Tales From The North By Northwest Corner

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 27 December 2022.

After a break of forty-five days, Chelsea were back in action. To be honest, compared to the extended hiatus due to COVID in 2020 and 2021, this had been a breeze. In fact, we had all agreed that after the Newcastle defeat, the third league loss in a row, we were clearly at a low ebb and so the enforced break came at just the right time. I know that I needed the rest too. The match at St. James’ Park was my twelfth in forty-one days.

Fackinell.

I didn’t watch a single second of the Qatar World Cup. Instead, the plan always was for me to get my football fix from watching my local team in November and December. However, due to Frome Town’s schedule getting hit with a few postponements, I only saw three games; a 4-1 home win against Slimbridge, a 0-1 defeat at Bashley and a 2-3 loss at Melksham Town. I did, however, attend a game up in Scotland in early December; a Queens Park match against Hamilton Academical that was played at their traditional Hampden Park home for the first time in a few seasons.

For the home game with Bournemouth we planned to be up in London at around midday. I had woken with not too much enthusiasm, and I must admit I felt a little guilty. Despite the fact that I hadn’t seen the team for a month or more, a home match against Bournemouth was hardly going to set the pulses racing. Such games are never a visceral assault on the senses, nor are any Boxing Day – which this effectively was – encounters these days, more’s the pity.

None of the passengers in my car were expecting too much from the game. We guessed it wasn’t set to be a feast of football. We just wanted a win, any win.

Three points was king.

But oh the guilt. I was only too aware that my enthusiasm was lacking and a dark cloud of guilt followed me up the A303 and the M3 into London. While PD and Parky began drinking at our usual hostelry, Glenn and I had decided to have a pre-game wander around Stamford Bridge and the local area. We found ourselves in the Copthorne Hotel way before the match day crowds would appear. The bar area was quiet. I spotted a favourite photograph on a wall, far from the madding crowd, and it is one that always brings a smile to my face.

I love this.

There is so much to take in.

The four players are John Boyle, Terry Venables, Ron Harris and Eddie McCreadie. The photo is from around 1965, and I always think that the photographer is about to get pelted with those recently formed snowballs. There are a couple of other players in the frame too. The pitch has evidently been cleared of snow and you just wonder what sort of a mammoth task that must have been. I have an image of the regular ground staff being augmented by a legion of apprentices, armed with brushes, rakes, spades and shovels, clearing the pitch in preparation of the upcoming game. I am sure that I can spy the traps of the greyhound racing beyond the players. The crush barriers on The Shed terrace are clearly those patented by Archibald Leitch, the Glaswegian architect responsible for so many of the old stadia in Britain, who not only designed stands and terracings, but crush barriers too. Those originals were eventually replaced in the mid-seventies by an altogether different design. I can see what might well be braziers, equally placed on the mid-terrace walkway, presumably lit with coal or wood to clear those walkways of snow and ice. And look at the Harlem Globetrotter shorts, which I remember, from colour photos in various publications, being red and red stripes. I can’t even imagine how Chelsea ended up with those.

Snow, striped shorts, snowballs and The Shed.

It’s a classic, eh?

Despite the brief appearance of some snow and some decidedly cold temperatures during the week before Christmas, this particular day was much milder, but with rain forecast to hit London later.

Glenn and I circumnavigated the stadium and I took a few photographs of the pre-match scene. We chatted a little about the club wanting to purchase the land currently owned by the Oswald Stoll Foundation, and we await further details of how all of that extra land might aid a stadium upgrade. If nothing else, it will surely assist in the thorny topic of entrance and egress.

There’s new signage atop the central column of the West Stand facade. God knows why.

We walked up the deserted King’s Road – admittedly the game was still four hours away – but bloody hell it was quiet. We stayed to the east of Stamford Bridge – Chelsea, not Fulham – and there was just no sign that there was a top-ranking game of football taking place half a mile away. Heading north to the Fulham Road, we stumbled across a previously unvisited pub, “The Sporting Page”, and we dipped in alongside four other drinkers. In my quest to visit every hostelry within two miles of Stamford Bridge, I had ticked another one off the list.

On our wander around the deserted streets of SW10, Glenn had admitted that he had been far from enthused about the game against Bournemouth and this made me feel a little better about myself…that I wasn’t in the boat alone.

We briefly touched on my retrospective of the 1982/83 season.

And so.

13 November 1982 : Barnsley 1 Chelsea 1 – 13,286.

My diary entry for this day starts with a brief synopsis of events at Oakwell.

“We were one-nil up at half-time so a bit fed-up we only drew 1-1. That’s our sixth draw this season. Gary Locke was sent off – pillock.”

Our goal was scored by Mike Fillery, who was probably our best player at the time and possibly the most adored. Born in Mitcham, he had come through the ranks and debuted during the end of the dreadful relegation season of 1978/79. He soon became a crowd favourite in the Second Division seasons that followed, where his stylish passing and scoring ability shone in many games. He was left-footed, and could piece together some lovely passes. He had a languid style, but was never one for a 50/50 tackle, and I can see him gliding around the pitch to this day.

20 November 1982 : Chelsea 1 Shrewsbury Town 2 – 8,690.

A week after, another Saturday, and my diary began with a depressing moan.

“How the hell can Chelsea lose at home to a snotty little team like Shrewsbury? That means that we have only won four games out of fifteen. And we are away to Rotherham next week. Oh dear. Please God don’t let Rotherham score six against us again. All I can say is that Chelsea must be shit.”

The seventeen-year-old me was clearly unimpressed. Indeed, this was a very poor result.  It was goal-less at half-time, and Colin Lee scored for us but the visitors nabbed two. Just as worrying as the result was the crowd figure. Although attendances had dipped to below 10,000 in the closing stages of the previous season – the nadir being 6,009 for the London derby with Orient – this was the first sub 10,000 gate of 1982/83. I remember being pretty depressed about the state of the club after this game and my previously positive spin on our squad seemed to be based on fantasy and not fact. I had been off school with mumps for a week too, so life was pretty depressing in late November 1982.

27 November 1982 : Rotherham United 1 Chelsea 0 – 8,793.

In the previous season, we had lost both games against Rotherham United by the horrific aggregate score of 1-10. We had lost 0-6 at Millmoor in October and then 1-4 at Stamford Bridge in March. The 0-6 loss is often cited as our most embarrassing defeat. I can understand that. In the circumstances, a narrow 0-1 loss in 1982/83 could almost be seen as a moral victory. Yes, dear reader, things really were that bad forty years ago. The game also marked the Chelsea debut of Mark Falco, on-loan from the hated Tottenham, and this was regarded as pretty much a low point in the credibility of the club. A loanee from Tottenham? Good fucking grief. My diary summed it up.

“A bit depressed about Chelsea. No promotion again.”

4 December 1982 : Chelsea 2 Burnley 1 – 8,184.

Out of nowhere, an upturn in my fortunes. Not only was a girl in the Lower Sixth, Rachel, showing interest in me – the fool – Chelsea managed to eke out a slender 2-1 victory against Burnley at Stamford Bridge. Goals from Micky Droy and David Speedie, both in the first-half, gave us three points and my diary even conceded that I was happy with the 8,184 gate as I had expected one of around 6,000. The game marked the home debut of Falco, and I can only imagine the horror. This time it was the turn for Colin Lee to get sent-off. But, the three points were all that mattered.

11 December 1982 : Middlesbrough 3 Chelsea 1 – 8,836.

My diary entries throughout the week detailed my futile attempts to summon up enough courage to ask Rachel out. A couple of words, exchanges, took place, but I am afraid my shyness had got the better of me. On the Saturday, Chelsea travelled up to a probably cold and hostile Ayresome Park where John Neal’s team lost 3-1 against his former club. Mike Fillery scored our solitary goal via a penalty. In the home team was former Chelsea youngster Paul Ward and in the ‘Boro team, future Chelsea midfielder Darren Wood. Amid my fluttering heartbeats, my diary ended with a blunt message.

“Chelsea sont merde.”

18 December 1982 : Chelsea 2 Bolton Wanderers 1 – 6,903.

On the Monday after the Middlesbrough game, at a Sixth-Form Disco, my shyness disappeared and all was good with the world. Rachel and I danced the night away. I always remember that as I tentatively approached her on the dance-floor for the first time, the bastard DJ started playing “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye, and there is no need for a punchline. Throughout the week, we chatted a little and exchanged Christmas cards.

On the day of the Bolton game, the last Saturday before Christmas, I was called in to assist at my father’s menswear shop in Frome. It was the first time that I had worked a shift in his shop. After a nervous start, I almost enjoyed it. I never really saw myself as a salesman. My father always had a little wireless tucked away on his desk in the small office and it would have been via this medium that I would have heard that Chelsea had scrambled a narrow 2-1 win against Bolton. The goals came from Colin Pates and an own goal. Bloody hell, a love interest and a Chelsea win. What on Earth was happening?

27 December 1982 : Queens Park Rangers 1 Chelsea 2 – 23,744.

On the Monday after the Bolton win, I had planned to meet Rachel in a pub in Frome with some friends, but she never showed up. Bollocks. My World caved in. I plucked up enough courage to ‘phone her the next evening but she was non-committal about future plans.

“Back to Chelsea, mate” I no doubt thought to myself. Rachel, in fact, favoured the hated Manchester United and there is no need for a punchline here either.

Christmas 1982 was a pretty dull one. However, I was pleased to be heading up to Stamford Bridge on 28 December for the Fulham game at Stamford Bridge. It would act as an emotional safety harness after my recent romantic rebuttal. However, the day before it we visited QPR for another West London derby. At Christmas 1981, we had won 2-0 on their plastic pitch, and – miracles at Yuletide – in 1982 we won again. The goals came from Clive Walker and David Speedie as QPR were beaten 2-1.

I always remember that the attendances on this particular day were monumental, and I was so pleased that football could still attract such numbers at a time when gates, not just ours, were plummeting.

These were the First Division games, and the attendance at St. Andrews really shocked me; it was almost three times their average.

Arsenal vs. Tottenham – 51,497 /average 24,153.

Birmingham City vs. Aston Villa – 43,864 / average 15,593.

Brighton vs. Southampton – 21,794 / average 14,673.

Ipswich Town vs. Norwich City – 29,596 / average 19,679.

Liverpool vs. Manchester City – 44,664 / average 34,836.

Luton Town vs. Watford – 21,145 / average 13,429

Manchester United vs. Sunderland – 47,783 / average 41,574.

Nottingham Forest vs. Coventry City – 24,487 / average 17,567.

Stoke City vs. Everton – 25,427 / average 16,631.

West Bromwich Albion vs. Notts. County – 17,756 / average 15,258.

West Ham United vs. Swansea – 23,843 / average 22,774.

In retrospect, they don’t look too large do they? But in 1982/83, the average gate in Division One was just 20,158. My diary noted that I hoped for 20,000 for the Chelsea vs. Fulham game on Tuesday 28 December 1982.

From a Christmas past, to a Christmas present.

We headed west to Stamford Bridge and the pubs of Fulham. We were soon back in familiar territory.

Down in deepest SW6, at “The Eight Bells”, we joined forces with PD and Parky, alongside Salisbury Steve. This pub was pretty quiet too. But it was good to be back. It is the epitome of the word “cosy”; wooden-panelled walls were festooned with old prints of old river traffic and old London scenes, tables, settles and chairs were squeezed miraculously in, a chalkboard described the food on offer, pint glasses and wine glasses were stacked above the bar, a Christmas tree twinkled in the corner. I half expected Bob Cratchit to hobble in and ask for a pint of porter.

Outside, the rain was falling. It was time to make a move.

We were inside Stamford Bridge with well over half-an-hour to go. The team was announced and it looked like a standard 4/3/3.

Kepa

James – Silva – Koulibaly – Cucarella

Zakaria – Jorginho – Mount

Sterling – Havertz – Pulisic

Before the game, we observed a minute of applause for George Cohen, a member of the England 1966 World Cup winning team who recently passed away.

RIP.

A quick scan around. A few empty seats. Around two thousand away fans. The night had fallen. The rain continued.

However, my pre-match vibe hadn’t really improved.

“We’re World Champions, but we’re half a team.”

A few agreed.

My match day companions in the North by Northwest corner of Stamford Bridge arrived.

John, Gary, Alan, PD, Clive, JD, Kev and Anna, Paul.

For the first time in ages, Glenn was down in The Shed. Since the rebuild in 1997, we all agreed that he had only seen a game down there once before; in the upper tier alongside Alan and myself for the Vicenza game on a rainy night in 1998. On this occasion, he was a few yards away from Parky.

Despite my negativity, we began brightly, less laboured than in recent games, and a thrusting run from deep from Christian Pulisic showed our intent. There was an early Bournemouth free-kick from Phillip Billings that Kepa easily saved. A strong low cross fizzed in from our right but there was nobody in the box to connect. Soon after, a header from kai Havertz did not worry Mark Travers in the Bournemouth goal. A fine ball in from Kalidou Kouilbaly set up Pulisic but as his shot was released, there appeared to be a shirt pull. Alas, no penalty was given. But this was a good positive start from us.

Soon after, on sixteen minutes, while Alan and I were abusing Clive for watching Arsenal on TV, a nice move developed. Mount to Raheem Sterling and a low skidder of a cross that had just enough legs and drift on it to reach Kai Havertz, who delicately prodded it home.

Phew.

The stadium, however, was hardly bubbling over with noise.  But things would improve ten minutes later when a move again developed down our right. A neat series of passes moved the ball on and Havertz kept the move alive. The ball was pushed back by Havertz to Mount and his sweetly-placed shot nestled inside the right-hand post.

Excellent stuff.

There were a few late chances for us as the first-half was played out, with Denis Zakaria looking a fine player in midfield and Thiago Silva as impressive as ever in defence. Travers saved well at the near post after a strong shot towards goal from Sterling. Another penalty shout for a foul on Havertz was waved away.

As the referee blew for the half-time whistle, I was full of praise.

“Nice one Chels. Well done.”

Alas, the second-half did not run along similar lines. After just eight minutes into the second period, a player went down on the far touchline. A quick scan of other players confirmed my darkest fears.

“It’s Reece.”

He walked off and we wondered how serious this latest setback would be. He was replaced by Dave.

A lovely move ended with a Zakaria shot being deflected over and we enjoyed a little pressure. On fifty-eight minutes Havertz forced his way into the box with a strong dribble but screwed his shot wide.

An effort from Mount, a wild shot from Pulisic, a header from Zakaria and that was about it.

We really faded in the last quarter, inviting them on, and barely able to maintain possession when needed. Too often our passes were mishit, too often we gave them too much space.

Some changes.

Conor Gallagher for Zakaria.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for Pulisic.

Trevoh Chalobah for Sterling.

A fine save, down low, from Kepa at his near post kept Bournemouth at bay, but they definitely finished the stronger. In their Denis the Menace colours, I half expected them to claim a goal to set up a nervous finale. Kepa certainly earned his colours late on. Thankfully, their menacing came to nothing.

Chelsea 2 Bournemouth 0.

We climbed to eighth.

I battled some awful weather along the M4 on the drive home, but thoughts were already on our next match.

“It’s great that we have a game at Forest next. It’s not a new ground, but it seems like it. A new experience. Our first visit in decades. Just what we need to keep our spirits up. And our interest.”

See you there.

xxx

Tales From My San Siro Odyssey

Milan vs. Chelsea : 11 October 2022.

My San Siro odyssey began in August 1986.

Whereas my 1985 Inter-Rail jaunt around Europe took in many countries, from Italy in the south to Sweden in the north, the 1986 version – another solo-trip, another dose of me finding confidence through travel – was focussed on Spain, France, Italy and the Greek Island of Corfu. It was all about exploring the southern parts of Europe and the first fortnight or so encompassed Biarritz, Madrid, Barcelona, the Italian Riviera for a week, Pisa and Rome before I then spent around ten relaxing days in three locations on Corfu. After that had all finished, and on the return trip north, I wanted to stop off in Milan. In the three weeks or so that I had been away from Blighty, I had already visited Camp Nou in Barcelona and Stadio Olimpico in Rome. To miss out on the San Siro – or the Giuseppe Meazza as it is sometimes known – would have been foolhardy.

I caught the long overnight train – fourteen hours, the longest of the whole month – from Brindisi to Milano Centrale, arriving at 9am on a Thursday morning in early August.

Ah, Milano Centrale.

It brought back memories of my very first taste of Italy.

In 1975, on my first European holiday, my parents and I caught a train from London Victoria to Milan, another overnighter, on the way to Diano Marina in the Italian Riviera, and so the immense interior of this incredible station – Mussolini must have liked marble – thus witnessed my first ever steps on Italian soil.

A year later, another Italian holiday – this time to Lido di Jesolo near Venice – and another train to Milano Centrale. On this occasion, our onward leg was by coach and so we walked outside the station to pick up the connection. I was therefore able to witness the three huge halls that made up the station frontage. These were equally as impressive as the three semi-circular roof spans covering all of the train tracks.

By 1976, I had already chosen Juventus as my Italian and my sole European team but was of course aware of the two Milan teams who, in those days, were known in England as AC Milan and Inter Milan.

An Italian family had settled in my home village after the war and although they didn’t seem to be particularly into football, one of the brothers had a son, Adriano, who occasionally visited and he once told me that he favoured Milan. Incidentally, the mother in this family lived to a very grand age of 109. There must be something in that Italian diet.

My parents, on a whistle-stop visit to Milan on an Italian holiday in the ‘fifties had called in to see this family’s relations and my father often told the story of being given a few shots of the infamous grappa.

On a few visits to Italy, back to Diano Marina again and again to see my pal Mario, I became acquainted with more and more aspects of the Italian game. At that time, Inter were bigger than Milan – in terms of fan base – and the two clubs’ support tended to be split along socio-political lines.

Inter : middle class, to the right.

Milan : working class, to the left.

Oh, and I soon learned that “Inter Milan” was wrong, very wrong…either Inter or Internazionale and nothing else. At the time, Juventus were the dominant team but the two Milanese had sporadic success. Milan won a scudetto in 1978/79 but were then relegated to Serie B in 1979/80 due to a betting scandal and again in 1981/82 due to being, er, shite.

Which brings us nicely to 1982/83 again.

As I have mentioned previously, the visit of Leeds United to Stamford Bridge on Saturday 9 October 1982 absolutely captivated me. It stirred so much emotion. And it engendered such a sense of anticipation.

Chelsea versus Leeds.

Bloody fantastic.

Growing up, Leeds were a massive name. Just as I was getting into football, the big teams were Leeds United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea. Derby County were champions in 1972 but never really had the same clout as the others. Manchester United? No, a joke of a club on the decline. Manchester City? Off the radar.

With Leeds getting unceremoniously dumped into the old Second Division at the end of the 1981/82 season, throughout that summer I was kept buoyed with the thought that I would be – hopefully – able to see them play my beloved Chelsea at Stamford Bridge for the very first time.

The fixtures were announced. I would not have to wait too long. Unlike the Leicester City game in September when I travelled up by train, for the Leeds game I went up by National Express coach from Bath. This was a tiresome journey and I remember being relatively miserable about the whole experience. I think it was a bit cheaper than the train – my diary mentions the coach costing £5.50 – and it was all about saving money for football in those days.

I remember that some long lost Canadian cousins had recently dropped in on us – my father’s cousin from Vancouver – and I had been gifted an oversized Vancouver Whitecaps shirt as a present. I know I decided to wear it up to the Leeds United game. What do I remember of the day? I remember arriving at Victoria Coach Station and catching a tube to Fulham Broadway.

I distinctly remember this :

I was stood in the central aisle, and I noted a young lad in front of me. Maybe the same age, seventeen. He was smartly dressed. He was wearing some sportswear. Maybe some Adidas trainers. Actually, maybe some desert boots. Maybe a Slazenger pullover. Perhaps an Adidas rain jacket. Definitely some tight jeans. And I certainly remember thinking “mmm, that’s a new look, something different, bit like a mod but with a football twist.” I was certain that he was going to Chelsea. I don’t remember a pin badge though. And I remember him looking at me in my Vancouver Whitecaps shirt, and the thought went through my head that he was trying to suss out who I was, which team.

At that time, living in rural Somerset, I was blissfully unaware of the dress code that had enveloped urban cities such as Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and London but which had originated on the football terraces. There were skinheads, punks, headbangers, mods, but that was it as far as I was concerned.

Looking back, I am positive that my first ever sighting of a casual took place on the tube on the way to Chelsea and Leeds that day. I would later learn that on that very day, the warring factions – I am not sure if I had heard of the Leeds Service Crew in 1982 but it is quite possible – were chasing each other around Piccadilly Circus that lunchtime.

The programme memorably had this message emblazoned on the cover :

“Welcome to all Leeds United fans present today. Chelsea FC extend a warm welcome to the supporters of our distinguished visitors Leeds United. We hope you witness an exciting match and have a message for you – don’t be a mug, don’t be a thug – and help your club achieve greatness once again.”

I remember having a chuckle at this. There was no mention of a warning to Chelsea fans here. It would seem that we were an innocent party. I can just imagine Ken Bates mouthing the “don’t be a mug, don’t be a thug” to the programme editor.

“Yeah, that scans well. Put that in.”

