Tales From One Billy Gilmour And One Decent Scouser

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 3 March 2020.

In the pubs beforehand, there was not one Chelsea fan that I spoke to who thought that we would be victorious in the game with Liverpool.

“They’re so far ahead in the league that they can afford to play their first team, rather than rest players.”

“They’re light years ahead of us.”

“We’ll be lucky to get naught.”

“Expectation level is nine below zero.”

“Could be another Bayern.”

But complete and total negativity was not the order of the evening.

There were a couple of pluses.

In “The Goose”, Parky, PD and I chatted to some of the lads from our home area. Does anyone recollect the story of Sir Les, and a few others, getting stuck in a lift before a home game before Christmas? They were stuck in there for virtually the entire first-half. Well, I am pleased to report that Chelsea rewarded these fans with a corporate style package for the Everton home game which is coming up in Sunday.

Well done Chelsea Football Club.

There was also some good work from the club regarding the pricing of this FA Cup fifth round tie with Liverpool. Initially, as with previous seasons, it was announced that all FA Cup ties would be priced at £30. When Liverpool came out of the hat, the club decided to up the tickets to £40. There was an immediate uproar and the Chelsea Supporters Trust, alongside the original Supporters Club I believe, soon petitioned the club to re-think. Within twenty-four hours, there was a statement to the effect of the club getting it wrong and the price returning to the £30 level.

Well done again Chelsea Football Club.

We made our way down to Simmons to chat with the others. It wasn’t as busy as I had expected. As I waited for friends to arrive, I spotted that the 1970 replay – often a favourite at “Simmons” – was being replayed on the TV screens. It is still the fifth most viewed TV programme in the UK, ever.

That’s right. Ever.

During the few days leading up to the evening’s game, it dawned on me that the last time we played Liverpool at home in the cup was the famous 1997 game. Many of my generation mention the 1978 third round win – 4-2 – when an average Chelsea side surprisingly defeated the then European Champions. I was not at that game, but can remember the joy of hearing about our win as the news came through on the TV. Next up, in the story of games in the cup at Stamford Bridge between the two teams, was the equally memorable 2-0 win in 1982. Chelsea were a Second Division team that season, and Liverpool were again European Champions. I was at that one. And I have detailed that game on here before. It was seismic. What an afternoon.

Next up was a fourth round tie in 1985/86 that we lost 2-1 which is probably best remembered for Kerry Dixon injuring himself and, probably, not quite being the same player ever again.

It’s worth noting that we haven’t played at Anfield in the FA Cup for decades.

The last time was in 1966.

Then came the fourth round tie on Sunday 26 January 1997.

It is a game that evokes wonderful memories among most Chelsea supporters; it was a real “coming of age” moment for club, team and fans alike. Chelsea, under new manager Ruud Gullit, were still finding our collective feet under the talisman and Dutch legend. During the league in 1996/97, we had lost 5-1 at Anfield in the autumn but a Roberto di Matteo strike gave us a deserved 1-0 on New Year’s Day. In October we had suffered the sadness of the loss of Matthew Harding. We were winning more than we were losing, but by no great margin. Liverpool were a better team than us in 1996/97. They would go on to finish fourth, we were to finish sixth. We had easily defeated First Division West Brom at home in the third round.

We – Glenn, my mate Russ and little old me – watched the Liverpool game unfold from the last few rows of the Matthew Harding Lower. It was a terrible view to be honest, the overhang meant that we watched the game through a letterbox.

Chelsea started with Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli up front. We played with Scott Minto and Dan Petrescu as wing backs. Liverpool fielded players such as David James, Jamie Redknapp, John Barnes, Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore. They were a tough team. But, with us having the home advantage, it was evenly matched. Or so we thought. With Liverpool attacking the temporary seats in The Shed in the first-half they soon galloped to a 2-0 lead after just twenty-one minutes. I think it was McManaman who missed an easy chance to make it 3-0. Chelsea were out of it, and the atmosphere in Stamford Bridge had quietened severely after the early promise.

It was as flat as I had ever experienced.

At half-time, Gullit replaced Scott Minto with Mark Hughes, went to a 4/3/3 formation, and Sparky proved to be the catalyst that sparked a revolution. He turned and smashed a long range effort in on fifty-minutes.

“Game on.”

Then Gianfranco Zola slammed in an equaliser eight minutes later.

The atmosphere was red hot by then.

Despite the gate being just 27,950, the place was booming.

Gianluca Vialli scored on sixty-three and seventy-six minutes – euphoria – and we ended up as 4-2 winners. Liverpool, their fans all along the East Lower in those days, did not know what had hit them.

I would later watch that second-half on grainy VHS again and again and again.

Up until that point, my two favourite Chelsea games – out of the then total of two hundred and sixty-five – were the FA Cup games in 1982 and 1997.

Lovely memories.

That win over Liverpool in 1997 gave us confidence and with further games against Leicester City at home (I went), Pompey away (I couldn’t get tickets) and Wimbledon in the semi-final at Highbury (I was there) we marched triumphantly towards Wembley for the 1997 FA Cup Final with Middlesbrough. And through it all, Matthew Harding’s presence was with us all.

Heady and emotional moments?

You bet.

My friend John, a lecturer at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, arrived at about 6.30pm. I last saw him at Ann Arbor for the Real Madrid game in 2016. He was visiting London, Liverpool and Manchester for a few days with some students who were on a “Soccer: Media, Art & Society” course that would go towards their various degrees.

“Soccer: Media, Art & Society.”

Yeah, I know. What a course. Where can I sign up? It sure beat the “Cultural Geography” and “Transport Geography” sub-courses I took at North Staffs Poly from 1984 to 1987.

John was keen for me to talk to his six students – three lads, three lasses – for a few minutes about football, its heady sub-culture, its fads and fancies. I enjoyed it, though I can’t see myself as a lecturer in the near future, not without a bit more practice anyway, and not without a script.

I briefly mentioned the story of my grandfather attending a match at Stamford Bridge, and how I genuinely think it could well have been the 1920 FA Cup Final, one hundred years ago this year.

I hoped that the atmosphere would be good for them on this night in SW6. I always remember a League Cup semi-final in 2015 between the two teams and the noise was sensational all night. I hoped for a repeat. Apart from John, who comes over every season, this was the students’ first ever game at The Bridge.

At about 7.15pm, I downed the last of my two small bottles of “Staropramen” and headed off to Stamford Bridge.

There were six thousand Scousers in the area, though I was yet to see one of them. I guess they were doing their drinking in the West End and Earl’s Court.

Alan and I soon realised that the place was taking an age to fill up. There were yawning gaps everywhere. Even with ten minutes to go, we wondered if the paranoia over the Corona Virus had deterred many from travelling into The Smoke.

“Chelsea will be the death of me.”

The team news came through.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Zouma – Alonso

Gilmour – Kovacic – Barkley

Willian – Giroud – Pedro

So, Kepa back in, an enforced change in personnel, a rather aged front three, and a start for young Billy Gilmour.

Like the 1997 game, this was live on BBC1.

I spoke to a few friends close by in that period before the pre-match rituals kick in and, again, nobody was hopeful.

Nobody.

Within the last few minutes, the place suddenly filled to capacity.

There was more 2020-style pre-match nonsense. The lights dimmed, almost darkness, fireworks, the teams appeared.

Blues vs. Reds.

South vs. North.

Chelsea vs. Liverpool.

(In the slightly off-kilter parlance of the modern day: “Chels vs. Red Scouse.”)

As the floodlights returned to full strength, I spotted white socks. As the tracksuit tops were taken off, I spotted the dogs’ dinner of the normal 2019/20 kit. Where was the promised 1970 kit, the beautifully understated blue with yellow trim?

Where the fuck was it?

My heart sank.

It seems that Chelsea Football Club – two steps forward, one step back – had been less than truthful about our 1970 kit.

Who thought that we would be wearing it throughout this season’s FA Cup campaign?

Everyone?

Yeah, thought so.

What a fucking disgrace.

So, this season – three kits, and one kit to be worn just once.

I only bought the shorts, and I am yet to wear them, but I felt for those significant others who bought the range. They shot off the shelves, didn’t they?

And, the sad thing is, I was really looking forward to seeing us in that kit once again.

I vented on “Facebook.”

And here are a few responses :

Michelle : So wrong I’m sure it was marketed as an FA Cup kit ! The club have taken the fans for mugs yet again,

Lottinho : Absolute joke. Pathetic on the club. Strictly for £££.

Karn : It’s bollocks. Still, glad I bought it though – lovely shirt.

Alex : As predictable as it is disappointing

Kelvin : So cynical how Chelsea avoided making that clear when they were marketing it.

