Tales From Penkhull And Sideway

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : Saturday 23 September 2017.

Game five of September’s Magnificent Seven was at a familiar ground for me. Ever since our first-ever match at Stoke City’s new stadium in the FA Cup on an astonishingly cold Sunday in February 2003, I have witnessed every Chelsea game at the stadium on the hill. The match this season would be my tenth consecutive Stoke City vs. Chelsea league game. We have generally fared well, winning five, drawing two and losing two. But “Stoke Away” is always regarded as a tough game; the home side under Tony Pulis and now Mark Hughes have never made it easy for us.

Our third away game of the league season, our second successive one in the Midlands, and the Chuckle Bus was on the road once more.

Roadworks on the M5 forced us onto the M42 and then on the M6, over Spaghetti Junction and past Villa Park, and it meant that we only turned off the motorway and onto the A500 into my former college town at around midday. After replenishing my tank at a “Sainsbury’s” filling station in the Stoke town centre, I was pleased to garner a fabled response from the middle-aged woman at the till.

“Forty pounds, please duck.”

Ah, the Stoke-on-Trent duck. This was truly music to my ears. It was one of the charming idiosyncrasies of the local dialect and I developed a strong liking for it in the three years I lived in the city. It had no barrier. It was everywhere. Teenagers would call shop assistants “duck”, grown men would call young women “duck”, women would call us students “duck”, grown men would call each other “duck.”

I had to reply in kind.

“Ta, duck.”

I was back in Stoke.

I drove up to Penkhull which, like the football stadium, sits on a high ridge of land overlooking the sprawl of The Potteries. Not for the first time, we visited The Greyhound pub, which sits opposite the church spire of St. Thomas. Drinks were ordered and the Chuckle Brothers were at ease, save for the occasional glowering look from a local Stoke fan, who evidently wasn’t too enamoured with us plotting up in his pub. The pub is just right; cosy, a friendly landlord, good beers, and the building dates back to 1704, and so has just the right amount of character.

It was right that I was in The Greyhound in Penkhull on this particular day.

During the week, an old college friend Huw passed on some sad news that a mutual friend, Chris, had passed away the previous Saturday at just fifty-three. During my first year at Stoke – season 1984/85 – I shared digs with Chris and Huw and we became good friends. I was a fresher and they were in their third and final year of their chemistry degrees. They took me under their wing. After that first year, Chris went up to Glasgow to study a master’s degree at Strathclyde University. It wasn’t long before we were to meet up again. In February 1986, I read in a midweek paper that Chelsea were to play a friendly at Ibrox against Rangers – following-on from the Chelsea/Rangers lovefest at Anfield in November 1985 – and I quickly contacted Chris to see if he could put me up for the following weekend. Without the internet, and with me in The Midlands, it was lucky that I had read about the game, which took place on a Friday night. It so easily could have passed me by. As luck would have it, British Rail were in the middle of a special fares promotion for holders of a Young Person’s Railcard, and any destination in the UK could be reached for just £8.

Perfect.

I have vivid memories of exclaiming to a couple of fellow-football lads on my course that I was heading up to Glasgow with Chelsea at the weekend and, I’ll be honest, it felt like the most decadent thing I had ever done.

I was young, and free, and I had a return to Glasgow Central. What a buzz.

It was my first Chelsea weekend away of my life and I was certainly excited then as I am these days when I bugger off to Beijing, or Rome, or Baku.

I met up with Chris at his university and we soon went on an increasingly wobbly pub crawl around Glasgow. In 1986, Scotland was the only place in the UK with all-day opening. It was to be my downfall. We visited a number of pubs in the city centre and near Chris’ digs in Shettleston. We visited a bar on Shettleston High Street owned by Liverpool’s Kenny Dalglish. After gathering his next-door neighbour Jim – a Rangers fan – we hopped on to a train into the centre at about 6pm, chatting to some ‘Gers fans from Edinburgh. The alcohol was taking over. I knew that I was reaching saturation level. Chris was not a huge football fan like me – he was from Grimsby, and loosely followed them – but he loved a beer. He was clearly leading me astray on this cold night in Glasgow. We popped into a dark pub right outside Queen Street train station – “Dow’s” – and got chatting to some Rangers fans from Gloucester of all places. They were able to squeeze us into a transit van and we hurtled off towards Ibrox. Outside, by the tube station, we entered the packed “Stadium” bar, which was wall-to-wall Rangers. The beer intake was continuing. Oh my goodness.

Chris, Jim and I watched the Rangers vs. Chelsea game on that night in 1986 – it was on St. Valentine’s Day, how romantic – from high up in the home Copeland Road stand. Over in the Broomloan Stand were around three or four hundred Chelsea fans – including my mate Alan, who, I was to later learn, had been in The Stadium bar too – and it was a surreal feeling to be watching my team in such famous, and yet alien, surroundings. Chelsea lost 3-2 that night, and – of course – my memories are rather blurred from all of the alcohol coursing through my veins. I remember us playing in that pristine white Le Coq Sportif kit. I remember a floodlight failure for a good ten minutes. I remember Pat Nevin, the Catholic, getting a bit of a rough ride from the nearby fans, which I was far from happy about.

I also remember singing “The famous Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see the pope” which got a – cough, cough – mixed reaction too. With about ten minutes to go, maybe to beat the crowds, maybe fearing for my safety, Jim decided it was best to head home.

We left, and disappeared into the Glasgow night, the smell of fried food blocking my nostrils, only to continue drinking back at Jim’s flat. Elsewhere in that fabled city, Pat Nevin met Clare Grogan, on Valentine’s Night, the lucky bastard.

It had been a bloody fantastic day and night in Glasgow – one of the very best – and I had Chris to thank for all of it.

In 1987, I again stayed with Chris over a weekend which saw me attend the Rangers vs. Hamilton Academical game, but we were a lot soberer on that occasion, and I was to meet his future wife Eleanor on a night out after the game.

Chris was a good mate. He loved his music, he loved a beer. He was, I soon realised, the first friend of my age group to pass away. It was, naturally, all rather shocking. He will be, always, cocooned in my mind as a young lad, with his whole life ahead of him.

Over pints in The Greyhound, where we had celebrated Huw’s twenty-first birthday in 1985, with Chris on good form, I raised a glass to his memory.

“RIP Chris.”

We stayed in The Greyhound until just before 2pm and the Duckle Brothers were suitably refreshed. There was a little chat with a couple of the local Stokies, who were concerned that their defence was hit with injuries, and they wished us well.

Opposing football fans in rational conversation shock.

The drive from Penkhull over to the bet365 Stadium at Sideway only took around ten minutes. After parking up, I veered off to take some – more – photographs of the beguiling statue of the dribbling Sir Stanley Matthews which sits on a plinth outside the home Boothen End. I mused that although Sir Stan was known as the “King of the Dribble” in The Potteries, they clearly haven’t seen Parky after a gallon of cider.

My camera was not allowed in to the stadium – “bollocks” – so I had to drop it off in a little room beneath the away end.

We had seats low down, row five, just to the right of the goal. The exposed corner to our right is now filled-in, bringing the capacity up to just over 30,000. Annoyingly, the new TV screen in the opposite corner has blocked out the spire of the church steeple in Penkhull. I always used to look for it, for old times’ sake.

The team?

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Pedro

So, club captain Gary Cahill lost out. And the manager was clearly saving Eden Hazard further for the toughest of games, away to Atletico Madrid and at home to Manchester City.

“Delilah” rang out and the teams trotted out onto the pitch. For once, the weather was fine.

Stoke had an early attack, but we broke fast, with Bakayoko moving quickly out of defence. The ball was played out to Dave, who played a perfect early cross over the Stoke defence, and right in to the path of Alvaro Morata in the inside-left channel. The Spanish striker drew the ‘keeper and slotted home past Jack Butland.

After just over a minute, we were already 1-0 up.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

A chant soon rung out of the away end.

“Alvaro – wha-oh.

Alvaro – wha-oh-oh-oh.

He comes from sunny Spain.

He’s better than Harry Kane.”

Phew.

The game was bubbling along, but did not ignite further. To be honest the home side enjoyed much of the ball, and the diminutive Xherdan Shaqiri was at the centre of all of Stoke’s attacking moves. But throughout the first-half, even though our defence was tested, I never felt troubled. A few shots were aimed at Thibaut, but bodies were sacrificed as we blocked and blocked again. As with the Tottenham away game, we always looked at ease. I was so impressed with the back three of Rudiger, Christensen and Azpilicueta. After a few below-par performances, Victor Moses was back to his best. Willian looked busy, twisting and turning, and brought others into the game.

