Tales From The Top In The Middle Of England

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 20 November 2021.

After the away game on Tyneside, I was going to miss the trip to Malmo, and so my next planned game was going to be Burnley at home. Then, sadly, I tested positive for COVID and was forced into self-isolation for ten days. I was lucky though. My symptoms were similar to a mild head cold, and I was easily able to work from home for a week. I was back into work, and the office, last Monday. The International break could not have happened at a more convenient time.

Instead of Chelsea, two games at Frome Town – the first before I tested positive, the second after I tested negative – gave me my football kick. The home games against Barnstaple Town and Plymouth Parkway were won 9-2 and 1-0, thus cementing my local team’s undefeated position at the top of the Southern League Division One South. When I am either unable or unwilling to attend Chelsea games in the future – I think I know deep down that it is coming – at least I have an exit strategy. But let’s not dwell too much on that right now.

Leicester City – away – was now primed for my first Chelsea game in three weeks.

I set the alarm for 5.45am. Many others throughout the Chelsea Nation had equally early starts. All over Facebook, two words dominated.

“And Leicester.”

The idea was to collect PD at 7.30m, then Parks, and arrive at our usual spot just off Saffron Lane to the south of the King Power Stadium at around 11am.

Obviously I had not seen the two lads for a while. Like me, PD had succumbed to a mild variant of COVID since Newcastle. Parky had experienced a more painful COVID not long after Belfast and was still suffering, a little, from long COVID.

Sadly, Parky had lost his ninety-three-year-old mother last Monday. As I picked him up at 8am, we both shook his hand and offered him words of comfort.

Outside, there was drizzle in the air.

At Melksham, a breakfast, and then the drive straight up the Fosse Way to the middle of England. Although the roads were fringed with autumn colours, there was a grey murkiness outside. The Fosse Way remains my favourite road for an away game, though not on this occasion.

Although this would be my first Chelsea game for three weeks, I was suffering a little with a general malaise. Whether this was born out of my recent COVID attack – a re-focussing on priorities, maybe – I am not sure. In a nutshell, I was not as fired-up as I ought to have been. I just hoped that this feeling would turn out to be a little blip in my love of the game, of Chelsea, of this lifestyle.

I am fifty-six. I have seen over 1,300 Chelsea games. “We’ve won it all” (no, we haven’t). We won the European Cup last May in what turned out to be an emotionally-distanced cake-walk. That experience alone caused my brain to fry.

Clearly I am still struggling to get my pre-lockdown levels of passion, involvement, fanaticism – call it what you will – back.

Sigh.

I guess I am allowed the occasional off-day.

As I ate up the miles I was reminded of a drive up the Fosse Way, with my parents in early 1983, which was surely my most pointless journey ever. I was taking my “A Levels” in the June of that year and had applied to a few colleges, including Sheffield Polytechnic. As part of the process, I had to attend an interview up in South Yorkshire. The problem was that I was miss-firing in all three subjects and I was convinced that I wouldn’t get the necessary grades for a degree course in geography, nor did I particularly want to spend three years in Yorkshire should a miracle happen. The journey took forever. It was a bitterly cold day. The countryside was covered in the remnants of a snowfall. My poor Dad had taken a day off work to ferry me north. I hated every minute of the entire day.

What a waste of a day.

For the record; yeah, I did bomb my “A levels” but took them again in the November with a much better set of results.

1982/83 and 1983/84 were vastly different years for both myself and Chelsea Football Club.

I was parked up in Leicester at 11.05am and there would normally follow a trite remark from me about working in logistics.

I’m not one to disappoint.

It had been a mild start to the day in deepest Somerset, despite the drizzle, but things were a little colder in The Midlands. Not to worry, the fifteen-minute walk north warmed us a little and brought some colour to our cheeks. An elderly Leicester fan spoke to us for a few minutes.

“Chilwell is doing well, ain’t he? I didn’t rate him here.”

We were all soon inside the larger-than-usual concourse underneath the away stand. I spoke to a few friends and was happy to pass on the good news about my recent ill-health. I was getting back into the groove, step by step, fist bump by fist bump, handshake by handshake, smile by smile.

“Leicester away. What else yer gonna do on a Saturday?” or something like that.

We had far from great seats, sadly. Right in the corner, third row, even behind the goal line. One hundred and eighty degrees around the bowl of the stadium my friend Sally – former logistics colleague, I am sure her timings were bang on – was sat in the front row of The Kop, but in the corner too.

I expected a tight game. But hoped for a win.

“Absolute top pre-match analysis, that pal…fucksake.”

Romelu Lukaku was still unable to re-join the fold, but our starting eleven wasn’t half bad.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah

Chilweel – Kante – Jorginho – James

Hudson-Odoi  – Havertz – Mount

The teams entered the pitch on the far side. Our away kit of yellow-black-yellow was to make an appearance for the first time this season. I found it amazing that the club had decided not to parade it previously; it is not unknown for an away kit to be worn even when there isn’t a clash in colours. As the players lined-up, I spotted the geometric shapes from the blue kit monstrosity mirrored in a chest panel on some black tracksuit tops.

“Now that’s not bad. That I can warm to. Everything in moderation. Less is more.”

Only the previous evening, I had watched a BBC programme about Bridget Rily, a leading light in the Op Art movement in the ‘sixties, and I was – naturally – reminded of the abomination that has currently happened to our home kit, shudder.

Generally speaking, I appreciated the paintings of Op Art – I think all of us at Frome College dabbled in geometric shapes during our art class in 1978/79, “another crap season” – but what place does it have on a fucking football shirt?

Eh? Tell me.

As I watched on Friday, I had stumbled upon with a far more agreeable design. If – and I mean if – an homage to Op Art was of absolute necessity, then why not a simple panel of Zigger Zagger mayhem, but everything else plain? Certainly the shorts needed to remain plain.

Whoever ordained the geometric pattern on the home shorts needs shooting.

So, lo and behold, the panel of slip-sliding squares (the kitchen floor after a night of excessive alcoholic intoxication?) on the plain black top not only met with my approval but had me wondering if I was absolutely in the wrong job.

The game began, and Borussia Dortmund attacked Sally and The Kop.

Despite an early start, the away choir had clearly been on it. Alcohol-inspired community singing rang out from the 3,300 in the expansive away corner; the seats go a long way back at Leicester. There was a little jabbing from both sets of supporters, with our left-back a natural target for the home fans, but then an uppercut onto the chin of the home fans :

“Ben Chilwell’s won a European Cup.”

We began ever so brightly.

And, yeah, the away kit looks fine. Not particularly “Chelsea” but that doesn’t seem to matter one iota these days.

The first chance arose when Jorginho took a quick free-kick from the middle of the pitch. The perfectly-flighted ball out to the left hand side of the penalty box was met by that man Chilwell. A touch to control, but the shot smashed against the top of the cross bar.

“Alonso would’ve volleyed that.”

It was end-to-end stuff in the first ten minutes, with a couple of lightning quick Leicester raids causing us concern, but we were equally strong in our attacking third.

Just on the quarter of an hour, we won a corner in front of Sally on our right.

Alan : “Get your camera out. Rudiger likes corners up here.”

I smiled. Indeed he does. Only on the drive up, we remembered his two headers here in 2020, just before lockdown struck. No surprises that none of us could remember the result up here in 2020/21.

“If a tree falls in a forest, but nobody sees it fall, does it make a sound?”

My camera was poised.

A Chilwell corner. On the money. A leap from Rudi. Click. I watched the ball drop into the net.

“YES.”

We were back, I was back, Rudi was back, Alan was beaming and so was I.

“That’s going in your blog.”

Ha, what joy.

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

Chris : “ Come on my little diamonds.”

I was genuinely worried about this one. The Cup Final had been on my mind. But here we were a goal up already.

I found it odd that during the Chelsea choir’s early chants, the home fans did not respond with one song about the game in May.

“Did it mean nothing to you?”

The hero of that game, Kasper Schmeichel, made a super save from the unlikely boot of N’Golo Kante.

We were rampant.

Callum was clipped just as he was about to ping a shot on goal after cutting in from the left, and Mason Mount dipped the resulting free-kick over the wall but over the bar too.

A rare Leicester attack, and a tap in from Ademola Lookman, but the linesman’s yellow flag soon went up.

I looked over to the Chelsea section next to the home fans. In front, tied to the rails was a flag from Zurich and two from Bulgaria. My good friend Orlin, one of the strong Bulgaria contingent, had called by to say “hi” before the game. I last saw him in Porto, ah Porto. But I also spotted Jonesy, from nearby Nuneaton, in that section too. Over the course of the game, I spotted not only Jonesy, but Andy and Sophie – Porto, ditto – and also The Youth, Neil, Jokka and Chopper, all Nuneaton Chelsea. Good work everyone.

Leicester were nibbling away at us in the first part of the game, but the referee resolutely avoided bookings.

I liked the look of Jorginho, pushing the ball on as quickly as he could. Right from the off, Thiago Silva looked so cool, so calm, and his class immediately shone. Our passing was quicker and more incisive than is often the case. Our cross-field switches were inch-perfect. Havertz looked lively, Callum too. We were simply on top, in control, playing some gorgeous stuff.

Just before the half-hour mark, the ball was won on our right and pushed inside to Kante. He was allowed so much space and so simply did what anyone would; he advanced, and advanced, and advanced.

I watched as he took a swipe at the ball with his left foot. I’ll be honest, I did not immediately react. I – for some reason – thought the ball had drifted past the post and hit a supporting stanchion.  But no, the roars of the away fans told me that he had hit the target.

Fackinell.

I spoke to Gal : “Best we have played all season.”

We eased off a little as the break approached, but the singing certainly didn’t. Nobody can accuse us lot of only singing one song.

So many positive comments at the break. Lovely.

Brendan Rodgers made two substitutions at the break, and on came Maddison and Iheanacho. Edouard Mendy, not needed for most of the first-half, made a low save from Maddison, but the Chelsea attack were soon causing problems again. Hudson-Odoi did well and squirmed into the box before setting up Chilwell. Schmeichel made a magnificent save.

On the hour, Callum shaped well but curled one over the bar.

A double substitution from our manager.

Hakim Ziyech for Mount, Christian Pulisic for Havertz.

Mason had been one of our quietest performers I thought. Havertz had impressed. I was a little cautious.

…”mmm, two key players…the game ain’t won yet.”

The home team became a little stronger, and we had to rely on another stunning leap and save from our ‘keeper to foil a rising drive from Daniel Amartey. The home team dominated for a short period, but we were always a threat. The substitute Pulisic looked lively and went close from fellow substitute Ziyech’s cross. Both subs looked keen, looked energised, what do I know about football?

On seventy-one minutes, a wonderful quick break, with Leicester scampering around us, found Ziyech down in front of us on the right. A deft movement past a defender and the ball was played into space. Pulisic arrived with perfect timing and prodded the ball in.

3-0, game over.

Sadly, Jorginho was injured – replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, what a bench – and as he walked past us in the north-west corner, he was serenaded by all.

“That’s the World Footballer Of The Year, there, Gal.”

Those sorry days of Sarri are well behind him, and us, right?

Incredibly, we hit the back of the net on three further occasions late in the game, but the goals scored by Hudson-Odoi, Pulisic and James were all – rightly – chalked off for offside.

There was still time for another cracking save from our man Mendy.

I have commented of late that, despite our fine run of results, we seem to be several steps away from our potential. Well, this game hinted at that level. It reminded me of a game at Fulham in November 2004 when everything clicked and we began to seriously think about a league title.

It was a decent drive home, and we were cheered – to the point of laughter – at Manchester United’s 4-1 defeat at Watford.

Good old Claudio, eh? Loved at Chelsea, loved at Leicester and maybe Watford too.

We have a busy week ahead.

Juventus and Manchester United.

Do they get any bigger?

I will see some of you there.

Valerie Jayne Crespin : 24 April 1929 to 15 November 2021.

Goal One : Rudi’s Leap.

Goal Two : N’Goalo.

Goal Three : Teamwork.

Tales From The Loony Toon

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 30 October 2021.

At 1.37am on Saturday morning, I posted this on “Facebook” :

Get Daniels. Get Parkins.

And then a six hour drive to The Loony Toon where a team awaiting transformation lie in wait.

“You’re a big club but you’re in bad shape.”

I watched “Get Carter”, the 1971 original and not the US remake, a few months ago. I was shocked with how shocked I was. The film’s subject matter featured the criminal underworld of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and the brutality of a few scenes matched the brutal architecture that appeared in the ‘sixties in that particular city.

For the second time in around six weeks I was heading to a black and white city, a favourite along with Turin, and to a place where Michael Caine had starred in films. In the build-up to the bank raid in Turin, his famous line about “blowing the bloody doors off” is well-remembered. In “Get Carter” the line about a fellow gangster, altered slightly on this occasion to describe our opponents, is equally memorable.

Anyway, enough of this waffle.

We usually fly up from Bristol for games in the North-East. On this occasion, the prices of flights were much higher than usual, so after a little deliberation, I decided to take the bull by the horns and drive up. I wangled an early shift at work on the Friday, finished at 3pm, and was asleep by 6pm.

The alarm woke me at 12.30am. I fuelled-up en route to collect PD at 2am. We collected Parky at 2.20am. What God-forsaken times, eh? Needs must.

We were on our way to The Toon.

I had booked an apartment in the city’s West End, around a twenty-minute walk from St. James’ Park, and hoped that the rain that was expected to fall later in the day would not drag on until the evening. The aim was to get to Newcastle at around 9am, then join in the pre-match fun on the quayside, but then have a relaxing evening, not go too crazy, in preparation for the return journey on the Sunday.

Now then, there are many who take the time to read these match reports who appreciate the most minute details of these trips. For those living far away from these shores, and especially those who have not been able to see us play, I love the fact that many like being able to experience my match days and my match day routines. The word that I hear most is “vicarious”.  These next few paragraphs are for those who live vicariously through my words ( he says rather pompously)…

For the others, feel free to skip ahead. I won’t be offended.

Driving to Newcastle from my part of the world is around a three-hundred and thirty-mile journey. With non-stop driving, it’s five-and-a-half hours. It’s a long one. I have driven to Newcastle for Chelsea games on two other occasions; once for our 1-3 loss in the spring of 1997, and again in early autumn for a dire 0-0 draw, a game that would mark Gianluca Vialli’s last game in charge.

Incidentally, the longest trip that I have undertaken without stopping over was Middlesbrough in 2008. That topped out at 580 miles and I vowed “never again.”

