Tales From The John Charles Stand

Leeds United vs. Chelsea : 11 May 2022.

This was it, then. The long-awaited trip to Elland Road. My last visit was towards the tail end of the 2000/1 season, although the club’s last League visit was in 2003/4. I didn’t go to the League Cup game in December 2012; it came too soon after the jaunt to Japan. Of course, last season the game was behind closed doors, a phrase that I hope that we never have to hear ever again.

Was I looking forward to it?

“By heck as like” and other Yorkshire clichés.

As soon as the weekend had finished and the collapse against Wolves was behind me, I could not wait to be pounding the tarmac once more. I had booked two half days for this one. I left work at midday and deviated south to collect Parky and then PD. We set off from Frome at just before 1pm. It was a 7.30pm kick-off in West Yorkshire. Plenty of time.

It was mainly a decent enough trip north. There were rain showers to start but these cleared soon enough. The rest of the journey was spent with me gazing at a Simpsons sky and hoping that any ominous billowing and darkening clouds on the horizon would not ruin our trip. We stopped at Strensham, just south of Worcester, on the M5 at around 2.30pm and then at Woolley Edge, just north of Barnsley, at around 5pm. We then hit a fair bit of slow-moving traffic which meant that our arrival time at “The Drysalters” pub by Elland Road took place at 6pm rather than the envisaged 5.30pm. I dropped the boys off in the pub car park and soon found a cheap place to park nearby.

As I locked my car, a Leeds fan called out.

“Here we go again.”

I replied “yeah, maybe.”

“The Drysalters” pub is well known to me. I have parked in the car park on two occasions before. We soon spotted Deano, and his son-in-law Steve – a PNE fan – and also three lads from Wiltshire. The three amigos from Northampton were drinking outside in the sun too. There were Chelsea fans everywhere. This sort of scenario would not have happened in the ‘eighties or even ‘nineties when survival was the key pre-game buzzword. Next, Josh appeared with a pint of Diet Coke for me, along with his two mates from Minnesota, Chad and Danny.

A younger set of Chelsea fans were loudly singing the praises of Thomas Tuchel, Thiago Silva, Timo Werner and Edouard Mendy.

“He comes from Senegal.”

After just one drink apiece to quench our thirsts, we walked over to Elland Road.

Previous visits came to mind.

The first one came in early May 1987. One of my mates at college, Bob, was a Leeds United supporter and had visited Stamford Bridge with me to see a couple of games in 1985/86 and 1986/87. It was time for me to repay the honour. We travelled up by train from Stoke, had a couple of pints near the central station and watched Leeds beat West Brom 3-2 in their final home game of a Second Division season. The gate of 24,688 was their highest that season. What do I remember? The day began with an excellent pint of Sam Smith’s bitter in the pub beforehand. We watched with all the Leeds loons in the infamous South Stand. I remember a pitch invasion at the end and John Sheridan being carried on fans’ shoulders. And of course I remember them singing about us.

“Shoot the Chelsea scum.”

That season would end disappointingly for Leeds. They had already lost to Coventry City in an FA Cup Semi-Final at Hillsborough and they would go on to lose in the play-offs to Charlton Athletic.

My first visit with Chelsea was in September 1988 when both clubs found themselves in the Second Division again. I was working in the cold store of a local dairy and as was the case with my other long trips north by train that season – Stoke City and Manchester City too – I was coming off a night-shift. I remember struggling to stay awake on both legs of the journey to Leeds. We were yet to win a match after five games in the league and the match at Elland Road – with me watching in the South Stand, now given to away fans much to the consternation of the locals – would be a tough test. Thankfully, an early John Bumstead goal – off his ‘arris – and one from Gordon Durie gave us a surprising but deeply enjoyable win. I don’t remember any trouble at that game despite hundreds of Leeds fans milling around as we caught buses back to the station from right outside the away end.

Next up was a game in November 1995 in which I drove up from Somerset, met up with my mate Ian – Rotherham United – at Stafford and watched from the main stand using tickets that Bob, I think, had bought for us. It was a pretty decent performance and I believe I am correct in saying that it was the first time that Glenn Hoddle had switched to us playing with wing backs – Dan Petrescu and Gareth Hall – outside a back three – Erland Johnsen, David Lee and Michael Duberry – only for us to succumb to a late sucker punch from the boot of Tony Yeboah. I can’t recollect moving a muscle when Leeds scored that goal. Having a mate from South Yorkshire next to me probably disguised my allegiances.

A year later, in December 1996, a Sunday game – live on the TV – and a meek 0-2 loss to a Leeds United team that included Ian Rush. He even scored against us. We were pushed up into the quadrant of yellow seats by the South Stand for this and I can remember our away following was awful, maybe only around 1,000. It was a long old drive home that Sunday evening with work in the morning.

My final visit took place in April 2001. I had driven up with Glenn and had collected Alan at Stafford en route to save the boy some money. I often did that in those days. Leeds United were a force to be reckoned with at that time. We were back in the South Stand, played decently enough but lost 0-2 to two very late Leeds goals from Robbie Keane and Mark Viduka, with the goals coming in the final five minutes. A tidy roast at Brighouse after the game almost made up for our defeat.

With relegation threatening Leeds, I decided to make the most of my visit to Elland Road and sped off to take some shots of the stadium. If relegation follows in a few weeks, who knows when I would return. It really was hard to believe I was last outside the South Stand over twenty-one years ago.

Many home fans were wearing the iconic bar scarf from the ‘seventies. I have to say – and my pal Gary agreed with me at the game – that it still looks class. Those tri-colour bar scarves of Leeds United – white, yellow, blue – and Manchester United – red, white, black – and even us – red, green white – were fantastic. I remember the “smiley” badge too, a real ‘seventies classic. Gary and I would mention the Admiral kits. They defined the mid-‘seventies. And the numbered tie-ups on the socks. They were unique. I remembered the “Leeds United AFC” frontage to the West Stand. Bob and I were photographed outside there in 1987, me with a jade Marc O’Polo sweatshirt, one of my favourites, and of course it brought back memories of that classic scene from “Porridge” too.

I spotted a few columns of ‘seventies concrete as the South Stand disappeared around a corner. That a few pillars of brutalist architecture should please me so much is something that I don’t really want to dwell on too much, but it is a sure sign that on these away trips to altered stadia there is no doubt that I love seeing hints of a past.

“The Old Peacock” pub – as iconic a Leeds United sight if ever there was – is now temporarily renamed “The Bielsa” and I remembered walking down the hill towards it from Beeston for the 1995 game, deposited there in a taxi with Ian after a drink in the city centre. There’s a statue of Billy Bremner on the corner, with floral tributes all around. The East Stand is huge. It was built in 1993 on the site of the Lowfields Stand. For a short time, it was the largest stand in the United Kingdom, holding some 17,000, before being overtaken by Celtic and then Manchester United. I can remember the whole of Elland Road being shunted twenty yards to the north in around 1972 with the South Stand being built.

It was time to get inside.

There was a bag check outside the away turnstiles and my SLR was waved through. The old main stand, the West Stand, is now named the John Charles after the Leeds United – and Juventus, among others – centre-forward. I made my way upstairs…the steps were carpeted, as was the away bar area.

Carpets in the away end. In Yorkshire.

Whatever next?

I had a cracking seat. Parky, Gary, Alan and I were in the very front row of the upper section. Sadly, the shunting of the pitch in the early ‘seventies meant that those to my far right – geographically, not politically – were left with a shocking view of the pitch, way past the goal line. I had a great view and even I was behind it.

I spotted many familiar faces. It was lovely to see so many mates.

The sun was still out, catching the East Stand and making it come alive. I looked around. The Kop is now the Don Revie Stand. The East Stand is now the Jack Charlton Stand. The South Stand is now the Norman Hunter Stand. They still dote on that ‘seventies era. It is as if Howard Wilkinson’s League Championship in 1992 never happened. Oh wait, the away bar at Elland Road is called “Howard’s Bar” and that seems a mite disrespectful.

I would talk to Gary about that team during the game.

“Great midfield. Gary Speed, David Batty, Gary McAllister, Gordon Strachan. Had it all.”

“Fanfare For A Common Man” was played on the PA, just like at Wolves. Then came the Leeds anthem “Marching On Together.” Despite my dislike of Leeds throughout my life, my friendship with Bob and Trev – mentioned in a Brentford game this season – means that I am afraid to admit that I knew the words to a few of the songs I would hear during the evening.

The teams entered the pitch.

Leeds in all white. Chelsea in all blue.

Stay still my beating heart.

Our team?

Mendy

Christensen – Rudiger – Chalobah

James – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Pulisic – Lukaku – Mount

Pre-match, I feared the worst. I need not have worried. We began so brightly and, with memories of Johnny B’s early goal in 1988, we were soon jumping around like fools. A fine move down our right and the ball was played in sweetly by Reece James for Mason Mount, shades of Frank Lampard at his peak, arriving at just the right time to strike the ball firmly past the Leeds ‘keeper Illan Meslier, aged twelve and three-quarters. Mase raced over to wind up the Leeds fans in the far corner.

Ha.

Alan and I resurrected our “THTCAUN / COMLD” routine.

We were playing some lovely expansive stuff and were finding lots of space out wide. We were playing one-touch football where we could, and I had to ask Alan for some smelling salts. To their credit, all of the Leeds fans in The Kop, the stand opposite and the South Stand – old habits die hard – were standing throughout, and contrasted wildly to the Everton fans in the Park End a couple of weeks ago.

