Tales From Two Hours And Penalties

Chelsea vs. Eintracht Frankfurt : 9 May 2019.

A Gamble.

I had been looking at flights to Baku for ages. It was proving to be a tough nut to crack. In the back of my mind – or perhaps at the forefront of it – was the gnawing truth that by attending our second-leg against Eintracht Frankfurt, it would undoubtedly mean that I would not be able to pounce on any standard flights to Baku as soon as the game had ended. The scrum-down would be even worse should Arsenal reach the final. The cheapest flights that I had seen – tying in with my need to get back to work on the Friday – were at the £550 mark.

Remember that I had originally messed up at work. Another colleague had already booked a holiday on the week of the final but thankfully my boss had allowed me three days off. But the thought of travelling to Baku was still very messy.

I was, sadly, looking to rely on an expensive flight with the club or with a travel company. But I guessed that the price for that would be not much shy of £1,000. Moscow in 2008 was around a grand, and with no accommodation. I went with the club to Stockholm in 1998 with one night in a hotel for £450, which seemed obscene at the time. For Baku, I suspected that a club trip would be another “in out” trip with no overnight stay too. That would hardly be fun. I’d be exhausted on the day of the game and also once I returned.

Thoughts of Baku were proving to be irritating rather than pleasurable. This was not how it was meant to be. When I visited Baku in 2017 for the Qarabag match, I only scratched the surface and I would like to see more.

In my match report for that trip, I ended with this comment :

“It had been a whirlwind trip to the windy city on the Caspian. At around 11.15pm. I found it inconceivable that, even allowing for the time zones, I had only touched down in Baku the previous day. Next time, I will stay longer. You never know, with UEFA’s predilection of pairing us with the same old teams year after year, we might be making a return visit to Baku again.”

But on Tuesday, things changed ever so slightly. At work, I learned of the job-sharing planned for the office staff to cover those four days when two would be off work. It looked like our little team would not be over-exposed.

That night, I opened things up. I looked at the cost of travelling out to Baku on the previous weekend and returning on the Saturday after the game.

I liked what I saw.

Six nights at a “three-and-half” star hotel right in the heart of Baku old town and some favourable flights from Heathrow to Baku via Istanbul – going – and Moscow – returning – would cost £979.

On Wednesday, cap in hand, I explained my thoughts to my manager.

He gave me the Friday off.

I thought again about the cost. But I am not following Chelsea to Boston nor Tokyo in the summer. I’ll probably go through the summer without any extended holiday anywhere. This would effectively be my summer holiday.

It was going to be “Baku or Bust.”

On Wednesday night – nothing like leaving it late, boy – I gambled and booked it all up.

Game Day.

On Thursday, the day of the game, I mentioned my plans to a couple at work, but my lips would be sealed at Stamford Bridge. I honestly did not want to be the ultimate Jonah and jinx it.

In the back of my mind, if we did not reach the final, and if Arsenal made it, I would bugger off to a coastal resort for the Thursday, thus avoiding it all. Should Valencia reach Baku, I would try to get a ticket and go to the final. There had been a personal precedent. Like many, I gambled in 2014 and spent four or five days in Albufeira on The Algarve  – along with two hundred other Chelsea – even though we had not qualified for the Champions League Final in Lisbon.

My mind was set. I assured myself that I had made the right decision.

Andy, a Tottenham fan, commented – “you’ll be fine, you’ll get through tonight.”

I was working a slightly later shift than I would have hoped. PD and Parky had met up for a romantic lunch earlier and, when I set off for London at just past four o’clock, they were travelling separately and so were well on their own way to Stamford Bridge, although not without a scare. I had purchased all three tickets for the game a while back, but Parky had not received his. He had presumed that his ticket had showed up at my house. It hadn’t. Sometimes Chelsea box office sends tickets individually, occasionally to the purchaser. Irritatingly, there is no standard procedure. He would need to pop in to the ticket office, cap in hand, before the game.

My route again took me south – leaving later, I feared horrific congestion on the M4 so I would go in again via the M3 – and my drive began with a little section over Salisbury Plain. It took me back to my time when I worked in Westbury, and to a specific day in April 1998 when Glenn and I drove along the very same road on the way to our European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final second leg against Vicenza. On that day and this one, the weather was wet and the skies were grey.

1995 and 1998.

Of course there was the ECWC semi-final against Real Zaragoza in 1995 – one that rarely gets a mention these days – but in 1998 we travelled to London with a very real chance to progress to our first European final since 1971. In 1995, we had been thumped 3-0 in Northern Spain and we held little hope of progressing. Although we won 3-1 on the night, we narrowly missed out. Had we progressed, we would have met Arsenal in Paris.

But 1998 felt different.

Our team that season was a lot more credible, a lot more fancied. We had narrowly lost 1-0 in Northern Italy – I did not go – but were very confident of turning it around in the second-leg. For the first time, we watched the game in the newly-built Shed End, and we watched as Chelsea did a pre-match huddle for the very first time. We played, oddly, in our yellow away kit. Our team included such Chelsea greats as Dennis Wise, Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli. It was a rotten and wet night, and when Vicenza scored a vital away goal, our spirits dropped. Thankfully, a crucial tap in from Gustavo Poyet just before half-time gave us hope. A fantastic cross from wide on the right wing from Vialli found the head of Zola, whose magnificent leap and header made it 2-2 over both legs, but with Vicenza still ahead. Mark Hughes came on with twenty minutes to go and after just six minutes, his ridiculous header to himself tee’d up the shot which smashed into the goal at the Matthew Harding end.

Everyone quotes the Bruges game in 1995 for the best atmosphere since the stadium was rebuilt, but Vicenza 1998 pushes it close. Only 33,810 were present, but we each played our part. We were euphoric. In those days, and many since, Alan’s lucky wine gums sent us on the way to victory and the subsequent final in Stockholm. We reconvened immediately after in our then local “The Harwood” – for those interested, this pub was featured in “The Football Factory”, or at least the outside scenes, and was also where Raquel Welch stopped for a drink while filming “Bedazzled” in a local film studio in 1967 – and downed a few celebratory drinks.

Our own little song during that evening in The Harwood was “The Self-Preservation Society” from “The Italian Job.” It felt right.

But there is an odd end to the story of our 1998 semi-final victory. The very next day, I was made redundant. It was one of the oddest twenty-four hours of my life. To add to the sadness, my – quite unexpected – redundancy came on the fifth anniversary of my father’s passing. From the highest high on Thursday to the lowest low on Friday.

I would go to Sweden unemployed. It was an odd few weeks in my life.

In the end, my redundancy money funded a few holidays – Chelsea in the main – over the next few seasons, and my career took a very worthwhile tangential leap from quality assurance to logistics.

I have not looked back, apart from in these match reports.

Hello Goodbye.

I drove to London and it was probably my first solo drive to Stamford Bridge since…when?…many years ago. Maybe ten years? I don’t know. The weather was dire. Rain, rain, rain. And the traffic was slow once inside the M25. I texted a few friends to say that I would not be there until seven o’clock, maybe later. My mind continually went over my “Baku or Bust” gamble. Fucking hell Chelsea, don’t let me down.

I convinced myself to purse my lips if anyone asked my about my travel options. I convinced myself that I’d mutter some nonsense and folk would think me odd.

Ugh.

I thought about the game against Frankfurt not once.

Eventually, at around 7.10pm, I parked up at Queens Club. I briefly popped in to say hello to the troops at “Simmons” one last time this season. I was only there for five minutes. A very brief “hello goodbye” to a few chaps – I had to bite my lip when Daryl asked if I was going to Baku – and out into the evening. Thankfully, the rain was only slightly spitting.

Another European Semi-Final.

We have contended so many in recent years, eh? I have lived and breathed these ones.

1995 – Real Zaragoza, lost.

1998 – Vicenza, won.

2004 – Monaco, lost.

2005 – Liverpool, lost.

2007 – Liverpool, lost.

2008 – Liverpool, won.

2009 – Barcelona, lost.

2012 – Barcelona, won.

2013 – Basel, won.

2014 – Atletico Madrid, lost

Our Opponents.

I made my way to Stamford Bridge, past many Frankfurt fans, many with half-and-half scarves and many without tickets. There were rumours of ten thousand travelling to London. They are one of the big names of German football. They will indelibly be linked with Real Madrid and Hampden Park. But I have been aware that they were recently enjoying the pleasures of the German second tier if only for a few seasons. I found it odd that they have rid themselves of their red and black stripes in favour of an all-black home kit. They lost 6-1 at Bayer Leverkusen at the weekend.

I have no real Eintracht Frankfurt story to tell, apart from this one.

In the summer of 1988, the European Football Championships took place in Germany and while I was over in Germany in the March of that year, I wanted to enquire how tickets for games would be made available. I had a notion of going over to follow England. On one afternoon, with light fading, I made a bee-line for the HQ of the “Deutsche Fussball Bund” – the German FA – which was based a few metres from the old Wald Stadium of Eintracht Frankfurt. I popped in and asked a few questions. I remember a large terraced stadium, surrounded by trees, way out of the city centre. That stadium was replaced for the 2006 World Cup Finals.

Not much of a story. Not much of a 1988 tournament, England lost all three, including a 3-1 defeat to Russia in Frankfurt.

3,965 Kilometres.

By the long wall to the left of the West Stand forecourt, I noted that there was, again, a special Europa League display on show. On it, were the words “Distance to Baku 3,965kms, one match to go, together to Baku.”

What patronising bullshit.

“Thanks for fucking reminding us all how far away it is.”

“Together to Baku? With only a rumoured seven thousand tickets for a club with over twenty-thousand season ticket holders and with forty thousand regulars, how can we all be together?”

The Team.

Kepa Arrizabalaga

Cesar Azpilicueta – Andreas Christensen – David Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Mateo Kovacic – Ruben Loftus-Cheek

Willian – Olivier Giroud – Eden Hazard

Pre-Match.

PD was inside with Al when I reached my seat.

“Doesn’t seem dark enough to be a European night.”

I soon spotted Parky. He was in.

The German supporters were jammed in with fifteen minutes to go. Their banners and flags were out in force. The dominant colour was black, with only occasional hints of red. The teams came on to the pitch. The away end turned white. “The Shed” flag surfed over the heads of our fans in the Shed Upper. The Eden Hazard banner did the same below me. His last-ever game at Stamford Bridge? Almost certainly. We were given blue flags to wave, but the thrill of that has gone.

There was more “Together To Baku” bullshit signage inside Stamford Bridge.

0-45.

The game began. We were in our usual kit. The visitors were in white, white and black. They had the first real chance of the match, a well-claimed header from their star forward Luka Jovic. But we started well, and Olivier Giroud showed some good link up play in the first part of the game. We carved out a couple of chances and were dominating possession. Willian sent in a ball that Giroud miss-controlled at the near post.

The German fans were singing – not super loud, others have been louder – but certainly constant. The upper tier waved their flags, then the lower tier. It was a great sight.

With a quarter of an hour gone, Kepa flung himself to his left and reached and reached. He tipped a fine volley over the bar. It a second stunner in the past two games.

The noise wasn’t fantastic to be honest, but there were outbreaks of Chelsea cheer. The Germans did a full on bouncy with 90% involvement across both tiers. I suggested to Albert who sits in front that our immediate reply of a similar bouncy would be a poor imitation. It was indeed. Our bouncy has had it day. It peeked at Derby County in 2004, it has been poor ever since.

All of our play seemed to be down our left. We had obviously spotted a weakness there. Our pressure grew. Jorginho back healed out of danger in his own penalty box and we gasped. A couple of half-chances, or maybe quarter-chances gave us hope. Another fine move down our left with Hazard linking well. A Willian free-kick was flicked towards goal by a deft David Luiz header but this was scrambled off the line. Our confidence was rising.

