Tales From Porto : Part Two – Reach Out, Touch Faith

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2021.

Just as in Moscow in 2008 and Munich in 2012, I travelled the last few miles to the venue of the Champions League Final by tube. In Moscow, the carriage was full of noisy fans of both clubs. In Munich, the stifling air of the U-bahn made singing uncomfortable for the Chelsea fans who almost filled the entire carriage. This time, Charlotte and I stood the few miles in comfort as there was space to both talk and think. Only Chelsea fans were inside this carriage. We were on our way to Combatentes tube station to the west of the Dragao Stadium to the north east of the city centre. The Manchester City support would be heading to a different station. In Moscow, the Chelsea hordes were housed in the southern end of the Luzhniki Stadium. In Munich, we took our place in the three tiers of the Nord Kurv. In Porto, Chelsea would again be located at the northern end.

Charlotte and I, both from Somerset, continued our match day chat and touched on our early memories of going to games. Charlotte’s first game at Stamford Bridge was a 3-1 win over the then European Champions Liverpool in 1978, a game that I attended too. I liked that. We spoke of how Chelsea had become a major part of our lives, and how people “on the outside” probably never come close to understanding the pull that it has on us all. I only met Charlotte for the first time in Kiev in 2019, but have bumped into her and her husband Paul – injured for this final, a broken ankle – at a few games since.

As in the crowds outside the bars near the fan zone, one song dominated the ten-minute journey north. I have often maintained that the football song that stems from the Depeche Mode song “Just Can’t Get Enough” should always have been a Chelsea song long before Liverpool and Celtic, and then others, grabbed hold of it. Band members Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher are big Chelsea fans. It should have been The Shed and not The Kop “do, do, do, do, do, do, do”-ing these past ten years. But this song was now – at last – a new and vibrant part of the Chelsea songbook. Timo Werner is the subject matter of our version and the song was being bellowed out with gusto as the Chelsea faithful exited the train and clambered up the stairs. Tube stations are always fine locations for a pre-match sing-song, the bare walls echoing nicely.

On the coach down to Munich from Prague with Glenn in 2012, one song got inside my brain, the iconic “The Model” by Kraftwerk. We kept singing it to each other. A real ear-worm for that day. By the time we joined up the rest of the lads in a sunny Munich beer garden, Alan had changed the words slightly.

“Gal’s a model and he’s looking good. He loves his main course and he loves his pud.”

Alas neither Alan nor Gary would be in Porto this time around; nor the other members of our Munich tour party, Daryl, Neil, Glenn, Simon and Milo.

Kraftwerk in Munich, Depeche Mode in Porto. A nice progression.

As we reached the top of the stairs, I spoke to Charlotte :

“Never before in the history of football has a song been sung so loudly and so devotedly in honour of a striker who has scored such a paltry number of goals.”

Outside, the air was perfect. We slowly walked east to the stadium which eventually appeared in the distance, it’s large roof trusses discernible through some trees and over some rooftops. This was a well-to-do part of the city. A tree-lined road, with decent houses nearby, steadily dipped down to the stadium. We bumped into Scott, Gerry and a very giggly Paul, who was looking like he had imbibed one too many ports. It was great to see them; they go everywhere. I remember chatting to Scott and Paul in Australia in 2018.

At just before 6pm, it was my big moment. At the turnstiles outside the north-west corner of the stadium, I scanned my match ticket and showed my yellow bracelet, which basically took the place of my printed negative test result email.

I was in.

A little rush of adrenalin. I then moved towards the security guard inside the perimeter of the stadium. While a chap next to me was sounding off about not being allowed to take his “ever so slightly bigger than A4 size” bag in to the stadium, I pushed through. I had my mobile phone in my left jeans pocket and my new camera in my right pocket. The steward brushed them without really being too bothered. He was more concerned for me to open up the three compartments of my newly-purchased CP bag. Inside was my passport, my medication, my glasses, my boarding passes, a pen, some wet wipes and a couple of chargers. He barely looked inside.

My camera was in too.

Another adrenalin rush.

We walked on, and I took a few photographs of the stadium, it’s bright curving stands beneath a perfect Portuguese sun.

It was a gorgeous evening. I had been pleasantly surprised how many Chelsea had taken head of the warning to travel to the stadium in good time. I was inside the grounds of the stadium before 6 o’clock. Too sensible by far. In Munich, we all got in with ten minutes to spare.

I bought myself an espresso and slowly walked down to my seat in block 23.

The stadium opened up before me, the green turf ahead, blocks of concrete, the colour blue, great expanses of steel overhead.

It was as if I was waking from a complete season in hibernation. My alarm clock had sounded very late; it allowed me to watch the FA Cup Final on that wet and dreary Saturday two weekends ago, but there was such insipid performance that day that it soon became distant. That game was so difficult for me to rationalise. In retrospect, that whole day seemed like a dream. In fact, I have almost sleepwalked through the past nine months, aware that my interest in the love of my life was waning with each passing week.

But I was awake now.

As I have said on many occasions recently, the thought of us reaching a European Cup Final and me not being present had haunted me all season long. Others were excited by our European run. I was not so enthusiastic. The thought of me being absent from the final was killing me.

But here I was. In Portugal. In a pandemic. With my face mask and my camera and a head full of emotions to last a lifetime.

I guzzled that coffee and toasted absent friends, sadly too many to mention.

To get my bearings I quickly looked up to my left and spotted the section of the upper tier of the east stand where I watched us play Porto in 2015. I noted that the black netting that spoiled our view six years ago was tied back under the roof for this game.

The stadium looked a picture. Large multi-tiered stands to the side, topped by huge curving roofs. Behind both goals, a single tier but in two sections. The roof above both end stands floated in the air, supported only from the sides and not from the rear. I have rarely seen a stadium with such a feature. The colour scheme of royal blue seats met with my approval, and the deep blue sky above completed a perfect setting.

I stood the entire time and kept a lookout for friends and acquaintances. I soon spotted Ali and Nick from Reading around ten rows behind me. Andy and Sophie too. Aroha, Luke, Doreen close by. Then Big John appeared, dressed in all black, but far from impressed with his seat for the evening. He was located right in the corner, as low as me, but John had paid a higher priced ticket than everyone else in the section. We briefly spoke again how crazy this season had been. And this night in Portugal was typically odd too.

“Surreal, innit?”

Fellow spectators slowly entered the stadium. Music played on the PA. There were a few rare chants. At our seat, there was another Chelsea goody bag. I had already been given a Chelsea badge in the fan zone and here, in a specially logo’d Porto royal blue kitbag was a jacquard Final scarf. A flag was propped up by my seat too. The kit bag soon housed all my goods and chattels. It came in very useful. I dropped my top on the back of my seat and tried to take it all in.

In the build-up during the previous week, I had mentioned to a few friends that in 2012 it seemed that we were a well-established team, long in the tooth when it came to the Champions League. It seemed that 2012 was “the last chance saloon” for many; for Drogba, for Terry, for Cech, for Cole, for Lampard. In reality we really should have won the biggest prize in world club football in any year from 2005 to 2010.

So 2012 came along at just the right time. And how.

Since then, despite Amsterdam in 2013 and Baku in 2019, I had admitted to myself that we simply would not win the European Cup again, or at least not in my lifetime. Going into this season I certainly felt that. Last season, as youngsters, we were torn apart by a hugely impressive Bayern ensemble.

This season? It has been sensational. First, Frank getting us out of the group phase. Secondly, Thomas navigating the stormy waters of the knock-out phase, which included a couple of games against Porto – of all teams – in Seville.

But here is the sad fact. I never felt close to this team. I never felt that involvement. I was emotionally distanced from it all. Until Wembley, I had never seen Timo Werner, nor Ben Chilwell, nor Kai Havertz, nor Edouard Mendy, nor Thiago Silva, nor Hakim Ziyech. Not in Chelsea blue anyway.

None of them.

What a fucking mess.

It felt that this team was only just beginning. It was in its formative stage. A baby turning into a toddler, no more. Yet here we were at a Champions League Final. Whisper it, but it almost didn’t seem right to me. I have been saying for a few months “we’re not even a team” insomuch as apart from a couple of sure-fire starters – N’Golo, Mason – not many Chelsea fans would be even able to name their favourite eleven. We never had this problem in 1983/84, 2004/5 nor 2016/17.

And there was a considerable feeling of personal guilt too. It would appear that thousands of Chelsea fans were more involved than me this season. Yet here I was in Porto at the Champions League Final. What right did I have to be here?

Champions League Final Wanker? Quite possibly.

I knew only this; I had to be in Portugal, in Porto, at Estadio do Dragao, in the north terrace, in section twenty-three, in row three, in seat fourteen for my sanity.

At around ten minutes to seven, two UEFA officials brought the Champions League trophy – daintily decked in one royal blue ribbon and one sky blue ribbon – to the adjacent corner flag. It was placed atop a clear plastic plinth. The press photographers nearby took a photo as did many fans. The photographs that I took, on my new Sony camera and my Samsung phone, were sadly not great quality. Maybe I panicked.

One thought raced through my head.

“I can almost reach out and touch it.”

Then my mind re-worked it.

Reach out.

Reach out, touch faith.

Faith. This football lark is all about faith isn’t it?

I uploaded my phone photo to Facebook, with the simple caption.

“Reach Out, Touch Faith.”

I stood and checked that it had uploaded. Within maybe sixty seconds, my ears detected an oh-so familiar electronic beat on the stadium PA.

The jarring of synthesisers and the pounding of a drum machine…

“Feeling unknown and you’re all alone, flesh and bone by the telephone.”

My brain fizzed, my senses sparkled.

“Things on your chest, you need to confess, I will deliver, you know I’m a forgiver.”

Oh my bloody goodness.

“Reach out, touch faith.”

At that moment, at that fucking moment, I knew that we would win the 2021 European Cup Final. Depeche Mode had come to the rescue and “Personal Jesus” boomed around the stadium. Now, let’s get serious, it would take a bloody fool to openly declare Chelsea Football Club as some sort of sporting personal Jesus to many of us : to cheer, to bring sustenance, to provide warmth, to bring succour, to provide nourishment, to add depth to our lives.

I am that bloody fool.

Football. Fackinell.

The Chelsea team was announced, and was met with cheers from the ever growing band of supporters.

Mendy.

Dave. Silva. Rudiger.

James. Jorginho. Kante. Chilwell.

Mount. Havertz. Werner.

It was the team that I would have selected. Maybe Kovacic for Jorginho. But I wanted Havertz to start.

I mentioned to two lads to my left : “Everyone is talking about Werner having a big night tonight, but I think Havertz is the man. He has an edge.”

From 7.15pm to 7.30pm, the players trotted on to the pitch and went through a few drills to warm their bodies up further. The messy training top that they were wearing was less hideous than both the 2019/20 kit and the 2021/22 kit.

The minutes passed by.

I had presumed that the stadium would be split down the middle; northern section Chelsea, southern section City. However, not only was the entire top section of the stand to my left City but there were City fans mixed in with Chelsea fans in the presumably CFC section of the lower tier too. We all know that City sold 5,800 but we had only sold 5,000 (rumours of Chelsea unable to move the extra 800 to independent travellers due to stringent UEFA rules were yet to be ratified), but City seemed to have more than an extra 800. It worried me. I hated the thought of this being their final, their evening.

But we had spoken about all of this during the day. This was City’s biggest ever game. Someone had likened their boisterousness in the city during the day to our type of support when we took over Stockholm in 1998. We must have had 25,000 in the 30,000 crowd against Stuttgart. It was the biggest airlift out of the UK since World War Two, but was sadly beaten by United in Barcelona the following year.

In recent years, we have enjoyed UEFA finals in 2008, 2012, 2013 and 2019. Without sounding like knobheads, or being blasé, we were used to this. But I hoped our support would match City’s which was starting to call the shots in the stadium.

Two songs on the PA : “Blue Moon” first and then “Blue Is The Colour”.

I sang along to every word.

…”cus Chelsea, Chelsea is our name.”

At around 7.45pm, a firework show took over the pitch and the Champions League anthem roared via the PA. Both the City and Chelsea support booed throughout, but I am not so sure the result was particularly loud nor noticeable to those watching at home and the executive areas. My real wish was for both sets of fans to come together with a loud and constant chant during the game.

Two sets of four letters.

Have a guess.

The teams entered the pitch; two hues of blue under a sensual sky.

Flags were enthusiastically waved in distinct parts of the stadium; City in the top deck to my left, City in the far end of the lower tier to my left, Chelsea to my right in our end.

The players met the dignitaries, the huge silver trophy glinting in the distance.

The City team didn’t really interest me. I knew who to look out for. Both teams were playing without a centre-forward and a sizeable part of my brain struggled with the basic concept of this, but then jerked back into life as I imagined experts talking about “pockets of space” and “creating space” and maybe even “space the final frontier.” Football is supported by more and more nerds these days after all.

The 2021 Champions League Final began.

There was a lively start to the game, and within the first fifteen minutes it seemed that we had enjoyed more strikes on goal than in the entire final in Munich. I immediately liked the look of young Mason Mount as his energy shone. And Timo Werner was making those trademark runs out wide, taking players with him. Ben Chilwell really caught my eye throughout the opening quarter, staying tight to Mahrez and Walker, robbing both of the ball, flicking the ball on to team mates, showing great skill and tenacity. Thiago Silva – his name sung probably more than any other Chelsea player at the start – looked in control.

I glanced at the two coaches. Tuchel, at last not festooned in royal blue, and looking smart in black. Guardiola, so slight, but a master tactician too.

The City support had been dominant in the city and also in the half-an-hour leading up to kick-off. Their noise boomed out in the first quarter of an hour of the game too.

“Blue Moon, You Saw Me Standing Alone.”

“City, City, The Best Team In The Land And All The World.”

“We’re Not Really Here.”

The first real chance of the match followed a laser-like missile from the boot of the City ‘keeper Ederson, dressed in all pink, and my muscles tightened as Raheem Sterling edged past Reece James but our right back recovered well and robbed the winger of a worthwhile strike on goal. It was a warning for sure.

At the other end, Kai Havertz played in Werner but this resulted in a shank, an air-shot, a fluff. City countered and a Sterling chance was blocked by that man Chilwell. Then, the tide seemed to turn a little. Within a few minutes, Werner had two chances. The first although straight at Mr. Pink, at least hit the target. His second slithered against the nearside netting.

At around this time, the Chelsea support grew.

One song dominated and was our call to arms.

“He’s Here. He’s There. He’s Every Fucking Where. Joey Cole. Joey Cole.”

He had to be in the stadium I surmised.

“Carefree, Wherever You May Be.”

The old stalwart.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

A nice touch. Do we even have a song for Thomas Tuchel? See what I mean about a team that is not yet a team?

“Oh Dennis Wise.”

This song continued for a while, longer than usual, I wondered if he too was in the stadium.

I turned to the two lads to my left (I realise I will never recognise them if I see them again because they, like me, were mask-compliant) and said that the City support had quietened.

“The beer buzz is gone.”

But I sensed that they were far from happy that we were now dominating play. A rare break, a shot by Phil Foden and a sublime block by Toni Rudiger only emphasised the rarity of their attacks.

Kante found himself dribbling inside the box and set up Havertz but his shot was smothered.

Chelsea were letting City have it from both barrels now.

“Your support is fucking shit.”

It had certainly quietened, no doubt.

“You’re only here on a freebie.”

Love it.

There had been a worry when Thiago Silva stopped not once but twice, in pain with what looked like a strain of some description. Sadly, with around ten minutes of the first-half remaining, he could carry on no more. I felt for him. He covered his head with his shirt. There must have been tears.

Chelsea in adversity, but we have found a way past that imposter in previous European triumphs. Andreas Christensen joined the fray.

Not so long after this substitution, I looked up to see a ball touched inside to Mount. He was in space, but so too was a rampaging Havertz. The ball that Mount played through to our young German was inch perfect. The City defence, loitering towards the halfway line as is their wont, were asleep.

They weren’t really there.

One touch from Havertz.

I was able to move slightly to my left – ah, the joy of being able to move on a terrace – to see him move on past Ederson, and knock the ball in to an empty net. I was in line with the ball. I saw the net bulge.

That glorious sight.

I turned to the lads to my left, my two forearms stretched out, tight, my muscles tense, and I screamed.

“Fucking, yeeeeees.”

The lad in the front row looked at me, pointed to me :

“You called it. Havertz.”

I turned to my right and snap, snap, snapped as fans tumbled down to the front row.

Limbs everywhere.

Off the scale.

Fackinell.

Euphoria.

Joy.

Relief.

Pandemonium in the North Stand.

I updated Facebook.

“THTCAUN.”

