Tales From L4

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 14 April 2019.

We were now in what some call the Business End of the season. The remaining games would quickly sort us out. Could we cling on to a top four position in the league? Could we reach yet another semi-final and another final? Would we, via either route, play Champions League football in 2019/2020? Or would we slump to a meek finish and “only” qualify for another Europa League campaign?

We would soon find out.

I suspect that I am not the only one who was dreading the trip to Anfield, for more than one reason. Liverpool had only lost once in the league all season and were vying for top spot with Manchester City. After the game in 2014 – how can it be almost five years ago? – they were after revenge. All week I kept saying to myself “I’d take a 0-0” draw. A goal-less draw? Too right. One more point for us, and two dropped points for them. And advantage City in the race for the title.

In the build-up to the weekend, a few things really focussed my mind on the game on Merseyside. On Thursday, I spotted that there was going to be a charity match in Dublin the following evening in order to raise funds for Sean Cox, the Liverpool supporter who was so badly injured by some Roma ultras outside Anfield last season. As I mentioned at the time, this awful incident hit home because Sean is the brother-in-law of a friend through work who I have known for sixteen years. My friend’s husband Marty was with Sean on that fateful evening in April of last season, and my friend – a client of ours –  has been giving me updates over the past twelve months of Sean’s – very slow – progress. It was a devastating incident for the whole family. But I have been pleased to hear of steady improvements in recent months. A game involving Liverpool legends and an Irish legends team at the Aviva Stadium was planned. I soon realised why my friend had an “out of office” on her email on Friday. In the evening, I sent her a little text to say that I hope that Sean enjoyed the upcoming game.

By that stage, on the Friday evening, work was behind me for the week and I was on my way to Basingstoke to see China Crisis, sons of Liverpool, once again. But football was still tugging away at my coat tails. As I stopped mid-route for a bite to eat, I checked my phone and saw that Tommy Smith, the former Liverpool captain, had passed away.

Liverpool was certainly starting to dominate the weekend.

After the China Crisis concert, I had a quick chat with Eddie Lundon, one of the band’s original two members, who I have got to know over the past few years through a mutual friend. Ed is a Liverpool season ticket holder and I wondered if he had heard about Tommy Smith. I felt awkward asking about him, in case he had not heard the news. But sad news travels fast and he had indeed heard about Tommy Smith. We chatted briefly and quickly about the Liverpool vs. Chelsea game. On the Sunday, he would be driving back from a gig on the Isle of Wight, thus missing the match. I could tell that he was displeased. He even mentioned it during the gig.

If I had more time after the concert, I would have liked to have shared a story about Tommy Smith with Ed.

A few years ago, Parky and I visited a few local pubs where Ron Harris was guest of honour, on two occasions alongside Peter Bonetti, Bobby Tambling and Charlie Cooke. They were superb evenings. A favourite yarn, told slowly and purposefully by Chopper, involved Tommy Smith. Ever since Emlyn Hughes broke Peter Osgood’s leg in 1966 in a game against Blackpool, the soon-to-be Liverpool defender was never flavour of the month at Chelsea. Apparently, Tommy Smith and Emlyn Hughes never saw eye-to-eye either, even when they were playing alongside each other in the Liverpool team of Bill Shankly in the early ‘seventies. A few years later in a game at Anfield involving Liverpool and Chelsea, Ron Harris “arrived late” as he crunched into Emlyn Hughes and wiped him out completely. While Hughes was writhing around on the floor in agony, and as his Liverpool team mates gathered around offering words of support, Tommy Smith sidled over to our Chopper and whispered these words:

“I’m beginning to like you, Mister Harris.”

He was a hard man, Tommy Smith, and this was praise indeed for our own enforcer.

RIP.

On the Saturday, I had a choice to make. My local team, Frome Town, on a run of three straight defeats, were at home to Hartley Wintney but I simply could not be arsed. I just could not stomach yet another insipid performance, yet another defeat and the inevitable relegation from the division. Even though the game was only four miles away, I stayed at home and cracked on with a few jobs. I have probably watched Frome more this season than any other year, but enough was enough.

Frome lost 1-0.

After eight successive seasons at “Level Seven” in the English football pyramid, relegation was a certainty. I was momentarily sad, but the comparison with Frome and Chelsea was brought into sharp focus. On the following day, I’d be travelling up to Liverpool, a good five-hour trip, and cheering on the boys. There was no way that I would not attend.

I had to be there.

By 9am on Sunday, the Chelsea 3 were on our way to Liverpool 4.

There was a lot of chit-chat between PD, Parky and little old me as I drove up past Bath and onto the M4 and then the M5. The potential trips to Lisbon, Frankfurt and Baku dominated everything. After a while, the jibber-jabber died down a little and I concentrated on getting us safely up to Liverpool. The weather outside was cold, the skies grey. We stopped at Strensham and also Sandbach. There were Liverpool replica kits everywhere. By about 1.30pm, I had reached a car-park right outside Goodison Park at the northern end of Stanley Park. We paid £15 and we were safe. The attendant positioned us right near the gates for a quick getaway.

“Are youse gonna be leaving right on the whistle?”

“Depends if we’re getting thumped.”

“Might be at half-time.”

Gallows humour.

It was odd being so close to Goodison Park on a non-match day. Just like Liverpool Football Club on the main approach to Anfield, up the long steady hill of Utting Avenue, Everton Football Club have decorated every available lamp post with a pennant. Without the need to rush, I had time to notice that there are Archibald Leitch motifs on the royal blue Everton ones and I approved. We had decided to drink at the Thomas Frost pub on Walton Road, a large and charmless Wetherspoons. It was a relatively safe haven, though. We quickly spotted a table of Chelsea fans – no colours, familiar faces, usual suspects – and we joined them. We were joined by a few other Chelsea supporters. Very soon the pub was packed.

90% Liverpool.

10% Chelsea.

But it was fine. There were random outbreaks of Chelsea sings, but none of the home fans were overly intimidating. They had other things on their minds. The Manchester City game was on the TV, and most of the Scousers were subdued. I bumped into Steve, who runs the Connecticut Blues in the US, and it was the first time that I have seen him for quite a few years. He had won a trip over to England – flying into Manchester, two nights in Liverpool, match tickets – along with four others. It was good to see him again.

Welsh Kev arrived on the scene, like me a dedicated driver for the day. While I was existing on “Cokes”, Kev was making use of free coffee-refills. His route up to Liverpool had mirrored ours.

“Loads of Liverpool replica shirts at the services.”

“Tell me about it” I replied.

They love a replica shirt, the Micky Mousers.

At about 3.30pm, we decided to catch a cab from outside the pub up to Anfield, thus saving valuable time. Both Everton’s and Liverpool’s two grounds are covered by the L4 postcode.

L4 Blue to L4 Red.

It sounded like a chess move. And it was all over in a few minutes. The cabbie – another “red” after the two “reds” we used on the day of the Everton match a month earlier – dropped us off on Walton Breck Road. We were now right in the very heart of all things red. I took a photograph of PD and Parky with the gleaming new main stand in the background before they shot off for one last beer in the away end. I took a walking tour around Anfield for the first time since the stadium had its mammoth new addition. I slowly walked past “The Twelfth Man” pub and then approached “The Albert“ pub right outside The Kop. My mind whirled back to last April. This was exactly the spot where Sean Cox was attacked.

I continued walking. The statue of Bill Shankly, fists clenched.

I honestly didn’t mind Liverpool in those days.

As I slowly moved from one vantage point to another, I had presumed that Manchester City had won. There was a noticeably subdued air underneath the towering stands. On some of the signage, there was the usual hyperbole associated with modern football, and with Liverpool Football Club especially. On a sign above an entrance to The Kop, the word “Songs” was crossed out. The word “Anthem” was highlighted instead. Then the words “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Then the words “Not a song. It’s who we are.”

Then the hook line “We are Liverpool. This means more.”

Well, that just didn’t scan.

File under “trying too hard.”

The new stand goes back forever. I can only imagine the amount of corporate hospitality areas entombed within it. The days of the “half-time gate” on The Kop are consigned to history. I remembered that one of the cabbies from last month mentioned to us that his season ticket mentions the word “client number” rather than “supporter number.”

I hate modern football, part 847.

However, I like the way that, instead of acres of steel cladding, much of the façade uses standard red brick, so typical of the local area’s tight terraced streets. I didn’t get a chance to spot the re-positioned Hillsborough Memorial, but I climbed the stairs – presumably a nod towards the terraces of the old Kop – and took a few photos. I walked past the line at the away turnstiles but noted one Liverpool fan shout out –

“You fucking rent boys.”

I – pardon the pun – walked on.

I met up with Eddie’s son Daniel – and my friend Kim – outside the Kenny Dalglish Stand, formerly the Centenary Stand, formerly the Kemlyn Road Stand, God I am showing my age. There was only time for a quick “hello goodbye” before we needed to head off into our respective areas. Eddie and his son have season tickets on the half-way line – a great “speck” in the local lingo –  in the lower tier of the Dalglish Stand. The Shankly Gates – forged in my home town of Frome – have been repositioned outside this stand, having moved from their original position alongside the original Hillsborough Memorial

On the façade of this stand, there was more hyperbole.

The word “badge” was crossed out and the word “honour” was used instead.

Then “for others it’s an emblem. For us, it’s an honour.”

Righty-o.

Time was moving on. I lined up at the away turnstiles. I bumped into some familiar faces. Lads from my local area had tried, like Steve from Connecticut, to get into the usual “Arkles” but for the first time ever it was “home fans only.” I suspect that on this day of all days, on the Hillsborough weekend, the landlord had decided to play it safe. After a quick bag check, I was in. I was tempted to save the green “bag searched” tag for the few Liverpool fans that I know.

“Here’s a souvenir from Anfield, since you fuckers never go these days.”

This would be my twenty-fourth trip with Chelsea in all competitions.

Our record is not great in this cross-section of matches, but better – much better – than it used to be.

Won 5

Drew 6

Lost 12

Our last loss at Anfield was the 4-1 defeat just after the 2012 FA Cup Final win against the same team when nobody could really be bothered. We had loads of empty seats at Anfield that night, a black mark in recent years.

The team?

I almost expected a false nine. It was a show of reticence from Sarri.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilcueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Hazard – Willian

A huge game for our Ruben and our Callum. But a huge game for all of us. I really do not know what Gonzalo Higuain made of Maurizio Sarri’s starting eleven. Higuain was Sarri’s boy. He worked with him at Napoli. I am not sure if the phrase “cherry-picked” is correct, but Sarri chose him above all other strikers in January. And he was on the bench.

The stadium was packed to the rafters. Just before the teams came onto the pitch, the ridiculously deep-voiced Anfield announcer – who has been going for years and years – spoke of Tommy Smith and most Chelsea supporters joined in with a minute of applause.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone” boomed and Chelsea floated the yellow “Chelsea Here. Chelsea There” away flag. Then, the stadium settled and the announcer spoke of Hillsborough.

The teams stood in the centre circle.

Mosaics filled the Dalglish Lower Tier and the entirety of The Kop.

“30 Years – 96.”

Not a word was spoken in that respectful minute by anyone.

For the youngest, Jon-Paul Gilhooley – Steven Gerard’s cousin – aged just ten, to the oldest, Gerard Baron, aged sixty-seven.

For the Hicks sisters.

For Kevin Williams, aged just fifteen, whose mother Anne was such a dominant force in the battle for justice.

