Tales From A Night Of Adulation

Chelsea vs. Galatasaray : 18 March 2014.

This was a long day. I was up at 4.45am in order to do a rare 6am to 2pm shift at work. I collected Lord Parky, sorted a few priorities out at home and then set off for London at 4pm. We were beset with the usual traffic problems on nearing London. While others were already enjoying pre-match liveners in The Goose, Lord Parky and his designated driver were battling the M4 motorway. Just after 7pm, we made it into the pub. These midweek jaunts to HQ don’t get any easier. No drinks for me, but I believe Parky wolfed down a couple.

So, was this game all about the returning hero Didier Drogba?

At times, it certainly felt like it.

I tried to focus on the game.

With a little more composure in front of goal out in Istanbul – the story of our season, surely – this Champions League tie would have been over before this second-leg. In truth – although I wasn’t underestimating the threat of Galatasaray, blah, blah, blah – I was positive about our chances. I hadn’t seen too much to worry me in the away leg.

So – Didier Drogba.

What to say? As I have stated before, in many ways I wouldn’t have objected too much if the precious moments of Didier Drogba scoring that header and that penalty in Munich were the last memories that I would have of our former goal scorer and club icon on a football pitch.

What pure moments they were.

As we all know, the Chelsea faithful were given one last chance to see Didier back at his former stomping ground. And that can’t be a bad thing, can it? For those unable to witness our win in Munich live, it would be churlish of anyone to deny them this last chance to say a simple “thank you Didi.” However, as I thought about this game during the preceding few days, I was very aware of Didier’s chequered past in the colours of Chelsea Football Club. For every game where his brutal strength and sheer determination won us countless games, there were games where he sulked and pouted. For every thunderous header, there was the laughable dive after the merest hint of contact. For every smile, there was a scowl. As my mate Daryl said in an exchange towards the end of the 2004-2005 season, “no player has split the Chelsea support over recent years as Didier Drogba.”

And how right he was.

In those first couple of seasons, Drogba was on one hand a laughing stock (a commentator once wondered why a footballer with the physique of a heavyweight boxer could fall to the ground after the slightest of challenges like a ballerina) and on one hand a hero. In those first two years, our number 15 was the conundrum. Then, something happened. From season 2006-2007 on, our number 15 became our number 11 and his attitude visibly improved. The theatrics and the risible play-acting decreased. Instead, all of his energies were channelled towards improving his contribution to the team. The change was magnificent. What was the cause of this? I do not know. However, I have always suspected that John Terry took him out for an evening meal, just the two of them, and a few home truths were shared.

“Didi – you have the chance to be the best striker in world football. You have all the gifts. You have strength, power, speed, touch, energy. Please stop the diving. It is hurting the team. Please stop the histrionics. Please stop the pettiness. Let’s move forward together.”

From 2006-2007, we all noticed a change. The following two years – ironically, with no championships – there was a widening appreciation of Didier. We warmed to him. He gave his all. He became easier to like. Good times.

And then there was Moscow.

Moscow could have been the end of Didier Drogba at Chelsea. I wasn’t the only one who tussled with some mixed up emotions after his selfish implosion against Manchester United in the rain of the Luzhniki Stadium. There were many who wanted to more of him besmirching our name and sabotaging team morale. After John Terry’s penalty miss on that night, one can only wonder what one-to-one chat took place in the changing room that night. Maybe it’s best that we don’t know. With time, Drogba eventually worked his way back into most of our collective hearts. But, no doubt, for some the bridge had been burned. There would be approval of his goals, but no love for the person. Even as recently as the 2011-2012 season, Drogba was serving up a mixed-bag of performances. There was the prima donna one week, the hero the next. There was a general consensus of Drogba being “a big game player.” The Wembley games came and the Wembley goals were scored.

And then there was Munich.

Munich embellished the legend, and maybe the myth, of Drogba. That game alone cemented his place in our history.  Although there were other stellar performances on that momentous night, it was all about Didier.

The equalising header. The foul for the penalty. The match-winning penalty.

His city. His stadium. His cup.

And now it was our chance to say, despite all of his flaws –

“Thank you.”

For those of us who were lucky enough to see the game in Istanbul, we had already experienced that odd sensation of seeing Didier playing against us. And it was strange. To be honest, his performance that night was hardly the stuff of legend; he was kept subdued by our Chelsea defenders. A similar performance at Stamford Bridge would be just fine.

Inside the stadium, it was a riot of colour. The three thousand away fans in the allotted section– brightly clad in Galatasaray orange and red – were surely augmented by thousands of London-based Turks in the home areas. Even before the entrance of the teams, they were bellowing their support. Scarves were lofted – with the names of their two main ultra groups in addition to the team name – and the bouncing began. As is so often the case for European home games, the away fans were going to be as much the focus of my attention as the players on the pitch. We had all been given the usual blue and white flags and these were waved with gusto during “Blue Is The Colour.”  Not by me though; I was too busy pointing my camera through 360 degrees.

The teams entered the pitch. And I have to admit it; all eyes were on Didier. I was happy that I captured the moment that Didier spotted the orange “Drogba Legend” banner, now repositioned in the MHU, and pointed in appreciation. As the teams lined up, the evocative CL anthem echoed around the stadium’s four packed stands. Then, to my left, a new flag…a massive square of royal blue, with the Europa / UEFA Cup picked out in white…it was draped down into the MHL. Then, far away in the opposite corner, the Champions  League / European Cup trophy.

The twin trophies.


I trust that there will be one coming soon to commemorate Athens and Stockholm too.

The holy trinity.

As the game began, I was relaxed. There was no real fear of us exiting from the competition amid scenes of embarrassment and dismay. There were no frayed nerves. After just four minutes, we took the lead. Neat play from Eden Hazard found Oscar and the ball was played in to Samuel Eto’o. Our striker took just one touch before slamming the ball past the Galatasaray ‘keeper Muslera. Eto’o ran off, gleefully smiling, with The Shed in rapture. A few celebratory leaps and he was then mobbed by his team mates.

“Samuel Eto’o, Samuel Eto’o – Hello, Hello.”

We were up 2-1. Surely there was no way that we’d mess this up.