“Marching On Together.”

We were purring, and Lukaku was much improved. His movement, his work rate, his involvement. It was good to see.

On around twenty-five minutes, Daniel James – a scorer in that horrible 0-4 loss at Old Trafford in 2019 – scythed down Mateo Kovacic, who up until that point was arguably our best player, and I told Gary “I reckon that’s a red.”

The referee had soon made up his mind.

Red.

Kovacic, full of running, could run no more. After trying to run off his injury, he was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

“That might mean less movement, Gal.”

But again I need not have worried. A super run from the sub soon after looked so graceful and it certainly cheered us.

From the Chelsea choir :

“Leeds. Leeds are falling apart. Again.”

There was a glancer from Lukaku on thirty-three minutes that narrowly missed the far post. This was heart-warming stuff indeed. The cross had come from the trusted boot of Reece out on the right, who was finding even more space to exploit. The exact same could be said of Marcos Alonso on the left.

In our packed section, we were at our Dambustering best.

“We all fucking hate Leeds.”

Kalvin Phillips then hacked down Christian Pulisic. This game was living up to the hype, an old-fashioned affair with pulsing runs from deep, mis-timed tackles, battles in key areas.

I turned to Alan : “remember that game at Chelsea in 1997 when they had two sent-off?”

When the home team was rewarded with a rare corner in front of me, I was surprised that the home fans didn’t respond with their old “Leeds! Leeds! Leeds! Leeds!” with associated chest beating. That must have fallen from grace since my last visit.

They had, instead, turned into a crowd of scarf-twirlers.

The game was halted for a good few minutes when it became apparent that there had been a medical emergency in the lower section of the away support to my left. Sadly, the home fans sung throughout and even dirtied their name further with a couple of offensive comments about “soft southern bastards.”

On a day that marked the anniversary of the Bradford Fire, this sadly reminded me of a typically shocking moment involving Leeds supporters in the autumn of 1986. Sixteen months after the fire at Valley Parade in May 1985, and with Bradford City hosting Leeds at the Odsal Stadium, some Leeds fans set fire to a chip-van high on the terracing at one end of the stadium.

To this day, I am left shaking my head.

Just at the end of the half, Trevoh Chalobah sent in a scuffler that went wide of the Leeds goal.

It was a fine first-half performance, but was I the only one who was a little worried that we hadn’t created more chances?

The second-half began with Chelsea even more on top and full of running against a Leeds team that were looking like they had already given up on the game, on survival, on life itself. But the home fans were still singing. To be fair, we couldn’t hear the other stands, but from the evidence from The Kop – no gesticulating, no clapping in unison, nowt – it as just the rabble to our right that were making the noise.

“The Yorkshire Republican Army. We’re barmy. Wherever we go. We fear no foe.”

Two chances showed our intent. A header from Lukaku was high, a volley from Loftus-Cheek went wide.

Then, on fifty-five minutes, a beautiful move involving Jorginho and Mount set up Pulisic on the edge of the box. He took a touch…I said out loud “he can find the corners” and my pulse quickened…

The low shot was perfectly struck, down low, to the left, “corners.”

GET IN.

The scorer almost grabbed a second, curling one just wide and as I found myself looking up at the TV screen to my right, both he and myself were pulling the same pained expression.

Next up, Lukaku – full of spirit – took on his marker and rifled just wide too. His play was getting better and better. Yet only as recently as just before the Wolves game had kicked-off, Oxford Frank and I had binned him off.

There were wildly loud renditions of “Que Sera Sera” – the “Wembley” version by us and not the “Father’s Gun” version by them – and then “Carefree.”

Carl from Stoke, down below me, turned up towards us and yelled :

“ONE MAN WENT TO MOW”

And we all followed.

This was a noisy old game.

I turned to Al : “To be fair, the South Stand haven’t stopped singing all night.”

We continued.

“We all hate Leeds scum. We all hate Leeds scum. We all hate Leeds scum. We all hate Leeds scum.”

Though this was tame stuff compared to the “witty” interchange about one of Leeds’ sons, but that’s not for here.

On seventy-eight minutes, a double substitution from Thomas Tuchel, who was now flavour of the month again.

Hakim Ziyech for Pulisic. The American had certainly enjoyed a fine game.

Dave for Reece. Saving our star man for the next game no doubt.

On eighty-three minutes, Mount robbed the ball and passed to Ziyech. He then found Lukaku inside the box. What followed was doggedness personified. Surrounded by Leeds defenders, he turned and tried to create an opening for himself. He moved the ball, eventually, onto his left peg and smashed the ball in.

BOSH.

Talk about drama.

His euphoria after was matched by all of us in the John Charles Stand.

I took about twenty-five photos of the move, the goal, the celebrations. I was exhausted as he was by the end of it all.

Fackinell.

Leeds were still singing at the end, but so were we.

“You’re going down. You’re going down. You’re going down. You’re going down. You’re going down.”

I remember only one Leeds effort on our goal in the entirety of that one-sided second-half, a header that was rising high before it left the bloke’s head. It was a deeply satisfying performance. And yet a little voice in my head kept saying –

“It’s only Leeds, mate.”

For the first time that I can remember at a domestic game in decades, we were penned in after the match had ended. After twenty minutes we were let out onto the streets of Beeston. On the walk back to the car, there was time for a tasty cheese burger with onions. It rounded off a wonderful night out in West Yorkshire.

I said to PD : “Makes it all worthwhile, nights like this. We travel some miles, we don’t always get the results, or sometimes it’s all a bit flat. This was bloody superb. A great night out.”

It also meant that I had accomplished a full set of league aways for only the third time in my life.

2008/9 : 19/19.

2015/16 : 19/19.

2021/22 : 19/19.

I eventually reached my home a few minutes after three o’clock.

Next up, the FA Cup Final at Wembley on Saturday.

Leeds United can only dream of such things.

1988

2001

2022

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 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 Under A Blue And Yellow Arch

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 27 February 2022.

My alarm sounded at 5.45am on the day of the League Cup Final. With all of the recent news from Ukraine that had sadly dominated everyone’s thoughts, I think it is safe to say that I was not wholly ready for the game at Wembley against Liverpool. I wasn’t particularly focussed. Far from it. The horrific scenes from Ukraine – and the national capital of Kiev specifically, a city that I had visited only three years ago with Chelsea – had dominated my thoughts for the previous few days. Football seemed a frivolous pursuit. In fact, my thoughts about the game were quite similar to those that I had felt for the 2015 League Cup Final against Tottenham. Just three days previously, I had lost my dear mother.

On both occasions, my mind was elsewhere, way elsewhere.

On that Sunday seven years ago, we travelled up to London by train. In 2022, we travelled up by car. I collected PD at 7am and Parky not long after. It would be our third drive to London in nine days, but only the second to involve a game.

Last Tuesday, the three of us had arrived in London at our usual parking space on Normand Road at around 5.45pm for the Champions League game against Lille, but PD – who had been feeling ropey during the last thirty-minutes of his drive to London – suddenly felt very ill indeed. He felt sick, experienced hot sweats but was also shaking with the cold too. Without too much thought, I knew we had to get him home. I jumped into the driving seat of his car and drove us back west. Our stay in London had lasted five minutes. Thankfully, PD improved a little on the drive home. By the time I eventually reached my house, the game at Stamford Bridge was approaching half-time. Our eventual two-nil win was met with a little indifference from me. I was more concerned about PD.

Bizarrely, this followed on from my “ghost” trip to London for the Plymouth Argyle game in which I didn’t go in. Two trips to SW6 but no football. My next game at Chelsea is against Newcastle United in a couple of weeks. I hope I make it to my seat.

We had decided to stay over in London. The Premier Inn near Putney Bridge would be our home for the Sunday night. From 10am until about 3pm, we knocked back some ciders and lagers in three local boozers; “The Eight Bells”, “The King’s Arms” and “The Golden Lion”. In the last pub, we bumped into the former Chelsea midfielder Alan Hudson, himself a participant in a League Cup final for Chelsea against Stoke City, almost fifty years ago to the day.

We were adamant that we would arrive on time for this match at Wembley. However, the tube line between Putney Bridge and Earl’s Court wasn’t operating. Instead, we bit the bullet and cabbed it – past Stamford Bridge – to Marylebone Station. It was no surprise to see a few stragglers, a few familiar faces, outside the sports bar as we exited the taxi. We soon squeezed onto the 3.45pm train to Wembley Park. What should have been a twelve-minute journey, took nearer thirty. Our carriage was full of Chelsea, including a couple of lads from home. All eyes were on the clock. Suffice to say, we again struggled to get into Wembley on time.

The game was due to start at 4.30pm.

We made our way around to the eastern end. At least there was no queue and a minimal security check. On the way in, a Scouser in his twenties squeezed-in behind Parky as he scanned his ticket. Old habits die hard, I guess. I uttered two choice words to him as we all ascended the escalator.

Time was against me.

Race, race, race.

I managed to reach my seat while the players of both teams were taking the knee.

Despite my alarm waking me at 5.45am, I was in with just five seconds to spare.

Bloody hell.