Jake :  All about the money, mate. That was a class kit

Lee : Utter bastards

The game began.

Liverpool were an instant reminder of another team in all red from last Tuesday. I silently shuddered. The away team, with a heady handful of familiar players but also a couple of unfamiliar ones, began the livelier and moved the ball in and around our defence. There was an early, relatively easy, save from Kepa following a strike from Sadio Mane. But at the other end, The Shed, Willian drove at the defence and forced a good save from Adrian in front of the Liverpool hordes.

They had their usual assortment of flags, including one of Bill Shankly who – I cannot lie – I used to love to hear talk about football was I was a mere sprog.

The game heated up.

A Willian corner from our left was glanced on my Dave, and the ball spun wide. Only on the TV replay were we able to see how close both Olivier Giroud and Antonio Rudiger got to adding a decisive touch.

Liverpool, despite their large numbers, were relatively quiet and it surprised me.

We enjoyed a great little spell. Ross Barkley thumped centrally at goal, but Adrian saved.

A lovely flowing move, instigated by the poise of young Billy Gilmour, cruising through a pack of red shirts before coolly releasing Pedro, resulted in a fierce shot from Willian, but Adrian was again able to save well.

“Gilmour. Excellent there, Al.”

This was turning, early, into some game. It had all of our full and undivided attention. I wondered what John was making of it in the West Upper.

After twelve minutes, I leaned over towards PD.

“Open game, innit?”

There was a reassuring nod of agreement from him and also Alan alongside me.

Barely after me commenting, the game stepped up a gear. Attempting to play the ball out of defence, we put pressure on the wall of red. Barkley forced a slip and the ball fell to Willian. His optimistic shot flew at Adrian, but whereas just thirty seconds before he had saved well, this time the ball bounced off him, and flew into the goal.

GET IN.

Willian danced away and in front of the livid Liverpudlians.

Livid Liverpudlians. Is there any other type?

Stamford Bridge was bouncing. What joy.

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

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

Could we make it three out of three in the FA Cup against reigning European Champions?

1978, 1982 and 2020?

We were going to give it our best shot by the looks of it.

The game continued to thrill, and we could – ever so slightly – begin to enjoy it all with that slender lead.

Gilmour, getting into it, tackling hard, kept the ball alive and helped win a free-kick after a foul on Ross Barkley. A fine effort from Marcos Alonso sailed narrowly wide.

On around twenty minutes, pure pinball in the Chelsea box as shot after shot tested Kepa. A double save, a save, another save. All within a few seconds. It was dramatic and glorious stuff, though in the light of day two of the shots were hit straight at him.

What a game.

Mane, the biggest Liverpool threat by some margin, wriggled through our defence like a little eel and forced another excellent save from Kepa who was, dramatically, the centre of attention. Williams made a poor effort to connect with the rebounded shot. We had survived another scare.

A lot of the standard Chelsea and Liverpool songs were getting aired towards the end of the first-period and it absolutely added to the occasion.

“Fuck off Chelsea FC, you ain’t got no history.”

“Steve Gerrard Gerrard, he slipped on his fucking arse.”

There was gutsy defending from our players, and this was turning into a rather old-fashioned game of football with a lovely balance of cut and thrust, raw energy and honest attacks. Pedro was as involved as anyone, and after a few early miss-fires, was causing all sorts of problems. Giroud was a one man battling-ram. But the undoubted star of the first-half was young Billy Gilmour. Billy the kid was everywhere. An absolutely stunning performance.

Mateo Kovacic was injured, to be replaced on forty-two minutes by the fresh legs of Mason Mount.

Liverpool, after a string start, were visibly starting to become less of a threat.

As the first-half came to a close, I had a question for Alan.

“Wasn’t Lalana in the Teletubbies”?

At the break, all was well with the world. Previously worried faces had changed. There was a lovely buzz in the air.

On Saturday 24 April 1920, on this very same site, if not this very same stadium – but certainly one which was in situ for the 1982 game, those lovely packed terraces – my grandfather stood on the great slug of the West terrace with his old school friend Ted Knapton alongside him. It was half-time, and the score between the two teams – Aston Villa, who he favoured, and Huddersfield Town – was 0-0. It had been an exhilarating game of football for my grandfather, though the spectacle of seeing fifty-thousand spectators in one sports ground had proved to be the one abiding memory that he would take away with him.

Fifty thousand people.

And virtually all were men, and so many had fought in the Great War.

My grandfather was twenty-five years old. He silently gazed out at the main stand on the far side, the open terraces behind each goal, and looked behind him at row after row of fellows in caps and hats, some with the colourful favours of the two competing teams. A claret and blue rosette here. A light blue hat there.

Fifty-thousand men.

It struck home.

My grandfather had just that week spotted a local girl, a few years younger than him, who was beginning work in the manor house of his home village. She was a young cook, with a lovely smile, and had caught his eye.

My grandfather was a rather quiet man. He looked out at all those faces. He did not speak to his friend Ted, but he – at Stamford Bridge on Cup Final day 1920 – had decided that the stadium, indeed the whole of England was full of men, and the thought of one of them asking the young cook out before he had a chance to utter a shy “hello” ate away at him.

He had survived the Great War. He lived in a great village and now this great spectacle had stirred him in a way that he had not expected.

“You had better get your act together, Ted Draper. On Monday at lunch time, I think I will ask Blanche if she would like to accompany her to next weekend’s village dance. I can’t be second in that race.”

Almost one hundred years later, the players of Chelsea and Liverpool reappeared on the pitch. Could our lively form continue into the second-half? We bloody hoped so, but there was another enforced change early on. Willian, injured – oh our bloody injury list – was replaced by Jorginho, and there was a shift of Mason Mount out wide.

The game continued with the same noisy support cascading down from the stands. The Matthew Harding seemed particularly up for it, no doubt aided by some interlopers from The Shed who had been displaced by the northern hordes. The game had lost little of its attraction in the first half. On the hour, a fine cross field ball from Dave opened up the Liverpool defence but Mount was scythed down. I honestly thought that the position of the resulting free-kick would be too central, too flat. But to my surprise, Mason dug one out. Sadly, the fine effort bounced on top of Adrian’s bar.

So close.

On the hour, too, a loud and beautiful chant was aired for the very first time.

“One Billy Gilmour. There’s only one Billy Gilmour.”

Just three minutes later, with Chelsea defending, Pedro – bless him – nipped in to win the ball and Giroud jumped so well to move it on. The ball fell at the feet of Ross Barkley, still in his own half. I reached for my camera.

“Here we go.”

I sensed a huge chance.

Barkley ran on, and on, and with Pedro in acres to his right, I half-expected a slide rule pass. But he kept running, despite being chased by two defenders, and with one recovering defender goal side. He kept going. A shimmy, a shot – CLICK.

Adrian was beaten.

A goal.

Oh get in you bastard.

I was full of smiles, but clicked away. I had only recently mentioned to Alan that “I bet Barkley would love to score tonight.”

His slide was euphoric.

Up the fucking Toffees, up the fucking Chelsea.

Chelsea 2 Liverpool 0.

Just beautiful. The goal had come at just the right time. Liverpool had been clawing their way back into it a little.

Another lovely chant was bellowed from the lungs of the Matthew Harding Lower.

“One decent Scouser. There’s only one decent Scouser. One decent Scouser.”

Bliss.

Incredibly, from a Liverpool corner, Rudiger headed strongly out and Pedro – bless him – picked up the pieces, and his little legs went into overdrive. I reached for my camera once more.

“Here we go.”

His legs pumped away, but as he ate up the ground I sensed he was tiring. His shot, after a long run, lacked placement and Adrian easily saved.

In the last segment of the match, with Liverpool fading, Giroud capped a very fine performance indeed by forcing himself to reach a lovely pass from Dave, strongly fighting off challenges, but Adrian was able to touch the effort onto the bar and down.

Liverpool were chasing a lost cause now. Late substitutions Firmino and Salah added nothing.

It was Chelsea who finished the stronger, with shots from Mount and Giroud continuing to test Adrian. Gilmour had a quieter second-half, but one dribble late on made us all so happy.

“One Billy Gilmour.”

Indeed.

Reece James replaced the fantastic Giroud in the final few minutes.

The final whistle signalled the end.

“One Step Beyond.”

It had been a game for the ages.

As we bundled down the steps, and onto the Fulham Road, everything was fine in our world.

Into the last eight we went.

Yet another FA Cup appearance? It’s a possibility.

In 1920, the FA Cup Final stayed at 0-0, and Aston Villa – much to my grandfather’s approval – won 1-0 in extra-time with a goal from Billy Kirton.