I was very content with our performance as the first-half progressed. We chased loose balls, put our opponents under pressure and moved the ball intelligently. Galatasaray were quiet. As they were attacking the Matthew Harding, that man Drogba came under scrutiny, but his involvement was minimal. An optimistic overhead kick and a skybound free-kick were the sum of his efforts.

A free-kick from the right by Frank Lampard was met by John Terry, whose perfectly-timed run had surprised us all. Sadly his fine volley narrowly flew over the bar. Of all JT’s goals, most have been close headers and prods from inside the six yard box. We await his first screamer.

Just before the break, a corner from Frank Lampard was again met by a free-running John Terry. His header was saved, but Gary Cahill was on hand to smash the ball in to the roof of the net.

2-0 Chelsea.

More celebrations in front of The Shed. Great stuff. We relaxed a little further.

At the break, the much-loved Tore Andre Flo toured the Stamford Bridge pitch and he received a particularly warm reception. His indiscretion of playing a handful of games for Leeds United has been forgotten. It was great to see him again.

As the second-half began, it was the Galatasaray fans who were – sadly – making all of the noise. They were indeed quite a sight. Rhythmic bouncing, shrill whistling, fervent chanting – they had it all. A quite mesmeric run from Eden Hazard, reminiscent of a piss-taking dribble from Pat Nevin in his prime, went on forever, but the final pass to Oscar was ill-judged. His shot was saved. For a while, the Chelsea crowd were quiet. Then, for no apparent reason except for perhaps the humiliation of being out sung yet again, the home support awoke from its stupor and produced an unexpected and very solid display for a good fifteen minute period.

“We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea – and Leicester.

We all follow the Chelsea.

On to victory.”

A Frank Lampard header from an Oscar cross proved to be one of only a few chances that we carved out. I felt that we were playing within ourselves; why not? Galatasaray were clearly one of the poorest teams we had seen in the latter stages of Europe’s biggest prize for some time. The noise still rang out from the home areas.

We sang a very loud “Carefree.”

This was great to hear.

“And it’s super Chelsea.

Super Chelsea F.C.

We’re by far the greatest team.

The world has ever seen.”

This was as loud as I have known it for quite a while. As far as I am concerned, Chelsea can win all of the trophies in the world and we can suck up millions of new fans far and wide, but if we – as Chelsea fans – aren’t rocking Stamford Bridge to its foundations every fucking game, we’ve failed.

More of the same please.

A few late chances came and went. The highlight of the closing stages was an audacious flicked back-heel from Eden Hazard which allowed Fernando Torres, a late substitute, to shoot. Nando’s effort sadly didn’t match the quality of the pass. Hazard was the star of our show once more, but Willian’s drive and energy again warmed me.

Without really being aware of what I was doing, I joined in with a chorus praising Didier Drogba. Old habits die hard, eh? To be truthful, this was as easy a Champions League game as I can remember. At the final whistle, there was a roar, but deep inside I knew that sterner challenges lie ahead.

As Didier Drogba walked over to the Galatasaray fans with a few team mates, I wondered how he would choose to end his night. He walked towards the centre-circle, stopped and applauded those still in the stadium. We repaid him with warm thanks and sang his name one last time.

Within a few short seconds, he had disappeared down the tunnel.

The night was over.


Tales From The Global Game

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 19 January 2014.

During the half-time break at the Hull game on the previous weekend, I stood with my hands in my pockets, far from enamoured by the performance on the pitch of the Chelsea team and certainly unimpressed by the relatively quiet showing from the away supporters. It had been a long drive up to Humberside and I would soon be heading back. Had I really driven all of that way for a pint, a pie and ninety minutes of football? Oh boy. It would be a quick “in and out” mission for sure. I began to wonder if my devotion to all things Chelsea was being tested there and then. Was it starting to wane?

“I should be enjoying this a whole lot more.”

An hour later, with a 2-0 win tucked in our back pockets, things were considerably brighter. However, “half-time at Hull” might be remembered in years to come – or maybe months? – as a defining moment for when I find myself going to less Chelsea games. I know I have touched on this delicate subject before and I am sure I will again.

“Haven’t seen you much this season, Chris? You OK?”

“Yeah, mate. I just decided to cut back a bit.”

“Oh. At least you still go.”

“Yeah. The terminal tipping point will be Game 39.”

Whether this conversation takes place in 2015, in 2016, in 2020 or in 2025 remains to be seen.

Thankfully, the next game for Chelsea Football Club was one of the games of the season, a home match with the champions Manchester United. Surely – surely! – I would be overflowing with enthusiasm for this one?

Parky and I walked into “The Lillee Langtry” at around 1pm. One of the plusses of going to Chelsea is the vast quantity of watering holes which are within walking distance from Stamford Bridge. I also like the fact that supporters can alight at a choice of four – at least – tube stations on match days and still get to the stadium with ease. There are pubs at Fulham Broadway. There are pubs at Parson’s Green. There are pubs at Earl’s Court. There are pubs at West Brompton. The Lily Langtree is one of the latter. I get the impression that more and more Chelsea fans are using West Brompton these days. And, typically, these boozers tend to be frequented by that oft-talked breed of Chelsea fan “the old school” leaving the tourists and the new breed to pay higher prices in the pubs around the ground. Within a hundred yards of the West Brompton station, a little knot of pubs are within easy reach; The Prince Of Wales, The Lillee Langtree, The Atlas and The Imperial. At a push, supporters can also use Barons Court and even South Kensington, embark on glorious pub crawls, and still be in the ground with the minimal difficulty.

Long Tall Pete was enjoying his sixtieth birthday bash with some friends. I was soon telling him that I had very positive vibes about the game. I felt horrible tempting fate, but I told Pete that I fancied some goals being scored in our favour. Pete even dared mention a 6-0 score line to match his birthday. I was caught up in the pre-match optimism too, mentioning a possible repeat of the 5-0 game in 1999.

“I just hope the team aren’t as confident as we are.”

Over-confidence is an unwelcome guest at football, but I was sure that Jose Mourinho would be emphasising the need for his players to expect a dogged fight from Manchester United, despite their patchy form throughout the current season.

Or, in football parlance, they would be “up for it.”

