Tales From Number 686

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 12 November 2022.

There was a moment, not too long ago, when I was looking ahead – but not looking forward – to the enforced break during play in November and December, and I commented to some friends that it was possible for us to be tucked in nicely behind the top two or three teams by the time we played at Newcastle United and for us to then solidify our position in the top four on our return to action after Christmas.

It’s quite likely that this was my opinion after the game in Austria. But look what has happened since. A shocking performance and a heavy defeat at Brighton, a narrow win over Dinamo Zagreb at home, another terrible showing at home to Arsenal, and a loss at Manchester City.

The fixture at St. James’ Park was always going to be a tough one, but it now became even more difficult. We were playing against a team that was now enjoying a real surge in performances and self-confidence, while we were limping along, beset with injury problems, floundering under a new coach, square pegs in round holes, desperate to get to the winter break and with “damage limitation” as a new buzz-word around town.

As the game approached, I would have gambled everything on a dour 0-0 draw, just to avoid the inevitable backlash. The last thing we needed was three consecutive league defeats to take us into almost seven weeks of introspection, self-doubt, worry and possibly decay.

A big game? Oh yes.

It was also a landmark game for me. This would be Chelsea game number 1,372. Now there’s nothing special about that number in itself, but it would mark a special moment in my recent “Chelsea history.”

The first game that I wrote up a detailed account of my match-day meanderings in a regular blog format was the Champions League Final on 21 May 2008. This was game number 687. For those who are half-decent at mathematics, hopefully a few numbers will drop into place. The game at St. James’ Park would exactly split the number of total matches that I have seen into two; 686 games without a blog, 686 games with a blog.

And, as luck would have it, a nice bit of symmetry too; my first game was against Newcastle, the last game would be against them. The added dimension of this moment is that it would come right on the start of the enforced winter break this season.

So, some numbers.

Game 1 : Chelsea vs. Newcastle United, 16 March 1974.

Game 686 : Chelsea vs. Bolton Wanderers, 11 May 2008.

Game 687 : Chelsea vs. Manchester United, 21 May 2008.

Game 1,372 : Newcastle United vs. Chelsea, 12 November 2022.

Let’s get going with match report 686.

I booked flights from Bristol to Newcastle ages ago. I gave myself a little wriggle-room, Friday night to Sunday night. It was a steal; just £60 return. The announcement of a 5.30pm kick-off on the Saturday evening ticked just about every conceivable box available, plus possibly some others that we were not even conscious of.

Three days and two nights in The Loony Toon?

Let’s gan, like.

I worked a 7am to 3pm shift on the Friday and picked up Lord Parky at 3.30pm. Not long into the drive down to Dodge to collect P-Diddy, Lordy realised that he was missing his credit card. I turned my car around and headed back.

We both found it odd that when we called back at his house, his partner Jill looked a little shocked to see us; a full-on marching band with majorettes were parading past, the small close had been decorated with flags and bunting, and there was a street party in full flow.

Jill looked embarrassed.

Parky soon found his credit card.

“Awkward this, Parky. Awkward.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll have words with Jill when I get back from Newcastle.”

I collected PD at 4.15pm, and we then got caught up in some slow moving over traffic over The Mendips but pulled into the Long Stay at Bristol Airport at about 5.15pm.

Check in was easy. A coffee to kill some time.

“You can be sure there will be someone we know on the flight.”

Lo and behold, as we walked towards our departure gate, we spotted the two Andys and Zippy from Trowbridge with Steve from Weston in the bar. I reminded Steve that the first time I had met him was on a return flight from Newcastle in 2015 and we then both caught an onward flight over to Porto a few hours later.

A downer was the £24 we had to pay for our hand baggage.

“EasyJet never charged that for Turin. Bollocks.”

My reputation as a logistical expert was in tatters.

The flight to Newcastle left a little late at 7.30pm but we touched down at Newcastle at 8.10pm, on time. We took a sherbet dab to our apartment in Benwell. Initially, PD was all for a couple of quiet pints in a local pub, but I had already completed some reconnaissance and there was nothing near. Some friends were already plotted up at a pub that we knew so, with a little gentle persuasion from Parky and little old me – I am serious – PD agreed that we would hit the town, er toon.

An hour after touching down on Tyneside, we were in a cab into the city.

What followed was one of the great Chelsea nights. We started in “Rosie’s” under the shadow of St. James’ Park, just two hundred yards away, with friends Gillian, Kev, Rich from Edinburgh and Matt from Perth in Australia, I had met his father Ian in Perth for the Chelsea game in 2018. We were then joined by Al and Daryl who had travelled up by train in the morning and also Steve from Salisbury who had taken a very early flight from Heathrow. Paul, Rob, Dave and Glenn, Jason and Cass joined us, then Andy from Trowbridge and Steve from Weston.

“That’s my fault for tagging where we were on Facebook.”

Paul told me that he had lived on Tyneside for a few years thirty years ago, and had visited family in Hexham on this trip. He admitted that it was the passion and euphoria of being in Newcastle when Keegan was manager that actually re-ignited his love for football and Chelsea in particular. I knew exactly what he meant. Keegan was regarded as a veritable Messiah when he played for them between 1982 and 1984, as detailed this season, and he absolutely re-energised the area when he became manager in 1992. I have told the story here how I accompanied my good friend Pete to three Newcastle away games in 1992/93; local games at Bristol City and Swindon plus a game at Brentford when I was in London for the weekend.

We tumbled down into the Bigg Market and enjoyed a pint or two in a surprisingly quiet “Wunder Bar.” We strode further down the gentle slope and into “Pop World” where I had promised to meet up with Donna and Rachel, newly arrived from Heathrow. Dave – “Rees the Fleece” – was there with a few more faces. More drinks, some sing-alongs, some friendly locals handed us shots and some Jaeger Bombs were inevitably downed. PD and I recreated “One Night In Turin” with some “Baileys” and a fine time was had by all. One of us managed to avoid the clutches of a mad local woman, no names, no pack drill. Not that there’s anything wrong with liaisons with local girls in The Bigg Market, cough, cough.

There was even a “Chelsea, Chelsea” chant towards the end that the locals ignored without incident. I wondered if this was the modern day equivalent of taking an end in the ‘seventies.

We caught a cab back to our digs at just after 2am.

I think.

It’s a bit shady.

Remarkably, there was no hangover on the Saturday morning. We all had a lie in but we were soon moving again. At about 11am, a later start than usual, we assembled together for a breakfast at the ‘Spoons on the quayside. The usual suspects, from the night before, soon joined us. A couple of pints soon rejuvenated me. We trotted along by the river and its bridges to meet up with Alan and Daryl, plus Nick and Robbie, at Akenside Traders which is always a hubbub of activity at any time of the day. The place was awash with Chelsea – too many to mention – and the beers continued. I wasn’t paying any attention to the Manchester City vs. Brentford game on TV, but just happened to watch as Brentford scored a ridiculously easy and ridiculously late goal to give them a superb 2-1 win.

From there, we strolled up to “Colonel Porter’s Emporium” and the merry-making continued. I bumped into Adam and some of his Eastern Blues.

Next, a cab up to St. James’ Park, and the Geordie driver was good value for money. He chatted about the Peter Beardsley and Kevin Keegan years; first as both players in 1983/84, then as player and manager in the “second coming” of the ‘nineties. Beardsley was a quality player. I have written before how I loved his trick, the “leg dangle” mid-dribble to put players off. I have never seen any other player do this.

“Have a good time, lads. But diven’t enjoy it too much, like.”

We caught the lift up to the upper level, and we went our separate ways. I had again swapped my ticket with PD so he could watch with Al, Gal, John and Parky. As ever, there were loads of Rangers in the concourse, but I wished that they didn’t sing their songs. At a Chelsea game? Sing our songs. Ta.

I made my way in. Night, of course had fallen by now. Outside the illuminated steel of the stadium, all was dark. The trip, thus far, had been near perfect, but now – alas – it was time for football to spoil it all.

But first, some history.

My “forty years ago” feature focuses on another away game against a team in black and white stripes and black shorts. On Tuesday 9 November 1982, Chelsea travelled to Meadow Lane for a League Cup tie against Notts County, the oldest professional team in the world who were formed in 1862. Unfortunately, Notts – their supporters call the team “Notts” and recoil at the city’s other team being called “Notts Forest” – beat us 2-0 with both goals being scored in the first-half. The gate was 8,852. At the time, Notts were in the First Division after being promoted at the end of the 1980/81 season.