Garrett in Tennessee was the first one to reply correctly :

“COMLD.”

Noice one, shun.

I had a little laugh to myself…

“Manchester City 0 Adversity 1.”

The half-time whistle soon came. What a magnificent time to score a goal. Beautiful. There was an air of bewildered disbelief at the break, but also one of joy and hope. I spoke to a few friends :

“Savour these moments. They don’t come around too often.”

I dreamed of a second goal.

The half-time break shot past.

I soon realised, and it was regardless of the goal, that I was back. Football had got me. The months of wandering in the wilderness was over. My first game against Leicester City was difficult. I couldn’t concentrate, I was too easily distracted, and I didn’t know the players. On this night, in lovely Porto, I was kicking every ball, watching the movement of the players, singing songs, laughing and joking with nearby fans, listening for new chants.

I was in my element.

Throughout the second period, I watched the clock in the far corner and announced to the bloke to my left when a five-minute period had elapsed. It helped the time pass quicker, no doubt.

“Five minutes.”

“Ten minutes.”

“Fifteen minutes.”

Of course City enjoyed most of the possession. But did they really enjoy it? I don’t believe their fans enjoyed it at all. Their silence was deafening.

And their players did not create too much at all. My abiding memory of the second-half is of an array of truly awful crosses into our box from various City players. Rudiger seemed to head every single one of them away. Reece James kept Sterling at bay with an absolutely brilliant display of cool and resolute defending. N’Golo Kante just got better and better and better all game. I was convinced that with City on the attack, he would pinch the ball on the half-way line and play the ball in to Havertz a la Claude Makelele and Frank Lampard at Bolton in April 2005. To say Kante was everywhere would not be too much of a ridiculous over statement.

I did not see the challenge by Rudiger on De Bruyne. But I was more than happy when he exited the field. I certainly saw the rising shot from Sterling that struck Reece on the chest in the penalty box. No penalty and quite right too.

“Carefree” rung out.

We really were loud now. I was so happy. To be truthful, when the gate of almost 15,000 was announced, I could hardly believe my eyes. It certainly seemed so much more. And yet an empty stadium, with empty seats echoing the noise away rather than the fabric of clothes muffling it, surely helped.

“Twenty minutes.”

“Twenty-five minutes.”

I watched with a mixture of hope and panic as a City shot was miraculously scooped high over the bar by Dave. I remembered, exactly at that moment, a similar clearance – under his bar – by a lad called Wayne Coles in a Frome College game against a team from Chateau-Gontier, a twin town, in the spring of 1979, with me watching from the centre-circle. Both were astounding.

Christian Pulisic for Timo Werner.

“Thirty minutes.”

Our best, perhaps only, chance of a tight second-half fell to Pulisic, raiding the City half and put through by Havertz, but his dinked lob dropped wide of the far post.

“Thirty-five minutes.”

Mateo Kovacic for Mason Mount.

“Forty minutes.”

The nerves were starting to bite now. Please God, no fucking Iniesta – Spanish or Scottish – moment now.

“Forty-five minutes.”

But by now an awful seven minutes had been added. I stopped counting. I was focussed on the game, but needed to expel some energy.

“Carefree Wherever You May Be, We Are The Famous CFC.”

Seven minutes…tick, tock, tick, tock.

The last chance, very late, fell to Mahrez. His tired shot never looked like troubling Mendy, who – apart from reaching a few crosses – hardly had to stretch for a shot all night.

In the last minute, I clock-watched again. I wanted to photograph the exact moment that the referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz blew his whistle. But I wanted to capture the fans, who had serenaded the team all night long, in the north stand. I wanted them – us – to be the Final stars. I stood up on the seat in front of my row. Arms aloft. Camera poised. The fans still sung. A quick look to the field. Another City attack. I saw the referee bring a hand up to his mouth.

Tales From One Billy Gilmour And One Decent Scouser

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 3 March 2020.

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

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

“They’re light years ahead of us.”

“We’ll be lucky to get naught.”

“Expectation level is nine below zero.”

“Could be another Bayern.”

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

There were a couple of pluses.

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

Well done Chelsea Football Club.

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

Well done again Chelsea Football Club.

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

That’s right. Ever.

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

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

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

The last time was in 1966.

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

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

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

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

It was as flat as I had ever experienced.

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

“Game on.”

Then Gianfranco Zola slammed in an equaliser eight minutes later.

The atmosphere was red hot by then.

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

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

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

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

Lovely memories.

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

Heady and emotional moments?

You bet.

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

“Soccer: Media, Art & Society.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Chelsea will be the death of me.”

The team news came through.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Zouma – Alonso

Gilmour – Kovacic – Barkley

Willian – Giroud – Pedro

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

Like the 1997 game, this was live on BBC1.

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

Nobody.

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

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

Blues vs. Reds.

South vs. North.

Chelsea vs. Liverpool.

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

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

Where the fuck was it?

My heart sank.

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

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

Everyone?

Yeah, thought so.

What a fucking disgrace.

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

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

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

I vented on “Facebook.”

And here are a few responses :

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

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

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

Alex : As predictable as it is disappointing

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

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

Lee : Utter bastards

The game began.

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

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

The game heated up.

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

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

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

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

“Gilmour. Excellent there, Al.”

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

After twelve minutes, I leaned over towards PD.

“Open game, innit?”

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

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

GET IN.

Willian danced away and in front of the livid Liverpudlians.

Livid Liverpudlians. Is there any other type?

Stamford Bridge was bouncing. What joy.

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

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

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

1978, 1982 and 2020?

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

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

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

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

What a game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wasn’t Lalana in the Teletubbies”?

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

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

Fifty thousand people.

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

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

Fifty-thousand men.

It struck home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So close.

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

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

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

“Here we go.”

I sensed a huge chance.

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

Adrian was beaten.

A goal.

Oh get in you bastard.

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

His slide was euphoric.

Up the fucking Toffees, up the fucking Chelsea.

Chelsea 2 Liverpool 0.

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

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

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

Bliss.

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

“Here we go.”

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

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

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

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

“One Billy Gilmour.”

Indeed.

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

The final whistle signalled the end.

“One Step Beyond.”

It had been a game for the ages.

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

Into the last eight we went.

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

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

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

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

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

Tales From The Park, The Pier, The Beach And The Stadium

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 29 February 2020.

The heavens had opened during the night and, although I thankfully slept through the deluge, the scenes as I left my home village at just before eight o’clock in the morning seemed to be from a different world. There were huge puddles of surface water lapping at my tyres as I drove down past the pub, the church, the war memorial and the village shop. As I started to head up Lime Kiln Hill, two separate torrents of murky brown water cascaded across the road. I splashed through it all and continued my drive into Frome. I soon collected PD and Parky. We were on our way.

Not long into the fifty-five mile journey to Bournemouth, there was relief :

“I’m just happy that I have an away game that doesn’t involve a four-hour drive.”

This was an easy one. The easiest of the season. The only blot on the horizon was a possible continuation of the atrocious weather of the past twenty-four hours. At Shaftesbury, where Wiltshire rubs up against Dorset, I turned off and headed across the hills and across country. I’m all for exploring different routes to away games and I think that PD, alongside me, was a little nervous that I had chosen an unfamiliar route. My first ascent was up the wonderfully named Zig-Zag Hill – not Zigger Zagger, more of that later – which is a series of tight bends. I was enjoying this. The weather was fine, if not a little overcast. Good vibes.

I made excellent time. By 9.30am, I was parked up at the Bournemouth International Centre, site of the former Winter Gardens, where in the summer of 1980, I was forced to attend a Max Bygraves concert while on holiday in nearby Southbourne with my parents. I still haven’t forgiven them.

By 9.45am, we had ordered a hearty breakfast at “The Moon On the Square” which is one of the few ‘Spoons that I like. I think it might have been a department store in a previous life. There are still a few art deco flourishes on the main stairwell. The breakfast went down a treat. We spotted the first of a few friends arrive. But, rather than sit – stone cold sober – and watch others drink for four hours, I had plans to get out and see a little of the town, despite the threat of inclement weather. I had remembered that “John Anthony” – I often visit the menswear shop in nearby Bath throughout the year, especially when there are sales on – has a store in Bournemouth, and that this was the final day of an afore-mentioned sale.

“It would be rude not to.”

I headed off in search of cut-price clobber.

“John Anthony” did not let me down. I picked up a navy blue Hugo Boss sweatshirt for just £44 (and I immediately thought to myself that this will not look out of place alongside the ninety-seven other navy tops that I bloody own.) I had only been reminiscing about Boss sweatshirts during the week as there was a post on “Facebook” about them when they came out in around the 1985/86 football season, and the first wave of them had the “Boss” logo on the back of sweatshirts and not the front. I liked that. Something different. Though I never owned one, they always looked the business. The era of Timberland shoes. At the time I opted for a lime green “Marc O’Polo” which were very similar in style. This one, thirty-five years later, would be – I think – my first ever “Boss” sweatshirt.

Better late than never, eh?

Football, music, clobber.

The staples of so many of my generation.

The sun was out, I was happy with my purchase, I was bouncing. I began to walk through the Central Gardens, knowing full well that the Chelsea squad – for the past few years – always walk through this small and narrow area every match day morning. The team always stay at the nearby Hilton, which we had walked past on our way from the car park to the pub. I stood in the sun for one moment, and texted a mate to let him know that I had struck gold in the sale, when I happened to look up and to my right. Around twenty yards away, I spotted a burst of blue.

Blue tracksuits. It was the team. Perfect timing.

I quickly sent my text, then caught up with the players.

I wished Antonio Rudiger all the best and offered my hand.

He declined.

“Corona virus.”

Ah, of course…

”OK, sorry.”

I spotted Billy Gilmour in conversation with Mason Mount. I said a few words. They were dead friendly and posed for a great photo – “thumbs up” – with a gaggle of other players behind them. A nice moment. As the players drifted past – alas no Frank Lampard, unless I missed him – I changed from ‘phone to SLR and took a few more.

“Thumbs up” from Willian.

“Thumbs up” from Mateo Kovacic.

Good stuff.

My two minutes of giddiness completed, I continued on towards the pier. The sun was out now, and despite the strong wind, it was gorgeous.

I was feeling rather proud of myself. This day was going perfectly. A good drive down. A full English. A bit of clobber. A few fleeting moments with the players. Lovely.

Of course, I could easily have followed the squad around their circumnavigation of the gardens, but that would have been painful. I would never want to overdo it. It reminded me of the rush of pure Adrenalin that I used to get if I was lucky enough to get some players’ autographs pre-match at Stamford Bridge in the ‘seventies. I remember being a few feet away from Ray Wilkins in the tunnel – Ray Wilkins! – in 1978 and being beside myself with unquantifiable joy. It was hardly the same in 2020, but it was a nice moment regardless. I hope that I never lose that childlike – not childish, that’s different – wonderment when I am ever lucky enough to meet our heroes.

God knows what I’ll be like if I ever meet Clare Grogan.

Our match tickets included a neat graphic of the Bournemouth pier, including the large Ferris wheel that sits alongside it. It’s quite stylised, quite fetching. I approved. As I walked on, beneath the Ferris wheel – not in use – I headed towards the pier to take a few shots with the waves were crashing in on both sides. Towards the east of the pier, there were around twenty surfers braving the elements. The wind was so strong that I had visions of my top flying out of my shopping bag into the murky mire down below. Everyone was happy, everyone was smiling, in the way that a combination of sun and seaside always elicits this response. I don’t often get to the coast these days so hearing the waves crash brought back some lovely childhood memories. Many trips to the beach were spent in and around this part of the world; Bournemouth, Southbourne, Sandbanks, Shell Bay, Studland, Swanage. It’s a beautiful part of the world.

I stepped off the pier and thought about hiking down to Boscombe and visiting that pier too. But that was a little too far. As a kid on holiday in Southbourne, when I obviously possessed unlimited energy, I often used to walk the promenade from Southbourne to Boscombe to Bournemouth and back. I took some more photos. The brightly coloured pastels of the regimented beach huts were an easy target. The sand flew off the beach as the waves crashed. It was, and it surprised me, a bloody fantastic little walk.

“Shame the bloody football will inevitably bugger all this up” I thought to myself.

I turned to return to the pub and at that moment I felt a few spots of rain. Thankfully, this soon passed. I met up with the drinkers again – PD, Parky, augmented by Andy and The Two Ronnies, and also Nick, Pete and Robbie, then Leigh and Jason and their team – at about midday or so.

“Good time, Chris?”

“Yeah. Superb.”

We chatted about the state of the team at this exact moment in time. Plenty of different opinions, plenty of concerns, plenty of hope too.

“Gotta win this one boys.”

At about two o’clock, we returned to the car. I had booked a driveway space – using “JustPark” – as I had done last season on a road a few minutes’ walk from The Vitality Stadium. It only took me a quarter of an hour to find it, though I took the home owner by surprise. I think I was her first-ever customer. She had to ask her friend to move her car to allow me to slip in alongside. Sorted.

There was a little deluge of rain, damn, as we walked around the ground to reach the away turnstiles on the far corner. A bag search – “is that a professional camera?” – and I managed to bullshit the camera in with a little sweet talk.

We were in with about twenty minutes to go.

Overhead, the weather was changing constantly.

We were in the fifth row.

The stands filled up.

We were playing in white. Have we ever played in blue at Bournemouth in the Premier League?

Some annoying tosser on the PA must have recently realised that the words “noise” and “boys” rhyme because the fool kept repeating the basic phrase “make some noise for the boys” as if he was on piece work.

“Oh do shut up you twat.”

The team?

Wing backs again.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Tomori

James – Kovacic – Jorginho – Alonso

Pedro – Giroud – Mount

The Chelsea twelve-hundred were in relatively good voice at the start.

As always, we attacked the goal to our right in the first-half. Apart from the fact that there wasn’t really a great deal of meaningful attacking by us in the first quarter of an hour or so. Indeed, there was moaning from everyone around me regarding our sluggish play in the first part of the match. I remembered Philip Billing and his retro hair from the defeat that Bournemouth inflicted on us in December and Willy Caballero was called into action in the first few minutes to deny him. This was a good reaction save with his legs. Fine stuff. Fikayo Tomori then misjudged the ball and let the same player have a second shot on goal, but this went narrowly wide.

You can imagine the mood in the away segment.

“Fackninellchels.”

Our play was slow, slow, slow. No urgency. The ball was hardly ever played to the two wing backs, but neither were pushed-on anyway. We were content to knock the ball sideways and never forward.

“Someone take ownership of the ball.”

Eventually, we got it together. Mason looked neat and blasted a couple of efforts towards goal. Reece James was more involved. At last we were starting to run, to exploit gaps. Olivier Giroud made a couple of darting runs into space, not really his thing, and it almost – almost – paid off.

“This is better Chelsea.”

A couple of rows in front, “The World’s Most Tedious Chelsea Fan” was sadly positioned within earshot. All by himself, he was singing songs incorrectly and with no desire to get the words right. On and on he bellowed.

“For fuck sake, shut up.”

Poor old Beardy couldn’t take it. He was trying to edge away.

The home fans – no noise for the boys – were ridiculously quiet. We were quiet too.

On thirty-three minutes, Reece James sent in a fine low ball from the right which Giroud met perfectly. His touch sent the ball rising up against the bar and the ball spun off at an angle. Thankfully, Marcos Alonso – whose role had been increasing – slammed the ball home from an angle with a fierce volley.

GET IN.

We celebrated that one alright. And so did the players. I loved Giroud’s fist pump. There was a slight – slight – thought of VAR, but nothing came of it.

Alan, quite matter-of-factly : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Chris, the same : “Come on my little diamonds.”

BOSH.

Bournemouth 0 Chelsea 1.

We continued to play the upper hand as the first-half continued. A shot from James forced Aaron Ramsdale in the Cherries’ goal to save well.

We finished the half in control.

And, with the sun out, at times it was surprisingly warm.

At the break, with “TWMTCF” leaving for a half-time pint, I suggested to everyone within earshot “right, everyone change seats” in an effort to confuse the fucker.

Honestly, I have never seen him sober at a Chelsea game.

As luck would have it, as the second-half began, “TWMTCF” was nowhere to be seen.

I have never seen Beardy look so relieved.

And then, the football went pear-shaped.

Soon into the second-period, Alonso nimbly set up Olivier Giroud, but the shot was rushed and whizzed wide.

“TWMTCF” then appeared but in the wrong section completely. He was told to “fuck off” to the correct seat. Bollocks. Beardy disappeared to try to find another seat.

The football then nose-dived. A corner to Bournemouth on their right. A well-flighted ball into the mixer, and Jefferson Lerma rose unhindered to head home.

