Tales From The Last One Of Seventy-Three

Chelsea vs. Watford : 22 May 2022.

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

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

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

Maybe not.

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

Sigh.

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

It’s just louder.

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

Some, admittedly, don’t get it.

Their loss.

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

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

“Home.”

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

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

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

Memories to last a very long time.

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

All the world in one place.

I loved it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down in The Shed, things were stirring.

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

A critique?

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

Lovely to see Micky Greenaway featured.

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

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

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

The teams entered the pitch.

Our starting eleven?

Edouard

Dave – Long John Silva – Rudi

Reece – Saul – N’Golo – Kenedy

Hakim – Kai – Mase

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

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

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

Oh the joy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RIP.

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

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

It was pretty dull stuff. I stifled some yawns.

Thomas Tuchel made some changes.

Malang Sarr for Kenedy.

Ross Barkley for Rudiger.

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

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

On seventy minutes :

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

It was almost a plea for help.

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

FORFUCKSAKE.

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

Then, crash bang wallop.

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

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

Of the two evils, City seem quite angelic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The chant continued seamlessly…

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

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

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

Ben Chilwell came on for Mason Mount.

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

The noise was still bowling around The Bridge.

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

GET IN YOU FUCKING BEAUTY.

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

Phew.

Chelsea 2 Watford 1.

What a breathless end to an otherwise mundane afternoon.

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

It was over.

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

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

Last season, I saw just two Chelsea games.

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

In 2021/22 I saw eighteen Frome Town games.

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

I need to get out more.

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

Here’s to seeing it again in August.

Have a good summer.

Tales From Stamford Bridge To Wembley

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 14 May 2022.

I am sure that I wasn’t the only Chelsea supporter who wasn’t a little fearful going into the 2022 FA Cup Final against Liverpool at Wembley. On the early morning drive into London – I collected PD as early as 6am – the feeling was of worry and impending doom. As has been proven by the league table – “the league table does not lie, it just sits down occasionally” – we are a fair distance behind both Liverpool and Manchester City this season, as we were last season and the season before it. Additionally, a defeat at the hands of the Scousers would mean a record-breaking third consecutive FA Cup Final loss. And that thought was just horrible too.

But, bollocks to all that, we were off to Wembley again and we kept ourselves contented with the usual badinage of wisecracks as I ate up the miles. I was hopeful that one of the great FA Cup Final weekends was upon us. We all live in hope, right?

But first, a walk down memory lane.

1972.

The first FA Cup final that I can ever remember watching took place in 1972. It was between Arsenal and Leeds United. My best friend Andy was an Arsenal fan, though I can’t honestly remember wanting them to win. I was a neutral. I can still remember a few bits about the day. I was six, coming up to seven, and already a mad-keen Chelsea supporter. I remember that it was the centenary of the first competition that took place in 1872, though of course not the actual one-hundredth final due to the wartime interruptions. I remember representatives of all of the previous winners parading around the perimeter of the old Wembley pitch with flags. I was proud to see the Chelsea flag. Leading up to the final, Esso were running a promotion celebrating the game. Collectible coins – to go in an album – were rewarded for petrol purchases. Suffice to say, I must have pleaded with my father to only fuel up at Esso for a few weeks. I still have the album, completed, to this day.

I remember Allan Clarke, from around the penalty spot, scoring with a diving header and David Coleman exploding “one-nil” as if the game was over at that exact moment. I can recall Mick Jones dislocating his shoulder as he fell awkwardly attempting a cross and hobbling up the steps to the royal box, bandaged like a mummy. Fifty years ago. Bloody hell. Looking back, this is the very first club game I can remember seeing live, though I am pretty sure the England vs. West Germany game just one week before it is the first full game I saw live on TV. Or at least the first I can remember seeing.

I think.

1973.

The FA Cup Final was huge in those days. It was the only club game shown live on TV – both channels – and would remain that way until 1983 apart from rare one-offs. On a trip to London in the autumn of 1973 we called in to see Uncle Willie, my grandfather’s brother, at either his house in Southall or at a nursing home at Park Royal (where my father would park for my first Chelsea game in 1974, but that is – and has been – another story.) After the visit, my father granted my wish to drive up to see Wembley Stadium. That I had not asked to see Stamford Bridge is surprising from fifty years away, but I am sure that my father would have been intimidated by the thought of traffic in those more central areas.

Wembley it was.

I can vividly remember sitting in his car as we wended our way up to Wembley. On that fateful cab trip to Wembley for the “aborted” FA Cup semi-final recently, I half-recognised the journey. I have always had a heightened sense of place and a recollection and memory of places visited in other times.

I remember Dad parking off Olympic Way and me setting eyes on the magnificence of the historic stadium. It sat on top of an incline, and the twin towers immediately brought a lump to the throat of the eight-year-old me. I remember walking up to the stadium, the steps rising to the arched entrances, the dirty-cream colour of the walls, the grass embankments. I veered left and possibly tried to peer down the tunnel at the East End, an end that would become known as the “lucky tunnel end” for FA Cup Finals over the next few decades. The stadium was huge. However, it needed a bit of a clean-up. It looked a bit grimy. But I loved the way it dominated that particular part of North London. The visit has stayed etched in my mind ever since even though I was only there for maybe twenty minutes.

“Come on Chris, we need to head home.”

I can almost picture my father’s worried look on his face, chivvying me on.

1997.

Our appearance in the 2022 FA Cup Final provided a perfect time to recollect our appearance in the much-loved 1997 FA Cup Final; the quarter of a century anniversary.

Here are my recollections.

The 1996/97 season was a beautiful one, but also a sad one. The death of Matthew Harding in October 1996 hit all of us hard, and the immediate aftermath was tough on us all. Remarkably, our spirits rose not so long after Matthew’s tragic death when we signed Gianfranco Zola from Parma. It felt like, in the same way that getting Mickey Thomas in 1984 completed that wonderful team, the signing of the Italian magician helped complete the team being assembled by Ruud Gullit.

The FA Cup run was the stuff of legends. I went to most games.

West Brom at home : an easy win, 3-0.

Liverpool at home : the greatest of games, losing 0-2 at half-time, we turned it round to triumph 4-2.

Leicester City away : a 2-2 draw, I watched on TV.

Leicester City at home : Erland Johnsen’s finest moment and a Frank Leboeuf penalty gave us a 1-0 win in extra-time.

Pompey away : a 4-0 win in the mist, I watched on TV.

Wimbledon at Highbury : 3-0, a breeze, Zola’s twist to score in front of us in the North Bank.

On the Thursday before the Cup Final itself, we watched Suggs perform “Blue Day” on “TOTP” and the pleasure it gave us all is unquantifiable. Everything was well in the world, or in my world anyway. In the January of 1997, I was given a managerial job in my place of employment, a bit more dosh to follow the boys over land and sea, and maybe even Leicester next time.

On the Saturday of the final, a beautiful sun-filled morning, Glenn drove to London with two passengers; our friend Russel, eighteen, about to sit his “A Levels”, and little old me. I was thirty-one with no silverware to show for years and years of devotion to the cause. We parked-up at Al’s flat in Crystal Palace, caught the train at the local station, changed at Beckenham Junction and made our way to “The Globe” at Baker Street via London Bridge. We bumped into a few familiar faces from our part of the world – can you spot PD? – and enjoyed a sing-song before heading up to Wembley Park.

Funny the things I remember.

Lots and lots of singing on the way to Wembley. We felt unbeatable, truly. Ben Shermans for Daryl and myself. Lots of Chelsea colours elsewhere. I had just bought a pair of Nike trainers and I had not worn the bastards in. They pinched my feet all day long. We posed for my “VPN” banner underneath the twin towers. However, I tried to hoist it once inside, using small sticks, but was immediately told to hand it all in at a “left luggage” section in the concourse. Our seats were low-down, corner flag. Unfortunately, I had a killer headache all bloody game.

The Roberto di Matteo goal after just forty-three seconds was insane. Limbs were flailing everywhere. Oh my fucking head.

The dismal 1994 FA Cup Final was recollected, briefly. For that game, we only had about 17,000 tickets and it seemed that all neutral areas were United. In 1997, all the neutral tickets seemed to be hoovered up by us. Not sure how that worked to this day. I remember virtually nothing about the game except for Eddie Newton’s prod home at our end to make it safe at 2-0.

When Wisey lifted the famous silver pot, twenty-six years of waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting were evaporated.

It was always going to be “Matthew’s Cup” and so it proved. At the time, it was the best day of my life. Since, I have had two better ones; Bolton in 2005 and then Munich in 2012. But for anyone that was supporting the club on Saturday 17 May 1997, it was a feeling that was pretty indescribable.

So I won’t even try. Just look at the fucking pictures.

After the game, I remembered to collect my banner but I don’t remember how we reached Fulham Broadway. It seemed that all of the bars around the stadium had closed. We weren’t sure if this was because there was no beer left or if the police had said “enough.” One image stays in my mind. The Fulham Road was still closed for traffic and a sofa was sat in the middle of the road. Thankfully, we de-camped to our pub of choice that season, The Harwood Arms, and Pat and his three “Sisters of Murphy” let us in.

If there is a more blissful photo of Chelsea fans from that day – Neil, me, Daryl, Alan, Glenn outside the pub – then I would like to see it. We made it back to South London via Earls Court and God knows where else. We watched the game, taped, when we reached Alan’s flat late that night. We fell asleep happy.

On the Sunday morning, the big man made us breakfasts. We all hopped into Glenn’s car and made our way back to Fulham with “Blue Day” playing on a loop the entire day. Both Alan and I took our camcorders for the parade. The film I have of us driving along Wandsworth Bridge Road, Chelsea bunting everywhere, is a wonderful memory of another time, another place, lost in time.

We plotted up outside the old tube station. The double-decker with Chelsea players stopped right in front of us. Photographs. Film. Everyone so happy. Fans wedged on shop roofs. Almost hysteria. Chelsea shirts everywhere. A wonderful weekend.

2022.

I made good time heading East. The roads were clear. As I was lifted over the Chiswick flyover, we all spotted the Wembley Arch a few miles to the north. Maybe it thrills the current generation in the same way the Twin Towers used to thrill others…

In the pub against Wolves, some friends from the US – step forward Chad, Josh and Danny – said we could kip in their AirB’n’B for the Saturday night. The plan was, originally, for me to drive up and back and therefore be unable to partake in a few bevvies. This kind offer solved that problem. But this wasn’t just any AirB’n’B…this was a little studio flat right underneath the old Shed Wall at Stamford Bridge.

“From Stamford Bridge To Wembley” was about right.

But first a magic breakfast at a café in Hammersmith.

Sausages, fried eggs, baked beans, bacon, hash browns, mushrooms, two rounds of toast and a mug of Rosie Lea.

I looked over at PD.

“I say this so often. Hope this ain’t the high spot of the fucking day.”

We weren’t sure.

I drove to Baron’s Court, parked up, then we caught the tube to Fulham Broadway. We soon bumped into the Minnesota Triplets. We left our bags in the apartment and set off. The Americans were waiting, nervously, for their tickets to arrive via royal mail post.

Time for a photo outside the Bovril Gate.

“From Stamford Bridge To Wembley.”

I had planned a little pub-crawl that mirrored the one in 2018 that we had enjoyed before our win against Manchester United. We made our way to London Bridge. “The Mudlark” next to Southwark Cathedral was closed, so at just after 11am we made our way to one of London’s glorious pubs “The Old Thameside Inn” where we met up with Russ from Melbourne, the Kent boys, Steve from Salisbury, Dan from Devon and the three Americans. The weather was red hot. There were the usual laughs. After an hour or so, we sought shade in “The Anchor At Bankside”, another riverside favourite.

Six pints of “Peroni” hardly touched the sides.

But we were still all loathe to talk about the game.