There was a song for N’Golo.

“N’Golo – oh.

Kante will win you the ball.

He’s got the power to know.

He’s indestructible.

Always believing.”

It reminded me of that wonderful night at The Hawthorns.

After half-an hour, we watched as a Darren Fletcher chest-pass went astray – he’s no JT, who has reigned as King of the Chest-Pass for years – and played in Pedro, who had been rather quiet until then. A quick touch, a look at the goal, and he despatched a fantastic shot past the Stoke ‘keeper.

Stoke City 0 Chelsea 2

GET IN.

It seemed like we had only enjoyed two shots and here we were, two goals to the good.

There was virtually no noise emanating from the home end now.

“Where’s your famous atmosphere?”

The two teams each had a couple of half-chances as the first-half came to its conclusion, with Diouf managing a bicycle kick which flashed wide.

There was a feisty start to the second-half, and Marcos Alonso drew the ire of the home fans along the side who were, probably not without reason, annoyed at a challenge which resulted in a yellow card. It was the noisiest that they were to get the entire game. A second foul by Alonso riled them further, and Antonio Conte saw the potential for self-harm, and replaced him with Gary Cahill. Stoke continued to try to claw their way back into the game, but with the play down the far end, I found it difficult to watch the movement of players. Peter Crouch, the former Chelsea season-ticket holder, came on and immediately created a chance for Diouf, who went as close as anyone. Thankfully, the rest of Stoke’s efforts tended to be blazed over and into the Boothen End.

Stoke were definitely back in the game, and I kept saying to Gary that I was glad that we were winning 2-0 and not 1-0.

The Stokies in the stand behind eventually boomed, with their very unique chant :

“GO ON STOWKE. GO ON STOWKE. GO ON STOWKE.”

The manager replaced Pedro with Cesc Fabregas. Four minutes later, Eden Hazard replaced Willian, whose form had dipped as the second-half continued. The two additions breathed new life into our team. A couple of chances were exchanged. A cross from Dave just evaded the far post lunge from Moses. Then, on seventy-seven minutes, Glen Johnson gave away the ball, and Alvaro Morata pounced. He pushed the ball forward, and accelerated away, with the entire half in front of him. He raced on, steadied himself as Butland approached, then clipped a low shot into the waiting goal.

We boomed.

Morata raced behind the goal, in front of the away contingent, and our arms and fists were pumping.

We live for moments like this. It was a stunning goal. Whisper it, but it immediately reminded me of his compatriot Fernando Torres in his pomp at Anfield, running free and scoring with ease. It will always be a major disappointment that we did not see Torres repeat such scoring at Chelsea. Eden Hazard, so good to have him on the pitch, was full of tricks and a shot was cleared off the line. With eight minutes remaining, a beautifully creative and cheeky chip from Fabregas was chested back – JT style – by Dave towards Morata, who nudged the ball past the Stoke ‘keeper.

Stoke City 0 Chelsea 4 and Jonathan Walters wasn’t even bloody playing.

A hat-trick for our new silky striker. I think there will be more, don’t you?

In the last few minutes, Morata could easily have made it 5-0, but that would have been beyond cruel. Stoke, despite our goals, had enjoyed much of the ball. Then, shamefully, a horrid Crouch tackle on Cesc blew away any sympathetic feelings I had for the home team. On another day, Crouch would have seen red.

We bounced out of the away end, and all was well with the world.

“You know what, ahead of our trip to Madrid, that could not have been any better preparation. I know it’s a different type of football, but Europe is all about soaking up pressure, and then hitting the opposition hard on the break.”

There is no Madrid trip for me, but I wish safe travels to all those going to the Atletico game on Wednesday. It should be a belter.

Give my regards to Fernando, Felipe, Tiago – and Diego.

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Tales From Mothering Sunday

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 15 March 2015.

On the eve of Chelsea’s clash with Southampton, I visited the local music venue in my home town. Big Country – or at least the latest incarnation, with Bruce Watson and Mark Brezezicki as the two original members being augmented by three others – played a tight and evocative set at Frome’s “Cheese & Grain” and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The swirling guitars brought back memories of a time in the mid-‘eighties when they were one of my favourite bands. There was one very specific memory. It is football-related. Does that surprise anyone?

On St. Valentine’s Day in 1986, Chelsea played a Friday night friendly against Rangers at Ibrox Stadium. I was at college in Stoke-on-Trent and with time on my hands. I only found out about the game late on but I quickly managed to get a message to a mate who was studying at Strathclyde University. I asked him if I could crash at his flat and I bought a train ticket. I was on my way to Glasgow to follow Chelsea and it would be the most exotic trip of my Chelsea story at that time. Excited? You bet. The one thing that sticks in my mind features the train trip through the Southern Uplands, north of Gretna, south of Carstairs, when a fellow passenger had an old-school stereo system and played the Big Country’s debut album “The Crossing.” It seemed a bit of a cliché at the time, but it was the perfect addition to our trip north through snow-dusted hills. Magical memories.

“I’m not expecting to grow flowers in the desert, but I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime.”

The night also brought a few bittersweet memories too. The guitars, often sounding at times like bagpipes, and the lyrics, paying homage to Scotland’s dramatic countryside and gritty urban landscape, brought back vivid memories of my trips to Scotland with my mother over the past twenty years. How Mum enjoyed those trips north. Our list of towns visited list like a Proclaimers song; Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Stirling, Brechin, Inverness, The Kyle Of Localsh, Portree, Inverness, Arbroath, Dundee. At times my eyes were moist.

After my mother’s passing, it has been a difficult time, but I have slowly improved. With the weekend – including Mother’s Day – following hard on the heels of the funeral on the Thursday, I felt that an important staging post would soon be reached. As far as the grieving process was concerned, I likened it to a Winston Churcill quote. The weekend would not mark the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but it would mark the end of the beginning. Since many close friends read these match reports, and since I feel it appropriate to do so, I include herein the eulogy that I wrote for my dear mother and which the vicar shared with those attending the service on Thursday 12 March.

IMG_1136 My dear mother Esmé lived a most wonderful life.

Mum was born on the third of January 1930 in one of the small cottages opposite The Talbot Inn, not more than one hundred yards from this beautiful church and lived virtually her entire life in her beloved Mells. Mum was an only child, born to two devoted parents; Ted Draper, a gardener, and his wife Blanche, a cook and housewife. Mum attended the local village school and there is no doubt that she had an idyllic childhood in this rural haven, making friends and enjoying the comforts of her family. The church was never far away, physically and spiritually. Life was simple, but rich with love. Her father would sometimes have the use of the parish vicar’s motor car and there were trips to visit local family but also occasional trips to the seaside. What a treat for young Esmé.

After excelling in the “eleven plus” at Mells School, my mother attended Frome Grammar School, cycling in from her village for the first few years. Although her studies were under the dark cloud of war, my mother had a carefree time. Mum studied hard and again excelled in all subjects. Rather reluctantly, I feel, Mum played as a goalkeeper in the girl’s school hockey team alongside her three great friends Barbara, Mary and Marda. During the war, there were occasional dances at the village hall. Mum passed all of her exams and began a teacher training course at a college in Bath. However, Mum soon decided that this was not for her and so began working as a dispensing chemist at a shop in Frome’s Cheap Street.

Just after the war, Mum travelled to Hanover in Germany with several other teenagers; it was one of the first ever exchanges after the hostilities. My mother had a wonderful time in Germany, making great friends with Liesel, the young German girl whose house Mum stayed in. While working at Roberts Chemists, my mother’s wavy hair and sparkling blue eyes attracted the attention of Reg Axon, a shy shopkeeper working a few doors away at John Dance. My father summoned some courage to ask my mother out and the rest, as they say, is history.

My parents married on April 25th 1957 in this very building. They honeymooned in London and set up home in New Street. They were, I am sure, blissfully happy. My parents were incredibly well suited. Both were kind and gentle, both loved home life. My mother moved on to work in a women’s clothes shop, again in Cheap Street. Of course, my parents longed for children. After eight years of waiting, I was born on 6th July 1965. However, my birth was tinged with sadness since my twin brother was stillborn. It is something which weighed heavily on my mother’s mind for many years. Both my mother and I contracted salmonella – I was born prematurely – and it was a miracle that I lived. For the first few weeks, Mum stayed in a nursing home, while I remained in an incubator at hospital; the distance between us must have been unbearable for dear Mum.