For Tony Bland, the last to die, in 1993

For the 96 – RIP.

I have written about the tragedy of Hillsborough before. When I see footage of that day, there are soon tears.

Just one thing to add. Of the ninety-six deaths, only three were over fifty years of age. A staggering seventy-eight were less than thirty years old. Not only does this represent a staggering loss of humanity, of young lives not being able to blossom, but it also marks a snapshot in time, only thirty years ago, when the age of match-going supporters was noticeably younger than today. The average age of those who were killed was around twenty-five. In those days, going to football was a young man’s game. And that last comment was not meant to be sexist. Many more men went to football in those days. Of the ninety-six fatalities, eighty-nine were male.

Football has indeed changed in so many ways since April 15 1989.

The game began. If the key phrase before the match was “I’d take a 0-0 now” then another was undoubtedly “let’s not concede an early goal.”

As with every visit to Anfield, I became obsessed with the discrete clock tucked into the side of the Dalglish Stand. Like at Old Trafford, there are no large TV screens at Anfield, for which I am quite grateful. For all of the off-the-field corporate activity spinning out of control, it is reassuring to see that, at least during the game, it is all about the action on the pitch at these two great stadia in the north-west of England. There are no distractions. Our gaze is centered on the twenty-two players. I like that.

The home team dominated the early possession and a volley from Mo Salah bounced against the turf before nestling in Kepa’s arms. Dave seemed to be a little off the pace at the start but soon improved. After a while we began to build a few attacks. Eden Hazard was the busiest of our forwards, but he tended to plough a lone furrow upfront, often prone to drifting into his favoured inside left channel but with virtually no support. A lone cross from our Callum on the right did not reach anyone. A Hazard shot was easily saved by Alisson at his bear post. The heal of David Luiz thankfully deflected a Jordan Henderson effort wide. We were so close to the action. I watched the faces of the Chelsea defenders at corners. I shared their obvious anxieties.

Toni Rudiger went down and we feared the worst. He went off, then came back on immediately.

Our best chance of the first-half fell to Willian, raiding centrally. He kept moving the ball to his right, and I was begging for a drilled low shot across Alisson into the bottom left, but he kept moving the ball on. His shot spun well clear of the right-hand post. We were then exposed as a Salah sprint down our left was followed by a ball into Sadio Mane’s path, but his shot narrowly whizzed past the post.

Thirty minutes had passed and we were keeping them at bay. Pre-match, there were horrible thoughts of another Manchester City style bombardment. With five minutes of the first-half remaining, Rudi went down again. This time he didn’t move. Sadly, this time there was no miraculous recovery. He was replaced by Andreas Christensen (who some Chelsea fans still think played at Anfield in 2014. It was Tomas Kalas) and he looked a little nervy in the last five minutes of the first-half.

Over in the lower tier of the Dalglish Stand, I couldn’t help but notice something that I always pick up on during most visits to Anfield. In the area closest to the Anfield Road Stand – the one that we were sharing with some home fans – there seemed to be more red on show. My take on this is that in the more central areas of the lower tier, there are more season ticket holders. In the flanks of that stand, there are more “day trippers” (as the Liverpool hardcore calls them) and hence more people prone to visit the club shop and buy scarves, shirts, jackets and hats. I’d imagine that season ticket holders at most clubs tend not to go too overboard with club colours. Of all the stadia in England, I have always thought that this is more noticeable at Anfield than at any other ground.

I was stood with Parky, Gal and Alan. The Chelsea support had been sporadic throughout the first-half. I think we were all too nervous. The home support was certainly nervous. Fifty thousand of them honestly failed to get much of an atmosphere going at all.

There were nerves everywhere.

Right before the break, Kepa stretched late and made a super reflex save, but an offside flag had already been raised. In truth, our ‘keeper had not been as busy as I had perhaps predicted.

We had made it to half-time.

0-0.

“And breathe.”

The general consensus was that we had played reasonably well during the first period. Both Ruben and Callum had shown flashes, but were quiet. Kante and Hazard – no surprises really – had been our standout performers. Jorginho had largely been a bystander with only occasional offensive prods to team mates. The days of us Chelsea supporters singing a song in praise of him, and the manager, are long gone. At the break, I bumped into a Chelsea fan that I know through Facebook, a young lad called Bank, from Thailand, who was at his very first Chelsea away game. He had watched the Chelsea vs. West Ham United game last week and on Saturday was lucky enough to see a Mason Mount hat-trick as Derby County beat Bolton Wanderers 4-0. After the game, he waited to chat with Frank Lampard, and he had a truly wonderful time.

The second-half began. And still Anfield was quiet, so quiet.

The first five minutes passed.

“Let’s get to the hour.”

A minute later, the ball was worked inside our box to Henderson who clipped over a tantalising ball into our six-yard box. Mane rose with no Chelsea defender in sight, let alone touching distance, and his header easily found the net. If Rudiger had been on the pitch, would he have had such am unhindered leap? Perhaps not. He reeled away towards the corner, beneath that damn clock, and Anfield erupted. The noise roared around the stadium now.

One song kept going and going.

“We’ve conquered all of Europe.

We’re never gonna stop.

From Paris down to Athens.

We’ve won the fucking lot.

Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly.

The fields of Anfield Road.

We are loyal supporters.

And we come from Liverpool.

Allez, allez, allez.

Allez, allez, allez.

Allez, allez, allez.

Allez, allez, allez.”

It didn’t reach 2005 levels. But take it from me, it was loud.

It was to get worse. Liverpool hit a purple patch. A cross-field ball from Virgil Van Dijk sent over a cross-field ball to Salah, who cut in past Emerson and unleashed an impeccable laser into the top corner of Kepa’s goal. Anfield erupted again.

Bollocks.

Two goals had been conceded in the first eight minutes of the second-half. What the bloody hell does the fag muncher say to the players at half-time? I’d really like to know.

Gonzalo Higuain replaced our Callum.

Bizarrely, we then hit our best period of the entire game. A fantastic ball from Emerson was beautifully dolloped into the path of Hazard who took one touch and shaped to shoot. I’d say that every Chelsea supporter was poised to leap and scream. A goal looked the only option. Alas, the shot smacked against the base of the right hand post. We were crestfallen. Soon after, Willian clipped in an equally impressive ball into the danger area towards Hazard, but Alisson was able to save.

We then fell away again.

Ross Barkley replaced our Ruben.

Our attacking game petered out, and we rarely threatened the Liverpool goal again despite many Hazard dribbles – he takes a good photo, eh? – and the occasional shot from Higuain and Hazard.

It was not to be.

Liverpool deserved their win. They were more clinical. They were not at their best but they were, evidently, too good for us.

I have this horrible feeling that they might win it this season.

Fackinell.

On Thursday, the road to Baku continues with a home game against Slavia Prague.

I will see some of you there.

 

Tales From The Birthday Club

Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers : 10 March 2019.

A common phrase uttered by Paul, the two Glenns and little old me over the past few days, and certainly on the drive to London, was this :

“Wolves won’t be easy, mind.”

I have been impressed by Nuno Espirito Santo’s team all season. They have consistently garnered points from both home and away games. I was not in attendance at our 2-1 defeat at Molineux in early December, but at all other times their spirit, attacking zip and defensive tightness has been impressive. They would, I was convinced, be a tough nut to crack.

This was a special day.

Our game at Stamford Bridge would come on the one-hundred and fourteenth anniversary of the formation of Chelsea Football and Athletic Company. There was an early start – I left my village at 6.45am – to enable a busy pre-match. The other three made their way to “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge, but I headed for Stamford Bridge, arriving at just after 10am. It made a change to walk along the Fulham Road without being accosted by touts. I was too early for even them. In the Copthorne Hotel, I met up with a few of the supporters from the US who have been visiting these shores the past week or so. Not only were the Ohio Blues in town for this match, but a few other fans from the US too. I soon met up with Mike from the New York Blues who many people at Chelsea know. It was a pleasure to see him again. There were twenty-five more folk from the New York, Connecticut, Boston and Pittsburgh supporters’ groups attending the Wolves game. It’s always splendid to see some friends from over the water. The Ohio Blues were out in force and they were getting a major hit of adrenaline from being able to mingle informally with such Chelsea legends as Ron Harris, Bobby Tambling and John Hollins from our original “golden era” and those such as Colin Pates, Kerry Dixon, John Bumstead and Paul Canoville from “my era.”

While there were broad smiles from Andrew, Kristin, Steve, Billy, Clint, Rafa and Jessica as they posed with photos with our former players, there was a very pleasing birthday present for myself. None other than Pat Nevin appeared and chatted to his former team mates. I could not resist having a few words with Pat. From memory it was only the fifth or sixth time that I have spoken to him. The first time was before the Fulham match at Stamford Bridge in March 1984 when he signed my programme and this brief interchange took place.

Chris : “Blimey. I am taller than you.”

I am not taller than many.

Pat : “That’s not difficult.”

The next time would be on a rainy day in Moscow in 2008.

Anyone who knows me will know that Wee Pat is my favourite footballer – ever – bar none.

It was a thrill, a real thrill, to see him again.

A funny thing happened on the way to “The Eight Bells.” I needed, at some stage, to meet up with my friend Jason who had two Everton tickets for me. As I made my way to Fulham Broadway tube, we exchanged a few texts, but soon realised that our pre-match meanderings would be taking place in separate parts of Fulham. We arranged, then, to meet up after the game at the Peter Osgood statue to exchange tickets and monies. I made my way down on to the southbound platform, and as an incoming train approached and then stopped, who should be looking out, right by the door, but Jason. His carriage stopped right where I was standing. The doors slid open. We had no time to stand on ceremony. Out came wallets, out came tickets, out came three crispy twenties, job done.

“It’s all about timing, Jase.”

I laughed as I hopped into the train as it carried me south.

For those who know Chelsea Football Club, this might raise a wry smile, as one of the opening scenes of the film “Sliding Doors” was filmed at Fulham Broadway.

Down at “The Eight Bells”, things were already in full flow. The lads had commandeered a table, roasts had been ordered for midday, and I sidled in next to Glenn and opposite PD and LP. The pub was full of Wolves fans and on my return to the table after ordering my food, I could not help talking to one chap in his sixties. He was wearing the old Wolves shirt from 1974.

“I used to love that shirt. Quality. Tell me, what do most fans think of the new kit? Too yellow?”

“Ah. Too yellow, ah.”

Glenn had been talking to a Wolves fan and his young daughter. Both had been at all their games this season. After a short while, the Ohio Blues arrived and squeezed in at an adjacent table. The Wolves fans were then politely asked to leave. I guess the bar staff wanted to look after their regulars. Most popped next-door to the roomier “King’s Head.” As he left, Glenn’s Wolves mate thanked him for “taking care of us.” This made me smile. They were proper football people. I have loads of time for them, like others, no matter who they support.

The food arrived.

Roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, parsnips, swede, thick gravy and horseradish sauce.

Ten out of ten.

On the TV, the roar went up as Burnley scored at an increasingly icy Anfield. Sadly, that story did not pan out as we would hope. The laughter roared as our US friends relaxed and enjoyed this most intimate of pubs. It was, I will admit, ridiculously busy. It was rammed solid. Getting up to go to the bar was like moving in a real-life Tetris puzzle. The Kent boys arrived. Kristen taught them the Ohio Blues song. Another little group of friends arrived and stood by the doors. “The Eight Bells” could surely not accommodate any more people if it tried. There was not a spare inch anywhere. What a blast.