There was a proper mix of supporters in the pub; from a few “faces” from the past to some regular fans, and many were familiar to me. In the mix were two friends from the US; Tuna (Atlanta) and Andy (Los Angeles). It re-emphasised, not that I needed a reminder, of how our support has grown over the past twenty years.  Our support has grown a hundredfold in the internet age and we now boast supporters all over the globe. Another lovely part of supporting Chelsea is the fact that there seems to be no real snobbery about fans from outside London and the south-east. When I first started to attend games in The Shed all those years ago, my accent was often met with a friendly “where you from then, mate?”

When I replied “Somerset” I was always met with a welcoming smile.

Other teams – step forward Liverpool – have supporters who are considerably less welcoming of fans from outside the local area. Talking of which, Manchester United are often mocked for their rather disparate fan base – to put it rather mildly – but most of Europe’s top clubs now have fan bases which extend further than their stadium’s post code. I think what grates, possibly, is the type of foreign fan that England’s top teams attract. Football clubs, in my opinion and those like me, should be for life. Very often, I get the feeling that football clubs are favoured by the more distant fans, without a real understanding of what football in England is all about, and then discarded as frequently as flavour-of-the-month boy bands. Football surely shouldn’t be like that. Pick a team, stick with it. This is not to say that only foreign supporters change teams. There must be hundreds, if not thousands, of Manchester United fans in Cambridge, Uttoxeter, Nantwich, Tenby and Spennymoor who initially used to favour their arch rivals Liverpool in the ‘eighties.

Over in “The Goose” it was frantically busy. I sought respite out in the less-crowded beer garden, where I found a clearly jet-lagged Orlin, newly-arrived from San Francisco, and a few of the Chelsea Bulgaria contingent. What was I saying about our global fan base?

Heading down past the stalls outside the town hall with Tuna, I bumped into Big John. There was only one topic of conversation.

“Have you seen the team?”

There then ensued a short dialogue – with raised eyebrows from myself – which I would imagine was being repeated in Chelsea circles not only in SW6, but throughout London, the south-east, the rest of England, Europe and around the world. Maybe the inhabitants of the European space station circling the Earth were discussing it too.

“No Torres. Eto’o instead.”


“And Ivanovic at right back.”


John had dolloped some of his hard-earned on us to win 4-0. There was, clearly, an air of un-Chelsea like optimism in the air.

There were fond farewells with Andy at the entrance to the stadium and then the quick walk past the Ossie statue with Tuna before we took our seats in the MHU. The United section was full of three thousand reds, but there were only a couple of flags. Soon there would be another, which was held up in protest at the continued presence of the Glazer family at Old Trafford. Foreign ownership has proved to be an almighty gamble for clubs in England, but Lady Luck has given us a heady decade under the ownership of Roman Abramovich since 2003. There have been times of concern – well documented here and elsewhere – but compared to the experience at other clubs we have fared well. Interestingly, though, most United fans that I know – and there are not many – speak of team troubles rather than ownership issues. Maybe the days of the green and gold protest have passed; maybe the United fan base, outside of The Stretford End and the highly politicised match-going hardcore, is largely ambivalent to the presence of their US owners.

Regardless, the United fans were in good voice, as always, as the teams entered the pitch.

The blue/blue/white versus the red/white/black.

What a sight to stir the senses.

As the game began, the two sets of fans were soon singing fractious verse at each other.

United : “Fcuk off Mournho, fcuk off Mourinho.”

Chelsea “ Fcuk off David Moyes…”

To add to the heated atmosphere, referee Phil Dowd gave several decisions to United and the home support all around me were bellowing disapproval.

I quickly remembered a recent article in the excellent “When Saturday Comes” in which a father spoke of his giddiness in taking his six year old son to a historic first-ever game. Very soon into the match, though, the youngster was upset and turned to his dad and asked “why are all these men so angry?” The boy only lasted until half-time. The father, I’d imagine, spent the rest of his day having an earnest and thorough look at his love of the game and whether or not the boy should make a quick return visit. I certainly hope so. At my first game, I don’t remember angry men. Maybe times have changed.

Well, what a start by United. All of that lofty optimism looked like being blown to smithereens as the away team probed our defence, with the tricky new starlet Adnan Januzaj at the heart of their play. The game’s first few chances fell to United. The best chance, by the unliked and loudly booed Ashley Young, was thankfully saved by Peter Cech. The first quarter of an hour belonged to the visitors.

After a couple of Chelsea raids on the United rear-guard, Samuel Eto’o made a run into the final third and, despite Willian being available in an excellent position to his right, the centre forward chose to soldier on alone. He nimbly cut in, deftly dragging the ball on to his left foot, before striking for goal. I noted the slight deflection from a Carrick lunge and watched, disbelieving, as the yellow ball spun up and over the back-peddling De Gea. Yet again, I was right behind the line of the ball.


Despite feeling light headed from my sudden leap, I steadied my camera to catch Eto’o’s lovely run back to the Chelsea bench. The reasons were unclear at the time, but I guessed all would become clear.

Alan and I went all Oasis and did our usual goal routine in the guise of Noel and Liam, fighting back the laughter all the while.

I was frankly amazed that we were ahead. Our goal had come, most definitely, against the run of play.

The jousting continued on the pitch with a couple of chances for each side. I am sure that if Robin Van Persie had been on the pitch, the visitors might well have been drawing at least. A Wellbeck shot was saved by Cech.

Wellbeck is no Van Persie.

Off the pitch, the United fans’ noise was subsiding. How ironic that their “Come on David Moyes, play like Fergie’s Boys” chant failed to get an airing, yet the Chelsea version was now booming around Stamford Bridge.

A dynamic move, full of pace, down the United right pulled their defence apart. Willian and then Hazard moved the ball with utter disrespect for the floundering United players and the ball soon found Eto’o. His high cross was met by an acrobatic leap from Oscar, but the ball was always spinning wide. This was great stuff and the home crowd were purring.

A Luiz free-kick, with the entire stadium on the edge of their seats, came to nothing, but from a corner, Gary Cahill – of all people – played the ball into what is often called “the corridor of uncertainty” and Eto’o was on hand to poke home. I caught the Cahill cross and the Eto’o strike on film. This was turning into a perfect day.


I commented to Tuna – who was getting stuck in and supporting the boys with plenty of aggressive encouragement – that we had rode our luck a little in the first period.