Their one honour was the FA Cup in 1894. Oh, another claim to fame is that a Notts County supporter provided black and white shirts for Juventus way back in 1903. I must say that I love the fact that Juve chose to christen their new stadium in September 2011 with a friendly against Notts County. Amazingly, Notts drew 1-1. Sadly, the team now play in the National League at level five in the football pyramid.  From Turin to Dorking. What a fall from grace.

The usual routine of games at St. James Park took over.

“Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones.

“Blaydon Races” and I found it difficult to join in beneath my breath, it takes me back to my parents teaching me the words ahead of that first ever Chelsea game in 1974.

“Hey Jude” was a new addition, but we again hijacked it.

The locals had their own version anyway.

“La, la, la – la, la, la, la – la, la, la, la – Geordies.”

There were flags and banners in the Gallowgate. Amid the noise, it really felt like a whole city had been energised.

But first, a solemn moment. A poppy amid a sea of white mosaics, similar to us last week, appeared in the seats in the stand to my left, and the teams stood silent as “The Last Post” played.

Complete silence. Well done to everyone again.

Our team?

Mendy

Koulibaly – Chalobah – Azpilicueta

Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – Kovacic – Hall

Gallagher – Mount

Broja

I had said all along that I doubted that Lewis Hall would maintain his place despite a decent show at Manchester City md-week.

Eddie Howe vs. Graham Potter.

That rarest of match-ups, two young English coaches, both coming from those hot beds of football, Bournemouth and Brighton. Please excuse my cynicism.

The match kicked-off.

The game took a while to get going and there was a verbal war in the stands to take the place of hostilities on the pitch. I was surprised with how quiet it all was in the vast home areas. A lot of my fellow Chelsea fans agreed :

“No noise from the Saudi Boys.”

“Where’s your famous atmosphere?”

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

Sadly, we had to re-jig our square pegs after just seven minutes when Ruben Loftus-Cheek was injured, to be replaced by Thiago Silva with Dave shifting out wide.

Miguel Almiron, the in-form player, volleyed over after a cross from our right, but chances were very few and far between. As we struggled to get into the game, I had a look around. Next to me were three empty seats. A few empty ones behind me too. This was all the more galling since Gillian and Kev had been unable to secure tickets. All of the home areas looked absolutely rammed. This was a very mild night. One chap to my right was just wearing a short-sleeved polo shirt. Maybe he was that rare breed; a Geordie Chelsea fan. I remember I met one once.

A cross from the enterprising Hall found Armando Broja but his turn and shot ended with a simple save for Nick Pope. I bet the Rangers lot hated that.

Newcastle had much of the ball in that first-half but a mixture of poor final balls, dodgy finishing and desperate blocks from us denied them.

This was a poor game. Chelsea chances were at an absolute premium. I would like to say that we eventually grew into the game but we didn’t. At all.

Shite.

At half-time, Christian Pulisic replaced Dave. Did my eyes deceive me? No, Gallagher went to right wing-back. If we all hang around long enough, we’ll all get to play there.

Newcastle continued on the offensive with brave blocks from our defenders, plus a fine save from Mendy from close-in on Chris Wood. A snapshot from Sean Longstaff flew over our bar.

On the hour, a noisy “Carefree” from us. The home crowd were still pretty quiet, the noise levels only increasing when a move developed, the buzz increasing with their players’ penetration of our half. I remember the days when fans used to sing regardless of the action on the pitch.

Then, quite out of nowhere…

“Stand Up If You Love The Toon” and the loudness knocked my socks off.

That was more like it, Newcastle.

On sixty-five minutes, again out of the blue, a strong run from Pulisic ended up with the ball being pushed into the path of Gallagher who took aim and forced a fine flying save from Pope. It was our best chance of the game by a country mile.

With a quarter of the game to go, Almiron ran in from the right-hand touch line and appeared to me to be lining up a shot. The ball, though, fell nicely for Joe Willock, who swept it high past the dive of Mendy and into the goal.

Bollocks.

The home areas exploded.

“E-I-E-I-E-I-O – Up The Premier League we Go.”

We stood, silent, we had no answer.

“One-nil to the Saudi boys.”

Fackinell.

A triple substitution soon followed.

Marc Cucarella for Hall, a decent showing but no more.

Kai Havertz for Mason Mount, I hardly noticed him.

Hakim Ziyech for Armando Broja, another disappointment.

It was a lost cause. In the dying embers of a shocking performance, Mendy was sent into the attacking third to support a corner to no avail. It all got heated and nasty at the end, when a Geordie substitute was booked for interfering when we tried to take a throw-in. Both sets of players had to be separated at the final whistle.

This malicious mood continued after the game when we were exiting the stands, and were met with some posturing home fans underneath the Leazes End. The moment would probably have passed but we then heard the distinctive sound of police horses getting between the two sets of fans, a sight rarely seen these days, and a sound from a darker era.

The immediate post mortem was brutal.

“Fucking shit.”

Three league defeats in a row,

We walked into town amid some baying Geordies, who were quite adamant that they would become champions. I wasn’t so sure, but their euphoria was tangible. “Wunder Bar” was unfeasibly busy now, so we kept walking and walking into the craziness of a Newcastle night. I spotted three local girls, dolled up to the nines, short skirts of course, stop by a street corner and the loudest of the three took a video-selfie.

“We are the Geordies. The Geordie boot boys. For we are mental. For we are mad. We are the loyalest (sp?) football supporters. The world has eva had.”

I had to admre it.

Parky, PD and I returned to the quietness of “Colonel Porter’s Emporium” – more local ladies, lovely – and we darted into the historic “Crown Posada” and who should be in there but Alan and Daryl.

“Of all the pubs in Newcastle, you had to walk into this one.”

We supped a few more. We were all fed up with our performance but equally philosophical too.

Daryl and I spoke about our huge disinterest in the Qatar World Cup, but both spoke about the seminal book “All Played Out” by Pete Davies that detailed England and the 1990 Finals in Italy. The “all played out” of the title refers to the state of the English game going into those finals; antiquated stadia, the lingering stench of hooliganism and racism, out-dated playing and training methods, disinterest in football by the public at large, football as a niche sport loved only by nutters and – the silent majority to be fair – normal supporters, and a game without much of a future.

The tears from Paul Gascoigne changed all that and the game has not been the same since.

“Now it’s us who are all played out with World Cups, mate.”

We kept drinking.

A late-night kebab and chips and then a cab back to Benwell at about 1am. The night was finished.

On the Sunday, we licked our wounds early on. We caught a bus into the city and then a metro out to Whitley Bay, a first time visit for us all, where we enjoyed some sun, a walk along the seafront and some fish and chips in a friendly restaurant. Then, the train back to the airport and a wait until the 8.10pm flight home. No surcharge on the bags this time, phew. I eventually got in at about 11pm.

It had, of course, been a superb time on Tyneside but…

…fackinell, the football.

Some other stuff.

The game at St. James’ Park, pushed my visits to Newcastle United into the top ten of most visited away venues.

  1. Manchester United 26
  2. Liverpool 25
  3. Arsenal 24.
  4. Tottenham 23
  5. Everton 22.
  6. Manchester City 19
  7. Aston Villa 18
  8. Southampton 18
  9. West Ham 15
  10. Newcastle United and Stoke City 14

And in case anyone is wondering, the “won, drawn, loss” breakdown from those 1,372 games is as follows.

Games 1 to 686.

Won 386

Drew 169

Lost 132

Games 687 to 1,372.

Won 410

Drew 128

Lost 147

And, lastly, with 3,390 words for this one, it brings my total “wordage” to 1,734,583.

However, I’m exhausted. I never thought I’d say it, but I think I need this enforced break. And, to be honest, if the viewing figures of the last three match reports are anything to go by, so do you lot.

Have a great Christmas and see you at Stamford Bridge on 27 December for the Bournemouth game.

Tales From Division Two, Serie B And The Champions League

Chelsea vs. Milan : 5 October 2022.

It honestly didn’t seem too long ago that Parky and I had pulled up at a Berkshire pub on the way to a mate’s wedding reception in August. It was here that we were to learn of our fate in this season’s Champions League draw. What with Milan and Inter (never Inter Milan, a moniker that befuddles every Italian; a name that sounds as jarring to them as Everton Liverpool does to us) both partaking in the competition this season, the likelihood of the UEFA Gods allowing me the chance to – at last – see Chelsea at the San Siro was a little stronger than normal. Much to my pleasure we were drawn in the same autumnal group as Milan. My wish had come true. And now here we were; on the cusp of two games against the rossoneri in less than a week.

It also, really, didn’t seem that long ago since our first ever game – if you dismiss the qualifier against the now defunct Skonto Riga – in the Champions League against Milan in September 1999.

But let’s go further back than this.

