades of dull and boring football has not drifted from my consciousness.

“Arsenal. Bloody hell. The only time they have been entertaining was when Eric Morecambe sneezed or coughed.”

The lights of The Emirates soon came into view. No doubt it will soon be named after some other corporate-brand; not even “The Reebok” is “The Reebok” anymore. Why Arsenal could not have at least used “Arsenal Stadium” in lights on the façade – some sort of permanent statement – is beyond me. Beneath “Emirates Stadium” were large graphics of Arsenal players from across the ages inter-locking arms. I suppose this was conceived as a nice idea, but I just saw a load of arses.

We were inside with about ten minutes to spare. So much for more space behind section 25; there was a huge line for the gents. It would have to wait until half-time. There was a dimming of the lights and a half-arsed light show. I looked around at all the empty seats in the upper tier.

Pauline and Mick were stood behind me.

“Bloody hell, a tenner and they still can’t fill it.”

I was to eat my words as it all filled-up after a while.

But I certainly realised that new spacious stadia thrill me as much as “super pubs.” Give me “The Crown” and Highbury – what a stadium – ahead of “Spoons” and “The Emirates” any day, any season, any year.

The team was missing Courtois and Morata, and the manager went with a 3/4/3 variant; no Michy Batshuayi, but Eden Hazard to play in a central but surely drifting role.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

The Three Amigos

The players entered the pitch. Behind the teams at the opposite end, an Arsenal flag bearing the rebranded gun emblem – now pointing to the right after decades of pointing to the left, bloody hell I need to get out more – moved slowly above the heads of the Arsenal hardcore. A flag featuring Charlie George was spotted. What a lanky dullard he was. He was no Peter Osgood for sure. In fact, he was the antithesis of Peter Osgood; North London dull and North London gormless. Proper Arsenal. In later life, he managed to cut off a finger while mowing his lawn. Don’t ask.

There are banners everywhere on the balconies at The Emirates, all signalling various degrees of self-love.

The game began and we began well despite a shot from Tiemoue Bakayoko which was well off target. Just after, a trademark lofted ball from Dave and a finely placed header from the diminutive Pedro beat David Ospina, but I had spotted an offside flag. We were well on top, and Arsenal had hardly offered an attack. On seven minutes, Kante played the ball to Pedro who in turn touched in to the path of Eden Hazard. His easy finish summed up our domination.

There were wild celebrations in Sections 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 and 25.

GET IN.

We were one up and playing well.

Sadly, our lead soon disappeared in the mild North London air. A corner dropped right onto the head of Nacho Monreal, but his header then unluckily struck Marcos Alonso, and from there the footballing Gods were not on our side. The ball ricocheted onto Toni Rudiger’s forehead and in. I looked around at the gurning Goons in the corporate tier above me and I felt sick.

But we still dominated, retaining the ball well and moving it crisply. Willian dragged the ball wide of the far post. A special word for Bakayoko who I thought performed very well throughout a dominant first-half. He put his foot in, he retained the ball, he moved it on, he pushed forward when space opened-up. Well done to him.

On the half-hour, Willian had a knock and sadly had to be substituted. Nobody had been warming up of course, but Ross Barkley was chosen to enter the fray for his Chelsea debut. I watched as he entered the field of play. I mused that there haven’t been many signings from Everton over the years. Only Duncan McKenzie and the great Tommy Lawton came to mind. I hoped that Barkley would not suffer the same fate as Lawton – much lauded and a stratospheric transfer at the time –  who was transferred to Notts County after just three seasons. His first few moments did not bode well. Xhaka went close with an angled free-kick after a Barkley foul on Koscielny. Worse was to come.

I rolled my eyes at the awful chant that the away supporters had up their collective sleeves :

“Viva Ross Barkley, viva Ross Barkley. He left the Scouse ‘cus they robbed his house, viva Ross Barkley.”

Well done. Well bloody done. I’m sure as a Scouser he would appreciate that one.

It’s like us singing something for Antonio Conte which takes the piss out of Italians.

He’s one of us now, lads. He’s one of us. Support him.

While I’m at it…

“We’ve won it all.”

Bloody hate that one too.

Elsewhere, we were edging it, with Rudiger and Christensen strong and dominant. However, the pondering Victor Moses was frustrating the absolute hell out of all of us. There were extra, and heavy, touches every time he received the ball. At the break, everyone around me was relatively happy. Arsenal had grown stronger as the half had developed but I think we had shown enough for us to be confident of progression. I wanted Eden to be involved more. But I was happy.

At half-time, the queue at the gents was still ridiculous. The khazi was smaller than in the away end. So much for a high quality and spacious stadium.

I suggested to Big John that “we’re the only team in London with a European Cup” ought to be replaced by “we’re the only team in London with some spacious fucking bogs.”

Well, the second-half.