“Shame we have to go to the game.”

…mmm.

The team news came through.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

We made our way up the steps at Putney Bridge tube and onto the northbound train. There was a blustery wind that almost blew my face into April. We said our goodbyes to the Ohio contingent who had been great companions over the past week.

Inside the stadium, three-thousand Wolves fans were in position. Overhead were clear blue skies. In the sheltered Stamford Bridge, the wind could not cut us in quite the same way. I was pleased to see that the visitors did not chose a change kit. I would be able to make up my own mind about the effectiveness of Wolves’ new kit colour. The pensioner in the pub was right. It was too yellow. Old gold is a very subtle colour. For too long, Wolves’ shirts were too bright, too lurid, too orange. But this edition was certainly off too.

“Must try better.”

In the first quarter of the game, such was the paucity of entertainment on show on the pitch that Alan and I talked through our plans for Kiev, and we also reviewed how our two respective local non-league teams are faring (Alan’s Bromley far better than my Frome Town). Suffice to say, we did not miss much.

It was all so damned slow.

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

Like an idiot on “Mastermind.”

Added to the poor standard of play, it was a dreadful atmosphere. The away supporters chided us :

“Can you hear Chelsea sing? I can’t hear a fucking thing.”

In an effort to conjure up a goal from somewhere, Glenn, Alan and I took it in turns to repeat my move from Thursday evening and took turns to visit the toilets. Even the two lads in front joined in. It did not work. The Wolves team, boasting two towering centre-backs, defended deep from the off, and they simply did not allow us room to roam. We needed to get behind them, and we didn’t. Mateo Kovacic was especially useless. Pedro was all spins and juggles and twists but with no end product. Eden Hazard was quiet. Gonzalo Higuain had a couple of very vague half-chances. That was it, that was the first-half. Wolves hardly bothered attacking at all.

At half-time, I turned to Alan and said “that was dire.”

Sigh.

“If anybody was to mark our players in that half (and I always quote the Italian sports paper system of scores ranging from three to seven most of the time, rarely an eight nor certainly not a nine), nobody apart from Kante would get more than a three or a four. Kepa would be unmarked as he hasn’t touched the ball.”

Surely we could not play so poorly in the second period.

Hazard was fouled right on the line of the penalty box – a large shout went up for a penalty, my photo was inconclusive – but David Luiz slammed the free-kick at the wall.

After ten minutes of lackluster football, Wolves suddenly found their compass and Ordnance Survey map and charged forward after a timid Chelsea move petered-out. We were completely exposed as their two strikers raced into our half. Raul Jimenez was able to dink the ball – slow motion in full effect – over Kepa and into The Shed goal. The Wolves players huddled in front of their supporters who were, of course, somersaulting with joy.

Before the game I had expected a more open match and, with it, the chance for Chelsea to cut Wolves to threads in the spaces provided behind them. Well, that shows how much I know about anything. Wolves did exactly this to us. Damningly, horrifyingly, the goal came from their very first effort the entire game.

Bollocks.

There were two quick changes and on came the youth, moves which were met with approval from all.

Our Ruben for the awful Kovacic.

Our Callum for Pedro.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

Then, a miracle, Jorginho was replaced by Willian.

Kante withdrew a few yards. Hazard slipped inside alongside Loftus-Cheek. Pedro and Callum were out wide and saw a bit more of the ball. The substitutions breathed a little life into our support. A couple of shots tested the Wolves ‘keeper. There were efforts from Higuain and a curler from Willian. A flick on from a corner went past ten players in the Wolves six-yard box and also past a lunge from Higuain at the far post. But our play was poor. I lost count of the times that I looked up and saw a player looking for a pass but nobody – and I really mean nobody – bothered to shift their ‘arris and move into space, which surely has to be the most important aspect of this manager’s playing style. It was deeply disappointing and the crowd were restless, but quiet, an odd combination. Willian blasted two free-kicks which ricocheted back off the wall. A shot from Dave was blocked.

Frustration, frustration, frustration.

This really was turning into an unhappy birthday.

I could not see us scoring in a month of Sundays. The two central Wolves strikers had occasional breaks which thankfully petered out. There was another shot from Willian. Time was running out and quickly. We stepped up the pressure a little. Four minutes of extra-time were signaled.

“COME ON CHELS.”

On ninety-two minutes, with hopes fading fast – I felt for the US fans in the Shed Lower, a few of whom were watching their first-ever game at Stamford Bridge – Eden Hazard moved the ball square some twenty-five yards out. He looked up and took aim. His low shot traced its unhindered way through a packed penalty area. The ball nestled in to the far corner. It was the one moment of class of the entire sorry game.

GET IN.

Eden took the handshakes of thanks from his team mates and Kirsten waved a “Ohio Blues – Full Of Booze” scarf in The Shed.

Phew.

At last we roared but, despite some noise at last, there was no chance of a second. It had taken us ninety-two minutes to score one. There was little likelihood of us getting another.

It had been a poor game, but we had at least salvaged a point.

On Thursday, Chelsea Football Club play in Kiev.

I might bump into a few of you out there.

Давайте підемо на роботу.

Tales From The Cock Tavern

Chelsea vs. Nottingham Forest : 5 January 2019.

Along with a league opener and a Boxing Day game, an FA Cup Third Round tie was historically one of the games of the season. But, I have to be honest that the home match against Nottingham Forest was simply not exciting me as it should. I, along with many foot soldiers, had originally hoped for an away game at a new stadium such as Accrington Stanley, Doncaster Rovers or Lincoln City. But no, we were given yet another home tie, and against a team that we only met as recently as last autumn in the 2017/18 League Cup competition.

So, the tricky trees were heading to Stamford Bridge once more, and as I picked the Three Chuckleteers up in the morning, the game was simply not getting me too excited.

The alarm had sounded at 6.15am – bloody earlier than a normal working day – because I wanted to be on the road nice and early. By 8am, I had collected two Glenns and one Paul. There was a slight frost, everything was a light shade of grey outside. By 10.15am I had dropped Parky and PD outside The Old Oak, where they hoped they would be able to grab an early pint. I parked up closer to the ground and walked down to Stamford Bridge with Glenn, where we hoped to spend some time with some of the US friends that have been featured in these match reports of late.

We walked past the usual smattering of ticket touts that have been part of the match day scene at Stamford Bridge for ever and ever.

They were certainly present as long ago as 1920, when the FA Cup Final itself was held at Stamford Bridge for the first of three times.

My grandfather, being careful not to walk into the onrushing crowds as he picked his way along the pavement from the Walham Green tube station to the main entrance of Stamford Bridge, was approached on several occasions by Cockney ticket touts, offering the chance to watch from the main stand. His ticket, and that of his friend Ted, had been given their general admission tickets by the Somerset Football Association in lieu of their role in the running of their local team Mells and Vobster United, for whom they had both played for a few seasons, along with my grandfather’s brother Christopher. My grandfather wondered how the touts had managed to get their hands on these tickets. It was a surprise to him. This was his first football match, and he was simply unaware that such tickets would be available.

“No thank you. We have tickets.”

“OK governor. You want to sell them to me?”

This confused and surely bemused my grandfather. He thought to himself, simplistically, “how would we get in without tickets?” and he paused for a while with a look on his face which probably was more serious than it really should have been.

“No. No thanks. No – they are ours.”

His long-time pal chipped in :

“We’ve come from Somerset for this match. Why would we give them to you?”

The tout uttered a couple of oaths and moved on.

In 2019, my responses to a few touts were not so wordy. I just shook my head and solemnly moved on.

We were at Stamford Bridge for 10.45am, a quite ridiculously early time. In the bar area of The Copthorne Hotel, we settled down with a couple of astronomically priced coffees – £4 apiece – and chatted to a couple of our former players. I like to do this two or three times a season; it makes a lovely change from the usual routine, and I usually bump into a few Chelsea friends while I am there. Ron Harris, who Glenn and I got to know when he lived in Warminster in the ‘nineties, but who moved away to live on the south coast for a while, now lives a mere ten miles from me. It was no surprise that Ron was there early. He always is the first to arrive.

“I’m only ever late for a tackle.”

It was the first time that I have seen him since his move.

Colin Pates, the captain of “my” Chelsea team of the mid-‘eighties chipped in :

“I heard the house prices have fallen since he moved.”

We sat there, chatting away, for a while. Bobby Tambling was another early presence, and then former players John Hollins, Tommy Baldwin, Paul Canoville, John Bumstead, Gary Chivers and Kerry Dixon arrived too. I won’t name names for obvious reasons, but a few of these former players were quite scathing of our recent play, and playing style. I found myself nodding in silent agreement.

I offered an opinion.

“If someone who had never seen a game of football ever before, and the game was not explained to them, and they watched us play, they would probably think that the aim of the game was getting the ball over to within ten yards of the white corner posts by using as many touches as possible.”

Alas, the first of my friends – Lynda from Brooklyn – arrived just after the players went on their way around the various corporate areas, but we still had a good natter about her stay. She has been lucky enough to see four Chelsea matches. Outside, at about 12.30pm, I bumped into the “London Is Blue” team again, and said I would join them later. PD and Parky had spent a while in “The Goose” rather than “The Old Oak” and had by now walked back up to “The Famous Three Kings”. Glenn had dived into “The Malt House” and had bumped into Dave and Karen from Frome. After wishing Lynda a safe journey back to the US after the game, I met up with Glenn, Karen and Dave in “The Cock Tavern.”

This was turning into a tale of five pubs.

I chatted to a few of the American visitors in the beer garden of “The Cock.”

It was the first time that they had met Glenn, so we recounted a little of our Chelsea story for their general amusement and bemusement.

“Yeah, met Glenn in 1977 when he joined his brother and me at Oakfield Road Middle School in Frome. We were one of only three or four Chelsea fans in our entire school, we were a rare bread. We always stopped and spoke about Chelsea when we saw each other at school over the years. Bumped into him on The Shed at the opening game of the season 1983. Went to our first game together at home to the Geordies in the November of that year.”

It then dawned on me.

“Talking of 1983/84, this pub is where I had my very first alcoholic drink at Chelsea, before we thumped Leeds 5-0 to win promotion.”

Ah, 1983/84. Here I go again.

I was eighteen. In previous visits to Stamford Bridge, the thought of going in to a pub was simply not relevant. Not only did I look young for my age, risking the humiliation of not being served, I was also usually broke. Very often I would not eat a single thing on these Chelsea trips to save money for the next one. I remember so much from that day. I certainly remember that this was the first occasion that I had travelled to a game with with PD, along with Glenn and two chaps from Westbury, Mark and Gary. My memory recalls a lager and lime. The pub filled up and I remember talking to a lad from Reading about some Chelsea characters, one of which I would later realise was Hicky. He also spoke about some Chelsea fans going over to the Iranian Embassy Siege in 1980 after a game, intent on “aiding” the release of the people inside, though how that might have manifested itself heaven only knows. The songs started up and “One Man Went To Mow” – which was the song of that season – was heartily roared. We all sat until “nine”, then exploded onto our feet on “ten.” We stood on the sofas, we sang our hearts out. The pub was a riot of noise. I felt as if I was coming of age, a Chelsea rite of passage. Skinhead fashions had been taken over by a new movement on the terraces, more so in that season than in any other at Chelsea. The weekend before, I had travelled to Bath to buy my first ever bona fide casual garment, a blue and white Pringle, which cost me £25 or one week’s dole. I wore that with my Chelsea shirt underneath. I felt the business. I belonged.

