Tales From The Cup.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 13 March 2017.

Here was my mindset for this game.

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

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

“Yes, of course.”

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

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

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

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

“Seen any United?”

“None.”

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

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

PD, Alan, Walnuts and myself.

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

“Fuck knows what all that is about.”

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

“Edinburgh Reds.”

“Bring On United.”

“Mockba 2008.”

“Buxton Reds.”

“Jose Mourinho’s Red Army.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The king is dead, long live the king.

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

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

The United fans were standing and singing.

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

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

“What a run.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Off you go, knobhead.”

The Stamford Bridge crowd roared.

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

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

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

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

“Concentrate on the football you twat.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“YES.”

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

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

“Fantastic save.”

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

United created nowt.

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

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

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

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

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

Sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

Suddenly, the league became the important focus again.

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

Well, well, well.

I just had one solitary thing to say to that :

“Fuck off, Mourinho.”

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Tales From Turf Moor.

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 12 January 2017.

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

We were well and truly “up north.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a cosmopolitan set.

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

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

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

Nowt fancy at Turf Moor.

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

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

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

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

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

“We are those bastards in claret and blue.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

A woman behind me bit back:

“But we will, though.”

I retorted:

“But it’s bloody February.”

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

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

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

Another “ugh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was definitely a case of “game on.”

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

“Eden has been quiet.”

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

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

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

“Johnny two hats.”

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

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

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

A shot from Azpilicueta did not really trouble Heaton.

My feet ached with the cold.

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

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

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

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

It was not to be.

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

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

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

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

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

I will see many of you there.

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Tales From The Riverside.

Middlesbrough vs. Chelsea : 20 November 2016.

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

“Never again, never again.”

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

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

I just simply yearned to see us play again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The time was 3.38am.

“Oh fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.”

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

Answers on a postcard.

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

A complete blank.

“Too drunk to dream.”

Oh boy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We had turned-up. Would the team?

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

We had heard that the team was unchanged yet again.

In Conte we trust.

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

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

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

We stood the entire match.

“Oh, my feet.”

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

Anyway, as shirts go, this one is pants.

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

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

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

“What are they saying?”

I was able to assist :

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

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

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

“What a save.”

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

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

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

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

“Is that us?”

“Dunno.”

News travelled fast : Diego Costa.

There was a mixture of elation and despair.

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

I quickly re-joined PD.

“Good goal?”

“A tap in from a corner.”

The half-time whistle blew immediately after.

At half-time, Chelsea were buoyant.

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

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

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

Ugh.

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

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

Moses then thrashed over again.

“Need a second goal, PD.”

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

I was still worried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It had been a decent weekend in Middlesbrough.

Tottenham – you are next.

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Tales From Firework Night.

Chelsea vs. Everton : 5 November 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know – crazy days, eh?

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

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

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

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

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

There was applause.

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

A moment of solemn remembrance.

Perfect.

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

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

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

I love days like these.

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

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

“Bolasie – go home.”

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

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

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

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

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

“YEEEEEEESSSSSS.”

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

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

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

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

We were purring.

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

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

Chelsea 3 Everton 0.

Wow.

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

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

Quite magical.

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

Total domination.

Everton were simply not in it.

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

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

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

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

They agreed.

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

What a finish. It amazed me.

Chelsea 4 Everton 0.

Super stuff.

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

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

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

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

And still it continued.

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

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

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

Bosh.

5-0.

Oh my oh my.

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

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

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

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

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

“Leave it out, la.”

Batshuayi replaced Eden.

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

A perfect ten.

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

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

It remained 5-0.

Five bloody nil.

Superb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incredible.

Remember remember the fifth of November?

We certainly won’t forget the one in 2016.

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Tales From The South Bank.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 24 September 2016. 