I soon found myself bypassing Bath and by 3am I was joining the M5 from the M4. There was a little rain through Gloucestershire but nothing too heavy. PD had managed five hours’ sleep, Parky four. I fully expected them both to “drop-off” at some stage on the long haul north. There were two diversions, near Gloucester on the M5, and near Tamworth on the M42, the result of roadworks. A few more minutes were added to our travel time. PD was in charge of the mobile tuck shop and as I wended my way through some quiet Warwickshire roads, I wolfed down a couple of treats that he had prepared for the journey. We hit the M1 at around 5am and I was happy with our progress. Outside the night was black, and the traffic – even on the M1 – was pretty sparse. Parky was asleep in the back.

I continued the long road north. It seemed that signs for Leeds appeared often, too often, like ghosts from the past. As I veered off the M1 near Sheffield, I thought I had seen the end of them, but Leeds still appeared for many miles.

Up and onto the A1, I soon stopped to refuel at Beverley Services. The traffic thinned out further as we saw signs for Scotch Corner and Teeside. At around 7.30am, just south of Durham, I decided that I needed a rest. My eyes were heavy and a “power nap” was in order. I dropped off for about thirty minutes. When I awoke at 8.15am, it was light. I soon realised that I had done the right thing. That thirty minutes would see me well for my final approach into Newcastle, but would also give me fresh energy for the rest of the day.

Anthony Gormley’s “The Angel Of The North” overlooks the main approach road through Gateshead and into the city centre. It looked dark and foreboding on this visit, its usual rusty colour now blackened in the morning murk.

I spotted, for the first time, road signs for Low Fell, and it brought a lump to my throat. Here, on the main London to Newcastle railway line, former Newcastle United and Chelsea legend Hughie Gallacher committed suicide in 1957 by throwing himself in front of a train. One day, on one visit to this area, I will pay my respects. He remains the one player from our distant history that I wish I had seen perform.

On the train home after the famous 1-1 draw in March 1984, on the same line, our train carriage was “bricked” by locals. I remembered a young lad getting bloodied from the shattered window. About a year or so ago, on a “Chelsea In The ‘Eighties” forum on “Facebook” I happened to mention it, and the actual chap who had been hit soon replied to my comment. How often do I mention how small our Chelsea World can be?

So, here I was; on the cusp of driving over the River Tyne in my own car for the first time since 2000. The A184 served me well. A slight curve and there she was; Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in all her glory. The buildings rising up from the quayside, the wonderful array of seven bridges traversing the river, and the glass and steel edifice of St. James’ Park perched at the top of the hill. Everything so clear, everything so immediate. It was a wonderful sight. It took me back to the first time I ever crossed the River Tyne for that game in 1984. Wild times then, not so wild now. But the city was still so dramatic. It was super to be back.

The route took us to within five hundred yards of the stadium, but we then veered west. At just before 9am, as per my planning, we had arrived. We left our bags in my car, ‘phoned for a cab – which never arrived, so a second call was needed – and at just before 10am we had ordered our breakfast at the already busy “Wetherspoons Quayside” pub.

We had made it.

A few familiar faces were already inside and we were to be joined by a few more.

A special mention for our pals Gillian and Kevin from Edinburgh. Kev had proposed to Gillian the previous evening – Newcastle is a favourite city of theirs too – and Gillian was sweetly, and proudly, flashing the silver engagement ring.

“Ah, congratulations you lovebirds.”

Unfortunately, they were not fortunate enough to get match tickets. I had heard a familiar story from others. The demand wasn’t able to be met. I guess a fair few had travelled to Tyneside without the hope of a ticket. This just shows how much fellow fans have missed matches since the game was taken from us in March 2020, but also illustrates the lure of a night in Newcastle, and on Halloween weekend to boot.

We wolfed down the breakfast but outside the rain became worse by the minute. The idea was to hit five or six quayside pubs. But the rain stalled our plans. We stayed put for an hour and a half. Two “San Miguels” and a lighter “Coors” went down well. More and more Chelsea arrived; Pauline, Mick, Paul, Rob, Dave, Alex, Chay, Dave, Rich, Donna and Rachel.

Then Andy, from our area, with his mate Russ, who we have met a few times. Russ is from Newcastle and a fan of his home town team. Like many, he was relieved to see the back of Mike Ashley. We didn’t talk too much about the Saudi takeover. It’s too much of a moral minefield in my opinion. I am just glad that my club isn’t now owned by a group from Saudi Arabia. Shudder.

This would be my twelfth visit to St. James’ Park with Chelsea. For many years, I just couldn’t afford these trips. Thankfully, my financial situation has improved over the past twenty years and I try to make it each season. As everyone knows, our recent record up there is rather wobbly. But this game never felt like a potential banana skin to me.

On that visit in 2000 to Newcastle, I travelled up with Mark, a former work colleague who went to university in the city in the late ‘eighties. He was, and is, a Blackburn Rovers fan, and just fancied revisiting his old stomping ground for the first time in a while. Memories of that weekend got me thinking.

I haven’t seen too many non-Chelsea games in my life. I have seen half a dozen at Stoke City, plus a handful at Fulham, Swindon Town, Derby County, Brentford, Portsmouth, York City, Port Vale, Bristol City, Bristol Rovers, Yeovil Town and Blackburn Rovers within the English league structure. A grand total of around twenty games, as opposed to over 1,300 Chelsea matches.

However, in 1992/93 I actually saw Newcastle United at three away venues during their Second Division promotion campaign. Around that time, I wasn’t in a particularly well-paid job and in the seasons 1990/91 to 1993/94 I only averaged around twelve Chelsea games per season.

I think a little explanation is required, don’t you?

My good friend Pete – a college friend living nearby in Bristol then and just outside Bristol now – and a lifelong Newcastle United fan coerced me into the away game at Brentford when I was visiting mates in London. He also asked me to attend the more local matches at Bristol City and Swindon Town.

I am sure it’s not too uncommon for fans of one club to watch other teams, though I definitely haven’t made a habit of it.

“Chelsea one week, Fulham the next” as the saying went in days of yore.

Pete is from Scunthorpe, and he memorably went to see us win the Second Division Championship on the final day of 1983/84 with our game at nearby Grimsby Town. He was also present, of course, at that game in Newcastle in 1984.

At the game against Brentford at Griffin Park in October 1992, Pete watched in the away end, but I watched the match with two other college mates in the home end. Memorably, we bumped into Kevin Keegan and Terry McDermott hours before the game began outside the stadium. Newcastle won that 2-1. In January 1993, I was in the wet away end with Pete to see Newcastle beat Bristol City 2-1, with Andy Cole playing for City. In March, I watched with Pete in the packed away end at Swindon Town as Andy Cole made his Toon debut, but Swindon won 2-1.

I also saw Chelsea beat Newcastle United 2-1 in the League Cup at Stamford Bridge in the October of that season – 30,000 and a good 5,000 Geordies – so I actually saw them play four times that season.

I enjoyed the experience of watching them in 1992/93. It was something different. Under Keegan, they were a very entertaining outfit.

In fact, in around 1996/97, I’d hazard a guess that Chelsea and Newcastle vied for being most fans’ “second favourite team.”

Strange but true.

The rain abated slightly, so we moved on down the river. I had discovered a new pub – or at least one not previously visited by us – and on the way to the “Head Of Steam” we bumped into Kimmy and Andy. Three pints in there – “Angelo Poretti”, a relatively new kid on the block – and we were joined by Jack and Andy too.

I was feeling a little light-headed, but oddly after one pint of the tried and trusted “Peroni” in “The Slug And Lettuce” I was feeling fine again.

Outside “The Akenside Traders” we were so lucky to catch a cab up to the stadium at around 2.30pm.

Unbelievably, despite leaving home at 2am, I reached the seats in the upper tier a mere few seconds before 3pm.

“Just in time” logistics at your service.

My first view of the pitch way down below me allowed me to see the two teams standing silently in the centre-circle in memory of the fallen.

I soon located Alan and Gal. Parky and I took our seats (*we obviously stood) alongside them.

The game started and I had to play “catch up” to take everything in. A full house, but not much immediate noise from the home fans. I was expecting more. The team?

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Christensen

James – Kante – Jorginho – Chilwell

Ziyech – Havertz – Huson-Odoi

But then.

Those hours of driving through the night, the time spent down on The Quayside and then the rushed cab ride seemed to be pointless. The first-half was a damp squib. What a let-down. Newcastle, no surprises, sat back and let us attack and grimly hoped that their defence would hold out. This was their Plan A, but there was no hint of a Plan B. They did occasionally offer a rare attack, but for most of that first forty-five minutes their team were so deep that every punted or hoofed clearance did allow support to Wilson nor Saint Maximin, their undoubted two stars.

Chelsea, of course, dominated the game yet there was little to admire. I have mentioned before how dull modern football can be at times, especially when one team is so defence-orientated. With players’ fitness levels so good these days, space in the final third was at an absolute premium. However, what space there was, we didn’t really exploit.

Many Chelsea fans hate being so high up at Newcastle. I don’t mind it at all. It only happens once per season. This time, as with many others, I usually get a very central viewing position. It does, undoubtedly, offer a very unique perspective on the positioning and placement of the attacking and defending teams.

I also love that it allows a view of the outside world, squeezed between The Gallowgate and the horizon. In days gone by, this was often the case. The Thames at Fulham, the church at Goodison, the tower blocks at Upton Park, Earls Court at Stamford Bridge. The stadium as a part of the city.

It’s lovely that so many of the city’s landmarks can be seen from inside St. James’ Park.

Our first real chance of note came on around the half-hour mark, but Hakim Ziyech’s goal after a lovely Jorginho pass was called back for off-side. I saw the flag early so wasn’t guilty of premature jokulation.

The same player then skied a shot wildly over the bar.

Fackinell.

I pleaded with Hudson-Odoi to stretch the defence, to get past his marker. I found him particularly frustrating.

Our only other notable effort was again from Ziyech. It looked like Reece James was shaping to take a centrally-placed free-kick just outside the “D” but it ended up in The Gallowgate. Maybe Reece should have demanded the ball.

I sent this message to a few friends in the US at the break.

“No intensity. No passion. No invention. No nuffing.”

Into the second-half, and somewhat surprising for someone who certainly hasn’t really impressed too much at Chelsea thus far, it was Ziyech who again threatened Darlow in the Newcastle goal down below us. A couple of shots, with a save and the post saving the home team. Shots from Havertz and James stirred the crowd.

The manager had obviously said a few things at the break.

A new chant was aired at a game for the first time and, although I wasn’t too happy that the Frank Lampard chant had been re-jigged, it certainly gathered momentum in that second-half.

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel. He knows exactly what we need. Thiago at the back. Timo in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

Funny, when we sang it about Frank winning the Champions League, it did seem somewhat preposterous. But Tommy has already won the bastard.

Crazy, right?

On sixty-four minutes, a double-swap.

Barkley for Ziyech.

Loftus-Cheek for Kante.

Within a minute, at last a devilish wriggle down the left from Callum and a cross into the box. The ball eventually fell to James. A touch with his right foot, a smash with his left. The ball flew into the net from an angle. What a clean strike.

GET IN.

Would the single goal be enough? I suspected so. However, around ten minutes later, the ball ricocheted back off a Newcastle defender after a shot from Loftus-Cheek. It ended up, rather quickly, at the feet of James again. No time for thought, he smashed it in with his right foot this time. Two amazing goals. Euphoria in the top tier of The Leazes.

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel. He knows exactly what we need. Thiago at the back. Timo in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel. He knows exactly what we need. Thiago at the back. Timo in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel. He knows exactly what we need. Thiago at the back. Timo in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

Frank’s version had Tomori and Tammy. The new song kept the theme going.

The Teutonic technician Thomas Tuchel – plus Thiago and Timo – at the top in The Toon.

Phew, I need a drink.

Maybe a tea.

Not long after, a clear foul on Havertz gave Paul Tierny no option.

Penalty.

“Give it to Reece!”

No, Jorginho claimed the ball.

Alan : “A skip or no skip?”

Chris : “A skip.”

No skip, but a goal.

Newcastle United 0 Chelsea 3.

Love it.

Saul came on for Callum, but by then the vast majority of the home fans were heading, er, home.

The final whistle blew.

And Newcastle was blue.

Superb.

With Manchester City, incredibly, losing 2-0 at home to Crystal Palace and with Liverpool letting a 2-0 lead slip with a draw at home to Brighton, this was a magnificent day. We were, unbelievably, three points clear at the top.

The three of us slowly walked back to our digs and then reconvened at “The Bridge Hotel” at just after 7.30pm. A relaxing few drinks with Gillian and Kev was then followed by a curry. It topped off a perfect day in The Loony Toon, which was clearly living up to its reputation as the UK capital of alcoholic excess, debauchery and hedonism. I am not quite sure what the Saudis would make of it.

We set off for home as early as 9am on the Sunday. Despite some truly horrific driving conditions during the first two hours or so – so much spray, so much rain, but then when blinding sun arrived it was like driving through snow – I made it home at 4pm.

Seven hours up, seven hours down, three points in the bag.

See you, I hope, next season Newcastle.

My next game is at home to Burnley on Saturday.

See you there.

Under The Tyne Bridge.

Autumn In The Toon.

The Gallowgate.

Sir Bobby.

The Baltic Art Centre, Grey’s Monument And The Millennium Bridge.

All Saint’s Church, Sage Gateshead, Autumn Colours And Wind Turbines.

Windscreen.

Hakim Ziyech.

The Tyne Bridge.

In The Air.

The High Ground At Gateshead.

Swipe.

Second-Half Panorama.

Crowded Out.

Jorginho.

A Goal One Celebration.

A Goal Two Leap.

A Goal Three Certainty.

Let’s Gan, Like.

Tales From The Eight Bells, Seven Goals And One Matthew Harding.

Chelsea vs. Norwich City : 23 October 2021.

This was pretty much a perfect day of football.

Where to start?

How about 5.30am? Early enough?

My alarm sounded and I was soon up. This was another early kick-off at Chelsea. Our second of five matches in fifteen days matched us against Norwich City, a team who – along with Watford, West Brom and Fulham – seemed destined to spend their eternity bouncing between the top two divisions.

This trip to London was going to be slightly different. A little explanation is needed.