The team news came through. To my surprise, Cesc Fabregas was playing, and was captain too. After his apparent “wave goodbye” to the fans after Wednesday’s dull game, I had blithely assumed that his Chelsea career was over.

  1. Caballero.
  2. Zappacosta.
  3. Emerson.
  4. Fabregas.
  5. Christensen.
  6. Luiz.
  7. Hudson-Odoi.
  8. Barkley.
  9. Morata.
  10. Ampadu.
  11. Loftus-Cheek.

“Happy with that.”

Once inside the stadium, Alan and myself agreed that this was a potentially very attack-minded team. It would be good to see Ethan Ampadu in a more advanced position than in his previous starts. Alongside us was a young lad, visiting from New York, who worked for NBC sports. PD arrived a little late after his sesh with Parky and was soon cursing away, and Alan told the lad that maybe he could arrange for PD to get a job commentating on games for NBC.

“A colour commentator, I think you call it. This would just be the colour blue, though, fackinell.”

Forest had around four thousand. Their simple red/white/red is a surprisingly rare combination at Stamford Bridge these days. Their white collars looked like those starched ones from the Edwardian era. I am a big fan of the Nottingham Forest badge, which appeared years ahead of its time in 1977, but still has a lower-case “E” which infuriates me a lot more than it should.

The away fans were soon snorting derision at our lack of noise.

“Is this a library?”

“It’s just a ground full of tourists.”

They had a point. I thought that the atmosphere was bad on Wednesday, but this was even worse. It was, without a doubt, the quietest atmosphere at Stamford Bridge that I had ever witnessed.

We began – again – well but I hoped that we could carry it on for a longer amount of time than in other recent games.

Early half-chances came to us. A Fabregas shot, a Morata header, an Emerson free-kick. At least we were creating more than on Wednesday and moving the ball a little quicker. There was not, quite thankfully, a huge amount of frustration or cynicism in the home support. Morata appeared to go down way too easily to us, admittedly some one hundred yards away, and no infringement was judged to have been manifested on his frail body.

“Stay on yer feet, FFS.”

Forest goaded him with being a “poor Daryl Murphy” whoever Daryl Murphy is.

I turned to Alan.

“He’s a poor Brian Murphy, let alone Daryl Murphy.”

On the half-hour, a clumsy challenge of our Ruben resulted in an easy penalty decision. Unsurprisingly, Cesc stood up to take it. But his approach was too clever by far, and his poor low shot was ably pushed away by the Forest ‘keeper Luke Steele.

Bollocks.

Morata supplied Davide Zappacosta who cut in and smashed a shot goal wards, but Steele was equal to it. We enjoyed so much of the ball. I was pleased with the contributions from Ampadu, his body language is spot on. Fabregas was responsible for a few lovely forward passes. We were well on top.

After running for a ball down below us, our Ruben evidently injured himself and was substituted by Eden Hazard just before the break.

Forest were goading us with “WWYWYWS” but there was hardly a response from the Chelsea sections, apart from a few “YNFAs.”

They then rhymed “Aitor Karanka” with “Lampard’s a wanker” as the biggest rivalry in the East Midlands was transplanted to SW6.

Chelsea responded with songs about our Frank, which only remotely seemed relevant. Where were the songs about the current players? Still in the development process, I presume.

Forest sang a version of “Mull of Kintyre” ;”oh mist rolling in from the Trent.”

How 1977.

Ah 1977.

I find it hard to believe that of the three promoted teams in 1977, it was not the teams finishing in first and second place – Wolves and Chelsea – but the third-placed team Nottingham Forest who would surprise the football world with the League Championship in 1978 and then then the European Cup in 1979 and 1980. And all of this under the unique management skills of Brian Clough.

Clough – famously – rarely used to show up on the training pitch and would let his players play the game to their own devices. Of course he set the team up in a certain formation, but his view was this :

“You are all good players. I trust you. You are not stupid. You know how to defend. How to attack. Get on with it.”

He is at the other end of the football spectrum compared to the fastidious and studious style of many in modern football. I even suspect that there are dossiers produced by modern managers on how to tie bootlaces correctly. Clough was certainly of the “laissez-faire” school of man management. But bloody hell it worked. How he won the title in 1978 with journeyman players such as Kenny Burns, Ian Bowyer, Frank Clark, Larry Lloyd, Peter Withe and Martin O’Neil is certainly a mystery to me if not others.

Soon into the second-half, with thoughts of a midweek flit to the banks of the River Trent for the first time – for me anyway – since 1999, the game changed. The ball was played out to our Callum, who showed a classic piece of wing-play, a shimmy, before running past his marker. His low pass was magical, right into the path of Alvaro Morata who prodded the ball in from close range.

It was a money-shot from inside the six-yard box alright.

Get in.

Alan : “thay’ll have ta come at us naaa.”

Chris : “Come on me little diamonds, me ducks.”

It was then Callum’s chance himself to add to the score line, advancing with pace but forcing Steele to scramble away but with nobody on hand to force home the ball. Morata then suffered the miss of the century, touching the ball over from a mere four feet, but – thankfully for him – he was offside anyway.

“Obvs” as the kids say.

Not to worry, further stupendous wing play from our Callum – shackled by two defenders now – created a few spare feet of space which enabled him to send over a most remarkable deep cross which curved and dipped to hit Morata’s forehead and subsequent downward prod with perfection.

Get in.

There were late changes, with Dave replacing Morata, slotting in at left back to allow Emerson an advanced role. N’Golo Kante then replaced Cesc Fabregas, who hugged David Luiz before slowly walking off to tumultuous applause. I carried out the eulogy for this well-loved player a game too early, but it all still stands. One of the best passers of a ball I have seen at Chelsea. And I think we are definitely dispensing of his services too quickly. He is only thirty-one. But one supposes that he needs first team football, and being a bit-part player for someone such as Cesc is clearly not ideal.

The game continued, but we were never in danger of conceding any silly late goals. Hazard was rather quiet. Emerson enjoyed a few late runs. We peppered the Forest goal with a few shots from distance.

The referee blew and into the next round we went.

Phew.

As I slowly made my way out of the Sleepy Hollow, I watched Cesc Fabregas make a solitary walk towards us in the Matthew Harding. My camera was by now tucked away, so the moment is unable to be shared. But I applauded him as he strode on the Stamford Bridge turf as a Chelsea player for one last time.

He has been magical for us.

He waved to the left. He waved to the right.

We could have sung his song all night.

Tales From The King’s Road Club

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 10 March 2018.

After two tiring – in more ways than one – journeys to Manchester in the previous two games, the home match against Crystal Palace provided a chance for a more relaxing day at football. With our trip to Catalonia now getting very close, here was a nice little pre-cursor. The reason for this upbeat mood? Parky had booked us day return rail tickets which meant that there were no driving duties for me, and there was an added bonus of an elongated pub crawl down the King’s Road before the game.

Bloody perfect.

We caught the 7.56am train from Westbury, and the memories of previous Chelsea trips flooded back. Not much has changed at Westbury over the years. It could easily have been a scene from 1982, 1985, 1988 or 1991. There was plenty of chit-chat between the four of us – PD, Glenn, Parky and little old me – and the familiar stations of Pewsey, Newbury and Reading were reached in what seemed like no time at all. We were joined by another Chelsea supporter on the journey to London, a chap around the same age as us – maybe a little older – who must have spotted PD’s little Chelsea badges, or overheard our Chelsea-related chatter. He sat next to us and we soon got chatting.

“Are you going to the football?” he asked.

“Yeah. Chelsea Palace” I replied.

“Are you Chelsea or Palace?” enquired Glenn.

I smiled and said “he’s too well dressed to be a Palace supporter.”

“Oh, I’m a season ticket holder in the East Stand.”

I had spotted him on the platform at Westbury; waxed Barbour jacket, mustard cords, brogues. I had – erroneously – presumed that he was a rugby fan from his attire. How wrong I was.

“I’m part of a syndicate; three of us share a season ticket” Shane replied.

It transpired that he lives just outside Frome, in a little village called Chapmanslade. I was thrilled that there was another Chelsea season ticket holder from our neck of the woods. I was even more pleased that one of the syndicate lives in Great Elm, a village only one and a half miles away from my house. We chatted away and he told us a little about his past; like Parky he had been in the Army. Parky was in the Grenadier Guards. Shane was in the Coldstream Guards. But whereas Parky went to a local comprehensive, Shane was an Old Etonian. But he was Chelsea and that was good enough for me. And he went up in my estimations when he showed disdain for “egg- chasing.”

“Never judge a book by its cover” I thought to myself.

We chatted about our recent experiences of following our team in the recent weeks and months. There was indeed much to talk about. I am not sure why, but the talk turned to Mo Salah, and Shane asked us the name of “that other Egyptian, who played for Spurs, the one with the big nose.” We struggled to name him.

From the passenger sitting across from Shane – tapping away silently on his laptop – came the word “Mido.”

And I had a little smirk to myself.

I wondered if the chap was a Spurs fan. I wondered if he had been biting his lip during the previous thirty minutes, wanting to interrupt our Chelsea-centric chat, but fearful that he would be shot down in flames as a fan of the team from North London that we always seem to get the better of.

We pulled into Paddington at about 9.30am. The buzz of a day in London was apparent as we walked beneath the arched roofs of the fine old station. After a breakfast of champions, we caught the Bakerloo to Embankment and the District to Sloane Square. The military theme of the day continued as we walked past the former site of Chelsea Barracks, which Parky was familiar with, although during his stay in the army in the early ‘seventies he was based in nearby Pimlico.

I had planned a six-pub crawl, but we exceeded expectations. From just after 11am to around 4.30pm, we visited a total of ten hostelries either along – or just off – the famous King’s Road.

The King’s Road was always linked to the swinging ‘sixties and the swinging football team that went with it, but in all my years of going to Stamford Bridge, I have never walked its length before a game sampling its pubs and boozers. Most Chelsea match day pubs along the King’s Road have historically been located “over the railway bridge” in Fulham and I have very occasionally visited a few of those Chelsea staples, though – again – on very few occasions. Most of my – our – drinking has been in Fulham proper, the North End Road, Fulham Broadway and those pubs near the stadium.

We had spoken about a pub crawl down the most famous street in Chelsea for years. At last we were going to do it justice.

“The Fox & Hounds.”

Much to my annoyance, the first one that I had planned was closed. So although, we visited ten, it was something of a false ten. Or a false nine, maybe? Where have we heard that before?

“The Rose & Crown.”

This pub is described as “unpretentious” and I could not have summed it up better. When I walked into the pub, I was met by a pungent aroma of disinfectant, which is surely not the best of starts. Still, they sold “Peroni” and so I was happy. The boozer had a distinct ‘seventies feel to it. No frills, no thrills, but plenty of spills. I wondered, in all honesty, now such a downmarket boozer could exist in such a high rent location. The toilet door was reassuringly etched with many football scribbles  :

MFC.

Up The Boro.

CHELSEA.

MCFC.

WHUFC.

We moved on, and our route took us close to the Royal Hospital, the home of those famous scarlet tunics.

“The Phoenix.”

This was an unplanned stop, just off the King’s Road on Smith Street, but much-needed after the austerity of the first one. Another “Peroni” and – with Parky and PD sampling an “Estrella” apiece –  there were a few a few thoughts about Barcelona. To our left were three Chelsea supporters from Norway, who mentioned they were looking forward to seeing a Norwegian called Alexander Sorloth play for Palace. I had not heard of him.

