Tales From A Humdrum Town.

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 16 April 2017.

I awoke early, and I will admit that I felt slightly agitated. I wasn’t particularly calm. My nerves were jangling. The massive game at Old Trafford had obviously dominated my thoughts as the Easter Weekend had approached. It not only represented our toughest remaining league fixture of the 2016/2017 campaign but there were some heavy sub-plots, too. We had already beaten Jose Mourinho’s new team twice this season, and by the law of averages alone, it would be no surprise for United to give us a tough old time. In fact, I was damned sure that Mourinho would be making sure that a third defeat of the season at the hands of our new man Antonio Conte would simply not happen. Jose, for all his faults, is no mug in these big matches. A draw – I reconciled – what be totally acceptable in the circumstances.

But we live for days like these, don’t we? The stakes were high. This was going to be one of the away trips of the season, or any season for that matter.

Before I set off, I began with a post on Facebook. I had arranged to meet up before the game with my old college friend Rick – a United season ticket holder for many a year, and like me, a fan of The Smiths – and with this in mind, I referenced one of the band’s iconic images. It came from a United away game in 2006 (a 1-1 draw, a Riccy Carvalho header) when I dropped in to visit a local landmark that was famously featured on the band’s “The Queen Is Dead” album of 1986.

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With the game resting heavily on my mind, I added a comment which hoped that our charming manager would prevail.

In fact, I  soon thought about the two men in charge of the respective teams. Compared to the sour-faced Mourinho – with that dismissive smirk never far away these days – our manager is a picture of positivity and light. Indeed, with Mourinho – totally unlovable at United – now ensconced at Old Trafford, I could not help come to a quick conclusion about our former boss.

He was looking for a job, and then he found a job, and heaven knows he’s miserable now.

I collected The Chuckle Brothers and we headed north. The traffic was surprisingly light. The day had begun with clouds but sun too. Just north of Birmingham the rain started. By the time I pulled in to the car park of “The Windmill” pub just off junction 19 of the M6, the drizzle was continuing. This was going to be a typical football day out in rain town. I got a round in and looked up to see my pal Rick approaching. I had my opening line sorted :

“The rain falls hard on a humdrum town.”

Rick smiled and we set about a good old natter about our respective football teams. Rick was with his eight year old son Frazer, who has just started going to games with his father. Rick had recently been in Brussels with 1,200 United fans for their game with Anderlecht. I told Frazer that over thirty years ago his father and myself played upfront in our departmental football team, with Rick as the elbows out battering ram and with me feeding off the scraps. I asked Rick what United thought of Mourinho. His answer was favourable, but he did mention that at times the entertainment value has only just surpassed that of the Van Gaal era. Before we knew it, the time was pushing on – 2.15pm – and we needed to be on our way.

The new A556 road – which was mid-construction for the City game in the autumn – helped our approach to Old Trafford. I was parked-up at the usual £10 garage at around 2.45pm. Just right. The rain was easing slightly but there always seem to be dishwater skies in Manchester.

We plodded off to the stadium. We met up with Big John on the way – “take a draw now” – and we were soon on the famous forecourt. I took a few photographs of the match-day scene. I know they sell half-and-half scarves at Stamford Bridge, but at Old Trafford it is on a different scale.

“Ten pound yer match day scarf.”

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before, but I noted with sadness that there was a huge advertisement for one of United’s commercial partners – Aeroflot – right behind the statue of Sir Matt Busby. In fact, who else but United would place such a statue of their much-loved former manager right in front of their megastore?

We had heard rumours that Thibaut Courtois was out. We then heard talk that Cesc Fabregas was in.

“Going for it.”

At the turnstiles, I was met by an over-zealous team of stewards who stopped me from taking my camera inside. This is the second time that this has happened at Old Trafford and it meant I had to traipse around to a “bag drop” porta cabin behind the Alex Ferguson Stand. On the walk underneath the Stretford End, I noted many supporters holding those God-forsaken noise-makers, much-beloved at Leicester City and Fulham. I tut-tutted. Modern bloody football.

I eventually made it in with ten minutes to spare. The away support was strong in number and voice. Not so many women. Hardly any kids. Hardly any colours. Just a couple of divs away to my right with half-and-half scarves.

Not only was Courtois out, but Marcos Alonso too, apparently injured during the warm-up. This had resulted in a last minute shift of personnel which must have greatly disrupted everyone’s thoughts.

Begovic.

Zouma – Luiz – Cahill.

Moses – Kante – Matic – Azpilicueta.

Pedro – Costa – Hazard.

No Fabregas, then. Maybe just as well. I was surprised that Ibrahimovic was relegated to a place on the bench. I tried, briefly, to work out Mourinho’s game plan.

Old Trafford is a huge stadium these days. I am told they are looking to enlarge it further. Up, up and away, reaching up in to the sky.

To my right, the famous “Manchester Is My Heaven” banner.

A new song has been doing the rounds at United of late and the tune on which it is based, “I’m Into Something Good.” by Herman’s Hermits was played on the PA with a few minutes to go. There were banners everywhere – too many to mention. As the teams entered the pitch – a smudge of blue in the far corner – I spotted a forest of flags on sticks over to the opposite corner of the old “K Stand” just where Rick has his season ticket. Chelsea are trying to do the same in The Shed. Think The Kop, if you must, but on a smaller scale. To the left of the Stretford End – presumably the corporate section – I spotted hundreds of those damned noisemakers. They must have contained a message or a slogan, because many were being held aloft.

It probably said –

“I don’t really like football. I’m here on a freebie. I haven’t a clue.”

The two managers took their places in the technical areas. Antonio Conte chose to wear a baseball cap with his usual smart suit. It jarred. I wondered what on earth possessed him to do so. Ugh.

United were the first out of the traps. Marcus Rashford was allowed a run in on goal, with Luiz floundering, but screwed the ball well wide of Asmir Begovic’ far post. I grimaced and exchanged words with Alan. His reply summed up the mood of the hour :

“Please, please, please let me get what I want, this time.”

A Chelsea attack petered out, but we spotted a handball. Sadly, the referee Bobby Madley waved play on. Ander Herrera stroked an inch-perfect ball in to the path of that man Rashford. David Luiz was nowhere, and the United striker pushed the ball through Begovic’ legs. That horrible sight – the ball hitting the back of the net – was met with a huge roar from the home support. The game was but seven minutes old.

“Oh fuck.”

For a few moments, Old Trafford was a cauldron of noise.

“U. N. I. T. E. D – United are the team for me.”

We had spoken in the car of how, if asked to choose between a win against United in the league, or a win against Tottenham in the cup, all four of us chose the former, since the league is the more prestigious one to win. Now I was renegotiating with the Football Gods.

“A draw, please.”

United dominated the play. It wasn’t that they flooded our half every time that they won possession, it was just that with Rashford and also Lingard attacking at will, we just looked so fragile. On the far side, I really needed Victor Moses to assist Kurt Zouma. That looked a problem area straight away. Elsewhere, we struggled to get any sort of pattern to our play. Eden Hazard was marked to oblivion. We were struggling all over. After only twenty minutes, Conte decided to swap the wing-backs, with Dave disappearing over to the far side and Moses taking up a position in front of us.

Ashley Young went close on two occasions. Moses slipped inside the box, allowing Rashford to cross. Cahill watched as his headed block looped up and on to the bar.

Diego Costa was getting in to all sorts of bother with players and officials alike. I have spoken up for him over the past few weeks, but in this game, he seemed to be channelling everything towards confrontation rather than towards the team ethic. There were wails of protest from the Chelsea support every time that referee Madley gave a decision against us. However, I have to say that many of our tackles in that first-half were poorly timed and poorly executed. They summed up our performance. We couldn’t even tackle.

A shout from Gary : “Matic, you couldn’t pass water.”

In fact, our only shot at goal during the entire first period was a wild shot from distance from Diego Costa which went well wide. That came in about the forty-third minute. This just wasn’t good enough. In the closing seconds, Ashley Young shot wide again. Nobody, with the possible exception of N’Golo Kante, had played well during the first-half. A typically spirited run from him in the closing seconds of the half hinted at a better second-half of football.

But there were bleak faces in the Chelsea quadrant during the break. I tried to look for positives.

“Put it this way, surely we can’t play as bad in the second-half.”

The Chelsea players were out a good two minutes before the United players for the start of the second period. The Manchester United mascot Fred The Red was gesticulating to both sets of fans right in front of us for a few moments. Hand signals were exchanged. The mascot was trying to wind us up.

Another gem from Gary : “That’s Mourinho.”

The second period began. A United free-kick from out wide on the right appeared to be going off, and I thought the whole team had momentarily switched-off. United kept the ball alive and the ball eventually fell to Herrera. He took a swipe inside the box and we watched, aghast, as the ball took a wicked deflection and spun over Begovic, stranded forever. Only four minutes were on the clock.

This was awful. The United hordes boomed again. It seemed like 72,000 were gazing and smiling at each and every one of us. We were right in the firing line. Hateful stuff.

“With a nick nack, paddy whack, give a dog a bone, why don’t City fuck off home?”

We stood silent. We had been kicked in the bollocks. Bigmouth had struck again.