Back in the days when I was working in a factory’s Quality Assurance department in the nearby town of Westbury, I started to hear stories of Chelsea legend Ron Harris running a small holiday complex centered around a fishing lake in the nearby town of Warminster. On the eve of our 1994 FA Cup Final with Manchester United, I visited “The Hunter’s Moon” with my copy of the 1970 Cup Final programme, intent on meeting Ron – who I had never ever met before – and getting him to sign it. I remember walking in, and my first view of Chopper was of him clearing some plates away from the small dining room next to the bar area. He duly signed the programme and I can easily remember his words.

“You’re a Chelsea fan, then?”

“Yes.”

“Bad luck.”

I spent a fair bit of time talking to his wife Lee, who I remembered from a couple of player profiles in match programmes from the ‘seventies. I was, of course, hoping that the meeting of our 1970 captain would bring us luck; so much for that plan as we were walloped 4-0 in the Wembley rain. Over the next few seasons, we began calling in at “The Hunter’s Moon” en route back from Chelsea. On one memorable occasion, Ron cajoled us into continuing our drinking and volunteered to drive us back to Frome later that night. We would return to collect Glenn’s car the following morning.

Glenn’s voice of disbelief as we reached his front room lives with me to this day.

“Ron Harris drove us home!””

I remember Ron invited Glenn up to the club’s ninetieth anniversary celebrations with him in 1995, and there were chats with both Peter Osgood and Tommy Langley at Ron’s over the years. He drove Glenn and I up to a game at Chelsea in around 1999.

I didn’t see Ron too much for a while after he moved out of “The Hunter’s Moon” – there was one memorable night with Ron, Ossie and Kerry in 2005 – but I then began seeing him again on the odd occasion at Chelsea. In February 2009, he was due to do a gig before our game at Anfield and asked me if I fancied a lift up to Liverpool. I, of course, jumped at the chance. Although I reported on that match in a blog at the time, I didn’t fancy coming over as a Billy Big Bollocks, so referred to Ron as “Buller” – the nickname bestowed upon him by the players, which was used rather than “Chopper” – and nobody guessed who was driving me to Merseyside. We lost 0-2 that day, those two bloody Torres goals right in front of us.

Meeting up with Ron in Manhattan in 2012 before a Chelsea game at Yankee Stadium was – looking back – a rather special moment. Ron played in the first game that I ever saw in 1974. He played in each one of my first seven games from 1974 to 1976. In fact, of the seventeen games that I saw Chelsea play during his time at the club, he started thirteen, came on as a sub in one, was a non-playing sub in one and missed only two.

Mr. Chelsea ain’t half of it.

There was a Chelsea vs. PSG supporter’s five-a-side game at Chelsea Piers during those few days in New York. I was lucky enough to play for the Chelsea team and after the game I couldn’t help a cheeky dig at Ron.

“I saw you play thirteen games for Chelsea Ron. Didn’t see you score a single goal. You’ve seen me score today. Just one game.”

We both laughed.

After moving south to the coast at Mudeford, Ron returned to Somerset at Shepton Mallet a few years back and now lives just nine miles away from me in Wiltshire, between Westbury and Trowbridge. A few weeks back, his daughter Claire contacted me and asked if I fancied sharing the driving on match days. We agreed midweek games would be difficult due to my work times and Ron’s need to be at Chelsea a few hours before kick-off. We agreed that I could take him to as many weekend games as possible.

Chelsea versus Norwich would be the first one, a tester for timings if nothing else.

So, when I set off at 6.30am, my first port of call would be for Paul at 6.40am, my second would be for Ron at 6.55am and the third one would be for Parky at 7.15am.

All aboard the Chopper Bus.

We usually stop for a bite to eat on the A303 on the way to London, but after hearing that Ron needed to be at Chelsea for his corporate activities at 9.30am, we made haste and made a beeline for Stamford Bridge. I have known for years that Ron is a stickler for being on time – “I’m only ever late for my tackles” – so this didn’t faze me.

There was quality chat in the Buller Bus all the way to London. I kept looking in my rear view mirror as I sped past Stonehenge and all of the familiar sights and saw Ron sat alongside Parky.

Yeah, it was surreal.

Ron ran through some stories and talked of a few managers. He was no fan of Danny Blanchflower – new fans, Google away now – nor Geoff Hurst. As we rose up onto the M3 at just about the same location I heard “That’s Entertainment” last Saturday I remembered one particularly awful season.

“Yeah, in 1978/79 we were shit weren’t we?”

After a few seconds, I realised what I had said. Ron had played virtually every game that season, often as a defensive midfielder.

“Fucking hell Ron, just realised you were playing that season.”

Ron’s smile in the rear view mirror was wide.

As we passed Twickenham, Ron told the story of how manager Dave Sexton took the players one afternoon to the home of rugby to see the Varsity game between Oxford and Cambridge universities. He wanted to show the players how the rugby backs used the overlap as a potent form of attack. For those not into rugby, like me, it is so odd that the attacking players play at the back.

Stupid bloody sport.

Ron was full of praise of Sexton, by far his most admired manager in his nineteen years in the first team at Chelsea. He was certainly one of England’s first tactical gurus, who would win two cups while at Chelsea with Ron his captain.

At 9.20am, I dropped the three passengers off opposite the CFCUK stall at Fulham Broadway.

Perfect.

I went off to park up on Normand Road and then caught the tube down to Putney Bridge. I had booked a table for 10am. I arrived at 9.50am to see around twenty regulars waiting for the boozer to open.

Again, perfect.

Did I say that I work in logistics?

For just a tad under two hours, we relaxed and enjoyed the pre-match. I could chill out now. I won’t deny that there was a little extra pressure on my driving on this particular day. The three of us ordered breakfasts. I will be honest; it was my first full-blown breakfast since my heart attack just over a year ago. The food was bloody lovely. As is so often the case, we were joined by a few mates from near and far.

Shawn – who I met for the first time at that New York weekend in 2012 – and his brother Dan are from Boston and lucked-out on utilising some cheap flights and then coming up trumps on the ticket exchange. They sat alongside us and tucked into a full English too. We were joined by Rich from Edinburgh and Ed from Essex. We had a whale of a time.

The dedicated driver, I was on coffees and Cokes. The time whizzed past. Up onto the platform just as a train pulled in. We were soon at Fulham Broadway, we were soon inside.

Perfect.

At around 12.15pm, I was relieved to hear the PA announce that there would be a minute of applause in the memory of Matthew Harding before the game.

The crowd sang.

“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”

Our much-loved vice-chairman was killed twenty-five years ago. Where does the time go? It remains one of the most horrible times of my life. Only the deaths of my parents, my gran, and maybe of Peter Osgood, have left me more desolate. There was a montage of images of Matthew and a few reflective voice-overs. I am not sure if anyone remembers, but on the Saturday before the helicopter crash on the Tuesday, we lost 2-4 at home to Wimbledon. Before that game, there was a minute’s silence in memory of a stadium disaster in Guatemala during the previous few days. I often thought it poignant that Matthew Harding would have stood silent that day.

I have written about Matthew Harding before here; about how I met him once, how his wife Ruth replied to my mother’s sorrowful letter after his death, of what he meant to us all at Chelsea.

On the Saturday after the crash, I placed a bouquet amongst many others in the East Stand Forecourt.

“Matthew.

With Love And Appreciation.

We Will Never Forget You.”

Before the game with Tottenham, emotions were high. We decamped to Matthew’s favourite pub, The Imperial on the King’s Road, and I raised a pint of Guinness to his memory. This would soon become my drink of choice at Chelsea for many years (I think, as my own special mark of respect) and the minute’s silence before the game – the second in eight days – was pure emotion.

High up in the stand bearing his name, twenty-five years on I had a little moment to myself.

Rest In Peace, Matthew Harding.

With fifteen minutes to go, “London Calling” and then “Parklife” changed the mood a little.

The team news came through.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Chalobah

James – Kovacic – Jorginho – Chilwell

Mount – Hudson-Odoi

Havertz

With five minutes to kick-off, the Matthew Harding banner surfed the lower tier while the balcony confirmed “One Of Our Own.”

The players stood in the centre circle. The crowd applauded.

It took me back to those years of Hoddle, Harding, Hughes, Gullit and – for Glenn and little old me – Harris. To complete the reworking of the “Harris, Hollins, Hudson, Houseman, Hutchinson and Hinton” years, we drank in The Harwood in those days too.

These were great – it has to be stated – “pre-success” times at Chelsea. I loved the team in that era. It was the saddest thing that Matthew died just six months before our first success in twenty-six years.

How he would have enjoyed Wembley 1997, Stockholm 1998, Bolton 2005, the double in 2010, Munich in 2012, Amsterdam in 2013, Baku in 2019 Porto in 2021.

The song again.

“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”

Sigh.

The game began.

Norwich City only had around 1,500 I think. I bet they soon wished that they hadn’t bloody bothered. Malmo on Wednesday were poor, but I think Norwich were even worse.

We began brightly.

The visitors didn’t look interested from the off. Their players looked off the pace. They lolloped around like zombies in a film, unwilling to walk faster than they need to, almost in a trance-like state. Their fight was absolutely missing. How Billy Gilmour has only played four games for them this season is a travesty. Of their players, I only recognised Krul and Pukki, a sure sign of my fading knowledge of football outside of SW6 these days. It’s an age thing.

We were jabbing away nicely at the flabby gut of the Norwich defence from the off, and our play brought applause on a mild autumnal day. Callum Hudson-Odoi was involved early on and we began trying to puncture the back-line. On just nine minutes, crafty approach play from Callum ended up with a cross into the box. Mateo Kovacic won a second ball and played it to Mason Mount on the edge of the box. His well struck swipe flew low into the goal, and I was in right in line with its path.

Get in.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Norwich’s response was lukewarm. We had virtually all of the ball and were finding spaces to exploit. There were a few poor choices of final balls, but we were purring when Kovacic released a superb pass from deep into the path of an on-rushing Hudson-Odoi. He relaxed, looked at the goal, and adeptly threaded the ball past Krul and into the waiting net.

“Brilliant.”

Two-nil and coasting.

More please.

Callum found Mount, but Krul saved.

A first shot from Norwich via Ozan Kabak on thirty-six minutes troubled those in the Harding Upper more than Edouard Mendy.

The noise in the stadium had quietened. These early starts often follow this pattern.

We then witnessed one of Dave Sexton’s overlaps. This one involved Mason Mount playing the ball to Reece James and this allowed the rampaging wing-back to advance and deftly chip the ball over Krul. It was a fine goal, but one I almost missed as I was mid-conversation with Clive.

But 3-0 it was.

And three academy players too, though it wouldn’t dawn on me until later. It’s an age thing.

There had been goals, but Alan and I had spoken about how often we seemed to be wanting to wait and play a perfect ball, rather than shooting on sight. How we missed a Frank Lampard. We were happy with three, of course, but we could have scored more for sure.

At the break, in the Matthew Harding Upper :

Me to Tim : “after Wednesday, when we should have scored six, we simply have to score six today.”

At the break, in the away dressing room :

“Farke knows how we’ll win this.”

The second-half began and we certainly improved, though soon into the game the noise at Stamford Bridge had reduced almost completely.

Fackinell.

We peppered the Norwich goal with a few teasers, but had to thank that man Mendy once again as a Ben Chilwell played in Rashica who ran onto the ball and it appeared that he just needed to round Mendy to score. However, our magnificent man intercepted with an outstretched limb. The crowd roared and so did our ‘keeper.

Just before the hour, Norwich afforded us way too much room and a move involving James and Kovacic played in Chilwell down below me. No volley this time, but a drilled carpet-burner flew into the net.

Four.

Keep’m coming Chels.

Our Callum was finding oodles of space on the left and, five minutes after our last goal, he broke inside the box once again. A low cross was deflected in off the luckless defender Aarons. The ball was just out or reach of the equally luckless Krul and the ball spun into the net.

Five.

Callum looked embarrassed.

Next up in this action-packed demolition job, Norwich were down to ten men after a rugged tackle on James by Gibson saw the referee Madly reaching for a red card.

The crowd were involved now alright. The atmosphere was bubbling away nicely.

On the hour, the loudest chant of the day thus far.

“Champions Of Europe, We Know What We Are.”

A minute later, louder still.

“Carefree.”

The game safe, on came three substitutes.

Ruben Loftis-Cheek, Ross Barkley and Hakim Ziyech replaced Jorginho, Havertz and Hudson-Odoi.

There was a lovely sing-off in The Shed.

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

“We’re the middle. We’re the middle. We’re the middle of The Shed.

“We’re the West side. We’re the West side. We’re the west side of The Shed.”

I was just waiting for the Whitewall…

On the pitch, our team was suddenly full of Frank Lampards. Shots from new boys Barkely and Ziyech – with three whipped-in efforts – caused Krul to leap every which way possible to stop further embarrassment.

But there was time for yet more drama.

A neat one-two played in Rudiger and his shot seemed to be blocked by a defender’s arm. We waited for the VAR decision.

Penalty.

Mason Mount waited, and shot strongly but Krul saved well.

After a few seconds, we realise that the referee was told that the ‘keeper had stepped off his line. Therefore, a re-take, and this time Mount bashed it home.

Six.

During these routs, there is often an injury-time goal and this was one of those occasions. A sweet move involving Ziyech, who looked inspired in his twenty-minutes on the pitch, set up Loftus-Cheek, who advanced, drew the ‘keeper before selflessly squaring for Mason to prod home for his hat-trick.

Seven.

Another VAR wait; a suspicion of offside. No. Seven it was.

Bloody hell.

On reflection, even though the last two games had yielded eleven goals, the tally ought to have been so much more. On Wednesday, we could have scored seven. Against Norwich, we could have scored ten. I can’t remember two more one-sided, consecutive, home games. Norwich City, it pains me to say, were the worst league team that I may well have ever seen us meet at Stamford Bridge.

They were lucky to get naught.

I met up with Mister 795 outside the hotel and we slowly made our way back to the car on Normand Road. Ron was equally scornful of the opposition.

“The club should dip their hands in their pockets and pay for those tickets.”

There was a message from Steve in Philly.

“Chris, if you could travel back in time and tell your teenage self that one day you would be taking Ron Harris to and from Chelsea matches, what would teenage Chris have to say”

The answer was easy.

“Fackinell.”

I battled the traffic to get out past the M25, but made great time on the return journey. There was a lovely mixture of chit-chat and laughs all the way home. Ron Harris will do well in our Chuckle Bus.

I dropped Parky off at 6.10pm, Ron at 6.30pm, PD at 6.45pm, and I was home at 7pm.