0557 : I am awake before the 0630 alarm, and there is simply no point in trying to get back to sleep. I have been buzzing for this game all week. I can’t wait to get going. A pre-planned pub crawl along the South Bank of the River Thames is the pre-curser to the London Derby later in the day. 0730 : I hop in to my car and turn the radio on. The song playing is by Madness and it seems wholly apt – “Lovestruck.” 0738 : PD, sporting a new navy Fred Perry, is collected and we are on our way. No words needed to express our sense of excitement. Belly laughs from the two of us. 0745 : Car parked at Glenn’s, the three of the four Chuckle Brothers are now on our short five-minute walk to Frome train station, where so many of my Chelsea trips had begun in the early ‘eighties. 0802 : Frome to Westbury, a beautiful sunny morning. 0821 : A text from Parky, the fourth Chuckle Brother, “just had a pint at the “Wetherspoons” in Melksham.” Off to a head start, Parky, you crafty old bugger. 0822 : Onto the Swindon train at Westbury, coffee tasting great. 0835 : Parky, with four cans of cider, joins us at Melksham. More laughter. The ciders are for the drinkers, PD and Parky. Myself and Glenn, the “B Team” will wait until we hit the first pub. This is already a fun time, and there are almost nine hours to go before the game starts. 0906 : At a windy Swindon station, all aboard the Paddington train. And relax. The journey flies by. Didcot, Reading, and in to London. We really should do this more often. 1015 : With a spring in our step, we step off the train, and go in search of a breakfast. 1030 : We are proper tourists now. Into a “Garfunkels” – a first-ever visit for me, surely no people from England visit this restaurant – on Praed Street for some nosebag. A decent fry-up hits the spot. The waitress even gets a decent tip. 1100 : The tube to London Bridge. 1130 : “The Barrowboy And Banker” – the first pub, right outside the station, and a pint of Peroni. Glenn spots some Millwall fans, who eye us up and leave. A walk past Southwark Cathedral, through Borough Market, thronged with people, our senses smacked sideways by the dizzying array of aromas emanating from the stalls selling a superb selection of nosh. 1200 : Into pub number two, “The Old Thameside Inn” right next to a replica of The Golden Hind. We sit outside, on a terrace right above the river, and note a few more football types, but can’t pin down their teams. The view is spectacular. “This seems like a European away.” And it’s true. We come up to London from our sleepy Somerset and Wiltshire towns and villages, yet very rarely open ourselves up to the majesty of London. We talk about how the move from Upton Park to the London Stadium, ahead of our trip there later in October, has proved to be so difficult for so many West Ham fans. Watching football in a sterile environment was always a fear that I had should we ever move away from Stamford Bridge. 1230 : “The Anchor” at Bankside, with the Manchester United vs. Leicester City game in an adjacent room. We prefer to sit inside, in the atmospheric snug, with a low-slung ceiling, with exposed beams. Our smiling beams were exposed too. What a brilliant time. “Let’s do something similar for Spurs at home, another 5.30pm.” “How about a stroll down the Kings Road?” United race ahead 3-0 on the TV game, and we mutter something about Jose Mourinho. Out into the sun, and I am gearing myself up for my round. 1315 : “The Swan” right next to the reworked Globe Theatre. “Looks a bit pricey, lads, wish me luck.” Again, more stunning views of the river, with the dome of St. Paul’s dominating. What a touch, the cheapest round yet. “Less than £20 boys – result.” Past Tate Modern – I last visited there in around 2002 – and past the Millennium Bridge. 1400 : “The Founders Arms” and the beers are flowing, the laughter is continuing. I last visited this pub on a Sixth Form trip in the summer of 1983, just before a gaggle of us watched Toyah Willcox in “Trafford Tanzi” in the Mermaid Theatre on the opposite bank. An England vs. New Zealand test match at The Oval in the day and a bit of culture in the evening. Back then, it was of the first pubs that I had ever bought a drink, and certainly the first in London. I remember thinking how charmless it was back in 1983, like something out of the Thamesmead setting of “A Clockwork Orange” but now everything was a lot lighter and welcoming. It was rammed with tourists. In 1983 – even on a Friday evening – it was a lot less busy. The plan was to head north and to join up with others at Holborn. We head south to Southwark train station. “Ah, bugger it, there’s ages to go yet, let’s pop into there for one more.” 1430 : “The Prince William Henry” and a quiet one, with no tourists, just a few locals. I am sticking to Peronis, PD and Parky are swerving from cider to lager, Glenn is – worryingly – on the Guinness. From Southwark, via a change at Green Park, to Holborn. 1530 : We quickly spot Alan, Gary and Daryl in a corner at the front of the final pub of the day, “The Shakespeare’s Head”, which is mobbed – as per usual – with Chelsea. Familiar faces everywhere I look. Two more pints. Up to a gallon for the day. Phew. “Not used to this.” Chelsea laughs and Chelsea smiles, and things are starting to get a little blurred. My good friend Starla, from San Francisco – a Chelsea fan for a while, and one of my first Chelsea “internet” friends from as long ago as 2006 – is over for a week, but we had not been able to rustle her up a ticket. I remember I was able to sort her out with a ticket for her first-ever Chelsea game in England at Newcastle in 2008. At least she can experience the pre-match with us. There are Chelsea songs bouncing around the pub. The team comes through on our phones, and it seems that for once a Chelsea manager and the club’s fans are on the same page. Cesc Fabregas in for Oscar. A return to The Emirates once more and let’s hope it is successful. There is – of course! – little talk of the game among all this drinking and boisterousness, but we all know that this will be a tough game. We have gone off the boil – wait, were we ever on the boil, yet, this season? – and I agree with PD. “I’ll take a point now.” 1645 : We shuffle down the escalators at Holborn and jump on a northbound train. The tube carriage is mobbed with Chelsea. Parky’s mate Ben leads the sing-song. “You want Wenger in. You want Wenger out. In out, in out, shake it all about. You do the Arsene Wenger and you turn around that’s what it’s all about.” There is also a shrill, high pitched chant of “Ar-senal Ar-senal, Ar-senal” from us and this is met with a few sniggers from the Goons among us. 1700 : I suddenly realise – as if I need reminding – how much they love their replica shirts, the Arsenal fans. Not us. 1715 : A quick bag search, and I’m in, quick to find my seat next to Alan and Gary. From the South Bank of the River Thames to the South Bank – the Clock End – at The Emirates. 1730 : The kick-off, and I’m trying to juggle photographs, text messages, some songs of support and the effects of a gallon of lager. It’s not going well. On the pitch it soon gets worse. 1741 : A calamity as Gary Cahill – heading towards the top of the unpopularity stakes – delays in playing an easy ball back to the waiting Thibaut Courtois, and Alexis Sanchez picks his pocket, and races towards goal. He dinks the ball over Courtois and sends the home fans delirious. “We’ll have to go at them now.” But we don’t. 1744 : A fine passing move in and around our defence – who are still and lifeless – ends up with Theo Walcott pushing the ball in from close-range. It is a typical Arsenal goal in many respects. For the rest of the half, Chelsea seem to have much of the ball but do absolutely nothing of note with it. 1810 : Arsenal go three-up as Ozil races through to volley a cross from Sanchez down, and up and over Courtois. This is grim, as grim as it can be. 1830 : The second-half begins, and I am just concerned about “damage limitation.” We beat Arsenal 6-0 in 2014, and I wonder if a horrible evening of retribution is about to befall us. Previously, our record at Arsenal’s new stadium is pretty decent, with four wins in ten games and just two defeats. The second-half is a little similar to the first. A decent amount of possession, but no end product. Around me, there is a dissatisfaction with our players. And that is putting it mildly. There are strong words among fellow fans, but I am pleased to see that as the second-half drifts by, very few Chelsea fans decide to leave. There are not many red seats on show. Out of nowhere, one song dominates. It soon gathers strength and is repeated, with clapping to give it an extra resonance, for what seems like ages but was probably not even ten minutes. “We’re the only team in London with a European Cup.” Elsewhere, despite Arsenal winning their first game against us home since December 2010, I am amazed – no stirred, to be truthful – by the lack of noise from the home sections. “Three-nil and you still don’t sing” seems to sum it up. The manager makes changes as the half progresses. Marcos Alonso for Cesc. Ugh. It hasn’t worked out. Pedro for Willian. Batshuayi for Hazard. The game continues. It’s dire stuff. Eventually a few fellow fans slink off into the murky London night. In the closing moments, Batshuayi has a couple of openings, and at last he produces our only shot on target throughout the entire game. 1930 : The referee signals a few minutes of extra time. “Come on Parky, let’s go.” I send a text to Glenn before my phone dies. “See you Paddington.” 2130 : The train back to the West of England pulls out of Paddington, and I just want to get home. The game I had just witnessed was one of the most lifeless and depressing performances in living memory. Where now, Chelsea? It might turn out to be a long long winter this one. There are a few boisterous Bristol City fans at the buffet as I get PD and myself a drink for the return journey. They are full of cheer about their 4-0 victory at Fulham, and there is a song for Tammy Abraham. I dislike – no, I hate – Bristol City and I must be one of a very small group of Chelsea fans who, although pleased for our young player, is far from happy about his spell at Ashton Gate. As the train heads west, the horrible Bristolian accent haunts me. Some City fans gave me a proper kicking in 1984 – Glenn and PD were with me that night – and this is the final twist of the knife on this most disheartening and depressing of days. 2330 : The night train to Frome sets off from Bath station, full of shrieking females from Trowbridge and Westbury. I just want to get some sleep. 0008 : The train slides in to Frome station and we say our goodbyes. “Have a good week Paul, see you at 6 o’clock next Saturday.” 