I know it sounds like a cliché, but my parents really were the best parents in the world.

They were always so industrious and busy. Both enjoyed gardening, but my mother’s great talent was as a home-maker and especially as a cook. Visiting friends and relatives often gasped at the enormity of the “spread” which Mum conjured up, with the dining room table creaking under the weight of sandwiches, sausage rolls, cakes, trifles and desserts. I always remember a Canadian relative talking in awe of the “suppers” which Mum provided. Nobody ever went hungry in the Axon household.

As I followed Mum’s path, with attendance at schools in Mells and then Frome, my mother continued to work tirelessly, maintaining her parents’ house in addition to her own. Mum was also a great servant to the village too, assisting in church affairs, village fetes and various committees. My mother also kept a close eye on those in the village who required an extra little care and attention. This was probably Mum’s greatest attribute; the selfless willingness to put others first.

Sadly, my mother often suffered with asthma and was admitted to hospital on several occasions.

In 1974, my parents announced that they were to take me to Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea for the very first time. For that simple act, I owe them so much. Our summer holidays were great highlights; there were five trips to Italy and Austria. Diano Marina in Italy was our favourite destination and in 1975 I ended-up playing football on the beach with a young Italian boy called Mario. Thanks to my mother, who swapped addresses with Mario’s mother, we became pen friends. We are still friends to this day.

My school days were not always happy and at times of upset and distress, my mother was always there to comfort me and to take away my pain. Through my teenage years, Mum suffered a little with depression and if I am truthful, our relationship became a little fraught. When I left Mells to go to college in Stoke-on-Trent in 1984, I am sure my mother missed me tremendously. Mum’s frequent letters to me throughout my three years in Staffordshire were testament to this. My parents continued to enjoy their holidays; there was a grand tour of Italy, and also a skiing trip to Austria. Yes, my mother has skied. How wonderful is that?

However, at the end of the ‘eighties, my mother lost both parents within ten months. Mum had cared for her parents, virtually until the end. The losses of her mother in April 1988 and her father in February 1989 were huge. Depression returned once again and my mother was in a fragile state of mind. I toured North America for ten months at around this time; looking back, I am sure Mum missed me enormously. On my return in 1990, things gradually improved and in 1991 my parents departed on a three month “round the world” trip, taking in Hong Kong, Singapore, Brisbane, Fiji, Hawaii, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Vancouver. Sadly, my mother contracted shingles just before the start and the trip was cut short. The planned visits to Toronto, New York and Philadelphia never materialised. But more of that later.

In April 1993, my dear father passed away at the age of sixty-nine. The sense of loss was huge, but I was immediately impressed with my mother’s strength and resilience. We became significantly closer. For the next few years, Mum’s depression came and went at regular intervals. We visited Scotland every autumn for six years and how Mum enjoyed these trips. When depression lifted, Mum would resume her high levels of industry in the home and village, enjoyed coach trips with other villagers and continued to attend the church. After a while, shopping trips to Frome faded, and despite occasional car trips with me, Mum rarely ventured from Mells. Our cat Gemma was a lovely companion. Mum especially enjoyed watching Formula One on TV. I even caught her watching some Italian football occasionally.

There were trips to Calais, Cornwall and North Wales. In truth, my mother first started to suffer with dementia in around 2005. Its advance was slow, but steady. Throughout it all, my mother remained happy and contented. As I moved between jobs, my mother was keen to hear of my progress and Mum took great delight in hearing of my travels. Her cheerfulness was an inspiration. There were visits to local pubs for Sunday lunch and one or two trips to Chelsea. Friends and relatives called in to see Mum. Life had changed, but things were still fine.

In around 2009, Mum began visiting a local dementia centre and then carers called in to keep an eye on her while I was at work. Mum visited both Critchill Court and Emma Shepherd Day Care Centre over the past few years; as recently as fourteen months ago, Mum was heading in to Frome on four days each week.

In September 2010, I took my dear mother to the United States for an unforgettable week. We were based in Philadelphia – where our relatives resided in the nineteenth century for a few years – but we also visited New York. Mum was a real trooper, up every morning by eight o’clock, and we had a fantastic and joyous time. One moment will live with me forever. We had visited Yankee Stadium in The Bronx one Tuesday evening and I was driving back to Philly. I was high over the Hudson River, on the George Washington Bridge, with my mother in the back seat, quietly taking it all in. I glanced over to my left and I saw the bright lights of Manhattan. My heart leaped. I felt like the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

Only eighteen months ago, we drove to Scotland, staying in Dundee. After attending around thirty Chelsea games, my mother’s last football match was in Brechin. From The Bronx to Brechin, Mum was a lovely companion.

Sadly, Mum was hospitalised with arthritis just over a year ago. My mother would never walk again. For the past year, Mum’s life has consisted of being cared for at home, watching TV, singing along to some CDs – Mum had a lovely voice – and sharing some smiles and laughs with me. Mum never complained.

The carers loved visiting Mum. Mum was always so appreciative. Everyone loved her.

Last summer, I was able to take my mother out in her wheelchair around Mells and to sit out on the lawn to sip a cup of tea in the fresh air. I so wanted to do the same this summer. Last month, Mum was again hospitalised with pneumonia. As you all know, I was full of hope that Mum would make a full recovery on her return home. It was not to be.

My dear mother passed away at home on February 26th with me by her side. Mum was a sweet, gentle and kind woman, a devoted daughter to her beloved parents and a loving wife to her husband Reg and a compassionate and respected presence in her home village. Mum was the owner of the most amazing smile; wide and welcoming one moment, mischievous and cheeky the next.

She really was the best mother that I could have ever asked for.

Mum was an angel. It was an honour to be her son.

IMG_7606 I left my home village on Mothering Sunday 2015 just before 8am and soon collected PD and LP. The pre-match was rather rushed, but hugely enjoyable. I met Roma and Shawn outside the West Stand, opposite the Peter Osgood statue, and it was obvious that a visit to the megastore had taken place; Shawn was wearing a fantastic Chelsea tracksuit. There was a Delta Airlines football competition underneath the old Shed wall; Shawn had participated here, too. Roma had certainly made the most of her Chelsea match day. The two of them had been at Stamford Bridge since 9am.

We then headed off to see Mark at the stall and I bought his latest book for Roma, highlighting the little section on Frank Lampard which I had penned. Roma adores Frank and is as confused as any of us after his move to City.

We then headed off to The Goose and enjoyed a chat with a few mates. I had fortuitously bumped into a mate, Brian – from Belfast, now Los Angeles – and it was great to see him again. In the beer garden, it was cold and crisp. Familiar faces everywhere. I then arranged to meet Tom, the Vodfather, down at Fulham Broadway to collect two tickets for Shawn and Roma. At just before 1pm, all was sorted.

We headed inside the turnstiles to the MHU and I shared a story with Roma as we ascended the flight of stairs to the upper tier. Back in 2005, my mother and my good friend Glenn’s gran, attended the Chelsea vs. Birmingham City game; it was one of the great Chelsea memories. We met Peter Osgood in the megastore and then had lunch in the Butcher’s Hook. On reaching the top of the stairs in the MHU, the two ladies – my mother 75 and Rose 79 – disappeared off in to the ladies. A split second later, Glenn and I heard both of them let out a massive laugh.

“Oh blimey, what have they said…or done?”

It transpired that on entering, they thought they had seen a man in the ladies. They had looked at each other and couldn’t resist a spontaneous giggle. Every time I walk past this spot in the MHU concourse, I think back to Mum’s laughter.

Sigh.

I took a few photos of an excited Roma and Shawn before they took their places high up behind the goal. They were fantastic seats. Alan arrived with Tom, who has been very poorly of late. He is in his ‘seventies now. It was great to see him again. The match programme, marking our 110th anniversary, was in the style of the original “Chelsea Chronicle” and it looked fantastic. The flags were passed overhead. The teams appeared. One change from Wednesday’s anti-climax; Willian in for Ramires. There was a return for Ryan Bertrand, a hero from that night in Bavaria.

We began well. After only ten minutes, Eden Hazard worked the ball to Branislav Ivanovic out on the right. Very often this season our right-back is often the outlet for our attacking plans, yet often his final ball is disappointing. On this occasion, he lofted an inch perfect ball in, which picked out the lone leap of Diego Costa who easily scored past Forster. It was a fine goal.