However, as my dear grandfather Ted Draper travelled back by train with his pal that evening, back to beautiful and bucolic Somerset, he had another match on his mind.

On the Monday, he met with his new love, and nervously chatted.

He would later marry Blanche in the summer of 1925. My mother Esme would arrive in 1930, and the rest, as they say in Liverpool, is history.

Tales From Bad Saturday

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 30 March 2013.

It was somewhat typical in this strangest of seasons that as soon as Chelsea hit a little bit of form – a life-affirming draw at Old Trafford plus home wins over Steaua and West Ham at The Bridge – we were then hit with a dreaded international break. Our momentum was stalled, therefore, for a full two weeks. The England games came and went with little interest from myself. I lasted around twenty-five minutes in each game before falling to sleep. I was last genuinely captivated by the national team in 1996, maybe 1998. After forty years of heartbreak – I remember the Poland game at Wembley in 1973 – I just can’t get excited by the national team these days. My views on the pitiful atmosphere at Wembley for England games have been voiced before, so I won’t bore anyone further.

But, strangely, the visit to St. Mary’s for the second time in 2013 didn’t excite me too much. Maybe my momentum was upset too. I knew one thing; Southampton would prove a bigger threat to Chelsea Football Club than in the F.A. Cup game in January when many of their first team were rested.

I set off for Hampshire at 10.45am. The weather was grey and miserable. It was colder than in January. I had purchased the new Depeche Mode album in town an hour previously and as I reversed out of my drive, the first track boomed throughout the car.

“Welcome To my World.”

How very apt. Despite my work and my home life, despite my friends and travels, my other hobbies and past times, this indeed was my life…setting off on a Saturday morning, coffee to hand, music blaring, heading off to watch my boyhood idols once more. This would be game number 939.

“Welcome To My World Part 939.”

I struggled to muster enthusiasm for the day ahead, though, as I headed through Frome and Warminster and down through the thatched-roof villages on the A36. I breathed a sigh of relief when, not far from home, I saw that Southampton was just 48 miles away. It is easily my nearest game. I had a little chuckle to myself when I found myself indicating to turn left just after passing through Warminster.

Not today, Chris. There’s no trip to London today, mate. No need to turn left and head across Salisbury Plain today. It was if my car was thinking for me. I was on automatic pilot. I had to manually intervene –

“Keep going, straight ahead, Southampton is this way.”

Oh boy.

As Salisbury neared, I struggled again with the rest of the season. It was still a bloody mess. Our schedule of games, which are stretching out until May, are never-ending. Some games have been re-arranged, some games are squashed together – three in six days coming up – and some games are waiting to happen. An F.A. Cup semi-final? Maybe. A Europa league semi-final? Maybe. An F.A. Cup final? Maybe. A Europa League final? Maybe. Two trips abroad to plan and finance? Maybe. And then, ludicrously, there was the sudden announcement of the jaunt to the USA for the second time this season. For someone who likes to plan ahead, my brain was frazzled in attempting to evaluate it all. To be honest, I simply couldn’t justify a trip over to the US in May, especially since it might follow a game in Amsterdam so quickly. But then…the ultimate twist of the knife…there were growing rumours of a second game in New York, my second-home, the home of the Yankees. For me to miss out on a Chelsea game in New York just seemed so wrong.

Fcuk it.

To be honest, I hoped that the drive down to Southampton – me alone with my thoughts – might allow me the requisite personal time to evaluate if I could stomach my second trip to the US in the same footballing season.

I failed. It was never going to be that easy. Watch this space.

I was enjoying the album – a few tracks were immediately memorable. The CD began its second “loop” as I hit Salisbury.

I hardly ever listen to the CIA Podcast, but I remembered Campy imitating me a few weeks back –

“…yeah, so there I was…on the road to yet anuver away game following Chowlsea and would you Adam and Eve it, this Depeche Mode song came on and…well…it got me finking…about that Chowlsea game in 1995…I remember like it was yesterday…”

Welcome To My Tales, Danny.

The traffic stalled, as it always does, through the medieval city of Salisbury.

Slow.

At least it allowed me to admire the lovely view of Salisbury Cathedral as I edged along the elevated city-by pass. Now I’m no history buff. Geography is more my game. But I guess the two subjects are indelibly interlinked. My father was the history man. He used to read masses of books on the kings and the queens of England, the archbishops and the cardinals, the cavaliers and the roundheads, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Jarrow Marchers, the Magna Carta and the Doomsday Book, Judge Jeffreys and the Bloody Assizes. We used to visit Salisbury quite often in my childhood – gammon and pineapple at the Berni Inn, what a treat – and we would always visit the magnificent cathedral which dates from the thirteenth century. The cathedral has a huge knave, but its spire is the tallest in England. It still takes my breath away to this day. As I slowly drove past, I was in awe of its magnificence.

Depeche Mode were playing still as I drove on. I’m always reminded of one of my favourite ever days when I listen to their music. Right after our game in Palo Alto in 2007, I drove to Las Vegas in one session and Depeche Mode provided the musical backdrop as I drove past Bakersfield and Barstow and through the magnificent scenery approaching Vegas. It was if I was in my own personal Anton Corbijn video.

Heaven.

Southampton was reached at about 12.45pm. I again parked at the train station. Outside, the weather was indeed cold. I buttoned up my Barbour and donned my Yankee cap. The boys were in “Yates” a mere fifteen minutes away. The site of Southampton’s lovely old stadium, The Dell, was around ten minutes to the north. I only ever visited The Dell on three occasions with Chelsea – 1994 to 1996 – and I miss it. It was their home from 1897 to 2001. It was an idiosyncratic and cosy old place. Peter Osgood, of course, graced it with his presence after he left Chelsea in 1974. I remember when it was terraced on four sides and gates of around 30,000 squeezed in, but it only held 15,000 towards the end of its existence.

One of my friends, Neil, grew up with the Southampton and England player Matthew Le Tissier on the island of Guernsey. For the two games in 1996, Neil was able to get tickets for a few of us, in the home seats, from Matthew. For the game in February 1996, Neil arranged for us to meet Matt briefly before the game. We met up in a nearby pub, and then walked over to the match day office. The Dell was very compact, squashed between four roads in the shape of a parallelogram; that is, the two end stands were oddly shaped triangles. Everything about the place was quaint, quintessentially English – and cramped.

We met Matt Le Tissier and posed for a few photographs in a ridiculously small hallway. There were four of us; Neil, his brother Daryl, plus Glenn and myself. It was great to see Neil just chatting away to his old school friend. We looked on in awe. The late Chelsea director Matthew Harding always had a massive crush on Le Tissier and tried desperately to get him to sign for us in around that time. It was rumoured that he always carried a Le Tissier sticker in his wallet. Although a boyhood Spurs fan, Le Tissier loved life at Southampton and was not tempted. He played his entire at Southampton and credit to him for it. ( I would strongly advise any new Chelsea fans to Google his goals; you won’t be disappointed.) This story took an inevitable twist, however, when the Chelsea team suddenly appeared in this most ridiculously small hallway. Before we knew it, we were rubbing shoulders with our heroes as they made their way into the changing rooms. Fair credit to the players, though – we were still able to get our photographs taken with a few of them. They took the time for us and we really appreciated it.

There are photographs of us with Dennis Wise, John Spencer, David Lee and – wait for it – Ruud Gullit.

Chelsea went on to win 3-2, with Wisey scoring two and – if memory serves – Ruud getting the winner after a lovely break with the scores level. I think we tried to restrain ourselves when the winner went in – we were amongst home supporters remember – but I’m sure we gloriously failed. One of the loveliest away games of that Glenn Hoddle era was completed when the four of us stayed the night at Ron Harris’ hotel and bar in Warminster.

Lovely times.

“Yates” was heaving with Chelsea – on two floors – and I eventually found Alan and Gary, along with a gaggle of other away day regulars. There was time for just one pint. I spoke with friends about the priorities for the season. I again uttered disdain that Chelsea has prioritised finishing fourth – and maybe elimination from next year’s Champions League after a single tie – ahead of winning the F.A. Cup Final in May.

Yes…I know…”must get Champions League football, must generate money, must tempt quality new players, must get Champions League football, must generate money, must tempt quality new players…”

That’s all well and good. But I don’t see “Finishing Fourth” in our honours section yet.

Of course, joking aside, this clamour for a Champions League spot every season is not the fault of Chelsea Football Club but the fault of UEFA and their buggering-up of the old established European Cup which served everyone one so well from 1956 to 1992.

And I hate them for it.

We made our way to St. Mary’s, no more than a twenty-minute walk to our east. After Saints moved out of The Dell in 2001, the first game in the league at St. Mary’s was the visit of Chelsea. Surrounded by several gasometers, industrial units and a large cement works, the setting is far from salubrious and far from the residential charm of The Dell.

