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 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 A Crossroads

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 17 February 2020.

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

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur.

Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich.

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

And how!

These were three huge matches.

Welcome back everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I took “Sightlines” with me on my trip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The team news came through.

Still no Kepa.

Michy up front.

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

Caballero

James – Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Kovacic – Kante

Willian – Batshuayi – Pedro

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

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

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

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

I spotted two new banners.

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

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

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

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

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

Two things to note.

Nemamja Matic and his shorts. Huge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bollocks.

Here we go again.

We were crestfallen.

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

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

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

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

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

GET IN.

Back in it and deservedly so.

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

What for?

No idea.

We did not know.

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

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

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

We could only guess.

That cannot be right, can it?

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

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

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

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

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

“Definition of a fucking free header, that.”

Bollocks.

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

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

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

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

GET IN YOU BASTARDS.

Twenty minutes left. We can do this.

We waited for the restart.

Oh no.

Oh no.

VAR.

Fuck this.

A wait.

No goal.

No fucking goal.

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

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

In the scheme of things, fair enough.

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

How much?

I’d say nearly everything.

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

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

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

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

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

Even in Argentina, it is hated.

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

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

My good mate Kev would comment on “Facebook.”

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

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

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

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

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

It’s football.

With all its flaws.

But VAR is killing it, and not even slowly.

The mood was sombre.

But it was more than that.

I was just numbed by the whole sorry mess.

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

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

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

We grumbled about VAR.

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

Imagine that, eh?

When is an orgasm not an orgasm?

Fackinell.

I replied.

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

I walked back to the car.

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

I slept like a baby on the way home.

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

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

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

What would I do on weekends?

I’d go to see Frome Town.

I’d collect football stadia.

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

The Maracana? Yes please.

The Azteca? Yes please.

Atletico Bilbao’s new stadium?

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

I still have a few stadia to see in Budapest.

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

Yes. I like this.

But life without Chelsea?

Fucking hell.

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

Don’t cry for me.

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

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

Tales From Three Seasons In One Day

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 1 February 2020.

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

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

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

And Leicester.

A straight line.

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

It is one of my favourite roads.

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

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

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

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

Oliver was trusted with taking the photographs.

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

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

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

I gave Sal a hug.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A different era.

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

It was a shocking piece of news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two Neils and I spoke about Dale Jasper.

RIP.

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

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

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

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

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

I approached Alan and Gary.

“Alright lads? Been a tough week.”

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

The teams arrived.

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

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

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

Caballero

James – Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Kante – Mount

Pedo – Abraham – Hudson-Odoi

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

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

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

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

Top marks.

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

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

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

“VAR. VAR. VAR. VAR.”

Give me strength.

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

The Chelsea crowd changed their tune.

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

Alan looked at me and I looked at Alan.

“They can’t have it both ways, Al.”

Sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here we go.”

Amazingly, he fluffed his lines.

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

Phew.

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

GET IN.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

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

As Harvey Barnes l approached, I yelled.

“Don’t let him come inside ya.”

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

Bollocks.

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

I turned to Al.

“Game of two halves.”

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

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

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

No words.

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

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

But I did turn to Alan and say :

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

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

Oh these defensive lapses, Chelsea.

Fucksake.

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

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

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

We celebrated that one truly, madly, deeply.

Get in.

Frank Lampard rang some changes.

Kovacic for Jorginho.

Willian for Pedro.

Then, very oddly.

Barkley for Abraham.

Well, answers on a postcard.

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

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

Then, I felt dirty for even thinking it…

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

“Nah.”

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

A Johnny Evans header, wide.

Phew.

A shot from Harvey Barnes, wide.

Phew.

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

No penalty.

Phew.

At the final whistle, some positives surely.

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

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

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

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

See you there.

Postscript : 1985 / 2015 / 2020 Updated.

Attendances.

1985 – 15,657.

2015 – 32,021.

2020 – 32, 186.

Capacities.

1985 – 29,000.

2015 – 32,500.

2020 – 32,312.

Away Fans.

1985 – 4,000.

2015 – 3,000.

2020 – 3,000.

Seat Tickets.

1985 – £4.50 on day of game.

2015 – £40 in advance.

2020 – £30 in advance.

Club Owners.

1985 – English.

2015 – Thai and Russian.

2020 – Thai and Russian.

The Chelsea Players.

1985 – English, Welsh, Scottish.

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

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

Heroes.

1985 – Dixon, Speedie, Nevin.

2015 – Hazard, Terry, Diego Costa.

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

Chelsea Kits.

1985 – all yellow.

2015 – all yellow.

2020 – black and orange.

Chelsea Songs.

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

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

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

After The Game.

1985 – Police escort, scuffles everywhere.

2015 – Normality.

2020 – Normality and a cheeseburger with onions.

1985

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

2015

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

2020

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

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

 

Tales From The Minerva

Hull City vs. Chelsea : 25 January 2020.

The third game in eight days was another away day in the North of England. After gliding past Nottingham Forest in the third round of the FA Cup, we were drawn against Hull City who are enjoying – or not – a middling season in The Championship.

On my four previous visits to Kingston upon Hull, I had driven up and back from each and every one of them on the day of the game. But it’s a tough, tough ask. It’s around a ten-hour return trip by car. For this game we decided to stay the Saturday night. As the weekend quickly approached, the trip took over my thoughts. There was plenty to keep me pleasantly occupied.

I needed to plan a pub crawl, probably based around the marina. On my last visit to Hull during the 2016/17 season – the match report was titled “Tales From A Day Of Sobriety” – I had left Parky and PD in a large “Spoons” in the city centre, while I pottered off on a little walk around the city centre and the marina. I spotted a few pubs and I made a mental note of their whereabouts. I hoped for a larger, more expansive, tour this time around.  There would be no sobriety on this visit.

I was also looking forward – with a kind of schoolboy giddiness – to seeing us in our beautiful blue and yellow FA kit once again.

And there was the matter of the hotel that I had booked. I had sorted out some digs close to City’s KCOM Stadium for the princely sum of £29 for two rooms. I was intrigued, for the want of a better word, how that would pan out.

The game? That would take care of itself.

Let’s go to Hull.