Our paths first crossed in UEFA’s Inter-Cities Fairs Cup competition in 1965/66. In the first game in Milan on 9 February 1966, Milan defeated Chelsea 2-1 at a game that only attracted 11,000 at the San Siro. This low gate has always surprised me. I found out this week why it was so low; it was played on a Tuesday afternoon due to the threat of fog in the evening. In the return match at Stamford Bridge a week later, over 59,000 – that’s more like it – assembled to witness a game that ended 2-1 too. This match was notable for producing the largest income from the gate that the club had ever experienced. It was also the first game that any British club had produced a programme with colour photographs. In those days, there was no “away goals count double” after a tied aggregate over both games, nor even extra-time after the second one. Instead, a third game play-off was used. Milan “won” the venue on the toss of a coin and so both teams reassembled at the San Siro on 2 March. This game ended 1-1 in front of a more reputable 40,000.  The teams still couldn’t be split. In the end, and as ridiculous as it now seems, the passage into the quarter final stage was decided by another coin toss. On this occasion, Ron Harris chose correctly and Chelsea advanced.

On the drive up to London in PD’s car, Parky wondered if Chopper had used a double-headed coin and we all had a little chuckle.

With Chelsea meticulously avoiding European competition entirely from 1971 to 1994, the thoughts of playing games against such an elite club as Milan would have been thought of as mere folly. Way back when we were in the old Second Division in two spells, such encounters were off the radar, another world away.

In 1998/99 we finished third and thus entered the following season’s Champions League. Our match at home to Milan, twenty-three years ago, is remembered with deep affection indeed. Although the match ended as a 0-0 draw, it was the most entertaining goalless game that I can ever remember seeing. But the thing that I recollect most was the heightened sense of occasion that we all experienced on that evening in SW6.

I remember getting to the ground early and waiting by the players’ entrance to see if anyone famous was loitering around. My diary, sadly, notes that the only person that I saw of note was Des Lynham. Alan and I got in early to pin my “VINCI PER NOI” banner on the wall at the back of the Matthew Harding Upper. I watched alongside Alan in the same seats that I would be watching the same two teams in 2022.

That Milan team included such Italian greats as Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta and Demetrio Albertini, plus the imported strikers Andriy Shevchenko, newly-acquired from Dynamo Kiev that summer, and Oliver Bierhoff.

The Milan players that night wore a shirt with thin red and black stripes – how ‘sixties – and this was met with my approval. I wasn’t a fan of the black shorts and socks though.

Milan always wore red and black striped shirts with crisp white shorts and white socks. In my eyes, it was a classic kit, so clean, so fresh. I especially liked the Kappa kit from the Gullit, Rijkaard and Van Basten era with Mediolanum as the sponsor. I am sure we can all remember Gullit, on joining us, saying how much he loved playing in kits with white socks. I was always the same; it always looked good. Maybe it was my Chelsea bias.

What Milan were doing in black shorts and socks that season is the stuff of nightmares. However, they were not the only giants playing silly buggers at that time.

I loved the kits of the top three Italian teams in the ‘eighties and further back.

Milan : red and white striped shirts, white sorts, white socks.

Inter : blue and black striped shirts, black shorts, black socks.

Juventus : black and white striped shirts, baggy white shorts, white socks.

I had seen Juve versus Fiorentina in Turin in the May of 1999 and the sight of them playing with black shorts and black socks just did not seem right; in fact, it looked atrocious.

Ah, that match in 1999 was wonderful. Our team was jam packed with crowd favourites such as Dennis Wise, Gus Poyet, Gianfranco Zola, Marcel Desailly, Dan Petrescu and we paraded new signing Didier Deschamps. My diary from 1999 notes that Zola, the little maestro, hit a post and Bierhoff a bar – “similar to Peacock, ’94 Cup Final – and that it was “a superb night of football.”

The return leg, in late October 1999, is of course the stuff of legend, and inspired one of the most well-loved chants of the modern era. I am still gutted – traumatised – that I wasn’t there to witness it. I was on the wrong shift at work and unable to switch.

I hoped that my time would come again. Seeing Chelsea at the Giuseppe Meazza is right up there.

There had been, incidentally, a mid-season friendly at the San Siro in February 1997 – a 2-0 Milan win – that a few die-hards attended.

Since those days, the two clubs have met but only in a raft of pre-season matches in the United States. Milan are, surely, Chelsea’s most frequent opponent in such tours.

The seven games are listed here.

2 August 2004 : Chelsea 2 Milan 3 – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

24 July 2005 : Chelsea 1 Milan 0 – Foxborough, Massachusetts.

31 July 2005 : Chelsea 1 Milan 1 – East Rutherford, New Jersey.

24 July 2009 : Chelsea 2 Milan 1 – Baltimore, Maryland.

28 July 2012 : Chelsea 0 Milan 1 – Miami, Florida.

4 August 2013 : Chelsea 2 Milan 0 – East Rutherford, New Jersey.

4 August 2016 : Chelsea 3 Milan 1 – Minneapolis, Minnesota.

I was lucky enough to attend three of these.

The game in 2005 at Giants Stadium wasn’t particularly enthralling, but I was able to witness Didier Drogba’s goal at close hand. The main Chelsea supporter section was up the other end. Milan then equalised. I must admit it felt special to be touring the US with the reigning English Champions. This was a fine weekend for me. New York Yankees on the Saturday, Chelsea on the Sunday. Perfect.

The match in 2009 at the Baltimore Ravens’ NFL stadium was probably the best quality match of the seventeen that I have seen in the US. Unfortunately, I was still waiting outside for a friend to arrive at the start and thus missed Drogba’s fine opening goal. A Yuri Zhirkov goal gave us a 2-1 win after Milan equalised. For many, Baltimore was a high water mark of our many US “summer seasons.”

The encounter in 2016 was the first sporting event to take place at the state-of-the-art Minnesota Vikings NFL stadium. This was another decent game. Bertrand Traore scored for us but Milan equalised. However, two late goals from Oscar gave us a fine 3-1 win in a game that marked N’Golo Kante’s first outing in Chelsea colours.

Back to 2022.

We were parked up as early as 4.20pm. It was time for another act in the Chelsea and Milan story.

There was a fair bit of time to kill. I had a wander. I chatted to the usual suspects at Steve’s programme stall and Marco’s “CFCUK” stall. I didn’t mind admitting that I was a little fearful going into the evening’s game. We had amassed just one point out of six and now faced the two hardest games of the group in quick succession.

“Deep down, we need four points from the Milan games but this will be a tough, tough ask.”

I popped in for a pie and chips on Fulham Broadway, then met a few more of the even-more-usual suspects at “Simmons” which was quiet when I walked in at 6pm. It grew busier but not with the football set. Instead, there were young Londoners on a night out. I bumped into a chap from Louisiana, quite by chance, who had been at the Palace game on Saturday.

The music blared. I supped a couple of pints. In the back of my head I was still fearful of getting turned over.

We all set off in good time to reach our seats by about 7.30pm.

The ground slowly filled. There didn’t seem to be anything like the sense of occasion that had accompanied the game in 1999. However, the “half-and-half” scarf grafters on the Fulham Road had evidently done quite a trade. I don’t think I have ever seen quite so many scarves. Most, it saddened me to see, were folded with the red of Milan visible. I presumed that there would be around 3,000 from Lombardy in the designated away section, but knew that there would be other Milan fans dotted around.

The team was announced.

Kepa

Kouilbaly – Silva – Fofana

James – Kovacic – Loftus-Cheek – Chilwell

Mount – Aubameyang – Sterling

It looked a decent set-up.

The Milan team of course included former Chelsea players Olivier Giroud and Fikayo Tomori, plus their big hope Rafael Leao.

The Milanese – a good many had been plotted up at Earl’s Court – were now beginning to make some noise. Their flags were out. The boys of the Curva Sud were ensconced in the southern end at Stamford Bridge, though the twin tiers of The Shed must have felt miniscule compared to the towering tiers at the San Siro.

A certain song was heard before the kick-off…

…”in the San Siro, with ten minutes to go.”

I remember watching the highlight’s on a mate’s TV in a portakabin – the traffic office – where I worked at a warehouse in Trowbridge, not knowing the result, but celebrating wildly when Wisey scored. The portakabin was rocking that night in deepest Wiltshire.

The teams arrived on the pitch. I still miss that walk to the West Stand across the pitch; that added drama.

The players soon lined up.

The anthem.