 

 

 

Tales From Vicarage Road.

Watford vs. Chelsea : 20 August 2016.

After the euphoria of Monday’s dramatic win against a rather disappointing West Ham United, Saturday could not come quick enough. On the face of it – “although no team should be underestimated blah, blah, blah”- I for one was certainly hoping for another league win to get us off to a solid start to 2016/2017. I was on driving duties again, and picked up PD, Parky and Young Jake en route. The skies threatened with rain a little, but this would surely be a fine day. I was parked in our standard car-park at just after midday. All four of us looked at the skies and decided against jackets. As with last season, the pre-match drink-up was in the ridiculously busy “The Moon Under Water” Wetherspoon’s on Watford High Street. Alan and Gary were soon spotted and, while I slowly sipped on “Cokes” – deep joy – I watched with admiration from afar as the others kept returning from the rammed bar with plastic pint after plastic pint. Many other members of the Chelsea Away Club popped over to say “hello” and the time soon passed. Watford’s High Street is solid with pubs, bars, clubs, restaurant and fast food joints. One lot of Chelsea were over at “The Flag” near the station. And we were in “The Moon Under Water.” Watford fans were present but a minority.

This was Chelsea Central.

It didn’t take long for the place to be reverberating with Chelsea songs. I am sure that many of our foreign fans, possibly still to visit England for a game, have this notion that on every match-day at Stamford Bridge, every single pub is shaking to the rafters as Chelsea song after Chelsea song is bellowed out. It simply isn’t like this. Singing does happen, but it’s quite random and ad hoc. My local “The Goose” is noisy, but pre-match songs are quite rare these days. There is more condensed singing at away pubs – “The Arkell’s” outside Anfield, “The Shakespeare’s Head” on the way to Arsenal and “Yates” in Southampton’s town centre are three easy examples – but a lot depends on numbers. Often, with Chelsea in the minority, there are no songs, often there are no clues who we are. On this particular match day, amid the usual Chelsea standards, I quickly noted a new chant. It could hardly be termed a song, since it was very flat, with hardly a melody. I quickly made a note of the words.