“Bollocks. Another free header. Another set piece. Fuck it.”

Just after, a swift passing move cut right through us. We were collectively and individually nowhere. A few neat passes and Josh King swept the ball home.

Memories of the four second-half goals being scored, and celebrated, at the same end last January.

Winning 1-0 with ease, we were now 2-1 down.

Bollocks.

There was half-an-hour left.

Willian for Tomori.

We changed to a flat four at the back.

Ross Barkley for Jorginho.

For the rest of the game, with the home side more than happy to defend very deep with a very low block, we absolutely dominated possession. But Bournemouth defended well and gifted us no space. We were then treated to rain hammering down on the players and supporters alike. Those in the first few rows scurried to the back of the seats. We then were pelted with sizeable hailstones.

“Lovely.”

Then, the sun came out, and we could concentrate a little better on the game. It felt odd not to have Eden Hazard down in front of us on the left wing at this intimate stadium. Instead, Pedro and Alonso did the twisting and the dancing. A Giroud header wide.

I was hoping that the manager might be tempted to play two up front, but Giroud was replaced by Michy Batshuayi, whose first real involvement was to score an offside goal.

Fackinell.

We kept piling on the pressure, but there seemed to be no fissures in gritty Bournemouth’s defensive rock. We passed and passed. Ross Barkley was centrally involved. But there was no space to exploit. At least we kept possession well. A shot from Barkley, a shot from Batshuayi, a shot from Azpilicueta.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

A very poor “Zigger Zagger.”

Thankfully, “TWMTCF” had stopped singing. He had run out of fuel.

On eighty-five minutes, Pedro was gifted a few inches of space. His shot was well saved by the excellent Ramsdale but the alert Alonso was on hand to pounce, and adeptly headed home. His finish was similar in reality to his first goal; on hand to stab home a rebound.

“GETINYOUFUCKER.”

Alonso picked up the ball and raced back to the centre spot.

Bournemouth 2 Chelsea 2.

Altogether now : “phew.”

A header from Alonso – rising well – dropped wide from just outside the six yard box. It would have been the unlikeliest of winners, the unlikeliest of hat-tricks. He has had quite a week.

A few youths behind me gloated –

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

“Bloody hell lads. This is Bournemouth.”

Embarrassing. Highly so.

No more goals.

The game petered out.

In the end, I think most of us were just grateful that we had salvaged a point against one of our recent bogey teams.

On a day of parks and piers and beaches, thank heavens that the football part, heaven knows how, did not let us down.

Liverpool in the FA Cup next.

See you there.

THE PARK

THE PIER

THE BEACH

THE STADIUM

Tales From Our Stadium

Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich : 25 February 2020.

I have mentioned before that I would be quite happy, quite contended, not concerned, if I never went to Munich ever again. The Bavarian city is a gem, make no mistake, but I have visited it often and, after my last visit – perfection – there was a large part of me that would have wanted that last memory of Munich, especially the walk from the stadium to the nearby U-bahn station, to be my last. As days and nights go, Saturday 19 May 2012 will never be beaten. Any subsequent visit would pale by comparison, and might even take a little of the shine off that most beautiful of occasions.

It’s the  geographical equivalent of Didier Drogba returning to Chelsea for one last, odd, season two years after scoring that goal and that penalty.

Some things are best left in the past.

Maybe.

But, as is so often the case, UEFA drew Chelsea with a familiar foe in the final sixteen, so Bayern it was. And, despite my above concerns, there was no way that I was not going to the away game in the middle of March. In 2012, it was from Bristol to Prague to Munich with Glenn. In 2020, it will be from Bristol to Prague to Munich with PD.

Frome will be represented again in the Nord Kurv of the Allianz Arena.

To be frank, there is a common view that our European adventures, which might even have passed many supporters’ expectations already, will come to an abrupt end in Munich.

So, one last European trip in 2019/20? It seemed like it from the off.

And I am sure that we will have a blast.

We are spending St. Patrick’s Day in Prague. I have briefly visited the Czech capital twice before but have not enjoyed a lengthy night out in its bars and restaurants. I am looking forward to that. I even want to squeeze in a visit to Viktoria Zizkov’s home stadium – our first European opposition in 1994 after twenty-three barren years – as their stadium is only a twenty-minute walk from our hotel. In 1994, our game was a Bohemian rhapsody in the small city of Jablonec due to fears of crowd violence. The only violence I heard about on that particular day was sadly between Chelsea supporters.

And I am spending another day in Munich. I have visited it in 1985, 1987 – twice – 1988 and 1990, in addition to 2012 – and I am relishing my first pint of Paulaner or Spaten or Lowenbrau in a city-centre bar.

But more of that in March.

On the drive to London with PD and LP, I again took advantage of the situation and drifted off to sleep for an hour. As I awoke, passing through Twickenham and touching Richmond, I looked out of the window of the car and was in awe of the evening sky, which was a deep purple, an angry colour, and I wondered if the thunderous hue of the sky was a foretaste of the evening ahead. But the sun was still shining, low down, in the west – behind us – and it highlighted the yellow bricks of the low-lying street-side houses and buildings in a scintillating fashion. It was, dear reader, a vivid and vibrant welcome to London. It was deserving of a Turner oil painting.

Colourful, atmospheric, emotional.

Maybe the upcoming game would be similarly described?

PD was parked at around 5.45pm. In “The Goose” we met some of the troops, including my mate Ben from Boston who last made the trip over to England in 2012. It was a pleasure to see him again. I think I saw him last in New York in 2015. We then trotted down to “Simmons” and met up with a different set of pals, but with some more mates from the US; Andy from Orange County, his mate Antony – we last saw those two together in Budapest – and also Jaro, from DC, who was running a little late.

By 7pm we were all together, a little “Chelsea In America” reunion. It was lovely. I first started posting these match day reports on the old CIA bulletin board in around 2006, and regularly so in 2008/9. In those days, these reports would open up conversations on the bulletin board and would often draw over one thousand views. These days, I am lucky to get two hundred.

The CIA Bulletin Board is really missed; I think in the same way that the old Chelsea Chat on the official website is missed too. It allowed me to make loads of new friends, and the conversations were well thought out and rewarding unlike some of the bitter interactions now prevalent on social media. This should, perhaps, be called unsocial media.

Sadly, CIA was hacked by ISIS – true story – in around 2013 and never really recovered.

It was time to head to the game. Jaro had spotted a few Bayern Munich supporters at Earl’s Court but I had seen none on the North End Road and the Fulham Road.

I was in with time to spare, and we had been promised fireworks – if not on the pitch – from the top of both the East and West Stands.

Season 1994/95 came into my head once again. For the Bruges home game in March 1995, the Chelsea Independent Supporters Association, who ran the Chelsea Independent fanzine – some of whose members were attacked in Jablonec by some supporters of Chelsea who held differing political views – had planned to set off some fireworks from the still-in-situ Shed (closed the previous May) but the local authorities were not able to offer the appropriate backing. A real shame. In the end we did not the extra push of fireworks; we won 2-0, Paul Furlong’s finest hour and the noisiest Chelsea home game that I can ever remember, attendance only 28,000.

In the pub, we had heard that Frank Lampard had selected the exact same starting-eleven as against Tottenham on Saturday. I was surprised that the European veteran Willian was not starting. But what do I know?

As promised, fireworks fizzed overhead for ten seconds or so, and I think the crowd were underwhelmed.

It’s just not an English thing, is it?

As the teams massed in the tunnel, the second of the evening’s “special events” took place. To my left in the main bulk of the Matthew Harding, blue and white mosaics were held overhead. Two banners – “OUR CITY – OUR STADIUM” – were held over the balcony and a large banner of the European Cup was unfurled centrally.

But then, typically, we got it wrong. Morons in the MHU decided to “crowd surf” the “OUR CITY” banner and it all went to pot.

10/10 for ingenuity, 3/10 for execution.

This was obviously a visual pun on the Bayern banner in 2012, but it filled me with gloom that we couldn’t get it right.

I sensed all of Europe thinking “Leave the displays to the Europeans. Never mind Brexit, you can’t even hold a banner up correctly.”

As ominous signs go, this was very fucking ominous, and this one was twenty yards in length and heading diagonally up the top tier.

Fackinell.

Jaro was sat next to me in the heart of The Sleepy Hollow. This had been a whirlwind trip for him, and after the game against Tottenham, we had a right old natter about football, and how – for many kids of our generation – the attending of games acted as a “rights of passage” that is just not the same anymore.

There is a book there, I feel.

In those days, pocket money was saved, concerned and cautious parents were told “not to worry”, it was pay-on-the-day in terraces without cover, there was a threat of trouble, the thrill of it all, the passage from boy to man.

These days, youngsters are priced out, attending a match – with stifling parents – takes on the planning of a military manoeuvre, and the thrill is surely not the same.

Jaro had spoken of his first-ever European game, back in his native Poland, in 1986. He had to get to the stadium for the Legia Warsaw game with Internazionale a good three hours before the kick-off to be sure of a good bench seat. My first-ever European match was a year later in Turin, Juventus vs. Panathinaikos, when I had to get to the stadium three hours before the start to be sure of a standing ticket in the less-popular Curva Maratona.

These days, everyone shows up with fifteen minutes to go.

Different eras, different times, different vibes, different thrills and different spills.

…”to be continued.”

I am not too wary of Bayern’s current team nor form, but three players remained from 2012.

Manuel Neuer

Jerome Boateng

Thomas Muller

Our Chelsea?

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Chistensen – Rudiger

James – Kovacic – Jorginho – Alonso

Barkley – Mount

Giroud

Bayern were supported by around 1,800. Not too impressed with that. They came armed with banners – RED FANATICS, REBELS – and many many scarves.

The game began.

Very quickly, a low shot and Willy Caballero dropped to save easily from that man Muller.

Off the pitch, in the stands, there were songs which reminded everyone of “that day in May.”

“One nil and you fucked it up.”

“Didier Drogba, tra la la la la.”

“One Di Matteo.”

“Champions of Europe – in your own back yard.”

Good noise. Good stuff. Heartening.

In the first ten minutes, we dominated possession and I was comforted. But there were two rapier breaks into our defence which certainly sobered everyone. The early shot from Muller was followed by a shot from Kingsley Coman that hit the side-netting. However, we had our moments. There were chances from Mason Mount in this opening spell and the mood was fine. And then, typically, Bayern upped their involvement. Caballero did ever so well to react and smother a break from Robert Lewandowski, right in the middle of the box. A fine save.

An effort from Olivier Giroud from a Reece James corner gave us hope.

Then Muller looked up, shaped, and curled a fine effort just past the far post.

Things were hotting up.

On the half-hour mark, with Bayern now in absolute ascendancy, the noise quietened.

Then, a cross from Mount just evaded Giroud. Not for the first time during the game would I lament the lack of bodies in the box. Call me old fashioned, but oh for playing with two bona fide strikers.

As on Saturday, Mount and Barkley were playing behind Giroud but were often in different postal districts. They are no second-strikers and lack the ingenuity and guile to be so. Upfront for Bayern, Lewandowski was ably supported by Muller, and others.

Muller contorted himself beneath the crossbar at the Matthew Harding and back-headed against the bar with Big Willy floundering. I slumped in horror at the memory of his header in Munich, and my body language changed instantly from terror to relief as the chance went begging.

This was turning into an engrossing game. We were second best now, but we were hanging on. The thought of taking a 0-0 to Bavaria was a dream, but we just might be able to do it.

Very often, I found myself bellowing –

“Reece. Just get past your man.”

Nearing the end of the half, Mateo Kovacic – our best player – pushed forward and played in Marcos Alonso with a lovely pass into space. Our left wing-back changed his body shape, his boots, his oil, his hairstyle, his religion and his underpants in order to address the ball with his favoured left foot as he broke inside the box. In the end, a weak shot was played too close to Neuer and our best chance of the half was spurned.

At the break, we agreed that we had rode our luck somewhat -” they could be three-up” – but we had enjoyed it. These European nights are on a different scale. There were nerves, but everyone was involved, everyone was agitated. It felt like a real game of football. And that, sadly, is not always the case these days. I wondered if Willian would appear as a second-half saviour, maybe even a second-half match winner.

“Forty-five minutes to go, boys. Come on.”

No changes at the break.

Very early in the second-half, Mount raced onto an early ball and found himself free. He struggled to get the ball completely under control and a combination of defender and goalkeeper snuffed out the chance. The ball rebounded to Barkley but he misfired at Neuer. It would prove to be, sadly, our last real chance of the match.

The game soon changed, and so quickly.

On fifty-one minutes, Bayern proved too strong and too physical in the midfield and, as Azpilicueta slipped, the ball was played through our ranks. The ball was pushed wide for Lewandowski to cross low for Serge Gnabry to slot home.

Bollocks.

Three minutes later, a move developed on our right once more.

A header from Levandowski and a pass from Gnabry. A ball back to Levandowski – “oh fuck” – and a subtle touch back to Gnabry – “oh fuck” – and (real fear now) a shot from the raiding Gnabry – “oh fuck.”

A goal of “three fucks” and we were down by two goals to nil.

Sigh.

This was mature, incisive stuff from Bayern and our team seemed smaller, without much direction, totally second-best.

The away fans unveiled banners in the Shed Lower.

“STOP CLUB’S PRICING INSANITY. TWENTY IS PLENTY.”

Well said.

Gnabry blasted over and we were well and truly on the ropes.

Jorginho – poor, really – was booked.

Some substitutions on the hour :

Tammy Abraham for Olivier Giroud.

Willian for Ross Barkley.

A rogue chance for Mason, but he looked tired as he snatched at it and the ball ended up where the “OUR CITY” banner ended up before the game.

The crowd was quiet now.

Ever the optimist, I kept whispering to Jaro that “a goal to us now changes this tie” but this was through blind hope than any rational thought.

This was – cliché warning – men versus boys. We were – ditto – chasing shadows. Bayern were a well-oiled machine and we slipped away. But then, a feint and a twist from Willian out on the right, and a heavenly bolt into the box, but Tammy just missed it. What was I saying earlier about bodies in the box?

Pedro replaced Dave. We changed to a four at the back.

On seventy-six minutes, the wonderfully-named Alfonso Davies broke at pace down his left and was able to square to Lewandowski.

3-0, game over, tie-over, see you in Prague.

Two final moments.

On eighty minutes, much hesitation from Tammy on a slow dribble in a central position. He redefined the verb “to dither.”

“Just hit it.”

An easy tackle robbed him of even a shot.

On eighty-three minutes, I saw Lewandowski go sprawling dramatically after a challenge from Alonso. The initial yellow was changed to a red. No complaints there, no complaints on the night.

We were second best.

All night long.

Sadly, this was our heaviest-ever home defeat at Stamford Bridge in European football.

Next up, on the face of it, a calmer match and a more peaceful trip to Bournemouth. It should be a much easier game, but we lost 0-4 there just over a year ago.

Hard hats on. Let’s go.

See you there.

Tales From A Crossroads

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 17 February 2020.

There had been a break of sixteen long days between our last league fixture away to Leicester City and our home game with Manchester United. It was such a long break that it enabled me to travel to South America and back, but more of that later. And we were now faced with three top notch home games within the space of just ten days.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur.

Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich.

It felt like the start of the second-half of the season.

And how!

These were three huge matches.

Welcome back everyone.

I worked from 7am to 3pm, and then joined PD – the driver – Lord Parky and Sir Les for the drive to London.

“Bloody hell, lads, how long ago was the last home game? Arsenal, wasn’t it? A month ago? Feels like it, too.”

There were a few questions from the lads concerning my trip to Buenos Aires, but the conversation soon dried up and I took the chance to catch up on some sleep on the familiar drive to London. These Monday evening flits to London are typically tiresome, an imperfect start to the week, a tough ask. I enjoyed an hour’s shut-eye. PD made very good time and we were parked-up at the usual place by 5.30pm.

In “The Goose” – it was so good to briefly see Wycombe Stan who is not in the best of health – and in “Simmons” a few people enquired of my trip to Argentina. I could only utter positives about the whole experience. In fact, as I had initially feared when my trip came to fruition, the only negative about my week in Buenos Aires could well be that the modern day English football experience – watered down, moneyed, sedentary, muted, played-out – would pale, completely and utterly, by comparison.

Little did I know that on this night, against Manchester United, my first game back, there was to be such a brutal and harrowing comparison between the Primera Division in Argentina and the Premier League in England.

Argentina 2020 had slowly evolved over the past few years. Ever since I read the Simon Inglis book “Sightlines” in 2000, Buenos Aires was on my radar. As I explained in a recent tale, this wonderful book – concerning various sporting stadia throughout the world – was underpinned with regular chapters in which the author attempted to visit as many of Buenos Aires’ twenty-five plus professional football stadia in a crazy few days in 1999.