I don’t remember much of the actual game and sadly I didn’t take my camera to games in those days. I absolutely remember the malevolent atmosphere though. I watched from my usual spot in The Shed, under the roof – just – and towards the tea bar. Leeds, I suppose, had around three thousand fans and the size of the gate really warmed me. It was 25,358, much more than I had expected and the third biggest of the day in the Football League. I remember Leeds in two central pens, nobody else on the bleak north terrace. But I remember that the northern segments of The Benches and the East Lower – what I would later learn to be the infamous Gate 13 – were absolutely rammed. It was as if the stadium had been tilted north and everyone had been squashed up against the north terrace. This gave me, an excitable youngster, the impression that the Chelsea fans just wanted to have a go at the Leeds lot.

There was one chant from The Shed that made me grimace :

“Did the Ripper, did the Ripper, did the Ripper get your Mum? Did the Ripper get your Mum?”

This was the Yorkshire version, not Jack of old London town.

The teams that day?

Chelsea : Steve Francis, Gary Locke, Chris Hutchings, Micky Droy, Colin Pates, John Bumstead, Tony McAndrew, Mike Fillery, Pop Robson, David Speedie, Clive Walker.

Leeds United : John Lukic, Trevor Cherry, Eddie Gray, Kenny Burns, Paul Hart, Gwynn Thomas, Kevin Hird, Aiden Butterworth, Frank Worthington, Frank Gray, Arthur Graham.

This would be my first sighting of David Speedie. There are some names in that Leeds team. The Gray brothers. Kenny Burns. I must admit that I have no recollection of seeing Frank Worthington but I am glad that I evidently did. He was one of football’s great mavericks. Please Google his goal for Bolton against Ipswich Town in 1979.

Sadly, the game ended 0-0 and was memorable for the outbreaks of fighting in the East Stand than the quality on show on the pitch.

I sloped off and ended up waiting at Victoria for an hour or so to catch a coach home. Some Tottenham fans had been at their game at home to Coventry City and we got talking. Once they heard I was Chelsea, they told me to watch out for Leeds fans as they were “nasty buggers” and I remember one of them eying up what I was wearing.

“Don’t worry, I think that you will be safe with that on.”

Let’s move on four years to 1986 and my short stopover in Milan. I bought a map at the station and walked down past La Scala Opera House to the grand cathedral – Il Duomo – in the city centre before walking to Cairoli and catching a tube to Lotto. The weather was super-hot and the walk to San Siro was tough going. I first thought that I wouldn’t be able to get in, but thankfully I soon found an open gate so sneaked inside. In those days, the stadium was just two-tiered, a huge concrete edifice. Childhood hero Ray Wilkins was playing for Milan at the time. Another couple of tourists were inside too. One of them took a photo of me looking ridiculously tanned after my stay on Corfu. San Siro was undergoing a transformation over the summer; plastic seats were being bolted onto the once bare concrete, at least on the steps of the lower deck. I took photos inside and out. It was a joy to be inside one of the palaces of European football. My diary tells me that I scrawled “Chelsea FC” on one of the green seats at the northern end. That doesn’t surprise me. I had scrawled the same on a fence at the stadium in Rome too.

I didn’t leave Milan that day until I took a train to Paris at around 7pm. There is no doubt that I would have spent a fair few hours at Milano Centrale, an activity that I would repeat many times over the next four years as I repeatedly returned to Italy. My diary noted that Milan was “not a fantastic place really” but I enjoyed being in this famous city, this famous football city, and of course the home of Italian fashion and the birthplace of the “paninari” a few years earlier.

Earlier in 1986, I had bought the Pet Shop Boys’ mini-album “Disco” and absolutely loved the song “Paninaro” :

“Passion and love and sex and money.
Violence, religion, injustice and death.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Girls, boys, art, pleasure.
Girls, boys, art, pleasure.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Food, cars, travel.
Food, cars, travel, travel.
New York, New York, New York.
New York.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Armani, Armani, ah-ah-Armani.
Versace, cinque.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

Armani, Armani, ah-ah-Armani.
Versace, cinque.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

I don’t like country-and-western.
I don’t like rock music.
I don’t like, I don’t like rockabilly or rock & roll particularly.
Don’t like much really, do I?
But what I do like I love passionately.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

You, you’re my lover, you’re my hope, you’re my dreams.
My life, my passion, my love, my sex, my money.
Violence, religion, injustice and death.

Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
Don’t like much really, do I?
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.
But what I do like I love passionately.
Paninaro, Paninaro, oh, oh, oh.

What an anthem. In 1986, the paninaro look was definitely assisting the UK’s casual look to evolve. I had bought some deck shoes, a “Best Company” T-shirt and always had one eye on what was happening in Italy and on the terraces at Chelsea and elsewhere. It was a great time to be young and into football, music and clobber; the time of my life.

At San Siro in 1986, just for the record…red Kappa polo shirt, Adidas shorts and a pair of yellow espadrilles.

There is one more thing to add from my holiday in 1986. At Ipsos on Corfu, I shared a tent with a chap called Rob who owned a record shop in Sacramento in California. Every few months, he would visit London and buy up a ton of obscure music posters, T-shirts, and rare CDs and ship them out to the US to sell at hugely-inflated prices. It got me thinking. I cottoned on to the genius of selling rare items at a nice profit. Thankfully, I didn’t have to think too long. My post-college future was decided during that Inter-Rail trip of 1986. I would buy English football badges – the small, super small, circular ones – and travel out to Europe flip-flopping between games in Germany and Italy to sell them at games. For all of its problems with hooliganism, or being blunt because of it, I just knew that English badges would sell well in Europe.

I was itching to go. Sadly, I had one more year at college to endure.

Tick tock, tick tock.

1986/87 passed with Chelsea finishing in a lowly fourteenth place but I had fared better; I somehow passed my Geography degree with an Upper Second. However, my immediate future didn’t involve job fairs, interviews or further studies. My future was focussed on football.

Fackinell.

That summer I returned to work in a local dairy, as in 1984, to gather some sheccles together for more foreign travel. In September, I set off with two college mates – Ian and Trev, the same course – for another spin around Europe. On a Saturday evening in Rome in early September, after another visit to Stadio Olimpico, I stumbled across a booklet listing the Serie A fixtures for the season.

A quick scan of the fixtures : Inter vs. Empoli.

“Fancy it? Sunday.”

“Too right.”

We were headed up to Venice for an early morning visit, arriving at 6.30am. However, after a whirlwind walking tour, we were away at 9.45am and headed to Milan via a change at Vicenza. I had bought a copy of the famous daily sports paper “La Gazetta Dello Sport” to check some details about the game and tickets were on sale for L.10,000 or about five quid. The fervour being shown by a train full of Brescia fans en route to Padua – a local derby – astonished us. It was a fine pre-curser to our afternoon in Milan. We got in at 1.30pm and the game was to kick-off at 3pm. Perfect. We disappeared underground and took a metro to San Siro which was quite a way out. There was a free bus at Lotto to take us to the stadium. I had time to peruse the various grafters outside.

“No English badges. Great stuff.”

Italian ones were selling for L3,100 or about £1.50.

Our tickets positioned us above a small knot of Empoli fans in the southern end, the “Lions’ Den” section where Milan’s ultras congregated. We had reached our seats by entering near the northern end but the steady slope took us around the outside of the stadium to deposit us in the southern end. To my amazement, we sat on raw concrete. But I was not bothered. I was in football heaven.

The Alps were visible above the Inter fans in the north end. I loved all the banners.

“Boys.”

I think that was their main group.

“Boys San.”

Loved it.

Empoli? I knew little about them apart from that they were newly promoted. On the previous weekend, they had won 2-0 at home to Juventus, a huge shock at the time. On this day in sunny Milan, I watched on with great pleasure. This was my first professional football match outside of England, Scotland and Wales.

The San Siro would always have a place in my heart.

The Inter team that day included some stars; Walter Zenga, Giuseppe Bergomi, Alessandro Altobelli plus the two “stranieri” Daniel Pasarella and Enzo Schifo. It was an utter joy to witness Italian football in the flesh.

Aldo Serena and Altobelli gave Inter a 2-0 win in front of 42,672.

My diary notes “I am sure I can make a killing there with badges.”

Later that year, in November, I sold badges at Juventus’ Stadio Communale before an evening game against Panathinaikos in the UEFA Cup. I only sold 31 but it was a start. I was less fortunate in Mannheim and Munich in Germany. I was stopped by the police in Mannheim and also in Munich where I decided to foolishly chance my luck. I had sold 34 at Munich’s Olympic Stadium – going well – but I did not have a street trader’s licence – “reisegewerbekarte” – so was arrested and fined on the spot. However, a cop let me in to watch the last twenty minutes of the Bayern vs. Uerdingen game for free.

In February 1988, I was at it again.

My first game was at San Siro, and a friendly involving Milan and Steaua Bucharest on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Unbeknown to me, the Serie A games had been cancelled due to an Italy vs. Russia game in Bari on the Saturday but thank goodness Milan had sorted out a friendly. Milan were in full flow at this time with Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten leading the team to glory. I did OK at this game. The gate was only 14,000 but I sold 26 badges and 2 scarves. One bloke swapped his “Fossa Dei Leoni” badge for one of mine. There were a few nervous moments as several police cars drove past but I was not spoken to. I had decided to pitch myself near the to where the Lotto busses stopped. It seemed perfect. I was positioned just outside the San Siro “Trotter” arena; horse racing but with the jockeys in little buggies.

It is a mystery why I did not pay the £4 to attend the game. I guess that I was on a limited budget – I certainly ate frugally and infrequently while away for a month – and the whole point of me being in Italy was, firstly, to make some money. I walked away with £40 in my pockets, and a profit of about £25.

Small acorns and all that.

A week later, I was back at San Siro for the Milan vs. Sampdoria game. Here was the real test. Thankfully this went swimmingly well. Again, I didn’t go inside, but for a valid reason; it was a sell-out. At half-time I was stood outside the stadium with a few thousand others. I went on a wander across the vast car park and returned to hear the clamour as Milan’s second goal went in. They were to win 2-1. The attendance was 72,000 and I walked away with £125 and a profit of about £80. I had sold 80 badges and 7 scarves. Not bad for around four hours’ work. I was in heaven with thoughts of returning again. And again.

Before the game, probably against my better wishes, I had bought the monthly magazine “Forza Milan.” As a Juventus fan, it was a bad move, but I just wanted to immerse myself in Italian football. It really was a heady time to be a Milanista. It felt that their time had come. At the end of the 1987/88 season, they were crowned as champions for the first time since 1979. Silvio Berlusconi was in charge, Arrigo Sacchi and his famous “pressing” was getting the best out of his players. And Gullit and Van Basten were soon to be European Champions with The Netherlands in the summer.

Mamma mia.

Later that week, I did even better at Verona, selling 79 badges from a crowd of just 33,000 before and after a UEFA Cup game with Werder Bremen.

In the summer of 1988, I recorded an episode of “Rough Guide – Milan” with Magenta Devine and Sankha Guha (remember them?) and the travel guide totally encapsulated all that was rattling around my brain at the time. There is no doubt that I was deeply infatuated with all things Italian from the mid-‘eighties onwards.

My next trip to Milan, and San Siro, would be my last for thirty-two years. It came in September 1990, right after the momentous Italia’90 World Cup – when many English folk “rediscovered football”, stop sniggering at the back – and I had returned from an equally momentous ten-month holiday in North America. With English football back with a vengeance after some dark days, the time was right for me to head over with a freshly-acquired stash of English – and Scottish, Celtic in particular always sold well in Italy – badges.

It was a heady time for Italian football. The national team had threatened in the World Cup before falling to a Maradona-inspired Argentina in a semi-final. However, I always thought that it was club over country in Italy, even more so than in England.

The Serie A title was certainly shared around in this period.

1985 : Verona.

1986 : Juventus.

1987 : Napoli.

1988 : Milan.

1989 : Inter.

1990 : Napoli.

The second Sunday of the 1990/91 Serie A season saw me return to Milan for the Inter vs. Bologna game.

At the end of the day, I started my daily journal :

Milano Centrale, Sunday 16September 1990.

“Tutto Inglese e Scozzese. Quatro mila lire.”

My sales patter didn’t go on for long, but it certainly did the job. I must have repeated that phrase five hundred times in the six hours before the 4pm kick-off.

My diary reports a “perfect day” and it is certainly one that I look back upon with a great deal of pleasure. It was, simply, one of the best “non-Chelsea” days of my life. I had arrived at Milano Centrale at just before 8am. By 10am I had arrived outside the remodelled San Siro and – oh my goodness – I can well remember the sight of those monstrous red girders floating above the photogenic towers that had been added to the San Siro since my last visit eighteen months earlier.

Within an hour, I had sold 26 badges to a stall-holder, at a slight-knock down price of L.3,500 each. I had decided to up the price to L.4,000 per badge from my L.3,000 price in 1988. I stopped selling at 3.15pm in order to buy a ticket off a tout – I couldn’t miss this game – and I nabbed one for L.25,000 instead of L.20,000.

As it happened, I could afford it.

My one memory of this day is of ascending one of the helix shaped towers behind the South Curv and scrambling to a seat almost at the rear of the very back row of the third level. I stood up and spent what seemed a long time picking L.5,000, L.10,000, L.20,000 notes and even one L.50,000 note out of all four pockets of my jeans and adding them to the pile in my wallet.

That day I sold almost 200 badges. I even sold some on the slow walk back to Lotto without even trying; a lad had remembered me from before the game and stopped me to buy ten. By the time I had pulled the last note from my jeans, I had made £330 which equated to a profit of around £200.

I hope the tax man isn’t reading this.

The game was half decent. Inter had the three World Cup winners Klinsmann, Matheus and Brehme in their team. I noted that Bologna countered well. In the last minute, Alessandro Bianchi scored with a great volley in front of the “Ultras”, “Boys San” and “Vikings” in the home Curva Nord to give Inter a 1-0 win. The noise was utterly incredible even though the gate was only around 50,000. The other lot, Milan, were the bigger draw by far at the time. They were the “buzz” around the city.

On the following Sunday, I paid another visit to San Siro and another fine afternoon followed. This time it was Milan vs. Fiorentina. I didn’t go inside for this one. Outside, I sold just under one hundred badges. My diary notes that I soon sold out of Liverpool, Chelsea and Celtic – by far the best sellers in 1990 for reasons that might well be obvious – and so I did well to sell so many. I was outside the stadium when Milan scored their first goal – they went on to win 2-1 – but I left for the station well before the end as I had developed a bad headache. One thing of note; I had been chatting to an English guy from Rochdale who had stayed over from the World Cup with England. He was interested in selling badges too; he seemed a bit of a chancer, but I gave him the ‘phone number of the bloke in Blackburn who had provided me with the badges. He disappeared off to “blag” some tickets but I later saw him, crestfallen, having been picked up by plain clothes cops, his tickets nicked too.

What a plum.

Alas, my badge-selling days were over before they had really got going.

There is a sad end to all of this in fact. A few days after the greatest days in Milan, I was robbed while on a train from Zurich to Genoa – I was knocked out using CS gas I think, it was all the rage on Italian trains at the time, luckily my Inter-Rail Card and passport were untouched – and so I had to sheepishly make my way to Turin where my friend Tullio’s father lent me some money to get home.

I remember his father answered the doorbell, so surprised to see me.

“Ah Chris! Come va?”

“Cosi cosi.”

It was the biggest understatement of all time.

This story continues on though. In 1995, I met up with Pete, the chap who sold me all those badges at cost price – bless him – before a Chelsea game at Ewood Park. He treated me to a pub lunch and we spoke about our grafting days. He was a Liverpool supporter – he was there in Rome in 1977 and elsewhere too – and when I spoke about Milan, I mentioned the chancer I had met in 1990.

“Oh, Milan John?”

“You know him?”

“Yes. From Rochdale. I always wondered how he got my number.”

“Bloody hell, Pete, I gave it to him.”

It turned out that this bloke had stayed on in Milan and was now living with the woman who was running the newsagents on the platform at Milano Centrale. He often bought badges from Pete. To say I was fed-up was another understatement.

“Bloody hell. That could have been me. Could have met an Italian girl. Could have had badges sent out to me. What a bugger.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Milan : you could have made me.

Vaffanculo.

In February 1997, Chelsea played Milan in a friendly at San Siro and a few hardy souls went over to watch. We lost 2-0 in front of 8,756. I think both teams just needed a game. A few friends attended but there was no way I could go over.

In October 1999, Chelsea played Milan in the San Siro in the Champions League group phase. Unfortunately, I was unable to get time off work and so, sadly, missed it.

In March 2010, Chelsea played Inter in the Champions League quarter-finals. Again, work got in the way. I had just changed companies and I knew my new boss would have struggled without me in the office for three days and so I valiantly – stupidly? – decided that I would forego my chance to see us in Milan.

I have seen Chelsea play seven times in Italy – three against Juve, two against Roma, one against Lazio, one against Napoli, and not a single win – but a visit to San Siro with my beloved Chelsea was evading me like Tottenham’s relationship with silverware.

It was gnawing at me.

There were ongoing rumours, which gathered strength over the years, of both Milan teams moving into a new build which would rise in the car park where I had walked in 1988. This news depressed me. I saw the plans for the new place. They looked super-modern yet so bland. The drama of San Siro’s bulk was missing. Sigh.

Thankfully, our names were drawn in the same group this autumn and I could look forward, at bloody last, to a visit.

ANDIAMO!

The plan was this :

A flight to Turin on the Sunday evening. By the time I had got to looking at flights after returning from Chelsea on a Saturday night, all of the cheap and timely flights to Milan had disappeared. Not to worry, I much prefer Turin to Milan. Three nights in a central apartment with PD and Parky. I would hire a car on the day of the game. A brief spell of sightseeing in central Milan then off to the match. A midnight flit back to Turin and then a flight home from the city’s Caselle airport on Wednesday evening.

I picked up PD at 11am on the Sunday morning and Lord Parky not long after. It was a fine drive to Gatwick. Despite the 4.40pm flight leaving an hour late, the pilot must have known a short cut as he clipped thirty minutes off the flight time. I had a window seat and particularly enjoyed the flight over the English Channel. I pondered how many thousands of articulated lorries I had sent over this small expanse of water since I began at my job in March 2003. From the air, I was able to easily see both coasts; France to the left, England to the right. I thought back to all those solo trips to Europe in my Inter-Railing days. What good times.

We landed at Caselle at 8.10pm. We took a cab to the city. By 9.12pm, I had navigated how to obtain our apartment keys and to enter our pad on Via Fratelli Calandra. Outside, misty rain. But our spirits were lifted when we spotted a small pizza place directly opposite. We sat ourselves inside on some high stools and ordered the first beers of the trip.

“Ichnusa” – from Sardinia – was first spotted by us in Rome in 2017, and here it was again. It was a fine lager. I had a pepperoni pizza – cheap, only eight euros – and all was well with the world. We slept soundly.

Monday was a lovely, lazy day. My two fellow Chuckle Brothers had only visited Italy once before – that Rome trip in 2017 – so Turin was new to them. I took them alongside the River Po, and spoke about the city a little. But I soon found my voice often drifting away to silence when I realised that they weren’t really taking it all in.

I’ll never make a tour guide.

We sat at a few cafes and ordered some cappuccinos. We got the nod that Callum was going to be in town for an hour or so en route to Milan so we caught a cab to Porta Susa train station. This was fine since it enabled me to scope out the Hertz car hire place that I would be utilising on the Tuesday. We all met up in a bar.

We wondered if we had indeed sold all 4,300 tickets. All we knew is that they had gone “off sale” so we hoped so. I spoke to Cal about my Italian pal Tullio who I have known since meeting him in Diano Marina, that town again, in 1981.

“I remember one Saturday morning, ahead of a Napoli game on the Sunday, in 1988…he drove over to meet some school friends after they had gone in to study. They were all labelled-up. Best Company sweatshirts. Timberlands. Sisley coats. Benetton. Lacoste. Jansport duffle bags. Even their school files were adorned with designer labels.”

“I need to up my game here.”

My Joe Bloggs denim shirt looked decidedly downmarket in comparison.

In the afternoon, we slurped a draught Ichnusa apiece in a bar directly opposite one of Turin’s must-see attractions. The National Cinema Museum is housed within the Mole Antonelliana, a building with a domed roof and spear-like tower. Rob and I went up the lift to the viewing gallery in 2009 and I was hoping to do the same this year. Alas, the lift was not working. Not to worry, I visited the film museum while PD and Parky supped on more Ichnusa.

What a joy.

And this was just right for me. During the first nervous months of lockdown in 2020, I really got into Italian films, especially those of the neo-realist school; step forward Rosselini, de Sica, Visconti, Fellini and Antonioni. I always loved “La Dolce Vita” but also really admired “Bicycle Thieves”, “Rome Open City” and the best of the lot “Two Women.” I also fell in love with Sophia Loren. Again.

The museum was stupendous. It was a visual treat. If you ever find yourself in Turin – I call it Italy’s hidden jewel – go. In fact, go now. Tell them I sent you.

That evening, we dropped into two familiar pubs on the main drag, Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II; “Six Nations” and “The Huntsman.” In the second one, we sat at the exact same table that we used on the night before the Juve game last season. Lo and behold, who should walk past but Andy – from the East Midlands I believe – who I last spent time with in Abu Dhabi. He too had flown into Turin.

As I always say : “Chelsea World is a very small world.”