Must I?

What a let-down.

Eden had a couple of bursting runs through the middle – on one occasion, slipping when it appeared that he had been tripped – but Arsenal were soon moving the ball around and causing problems. We seemed listless and without much direction. After twenty tiring minutes of playing second fiddle, the ball was worked through the Arsenal inside right channel. I looked up at the large scoreboard to my left just to check who was the Arsenal number twenty-nine when the very player – Xhaka – tucked home. I only saw the celebration, I only heard the roar.

BOLLOCKS.

On the TV replay, it appeared that we were undone by another bloody deflection, off the back leg of the hapless Rudiger.

Oh boy.

The second-half of woe continued. We were all stood of course, but there were only pockets of song. I expected more from 5,500 of our beered-up loyalists. I was well aware throughout the second period as I was watching, hands in pockets, bellowing out encouragement, joining in with song when I could, that I was watching the game with the combined weight of the clichéd opinions and criticisms of all of social media in all its glorious forms hanging heavy in my mind and on my shoulders. And all of the negative stuff seemed to dominate my thoughts. In days of yore, we just got behind the team and shared our thoughts with a few close friends. If there was a little negativity, it was tempered by a little humour and some gallows humour. These days I now have the sour-faced, overly-grave, doom-laden – and deadly bloody serious and truly bloody tedious – opinions of Loudmouth from Sidmouth, Knobhead from Knoxville, Tosser from Osset, Jackass from Jacksonville and Cocksocket from Nantucket ringing in my ears.

All that bloody negativity. Football was never meant to be like that. Not for a club that has enjoyed so much success in the past fifteen or twenty years.

I could not help but feel that there are just too many Chelsea fans in the world today and not enough Chelsea supporters.

I see nothing wrong with objective criticism. Why would I? But so much of it now just hints at spoiled and new – but not entirely – fans throwing toys out of prams at the merest hint of a sub-par performance.

It does my fackin’ head in.

Sigh.

But on the night, we had to face facts. Despite the constant prompting along the touchline from the always involved manager, Arsenal bossed us and they bossed the game. There was one memorable burst of energy down the right from Ross Barkley. Caballero saved with his leg in a typically unorthodox way from Iwobi. There was added spirit from substitute Zappacosta, in place of the poor Moses, and a few flashed crosses, but elsewhere we were lacking. Michy Batshuayi had replaced Pedro, but he did not get much service. And he still has the annoying tendency to turn into trouble.

What were we told at school?

“Play the way you are facing.”

Unless your name is Eden Hazard of course.

Michy isn’t. He needs to play to his strengths.

There was a rushed free-kick from Marcos Alonso and the ball is still circling above Heathrow waiting for clearance to land. We howled our agony. The Arsenal fans, so quiet in the close 2-2 draw on the third day of 2018, were making an uncharacteristic din.

We kept singing until the end, but it was not to be.

We met up outside and slouched out. We began our slow walk down the Holloway Road where I had once attended an open day at North London Poly in 1983. Studying at a college just a mile from Highbury? What was I bloody thinking? We walked on. The best cheeseburger of the season thus far lifted some of the gloom, and – thank heavens – we made good time on our return to Barons Court. PD headed west and I drifted off to sleep and even Parky’s incessant prattling could not stop me.

By 1.30am, I had fallen into a deep sleep in my hotel room, with the Chelsea subsection of the internet no doubt going into meltdown once again.

On Sunday, we gather together for another stab at Wembley.

See you there.

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Tales From The Mischief And More

Norwich City vs. Chelsea : 6 January 2018.

The Cup.

This would be my second F.A. Cup game of the season. My first was back in September when I drove the three hours down to the edge of Dartmoor to watch Frome Town narrowly edge a 2-1 win against Tavistock Town. I thoroughly enjoyed myself on that occasion in deepest Devon, despite getting well-and-truly drenched. Tavistock drew around 350 for that game, much higher than their usual gates, and it is an anomaly how some cup games capture the imagination of the fans and some simply don’t. As ever, Frome Town let me down in the next round with a meek loss at Heybridge Swifts in Essex. There would be no Frome Town versus Chelsea match this season…

The Host City.

On each of my previous visits to the Norfolk city of Norwich, I have always been taken by its charms; the castle, the cathedral, its history, its pubs, and the close proximity of its football club to its tight city centre. However, it involves a five-hour drive from our homes in the West of England.  On our last visit two seasons ago, I can remember saying to the lads that it was the sort of place that I could quite happily visit every other season. So, we have to be thankful that Norwich City managed to get themselves relegated during the 2015/2016 season, and that our names were drawn out of the hat for our first tie in this season’s FA Cup campaign. And like our last visit – a nervous game in which we had marked the tenth anniversary of Peter Osgood’s passing with banners before the match – we had soon decided to stay the night in a local hotel.