Southampton, a fine team under Koeman who gave us a tough game on the south coast earlier in the season, did not let our goal stop them from moving the ball well. The impressive Sadio Mane tested Courtois, and then soon after a joint lunge on Mane by Matic and Ivanovic resulted in referee Mike Dean awarded a penalty. The consensus in our little group was that it was indeed a penalty. Tadic despatched it and although Courtois got a touch, the ball still hit the back of the net. 1-1.

For the rest of the first-half, with the atmosphere at times being ridiculously quiet, Southampton moved the ball around with aplomb, and were the more incisive. We, by contrast, looked tired and lacking in confidence. Our right flank was constantly exploited; the Willian and Ivanovic partnership looked disinterested. Oscar and Fabregas made little impact. It was as poor as I have seen for a while.

The away fans, again, aired the rather amusing and self-deprecating – “The Johnstone Paint Trophy, You’ll Never Win That.”

Sadly, around five thousand Chelsea fans didn’t get the joke and responded – “Champions Of Europe, You’ll Never Win That.”

Oh boy.

An overly theatrical response by Ivanovic to a tap tackle did not result in a penalty. It was the only Chelsea “moment” worth commentating on. At the other end, Courtois pulled off a few more saves. Southampton deserved to be 3-1 up at the break. Oh dear.

Yet again, we needed an inspiring team talk from the tongue of our manager at the break. Right from the first few seconds of the second-half, it was wonderful to hear the home support rising to the occasion with thunderous noise. It was a magnificent reaction. Well done everyone. However, a rasping free-kick from Alderweireld forced a full-stretch save from that man Courtois. First class.

Mourinho made a change; Ramires for Matic.

It felt like a goal must come. A Willian effort was deflected on to the post by Diego Costa. A shot from Oscar was blocked, and then a header from Oscar was parried by Forster. Surely, our goal would come.

Big John was up to his balcony-bashing best. “THUMP THUMP – THUMP THUMP THUMP – THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP – CHELSEA.”

Another Oscar effort was saved. Remy for Oscar, Cuadrado for Willian.

Cuadrado failed to impress and dragged a shot wide. Then Azpilicueta went close. In the last minute, we could hardly believe what we witnessed; the Southampton goal was under attack and how. Remy had a shot blocked off the line, and the rebound was sent goal wards by JT but his effort was blocked, but the ball rebounded out to our captain who then stabbed the ball over. As the ball flew past the goal frame, the groan could be heard for miles and miles.

The much-hoped for eight point gap was now “only” six. I felt sure that many new Chelsea fans were about to pepper the internet with a plethora of negativity.

Another sigh.

After the game, at the Copthorne Hotel, Roma and Shawn met some Chelsea royalty; Ron Harris, Paul Canoville, Bobby Tambling and Roy Bentley. There were photographs of course, but also a couple of lovely conversations. Roma especially enjoyed hearing about Bobby Tambling’s close relationship with Frank Lampard, her personal favourite, which developed as Frank drew nearer and nearer to 202 Chelsea goals.

Roma’s smile was wide.

It was a beautiful end to Mother’s Day.

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Tales From A Stamford Bridge In Hibernation

Chelsea vs. Everton : 4 December 2010.

Please Note – It may appear that certain segments of this match report have been cut and pasted from a variety of older reports ( keep a look out for comments about the lack of noise at Stamford Bridge ), but I can assure you all that this is all new.

What with all of the freezing weather we have been experiencing of late, I decided to head up to Chelsea a little later than usual. To be honest, a few days ago, I was actually wondering if my unbroken home attendance run (which goes back almost seven years) would be under threat. I gingerly drove out of my village and the ice had the upper hand on a couple of occasions. Once onto the gritted main roads though, I was thankfully in full control. Parky was duly collected at about 10am and we were back in the familiar routine. December was going to be a very difficult month, with the deadly trio of Spurs / United / Arsenal games on the horizon. We simply had to defeat Everton, who had slumped to a 1-4 home defeat versus West Brom last week.

What with the probable poor weather, I knew I wouldn’t be up in London Town until about 12.30pm. I had arranged to meet Ian from Chicago in The Lily Langtry, but I spoke to Beth on the drive up and knew that it would be unlikely, due to the time constraints, to meet up with her. A shame. It seems that I missed quite a reunion up at St. James’ Park last weekend, with Burger and Gumby joining Beth and the four visitors from California, Danny, Andy, Josh and Ed.

Over the final 45 minutes of the journey, Parky put a Ministry Of Sound CD on and we enjoyed some re-mixed synthesised anthems from thirty years ago. Magical music from the 1979-1982 era accompanied us on our drive in past Slough, Windsor and Brentford, with songs by Visage, Joy Division and Japan taking me back to the days when CFC were mired in the old second division. I’m not really sure if it means that the onset of a mid-life crisis is approaching, but I have consistently reminisced about those late teenage years a lot recently. From 1980 to 1985 everything was so fresh, magical, exhilarating and intense – yet also frightening and confusing – and I realise that I yearn for it with a passion. Of course, all of those old songs brought memories of school and college days back to me – not to mention the odd Chelsea game, goal, player…

Approaching our final destination, Simple Minds were singing “Promised You A Miracle.”

“Ah yes, that came out in the summer of 1982, if I am not mistaken, Parky. The World Cup in Spain and my first girlfriend, bless her, all golden hair and freckles…now that was a bloody miracle.”

At 12.30pm, I dropped Parky off at the Lily Langtry pub near West Brompton tube while I shot off to park up. By the time I had returned, Chicago Ian was outside, enjoying a roll-up. We reconvened inside, the pub full of familiar Chelsea faces of a certain age. Ian was with a fellow scooter-enthusiast (and Chelsea fan, of course) Paul from Dorset. We enjoyed a quick chat. Paul is from the same part of the world as my paternal grandmother, so we had a few things to talk about. Paul used to work in Parky’s town of Melksham and they had a mutual friend who ran a scooter shop. Yet another example of what a ridiculously small world this can be at times. David from Houston – who I first met in Chicago in 2006 – had texted me on the drive up to say he was in town en route to a job assignment in Uganda and he was soon spotted, too. He joined our little group before we then headed down to The Goose to join up with the rest of the lads. David works for The World Bank and I spoke of a number of shipments that I am involved in for them – we are currently in the middle of sending some furniture to their office in Istanbul. David has plans about seeing the World cup in Brazil in 2014 and I asked him to keep on touch…

From 1pm to 2.15pm, we spent our time chatting away to various friends from all over. So many people and yet so little time. Parky was flitting around talking to all and sundry, while I spent most of the time with Ian. Now, unbeknown to me, he had got married back in Chicago in October – so I toasted his marriage – but his wife, Denise, was a Blue of a different hue. Yes, you’ve guessed it – an Evertonian. She was having a different pre-match with fellow Toffees down at Parson’s Green and this amused me, yet of course I approved. I could tell that Ian was enjoying the mad intensity of The Goose, jam-packed full of loyal Chelsea servants, and he had a wide grin on his face. In that short spell together, we covered a lot of ground, including a mention of the Dundee football scene, in light of his family’s roots in that city of jute, jam and journalism on the banks of the silvery Tay.

As always, the time for the walk to Stamford Bridge came too quickly and we said our “goodbyes” to each other. We never leave together though – Rob is invariably the last to leave (just one more Amaretto, Daryl! ) and on this occasion, Parky walked down with Rob. I zipped up my coat and donned my 1986 vintage Rangers scarf, the classic red, white and blue. Daryl must have been thinking along similar lines when he chose his game-day apparel in deepest Essex that morning…he was wearing the even more iconic Chelsea red, white and green scarf from 1972-1973.

I bought a match programme and spotted that Petr Cech was on the cover on the occasion of his 200th league game for us.

My mate Andy caught up with me at the turnstiles and commented about my ‘Gers scarf. He is again going up to Ibrox later this month. He was with a chap who, like me, was at the Rangers vs. Chelsea Ibrox friendly in 1986 and we briefly spoke about that game. I was in Stoke at the time, at college, and travelled up on the day of the game, a Friday in February. British Rail was doing cheap Young Persons Railcard deals that month and I got a return up to Glasgow for just £8. Scotland had all day drinking at the time ( in England this only came later ) and that game in Glasgow 24 years ago easily wins the award for the Game Where I Was Most Pissed. The game was a blur…my mate Alan was there, Cathy too. About 200 Chelsea went up. We lost 3-2 and I was steaming. The weather was bitter. Despite the fraternity between Rangers and Chelsea, I didn’t take too kindly to the home support booing Keith Jones, our young black player. I think I might have annoyed a few of the home support ( I was watching with a mate in the home Copeland Road Stand ) as I complained about this to a few home fans nearby…however, the story goes that Jonah was replaced by a Chelsea youth player called Phil Priest.

