Tales From The Last Days Of Roman’s Empire

Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers : 7 May 2022.

After the defeat at Goodison Park, the end-of-season run-in stared us in the face. Five games to go. Four league games and the FA Cup Final. Of the league games, three were at home with one away. It was all about finishing in the top four.

Over the past ten seasons, it is a goal that has been reached with a grinding regularity.

2012/13                Third

2013/14                Third

2014/15                First

2015/16                Tenth

2016/17                First

2017/18                Fifth

2018/19                Third

2019/20                Fourth

2020/21                Fourth

The two seasons of us not hitting a Champions League place stick out like two huge sore thumbs. It has been a pretty decent decade. And yet, the previous ten seasons were even more successful.

2002/3                  Fourth

2003/4                  Second

2004/5                  First

2005/6                  First

2006/7                  Second

2007/8                  Second

2008/9                  Third

2009/10                First

2010/11                Second

2011/12               Sixth

The past twenty years has clearly brought an incredible and sustained period of success for us all. But with the Roman Abramovich era coming to an end, there will be continued question marks about Chelsea Football Club’s ability to remain in the lofty positions that we have become accustomed. When questioned about all this by a few non-believers, my response was always the same :

“Ah, it won’t really matter. I’ll still go.”

The next step in our fight to remain at the top table was a home match with the old gold and black of Wolverhampton Wanderers.

In SW6, there were developments.

Late on Friday, a photograph of Todd Boehly outside Stamford Bridge, smiling contentedly, appeared on the internet. Early on the Saturday morning – the day of the Wolves match – the club issued an official statement.

“Chelsea Football Club can confirm that terms have been agreed for a new ownership group, led by Todd Boehly, Clearlake Capital, Mark Walter and Hansjoerg Wyss, to acquire the club.”

So this was it, then. The last days of the Roman Empire were here.

Ever since Roman decided to sell up on the evening of the Luton away game and after the introduction of sanctions were imposed on the club on the morning of our game at Norwich, I have of course been concerned about the immediate and long-term future of the club. Yet I have not had the time nor the patience to delve too deeply into all of the options that may or may not be available for the club.

I implicitly trusted the club to make the best decision.

In the meantime, there were games to attend. Players to support. Noise to be made. The home game against Wolves was no different.

Pre-match was pretty typical. I stopped for a breakfast at a lovely old-fashioned café opposite Putney Bridge station. There was a heady mix of laughter and banter with old and new friends from near and far in “The Eight Bells” at the bottom end of Fulham. Andy and his daughter Sophie – or Sophie and her father Andy, take your pick – joined us for the first time. It really pleased me to see them walk into the already crowded pub. There was plenty of dialogue about the past, present and future. Sharing our table were three lads from Minnesota – Chad, Josh, Danny – and my old pal Rich from St. Albans. Five or six of the Kent lads sat at the bar. Steve from Salisbury was with us again.

We made plans for next Saturday’s Cup Final.

It was a fine and sunny day in SW6. Jackets were not required. We made our way to the stadium. At Fulham Broadway, I spoke to Steve about the Chelsea supporter who had so sadly committed suicide in front of a train in the evening after the West Ham game two weeks’ earlier.

What a sad, sad tale.

Up at street level, I stopped for a chat with a few Chelsea characters outside the “CFCUK Stall” which is a required pit-stop for many on match days. On the walk to the West Stand forecourt, I spotted Steve and PD scoffing a quick burger to soak up some of the pre-match ales.

This would be another gate of around 32,000. I had managed to sort out three spares for a few people. Our match day companions Gary, Alan and Clive arrived.

Clive, without knowing it I am sure, sported the colours of the long-time rivals of Todd Boehly’s Los Angeles Dodgers. He was wearing a black and orange Fred Perry polo-shirt, the colours of the San Francisco Giants. Rob, who sits behind me, and has a passive interest in the Dodgers, suggested he should bring his Los Angeles cap to a game.

Let’s hope that this US / UK tie-up – if approved by the powers that be – proves to be fruitful. I have a baseball past and my comment at this stage – there will be more, no doubt, stay tuned – is this.

In 1955, the Brooklyn Dodgers won their first ever World Series.

In 1955, Chelsea won our first ever League Championship.

I like that fit. I have often said that if the Dodgers still played in Brooklyn, I would be a fan.

Let’s just hope that Boehly and his chums don’t decide to relocate us to the west coast. The town of Aberystwyth, despite it hosting our pre-season training camps there in the ‘eighties doesn’t really need a Premier League club does it?

I hadn’t clocked the teams on the TV screens, so as the players assembled down below it was time to work it all out.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Dave

Alonso – Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – James

Pulisic

Werner – Lukaku

I liked the idea of us playing two up front.

How ‘eighties.

Albert from the row in front spotted Petr Cech, all alone, in the underused executive tier. I snapped him. Soon into the game, Dave – at home – somehow knew that Todd Boehly was a few seats along. I snapped him too. Like Roman, a proper scruffy get.

It was all Chelsea, attacking the Shed, in the first ten minutes with the visitors hardly getting the ball over the halfway line.

There were two half-chances in that opening flurry. A shot from an angle by Werner but saved by Jose Sa. Next up was a shot by Romelu Lukaku at the near post but he didn’t get enough on it. There was a little weave from Christian Pulisic and a curler that drifted wide. We were utterly dominant.

On twenty-three minutes, we applauded the memory of Kyle Sekhon.

Rest In Peace.

By the time of the half-hour mark, Wolves were slowly getting a foothold in the game. Their fans were doing their best too.

“Fight, fight – wherever you may be. We are the boys from the Black Country.”

Our play had deteriorated.

A Werner goal was called back for a push. I heard the whistle so didn’t celebrate. Just after, we were up and celebrating a goal and doing the whole “THTCAUN / COMLD” routine. After the ball seemingly missed everyone, the lone figure of Ruben Loftus-Cheek at the far post nimbly slotted the ball in from a difficult angle.

GETINYOU BASTARD.

After a good few seconds – thirty seconds? – the ref signalled a VAR check.

“Ah bollocks. These things always result in a disallowed goal, Al.”

The review took forever. God almighty, how is that possible? It should be done and dusted within a few seconds.

No goal.

Pantomime boos.

The play deteriorated further. If the first-half against West Ham was a shocker, this was worse. With a minute of play remaining, the best chance of the game went to Wolves. There was a super save from Edouard Mendy from Pedro Neto and then Leander Dendoncker followed up by thrashing the ball over the bar.

Then, at the other end, the ball was played into Lukaku and he did well to spin and shoot low but Sa saved. Then, another Wolves break and another shot blazed over.

There were moans from me with Oxford Frank at the break.

“Not sure if any of those players out there today could even be classed as mediocre.”

The second-half began with us attacking the Matthew Harding.

Werner went close in the opening minute and then Reece James went even closer with a direct free-kick when everyone was expecting a curling cross.

On fifty-one minutes, Lukaku did ever so well to hunt down a ball and win it from a defender. He appeared to be tripped right where the penalty area meets the goal line. Play carried on and I was bemused. Thankfully the dreaded VAR worked in our favour.

Penalty.

Lukaku, with a small break in his run, slotted home.

GET IN.

Another “THTCAUN / COMLD.”

There was a fine run from Werner down below me but with Lukaku screaming for the ball AND IN SPACE, Timo lazily misfired elsewhere.

We were suddenly on fire. Just two minutes after our goal, a lovely ball into space from Pulisic FOR LUKAKU TO RUN ONTO and a sweet and easy finish. Just bloody lovely. Lukaku sprinted away. I caught his jump. Happy with that. We were purring.

Chelsea Dodgers 2 Wolverhampton Midgets 0.

The MHL chanted to the West Stand.

“Boehly give us a wave. Boehly, Boehly – give us a wave.”

There was no wave.

Chances were exchanged. This was a much better half than the first. But it truthfully could not have been much worse. Thankfully the noise levels from our support rose too. With twenty minutes or so to go, there was indecision from Antonio Rudiger but Mendy saved well. A Chelsea break, but Sa saved well from Kovacic. A cheeky lob from Lukaku dropped onto the top of the net with Sa back peddling. We sung his name and he clapped back. If Chelsea is a conundrum this season, then our purchase of Lukaku is the biggest piece of the puzzle.

By now, we ought to have been clear and with three points in the bag. But that elusive pass still eluded us. In the pub, with Andy and Rich, I had said that we were a team of runners – Pulisic, Werner, Kovacic, Ziyech, even Kante and Mount to an extent – but we missed someone that could hit those runners with a pass.

Come back Cesc Fabregas.

On seventy-nine minutes, we lost possession and Wolves – who had been improving steadily – broke with pace. Francisco Trincao dribbled and cut inside.

I uttered the immortal words “don’t let him shoot.”

He shot.

The flight of the ball seemed to befuddle Mendy. It didn’t befuddle me; I was right in line with its bloody flight.

2-1, fackinell.

They continued to run at us. I fully expected a goal a few minutes later but Trincao saw his shot deflected just wide of the goal. A toe-poke from Raul Jiminez went wide. We were hanging on here.

Two late substitutions.

Sarr for Dave.

Havertz for Lukaku.

Odd choices in hindsight. Should we not have packed the midfield?

A massive seven minutes of extra-time were signalled. The substitute Havertz shimmied and slid a shot just wide of the near post. We were apparently chasing a third goal when three points were all.

For a team not known for its attacking devil-may-care attitude, this was odd, it was out of control. Who was leading the team out there? Who were the talkers? Who was taking charge?

Sadly, nobody.

In the ninety-seventh minute…

Inside my head : “Why didn’t we clear it? Worried now. Has to be a goal. Cross. Header. Simple.”

We were crushed.

At the final whistle, boos.

Yes, it felt like a loss, of course it did.

Moans. Rants. Grumbles. Annoyance. Disbelief.

On my slow trudge through the crowds, behind the Megastore and onto the West Stand forecourt, I walked with one of my passengers to our car. Over the course of just five minutes, around ten fans said the same thing :

“We could have done with you out there today, Ron.”

It was a quiet drive home, but we soon put the result behind us, kinda. It was a gorgeous evening with the countryside as I headed west looking beautiful during the first blush of spring. That Manchester United were getting gubbed at Brighton certainly helped. Coming up in a seismic week, we have Leeds United away on Wednesday and Liverpool at Wembley on Saturday.

Odd times, but still good times. And don’t be told anything else.

Postscript :

On the Sunday morning, it was a typical time for me. A cuppa, some tunes, and the task of choosing and editing some of the one-hundred plus photos from the match to share on social media. I spotted the figure of Saul, late in the game, going up for a header.

What?

Was he playing?

Maybe I missed this late substitution.

I checked the match details. He had come on as a replacement for Marcos Alonso at half-time. Bloody hell. How is that possible for me to miss that? I hadn’t even been drinking. I honestly felt like I should head off for a lie-down in a quiet corner and ponder my very existence. Thankfully, two friends hadn’t noticed him either. I didn’t feel quite so foolish.

This match report is dedicated to Saul : Mister Invisible.

With just four games left now, every game is huge.

I will see some of you at Elland Road on Wednesday.

Come on Chelsea.

Tales From The 677

Middlesbrough vs. Chelsea : 19 March 2022.

Our FA Cup quarter final tie at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium would necessitate our first visit to Teesside in over five years. PD and I had enjoyed the last one; we stayed the Saturday night and got to witness the joys of a night out in Middlesbrough before our narrow 1-0 win on the Sunday evening in late 2016. PD liked it so much that he has been using the photo of him in the first row of the away section as his cover photo on Facebook ever since.

This time, Parky was joining us. Although I swore blind that I’d never drive up and back to Middlesbrough ever again, after doing this for a match in 2008, due to a variety of reasons that are just too dull to explain here, I was damn well doing it again.

In the build up to this game, it still felt that we were at the centre of a massive storm. However, we did not help ourselves. The club’s pathetic request for the game to be played behind closed doors drew warranted disdain from all quarters. At a time when we should have been quietly going about our business, on and off the park, this just gave others the chance to label us negatively. It was a massive PR own-goal. Sometimes the actions of those at our club defy description.

After a tough few days at work – our office was hit with COVID and sickness – at last the weekend arrived. Parky and I are away season ticket holders but PD’s presence was in doubt. Thankfully, a spare became available from a usual source and the three of us were headed to Middlesbrough. We would be part of, surely, our smallest domestic away following in decades. There were games at Luton Town in the mid-‘eighties when away fans were effectively banned, but a few Chelsea – OK more than a few – still attended via a variety of means. I am unsure how many got in.

I also remember a game at Anfield in the autumn of 1994 when The Kop was closed and I believe our official away allowance was ridiculously small. I watched that game with a Liverpool mate in the main stand that night. From memory we only had about four hundred.

Around seven hundred were due to get in at Middlesbrough. Not for the first time did I feel blessed to be able to attend.

I am a lucky man.

Middlesbrough, eh?

Smoggy Land. The Smog Monsters. The Smoggies. Ironopolis. The huge ICI plant. The ‘Boro. Pak Doo-ik of North Korea scoring against the Italians in 1966. George Camsell and Wilf Mannion. Don Revie and Brian Clough growing up mere streets away from each other. The Ironsides. The 1973/74 promotion team of Jack Charlton. The white bar on the chest of their jerseys. The players Frank Spraggon, Alan Foggon and John Craggs. An industrial wasteland in the ‘eighties. John Neal and Tony McAndrew. The locking of the Ayresome Park gates in 1986. The team of Gary Pallister, Bernie Slaven, Stuart Ripley and Tony Mowbray. The play-offs in 1988. Juninho and Ravanelli. The Wembley games. The Zenith Data, the FA Cup, the League Cup. The Riverside. Roy Chubby Brown. Their League Cup win and the Europa Cup journey under Steve McClaren. The Transporter Bridge. Bob Mortimer. Chris fucking Rea. Club Bongo. The chicken parmo.

I called for PD at eight o’clock and LP just after. A journey of exactly three-hundred miles was ahead. My fellow travellers came armed with a few tins of cider for the trip north. I thoroughly enjoyed this drive. The weather was magnificent; clear blue skies to start, hardly a cloud appeared all day, dry roads, a great feeling of freedom. We stopped for some breakfast bagels at Strensham on the M5 at 9.30am and I was soon hurtling around Birmingham on the M42. The half-way point was reached as I neared the M1 just south of Nottingham. I stopped to refuel at Woodall Services, then headed straight up the A1. The road into Middlesbrough, with the North York Moors visible past Thirsk, and then the approach into Smoggy Land.

We chatted away. But there were the inevitable periods of silence when I was left alone with my thoughts.

The very first time that I saw us play Middlesbrough was that infamous play-off game at Stamford Bridge in 1988. I have detailed that game at legth previously.

My first sighting, though, was a little nearer home.

In 1986, Bristol Rovers were turfed out of their Eastville stadium, never to return, and began playing at Twerton Park, the home of Bath City. Before I returned to college in Stoke in that September, my school friend Steve coerced me to attend a Rovers game against Middlesbrough in the then Third Division. It was a midweek match and I believe less than 4,000 attended. ‘Boro themselves were going through a very rough time, the worst in their history, and were limping along financially from one game to another. I watched from a side terrace as ‘Boro won a decent game 2-1. The one thing that I remember from that night was that Graeme Souness – himself ex-Middlesbrough – and the new Rangers manager had been spotted in the seats above. That he had travelled down from Glasgow – probably by car in those days – on a scouting mission blew my mind. He was no doubt keeping an eye on Gary Pallister.

I hated Middlesbrough in 1988. They spoiled my life, or at least that summer. While many football fans were getting all loved up on ecstasy, I was depressed, so depressed, and fearing life in Division Two. Again.

I have only ever met three Middlesbrough fans outside of match days in my entire life.

My college mate Chris is from nearby Thornaby and I shared digs with him from 1984 to 1987. A distant branch of his family – “Dickens” – sponsored the ‘Boro shirt in those tough times of 1986. Keith was a work mate in Trowbridge at the time of the 1997 and 1998 Wembley games who got undue stick from me. Then, weirdly, there was a lad called Andy from Saltburn, who I first bumped into at a youth hostel in Washington DC in 1989, only for him to come strolling into a bar in Orlando a month later. This football world is a very small world indeed.

I was parked up at around 1.15pm. Not only was my spot equidistant between pub and ground, but also free. After a couple of text messages, we met up with two Chelsea mates in “The Resolution” – which we visited in 2016 – and formed a little Chelsea enclave in a solidly home crowd. It felt like the whole town was buzzing. ‘Boro were enjoying a decent season and were undoubtedly “up for the Cup” on this sunny day. Many ‘Boro lads were in their finery; the boozer was awash with Adidas trainers, Armani jeans, Paul & Shark tops, CP sweatshirts and the ubiquitous Stone Island patch was everywhere. But despite all this, the locals were welcoming.

We chatted to Matty – a dead friendly local from Darlington, er Darlo – and a few of his mates. Pride of place went to Robbie, yet to miss a ‘Boro game in forty-two years. That meant that he was at Twerton Park in 1986. Respect.

With an hour and a half to go, we set off for the stadium. It was only a twenty-minute walk. While the others headed inside for a bevvy, I circumnavigated the stadium for the first time. Statues of Camsell and Mannion proudly stand next to those very same gates from Ayresome Park that were locked by bailiffs in 1986 with the club’s future on a precipice.

I especially wanted a photo of the blue steel of the famous Transporter Bridge over the Tees. I was able to frame this impressive structure within the circles of a couple of public art installations that resembled dream catchers.

The ‘Boro faithful were dreaming of Wembley again as they rushed past me.

The waters of the river lapped the banks as the stadium was bathed in sun ahead of me. I slowly made my way to the away turnstiles. I passed a photo of old Ayresome Park on a section of the perimeter wall with a row of seats from the old stadium in front. Sadly, I never made it to Ayresome Park, nor Roker, and friends tell me it was a fearsome place in other decades; the play-off game in 1988 especially. With hindsight, the two stadia of Sunderland and Middlesbrough – despite being the two lesser clubs of the north-east behind Newcastle United – were far more impressive than St. James’ Park.

I made my way in and soon chatted to some of the 677.

DJ outside.

Al, Gal, Andy, Tim in the concourse.

Others inside the seats.

Waves and thumbs up to a few.

This was my fifth visit to the Riverside. It’s OK, but oh so bland. Five visits and three different sections for us away fans, being pushed east each time. Our small section was above a corner flag.

The other four games were easy wins. I hoped for one more.

Oh yeah, the game. Other matters had dominated my thoughts until then. The sun shone brightly before eventually falling behind the west stand roof. It was a warm evening on Teeside.

The PA was ridiculously excitable.

“The Chelsea team are now in the tunnel.”

Shocker.

“The ‘Boro team are now in the tunnel.”

Bloody hell. You need to get out more, mate.

As the teams entered, red and white shiny mosaics to my left. Lots of noise.

“Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag.”

The Chelsea team?

Mendy

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Silva – Sarr

Kovacic – Loftus-Cheek – Mount

Ziyech – Lukaku – Pulisic

There was applause for Ukraine. There was no silliness from the 677. Phew. Matty had told us all about the ‘Boro right back Isaiah Jones, who was evidently one to watch. Funnily enough, I remembered him from a Queen of the South vs. Hearts game I watched on BBC Scotland last season. Don’t ask.

So, Middlesbrough vs. Chelsea and 30,000 vs.677.

I was pleased to see ‘Boro still employing the white band on their jersey. It’s their thing.

The game began. It was warm enough for me to take off my coat and top; just a T-shirt would suffice until the second-half. I was stood next to PD and Parky. From getting out of my car at 1.15pm, I would be standing until well after the game, gone 7pm.