Tullio popped in to see us for an hour or so. It was a joy to see him again. He was, alas, visibly hurting after Juventus’ continued failings under Massimilliano Allegri. I spoke about my previous visits to Turin.

I worked out this was visit number ten.

“No, wait. Eleven. I forgot your wedding.”

We smirked.

1987 : Juve vs. Panathinaikos.

1988 : Juve vs. Inter.

1988 : Juve vs. Napoli.

1989 : Juve vs. Fiorentina.

1990 : the “so so” moment.

1992 : Juve vs. Sampdoria.

1999 : Juve vs. Fiorentina – oh, and the wedding of Tullio and Emanuela.

2009 : Juve vs. Chelsea.

2012 : Juve vs. Chelsea.

2021 : Juve vs. Chelsea.

2022 : Milan vs.Chelsea.

The evening was lovely. We rounded off the night with several shots of “Baileys” and God knows why. It was, as ever, a good night.

On the Tuesday, the day of the game, PD woke me at around 6.45am.  We walked to the Porta Nova train station and caught a cab to Porta Susa with blue skies overhead and the city of Turin looking as gorgeous as ever.

Sorting out the car took a few minutes, but I was soon heading east through the rush-hour traffic of Turin. It was slow going during the first half-an-hour. But we were soon on the A4 to Milan. It made me chuckle really. In my childhood, my father used to drive along a section of the A4 – Beckhampton to Hungerford – on numerous trips to Chelsea. On this A4 instead of signs for Fyfield, Marlborough, Savernake, Axford and Hungerford there were signs for Chivasso, Greggio, Vercelli, Novara and Galliate. To our left, the snow-capped peaks of the Alps were stunning.

This was no normal Chelsea away trip.

This was one of the very best.

We stopped briefly at a service station near Novara. I stacked up on coffee and snacks.

There was heavy traffic, again, just after a toll on the western outskirts of Milan. A journey that was due to take two hours was nearing one of three hours. But I knew we were closing in on our goal. My work colleague Lorenzo had highlighted the Lampugnano transport hub as the best place to park for San Siro. I was headed there, but first wanted to park up at San Siro because…well, because…it needs no explanation.

At around 11.30am, I briefly parked my black Toyota outside a stadium car park and took a few shots with my camera. The stadium looked even greater than I had remembered it. It was simply stunning. A dormant beast. Those cylindrical towers. Those slopes of concrete. Those roof beams. Spectacular. I was boiling over with emotion.

After six previous visits I was at last going to see us play here.

It was forever a standing joke about Milan that no matter what year you visited it, the roads were always in a state of upheaval due to metro extensions taking place. I am sure my parents mentioned this from their visit in the ‘fifties. Well, ironically, the lines are all fully extended now and completely finished, but on this day of all days there was a bloody tube strike.

At Lampugnano, we were therefore forced to catch a cab into the city. The taxi driver was a Milanista and resembled Zlatan Ibrahimovic. We were driven in past the striking new skyscrapers to the immediate north-west of the centre. We soon collected our match tickets at the Westin Hotel on Piazza della Repubblica. There were familiar faces outside. It was true; we had sold all 4,300 tickets.

Magnificent. Well done everyone.

We met up with fellow Somerset supporters Charlotte and Paul, Donna and Colby. A little sight-seeing was in order. I suggested a short hop north to Milano Centrale. This edifice did not disappoint. It was as stunning today as in 1975. While PD and Parky retired to the station bar, I gave the others a quick tour. I was reminded of the time – after the Milan game in September 1990 I think – when thousands of Inter fans returned from a game just as I had reached the outer hall. They were full of noise and of course the chanting echoed around the vast chamber to superb effect. I was also reminded, after a hot day walking the streets of Milan, how cool it was inside.

Yeah, Mussolini loved marble.

We walked south then caught a tube, bang on three o’clock when the strike ended, at Turati to Duomo. I had always walked this section, so exiting the metro stop and seeing the myriad towers of the city cathedral for the first time was another stunning moment. I never was a great fan of the city, but its two great cathedrals – Il Duomo and San Siro – are outrageously magnificent.

More photos. A beer in a bar. And a panini. When in Rome.Then a tube down to the area called Navigli, where several canals join and a vibrant bar scene has developed. It was where Chelsea were based on the Monday, and it is where many friends were based pre-match.

The place was mobbed. We didn’t venture too far. Many bars had run dry. Beers were on hold at the first place we queued. This was all a bit of a ball ache. Thankfully, PD and Parky had spotted a quieter bar near the nearest tube station so re-camped there. I waited for some friends – Georg and Petr from Prague, Eliot and Lawson from New York, then Sean from New York – and we had a relaxing natter. One more pint of “Warsteiner.” Just two pints was enough. I had to drive back to Turin after the game after all. Georg and Petr asked of our predictions and a 2-1 Chelsea win was a common response.

We set off for San Siro at around 6.45pm. Plenty of time? Think again.

The tube was rammed. But rather than changing at Cadorna onto the red line – which I was planning to do – everyone didn’t budge. At Cadorna, none of us could leave the compartment. We were therefore forced to stay on to Garibaldi. When a train pulled in, a young woman saw who – or rather what – was waiting to join her carriage and physically ran down the compartment.

Maybe she was a Tottenham supporter.

My route would have been eleven stops. This new route was sixteen stops. What a pain. It got worse. At Domodossola, hundreds of Chelsea fans were singing, chanting, banging the roof, creating havoc. For twenty minutes, we didn’t move. The Milan fans were getting irate.

“Because of you, we miss match.”

Corrective action was needed. It was around 7.45pm. We stepped outside and tried to get a cab. But this was hopeless. Hundreds of Chelsea got off here too. They disappeared into the night. At about eight o’clock, we realised we needed a Plan B.

“Right, back downstairs. Let’s see if the trains are running now.”

Bizarrely, the Milan fan that was so irate with all of us was still on the platform. This was odd. Eventually at around 8pm, a new train arrived. This was full of Milan fans; not a bad sign. They knew the timings. They were absolutely full of song too. And in good spirits. They loved our Cucarella chant and repeated it back to us. Most were wearing Milan colours, as had many that we had seen around the city. The dress-code of the late ‘eighties in Italy of jeans, green bomber jackets, scarves and boots – especially the Inter lot – was clearly no more.

There were many songs lauding the rossoneri and one linking interisti to “vaffanculo.”

Our “Oh Thiago Silva” was met with smiles.

Just as the train rumbled into the San Siro stop – newly built, or at least since my last visit – I turned to the nearest Milanista and said “good luck” and he smiled. We shook hands.

I had always approached San Siro from Lotto to the north so I was a little discombobulated.

We were marched west, right past where my car had been parked earlier, and we began the slow march in to the away section. Our ticket was cross-referenced with our passport. Further in, there was a predictable altercation with a couple of stewards who wanted me to take my pocket camera – I had left my SLR at home, I am no fool – back to “bus.”

Oh Christ. Here we go again.

There was no bus. My car was half-an-hour away.

I pleaded that it was just a “piccolo machina” and they thankfully let me in.

“But – no photo in stadio.”

I replied : “sure, OK!”

I thought : “Yeah, right, sunshine.”

It was about 8.40pm.

PD and Parky, hobbling, were allowed access to the lift. I tried to join them but was not allowed in. Instead, the slow ascent up the helix. It was fine, thank heavens. The old ticker wasn’t grumbling at all.

Inside, our area – the upper third tier, green zone – was near packed to capacity. I could go left into the centre or right to the end where I guessed there would be more empty seats. I chose right. After just five or six steps up, I spotted PD and Parky right next to the aisle.

4,300 Chelsea in one tier and we were together again.

Result.

Georg and Petr were just a few feet away too.

Relax.

This looked a full house; 75,000? Superb. Chelsea fans kept arriving, some way into the game. The stadium was as I remembered it. I looked over at the southern end and imagined myself there in 1987 and 1990.

What would the 1987 me have made of all this? Or the 1986 me for that matter?

1986 Chris : “Wonder if I will ever see Chelsea play here?”

2022 Chris : “Yes. Yes you will.”

1986 Chris : When?”

2022 Chris: “Not until 2022.”

1986 Chris : “2022? I’ll be an old man by then.”

2022 Chris : “Steady now.”

1986 Chris : “So, that must mean in European competition? That must mean we will win something?!”

2022 Chris : “We will win plenty.”

1986 Chris: “Tell me! No wait. Don’t. That will spoil the surprise.”

2022 Chris : “That’s my boy.”

Graham Potter, what a journey he is on, chose this team :

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Koulibaly

James – Kovacic – Jorginho – Chilwell

Mount – Sterling

Aubameyang

There was a mosaic…nothing great, just “Let’s Go Milan”; like something an American high school teacher might say to a basketball team. It hardly referenced Milan’s illustrious European pedigree or used words to inspire.

The lights dimmed a little. Then the anthem, the fluttering of the logo on the centre-circle. The teams lined up. Chelsea were to play in all white. I was just pleased that I couldn’t see the insipid jade green / light blue hoops.

To me, it referenced the all-white that we wore in 1966.

On more than one occasion, a thought fluttered inside me :

“Ron Harris has played here twice.”

The Milan kit looked virtually all black from row 88. It was a poor kit. I much preferred the 1988 version.

Ooh those white shorts and white socks, eh Ruud?

Just before kick-off, I couldn’t resist a short burst of venom.

“MILAN MILAN VAFFANCULO.”

And you Milan John, you can vaffanculo too.

The game began and Milan, attacking us in the North Curv – OK, it’s not a curve, but it’s what the Italians call an end – where the strongest over the first ten minutes or so. Leao danced and shuffled his feet a few times. I had a feeling that if we denied him, we would have a chance.

For all of the singing and chanting in Navigli and on the metro, I didn’t think we were in particularly fine voice.

After some exchanges, the game altered direction irrevocably on twenty minutes. Reece James threaded a fine pass into Mason Mount. Inside the box, the midfielder tried his best to get a shot away but his effort was booted clear by Tatarusanu. I was concentrating on his efforts to shoot so wasn’t looking specifically at Tomori’s rough intervention.

To our joy, the referee signalled a penalty. A huge roar from us. There were protestations from Milan, but the referee was unmoved. Jorginho, to his credit, walked away with the ball and stood yards from the melee of Milan players hounding the referee. Eventually, he approached the spot. Again, a long wait. Jorginho took forever. My camera was poised. Our midfielder took so long that I had visions of my lens retracting.

He approached the ball.

Click.

The ‘keeper went right.

The ball went left.

Shades of Munich.

GET IN.

My dear friend Alan was unable to travel out for this game but I heard his voice from afar.

“THTCAUN.”

“COMLD.”

Wow. We were 1-0 up at the San Siro.

But still one song dominated…

“Oh Dennis Wise…”

I smirked when I remembered another memory in Italy not so long after this Milan moment. In December 1999, I travelled out for the lacklustre 0-0 draw with Lazio. A certain left-back missed a sitter late on and this – admittedly short-lived – chant was sung :

“Babayaro. Missed a fucking great goal. With one minute to go. In the Olimpico.”

Anyone remember that?

I really don’t know how I missed it, but it soon became apparent that Milan were down to ten men. There was a little ripple of acknowledgement in our area; it seemed that I wasn’t the only one that had missed it. I suppose we were all too busy celebrating the penalty decision.

Superb.

Olivier Giroud headed wide down below us and Milan seemed upset and ill-at-ease.

A really fine move carved open the Milan defence on thirty-four minutes. Mateo Kovacic played a ball in to Mount, who flicked it beautifully wide and into space. We had the glorious sight of both Raheem Sterling and Pierre-Emerick Abameyang free and with just the ‘keeper to beat.

Surely?

Aubameyang slotted it low past the Milan ‘keeper.

He ran down into the corner and although I had missed taking a photo of the goal, at least I captured the joyous celebrations.

We were winning 2-0 at the San Siro.

OH MY FUCKING GOODNESS.

This was magnificent stuff.

There was a fine chance for Mount in the closing moments of the first-half. His nimble turn allowed him to poke a low shot goal wards, but the Milan ‘keeper got down low to turn it around the post.

On forty minutes, purely planned to the minute, around fifty huge flags behind the opposite goal were waved and their presence lasted for the rest of the game. It was some sight.

It was a wonderful to see the place packed to the rafters. Bizarrely, two central sections in the middle of both upper tiers were unused though. Maybe there was a problem with egress from these lofty locations. The tiers go on forever at San Siro. And the huge roof hovers over everything. There is hardly a more stunning stadium in the whole of Europe. It is certainly supremely photogenic.

I was in heaven.

I was so far up, I might as well have been.

At the break, disbelief in the North Curv.

Graham Potter made a change at the break.

Conor Gallagher replaced the really excellent Mason Mount. We guessed he was saving Mason for later games. I had liked the energy of Mateo Kovacic and the calming positional play of Jorginho in that first-half. To be fair, all our players had been magnificent.

An early, seemingly easy enough, chance came to Gallagher who rounded the ‘keeper after a fine forward run from Trevoh Chalobah but his effort went wide, striking the side netting amidst groans from the 4,300.

We were easily the more accomplished team as the half progressed. We had a few half-chances.

The manager rang some changes.

Cesar Azpilicueta for James.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Sterling.

Positions were moved around. I tried my best to work it all out.

Our possession football – cheered with many an “olé” – must have tired Milan out. We looked relaxed and purposeful in everything we did.

There was a strong run from Loftus-Cheek, at his best, but his pass to Aubameyang resulted in a miss-cue. But our chances greatly out-weighed those of the home team.

Two late changes.

Kai Havertz for Aubameyang

Marc Cucarella for Chilwell

The Milan fans raised the roof with ten minutes to go with the loudest chant of the night. If I had to choose, I would always go for Inter over Milan, but their fans really impressed me over the two games.

Our fans by now were only chanting sporadically. As far as I can recall, there was not one single moment when the entire tier was singing as one. It was almost as if this was too easy. Especially with Milan playing with only ten men. It was an odd feeling. I thought back to all those great players to have worn the red and black stripes over the past forty years and this current team, despite being the current champions, are surely a pale shadow of the great Milan teams.

Baresi. Costacurta. Baggio. Van Basten. Ronaldinho. Shevchenko. Donadoni. Maldini. Ancelotti. Rijkaard. Papin. Pirlo. Kaka. Nesta. Seedorf. Ibrahimovic. Inzaghi. Gullit.

Mamma mia.

The game ended.

Milan 0 Chelsea 2.

What a fantastic result.

On the drive up to London last week, ahead of the Milan home game, if somebody had said that we would win both games with an aggregate score of Chelsea 5 Milan 0, nobody would have believed it.

Certainly not 1986 Chris.

Fackinell.

We were kept in for about forty-five minutes at the end of the game. We popped into the nearby snack bar which was surprisingly still open and I devoured a lemon iced-tea. I was allowed access to the lift this time.

The three of us slowly made our way back to Lampugnano; it was a thirty-five-minute walk. Halfway back, quite a way from San Siro, two trucks were still selling food.

“A burger, an iced tea and a Red Bull.”

The first two were soon demolished. The third would be consumed on the drive back to Turin.

There was a little chat with a Chelsea fan. I commented that there just didn’t seem to be that wanton euphoria that no doubt was in evidence at the 1999 “Dennis Wise” game. That it was all a bit subdued.

We agreed that the two clubs were at different stages in 1999 and 2022.

1999 : Chelsea as European novices, Milan as European royalty.

2022 : Chelsea as seasoned European competitors, Milan as a faded club.

I made relatively good time on my return to Piedmont from Lombardy. I set off at 1am, I was parked up outside the apartment at 3am.

Wednesday was another relaxing day. I was up early, though, at 7am to return the motor at 8am. It had been a magnificent adventure along the Italian A4. We checked out of the apartment after a light breakfast. There was time for a few beers in the city centre and a magnificent meal to boot. Callum joined us and we shared a cab to Caselle in order to catch the evening flight home.

There was even time to nab a couple of bargains at the Robe di Kappa shop at the airport.

“Paninaro, oh oh oh.”

I thankfully fell asleep for an hour on the flight back to Gatwick.

One young Chelsea fan was full of enthusiasm about the game. There had been a noticeably large contingent of youngsters out there. This is fantastic to see.

“That was my first ever away game.”

“In Europe?”

“No, the first ever. I just can’t get access to tickets for away games.”

This amazed me.

But it amazed 1986 Chris even more.

“My first away game was Bristol Rovers. His is Milan? Mamma mia.”

I eventually got home – the M3 closed, part of the M4 closed – at 1am on Thursday morning.

Next up, Villa away on Sunday. See you there.

1987

1990

2022

Tales From A Typical Day At The Office

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 27 August 2022.

There is one positive that came out of last Sunday’s humiliating defeat at Elland Road. As I stood in the upper section of our away area until the referee blew his whistle, I was at a low ebb, deflated. But it struck me that at least the fortunes of this great club still mattered to me. I was still emotionally attached to Chelsea. In an era when I am still occasionally doubting my devotion to the cause – have I ever said I hate modern football? – the defeat against Leeds certainly made me smart. I hated conceding three goals. It felt like a triple kick in the bollocks. I also hated us being the target of the large-scale piss-taking from those lads in the South Stand.

I also found it harrowing that many fellow fans had left the away enclosure way before the final whistle. I reacted that this was a further slight on my team, my club. However, as we sloped back to the car last Sunday, I realised that my season, only three games in for me, had been reset.

I was emotionally locked-in again. I cared.

Our next game would be at home to Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City, a bête-noire for us in recent years. On the face of it, this was a rather mundane match, but one that was engendering a new level of importance for me.

As an aside, my local team Frome Town were playing pre-season promotion favourites AFC Totton at home at the same time. I have commented before that there might well become a time when I have to choose between an important Frome Town game and a run-of-the-mill Chelsea game. This wasn’t going to be that occasion.

Chelsea needed me and I needed Chelsea.

Chelsea vs. Leicester City it was.

As an hors-oeuvre to the game, the Champions League draw had taken place on Thursday evening. We had briefly discussed options outside “The Drysalters” in Leeds on the Sunday.

“Bloody hell. Imagine Celtic. It would be like a military operation. We’d have to collect our match tickets in Motherwell and be flown in by police helicopter.”

On Thursday morning, I sent a message to a few friends.

“Milan and Glasgow please.”

With the San Siro due to be replaced by a new state-of-the-art stadium in its current car park, a visit to Milan was undoubtedly priority “numero uno” for me. With Milan and Inter in the draw, we had a chance. Even though I watched Internazionale play against Empoli in 1987 and Bologna in 1990, I unfortunately missed the Chelsea Champions League games in 1999 and 2011 due to work commitments. There was an earlier friendly in 1995 against Milan too, but that was never on my radar.

Parky and I were at a Chelsea wedding reception – congratulations Gemma and Ludo – on Thursday evening and as we stopped at a pub close to the venue in Maidenhead, I finally checked my ‘phone and was so pleased that we had drawn Milan.

Bloody magnificent.

We just had to wait for the dates to be finalised. My only doubt involved Matchday 2; there was already someone away on holiday from our small office that week. Surely work wouldn’t bugger things up for me yet again?

Saturday arrived. Alan would be unable to attend the Leicester game – work buggering things up for him on this occasion – and so Glenn was able to take his ticket.

In the low countryside around Frome, everything was shrouded in mist. Tree tops pierced the white blanket. It was a stunning scene. Away in the distance, the hills past Trudoxhill and Chapmanslade stood like islands above a white foaming sea.

At road level, thankfully visibility was fine. As I drove east, my car was fully loaded.

The two Glenns and Ron at the back, Paul and me up front.

“Some five-a-side team, this.”

The weather was decent, the chit-chat provided a lovely back-drop to my driving. All was good in the world. Glenn – he has a ticket for Southampton away, on his birthday, on Tuesday – will be starting a new job next week and he is happy about that.

“You played at the San Siro in the ‘sixties, right, Ron?”

“Yeah, we got through on the toss of a coin.”

It sent a shiver down my spine when I realised that one of my passengers had played against Milan legend, their golden boy, Gianni Rivera.

The pattern for pre-match at Stamford Bridge is well set these days.

I drop the boys off on the Fulham side of Putney Bridge. I park up on Bramber Road and walk down to Fulham Broadway with Ron, who dives off to wait at the hotel bar until his corporate gig starts. I have a chat with a few early risers and then catch the two-minute train down to Putney Bridge before joining up with the lads in “The Eight Bells.”

At Steve Smyth’s stall, I picked up a copy of “Soccer The Hard Way” by Ron Harris. It’s pretty rare so I didn’t mind paying a fair bit for it. I’m friends with Steve, so he kindly gave me a decent reduction. In an ironic twist, Ron’s petrol money helped to pay for it.

In case any Americans are getting excited about the use of the word “soccer” in the title of the book, I need to comment that for a decade or so, from the mid-‘sixties to the mid-‘seventies, the word “soccer” often appeared in the UK media; on TV programmes, in books, in magazines. I have no explanation for this. In the school playground and in the workplace, pub and stadium, it was always football.

There was a nice chat with Marco and DJ outside the “CFCUK Stall“ and I then made my way south.

There was a breakfast in the café opposite the tube station at 11am. There’s just something about a fry-up (I don’t have many for those concerned) in a London caff on match days. It’s timeless. I checked my phone to see that the Footballing Gods had smiled on me. Everything was clear for Milan in early October. Zagreb was just too early for me to get my head around it and work is busy at the moment. Salzburg is a likely trip too.