The perfect day continued as I found out that Frome Town, who were 0-2 at half-time at Cinderford Town came back to win 3-2 with a Kane Simpson hat-trick. And I was also able to sort out a couple of tickets for mates for the United game next month. It really was a nigh-on perfect day.

Next up Southampton at home on Tuesday and then the long-awaited expedition to Tyneside on Saturday.

Good times, everyone, good times.

Oh by the way, Lukak-who?

Tales From Beneath The Whispering Gallery

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 19 September 2021.

I have said it before and I suspect that I will say it again and again; to me Tottenham is our biggest away game. It’s certainly the one that I look forward to more than no other. It has history. It has substance. It has animosity. It has hate. With Chelsea flying high, and Tottenham faltering, I couldn’t wait to set off for their new spanking stadium that soars over the more down-at-heel shops and houses on the Tottenham High Road and its associated neighbouring streets.

But first an FA Cup tie.

Yes, dear reader, this was another weekend of football that was to give me the twin gifts of League and Cup.

I assembled at Frome Town’s ground Badgers Hill for the 3pm kick-off on the Saturday for a game against National League South outfit Oxford City, a team that we had recently played in the same step of the football pyramid. Since then, the Hoops have advanced one step, while the Robins have descended one.

What transpired was a stunningly perfect afternoon of FA Cup football, played out under a mottled sky, warming sunshine and with a really gratifying attendance of almost six hundred spectators. Frome soaked up some steady pressure in the first-half and an Oxford goal was called back for offside. Two stunning breakaway goals by James Ollis and Joe O’Loughlin gave the home team a surprise 2-0 lead at the break. Frome then improved further, with more attacks, more efforts on goal. But just at the very moment that my mate Francis uttered the immortal words “they look like scoring” and I replied “you’re right” – they did.

Despite an increasingly nervous last quarter of an hour, manager Danny Greaves’ side held on to win 2-1.

My friend Steve, the newly-crowned club historian, believed this to be Frome’s first win in the Cup against a team two divisions higher than us since a 1984 win against Bath City.

So, into the Third Qualifying Round we go. I remember watching Frome Town play against Team Bath at the same stage around ten years ago; a 2-2 draw at home, a heavy 0-4 loss away, at Bath City’s Twerton Park.

We would await the draw on Monday with keen interest.

I collected PD and Parky at 9.15am on the Sunday morning and pointed my Chelsea Blue Chuckle Wagon eastwards. We tend to break up the journey with a Greggs breakfast – being on a diet ain’t easy with all of the miles we travel for football – just before the A303 meets the M3. The woman serving us at Popham Services – Eddie Large in drag – has got to know our ugly faces the past two seasons and there is usually a little football banter while we order baps, baguettes and slices. She’s a Liverpool fan. Yes, you can only imagine.

Just as I slid the car away, PD announced :

“Jimmy Greaves has died, then.”

Oh no. What sad news. I know that he had been ill for some time.

“Did he pass away today? Bloody strange if he did, what with Tottenham playing Chelsea.”

I ate up the miles, and we were parked up at Barons Court tube at 11.45am; as quick and as easy a journey in as I can remember. We would eventually hope to catch the 3pm over ground service from Liverpool Street up to White Hart Lane, but we didn’t particularly care to be surrounded by coke’d up wannabes in the pubs that cluster around that station for a few hours, drinking out of plastic glasses and under the eye of the OB. I fancied somewhere different. We changed from the Piccadilly to the Central at Holborn, then alighted at St. Paul’s.

We made “The Paternoster” our base for a couple of hours or so. In a break from the light drizzle and then steady showers, I sped outside for twenty minutes to take a few photographs of Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece. I looked up at the huge and impressive dome, and remembered tales of The Whispering Gallery. I had been past St. Paul’s Cathedral once or twice by bus in recent times, but the last time that I had actually stood outside it was on a family trip to London in 1981. While my parents and an aunt toured inside the cathedral, I just walked to Stamford Bridge. It seemed the most logical thing to do in the circumstances.

From one cathedral to another.

I can distinctly remember reading the Jimmy Greaves autobiography “This One’s On Me” around that same time and, thinking back, it was undoubtedly the first footballer’s autobiography that I ever read. I can remember reading how he hated his time in Milan after his forced move from Chelsea. His decline into alcoholism was quite harrowing for a sixteen-year-old to read.

I wasn’t going to have a single beer, but I bought a single “Peroni” to toast his memory.

“Oh, he did die today. How uncanny.”

There was a photograph on the internet of Jimmy Greaves, from around maybe fifteen years ago, being presented pitch side at Stamford Bridge. I must have been there, yet – alas – I have no recollection of it.

Outside, the rain, but only a few spots. At 2.40pm, we whizzed up to Liverpool Street, and then found an empty carriage at Liverpool Street for the last leg of the journey. It was the earliest that we would be arriving in N17 for ages. On the twenty-five-minute journey, PD surprised us all and began chatting to some Tottenham fans. Parky and I kept our silence. To be fair, they were decent lads and we wished each other well, although I am sure none of us fucking meant it.

I wanted to take a few photographs of the stadium, so excused myself. Let’s not waste any time here; the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is a stunner, an absolute beauty, surely the finest football stadium in Europe. That it sits cheek by jowl alongside the same fried chicken joints, nail shops, kebab houses and grimy pubs as the old White Hart Lane gives the place a very odd feeling, as uneven a setting as there is ever likely to be. It might be on The High Road, but it overlooks The Low Road.

Simple black and white images of Jimmy Greaves MBE appeared on the outside and inside of the stadium. His presence was everywhere. Again, how odd and yet fitting that he should pass away on the day of the derby between his two main teams. I was reminded of Dixie Dean passing away at Goodison during the Merseyside derby in 1980.

I whirled away, bumped into some Chelsea acquaintances from Bristol and New York on the High Road, then spun around to enter the away turnstiles in the north-eastern corner.

Just as I entered the away concourse, there was an almighty commotion and I couldn’t quite work out what was occurring.

United were winning 2-1 at West Ham, but there was a late penalty for the home team. Noble then missed. Bollocks.

How’s that for a match report?

This was Parky’s first visit to the new place. I looked at the towering South Stand and could hardly believe how high it extended.

The troops arrived.

Alan, Gary, Foxy and Drew from Dundee, Margaret and Pam, Calvin, Becky and Cath. There were a few chats with many of the usual suspects.

Turin dominated.

I had succumbed on Friday to a four-day trip to the home city of Juventus for our game in a couple of weeks’ time.

I chatted with Patrick, then Ali and Nick, then Alan, then Tim. There were differing levels of understanding of what testing and procedures were required. It would, no doubt, be a stressful time over the next week or so. Preparations for Porto proved to be a drain on my brain and I am sure Turin will be too.

“Mendy’s out.”

Bollocks.

The stadium filled. I couldn’t work out if the seats are all muted slate grey or a dull navy. Regardless, virtually all were filled. We were in row four, right down the front, not far from our spot in the 2019/20 season.

It shows how disconnected we were last season that neither Alan nor Gary nor myself could remember how we did at Tottenham last season.

“Draw, wannit?”

One of the former players being interviewed for the in-house TV Channel was Gary Mabbutt, his Bristol twang taking me back to when he used to play for Bristol Rovers, then Tottenham, then England.

Gary : “Good player, Mabbutt.”

Chris : “His father, Ray, used to play for Frome.”

The team was announced. Not only no Mendy, but no Kante either.

Kepa

Rudiger – Silva – Christensen

Dave – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Lukaku – Havertz

Just before kick-off, that same image of Jimmy Greaves appeared on the TV screens in the four corners of the stadium, high above the pitch. Both sets of fans roundly and solidly applauded his memory.

He was loved by the fans of both clubs and the whole of the football world.

Jimmy Greaves was the greatest ever goal scorer produced by the English nation.

I remembered that in 2019, Martin Peters – unlike Greaves, a player in the 1966 World Cup Final – was similarly remembered.

Glenn Hoddle appeared out of nowhere and was given a fine reception by the 3,000 Chelsea fans in the corner as he walked around the edge of the pitch.

The game began. Tottenham attacked our northern end. With them playing in navy socks this year, we were allowed to wear our white socks. I approved. I soon found myself being distracted a little by all of the constant messages being blitzed across the various balconies. Supporters clubs from all over the world were featured. One made me double-take.

Baku Spurs.

Baku? Bloody hell. Probably just one bloke with a Tottenham mouse mat.

There is no denying it. Tottenham were quicker out of the traps than us in the first quarter of the game. We plodded along, and struggled to link passes through our midfield, whereas the home team looked sharper and created a little more.

With the home crowd singing “Oh when the Spurs”, Tottenham were given a central free-kick. The singing continued as the build-up seemed to take forever. Harry Kane was to take it. The singing grew louder.

“Fuck, if he scores now, after that song as a pre-curser, this place will bloody explode.”

He hit the wall.

Phew.

A rapid break in the inside right channel involving Mason Mount got us on our toes – the rail seating is excellent at Tottenham, I was able to lean forward on many occasions – but after a messy one-two with Lukaku, the chance was spurned, pardon the pun.

This was a tight game, and the home team were edging it. Havertz looked out of sorts, and on too many occasions Tottenham were able to cut through us. However, the away support was full of all the old favourites which we love to air in this particular part of North London.

“We’re the only team in London…”

“We won 6-1 at The Lane…”

“And the shit from The Lane…”

Alas, the players were not as entertaining. Tottenham managed a few set pieces, but corners were steadfastly headed away by various defenders. It was all a little underwhelming. After Tottenham – players and fans alike – were found to be bellowing at any perceived Chelsea foul or piece of wrong-doing, the noise levels increased. Gary had his usual response.

“Fackinell. More appeals than Blue Peter.”

Kepa saved well at the feet of the raiding Son, and was injured. Thankfully he recovered. Then an errant back-pass by Rudiger had only just been despatched in time by Kepa. Only a couple of shots from distance – wide and blocked – were forthcoming from the Chelsea attack the entire half. Their ‘keeper Hugo Loris had hardly had a shot to save.

That would soon change.

I turned to Gary : “Well, they can’t play as well as that in the second-half.”

I returned a little late at the break and missed the restart.

“Kante on? Who’s off? Mount?”

As much as we all love Mason, he had not enjoyed a great half at all. In came our tigerish tackler to replace him. I couldn’t quite work out how the new addition would fit in alongside Jorginho and Kovacic, but soon into the second-half I didn’t care.

There soon followed a sublime piece of football that had me purring. Thiago Silva pinged a wonderful ball into space for the on-rushing Marcos Alonso. It cut out everyone. A trademark volley at an angle from the left wing-back was superbly saved by the cat-like reflexes of Loris.

“That’s more like it Chels. Come on!”

The Chelsea pressure mounted. A few corners were whipped in just in front of us by that man Alonso. One more corner was then aimed centrally, from the other side of the pitch, and the silver hair of Silva was seen to rise above all those around him and the ball flashed past Loris into the Tottenham goal.

FUCKINGGETIN.

The goal on film, I remained steady to capture his exuberant run towards the Chelsea fans who had now been let loose into a wild orgasmic frenzy of arms and legs, or “limbs” as the kids say. Such joy. Such happiness.

This is why we go to football.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Donna and Rachael suddenly appeared in front of us after having disappeared a few minutes before the break for some bevvies. They had missed the first goal. But they did not miss the second one. Just after Dier blocked a shot from Alonso on the goal-line, a shot from distance from N’Golo – it could only be termed, at its most optimistic, as “speculative” – took a wicked deflection off Dier. The ball spun goal wards, hit the base of the post nearest us, and we watched – eyes on stalks, balancing on toes – as the ball skewed itself over the line and into the goal.

Laugh? I almost bought a round of drinks.

Oh that was beautiful.

“Tottenham Hotspur, it’s happened again.”

Kante looked, of course, so bashful. Bless him.

Just twelve minutes into the second-half, and we were now well on top. The home fans were now completely muted.

The whispering gallery had been moved from inside the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral to the top tier at Tottenham.

One of the many messages flashed all over the LED displays on the balconies at Tottenham mentions the Spurs Skywalk. This takes the unfortunate supporter out onto the roof, where – if they look well – they can just make out the East Stand at Stamford Bridge, the home of the only club in London with not one, but two, European Cups.

I thought to myself :

“Those Tottenham players had best book themselves onto that skywalk. It’ll be the highest they will ever fucking get.”

Kante was everywhere and I mean everywhere. The whole team had been revitalised by his appearance at the start of the second period. Elsewhere, we suddenly had runners, and our attacking performance reached lovely levels.

A lone shot from the hidden, or hiding, Kane was well saved by Kepa. Silva, our man of the match, was foiled by Loris, who was easily the Tottenham man of the match. Yet more saves followed from Alonso – again! – and Timo Werner, a late substitute for Havertz. Lukaku enjoyed a late surge, running centrally on a few occasions at the disillusioned Tottenham defence, twisting and turning, turning defenders’ legs into jelly, Dier and Romeiro pleading for salvation, but Loris foiled both him and Kovacic. The Croatian was one of the stars of that second period. We were on fire.

If it had been the Bernabeu, white handkerchiefs would have been waved.

There was even time for a “Bouncy Bouncy” : how 2013.

Right at the end, with many of the home fans having decided that “enough was enough”, the ball was picked up and Timo Werner did ever so well to pull the ball back for Rudi to pick a corner and drill the ball in.

Tottenham 0 Chelsea 3.

The crowd erupted once more.

There was another ridiculously jubilant run by the scorer to our corner, and with Jorginho absolutely pissing himself, the photos were a joy to snap.

I turned to Gary again.

“We top?”

“Yeah.”

Parky and I met up with PD, who had enjoyed a great view in the back row of our section, and we slowly walked away from the ground. I overheard someone say “three league wins out of three here” – oh, it wasn’t a draw last season? – and maybe it is time to well-and-truly rename the new gaff Three Point Lane.

The Stadium.

The Game.

Us.

Our exit strategy was the same as at Christmas 2019; find a fast-food place for a chicken burger and wait for the crowds to disperse. We caught the 7.48pm train from White Hart Lane back into town, and the carriage was full of moaning Tottenham fans. A heavily made up woman with lips that looked like they had been filled with air was the main noisemaker :

“Right. I’ll say it. Don’t care. We are shit. We just gotta acclimatise ourselves into realising we ain’t that good.”

I looked at PD. Parky looked at me.

I whispered : “She’s got a point.”

Unlike Tottenham.

On we go, Villa next, see you there.

The End.

Tales From The Arsenal Petri Dish

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 22 August 2021.