On twenty-eight minutes, some lovely trademark twists from Eden and a fine through pass to Ruben allowed our young midfielder to look up and assess the space. Time stood still. He touched the ball purposefully towards the far post and we watched, almost disbelieving, as it rolled over the line and into the net. The crowd gave it our all.

YEEEEESSSSSSSS.

Alan : “THEY WILL HAVE TO COME AT US NOW.”

Chris : “COME ON MY LITTLE SPARKLEGRUBERS.”

I could relax. A little. We never looked in danger during the rest of the first period. But it was still a nervy night. It was as if we were too nervy to sing. We heard that Valencia had taken a lead, but Arsenal had equalised.

Thoughts of Baku.

46-90.

In the first few minutes of the second period, I spotted – or rather heard – a very rare thing at Stamford Bridge. I think it was in answer to a similar song emanating from the away section, but a few souls in the MHL sang one short bust of “Chelsea Til I Due.” Now then dear reader, this was a first in my memory. I’ve never heard it sung at Stamford Bridge before. I know it gets hashtagged to death, but it has never been a Chelsea song.

A song much loved by lower league teams.

Not us.

Just after, Frankfurt waltzed through our defence – a Luiz half-hearted tackle created space – and Jovic blasted home an equaliser.

I blame #ctid.

And my trip to Baku was now looking problematic.

For fuck sake.

We went to pieces. Our high defensive line of the first-half shuffled back fifteen yards. Our confidence left us. Alan used a lovely phrase, aimed at Lovacic or Jorginho or Willian –

“That’s a tickle. Not a tackle.”

The nerves increased fifty-fold.

The game became scrappy. There was frustration and pain in the stands.

I could not help think about Baku. Arsenal were going through. The thought of all those replica-shirt-wearing muppets was making me feel ill. Maybe I could stay in Istanbul, get a cheap hotel or hostel and a cheap flight home from there. I did enjoy Istanbul in 2014.

There were few shots in the second-half. But plenty of annoyance in how our form had dipped. Jorginho, I will say, was holding things together. We obviously missed Kante. Ruben was drifting through the game, not enjoying his previous spark. On the hour, the loudest chant of the entire night. It reached 1998 levels, but soon petered out. Pedro replaced Willian on the hour and rushed around a lot without doing a great deal. Frankfurt themselves threatened our goal. An away goal would kill us. As the clock advanced, I could hardly believe how nerves were taking over my whole brain and body .On seventy minutes, Christensen was replaced by Davide Zappocosta. A real head-shaker. Azpilicueta moved alongside Luiz.Our back four now consisted of three Daves and an Emerson.

To be fair, Zappacosta – more Fiat than Ferrari – did inject a little energy into our team. One long shot soon tested the Frankfurt ‘keeper Trapp.

Giroud turned to the Matthew Harding to rally the supporters.

This was arse about face.

We should have been rallying the players.

We needed to get to ninety minutes. Conceding a goal in these last fifteen, ten or five minutes would be the end. I checked to ensure Andres Iniesta was not on their bench. With five minutes to go, Ross replaced Ruben. A low shot from distance from Giroud tested the Frankfurt goalie, but he was able to gather the rebound.

Five minutes of extra-time were signalled.

Nerves.

We held on.

Phew.

I chatted to a few neighbours.

“This is our chance now. We are at home. We need to drag them over the line. We need to roar them home.”

Our implosion right after the re-start of the game had proved our undoing once again. There is such fragility in our ranks. How the hell have we secured Champions League football for next season? In the break, a stunning song was aired.

“Heroes” by David Bowie.

91-105.

Our fourth substitute of the game – have we ever had four in a competitive game before? – took place as Gonzalo Higuain replaced Giroud, whose early promise had drifted away. So, we attacked The Shed again. Barkley, looking keen, shot from way out but only narrowly missed the target. A break down our right – with me shouting “get closer” – resulted in a low tempting cross being raked across the goal and the ball was poked goal wards by Sebastien Haller. At first, I thought it was going wide. But a scrambled kick off the line from Luiz – excellent one minute, average the next – saved us. Just after, a corner was headed towards goal by the same Frankfurt player and Zappacosta headed it over.

We were hanging on grimly.

And my nerves were fraying by the minute.

Just before the second period of extra time, “Blue Is The Colour” rang out.

“Cus Chelsea…Chelsea is our name.”

105-120.

The players were tired now. Hazard tended to roam, rather than be tied to his usual position, attempting to sniff out areas of weakness and decay in the Eintracht defence. It was tough to watch. It was all Chelsea, but with hardly any real chances being created. A rasper from Zapacosta stung ‘keeper Trapp’s fingers as he tipped it over. My nerves were shot, my heartrate was increasing, my sinews were unravelling. This was just horrible to watch.

With five minutes to go, and from a Hazard cross, Trapp fumbled and Azpilicueta bundled the ball over the line but the referee, rightly, cancelled the goal but not before a nano-second of celebration from me as I saw him point towards our goal.

Penalties.

This was tense as it could ever be.

Tottenham and Liverpool – I hope everyone appreciates how I have not mentioned them until now – and also Arsenal had reached the two end of season European grand finales. England – or some parts of it – was watching to see if we could make it four. Chelsea were being typical Chelsea and going about it the hard away.

I had no real time to think of much. I was pacing around like an expectant father. Nobody was enjoying this. Stern faces in the Matthew Harding Upper. I was beginning to regret no “Maynard’s Wine Gums” had been present.

The penalties were to take place at The Shed.

I set my camera.

“No shaking, Chris.”

Penalty One : Haller – Eintracht – scored, rolled to Kepa’s right.

Penalty Two : Barkley – Chelsea – scored, a confident slice to Trapp’s right.

Penalty Three : Jovic – Eintracht – scored, a roller to Kepa’s right.

Penalty Four : Azpilicueta – Chelsea – saved, a spawling lunge from Trapp to his left.

Hell, Cesar.

My world caved in. Thoughts of Baku, of Arsenal, of Istanbul, but also of Munich when we came back from the dead.

Penalty Five : De Guzman – Eintracht – scored, a confident strike to Kepa’s right.

Penalty Six : Jorginho – Chelsea – scored, that little skip and a chip to the right of Trapp.

At this stage, I had the briefest of thoughts. All three of their penalties had gone to Kepa’s right. Would he go that way? Would he stay still? What the fuck would I do?

Penalty Seven : Hinteregger – Eintracht – saved, straight at Kepa, who just crouched and trapped the ball under his shin.

It was the most ridiculous penalty save that I have ever seen.

Oh now we fucking roared alright.

“COME ON.”

Penalty Eight : Luiz – Chelsea – scored, low and to the ‘keeper’s right again.

The whole stadium on edge now.

Penalty Nine : Paciencia – Eintracht – saved, a faltering run-up and a shot to Kepa’s right that he saved magnificently.

We roared once again.

Advantage Chelsea.

Drogba in Munich.

Memories.

We waited. Eden Hazard placed the ball where Peter Osgood’s ashes lie.

We waited.

Penalty Ten : Number Ten Hazard – Chelsea – his last-ever kick at Stamford Bridge – scored, a small run-up, a dink to Trapp’s right, the ‘keeper going left.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

To say I was happy would be way off the mark.

I was fucking euphoric.

I shook with joy, I screamed, the boys were going to Baku, the boys were going to Azerbaijan, I was going to Baku, I was going to Azarbaijan, oh my fucking goodness.

While PD and Al bounced and hugged and jumped and screamed, I stood shaking.

My eyes were a little moist.

Chelsea Football Club. I fucking love you.

Tales From Third Place

Chelsea vs. Watford : 5 May 2019.

At around 7.30pm on a clear and sunny but occasionally chilly evening, Glenn dropped me off outside my house. It had been another excellent day out in London with some fine friends. For Glenn, it was sadly his last game of this ridiculous season. I reached over and shook his hand and thanked him for driving for the second home game in a row. We very briefly exchanged thoughts about the manager once more. I thought back to the very first match of the season and I smiled as I said the word “Perth.” How can the campaign be almost over? How can that game that Glenn and I attended in Western Australia in late July seem like it only happened a month ago? Time and life is accelerating away far too damn quickly for me, for all of us.

Glenn had collected me at 7am. PD was already riding shotgun, and Lord Parky joined us soon after.

Both PD and Lord Parky were rather tattered and torn after their European travels in the week. Due to a delayed flight from Cologne, they did not get home until 4.30am on Saturday morning. They were both – as the saying goes – “hanging.” It was such an odd feeling to be watching their activities via Facebook on Wednesday and Thursday, with me being confined to barracks, working the late shift in Melksham. But by forgoing the semi-final – I don’t always make European semi-finals, Madrid 2014 certainly springs to mind – at least I had engineered some time off for the potential trip to Baku for the final.

Yes, it was an odd one alright. PD, Parky and little old me have been joined at the hip for most of this season and it was strange not to be over there in Frankfurt. It reminded me of an occasion, which sticks very vividly in my mind, from my early teen years when my parents, my grandparents and I squeezed into my father’s Renault and drove down to visit relatives in South Somerset. It hadn’t been a particularly long journey. But at the end of, it while my father tried to locate a place to park, my mother – who had been sitting alongside me – got out of the car and walked behind the car as it drove away, in order to pre-warn the relatives that we had arrived. I looked back at my mother, now separate from the main party, and it felt odd. That all happened almost forty years ago. Why do I mention it? I don’t know. It was if a connection had been lost, that my mother was now adrift, that she was on her own.

Forty years on, I never ever thought I would be referencing it to a Chelsea game in Frankfurt, but there you go.

Just before 10am, we entered the now familiar surroundings of “The Eight Bells” once again. The bar staff recognised us. It is soon becoming my local, one hundred miles from home. We were joined by Ollie and Julien from Normandy. I have known Ollie for a few years and we bump into each other at occasional games here and there. He is well known in the Chelsea family. It was lovely to see him again. I had not previously met Julien, his cousin, and it gave me a chance to reel off a few loosely remembered phrases from French “O level” in 1981.

I thanked Ollie for being one of the first few subscribers to this blogarama. We chatted about our love of “old school” stadia and we are both looking forward to the trip to Bramall Lane next season. I’m pretty happy with Sheffield United and Norwich City’s promotion to the top flight. We have already spoken about staying over in those cities next season, depending upon kick-off times. Elsewhere in the Football League pyramid, there were some sobering developments. Somerset’s only Football League team Yeovil Town were returned to non-league football after a spell of sixteen years in the Football League, rising to one single season in the Championship in 2013/14. A sadder tale involves the world’s oldest professional club, Notts County, who joined Yeovil Town in the second relegation spot. It does not seem so long ago that while Chelsea were toiling in the Second Division, Notts County were enjoying a few seasons – 1981/82, 1982/83 and 1983/84 – in Division One. We were last in the same division in 1991/92. A college pal, Craig, went to the Notts game at Swindon Town on the Saturday. I felt for him.

Why mention this?

I remember Notts County getting promoted ahead of us in 1980/81 when our season fell away dramatically after Christmas. And now they will be playing non-league football next season. A lot of newer Chelsea fans have a dig at people like me, always harking back to the days when Chelsea Football Club were under-performing and that these days are, by comparison, nothing to get too overemotional about. But I don’t care. Chelsea’s history in those bleaker years have coloured my opinions over the past twenty-five years of sustained success.

And that ain’t going to change.

