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.

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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.

 

Tales From Blue Crimbo At The Home Of The Holy Trinity

Everton vs. Chelsea : 23 December 2017.

With work finished for the year, and with a ten-day break to look forward to, most sane people would probably treat themselves to a little lie-in on the Saturday before Christmas. With my alarm ringing at 5am, I was soon reminded that sanity plays little part in the life of the foot soldiers of Chelsea’s away support. But this was an away trip that is right at the top of the list for me; not much comes close to Everton away. I can’t fathom why some in our support always deride Goodison Park. Admittedly the seats in the upper tier of the away stand are rather cramped, and there a few obtrusive roof supports, but I prefer its myriad of plus points.

There is surely much to admire. An historic stadium which has remained locked into a solidly working class environment from which our game was born. Two original Archibald Leitch stands, with the Bullens Road still maintaining the iconic cross-struts on the balcony. The Church of St. Luke’s still peeping from its corner between the shockingly huge main stand and the oddly-named Gwladys Street home end. The closeness of a few pubs. The walk along Goodison Road, full of hustle and bustle, one of the loveliest walks in football. The closeness of the pitch to the supporters. The teams coming onto the pitch to “Z Cars.” The sense that you are dipping into history.

There are two other personal stories which add an extra piquancy for me.

In around 1942, my father visited Goodison Park while undergoing training on an RAF base on The Wirral. It would be his only football game before he took me to Stamford Bridge in 1974.

In 1999, I took my then girlfriend’s son to his first-ever football game. It was a magnificent day and the nearest that I will ever get to taking a child of my own to a first-ever Chelsea game.

So, yeah – Goodison Park. It’s my favourite away stadium.

And still, hundreds of our supporters deride it as being a “shit hole.”

Get out you Philistines.

What are the alternatives? Of all the teams that are playing in England’s top division, we are bombarded with relatively bland new-builds.

Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Leicester City, Huddersfield Town, Brighton, Southampton, Stoke City, West Ham, Bournemouth and Swansea City.

There are a few stadia which have remained in situ, but with substantial changes in recent seasons involving three or four stands.

Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Watford, Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion.

There are two which have had changes to two of their four stands in the past twenty years.

Burnley and Crystal Palace.

And there is one which has experienced just one new stand over the past five decades.

Everton.

It is an anomaly in modern football, a reminder of a rich history, a simpler time, a reminder of my childhood, my youth, my footballing past. Once Everton eventually decamp to their planned new home over by the banks of the Mersey, I will feel rather sad.

I collected PD and Glenn in Frome at 6am, then zipped over to Parkyville to collect Lordy at 6.30am. Outside, there was nothing but darkness. We soon stopped for a breakfast at McChippenham.

Parky : “I’m bloody starving. I could eat a horse, and go back for the jockey.”

The other three had attended a Neville Staple concert in Frome the previous night, and they were all sleep-deficient. By the time I had hit the M5 just north of Bristol, two of the three were asleep. Day eventually broke at around 7.30am. I made good time on the well-travelled trip north despite long spells of fog. With Everton enjoying a little resurgence under Big Fat Sam and Little Fat Sammy, we all – reluctantly – agreed that we would be happy with a draw at Goodison. The league was City’s, we just needed to get our noses in front of United. I had heard that there was a fair few “spares” floating around for the game, and I immediately felt a twinge of guilt that I had not notified my mate Deano, a Chelsea fan who lives relatively close by, and who had visited Goodison with me in 2015. I wondered if he would be present. He doesn’t always get tickets for away games.

At bang on 10.30am, I snapped up one of the last “free” parking spaces on Utting Avenue which runs up to Anfield.

“Four and a half hours, boys. Happy with that.”

It was still misty. Visibility was only a few hundred yards. It added to the atmosphere, the old-time feel. I’m avoiding the use of the phrase “proper old school” in this match report, but it would certainly sum things up. On the walk to Goodison at the bottom of Stanley Park, the hulking mass of the new Anfield, only a quarter of a mile away, was lost in the mist. Glenn and I had an appointment at a nearby boozer, but after their dancing extravaganza of the previous night, it was as much that Parky and PD could do to simply reach Goodison.

“See you both inside.”

At about 11am, we walked into the “Thomas Frost” on Walton Road. It was a new away pub for me, and was full to the brim of both Everton and Chelsea supporters. Just inside the door was my mate Foxy and his dear mother. Foxy was visiting Liverpool as a fiftieth birthday present to himself. A Chelsea game was as good a reason as any to celebrate his birth.

I said to his mum “and it’s only right that you are here, because you were there too.”

And Foxy now had a personal Goodison memory of his own.

My father. His mother. Goodison. Perfect.

The pub was a typical “Wetherspoons”, large and impersonal, but with cheap beers. It was the first time that Foxy, Glenn and I had been together since our goodbyes in the hotel foyer in Shanghai in August. To celebrate, I supped at a lovely bottle of “Tsingtao”, clearly becoming one of my favourites. There were laughs with Foxy as there always are. He is off to Barcelona and I invited him to stay in our apartment. Happy days. In the Everton section of the boozer, I spotted many Christmas jumpers.

I cringed.

And to think that the cult of looking smart at football began in these pubs, these streets, these houses back in the late ‘seventies.

On the walk up to Goodison Park, we passed a few buildings which were clad in blue and clearly owned by Everton Football Club; a community centre, a school maybe? Perhaps their “school of science” moniker from their glory years wasn’t far off the mark.

“It’s just full of Bunsen burners, Foxy.”

I turned a corner and spotted a sign; “Everton Free School.”

What was I saying about a club locked into its local community?

At the Dixie Dean statue, I bid farewell to Glenn, Foxy and his Foxy mother, and departed on my own little circumnavigation of Goodison Park. I always like to do this, but did not have the time to do so before our euphoric 3-0 win last season. Ever few years, Everton give Goodison a proper spring-clean, and at the moment the main stand is clad in blue and with huge murals of some of their heroic number nines.

Joe Royle.

Graham Sharpe.

Dixie Dean.

Bob Latchford.

Dave Hickson.

Alex Young.

If I had my way, Tommy Lawton would have been featured too.

As ever, there is an Everton “timeline” which wraps its way around the stadium – or at least the three oldest stands – and this is well done, above the blue brick and turnstiles.

Recently, a friend – thanks Kev – mentioned to me that Alex Young (“The Golden Vision”, one of the lesser known Evertonians) was featured in an iconic film based on Everton Football Club from the ‘sixties. It’s a lovely little period piece, and features some great shots of old-time Goodison, plus the well-worn features of Brookside actor Bill Dean for good measure.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcAmE5GxGd0

I was quickly inside the Bullens Road after a quick security check. There was time for a chat with a few friends and the chance to wish them a “Merry Xmas.” Inside, I handed out a few Christmas cards. I need not have worried about Deano. Not only was he at the game, but he was sat right next to Parky, just two seats away from me.