The four chapters were referred to as “Ciudad de los Estadios”.

I took “Sightlines” with me on my trip.

A few passages made me smile, a few passages made me think, a few passages made me question my own sanity, my own credibility.

“Maybe I am a train spotter at heart, ticking off the stadiums for no other reason than to say that I’ve seen them. The words of the American novelist Sinclair Lewis came to mind : ‘He who has seen one cathedral fifty times, knows something. He who has seen fifty cathedrals once knows nothing.’ “

“There are more football grounds in Buenos Aires than in any other city in the world. Not just dozens of ordinary grounds, however, but a whole string of major stadiums, each holding thirty, forty, fifty thousand or more spectators, all within a few square miles of each other. A comment in a Buenos Aires newspaper seemed to confirm as much. It read “we have more stadiums than public libraries. Never has so much knowledge of football been possessed by so illiterate a people.”

“Before I left for the airport, my wife kissed my furrowed brow. ‘Just go with the flow,’ she counselled. ‘It doesn’t matter if you don’t get to them all.’ What did she mean, not get to them all?”

“In 1869, Buenos Aires had 187,000 inhabitants. By 1914, there were over 1.5 million, a figure which would double over the next fifteen years. Most of the immigrants were European, so forming a neighbourhood football club was as natural as unpacking grandma’s pots and pans.”

“There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium. I wish I had written that line. But the Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano got there first.”

“If there is one thing I love more than a good map it is a great stadium at the end of a long bout of map reading.”

With the kick-off at 8pm, there was more than ample time for a few drinks in both pubs, and some chat with some pals. I’d suggest that the inaugural winter break was originally met with the derision when it was announced for this season – “we need our football!” – but a lovely by-product of it was the chance for me to head off to exotic climes (my jaunt to Argentina was my first-ever holiday in search of winter sun in my entire life) and a few pals took the chance to explore other exotic locations. My break, I know, did me the world of good.

However, I did find it typically English that the subsequent FA Cup fifth round games then had to be squeezed into a midweek slot. Less games here, more games here. What a Jackie Brambles

The team news came through.

Still no Kepa.

Michy up front.

With no other options, Pedro and Willian – the old couple – were the wingers.

Caballero

James – Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Kovacic – Kante

Willian – Batshuayi – Pedro

We made our way to Stamford Bridge on a cold night. I bumped into Rick Glanvill, the club historian, outside the West Stand. We briefly mused about Buenos Aires. Quick as a flash, Rick mentioned Chelsea’s South American tour in 1929 when we played eight games in the Argentinian capital.

I was in with around ten minutes to spare. There was the usual dimming of the lights, some electronic wizardry and flames, followed by the derisory chant from the away section of “what the fookin’ hell was that”?

It was almost a year to the day since United beat us 2-0 in last season’s FA Cup. Since then, we drew at Old Trafford in the league last season, lost to them on the opening day of the season at Old Trafford this season and lost to them in the League Cup in October at Stamford Bridge. And they are a poor team. It felt right that we should get some sort of revenge on them. The last time we beat United was at the 2018 FA Cup Final.

Ciudad de los Estadios : Argentinos Juniors vs. Lanus, Friday 7 February 2020

I spotted two new banners.

In the East Stand, one for Frank Lampard : “Player. Manager. Legend.”

In The Shed : “Peter Bonetti, The Cat.”

Proud to say I put a few bob behind the latter one.

I was genuinely surprised that there was no minute’s silence, or appreciation, for Harry Gregg – a survivor of the Munich air disaster in 1958 – before the game began.

As always, we attacked the Shed in the first-half and I was generally rather pleased with our play for most of the first half. Our passing and movement – or movement and passing – was fine, and nobody impressed me more than Mateo Kovacic, whose drive from deep was very heartening. We had a little array of chances early on.

Two things to note.

Nemamja Matic and his shorts. Huge.

Harry Maguire and his boots. Yellow. Fucking yellow. Like fucking Bananaman. Ridiculous.

Sadly, N’Golo Kante pulled up in the first quarter of an hour and was replaced by Mason Mount.

The United fans, usually the noisiest season on season, were discernibly quiet. Maybe they were just as embarrassed about Maguire’s boots as I was.

But then the “Rent Boys” chant began and we all tut-tutted in faux outrage.

There was a bit of noise from us in the first part of the game, but nothing to write home about.

The incident between Maguire and Batshuayi on the far touchline passed me by to be honest. I saw a crunch of bodies, but the fine detail was lost. Up came a VAR moment on the scoreboard, but nothing was given. At the time, I had no clue as to who was the aggressor and who was the aggressed.

A lovely move right from our own box, involving yet more lovely passing and movement had us all purring, but a weak finish from Batshuayi – who had started promisingly – caused the first of a few groans throughout the night.

The Willian yellow card seemed appropriate. It looked like a dive from even one hundred yards away.

United, though not dominating at all, came into the game a little. Anthony Martial wasted their best chance of the game when he tamely shot wide of the far post after easily getting behind a defender.

In the dying embers of the first-half, Aaron Wan-Bissaka twisted Willian into oblivion and his snappy cross was glanced in by Martial, who had edged past his marker.

Bollocks.

Here we go again.

We were crestfallen.

Sadly, Batshuayi did not force a save from De Gea as he scuffed a shot from an angle.

Weak finishing and defensive lapses? Sounds like a broken record, doesn’t it?

Ciudad de los Estadios : Boca Juniors vs. Atlético Tucumán , Saturday 8 February 2020

So, a cruel blow had left us 1-0 down at the break. It seemed that we had been unlucky. We hoped for our luck to improve in the second-half. On came Kurt Zouma for Andreas Christensen, evidently injured in the closing moments of the first period.

Very soon into the second-half, a Willian corner – which cleared the first man! – was headed home by Kurt Zouma, down and low, De Gea no chance. He sped away to the far corner.

GET IN.

Back in it and deservedly so.

But wait. After a few moments, the dreaded VAR was signalled.

What for?

No idea.

We did not know.

After a little wait…”I don’t like this”…no goal.

So, celebrations nullified, the emotions deleted, I stood in a daze.

The annoying thing for me, here, is that the spectators / fans / customers in the stadium were shown a brief repeat of the goal in which I saw a United player sprawl to the floor. But at no time was there a clear and valid reason for the goal being disallowed being shared with those of us in the stadium.

We could only guess.

That cannot be right, can it?

This seemed to harm us, and our play did not flow. The mood among the home fans worsened. I am obviously too naïve to expect the Chelsea supporters to rally behind the team with a barrage of noise, to lift the players and to scare the living daylights out of United. Because it didn’t happen.

And here’s a startling comparison between England and Argentina. Those who read these reports will know that I often make a note of how long it takes for a stadium-wide chant or song to envelope the entire stadium. Often at Chelsea, it can take fifteen minutes – like in this game – or as long as half an hour or even more. In Argentina, in two of the three games, this moment came half an hour before kick-off.

Incidentally, in Argentina, there are songs, often long songs. In Europe we tend to go for short venomous chanting. I prefer the European model.

Ciudad de los Estadios : Racing vs. Independiente , Sunday 9 February 2020

United hit the post from a free-kick and from the ensuing corner, Maguire thumped a header down and past Caballero.

“Definition of a fucking free header, that.”

Bollocks.

These defensive lapses are the trademark of our season. Damn it.

Olivier Giroud, the forgotten man, replaced the miss-firing Michy. Just like with the introduction of Zouma, the substitution seemed to produce an instant hit. Mason shaped to cross from the right and I had spotted the movement of the substitute.

“Go on Giroud, feed him in, feed him in.”

The cross was on the money. An adept stooping header by the substitute, and we were back in it.

GET IN YOU BASTARDS.

Twenty minutes left. We can do this.

We waited for the restart.

Oh no.

Oh no.

VAR.

Fuck this.

A wait.

No goal.

No fucking goal.

We stood silent and still, our emotions having ran their course.

At least, I knew that it was for offside via the TV screen announcement. At least the folk in the stadium had been treated correctly. How nice of them.

In the scheme of things, fair enough.

But for all of these VAR decisions, how much have we lost?

How much?

I’d say nearly everything.

We go to football, not only to support our team, not only to meet up with mates, but for that prospect of losing it when a goal is scored.

That moment. Ecstasy. Limbs. The rush. The buzz. There is nothing like it.

That has been taken away from us in every single game we see.

Many of the spectators around me left. The Bridge seemed dead, lifeless, spent.

Back in Buenos Aires, my new pal Victor had smiled as he said “at least there is no VAR here.”

Even in Argentina, it is hated.

My good friend Rob apologised as he passed me, and would later comment on “Facebook.”

“I’ve never left a game early. Tonight, I realised what I’d worried about all season. Football is dead. I’ve left roughly fifteen minutes early. I didn’t even stand to celebrate Giroud’s goal. I don’t actually want to come to football anymore. VAR has done what my ex-wife tried to do for years. Put me off coming to football.”

My good mate Kev would comment on “Facebook.”

“I honestly believe that if we have a fiasco Saturday, even in our favour, that will be my last game. Munich all paid up, but it won’t matter. It’s not in the spirit of the game. If you’re in the house or the pub, I guess it’s great. If like us you’re match going, it’s diabolical.”

In the last seconds of the game, Mason Mount hit the post but by that time nobody fucking cared.

At the final whistle, or soon after, my comment on Facebook was this.

“Football. But with life drained out of it.”

And that is how I felt, and how many felt. It seems that football is trying its best to kill the golden goose. Football resurrected itself after the troubles of the ‘seventies and ‘eighties – although I miss the passion of those days, I don’t miss the violence – and football has been at the absolute epicentre of our national identity for ever and ever. England’s sport is not cricket, nor rugby, nor tennis, nor horse racing, nor boxing, nor hockey.

It’s football.

With all its flaws.

But VAR is killing it, and not even slowly.

The mood was sombre.

But it was more than that.

I was just numbed by the whole sorry mess.

There was disappointment, obviously, that we had succumbed to a poor United team. There is work to do, as we knew from day one. I’m right behind Frank, nothing has changed, there is no fresh news. I love him to bits. His post-match interview was as intelligent and brutally honest, frank, as ever. I want him to succeed so fucking much. The next two games are as huge as they get.

But the over-riding emotion centered on VAR. And that can’t be right. I hate it with a bloody passion.

Outside the West Stand, under the Peter Osgood statue, I met up with a chap – Ross – to receive a ticket for an upcoming game. Alongside him – blatant name drop coming up – was the Irish novelist Roddy Doyle, he of “The Commitments”, “The Van” and “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.” It was a pleasure to meet him.

We grumbled about VAR.

Roddy quipped about how scoring a goal is always likened to an orgasm, and now with VAR, even that pleasure is being taken away.

Imagine that, eh?

When is an orgasm not an orgasm?

Fackinell.

I replied.

“Well, with VAR and no orgasms, at least there are plenty of clean sheets.”

I walked back to the car.

A cheeseburger with onions at “Chubby’s Grill” and three – fucking three! – bars of chocolate could not dull the pain of VAR.

I slept like a baby on the way home.

It feels like I am at a crossroads. It seems almost implausible that I can even consider giving up football – Chelsea – but I simply cannot stomach another twenty years of VAR. It is as hideous a prospect as I can ever imagine, but I might – might – walk away.

God only knows I loathe much of modern football as it is. I always thought that it would be the dreaded thirty-ninth game in Adelaide, Beijing, Calcutta or Durban that might be the last straw, but the dynamic has changed since August.

Could I live without Chelsea? Of course I will always be a fan, a supporter, but how could I live without the sanctity of going to games? I shudder to think. Already, many mates go for a drink-up at Chelsea but don’t go in. Is that on the cards for me? I don’t know.

What would I do on weekends?

I’d go to see Frome Town.

I’d collect football stadia.

After all, I have stadiumitis and I have it bad.

The Maracana? Yes please.

The Azteca? Yes please.

Atletico Bilbao’s new stadium?

That stadium in Braga with a rock face behind one goal?

I still have a few stadia to see in Budapest.

A return to Buenos Aires? Yes. After all, that art deco tower – pure Flash Gordon – at Huracan warrants a trip all by itself.

Yes. I like this.

But life without Chelsea?

Fucking hell.

If – and it is obviously a massive “if”- I decide to walk away, it will be the right decision and the correct decision…

Don’t cry for me.

If anybody feels as desperate as me, please sign this.

https://www.change.org/p/the-premier-league-remove-the-use-of-the-video-assistant-referee-var-from-premier-league-football?recruiter=false&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=psf_combo_share_initial&utm_term=psf_combo_share_initial&recruited_by_id=21029800-5279-11ea-8486-eb0cd2d9b781&utm_content=fht-19272164-en-gb%3Av13

Tales From Three Seasons In One Day

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 1 February 2020.

We were parked up on Shakespeare Street, a red-bricked terrace street about half a mile from the King Power Stadium, at about 10.15am. I have been parking here for all the visits to Leicester City ever since my first visit to their new stadium in 2015. For many years, I never made it to Leicester. My first visit was during 1984/85 – more of that later – but for the next thirty years I didn’t make it, for various reasons. Before I was a season ticket holder, I was never sure of a ticket. Since I became a season ticket holder, I wasn’t always able to attend due to financial constraints, circumstances and then personal choice. I was on holiday in the US for our FA Cup game in 2004, I was trapped in my village after a sudden snowfall for our FA Cup game in 2018. For our League Cup game a few seasons back, I simply chose not to go.

But Shakespeare Street serves us well. It is to the south of King Power Stadium, so after the game it affords relatively quick access onto the city’s ring road and then further escape routes. I was tipped off about it by my friend Tim, who I have known – through work – since 2003. Tim and I had arranged to meet at “The Counting House” pub before the game and I quickly texted him to let him know I was already parked up.

We had set off from Frome at 7am. It was a fine trip up from the south-west of England. It was great to have Parky with us again. From Mells to Frome to collect PD, to Bradford-on-Avon, to Holt for Parky, through Melksham, past Chippenham, past Malmesbury, past Cirencester, past Bourton-on-the-Water, past Stow-on-the-Wold, through Moreton-in-Marsh, through Wellesbourne, past Warwick, past Coventry, to Hinckley.

And Leicester.

A straight line.

Along the Fosse Way, the Roman road, to see Roman’s legions in the heart of England.

It is one of my favourite roads.

Under the familiar railway bridge, PD and Parky strode slowly on. The sun caught the iron of the bridge against the rich blue of the sky above. It was cold, but not bitterly so. We reached “The Counting House” at 10.45am and it was already open. It was packed, predominantly with Chelsea. We sat outside.

One single pint of lager apiece, not much time nor need for anything else.

Tim and his son Oliver soon arrived, last featured in these reports for the 2015 game. We chatted a little about football, a little about work, a little about football again.

Tim’s company has recently taken some office furniture for us down to Geneva which would eventually end up at the UEFA HQ in Nyon.

Oliver was trusted with taking the photographs.

“You’re not charging me are you? I know what your father is like.”

Another work acquaintance – a fellow P&O work colleague – Sally then arrived and it was lovely to see her once again. Sally covered me while I was on holiday to see Chelsea in the US in 2009 and although we have both left P&O we have kept in touch. I have not seen her since 2009. Where does the time go? And who could possibly have predicted that both of our teams would have become league champions in the ensuing years.

After Chelsea’s twin successes in 2004/5 and 2005/6, success was in no way guaranteed. That we have won the league on three further occasions is magical. For Leicester City to have won it in 2015/16 is beyond words.

I gave Sal a hug.

At just before midday, Tim, Oliver and I set off.

There was talk of the old ground, Filbert Street, just a few hundred yards to the north. In the 2015 match report, I mentioned the 1985 visit.

“I spotted the large electricity pylons and associated electricity sub-station that I had recognised from my visit to Filbert Street in February 1985. The station was just to the south of Filbert Street. It is just to the north of the King Power Stadium; the two sites are very close. I also spotted the new stand roof at Leicester’s Welford Road rugby union stadium too. I remember being escorted past that stadium, a very thin police escort at that, after the game at Filbert Street all those years ago.”

By some odd quirk, the game in 1985 was on Saturday 2 February. The two games almost exactly collided.

Yes, I have strong memories of that match in 1985. In fact, I always have vivid and intense memories of those first one-hundred Chelsea games that I attended.