We were then joined by John, Kev and Rich, from Edinburgh, all Hearts supporters. I have a lot of time for all three of them. On the Saturday, John had taken his two-year-old grandson to Tynecastle for the very first time. The pictures on Facebook had made me smile. The young lad fared better than the Jambos who lost 1-0 to Steve Clarke’s Kilmarnock. Then the Kent lads showed up. It was all very pleasant. The pints of “Grolsch” were hitting the spot. I laughed as I turned to John and said “bollocks to the football, let’s just stay here.”

Ah, the football. After Tottenham’s calamitous performance against Bournemouth the previous afternoon – two sendings off and a late winner from Nathan Ake – we were now in a position where two more wins would secure us automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League.

Oh what a crazy bloody season.

In previous conversations, we had been worried about getting points at Leicester City, and Watford would hardly be easy pickings. But two wins. Just two wins. It seemed achievable, and yet…

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

As is the case these days, the last home game of the season gives the commercial team at Chelsea Football Club a chance to display the new home kit for the forthcoming season, despite the fact that we will no doubt revert to the 2018/19 design for the games against Eintracht Frankfurt and Leicester City. As for the potential final in Baku, I am hoping for a repeat of 2012 and 2013 – when kits from those seasons were used – and not 2008, with a kit which was destined to bring back awful memories throughout the following campaign.

So. The 2019/20 Chelsea kit.

Have you got a minute?

I didn’t spot too many supporters wearing the new shirt on the walk to Stamford Bridge. I, like many, have spent the past few weeks fearing the worst, ever since a photograph of a new design was shared on the internet.

My thoughts?

The notion of honouring Stamford Bridge on the home shirt is not a ridiculous idea. Way back in 1995, Umbro took the decision to go for a panoramic shadow print of Old Trafford on the Manchester United home shirt. I wasn’t a huge fan, but it sold by the thousands, and millions. At the time, we all joked that it was the nearest many United fans would get to Old Trafford.

Stamford Bridge has – let’s be honest – rather a hotchpotch selection of stands. The East Stand is probably the most iconic – the most recognisable – but the three newer ones are of varying heights, with differences in sizes, in shape, in impact. So, dear reader, if I was given the brief to design a new Chelsea shirt embodying our home since 1905, I may well have chosen other sights and motifs.

The Peter Osgood statue, on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1970 FA Cup Final triumph – when The King scored in every round – would be a good place to start. A subtle shadow print of a single image over the chest perhaps. Or if the mantra of “less is more” is not adhered to, and the brief was for multiple images, then how about the ivy on The Shed Wall, or the Gatling Gun weather vane from atop the East Stand? How about the “Chelsea Football Club” signage on the wall between The Shed and the West Lower, which in itself is a nod to the wording used on the old Leitch East Stand which welcomed supporters to Stamford Bridge for decades?

Or how about a single panoramic image – as subtle as possible – of that often-referenced sweeping black and white panorama from the ‘twenties?

Well, instead of this, the design team chose – as far as I can muster – repeated images of circular roof trusses, roof supports and side screens.

And not just a few subtle dabs here and there. The ramshackle design covers the entire shirt. It appears that random geometric shapes have been thrown together.

It is – let me be clear here – fucking hideous.

The blue of the shorts looks to me, from my subsequent match photos, to be a slightly darker hue than the main body of the shirt. And although the decision was to, thankfully, maintain the classic white socks, the design seems to be a year late. The current 2018/19 kit design is meant to reflect the 1983/84 kit, but next season’s socks are closer to the 1983/84 style than this season. And whereas both new shirts and shorts are solidly blue – albeit in three different tones – the socks have a red band, therefore not tying it in with either shorts or socks. Oh, apart from an oddly-placed red stripe under the rear of the collar. Additionally, the images of the rectangles and circles that make up the design appear to be smudged. Not crisp. Not clear. As a metaphor for the way parts of the club operates, it is – however – perfect.

It’s a bloody mess.

Why should I care, though?

Well, the sad fact is that I do care. It looks like a dog’s dinner. It looks like the sort of children’s pyjamas that are on sale in the bargain aisle at “Asda.” And, if the reaction of the vast majority of Chelsea supporters that I interact with is to go by, it is rated as one of the worst ever. And that means, ergo, that Nike won’t be getting the desired sales returns that they might have hoped. Which defeats the bloody object of designing a new kit in the first place.

I hate modern football part 259.

On the pitch down below me, Watford surprised us all with their attacking verve in the first-half. They were by far the more enterprising of the two teams. They buzzed about us like proper hornets in their waspish shirts. The highlight from our players was a truly magnificent save from Kepa as he flung himself to his right to tip over a Troy Deeney drive. The away fans in their yellow and black were enjoying their team’s early dominance. We, however, struggled to get a foothold on the game. Sadly, N’Golo Kante was injured within the first ten minutes and we missed his drive in the first-half. He was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Although I did not see the game on Thursday, many mentioned that he was our best player in Frankfurt. Gerard Deulofeu managed to find space to threaten our goal and shots were fired in from outside the box. We really struggled, and rarely carved out chances.

There was, at last, a nice little give and go between Gonzalo Higuain and Pedro. The Spaniard’s drive flashed past the far post.

There was an penalty shout for a foul on David Luiz. I wasn’t convinced.

At the break, although I am sure the people that I bumped into didn’t all offer this blunt, and hardly erudite, opinion, but the general consensus was :

“Fucking shit.”

Thankfully, the second-half was a vast improvement.

I am not normally a huge fan of short corners at all. However, after Eden Hazard forced a save from the Watford ‘keeper Ben Foster, the subsequent corner was played short to Pedro. Hazard clipped the return into the six-yard box and our Ruben rose virtually unchallenged.

A strong downward header, and we were one up.

Hazard blasted at Foster. We were all guns blazing now.

Two minutes later, another Hazard corner on the far side, but this time a direct approach. Another free header though, this time from the head of Luiz.

Two up and coasting.

Those three points were looking good.

This was more like it, Chelsea. With the confidence of a two goal cushion, our play looked a lot more appetising. There was one surging run from our Eden – possibly the last that I will ever capture on film at Stamford Bridge – which had the Watford defence back peddling and questioning their choice of career.

We went close with efforts from Pedro, Loftus-Cheek and Higuain. The dangerous Deulofeu would not be quietened at the other end. He slammed a low shot wide of the far post.

With fifteen minutes to go, Higuain – who had attempted a few tricky passes to others – saw a hint of space and lost his marker. He was set free inside the box by the excellent Pedro, and the Argentinian – we share the same shit barber – dinked a delicate lob over the ‘keeper.

Chelsea 3 Watford 0.

Game over. Almost.

Watford hit the bar. They deserved a goal to be fair.

Olivier Giroud came on for Higuain and contrived to bugger up a couple of chances. In the very last minute, Dave gave the captain’s armband to Gary Cahill, who replaced David Luiz. His season has been a painful one. It was lovely to see him in Chelsea blue one last time.

He’s won it all, you know.

A last jink from Eden and a last shot on goal.

It did not matter. A three-nil win was the final result.

Meanwhile, up in Huddersfield, the home team had – somehow – managed to hold Manchester United to a 1-1 draw. On the way home, all but the driver caught up on some sleep, and as we woke we heard that Brighton had drawn 1-1 at Arsenal.

That was it. The others had committed hari kari and Chelsea Football Club were guaranteed Champions League football in 2019/20.

What a bloody crazy season.

On Thursday, we take on Eintracht Frankfurt and some of their ten thousand-strong travelling army.

I will see some of you there.

I’ll be the one not wearing pyjamas.

Tales From A Positive Step

Chelsea vs. Brighton And Hove Albion : 3 April 2019.

We live in interesting times.

The negativity surrounding the unconvincing 2-1 win at Cardiff City on Sunday still seemed to be dominating the thoughts of many before the Wednesday evening game at home to Brighton & Hove Albion. The match in South Wales certainly triggered many reactions and emotions. Taken at face value, we squeaked home – oh so fortuitously – against poor opposition and, on any other day in any other season, that might well have been the end of it. But not this season, not at this moment in time. Debate raged among the Chelsea support about our manager’s aptitude, while the media tended to focus on the loud protests against Maurizio Sarri at the game.

The negativity was at times overwhelming on Sunday and in the following few days.

I was just sick of it.

And then I looked at the league table. Chelsea were in sixth place, tucked in behind the others. And then I looked at Tottenham’s recent form guide which stood at four losses in the last five league games, and I managed to have a sideways look at everything. Was everything quite so apocalyptic? Was this really a horrific season? The Tottenham run of form really shocked me. Not so long ago they were, allegedly, being touted as being in the title race, and not just by those who were soon to frequent the Tottenham High Road once more. It seemed that all was goodness and light with our rivals from N17; a team on the cusp of glory, a respected young manager, the new stadium about to open, young English players making the national team and everything so positive. And yet, there was not a great deal of difference between our relative league positions.

This is not to disguise the fact that Chelsea Football Club is enduring an awkward season. Our troubles are well known and well documented. I won’t bore everyone to death. But it did make me think. At Chelsea, is our glass – like Tottenham’s trophy cabinet – always half empty?

At work on Wednesday, I did an early shift and worked 7am to 3pm. One lad – Andy, a relatively new colleague, I do not know him too well, but he is certainly approachable and not full of nonsense – was working the 6am to 2pm before heading up to London for football too. But he was a Tottenham fan, a season ticket holder, and was hugely excited about their first league game at their new and impressive stadium. I suspect that our individual  approaches to the two games in London were wildly different. My game was –  I was quite sure – going to be all about putting the leg-work in, showing up, trying to support as best I could, enduring the possible poor quality on show, trying not to grumble too much and make some noise. Another game ticked off and hopefully a win.

More than anything else, I just wanted no more negativity. The loud chants against Sarri at Cardiff showed our support, to me anyway, in a bad light. I’ve never been an advocate of loud “demonstration-level” booing and suchlike during games. It just adds to the pressure on the players, on the management team, on the substitutes.

And – to reiterate – we are a top six team in the toughest league going.

As my father used to say “if you can’t say anything good about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

Too simplistic? I don’t care.

We are supporters. To me that means that during the ninety-minutes of the framework of the game, we support.

PD again drove to London and I was able to grab a little sleep en route. The pre-match routine was the usual : pints of Peroni at The Goose, bottles of Staropramen at “Simmons.” There was talk with Rob about The Old Firm, there was talk with Walnuts about Stiff Fingers, there was talk with Simon about his son’s trip to Austin in Texas. The football would take care of itself later.

The team was announced and there were wholesale changes from Cardiff.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Giroud – Hazard

I might have chosen Rudiger and not Christensen, but there were generally few complaints from anyone.

The big story concerned Callum Hudson-Odoi. It would be his first league start and about bloody time.

(Am I the only one who detests the “CHO” moniker? Back in 2006, I warmed to Sean Wright-Phillips’ SWP as it linked itself to SW6. But as for “CHO” and “RLC” – nah. File alongside “Chels.”)

It was a cold night alright. On the cover of the match programme – did the editor know something that we didn’t? – was a highly stylised photograph of our Callum. The scene was set for great things from him on this evening in SW6. Inside the stadium, the three-thousand away fans were virtually all present with a fair few minutes to go. There were noticeable gaps elsewhere. In The Shed and in the Matthew Harding I spotted random empty seats which just meant that people had decided not to attend. In the top upper corners of the East Stand, always the last to sell, whole swathes of blue seats could be seen. These seats were never ever sold in the first place. This was going to be our lowest league gate for quite a while.