The players broke but were then called in so the pour souls who lost their lives in Indonesia recently could be remembered in silence. Again, Kepa had to race from his goal mouth to make the start. The minute’s silence was meant to commence with the referee’s whistle, but there wasn’t one. By now, the crowd were stood in complete silence. After a good few seconds the referee’s whistle blew. With that, the home fans began singing “Chelsea” while the players looked befuddled. I didn’t know what was going on. It was the most poorly executed silence I had ever seen.

Milan were in white shirts with a slight red trim, white shorts and black socks. At least they were in their club colours. Seeing Milan in bright orange, dayglow green or a jarring yellow just would not have seemed right.

Milan had the best of the opening five minutes with a couple of free kicks being swung in from their left. I immediately liked the look of Leao. We coped well with defending these and then built our presence as the game developed.

On just five minutes, a super move. Silva to Aubameyang to Mount, and a fine save from distance by the Milan ‘keeper Ciprian Tatarusanu.

The Milanisti were in fine voice.

“Forza Meelan ale ale, Foraza Meelan ale ale, Forza Meelan ale ale, ale ale ale.”

There was a magnificently-timed slide by Silva to rob a Milan attacker on the half-way line. I wish we had seen him earlier in his career. I had seen him in Baltimore in 2009 playing for Milan; if only we had picked him up at that time.

The defender then rose well at a Chelsea free-kick from Mount on our right to force a fine save by the Milan goalkeeper. Soon after, his diving header at goal from a corner on our left caused all sorts of panic and mayhem in the Shed End goalmouth. Milan never seemed to be in a position to clear the ball and, to this observer at least, a goal seemed on the cards. There were a few stabs at the ball, but after a some swipes, a Chelsea leg – and boot – tucked it home.

GET IN.

Chelsea 1 Milan 0.

The Stamford Bridge crowd roared.

Wesley Fofana had pushed it home.

Huge celebrations.

That anticipation of the goal was magical. I just knew we’d eventually put it away.

Alan : “like a goal in weekly parts.”

Chris : “love that mate, that’s going in the blog.”

Alan : “be even better if it had been scored by a player called Marshall Cavandish.”

Bloody hell, despite my pre-match fears we were 1-0 up. We really grew in confidence and dominated the rest of the half. On the half-hour, I wondered if Giroud had even touched the ball. A shot from Mount was deflected wide. There was a fine move and an even finer lob from Mount but the goal was disallowed for offside.  Sadly, Fofana was injured and fell to the floor twice. On the second occasion, he did not recover and was replaced by Trevoh Chalobah on thirty-eight minutes.

I was very happy with all this. We were absolutely dominating play and the away team had not carved out a single effort on goal. With a few minutes remaining in the half, Leao produced a powerful run between two defenders down below but was beautifully shepherded out by Chalobah.

There was a strong run from Sterling but it came to an anaemic ending as a block halted his shot. We all wondered why he hadn’t shot earlier. Then, just before the break, the best attack of the half from the away team. There was another strong run from Leao but the resulting shot from Charles de Ketalataere was blocked and the rebound was slashed over by Rade Krunic.

All was well at the break, then. There were happy faces all around.

Apart from, well it pains me to say it, the atmosphere was pretty poor. I am not sure if this was because many of the usual match-goers had decided to give it a miss. The tickets were only £35. Maybe the mix of spectators had caused it. I always note a far more cosmopolitan crowd – dare I say the word “tourists”? – at European games. The only section of the crowd that was bothering were the Milan fans in the far corner.

Sigh.

Modern football, eh?

The second-half began. By now I was chatting away to a young Chelsea fan from Kent – hello Jack, hope you like the blog – and he seemed to be pretty knowledgeable about modern tactics and the strengths of our players. But then it made me a bit misty-eyed for the days when our collective understanding of tactics – no “high press”, no “low block”, no “between the lines” in 1999 – was not that great but we just used to sing our hearts out and get behind the team.

Another sigh.

There was a very optimistic overhead kick from near the edge of the box from Trevoh Chalobah that didn’t bother anyone. I was reminded of a chant that my mate Tommy from LA invented for Trevoh’s brother Nathaniel at the Milan game in Minneapolis in 2016.

To the tune of “she fell over!“ :

“He’s Chalobah!”

It has potential, eh?

We were dominating everything about this game. On fifty-six minutes, Ben Chilwell was in acres of space but his cross was too long, laughably so. Not to worry, the loose ball was collected by Reece James who sent over an inch-perfect cross into the six-yard box. Tomori tangled his limbs and Aubameyang struck from close in.

GET IN.

Chelsea 2 Milan 0.

There was a summersault from the scorer that was just too quick for me. He loved that goal and so did we. At last a poacher. Hallelujah.

I turned to Jack :

“It was if Chilwell thought to himself” –

“Well I can’t cross a ball but let’s give it to a bloke who can.”

Not long after, a slide-rule pass from the excellent Sterling found Reece on the overlap. There was a touch to move the ball onto his right peg. At this stage, I again knew a goal was coming. I love those moments.

BOSH.

Chelsea 3 Milan 0.

What noise now.

“Reece James. He’s one of our own.”

Stamford Bridge was temporarily on fire.

Phew.

The rest of the game? Not sure. I think I was just too surprised to take it all in.

I turned to Jack : “I suppose in some ways we will honestly feel a bit cheated if we don’t score another one.”

Some substitutions followed.

Jorginho for Kovacic.

Gallagher for Aubameyang.

Havertz for Mount.

Broja for Sterling.

All was good in the world. Well, apart from the noise which soon reached its old levels after the burst of energy and commotion that followed the second and third goals.

Only sing when we are winning?

Yep.

Even in the last seconds, the Milan lot were still singing, still bouncing up and down, still putting on a show.

At the completion of the game, the PA played “One Step Beyond” and even that was met with a muted reaction.

What a comparison

1999 : no goals but surely a bristling atmosphere.

2022 : three goals yet a muted atmosphere.

Another sigh.

To complete this Chelsea and Milan history lesson, let’s look at 1982/83 once again.

On Saturday 2 October 1982, Chelsea beat Grimsby Town 5-2 at Stamford Bridge. This game was watched by another 10,000 crowd and the scorers were David Speedie with another two goals and also Micky Droy, John Bumstead and Mike Fillery. We were unbeaten at home with two wins and two draws.

On Sunday 3 October, Milan played an away game at Campobasso, not so far from Naples. The surprising thing here is that this match took place in Serie B after the once mighty Milan team, European Cup winners in 1963 and 1969, had been relegated for the second time in three seasons in 1981/82. They won 2-0 and the only “stranieri” – foreigner – in the squad (Italian teams were allowed only one, how times change) was Joe Jordan, who nabbed one of the goals. Milan’s 1982/83 season ended more gloriously than ours. They were promoted as champions and have not been relegated since.

Grimsby, Campobasso.

Fackinell.

We made our way back to the car and PD made good time on the return to our little part of the Chelsea Kingdom. I reached home at around 1.30am.

See you on Saturday against Wolves.

1999.

2005.

2009.

2016.

2022.

Tales From A Long Day At The Start Of A Long Month

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 1 October 2022.

My alarm sounded at 6.45am.

Good morning universe.

Here I was, here we were, back in action after an enforced lay-off. Our last game was the home match with Salzburg some seventeen days ago. Yet in this new month of October we faced nine games in just twenty-nine days. The plan will be to try and attend all of them. We were to begin this manic month with a trip to Selhurst Park for a game with Crystal Palace.

My weekend had begun with yet another concert – my sixth in a summer and autumn of music – that involved an act that was around in 1982. On Friday, I saw Toyah perform at the local venue in Frome.

She had opened the set with “Good Morning Universe” and it was stuck in my mind as I drove home after the concert. And it evidently remained in my ahead until the next morning too.

Toyah was a huge name in the UK music scene from 1980 to 1982, but her stardom soon drifted. I had seen her perform to a pretty small crowd in Frome back in 2015, but her popular “Sunday Lunch” videos with husband Robert Fripp, since lockdown in 2020, have put her back into the public eye once again. For someone who is sixty-four, her show was full of energy. I enjoyed it. The venue was packed.

There was always a slight resemblance between Toyah and my first-ever girlfriend from the summer of 1982. Although I did not dwell too much on it at the time, it later dawned on me that Toyah had a lisp, and that my girlfriend had the slightest of lisps too. I was always so delighted that Toyah’s determination to overcome a speech impediment allowed her to fulfil her career path. Forty years on, my own speech impediment still rears its very ugly head at unsuspecting moments and I hate it now as I fucking hated it then.

As I watched the singer on stage in Frome, my mind kept catapulting me back to summer and early autumn some four decades ago.

Here comes another seamless slide into 1982/83.

My reflective look at “the worst season of them all” continues with two Second Division games from forty years ago.