I travelled alone, by train, from Stoke to Derby and then a change of trains to Leicester. A solitary walk to Filbert Street and its gorgeously lopsided stands; two huge, two miniscule. I had plenty of time on my hands. I circumnavigated the ground, nestled alongside terraced streets. I met Glenn inside, in the seats alongside the pitch; he had travelled up from Frome with a Crystal Palace fan, though in the subsequent years neither of us can remember his name. We had loads there. It kicked-off in the top tier of the double-decker behind the goal. There were pockets of Chelsea inside the home areas, no doubt intending to “mix it.” Chelsea in the yellow Le Coq Sportif. Eddie Niedzwiecki in a red jersey. We drew 1-1, an early Gary Lineker goal but David Speedie equalised with a penalty. After the game, there was indeed a minimal police escort, but a lot of Chelsea kept peeling off to front up with mobs of locals. Those narrow terraced streets, like at so many old grounds, were so difficult to police. Passing a park, now Nelson Mandela Park, I looked back to see fights breaking out everywhere. I remember standing on a platform at the station, saying “goodbye” to Glenn as he headed back to Frome, while I waited for a train back to Derby. The atmosphere in the train station was still feral a good hour after the game. There was still a huge malevolent buzz in the air.

A different era.

Outside the King Power, I bumped into the two Neils from Nuneaton. Thoughts of the 1984/85 era came to our minds again. On the previous day, I was stunned and saddened to hear that Dale Jasper – a Chelsea player in 1983/84 and 1984/85 – had passed away at the early age of just fifty-six.

It was a shocking piece of news.

Because Dale Jasper only played a few games, around fifteen, and because he was so young at the time, he will always remain encapsulated in my memory as “young Dale Jasper”, even though he was eighteen months older than me.

A few close friends were choked when we heard the news on Friday.

One of the 1983/84 team – my dream team, my dream season, my favourite ever year – was no longer with us. And it seemed impossible that young Dale Jasper was the first of the gang to die.

There was a lovely eulogy to Dale Jasper by Pat Nevin on the official CFC website. Pat, like me, likened him to Glenn Hoddle. In an era of rough and tumble, the lithe Jasper could certainly control a ball and “ping” a pass. I saw his debut, the iconic and infamous 3-3 at Ninian Park in 1984, and he was also present at the equally iconic and equally infamous game at Highbury later that year. He played in the “Canoville” game at Hillsborough, the 4-4, in 1985, but also gave away two penalties in the League Cup semi-final at Roker Park in the same League Cup campaign.

Dale Jasper certainly packed a lot into his short Chelsea career.

He later played for Brighton & Hove Albion and Crewe Alexandra.

He was on the same Facebook group as myself. I occasionally “liked” one or two of his comments, though we were not Facebook friends. I just wanted to share the love for a player that I admired, albeit briefly.

The two Neils and I spoke about Dale Jasper.

RIP.

These photos from inside and outside Filbert Street show the double-decker, shared between home and away fans, and Wee Pat racing over to sign an autograph for some lucky Chelsea fan.

In 2015, I sat away from the rest of the Chelsea support.

“Due to the club’s cock-eyed decision to let tickets for this potentially key fixture to be sold with no loyalty points system in operation, Parky unfortunately missed out. I therefore needed to ask for a favour from Tim for an extra ticket. Within ten minutes of my call, Tim sorted me out a ticket in the home stand. On the basis that I could trust myself among the home fans rather than Parky, we agreed that it would be circumspect for him to have my ticket alongside Alan and Gary in the away corner. And I was in Tim’s seat, incognito. Everyone was happy.”

That was a great game – remembered for an incredible sunset – and I was, fortuitously at the right end to capture celebrations of our three second-half goals. It was a fantastic night. That fifth title was within touching distance.

Back to 2020, I made it inside the stadium – no more than fifteen yards away from my seat in May, but behind the corner flag this time – with about fifteen minutes to go.

I approached Alan and Gary.

“Alright lads? Been a tough week.”

For not only had the Chelsea family lost Dale Jasper on Friday, we also lost Chris Vassallo on Wednesday. I only knew Chris over the past five years; I seem to remember chatting to him in Tel Aviv in 2015 for the very first time. But every time we brushed past each other, he would offer his hand and say “alright, Chris” and I would do the same. He seemed a lovely bloke. Always there. As kick-off approached, I looked hard to see if I could spot his close friends Ali and Nick. I spotted them, quite a few rows back, and patted my chest.

The teams arrived.

I took a photo and posted it on “Facebook.”

“Remembering Chris and Dale. Let’s go to work, Chelsea.”

The big news was that Kepa was no longer our ‘keeper. In came Willy Caballero. I was quite surprised that Tammy Abraham had been declared to be match-fit. Pedro retained his place ahead of Willian. Another slight surprise.

Caballero

James – Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Kante – Mount

Pedo – Abraham – Hudson-Odoi

What a fine first-half. In fact, very soon into it, I commented to Alan “much better than last season’s game” which was truly, truly horrific.

The low winter sun was causing Kasper Schmeichel a few problems as Chelsea dominated the game from the off. We passed well, and used the flanks. The away crowd were right in to the game from the off, with plenty of noise booming around the north-east corner. There was the usual expected “bants” between both sets of fans, though the geezer in the adjacent Leicester section with the drum needed to be constantly reminded of his “hobbies”.

Frustratingly, there was an “air shot” from Callum Hudson-Odoi and this drew moans and groans from all. This seemed to affect his confidence a little, and his play was a little within himself. A cross from our left from Dave then just evaded Tammy Abraham. More groans. But then, lovely, an immediate chant of support.

“Oh Tammy Tammy. Tammy, Tammy, Tammy Abraham.”

Top marks.

Despite Callum’s troubles on our right, Reece James took up the gauntlet. He was soon attacking at will down that flank after being released by various team mates. One sumptuous cross into the danger area was just perfection but Tammy read it slightly late.

A ball was played in, by Pedro I think, and Tammy twisted inside the box. There was a slight hint of a trip. He was certainly sprawled on the turf.

After a while, the Chelsea crowd – not Alan, not Gary, not me, not Parky – screamed.

“VAR. VAR. VAR. VAR.”

Give me strength.

After the usual lengthy delay, the call did not go our way.

The Chelsea crowd changed their tune.

“FUCK VAR. FUCK VAR. FUCK VAR. FUCK VAR. FUCK VAR.”

Alan looked at me and I looked at Alan.

“They can’t have it both ways, Al.”

Sigh.

“Fuck me, how do these morons find their way to work in the mornings?”

I can only hope that these people, if they voted on the European Union referendum in 2016, voted with a little more conviction and a little less fickleness than with which they now vote for VAR.

Midway through the half, the Chelsea noise diminished slightly, there was a classic Leicester City chance for Jamie Vardy but Caballero saved brilliantly well. It was their sole chance thus far. Pedro was involved often in this period, and one halting run ended up with a subtle lob towards goal, but Schmeichel back-peddled well and tipped over. Callum was trying to get into the groove. But one step forward, two steps back. The diagonal from Rudiger, and from others, to Reece and Callum was a common occurrence.

There was a hint of rain, but mainly the sun shone.

We kept driving at the Leicester defence. Reece James was solid, he had focus, and he was our finest player of the half. Another cross from Reece, right on the money, and another whisker away from Tammy. A rushed shot from Callum ballooned over the bar. More groans.

But the home team were now coming into the game. Efforts from them caused a little worry for our defence.

There was a classic chance for Vardy just before the break.

“Here we go.”

Amazingly, he fluffed his lines.

Just after, a Leicester City corner was met by a strong unchallenged leap by Hamza Choudury, but his equally strong header was down but wide.

Phew.

In the first minute of the second-half, a corner to Chelsea from the same side of the ground as the Leicester effort before the break. Mason Mount hit it deep, and the ball fell at virtually the same place as the Leicester cross. Rudiger rose, repeated the Choudhury downward header, but this time the ball ended up in the goal.

GET IN.

Alan : “Thay’ll ‘ave ta come at us nah.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

There was a magical reflex save from close in by Caballero from Ben Chilwell – arms and legs at all angles – but Leicester were back in this game.

As Harvey Barnes l approached, I yelled.

“Don’t let him come inside ya.”

With that, he did. The shot took a deflection and it curled and spun past the dive of Oor Wullie.

Bollocks.

Barnes’ little pirouette in front of us made me ill.

I turned to Al.

“Game of two halves.”

We were letting our hold slip in this half and our attacking play quickly slowed.

On 56 minutes, Dale Jasper’s age, I hoped for a chant in his honour.

There was nothing, nothing at all. There had been nothing all game.

No words.

Ten minutes later, a cross from the Leicester City rose high, and I watched Caballero react to it. He watched the ball fall and he raced, unsure of himself, towards it, but it fell way in front of him. I watched as he raced back. The ball was recycled – is that the buzz word these days? – and it fell at Ben Chilwell’s feet. He slammed it home. Caballero was close to it, but not close enough. I am, if I am honest, not sure if he had not carried out his wild sortie he would still have saved it.

I certainly felt sorry for Willy, who until then had been more than fine.

But I did turn to Alan and say :

“I am sure Kepa would have stayed in his six-yard box.”

And I absolutely felt sorry for Frank, his gamble – which is what it certainly was – had backfired.

Oh these defensive lapses, Chelsea.

Fucksake.

There was another fine Caballero save. This drew some praise.

[Inside my head] : “We seem to have run out of ideas. Maybe we need to lump it to Rudi again.”

Seven minutes after we went behind, Dave was fouled on our left. Mason Mount floated it in. This was another long, deep cross, and Toni Rudiger rose again. Unlike the first goal, a sudden downward stab, this was a lofted floating lob that dropped wonderfully into the yawning goal, with Schmiechel nowhere.

We celebrated that one truly, madly, deeply.

Get in.

Frank Lampard rang some changes.

Kovacic for Jorginho.

Willian for Pedro.

Then, very oddly.

Barkley for Abraham.

Well, answers on a postcard.

Gary and I quickly discussed false nines and we didn’t like it.

“Regardless of the formation, every team still needs a goal scorer.”

Then, I felt dirty for even thinking it…

[Inside my head] : “Surely this isn’t a Mourinho-esque swipe by Frank at the board for not backing him in his search for an elastoplast striker in the January window?”

“Nah.”

Our play ran out of ideas. Willian did well at first then dipped. Barkley struggled. In the last few minutes, the home team were gifted two golden chances.

A Johnny Evans header, wide.

Phew.

A shot from Harvey Barnes, wide.

Phew.

Then, the ball was played in to our box and Rudiger seemed to turn and flick his hand towards the ball. Everyone around me feared the absolute worst, we honestly did.

No penalty.

Phew.

At the final whistle, some positives surely.

A good game, a point apiece was a fair result. Leicester City are no mugs, a fine team. Drawing at the team in third place is absolutely alright.

On the way out, I chatted to a few mates. Our first-ever Winter break is upon us. Mark is off to Las Vegas, Scott is off to Australia. I am not honestly sure where Chelsea are ending up – a place in the sun surely? – but I am off too.

I am off to Buenos Aires on Tuesday for some sun and some football.

We reconvene in over two weeks for the visit of Manchester United.

See you there.

Postscript : 1985 / 2015 / 2020 Updated.

Attendances.

1985 – 15,657.

2015 – 32,021.

2020 – 32, 186.

Capacities.

1985 – 29,000.

2015 – 32,500.

2020 – 32,312.

Away Fans.

1985 – 4,000.

2015 – 3,000.

2020 – 3,000.

Seat Tickets.

1985 – £4.50 on day of game.

2015 – £40 in advance.

2020 – £30 in advance.

Club Owners.

1985 – English.

2015 – Thai and Russian.

2020 – Thai and Russian.

The Chelsea Players.

1985 – English, Welsh, Scottish.

2015 – Czech, Serbian, Spanish, English, Belgian, Brazilian and Ivorian.

2020 – Argentinian, English, Danish, German, Spanish, French and Italian.

Heroes.

1985 – Dixon, Speedie, Nevin.

2015 – Hazard, Terry, Diego Costa.

2020 – Kante and two others to be decided upon on a weekly basis.

Chelsea Kits.

1985 – all yellow.

2015 – all yellow.

2020 – black and orange.

Chelsea Songs.

1985 – “You’re gonna get your fucking heads kicked in.”

2015 – “Champions of England, you’ll never sing that.”

2020 – “Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that.”

After The Game.

1985 – Police escort, scuffles everywhere.

2015 – Normality.

2020 – Normality and a cheeseburger with onions.

1985

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUMHLnVJLpg

2015

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrSivwfgFnc

2020

Parky, Gary, Alan and myself featured after our first goal.

https://www.chelseafc.com/en/videos/v/2020/02/01/_-antonio-rudiger-brace-earns-chelsea-a-point-on-his-100th-blues-Zxa2w0ajE6xzyOKeMoOqaZEbI7CrShWt?fbclid=IwAR0-UYXfbmQWYffN3oyCA_Jej4c_llJAMztwJ8_ak-cCf6CH8_76MA9Iijg

 

Tales From The Second-Half

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 December 2019.

I was sitting in a cosy corner of “The St. James Tavern” just off Piccadilly Circus with PD and Lord Parsnips. There was just time for a couple of scoops before it was time to head on up the Piccadilly Line to Arsenal. Pints of Peroni had been poured, but not just any pints. At £6.30 a go, these were – I am quite sure – the most expensive pints in the UK that we had ever purchased. Bloody hell, they must have seen us coming. In fact, they certainly had seen us coming; we had popped in at 11.30am but had been unceremoniously told “no alcohol until midday” so we just had a little meander to kill some time, so imagine our annoyance when we re-entered at 11.55am to see some punters with pints three-quarters imbibed already.

“Oh, so you were serving alcohol before midday then.”

The bar staff chose to ignore me. To be honest, two pints was ample, but it was a shame they were a little rushed. The day had started off quietly – I was away at 8am – and the weather outside was mid-winter bleak, but at least with no rain. We had again parked-up at Barons Court – like last Sunday, bang on time at 11am, a three-hour trip exactly on target – and I liked the fact that right in front of me was a car with a Chelsea number plate – JC03 CFC – and I wondered if the owner had driven in like myself or was a local. Either way, I looked on it as a good omen.

There was a good deal of symmetry about the game at Arsenal.

We had played nineteen games. The end of the first-half of the season had been completed. The last away day of the first-nineteen games was also in North London, at Tottenham, and the first away game of the second nineteen games was just four miles away in Islington. Heading into 2020, our twentieth league game of the season was just a couple of hours away.

There and then, I decided to call this particular match report – number 597 – “Tales From The Second-Half.”

It would be rather prescient.

We arrived at a sunny Emirates bang on time at 1.15pm. To be honest, this made a refreshing change. Arrivals at Arsenal are usually ridiculously hurried. Very often, we get in with seconds to spare. I was able to take my time and take a few mood shots outside. Walking over the southern bridge, a statue of Herbert Chapman greets supporters.

It’s a fine statue. I imagined that many of our new supporter base – FIFA ready, eager to impress, scarves and replica shirts at the ready – do not know who Ted Drake is, let alone Herbert Chapman. Mind you, it’s quite likely that many of Arsenal’s new supporter base – FIFA ready, eager to impress, scarves and replica shirts at the ready – do not know who Herbert Chapman is. It is a major shame that many believe that football began in 1992, and is even more galling to hear those in the media forever banging on about Premier League records as if all other data has been expunged from the record books.

I was hanging around to make sure the safe transfer of a spare ticket had taken place OK. Although I didn’t need to meet the two parties, I didn’t want to leave them stranded.

At about 1.20pm, I got the OK by text. I could relax a little. I bumped into a few mates. Took some more photos. We weren’t sure, collectively, how to regard this match.

“At Tottenham last week, I would have been happy with a draw. No question. With Arsenal, I feel we need to beat them. We are away, after all. Less pressure. Hopefully more space. But, it could go one of any three ways – a win, a loss, a draw. They’re poor though. Worse than Tottenham.”

Inside the stadium, everything was so familiar. This would be my fourteenth consecutive league visit to this ground; the only game I have missed was when we took 9,000 in that League Cup game in 2013. There was also a ropey League Cup semi in 2018.

It has been a stadium of mixed results.

Thus far in the league –

Won : 4

Drawn : 5

Lost : 4

Stepping out of the Arsenal tube, I am always reminded of how magnificent Highbury was. Those art deco stands were beauties. And on the corner of Gillespie Road, as it turns into Drayton Park, is one of my favourite art deco houses of all. I just never seem to have the time to stop and take a photograph. Maybe next season. Can somebody remind me? I consider it a failing of whoever designed the new Arsenal stadium (and that is what it should really be called, it won’t be sponsored by Emirates in twenty years’ time will it?) that there is no reference to the old Highbury ground. Not a single nod. Not one.

It’s an Arsenal Stadium Mystery.