Brighton were dressed in a solid racing green shirt and it seemed odd. I had to think back to the last team to show up at Chelsea in a similar colour. My mind raced back to a match with Plymouth Argyle in 1988, but that was it. Over in The Shed goal stood their ‘keeper Mat Ryan – dressed in all black –  and, to me, he looked quite short, quite ridiculously so. Lev Yashin used to wear all black because he claimed that it made him look bigger, more intimidating. The reverse seemed to be the case on this occasion. At the other end, Kepa was dressed in bright orange and looked much taller (he’s two centimetres taller, but you get my point).

Another football folklore tale debunked?

What next?

Bert Trautmann’s ailment in the 1956 FA Cup Final was a sore throat and tickly cough?

The game began, Chelsea attacking The Shed. It was a quiet start to the game, both on and off the pitch. I was pleased that there was no negative noise aimed at anyone, though the change in a more agreeable starting eleven surely quelled any unrest from the natives.

While Brighton fans sung of Wembley – they play Manchester City in the up-coming semi-final – and of our support being awful (which it undoubtedly was), their team seceded from taking part in the more combative parts of the game. There was no desire to challenge, no desire to tackle, no desire to do much at all, except sit deep and let us have the ball. A corner from Eden Hazard found Giroud whose near post header cleared the bar. Our Callum cut in and shot from the right but it was deflected over. A half-chance for Giroud, whose swivel and shot came to nothing. On twenty minutes, a long cross found Solly March who did well to dig out a shot from a tight angle but only found the side netting. Until then Kepa, I think, had not touched the ball at all.

Alan and I spoke about the current state of the nation.

“If anyone had said, back in August, that come the first week of April, we would be in contention for a top four finish and with a strong shout of reaching the Europa League Final, while the manager and his players found their feet – a slow curve – I think most people would have been relatively content.”

“I think the players share some of the responsibility; it’s not just the manager’s fault that we have been lacking desire in some games.”

“The Chelsea story this season is multi-layered.”

“It’s certainly not a page turner.”

Inside, silently, I reminisced about another season under a different Italian manager.

I thought back to 2000/2001.

Claudio Ranieri was an odd choice, in some ways, and he was certainly a relatively untested Italian who had replaced Gianluca Vialli, who was a loved and respected Italian manager. There are obvious comparisons with Maurizio Sarri and Antonio Conte. Eventually, Ranieri got it right – but with no silverware – and laid the basis for our ridiculous haul of trophies from 2005 to 2012. In retrospect it is hard to believe that Ranieri was given the best part of four seasons at Chelsea. It would not happen today.

Everything was a little humdrum although Callum was showing promise on the wing. However, the chances slowly increased. A run from deep from Eden got the juices flowing but he ran out of space. There was a weak header from Giroud. Callum was probing well and his quality cross towards Dave was sadly not matched by the subsequent header. Eden blasted over from a central position, but the chances were stacking up. Down below me, Yves Bissouma gave Dave the run-around but his cross into the box luckily did not fall to a waiting Brighton attacker.

There was still hardly much noise from anyone in the home sections.

On thirty-eight minutes, Callum skipped past a defender in front of Parkyville and his low cross was turned in at the near post, with the most clinical of touches, by Olivier Giroud. From my angle, I wondered how on earth it had ended up in the net. He was mobbed by his team mates – with Parky looking on, can you see him? – and blew a kiss to the crowd.

Dallow, Spicer : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Pinkie, Cubitt : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Brighton’s defenders had resembled loafing oafs in all-night chemists.

The goal was replayed on the TV screen and the fleet-footed shimmy from our young winger was just magical to watch. More of the same please.

We pressed on and there were a couple of jinking runs from Hazard, one from in his own half, others on the edge of the box. These, I would imagine, might well have drawn the ire of manager Sarri, but with the defence choked of space and with no runners, nor space to run into anyway, Hazard obviously felt that the best way to navigate the Brighton defence was via old-school dribbling rather than the pass-and-move mantra of the gaffer.

And this is where it has all broken down this season.

I suspect that when – if? – it is played correctly, the movement of our players in the manager’s system will mirror that of the White Helmets motorcycle display team, with synchronised runs and dummy runs, bluffs and counter bluffs, runners gliding into space and with runs using obtuse angles. It’ll be like a Busby Berkeley musical on grass.

In the meantime, we have to do what we have to do.

One Hazardous run was halted abruptly but David Luiz banged the ball against the wall. Late on in the half, after another dance into the box by Eden, there was an embarrassing air-shot from our Callum.

In that first-half, with lovely promise shown by Callum, our Ruben seemed to play within himself. I hoped for greater things in the second period. At the half-time break, I turned to Alan and became a ground hopper bore.

“You realise Slavia Prague’s rebuilt stadium used to be called the Eden Stadium?”

Ah, Prague. The joy of European travel. I know that I decided not to go to Czechia – new name, same place – for our up-coming game, but a boy can dream can’t he? I loved Prague on my two – ridiculously brief – previous visits (en route to Jablonec in 1994, en route to Munich 2012) and I spent a few wistful moments dreaming of the Czech capital. It is, like Budapest, a ground-hoppers’ paradise. In fact, if I was going, I could visit all of the five major stadia on a beautifully straight diagonal waking tour.

From south-east to north-west –

Slavia Prague.

Bohemians.

Viktoria Zizkov.

Sparta Prague.

Dukla Prague.

And then there is, at the top of the hill overlooking the entire city, the Strahov national stadium – where it was rumoured that we might have to play Zizkov in 1994 – and alongside it, the second-largest stadium ever built. This once held a monstrous 250,000 and was a vast area surrounded by a single-tier of terrace that was home to the “Spartakiada” for many years. It is now home to Sparta’s training ground and has enough space for nine full-size football pitches.  I can vividly remember a Friday night in 1976, right after an edition of “Open All Hours” on BBC2 if memory serves, when I watched the coverage of this annual show of communist strength via synchronised gymnastics that Busby Berkeley, and probably Maurizio Sarri too, would have been proud. It simply blew my mind. It is an image that has stayed with me for over forty years. Maybe I need to visit Prague again, maybe on a weekend over the coming summer. All of those stadia, all of those teams. Watch this space.

Later in the half-time break, I politely asked Alan to get me a Dukla Prague fridge magnet.

“It’s all I want for Christmas.”

Blimey, too many obscure musical references.

Back to London. The second-half started with us attacking the Matthew Harding. Hazard wriggled into the box, Luiz slammed a low cross towards the goal. Ten minutes in, a deep cross from Jorginho found the leap of our Callum – who looked offside to me – but his header fell into the arms of Yashin Junior.

“Oh Hudson-Odoi.”

At last we made some noise.

On the hour, Ruben played the ball in to Eden, who wriggled himself into space and sold Lewis Dunk a wonderful dummy before curling a wonderful effort wide of the ‘keeper and into a gaping net.

GET IN.

I was lucky to capture his run, jump and fist pump towards us.

Three minutes later, Jorginho to Hazard to Ruben. There was a quick appraisal of where he was, where the goal was, where the ‘keeper was, and our Ruben took one touch, opened up his body and despatched a firm shot – a little more loft and pace than Eden’s effort – which dropped beautifully high into the Brighton goal. It was sensational. I was again lucky to shoot the resulting elation from him and his team mates.

Brighton were rocking.

Teetering on their heels, they had offered nothing all game and were now well and truly out of it.

The game continued, but against an increasingly odd backdrop as thousands decided to leave early. I suppose it is, at least, better to leave for home when Chelsea is winning 3-0 than when we are losing 3-0. Regardless, the sight of acres of blue plastic was a jolt to the senses. Brighton sang about “Sussex by the Sea” and we watched as we continued to attack. Ruben’s strike seemed to give him confidence and a shot was drilled wide. A wide cross from Eden found a stretching N’Golo Kante who could only push it over the bar from close in.

The substitutions were made.

Davide for Dave.

Mateo for Ruben.

Willian for Eden.

Brighton, oddly, came to life a little in the last quarter, but the match was won and lost by then.

At the final whistle, the stadium was only two-thirds full. But it had been a reasonable game. I thought that in the immediate aftermath, fans were lavishing a lot of praise on Ruben, who had been fine and had scored a fantastic goal and yet had hardly influenced the game as much as some would believe. Maybe I saw a different match. But there were many more positives than negatives. This 3-0 win against Brighton just seemed a lot more wholesome than the 2-1 win against Cardiff.

Phew.

On the walk back to PD’s car, after demolishing yet another hot dog and onions from “Chubby’s Grill”, I chatted to Long Tall Pete and Liz.

We were of the same opinion about Ruben.

We looked ahead to our run-in.

“We can finish top four, of course we can. But our little sequence of games against these mediocre teams, and I am going to include the Europa League teams too, are not going to prepare us for our two horrific games at Anfield and Old Trafford. They will be so different. And I’m not convinced we can step up in those games.”

On Monday evening – continuing a run of nineteen consecutive games without a Saturday game  – we meet up again at Stamford Bridge for the visit of West Ham United.

I will see you there.

Tales From Both Sides Of The Ninian Park Gates

Cardiff City vs. Chelsea : 31 March 2019.

After away games in Ukraine and Scouseland we were now due to play our third consecutive away match on foreign soil. On the last day of March and the first day of summer we were headed over the Severn Bridge to Cardiff to play Neil Warnock’s Bluebirds. The Everton away game seemed ages ago. The Sunday trip into Wales could not come quick enough.

This was a drive of only seventy-five miles, a relatively brief excursion, but it would be a journey back into time too.

Let me explain.

There might have been the chance that our game at Cardiff City in 2019 might only have induced the slightest of mentions of our epic match at Ninian Park during the 1983/84 promotion campaign. I have already written about that encounter in two of these match reports already – during 2008/09, the twenty-fifth anniversary, and 2013/14, our last visit to Cardiff – and in normal circumstances I might have penned a brief mention. And then the Footballing Gods got involved. The match was moved to Sunday 31 March 2019, and it did not take me long to realise that this date would mark, exactly, the thirty-fifth anniversary of the 1984 game.

I mentioned the anniversary on a “Chelsea In The 1980s” page on Facebook during the preceding week and there were many replies, most of which seemed to centre on the crowd trouble that day rather than the game itself. But it was certainly a day that many recalled easily. And football hooliganism was often an inherent part of the day to day travails and travels of a Chelsea supporter in that era, and I suppose I should not have been shocked by the myriad of memories stirred by the mere mention of “Cardiff 1984”. There has always been a morbid fascination with hooliganism at football for many, much in the same way that violent films and TV series always stir some basic instinct among us. If “The Sopranos” was about opera singers and not New Jersey mobsters and if “Peaky Blinders” was about Birmingham milliners I suspect that viewing figures for both series would never have reached such stratospheric levels.

But more of 1984 later. You have been warned.

I set off for “Welsh Wales” – as we call it in Somerset, thus not confusing it with the local cathedral city of Wells – at just before eight o’clock. The usual Fun Boy Three of PD, Parky and little old me were joined by PD’s son Scott and Johnny, a local lad who we first met prior to the League Cup Final. It would be his first ever Chelsea away game. Tickets for this game seemed to be springing up all over the place. The media were in a shit-stirring mood and claimed that Chelsea fans were boycotting games after falling out of love with manager Sarri. I suspect that the glut of tickets for Cardiff City might well have been more to do with the game falling on Mothering Sunday.

Even football supporters – and hooligans and wannabe hooligans too – love their muvvers, just like the Kray twins.

The drive into Wales was so easy, though the fantastic weather of the previous day was nowhere to be seen. Heading over the Severn Estuary, it was all grey and cloudy. However, I was parked up on Mermaid Quay at just before 10am and we soon made the local pub “The Mount Stuart” our base. We devoured our various breakfasts and, while others got stuck into a variety of ciders and lagers, I made ample use of free coffee refills, as if I suspected that the upcoming game might induce torpor. There was a Cardiff Bay 10km race taking place and the pub was mobbed with runners ahead of the 11am start, but they soon vacated the large pub and we settled on high stools near the bar and overlooking the murky grey waters of the bay. Outside were flags of St. David and, in the distance, the cranes of commerce and trade.