In those moments, there are really no places to hide. The lead down to four points. Tottenham chasing us. Sky TV and BT Sport would be salivating. Tottenham on Saturday. Panic on the streets of London. Sigh.

But then, out of nowhere, we responded. For ten, eleven, twelve minutes – maybe more – we sang and sang and sang.

“We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league.”

I kept looking around at my fellow fans and was pleased to see smiles among the defiance. It made me proud. We sang on. This seemed to inspire the United fans too, who themselves responded. The atmosphere was electric. Louder than bombs.

Sadly, on the pitch, everything was still flat. Conte replaced Moses with Fabregas and there was a change in formation. To be fair, we dominated possession for the rest of the game, but never really looked like scoring. Diego – sorry, but I have to single him out again – kept coming too deep. We needed him on the last man, ready to explode in to space. Pedro ran his socks off in the second-half and went close on two occasions, but still De Gea did not have a shot to save. Elsewhere we lacked any real cohesiveness. Hazard was the centre of most of our attacks but Mourinho knew what he had to do. The supporters’ coaches from Devon, Surrey, North Wales and Norfolk were parked in front of the United goal.

Matic was replaced by Willian. It was really nothing.

Lingard went close, hitting the side netting with a long-range effort and then the lively Rashford forced Begovic to block down low. Our passes went astray with scary regularity. The confidence had been knocked out of our side early on and we never ever recovered.

You know it is a bad day at the office when Fellaini bosses the midfield.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Kurt Zouma. I had lost the will to work out the formation by then.

We still never looked like scoring. In fact – let’s be blunt here – a goal would have flattered us. De Gea never made a save.

The final whistle signalled the end of a pretty miserable game. The lads made their way back to the car while I – oh deep joy – walked through thousands and thousands of United fans to reach the bag-drop. The rain was falling now. My shoes stepped through the puddles. The United fans were in full voice and I hated every minute of it as they brushed past me.

“Woke up this morning feeling fine. Got Man United on my mind. Jose’s got us playing the way like United should. Oh yeah. Something tells me I’m in to something good.”

I retrieved my camera. The heavens opened again. Splash. Splash. Splash.

As I bought a cheeseburger on Sir Matt Busby Way, I bumped into Neil Barnett, himself looking drenched with both weather and our poor showing. He quickly told me that Thibaut had allegedly been injured during the filming of an advertisement for the NBA. Oh bloody hell. We chatted away, then went our separate ways as the rain continued.

Splash. Splash. Splash.

I posted on Facebook once again : “Soaked to the skin. Worst cheeseburger of the season. Two hundred miles from home. Oh Chelsea we love you.”

I eventually reached the car, threw my soaked jacket in the boot, pulled out on to the Chester Road and headed south. Over the next four hours or more, we spoke about the game, our poor performance, our remaining games. As always, there is usually a prolonged chat when things do not go our way. If we win, the game is not dissected quite so much. The lads had heard the rumour about Courtois. We spoke about all sorts. Of the game, we concluded that Conte was undoubtedly rushed into making those last minute changes. With more time to think about things, maybe he would have chosen different personnel. We mentioned the recalled Nathan Ake. Maybe he should have played. It just looked to us like Conte was never at ease with his eventual team selection, nor were the players themselves.

We spoke about how odd it was, really, to see such a team as Manchester United, with its rich history of attacking flair, to be so happy to play spoilers. But that is not to take anything away from them. They did a job on us, no bloody doubt.

Six huge league games are left. They are the undoubted priority. But we are four points clear of Tottenham and we have a better run in. We didn’t think that Spurs would win all six of their games. It’s certainly “advantage us” still, although it doesn’t bloody feel like it. We are not used to this. In 2005, 2006 and 2015 it was a procession. In 2010, it was us doing the chasing. We are not used to being the ones being chased. What difference does it make? Only time will tell.

However, in the final month or so of the season, the next game in the FA Cup might well define our campaign. Win, and we might just knock the stuffing out of Tottenham, the new media darlings. If we lose, it will be a different story.

See you at Wembley.

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Tales From Glorious Bournemouth.

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 8 April 2017.

The game of cat and mouse was continuing. Try as we might to free ourselves from the clutches of Tottenham, we were being forced to strive for a further three points from our game with Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth. While the pints were being sunk with regularity in the big and breezy “Moon On The Square” in Bournemouth’s sunny town centre, Tottenham were scoring goals for fun at home to Watford. They went three-nil up by half-time, and eventually won four-nil. The gap was back to four points. It was up to us to regain the seven-point advantage.

It was certainly a day of pints and points alright.

After missing out on the pre-match fun in the corresponding fixture last April – I had to work in the morning and only made it to the Vitality Stadium at about 2pm – I was hoping to make up for it this time around. Although several friends had traveled down on the Friday night, Glenn and myself had driven down on the day of the game. A pint of San Miguel on the pier at about 11.30am – clear blue skies, the sun glistening on the ocean, a warm day getting warmer, memories of family holidays in the neighbouring resort of Southbourne –  had been a perfect start to a day of football. It could have been even better; the team were staying at the Hilton Hotel, just a stone’s throw away, and Alan explained that the management staff and players had recently appeared in the perfectly manicured Lower Gardens about an hour earlier for their pre-match “walk.”

Breezing past the lads would have been a lovely start to the day.

As the drinking continued, we were joined by a smattering of friends from near and far. There was no rush, the game was hours away.

Pint, chat, laugh, pint, chat, laugh, pint, chat, laugh.

Eventually it was time to move. Outside the weather was perfect.

“Dear Footballing Gods. Please do all you can to keep AFC Bournemouth in the top flight of English football for as long as possible. Additionally, please do your very best to ensure that Chelsea Football Club keep paying them a visit in April. Or May. Or August. Or September. We’re a bit fussy about things like that. You see, we love the idea of palm trees and beaches on an away day. Thanks. Stay in touch.”

Inside the Vitality Stadium, it was clear that we were not the only ones that had been enjoying the hospitality of the local pubs. There was a raucous noise in the small concourse beneath the seats. While others squeezed in “one more pint” before the match kicked-off at 5.30pm, we took our seats in row E, just five from the front. Since our last visit to the Vitality Stadium – capacity barely over 11,000 – I had seen stories of the football club wanting to re-locate to a new build stadium. I can understand the reasons why. As it stands at the moment, the stadium formerly known as Dean Court, makes a nice change from the usual identikit new-builds that we visit. If only more away fans could be admitted. With our numbers limited to around 1,200 we were the very lucky ones. Many Chelsea had travelled without the slightest hope of getting in.

The team news was dominated by the return of Victor Moses. Who would have ever thought that this man would be so missed when injured recently? It was a very strong Chelsea team, and was proof that we needed to keep grinding out results.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill.

Moses – Kante – Matic – Alonso.

Pedro – Costa – Hazard.

For the fans in the single-tiered stand, we were battling the elements all game. The falling sun was right in our eyes. Even with sunglasses, everyone was having trouble. Hands were brought up to the head to shelter our eyes from the glare. From such a shallow viewpoint, I found it difficult to follow not only the ball but the movement of the players too. It was like watching football in two dimensions. I found it difficult to judge the depth of play.

Bournemouth began the brightest. Always neat and tidy, they attacked with pace too.  A cross from the right from Fraser in the very first minute was met by an errant swipe at the ball by David Luiz. A crazy deflection forced Thibaut Courtois to react well. Fraser then forced another effort on goal, but the ball spun wide. Unlike last season’s 4-1 victory, maybe this would not be a walk in the park that I had hoped.

The Chelsea support urged the team on.

In the early evening sun – everything so hazy, and not just alcohol induced – we slowly edged our way in to the game. Then all of a sudden we were in among the goals. The ball was worked to Diego Costa, who was able to twist around and prod the ball towards goal. A fateful deflection off a luckless defender steered the ball in off the post, but also robbed Diego of the goal.

Our cheers were still ringing around the stadium when N’Golo Kante released Eden Hazard a few minutes later. He broke away, evidently just beating an offside shout, and drew Artur Boruc before slipping the ball past him.

Two nil, too easy?

Not at all.

The home team, with Wilshere starring for the Dorset team, kept playing to their strengths. Afobe crashed a volley on to the woodwork, down low, with Courtois beaten. Chelsea then dominated for a little spell. It was turning into a very competitive game.

One song dominated.

“Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

How we love this slight and stylish man from Lecce.

Just before half-time, Bournemouth moved the ball out to King, who only took a couple of touches before whipping the ball in past Courtois at the near post.

Game on.

Bollocks.

At the break, there was no mass-exodus. I was so happy that everyone was staying inside the stadium to watch the game, unlike last year when many left at the break to continue their drinking session in the town centre.

With the sun disappearing behind the stand to our right, I was happier with my sight lines as the second-half began. Yes, this was a better feeling for sure. The action was clearer. And it helped that we were attacking our end. It was a very pleasant evening.

But still the home team threatened. Thankfully we rode our luck and withstood any attempts on goal. In front of us in the away seats, Alonso and Hazard were seeing a lot of the ball. It is always an absolute joy to see their skills so close.

Halfway through the second-half, Diego Costa was fouled. From about twenty-five yards out, just beyond the centre of the goal, Marcos Alonso stood alongside Nemanja Matic. There was only one person who was taking this one, surely. Alonso clipped the ball over the wall with his trusted left foot and the dipping curve was perfect, past a stranded Boruc. It was a sublime goal.