My alarm was set for 4.30am on Saturday morning and I woke a few minutes ahead of it. After a strong coffee, I was ready. This was going to be another long day, but it would be a day that we live for. I fuelled up nearby and collected the father-and-son combination of P-Diddy Daddy-O and Scott at 6am.

Everything was dark until we stopped at Strensham Services on the M5 for a McBreakfast at 7.30am. From then on, the day slowly broke. I made excellent time and the morning flew past. I rarely drive up the M1 for football and I was enjoying the change of scene. After passing East Midlands Airport on the A42, I spotted the familiar cooling towers to the east at Ratcliffe on Soar as I joined the M1 and these signalled, to me anyway, that my journey to “The North” was in full flow. There would be cooling towers-a-plenty on the road to Hull.

Unlike the M6 to the west of the midlands which is predominantly flat, the M1 undulates as it takes everyone north. It’s not a photogenic road. For miles upon mile, the motorway is flanked by huge distribution warehouses, retail parks, the flattened hills of former coal-mining areas, and cooling towers. Past Mansfield, past Chesterfield. Signposts for the footballing cities of Sheffield and Leeds.

There were bittersweet memories of my second and third visits to see Chelsea play at Hull City.

In January 2014 – my match report was titled “Tales From A Road Less Travelled” – I collected friends Andy, Alan and Seb in the midlands en route – and headed up to Hull. The game resulted in a standard 2-0 win for Chelsea, but marks the last game that I attended before my mother became incapacitated through rheumatism. By the time of the next visit in March 2015, barely a year later, my mother had sadly passed away and it was my first away game since her death. On that visit, a 3-2 win on our way to a title, I felt rather numbed by everything. I called that one “Tales From The Beautiful North” and it summed up my melancholy mood. It was a delicate, tender blue day. Memories, no doubt, raced back to the half-term holiday of October 1973 when I first visited Hull with my parents, a day trip from visiting friends in Grimsby, a ferry over the Humber from New Holland, the huge bridge far from completed.

Bridges and elevated sections took us over the rivers which would eventually drift into The Humber. We veered off onto the M18. As we hit the M62, my eyes focussed on the far horizon in several directions. A bleak vista was dominated by cooling towers and wind turbines. It all started to resemble a bleak scene from a sci-fi film.

The winds howl over these flat lands.

Another bridge took us over the wonderfully named River Ouse. Out and away, Hull was not too far now. I drove on past the huge Humber Bridge, the World’s longest until 1998, and I was soon on Clive Sullivan Way, named after a rugby league icon.

In the pub on Tuesday, my pal Tim from Bristol spoke of his last visit to Hull in 2016. If anyone remembers, it was our first game of the long unbeaten run, win after win after win. But on that day, just as he reached the city’s inner suburbs, he spotted a rag and bone man, with cart and horse, like a latter day “Steptoe & Son.” He then spotted a bare-chested man riding a horse through the streets.

Bloody hell, a real city on the edge.

As I drove through the surprisingly wide streets of Hull, I found myself behind a van carrying scrap. I half expected Dublin-style horses to gallop past.

Welcome to Hull.

At around 10.30am we had reached base camp, our hotel on Anlaby Road.

Well. What can I say? It was a pub, with rooms, but hardly worthy of a single star, not so much a hotel as a notel. I soon posted my thoughts on “Facebook.”

“Well, our £7.50 a night hotel has lived down to expectations.”

Much banter followed.

We booked in, and at 11am the barman poured the first pints of the day for us. Friends much further south were yet to set off. You can’t say that we aren’t keen.

There was a little chat with a couple of locals. The pub had openened at 10am, one silent chap was already on his second or third pint. Another grisly local warned us –

“There was some fighting in town last night, Chelsea.”

But we ignored him.

I fiddled with my camera bag, making sure my match ticket was secure.

He looked over and said :

“Ha, is that your first-aid kit?”

Now that made me laugh. All part of the spice of life, eh? Indeed, the place was starting to grow on me.

Like a fungus.

Outside, I took a photo of PD and Scott in front of a chalkboard of the week’s coming attractions, blank apart from karaoke on Sunday. I was just surprised that karaoke was spelled correctly.

At about 11.45am we caught a cab into town.

The cab driver was gruff.

“I fucking hate Chelsea.”

I feared that he might be a Leeds United fan. But no, far from it. In spite of a northern accent, he was from Fulham, a Fulham fan, but living in Hull for forty years. I felt that life had dealt him a tough hand of cards. From the cosmopolitan bustling city of London to the dustbowl of Kingston upon Hull, until recently one of the UK’s forgotten cities.

“I go and watch City a bit. It’s sold out today, isn’t it? Only £12.”

I was warming to him now, it’s funny how football can break down barriers.

We dropped into the second of the day’s seven pubs. It was a familiar haunt. We had visited “The Admiral Of The Humber” in 2015 and 2016. PD was hoping to spot a local that he had chatted to on both occasions. In 2016, there was a funny anecdote.

The Hull City fan had spoken about a visit of Newcastle United, when the very same pub was mobbed by visiting Geordies. They very soon started singing a song, aimed at him, based on the fact that his grey beard and glasses made him resemble an infamous person in Britain’s recent past.

“One Harold Shipman, there’s only one Harold Shipman.”

He smiled as he re-told the story of how he remonstrated with them, and how this resulted in the Geordies buying him drink after drink.

“I love that about football, the banter” he joked.

Alas, no Harold Shipman this time. A couple of Chelsea supporters dropped in, but it was mainly “locals only.” It was a lovely Saturday afternoon mixture of football lads in designer gear, scarfers, a chap in a Dukla Prague away kit, and a table full of overly-made up middle-aged women that do lunch, dinner, tea, an evening meal and breakfast if you ask them nicely.

The three of us were now getting stuck into our second and third pints and the laughter was booming. We chatted about our hotel.

Chris : “I was a bit concerned when all the windows in your room were wide open. I wondered if it meant that the room needed some fresh air. That it would have been otherwise musty.”

PD : “That was to let the rats out.”

Chris : “No, that was to let them in.”

On a wall inside the pub, getting busier and busier now, was a copy of The Housemartins’ “Hull 0 London 4” album.