We had heard that Romelu Lukaku wasn’t chosen in the starting eleven while we were on the train. No surprise really. It would have been my choice too.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

Alonso – Kante – Kovacic – Azpilicueta

Mount – Havertz – Pulisic

I had consistently said to Chelsea mates, old school friends, work colleagues and the like that I expected us to lose this. Although our two league meetings were even games and hotly contested, it felt like we have gone off the boil of late. In fact, in Abu Dhabi I had prioritised the FIFA World Club Cup over this one. The Chelsea fans that I shared this with agreed with me.

The match began. Chelsea attacked the Scousers who were located in our usual end, an end that tends to be a “lucky” one for us.

The game was a cracker, eh?

On so many occasions, our recent Cup Final appearances at Wembley have tended to be dull affairs. But here was a contest that was at last an open and entertaining match for one and all.

It was a wild start to the game. Christian Pulisic was fed in by Dave. His snap shot was too close to the Liverpool ‘keeper with the unpronounceable first name. The chance went begging.

Liverpool then attacked at will. On one occasion, Mo Salah was closely marked by four Chelsea defenders. All eyes were on him, but elsewhere Liverpool were a threat.

It can be a sobering experience to watch Chelsea at Wembley. At home games, I have managed to get acclimatised to periods of quiet in The Sleepy Hollow. It’s not an ideal scenario but I’m used to it by now. Not many of the fifty or so spectators who sit near me get too involved. They have their moments, but these seem more fleeting as the years go by. At away games, it’s a different story. A far more uplifting experience. There’s nothing like cheering the team on in a packed and exuberant away section. At Wembley – and this has happened on far too many occasions for my liking – I soon get exasperated by those nearby who don’t support the team. Two lads in their early thirties alongside Parky were a case in point. No singing, no encouragement, no clapping. It was the same story with a couple in front. Nothing.

I couldn’t resist a loud “song sheets are available.”

Thankfully, a good group of singers to my left restored my faith in humanity.

Down below me, Mane headed well-wide from Alexander-Arnold. It felt like Liverpool were dominating much of the first twenty minutes, thirty minutes, but we managed the occasional counter-thrust. At no stage did I feel we would buckle to their attacks.

On the half-hour, we witnessed an amazing double-save from Edouard Mendy. First, a low shot from Keita was parried by a dive, and our ‘keeper then managed to reconfigure the neutrons, protons and electrons in his body to readjust his limbs and deflect Mane’s close-range effort over the bar. There were immediate memories of Jim Montgomery in the 1973 FA Cup Final.

It was a breath-taking piece of football.

The atmosphere, despite some good quality fare being played out on the Wembley pitch, was a little underwhelming. The Liverpool anthems “You’ll never walk alone” and “The fields of Anfield Road” occasionally boomed from the western end. “Carefree” was our main reply. In the big spaces of Wembley, it’s difficult to generate anything more intricate. The Mendy song, as an example, didn’t stand a chance.

Kai Havertz played in Pulisic, but his finish was again too close to Kelleher. A rising shot from Dave didn’t threaten the Irish ‘keeper either.

Chelsea were breaking nicely, with good mobility and a sense of freedom, and Havertz played in Mount just as the first-half was closing. His prod at goal was rather poor and the ball was sent wide. From a central position near the penalty spot, he really should have done better.

No goals at the break.

“Happy with that. Playing much better than I had predicted.”

The second-half began with Chelsea playing towards us in the eastern end of Wembley. A fantastic ball from Pulisic found the equally excellent run from Mount. The whole world seemed to stop. From inside the box, one on one with the ‘keeper, Mount struck.

The ball rebounded off the near post.

Fackinell.

Dave was injured, but on came Reece James to huge applause.

Another injury occurred when Keita and Trevoh Chalobah clashed in the middle of the pitch. From my vantage point high in the top tier, I had no real view of the incident. But Chalobah stayed down the longest.

The atmosphere was better now. Our end was showing some kind of unity.

“And it’s super Chelsea.”

A terrible clearance from Mendy allowed Liverpool to break in acres of space. The ball was worked to Salah who clipped the ball past the onrushing ‘keeper, trying to atone for his mistake. Thankfully, the reassuring figure of Thiago Silva appeared and hacked the ball away.

Not long after, a quickly-taken free-kick was pumped towards the area past our far post. A Liverpool header back across goal was headed in.

Ugh.

The Liverpool end roared.

There were red flares. They had scored the all-important first goal.

Our end was silent.

But then, after what seemed like an age, we saw that VAR was being called upon.

No goal.

Why? Was the first header from an offside position? Who knows.

A double substitution on seventy-three minutes.

Timo Werner for Pulisic.

Romelu Lukaku for Mount.

At around this time, the announcer at Wembley did something that I have never witnessed at a game in the UK before; he effectively did an in-game commercial for Carabao. Well, you can imagine my reaction.

Fackinell.

A cracking save by Mendy from Diaz drew more applause from our end. This was a really open game. Kante and Kovacic covered so much ground in our midfield. Alonso was always looking to stretch Liverpool’s right flank. Our defensive three rarely looked troubled. A ball was lobbed into the inside-left channel for Werner to attack. His fine cross was headed in by Havertz but – after a nano-second – we realised that an offside flag was raised.

Another magnificent save from Mendy kept us in it; a towering leap from Van Dijk was followed by a downward header but a stretching save kept it out.

Inside my head : “Mendy man of the match so far.”

Right at the death, Alonso did so well to shake off attention and rifle in a cross towards the near post but a shake of the leg from Lukaku and a flick was parried by Kelleher.

We had been standing for an hour and three quarters. We would be standing for thirty minutes more.

Extra time.

A magnificent ball in the channel from the excellent Chalobah found Lukaku, who advanced, stopped, settled himself and tucked the ball home.

We screamed. But then, the grim realisation that a flag had been waved.

Bollocks.

For Lukaku to score right in front of the Scousers would have been utterly perfect.

The night had fallen now, and the underside of the Wembley roof was picked out in yellow and blue in a show of solidarity with the people of Ukraine. The arch was yellow and blue too.

The game entered its final fifteen minutes.

My legs were aching and my throat was parched.

“Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea.”

A precise move involving Lukaku and Alonso in a tight area on our left allowed our much-maligned Spaniard to drill a pass to Havertz. His neat finish was soon flagged for offside too.

“God. Three times.”

Late on, Kepa replaced Mendy, a repeat of Belfast in August.

The game continued to its conclusion.

0-0.

The dreaded penalties. I didn’t like it that they were to be taken at their end.

“Munich was the other end though. And Belfast.”

“I fancy our chances here, Paul.”

There then ensued the best part of fifteen minutes of more drama. Pure drama? Maybe. They were all fantastic penalties to be honest. The agony continued after no misses in ten attempts. We went to sudden death. Kick after kick.

It went to 10-10.

Time for the two ‘keepers.

Alas, it was not to be.

Kelleher : hit.

Kepa : miss.

We fell silent once again.

The arch turned red.

We returned to Marylebone, then back to Fulham. Our last four domestic Cup Finals have ended in defeat now. I can hardly believe it.

Next up, Luton away in the cup that matters. I’ll see some of you there.


Tales From The Champions Of The World

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 19 February 2022.

PD and I returned from Abu Dhabi on the Monday. I was back in work – dreading it – on the Tuesday but the week went pretty well. However, England was ravaged by Storm Eunice on Friday. It meant that our trip up to London for our game at Selhurst Park took ages; it seemed that all of the traffic that had been stalled on the Friday was now let loose. The flow was especially grim on sections of the M3 and parts of our trek across west London to south London.

I had picked PD up at 8am and it took me until 12.30pm to eventually reach a pub that was a stone’s throw from Crystal Palace’s home ground. That schlep across London took an hour. And throughout it we were on the lookout for a pub for a couple of drinks before the afternoon’s entertainment. Our route took us past Hampton to Kingston and on to New Maldon, Merton, Morden, Mitcham and eventually Norbury, home of our match-day mate Gary. Could we find a suitable pub? Not one that was open, and had suitable parking. We were about to give up when I spotted a Wetherspoon’s – never my first choice of hostelry, but needs must – and we darted inside just as the rain increased in strength. Some “Thatcher’s” for PD and Parky. Some “Pepsi Max” for me. We could relax a little. Roy – last seen in Abu Dhabi – came in and slotted in next to us.

There was, of course, plenty of chit-chat regarding our time away in the sun the previous week.

A few “Abu Dhabi add-ons” to mention.

Every Chelsea fan had behaved themselves. It’s not always the case on foreign shores. In fact, the only time that I personally saw any silliness – ironically – involved the replica-kitted “scarfers” of the Dubai Supporters Club at the end of the game. Thiago Silva had trotted over to the Chelsea corner and threw his shirt into their section. There ensued an almighty ruckus as fans fought for the royal blue jersey. I am sure I saw at least once punch being thrown.

Ah, the Chelsea corner. After the game, this was where the Chelsea players, quite rightly, celebrated with the fans. It was where 80% of the Chelsea support was positioned. But we noticed that Romelu Lukaku, scorer of two goals in Abu Dhabi remember, did not join in. Instead, he chatted quietly to members of the coaching staff a good thirty yards away. I found that odd. Really odd.

One more story and one little moment of last minute terror. Foxy, PD and I were up at 3am to catch a 4am cab over to the airport in readiness for our 7am and 7.30am flights home. At the check-in desk, the Etihad official caused PD and I a great deal of stress when he claimed that we were required to show a negative PCR test result from within forty-eight hours of the flight. Our tests had taken place on Friday morning, seventy-two hours earlier, as per Etihad’s ruling. There was now no requirement for a negative test travelling back to the UK; these regulations had changed on the Friday. You can imagine what was going through my mind. Thankfully, after he had a word with a colleague, he was able to let us on the flight. Our guess was that this was his first shift since the change in the ruling.

