Tales From Black Saturday

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 24 November 2018.

There was a moment, soon into the second-half I think, when a Chelsea move broke down in a particularly pathetic and unsurprising way. A voice behind me in the lower tier at Wembley loudly bellowed in frustration :

“Come on you cunts!”

I knew that I had to say something, I knew that I could not let the moment pass. I calmly turned around and realised that the voice belonged to a lad in his early ‘twenties. In a quiet voice I spoke.

“They’re not cunts, mate, are they? They’re our players. They’re not cunts.”

There was not much of a reaction from the lad. I think my calmness shocked him a little. Maybe he was expecting a louder or more strident tone. However, a few moments later, the lad was uttering the same phrase.

I turned around again, and repeated virtually the same words all over again.

“I won’t say it again, mate. They’re not cunts.”

At that particular moment in time, with Chelsea losing 2-0 to our arch rivals, but in a stadium which was only two-thirds full, and with the Chelsea fans not exactly rallying behind the team, it all seemed to be rather bleak and grey, if not black. It had been a strange atmosphere from the off. There were yawning gaps in the top tier at Wembley, and despite the home team racing to an early lead, and peppering our goal throughout the first-half, the atmosphere was surprisingly tepid. Where was the red-hot buzz of a London derby? It was hardly in evidence. As the game continued, with very rare moments of the intensity from Chelsea players and fans that we are familiar with, the evening became quieter and quieter. There were only sporadic outbreaks of song. It was a most listless performance from the terraces, but which mirrored that of the team.

But fans calling our players “cunts”? I didn’t get it, and I never have. And I have to say I have heard the same name calling uttered by many Chelsea fans, some too close for comfort. It always makes me squirm. I suspect that my own personal view is not shared by everyone, but I still regard Chelsea players as heroes, as our heroes, as my heroes. We need to support them in their battles against our foes.

Our performance against Tottenham was poor, it was collectively poor, and whose fault that was is hard for me, as an outsider, to fathom. But it has always been my view – “oh you silly, old fashioned twat” – that we can run down our players outside of the ninety minutes, in private, but at the game there needs to be encouragement.

It’s all about supporting the team, right?

Maybe it isn’t.

These days, nothing seems straightforward to me. Or am I over-analysing it all?

I don’t know.

The day had begun as early as 6.30am with an alarm call. My initial thoughts were of concern.

“Hope we don’t get mullered.”

PD, Glenn and I assembled at Frome train station at 7.50am, but soon spotted that our connecting service to Westbury was delayed. Outside, a stranger spotted us looking troubled and asked if we needed a lift to the neighbouring town.

“My husband will be here soon. I am sure we can fit you in the back seat.”

“Oh that is great, thanks” uttered Glenn.

“He’s not a Spurs fan, is he?” I wondered.

We made it in time to Westbury, then waited for Parky to join us at Melksham. He has had a testing time since we last all met up a fortnight ago. After his fall at half-time against Everton, he was diagnosed with having a fractured eye socket, and was quite bruised. Then, last weekend he lost his father at the grand age of ninety. But nothing keeps Parky down. He is as resilient as they come.

On the train to Paddington, we were sat opposite a woman in her sixties who was from Bristol, and a Spurs supporter. The look on her face when we told her that we were a) going to Wembley and b) Chelsea fans was priceless. We had a good old chat as we headed east. I had to confine my thoughts to myself when she admitted that she followed Manchester United when she was younger. Originally from Ireland – the north, I believe, her accent was very feint, only hinting at its origin – she admitted that it was almost expected of you to be a United fan if you came from Ireland. I blame George Best.

She feared for Tottenham against us.

“We haven’t been playing well and we’ve got players out.”

This made me a little more optimistic.

We had all said that we would settle for a point among ourselves.

There was talk of Roman Abramovich – she spoke with a rather bitter tone, what a surprise – and also talk of Tottenham finding it hard to compete against teams with “sugar daddies.”

We arrived in Paddington, under the impressive curves of the station roof, with an expectant air.

There is something about arriving in London by train.

Maybe my grandfather and Ted Knapton walked on that exact same platform in the ‘twenties on their way to Stamford Bridge.

I had planned another pre-match pub-crawl, centered on The Strand, and which I had been looking forward to, possibly even more than the football, for ages.

Since the last Chelsea match, England have taken centre stage, but not in my life. I have to admit that I have still not seen a single second of the games against the US and Croatia. Last Monday, I did not even know England were playing Croatia until someone in the US mentioned it on Facebook. Instead, as with the previous international break, I took in two Frome Town games. On the Saturday, I drove up to London to see the game against the Metropolitan Police – we lost 2-1 – and on the subsequent Tuesday, I watched as Frome lost 2-1 at home to the wonderfully named Swindon Supermarine.

My travels around the south of England with Frome occasionally involve a Chelsea connection – Nick Crittenden and Dorchester Town as an example – but my visit to Imber Court in East Molesey last weekend reunited me with three Chelsea stalwarts, and nobody was more surprised than me. As soon as I arrived at the home of the Met Police, I took a photograph of the two imposing floodlights at the covered end of the stadium. I posted the photograph on “Facebook.” Quick as a flash – the wonders of modern communication – my friend Neil, from nearby Walton On Thames but watching England play cricket in Sri Lanka, commented that the floodlights previously belonged to Chelsea.

I quickly gazed up at them and my mind did summersaults and cartwheels back through time to picture them standing proud at Stamford Bridge. These three ladies of the night – legs splayed, how brazen – were, I guessed, from the West Stand side, the last three to exist. The fourth one at Imber Court was a poor relation, a single spindle. I joked with some Frome pals that this last insipid one was from Loftus Road.

While Frome laboured on the pitch, often my gaze wandered to my left and I spent more than a few moments lost in thought as I imagined the sights that the two “ladies” had witnessed over the years at Stamford Bridge. I could so easily have been unaware of the link with Chelsea.

Yet there was more. Behind the goal to my right were a few football pitches. And I recognised the houses in the background from Chelsea magazines and programmes in the ‘seventies. I knew that we had trained at East Molesey – after Hendon, after Mitcham, before Harlington – and here it was. I wondered if the Chelsea players used the changing facilities in the Imber Court clubhouse. Just like Everton at Bellfield and Liverpool at Melwood, I always thought it odd that normal houses overlooked the players of Chelsea Football Club as they trained at Mitcham and East Molesey in the ‘seventies. Everything is under lock and key these days, behind security gates and put of reach.

After a bite to eat at Paddington, we began our march through London with a pint on the River Thames, on the Tattershall Castle, moored on the north bank of the river near Charing Cross.

“The only other time I have been here was with my Italian mate Mario before we saw Leverkusen win against Tottenham at Wembley two years ago. What a night that was.”

I was clearly looking for good luck omens.

We then walked to “The Ship & Shovel”, even closer to Charing Cross. This was the best pub of the day and quite unique; it straddles a narrow passageway, so looks like two separate pubs. We settled in the smallest of the two bars, and awaited the appearance of our good mate Dave, who we had not seen at Chelsea for the best part of two years. Dave now lives in France, and was back on a rare weekend to see friends and family. It was a joy – to use his lovely turn of phrase – to see him once more. He is now a father, and there is a magnificent Chelsea story here. Jared was born an hour or so before our Championship-winning game at The Hawthorns in 2017.

What a great sense of timing.

We had a blast in that little bar. It was fantastic to see him again. Dave was really pleased to see me; I owed him thirty quid. From  there, we walked up to the Coal Hole – a favourite of ours.

“Last time we were here? Before the 2-1 win against Tottenham two years ago.”

“You and your omens.”

Outside, there were Christmas shoppers, and a distinct chill to the air. It was a magical few hours.

From there, “The Lyceum”, “The Wellington”, “The Coach & Horses” and “The Marquis Of Anglesey.”

All of the pubs were full, and we were having a blast.

Seven pubs and another gallon of lager.

Happy daze.

Throughout all of this, we were sadly aware that Glenn and Dave did not have match tickets, such is the clamour for away tickets, and for Tottenham away tickets especially. But the day was all about meeting up and having a giggle. And a giggle we certainly had.

While we left Dave and Glenn to find a pub to watch the game on TV, PD, Parky and I nipped into a cab which took us to Marylebone and, from there to Wembley.

It’s all a bit of a blur to be honest.

Then a little tale of bad luck, maybe another omen. On the train to Wembley, I learned that a friend had two spare tickets, but time was moving on and there was no way to sort it all out. Glenn and Dave had been left stranded in the West End. There was no way they could reach Wembley in time. I received a text from another friend – a Chelsea fan visiting from LA, match ticket in hand – who had missed out on getting a train to London because someone had plunged in front of a train.

Another – hideous – omen.

We reached the away section at Wembley on a cold and dark evening in good time for once. There were handshakes with many in the concourse.

Parky and I met up with Alan and Gary near the corner flag, only a few rows from the front. To our immediate right was the aisle where we had rigorously and feverishly celebrated Marcos Alonso’s late winner – “oh look, there’s Parky’s crutch” – last August.

The teams soon appeared and Chelsea were oddly dressed in yellow.

The size of the gaps in the upper tiers shocked me. Red seats everywhere. It seems that the “thrill” of playing at Wembley has lost its appeal for Tottenham, but of course there must be a great deal of frustration felt about the lingering problems with their new stadium.

I shudder to think how our support might haemorrhage if we have to move to Wembley for three, four, five years.

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Morata – Hazard

Being only four or five rows from the front, my viewing position was poor. With the fumes of alcohol wafting around me, I knew that I was in for a tough time watching, and appreciating the finer points of what could turn out to be a fast paced game.

I need not have worried.

The football soon sobered me up.

Within just over a quarter of an hour, we were 2-0 down and we were fully expecting more goals to follow. After just eight minutes, Eriksen zipped in a free-kick which was headed in by Dele Alli. We watched silently as he celebrated in our corner. But I watched the fans in the home section, around twenty yards away; they didn’t seem ecstatic, and it shocked me. There were a few fist pumps, but it was all pretty tame.

Spurs were on fire to be honest – it hurts me to say – and were causing us all sorts of problems. A shot over, then a great save from Kepa.

“COME ON CHELSEA. GET IN THE FACKIN GAME.”

On sixteen minutes, the ball broke to Harry Kane, outside our box. With what seemed like virtually no back lift, he drilled a shot into the corner of our goal, low and purposeful. Kepa appeared unsighted and was motionless. Only at half-time – with Alan alongside me incandescent – would it become apparent that David Luiz moved to get out of the path of the ball.

The Spurs fans roared again, but there was not an almighty din befitting a 55,000 or 60,000 crowd.

We had a couple of chances, and I noted a slightly improved attitude. The Chelsea fans in the lower tier tried to get behind the team. There were small signs of recovery.

But we had to rely on Kepa to keep us in it. Another fine save – a quick reflex palm away – was roundly applauded.

Up the other end, at last a shot worthy of the name.

Hazard forced a save from Loris.

There were penalty claims, but the action was so far away…

There were long faces at the break.

Time for a few more photographs.

The second-half began and a shot from Willian was deflected over. We looked a little livelier and the away fans responded. But any thoughts of a Chelsea reaction to such a poor first-half were extinguished just ten minutes into the second period.

To my utter bewilderment / frustration / disbelief, Son was able to waltz through our defence like a hot knife through butter. His low shot was destined to go in.

Tottenham Hotspur 3 Chelsea 0

Oh bloody hell.

This was turning into a very dark day.

I thought back to our set up last season at Wembley against them. An extra shield in the middle with Kante, Bakayoko and Luiz, all superb on the day.

This season, we looked so lightweight.