A Priest at Ibrox? Surely not. The Rangers fans roared their disapproval!

Back to 2010.

I got to my seat just in time to hear Neil Barnett say – “Good Afternoon.”

I knew that JT was in the team and of course it was great to see him back. Just before the game began, I visited the MHU loos…on the way out, I wrote ‘CFC’ on the steamed-up mirror by the wash basins. I couldn’t believe that nobody else had done so, to be honest.

Everton, in an off-white / “whose Mum forgot to keep the whites separate?” kit, looked lively in the first few minutes and Petr Cech had to get down to save after just 25 seconds. However, we soon won the small battles and dominated the first-half. However, apart from a few off-target efforts, our first real effort came from an unlikely source. A corner was cleared out to JT and he nimbly changed shape and lobbed the ball towards the goal from about 15 yards out. The ball hit the bar and we groaned. I don’t think Howard would have reached it had it been on target. We still await JT’s first goal from distance.

We had tons of possession, but there was more passing for the sake of it…Malouda was very quiet and Kalou was Kalou. Despite a sustained bout of “Chelsea / Champions” from Parky’s corner of The Shed, the atmosphere was again funereal. I know it was cold, but it seemed that vast swathes of The Bridge were hibernating. I swear the atmosphere is noticeably worse game on game, yet alone season by season. With the decibel count decreasing, we’ll eventually reach complete silence and then what? Will we get noise in reverse? For anyone yet to visit Stamford Bridge – that once fabled hot bed of partisan support – I urge them to do it very soon, before the place produces Negative Noise.

What is Negative Noise? I’m not sure, but maybe we’ll be experiencing it over the next few years…maybe when the spectators within the stadium are being out sung by sparrows in the Brompton Cemetery, when the only noise in the stadium are the shouts of the players, when we can hear copies of the Evening Standards being sold by vendors outside Earl’s Court tube station.

Negative noise. You heard it here first.

With no breakthrough forthcoming, I said to Alan “no doubt there’ll be boos at half-time.” That would have been unfair, since we were well on top…we just couldn’t penetrate. One moment of play perfectly summed up our lack of belief at the moment. Mikel – who has had a good season thus far – received the ball right in the middle of the attacking third, well in range of the goal, with no defender near. Rather than move the ball on to his best foot and drop his shoulder, a la Bobby Charlton, and take a pot shot, his first thought was to move the ball to another player, probably Malouda, who was marked and soon lost the ball. How frustrating. We hardly got behind them at all.

Then, a calamitous back-pass by one of The Brothers Grim and Nicolas Anelka only had the ‘keeper to beat. The coming together of bodies – clear obstruction – and a penalty.

YES!

However, I just knew – in a week of poor decisions by football’s ruling classes – that their ‘keeper wouldn’t get a red. And so it proved…the ref’s decision was met with a stadium-wide moan. However, Didier easily despatched the pen and we went into the break 1-0 up. No complaints.

In the loos at half-time, I was warmed by the sight of two additional ‘CFCs’ on the mirrors. During the break, I spotted a great match report in the programme from Rick Glanvill of an eventful Chelsea vs. Everton game in that previously-mentioned 1985-1986 season ( missed penalties, sendings off, I remember it well…it was my first ever Chelsea vs. Everton game, in fact ).

The second-half was horrible. Our confidence deteriorated and Everton sensed fear. The crowd rallied on only a couple of occasions. Leighton Baines was causing havoc down the left and Ancelotti replaced Bosingwa with Paolo. This was met with derision though – the supporters around me wanted a more positive response. We wanted to go for the kill. A cross from Baines was headed goal wards by Rodwell and his effort hit the right upright with Cech easily beaten. Soon after, Cahill studded Cech and he appeared to be in pain…thoughts of Stephen Hunt. Thankfully, Cech recovered.

Everton were really giving this a good go, though. Jermaine Beckford came on as a substitute and, by way of some Pavlovian sub consciousness, the Matthew Harding went into ‘Dambusters’ mode and taunted his Elland Road pedigree. It seemed so natural.

Chelsea and Leeds United – it’s still there, even after all these years.

Drogba turned cheerleader after a failed attack, turning towards the MH and urging us all on, to get behind the team, to make some noise. I can’t say the crowd responded. However, it was a typical Drogba game…brutal strength and power one moment, laziness personified the next. A quick interchange of passes allowed Paolo to send in a sublime low ball into the six-yard box…Ashley Cole lunged but missed the ball. Alan claimed he had been held, but it was all too quick for my eyes.

And then, the horrible equaliser. Banes shimmied past three Chelsea defenders and crossed deep into our box. I sensed fear. A header back and there was – who else? – Beckford to head home. This was so similar to too many late goals conceded at The Shed in recent years…always a knock down, always a close-range finish. The ghosts of previous games raced through my mind. To be honest, I thought our best two players had been John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic and so it was doubly disturbing to be conceding goals right in the heart of our defence.

Phil Neville jogged back, alone, into his half and pumped his arms, yelling at the West Stand and then at us in the North. Memories of his brother at Old Trafford against Liverpool. God, his gurning face will live with me for a while. Hateful.

The referee signalled an additional seven minutes, but more than a few fans left…”thanks for your support.” Of course, it wasn’t to be…more dropped points, more boos, another bad day at the office, another “difficult moment.” As I descended the MHU stairs, I dreaded Tottenham next Sunday.

Parky and I were forced to sit in a line of traffic before heading home and we spotted three smiling Arsenal fans at Barons Court. They had obviously travelled straight down from their game on the Piccadilly Line, but yet it seemed wrong for Arsenal fans to be living so near Stamford Bridge. It was the final twist of the knife on a depressing day at HQ. I try not to be too pessimistic, but we need to snap out of this poor run of form. We need Essien fitter – he was quiet – and we need Frank. We need to find our self-confidence, but that’s easier said than done. Malouda and Kalou are clearly confidence players but they need our support to help dig themselves out of their own personal nightmares. Lastly, crucially, we need more passion. That is down to the management team and the players themselves. As supporters, we can only do so much.

Over to you, Carlo. Over to you, the players. Your club need you.

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Tales From The Ibis

Birmingham City vs. Chelsea : 20 November 2010.

As I drove through the old mill town of Bradford-On-Avon on the way to collect Parky and Kris, I received a text from Danny in California. He is coming over to England for our two games next week, but asked if I could send him updates from our game at St. Andrews. It made me realise how “My Chelsea Supporting Life” has changed over the past few years. Not only do I have my long-standing friendships with mates throughout the UK, built up over the years, but I now have an “extended family” of Chelsea friends who live in various states in America. It’s lovely, you know. Not a match day goes by without texts from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Fort Worth, San Antonio, New York and Philadelphia. I guess it’s all about sharing that common experience. I presume that it is human nature for friendships to either remain strong through the years or eventually weaken and I suppose it’s the same story for my match day mates too. However, I get the feeling that my ten or so closest mates will continue watching Chelsea for many seasons yet. I do wonder though – since I am currently encompassing my American mates in this topic – how many US based fans will dwindle by the wayside over the years. I only recently commented to Parky that quite a few CIA regulars seem to have fallen off the edge of this Blue Earth recently. Chelsea is for life, remember, not just for Christmas.

We departed from Parky’s village at about 9.30am and we were on our way north once more. What a horrible, overcast morning. We encountered low lying grey clouds, drizzle and then rain…and then heavy rain as we drove past Bath and Bristol. It made the driving tiring…and I didn’t need that. Kris, like Parky, is into music and often DJs at weekends. This was to be his first away game and I could tell he was excited. I told the lads of a strange chat I had with my boss on the Friday. I’m not really sure what triggered the conversation, but my boss suddenly announced that one of his uncles once played for England. Despite being in the middle of a frantic few minutes, I had to put the demands of work to one side and ask him the player’s name.

“Lawton.”

“Not Tommy Lawton?” I replied with a look of astonishment on my face.