“Chelsea World is a very small world – part 687.”

There were a few empty seats dotted around. Christmas shopping doesn’t get done by itself, does it?

I spotted that there were blue and white Chelsea Santa hats draped on every seat.

I groaned.

I am just bloody glad that the vast majority of the three-thousand away supporters chose not to wear them. Imagine if every single one of us wore them.

Three thousand Santa hats.

“Is this what it has come to?”

For. Fuck. Sake.

With Michy Batshuayi not chosen, this was another chance for the three amigos of Hazard, Pedro and Willian to harass, pester and worry the statuesque Evertonian defenders Phil Jagielka and Michael Keane.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

I still struggle with us not having a focal point for our attacks. I wonder what Bob Latchford is doing these days. We were surprised that Wayne Rooney was not playing. Upfront, Allardyce chose Lennon but there was no McCartney alongside him. Instead there was the much-admired youngster Calvert-Lewin and the silky Sigurdsson, who must be rueing his transfer to Everton, now that Allardyce and his “hoof it” tactics have replaced the more “school of science” approach of Ronald Koeman.

The mist still hung in the air. Ah, this was perfect. It had been a brilliant day thus far; all I would ever want from an away day in 2017. We waited for the game to start.

“Z Cars” heralded the two teams.

First thoughts : “God, that off-white kit of ours gets worse every fucking time I see it.”

Second thoughts : “Both teams are wearing white shorts. Brian Moore would be turning in his grave.”

At 12.30pm, the game kicked-off.

On the TV screens were the motif “#Blue Crimbo.”

We certainly dominated the early moments, buoyed by a beer-addled away support. The home fans were typically muted. We looked to play the ball in early to the front three, and Pedro was the first to threaten the Everton goal at the Gwladys Street, now named in remembrance of Howard Kendall, one of the Holy Trinity.

On ten minutes, we could hardly believe our eyes as a shot from Tiemoue Bakayoko and then Willian had shots cleared off the line by the old war horse Jagielka in quick succession. It would prove to be symbolic of the entire game. On several occasions in the first-half, we chose to hit a long diagonal to Marcos Alonso on the left, but his first touch was often lazy and laboured. I was begging for a first time cross to be whipped in.

“Here for the Chelsea, you’re only here for the Chelsea.”

This was a solid performance from us, and Bakayoko was working well with N’Golo Kante. Everton rarely threatened, despite the space that Sigursson found on a number of occasions. Everyone was defending well. Surely a goal would come.

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

Victor Moses, the quieter of the two wing-backs, was fouled just outside the box. We waited for Willian to strike. Over it went. Bollocks.

We faded a little on the half-hour mark and Tom Davies – why do I like it that he plays with his socks hallway down his shins? – was able to pick up a ball, drive through midfield but his shot was wide. It was then Bakayoko’s chance to run from midfield. He strode right through the Everton half and passed to Pedro. I admired the lovely shape as he smacked the ball goal wards, but Jordan Pickford palmed over.

Just before half-time, Andreas Christensen uncharacteristically lost possession in front of the towering main stand and we watched, no doubt worried, as Calvert-Lewin drove into our box. He stalled, unsure of what to do, and the ever-reliable Azpilicueta blocked.

At the break, we were a little frustrated not to have broken the deadlock. After a little noise at the start, everything had died a little. I could not remember a song in praise or anger from the Evertonians the entire half. We could hardly believe that Big Sam had decided to take off the midfielder Davies in place of the bulky defender Williams. It seemed to re-enforce his battle plan.

Soon into the second-half, Pickford was soon called into action, saving well from a drive from Eden. The rebound fell to Alonso but Williams hacked it away.

The sun had now burned the mist away, but the only sunny part of the Goodison Park pitch was the Chelsea penalty area. We watched as Thibaut looked rather concerned as he shielded the sun from his eyes. He came for a cross from a rare Everton foray, confidently punched, and we heaved a huge sigh of relief.

We dominated fully now. Everton’s answer to receiving the ball from a clearance or a miss-placed pass was to simply hoof the ball up and away. I looked over at the Evertonians in the Park End and wondered how much of this they could stomach.

Eden Hazard was at the centre of everything. His change of pace, his slight of foot, his acceleration, his awareness of others was simply sensational.

Cesc Fabregas replaced Pedro. There was a slight change in shape.

I was a little annoyed with both wing backs. I spoke to Gary :

“Both Alonso and Moses seem to take forever to get going once they have the bloody ball. Zappacosta, who is not as good a player, at least gets out of the traps pretty damn quick.”

Hazard forced another excellent save from Pickford in the Everton goal. This was turning into “one of those games.”

With twenty minutes of the second-half gone, the locals behind the goal at last erupted in song. I almost feinted.

“EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TON. EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TOOOON. EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TON. EV-ER-TON. EV-ER-TON.”

Next home game, I hear that they are going to attempt to master four fucking syllables.

Michy Batshuayi replaced Willian, and was warmly applauded. The Chelsea support, to our immense credit, have not turned on him, and we realised that he might well turn out to be our saviour. His first fine touch was cheered by all.

“COME ON MICHY, SON.”

A Moses cross was headed – THUMP – against his own bar by Williams. This was just typical of our luck all day. I lost count of the number of crosses or shots which were deflected wide or over or blocked by a loose leg.

With the last throw of the dice, Zappacosta replaced Moses. One of his first crosses was sliced high into 2018.

A Rudiger strike went straight down Pickford’s throat. A daisy-cutter from Cesc was deflected away for a corner.

“How the fuckitty fuck have we not scored in this game?”

Then.

There is always a then.

An Everton corner from where the Bullens Road meets the Gwladys Street.

“Here we fucking go.”

Our nerves jangled. Our buttocks tightened. Our heartbeat increased.

A Sigurdsson corner evaded everyone apart from the head of Keane, who rose – nobody near him, for heaven’s sake – but thankfully thumped his header way over the bar.

There was a collective and profound sigh to be heard in both tiers of the away end.

Despite an added four minutes, our attacks petered out. At the final whistle, we were silent. There were no boos, and not a great deal of cheer either. As the players and manager came towards us, I heard a good level of support and that cheered me. Parky and I soon made our way out and waited for PD and Glenn to join us.

We were as philosophical as ever.

“We had said we would have been content with a point.”

“With just a little more luck, we would have won that two or three naught.”

“How awful were Everton, though?”