Thankfully, I had seen very few Liverpool supporters at this point; just one in fact.

At around 2.15pm, we set off for Wembley. A Jubilee Line train from London Bridge took us straight up to Wembley Park, a repeat of 1997.

I lost PD and Parky, and walked with Steve up towards Wembley for a while. Whether it was because of the abhorrent abundance of half-and-half scarves being worn by many, or the fact that the famous vista of Wembley from distance is no longer as spine-chilling as in decades gone by, or just…well, “modern football”; I was having a bit of a downer to be honest.

Wembley is now absolutely hemmed in by flats, hotels, restaurants. There is no sense of place about the new gaff at all.

After my issues with getting in against Palace, this one was easy. No searches, straight in. I took the elevators up to the fifth level, with no bloody Scouser sliding in behind me like at the League Cup Final.

We were in ridiculously early, at about 3.30pm or so.

I was so pleased to Les from nearby Melksham. He had ‘phoned us, distraught, at 6.30am and asked us to keep an eye out for a spare. His ticket had gone ten rounds with his Hotpoint washing machine the previous evening and was much the worse for wear. Thankfully, he kept the stub – there’s a stub? – and Wembley were able to reprint it.

As the seats filled up around us, a surprising number of friends were spotted close by.

The two Bobs, Rachel and Rob, Kev, Rob Chelsea, Dave and Colin.

I was, in fact, in a Wembley section that was new to me; the north-east corner of the top tier. This would be my twenty-fourth visit to Wembley with Chelsea apart from the Tottenham away games. Of the previous twenty-three, I had only been seated in the lower deck on five occasions. And the East/West split has provided vastly differing fortunes.

The West End 14 : Won 11 and Lost 3

The East End 9 : Won 4 and Lost 5

So much for the lucky “tunnel” end. The West End at new Wembley was clearly our luckier-end.

Pah.

The seats – the ones in our end, or at least the ones in the lower tier, would be baking, with no respite from the sun – took ages to fill up. It annoyed the fuck out of me that every spare foot of balcony wall in the Liverpool end was festooned with red flags and banners. Our end was sparsely populated.

Chelsea tend to go for geographical locations on our flags honouring fan groups in various parts of the UK and beyond.  Liverpool tend to go with white text on red honouring players and managers. Obviously, you never see St. George flags at Anfield, nor at Old Trafford for that matter.

The kick-off approached.

With about half an hour to go, we were introduced to a spell of deafening dance music from DJ Pete Tong, who was visible on the giant TV screens, seemingly having a whale of a time. The noise boomed around Wembley. This annoyed me. Rather than let fans generate our own atmosphere in that final build-up to the game, we were forced to listen to music that wasn’t football specific, nor relevant to anything.

It was utter shite.

“Pete Tong” infact.

With minutes to go, the Liverpool end was packed while our end had many pockets of empty red seats. Surely not the biggest ignominy of all? Surely we would sell all our Cup Final tickets? I had a worried few minutes.

The pre-match, the final moments, got under way.

The pitch was covered in a massive red carpet. Ugh. More bloody red.

I joined in with “Abide With Me” though many didn’t.

“In life. In death. Oh Lord. Abide with me.”

The only surprise was that said DJ didn’t mix it with a Balearic Anthem from the ‘eighties.

With the teams on the pitch, and Chelsea in all yellow – why? – it was now time for the national anthem. Again, I sang heartily along to this even though I am no fervent royalist. I wanted to be respectful and to add to the occasion.

With my awful voice booming out, I did not hear the Liverpool end booing it. But I was soon reliably informed by many that they were.

There was a time in the ‘seventies, at the height of the era of football fans revelling in being anti-social, that supporters often sang club songs over “God Save The Queen” but no team actually booed the national anthem at Cup Finals.

Liverpool seem to love doing it. It’s their “thing.” And while I can understand that some sections of the United Kingdom feel unloved and disenfranchised, it is this feeling among Liverpool Football Club supporters of them being “special cases” that grates with me and many. Do supporters of clubs from other currently and previously impoverished cities throughout England take such great pleasure in such “anti-Royal / anti-establishment” behaviour?

Save it for the ballot boxes, Liverpool fans.

Stop besmirching the name of your club and your city.

As Tracey Thorn once sang “narrow streets breed narrow minds” and there must be some awfully narrow streets around Anfield.

There were flames as the pre-match nonsense continued. It meant the opening minutes of the game was watched through a haze.

Those seats were still empty in our end.

FUCK.

We lined up as below :

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

James – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Lukaku – Pulisic

A big game for Trevoh. A big game for Christian. A massive game for Romelu. Happy to see Mateo starting after his gruesome injury at Leeds United.

Liverpool began very brightly, attacking us in the east, and at the end of the first ten minutes I was supremely grateful that they were not one, or more, in front. They peppered our goal. We were chasing shadows and other clichés. However, Chalobah did well to recover and thump a goal-bound shot from Luis Diaz away from inside the six-yard box after Edouard Mandy had initially blocked the shot. A rebound was flashed wide. At the end of this opening flurry, I counted five decent attacks from the men in red.

We were hanging on.

Thankfully, ten minutes later, all of our seats were now occupied.

That temptation of “one last pint” at Marylebone is always a tough one.

I have often thought that our current team lacks a little personality, undoubtedly compared to certain teams that we have known and loved over the years. It often feels the current crop are missing charisma – even Quaresma would be half-way there – and I really wanted the team to show some mettle and get back into this game. The Liverpool fans were by far the loudest in the opening quarter and I wanted us, the fans, to show some charisma too.

We improved, both on and off the pitch.

A decent move down the right, probably the best of the match thus far, involving James and Mount set up Pulisic but his delicate shot rolled just wide of the far post. Next up, Pulisic set up Alonso but Alisson blocked after a heavy first touch from our raiding wing-back,

Chelsea were now much louder while Liverpool had quietened down considerably. It became a cagier game in the last part of the first-half, but I thought it a good game. This is however based on the fact that we weren’t getting pummelled, that we were in it.

My worst, worst, nightmare was for us to lose…pick a number…3-0? 4-0? 5-0?

But this was fine. Silva was looking as dominant as ever. With him in the team, we had a chance right?

More of the same please, Chelsea.

Into the second-half, we blitzed Liverpool in the opening few minutes, mirroring what had had happened in the first-half, though with roles reversed.

A smart move allowed Alonso, always a threat to opposing teams in the opposition box, but so often a threat to us in our own box, drilled one wide. Pulisic then wriggled and weaved but Alisson again foiled him. The scorer against Arsenal in 2020 – a game I often forget about for obvious reasons – was getting into good positions but needed to find the corners.

The third of three decent chances in the first five minutes of the second-half came from a free-kick from a tight angle, with Alonso slamming a direct hit against the crossbar.

“Fucksakechels.”

The wing-backs were often the focal points, and we were finding space in wide areas. This was good stuff.

Diaz screwed one just wide.

“CAREFREE” absolutely boomed around Wembley.

A young lad standing behind me initiated a loud “Zigger Zagger”; good work, mate.

We were in this game. All along, I had toyed with the Football Gods by silently wishing for a penalty shoot-out win as revenge for this season’s League Cup Final defeat.

The game continued, but we couldn’t quite keep the attacks going. There were only half-chances. But I still thought it a decent tight game.

On sixty-six minutes, N’Golo Kante replaced Kovacic.

Diaz, again a threat, bent one wide of the far post.

A few players were looking tired now, as was I. My feet were killing me. With less than ten minutes to go, Diaz cut in on our left and slammed a shot against Mendy’s near post.

A largely ineffectual Lukaku was replaced by Hakim Ziyech with five minutes to go.

A deep cross from the horrible Milner, on as a substitute, evaded everyone and David Robertson hot the back post. Another curler from Diaz always looked like going wide. It is so weird that even from one-hundred yards away, the trajectory of shots can be surmised.

I guess I watch a lot of live games, eh?

The referee blew up for full-time.

My wish for penalties – down our end please – looked a strong possibility.

The red end sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before the first-period of extra-time and we prepared for an extra thirty-minutes of terror.

Football, eh?

More tired bodies on the pitch and up in The Gods. The two periods of fifteen minutes were not of high quality. Were both teams hanging on for penalties? Were we all?

We went close from a cross on the right but a Liverpool defender hacked it away before Pulisic could make contact. I loved how Kante chased down a Liverpool attack out on their right. What a player.

I painfully watched as Alonso just didn’t have the legs, try as he might, to match the pace of his marker as a ball was pushed past him.

Dave replaced Chalobah and Ruben replaced Pulisic.

The players were now dead on their feet and so was I.

Then, a bizarre substitution in the last minute of the game.

Ross Barkley for Ruben.

I think that I last saw him at Bournemouth, pre-season.

The referee blew up.

Another 0-0.

I got my penalties, and – thankfully – at our end too. I hoped that Liverpool would lose in the most tragic way possible.

Alas, alas…

We began OK with Alonso striking home. Then Thiago scored. Dave hit the post and our world caved in. I was dumbstruck as I saw more than a few Chelsea fans walk out. Wankers. We then exchanged goals – James, Barkley, Jorginho – with Liverpool but with their last kick, Sadio Mane’s strike was saved low by Mendy.

Hugs with the stranger next to me.

He beamed : “That’s for those that walked out.”

Sudden-death now.

Ziyech : in.

Jota : in.

Mount : saved.

Tsimikas : in.

We were silent. The Liverpool end roared. Red flares cascaded down onto the pitch. We trudged silently out, up to Wembley Park, a horrendous wait in a warm train, oh my bloody feet, and back – trying to rely on gallows humour to get us through – eventually to Earl’s Court for a few drinks and some food. It was our year in 1997 but not in 2022.

Nor 2021.

Nor 2020.

Three FA Cup Final defeats in a row. We have now played in sixteen of them, winning eight and losing eight. After our dominance from 2007 to 2012 – four wins – we need our fucking lucky West end back.

The three of us eventually got back to Fulham Broadway at about 10.30pm and met up with Josh, Chad and Danny.

From Wembley to Stamford Bridge, the return journey over, we fell asleep under The Shed Wall.

1997

2022

Tales From The John Charles Stand

Leeds United vs. Chelsea : 11 May 2022.

This was it, then. The long-awaited trip to Elland Road. My last visit was towards the tail end of the 2000/1 season, although the club’s last League visit was in 2003/4. I didn’t go to the League Cup game in December 2012; it came too soon after the jaunt to Japan. Of course, last season the game was behind closed doors, a phrase that I hope that we never have to hear ever again.

Was I looking forward to it?

“By heck as like” and other Yorkshire clichés.

As soon as the weekend had finished and the collapse against Wolves was behind me, I could not wait to be pounding the tarmac once more. I had booked two half days for this one. I left work at midday and deviated south to collect Parky and then PD. We set off from Frome at just before 1pm. It was a 7.30pm kick-off in West Yorkshire. Plenty of time.

It was mainly a decent enough trip north. There were rain showers to start but these cleared soon enough. The rest of the journey was spent with me gazing at a Simpsons sky and hoping that any ominous billowing and darkening clouds on the horizon would not ruin our trip. We stopped at Strensham, just south of Worcester, on the M5 at around 2.30pm and then at Woolley Edge, just north of Barnsley, at around 5pm. We then hit a fair bit of slow-moving traffic which meant that our arrival time at “The Drysalters” pub by Elland Road took place at 6pm rather than the envisaged 5.30pm. I dropped the boys off in the pub car park and soon found a cheap place to park nearby.

As I locked my car, a Leeds fan called out.

“Here we go again.”

I replied “yeah, maybe.”

“The Drysalters” pub is well known to me. I have parked in the car park on two occasions before. We soon spotted Deano, and his son-in-law Steve – a PNE fan – and also three lads from Wiltshire. The three amigos from Northampton were drinking outside in the sun too. There were Chelsea fans everywhere. This sort of scenario would not have happened in the ‘eighties or even ‘nineties when survival was the key pre-game buzzword. Next, Josh appeared with a pint of Diet Coke for me, along with his two mates from Minnesota, Chad and Danny.