The manager decided to change things a little. Ross Barkley replaced the ineffective Mateo Kovacic and Pedro replaced Morata. We were now playing without a spearhead, with the three diminutive attackers asked to swarm in and around the Spurs box. But Barkley impressed me straight away. His physical presence alone seemed to stiffen our midfield. Kante tried his best to win tackles and get things moving. But we then drifted a little and the game seemed lost.

With half an hour still to go, I looked around and saw many empty red seats in our section.

Respect to those who stayed to the end.

Funny how we take the piss out of Tottenham – especially – when they leave early and yet we do exactly the same.

Here we go again – “oh you silly, old fashioned twat” – but that isn’t what being a Chelsea fan is all about is it?

Is it?

The game continued.

Apart from the occasional song of defiance from myself and a few others, the noise dwindled in our end. But I have to say the home end was pretty quiet too. It was such a strange atmosphere.

Tottenham had a couple of chances to extend their lead. Thankfully no goals followed. With fifteen minutes to go, Sarri replaced Willian with Olivier Giroud.

With five minutes remaining, a cross from Dave was met with a high leap by the Frenchman and the ball was headed down and into the Tottenham goal. I didn’t even bother celebrating. Nobody did.

From memory, it was a little similar to the very first Chelsea goal I saw scored; an Ian Hutchinson header against Newcastle United in 1974; “up and downer” as it was described in the following game’s programme.

A Pedro goal – alas not, he blazed it over – would have made things a little interesting, but not for the hundreds of fans who had decided to head home before the final whistle.

Any ridiculous fantasies about the most improbable and unwarranted comeback in living memory amounted to nothing. At the final whistle – “see you Thursday” – we knew we were lucky that it had been kept to 3-1.

In the concourse, I met up with my good mate Andy from Nuneaton, who was at the game with his daughter Sophie. The frustration was there. We exchanged words. We weren’t happy. It had been a truly pitiful performance. Without heart. Without fight. It was so reminiscent of the 3-0 drubbing at Arsenal in 2016.

“I’m a big Conte fan, Andy. He’s a winner. We won the league, we won the Cup. Not good enough. Sacked.”

“I’m not convinced about this bloke, Chris. What has he won?”

“I keep hearing that the players are all very happy in training. All well and good. We play nice football. But sometimes you have to have players who can mix it.”

“He’ll be gone, mate. Even if someone like Allegri came in and won the league his first season, but then finished third the next, he’d be off too.”

We smiled and shook hands.

“Take care, mate.”

The only plus point was that there was hardly a line at the train station. We were soon on the over ground train back to Marylebone, back to Paddington, back to Bath, back to Westbury, back to Frome, eventually at 12.45am.

Of course, the words that Andy and I shared in the eastern concourse at Wembley on Saturday evening were emotive and no doubt reactionary. But they summed up our immediate post-game frustrations. And I have witnessed the reactions of many supporters since the game finished. My thoughts are still being formed as I write.

There are those who say that Sarri is another Scolari.

There are those who say that our football this season is akin to The Emperor’s New Clothes.

There are those who say he needs time to shape a team in his own style.

Many bemoan the use of N’Golo Kante in his current role.

For the first real time this season, the tide of opinion is turning on Jorginho.

I will be honest. I still haven’t warmed to Maurizio Sarri and I can’t even really explain why that is.

I am sure he is a decent man, but I am still trying to work him out.

There just seems to be too many square pegs in too many round holes at the moment. Parts of our play this year have been excellent, but mainly against weaker teams. I am still trying to work out if our generally good run of results is due to the largely fine players that we have at our disposal or the result of this new methodology. To me, and a few others, there have been times when our play hasn’t been too dissimilar to the last campaign.

My thoughts on this season are rather confused and incomplete.

Like Sarri, I need time to work it all out.

 

 

In Memorium

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Richard Garry Parkins 1929 to 2018

 

Tales From The Eight Bells And Three Points

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 4 November 2018.

Another Sunday, another game.

I had dropped the lads off at West Kensington at around midday. The arranged “meet” on this sunny November Sunday was “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge. While I went off to park up, the lads – Glenn, PD, Parky – made their way down to the bottom end of the King’s Road by themselves. Once parked up just off Lillee Road, I walked over to West Brompton, crossing over the North End Road, amid many memories of previous Chelsea moments.

Drinks at “The Lillee Langtry” after beating United 3-0 to win the league in 2006. A triumphant drink in the very same boozer after the Champions League semi-final victory against Liverpool in 2008. A late night curry at the “Lily Tandoori” with friends from both coasts of the USA after a debilitating defeat to Inter in the Champions League in 2010. Calling in at “The Prince Of Wales” en route to Wembley with Parky for the 2012 FA Cup Final. Dropping in to “The Wee Imp” after a pizza at “Salvo’s” after a game with Leicester City in 2014 with a mate from Detroit, keen to show him the ultimate Chelsea post-game experience at the time.

And looming over everything was the towering mass of the Empress State Building, one of the iconic buildings that has coloured my Chelsea match-going experiences from 1974, and even before. Before I used to go to games, the triangular-shaped building was often spotted by myself in black and white action shots from Stamford Bridge. I would have spotted it in person away to my left from my seat in the West Stand Benches for the first time in real technicolour – suitably blue and white – at that first game. From The Shed, it looked massive, as did the huge mass of the Earls Court exhibition centre to its east. It was once the tallest building in London. I love it because it forms a constant link to my present-day Chelsea experience to those of my youth. It used to house M15 apparently. I always remembered that LBC used to broadcast from there. Now it is used by the Met Police. Maybe one of these days, we’ll get to experience a different pre-match vibe with a meal – and drinks – in the revolving restaurant at the top. That view must be sensational.

The huge Earls Court building – and Earl’s Court Two – is no more, bulldozed to make way for new residential and commercial buildings. I bloody loved the Art Deco façade of Earl’s Court. Such a shame it had to go. Of course, back in 2011, the club had fanciful ideas about us moving to a stadium on this site. So much for that idea.

The area opposite West Brompton tube has now been renamed West Brompton Crossing, the Prince Of Wales has closed and has been re-opened and a row of trendy shops have taken the place of more working class pubs, cafes, kebab shops and cab firms. Even “The Lily Langtree” was closed for a while. It has reopened again with a classier look and higher prices.

I caught the District Line train from West Brompton to Putney Bridge. It was a mighty odd feeling to be passing through Fulham Broadway without alighting. Putney Bridge is a lovely station – white tiles, green paint – and when I exited the train I looked back to the north and was still able to spot the Empress State Building. The stands at Stamford Bridge, annoyingly, were hidden by buildings.

I had visited Putney Bridge tube station on only one other occasion. I had come down to visit a mate in London in 1985 and we decided to watch a Fulham vs. Charlton Athletic game at Craven Cottage in the old Second Division. The gate was only about 6,000 from memory. It was a dire 0-0 draw. That served me right.

On all visits to Fulham since, I have driven my car and parked in Fulham or, usually, across the river in Putney itself.

I soon found the lads outside the Eight Bells, enjoying the beers and the craic. It is a super little pub. It has the feel of a pub on a village green, the centre of a little community, a local’s boozer. I am a big fan. Joining us were Kev and Rich from Edinburgh, Andy, Kim and Dan from Kent, plus Josh from Minneapolis and Dale from Chicago. It was a typically entertaining time. The pub was ridiculously busy, with Sunday roasts being served amid chatter and laughter. I had not met Dale before, but knew of mutual friends. We spoke momentarily how the future might pan out a few years down the line.

A management team of Frank Lampard and John Terry, anyone?

Best not get too giddy about that. Let’s enjoy the current regime. Let’s enjoy the moment. Whatever will be will be, as someone once said.

We called in for further bevvies at “The King’s Head.”

Alas, it was soon time to head off to the game.

“Bloody football. Getting in the way of a good time.”

We back-tracked to Putney Bridge tube and headed north to a more familiar station. We were soon at Fulham Broadway.

“Home.”

Inside the ground, Crystal Palace unsurprisingly had the standard three thousand. There were a couple of “CPFC” banners, which would mirror one of their chants. The team that manager Maurizio had chosen was the same eleven that walloped Burnley away last Sunday.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Willian – Morata – Pedro

Before the game, there was a minute of complete silence in memory of those who had perished in the Leicester City tragedy. Rarely have I seen, and heard – or not heard – Stamford Bridge so quiet on such an occasion. It was impeccably observed.

Crystal Palace were wearing a nod to their famous old kit of around forty years ago; the all-white with the red and blue sash across the shirts. I always think of Vince Hilaire when I see that kit. As Alan reminded me, in those days, following promotion in the 1978/1979 season, Crystal Palace were briefly known as “The Team Of The ‘Eighties.” Stop sniggering at the back. This epithet never ever looked like being a particularly prophetic description of Terry Venables’ team. In the following season – 1979/80 – Crystal Palace finished in thirteenth position. I would like to make some pithy comment about them still finishing one place about Tottenham that season, but as Chelsea were still toiling in the Second Division at the time I had best be quiet.

The visitors from South London have been something of a bogey team to us over the last few seasons. In our past five away games at Selhurst Park, we have lost two games. In that same period, we have lost two games to Palace at Stamford Bridge too. But, that said, we all expected a home win. No doubts. Surely our class would tell.

However, we were rather slow getting off the blocks. In the first quarter of an hour or so, the visitors arguably enjoyed most of the better attacking play. Of course, all eyes were on Wilfrid Zaha, and his pace was upsetting our defenders with a few trademark runs. Once in the box however, he tended to take a few extra over-indulgent touches. In one moment of play, his feet were chopping up and down on the ball like a dressage pony. The Palace fans, suitably impressed with their bright opening, then made fools of themselves.

“We’re just too good for you.”

Oh my aching sides.

A free-shot from Meyer ballooned over from the edge of our box. Soon after, David Luiz made a fantastic block inside our penalty area. Thankfully, I noted that the pacey Zaha was not being ably supported by his team mates. Throughout the game, I felt that their forwards were often ploughing lone furrows. Their play would not often mesh together. But we were being tested alright. We needed to up our game.

We began to get into the match. A couple of Antonio Rudiger cross-field passes out to the left-wing were inch perfect and were illustrative of our growing confidence. But there had been a few wayward passes too. The away fans were making some noise, but the home areas were pretty still and pretty quiet. On thirty minutes, the ball was worked in towards Pedro – who had already swapped wings with Willian on a couple of occasions – who had a couple of stabs at getting the ball into a good position. Alvaro Morata was the willing recipient and his neat turn resulted in the ball being poked home.

At last some noise. His joyful run…a hop, a skip, a jump…took him towards Parkyville

I was dead happy that the much-maligned Morata had scored another. I hoped that his resurgence would continue.

Not long after, a Willian goal was disallowed for offside. Morata then headed over. We had edged ahead and at half-time, despite not overpowering the visitors at any stage, all looked rosy. With Liverpool drawing at Arsenal, but with Manchester beating Southampton 6-1, we could at least secure a healthy second-place.

With the evening getting duskier and darker, the second-half began. Sadly, our defensive frailties were evident when Palace exploited a very high defensive line with a couple of quick passes.  Andros Townsend was able to run free, and his low shot easily beat Kepa in the Chelsea goal.

“Like a knife through butter.”

“Bollocks.”

At least I was stirred that following the equaliser, the Chelsea fans let out a very loud and defiant “CAREFREE.”

We toiled away for a further ten minutes, but needed the impetus provided by a couple of substitutions to fully get into the game. We had spotted Eden Hazard, especially, warming up in front of the East Stand, and it was with a smile that we saw Sarri talking to him and asking him to take his trackie top off.

It turned out to be a double substitution.

Alan and I had the briefest of discussions about the changes. We don’t always get it right, but this time we were spot on.

Mateo Kovacic for a slightly subdued Ross Barkley.