As the jokes continued, PD and Scott were grinning themselves to death.

At 1pm, we hopped into another cab to embark on the next stage of the pub crawl.

“The Minerva” was to be the highlight of the day and we stayed a good hour. On rather a different scale, it reminded me of The Flatiron Building in New York; a squeezed building, triangular in shape, it sat right on the quayside looking across the river to Lincolnshire. As soon as we arrived, three fellow Chelsea supporters arrived too, faces familiar, names unknown. The pub was a joy. Little rooms, a couple of snugs, a good selection of ales and lagers, antique décor, and it looked like it served excellent food too. The further you went away from the tip of the building, more rooms kept appearing. On a wall was a framed copy of one of Spencer Tunick’s “Sea of Hull” photo shoots which kick-started Hull’s year as the UK’s “City of Culture” in 2017.

I just thought everybody was blue with the cold in Hull.

I could have stayed in “The Minerva” for hours. But I wanted to pack as much in as possible. We still had a few more to visit; “The Barrow Boys”, “The Humber Dock”, “Bar 82” and lastly a real ale pub called “Furley” where I bumped into Kev who sits around ten feet away from me in “The Sleepy Hollow.”

Phew. Seven stops on this pub crawl. It was just right. Perfect even. Friendly locals, no trouble, what it is all about. The pubs and bars on the cobbled streets near the marina were excellent.

“Hull on Earth?”

No.

Or, as the locals would have pronounced it : “nurrrr.”

I like Kingston upon Hull. There, I said it.

Time was moving on now, so we hopped in to a cab, which took us back along the same Anlaby Road that our hotel was on, from the city centre, past The Admiral Of The Humber, and it deposited us a few hundred yards to the south of the KCOM Stadium. Night was falling, and there was a rush to get inside for kick-off.

Surely this was football to a tee. I had awoken at 4.30am and yet thirteen hours later I was rushing to get in on time.

But get in on time I did.

Just in time.

Have I mentioned that I work in logistics?

The stadium was packed, a full-house. I half expected to see swathes of empty seats in our end, with tickets purchased – just £12 remember – for loyalty points alone. A great show of support, four thousand strong.

Frank Lampard chose this starting eleven :

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Zouma – Alonso

Barkley – Kovacic – Mount

Hudson-Odoi – Batshuayi – Pedro

I like Hull City’s stadium. I like the rising roof, and the blue lighting of the metal at the rear of the lower deck. For the first time since my first visit I was positioned towards the main stand. On that day in 2008, I celebrated my seven-hundredth Chelsea game with a pre-match “Nando’s” – still my only ever visit – and I detailed the day in “Tales From The Roman Road”. On that Wednesday, I travelled along two roman roads to Hull, the Fosse Way and then Ermine Street. It was fortuitous that I did as many Chelsea missed the kick-off due to traffic problems on the M1. The detail of the match was scant.

“What a goal from Frank – I amazingly captured this on film…just beautiful. A great start. However, Hull did well not to capitulate and had a fair share of the ball in that first period. Cousin hit the post, Cech made a few good stops. We had a few chances too, of course, but the usual suspects didn’t appear to be playing too well. We were begging for a second goal.

At the break, I handed out a few doughnuts to the boys – the Game 700 Meal overspill.

A much better team performance in the second-half. Hull gave Frank too much space and I thought he ran the game. He has been great this season. All of the first-half under performers stepped up in the second 45 – Anelka after his goal especially…the chances came and went…one miss from Malouda especially. However, it ended up 3-0 with the much-maligned Frenchman touching home.

I couldn’t understand a lot of the Hull songs to be honest. You had to admire their cheek, though, because they serenaded us with a song about fucking off back to our shit hole. The cheeky young whippersnappers.”

So, back to 2020.

The Chelsea team lined up in all white and it annoyed me. Was the limited colour clash of Hull City amber socks and Chelsea yellow socks enough to enforce a change? Or were Chelsea beholden to play in the second kit at least once in this cup run? Either way, I was not impressed. The home team were kitted-out in amber, black, amber, but with tigerish stripes on the top section of the shirts, how Cincinnati Bengals.

Chelsea were attacking the opposite end in the first-half. We were all stood, of course. As always. On just six minutes, a great ball out by Mateo Kovacic found Dave in acres of space. He quickly pumped in a cross, possibly over-hit, but it fell for Mason Mount to stab at goal. It rebounded out and Michy Batshuayi, lurking nicely, was on hand to follow up. A deflected shot gave the Hull City ‘keeper George Long no chance.

It was our first real attack.

Get in.

Alan, no more than ten rows in front of me : “THTCAUN.”

Some incisive passing from Kovacic set up good chances for Ross Barkley and Mason Mount, but Long was able to pull off two fine blocks. There had been an earlier half-chance for Michy. Callum was involved on the right, Pedro not so much on the left. But throughout much of the first-half it was the Chelsea story of the season; more passing than required, less shooting than required.

Pass, pass, pass, pass, sideways, sideways, sideways, sideways.

It was as if we were attempting to crabwalk.

Even so, we were on top. Not exactly coasting, but looking the more likely to score the next goal. Just before the whistle for half-time, a deep cross from Marcos Alonso was chested down by Dave who then shot at Long in the Hull goal but he pulled off another fine save.

Around me – despite us winning – I had endured voices of discontent during that first-half. And where we could, and should, have been cheering the boys on, there were periods of quietness in our ranks. Sometimes there is hot and cold in our support, often during the same game.

Hot and cold.

Noise and quiet.

Stillness and mayhem.

Frost and fire.

It would be nice to be warmed constantly by our support during every single game. For every fine pass to be applauded as loudly as ever wayward pass is booed.

“Yeah right.”

Me, looking at my phone at halftime: “COMLD.”

Sorry Alan. Better late than never.

The second-half began, and the home team came out of their shells a little. They had offered a few attacks in the first-half but not a great deal. In the second period they looked a little livelier. They definitely had the edge of the opening period. Jarrod Bowen, who reminded me of “Eriksen from Tottenham but not much longer”, was a threat and he raced on to a through ball before punching a shot just over Caballero’s bar.