We hoped – we all hoped – for more goals and, let’s admit it, a rout in the second-half.

Within a few minutes of the re-start, a Willian corner. The trusty camera was in position to capture the leap of Gary Cahill and the downward header. The ensuing scramble caught United flat-footed, but that man Samuel Eto’o intuitively smacked the loose ball home with the minimum of fuss.



His beatific sprint and leap down below me was miraculously captured on film too and my camera clicked away, with the noise booming all around me, to capture the hugs from his team mates. The little jig with Willian and Luiz was just fantastic.

Down below me, John had thoughts of a 4-0 win and Pete, in the front row of the Shed Upper, was thinking of the joys of six.

Soon after, a very rare event.

The denizens of the Matthew Harding Upper – west corner – embarked on a loud “One Man Went To Mow” and – get this – many stood up on ten.

This hasn’t happened since…I can’t remember when.

We continued to dominate. Mourinho brought on Mikel for the industrious Oscar. United tested us on a few occasions. As the minutes passed, the euphoria of a possible rout faded. The noise levels declined. It wasn’t on a par with the noise levels of the 1999 game. Even though the stadium only had a capacity of 35,000 at the time, the noise that afternoon was magnificent.

With fifteen minutes to go, substitute Chicarito – yes, him – then pulled a goal back. On previous visits of Manchester United to Chelsea in the ‘nineties, an away goal at The Bridge was usually met by large numbers of United fans ‘getting up’ in the pricier home seats. Year after year, it was a hideous sight. It was a constant reminder of the enormity of United’s fan base. I remember that before the September 1993 game at Stamford Bridge – which we memorably won 1-0 thanks to Gavin Peacock – hundreds and hundreds of United fans were peacefully lead out of The Shed before the game to join the packed legions in the sweeping north terrace. It was a gut-wrenchingly impressive sight. There were thousands of United there that day. Thankfully, there is none of this at Chelsea now. When Chicarito scored, only the 3,000 United fans in the away segment celebrated.

However, for a few minutes thoughts were focussed on the crazy 3-3 game two years ago.

With Jose Mourinho the puppeteer, surely there would be no repeat now?

He pulled more strings, with Fernando Torres replacing Samuel Eto’o, who was given a superb ovation. After his three-goal haul against United, he can bugger up scoring chance after scoring chance and still be a Chelsea favourite. Then, the returning Nemanja Matic replaced the superb Willian.

The United players were beaten. In the game’s dying embers, the captain Vidic was unceremoniously red-carded for a lunge at Hazard.

The crowd roared.

It was going to be a blue day.

At the final whistle, I punched the air.

“See you Sunday, boys.”

After exiting the stadium to the sound of “One Step Beyond” I was soon walking along the Fulham Road. This was a fine Chelsea performance, but one which, at times, was controlled rather than rampant. With the game won at 3-0, there was no mad desire for a cricket score. Maybe that will come when this team has reached full maturity. However, as I continued my walk past the souvenir stalls, the Chelsea fans around me were full of bounce and cheer. I was happy too, of course, but I couldn’t help but think – a la Hull – “shouldn’t I be enjoying this win a whole lot more?”

I then smirked to myself when I realised…”maybe – but it’s only United.”


Tales From Home

Chelsea vs. Cardiff City : 19 October 2013.

The phases of the moon were providing a timetable to this season; another full moon, another home league game. Aston Villa on 21 August, Fulham on 21 September, Cardiff City on 19 October. At this bloody rate, the 2013-2014 season won’t be finished until 2015. It has been an odd first two months of the campaign. There seems to be an odd rhythm to this season and I can’t be the only one who thinks that this one hasn’t really begun yet. Thankfully, the latest – disliked – international break was over and Chelsea, recently competing at four away venues, were now heading home.

Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. 3pm. Saturday.

Just like it always should be.

I didn’t reach the pub until 12.30pm. Parky and I edged our way through the packed bar and eventually ordered two pints of Peroni. There were familiar faces at the bar. After a month’s absence, it was good to be back home. All of my mates were outside in the beer garden; they were eschewing the Newcastle vs. Liverpool game which was being watched half-heartedly by the clientele inside. Within a few minutes of meeting up with Daryl, Alan, Rob and everyone, the rain started. Clearly, there was not room inside for the seventy or so souls in the beer garden, so we stood stoically under the large awnings of the beer garden as the rain sheeted down , nestling pints, shuffling from side to side, maybe like a pack of penguins, keeping warm, on an Antarctic ice field.

“Your turn to stand on the outside, Ed.”

It was a scene which was begging for someone to take a photograph; looking down on the group of Chelsea supporters nestled together as the rain tormented us. For those around the world who mock the miserable weather of England – what? How dare they! – this was a self-deprecating photograph waiting to happen.

“Greetings from England.”

Rob had represented us at the Ian Britton fundraiser in Cheam on the Friday night. If I lived closer, I would have gone. Rob reported back that it was a brilliant night and many of Ian’s team mates attended including Ray Wilkins, Colin Pates, Ray Lewington, Paul Canoville, Tommy Langley, Steve Finnieston and Garry Stanley. After Peter Osgood left Chelsea, Ian Britton was my favourite Chelsea player for years and years. We all loved his energetic style and his cheeky smile. I followed his fortunes after he left us, which included a Scottish Championship medal at Dundee United in 1983, and a goal for Burnley which kept them from relegation out of the Football League in 1987. Meeting him at an old boys’ game at Southampton in 2010 was one of the highlights of recent years. The news that he is battling prostate cancer hit me hard.

We all wish him well.

Talk was of the upcoming away games. Many were heading out to Germany on Monday and Tuesday; the internationalists were buzzing with talk of Dusseldorf, Dortmund, Gelsenkirchen, Cologne and Bochum. I chatted to Andy, boasting a fine new brown Barbour, and Ed about the away game at Newcastle in a few weeks. I am staying overnight in that mythical city on the banks of the Tyne. I have stayed overnight up there for a game on a couple of other occasions – 1997 and 2000 – and am quite giddy with excitement about doing so again in 2013. I’m treating it as a European away.

Andy : “It’s like the wild west, mate. You won’t see anything like it anywhere else in Britain.”

Chris : “Someone punched a police horse after the Sunderland game last season.”