We’re lucky people.

I decided that I would check Milan flights and suchlike when I returned home later that evening but knew that all of the cheap deals would have been snapped up quickly.

I thought back to the first-ever time that I saw Leicester City play us. It was early on in the 1982/83 season. I will detail that game later this season, but as a lead-in to my memories of that season, our worst-ever, I am heading back to Sunday 22 August 1982.

I was mid-way through the Sixth Form at Frome College and hardly relishing the final year. I would take “A Levels” the following June. Emotionally, I was rather low. I was lamenting the departure of my first-ever girlfriend Julie who had moved away to the Reading area not long after we first started going out. For those wondering, these two facts were not linked. Smiley face.

Her father had been working in Bath for the Ministry of Defence but had taken up a new position in Berkshire. I needed some cheering up and I had talked my parents into taking me up to Stamford Bridge for a family day a week before the season began. I remember that I had asked Julie if she fancied coming along for the day, my Dad picking her up en route, but her letter that declined the offer resembled a bullet to my heart. The end was nigh. Her family were more into rugby anyway. It would never had lasted. Another bloody smiley face.

I have a feeling that my parents went shopping while I spent a few hours at Stamford Bridge. My memories aren’t particularly strong. I certainly remember getting quite a few autographs; assistant manager Ian McNeil and players Gary Locke, new signing Bryan “Pop” Robson, Mike Fillery, Alan Mayes, Bob Iles, Colin Pates, Gary Chivers, and Peter Rhoades-Brown. I remember I ascended the upper tier of the East Stand for the first time and thought that the old stadium looked an absolute picture.

There were funfairs and sideshows dotted around the stadium and the highlight was a practice match at three o’clock.

As a pre-curser to that, and I have no recollection of this, I was probably chasing players for autographs :

“Sherriff Danny Arnold Wild West Demonstration.”

No smiley face.

Tickets for the upcoming home game with Wolves started at £3.50 and the most expensive were £7.

I bought a photo of the squad. I loved that Chelsea shirt. I still have it,

The one thing I do recollect is a small chat with Colin Pates, amazed by the turn out.

“God, if it’s like this now, what will it be like if we actually win anything?”

Two years later Colin found out.

I strolled into the pub at about 11.30am. The boys had been in there since opening time at 10am.

We were soon joined by Even, Ray and Hans from Oslo who have been relatively recent additions to my Facebook friends list, lured in by this very blogorama.

Thanks boys.

It was a pleasure to spend some time with them. They are over for a week or so and will be at Southampton on Tuesday and at the West Ham game next weekend. They have all been Chelsea since the early-‘seventies. Ray and Hans are season-ticket holders in the MHL, and from what I could work out sit relatively close to the Kent Boys – Kim, Andy, Dan, Graham and more – who were nestled around another table in the boozer.

“I’ll try to keep a look out for you.”

Ray and Hans come over for fifteen to twenty games every season.

Top class.

We were joined by Sophie – fresh from her enjoyable trip to Milan of all places – and Andy and then we all left for the game at two o’clock.

Parky made his way to join his pals in The Shed. PD, Glenn and I continued on to the familiar stairs of the Matthew Harding. Inside, we were joined by Gary – who sits a few yards away from me in the MHU but is within earshot of those sitting in The Shed Upper – and Clive.

So, alongside me was Glenn, then Clive, then PD.

The Famous Four.

A Saturday league game at three o’clock. Weekends were made for this.

A typical day at the office.

Let’s go to work.

On the pitch, the team lined up with Edouard in goal, what seemed like a back four of Reece, Thiago Silva, Trevoh and Marc, a midfield of Ruben, Jorginho, Conor and Mase, with Havertz and Raheem up top. But it wasn’t always easy to see exactly who occupied what part of the pitch. Where’s my heat map when I need it? The Famous Four’s heat map was mainly four dots the entire first-half with one solitary excursion to the gents for Clive. Thomas Tuchel’s heat map must have been a single dot too, banished to the stands after the altercation with Antonio Conte after the last home game.

We attacked the Matthew Harding in the first-half. It always seems odd.

Early on, Raheem advanced centrally and rolled an absolutely perfectly-weighted ball into the path of Ruben – I expected a goal, I was up on my feet – but Leicester ‘keeper Danny Ward was able to recover and block well at his near post.

On twelve moments, we were awarded a penalty after a clumsy challenge on Ruben by Youri Tielemans – our 2021 FA Cup Final nemesis – and I was up on my feet again. For some reason, I immediately glanced around me and was shocked (shocked, I tell ya) to see that 90% of my close neighbours in the MHU were fully seated.

What? We have just been awarded a penalty! Good God. Has our support become that dull and unresponsive?

Ah, but maybe they knew something. After a few seconds, VAR was called into action. We waited with that dull ache of inevitably.

In the build-up, Kai had been spotted in an off-side position.

Those watching on TV at home – the important ones – probably had a much better view, and explanation, than us in the stadium.

We had definitely begun the better team, with Raheem buzzing about nicely, but then our play drifted and we lost a lot of intensity and Leicester came into the game.

I think I heard a “Dennis Wise is a wanker” chant from the Foxes. Answers on a postcard. I guess he wasn’t particularly liked when he played for them after leaving us.

On the half-an-hour, Marc wasted a corner on the far side and the ball was punted away. Conor then made a terrible lunge on Harvey Barnes in his own half. The youngster – again seemingly eager to impress –  had begun the game with a lovely crunching tackle, but I apparently missed a yellow that he had received earlier. This absolutely silly tackle was rewarded with a second yellow. While Clive fucked off to the little boys’ room, Conor fucked off to the dressing room.

Silly boy.

I lamented the fact that we were down to ten men for the second successive game and had mustered just one shot on goal in just over thirty minutes.

Next, Edouard jumped at a ball from corner and the appeared to fluff his lines completely. The ball was turned in but thankfully a foul on Mendy had been spotted.

On forty-two minutes, a ball dropped nicely for Reece but his powerful strike hit the angle of near post and cross-bar.

Two shots. Oh boy.

Next, a pass from Tielemans sliced through our last line and the advancing Jamie Vardy – his wife is a grass – scuffed his shot wide and this reminded me so much of the Kane miss a fortnight earlier.

This was a pretty poor performance from us. It was a pretty poor game. The atmosphere was not worthy of the name. Sigh.

I turned to Clive : “our link up play just doesn’t hurt anyone.”

Just before the half-time whistle, Dennis Praet was in on goal and there was a fear of impending gloom. Thankfully Edouard raced from his line and made a very fine save indeed.

At the break, the doom mongers were out, including me.

“0-0 – can’t see us scoring…”

One of the bright spots in the first forty-five minutes had been Trevoh’s solid showing. I said to Gal  “is Fofana really £70M better than Chalobah?”

As the second-half begun, I saw Dave in his number twenty-eight shirt, on the pitch. I missed the fine detail of the substitution. I soon worked out that Mason had been replaced and I realised that he had hardly played any part in the first-half. Weird times.

Dave played in a three with Reece and Marc moving to wing-backs.

After just two minutes of the second-half, the game changed. A very fine ball from Marc found Raheem in the inside left channel. A little shimmy, some space gained, and then a shot that was subtly deflected up and over the despairing leap of Ward in the Leicester City goal.

The crowd roared.

One-nil to Chelsea.

At last Stamford Bridge boomed.

“Sing when we’re winning? Yes.”

Soon after, another lucky deflection – this time on another Marc to Raheem pass – set things up nicely but his shot cannoned back off the far post with Ward well beaten.

I loved how Trevoh twisted in mid-air to stretch and head a dangerous cross out for a corner, his braids flying every which way.

A break from Ruben with Marc in acres of space outside him but he chose to continue on and attempt to beat a man, one of his “things” that annoys me. The ball was lost.

Half-way through the second period, we witnessed a fine move. Jorginho guided a ball out wide. Havertz, almost walking, played a ball forward into space down in Parkyville for Reece. His smart cross was zipped across the goal and Raheem was beautifully positioned to tap in.

Chelsea two-up.

Wow.

With no James Maddison, it was Harvey Barnes who was causing us a few problems. Not long after our second goal, he played a neat one-two with Vardy and smashed the ball past Edouard at his near post.

That wasn’t on the script. Fackinell.

This, then, set up a very nervy final quarter of the game.

There were worried looks in the Matthew Harding as the away team attacked our end. But it was a major plus that we possessed the calming influence of Thiago Emiliano da Silva in our defence. He was putting on another sublime performance. A sliding tackle on seventy-seven minutes was worth the admission money on its own. The applause boomed around the stadium.

I loved the way the home crowd got behind the team in those last nervy minutes.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

There was a fine Mendy save from Barnes, down low.

Two substitutions :

Mateo for Jorginho.

Christian for Raheem.

These freshened things up nicely.

Late on, I spotted Ray and Hans in the MHL.

The most worrying moment occurred on eighty-two minutes when that man Vardy raced away and clear of Trevoh. Our last defender made a valiant effort to stop him, chopping high, but the ball ran on. He rounded Mendy but with a heavy touch. His slashed shot thankfully only hit the side netting.

Ben for Marc.

With continental-style whistling and the constant “CAM ON CHOWLSEA” combining for a deafening finish, Leicester broke through one last time. Ayoze Perez ran through and slammed a fierce shot goal wards. But Mendy had stayed tall, narrowing angles, closing free space, and the ball thundered against the underside of the bar.

Phew.

Four league games. Two wins. A draw. A loss. A solid start, nothing more.

I will see some of you at Southampton on Tuesday evening.

Gallery

Chelsea Norway

1982/1983

Tales From The Last One Of Seventy-Three

Chelsea vs. Watford : 22 May 2022.

It’s pretty difficult to sum up what I wanted from this last game of the season. Such events can often be inherently strange affairs; often there is nothing to play for, nothing to fight for, and these games are invariably played out in sunshine, thus giving the matches the feel of summer friendlies, or training games.

Against Leicester City on the preceding Thursday, I had said “if I don’t see you on Sunday, have a good summer” to a few friends.

And, I suppose, this was the main raison d’etre for turning up for the visit of relegated Watford. It was important to wish friends and faces, brothers and sisters, fellow fans and fellow obsessives, the best of summers until the start of the next season. Of course, to support the team one last time is a given, right?

Maybe not.

A couple of weeks back, I spotted a few “can’t wait for this season to end” posts from near and far. There was an online altercation with a fan a few thousand miles away who even stated this before the FA Cup Final had taken place. I wasn’t having that. Talk about entitled new fans. That just about summed up our current predicament with some of our brood.

Sigh.

We are supporters. That is our name and that is who we are. Sometimes this is lost amongst the hubbub of social media chit-chat. Sometimes we take on the air of tactical geniuses, of football gurus, of experts on this and that. I am not so sure this is different now than before.

It’s just louder.

Against a backdrop of possible indifference to this last game of the season, the day certainly gave me a timely reminder of how lucky us regular match-goers are. We are incredibly lucky. We get to see our team play each week, maybe twice a week, whereas the vast majority of our global support base – pick a number, one hundred million? – will never see the team in the flesh. It’s easy to scoff at our foreign fans, too easy, but I know for a fact that many of my most cherished Chelsea friends live overseas, and their knowledge of the club and their understanding of what makes Chelsea tick is to be admired.

Some, admittedly, don’t get it.

Their loss.

This was a 4pm kick-off, but I was up early. The alarm sounded at 5.45am. I collected PD at 6.45am, then Chopper, then Parky. We stopped for a couple of breakfast rolls at “Greggs”on the A303 – thankfully the regular server, Sweet Caroline, a bloody Liverpool fan, was not in – and I was soon depositing PD and Parky outside “The Temperance” on the Fulham High Street at 9.30am. They would pop into a nearby café for a coffee before “The Eight Bells” opened up at 10am. I parked up and walked to Stamford Bridge with Chopper. We were there that early that not even Marco’s “CFCUK” stall was set up. There was a chat with Steve at his programme stall. Marco appeared and I took a photo of Marco and Chopper, knowing full well that Marco often likes to post photos of former players on match days on his various social media feeds.

Chopper and I turned left to walk into Stamford Bridge via the entrance to the West Stand. My mind back-tracked. On that exact piece of terra firma, in 1974, I had turned into Stamford Bridge with my parents for the very first time. It was another sunny day. My first game. My first walk up those terraced steps into the West Stand.

“Home.”

I have said it before, but that moment in time – over forty-eight years ago – is etched in my mind forever and ever and ever. That I was repeating it alongside Ron Harris, who played on that day – I mentioned it to him – was particularly poignant. I took a photo of a smiling Chopper with the statue of Ossie in the background.

It will probably turn out to be one of my favourite ever Chelsea photographs.

I back-tracked and caught the tube away from Stamford Bridge – always an odd sensation – and was soon in “The Eight Bells.” We were joined by friends from all over. With the help of a few accomplices, I had been able to sort out spares for a few fans from the US. I enjoyed a good, very good, “state of the nation” chat with Cal who I have known for a good few years now. I always remember seeing him on that long walk to the stadium in Munich before the game – I wasn’t sure that I shared his gung-ho enthusiasm – but also in the concourse immediately after we had all been ushered out of the Nord Kurv, the last to leave, smiles and handshakes, the best of times. We spoke, briefly, about the stresses and the madness of the Porto game too.

Memories to last a very long time.

PD and Parky were in the middle of an extended drinking sesh and the laughter was booming. Dave from Northampton called in for a drink, a couple of the US visitors called in to collect tickets, Josh from Minnesota – still here from the FA Cup Final, stranded with COVID but now able to squeeze in one extra game – was with us. Johnny Twelve and his wife Jenny called in. Andy and Sophie from Nuneaton. The Kent boys, at the bar, roaring with laughter in the background.

All the world in one place.

I loved it.

At around 3pm, we caught the tube to Fulham Broadway for the last time of the season. We encountered some Watford fans. What an odd bunch. I will leave it there. Outside the steps to the Matthew Harding, we sorted one last ticket and I made my way in.

After Leicester City not filling their 3,000 spaces on Thursday, Watford showed them up. A full three-thousand and the highest percentage of replica shirts from any team all season. Bless’em.

Over in The Shed, I spotted wires that would be used to hoist a huge banner over the heads of supporters. I was primed for that exact moment.

Jenny settled in next to me in The Sleepy Hollow. Johnny Twelve was a few seats behind. We waited for the final few moments before the game would begin. Of course, elsewhere there were a few games that would be getting our attention too.

Manchester City at home to Aston Villa. A win please, City.

Liverpool at home to Wolves. Anything you can do, Wolves, would be greatly appreciated.

Norwich City vs. Tottenham. Could they do the ultimate “Spursy” and lose, thus finishing fifth?

Down in The Shed, things were stirring.

The huge mural of current and former players, managers, catchphrases and moments was stunning. And huge. What an effort.

A critique?

Not so sure Jody Morris really deserves a place despite his iconic celebration against United in 1999 and his work with the academy.

Lovely to see Micky Greenaway featured.

Not sure why Frank Lampard and John Terry are featured twice.

Personally, I would have loved to see that famous photo of Hughie Gallacher, pointing.

Hopefully, everyone reading this can name all of the faces featured. If not, sort yourself out.

The teams entered the pitch.

Our starting eleven?

Edouard

Dave – Long John Silva – Rudi

Reece – Saul – N’Golo – Kenedy

Hakim – Kai – Mase

Kenedy was a surprise start. I noted Saul this time; it gave me a warm feeling that Al admitted that he hadn’t noticed him playing the second-half against Wolves too. We were pleased to hear that Ben might be getting a few minutes off the bench.

The game began with us attacking The Shed End. We began relatively brightly with a couple of efforts from Havertz and Saul.

Very soon into the game, we heard that Wolves were 1-0 up at Anfield.

Oh the joy.

I looked over to see Roy Hodgson, his last ever game as a manager, and alongside him the former Chelsea midfielder Ray Lewington. Seeing them on the bench reminded me of a chat that I initiated on “Facebook” during a particularly desolate spell last season.

I find it odd, with the half-way line being off-centre in relation to the tunnel and dug-outs at Stamford Bridge, that Chelsea don’t sit in the northern one since it clearly offers a better all-round view of the pitch. The current away dug out, in fact, currently sits right on the half-way line, whereas the Chelsea one is way off-centre.

This is especially strange since Chelsea have the northern changing rooms. It would make sense for them to have the northern bench too. Back in the ‘seventies, Chelsea originally had the northern dug-outs. I am not sure why it changed.

The current location of the Chelsea dugout being so off-centre has never made sense to me.

In next seasons tales, I aim to provide a thorough review of the location of soap dispensers in the Matthew Harding bogs. Stay tuned.

In the eleventh minute, a fine ball from Kenedy on the left was nicely aimed towards Kai Havertz who could not miss, unmarked and with the goal at his mercy.

I thought, perhaps, he might have been offside, the Watford defence having seemingly stopped.

We enjoyed a few more chances, but the high spot of the middle section of the first-half was a perfectly executed sliding tackle from behind by Saul, hooking the ball away nicely from a Watford player. The same player then shot from outside the box. There was a Mount header. But then Watford enjoyed a little of the play as the first-half continued. There was a save from Mendy after a rare attack on our goal.

It was far from a great game, this. Watford wilted a little and we looked tired. A few more chances came our way, the best falling to Havertz, raiding from the left but his rising shot clipped the top of the bar.

Elsewhere, Manchester City were losing 1-0 at home to Villa and Liverpool were drawing 1-1 at home to Wolves. It was still advantage City.

Although we were winning, this was mundane stuff. I wondered if we were to get our real thrills from games taking place away from SW6.

The second-half began. Soon into the game, on the forty-ninth minute, we joined in applause in remembrance of Scott Conlon, a season-ticket-holder, who had recently passed away. I had spotted a small blue and white wreath at Peter Osgood’s feet in front of the West Stand before the game. A banner was hoisted in his memory in The Shed Upper.

RIP.

Watford created a few chances in the opening part of the second forty-five and Mandy needed to be at his best to save a low shot from Joao Pedro.

We shuffled about without causing much harm. Mount was guilty of trying to dribble through a forest of legs once too often. We were a mess of miss-hit passes.

It was pretty dull stuff. I stifled some yawns.

Thomas Tuchel made some changes.

Malang Sarr for Kenedy.

Ross Barkley for Rudiger.

Rudiger was warmly applauded as he left the pitch. He has been undoubtedly outstanding for us the past eighteen months or so. And even though I was utterly impressed with his letter of goodbye – a great deal of emotion, humour and intelligence – I am not going to get overly emotional about him leaving. We made him. I wish him well. And let’s hope for a fine replacement in the summer.

Barkley injected a good burst of urgency and Ziyech attempted his trademark “cut in and shoot” once or twice.

On seventy minutes :

“God. There’s still twenty minutes’ left.”

It was almost a plea for help.

Elsewhere, grim news filtered through; City were now losing 0-2 to Villa.

FORFUCKSAKE.

We were one Liverpool goal at Anfield for this all ending horribly.

Then, crash bang wallop.

Two goals in as many minutes at City. The games were a little out of synch but on eighty-three minutes at Stamford Bridge, the noise erupted.

“COME ON CITY. COME ON CITY. COME ON CITY. COME ON CITY.”

Of the two evils, City seem quite angelic.

There was a fine shot from Barkley, but an equally fine save from Daniel Bachmann in the Watford goal.

“He did always have a fine shot on him.”

The game sparked to life, or at least three games together.

The news came through that Manchester City had gone 3-2 ahead against Aston Villa, managed – gorgeously by Steven Gerrard – and the Stamford Bridge crowd roared.

“Steve Gerrard, Gerrard. He slipped on his fucking arse. And gave it to Demba Ba. Steve Gerrard, Gerrard.”

Watford scored – I missed it, I was making notes on my mobile ‘phone – and nobody cared fucking less.

The chant continued seamlessly…

“…and gave it to Demba Ba. Steve Gerrard, Gerrard.”

Then came the loudest “Carefree” of the whole day.

Surreal. Bizarre. To the outsider quite unexplainable. To us, normal. Fuck’em.

Ben Chilwell came on for Mason Mount.

Mount was voted our player of the year. An odd choice, I think. For chunks of this season, his career has stalled. My vote would have been for Thiago Silva. Chilwell received a fine reception from us of course.

The noise was still bowling around The Bridge.

Amid all of this schadenfreude, Reece James danced and jinked just outside the box on the far side. My camera was poised…click, click, click. He “toe’d” over a perfect ball for Ross Barkley to stoop and conquer. His strong header was parried by Bachmann but its pace continued it over the line.

GET IN YOU FUCKING BEAUTY.

My immediate thoughts, as he ran and jumped towards me : “that’s one happy Evertonian.”

Phew.

Chelsea 2 Watford 1.

What a breathless end to an otherwise mundane afternoon.

Rather than stay on to see the players and the management on their lap of appreciation, I had to drive precious cargo home. I made my way over to collect Chopper outside the hotel. Everyone was staring for updates on their phones.

It was over.

In the end, Liverpool’s two late goals at Anfield were to be worthless.

What a crazy season, eh? Such highs – Belfast, Abu Dhabi, World Champions, Tottenham, always Tottenham, four times this season, the drive to Newcastle, Luton, Middlesbrough, a trip to Turin but not the result – and lows – the two domestic Wembley finals, the car ride to Norwich on the day we heard about the sanctions, the worry of it all – but a season that marked my return to football and football’s return to me.