I smiled as he handed back our passports and gave us our boarding passes.

In my head : “you prick.”

Thankfully, the trip to Selhurst Park did not involve passport checks, PCR tests nor locator forms. After our little moment of calm in the pub, I drove the mile or so to my pre-paid parking spot outside a house on Bensham Manor Road. I had soon spotted the huge Crystal Palace TV transmitter up on the hill that overlooks the entire area and it brought back bad memories of my first-ever visit to Selhurst Park in 1989; attempting to go top of the table in late August, we were stuffed 0-3 by Charlton Athletic. During that game, from the terraced Holmesdale Road end, I kept looking up at that TV mast for some reason. It was something that I had never seen on the TV as it was on the wrong side to the camera position.

It was 2.15pm. Sadly, the rain continued on the walk to the away turnstiles. We sorted out a spare ticket for Orlin the Bulgarian in the wind and the rain. There were a few comments with a couple of lads who had been on our flights to and from Abu Dhabi.

“Bloody hell, a week ago the weather was a bit different, Chris.”

At last I was looking forward to being able to join in with the “We’ve won it all” chant, but – how typical – the Chelsea support had sprung a surprise on me. In the queue to get in, and then throughout the resulting damp afternoon, a new song dominated.

“Champions of the World, of the Word, Champions of the World.”

…to the tune of the KC and the Sunshine Band’s 1983 hit “Michael Essien.”

It took ages to get into the cramped away end. I got wetter and wetter. There was just time for a last-minute visit to the league’s worst-ever gents’ – “shallow end or deep end?” – and we found our seats in row seven with about ten minutes to go.

I had only been stood at my seat for a minute when a horrendous gust of wind blew the rain in at us and I had to turn my back to the pitch to shelter myself.

Bloody hell. From Arabian sun to London storms. Welcome home.

This was the second game of a run of five games that placed Chelsea in five different competitions. This has to be a first, right?

Palmeiras : World Club Cup

Crystal Palace : Premier League

Lille : Champions League

Liverpool : League Cup

Luton Town : FA Cup

Alongside me were Gary and Alan. Gary lives two miles to the west of Selhurst Park. Alan lives two miles to the east. This was very much their local game.

I soon spotted that the much-maligned Palace “ultras” had been re-positioned in a central area in the lower tier of the home end to my left under the banner “Holmesdale Fanatics”; their little group could be easily spotted, dressed in black. To be frank, I heard bugger all from them all game.

That ship has sailed.

“Probably back to Poland” added Gary.

Crystal Palace were in their blue and red diagonal stripes. Chelsea in yellow and black.

The team?

Mendy

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger – Sarr

Jorginho – Kante

Ziyech – Pulisic – Havertz

Lukaku

Or something like that. Being so low down, discerning formations and patterns was almost impossible. With everyone stood, the far corner of the Holmesdale Road end was completely out of sight. When the ball disappeared into that area, I just hoped that Herr Havertz was doing OK. Years ago, watching football was always like this. Some games at Old Trafford, Goodison and Tottenham only offered up around 75% of the pitch, if that.

It was a full house in South London. The game began and the home team looked the brighter with Wilfred Zaha looking lively as he attacked from the inside-left channel. A shot from Michael Olise was sent low across our goal and thankfully the ball was wide of the far post. Palace were, of course, without Conor Gallagher, and it was just as well. The lad has played so well for them this season.

I hope that we pull back Gallagher, Billy Gilmour and Armando Broja for next season. It will be like three new signings. I look forward to that day.

I was on tip-toes, my neck straining every time we attacked the home end. A shot from Christian Pulisic didn’t trouble the Palace ‘keeper Vicente Guaita. The first-half began to develop an oh-so familiar pattern; possession-based football, over-passing, setting up to go back to go forward. There was no cut and thrust. Yet as I have said so often, with space in the final third almost non-existent, stretching Palace out was always going to be tough. On more than one occasion, a lofted ball towards Lukaku in the air was meet and drink to the Palace defence. In truth, Lukaku did not get close to anything.

At a ground that is rather infamous in our past – Paul Canoville, Easter Monday 1982 – at least there were no racist comments aimed at our under-performing striker. The worst that I heard all afternoon was Lukaku being called “Sack of Spuds” by Pink Shirt Frank behind me.

To say we laboured in that first-half would be an understatement.

But the Chelsea support, with a rich variety of songs, were magnificent.

At last I sang along :

“We’ve won it all. We’ve won it all. We’ve won it all, we’ve won it all, we’ve won it all.”

Fackinell.

The highlight of the first forty-five minutes was that pile driver from – what? – thirty-five yards from Antonio Rudiger. What a strike. And what a save, too, from the Palace ‘keeper, pushing the ball out of the top left corner at the very last minute. This positive play was then matched by a lovely through-ball from Malang Sarr, surprising everyone, not least the flat-footed Palace defenders, that reached N’Golo Kante. However, his shot was too close to Guaita.

A shot from an angle from Lukaku was well-saved, but the out-of-touch Belgian was offside anyway.

And that was about it really.

Two memorable moments of play from Chelsea in forty-five minutes.

Champions of the World?

We looked like we would struggle to be the champions of Fulham at this rate.

At least with Edouard Mendy close by, we could serenade him with a song that has not been aired for a while due to his winning performance in the Africa Cup of Nations.

“Tsamina mina, eh, eh.

Edouard Edouard Mendy.

Tsamina mina zangalewa.

He comes from Senegal.”

This was followed by an “Eddie, Eddie – give us a wave” – shades of 1983/84 – and he duly reciprocated. Bless him.

Just before the break, the close-at-hand referee David Coote – sadly, he was not bald – waved away our justified claims for a foul on Pulisic. The ball broke and the home team stormed up field. Thankfully, Zaha was wasteful, drilling a low shot wide.

The linesman in front of us, who had been slow to keep up with play all through the half, was the nearest man in black and so he took the brunt of our anger.

“Linesman, you’re a James Blunt, linesman, linesman you’re a James Hunt.”

As he raced away, he waved his left hand as if to say “keep going, keep going.”

Pink Shirt Frank uttered “well, that’s us fucked in the second-half then.”

Yep. No decisions for us. Sigh.

The mood was pretty sombre at the break. Tons of possession. Not many shots that troubled anyone apart from the spectators. As per fucking normal.

A strange substitution for Palace at the break; Guaita was replaced by Jack Butland who used to be a footballer.

It was a tiresome start to the second-period and we often gave the ball away cheaply. It is worth noting that Lukaku was offering little. I spotted one moment, the ball on the half-way line maybe, Chelsea probing away, and Lukaku in among some defenders. What annoyed me that not only was he static, he was visibly resting on his standing leg, all his weight on his left foot. Surely an attacker, a central striker, needs to be on his toes at all times. If not twisting a marker out of position – clearly not Lukaku’s forte – then he should be at least ready to be alert and be “on his toes” in case, say, a deflected ball puts the ball his way. To say that Lukaku looked disinterested would be a mismanagement of the English language.

Fackinell.

Gary was more direct.

“Seen more movement in my bowels.”

The second-half rumbled on. Above, at least the rain had stopped and the sky was lighter. With fifteen minutes to go, Thomas Tuchel went for drastic change.

Marcos Alonso for Sarr.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Jorginho.

Mateo Kovacic for Kante.

Kovacic immediately set a new tempo. He launched himself at various Palace midfielders and won a few challenges. If he was wearing long sleeves, no doubt he would have rolled them up.

There was a new vibrancy, at last. A ball was played through to Lukaku, on the last man. His shot was parried by Buckland and Ziyech tapped in the rebound.

YESSSSSSSSSSSSSS!

I fell over myself, the fans around me were jostling for space as the scorer raced towards us, mayhem in the Arthur Waite. A blue flare landed at Ziyech’s feet.

GET IN.

Then. Whadya know. VAR. No goal.

The pressure continued. Havertz and a header.

The clock ticked away.

Eighty-nine minutes.

Marcos Alonso had the ball at his feet away on the far touchline, in front of the original Archibald Leitch Stand that closely resembles our old East Stand and which is featured on the front of “Hoolifan” from a few years back. He sent over a high and mighty cross and it landed past the back post. Or rather, it didn’t land at all. It met Ziyech’s left foot; as beautiful and calm a finish that anyone is likely to see. The ball was pushed through Butland’s legs and my camera told the story.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

This time, no offside, no flag from the linesman, nothing but pure celebration.

Oh football I love you.

More pandemonium in the Arthur Waite. I tried to stand on the seat in front to get some photos. I was elbowed in the face. Parky was grabbing hold of me to stop me from falling.

Roars.

Fists punching.

Chelsea going mad.

Bliss.

…”of the world, Champions of the World.”

Tales From The Chelsea Corner

Chelsea vs. Palmeiras : 12 February 2022.

Our passage into the final assured, it would be natural to think that there would be a reasonable amount of contentment in the air on the Thursday. Well, yes and no. Everyone had agreed that our performance against Al Hilal was middling at best. The way our form nosedived in that terrible second-half was concerning. We also factored in the huge amount of Palmeiras supporters who were now amassed in Abu Dhabi; not on the same scale as their Sao Paolo rivals Corinthians in 2012, but still so impressive, especially since we were in the middle of a global pandemic. We presumed that a total of around 1,500 Chelsea supporters would be over from the UK for the final. In comparison, we estimated an easy 10,000 from Brazil, most of whom had endured a seventeen-hour flight. We feared that the game at the same stadium would be akin to a home game for them. We sensed that they really would be the oft-cited “twelfth man.”