We hot-footed back to the car and were soon on our way south.

At Stafford, we stopped for some much-needed scran, and I was able to drive on, refuelled and replenished. We listened to the radio intermittently. An away win for Tottenham was met with subdued moans. The events at Leicester City were left to unfold by themselves; I simply did not have the stomach for it. The radio was turned off.

I eventually reached home at 9pm.

I clicked-on the TV.

Leicester City 2 Manchester United 2.

Ha.

“As you were boys.”

We are now at the halfway stage in our league season. Back in August, I predicted a championship win for Manchester City, with United finishing in second place and us in third. I think I predicted Spurs to finish fourth. As it stands, Chelsea will be right in the mix for an automatic CL berth, but I honestly think that we can pip United to second place. In one hundred and twelve years, we have only bettered that on six occasions. Sometimes it is perfectly fine to come second.

See you all on Boxing Day.

 

Tales From The Chuckle Bus

Chelsea vs. Swansea City : 29 November 2017.

After thousands of miles of travel for away games against West Brom, Qarabag and Liverpool, Chelsea Football Club were now due to play three consecutive home matches within the space of just seven days. The first of this little stretch of games was against Paul Clement’s ailing Swansea City. After this midweek match, pushing us on in to the month of December, there would be a further nine matches; it would be one of our busiest months. Beginning with this Swansea City game at Stamford Bridge, there seemed to be a line of eight league games which were – on paper, if not grass – definitely “winnable.”

I’ll be honest here. I was hoping for a vast haul of points from these encounters against teams which were mainly in the lower-half of the table.

Could we win every one? Possibly. Quite possibly.

At 2pm, I left work. I had been awake since 5am, and at work since 6am. It would be a long day for me. Five minutes later, I was sat in the pub opposite with PD and Lord Parky, waiting for Glenn to join us, who had also left work at two o’clock. Outside, the weather was bitterly cold; the coldest of the season thus far. After enjoying a pint of Peroni – “cheers, Parky” – and a bite to eat, PD steered The Chuckle Bus towards the M4. We left Melksham at around 3pm. On the drive to London, I thankfully grabbed an hour of sleep.

We were parked up at around 5.15pm.

Coats on. We were all layered-up.

I headed off to Stamford Bridge to meet up with a couple of folk. Outside the megastore, Eric – who I first met at our game in Ann Arbor in Michigan last summer – was waiting for me. Eric had just arrived in London from Toronto and this would be his first ever game at Stamford Bridge. It was lovely to see him again. His smile was wide and I gave him a hug. There is a gaggle of people that I know from the Toronto Blues, and I had promised myself that I would give Eric a little tour before we joined up with the boys in the boozer.

[ For those who have been reading these match reports for a while now, you can be excused if you decide to skip the next few paragraphs. I always tend to point out the same selection of sights for the many first time visitors who it has been my absolute pleasure to show around Stamford Bridge. ]

I retraced some very familiar steps.

We started under The Shed Wall, and there was a brief re-cap of the stadium redevelopment, and then up to the Copthorne Hotel where I met up with my good friend Gill. We had sadly arrived just after the former-players who now take care of hospitality at Chelsea had departed. I was hoping to get a few photos of Eric with some of our most famous names.

“Maybe next time, Eric.”

I pointed out the “Butcher’s Hook” – aka “The Rising Sun” – where our club was formed in 1905 and we strolled down past the stalls on the Fulham Road. I spotted friends Michelle and Dane tucking in to some pie, mash and liquor outside a food stall by the Oswald Stoll Buildings; this is a new feature, I must give that a go one day soon. We purposefully avoided the grafters selling “half and half scarves”. We stopped off at the programme stall outside the tube station which is manned by my friend Steve – who only lives ten miles away from me in Evercreech in Somerset – and we flicked through a few of his vintage programmes. I told Eric how I dropped off a few boxes of programmes at his house a few years back, and I was dumbstruck with the amount of Chelsea memorabilia that he had stored in his double-garage; floor to ceiling shelves, just ridiculous. In my youth I used to collect Chelsea programmes – my oldest one dates back to 1947, the days of Tommy Lawton – but I only buy home programmes these days. I have no double-garage to store stuff, though I wish I did. We crossed the road and chatted to DJ, Mark and Tim at the CFCUK stall. I spoke about the nearby Fulham Town Hall, where the cup celebrations of 1970 and 1971 took place, and also how we joined in with the joyous celebrations of 1997 – and to a much lesser extent, 2000 – with thousands of other Chelsea fans at the junction of Fulham Road and Vanston Place. We peered down the now disused “match-day overflow” exit steps of the old red-bricked Fulham Broadway tube station and personal memories came flooding back. I pointed out the many pubs and bars which cluster around our home. Past “The Broadway Bar & Grill”, past “McGettigans” and past “The Elk Bar”. These are three bars that we seldom ever use to be honest. Our little tour stopped at “Simmons Bar” just a few doors down from “The Cock Tavern.”

Inside, The Chuckle Brothers were crowded around our usual table. I quickly introduced Eric to the boys.

I had joked that for one night only, Eric would be an honorary Chuckle Brother.

“Two pints of Estrella please, mate.”

My mates warmly welcomed Eric to the fold. There were laughs – chuckles – aplenty.

Eric’s ticket was just a few blocks away from us in The Sleepy Hollow. He is going to the other two games in our home stand too, and has tickets in three separate stands as he wanted to experience different views and perspectives. I warned him that the atmosphere against Swansea would be, in all probability, pretty dire.

Sadly, I am unable to go to the away game at Huddersfield Town in a fortnight; my friend Daryl was looking for a ticket. I was very happy to oblige.

Eric needed me to clarify something.

“How come the Chuckle Brothers don’t wear Chelsea shirts?”

My first thoughts were :

“Where to start? So much to say in so little time.”

I briefly gave a potted history of the cult-with-no-name (Liverpool 1977, the end of the skinheads, the wedge, my personal epiphany during season 1983/84, fighting and fashion, the waxing and waning of certain labels, the whole nine yards) and Eric lapped it all up. As we were set to leave, I pointed out someone a few yards away tying an Aquascutum scarf around his neck before setting off for the match.

“You’ll see that scarf a lot at Chelsea over the next week.”

The chat continued as Alan, Eric and I walked past a few coffee shops along Jerdan Place.

The weather was bitter.

Outside the West Stand, a Chelsea Christmas tree dominated the scene. The West Stand was lit up with thousands of white lights.

“Bloody hell, was it a year ago that we were met with this same view?”