On Saturday 18 September, Chelsea played Oldham Athletic at Stamford Bridge. This game was notable as marking the debut of firebrand striker David Speedie who we had acquired from Barnsley for £80,000 in the previous May. I honestly cannot remember why his first start was delayed. The new boy got off to a flier, scoring two with a goal in each half. The attendance was 10,263. I remember being disappointed with this gate but philosophical too. In those days, such a gate was often reached by a few of the smaller clubs in the then First Division. My diary noted that I was “pleased that we thrashed Oldham 2-0” and I doubt that I was being ironic. A win, any win, in those forlorn days was definitely a thrashing. Trust me.

A week later, Chelsea travelled up to Hillsborough to play Sheffield Wednesday, who were always one of the bigger and more-fancied sides in the division at that time. The team remained unchanged from the Oldham game. The youngster Steve Francis in goal. A back four of Micky Nutton, Gary Chivers, Micky Droy and Chris Hutchings. A midfield of Mike Fillery, John Bumstead, Tony McAndrew and Paul Canoville. The striking partnership of Colin Lee and David Speedie upfront. The new season’s starting striker Pop Robson was already – ominously – relegated to a substitute role. A pretty decent attendance of 18,833 assembled for this game. Sadly, the home team went ahead after just twelve minutes and scored two more goals in the second period before two late Chelsea strikes from Fillery and Lee probably gave the result a much closer ending than it deserved.

I can confirm that I was at home that afternoon, listening to the score updates on Radio Two, because I can remember what was happening elsewhere at other games in England on that particular afternoon. It turned out to be a Saturday for the record books. As always, the striking music that heralded “Sports Report” at five o’clock, followed by the measured tones of James Alexander Gordon as he read out the day’s results, was the highlight of the afternoon. The Scot’s raising or falling intonation would allow the listener to know the result even before the scores were completed. He was a master of his craft.

“Sheffield Wednesday – rising – three, Chelsea – falling – OH SHIT WE’VE LOST – two.”

On this particular day, throughout the Football League, it was raining goals. We have not witnessed the like of it in English football ever since. The First Division led the way. In its eleven games, a mammoth fifty goals were scored.

Aston Villa 2 Swansea City 0

Brighton 1 Birmingham City 0

Coventry 4 Everton 2

Liverpool 5 Southampton 0

Manchester United 0 Arsenal 0

Norwich City 1 West Brom 3

Notts County 0 Ipswich Town 6

Stoke City 4 Luton Town 4

Tottenham 4 Nottingham Forest 1

Watford 8 Sunderland 0

West Ham 4 Manchester City 1

Meanwhile, in Division Three, Doncaster Rovers walloped Reading 7-5 at home. However, one Reading player scored four and still ended up on the losing team. His name? Kerry Dixon.

Chelsea’s start to the new campaign had been fair-to-middling. Nothing more. After seven league games, we had won two, drawn three and lost two. It was hardly inspiring stuff from a team that had finished in twelfth position the previous season. But they were my team, my club, and I loved them dearly. On the near horizon was a trip to Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea play Leeds United and, even forty years later, the thrill of the anticipation of that match still resonates.

As I have often documented, a trip to Crystal Palace’s stadium, deep in the hinterlands of South London, is always a troublesome one. I had been monitoring the best way in for a few days and all of the technical aids at my disposal were adamant that after collecting PD and Glenn, and finally, Lordy, the quickest route would be along the M4. So, this was what I did. Lordy was picked-up at 8.30am, but on nearing Swindon, our world caved in. There was a diversion ahead and so I was forced first south and then north of the motorway along smaller roads. It probably cost us an hour.

At Reading Services, I reset my sat-nav and it was sending me right into the heart of London rather than around the M25.

I drove on.

The route in was familiar. It took me along the A4, up to the junction with the North End Road, past those familiar Chelsea match day pubs. It even took me along Lillee Road, only a few yards from where I normally park for home games. But then, with the realisation that the national train strike had forced thousands onto the road network, our plans were hit hard again. Our slow drive through Fulham took the best part of an hour. We were not aided by some very slow changing temporary traffic lights just before Wandsworth Bridge. Eventually, around five-and-a-half bastard hours after leaving sleepy Somerset, we were parked up at my JustPark spot on Woodville Road with the massive TV pylon that dominates that hilly part of South London clearly visible yet still over two miles away. This huge structure was the tallest in London until as recently as 1990. We had given up on getting a drink before the game, but as we headed towards the already overflowing “Prince George”, we spotted a few friends drinking on the pavement outside a small jerk chicken café. We crossed the road to join them.

Rachel from Devon and Donna from Somerset were there. Rob from South West London was there, but without his mate Bob who was in Somerset watching his local team Waltham & Hersham in the FA Cup against Taunton Town. He has evidently reached that key stage – “local non-league team over Chelsea” – before me but I know that time will come for me too.

Drinks were guzzled. A blue flare was let off on the pavement outside the pub opposite. PD and Parky shot off to collect a ticket. Glenn and I set off just before 2.30pm to sort out tickets too.

By 2.40pm, I was in the queue for the Arthur Wait.

“Makes a bloody change to get to a game at Selhurst Park and it’s not pissing with rain.”

There was the usual bag check. While I waited in line, I spotted a listing of “prohibited items” on a poster next to the turnstile. Featured was an image of a camera with a “detachable lens” and the cold sweats came on. I had memories of the last encounter with Crystal Palace, at Wembley, and we all know how that ended. Thankfully, my camera was allowed in.

I shuffled through the packed concourse.

Selhurst Park. If it didn’t exist, you’d have to invent it.

However, for all of its cramped inefficiencies, people would soon lament its passing should it ever be replaced by a single-tiered stadium – “soul-less bowl” is the go-to phrase, eh? – either on the same site or elsewhere.

Each stand is different. Opposite our viewing area is the main stand, an Archibald Leitch original, eerily similar to the Johnny Haynes Stand at Fulham, and thus, the old East Stand at Stamford Bridge. To the right, the slight tier of seats of the Whitehorse Lane Stand, with ugly executive boxes above. In the corner between the two stands is the platform where Bex and his cohorts appeared in the original “The Firm” film from 1989. To the left, the steep two-tiered Holmesdale Road Stand, with its curved roof, a throwback to the Edwardian era but the newest of all the current stands. The Arthur Wait Stand was once all standing, and it remains a dark and brooding beast of a stand. The three thousand Chelsea fans, as always, were to be based here, though this hasn’t always been the case. The sightlines aren’t great. In fact, with my position in row eight, down low, I soon decided early on to try not to snap too many photos since my view of the game would be so poor.

A few friends spoke of similarly difficult journeys to the stadium. As kick-off approached, I spotted many clusters of empty seats in the home stands. Palace surely have a more local fan base than us, but I suppose the train strike must have had an adverse effect on numbers. It is a pet peeve that not all attendances are published either online or in the Sunday ‘papers these days. It has all changed after all of those games without fans in the nightmarish seasons of 2019/20 and 2020/21. Not even Chelsea’s home programme includes attendance figures anymore. So, maybe we’ll not know the official attendance for a while, anyway.

This annoys the fuck out of me.

My spreadsheet has half-empty columns.

And what is a world with half-empty columns, eh?

Kick-off approached. The teams entered from that far corner. It suddenly dawned on me that we would be wearing that God-awful away strip. Overhead, there were clouds but there was no hint of rain. I was glad that a rain jacket was left back in the car. I was wearing a subtle-coloured Marc O’Polo sweatshirt; an homage to one I that bought in 1986 or so when that particular brand was much-loved by football fanciers at the time. If the 1986 version was apple green, this one was more mint.

There was a minute of silence in remembrance of Queen Elizabeth II and this was followed by a hearty rendition of “God Save The King.”

This, of course, was Graham Potter’s first league game in charge.

In a “Costa Coffee” on the walk to the stadium, I had briefly spoken to fellow-fan Andy about the switch.

“Is Potter an upgrade on Tuchel?”

I just shrugged my shoulders, unsure.

The game kicked-off and it was clear that we were playing four at the back.

Kepa

James – Fofana – Silva – Chilwell

Jorginho – Kovacic

Then God knows what…

Sterling – Havertz – Aubameyang – Mount

From my position down low, it wasn’t clear.

The game began and we dominated the first – er – seven, count’em, minutes. Thiago Silva was our main pass master, touching the ball often, and looking to play balls in to others. However, the home team had hardly touched the bloody ball when Wesley Fofana gave up possession too easily and the ball quickly found Jordan Ayew. I watched in horror as his perfectly whipped-in cross dropped perfectly at the foot of Odsonne Edouard and Kepa was beaten. Sadly, I caught this goal on camera, but thankfully the image is too blurred for my stringent quality assurance department to allow it to be shared.

