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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Tales From Eight Pubs And Two Clubs

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 30 September 2017.

On Wednesday evening, I was a football fan with split loyalties. While many of my friends were over in Madrid for the Champions League encounter, I was at a football game a lot closer to home. I had decided earlier in the week to avoid watching Atletico Madrid vs. Chelsea, either on a streaming site at home or in a local pub, and instead to embrace the non-league scene and attend my local team Frome Town’s game at home to Hereford. The visitors were arguably Frome’s biggest ever opponents in a regular league game and I know that I had been relishing the game for some time. Hereford had been flooding grounds for a while with away support in their hundreds, and I would have felt bad about missing Frome’s biggest home gate for ages. The Hereford club, a phoenix from the ashes of the now defunct Hereford United – who Chelsea played in the Second Division season of 1976/77 – had an average gate of some 2,500, a fine figure at the seventh tier of English football. For one night only, I would eschew Chelsea in favour of my local team. I would watch the Chelsea highlights on ITV after. After a little soul-searching, I was OK with my decision. It dawned on me that, in years to come, there will surely be a time when my trips to watch Chelsea might dwindle away – lack of finances, lack of mobility, the passing of time – and I will be found watching my local club more often than Chelsea. My first Frome Town game, after all, was in 1970, some four years before my first-ever Chelsea match. They say that everything goes in a full circle.

And then Wednesday evening arrived, and I felt as though I was letting Chelsea down. I had a change of plan. I decided that I would watch the Champions League game in the Frome Town clubhouse, hopefully see a fair proportion of the first-half and then saunter out, ideally with us winning, to catch some of the Hereford game.

I arrived just before kick-off and noted a bigger-than-average crowd. I paid my £10 and headed inside. However, the Chelsea game wasn’t being televised in the clubhouse and so my plan was blown asunder. I took my seat alongside three mates in the main stand and, unable to watch the CFC game on a streaming site on my phone, watched on as Frome conceded three first-half goals. A friend told me that Chelsea were losing 1-0.

“Oh great. This whole night is going well.”

The second-half at Frome was a mundane affair and I got the impression that both teams were saving themselves for FA Cup games, financially beneficial these days, and were happy for the status quo. The news came through that Alvaro Morata had equalised; a quick “yes” was uttered. I knew that thousands would be celebrating in Atletico’s spanking new stadium. At the final whistle, with a 0-3 loss but a healthy 531 in attendance, I quickly walked back to my car as the rain fell. Then, two simultaneous text messages from Alan, in Madrid, and Glenn, elsewhere in Frome, confirmed a last minute winner at the Wanda Metropolitano.

I’m not usually a jealous type, but for a moment, I was – I admit – pretty jealous of the away army in Spain, no doubt falling over themselves in joyous oblivion.

What an away win for Chelsea. It was undoubtedly one of the best away performances in Europe for a while. And I missed it. Bollocks.

Not to worry, there was another game on the immediate horizon – Manchester City at home – and, bolstered by that fine win in Madrid, it was all that I could think of as the weekend approached.

I collected the lads – Jake in Warminster, PD and Glenn in Frome and Parky in Parkyville – and the Chuckle Bus was full to the rafters. Like on a few other occasions, I had planned a pre-match pub-crawl in London for the chaps.

At bang on 11am, I parked-up right outside the first one, The Black Lion, just off the A4 and not too far from the Fullers Brewery at Chiswick. We were the first ones in. Parky and I had called in to the same pub on one other occasion, after the monumental Napoli game in 2012. It did not seem five minutes ago. Outside, there were brilliant blue skies. The first pint did not touch the sides. Next up, “The Dove” right on the river, with lovely views of Hammersmith Bridge. There were rowers on the Thames. The boys were enjoying this. In the third pub, “The Blue Anchor” we were joined by my friends Diana and Ian from Chicago, who last appeared in these dispatches when I went out with them for one night of boozy fun in Chicago on the 2015 tour of the US. It is always a pleasure to see them. There was talk of football and music, everyone’s twin loves. We popped, quite literally, next door and into “The Rutland.” Another lovely pub, though by now, with myself on designated driving duties, I was off the lager. We said temporary “cheerios” to the two Chicagoans and hot-footed it back to the car, via a final scoop in “The Old Ship.” It had been a fine pub-crawl – we had been blessed with excellent weather for the most part – and it mirrored the one that Parky and myself completed before Arsenal away in 2015. What a joy it is to be able to dip into these historic, charming and quaint pubs in the nation’s capital.

 

 

We met up with Diana and Ian in “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, and then split up again. Glenn and Jake stayed on for some food, while the rest of us piled in to the Chicagochuckle Bus as we stopped off at “The Goose.” I had managed to get hold of some match tickets for Diana and Ian, and – at last –  it was a relief to see the tickets handed over and paid for. I then darted back up to “The Clarence” to pick up a ticket for Jake.

Phew. All sorted.

Eight pubs.

Now for the football.

On the walk to the ground, I heard that Frome Town had lost 1-2 to Heybridge Swifts in the FA Cup. I whispered a melancholic “oh well” to myself and thoughts returned to my first love.

We were in early, and I had hoped that there would be a nice buzz of anticipation in the stadium, just like we used to have before the big games of old, when the terraces used to fill up early, when songs were sung by The Shed, when the thrill of the match used to capture our imagination. Alas, it was all pretty mundane really. I watched as the three-thousand City fans slowly filled their section, but there was no real electricity in the air. This was, after all, the biggest game of the weekend by some margin, and one of the biggest games in world football. I expected more.