A Cardiff City fan, John – Adidas gazelles and a Lacoste rain jacket – befriended us, and we chatted away about all sorts. Joining the dots, I think it is wise for me to assume that he had a chequered past as he knew of various names and events of days gone by, nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more. He remembered 1984. He spoke of the 2010 FA Cup game. But he was a friendly lad and was kind enough to take our team photo once we had been joined by fellow Chelsea fans Charlotte and Paul from Yeovil. I found it interesting that John mentioned that fans of Swansea City  – he called them “that lot” – and Cardiff City, especially in times when both teams existed further down the football pyramid, often had a second team, an English team. Again joining the dots, I reckoned his other team was Liverpool since he spoke highly of their 2001 FA Cup win in Cardiff against Arsenal and of “a mate” – oh yeah? – who went to Kiev for last May’s European Cup Final. His wife was taking part in the run. I think he was happy to have company while he waited for her return. We wished each other well.

We made tracks. I had arranged a parking place right outside the ground. In the middle distance I kept spotting the towering roof supports of the Millennium Stadium in the nearby city centre. It dominates the skyline.

There has always been something very special about spotting a football stadium.

In the late ‘sixties or early ‘seventies, I have a vivid memory of my father driving through Cardiff to visit relatives in Llanelli – in the days when the M4 in South Wales was still being built – and him pointing out the floodlights of Ninian Park. After Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road, Ninian Park was almost certainly the second football ground that I ever saw.

We were parked up at about 1.30pm. There was just time – but only just – for me to splinter away from the others and have a rushed walk around the new Cardiff City Stadium. I was unable to do so in 2014, when we similarly enjoyed a pre-match drink on Mermaid Quay but then left it very late in arriving at the game.

Outside the entrance to the away section on Sloper Road, police cars were parked up, with their blue lights flashing, and a fair few policemen were walking in a mob of Chelsea. The game had recently been elevated to a high risk “Cat C” ranking.

I walked on, and I soon spotted a feature which linked Cardiff City’s past with their future. The old Ninian Park used to sit on the northern side of Sloper Road. The new stadium sits on the southern side. I was heartened to see that the old Ninian Park gates – and their concrete surrounds – were not demolished but were moved en masse to form the basis of an entrance plaza (admittedly half-arsed and scruffy) into the new stadium.

I definitely approved.

And my mind returned to 1984, quite easily in fact.

On that Saturday thirty-five years ago, Glenn and I had met up at Wallbridge Café opposite the Frome railway station. Inside, I was met by a sobering site. There was one other Chelsea fan – Dave – but also a couple of Frome’s Finest, two lads who I knew were only coming along for a bundle; Gulliver, a fan of Manchester United, and Sedge, a fan of Arsenal. Alongside them was Winnie, a friend from my year at school, who was anything but a wannabe hooligan. We made our way to Wales by train. As we neared Newport, I remember peering out at the scruffy grass alongside the tracks as if it was yesterday. At Cardiff train station, I met up with another school friend, Rick – a Pompey fan, studying at a polytechnic in Pontypridd – who was lured to Cardiff for the game.

Glenn and I soon lost the others and made a bee-line for Ninian Park. We knew that there would be pockets of trouble at various locations in the city centre and en route to the stadium. We kept our heads down, and feared the prospect of locals approaching us and asking us the usual “got the time mate”? We surmised that it would be better to get inside the away end early. I always remember that I was, in fact, the very first Chelsea fan to pass through the “click click” of the away turnstiles. Having the entire away end to myself, if only for a fleeting few seconds, was a memorable moment. Opposite the huge Bob Bank loomed, a massive terrace which backed onto some railway sidings and whose roof was etched with a ginormous Captain Morgan advertisement. To my left the main stand. Straight ahead the roof of the home end. Throughout the game, Chelsea fans would end up in three sides of the ground. The weather that day was grey and overcast too.

I continued my walk around the Cardiff City Stadium. Since my only other visit in 2014, a new tier has been added to the stand nearest Sloper Road. It has the infamous red seats, and the less said about that the better. The stadium now holds a healthy 33,000. There was a poorly executed statue depicting Fred Keenor, the club’s captain in 1927 when, as any good schoolboy will know, Cardiff City took the FA Cup out of England for the only time. I liked the fact that the signage on the main stand is an exact replica of that used at Ninian Park. The same words, the same font, though oddly in light grey and not Bluebirds blue. But I approved of that too. It was another nice nod to the past.

On the way in to the away section, there seemed to be an over-bearing presence of OB, but the security searches were completed with the minimum of fuss.

After six coffees, I was still buzzing.

I made my way in, behind the goal this time, and took my seat alongside Alan, Gary and PD. The others were dotted around.

Mother’s Day had won. There were quite a few empty seats in both home and away sections.

The teams came on. The yellow and blue “Chelsea Here, Chelsea There” banner was held aloft to my right.

The game began without me knowing the team. I soon worked it out.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kovacic – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Willian

So, no Kante, no Hazard, no Hudson-Odoi.

Words failed me, and not for the first time. Our Callum was undoubtedly the talk of the town, the player on everyone’s lips, but Sarri could not find a place for him against lowly Cardiff City. I could not get inside Sarri’s head. I was befuddled.

The game began with a few half-hearted shouts of support from the Chelsea faithful. But it was a slow start to the match. Both Alan and I were surprised that the home fans were not getting behind their team. However, Saturday had been a particularly painful time for them with both Burnley and Southampton victorious. Perhaps they had simply lost the will to battle and fight. Their team were happy to let us have the ball. But Neil Warnock is a wily old sod.

“Let them have it. Save yourselves. They’ll soon tie themselves up in knots.”

It was a cold day. I was glad that I had my jacket. The first real chance of the game fell to Pedro who danced his way into a central position and curled an effort narrowly over the bar. Soon after, a similar effort from the home team – in all blue, the aberration of red shirts consigned to the rubbish bin of memory – just span past the far post.

I turned to Gary : “I think their effort was closer than Pedro’s.”

We had most of the ball, but did fuck all with it. Sound familiar? I noted that it took until twenty-five minutes for any chant of noise and menace to emanate from the away fans and a further five minutes for the whole end to be united in song.

Sigh.

It was dire, both on and off the pitch. I had to step in when one of the traveling party continually ranted about virtually every Chelsea player. I just wanted to see positive noise. That’s our role as supporters, right?

Did we have any other chances? I captured a Willian effort on goal from a free-kick. There was a scramble in which the derided Alonso failed to poke home. Cardiff rarely threatened.

“Oh God, this is awful.”

In 1984 it wasn’t much better.

We had been riding high since the timely addition of Mickey Thomas in January added the requisite amount of energy and skill to our promotion-chasing team. My previous game that season had been the iconic 1-1 draw at promotion favourites Newcastle United. Chelsea were the in-form team, closing in on leaders Sheffield Wednesday. We had gone into the game at Ninian Park high on confidence. Although Dale Jasper was a young debutant alongside captain Colin Pates we did not foresee any trouble in garnering three points. As the away end filled up, I was well aware of the dress code of the day. Many were wearing those blue and white Patrick cagoules.  There were Pringles and Nike Wimbledons everywhere. For the very first time, I had joined in too; a yellow, light grey and navy Gallini sweatshirt, a £10 purchase in Bath the previous weekend, though if I am honest Gallini didn’t really cut it. It is a brand that is rarely mention in the various “clobber” pages on the internet these days. However, I did see three of four other lads wearing the same top that afternoon in Wales. As the kick-off neared, outbreaks of violence erupted in a variety of locations all over the stadium.

Chelsea were in town.

However, at half-time we were losing 3-0. Just like in 2019, we had been dire. We were shell-shocked. We had been second-best throughout.

Cardiff City 3 Chelsea 0.

Altogether now –

Fackinell.

Back to life, back to reality. In 2019, there were whispers between Alan and myself that this game might well mirror the Everton match where we had been well on top in the first forty-five minutes but had not prised open the home defence. The worry was, undoubtedly, that there was only a couple of chances against Cardiff rather than the five or six against Everton. Alan slipped in the phrase “we’re on the road to nowhere” and I had reminded him that this phrase had aided me on the naming of a blog a few years ago for a game at Manchester City.

“Tales From The Road To Nowhere.”

Alan replied “You can call this one ‘Tales From Groundhog Day.’”

Within seconds of the restart, a cross from Harry Arter was excellently clipped in by Victor Camarasa.

“Groundhog Day!” yelped Alan.

We stood silent. It is a horrible feeling being in the bear pit of an away section with the home fans baying.

“One nil to the sheepshaggers.”

The away fans, rather than support the team, turned on the manager.

“We want Sarri out, say we want Sarri out.”

Oh great. I didn’t join in. I understood everyone’s frustrations, but surely with a team being 1-0 down and in need of encouragement, we needed to dig deep, real deep, and muster up some noise from the depths of our souls. I’ll say it again. That’s our role as supporters, right?

The Cardiff fans responded : “We want Sarri in.”

Oscar Wilde need not be worried.

Alan commented “it’s getting toxic.”

Indeed it was.

“FUCK SARRIBALL.”

I looked over to the bench. The manager must’ve heard. No reaction. Probably just as well.

Eden Hazard replaced Pedro on fifty-three minutes and the Belgian immediately lit up the pitch. A free-kick involving Willian playing the ball through Ross Barkley’s legs to David Luiz resulted in the wall being hit. The groans continued.

There was a strong shout for a Cardiff penalty after a messy challenge by Rudiger on Morrison. No whistle. Phew.

Our Ruben replaced – shock, horror – Jorginho, who had been quite terrible.

We dominated most of the ball now but despite countless wriggles and shimmies by Eden, Willian and others it looked like Cardiff’s back line would simply not be breached. I lost count of the times Alonso played the ball back rather than into the box. Frustration was everywhere. But I stood silent, not enjoying much of anything. I contemplated us winning all four home games, but easily losing all away games, here at Cardiff, at Anfield, at Old Trafford, at Leicester City. The thought of those two away games at Liverpool and Manchester United are certainly starting to cause me pain.

An effort from Willian went wide. The ineffectual Higuain shot meekly but was then replaced by Olivier Giroud.

Three substitutes used, but Callum stayed on the bench. Maybe Sarri was resting him for his next England game.

A cross from wide was whipped into the box but with Chelsea legs stretching out to meet the low ball, a Cardiff defender managed to reach the ball first. We were awarded a corner.

There were six minutes to go.

In 1984, Kerry Dixon stroked a low shot inside the post from outside the box and this was met with a roar of approval from the Chelsea hordes, but surely this was just a rogue consolation goal.

In 2019, the corner was played in by Willian. Alonso got a touch and – we breathed in expectantly – the ball reached Azpilicueta who headed home. I immediately sensed “offside” but there was no flag, no reaction, the goal stood.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

I turned to Alan.

“Bloody hell. Six minutes to go. Just like 1984. Maybe we’ll draw 3-3.”

A lucky escape at the other end. Another clumsy Rudiger challenge, but after a long deliberation, the referee only gave a yellow card. Was he the last man? It looked messy. Phew.

In 1984, with two minutes to go Colin Lee – the experienced striker now playing right back – found himself inside the six-yard box and bundled the ball home. Game well and truly on. The Chelsea crowd went doolally. We were losing 3-2 but the game sprang to life.

In 2019, there was praise for Chelsea, but the chants of “Maurizio” dried up around Christmas.