Our play had deteriorated. Not much bite, not much ingenuity. Shot-shy.

Just after an hour, Barkley steadied himself before sending over a deep free-kick. Fikayo Tomori, who had formed a steady relationship again with Kurt Zouma, rose unhindered at the far post to head down, a perfect finish, past Long. My photos of the free-kick and the header are not great, but at least I was on hand to snap away as the players celebrated just yards away from me.

There is always a great fascination to see the body language of our players as they celebrate together. Smiles, hugs, knowing winks, loving looks. I must confess I go overboard at such moments, but these photographs take care of themselves really.

Time for some substitutions.

Billy Gilmour for Our Callum.

Willian for Our Mason.

Fine work from Willian, and a reverse pass to Pedro, but the winger edged it just past the far post. The same player finished weakly from the other side of the penalty area.

With twelve minutes remaining, I captured the free-kick by substitute Kamil Grosicki that hit our wall and ballooned up and into our goal.

Bollocks.

With me unable to watch a potential replay in ten days’ time, I was grimly aware that another Hull City goal would cause me grief for more than one reason. After cheaply giving the ball away, Bowen fed Grosicki but his shot was thankfully wide.

Tariq Lamptey replaced Pedro late on. We survived an even later home corner.

Hull 1 London 2.

Phew.

The soft Southerners, thankfully, had not been a soft touch.

Into Round Five we went.

We took our time exiting the stadium. Out onto Anlaby Road once more, and we walked past our hotel on the search for nosebag. A Greek restaurant was fully-booked, but I soon spotted the sign for “Tandoor Mahal.”

Perfect.

I was on the “Diet Cokes” now – my Sunday morning drive on my mind – but we settled in and enjoyed a lovely meal.

Prawn puri, lamb dhansak, boiled rice and peshwari naan.

I filled my boots. It was one of the best curries that I have eaten for a while. Top marks.

On the adjacent table was Lee, a Hull City supporter of around the same vintage as little old me, and we spent ages talking – lamenting – how football has changed over the past thirty years. We soon found that we had so many things in common. He was with his young daughter, and he really wanted to stay out with us, but after an elongated leaving ceremony he reluctantly said “cheerio.”

He wanted me to mention him in this blog.

So, there you go Lee. See you next time.

At about 10pm, we wandered back to our digs, passing some locals, who we engaged in some witty banter as is our wont.

“Where are you off lads”?

“Back to our hotel.”

“Oh no. It’s not The Carlton is it”?

“Oh yes.”

“Oh God.”

There was time for one last nightcap at the hotel before bed. Next to us at the bar were three Chelsea fans; a young couple from Birmingham and a chap from Stafford. I was, at last, comforted that other Chelsea supporters had chosen the same hotel as us.

It had been a long day. At just before 11pm, I called it a night. Anlaby Road had treated us well.

Next up, an away day – up the Fosse Way once more – to Leicester City.

I will see you there.

Featured album :

“Eden” : Everything But The Girl 1984.

 

Tales From A Lilywhite Christmas Present

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 22 December 2019.

On the drive to London, PD and I were not confident at all about our chances of drawing, let alone winning, at Tottenham Hotspur’s glistening new stadium, that they have decided to name – showing amazing intuition and originality – the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. We were on a dismal little run of games and “that lot” had – heaven knows how – managed to score goals for fun under their new manager Jose Mourinho, picking up wins in most of the games under his tutelage.

The signs did not look good.

I had spent the previous afternoon at Badgers Hill watching a Betvictor Southern League Division One South game between Frome Town and Thatcham Town. I had met up with a pal in the town centre, bustling with Christmas shoppers, for a pre-match drink and had assembled at the Frome ground with close on four hundred others for a top of the table clash, pitting my local team against the team in second place. Despite blustery and difficult conditions, Frome Town flew into a deserved 2-0 lead at the break, but the recent rain had left areas of mud all over the pitch. With around twenty minutes remaining, a crunching tackle took place in a particularly sticky and dangerous patch of mud, for which the word quagmire could well have been invented, and the referee brandished a yellow card, and had no real option but to abandon the game.

It was the first game in my match-going life that had been abandoned during play.

My mind had whirred into gear :

“…mmm, I wonder if I will be wishing for an abandonment at Tottenham tomorrow?”

Deep down, I wondered if the abandonment was a foretaste of gloomier things on the Sunday.

Some more bad news; Parky was unable to come with us. Not only was he unwell, his village was unreachable, isolated by flooded country lanes. So, a double whammy.

As I drove towards Stonehenge I saw a tailback and wondered if my finely-tuned journey to London was about to be disrupted and that the gloom would continue. There were police cars ahead.

“What’s this PD? Hunt saboteurs?”

No, I was quickly reminded of the date. The Winter Solstice. Within a minute or so, we were flagged through by the police as they then returned to their task of funneling the revellers away from their designated car park.

I continued on.

At least the weather was fine. The roads were clear. There was a hint of winter sun. I was grasping at positives.

“Should be a clear drive in, mate.”

PD and I chatted about the Champions League draw, and our plans for getting to Munich. I won’t bore everyone this far out, but it will be a carbon copy of 2012; flights from Bristol to Prague, a night in Prague, coach to and from Prague to Munich, a night in Munich. That’s still three months away. It will take ages to finally arrive. But it is a lovely “gift” at the end of a potentially cold winter spell.

At around 10.45am, we stopped for a bite to eat at a “Greggs” on the A303, and then I drove straight in to London, the roads ridiculously clear of traffic. At midday – exactly as I had planned – we were parked-up outside Barons Court tube station.

Inside my head : “at least this was a perfect start to the day.”

We made our way in to town. Throughout all the years of going to Tottenham, there has never been a set routine. I know that a lot mob up at Liverpool Street at “The Hamilton Hall” or “Railway Tavern” but on the one occasion that I did that, it did not look an awful lot of fun; packed pubs, loons chanting, the OB filming everyone. Not for me.

I had other plans.

We had a few hours to kill.

Leading up to my planning for this game, I remembered a pub crawl that I had sorted for the lads for our home game with Manchester City last season; it was centered on Whitehall. Sadly, I was too ill to attend, so the pub crawl never happened. Bearing in mind that we won – against all odds – that day, the superstitious part of me decided to have another stab at it.