We began brightly. We used space well as we attacked and the mood inside the away section was positive. There were songs from the start though none immediately, for Roman Abramovich. Matty had told us that their weak link was their goalkeeper Joe Lumley and he was getting tested early on. The home team responded with a few corners.

On the quarter of an hour, the ball broke to Hakim Ziyech down our right. I saw Mason Mount itching to be found.

“There’s the pass. Mason wants” I yelled and I am positive that my voice was heard.

Ziyech pushed the ball into space perfectly. Mount advanced and spotted the fine run of Romelu Lukaku. The cross was perfect, low and fast, right on the money. Lukaku swept it in.

Get in.

We were one-up early on and the 677 roared. I leant forward and shared some positive stuff with Eck.

“Perfect move that. A ball into space. A great run from Lukaku. We don’t do that enough.”

Of course Middlesbrough were guilty of leaving their defence exposed but it was so good to see us executing a classic counter-attacking move. Beautiful.

The home team did not lie down. They almost constantly attacked us down the right via that man Thomas. A few more corners, with Lukaku going all Drogba and heading away on one occasion.

There was a good election of songs emanating from the 677. We were holding our own.

On the half-an-hour mark, we watched as Mateo Kovavic broke purposefully in that urgent way of his. He spotted Mount, breaking square, and the ball was then pushed out to Ziyech. The winger came inside.

A shout from Eck.

“Hit it Hakim.”

He did. And how. The shot dipped and swerved and away from Clumsy Lumley and into the net.

GET IN.

Were we safe? It absolutely felt like it. Time for more celebrations and the continuation of more songs.

“Kovacic our Croatian man.
He left Madrid and he left Milan.
He signed for Frank, said fuck off Zidane.
He signed for Chelsea on a transfer ban.”

Lukaku almost made it three from close-in, but was denied after a ‘Boro defender cleared his goal bound shot off the line.

“How did that not go in?”

It had been a class first-half. Thiago Silva was calmness personified. Rudiger attacked every ball, and sometimes every defender, as if his life depended on it. Eck and I agreed that Mason hasn’t really pushed on this season in quite the way we had expected but was enjoying a fine game. The home fans were occasionally quiet and when these moments happened, we seized our chance to be heard.

It was a pleasure to see Shari and Skippy from Queensland in Australia around the half-time break.

“Bonzer.”

As the second-half began, my Lacoste top was zipped up. The night was getting a little cooler now. The second period promised much but delivered little. I fancied more goals from us, but we rarely hit the free-flowing stuff of the first forty-five minutes.

To be fair to the home fans, they dug in and absolutely sang their hearts out as the second-half got going. I think we were all impressed.

For a while, they sang a song and we did our version. They were our cheerleaders. Minus the pom poms.

But there were also reminders of 1997.

“When Wise Went Up.”

“One Di Matteo.”

And then a new one.

“We’re on our way, we’re on our way.
To Paris, we’re on our way.
Seven seater, car or train.
Tommy’s gonna fly the plane.
All I know is Chelsea’s on our way.”

And then as an answer to “Pigbag.”

“Fucking Useless.”

I remember little of the second-half apart from the banter between away fans and home fans, with the occupants of the BBC studio to our left getting a few hefty helpings too. I could hardly believe it when 677Steve in South Philly texted me to say that he couldn’t hear us on the TV broadcast.

Luke was leading a new chant :

“Chelsea’s got no money, we’re gonna win the Cup.”

Four substitutions from Tuchel.

Timo Werner for Pulisic.

N’Golo Kante for Kovacic.

Kenedy for Ziyech.

Harvey Vale for Lukaku.

Only in the last ten minutes were there audible chants for and against Roman.

Chelsea : “Roman Abramovich.”

Middlesbrough : “Fuck off Abramovich.”

Timo had a couple of late chances and as the game petered out, Mendy made his first real save of the night. The home team had been poor, but we had shown commendable spirit throughout.

The pounding that the club has received from outside of late has undoubtedly engineered a magnificent team spirit with Tuchel now a much loved, much admired and respected leader.

After a period of me struggling to warm to him, I am now resolutely a paid up member of Team Tuchel.

We are privileged to have him.

We slowly walked back to the car as the night grew colder still. The car park was grid-locked so we spent a while in a local “Pizza Hut” where we bumped into Roy – Brighton, Palace – and Margaret yet again. After almost six hours on my feet, I could relax. When I eventually set off at 9pm, the traffic was clear. While PD and Parky slept, I drove south. I was diverted on the M1 into the outer reaches of Leeds.

Ah, 1970.

I refueled my car at Tamworth Services. A couple of Red Bulls got me home.

I reached my house at around 2am.

It had been another good day.

Tales From Block 9 And Gate 17

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 13 March 2022.

As a pre-curser to our game at home to Newcastle United on the Sunday, I followed my local team Frome Town to Bath for a derby with Larkhall Athletic on Saturday afternoon. This was a first-time visit to Plain Ham for me and my first Frome game since just after Christmas. Larkhall play at a picturesque ground atop a hill overlooking the city, and as I settled in to cheer on the Robins on a sunny but blustery afternoon, I chatted to a couple of friends.

“It’s weird. I usually use Chelsea as a break – a getaway – from the stresses of normal life, of work, of everything. Today, I am using Frome Town as a break from Chelsea.”

The noise concerning the sanctions against Roman Abramovich and all of the associated rumours were loud and showing no signs of abating.

I fancied keeping a low profile. It felt like that I would be easy prey for a few fellow Frome supporters who followed other clubs. It felt like I was walking around with a large target on my back. In the end, I got off quite lightly. A few lads even felt sorry for the predicament of us Chelsea fans; how we were getting punished for the sins of others. The game was a poor one; a 0-0 draw but we improved our lot as the team below us, Cirencester Town, lost. Our lead at the top of the Southern League Division One South was extended to two points.

On the Sunday morning, I awoke early with a classic, if not slightly uncomfortable, match day ahead of me.

The football Gods had shone on me favourably. My first-ever Chelsea game was way back in 1974 against Newcastle United, and by a nice quirk of fate, the actual forty-eighth anniversary was out by just three days.

Game 1 : Chelsea vs. Newcastle, Saturday 16 March 1974.

Game 1,340 : Chelsea vs. Newcastle United, Sunday 13 March 2022.

That Ron Harris was again joining Paul, Parky and myself on the trip to London made it all a bit sweeter. We were away by just after 7.15am for the 2pm kick-off at Stamford Bridge. I soon explained to Ron about the lovely synchronicity of the two games. In the programme from that first game, Ron was originally due to miss out in favour of young John Sparrow at left-back, who had debuted the previous Wednesday afternoon – the days of fuel shortages and the three-day week – against Burnley, but I memorably crossed his name out and replaced it with Chopper’s name. Ron was keen to see how the current Chelsea supporters were going to react to the news of the sanctions, the selling of the club, the whole nine yards. I was hoping that everyone would be respectful of our delicate position. To be honest, I wanted the game to pass with as little negative noise as possible.

As I drove through the Wiltshire village of Tilshead on Salisbury Plain, six armoured vehicles passed us. It brought everything into sharp focus. Despite our obvious thoughts about the safeguarding of Chelsea’s immediate and long-term future, everything of a football nature seemed to disappear as each of those trucks, carrying soldiers, passed us.

Salisbury Plain, if not the headquarters of the British Army then certainly its training ground and its playing field, is not far from our four West Country homes. I remember that as a child I would often see tanks in training on one stretch of the road between Warminster – a garrison town and Ron’s former home – and Chitterne. I remembered how, during the First World War the army commandeered the village of Imber and forced its inhabitants to flee so that the buildings could be used for street-fighting purposes. In the late ‘eighties, on that same Warminster to Chitterne road, it was easy to spot a newly built village that was said to resemble that of a Polish town since that is where it was thought that any battle in a potential World War Three would take place. Much of the recent war film “1917” was filmed on the Plain too. We wondered if those young British soldiers that had passed us would soon be sent to foreign lands, maybe not to Ukraine, but to bolster the NATO presence elsewhere.

It seems odd, and awful, to be writing about a potential World War Three in a Chelsea blog.

We made good time. I dropped PD and Parky off outside “The Eight Bells” at 9.30am and they disappeared off for a coffee outside Putney Bridge tube station while they waited for the pub to open at 10am. I dropped Ron off near Fulham Broadway and then shot off to park up at the usual place further north.

I walked back down the North End Road and called in to see Mark Worrall at the CFCUK stall opposite the Fulham Broadway tube station. Here, I picked up my free copy of “Tales From The Shed” that had gone to print recently and was now on sale. I am one of thirty-four Chelsea supporters to have submitted a piece on various aspects of the club. Marco gave me a special extension to detail my experience in Abu Dhabi when Chelsea – gasp – became World Champions. I know eleven of the other folk and I chatted briefly to a few of them during the day. The book is the latest of Marco’s “Gate 17” publications and acts as a fundraiser for the Stoll Foundation, which benefits from Chelsea’s charity work in the local area, including “The Big Sleep Out.”

Details are given at the end of this piece.

It is, of course, heartily recommended. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Down at “The Eight Bells” we then enjoyed a cracking pre-match yet again. The three of us were joined by Daima from San Diego – her first game, against the Geordies, just like me – plus Deano from Lancashire via Yorkshire, Rich from Edinburgh and four of the lads from Kent who often call in. We had a ball.

It actually felt rather odd to be back at Stamford Bridge once again. Due to a variety of reasons, I missed the Tottenham league match, the Plymouth FA Cup tie and the Lille Champions League game. My last match at Chelsea was the Chesterfield cup tie. The last game that I witnessed from my season-ticket seat was the Tottenham League Cup game way back on the fifth day of January. Since the Chesterfield game, there had been ten games at other venues. This Newcastle game seemed like a homecoming for me.

I settled in alongside Alan, Clive and PD in The Sleepy Hollow section of Block 9 and waited for things to develop.

I spotted “The Roman Empire” banner that had apparently drawn some negative comments from the media earlier in the day. Its presence summed up our predicament.

Were we to airbrush our current owner from our history? No, of course not.

Should the club have taken it down? That would have been disrespectful.

Should we have left it up? That could well have been seen as disrespectful too.

Oh what horrible muddy waters.

Down below, “Three” was still being advertised around the perimeter of the pitch.

Confused? So was I.

Since the news of the sanctions against Roman had broken just four days earlier, my head had been sent into a constant spin. I am sure that elsewhere it was a similar case. It was difficult to find lucid and straightforward commentary and insight.

It certainly felt like we were the whipping boys.

But I kept thinking back to the terrible summer of 1976 when Chelsea appeared to be going belly-up. I can remember one moment that I often think back on.

Before I disappeared into my bedroom – one that was quickly becoming a shrine to Chelsea Football Club – I can remember sobbing as I pinned a note up on my bedroom door.

“1974 : Division One. 1975 : Division Two. 1976 : nothing.”

It was a cry-for-help to my parents and, looking back, it was of course all rather embarrassing. My poor parents spoke to me about it the next day and tried to allay any fears of my beloved club disappearing, but of course these were just empty words as they had no real clue.

So, I have been there before.

My have parents passed away now, but maybe I need to see if I have any Blu Tack for a 2022 version.

I was worried about a repeat of Burnley with some unwanted chants taking place during a minute of applause for the people of Ukraine. I hoped that Chelsea would not be holding a similar minute before this game and immediately hated myself for it. Did I really want to see the reputation of the club being upheld instead of us all joining in for a minute for Ukraine? Sadly, yes. Again, I hated myself.

I had spoken to a few friends in the pub that I liked the idea of us wearing yellow shorts for this one game.

Blue shirts. Yellow shorts. United with Ukraine. A big message to the world. And a message to our support that chanting our current owner’s name during the minute of applause was not deemed acceptable.

Among all of this, there was a game to be played. I hadn’t thought much about it.

The teams appeared. Lo and behold, the Chelsea players were all wearing “3” on the shirts and a state of confusion reigned. At one stage, it looked like both sets of players were converging on the centre-circle and my fears about a “minute of applause” was going to come to fruition. In the end, they all backed away. There was the knee, but no more.

The game began. The Geordies, backed by three thousand, must have won the toss because we attacked the Matthew Harding, where Daima was watching from the opposite corner.

Oh, the team?

It looked like a back four, but was Hakim Ziyech playing right wing-back?

No, a four surely.

Mendy

Chalobah – Rudiger – Christensen – Sarr

Jorginho – Kante – Mount

Ziyech – Havertz – Werner

The fact that we were playing against Newcastle United, a club now bankrolled by the oil-rich but highly dubious Saudis, provided a dark undercurrent both before and during the game. I hoped that the possible, no probable, chanting from both sets of supporters would not darken things further.

The first-half was a pretty poor affair and had little real merit. An early shot from Andreas Christensen flew high into the crowd. A header from Antonio Rudiger soon after did not trouble Martin Dubravka in the Newcastle goal.

Thinking to myself : “In 1974, we were already one-up at this stage.”

The game settled but it didn’t really thrill. Unsurprisingly, we dominated but struggled to break down a resilient Newcastle team. There were slim pickings.

A long corner was aimed for a waiting Mason Mount but his speculative volley from way out flew high and wide. On twenty-eight minutes, I noted the best move of the match down our right but the end shot, from Werner, was always drifting wide.

While we were attacking, some supporters in the Matthew Harding Lower sung “Roman Abranomovich” but the general noise and commotion in that section meant that it was missed by the rest of the stadium; it had no chance to picked up and carried by others.

I was relieved.

I just didn’t want the negativity that would have accompanied it.

“We’re grateful Roman for everyting. But you’re not part of our future now. Let’s move on.”

On the half-hour, a Newcastle chance was spurned, and we held on.

The away fans sang : “Mike Ashley he’s coming for you.”

The Matthew Harding responded : “Boris Johnson he’s coming for you.”

The sun appearing overhead was a welcome addition to the afternoon, but the football itself didn’t really warm up at all.

The away fans were still chipping away at us.

The home fans rallied with a loud and defiant “Carefree” as the half entered the last ten minutes. Until then, the support had been subdued, tamed, thoughts elsewhere perhaps.

Efforts from Kai Havertz and Mount were hardly worthy of the name.

Right at the end of the poor first-half, we were soon roaring our approval of a magnificent save by Mendy from Miguel Almiron through a crowd of players.

The second period began.

On fifty-five minutes, a superb ball was lofted forward by Andreas Christensen but after a poor touch from Werner, the chance evaporated.

The second-half followed much the same pattern as the first.

There was untidy play from us, a few half-chances from the visitors, resolute defending from them and a Roman Abramovich chant half-way through the half from the MHL that was again lost in the general hubbub and not spotted by the rest of the support. I again heaved a sigh of relief.

I summed up proceedings to Alan in an embarrassingly poor way :

“Fucking shit, innit?”

But it was. This was a poor match. One to forget.

On the hour, Thomas Tuchel changed it around.

Mateo Kovacic for Mount.

Romelu Lukaku for Werner.

We huffed-and-puffed to no avail and, as happens on these occasions when I know that there are friends watching their first games at Chelsea, I was sad for Daima.

On the seventy-five-minute mark, a header from the leap of Havertz after a cross from Havertz gave us a false rush of hope. The header was easily claimed by Dubravka.

Fackinell.

Christian Pulisic replaced Sarr.

The game ambled along. We had almost given up hope. Clive disappeared off with a minute of normal time remaining.

Then, out of absolutely nowhere, a dream of a ball from Jorginho, who at last gets a mention right at the end of this report and not without good reason. He played a ball over the top and into space for the perfect run of Havertz.

One touch, a shot low.

Goal.

Stamford Bridge exploded.

I turned to my left and stared, eyes wide, at the yellow steps and double-punched my arms in a frankly disturbing way. I’d lost control. But fuck it. Seconds later I grabbed by camera to snap the celebrations.

You beauty.

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

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds, like.”

Incredibly, the same player almost made it two a few moments later when he raced through in the inside-right channel but saw his delicate chip knocked away by Dubravka.

The Geordies were silent. The final whistle blew.

An incredible ending to a very poor game had given us three more points. I was especially elated for Daima over in Block 16.

The players clapped us as they slowly walked around the pitch. I have usually departed by this stage, but I stayed momentarily to clap them too. It was one of those moments.

“Blue Is The Colour” never felt sounded so emotional.

“Cus Chelsea, Chelsea Is Our Name.”

Tales From The Shed.

The price for a limited edition version from the CFCUK stall on matchdays at Stamford Bridge is just £9, of which £5 goes to the Stoll Foundation.

This version can also be purchased via the eBay link at www.gate17books.co.uk – here there is also a 10% auto donation to the Alzheimer’s Society and £2 will also go to Stoll.

A standard paperback version of the book is also available worldwide via Amazon – sales via this platform will generate £2 per copy for Stoll.

This is the link for Amazon UK https://amzn.to/3tLUg0K

Additionally, I have a spare copy which I am happy to send to a fellow Chelsea supporter – or not as the case may be – as a prize. The competition? I have been thinking long and hard about this and I am stumped for a question. Therefore, I am going to turn the tables a little.

What question should I ask for this competition to win a copy of “Tales From The Shed”?

Let’s see how your minds and your imaginations work.

Please email me your answer…er, question…to : c.axon@talk21.com

Closing date : Friday 25 March.

Tales From An Unhappy Birthday

Norwich City vs. Chelsea : 10 March 2022.

Just after midnight on the day of our game at Carrow Road, I posted on Facebook the following :

“Happy Birthday Chelsea Football Club. Let’s celebrate it with a win later today.”

This was going to be another long old day. I had booked the day off work but was unable to get Friday off too. So it meant that I would be driving straight back after the match. I envisaged around ten hours’ driving in total. I did wonder if we’d completely fill our section, what with the game being only recently re-arranged, but that was soon to be the least of my worries.

I collected the gruesome twosome and by 9am we had stopped for a McBite to eat in the Wiltshire town of Melksham. Just as we were leaving, a friend messaged a group of us on WhatsApp to say that the government were putting sanctions on Roman Abramovich. My immediate reaction was that I wasn’t wholly surprised. But then, within minutes, the word was that it didn’t look good for us. It didn’t look good at all. I quickly turned my ‘phone off and recommenced the long drive east. PD, alongside me in the passenger seat, relayed some snippets of further information. Only season ticket holders were to be allowed at Stamford Bridge, the club shop was to be closed, but also – most worryingly of all – came the news that we couldn’t be sold.

PD summed it all up : “We’re fucked.”

Driving along the M4, nearing Swindon, I advised the chaps to turn their ‘phones off too. In the way that bad news travels much faster than good news, I suspected that the morning would soon be rife with awful rumours and doom-laden opinions about the immediate future of Chelsea Football Club. For a good hour or so, my car has never been quieter on the way to a Chelsea game. All three of us were stunned.

“And on our bloody birthday too. Stick the knife in and turn it, why don’t you?”

And yet. And yet, I could not help think of the poor people of Ukraine, who were at that very moment in time getting shelled by the Russian invaders. A part of me knew that in the very grand scheme of things the comings-and-goings of a football club seemed way less important.

Still we remained largely silent.

But we did mull over a few thoughts. I will admit, at some stage in that mid-morning mess, the three of us contemplated the most horrible “what if?” of all time.

What if Chelsea ceased to exist? What on Earth would we do?

My answer was obvious.

“I’d watch Frome Town. I know I wouldn’t enjoy it anything as like as much, but that’s always been part of my exit plan.”

I could hardly believe that we were thinking it and that I was discussing it. It was a rotten time. Looking back, that hour-and-a-half drive east along the M4 is a blur, a foggy memory, a fugue.