A younger set of Chelsea fans were loudly singing the praises of Thomas Tuchel, Thiago Silva, Timo Werner and Edouard Mendy.

“He comes from Senegal.”

After just one drink apiece to quench our thirsts, we walked over to Elland Road.

Previous visits came to mind.

The first one came in early May 1987. One of my mates at college, Bob, was a Leeds United supporter and had visited Stamford Bridge with me to see a couple of games in 1985/86 and 1986/87. It was time for me to repay the honour. We travelled up by train from Stoke, had a couple of pints near the central station and watched Leeds beat West Brom 3-2 in their final home game of a Second Division season. The gate of 24,688 was their highest that season. What do I remember? The day began with an excellent pint of Sam Smith’s bitter in the pub beforehand. We watched with all the Leeds loons in the infamous South Stand. I remember a pitch invasion at the end and John Sheridan being carried on fans’ shoulders. And of course I remember them singing about us.

“Shoot the Chelsea scum.”

That season would end disappointingly for Leeds. They had already lost to Coventry City in an FA Cup Semi-Final at Hillsborough and they would go on to lose in the play-offs to Charlton Athletic.

My first visit with Chelsea was in September 1988 when both clubs found themselves in the Second Division again. I was working in the cold store of a local dairy and as was the case with my other long trips north by train that season – Stoke City and Manchester City too – I was coming off a night-shift. I remember struggling to stay awake on both legs of the journey to Leeds. We were yet to win a match after five games in the league and the match at Elland Road – with me watching in the South Stand, now given to away fans much to the consternation of the locals – would be a tough test. Thankfully, an early John Bumstead goal – off his ‘arris – and one from Gordon Durie gave us a surprising but deeply enjoyable win. I don’t remember any trouble at that game despite hundreds of Leeds fans milling around as we caught buses back to the station from right outside the away end.

Next up was a game in November 1995 in which I drove up from Somerset, met up with my mate Ian – Rotherham United – at Stafford and watched from the main stand using tickets that Bob, I think, had bought for us. It was a pretty decent performance and I believe I am correct in saying that it was the first time that Glenn Hoddle had switched to us playing with wing backs – Dan Petrescu and Gareth Hall – outside a back three – Erland Johnsen, David Lee and Michael Duberry – only for us to succumb to a late sucker punch from the boot of Tony Yeboah. I can’t recollect moving a muscle when Leeds scored that goal. Having a mate from South Yorkshire next to me probably disguised my allegiances.

A year later, in December 1996, a Sunday game – live on the TV – and a meek 0-2 loss to a Leeds United team that included Ian Rush. He even scored against us. We were pushed up into the quadrant of yellow seats by the South Stand for this and I can remember our away following was awful, maybe only around 1,000. It was a long old drive home that Sunday evening with work in the morning.

My final visit took place in April 2001. I had driven up with Glenn and had collected Alan at Stafford en route to save the boy some money. I often did that in those days. Leeds United were a force to be reckoned with at that time. We were back in the South Stand, played decently enough but lost 0-2 to two very late Leeds goals from Robbie Keane and Mark Viduka, with the goals coming in the final five minutes. A tidy roast at Brighouse after the game almost made up for our defeat.

With relegation threatening Leeds, I decided to make the most of my visit to Elland Road and sped off to take some shots of the stadium. If relegation follows in a few weeks, who knows when I would return. It really was hard to believe I was last outside the South Stand over twenty-one years ago.

Many home fans were wearing the iconic bar scarf from the ‘seventies. I have to say – and my pal Gary agreed with me at the game – that it still looks class. Those tri-colour bar scarves of Leeds United – white, yellow, blue – and Manchester United – red, white, black – and even us – red, green white – were fantastic. I remember the “smiley” badge too, a real ‘seventies classic. Gary and I would mention the Admiral kits. They defined the mid-‘seventies. And the numbered tie-ups on the socks. They were unique. I remembered the “Leeds United AFC” frontage to the West Stand. Bob and I were photographed outside there in 1987, me with a jade Marc O’Polo sweatshirt, one of my favourites, and of course it brought back memories of that classic scene from “Porridge” too.

I spotted a few columns of ‘seventies concrete as the South Stand disappeared around a corner. That a few pillars of brutalist architecture should please me so much is something that I don’t really want to dwell on too much, but it is a sure sign that on these away trips to altered stadia there is no doubt that I love seeing hints of a past.

“The Old Peacock” pub – as iconic a Leeds United sight if ever there was – is now temporarily renamed “The Bielsa” and I remembered walking down the hill towards it from Beeston for the 1995 game, deposited there in a taxi with Ian after a drink in the city centre. There’s a statue of Billy Bremner on the corner, with floral tributes all around. The East Stand is huge. It was built in 1993 on the site of the Lowfields Stand. For a short time, it was the largest stand in the United Kingdom, holding some 17,000, before being overtaken by Celtic and then Manchester United. I can remember the whole of Elland Road being shunted twenty yards to the north in around 1972 with the South Stand being built.

It was time to get inside.

There was a bag check outside the away turnstiles and my SLR was waved through. The old main stand, the West Stand, is now named the John Charles after the Leeds United – and Juventus, among others – centre-forward. I made my way upstairs…the steps were carpeted, as was the away bar area.

Carpets in the away end. In Yorkshire.

Whatever next?

I had a cracking seat. Parky, Gary, Alan and I were in the very front row of the upper section. Sadly, the shunting of the pitch in the early ‘seventies meant that those to my far right – geographically, not politically – were left with a shocking view of the pitch, way past the goal line. I had a great view and even I was behind it.

I spotted many familiar faces. It was lovely to see so many mates.

The sun was still out, catching the East Stand and making it come alive. I looked around. The Kop is now the Don Revie Stand. The East Stand is now the Jack Charlton Stand. The South Stand is now the Norman Hunter Stand. They still dote on that ‘seventies era. It is as if Howard Wilkinson’s League Championship in 1992 never happened. Oh wait, the away bar at Elland Road is called “Howard’s Bar” and that seems a mite disrespectful.

I would talk to Gary about that team during the game.

“Great midfield. Gary Speed, David Batty, Gary McAllister, Gordon Strachan. Had it all.”

“Fanfare For A Common Man” was played on the PA, just like at Wolves. Then came the Leeds anthem “Marching On Together.” Despite my dislike of Leeds throughout my life, my friendship with Bob and Trev – mentioned in a Brentford game this season – means that I am afraid to admit that I knew the words to a few of the songs I would hear during the evening.

The teams entered the pitch.

Leeds in all white. Chelsea in all blue.

Stay still my beating heart.

Our team?

Mendy

Christensen – Rudiger – Chalobah

James – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Pulisic – Lukaku – Mount

Pre-match, I feared the worst. I need not have worried. We began so brightly and, with memories of Johnny B’s early goal in 1988, we were soon jumping around like fools. A fine move down our right and the ball was played in sweetly by Reece James for Mason Mount, shades of Frank Lampard at his peak, arriving at just the right time to strike the ball firmly past the Leeds ‘keeper Illan Meslier, aged twelve and three-quarters. Mase raced over to wind up the Leeds fans in the far corner.

Ha.

Alan and I resurrected our “THTCAUN / COMLD” routine.

We were playing some lovely expansive stuff and were finding lots of space out wide. We were playing one-touch football where we could, and I had to ask Alan for some smelling salts. To their credit, all of the Leeds fans in The Kop, the stand opposite and the South Stand – old habits die hard – were standing throughout, and contrasted wildly to the Everton fans in the Park End a couple of weeks ago.

“Marching On Together.”

We were purring, and Lukaku was much improved. His movement, his work rate, his involvement. It was good to see.

On around twenty-five minutes, Daniel James – a scorer in that horrible 0-4 loss at Old Trafford in 2019 – scythed down Mateo Kovacic, who up until that point was arguably our best player, and I told Gary “I reckon that’s a red.”

The referee had soon made up his mind.

Red.

Kovacic, full of running, could run no more. After trying to run off his injury, he was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

“That might mean less movement, Gal.”

But again I need not have worried. A super run from the sub soon after looked so graceful and it certainly cheered us.

From the Chelsea choir :

“Leeds. Leeds are falling apart. Again.”

There was a glancer from Lukaku on thirty-three minutes that narrowly missed the far post. This was heart-warming stuff indeed. The cross had come from the trusted boot of Reece out on the right, who was finding even more space to exploit. The exact same could be said of Marcos Alonso on the left.

In our packed section, we were at our Dambustering best.

“We all fucking hate Leeds.”

Kalvin Phillips then hacked down Christian Pulisic. This game was living up to the hype, an old-fashioned affair with pulsing runs from deep, mis-timed tackles, battles in key areas.

I turned to Alan : “remember that game at Chelsea in 1997 when they had two sent-off?”

When the home team was rewarded with a rare corner in front of me, I was surprised that the home fans didn’t respond with their old “Leeds! Leeds! Leeds! Leeds!” with associated chest beating. That must have fallen from grace since my last visit.

They had, instead, turned into a crowd of scarf-twirlers.

The game was halted for a good few minutes when it became apparent that there had been a medical emergency in the lower section of the away support to my left. Sadly, the home fans sung throughout and even dirtied their name further with a couple of offensive comments about “soft southern bastards.”

On a day that marked the anniversary of the Bradford Fire, this sadly reminded me of a typically shocking moment involving Leeds supporters in the autumn of 1986. Sixteen months after the fire at Valley Parade in May 1985, and with Bradford City hosting Leeds at the Odsal Stadium, some Leeds fans set fire to a chip-van high on the terracing at one end of the stadium.

To this day, I am left shaking my head.

Just at the end of the half, Trevoh Chalobah sent in a scuffler that went wide of the Leeds goal.

It was a fine first-half performance, but was I the only one who was a little worried that we hadn’t created more chances?

The second-half began with Chelsea even more on top and full of running against a Leeds team that were looking like they had already given up on the game, on survival, on life itself. But the home fans were still singing. To be fair, we couldn’t hear the other stands, but from the evidence from The Kop – no gesticulating, no clapping in unison, nowt – it as just the rabble to our right that were making the noise.

“The Yorkshire Republican Army. We’re barmy. Wherever we go. We fear no foe.”

Two chances showed our intent. A header from Lukaku was high, a volley from Loftus-Cheek went wide.

Then, on fifty-five minutes, a beautiful move involving Jorginho and Mount set up Pulisic on the edge of the box. He took a touch…I said out loud “he can find the corners” and my pulse quickened…

The low shot was perfectly struck, down low, to the left, “corners.”

GET IN.

The scorer almost grabbed a second, curling one just wide and as I found myself looking up at the TV screen to my right, both he and myself were pulling the same pained expression.

Next up, Lukaku – full of spirit – took on his marker and rifled just wide too. His play was getting better and better. Yet only as recently as just before the Wolves game had kicked-off, Oxford Frank and I had binned him off.

There were wildly loud renditions of “Que Sera Sera” – the “Wembley” version by us and not the “Father’s Gun” version by them – and then “Carefree.”

Carl from Stoke, down below me, turned up towards us and yelled :

“ONE MAN WENT TO MOW”

And we all followed.

This was a noisy old game.

I turned to Al : “To be fair, the South Stand haven’t stopped singing all night.”

We continued.

“We all hate Leeds scum. We all hate Leeds scum. We all hate Leeds scum. We all hate Leeds scum.”

Though this was tame stuff compared to the “witty” interchange about one of Leeds’ sons, but that’s not for here.

On seventy-eight minutes, a double substitution from Thomas Tuchel, who was now flavour of the month again.

Hakim Ziyech for Pulisic. The American had certainly enjoyed a fine game.