And, I know it sounds silly, but compared to Tottenham’s new home, Arsenal’s pad looks less impressive with every visit. Yes, there is comfort. Yes, every seat is padded (imagine that in 1984 when we scurried out of the Arsenal tube and queued up at the Clock End to squeeze our young bodies onto that large terrace – padded seats in the away end!), yes it’s modern, but it lacks a visual impact, it lacks charm, it lacks intimidation. As my mate Daryl commented in the concourse “it’s like a shopping centre.”

Indeed.

Kerching.

We were down the front for this one, row three. I met up with Alan, Gary and Parky. I tried to remember if the stewards at Arsenal gave me a hard time with my camera; I think I would be OK.

The team news filtered through.

Another outing for the 3/4/3.

I guess it worked at Tottenham.

Arrizabalaga

Rudiger – Zouma – Tomori

Azpilicueta – Kovacic – Kante – Emerson

Willian – Abraham – Mount

I had been in contact with two Arsenal lads that I had met on the outbound trip to Baku in May – it still seems like a dream – but I would not be able to meet up with them for a quick handshake as they were both pushed for time. I wished them well.

Kick-off soon arrived.

As always, we attacked the North Bank in the first-half.

First thoughts?

Yes, it was odd seeing David Luiz in Arsenal red and white. Very odd.

In fact, our former defender was heavily involved in the very first few minutes, jumping and narrowly missing with a header from a cross, attempting an optimistic scissor-kick from inside the box, and a trademark free-kick from outside it. Thankfully, Kepas’s goal remained unscathed. Sadly, despite our manager’s emotional and heartfelt protestations about his under-performing players against Southampton, it was sadly business as usual for the early part of the game. Arsenal seemed more invigorated, livelier, and they put us under pressure from the off.

We managed to create a chance for Mason Mount at the North Bank, Willian working a short free-kick, but his tame shot was saved by Bernd Leno.

Shortly after, a whipped-in corner from Mesut Ozil was headed on at the near post and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang nodded in, with our marking awry.

“One nil to The Arsenal” sang the home areas. It was the first real noise of the entire game.

With their nippy winger Riess Nelson looking impressive on the Arsenal right and with their other players closing space, we drifted in to a very uncomfortable period of play. Our passing was strained, and there was a lack of movement off the ball. Yet again, Toni Rudiger was given the task of playmaker as others did not have the time and space to do so. But he, like others, found it difficult to hit targets. I’d imagine that teams have sussed out the diagonal to Emerson by now. Arsenal were full or funning and intent. They looked by far the better team. To be brutally frank, a better team than Arsenal would have punished us further, because we were not at the races, the amusement arcade, the pantomime or the family outing to Ramsgate. It was dire stuff and the fans around me were huffing and puffing their disdain.

Nothing vitriolic – we save that for the home games – but noticeable.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

The usual terrace regulars were regurgitated.

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

“We’ve won it all.”

(We haven’t.)

No, this was poor football. Only Kante and, possibly – only possibly – Kovacic seemed up for the task ahead. Tammy was not involved; of course there was a drought of service, for sure, but there was poor involvement through being unwilling to move his marker.

Just after the half-hour mark, Frank changed it. Off came Emerson, to be replaced by Jorginho. And a change of formation. Dave switched sides, Tomori moved to right back. There was, of course, immediately more solidity in midfield. Emerson was always a steady player – I rated him, generally – but his form has certainly dipped of late. I struggle with his reluctance to take players on when “one-on-one” and he has recently been a subject of the boo boys at games and the ranters on social media.

Our attacking abilities noticeably changed and we, arguably, had the best of it over the last ten minutes of the half. There were half-chances for both teams. However, over the course of the entire half, I think, generally, we had got off lightly. And yet. How many times did Kepa have to scramble to save shots, to tip over, to lunge at an attacker’s feet? Not many.

It wasn’t the best of games.

It was 100 % doom and gloom in the crowded concourse and in the padded seats at the break.

Inside my head : “Frank is new to this game. It’s only his second season as a manager. Has he got it in his locker to motivate the players, to get across his ideas, but to remain calm and focussed too?”

I bloody hoped so.

For all our sakes.

Soon into the second-half, I whispered to Alan.

“Seems like a proper game now, this.”

Tackles were being won, passes were being threaded through, players were running off the ball, this was more fucking like it boys.

A special mention for Jorginho. Excellent.

How to accommodate both him and Kante in their strongest positions?

This season’s $64,000 question.

On the hour, fresh legs and a fresh player for that matter. Making his debut as a replacement for Tomori was Tariq Lamptey.

Bloody hell, he looked about twelve.

Even I would tower over him.

He was soon involved, and impressed everyone with a turn and run into the heart of the Arsenal defence before slipping a ball right into the path of Tammy Abraham. The steadily improving striker’s first time shot was blocked by the long legs of David Luiz. There was the usual noise of discontent about Tammy not shooting earlier, but – honestly – he struck it first time and I am not sure he could have reacted any quicker.

Dave headed tamely over.

The final substitution took place; number 20 Callum with 20 to go.

Again, he looked lively from the off, and seemed more comfortable in his own skin, dancing past players and intelligently passing to others. Behind all this was the magnificent work rate of Kovacic, Kante, Jorginho – some splendid tackles, one nasty one, unpunished – and Willian looked a different player.

“Come on Chelsea.”

“Come on you blue boys.”

“Come on Chels.”

A simple header from Tammy at a corner was straight at Leno. A yard either side and we would have been celebrating.

At the other end, a rare Arsenal chance, but Joe Willock, the silly pillock, swept it wide.

A second goal then would have killed us.

Throughout the game, I thought the home areas were dead quiet. Only when they sensed a home victory did they bother.

“We’re the North Bank. We’re the North Bank. We’re the North Bank Highbury.”

“We’re the Clock End. We’re the Clock End. We’re the Clock End Highbury.”

“We’re the North Bank. We’re the North Bank. We’re the North Bank Highbury.”

“We’re the Clock End. We’re the Clock End. We’re the Clock End Highbury.”

Seems the Arsenal fans have remembered the old stadium in the new stadium, even if the architects hadn’t.

The minutes ticked by.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

On eighty-three minutes, I steadied my camera to snap Mason as he weighed up the options before taking a free-kick just fifteen yards from me. He swiped and I snapped. I saw the ‘keeper miss the flight of the ball and I exploded as Jorginho tapped the ball in to an empty net.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

That I managed to get any photo at all of the delirious scenes is a minor miracle.

Beautiful.

Three minutes later, Chelsea in the ascendency, we found ourselves momentarily defending deep. The ball broke, and I thought to myself “here we go” and brought the trusty Canon up to my eyes. Over the next thirty seconds or so, I took twenty-seven photos – and the better ones are included. The strong and purposeful run from Tammy – up against Shkodran Mustafi – and the pass outside to Willian. The return pass.

I steadied myself, waiting for the moment – “We’re going to fucking win this” – and watched as Tammy turned a defender – Mustafi again, oh bloody hell – and prodded the ball goal wards.

Snap.

Right through his legs.

FUCKING GET IN.

Pandemonium in the South Stand, pandemonium in South Norwood, pandemonium in Southsea, pandemonium in South Korea, pandemonium in South Philly.

I felt arms pushing against me – I steadied myself – but missed Tammy’s slide. But I captured the rest, more or less. What a joy to see the players – Tammy especially – so pleased.

Tales From The Second-Half?

You had better fucking believe it.

Screams, smiles, roars.

“Scenes” as the kids say.

I prefer to call it “Chelsea Soup.”

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

We were in our element. One song dominated. It dominated at Tottenham a week previously and it took over the away end at Arsenal.

“We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

(I whispered an add-on – “but not this season.”)

“We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League. We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League. We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League. We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League. We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

It was our Christmas carol for 2019.

Tammy fired over in the last few minutes, but we did not care one jot.

The whistle blew and we roared.

We had done it.

No, wait, Frank had done it, Tammy had done it, the players had done it.

We had played our part, but the players had stepped up.

Top marks.

Inside my head : “So, so pleased for Frank. These have been worrying times. And so pleased for Tammy. He may not be a Didier or a Diego, but he gets goals. Well done him. Until it changes and we have an alternative, let’s sing his name.”

Won : 5

Drawn : 5

Lost : 4

The players came over. As some returned to walk towards the tunnel, Frank turned them around. The manager wanted his charges to thank us. I clambered onto my seat and snapped away. Smiles everywhere. Just lovely.

Tottenham Mark Two.

Franktastic.

There was no rush to leave the stadium. My car at Barons Court was safe. As with last January’s game, we dropped into a Chinese restaurant on the Holloway Road for some scoff. We made our way slowly back, via the tried and tested Piccadilly Line once again, reaching my car at 6.30pm. We eventually made it home for 9.30pm, another six hours in the saddle.

No doubt many Chelsea supporters / fans / wannabees had been venting huge displeasure on every platform available about our ropey first-half performance, but I think that they might have failed to realise that a game is just not a first-half, a season is not nineteen games, this project will not be finished in May.

Chelsea is for life, not just for Christmas.

Next up, we play our first game of 2020 at Brighton.

Another away game.

Frankie says relax.

Postscript 1.

I recently joined in with the Facebook Ten Football Images In Ten Days “thing.” One of them was the cover of the “Shoot” annual of 1973. I chose it for a couple of reasons. I was in hospital in December 1972 for a minor operation. Gleefully it meant that I was able to miss taking part in the school nativity play which would have bloody terrified me. I can distinctly remember – as a pre-Christmas present I guess, a “pick-me-up” – a copy of this said publication. I remembered buying a normal copy of the weekly “Shoot” earlier that autumn while on holiday in North Wales (I can even remember that an Arsenal vs. Manchester City game was featured in the centre pages; a game that I had seen on “The Big Match” that involved Brian Moore getting very opinionated about an Arsenal handball on the line that stopped a City goal, but was not given as a penalty. I remember a very irate Francis Lee. VAR anyone?) This annual featured a photograph of my Chelsea hero Peter Osgood climbing high in the Highbury sun to win a header against Frank McLintock, the rugged Scottish centre-back. This book played a big part in my growing love of football. I can even remember a feature.

“Chelsea’s Deadly H Men.”

Step forward John Hollins, Peter Houseman, Ron Harris, Ian Hutchinson, Marvin Hinton and Alan Hudson.

Sadly, I lost my copy.

Imagine my happiness when I spotted an edition in the shop window of a second-hand shop in Frome about twelve years ago. What luck.

I snapped it up.

It brought back some lovely memories.

Frank McLintock, whose eightieth birthday was on the Saturday, was featured in a half-time chat on the pitch during the game. It was good to hear his voice. These players of our childhood are starting to leave us now. It’s so sad.

I almost thought about renaming this “A Tale Of Two Franks” but that has already been taken.

Postscript 2.

As we leave one decade, and enter another, time to reflect a little. It has been a wild time. Late on, after I had flicked through some photos and just before I settled down to watch “MOTD2”, I posted this on Facebook and I think it struck a chord because it has been shared twenty-two times already.

“2010 : League & FA Cup.
2012 : FA Cup & Champions League.
2013 : Europa League.
2015 : League Cup & League.
2017 : League.
2018 : FA Cup.
2019 : Europa League.

10 trophies in 10 seasons. Please excuse me if I am not too bothered about winning fuck all for a bit.”

May I wish everyone a happy new decade.

Keep the faith.

See you all at Brighton.

Tales From Work And Play

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 4 December 2019.

In this edition.

More logistical woes.

More US visitors.

More “Peroni.”

More photographs of goal celebrations.

More “fackinells.”

More “THTCAUNs.”

More “COMLDs.”

Interested?

Read on.

I was in work early, at 6am, as I wanted to cram in as much into the Chelsea segment of my day as possible. I managed to coerce my boss into letting me work a 0600-1400 shift, and it was easily OK’d. I had planned to take two days off work, the Thursday and Friday, and be able to look forward to wonderful visits to my two favourite stadia in England – Stamford Bridge and Goodison Park – with no hindrance of work. But these plans took a battering. We are short-staffed at the moment, and down to the bare minimum. I said I’d work the Friday. No worries. My managers are always very helpful in giving me as much “Chelsea time” as I need.

And I need a lot.

I met up with the other two Chucklers, PD and Parky, and we quickly demolished a meal at a pub in Melksham before PD set off for London at 3pm.

Sadly, the last twenty miles took ages. With rising frustration – PD’s F count reached triple figures as did his C count – we slowly manoeuvered our way into London, through the dismal traffic, and the last two miles took over half-an-hour.

Some friends were waiting on our arrival in The Goose from earlier on in the afternoon.

Cesar, looking to enjoy a different emotion after the disappointment of West Ham, was waiting for us with his wife and children, as was Johnny Twelve Teams – he has more clubs than Tiger Woods – and his wife Jenni. And also waiting for us was Jaro, who – if the loyal readers of this tripe can remember – saw his first ever game with his son Alex around six weeks ago. He had enjoyed it so much – SO MUCH – that he managed to wangle a work trip from his home in Washington DC to his company’s office in Chiswick to tie in with this game against Aston Villa. Over the past few weeks, we have been messaging each other, and trying to sort out the match day plans. He had, intelligently, managed to buy a ticket on the official exchange just a few seats away from us in the Matthew Harding Upper.

My – our – late arrival at 6.30pm was all rather frustrating.

So – yeah – three and a half hours to drive just over a hundred miles.

Fackinell.

There was just time for one pint of “Peroni” but it was magical for Jaro to be able to meet, in person, LP and PD. Jaro is, by some margin, the person who interacts with me most, and has done since 2009, with these reports. He would later tell me that it was like meeting characters from his favourite novel.

“More like a fucking tragedy” I replied.

There was rushed chats with everyone. Not perfect at all. But Jaro announced that Tammy was back.

“Good.”

And we hoped that the return of John Terry would not be too “OTT.” We already had banners and all at his last ever game in 2017 when – remember? – he was carried off the pitch during the game.

Looking back. What were the players thinking?

Fackinell.

Jaro just loved the walk, in the cold winter air, along the Fulham Road. I introduced him to a few friends on the way, and he bought a “CFCUK” to read on the flight home. He would be heading back to DC on Friday. We joked that Jaro needs to work on his managers – “am I needed in the London office again between now and May” – in the same way that I have done with my managers since 2003 (thanks Stu, thanks Clive, thanks Paul, thanks John, thanks Mike, thanks Matt…).

There has to be a balance between work and play, right?

Neither of us could have imagined for one minute that, after his first game against Newcastle United in October he would be back again for his second so quickly.

Good work, Jaro.

As we headed in to the forecourt – my body swerve past the security guards was textbook and saved getting my camera bag checked – Jaro mentioned to me that the black and white photograph that sits on this website reminds him constantly of the Peter Osgood statue, what with my right arm cradling a ball just as Ossie does. I really had not made the connection – unlike me, I thought – but he was right. That I am wearing the same kit – even the hand-sewn “9” on my shorts – makes it even more uncanny.

Inside the stadium, it was a pleasure to welcome Jaro to The Sleepy Hollow where he finally met Alan too.

Lovely stuff.

After the “rent boy” songs by West Ham on Saturday, we now had rainbows around the large CFC crest on the pitch and a rainbow flag in front of the teams as they lined up.

Ah, the teams.

We lined up as below :

Arrizabalaga

James – Christensen – Zouma – Azpilicueta

Kante

Kovacic – Mount

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

Banners for John Terry were presented in The Shed Upper and the Matthew Harding Lower. But there were no noticeable chants for our returning hero before the game. I took a few early shots of JT and Frank, then concentrated on the action being played out in front of me.

Alan and myself chatted away about all sorts during the first part of the game. Alongside us was Bournemouth Steve, his first game of the season. Jaro was only fifteen feet away. The three thousand Villa fans really were in food voice, and were loudly bellowing “Holte Enders in the skoi.”

There were two Villa flags, one of which was worth repeating.

“You can get another wife. You can’t get another club.”

Five minutes into the game, I received a call from Les who I had seen earlier in The Goose. He was in trouble. He, and a few others, were stuck in the lift which takes supporters up to the MHU. He had already been embroiled in the traffic congestion on the M4, but was still struggling to reach his seat. I alerted the stewards. I hoped to see him soon. He sits in the same general area.

We began well, and drove through the Villa defence. Both wingers were working the space, and crosses reached targets. A Willian blast was kept out by Tom Heaton. A Mason Mount header was straight at the same player. The Villa ‘keeper was in the heat of the action, scooping up another effort. Tammy misfired on a couple of chances. Current media “flavour of the month” Jack Grealish was chosen to be the one player that would infuriate the home supporters.

There had been a couple of “sighters” from Reece James, but on twenty-three minutes his fine cross was inch perfect and Tammy was on hand to steer it past the ‘keeper with a firm header.