I made sure Eric bought a match programme for his first game at HQ. I also made sure that I captured his first sighting of the inside of Stamford Bridge. Inside, there was another photo with the Chuckle Brothers in The Sleepy Hollow. I was keen to hear of Eric’s first thoughts, and almost drowned in a tide of “awesome overload”.

Bless.

The teams entered the pitch and Eric took his place in Block 11 of the Matthew Harding, no more than twenty yards away. Over in the far corner, there were gaps among the Swansea City support. I suspect they brought around one thousand.

The first meaningful moment of the evening was heart-wrenchingly sad.

The players assembled in the centre-circle to remember the former Chelsea youth team coach Dermot Drummy who had tragically passed away at the age of fifty-six on Monday. Dermot was well-loved at Stamford Bridge. He was particularly friendly with my friend Gill, who has followed the young lads for many seasons.

Rest In Peace Dermot Drummy.

The home programme also remembered the sad passing of Allan Harris, who passed away on 23 November. I wondered if his loss would be remembered on Saturday.

It had been a busy pre-match for me.

I quickly checked the team, which was aligned in the 3-4-3 of last season. I like it that Antonio can change it around.

Courtois

Rudiger – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Pedro

So, there was a rest for both Cesar Azpilicueta and Eden Hazard. I wondered what the future holds for David Luiz. I will certainly be sad if he moves on. He is one of those characters that divides opinion but last season he was exemplary, proving many “experts” wrong. But Andreas Christensen has excelled this season; he does not deserve to be dropped.

The game began. Despite many spares floating around on the internet, there were not as many empty seats dotted around that I had feared. Coats and jackets were worn buttoned to the chin. It was shockingly cold.

An early shout of “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” soon petered out and the noise levels were indeed as low as I had expected.

Sigh.

We dominated possession and were well on top. Swansea City, in all Welsh red, rarely struck more than a few passes together. Their recent halcyon days under Brendan Rodgers and then Michael Laudrup seem distant. A shot from an angle by Alonso was deflected over. Willian then spun a free-kick in from over by the East Stand and it curled just past the far post, evading everybody. It was Willian who looked the busiest of our players in the opening period, though we were soon treated to a few Duracell Bunny escapades up the right flank from Davide Zappacosta. A header from Morata here, a blocked shot there. On many occasions in the first-half, the final ball from the right flank – from either Willian or Zappacosta or Fabregas was aimed at Morata on the far post, but there was neither pinpoint accuracy nor the required numbers in the box to guide the ball home. On a couple of occasions, the ball flashed untouched across the six-yard box. The best move of the entire first-half was just wonderful; Andreas Christensen harnessed the ball under his control down below us, then played a crisp ball out to N’Golo Kante. A few one-touch passes worked the ball out to the waiting Marcos Alonso on the left, before more crisp passing moved the ball out to the right flank. The resultant cross – typically – just evaded Morata’s leap.

Midway through the first-half, apart from the chant for the manager at the start, there had not been a single coherent song from the home support. I wondered what Eric made of it.

A lovely cushioned effort from Morata, meeting a cross on the volley, drew a reflex save from Fabianski. It reminded me – kinda – of Fernando Torres’ goal at Arsenal in 2012.

Down below us, Thibaut Courtois popped behind the goal at the Matthew Harding and borrowed a pen from a Chelsea supporter, and then pulled out a word search paperback from his kitbag. He leaned against the near post and set to work, occasionally flicking the pen up and down to get the ink flowing on this coldest of evenings.

After only ten minutes, I spotted him punch the air and throw the book back into his net.

Another one nailed. Good work Thibaut.

At the other end, Alonso reached row ZZ of The Shed Upper.

As the half-continued, I lost count of the number of balls that were zipped in by Zappacosta and whipped in by Willian but alas no goal was forthcoming. One cross appeared to be deflected behind by a Swansea City player but a goal-kick was signalled by referee Neil Swarbrick. Over on the far touchline, there was a melee (the word “melee” is surely only used in football reportage) and Antonio Conte was sent-off, presumably for dissent.

Oh great.

Angelo Alessio took over the work of the manager in the technical area.

I mentioned to Alan that the same Alessio played, and scored, in the very first Juventus match that I witnessed in person, just over thirty years ago. I wish that I had realised this when I briefly chatted to the very pleasant Alessio at the Chelsea hotel in Beijing in July.

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

I never tire of how football keeps providing odd little moments like this; watching Juve high on the Curva Maratona in November 1987, I would never have thought that the relatively unknown midfielder would, for an hour, be coaxing my beloved Chelsea from the touchline in 2017.

At the half-time whistle, we wondered if Thibaut had even touched the ball with his hands.

We thought not.

On another day, Morata would have already had a hat-trick ball in his possession.

During the break, a lovely moment. Neil Barnett introduced Paul Canoville, recovering now from a worrying health-scare, and he looked blown over by the reception. In 1983/84, Canners scored a hat-trick against Swansea at Stamford Bridge. A few photographs were inevitable.

After my comments about 1983/84 to Eric, I was pleased to see that the season was featured at length in the evening’s programme.

Soon into the second-half, at last a concerted Chelsea song, to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

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

After a fine set-up by that man Willian, Pedro repeated Alonso’s effort in the first-half and shot wildly over.

With ten minutes of the second-half gone, a short corner on our right was played square to Kante. Every Swansea City player was positioned within their penalty box and his fierce shot, not surprisingly hit a Swans defender. The ball was deflected on, and Toni Rudiger was well placed to head home.

His celebrations down in our corner – especially for Eric, ha – were undeniably euphoric.

Get in.

Alan – “They’ll have to come at us now, boyo.”

Chris – “Come on my little diamonds, bach.”

I got the impression that Morata was missing his usual partner Hazard, but an Osgood-esque header forced a fine save from Fabianski, who was by far the busiest goalkeeper. The game continued, and we had occasional shots on goal. We needed a second to settle the nerves, but our finishing seemed sub-standard. There was just something about us that didn’t seem right; but, as Alan said, maybe the three away games were having an effect. The supporters hardly made a peep the entire night; something was amiss there, too.

Throughout, Kante and Christensen were exceptional. I liked Willian’s efforts. Without Eden, he was our spark, our catalyst.

Thibaut at last had one save to make.

The night grew colder, the noise faded.

Victor Moses replaced Zappacosta, then Drinkwater and Hazard replaced Willian and Pedro.

There was the slightest of responses from the visitors. A cross from substitute Routledge should have tested us, but it drifted past the far post. Make no mistake about it, Swansea City had been dire all night long. In the circumstances, despite an average showing from us, we could have won 4-0 or 5-0.

Swansea City were that bad.

On the way out, one phrase dominated.

“We made fucking hard work of that.”