Lingering in my mind too, was the last PCR test, slated to take place at a nearby walk-in clinic on the Friday.

Inside my head : “chill mate, let Friday and Saturday take care of themselves. This is a holiday.”

There was another relaxing morning by the pool on the Thursday, but there was a special treat planned for the afternoon. JD had booked seven of us on a desert safari and so PD and I took a cab over to his hotel early on Thursday afternoon.

JD met us in reception and we relaxed for a while by the pool with Andy and Kev, and were then joined by Liz and Mark. We piled into a 4 x 4, then set off for the desert. We had a whale of a time. The drive inland to the sandy interior took about an hour. The driver parked up, deflated the tyres to gain more traction, and then gave us a twenty-minute adventure through some sand dunes. I have not laughed so much in ages.

At a stopping-off point, a few Palmeiras fans posed for a photograph with us and their flag was held up between us. We were then driven to an encampment where we had a beer or two, took a ride on some camels, were joined by around fifty other tour groups – a good three-quarters of which were Palmeiras – and were served a lovely al fresco meal before night fell and a belly dancer performed for us. Alas, a Brazilian had given her a flag too. As the end of the evening approached, the host suggested that we just did a little stargazing, but our little group bellowed out “Blue Is The Colour” to disturb the serenity. However, the two or three hundred Palmeiras fans then completely drowned us out.

Bugger.

I had to admire their passion. Having seen some Argentinian games two years ago – almost exactly – I knew only too well what football means to South America. Think the UK is a football hotbed? It is, but South America is on a different scale.

We had loved every minute of the desert adventure. And I think it tired us all out. The drive back to the city was mainly in silence, save for a few worried conversations about the final.

Friday arrived and it was another cracking day. PD and I soon sorted out a PCR test – only £12 – and we then arranged to meet up with Julie, Tim, Pete, Brian and Kev at their hotel in the afternoon. The Radisson Blu was where I had originally booked PD and myself, only for Etihad to bump our homeward flight from the Sunday to the Monday. We relaxed by the pool area which abutted the inlet of the Persian Gulf. By mid-afternoon, our Alhosn App was updated with the negative test result from the morning.

Big grins all round. We were now clear for the final on Saturday and the flight home on the Monday.

That evening we spent drinking in the hotel bar with “the Bristol lot” but also Paul and Spencer from Swindon. We had a riot.

Saturday arrived. Game day. The day of the final.

Nervous?

Yes.

This followed a similar pattern to Friday. We cabbed it over to the Radisson Blu, where our pal Foxy was staying too. There was another lazy afternoon by the pool, where we were serenaded rather loudly by some Palmeiras fans, and we then trotted back to Foxy’s room where we showered and changed into our clothes for the final. We met up with the Bristol lot – OK, South Gloucestershire, right Tim? – and enjoyed a few quiet pints during the bar’s Happy Hour. Della and Mick were nearby, both worried stiff that their Alhosin App was malfunctioning. It seemed that many people were experiencing problems with it, not least myself; somehow I was registered as Christopher David Cox.

Foxy, PD and I caught a cab to the game, though the cabbie took us initially to the city’s other football stadium where the third and fourth place play-off was due to start. Luckily, the correct stadium was only five minutes away. The crowds were far greater than on Wednesday. The three of us were allocated tickets in the lower tier of the western end of the stadium, the section used by the Al Hilal support previously. There was quite a wait to reach the security checks. Palmeiras fans again dominated; the green and white was everywhere. I noted how many of the Brazilians had adopted the local Arabic headgear, again in green and white.

“Can’t see that catching on among our lot to be honest.”

My Alhosn App had gone grey where it ought to have been green, but I was waved through.

Phew.

Then, a personal hell. A “jobsworth” told me that I had to hand in my small camera. His supervisor said the same. I kicked up a bit of a fuss and they went off to see another supervisor. Thankfully, another chap allowed me to take it in.

“Thank you my friend.”

In an exact copy of Wednesday, we were in with an hour to go.

I took my position. Seat 8. Another red seat. Oh well, it worked on Wednesday.

Inside, my first thoughts were dominated by the realisation that there was no worthwhile segregation present in the entire stadium. How easy would it have been for FIFA to have given us one stand? It annoyed me because not only were around 10,000 Palmeiras fans crammed in at the other end (although, mysteriously, with a little section of around three hundred Chelsea fans in one corner), our area was adjacent to a section with around 5,000 Palmeiras fans. I wasn’t worried about it kicking off at all – far from it – but I just wanted a solid block of Chelsea so that we could noisily get behind the team.

I spotted many people that I recognised in our section. As kick-off time approached, the ground swelled. The lower tier of the western end really was full to bursting, the central section especially. It looked like this was the home of their ultras, “La Manche Verde” – the green spot – and many seemed to be wearing special edition white shirts.

The minutes ticked by.

Throughout, the Brazilians were in fine voice. Many songs were aired.

One chant dominated :

“Pal – meeeeeeeiiiiiiiiiiiir – as.”

With the middle syllable stretched out forever.

At the back of our terrace, a large banner proclaimed “Palmeiras Dublin.”

We were pretty quiet at this stage; outnumbered and out sung.

I looked around.

Foxy was a few rows in front. Mike and Frank were down the front. Close by were the South Gloucestershire contingent, the couples Liz and Mark, Karen and Feisal. My good mate Andy from Nuneaton was there too. Welsh Kev called over for a photo. Over in the corner I spotted Big Rich who had suffered for a day or two after being given a positive test result on arrival. Thankfully he tested negative soon after and was able to attend both games. He was with a few people I recognised; Darren, Ryan, Denise, Andy, Rob. King Kenny and Rob were there. Then in the front row of the side stand, the north stand, I spotted Della and Mick, Clinton who had flown in for the final – along with Tombsie who I saw outside – and Darren and Leigh.

There were a hundred or so Chelsea fans, dressed all in blue – how quaint – from the local Dubai supporters’ group. JD had mentioned a large contingent from Kerala in India at the Al Hilal match; they were here too surely.

There was more “Chelsea – are you ready?” hoopla (no, let’s just call it “bollocks”) but at least it managed to quieten down the Brazilians.

With kick-off approaching, the stadium lights were dimmed and some fearsome fireworks exploded into the sky.

Then, the teams.

Chelsea in blue / blue / white.

Palmeiras in white / white / green.

A few years back, I worked with Bruno – from Fortaleza in the sweltering north of Brazil – who was getting some local work experience while taking a Masters’ Degree at the University of Bath. He is a Palmeiras supporter. On his last weekend in the UK, I took him to Arsenal vs. Chelsea – 2016, a Diegoal gave us the points – and leading up to this game we had been in contact again. We had wished each other well.

But now it was time for friendships to be put on hold.

This was serious stuff.

Thomas Tuchel, himself only just returned to the fold after a bout of COVID, chose these players to bring home the…er, bacon in the Abu Dhabi night.

Mendy

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

Azpilicueta – Kovacic – Kante – Hudson-Odoi

Mount – Havertz

Lukaku

“Big night for Callum.”

How many Chelsea fans were in the stadium? It was so difficult to hazard a guess. Maybe four thousand all told, including those from the UK and elsewhere. This compared to around slightly more than fifteen thousand Palmeiras. That leaves around twelve thousand neutrals, mainly locals. I spotted shirts of the other competing teams.

The game began.

From the off, it was obvious that Palmeiras were more than happy to let us have the ball. And we had it in spades. I was amazed how far Thiago Silva was allowed to carry the ball; over the half-way line and beyond. In modern parlance, this was a very low block.

Off the pitch, the Brazilian fans were on fire. Their noise dominated. Curls of white paper cascaded down from the Palmeiras fans above me in the upper tier. It felt like we were in a hornets’ nest.

Palmeiras enjoyed a couple of half-chances but Edouard Mendy was not bothered. On ten minutes, Kai Havertz to Callum Hudson-Odoi but his shot was blocked. On twenty-two minutes, Mount misjudged the pace of the ball as it dropped into the six-yard box and he let it run on. Soon after, two shots from Havertz were screwed wide.

Out of nowhere, a lightning break from Palmeiras but the aptly named Dudu slapped his shot well wide. It was, however, the half’s biggest chance. Sadly, on the thirty-minute mark, Mount was injured and was replaced by Christian Pulisic. I was honestly surprised that Ziyech was not given the nod. Every time that Silva advanced, I just wanted him to go another five or ten yards, drop his shoulder and rattle in a shot on goal. At last, a few moments before half-time, he did just that. The beautifully named Weverton leapt to force it around the post for a corner.

Half-time came with the game scoreless.

Although we were finding it hard to break down this Palmeiras side, I was relieved. I was relieved that they were clearly not as able as I had presumed them to be.

At half-time, more “bollocks” as the lights were dimmed and spectators were asked to shine their mobile torches. It brought me immense pleasure to see one corner of the stadium not joining in.

It was akin to the blackout during the Second World War, for those who enjoy such hyperbole.

The second-half began and maybe noticing that the Palmeiras fans were in a moment of quiet and rest, the Chelsea corner were roused and our loudest chant of the night cheered me.