Last season, I saw just two Chelsea games.

In 2021/22 I saw fifty-five Chelsea game.

In 2021/22 I saw eighteen Frome Town games.

Seventy-three games. I have never seen more in one football season.

I need to get out more.

As I walked under The Shed Wall, I spotted Chopper reach up to his Chelsea Football Club tie and un-do the knot. He rolled the tie up and placed it ceremoniously inside his jacket pocket.

Here’s to seeing it again in August.

Have a good summer.

Tales From Yahnited

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 28 April 2022.

Manchester United was going to be our last regular season away game in 2021/22. However, our appearance in the FA Cup Final brought it forward just over two weeks.

Chelsea : “What are you doing Thursday 28 April?”

United : “Nothing. Absolutely nothing, why?”

Chelsea : “Well, we have a problem with Saturday 14 May.”

United : “Go on.”

Chelsea : “Well, we reached the Cup Final.”

United : “Shut it.”

Our last three domestic away games, then, were to be Manchester United, Everton and Leeds United. Three trips up north to three football giants. Three trips to the former warring counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire.

Three colours : red.

Three colours : blue.

Three colours : white.

These days, the cities and teams reside in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and West Yorkshire. And hopefully, fingers crossed, I would be attending all three. I have not fared too well with home games this season, but by the end of 2021/22, I will have hopefully chalked up a full set of away games in the league, mirroring that of 2008/9 and 2015/16.

I booked a half-day holiday at work for the day of the game and also a half-day holiday on the Friday. I collected Sir Les in a pub car park opposite work at midday, then Parky, then eventually PD at just before 1pm. My route to Manchester then needed to take me home. The reason for this needs explaining. Two tickets for two friends up north had been sent to me on Monday but had not yet materialised. I was hoping that they would be waiting for me in my front porch. Alas it was not to be. I had already warned them that the tickets were unlikely to arrive in time for my departure up north at 1pm as our post usually arrives mid-afternoon. My text to them was still a horrible thing to have to do.

The Royal Mail 1.

The Ticket Man 0.

Bollocks.

Undeterred, I set off.

There was a different route to get up onto the motorway network; Writhlington, Bath, Saltford, Keynsham, Bristol. I was soon onto the M32, then the M4, the M5…

By the way, It has occurred to me that during my match report for the recent West Ham United game, I missed an open goal. Surely, somehow, I could have referred to myself as the ticket man on Fulham Broadway Station?

What a waste.

The trip north was filled with football talk.

On the Tuesday, I had attended the Frome Town vs. Bristol Manor Farm game at Badgers Hill. This was the Southern League Southern Division play-off semi-final over just one leg. I aimed to drag as many people along as possible in order to boost the gate. In the end, just one was able to make it. I watched in the seats of the main stand as Joe O’Loughlin, the raiding left-back, unleashed a right-footed bullet to put us 1-0 up. How we all celebrated that one. I was just messaging some friends with the words “WHAT A FUCKING GOAL” when Manor Farm equalised within a minute of our goal. Sadly, the away team scored two further second-half goals to win it 3-1. Well done to them. They now travel to Winchester City in the final. I was predictably saddened with this loss. “Gutted” to use the football equivalent. Frome had been flying high in the two COVID seasons which were then sadly abandoned, and had led from the front this season until March. I rue two tame derby draws against Larkhall. The gate on Tuesday was a quite remarkable 1,158. It showed how the club has grown over the last three years.

I will be there again, when I can, next season. I attended eighteen Frome Town games this season – seven away – and each one has been so enjoyable. The club has been revitalised and – yes – I am still hurting that we didn’t reach the play-off final. Ironically, the final will be between the teams that finished fourth and fifth this season. Our second place finish – with a league best four defeats all season – meant nothing.

I hated the play-offs in 1988 with Chelsea and I hate them now in 2022 with Frome Town.

My good mate Kev, Chelsea, bumped into me before the game as he is a board member of Manor Farm. He enjoyed chatting to the one person I had brought along, a certain Mr. Harris, and he gave me a mix-tape – with a slight football flavour – to take to Manchester.

So that got an airing.

I loved it.

I did, though, wonder if I was upsetting the Chelsea Gods by playing it. There were songs from Manchester-based The Stone Roses and The Fall within the twenty-odd tunes involved.

At least Mr. Harris got a mention in Laurel Aitkens’ “The Zigger Zagger Song.”

We stopped at “The Windmill” pub, just off the M6, for about the fourth time. It’s our base before getting to Manchester. The boys enjoyed a couple of pints.

It was soon time to leave the pub for the final approach to Old Trafford.

The “sat nav” changed its mind four times in about five minutes as I looked at the best way to reach our usual parking spot near Gorse Hill Park, which is around a fifteen-minute walk from Old Trafford. In the end, it dragged me in a wide arc to the west, through some ridiculously quiet country lanes, sending me close to United’s training ground at Carrington, before pushing me through Urmston. Before I knew it, I was joining the slow-moving match-going traffic heading north along the Chester Road. I crept past the abandoned sky blue art deco cinema – it annoys me every time I see it, I would love to see it saved – past those red brick houses, signs for parking – the match day buzz growing now – and then the light grey of the Old Trafford stands in the distance. I parked up and paid £10 to the usual people. There was a nip in the air. Jackets were fastened.

This was my twenty-sixth visit to Old Trafford to see us play United. There were two FA Cup semi-finals too.

The last was in August 2019; the 0-4 shellacking with Frank at the helm.

Since my first time of walking along the Chester Road to Old Trafford around twenty years ago, a few things have changed. Nearer the ground, there are a couple of new car dealerships and a large modern supermarket. But past The Bishop Blaize pub, I was glad to see the small knot of fast food outlets still going strong. Old Trafford itself has undergone monstrous redevelopment itself in the past twenty-five years – it isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing of stadia – and so it always gives me a warm glow to see these six or seven cafes still eking out a living. A link to the past. A link to our youth. It’s silly, but I hope they continue to thrive. The match day experience at Old Trafford would suffer if they were to disappear.

The Lou Macari chip shop is still there. After the work that Macari has done for the homeless in his adopted city of Stoke-on-Trent, I have a lot of respect for that man. Talking of Macari, if you call yourself a football fan and haven’t seen “Marvellous” you need to have a word with yourself.

We reached the forecourt, the famous forecourt – another link to the past, the Munich clock et al – at around 7.15pm. The ticket man handed over tickets to Deano.

There was just time for a photo to share on Facebook, with me outside the away turnstiles. There are certain games that require a little attention in the sartorial stakes and this was one of them.

United away : Vivienne Westwood shirt, Hugo Boss jeans, Hugo Boss top, Paul & Shark jacket and Adidas gazelles.

The caption?

“Tonight is my seventy-eighth Chelsea vs. Manchester United game across all competitions and venues. It takes them top just past Liverpool in my all-time list.

It is the only competition they will win this season.”

Without much fuss, I made my way in. The away segment of East Stand, formerly K Stand, is one of the oldest remaining parts of the stadium now. It reeks of ‘sixties concrete and pillars.

I simply could not have asked for a better viewing position. The much-enlarged disabled section at Old Trafford – very laudable – is at the front of the away corner, and so it means that our seats in “row two” were a third of the way back. Not only that, to my left was a clear view of the rest of the stadium; there was an abyss immediately next to me and then a gap before the home areas of the main stand, the South Stand. I had an even better than usual view of one of Old Trafford’s nicest features; the pitch is raised, as if indeed a stage, and the drop-off to the pitch surrounds always looks dangerously steep.

Old Trafford was quiet and not particularly full. Certainly in those areas to my left there were easily visible red seats. But our section had gaps too. Clearly this Thursday night fixture had proved to be problematic. We had heard rumours of “Glazers Out” protests but I had witnessed nothing before the game. The ground tried its best to fill up.

Just before the entrance of the teams, billowing sulphurous smoke emerged from the bowels of the South Stand. We presumed that a flare had been let off in protest.

The teams appeared from the tunnel in the south-east corner, below a “Glazers Out” sign held aloft by supporters.

Right. The game. The teams.

Chelsea lined up as below :

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Azpilicueta

James – Kante – Jorginho – Alonso

Mount – Havertz – Werner

The “fluid” system rather than the one with Lukaku in it. Right, kids?

Long gone are the days when I could reel off a United team.

This United team weren’t :

Schmeichel

Parker – Pallister – Bruce – Irwin

Kanchelskis – Ince – Robson – Giggs

Cantona – Hughes

Some bloke called Telles and some bloke called Elanga were playing for United, whoever they were. Cristiano Ronaldo, however, started.

The game – roll on drums – began.

What a start from us. We absolutely penned United into their own half and the home crowd, quiet before the game, were soon making negative noise.

The Chelsea faithful were first out of the traps too :

“Chelsea boys are on a bender. Cristiano’s got a coffee blender.”

…or something, I’m not sure.

I spoke to Parky :

“There’s some grass over there, left-hand side of the box, that marks the point where Ron Harris took out Eddie Gray in 1970.”

Unlike the first-half against West Ham on Sunday, we managed two efforts on target in the first seven minutes. A shot from Reece James and another from Timo Werner were saved well by De Gea.

It was all us. The action on the pitch and the noise off it.

Then, some scares came in quick succession. Bruno Fernandes, buzzing around from deep, looked to be their main threat and they had a little of the ball. A free-header from Fernandes was easily saved by Edouard Mendy, then an attempted bicycle kick from that man Ronaldo thankfully ballooned over.

But after this little blip, it was business as usual.

N’Golo Kante quickly shot at De Gea. We were playing so well. United were nowhere, nowhere at all. With Kante eating up space with two majestic and energetic runs from deep, he twice set up Kai Havertz with fine balls into space. The first resulted in a shot that was slashed against the side netting and the second was hit at an angle. The second move was undoubtedly the best of the game thus far.

There was a chant in honour of our Russian owner…the last days of the Roman Empire…but the United fans were so lethargic and apathetic that there was none of the usual boos that would normally accompany this.

We were especially dominant down our right with James making an absolutely marvellous return to the team. His cross was headed towards goal by Havertz, but this was again right at De Gea.

On thirty-eight minutes, an absolutely thunderous “Chelsea” – to the tune of “Amazing Grace” –  galvanised the entire away support.

Thinking to myself : “they must have heard that on the TV in London, Paris, New York, Munich.”

Did you?

It was almost total domination from Chelsea. The half-time talks and chats were all positive.

The second-half began and I was aware that both police and stewards had positioned themselves in front of the main stand and in the far corner where the “Glazers Out” sign had made a reappearance. The club were presumably expecting further rumblings of discontent.

The dominance continued on. A fine cross from Mason Mount just evaded Timo.

Ten minutes in, I honestly heard the first “Yahnited” chant of the night.

On the hour, a cross into the box from that man James was flicked on by Havertz. I saw two blue shirts unmarked at the far post. I gulped some Mancunian air. The slight wait. The trusted left boot of Marcos Alonso sent the ball low past De Gea and into the net.

GET IN YOU FUCKING BEAUTY.

The away end boomed.

You probably heard that in London, Paris, New York and Munich too.

Sadly, just like with Frome Town on Tuesday night, a goal was conceded just after we scored. We conceded possession and United pounced. A fine scoop up by Matic – one of their better players, I thought – found Ronaldo inside the box and grotesquely unmarked.

It had goal written all over it and other clichés. He brought the ball under control superbly and smashed it past Mendy.

Old Trafford woke up.

Ugh.

“Viva Ronaldo. Running down the wing. Hear United sing. Viva Ronaldo.”

What a disappointment.

“They’ve only had three attempts on goal, Gal.”

With twenty minutes to go, changes from the sideline.

Romelu Lukaku for Havertz.

Christian Pulisic for Werner.

Lukaku, to his credit, again repeated Sunday’s entrance by trying to sprint into spaces but was cruelly ignored by all.

I noted that Matic was booed off by us whereas Juan Mata – lovely player, lovely man, I sound like Alan Partridge – was warmly applauded.

We seemed to have corner after corner in that second-half.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

We conjured one last real chance. With ten minutes to go, Kante broke in the inside left position and played a fine ball into Mount. With a lovely understanding of his positioning and of others, he back-heeled to James.

There was a wait for the ball to reach him and for him to reach the ball.

We inhaled again.

The ball was crashed goal wards and it clipped the left-hand post.

We howled.

In the back of my mind, now, was the Football Gods completely fucking us over and allowing United an absolutely unmerited winner. There was indeed a late chance for Garnacho – who? – but Mendy saved well.

The draw felt like a loss.

Definitely.

Throughout thhis excellent game, Kante, Alonso and Silva had been magnificent but the real star was Reece James. Some of his close control was mesmerising, and his positional play superb. He really will be one of our very greats.

On Sir Matt Busby Way, Sir Les and PD indulged in a polystyrene tray of chips and curry sauce while I had a burger with onions. The food of the footballing Gods.

We made our way back to the car. Out on the Chester Road, the everything was moving quicker than usual. It was a tough old drive home but I eventually reached my house at 2.45am on Friday morning. The two tickets had still not arrived.

On Sunday, we’ll be heading up the same roads all over again.

I love a trip to Goodison. Who knows, it could – sadly – be my last.

I hope to see some of you there.

Tales From The Ticket Man

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 24 April 2022.

After our third consecutive home loss against Arsenal on the Wednesday, the phrase “our worst-ever home run” was heard a few times. With eleven goals conceded in just those three games, it certainly felt like it. Alas, there was no confirmation from anywhere if this was true, but I thought I’d take a look at the games that I, at least, had seen in the flesh. I brought up my “games attended spreadsheet” and ran a couple of filters.

Yes, there it was in all its damning glory.

I found it hard to believe, but I it became apparent that I had never before witnessed three consecutive home defeats at Stamford Bridge. And to be doubly clear, on this occasion the three losses against Brentford, Real Madrid and Arsenal were not only the sole three consecutive losses I had ever seen, but the only three consecutive losses that I had ever seen regardless of if the actual games were consecutive in “real time” too, not just games I had seen. A double whammy, if you will.

Bloody hell. It amazed me that I had never seen three in a row before. That I had been so lucky.

I didn’t attend many games in the truly abysmal seasons of 1978/79 and 1982/83 – two and four respectfully – but it truly shocked me that I had never personally witnessed three home defeats on the spin.

A grand total of eight-hundred and fourteen games at Stamford Bridge and only one run of three consecutive home losses.

Altogether now :

“Fackinell.”

Next up was another home game, this time against another London rival; West Ham United. This would be no easy fixture, nor any semblance of one. A defeat at the hands of David Moyes’ Irons in the autumn still smarts.

But before all that on the Sunday, I had a bonus game on the Saturday. Frome Town’s regular league season was to end with an away game at Lymington Town. I drove down to Hampshire and the last segment took me through the ethereal beauty of the New Forest – it’s unique scenery of yellow gorse, mossy shrub land and gnarled and ancient trees, and of course the wandering and unattended sheep and ponies – and then enjoyed a very entertaining 5-0 win for the visiting team. It was a glorious day out.

Early on the Sunday, I set off for London and the District Line Derby.

Very soon into the trip, with Mr. Daniels and Mr. Harris already on board, non-league football entered my head again. Our route took us past the current home of Trowbridge Town Football Club, now toiling in the Wiltshire League, a few levels below Frome Town who are at level eight in the football pyramid. Yet in 1981, Trowbridge Town played at level five – in the old conference – and were light years ahead of Frome who were entrenched in the Western League. In those days, Trowbridge were managed by former Chelsea player Alan Birchenall – “good lad, Birch, quite a character” chirped Mr. Harris – but since then the fortunes of the two teams have taken different trajectories. Such is life in our amazing football pyramid.

The football pyramid had recently witnessed a shocking fall from grace. Oldham Athletic – Chelsea’s first opponents in the newly-carved Premier League in August 1992, they did the double over us in 1993/94 – had just been relegated from the Football League.  The Latics had thus fallen from level one to level five in just under thirty years. There have been quicker descents – Bristol City in four years from one to four, Northampton Town rising those levels in five seasons and then falling those levels in five seasons too – but this one seemed particularly grotesque.

But we must cherish the fluidity of the pyramid. It is what makes English football.

With Mr. Parkins joining us soon after a drive through the town of Trowbridge, we were on our way.

The weather looked half-decent and the day lay stretched out in front of us.

The back-story to this game concerns a quest to get hold of five match tickets. I found out a while back that some good friends from Jacksonville in Florida were on their way over for the West Ham game. However, as their trip drew closer, things took a nosedive. Even though they had paid the club for tickets, the club were not releasing them.

No, I don’t understand it either.

So, from about two weeks out, I began searching some channels. Luckily, just in time, I was able to get hold of all five. Thanks to Gary, Ian, Calvin and Dan, the job was done.

For our personal merriment, Jennifer, Cindy, Brian, Anel and Eugene would be called The Axon Five for the duration of this trip.

In truth, it was as frantic a pre-match as I have had for a while. The plan was to meet up at Stamford Bridge at ten o’clock. Jennifer and Brian were able to meet a few of the players who take care of the corporate work at Chelsea on a match day. We met up just as Sir Bobby Tambling arrived. This was a lovely moment for the two visitors since they had first met Bobby in Charlotte for our friendly with PSG in 2015 and had subsequently bumped into him on a previous visit to SW6 too. In North Carolina, Bobby was persuaded to partake in what the Americans call “jello shots”, much to the amusement of the two Floridians.

With a Chelsea tour to the US – sanctions permitting – being spoken about, it was a good time for me to host a few Chelsea fans from across the pond. Of course, Jennifer and Brian will be attending the friendly against Arsenal in Orlando, but I am not tempted. The other two rumoured cities are Las Vegas and Charlotte, again, ironically. As it stands, I shan’t be bothering to travel over for this tour. After experiencing Buenos Aires in 2020, my sights are focussed on slightly more exotic climes.

Well, South America and where ever Frome Town are playing to be precise.

While Jennifer and Brian set off to meet up with PD and Parky in “The Eight Bells”, I set off for “The Blackbird” at Earl’s Court to collect a ticket. I walked past “The Courtfield” – the one away pub at Chelsea these days, a good mile away from the ground, how we like it – but there didn’t seem to be too many West Ham inside. It was around 11.15am. As luck would have it, I bumped into another little knot of Chelsea supporters from the US; this time, the left coast, California. I had met Tom and Brad a few times before. This time they were with their wives and two friends too. It seemed that another couple of mates – Steve and Ian – were hosting some Chelsea tourists too. It was great to catch up with them once again.

I then set off for the bottom end of Fulham. At around 12.15pm, I eventually made it to “The Eight Bells” where another ticket was collected. Things were dropping into place nicely.

Yet Cindy, Anel and Eugene were yet to appear.

Tick tock.

We stayed about an hour or so. At last all of the five Floridians were together and we could relax. Brian spoke about how their local Chelsea pub on Jacksonville Beach – I must have cycled past it on my Virginia to Florida cycle trip in 1989 – was at last bursting to the seams for our Champions League Final in Porto. Such is life, eh? Everyone shows up for the big ones. We sat outside “Eight Bells” as it was heaving inside. I think the girls got a kick out of the “Home Fans Only” signs in the boozer’s windows.

After lots of laughs, we – reluctantly? – set off for the game. Outside the Peter Osgood statue, at about 1.40pm, the last ticket was gathered.

Cindy – her first Chelsea game – and Jennifer joined me in the MHU while the three lads took position in the MHL.

Phew.

The kick-off at 2pm soon arrived.

I had hardly had time to think about the game itself.

We heard that Andreas Christensen was injured pre-match and so Dave took a new position, in the left of a back three. Trevoh Chalobah returned.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Azpilicueta

Loftus-Cheek – Kante – Jorginho – Alonso

Mount

Werner – Havertz

There were, of course, the same spaces as for the Arsenal game and this elicited the same song from the away fans.

“Just like the old days, there’s nobody here.”

At least Chelsea conjured up a quick response this time.

“Just like the old days, you’re still fucking shit.”

That made me chuckle.

Three FA Cups and one European trophy.

Is that it West Ham?

There was a Ukranian flag on The Shed balcony wall; maybe a nod to their player Andriy Yarmolenko.

“Glory To Ukraine.”

Let’s hope so.

Further along, a much more light-hearted flag.

“East End Girls. Forever Blowing Bubbles.”

Ooh, matron.

The game began and I wish it hadn’t. What a shocking first-half, eh? It had to be one of the worst forty-five minutes I have endured for a while.

Alan nailed it.

“They have a big game Thursday. They don’t want to risk anything.”

Indeed. Declan Rice, Michael Antonio and Jarrod Bowen were all rested ahead of their Europa League semi-final against Eintracht Frankfurt, shades of us in 2019.

The visitors in claret and light blue sat behind the ball, closed space, and rarely threatened our goal. We looked half-paced and still tired from Wednesday. Our play was turgid, lethargic and without flair and imagination. We looked unable to think outside the box, nor to play inside the penalty box.

It was all so fucking dull.

And it was as if Wednesday hadn’t happened. There seemed no desire to win back our approval after the shocking defending against Arsenal.

Chalobah made an error in our half, allowing a rare West Ham attack, but soon recovered and enjoyed a good first period. Kante was full of running, but there was nobody moving to create anything. I lost count of the number of times we were in good positions to shoot but didn’t. The frustration in the stands was overpowering.