The Chuckle Brothers feasted on late night treats on the North End Road – ah the simple pleasure of hot food. However, the news of a late late winner for Manchester City brought collective groans. I would love our consecutive win streak from this time last year to remain for a few years yet.

Sadly, the trip home was a nightmare. Closures of the M4 forced The Chuckle Bus onto the M3, but that had closures too. We were pushed onto the M25, then through diversion signs and onto the southerly A3. Eventually, after skirting Guildford – yes really – we found ourselves back on the M3 and then the A303. Even that bloody road had a small diversion at Andover. I tried to grab some sleep, but gloriously failed.

PD eventually reached the pub car park at 1.30am and, after de-frosting my car, I reached home at the unearthly time of 2am.

I would be up again at 5am.

Midweek football. I bloody love it.

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Tales From The Arkles

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 25 November 2017.

This was our third away game in just eight days. After visits to the Black Country and Azerbaijan, it was now the turn of Merseyside. With a tea-time kick-off at 5.30pm, I was able to enjoy the luxury of a little lie-in before driving the Chuckle Bus north. I collected PD, then Glenn, then Parky. The weather worsened as we headed north on the M5 and then the M6. This would be my twenty-third trip to Anfield with Chelsea. Bizarrely, it would be my first-ever trip with Glenn, my oldest Chelsea mate. His last visit to Anfield was way back in November 1985; that famous 1-1 draw, with 1,000 Rangers fans in their own special section on the Kemlyn Road. On that occasion, he traveled-up from Somerset with the Yeovil supporters on their coach. I had arrived by train from Stoke. We had both been at the game in May 1985 too. Again, he traveled up by coach from Frome and I trained it from my college town.

…all those years ago…we were only twenty and eighteen…yet here we were, repeating the same steps in 2017.

We had parked-up on Utting Avenue, that wide road which shoots off from the city’s ring road, Queens Drive, to the Anfield citadel at the top of the hill. We were headed for “The Arkels” – one of the most famous “away pubs” on our travels with Chelsea – where I had arranged to meet up with a few chaps. There was not the wicked wind of Baku, but it was still a cold afternoon. The rain had momentarily stopped, but a Turner-esque storm cloud was looming in the distance, the fading yellow sun offering a last blast of light as the night fell.

I was reminded of a photograph that I took of the same pub after my very first visit to Anfield in that May 1985 game, which ended with a 4-3 win for the reigning league champions.

The same pub, thirty-two years apart.

We slipped inside “The Arkels” at around 3.15pm. It was frantically busy. It is not an “away fans only” pub – both Liverpool and Chelsea fans rubbed shoulders, but it was the away fans making all of the noise. The landlord welcomed the away fans to his boozer using a microphone.

“Enjoy your visit lads, sing some songs, but please don’t stand on the furniture.”

Although things often used to get a little tense at Liverpool over the years, this particular pub is always welcoming. The locals watched with strained ambivalence as the Chelsea lads sang song after song. I am not convinced that United fans are given equal billing as us. A little gaggle of lads from our home area were already there and The Chuckle Brothers joined them. I spotted my mate Rob and also three good pals from the US. Brian from Chicago was back from his travels to Baku and he was joined by J12 and his wife, and also Cruzer and his wife and daughter.

J12, Jenny, Cruzer, Abigail and Ava all live in Los Angeles.

From La La Land to La Land.

We were in the little room to the left of the bar. It brought back a memory from January 1992 where, on my first ever visit to “The Arkels”, I had found myself drinking at the exact same table. I retold the events of that day to the visitors from across the pond.

I’d like to think that it is worth sharing again here.

I was with my old school mate Francis for the Liverpool versus Chelsea game and it would be a seismic weekend for him; a Liverpool fan, this would be his first ever visit. On the Friday night, we had stayed with friends – my college mate Pete and his Evertonian wife Maxine – and then enjoyed a couple of beers in a local pub on the Saturday lunchtime before setting off for the ground. I already had my ticket, procured during the previous few weeks direct from Chelsea. In those days, I am sure that you could show your membership card at Stamford Bridge, pay your money, and get handed an away ticket. No internet. No loyalty points. It was as easy as that. On the previous Wednesday, Liverpool had beaten Arsenal and – all of a sudden – had found themselves back in the hunt for the league championship behind Manchester United and Leeds United. Francis, Pete and I were dropped off near Anfield at around 2.15pm; the plan was for Pete and Francis to stand on The Kop.

However, the streets around Anfield were milling with people. Bizarrely, we bumped into an old college acquaintance – a Scouser with the unforgettable name of Johnny Fortune – and our heart sank when he barked at Pete with incredulity :

“The Kop’s full.”

I could hardly believe it either. Our plans had been hit by a wave of optimism by the Liverpool fans, enticed to Anfield in vast numbers after the midweek win. Not a spare ticket was to be had anywhere.

“Bollocks.”

Without dwelling on it, I quickly thrust my ticket for the away section in the Anfield Road into Francis’ hands.

“Take it.”

There was no way that I was going to allow Francis to miss out on his first ever Anfield game. Fran was almost stuck for words, but I shooed him away and told him to enjoy the match. Pete and I, once we had realised that there was no way in for us, retreated back to “The Arkels”, where we took our seats in the same corner where we were standing and sitting in 2017, drank a lager apiece and half-halfheartedly watched an England rugby international.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry when the news came through that Vinnie Jones had put Chelsea ahead. Liverpool then equalised. With half-time approaching, Pete and I finished our pints and walked past the Kemlyn Road Stand and found ourselves on the Walton Breck Road behind The Kop. The idea was to get some chips. At the half-time whistle, we suddenly noticed that one gate behind The Kop was opened and several – ten, maybe fifteen – Liverpool fans exited the stadium, crossed the road, bought some chips, then returned back inside the stadium.

Pete looked at me. I looked at Pete. No words were needed. We approached the gate. For those who knew the old Anfield, the gate was by the ship’s mast, in the south-west corner. Pete knocked on the gate.

“Alright, lads?”

In we went. In we fucking went. We silently ascended the steps and soon found ourselves among 15,000 Scousers on The Kop. I looked at Pete, smirking.

“Fucking get in.”

Anfield was not a friendly place, neither on nor off the pitch. And here I was, stood right among the enemy on the famous Kop. On the pitch, our form at Anfield was shocking. Save for a lone F.A. Cup win at Anfield in around 1965, Chelsea had not won at the home of Liverpool Football Club since 1937.

Yep, that’s right : 1937.

Fifty-five sodding years.