It was a killer cross. But where was our defence? Answers on a postcard.

Michael Olise impressed me with his direct play in front of me, but it was Eberechi Ebe who then forced Kepa into action.

With a quarter of an hour gone, we had no attempts on target. Then, an easy header looped up easily into Vicente Guaita’s reach.

Gal was getting annoyed with Aubameyang, though to be fair, the striker had not received much service. It’s difficult when players from rivals find themselves at Stamford Bridge. I know full well that I am going to find it hard to warm to Aubameyang. Is it irrational? Who knows? Gal, from his words – that were certainly annoying the bloke behind me – it will be longer for him to approve of the former Arsenal striker.

Put it this way, at this moment in time, Gal rates Mark Falco more than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

There was a header from Mason Mount that flashed wide of the near post.

Halfway through the first period, I leant forward to chat to Calvin : “this is all a bit boring mate.”

Sterling hit the base of a post but I think the move was offside anyway, as was another that quickly followed.

This was hardly inspiring stuff.

The sun was out by now and it was surprisingly hot on this October afternoon.

The central section of around four hundred of their “ultras” – yeah, I know – were now jumping up and down to a chant that was so loud that I couldn’t hear it.

They looked like they were doing some sort of silent flash mob thing.

Bless’em.

(I know they are doing their best to get the atmosphere going, God knows we need it in this bloody country, and they are easy targets…but why just can’t people get behind their teams without this fucking contrived nonsense?)

In their defence, they did produce a few banners in the first-half about the lack of fan involvement in our national game but I am not sure who this was aimed at.

I hope there are similar banners throughout Europe as we rush headlong into the monster of the Qatar World Cup.

There next followed some confusion and more than a little worry. One on one, Silva appeared to hold back Ayew. The defender was booked. VAR then signalled a possible red card. Having not seen the apparent swipe of the ball by Silva’s hand, this was all a bit difficult to work out. Anyway, panic over, no red card.

“Think we got away with that” I said to John, two seats along.

With around ten minutes of the first half remaining, a fine move brought us some cheer. A diagonal found the leap from Silva – strangely well-advanced – and his header found Aubameyang. His quick turn, a swivel, and a shot was exquisite.

GET IN.

The bloke behind might well have ruffled Gal’s hair.

I am sure it wasn’t, but it felt like Aubameyang’s first touch.

It certainly seemed to me that it was an unlikely goal. Unsuspected. Out of the, er, blue.

Chelsea roared : “How shit must you be? Our number nine scored.”

In the closing moments of the half, a back-pass to Gaita was punished with a direct free-kick inside the box. More anguish from the under-performing Mount as his shot cleared the near post. There had been a lovely loose run from Havertz, drifting with ease, past several defenders and I was prepared to celebrate one of the great goals but the shot drifted wide of the far post.

There was time for a quick photo-call with Lordy at half-time.

Soon into the second-half, Potter replaced Jorginho with Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

His slow trudge across the pitch suggested to me – maybe it was just me, I am sure it was – that he realised that he had eventually been found out.

We had a couple of half-chances as the game continued; Chilwell over, a shot blocked from Havertz. Sterling was as lively as anyone, but our link-up play was a little too laboured for my liking, and the away crowd was getting a little frustrated.

As for the defenders, James was the star. I hardly noticed Wilfred Zaha at all.

An upturn in our form was mirrored in the Arthur Wait.

“On when the blues go steaming in, oh when the blues go steaming in, I want to be in that number, oh when the blues go steaming in.”

“Oh when the blues.”

“Oh when the blues.”

“Go steaming in.”

“Go steaming in.”

“I want to be in that number, oh when the blues go steaming in.”

“Oh when the blues.”

“Oh when the blues.”

“Go steaming in.”

“Go steaming in.”

“I want to be in that number, oh when the blues go steaming in.”

It was deafening. Top work everyone.

This was followed by an equally loud “Ten men went to mow.”

Lovely stuff.

With twenty minutes, two superb saves from Kepa, foiling Zaha on both occasions.

On seventy-six minutes, a double switch.

Conor Gallagher for Havertz.

Armando Broja for Aubameyang.

The play creaked along.

A look towards Alan.

“Shite, mate.”

He nodded.

I spent some moments preparing an epitaph to post on “Facebook” at the final whistle.

On eight-five minutes, a final substitution.

Christian Pulisic for the poor Mount.

The epitaph was nearing completion.

“That was a hard watch. Milan must be quaking in their boots. At least Frome Town won.”

Just at that moment, maybe two seconds later, a sideways push of the ball from Pulisic to Gallagher.

A touch, a shot.

I watched the ball fly into the goal despite what looked like a valiant attempt by Guaita to claw it over. His fingertips could not deny us a goal.

I roared.

The away end roared.

Fackinell.

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

Chris : “come on my little diamonds.”

For the second time in eight months, a last minute goal at Selhurst Park had sent us into a frenzy.

At the final whistle, Gal and his nemesis – at it like hammer and tongs in that feisty encounter in the first-half – embraced with smiles.

I thought to myself : “get a room, lads.”

This was a fortuitous win, no doubt. I am not going to enthuse too much about it. I have to say that I am particularly worried about our two games against Milan over the next week or so, but I am filled with a huge sense of anticipation too.

Maybe not as much as the Leeds game in 1982 but you catch my drift I am sure.

In reality, more than a few friends have admitted that if we do drop into the Europa League, at least we might get some good trips out of it.

“The final is in Budapest” Calvin had reminded me.

But it’s just the fear of getting humiliated against Milan that I fear most. Nobody wants that. They should be two huge games. I honestly can’t wait.

With traffic locked, we popped into a cheap and cheerful “Chicken Cottage” – they evidently love their chicken in around Selhurst Park – to let the flow ease up a little and eventually left Thornton Heath at 6.15pm. Via another diversion on the A303, I eventually reached home four hours later.

I had picked PD up at 8am. I had dropped him off at 10pm.

Just in time for “Match of the Day.”

Just right.

Next up, one of the Italian greats.

Chelsea versus Milan at Stamford Bridge.

I’m off to practice some Italian swear words.

See you on Wednesday evening.

Postscript :

The BBC recently took the shocking decision to drop the reading out of all of the classified football scores on Radio Five Live at five ‘clock every Saturday.

Words fail me.

Tales From The Damned United

Leeds United vs. Chelsea : 21 August 2022.

We had to wait around eighteen years to attend a league game at Elland Road and we were then able to visit it twice in just shy of fifteen weeks.

Our last away game of 2021/22 and our second away match of 2022/23?

OK, so be it.

Let’s go to work.

In May, it was all rather rushed; a hard slog on the motorways of England after a half-day at work, and a quick meet-up at the pub before disappearing inside to witness a pretty decent night of football in front of the Leeds hordes.

This time was a little more relaxed. I was up at 5.45am and collected PD at 7am and then LP at around 7.20am. I stopped twice en route but arrived in the car park of “The Drysalters” on the Leeds ring road at 11.15am. The 240 miles had been covered in just four hours of driving. I was happy with that. The pub was allegedly scheduled to open at midday but it was already serving pints when we arrived. I soon spotted a couple of Chelsea acquaintances. Within a short time, the place was mobbed with both home and away supporters. It felt odd to be back so soon after the recent visit. Pints – double pints for the drinkers – were purchased and the weather outside was pleasant. Deano – from West Yorkshire, now Lancashire, but steadfastly Chelsea – soon arrived and joined us. I asked a copper to take a photo of us together.

“That’s ‘Crimewatch’ sorted” laughed Parky.

An Uber cab drew up outside and there was a bit of a commotion.

“Is that your pizza just arrived” I asked the two policemen.

Soon, Goggles from the Fulham branch arrived on the pavement.

“Alright Paul? Alright Parky?”

I still found it a little odd that this once “home fans only” pub now welcomed away fans, and that Chelsea songs were being heartily sung by a few. It wasn’t quite as noisy as in May though. The times have certainly changed over the last twenty years. Looking back to that game in May, I remembered the only trouble that we had encountered took place at Woolley Edge Services on the M1 after the game. Parky and I were drying our hands after using the facilities when we felt a splash of cold water directed at us from behind. Evidently, a Leeds fan must have spotted Parky’s little Chelsea badge on his polo shirt and had decided to take retribution after his team’s loss against a dreaded enemy.

Yeah, how times have changed.