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

Good ol’ “Amazing Grace.”

Other teams mock us when we sing that, but it’s ours and ours alone.

A Rudiger rocket was blasted at goal. We continued to dominate. The ball was played out to Hudson-Odoi on our left. He had not enjoyed a great game thus far to be honest. I bellowed at him :

“Come on Callum, dig it out.”

Well, dig it out he certainly did.

His cross was well hit, on the money, and a bullet header from Lukaku at the near post sent us all delirious.

Two games in Abu Dhabi. Two goals for Lukaku. A part of me wanted it to end there. He is not enjoying a great spell right now. I wondered if Lukaku getting both our goals might just set him off on a run of form.

Just after, a shot from Pulisic was drilled just wide.

“Ooooooooh.”

A very rare attack on our goal followed within ten minutes of our goal. The ball was lofted into the box from a throw-in and a shot was smothered by Mendy with ease. The moment passed. But then some commotion and some noise. There was a VAR review.

“Bollocks.”

The penalty was given and I had no complaints after seeing the replay; Thiago Silva’s arm was up at an angle, a definite penalty.

Raphael Veiga converted.

Game on.

We drifted a little now, our impetus broken a little. But we still carved out chances with Havertz and Pulisic going close.

Timo Werner replaced Lukaku and Saul replaced Hudson-Odoi on seventy-six minutes. To be fair, their fresh legs helped us. We turned up the heat but Palmeiras defended well.

With five minutes to go, fresh green and white vertical streamers were held aloft over the lower tier of the end opposite. I guess this was to spur their team on in the last portion of the game. I always remember that we used to sing “Chelsea” to “Amazing Grace” during most second-halves back in the ‘eighties. It was “our thing.”

The last kick of normal time saw Mateo Kovacic blast high over the bar.

We settled our nerves for an extra thirty minutes and – gasp – possible penalties. Foxy came and stood with PD and little old me.

“Hope you’re our good luck charm, mate.”

Into extra-time we went.

Malang Sarr for Christensen.

Hakim Ziyech for Kovacic.

I had been standing for hours. My “lucky” yellow Adidas trainers – Porto – were starting to pinch. I was tired and weary.

“Come on Chels.”

More Chelsea domination, more Palmeiras resistance. A rare Palmeiras break, but Rudiger held firm with a sensational shoulder charge. He had been exceptional all game. I spotted rows of Palmeiras fans in the opposite end gently swaying from side to side. Another sight that you don’t see back home.

Into the second period of extra time we went. The night was drawing on. And to think that one of my initial travel options had been to catch a 2.55am flight home on Sunday morning.

We found new life again. Werner wriggled and went close. The game became tense. I willed us on.

“Come on you blue boys.”

With only four minutes remaining, a Ziyech corner was swung into the box. It was knocked down and Dave swung at it. There was a block from a defender and the three or four nearest Chelsea defenders instantly appealed for a handball. Play continued but when the ball went out of play, the referee signalled for another VAR review. PD and Foxy was adamant that we’d get the decision. The Australian referee again trotted off to look at the pitch side screen.

Penalty.

I loathe VAR but I could not resist a yelp of joy.

Then ensued pure drama. Dave, the one who had won the penalty, the captain, claimed the ball. My immediate thoughts?

“Dave? Shades of JT in Moscow. Oh bloody hell. Brave man.”

The Palmeiras players were in Dave’s face for ages. Or what seemed like it. Then, a dialogue with Timo. Give it to him? Not my choice. Then, the last twist; Dave calmly handed the ball to Kai Havertz, the hero in Porto.

A moment of stillness.

A moment of drama.

I held my camera ready.

The run up.

Click.

He sent the ‘keeper the wrong way, shades of Didier in Munich, the ball flew in.

YES!

I yelled with joy and looked to the sky. But I then became light-headed. By the time I had steadied myself, Havertz had run to the Chelsea corner and was being mobbed by everyone.

Click, click, click.

Joy.

Joy.

Joy.

The Palmeiras fans were quiet now. The Chelsea section was buzzing.

One last twist; the Palmeiras player Luan, after another delay, was sent off for wiping out Havertz the scorer. Just after the resulting free-kick was taken, the referee blew.

At around 11pm on a balmy night in Abu Dhabi, Chelsea Football Club became World Champions.

Fackinell.

Postcards From Abu Dhabi.

Tales From The Arabian Peninsula

Chelsea vs. Al Hilal : 9 February 2022

Of the many irritants involved with my recent footballing past, nothing continually manages to annoy me more than the Chelsea chant “We’ve won it all” which is sung with gusto by thousands, some of whom should definitely know better. I roll my eyes every time I hear it. I am pretty sure I have never sung it. The fact of the matter is that due to our meek 0-1 loss to Corinthians in Yokohama in 2012, there was still one prize remaining for us to claim. In those days it was known as the World Club Championships. Earlier, when it was a one-game final between the South American and European Champions, it was known as the Inter-Continental Cup. Now, rebranded again, it is known as the FIFA World Club Cup.

After our win in Porto last May, we were presented with the chance to have another stab at it. I openly hoped for a return visit to Japan; I loved my time there in 2012, an almost perfect trip. We waited and waited. There were rumours of the United Arab Emirates, there were rumours of Las Vegas. Talk about one extreme to the another, eh? In December, it was decided that the delayed 2021 World Club Cup would take place in Abu Dhabi in February 2022.

My immediate response was this.

“I’m going.”

But then I became slightly side-tracked with my boycotting of the Qatar World Cup of 2022, and pondered whether it would be hypocritical for me to go to Abu Dhabi. All things considered, I decided that Abu Dhabi was “on.” Initially, a few friends seemed interested too. In the end it boiled down to PD and myself. On the face of it we are an unlikely pairing, as different as chalk and cheese – with me a very soft brie – but we are good friends and I began preparing a list of things that we needed to sort out.

But.

The worry of COVID19 tests, registration procedures, and the possibility of the pandemic flaring up again, and the risk of getting caught in Abu Dhabi, COVID-positive and thus forced to miss even more time off work ate away at me.

Heading into the last few days of 2021, I was still 50/50 about the whole damn thing.

Then the game dates were announced. Others began booking. I re-examined all the clutter that would get in the way of a trip to the Arabian Peninsula. The tests, the forms, the costs, the risks.

And then I did it. I booked our flights. We were on our way.

But did the stress, anxiety and worry disappear? No. Did they fuck.

However, with each passing week, things began to drop into place. I sought advice from a few good friends. Other friends sought advice from me, the fools.

The Alhosn App would haunt me for weeks.

Then at the Brighton game, I was aware that I was coming down with something unpleasant. It knocked me for six to be honest. I was off work for the best part of a week and I even missed the Tottenham league game, damn it. After the tests, it was found that I had been hit with a campylobacter infection. This, I have to admit, just got in the way of the last few things that I needed to do before the trip. These were a few dark days. It absolutely clouded my thinking and hindered my planning.

There was one last remaining worry too. We were off to Abu Dhabi on the first Monday in February. On the Saturday, we were set to play Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup. Like a few people I know, I didn’t attend the game. I just couldn’t risk catching COVID again at Stamford Bridge. But I still spent the day in SW6.

It was one of the oddest days. Because Parky and PD still wanted to attend, I drove them up but then occupied myself for a few hours. I fancied a walk, rather than sitting in my car for three or four hours, and so I meandered down through the deserted streets of Fulham to Craven Cottage. I arrived at the Johnny Haynes statue bang on 12.30pm, just as the game was kicking-off at Stamford Bridge.

How odd did that feel? Oh, very odd.

There were a few bouquets, wreaths and cards on the gate in front of the cottage in memory of the Fulham fan who had recently died at a game there. One card was from a close relative. It brought a tear to my eye.

With the score at 1-1 on ninety minutes, the game at Stamford Bridge went to extra-time.

But we had other plans. In order to meet pre-flight requirements, I had arranged for PD and I to have PCR tests at Heathrow at 5pm. With that in mind, the lads had arranged to leave on ninety minutes even if extra-time was required. Bless them. Just before 3pm, they joined me in my car. Despite a little problem tracing PD’s registration for the test, both PCR tests were taken and the three of us returned home.

It was indeed, one of the oddest days. Good job we eventually won.

Driving home, I was heard to mutter “would love Luton away, before they move to their new stadium, never been to Kenilworth Road.”

On the Sunday morning, texts came through to both of us. We were both negative.

Get in.

I finished packing early on Monday morning and called for PD in Frome at 5am.

Rather than a flight from London, I had managed to save some money and fly from Manchester. The drive up went perfectly. I had parking booked from 9am. We arrived at 9.05am. There was a long wait to check in…always a nervous time, even in normal times, but our PCR tests were quickly glanced, our bookings reconfirmed, we were on our way. I spotted a few Chelsea fans that I knew in the line too. And, ominously, one Palmeiras fan.

I remembered the 25,000 Corinthians fans in Japan.

It was a lovely irony that we were setting off from City’s airport using their airline. It was even more delicious that other friends were setting off in a “Manchester City” liveried plane at Heathrow.

“Here’s what you could have won.”

The 12.35pm flight was delayed an hour. With the inherent four-hour time difference, we touched down at Abu Dhabi airport at around 12.30am in the small hours of Tuesday.