We hit the M25, the M11, the A11 and eventually the fine city of Norwich. I parked up not long after 1.30pm, some five-and-a-half hours since picking up PD in Frome. Despite the sullen thoughts racing through our minds, we promised each other to make the most of the day. Outside, the weather was mild, and overhead the sky was a cloudless blue miracle. I was parked just outside the city centre, just to the north of the River Wensum. We were honing in on one of my favourite pubs, “The Ribs Of Beef” but first we shot into “The Mischief”, a pub that we visited on the day of our FA Cup game in Norwich in 2018.

We all remembered our last trip to Norwich, only two-and-a-half years previous, but that day seems so distant now. In August 2019 – the sun blazing – we watched as Chelsea won 3-2 and Frank Lampard picked up his first win as a Chelsea manager. So much has happened since that it seems almost ridiculous to contemplate it all.

COVID19, several lockdowns, my heart attack, the dismissal of Lampard, the hiring of Tuchel, Champions League glory, Cup Finals, World Championships, a war in Europe and now the forced departure of Roman Abramovich.

My head is spinning as I am listing all of this.

We spent some quality time in the two pubs, and then hopped over the street to finish off at “The Glass House”, where Adam and his merry men and women of the Eastern Blues were enjoying a pre-match drink-up. It was in another pub on that street, “The Lawyer”, where we bumped into Adam and a few more of his crowd in 2018. Alas, that pub is no more. Sadly, the Eastern Blues lost a fine member the past year – Leigh – and it was in “The Lawyer” that we first met him. He was a well-respected Chelsea supporter and I know that he is dearly missed.

RIP Leigh Reeder.

Morsels of information and disinformation percolated through to us while we were drinking. I had allowed myself a single pint of “Praha” in the “Ribs Of Beef” and tried my best to relax. But what about away tickets for Middlesbrough? Was it true that we could be sold after all? How would a new owner work with the CPO? What about us retaining our players? Buying new ones? Would the club even exist by the end of the season?

We decided to let nature runs its course. We were but supporters, and all we could do was support the current team.

I parked up closer to the ground in a multi-story. After quickly saying “hi” to Rob and Martin in a restaurant, we dipped into “The Queen Of The Iceni” by the river. This is a pub that Parky and I first visited in 2012 and we had a quiet word with Noel and his wife. The mood was sombre and contemplative. But it was good to share a few thoughts. This pub was virtually full of home fans. Chelsea supporters, it seemed, were amassed in a pub on the other bank of the river, and their songs could be head from some distance. But we had given all that a large swerve. None of us were in the mood for it.

We decided to head into the stadium relatively early. As we turned the corner, I half-expected TV crews and reporters to be pouncing on Chelsea supporters as we neared the away turnstiles, but things were surprisingly quiet.

This would be my tenth consecutive Chelsea game away from Stamford Bridge, a run that is never likely to be repeated.

Tottenham, Manchester City, Brighton, Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi, Crystal Palace, Wembley, Luton, Burnley and Norwich.

I swapped seats with PD so he could be with Parky for a change; they were down the front with Alan and Gary. I was towards the back. There was reassuringly plain and concise talking with Jonesy, King Kenny, Neil, Tim and Cliff. I need not have been worried about the Chelsea crowd. Our section was rammed.

Suddenly, the game was upon us and I flicked my focus to our team.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Christensen

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Saul

Mount – Havertz – Werner

What a lovely first-half, eh?

We created more in those first ten minutes than we did in the entire first-half at Burnley in the previous game. After just two minutes, that rare thing; a Chelsea goal from a corner. Mason Mount slapped it in from the far side and a leap from Trevoh Chalobah did the rest. His glancing header down flew into the net, and the Chelsea contingent roared.

Soon after, the chances mounted up, oh dear please excuse the pun. Two efforts from Kai Havertz were followed by the same player sliding the ball square to Mount, who shimmied and struck high into Tim Krul’s goal. His subsequent slide towards us was euphoric, pure emotion, pure Chelsea.

More of the same please.

The Chelsea crowd were noisy and continuously so.

There were loud chants of “Roman Abramovich” but not everybody joined in.

Ironically, a friend in Detroit – hello Andy – asked me a few months back why we no longer shout Roman’s name at games. I had no real answer to this question. Maybe only on days when we are presented with league trophies at Stamford Bridge? I can’t remember any other occasions in recent times.

I also saw the home fans’ reaction – “Scum! Scum! Scum!” – and I simply didn’t want to contribute to that particular debate.

I remembered the famous exchange in 2005.

“We’ve got a super cook, you’ve got a Russian crook.”

“We’ve got Abramovich, you’ve got a drunken bitch.”

They don’t write them like that anymore, eh?

Back to 2022, and there followed a bizarre chant from us :

“Chelsea get sanctioned everywhere they go.”

Answers on a postcard.

And then, the rarest of songs.

“Chelsea Til I Die.”

This has always been a song that failed to register at Chelsea games, despite many fans thinking that it did. In my mind, and a few friends, it always seemed to be sung by lower level teams for some reason. Yet here we were in deepest Norfolk, and hundreds of Chelsea were giving it an airing for the very first time that I can ever remember.

I guess on this particular occasion it can be forgiven.

Though, to be honest, I’ll be supporting Chelsea after I die too.

We kept pouring forward. Every attack seemed to be with pace, at last, and the front three were continually on the last line of the defence, waiting to pounce. Dave’s energy levels were amazing to witness at close quarters. I lost count of the number of runs he made; many were inch perfect, but sadly many were ignored too. I was impressed with Mase, a bundle of energy, racing forward one minute, tackling back the next.

That shimmy from Thiago Silva as he brought the ball out of defence.

“Now you see it, now you don’t”

Sublime.

A flurry of corners caused concern in the Norwich penalty area. Kovacic and Christensen went close. It was as dominant half of football that I have seen for a while. Oh, since the second-half at Burnley anyway. Norwich were simply not in it. How come we only scored bloody two?

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Dave at the break. He looked out of place at right wing-back; my eyes took a while to adjust.

In contrast, a stark contrast, the second-half was poor. There was such little quality in the first twenty minutes that I wondered what on Earth the Chelsea players had drunk at half-time. It was the home side that looked the more aggressive as the game continued and Chelsea looked to be tiring. The noise in the away section died a little. On sixty-five minutes, there was a shot that hit a Chelsea defender. My reaction was “handball” before Teemu Pukki gathered the loose ball and Mendy saved well.

The initial handball was given though.

A penalty to Norwich.

Pukki drilled it low, Mendy going the other way.

Bollocks.

“On The Ball City” boomed.

Oh – and another – “Yellarmy!” as encouraged by electronic displays.

Yellarmy. I ask you.

Norwich fancied their chances now, and I didn’t fancy ours. But we needed a win here to silence the baying hordes in the outside world. We needed to hang on.

With five minutes to go, a double flip.

Romelu Lukaku for a poor Timo Werner.

N’Golo Kante for a tireless Mateo Kovacic.

The big Belgian fluffed a chance from inside the box.

“CAM ON CHELS.”

On ninety minutes, Kante passed to Havertz and our slim and silky German thundered the ball high into the goal.

Norwich City 1 Chelsea 3.

Phew.

We walked slowly back to the waiting car. Our mood had been brightened by the result. We tried to be positive. The road west was waiting for me. I eventually reached home at 3.15am.

It had been the strangest of days.

Tales From East Somerset To East Lancashire

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 5 March 2022.

We were in the midst of a run of away games at venues that could well be described as “old school.” After Selhurst Park and Kenilworth Road now came Turf Moor. Many in our support hate a trip to Burnley’s home and many dislike the team too. Under Sean Dyche, and over the past eight seasons of top flight football, the team has become known for its rather rudimentary and physical style of football. But I love a trip to this particular corner of East Lancashire. I especially love the approach up to the ground from the town centre. I have shared a few words about this walk in previous episodes so I won’t repeat myself again. Suffice to say, it takes me back to an older time, and that is no bad thing. And in this old mill town, football goes back a long way. Burnley Football Club have played at Turf Moor since 1883.

I had set off from East Somerset at 7.30am and had made perfect timing. As I turned onto the M62 from the M6, the road signs soon indicated that I was in the middle of the old football heartland of England. There were signs for Manchester and Leeds, but also for Blackburn and Bury, for Rochdale and Oldham, for Accrington and Burnley. On my last visit to Turf Moor in the October of 2019, our pre-match took us to a pub in Clayton Le Moors. On this occasion, I had highlighted a pub in Accrington. But this was not just any pub. My destination was “The Crown Inn” and what made this pub so special was that it was right outside one of the entrances to Accrington Stanley Football Club. We arrived bang on midday.

This was just perfect. Burnley was only a ten-minute drive away. The pub looked warm and inviting. PD, PDs’s son Scott – on his birthday – and Parky ordered pints of lager, and I sipped at something a lot less alcoholic. It was time to relax for an hour and a half or so. A friend of a friend – David from Silverdale on Morecambe Bay, last seen at Anfield in late August – soon arrived and picked up a spare ticket.

I zipped outside to take a small selection of photos of the nearby Wham Stadium, a ground where I am yet to witness a game, looking neat and tidy in the winter sun. A local, who had been sitting in the pub when we arrived, walked past me on his way to watch Accrington’s away game at Portsmouth in a brand new hospitality suite that was opening for the very first time that day. He spoke to me about his joy of how the ground has been recently developed. The club has risen from the ashes after being turfed out of the Football League in the ‘sixties. He enthusiastically answered my question about the whereabouts of their old Peel Park ground which was evidently just a mile away.

“Where are you from, then?”

“Oh, Somerset. We’re Chelsea.”

“Are you going to the game?”

“Yeah.”

“Hope you beat those bastards.”

This was a view shared by a lad in the pub, who was drinking next to us with a mate. I had to ask of his allegiance.

“Are you Blackburn?”

“Oh aye. He’s a Knob Ender, like, but yeah.”

The fact that the two lads were watching Blackburn Rovers’ game at Craven Cottage – in SW6, of all places – was a clue, but nothing is ever a certainty in football.

In a space of five minutes, I had met supporters of Accrington Stanley, Blackburn Rovers and Preston North End. It was a perfect welcome to the area.

Back in 1888, all three clubs – plus the seemingly despised Burnley – were founder members of the Football League. It seemed just right that we should be drinking at the epicentre of the origins of the game in England.

All four clubs lie within twenty miles of each other. Bolton Wanderers, another inaugural member, are close by. The other seven clubs – Everton, Stoke City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa, Derby County and Notts County – are further afield.

At the end of our spell in the cosy pub, we wished each other well and the Blackburn fan said “I hope you beat them four nil.”

The short drive from Accrington to Burnley was a breeze. I must admit I love the sight of the naked Pennines to the north-east of the town and on this occasion they didn’t disappoint. I have noted before that other clubs might well be geographically more northern, but there is no club that is spiritually more northern that the one that resides along Harry Potts Way in deepest Burnley.

We nabbed what seemed like the last car park spot near the town centre and were soon walking towards Turf Moor. The cold wind almost cut me in two, but nearer the stadium, in among the terraced houses, the wind seemed to quieten. There has been a fair amount of gentrification of good old Turf Moor of late – a splash of paint here and there, the wooden seats in the away end have eventually been replaced, there are corporate tiers rising up above two of the corner flags and the Blackburn fan had warned us of every spare inch now being devoted to neon signage – but I liked how “Burnley Football Club”, in ‘sixties font, was still emblazoned on the old stand adjacent to Harry Potts Way.

There was time for one more drink in the awning adjacent to the away concourse and we then made our way to our seats in the away end. In that packed concourse, it again seemed that Aquascutum scarves were everywhere. It must have been the threat of the cold. As with my last visit, I was adjacent to the home fans, right behind the goal. A few very drunk youngsters stumbled in. I was stood next to Parky and Gary, but also Sophie – Porto 2021 – and her father Andy was two rows in front. PD and Scott were ten rows behind us.

The minutes ticked by.

The teams were shown on the two large TV screens in the corners.

Chelsea lined-up as follows :

Mendy

Chalobah  – Silva – Rudiger

James  – Jorginho – Kante – Saul

Mount – Havertz – Pulisic

Talking points? No room for Romelu Lukaku then, and I had no complaints. Saul at left wing-back? I trusted the manager.

The teams appeared. Chelsea wore the nasty and messy jade, orange and black. I suddenly felt nauseous.

There was an announcement from the PA that detailed a minute of applause for the people suffering in Ukraine. The teams stood in the centre circle. The scoreboard, the advertising boards, the balcony walls and the roof fascia all around the ground turned yellow and blue. I took a few quick photos and then joined in by clapping alongside thousands. I was far from pleased that hundreds of Chelsea fans decided at that moment – during the minute of applause – to yell out the name of our owner.

Sophie and I spoke.

“We’ve done ourselves no favours there.”

Indeed.

The timing of this support of Roman Abramovich was completely wrong. This was no time to roar his name. This was no playground pissing contest. This was a moment to show solidarity with the poor folk who were being shelled by Russian troops. It came over, I am sure, as a reaction against the minute of applause rather than a show of support for our owner. I just didn’t need it. Chelsea Football club didn’t need it. The locals a few yards from me were pretty livid. And I think they had a point.

Fackinell.

There were prolonged periods of debate about our recent funding between a few Chelsea fans standing nearby and some equally headstrong locals throughout the game. It was a sideshow that I didn’t warm to.

It was a dire first-half. In the first twenty minutes, Burnley – playing with light blue shorts at home just didn’t look right – easily carved out the better chances. Thankfully our defence were strong both individually and as a unit. As with the last visit – OK, not last season, that doesn’t count, I couldn’t even remember the score – Dwight McNeil looked dangerous on their right. Wout Weghorst is a big lump, eh? A cross from Aaron Lennon found Weghorst but that prince among men Thiago Silva was able to clear off the line. A few defensive headers at set pieces kept Burnley at bay.

Thankfully, Chelsea saw off the early Burnley pressure and saw more and more of the ball. However, a long shot from outside the box from Toni Rudiger, which the ‘keeper Nick Pope did well to smother at his post, was the only real effort on goal.

The locals to our left were noisy at the start of the game but neither Sophie nor myself could decipher much of it.

It’s funny how I sometimes pick on certain things during games. In that first-half, as we were positioned right behind the goal, it was so noticeable that on three or four occasions when Silva was bringing the ball out of defence, I noticed a channel of space right up the middle of the pitch – maybe five yards wide – with no players blocking a pass to a run from a player into space. Alas, there were no runners and thus no ball was pinged at pace into the final third. And if anyone could ping a crisp ball to feet it was Silva. It was so annoying. But this lack of movement encapsulated our play in that woeful first forty-five minutes. It was exasperating stuff.

With our goalkeeper only a few yards away, he was serenaded loudly with his own song.

“He comes from Senegal.”

Thankfully, the home team ran out of ideas and were pushed back by us.

Gary : “they’re playing for 0-0.”

Chris : “So are we, mate.”

On the half-hour, a ball was skied way high and Mendy had to time his leap to perfection. Sadly, he seemed to mist-time everything and his punch fell to Jay Rodriguez, but his shot was off target. We applied a little more pressure as the first-half came to its conclusion but created only half-chances.

In the crowded concourse, I crept past a few pals on the way to the miniscule gents. Our performance was summed up by myself in the briefest of ways.

“Shite, eh?”

The second-half began and how. Chelsea were now attacking us, the two and a half thousand members of the away army. With the second-half just three minutes old, I had a perfect viewpoint to watch Reece James collect the ball just outside the box with a defender immediately up against him. Some sublime skills – a beguiling mixture of twists and dummies – allowed him a spare yard. I expected a cross. Instead, the ball was drilled into the far corner, low at the post.

We erupted.

Reece beamed. His face was a picture as he raced off down to the far corner. We love our post-goal celebrations at the corner posts, eh?

Just five minutes later, a magnificent cross from the boot of Christian Pulisic was absolutely inch perfect, allowing Kai Havertz to leap and head in at the far post. Space was at a minimum. The header had to be as perfectly placed as the cross.

It was.

We roared again.

Two minutes later, we watched a cracking move involving Mason Mount, N’Golo Kante and James develop. A low cross was bundled home by Havertz from very close in.

Three goals in ten minutes. Bloody hell. Nobody could have expected such a blitz at the start of the half. Surely the game was safe? Maybe not. In 2019, we went 4-0 up with goals that included a perfect hat-trick from Pulisic, only for us to gift the home team two late goals.

The home fans were quiet now, with only the occasional song about “Bastard Rovers” to keep them warm.

Sophie joked that three goals in ten minutes had given us a false expectation as the second-half continued. As ten minutes and then twenty passed, we grew restless.

“Boring now, innit?”

I laughed.

With twenty minutes to go, Saul knocked a ball into the danger zone. James Tarkowski took a swipe in an attempt to clear but Pulisic was on hand to smash it in from inside the six-yard box. Thankfully there were no chants of “USA” – ironic or not – to accompany our fourth goal unlike in 2019.

Burnley 0 Chelsea 4.

Excellent.

We had now scored four goals on each of my last three visits to Turf Moor. That Blackburn fan in the pub would be happy.

Thomas Tuchel made some late changes to rest weary legs.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for James.

Mateo Kovacic for Kante.

Timo Werner for Mount.

“Bloody hell, Soph, Ruben is playing right back now.”

We saw the game out. I summed the game up in one sentence.

“First-half everyone was 5/10, second-half 8/10.”

We shuffled out into the dusk of a Burnley evening and there was the usual amount of posturing behind the guard of two police horses from the home fans as both sets of supporters headed under the bridge on Harry Potts Way. We made it back to the car in double-quick time; it was our quickest ever exit from the town centre. A smash and grab raid? Maybe. As I headed west towards the M6 on top of the ridge of high land on the M65, the views of the Ribble Valley beneath the hills to the north and the peaks of the Lake District further west were quite spectacular.

Burnley never lets me down.

Next up, a long drive east to Norwich City on Thursday.

“Thursday?”

“So am I, see you in the pub.”

Tales From The Oak Road End

Luton Town vs. Chelsea : 2 March 2022.

On returning home from London after the Plymouth Argyle FA Cup match, I mentioned to the lads that I fancied Luton Town away in the Fifth Round. The very next morning, Luton were the first name out of the hat and we were the second.

Luton Town vs. Chelsea it was.

Although my head was full of Abu Dhabi stresses, I had a quiet chuckle to myself. At last, a draw that I was happy with.

Let me explain. There are some stadia that I never visited and never will; Ayresome Park, Roker Park and Burnden Park are three such examples. These are stadia that are long gone, but for whatever reason will remain without a tick against them in my list of football grounds that I have been lucky enough to visit. There are stadia that I have visited, but only after significant upgrades have taken place; Ewood Park, The Valley and Carrow Road come to mind. I never visited the original incarnations of these ones. Lastly, there are a few relatively famous stadia that I have never ever visited; Kenilworth Road, Portman Road and Meadow Lane head that list. I hope to eventually tick these, and others, off but time is running out. Additionally, there are plans for Luton to move out of their fabled old stadium too, so this was just right.

So, a new ground, a new away end, a new experience. I was genuinely looking forward to this one in a way that probably warranted me to sit myself down, pour myself a cup of tea and have a serious look at myself.

Those ground hopper genes keep rising to the surface and there’s not much I can do about it now.

Gulp.

PD had battled rotten weather and heavy traffic on the M25 and we had parked up in a tight terraced street around half a mile to the west of Kenilworth Road. The pre-paid parking space for six hours was less than a fiver. This gives a solid indication, I feel, of the area around the stadium. It’s decidedly low rent. More Old Kent Road than Mayfair. The journey had taken around three hours. It was 5pm. The kick-off was at 7.15pm. We wasted no time and set off by foot in the cold and in the drizzle.

Twenty minutes later, my coat rather wet, we arrived to see “Road Closed” signs at one end of the fabled Oak Road, home to the most idiosyncratic away turnstiles in the United Kingdom. A few Chelsea were milling about outside the entrance, a few stewards, a few policemen and policewomen. I shot off to take a few photographs of an alternative entrance.