We had heard that the team was tweaked slightly, what with David Luiz suspended. Victor Moses was benched, and Dave was pushed out to the flank to allow for Antonio Rudiger to play. Just as in Madrid, Antonio Conte went with a 3-5-2.

Courtois

Rudiger – Christensen – Cahill

Azpilicueta – Kante – Bakayoko – Fabregas – Alonso

Hazard – Morata

Sergio Aguero was out, but there was quality throughout the City ranks.

My thoughts on the game? I’d take a draw but a win would be bloody magnificent. Anything but a defeat.

The banners were paraded – “The Shed” to the south and “Pride of London” to the north – and the game started.

Just like Fiat and their innovative use of new colours a decade or so ago, Nike are certainly dabbling in all areas of an artist’s palate with their kit colours in 2017. The Manchester City away colours were fruity alright. The colour being worn reminded me of damson jam or blackcurrant Chewits. I wonder what outer reach of the spectrum will be chosen by Nike’s designers in years to come for us. Best not dwell on that, eh?

The first few minutes was all about singing that new song for Tiemoue Bakayoko and N’Golo Kante.

Well, it was the last day of September after all.

An early header from danger man Morata suggested that we would continue from where we left off on Wednesday, but we watched as City started to move the ball around us with ease. I was aware that I was leaning forward, on the edge of my seat, quite different than normal. I expected a tough game. A lot was expected of Bakayoko in the central position, and Kante seemed a little out of position to his right. I had spoken to Glenn on the drive to London about how football these days often resembles a chess match and how some managers might lose a game by being “half a position out” – playing someone just five yards away from his ideal position – and, sadly, it looked like this was the case with Kante, who tried his best to support the front two, but was then out of position once City broke.

There were howls as a clearance from Thibaut struck Gabriel Jesus; from our position, it was surely going in. We exhaled sharply. Phew. Soon after, reticence from Rudiger almost caused another City chance. The natives were getting restless. With each passing minute, City improved. Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva looked especially tricky.

And yet, rather than roar the team on, the home crowd struggled to get in the game. Perhaps we were half a position out, too.

In quick succession, our attack was called back for a few offside calls. At the far end, where I am of course unable to be certain at all, I always look for the reaction of the supporters in the East and West Stands behind the flagging linesmen. In all occasions, there was no uproar, no forest of pointing arms, no shouts of exasperation. In each occasion, I can only assume the linesman and referee were correct. But it didn’t help our cause. There was a mixture of frustration with the players and officials. The home crowd were not as one.

After a little Chelsea pressure, Azpilicueta struck low inside the box and forced a low, late, save from Ederson, the City ‘keeper.

Throughout the first period, we were second-best in all areas. We were slow in closing space, and our passes were not crisp. But the new additions in defence, Christensen and Rudiger, continued to impress. The young Dane, especially, looks a natural, both positionally and technically. Gary Cahill, never the easiest on the eye, was a mixture of nervy clearances and solid tackling. But he drew a few moans from the supporters around me. Even now, the jury is out on him.

I spotted Morata hold his leg and stop. I wondered if he was injured.

Thibaut saved from Silva.

With ten minutes to go before the break, Morata – my fears justified – slowly walked off, to a massive round of applause.

Surely, it was Michy Batshuayi’s chance. Well, amazingly, apparently not. Instead, Conte chose Willian. How odd. Was the idea for the diminutive Willian and Hazard to buzz around the tall City defenders and wreak havoc? I was not convinced.

Willian, at times unplayable in previous times, drew the ire of the crowd with an implausibly poor free-kick. The boo boys were starting to gather.

Glenn commented “it’s not very often we get out-played at home, lads.”

Just before the half-time whistle, more City pressure and a corner from the impish de Bruyne. His cross found the head of Fernandinho, but his effort was beaten out by Thibaut. It was a cracking save, and one which kept us in the game at the break.

Chelsea hardly got out of our half in the first period of the second-half. We were well and truly penned in, with City flashing the ball neatly around us. We were being outplayed on our own turf and – yes – it felt odd.

As the rain started to fall, the City fans were hardly making a racket, but they certainly could be heard.

“We’re Not Really Here.”

Eden – at last – ran at pace at City and was fouled. His shot from the resulting free-kick was easily saved.

City continued to move the ball into our box. I remember a sublime gutsy block from Alonso. Soon after, typically incisive play found that man de Bruyne who smacked a rising shot past the valiant dive of Courtois.

“Bollocks.”

City were well worth their lead.

And save for a very few sporadic outbursts, the home crowd stayed as docile as before.

Antonio replaced Hazard with Pedro and Bakayoko with Batshuayi. In all honesty, things did not improve one iota. City still pushed, and should have scored a deserved second goal, when a shot from outside the box from Jesus was miraculously headed off the line by Rudiger. We tried, but the City defence was well in control. Christensen showed a different side of his game with a fine pass towards Batshuayi, but the ball was intercepted.

One last chance – hell, there were only three or four the entire game – fell to the head of Andreas Christensen, but his towering lunge resulted in the ball going well over the bar.

The rain fell on the walk back to the car. We were honest in our quick post-match analysis.

“We could have lost 3-0 or 4-0, boys.”

“City look the business.”