I was in the seats in good time. I popped down to take several shots of the team warming up. I chatted briefly to Gill and Graeme who were as non-plussed about the game in Missouri as me.

“Foreign tours should be at the start of the season when everyone is fresh and eager and full of enthusiasm.”

I spotted that Fernando Torres was wearing a face-mask. A chap next to me was moaning.

“Bloody ridiculous. You wouldn’t get Peter Osgood wearing a face mask.”

He clearly had it in for Torres, but I am afraid I was not quick-witted enough to mutter –

“Or Demba Ba.”

The team was announced and there were mutters of discontent. There were wholesale changes, but we heard rumours that Mata was ill. We always miss his intelligent play. Hazard – the form player – was on the side-lines. Elsewhere, in came Moses and Marin.

The M and M boys.

Maris and Mantle, they ain’t.

“Well, Benitez – prepare yourself for some flak if we mess this up.”

The game, in the end, was a shocker.

Southampton – just as they did in the cup game in January – were faster out of the traps and their players were evidently more at ease than us. Their passing and movement was causing our defence early problems, with the central pairing of John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic seemingly ill-prepared for the raids of Lambert and Rodriguez. Two early blocks from Ivanovic kept us in the game, but the portents were not good.

Midway through the first-period, disaster struck. A fine move from Southampton found Rodriguez breaking into the box. I almost looked away, so convinced was I that he would score. He neatly tucked the ball past Petr Cech and the home crowd erupted. This was no more than the home team deserved. We hoped for an F.A. Cup style recovery. Our play suggested that we were in for a tougher battle this time around, though.

Then, a Moses cross was deflected for a corner. The diminutive Marin sent over a cross. I snapped a photograph of John Terry rising unhindered and heading easily into the Southampton goal. The defence was nowhere. The simplicity of the goal astounded me.

Soft touch.

Our relief was short-lived. Two minutes later, a Ricky Lambert free-kick from around twenty-five yards out was sent spinning and curving over the wall and past a late dive from Cech. I unfortunately captured that on film, too.

Bugger.

The mood in the Chelsea end was of growing annoyance with the team and manager alike. I chatted to Alan about the resting of players ahead of Monday’s big game with United. Surely Benitez’ resting of Hazard and Cole – the obvious examples – suggested that he was thinking ahead to Monday. Of course, some fans want the best team to play in every game, others claim rotation is the key to success.

What is my opinion? I don’t know. Give me another forty years to work it out and I’ll tell you.

After a few barbed exchanges between the two sets of supporters based on our winning of the Champions League, a Southampton chant made me chuckle amongst the gloom.

“The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy – You’ll Never Win That.”

The first-half finished with Southampton back on top and causing us many headaches. Torres – apart from having a goal called back for offside – wasn’t in the game. Oscar was nowhere to be seen. Marin ran into defenders. The play completely by-passed Frank Lampard. Our defence looked brittle. There were, to sum up, no positives.

During a toilet-break at half time, I heard that the Southampton announcer was barking some nonsense about fans racing from one penalty box to the other in a half-time contest. I groaned. During the race, the theme to the Benny Hill Show was played.

How bloody apt.

Our players had been running around like comedians all game.

The second-half was similarly dire. Our play was slow and our movement poor. At last a touch of skill from Torres, who danced past several challenges, but the move then broke down. A pass from Azpilicueta set up Moses, who blasted over.

On the hour, Benitez changed it, replacing Marin with Hazard. We were surprised that Oscar stayed on to be honest; such was his lack of involvement. A few Southampton chances came and went. Despite a few strong blocks, Ivanovic seemed constantly out of position. Even Terry looked troubled. Azpilicueta often found himself in a good position but his crossing was awful. Ryan Bertrand often looked lost. The Chelsea support was quiet. I haven’t sung so little at an away game for ages.

I commented to Al, with a pained expression on my face –

“There’s nobody talking to each other, nobody encouraging each other.”

With the Chelsea support getting ever more frustrated, Hazard at last showed his class, breaking into the box and flashing the ball across the box where a ball back to Lampard was the better option. Ramires added a little more thrust in place of Mikel. We wanted Ba to enter the game so that Benitez could play Torres and Ba together. Instead, his last roll of the dice was Benayoun for the lacklustre Oscar. Benayoun is not the worst player to play for Chelsea – I’ll admit he was a fair player in the past – but he is clearly disliked with a passion by the Chelsea support. One burst from him almost silenced the critics.

I was watching the clock continually and hoped for salvation. A Lampard free-kick flew over the bar. He had been awful all day long. The miss did not surprise me.

The whistle blew. In truth, a draw would have been unfair on Southampton.

We were dire and we knew it.

The fans knew it.

The players knew it.

What a bloody season.

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Tales From More Wednesday Night Blues

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 16 January 2013.

In light of our previous domestic midweek home games over the past two months – Fulham, QPR and Swansea – there was every reason for me to dread the game with newly-promoted Southampton. Not so much for the possible result; more so the cancerous atmosphere which was likely to envelope Stamford Bridge should a victory not be forthcoming.

Strong words? That’s what it has felt like to me.

My mate Paul collected me outside The Pheasant pub in Chippenham, just opposite my place of work for the past ten years. Both lie on the A4, the old Roman road which linked Aquae Sulis (Bath) with Londinium (London) all those centuries ago. Our route east on the M4 – the A4’s twentieth century equivalent – allowed us to chat about the current state of health of our team and club. The usual stuff; I won’t bore you with details. You can surely guess the majority of it.

Paul has just started a new business venture as a chauffeur. He is self-employed and therefore has a little more control on the amount of free-time he can enjoy. He already is going to the Swansea game in the Capital One Cup and has his sights on more away games during the rest of the season. He told me a beautiful story about his time in Cornwall when he again worked as a chauffeur. He was asked to meet the Gallagher brothers – Noel and Liam – at Par train station and take them to a hotel. The brothers famously dislike each other intensely – hate is such a horrible word – and Paul had to make two trips as neither brother wanted to share a cab with the other.

It was a welcome break for me not having to worry about the traffic on our approach into Londinium. He had already driven up to Heathrow earlier in the day – he was getting used to the M4, no doubt. I already knew that Paul was raised in the locale of Chelsea Football Club. As we turned off the A4 at Hammersmith, he was on auto pilot. Then, he regaled me with a few snippets of his early years in Fulham which fascinated me. We drove past the Pear Tree pub, where Parky, Russell and Jesus began our pub-crawl against Manchester United just under a year ago, and informed us that he had his first ever pint in that very same pub. There was more to come. His first school was just around the corner. His first few years were spent in a flat in one of the Clement Atlee Court buildings which tower over the intersection of the North End Road and Lillee Road. I’d imagine that a large proportion of The Goose’s clientele still resides in those hundreds of densely-packed flats. This housing estate – ground-zero, Fulham – houses over 800 flats and it’s fifteen or so buildings are named after former Labour politicians; Manny Shinwell, Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson for example. Paul remembers the 1967 F.A. Cup Final when it seemed that every balcony was draped with Chelsea favours. It was predominantly Chelsea despite being geographically in central Fulham. As we buttoned our jackets and attempted to counter the early-evening chill, he told me – mischievously – that most of the Chelsea North Stand originated within that half-a-square mile of terra firma.

“One armed Babs was from here…”

Only time for one pint of Peroni – yet again damn it – in The Goose and a little bit of chat with the boys. The Goose seemed busy, but there was talk of the game not selling out. I wasn’t surprised. This game, remember, was postponed in mid-December in order for us to participate in the World Club Championships – ah, Tokyo! – and had only been re-arranged a couple of weeks previous. Talk was of the Brentford away game and the Swansea cup game. There was minimal chat about Pep Guardiola’s move to Bayern Munich.

Southampton. What to say? Any other games from the past which provide me with any special memories? Maybe a couple.

It is a sad irony that the one player who more than any other was responsible for my Chelsea allegiance – Peter Osgood – departed from Stamford Bridge a matter of a few short weeks before my very first Chelsea game in March 1974. I enjoyed my first visit to SW6 – that is beyond question – but looking back, how perfect it would have been to see Ossie play in that inaugural game.

Stay still, my beating heart.

Ossie, of course, moved to Southampton. It is an irony that Saints were actually relegated in the May of that year – along with…whisper it…Manchester United – and so Peter Osgood played second division football in 1974-1975 and 1975-1976. After relegation in 1975, Chelsea joined Southampton in the second tier. As soon as the league fixtures were announced for the 1975-1976 season, there was one game I wanted to attend.

Saturday 13 March 1976 : Chelsea vs. Southampton.