The game was so dull that I resorted to wondering why the floodlights were turned on during an early afternoon game in April.

The first forty-five minutes ended with neither side having a single shot on target. Surprisingly, knowing our support these days, there were no boos at all at half-time. Does that mean that season ticket holders tend not to boo?

Answers on a postcard.

I wondered what Cindy was making of it all, just a few yards away in row two of the MHU alongside Jennifer.

The pour souls.

Sigh.

The second-half got going and there seemed to be an immediate improvement. At long last, there were shots on goal. One from Timo Werner, a volley, was blocked but the actual sight of a player willing to take a chance – “buy a raffle ticket” – was ridiculously applauded. A blooter from Kante was similarly blocked. This was better, much better. The crowd responded. I looked over to see the two girls joining in with a very loud “Carefree.”

A fine strike from Chalobah – such great body shape – caused Lukasz Fabianski to make a fine save to his left.

The game had definitely improved. On seventy minutes, Ruben Loftus-Cheek set up Mason Mount but Fabianski was saved by another defensive block.

With fifteen minutes to go, wholesale changes from Thomas Tuchel.

Romelu Lukaku for a quiet Havertz.

Christian Pulisic for the energetic Werner.

Hakim Ziyech for the steady Loftus-Cheek.

We looked livelier. Lukaku looked eager to impress, but – for fuck’s sake – his sprints – sprints I tell ya! – into space were not spotted by those with the ball. That was about to change, thankfully. With about five minutes to go, a move found that man Lukaku breaking into the box. An arm from a West Ham defender seemed to pull him back. The referee Michael Oliver quickly pointed to the spot.

Then…blah blah blah…VAR…blah blah blah…a delay…the referee went to the TV screen…the yellow card became red.

There seemed to be a long delay.

Jorginho.

Alan : “skip?”

Chris : “yes, skip.”

He skipped.

The shot was tamely hit too close to Fabianski.

Groans, groans, groans.

I can’t really explain it, but I still had a strong notion – a sixth sense – that we would still grab a late winner.

Ziyech let fly from his usual inside-left position but the shot flew over.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

On eighty-nine minutes, the ball was played beautifully out to Marcos Alonso on the left. He played the ball perfectly in to the box, right towards Pulisic and the substitute sweep it in to a corner.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

Absolute pandemonium in the North-West corner.

I looked over to Cindy and Jennifer.

The American had scored in front of the Americans.

Superb. Magic. Fantastic. Magnificent. Stupendous.

Alan : “They’ll have ta cam at us nah.”

Chris : “Cam on moi li’ul doimuns.”

The final whistle blew.

A huge roar, smiles all around, absolutely bloody lovely. That was a hugely enjoyable end to a mainly mediocre game of football.

Altogether now : “phew.”

And the song remained the same :

“Just like the old days, you’re still fucking shit.”

Outside, I was the ticket man again, sorting tickets for Manchester United away, gathering tickets for Everton away…

It had been a good day.

…see you at Old Trafford.

Pre-Game Blue

A Late Late Show

From Jacksonville To Axonville

Tales From Tier One And Tier Eight

Chelsea vs. Brighton And Hove Albion : 29 December 2021.

Over Christmas 2021 and into New Year 2022, I was planning to attend six games. The over-riding question mark over these games was of course COVID19. Let’s have a re-cap.

22 December : Brentford vs. Chelsea – check.

26 December : Aston Villa vs. Chelsea – check.

27 December : Frome Town vs. Melksham Town – still on.

29 December : Chelsea vs. Brighton And Hove Albion – still on.

1 January : Paulton Rovers vs. Frome Town – still on.

2 January : Chelsea vs. Liverpool – still on.

So, after the fine win at Villa Park on Boxing Day, I was a third of the way through this feast of festive football.

Thus far the Football Gods were defeating the Covid ones; long may it continue.

Next up was a widely anticipated local derby involving a home game for my local non-league team Frome Town and local rivals Melksham Town. Back in August – the Bank Holiday Monday – I attended the away game and was happy with a 3-0 win for Frome in front of a fine gate of 491. Frome Town’s home attendances have been exceptional this season, averaging over four-hundred, and this is in comparison to an average of around two-hundred a few seasons ago, before COVID19, before abandoned seasons, before lockdown. In a nutshell, the people of Frome have massively backed the local team, quite possibly to the detriment of some of the local professional teams. All along, I was telling friends that the local derby with Melksham could well break the one thousand mark. The team’s first league game of the season against Highworth Town drew a massive 867 although there is a sizeable asterisk against this game as a local company paid for all attendees to watch the game for free. However, against Oxford City in the FA Cup in September, the gate was a hefty 586. It was agreed that the Melksham Town game would easily draw 600, probably 700 and possibly even more. In the back of my mind, I was holding out for one thousand.

On the morning of the game, in a wet but mild Frome town centre, I met up with two of the “Villa Park Five” and we embarked on a mini-pub crawl involving five of the town’s pubs.

PD, Glenn and I would help to bolster the attendance. I have known Glenn to attend the occasional Frome Town game with me over the past ten years but PD is a very rare visitor to Badger’s Hill. In some familiar watering holes we spoke about Villa the previous day and a little about the upcoming game later.

As we walked towards the main turnstiles, there was a queue of around forty people at around 2.30pm with still half-an-hour to kick-off. This, believe me, is unheard of.

Once inside, I stood with my usual Dodge pals Louise, Steve and Fran. I was told, proudly by Fran, that he had entered by the very rarely used second turnstile, wherever that is.

I looked around. There were people everywhere. There were even people sitting in the small cluster of open air seats next to the fully packed main stand. That never happens. What a lovely sight.

“Easily a thousand.”

This match, though on a much smaller scale of course, reminded me of my “guess the gate” game at Stamford Bridge in my childhood and youth. These days, this would be a pretty dull game; every game is a 40,000 sell-out. But from the late-‘seventies to the early-‘nineties, our crowd capacity was around the 45,000 mark. More importantly, our gates varied wildly, often within the same month, often the same week. However, the wildcard in our gates involved the club – a bearded chairman is usually quoted – shaving off thousands in order to keep money from the taxman. This made the guesstimating a little difficult. But, let’s take an example; Chelsea vs. Leeds United for the promotion decider in April 1984. Previously, our highest gate was 35,147 against Sheffield Wednesday. I think I can remember talking to the lads on the car ride to the Leeds game – PD and Glenn again – that the attendance would easily breach the 40,000 mark. In fact, the publicised gate of 33,447 fooled nobody at all. The place was rammed. I am sure it reached 40,000. But at virtually all home games in that period, I tended to not “guess the score” but “guess the gate” and I am sure I wasn’t alone.

Back to 2021 and back to Frome Town.

In a wet and blustery first-half, Frome looked sluggish and succumbed to a goal in the thirty-fourth minute. It hadn’t been much of a first-half. A real shame for the bumper crowd. While I was queuing for half-time beers in the busy clubhouse – seventy-five in the line at the bar, bloody hell – the game had evidently re-started and I was told that Melksham had doubled their lead.

A Frome fackinell was muttered as I waited for beers.

On fifty-five minutes, crowd favourite Jon Davies pulled a goal back with a shot lashed in from twenty yards. Frome were reacting well and the crowd were getting behind the team. On seventy-three minutes, an equaliser from Rex Mannings was met with wild cheers. We were back in this. To our horror, just three minutes later the visitors scored again on a rare break. In the first-half, we were sheltered under the roof along the side of the pitch. In this second-half we were amassed with hundreds of others in the packed Club End.

Towards the end, the PA announced the attendance.

1,103.

Bloody superb.

The noise levels increased. Frome hit the post. Unbelievingly, in the ninety-third minute, Alex Hallett slotted home, though from my vantage point – low down, behind many – I didn’t see the ball go in, I just saw the reactions of the players and spectators nearer the pitch.

Get in.

The place erupted.

What a lovely afternoon. Not only an entertaining game and a frankly unreal attendance, but also a few hours among people who I hadn’t seen for a while. I lost count of the number of people that said “hello Paul” to PD. Frome maintained pole position in the Southern League Division One South, down at level eight in the football pyramid.

Back in one of the two pubs that we would continue our drinking, there was a little reference to Chelsea.

“1,103 today.”

“Maybe PD, Glenn and I were the three.”

“Back in 1976 – forty-five years ago to the day in fact – Chelsea played at home to Fulham in the Second Division and the gate was 55,003.”

I remembered how my mate Alan always says “I was the three.”

55,003 in 1976.

1,103 in 2021.

It’s a toss-up which has made me prouder.

The rather inclement weather that had spoiled the game at Frome to a degree was in evidence as I set off from my house at around 11.15am on the morning of the Brighton game. I soon called in to collect PD in Frome. Thankfully, the blustery wind and rain had abated by the time I reached the next passenger. A soggy Chopper is a horrible thought. I had been hoping to take him to the Leeds United game a few weeks ago – 1970 and all that – but he had made his own way up to London on the Friday.

Ron soon told us of a nice incident that had happened during that game though. Midway through the game, he was summoned to the boardroom and was introduced to former Leeds United player and manager Eddie Gray. The former winger apparently travels to all of Leeds’ away games, looking after some executive club members, and I suppose this mirrors the job that he carries out at Elland Road. The two former combatants must have enjoyed a few fine words.

Ron told of us of a gig that both attended “up north” a few years back. Gray stepped forward and presented Ron with a small gift.

“This is a stud that they have just been finally able to remove from my knee from the 1970 FA Cup Final.”

Ah, that tackle. After giving David Webb the run-around at Wembley, Dave Sexton chose to let the Chelsea captain man mark Gray at Old Trafford. Chopper did not disappoint.

Incidentally, I always find it hard to believe that Eddie Gray – at thirty-six years of age – took part in the afore-mentioned game at Stamford Bridge in April 1984. He was their player-manager at the time.

We collected Parky at about 12.15pm and we were on our way. Thankfully, the traffic wasn’t too busy and I made good time on my way in to London. At around 2.30pm I deposited PD and Parky outside “The Temperance” at the bottom of Fulham High Street. They would soon be knocking back a few pints at “The Eight Bells.” I dropped Ron off at the bottom of the North End Road and he made his way to the stadium.

I parked-up in my usual spot, then made a leisurely walk down to Stamford Bridge where my friend Ben from the Boston Blues enjoyed a little chat with a few former players. I then caught the tube down to Putney Bridge and joined PD and Parky – and also my friend Andrew, once of the New York Blues but now living in Brighton of all places – in the cosy confines of “T8B” which was full of its usual regulars. Andrew would be sitting alongside me in The Sleepy Hollow. PD, Parky and I were starving so we each indulged in a burger and chips. My good pal Mac – a Brighton season ticket holder – arrived with two, then three, of his friends and sat alongside us.

At the same time it was a busy yet relaxed pre-match and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Brighton lads spoke to me about their manager Graham Potter. They had started to get a little irritated with the way that Brighton would always seem to play conservatively and without risk, and that many fans were wishing that there was a change of plan. Only a few times in recent years have Brighton “gone for it.” Mac recollected that when they travelled to Manchester City in the early weeks of 2019/20, Potter had thrown caution to the wind, and although Albion had lost 4-0, Mac had loved it. It was an interesting comment. It brought make an eerie reminder of Frank Lampard at Old Trafford the same season. I didn’t enjoy that one quite so much. But we chatted about how so many teams “shut up shop” these days; I told them that I longed for the days when football didn’t resemble a game of bloody chess.

One of Mac’s friends – Chris from Somerset, confusing isn’t it? – asked me what my preconceptions were of Graham Potter.

I felt like saying that I knew more about Harry Potter. The Brighton manager surely has to be one of the most unassuming men in the modern game.

With the kick-off at 7.30pm, it was time for us to set off. It was a stupidly mild evening in old London town as PD, Andrew and I turned into the West forecourt and waved an “adios” to Parky as he wended his way to The Shed.

Here was the team :

Mendy – Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger – James, Jorginho, Kovacic, Pulisic – Hudson-Odoi, Lukaku, Mount.

This was again a case of Thomas Tuchel having to shuffle an increasingly depleted pack of cards. But, on paper at least, it did look a half-decent team. Of course, we would miss the energy of Kante and the crafted calmness of Thiago Silva. Sadly, Ben Chilwell is gone for the season, while others are clearly not at full fitness levels. But a “plus” had to be the presence of Romelu Lukaku in the starting line-up. We just had to engineer a way of getting the ball up to him, or for him to attack. That was our huge task as the clock ticked towards kick-off.

The two teams appeared in what looked like a training game from c. 1987 with Chelsea in royal blue and the visitors in an all jade Chelsea Collection number. Brighton had a solid three-thousand in their half of The Shed, but not one flag nor banner. Must do better.

On a day when it was announced that John Terry was returning to the club in a coaching role at the academy – a move that really surprised me – a large “Captain. Leader. Legend.” Surfed over the heads in the home section of the Shed Upper.

Right, the last game of 2021, another bloody crazy year in the history of Chelsea Football Club, but one which turned out to be so typical of modern day Chelsea. For much of 2021 it was the same old song; supporter unrest, managerial problems, silverware, big name signings, glimpses of success, supporter unrest, repeat to fade.

Would I have it any other way? Yes, probably.

However : [clears throat]

“Let’s Go To Work.”

As usual, we attacked The Shed in the first-half. A few early forays hinted at good things. However, the first piece of action got the pulses racing was a full throttle race down our left involving former Chelsea youngster Tariq Lamptey and our man Reece James. Thankfully, that particular tussle ended in our favour.

The boisterous away fans went for an early dig.

“Tariq Lamptey, he left ‘cus you’re shit” and how we laughed.

After an early effort from Callum Hudson-Odoi, Lamptey attacked and struck a shot that did not bother Edouard Mendy. But their right back was looking effervescent. A corner from our right was not cleanly gathered by Robert Sanchez in the Brighton goal, and Cesar Azpilicueta swung a leg and the resulting shot cannoned off the near post. The ball bounced away and James swung it in again. However, a header from Antonio Rudiger was easily saved by the Brighton ‘keeper.

A clean move involving a run and pass from Mateo Kovacic to Romelu Lukaku set up Mason Mount but his shot was saved by Sanchez.

Sadly, we spotted that James was rooted to the turf on the half-way line. He was completely still. We all feared the worst. His walk off, supported to of Chelsea’s medical team, was the slowest I have ever seen. He was replaced by Marcos Alonso.

A Mason Mount corner was swung in and the ball perfectly met the free leap from Lukaku. The ball went crashing down and past Sanchez.

Get in.

After his excellent performance at Villa, it felt that he was the man of the moment.

There was a tough tackle in the midfield and the away fans did not like it.

“You dirty Northern bastards” caused a smirk from Andrew and myself in The Sleepy Hollow.

Brighton had caused us a few moments during the first-half and they had grown stronger as the game developed. Apart from our opening half-an-hour, we had drifted. The atmosphere wasn’t too special. The night was mild, on the pitch and off it.

“We’re hanging on a bit here” I said to PD.

However, I thought that Andreas Christensen had enjoyed a fine half, often intercepting and tackling with aplomb. It was just typical that he had taken a knock and was replaced at the break by Trevoh Chalobah. Our injury woes were getting worse.

Brighton kept up their pressure from the first-half. A cross from Solly March was met by Jakub Moder and his effort dropped – just – over the bar. Shots followed from Alexis Mac Alister and the very impressive Yves Bissouma.

Ten minutes into the second-half, at last, the home crowd got it together and a loud “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” enveloped the stadium. Just after, there followed a rare Chelsea attack. Hudson-Odoi broke from deep and advanced. Mount was in a good position, racing away too and square, and Callum decided to pass rather than shoot. The pass was poor and a defender intercepted. The howls of derision boomed around the Matthew Harding. Brighton immediately attacked and the atmosphere was suddenly red hot. Mendy blocked Mac Allister and Rudiger blocked Maupay. Other chances came and went for Brighton. We had nothing in response.

I messaged Mac : “Your boys are doing you proud.”

Lamptey was nicely applauded by us when he was substituted with half-an-hour to go.

Just after, N’Golo Kante replaced Hudson-Odoi.

We hoped that this would steady the ship. And this seemed to be the case. We even enjoyed a few half-chances with headers from Rudiger and Chalobah giving us a little hope for a second goal that would give us some security. There were further half-chances, nothing more, from Lukaku and Kante.

But I was surely not the only one who was half-expecting a late Brighton equaliser.

Four minutes of added injury time were to be played at the end of the ninety.

After just one of these, Marc Cucarella dropped a cross onto the head of a rising Danny Welbeck and the ball nestled in at the far post.

The players – far from jaded – raced away, the away hordes jumped and jumped, a blue flare was thrown onto the pitch. This was their moment.

Sigh.

We sloped away amidst comments of “this feels like a loss” and “they deserved that.”

Just as I was nearing my car, with PD and Parky already waiting, Nice Guy Kenny spotted Chopper walking alongside me and asked for a photo with his young niece. At least one Chelsea supporter left SW6 with a nice feeling.

Nobody likes dropping points of course. And this is a testing time for us all. But there is no doubt that our once vaunted squad is currently stretched. The immediate over-reaction by sections of our support was to be expected these days. All was rosy after Villa Park. One game later, not so.

I made good time on my return and I was home just after midnight.

Next up, Paulton Rovers away and Liverpool at home.

On we go.

Tales From Saturday And Sunday

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 28 November 2021.

Chelsea drew 1-1 as the team failed to capitalise on almost total domination against a defence-minded Manchester United team on a bitterly cold afternoon at Stamford Bridge. The goals that were so forthcoming against Juventus in the previous home game never materialised and the points were shared when a penalty by Jorginho equalised a goal from Jadon Sancho that was scored earlier in the second-half.

Right, that’s the game sorted. What else happened?

Some numbers. The game against Manchester United was to be my twentieth match of the season. By the end of December, that total would – hopefully, health and lockdowns permitting – be up to twenty-eight. Starting against Watford on the Wednesday, December was going to be a very busy month indeed. And this obviously does not include the away game against Zenit, which may not even take place in St. Petersburg if the current rumours are true.

This would also be my seventy-seventh game against Manchester United.

“That’s more United games than all of my United acquaintances’ games combined.”

That’s almost a true story. My former college friend Rick, who occasionally gets a mention when we play at Old Trafford, is a season ticket holder at United and skews the figures. But apart from him, of the ten or so United fans that I know of, hardly any have seen United play more than a handful, at best, of times.

This was the second game in SW6 in six days. Juventus and Manchester United, eh? What a lovely double of home fixtures.

But first, a Saturday night in Old London Town. When I heard that my mate Jaro and his son Alex were coming over from the US for a week, we soon conjured up a plan to spend a little quality time with them around the United game. We would only see them for an hour at the Juventus match. I booked Parky, PD and yours truly into an apartment – a flat in usual parlance, right? – in Fulham for the Saturday night and I got to work on a pub-crawl in a part of town that would be new for all of us. I drove up to London in the early afternoon and thankfully the rumoured snow showers did not amount to anything. However, we were waylaid by some heavy traffic around Twickenham and didn’t get up to the apartment, where Lillie Road meets the Fulham Palace Road, until just after 2.30pm.

Not to worry, by 3.30pm we were sipping our first bevvies in a pub which we often spot on our drive-in to SW6 for match days.

“The Distillers” – on our walk to Hammersmith tube – and “The Duke Of Cornwall” – on our walk back to the flat late at night, a few doors down from the first pub, were to be the two book-ends of a hugely enjoyable drinking session. It lasted from 3.30pm to around 12.30am. The main action took place around St. James’ Park tube; “The Old Star”, “The Adam & Eve”, “The Buckingham Arms”, “The Albert” and “The Greencoat Boy.”

Jaro joined us for five hours in the last four pubs.

We had a blast. There had been a constant worry, of course, that both Jaro and Alex would succumb to COVID on this trip, but I can confirm that after the Saturday night with Parky and PD, Jaro became infected by a far more agreeable virus :

CHUCKLE19

There is no cure.

Sunday, and game day, soon arrived.

As I was the dedicated driver for the return journey, there was no match day boozing for me. I dropped Parky and PD off at West Brompton tube and they sauntered down to “The Eight Bells” for the second heavy session of the weekend. They were to be joined for a couple of hours by two United lads from Frome – I was only vaguely familiar with them – and who, much to PD’s amusement, had to be constantly assured that they would be “safe”.

Meanwhile, I parked up and then spent a couple of quiet hours in and around Stamford Bridge itself. I was outside the ground as early as 10.30am. It was a bitter morning in London town. I took a photo of the Peter Osgood statue with a clear and deep blue sky above. Jaro and Alex duly arrived and there were chats with Ron Harris and Colin Pates, the captains of my childhood and late youth.

They then needed to head back to their Earls Court hotel so we said our goodbyes, but not before a couple of photos in front of the old Shed Wall.

I backtracked and caught the tube down to Putney Bridge tube to catch up with the lads again.

I had been doing a lot of back-tracking in preparation of this game.

A current total of seventy-six games against United put them at the top of my list of opponents, with Liverpool a close second on seventy-five.

41 at Stamford Bridge.

25 at Old Trafford.

8 at Wembley.

1 at Villa Park.

1 in Moscow.

Won 25.

Drew 20.

Lost 31.

A quick top five of favourites?