I watched from The Kop and Francis, the Liverpool fan, watched from the Chelsea section as a Dennis Wise goal gave us a 2-1 win. When Dennis scored, a low shot from an angle, my heart exploded but I – of course – stayed silent. What indescribable joy. We even missed a late penalty too. The locals were far from happy. I can remember one grizzled old chap spitting out a few words of consternation:

“Come on Liverpool. We can beat dese. It’s only Chelsea.”

Inside, I purred with happiness. And I was, deep down, supremely happy to have stood on the old Kop – even though it only amounted to only forty-five minutes – before it was bulldozed two years later.

At the end of the game, Pete and I raced around to meet up with Francis by the Shankly Gates and my first words were –

“We got in.”

I think it is very safe to say that Francis was very relieved.

“Our first win since 1937 and we got in for free.”

Ironically, in the circumstances, Francis had thoroughly enjoyed himself despite his team’s loss. He commented that the Chelsea fans never stopped singing, never stopped cheering. On more than one occasion, he found himself singing along too; I guess that he was caught up in the emotion of it all. One Chelsea supporter kissed him when Wisey scored. Also – fantastic this – Fran was deeply moved by Micky Greenaway’s urging of fellow fans to get behind the team with his demonic “Zigger Zagger” chant as he walked back and forth. It had been, Francis exclaimed, an incredible afternoon.

The years have flown past since.

I limited myself to two pints of San Miguel, sadly served in plastic glasses. The pub was bouncing with noise from around thirty Chelsea youngsters in the far room. I shared another couple of other stories with the US visitors. I told how my father had watched his only game of football – that is, before his trip to Chelsea with me in 1974 – during his WW2 training on The Wirral at Goodison Park, the equally impressive stadium at the bottom of Stanley Park, no more than a fifteen-minute walk away. I then whispered to J12 and Jenny about that infamous aspect of football on The Kop which the locals termed “a hotleg.”

The pub was thinning out. I re-joined The Chuckle Brothers in the back bar. A few idiots were standing on the sofas. At about 4.45pm, we set off, past the four of five police vans parked right outside the boozer.

I remembered how I had shaken hands with the then England manager Fabio Capello before our 2007 CL semi-final as we crossed the road, past the souvenir stalls, past the tight terraced streets.

The Kemlyn Stand of 1985 became the Centenary Stand in 1992. It is now the Kenny Dalglish Stand in 2017. There is now a car park behind the Anfield Road, where once there were houses, and only just recently a fan-zone. There are, I believe, plans to enlarge Anfield further at this end.

Inside, the Chelsea team were already on the pitch, going through their drills.

The team?

A very solid 3-5-2.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Drinkwater – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Hazard – Morata

The three in the middle – the former Leicester City champions plus the new boy Tiemoue – were chosen to dampen the threat of Liverpool’s attacking options. The creativity would have to come from Eden Hazard.

“No pressure.”

The minutes ticked by. A large flag floated over the heads of the Scousers in the lower tier to my left. No end of flags and banners waved in The Kop.

A bittersweet flag – “Iron Lady” – caught my eye. It honoured the memory of the late Anne Williams and her relentless fight for justice after her son Kevin was killed at Hillsborough in 1989.

Thankfully, I am pleased to report only a very short blast of the loathsome “Murderers” chant from the away section all day.

The teams entered the pitch.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

I expected a lot more noise. It was four times as loud at the infamous Champions League encounter in 2005; that match had, I am sure, the loudest atmosphere at any game that I have witnessed in the UK.

To my immediate right, a Chelsea banner was held aloft. A blue flare was set off and the smoke drifted up towards the mountainous new main stand to my right.

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

Philippe Coutinho kicked-off.

Game on.

As so often happens, Liverpool dominated the first twenty minutes. Every game at Anfield seems to start in this fashion. Yet they rarely score. This game was no different. In previous seasons, it is so often Coutinho who impresses, but it was Mo Salah who caught the eye. His nimble footwork seemed to dazzle me, if not our defenders, who were more than able to close him down and stop him making a killer pass to others.

A few Liverpool passes zipped into our box, but we defended well, without any signs of panic or concern.

As the minutes ticked by, I gazed up at the rather old-fashioned scoreboard – no flashy TV screens at Anfield, nor Old Trafford – and commented to Gary :

“Over the years, I don’t think I have consistently watched the time pass on a scoreboard more than the one here.”

Gary agreed.

Tick tock, tick tock.

Liverpool struggled to make any real progress despite having much of the ball. At the other end, Eden began a dribble into a danger zone which was eerily similar to his goal at the end of the 2015/2016 season. A shot from outside the box similarly followed. On this occasion, Mignolet scrambled the ball away for a corner. Not so long after, a simply sublime 180 degree turn on a sixpence and a trademark dribble set up Danny Drinkwater, who could not quite get enough of the ball as Mignolet raced out.

Elsewhere, there were mixed performances. Sadly, Bakayoko really struggled to get in to the game at all. Davide Zappacosta seemed a little overawed. But Andreas Christensen was cool and magnificent. N’Golo Kante was N’Golo Kante; enough said. Hazard was the star though. He was on fire. There were a few Hazard and Morata link-ups, but nothing like at West Brom the previous Saturday.

Eden then set up Zappacosta with a teasing lay-off reminiscent of Pele and Carlos Alberto for Brazil in 1970. Unfortunately, the Italian’s rising shot was palmed over. From the corner which followed, an almighty scramble resulted – penalty box pinball – and there were a few swipes at the Liverpool goal without an end result.

For the record, Daniel Sturridge was having a very quiet game. It is hard to believe that he was a Chelsea non-playing substitute on that night in Munich. How things change.

A free-kick from Alonso flew past a post.

Just before the break, that man Salah shimmied, and curled one just past Courtois’ far post. It had me worried, anyway. It was Liverpool’s only worthwhile effort thus far.

At the break, Glenn shouted up to me from row two.

“We won’t lose this.”

“Nah.”

Hazard tangled with James Milner – the world’s most tedious footballer – on the edge of the box. No decision from Oliver the referee.

Oliver had given us a laugh when he had slipped and stumbled on the halfway line. The Chelsea choir did not waste much time.

“Are you Gerrard in disguise?”

Generally, though, the crowd were quiet. The home fans especially. And although everyone on The Kop was standing, as were the Chelsea fans, the Liverpool fans alongside us in the Annie Road were seated quietly.

Sigh. The lack of noise genuinely surprised me.

Sturridge had a weak effort in front of The Kop. Liverpool had begun better in the second period, but the raiding Zappacosta put in a couple of testing crosses from the right. No Chelsea player was able to connect, save for a ball which bobbled up on to Morata’s chest and flew wide.

“John Terry would have scored that.”

He loved a chest pass, did JT.