The return of The King.

Sadly, I don’t remember too much about this game. I recollect that we had to collect our tickets from the box office and I remember that former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson, who was by then working for BBC TV, was in front of us. I guess he was waiting for his press pass. Strangely, the Chelsea fans ignored him. Somewhere I still have a grainy photograph of the young Chelsea captain Ray Wilkins leaning forward in the centre-circle to shake hands with the referee at the start of proceedings. I have, sadly, no memory of Peter Osgood’s play on that day almost 37 years ago, but I believe that I am correct in saying that there was a little bit of animosity towards him from The Shed during the game and he responded by flicking a V sign at them. My vague memory of the day is being churned-up seeing him playing against us. The game ended 1-1. Chelsea’s new number nine Jock Finnieston was our scorer.

In September 1995 – God, it seems like yesterday – we played a league game against Southampton and the day is rich with memories. Firstly, this was the game that the club chose to celebrate the club’s 90th anniversary. Before the game, Alan, Glenn and I spent an enjoyable time in “Drake’s” meeting some of the club’s former players and managers. “Drakes” was located on two tiers in the north-east corner of the Matthew Harding. During its first few years, only Chelsea Pitch Owners were allowed inside; it was a pleasant way to spend a pre-match, in fact. It was our normal pre-match venue in 1994 and 1995. We used to have a meal and a few pints in there. It was surprisingly under-utilised. Chelsea opened it up for season ticket holders in around 1997 and it tended to get rammed. On that day in 1995, I remember having my photograph taken with John Neal and Ian McNeil, though it pained me to see that they seemed to be ostracised by the other invited guests, who were mainly from the Sexton era. John Neal was a lovely quiet man. It’s hard to believe he was a football manager.

Out on the pitch, Chelsea walloped a reasonably good Saints team 3-0. We (Daryl, Alan, Glenn and yours truly ) had partial season tickets up in the East stand in 1995-1996. The games involved were the 8 or so “B” games and represented a nice cost-saving. It turned out to be the pre-curser to season tickets for all four of us in 1997. Two things stick in my mind about the day. The game marked Ruud Gullit’s first-ever goal in Chelsea blue, a lovely volley at the North Stand after a flowing move. Oh, how we celebrated that one. The other scorers were Frank Sinclair and Mark Hughes. All three goals were scored late in the game. I also remember a moment down below me in the second half when Ruud Gullit so scared the Southampton defender Francis Benali that Benali didn’t bother marking Gullit as he toyed with the ball and simply raced back ten yards in a position to tackle him again a few seconds later. Gullit was a magical player for us in that season. I can remember the buzz that we felt as a club when first Gullit and then Hughes signed for us. I can even remember where I was when I heard Ruud was signing for Chelsea, my Chelsea, the greatest under-achievers of all time…driving in my Fiat Uno in Westbury, about to turn into Eden Vale Road.

That season was a fantastic time; Chelsea were moving forward under Glenn Hoddle, playing with wing backs Petrescu and Phelan, Gullit launching balls towards Hughes and John Spencer, ably supported by Gavin and Wisey. Great days, great days. In that season, we reached an F.A. Cup semi-final and finished in eleventh place, but it was a brilliant season in many respects.

The club was growing, step by step, and the players and supporters were together.

Yes, dear reader…we finished in eleventh place but we had a great time.

Later that evening, I remember that Glenn and I called back at Ron Harris’ pub in Warminster for our usual couple of drinks. Ron had been at the game as a guest of the club; in those days, his visits were rare. It would only be a couple of months after that game that Glenn and I would be back at the same pub for an evening with Peter Osgood (when I got to meet him face to face for the first time), on a night when Tommy Langley also called by.

Drinking with Peter Osgood.

Ah, those nights were the times of our lives.

Inside the stadium, it was clear that we were in for our first sub-capacity league game for a while. The tell-tale sign was the hundreds of unoccupied seats in the top corners of the East Upper (always the last to sell) and, although it was difficult to discern, I also guessed a similar lack of bodies in the upper levels of the West Upper to my right.

It was also clear that many of the “sold” seats throughout the stadium – one here, two there, four there, five there – were unoccupied. The buyers obviously had other things planned for the night of Wednesday 16 January 2013 and the tourists were in no mood to take up the slack. This “non-appearance” of ticket-buyers is a strange conundrum, but is not reflected in the actual gates reported by the club. Chelsea always reports tickets sold, not bums-on-seats. Sometimes, the shortfall is astounding. I remember someone close to the club telling me that a midweek league game with Portsmouth a few seasons back was reported as being watched by 40,000, but the number of spectators in the stadium was only 32,000

That’s 8,000 lost opportunities for beers, food and merchandise.

And we need to move into a 60,000 capacity stadium do we, Mr. Buck and Mr. Gourlay?

Over in the far corner, even the Saints fans seemed underwhelmed. It took ages for their section to fill, and their number only totalled around 1,000 of the 1,400 seats allotted to them.

I will not take too long to talk about the game. Even in the first-half, winning 2-0, it wasn’t too special. I thought that Southampton seemed to want to attack us a little more than most teams and I relished the space which might – just might – be created in their defence. However, the away team only rarely threatened Petr Cech’s goal during that first period. Our play was again laboured and there were the usual tons of possession with no end product. The game cried out for an occasional early pass to Demba Ba, who was continually level with the last man and looking for the vaguest hint of a well-hit through ball. Alan and myself discussed how ridiculously one-footed Juan Mata is, almost spinning himself in a complete circle to get the ball onto his left foot. Ashley Cole is another one. I’m no genius, but even I can pass with my “other” foot. Demba Ba’s goal was well-taken; a lovely swivel and a firm volley which found the bottom corner of the goal. Ba sunk to his knees in front of The Shed and appeared to kiss the turf. Strange – haven’t seen that before. Maybe he was looking for his contact lenses.

Alan and I attempted a rural Hampshire accent – for the expats, think John Arlott, the great cricket commentator – as we burred;

“They’ll have to come at us nowwwwww….”

“Come on my little di’mons.”

A Ramires effort hit the angle and the rebound was volleyed home by Eden Hazard who rushed off to celebrate in front of the Family Section.

These goals apart though, there was little reason to cheer. David Luiz, now in defence again alongside Cahill, threaded a couple of nice balls through, but the play was as dire as the atmosphere, or lack of it. Despite leading 2-0, the crowd probably reached an all-time low in terms of noise.

The decisive move of the night took place when Nigel Adkins replaced Jay Rodriguez with Ricky Lambert, a journeyman striker finally rewarded with football in the top division after a nomasic existence. Within three minutes, a cross was headed home emphatically by Lambert and it was a case of “game on.”

Our play seemed very lethargic with no bite or aggression in midfield. The midfield five were having poor games, none more so than Oscar and Mata. Paul was dismayed with Lampard’s play, though the whole team were underperforming in my eyes.

A great through ball from Mata fell for the in-rushing Ba, but his outstretched boot only resulted in the ball dipping over the bar. A couple of free-kicks from Lamps and Luiz did not trouble Artur Boruc in the Saints’ goal.

Southampton had the bit between their teeth now and Azpilicueta couldn’t handle the pace of Shaw as he broke down the left. From the cross, Puncheon struck low past Petr Cech to equalise. The Saints players ran towards their delirious fans in the south-east corner.

“One Nigel Adkins, there’s only one Nigel Adkins.”

Benitez was forced to make some changes, but like di Matteo before him, chose to do so late on. I haven’t seen much pro-active substitutions from Benitez yet. Torres replaced Lampard.

There was widespread booing, but I am really undecided if this was aimed at Benitez for the removal of Lampard, the arrival of Torres, or just a simple venting of frustration aimed at Benitez, the board, the entire circus.

Under such negative noise, is it any wonder that Chelsea currently play looser and more confidently away from the prickly atmosphere at Stamford Bridge? It took us a whole hour to get a stadium-wide chant going and the place was nervous and full of niggles all night.

I’m not one to instigate chants at home games; from my lofty perch, my voice wouldn’t be met with much of a response from fellow supporters in the upper tier. However, both Alan and I always join in when the more vocal fans in the lower tier “get going.” However, against Southampton these opportunities were very rare. Never have I sung so infrequently.

Oscar went deep, Torres was deployed out wide as a winger. I was hoping for him to form a partnership with Ba to be honest. Torres showed his usual poor ball control of late and was roundly jeered when he sent over a poor cross which missed not only the players huddled in the six-yard box, but the pitch completely, not to mention the strip of asto-turf surrounding it. However, Mata had been equally wasteful throughout the entire evening. A Torres break, nicely set-up by Mata, sadly resulted in a poor shot which did not even trouble Boruc as it whizzed wide of the near post. A late aerial bombardment was repelled – Cahill playing as a Robert Huth style renegade attacker – and we couldn’t score the winner.