Eden Hazard for Willian.

Eden’s first real involvement lead to panic in the Palace penalty area. His free-kick from the Chelsea right avoided everyone, and Morata was able to control the ball as he waited – surprisingly free – at the far post. His low left-footed strike flew into the net. And how he celebrated. Hugs all around. Smiles for everyone. It was magical to see the Chelsea players celebrating down below us. Morata and Hazard then came together, and Eden excitedly shook his head like a child, with Alvaro embracing him, sharing his joy. What a gorgeous moment. There is something childlike, not childish, about our Eden. He simply loves playing football, and – my goodness – he is certainly flourishing under our new manager.

For a while, it was all about Eden. Almost immediately bringing others in to the game, Eden made such an impact. His ridiculously broad shoulders were proving to be broad enough to carry his underperforming team mates once more. A touch here, a shimmy there, a pass here, a run there. He immediately attracted extra attention, which in turn freed up important spaces elsewhere.

Not long after, a rapid move down our left resulted in a low cross from Marcos Alonso being slammed into the box. It flew past Hazard and was slightly behind Morata, but Pedro was on hand to whip the ball home. The game was surely safe now. The players raced over to our corner once more – how lucky we are – and the smiles were shared by players and fans alike. Pedro’s toothy green lit up the evening. He was beaming. A few hand gestures, a lick of his thumb – answers on a postcard – and a wave to the cheering gallery. Top man.

Cesc Fabregas replaced Jorginho – Alan and I got that one right too, three out of three – in the eightieth minute.

In the last minute of the game, the ball was won deep in the Palace half and was released early. Morata found himself in on goal. We waited for him to shoot, or to probably go left or right and prod home a la Fernando Torres in Catalonia in 2012. Instead, the striker chose to chip Hennessey, but the ‘keeper had read the signs. Morata groaned and so did we. The hat-trick would have to wait.

Chelsea 3 Crystal Palace 1.

This turned out to be an easy win.

I bloody hope that there are many more to come this season.

Safe travels to all those heading over to Belarus. My next game is the Everton match on Sunday.

I will see some of you there.

Tales From The Front Row

Chelsea vs. Derby County : 31 October 2018.

A Frank Fest.

During the day, I mentioned to a work colleague – fellow Chelsea fan Paul, who came up with us for the Huddersfield Town game last season – that I didn’t want the return to Stamford Bridge of Frank Lampard to dominate things too greatly throughout the evening’s game with Derby County. In 2017, Frank appeared at half-time against Swansea City, and everything on that day was nigh-on perfect. Tons of affection for Frank, flags in honour of him, and feelings between player and fans reciprocated nicely. He took the microphone, and his words were of love and appreciation. So, we have already experienced a “Frank Lampard Day” at Stamford Bridge, and I wasn’t too keen on things getting awkwardly out of control during the upcoming game. Frank was returning as a former hero, but as also a rival. The League Cup is not high on my list of priorities each season, but here was another game we needed to win. I had visions of it all going a bit OTT.

I said to Paul :

“We need to get behind our team. We need to win the game.”

But I knew how these things develop these days. I was sure that there would be songs for Frank Lampard throughout the game.

The Gang Of Five.

The Chuckle Bus was at capacity on the drive to London; PD, Sir Les, Lord Parky, Glenn and I were crammed inside as PD took over driving duties once again. There was the usual heavy traffic and we were not parked until around 6.30pm. There would only be time for a couple of liveners in “Simmons Bar” down at the bottom end of the North End Road, which was unsurprisingly busy, before the game. Of the five of us, only Glenn seemed super-excited about the evening’s match. Not that I was underwhelmed. Just not bitten by the same bug as Glenn. If anything, I was more excited about being able to watch the game from a slightly different perspective. As Derby County – some four thousand strong – had been given most of The Shed, Parky was bounced over to the West Lower. In a secret pact, the two of us had agreed to swap seats. I would be in row two of the West Lower, while he would be watching from my usual seat in row four of the Matthew Harding Upper. We decided to keep it a secret from Alan, PD and Glenn. In the bar, it was lovely to meet up with King Jim, among others, at a game again. Jim comes to the occasional match these days and it is always a pleasure to see him. There were people everywhere as I walked quickly towards Stamford Bridge. This was yet another full house at Stamford Bridge. Good efforts everyone.

Flags And Banners.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, the image of Frank Lampard on a banner – the same one as against Swansea City in 2017 – dominated the Matthew Harding to my left. It hung from the balcony, flanked by two other banners, although not all together at the same time.

“GOAL AFTER GOAL, GAME AFTER GAME” and “FOREVER A BLUE, FOREVER A LEGEND.”

And a legend he most certainly is. Our greatest ever player? Probably.

One Of Our Own.

Late on Tuesday night, just as I was finishing off my match report of the Burnley game, I heard through a Chelsea mate of mine that our former Chelsea player, youth team coach and manager Ken Shellito had sadly passed away. Ken had been a Facebook friend of mine for quite a few years, and although we rarely interacted, Ken seemed like a thoroughly decent man, and Chelsea through-and-through. I met him – very briefly – on two occasions. The first time was in 2008 after a CPO event in London when my friend Beth, from Texas – everyone knows Beth – and I enjoyed a few boozy hours in the company of some former players in a cosy boozer after the main event. Ken seemed overwhelmed by the attention and love that other fellow fans were showing him. He seemed humble and courteous. I only spoke to him for a few moments. I later saw him – maybe three years ago – in the Chelsea hotel before a game. Again, our meeting was fleeting. It is often said that had Ken Shellito not suffered a career-ending knee injury in the early ‘sixties, he would have been remembered as an England World Cup winner in 1966. Commentators from that era say his presence would have been assured. He was that good. In the end, he played just one game for England.

Growing up in the ‘seventies, I was aware of his presence at Chelsea as the youth team manager during our barren and financially-weakened years of 1975 to 1977. After Eddie McCreadie left our club before the start of the 1977/78 season – we were all mortified – the club turned to Ken Shellito to manage the team. Even though I was only twelve, I remember thinking that following McCreadie would be a tough act to follow. But our Ken did a reasonable job in his first season as we returned to the top flight for the first time since 1975. Pride of place were the two home victories against reigning English and European champions Liverpool. Everyone talks about the 4-2 FA Cup win in January, but just as impressive was the 3-1 league win in March, a game that I attended, and which fulfilled all my fantasies about Chelsea as unfancied underdog overcoming all of the odds. It was only my twelfth Chelsea game, but one which I wondered would ever be surpassed in terms of excitement and joy. I need not have worried, eh? In the following season, we suffered from the off and the club decided to sack Ken Shellito around the Christmas period. His Chelsea career was over. He spent many of the latter years in Malaysia with his wife Jeanie and young daughter. Until the end, he ran a training camp which I believe had links with Chelsea Football Club.

After the teams entered the pitch, and after there was a mention of Glenn Hoddle and his recent hospitalisation, and then the tragedy in Leicester involving the City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the players formed in the centre circle as an image of Ken Shellito was flashed up on the TV screens and we applauded the memory of both. It had been a horrid few days for us all.

I clapped heartily.

I knew him and yet I did not know him, but another loyal Chelsea servant and supporter has sadly passed.

Ken Shellito RIP.

The Team.

Manager Maurizio Sarri had unsurprisingly changed the Chelsea team for the visit of Derby County. In came a few squad players. Willy Caballero in goal. A back four of Davide Zappacosta, Andreas Christensen Gary Cahill and Emerson. A midfield three of Cesc Fabregas, N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic. Up front were Willian, Alvaro Morata and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

The Lowdown.

This was only my fourth game in the West Lower since its birth in 1997 and eventual completion in 2001. There had been previously been games against Coventry City in 2000, Leeds United in 2004 and Fulham in 2011. I was officially in row two, but the rows were staggered a little and I was effectively sat in the front row. I was as low down as I could possibly be. The view was far from great to be honest. It was lovely to see some players up close – in the first-half, Zappacosta, Loftus-Cheek and Kante especially – but I generally found it hard to concentrate as my perspective was so awful. Apart from a small wedge of around eight-hundred Chelsea fans in the south-east corner, where the away support is usually based, Derby had the entire end. In front of the Chelsea support, was a banner honouring Frank’s assistant.

“JODY MORRIS – CHELSEA THROUGH AND THROUGH.”

Jody’s story is pretty incredible. I remember seeing his debut in the 5-0 rout of Middlesbrough in 1996. He was quite a wild child in his youth. Who would ever have thought that he would develop into a respected coach? Certainly not me.

Soon into the game, a familiar face steadied herself, aided by a steward, and sat down in the front row a few seats away.

“Hiya Felicity.”

She looked fleetingly at me, but there was no reaction. She watched the entire game in silence, alone in her own world. Felicity used to watch the lads train at Harlington. She used to bring them cakes. I saw her, briefly, last season at a game and I was surprised to see that she still attends matches. I am sure she has some form of dementia, bless her, but it was a lift for me to see her still attending games, bedecked in her Chelsea coat.

I thought to myself : “Felicity. Chelsea through and through.”

Rammed.

The Shed was going to be the epicentre of any noise during the game. Derby had come in numbers. Four thousand? It seemed more like five thousand. They were making a din right from the start.

Derby have their own version of “the bouncy.”

“If you don’t fuckin’ bounce. If you don’t fuckin’ bounce you’re a red.”

They had one for Frank.

“Frankie Lampard is a ram. He hates Forest.”

And then one for us.

“Football in a library, tra la la la la.”

Déjà vu.

Here are some observations from our League Cup tie with Fulham in September 2011, which we narrowly won on penalties, and when I was also seated in the same section of Stamford Bridge.

“My seat was in row 6, all of the way down towards the Fulham fans in The Shed. I looked around and saw hundreds of unfamiliar faces. I heard a few foreign accents. I took a few photos of The Bridge from this new angle. I sat myself down – not much legroom – and prepared myself for a mind-numbingly quiet evening. It’s another cliché that the West Lower is one of more reserved parts of The Bridge. By the time of the kick-off at 7.45pm, the 3,500 away fans had all arrived and were singing their hearts out. The rest of the place took some time to fill up, but I was very pleasantly surprised to see few empty seats.”

“The Fulham fans were getting behind their team, singing a whole host of songs, some of which I had never heard before. In comparison, the West Stand was silent and the MHU barely murmured.”

“A few chances for both sides, but from my angle, I was struggling to make sense of the shape of the play.”

“If I am honest, I wasn’t enjoying the game. The Fulham fans were making too much noise and I was getting rather frustrated with the lack of support from the Chelsea fans around me. In the West lower, many couples weren’t even talking to each other, let alone getting behind the team via songs of encouragement. Despite the songs of derision cascading down on us from the away fans, I couldn’t bring myself to truly despise them, unlike the supporters of other teams. I tried to put myself in their shoes. It reminded me of life as a Chelsea fan in my youth, railing against the bigger teams, forever the underdog. Forever the underachiever.”

“The referee blew his whistle to end the 90 minutes and I inwardly groaned. I had been in purgatory for the whole game – surrounded by predominantly silent fans – and I was only able to yell out a few shouts of support on a few occasions throughout the duration.”

In 2018, seven years later, I experienced a lot of these same feelings.

The First-Half.

After only five minutes, I was able to watch at close-hand as Ruben Loftus-Cheek played the ball to Davide Zappacosta. His low cross was comically turned into his own net by Chelsea loanee Fikayo Tomori. As easy as that we were 1-0 up. We were all over Derby County in the first part of the game.

It was deathly quiet in the West Lower. To my right, the Derby fans mocked us.

“Shall we sing a song for you?”