We were three-one up.

GET IN.

Deliriously, the scorer raced over to our seats and was mobbed by his team mates. The smiles on their faces were mirrored by ours.

They were only yards away. A fantastic moment.

“Oh Marcos Alonso, oh Marcos Alonso.”

Moses the journeyman. Alonso the journeyman. Now much-loved stars of a team chasing a championship. Funny game, football, eh? As the game continued, the nerves had been calmed. We played with a little more composure and a little more flair. A few late chances would have flattered us, since the home team gave us a nervy test at times, but we fully deserved the 3-1 win. One song – a new one – dominated the latter part of the game.

“We’re coming for you. We’re coming for you. Tottenham Hotspur. We’re coming for you.”

I loved that. I first thought that this had lovingly turned the Spurs chant at us on its head – since they are seemingly always below us, no matter what year – but I then realised that it was, more mundanely, referencing the FA Cup Semi-Final. Whatever, it summed things up nicely. Last year, at Bournemouth in the sun, we urged the players to “beat fucking Tottenham” and now, a year later, they were in our thoughts again.

Some things will never change I guess.

Back in Bournemouth town centre, the “pint, chat, laugh” routine continued on.

And on. And on.

Eventually, I went for a wander and by the time I had returned to meet up with the boys, they had made their own way back to the hotel.

The next morning I awoke without the slightest hint of a hangover – a miracle – and I noticed that Glenn had previously posted an update on Facebook at just before midnight :

“Chris Axon we’re looking for you.”

What a crap song. That will never catch on.

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Tales From A Fool’s Paradise.

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 1 April 2017.

We had whispered a final farewell to winter and spring was upon us. The clocks had sprung forward during the previous weekend, which was amid the most recent tedious international break, and the sun was shining down on a perfect Stamford Bridge. Just as in those black and white French films which seemed to feature regularly on BBC2 in the ‘eighties, when there was an extended period of complete blackness between one scene and another – signifying a time for reflection on what had just been witnessed – it seemed that Stamford Bridge was awakening from an enforced slumber and we were waking with it. A stretch here. A yawn there. A remembrance of the toils of winter before a final push towards the days of destiny in April and May.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture, as it often does in the first blush of spring.

It looked like paradise.

The pre-match had been busy.

Due to a section of the M4 being closed, I chose to divert via a more southerly route, and came in via Stonehenge, the A303, the M3 and past Twickenham. From BA11 it to SW6 it took me three and a quarter hours. Not to worry, The Chuckle Bus was providing laughs-a-plenty throughout. The game against Crystal Palace was the first of three games in a week. Travel plans had occupied our thoughts for a while. After Manchester City’s visit on Wednesday, we are staying the night in Bournemouth – just like a huge section of the Chelsea away support – and there are then away games at Manchester United and Everton to get excited about. Sandwiched in among these league matches, we have the FA Cup semi-final against “that lot”; Parky has us all booked-up for train tickets for that one. A rare break for me and I can’t bloody wait. There have also been long and sustained thoughts of foreign travel.

Part serious, part-whimsical, I told the boys on the drive up :

“You know what, I’m more focussed on our first European away game together in the autumn than I am about us being champions.”

How we have missed Euro aways this season; they are surely at the pinnacle of my experiences following this team over the past twenty-five years.

At just before midday, I joined the usual suspects at “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington. Our mate Bob was over from California and Dave was over from France. I quickly knocked down two pints of Peroni. But time was marching on.

We walked down the North End Road and briefly popped in to “The Cock Tavern” to quickly say “hello/goodbye” to a few friends over from various parts of the US. It was fantastic to see them all again – too many names, too little time – but I took great pleasure in seeing Dave meet up with several New York Blues again, since he used to live in that great city for a good few years. Clearly his smiles and laughter were mine too. Bloody fantastic.

In the packed pub – an old haunt of mine, it was the very first pub I had a beer at Chelsea – there were supporters from New York, Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Elsewhere, fans from Chicago and Fresno were around and about.

Many of the supporters’ groups within the US have set off on a life of their own, attempting to absorb Chelsea fan culture as best they can, but ultimately many cities always seem to have developed an overwhelming American twist. One supposes that this is to be expected. In some respects, the last thing that anyone wants to see is anyone trying too hard to fit in to a perceived notion of what it is to be a Chelsea fan.

But it’s the subtle things that I notice. I like to see US fans meeting us halfway; or at least attempting to learn of our history, our rituals, our style.

With the New York group, I always feel that there are enough ex-pats involved to still provide a distinct cultural backbone to their fandom, whether it be behaviour, attitude, humour, songs, clobber, or a general Chelsea sense of self-deprecation induced by many years of suffering. When the New York Blues show up at tour stops in the US, they get the beers in and they know the score. As an added plus for this particular Chelsea fan, I like it that not all of them are ritually bedecked in Adidas tat nor Chelsea scarves ad nauseam. I like the New York Blues. I have a lot of time for them.

Just before I left, I bumped into Frank from Queens. We always share some ribald banter each other with our support of the Italian teams Napoli – Frank – and Juventus – myself – and I couldn’t resist passing on a little morsel of news from my work. Over the next month or so, we have to plan to deliver four of five artics of office furniture to none other than Juventus Football Club.

Frank’s response – “awesome!” – was quickly followed by a big hug.

Love it.

The next stop took in “The Malt House.” I promise not to bore the living daylights out of everyone between now and the end of the season with talk of the summer tour, but four of us had a little chitchat about the trip to Beijing in July. Bob, Glenn and myself were able to meet up with Big John, and we had a fruitful thirty minutes. The flights, hotels and match tickets have been paid for. Next on the agenda is the visa application and plans for a visit to The Great Wall.

OK – enough!

Amid the busyness and business of this particular pre-match, I had not heard about the team news.

There was only one change in the starting eleven; in came Cesc Fabregas for Victor Moses, but obviously this was not a straight swap. Pedro was shifted to wing back, with Cesc pushed up to a place in the front three.

The away fans were initially the centre of our attention. They had arrived with many a flag and banner draped over the balcony. Most notably of all, around one hunded– mainly young – black-clad supporters (the self-styled Holmesdale Road Ultras) were placed right above the banners at the epicentre of their block. Alan and myself pondered why a club like Crystal Palace could easily designate a block of away tickets to a distinct set of fans yet Chelsea Football Club continually finds this simple task beyond their ken. Countless times over the past few seasons, members of the away season ticket scheme have ended up in poor areas at various stadia all over the country.

The ultras, if not everyone within the block of three-thousand, were soon making a racket. Their favourite was a chant that took me right back to my night with two thousand Leverkusen fans at Wembley last November.

“La la – la la la – la la – Crystal Palace.”

However, they soon fell silent. A gorgeous long range pass from Fabregas allowed Eden Hazard to gather and reach the goal-line in front of the Palace fans. He seemed to be gifted too much time to skip past his marker and pick out a team mate. I had spotted Diego Costa supporting the attack, so imagine my surprise when I saw Cesc arrive with Lampardesque timing to touch the ball high past Hennessey.

Only five minutes had passed and we were one-up.

Get in.

Not long after, just as I was extolling the virtues of our team ethic as Pedro charged down a ball and then David Luiz cleared – chatting away to Alan, but watching the play – I then suggested it would just be our bloody luck that, after all this praise, we would concede. We both watched, aghast, as Wilfried Zaha twisted among several Chelsea defenders and struck a fine shot past Thibaut to equalise.

Just as my words floated off into the afternoon air, Alan was able to say “like that.”

Bollocks.

Only two minutes later, we watched as Palace broke with pace and we were cruelly exposed. The once lampooned Christian Benteke ran at David Luiz, with N’Golo Kante too far away to challenge. After a poorly-timed Luiz nibble, the ball broke fortuitously for that man Zaha to play in Benteke, with our defenders at sixes, sevens, eights, nines and tens. With Courtois scrambling out to block, Benteke craftily lifted the ball over our ‘keeper and into the net.

One-nil up, two-one down, we were a terrace chant gone wrong.

In the away section, a red flare appeared behind the flags. The ultras were making even more noise now. If I am honest, it was an impressive sight. They might be lampooned by some, but I can’t fault their desire to make some vibrant noise in support of their team. There is a distinct possibility that they are more famous than their players these days, just in the same way that the social misfits who appear on Arsenal Fan TV are more famous than the Arsenal players at the moment. I know who I favour.

We were 2-1 down.

But only eleven minutes were on the clock; surely more goals would follow?

We enjoyed much of the ball during the rest of the half. We had tons of possession. Oodles of it. But there seemed to be a noticeable lack of incisiveness. I lost count of the number of times that a diagonal was played wide left to Marcos Alonso. This might have been part of Conte’s game plan, but it honestly felt like we were painting by numbers, without individual thought. I was too far away to spot a potential penalty appeal in our favour. Diego tried his best but was not finding space. A Luiz free-kick was wasted. Alonso fizzed a ball across the box but nobody was near. I brought my hands up to my head; it was a reaction that would be repeated again and again as the game progressed. Dave smashed over, Matic forced a finger-tip save from Hennessey, Luiz again wasted a free-kick. Pedro was up and down the right flank like a demon, perhaps – actually – covering too much ground. Elsewhere the bite was missing. Hazard was a little peripheral.