In 1984, on ninety minutes, a Cardiff defender handled the ball. A penalty.

Pandemonium.

Nigel Spackman slammed it home.

The away end erupted. Unfettered by seats, we jumped and shouted, and stumbled, and screamed, and hugged, and kissed. Our arms were thrusted heavenwards, our voices sang roars of triumph. As we marched out onto the bleak Cardiff streets, we were invincible.

In 2019, deep into stoppage time, a cross from Willian on the right perfectly found our Ruben. I snapped just as he lent forward and headed the ball towards goal. Just like in 1984 – all those years ago – the Chelsea end erupted. A leap from Ruben in front of me. I was screaming with joy. No chance of a photo.

Carpe diem.

Get in.

I did capture the aftermath.

Joy unbounded.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds, boyo.”

There’s nice, look you.

Smiles, relief.

And then Barkley shot wildly over.

Oh boyo.

And that was that.

Despite the win, we all knew that we had been quite awful for eighty minutes. It was truly woeful. It was like watching players walking through treacle.

Football, bloody hell.

In 1984, on the train back to Frome, we regrouped, but two of our party were missing. Dave and Gulliver had been nicked for something or other. It had to happen. They were to spend the night in a police cell. On that train ride home, with me sitting quietly in one of those old compartments, a lad appeared in the corridor and he was serenaded by those who knew him.

“Daniels is our leader. Daniels is our leader.”

It was PD.

It was the first time that I had ever met him.

He was dressed in jeans, DMs and full regalia. He was a fearsome sight.

I had mentioned this to PD when I had picked him up at eight o’clock.

“Me and Nicks and Andy thought that we’d go into the Cardiff end. We got in, looked around, this, that and the other, and soon left.”

Outside the away end, the 2019 party regrouped. We knew how poorly we had played. We were no fools. But we had won. At this stage in the season, three points is all. The traffic heading home was ridiculous. We were caught in an hour-long traffic jam just leaving the immediate area of the stadium. I slowly edged north and then south and then, eventually, west. I looked over at the roof of Cardiff City’s current home, the roof of the Millennium Stadium and imagined Ninian Park in between the two.

Thanks for the memories, Cardiff. I have a feeling that our paths will not be crossing next season.

On Wednesday, we play Brighton at Stamford Bridge, our first home game in bloody ages.

See you there.

The 1984 Game.

Many will be seeing this for the first time. Fill your boots.

Part One.

Part Two.

The 1984 Cast.

Chris – I still go to Chelsea, you lucky people.

Glenn – still goes to Chelsea.

Dave – he occasionally goes to Chelsea.

PD – still goes to Chelsea.

Nicks – still goes to Chelsea.

Andy – still goes to Chelsea.

Gulliver – now a Millwall fan, he goes occasionally and I see him around town occasionally for a chat.

Sedge – I see him around town occasionally.

Winnie – I see him around town occasionally.

Rick – a Pompey season ticket holder, now living in Portsmouth, and at the EFL Trophy game against Sunderland.

Tales From The Pride Of London

Chelsea vs. Fulham : 2 December 2018.

I was inside Stamford Bridge in good time. In those minutes before kick-off, with “Park Life” by Blur initiating the pre-game activities, the Fulham fans in the far corner were already voicing their dislike of us.

“We are Fulham. We are Fulham. We are Fulham. FFC. We are Fulham. Super Fulham. We are Fulham. Fuck Chelsea.”

So much for brotherly-love, eh?

This was Fulham’s first appearance at Stamford Bridge since the 2013/14 season. I personally like the idea of them being back in the top flight. An away game at Craven Cottage is always a treat. It’s good to have them back. But when I was growing up, I only ever really envisaged a Chelsea vs. Fulham league encounter taking place in the second tier. They were a club that wobbled between the old Second and Third Divisions. As recently as 1997, they were in the basement of the Football League. They have enjoyed a resurgence, then, in recent seasons, but when they disappeared from the Premier League in 2014, I did wonder if we would ever see them again in the league.

So they have done well to bounce back after just four seasons beneath us.

Ironically, ex-Chelsea midfielder Slavisa Jokanovic was recently sacked as their manager, and was replaced by Claudio Ranieri a week or so ago. In his first season as Chelsea manager, Jokanovic was the bete noire of Ranieri’s team, a one-paced misfit, who drew nothing but ire from the Chelsea fans at games all over England. He was seen as Ranieri’s man. His totem. His man. Jokanovic was known as “the Joker” and Ranieri was similarly mocked by many. In that first season, it took ages for the Chelsea support to warm to the Italian.

With large flags being waved on the pitch, each one indicating the numbers of the starting eleven, the Chelsea PA welcomed back Claudio Ranieri – dear, dear Claudio – to Stamford Bridge, and an image of him appeared on the large TV screen hovering over the away support.

It then got a little nasty.

“He comes from Italy. He fucking hates Chelsea.”

That was out of order.

It is, of course – nothing new here – a fact of life within SW6 that Chelsea fans have historically nurtured a distinct soft spot for Fulham. What is there to hate about Fulham after all? In years gone by, in the days when the terraced streets between Stamford Bridge and Craven Cottage housed a solidly working class population, people would alternate between the two grounds each week. It was a distinct “Fulham thing”, this sharing of the borough’s two clubs. But not QPR, further north. Never QPR.

Fulham had brought three thousand, of course, as would be expected. As the teams entered the pitch, we were treated again to flames and fireworks. But this was a midday kick-off, and it seemed even more preposterous.

Fireworks for Fulham? Give me a break.

We had spoken about the potential line-up on the drive to London and we naturally presumed that Alvaro Morata would be playing up front. But what did we know? Instead, manager Maurizio chose Olivier Giroud. Elsewhere, Pedro got the nod over Willian and Mateo Kovacic still kept Ross Barkley out of the starting eleven.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

Former blue Andre Schurrle did not feature in the Fulham team, out with an injury. We all remembered the second-half hat-trick the German scored at the Cottage in 2014, our last game against them.

Around the stadium on signage, on the captain’s armband, on the match programme and on bootlaces were the seven colours of the rainbow, mirroring the pastel shades of the various Nike, Puma and Adidas footwear.

The game began with a few songs emanating from the Matthew Harding.

It was a very mild Winter’s day.

We started magnificently. Jean Michael Seri was pick-pocketed by N’Golo Kante, and the French midfielder advanced before setting up Pedro in the inside-right channel. Our little Spaniard – “the hummingbird” as my mate Rick in Iowa suitably calls him – cut back on to his left foot and poked the ball past Sergio Rico.

Pedro raced away past the supporters in the Shed Lower and celebrated with a hop and a skip and a jump. His smile lit up the stadium. It was a typically lovely nimble finish from Pedro.

Perfect.

SW6 East 1 SW6 West 0

The sun was breaking through some cloud as the first-half developed and there were some strong shadows forming on the pitch. I kept looking over at the two managers, both former Napoli men, managers separated by more than twenty years; Ranieri, impeccably dressed, Sarri looking like a bloke on his way to a Wetherspoons.

Alan and I briefly discussed the famous game between the two teams at Christmas in 1976. We were on our way to promotion that season – a beguiling mix of mainly home-grown youngsters with a few steadying influences too – and Fulham boasted George Best and Rodney Marsh. A ridiculous crowd of 55,003 attended that game. I was not at the game but I asked Alan of his recollections of the day. He replied that it was ridiculously packed in the forecourt, and he was genuinely concerned about getting crushed. He was sure that many were locked out. I can remember seeing the gate in the following day’s newspaper and it made me gulp.

55,003.

In the Second Division nonetheless.

What a club we were. Or rather, what a potentially huge club we could become.

I was warm and fuzzy at the age of eleven and I don’t think that feeling has ever really left me.

On the pitch, we dominated play, but without many clear scoring chances. Olivier Giroud threatened and forced a save from the Fulham ‘keeper. A poor David Luiz free-kick was struck against the wall. Pedro looked full of drive and energy, and Kante was covering lots of ground. But there were a few patchy performances. Eden Hazard struggled to get involved. And Marcos Alonso was having his own personal hell. There were misplaced passes, and poor control. He was often released on the left, but his final ball was usually substandard.

It was a generally scrappy affair. The sun was getting brighter still, but the play was grey.

It was, of course, ridiculously quiet.

There were occasional chants from the away fans.

“Haven’t you got a boat race to go to?” bellowed Alan.

There were two chances for Giroud, close in on goal, but the tight angles and conflux of opposing players worked against him.

There seemed to be an unwillingness to put a tackle in from our players. In these days, the buzz word in football is the word “press”. You can’t walk two yards or read more than five words about football without hearing or seeing the word “press.”

I remember the closing of space being called “pressing” by Arrigo Sacchi in his Milan years around thirty years ago. It was one of those words of English origin that the Italians often shoehorn into their language. I think at the time the English version was known, loosely, as “getting stuck in” but it has become the word of the season, or possibly the decade.

And the gentlemen of the press and fans alike love it.

The printing press. The trouser press. The cider press. And now the football press. There is no fucking escaping it.

What it means for much of the time is a lot of closing of space but tackling – that black art – being condemned to the pages of history.

Oh well.

I just wanted to see a well won tackle.

It would at least stir the fans.

Modern football, eh?

However, we were by far the better of the two SW6 combatants. There had only been very rare attacks on our goal. Kepa had enjoyed a very quiet game. I am sure there was one moment when I saw him hunting down by his right-hand post for one of Thibaut Courtois’ old word search books.

The half-time whistle blew.

It had been a generally quiet and tepid affair.

I wondered what a few friends from afar had reckoned to the game thus far. We had welcomed the visitors from Toronto and Atlanta again to our pre-match. We met up in The Goose. In addition to Prahlad and his wife Nisha, and Brenda and Ryan, there was another Atlantan too; Emily, who I last saw in Vienna for our friendly in 2016, was visiting from Austria for one game only. Memorably, as we walked past the entrance to Fulham Broadway, Emily bumped into another Chelsea fan from Vienna, over for one game only himself.

As I have so often said, the Chelsea World is indeed a very small world.

We began pretty poorly in the second-half. Fulham forced an attack but Antonio Rudiger was able to block a shot. Then, from the ensuing corner Arrizabalaga reacted so well to thwart a Calum Chambers. To my liking, the whole ground replied with a roaring with a defiant “Carefree”. It had taken almost an hour for Stamford Bridge to raise a song, but at last we were back to our best, supporting the team as we should. And I loved this. We knew the team were struggling collectively and we rallied behind the team. Eric, from Toronto, and Emily were watching from the front row of the Matthew Lower, but from different sides of the goal. The Atlantans were up in the Shed Upper. I hope they appreciated the sudden burst of noise.

Another effort from Chambers. Another Kepa save.

In the stadium, the fans grew restless. Our play was slow, ponderous, tedious. Nobody shone in my mind apart from Pedro and Kante. And Kepa was certainly keeping us in the game. But we were passing to oblivion and the Chelsea fans were getting more and more frustrated. It was a very odd half of football. We were begging for a second goal. But there were more misplaced passes, and mistimed tackles.

Who expected Fulham to get an equaliser?

We all did.

There were moans aimed at Jorginho and Kovacic, neither of whom were playing well.

Some substitutes were soon warming up under the East Stand.

Within a few seconds of each other, Big John and I independently bawled the same thing.

“Get yer boots on Zola.”

How we missed a little of his creativity.

The manager, thankfully, looked to bring in fresh ideas and fresh legs into our midfield by replacing Kovacic with Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who was given a hero’s welcome.