“The Chelsea Potter.”

Here was a famous Chelsea pub, one that I have often heard mentioned in despatches. The single saloon was packed, and I would soon learn that it was packed with both Manchester United and Liverpool supporters, awaiting the start of the game from Old Trafford. As luck would have it, my stool at a high table was turned away from the TV screen. I did not bother to watch; I shunned it completely. Another “Peroni” helped numb the pain of United racing to a 2-0 lead. We had hoped for a draw.

“The Trafalgar.”

There are a quirky mix of building styles along this stretch of the King’s Road, and a mix of shops too. Parky was pleased to see that the Curzon cinema was still in business, although the art deco frontage suggested that it is now houses a Habitat department store too. Next door was a large blue-bricked boozer, and we dived into its dark and quiet interior. Yet another “Peroni” and it was only one o’clock or so.

“The Builders Arms.”

We walked north a few hundred yards and plotted up inside the elegant and classy interior of “The Builders Arms.” No “Peroni” so I chanced a pint of “Birra Moretti” which is not as crisp as my favourite. Here we went through the events at Manchester City the previous Sunday. For once, we were talking football. Glenn had watched Antonio’s press conference the previous day and I was pleased to hear that he had seemed, apparently, more relaxed and at ease.

“The Sydney Arms.”

On the short walk to the next pub, we were stunned to see the gorgeous warm stone of the surprisingly huge St. Luke’s Church, a hidden jewel. I had not seen it before. It was a lovely treat. The next pub was packed, and many eyes were watching the Ireland vs. Scotland rugby game from Dublin. Here, it was a pint of “Sagres”. There was a small amount of banter with a couple of Chelsea supporters. But this still didn’t seem like the world outside was aware that Chelsea were playing a mile or so down the road.

Out onto the King’s Road, we caught a cab to the next destination. To our right I spotted the benches on Dovehouse Green which I always remember being the meeting – and posing – place of the punks of my adolescence and beyond. In around 1984, I noted it was Carnaby Street for mods and the King’s Road for punks, though time was moving on for both of those cults.

“The World’s End.”

Any pub crawl down the King’s Road, surely has to encompass this pub. We all remember the iconic black and white photograph of Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti, high on a London double-decker bus, holding aloft the newly-acquired FA Cup with the Worlds End pub behind. Here was a pub that I had visited just once before – the opener against home in 1991 – but is now much changed, and effectively a restaurant and a pub no longer. But the hosts made us feel welcome. During his days in the army, Parky would often walk the length of the King’s Road and would end up in this pub. It was just excellent to be back. I was evidently starting to falter; just a bottle of “Peroni” this time. Just before we crossed the bridge into Fulham, we walked past Slaidburn Street, another location of a famous photograph or two from 1970. Decidedly working class in those days – how times change – this terraced street was festooned with the blue and white banners wishing Chelsea well in the FA Cup Final and a few iconic photographs were taken. I wondered how many residents were Chelsea fans today.

“The Jam Tree.”

Pub number eight was not particularly busy, but it is a boozer that I am sure a few of us visited on an end of season mini pub crawl in 2000. Another pint of “Peroni” please Parky. The game was still over ninety minutes away. I suspect a few of our more local fans – do we have many? – were setting foot outside to make their way to the game. There was talk of this pub featuring in the hideous “Made In Chelsea” TV show.

“The Imperial.”

Another classic Chelsea pub, and visited on a few occasions previously, though each time I visit the bar seems to be in a different place. I was reaching my limit, so went for a bottle of “Corona.” We sat in a quiet corner, but I soon spotted an old workmate from over twenty years ago. Roger now lives in Devon, and I saw him last at that crazy 5-4 League Cup win against Manchester United in the autumn of 2012 when we travelled up together. It was lovely to see him again. He was with his mate Andy, who I last saw in 1997 when he refereed a game at Warminster which involved a Peter Osgood select team including such players as Tommy Langley, Graham Wilkins and Jimmy Case. Where does the time go?

So, nine pubs. Phew. Of course, if I had any sense I would have made sure that we popped into “The Butcher’s Hook” on the club’s one-hundred and thirteenth birthday, to pay homage to where the club was formed.

Maybe next year.

Inside the stadium, I soon spotted Alan and Gary Buchmann who have seats in the same section as us. Sadly, their dear father Joe passed away last Sunday, aged ninety. Joe had been a season-ticket holder for simply decades, and I liked him a lot. I remember he used to give me a Christmas card every year, and on the very first one that he gave me – in December 2004 – he addressed it :

“To Chris and the Chelsea Boys. Chelsea will win the league this season.”

Prophetic words, indeed.

For the best part of twenty seasons we sat with him. We sadly lost our pal Tom in 2015. In 2018, we lost Joe. He was a lovely man, and although he did not attend a game over the past two seasons, he was always in our thoughts. One memory from three years ago is strong. It came after Willian’s last minute winner against Everton in February 2015 :

“I looked over at Joe, a few seats away, past Alan. Joe is around eighty-five and his face was a picture. He too was stood, arms out-stretched, looking straight towards me. We just looked at each other, our faces and our bodies were mirror-images of each other. Wide smiles but arms wider. It was a fantastic and magical moment. Chelsea smiles everywhere.”

I gave Alan and Gary a hug – “your father was a lovely man” – and took my seat.

The early-evening air was mild. There had been no gulps when we learned about Antonio Conte’s team selection, though there was a place for Gary Cahill.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

I was aware that there were a few trans-Atlantic friends visiting and there were mainly watching from The Shed Lower. I hoped that the Ohio Blues, the Atlanta Blues and the New York Blues enjoyed the next ninety minutes.

The crowd assembled, though our dear pal Alan was not with us. He had fallen on his way to work during the week and was housebound. Gut-wrenchingly, he will miss the soiree to Barcelona.

GET WELL SOON T.

Before the match began, there was a minute of applause for a former champion, a star from 1955, the ginger-haired Derek Saunders, who – like Joe – had reached the grand age of ninety.

RIP Derek.

RIP Joe.

After the defensive shackles against Manchester City last Sunday, there was much more – obviously – attacking intent against Crystal Palace. A shot from Kante was almost flicked into the Palace goal by Giroud. A Zappacosta effort caused Wayne Hennessey to drop to his knees to gather. There were two or three “sighters” from Willian. From a Crystal Palace corner, Christian Benteke was left alone behind a gaggle of players in the middle of the box, but he headed tamely over. Palace, of course, had won 2-1 against us in 2015/2016 and in 2016/2017. It was so good to see our man N’Golo back in our starting eleven once more. Maybe if he had played at City, our game plan might have been slightly different. Andros Townsend fired over.

But it was mainly Chelsea.

On twenty-five minutes, Willian collected the ball and moved effortlessly inside. His low shot took a slight nick off the defender Martin Kelly, and we were ahead. I hope that the transatlantic visitors in Parkyville enjoyed Willian’s celebrations.

From Alan : “THTCAUN.”

I replied : “COMLD.”

Not long after, a nice move increased our lead. The ball was swept into the box by Marcos Alonso. Willian hopped over the ball, after presumably receiving a shout from Eden Hazard, who set up Zappacosta to his right. It was hardly Pele to Carlos Alberto, and the shot took a deflection or two off the hapless Kelly, but it was a deserved second-goal. The celebrations from the players seemed a little sheepish, but that did not matter. The crowd roared its approval.

The Matthew Harding started singing :

“One Martin Kelly. There’s only one Martin Kelly.”

There was certainly not the nimble footwork of Gene Kelly from the Palace defender.

Giroud had been involved throughout the first-half and it felt so much better to have a focal point for our play. There had been some fine movement from all of our attacking players. Only a crazy touchline clearance from James Tomkins stopped our new striker from opening his account. Another Zappacosta effort was saved well by the Palace ‘keeper. A Hazard goal was ruled offside. But all was well at the end of the first-half.

We hoped for further goals to build confidence ahead of the game of the season against Barcelona, but the second-half was more arid despite a fair few Chelsea efforts.

In the first noticeable moment of the second-half, the Nowegian Sorlath crashed a shot against the post after a defensive lapse by Andreas Christensen. Willian went close after switching passes with Giroud. A Hazard effort was saved by Hennessey. Willian caused the Palace ‘keeper to scramble to his left to save from a central free-kick. Willian – the main threat – then created for Zappocosta and Giroud.

We were once again treated to some lovely up close and personal trickery from Eden Hazard. One sequence shows his control over ball and defenders alike.

As space opened up, a run down the left flank by Alonso found Giroud, who steadied himself, but his side-footed shot came back off the far post. It seemed his luck was certainly against him. He was replaced by Alvaro Morata with twenty minutes to go. Palace had a goal disallowed via Sorleth, but that was our signal to leave.

We needed to leave the boys to it in order to make sure our train connections worked. We gathered together and headed down to Fulham Broadway. A quick tube up to West Brompton allowed us to connect at Clapham Junction for our train home, which was taking the southern route via Salisbury. While we waited at West Brompton, we heard that Patrick van Aanholt had scored a late Palace goal. We had, apparently, squeaked it 2-1. At Clapham Junction, the narrow passages echoing to “Chelsea”, we raided the Cornish Pasty concession stand. A Palace fan chatted to us and wished us well on Wednesday. Rival football fan in fair-minded and generous comment shock. Whatever next?

Our train connections went well and we reached Westbury at 10.30pm. We soon caught a cab back to Frome.

It had been a fine day.

On Wednesday, Barcelona await.

I will see many of you out there.

 

Tales From Vanessa’s Birthday Weekend

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 19 March 2016.

PSG hurt. And Everton really hurt. Those were two tough losses.

Heading in to our game with West Ham United, our season suddenly felt rather flat. Season 2015-2016 now had an end in sight. We had nine games left – four at home, five away, all in the league – and I was wondering where on Earth our season had gone. From a results perspective, it had clearly gone up in smoke, but this has seemed a very quick season, despite the troubles along the way. It did not seem five minutes ago that I was catching a train with my friend Lynda en route to the season’s first game in New Jersey in July.

And now I could hear New Jersey’s favourite son Frank Sinatra singing.

“And now the end is near.”

Nine games left. These games would soon fly past. And yet I’m still relishing each and every one of them. The five away games would be enjoyable just because they are away games. The four home games would be important, for varying reasons.

And there would be the usual laughs along the way.

There was an extra-special reason for me to be relishing the visit of West Ham to Stamford Bridge. My friends Roma, Vanessa and Shawn – often mentioned in dispatches – were visiting London for five days, lured by the chance to see our captain John Terry one last time before he, possibly, heads west to the US or east to China. I have known Roma since 1989, when my cycling holiday down the East coast of the US took me to her home town of St. Augustine in Florida. Since then, there have been many laughs along the way, and also many Chelsea games too.

Roma announced to me a couple of months back that she was planning a visit to London, specifically Chelsea-centred, with her daughter Vanessa and son Shawn. Tickets were hastily purchased, and we waited for the day to arrive. Vanessa, fourteen years after her first game at Stamford Bridge against Fulham in 2002, was especially excited. She would be celebrating her twenty-fifth birthday while in London. This was very much her trip.

And I so hoped that John Terry, side-lined for a while, would be playing. He was the reason, in a way, why the three of them had decided to visit us. I was so relieved when our captain made a late appearance off the bench at Goodison last weekend.