Last year in the FA Cup, we played the same team at home in the same competition – a 3-1 win at home – but it would be Frank Lampard’s last match in charge. In the previous round, we had defeated Morecambe. And here I was, at Luton Town the following year, and taking a photograph of the Eric Morecambe Suite. The much-loved comedian, born Eric Bartholomew but named after his home town, was a big fan of Luton Town. I remembered with pleasure how he used to shoe-horn Luton Town gags into sketches.

Luton Town were a decent team at times in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. I used to love their orange, black and white colours. The kit with the vertical panels from the mid-‘seventies used to remind me of a “Liquorice Allsort”. The white Adidas kit of the early-‘eighties was a cracker too. There was a famous promotion campaign in 1981/82 in the old Second Division – when we watched from a distant mid-table position – that involved Luton Town and their local rivals Watford. This involved a definite difference in style between the two teams. Watford was “route one” under Graham Taylor, Luton were more entertaining and skilful under David Pleat. Luton prevailed as Champions, Watford came second.

In our last home game of that season, I travelled up to London and watched from The Shed as Luton Town beat us 2-1 in front of 15,044. It is memorable in my eyes, for two things.

Ken Bates had taken over from the Mears family the previous month and had decided to have some sort of “fun day” planned for this last game. From memory, this involved two things but there may have been more. Firstly, hundreds and hundreds of blue and white balloons were set off into the air before the game. It was quite a sight, but all a bit pathetic at the same time.

Balloons?

The sixteen-year-old me surely muttered “fackinell.”

Don’t ask me why, but the other item chosen to entertain us was…wait for it, wait for it…an electronic bull that was positioned in front of The Shed and spectators were invited to sit on and attempt to ride it. The rodeo had hit SW6. I can’t honestly remember if many took up the challenge. But one fan – a skinhead in T-shirt, jeans and DMs – kept us entertained for a few seconds before being thrown off at a very scary angle.

In 1981/82, this is how Chelsea entertained us.

You can add your own fucking punchline.

The other memorable thing from that game almost forty years ago – 1982 was a good year for me, lots more independent trips to Chelsea, the World Cup in Spain, my first-ever girlfriend – was the home debut of Paul Canoville. I had not been present at the infamous debut at Selhurst Park, but I was in The Shed as he came on in the closing moments of the game. I always remember his first-touch as if it was yesterday; a magnificent piece of ball control and spin that bamboozled his marker, and probably confused a few knuckle-draggers in The Shed who were probably about to pounce on him should the substitute err in any small way.

In 1987/88, Luton Town won their only silverware, beating Arsenal in the League Cup Final at Wembley. For that alone, I will always be grateful.

Believe it or not, the only other time that I have seen my club play Luton Town was in the FA Cup Semi-Final at Wembley in 1994. For many years, I simply couldn’t afford too many Chelsea games every season. And Luton were never high up on the pecking order. That was a cracking day out. Loads of Chelsea at Wembley. King Kerry being serenaded by us. Two Gavin Peacock goals. Bosh. Our first FA Cup Final in twenty-three years was on the cards, and with it – so important, this – the promise of a European adventure the following season since the other finalists Manchester United were to take place in the Champions League.

Of all the Chelsea summers, 1994 was absolutely one of the best.

Back to the 2022 FA Cup, and the ridiculous throw-back that is the Oak Road away end at Kenilworth Road. The two away entrances are positioned between houses on the terraced street. It’s an unbelievable set up. At Highbury, there was something similar, but much more grand. Outside we chatted to Adam from Norfolk, Tommie from Gwynedd, Charlotte and Paul from Somerset. The Chelsea support from the capital and the outlying counties had headed to Bedfordshire. There would be around 1,500 of us in deepest Luton on this rainy old evening.

The gates opened at 5.45pm and we were straight in. We navigated a set of steep steps and reached a platform that took us into the back of the stand, but firstly afforded views of terraced houses’ back gardens. And possibly a little more. Ahem. Was that someone’s bathroom?

“Do you have a vacancy for a back scrubber?”

Once inside, my camera went into overdrive. There was a mist in the air and I didn’t think that the floodlighting was particularly bright. It undoubtedly added to the atmosphere. It was odd to be finally inside a ground that I first became aware of in the mid-‘seventies. In previous visits – our last was in 1990/91 – the away support was based at the other end. As I scanned the ground, I could not help but see hundreds of Millwall fans invading the pitch, seats in hand, running at the police, the home fans, the whole bloody world. I loved the slightly cranked section of seats in the main stand that overlooked the away end, picked out in orange, adorned with flags, a few remembering Luton Town fans no longer alive. There was a Joy Division flag too.

I have only ever met one Luton Town fan. Atop the Mole Antonelliana in Turin, Rob and I were sightseeing in Turin after our game in 2009. We felt on top of the world, in more ways than one. We got chatting to a guy from England, a Luton fan, but one who was visibly upset with the club’s recent fate. They had been relegated below the Football League in 2008 after administration. I genuinely felt for the bloke. I thought of him on this night in Luton and wondered if he would be in the 10,000 attendance.

The stands were slowly filling. The rain still fell.

The night was about to take a turn in another direction.

I popped into the ridiculously cramped “away bar”, tucked down some stairs in a corner, and joined up with “The Bristol Lot”; Julie, Tim, Brian, Kevin and Pete. Parky was there too; what a surprise. He was talking to Mark from Westbury.

The news broke.

On the official Chelsea website, it was announced that Roman Abramovich was to sell the club.

I don’t remember what I was doing in July 2003 when Roman bought the club, but I will always remember where I was when I heard this news.

Luton.

It has to be famous for something I suppose.

The news wasn’t a surprise to me nor, I am sure, to many.

I spoke to Tim.

“I think, deep down, I have been fearing this moment for almost twenty years. Of course we will never exactly know how Roman accumulated his wealth, not his friendships along the way, but this has been gnawing away at me – on and off – for too many years. In the current climate, this comes as no surprise at all.”

There was a real sense of pride that all profits from the eventual sale would go towards the victims of the war in Ukraine.

I was pretty emotional when I read that Roman hoped, one day, to be able to visit Stamford Bridge once again.

Back up in the seats – blue and white, an echo of when the club decided to jettison their more famous colours in the ‘nineties – the Chelsea support was filling up the slight terrace. Seats had been bolted to the old terraces, with no re-profiling; the result was far from ideal.

With a quarter of an hour to go, there were chants for Roman Abramovich from us. I joined in. It was a natural reaction to say a simple “thanks.” I certainly did not mean to be inflammatory or confrontational.

Kick-off approached. The two mascots appeared out of nowhere and took an unsurprising amount of abuse.

The teams appeared.

A couple of flags for Ukraine were dotted about.

I didn’t think the home fans were particularly noisy. I was crammed into my row, with Chelsea fans tight alongside me. Of course everyone was stood. My view of the pitch was again poor.

The team?

Kepa

Rudiger – Loftus-Cheek – Sarr

Hudson-Odoi – Jorginho – Saul – Kenedy

Werner – Lukaku – Mount

There were a few talking points here. Ruben at centre-back? Interesting. Kenedy at left-back? I have no idea when I last saw him play for us. From Flamengo in Rio de Janeiro to Chelsea at Luton is some journey. Lukaku starting? Goals please.

Interestingly, Luton Town stood, arms linked, and didn’t take the knee.

The rain still fell. It was a dark night.

The game was only two minutes old when the whole evening took a nosedive. A corner from their left and a header from a player at the near post. I didn’t see the ball go in. I certainly saw the reaction. Kenilworth Road erupted.

I groaned. On a night when this game was live on BBC1, just after the news about Roman Abramovich, the knives were being sharpened.

I heard Eric Morecambe’s voice.

“What do you think of it so far?”

In my head : “rubbish.”

And although the first-half wasn’t too special, I enjoyed in some bizarre way. The noise from the away support was certainly loud and constant. That always helps the “us against them” vibe. Sarr attempted a few balls inside their full back for Timo Werner. Mason Mount was a bundle of energy on the other side. It took a while for Ruben to settle. Despite their early goal, the game soon developed a pattern of Chelsea possession.

Luton swapped ‘keepers after an injury.

There was a header from Saul but little else in the opening quarter of the match. His effort stirred those nearby :

“If Saul scores, we’re on the pitch.”

Lo-and-behold, a run from Mount opened up the game and he passed to a raiding Werner. He miss-controlled but the ball ran to Saul on the edge of the box. I was right behind the course of the ball as his sweet right-footed strike curled low into the goal.

Get in.

I suggested a new song :

“If Saul scores, we’re on the piss.”

There was a third effort from Saul not long after, but this was tucked just wide of the near post, again after good work from Mount. A real dinger from Kenedy at an angle forced a save at full stretch from the Luton ‘keeper Isted.

On thirty-one minutes, the ground applauded the memory of local man, and Chelsea supporter, Jamal Edwards. The atmosphere had been rather feisty with name calling and jabs from both sections of support. Talk of rent boys, of Luton being – um – far from a pleasant place to live, the usual schoolyard stuff.

Mason played in Lukaku, on the edge of the Luton box, but his swipe was well saved by Isted at his near stick.

Despite our possession, we were hit just before the break. We were pushing up and Luton caught us on the hop. They cut through our midfield with a couple of quick passes, though when the final ball was pushed through to Harry Connick Junior, we all yelled “offside”. Alas, no flag was raised, and the American crooner coolly slotted past Kepa.

He raced off in celebration towards the noisy corner.

The lino on our left – running the line in front of a line of executive boxes, how horrible – then took tons of abuse. At half-time, we could hardly believe that the decision, reported back via text messages, had been correct. To be honest, it had been an exceptional decision. A speciality from Jorginho – “giving the ball away, almost the last man” – set up another Luton chance but a shot was weak and at Kepa.

One final effort in the first-half fell to Rudiger whose blast deflected off Lukaku but dropped tantalisingly over the bar.

At half-time, we were 1-2 down and it seemed like Pure ‘Eighties Chelsea.

Into the second-half, effort number four from Saul from distance but straight at the ‘keeper. From a corner, effort number five and a Zola flick at the near post that flew over. There was more and more Chelsea possession but, despite our domination, Luton were proving to be a tough nut to crack and other clichés.

On the hour a double-substitution.

Harvey Vale for Hudson-Odoi

Christian Pulisic for Kenedy

Saul trotted over to left-back.

Not long after, a magnificent ball from deep from the foot of Loftus-Cheek picked out the run of Werner in the inside-left channel. He brought the ball down well, and calmly slotted home. I have to admit to being lost in my own little world of wonder and worry about the club at that exact moment in time and hardly celebrated at all. There was deep relief though.

Get in.

We were halfway through the second-half.

“Cracking cup tie?”

You bet.

We went all Depeche Mode, never a bad move.

“Scoring in the Harding and scoring in The Shed.”

The noise was ramped up further. Songs for everyone. This was turning into a corker of a night out. But among all of the noise, there were some utterly crap chants too.

“Heathrow! Heathrow! Heathrow! Heathrow!”

Good grief.

And…ugh.

“You’re just a small town in Watford.”

I felt like going all Peter Kay.

“Town?”

“In Watford?”

Ruben was now settled in his new position and was often able to dribble, unhindered, out of defence. I prayed for a late winner. I didn’t fancy extra-time.

I joked to the bloke to my left : “if it goes to penalties, bring on Mendy.”

A shot from Vale was at Isted.

A lovely welcome accompanied the reappearance of Reece James who replaced Jorginho with fifteen minutes remaining. On seventy-eight minutes, a patient and precise move in front of me on our right eventually found Werner. A quick low cross. I saw nothing, but Lukaku had pounced.

Mayhem in the Oak Road.

Get in you bastard.

Roars from the Chelsea contingent. Limbs everywhere. I slid to my left and tried to get a few good photos of the celebrations. When I returned to my place, my camera bag, spare lens and glass case were loose on the terraces. I gathered them and re-joined Parky.

“Wondered where you got to.”

Thankfully we saw the game off, and slotted into the FA Cup Quarter Finals.

Again.

We walked slowly back to the car. Luton is surprisingly hilly. We bumped into Skippy from Brisbane, Martin from Gloucester, Ryan and Carl from Stoke.

Everybody there. Everybody unable to resist.

It had been a good night.

Tales From The Land Of Fire

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2019.

Saturday 25 May : 7.30pm – Heathrow Airport Terminal Two.

It had been a relaxing Saturday thus far. I had driven up to my mate Russ’ house in Shepperton, where my car would be safe for a week, and he then took me over to Heathrow for just after 7pm. The season had, in fact, begun in the very same way; Glenn and I drove to Russ’ place before our jaunt to see Chelsea in Australia back in July. Two things struck me. The game in Perth seemed relatively recent. Yet the away game at Leicester City – what a yawn fest – seemed comparatively distant. It was, perhaps, typical of the strangeness of this season that times and places seemed to be swirling in a bewildering and confusing fashion. This was, undoubtedly, one of the oddest seasons I had ever experienced. Eight goals were conceded in ninety minutes of football in consecutive away games; the second-half at Bournemouth and then the first-half at Manchester City. A generally disliked manager attempted to implement a new brand of football against a baying and increasingly unappreciative support. The league form just about recovered in time as we stumbled to third place and guaranteed Champions League Football next season. And two out of our three cup competitions were to end in final appearances. The jury was out in many minds as to whether or not it had been a “good” season.

My thoughts were : “not enjoyable, but successful.”

Sometimes life is like that.

Russ, with his wife Kim, waved me off as I pulled my two bags towards the terminal. This was a rare departure place for me. My 2016/17 season had begun here with a trip to Vienna for the Rapid friendly, but I could not recollect another T2 / CFC trip. As I crossed the threshold into the departure zone, I looked to my right and just caught sight of a concrete tablet which stated that the terminal was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in late 1955.

I liked that. 1955. An omen. I liked that a lot. I was grabbing at anything. At work the previous day, as before Munich in 2012 and Amsterdam in 2013, I had bought breakfasts for the office team. It was one of a few superstitions that would hopefully play out. There was lucky bird shit on my car too; again a repeat of those two trips.

I was on my own now, for the first time this season. I will be perfectly honest; ever since I had booked my flights and accommodation, fortuitously, and the dream of six days in Baku became real, there was a strong element of guilt inside me. It did not feel right that many close friends – some who had travelled to all other European away games this season – had been priced out of this trip. This feeling was with me for a large part of these first few hours of travel.

Inside the building, there were the usual little tremors of concern that accompany modern travel; had I packed all the essentials, had I overlooked one key ingredient, had I remembered all the chargers, leads and adaptors, had I packed the Nurofen and Imodium?

In the line to check in, I spotted a chap of around my age in an Arsenal shirt from around 1993. In the interests of goodwill – and with a nod to the feeling that, with the final being played so bloody far away from anywhere, we were in some respects “all in this together” I approached him, and his son, and shook their hands. I was wearing a Chelsea polo – rare for me – which enabled them to see straight away that my allegiances were with the other team. We chatted away and instantly clicked. They were from the Isle of Wight, went to a few games each season, but told me of their huge problems, for example, in getting back to their home after midweek games in London. Will, the father, and Noah, the son, soon started asking me about my thoughts about the game, of Baku, of my experiences this season, of my past travels with Chelsea in Europe.

Not long into our chit-chat, Noah – who is fifteen I think – came out with a beautiful line.

“Of course, Chelsea are European royalty aren’t they?”

This stopped me in my tracks for a moment.

“The boy is being tactically naive, there” I thought to myself.

Will was momentarily speechless.

I could not resist piling in.

“Do you two want to close ranks and have a moment? Bloody hell. Should he be saying that in public?”

We all laughed.

European royalty, eh? Bloody hell. Is that how – some – others see us? Of course Arsenal’s last final was in Paris in 2006 and so this was their first one for thirteen years. It might explain why Arsenal had allegedly sold more tickets for Baku than us. Since 2006, we have experienced European finals in 2008, 2012 and 2013.

European royalty? Perhaps Noah was right.

(…mmm, Paris 2006, Arsenal versus Barcelona…they almost became the first London team to win the European Cup, leading 1-0 until very late on…I immediately had trouble remembering the name of Juliano Beletti, who poached the winner, as my memory failed me for a few annoying minutes).

At the check-in, the first scare of the trip. The woman seemed to be struggling with my e-ticket and after a few minutes she shot off to see her supervisor. Panic. Blind panic. For three minutes I was left in limbo, with many gruesome scenarios hurtling through my brain. But all was good. She soon processed my details and even let me off with heavier-than-allowed hand luggage. Phew. I was on my way.

Sunday 26 May : 10am – Istanbul Airport.

The Turkish Airlines flight from Heathrow, due to depart at 10.15pm, eventually left at 11pm. I only had a few moments of fitful sleep. We landed at Istanbul’s swish new airport to the north of the city at 4am. On the bus to the terminal, I chatted to three other Arsenal supporters. We sat and killed time by chatting away. Our flight to Baku was due to leave at 8.15am. Sanjay, who was with his son Chris, was from Crouch End but worked in Tottenham. He had visited the new Tottenham stadium, on a freebie through work, at the end of the season and was brutally honest as he extolled its virtues. It was so noisy. It was such a great stadium. His honesty was refreshing. Over the two or three hours of waiting at the airport, the prospect of “that lot” winning against Liverpool in Madrid was a dark, dark shadow which haunted us all. We all agreed how every team in London hates Tottenham.

The biggest London rivalries, involving the “big four”? Here is my ranking.

1 – Arsenal vs. Tottenham.

2 – Chelsea vs. Tottenham.

3 – West Ham vs. Tottenham.

4 – Chelsea vs. Arsenal.

5 – Chelsea vs. West Ham.

6 – Arsenal vs. West Ham.

Anyone disagree with that?

Sanjay bought me an orange juice. He was another good lad. The other Arsenal supporter was from Northampton, though I did not catch her name. I was outnumbered five to one. We spoke of loyalty points, season tickets, membership schemes, how our two clubs ride roughshod over our emotions. Interestingly, there would be no beam back at Arsenal either. There was ground improvements penciled in for the week. So, beam backs at Liverpool and Tottenham, but not at Arsenal or Chelsea.

Maybe it is a Europa League thing.

Will and Noah departed as they were on their way to Tblisi where they were staying for two nights before getting a coach to Baku. I wished them well, though wondered if I would bump into them again on this trip. At the departure gate, I spotted a young lad wearing a CP top and a Chelsea badge. I smiled and approached him. He was Alex, with his mate Alan, and both from Moscow. It was my first Chelsea interaction of the trip. About bloody time.

Sunday 26 May : 12.45pm – Heydar Aliyev Avenue, Baku.

The flight from Istanbul to Baku, again on Turkish Airlines – no complaints, two great meals on the two flights – took three hours and the last ten minutes will live with me for a while. Approaching from the west, and above the bay, I was able to look out to my left and see the distant, dreamlike, sandy buildings of Baku. The sweep of the bay. The flame towers. The curved peek of the Heyday Aliyev Centre, which beguiled me as we drove past it in a cab on my first visit to Baku in 2017, and which I so wanted to visit in 2019. As the plane swung north, the dry earth of the land below.

We landed on time at midday. There was a little nervousness when I handed over my visa at passport control, but all was fine.

Stamp.

The small arrivals hall was bedecked with UEFA Europa League signage and I made a conscious decision to descend the escalator which was next to the roof column covered in photos of Chelsea players. I was taking no chances. It was the one to the left. I was happy. On my ascent up the stairs of the Matthew Harding, I always keep to the left. Oh those superstitions.