Dave for Reece. Saving our star man for the next game no doubt.

On eighty-three minutes, Mount robbed the ball and passed to Ziyech. He then found Lukaku inside the box. What followed was doggedness personified. Surrounded by Leeds defenders, he turned and tried to create an opening for himself. He moved the ball, eventually, onto his left peg and smashed the ball in.

BOSH.

Talk about drama.

His euphoria after was matched by all of us in the John Charles Stand.

I took about twenty-five photos of the move, the goal, the celebrations. I was exhausted as he was by the end of it all.

Fackinell.

Leeds were still singing at the end, but so were we.

“You’re going down. You’re going down. You’re going down. You’re going down. You’re going down.”

I remember only one Leeds effort on our goal in the entirety of that one-sided second-half, a header that was rising high before it left the bloke’s head. It was a deeply satisfying performance. And yet a little voice in my head kept saying –

“It’s only Leeds, mate.”

For the first time that I can remember at a domestic game in decades, we were penned in after the match had ended. After twenty minutes we were let out onto the streets of Beeston. On the walk back to the car, there was time for a tasty cheese burger with onions. It rounded off a wonderful night out in West Yorkshire.

I said to PD : “Makes it all worthwhile, nights like this. We travel some miles, we don’t always get the results, or sometimes it’s all a bit flat. This was bloody superb. A great night out.”

It also meant that I had accomplished a full set of league aways for only the third time in my life.

2008/9 : 19/19.

2015/16 : 19/19.

2021/22 : 19/19.

I eventually reached my home a few minutes after three o’clock.

Next up, the FA Cup Final at Wembley on Saturday.

Leeds United can only dream of such things.

1988

2001

2022

Tales From An Unhappy Birthday

Norwich City vs. Chelsea : 10 March 2022.

Just after midnight on the day of our game at Carrow Road, I posted on Facebook the following :

“Happy Birthday Chelsea Football Club. Let’s celebrate it with a win later today.”

This was going to be another long old day. I had booked the day off work but was unable to get Friday off too. So it meant that I would be driving straight back after the match. I envisaged around ten hours’ driving in total. I did wonder if we’d completely fill our section, what with the game being only recently re-arranged, but that was soon to be the least of my worries.

I collected the gruesome twosome and by 9am we had stopped for a McBite to eat in the Wiltshire town of Melksham. Just as we were leaving, a friend messaged a group of us on WhatsApp to say that the government were putting sanctions on Roman Abramovich. My immediate reaction was that I wasn’t wholly surprised. But then, within minutes, the word was that it didn’t look good for us. It didn’t look good at all. I quickly turned my ‘phone off and recommenced the long drive east. PD, alongside me in the passenger seat, relayed some snippets of further information. Only season ticket holders were to be allowed at Stamford Bridge, the club shop was to be closed, but also – most worryingly of all – came the news that we couldn’t be sold.

PD summed it all up : “We’re fucked.”

Driving along the M4, nearing Swindon, I advised the chaps to turn their ‘phones off too. In the way that bad news travels much faster than good news, I suspected that the morning would soon be rife with awful rumours and doom-laden opinions about the immediate future of Chelsea Football Club. For a good hour or so, my car has never been quieter on the way to a Chelsea game. All three of us were stunned.

“And on our bloody birthday too. Stick the knife in and turn it, why don’t you?”

And yet. And yet, I could not help think of the poor people of Ukraine, who were at that very moment in time getting shelled by the Russian invaders. A part of me knew that in the very grand scheme of things the comings-and-goings of a football club seemed way less important.

Still we remained largely silent.

But we did mull over a few thoughts. I will admit, at some stage in that mid-morning mess, the three of us contemplated the most horrible “what if?” of all time.

What if Chelsea ceased to exist? What on Earth would we do?

My answer was obvious.

“I’d watch Frome Town. I know I wouldn’t enjoy it anything as like as much, but that’s always been part of my exit plan.”

I could hardly believe that we were thinking it and that I was discussing it. It was a rotten time. Looking back, that hour-and-a-half drive east along the M4 is a blur, a foggy memory, a fugue.

We hit the M25, the M11, the A11 and eventually the fine city of Norwich. I parked up not long after 1.30pm, some five-and-a-half hours since picking up PD in Frome. Despite the sullen thoughts racing through our minds, we promised each other to make the most of the day. Outside, the weather was mild, and overhead the sky was a cloudless blue miracle. I was parked just outside the city centre, just to the north of the River Wensum. We were honing in on one of my favourite pubs, “The Ribs Of Beef” but first we shot into “The Mischief”, a pub that we visited on the day of our FA Cup game in Norwich in 2018.

We all remembered our last trip to Norwich, only two-and-a-half years previous, but that day seems so distant now. In August 2019 – the sun blazing – we watched as Chelsea won 3-2 and Frank Lampard picked up his first win as a Chelsea manager. So much has happened since that it seems almost ridiculous to contemplate it all.

COVID19, several lockdowns, my heart attack, the dismissal of Lampard, the hiring of Tuchel, Champions League glory, Cup Finals, World Championships, a war in Europe and now the forced departure of Roman Abramovich.

My head is spinning as I am listing all of this.

We spent some quality time in the two pubs, and then hopped over the street to finish off at “The Glass House”, where Adam and his merry men and women of the Eastern Blues were enjoying a pre-match drink-up. It was in another pub on that street, “The Lawyer”, where we bumped into Adam and a few more of his crowd in 2018. Alas, that pub is no more. Sadly, the Eastern Blues lost a fine member the past year – Leigh – and it was in “The Lawyer” that we first met him. He was a well-respected Chelsea supporter and I know that he is dearly missed.

RIP Leigh Reeder.

Morsels of information and disinformation percolated through to us while we were drinking. I had allowed myself a single pint of “Praha” in the “Ribs Of Beef” and tried my best to relax. But what about away tickets for Middlesbrough? Was it true that we could be sold after all? How would a new owner work with the CPO? What about us retaining our players? Buying new ones? Would the club even exist by the end of the season?

We decided to let nature runs its course. We were but supporters, and all we could do was support the current team.

I parked up closer to the ground in a multi-story. After quickly saying “hi” to Rob and Martin in a restaurant, we dipped into “The Queen Of The Iceni” by the river. This is a pub that Parky and I first visited in 2012 and we had a quiet word with Noel and his wife. The mood was sombre and contemplative. But it was good to share a few thoughts. This pub was virtually full of home fans. Chelsea supporters, it seemed, were amassed in a pub on the other bank of the river, and their songs could be head from some distance. But we had given all that a large swerve. None of us were in the mood for it.

We decided to head into the stadium relatively early. As we turned the corner, I half-expected TV crews and reporters to be pouncing on Chelsea supporters as we neared the away turnstiles, but things were surprisingly quiet.

This would be my tenth consecutive Chelsea game away from Stamford Bridge, a run that is never likely to be repeated.

Tottenham, Manchester City, Brighton, Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi, Crystal Palace, Wembley, Luton, Burnley and Norwich.

I swapped seats with PD so he could be with Parky for a change; they were down the front with Alan and Gary. I was towards the back. There was reassuringly plain and concise talking with Jonesy, King Kenny, Neil, Tim and Cliff. I need not have been worried about the Chelsea crowd. Our section was rammed.

Suddenly, the game was upon us and I flicked my focus to our team.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Christensen

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Saul

Mount – Havertz – Werner

What a lovely first-half, eh?

We created more in those first ten minutes than we did in the entire first-half at Burnley in the previous game. After just two minutes, that rare thing; a Chelsea goal from a corner. Mason Mount slapped it in from the far side and a leap from Trevoh Chalobah did the rest. His glancing header down flew into the net, and the Chelsea contingent roared.

Soon after, the chances mounted up, oh dear please excuse the pun. Two efforts from Kai Havertz were followed by the same player sliding the ball square to Mount, who shimmied and struck high into Tim Krul’s goal. His subsequent slide towards us was euphoric, pure emotion, pure Chelsea.

More of the same please.

The Chelsea crowd were noisy and continuously so.

There were loud chants of “Roman Abramovich” but not everybody joined in.

Ironically, a friend in Detroit – hello Andy – asked me a few months back why we no longer shout Roman’s name at games. I had no real answer to this question. Maybe only on days when we are presented with league trophies at Stamford Bridge? I can’t remember any other occasions in recent times.

I also saw the home fans’ reaction – “Scum! Scum! Scum!” – and I simply didn’t want to contribute to that particular debate.

I remembered the famous exchange in 2005.

“We’ve got a super cook, you’ve got a Russian crook.”

“We’ve got Abramovich, you’ve got a drunken bitch.”

They don’t write them like that anymore, eh?

Back to 2022, and there followed a bizarre chant from us :

“Chelsea get sanctioned everywhere they go.”

Answers on a postcard.

And then, the rarest of songs.

“Chelsea Til I Die.”

This has always been a song that failed to register at Chelsea games, despite many fans thinking that it did. In my mind, and a few friends, it always seemed to be sung by lower level teams for some reason. Yet here we were in deepest Norfolk, and hundreds of Chelsea were giving it an airing for the very first time that I can ever remember.

I guess on this particular occasion it can be forgiven.

Though, to be honest, I’ll be supporting Chelsea after I die too.

We kept pouring forward. Every attack seemed to be with pace, at last, and the front three were continually on the last line of the defence, waiting to pounce. Dave’s energy levels were amazing to witness at close quarters. I lost count of the number of runs he made; many were inch perfect, but sadly many were ignored too. I was impressed with Mase, a bundle of energy, racing forward one minute, tackling back the next.

That shimmy from Thiago Silva as he brought the ball out of defence.

“Now you see it, now you don’t”

Sublime.

A flurry of corners caused concern in the Norwich penalty area. Kovacic and Christensen went close. It was as dominant half of football that I have seen for a while. Oh, since the second-half at Burnley anyway. Norwich were simply not in it. How come we only scored bloody two?

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Dave at the break. He looked out of place at right wing-back; my eyes took a while to adjust.

In contrast, a stark contrast, the second-half was poor. There was such little quality in the first twenty minutes that I wondered what on Earth the Chelsea players had drunk at half-time. It was the home side that looked the more aggressive as the game continued and Chelsea looked to be tiring. The noise in the away section died a little. On sixty-five minutes, there was a shot that hit a Chelsea defender. My reaction was “handball” before Teemu Pukki gathered the loose ball and Mendy saved well.

The initial handball was given though.

A penalty to Norwich.

Pukki drilled it low, Mendy going the other way.

Bollocks.

“On The Ball City” boomed.

Oh – and another – “Yellarmy!” as encouraged by electronic displays.

Yellarmy. I ask you.

Norwich fancied their chances now, and I didn’t fancy ours. But we needed a win here to silence the baying hordes in the outside world. We needed to hang on.

With five minutes to go, a double flip.

Romelu Lukaku for a poor Timo Werner.

N’Golo Kante for a tireless Mateo Kovacic.

The big Belgian fluffed a chance from inside the box.

“CAM ON CHELS.”

On ninety minutes, Kante passed to Havertz and our slim and silky German thundered the ball high into the goal.

Norwich City 1 Chelsea 3.

Phew.

We walked slowly back to the waiting car. Our mood had been brightened by the result. We tried to be positive. The road west was waiting for me. I eventually reached home at 3.15am.

It had been the strangest of days.

Tales From The Oak Road End

Luton Town vs. Chelsea : 2 March 2022.

On returning home from London after the Plymouth Argyle FA Cup match, I mentioned to the lads that I fancied Luton Town away in the Fifth Round. The very next morning, Luton were the first name out of the hat and we were the second.

Luton Town vs. Chelsea it was.

Although my head was full of Abu Dhabi stresses, I had a quiet chuckle to myself. At last, a draw that I was happy with.