Since my last Chelsea game against Tottenham last Sunday, I had seen two Frome Town games. There was a disappointing 3-3 draw at home to Willand Rovers in the league on Tuesday followed by a fine 3-0 away win at Buckland Athletic in the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup on the Saturday. The two footballing journeys of the weekend to Devon and West Yorkshire would total 650 miles – just over 1,000km for those reading in Ireland, the rest of Europe and Canada – and it is doubtful that I have ever driven further for two football games on consecutive days.

In May, I didn’t have time to attempt much of a look at Elland Road but, with tons of time to spare on this occasion, I set off with Deano at about 12.30pm. Deciding that the queues in the boozer were too long, PD and LP soon caught up with us. I walked past the stadium, past some stalls – there was already a healthy pre-match buzz – and up a footpath to a vantage point that looks down on the whole area.

Before a game in 1995/96, I had been drinking in the middle of Leeds with my Rotherham United mate Ian and his Leeds United pal from school days. We took a cab to Beeston and I remembered the short walk down that footpath, past the Old Peacock pub, and the grand old view that it afforded. I wanted to recreate a photo that I took before that game.

The walk up to Beeston was a good cardio-vascular workout for me. Once at the top, I positioned myself along a terraced street with the white steel roof supports of the huge East Stand in the distance. Down below, fans were winding their way down the footpath to the busy roads below. I took plenty of photographs. I was pleased with this. It set the scene nicely. Elland Road is a good three miles out of the busy city centre, and the vista afforded me from Beeston included lots and lots of greenery. Unlike stereotypical northern grounds such as Burnley and Blackburn Rovers, this stadium was never hemmed in among tight terraced streets. Beginning life as Leeds City, Leeds United then came to life in 1919 and have always played at Elland Road. It was an “out of town” ground before such stadia recently become de rigueur.

An odd fact; I always used to think that the home end – now the Don Revie Stand – from the ‘seventies and onwards was simply known as “The Kop” but only recently, the past few years, realised that it was known locally as The Gelderd End.

They love those classic white, blue and yellow bar scarves at Elland Road. They also love the iconic Admiral shirt from the mid-‘seventies. I must have seen a fair few before the game in May and I spotted many on this visit too.

Around Elland Road, street side electric boxes have been painted in various shades of white, yellow and blue depicting many of the club’s moments by local artist Andy McVeigh. Maybe that can be next season’s photo project.

I bumped into Deano outside the East Stand. This was once the largest capacity club stand in the UK, built during the 1992/93 season for the then champions, only for it to be overtaken by the other United along the other end of the M62 soon after. It holds some 17,000. I remember that at the 1995 FA Cup semi-final between Everton and Tottenham (4-1), there were Everton fans on three sides of the ground with all the Tottenham lot in the one stand.

I digress.

As fate would have it, I was sat – stood – in virtually the same place as in May. Last time, I was in seat 48 of the front row of the upper level of the main stand, the John Charles Stand. This time, I was in seat 50 of the same row. There was an empty seat so PD joined us.

The front five : Davidson, Phillips, Daniels, Parkins, Axon.

The sun was out and those opposite in the Jack Charlton Stand – the East Stand, the former Lowfields Stand and terrace, the family stand in the lower tier – must have felt that they were being baked alive. Everything was cool in the shadows of the away section.

Thomas Tuchel, unable to call on N’Golo Kante, selected the following team :

Mendy

James – Silva – Koulibaly

Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – Gallagher – Cucarella

Mount – Havertz – Sterling

We would again be using falsies up front and it was all or bust.

Leeds? It pains me that I didn’t recognise many of the home team. Such is my fading awareness of football outside of SW6 these days that my knowledge of opponents’ teams is scant.

I bet I can name most of that 1991/92 team though.

From memory…

John Lukic in goal.

Mel Sterland at right-back, Tony Dorigo at left.

Chris Whyte in the middle. Who was the other centre-back? Dunno.

The famous midfield of Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister, David Batty and Gary Speed, God rest his soul.

Upfront, Brian Deane and Lee Chapman.

With Eric Cantona as a late addition.

Who was that bloody centre-back? No, can’t remember.

Ah, it has come to me. Chris Fairclough.

I am pretty sure that their squad was the smallest-ever to win a league title. And it was also the last team to lift the Football League version.

Dear reader : football did not start in 1992/93.

Back to 2022/23, thirty years on.

The teams lined-up.

“Marching On Together” boomed.

Chelsea were wearing navy socks. Answers on a postcard.

It was both a lively and a scrappy start to the game. We were attacking the old Kop, once the home of the most vociferous section of the Leeds support, but now playing second fiddle to the rabid hard-core to our right in the South Stand, or rather the Norman Hunter Stand. Raheem Sterling went close early on after good link-up play. Then two chances for the home team, Daniel James and Jack Harrison getting shots in on goal.

I am not convinced that we will ever see the best of Ruben Loftus-Cheek as a wing-back, but we found him coming into the box on an angle. Unfortunately, he dallied too long and the space evaporated and he was soon confronted by three Leeds defenders who halted his progress.

The noise from both sections of the crowd was impressive.

“Dambusters” was aired in the John Charles Stand.

“Father’s Gun” countered in the Norman Hunter Stand.

Is there much of a rivalry these days? The problem is that we just haven’t played them enough in the past twenty years for that classic, almost legendary, rivalry to have held firm all of the way through those years. It was bubbling along nicely in the ‘nineties when both clubs were jousting at the top table, but Leeds then got themselves relegated.

Let’s say it’s a dormant rivalry, awaiting to explode, awaiting ignition. The battles off the pitch kept the rivalry at such an intense level in past times. Those lads who stood toe to toe in the good old bad old days are probably grandfathers now and not involved. The new breed is aware of the history, but there is simply no recent history.

Leeds were full of energy and closed us down as soon as we had the merest sniff of the ball.

I was celebrating wildly on a quarter of an hour when Sterling slotted home after a pass from Cucarella but the goal was called back for off-side. I felt a proper divvy. I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

On twenty minutes, a fine move ended with Mason Mount poking a shot at the Leeds goal but their ‘keeper Illan Meslier reacted well to keep it out.

We were edging possession but were not creating a great deal. I thought that Conor Gallagher was possibly trying too hard to impress and he found it difficult to knit things together. It did not help that Jorginho alongside him seemed to be slowing things down as soon as we sensed a break. There was one moment when he received the ball just inside our half with no Leeds player ahead of him for a good five yards. On receiving the ball, he reverted to type with that cradling of the ball and a slow movement to turn towards his defence and playing the ball back. Safety first was always his mantra.

“Attack you fucker.”

Koulibaly seemed to be rather discombobulated at times. He was bamboozled with the quick turn of pace from an unknown Leeds attacker and grabbed the player’s shirt in desperation. He was suitably booked.

“Embarassing.”

Then, a fucking calamity.

A Thiago Silva back-pass to Edouard Mendy. Everything seemed to be in slow motion now. There was a dither. He lost possession when an attempt to dummy the Leeds attacker Brenden Aaronson backfired and the ball was thumped into an empty net from mere inches.

Fucksake.

Mendy’s frustration was mirrored by that of ours. And then some. We have seen this before, right? And we have all commented before.

“Kick it away! Safety first! Get rid!”

As the scorer wheeled away in ecstasy, my eyes were unavoidably drawn to the scene to my right in the South Stand. It was madness. In all my times of going to football, I can never remember seeing such a reaction to any goal being played out in front of me. Bodies were falling in every direction. Limbs everywhere. Screams. Ecstasy. Complete madness.

It was – actually – despite the horrible sinking feeling of conceding a killer first goal a magnificent sight.

A horribly magnificent sight.

Fackinell.

Shockingly, just two minutes later, we conceded a second goal. A whipped-in free-kick from the Leeds left found the perfect leap from Rodrigo. His bullet header found the back of the net with ease.

Fuck.

There was another predictable riot in the South Stand.

Limbs again. I drew my camera and reluctantly took a photograph or two; sometimes, a moment simply has to be captured. Ugh.

Thirty-seven minutes had elapsed. Some Chelsea supporters in the lower tier, I noticed, left and did not return.

“Thanks then…”

I turned to Parky.

“Mountain to climb.”

We didn’t create much in the rest of the half, a Cucarella effort barely troubling the Leeds custodian.

Only Sterling was a half-success. Havertz and Mount were so quiet.

As the second-half began, there was a change to the system but this only became apparent after a while. We played with a four at the back. A nice piece of skill from Loftus-Cheek in front of us allowed a Cucarella effort on goal and we hoped for an upturn in our play. Yes, we dominated possession but didn’t really create too much. On the two occasions that we were in on goal, one on one, we not only misfired but both chances were offside anyway.

On sixty-four minutes, changes.

Christian Pulisic for Gallagher.