So, from 12.30pm to around 2.45pm, PD and I visited “The Clarence”, “The Old Shades”, “The Silver Cross” and “Walkers of Whitehall”, all of which are within one hundred yards of each other. It was a lovely and relaxing time, away from the madness of Liverpool Street.

We toasted absent friends – not just Parky, there were friends that had missed out on tickets for this, the most sought-after away game in years and years – and chatted about European games past, European games present and European games future.

One thing struck me.

“Still not seen any Tottenham fans, nor Chelsea fans for that matter.”

London would be full of 61,000 match-goers, but we had seen not one of them the entire day, or at least nobody sporting club favours, more to the point.

As we walked from one glorious boozer to the next, pub two to pub three – a full six yards – PD moaned.

“I do wish you wouldn’t make me walk so far between pubs, Chris.”

Our drinking over – I was mixing my drinks, lagers and cokes, the designated driver – we moved on. We walked to Charing Cross station and then caught the Northern Line to Tottenham Court Road. From there, the Central Line to Liverpool Street.

“Still no Tottenham. Still no Chelsea.”

At Liverpool Street, up on the concourse, I looked around and saw a familiar face.

Les from Melksham, but no club colours of course.

We hopped onto the 3.30pm train with only a few seconds to spare.

Perfect timing.

On the train – at last a few Tottenham scarves – we sat with Les and some Chelsea mates, no colours. We ran through the team.

“Three at the back, then.”

“Alonso.”

“Mason.”

This train seemed to take forever.

At just before 4pm, it slowed and we pulled into White Hart Lane station, which – in order to cope with an extra 25,000 match-goers every fortnight – had undergone a fine upgrade.

In the distance, high above the shop fronts on the High Road, a first glimpse of the steel and glass of their new gaff.

We approached the stadium, time moving on now, ten past four, but realised that there was no noticeable signage for away fans. We were shooed north, through a supermarket car park – ambush anyone? – and out on to Northumberland Park. Another glimpse of the outer shell of the stadium, and then the approach to the away section. But here, it seemed that the planners had realised way too late that the away turnstiles were several feet higher than pavement level, resulting in some short steep steps being required to lift fans the final few yards.

An odd arrangement. I have no doubt that the Tottenham stadium is better than the Arsenal one, but it certainly seems cramped. There is not the space nor sense of space that you encounter at The Emirates.

Amid all of this rush to get in, I needed to collect tickets for future games.

Twenty past four.

Thankfully, I spotted one friend – “three for Southampton” – right at the top of the steps from the pavement.

Perfect.

I spotted lines of stewards all lined up, patting people down, and with tables for bag searches too. I had no time for that. I gazed into the distance, avoided eye-contact and shimmied past about eight stewards, with body swerves that JPR Williams would have been proud. Not one single search. Get in. I flashed my ticket against the sensor and I was inside.

The first person that I saw in our cramped concourse was the other friend – “Brighton away” – and I was sorted.

A double dose of “perfect.”

Twenty-five minutes past four.

Chelsea were banging on the metallic panels of the concourse, kicking up a mighty fine racket. I needed to use the little boys’ room. Rush, rush, rush.

Phew.

As I entered the seating bowl, I saw the Chelsea players break from the line-up and race over to us.

Chelsea in all blue. Love those red, white and blue socks.

We had made it.

Two minutes to go.

Perfect.

More positivity.

Initial thoughts about the stadium?

Impressive.

They have obviously learned from Arsenal’s mistakes (seats too far from the pitch, a shallow rake in the lower tier, corporate tiers that get in the way of a continuous wall of noise) and – bloody hell – that single tier at the South End reaches high into the sky. It is very impressive.

(A note to the fools who still blather on about a similar single tiered Shed End at a revamped Stamford Bridge – where are we going to get the room to do that, then?)

I really do not know why the place isn’t still called White Hart Lane though. If anything, the new stadium is nearer the street by the same name by a good fifty yards.

Naming rights, I guess.

I Hate Modern Football Part 519.

Everyone – apart from Parky – was in, and the 3,000 away fans in our section around the north-east corner flag seemed more.

We were ready.

But first, a moment to remember a hero from 1966, Martin Peters, who sadly passed away the previous day. I am not old enough to remember Peters as a West Ham player, but I certainly remember him as a Tottenham player alongside Chivers, Gilzean, England, Jennings and all. He is a strong link to my childhood, so he is another one will who be sadly missed.

There was warm applause from both sets of fans.

RIP.

The game began, and how.

In the first two minutes it was all Chelsea, in the first five minutes it was all Chelsea, in the first ten minutes it was all Chelsea.

It was as if we were the home team.

And I’ll say this. I was expecting great things from the wall of support from the opposite end – after all, they hate us right? – but the lack of noise from the Tottenham fans really surprised me. They had been right on it at Wembley in 2008, and at virtually every game at the old White Hart Lane around that era, but this was a very poor show.

On the pitch, everyone shone, confidently passing to each other, with the wide full-backs stretching play nicely. There were a couple of half-chances from us and yet nothing from Tottenham. From my lowly position – row seven – I did not have a great view of our attacks down the left, but it was from this area that provided some early cheer.

A corner played short by Willian to Kovacic was returned to him. The Brazilian received the ball, fleet-footed it into space and in prime territory, curled a shot (I was right behind the course of the ball once again) past Paulo Gazzaniga into the goal in front of seventeen thousand of the fuckers.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

Just before the goal, a fan had tapped me on the back to tell me that Andy from Trowbridge had spotted me; he had prime seats above the exit to my right. I seized the moment and snapped Andy’s euphoric celebrations.

And then it was time for me to smile, to scream, to celebrate.

Good on you, Willian.

Braziliant.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Phew.

This was a dream start.

We continued on in the same vein for the next portion of the game; always in control, always looking to puncture the Tottenham defence with incisive passing, always determined to halt any approach by the home team. We had chances throughout that first-half, with Tammy looking vibrant, but they had to wait for their first one.

On the half-hour, Harry Kane skied a chance from close in, and not long after Son Hueng Min walloped a shot high too, though from a tighter angle.