One weekend. One game on Saturday. One game on Sunday. An FA Cup game on Saturday. A Premier League game on Sunday. Two local derbies. One in Somerset. One in London. One four miles away. One a hundred and fifteen miles away.

Football was back.

This was my first footballing double-header in ages, and one which I was – of course – relishing. At work on the Friday, I could hardly believe my own ears as I repeatedly told colleagues that I really fancied us – “us” as in Chelsea, not Frome Town – to do really well at The Emirates and I genuinely meant it. Whisper it, but I even told a couple that I half-expected us to pump a fair few goals into Arsenal. This sort of over-confidence is rare, especially before an away game and especially at a ground where we haven’t always had it our own way in recent times.

It was with a beautiful feeling that I woke on Saturday morning with a near perfect football weekend ahead of me.

First up, a Frome Town vs. Paulton Rovers FA Cup Preliminary Round game. Last weekend, while I was at Chelsea, a local company sponsored the town’s league opener at home to Highworth Town by giving away free tickets to anybody who fancied it. A fantastic crowd of 867 duly attended; it was the fifth highest league crowd in Frome Town’s one hundred and seventeen year history and I was a little annoyed that I could not be part of it. A 1-0 win followed. I had arranged to meet up with a couple of old school friends for the FA Cup game against the local rivals from Paulton. We were treated to a very entertaining game of football. Frome went ahead with a sublime volley from Rex Mannings early in the game. Yet Paulton moved the ball well and came back into the match with a virtual carbon copy of Marcos Alonso’s sublime free-kick against Palace last weekend. The only difference was that the Frome ‘keeper made an effort to save it. Frome then dug in, and found a new resilience to win the game with two late goals from Jon Davies and James Ollis. The gate was a healthy 398. I even bumped into Glenn at the final whistle; he had strolled in late on after seeing another game across the road.

“See you tomorrow at ten.”

“Tomorrow” duly arrived. I collected PD and Glenn in Frome and set off for London. Unfortunately, Parky had contracted COVID19, quite possibly while at Stamford Bridge the previous weekend, and so was unable to attend. It was Glenn who picked up his ticket. I saw Parky briefly – at distance – during the week to collect the match ticket and the old soldier had been hit hard. But he was improving slightly as the week passed. I had both a Lateral Flow and a PCR Test early in the week; both negative, I was fine.

We were parked up at Barons Court tube station in West London at around 12.30pm. The classic green-tiled interior of the booking hall welcomed us. We always park here for Chelsea away games as its just off the A4. I remarked to PD that we didn’t always have great memories of walking up those steps after away games at West Ham, Arsenal and Tottenham. But I was still supremely confident. And it didn’t even worry me, which was worrying in itself.

Was this just because the returning hero Romelu Lukaku was set to play his first game for Chelsea since his move back to SW6 from Inter? Yes and no. We are already a decent team, but his presence should round off the team very nicely. It would, hopefully, banish the nerds into blathering on about “false nines” into the wilderness for a few seasons too. Bonus.

I saw Lukaku play a handful of times – four starts plus a handful of substitute appearances – in his first spell with the club. His last appearance was as a substitute against Aston Villa on a midweek game in early 2013/14. I chose just one photo to accompany that match report, as was my way in those days (it was in fact the first-ever fresh match report on this site) and it was of him, shielding the ball below me.

I last got up-close and personal with him three weeks later before a league game at Goodison Park. I happened to be outside the main entrance as he arrived in his car after going on loan at the club and I shook his hand and said “have a great season here, then come back to us next season, God bless you.”

He must have misunderstood my sense of urgency.

The three of us joined up with Alan, Gary and Daryl in “The Euston Flyer” not far from St. Pancras. I was gasping so treated myself to one refreshing “Peroni” before getting back onto some “Diet Pepsi”. I felt a bit awkward admitting to the lads that I fancied us strongly later in the day. It was, no doubt, a most un-Chelseaesque feeling. The Southampton versus Manchester United game was on TV. A huge cheer met the Saints’ goal, a lesser cheer for the equaliser. It was Glenn’s first meeting with the three lads from London since Everton at home in March of last year. There were a few Chelsea faces that I recognised in the boozer, conveniently placed before the short hop up to The Emirates.

I wanted to visit Highbury and take a few photos of the old Arsenal Stadium, so excused myself and left at around 3.15pm. Alas, this didn’t go to plan.

I alighted at Highbury & Islington tube and walked up the Holloway Road, but instead of diverting towards Highbury I made the mistake of heading towards The Emirates first – like a moth to a flame – which was a bit silly really. I was soon entrenched in a line at the slope behind the Clock End entrance and soon realised that to visit Highbury, I would have to go back out and then return again, and I wasn’t keen on two security checks.

“Maybe next time.”

We were kept waiting for twenty minutes. I didn’t particularly enjoy being among the replica-kitted Arsenal fans, but I kept quiet and waited in turn for a security pat down. Unlike Chelsea, there was no COVID19 passport check required and, after getting a body check with a scanner, I avoided eye-contact with the team at the “bag check” tables behind and waltzed in through.

Outside The Emirates, as it curves towards the away turnstiles, I could not help but notice that the signage on the stadium wall now looks really faded. Everything is a light pink and not a strong red. Those images of the interlinked Arsenal players seemed lacklustre. It was as if the Arsenal shirts had been washed in the wrong type of detergent. Inside the stadium, even the famously padded seats looked faded too.

The faded glory of a once proud club?

I hoped so.

Of course hardly anyone was wearing face coverings. On the London Underground, a good 95% of passengers were wearing masks. At the football, it was less than 5%.

I looked out at the undulating top tier and the middle tiers awaiting to be filled, then the gentle slope of the bottom tier and wondered about the safety of it all. Was The Emirates a giant petri dish in disguise? How safe were we? Only time would tell.

I bumped into loads and loads. This was the first proper domestic away since Bournemouth in February 2020. Everyone was greeting each other like long lost friends, which is of course exactly what we all were.

I was down in row six, in line with the six-yard box alongside PD, Gary and Alan. This was my fifteenth visit to The Emirates; I have seen every one of our league appearances at the new place, excepting the 2020/21 fixture of course. It must hurt many of those who, unlike me, never miss a game, to have their records blown to smithereens the past year and a half.

Damn you COVID.

We had heard that many Arsenal tickets had not been sold. There were gaps, but not swathes.

The rain that had been expected was thankfully nowhere to be seen. All three of us had left rain jackets in the car.

Our team was announced and it did not surprise me to see Lukaku in and Timo Werner out. A few raised eyebrows at Marcos Alonso in, though.

Edouard

Antonio – Andreas – Dave

Marcos – Jorgi – Mateo – Reece

Kai – Romelu – Mase

Happy with that. Kante on the bench.

Arsenal’s team consisted of a few names that, due to my abandonment of TV football in 2020/21 could easily have been the names of TV repairmen, taxi drivers and hair-dressers. I fucking hoped that they would be playing like them too.

Pre-match, a few Chelsea warm ups from the terrace to get the vocal chords warmed up. Nothing from Arsenal.

Arsenal in an apparent nod to their 1998/99 kit – but looking a little too “Ajax” for my liking – and Chelsea in their Charlie Cairoli hand-me-downs of all blue.

Arsenal, as always, attacked the Clock End in the first-half and were first out of the traps but a shot from Emile Smith-Rowe, the chartered accountant, was easily dealt with by our man Mendy.

Sadly, the gentle rake of the lower tier and the fact that I am a proud short-arse meant that my view of the game was not great at all. I hardly saw any of the action down our right. I saw a lot of the backs of heads, but bugger all else. Only when the ball was in the other two-thirds of the pitch did I see enough. I felt a bit disjointed. At least the rain was holding off.

On a quarter of an hour, the ball was played into Lukaku who touched the ball back to Mateo Kovacic. He then spread the ball out to Reece James and we sensed danger. All eyes were on the wide man, but I suspect that the viewing millions at home were more likely tuned to the run into the box of Lukaku. The ball was played into the six-yard box to perfection and, amidst a bewildered group of window dressers, sous chefs and car mechanics, Lukaku struck.

One-nil to the European Champions.

GETINYOUBASTARDS.

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

Chris : “come on my little diamonds.”

The Chelsea crowd went berserk. Unable to focus on the celebrating players, I turned the camera on us. One image is of a beautiful gurning, exhilarated, beatific, orgasmic mess of humanity.

Ah, the joy of football.

It was back.

With no Chelsea goals in his first period with us, it was our new target man’s first Chelsea goal.

“Romu, Romelu, Romu, Romelu, Romu, Romelu, Romelu Lukaku.”

It is not known what Mateja Kezman nor Fernando Torres were thinking at that exact moment in time.

A header from Lukaku dropped over the bar.

Up the other end, the dance trio Xhaka, Saka and Lokonga combined but Mendy was not troubled.

We were dominating the game and the home fans knew it. The little group next to the away contingent behind the goal were trying to make some noise, but only when a ball was pushed through for the cycle courier to race on did the home crowd make any sustainable racket. Kieran Tierney in front of me seemed to have a lot of the ball but our defence was well marshalled. Efforts on our goal were at a minimum.

On thirty-four minutes, a magnificent move that started on our left but finished on our right, with Reece James free and in space and able to crash the ball past chat show host Leno.

The Chelsea 2 The Arsenal 0.

Magnificent.

I had silly visions of 3-0, 4-0, 5-0.

At that stage it did look possible.

Sadly, in the last ten minutes of the half, the heavens opened. We remained in place, in defiance of the weather. I just had a T-shirt on. I tucked my camera away. I remained stood, and prayed for a respite.

James tangled with Saka. No penalty.

We were playing so well.

But the clouds were darkening overhead and Arsenal’s supporters must have been immersed in the gloom.

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

The rain continued to fall throughout the half-time break and at the start of the second-half. We grimly stood on duty, and at least we were buoyed by a sterling performance from our team. The two goal scorers under Chelsea on the scoreboard were matched by two bookings for Arsenal.

“And when we win the league again, we’ll sing this song all night.”

A fine strike from Saka was tipped over by Mendy. It was his first real test. Were Arsenal equipped for a comeback? They only occasionally hinted that it might be possible.

Lukaku played the ball back to Mason but his shot was dragged wide.

On the hour, head tennis in our box and Holding the sixth-form tuck shop supervisor headed over, though I only saw it on the replay.

A third Arsenal booking, a swipe at the marauding Lukaku.

The rain stopped.

Kante for Kovacic.

The entire Arsenal support : “Fackinell.”

With a quarter of an hour to play, Mount slipped the ball in to a central Lukaku. It was a perfect ball. The striker headed at goal but Leno adjusted so well to tip the ball onto the bar.

A third goal would not have flattered us.

Ziyech for Mount.

Havertz went close.

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

Werner for Havertz.

We saw the game out. Arsenal just missed a cutting edge. They hardly created anything of note. Our lads were excellent and my positive pre-match thoughts were justified. I really enjoyed the physicality of Lukaku. The modern game seems to be drifting inexorably to a “non-contact” sport so there is something gratifying, something that stirs the senses and galvanises emotion, about a good old-fashioned one-on-one battle. It used to happen in midfield in days gone by. Now it tends to be a very rare event. Shades of Drogba and Costa? Oh yes.

We said our goodbyes, and the three from Frome slowly wandered down the Holloway Road before diving into our usual Chinese for a bite to eat.

The drive home was blissful. It was a joy to be back on the road after such a lovely away day.

I pulled in to my drive at just after 10.45pm, and saw the very last of Ian Wright – I think – and his damning assessment of Arsenal’s woes on “MOTD2.”

Next up, another cracking away game.

Liverpool away. Ah, these away days are the best. The absolute best.

Herbert And Some Herberts.

Guns.

Super Dave.

Cross.

Head.

Joy.

Reflections.

Storm Clouds Above.

The Clock End.

Hands.

Out.

Marcos In The Rain.

A Shot Saved.

Serious Business.

Late on Sunday night, I cheekily posted on “Facebook” :

“Catch Us If You Can.”

side note : sadly, the petri dish at Arsenal yielded two further victims to COVID19. Two of my featured pals succumbed to the virus since Sunday and another has lost his voice. I have taken a Lateral Flow Test, and await the result of a PCR too.

Fingers crossed. See you at Anfield? I hope so.

Tales From Our Time In The Sun

Chelsea vs. Villareal : 11 August 2021.

There was a moment in The Harp bar in Belfast’s historic and beguiling Cathedral Quarter that will live with me for a while. Parky and I had met up with our good friends from Edinburgh Gillian, Kev and Rich at just after 2pm on the day of the game. We were then joined by old friends Daryl, Ed, Gary and Pete in our favourite Belfast bar. We loved the décor, the attentive staff, the choice of beers – including draft Peroni – and the excellent music. We had crowded around a couple of tables for a few hours and had been predictably catching up with each other after almost a year and a half apart. There was the usual flow of stories, jokes and laughter but also – in these rather odd times in which we have found ourselves – a few sobering tales of health issues, of how we tried to overcome the stresses of lockdown and a few fleeting mentions of Chelsea Football Club where time permitted. The time, of course, absolutely flew past. The kick-off between Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea and Unai Emery’s Villareal was at 8pm. We had decided to leave for Windsor Park at around 6pm, but I was hoping for some sort of suspension of time so that we could just enjoy this wonderful pre-match for a few precious moments more.

And then things improved further still. One of the bar staff decided to open the concertina windows that fronted onto the narrow street outside. The sunlight suddenly shone into the bar, and the late afternoon air immediately hit us.

It seemed that after our yearlong hibernation from watching Chelsea, we were now catapulted into a warm – and warming – future.

“After those dark, bleak months away from Chelsea, this is our time in the sun boys.”

It really was sheer bliss. We were all livened by the sun’s rays.

We got more beers in.

Perfect.

There was a time when the city of Belfast in Northern Ireland would have been a no-go for me. Even as recently as twenty years ago, it seemed a rather intimidating place, as it endeavoured to escape the shackles of its sectarian past. When I started travelling around Europe independently and also with friends, Belfast was simply a place too far. I can remember being genuinely scared of the city, a result of watching all of those awful images on TV in the ‘seventies of bombs and desolation. For a while, it seemed that every time I stayed up late on a Saturday night in the early ‘seventies to watch “Match Of The Day”, there would be harrowing film of a city under siege on the preceding news on BBC1. Names such as the Falls Road, the Shankhill Road, the Crumlin Road and Divis Flats have stayed in my consciousness from early those days.