Within five minutes, however, Derby had equalised. The lump that is Tom Huddlestone played the ball out to Jack Marriott and it looked to me like the angle was too acute. Imagine my surprise when he calmly slotted the ball past Caballero. The away fans bounced.

Martin Waghorn, a solid rock of a striker, fluffed his lines when through on goal, seemingly tripping over the ball and wasting a golden opportunity.

On twenty minutes, as a move developed, I held my camera to my eyes and snapped a rather blurry photograph – certainly not worth sharing – of Zappacosta as he blasted across the goal. I looked up to see that the ball had ended up in the net. Another Derby OG, this time from their skipper Richard Keogh.

I took a few photos as Ruben wiggled his way towards goal, moving the ball nicely, but his shot was wide. Willian then blasted over.

Soon after, just before the halfway mark, Mason Mount played a perfect ball across the six-yard box. Caballero was not close to it. Waghorn poked it home easily.

“Bloody hell, Chelsea.”

The away fans bounced again, and then aimed another dig our way.

“Shall we score a goal for you?”

I lost count of the number of times that Zappacosta, in acres of space, pleaded with his arms wide open to receive the ball from Christensen or Cahill. Often he was ignored. He is a basic player really, but he was again involved on forty minutes as he found himself inside the Derby box. Eventually the ball spun loose, and Cesc Fabregas was on hand to smash the ball in at Scott Carson’s near post.

Bloody hell, 3-2.

The highlight of the rest of the half was the magnificent way that Willian brought a high ball down with the subtlest of touches. It reminded me of Zola doing the same thing at Anfield in around 2003, when the Scousers in the Centenary Stand applauded him.

Banners.

At half-time, I checked out a few of the banners that I would not normally get a chance to see from my usual position in The Sleepy Hollow. I love the old “547 SW6” flag which pays homage to the old – and much-missed – HQ of the original Chelsea Supporters Club at 547 Fulham Road, which I used to frequent before home games until the mid-eighties. I still see one of the chaps who used to serve inside – Peter Kemp – at many away games, although we have never spoken. He is another who the “through and through” phrase could easily be applied. Behind and above me were banners from everywhere.

Adelaide, Vancouver, Devon & Somerset, York, Perth Western Australia, East Belfast, Bermuda, Slovenia.

Just in front of The Sleepy Hollow, a banner which has recently been added.

“ONE93 KERRY DIXON.”

Not So Super.

Five minutes into the second period, came our noisiest chant of the game thus far.

“Super, super Frank. Super, super Frank. Super, super Frank. Super Frankie Lampard.”

The noise roared down from the Matthew Harding. Frank, obviously, turned and applauded. But he then signalled “enough, support them on the pitch.”

I agreed with Frank. It annoys myself and quite a few others how a sizeable section of the Chelsea support wastes no time at all – every bloody match – in singing about Frankie Lampard scoring against West Ham, Dennis Wise scoring against Milan and Demba Ba scoring against Liverpool. And yet there are few raucous songs in support of players actually playing.

And yet I thought back to September 2014 when we watched in horror as Frank Lampard played as a substitute for Manchester City against as at The Etihad. I cannot lie. I can’t hide the truth. I can’t hide from the sense of hypocrisy I felt. I did sing his name that day. We had, though, not been able to give him a proper send-off at the end of the previous campaign. His last game in Chelsea colours was the insipid 0-0 with Norwich City when he was substituted by Jose Mourinho at half-time. It was as an inglorious end to a Chelsea career as I have ever seen, certainly not befitting one of our all-time greats. He did not appear in the final game away to Cardiff City. So, in my defence, I think there were extenuating circumstances for the songs at Manchester City in 2014. I thought, as did many, that we had not said “goodbye and thank you” in a way that was correct. And here was an opportunity to show him some love. After all, we might not have seen him as a player ever again. That is my explanation for it. If you don’t agree, sue me.

But we said thankyou to him then, in the autumn of 2014. And we said thank you to him at Stamford Bridge in the January of 2015. And again in February 2017.

Enough was enough.

Suffice to say, I didn’t join in with the singing of his name during the game in October 2018. I’m not so sure I even sung before the game if I am honest.

The Second-Half.

Would more goals follow? I expected so. I had been impressed with Derby. We had played beneath ourselves, almost disinterested almost. We worked a few forays into the Derby box in the first part of the second-half but there was no cutting edge. On the hour, a Cahill header from a corner was palmed over by Carson. If I am honest, by now I was finding the game rather painful to watch. Everything was squeezed into a narrow field of vision. And we were hardly in exhilarating form.

David Luiz replaced Andreas Christensen.

Pedro replaced Ruben.

Marriott forced a fine save from Cabellero on a quick break. Mount then shot wide. Derby were still in it. There was a moment when the away fans reacted noisily and passionately to a shot, igniting the entire away end, and I longed for the days when our home fans were similarly partisan. Those days, the days when the atmosphere was venomous, seem so far away now.

Yeah, I know. A familiar story.

A great cross from Zappacosta – him again – found Morata in acres of space but his header was not worthy of the name. Another header from Morata went well wide. The same player then jumped with great body shape, twisting in the box to meet a Willian corner and getting a great deal of power on it – another photo too blurred to share, damn it – but Carson did well to save.

Two saves from Caballero kept us ahead. A hand was dabbed on a close effort from Keogh and he then smothered another Mount shot. Things were getting nervy now. An effort from Marriott was saved. Then the old warhorse David Newgent, a late substitute, shot across Caballero and I watched, painfully, as the ball seemed to be going in. Thankfully it hit the far post, and miraculously bounced back straight into big Willy’s arms.

Phew.

Not long after, the final whistle blew and we counted our blessings.

It been a strange old game. It had not been pretty. But, on Halloween, we were thankful it didn’t turn into a horror show.

Into the last eight we went.

Shots.

As I was watching from a different viewpoint, it would have been amiss of me not to take a greater share of photographs than usual. I took over two-hundred and fifty with most in concentrated bursts, and the majority before the game and then after. Here are a few from the match itself.

Frank & Jody.

There was the inevitable post-game hugs and handshakes between the players and management of both teams. All eyes were on two of our own.

Pictures.

A gallery of some of the images of the night. Down low, the immense height of the East Stand still staggers me. It was even more impressive when it was first built in 1974. There was no stand like it in England.

Postscript : 1985.

On the drive home in PD’s Chuckle Bus, I happened to mention a video clip to Glenn that I had revisited during the week but which was first aired on a “Facebook / Chelsea In The Eighties” group at the start of the year. In the quarter finals of the League Cup in the 1984/85 season, we drew 1-1 at home to Sheffield Wednesday. We then drew the replay at Hillsborough 4-4, and then beat them 2-1 in the second replay at Stamford Bridge. I didn’t attend any of those games, but I can remember watching the highlights of them all on TV. Wednesday were huge rivals with us in that period. At the end of the final game, there was a pitch invasion, such was the hysteria among our support in reaching a semi-final for the first time in thirteen seasons.

The video that I spoke about was a rare six-minute clip – never aired on TV – at the end of the game, when the cameras were left to roll and the immediate post-match euphoria was captured for eternity. It shows an edgy mass of lads – honestly, virtually no females – in The Shed, The Benches and the North Stand singing and chanting and taunting the away fans. It shows a few scuffles with the police, trying to keep order, and of a vibrant, excited and noisy Stamford Bridge. Nobody wanted to go home. The areas mentioned were full of lads. Jeans and jackets. Hardly any Chelsea colours, it was 1985. Lads standing on the fences. Attitude. A baying mass of humanity. Police horses trotting up and down in front of The Benches. And the noise was loud, as loud as hell. I quickly fumbled for my ‘phone and thankfully found the video. The commentator, who spoke briefly about wanting to see a few unruly Chelsea fans get hit by the truncheons of the Old Bill, was Peter Brackley, who recently passed away.

While Parky slept, and PD and Les were silent in the front, Glenn and I watched – intensely and intently – at the images from thirty-three years ago.

We were mesmerized.

“We’re going to Wembley. We’re going to Wembley. You’re not. You’re not.”

“You come all this way. And you lost. And you lost.”

We even caught a hearty rendition of Chelsea singing “You’ll never walk alone.”

It was a Chelsea song too in those days.

And all because we had reached a League Cup semi-final.

On the drive home, we had heard that we had drawn Bournemouth – again, same as last season – in the final eight, and I knew that if we were to be victorious in that game, the difference between 1985 and 2018 would be vast. And I understand that. In 1985, Chelsea Football Club was a different beast. In 2018, we are ridiculously successful. Reaching a League Cup semi really is no big deal.

But it would be bloody lovely to have some of that adrenaline, passion and boisterousness once again. Or just 50 percent of it.

We can dream, eh?

 

Tales From Fulham High Street And Fulham Road

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 29 September 2018.

So, this was it. The big test. The much-anticipated visit of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, with their six league victories out of six. On the train journey up to London, we all spoke about how excited, and yet nervous, we were ahead of the game at 5.30pm. We chatted briefly about our come-from-behind win against the same opposition at Anfield three days previously. We knew we had ridden our luck a little. But that game highlighted two things to me.

One – we are a vastly different team when Eden Hazard plays. He makes us tick.

Two – our support should never be maligned again. Although I did not attend the game on Wednesday, I was absolutely elated to see that we had taken around five thousand up to Liverpool. And it seemed to me that the younger element of our support – for a while, it seemed we had missed out on a generation – made up a large proportion of those travelling. Maybe those that cannot always get tickets for Anfield in the league decided to travel up on a weekday evening, not always the easiest of logistical operations. Top marks to everyone who travelled. You made me proud.

In the first of the six pubs that we visited before the match, I admitted to Andy from Kent that I was actually enjoying the nervousness of the game with Liverpool.

“To be honest, we have enjoyed so much success over the recent ten years or more, that sometimes we take it for granted, all of this, game after game, especially at the Bridge, regardless of the opposition. But because they – Liverpool – have started so well this season, and because we know what they can do to teams, I’m nervous, but I’m enjoying that emotion. It feels good.”

I had meticulously planned another pub crawl a few weeks back, and I had fastidiously reviewed my plans. We were all relishing another Chuckle Bros Pub Crawl.

After a breakfast at Paddington, though, the disruption caused by the closure of the District Line meant that we chose to head down to our designated meeting point by cab. We headed to the most southerly part of Fulham, right where the bend of the Thames is at its flattest, and made it our home for almost five hours.

I have often mused about the geographical reach of “Chelsea pubs” on match days, and in the lead up to the game, I thought again about what constitutes a Chelsea pub and what doesn’t. My very first pub was The Cock back in 1984, and my mind went on a temporal and geographical journey as I remembered previous seasons and previous sessions.

1984 : The Cock, still going strong.

1985 : The George, alas no more, now an Estate Agents at the junction of the North End Road and Fulham Road.

1986 : The Stamford Bridge Arms, aka the Cross-Eyed Newt, originally the Rising Sun, and now The Butcher’s Hook.

1987 : The Black Bull, now The Pensioner.

1988 : The Fox And Pheasant and The King’s Arms, now the Broadway Bar & Grill, previously The Slug & Lettuce.

1991 : Finch’s, way up the Fulham Road, long closed.

1992 : The Stargazy, alas no more, on the Fulham Road.

1994 : The Harwood Arms, our old regular, on Walham Grove.

Since then, our boozing has taken us to new territories.

North : The Finborough, The Ifield – now closed, The Pembroke, The Courtfield – now an away pub – The Blackbird, O’Neils – now renamed – and The King’s Head, The Lillie Langtry, The Imperial, The Atlas and The Prince Of Wales.