The Drive East And North.

On the long drive, there was much to discuss. I had collected PD at 7am, and we were then joined by Young Jake and Oscar Parksorius. For the first part of the journey, we chatted about the acquisition of Ross Barkley from Everton for the relatively modest sum of £15M. Long-time followers of this blogorama will know how I have always rated him. I always like the way he seemed to burst forth from midfield with the ball, in the style of Paul Gascoigne, seemingly equally confident with both feet. It is a slight cliché to say it, but he is great box-to-box player, with a good eye for a shot. Yes, of course, we need strengthening elsewhere in the squad, but I count it as some fine business by the club. In a nutshell, I like him as a player because he excites me on the ball. This can’t be said of some others. Let’s hope he regains his fitness and becomes a valued part of our squad.

As I ate up the miles, there were periods of grey and overcast weather, interspersed with a few bursts of sunshine attempting to break through. We passed through the flat lands of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk, and I admired the subtle shades of winter. Jake was full of questions about the city, its football club and previous visits. I mentioned Norwich City’s old ground, which was called “The Nest” and involved several hundred spectators perching on a high bluff which overlooked the ground and its low-level stands. We reached Norwich just after midday, booked into our hotel – time for a quick lager while we waited for a cab – and then headed into the city.

The Mischief.

I had done my homework. I had prepared a little pub-crawl for the four of us along a fifty-yard stretch of Wensum Street, which would hardly tax us on a day which was allegedly going to turn colder as the night fell. First up was the beautifully named “The Mischief” which dated from 1599. Although the Fleetwood Town vs. Leicester City game was being shown on a TV above our heads, we paid it little attention. This was Jake’s first-ever night away following the team. The banter soon started flying around. This was footballing heaven. There was nowhere on Earth I would rather have been than in the wooden paneled, wooden floor boarded rickety bar of The Mischief.

The Ribs Of Beef.

After an hour, we marched over the bridge spanning the River Wensum and entered the next pub on the itinerary, “The Ribs Of Beef.” Another lovely boozer, a little more opulent than the previous one, which was rather basic. I spotted a couple of familiar Chelsea faces. Within a few minutes, we were spotted too; Goggles from the Fulham OB, alongside his partner in crime from the Norwich Constabulary, popped in and engaged in a little banter with us.

“Not expecting any trouble are, you?”

“Not really. Just the weight of numbers of the away support warrants us being here.”

Indeed. Over four-thousand Chelsea fans would be attending the game at Carrow Road, which sits alongside a stretch of the same river a mile or so downstream. And the home club, eager to entice as many fans as possible had cut the admission price to just £15 and £10 for Old Age Parkys.

What a deal.

A couple more pints, the trusted “Peroni” this time, went down very well. Parky and I chatted to a couple of Norwich fans and we asked them a few questions about “The Nest.” I was impressed that Parky had evidently done some background reading ahead of the trip and was able to name the streets where the old ground had been based, which was relatively near the city’s train station. Jake was lapping all of this up. It was a shame to move on, but we edged a few yards closer to the city centre and entered the next pub.

The Lawyer.

“The Lawyer” was a larger boozer, and I was surely pleased that the place was far from rammed. We chatted to some local Chelsea fans – members of the Eastern Blues – and they made us very welcome. More pints of Peroni followed. The laughter was now bouncing off the walls. We rounded things off with a short apiece and then bundled ourselves out into the night at just before 5pm. It had been four hours of heaven and, after a couple of very hectic days of work for me, just what the doctor had ordered. Of course we all love the buzz of a rarely-visited city, a few beers, good friends, and football.

Carrow Road.

The football stadium is thankfully not far from the city centre. We strolled down the main drag – Prince of Wales Road – past a few less-inviting bars and boozers. At the bottom of the gradual slope was a pub called “The Compleat Angler” – as ever, full of Chelsea – and there were around a dozen police outside. We walked on, and made it to the away turnstiles with around ten minutes to spare. Like most English stadia, Carrow Road has been overhauled since the ‘eighties. It’s a neat enough stadium. It has a hotel wedged up against one of its corners, with some rooms overlooking the pitch. Our section, as ever, was along the side of the stadium, in its newest structure, a single-tiered stand opposite the tunnel. I looked around. The place was almost full. A section of seats in a corner stand were empty, not sure why. I soon joined the others in the front row, where there was a stretch of around twelve unused seats. Unlike at The Emirates on Wednesday, where my vantage point was down low but behind the goal, I really enjoyed the view from the front row at Norwich. We really were in prime seats. The teams entered the pitch and as the players warmed up, I scanned the team.