It was a long old trip back to Frome. My two clubs had both lost, but the Chelsea one hurt most, and by a mile. I almost dreaded looking to see what nonsense had been posted throughout the day by the social media darlings, and there was the expected melt-down by some.

Some cocksocket in Chicago was adamant that “Willian is the worst footballer on the planet” and I shot him down in flames.

We were clearly not at our best against City. But there are surely some positives at the moment. I like the way that we can set up in a 3-4-3 as of last season, a slightly narrower 3-4-2-1 and now a 3-5-2. And Conte will fine-tune these formations too. He will be hurting after this, and he will rebound. I love the form of Christensen, and Bakayoko could well trump anything that Matic has done for us. We always have a chance with N’Golo on the pitch. Eden Hazard, on his day, is unbeatable. And before anyone of us, or anyone outside our club, thinks that Manchester City have the title sewn up, let us all remember what was happening twelve months ago.

After seven games in 2016, City were top with nineteen points out of twenty-one. Chelsea were on thirteen points.

After seven games in 2017, City are on top with eighteen points out of twenty-one. Chelsea are on thirteen points.

See you all at Palace.

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Tales From Our Home City

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 6 August 2017.

The Football Association Community Shield. The Premier League Champions versus the F.A. Cup holders. A full house at Wembley on a sunny afternoon in the nation’s capital.

It sounds fantastic doesn’t it?

Well yes, in theory.

In practice, maybe not.

The trouble is that the Community Shield has become something of a wearisome burden these days; it’s akin to a practice run-through for a wedding or an interview for a job that you don’t really want. Or – even worse – a practice run-through for a wedding that you don’t really want. There is not much of a thrill these days. There was a certain “familiarity breeds contempt” at work here too. This would be my third consecutive Chelsea match featuring Arsenal. Never before have I seen the same opponent in three games back-to-back-to-back. This would also be my tenth Charity Shield / Community Shield in twenty-one seasons – oh, how blasé does that sound? – and, of course, it would be yet another traipse up to the new but derided Wembley Stadium. It would be – believe it or not – our seventeenth visit to Wembley in just over ten years.

So, taking all of this in to consideration, the general feeling among a sizeable section of the Chelsea support leading up to the game was of pained acceptance that this was a glorified friendly that we were almost duty bound to attend.

And yet, and yet. When I picked the Fun Boy Three up between 8am and 8.30am, I would not want to be going anywhere else. First and foremost, of course, the day would be all about seeing a few good mates once again after the summer break. A little banter, a catch-up, a gentle easing-in to the new season.

The meet was arranged for around 11.30am at “The Moon On The Mall”, a traditional and spacious London boozer on Whitehall, just a hundred yards to the south of Trafalgar Square. As I skirted the southern edge of the famous London landmark, I was taken back to my first-ever visit to London in 1972 — or rather the first I can remember – when we momentarily stopped off to see Nelson’s Column on the way back from the Tutankhamen exhibition at the British Museum. I remember being fascinated by the buildings, the tourists – the bloody pigeons – and that day came hurtling back into my consciousness. How right that we should be beginning the domestic campaign slap-bang in the middle of London; Chelsea’s home, Chelsea’s town, Chelsea’s city.

A couple of crisp lagers were quaffed and the boys chatted about the new signings, or lack thereof.

Lacoste Watch.

PD – royal blue

With it being a 2pm kick-off, we only had time for an hour’s revelry. My main agenda for the time in the pub was to not get all “China Wanker” in front of my mates. Glenn and myself did OK. We only mentioned our trip to Beijing and Shanghai fifty-three times. Good effort. Up to Marylebone, and away, the familiar twelve-minute mainline train to Wembley Stadium station. With it looking like our forced exile from the beloved Bridge would see us plot up at Wembley – post Tottenham – for three years or more, we are going to have to decide on a new routine for home games when we eventually move in as tenants in 2019 or 2020. A drink in central London before flitting up to Wembley could be the norm. It’s not as if we have a limited supply of pubs from which to choose. Watch this space.

The team news filtered through. I was surprised – but of course pleased – that Pedro had recovered from his horrible injury to start out wide. The rest of the team picked itself. New signing Morata would surely become the resident striker as the season progressed – alone or alongside Batshuayi – but for now he was on the bench.

3-4-3 it was in 2016/2017 and 3-4-3 it was for this game.

Thibaut

Dave – David – Gary

Victor – N’Golo – Cesc – Marcos

Willian – Michy – Pedro

The sun was beating down as we made the short walk up to the stadium. I noted that there was a seemingly thorough bag search taking place inside. I circumnavigated this by diving past the security. I see that – officially – cameras are banned from Wembley. I foresee a war of wits once we move in. I think I’d have a OCD breakdown if my trusty camera was not allowed inside the stadium during our tenancy.

We reached our seats high up in the south-west corner – a new part of the stadium for me – with ten minutes to spare. The Grenfell Choir were in the middle of singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and a couple of club-coloured “For Grenfell” banners were being passed along the Chelsea and Arsenal lower tiers.

Such a tragedy.

There were gaps all over at this stage, but as kick-off time approached, seats were filled. There were still some noticeable gaps at kick-off, however. So much for a sell-out.

On the referee’s whistle, the huge stadium fell silent – completely silent – in remembrance of the souls who perished in the Grenfell fire. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea was remembered in the borough of Brent. Two communities united.