Simple.

GET IN.

I felt Tammy’s relief from one hundred yards away.

Lovely.

Was there a moment of doubt, was VAR lurking? We didn’t think so.

Alan : “They’ull ‘ave to cum at uz nowww.”

Chris : “Cum on moi little di’munz.”

However, still no Les.

Fackinell.

I called him to reassure him that an engineer was on his way.

It was all Chelsea, really, but our chances dried up a little.

The atmosphere wasn’t brilliant but was certainly better than against West Ham. There had been a “Double, double, double” chant midway through the half but the home fans had set the right tone I think. It was all quite understated. The last thing I wanted was wall-to-wall John Terry adulation.

Eventually Les arrived.

Phew.

Alan and I spoke about the disbelief of hearing that there was not one Chelsea foul against the previous opponents. In this game, the harrying and tackling was much better. There was more energy. No more so than from Mateo Kovacic, N’Golo Kante and Mason Mount. Top stuff.

A song for Grealish :

“You’re just a shit Mason Mount.”

…mmm, 7/10…needs another syllable slotted in there somewhere.

However, there was a poor back-pass from Reece James (file under Kamikaze Defending Part 413) but we were lucky. Sadly, with the first-half coming to an end, Grealish combined with El Mohamady and his fine cross was headed home, off his leg, by Trezeguet. Annoyingly, our defenders in the six-yard block did not attack the ball. They were flat-footed. The showed the same amount of inertia as tectonic plates.

Fackinell.

Purple flares were visible in the claret and blue half of The Shed. It reminded me of the same colour flares in the same end against Wolves in 1994.

At the half-time confab between Jaro and I, our combined thinking was along the lines of “let’s hope for a little more precision in the second-half…a late winner would be perfect.”

Two minutes into the second-half, the game changed. I was able to capture the studied skills and delicate dink from Willian, the fantastic chest pass from Tammy – how John Terry, right? – and the ferocious volley into the roof of the net by Mason Mount.

WHAT. A. GOAL.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

Chelsea 2 Aston Villa 1.

Especially for Jaro, the players raced down to the corner flag below.

Click, click, click, click, click.

A screamer from Mason and a scream from Mason.

Beautiful.

For the next twenty minutes, we hit a purple patch. We played some great football.

Pulisic running at defenders, twisting and turning.

The energy of Kovacic. Arkright, on this day, had sold a can of peas, a copy of the evening paper, some fire lighters and a quarter pound of peardrops. Ching ching went his cash register.

Mount winning 50/50s against Grealish – the battle of the night.

Kurt Zouma more confident now.

The technical ability of Reece James.

The tigerish spirit of Dave.

The whiplash of Willian.

And Kante. The relentless Kante.

Alan came up with a good metaphor for him. For opponents he is like that annoying itch that just can’t be reached. He is always there. Always beyond reach.

Good work, Al.

Crosses were whipped in, shots were blocked, the movement off the ball was superb. Mount went close from way out, then Tammy held his head in his hands as his shot was touched past the far post.

“Still need a third, though boys.”

Heaton was in the thick of it now and his goal lived a charmed life. A free-kick from Willian, again from distance, was tipped on to the bar and the ‘keeper then fell on the loose ball.

Fackinell.

The funniest part of the night?

Grealish’s attempt at a Mason Mount-esque volley. He missed the ball completely.

His song was repeated.

How we laughed.

(Good player though, on his day. That’s why we didn’t take to him, right? If he was shite, we would have ignored him.)

Some late changes.

Michy for Tammy.

Callum for Christian.

Jorginho for Willian.

Good applause for all.

The Chelsea shots still came, but Villa were not giving up.

“They’re far from the worst team we have played this season.”

There was a moment when a wide player received the ball in roughly the same area as Cresswell on Saturday – ugh – and I was deja vu’ing but the move broke down. One last chance for Villa and Kepa threw himself low to his right to avert the danger.

Phew.

We held on.

A good win, a great second-half, it felt like that we were back on track.

It was not the time to dwell too much on the niggling doubt that we have picked up points against average teams yet have struggled against the better teams.

A win and three points was all that mattered on this night in SW6.

Of course, John Terry took to the pitch at the end after the usual hugs and handshakes had taken place between the victors and losers, the heroes and villains, former team mates everywhere. I stayed until the end and took a few photographs, as is my wont.

I marched out onto the Fulham Road just as some Villa fans were walking past, but there was no trouble. I devoured a cheeseburger at “Chubby’s” and Jaro and I walked up the North End Road, chatting away like fools.

Back at PD’s car, we admitted what a fine second-half it had been.

PD had better luck on the return journey and, despite lots of fog en route, he reached Parky’s house at just after midnight. I clambered into my car and I was at home just before 1am.

It had been a fine night out in SW6.

Next up, a very poor Everton at a very fine Goodison.

See you there.

 

Tales From The Long Game

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 30 November 2019.

I was awake at 5am – yes as early as that – and I just knew that I would not be able to get back to sleep. Once I had checked my phone for any important social media occurrences – there weren’t – I was resigned to the fact that I had best get up well before my planned alarm call at 6.15am. This was not due to a ridiculously giddy, juvenile excitement induced by the thought of the West Ham home game. No, those days are – sadly? – gone. I’m fifty-four years old. I see Chelsea games every week. The simple fact was that I just couldn’t get back to sleep.

The reason for myself waking up, though, might be worth mentioning. I was in the middle of a dream, possibly one which was turning into a nightmare, with me on the way to meet a mate on our way to an airport ahead of a trip abroad, but one in which I had totally messed-up the timings. I was out by a couple of hours. I got an earful from my pal.

No wonder I woke up.

I spend my working day making sure that transport collections and deliveries are done on time and I devote much of my leisure time driving to and from cities, and a sizeable chunk of the remainder planning ahead for future trips, away days, holidays. For someone who fell in love with maps at an early age, has a degree in Human Geography and works in logistics, the notion of me missing a flight by a large margin was reason enough for me to wake in a cold sweat.

Fackinell.

I put the kettle on, and drank a leisurely coffee.

Eventually, the time came to leave my sleeping Somerset village.

On the way in to Frome to collect Simon and PD, the sky was still dark; black all but for a small slither of burnt orange above the Longleat estate to my west.

There was no Lord Parky for this trip; he was otherwise engaged.

Within the first five minutes of the two-and-a-half hour drive to London, we had vented about the game on Wednesday in Valencia. The penalty decision. The ridiculous booking for Kante. VAR. Always VAR. The air turned blue.

The air turned royal blue later on, at various stages in the journey, when we chatted briefly about the upcoming game.

“With no Tammy, Frank will obviously play Michy. Giroud has not got a look in this season. He obviously rates Michy over him.”

“Looks like Pedro is well out of it at the moment. Our two wide men, now – and for the foreseeable – are Pulisic and Willian.”

“At least we won’t be playing a false nine.”

I reached London at 10am.

On the short walk to West Brompton tube, I spotted a distant Stamford Bridge, or at least the roof supports of the Matthew Harding, enveloped in a wintry mist. It looked quite beguiling. Five hours later, I would be sat right underneath that very same section of roof. While I waited for the District Line train to take me down to meet up with Simon and PD (I had parked the car while they shot off to get the drinks in), I looked down the track, again a misty view and again very atmospheric, and saw it bend slightly to go through the tunnel. That same track would have taken me to Fulham Broadway on my very first game in 1974. I had a little moment to myself and remembered the joy of that very first visit.

The pre-match was totally spent within the very cosy confines of “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge as is so often the case these days. And as so often happens – to the point of cliché, right? – we were joined by pals from near and far; London, Stafford, Lancashire, Edinburgh, Toronto, Minneapolis, Los Angeles.

Before I knew it, Simon was swapping phone numbers with the Minneapolis contingent ahead of a possible trip to the US next summer with a mate who loves Prince. I told him the story of when Chelsea opened-up the glass and steel superstructure of the new Minnesota Vikings stadium in 2016 against Milan, and that when we scored the first goal of the game, “Let’s Go Crazy” was played. A nice touch.

As we were in the pub so early – 10.30am – I decided to allow myself some “Birra Moretti” before moving on to the standard “Cokes.” They were a nice treat. It was lovely to see everyone getting on famously, despite many having never met previously. Cesar from Los Angeles laughing with PD. Simon chatting to Eric from Toronto. Dean chatting with Ralph from Los Angeles. Cesar chatting to Kev from Edinburgh.

Around this time last year, Cesar and his son Sebastian flew over for the 0-0 draw at home with Everton but due to the complexities of that trip, we were not able to meet up. He was making up for it this time. Cesar just wanted to spend time in an authentic London boozer and “The Eight Bells” fitted this requirement perfectly well. He was knocking back pints of “London Pride” and ordered some fish and chips too. On this visit, he was with his wife and daughter too, but this is where the story travels along a strange tangent. His wife Lucy and daughter Kira are Manchester United supporters – a split family – and were keen to head up to the game at Old Trafford on the Sunday of this footballing weekend. After a few messages across the Atlantic, my good friend Rick, a United season ticket holder, was able to sort out two tickets for them, sitting together, just a few seats away from him via a mate who would not be attending the game.

That, everyone, is what football should be all about.

While Cesar – I’ll just call him Dave – was chatting to myself, his wife and the two children were outside, sitting at the pub’s bench seats on the pavement, along with some friends. Cesar and Lucy had travelled over with a couple, with their two boys, who are not Chelsea but who were with them for the holiday’s duration. Ralph and his wife and their two boys were going to the game too. They were enjoying the London sun. But I felt for them. From Southern California sun to an English winter. But they were wrapped up well.

In the pub, some lads were constantly singing a new song.

“We’ve got Super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

A solid 7/10 from me.

On the CFC website, there had been warnings about Chelsea supporters singing about “Pikeys.”

I’ll be honest; the first time that I had ever heard this word, which references the travelling community, was when we played Gillingham at home in the FA Cup in 2000. In my part of the world – there is a Gypsy camp just outside Frome, on Gyspy Lane no less – we used other words. And to be quite honest, they were always used in an equally derogatory manner. So perhaps it is right that the club has made this statement.

Times change, eh?

The team line up was announced and there were a few gulps.

Arrizabalaga

James – Zouma – Tomori – Emerson

Jorginho

Kovacic – Barkley

Pedro – Giroud – Pulisic

Our collective comments about players on the drive to London were evidently off the mark.

“What Do We Know Part 862.”

Inside the stadium, there was not too much of a London Derby vibe. There were the usual three thousand away fans, but the only public display of club colours that I could spot were on the two West Ham flags draped over the Shed balcony wall. There was the usual predominance of dark coats and navy jackets, with only occasional hints of claret and blue on rare scarves and jackets. And a decidedly similar story in all the home areas but with maybe a few more scarves.

I spotted a new banner on the hotel wall above The Shed. It was of the old Shed, maybe from the mid’- eighties or just after, and a better photo than the blurred image of spectators in The Shed from a similar date that was present until recently.

Flames and fireworks. The teams entered the pitch.

West Ham have a pretty decent home shirt this season, a reference to their 1976/77 shirt which I first remember seeing when they reached the 1976 European Cup Winners’ Cup final, a 2-4 loss to Anderlecht. But I think that the kit would have been improved with crisp white shorts. Anyway, it is better than ours, which hurts me to admit.

The game?

Do I have to?

Hold on to your hats. This won’t be enjoyable.

Admittedly, we began the game in reasonably fine fettle. We dominated the ball. West Ham rarely threatened. There had been an early cross from the left but a stretching Antonio skied his chance well over. Mason Mount, we think, probably shot a little too soon when presented with the ball in a good position on the edge of the box. His effort was tame and debutant David Martin easily saved. Within a few seconds of play we conjured up two efforts on the West Ham goal. Firstly, a cross from Reece James on the right deflected up and struck the near post and then a header from a leaping Kurt Zouma skidded down and wide from the header that followed.

After twenty minutes, Alan commented that West Ham had hardly entered our half, let alone offer a chance to test Kepa in the goal down below us at the Matthew Harding. However, a fine cross from the West Ham right from Fredericks evaded everyone and found the head of that man Antonio. His close header was right at Kepa but our often maligned ‘keeper reacted well to palm it away.

Throughout the first-half, the West Ham fans were constantly yelling about “Chelsea Rent Boys.”

Rent Boys. Pikeys.

I didn’t know whether to be outraged by it all or bored by it all.

At the other end, at The Shed, a hopeful shot from Kovacic bouncing bombed its way through to the West Ham ‘keeper who saved the initial shot and then kept out follow-ups from both Giroud and Pedro.

The first-half sputtered on.

It had decreased in quality as the forty-five minutes progressed. And the atmosphere was just rotten. Kovacic looked busy, but in the way that Arkwright is busy; dusting his shop counter, rearranging his tins of soup, re-writing shop signs and getting Granville to fetch his cloth, but without actually fucking selling anything.

There was an excellent cross from James that was right on the money but it evaded both Giroud and Pulisic. At that moment in time I found myself thinking “the Chelsea of old would have scored that” whether it be via the head of Drogba or the boot of Costa.

Ah, Olivier Giroud – yes I know he did not have much service – but the man hardly moved the entire half. He didn’t seem too keen to test his marker, to create space for others, to give himself to the team. Perhaps he expected it all to be gift-wrapped for him. It was a deeply frustrating performance from him and most of the others. Only James on the right looked up to the task of stretching play.

There was a feeling of “ho hum” at half-time.

Soon into the second-half, a West Ham move developed. I happened to mention “how is Robert Snodgrass still playing for a Premier League team?” when the player moved the ball from wide right into the middle, with West Ham gifted all the space they needed. The ball was pushed out to a raiding Aaron Creswell on their left. I immediately sensed danger.

“Here we go.”

With that, he turned past James way too easily, and slotted a low shot in at the far post.

Chelsea 0 West Ham United 1.

Fackinell.

It seemed impossible that we were behind. It had been a poor game but we had edged the chances, slim that they were. We kept huffing and puffing but did not look at ease in our own skin. From a corner, Kepa had to stretch and keep out a Fabian Balbuena header. It was another excellent save.

For the first time of the entire match, the Matthew Harding got our act together and sang as one. I looked up at the clock.

59 minutes.

Not fucking good enough. We are meant to be supporting Frank this season. But this does mean that we just defend him in discussions at work, among colleagues, with strangers, on the internet, in fucking cyber-space, but it also means that we are meant to support him at games too.

I repeat. Not fucking good enough.

On sixty-three minutes, Frank pulled the strings.

N’Golo Kante for Jorginho.

Willan for Pedro.

There was, however, another catastrophe at The Shed End. A cross from the West Ham right from Snodgrass evaded Zouma and Antonio bundled it home.

Oh bloody hell.

But then we learned that VAR was being used.

A good time for me to use the facilities. Off I trotted.

I heard a loud roar.

No goal.

I did not react.

On returning to my seat, I heard from Alan that there had been a handball.

Fair enough.

With twenty minutes to go, off came Giroud, but instead of Michy Batshuayi, on came Callum Hudson-Odoi.

A definite head scratcher that one, eh?

We were playing a “kinda” false-nine.

Our pre-match chat in the car on the way up had proved fucking worthless.

“What Do We Know Part 863.”

The away fans were still going.

“Come on you Irons.”

The mood around me was getting tetchy, at best, angry at worst. I was saddened to hear a few calling our players by the “C” word.

Sigh.

In truth, we did improve in the last twenty minutes and the industry of Kante was the main catalyst. What a player he is.

But never in the last portion of the game did I feel that we would grab an equaliser. A shot from Callum was hit high. We seemed to be over-stacked with options on the right but Willian and James spent too much time passing to each other rather than launching missiles into danger areas. When balls were played across, false nines and invisible targets were not hit. With each poor pass, the moans increased in volume.

“That helps, eh?”

The last chance of the ninety minutes fell to Pulisic who was set up by Kante, and his first touch seemed to give just the right amount of space to smash the ball in. We got our celebrations tee’d up. Alas his shot mirrored the mood of the afternoon. He slashed it wide.

Five minutes of extra time was signalled. A few people had begun drifting away before then. The extra minutes did not treat us well. We kept going but were met by a resolute wall of claret.

I thought to myself “we have not lost to these at home for ages” and my mind back-peddled. The last time was in fact in September 2002, but I was not present; I was on holiday in the Great Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. I can remember logging on to a friend’s computer to hear that we had lost 3-2. The last game in which I had witnessed a defeat in person against West Ham was the infamous 1-0 “Paul Kitson” game in 1998/99 which was our third and final loss of the season and seemed to feel like the end of our title challenge. In truth, we rallied again but an equally catastrophic 2-2 with Leicester City – “Steve Guppy” – put an end to our title challenge. However, if we had won both of those games, we would still not have been champions, as an inferior goal difference to Manchester United would have proved our undoing.