I exchanged some money and easily battled a cab driver down from forty manat to thirty manat. A cab to the city for £15? Perfect. On the way in, on Heydar Aliyev Avenue, I recognised a few landmarks from my early morning cab ride in with my friend Nick in 2017. We glided past the Olympic Stadium. Next up was the flame-like Socar Tower. As I mentioned in my Baku 2017 trip report, the furniture company for whom I work fitted out all forty-two floors back in 2014. Because of the complexities of the accompanying export paperwork, it caused me much grief. It almost saw the end of me if I am honest, as it added a massive workload to my already busy demands. Driving past it once more – on a wide boulevard with lamp posts covered in Chelsea colours – did raise a wry smile.

It was magical to be back in Baku.

Sunday 26 May : 1.30pm, Kichik Qala Street, Old City, Baku.

The cab ride in to the city only took twenty-five minutes. The sun was shining. The traffic grew busier with each passing mile. The cab driver, his mouth full of odd-shaped teeth, had been given my hotel address in the old city, but was struggling with its whereabouts. His driving style was rather erratic. He kept using his mobile phone. He changed lanes constantly. Into the city centre we went, curving south past the modern additions, past the designer shops, onto the boulevard where the Formula One race hugs the Caspian Sea. The city was festooned with the yellow and orange of UEFA. I recognised so much. The Maiden Tower, up the hill, past the glass prism of Icharishahar metro station, and we landed right outside the old Gosha Gala city gates.

“I’ll walk from here.”

Within a few seconds, my spirits had dropped. The row of three or four old-style restaurants, no more than wooden shacks, within one of which I enjoyed a £6 meal in 2017, had been pulled down and it looked like modern versions were taking their place. My heart dropped. It was the one abiding memory of my last visit; a huge stone oven, the smell of smoke, the wooden shutters clattering in the wind. I had planned a return for old time’s sake. Alas it was not possible.

“Progress” I thought.

My hotel was entombed within the old city. The sun was beating down as I pulled my two suitcases up and down Kichik Qala Street. Nobody had heard of my hotel. Up and down I went. I asked many locals. My bags were getting heavier. I immediately thought of our cossetted players – the image of Eden swanning onto the Chelsea plane that took the squad to Boston recently was centre stage in my mind – and wondered if they had any inkling of the tribulations we go through. Eventually, I stumbled across two friendly policemen. One of them ‘phoned my hotel, as had the cab driver en route to the city, but the number was not known.

An invisible hotel and a ‘phone number that does not work.

Fackinell.

The policemen then took me to a nearby hotel, only ten yards away, where I presumed they would ask for directions.

Fackinell again.

It was my hotel.

With a name change.

Bloody hell.

Phew.

My booking, via Expedia, did not immediately feature on the lovely receptionist’s computer – I wanted to marry her there and then – but I have to be honest I suspect that there was a double-booking involved. There seemed to be genuine surprise at my appearance. After five minutes of double-checking, I was shown my room in the adjacent annex.

I had made it.

Fackinell.

Sunday 26 May : 9pm – 360 Bar, Hilton Hotel, Baku.

Being sleep deficient, I crashed out for four hours. I dreamed of work spreadsheets and I dreamed of work routines. The subconscious was not letting me forget work.

I was awoken by an English voice. It must have touched an inner trigger. A shadow of a memory of another time, a whisper from my father –

“Come on Chris, time to get up.”

In fact, my father’s stock waking call was not this at all. It was a standard Royal Air Force line, which my father used to constantly use to get me out of bed on work days. It is a typically quirky and whimsical phrase that RAF pals would utter to others, enjoying deep sleep, and at any time during the night.

“Want to buy a battleship?”

I had no need of battleships in Baku, nor anywhere else, but I quickly came to the conclusion that, by God, I had needed this holiday. Within seconds the feelings of guilt that had been pecking away at me for ages quickly evaporated. Although I would miss the immediate company of my usual laughter buddies, perhaps I needed to be alone – certainly on the first two days of this trip before others would start rolling in – so that I could be left to unwind and relax.

I could be my own boss.

I love the company of others, but my own company is a true joy. I have the best of both worlds.

That first evening, I had one goal; to locate the 360 Bar atop the Hilton.

I was out at 7.30pm. It took me an hour of idle meanderings to reach the hotel, but I was in no rush. I enjoyed the Baku evening and quickly dipped into the fan park next to the Caspian. I couldn’t see many Chelsea from the UK participating at this. It was far too regulated. Far too happy-clappy. We like to hide in the pubs and bars, inside the deepest cracks and fissures of host cities, only emerging at the last minute to head on to the stadium.

I made my way east and soon found my goal. I noted lots of UEFA signage at the hotel reception and I was whisked up to the twenty-fifth floor. I settled in a comfy chair, ordered the first of five local Xirdalan lagers. They were only seven manat – just £3.50 – and were served with some crisps and popcorn. I booked a table for Tuesday when some friends would be in town.

And I relaxed. The revolving bar offered fantastical views of the city. My camera had trouble getting clear images, but my memories remain strong. The Flame Towers were the obvious stars and the lights flickered and danced with varying images…the red, blue and green of the national flag on individual towers, the flames, the Azerbaijani flag over the three towers, three figures waving national flags, sparking stars, and – oddly – the three towers as vessels filling up with water,

I was enchanted.

With wifi, I was able to toast absent friends on Facebook.

I left at midnight, took a cab into town, slowly guzzled three more bottles of lager in a bar called “Room” and relaxed some more. I chatted to a Serb from Belgrade – a Red Star fan – who remembered, and loved, Petar Borota who played for Chelsea from 1979 to 1982 and for Red Star’s great rivals Partizan Belgrade before joining us. It had been a chilled-out evening, just what my brain needed, but I felt that I was just touching the surface of Baku.

Monday 27 May : 7pm – Mugam Club, Old City, Baku.

There was more – beautiful – sleep on Monday. I did not wake early. Thankfully there was just enough cold air emanating from the air-conditioning unit to allow for a pleasant rest. Suffice to say, I missed breakfast.

Over the past year, I have watched “The Art Lovers Guide – Baku” on three occasions. I caught up with it again on iPlayer a few weeks back. The two guides – a troubling mix of excellent informative analysis but awful pretension – visited the “Mugam Club” where indigenous music is played while local food is served. The one song featured briefly in the programme was magical and my interest was piqued. Luckily, this was only five minutes from my hotel. I visited it, and enjoyed it all. Several musicians played. Some local music was mixed in with Western music, which spoilt it a little. A salad, some chicken in pomegranate sauce and some rice, all washed down with a bottle of Xirdalan. A lovely little distraction from the football-themed mayhem that would soon envelope the city.

Outside, my next goal was to get up close and personal with the Flame Towers. On the way, on the main square to the west of the Old City (I have to keep reminding myself how close everything is in Baku, it is a wonderful place to leisurely walk between sites), I spotted a Sky Sports reporter doing a live piece to camera. I chatted to him briefly. He had heard that the players were staying at the nearby Four Seasons Hotel. He also spoke to me about Frank Lampard, who I was sad to see had just lost to Aston Villa at Wembley.

Aston Villa, Norwich City and Sheffield United next season then. Two good trips there. Villa is just a bit tedious.

Monday 27 May – 11pm, Harry’s Bar, Baku.

Alas the funicular railway had closed, so at 9pm I ascended the six-hundred steps to the area by the Flame Towers. I spent a good ninety minutes or so underneath the dancing lights, and I was in my element. On the ascent I had spotted a terraced walkway lit up with pure white lights. A real stairway to heaven. The city was charming me with every turn of the eye. Adjacent to the towers was a beautifully constructed area – Highland Park – with a war memorial, fountains, and with outstanding views of the city. The minuets of the Sehidler Xiyabani Mosque contrasted wildly with the flickering LED of the towers. Baku was beguiling me again.

Very soon I found myself in the heart of the city, and I wandered south of Fountain Square into the quarter of a mile block that holds most of the city centre’s bars.

I passed a cellar bar – “Harry’s Bar” – and an English chap was coming up for air.

“Any good?”

“Yeah, it’s alright.”

It was 11pm. I needed a drink as I was gasping. I enjoyed it so much that I stayed until 8am.

For the most part, there were no more than five or six people inside. I got talking to Bob and his son Chris – from Swindon, Arsenal – and we again had a great laugh. I was still yet to spot another Chelsea supporter in Baku. The pub was next to the “Red Lion” and I kept calling in to see if any friends had yet arrived. They hadn’t. That pub was pretty quiet too. But I was in no mood to travel too far. The first beer I was served was a five manat bottle of Efes, but I soon learned that Bob and Chris were on three manat pints. So I soon joined them. Within ten minutes of my arrival “Blue is the Colour” was booming around the small bar.

The night continued, the beers flowed steadily. We bought beers for the barman and his charming wife. Locals occasionally dropped in but for hours the cast involved just five people. Bob chatted to a local girl – the girl with no name, I would continually bump into her over the next few days – and I just sat at the bar with Chris, drinking away. Three o’clock came and went. Seeing Bob attempt to walk back down the steps into the bar from an excursion into the open air was the funniest thing I have seen for ages. Four o’clock came and went. I was in still no mood to leave.

“More tea, vicar?”

Five o’clock.

There was then a very intense “domestic” between the barman and his wife. Then the bar owner showed up and things started to unravel. There was a tense moment of monies being counted and recounted and it all got a bit heated. It was as if Bob, Chris and I were watching some great Shakespearean tragedy unfold in front of our eyes. At about six o’clock – light outside now of course – and after the two Arsenal lads left, I was alone with a beer.

In walked Carl and Ryan from my old haunting ground of Stoke-on-Trent (last featured in the Barcelona away report from last season, another ridiculous night) and three lads from Gloucester. They were newly arrived in town, and had to kill a few hours before being able to book in.

“Carl!”

“Chris!”

“Ryan!”

Fackinell.

So funny.

I wasn’t sure who was more surprised to see each other. Chelsea laughs and Chelsea giggles all over. A Chelsea / Gloucester flag was draped from the bar ceiling. At last I had met some Chelsea fans in Baku. The drinking continued – at a slow pace, I hasten to add, I was in no rush – and the night didn’t want to end. Eventually, I made my way back to the hotel with the early morning sun warming my back.

Tuesday 28 May : 11pm – The William Shakespeare, Baku.

My hotel room had “occasional wifi” and I was able to observe during Tuesday how many friends and acquaintances were arriving into town. I trotted down to the centre and it was just so odd to be in Europe with Chelsea yet to hear another English team’s songs echoing around the streets. I aimed for “The William Shakespeare” on the main street for bars in Baku. On the intersection of this street and another, I spotted Will and Noah about to tuck in to some food in a street side café.

“Good to see you!”

They had thoroughly enjoyed Tblisi, but were now relishing the delights of Baku.

Just after, I bumped into Cathy and Dog.

At last, a time for the gathering of the clans.

The “Shakespeare” pub was busy and getting busier by the minute.

Virtually the first people that I met were Andy and his daughter Sophie. I was especially pleased to see them because – I am sure they will not mind me mentioning it – Andy’s wife Karen passed away just after Christmas. If anyone remembers, I heard about it just minutes before the start of our game at Selhurst Park. I was just so pleased that they had been able to make it. I first met Andy – to talk to – on Wenceslas Square in Prague right after our afternoon game in Jablonec twenty-five years ago, although I had recognised him from my train journeys to London from the midlands as way back as 1985. I have known Sophie since she was a very young girl.

Bless them both.

I soon met up with Luke and Aroha and their pals, then Dave and Neil. Then Russ, Albert, Nathan and Shari from Australia. Callum. Eva. Carl and Ryan, the two Stokies. Nick from Weymouth. Martin from Gloucester. Calvin. A few more. I bumped into Orlin, another good lad who has featured in these tales for many years. I first met him before an Arsenal away game in April 2012, ironically in “The Shakespeare Tavern” at Victoria, and we would meet up again in Turin, Tokyo, Bucharest, Istanbul, Porto, Vienna and – er – Sunderland. We very rarely see each other at Stamford Bridge. He lives partly in San Francisco and partly in Serbia. He is a lovely bloke. There were a few fellow Chelsea Bulgaria in the pub. They are quite well known to the regulars at Chelsea. They are good lads.

Respect to the four Chelsea fans based in Australia, who I met out in Perth, who had travelled.

Albert – Brisbane.

Nathan – Perth.

Russ – Melbourne.

Shari – Brisbane.

They would be part of a little band – of ten – who were in Perth and would be in Baku.

From the UK – Cathy, Rich, Scott, Paul, myself.

From Vietnam – Steve.

From Australia to Azerbaijan. Fackinell.

A few of us jumped into cabs and headed off to the 360 Bar for 9pm. My booth was waiting for me. Ruslan, the barman who looked after me on Sunday, welcomed me and we ordered some drinks and a little food. The others – Aroha, Doreen, Luke, Russ, plus three of Luke’s mates – loved it. The views were again stunning. We all then met up at “The Shakespeare” for community singing. We had heard that Arsenal had commandeered two pubs – “Finnegans” and the smaller “Red Lion.” As far as we could tell, we just had “The Shakespeare.” I don’t think this was anything official. It just transpired to be like this. All three pubs were within fifty yards of each other, like the trenches in the First World War. Throughout the evening, there were no police mobbed up outside our pub, unlike many European aways. There was a very laid back – surreal – atmosphere. I am not so sure there would have been the same vibe if Tottenham had been in town. In the pub, one song dominated the night. At one stage, with me trying to order a beer at the bar, it went on for bloody ever.

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor.

Lyon and to Rome.

Tottenham get battered.

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

I was just surprised Seville wasn’t included.

The song continued on.

“Everywhere they go. Everywhere they go.”

There was a fantastic rendition of “Blue Day” too. Everyone singing. Very emotional. Magical. And – of course – “The Liquidator.”

I bumped into, quite unintentionally, four Chelsea fans from the US; Jean, who I had met in “Simmons” at a European game during the season, Robert, James and Paul. Three from Texas and one from new Jersey. Three new acquaintances, and one re-connection. In fact, there was a gentle influx of Chelsea fans from outside the UK. Lots of scarves. Lots of replica shirts. They looked both amazed and bemused at the same time. We moved next-door, and downstairs, to another bar, and I then traipsed over to see how the two bartenders at “Harry’s Bar” were shaping up. All was good, but it was desperately quiet. I wondered how on earth they survived on such little turnover. I bought some pizzas for us and left there at 5am. Bloody hell.

Wednesday 29 May : 5pm – Fan Festival, Baku.

Match ticket in hand, obtained from the Landmark Hotel, I made my way back in to town. I walked in the shade as the sun was still beating down. I met up with Steve down at the Fan Festival. He had popped into the Hilton earlier, had spotted Florent Malouda and Deco, but also the extremely well packaged UEFA Cup (sorry, Europa League Trophy) as it arrived from Nyon in Switzerland. He hoped that the spotting of it was a good sign for him, for Chelsea, for all of us.

I had strolled into the Hilton too, just after the collection of the ticket, and used their wifi again. There were UEFA signs everywhere. I was half-hoping to bump into a famous player from the past, but I saw nobody of note. But you can just imagine what high-level schmoozing had been happening in this building over the past few days. Of course there had been much wailing about the decision to reward Azerbaijan with this year’s final. I have tried to be as objective as possible. Isn’t it right that every member nation within UEFA should host a major final at least once in their existence?

Er, yes.

But then it gets cloudy. I have always advocated the placing of the major finals to be within a central area of Europe, with the majority of host cities to run from Lisbon and Porto in the west to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and up as far as Copenhagen or Stockholm in the north, down through to Warsaw to Budapest in the east and down as far as Rome and Naples in the south. Ninety-five percent of likely finalists would be encompassed within that area. With the emergence of formerly Soviet states and the splintered Balkan states, maybe the odd and occasional flit – as has happened – to Istanbul, Kiev and Moscow.

But Baku?

It is the most easterly outpost of UEFA, not taking into the vast hinterland of Russia which lies east of Moscow.

It always was a mad decision.

But it was all about money, wasn’t it? It was all about Baku fancying itself as a Dubai on the Caspian Sea – oil rich and eager to impress on the global stage –  and UEFA went hand-in-hand with it all. The final straw was UEFA’s awful explanation for the awarding of so few tickets to the finalists. They themselves admitted that it would be a ridiculously difficult place for most fans to reach. It is enough to make anyone want to cry. UEFA might be financially rich but they are morally bankrupt.

I took some photos of the huge Azerbaijan flag which fluttering away like a flame. Its colours are horizontal bars of green, red and blue. Although the colours represent Islam, progress and its Turkic heritage – thank you Wikipedia – my take on it is this.

Blue – sky

Red – fire

Green – earth

In footballing terms, I found it easy to work it all out.

Blue – Chelsea – above red – Arsenal – above green – the pitch.

Sorted.

Back at the hotel, a quick freshen up and out again.

I had, unremarkably, not thought too much about the game at all. The match would take care of itself. If pressed, I would say that we were slight if not firm favourites. There certainly wasn’t the fear of Munich in 2012. The vibe matched that of Stockholm in 1998 and Amsterdam in 2013. I was quietly confident.

The game was at 11pm, and I hit “The Shakespeare” at 7pm. I took it easy. I had enjoyed a few “cokes” during the day. I only had three beers before the game. I had a wry smile at the sight of a few working girls trying to muster up some business in the pub. On the night of a European Cup Final, with the kick-off approaching, they had surely miss-read their customer base? The crowds started drifting towards the stadium. About ten of us – all together, looking after each other – walked the fifteen minutes to Sahil metro station. We were on our way.

Wednesday 29 May : 10pm – Koroghlu Metro Station, Baku.

Out into the warm Baku night, and the stadium, burning with the orange and yellow hues of UEFA’s newest trophy just a few hundred yards ahead, we walked on. There were Arsenal voices and Chelsea voices now. The most voluble ones were from the UK. But of course there were other fans from near and far too. And I began to notice other club shirts. I had seen one or two Eintracht Frankfurt shirts in the city; it was obvious many had gambled, like me, but had lost. But there were Galatasary and Fenerbahce shirts. There were Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona shirts. There were shirts from the local Azerbaijani league. It was all very strange. I walked on, but then excused myself from the others as I tried to capture a few photos of the stadium’s striking exterior. Just eighteen months previously, the stadium’s shell was more delicately coloured with shades of pink, lavender, red, purple and white. On that night, I circumnavigated the stadium alone and took some photos too. I am nothing if not a creature of habit.

Who should walk past me but Orlin, who I had bumped into the previous day just outside my hotel in the old city. It was typical of the week that I would keep seeing the same faces. In addition to the girl with no name, I also kept bumping into a local who I had asked for directions while looking for my hotel, and also a policeman who kept appearing near my hotel. I called them my guardian angels. Orlin had taken the free bus from the muster point near Sahil Park, but had been dropped off a good fifteen-minute walk away from the stadium. He was far from impressed. I think our choice of the metro – free for three days with use of a match ticket – was the better option.

The photographs continued.

Wednesday 29 May : 11pm – Section 114, Row 20, Seat 29, Olympic Stadium, Baku.

I had reached my seat with about fifteen minutes to go. On the pitch, the last few moments of a quite inappropriate musical sequence were taking place. It was all very “Superbowl” and all very tedious. Where is my “go to” comment about modern football? Ah, there it is.

I hate modern football.

The booming noise emanating from the speakers meant that there was simply no point in us even attempting any Chelsea songs and chants. It seemed that the event was bigger than us, far bigger. It felt like we were just pawns rather than kings. I looked around the stadium. There were empty seats everywhere. I glanced over at the Arsenal section. The thin sliver was pretty packed apart from a half-full upper deck, not too far from where we had watched the Qarabag game – getting increasingly colder – not so long ago. There was a mixture of fans in jeans and shorts. It was a warm night and very pleasant, despite the late kick-off slot. I spotted a few familiar faces. Kev from Port Talbot – one of those on the two Thomas Cook flights from Luton – was down below me. Kisses and handshakes for the “Bristol lot” as they walked past me. I had chosen the most expensive seat available – as had many people I know by the look of it – and I was rewarded with a seat in line with the goal line. It would prove to be a treasure, a gift from the footballing Gods.