The game began. There was no roar. There was no crescendo of sound. The game began with a whimper. In addition to the players trying their damnedest to attain match fitness, so were the fans. Again, we were in all blue. The white socks will debut for me next week against Burnley. But the kit looks bloody lovely. The royal blue is just perfect. We began comfortably and enjoyed a little early possession. We looked comfortable on the ball. David Luiz became our main play maker in the first quarter of an hour, knocking the ball ahead for Batshuayi, or out to Alonso and Moses. Arsenal then seemed to get a grip on the game and looked the more dominant, making advances down our right flank especially. Welbeck’s header was easily saved by Courtois, and then new signing Lacazette was allowed time to pick a corner and curl a fine effort which bounced back of the post.

One young lad, buoyed by too many lagers or too much Colombian marching powder, was constantly urging us to get involved in some community singing. He was constant. I’m sure he will come good as the season progresses, but he was in danger of peaking way too soon.

He was just too much.

“On your own mate.”

A rasping “Zigger Zagger” then took hold from a few rows below him and we all joined in.

“That’s how to do it, pal.”

The game then faded a little.

But Kante looked match fit and eager. He ate up the ground and looked the same player who cheered us so much last season. David Luiz was calmness personified. Pedro looked fit and agile. Alonso was getting plenty of space down the left. Elsewhere, there was not much. Batshuayi found it hard going. The ball does not stick to him too much, eh? As the old cliché goes, his second touch is a tackle. He needs to toughen up still. Willian was not involved. Fabregas was marginal. Moses was frustrating.

The atmosphere, as to be expected really, was dreadful. Little pockets of noise threatened to develop but we had to wait until an enforced stoppage – Mertesacker injured – for the Chelsea choir to get things together.

At last Wembley boomed.

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

We then dominated possession for the remainder of the first-half. A fantastic ball from Willian, arched diagonally across the Wembley pitch, found the darting Pedro, who took a touch before forcing Petr Cech to save.

But still there was hardly a murmur from the crowd. Chelsea were quiet and Arsenal worse.

Willian was alleged to have dived inside the Arsenal box. It took place about three miles from where I was sat. I could not tell.

Two American kiddies in the row behind were annoying the fuck out of me as the game progressed. Constant chitter-chatter. Constant opinions. I was not sure if they were Chelsea; I suspect not. At one point, one of them blurted out –

“Chelsea suck.”

The chap next to me fidgeted. I quickly turned around and glowered.

“Just remember where you are mate.”

A cushioned flick and back-header from David Luiz to Courtois drew sumptuous praise from the Chelsea hordes. It was almost the highlight of the first period.

At half-time, no goals, and not too many thrills.

Many supporters were still in the bar or the toilets when the second-half began. A corner on the far side by Willian was cleared, but only as far as Gary Cahill, who headed the ball forward. Victor Moses – arguably our poorest player until that stage, and probably still smarting from the Cup Final – was able to sweep the ball past Cech.

“GETINYOUFUCKER.”

He dived headlong onto the Wembley pitch and was mobbed by Michy and then the rest of the team.

Phew.

The goal seemed to calm us a little and we enjoyed a little spell. Kante was again in the middle of it all. He has, thank heavens, hit the ground running this season. We enjoyed a couple of chances, but then Arsenal countered. A Luiz block saved our skins.

With around a quarter of an hour to go, Antonio replaced Michy with Morata. He received a fine reception.

Substitute Walcott played a fantastic ball in to the penalty box but thankfully no Arsenal player was able to connect. It was the ball of the game. Soon after, Thibaut produced the save of the game, flinging himself high to his right and finger-tipping a long shot from Xhaka around the post. It was simply stunning.

Then, Willian surpassed Walcott and floated a fantastic ball in to the path of Morata. Sadly, it was slightly too long. A stretching Morata could only deflect the ball wide.

Ten minutes to go.

We watched as a coming together of Pedro and Elneny resulted in both players lying prostrate. We thought nothing of it. The time passed. Pedro was still down. As he rose to his feet, referee Truly Madly Deeply waved a red card at Pedro.

“Answers on a postcard.”

From the ensuing free-kick, we watched as the Chelsea defence back-peddled en masse. There was a massive sense of doom. I guess we have just watched too much football. We knew. Substitute Kolasinac rose with not a care in the world and headed in, past Courtois.

Oh fuck.

For the first time in the game – honest, honest, honest – the Arsenal end sung something that was able to be heard at our end.

Give yourselves a biscuit.

Antonio had replaced Alonso with Antonio Rudiger just prior to the sending off. He now brought on Charly Musonda for Willian. Arsenal attacked our box in the final ten minutes, but thankfully our defence held firm. A Morata header from a Fabregas free-kick flew past the post. I’m pretty sure that a goal then, late on, would have been absolutely roared. But, alas, it was not to be.

Ugh.

At the final whistle, it ended 1-1.

Penalties.

And a new format.

And plenty of Abba song titles.

I am sure plenty of computer programs, capturing all sorts of empirical data, have been run over the past few seasons with the conclusion that the team taking the second penalty are disadvantaged. And indeed I am sure it is a laudable attempt to reduce the impact of pure chance, the flick of a coin, on the outcome of penalties. But the rank and file support at Wembley Stadium were clearly not impressed.

I commented to the bloke beside me –

“If the penalties are at their end, we’ll lose. If they are at our end, we’ll win.”