Thankfully, times have changed. For a few years I have been promising myself a trip to Belfast – EasyJet run cheap flights from nearby Bristol – so there was a sense of real joy when it became apparent that Belfast would be hosting the 2021 UEFA Super Cup Final. I love the way that Chelsea has dragged me to some of the cities that I have always wanted to visit; Moscow, Jerusalem, Tokyo, Beijing…St. Petersburg is waiting in the wings.

What luck.

Not long after our – still – surprising journey to this Champions League Final and subsequent victory against Manchester City, it did not take me long at all to book flights and a hotel to Belfast. I managed to coerce Parky to join me. We would be in town for three long days. Compared to the stresses of last summer, this year has been a relative breeze at work but I have to admit the thought of a lovely Chelsea-fuelled break in Belfast has kept me going when things darkened a little.

I was, deep down, hoping to be something of a lucky charm for Chelsea. I have only ever attended one UEFA Super Cup before, the only one where we have been victorious; our first one in Monaco in 1998. I did not travel again to Monaco in 2012, nor Prague in 2013 nor Istanbul in 2019.

But Monaco 1998. What a trip.

As winners of the European Cup Winners’ Cup against Joachim Low’s Stuttgart, Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea were assured of a place in the subsequent Super Cup match against Guus Hiddink’s Real Madrid – winners of the European Cup against Juventus – in Monaco in August. Of course, in those days both finals were held on Wednesdays. We won in Stockholm on 13 May, then had to wait a week to see who we would be playing. It will surprise nobody that I was hoping that Juventus would be our opposition in Monaco. It would have been my dream matchup, even though we would have been ridiculously out-numbered by the Italians with Turin only a few hours away.  But just as we won in Sweden with a single goal from Gianfranco Zola, it was the Castilians who triumphed by the same score in Amsterdam with a goal from Predrag Mijatovic.

At the time of the game in Sweden, I was famously unemployed; I had lost my job the previous month. But by the time that August came around, I had moved into a very satisfying job in logistics, although those first few months were pretty frantic. But my employer granted me time off at the end of the month, so all was well. A company called Millwest – a Manchester sports travel firm, formerly Universal – had advertised a four-day coach trip to the South of France that included a night in nearby Nice for a decent price of £129. The match ticket was extra.

My mate Andy – who travelled to Porto with me in May this year – was the only one of my close Chelsea mates that fancied it. The season was two games old. I didn’t attend the opening 1-2 loss at Coventry City, but was at the following weekend’s 1-1 draw at home to Newcastle United. New players included Brian Laudrup, Pierluigi Casiraghi, Albert Ferrer and Marcel Desailly. It was a considerable upgrade to our squad.

Andy and I met up at a pub near Victoria around lunchtime on the Thursday ahead of the game in Monaco on the Friday evening. We boarded the coach and started talking to our travel companions. I think we semi-recognised a few from The Harwood Arms which was one of the hardcore pubs around that time. I remember a gaggle of lads from Highbridge in Somerset who had brought along a few flagons of the local “Rich’s” cider. One lad – Jamie – I see on odd occasions to this day. One of his crew was a lad who wasn’t really into football, attending his first-ever game, and bore an uncanny resemblance to serial killer Fred West. I remember a lad who was Tommy Langley’s cousin on the coach. Most were blokes. Virtually all in fact. Once in France, we stopped at the “Eastenders” wholesale drinks warehouse and stocked up on beer and cheese. The banter among new friends slowly faded away as we all fell asleep on the ten-hour drive south. We all occupied double seats. There was plenty of room.

Not long after waking on the Friday morning the coach broke down on the wide approach towards the coast. We were only shy of our destination by around twenty miles.  After a couple of nervous hours on the side of the motorway, we eventually limped into Nice. We sensed that the relationship between the drivers, an American and a Canadian, was already strained. Our surprisingly good quality hotel was on the western end of Promenade D’Anglais, the main road that hugged the beach. We were suitably impressed.

A quick change around lunchtime and then a bus into the town centre. Typically, we bumped into Jonesy from Andy’s home town of Nuneaton. We plotted up at a table and enjoyed some beer and pizza.

We later found ourselves outside a bar at the main station at Nice, where a decade or so earlier I had slept al fresco on my travels around Europe as I waited for an early morning train into Italy. Andy spotted Hicky in the distance, the first time I had seen him since the ‘eighties, a visitor from Thailand and at one time the nation’s most infamous football hooligan. We hopped on a train for the short twenty minute into Monaco.  The stadium is a stone’s throw from the train station.

The pre-match was memorable for Andy’s altercation with the Labour MP and Chelsea supporter Tony Banks outside the VIP entrance.

Previously, the Super Cup had been played over two legs.

1998 was the first year of it being played in Monaco where it resided until 2012. It was always held on the same weekend as the UEFA draws and I believe most draws were made in Monaco during that era.

Of course, the Monaco stadium is an odd creation. The pitch is famously above several stories of facilities including a basketball arena and a car park. It holds 16,000 but the gate on that night in 1998 was 11,589. My guess is that no more than one thousand Chelsea supporters were present. We were allocated the open away end with its nine high arches at the rear of the yellow seats.

It was a case of “sit where you like” and Andy and I chose to stand behind the goal.

Chelsea played in all blue, which was considered unlucky by many until we won the league at Bolton in 2005 in that colour combination.

I remember little of the game. I think the pitch was pretty bumpy and didn’t play true. Real Madrid had many more supporters than us at the opposite end; maybe four thousand. Real’s team included Roberto Carlos, Christian Panucci, Fernando Hierro, Clarence Seedorf and Raul. They were no mugs for sure. But we won it with a solitary goal from Gus Poyet in the eighty-third minute, a low strike at our end. I remember our new signing Brian Laudrup made his debut for us just after our goal.

At the time, it seemed we were invincible in the cup competitions.

1997 FA Cup

1998 Football League Cup

1998 European Cup Winners’ Cup

1998 UEFA Super Cup

After the game, Andy uttered the famous line…

“In a bar in Madrid right now, there’s an old Real Madrid fan who is saying” –

“Chelsea. They always beat us.”

We hopped onto a waiting train, triumphant. We enjoyed a few more beers before calling it a night.

In the morning, we were to learn that out on the promenade in the small hours of Saturday morning, Fred West had an altercation of his own with a woman who revealed herself to be a transvestite and then, if that wasn’t enough a shock for our Fred – after a little provocation from what I remember – drew a pistol and fired a few shots into the air. Fred West raced back to the safety of the hotel and according to Jamie when I saw him a few years back has not been seen at a game since.

On the Saturday, we dipped into Nice again for a few more beers and a bite to eat. These were simply super times. The Chelsea stories came thick and fast. This was all a bit like the second coming of Chelsea; we were all in love with the 1970/71 team and here we were witnessing a repeat in 1997/98.

We caught a cab back to the hotel and I can remember this moment as if it was yesterday.

A little boozy, light-headed with beers, the window open, laughter from my new-found friends alongside me, the Mediterranean sky overhead, the warm air brushing my cheeks, high on life, high on Chelsea, high on everything.

It was my time in the sun, and one that I was to repeat twenty-three years later.

Super.

But this was to be the briefest of away trips in reality. We left for the long return trip home during early afternoon on the Saturday.

Sadly, the coach broke down again near Marseille. A few lads needed to be back in the UK on the Sunday so got off and caught a cab to Marseille airport. There followed another frustrating wait for a few hours. Eventually we got going. I slept fitfully. I remember sitting in a French service station eating a dodgy sandwich around midnight when the news broke that one of the coach drivers had stormed off in a moody fit. I can recollect seeing him walking away with his little bag on wheels being towed behind him. We pleaded with him to return. One driver would not be able to get us to Calais in light of the driving regulations. Eventually he relented. On the approach to Calais there was a further fuel leak and the coach limped home. On the motorway back in Blighty, we pulled into a services and changed coaches. We arrived back in London at around 5pm on the Sunday, a good five hours later than planned.

It was, as we joked, a character-building trip and one that always brings a smile of happiness when Andy and I remember it.

Twenty-three years ago, though.

Fackinell.

Postcards From Monaco.

The trip to the 2021 Super Cup had begun for me with an early alarm at 2am in the small hours of Tuesday, the day before the game. I collected Parky at 4am. By 5am we had arrived at Bristol Airport. It was no surprise that we saw a gaggle of familiar Chelsea faces from the West of England on our 7am flight to Belfast International Airport. There were around thirty Chelsea on the flight which lasted less than an hour. Friends Foxy from Dundee and Rich from Edinburgh were waiting for us outside the terminal and we soon hopped into a cab to take us into the city. We were joined by Jason from Newport, who decided to swap his accommodation in favour of the last room that was available at our – cheaper – hotel just south of the city centre.

We set off on a walkabout.

Foxy had visited Belfast on many occasions and so walked and talked us through the city centre. Parky had first visited the city with the British army on two tours in the early ‘seventies. After an Ulster Fry breakfast in the Cathedral Quarter, we decided to head down to Sandy Row, something of a loyalist stronghold, and we dived into a pub called “The Royal” at just after 11am. It was packed, and packed with some very familiar faces. We supped the first beers of the trip and bumped into Daryl and Ed quite by chance. There were nearby murals of George Best, of Hurricane Higgins, of local factory workers, of normal Belfast folk, but also of Joe Bambrick – Linfield and Northern Ireland – who also played for us in the 1930’s. Playing for Linfield, he scored a staggering 286 goals in 183 games. We returned to the city centre for another beer in “Fibber Magees.”

Parky and I then embarked on a pre-paid black cab tour of the city. Our guide – a cabbie called Kieran – was wearing a Leeds United away shirt and was full of smiles when I noticed it.

“Are you Leeds?”

“No, Chelsea.”

The tour was supposed to last an hour, but it lasted two and a quarter hours. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The photographs show some of the sights that we visited. It was – of course – rather eerie to find myself walking along the Falls Road and the Shankhill. More learned and erudite students of the history of this particular part of the world are far better placed than myself to comment on Belfast’s sectarian past. Suffice to say, that afternoon will live long in my memory.

I leave this section of my Belfast story to the lead singer of Stiff Little Fingers, Jake Burns, to sum it all up :

“Well it’s lasted for so long now
And so many have died
It’s such a part of my own life
Yet it leaves me mystified
How a people so intelligent
Friendly, kind and brave
Can throw themselves so willingly
Into an open grave.”

Later that evening, we reassembled in the Cathedral Quarter – the area that we were to grow to love – at around 5pm.

We met Gillian, Kev and Rich in “The Dirty Onion” – hugs. We were all together last in Newcastle in January 2020. It seemed so recent but also a lifetime away. From there, to “The Harp” and from there to “The Duke Of York” where we spotted the first of the yellow-clad supporters of Villareal. Daryl, Gary, Pete and Nick briefly dropped in, but exited after – like us – being rather annoyed with how long it was taking to get served. It was even poorer service in “The Morning Star” – a favourite of many – but as I joked with Rich, it was funny how my spirits had been lifted by just a few swigs of lager. We then stood outside a cracking pub – “Bittles Bar” – which reminded me of The Minerva in Hull, Belfast’s answer to The Flatiron in Manhattan. We then ended up at “Franklins Sports Bar” where the drinking continued long into the night. My pal Stephen – originally from Belfast – but living in New Orleans for twenty years called in with his wife Elicia and her parents.

Then the others drifted off and I was the last man standing.

There was a reunion with a few good friends, some Chelsea songs, some flag-waving.

At about 1am we were turfed out and I managed to find my way back to the hotel.

Outside the hotel, there was more chat with a couple of Chelsea lads and I then stumbled next-door to raid the adjacent chicken joint.

At 2am – awake for twenty-four hours – I called it a night.

Unfortunately, the scene that greeted me on Wednesday morning – game day – was of drizzle in the Belfast streets below my room on the sixth floor. In the distance, pinched between some tall buildings, the slopes of Black Mountain could be seen, but they were shrouded in cloud. Parky and Foxy were up before me, but I eventually met Parky in reception at around 11am. We put on rain jackets and ambled off to pick up our match tickets at the Europa Hotel. As every Chelsea fan in Belfast 2021 now knows, it is the world’s most bombed hotel (43 times according to yer man Kieran).

We inevitably bumped into many Chelsea faces in the fifteen minutes that we were at the Europa. Parky and I then sheltered in a restaurant – another fry up for me – and a lovely pub “The Spaniard” before our get-together in “The Harp” at 2pm.

Peroni, laughs, Peroni, banter, Peroni, chat.

We admitted to each other that we were just so relieved that Villareal had reached the final and not Manchester United. Belfast is a United stronghold. The Manchester club has had a certain affiliation with the Catholic community in the past – though not as strong as Celtic – and so the thought of United and Chelsea with its links to Rangers and, to a lesser degree Linfield, drinking in the same compact city centre drew gasps from us all.

As the afternoon grew older, we looked on as little groups of Villareal fans – their vivid yellow so prominent – stopped for photos beneath the neon signs opposite. It certainly was a photogenic hotspot. We then joked that it was the same fans on some sort of sponsored walk and that when we reached the stadium there would only be fifty inside.

After four hours or so of sublime Chelsea chat, we split up. Sadly, Gillian and Kevin were unlucky to get tickets in the UEFA ballot. Foxy and Rich had been luckier. But so much for heading off to the stadium at 6pm. We eventually left at around 6.30pm. It took us a few nervous minutes to get hold of a cab. But the cabbie was only able to take Rich, Parky and little old me as far as Sandy Row, which looked like a scene from the apocalypse with debris and broken glass littering the street. A good time had certainly been had by all. A police car blocked the road south.

So, out into the now seriously warm evening sun. We embarked on a thirty-minute walk down to Windsor Park which sits a mile or so to the south of the city centre. I enjoyed this. There was a certain old-time feel to it all, walking past decidedly working class terraced houses, the crowd being drawn to the football stadium as in times of yore.

We turned into Donegall Avenue, under a road bridge, a row of police watching us, yet more echoes of a distant past, and then the security checks. Thankfully, no issues with either the COVID19 passport nor my ticket. More familiar faces. Good people. Plenty of old school Chelsea. But then a silly altercation with a fellow fan who was sat in my seat. This all meant that despite waking up at around 10am, and the kick-off some ten hours away, I was only in position for the kick-off at 7.55pm.

Proper Chelsea.

I was behind the eastern goal in row G, but where was Parky? Maybe Chelsea in their infinite wisdom had decided to keep us apart despite me getting our tickets together in the same transaction. Who knows? Answers on a postcard.