Chelsea 5 Manchester United 0 – 1999/2000

Manchester United 1 Chelsea 2 – 2009/2010

Chelsea 4 Manchester United 0 – 2016/2017

Manchester United 1 Chelsea 2 – 1985/1986

Chelsea 1 Manchester United 0 – 1993/1994

There is a famous photo that does the rounds on social media of that last game, a shot taken above the North terrace at Stamford Bridge looking towards The Shed. It appeared recently and took me back to that game. The match took place in early September 1993, with Chelsea playing its first few tentative games under Glenn Hoddle. Manchester United were rampant and in their pomp. They had been crowned English Champions in the May, their first title in twenty-six long years. I was in The Shed early, watching with the younger brother of my oldest mate Pete, both United fans. I had taken Kev up to three Chelsea vs. United games, once with Pete too, in the early ‘nineties.

My one abiding memory that day was of United fans being led out of The Shed and into the North terrace before the game began. There had been no hint of trouble, as far as I was aware, but the word must have got out that there were packs of United in amongst the home fans and the police must have acted with thoughts for their safety. I am guessing that the queues had been so long to enter the North terrace that many United fans had simply diverted to The Shed instead. I have since been reliably informed that the game at Chelsea in 1993 was the very last “pay on the day” away game for Manchester United Football Club.

Back in the days of less than full attendances at Chelsea, it was always – always! – part and parcel of the match day experience to guess, pre-match, how many away fans would dare to attend, and then guestimates of numbers immediately after. The huge sprawling North Stand held up to 10,000 in those days, and it was always impressive when away clubs filled it.

From personal memory, the best away followings I have personally seen at Chelsea were :

Liverpool 1985/1986

Tottenham 1978/1979

Manchester United 1993/1994

West Ham 1984/1985

Manchester United 1984/1985

Another memory from days out at the old Stamford Bridge. Very often the away team coach would appear in that gap between the derelict part of The Shed and the towering East Stand. It’s appearance always drew ribald abuse from The Shed regulars.

To complete the picture, we won 1-0 on that day in September 1993, a Gavin Peacock goal – a nemesis for United that season – and it remains as one of my favourite games against United.

Down in the “Eight Bells” PD and Parky had been joined by Rich and John from Edinburgh, and – yes – a full on session was in progress. Danny and Nick from Minnesota called in too. The pub was rammed.

It was still oh-so cold as we made our way to Stamford Bridge. I wolfed down a cheeseburger with onions outside the stadium in a vain attempt to get some (lukewarm) food inside me. It almost worked.

I was inside by around 4pm. For once the United end – 3,000 not 10,000 this year – was not festooned with flags and banners.

A solitary “One Love” banner timidly peeked out.

The Chelsea team?

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah

Alonso – Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – James

Hudson-Odoi – Werner – Ziyech

A big game for Reuben. Not a big game for Ronaldo, relegated to the bench.

We dominated early in the game, and we dominated all of the first-half. Timo Werner looked lively but continued his frustrating ability to freeze in front of goal. Hakim Ziyech, starting the game well, forced a save from De Gea. There was a fine shimmy from Callum Hudson-Odoi, running with that stooping style of his, his centre of gravity falling with each yard covered, and he slid a low shot across the goal that the United ‘keeper did ever so well to save. There was a header from Rudiger and another effort from Ziyech. A long cross from Reece to Alonso, but for once it was not met with a volley.

The atmosphere, I have to be honest, was not great.

In days of yore, a huddle of bodies on a packed terrace helped maintain not only noise, but assisted against the cold. On this day, I was just so aware of how cold a plastic seat could be.

The temperature was dropping, and the noise levels were dropping alongside.

On the half-hour mark, a strong dipping shot from Rudi forced a fingertip save onto the bar from De Gea.

As for United, there was just a lazy shot from Fernandez that drifted well wide and a couple of Rashford-led breaks that caused us minimum concern.

There were further efforts on the United goal; from Werner, from Callum, from James, from James again. If only Gavin Peacock was playing.

At the break, at Stamford Bridge and elsewhere, Chelsea fans were lamenting our failure to break the deadlock, and we hoped – and prayed – that such profligacy would not haunt us.

Oh dear. Just five minutes into the second-half, following a Chelsea corner, the ball was hoofed into our half. The lone figure of Jorginho was holding the fort. Sadly, a poor touch splayed the ball into the path of the otherwise quiet Jadon Sancho. His was an easy task. He raced up the pitch and knocked it past Mendy. The roar from the United support chilled me further.

To my absolute joy, the Chelsea support immediately bellowed a magnificent response to going behind.

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

A half-volley for Werner, fail. A pattern was emerging. Sadly, Ziyech, so full of promise in the first-half, seemed to be nervous and unsure of himself.

Ronaldo replaced Sancho the scorer, but did little.

We regained our dominance.

We seemed to be enjoying corner after corner. After one, Wan-Bissaka chopped at Thiago Silva. To be truthful, I missed the challenge, but was overjoyed – if not a little surprised, Anthony Taylor was having his usual odd game “against” us – when a penalty was rewarded. Seventy minutes were on the clock. Jorginho stepped forward.

Albert in front of us, slid past and said “I’ll take one for the team, lads” and sprinted off to the gents. On many other occasions over the last twenty-four years, an Albert Toilet Break has resulted in a Chelsea goal.

Alan asked me : “Skip, or no skip?”

I gave it some thought.

“Skip.”

A skip it was, and the ball flew to De Gea’s right.

Chris : skip.

Albert : to the loo.

Jorginho : my darlin’.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

“Al, when he does his skip, he usually goes to the ‘keeper’s left. But it’s almost like Pavlov’s Dog now. A ‘keeper sees the skip and goes left. He’s won the mind games.”

The noise was, then, at last, stratospheric.

Superb.

We kept firing in, but continued to miss-fire. An odd cross-shot from Werner, and another miss from the same man. On a good day, he could have nabbed a hat-trick. Those good days are few and far between.

Three substitutions:

Christian Pulisic for Alonso

Mason Mount for Hudson-Odoi

Romelu Lukaku for Werner

“The stage is set, Al.”

Despite a continuation of corners and crosses, the winning goal proved elusive.

At the other end, a Mendy error almost gave United an undeserved win. The United attacker’s lob was poor and our ‘keeper gathered. In the very last move of the game, a suddenly impressive Pulisic crossed for Rudiger but his first-time volley blazed way over.

“Coulda, woulda, shoulda.”

A frustrating game, a game devoid of real quality, with a United team that had rarely – ever – been set up so defensively.

Next up, Watford on Wednesday.

See you there.

Gallery

Game 77

1993

Mister 795

Tales From The Eight Bells, Seven Goals And One Matthew Harding.

Chelsea vs. Norwich City : 23 October 2021

This was pretty much a perfect day of football.

Where to start?

How about 5.30am? Early enough?

My alarm sounded and I was soon up. This was another early kick-off at Chelsea. Our second of five matches in fifteen days matched us against Norwich City, a team who – along with Watford, West Brom and Fulham – seemed destined to spend their eternity bouncing between the top two divisions.

This trip to London was going to be slightly different. A little explanation is needed.

Back in the days when I was working in a factory’s Quality Assurance department in the nearby town of Westbury, I started to hear stories of Chelsea legend Ron Harris running a small holiday complex centered around a fishing lake in the nearby town of Warminster. On the eve of our 1994 FA Cup Final with Manchester United, I visited “The Hunter’s Moon” with my copy of the 1970 Cup Final programme, intent on meeting Ron – who I had never ever met before – and getting him to sign it. I remember walking in, and my first view of Chopper was of him clearing some plates away from the small dining room next to the bar area. He duly signed the programme and I can easily remember his words.

“You’re a Chelsea fan, then?”

“Yes.”

“Bad luck.”

I spent a fair bit of time talking to his wife Lee, who I remembered from a couple of player profiles in match programmes from the ‘seventies. I was, of course, hoping that the meeting of our 1970 captain would bring us luck; so much for that plan as we were walloped 4-0 in the Wembley rain. Over the next few seasons, we began calling in at “The Hunter’s Moon” en route back from Chelsea. On one memorable occasion, Ron cajoled us into continuing our drinking and volunteered to drive us back to Frome later that night. We would return to collect Glenn’s car the following morning.

Glenn’s voice of disbelief as we reached his front room lives with me to this day.

“Ron Harris drove us home!””

I remember Ron invited Glenn up to the club’s ninetieth anniversary celebrations with him in 1995, and there were chats with both Peter Osgood and Tommy Langley at Ron’s over the years. He drove Glenn and I up to a game at Chelsea in around 1999.

I didn’t see Ron too much for a while after he moved out of “The Hunter’s Moon” – there was one memorable night with Ron, Ossie and Kerry in 2005 – but I then began seeing him again on the odd occasion at Chelsea. In February 2009, he was due to do a gig before our game at Anfield and asked me if I fancied a lift up to Liverpool. I, of course, jumped at the chance. Although I reported on that match in a blog at the time, I didn’t fancy coming over as a Billy Big Bollocks, so referred to Ron as “Buller” – the nickname bestowed upon him by the players, which was used rather than “Chopper” – and nobody guessed who was driving me to Merseyside. We lost 0-2 that day, those two bloody Torres goals right in front of us.

Meeting up with Ron in Manhattan in 2012 before a Chelsea game at Yankee Stadium was – looking back – a rather special moment. Ron played in the first game that I ever saw in 1974. He played in each one of my first seven games from 1974 to 1976. In fact, of the seventeen games that I saw Chelsea play during his time at the club, he started thirteen, came on as a sub in one, was a non-playing sub in one and missed only two.

Mr. Chelsea ain’t half of it.

There was a Chelsea vs. PSG supporter’s five-a-side game at Chelsea Piers during those few days in New York. I was lucky enough to play for the Chelsea team and after the game I couldn’t help a cheeky dig at Ron.

“I saw you play thirteen games for Chelsea Ron. Didn’t see you score a single goal. You’ve seen me score today. Just one game.”

We both laughed.

After moving south to the coast at Mudeford, Ron returned to Somerset at Shepton Mallet a few years back and now lives just nine miles away from me in Wiltshire, between Westbury and Trowbridge. A few weeks back, his daughter Claire contacted me and asked if I fancied sharing the driving on match days. We agreed midweek games would be difficult due to my work times and Ron’s need to be at Chelsea a few hours before kick-off. We agreed that I could take him to as many weekend games as possible.

Chelsea versus Norwich would be the first one, a tester for timings if nothing else.

So, when I set off at 6.30am, my first port of call would be for Paul at 6.40am, my second would be for Ron at 6.55am and the third one would be for Parky at 7.15am.

All aboard the Chopper Bus.

We usually stop for a bite to eat on the A303 on the way to London, but after hearing that Ron needed to be at Chelsea for his corporate activities at 9.30am, we made haste and made a beeline for Stamford Bridge. I have known for years that Ron is a stickler for being on time – “I’m only ever late for my tackles” – so this didn’t faze me.

There was quality chat in the Buller Bus all the way to London. I kept looking in my rear view mirror as I sped past Stonehenge and all of the familiar sights and saw Ron sat alongside Parky.

Yeah, it was surreal.

Ron ran through some stories and talked of a few managers. He was no fan of Danny Blanchflower – new fans, Google away now – nor Geoff Hurst. As we rose up onto the M3 at just about the same location I heard “That’s Entertainment” last Saturday I remembered one particularly awful season.

“Yeah, in 1978/79 we were shit weren’t we?”

After a few seconds, I realised what I had said. Ron had played virtually every game that season, often as a defensive midfielder.

“Fucking hell Ron, just realised you were playing that season.”

Ron’s smile in the rear view mirror was wide.

As we passed Twickenham, Ron told the story of how manager Dave Sexton took the players one afternoon to the home of rugby to see the Varsity game between Oxford and Cambridge universities. He wanted to show the players how the rugby backs used the overlap as a potent form of attack. For those not into rugby, like me, it is so odd that the attacking players play at the back.

Stupid bloody sport.

Ron was full of praise of Sexton, by far his most admired manager in his nineteen years in the first team at Chelsea. He was certainly one of England’s first tactical gurus, who would win two cups while at Chelsea with Ron his captain.

At 9.20am, I dropped the three passengers off opposite the CFCUK stall at Fulham Broadway.

Perfect.

I went off to park up on Normand Road and then caught the tube down to Putney Bridge. I had booked a table for 10am. I arrived at 9.50am to see around twenty regulars waiting for the boozer to open.

Again, perfect.

Did I say that I work in logistics?

For just a tad under two hours, we relaxed and enjoyed the pre-match. I could chill out now. I won’t deny that there was a little extra pressure on my driving on this particular day. The three of us ordered breakfasts. I will be honest; it was my first full-blown breakfast since my heart attack just over a year ago. The food was bloody lovely. As is so often the case, we were joined by a few mates from near and far.

Shawn – who I met for the first time at that New York weekend in 2012 – and his brother Dan are from Boston and lucked-out on utilising some cheap flights and then coming up trumps on the ticket exchange. They sat alongside us and tucked into a full English too. We were joined by Rich from Edinburgh and Ed from Essex. We had a whale of a time.

The dedicated driver, I was on coffees and Cokes. The time whizzed past. Up onto the platform just as a train pulled in. We were soon at Fulham Broadway, we were soon inside.

Perfect.

At around 12.15pm, I was relieved to hear the PA announce that there would be a minute of applause in the memory of Matthew Harding before the game.

The crowd sang.

“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”

Our much-loved vice-chairman was killed twenty-five years ago. Where does the time go? It remains one of the most horrible times of my life. Only the deaths of my parents, my gran, and maybe of Peter Osgood, have left me more desolate. There was a montage of images of Matthew and a few reflective voice-overs. I am not sure if anyone remembers, but on the Saturday before the helicopter crash on the Tuesday, we lost 2-4 at home to Wimbledon. Before that game, there was a minute’s silence in memory of a stadium disaster in Guatemala during the previous few days. I often thought it poignant that Matthew Harding would have stood silent that day.

I have written about Matthew Harding before here; about how I met him once, how his wife Ruth replied to my mother’s sorrowful letter after his death, of what he meant to us all at Chelsea.

On the Saturday after the crash, I placed a bouquet amongst many others in the East Stand Forecourt.

“Matthew.

With Love And Appreciation.

We Will Never Forget You.”

Before the game with Tottenham, emotions were high. We decamped to Matthew’s favourite pub, The Imperial on the King’s Road, and I raised a pint of Guinness to his memory. This would soon become my drink of choice at Chelsea for many years (I think, as my own special mark of respect) and the minute’s silence before the game – the second in eight days – was pure emotion.

High up in the stand bearing his name, twenty-five years on I had a little moment to myself.

Rest In Peace, Matthew Harding.

With fifteen minutes to go, “London Calling” and then “Parklife” changed the mood a little.

The team news came through.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah

James – Kovacic – Jorginho – Chilwell

Mount – Hudson-Odoi

Havertz

With five minutes to kick-off, the Matthew Harding banner surfed the lower tier while the balcony confirmed “One Of Our Own.”

The players stood in the centre circle. The crowd applauded.

It took me back to those years of Hoddle, Harding, Hughes, Gullit and – for Glenn and little old me – Harris. To complete the reworking of the “Harris, Hollins, Hudson, Houseman, Hutchinson and Hinton” years, we drank in The Harwood in those days too.

These were great – it has to be stated – “pre-success” times at Chelsea. I loved the team in that era. It was the saddest thing that Matthew died just six months before our first success in twenty-six years.

How he would have enjoyed Wembley 1997, Stockholm 1998, Bolton 2005, the double in 2010, Munich in 2012, Amsterdam in 2013, Baku in 2019 Porto in 2021.

The song again.

“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”

Sigh.

The game began.

Norwich City only had around 1,500 I think. I bet they soon wished that they hadn’t bloody bothered. Malmo on Wednesday were poor, but I think Norwich were even worse.

We began brightly.

The visitors didn’t look interested from the off. Their players looked off the pace. They lolloped around like zombies in a film, unwilling to walk faster than they need to, almost in a trance-like state. Their fight was absolutely missing. How Billy Gilmour has only played four games for them this season is a travesty. Of their players, I only recognised Krul and Pukki, a sure sign of my fading knowledge of football outside of SW6 these days. It’s an age thing.

We were jabbing away nicely at the flabby gut of the Norwich defence from the off, and our play brought applause on a mild autumnal day. Callum Hudson-Odoi was involved early on and we began trying to puncture the back-line. On just nine minutes, crafty approach play from Callum ended up with a cross into the box. Mateo Kovacic won a second ball and played it to Mason Mount on the edge of the box. His well struck swipe flew low into the goal, and I was in right in line with its path.

Get in.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Norwich’s response was lukewarm. We had virtually all of the ball and were finding spaces to exploit. There were a few poor choices of final balls, but we were purring when Kovacic released a superb pass from deep into the path of an on-rushing Hudson-Odoi. He relaxed, looked at the goal, and adeptly threaded the ball past Krul and into the waiting net.

“Brilliant.”

Two-nil and coasting.

More please.

Callum found Mount, but Krul saved.

A first shot from Norwich via Ozan Kabak on thirty-six minutes troubled those in the Harding Upper more than Edouard Mendy.

The noise in the stadium had quietened. These early starts often follow this pattern.

We then witnessed one of Dave Sexton’s overlaps. This one involved Mason Mount playing the ball to Reece James and this allowed the rampaging wing-back to advance and deftly chip the ball over Krul. It was a fine goal, but one I almost missed as I was mid-conversation with Clive.

But 3-0 it was.

And three academy players too, though it wouldn’t dawn on me until later. It’s an age thing.

There had been goals, but Alan and I had spoken about how often we seemed to be wanting to wait and play a perfect ball, rather than shooting on sight. How we missed a Frank Lampard. We were happy with three, of course, but we could have scored more for sure.

At the break, in the Matthew Harding Upper :

Me to Tim : “after Wednesday, when we should have scored six, we simply have to score six today.”

At the break, in the away dressing room :

“Farke knows how we’ll win this.”

The second-half began and we certainly improved, though soon into the game the noise at Stamford Bridge had reduced almost completely.

Fackinell.

We peppered the Norwich goal with a few teasers, but had to thank that man Mendy once again as a Ben Chilwell played in Rashica who ran onto the ball and it appeared that he just needed to round Mendy to score. However, our magnificent man intercepted with an outstretched limb. The crowd roared and so did our ‘keeper.

Just before the hour, Norwich afforded us way too much room and a move involving James and Kovacic played in Chilwell down below me. No volley this time, but a drilled carpet-burner flew into the net.

Four.

Keep’m coming Chels.

Our Callum was finding oodles of space on the left and, five minutes after our last goal, he broke inside the box once again. A low cross was deflected in off the luckless defender Aarons. The ball was just out or reach of the equally luckless Krul and the ball spun into the net.

Five.

Callum looked embarrassed.

Next up in this action-packed demolition job, Norwich were down to ten men after a rugged tackle on James by Gibson saw the referee Madly reaching for a red card.

The crowd were involved now alright. The atmosphere was bubbling away nicely.

On the hour, the loudest chant of the day thus far.

“Champions Of Europe, We Know What We Are.”

A minute later, louder still.

“Carefree.”

The game safe, on came three substitutes.

Ruben Loftis-Cheek, Ross Barkley and Hakim Ziyech replaced Jorginho, Havertz and Hudson-Odoi.

There was a lovely sing-off in The Shed.

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

I was just waiting for the Whitewall…

On the pitch, our team was suddenly full of Frank Lampards. Shots from new boys Barkely and Ziyech – with three whipped-in efforts – caused Krul to leap every which way possible to stop further embarrassment.

But there was time for yet more drama.

A neat one-two played in Rudiger and his shot seemed to be blocked by a defender’s arm. We waited for the VAR decision.

Penalty.

Mason Mount waited, and shot strongly but Krul saved well.

After a few seconds, we realise that the referee was told that the ‘keeper had stepped off his line. Therefore, a re-take, and this time Mount bashed it home.

Six.

During these routs, there is often an injury-time goal and this was one of those occasions. A sweet move involving Ziyech, who looked inspired in his twenty-minutes on the pitch, set up Loftus-Cheek, who advanced, drew the ‘keeper before selflessly squaring for Mason to prod home for his hat-trick.

Seven.

Another VAR wait; a suspicion of offside. No. Seven it was.

Bloody hell.

On reflection, even though the last two games had yielded eleven goals, the tally ought to have been so much more. On Wednesday, we could have scored seven. Against Norwich, we could have scored ten. I can’t remember two more one-sided, consecutive, home games. Norwich City, it pains me to say, were the worst league team that I may well have ever seen us meet at Stamford Bridge.

They were lucky to get naught.

I met up with Mister 795 outside the hotel and we slowly made our way back to the car on Normand Road. Ron was equally scornful of the opposition.

“The club should dip their hands in their pockets and pay for those tickets.”

There was a message from Steve in Philly.

“Chris, if you could travel back in time and tell your teenage self that one day you would be taking Ron Harris to and from Chelsea matches, what would teenage Chris have to say”

The answer was easy.

“Fackinell.”

I battled the traffic to get out past the M25, but made great time on the return journey. There was a lovely mixture of chit-chat and laughs all the way home. Ron Harris will do well in our Chuckle Bus.

I dropped Parky off at 6.10pm, Ron at 6.30pm, PD at 6.45pm, and I was home at 7pm.