“Yes. Tommy Lawton.”

At this point, it’s worth saying that my boss Paul is not a football fan in the slightest and I am sure that he was not aware that his uncle once played for Chelsea immediately after the Second World War. So, I immediately filled him in…1947, bought him from Everton for a record fee, moved to Notts County, famous for his headers and that he was “one of the greats.”

Paul, my boss, seemed genuinely shocked that the miserable uncle that he often used to meet in his childhood, always wearing a blazer, was one of the greatest ever England centre-forwards. With a twinkle in my eye, I brazenly enquired –

“Where’s all his memorabilia, these days?”

With this story aired, Kris spoke of a football-related tale of his own. In addition to being a drum and bass DJ, Kris is a carpet fitter during the week. On the Thursday, he was working in nearby Corsham and it transpired that he was in the house of the one-time assistant manager at Derby County Stan Anderson, who worked alongside the legendary Dave Mackay in Derby’s championship season of 1974-1975. This triggered some memories. I told the story of a Chelsea vs. Derby County game that I saw with my parents in the March of that season. It was only my third-ever Chelsea game and we had seats right behind the away bench in the new East stand. It rainy day and it was a poor game. We lost 2-1, but the thing that my parents and I always remembered was the abuse that a Chelsea fan in her ‘sixties gave Anderson throughout the game. He was constantly up on his feet, remonstrating with the referee, the linesman and this caught her attention. She started telling him to sit down in no uncertain terms. At one stage, I am sure she walked to the front and threatened him with her brolly. It was hilarious. For the next few years, whenever we saw Mackay and Anderson on the TV, we always laughed and pictured that woman waving her umbrella at them. Out of interest, before that game, I very well remember an American university marching band from Missouri performing on the pitch. I can still see the bright yellow of their colourful tunics to this day. After their display, they sat in the rickety old North Stand, perched on stilts in the NE corner. The band even started playing at various stages during the game – a bang of drums and a crash of cymbals here, a cacophony of trumpets and bugles there. It was quite a surreal sight…and sound.

I wonder how many of those American kids from The Marching Mizzou remember their appearance at Stamford Bridge and I wonder if any are Chelsea fans today.

As the rain worsened around Gloucester, we spoke of the games coming up in the tough month of December and the rumours about the fitness of Alex and JT, the stories about Ray Wilkins, the probable line-up at St. Andrews, and the inevitable raft of reminiscences from the past. Parky rolled out a few tried-and-tested tales, familiar to me, not so for Kris. On this day of quirky stories involving footballers from the past and present, Kris reminded me that one of his friends went out with former Chelsea winger Scott Sinclair. Like me, Scott was born in Bath, and of course now plays with Swansea. Another link – Scott now plays alongside Nathan Dyer, a local lad from Trowbridge.

We stopped at Strensham and Lord Parky got the coffees in. I received texts to say that Burger was on his way and would be meeting up with Cathy, Dog and Mark in the city centre. By 11.30am, I had navigated the inner city ring round – past the Edgbaston county cricket ground – and was parked up at the Ibis Hotel, just a stone’s throw from the away end. We had made great time. We settled in for a lovely pre-match.

“Get the beers in.”

As I said hello to the first of the fellow Chelsea fans in – Nick, Robbie and Mark – the hotel staff were clearing away the breakfast cereals and croissants in preparation of the onslaught of Chelsea fans.

“Three pints of Grolsch please mate.”

We settled down in a corner and awaited the arrival of the troops from near and far. Ajax from Wrexham soon came over to spend an entertaining twenty minutes with us. He used to run the North Wales coaches down to The Bridge, but his real claim to fame in Chelsea circles is that he often used to travel to and from games back in the ‘eighties with players Joey Jones and Mickey Thomas. There was quite a Wrexham connection at the time – Johnny Neal and Eddie Niedzwiecki too – and the club used to allow special privileges to these two Chelsea greats…they used to live in Wrexham, their childhood home, and only come down to Harlington to train once a week, then again for games at the weekend. Mickey was one of the fittest players we have ever had – he didn’t need to train – and Joey was just Joey.

Imagine that happening these days.

Ajax – it turns out – is a big Rangers fan too and has attended twelve Old Firm games in his life. It turns out that the both of us attended one particular Rangers vs. Motherwell game in the 1986-1987 season. It’s a small world at Chelsea. Especially for me. I’m five foot six.

At about 1.15pm, the other members of The Bing arrived and joined the ever-growing throng. They had planned to have a few liveners in the centre, but their train had been delayed and so they got a cab direct to the hotel from New Street. After getting their beers, Alan, Gary, Daryl, Whitey, Simon and Milo came over to join us and we caught up with a few topics close to our heart…access to match tickets, travel plans for the next few games and the wash ability of Fred Perry, Lacoste and Henri Lloyd polo shirts. There were a few other familiar faces dotted around, too. The Nuneaton lot soon arrived too – Neil, Nigel, Jokka, Chopper and Jonesy – and it was good to see them. Our paths don’t often cross. It suddenly dawned on me that in that crowded hotel bar in Birmingham there were around 100 Chelsea fans, the die-hards, the loyalists…and most of us in our ‘forties. It’s our core demographic.

As Daryl commented – “Middle-aged, Caucasian, balding.”

“And that’s just the women.”

I’m on 800 or so games, yet I suspect most were on 1,000 easy. Alan and Gary must be on 1,500 I would imagine. So, around 100,000 Chelsea games in that crowded bar. And as I looked around again, taking it all in, I hardly spotted any Chelsea gear, save for an odd scarf here or a pin badge there. I smiled to myself. I approved. However, there is no doubt that if I lived in Austin TX or Athens GA – or Bangkok or Botswana – I would occasionally wear Chelsea gear on game days just to show willing. Indeed, there are rare shots of me fully-garbed up in Chelsea blue at the Pittsburgh, DC, New Jersey, Chicago, LA and Baltimore games. But I haven’t worn a Chelsea replica shirt at a game in England since about 1995. If anything, I am more presupposed to wearing quirky Chelsea T-shirts. It’s just too easy to simply buy a replica shirt and try to feel part of Chelsea Football Club, but there really is – truly, madly, deeply – more to it than that. I’d rather spend £45 on a match ticket than the latest Adidas monstrosity. Besides, neither me nor any of my mates would be seen dead wearing the same shirt. Wink.

You know the score.

We heard that Spurs came back from 2-0 down to get a highly unlikely win at Arsenal and we laughed. Not because Spurs had won – hell, no! – but because Arsenal had lost. I tried to picture Wenger’s squirming face.

Millsy arrived at about 2.30pm and I commented about a photo he had recently posted on Facebook. It was a photo of him playing against a Charlton player at The Valley. It turns out he used to play for Tonbridge in Kent and once played against the then Charlton Athletic midfielder Lee Bowyer. Tommy Lawton, Stan Anderson, Scott Sinclair, Mickey Thomas, Joey Jones and now Lee Bowyer. It was certainly a day for stories. Where would it end? I was feeling left out. I once met former Bristol Rovers player Mike Brimble on a West Bay caravan park in Dorset in about 1971. Does that count?

As we walked up to the ground, we heard the team and we approved…glad to hear Number 33 was playing and it was a big day for Malouda, who was dropping back into the midfield in an attempt to solidify the team alongside the unconvincing Ramires. Despite the overcast weather enveloping us all, I was confident we would do well. We had 4,400 tickets and surely we would be rocking. This was only my fifth visit to the humble and dowdy surroundings of Birmingham City’s down-at-heel home ground. I am yet to circumnavigate it – most unlike me. It’s the usual Ibis routine for me. So, after stopping to take a shot of Parky and Kris outside the away turnstiles, I walked through the unwelcoming approach to the away end. There were bare concrete walls and ugly steel roof supports to greet me. St. Andrews won’t win any awards.

The game. Do I have to?

To start with, we were wearing the lime green kit. What was I saying about Adidas monstrosities?

I’m struggling to think of a game amongst my other 800, where we have so dominated possession and yet have got nothing from it. Didier had three or four great chances in the first-half alone, yet the Birmingham City goal lived a charmed life. It goes to show how little attention I pay, at times, to some teams that I was under the impression that it was Scott Carson, not Ben Foster, in the Birmingham goal. I wish it was Carson, who was letting in three against Stoke a few miles to the west. Just like Joe Hart on Boxing Day last year, Foster was having a blinder.