Let me explain. There are some stadia that I never visited and never will; Ayresome Park, Roker Park and Burnden Park are three such examples. These are stadia that are long gone, but for whatever reason will remain without a tick against them in my list of football grounds that I have been lucky enough to visit. There are stadia that I have visited, but only after significant upgrades have taken place; Ewood Park, The Valley and Carrow Road come to mind. I never visited the original incarnations of these ones. Lastly, there are a few relatively famous stadia that I have never ever visited; Kenilworth Road, Portman Road and Meadow Lane head that list. I hope to eventually tick these, and others, off but time is running out. Additionally, there are plans for Luton to move out of their fabled old stadium too, so this was just right.

So, a new ground, a new away end, a new experience. I was genuinely looking forward to this one in a way that probably warranted me to sit myself down, pour myself a cup of tea and have a serious look at myself.

Those ground hopper genes keep rising to the surface and there’s not much I can do about it now.

Gulp.

PD had battled rotten weather and heavy traffic on the M25 and we had parked up in a tight terraced street around half a mile to the west of Kenilworth Road. The pre-paid parking space for six hours was less than a fiver. This gives a solid indication, I feel, of the area around the stadium. It’s decidedly low rent. More Old Kent Road than Mayfair. The journey had taken around three hours. It was 5pm. The kick-off was at 7.15pm. We wasted no time and set off by foot in the cold and in the drizzle.

Twenty minutes later, my coat rather wet, we arrived to see “Road Closed” signs at one end of the fabled Oak Road, home to the most idiosyncratic away turnstiles in the United Kingdom. A few Chelsea were milling about outside the entrance, a few stewards, a few policemen and policewomen. I shot off to take a few photographs of an alternative entrance.

Last year in the FA Cup, we played the same team at home in the same competition – a 3-1 win at home – but it would be Frank Lampard’s last match in charge. In the previous round, we had defeated Morecambe. And here I was, at Luton Town the following year, and taking a photograph of the Eric Morecambe Suite. The much-loved comedian, born Eric Bartholomew but named after his home town, was a big fan of Luton Town. I remembered with pleasure how he used to shoe-horn Luton Town gags into sketches.

Luton Town were a decent team at times in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. I used to love their orange, black and white colours. The kit with the vertical panels from the mid-‘seventies used to remind me of a “Liquorice Allsort”. The white Adidas kit of the early-‘eighties was a cracker too. There was a famous promotion campaign in 1981/82 in the old Second Division – when we watched from a distant mid-table position – that involved Luton Town and their local rivals Watford. This involved a definite difference in style between the two teams. Watford was “route one” under Graham Taylor, Luton were more entertaining and skilful under David Pleat. Luton prevailed as Champions, Watford came second.

In our last home game of that season, I travelled up to London and watched from The Shed as Luton Town beat us 2-1 in front of 15,044. It is memorable in my eyes, for two things.

Ken Bates had taken over from the Mears family the previous month and had decided to have some sort of “fun day” planned for this last game. From memory, this involved two things but there may have been more. Firstly, hundreds and hundreds of blue and white balloons were set off into the air before the game. It was quite a sight, but all a bit pathetic at the same time.

Balloons?

The sixteen-year-old me surely muttered “fackinell.”

Don’t ask me why, but the other item chosen to entertain us was…wait for it, wait for it…an electronic bull that was positioned in front of The Shed and spectators were invited to sit on and attempt to ride it. The rodeo had hit SW6. I can’t honestly remember if many took up the challenge. But one fan – a skinhead in T-shirt, jeans and DMs – kept us entertained for a few seconds before being thrown off at a very scary angle.

In 1981/82, this is how Chelsea entertained us.

You can add your own fucking punchline.

The other memorable thing from that game almost forty years ago – 1982 was a good year for me, lots more independent trips to Chelsea, the World Cup in Spain, my first-ever girlfriend – was the home debut of Paul Canoville. I had not been present at the infamous debut at Selhurst Park, but I was in The Shed as he came on in the closing moments of the game. I always remember his first-touch as if it was yesterday; a magnificent piece of ball control and spin that bamboozled his marker, and probably confused a few knuckle-draggers in The Shed who were probably about to pounce on him should the substitute err in any small way.

In 1987/88, Luton Town won their only silverware, beating Arsenal in the League Cup Final at Wembley. For that alone, I will always be grateful.

Believe it or not, the only other time that I have seen my club play Luton Town was in the FA Cup Semi-Final at Wembley in 1994. For many years, I simply couldn’t afford too many Chelsea games every season. And Luton were never high up on the pecking order. That was a cracking day out. Loads of Chelsea at Wembley. King Kerry being serenaded by us. Two Gavin Peacock goals. Bosh. Our first FA Cup Final in twenty-three years was on the cards, and with it – so important, this – the promise of a European adventure the following season since the other finalists Manchester United were to take place in the Champions League.

Of all the Chelsea summers, 1994 was absolutely one of the best.

Back to the 2022 FA Cup, and the ridiculous throw-back that is the Oak Road away end at Kenilworth Road. The two away entrances are positioned between houses on the terraced street. It’s an unbelievable set up. At Highbury, there was something similar, but much more grand. Outside we chatted to Adam from Norfolk, Tommie from Gwynedd, Charlotte and Paul from Somerset. The Chelsea support from the capital and the outlying counties had headed to Bedfordshire. There would be around 1,500 of us in deepest Luton on this rainy old evening.

The gates opened at 5.45pm and we were straight in. We navigated a set of steep steps and reached a platform that took us into the back of the stand, but firstly afforded views of terraced houses’ back gardens. And possibly a little more. Ahem. Was that someone’s bathroom?

“Do you have a vacancy for a back scrubber?”

Once inside, my camera went into overdrive. There was a mist in the air and I didn’t think that the floodlighting was particularly bright. It undoubtedly added to the atmosphere. It was odd to be finally inside a ground that I first became aware of in the mid-‘seventies. In previous visits – our last was in 1990/91 – the away support was based at the other end. As I scanned the ground, I could not help but see hundreds of Millwall fans invading the pitch, seats in hand, running at the police, the home fans, the whole bloody world. I loved the slightly cranked section of seats in the main stand that overlooked the away end, picked out in orange, adorned with flags, a few remembering Luton Town fans no longer alive. There was a Joy Division flag too.

I have only ever met one Luton Town fan. Atop the Mole Antonelliana in Turin, Rob and I were sightseeing in Turin after our game in 2009. We felt on top of the world, in more ways than one. We got chatting to a guy from England, a Luton fan, but one who was visibly upset with the club’s recent fate. They had been relegated below the Football League in 2008 after administration. I genuinely felt for the bloke. I thought of him on this night in Luton and wondered if he would be in the 10,000 attendance.

The stands were slowly filling. The rain still fell.

The night was about to take a turn in another direction.

I popped into the ridiculously cramped “away bar”, tucked down some stairs in a corner, and joined up with “The Bristol Lot”; Julie, Tim, Brian, Kevin and Pete. Parky was there too; what a surprise. He was talking to Mark from Westbury.

The news broke.

On the official Chelsea website, it was announced that Roman Abramovich was to sell the club.

I don’t remember what I was doing in July 2003 when Roman bought the club, but I will always remember where I was when I heard this news.

Luton.

It has to be famous for something I suppose.

The news wasn’t a surprise to me nor, I am sure, to many.

I spoke to Tim.

“I think, deep down, I have been fearing this moment for almost twenty years. Of course we will never exactly know how Roman accumulated his wealth, not his friendships along the way, but this has been gnawing away at me – on and off – for too many years. In the current climate, this comes as no surprise at all.”

There was a real sense of pride that all profits from the eventual sale would go towards the victims of the war in Ukraine.

I was pretty emotional when I read that Roman hoped, one day, to be able to visit Stamford Bridge once again.

Back up in the seats – blue and white, an echo of when the club decided to jettison their more famous colours in the ‘nineties – the Chelsea support was filling up the slight terrace. Seats had been bolted to the old terraces, with no re-profiling; the result was far from ideal.

With a quarter of an hour to go, there were chants for Roman Abramovich from us. I joined in. It was a natural reaction to say a simple “thanks.” I certainly did not mean to be inflammatory or confrontational.

Kick-off approached. The two mascots appeared out of nowhere and took an unsurprising amount of abuse.

The teams appeared.

A couple of flags for Ukraine were dotted about.

I didn’t think the home fans were particularly noisy. I was crammed into my row, with Chelsea fans tight alongside me. Of course everyone was stood. My view of the pitch was again poor.

The team?

Kepa

Rudiger – Loftus-Cheek – Sarr

Hudson-Odoi – Jorginho – Saul – Kenedy

Werner – Lukaku – Mount

There were a few talking points here. Ruben at centre-back? Interesting. Kenedy at left-back? I have no idea when I last saw him play for us. From Flamengo in Rio de Janeiro to Chelsea at Luton is some journey. Lukaku starting? Goals please.

Interestingly, Luton Town stood, arms linked, and didn’t take the knee.

The rain still fell. It was a dark night.

The game was only two minutes old when the whole evening took a nosedive. A corner from their left and a header from a player at the near post. I didn’t see the ball go in. I certainly saw the reaction. Kenilworth Road erupted.

I groaned. On a night when this game was live on BBC1, just after the news about Roman Abramovich, the knives were being sharpened.

I heard Eric Morecambe’s voice.

“What do you think of it so far?”

In my head : “rubbish.”

And although the first-half wasn’t too special, I enjoyed in some bizarre way. The noise from the away support was certainly loud and constant. That always helps the “us against them” vibe. Sarr attempted a few balls inside their full back for Timo Werner. Mason Mount was a bundle of energy on the other side. It took a while for Ruben to settle. Despite their early goal, the game soon developed a pattern of Chelsea possession.

Luton swapped ‘keepers after an injury.

There was a header from Saul but little else in the opening quarter of the match. His effort stirred those nearby :

“If Saul scores, we’re on the pitch.”

Lo-and-behold, a run from Mount opened up the game and he passed to a raiding Werner. He miss-controlled but the ball ran to Saul on the edge of the box. I was right behind the course of the ball as his sweet right-footed strike curled low into the goal.

Get in.

I suggested a new song :

“If Saul scores, we’re on the piss.”

There was a third effort from Saul not long after, but this was tucked just wide of the near post, again after good work from Mount. A real dinger from Kenedy at an angle forced a save at full stretch from the Luton ‘keeper Isted.

On thirty-one minutes, the ground applauded the memory of local man, and Chelsea supporter, Jamal Edwards. The atmosphere had been rather feisty with name calling and jabs from both sections of support. Talk of rent boys, of Luton being – um – far from a pleasant place to live, the usual schoolyard stuff.

Mason played in Lukaku, on the edge of the Luton box, but his swipe was well saved by Isted at his near stick.

Despite our possession, we were hit just before the break. We were pushing up and Luton caught us on the hop. They cut through our midfield with a couple of quick passes, though when the final ball was pushed through to Harry Connick Junior, we all yelled “offside”. Alas, no flag was raised, and the American crooner coolly slotted past Kepa.

He raced off in celebration towards the noisy corner.

The lino on our left – running the line in front of a line of executive boxes, how horrible – then took tons of abuse. At half-time, we could hardly believe that the decision, reported back via text messages, had been correct. To be honest, it had been an exceptional decision. A speciality from Jorginho – “giving the ball away, almost the last man” – set up another Luton chance but a shot was weak and at Kepa.

One final effort in the first-half fell to Rudiger whose blast deflected off Lukaku but dropped tantalisingly over the bar.

At half-time, we were 1-2 down and it seemed like Pure ‘Eighties Chelsea.

Into the second-half, effort number four from Saul from distance but straight at the ‘keeper. From a corner, effort number five and a Zola flick at the near post that flew over. There was more and more Chelsea possession but, despite our domination, Luton were proving to be a tough nut to crack and other clichés.

On the hour a double-substitution.