South : The White Hart, now a Thai restaurant, Brogan’s, The Black Rose, formerly The Britannia, then the So Bar and now a hideous cocktail bar, The Jam Tree, formerly the Nell Gwynne, The Beer Engine, formerly The Wheatsheaf, The Hand And Flower, no more, The Imperial, The Morrison, formerly the Lord Palmerston – closed – The Rose, The Chelsea Ram, The Tommy Tucker, formerly The Pickled Pelican, Simmon’s Bar and the White Horse on Parson’s Green, aka “The Sloaney Pony.”

East : The Gunter Arms, The World’s End, The Chelsea Potter.

West : The Oyster Rooms, The Fulham Dray – closed – The Barrowboy – closed, The Mitre, The Malt House, formerly the Jolly Maltsters, The Wellington, The Rylston, The Goose, The Elm, The Old Oak, The Clarence, The Seven Stars – closed – The Colton Arms and The Famous Three Kings.

Fifty-two Chelsea pubs, and all bona fide Chelsea pubs too.

On this day, we would be stretching the southern limits. Just off Putney Bridge tube, we first spent a while in the cosy “Eight Bells” which is often used by Chelsea en route to Craven Cottage. We were joined by “the Kent lot” and also Foxy and Drew fae Dundee. We watched as West Ham went 2-0 up against United. Ho ho ho. Next up, “The King’s Arms” – a bit plusher, but actually cheaper rounds – and then the quite unique interior of “The Temperance”, and a few Chelsea were inside. Over the road, we dipped into “The Golden Lion”, where more Chelsea were located, though I doubt if many of the faces on show were off to the game.

As Parky commented “if the devil could cast his net.”

Over the road, the Fulham High Street, to the swanky “King’s Arms” and we were the only football fans there. In fact, we were virtually the only blokes there.

“Nice scenery, lads.”

Lastly, like homing pigeons, we could not resist heading north up the Fulham Road towards Stamford Bridge and we popped into The Durell Arms for one last guzzle.

No football fans in this one either. Rugby fans. Swerve.

So, I’m not convinced that these six additions could really be classed as “Chelsea” pubs; if anything they are Fulham pubs. After walking for a while, we clambered on board a bus which deposited us right outside Fulham Town Hall. It had been a riotous laugh but it was now time to think about the imminent game.

With eight pints of lager sloshing around between my ears, I kept thinking “concentrate you bastard, concentrate.”

We all made it inside with around ten minutes to spare. It was still a stunning day. Stamford Bridge was crowned with a cloudless sky. It was a perfect evening for football. Maurizio Sarri’s team selection carried no surprises. Thankfully, Antonio Rudiger’s knock at West Ham was not serious enough to stop him playing. It was the starting eleven, I think, that most people would have chosen.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilcueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

For all of our fears concerning the threat of Liverpool, based on their excellent start to the season, I gained a certain amount of solace from the fact that their midfield three consisted of Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum; hardly world beaters in my book. However, it was in defence and attack where Liverpool would surely make life difficult for us. Their “fab three” of Firmino, Salah and Mane could, in theory, give our defenders a torrid time. And their defence, much-improved from previous campaigns, look more like a cohesive unit these days.

Over in the far corner were three-thousand away fans; a mixture of scallies from Scotland Road, Koppites from Kirkby, Gobshites from Guildford and half-and-half scarfers from halfway around the world. Just before the two teams entered the pitch, the away fans draped a “Justice For Grenfell” banner over the balcony wall of the Shed.

The two teams entered the pitch.

It would be the forty-fourth time that I would be watching Liverpool at Stamford Bridge.

The classic blue versus red.

Liverpool are sticking with a darker-than-usual shade of red this season. It is almost a blood red, much different than the lighter hues of recent memory.

The game began, and before we had time to catch our collective breaths, Liverpool were on the front foot and creating chances. Two fell to our former bit-part-player Mo Salah, but he must’ve put his boots on the wrong feet. First an easy shot at Kepa and then a ridiculous blast high and very wide. Next up, Mane followed the wildness with a wide effort of his own. It was certainly advantage to the visitors, as I had quietly feared, but Chelsea then started to create some chances of our own. Raiding down the left, wearing the 17 shirt, it is easy for the mind to play tricks; is that Eden Hazard from 2012, or the bustling Mateo Kovacic from 2018? Either way, both players looked lively.

On twenty-five minutes, a fine move – quick passes – saw a ball played by Kovacic out to the feet of Hazard in his trademark inside left position. My initial thoughts were this :

“That’s a pretty tough angle, he has a lot to do there.”

I need not have worried one iota. Rather than come inside and strike across the ball with his right foot, he looked up and aimed a low shot at goal with his left peg. It would be our first real shot on target. But it was enough. The ball, miraculously, sped just past the fingertips of Allison and nestled into the far corner of the Liverpool goal.

“GETINYOUBASTARD.”

Arms were lifted high into the sky and a guttural roar swallowed Stamford Bridge whole.

We were 1-0 up. Over one hundred yards away, I could just make out Hazard being engulfed by his team mates, and within easy range of the away fans.

It seemed that at that exact moment in time, Eden Hazard was carrying the entire football club. Since his formidable World Cup with Belgium, and his excellent start to the season, his name has been on everyone’s lips. There have been doubts among many at Chelsea over the last few years about his true value, and ultimately his ranking among the very best, but it seems he can do no wrong in these opening games of 2018/2019.

Playmaker, provider, and now goal scorer. It seems that it is all about Eden.

It would not surprise me to see him out on the pitch with ten minutes to go before kick-off with a microphone in hand running through the teams nor after the game taking the goalposts down.

Liverpool immediately countered, and only resolute defending from the central partnership of Luiz and Rudiger stopped the visitors from equalising. We had all expressed doubts about our defence, our weakest link in so many eyes, but I was so pleased to see strength and togetherness, rigidity and power.

We had heard that Manchester City had beaten Brighton before the game, but that seemed to be an irrelevance. Everything was about Chelsea.

Into the second-half, chances were exchanged.

At The Shed End, our goalkeeper – who had not really been called upon to make a save of note – slung himself down to his right to push aside a low shot from Mane. There was thunderous applause from the home faithful.

Our chances were rare, but after a quickly taken free-kick, we were all on our feet to watch as Hazard raced clear of the high line of defenders, but we watched in agony as Allison managed to spread himself and ensure the ball hit a part of his frame before bobbling up and over his goal.

The minutes ticked by.

Olivier Giroud was replaced by Alvaro Morata, but I still sensed that Hazard was our only goal threat. Xherdan Shaqiri replaced the ineffectual Mo Salah for the visitors. Within minutes of coming on, he steered a good chance wide of Kepa’s goal.

Liverpool were applying constant pressure now. We were all clock-watching. We had to thank David Luiz, playing his finest game for us this season and probably since 2016/2017, as he cleared a Firmino header off the line. This was real backs to the wall stuff now.

Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic, his best game for us.

A Shaqiri free-kick was well saved by Kepa.

With five minutes remaining, Milner was replaced by Daniel Sturridge. I remembered his last appearance at Stamford Bridge as a hapless member of a doomed West Brom team and the almost pitiful injury which forced his early exit from the game.

The clock kept ticking.

“COME ON CHELS. KEEP GOING BOYS.”

In the eighty-ninth minute, the ball broke to Sturridge. Without so much as a single second of thought, he instinctively struck a firm and yet slightly curling laser which flew over our flailing ‘keeper and into the highest portion of the goal.

We were silenced.

Tales From Flags, Flames And Four Out Of Four

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 1 September 2018.

Unlike the last home game against Arsenal, I was inside Stamford Bridge with time to spare. It was a sunny and warm afternoon in London. The team had been announced earlier with just the one change since the match at Newcastle United the previous weekend; Willian was in for Pedro. As I had commented last time, there is little to choose between the two.

In the wraparound of the MHU, I said “hello” to a few good friends and waited for the entrance of the teams. I was pleasantly surprised that Bournemouth had almost brought a full three thousand supporters. It helped make sure of another near capacity gate at Stamford Bridge. There was a wide “no man’s land” between the home and away sections of the Shed Upper, but all other areas were full. Bournemouth were maybe just three-hundred shy of the full allocation. With a capacity at the Vitality Stadium – it will always be Dean Court to me – of just 11,000, but with a large catchment area on which to draw, it is difficult to judge the size of the former Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic Football Club’s current support. But 2,700 away fans from a home gate of 9,000 supporters is a good return in my book.

It had been my turn to drive to London. This was my first drive to Stamford Bridge for a weekend game since the West Ham match in early April, almost five months ago. And it seemed like it. On the approach in to West London, high on the M4, I drove past Griffin Park, where Brentford would soon be playing former European Champions Nottingham Forest in a second tier game. A few hundred yards further on, we spotted their new stadium taking shape with the steel of the main stand now standing firm. Fair play to Brentford for keeping within a goalkeeper’s kick of their current home. I’m just glad I managed to visit Griffin Park with Chelsea five years ago. It would be lovely to see them in the top flight at some stage in the near future.

The pre-match had been very pleasant. First up, a two-hour stay in “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, with all the usual suspects. A few of the boys who went on out little pre-match pub crawl against Arsenal, when told of a similar plan against Liverpool, expressed a little concern.

“Blimey. I didn’t remember too much about that Arsenal game.”

“That’s the problem when you drink out of wet glasses.”

Glenn and I moved on to Earl’s Court and popped into a new pub for us, “The King’s Head”, which is tucked away in a quiet side-street behind Earl’s Court Road. In our quest to have a pre-match drink-up in every single pub within a three-mile radius of Stamford Bridge, we are crossing them all off at a fair rate of knots these days. We met up with our friend Russ, who we first met over in Perth in the summer. He was over for a fortnight – he is originally from Wokingham – and it was a pleasure to see him again. He runs the Melbourne Supporters Group and we spoke about the inherent problems in rewarding someone who travels 12,000 miles to see a game via the loyalty points scheme. It is always a toughie. There is no easy answer.

Russ was with a chap who lives, wait for it, in the Melbourne district of Chelsea, home to the Victoria League Division Three team which used to feature in the football pools coupons during the summers of my youth in the ‘seventies, and for whom every Chelsea fan in England used to support, even though they were consistently rubbish. I used to love pouring over those team names though; Chelsea, Dandenong, Geelong, Fitzroy. The memories came flooding back. Starved of football during those long hot summer of my childhood, I would consistently hunt out Chelsea’s latest result in Australia. When my Australian relatives visited in 1980, I was quite stunned when they saw some of the teams’ names – from the Brisbane area – and informed me that they were basically of Sunday League standard. You have to wonder why anyone would bet on such low grade football half a world away. The ‘seventies were odd times.

We also met up with Chelsea fans Jason – from Derbyshire – and Pam – from Staffordshire.

It is always a fine boast that Chelsea supporters from London and the Home Counties always welcome with open arms supporters from other parts of England and the United Kingdom. Speaking as someone from Somerset, I know this to be true. Londoners would often take the piss out of my accent but never my support.

…it is only to the supporters from further afield that some take an irksome view.

“Discuss.”

There was talk of the Europa Cup draw which kept us all occupied on Friday afternoon and evening. I am going to just one of the three away games, against Vidi – the former Videoton – whose game against us will be played at Ferencvaros’ stadium in Budapest. Of all the football cities in Europe that I have not yet visited, the three “Bs” (Berlin, Bilbao and Budapest) are probably top of my list. In December, I will at last be visiting the home of Honved, Ferencvaros, Ujpest Dozsa, MTK, Ferenc Puskas, Nandor Hidegkuti and all those magical Magyars of old. It promises to be a fine trip. Time, eventually, I think to buy myself a retro Chelsea scarf from 1972. In the first pub, as if to pay homage to that era – and our trip to Hungary – Daryl had sported a bloody gorgeous Sergio Tachhini polo shirt sporting the three colours.