They were at their end. Oh great. The sense of foreboding was palpable.

We waited.

Gary Cahill – boom, get in you beauty.

Theo Walcott – goal, bollocks.

Nacho Monreal – goal, prick.

We then collectively groaned as we saw Thibaut loitering towards the penalty spot. I remembered his penalty against PSG in Charlotte but – again – we knew. We bloody well knew.

The ball soared way over the bar.

Alvaro Morata – wide, bollocks.

Many Chelsea left.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – goal, prick.

Olivier Giroude – goal, fuck.

We had lost the Community Shield again. I have seen us play in ten and we have only won three.

We gathered our belongings and slowly shuffled out. A little post-mortem. No team was overly dominant on the day. We obviously need to make some more signings. It had been a middling performance. Definitely room for improvement. But everything is now focused on the all-important opener against Burnley and we all know it.

At Barons Court tube station, on the walk to my waiting car, I was the ultimate philosophical pragmatist.

“Hey lads, Arsenal would swap the FA Cup and the Community Shield for our League Trophy in an instant.”

The boys agreed.

I drove home, the game a fading memory.

“Good day out apart from the football.”

“As always.”

“Yep. As always.”

Let’s reconvene at Stamford Bridge on Saturday afternoon and get this season started.

As for Arsenal, they can go fourth and multiply.

IMG_8395

 

Tales From A Game Too Far

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 27 May 2017.

The F.A. Cup Final. The grand finale to the domestic season. Chelsea’s last game and my last game of 2016/2017. The final hurrah.

There is nothing quite like an F. A. Cup Final.

Or to be precise, there was nothing like an F. A. Cup Final.

Before we experienced wall-to-wall football on TV, before the Champions League skewed club priorities every season, back in the days of when the nation stopped as one and all the talk in the preceding week was about the game, the F.A. Cup Final was a truly magical event. When did the magic start fading? For me, it was when the game left the old Wembley Stadium, before it took temporary refuge at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff for six seasons, and then returned to the spanking new, but generally unloved, new Wembley.

The Cup still stirs emotions, but that magic – difficult to describe to anyone who never grew up in an England which only showed one club game of football live on TV each season – has long since gone.

But, after the season-long chase for the title which was undoubtedly the main focus – to the point of obsession – we were gifted the chance to end the campaign with further glory and further fun. Tickets were purchased, plans were made. This was going to be a fine end to the season.

And then, two events happened which changed everything.

Staying up late, as I often do, on Monday night, I watched – horrified – on TV as news filtered through regarding the atrocity which befell the proud city of Manchester. I felt sadness, pain and anger. I slipped into a disturbed sleep and awoke the next day to the news of the full extent of the carnage. What sorrow. Immediately, there was the realisation that the F. A. Cup Final would be under intense scrutiny as there was the risk for similar attacks on personal freedom. There was, of course, no way that I would not go.

However, there was more sadness. At work on the Tuesday morning, I received a message from my wonderful friend Alan. After the game against Sunderland on Sunday, we had said our goodbyes at “The Lillee Langtry” and as we headed home, he paid a visit to his dear mother in a South London hospital. Sadly, the message relayed the heart-breaking news that his mother had passed away that Tuesday morning.

I fell silent and felt a great deal of pain. I only met Alan’s mother once – in around 1996 or 1997 if memory serves – but she was a lovely South London lady, just as her son is a lovely South London man. I passed on my sincere condolences to Alan – an only child like myself, our friendship goes deep –  and our solid group of friends rallied support for Alan throughout the week. We hoped and prayed that he would be well enough to attend the game on Saturday.

There was a real feeling of relief, and happiness – if that is the right word – to hear on Friday that Alan would be attending.

This brought back some bittersweet memories for me of course. And it made me think. How very odd that my mother’s passing in 2015 was followed by a Chelsea Cup Final at Wembley Stadium, and that the first game after Alan’s mother’s passing would be a Chelsea Cup Final too. Two years ago, I needed to be around the greatest of friends to help me through the day. I am sure that Alan’s thoughts were along similar lines. And as he explained to me, his mother – who keenly followed all of our matches – would not have wanted him to have missed the game on behalf of her.

The football, at times, seemed irrelevant throughout the week, but as Saturday finally arrived, there was a new focus for all of us.

An intense lightning storm woke me at 3am during the night, followed by deafening thunder and a monsoon-like deluge. It was a dramatic start to the day for sure. I struggled to get back to sleep. Would Saturday be sunny, as forecast, or would the rain continue? With a Chelsea Football Club statement asking for no bags to be brought to Wembley in light of the terrorist threat, I pondered options for getting my camera into the stadium. Eventually I drifted back to sleep.

Glenn picked me up at 7.45am. He drove in to Frome to collect PD, who had also awoken amid the light show at 3am. On to collect Parky, a breakfast of champions at Bradford-on-Avon at 8.30am, and Glenn then headed east, London-bound for the last time this season.

We wanted to continue a theme for this season; a little pub-crawl in previously virgin territory. Yes, we knew that there would be songs and chants and revelry at a number of watering holes throughout the capital, but we opted for a little tranquility before joining forces with Alan and others later. From 11.30am to 2pm, we nestled ourselves within the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and sampled four pubs within a few hundred yards of each other; “The Wilton Arms”, “The Nag’s Head”, “The Star” and “The Grenadier.” We were in Belgravia, one of the most expensive pieces of real estate going. It felt right that we should be starting our day in Chelsea, although of course Stamford Bridge itself is in Hammersmith & Fulham. Each pub had hanging baskets outside, wooden interiors, tons of character, lots of history. The sun was out, LP’s and PD’s shorts were on, and the beer was certainly hitting the spot.