But 1998/99. Just three losses but no title. It seemed we would never get closer.

I digress.

With over four minutes of the five minutes played, and the ball in our half – and with my camera tucked away in its bag already – Alan, Simon, PD and I edged our way out. For the first time in hundreds of home games, I left before the final whistle, albeit no more than three seconds.

There were grumbles-a-plenty on the descent down to ground level.

Outside, I overheard a young bloke wail “I took a day off for that shit.”

Fucking diddums.

We trotted back to the car; the extra few minutes meant that we were ahead of the curve on getting out of the packed West London streets. I pulled out of Barons Court onto the A4 and I cleared the Chiswick roundabout by 6pm.

The drive home took two hours and was mainly in silence.

Simon and PD periodically snoozed. There was an occasional traffic-jam but I made good time. The M3 was OK despite the partial closure of the M4 – it’s sister road – and it was a relatively clean escape.

All really was quiet.

We knew that we had not played well. There was no need for a huge post mortem.

But my head churned things over as I drove. I searched for some positives.

The aim this season has always been one of sustained growth. And we really should not judge everything on one game, nor possibly even a handful.

I thought some more.

One of the “in” phrases of late is “game management”; the killing of the game in its final period once ahead, or “seeing teams off” as it was known in the days of old.  Frank’s brief all along has been geared to “season management.” I see this as the management of all resources throughout the season to the best of his abilities.

“The long game.”

That was our brief too, right? As fans, to be supportive, to give him time, to lay off the heavy criticism. How often did I see the phrase “I don’t care if we finish tenth this season.”

And yet some fans are throwing the “C” word around in November with us in the top four, comfortably the top six? Do me a favour.

It’s not a one game show this. It has to be about managing the whole season, bringing in players at various times, looking at options, weighing up strengths and weaknesses, assessing each player’s abilities and attributes. It’s simply not about playing the same eleven players every game.

As I drove on, I knew full well that the internet would be full of supporters over-reacting, as is the way of the world these days, and airing self-inflated opinions. Once home, I did not bother delving too deeply into such tripe. It had been a long day. I didn’t need all that.  I simply uploaded some photos of the day – my camerawork was off too, it was one of those days – and then fell asleep, probably just as well, before our game was aired on “MOTD.”

There is a short video which was released by Chelsea Football Club just after the game, pitch side, and in it Frank Lampard spoke about the game.

This was my brief comment :

“For all those having a bit of a moan, listen to the man speak. Valid comments throughout. He will learn from his mistakes. Frank is intelligent and focused, rarely have I been more impressed listening to a football man talk about the game…”

I am already looking forward to the game on Wednesday at home to Aston Villa.

I trust that the club won’t go overboard with the return of John Terry. And I hope that the fans’ reactions strike the right tone.

On we go, on this franktastic journey.

See you there.

 

Tales From Wet Watford

Watford vs. Chelsea : 2 November 2019.

…although I did not watch a single second of the game, I soon learned that England Rugby had mirrored Chelsea Football Club in failing to become World Champions in Yokohama.

There. That’s my first rugby reference for a few years out of the way.

This weekend was all about football. It was all about Watford away. This was an early evening kick-off at 5.30pm. This meant that I didn’t really need to leave at the crack of dawn or the crack of anything for that matter. I picked up PD at 11am and then made my way to collect Parky. All evidence suggested a stunning autumnal morning. For a while – over an hour – the fine weather continued. It was one of those mornings that made driving a pleasure. Bright skies, a sky bursting with differing cloud formations, the fields rimmed with various autumnal hues, leaves on the change. A perfect football day. The slip-up against Manchester United during the week had been confined to the past. The immediate future was all about league points, and away points, which we have regularly amassed since the loss at Old Trafford. We were looking for our fifth consecutive away win in the league.

I stopped for a coffee at the halfway point, Reading Services, but then the rain started. It was a horrible reminder of the previous weekend’s drive to Burnley.

Nevertheless, I was parked-up in our usual spot in Watford at just before 2pm. Unlike the mighty seventy-five games against Manchester United, this was only game number nineteen against Watford, and only my seventh away game, all since 2007, at Vicarage Road. I am a late bloomer when it comes to Watford.

As far as I have worked out thus far, the Hertfordshire town does not offer too much to the football visitor aside from the ridiculously well stocked High Street; many bars and restaurants, cafes and nightclubs sit cheek-by-jowl on this pedestrianised road and we have noted a new shopping centre that has risen at the southern end during our past few visits. We have generally fared well at Vicarage Road but the 4-1 shellacking in 2017/18 still hurts.

Our most famous match at Vicarage Road was – possibly – in 1981/82 (and my match day companion Alan would mention it during the game) when Chelsea supporters were on an away ban yet around three thousand Chelsea showed up, and the local police decided that it would be far wiser to let them all in to the stadium than have them roam around the town centre – pubs closed at three o’clock in those days – for hours on end.

On Tuesday night, it has been decided that Ajax will not be allowed in to Stamford Bridge after previous misbehaviour, but the Watford policy of 1982 will not be followed. We have all been warned to bring along photographic identification with our match ticket prior to entering Stamford Bridge.

They – the Dutch –  shall not enter.

It all seems a bit draconian to me. And with no away fans to stir up some energy and emotion in the stadium, we will probably witness the flattest ever atmosphere for a Champions League home game.

The Watford High Street might well have been crammed with pubs and bars, but we chose our usual hostelry right on the northern boundary. It would be our third visit to “The Horns” and two good friends were waiting for us.

Ollie and Julien, two proud Frenchmen from Normandy, had been in the pub since midday. As soon as I walked in, I welcomed them.

“Bonjour, mes amis.”

They were last with us for a pre-match drink at home to – ironically – Watford last Spring. In fact, the first time that I ever met Ollie, after being Facebook friends for quite a while, was before the Watford away game in 2016/17, just before Antonio Conte got it together with his 3-4-3.

We spent a fine hour and a half in their good company before they had to head off to sort out Julien’s match ticket. We delved back in to Ollie’s personal Chelsea story. I am always pleased to hear from our many overseas’ supporters about their individual journeys. They can be wide and varied. Ollie’s story began in around 1984, listening in to our football on the old Radio Two in his home village in Northern France. He was drawn in with talk of the atmosphere in and around our games, but also he hinted that the rowdier nature of our support beguiled him, as it did many at that time.

I agreed.

“There was an edge to football. It made for a raw atmosphere. But it was also pretty scary at times.”

Olllie’s first Chelsea match was at home to Sheffield Wednesday in August 1989. He just loves the club. And he has some fine credentials. He comes over three or four times every year. He is a familiar passenger on the crossings between Dieppe and Newhaven. We listened intently as he spoke of his deep passion for our club.

I joked with him.

“You are our most famous French fan.”

Tattoos were shown. PD and LP joined in.

Shirts were taken off.

I stepped nervously from one foot to the other.

“OK. Moving on.”

Regardless, it was magical to hear of his Chelsea past.

Conversely, any journey that begins “I started playing as Chelsea on FIFA” is not so well received.

Outside the weather had deteriorated significantly. We watched aghast as new customers entered the busy pub with their outer layers completely drenched. On the twenty-minute walk to Vicarage Road, past pubs teeming with people, we were drenched too. It was as bleak an afternoon that I can remember.

At about 4.45pm we met up with friends from Yeovil and PD’s match ticket was sorted. There were ridiculous rumours floating around about Aston Villa beating Liverpool at home and Southampton winning at Manchester City. Sadly, these games ended up being won by the usual suspects. At least Arsenal dropped points at home to Wolves.

We were inside Vicarage Road good and early for a change. In the same way that it had not seemed possible that it had been ten full months that I had sat at the bar in “The Horns” – on Boxing Day 2018, hanging my coat on the “fighting octopus” beneath the bar, supping a lager – neither did it seem wholly believable that it was ten months that we had all last visited this now familiar away stadium, these same seats too, more or less. It seemed closer, maybe a few months back, not almost a whole year ago. All of these games, these away games, getting joined up – dot to dot – and I wondered how long all of these dots would continue to be joined. If Watford didn’t buck their ideas up, this sequence might not be continued next season.

Out in the ridiculously packed concourse at the top of the away seats, four fans were singing a previously unheard of song that referenced – painfully – David Luiz, Fikayo Tomori and the size of the latter’s manhood.

Good grief.

Thank heavens I never heard it during the game.

The minutes ticked by. Familiar faces everywhere.

“Z Cars” played on the PA, but it seemed out of place. Everton, yes. Watford, no.

The rain was still lashing down as the teams emerged from the Elton John Stand. There were considerable numbers of unoccupied seats in all home areas. As this was the nearest Watford home game to Remembrance Day, we observed a minute of silent appreciation, all players with their arms linked.

I bowed my head.

Sadly, some late arrivals in the away concourse needed to be “shushed.”

Our team lined up as below –

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Zouma – Tomori – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic – Mount

Pulisic – Abraham – Willian

Watford have ditched the yellow and black stripes of last season and now wear yellow and black halves. I like neither.

We began attacking the home end. After just five minutes, we were in rapture. The ball was played back to Jorginho, quite deep, and without so much as a blink of an eye or a break in step, he played a curling, sweeping ball over the heads of a few Watford defenders and – right on the money – in to the path of Tammy Abraham, who was in a dead central location inside the box. Tammy met the ball just before it became within Ben Foster’s reach and he guided it over the Watford ‘keeper and into the now vacated goal. The net rippled. We roared. Tammy raced over to the goal-line in front of the home fans and slid on his knees.

What a bloody pass. What a bloody goal.

The away end roared some more.

The assist from Jorginho, utterly perfect in strength and trajectory, was the pass of the season thus far. And it was warmly appreciated by all. In the Norwich match report, I noted how our passes into the final third were much more varied than the claustrophobic monotony of last season. Here was proof. A ball swung in from deep, the defenders unable to cope, a striker waiting to pounce.

Boom.

It was some goal.

“Oh Tammy, Tammy. Tammy, Tammy, Tammy, Tammy Abraham.”

So, we were 1-0 up early on. Before the game, I had joked with a few mates how we were likely to be treated to another 4-1 or 4-2 away day goal fest. We dominated possession, but on the rare instances that Watford summoned up enough courage to attack us our defence looked in control. In fact, at times our defence looked too calm. I know we like to smother the ball and pass it out, but sometimes our tendency for Kepa, especially, to play balls to defenders who have opponents breathing the same air as them is inviting trouble. Sometimes an agricultural “hoof” up field is quite acceptable.

It really is.

I turned to Alan :

“This new rule about goal kicks being allowed to be played to defenders inside our box. It doesn’t mean that they have to every single time.”

There was a rare Watford poke at goal which was easily saved by Kepa.

Still the rain came down.

“Jorginho. Jorginho. Jorginho, Jorginho, Jorginho.”

Watford are not known for their support and I noted that I had not heard a single shout from their fans all game. Watford are such an inoffensive club. They are the chicken korma of the Premier League.  I waited and waited for a song from them.

I love to see Mason Mount running at defenders – he is so natural – and one such run resulted in a shot on goal. From the block, Tammy pestered the Watford goalkeeper but Foster saved well again. From a corner, a fine leap from Christian Pulisic forced a very fine acrobatic save from a back-peddling Foster.

All this before twenty minutes.

We were loving it.

Out of nowhere came a loud chant from within the travelling two thousand supporters in support of Gianluca Vialli, who is battling cancer. We all joined in.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

He was, of course, manager at Watford for a while after he left us in 2000.

Just in front of us, down towards the corner flag, there was a ridiculous few seconds of showboating between Kovacic and Jorginho. The ball was kept alive with a tantalising medley of flicks and kicks. It paid off, but I had to wonder if that sort of stuff should best be saved for when we are 4-0 or 5-0 up. Regardless, we got away with it.

There was another rare Watford attack, and a low shot from Gerard Deulofeu that whizzed past the far post. In truth, Kepa had been rarely tested.

We watched as Mount wriggled in from the left-wing, hopscotched past challenges, and then whacked a fine shot at goal. But the resolute Watford goalkeeper thwarted us once more, leaping high and touching the goal bound shot onto the bar. He had been, undoubtedly, our first-half nemesis.

I wished that Foster had fucked off to Gloucester in this shower of rain.

Reaching my seat at the end of the interval, I spotted Ollie and he came over to join us in row HH for twenty minutes or so.

Still the rain fell.

Deulofeu ran at our defence early in the second-half and he rolled the ball square to Andre Gray but a brave block by Kurt Zouma – no longer the nervous wretch of the first few games of the season – came to the rescue.

As the game developed along similar lines as the first-half, it seemed that Mateo Kovacic was everywhere; twisting and turning out of trouble, striding confidently with the ball, allowing others to move before passing to their feet. The away crowd soon rewarded this very fine masterclass in midfield dominance.

“Kovacic. In the middle of our pitch.”

Willian burst through the midfield and set up Mount with a perfect pass. Doctor Foster clinically removed the threat with yet another fine save.

Just after, a very similar run from Willian in the same area and the ball was dispatched out to Tammy right in front of us. His low cross into the six-yard box was prodded home by Pulisic. It was another lovely move. Tammy waited for his team mates to celebrate with him. I was pretty lucky to be able to snap away as the players swarmed a mere thirty-feet or so away.

“Ole, ole, ole, ole – Chelsea, Chelsea.”

Lovely.

Fun and games in the way end were then abruptly halted.

“USA. USA. USA. USA.”

No. Just no.

Kovacic, in the middle of his pitch, dribbled forward and set up Pulisic. Another great stop from Foster. We were attacking at will now, with Kovacic himself and then Tammy – twice – going close.

I was still – honestly – waiting for the first Watford chant of the day, as indeed were many more in our support.

“Watford – give us a song. Watford, Watford – give us a song.”

(a quick reality check. I am a fifty-four-year-old man detailing how one set of football supporters were goading another set of football fans into singing support of their team. Is this a reasonable thing to do? All a bit childish, innit? Yep. Guilty.)

With a quarter of an hour to go, how we all wished that Kovacic or Jorginho had “hoofed” the ball away, but instead the “to me, to you” nonsense inside the Chelsea box resulted in a challenge between Jorginho and Deulofeu.

The referee firstly seemed to signal a goal-kick.

Then, a delay.

Then, VAR.

Then, a delay.

It is of my opinion that there should be a twenty-second-time limit on VAR decisions. If nothing can be decided within twenty seconds, nothing is clear, therefore the original decision stands.

We waited.

And waited.

A cure for cancer was found, Parky bought a round, Brexit negotiations reached a conclusion, World poverty was no more, oil companies acknowledged climate change, Lenny Henry was funny again, Israelis and Palestinians signed a peace-pact, Donald Trump said something insightful and Tottenham won a trophy.

Then, a penalty.

A replay – just once – of the “challenge” was shown on the TV screen in the stadium.

The Chelsea crowd were incandescent.

“FUCK VAR. FUCK VAR. FUCK VAR, FUCK VAR, FUCK VAR.”

(a quick reality check…I am a fifty-four-year-old man…is this a reasonable thing to do? All a bit childish, innit? Yep. Guilty.)

Deulofeu rolled it home.

Game…as they say…on.

Despite this lifeline, many Watford fans decided to join those that had already left at 0-2.

Morons.

There was an instance, not long after the Watford goal, when some – many – in our section were shouting for VAR after a decision went against us.

For.

Fuck.

Sake.

The world is full of fucking idiots.

Michy Batshuayi came on for Tammy with two minutes to go, and spun himself in to space, but was thwarted.

Deep in injury-time, a free-kick to Watford was awarded around thirty-five yards out. Foster joined the attackers inside the box. Our nerves were being tested. I was tempted to use my sports-mode setting on my camera, but – always so superstitious – I remembered the United goal last Wednesday.

“Nah.”

The ball was sent in. The ball was flicked on. It found a Watford head – Foster, it had to be him – and the ball was, in my mind, goal bound.

We had fucked it up.

But no. We saw the jade green of Kepa lunge to the left and the ball was spooned away.

Phew.

With that, the referee blew the final whistle.

We had consolidated our place in the top four on top of a pretty pleasing performance.

And then we witnessed one of the highlights of the day. The players came over to thank us for our support and there were smiles aplenty. But all eyes were on Frank Lampard. He walked over, sedately at first, but with each photograph that I took, his emotions took over.

He smiled, he clapped, his eyes twinkled, his smile grew wider, his face was one of pride and joy.

It was – I’ll be honest – quite wonderful.

How good did this all feel?

It felt Franktastic.

NB : No trophies were won by Tottenham.