Ed : “A group of us stayed up there a while back. The only town I’ve visited where cab ranks are policed.”

Andy : “Yeah, better get a cab back to your hotel early. You’ll see fights over cabs at 2am.”

Ed : “And the women…”

Chris : “I remember locals wearing black and white kilts up there in 1984.”

Andy : “You know when you look around a bar, late at night, and you see one or two people grimly hanging on to the bar, wavering, clearly pissed out of their heads…in Newcastle, everyone is like that.”

I let my imagination run riot…I pictured a scene, at a Chelsea game in the near future.

“Anyone see much of Chris these days?”

A hushed silence…

“Um…you didn’t hear? Grab yourself a pint mate, have a seat.”

“What happened?”

“Newcastle away.”

“What about it?”

“Well – it’s like this. He was spotted before the game drinking with some locals. Someone said they saw him knocking back some whisky, which he hates. Nobody saw him at the game. Alan reckoned he had a text from him  midway through the game saying he was in the directors box…the story goes that he was mixing with Geordies, one thing lead to another…there was a bet…there was a netball team involved…Mike Ashley’s niece, it got messy…seems he ended up in a casino down by the river late on….for ten minutes, he actually owned Newcastle United Football Club, but Ashley bought it back when Chris wanted to change the team colours to blue and white…with the profit, it seems he ended up buying a house up there…no, actually, three houses…and a cab firm. And a nightclub. And a ship. And a zoo. He tucked Ashley right up.”

Andy and I also spoke about the more subdued Mourinho of 2013, compared to the more bombastic Mourinho of 2004. Maybe – deep down – there is less bravado because, simply, Jose believes that silverware is no certainty in this current campaign.

“Why look like a fool?”

Despite the hooliganism which surrounded the Cardiff game in 2010, I saw no evidence of any anti-social behaviour this time. The police in the four vans at Vanston Place were apparently minding their own business. Thankfully, the rain had stopped on the walk to the ground. I quickly scanned the match programme; again, there is an in-depth article from our glorious, fabled, 1983-1984 campaign. On 15 October 1983 – oh God, over thirty years ago – we played Cardiff City on a wet and windswept afternoon. The game was memorable for me in that it was my first sighting of Pat Nevin in a Chelsea shirt. Pat scored the opening goal and Colin Lee, partnering Kerry Dixon upfront for one of the very last times, scored the second. I can remember the feeling of being under The Shed roof, sheltering again like penguins, on that autumnal day three decades ago like it was yesterday. Ah, memories.

Another Chelsea vs. Cardiff City memory was from October 1976…even further away, yet the reminiscences remain strong. I had travelled up to London with my parents and an uncle. For once, Ian Britton didn’t fill the number seven berth – that position was filled by Brian Bason, remember him?  Stalwarts Ken Swain and Ray Lewington scored as we won 2-1 in front of a healthy 28,409. Lewi didn’t score many, but his goal was a net buster from 30 yards. In those days, I always seemed to manage to choose Chelsea home games that were marred by football hooliganism. Earlier in 1974, there had been trouble at the Spurs home game. Later in 1976-1977, we witnessed untold agro at the Chelsea vs. Millwall game. Then, more of the same at the Chelsea vs. Spurs game in 1978. I think my parents weren’t fazed by it; it never took place in the new East Stand. I can definitely remember punches being thrown at the Cardiff fans as we walked past the old North Stand entrance after the game. I remember my father telling me –

“Always rough, that Cardiff lot.”

Another strong memory was the presence of TV cameras at the Cardiff game in 1976. Ah, the excitement of spotting a huge TV camera – the ones with the cameraman sitting on the back of it, ready to pivot around and follow the action – behind The Shed goal was magical in those days. It meant that the game – the game that I had seen in person – would be shown on TV, usually “The Big Match”, and much chat at school on the Monday would no doubt follow. On one memorable occasion, I even saw myself on TV. What a thrill.

Inside the ground, I met up with Bournemouth Steve, who was sitting alongside Alan, Tom and I. Although Steve isn’t a Chelsea fan, I was pleased to hear him refer to Chelsea as “we” on a number of occasions.

Unlike in 2010 when 6,000 Cardiff fans attended the game, barely 1,500 were present. There was one solitary Welsh flag. A poor show.

After the initial buzz of seeing the team back on home soil for the first time in a month, the atmosphere was typically muted. At least the rain had headed off to cause misery elsewhere. The sun was out. It was a fine day for football.

In 1976 and 1983 – more strong memories – Cardiff played in all yellow due to the colour clash. Due to the ludicrous decision of Malaysian owner Vincent Tan to change the Bluebirds’ colours to red and black in 2012, a change was not required.

Ryan Bertrand was in for the wounded Ashley Cole and Samuel Eto’o was preferred to Fernando Torres. Frank Lampard and Ramires again paired up in the deep-lying midfield positions. It seems to me that Jose likes this pairing. He also prefers Brana to Dave at right back. Elsewhere in the team, there are still question marks. With JT recalled after being ignored by Benitez, Jose seems unable to choose between partnering him with Luiz or Cahill. Does the midfield of Oscar, Hazard and Mata pick itself? Clearly not. Up front, I think that Mourinho favours Torres, but don’t quote me.

Chelsea’s first chance fell to Juan Mata, but Eto’o’s pass was met with an “air shot” from our little number ten; from the follow-up, Branislav Ivanovic blasted over.

My mind was distracted for the Cardiff goal, thinking about 1983 or 1976 maybe, so I only caught the Luiz / Cech “after you Claude” manoeuvre which resulted in Jordon Mutch – who? – being able to chip an effort into our goal.

In the far corner, the Welsh were buoyant :

“One nil to the sheepshaggers.”

Oh boyo.

We were rusty for most of the first-half. John Terry came close with two headers from corners. At the other end, Peter Cech leapt high to turn a Cardiff free-kick past the far post. Apart from a couple of rare excursions into our half, Cardiff offered little. It was a half to forget, though. I spent an inordinate amount of time watching the airplanes on their approach into Heathrow, just like we all did during those grim days in the ‘eighties.

On 32 minutes, I was watching one of the famous Chelsea pigeons swoop through the sky and settle on the north stand roof; I therefore momentarily missed Marshall lose control as Eto’o pounced. I only saw the ball with Eden Hazard – up to then, quite invisible – and wondered what on earth had happened. Then, the disbelief as Eto’o buggered up his chance, to be quickly displaced with relief as Hazard slammed home the loose ball.