Glenn and I had spent a few hours in the same terminal building en route to watch Chelsea play in Australia in 2018. Who could have thought that I’d be returning to see us play in the desert in 2022? This almost mirrored my movements in 2012 and 2017. In 2012, I transited in Beijing en route to the 2012 games in Japan. Yet in 2017, I exited the Beijing airport to see us play Arsenal at the Bird’s Nest Stadium in 2017.

Funny game, football.

On arrival at the airport, we were ushered into a PCR testing area. It was all very simple and straight forward. I was impressed. We then caught a £20 cab over to our hotel, a journey that took half-an-hour. The impressive Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was floodlit as we drove past, certainly an impressive sight.

The “day one” story did not come to a clean and simple ending unfortunately. We arrived at our hotel a few blocks from Abu Dhabi’s beach at around 2am. The hotel had not noted my late arrival – although I had an email to say they had – and so only had us staying for five and not six nights. After six or seven calls to other hotels, the concierge managed to get us in for one night at a lovely five-star hotel.

Phew.

At 3am, we fell asleep.

We woke to see that the infamous Alhosn App had been updated with our two negative test results.

Such relief.

This now cleared us for the game on Wednesday.

The Tuesday was spent relaxing at our original hotel. The management had upgraded us to a lovely suite on the fifteenth floor with a room each. Our rooftop pool was perfect and Paul wasted no time in soaking up some rays.

The view from the terrace summed up Abu Dhabi; white bricked houses and homes, mosques and minarets, high-rise apartments, sky scrapers in a business district on the horizon, the gulf and some man made islands too. We had a brief excursion to see the local beach. Our route took us past three or four expensive car dealerships; Bentley, Lotus and the like. But, like China, there were no advertisement hoardings anywhere. Acres of steel and glass, a modern city, but one that need seem so alien to me. I’d need a month to work it out.

There was a “Fado” Irish pub in our hotel and on the Tuesday night we met up with Della and Mick from Kent before Mike and Frank, veterans from Japan in 2012, strolled in at about 10pm. There were a group of around eight Chelsea fans I semi-recognised at another table. The two ladies of the night soon disappeared due to the lack of interest being directed at them. Pints of Peroni were at the £9 mark. Ouch.

“Another Peroni please.”

Tons of Chelsea stories, tons of Chelsea laughs. It was a great night.

Not so far away, Palmeiras had beaten the Egyptians 2-0. They were waiting for us in the final.

Wednesday was game day. After a late start – due to us both being sleep deficient and the alcoholic intake of the previous night – we welcomed Foxy down to our hotel. He, again, was a veteran of Japan 2012, and due to his life on the ocean waves was well versed to the ways of the UAE having spent many times in Dubai, though only a limited amount of access to Abu Dhabi. We loitered around the pool area and then zipped inside the adjacent restaurant where I had a very healthy pre-match meal of grilled chicken with a pear and blue cheese salad. It certainly differs from a Sunday roast at the Eight Bells or a Greggsfast on the A303.

The game was to begin at 8.30pm, and we wanted to ease into it. We caught a cab from our hotel at 5pm. By 5.30pm, we had gained entrance to the super sleek Dusit Thani hotel opposite the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium. The local Al Jazira football team plays at this stadium, but they had lost to our opponents Al Hilal from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia by the score of 6-1 on the Sunday. In the other second round game, Al Ahly from Egypt had beaten Monterrey of Mexico 1-0. By an odd twist, we had beaten Monterrey in our semi-final in 2012.

Al Jazira, Al Hilal, Al Ahly, Alhosin. We just needed Al Yankovic, Al Molinaro, Al Jarreau and Al Davidson to show up and we would be totally flummoxed.

We settled in at a quiet bar in the hotel. I met up with Robert, a Yorkshireman who once lived in Houston, but has flitted between Dubai and Baku in recent years – he is employed within the oil industry – and I last saw him out in Baku. I leisurely enjoyed two pints of Peroni although the prices were a little more expensive than at our hotel; up to £13 here.

Foxy spotted three lads sat at the bar opposite; their shirts were Celtic, Leeds United and Ajax. A lad with a Barcelona shirt was stood behind them.

“Brave or stupid.”

On the next table were two Saudi lads, timidly sipping two small glasses of lager.

“Cheers lads.”

They smiled.

“Bet this is like a trip to Benidorm for them.”

Now the moment of truth. At 7pm, we left the bar and walked over a pedestrian bridge, which went up and over a busy road, to get to the stadium. At the entrance gate, a check of the ticket, a check of my Alhosin App, and we were in. My small pocket camera was waved through too.

After all the worry and stress…my smiles were absolutely authentic.

I was happy. I mean, really happy.

It was 7.30pm. An hour to kick-off. My immediate goal was to try to find the stadium’s wifi password, but this was an impossible task. My data had run out and so I would be jettisoned from the outside world until I could hook back up with a hotel wifi. But not to worry. Life goes on, eh? In the concourse, there was a group of around twenty Muslims, including a few Chelsea supporters, kneeling on mats and praying to the west.

I got mine out and prayed for myself.

Our tickets placed us midway into a half in the lower tier of the northern side stand. The view was decent. Over the course of the hour, we spotted a few familiar faces; Scott, Roy and Margaret, Leigh and Darren. Later, I would spot the increasingly familiar face of Astrijd vlogging away a few seats to my right. Robert from Baku was close by. Dave Johnstone was spotted. Elsewhere in our section, there was a tremendous mix of people. Local Chelsea fans, Chelsea fans from further afield, Al Hilal fans – dressed in blue – and even fans of other competing teams. I won’t lie, it felt odd to be in and among the opposition. I tried to spot Chelsea fans that I knew from home in the lower tier behind the goal. No luck. Lots and lots of Chelsea flags though. Good work!

The consensus was maybe one thousand Chelsea from the UK. Maybe a few more.

At various moments we were treated to the stadium lights being dimmed and then spotlights flying around, but then a couple of morons asking us all to “make some noise.”

The British contingent stood with our hands in our pockets and muttered obscenities beneath our breath.

Using a few screeches from AC/DC as a scene setter seemed a very odd choice I have to say.

Soon, the kick-off was upon us.

Chelsea in all yellow. I loved that. Bollocks to Borrusia Dortmund. Al Hilal in all blue. The teams lined up. The end to my right housed the Saudi militants – perish that thought – and they put on a fine show with steamers and banners.

Chelsea :

Kepa

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Havertz – Ziyech

Lukaku

Facemasks were worn by many. Mine was on and off every ten minutes.

The game began and Al Hilal soon pounced on an early mistake but a weak shot caused Kepa no concerns.

Soon into the game Al Ultra turned on his loud speaker and tried to stimulate the Al Hilal supporters around him to cheer the team on. It sounded so much like an imam and a call to prayer. It was such a surreal sound.

We grew into the game. It wasn’t a particularly hot evening. I was wearing jeans as were many others. Hakim Ziyech immediately caught my eye and looked to be keen and interested to set up chances for himself and others. Thiago Silva looked his usual composed self. Dave was often wide right, unmarked, but we often chose to ignore him. The chances began to stack up with Lukaku just missing out on passes and crosses. One strong run from him on twenty-five minutes impressed me. If only he could show such willingness to create opportunities for himself more often. Kovacic was running the midfield. We were well on top.

Our support was trying its best but we were easily out sung by the opposition.

Once or twice, Ziyech danced and weaved into the box from the right and attempted that “far post” bender” that he loves. Other shots were blocked. Our dominance continued. Al Hilal were not in it. They hardly escaped their half.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

On the half-hour, Kovacic raced up field and released Havertz on the left. His first cross was blocked but on the rebound, he pushed the ball inside again. The cross hit an Al Hilal defender and the ball fell into the path of Lukaku who smashed it home from close range.

The goal was met by a guttural roar, from me especially.

I punched the air, then caught a few celebratory snaps.

Phew.

I just couldn’t face questions at work the next week : “How did that third and fourth place play-off go, Chris?”

We looked more confident after that goal. It must have calmed us; players and fans alike. We needed another, but Al Hilal now threatened a little. Thankfully, we looked solid and their attacks misfired.

We had dominated possession; 62% Chelsea in the first-half.

At the break, N’Golo Kante replaced Jorginho.

Soon into the second period, Kai Havertz broke away down in front of us and kept running. He drew the ‘keeper and chipped the ball over him from inside the six-yard box. It clipped the post.

Bollocks.

Another goal then would have steadied the ship. Sadly, the second-half was a mightily poor affair indeed. Al Hilal warmed to the challenge and threatened us on too many occasions for my liking. Our singing completely faded in the second-half. Their number seventeen Moussa Marega looked half-decent – a more mobile version of Lukaku – and he was aided in attack by Odion Ighalo, who used to play for Watford.

The move of the game brought me lots of pleasure though. A cross from Kante, after he ridiculously knocked the ball over the head of his marker, was headed back by Lukaku and Ziyech “faded” his shot to keep it down. The Al Hilal ‘keeper pulled off a fine save.

There was a magnificent block from Kepa on the hour mark; that man Marega’s shot was adeptly stopped by our young ‘keeper. Mohammed Kanno’s firm drive was then saved at full stretch by Kepa. The boy was keeping us in it.

There was worry and concern among all the Chelsea supporters now.

When Mason Mount replaced Ziyech with twenty minutes to go, there were boos around the stadium; although from The Netherlands and now playing for Morocco, he was obviously a local favourite.

A shot from the impressive Pereira went close.

“Come on Chelsea.”