More Wednesday night blues.

The boos echoed around the Bridge. Outside, there were all sorts of chatter about our poor form. I’m usually the first to bemoan the fact that spectators waste no time in moaning at the final whistle, but show no real signs of getting behind the team during the game. However, even I joined in on the walk past the Ossie statue.

“…is there any need to play with two defensive midfielders at home? Play 4-4-2, with Torres alongside Ba. Play a flat four in midfield, with full backs doubling up with the wide mid-fielders and attack them down the flanks.”

And there I was, the master tactician, almost making sense.

Further along, just where the spectators empty out into the Fulham Road, a couple of Chelsea fans were trading insults through song and they then squared up to each other like a couple of rutting stags, with one of them disliking the negative shouts aimed at Benitez, and the other standing up for his hatred of the new regime.

“You sayin’ I’m not Chowlsea?”

On the walk back to the car, the air was cold against my cheeks. Paul and I reluctantly discussed the game, but it was all oh-so familiar. It was a draw, but it felt like a defeat. In 1995, we would have shrugged our shoulders, but in 2013 it seemed almost catastrophic. And I am not sure how we have arrived at this juncture in our history – where a home draw is deemed to be absolute failure – but I sure as hell don’t bloody well like it.

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Tales From The Underdogs

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 12 August 2012.

The weather on the oh-so familiar drive up the M5 to Birmingham was horrendous. The near constant rain was painful enough, but the inclement driving conditions resulted in the traffic slowing right down to the speed of a Florent Malouda dribble. As a result of the delays, our pre-game plans of popping into the Crown and Cushion for a couple of pints of Red Stripe were knocked into touch.

I didn’t park up until 12.50pm.

It didn’t seem that long ago that Parky and I had last visited this particular part of Birmingham; the 4-2 win against Aston Villa seemed like yesterday. Ah, a lovely Torres goal too, I seem to remember.

We were parked to the north of Villa Park; the end allocated to the City fans. I expected the area to be inundated with them. To be honest, it was surprisingly quiet. There was a mixture of Chelsea and City fans milling around in the warm drizzle. It soon became apparent that many fans had expected warmer weather. Many were wearing shorts with trainers and plimsolls, with no rain jackets for cover.

It appeared to me that the drizzly conditions had travelled south with the thousands of Mancunians.

It was typical Manchester weather.

As we approached the stadium, we spotted a gaggle of familiar faces sheltering under the slight overhang of the Doug Ellis Stand. It was good to see them all once again. The others were off to sit in the two-tiered Holte End (the home end at the stadium), while I was by myself in the upper tier of the Doug Ellis. Just as I was finding my bearings, none other than Lovejoy walked past. I hadn’t seen him for almost two years. I was wondering if I’d see him at football ever again.

My seat was in the second row from the rear of the upper deck, down at the south end, behind the goal line. It soon became apparent that the 42,000 capacity was not going to be tested on this particular match day. I spotted large gaps in both tiers of the Holte End. Chelsea had been entitled to over 13,000 tickets for this game, but it was clear that we were a few thousand short of that figure. As kick-off approached, there were just as many gaps in the City sections. City had fans on three sides; the main west stand, the north stand and about a quarter of the Doug Ellis.

It was easy for me to think back to the one game that this scenario reminded me of; our 1996 F.A. Cup semi-final against the other Manchester team, in the days when Gullit and Hughes played for us and Cantona and Beckham played for them. I used to love attending F.A. Cup semi-finals en masse at these neutral venues. I loved the idea of 20,000 Chelsea fans taking over large swathes of other clubs’ stadia. And it preserved the thrill of Wembley for the Cup Final itself. How I wish the F.A. would revert to this, but I know it will never happen again.

Chelsea had both tiers of the Holte End for that game and, as luck would have it, our seats were in the very first row of the upper tier. I immediately seized this opportunity and decided to make a banner to hang over the balcony wall.

Over a week, I painstakingly made my “Ruud Boys” banner, featuring the smiling face of our dreadlocked hero who had so thrilled us in his first season.

The Chelsea fans were out in force on that Sunday in the spring of 1996. Our end was festooned with banners, streamers and balloons as the teams entered the pitch. I always remember that the United sections filled up really slowly and I am pretty sure that there were empty seats throughout the game. Just before the break, that man Gullit leapt at a cross and headed us into a lead.

Oh, how we celebrated that one.

Sadly, two defensive errors – and some unfortunate injuries to key players – allowed United to recover and win 2-1. Wembley would have to wait for one more season.

However, the story continues.

The sight of the Chelsea fans packing out the Holte End in a riot of colour must have been spectacular. There are many photographs of us from that day. One in particular was used in two publications.

One photographer down at pitch level took a photo of my Ruud Boys flag and it was used by “Action Images” to illustrate a piece on Chelsea’s influx of foreign players in a copy of “Total Football” later during that year.

It gets better.

The former Wimbledon striker Dean Holdsworth once had an affair with glamour model Lindsey Dawn MacKenzie. At a game at Selhurst Park in the 1996-1997 season, the Chelsea fans were full of rude comments about this romantic liaison. In the “Daily Sport” newspaper – that beacon of journalistic integrity – the following day, there was a photo of Lindsey Dawn MacKenzie (baring all) with a headline to the effect of “How dare Chelsea fans be rude to both Dean and me.”

The editor chose to illustrate her tirade at the Chelsea fans with a picture of some Chelsea fans, set just behind a large photograph of Lindsey Dawn and her quite substantial charms.

The photo that the editor chose was from the Villa Park semi-final. It was the photo of my Ruud Boys flag. Or rather, a close-up photo of Glenn and me (looking, strangely, straight at the camera).

Imagine the scene.

Glenn was sitting with his workmates during a tea break when one of them opened up the middle pages of his “Daily Sport” to exclaim –

“Hey, Glenn – there’s a picture of you and Chris Axon next to Lindsey Dawn MacKenzie here!”

The Chelsea and Manchester City teams entered the arena from that quirky tunnel towards the corner of the main stand. I guess this was a conscious decision by the Villa club, who were lambasted for replacing the much loved Trinity Road stand with a brutal structure, to maintain certain elements of the old stand. The curved panelling of the original Leitch balcony has been replicated, too.

Chelsea were in the royal blue of old, while City wore a new away kit of Torino pomegranate. The guests of honour were the former city winger Mike Summerbee and none other than our very own Ron Harris. I saw Ron sharing a joke with several of the Chelsea players as he was introduced to them.

The game began and it was clear that di Matteo was staying with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1, with Mikel and Lamps in the withdrawn roles, and Ramires out right, Hazard out left, Mata in the middle. With our influx of new players, I wondered if the manager was wondering about testing the old conundrum of whether teams should be system based or player based.

Should the formation dictate which players to use or should the players force the formation? One suspects that the answer, like a lot of things in life, is a muddy compromise.

The rain had ceased and Manchester City created a flurry of early chances. Petr Cech was in the thick of it and was soon covering himself in glory as he repelled several City efforts. With time, though, we began to make inroads as the game progressed. Eden Hazard took a few nice touches, but then drew instant laughter from the City hordes when he cut inside but tripped over his feet as he attempted a back-heel to Ashley Cole. I’m sure we’ve all done that in our time on the football pitch; I know I have.

I must admit, I didn’t know too much about Eden Hazard before we became linked with him. My knowledge of his attributes is due to a typical search on YouTube; I was mightily impressed. I just hoped that there wasn’t another selection of Eden Hazard clips on YouTube involving him falling over himself, clipping balls Gronkjaer-esque into row Z of the stands at Lille, losing possession after one touch, missing clear chances and setting up opponents’ goals with lazy back-passes.

Two chances in quick succession raised our hopes; a flowing move involving Mata and Ramires allowed Fat Frank to shoot straight at the City ‘keeper and then Hazard cut inside before shooting low.

It then occurred to me – in a lovely moment of self-awareness – that after three games of varying involvement, I was now right back in to the football. After the surreal experience in New York, the boozy song-fest of Chester and the docile frustration of Brighton, I was now kicking every ball, making every tackle, shouting words of encouragement and getting more and more involved with every passing minute.

This turned out to be the most important moment of the entire afternoon for me.

There may come a time when I suddenly lose this passion for Chelsea, but I knew at around 2pm at Villa Park that it wouldn’t be this season; European Champions or not, there are still games to attend, games to win and songs to be sung.

“Come On You Blue Boys.”