I’d missed the build-up to the first two goals, though; not good enough.

Luiz was booked for a silly block; he had endured a poor first-half.

We all had.

There was a treat at half-time. Pat Nevin, my favourite ever Chelsea player by a ridiculously wide margin, was on the pitch with Neil Barnett.

A nice bit of 1983/2013 symmetry Chelsea. Thank you.

There was one of those lame half-time competitions, this time involving various star struck youngsters dribbling and – mainly – scoring past Stamford at the Matthew Harding end. Neil Barnett then demanded that Pat tried his luck; for a few seconds we were transported back in time as Pat dribbled towards goal. Alas, almost typically, his shot was saved.

Don’t worry Pat; at least it wasn’t as bad as that penalty against Manchester City in 1985.

The second-half began and I relied on my mantra of “we always play better attacking our end in the second period” to see us through. I had been cheered by Liverpool’s dropped points at Newcastle, but this was a “must win” for us. Marshall was booked for time-wasting, which had been noted by the referee and home supporters alike. A shot from Eto’o straight at Marshall but other Chelsea chances were rare. Mourinho replaced the subdued Mata with Oscar. Soon after, Torres entered the pitch, replacing Ryan Bertrand.

Jose was clearly going for it, with just three at the back now.

Mourinho was seemingly sent to the stands for an argument with the fourth official; at the time, the reasons were unsure.

After a Lampard corner had been cleared, a pass from Hazard right down below me found Eto’o inside the Cardiff penalty box. He moved his body to the right, caught the defender off balance, and drilled his shot home, low just inside the near post. I caught his exultant sprint, arm-raised Shearer-like, and his jump into the air over in the far corner. At last, a Chelsea striker had scored a league goal for us. Get in you beauty.

Alan, as Tom Jones : “THTCAUN.”

Chris, as Rob Brydon : “COMLD.”


Typical Mourinho now; with a lead, he reverted back to playing four at the back as Dave replaced Eto’o. Although Cardiff substitute Kim ran at the heart of the Chelsea defence, causing Petr Cech to save on a couple of occasions, we increased our lead in the last quarter of an hour.

Firstly there was a gorgeous goal by Oscar. Our Brazilian picked the ball up and went on a little run before chipping an exquisite dipper that just grazed Marshall’s bar before bouncing down and into the net.

Secondly, Eden Hazard danced into the Cardiff box, shooting low. His shot hit Marshall. Just like at Carrow Road, the goalkeeper took the sting out of the shot, but was helpless to stop the ball roll over the line.

I’ll be honest. The 4-1 score hugely flattered us.

However, our record in the league is now a healthy 5-2-1.

We’re in second place.

And we haven’t even “clicked” yet.

Very tidy.


Tales From The Banks Of The Royal Blue Mersey

Everton vs. Chelsea : 14 September 2013.

At last the universally despised international break was over and I had my sight set on a Chelsea away day. Over the last few seasons, I have eventually concluded that a trip to Everton’s Goodison Park is my favourite of them all. As increasing numbers of stadia that I grew up with fall by the wayside – The Dell, The Baseball Ground, Highfield Road, Maine Road, The Victoria Ground, Highbury, Ninian Park – or become modernised, and sanitised – Upton Park, Villa Park, White Hart Lane, St. Andrews – there is one old school stadium that defies logic and continues to shine. I have shared my love of Goodison Park on many occasions before, so without going over old ground – no pun intended – I will only say at this stage that Goodison Park, or as the Old Lady as Evertonians refer to it, was dominating my thoughts as the build-up to our first league game in almost three weeks drew nearer.

In addition to seeing the boys play – oh, how I have missed them – I would be wallowing in my own particular and personal slice of football history once again.

The 5.30pm kick-off allowed me plenty of time to plan my day. The intention was to park-up near the Pier Head, where ferries departed in decades past, and amble around the Albert Dock area. I’ve visited both the Maritime Museum and Tate Liverpool on previous football expeditions to Merseyside; I was hoping for a relaxing pint in a pub or bar overlooking the revamped riverside, rather than the usual pint of fizzy lager in a plastic glass in “The Arkles” opposite Anfield, which is my usual routine for Everton.

At just after 10.30am, I was on my way; on the royal blue highway once more. This would be my thirteenth visit to the stadium at the bottom of the gentle slope of Stanley Park. I missed last season’s encounter. In 2011-2012, it was a terrible performance under Villas-Boas. The defeat on the last day of 2010-2011 was remembered for the brutal sacking of Ancelotti.

At 11am, I collected Lord Parky. It was a lovely moment – and long overdue. For all of last season, my away trips were solitary affairs. Apart from the pre-season friendly at Brighton and the Community Shield game at Villa Park, the last time Parky accompanied me to a standard away game was in April 2012 at Arsenal.

Back in the days when England’s capital city had no European Cup to its name.

This would only be my fourth trip the north-west during season 2013-2014. In recent years, the area was very well represented; Premier League regulars Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic were augmented by single-season stays from Burnley and Blackpool. It seemed that I was heading north on the M6 every month in those days. Now, only the big hitters from Manchester and Liverpool remain. In fact, during this season, there is perhaps the largest spread of cities for decades within the top flight; Swansea and Cardiff to the West, Liverpool and Everton to the North West, Newcastle and Sunderland to the North East, Hull and Norwich to the East and Southampton to the South. We only need Plymouth Argyle and Carlisle United to join us and all extremities within the football landscape will be covered.

I backtracked through Bradford-on-Avon, skirted Bath and then headed north. It was brilliant to be back on the road alongside His Lordship once again. However, once on the M4, we were held up for a good thirty minutes as the traffic was reduced to a crawl. After stopping for a coffee at Strensham, and with signs on the M5 warning of even more delays on the M6, I soon realised that our trip down to the banks of The Mersey before the match were probably needing to be curtailed. This was a shame, but there is always next year…and the year after.