Fireworks on the pitch and from atop the stand.

The pre-match paraphernalia was cleared away.

Through the smoke of the fireworks, I was just able to take a photograph of the teams on the far side.

Phew. Here it is then.

My game number fifty-six, from Australia to Azerbaijan.

The team was not a surprise, but we were of course greatly relieved to see N’Golo Kante starting. Emerson and not Alonso, a big game for the lad. Giroud upfront, good. Pedro instead of Willian.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

For Arsenal, I was only interested to see if Petr Cech was playing.

He was.

Before the match, before the trip, I had been quite sincere with a prediction of a “0-0 then penalties”.

The game began and I had to make my first decision. Although the section to my left – behind the goal – was standing, most in my section were sat. I saw that Kev and Gary were stood a few rows in front, but it looked like I would be forced to sit. I felt terrible about sitting. It felt like I had lost the battle. I didn’t sit in Stockholm, nor Moscow, nor Munich, nor Amsterdam. I glanced across at the Arsenal section. They all seemed to be standing.

Bollocks.

Not long into the game, I saw a chap wearing a black Manchester United jersey file past me and I could not resist a few words of abuse. In front of me was a bloke in a Galatasaray shirt. To my right, no more than ten seats away, was a bloke in an Arsenal shirt.

Fucking hell.

What has this become?

And how on Earth had these fools managed to get tickets in the 6,000 Chelsea section? I would really love to know that.

A large stadium that was barely two-thirds full. Other team supporters sitting in our section. Chelsea supporters from the UK split up over three tiers. Chelsea fans sitting. Hardly any noise, nor songs, nor chants, nor laughter, nor atmosphere. Because of the factors mentioned, it was a truly agonising first-half. It was horrible. It was one of the worst halves of my footballing life. It was a totally shameful atmosphere. It honestly felt like a summer tour game in the US or Thailand or Australia. I will be honest, the pre-season game against Arsenal in Beijing in 2017 was way louder.

The word “surreal” does not do it justice.

Many times during the first forty-five minutes, I felt that this was the end of the road for me. It was that upsetting.

On the pitch, it was a very quiet start, with lots of shadow boxing. Arsenal had more possession, though, and Aubameyang’s shot flashed wide of Kepa’s post after ten minutes. There were general mutterings of unrest in the seats around me as Arsenal continued to dominate. However, a penalty appeal involving Lacazette as he lept over Kepa never looked like resulting in a penalty, despite the audible howls from the Arsenal section. In that first-half, I could discern a few chants from that end. Our end seemed to be ball watching, not involved, distant. Slowly, Chelsea woke up and began to get involved. Kante, who had worried me in the first quarter of the game with a few odd errors, broke down the right and his cross towards the near post towards Giroud had us on our feet. sadly, the Frenchmen’s feet got tangled and the chance was lost. Pedro had been free just behind him.

Xhaka struck a very fine effort towards goal, and the rising drive clipped the top of our bar.

At last the game was evolving, slowly, into a final worthy of the name.

But still there was hardly any noise anywhere.

Emerson and Hazard were linking up well on the far side. Occasionally, Eden would wander over to the other flank. A turn, a spin and a twist would result in Arsenal defenders reaching for their sat nav. Emerson forced a block from Cech. With five minutes to go before half-time, a fine move involving Jorginho and Hazard ended with the ball at Giroud’s feet. He pushed the ball into space and shot low with his left foot – not a clean strike – but Cech was able to drop to his left and push the ball around the post.

I met up with Kev and Gary at half-time and we formed “The Baku Half-Time Moaners Club.”

You can imagine our chat. Back at my seat, I wondered if we were in for another second-half implosion, our motif of the whole season.

Thursday 30 May : Midnight – Section 114, Row 20, Seat 29, Olympic Stadium, Baku.

The second-half began with Kovacic and Giroud in the centre-circle. A push of the ball backwards and we were away again. Eden was immediately a live-wire and he seemed to suddenly have more space than before. After just five minutes, the ball was played to Emerson, not so far away from me, about ten yards in from the touchline. I snapped my camera as he struck a cross towards the waiting Giroud. The ball was waist high and our striker fell to his knees to meet it, some fifteen yards out, reaching the flight of the ball just before Koscielny could react. His header was perfection. I watched as it flew low into the corner of the net past Cech’s hopeless dive.

Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

My camera did not capture the header but although I was boiling over inside, I remained calm enough to capture the scorer drop to his knees and point both forefingers to the skies, eyes closed. Giroud had found his footballing nirvana.

Section 114 was going doolally.

Team mates swarmed around. Some dropped to their knees too. A kiss from Jorginho for Emerson, the supplier of the killer cross. Photos taken, I was able to punch the air and scream and shout.

GET IN.

It was the Frenchman’s eleventh goal in Europe this year. Thoughts of him being a former Arsenal player fizzed through my mind.

Ha.

It was all Chelsea now. Prompted by Jorginho, Kovacic and Hazard ran at the troubled Arsenal rear guard. The Chelsea section, on life-support in the first-half, was now roaring back to life. And for the rest of the game I stood. This was more like it, Chelsea. Then minutes after the first goal, Hazard was allowed too much time and space in the Arsenal final third – “table for one, sir?” – and spotted Pedro lurking on the edge of the box. He rolled the ball square. Pedro clipped it in.

FUCKINGGETINYOUBASTARD.

More photographs of pure delirium.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

Pete suddenly appeared next to me, holding two plastic glasses of “Amstel.”

“Let’s have a sip mate.”

“Have it, Chris.”

“Top man.”

Lager never tasted sweeter. I gulped my pint down pronto. I had to, since I was worried about missing another goal and another photo. My very next photo was of Pedro holding off a challenge in the “D”, the next was of him pushing the ball through to Giroud, the next the challenge by Maitland-Niles.

Snap, snap, snap.

A penalty to Chelsea.

COME ON!

The mood in our section was now of euphoria.

But we waited and waited.

Eden Hazard vs. Peter Cech, team mates from 2012 to 2015, squared-up against each other.

Eden drilled it home.

Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

“Smelling salts please nurse.”

The bloke in front of me commented “your voice has gone” and I smiled. I felt like saying “that is because I have been singing all second-half unlike you, you twat” but I felt better of it. The two gents to my immediate right – from the UK, dressed in the monstrosity of next season’s home shirt – hardly sang all night. Why do these people fucking bother?

Four minutes later, the substitute Iwobi unleashed a fierce rising volley – I was right behind the flight of the ball, it was a stunner – that flew into our goal.

“Great goal” I said, completely seriously.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 1.

Yet only three minutes later, a wonderful break from Chelsea saw Hazard exchange passes with Giroud in the box – the lofted “dink” from Giroud was world class, the highlight of the match for me – and this allowed Eden to smash the ball home.

We roared again.

Chelsea 4 Arsenal 1.

I photographed the immediate aftermath. I knew straight away that my photo of Hazard, arms spread, and Cech, crestfallen, was a winner. That £121 seat was paying dividends alright. Only from that vantage point could I have taken that photo. I was a happy man.

There was a song for Gianfranco Zola and he responded with a wave from the bench.

In the last part of the game, Maurizio Sarri made some changes. Just before our fourth goal, Willian replaced Pedro. Then Ross Barkley came on for Kovacic. Willian twice went close with efforts, Cech saved from Hazard. Eden was then fouled, he looked injured, and he was substituted. I captured virtually every step of his last few seconds as a Chelsea player. A hug from Willian, an embrace from Giroud.

The last step.

Snap.

Eden was replaced by Davide Zappacosta.

With the local time at 00.50am, the referee from Italy blew the final whistle.

We had only bloody won it.

Thursday 30 May : 1.30am – Section 114, Row 20, Seat 29, Olympic Stadium, Baku.

The cup was lifted at 1.05am. There was no Wembley-style ascent to a balcony that happened in Munich and Amsterdam, but the same on-the-pitch presentation of Stockholm. Dave and Gary – how English, like two van drivers – lifted the iconic trophy. It really is a beauty. Dave then spent the next twenty minutes kissing the trophy and I was tempted to shout “get a room.” These were joyous times in deepest Baku.

4-1.

Bloody hell.

We usually squeak by in Cup Finals. Four bloody one. Unbelievable. We heard that Eden was, quite rightly, the man of the match. They all played well. Special mentions for Kovacic, Jorginho, and even David Luiz did well. I just bathed in the glory of it all. These nights do not come around too often. After that odd first-half, in which we gradually became stronger, we just exploded in the second-half. We were afforded so much space in the middle of the pitch and in the attacking third. Jorginho was in the middle of all of it, and once balls were released to our runners, I could not believe the ease with which we found each other. Arsenal seemed unwilling to challenge, or – to be blunt – even compete. At times we were miles too good for them. Maybe, here in Baku, almost three thousand miles from home, we had seen the season’s high water mark of our beleaguered manager’s playing style.

Regardless, the European trophy was our’s.

It now stood at five.

1971 : Athens.

1998 : Stockholm.

2012 : Munich.

2013 : Amsterdam.

2019 : Baku.

“Our biggest-ever Cup Final win.”

“And Arsenal don’t get Champions League football next season.”

“What a second-half.”

In my mind I was thinking all sorts of odd things.

…”bloody hell, I have never seen Chelsea play in Ipswich, but I have seen us play in Baku twice.”

…”God, that first-half was awful, though.”

…”thinking of Parky and PD and Gal and Al and Glenn and Daryl and Ed.”

…”we always score four in Baku.”

…”God, how many photos am I going to have to sift through from that game?”

I took blissful snaps of Kev and Gary, Dave, Leigh and JD.

Everyone smiling.

At last the players walked over to the Chelsea section. They massed by the curving area behind the goal then – again, so lucky – chose to hoist the cup once more right in front of myself and others in section 114. I was a lucky man once more. It will surprise nobody to hear that I was one of the last out of the stadium. At 1.30am, I took a single photograph of my seat in Baku and collected my, unused, souvenir flag, and stuffed it in my camera bag. I made my way to the exits, I was a happy man.

Incidentally, the attendance would be announced as 51,000 in a 67,000 capacity stadium.

A ridiculous figure really. It should have been packed to the rafters.

However, chew on this. At Liverpool’s first-ever European Cup Final in Rome in 1977, involving Borussia Mönchengladbach, the attendance was just 52,000 in a 65,000 stadium.

Thursday 30 May : 5am – The William Shakespeare, Baku.

Outside the stadium, Steve came bounding over.

“I told you seeing the cup at The Hilton was a sign.”

We hugged.

I met up with Calvin, who had just been separated from his father, at the long line for the metro. I had been on my feet for a couple of hours and I was starting to tire. Calvin was good company on that painful journey back in to town. Just like in Munich, I think  I was on the last train. In 2017, it was a much easier – and quicker – journey. On that day, with tickets more keenly priced – ours were £4.50 – over 67,000 attended. Crucially, though, we were well ahead at half-time and many left early. But tonight, damn, the movement out and onto the tube took forever.

At about 2.30am, we flopped on the red line into town. We scowled at a lad who was wearing both a Liverpool shirt and scarf.

“Prick.”

We hit all the stations.

Koroglu.

Ulduz.

Narimanov.

Ganclik.

28 May.

Sahil.

Exhausted, we plodded back to Chelsea Central; we reached “The Shakespeare” at about 3am. Back with all the people that I had met over the past few days, this was a magical time. Drinks were consumed, songs were sung, all the old favourites. I loved a Jam and then a Style Council segment at about 4am.

“I was half in mind I was half in need
And as the rain came down I dropped to my knees and I prayed.
I said “oh heavenly thing please cleanse my soul
I’ve seen all on offer and I’m not impressed at all.”

I was halfway home I was half insane
And every shop window I looked in just looked the same.
I said send me a sign to save my life
‘Cause at this moment in time there is nothing certain in these days of mine.

We see, it’s a frightening thing when it dawns upon you
That I know as much as the day I was born
And though I wasn’t asked (I might as well stay)
And promise myself each and every day that is

That when you’re knocked on your back an’ your life’s a flop
And when you’re down on the bottom there’s nothing else
But to shout to the top shout.
Well, we’re gonna shout to the top.”

I had not spotted Luke and Aroha since before the game and when I saw them enter the pub, I shouted over to them. This made the person next to me turn around to see who was shouting. Bloody hell, it was Orlin.

“Bloody hell man, how long have you been stood there?”

We crumpled with laughter. I then spotted Alex and Alan from Moscow, the first Chelsea that I had met on this trip way back in Istanbul. Everyone together. Just right. I did not want this night to end. There are photographs of these hours on the internet and they will become priceless reminders of “that night in Baku.” Eventually, the bar turfed us out at 6am.

“I could murder a McDonald’s Breakfast.”

It opened at 8am.

“Bollocks.”

I made do with my second hot dog of the trip on Fountain Square. I returned to the hotel, but my head was still buzzing. I uploaded some photographs from my camera to share on Facebook. I shared the one of Eden Hazard and Peter Cech on Instagram. I was just glad the wifi had decided to work. At 7.30am I was still chatting to pals all over the world. Eventually, I fell asleep.

Thursday 30 May : 8pm – Qazmac Restaurant, Old City, Baku.

I was out in the evening again, relaxing at my own pace in a lovely restaurant opposite where those antiquated huts used to stand on Kickik Qala. I had chosen a light salad and some mutton kebabs. The waiter suggested some bread – fine – but he also recommended some local butter and some caviar. I thought “why not, when in Rome.” Imagine my surprise when he brought out a sizeable pot of the stuff. I asked him “how much is that?” just at the exact moment that he pierced the top of the sealed container.

“Oh, it’s two hundred manat, sir.”

Gulp.

£100.

“Whooooah, hang on one minute, I’m not paying that.”

I remember having caviar – for the only time in my life – on a little French stick in Vienna in 1987. It was just a taste then, and I had visions of a very small portion this time too. I clearly wasn’t prepared to pay £100 for a great pot of the bloody stuff. Thankfully, the waiter understood and that was that. But I enjoyed my meal. It was wonderful. With a beer and some lovely ice-cream it came to £12.50. Superb. It had been a relaxing day. No surprises, I had slept well. As my father might have said of my bed in room 304, “it has a lot of sleep in it.”

My main objective on this day was to head over to visit the splendour of the Heydar Aliyev Centre. It was an hour’s walk – I was tempted, I Iove a good walk in a foreign city – but as my match ticket enabled me to travel for free on the city’s metro for one further day, I made use of it. Rain was spotting as walked up to Icarisharer tube, but it soon stopped. I spent an hour or so walking around the curves of the building. This structure was also featured in that TV programme about Baku. I felt as if I knew all about it. Sadly, as there was a concert taking place, I was unable to go inside. Along with a visit to the Palace of the Shirvanshahs in the old city, and that odd site of Yanar Dag to the north-east of the city where there is an eternal flame burning non-stop from natural gasses from deep inside the earth, it will have to wait until my next visit to Baku.

On the second day of my 2018/19 season, I found myself walking around the famous curves of the Sydney Opera House. On this second-from-last day of the season, here I was outside the equally sublime and beautiful curves of the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku.

Where next? The iconic lines of Preston Bus Station? Watch this space.

I loved it there. I loved the use of space. The undulating roof of the building is wonderful. And the whole structure sits on top of a gentle incline, and there is subtle use of grass and reflecting ponds. Typically, there was a large replica of the Europa League trophy at the base of the hill. It combined well with a “I Love Baku” sign. On this visit, the sky above was full of brilliantly fluffy clouds. Dotted around the grass lawns were odd concrete casts of snails and rabbits. It was like a surreal dream. It was bloody fantastic. It is no surprise that it is placed right on the main road into the city. It is surely Baku’s most stunning building.

To cap off another memorable day, I dived in to see a few pals – a couple of pints with Dave who was soon to be heading off to Kiev for one night – in “The Shakespeare” and made another trip down for some beers at “Harry’s Bar.” There were warm welcomes in both. I could hear some Arsenal chants from inside “The Red Lion.”

“Shit club no history.”

“Arsenal in Baku, this city is red.”

Yawn.

I’ll be honest. I bumped into two small parties of Arsenal that night – from Amersham, and then from Manchester – and they were fine. They were just so fed up with their team and their club.

Friday 31 May : 11.30am – Gobustan National Park.

On my last day in Baku, I was out on a half-day tour in a little mini-bus, to see the ancient cave etchings of the Gobustan National Park. I had booked this back in England. Imagine the look on my face when I saw Will and Noah waiting outside the travel agency.

“Of all the people we wanted to see. Hello, Chris.”

What a small world, eh? From a plane at Heathrow to a fifteen-seater in Baku. As I clambered aboard the mini-bus, who else should be on the vehicle but Margaret and Roy, two of the most loyal Chelsea supporters ever. They follow all of Chelsea’s teams, not just the first team like me, all over. I remember bumping into Roy at Bristol City’s training ground in around 2009 when we both watched a couple of Chelsea academy games on a Saturday morning. Again, what a small world. It was a four-hour trip. Alongside Will, Noah and myself was a chap called Tommy – an Arsenal supporter, from London – who turned out to be one of the most boring football supporters that I have ever met. I could not help bristling every time he referred to his team as “The Arsenal.” It is a pet hate of my good pal Alan too, and I thought of him every time I heard it. It did make me smile, though, when Tommy admitted to me “I wish we had Abramovich.”

Game. Set. Match.

The tour took us out on an hour drive to the south west of the city. The Gobustan stone carvings were quite fascinating, but it also gave me a chance to see a little of the scenery outside the city. There were oil rigs in the Caspian Sea and new houses being constructed alongside the roads. There was an abandoned Azerbaijani version of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa and an unappetising beach resort. There were oil, water and gas pipelines snaking over the arid landscape, and the inevitable oil refineries. Two companies dominate; BP and Socar. The tour guide was an interesting character; formerly an army captain, formerly an off-shore worker, and a hater of caviar. In his youth, caviar was cheaper than meat and his mother used to feed him it daily. He now can’t stand the stuff.

We were given a tour of the caves. At the end, he led us to the oldest carving of the morning.

“This one is seventeen thousand years old.”

I muttered to Will and Noah –

“Yeah, it depicts the Tottenham captain lifting their last league trophy.”

Friday 31 May : 7.30pm – Fountain Square, Baku.

After a meal in a pleasant restaurant – more salad, more kebabs – I was walking back through Fountain Square. I walked past a local father and son. I overheard the young boy mention Chelsea and Arsenal. I turned around and smiled. I intimated that I was Chelsea and gave the boy a thumbs up. The father explained –

“He wants to know of the history of Chelsea.”

I felt like stopping them, marching them into a café, sitting them down, turning on Google-translate, and entertaining them for three hours.

Later that evening, well aware that I had booked a cab to take me to the airport at 2am, I took it easy. There were some more photographs. I took around 1,750 over the week. My camera is my great companion on these trips around the world with Chelsea. There was time for an iconic shot of a roadside poster of the competing teams and UEFA logos right next to the historic, twelfth century Maiden Tower. Hopefully, another winner.

I sat next to some fountains in a little park on the main boulevard on the shore of the Caspian. I sat alone with my thoughts for many a minute.  I tried to take it all in. One moment touched me. A toddler reached out for her mother’s hand and they walked off together. It was a sweet moment, a lovely moment. I have no children and I do not generally harbour regrets. But this little moment obviously stirred me. At that moment, although not life-defining, I did ponder how different my life might have been had I become a father at some stage.

Would I still be in Baku?

Yes, probably.

Hopefully.

I made one last tour of my two favourite watering holes of the trip. I shared some laughs and some drinks – Cokes for me, I wanted to stay fresh – with Martin from Gloucester in “The Shakespeare” which was returning to some sort of normality after the recent madness.