With the first half coming to a close, we were rewarded for our slight improvement in play with a goal against the general run of play. What a lovely finish from Fernando Torres, who deftly flicked the ball over the ‘keeper from Ramires’ through ball. I celebrated wildly – yes, I was back – and still managed to capture several shots of El Nino reeling away towards the Chelsea fans in the upper deck of the Doug Ellis. Another goal for him at Villa Park. I maintained my proud record of seeing every Fernando Torres goal in the flesh, from Stamford Bridge to Old Trafford to Camp Nou to Villa Park.

I hope that continues.

I spotted Mick and Della a few yards away from me and I walked over to say “hi” just as the Ivanovic tackle happened. My first reaction was that it was a tough decision; replays on the TV in the bar area at half-time suggested that Kevin Friend got it right. Down to ten men, I doubted that we would be able to hold off a physically tough City side. Up front, Tevez and Aguero looked the business.

I had more words with Mick and Della at the break; they had thoroughly enjoyed their time with Ron Harris in New York and it was great to see them once again.

At the start of the second half, Mancunian drizzle and then Mancunian goals. A couple of lax defensive clearances allowed the ball to fall to Kolo Toure. He smashed it goal wards and I was right behind the path of the ball. I said “goal” as soon as it left his foot.

The City fans, who had swelled their numbers considerably during the first-half, now roared. Their version of “Hey Jude” was deafening to be fair. I wondered if there had been traffic problems for the City fans on their trek south down the M6 from Ancoats, Hyde, Droylesden and Longsight.

A sweet strike from Tevez and a flick from Nasri got them singing again. This now looked like “damage limitation” for us. I wanted Friend to blow up straight away. As Daniel Sturridge warmed up, he took tons of abuse from the City fans in the main stand.

“One greedy bastard, there’s only one greedy bastard.”

That’s ironic, eh? Half of City’s team are only there for the sheikh’s millions.

Oh well. It is what it is.

It was sad to hear the Chelsea support so quiet. Even when we were 1-0 up, the noise was no more than a murmur.

Must do better.

I thought back to the game at Yankee Stadium. The only three English shirts I saw at the stadium which were not Chelsea belonged to two Manchester City supporters and one Manchester United fan. I was expecting more to be honest. I was certainly expecting shirts to be worn by a few Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal fans in a sad attempt to wind us up. There is nothing sadder than that, in my opinion. However, the sight of the two City shirts certainly made me double-take; outside of Manchester, sightings are rare. In NYC, I decided to take the “good cop, bad cop” approach.

To City Fan #1 – “You’re at the wrong game mate”

This resulted in the City fan puffing his chest out and giving me a look of aggression.

To City Fan #2 – “Congratulations on the title…at least you’re not a red.”

This resulted in the City fan looking confused and befuddled at my – honest – compliments.

Late on, a Daniel Sturridge shot was only parried by Pantilimon and the other substitute Ryan Bertrand pounced. We roared again. Could we rise up from the dead and snatch a draw? Despite a late charge, including big Pete coming up for a corner, it was not to be.

In truth, City could have scored again at the death but Sergio Aguero screwed the ball wide in front of a virtual open goal. With us a man down throughout the second-half, a 3-2 loss was no big deal. Outside, Parky was sage like and philosophical, sharing the opinion that there were several plus points to take from the game.

With a lot of the City fans still inside, our escape route north and then west to the M6 was clear of traffic and, aided by some classics from the Stranglers, we made good time on the drive south.

Throughout the game, I had soon realised that City were the new target for all clubs in the division this season. They are a formidable team – solid in the right areas, with many attacking options. I also realised that it certainly felt “right” for Chelsea – or at least “my” Chelsea – to be classed as the underdogs once more. I’d guess we are third favourites for the league, behind the two Manchester clubs, but I can deal with that. After all, I dealt with it – and the club certainly dealt with it – against Barca and Bayern.

It’s no big deal. I quite like it. After all, a goal scored by the underdogs is celebrated five times as loudly as a goal by the favourites.

I won’t deny that there are the inevitable concerns about our team at this very moment in time. But let’s give everyone time to adapt to each other, to let the newcomers settle, to give the manager his six months to sort out his formation and his methodology. With the possible triumvirate of Hazard / Mata / Oscar feeding Fernando Torres, we could be in for quite a ride.

The league season is almost upon us.

Wigan awaits.

I’m ready.

Let’s go.

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Tales From Boring, Boring Chelsea

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 14 August 2010.

What a difference a week makes. Last Sunday, I was trying my best to muster up enough enthusiasm for the Community Shield, but – having seen Chelsea in the flesh – my pulse was racing all week. I couldn’t wait another day, in fact.

There aren’t many nicer feelings than leaving work on a Friday evening with a Chelsea game to attend on the Saturday. I’d been pretty dormant all summer but I was “chomping at the bit” to get up to HQ once more, meet my mates and see the boys put on a show.

A 5.30pm kick-off for the league opener against the Boing Boing Baggies meant that I had time to run a few errands in the morning. There was dismal rain and misty, grey skies as I zipped around and about my village and the local town of Frome. The grey weather seemed strange…opening days, even in England, usually take place against a backdrop of clear skies and hot weather. This was more like cricketing weather to be honest, an ironic comment I made to the village shopkeeper, who looked at me with a vacant stare.

Just before I left home to collect Dave at 11am, I noted a few “opening day scorchers” being shown on Sky Sports News and I loved seeing the “Zola flick, Poyet scissorkick” goal from 1999 against Sunderland once again. Of all the goals I have witnessed, this still remains my favourite.

Big Dave works on the roads in one of Frome’s many tarmac gangs and he had just worked a double-shift, finishing at 6.30am He looked tired. The slow journey over to pick up Lord Parky was completed by 11.30am and we were on our way.

West Bromwich Albion, eh? This meant the return of ex-Chelsea players Roberto di Matteo and Eddie Newton, stalwarts in that 1997 F.A.Cup Final team and I was sure we’d give them a good reception. But I was struggling to name many of their players after their single season in the second tier. They are the archetypal yo-yo team of late…or maybe, this should be the “yow yow” team, as in the Black Country greeting

“Am yow alright?”

I drive past The Hawthorns on every single trip I make following Chelsea in the north-west as the stadium is just off the M5 in the heart of the West Midlands. I don’t mind them as it happens…they’re a good honest club. However, unlike Villa, West Brom doesn’t really have support from outside that West Midlands base. In all my life, I can only remember meeting two West Brom fans, one a college friend, one a former boss. There are no Baggies’ fans in Frome, anyway, that’s for sure.

The drive up to London via the M4 was easy, despite some unsettled weather…drizzle one moment, the sun attempting to break through the next. It felt odd getting up to London at 1.30pm – a time that we would normally be settled in The Goose.

Dave shot off for a breakfast and Parky headed into the boozer, but I had an appointment to keep at The Bridge. As I keep statistics of all the Chelsea games I have witnessed, I was well aware that the game against West Brom would put me on 795 games…a holy grail as far as I am concerned, as it matches the momentous total reached by Ron Harris in his playing career. I was hoping to meet up with him in the hotel foyer and get my photo taken.

I raced past the busy fruit and veg stalls on the North End Road, my pace quickening with each step. As I rounded the corner by The Kings Arms ( aka The Slug ) public house, I noted that there were “home fans only” notices on show…a change from last season, when it was the dedicated away pub. I wondered if there would be an option for away fans at Chelsea this season. I noted that the old Fulham Broadway tube station, with that wonderful red brick façade, is now a greengrocers…the “TGI Friday’s” is no more. A shame – I never did pay it a visit.

I quickly ascended the elevator to the first floor of the Copthorne Hotel and there was the familiar smiling face of Ron Harris, holding court in the seated area to the left of reception. I shook hands with Ron and also with Mick the Autograph King, who I bump into a few times each season. It was lovely to see them both. I spent an enjoyable 45 minutes in Ron’s company and Mick was kind enough to take a few photos on my momentous day. I had bought a photo-mount that morning in Frome so that Chopper could sign something for me. It worked a treat. I bought myself a pint of Singha ( our new beer sponsor ) and relaxed, enjoying the laughter, stories and comments about the new season. Kent Blues Gill and Graeme popped over for a few words. We were all excited about the new season – of course! – but I said to Graeme that I wondered if our double success of May would ever be bettered in our Chelsea lives.

I noticed a lovely black-and-white photograph, taken in the mid-sixties, on the wall by the bar. It showed five Chelsea players jogging around the old Stamford Bridge dog-track on a cold winter morning, the pitch and shed terraces covered in fresh snow. Ron Harris, Terry Venables and Eddie Macreadie, plus two other players, were sporting those rather odd striped training shorts which are often seen in photos from that era. It’s a super photo, but it came to life when I saw two of the players holding snowballs, grins on their faces. I wondered if the photographer was the intended recipient.