Throughout the previous week, one song kept bouncing around my head. It had acted like a constant reminder of where I would be on Saturday, a football metronome, ticking away, keeping me focussed. Let me explain. After a New York Yankees game last summer, I got chatting to three Evertonians in my favourite bar on River Avenue in The Bronx. It was my last night in NYC, my beloved Yankees had walloped the Red Sox and I was in no mood to retire to bed. The beers were flowing and the chat soon turned from baseball in the US to footy in England. The father had been living in Manhattan for twenty years and his two sons were over to visit him. The youngest lad was typically wearing a Lacoste polo. After a while, it was decided to continue the drinking session in a bar down on East 23rd Street, way down in Manhattan. We hopped into a cab – there were five of us in total, including a bemused local, struggling to understand our quick-fire conversations in unfamiliar accents – and the chat turned to football songs. I made the point – as politely as I could – that Everton were not known for their wide and varied songbook. I remember serenading them with “The Shed Looked Up” and they responded; I was expecting “It’s A Grand Old Team To Play For.”

Instead, the father belted out a song which was completely new to me, and the two sons joined in with gusto.

“Oh we hate Bill Shankly and we hate St.John.

But most of all we hate big Ron.

And we’ll hang those Kopites, one by one, on the banks of the royal blue Mersey.

To hell with Liverpool and Rangers too.

And we’ll throw them all in the Mersey.

And we’ll fight, fight, fight, with all our might for the boys in the royal blue jersey.”

This was rounded off, nicely, with a rousing –

“Kopites are gobshites, Kopites are gobshites!”

I approved. As the drinking continued, we spoke continually about our two favoured teams, buoyed by beer and a mutual dislike of Liverpool. The big moment in the lives of the two sons was the 1995 F.A.Cup win versus the equally despised Manchester United. I sensed a tone of jealousy in their voices when they heard me talk of our recent successes, but I kept telling them – probably to the point of exhaustion – that there really was “no need to be jealous of others. Your team is your team. Relish every goal, every win.” It was a lovely night. One more thing; the father kept referring to me as “Chris, la” which I found to be particularly endearing and authentic. They were good people.

After turning off Queens Drive and up Utting Avenue, with the bright stands of Anfield at the top of the hill, I deposited £8 in the hands of a local at the official car park in Stanley Park. It was 3.45pm. The journey north had taken me over five hours. We avoided “Arkles” and headed towards Goodison. Lord Parky soon disappeared inside for a few beers and to his seat in the lower tier of the Bullens Road.

With my trusty camera at the ready, I had other ideas.

I took a leisurely hour to slowly circumnavigate the four stands of Goodison Park. I was in my element. The sun was out, the sky perfect. The clamour of a match day gave the late afternoon a buzz all of its own.

Goodison Park. So, why do I love it?

Firstly, the location; surrounded by terraced houses, a proper football locale. Secondly, the history; Everton have played here, since uplifting from Anfield, from 1892. Thirdly, the gargantuan main stand; when I first spotted it in 1986, I could hardly believe its scale, towering over the other three edifices. Next, Archibald Leitch; the venerable stadium architect was responsible for the design and construction of three of the original four stands, two of which – the Gwladys Street and the Bullens Road – remain to this day. The signature Leitch cross-trusses at Goodison, which are still on show on the balcony wall of the Bullens Road, are only present at two other stadia. The others are at Fratton Park and Ibrox. Yep, you’ve guessed – two of my other favourite grounds. Next, my imagination; my late father’s first ever football match took place here at Goodison Park, during the grey years of World War Two while he was stationed on The Wirrall. Lastly, another first game; I took football-mad James, then an eleven year old boy, to his first ever football game at Goodison in 1998.

So, yes, Goodison Park ticks a lot of boxes.

My tour began behind the new Park Lane stand; constructed in 1994, it is a banal and insipid single-tiered structure which adds nothing to the overall feel to the stadium.  I noted that the statue of Dixie Dean had been moved from its original location; maybe it has been moved inside the stadium. Dean was an Everton legend who once amassed a Babe Ruth-like haul of 60 goals in season 1927-1928, and who died, at Goodison, during the 1980 derby. A “fan zone” was in operation behind the Park Lane stand; I avoided it like the plague. I noted a six-piece samba band, dressed in Brazilian yellow and green, parading outside on Goodison Avenue, which was met by blank stares from the locals. It was as incongruous a sight as you will see. I shook my head, tut-tutted and moved on.

On Goodison Avenue, my senses were going into overdrive. Unlike at Anfield, Everton have made a conscious effort to spruce up the walls of the stadium’s once grim exterior. Long banners depicting current players adorn the main stand, which now looks bright and welcoming. The “Everton timeline” wraps itself around 75% of the current stadium, beginning above the away entrance on the Bullens Road in 1878 and ending on the southern side of the main stand in 2013. It depicts key events, photos of record buys, famous games and Everton trivia. As I found myself walking clockwise around the stadium, I found myself going back in time.

Quite apt.

Opposite the main stand, towering high, were a couple of basic cafes. One sight saddened me though; The Winslow Hotel, which my father may well have entered around 1942, was boarded-up and empty. The sign depicting Dixie Dean had faded. How sad. I once drank at this pub in 1994, when I parked outside the stands of Goodison before walking up the hill for a Chelsea game at Anfield. There is always something rather spooky about being outside a stadium with no match taking place; the ghosts of thousands of supporters, the silence, the stillness.

I once watched a game from the upper tier of the main stand; season 1992-1993, front row, brilliant view, awful retro collars with red laces, Robert Fleck scored, we won 1-0, shortest match review ever.

As I took a selection of photographs of the bustling street scene below the vertiginous structure, I noted Romelu Lukaku being driven slowly towards the main reception. At first, the locals were unaware of who the young man in the passenger seat was. Eventually it dawned on them. With the car halted, the window lowered and the Everton loanee kindly signed a few photographs for a few youngsters. I took a few photographs of his smiling face and then seized my moment. I leaned in and shook his hand.

“Have a great season here. Then come back to us next season. God bless you.”

Romelu smiled.

I hated to see look of pure desolation on his face after his nervy penalty miss in Prague. I also hated to see some puerile comments on the internet by some Chelsea fans immediately after. Oh boy.