The three defenders looked in control and relaxed. This might not be our standard formation for much of the remainder of this season but here it worked a treat.

Tomori. Zouma. Rudiger.

“Young, gifted and at the back.” (…thanks for the inspiration John Drewitt, the cheque is in the post.)

Tottenham – damn, another cliché – really were chasing shadows.

They were simply not in it.

At all.

Chelsea were in fine voice. One song dominated.

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

And it repeated and repeated. I am sure the watching millions heard it on TV because it was deathly silent in all of the 58,000 seats of the home areas.

Another tried an tested chant was aired :

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

On the balcony walls between the tiers, electronic messages flashed.

“THE GAME IS ABOUT GLORY.”

Snigger snigger.

“THIS IS MY CLUB, MY ONE AND ONLY CLUB.”

Yes, and you are fucking welcome to it.

“COME ON YOU SPURS.”

Fuck off you Spurs.

There was a worrying moment when Kepa hesitated to reach a ball into the box and he was clattered by Moussa Sissoko. Just after, there was a kerfuffle involving Kovacic, Kane, Rudiger, Zouma and Delle Ali. It was clear that tensions were rising.

Over on the far touchline, Frank Lampard was the more animated of the two managers by far, constantly cajoling and encouraging his players whereas Jose Mourinho looked unresponsive.

Some in the Chelsea end roared “Fuck off Mourinho” but that chant was not for me.

Forty-five minutes were up, but the first-half was far from finished. Willian lobbed the ball in to the box but the Tottenham ‘keeper bizarrely, and dangerously, chose to claim the ball with a ridiculously high challenge (reminiscent of Schumacher versus Battiston in 1982) and almost decapitated Alonso. For reasons known only to the referee Anthony Taylor, he awarded a free-kick to Tottenham.

We were rightly incandescent with anger.

“His legs were up before Alonso even got close. For fuck sake.”

Then, VAR.

I made a pact with myself – as did Alan, two seats along – not to cheer if the decision went our way.

VAR – penalty.

All eyes on Willian. A halt in his run, but his shot was to the ‘keeper’s left as was the first goal.

GET IN.

What a half of football.

The referee blew up and the Chelsea faithful roared. It had been, make no mistake, a beautiful half of football. At half-time, as I gleefully trotted through the away seats and out to the concourse, shaking hands with a few, and hugging a few more, and I can rarely remember such a joyous bunch at half-time anywhere. And it was great to see a few old stagers present – you know who you are – who had managed to beg, steal or borrow to get in.

Good times.

On the way up in the car, we had highlighted Son as probably Tottenham’s most influential player, but Christian Eriksen was surely not far behind. It was a surprise that Mourinho had not picked him to start, but he replaced Eric Dier as the second-half began.

There were two early attempts on goal from Tammy, and as the game continued it was the away team who still dominated.

Inside my head : “bloody hell, we can do this.”

Willian was bundled off the pitch, and found himself way below the pitch behind the goal. Just like at Old Trafford, there is a marked “fall-off” from the pitch to the surrounds of the stands. I was reminded that there was a retractable NFL – another reason to hate the twats – pitch under the grass pitch for football at this new stadium.

Inside my head : “and below that, a fucking full size circus ring.”

At around the hour mark, my visibility not great, I was vaguely aware of the “coming together” of Son and Rudiger down on the Spurs left. I honestly did not see anything, and perhaps my mind was elsewhere.

Out of nowhere, VAR became involved. Nobody around me really knew what was going on. The TV screen displayed “possible violent conduct” but we were clueless. After a good minute or so, probably more, came the message :

“Decision Red Card. Violent Conduct.”

And Taylor brandished the red to Son.

Oh my days.

Could life get any better?

In the aftermath of this incident, we spotted a few Tottenham fans getting up from their seats and it appeared that they were doing one of three things :

Heading off to try one of the craft ales on sale at the “Moustachioed & Bearded Hipster” bar.

Heading off to buy some Christmas presents at one of the ninety-seven retail outlets at the new stadium.

Heading home.

I suspect the latter, don’t you?

There were a couple of long announcements about “racist chanting” on the PA, but I did not think that this was in any way related to any one incident that had just taken place. I only learned about this while heading back in to London long after the game had finished. For the record, there was only a barely audible “Y” word at the end of the “Barcelona, Real Madrid” chant from the Chelsea contingent, most people deciding not to join in, and many deciding to “sssshhhhh.”

The game continued. It was eleven against ten, we were 2-0 up at the home of our bitterest rivals on our first-ever visit to their new gaff.

Oh, and our Frank was having the best of it against a formerly-loved, but now derided, manager.

“We used to love you Jose, but you’re a bit of a twat really aren’t you?”

Although there was not the high quality of the first-half, everywhere I looked there were sublime performances. Kante was his usual self, winning virtually all the 50/50 battles. One strong run was the stuff of legend. Mount ran and ran and ran, his energy just fantastic. Willian was sublime, the man of the match by far. One piece of control on the far side was worth the admission money alone. Special praise for Marcos Alonso too, a game that reminded me of his special role in 2016/17. I loved the spirited Azpilicueta too. I admired how he stretched – and reached – for a high ball that was going off for a throw-in, thus keeping the ball “live.”

Inside my head : “if I had tried that, I would have sprained seven different muscles, two of which weren’t even mine.”

Jorginho for Kovacic.

A Kante swipe from distance went close.

Reece James for Azpilicueta.

Michy Batshuayi for Abraham.

Fresh legs.

We dominated still. Tottenham were now launching balls high from deep.

“Hoof.”

Or “Huth” to be more precise. Remember Mourinho playing him upfront a few times? I think we should have seen that as a warning sign way back in 2005.

Eight minutes of added time were signalled.

Oh boy.

There was still time for a couple of lightning breaks – Willian usually involved – and Michy went close with a left-footed strike from outside the box. At the other end, the stadium now full of empty seats, Kane – who? – forced Kepa to make his very first save of the entire game.

I watched as the referee blew up and a forest of Chelsea arms flew into the air.