In front of the East Stand, large flags denoting the eleven starters were being waved frantically by a few of Chelsea’s ground staff. They then reassembled at both ends of the stadium. As the teams entered the pitch, flames erupted into the sky from along the East Stand touchline.

The flags I could just about stomach. But flames for Bournemouth? Good grief.

I longed for the days when the Stamford Bridge crowd could be relied upon, without any fuss, to generate enough atmosphere of our own.

Returnees Asmir Begovic, in fluorescent yellow and orange, and Nathan Ake were in the Bournemouth team.

Both teams were unbeaten.

We had watched parts of the Liverpool game at Leicester on TV in the pub at West Ken. A win there for the Mickey Mousers had out them on top with four wins out of four. In the build-up to the game, I had conjectured that we could possibly win against Bournemouth, against Cardiff City, and maybe even at West Ham. We could go into the game at home to Liverpool with six wins out of six, but I worried that Liverpool would be the real test. What a game that promises to be.

The game began.

Without much chance of being accused of over-exaggeration, it was all Chelsea in the first period of the first-half.

Everything was eerily similar to the game at St. James’ Park last Sunday. We dominated possession, and our opposition defended deeply but resolutely. I was really impressed with the away team to be truthful. Eddie Howe is a fine manager, and they are lucky to have him.

Down in Australia, I wondered if my cousin Paul would be conflicted. Chelsea is his team – I am the one to thank for that, see a previous tale – but he was born in Bournemouth and so does admit to keeping a keen eye on their results. I promised myself that I would not send him a Chelsea / AFCB half-and-half scarf. But you knew that.

Morata looked livelier than normal in the opening few salvoes, and a few nice moves were generated, but from an early stage, we knew that Bournemouth were well marshalled. A loose touch by David Luiz, sadly typical, was gobbled up by the lively Callum Wilson, who pushed the ball to Ryan Fraser. Annoyingly, Luiz had another chance to redeem himself, but chose not to tackle, but thankfully N’Golo Kante was on hand to chase the attack away.

A lovely deep pass from Luiz made up for his earlier aberration. Jorginho struck a shot wide.

In the first five, then ten, then fifteen, then twenty minutes of the game, the 2,700 away fans were the only ones making any noise.

Last week, I berated the Geordies for their support as being timid, lukewarm and insipid.

Now it was our turn.

As the kids say : “Hold my beer.”

Not a peep could be heard from the 37,000 Chelsea supporters. And I looked around at the faces in the stadium. Surely not everyone was a tourist, that most lampooned – at best – and disliked – at worst – of all Chelsea supporters in 2018.

“Is this a library?” sang the Bournemouth fans.

“Is this the Emirates?”

There was no retort.

Out sung by Bournemouth.

The cherries were on top.

Fucking hell.

I guess we have been spoiled, right?

When I was a child, before I went to school, and maybe for a few years after, I sometimes used to accompany my father on one specific little journey. My Dad was a shopkeeper – menswear – in our local town of Frome and there used to be half-day closing every Thursday. I used to love Thursdays – I feel the same way to this day, “one day to go to the weekend” – as it meant I would be able to spend time with Dad during the daytime. On occasion, he would announce to me “right, I’m off on my rounds, do you want to come?”

I would always say “yes.”

His “rounds” were visits by car to one or two outlying customers who could not always visit his shop in town. I remember Mrs. Doel in Maiden Bradley was a regular. After lunch, just Dad and I would head off through Frome to visit her in her little village a few miles to the south of Frome. I seem to recall that she might often reward me with a couple of sweets or a bar of chocolate. I would stick my plastic steering wheel with its suction cup on to the dashboard and we would set off. The highlight for me, every time, was the return journey when, on a relatively long and straight section of road, I would urge my father to “do fifty.”

This meant for my usually conservative and safe father – I suppose in those days, he would only hit forty miles per hour to save on fuel – to put his foot on the accelerator and aim for the heady speed of fifty miles per hour. With me used to my father driving at thirty through towns and villages, please believe me when I say that for a five or six-year-old boy to be driven at fifty miles an hour seemed simply exhilarating and almost supersonic. I know my father got a buzz out of it too.

These days, damn it, I drive at fifty miles an hour as a norm.

It feels mundane. It feels slow. There is no thrill.

All things are relative in this world.

In 1971, 50 mph was the most exciting feeling ever.

In 2018, 50 mph seems simply mundane.

I think that, at Chelsea, we need to get back to 1971.

On twenty-three minutes – I was keeping count – the Chelsea support at last responded with a song which was audible and sustained.

Twenty-three fucking minutes.

Every year I say it, but for 90% of our home games, the atmosphere gets worse and worse with each passing campaign. In some ways, though, modern football does not help. Decades ago when the shape and pattern, its physicality, of football was so different, the crowd were more likely to be on edge, involved, and more likely to feel that a song of support would help.

In 2018, much of our football involves watching Chelsea maintain the ball for long periods, and working out how our players can break through a packed defence. Although it is technically superior to the cut and thrust of the ‘seventies, ‘eighties and even ‘nineties, it helps to produce a different type of spectator. There are few crunching midfield tackles – a bona fide noise generator in days of old – and there are few surprise breaks, with a rise in noise at each touch. We watch players pass, pass, pass, we watch players close down space and shuffle positions, all within a thirty-yard band across the pitch. We sit on our hands and discuss tactics. We clap occasionally.

Regardless of the changing demographics in which many are turned off by some of the financial absurdities of football, the dying out of football as a working man’s game, the lack of youngsters going to football and the changing codes of behaviour in society, the patterns of modern football itself are not always conducive to the noise of old.

Anyway, suffice to say, until the twenty-third minute, the atmosphere at the Chelsea vs. Bournemouth game on the first day of September 2018 was the worst I had ever known.

On the half-hour, despite our dominance, a rapid Bournemouth break – cheered on by the away fans, see what I mean? – almost resulted in a goal against the run of play when a Rico cross was touched over by Wilson.

“Should be one down” I muttered.

At the other end, Morata and Kovacic had half-chances. In the closing moments, a fine run by Kante resulted in a cross from Hazard being met by the right foot of Alonso. His shot struck the post.

For all of our possession, it had been a little frustrating, but was my frustration a result of the morgue-like atmosphere in the stadium?

We had enjoyed tons of possession for sure, more than even we are used to, but I noted at times a lack of movement from the forwards, and even though Jorginho must have touched the ball every few seconds, I could not honestly remember him playing a killer ball. If anything, the two most incisive passes came from the defenders Rudiger and Luiz. Hazard and Willian had been involved but had – wonderful football phrase coming up – “flattered to deceive.” Alvaro Morata had not shone. And I am still not sure about us letting Kante roam. I am not convinced we will get the best out of him in a box-to-box role. But Jorginho is Maurizio Sarri’s man. He will choose him constantly I suspect.

Oh, by the way, Sarri in an ill-fitting Nike T-shirt must be the exception that proves the rule that all Italian men have an inherent sense of style that the World envies.

The second-half began with clear blue skies overhead still. It was a perfect afternoon in SW6.

After some majestic fleet-footed wizardry from Hazard in front of us, Alonso belted a strong shot from just outside the box, but former blue Begovic saved. Alonso was having a fine game, more involved offensively than Azpilicueta on the other flank. I don’t think that Marcos has been paying attention to the new system. He thinks he is still a marauding wing-back.

Incredibly, a Bournemouth corner fell at the feet of Nathan Ake but he somehow managed to push it over the bar.

“How the fuck did that not go in?”

Despite his early promise, and a few quarter-chances, it had been quite painful to watch Morata flounder in the second-half. His aerial challenges were not worthy of the name. He was replaced on the hour by the more physical Olivier Giroud. He immediately looked the business, his whole body language – “aggression” for the want of a better word – impressed. When he went up for a ball, it at least looked like he wanted to win the header.

Soon after, Pedro replaced Willian.

We noted an upturn in our fortunes. More pace. More direct. And, damn it, a little more noise too.

Mateo Kovacic was fighting hard to make his presence felt. He engineered a couple of efforts.

With twenty minutes remaining, Alonso played the ball inside to Pedro, who neatly made space to play a one-two with Giroud. The big Frenchman moved the ball back superbly into the path of Pedro, who took a further touch to edge into space past Ake. His low shot hit the corner perfectly. The roar went up and Pedro raced away to the far corner before carrying out a Crystal Palace North Stand 1976 Kung Fu kick at the corner flag.

Chelsea 1 Bournemouth 0.

Phew.

“He can certainly find the corners, Pedro. He is more of a goal threat than Willian.”

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Kovacic with just over ten minutes remaining. His big season this, I wish him well.

Another shot from Pedro. Saved.

With around five minutes to go, Alonso – involved again – slipped the ball into the path of Hazard, who easily slipped past challenges to drill the ball low past Begovic.

His little jump and fist pump, then smile with arms outspread, was a joy to watch. The players joined in with the celebration down below us in The Sleepy Hollow. I love to see everyone together.

Team Chelsea.

Antonio Rudiger joined in with the celebrations, but seemed to flick Eden’s ear, and Eden – far from playfully – struck back. Dave was able to be on hand to keep them apart. It was an odd moment. I’m sure it amounted to nothing.

We walked out into the warm evening with “Blue Is The Colour” ringing in our ears.

I liked the way that the substitutions seemed to open things up after the hour. I liked the way we kept going. I loved seeing Eden on form. Pedro was introduced just at the right time. It was, in the end, an impressive win.

So, Chelsea.

Four out of four.

Bloody hell.

On we go.

Tales From November In August

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 26 August 2018.

Not so long after I picked up Parky from his Wiltshire village at around 6am on Saturday, my car slowed to allow a black cat, leaping from one hedgerow to another, to cross the narrow country lane. PD and I could not immediately decide if a black cat crossing one’s path was deemed as good or bad luck, though we feared the latter.

I thought about Sunderland’s relatively new, and quite ridiculous, nickname as being certified evidence that it was indeed bad luck, a warning of misfortune at best or something graver still at worst. The Black Cats was surely dreamt up by some marketing consultant for Sunderland so as to instil fear into their opponents.

Beware the Black Cats. Although not in their current third tier predicament.

The Black Cats. Destined to strike fear into Sunderland’s opposition.

Meow bloody meow.

But the message was clear. Black cats were definitely seen as a bad omen. It was just what I bloody needed at the start of our trip to Tyneside. I had not seen us win at St. James’ Park since 2009, and our last win up there was in 2011.

I needed all the good luck charm I could find.

And then, just moments after, it just got worse.

A single Magpie flew past.

Sunderland’s menacing Black Cats and Newcastle United’s sorrowful Magpie.

I felt like turning the car around there and then.

But I drove on. I wasn’t going to let such irrationality influence another, hopefully, memorable jaunt to the North-East.

My alarm had sounded at 4.15am, and I collected PD at 5.30am. It was safe to say that we were the only ones on the road. It did not seem five minutes ago since we were last headed to Bristol Airport, and then to Newcastle. Our last league game of last season was of course against the same opposition. The two fixtures were fifteen weeks apart, but in league football terms, just one hundred and eighty minutes apart.

At the airport, we faced a two-hour delay.

Bollocks.

The flight would eventually leave at around 10.45am.

Maybe we should have taken heed of the Black Cat and the Magpie after all.

Not to worry, we soon landed at the airport, took a cab into town and booked into our hotel down on the quayside, right under the darkened shadows of the green ironwork of the Tyne Bridge. We were out and about – “The Slug & Lettuce” – by about 12.45pm. The first three pints of the day – “Peronis” – did not touch the sides. We were soon joined by Andy, a friend from back home, and his good friend Russ, who is a Newcastle season ticket holder, and who we met back in May. Russ and Andy were in the army together, and I have known for a few years that Andy always stays with Russ when Chelsea play in the north-east. We then dropped into the “Newcastle Arms”, a first-time visit for me. Here was another delightful Geordie pub, stripped bare to expose its red brick, but with comfortable chairs and good food too. The plastered walls of dingy pubs of the past have long since been banished from this part of the Toon.