I made an early start. I left my home town as early as 8am. Just after 11am, I turned the corner outside the West Stand and spotted my three friends from North Carolina and Tennessee walking towards me. It was lovely to see them again. Shawn was wearing not one but two Chelsea shirts, plus a Chelsea tracksuit top. His favourite player is Diego Costa and he was wearing a “19” shirt. Vanessa favours Cesc Fabregas and was wearing a “4.”

My love of Chelsea Football Club has certainly rubbed off on Roma’s family. Her other daughter Jenny now has a two-year-old boy, who himself yells “Chelsea” at the TV set whenever we are playing. This is all too crazy for me to comprehend at times. Back in 1989, Chelsea were off the radar in the US.

We spent a lovely hour or so mixing with a few of the former Chelsea players who meet up in the Copthorne Hotel before each and every home game. The three visitors first met Paul Canoville at Yankee Stadium in 2012; there was an updated photocall in 2016. The girls loved being able to meet Bobby Tambling again too. They recreated a photograph from Charlotte. John Hollins and Colin Pates gave them signed photographs.

Good times.

My friend Janette from LA was also in town, excited at getting a last minute ticket, and it was great to meet up with her at last. Elsewhere, there was a contingent from the New York Blues honing in on The Goose. Chopper – the NYC version – called by at the hotel before moving on. There was talk of how I picked up Chopper and two others at Bristol airport on a Saturday morning in 2007, before our Carling Cup win against Arsenal in Cardiff, and how – just over an hour later – we were drinking fluorescent orange scrumpy in a Somerset cider pub.

Good times then, good times now.

This was another mightily busy pre-match.

On leaving the hotel, I spotted Kerry Dixon and offered a handshake. It was good to see him again, especially at Stamford Bridge, and he appreciated my well wishes. Back in 2005, Roma had posed for a photo with Kerry in “Nevada Smiths” before a game with Milan, but there would not be time, alas, for a repeat in 2016.

Back at The Goose, more New York Blues arrived. I think around twenty were over in total. It was lovely to see some old friends once again. Mike, the NYB’s chief bottle-washer, was over from NYC for a bare twenty-four hours, flying in at Heathrow at 10.30am and leaving on Sunday morning, his birthday. Such dedication is truly heart-warming. There was whispered talk of the upcoming 2016 US summer tour, and the inevitable moans from some “huge” stateside Chelsea fans about the club not playing in their part of the country. Some of them should take a leaf out of Mike’s book.

We worked out that Shawn, only nine, would be seeing his seventh Chelsea game.

“Seven! You are a lucky boy. When I was nine, I had only seen three, and you live four thousand miles away!”

Team news filtered through.

“John Terry is playing.”

Fist pump.

Who would have guessed that Loic Remy would have been given the nod over Bertrand Traore? There was no Eden Hazard, injured. The surprise was that Kenedy, who Roma, Vanessa and Shawn saw make his debut in DC, was playing in an advanced midfield role. Elsewhere there were the usual suspects. There were grumbles that Ruben Loftus-Cheek was not involved from the start.

The beer garden was packed.

There were memories of last season’s game against Southampton, when Shawn was filling The Goose beer garden with bubbles from a toy. I joked with Roma then that it was a West Ham thing. Suffice to say, there were no bubbles in The Goose beer garden in 2016. There were, however, a small group of West Ham fans, wearing no colours, minding their own business. As we left the pub, early, at just before 2pm, I sensed that another little mob of West Ham walked past. I decided to hang back and let them walk on. The last thing that I wanted was for my guests to witness any match day silliness. To be fair, I didn’t see any trouble the entire day.

It is not always the same story when West Ham come visiting.

Roma, Vanessa and Shawn took their seats in the rear rows of the West Stand, underneath the overhang. They would soon be posting pictures. Fantastic.

The stadium slowly filled. How different this all is to the “pay on the gate” days of yesteryear, when the terraces often became full a good hour before the kick-off oat some games. In those days, the atmosphere would gradually rise with each passing minute. There would be songs from The Shed. On occasion, the pre-match “entertainment” would involve scuffles in the North Stand as opposing fans battled for territory.

In 1984, the ICF arrived very early in the seats of the old West Stand, causing me – a teenager on the benches – to worry about my safety.

Different times.

Prior to the game, Ron Harris presented John Terry with a memento marking his seven-hundredth Chelsea game the previous week. For a while, I wondered if Ron’s 795 might come under threat. Unless the club have a change of heart regarding John Terry, that record will go on forever.

There were three thousand away fans – three flags – in the far corner. They were mumbling something about “pwitty bahbles in de air” as the game began.

The first-half was a poor show to be honest. From the moment that Manuel Lanzini looked up twenty-five yards out and fired a fine curling effort past Thibaut Courtois on seventeen minutes, we struggled to get much of a foothold. A few chances were exchanged, but I felt that West Ham looked a little more focussed when they attacked. A penalty claim was waved away by new referee Robert Madley as the ball appeared to strike the arm of Enner Valencia. I am not one to moan about referees as a rule, but this was one of the first of many odd decisions made by the man in black.

We plugged away, but it was hardly entertaining or productive. I was slightly surprised that West Ham didn’t hit us further; they seemed to resist the temptation to attack at will, despite having a one-goal cushion.

This was not going well.

Aaron Cresswell struck a shot wide, Willian hit a free-kick over.

In the third minute of extra-time in the first-half, we were awarded another free-kick and I am sure that I am not the only one who presumed that Willian would take another stab at goal. Instead, Cesc Fabregas struck a magnificent free-kick over the wall and past the flailing Adrian.

Vanessa’s man had done it. We exchanged texts.

“Happy?”

“Extremely.”

“Bless.”

I instantly remembered Vanessa’s funny comment in Charlotte after Fabregas had fluffed an easy chance against Paris St. Germain…

“Ah, he’s always nervous around me.”

Not so today, Ness.

I am not sure what magical dust Guus Hiddink sprinkled in the players’ half-time cuppas, but it certainly worked. Pedro replaced the injured Kenedy, and we then upped the tempo. Apart from a John Terry goal-line clearance from the mercurial Payet in the first attack of the half, we dominated the second-half right from the offset.

An effort from Oscar, a header from JT. We were getting behind the West Ham full backs and causing problems.

And yet…and yet…completely against the run of play, Sakho played in the overlapping Cresswell who smacked a shot against the bar with Courtois rooted to the floor.

Remy, twisting, forced a save.

The crowd sensed a revival but the noise was not thunderous as I had hoped.

Andy Carroll, who scored the winner at Upton Park earlier this season, replaced Sakho. His first bloody touch turned in Payet’s through ball.

Bollocks.

With West Ham going well this season, I almost expected a few to get tickets in the home areas of The Bridge. When they nabbed this second goal I looked hard to see if there were any odd outbreaks of applause from away fans in home areas – the corporate West Stand especially – but there was nothing.

Traore replaced Remy, who had struggled.

Over in the far corner :

“Fawchunes always idin.”

We rallied well, and the West Ham goal suddenly lived a very charmed life. A Fabregas header went over, an Oscar shot was blocked, and Fabregas’ bicycle kick flew over. Corner after corner. A Terry header went close.

Carroll then twice tested Courtois, but the threat was averted.

The time was passing.

This would be Guus Hiddink’s first loss in the league.

Keep plugging away boys.

At last Ruben Loftus-Cheek appeared, replacing Oscar, who had another indifferent game. Ruben’s run into the box was curtailed by Antonio. It looked a clear penalty to me.

Fabregas coolly sent Adrian the wrong way.

2-2.

Phew.

Vanessa’s man did it again.

At last…at last…the noise bellowed around Stamford Bridge.

I thought that we had definitely deserved a draw on the back of a more spirited second-half show. The first-half had been dire. We kept going. I thought JT was excellent, as was Mikel. Elsewhere, I liked Kenedy and Loftus-Cheek. They must be given more playing time in the remaining eight games.

At the Peter Osgood statue, my three American friends were full of smiles.

Lovely stuff.

As I drove towards Barons Court, I realised that there would be no home game, now, for four whole weeks.

Oh Stamford Bridge, I will miss you.

“Oh wait. Hang on. I’m back again tomorrow.”

On Sunday, there would be day two of Vanessa’s birthday weekend, with a stadium tour, a quick call at the highly impressive Chelsea museum – and my first sighting of the excellent 3D model of the new stadium – a Sunday lunch on the banks of the Thames at Chiswick and a couple of hours under the shadow of Windsor Castle in Peter Osgood’s home town.

It would turn out to be a simply wonderful weekend.

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Tales From Another Chelsea Debut

Chelsea vs. Wigan Athletic : 9 February 2013.

Another Saturday, another Chelsea home game. Except…this was a Chelsea game with a difference. After relinquishing my grip on the 240 game unbroken home run against Arsenal some three weeks ago, the game with Wigan Athletic now represented “Game One” of a new sequence. I don’t expect to go nine years this time, but let’s see how far I can get. Unfortunately, Lord Parky has been suffering with the ‘flu and so was unable to accompany me to Stamford Bridge on this occasion. I hoped that he would be “match fit” once again for the Brentford F.A. Cup replay.

Before I say too much about the events of Saturday 9 February 2013, I feel that I need to share a solemn tale. On Monday, a former Frome Town player was killed in a road traffic accident and, although I did not know him personally, I remembered him from school days when he played in both the school and cricket teams. On Wednesday, I attended a Frome Town game with a few friends and there was a minute’s silence before the match in his memory. Ironically, on my drive out of the Frome area, I needed to top up with diesel at Beckington. It was here, coming home late from a mid-week Chelsea game before Christmas, that I last saw him. As I circumnavigated Warminster on the town by-pass, I drove past the crash site. There was blue and white police tape marking his car’s final resting place. There were bouquets of flowers propped against a fence. Why do I mention this story? I mention it to highlight the fragility of human life. On my travels around the highways and byways of England and Wales, I have had a couple of small-scale accidents. I have been lucky. But this was a deeply sobering incident which has played deeply on my mind over the past few days. The drive past the crash scene was a deeply moving moment. As I headed past Warminster and up on to Salisbury Plain, the solemnity inside my car was all too apparent.

Outside, the weather was murky. As I climbed up onto the A303, snow started to fall. I wondered what sort of weather would be awaiting me once I arrived in London. Thankfully, by the time I had stopped at Fleet in Hampshire for a McBreakfast, the snow had stopped. I spotted a group of four Chelsea fans – unknown to me – at the services and I rolled my eyes to the sky when I saw their appearance. All four were rather rotund and all four were wearing tight-fitting Chelsea shirts – but crucially they were all wearing Chelsea shirts over various sweatshirts and the like. They were all in their mid-‘fifties – not a sin in itself of course, I’ll be there sooner rather than later – but I’ve always thought that tight-fitting football shirts look plain silly on people of a certain age.

I could only imagine what conversation Parky and I might have had in the circumstances.

I made great time and was parked up at 10.50am. I had plans to meet a few friends at the hotel at 11.30am, but had just enough time to pop in to “The Goose” which had recently been closed for refurbishment. Although I didn’t have time for a drink, I greeted a few friends who were already enjoying a few liveners. The place looked excellent, with new leather seats, floor tiles, carpets, wallpaper and fittings. There is even a TV out in the beer garden. As I headed down to The Bridge, I noted that The Malt House had opened-up again, too. No doubt there will be higher beer prices at each locale, but I guess that’s inevitable.