Harvey Vale for Hudson-Odoi

Christian Pulisic for Kenedy

Saul trotted over to left-back.

Not long after, a magnificent ball from deep from the foot of Loftus-Cheek picked out the run of Werner in the inside-left channel. He brought the ball down well, and calmly slotted home. I have to admit to being lost in my own little world of wonder and worry about the club at that exact moment in time and hardly celebrated at all. There was deep relief though.

Get in.

We were halfway through the second-half.

“Cracking cup tie?”

You bet.

We went all Depeche Mode, never a bad move.

“Scoring in the Harding and scoring in The Shed.”

The noise was ramped up further. Songs for everyone. This was turning into a corker of a night out. But among all of the noise, there were some utterly crap chants too.

“Heathrow! Heathrow! Heathrow! Heathrow!”

Good grief.

And…ugh.

“You’re just a small town in Watford.”

I felt like going all Peter Kay.

“Town?”

“In Watford?”

Ruben was now settled in his new position and was often able to dribble, unhindered, out of defence. I prayed for a late winner. I didn’t fancy extra-time.

I joked to the bloke to my left : “if it goes to penalties, bring on Mendy.”

A shot from Vale was at Isted.

A lovely welcome accompanied the reappearance of Reece James who replaced Jorginho with fifteen minutes remaining. On seventy-eight minutes, a patient and precise move in front of me on our right eventually found Werner. A quick low cross. I saw nothing, but Lukaku had pounced.

Mayhem in the Oak Road.

Get in you bastard.

Roars from the Chelsea contingent. Limbs everywhere. I slid to my left and tried to get a few good photos of the celebrations. When I returned to my place, my camera bag, spare lens and glass case were loose on the terraces. I gathered them and re-joined Parky.

“Wondered where you got to.”

Thankfully we saw the game off, and slotted into the FA Cup Quarter Finals.

Again.

We walked slowly back to the car. Luton is surprisingly hilly. We bumped into Skippy from Brisbane, Martin from Gloucester, Ryan and Carl from Stoke.

Everybody there. Everybody unable to resist.

It had been a good night.

Tales From The Champions Of The World

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 19 February 2022.

PD and I returned from Abu Dhabi on the Monday. I was back in work – dreading it – on the Tuesday but the week went pretty well. However, England was ravaged by Storm Eunice on Friday. It meant that our trip up to London for our game at Selhurst Park took ages; it seemed that all of the traffic that had been stalled on the Friday was now let loose. The flow was especially grim on sections of the M3 and parts of our trek across west London to south London.

I had picked PD up at 8am and it took me until 12.30pm to eventually reach a pub that was a stone’s throw from Crystal Palace’s home ground. That schlep across London took an hour. And throughout it we were on the lookout for a pub for a couple of drinks before the afternoon’s entertainment. Our route took us past Hampton to Kingston and on to New Maldon, Merton, Morden, Mitcham and eventually Norbury, home of our match-day mate Gary. Could we find a suitable pub? Not one that was open, and had suitable parking. We were about to give up when I spotted a Wetherspoon’s – never my first choice of hostelry, but needs must – and we darted inside just as the rain increased in strength. Some “Thatcher’s” for PD and Parky. Some “Pepsi Max” for me. We could relax a little. Roy – last seen in Abu Dhabi – came in and slotted in next to us.

There was, of course, plenty of chit-chat regarding our time away in the sun the previous week.

A few “Abu Dhabi add-ons” to mention.

Every Chelsea fan had behaved themselves. It’s not always the case on foreign shores. In fact, the only time that I personally saw any silliness – ironically – involved the replica-kitted “scarfers” of the Dubai Supporters Club at the end of the game. Thiago Silva had trotted over to the Chelsea corner and threw his shirt into their section. There ensued an almighty ruckus as fans fought for the royal blue jersey. I am sure I saw at least once punch being thrown.

Ah, the Chelsea corner. After the game, this was where the Chelsea players, quite rightly, celebrated with the fans. It was where 80% of the Chelsea support was positioned. But we noticed that Romelu Lukaku, scorer of two goals in Abu Dhabi remember, did not join in. Instead, he chatted quietly to members of the coaching staff a good thirty yards away. I found that odd. Really odd.

One more story and one little moment of last minute terror. Foxy, PD and I were up at 3am to catch a 4am cab over to the airport in readiness for our 7am and 7.30am flights home. At the check-in desk, the Etihad official caused PD and I a great deal of stress when he claimed that we were required to show a negative PCR test result from within forty-eight hours of the flight. Our tests had taken place on Friday morning, seventy-two hours earlier, as per Etihad’s ruling. There was now no requirement for a negative test travelling back to the UK; these regulations had changed on the Friday. You can imagine what was going through my mind. Thankfully, after he had a word with a colleague, he was able to let us on the flight. Our guess was that this was his first shift since the change in the ruling.

I smiled as he handed back our passports and gave us our boarding passes.

In my head : “you prick.”

Thankfully, the trip to Selhurst Park did not involve passport checks, PCR tests nor locator forms. After our little moment of calm in the pub, I drove the mile or so to my pre-paid parking spot outside a house on Bensham Manor Road. I had soon spotted the huge Crystal Palace TV transmitter up on the hill that overlooks the entire area and it brought back bad memories of my first-ever visit to Selhurst Park in 1989; attempting to go top of the table in late August, we were stuffed 0-3 by Charlton Athletic. During that game, from the terraced Holmesdale Road end, I kept looking up at that TV mast for some reason. It was something that I had never seen on the TV as it was on the wrong side to the camera position.

It was 2.15pm. Sadly, the rain continued on the walk to the away turnstiles. We sorted out a spare ticket for Orlin the Bulgarian in the wind and the rain. There were a few comments with a couple of lads who had been on our flights to and from Abu Dhabi.

“Bloody hell, a week ago the weather was a bit different, Chris.”

At last I was looking forward to being able to join in with the “We’ve won it all” chant, but – how typical – the Chelsea support had sprung a surprise on me. In the queue to get in, and then throughout the resulting damp afternoon, a new song dominated.

“Champions of the World, of the Word, Champions of the World.”

…to the tune of the KC and the Sunshine Band’s 1983 hit “Michael Essien.”

It took ages to get into the cramped away end. I got wetter and wetter. There was just time for a last-minute visit to the league’s worst-ever gents’ – “shallow end or deep end?” – and we found our seats in row seven with about ten minutes to go.

I had only been stood at my seat for a minute when a horrendous gust of wind blew the rain in at us and I had to turn my back to the pitch to shelter myself.

Bloody hell. From Arabian sun to London storms. Welcome home.

This was the second game of a run of five games that placed Chelsea in five different competitions. This has to be a first, right?

Palmeiras : World Club Cup

Crystal Palace : Premier League

Lille : Champions League

Liverpool : League Cup

Luton Town : FA Cup

Alongside me were Gary and Alan. Gary lives two miles to the west of Selhurst Park. Alan lives two miles to the east. This was very much their local game.

I soon spotted that the much-maligned Palace “ultras” had been re-positioned in a central area in the lower tier of the home end to my left under the banner “Holmesdale Fanatics”; their little group could be easily spotted, dressed in black. To be frank, I heard bugger all from them all game.

That ship has sailed.

“Probably back to Poland” added Gary.

Crystal Palace were in their blue and red diagonal stripes. Chelsea in yellow and black.

The team?

Mendy

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger – Sarr

Jorginho – Kante

Ziyech – Pulisic – Havertz

Lukaku

Or something like that. Being so low down, discerning formations and patterns was almost impossible. With everyone stood, the far corner of the Holmesdale Road end was completely out of sight. When the ball disappeared into that area, I just hoped that Herr Havertz was doing OK. Years ago, watching football was always like this. Some games at Old Trafford, Goodison and Tottenham only offered up around 75% of the pitch, if that.

It was a full house in South London. The game began and the home team looked the brighter with Wilfred Zaha looking lively as he attacked from the inside-left channel. A shot from Michael Olise was sent low across our goal and thankfully the ball was wide of the far post. Palace were, of course, without Conor Gallagher, and it was just as well. The lad has played so well for them this season.

I hope that we pull back Gallagher, Billy Gilmour and Armando Broja for next season. It will be like three new signings. I look forward to that day.

I was on tip-toes, my neck straining every time we attacked the home end. A shot from Christian Pulisic didn’t trouble the Palace ‘keeper Vicente Guaita. The first-half began to develop an oh-so familiar pattern; possession-based football, over-passing, setting up to go back to go forward. There was no cut and thrust. Yet as I have said so often, with space in the final third almost non-existent, stretching Palace out was always going to be tough. On more than one occasion, a lofted ball towards Lukaku in the air was meet and drink to the Palace defence. In truth, Lukaku did not get close to anything.

At a ground that is rather infamous in our past – Paul Canoville, Easter Monday 1982 – at least there were no racist comments aimed at our under-performing striker. The worst that I heard all afternoon was Lukaku being called “Sack of Spuds” by Pink Shirt Frank behind me.

To say we laboured in that first-half would be an understatement.

But the Chelsea support, with a rich variety of songs, were magnificent.

At last I sang along :

“We’ve won it all. We’ve won it all. We’ve won it all, we’ve won it all, we’ve won it all.”

Fackinell.

The highlight of the first forty-five minutes was that pile driver from – what? – thirty-five yards from Antonio Rudiger. What a strike. And what a save, too, from the Palace ‘keeper, pushing the ball out of the top left corner at the very last minute. This positive play was then matched by a lovely through-ball from Malang Sarr, surprising everyone, not least the flat-footed Palace defenders, that reached N’Golo Kante. However, his shot was too close to Guaita.

A shot from an angle from Lukaku was well-saved, but the out-of-touch Belgian was offside anyway.

And that was about it really.

Two memorable moments of play from Chelsea in forty-five minutes.

Champions of the World?

We looked like we would struggle to be the champions of Fulham at this rate.

At least with Edouard Mendy close by, we could serenade him with a song that has not been aired for a while due to his winning performance in the Africa Cup of Nations.

“Tsamina mina, eh, eh.

Edouard Edouard Mendy.

Tsamina mina zangalewa.

He comes from Senegal.”

This was followed by an “Eddie, Eddie – give us a wave” – shades of 1983/84 – and he duly reciprocated. Bless him.

Just before the break, the close-at-hand referee David Coote – sadly, he was not bald – waved away our justified claims for a foul on Pulisic. The ball broke and the home team stormed up field. Thankfully, Zaha was wasteful, drilling a low shot wide.

The linesman in front of us, who had been slow to keep up with play all through the half, was the nearest man in black and so he took the brunt of our anger.

“Linesman, you’re a James Blunt, linesman, linesman you’re a James Hunt.”

As he raced away, he waved his left hand as if to say “keep going, keep going.”

Pink Shirt Frank uttered “well, that’s us fucked in the second-half then.”

Yep. No decisions for us. Sigh.

The mood was pretty sombre at the break. Tons of possession. Not many shots that troubled anyone apart from the spectators. As per fucking normal.

A strange substitution for Palace at the break; Guaita was replaced by Jack Butland who used to be a footballer.

It was a tiresome start to the second-period and we often gave the ball away cheaply. It is worth noting that Lukaku was offering little. I spotted one moment, the ball on the half-way line maybe, Chelsea probing away, and Lukaku in among some defenders. What annoyed me that not only was he static, he was visibly resting on his standing leg, all his weight on his left foot. Surely an attacker, a central striker, needs to be on his toes at all times. If not twisting a marker out of position – clearly not Lukaku’s forte – then he should be at least ready to be alert and be “on his toes” in case, say, a deflected ball puts the ball his way. To say that Lukaku looked disinterested would be a mismanagement of the English language.

Fackinell.

Gary was more direct.

“Seen more movement in my bowels.”