At “The Nag’s Head” we chatted to a Russian Chelsea fan from Moscow, living in London since 2004, and off to the match too.

Just as we arrived at “The Star”, two US Arsenal fans, wearing replica shirts – shocker – were just leaving. I reminded them of the Arsenal way : “remember to beat the crowds, stay until the end.” They laughed, but I’m not convinced they understood what I meant.

Four pints to the good, we headed up towards Paddington, where the London-based lads were waiting at “Fountains Abbey” on Praed Street.

A hug for Alan, and I was pleased to see that he was full of smiles. We chatted away and it was lovely to see that he had made the right decision. His dear mother, although probably in a little pain on Sunday night, had enquired how Chelsea had fared in our last game of the season. That simple question – his mother asking about the team – had probably swayed him further. There was no way that Alan would miss the Cup Final.

Ah, the final. Throughout the week, when the game flitted in to my head, I remained confident. I hadn’t been more confident leading up to a major final since the 1998 trip to Stockholm. It seemed that everyone shared similar thoughts. I chatted to Ed, who was one of the few who were mentioning the game itself. He had been confident, yet was beginning to worry as kick-off approached. I calmed him a little.

“Nah, we’ll win. We’re too good for them. No doubt. And there is no point feeling guilty about being confident. Listen, it’s what Liverpool fans in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties were, and what United fans around fifteen years ago were. They were great teams and their fans knew it. Nothing wrong with being confident.”

After five pints or more, I was even beginning to convince myself too.

In another moment – maybe when I was less confident – I spoke quietly to Glenn.

“Of course, you realise that if we lose to these fuckers, our next two games will be against them too; in July in Beijing and in August at Wembley.”

Shudder.

In light of the call to be inside the stadium an hour before kick-off, we headed off for the tube earlier than normal. No last minute flit to Wembley this time. In previous finals, we have often arrived just in time for the last few formalities. No chance of that this time.

We tubed it to Marylebone and caught the train north. Our carriage was mainly Chelsea. The few Arsenal fans spotted were wearing replica shirts in the main. Of course, many Chelsea were too – it’s a Cup Final tradition, I wore a 1970 replica in 1994 – but there was a noticeable difference before the two sets of fans. Of our group of ten, only Gary and John were wearing club merchandise.

Lacoste Watch :

Parky – white.

Ed – chocolate.

Chris – pale blue.

(Incidentally, I was wearing blue all over : blue shirt, blue jeans, blue trainers, blue rain jacket and even my aftershave came from a blue bottle. And there was blue language too of course.)

We arrived at Wembley Stadium station at around 4.30pm. Chelsea were all around. I suspect Arsenal were using the more traditional Wembley Park option. The sun was beating down. There was not much of a queue to get in. My camera, slung around my neck, was waved in, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Up the escalators and inside. Wembley looked vast and we were in with plenty of time to spare, located in the upper tier, above the “Frank Lampard corner flag.” Alan, Gary, Ed and Neil were about thirty seats away. There were a few familiar faces nearby. It is amazing how we always seem to find ourselves among friends. At each seat, there was a Chelsea flag and a Chelsea bar scarf. A young lad appeared in the row in front and he was wearing an authentic Benetton rugby top from the mid-‘eighties. If ever there was a garment which is much desired to this day from that golden age of football clobber, then this was it. It is the holy grail of casualdom. I once owned one, albeit for only a few weeks, and that is a tale which I will eventually tell when the mood takes me, and originals now fetch ridiculous sums. I told the kid that I wanted to kill him and he smiled.

At the Eastern end, a huge Arsenal banner hung from the rafters :

“History. Tradition. Class.”

I think they left out “pomposity.”

At our western end, a simpler message :

“Pride Of London.”

As the minutes ticked by, the stadium filled. Our end appeared to fill quicker. Glenn noted a new feature, a thin section of obviously corporate spectators in the upper deck above the Royal Box; no colours on show there. In the corporate middle tier, I reckoned that there was just as much blue as red, a positive sign. Wembley has recently tightened the rules on bringing flags and banners into the stadium and the arena looked less football-like because of it. It’s as if they are saying “leave the atmosphere to us.”

A huge FA Cup mosaic adorned the pitch. Young dancers sprung on to the pitch waving bar scarves.

“It wasn’t like this in 1997.”

Of course, the team picked itself. It was the team that I would definitely have chosen.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill

Moses – Matic – Kante – Alonso

Pedro – Costa – Hazard

The minutes ticked by.

The next part of this FA Cup Saturday was about to unfold. And it is quite a story. Over a year ago, my good mate Rob took part in a short film which followed two football fans on a personal journey into the once elitist world of opera. Rob and Harry are Chelsea fans of a certain vintage and were not into opera at all. They were coerced by their pals Mike and Adam to attend various operatic shindigs, culminating in a performance of Giussepe Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the Royal Opera House, all the while being filmed along the way. It is a lovely film and won awards at the London Film Awards in 2016. Adam and Harry recently attended a film festival in LA too.