There was a little lull…a feeling of “I can’t believe this” permeated the mild North London air, and then the players and managers walked over towards us. I clambered up on to my seat (I noted that there are horizontal retaining bars above the back of each seat, almost paving the way – I suppose – for safe standing…well done Tottenham) and waited. I then photographed the frenzy of smiles, laughs, hugs and fist punches.

Then, ridiculously, the Tottenham PA chose to play the de facto Christmas song from my childhood (I can vividly remember sitting around the lunch table at my primary school in December 1973 when Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody” took over the number one slot).

“Are you hanging up a stocking on your wall?
It’s the time that every Santa has a ball.
Does he ride a red-nosed reindeer?
Does a ton-up on his sleigh?
Do the fairies keep him sober for a day?

So here it is, Merry Xmas.
Everybody’s having fun.
Look to the future now.
It’s only just begun.”

It wasn’t quite ten thousand Jocks singing “Rocking All Over The World” at half-time at Wembley in 1996, but it felt good enough.

What a giggle.

Frank was a picture. Look at the evidence below.

No words.

Outside, PD and I darted into “Sam’s Chicken” on the High Road to let the crowds subside. The food warmed us, and the dead man’s stare of many a Tottenham fan made me giggle some more.

We had not let them play, and they had been oh-so poor. It was a lovely Christmas present from them on our first-ever visit to their new home.

We caught a train back to Liverpool Street at about 7.30pm. Who should scuttle past me on the platform but Dan Levene? I would soon learn about the “racist chanting” and I wondered what spin he would put on it all.

Inside the train compartment, I spotted the actor Matthew Horne who plays Gavin in the excellent “Gavin & Stacey” comedy series on the BBC. He is a Tottenham fan in the show and I knew that he was a Tottenham fan in real life too. He was with his girlfriend so I left him alone. He was, oddly, combining a white and navy bar scarf with a Stone Island jacket.

Inside my head : “typical Tottenham.”

I overheard him say :

“We just didn’t show up today.”

That raised a giggle too.

After changing tube lines a few times, we eventually reached Barons Court at 9pm. It was a quiet but peaceful ride home and we reached Frome at 11pm.

It was, after all the initial worry, a bloody perfect day out.

Next up, Southampton at home on Boxing Day.

See you in the pub. Don’t be late.

Tales From Dixie Land

Chelsea vs. Everton : 7 December 2019.

Not long in to the long drive north for our game at Everton, I admitted to PD and Parky about my thoughts :

“Of course, we can’t really be sure how this one is going to go.”

Despite Chelsea sitting in a pretty decent fourth place, and with Everton having just sacked their manager Marco Silva, Goodison Park has been a tough place for us over the last decade. Additionally, we have been limping along of late and have struggled to find consistency. Everton, under caretaker manager Duncan Ferguson, would be fired up. It was, in my mind anyway, a difficult result to predict.

The journey from rural Somerset to urban Merseyside was completed in a very good time; a little under four-and-a-half hours. At just after 10.30am, I was at the large car-park in Stanley Park, a quarter of a mile from the towering main stand at Anfield, where the league title looks increasingly like residing in May. We walked through the park, and I found it difficult to believe that we were last in this particular part of the world almost two years ago, just before Christmas, when we ended-up walking back to my car in the same car-park after a dismal 0-0 draw. Last season – last March, St. Patrick’s Day, a 0-2 loss – we had travelled to and from our hotel near Lime Street via cabs.

It would be my twentieth visit to Goodison Park, and as many know, this particular stadium at the northern end of Stanley Park is easily my favourite away venue in domestic football. While PD – Bullens Road, Lower – and LP – Bullens Road, Upper – made the short walk to the away turnstiles, I had a little time to kill before kick-off, so had a customary wander. For certain, I was in no need of alcohol since I wanted to remain fresh for the return journey later that day. I had been awake well before the 5am alarm. The day, for me anyway, was all about staying alert for the demands of the road.

I soon found myself at the Dixie Dean statue. It is a formidable structure and depicts the legendary Evertonian as a strong and determined individual, his eyes focussed and with a fist clenched. His record of 349 league goals in just 399 league games for Everton is one of the greatest records in English football. Growing up as a boy, my father – who was not a football fan at all, really – would often talk of Dixie Dean. He was the superstar of the inter-war years. I always liked the fact that his haul of 60 league goals in 1927/28 was matched by Babe Ruth’s haul of 60 home runs in 1927 for the New York Yankees. Both were the superstars of their eras. And I thought that both records would never ever be beaten. The Ruth record has been surpassed, but Dixie Dean’s sixty will surely stand forever. I took a few photographs of the area, which is backed by plaques commemorating the seven Everton players who were killed in the two World Wars. There were bouquets of flowers at the base of the statue, and it was the focus for many of the match-going fans.

I disappeared off, past the Everton club shop, and headed over to Walton Road where I hoped to meet up with a Chelsea mate of mine and his Everton-supporting brother, but they were delayed en route. Instead, I made my way back to Goodison, passing the Everton Community School, which has enjoyed much success in the local area in recent years. I spotted a long-haired lad knocking a ball against an end of terrace brick wall, the outline of a goal white-washed against it. These sort of scenes are rare in England these days. Ball games are usually not allowed. It was a pleasing sight. I almost wanted to join in. It brought back memories of me endlessly kicking a tennis ball against the large expanse of wall opposite my house in my home village, honing my timing, my technique – and my silent commentary.

“Hollins, outside to Cooke. To Osgood. Goal!”

As always, I circumnavigated Goodison Park, and was very pleased to spot a new addition since my last visit. On a wide pavement outside the famous church of St. Luke The Evangelist stood statues of Howard Kendall, Colin Harvey and Alan Ball, Everton’s “Holy Trinity.” It is sensational. I love that it might resemble three fans heading along Goodison Road from a distance, but once close, it becomes apparent that the figures are footballers.

I took some photographs. It was again the focus of much attention from Evertonians.

I remembered how, on my second visit to Goodison Park in the winter of 1986/87, I had walked not more than ten yards away, along the pavement, alone, and had immediately regretted my choice of jacket. A little group of scallies had scuttled past me and one hissed :

“That jacket is so fuckin’ red.”