But Palace were defending well.

At the break we were 2-1 down. Damn.

Sadly, there wasn’t a great deal of noise at Stamford Bridge. There were pockets of song, but in general our supporters were losing too.

At the break, a few supporters were presented with their CPO shares and we were treated to a walk around by Celestine Babayaro, who graced our team from 1997 to 2005. He formed a great left-wing alliance with Graeme Le Saux for a few seasons.

We found it inconceivable that the first player to be booked by referee Craig Pawson was Diego Costa. Palace had been swiping at our players throughout the first-half. Diego stretched to reach a ball, but Hennessy reached the ball just before he could get a touch. Diego then had a shot blocked by Scott Dann, who stayed down for an eternity. He was eventually carried off.

Conte replaced Matic with Willian and we went to a four at the back. I bet Pedro never ever thought that he would play right-back when he joined us last year.

Despite us dominating the ball, Palace broke down our right and Zaha, their star player, forced a great save from Thibaut. They had a little period when they caused us a few worries. We kept attacking, moving the ball between our players, but again without a killing pass. I thought our final ball in to the box, from Marcos Alonso especially, was very poor. Balls were swept in low, but defenders cleared. Lofted balls were played deep, but with nobody in Chelsea blue near. A clear chance fell to Diego from a Hazard cross. His header not only lacked power but direction too. It landed, pathetically, yards wide.

The pass of the day from Fabregas between the centre-back and the right-back was a thing of beauty but it amounted to nothing.

The time passed. I had a little chat with Alan, thinking back to previous home games against Palace.

“Bloody hell mate, have we ever lost to Palace in the league in our memory? I remember the FA Cup game in 1976, but have they ever beaten us here?”

PD looked over and said “last season.”

“Oh bloody hell. Yes. Of course.”

Had I shoved the trauma of last season so far in to my memory that I had forgotten that 2-1 reverse?

Evidently so.

Michy Batshuayi entered the fray as a replacement for Alonso. Balls from out wide were continually whipped-in, but Palace players blocked everything.

At last – on about the eightieth minute – the whole of Stamford Bridge eventually united in a single song.

“About bloody time.”

Shots from Willian, Cesc and Pedro were saved by Hennessey, who was having a storming game. As the referee’s assistant signalled a massive seven minutes, we willed the team on. But, unlike in previous games, when I felt that a goal would definitely come, on this occasion I wasn’t convinced.

The seven minutes soon passed. In our last attack, we urged Thibaut to join the attack as we awarded a corner. He did so. Dressed in black, he lined up to challenge for the ball among the blues and yellows. It is always the oddest of sights. Typically, Hennessy punched the ball clear.

At the whistle, at least there were no boos. That would have been the last straw.

So, on April Fool’s Day, we had dropped a clanger. This was a very surprising defeat. After we had all met up back at the car, it did not take long for us to thrash through our thoughts of the game. It wasn’t as if any player had performed particularly poorly, it was just that not enough had enjoyed those little moments of top quality.

I was the fool for thinking that our big week of football would begin with three easy points.

And I won’t be making that mistake again in a hurry.

On Wednesday, we face Manchester City at home in a game that could define our season; a Chelsea win, and our position will look a little more secure.

See you there.

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Tales From The Cup.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 13 March 2017.

Here was my mindset for this game.

“An evening game on a Spring weekday. This almost feels like a European home game. We are so used to those in March, April and May. Manchester United at home in the FA Cup. But it’s all about the League this season. This game feels odd. Whisper it and with caution, but it almost feels like an inconvenience. It’s not my fault that the FA Cup has lost its gloss. Blame the FA for that. Semi-finals at Wembley. The final being played during the season. The final being played on the same day as league games. The final being played at 5.30pm. Wembley Stadium has lost its appeal and it has lost its mystique. Wembley being used for the play-off finals. Wembley hosting Arsenal and Tottenham’s European games. We can also blame the Champions League and the shift in prestige to that competition. We can blame the FA for belittling the FA Cup with sponsorship and commercialism. We can even blame Chelsea too. We have won it in four of the new Wembley’s ten finals. The rush of adrenalin that used to accompany those 1997, 2000 and 2002 FA Cup runs seem an ancient memory. Blame our success.”

But this was Manchester United and Jose Mourinho. Plenty of anticipation there, right?

“Yes, of course.”

This game almost seemed more about beating United – and Mourinho – than the FA Cup.

After a torrid day at work, there was the release of getting away, and driving to my freedom. But the worry of work, I will freely admit, stayed with me throughout the evening. I had been swamped at work the previous Monday, and it was the sole reason why I was reluctantly forced to miss my third game of the season against West Ham United.

Our pre-match was well away from Stamford Bridge, in The Colton Arms near Queens Club. I remembered that our one previous visit was before the crazy 3-3 with United on an icy day in early 2012, with Villas-Boas (remember him?) still in charge. Two pints of “Birra Moretti” went down well. The pub was cosy and it was good to momentarily unwind for a while. There were brief memories of other FA Cup games with United at Stamford Bridge. The horrid memory of being 0-5 down to them in 1998 still haunts me to this day.

We bumped into some pals on the walk to the stadium.

“Seen any United?”

“None.”

“Wonder where they are drinking. Up in town, maybe. Six thousand of the buggers. They will be noisy tonight, alright.”

The four of us made our way in to the stadium.

PD, Alan, Walnuts and myself.

As we reached our seats, there were plumes of dry ice wafting around the touchlines.

“Fuck knows what all that is about.”

I looked towards The Shed, and there they all were. The dark wall of United’s away support, with only occasion hints of scarlet. The banners were out in force.

“Edinburgh Reds.”

“Bring On United.”

“Mockba 2008.”

“Buxton Reds.”

“Jose Mourinho’s Red Army.”

“I may be a wage slave on Monday but I watch United when they play.”

I knew of course that they would be in good voice. Even the truest bluest Chelsea supporter, blue-tinted spectacles and more, must surely acknowledge that United’s away support ranks right up there in terms of noise, variety of songs and balls out swagger. The massed ranks of United from near and far were already making a din. I recalled previous eras. The Red Army of the ‘seventies. The Cockney Reds and the Inter City Jibbers of the ‘eighties. The Men in Black. The whole story. On a night of Conte and Kante, six thousand similarly-named fuckers were making their presence felt in The Shed. There is, of course, a great irony when Chelsea fans around the world take the piss out of United fans not living in Manchester. I knew of at least three Chelsea fans from the US who were in the stadium. I used to dislike – is hate too terrible a word? – United more than any other, but other clubs nurture strong feelings of contempt too, and for different reasons.  But although I still have little time for United fans who watch only from their living rooms, I have a grudging respect for those who go, support, sing and bawl.

The news of the team had filtered through to us. A strong team for sure. A team based on the League campaign. But no room for Pedro nor Cesc.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill – Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso – Willian, Costa, Hazard.

There was no Ibrahimovic and that was a good thing. Although he has surprised me with his prowess this season, I still loathe him and it irritates the bejesus out of me when fellow Chelsea supporters call him “Zlatan” or “Ibra”. Less of the sycophancy you fucknozzles. He is not our player.

Rashford was playing up front instead and 35,000 Chelsea fans yawned at another Mourinho mind game.

There was the now familiar darkening of the lights and the Stamford Bridge lighting technicians put on a show for the sell-out crowd and the watching millions – we hoped – at home.

I remembered back on the Chelsea vs. Manchester United match in October when – long in to the game – I suddenly realised that I had not purposefully looked over to Jose Mourinho once. On this occasion, soon into the game, I watched both managers in their technical areas, and I realised how our affections have done a 180 degree turn as dramatic as those of Eden Hazard.

The king is dead, long live the king.

There is something classic about the blue, blue, white and the red, white, black of a Chelsea versus United game. In all their visits, I have never known United to wear anything else. Both of the Adidas kits were festooned with the biggest numbers seen on sports jerseys since the 1970’s Irish rugby team.

In the opening quarter, United seemed on top. They were more dynamic, more focussed. They moved the ball well. A very early chance for Rojo was headed over. Then Mkhitaryan went wide. The fans around me were on edge.

The United fans were standing and singing.

There was a “Na na hey hey” from them – not heard that one before – and a “Hey Jude” from us.

It was up to our creative genius to single-handedly get us involved. A sublime turn – on a sixpence – from Eden Hazard left Smalling wondering why and how he ever left Fulham. Eden sprinted away, with defenders fearful of diving in, and he skipped deep in to the box. His low drive was ably finger-tipped away by De Gea. The noise followed as the dormant Stamford Bridge crowd awoke.

“What a run.”

From Willian’s corner, Gary Cahill did well to change shape to connect. The ball seemed destined to go in, but De Gea again clawed it away. It was a stunning save.

We were back in this now, and our play vastly improved. There was a beguiling battle between the lofty Pogba and Kante, our diminutive destroyer of dreams, if only in terms of physicality. It seemed Kante was on top throughout.

United seemed to be intent on fouling our men whenever the chance arose. Herrera was booked, but the tackles still came thick and fast.