“Antonio Conte. Does it better. Makes me happy. Makes me feel this way.”

The last few words sounded familiar – annoyingly familiar – but because there was no notable tune involved, I was struggling to name the song. It boomed around the pub and although I felt myself subconsciously joining in as I queued for my round, I really wasn’t convinced. Maybe it will grow on me.

After the game on Monday, in the car on the way out of Fulham, I suggested to my friends that Willian’s performance had been the only one that had been a little sub-standard. On the face of it, once the team news had come through on our phones, it seemed that Antonio Conte had agreed with me.

Pedro in for Willian, otherwise unchanged.

I passed this nugget of news to Parky, but he was sodden with cider and just smiled and gave me a big hug.

“Whatever” I said, smiling, “sorry for spoiling your drinking.”

It is a bloody good job that I wrested the troops out of the pub earlier than normal because we were met with a ridiculous wait at the away end. There was building work last season, but no delay. This season, all two thousand Chelsea fans were pushed like cattle towards a double doorway of no more than four feet wide, with four turnstiles located inside the stand. What a farce. Why not have four turnstiles built into the actual perimeter wall? Anyway, we made it inside.

Incidentally, a rather huge Watford fan had waltzed past us, bellowing some chant or another, as we waited rather impatiently to get inside. The Chelsea choir seized the moment and targeted him.

“You ate Dennis Wise, you ate Dennis Wise – you ate Dennis, you ate Dennis, you ate Dennis Wise.”

Unlike last season, shunted way to the left, we had good seats. Vicarage Road is a tidy stadium, and there is infill taking place on all four corners. The corner to our left was a work in progress.

Before I had time to think, the Evertonian “Z Cars” heralded the teams on the pitch, and with the home end opposite a riot of yellow, red and black flags, the scene was set.

Chelsea were in a rather neat all-white kit. It is much better than the sub-standard home kit, with the juvenile lions embedded into the knit, and a hundred times better than the black away kit. Overall, I have not been too impressed with the Adidas kits since they took over from Umbro in 2006/2007. I wonder if the standard 2016/2017 Nike template will continue into next season. It seems that every single one of Nike’s uniforms have the same colour shirts and shorts, with contrasting sleeves and socks. I wonder what horrors we have in store next season. Light blue sleeves maybe? Shudder.

Lacoste Watch.

Parky – white.

Chris – dark grey.

Let’s not deny it, for a very large part of this match, we were quite woeful, and it reminded me so much of some of our soporific performances last season, with little urgency and drive. Our game at Vicarage Road during the last campaign had been poor, although we had slowly improved during the second-half, but this was almost worse. As the game continued, I kept thinking back to my very effusive match report from Monday and wondered if my enthusiasm would now be looked at as rather premature and excessive.

If it was the same 4/1/4/1 as Monday, I would not have known, since Matic seemed unwilling to move from a deep midfield berth. The first-half was truly awful. The singing, which had been strong at the start, drifted away with each passing minute of inactivity on the pitch. Soon into the game, the skies darkened and misty rain gave way to a stronger shower.

“Good job we’ve all forgot our jackets.”

The floodlights flickered on. This was November in August.

To my left, I noticed that many Watford fans had vacated their seats in the Elton John Stand simply because the roof overhead did not fully extend over the seats. What a joke. I guess they watched from inside the concourse on TVs. Pathetic, really.

In the Chelsea dugout, I was transfixed with the animated cajoling of our new manager, who again looked very dapper in his suit and tie.

“A penny for your thoughts, Antonio.”

“And what do you think of the new song?”

“Yeah, me too.”

In all honesty, Watford could have been two-up at the break. A fine save by Thibaut Courtois from an angle kept Watford at bay early on. As the rain continued, play did not flow. Chelsea were ponderous in picking passes and movement off the ball was poor. Watford, without creating too much early on, seemed to be up for the fight more than us. The robust and spirited nature of our play on Monday was sorely lacking. Dare I say it, we looked tired. Kante buzzed around, attempting to bring other players in, but too often Ivanovic’ cross failed to get past the first man, Oscar failed to do anything constructive, Hazard failed to pick out Diego Costa, and Matic was just Matic. To my left, Gary was turning the air blue with every swear word known to mankind.

I turned to TBBM (“the bloke behind me”) and sighed “I’ve got this all season.”

Cahill did well to block a Watford shot. There was a call – from me anyway – for a back-pass after Gomes picked up the ball under pressure from Costa after a Watford defender seemed to have got a touch after the much-barracked former Tottenham ‘keeper initially spilled it.

A game of few chances and little joy, at half-time there were yawns the size of underground tunnels in the away end.

There were no positives from the first forty-five minutes to be honest. After the optimism of Monday evening, there was a noticeable deadening of our spirit. The singing had almost petered out completely.

It wasn’t good.

It wasn’t good at all.

With Chelsea attacking the away support, we hoped for better things as the game re-started. Eden Hazard fired wide, and we seemed to liven up a little. Sadly, after just ten minutes of the second-half gone, we were caught napping when Guedioura – who? – was able to cross from the Watford right. As three Chelsea defenders rose to head the centre away – all missing the flight of the ball completely – I immediately spotted danger as the ball dropped invitingly to a completely unmarked Watford player beyond the frame of the goal.