Windsor Park holds 18,000 but its limit for this game was 13,000. Chelsea were given 2,000 tickets, Villareal had 1,500. Now I know this club comes from a city with a population of just 50,000 but that split doesn’t seem fair in this day and age. Surely all UEFA Finals should have an even spilt. The side stands – home to the UEFA ballot tickets – were predominantly Chelsea. In the end, it looked like slightly over 1,000 Villareal fans had made the journey. They were residing in half of the western end and in the two tiers of the side stand too. I remember the old Windsor Park. I remember England returning there in 1977 after a spell of Northern Ireland always playing their Home International games away from Belfast during The Troubles. For many years it was a ramshackle stadium, the double tiered north stand being the only modern structure. It has now been totally modernised, with white, blue, light green and dark green seats. It has rather ugly raised executive areas in the main south stand and an even uglier arrangement in – our – eastern end. But it suited UEFA for this game. I remember the Cardiff City stadium hosted Real Madrid and Sevilla in 2014.

So, I predictably missed all of the pre-game pageantry.

I had to quickly run through the team.

Mendy

Rudiger – Zouma – Chalobah

Hudson-Odoi – Kante – Kovacic – Alonso

Havertz – Werner – Ziyech

Villareal’s team included Capoue, ex-Tottenham, and Moreno, ex-Liverpool.

It seemed like every single one of their fans were wearing yellow.

Bless’em.

It is worth noting that in none of the bars and pubs, in none of the conversations among close friends and distant acquaintances did anyone…not one person…mention a “high press.”

So here we all were. The Chelsea away club transplanted to the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park. A row of Chelsea flags along the unused seats at the front of the east stand. Chelsea flags sporadically placed on balcony walls.

The simple efficiency of one that bore the words “Two Steps Beyond.”

We all knew what it meant.

The game began and Chelsea were immediately on top, and its fans too. The first segment of the game was played out in front of a noisy backdrop and one song dominated.

“Oh Roman do you know what that’s worth?

Kai Havertz is the best on Earth.

The silky German is just what we need.

He won Chelsea the Champions League.”

It was sung loudly and raucously for minutes on end.

Chelsea attacked the colourful Villareal fans in the western end. Behind them, the dull outline of the hills that surround Belfast squeezed in between the steel of the stands. A setting sun behind it all.

When the Spanish fans began to familiarise themselves with the sights of Belfast, perhaps they took solace in the bright yellow of the twin cranes of the Harland & Wolf shipyards. Was yellow the key colour of the moment? There was that rather oddly misaligned yellow piping on the Chelsea shirt and then shorts after all.

After five minutes, an in swinging corner from the slight Hakim Ziyech on our right found the predatory Timo Werner on the far post. He connected late, almost between the legs of his marker, and brought a great instinctive save from Asenjo in the Villareal goal. We were finding players in good wide positions and after a sweeping ball in from that man Havertz, the ball was won back by N’Golo Kante, the captain on the night, who thundered the ball wide.

Where was Parky, though? Couldn’t see him anywhere.

We were well on top. Kante was everywhere. Villareal were kept camped inside their half. On twenty-six minutes, after steady Chelsea pressure, the ball was played by Marcos Alonso out to Havertz on the left. His first time cross was hit low towards Werner, but was picked up by Ziyech behind him. He swept the ball fortuitously into the net, bouncing up and in, as if in slow motion.

Get in.

Chelsea 1 Villareal 0.

The players celebrated over in the opposite corner with the noise booming around Windsor Park.

Not long after, a rare Villareal break enabled players to find space inside our box but Dia was foiled by Edouard Mendy, who did well to block the effort on goal.

A Ziyech cross from the left found Alonso, but his snap shot was clawed out by Asenjo at the near post. Then a Ziyech free-kick caught Villareal out. It was perfectly played, dropping at the far post but the outstretched leg of Kurt Zouma just sent the ball crashing over the bar.

The goal scorer Ziyech went down after a challenge and was replaced by Christian Pulisic.

Right on the half-time whistle, a very good Villareal move enabled the ball to be hooked back towards the far post where Moreno met the ball with a thunderous volley. We gasped as the ball crashed against the bar, and bounced down a foot or so from the line.

Fackinell.

At the start of the second-half, Havertz went close at our end. But then Mendy slipped as he cleared and the ball fell to Moreno. Mendy thankfully redeemed himself, touching the ball onto the base of the far post. But the warning signs had been sounded and Villareal dominated much of the possession in the second half. The Chelsea fans grew nervy and quieter.

Just after the hour, Thomas Tuchel changed the personnel.

Jorginho for Kante.

Mount for Werner.

Christensen for Zouma.

Mendy saved at the near post from Estupinan. On seventy-two minutes, the Yellow Submarine cut through our rather static defence and Gerard Moreno slammed the ball in after a nice ball played back to him by Dia. The Villareal players celebrated in the yellow corner.

It was on the cards. No complaints.

Bollocks.

Right in front of me, in the inside left channel, Alonso received a ball, nestled it on his thigh, turned and volleyed. The ball only troubled the side netting. It was the last chance of the ninety minutes.

We moved rather reluctantly into an extra thirty minutes and I suspected that the extra pints that had been gleefully taken throughout the days drinking in the many city centre pubs may have had an adverse effect on the Chelsea support.  

In truth, the extra half an hour provided little thrills. Pulisic stumbled as he prodded a ball towards the Villareal goal and the ball apologetically bounced wide. In the second period, a twist and a shot from Mason Mount inside the box brought another fine save from the Villareal ‘keeper.

Just before the end of the extra thirty minutes, we looked over to the touchline and saw that Kepa was lining up to replace Mendy.

There was a mixed reaction in the Chelsea end. There were moans when we realised that the penalties were to be taken at the Villareal end.

So. The game continued, the night continued. All was dark above Windsor Park now.

All eyes on the penalty takers.

First-up Chelsea. Our support tried to put the fear of God into the Villareal players.

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

Havertz. The hero of Porto. The new hero. An easy save. Bollocks.

Gerard the scorer in normal time. Goal.

Dave. A big penalty. A sweet strike. Goal.

Mandi. Saved not by Mendy, but by Kepa. Get in you bastard.

Alonso. A slip, but in. Goal.

Estupinan. Goal.

Mount. Goal.

Gomez. Goal.

Jorginho. Lots of nerves from us all. Would he hop and go right? No, a hop and left. Goal. Get in.

Raba. Goal.

Sudden death now.

Fackinell.

Pulisic. Goal.

Foyth. Goal.

Rudiger. Nerves again. Goal.

Albiol. My camera was poised. A strike. The Chelsea players blocked my view. I heard a roar. Saved.

GETINYOUBASTARDS.

The players ran towards Kepa in the yellow corner. The submarine was sunk in Titanic’s home city.

I looked for Jonesy, a veteran from Monaco, and we shared a special moment. We had been present at all of the “modern” European Chelsea victories in all those far flung places.

Monaco and Belfast, though; the most unlikely of twinned cities.

There was the usual post-game sequence of the modern age. The rather odd two-stage presentation of the cup. Firstly, the handing over of the cup to Dave and then a walk to the platform to join the waiting team mates.

The hoist, the silver ticker-tape, the screams of delight.

Athens 1971.

Stockholm 1998.

Monaco 1998.

Munich 2012.

Amsterdam 2013.

Baku 2019.

Porto 2021.

Belfast 2021.

Count’em up. Eight. Two of each. I like a bit of symmetry.

It’s lovely that the badge that I grew up with, the lion rampant and the two stars – celebrating 1970 and 1971 – now has an even deeper meaning.

And if the win in Monaco in 1998 was Realy super, the win in Belfast in 2021 was Villarealy super.

OK, enough of the shitty wordplay.

Outside, I met up with Rich. We waited for Parky to emerge from the crowds but soon gave up. We were to eventually find him tagged on to the end of a queue for hot dogs and hamburgers on the Donegall Road.

We walked back, slowly, to the busy area near our hotel, an area that was known as the Golden Mile in the dark days of the ‘seventies, just beyond the high-security of the city centre. A cheap and cheerful pizza, with Chelsea shouts and songs in the distance, and then bed.

It had been a good night.

On the Thursday, there was a visit to the area near the Titanic Museum, a hop-on and hop-off bus tour of the city and even a quick flit over to East Belfast to cram in another football stadium. The Oval is home to Glentoran, Linfield’s main rivals, nestling underneath Samson and Goliath, the twin cranes of the nearby dock area. It is so different to Windsor Park, but I loved it.

It was a perfect end to a magnificent three days in Belfast.

We caught the 10pm flight home and I was able to look down on the lights of the city as we soared high above. The memories will stay a long time.

Thank you Belfast. Thank you Chelsea.

Postcards From Belfast.



Tales From Zig Zag Hill

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 27 July 2021.

Just fifty-nine days after our European Cup triumph in Porto, we were back in business. Or rather a thousand or so other Chelsea supporters and I were back in business. Some players had been back for a few weeks, and the management team rarely rest, but for the rank and file match-going addicts among our multi-million strong support base, this was Day One of the new season.

By a strange quirk of fate, the last domestic away game played by Chelsea Football Club where away fans had been able to attend took place at Bournemouth on Leap Year Day last year, Saturday 29 February 2020. And here we were again headed for the same town on the Dorset coast on Tuesday 27 July 2021.

I like a bit of symmetry as I never tire of saying.

When we left the Vitality Stadium last year, how many of us could have possibly dreamt that we would not be able to go to a single away game in almost seventeen months?

Not me. Not you. Not the next man. Not the next woman.

One abiding memory from that day is of me – quite by fate – stumbling into the players as they ambled through the Lower Gardens by the pier and beach on their mid-morning walk. I offered my hand to Antonio Rudiger for him to shake and for me to wish him “all the best” for the game but he was almost embarrassed as I saw him shoo me away with the ominous words “Corona Virus”.

The interim has tested us all. It has certainly tested my love of football, maybe of Chelsea, and I have experienced fluctuating opinions of football, fandom and the universe. It certainly has not been easy. Season 2020/21 was my least enjoyable football season ever – OK, maybe tied with the dire 1978/79 campaign – and yet we reached two Cup Finals and ended up as winners of the biggest prize in club football in the whole world. And universe.

Rationalising football was never easy, right?

I watched the European Championships recently with middling interest. International football just isn’t for me these days. I can’t even be arsed to explain why. My focus was always about getting back to the love of my life; Chelsea Football Club.

However, a lovely little present afforded itself to me on my birthday in the first week of July. My first Frome Town game since the cessation of matches last November saw me attend the Frome Town vs. Bath City friendly on Tuesday 6 July; the town of my domicile versus the city of my birth on my birthday. Perfect, eh? It was a lovely evening, even though Dodge lost 4-1. A couple of friends made a surprise visit from Bristol and Portsmouth, we all had a lovely catch-up and I survived my first session since Everton at home last March. Evenings like that are priceless.

I was tempted to attend the home friendly against Tottenham but the whole thing seemed like a massive waste of energy. My take on it was that I would be haring up to London on many other midweek evenings in the autumn, arriving home late, waking up tired for work the next day, and so why bother with an overpriced – £30 – friendly where there wouldn’t even be any away fans to abuse. No thanks. A lovely little dip down to Dorset – just fifty-five miles away – to be followed by a jaunt over to Belfast for the UEFA Super Cup (Parky and I re-joined the UEFA Away Scheme recently so are assured tickets) and then the Grand Reunion with all the familiar faces against Crystal Palace a few days later.

That will do me nicely thank you very much nurse.

So, AFCB versus CFC on Tuesday 27 July. It soon came around. And here was a first for me; my first-ever Chelsea trip after working at home for the day. I set off at 4.40pm, alone – none of the other Chuckle Brothers were available – but with my mind full of being part of a genuine match day experience once again. I was hoping for a full house and a 1,200 away contingent. Great though they were, both Cup Finals at the end of May were odd affairs, almost surreal, certainly strange.

The drive down to Bournemouth didn’t take long. How nice of the football Gods to bestow upon me the easiest of away trips. Over the past year and a half, I have spent many an hour out walking in England’s “Green and Pleasant” and I have fallen in love again with our countryside, often taking too many bloody photographs. On the way to Dorset, I was at it again. I stopped off momentarily at a few choice locations – at Longleat, on the chalk uplands near Longbridge Deverill, ascending Zig Zag Hill – not on the scale of L’Alpe D’Huez, the famed climb of the Tour de France, but with a series of acute turns – and overlooking Cranbourne Chase. It was a glorious drive.

Nearing the outskirts of Bournemouth, though, the ominous gloomy clouds darkened the early evening light. Down came the rain.

The first “fackinell” of the season.

But on the dual carriageway, I had my first “moment” of the new season.

As I accelerated away and overtook a car, I realised that I have a decent job, a nice car, my own house, my friends, my health – God, my health – and I was about to see Chelsea play. Hardly a life-defining moment but important enough for me to mention it three evenings later.

And although I have spoken with some close friends how I might be in a situation this season when I might have to choose between a classic Frome Town away day and a common or garden Chelsea trip, deep down I knew that there would only be one winner.  

I was parked up on a pre-booked private driveway on Littledown Avenue at 6.30pm. The ninety-minute drive had been lengthened by twenty minutes as I stopped to snap, snap, snap. I include a few of the photos.

The air was a little muggy outside. I had brought a light rain jacket. The walk to the stadium only took ten minutes. I spotted a chap wearing a Flamengo shirt – Bournemouth colours, but turned ninety degrees – alongside his mate who was wearing a Chelsea top. I couldn’t resist walking over to say a few words, but I avoided mentioning that, if I was pressed, I favoured their rivals Fluminense. After my jaunt to Buenos Aires last year, I have Rio in my sights too, though perhaps only after another trip to Buenos Aires.

File under : “Too many stadia, not enough time.”

I will be honest, it felt odd being among a crowd who were, in the main, not wearing masks.

I chatted to Long Tall Pete and Liz outside the familiar away turnstiles, the first of around a dozen friends or so that I would talk to during the evening. Big praise to Scott who would endure a 590-mile round trip from his home in Lancashire for this friendliest of friendlies. Just amazing.

There were three security checks to get into the stadium; a scan with an electronic device, a bag check, a body frisk. It seemed all a bit pointless. Anyway, my camera was in, unlike on 27 July 2019 when it was banned from a friendly at Reading.

I would normally trawl the concourse to chat to some familiar faces, but – I think that I felt at risk slightly – I decided to avoid the closeness of the crowded bar areas and head inside.