London.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QxaLMiHsUU

Los Angeles.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEI1PmgMLVA&t=328s

To cut a very long story short, Rob and Adam – Harry was on a family holiday so could not attend – were to join twenty other football fans from around the country in the singing of the traditional Cup Final hymn “Abide With Me.” I promised Rob that I would capture the moment with my camera; it is why I was so worried about getting the long lens inside the stadium. I spotted the group walk onto the pitch. My camera was ready.

Just before their moment, a montage appeared on the huge TV screens. As Eddie Newton and Sol Campbell were chosen to bring the FA Cup on to the pitch, a grainy clip of Eddie’s goal against Middlesbrough in 1997 was shown. An echo of a different era really. How time flies, eh?

The crowd quietened. I have noticed how “Abide With Me” seems to play less and less a role in the FA Cup Final these days. On my first visit in 1994, with my father having passed away the previous year, the words drew tears from myself as I sang along. Since then, on all subsequent visits, I have noted fewer and fewer fans joining in. Whether or not it was because of the events of Manchester or not, and the need to show a sense of community and shared kinship, on this occasion I sensed more than usual joining in.

As the words flowed, I joined in, and clicked away.

My thoughts were with Alan, just yards away.

Next up, the national anthem. Another show of solidarity. It was as loud that I can ever remember at Wembley.

The stadium was full now. A red-half and a less prominent blue-half. The two teams assembled on the centre-circle. Thoughts were now centred on the events of Monday night. At first there was applause but as the announcement continued, everyone hushed. I was very impressed. There followed a minute of complete silence in memory for those slain in Manchester.

RIP.

The game began. We stood, high up in row 22 of the top deck, for the entire game. Not everyone was stood, though. A fine long ball from David Luiz found Pedro but we failed to capitalise. For the next few minutes, we struggled to get a foothold. Arsenal looked livelier and more focused. N’Golo Kante struggled to keep the ball and we watched as an Arsenal move developed. A ball was slung in to our box. A clearance was knocked towards Alexis Sanchez who raised both arms and appeared to pat the ball down with his hands.

“Handball” thought everyone.

There was no referee’s whistle, nothing. Our players appeared to momentarily stop, but play continued. Sanchez slotted home.

“Well, that was good of you, you prick. It was handball, knobhead.”

But there was still no whistle.

The referee, oddly, raced over to the linesman.

“Not sure why he is doing that. He was only a few yards away from the handball.”

The referee and linesman chatted for a few seconds. I was absolutely adamant that the goal would be disallowed. It wasn’t. The referee pointed to the centre-circle. Disbelief all round. The Arsenal players seemed to not celebrate as if they were shocked too. Bollocks. Barely five minutes were on the clock.

During the first quarter, we really struggled and it was a huge surprise to us all. Where there had been fight and togetherness during the league campaign, here we looked listless and disjointed. We were slow in closing Arsenal’s attacking threat, and I lost count of the number of misplaced passes. As our play failed to live up to the standards set by the team this season, our support quietened. We were all in shock.

Sanchez set up Ozil, whose touch took him a little wide. His shot beat Courtois, but Gary Cahill’s nimble back-heal on the goal-line saved us from going 2-0 down. Then, Welbeck headed down and onto the post from a corner, and an Arsenal player was thankfully unable to follow it up.

We could have been 3-0 down. Heads were shaking all around me.

“When have we played as bad as this?”

“Arsenal away.”

We tried to rally.

“Come on Chelsea.”

We tried moving the ball into dangerous areas. To be truthful, Pedro was his usual energetic self and was our biggest threat of the opening period. Diego Costa had a couple of half chances. Eden struggled to get involved; I had hoped that this would be his final. Moses out on the right had a lot of the ball but struggled with the final ball. But it was our defensive frailty which caused us more worry. Matic was especially slow in covering ground and blocking.

Arsenal threatened further with Sanchez a huge threat. Courtois saved well from Xhaka.

With the first-half moving on, we improved slightly. Hazard fed in Pedro, but his shot from only fifteen yards out flew high over the bar and in to the packed Arsenal lower tier, full of jester hats, and face-paint too, no doubt. That was our best chance of the game thus far. But we were clearly second best.

Just before the whistle, we won a free kick on the edge of the box after Pedro’s heels were clipped. It was a perfect position for the left foot of Marcos Alonso. His effort sailed over, knocking the jester hat off an Arsenal fan in row Z.

At the break, neighbouring fans passed on news that the Arsenal goal should have been disallowed for offside in addition to the obvious handball. The ghost of David fucking Elleray lingers on.

Only one phrase dominated my thoughts at half-time :

“We can’t play as badly in the second half.”

I would have like to have been a fly on the wall inside our changing room during the interval. Thankfully, we started the second period a lot more positively. It roused the Chelsea support, who had been generally quiet as the first-half passed. A few shots from Pedro, Kante and Moses hinted at a fine reaction. The Chelsea support roared.

“Carefree.”

Pedro continued to be our biggest threat. We watched as he curled a fine effort just past the far post.

PD wanted Pedro to drop back and replace Moses at right back with Willian being brought on. I concurred. The manager had a different idea. On the hour, Conte replaced the very poor Matic with the much-lauded Cesc Fabregas. “The Magic Hat” reverberated around our end. He was met with boos from the the Goons of course. The Wembley pitch looked huge and we seemed unable to exploit its spaces. Bellerin tested Courtois from just inside the box, and our ‘keeper made the save of the match, pushing the ball out with outstretched arms. We roared our approval.