I uttered the immortal words “here we go” with a knowing sigh, and watched as Capoue brought the ball down and volleyed it high past Courtois.

Watford were one-up. Oh bollocks.

After the Watford celebrations and flag-waving had died down, we heard the home support for possibly the only time during the whole afternoon, as they sang in praise of their goal scorer.

Yep, you guessed, it – the Billy Ray Cyrus song. Fuck off.

The Antonio Conte song struggled to get going. It needs to change, somehow, for it to become more palatable.

We seemed to marginally improve, in terms of chances on goal, with Hazard and Matic going wide, but there was still a dullness to our body language. Watford turned overly physical in their efforts to hold on for the win. Frustrations boiled over on a number of occasions. An unlikely attacker almost created an opening when Ivanovic tempted Gomes out of his six-yard box, but the resulting cross in to the danger zone was cleared for a corner. A handball appeal, which I missed, was waved away.

With twenty minutes remaining, Antonio Conte replaced Pedro with Victor Moses. No complaints there.

Immediately, our play seemed to be more direct, more intense.

Moses enjoyed a spirited run down the left, which was met by a song from a few years back.

The Victor Moses “Pigbag” was sung with far more gusto than the Antonio Conte “Chaka Khan” (for it was her song “Ain’t Nobody” which had been butchered that afternoon in Watford.)

Oscar, who had drifted over to the right wing, was then replaced by Michy Batshuayi.

Things improved further and the fans around me realised this. The support grew stronger.

The final change and Cesc Fabregas replaced the woeful Nemanja Matic. I turned to Alan –

“Bloody hell, that’s an attacking line-up alright.”

After only two minutes on the pitch, Fabregas daintily picked out Hazard outside the box. He moved the ball laterally and then unleashed a low shot on target. The much-maligned Gomes made a mess of his attempted save, only feeding the ball towards Batshuayi who was on hand to tuck the spilled ball into the net.

GET IN.

Our new young striker reeled away in ecstasy and we were back in it. Playing with two up had borne dividends. We had an extra striker in the six-yard box. It seems simple, but how often has this simple fact been ignored over recent seasons? I again turned to Alan.

“Mourinho would often change personnel, but he very rarely changed the shape. Credit to Conte. Game on.”

Everyone around me sensed a more adventurous Chelsea now. It seemed we were genuinely on top. We pressed forward, urged on by a support that had finally found its voice.

“Antonio Conte. Does it bet-tah.”

Ivanovic came close. It was all Chelsea. The noise cascaded down towards our heroes on the pitch.

A rare Watford attack broke down, and the ball fell to Cesc Fabregas. He instantly looked up and spotted an advanced Diego Costa, about to set off on a run into the Watford half. His clipped pass was perfect, dropping right between two bamboozled and befuddled Watford defenders, allowing Costa a clear run on goal. He aimed for goal and steadied himself. A touch to set himself up. I was on my toes now, awaiting the strike. He shot low. It flew in through the legs of Gomes.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.

Watford 1 Chelsea 2.

Pandemonium in the away end, pandemonium everywhere. Bodies flying this way and that. I steadied myself to photograph Diego’s beautiful celebrations – his second late match winner in two games –  but Parky grabbed hold of me and shook me hard. I managed to release myself to snap the team’s celebrations, and immediately after the away end was reverberating to a song about a Spaniard and his magic hat.

Beautiful.

I am not sure how we had done it, but we were winning a game in which, for a good seventy minutes, we had looked second-best. Over on the touchline, Conte had masterminded another masterstroke. I was full of admiration. Five minutes of extra-time were signalled but we would not let this slip. The team remained strong, energised, together. I was really impressed with Batshuayi and the striker could have made it 3-1 but his very neat turn and shot crashed back off the Watford bar.

The whistle went.

Phew.

Two wins out of two.

Phew.

On the walk back to the car, we were full of praise for the way that our Italian manager had changed things, in almost a carbon copy of the game on Monday. It is early days, of course, but it seems that we are all in for a fine time this season. Thankfully, we narrowly avoided a few spots of rain, which started up just after we reached the car, and again on the way back west along the M4. There would be no raining on our parade on this fine day of Chelsea glory. At Reading Services, we again avoided getting wet as we called in to collectively re-charge our batteries with our assault on “Fifty Shades Of Greggs” (OK, three – a sausage roll, a tandoori chicken baguette and a Philly Steak lattice; three down, forty-seven to go, watch this space, with no European travels this season, we have to find excitement where we can). Who should walk around the corner but two local lads that PD and myself know who had watched my local team Frome Town play at nearby Kings Langley, drawing 2-2. Frome have begun the season well, and I have seen them play twice already. Like Chelsea, Frome Town are in fourth place in their respective league, and I wished a few of the players well as they appeared from their coach on their way to refuel.

It capped off a fine day.

On Tuesday, we play Bristol Rovers in the latest incarnation of the League Cup, in what promises to be a noisy affair with four-thousand Bristolians taking over The Shed. I am sure that by the end of the evening, I will be sick to the death of “Goodnight Irene” being sung on a constant loop but I am relishing the chance to see a local team to me at Stamford Bridge for the very first time. There will be, undoubtedly, memories of games against them at Eastville flitting in and out of my head, and the resulting match report, all night.