Eden Hazard fired over. He was our main threat. United knew it.

Jones crashed into Hazard, and we were amazed that a booking did not follow. With the crowd still baying, Herrera then quickly fouled Eden from behind, and the noise level increased. The referee Michael Oliver had clearly had enough and the second yellow for Herrera was quickly followed by a red.

“Off you go, knobhead.”

The Stamford Bridge crowd roared.

I looked over at Mourinho, and there was that familiar false smile as if to say “I know what you are all doing, it’s all a big conspiracy.”

There had been loud cries of “Fuck Off Mourinho” from the home areas already in the game. I cringed when I heard that to be honest. He’s not our favourite grouchy Portugueser right now, but that was not warranted.

Mkhitaryan was replaced by Fellaini. Walnuts bellowed “Hair Bear Bunch” and I giggled. It’s something when you are known for your hairstyle rather than your footballing abilities. Isn’t that right, Paul Pogba?

This was turning into a compelling game of football, but even during the match, work concerns kept flitting in to my head.

“Concentrate on the football you twat.”

The half ended with us well in control but I wondered if the reduction in their numbers would make United even more difficult to break down, as is so often the case. Courtois had hardly been forced to make a save. Moses was full of running and Willian full of ingenuity.

In the concourse, I watched a TV screen to see that Frank Lampard, among others, was discussing Mourinho and Conte coming together after the sending off. It felt odd that Frank was so close, but yet so far away.

I watched as Peter Houseman was remembered during the half-time break – it would soon be the fortieth anniversary of his tragic death – as his sons and grandsons walked the pitch. I remembered their last appearance; was it really ten years ago?

“One Peter Houseman, there’s only one Peter Houseman.”

I always thought that he never ever looked like a footballer. In the age of sideburns and moustaches, long hair and fringes, Peter Houseman looked like a librarian, a draughtsman or a geography teacher, bless him.

Not long in to the second-half, with Chelsea attacking the Matthew Harding, N’Golo Kante – finding himself involved in an attacking position quite frequently now – steadied himself and, although with Pogba close by, rattled a low strike past De Gea’s dive. The ball nestled in the corner and we went doolally.

“YES.”

We bristled with fine play for a while, moving the ball from wing to wing, intent on tiring United.

Then, a potential calamity. David Luiz jumped and mistimed a clearance, leaving Rashford with acres of space. He advanced, steadied himself, and I was convinced that he would level it. His low shot was blocked by Thibaut.

“Fantastic save.”

Chelsea created chance after chance as the half progressed. We were relentless. Dave had two long-range efforts. Willian went close. Costa headed wide from close-in. At one stage I had to remind myself that Pogba was even on the pitch. United were – cliche warning – chasing shadows by now, but I was very wary that one goal would change things dramatically. With another hard day at work on the Tuesday, I obviously feared extra-time, penalties, then getting home at 2am.

United created nowt.

Everyone in the media seems to be fawning over Mourinho’s United of late – I would say that, wouldn’t I? – but there doesn’t seem to be too much identity in the United team at the moment. And there doesn’t seem to be too much steel nor too much style either. It is a very sub-par United team compared to the ones of previous eras such as those of 1994, 1999 and – fuck – 2008.

Conte replaced Willian with Cesc Fabregas. We hoped he could open up the close spaces in and around the United box. There was one United attack of note remaining; Fellaini rose to an insane height and headed down, but Pogba could not pounce.

Conte replaced the tireless Moses with Zouma, and then Costa with Batshuayi. The four minutes of injury time only delayed United’s exit.

The final whistle went and we were through to our twelfth FA Cup semi-final in the past twenty-four seasons.

In the first of those (Wolves 1994, detailed only recently), we invaded the pitch and were euphoric. In 2017, we clapped, put our hands in our pockets, and exited.

Sigh.

Not far down the Fulham Road, we learned that we had been paired with Tottenham in the semi-finals.

My immediate thoughts were of dread – “imagine losing to that lot, is hate too strong a word?” – but then I let reality sink in.

“We’re by far the best team in English football this season. Why worry?”

After a customary cheese burger with onions at “Chubby’s Grill”, I grabbed PD by the arm and said –

“On to Saturday, now, and a bigger game. Stoke away in the league.”

Suddenly, the league became the important focus again.

I reached home at 1am, and briefly watched a post-match interview with the Manchester United manager, who – in all seriousness, with no hint of irony – claimed that Paul Pogba had been, unequivocally, the best player on the pitch.

Well, well, well.

I just had one solitary thing to say to that :

“Fuck off, Mourinho.”

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Tales From Turf Moor.

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 12 January 2017.

It seemed wholly appropriate that our visit to the most austere town on our travels this season was coinciding with the worst weather of the campaign thus far. There had been a short burst of winter sun as I had climbed towards Blackburn on the M65, but the bleakness soon returned. Lo and behold, as I raced on past signs for Accrington and then Clitheroe, I spotted snow on the distant Pennine Hills beyond Burnley.

We were well and truly “up north.”

We had set off from Somerset at 6am. Five hours later, I fitted my car inside a parking space outside Burnley’s bus station in its compact town centre. We gingerly opened up the car doors. Within seconds, we were scurrying to grab coats, scarves, and hats from the car boot. An arctic wind was howling and for fuck sake it was cold.

I had driven through the town centre and had noted a few pubs which seemed to be overflowing with locals. Rather than chance our arm there, we quickly decided to cut our losses and head towards the stadium, where – like at Swindon Town – there is a cricket club adjoined to the football club which allows away fans a drink or two.

Burnley. Such is the nature of the town that it allows no added affectation to its football club. Even the town’s stadium, Turf Moor, is named as abruptly as possible. But for all of the hackneyed jokes which would undoubtedly be aimed at the much-maligned town during the day by the visiting hordes, I approved. This was a grand old football team – twice Champions – playing in a grand old football town – population just 75,000 – and there is much to admire of the way the area has supported its club over the years.

I even approved of the quick ten-minute walk from the car to the stadium; it was a walk deep into Football Land.

Locals rushing by. The proud claret and blue. Ancient mill chimneys in the distance. Narrow streets and terraced houses. Police cars flitting past. A grafter selling scarves and trinkets. An ornate and historic bridge carrying a canal over the busy road. Echoes of an industrial past. A Balti take-away. The thin floodlights of Turf Moor. A couple of pubs. The rain starting to fall. A working men’s club. The grey of the main stand. Grizzled old locals selling lottery tickets. Programmes. Flags billowing in the wind.

We settled in at the cricket club and watched from the warmth of the first-story bar as the rain turned to sleet and then to snow. There was the usual chat with an assortment of friends from near and far. We all expected a tough game against Burnley, who had won nine of the thirteen games played at Turf Moor previously.

“A win would be bloody great though. Twelve points clear. What a message to the rest.”

Outside the away end, I was dismayed to see that the montage of past Burnley players was no longer present. I had hoped to pay my silent respects to the lovely image of Ian Britton, bless him, which was originally just along from the away turnstiles. It did not seem plausible that it was a full ten months since I had attended his funeral at the local crematorium. Instead of the montage, the stand was now covered with more formal photographs of former players.

The lads supped one last cider in a marquee outside the away concourse, and we then made our way inside. Memories of my only two previous visits came flooding back.

January 2010 : an equally bleak day, just after the John Terry / Wayne Bridge fiasco, when JT scored a late winner. There was snow on the way home after that one I remember.

August 2014 : my one-thousandth Chelsea game, and Chelsea league debuts for Thibaut Courtois, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa. The night of “that” pass from Cesc to Schurrle.

We had predicted an unchanged side on the long car ride north; Antonio did not let us down.

Thibaut – Dave, Luiz, Cahill – Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso – Pedro, Costa, Hazard.

What a cosmopolitan set.

In contrast, the home team was singularly Anglo-Saxon and solidly no-frills 4-4-2.

Heaton – Lowton, Keane, Mee, Ward – Boyd, Barton, Westwood, Brady – Barnes, Gray.

It was noticeable that the exotic Tarkowski, Darikwa and Gudmundsson were banished to the bench.

Nowt fancy at Turf Moor.

The sleet was still falling as the players went through their drills. I took the time to ask a steward why there is always a section of seats which are empty in the away end at Turf Moor. She answered that it is for the team members of both clubs that are not involved, plus other club officials, and sometimes wives and girlfriends. Glenn and I were down in the front row, and we were immediately soaked.

For the opening game of the 2014/2015 season, Chelsea had over 4,000 seats and the entire end. At the time, Burnley wanted to concentrate all of their support in three stands. For this game, the end was shared with Chelsea having to “make do” with around 2,400.

As the game began, it was the home fans in our end – to my left – who were the noisiest. As before, they shared taking pot shots at us with songs of derision for their bitter local rivals from Blackburn.

“And its no nay never, no nay never no more ‘til we play bastard Rovers, no never no more.”

Lots of hatred between these two cities, eh? The venom was there alright.

“We are those bastards in claret and blue.”

They rolled up with a song calling us “rent boys” and I wondered why it had taken fifteen years to reach Burnley from Liverpool and Manchester.

To my right, John Terry was spotted in the cordoned-off area. Many fans posed with him for selfies. He looked cold, too.