And it is a fantastic little area, right under the high arches of Newcastle’s famous bridge, full of pubs and bars, with rowdiness and laughter, with shrieking females and strutting lads, not so mad as the Bigg Market atop the hill, but a wonderfully evocative location.

On a whim, Russ invited us back to his local pub to continue the drinking session. We were more than happy to head out of the city centre. I, for one, didn’t want this trip to be a simple repeat of the one in May. We hopped into two cabs outside the “Akenside Traders”, and were soon “ganning” over the Tyne, into Gateshead, past Paul Gascoigne’s home town of Dunston and past the Metro Centre. After only ten minutes, we found ourselves in The Sun at Swalwell, where we met the landlord Dave, who quickly bought us a round of lagers.

We chatted to the locals, who were more than welcoming, and we had an absolute blast. We bloody loved it. I chatted to Russ about all sorts of football stories, and the beers and laughter flowed. There was an impromptu photo call with one of the locals, who proceeded to take off his shirt to expose his NUFC tattoos. Bit of a Geordie tradition that, I fear.

Dave, the landlord, was wearing a Bobby Robson shirt. Bless him.

Amid the laughter, there was one sad story. In 2014, two Newcastle United supporters – John Alder and Liam Sweeney – perished when the plane on which they were passengers was shot down over the Ukraine in a sickening act of terrorism. They were on their way to see their team play in New Zealand.

John Alder, who only missed one Newcastle United game in forty years, and who was affectionately known as “the undertaker” because of the black suit that he wore to games, often used to drink in “The Sun” at Swalwell.

RIP Bonny Lads.

Dave bought us a round of Sambucas as a leaving gift and we jumped back into a waiting cab to take us back into town.

At the Redhouse, we again met up with Kev, Gillian and Richard from Edinburgh– no strangers to these tales – and then Alan and Jo from Atherstone. We nipped over the road for a curry, and then the drinking continued at the “Akenside Traders” and then up the hill at the oddly named “Colonel Porter’s Emporium.”

We had been “on it” – and had valiantly stopped ourselves from falling “off it” – for around ten hours.

Although The Toon was still bouncing, we decided to call it a night at around 11pm.

On the Sunday, in an exact copy of May, we breakfasted at “The Quayside” pub. We were first joined by Foxy, from Dundee, who last appeared in these tales for the Barcelona away game, and it was a pleasure to see him again. He had only decided to come down to the game at 6am that morning. I was happy to offer him my one spare ticket. We were also joined by my work colleague Craig who, with his young son, had driven up from Wiltshire in the wind and rain on the day, a horrific journey which had taken him seven hours. Outside, the rain was lashing down. The difference between May and August was black and white.

Four more pints of lager to the good, I hopped into one of the two cabs that took us to the ground.

We took our seats way up in the upper tier of the Leazes End.

Everything was grey, the seats, the stadium, the steel of the roof, the city outside, the hills on the horizon.

We all had jackets on. It wasn’t ridiculously cold, but when the wind blew you knew about it. It was like November in August.

The kick-off approached. There had been changes from the Arsenal game.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante

Pedro – Morata – Hazard

Eden’s inclusion surprised me; Sarri had hinted that he would be rested further.

The Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop” thundered around the stadium, complete with images of Newcastle victories over us in recent seasons on the TV screens. This then gave way to Mark Knopfler’s “Local Hero”, a song which I find particularly stirring. I always remember that after England’s exit to West Germany in Italia ’90, as a precursor to our third/fourth place play-off against Italy in Bari, the BBC team aired a five-minute segment in which the rich and varied talents of the wunderkind Gascoigne were featured, and the instrumental “Local Hero” was chosen to illustrate it. It was as one of the most evocative pieces of imagery that I had ever seen. It captured my imagination in 1990, and hearing the same song, high up and above St. James’ Park in 2018 I was again stirred.

It was just a lovely moment. I stood and looked out over the grey rooftops of the ancient city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and breathed it all in.

Football.

Music.

Mates.

History.

Chelsea.

“It’s not a bad life is it, this?”

I had a little smile to myself, only for myself, but now shared with everyone.

The moment fair took my breath away.

Behind me, the yellow “away” flag fluttered past.

Memories of my first game up in Newcastle in 1984 when Kerry, Wee Pat and Speedo wore the famous “lemon” hoops.

This would be my eleventh trip to St. James’ but nothing compares to my first time.

This little clip brings the memories tracing back.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8yqG0IfPYI

In 2018, Chelsea were in all blue. We were far enough away from the kit for it to look semi-respectable. The Newcastle United kit this season jars a little too; thin stripes, not their style, and white socks too, not their usual black. It did not look right. It did not look like Newcastle United to me. I noted a surprisingly number of unoccupied seats in the directors’ box area of the main Milburn Stand, plus many empty ones in the top tier to our right. The locals’ displeasure with Mike Ashley is obviously continuing.

The game began. A kick on Eden Hazard in the first minute was not punished.

It was quickly evident that Newcastle were quite happy to sit deep. We absolutely dominated possession. With Jorginho and Hazard seeing a lot of the ball, we tried to cut in to the massed ranks of the thin-striped black and white shirts.

Ironically, the only effort that troubled either of the two goalkeepers came from the boot of Murphy, but his low speculative shot was ably saved by Arrizabalaga. A deep cross, into the corridor of uncertainty – which sounds to me like it should be in a hospital where doctors carry out gender-reassignment – from the trust right foot of Azpilicueta could not – quite – reach the not so trusty foot of Alvaro Morata.

We passed and passed. We passed and passed. It was rather one-paced, and not exactly thrilling. But the away fans were in very fine voice in the first thirty minutes of the game. But one song grated, as it always grates.

Rafa Benitez last managed us over five years ago.

If Chelsea fans really do not care about Rafa, why do they bloody sing about him to this day?

How about a song for the current manager or – shock horror – current players?

A song about Rafa, in 2018, is as fucking tedious as it gets.

We still controlled the game, with little quick triangles played in an attempt to create space, or at least a diversion, from which space could be gained. A Rudiger effort was well wide. Hazard curled one past the post. A Morata effort was driven wide. The Toon ‘keeper still had not made a save in anger.

Then, a rare Newcastle effort, a deep cross from a free kick, but Rondon headed well wide.

“Free header, though, Alan” I muttered.

On thirty-four minutes, the home fans eventually raised a song for their home town heroes.

“Newcasuuuuul, Newcasuuuuul, Newcasuuuuul.”

I had never known them so quiet.

In 1984, their mesmeric “Howay The Lads” sent shivers down our spines, and made our knees tremble. But on this drizzly August afternoon in 2018, this was post-modern support at its most timid, lukewarm and insipid.

A Pedro effort cleared the bar. But space was at an absolute premium. Only once did I remember us playing an early ball, out to Pedro, but nobody else reacted quick enough for us to seize an advantage by gambling and drifting past players. After some luxurious tip tap toe shuffling from Hazard, a Pedro shot at last made the Geordie ‘keeper make a save.  At half-time, despite us having so much of the ball, I did wonder if we would ever pierce their defence.

The second-half began with the script unchanged. If anything, Newcastle defended deeper still.

Kante often attacked his area of the pitch, but it seemed to me that this was – at the moment – like a square peg in a round hole. One of the best holding midfielders of his generation, worldwide, being asked to go into uncharted territories seemed odd to my layman’s eyes. In contrast, Jorginho was hardly asked to do much defending, but he acted as a metronome for our play – pass, pass, pass – and I noted that he grew a little frustrated with the lack of movement of his runners ahead of him. Azpilicueta shot at the ‘keeper. And then a heavy touch from Morata and the moment was lost.

On the hour mark, I spoke to Alan.

“This is like a game of chess, but we have too many pawns. We are missing knights, rooks and queens.”

We were missing movement off the ball. We were devoid of pace. Of course, they were closing down all space and suffocating us, but I wanted a little more craft, a little more vision, a little more magic. And we then seemed to stretch them, just as I had wanted. I suspect that the home team were tiring. Hazard and Alonso were now turning their men inside and out.

With twenty-five minutes to go, Olivier Giroud replaced Alvaro Morata.

Then Willian came on for Pedro. There is surely not much to choose between these two wide men.

Rudiger, who had been a calming influence alongside the more tempestuous Luiz, crashed a howitzer against the bar from the southern banks of the River Tyne.

The support turned up the notches.

It was only us making the noise.

The locals were not vocal.

With fifteen minutes to go, Hazard played in the raiding Alonso. From my vantage point – through my telephoto lens, “snap” – it looked like the trailing leg of a defender had stopped him in his tracks.

Penalty.

Eden Hazard flicked the ball past the ‘keeper’s dive and how we – and he – celebrated.

Alan Price : “They’ll have to come at us now like pet, man.”

Chris Donald : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

Without irony, the Geordies sung.

“Sing when you’re winning.”

Sickeningly, our lead – deserved, surely – only lasted a few minutes. Out on the right flank, an agricultural challenge by Yedlin on Giroud – from our vantage point some five miles away, it looked like a forearm smash, as much loved by Mick McManus and Kendo Nagasaki – and some Chelsea players appeared to stand like pillars of stone, waiting for a free-kick that never came. Yedlin whipped in a cross towards the near post and with David Luiz horribly flat-footed, substitute Joselu headed strongly past our kid to equalise.

“Bollocks.”

The home support at last roared.

The clock ticked on.

With three minutes remaining, a long searching (as in “slightly over hit”) ball found Giroud, who did ever so well to head the ball back towards Marcos Alonso on his wrong wing. He volleyed the ball through the legs of a defender and we watched, open mouthed, as the leg of Yedlin – karma – diverted it into the yawning goal.

“GETINYOUBASTARD.”

Newcastle United 1 Chelsea 2.

A huge celebration took place in the upper section, three-thousand strong, of the Leazes End. We had won our third consecutive league game of the season.

Nine points out of nine.

Well done, lads.

We met up outside the away end, and slowly walked down to the Quayside. The three of us were joined by Raymondo, who tends to favour Chelsea colours, unlike us. As we walked past Sunday evening revelers, lads full of bravado and beer and girls in short skirts and high heels, past bar after bar, a local man in his ‘seventies, spotted Raymondo and approached him. I looked back and saw him shake Raymondo’s hand, wishing us well this season.

Canny people, the Geordies, like.

 

 

At last we had beaten the Geordies.

And, for those upset with my comments about Rafa Benitez, here is a photograph of him walking alone.

 

 

Tales From Hammersmith Bridge To Stamford Bridge

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 18 August 2018.

Even though I had set my Saturday morning “first home game of the season” alarm as early as 6.30am, and even though I caught the first of two trains to take us up to Paddington from Frome station at 8.07am and although I left the last of four pubs that we chose to visit at just before 5pm, I still managed to miss the bloody kick-off.

That takes some doing, eh?

It would, if I was pressed, be something that I might term “Proper Chelsea.”

I remember that even on our greatest night in our history, I still only arrived at my seat in the Nord Kurv of Munich’s Allianz Stadium with barely more than five minutes to go until kick-off.

I usually manage to time it just right, often slipping into my seat a few minutes before the teams enter the pitch. Not on this occasion. There had been another fantastic pre-match pub crawl, but then a little delay at Earl’s Court, and then again as we climbed the steps at Fulham Broadway, when tempers ran a little high between both sets of fans. At just before 5.30pm, I grabbed a programme, shook Kerry Dixon’s hand outside the West Stand – he appeared to be in just as much a rush as I was – and made my way up to the Matthew Harding Wraparound.