I will see a few of you there.

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Tales From The Big House.

Chelsea vs. Real Madrid : 30 July 2016.

It could have easily been a typical Saturday morning back home in England. As I lay in bed, the sheets almost covering me completely, I buried my head deep inside the covers and tried to sleep on for a few more minutes, and endevoured to ignore the depressing sound of the rain lashing down outside the window. It sounded bleak. Following Chelsea during the summer in the US wasn’t meant to be like this. I hadn’t packed a jacket for the trip, that’s for sure. And I knew that there was no cover at the huge University of Michigan stadium. With the tightening of stadium security, I also knew that bags were not able to be taken in to the game.  If the rain continued to fall at the same rate over the next few hours, there was a strong chance of the upcoming game against Real Madrid becoming the worst viewing experience of my life. No roof. No jacket. No bag for my camera. Possibly not even my camera; there was an unclear description of the type of camera which would be allowed inside when I had checked on the stadium website earlier.

“Less than six inches.”

On reading this, I had glanced down at my camera and sighed.

“Looks bigger than six inches to me.”

There was, I suppose, if the occasional thunder cracks continued too, even a slight chance of the game being cancelled or postponed and obliterated from the record books.

Bollocks.

I slept on for a few more minutes. The room had top notes of disinfectant, mixed with a slight aroma of marijuana. Its base notes were of misery. I wondered if this would set the tone for the day.

The rain abated slightly and I became a little more optimistic. I showered, chose jeans over shorts, Moncler over Lacoste, Adidas over Nike, and headed out for the time-honoured tradition of a McBreakfast on the morning of a Chelsea match. This one was not in Melksham, or Chippenham, or at Fleet Services, though; this one was at Ann Arbor, Michigan, a lovely college town situated at arm’s length from the urban sprawl of the troubled city of Detroit. As I finished my coffee, I chatted briefly to a father with two teenagers – the girl wearing a Chelsea shirt, the son wearing a Real Madrid one. It was their first Chelsea game. I wished them well. I wondered if we’d get to see Real’s famous all white kit. It would be a shame to come all this way and not be treated to that. Instead, some ludicrous away kit catastrophe. I have only ever seen Real play once before; in Monaco in the 1998 UEFA Super Cup Final. It was all white on the night for them, but more so for us; a Gustavo Poyet goal gave us a 1-0 win, and prompted my good mate Andy to memorably comment :

“Right now, in Madrid, there’s an old bloke in a bar, saying ‘They always beat us, Chelsea.’ “

Of course, we had beaten them in Athens in 1971 too.

Two games, two wins.

Our paths have rarely crossed since; certainly not in official European campaigns.

On the walk past the motel reception, I spotted a lad wearing a Willian shirt. As I ambled past, I couldn’t resist singing “he hates Tottenham, he hates Tottenham” and this drew a wide smile from the Chelsea fan. There was a spring in my step now. This would be a good day.

My friend John, from Ohio, had kindly volunteered to pick me up in his truck and head in to town for pre-match beers. It was fantastic to see him once again. John studied at Reading University for a few months during the winter of 2008/2009 and I was able to get him tickets, usually alongside the Chelsea legend Lovejoy, for some games. He saw the Juve home match and also took in a game at Anfield. I last saw him at the Baltimore match against Milan in 2009; still widely-regarded by many as the best Chelsea matchday-experience in the US of them all.

On the drive in to town, we caught up with each other’s lives, and John spoke to me about the town’s university, and its myriad sports teams. That John was a “U of M” fan, made this game even more worthwhile for him. I had driven in to town myself on a few occasions since arriving on the Wednesday, but the streets and parking lots were so much busier now. The town was gearing itself for an influx of over one-hundred thousand footy fans.

I had flown in to O’Hare Airport in Chicago on the Tuesday afternoon. I had decided to miss the opening tour game in Pasadena against the Scousers. Los Angeles is not my favourite place, and I wanted to stretch out and unwind a little bit rather than rush between three games. The matches in Ann Arbor and Minneapolis would be just fine. There would be no fun, in my eyes, travelling all of the way out to California to see bloody Liverpool.

“LA?”

“No, la.”

I spent Tuesday night with a few good friends in Chicago, where we spent a few hours hitting a few bars, sharing plenty of laughs, eating Mexican food, and reminiscing about the previous time that I had been in town; the memorable weekend of July 2006 – ten whole years ago, good grief – when Chelsea played the MLS All-Stars, the only game of our US tour that year. I had travelled to the US the previous two summers with Chelsea and had mainly kept myself to myself. In 2006, though, because everyone met up in one pub – “Fado” – and because everything was so well organised (a quiz night, an evening with Charlie Cooke, a practice session, a tour around Chicago in three double-decker busses before heading down to the game), everyone made a special effort to socialise. For me, it was a watershed moment. I met so many friends during those three days of Chelsea in Chicago. Not long after, Chelsea In America asked me to write about a trip to Bremen with Chelsea for their monthly newsletter, and I soon began posting ad hoc match reports on their bulletin board. Ten years later, I am still scribing away with thoughts about what supporting Chelsea means to me and many others.