For the third game in a row, I was positioned in row three; clearly not my favourite viewing position. The evening sun was still glaring. I chastised myself for leaving a perfectly fine pair of sunglasses in my car.

The players – in a set of training gear sponsored by a completely different company to the playing kits – warmed up in front of us. There were a few familiar faces, but some strange ones too. I find it amusing that I can rattle off fringe players from 1983/84 – Phil Priest, Terry Howard, Perry Baldacchino, Paul Williams, Stokely Sawyers and Robin Beste – but struggle with the current crop.

With five minutes to kick-off, the PA played “Life Is Life” by Opus. I had a little smirk to myself. I was reminded of that classic film of the one and only Diego Armando Maradona’s pre-match warm up to this very song in 1989. If you have not seen it, do yourself a favour.

I wondered who on Earth could replicate that breath-taking performance at Bournemouth in 2021.

The 7.45pm kick-off soon arrived. So much for a 12,000 full house. The home areas were half empty and our section wasn’t full. There was a line of ten empty seats right behind me. So much for the lure of the current Champions of Europe. A few friends had notably lost a few pounds over the previous eighteen months; well done Jayne, Sam and Rob.

Just before the game began, probably just as the teams were being announced – hence my confusion with the starting eleven – I saw a deeply tanned Pat Nevin rush past. I shouted out to him and told him that I had loved reading his recent autobiography. We shook hands – another weird feeling – and he went on his way to take up a commentary position.

Lovely. My favourite-ever player. A fine start to 2021/22.

I was tempted to ask the PA chap to replay “Life Is Life” and get Pat on the pitch.

It was a nice thought…

Our team?

Kepa.

Sterling / Baker / Sarr.

Hudson-Odoi / Drinkwater / Gallagher / Alonso.

Ziyech / Pulisic.

Abraham.

The game began and Chelsea attacked the “home end” to my right, the scene of those devastating four second-half goals in early 2019.

First thoughts?

“I wish that bloody sun would soon disappear behind those towering clouds.”

“I don’t recognise a couple of these players.”

“That new kit is truly horrific.”

Zig fucking zag.

My heart has sunk over the summer as I have witnessed from afar – oh my disbelieving eyes – how a notable number of acquaintances throughout Chelsea World had succumbed to the dog’s dinner of our new Nike abomination.

We can’t be friends, real friends, now.

I am sorry.

But you should be the ones apologising.

Fackinell.

The effect that it has on me, if I may offer some sort of comparison, is as if those Hawaiian shirts favoured by our American cousins – I never know if they are worn ironically or not – are matched with the same pattern on accompanying shorts.

Get my drift?

The Chelsea crowd – some who had evidently been on the ale for a few hours – were lively in the first quarter of an hour. There were two early songs in praise of Frank Lampard. The Timo Werner one was soon aired and there were a few hearty renditions of “The Only Team In London With A / Two European Cups.” I joined in and tried to warm my vocal chords up for the new season. My view from row three was tough. Everything looked so flat.

Now then dear reader, let’s get this clear. This was a pre-season game in which virtually all of the Chelsea protagonists would be bit-part players throughout the upcoming season. Some – Kepa, Mendy, Alonso, Barkley – would have parts to play, but others would find themselves elsewhere. Some might get the odd League Cup game. Some would inevitably go out on loan. Some would begin a zig-zagging journey down the football pyramid. Some – sadly – would find themselves as footballing equivalents of the unclaimed black pram on the baggage carousel at airport arrivals.

The game against Bournemouth was always about getting game time for as many players as possible. I’m certainly not going to go into nerd mode and produce a deeply analytical report of each of the players’ performances. What would be the point of that?

That said, I was looking forward to watching Conor Gallagher – alas no relative of oor Hughie – to see what the hype was all about.

There was neat football from us in the first-half. Danny Drinkwater, of all players, started well, pushing the ball intelligently. Up close, I appreciated the pace of our right-sided defender (later identified as Dujon Sterling, ah of course…) and Malang Sarr (the other player who I was hard pressed to recognise) certainly possessed an impressive shape. Conor Gallagher was involved. Nice to see the old war horse Alonso again. Chances fell to Hakim, Callum, Tammy, Tammy and Tammy but our finishing was off the mark.

The singing from the away section quietened as the half progressed.

I wanted Our Callum to burst past his marker, but there always seemed to be a reticence from him. A shame.

Interceptions from Sarr and Baker thwarted Bournemouth, whose main threat on our goal was a series of deep free-kicks and corners. Dominic Solanke was upfront for the home team. We had high hopes for him a while ago, eh? For all of our possession, we went into the break without a goal to show for our dominance.

As the players lined up for the second-half, I spotted some changes, although not wholesale.

Mendy.

Miazga / Chalobah The Younger / Clarke-Salter.

Hudson-Odoi / Gallagher / Loftus-Cheek / Alonso.

Barkley.

Abraham / Broja.

Things were a bit disjointed, off the pitch as well as on it. This is pre-season for us fans too. Whereas we all stood during the first-half, many began the second-half sitting. Were we jaded already? Surely not. The home fans were a quiet bunch, though and there was little noise from them. However, a little riposte from the otherwise silent area to our left resulted in an embarrassing chant from us.

“Champions of Europe. You’ll Never Sing That.”

Fucksake.

I rolled my eyes so far backwards I almost saw Tottenham. Then I looked up at the roof, if not the heavens.

I turned to the young lad to my left.

“Fucking hell. Mugging off Bournemouth. Bournemouth!”

This football lark can be testing at times. By all means take the piss out of our main rivals, but not lovely and cuddly – hardly rivals to us, hardly anything to us – benign Bournemouth.

It was lovely to see Our Ruben back in royal blue again. For a big man, he certainly has a lovely touch. But he struggled a bit to get into the game. He played a deeper role than usual. He was pulled back – one of my most hated aspects of modern day football – so many times. So frustrating. It was his lazy pass to the covering Gallagher that set up David Brooks but his shot thankfully glided past the left-hand post.

A lad behind me roused the away contingent with a loud “Zigger Zagger” and the noise leapt a few levels.

“We’re The Only Team In London.”

A fine save from Mendy thwarted Bournemouth from close in. Alonso, urged to “shoot” by us, did so but his effort whistled wide.

Zappacosta – last seen by my eyes at Reading in 2019 – replaced Our Callum, Baba Rahman – just wow – replaced Alonso and Ugbo replaced Tammy.

Sadly, just after these changes a cross from the right found the head of Emiliano Marcondes and Mendy was beaten.

The crowd went mild.

Our reaction was immediate. A brilliant cross from that man Baba was whipped in immaculately into the “corridor of uncertainty” and the new man Armando Broja took a neat touch and avoided a Tammy-like entanglement of limbs to slam the ball home. Broja then charged down a clearance from the Bournemouth ‘keeper but the ball whizzed past the far post. Shortly after, that very rare thing; a crisp near post Chelsea corner – from Ross Barkley – that cleared the first man and Ike Ugbo was able to head home from mere inches.

Bournemouth 1 Chelsea 2.

In the final fifteen minutes, the home team made many changes and the game petered out.

At the final whistle, the Chelsea players soon headed for the tunnel. No signs of celebration at all. After all, it was only Bournemouth right? Fans take note.

I walked back to the car just before the rain came again. It took me an age to get out onto the main road out of town. But within the hour I had retraced my steps and was winding my way down the intense bends of Zig Zag Hill once again, the night now dark, my headlights on full beam.

“Steady as you go Chris.”

I was home at midnight and I was immediately reminded of my midweek football routine.

Get home. Try to relax a bit. Scan my photos. Chose one for Instagram. One for Facebook maybe. Check a few social media posts. Watch the game highlights on YouTube. Work in the morning. Bollocks. Head full of football. Try to get some sleep…

…ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.





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

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was in.

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

My camera was in too.

Another adrenalin rush.

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

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

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

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

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

But I was awake now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Surreal, innit?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of them.

What a fucking mess.

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

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

Champions League Final Wanker? Quite possibly.

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

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

One thought raced through my head.

“I can almost reach out and touch it.”

Then my mind re-worked it.

Reach out.

Reach out, touch faith.

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

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

“Reach Out, Touch Faith.”

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

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

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

My brain fizzed, my senses sparkled.

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

Oh my bloody goodness.

“Reach out, touch faith.”

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

I am that bloody fool.

Football. Fackinell.

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

Mendy.

Dave. Silva. Rudiger.

James. Jorginho. Kante. Chilwell.

Mount. Havertz. Werner.

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

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

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

The minutes passed by.

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

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

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

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

I sang along to every word.

…”cus Chelsea, Chelsea is our name.”

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

Two sets of four letters.

Have a guess.

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

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

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

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

The 2021 Champions League Final began.

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

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

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

“Blue Moon, You Saw Me Standing Alone.”

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

“We’re Not Really Here.”

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

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

At around this time, the Chelsea support grew.

One song dominated and was our call to arms.

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

He had to be in the stadium I surmised.

“Carefree, Wherever You May Be.”

The old stalwart.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

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

“Oh Dennis Wise.”

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

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

“The beer buzz is gone.”

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

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

Chelsea were letting City have it from both barrels now.

“Your support is fucking shit.”

It had certainly quietened, no doubt.

“You’re only here on a freebie.”

Love it.

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

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

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

They weren’t really there.

One touch from Havertz.

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

That glorious sight.

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

“Fucking, yeeeeees.”

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

“You called it. Havertz.”

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

Limbs everywhere.

Off the scale.

Fackinell.

Euphoria.

Joy.

Relief.

Pandemonium in the North Stand.

I updated Facebook.

“THTCAUN.”

Garrett in Tennessee was the first one to reply correctly :

“COMLD.”

Noice one, shun.

I had a little laugh to myself…

“Manchester City 0 Adversity 1.”

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

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

I dreamed of a second goal.

The half-time break shot past.

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

I was in my element.

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

“Five minutes.”

“Ten minutes.”

“Fifteen minutes.”

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

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

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

“Carefree” rung out.

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

“Twenty minutes.”

“Twenty-five minutes.”

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

Christian Pulisic for Timo Werner.

“Thirty minutes.”

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

“Thirty-five minutes.”

Mateo Kovacic for Mason Mount.

“Forty minutes.”

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

“Forty-five minutes.”

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

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

Seven minutes…tick, tock, tick, tock.

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

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

Tales From One Billy Gilmour And One Decent Scouser

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 3 March 2020.

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

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

“They’re light years ahead of us.”

“We’ll be lucky to get naught.”

“Expectation level is nine below zero.”

“Could be another Bayern.”

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

There were a couple of pluses.

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

Well done Chelsea Football Club.

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

Well done again Chelsea Football Club.

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

That’s right. Ever.

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

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

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

The last time was in 1966.

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

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

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

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

It was as flat as I had ever experienced.

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

“Game on.”

Then Gianfranco Zola slammed in an equaliser eight minutes later.

The atmosphere was red hot by then.

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

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

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

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

Lovely memories.

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

Heady and emotional moments?

You bet.

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

“Soccer: Media, Art & Society.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Chelsea will be the death of me.”

The team news came through.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Zouma – Alonso

Gilmour – Kovacic – Barkley

Willian – Giroud – Pedro

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

Like the 1997 game, this was live on BBC1.

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

Nobody.

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

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

Blues vs. Reds.

South vs. North.

Chelsea vs. Liverpool.

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

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

Where the fuck was it?

My heart sank.

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

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

Everyone?

Yeah, thought so.

What a fucking disgrace.

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

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

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

I vented on “Facebook.”

And here are a few responses :

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

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

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

Alex : As predictable as it is disappointing

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

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

Lee : Utter bastards

The game began.

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

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

The game heated up.

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

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

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

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

“Gilmour. Excellent there, Al.”

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

After twelve minutes, I leaned over towards PD.

“Open game, innit?”

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

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

GET IN.

Willian danced away and in front of the livid Liverpudlians.

Livid Liverpudlians. Is there any other type?

Stamford Bridge was bouncing. What joy.

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

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

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

1978, 1982 and 2020?

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

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

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

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

What a game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wasn’t Lalana in the Teletubbies”?

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

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

Fifty thousand people.

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

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

Fifty-thousand men.

It struck home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So close.

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

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

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

“Here we go.”

I sensed a huge chance.

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

Adrian was beaten.

A goal.

Oh get in you bastard.

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

His slide was euphoric.

Up the fucking Toffees, up the fucking Chelsea.

Chelsea 2 Liverpool 0.

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

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

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

Bliss.

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

“Here we go.”

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

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

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

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

“One Billy Gilmour.”

Indeed.

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

The final whistle signalled the end.

“One Step Beyond.”

It had been a game for the ages.

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

Into the last eight we went.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 29 February 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It would be rude not to.”

I headed off in search of cut-price clobber.

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

Better late than never, eh?

Football, music, clobber.

The staples of so many of my generation.

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

Blue tracksuits. It was the team. Perfect timing.

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

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

He declined.

“Corona virus.”

Ah, of course…

”OK, sorry.”

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

“Thumbs up” from Willian.

“Thumbs up” from Mateo Kovacic.

Good stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good time, Chris?”

“Yeah. Superb.”

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

“Gotta win this one boys.”

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

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

We were in with about twenty minutes to go.

Overhead, the weather was changing constantly.

We were in the fifth row.

The stands filled up.

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

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

“Oh do shut up you twat.”

The team?

Wing backs again.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Tomori

James – Kovacic – Jorginho – Alonso

Pedro – Giroud – Mount

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

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

You can imagine the mood in the away segment.

“Fackninellchels.”

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

“Someone take ownership of the ball.”

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

“This is better Chelsea.”

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

“For fuck sake, shut up.”

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

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

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

GET IN.

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

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

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

BOSH.

Bournemouth 0 Chelsea 1.

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

We finished the half in control.

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

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

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

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

I have never seen Beardy look so relieved.

And then, the football went pear-shaped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bollocks.

There was half-an-hour left.

Willian for Tomori.

We changed to a flat four at the back.

Ross Barkley for Jorginho.

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

“Lovely.”

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

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

Fackinell.

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

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

A very poor “Zigger Zagger.”

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

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

“GETINYOUFUCKER.”

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

Bournemouth 2 Chelsea 2.

Altogether now : “phew.”

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

A few youths behind me gloated –

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

“Bloody hell lads. This is Bournemouth.”

Embarrassing. Highly so.

No more goals.

The game petered out.

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

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

Liverpool in the FA Cup next.

See you there.

THE PARK

THE PIER

THE BEACH

THE STADIUM