Caballero

Rudiger – Luiz – Cahill

Zappacosta – Drinkwater – Bakayoko – Kenedy

Willian – Batshuayi – Pedro

Norwich City were in their usual yellow and green. Chelsea, for reasons known only to those who drew up the sponsorship deal with Nike, were in the grey of the third kit. Am I the only person who thought that it was ridiculous for us to be playing a night game alongside the misty banks of the River Wensum in not only a mid-grey kit, but one which had a vague camouflage pattern hideously stenciled into its weave? If the players then found it difficult to spot team mates, it is hardly bloody surprising.

The First-Half.

We were soon treated to a few rousing choruses of “On The Ball, City” by the home fans, and the Chelsea support rallied a loud rendition of “Antonio.” Over on the far side, the Chelsea manager, bedecked in the bright blue of a Chelsea tracksuit, was easily spotted. His players, in a turgid first-half, encountered problems in spotting each other, camouflage or not. A Danny Drinkwater shot was hardly worthy of the name as both sides struggled to get much cohesion. After almost half-an-hour came the game’s first real shot of note, with Alex Pritchard, the liveliest player on the pitch, striking after a mishap by David Luiz.  Fair play to the home team; all of their players were covering ground, tracking back, and closing space as if their lives depended on it. Down in the front row, I was in a little world of my own, trying to encourage the players with individual shouts to those within earshot, while thankfully not being restrained by the stewards as I took many a photo. Down low, yards away, you really get an appreciation of the pace of the game these days.

And then, I was confused as to why some of the Chelsea support behind me were “ironically” cheering each consecutive pass. I knew I had enjoyed a few beers in the pre-match pre-amble, but what was all that about? I was to later learn that this pathetic sarcasm was aimed at Tiemoue Bakayoko.

That is just shocking.

I thought that the whole point of being a supporter was to support the team. Or is that a notion that is highly camouflaged these days too?

At the half-time whistle, there was much wailing. This had been, I hate to say it, a tepid game of football. Frustration among our support had increased as the game had continued. Willian and Pedro had tried their best to inject a little urgency into our game, but our play was so slow. Service to the isolated Batshuayi had been almost non-existent.

1984 And All That.

The highlight of the half-time break took place in the gents.

Let me rephrase that.

While everyone was grumbling about the ineffective performance on the pitch, I recognised a face from the past and the far-distant past at that.

“You’re Dave, aren’t you?”

“Hello, mate!”

Dave used to sit alongside Alan, Glenn, Leggo, Swan, Stamford, Rich, Simon, Mark and little old me in the back row of The Benches in 1983/1984 and 1984/1985. As memory serves, I last saw him at the away game in Barcelona in 2000, and – certainly – before that at the Luton Town semi-final at Wembley in 1994. It was fantastic to see him again. I walked him up to see Alan, who was sat a few yards away from us. We planned a get-together at the Leicester City game the following weekend. Be prepared for some “then and now” photographs.

The Second-Half.

The game continued. A few half-chances came and went, but our spirits were not flying high up in the sky. Norwich themselves threatened but Caballero’s goal was not really troubled. To his credit, Willian kept plugging away in that way of his, and although our general standard of play increased, we found it impossible to break through the massed ranks of yellow and green. The frustration was certainly growing with each passing minute and each failed attempt on goal. There was little creativity in our side without Cesc and Eden. I wondered if Danny and Tiemoue alongside each other was ever going to be conducive to wave after wave of Chelsea attacks. I wondered why Ampadu was on the bench. Questions, questions.

Antonio Conte made some late changes. On came Alvaro Morata for the luckless and listless Batshuayi. No doubt in the rows behind me, thankfully out of earshot, the moaners were up to their tricks. Charley Musonda took the place of Kenedy, who had struggled all game. The youngster injected some much needed enthusiasm to our play. I like the look of him. Zappacosta, of all people, went close as the game entered its death throes. In the last minute, Dujon Sterling made his debut in place of Pedro.

At the home of Colman’s, there was simply not enough time to see if Dujon looked mustard.

And on that note, I will call it a day.

The Post-Mortem.

We shuffled out of the stadium and into the night. Everyone around us had grim faces. We stopped off for a pint and a chat about the game that we had just endured. None of us like digging players out, but it had – no doubts – been a very poor game. It meant, of course, that there was yet another midweek game on the horizon. This should not be the cause of disapproval, but maybe – just maybe – all of these midweek flits to London are starting to take their toll. I am sure that I am not alone with these thoughts.

Maybe I should move to Pimlico.

The Drive South And West.

On the long drive home on Sunday morning – the skies clear of clouds, the weather magnificent – I inadvertently missed the turning for the M25 and ended-up on the North Circular, which added a few extra minutes to my travel time. To be honest, it was fine, and gave the passengers of The Chuckle Bus the chance to spot the new Tottenham stadium from a distance, and also Wembley – sitting proud and quite stunning on the top of that incline – and I wondered if my FA Cup journey would reach from Tavistock to the national stadium come May.