Courtois saved well in front of The Kop.

Away to our right, Antonio asked Willian, Fabregas and Rudiger to warm up.

On sixty-five minutes, Liverpool worked the ball in to our box and an attempted clearance from Bakayoko only teed up Oxlade-Chamberlain who touched the ball to Salah.

That horrible moment when you just bloody well know that a goal will be conceded.

“Bollocks.”

Salah guided the ball past Thibaut.

“Bollocks.”

To his credit, our former player did not celebrate.

After an age, Conte made a change. We struggled to work out why it was Drinkwater and not the very poor Bakayoko who was replaced by Fabregas. However, a lot more creativity immediately warmed us. Morata suddenly looked livelier. A few wonderful passes almost paid off.

Pedro replaced Tiemoue.

Tick tock, tick tock.

We stepped it up. I kept saying to the lad with a Mancunian accent to my left –

“We’ll get a goal.”

The away support was warmed by our increased urgency. Another cross from Zappacosta was zipped in. Right in front of me, Alonso met the ball at knee height with a volley. I snapped my camera as his effort flew over. It could have been the best goal that he would ever score. It could have been the best photograph that I would ever take. In the end, both shots were consigned to the delete folder.

Sigh.

With seven minutes remaining, Willian replaced Zappacosta. We kept pushing, with Hazard and Fabregas the main assailants. The Chelsea support roared the team on.

With five minutes to go, Willian received the ball in the inside-right channel. He had a man outside, but pushed on. He chose to send over a teaser towards the far post. The ball seemed to hang in the air for ever. I watched, mesmerized, by the spinning ball. It fell out of the night sky, above the clawing hand of Mignolet, and into the top corner of the goal. As it rippled the net, some nameless photographer at The Kop end snapped his camera.

My mouth is open. My eyes are wide.

No words are necessary.

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Pandemonium in the Annie Road.

GETINYOUFUCKER.

A scream and a shout. Arms everywhere. I clambered onto my seat – “please do not stand on the furniture” – and caught the blissful celebrations just yards away. What a moment. The goal was nothing more than we deserved.

In the final moments, a magnificent save from Courtois from Salah was met with thunderous applause.

The final whistle blew.

It was our third consecutive 1-1 at Anfield.

I suppose we should have no complaints, but I cannot help but think that if the game had continued for another five minutes, we would have found a winner from somewhere.

It had taken forever to drive up to Anfield – a few minutes’ shy of five hours – and it took an equally long time to retrace our steps. There was slow-moving traffic on Queens Drive, heavy rain on the M6, and a 50 miles per hour speed limit too.

At a Balti House in West Bromwich, we enjoyed some curries while watching our game on “Match Of The Day.”

“Willian, did you mean to shoot?”

“Of course.”

We weren’t so sure.

After setting off at 9.45am, I was back home at 2am. It wasn’t as far as Azerbaijan, but bloody hell it felt like it.

On Wednesday, we return home to Stamford Bridge to play Swansea City.

See you there.

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Tales From The High Ground

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 18 November 2017.

This would be my twelfth visit to The Hawthorns with Chelsea. My first was in January 1986, a second one came in April 1989 but the third visit was not until March 2003. There have certainly been more frequent visits in recent years since their promotion in 2006. For many seasons, it was my closest away venue. It was known as our manager’s graveyard, but then we had the emotion and celebrations of last May. What a stunning night that was. Just like Grimsby and Bolton – to say nothing of Athens, Stockholm, Monaco, Munich and Amsterdam – it is a ground that will surely be remembered fondly within our ranks for ever. Seemingly random away stadia now intrinsically linked to Chelsea Football Club. Let’s hope that there will be many more in the years to come.

The Hawthorns sits on a piece of grey urban land, hemmed in on all sides by industrial and retail units, with red-bricked houses to the south beneath the angled floodlight pylons of the trim and compact stadium, and the growling M5 motorway only a few hundred yards to the west, thus cutting it off – in essence – from the town of West Bromwich, whose small municipal centre sits farther west still. On match days, the Chelsea support is split. Those travelling up by train from London tend to shelter in pubs and bars within the shadows of Birmingham’s New Street train station. Those propelling themselves under their own steam tend to aim for two venues just off the M5. For ever and a day we have parked at the Park Inn, along with many other Chelsea fans. It is conveniently close to The Hawthorns; only a fifteen-minute walk away. This year, we fancied a change.

A few years back we met up with the London contingent in the Birmingham city centre. The plan on this day in November 2017 was to do the same; to meet up with Alan, Gary and others including J12 from Los Angeles in The Briar Rose. However, as the traffic slowed at around 11am and the heavens opened, we decided on a change of plan. Rather than risk getting soaked on the walk to The Hawthorns train station to whip us in to Brum, we decided to come up with a Plan B. For the first-ever time, we decided to try the second of the two venues much-beloved by the Chelsea away contingent; The Vine pub, no more than a quarter of a mile from both the Park Inn and the stadium alike.

We were suitably impressed. We were in the pub at 11.30am. Beers were ordered. In addition to being a drinker’s pub – home and away fans mixed with no hint of bother – it has already earned a reputation for serving excellent food, and curries are their forte. While PD and Lord Parky supped some lagers, Glenn disappeared off to get himself some chicken tikka.

The idea of curry in the morning didn’t thrill me I have to say.

A fair few friends appeared over the next few hours. Brian, one of the oft-mentioned Bristol Posse, was celebrating his two-thousandth Chelsea match. A few of us spoke of the upcoming trip to Baku next week. I have to be honest, it has dominated my thoughts throughout the past few weeks; the thought of it has kept me going through the barren fortnight of the international break and a few difficult shifts at work. In some respects, I had found it difficult to concentrate too much on the West Brom game.

At around 2pm, we headed off to the game, first passing through a dark underpass beneath the M5 and then along a walkway adjacent to the train line. We passed the West Brom academy and continued up the hill to the stadium. The Hawthorns is famously the highest stadium in the professional game in England, though the lofty locations at Burnley and Oldham seem higher – and more desolate. We soon appeared outside the metal gates of the stadium which lead us towards the away turnstiles.

Ah memories of that night last May.

The players were soon to enter the pitch and for a few moments I watched as they went through their drills. However, I soon turned my back on the players – our men, our boys, our heroes – and kept an eagle eye on our fellow supporters hoping to spot some familiar faces. There’s a metaphor for my current stage of Chelsea fandom if ever there was; turning my back on the players, looking out for mates.

I was on a special lookout for J12, who I was to learn took a cab from The Briar Rose to meet us in The Vine, only for the cabbie to take him and another mate, Rob, to a different pub of that name.