Down at the hotel, there was a gathering of friends from near and far. My guest for the day – Constanza, born only a few miles away from The Bridge – was visiting London for a week from her home in Michigan. She was in town to attend a couple of interviews at colleges in order to get a place for a Master’s degree in the autumn. She had already done the stadium tour and museum earlier in the week, but this was her big day.

Her first ever Chelsea game.

Without wasting much time, I quickly introduced her to Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti, who were sitting in their usual area. Cons’ smile was wide as she shook hands with both of these Chelsea legends. Mike from New York was over for the game – he got out of JFK just before the snow fell on Friday – and was chatting to father and son Jim Senior from NYC and Jim Junior, who now lives in Thailand. Gill and Graeme were also present and we soon posed for a photo with Gill’s “Kent Blues” flag.

Happy days.

It is always a big thrill for me to meet first-time visitors to Stamford Bridge and to show them a few of the sights and share few stories. I’m a very lucky person. With no children of my own, I at least get the chance to play “father” to a few first-time visitors to Chelsea every season and it is something that I treasure. Thankfully, a “meet and greet” with Ron Harris is part of the usual routine now and I am very grateful for that too. Unfortunately for Cons, Ron Harris passed on the news that John Terry wouldn’t playing. His old knee injury had become enflamed again. JT is Cons’ personal favourite, so my heart went out to her.

Cons and I then walked around Stamford Bridge as I explained a few of the sights. Outside the East Stand, we met up with Steve Mantle who was with another first-time visitor from the US; a member of the infamous “OC Blues” in California.

“Oh – you know Steve-O and Wrayman? My condolences.”

So, Steve and I were doing our little bit for Anglo-American relations.

I asked Steve’s guest how many times she had used the word “awesome”: but she replied “no – just amazing…everything is amazing.”

How wonderful it is to see Stamford Bridge through fresh eyes. It’s easy to get a little disheartened at the ever-diminishing atmosphere and the increasingly disconnected support base at The Bridge, but we mustn’t lose sight of how intimate Stamford Bridge is, nestled amongst the bars and pubs of the Fulham Road. There is nothing like the re-match buzz on match days in deepest SW6.

We continued our walk around The Bridge, stopping off for a photo-call at the Peter Osgood statue, before meeting up with Mike again down at the White Horse on Parson’s Green.

There were reminiscences of Tokyo and also thoughts about the Asia tour in the summer. Once the tour dates for the games in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta were announced on Thursday, I felt the adrenaline start to pulse through my body and within a few hours of checking and cross-checking flights on the internet, I had found some very agreeable prices. However, I explained to Mike that I have since thought hard about the tour and have “stepped back from the edge of the cliff.” I was ready to take the plunge, but I need time to look at all options. In truth, I am a little dismayed that Chelsea has again chosen games in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. These are a couple of fine cities, but it was only eighteen months ago that I visited them in 2011. I was hoping and praying for games in China – Shanghai and Beijing would have been perfect – but I am not sure about returning to BKK and KL so soon after my last visit. It seems that the Chelsea “problem” of getting drawn against teams from familiar cities – Barcelona, Prague, Porto, Rome, Milan, Valencia – in UEFA competitions is now being replicated in Asia.

Another pal – Dave – arrived at around 2pm. He is from London but has been living in New York for seven years. I first met him out in California on the 2007 tour. He is now living back in England – and badly missing New York. He is especially missing the view from his apartment in Brooklyn, overlooking the East River, bridges and all. The view of a pub from his flat in Tufnell Park just doesn’t match up.

Cons was enjoying the pre-match and there was talk of her getting a season ticket for 2013-2014 should her interviews be successful. It warmed me to hear her mention the phrase ‘my Chelsea family” on more than one occasion.

Although I originally wanted to be inside the stadium at 2.30pm to allow Cons the sight of the players’ pre-match routine, I’m afraid that old habits meant that we reached our seats with only five minutes to spare.

Wigan’s away following was unsurprisingly small. For the first time that I can remember, all 200 away fans were encamped in the lower tier, allowing an extra 1,000 Chelsea fans above them in the upper tier. I’ve long been advocating this; good to see. David Luiz partnered Frank Lampard at the base of our midfield five, which meant that Cahill partnered Ivanovic in the defence. I am – of course – not Benitez’ biggest fan, but at least he has spotted the potential of Luiz in the midfield, as a playmaker rather than a destructor.

I thought that Wigan caused us a few problems in the first-half, with old boy Franco di Santo involved. When he came to retrieve a ball from behind the goal line, the MHL gave him a nice reception and he clapped us back; nice to see. A fine Petr Cech save from Shaun Maloney brought us all to our feet.

A through ball from David Luiz, fresh from his captaincy of the Brazilian national team on Wednesday, found Fernando Torres who ably pushed the ball into the path of an advancing Ramires. He thumped the ball past Al Habsi and we could relax a little. A couple of efforts from Fernando Torres – another Cons favourite – promised good things. As the first-half drew on, our dominance increased. A few efforts from fizzed close to the Wigan goal but there was no further addition to the score line. I had already warned Cons of the lack of atmosphere at games these days, but she didn’t seem fazed.

Frank Leboeuf was on the pitch at the break. He hasn’t put on an ounce of fat since he hung up his boots.

Soon into the second half, a rampaging Azpilicueta sent over a great ball which easily found Eden Hazard, unmarked. The finish was cool and clinical. 2-0 and coasting.

But this was Chelsea.

Within two minutes, we conceded. A hopeful punt into space seemed to befuddle Cahill and Ivanovic. Maloney ran on to the ball, rounded Cech and adroitly slotted home from an angle.

I turned to Cons and said “and that’s why I’ve gone grey.”

The crowd were slowly getting into the game. A Lampard shot whizzed past the post. Ramires chased down a defender right down in front of us – it was a great piece if aggressive play – and this single action galvanised the support. Of course, in my mind, this is completely the opposite of what should happen at Chelsea.

Our loud and partisan support should galvanise the team.

The two highlights of the second-half were two perfectly played passes from Lampard, with perfect weight, direction and “fade.” However, Wigan threatened again, causing Benitez to change the personnel. Juan Mata replaced the impressive Oscar. He was soon involved. A Hazard pass found Mata. He played the ball back towards Lampard, who took aim and slotted the ball low past Al Habsi. With great pleasure, I photographed the goal – number 198 – and the resultant celebratory leap, before Frank returned back to thank Mata for the perfect pass.

3-1. Phew.

The crowd found its voice towards the end of the game and Cons was joining in.

Job done.

Some more changes. Benayoun for Cahill, Luiz back into defence. Marin for Hazard.

Another rampaging run from Azpilicueta took him in to a central position. He fired in a dipping shot, which the Wigan ‘keeper could only parry. The ball flew out to Marko Marin who flung himself at the ball. He appeared to head it – like a youngster, unsure of the best way – with eyes shut and head down, the ball thumping against the top of his head. In truth, he did well to contort his neck to meet the ball in the first place. I snapped away as he celebrated amongst a few exultant fans in the MHL. In truth, the score line flattered us. There were no anti-Benitez chants throughout the game, which I regard as a positive. All things considered, a good – albeit quiet – day at the office.

After the game, Cons joined me for the first Supporters Trust meeting in the Fulham CIU club, just a few yards down from the old So Bar. I was happy that she was able to witness a key moment in the history of our club. Although the meeting was rather chaotic, a few key statements were announced and there was a good vibe in the crowded bar. I would heartily recommend that any Chelsea supporter – in the UK, in the USA, in Thailand, in Indonesia – join up. It only costs £5.

Outside, Cons and I said our goodbyes, but with a promise that we’d do it all again soon.

I walked back to the car, past a busy Goose, and set off for the return home. A strange thing happened, however, at Fleet Services. As I sat inside the services, eating a brie, lettuce and grape sandwich, refuelling myself for the next hour’s drive, I suddenly had a moment of concern. A moment of clarity.

It was 8pm on a Saturday night. I was all by myself. I was at a service station in Hampshire. It was a cold night outside. What on Earth was I doing? Without Parky – or Glenn – or any of the friends who used to travel up from Frome for home games – the return drive back to Somerset appeared to be a rather sad journey.

I sighed. I haven’t felt like that for years and years. I then smiled.

“Don’t knock it Chris…millions of Chelsea fans around the world would love to be in your shoes.”

The rest of the drive home was uneventful, save for some foggy weather as I tentatively made my way past Stonehenge. This slowed my progress, but on this particular occasion, after the events of the past week, I was more than happy to take it easy. I peered in to “The Cornerhouse” pub as I made my way through Frome and imagined conversations taking place.

“Do anything today?”

“Stayed in. Watched the rugby.”

“Went shopping.”

“Nothing much.”

“I see Lampard scored again.”

That moment of concern which I had encountered at Fleet services an hour or so before, was put into perspective.

“Yep, Lampard scored again. I was there.”

The home run had begun again.
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Tales From The Blue Corner And The Red Corner

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 11 November 2012.

It was early morning on Remembrance Sunday.

Outside, the fields surrounding my Somerset village were frosted white. The sky was pure blue, devoid of clouds. Although this was a day of football, this was also a day of solemn contemplation and appreciation. Later in the morning, there would be a church service at the parish church of St. Andrew’s to commemorate those who had died while serving in the armed forces. Before the day gathered speed, I decided that I’d like to have my own little moment of quiet. I made my way down to the centre of the village and took a few photographs in and around the village church. Poppies bordered the pathway leading into the churchyard. The sun shone brightly. The village was barely awake.

Towards the eastern edge of the churchyard, there was one gravestone which I needed to capture on film. Siegfried Sassoon, one of England’s famous war poets – along with Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke – spent much of his life in my home village. It was his wish to be buried underneath the limestone spire of Mells church, alongside the avenue of yew trees, facing forever east into the Somerset countryside. As I approached his grave, I noticed the shadow from another grave – a cross – slanting across the plain tombstone. There was a ruby red bouquet and a single red poppy.

I wandered down to the village war memorial and took several more photographs. The memorial was designed by Edwin Lutyens, the famous British architect who was also responsible for London’s Cenotaph. In a quiet moment, I stood in the quiet Somerset morning. The names of the brave young men from the village who lost their lives in the two world wars were etched on Somerset stone. It was time for silence.

A Whispered Tale.

I’d heard fool-heroes brag of where they’d been,
With stories of the glories that they’d seen.
But you, good simple soldier, seasoned well
In woods and posts and crater-lines of hell,
Who dodge remembered ‘crumps’ with wry grimace,
Endured experience in your queer, kind face,
Fatigues and vigils haunting nerve-strained eyes,
And both your brothers killed to make you wise;
You had no babbling phrases; what you said
Was like a message from the maimed and dead.
But memory brought the voice I knew, whose note
Was muted when they shot you in the throat;
And still you whisper of the war, and find
Sour jokes for all those horrors left behind.

Siegfried Sassoon.

My friend Francis, who I first met on my inaugural day at Frome College in September 1978, collected me at just after 9am. Parky joined us en route. The banter soon started flying around. Francis is a Liverpool fan and, in some respects, is my lucky charm. He has attended around seven Chelsea vs. Liverpool games with me – including the momentous Champions League semi-final from 2008 – and was yet to see his team victorious.