It has been quite a ride.

I drove from Chicago – sad it was just a fleeting visit – to Ann Arbor on Wednesday. I made the big mistake of stopping by at “Culvers” for a butter burger. It is not a good sign for my future health that the sound effect that accompanied me biting down in to the burger was “squelch.”

But I loved the trip to Ann Arbor on the American road. I find it quite beguiling. The scale of everything is so different to back home.

On Thursday, I drove over to visit my friends Erin and JR, and their three-month old boy Harry, who was born just a few hours after our game at Anfield at the close of last season. It was lovely to see them again. It’s such a shame that simple geography keeps me apart from so many of my closest Chelsea mates. We headed in to Detroit for a few hours. Of course, everyone knows how that city has suffered over recent decades, but I was encouraged to see green shoots of renewal in the city centre, which seemed very chilled and relaxed. I love the way that the city’s sport stadia have remained right in the middle of everything. We relaxed at a great little restaurant. I just fancied a “light snack” and so asked for a Reuben sandwich. However, I was presented with a slab of food so huge that if it had been served in the UK, it would have needed planning permission. JR had shrimp tacos, while Erin had a very healthy salad and rice bowl. The server, a particularly irritating fellow who enjoyed regaling us with a far-too detailed description of the menu, made a point of asking Erin if she required “any protein” with her salad. Perhaps he thought she might soon wither away without added nutrients.

He turned to me and asked if I wanted any fries.

The fucker.

On Thursday night, in Ann Arbor, the Chelsea portion of my holiday kicked-in. Sometimes, I find it a little difficult to focus on events at the start of each season. Because I have witnessed so many games, and have seen us win so much – “things I never thought that I would hear myself say #542” – I usually take a while to get going each season. In “Conor O’Neils” in Ann Arbor, meeting up with a few friends, plus former players Garry Stanley and Gary Chivers, gave me the kick-start that I needed. We spoke about the current team, but also about little parcels of our history. I see Gary Chivers at Stamford Bridge quite often as he works on the corporate hospitality these days. I last saw Garry Stanley at Ian Britton’s funeral in Burnley. We watched Didier Drogba score against Arsenal in the MLS All-Star Game.

Too funny.

Jesus, Brian, Beth and Carlo from Texas were there. The omnipresent Cathy, with Becky, too. Neil Barnett ran through his player ratings – not many high scores, I have to say – from the Liverpool match, which I was unable to track in my motel room, but which we won 1-0. I had my photo taken with Garry and Gary. These were good times.

On the Friday, despite a slow start, the afternoon turned into an evening of additional Chelsea fun. I walked over to the pub at around midday, and spotted two mates – Tuna from Atlanta and Simon from Memphis – who I see on the US tours and also back home at games. They were outside enjoying a pint and a breakfast. They would be the first of many old friends – and a smattering of new – that I would happily meet over the weekend. We had taken over the whole pub – large, cool, roomy – and I spent my time chatting away with many Chelsea faces, clutching a bottle of Corona, and occasionally taking a few photographs to capture the mood. For a while, those outside the pub sang a selection of Chelsea songs, and this resulted in many locals using their cameras to record the moment. I don’t think Ann Arbor was prepared for it. The city centre is a quaint mix of antique shops, brew pubs, eateries, diners, pubs and shops. It is a very typical college town. For a couple of days, Chelsea fans invaded it like a plague of locusts, drank beer, and turned the air blue.

At around 12.30pm on the day of the game, John parked his truck in a multi-story opposite “Conor O’Neils” and we dived into the pub. The rain soon returned, and the University of Michigan store opposite had a run on ponchos. More beers were guzzled, and the pub absolutely roared to Chelsea chants. On the drive in to the city from my motel three miles to the south, the number of Chelsea shirts greatly outnumbered those of Real Madrid. This was a very positive sign indeed. At just after 2pm, thankfully the rain cleared and we began the twenty-five-minute walk south to the stadium. It was very pleasant indeed. The rain had freshened things up a little. We were allocated the northern end of the stadium, and it soon appeared before us. Touts – or scalpers – were doing their best to get rid of spares. Knock-off kits, virtually all Madrid, were being hawked on grass verges. Time was moving on, and the line at the gates were long. I thrust my telephoto lens down into my pocket and hoped for the best. Thankfully, there was a very minimal search and I was in.

“And relax.”

In time-honoured Chelsea tradition, the call of “one last pint” (or in this case “one last poncho”) had been honoured without jeopardising our ability to get in on time.

The stadium, which holds around 110,000, sits on a hill, but does not look large from the outside. Like so many stadia though, the entrances are towards the top of the vast bowl, and the pitch is down below. As I walked in, I was blown away by the scale of it all. It is immense. It is not called “The Big House” without reason. There are rows upon rows of blue metallic bleachers which wrap themselves around on one never-ending single tier. The very last twenty rows are a relatively recent addition. Along the sides are two huge edifices – darkened glass, quite sinister – which house hundreds of executive and corporate suites.

Our section was right down the bottom and it took a while to reach it.