Just after kick-off, I was in.

I had missed the pre-game show. Alan showed me the banner that had surfed over the supporters in The Shed Upper, a celebration of Roman’s fifteen years in charge and of the fifteen major trophies within that time span.

Other teams – no names, no pack drill – could only dream of such success.

I was back at Stamford Bridge for my forty-fifth season of match-going Chelsea support.

And it felt great.

As always, there was a quick scan of the Chelsea team – “same as at Huddersfield” – and a scan of the away support – “same as always Arsenal, more than the usual amount of replica shirts in their three thousand compared to, say, Spurs or West Ham.”

The ridiculous “Thrilling Since 1905” had thankfully disappeared from the signage at Stamford Bridge.

We were left with “The Pride Of London” and I can’t find fault with that.

I had mentioned to Glenn on the train journey to London that I fancied a Chelsea win. There was no real scientific theory behind this – the season is far too early for any real prognosis of our overall chances just yet – but I just had this feeling that we would be sending Arsenal away with their second successive league defeat of the season. The morning train ride into London had been a real pleasure. There were thoughts of the game, but also – of course – thoughts of meeting up with some good Chelsea people along the way too.

After a breakfast on Praed Street, we caught a train down to Hammersmith. Not for the first time, we had planned a pub crawl by the side of the River Thames. At just after midday, we met up with Kim and Dan, then settled in at The Old City Arms, right on Hammersmith Bridge, its green wrought iron just outside the pub windows. Andy and Phil joined us, and then Dave. The counties of Somerset, Wiltshire, Kent and Northampton shire were represented.

And we were then joined by the state of Michigan.

Erica and Victor – on a whirlwind European tour including a wedding (not theirs I hasten to add) in Frankfurt, and quick visits to Valencia and Paris – were in town for Chelsea and Chelsea only. I had met them both in Ann Arbor for the Chelsea vs. Real Madrid game in 2016 and we had stayed in touch ever since, and especially since they told me of their imminent visit to these shores. It was a pleasure to welcome them to our little tour party. In a week when La Liga announced its intention to play regular season games in the United States in the near future, it was fitting that Erica and Victor, bless ‘em, had travelled over land and sea to London to watch us. Another friend, Russ – who I had met for the first time in Perth in the summer – was also in town especially for Chelsea from his home in Melbourne.

And this is the way it should be.

For those of you who have been reading these match reports the past ten years, my views on all of this are well known. Like many Chelsea supporters in the UK – and I am basing this on those who I know, who are mainly match-goers, I don’t know many Chelsea who do not go to football – the idea of Chelsea playing a league game outside of our national, and natural, borders both saddens and repulses me.

My message is crisp and clear.

“You want to want to watch English football?”

“That’s great. Come to England.”

Of course, Richard Scudamore and his money-chasers at the Football Association originally proposed the “39th Game” in 2008, and – thankfully – the idea was shot down in flames by supporter groups the length and breadth of the country. This cheered me no end. I felt that the football community had said “no” in a forceful and coherent way. Of course, since then, all manner of US regular league games have been played out in the UK – er London, does any other English city exist in the minds of the average American? – and with each passing NBA and NFL game which takes place in our capital city, my spirits weaken. I have no doubt that the FA look on and rub their hands with glee. It will surprise nobody, I hope, to know that I am already boycotting the New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox baseball series at The Oval next June.

It would not feel right for me to attend. That’s just my personal choice. I’ve seen the Yankees play thirty times in The Bronx and nine times on the road. But the thought of seeing the Yankees playing in some sort of ersatz environment (I dread to think, I dread to think…) does nothing for me, and it would be supremely hypocritical.

Major League Baseball got the ball rolling with this concept – “sporting colonialism” – around twenty years ago with regular season games in Japan and then Mexico. It has been the American way. I made the point to Erica and Victor that US teams seem to hop around from one city to another at the drop of a hat (or at the hint of a new stadium), and so there seems to be an immediate disconnect between teams and supporters. There is an ambivalence to the fans. I do not seem to see too many NFL season ticket holders, for example, in the US campaigning against the loss of home games to London.

In England and in the UK, supporters are a lot more tribal, more political, more strident, and I bloody hope it continues.

My secret wish is that a couple of our football clubs – let’s name names, Liverpool and Manchester United – who have very politicised support bases and pressure groups (“The Spirit Of Shankly” and the “Manchester United Supporters Trust” to name two) will lead the way in fighting against any new proposals for “overseas games.”

I have always said that if the FA, and if Chelsea are implicit in their plans, decide to play a regular season game outside of England and Wales, then that will be the last straw for me.

An idle threat?

I am not sure. It would be a heart-breaking decision for me to turn my back on the love of my life, but nobody enjoys getting the piss taken out of them.

We will wait and see.

Down on the River Thames, we hopped from The Old City Arms to The Blue Anchor and then to The Rutland.

The pints were, of course, going down rather well. The time raced past.

Erica and Victor were staying near Earl’s Court, and they had tried to pop into a local pub during the morning. From their story, I believe that the pub was “The Courtfield”, which stands right opposite the tube station, and is one of the main “away” pubs at Chelsea. Victor was wearing a 2010/2011 home shirt, and he was advised by a policeman to avoid going in to the boozer as it was full of Arsenal. This totally shocked Erica and Victor. In the US, home and away fans in team colours mix easily and freely outside stadia and in nearby pubs. The cultural differences between sport in the UK and the US were spoken about once more. Victor, forced into a corner somewhat and maybe fearing all sorts of mayhem at Stamford Bridge, chose to wear a grey pullover over the Chelsea shirt instead.

There then ensued a little chat with Erica and Victor about “the cult with no name” and our ongoing predilection for designer clobber at football. As we stood overlooking the River Thames, watching rowers and paddle boarders, I gave the two visitors a crash course in the casual movement from 1977 to date. I looked over at the lads in our tour party and, quite fittingly, everyone was wearing football schmutter. In fact, we could not have been more colour-coordinated. But not a single Chelsea shirt, scarf or favour, save from a couple of very small pin badges.

“Less is more.”

But I then commented to Erica that if any other football fan – “in the know” as we say – were to walk past, they would immediately know that we were all going to football.

More beers, more stories, more Tales From The Riverside.

The idea was to head up to “The Dove” – the best pub of the lot – but time was against us. We caught the tube to West Kensington, and dived into “The Famous Three Kings” which was awash with Juventus Club Londra fans watching their game against Chievo.

I could not resist.

“Forza Juve, Vinci Per Noi.”

So, that was the pre-match. The big thrill for me was to see Erica and Victor enjoying themselves so much, and sharing jokes and laughter with my mates. In the four hours that they were with us, they sampled a great range of alcohol too; cider, bitter, lager, “Guinness”, and even a “Pimms”.

I hope they remembered the match.

In the opening salvos of the game, honours were pretty even. A couple of chances for us, and a couple for them. David Luiz, wearing plain black boots – weirdo – tried to lob Cech, but was unsuccessful. Thankfully, we did not have too long to wait. A beautifully weighted through ball from Jorginho picked out the run of Marcos Alonso down our left. He soon spotted the figure of Pedro to his right, in oodles of space, and his pass was perfection itself. Right in front of the Arsenal support, Pedro slipped a low ball past Petr Cech, the man in black.

One-nil to The Chelsea.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

I admired the touch and movement of Ross Barkley in the first moments of the game. He seems to have grown in stature over the summer; in self-confidence, in presence. He may yet be a fantastic buy. I always liked him in his first few seasons at Everton.

Aubameyang forced a save from Kepa Arrizabalaga.

I’ll just call him “Save.”

Then, a ridiculously easy chance for Aubameyang again, but he ballooned the ball over from a very central position. Our defence, it seemed, had not been introduced to each other before the game. Then, another rapid break into the Arsenal half. A long ball from Dave was played beyond the Arsenal line and Alvaro Morata was able to race away, twist past his marker and wrong foot Peter Cech. His finish looked easier than it was. He raced away to Parkyville and wildly celebrated.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

I must admit that I found it odd to see N’Golo Kante in a more forward position; it is a role that we are not used to see. How often have we seen him over the past two seasons patrolling that central section of the park, and causing a massive hindrance to opposing players? It is his role, his position.

On his day, he gets as close to his opponent as a wet shower curtain.

And now, within the manager’s new plan, he is asked to change his game, and I am not sure if we will see the best of him. In our old system of 3/4/3, I would imagine that a midfield “two” of Jorginho and Kante would have been ideal. But what do I know?

Next, another gilt-edged chance for Arsenal but another line fluffed. Mkhitarian repeated Aubameyang and the ball flew high over our bar.

“Phew.”

This was open a game as I had seen for a while.

Maurizio Sarri, bedecked in head to toe royal blue, was not as animated as the previous manager, but he studiously watched from the technical area and the bench. If you squint, and think “sepia”, he looks a little like Billy Birrell, our spectacled manager from both sides of the Second World War.

Morata forced a save from Cech.

While my concentration was devoted to demolishing a chicken katsu pie, its contents as hot as molten lava, I looked on as Mkhitarian popped a low shot past Arrizabalaga from outside the box after we gave up possession rather too easily. Then, horror upon horrors, a ball was whipped in from our left and Iwobi struck from close-in. Our defenders were not even close. It reminded me of the low crosses from which Manchester United often used to punish us twenty years or so ago.

So, all even at the break and many a scratched head in the Matthew Harding.

I popped down for a very brief chat with Big John in the front row.

“So, if we play a league game in the US, is that it for you, John?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

“It’s a pact then.”

We laughed.

The second-half began. With us attacking the Matthew Harding, the play stagnated a little. Ross Barkley broke through but Cech saved well. We needed an extra push. On the hour, Sarri decided to shake things up.

Mateo Kovacic for Ross Barkley (a shame, I though Barkley had been fine) and Eden Hazard for Willian.

We were treated, almost immediately, to some pure sparkle from Eden Hazard. He immediately looked the part. Mateo Kovacic instantly impressed too. In fact, I can rarely remember a more impressive home debut as a second-half substitute, Joe Allon excepted (you had to be there.)

He was all energy, full of movement, skillful in tight areas, and a lovely awareness of others.

OK, I was joking about Joe Allon.

Marcos Alonso and Eden Hazard lined up alongside David Luiz as a free-kick was awarded, but the Brazilian’s effort was saved by Cech.

On seventy-five minutes, Olivier Giroud replaced Alvaro Morata.

We seemed to tighten our grip on the game.

A chance for N’Golo. Over.

Throughout the game, Alan – bless him – had been tough on the defensive frailties of Marcos Alonso, who had often been caught out of position or ball-watching. With ten minutes remaining, an exquisite burst from Eden Hazard enabled him to drift easily past his marker and drill a low cross right into the box. Who else but Alonso arrived just at the right time to flick the ball through Peter Cech’s legs.

“Nuts.”

The Stamford Bridge crowd erupted as one. I jumped up and punched the air, then quickly looked back at Alan and we found ourselves smiling and pointing at one another.

The joy of the moment.

A late winner.

Against Arsenal.

Marcos Alonso.

Fackinell.

We were, believe it or not, top of the league.

We exchanged a few last chances but Arsenal disappeared off into the West London evening with no points in their first two games under their new manager. Yes, we had ridden our luck in the first-half, but thank heavens for Eden Hazard. Arsenal do not have anyone like him, and nor do many others. Let’s keep him for life.

We began the day with a breakfast at Praed Street and we finished it with an Indian on Praed Street.

We caught the 9.30pm train home, and the beers had taken their toll over the day, and a couple of us, ahem, rested our eyes.

We finally reached Frome at midnight.

It had been a top day.

See you at Newcastle next Sunday.