The second-half rumbled on. Above, at least the rain had stopped and the sky was lighter. With fifteen minutes to go, Thomas Tuchel went for drastic change.

Marcos Alonso for Sarr.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Jorginho.

Mateo Kovacic for Kante.

Kovacic immediately set a new tempo. He launched himself at various Palace midfielders and won a few challenges. If he was wearing long sleeves, no doubt he would have rolled them up.

There was a new vibrancy, at last. A ball was played through to Lukaku, on the last man. His shot was parried by Buckland and Ziyech tapped in the rebound.

YESSSSSSSSSSSSSS!

I fell over myself, the fans around me were jostling for space as the scorer raced towards us, mayhem in the Arthur Waite. A blue flare landed at Ziyech’s feet.

GET IN.

Then. Whadya know. VAR. No goal.

The pressure continued. Havertz and a header.

The clock ticked away.

Eighty-nine minutes.

Marcos Alonso had the ball at his feet away on the far touchline, in front of the original Archibald Leitch Stand that closely resembles our old East Stand and which is featured on the front of “Hoolifan” from a few years back. He sent over a high and mighty cross and it landed past the back post. Or rather, it didn’t land at all. It met Ziyech’s left foot; as beautiful and calm a finish that anyone is likely to see. The ball was pushed through Butland’s legs and my camera told the story.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

This time, no offside, no flag from the linesman, nothing but pure celebration.

Oh football I love you.

More pandemonium in the Arthur Waite. I tried to stand on the seat in front to get some photos. I was elbowed in the face. Parky was grabbing hold of me to stop me from falling.

Roars.

Fists punching.

Chelsea going mad.

Bliss.

…”of the world, Champions of the World.”

Tales From The Depths Of Winter

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 15 January 2022.

I was up at 5.15am and by 7am I had collected both PD and Parky. Outside, the weather was cold and we were on our way to Manchester City. We always seem to get City away in the depths of winter, eh? In contrast, just think of all those end of season matches at Old Trafford over the years. Yet we always seem to have to endure an often chilly trip to the Etihad, or the City of Manchester Stadium or Eastlands as it was originally called.

I enjoy the vast majority of our current away trips in the Premier League. West Ham is an exception; such a crap view, plus – so far – the games have tended to be early kick-offs, thus eliminating the chance of a pub-crawl or suchlike. But the other exception is Manchester City. There is nothing of note surrounding the ground – not for away fans anyway – and although the stadium is decent enough, it’s all a bit anaemic. It also has no real history. Once I set foot inside, I am not overwhelmed with memories of games from the depths of time that visits to Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton provide.

Or maybe I am turned off by Manchester City’s new stadium because of our poor record in recent seasons. I had been present at our previous thirteen league visits to the stadium – last season excepted – and although our record is 4-1-8, in the last ten visits it is even worse; 2-1-7.

All three of us were hoping for a draw. We were realists. I am sure that in our support base of millions, not many were expecting us to win.

I was parked up at around 10.45am.

It had been freezing when we stopped for breakfast at Strensham Services on the M5 and although the weather had warmed slightly, it was still “hands in pockets” on the fifteen-minute walk to the stadium.

The stadium is at least recognisable; it’s shape is unique, what with its towering roof supports and San Siro-style helix exit ramps.

For the second visit in a row, I was up in the towering top tier. We were officially in row C, but with the first two rows blocked out, we were effectively in the front row. With a good half-an-hour to go before the game began, it was clear that more than a few fans had purchased some inflatable silver cups in the shape of the European Cup. I suspected a few songs about that night in Porto as the day developed.

The time soon passed.

Before I had time to think, the teams were on the pitch on the far side and “Blue Moon” was booming. Suddenly, more and more inflatable silver cups appeared throughout the three tiers of our support. It annoys me – I can’t explain why – that City sometimes adopt an all sky blue kit in preference to their standard one with white shorts. I may be picky, but that’s the mark of a lesser club in my opinion.

The game was now in sharp focus. In my mind, too, were the two recent extremes.

2017/18 : Conte giving up possession, defending deep and narrowly losing 0-1.

2018/19 : Sarri going for it but getting beaten 0-6.

There was just time to acquaint myself with the team that Thomas Tuchel had selected :

Arrizabalaga

Sarr – Silva – Rudiger

Alonso – Kovacic – Kante – Azpilicueta

Ziyech – Lukaku – Pulisic

We all hoped for a performance akin to what we had witnessed in Porto, but I certainly wasn’t getting my hopes up.

The four of us in the front row of the upper tier joined the formation.

Parkins – Axon – Phillips – Davidson

Every man was needed.

It was 12.30pm.

The game began and, no surprises, City enjoyed most of the ball. Soon into the game, it became readily apparent that when we were out of possession the shape collapsed as below :

Arrizabalaga

Alonso – Sarr – Silva – Rudiger – Azpilcueta

Ziyech – Kovacic – Kante – Pulisic

Lukaku

A bank of five and a bank of four, squeezing space as best they could. Ironically, despite City’s opening domination, we had the game’s first real chance on ten minutes. A run from Lukaku up field, with us willing him on – if we were jockeys, we would have undoubtedly had the whip out – but just as he looked set to shoot, he bizarrely passed to the offside Ziyech.

Fackinell.

The game soon settled into one monotonous pattern. City were in control, we were sitting deep, but tried to build the occasional break. However, despite Kante’s usual prowess in intercepting passes and setting attacks in motion, we were hindered by Lukaku’s remoteness and the poor support play of Ziyech and Pulisic. Playing out from the back, using those little triangles that Tuchel must dream about at night, we fell prey to the manic way that the home team closed down space.

There were mixed views in the away section. Some were urging the team on, some were getting frustrated with certain players. I wasn’t too upset with our shape, but I just wished that we were more aggressive.

There is no doubt that at moments of high pressure, with City’s front three running at us and closing down space and then winning the ball and running again, it almost looked like this :

Arrizabalaga

Parkins – Axon – Phillips – Davidson

Alonso – Sarr – Silva – Rudiger – Azpilcueta

Ziyech – Kovacic – Kante – Pulisic

Lukaku

Off the pitch, there were battles in song. This was our chance to shine.

“Champions of Europe, we know what we are.”

“Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that.”

“So here’s to you Vincent Kompany. Have you won the European Cup? No. No.”

“The silky German is just what we need. He won Chelsea the Champions league.”

City’s responses were concerned with the English title.

How parochial.

Kepa was involved on a few occasions. There was a simple save from a John Stones header and then a catch at the near post from a Kevin De Bruyne shot from an angle.

With the half-time break approaching, we lost possession and Jack Grealish was through, one-on-one. He appeared to draw the ‘keeper, and I was fully prepared to see the net ripple. Thankfully, Kepa was up to the challenge and made the save of the match thus far, his spread-eagled legs blocking the goal bound effort. A shot from De Bruyne was wild and flew over the bar.

Christian Pulisic was not playing well. There was one moment when he held on to the ball for far too long, thus missing the chance to play the ball out to a free Dave on the wing and in acres of space but then also missing the chance to play a simpler ball inside. Later, I just found myself getting irritated with the way he played a square ball behind Alonso rather than in front of him; the momentum of that move was lost and City recovered.

Alan chirped :

“Captain America? More like Captain Mainwaring.”

However, we reached the base camp of half-time with the score 0-0.

All along, I would have settled for a draw. Is that too negative? I call it being pragmatic. Despite us getting the upper hand in May, City are arguably the best team in the world right now. In the build-up, I kept calling them an established team. Each player knows his role. They swarm like fireflies at the opposition. But we were half-way there. Half-way to paradise.

The second-half began with Chelsea attacking the three thousand in three tiers in the South Stand.

In the first minute, a heavy first touch from Lukaku was pounced upon by City and the end result was a raking cross from the left that begged out for a City striker to prod home. I heaved a sigh of relief. Soon after, in the next move almost, we broke and Lukaku’s curling shot was well saved by Ederson. The rebound was lofted high into tier four by Ziyech.

Just after, a wild shot from Alonso reached tier five.

Fackinell.

On the hour, a De Bruyne free-kick from distance drew a very fine save from Kepa.

And then just after, a perceived poor decision by the referee stirred the home support into making a racket for the first time in ages. Chelsea joined in too. It was bubbling along nicely now. What a lovely din.

On more than one occasion, both sets found themselves singing exactly the same tune – “Hey Jude” – but with different lyrics.

Next it was our turn to feel aggrieved; a rotten challenge on Ziyech on the far touch line went unpunished.

Fackinell ref.

Raheem Sterling, tormenting Alonso all game yet without too much end product, dragged a shot wide.

Overhead, the sun broke through. There was a blue and white mottled sky over a sky blue stadium. But my God, my feet were cold.

On sixty-nine minutes, a double-switch.

Timo Werner for Pulisic.

Callum Hudson-Odoi for Ziyech.

Sadly, a minute later, a fine City move cut through our bank of four and the ball found the advancing De Bruyne. He dribbled, moved the ball out of his feet, and curled a breath-taking shot past Kepa.

“Great goal.”

The stadium erupted. What noise.

Ugh.

We attacked soon after, but an effort from Werner was well saved by Ederson.

Another change.

Mason Mount for Alonso.

I had given up on our formation now.

Stupid me, as the game reached its final few minutes, I still had this silly notion that – out of nowhere – we would somehow conjure up a late, very late, equaliser.

I must have read too many “Roy Of The Rovers” as a kid.

The equaliser never came of course, and in the end, I took the 0-1 loss on the chin.

“City, tearing Cockneys apart again” rang out once more.

And the City fans were full of taunts from behind the metal wall that separated the two sets of fans as we descended the many flights of stairs to reach the concourse outside. The line of police was tested at the bottom.

“Handbags” really.

We walked solemnly back to my car; a very familiar walk of late, hands in pockets again, heads down, well beaten.

Thankfully I made good time on the drive home, and we were able to call into “The Vine” at West Bromwich once again, our third visit in a month. Friends Michelle and Dane had the same idea; they walked in five minutes after us. I am tempted to write “if only the Chelsea team had shown such togetherness” but that would be slightly churlish. We were beaten by a very fine team. Was Tuchel wise to go for a cautious approach? I am not sure. To be honest, it almost came off. It wasn’t as if City had twenty shots on goal.

Of course, the doom mongers were out in full force after the game had finished in Manchester. A million fans, a million opinions, a million different formations, a million different moans.

But, that’s to be expected, right?

As one son of Manchester once wrote “everybody’s clever nowadays.”

As I have said before, everyone is entitled to air their views. But some of the over-reactions were quite laughable. I took it all with a pinch of salt. To be honest, this game won’t be long remembered. It won’t define our season. It won’t make or break us. Tuchel is no mug. He’ll learn from this.  

Next up, a Tuesday night trip to Sussex by the sea.

Let’s go to Brighton.

Tales From Chelsea Smiles In North London

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 12 January 2022.

It had just turned three o’clock in the afternoon and I pulled up in my car alongside PD’s motor in the pub car park opposite where I work. I clambered out.

“I’ve got to work on lads. You’ll have to drive up and I’ll go solo. Can you give me my ticket?”

Work had been going swimmingly well, but I had just been hit with two problems – in The Netherlands and Ireland – that needed my immediate attention. I sped back to the office and tried to get my head around what needed to be done. Of course, typical, a few other problems arose too. But, thankfully, at around 3.45pm I was able to eventually head off to London.

The race had begun.

I had been awake since 5.45am and, ironically, at around 2pm, when I started to feel a little tired I thought to myself :

“Not to worry, I’ll get a little shut-eye on the drive to London in PD’s car.”

So much for that, eh?

I sped off east towards Salisbury Plain but soon stopped for refreshments and an all-important coffee at a petrol station in Tilshead. A woman at the till who was buying lottery tickets – slowly – wound me up – quickly.

Thinking to myself, again :

“Come on, this is Tottenham away.”