Lovely stuff.

On the way out of the ground, I noted that the “photo-wall” by the West Stand is no more. I bought a programme and a copy of “CFCUK” and had a brief word with Mark and Dave on the stall. I kept checking my watch and tried to equate what time it would be on a “normal 3pm Saturday.” The home programme this season again contains 76 pages, but is published by a different company than of late. It’s much the same, though – same contents, with a piece by historian Rick Glanvill the highlight. The cover of the programme is an improvement though – nice and clean, less clutter. A photo of JT, stretching for the ball was on the cover, with a blue background. Pretty effective I thought. In the fanzine, I noticed that somebody had penned a brief preview of our first three games under the name Vinci Per No ( sp.) and I immediately realised I should have copyrighted my CIA user id.

Oh well.

I made it into The Goose and it was magical to be back after 14 weeks away. The place was sweaty and noisy, but I edged my way towards our corner, past the bar in the back room. I looked for familiar faces and was not disappointed. Almost the first face I saw was that of Burger, along with Julie and Josh, now residents in the UK, but soon off to relocate in the midlands. Parky had been keeping them occupied with his unique brand of banter, reminiscing in particular about the post-game meal after West Ham in March.

Burger, Julie and Josh are going to be residing in Stafford shortly and this works out perfectly for me as I head past Stafford on my way to many away games. In fact, it reminded me of around ten years ago, when my mate Alan would often get a train to Stafford and I’d pick him up en route to such northern outposts as Bolton, Blackburn and Leeds. It also reminded me of one of the main reasons why I chose nearby Stoke-On-Trent for my college town in 1984…close proximity to many away grounds. I’m just a bit worried that Burger will be calling me “duck” within a month or two.

What else? There were conversations going on all around me and I stopped still for a few seconds, listening to the buzz of voices, interspersed with laughter, the occasional shout, the occasional lull. The Wigan vs. Blackpool game was causing us great yelps of enjoyment and I felt certain that Blackpool’s Golden Mile would be the place to be in the whole of the UK come 10pm. I chatted to Daryl and Neil – we spoke briefly about our plans to commemorate our fiftieth birthdays with a trip to NYC for a Yankees vs. Mets series in 2015. Daryl and myself, the two Yankee fans, have been promising ourselves a trip for years and we finally toasted our plans. I enjoyed more talk of America with Dutch Mick out in the beer garden – we are both enthusiasts of the American Civil War and I needed his advice on visiting Gettysburg. I am off to Philadelphia ( and New York ) in September, but the highlight could well be the visit I have planned to that most momentous of civil war sites.

Parky was chatting to Andy and Les from Trowbridge, friends from way back.

Lacoste Watch

Burger – navy

Andy – brown

Wes from Texas – still with us on his sabbatical – showed up with a college mate from Siberia, both very excited to be witnessing an opening game of the season.

I spent quite a few moments chatting to Andy from Nuneaton. I’ve been mates with Andy since we met out in Prague on the Viktoria Zizkov trip in 1994, though I knew of him by sight from many train trips home to Stoke in the mid-eighties. In reference to Burger’s move to Stafford, Andy spoke about an eventful game involving Stafford Rangers and Nuneaton Borough back in around 1980…not sure about the result, but it seems the Nuneaton boys had the upper hand in a pub before the game. I had to laugh, though, when Andy commented “they looked the part though – they all had wedges.” It seems that the Nuneaton lads were still dressed in bomber jackets and sported skinheads and I could tell Andy was a bit envious.

It was soon time to leave the boozer. Sigh.

Blackpool had won 4-0 and would surely finish the day as league leaders. We made our familiar way to The Bridge, but the heavens opened at 5.10pm and for a few minutes those with jackets ( including myself ) were lording it over those without. As I ascended the stairs to the MHU, the lovely chant of “Chelsea – Champions – Chelsea – Champions – Chelsea – Champions” was heard…one of our staples from the 2005-2007 period. Lovely stuff. Then as I walked in to the seats, with the pitch looking perfect below me, “Blue Is The Colour” was playing on the tannoy. Even better. I shook hands with the familiar faces…Zac, Joe, Tom, Russ, Frank. Great to see everyone again.

I had a quick look around and was dismayed to see hundreds of empty seats in The Shed. I hoped and prayed that they would soon fill up. I spotted an impressive white flag draped over the wall by the southern end of the West Stand.

“Pimlico Blues – We’ll Never Be Mastered.”

Wes was sandwiched between Alan and myself as we awaited the appearance of the teams. I had no problem with Carlo’s starting eleven, but I would have preferred to have seen Ivanovic at right-back ahead of Paolo Ferreira. Zac, however, was far from pleased. Zac always tends to have more grumbles that even the most pessimistic Chelsea fan should be entitled to. In fact, I am convinced that if Ancelotti had personally phoned Zac on the Friday and left the team selection to Zac, he would still moan about the players chosen.

We began well and after only five minutes, with a free-kick just outside the “D”, I sensed a goal. I steadied my camera and snapped as Drogba struck. After a goalmouth melee, Florent Malouda slid the ball in and we were on our way once again. I looked towards Alan and he put his arm around Wes, bent towards him and executed a part-Boomhauer, part-Rhett Butler style “See that, dang, good old, yep – they’ll have to come at us now, you hear.”

I whooped “Come on ma little diamonds”, sounding just a bit like Scarlet O’Hara, but thankfully only Wes and Alan heard me.

I think Wes appreciated it.

However, as is so often the case, a second goal was not immediately forthcoming. In fact, West Brom got into the game and their number 14 was giving Paolo a tough time, attacking him at will. There were the oh-so typical moans and grumbles as we struggled to penetrate. I commented to Wes that it seemed our best chances were through free-kicks only. A Lampard free-kick was saved by Carson, but Malouda headed over. Damn. Just before half-time, Drogba stepped up and as I snapped his shot with my camera, I saw the ball head straight for the defensive wall and I uttered an obscenity. Imagine my surprise when I saw the ball tuck itself into the goal.

“How did that happen?”

Never mind, the all important second goal was scored…a bit like Wigan in May, and we could relax a little. However, the stands were pretty quiet, despite the volumes of lager being imbibed all afternoon. A familiar lament from me, eh?

A real treat at the break – legend Ruud Gullit was introduced to all of the Chelsea faithful and he received a tumultuous reception.

Inspired by his appearance, the PA played The Specials’ “Message To You Rudi.” I looked down to see Burger lip-synching and dancing away like a teenager.

A perfect moment.

Welcome to England, mate.

Soon into the second half, the intermittent rain subsided and we were treated to blue skies and more Chelsea goals. A Drogba stab from close range after a JT header made it 3-0. Then, soon after, the best move the match. Initiated by Mikel, we witnessed a great move down the Chelsea left… Anelka passed sublimely to Ashley Cole who fed Frank to tuck in.

Oh you beauty. It was a lovely move.

“Are we Arsenal in disguise?” I ironically sung to Alan.

We then realised “one more and we’ll go top.”

The ball was worked to Ashley Cole down below me – snap! – and he evaded a rash challenge – snap! – before shifting the ball to Drogba, who moved on to his favourite side before shooting – snap! – and the ball nestled in the goal. Again, I could hardly believe it. This was like Wigan ( or Stoke, or Villa, or Sunderland – take your pick ) all over again.

“Top Of The League – Having A Laugh.”

The last goal – the sixth – from Malouda was just one to savour and politely applaud…this is getting crazy. Soon after, we were awarded a couple of long-distance free-kicks and, each time, we serenaded Alex’ name for him to be chosen…his face was a picture as he grinned from ear to ear.

There were more smiles as we sung “Boring Boring Chelsea.”

By this time, the MHL were getting all the various stands to sing, even the visitors –

“West Brom – Give Us A Song.”

And Roberto di Matteo’s name was sung with gusto as the game came to its conclusion.

Phew.

So, let’s get the calculator out…our last three home games have ended 7-0, 8-0 and 6-0. That’s 21-0.

I think we’d best stick on that.

It took an age to leave London, but once on the trusty M4, both Big Dave and Lord Parky were asleep. I had a slight headache, but was listening to some quiet and evocative music by Japan as I flew past Slough and Reading. I tried to put the game’s events into perspective, but it was too close, too soon. It didn’t in truth, seem like we had been away.

As I headed on into the night, past Swindon, the sky looked dramatic and wild…an orange sunset here, a brilliant white crescent moon there, dark storm clouds to the north, vivid blue above. It was quite a backdrop.

It had been some day at HQ.

Wigan – my away ticket safe in my wallet – next!

Mow That Meadow.

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