He was very soon running at the heart of the Fulham defence. He was warmly applauded. Just after, Giroud – no service in the second-half – was replaced by Alvaro Morata. A shot from Hazard was parried by the Fulham ‘keeper but from only six yards out, Morata shinned the ball way over the bar. There were groans and Chelsea eyes looked heavenwards. Emily would have got a good view of that. I wondered what her thoughts were.

A Hazard free-kick was hit straight at Sergio Rico.

The mood inside Stamford Bridge was becoming stiflingly nervous. We just needed a win to get our season back on track, to stay tucked in, on a day when three of our main rivals were playing too.

Davide Zappacosta replaced Marcos Alonso and Dave switched flanks.

I wondered if Jorginho – Sarri’s kingpin – would ever be substituted. I wondered if he would be known in some quarters as the modern multi-million-pound equivalent of Ranieri’s Jokanovic.

With the nerves still jangling, the ball was worked adeptly between Hazard, Pedro and Loftus-Cheek. The ball stood up nicely for Ruben to strike purposefully past the Fulham ‘keeper. It had easily been our most effective move of the half.

Get in.

Emily would have loved her view of that.

I watched as Ruben ran over to the far corner and as was mobbed by his team mates.

SW6 North 2 SW6 South 0.

So this was certainly a strange game. We absolutely struggled in that poor second-half. And all of us admitted that we had rarely felt more underwhelmed – possibly even deflated – after a win. Feelings seemed confused, messy. I think that in the back of our minds the horror of Wembley the previous week would not subside, and we knew that Manchester City, to say nothing of a potential banana skin at Molineux, were looming in the distance.

It was such an odd game. And we had a quiet and reflective drive home. I battled the rain and the traffic of the M4. We were quiet. I remembered back to Jose Mourinho’s first league game as Chelsea manager, way back in the August of 2004 when a 1-0 win against the might of Manchester United could not disguise our sense of bewilderment that a team so rich in attacking verve could kill the game at 1-0.

“Fucking hell. We’re not going to win the league playing like this, are we?”

It is one of those sentences I always remember saying.

But, in 2018, are we unnecessarily tough on Sarri and his new system? Quite possibly. This is a learning curve for all of us. As fans, we have been given the task of adapting to a new modus operandi too. It might not be easy. As I said to Glenn, regardless of the merits of a new style, we have won the league two out of the past four seasons. I’m not sure if that makes us spoiled or ultra-critical. But I know the sense of frustration from the stands for our underperforming players was no illusion. In the end the history books will say that we won 2-0 but it was almost in spite of ourselves.

I’m still working Sarri out. It might take a while yet.

We have a testing week ahead. Let’s hope we can regroup for the two games. Maybe we, as fans, need to show a little more patience, but that is easier said than done. At least the next game is away, when the fans are usually a little more supportive, and certainly a whole lot noisier.

Right then. Wolverhampton Wanderers on Wednesday.

See you there.

 

Tales From A Day On The Road

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 28 October 2018.

Not for the first time on a Chelsea away day, I was awake before the alarm clock was due to ring at 4.30am. Initially, though, I was in no mood for football. The sad events of the Saturday evening involving the helicopter owned by Leicester City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha spiralling out of control and crashing in a shocking fireball outside the King Power Stadium hung heavy in my mind. This was so eerily similar to the tragic events of October 1996 in which our very own Matthew Harding and four others were killed on the return from a League Cup tie at Bolton. I was to set off on a long drive north for our away game at Burnley – we guessed at five hours in total – with no concrete news about the Leicester tragedy, but deep down we all knew. It had certainly been a sad footballing Saturday. During the day, our former Chelsea player-manager Glenn Hoddle had collapsed in a TV studio and had been termed seriously ill. It is no wonder that the thought of football on such a bleak weekend had left me numb.

There had been warnings of a bitterly cold day awaiting us in the old cotton town hiding underneath the moors. I chose some warm clothes and began to prepare myself for the longest drive of the footballing season. A coffee, as always, stirred me to life.

A five-hundred-mile round trip lay ahead.

I departed just before 6am and soon collected PD. Young Jake – his first game of the season, and resplendent in Napapijri and Moncler finery, he had evidently been busy in the close season – joined us at 6.20am, and the old warhorse Parky joined us at 6.45am. Just before 7am, Young Jake opened up a can of Southern Comfort and lemonade. Even the seasoned drinkers LP and PD were impressed. This was the first time up the M5 and M6 since the visit to Manchester City in the first week of March over seven months previously. But this was a well-worn path and all of the road-side views seemed so familiar.

The two Severn Bridges from the ridge of high land just before we joined the M4 at Tormarton. The ski slope at Gloucester. The abbey at Tewkesbury and the Malvern Hills in the distance. After a stop for food at McStrensham, Parky and PD washed things down with some breakfast ciders. “Autumn In The Neighbourhood” – a China Crisis album from 2015 – was given a spin. Parky and I had seen the band in Bristol on the Friday. It would be another weekend devoted to music and football. We neared Birmingham and there were more familiar markers. The floodlights of The Hawthorns. The Bescot Stadium. There were stretches of reduced speed limits between Birmingham and Manchester. Another stop at Stafford Services and Jake treated us to a round of bacon butties. We flew past Stoke and hit the flat lands of Cheshire, passing close to the site near Middlewich where the helicopter returning south from Burnden Park perished in 1996. Outside the skies were mainly clear. It looked a decent day, but we were cocooned in a warm car. We feared the worst. We climbed over the Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal and the Pennines were easily visible ahead. Winter Hill at Bolton and the memories of an early-evening game at the Reebok Stadium in April 2005. The Heinz factory at Wigan. The road flattened out again, but then climbed and I spotted Blackpool Tower on the horizon to the west. The visibility was stunning. On the M65, high over Blackburn, the view was spectacular. The hills of the Lake District in the distance and the Forest of Bowland. The trees turning from shades of green to the wilder colours of autumn. Darwen Tower high on the hills to the south. And then the approach into Burnley. The bleak moorlands in the distance. The grey terraced houses. Occasional chimney stacks standing proud as a last lingering testament of a more prosperous time. The sunlight catching the rounded towers. Light and dark. Ancient and modern. A town trying its best to adapt. A quintessential Northern town. A town that loves its football.

“Smallest town or city to ever house Football League Champions, Jake.” It was his first visit. If I was honest, I wanted to wax lyrical about how happy I was to be back in one of the wilder outposts of our travels this season. Here was a “proper” football town, something that Bournemouth and Brighton could never claim.

I was parked up outside the modern curves of the town’s bus station at about 11am. It was my fourth visit to Turf Moor for a Chelsea match. It was fantastic to be back.

Outside, the weather wasn’t so severe as we had all expected. We were impressed with the nearby display at the town’s war memorial; a riot of red poppies and white crosses. It was a short, but brisk, walk to Turf Moor. On a sign depicting Yorkshire Street, there was a Huddersfield Town sticker. On the bridge carrying a canal over Yorkshire Street, the colours of Burnley were sprayed, as if marking territory. The roadside pubs warned “home fans only.” A couple of grafters were selling badges, hats and scarves. Several local shops had claret and blue signage. Everything chimed football, and Burnley Football Club seemed at the centre of everything. For a town of less than 80,000 to support its football team to the tune of 20,000 every two weeks is a highly commendable feat.

There was a strict search outside the away turnstiles. Alas, my camera was not allowed inside and so I was forced to make use of my camera phone.

We had plenty of time to kill, and so we spent the time chatting to a cast of what seemed to be thousands. Familiar faces everywhere. There was a nice pre-match buzz. The team news filtered through.

Arrizabalaga.

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso.

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley.

Pedro – Morata – Willian.

Unlike in previous visits when I was positioned way down and almost pitch-level, here I was about halfway back. A different viewpoint allowed me to see the high moorland behind the stand to my right and beyond the stand at the other end of the ground. Turf Moor is a mix of ancient stands with wooden seats bolted to concrete risers – the old stand to my right had no more than twenty rows – and two newer, but blander, stands. The away stand is cramped but atmospheric. I remember it from the ‘seventies in the days of Steve Kindon, Dave Thomas and Leighton James.

The troops arrived and settled, but nobody sat the entire game. Everyone seemed dressed for the occasion. Puffa jackets, warm tops, ski hats, gloves, Aquascutum scarves wrapped high around the neck.

I looked over at the moors in the distance and my mind whirled back in time. Just after the completion of the Second World War, my mother spent a week in Burnley at the house of a friend that she met while working the land in Sussex. I can’t begin to think how different Burnley must have seemed to my mother, born and raised in a bucolic Somerset village.

The harsh accents. The terraced streets. The mill-workers. The industry. The hustle and bustle. The grey drabness of post-war austerity. The same bleak moors overhead. I looked to my right.

“Wonder if my mother ever set eyes on that exact piece of moorland?”

Muriel, Mum’s friend, would marry Joe Chadwick and they would go onto run a B&B in Blackpool, and we stayed there once or twice in the ‘sixties. I remember seeing Muriel when she visited a mutual friend in Frome in the summer of 1979. The lives of Muriel and Joe are now lost in time – I am sure they did not have any children – but they are remembered every time I revisit Burnley.

The teams entered the pitch from the corner to my left. I was aware that a line of servicemen had positioned themselves alongside the pitch. Although Remembrance Sunday would not take place for a fortnight, here was Burnley Football Club’s ceremony.

But first an announcement about the tragedy at Leicester.

So sad,

The teams stood at the centre-circle.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning.

We will remember them.”

Parky and I repeated the last line.

“We will remember them.”

The “Last Post” was played. There was complete silence. It was awfully poignant.

In the stands, the weather seemed OK. Cold but not uncomfortably so.

Chelsea – in the lovely yellow and blue – went through their pre-match rituals of hugging and embracing. I spotted a chest bump between David Luiz and Toni Rudiger. The team spirit looked exceptional.

The game began.

Alvaro Morata was the only outfield Chelsea player wearing gloves.

Insert comment here.

In the first ten minutes or so, it was the home team – claret and sky blue shirts, pristine white shorts and socks – who dominated. They had obviously been told to “get in among them” and we were decidedly off the pace. For all of their possession, though, we managed to limit them to few chances. We slowly managed to get hold of the ball. On twelve minutes, the game’s first real chance came our way. A cross from N’Golo Kante found Ross Barkley, and his shot bounced high off the turf towards Alvaro Morata, loitering in front of goal. He diverted the ball towards the goal only for Joe Hart to arch himself up and to his left and he tipped it over. It was a great reaction save.

We traded efforts. A Brady shot wide. A Willian shot at Hart.

On twenty minutes, a fine pass from Alvaro Morata resulted in Willian guiding a low shot against the far post.

The home supporters sharing our stand were making quite a din; not surprisingly songs about “Bastard Rovers” dominated.

On twenty-two minutes, we worked the ball quickly through our midfield – everyone took a touch – and the ball ended up at the feet of Ross Barkley, who played a perfectly-weighted ball into space for Morata. A clip past Hart and we were one-up.

“GET IN.”

I was just so relieved that our much-maligned striker had scored.

I remembered the equally exquisite pass from Cesc Fabregas to Andre Schurrle on the opening day of 2014/15 – from almost the same piece of terra firma – and there was a warm glow.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

Chances were again exchanged. A Tarkowski header over. Another Willian shot, just wide.

On the half-hour, Pedro left the pitch in some discomfort, and was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

On the car ride up in the morning, we had mentioned the thousands of FIFA nerds who must have ran off to their game consoles to play Ruben upfront after his three-goal haul against the Byelorussians on Thursday. The clamour for him to displace either Alvaro or Olivier up front as the sole attacker seemed to reach ridiculous levels. Not sure how that would work to be honest. There is more to playing as a sole striker against defenders in the most competitive league in world football than ghosting in from deeper positions against European lightweights. I was never close to being sold on that idea.