The very first of these was way back in May 1991, when we travelled up by train from Frome, along with two of my former workmates Dave and Matthew. Liverpool, under Graeme Souness, were putting in a very late challenge to retain their title, but a strong Chelsea performance that day gave us a deserved 4-2 win. Our team included players such as Dave Beasant, Jason Cundy, Andy Townsend, Dennis Wise, Alan Dickens, Kerry Dixon and Gordon Durie. The four of us watched from high up in the old West Stand. It was a great game, our last home match of the season. I remember that I had to defend Francis and Matthew, who was also a Liverpool fan, from abuse from Chelsea fellow fans after they celebrated a little too noisily. Two goals from King Kerry gave us the win. Arsenal went on to win the League Championship. Liverpool, of course, is still waiting for their first title since 1990. It’s hard to fathom that the team which so dominated the football scene in my childhood (championships in 1973, 1976, 1977, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1988 and 1990) are still waiting. Although Manchester United suffered twenty-six years of title-drought from 1967 to 1993, their success in the ‘sixties was not as dominant as Liverpool in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. The comparison is valid, in terms of yearning, though Liverpool’s drought seems more dramatic somehow. I think that league success for Liverpool is still some time away.

Francis is off to the US next summer with his family. They are visiting Orlando, Miami and New York. We have been chatting about places to see, travel tips and possible itineraries for ages. For once it will be me living vicariously through his travel experiences. He has always been supremely interested in my trips to the US, to NYC especially, and I can’t wait to hear of his time across the Atlantic next August. We’ve spoken about baseball; rather annoyingly, the only Yankee game taking place is on the evening of his arrival from Miami, only hours after touching down at La Guardia. We think he’ll settle for a Mets game instead.

At 11am, we turned the radio on in order to hear the chimes from Westminster to signal the two minute’s silence at The Cenotaph.

We were parked up in good time and dived into the café for a filling breakfast. Parky darted into The Goose, but Francis and I headed down to The Bridge. I pointed out a few of the changes to the landscape since Francis’ last visit. Walking along Vanston Place, we passed a wine merchants’ and an upmarket restaurant. Often after midweek games, these two establishments are often full of late night carousers. I mentioned to Francis that there is often a late-night wine-tasting session taking place in the former. It’s typical Hammersmith and Fulham, typical Kensington and Chelsea, typical London. I don’t suppose that there are similar activities at 10pm near stadia in Wigan, Sunderland or Swansea.

I collected my Juventus ticket – fantastic to get my hands on it – and we walked around to the main forecourt, past the old Shed wall; the last remaining structure, apart from the East stand, from that game in 1991. My friend Lynda, from Pennsylvania, had arranged to meet us. She introduced us to Tee, her significant other, and we quickly popped up to the hotel foyer to meet Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti. I first met Lynda in The Goose on a NYB trip two seasons ago. Lynda was in the Chelsea team against PSG at Chelsea Piers in New York in July. It was great to see her again. The two of them had just flown in and were off to the delights of Madrid during the week. Tee, once he had spotted Ron Harris, needed a little moment to compose himself. Of course, Ron is the Chelsea equivalent of Manchester United’s Bobby Charlton, Bayern Munich’s Franz Beckenbauer, Baltimore Orioles’ Cal Ripken, San Francisco 49ers’ Joe Montana. What a treat for him to meet Chelsea’s two leading appearance makers on his first trip to Chelsea, his first trip to England. It would be like me informally chatting to Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford on my first ever visit to Yankee Stadium.

Wow. No wonder he was dizzy.

We took some photos. Francis quizzed Tee about visiting America while Lynda and I caught up on a few things. Thankfully, Sandy didn’t cause too much hardship to her house and home. I also bumped into Gary from LA, an ex-pat who I first met on the US tour in 2007.

For the next two hours, we spent an enjoyable time in two Chelsea pubs; “The Imperial” on the Kings Road, the former watering hole of Matthew Harding, and “The Pelican” on Waterford Road. I was able, at long bloody last, to chill out and enjoy some pints, even though they were served in poxy plastic glasses. Tee, who is a professional footballer with the Dayton Dutch Lions, was having a great time. He has been a Chelsea fan since 1998 and his personal favourite was Michael Essien. He was dismayed when he was loaned out to Real Madrid; imagine Tee’s pleasure, then, when he realised that he is able to see Ess play in Madrid next weekend. Free tickets too, but that’s another story. It was lovely for Francis and I to spend time with our guests from the US, to experience their enthusiasm for the game at first hand, to join in their fun. It’s what football is all about. On leaving “The Pelican,” all four of us almost got knocked over by a crowd of several hundred in-line skaters, streaming through the streets of Fulham, ghetto-blasters roaring. I repeat my comment about stadia in Wigan, Sunderland or Swansea.

I bought a programme and we said our goodbyes to Lynda and Tee, who would be watching from the south-west corner of The Shed Lower, only a few yards away from Lord Parky. I told Lynda to keep an eye out for his flailing crutches should we score. This part of the stadium seems to be the de facto home for all CFC supporters’ group tickets these days.

Inside the stadium, all of the usual banners had been removed from behind both goals and, in their place, two banners of remembrance stood alone, just above the goalmouths. This was a great touch by Chelsea. We took our seats – Francis to my left, Alan to my right – and ran through the teams. It would be a big day for the two young full-backs, Ryan Bertrand and Cesar Azpilicueta. Torres was starting of course, and we lived in hope. We wanted him to constantly attack the aging Carragher. Despite the F.A. Cup Final win over Liverpool in May, there is no doubt that they have been a thorn in our side of late. Their last three visits to Stamford Bridge all resulted in away wins. It was time for revenge, of sorts. We just don’t like Liverpool, do we?

This game would be my fifty-ninth game involving the two teams (thirty-seven games at Stamford Bridge, eighteen times at Anfield, two at Cardiff, one at Old Trafford and one at Wembley). What is that old saying about familiarity and contempt? I’ve seen Chelsea play Liverpool more times than any other team. Every fifteen games, around come Liverpool again.

Both teams gave a guard of honour to members of the serving armed forces and, of course, to the Chelsea pensioners, marching so proudly in their bright scarlet coats and tricorn hats.

There was a near perfect silence in honour of the fallen before the kick-off. The only sound, thankfully not particularly audible, was from down below in the area underneath the Matthew Harding where some shameless home fans were singing about “poor little scousers.” I hoped that the noise was not discernible on the live TV feed.

After the two magnificent matches against Manchester United and Shakhtar Donetsk, we all wondered what the game would have in store for us. Tom looked as though he couldn’t take another 94 minutes of drama.

Despite the two clubs’ recent intense rivalry, I thought that the atmosphere wasn’t great at all. Maybe we had been “all yelled out” against Shakhtar. The Liverpool fans began noisily but soon faded. They held up a flag saying “Football Without Fans Is Nothing” before the game – nice sentiment, not sure who it was aimed at. They also had a flag which stated the oft-cited “Against Modern Football.” I first saw Ipswich Town fans with this banner at Stamford Bridge on their visit in 2009. Again, I understand the sentiment. For all of my enjoyment in following the club and for all of the magical moments I have witnessed, the sport of football can still be a bloody train wreck.

Obscene wages, aloof players, malevolent owners, loathsome agents, numpty fans, the cult of celebrity and lurid tabloid headlines, the WAGs, the hangers-on, the gutter press, the cost of tickets. It goes on.

Maybe one day even I will stop in my tracks and cry “enough is enough.”

Liverpool enjoyed the bulk of possession in the first-half, but rarely troubled Petr Cech. A shot from Oscar, so strong of late, was our only real threat on the Liverpool in the first twenty minutes. It sailed high of the Shed End goal. Fernando Torres began the game brightly, though, skipping away from his markers on two occasions, and we hoped that his enthusiasm wouldn’t wane.

A great corner from Juan Mata, with Lynda and Tee looking on, was whipped in and John Terry, returning from his four game ban, rose unhindered and the ball flew into the net. It was a dramatic blow and The Bridge erupted with noise. Our captain sprinted down to the south-west corner and I snapped away like a fool, catching the players behind one of the three large flags which are waved each time a Chelsea goal is scored. In several photos, Tee can be seen grinning maniacally.

Fantastic stuff.

Chelsea goal scorers always seem to celebrate by running down to the three “Chelsea” corners of the pitch at Stamford Bridge. Luckily for me, this affords great photo opportunities. I can’t think of many other teams that similarly do this. Long may it continue.

The headed goal from JT reminded me of a similar goal on Remembrance Sunday in 2009 when we defeated Manchester United 1-0. A similar result would be just fine. In truth, chances were at a premium for both teams. Liverpool laboured away without much threat. A Torres strike was aimed at Brad Jones in the away goal and Hazard shot wide. Sadly, John Terry fell awkwardly in his own half and I could see immediately that our captain was in tremendous pain. We watched on as players, then our medical team, surrounded him. He was sadly stretchered off and Alan wondered if we would see him again this season.

In the closing moments of the first period, Juan Mata broke through and shot wildly over when we all wanted him to take an extra touch and possibly waltz around Jones.

At the break, Ron Harris was on the pitch with Neil Barnett. I always remember a story Ron told about a game against Liverpool in March 1979. He had been told that he would not be playing, so he went out on the Friday night and, quite unlike him, had got rather drunk on Irish coffee (of all things). On the day of the game, the Chelsea manager Danny Blanchflower had a change of heart and Chopper was playing. Although we were a very poor team that season, we drew 0-0 with the European Champions and Ron was named Man of the Match. It is not known if he repeated that pre-match ritual in later games. As an aside, Ron often played in a midfield role during that season and – even more bizarrely – often wore the number nine shirt.

Soon into the second-half Francis and I were treated to another classic comment from Alan –

“I saw that game the other night. Liverpool versus Anzi Machalach…Anzi Mallacaz…Anzi Makhachkala …I’d never heard of them before. Turns out they’re a team from Merseyside.”

Even Francis enjoyed that one. Down below us, we could hardly believe our eyes when Howard Webb only gave Glenn Johnson a yellow for seemingly elbowing Oscar in the face. The Brazilian was visibly upset and the supporters around me wailed in protest. From the free-kick, Jones saved from Torres.

Thankfully, the game was devoid of the “Murderers” and the “You Killed Your Own Fans” chants. Long may it continue. Maybe the solemnity of the pre-game silence negated this. Either way, the two chants were notable absentees.

Ryan Bertrand was having a fine game attacking down the left flank at every opportunity. It has been an aspect of his game that I wished that he could improve. From a whipped-in cross, Torres just failed to connect. In this period of our ascendency, the Liverpool fans were woefully quiet. Jon Obi Mikel was the next player to spurn an opportunity after Gerrard fouled Oscar and Mata centered.

On seventy-two minutes, Liverpool stunned us all by equalising. Carragher rose to head a corner across the goal. Luiz Suarez, the master irritant, was on hand to head the ball in from underneath the cross bar. It was his turn now to celebrate over in the corner. The visitors now fancied their chances after being poor for over an hour. We changed things and brought on Victor Moses to run at the Liverpool defence but, in truth, he saw little of the ball. Liverpool grew stronger and two saves from Petr Cech denied them an unlikely winner.

Although the game ended 1-1, it felt like a defeat.

Francis was happy. I clearly wasn’t.

Tellingly, on the way home, while we were listening to some soothing music from Paul Weller in some slow-moving traffic, Francis said, possibly in jest –

“You’re too spoiled at Chelsea, Chris.”

It made me think. I’d hope that I’d never feel spoilt. I’m sure I wasn’t. It was just a big disappointment to give up three points and, because of it, be shunted down to third place.

For the record, the fifty-nine games against Liverpool now reads –

Won 24
Drew 14
Lost 21

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