Luckily, the traffic was light, the weather was fine, the roads were dry. I made good time but there was always that risk of getting caught in a London rush-hour in reverse. It’s always a lottery. I reached the M3 at about 5pm and was able to speed on. Thankfully the tiredness that I had feared never enveloped me. I tried to compute my projected arrival time in London and my chances of reaching the all-important main line station at Liverpool Street.

It seemed like ages since I had driven alone to London for a game.

As I passed Twickenham, PD called me and asked for advice on how to get to Liverpool Street. The two Chuckle Brothers were on the loose in London and it brought a wry smile to my face.

“Change at Holborn I think.”

At exactly 6pm, I was parked outside Barons Court tube station, a few car lengths down from PD’s car. There was a slick change of trains at Holborn and I was soon on the short journey to Liverpool Street. I arrived there at 6.35pm.

“Hour and ten minutes to go. Should be OK, but it all depends on the frequency of trains to White Hart Lane.”

As I came out of the underground tunnels and walkways and was almost up at ground level, there was a sound that brought another smile to my now masked face.

“We love Tuchel, we love bugle, Chelsea’s won the Champions league.”

This meant that Chelsea were in the vicinity and – presumably – there was a train to take me to the game in good time.

I quickly glanced at the train timetable.

“Platform 1 : Cheshunt – 1845, stopping at White Hart Lane.”

I had exited the underground station right next to platform one.

Perfect.

I walked all of the way to the front of the train since the rear carriages were full, but also full of Chelsea too. This was going well. The train stopped at around ten stations and the time flew. At Seven Sisters, there was an extended stop of five minutes or more. There was an announcement.

“For those going to the football, please get off here. People on the platform need to get on to use the service.”

I didn’t see one single person alight.

Fuck that.

Eventually, at just gone 7.15pm, we reached White Hart Lane station and everyone shuffled along the platform like penguins. Downstairs, the two sets of fans were forced left and right unlike at any of the previous two games that I had attended at Tottenham’s spanking new stadium.

“Chelsea left please, Chelsea left.”

Once split, the singing began. But beers were thrown at us by the Tottenham fans descending some stairs. The police waded in on a few Chelsea fans who retaliated. I walked on. Outside the station, much-modernised these days, was a row of potted plants, with up lighting, all very modern. Around fifteen Chelsea fans in a strict line, their bladders unable to cope, were watering the plants as if it was part of a military operation.

In the London night there was noise, anticipation, a palpable sense of danger.

Opposite there was a shop that caught my eye.

“Tottenham Hot Spuds.”

That made me chuckle.

“Hate to think what is on sale at Arsenal.”

Down on the High Road, there was more noise, but with scurrying crowds, a few engaged in fisticuffs, a swarm of police and I saw that the road was blocked off. The police had no desire for the two tribes to mix. Things were definitely feisty. As I took a few photos with my camera phone, a police horse reared up close to me and I had to adjust my footing to avoid getting struck.

I raced on towards the away turnstiles, the clock ticking. Outside were more police, and more noise. The bright illuminated cladding of the stadium contrasted with the shadows of the Chelsea supporters clambering to get in to the game in time for the start.

Up the steps, a COVID check, a check of my ticket and then a bag check.

“Camera?”

“Yes.”

“Need to check.”

He called over his supervisor. I was one step ahead. I lifted up the camera with the small wide-angle lens attached. I didn’t open up the bag to show the larger zoom lens.

“Nah, that’s alright. In you go.”

Time for a last minute visit to the gents. “Hellos” to a few mates. I bumped into the bloke who I was stood next to at the Chesterfield game. It was his first visit to the new stadium.

“Brilliant, innit?”

I agreed.

I eventually located block 113, then row 10, then Parky.

“Made it.”

It was 7.42pm.

Fackinell.

Just in time.

Have I mentioned that I work in logistics?

We were right behind the goal and only a few yards from the Tottenham fans.

Oh lovely.

Unfortunately, a few stewards were close by too. I knew it would be a case of cat and mouse with my camera all night long.

The stadium took my breath away again. On the previous two visits I was tucked away in the corner. This time, the view was even more spectacular. Way above the metallic cockerel at the top of the huge South Stand, way up in the clear night sky was the crescent of the moon, as clear as you like. It was certainly a dramatic setting.

The game kicked off and it took me a while to put players to positions. Back to a 4-4-2?

Kepa

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Christensen – Sarr

Mount – Kovacic – Jorginho – Hudson-Odoi

Werner – Lukaku

Things were pretty even at the start. I tried my best to take it all in. I tried to catch up with Parky. They had arrived at Barons Court at 5.15pm. PD had taken two and a quarter hours just like me. All was good. I was just so relieved to have made it. Another fifteen minutes of work would have killed my timings and connections. I spotted tons of familiar faces dotted around.

As the game developed, we looked at ease and confident. But the home team were not without threat. A shot from Kane at a free-kick was blocked. A forest of “wanking hands” greeted his miss-fire. There was an effort from Moura that went well-wide.

I sang a song from the ‘eighties to myself :

“How wide do you want the goals?”

Timo Werner was full of running in the first part of the game and his lob over the Tottenham ‘keeper from the angle of the penalty box dropped just over the bar. Next up, his striking partner Romelu Lukaku was released with an early ball and he did well to fight off a challenge, bring the ball down and shoot. Sadly, the ‘keeper was able to save. It was a bright start, this.

On eighteen minutes, we won a corner. I hadn’t used my camera too much thus far. But on this occasion, I asked Parky to lean forward to block the view of the nearest steward. Mount swung the ball in. A leap from Rudiger. I snapped. The ball – in slow-motion – dropped into the goal.

Scenes.

Get in you beauty.

There were the wildest of celebrations in the away segment which encompassed two tiers for this match. We had around 5,500 fans and every single one was going doo-lally.

“There’s that third goal.”

The one we couldn’t quite score last week.

“Safe now surely.”

A few minutes later, a steward spotted my camera and I was asked to pack it up. I wasn’t too worried. I knew I’d be able to use it again if I chose the right moment. At least I had nabbed the goal.

The home team threatened with a flurry of misdirected efforts and shots that were blocked. I never really felt that we were in danger.

Of course, the away choir was on fire.

“Tottenham get battered everywhere they go.”

“Champions of Europe. You’ll never sing that.”

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel.”

I watched as a fine sliding tackle by Antonio Rudiger robbed Hojbjerg outside the box. The Tottenham player then seemed to dive once the ball had gone, but this dive was inside the box. I had a great view. I was adamant that everything was fine. To my horror, the referee pointed at the spot. Well, that seemed ridiculous. Somebody in the crowd reckoned that VAR wasn’t being used for this game. I wasn’t sure.

After a while, it flashed up on the TV screen that VAR was being used.

We waited. And waited. And waited.

No penalty.

Whoop.

As the Chelsea players lined-up in a wall for the resulting free-kick, we spotted Dave squatting behind the wall and peeking through his team mates’ legs. At the last minute he fell to the floor. It was such a bizarre thing to see and I wished that my camera had been able to capture it.

I turned to the couple behind me.

“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dave.”

Anyway, the free-kick was headed over by a covering defender. The Chelsea support roared. We had quelled a little bubble of resurgence.

Apart from some noise at the very start when, naturally, the home support might have thought that a comeback was possible, the noise from the home stands was pretty minimal. Only on the half-hour did the place shake when a loud “Come on you Spurs” rattled around.

It dawned on me recently that only Tottenham fans call their team Spurs. Chelsea fans tend to say Tottenham.

Interesting fact #547.

The first-half ended. Time for a chat with a few folks. I spoke with the Bristol lot. Since the last game I have taken the plunge and booked up Abu Dhabi. I am going with PD. I am sure there will be a plethora of WCC worries along the way but I had to gamble and go. Let’s hope that the COVID thing doesn’t ruin all that. I chatted to Tim, Kev and Bryan briefly about it the trip. By pure luck, we are all in the same hotel.

At the break, I remembered the comments from a visibly crestfallen Antonio Conte after his new team lost 0-2 at Chelsea last week. He spoke solemnly of how far Tottenham are from Chelsea right now. I still like the bloke, even with his miss-guided decision to join forces with the numpties from N17. I would imagine that his straight-talking must have irritated the Tottenham support, but – lusciously – must have struck a chord too.

They have slid since a few years back. They were a decent team under Pochettino.

No more.

Fuck’em.

I loved the way that we dominated possession in the opening moments of the second-half, killing the game further. We never ever looked in trouble.

A Lukaku header from a corner flew just over.

Just before the hour mark, the away fans were at it.

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

Now, my immediate reaction was this :

“I know we are 3-0 up on aggregate, but that is a bit premature.”

A ball was immediately pumped forward and Kepa appeared to time his run to perfection to rob Moura with a sliding tackle. To our sadness, the referee pointed at the spot once more. It was as if the footballing Gods had unanimously agreed with me about singing that song. The Tottenham fans roared again. However, much to our joy, VAR was called into play.

The same decision. No penalty.

Now it was time for that chant.

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

Oh my aching sides.

On the hour, a magnificent save from Kepa from the head of Emerson Royal kept us ahead on the night. The ‘keeper was enjoying a very fine game. It was the save of the night thus far.

But the home team had built a little momentum and we needed to be at our best.

Kepa appeared to go walkabouts as a ball was played into Kane well inside the box. With only a covering Rudiger to beat, he blasted the ball low into the far corner.

The home fans properly roared this time.

It was a horrible feeling, despite our 3-1 lead.

But wait.

Oh my God.

Ha.

VAR again.

And again it went our way.

Chelsea smiles in North London.

I posted on Facebook :

“This is just three easy.”

I always thought that the funniest Chelsea win over Tottenham happened in 2000 when George Weah hopped off a plane at Heathrow and came on as a substitute to score the winning goal in a slender 1-0 win.

But this just might edge it.

Three disallowed goals.

Spur3y.

Tuchel strengthened things with a flurry of substitutions.

Thiago Silva for Christensen.

Marcos Alonso for Werner.

Hakim Ziyech for Mount.

And then N’Golo Kante for Kovacic.

Tottenham fans, all forty-thousand of them :

“Of for fuck sake, Kante. I’m going home.”

And then Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Jorginho.

The shape had changed to three at the back. Thiago Silva was warmly applauded and his song was sung with gusto. Likewise, N’Golo Kante.

“He’s indestructible. Always believing.”

These were great moments as the home support dwindled away. Everyone was so happy. Smiles everywhere. There were gaps appearing all over the stadium too.

“You’ve had your day out, now fuck off home.”

I love that we seem to be the only club to sing that. Is that correct?

I was able to take a few photographs as the game wore on. The stewards, like Tottenham, had given up by now. The fresh legs had re-energised us. We seemed to have more of the ball once again. We finished the game strongly and never ever looked in danger.

Towards the end of the game, a recognisable chant from a few years back quickly spread in the away end. It pleased me.

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

I loved that we were at last able to honour Antonio Conte. I loved him to bits. One supposes that if, miracle of miracles, Tottenham had turned it around on the night – no 2002 here – we would obviously have resisted. But there it was. A nod to our former manager who won the league in 2017 and the cup in 2018. It’s just a shame that he now manages that lot.

And I suspect that he thinks exactly the same.

The game over, we waited for crowds to move on. The plan had been to escort all 5,500 Chelsea to Tottenham Hale, a good half-an-hour walk. We were having none of it. We met up with PD and waited. In the shadows, we edged past police near the away end and slowly walked back to an almost deserted White Hart Lane station. It absolutely worked in our favour that so many home fans had left early.

As we reached the platform, a train arrived. We were on our way home.

By 11.30pm, we were in our separate cars, at Barons Court.

At Chiswick roundabout, I turned left towards the M3 and PD drove straight on towards the M4.

Job done.

On Saturday, it’s back to one car for Man City away.

All aboard.