An excellent move from our penalty box, which included a forceful run at the Burnley defence from Marcos Alonso, resulted in Morata poking a ball past the post. A lofted pass found the same striker then shot straight at Hart – in the thick of it now – and we were well on top. The home fans had quietened from their opening volley in the first quarter of the game. The mood at half-time in the crowded concourse was upbeat. It had, thus far, been a great game of football.

Joe Hart, the poor bugger, was met by his own personal song which was bellowed at him by the Chelsea faithful.

“England’s number five. England’s, England’s number five.”

Ten minutes into the second-half, Willian made space and crossed from the right, but a Morata header at the near post narrowly missed the framework.

Two minutes later, a sublime move developed with rapid passes twixt Jorginho and Kante. The ball was played to Barkley, who looked up and planted a left-footed strike into the Burnley goal, with Hart unable to get close. The ball zipped low across the goal and the net rippled a few yards in front of us all.

“GET IN.”

His knee-slide was euphoric.

“Bloody superb goal.”

The away end was enjoying this. Smiles all around.

As I have mentioned before, I’m not a fan of the “viva Ross Barkley” chant though. How a song pandering to hackneyed Scouse stereotypes is going to make a Scouser feel loved is beyond me.

Just after Barkley’s goal, a trademark Willian wiggle to his right allowed him enough time and space to pick his spot, again down low to Hart’s left, in the far corner. We whooped with joy once again. More fantastic celebrations. Poor Joe Hart was undone again.

My mate Mark, a Blackburn Rovers supporter, texted me :

“Make it seven.”

We were coasting now and playing some bloody lovely stuff. There was a moment which stood out for me; the tall and strong Loftus-Cheek turning and running at pace in a central position, right at the heart of the Burnley defence, with the equally strong and robust Barkley alongside him. We may not see this too often under this new manager – his mantra is pass and move – but it was a breath-taking spectacle.

Two English midfield lions running at a defence.

Long may it continue.

Olivier Giroud replaced Alvaro Morata. There was applause for both. The Frenchman soon went close.

Cesc Fabregas replaced Jorginho and tried to spot a run from Andre Schurrle.

“Not this time, Cesc.”

Hart made a stunning save from a Giroud, palming his fierce header from inside the six-yard box onto the bar. Loftus-Cheek hit the side netting. It was all Chelsea and we did not let up. In the closing minutes of the game, a run from David Luiz – who had headed away many a Burnley cross in his own half – found Marcos Alonso, who adeptly back-heeled the ball into the path of Loftus-Cheek. Our Ruben smashed it home.

Burnley 0 Chelsea 4.

Just beautiful.

We bounced out of the ground, and there was such a positive vibe.

“Loved that. Great performance.”

I retrieved my camera, met up with the lads, and then we trotted back to the car, alongside fans of both sides. Many thousands of the home supporters had left before the final whistle. On Yorkshire Street, I narrowly avoided stepping into several dollops of police horseshit.

“Weirdest game of hopscotch I ever played.”

We edged out of Burnley town centre and I slowly began my return trip home. We were on our way by 4.15pm, soon zooming along, and down, the M65. As I headed west, the white steel roof supports – looking very European – of Deepdale could be seen in the distance.

If you know where to look, there is football everywhere.

After stopping at Stafford at our favourite Chinese restaurant on our football travels – where we bumped into three other match-going Chelsea supporters, much to our mutual amusement – I kept driving on and on, before eventually getting home at 11pm.

6am to 11pm.

It had been a long old day, but what an enjoyable long old day.

Thanks Chelsea.

 

 

Tales From Europe Lite

Chelsea vs. BATE Borisov : 25 October 2018.

I will be perfectly honest. Throughout the day at work, I continued to be underwhelmed about the thought of the evening game against BATE Borisov from Belarus in the Europa League. I had never ever thought about not going. But as the day dragged on, I almost found myself questioning why I had decided to go. Over the last twenty years or so, I have missed some home games; many through work, a few because I was on holiday, one or two because of inclement weather and a few because I needed to take extra care of my mother. There have hardly been any when I simply could not be bothered. One work colleague – Terry, a Liverpool fan, he has seen them play a few times – wondered if I sensed a feeling of guilt if I was to miss a game, a home game especially.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

Maybe one day I will book a session on a psychiatrist’s couch – maybe for ninety minutes, how appropriate – to see what has caused this feeling.

I’ll report back on the findings.

I left work at 3pm, which meant there was time for a bite to eat with fellow-Chucklers PD and Lord Parkins in the pub opposite. We were joined by local Chelsea season-ticket holder Sir Les, who we last saw at Southampton away. PD drove us up to London. There was the usual snarl of traffic approaching London and we swung in to our parking place at about 6.45pm.

Talk of the match ahead was the briefest-ever.

“Should win easily.”

“Play Morata. He will surely get his confidence back if he bangs in a few goals.”

“Virtually guarantee qualification if we win tonight.”

And that was that.

This has been a near perfect group really; an easily-winnable selection of games, and an intriguing trio of cities to visit. As far as Europa League groups go – by far the second-best UEFA competition – it was good enough for me. A group of four letter words and our good old CFC.

BATE.

PAOK.

VIDI.

We hoped that Chelsea would not be making us utter more four letter words during the imminent game.

In “The Goose” – two more pints of Peroni – there was a pleasant surprise. We had been chatting at the bar, occasionally looking over at the televised Sporting vs. Arsenal game (ah, memories of a near perfect trip to Lisbon, how can it be over four years ago?), and I was aware that a couple of Chelsea fans were sat close by. After a while, I looked down and realised that one of them was Glenn aka Leggo (or Lego, it was never fully explained) who I used to sit with in The Benches from 1984 to 1987. I had not seen him for ages; I have a vague recollection of seeing him walking down Vanston Place on the day we were given the league trophy against Charlton Athletic in 2005. But not since. He explained that reluctantly he gave up his East Upper season ticket seat back in 1999 and when he said “I’ve missed it all” I really felt for him. He goes to Bedford Town these days, though he is still obviously part of the Chelsea Nation. It was a real joy to see him again, though. I showed him the photograph from our “Benches 1984” reunion before the Leicester City game at the start of this year. Leggo used to go home and away back in the ‘eighties. I used to see him at every home game and at most of the away games that I attended. I remember seeing him at Ashton Gate at a friendly in 1984. Infamously, at a pre-season game at Plymouth Argyle in around 1988, he was set upon by some home fans and ended up with a broken leg.

It was just great to see him again.

The team news came through.

Arrizabalaga.

Zappacosta – Cahill – Christensen – Emerson.

Loftus-Cheek – Fabregas – Kovacic.

Willian – Giroud – Pedro.

The pub was busy enough and it felt like there would be a decent enough crowd once more. The game had been advertised as a sell-out but I was aware that there were a few spares floating around. The ticket price of £20 across the board had obviously enticed many. During half-term, there would surely be a few youngsters dotted around Stamford Bridge.

I had foolishly guessed that around a thousand visitors from Belarus would be present. Once inside the stadium, I was way off. There were Chelsea in the entirety of the Shed Upper with only around one hundred and fifty away fans in the lower corner.

“Possibly the smallest away support I have ever seen at Chelsea.”

And then I remembered back to December 1984 and a similar number with Stoke City.

The place filled up. There were very few empty seats around me. And, as promised, Brad from New York was close by with his father, the both of them relishing the chance to see Chelsea play for the second time in six days on his father’s first-ever visit to England. But for all of the Europa League logos and associated nonsense, to me the game felt very much like “Europe Lite” and the atmosphere, as good a barometer as any, never really got going in either the pre-match or the game that followed.

Over in the away corner, there seemed to be just as many stewards and people working in the refreshment area as fans.

“Bloody hell, I think we’ve made too much borscht.”

Before the game, a Matthew Harding flag was passed over the heads of those below me in the lower tier. The anniversary of his passing was during the week.

The game began with Chelsea attacking The Shed.

Only a minute or so had passed when Davide Zappacosta created some space with a burst which enabled him to deliver a low cross into the box. Ruben Loftus-Cheek was on hand and perfectly placed to slam the ball home with a natural and clean strike. Over he went to Parkyville to celebrate.

We had, bizarrely, been unable to win our first two Europa League games by a solitary goal. With an early goal, I had thoughts of a thumping for our current opponents.

There was a shot from Willian was deflected over after he cut in from the left.

Soon after, on eight minutes, a Willian corner was aimed towards the near post and both Loftus-Cheek and Olivier Giroud both went for the ball. It was our Ruben who was able to poke it home. Off he went to Parkyville once more. We were coasting.

Alvaro Morata, watching Ruben score two in under ten minutes, must have been wondering about the futility of life itself.

A few more chances came our way; Pedro, Cahill, Christensen.

Mateo Kovacic continued to impress both Alan and myself.

“You know what player he reminds me of?” said Alan.

“Go on, mate.”

“Mickey Hazard.”

“Yeah, I can see that.”

“With the long sleeves, and the way he keeps the ball.”

I thought back to our first Hazard, who I personally loved seeing at Chelsea, despite his Tottenham past. I thought back to seeing him play. I remembered how he used to run with his arms straight and low, keeping his balance as he ran. I saw similarities with Kovacic.

A few more chances; Kovacic, Loftus-Cheek.

There were a few chants, as well as chances, for our Ruben throughout the night.

The basic “Ruben, Ruben, Ruben” was hardly original but the other one was even worse.

“He’s one of our own, he’s one of our own, Loftus-Cheek, he’s one of our own.”

Nah, not for me. A blatant copy of the Kane song.

Hearing the syllables stretched – “Loftus- Chee-eeek” – was torture.

Not good enough.

Just before the break, a spectacular scissor kick from Willian was so high of the target that it almost hit the police surveillance studio hanging from The Shed roof, and a couple of us signaled a cricketing “six.”

If felt like we were trying to gild the lily at times, but we were well on top. Despite us winning, the atmosphere had been deathly quiet.

“Europe Lite” indeed.

At the half-time break, we dreamed of further goals.

Not long into the second-half, Loftus-Cheek pushed the ball out to Pedro, whose run was blocked, but Loftus-Cheek was able to steer the ball which nicely broke to him in at the far post. It was a fine goal, the best of the three, but all three were pretty decent.

With that Alvaro Morata booked ninety-minutes with a sports psychologist.

Down below, Cesc Fabregas lifted the hat-trickster up and the Stamford Bridge crown cheered.

Victor Moses replaced Willian, and then proceeded to frustrate many with his heavy touches.

Soon after, it dawned on us all that former Arsenal player Aleksander Hleb had been playing for BATE; we only realised this when he was substituted.

Shots from Willian and Zappacosta.

Then, Callum Hudso-Odoi took over from Pedro.

The last time we had two players with double-barreled names was when we were graced with the services of Peter Rhoades-Brown and Alan Mayes-Ohbollocks.

Giroud’s shot was saved after being set up by an unconvincing dribble from Moses.

With ten minutes or so remaining, we conceded a poor goal when a long. Low cross from a free-kick out wide on our right avoided everyone; Rios dabbed it in, and the Stamford Bridge groaned. His blindside run was not spotted by anyone. The tiny band of away supporters were heard for the very first time.

“…mmm, I know our support has again been pretty shite again this evening, but at least we didn’t get out sung by the away fans.”

Things got a little nervy, and Alan was convinced that we would let in a second goal. As the clock ticked, a strong run from Loftus-Cheek into the BATE box did not result in his fourth of the night.

At the final whistle, I was already packed up and on my way out of the seats. I looked over to the players on the pitch and then headed out of the exit.

“Let’s get home.”