The perfect day continued as I found out that Frome Town, who were 0-2 at half-time at Cinderford Town came back to win 3-2 with a Kane Simpson hat-trick. And I was also able to sort out a couple of tickets for mates for the United game next month. It really was a nigh-on perfect day.

Next up Southampton at home on Tuesday and then the long-awaited expedition to Tyneside on Saturday.

Good times, everyone, good times.

Oh by the way, Lukak-who?

Tales From Three Generations

Chelsea vs. Nottingham Forest : 5 January 2020.

On the train back to Lewes on New Year’s Day, after our 1-1 draw at Brighton, Glenn set me a question to consider.

“Who did we play in the first game of the last decade, then?”

It got me thinking.

“2009/10, the double season…mmm, I don’t think it was an away game…”

It took me a few seconds, but the memory of the day – if not the opposition – soon came to me.

“I know. I can remember. We were at home in the FA Cup on Saturday 3 January. It was my mother’s eightieth birthday, and we had stayed at the hotel at Stamford Bridge on the Saturday night. Can’t remember the opposition, though.”

It was Watford and we won 5-0. And it would be my mother’s last visit to Stamford Bridge.

On this day of our game with Nottingham Forest, a day when Chelsea Football Club would be looking back fifty years to our first ever F. A. Cup win in 1970, it seemed right that I would be looking back ten years to a game in the F. A. Cup too. Season 2009/10 was my second full campaign of these match reports and here are a few notes from that lovely day.

“Mum has been to Chelsea many times before and I guess she has been to The Bridge around twenty-five times…mainly in the 1974 to 1979 period, when Dad would drive us up from Somerset twice per season. Mum also went to games at Bristol Rovers, Bristol City and Swindon Town. The last game that Mum saw at Chelsea was the Birmingham match in 2005, our centenary championship. Happy memories.

I peered out of our hotel room down at the old Shed wall, the winter sun lighting up the South London horizon beyond. A few fans were already clutching Megastore bags.

With the cold weather showing no signs of letting up, we sat in the hotel foyer / bar area from 11am to 2.15pm. It was a lovely time. The place gradually filled-up with Chelsea fans. My two mates Glenn and Parky arrived at about 11.30am and we sat in a cosy corner with Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti, chatting about all sorts. Peter was there with his daughter and grand-son. We spoke about our shoddy form of late, but we didn’t let it spoil our time.

We left the hotel, coats buttoned, scarves on. We battled against the crowd. The 6,000 away fans were out in force. The weather was brutal, but Mum wasn’t complaining. There was the usual ten-minute wait to get inside the MHU. We managed to take the lift up to the top tier. Mum is in good health, but six flights of stairs is too much (sometimes for me). Once inside the stadium, it didn’t seem so cold. A full Shed End of away fans, but only three paltry flags. They didn’t make much noise. No balloons.

The big surprise that Anelka wasn’t playing and I wasn’t sure of the formation…was it not a “Christmas Tree” (with Malouda and Joe behind Sturridge)? To be honest, after three early goals, I was far from caring…whatever formation it was, it was definitely working. What attacking options down the left with Ashley and Zhirkov and Malouda. I was very pleased that Sturridge scored his first goal for us, but the other two goals were scrappy. Not to worry – coasting. I think I counted just two Watford shots in the entire first-half.

At half-time, more congratulatory handshakes and kisses for my mother. Anna brought us some coffees and Russ gave some mince pies. It was a lovely feeling for Mum to meet my match day mates.

Loads more Chelsea pressure in the second period and what a strike from Frank – especially for Mum. I was really impressed with the cool finish from Sturridge for his second goal…very nice. We all thought it a shame that Carlo took the lad off when he was “on” for his hat-trick.

The Chelsea support was quiet and were only really roused after each goal.

I was so pleased when I glimpsed Mum singing along to “Chelsea, Chelsea” to the tune of “Amazing Grace.” How sweet the sound. She could teach a few JCLs a lesson or two.

Carlo made a few substitutions but it stayed at five. I shan’t make any further comments about our performance because – after all – it was only Watford. I was impressed with Sturridge and Zhirkov. JT seemed intent on going on more mazy runs in the attacking third. Maybe he’s a frustrated striker. I’m convinced that one day he’ll score a goal of the season contender from forty yards. Towards the end, our former left-back Jon Harley (he of the scuttling runs) came on as a Watford substitute and was given one of the noisiest songs of the game. That was a nice touch. The “referee has added on a further five minutes” announcement was met with frost-bitten groans.

We walked back to the car, stopping off for a good old-fashioned plate of pie and chips and a mug of tea on the North End Road. We eventually thawed out. On the drive back home to Somerset, we listened to the FA Cup draw and I was elated that we face an away jaunt to Preston. At last a new stadium to visit (well, actually a very old stadium, but a first-time visit for me.)”

So, 1970, 2010 and 2020 linked already.

But there is more.

Going back to the notes for the game with Everton last season, played on the one-hundredth anniversary of the cessation of hostilities in the First World War, I introduced the story of my mother’s father, my grandfather, and his link to Stamford Bridge.

“My grandfather was a good sportsman. He played football for Mells and Vobster United and cricket for Mells. I remembered the black and white photographs of both sides, taken in around 1925, on display in a bedroom when I was a child. He was, apparently, the star of the cricket team, and after studying the scorebooks from that era – priceless items – I can vouch for this. However, a family friend would not be afraid to tell me that he had a mean temper on a cricket pitch. Quiet off the pitch, a bit of a demon on it. A familiar story for many I suppose.

For all of his adventures on both football and cricket pitches, though, there is one sporting story involving my grandfather that I have been enchanted about for decades. Once I chose Chelsea as my team in 1970, I can remember my grandfather telling me that he once visited Stamford Bridge with his great friend – and fellow Mells sportsman – Ted Knapton. It was, I am pretty convinced, the only football stadium that he ever visited.

My grandfather, however many times I pressed him, could not remember the teams involved though. But I know that he said he favoured Aston Villa – possibly a first love – as a child, and then latterly Newcastle United – through a friend. And I have often wondered if the two Teds, because of their association with Mells football, were gifted tickets for the 1920 FA Cup Final at Stamford Bridge between Villa and Huddersfield Town.

I am no detective, but that might be the answer.

Heaven knows, I have visualised his visit to Stamford Bridge in the ‘twenties so many times.

In later years, whenever I stood on The Shed, as part of that unhindered mass of terrace that originally swept all around the stadium, including the small paddock in front of the old East Stand, I had a wonderful feeling of being a physical part of the history of the club. Of a link with the past. I miss that terrace. It was immense, in more ways than one.

I wonder if my grandad stood here.”

I like the fact that, in addition to the club’s official celebration of the 1970 victory in 2020, I am going to be having my own private centenary celebration of 1920 too. This was the first of three consecutive years that our beloved Stamford Bridge was chosen to host the final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup.

So, 1920, 1970, 2010 and 2020 all linked-up now.

I love the fact that I am the third generation of my family to have seen football at Stamford Bridge.

That feels just perfect.

As last season progressed, we were gifted three home ties in the F. A. Cup and so I was able to add to my flight of fancy concerning my grandfather. I include these below, taken out of the Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday and Manchester United match reports.

“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. My grandfather’s brother Christopher also played both sports for the village. 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?” “

“On the Fulham Road, as I stopped for a bite to eat at the al fresco café, I looked up at a tablet of stone containg words that commemorated a visit by the Duchess of Wessex to the Oswald Stoll buildings – for ex-servicemen – in 2009. It mentioned a respect for the “fortitude and resilience” of those soldiers of both World Wars. I looked up and saw the sepia figures – “ghosts” – of Ted Draper and Ted Knapton marching purposefully towards Stamford Bridge for the 1920 FA Cup Final.”

“Almost one hundred years ago, on Cup Final day 1920, my father Ted Draper and his long-time friend Ted Knapton made the slow ascent up the damp terraced steps – being jostled by other fans, some drunk already – at the rear of the great slug of terracing on the West side of Stamford Bridge. The air was expectant ahead of the Aston Villa vs. Huddersfield Town tie. It would be the only professional football match that my grandfather would ever attend. He had remembered, as a ten-year-old boy living in Somerset, how he had been astounded when told by others that a mighty crowd of 67,000 had attended a game at Stamford Bridge in Chelsea’s first-ever season in 1905/06. It confused him. How did a new club such as Chelsea suddenly have 67,000 supporters? And for a Second Division game too. It was an unheard of figure at the time and was the talk of the schoolyard for many a day. It had captured the imagination, wildly, of my dear grandfather. The visitors on that day in April 1906 were Manchester United and it was a promotion-decider of sorts. My grandfather was convinced that the vast number of spectators had been Chelsea fans, since Manchester was such a long way north, but how was it possible for so many to be lured to the new stadium? Chelsea had mainly played to crowds in the mid-teens throughout that inaugural campaign after that first-ever game at Stockport County. It was one of the biggest league crowds that England had ever seen, although FA Cup Final attendances at Crystal Palace sometimes reached six-figures. Apart from being a fan of the sport, my grandfather soon realised how magnificent it would be to part of such a spectacle and for many years he had daydreamed about being in a similar sized crowd.

In April 1920, he had his wish.”

We sometimes moan, as Chelsea fans, that we always seem to end up playing the same old teams in European competitions, and this often seems to occur in domestic cups too. This annoyance came to light when, for the second successive year, we were drawn at home to Nottingham Forest in the third round of the F. A. Cup. And, taking the biscuit this, the game would be played exactly one year later.

2018/19 : FA Cup Round Three – Chelsea vs. Nottingham Forest, 5 January 2019

2019/20 : FA Cup Round Three – Chelsea vs. Nottingham Forest, 5 January 2020.

Talk about Groundhog Day.

Additionally, we played the Tricky Trees at home in the League Cup in 2017/18 too.

We were in the boozer at just after 11am. Inside “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, all was quiet. The pub – a first visit for us this season – has had a recent re-fit, and it’s to our approval. There was a familiar clink of glasses as Parky, PD and I sat on the high bench seats and waited for others to arrive.

“Cheers.”

Dave from Wellingborough – one of the lads that I used to sit with on The Benches in 1984 and 1985 – soon arrived and it was a pleasure to see him again. Ironically, we bumped into each other for the first time in years at the F.A. Cup away game at Norwich almost two years’ ago. There was positive talk of our form so far this season, and there was talk of the special commemorative kit that Chelsea are using on this – hopefully long – F. A. Cup run this season. It is an almost exact replica of the blue, blue, yellow of the 1970 replay, and we all agreed that it looks the Mutt’s Nuts.

For those who don’t know (and I know many do, so please bear with me), the reason for the yellow trim is because both Chelsea and Leeds United played in white socks. In the first game at Wembley, Leeds were forced to wear the odd choice of Lancastrian red socks as we kept to the white. In the replay it was our turn to change; in came the yellow. To be honest, it could have been easy for us just to don some yellow socks, so fair play to the club for opting for matching yellow trim on the shirt and socks too. The kit re-surfaced for the 1972 League Cup Final too – minus the two blue rings on the socks – but has not been seen since.

Writing in these reports in the Spring of last season, I commented :

“Chit chat about kits came to the fore in recent days. There was a leaked image – as yet unconfirmed – of a truly horrific kit for Chelsea next season. I am sure everyone has seen it. It’s garbage. But it got a few of us thinking. Going into the fiftieth anniversary of the iconic 1970 FA Cup win at Old Trafford, it would be nice to honour that occasion with a one-season only kit of royal blue with yellow trim, including yellow socks.”

Looking back, I liked the fact that our kit in 1996/97 came with a little yellow trim for the first time ever. And we know how that season ended-up; our first silverware for twenty-six years, our first FA Cup since 1970.

We found ourselves talking about European trips. Dave mentioned an away game in Copenhagen in 1998. After the game, at the airport, he was feeling a little worse for wear, and was choosing some items for breakfast at the airport departure lounge. The cashier tallied up his purchases and he found himself a few “krone” short and so shouted over to a mate to see if he had any spare.

Dave heard a voice behind him.

“How much do you want mate? I’ll sort you out.”

Dave looked around and it was none other than Peter Osgood.

Just beautiful.

It seemed that 1970 was going to dominate the day. As if anyone needs reminding, my love of Chelsea Football Club began in April or May 1970, and I am wondering how many more bloody anniversaries will make an appearance in this edition.

Here’s one more.

In May 2000, we beat Aston Villa 1-0 to win the last-ever F. A. Cup Final at the old Wembley Stadium, and we will soon celebrate the anniversary of that triumph. Oh, and guess what? We played Forest at home in the Cup that season too.

Andy and Kim – the Kent lot – arrived unannounced, and the laughter was upped a few notches. They are off to Newcastle in a fortnight, like us, but were looking for tickets. I was glad to be able to assist with the search.

We caught the 28 bus down the North End Road and joined up with Alan and Gary in a very quiet “Simmons”.

Glenn, back in Frome, texted me :

“Chelsea – 9 changes, Forest – 10 changes.”

I replied :

“Chuckle Brothers – 1 change.”

There was just time for a last bottle of “Peroni” and we were off to the game. It was a mild day. We walked ahead of a few Forest fans, who were mulling over the inevitability of the changes announced by the Forest manager. Sadly, it is all about the Premier League these days, and promotion to it. But they seemed to have a “whatever will be will be” attitude. We hoped that our “B Team” would be better than Forest’s.

I bought three copies of the commemorative programme for friends, and caught the lift – like in 2010 – with PD, who struggles with stairs these days.

With not long to go to kick-off we were in. Alan and Gary were down in The Shed Upper for a change and I soon spotted them in row six. So, just PD and little old me in The Sleepy Hollow. There was a mix of usual season ticket holders and new faces which was good to see. I noted a smattering of children nearby which is a very rare sight in The Sleepy Hollow.

It usually resembles a SAGA day trip.

1920 returned to my thoughts.

He was inside Stamford Bridge now, and the enormity of it all hit home. The closeness of everything. The colours of the rosettes. The clamour for attention of the programme sellers, official and otherwise. The sellers of iced lemonade, of ginger beer, of cigarette salesmen. The shouts of the crowd. The Birmingham accents. The Yorkshire dialect. The smoke. The Londoners and the spivs, the touts, the brashness of the city. The musty aroma of overcoats. Caps, bonnets and hats. The swell of the crowd. The bands marching before the game. The huge advertisements adorning every spare inch of space, on hoardings at the back of the huge curve of the terrace, and on the backs of the houses on the Fulham Road. The appearance of the teams. The surge of those on the terrace as a chance goes close. The unstable nature of the terrace beneath the feet, of wooden risers and of mud and cinders. The clouds of dust. Pockets of cigarette smoke drifting over the spectators. The trees in Brompton Cemetery. The smoke rising from chimneys. The wounded Chelsea pensioners – that vivid splash of red – watching from the side of the pitch in antiquated wheelchairs, some without limbs, some without sight. My grandfather, wistful, lost for a moment, a flashback to Amiens or Ypres or Valenciennes.

“There but for the grace of God, go I.”

Forest had 3,000, the same as last season.

The teams entered the pitch – yellow flames, how in keeping – with Chelsea wearing blue trackie tops over the shirts. But the yellow trim looked magnificent. Off came the tops, and we all fell in love with the iconic 1970 Chelsea kit all over again.

It was, quite simply, stunning.

It was a vision in blue and yellow.

Everything was beautiful. The old style crest, the very subtle sponsorship branding in blue, the yellow stripe on the shorts, the shade of yellow, the two blue stripes on the socks, even the font of the numbers. Oh, and the lack of players’ names?  Superb.

Not sure of the little yellow tab at the rear of the colour, though.

The team lined-up as below.

Caballero

James – Tomori – Christensen – Emerson

Jorginho – Barkley – Kovacic

Pedro – Batshuayi – Hudson-Odoi

Chelsea in blue and yellow, Forest in red and white.

They were soon singing “Champions of Europe, we won it two times.”

At 2.01pm, the game kicked-off.

For a change, we were attacking the North Stand in the first period. How ‘seventies.

“Come on Chelsea.”

In the first few minutes, Callum and Reece were dribbling down the right wing and I was dribbling all over my top as I looked on with awe at the amazing kit on show. I wasn’t paying attention, but PD was purring as Reece sent over a tantalising cross.

Before we knew it, Callum was played in by Pedro after a lovely interchange of play and found himself in the inside right channel, though with noticeably more space than in recent league games. He cut inside, picked his spot and rifled low past the Forest ‘keeper. After only six minutes, we were on our way to Wembley.

GET IN.

Very soon, a text from The Shed appeared on my dog and bone.

“THTCAUN.”

I replied.

“COMLD.”

We were all over Forest, and two more excellent crosses from the increasingly trustworthy boot of James caused panic in the Forest six-yard box. Alas, despite the lead, the atmosphere was unsurprisingly wank, and – like last season – the away fans were asking us if Stamford Bridge was a building in which books could be temporarily loaned out and then returned free-of-charge.

We had no reply really.

At least nobody retorted with “you’re just a shit Derby County.”

Ah, Derby. Because of last season, there was a largely indecipherable ditty about Our Frank and his former charges throughout the first half, but it is not worth any more comment.

Michael Dawson was booed by some in the home support, all very tedious.

Against the run of play, Forest were awarded a penalty when Fikayo Tomori was adjudged to have fouled a Forest striker. The tedious VAR was called into action and, lo and behold, no penalty but an offside instead.

“FUCK VAR” shouted Forest and I wholeheartedly agreed.

A shot from Tomori, a shot from Pedro, a shot from Barkley, a shot from Michy Batshuayi. Our chances were piling up. Behind, Jorginho the prompter was having a fine game. On around the half-hour mark, a lovely move set up a shot for Our Callum which was only half-saved by the ‘keeper and Ross Barkley was on hand to tap in with almost an involuntary action. Ross had already wasted a few early moments of possession, irritating some, so perhaps if he had time to think about his finish he might not have fared quite so well. We immediately stood up and applauded and, as I snapped away, there was no thought of a VAR involvement. It looked a perfectly sound goal to us in The Sleepy Hollow. Ross celebrated with his team mates below.

VAR?

No offside, well on. Goal.

“Surely it’s safe now, PD. Mind you, we were 2-0 up against Bradford City in 2015.”

Another cross from Reece, but a glancing header from Michy was sent just wide of the post. We had totally dominated the first-half, and it had been a breeze.

At the break, as I had predicted, we were treated to the appearance of five of the 1970 twelve.

Ron Harris.

Marvin Hinton.

Tommy Baldwin.

John Dempsey.

John Hollins.

Of course, sadly Peter Osgood, Peter Houseman and Ian Hutchinson are no longer with us, and Peter Bonetti is very poorly. PD made the point that it was a shame that there was no 1970 goalkeeping kit on show. Bearing in mind that The Cat is struggling with his health it would be a lovely gesture if this can be remedied. A “Bonetti kit” – green cotton gloves, too – with proceeds going to his medical requirements. It would sell I am sure. Over to you, Chelsea.

Of the remaining players, Eddie McCreadie and Charlie Cooke are in the US, and David Webb – the maverick – never seems to be invited to these sort of occasions, a real shame.

The second-half began. There was not quite the same drive and intensity as the first-half and I got the distinct impression that Forest were looking at this as some sort of training exercise. We created a few chances, though, with a header from Barkley after a fine dribble and cross from Hudson-Odoi grazing the post below Alan and Gary in The Shed.

From a Forest free-kick down below us, Ryan Yates rose in the six yard box to head home but, as he taunted us as he celebrated, the flag was raised for offside, which VAR upheld.

The crowd went mild.

Still the atmosphere was poor. Only a rousing “Stand Up If You Hate Tottenham” chant on the hour united the whole stadium. But that’s another chant that is over-worked these days.

Oh how the Forest fans loved it when Mason Mount – Derby County last season – replaced Kovacic on seventy minutes. He was roundly booed every time he received the ball. There was also an appearance for Tariq Lampty replacing Pedro, who might have been playing his last game for us if his clapping of all four stands was anything to go by. Lampteys number “48” took up the entire back of his shirt.

The game dwindled a little, but it was still Chelsea who dominated throughout. Late efforts from Batshuayi, Emerson and Hudson-Odoi did not increase the score. But this was as easy a win as I can remember.

Groundhog Day again, even the scores were the same.

2018/19 : FA Cup Round Three – 5 January 2019.

Chelsea 2 Nottingham Forest 0.

2019/20 : FA Cup Round Three – 5 January 2020.

Chelsea 2 Nottingham Forest 0.

Frank Lampard soon raced on to the pitch to thank us, but by then my mind was elsewhere, and I was pondering what sandwich to buy on the walk back to the car, and which away venues were up for grabs in the next round.

And I wondered what next as this homage to 1970 continues on in to the next stage; sideburns for the players, perhaps?

On the drive home, or at home, I found out that this was our twenty-second successive advancement into the Fourth Round. Now that is some achievement (the less said about what happened in 1998, when we were F. A. Cup holders, the better.)

Wembley – here we come?

It would be nice. We certainly like our fiftieth anniversaries and our centenaries at Chelsea.

Next up, we have a run of the mill league encounter at home to Burnley next Saturday. Before that game, I might even pop into the Megastore to purchase a pair of blue and yellow shorts for an Argentinian summer.

I have some missionary work to do in Buenos Aires.