Hakim Ziyerch for Jorginho.

We now had Pulisic, Ziyech and Sterling to run and twist their way into dangerous positions. In theory. This never looked like a decent game plan to this casual observer. We needed a focal point, a Broja.

Pah. What do I know?

A low shot from James was turned around his post by Meslier.

We continued to dominate but Leeds gave us no time to develop anything worthwhile. Our jousting thrusts needed to be augmented by an occasional hammer at the heart of the defence. But our artillery was without suitable weaponry. A towering leap by Koulibaly – occasionally excellent blocks making up for his malfunctioning sat nav – from a corner was easily claimed by Meslier.

Our play stagnated. Leeds never stopped running.

It was to get worse. A rapid break down their left and a cross from James, and Harrison picked up the pieces.

The ground exploded again.

May : Leeds United 0 Chelsea 3.

August : Leeds United 3 Chelsea 0.

Yet more Chelsea fans drifted away.

Earlier, we had goaded the home fans with “you’ve only got one song” but this was an empty sentiment.

We were being out sung, and how.

“We are Leeds. And we’re proud of you.”

“All Leeds aren’t we?”

“Marching on together.”

“And shoot the Chelsea scum.”

At times, the noise was electric.

It was bloody horrible. Here I was, stood exposed in the front row of the top section of the away end in full view of the tormenting home support. Loads of Chelsea had drifted away as the game progressed. Gaps appeared in the seats.

“Your support is fucking shit.”

I stood silent. We had no answer. Our pants were being pulled down here.

I looked over at the three thousand in the South Stand – where I once stood when it was the away section in 2001 – and I could not help but notice that virtually all were in their twenties, virtually all were lads – by design? who knows? –  and all were up for it. We do not have a section like that at Chelsea and haven’t had one for decades.

And we were fair game. We had no real response to the piss-taking. We were being schooled both on and off the pitch. This was truly horrific.

I’ve attended games where we have been gubbed before – the 0-4 loss at Old Trafford in Lampard’s first game was particularly painful, Daniel James involved then too – but this one felt like one of the worst.

A Cucarella block averted a fourth after an effort on goal from Rodrigo. If anything, the noise increased further with the Kop now being heard too.

Ben Chilwell replaced Mount.

Then, a second yellow for Koulibaly.

Off he went.

Bollocks.

Azpilicueta for Sterling.

I had lost interest by then. I just wanted to get back to my car. I wanted to scoff that waiting Ginster’s Cornish Pasty. I wanted out.

At the final whistle, relief.

I chatted to a few friends close by, and we all agreed about the amazing antics and booming noise from the home fans.

Grudging respect.

This, though, was a deafeningly poor show from us.

So much for us playing with falsies up front. We just looked like tits.

Tales From The Last One Of Seventy-Three

Chelsea vs. Watford : 22 May 2022.

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

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

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

Maybe not.

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

Sigh.

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

It’s just louder.

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

Some, admittedly, don’t get it.

Their loss.

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

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

“Home.”

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

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

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

Memories to last a very long time.

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

All the world in one place.

I loved it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down in The Shed, things were stirring.

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

A critique?

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

Lovely to see Micky Greenaway featured.

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

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

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

The teams entered the pitch.

Our starting eleven?

Edouard

Dave – Long John Silva – Rudi

Reece – Saul – N’Golo – Kenedy

Hakim – Kai – Mase

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

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

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

Oh the joy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RIP.

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

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

It was pretty dull stuff. I stifled some yawns.

Thomas Tuchel made some changes.

Malang Sarr for Kenedy.

Ross Barkley for Rudiger.

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

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

On seventy minutes :

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

It was almost a plea for help.

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

FORFUCKSAKE.

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

Then, crash bang wallop.

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

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

Of the two evils, City seem quite angelic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The chant continued seamlessly…

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

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

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

Ben Chilwell came on for Mason Mount.

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

The noise was still bowling around The Bridge.

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

GET IN YOU FUCKING BEAUTY.

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

Phew.

Chelsea 2 Watford 1.

What a breathless end to an otherwise mundane afternoon.

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

It was over.

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

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

Last season, I saw just two Chelsea games.

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

In 2021/22 I saw eighteen Frome Town games.

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

I need to get out more.

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

Here’s to seeing it again in August.

Have a good summer.

Tales From Stamford Bridge To Wembley

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 14 May 2022.

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

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

But first, a walk down memory lane.

1972.

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

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

I think.

1973.

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

Wembley it was.

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

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

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

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

1997.

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

Here are my recollections.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funny the things I remember.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2022.

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

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

“From Stamford Bridge To Wembley” was about right.

But first a magic breakfast at a café in Hammersmith.

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

I looked over at PD.

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

We weren’t sure.

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

Time for a photo outside the Bovril Gate.

“From Stamford Bridge To Wembley.”

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

Six pints of “Peroni” hardly touched the sides.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The West End 14 : Won 11 and Lost 3

The East End 9 : Won 4 and Lost 5

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

Pah.

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

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

The kick-off approached.

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

It was utter shite.

“Pete Tong” infact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Save it for the ballot boxes, Liverpool fans.

Stop besmirching the name of your club and your city.

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

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

Those seats were still empty in our end.

FUCK.

We lined up as below :

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

James – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Lukaku – Pulisic

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

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

We were hanging on.

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

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

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

We improved, both on and off the pitch.

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

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

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

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

More of the same please, Chelsea.

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

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

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

“Fucksakechels.”

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

Diaz screwed one just wide.

“CAREFREE” absolutely boomed around Wembley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The referee blew up for full-time.

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

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

Football, eh?

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

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

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

Dave replaced Chalobah and Ruben replaced Pulisic.

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

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

Ross Barkley for Ruben.

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

The referee blew up.

Another 0-0.

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

Alas, alas…

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

Hugs with the stranger next to me.

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

Sudden-death now.

Ziyech : in.

Jota : in.

Mount : saved.

Tsimikas : in.

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

Nor 2021.

Nor 2020.

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

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

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

1997

2022

Tales From The John Charles Stand

Leeds United vs. Chelsea : 11 May 2022.

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

Was I looking forward to it?

“By heck as like” and other Yorkshire clichés.

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

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

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

“Here we go again.”

I replied “yeah, maybe.”

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

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

“He comes from Senegal.”

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

Previous visits came to mind.

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

“Shoot the Chelsea scum.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was time to get inside.

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

Carpets in the away end. In Yorkshire.

Whatever next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The teams entered the pitch.

Leeds in all white. Chelsea in all blue.

Stay still my beating heart.

Our team?

Mendy

Christensen – Rudiger – Chalobah

James – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Pulisic – Lukaku – Mount

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

Ha.

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

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

“Marching On Together.”

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

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

The referee had soon made up his mind.

Red.

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

“That might mean less movement, Gal.”

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

From the Chelsea choir :

“Leeds. Leeds are falling apart. Again.”

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

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

“We all fucking hate Leeds.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

To this day, I am left shaking my head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GET IN.

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

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

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

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

“ONE MAN WENT TO MOW”

And we all followed.

This was a noisy old game.

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

We continued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOSH.

Talk about drama.

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

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

Fackinell.

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

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

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

“It’s only Leeds, mate.”

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

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

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

2008/9 : 19/19.

2015/16 : 19/19.

2021/22 : 19/19.

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

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

Leeds United can only dream of such things.

1988

2001

2022

Tales From An Unhappy Birthday

Norwich City vs. Chelsea : 10 March 2022.

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

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

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

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

PD summed it all up : “We’re fucked.”

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

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

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

Still we remained largely silent.

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

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

My answer was obvious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RIP Leigh Reeder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Christensen

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Saul

Mount – Havertz – Werner

What a lovely first-half, eh?

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

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

More of the same please.

The Chelsea crowd were noisy and continuously so.

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

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

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

I remembered the famous exchange in 2005.

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

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

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

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

“Chelsea get sanctioned everywhere they go.”

Answers on a postcard.

And then, the rarest of songs.

“Chelsea Til I Die.”

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

I guess on this particular occasion it can be forgiven.

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

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

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

“Now you see it, now you don’t”

Sublime.

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

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

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

The initial handball was given though.

A penalty to Norwich.

Pukki drilled it low, Mendy going the other way.

Bollocks.

“On The Ball City” boomed.

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

Yellarmy. I ask you.

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

With five minutes to go, a double flip.

Romelu Lukaku for a poor Timo Werner.

N’Golo Kante for a tireless Mateo Kovacic.

The big Belgian fluffed a chance from inside the box.

“CAM ON CHELS.”

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

Norwich City 1 Chelsea 3.

Phew.

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

It had been the strangest of days.