A few sticks of celery were tossed around to my right. And then we sang a song from Joey Jones and Mickey Thomas era –

“Come along, come along, come along and sing this song…”

Then, on seventeen minutes, a rare break – we didn’t close down the cross, the ball was whipped in to Jerome who softened a header into the path of Millsy’s mate Lee Bowyer. He was completely unmarked. He easily scored and we had to endure this most unliked of players ( Leeds and West Ham on his curriculum vitae ) celebrating in front of us.

Where was that woman’s umbrella from 1975?

The rapidity of the break and goal reminded me of United’s first at Wembley in the Community Shield. Of course, the home fans chirped up for the first time in the whole game and it was to be the loudest they would be all day. Their club song really is the most horrible of dirges. It’s dire.

At half-time, the immediate people around me occupied ourselves by listing our worse players ever…Dave Mitchell, Graham Wilkins, David Stride, John McNaught and Les Fridge all got votes, but I stood up for Keith Jones, while Gary defended John Coady. After Kalou’s non-show in the first-half, I wondered if he would get a vote. Someone said that the shot count was 14-1 in our favour in that first forty-five.

I greeted Les from Melksham and his two word retort was succinct and to the point –

“I’m bolloxed.”

We had even more of the ball in the second period, but the Chelsea support grew more and more irritable. There was, sadly, no great show of noise from the 4,400. There were no texts from Jamie, Bob or Steve in the US saying “we can hear you loud and clear.” We tried desperately to move the ball around to get a spare foot of space. But with the home showing no inclination to attack, the game was compressed in front of us…it was as hopeless as hell. Time after time the ball was played to Malouda and Anelka, then Ashley and the sub Bosingwa, but we couldn’t breach the defensive line. A penalty shout – Ramires, involved at last – and then Kalou chipped over. From South Philly, a text from Steve –

“Is it OK to start worrying?”

I replied – “I’ve been worrying since 1974.”

The Chelsea support, in a rare show of noisy solidarity, resurrected an old favourite from around the 1977-1978 season –

“Attack – Attack – Attack, Attack, Attack!!!”

There was deep frustration welling all around me. The shots reigned in, but block, block, block. An Ivanovic header – thump! – but it was dramatically clawed away by that man Foster. A Didier free-kick right at the ‘keeper, then a Kalou header flashed past the right post.

The final whistle. At least no boos…not that I could ascertain anyway…my mind was too clouded to hear, maybe. Our third league defeat in the last four games and this hurt. I briefly saw Drogba, minus his shirt, having an altercation with some fans down at the front. It seemed that the fans were unhappy with the Ivorian’s performance…how quickly people forget. He was suffering with malaria ten days ago. To Didier’s credit, he didn’t bite and clapped the fans as he turned and walked away. As we sloped out of the ground, I could not help involuntarily joining in a classic Chelsea gallows humour chant –

“We’re 5hit And We’re Top Of The League.”

Of course, we aren’t, but it helped my own coping mechanism. Back down at the Ibis, the troops had re-gathered and were enjoying a few post-game bevvies. I was expecting long faces and grumbles, but the mood was of stubborn resilience. We had tried our best. We had out-shot Birmingham something like 25-2. We would undoubtedly play worse and win this season. The ten of us had seen it all before…and the beers helped irradiate any maudlin feelings from the match. I supped on a strong coffee and Parky told of an altercation he had at half-time with a fellow Chelsea fan. Milo – 14 – took a couple of sips from one of Parky’s brandies. Whatever helps you through the night, eh?

We laughed and his Dad said “don’t tell your mother.”

We stayed at the hotel until about 6.15pm. To be honest, we had a laugh and it made me realise what a very special bunch of mates I have. We had spent almost seven enjoyable hours in Birmingham; almost five hours in the Ibis and two hours at the game. That’s a good beer / footy ratio. The evening traffic was moving slowly…eventually I got back on to the southbound M5 and Parky was asleep. We heard that United had won – what a surprise. Kris bought me a “wake me up and slap me in the face” coffee at Strensham and I eventually dropped them off at 8.45pm. Parky was well messy and almost fell out of the car. As he stumbled, several beer cans fell out of his bag. Out of nowhere, Ben Foster leapt to Parky’s feet and caught them all.

It was one of those days.

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Tales From The Black And The Orange

Blackburn Rovers vs. Chelsea : 30 October 2010.

It’s hard to believe now, but for quite a while, Blackburn Rovers were a bogey side for Chelsea Football Club. I’m pretty sure that it took us 16 years to defeat them at home in the league, from a 4-1 win in the play-offs in 1988 to a 4-0 win in 2004. Away from home, they were equally difficult to beat. I wasn’t present at the memorable 4-3 game at Ewood in 1998 and so, in total, it took me a staggering 15 games before I physically saw us defeat Rovers. From August 1988 to February 2004 the run went on and on and it never looked like ending…the first six matches all resulted in Chelsea defeats. Yes, it was as bad as that. It’s interesting to note that I’m talking about two interlinked worlds here…our complete record through the years, but also the games that I have witnessed. From a personal perspective, the latter always seems more pertinent. I guess it’s all of the emotional and financial involvement that I put into attending Chelsea games. I guess that’s natural.

My mate Mark is a Blackburn Rovers fan and I accompanied him to Ewood Park on four occasions from 1995 to 2004. For the first three occasions, we watched from the main stand on Nuttall Street, and it was difficult for me not to get behind the team as I was surrounded by Blackburn fans. In 1995, Mark gravely miscalculated on the dates which he had promised his then girlfriend a weekend away and so his ticket became available and my Chelsea mate Alan joined me in the Nuttall Street stand. Unfortunately, we lost 3-0 and were atrocious. This proved to be the late David Rocastle’s last ever game for us. Of course, Rovers were rampant at that time and Graeme Le Saux was firing in crosses for Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton. Every time Rovers scored, Alan and myself remained glumly sat and we were easily sussed. I think there was a little playful banter from the cheering Rovers fans by the time the last goal was scored. I’ve never had any problems at Ewood, though. Because of my friendship with Mark, I don’t mind them.

I left home at 7.45am and, with a coffee to perk me up, soon got into the groove. In an attempt to save some money, I had prepared some food for the day ahead. My bag was laden with provisions which Scott of the Antarctic would have been proud. As I headed through Writhlington, I spotted fellow Chelsea fan Terry leaving a corner shop, clutching a few morning groceries. I slowed down and yelped “I’m off to Blackburn” and smiles were exchanged.

The Style Council were running through their greatest hits on my trusty CD player and Paul Weller was in good voice.

“We’re gonna shout to the top.”

As I ate up the miles, I thought of the plans for the next clutch of games and tended to focus on the up-coming game at Anfield. That’s always one of the highlights of our season these days. The M5 around Gloucester and Cheltenham was edged with vibrant yellows and warm reds – by the time of that Liverpool game, the Autumn colours should be at their photogenic best. The sky was clear and the weather looked great, but I couldn’t believe that there wouldn’t be rain in Lancashire at some stage.

There are towns throughout England which are synonymous with certain types of industry – I can think of shipbuilding in Sunderland, pottery in Stoke-On-Trent, steel in Sheffield, lace-making in Nottingham, glass manufacture in Rotherham, fishing in Grimsby, shoes in Northampton, beer in Burton and textiles in Manchester and Leeds. Blackburn is also one of those towns which owe its growth during the industrial revolution to textiles and I’m sure the town was dominated by cotton mills at the time of the formation of its football club in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Rovers were one of the original members of the Football League and, growing up, we occasionally played them in the old second division. However, it was steel magnate Jack Walker who put the town on the map in the early ‘nineties. He invested millions in his boyhood team and oversaw a mini-Abramovich revolution in central Lancashire. Until then, Blackburn was probably more memorable for a brief mention in a Beatles song.

“I heard the news today, oh boy. Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire.”

Well, on this particular “Day In The Life”, there would be nigh-on 4,000 Chelsea in Blackburn, Lancashire.

“On Boy” indeed.

At Frankley Services, just south of Birmingham, I spotted a young lad wearing a Blackburn shirt – the first of the day. I also had a quick chat with Chelsea fan from Abergavenny in South Wales. He’s a season-ticket holder too and attends games at The Bridge with his wife and this involves a 300 mile round trip every fortnight. Fair play to them.