Always keen to spot what is hot and what is not, I noticed many Canada Goose and Moncler jackets among the away contingent, as in The Vine earlier on. This boy’s obsession with football and fashion shows no signs of abating.

There were noticeable gaps in the corners of the home end opposite and the large stand to my right. West Brom were the latest club in crisis, with many of their supporters wishing that the manager Tony Pulis would get sacked.

The team was announced, and it took me a while to get the 3-4-3 out of my mind to enable me to fit the players in to their respective places.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill.

Zappacosta – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Fabregas

Hazard – Morata

Chelsea were in the much-derided off-white away kit. Fucking hell, I’ve got tea towels that are whiter. West Brom were in a predominantly white kit too, but with a solid block of navy on the rear of their shirts. I used to remember that teams wearing the same colour shorts were not allowed. For example, every time United played at Goodison, they had to wear black shorts. Newcastle wearing white shorts at Sunderland. These days, the likelihood is of second and third kits getting an extra outing.

Not long in to the game, the noisy bunch of home fans who share the Smethwick End were having a dig at us.

“Can you hear the rent boys sing? Can you hear the rent boys sing? We’ll sing on our own. We’ll sing on our own.”

We rallied with the usual response.

“We know what we are. We know what we are. Champions of England. We know what we are.”

Then, the usual shite.

“WWYWYWS?”

Ha.

I harked back to that game in 1986. I spoke to Alan alongside me –

“The gate was 10,000…we must have had 3,000. So, 7,000 of them. And they sing about us?”

In those days, the away support was split between a quadrant of terrace, on the Smethwick End, as in 2017, and the more fashionable seats of the Rainbow Stand. In the ‘eighties, the supporters of London’s teams especially – maybe it was a sign of wealth, the north-south divide, Thatcher’s Britain et al – always chose to head for the seats at away games. In 1986 specifically, it was fashionable to aim for the away seats – nice and cosy to be alongside home fans, ha – along with your black leather jackets, Burberry and Aquascutum scarves, Hard Core jeans and Nike trainers.

In January 1986, we won 3-0 – playing in all red – and we excited the Rainbow Stand singing, and believing, “we’re gonna win it all.”

In the very next game, Kerry did his knee at home to Liverpool, and our season imploded.

It was not to be. Not that year.

As the Chelsea support put together a few songs and chants – “Antonio” the clear favourite – the home fans sang a relatively new one, or at least one that I had not paid much attention to previously.

“Allez allez allez oh, allez allez allez oh. West Brom FC from the Black Country.”

Strangely enough, West Brom enjoyed the first couple of chances. Thibaut Courtois was able to easily save from Jay Rodriguez. We then watched in horror as an effort from Salomon Rondon dropped over the line after Thibaut initially saved well, then fumbled. Thankfully, the offside flag on the far side – in front of the low stand, the only one left from 1986 – cancelled the home fans’ celebrations. It was an even start, but Chelsea soon turned the screw. Bakayoko and Kante began closing down space in the midfield and our passing became crisper.

Just after a quarter of an hour, a fine move found Eden Hazard, who cut in from the right. His low shot was saved, but I momentarily missed the follow-up from Alvaro Morata, choosing to turn and follow up a comment that Alan had made.

The Chelsea support roared and I felt like a spare prick at a wedding.

I don’t miss many.

Alan : “Thoy’ll ave ta com at uz neaw.”

Chris : “ Come on moi little di’monz.”

Eden had begun the game in very fine form, gliding past defenders and passing intelligently. With Cesc playing a central role, the width was forced to come from the two raiding wing-backs. With neither Pedro nor Willian playing in this finely-tweaked Conte formation, their role – out wide – becomes more important.

Six minutes later, a sublime delicate flick from Morata played into space ahead of Hazard had us all gasping. Hazard raced ahead, touched the ball past Ben Foster – from my perspective it looked like the ‘keeper was keen to foul him – and pushed the ball wide before rolling the ball into an empty net.

It felt like game over.

We were well on top. West Brom, I have to say, were very poor. I loved the way that Kante pick-pocketed player after player, guiding the ball to others with the minimum of fuss. Andreas Christensen again impressed. The lad looks the real deal. He just looks so cool. Eden, shamefully, was continually hacked by the West Brom players. I have to wonder if referees are now oblivious to this now. Has a new – unacceptable – norm now been reached?

Fouling : subsection 3, 4 – amendment ix ; “fouls against Eden Hazard do not count.”

The Chelsea choir were in good voice, regaling N’Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko.

Seven minutes before half-time, at last a foul against Hazard was rewarded with a free-kick. A deep ball from Fabregas – aimed slow and purposefully – was slammed high into the net with a volley by Marcos Alonso. The West Brom defenders were absolutely nowhere to be seen. I think that a few of them had disappeared off to The Vine and were tucking into some goat curry. The scorer raced over to the corner and was mobbed by his team mates.

“Definitely game over now. Let’s get six.”

The second-half began, but there was a feeling from me that we had taken our foot off the peddle. This, of course, was the first of three away games in eight days. We were playing a very dispirited West Brom team. It was no surprise that we – maybe even subconsciously – played within ourselves a little.

We carved out chances, though. Foster saved well from that man Hazard. Morata – full of guile and poise – threatened Foster too.

Just after the hour, Cesc picked out Eden, central and with space, and we seemed to go into slow motion as Eden chose his moment to lose a marker and patiently thud the ball home.

This sparked more celebrations from the buoyant away support, but it also initiated some caustic chanting aimed at the manager of the lacklustre Baggies.

“Pulis Out. Pulis Out. Pulis Out. Pulis Out.”

Even more damning –

“Tony Pulis – Your Football Is Shit.”

There were the expected late changes from Antonio.

Danny Drinkwater for Davide Zappacosta, Pedro for Eden Hazard, Willian for Kante.

The hated James McLean – on as a late sub – raced through but, much to the amusement of the away fans, shot wide. It was the last real chance of the game. At the final whistle, the players and manager paraded in front of us and it – of course – was a lot more subdued than on our last visit. But the players were genuine in their claps of appreciation. I noticed Antonio chatting for a while with the substitute Drinkwater. I wondered what plans are in store for him, and others, over the next week or so.

We filtered away into the darkness of the night. A cheeseburger from the stall at the bottom of the slope. A brief chat about the game. The cold started to bite as we retraced our steps back to the car. With Arsenal managing to grab an unexpected win against Tottenham at lunchtime, but with wins for the two Manchester teams, we had nudged our way into the top three. This was our fourth consecutive league win. We are firmly placed within the high ground of the Premier League as the season rolls on.

It is a good place to be.

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