Malang Sarr replaced Alonso, who had been his usual mixture of raiding wing play but defensive slips. Mount went close at the death, but that elusive second goal never came.

Thankfully, we held on.

Our possession had steadied out to 55% at the end.

It was a rotten second-half, but we had reached the FIFA World Club Cup Final. The gate was given as 19,751. I had said to PD that it seemed about half-full. The Al Hilal fans looked genuinely crestfallen. We just looked relieved.

PD and I slowly returned to the same bar as pre-match. We soon met up with Frank and Mike from New York. I met Dutch Mick too – also there in 2012 – and there was time for one last “Peroni” before PD and I caught a cab back to our digs.

We knew of several Chelsea fans who were flying over especially for the final; I was so pleased for them.

Now it was time to relax. And for a date with some camels.

Tales From An Unclear Night

Brighton And Hove Albion vs. Chelsea : 18 January 2022.

Virtually at the end of the uploading process for the Manchester City blog, I reached an impasse. I had, all of a sudden, and with no hint nor warning, simply run out of storage space. Well, this was no bloody good. This was no bloody good at all. Was that it then? A run of over six-hundred and forty match reports to come to an abrupt end? No, not a chance of it. I quickly stumped up for the next bundle of space available, uploaded the last six photographs and kept on blogging.

This new plan will cost me £15 per month, plus there is an annual registration cost too. But it keeps me occupied, it keeps me focussed. I clearly get a deal of pleasure out of it all. With more photographs being published these days, the number of views has increased exponentially. Yet the number of visitors per year has stayed remarkably similar; at around the 11,000 mark, all of the way through from 2014 to the 2021 apart from the natural dip in numbers in 2020. I like it that even during the long fallow days of summer, there has always been at least one visit per day.

Bugger it, that has tempted fate, eh?

Manchester City on the Saturday was followed by Brighton on the Tuesday evening; another away game, another game to test our players’ resolve and us fans’ sanity.

This was going to be yet another long, long day. I was up at 4.45am in order to work an early 6am to 2pm shift. I drove back to Frome for just after 2.30pm where PD was waiting with Parky and Si for lift-off. It was already a bitterly cold day and I expected the temperature to drop further. For once, I had brought along a bobble hat and gloves. I usually avoid both, even on the coldest of days.

Gloves make the operating of my camera a ridiculous task.

And a bobble hat makes me look like a twat.

I posted on Facebook :

“Brr-brr-brr-Brighton, here we come.”

PD set off and the predicted travel time was around three hours to the little town of Lewes where we would then catch a train to Falmer. As we drove east in our little bubble of warmth, there was chat from Simon about Abu Dhabi. Simon has visited there a few times. He likes it. Both PD and I were to hear that maybe not all of our preconceptions of a frugal way of life on our visit might be correct. Some notions were to be in for a few re-evaluations. This was undoubtedly very reassuring to hear.

PD made as good a time as possible but there was the inevitable traffic as we hit a few blackspots. On the last few miles, a full moon appeared on the horizon, as if rolling along the ridge of the downs to the north of Brighton. At just past 5.30pm, we drove past the stadium. We were parked up at Lewes at around 5.45pm. Outside, the temperature had dropped several degrees. The Lansdowne Arms on the corner appeared to be overflowing with clientele, so we headed back to a boozer – “Fuego Bar” – that we had seen on the slow drive through the town’s narrow streets.

This was a rare treat for me, an away drink. I ordered pints of “Estrella” and we relaxed for an hour.

I soon made my mind up on the walk back to the car to don extra garments; twat or not, I needed that Boca Juniors bobble-cap. The gloves could wait. Just as we entered the train station, Clive – “Sleepy Hollow” – arrived just behind us.

Despite the first train not stopping due to having reached capacity, we dutifully waited an extra ten minutes or so for the next one. We pulled in to Falmer at around 7.30pm. There was an almighty scramble at the away gate and there was no time for stewards to bother with anything as frivolous as proof of COVID19 vaccination.

As with the last visit, on New Year’s Day 2020, I was tucked into one of the front rows behind the goal. In that game, our early goal was undone by an outrageous overhead kick which came from a late corner. For all of their nibbles against us, we are yet to lose to Brighton & Hove Albion in the league.

Before I knew it, the teams appeared to our left. Chelsea in yellow / black / yellow once again.

Our team, as follows :

Kepa

Dave – Thiago – Rudi – Marcos

Mase – Jorgi – Kova – Hakim

Romelu – Callum

I was to later learn that this was a 4-2-2-2 but I was oblivious at the time.

As is always the case, we attacked the other end in the first-half.

There was a rather slow start to the game, with only their diminutive winger Tariq Lamptey really catching the eye. On several occasions, he danced away from his marker and I wondered how we could cope with his pace. Brighton would not let us settle. Out players, seemingly still suffering from the City game, and the build-up of other games too, appeared lethargic, and altogether unable to free themselves of the home team’s attentions.

A delicate touch from Danny Welbeck set up Jakub Moder and I thought “goal” but the Polish player screwed it wide.

Phew.

At last there was the hint of richer pastures when Lukaku set up a shot for Azpilicueta that Sanchez was able to save.

Brighton’s front three just seemed a lot more agile and energised than our counterparts.

The Chelsea crowd were relatively subdued after the opening salvos were fired.

“You can stuff your fuckin’ seagulls up yer arse.”

I spotted one little passage of play that got me purring in remembrance of another coastal city whose home team play in blue and white stripes. The ball was in our half, ten yards inside the touchline with space suddenly opening up ahead. Yet unlike in Porto in May, there was no Mason Mount to spot the run of Timo Werner, and of course there was no Timo Werner. In fact there was nobody at all. And there was simply nobody ready to exploit all of that lovely space.

I muttered an oath to myself.

The home terraces bellowed :

“Champions of Europe. You’re ‘avin a laugh.”

Just before the half-hour mark, in the far corner, Kante set up Ziyech.

I yelled out :

“Hit the fucking thing.”

With hardly any backswing, he let fly and the ball, to all of our surprise, flew into the goal at the near post.

Fackinell.

Watching through the netting of the near goal, the celebrations certainly looked rather muted.

“What’s up hon?”

Anyway, bollocks to that, we were celebrating wildly.

GET IN.

Another assist for me.

This goal didn’t fool anyone though. This had been rather poor fare. The one exception, as always, was the indomitable Kante. However, after being left stranded on the ball on more than one occasion, with no players showing, Alan was moved to comment “Robinson Crusoe’s got more mates.”

At the break, time for a little wander and some photos. Nice to see Andy, a Chelsea fan from Brighton, who I used to hang around with in The Black Bull in 1988/89. I think the last time I saw him was the Villa Park semi-final in 1996.

Soon, very soon, into the second-half Welbeck really should have done a lot better after being slotted in at an angle, but his shot was forever sliced wide. Towards the hour, we were playing some soporific stuff and the home team grew stronger still. A flowing move down their left then set up Mac Allister but his shot was deflected. However, Kepa readjusted ever so well to parry past the post.

“Albion, Albion.”

From the corner, Mac Allister struck a firm cross in and Adam Webster – “after you Claude” – headed the ball powerfully past what seemed like the entire Chelsea defence.”

Fackinell.

Dear reader, I will be honest. My feet were freezing. My face was freezing. I knew that I was in for a long wait to get back onto a train, any train, for Lewes, and I knew that I would not be home until late, very late. I was so disenchanted with our lacklustre performance that even after realising that only sixty-five minutes had elapsed, I just wanted the game to end. And I can honestly say that I have never ever felt that at a game, with such a long time still to go, ever before. I am not proud to admit that. Of course I am not.

The night grew colder.

“Ice cold in Amex.”

I just wanted to go home.

The sky was clear but this was a very unclear night in West Sussex. Nothing really made sense. Most of our players had been woeful; maybe apart for King Kante, Kepa the ‘keeper and the high-spirited Dave, who at least looked like he cared.

Why were the three substitutions so late? Not a clue.

Havertz for Lukaku.

Kovacic for Jorginho.

Werner for Hudson-Odoi.

There were boos as Lukaku was replaced. He had done nothing, his body language poor, but his service had been worse.

We did have a little sting in our tail with Werner looking half-decent, but by then I just wanted out. A horrific finish by Kovacoc, blazed way over, summed it all up.

Not good enough, Chelsea.

We hung around a little in the concourse to let the crowds subside a little. In the toilets, Chelsea were mouthing off at Chelsea. It was all rather churlish and childish.

“It’s the tactics” grunted one chap.

“I like the green ones” replied Parky and a tense moment was rendered obsolete as folk laughed.

We waited. One last drink for a few. At Falmer station, thankfully some stewards quickly spotted Parky’s stick and PD’s limp; we were escorted quickly to the platform ahead of the others, thus probably saving us an extra forty-five-minute wait.

We returned to Lewes at 10.45pm, but were then soon hit with extra delays on the A27. We were forced back north through rural West Sussex and as I tried to sleep with my head against the car window, PD eventually drove home via the M23, the M25, the M3 and the A303. I eventually got to sleep on my sofa at 2.45am; I couldn’t even be arsed to go upstairs.

04.45am to 02.45am.

I had had my fill.

Sadly, I must have picked up a bug somewhere on that night out in Brighton. For a few days, I was unable to do anything much. And It meant that I was just unable to attend the Tottenham home game.

The Game.

Pete, Alan, PD, Andy, Chris, Parky, Walnuts & Andy.