We began very brightly indeed with tons of crisp passing and quick one-touch possession. It was a joy to watch. Pedro, Moses and Kante were always involved. After a fine passing move, an Eden Hazard shot should have caused Heaton in the Burnley goal more trouble. Just after, a Burnley attack disintegrated and we quickly exploited gaps in their defence. Hazard played an early ball wide to Victor Moses, who rode an ugly tackle before playing the ball in to Pedro, who arrived just at the right time to steer the ball low past Heaton. The Chelsea end exploded.

I screamed and stretched my arms out wide and could not help noticing Thibaut, just a few yards away, jump up, turn towards us in the away stand and do the same. His face was a picture. A lovely moment.

The Pedro strike was reminiscent of Frank Lampard at his very best. However, it was noticeable that it was Victor Moses, in lieu of his strong run and pass, that drew the plaudits and applause rather than the goal scorer.

Soon after, very soon after, parts of the away end decided to sing – ugh – “we’re gonna win the league” and I turned around to spot who was perpetrating this monstrosity and glowered accordingly.

A woman behind me bit back:

“But we will, though.”

I retorted:

“But it’s bloody February.”

At least wait until April when we are on the brink.

Back in 2005 – when we were ten points clear in early February – I think we sung it first at Southampton in early April. Even then, I wasn’t too happy.

There then followed the equally obnoxious “we’ve won it all.”

Another “ugh.”

At least we were saved from hearing the nastiest chant of them all – “Chelsea till I die.”

I could not help but notice that David Luiz, for once, was beset with problems with his distribution. I let it go the first couple of times, but as the half progressed, I became increasingly annoyed that he found it increasingly difficult to hit Diego or Eden or Victor. It was all Chelsea in the opening quarter, though, and I hoped for a crucial second.

The sleet continued. This would not be a day of too many photographs; a shame since I was virtually pitch side.

Burnley began to attack with a little more conviction – Ashley Barnes shot wide – but we always looked dangerous on the break.

Then, after twenty-five minutes, Burnley won a free-kick just outside the box. I watched as Thibaut arranged the all blue wall. We waited. Robbie Brady, with a fine curling effort whipped it over the Chelsea players and it screamed into the top corner of the net, just fifteen feet away from me. Courtois’ dive was in vain. It had might as well have been in Spain. He was nowhere near it. Brady was in ecstasy – like a proper Clitheroe – and the home fans roared.

For a few moments, we were reeling. Thibaut blocked a save at close range and Gary Cahill flung his whole body to block another goal-bound shot.

It was definitely a case of “game on.”

Glenn and myself walked back to join up with the lads at half-time and shelter from the sleet and rain.

“Eden has been quiet.”

Our support had died a little during the closing moments of the first-half. I think my support had died from the feet up. They were bloody freezing.

Glenn quickly shook Cesc’s hand as the substitute raced past us before taking his position on the bench. His face was covered in a black scarf. He looked freezing too.

The second-half resumed. More rain. More sleet. More plunging temperatures. My toes were tingling with the chill. Everybody had their hoods up, their hats on. One nearby steward wore a bobble hat and a baseball cap.

“Johnny two hats.”

His icy cold stare back at me suggested that his brain had already seized.

With Chelsea attacking our end, and with me yards from the pitch, I was looking forward to tons of action right in front of me. Instead, it was Courtois who was called in to action at the start of the second-half. He saved well, down low, after a ball evaded the lunges of both Cahill and Luiz. I am not sure if this was some sort of reaction to Luiz playing with his hair tied back, but his passing continued to disappoint. Maybe there are some sensors within that usual free flowing frizz, but against Burnley in the wet and the cold, his mechanics were off. He defended well, but his distribution was shocking.

Chelsea – not surprisingly – dominated possession. We kept the ball well, but just could not break the two banks of four. Time and time again, the ball was pushed out wide for either Moses, Pedro, Hazard or Alonso, but we failed to play in any balls to hurt the defence. The twin pillars at the back – Keane and Mee – won virtually every high ball. Diego simply could not reach.

A shot from Azpilicueta did not really trouble Heaton.

My feet ached with the cold.

Conte replaced Matic with Cesc Fabregas and we prayed for a Schurrle repeat. Matic had not been at his best, though to be honest many players were not performing too well. But they never stopped trying. They never stopped running into space, to try and tease an opening, nor did they shirk any tackles. There were no complaints from me about the effort from the boys.

Willian replaced Moses. The crosses still came over, but were dealt with admirably. It was all Chelsea again in the final quarter of an hour, and I was convinced that we would nab a late winner. I looked hard at Fabregas and saw him spot runners before lofting balls towards his team mates. I was enjoying the game from this fresh viewpoint; despite the extreme temperatures, this was a good enough game, full of tough tackles and earnest endeavour. The skilful stuff was missing, but if football is a chocolate box, there has to be room for the occasional nut brittle.

Batshuayi came on too late for my liking. It was another “three minute hero” appearance, but he hardly touched the ball. On a day when we needed to flood the Burnley box, I found his late appearance a little baffling. Surely better to support Diego with Batshuayi if the crosses continued to come in. Although it was difficult to tell from such a low angle, we wondered if Conte had changed to a 4/4/2 since Dave seemed to support Willian in an advanced position. He even found time to put in a few crosses from out wide on the right.

Wayward efforts from Pedro and Hazard just about summed the game up.

It was not to be.

Instead of a gap of a dozen points, we were now ahead of the pack by ten points.

We slowly walked back up the icy steps of the away end, gathered together, then headed back to the car. The walk back began to get some life back in to my frozen limbs. Inside the car, off came the wet jacket and pullover, the blowers were turned to turbo, and I began the five-hour drive home. The draw, we admitted, had been a fair result. No complaints at all.

“Hey listen, we’re not going to win every bloody game you know. Tough place Burnley. Especially on a day like this.”

I had enjoyed it. Despite the wind and the rain and the sleet and the snow – or maybe because of it – it had felt like a good old-fashioned football day out in good old, ugly Burnley. Not every away game is the same, thank heavens, and I relished the whole adventure.

Next week we visit another classic football town, Wolverhampton, that used to have a grand old team of their own a few years ago.

I will see many of you there.

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Tales From The Riverside.

Middlesbrough vs. Chelsea : 20 November 2016.

My last trip to Middlesbrough was eight years’ ago. On that day in the autumn of 2008, with Luiz Filipe Scolari in charge, we won 5-0 and it was a cracking performance. On that particular occasion, I made the stupid decision to drive up and back in the same day. Five hours up, five hours back, and only a few miles’ shy of a six-hundred-mile round trip.

“Never again, never again.”

Eight years later, I had soon decided that Middlesbrough would be an overnight stay, as would Sunderland a few weeks later.

Not long in to the long drive north, I confided to PD that I was really looking forward to the football. Now this might seem an odd statement, but very often – and it seems to be increasing all the time – it is the “other stuff” that I get excited about these days. The banter, the craic, the laughs, the camaraderie, the pub-crawls, the beers. The pleasure of being in a different stadium, a different city, every two weeks is part of the fun too. A chance to experience new things, new sights, new sites. And although there were the joys of an overnight stay in Middlesbrough – “stop sniggering at the back” – to look forward to, I can honestly say that the magnificence of our recent performances had got me all tingly. After the beautiful demolition of Everton, the dreaded international break had come at a particularly unwelcome time.

I just simply yearned to see us play again.

I am a rare visitor to Teesside. I never ever made it to Ayresome Park, and this would only be my fourth ever visit to ‘Boro’s new stadium on the banks of the River Tees alongside the famous Transporter Bridge. On my first two visits in 2002 and 2007, I stayed in Scarborough and Whitby. There had been three wins out of three. But I was not taking Middlesbrough lightly. If ever there was a potential Chelsea banana skin, this was it.

Five straight wins and then a tough trip to the North-East on a wet and cold Sunday afternoon? It had “Fyffes” written all over it.

I eventually pulled in to Middlesbrough at around 3.30pm on the Saturday afternoon. PD and I had enjoyed our trip north, listening to the Manchester United vs. Arsenal draw on the radio – happy with points dropped by both teams – and it did not take us long to be toasting “absent friends” in our hotel bar. Friends Foxy and Ashley from Dundee soon joined us as we tentatively made plans for the evening. There were cheers as Liverpool dropped points at Southampton, which meant that a win for us on the Sunday would mean that we would reclaim our top spot. A win for City at Palace was expected. We took a cab into town, and Harry bloody Kane scored a winner for Spurs at home to West Ham just as we were deposited outside “Yates.”

“Well, that has spoiled the taste of my next beer.”

“Yates” was pretty empty. There were a few other Chelsea inside, but all was quiet. We sat at a table overlooking a pedestrianised street, deep in the city centre. In two hours, I just saw two people walk past.

“Lloyds” was next and a lot livelier. More beers. More laughs.

As the night deteriorated further, Ashley and Foxy headed on back to the hotel at around midnight, but PD and I kept going. We stayed a while in one pub – a local told me that it was “the roughest pub in Middlesbrough” – but it seemed OK to me. I could hear Parky’s voice :

“It was the kind of pub where the bouncers throw you in.”

Lastly, we visited the infamous “Bongo Club” but soon realised that we were reaching the end of our night.