The red-brick St. Luke’s church sits right on the junction of Goodison Avenue and Gwladys Street. Back in the ‘eighties, it was still possible to see the whole of this modest place of worship from inside the stadium. It has since been hidden by extra cladding on the Gwladys Street stand and the addition of a large TV screen. Like the cottage at Fulham, it adds to the sense of place that makes Goodison so unique. Still the photographs continued; a turnstile, the angle of two stands joining, a streetside café, Tommy Lawton on the timeline.

There is a rather patronising TV advertisement for Barclay’s at the moment; thanking us match-going fans for our continued presence at games. It strongly features a smiling pensioner, possibly photographed at Goodison, certainly wearing Everton blue; his knowing eyes telling a thousand stories, his slight smile indicating past glories and hope for the future. As I walked behind the Bullens Road – getting close to the formidable Chelsea presence outside the away gates now – I spotted his female equivalent. A lady in her ‘eighties – tight perm, blue and white scarf – was being driven in to her personal parking space in a small car park. The sight of this spritely Evertonian made me smile. For those who bemoan the negative aspects of football – the richly-paid players, the out of touch directors, the price of tickets, the occasional presence of racism and loutish behaviour, the commercialisation, the deadening of atmosphere – here was a reminder of what the game means to a lot of people. She must have thousands of great memories from her time supporting her team.

I wonder if she remembers Tommy Lawton, his hair Brylcreamed, leaping high at the far post, or that dashing young man in his RAF uniform at Goodison Park during the Second World War…

I chatted to a few friends outside the away turnstiles. We had heard that Samuel Eto’o was to start. There was confused talk of how Lukaku had been loaned out – again – when most of us supporters would have preferred to see him in Chelsea blue throughout this season. I guess we will never know the full story of the club’s decision to keep Torres and Ba, though I presume that the former’s wage demands have played a part in possible thoughts of moving him on.

At least Juan Mata was starting.

I looked up and spotted Burger, the erstwhile Toronto native now transplanted into the heart of England. He quickly introduced me to his father – his first visit to these shores, his first football match, his first Chelsea match. I repeated my father’s story about Everton and he smiled. Burger Junior and Burger Senior had been drinking, with Cathy and others, since 10am and I was impressed. I wished them well and hurriedly took my place alongside Alan, Gary and 1,500 others in the Bullens Road upper tier. There were a similar number down below us.

The Farm’s “All Together Now” was on the PA as I scanned the scene around me. Goodison’s capacity is 40,000 now and I spotted a few empty seats, namely those behind the roof supports in the Gwladys Street. Another Goodison favourite – “Z Cars” – was played as the teams entered. Chelsea were in black once more.

Cech – Brana, JT, Luiz, Ash – Mikel, Rambo – Mata, Schurrle, Hazard – Eto’o.

The game began brightly enough. Ramires was full of energy and we dominated the early few minutes. All eyes were on our new striker though; as he moved around the pitch, my mind played tricks on me. I imagined Eto’o to be taller. He seemed willing, but his first few efforts were poor. One header over with Tim Howard untested and another which ballooned into the top tier. At least he was getting in to position. Gary, standing alongside me and already “venting,” made me chuckle with his pronunciation of our new striker’s surname.

Only a Londoner could attempt to pronounce Eto’o without sounding the letter T.

“Cam on E’o’o.”

Oh boy.

The best chance of the first-half came when Howard fluffed a clearance and Andrea Schurrle pounced. He played the ball into the path of the advancing Eto’o and the 3,000 Chelsea away fans inhaled a breath of expectation. Out of nowhere, a leg from an Everton player – Gareth Barry – blocked the shot. We were in disbelief.

On the subs bench, Fernando Torres was heard to utter “even I could have missed that.”

Our support was OK. The home fans, though, resorted to type and hardly spoke, let alone sang. Everton rarely threatened; Naismith shot wide, but chances were rare down below us. At the other end, Mikel and Schurrle shot over. Our chances were being squandered and the away support grew frustrated. During the closing minutes of the first-half, Everton turned the screw. During one attack, two Everton players were completely unmarked at the far post and we were lucky to escape unpunished. Right on half-time, sloppy defending allowed a cross to be headed back across the goal by Jelavic to allow Naismith to leap unhindered and nod home from a yard out.

At half-time, I chatted briefly to Tim from Dublin.

“We should have been three up.”

Straight after the whistle, Andrea Schurrle was played in and inexplicably missed from an angle. It took me a few, puzzling seconds to realise that he hadn’t scored. Eto’o lunged at a cross and failed to make contact. At least he was getting into the right positions. Right?

Jose Mourinho then surprised us all and made a double substitution, taking off Mata and Schurrle. On came Oscar and Frank Lampard. In truth, neither player produced in the remainder of the match. A Ramires toe-poke went wide. The general consensus was that we wouldn’t score even if the game continued until November. In reality, such was our mood, we expected Everton to increase their lead on their rare forays into our half. Luiz was lucky to stay on after a tangle on the half-way line. We were riding our luck. Then, the last throw of the dice; Ashley Cole off, Torres on, three at the back, but with Mikel playing very deep alongside Lamps. Where other players were faltering, Mikel was having a great game…reading attacks, breaking-up play, turning, playing it simple. Top marks.

Two last chances summed our day up. Firstly, an attempted flick from Eto’o from close in, but he missed the ball completely. Secondly, a poor shot from Torres’ weak left foot which looked as ugly as it gets and meekly spun off for a goal-kick. Thankfully, Leighton Baines clipped the junction of post and bar at the other end from a free-kick on ninety minutes. Although it was a far from adequate performance – too many personal errors – we barely deserved to lose.

At the final whistle, we shuffled out as the Evertonians – at last – made some noise. I glanced at Tim, but his face was disconsolate. No words were needed. I glowered back.

On the walk back to the car, Parky and I caught up with Chopper, Jokka, Neil and Jonesy. There were a few mumbles and grumbles and this was to be expected. However, it was a difficult game to summarise. Everton weren’t that great. They did enough. If our players had played 10% better – maybe just 5% better – we would have won 3-0. Our play suffered with just too many silly errors at key times. I spoke with Jokka and offered some home-spun philosophy.

“Maybe another set of supporters would have been quite content with that sort of performance – we created a few chances, we weren’t dire – but us Chelsea fans have higher expectations. High expectations make for bad losers.”

On Wednesday, we have the chance to make amends when our European campaign kicks off.

Let’s go.