I called in at Stafford to collect Julie and Burger at 10am and we were soon on our way up the M6. Like me, they are looking forward to the Anfield game and it will be a first-time visit for them. I very briefly ran through a list of attractions to see in Liverpool – stop sniggering at the back – and I’m sure they will enjoy themselves. Our talk again centred on our views of fandom and how Chelsea appear to be a special club, to our biased eyes at least.

Up and over one last hill and Blackburn was visible in the valley below.

At midday, I found a safe place to park my Peugeot 207 and we soon found our way to The Fernhurst, one of the first ‘away fans only’ pubs in England. The sun was out, but the temperature was surprisingly cold in the shadows. I think we only took about 2,500 up to Ewood on that miserable Sunday in March last season. However, we had heard that we had sold over 3,500 for this encounter. Chelsea had returned some tickets and so that there would be that very rare entity of away tickets being sold on the day of the game. In The Fernhurst car park, it certainly felt like a big turnout. A few flags were pinned up, including a new one involving the words to the Celery Song and a silhouette of a nubile young girl getting “tickled.” I spotted a Chelsea / Rangers flag and more than a few Scottish accents. Groups of familiar faces were huddled in small groups and there was a general hub-bub of conversation. Bizarrely, two mounted policemen arrived on the scene and positioned themselves in the far corner. The only crimes being committed involved the wanton crushing underfoot of tens of plastic pints on the car park floor.

Burger and me had a couple of Thwaites bitters for a change – a local brew – which went down well. At just after 2pm, we drifted off to the ground. I took Julie and Burgs around to the far corner to take a few photographs of the Jack Walker Memorial. Blackburn had lost their famous player Ronnie Clayton the previous day and there were a few bouquets of flowers at the base of the statue of Jack Walker. During the redevelopment of Ewood Park, a famous old turnstile entrance ( memorably used during a famous commercial in the ‘seventies ), was demolished. However, the brickwork involving the words “Rovers FC” was saved and this is incorporated into the memorial. There is a fountain amidst the red brick and it really works well.

Burger wanted to get his flag up so we entered the ground at about 2.15pm. They were in the upper tier, but my seat was right behind the goal in the lower tier… half Rovers, half Chelsea. I took a few photos of the players in their warm-up…first Petr Cech going through his drills with Hilario and the goalkeeping coach, then the rest of the squad joined in at 2.30pm. A few stretches, a few shots, but then some sprinting drills in front of the Riverside Stand to our right. I noted that as late as 2.40pm, only four thousand spectators were inside the stadium. This is so different to days gone by. Often The Shed was pretty full as early as an hour before kick-off and the ground would be reverberating to Chelsea songs. At Ewood in 2010, things were pretty quiet. Just before the game began, the inevitable rain, but – for once – it soon subsided. On this Halloween Eve, we wore the black and orange kit.

Ronnie Clayton was remembered.

RIP.

I was happy to see Ivanovic back on the right side of the defence. We began well and controlled the first ten minutes, knocking the ball around with ease. An early Drogba header was our only threat, though. Then, for the rest of the first period, Blackburn dominated and our support grew increasingly restless. Our defence was breached on a number of occasions in a ten minute spell, with Benjani the main threat. On one occasion, Petr Cech slipped just as a deft chip was dropping into the net. Thankfully, Petr recovered superbly well and palmed the ball over. In attack, we seemed to be too leaden-footed, too willing to take an extra touch, unwilling to play the ball quickly. Mikel was doing well to hold things together, but the rest of the team were underperforming.

Then, calamity. El Hadji Diouf was pulling the strings on Blackburn’s left and his perfect cross found the leaping Benjani at the far post. Despite JT’s best efforts, his leap was unchallenged and his powerful header flew into the net, just inside the post, right at me.

Groans.

We rarely threatened during the rest of that first period and the away support was pretty quiet.

After a Blackburn attack, Cech spotted the opportunity for a quick break. His sliced kick immaculately found Malouda on the left and I immediately wondered if that is what he had intended. Cech’s kicking is one of his weaker attributes. However, Malouda soon gathered the ball and sent over a long ball towards Didier. His headed knock down was perfect for the unrushing Anelka to prod the ball past Robinson.

Get in.

As I jumped around like a fool, I shouted – “I love that route one football.”

We had weathered the storm. We surely couldn’t play as poorly as in the second period, could we?No, of course we couldn’t.

With Chelsea attacking an increasingly involved away support of 4,000, our mood changed. We had a lot more of the ball, though if I am honest I can’t put my finger on what Ancelotti said at the break to warrant the improvement. I thought that the pairing of Ashley Cole and Yuri Zhirkov were the biggest improvement. The home support sensed Ashley’s threat as they quickly serenaded him with a ditty about his ex-wife.

It was Cole who had the best chance of the half when the ball zipped across the box towards him, but he sliced his effort wide of Robinson’s right post. Drogba was in a strange mood again though and I think he isn’t 100% fit. He seemed half-hearted. As the game drew on, we heard that Manchester City were losing 2-1 at Molyneux and so it would be very frustrating if we couldn’t capitalise. Shots from Zhirkov and spritely substitute Sturridge flew past the goal.

If I am honest, I was always confident our superior quality would tell. However, what a shock from that late Blackburn attack when the ball was deftly played into the lurking Jason Roberts. He shimmied past the last defender and we stood, as one, expecting the worst.

His shot flew past the post and thousands of home fans put their heads in their hands. The Chelsea section, however, roared.

Very soon after, a period of sustained Chelsea pressure ensued and the ball was worked out to the Russian. Zhirkov was faced with a couple of robust Blackburn henchmen in his way, but he nimbly created a yard of space and deftly dug out an inch-perfect cross towards Ivanovic on the far post. Time seemed to stand still as the ball hung in the air. The powerful Ivanovic was waiting. We all saw the gaps in the goal, each side of Robinson. We all jumped with Ivanovic and his crashing downward header filled us with joy as the ball hit the back of the net.

Delirium once again – another last minute winner – and the away end exploded. Several fans rushed past me down the aisle and I bounced around, hugging Mark and Gary, our faces aching with joy. In a croaking voice, a red-faced Alan spoke –

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

And I replied –

“Come on my little diamonds.”

The ignominy of 1995 and that woeful 3-0 loss, plus all those others, were forgotten and we could celebrate amongst our own now. The Chelsea choir responded with our very unique song, born in 2005 but now resurrected –

“That’s Why We’re Champions.”

Phew – all was well with the world, but we all knew we had ridden our luck against a defiant home team. We soon reminded the Blackburn Rovers support of the day’s events –

“One Nil, And You F***ed It Up.”

I took a few photos of the celebrating Chelsea players as I edged my way out of the Darwen End. The joy and emotion in JT’s face is always uplifting and it was wonderful to see that our elation was matched by theirs.

We’re in it together, after all.

After a slow start amongst bumper-to-bumper match traffic, we soon found our way back to the southbound M6. Burger spent a while looking through my photo album from the memorable 1996-1997 season and he made the point about how many players from the team at Wembley have gone into management and coaching – namely Dan Petrescu, Steve Clarke, Dennis Wise, Roberto Di Matteo, Eddie Newton, Mark Hughes, Gianfranco Zola and the substitute Gianluca Vialli. That’s pretty impressive numbers. We were to eventually hear that both United and Arsenal would win, but title challengers Manchester City were now a massive eight points adrift. And it’s only October. I said “adios” to The Burgers at 7pm, knowing that we would inevitably meet up at Liverpool next Sunday. I then continued my homeward journey, listening to “606”, featuring incandescent Tottenham fans, as I went. I gorged myself on a smorgasbord of curry slices, tuna and sweet corn sandwiches, cinnamon whirls, a Red Bull, a McDonalds coffee and a bumper pack of Maynard’s wine gums. Passing through Bristol city centre, I spotted a few local girls ( with accents that could curdle milk ) in Halloween face paint and, for many, it was an improvement.

“Alright, my luvver?”

I reached home at 9.45pm and I soon watched the highlights on “MOTD.” I briefly spotted myself in the build up to our winner as the ball hung in the air ahead of Brana’s header. It’s hard to believe that we have played ten games in the league, yet have only conceded a miserly three goals. That’s pretty phenomenal, yet nobody in the media has noted this. I’m going to suggest that our great defensive record is largely due to the fantastic shield that Mikel gives our back four. Along with Ivanovic, I’d suggest he has been our most consistent performer this season.

I quickly worked out that ‘my’ overall record against those pesky Rovers is now a much more respectable 10-7-10. That’s more like it.

And so we march on.

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