We sniffed out a late-night takeaway, and avoiding the local “chicken parmo” speciality, scoffed some late night carbohydrates before getting a cab home.

Back in my hotel room – Room 101, I had to laugh – I set my alarm for a 9am breakfast.

The time was 3.38am.

“Oh fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.”

It had been a bloody enjoyable night. Ten hours of drinking. Where did the time go?

Answers on a postcard.

You know when you have had a proper skin full the night before, when you wake up the next morning and there is not the faintest memory of an overnight dream. During the working week, my first waking moments are often coloured by the dreams I had experienced while asleep. A memory here, a vague thought there, maybe a recollection of some sort of sequence of events. Well, at 9am on Sunday 20 November, there was simply nothing.

A complete blank.

“Too drunk to dream.”

Oh boy.

We breakfasted, then headed out. As I was on driving duties, I would be on “Cokes” for the rest of the day. In truth, after just five hours’ sleep, I was hanging. At least there was no discernible hangover. I was just tired. It was going to be a long day.

In “The Pig Iron” near the train station we had our first match day drinks. It was another very cheap pub, but there was a rather unpleasant smell in the bar. A few Chelsea were present. But there were also a few local lads, sporting their finest livery, and I was quite happy to move on.

Back to “Yates” and it was a lot livelier, with many Chelsea arriving over the next few hours. Friends Kev and Gillian arrived from Edinburgh. I was gulping down the “Cokes” and eventually started feeling a little more awake.

I whispered to a few fellow fans “I can safely say that Middlesbrough has lived down to expectations.”

Other Chelsea fans had stayed the night in Newcastle, Durham, Whitby. They had possibly made the wisest choices. To be fair, although the town was hardly full of much architectural or cultural delight, the locals were very friendly. In one of the boozers the previous evening, I had even encountered a ‘Boro fan who admired John Terry.

I wished that the gents toilets in “Yates” were better though.

“It’s got a shallow end and a deep end.”

It was 3pm and we caught a cab to the stadium. It was a bleak and damp afternoon in Teesside. We bumped into a few friends and then headed inside. The away fans are now along the side. We had sold out long ago; three-thousand at Middlesbrough on a Sunday in November was indeed an excellent showing.

We had turned-up. Would the team?

There was a fair bit of noise in the concourse and in the away section. There was an air of invincibility. The Liverpool draw had definitely given us a bounce to our step.

We had heard that the team was unchanged yet again.

In Conte we trust.

PD and myself were right down the front in row one. It would be a different perspective for me. I had a constant battle with a steward though; he didn’t like my camera.

The teams soon appeared, with Chelsea wearing a charcoal grey training top over the unlovable black away kit.

Before kick-off, there was a perfectly-observed minute of silence for the fallen. I had noted that around thirty soldiers, in camo fatigues, had been given a block of seats in the end adjacent to us. As the teams broke, the noise boomed around the stadium. To my left, in the area where away fans were once housed, there was a section of the home crowd who were waving flags; it was, I suppose, their “ultra” section, though I am not sure if they would call themselves that.

We stood the entire match.

“Oh, my feet.”

Middlesbrough certainly have an awful home shirt this season, with that silly low swoosh come sash on the players’ stomachs. It reminded me of ice hockey’s greatest ever player Wayne Gretzky, who always used to tuck the right-hand side of his shirt in, leaving the left-side loose.

Anyway, as shirts go, this one is pants.

Middlesbrough started the strongest I thought. It looked like their left-winger was going to be a constant source of irritation for us. On two occasions he slipped past Cesar Azpilicueta. With a front row vantage point, it was fascinating to see the physical battle of the two as they raced together, arms flailing, legs pumping. Negredo had the first real chance of the game, but his low centre evaded everyone.

Eden Hazard was unceremoniously clumped from behind and he remained down, worryingly, for a while.

Both sets of fans were in fine voice. Middlesbrough had a few of their own songs, but their local dialect made deciphering the words difficult for some.

“What are they saying?”

I was able to assist :

“We’ve got some shit fans, but yours are the worst.”

For a while, both sets of fans seemed to be overlapping the same tune with different lyrics. The old ‘Boro favourite “Papa’s got a brand new pigpag” easily segued into “Victor Moses.”

It was a rather slow start for us, but gradually we began to turn the screw. Midway through the half, we were well on top. Middlesbrough’s spell of possession seemed ages ago. Just before the half-hour mark, Moses played in Pedro who was only about ten yards out. I expected him to score. He slammed the ball high, but Victor Valdes flung his arm up, and finger-tipped the ball over.

“What a save.”

Negredo rose well, but headed wide, but Chelsea were now dominating possession despite few real chances. Moses, enjoying a lot of the ball, blazed over.

The weather sharpened and my feet got colder and colder. There were a few spots of rain. Up went my hood.

Victor Valdes went down after a challenge, and it looked like he would be needing attention. I seized the moment. With half-time approaching, I decided to beat the half-time rush.

While in the gents in the under croft at the Riverside Stadium at around 4.47pm on Sunday 20 November 2016, I heard a roar above.

“Is that us?”

“Dunno.”

News travelled fast : Diego Costa.

There was a mixture of elation and despair.

“Bollocks, I’ve come all this way and I missed the goal.”

I quickly re-joined PD.

“Good goal?”

“A tap in from a corner.”

The half-time whistle blew immediately after.

At half-time, Chelsea were buoyant.

“We are top of the league. Say we are top of the league.”

As the second-half started, I couldn’t help but notice that there were two or three Middlesbrough fans in the section to my left constantly pointing and gesturing at some Chelsea fans in the away section close to me. A couple were going through the age old “you, outside!” malarkey. I suspect that their new-found bravery was quite probably linked to the fact that thirty soldiers were standing behind them.

The noise continued, but became murky with taunts and counter-taunts of “a town full of rent boys” and “Adam Johnson, he’s one of your own.”

Ugh.

It was still 1-0 to us, and as the game continued, I was convinced that Middlesbrough would equalise.

David Luiz was enjoying another fantastic game for us, heading cross after cross away, and then passing out of defence intelligently. On one occasion, he hopped and skipped past one challenge, before finding Diego Costa with a beautiful cross. His perfectly-weighted header set things up for Pedro, who smashed a volley past Valdes, but we watched as the ball agonizingly crashed down from the bar.

Moses then thrashed over again.

“Need a second goal, PD.”

We were still the better team, but there were moments when Middlesbrough threatened. Traore wasted a good opportunity and blazed over, but soon after Negredo raced forward and we held our breath. A low shot was battered away by Thibaut Courtois, his first real save of note during the game to date.

I was still worried.

As the clock ticked by, 1-1 haunted me.

Conte made some changes in the final ten minutes; Chalobah for Pedro, Ivanovic for Moses, Oscar for Hazard.

Middlesbrough had a few late surges, but our magnificent defence held firm.

At the final whistle, I clenched my fists and roared, along with three-thousand others.

It had been a war of attrition this one. The recent flair only appeared fleetingly, despite much possession. Middlesbrough looked a pretty decent team, but lacked a spark in front of goal. We knew we had passed a firm test on a cold evening on Teesside. Six league wins on the trot, and – most incredibly – not one single goal conceded. The noise emanating from the Chelsea fans as we squeezed out of the gates at The Riverside and into the cold night was a reflection of our lofty position but also in honour of our ability to eke out a narrow win when needed.

Diego Costa’s goal made it four wins out of four for me at Middlesbrough and – amazingly – I have never seen us lose to them home or away.

A cheap and cheerful burger outside the away end helped restore my energy and I slowly joined the legions of cars heading south. I managed to keep any tiredness at bay and the drive home, eventually getting in at 11.45pm, was remarkably easy.

It had been a decent weekend in Middlesbrough.

Tottenham – you are next.

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Tales From Firework Night.

Chelsea vs. Everton : 5 November 2016.

Everton have an atrocious record against us in the league at Stamford Bridge. We have not lost to them since Paul Rideout gave them a 1-0 win in November 1994, a game which marked the opening of the then North Stand. It is an unbeaten record which stretches back twenty-two consecutive seasons. If it wasn’t for our home record against Tottenham – twenty-six years unbeaten – then this is the one that everyone would be talking about.

So, we had that in our favour. The cumulative effect of all that misery would surely have some part to play on Everton’s performance; among their fans for sure, who must be well and truly fed-up with their trips to SW6 over the years. The Evertonians never seem to make too much noise at Chelsea. It is as if they have given up before the matches begin. But Everton would be no mugs. Ever since they jettisoned Roberto Martinez for Ronald Koeman, they have looked a far more convincing team.

For some reason, I kept thinking back to a game against Everton in Jose Mourinho’s first season with us. Almost to the day, twelve years previously, Everton had provided a tough test for us as we strode to top the division for the very first time that season. I remember a lone Arjen Robben strike at the near post at the Shed End after a sprint into the box. We won 1-0 that day and went top. The excitement in the packed stands was palpable. It was a great memory from 2004/2005. We would hardly look back the rest of that momentous season.

Fast-forward to 2016/2017. We went in to the game with Everton in fourth place and with a chance – albeit slim – to go top once again. However, once heavily-fancied Manchester City were at home to lowly Middlesbrough at 3pm, and I fully expected City to win that one.