Down below us, Cesc shot wide. The minutes were ticking by.

With about twenty minutes remaining, Moses – who was having an up and down game – fell weakly inside the box. The referee judged a dive. It was his second yellow. Despite much protest, he left the field.

Twenty-eight thousand fans inside the stadium thought the same thought : “that’s fucked it.”

Willian replaced Pedro, who had arguably been our best player. He was soon involved down our right. Strangely, we looked more effective. A rare corner amounted to nothing, but then Willian crossed in to the box. For the first time all match, the Arsenal defenders were sloppy and indecisive. Diego took a touch and volleyed past Ospina.

“GET IN YOU BASTARD.”

Our end exploded. A moment of pandemonium mixed with real disbelief.

“How the bloody hell are we back in the game?”

Less than a minute later, that bearded knobhead Giroud sent over a cross which Ramsey headed in, past Courtois, a gaping goal an easy target.

Despair.

The Pompous Ones boomed with joy at the other end, and probably spilled their popcorn.

“Fuck.”

With time quickly disappearing, we tried to counter. David Luiz, who had supplied the attackers with a couple of excellent long passes, and who had been well-placed to head away several Arsenal efforts, went close with a header from an angle.

Bellerin, breaking with pace, could have sealed our fate but brushed a low shot wide. I turned around and sighed. This was too much.

In a position which mirrored his goal, Diego volleyed at Ospina. A yard either side of the ‘keeper and we would have miraculously levelled it again.

The clock ticked on.

Conte replaced Diego with Michy Batshuayi. Ozil hit the post at the other end. Luiz spent a fair portion of the last few minutes as a spare attacker.

It was simply not to be.

As the last few seconds ticked by, we slowly edged our way out.

The final whistle blew. We just wanted to leave, to get ourselves on the train back to the city centre. We should have, in hindsight, stayed to applaud the team, but we just wanted to get home. This was my forty-seventh game of the season and I felt exhausted.

Bizarrely, there were a few Arsenal fans in the line for the train. We wondered why they did not want to stay to see the trophy lifted. The magic of the cup, eh? In that line for the train – gallows humour to the fore, jokes helping us through – it appeared that we were in brighter spirits than the victorious Gooners. What an odd bunch they are. Maybe it was dawning on them that this would not be Wenger’s last game at the helm after all. How we laughed.

On the train, there was a fair bit of mainly good-natured banter between both sets of fans. A little knot of Arsenal kept singing in praise of Petr Cech, and it got boring. There was nothing malicious. However, they then decided – oh, you fools – to sing “WWYWYWS?” at us and this was met with a far more prickly response. The message was clear; you can take the piss out of our players, our club, but do not take the piss out of us, the fans. And do not, ever, sing that song to us.

Our support has never weakened. We have always shown up.

One Chelsea supporter stood up, and ranted at them, and it was powerful stuff. Although I can’t condone violence nor the threat of it, it certainly shut the fuckers up.

Very soon we sang :

“It’s gone quiet, over there.”

They had no answer.

Fuck’em.

We made our way back to Barons Court. The last tube journey of the season. We chatted to a few fellow fans. There was the briefest of post-mortems. One chap advocated using Cesc from the very start to open up the vast Wembley spaces. But, in hindsight, I would not have altered the starting eleven that the manager chose. It just seemed that it had been one game too far. Regardless of the farce of the first goal, we knew that we were well beaten. It had been a long day. At a service station on the A4, where Glenn and myself once bumped into Mark Hughes after a Chelsea game in 1998, we had an impromptu feast. The last food had been at breakfast. My mouth was as dry as a desert; a bottle of Coke has never tasted better. We were exhausted. I fell asleep on the drive home. Glenn made good time and I was back home before midnight.

It had been a long old day and a long old season. It ended with a poor performance, but we must not focus on that. It has been an exceptional campaign, hasn’t it? I must say that I have loved every damn minute of it; from the excesses of the US in the summer to the biting tundra of Ice Station Burnley, from the pubs of Sunderland and Liverpool to the bars around Chelsea, from the many highs to the few lows, from the Chuckle Bus and beyond, one step beyond, it has been one of the most rewarding seasons ever.

2016/17 : the numbers –

650 miles by train.

8,000 miles by plane.

12,500 miles by car.

115,000 words.

7,500 photographs.

1 league championship trophy.

We went to work, didn’t we? Too bloody right we did.

Grazie mille Antonio.

Have a great summer everyone – and many thanks for your continued and precious support.

In memory of Eileen Davidson : 28 July 1931 to 23 May 2017.

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Tales From Glorious Bournemouth

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 8 April 2017.

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

It was certainly a day of pints and points alright.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill.

Moses – Kante – Matic – Alonso.

Pedro – Costa – Hazard.

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

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

The Chelsea support urged the team on.

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

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

Two nil, too easy?

Not at all.

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

One song dominated.

“Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

How we love this slight and stylish man from Lecce.

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

Game on.

Bollocks.

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

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

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

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

We were three-one up.

GET IN.

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

They were only yards away. A fantastic moment.

“Oh Marcos Alonso, oh Marcos Alonso.”

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

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

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

Some things will never change I guess.

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

And on. And on.

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

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

“Chris Axon we’re looking for you.”

What a crap song. That will never catch on.

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