After a quick visit to “Harry’s Bar”, I decided to head back to the hotel at about 11.30pm. The girl with no name raced after me after she saw me walking past “The Shakespeare.”

“When are you coming back?”

“Not sure, maybe when Chelsea play here again.”

“Have good livings.”

“You too, take care.”

And so, the trip was nearing its end.

I would indeed take a cab from the hotel to the Baku airport. There would be a 5am flight to Moscow, a two-and-a-half hour wait at the city’s Sheremetyevo Airport, another Aeroflot flight back to Heathrow. I would land early at just before midday on the Saturday morning and Russ would soon be there to meet me.

It would soon be all over; the trip, the travels, and the season.

Postcards From Baku

One last tale though, held over from Game One.

Tuesday 18 July : 6.00pm – Gulgong, New South Wales, Australia.

Glenn and I had spent three days in Sydney, and had picked up a car on the fourth day of the trip. We set off to see the Blue Mountains, stopping off at the windy town of Katoomba. We were headed later that afternoon towards Coonabarabran, a good four-hour drive. With the light just starting to fade a little, we made the wrong turning in an old-style outpost called Gulgong, and soon found ourselves on what is known in Australia as a corrugated road. It means that it is not tarmac, not asphalt, not concrete, not paved, but simply a dirt track that has become rutted through use. With the fuel tank showing a red light, I was starting to get a little agitated. I had visions of us running out of fuel on a farm track, miles from anywhere. The road conditions deteriorated a little. I was keen to head back to Gulgong, but Glenn was more gung-ho. After about twenty minutes of lonely driving, we spotted a chap – a farmer – on a quad bike, towing some sort of contraption, away to our right in a field full of alpacas. We slowed down and shouted over to him. He bounded over.

Glenn shouted out to him.

“We’re lost!”

The grizzled old farmer’s reply was wonderful.

“No you’re not. You’re here.”

Indeed, we were. His statement made us chuckle, but it reassured us. As long as he knew where we were, we were evidently not lost.

We were here.

Panic over.

And it has certainly seemed that, on many occasions this season that we – Chelsea Football Club in a very broad sense, but its supporters on various levels too – have been “lost.” It has felt like our journey was going nowhere. That we had no leadership at any level. That we were rudderless. And at times beyond hope.

But we were never lost.

We were a top six club, and would end up a top three club. At the end of it all, we would reach two cup finals. We would end up with silverware for the third consecutive season. We would end up with our fifteenth major trophy since 2000.

Altogether now.

Chelsea Four Arsenal One.

Chelsea Won Arsenal Lost.

See you next season.

 

Tales From The Opposite Corner

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 7 October 2018.

An away trip down to Southampton is an easy one for us. It is only a journey of around an hour and a half. At eight o’clock on a clear, if cold, Sunday morning, Glenn collected me. PD was already on board the Chuckle Bus. We headed for half an hour north and Parky joined us. Glenn then did a one-eighty turn south, soon heading over Salisbury Plain, close to Stonehenge, yet to be inundated with day-trippers.  Autumnal sun was lighting up the entire sky now. We journeyed on, and everything seemed well in our world. As we neared the city of Salisbury, we passed through an avenue lined with tall and proud trees, and then the road opened out and away in the distance, straight ahead, stood the classic tower of the city’s cathedral, piercing the blue sky. As we drive around the highways and byways of this green and pleasant land, this particular view of the tallest spire in England always takes my breath away.

Salisbury. Who would ever have thought that this historic city would ever play a part in the history of Chelsea Football Club? Any yet, following the poisoning of the former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, the relationship between the United Kingdom and Russia has been severely tested since the incident in March, and has lead – most people have surmised – to Roman Abramovich seeking out domicile in Israel rather than continuing to live in London. What a strange world we live in.

“Southampton away” now takes a familiar shape. We park at the train station, devour a hearty breakfast at a nearby café, and then get stuck in to some beers before heading off to the stadium on the other side of the city centre. We were parked up at 9.45am, and we were soon tucking into a lovely fry-up along with a strong coffee or two. We then re-positioned ourselves outside in a sun trap, and got stuck into some lagers. The sun warmed us. It was a perfect Sunday morning. We were joined by some friends from our local area; around a dozen of us in total. Unsurprisingly, chuckles of various pitches and volumes rebounded off the concrete of the nearby walls and steps.

“Brilliant. Just like a European away.”

I think Glenn was exaggerating slightly, but we all knew what he meant.

Out in the open air, catching some rays, drinking a “San Miguel”, sharing a laugh with some mates, occasionally talking football – “we should win this one, eh?” was about as far as we got – and generally enjoying each other’s’ company. Real life problems, outside our football bubble, occasionally tried to enter my head, but it was easy to push them aside.

“Cheers, lads.”

It might not have been quite such a perfect Sunday in Southampton. Glenn and PD had missed out on tickets among the three thousand away supporters. We needed to think outside the box, or even the box office. Thankfully, Glenn knows a Southampton season ticket holder – I remember he once came with us to Stamford Bridge to see the Saints some twenty years ago – and two tickets were purchased in the home section, the Kingsland Stand, so all four of us were “good to go.” As at Swansea City in 2014, Glenn and I volunteered to sit among the home support, since – without putting too fine a point on it – PD admitted that he would find it hard to keep schtum for ninety minutes.

This visit to Southampton would be added to the list of away stadia where I have watched Chelsea from the home sections.

Bristol Rovers – 1975, 1976, 1980, 1981.

Bristol City – 1976.

Liverpool – 1992, 1992, 1994.

Everton – 1992.

Viktoria Zizkov – 1994.

Austria Memphis – 1994.

QPR – 1995.

Leeds United – 1995.

Blackburn Rovers – 1995, 1995, 1996.

Arsenal – 1996.

Southampton – 1996, 1996, 2018.

Barcelona – 2005.

Portsmouth – 2008.

Swansea City – 2014.

(…and not counting the friendlies at Rangers, Plymouth, Portsmouth and Swindon Town.)

There haven’t been that many in over 1,200 games. I’ve managed to live to tell the tale. Having a mate from Yorkshire – not a Leeds fan, I hasten to add – probably helped my cause in 1995. We lost that game 1-0, and I don’t think I was too quick to spring to my feet after Tony bloody Yeboah scored a late winner. I think his accent – drip-feeding the locals over the whole game – might well have saved me. After Wisey scored a last minute equaliser in a 3-3 at Highbury a year later, the four of us sitting in the last few rows of the West Upper could not contain ourselves. We jumped up – “giving it large” – and I even turned around and stared down the Arsenal fans behind me. I was lucky to get away without a slap on that occasion, methinks.

We caught a cab to St. Mary’s. While PD and LP turned left to join in with the Chelsea support in the Northam Stand, Glenn and I continued on and entered the Kingsland Stand. Our seats, in Block 28, were three-quarters of the way back, quite close to the corner flag, and diametrically opposite the Chelsea support.

I looked around. The supporters close by looked pretty harmless. I didn’t expect there to be any problem on this occasion.

Maurizio Sarri had finely-tweaked the team.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

No complaints from me.

Ryan Bertrand was the captain of the Southampton team.

The stadium took a while to fill, and there were odd gaps in the home section in the Chapel Stand to my right which ever filled. We were treated to more flames as the teams entered the pitch from the Itchen Stand opposite.

Southampton have disregarded their homage to the Kevin Keegan kit of 1980 to 1982 which they wore last season in favour of more traditional stripes. For the first time, we wore the new third kit.

Glenn : “You know what. From this distance, it looks half decent.”

Chris : “It looks better from two miles away.”

Glenn : “Looks bloody rubbish up close.”

Chris : “Up close, yes. Bloody awful.”

But I had to concede, it didn’t look as bad as I expected. But that isn’t saying too much. I absolutely loathed the God-awful tangerine and graphite kit of the mid-nineties, which the kit is said to reference. It was a minging kit.

If the ridiculous non-Chelsea colour scheme was ignored, there was still too much going on; two-tone grey stripes over-stenciled with a thin cross-hatch, panels here there and everywhere, a hideous badge in an over-sized shield, tangerine epaulets, and for some reason the tangerine of the collar was a different colour tangerine to the main body of the shirt, plus a hideous stone-washed look to the grey resulted in it just looking grubby.

Have I made myself clear? It was fucking hideous.

The game began, without hardly a ripple of noise or appreciation from the residents of Block 28. Over in the far corner, the Chelsea 3K were soon singing.

“Oh, oh oh, it’s Kepa.

You know.

He’s better than fucking Thibaut.”

With my zoom lens, I eventually spotted Alan, Gary, PD and Parky.

On the pitch, all was good. In fact, Glenn and I were blessed, being able to watch from close quarters as we dominated the opening portion of the game with mouth-watering possession football, and swift passing between all of our players. Whereas we struggled at West Ham a fortnight previously, we purred in the Hampshire sun. In that early period, with Hazard the main catalyst, shot after shot seemed to be blocked by Southampton limbs. An effort from Willian looped up onto the bar. Around me, I heard whispers of admiration every time that Hazard caressed the ball. In the pub, I commented to the lads that – unlike in previous seasons – we had no “hate figure” in our midst. No Diego Costa. No John Terry. No Ashley Cole. No Dennis Wise. No Vinnie Jones. I would be interested to see how the locals received us.

Two chaps – neutrals maybe – right behind us were in admiration of Hazard. I did well to bite my lip and not give the game away.

I looked around. There really was no noise from our area at all. Nothing. I looked behind me, and the sight made me smart. No more than five feet away was a gormless looking young chap – about twenty-two maybe – wearing, as brazen as you like, a navy blue Manchester United replica shirt.

I was speechless.

Altogether now; “what the fuck?”

I caught his eye, and mouthed “United?”

He nodded.

I scowled and returned to the game.

The phrase “football is dead” is often shared these days and here was damning evidence.

Inwardly, I thought to myself “there’s no way I am going to leave here without saying something to the prick.”

On the pitch, all was sweetness and light. We were playing some sublime stuff, some of the best of the season thus far. Our one-touch, maybe two-touch, stuff was creating havoc in the Saints’ final third. Surely a goal would come?

Well, with that, somehow – I don’t know how – Southampton pulled themselves up with their boot strings and carved out a few chances, mainly emanating down our right where Dave was often exposed. The best chance of the entire game fell to the home team. Nathan Redmond released Bertrand on the left and his cross from the goal-line was inch perfect, but Danny Ings somehow managed to get his bearings confused and made a great defensive clearance from six yards out.

By this time, at last, the home fans were making some noise.

“Oh when the Saints…”

Our stand was pretty quiet though, and to be honest only those home fans who shared the Northam Stand with the away supporters tried to show some support for their team. Everywhere else, people were quiet. I swear blind that the teenager sat next to me, wearing a Southampton home shirt, did not speak the entire game. In fact, it was if I was in the middle of a ridiculous sponsored silence.

“Football Is Dead Part 584.”

Our play was far the sharper. Ross Barkley won the ball off a Saints player and fed Hazard. He was level with us, and we were able to admire his quick snapshot which flew past the Saints’ ‘keeper.

Saints 0 Singers 1.

I looked over to see the away end bubbling away like a big bowl of soup.

With the Chelsea supporters in fine voice for the rest of the game, our section opposite was deathly quiet. I had not heard a single shout of support from any individual the entire game, and I wanted to make my mark and break the silence, if only to be able to get a bizarre kick out of being able to say I was the loudest supporter in Block 28 the entire game.

“COME ON SAINTS.”

Glenn giggled.

I wouldn’t have done this at Leeds United back in 1995, mind you.

There are limits.

More Chelsea shots were blocked. Giroud stumbled in the box but it did not look like a penalty.

At the break, we were 1-0 up and coasting on the South coast. It had been an enjoyable, if not particularly loud, first-half in Section 28.

Oriel Romeu, another Munich Boy, appeared for Southampton in the second-half, adding a little more solidity to their midfield. Over on the far side, Sarri was his usual sartorially-challenged self, while Gianfranco Zola was referencing his first ever Chelsea game (Blackburn 1996, see above) when he pleaded “please, not an XL shirt again” by wearing a rain-jacket which resembled a tent.

But on the pitch, we were looking as good as ever. However, the home team carved out a couple of chances, with Bertrand wasting the best of them. As the second-half continued, I was particularly pleased with the way that Toni Rudiger was defending; he hardly put a foot wrong. Elsewhere, Jorginho was finding others with regularity. Barkley was having a very fine game. Just before the hour, that man Hazard was fouled and we waited for Willian to signal his intent to his team mates. Throughout the first-half, I had spotted his signals at corners; one finger, two fingers, three fingers. Against Vidi on Thursday there had even been a thumbs down. The ball was curled over towards the far post and Olivier Giroud attempted a rather spectacular scissor-kick. The ball bounced through a forest of legs and Ross Barkley was able to score his first Chelsea goal with an easy tap in from inside the six-yard box. His joyous run and leap in front of the celebrating away fans were captured on camera.

Saints 0 Singers 2.

I have always rated Ross Barkley. We might just have found another great English midfielder. Let’s hope so. He has poise and strength. I desperately want him to succeed at Chelsea.

We continued to dominate but play opened up a little. There was more defensive strength from Rudiger. And David Luiz, too. His renaissance has been hugely enjoyable.

Alvaro Morata replaced Olivier Giroud and then Pedro took over from Willian. Then Mateo Kovacic replaced Barkley.

In section 28, still no noise.

The sponsored silence was going well.

We continued to push the ball around with ease.

But then, two Southampton chances to eat into our lead produced fantastic saves from Kepa. Redmond let fly from distance, but our young custodian leapt and finger-tipped over from right under the bar. He hasn’t the height of Big Pete or Big Nose, but if he has spring in his heels like that, who cares? Morata went close when he showed too much of the ball to the ‘keeper. I heard the grinding of three-thousands sets of gnashers from one hundred yards away. And then came the second super-save from Arrizabalaga; a similarly agile jump thwarted Ings. Sensational stuff, and we had great seats to see it all up close.

As the game was nearing completion, and as a Chelsea move was progressing, I was aware that the Chelsea supporters were singing out an “ole” with every fresh touch. I don’t usually like this. It seems overly arrogant. Maybe OK, if we are winning 6-0 but not before. The two neutrals behind me were not impressed.

“…mmm, don’t like that, taking the piss.”

Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass.

The ball was worked to Hazard and with that shimmying approach of his, he created a little space and passed to Morata. This time, there was no annoyance from the away fans. His finish was clean and simple. As he dispatched the ball, Glenn and I spontaneously rose to our feet and whooped a little.

“Great goal.”

The final whistle soon came.

Saints 0 Singers 3.

Glenn and I packed up and watched as the Chelsea players slowly moved over and clapped the away support. They didn’t seem to walk over too far towards the Northam Stand. Maybe the 3-0 win seemed too easy. It was certainly easier than the come-from-behind win of last season which brought more prolonged celebrations at the final whistle.

As I exited row BB, I spotted that the United fan – remember him? – was waiting alone near the exit. I couldn’t help myself.

I motioned towards him, pointing at the United shirt.

“What’s with all this?”

Almost apologetically, he threw his arms back and said “it’s football.”

My response? Take your pick.

  1. “Ah that is fine mate. I know that United are a great club and their tickets are hard to come by. “
  2. “Oh, you’re English. Presumed you were foreign. Not understanding the subtleties of fandom in England. Whatever.”
  3. “And what a game. Cheers mate.”
  4. “You’re a twat.”

He then repeated his first answer and I then repeated mine.

As I walked down the steps, a grinning Glenn was waiting for me.

“You had words, then?”

To be honest, I was surprised that a steward or a home supporter had not approached him to tell him to either put a jacket on and cover himself up, or maybe go into the toilets and turn it inside out. At Chelsea, it surely would have been dealt with differently. I am not an advocate of violence in any shape or form, but honestly. The chap was lucky not to get a slap. He showed complete disrespect for Southampton Football Club.

And it – as is obvious – infuriated me to high heaven.

“Football Is Dead” indeed.

Manufactured atmospheres. Flames and fireworks. Orchestrated flag-waving goal celebrations. Noisemakers. Painted faces. Jester hats. Noiseless fans. People as critics and not supporters. A fan base of nerds.

And now Manchester United shirts being worn at games not even involving them.

For fuck sake.

I momentarily thought back to a time in the mid-to-late ‘eighties when it was pretty difficult to obtain foreign football jerseys. Occasionally, such jerseys were worn on the terraces, although not to any great degree due to the rarity of them.

They had a certain cachet to them. They looked the business. But always foreign shirts. And maybe, at Chelsea, the occasional Rangers one.

In those days, in the era of Half Man Half Biscuit and their football-based singalongs, and The Farm, with their scally heritage, and the music-football crossover, it would be quite common to see bands sporting foreign shirts. I seem to remember that I wore a cotton Kappa Juventus shirt on the benches once or twice in around 1986. It was all part of the burgeoning, and rapidly changing, casual scene which enveloped many of us all those years ago.

But not one of us would have been seen dead in a fucking Manchester United shirt at Stamford Bridge.

Then. Or ever since.

To that div in Section 28, this match report is not dedicated.

And now, damn it – modern football – the dreaded international break and a fortnight of inactivity.

Our next game is against Manchester United.

I wonder if knobhead is going.

See you there.

 

Tales From Under A Super Blue Moon

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 31 January 2018.

After two consecutive cup ties, we were back to the bread and butter of the League and a home game against Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth. We had already beaten them on two occasion thus far in 2017-2018. As we assembled in the pubs, bars and boozers around Stamford Bridge on another cold midweek night, there was a simple hope for three points, while maybe Tottenham and Manchester United could force a draw at Wembley. It was a night when we hoped to narrow the margins in the hunt for second place. As we met up with some friends, there was minimal talk of Emerson Palmieri and Olivier Giroud among our little group.

I once described Giroud – only last season – as “the doyen of every self-obsessed, hipster, bar-scarf wearing, micro-brewery loving, metrosexual, sleeked back hair, bushy bearded and self-righteous Arsenal supporter everywhere.”

I am happy to welcome any player into the fold at Chelsea but be warned that it might take be longer than usual with this player.

Still, I think I felt the same about Mickey Thomas, Graham Roberts and Ashley Cole. And things worked out perfectly well with those three.

The ex-Arsenal target man had appeared as a substitute at Swansea City the previous night, so there was no hope of a George Weah-like appearance from the wings against Bournemouth. I knew nothing of the acquisition from Roma, but hoped that it would give the occasionally jaded Marcos Alonso both cover and competition. Our transfer window had concluded with Michy Batshuayi heading off to Borussia Dortmund on loan. The upshot of all of this was that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang went from Dortmund to Arsenal.

And there was much wailing.

Fans so used to the club spending millions and millions in recent years were clearly not happy. Maybe we need to accept that we will be a little less-active in the transfer market over the next few seasons while the new stadium takes centre-stage. Initially, it was reported that Roman was going to pay for it himself, but then came news that costs had – surprise, surprise – spiraled and that the club was looking for outside investment. Regardless, we may well see a little austerity at Chelsea for a while, and our aims and aspirations might need to be tempered slightly.

So be it. I’m not going anywhere.

Personally, I was just happy that the latest transfer window was over. It is the time of the season that irritates me to high heaven. It is the mating season for the thousands of FIFA-loving nerds who come to life with all sorts of absurd and unlikely transfer options for our club. At least they will be quiet until the summer.

After another stressful day at work, the lager was hitting the spot in our now regular midweek jaunt down the North End Road. There was a relaxation that comes with being among great friends, old and new. The football was an afterthought. The game was hardly mentioned. It made me realise that there is no need for transfer activity among my friends, bless ‘em.