I located my seat, alongside Brij, an Ann Arbor student from San Jose attending his first-ever Chelsea match, and Neil, who was with me in Vienna, just as the national anthem was being played on a trumpet.

I looked around and took it all in.

The guy with the Willian shirt at the hotel in the morning was stood right behind me.

What a small bloody world.

Mosaics were planned and with a great deal of condescension, the announcer painstakingly explained what the spectators needed to do. Thousands of multi-coloured paper panels were held aloft, but I found it odd that the folks in and around me in the Chelsea section held up cards depicting the Real Madrid crest, whereas over in the southern side, the Chelsea crest was visible. Actually, the sections were not cut and dried. To my annoyance, the Chelsea sections of 33,34 and 35 were populated by not only Chelsea supporters, but by those of Real Madrid and many other teams too. The lower sections housed those from the various supporters’ clubs though – New York Blues, Shed End Dallas, Chicago Blues, Beltway Blues, Motor City Blues, Shed End Seattle, Atlanta Blues, Badgercrack Blues – and this lower level housed the bedrock of our support. However, a pet peeve of mine, noted here before, is that it would have been much better to allocate a solid block of one thousand or two thousand just to Chelsea. Over the course of the game, getting the disparate sections, split up and spread more thinly than I would have liked, to sing together was almost impossible.

Elsewhere, there were colours of many teams. If the opposite end was officially the Real Madrid end, there were no noticeable hardcore sections among it. There were no banners, no flags, no “capo” stuff. In fact, if I am blunt, the only section in the whole stadium that tried to get anything going the entire game was in the lower sections of our end.

Real Madrid were in all white, but it was Chelsea that had let me down.

It was black and white, not blue and white, this time.

Antonio Conte had chosen a strong team.

Begovic.

Azpilicueta.

Terry.

Cahill.

Aina.

Matic.

Oscar.

Willian.

Pedo.

Loftus-Cheek.

Traore.

I am so used to seeing a 4-2-3-1 that it took me a while to adjust.

The match began and the support around tried desperately to get behind the boys.

I got my rasping “Zigger Zagger” out of the way early – on around six minutes – and it left me gasping for a sip of beer at the end. I almost didn’t make it. The last “ZZ” almost caused my head to explode in the warm Michigan sun. I turned to Neil and said –

“That’s it. That’s me done.”

As I said, sections of those in blue did their very best to get things going but it wasn’t great.

Sadly, the first-half was truly awful.

Willian had a free-kick which failed to live up to its hype. An ill-judged back-header from Matic caused Begovic to scramble and save. Real Madrid started to dominate.

Two relatively similar goals were scored by Marcelo as our defence opened up before him. This was not going to plan. A third goal from Diaz, whipped in, dipping, but almost straight at Begovic, left us all with concerned faces. I had visions of a 6-0, a cricket score. I had visions of folks back home, at work, waiting to pounce.

“Bloody hell, mate. You went all that way and your lot lost 6-0.”

Neil disappeared at halftime in search of beer, but was never seen again, until later, much later, in the pub.

The manager made widespread changes at half-time.

On came Courtois, Chalobah, Cuadrado, Batshuayi.

Things genuinely improved a little in the second-half.

“Not difficult” I hear you say.

I liked the look of Cuadrado down below me on the wing. At last he looked a little more confident on the ball, and his first touch seemed to be fine. He looked “up for it” and I have a feeling that the manager might well be regarding this as his “special project” this season. He saw him play in depth for Juventus last season. Maybe he can coax something out of his frail shell.

Shots from Chalobah and Batshuayi went close.

The Real ‘keeper Casilla raced out of his area to gather a ball, but Traore pounced, only to see a defender block his shot.

There was a pitch invader, and I – perhaps with a little too much heavy satire – said “shoot him.”

Brij, next to me, told me that there were snipers in the stadium. He pointed up to the two opposing top corners of the roofs of the sky boxes. There were two darkened figures.

I actually felt a shiver go down my spine.

Is this crazy world of ours spiralling out of control so much that we require snipers on stand roofs? I wondered back to the days of the police observation area in the old West Stand in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. I bet in those days, the only things on display were a pair of binoculars and a cheese and pickle sandwich.

Real Madrid made massive changes and the game drifted on.

Victor Moses, back for his annual pre-season run, was fouled and Hazard went close.

Soon after, with eighty minutes on the clock, Hazard gave the score line a little more respectability when he latched on to a Chalobah ball and rounded replacement ‘keeper Yanez to slot home. My boy Cuadrado looked good, and created a few chances down below us. With an almost copy of his first goal, Eden Hazard was played in by Batshuayi and again rounded the ‘keeper to score a second. As bizarre as it sounds, we all thought that we might salvage an unwarranted draw. We had a little spell right at the end, but with the ball out for a corner, the referee blew up.

3-2 is a lot better than 3-0, but this was not great.

I will make the same comments, though, as I did against Rapid Vienna.

These are just games for us to get our fitness levels back and for the manager to look at options.

Time is moving on though.

We need to improve.

After a slow walk back to the bar, I said a sad farewell to John. After a few more beers, in the bar, we were all chilled and the result was glossed over. The drinking continued. On Wednesday, the locusts descend on Minneapolis.

I will see some of you there.

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