But we live in a place called hope, and there was a chance that City might slip up.

We had heard that the team was again unchanged; no surprises there.

I was in the stadium at just after 5pm. I didn’t want to miss the club’s salute to the fallen, ahead of next week’s Remembrance Day.

There was a cold chill in the air, and we waited for the stands to fill. How different to the “pay on the gate” days of the old terraces, when the stadium would be virtually full a good half-an-hour before kick-off for the big games; this always added to the sense of occasion and the anticipation. There even used to be singing from the terraces before the teams came out.

I know – crazy days, eh?

The lights dimmed with about five minutes to go. Instead of the focus being singularly on Remembrance Day, the club had decided to celebrate Guy Fawkes’ Night with some fireworks being set off into the London night from atop the East and West Stands.

The air crackled to the sound of the detonations, and the night sky turned white.

It was over in a few moments, a few flashes.

The smell of sulphur lingered. For a few moments, Stamford Bridge seemed to be hosting a proper London Fog of yesteryear. I almost spotted Hughie Gallacher, a ghost from the foggy ‘thirties, appeal for a penalty, pointing with rage at a referee.

And then, the “Chelsea Remembers” flag, including two poppies either side of the club crest, appeared down below in the Matthew Harding Lower. The teams entered the pitch, with the striking scarlet tunics of two Chelsea Pensioners leading the way.

There was applause.

And then there was silence as the teams stood in in the centre-circle.

A moment of solemn remembrance.

Perfect.

At the shrill sound of the referee’s whistle, a thunderous boom from the stands.

I’m not sure, with hindsight, if it was right and proper to combine both a celebration of Firework Night and Remembrance Day. Did the former detract from the latter? I think so.

We had heard that, miraculously, Middlesbrough had equalised at Eastlands. The chance for us to go top was back “on.”

I love days like these.

The game began and there was hardly an empty seat in the house. Even at games which are advertised as “sold out” it is always possible to see a fair few empty seats. Not on this occasion. In the first few moments, we were able to be reunited with Romelu Lukaku, whose shoulders are as wide as the African tectonic plate. He had a few runs at our defence, but all was well in the vaunted back-three.

His partner upfront soon drew a comment from Alan alongside me :

“Bolasie – go home.”

We began playing the ball around with ease. I noted that even Gary Cahill now looked totally comfortable playing the ball out of defence.

The coldness of the early evening had resulted in a few players wearing gloves. Alan was soon grumbling.

“Short-sleeved shirts and gloves. What’s all that about?”

“Reminds me of me doing the washing up, Al.”

We were warming up to a sixty-second blitz. Out wide on the left, Eden Hazard received the ball. As is his wont, he took on a couple of Everton defenders and shimmied inside. A little voice inside my head doubted if he could score from so far out. I need not have worried one iota. A low shot beat Stekelenburg at the far post.

“YEEEEEEESSSSSS.”

I jumped up and bellowed my approval, and I soon spotted Eden run over towards the Chelsea bench, and then get engulfed by players. Conte was in and among them. What joy. I’m amazed how defenders allow Hazard to cut inside. Surely their pre-match planning was to show him outside.

In the very next move, Hazard played the ball into space for Pedro to run onto. His square pass evaded Diego, but Marcos Alonso was on hand to smash the ball home.

We were 2-0 up on just twenty minutes, and playing some wonderful football.

A lofted chip from Alonso picked out the late run of Victor Moses, whose hard volley crashed against the outside of the near post.

We were purring.

Our one touch football was magnificent. Everyone looked comfortable on the ball. Everyone worked for each other. There was so much more movement than in previous campaigns. It was as if a switch had been pressed.

A corner was swung in and Matic eased it on. The ball conveniently fell at the feet of the waiting Diego Costa. He wasted no time in slamming it in.

Chelsea 3 Everton 0.

Wow.

I leaned over and spoke to Alan : “I think we are safe now.”

Just before the break, Pedro worked an opening but shot wide. Then, well inside his own half, a sublime turn by the effervescent Pedro released Diego Costa. It seemed that every single one of us in the ground was on our feet and willing him on. He broke away, evaded his defenders, but shot wide when I had spotted a Chelsea player square. This was breathless stuff this.

Quite magical.

We were leading 3-0 and it so easily could have been 5-0.

Total domination.

Everton were simply not in it.

I commented to Alan, PD and Bournemouth Steve : “That’s one of the best halves of football I have ever seen here.”

This really was sublime stuff. A keenness to tackle, and to retrieve the ball, and an incredible array of flicks and touches to keep the momentum once in possession. We were unstoppable.

I noted that a fair few hundred Evertonians had vacated their seats after the third goal. Their creditable three thousand would dwindle further as the game progressed.

I spoke to Kev and Anna : “In all the time that Mourinho was in charge here, we never ever played free-flowing football as good as that.”

They agreed.

Soon in to the second-half, we were treated to another gem. Diego had already threatened the Everton goal on two occasions, but we were soon treated to another Hazard gem. He played a crafty one-two with Pedro, who back-heeled the ball in his path, and advanced. With that low centre of gravity, he just glided forward. This time, his left foot guided the ball just inside the Everton near post. The ‘keeper hardly moved.

What a finish. It amazed me.

Chelsea 4 Everton 0.

Super stuff.

Eden raced back towards his team mates, his tongue out, smiling, in a perfect moment. I noticed that all ten outfield players surrounded him in a close huddle. At the Shed End, Thibaut Courtois had hoisted himself on to the cross bar and had performed a handstand, with a back somersault on dismount. He was bored. It gave him something to do.

The Stamford Bridge crowd were on fire, and a new chant soon echoed around the stadium.

“Antonio. Antonio. Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

Simple but effective and so much better than that other one. The manager, raised his arms and clapped all four stands. It was his moment just as much as ours. Lovely stuff.

And still it continued.

A delightful back-heel from Eden and another lofted cross from Alonso resulted in a spectacular volley from Diego which was well saved by Stekelenburg.

I whispered to Steve : “Alonso has been fantastic – so much energy.”

On sixty-five minutes, Diego broke from the halfway line, showing great strength to race away from two markers, and strode on. He set up Eden who forced the ‘keeper to parry. The ball dropped at the feet of Pedro.

Bosh.

5-0.

Oh my oh my.

There was still twenty-five minutes to go and we were leading 5-0.

Oscar replaced Pedro, who received a standing ovation; he had been wonderful. Oscar dolloped a lovely ball for Diego to run on to, but the ball got stuck under his feet and the chance went begging. David Luiz volley from an angle forced Stekelenburg to tip over. Luiz had enjoyed another fine game. His series of “keepy-uppies” and a nonchalant pass to a waiting team mate drew warm applause.

And all through this demolition job, Antonio Conte did not sit for one minute. He paced the technical area, coaxing and cajoling his team to greater deeds. It was amazing to watch.

Everton were leggy and I almost felt sorry for them. They had been swept aside by a Chelsea whirlwind.

Conte, to my surprise, added Batshuayi to play alongside Costa. By this time, only a few hundred Evertonians were still in the stadium. I bet that they were not happy about us playing with an extra man in attack.

“Leave it out, la.”

Batshuayi replaced Eden.

It had been a perfect display from Eden. He had been simply unplayable.

A perfect ten.

We applauded him as loudly as anyone that I can remember in living memory.

Moses cut inside and Stekelenburg fumbled, but the ball stayed close to him. John Terry replaced Gary Cahill and soon played a superb faded ball through with his left foot, but we were flagged for offside.

It remained 5-0.

Five bloody nil.

Superb.

Maybe the club should have saved some fireworks for the end of this particular game. It would have ended the evening’s entertainment perfectly.

There had been a gathering of the clans in the pubs around Stamford Bridge before the game; Dave the Hat from France, Kevin and Richard from Edinburgh, Bob from California. I am sure that they, and everyone else, had loved every damn minute of it.

On the drive home, PD, Parky and myself were euphoric. Rarely had we played better. Sure, there have been more dramatic games of football, and more hard-fought victories, often resulting in silverware, but this one was so special. Everton had hardly had an attempt on goal the entire game. They are no slouches, but we could have won 8-0.

As I drove into the night, with fireworks exploding into the sky, I was reminded of a few other games where I had come away from Stamford Bridge, thinking “that was almost perfect.”

A 6-0 against Newcastle United in 1980 with two old-fashioned wingers and a beautiful “feel good factor” which lasted for weeks. The football had been wonderful.

A 4-0 against Newcastle United in 1983, when the John Neal team produced a near-perfect performance. Newcastle had been favourites for promotion but we were so dominant that day.

A 5-0 against Middlesbrough in 1996, and a fantastic show of one-touch football under Glenn Hoddle. A game which got the media talking and which made me feel energised for many weeks.

Since then, of course, we have enjoyed ridiculous riches, and I can rattle off many memorable games at Stamford Bridge. Three against Barcelona, a few against Liverpool, a few against Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United. But there was not a dramatic change in our playing style in any of those games.

But those three from 1980, 1983 and 1996, and the one against Everton on Firework Night 2016, seemed different; they signified that there was something fresh happening, that we had set new benchmarks for the future.

Incredible.

Remember remember the fifth of November?

We certainly won’t forget the one in 2016.

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