At the top of the stairs leading into the Matthew Harding Upper, there was a quick chat with Daryl, who had been in one of the pubs, but who I had not really spoken to. We summed up our frustrations with how the club is being run in a succinct and memorable couple of sentences.

“If the club said to us that we were in a rebuilding stage – the stadium and the team – and we were going to stick with the manager through all of it, I don’t think there would be many complaints. We’d aim to consolidate – top four, top six, whatever –  and there would be some notion of a plan.”

“That we could all buy into. Yes!”

If ever we needed a five or ten year plan it was now.

The rumours surrounding the manager would not go away, but in all honesty I try to ignore them. I rarely buy a paper these days. I do not suck at the nipple of Sky Sports News. I just concentrate on showing up at Chelsea games and try to support the lads in royal blue. I am tired of the rumours. I am tired of the negativity. I am tired of the bullshit. I am tired of the over-analysis. I am tired of the same old same old. I am tired of the nonsense. I am just tired of it all.

Clearly the manager is a decent coach and he has seemed a decent man over the time that he has been in charge. His last four domestic seasons have resulted in three championships for Juventus of Turin and one for Chelsea of London; this is no mean feat. And yet he has shown signs of frustration in recent months, and I would surmise that this is as a direct result of the atmosphere present in the club. Of course, nobody really knows how or why decisions are made among the corridors of power at Stamford Bridge and at Cobham, but my guess is that everything leads to uncertainty and doubt.

It was against the backdrop of rumour and counter-rumour that we assembled for the Bournemouth match. The team had been announced and without the injured Alvaro Morata, the loaned Michy Batshuayi and the unavailable Olivier Giroud, the manager was forced to play a team with no focal point.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Barkley – Hazard – Pedro

On the front cover of the programme were Eden and N’Golo, bearing a “Say No To Antisemitism” message. There was a large banner being held in the centre-circle for a good fifteen minutes before the teams took to the field. I looked over to the West Stand and spotted that Roman Abramovich’s personal bodyguard was stood in the back row of his box.

“Blimey, Roman is here” I chirped to Alan.

Alan replied that it was probably to do with the anti-Semitism theme for the night.

Yes, it probably was. And I saw no issue with that. While there are still morons who sing about Auschwitz following the club, there has to be a desire to remind everyone of this message. I just wished that Roman would appear at more than a handful of games these days. We need leadership, however understated.  Lo and behold, on page five of the programme, the owner had written a personal message about his desire to “create a club that is welcoming to everyone.”

The teams entered the pitch and they were forced to walk around the large circular banner, just as on a Champions League night.

Under a clear night sky – getting colder by the minute – a full moon appeared over the East Stand and it continued its arc as the game progressed. It was, apparently, a Super Blue Moon. In the spirit of the age, I wondered if this was the hallmark of an advertising guru, a brand salesman, taking nature to the next level.

“Get your Super Blue Moon sweatshirts, brochures and DVDs here.”

Nathan Ake appeared in the Milan-esque red and black of the visitors. I caught his wide smile on camera as he shook hands with former players.

As the players broke and sprinted to their respective ends, the Matthew Harding Lower roared –

“We Hate Tottenham.”

It seemed to be a reaction to the theme of the night.

The game began. Around 1,400 away fans. Ross Barkley in his league debut looked a bit lively at the start. Once or twice an early ball was pushed through to the attacking three. With our usual way of playing tending to resemble a game of chess of late, I have often harped on to Alan of late how I would like to see us mix things up a little, knocking the occasional early ball over the top, to encourage uncertainty in an opposition defence.

“Do they drop back, do they push up? Let’s mess with their heads. Let’s do things that they aren’t expecting.”

It was a rather timid and uneventful start to the game in all honesty. There was a desire from all of the front three to “make things happen” but with no real end result. The game moved on and the atmosphere was as timid as the action on the pitch. The away fans were soon having a dig.

“Is this The Emirates?”

I wanted the Matthew Harding to sing “Roman, give us a song.”

On nineteen minutes, the spectators applauded the memory of young Chelsea season ticket holder Jack Winter who had sadly passed away recently. A banner was held aloft in The Shed Upper.

There was a sublime piece of skill down below us in The Sleepy Hollow. A Bournemouth move had developed but there was a split second when the ball was equidistant from a few players. N’Golo Kante appeared to feint a challenge, and the Bournemouth player took the bait. The ball remained loose, in no man’s land, and Kante collected it, adeptly side-stepping a challenge and moving the ball on with the minimum of fuss. From there, a lovely move developed, with some excellent movement throughout the team. The ball was moved up the field and I watched in awe. The ball was played in from the right with a Zappacross but the ball was routinely hoofed clear. It was the highlight of the match thus far.

Bournemouth threatened occasionally.

This wasn’t much of a match.

With twenty-five minutes gone, we were sad to see Andreas Christensen leave the pitch – a strain of some description? – and our young starlet was replaced by Antonio Rudiger.

Things momentarily improved as Gary Cahill headed onto the top of the net from a corner. A cross from Alonso would undoubtedly have been perfection itself if a tall central striker been lurking; Hazard failed to connect. There was some occasionally pleasing play from Barkley. Alonso shaped to volley at the far post but a team mate chose to attack the ball too. The Spaniard headed wide just after.

As first-halves go, it was as poor as I had seen for a while. It was all very humdrum. Was this a sign of tiredness? This was the ninth game in January.

At the break, Neil Barnett introduced the two new acquisitions Palmieri and Giroud.

I applauded, just.

With that, the Super Blue Moon disappeared from my view as it hid above the West Stand roof.

As a metaphor for the evening’s events, it was pretty much spot on.

There was very little Super Blue about the game’s second forty-five minutes.

With us attacking the Matthew Harding, there was hope for a goal when Marcos Alonso steadied himself for a strike on the Bournemouth goal from a free-kick. It was close, but not close enough and Asmir Begovic was not called into action.

After just six minutes gone in the second period, Bournemouth sauntered through alarming gaps in our defence and the lively Callum Wilson slotted home. Ugh. We watched as the away team celebrated at the far end in front of the Cherries away support. This goal somehow inspired the Chelsea faithful to get behind the team.

“COME ON CHELSEA. COME ON CHELSEA. COME ON CHELSEA. COME ON CHELSEA.”

The noise generated from the supporters in the same stand as me brought me great pleasure. This was what supporting a team is all about. In adversity, noise. Great stuff.

Conte chose to replace Barkley – an uninspiring debut – with Cesc Fabregas. We hoped for a little more ingenuity and guile. The fans were still getting behind the team.

And then the lads and lasses in The Shed let me down.

They goaded the away fans with “Champions of England, you’ll never sing that.”

This was AFC Bournemouth here. They were in the bottom tier in 2010. Their ground holds less than 12,000. Truly, truly pathetic.

There seemed to be a tangible improvement in our play. Eden huffed and puffed and tried his best, but often ran into a wall of red and black. Antonio Rudiger crossed low but there was nobody in a danger area to tap home. We obviously missed a target man. A lovely ball found Eden, who forced a save, but was flagged offside anyway.

On sixty-four minutes, we went further behind. Bournemouth cut through our stagnant defence and Junior Stanislas slotted home after racing away from Cahill.

The away players again celebrated in front of their supporters.

Another “ugh.”

I then spent a few seconds watching, with increasing incredulity, as the Chelsea team walked back to their positions for the restart. Their body language was awful. They walked slowly, heads mainly down, silent. I focused on Gary Cahill. He did not speak. He did not talk to his fellow players. He did not engage with them. He did not encourage them. He did nothing to endear himself to me.

He simply dropped to his knees and tied his bootlaces.

For fuck sake, Gary.

I popped down to have a moan with Big John who shares the same opinions as me on many facets of supporting this great club.

“Shocking. No leadership.”

So true.

The manager brought on Callum Hudson-Odoi – wearing the very iconic number seventy, a Chelsea number if ever there was – to take the place of Zappacosta.

Just after, a run by Stanislas was not stopped and his low shot was touched past Courtois by Ake.

Chelsea 0 Bournemouth 3.

Bollocks.

I have to be honest, our defence at this time looked blown to smithereens. We were all over the place. But by the same token, this didn’t seem like a 0-3 game. They had simply taken their chances, whereas we had not enjoyed a cutting edge to our play and therefore – no real surprises – our attack was blunted. The rest of the game was played out against a decreasing amount of home supporters. There were tons of Super Blue seats on show with each passing minute.

We had a couple of late efforts, but the game petered out.

Ironically, the noisiest few salvos of support during the entire game occurred right towards the end of the match with thousands scurrying out to their respective homes.

On ninety-two minutes, Stamford Bridge roared.

“CAREFREE. WHEREVER YOU MAY BE. WE ARE THE FAMOUS CFC.”

I roared along with the rest. Bloody hell that felt good. It reminded me of years gone by when we made some noise irrespective of on-field glory.

I suppose that there were only around ten thousand – probably many less – present as the game came to its conclusion. It would be easy for me to make some comment about the fans who chose to leave early. That might upset a few people, eh? I am not so sure I care too much. Imagine if the game had finished with no fans present. What sort of message would that give the world?

So, yes. I stayed to the end.

However, you can be sure that there were a few Chelsea fans who would be making some snide remarks about “new fans” and “plastic fans” and “tourists” being the ones who left early. I am not so sure. There is a bit of a myth that “old school” supporters have always supported the team through thick, thin and thinner. Although we have enjoyed some fantastic periods of support, not always have Chelsea packed Stamford Bridge to the rafters in the way that we do know.

Think back to 1994, long before Stamford Bridge was inundated with tourists, day-trippers, new fans and the moneyed classes.

We had reached our very first cup final – the FA Cup no less – in twenty-two years. In our second-from last home game of the season, we played Coventry City on a Wednesday night, a mere ten days before our date with Manchester United at Wembley Stadium. Our capacity at Stamford Bridge that season – no North terrace – was around 29,000. Was our stadium packed to the rafters on that Wednesday evening, cheering the boys on to a fine finish to the season ahead of the Cup Final?

No. The gate was just 8,923.

We have come a long way, for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in the past few decades.

On the drive home, all was quiet. We didn’t even bother to listen to the rest of the results. I was sure, though, that the bitching and the moaning was lighting up the internet. And I am so fucking tired of all that too.

See you at Watford on Monday.

IMG_4433

Tales From A Stroll Down The Fulham Road

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 28 January 2018.

Our eighth out of nine games in the month of January saw a return to the FA Cup and a good old-fashioned battle with long-standing adversaries Newcastle United. On the drive up to London, we briefly chatted about the meek second-half surrender at Arsenal on Wednesday, but forward to the next run of games, and made transport plans for a few of them. There were a few moments lambasting the shocking mess of the VAR system, which stumbles from one farce to another with each game. Get rid of it now.

After having worked on eighteen of the previous twenty days, here was a much-needed day of rest, though it was my turn to drive after Glenn and PD took a turn at the wheel for the two previous games. But there were no complaints from me. Football acts as a release-valve as much today as it ever did. I ate up the miles and made good time. The weather was mainly mild but overcast.

Previous FA cup games against Newcastle United? There was an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley in 2000 of course. This was a fine game of football and should have been the final itself. Gus Poyet was the hero of the day with two headers after Rob Lee equalised for the Geordies. I remember their end resembled a huge bowl of humbugs. It was a fantastic game. By comparison, the 1-0 win over Aston Villa at old Wembley’s last-ever Cup Final was such a dull affair.

There was also a win against them at home in 2006, but that 1-0 win does not ring many bells. Once the draw was made, I immediately thought back to a game from 1996, when Newcastle United were riding high in the league – it was the season that saw them infamously over-taken by Manchester United – and when we had already beaten them 1-0 at home in a thrilling game in the December. In a third round tie at Stamford Bridge in January, we were winning 1-0 with a goal deep into injury time from Mark Hughes. Sadly, a stoppage-time equaliser from Les Ferdinand took the tie to a replay, which we famously won on penalties. We made it to the semi-final that year.

We popped into “The Goose” but I left for the ground a little earlier than the rest to take a few un-hindered photographs of the pre-match scene. Deep-down, I also wanted to feel a special FA Cup buzz around the stadium, but – apart from the nauseous presence of few more touts than usual trying to hawk tickets – there was little different to this game than others, except for maybe more than the usual amount of kids with parents and grandparents. I wondered who was more excited.

As I walked on past the old and new tube stations, the town hall and the CFCUK stall, I mused that the famous lyrics to the song by Suggs should now be updated :

“The only place to be every other Saturday lunchtime, Saturday tea-time, Sunday lunchtime Sunday tea-time, Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night and Friday night is strolling down the Fulham Road.”

I took a photograph of the fine frontage to the Oswald Stoll buildings, which have been part of the match day scene at Chelsea for decades. It houses veterans from the armed forces. I love that. It underlines the role of the army, navy and air force at Chelsea, in addition to the more famous pensioners from the Royal Hospital. During the week, I read that the foundation is thinking of building a new residence elsewhere, and there is the chance that they will offer Chelsea Football Club the chance to buy up some of the existing property adjacent to the existing West Stand. There will be no added capacity to the new Stamford Bridge, but simply more space for spectators to enter and exit the cramped footprint of the stadium. I guess the board needs to weigh up the options. Is it worth the added expense of buying up more land? Possibly. During the week, there had been a CPO meeting. Though I did not attend, I was pleased that the CPO board and the CFC board have never been closer.

For the people who constantly moan about our reduced presence as a major player in the transfer market, I’d suggest they need to re-value their thoughts. In the autumn of 2011, with the threat of us moving from Stamford Bridge to an unloved new build away from our ancestral home, we would not have worried too greatly about a few years of treading water on the pitch if our future at Stamford Bridge was secure.

I’m strongly behind the new stadium. I’ll say no more than that.

However, I do find it odd that Roman Abramovich has only been spotted at one Chelsea game this season; the win against Manchester United. I doubt if he is losing interest, but perhaps it has shifted its focus. I wondered if Roman is one of these people who obsesses about one thing at a time. A company acquisition. A football club. A football team. A new house. A yacht.  A stadium.

I had a vision of him locked away in a room in one of his properties, maybe not as obsessed as Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters” as his character builds devil’s mountain out of mashed potato and then debris, but with a 2018 mix of Hornby train sets, Meccano, and Lego bricks – and cranes, lots of cranes – working in unison to replicate the Herzog and De Meuron model.

Inside the current Stamford Bridge, the first thing that I noted was a void of a few hundred seats which were not filled in The Shed. As with Norwich City, The Geordies did not fully occupy their three-thousand seats. A 1.30pm Sunday kick-off is a test though. No surprises that it was not filled.

The manager had chosen a 3/4/3 again and re-jigged the starting personnel.

Caballero

Rudiger – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Drinkwater – Alonso

Pedro – Batshuayi – Hazard

For once, we attacked the Matthew Harding in the first-half; a Benitez ploy no doubt. The thought of a replay on Tyneside – two days off work for sure – filled me with dread. Absolute dread.

As the game began, the Geordies were making all the noise.

“New-casuhl, New-casuhl, New-casuhl.”

I’d suggest that they started the match with more pressing and more energy than us. Early on, we were concerned when Davide Zappacosta stayed down for a few minutes. Thankfully, he was able to run off his knock and was soon back to his barnstorming runs. On one occasion, he pushed the ball way past his marker and sent over a brilliant cross.

An Eden Hazard free-kick did not trouble the ‘keeper Karl Darlow.

There was a fine leap and header on by Hazard to Michy Batshuayi which took me back to the ‘eighties when the hanging-in-the-air leap of David Speedie often supplied Kerry Dixon with many a cushioned header.

There was a magnificent cross-field pass from Toni Rudiger; one of his specialities. He is surely deserving a regular run in the team. I see a fine player. At the other end, Wily Caballero managed to save from Jonjo Shelvey. Our play certainly looked a little off the pace. It felt like “advantage Toon” at the half-hour mark. We had not got into the game. The Stamford Bridge were quiet. But you knew that. Thankfully, this was to change.

A beautiful and flowing move involving a long pass from Pedro into the feet of Hazard, a touch to Marcos Alonso – a great appetite to join the attack – and the finest of passes to Batshuayi.

“Michy doesn’t miss from there” zipped through my mind. It was virtually an open goal with the ‘keeper lost.

Chelsea 1 Newcastle United 0.

GET IN.

This goal seemed to pump life into the crowd, the team and most especially Michy himself. For the rest of the half, his movement was better, and his appetite too. There was another excellent save from Wily down at The Shed, with our ‘keeper managing to fall quickly at his near post and block an effort from Gayle. A lovely shot from the left foot of Rudiger flew past the post. The game was opening up now.

Pedro and Hazard were hitting some fine form and the former found the latter with a great ball. Hazard picked out Batshuayi – “Nevin to Speedie to Dixon” – and the striker lashed the ball goal wards. There was an immediate groan as the shot was blocked by Jamaal Lascelles, but the noise quickly changed to that of hope and expectation as the ball spun high and over the ‘keeper.

“I like the look of this” I thought.

It dropped into the goal.

Chelsea 2 Newcastle United 0.

The game seemed won. Phew. No replay? I hoped not.

We had that strange experience of us attacking The Geordies and Parkyville in the second period.

The crowd were a little more involved. On two occasions especially. There was a loud and heartfelt “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” – louder than normal it seemed – and it certainly felt like a resounding show of support for him. Soon after, even louder, and with the entire ground appearing to join in there was this –

“STAND UP FOR THE CHAMPIONS.”

It was if these two chants were for the benefit of Roman and the board.

The only problem was that Roman was not present; he was up to his waist in mashed potato in the west wing.

Will manager Conte be here next season? I hope so but I doubt it. I hate modern football and I’ll say no more than that.

A shot from Pedro, and a beautiful volley from Alonso showed our intent as the second-half progressed. Newcastle fell away, but their support remained as belligerent as ever. There were two shots from distance from DD. It was all Chelsea. With twenty minutes remaining, we were given a free-kick after a foul on the useful Zappacosta, who we all agreed needs to start ahead of the ailing Victor Moses. I love his appetite.

This was in prime Marcos Alonso territory no doubt. There was a wait for a few moments. We held our breath. Three Chelsea players were in the wall, but the Spaniard struck the ball up and over. It was yet another prime free-kick from Alonso. The boy can certainly strike a ball.

Chelsea 3 Newcastle United 0.

Game most definitely over.

The rest of the game was notable for four significant substitutions.

72 minutes : Ross Barkley for Eden Hazard.

A home debut for our new midfielder. He looked strong and eager to impress. He had been the cover-star on the match programme, another retro one, this time from the ‘forties.

77 minutes : Ethan Ampadu for N’Golo Kante.

He immediately fitted in. Is he really only seventeen? Very soon, he played the ball of the game through to an onrushing Pedro. The lad looks the business, so loose and natural.

80 minutes : Callum Hudson-Odoi for Pedro.

A Chelsea debut, and his first three passes were on-the-money cross-field balls out to Zappacosta out on the right, now enjoying acres of space. All of a sudden, the future seemed brighter, rosier, more positive. Fantastic.

83 minutes : Christian Atsu for Iscaac Hayden.

It was certainly nice to see and hear some warm applause for our former player, who never made it to the first-team. I bet we never got any credit for it on the TV commentary.

The game ended with a fine and free-flowing move from our penalty box all of the way through to a shot from Michy which the ‘keeper saved. By that time the away team were chasing shadows.

But the Newcastle fans kept their support of their team until the end and hardly any left. Top marks. I remembered back to 1983/1984 when, at the end of a completely one-sided 4-0 thumping, the Geordies kept singing, and were rewarded with applause from the home support.

In 2018, the reaction to the bonny lads was not full of such bonhomie :

“You’ve had your day out. Now fuck off home.”

Modern football, eh?

On Wednesday, the month ends with a home game with Bournemouth.

See you there.