I thought I was in for some grief, but nothing came of it. Just a little later, some younger lads started talking to me – much to my annoyance, I thought they were spotters – but I managed to avoid any trouble. I remember they spoke about getting in at Everton under the turnstiles, or by often using some free tickets that someone at the club gave them. They were at first an irritating gaggle of kids – they must have been around fourteen or fifteen – but as I chatted to them, they were just keen to talk to me about football, despite me being on guard.

“What’s your firm called?” I remember one kid asking me.

I pleaded ignorance. I didn’t fancy getting slapped by his elder brother, possibly lurking around a corner.

Later that season, a month or so later, I bumped into the very same group of four or five kids at Anfield for the away game against Liverpool. One of them recognised me.

“Alright, mate?”

I smiled but kept my head down.

Merseyside in 1986 was a tough gig.

The welcome from Evertonians in 2019 was a lot cheerier.

A chap in his ‘sixties moved so I could take a photograph of Alan Ball. I thanked him and said “great statue, that.”

He replied :

“We could do with them today.”

We both smiled.

I had timed my ritualistic pre-amble to perfection and was inside the historic Bullens Road stand with about a quarter of an hour to spare. I could not resist some photographs of the blue and white interior. Once up in the Upper Tier, the wooden floorboards hint at its antiquity. It is a magical place, a great perch from which the full glory of Goodison Park is visible down below.

Those Chelsea supporters who boorishly talk about Goodison Park being a “shit hole” can never, ever, be true friends of mine.

Opposite, the main stand, a double-decked behemoth, acted as a quick reminder of my childhood when its towering presence used to enthral me as I watched the Everton players on TV. In those days – “oh bollocks, here he goes again” – I used to love the idiosyncratic nature of many football grounds. Each one imbued its own personality on the clubs. In fact, the two were one of the same.

Everton was Goodison.

United was Old Trafford.

Arsenal was Highbury.

I thought back on the variety of stands opposite the TV gantries.

The multi-span roof at Molineux.

The trim art deco stylings of the East Stand on Avenell Road at Highbury.

The low pitched roof of the Kemlyn Road Stand, with its line of floodlights above, at Anfield.

The low, small stand at Filbert Street.

The huge and brooding Kippax terrace – a rarity in itself – along the side of the pitch at Manchester City.

The structured modernity at Old Trafford; terrace at front, seats in the middle, executive boxes at the rear.

The tightness of the small structure at The Dell.

It is such a shame that these individualistic beauties have, by and large, been replaced by tiers of seating in lookalike rebuilds. Thankfully, Goodison Park remains (but not for too much longer) and its two Archibald Leitch stands became the early focus of my attention as the game progressed.

Kick-off time approached. Time for one of the highlights of modern day Chelsea away days.

“Z Cars.”

I love it. I fucking love it.

I beamed a very wide smile.

Chelsea were unchanged from the Aston Villa game on the previous Wednesday.

Arrizabalaga

James – Christensen – Zouma – Azpilicueta

Kante

Kovacic – Mount

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

Chelsea in black, black, bright orange.

There were more than a few empty seats in the Upper Tier. Everyone was stood.

The game began.

In the very first few minutes, a couple of loose passes from Dave had a few supporters mumbling and grumbling. But Mason Mount looked busy and involved, running into pockets of space. As a ball was worked out to our right and a pull-back followed, I imagined an Ivanovic or a Costa thumping the ball in for an early lead. It was a promising start. But then, a full scale calamity. We gave up possession way too easily and Everton were all over us like a rash. They moved the ball quickly and purposefully, and we were – cliché warning – chasing shadows. The ball reached their right wing, under the towering double-decker, and Djibril Sidibe punched a fine cross into our box and it was met by the free leap of Richarlison. Our centre-backs were absent without leave.

Only five minutes had been played.

“Oh for fuck sake.”

Chelsea tended to dominate possession, but with little danger to Jordan Pickford in the Everton goal. Everton seemed a little more dangerous on the rare occasions they had the chance to hurt us. There was more space in our defensive third than theirs. A cross from Walcott just evaded Richarlison and there was a save from Kepa from an Everton shot on goal. But we had moments when we looked half-decent. In the middle of the first-half – if not mirroring the purple patch against Villa, perhaps a lavender or violet patch – we started to build a little momentum. Willian managed a few forceful dribbles out of our half, and there was some reasonable linking together of passes. One textbook breakaway down our right came to nothing, and on more than one occasion it felt that we were too frightened to pull the trigger on goal.

Pulisic was on the periphery. I heard a million voices in the US shout the exact same thing :

“Shoot the ball!”

The highlights of the first-half involved our two best players.

N’Golo Kante stretching, but able to cushion a ball into the path of a team mate with just the correct amount of weight. Just perfection.

Mateo Kovacic fighting like a demon for the ball as he kept possession during an extended dribble, even after running into defenders, showing great spirit and determination. It was like something from another era.

As the second-half began, I admitted to Gary “it’s strange not seeing Hazard down below us at this ground, twisting and turning.”

After just two minutes of the half, further catastrophe. I had commented to Gary that it was good to hear the Evertonians applaud Kurt Zouma’s defensive clearance in the first few seconds of the half. He was well-liked at Goodison last season. And yet it was his far-from-convincing hoof into the air which caused panic in the heart of our defence. Christensen and Zouma took it in turns to fall over themselves as the ball fortuitously fell at the feet of Dominic Calvert-Lewin (more a bespectacled member of the clergy than a footballer) and we watched, horrified, as he thumped the ball in from close range.

It felt like we had shot ourselves in the foot yet again. Two goals in the first five minutes of each half.

Bollocks.

No way back from this?

It certainly felt that way.

And yet just a short period of time followed – three minutes – and we were miraculously back in it. A raiding Kante touched the ball to Azpilicueta. His intended pass to Willian was cleared, but it reached Kovacic some twenty-five yards out. His low shot was supremely well-placed. It nestled in the bottom corner with Pickford well beaten.

Game on.

There had been a VAR check for both second-half goals, but both stood.

“ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.”

We continued to dominate the game, and I think it would be safe to say that most of us expected an equaliser at some stage. But we just lacked the final touch. And the noise in our section wasn’t great to be honest. Theo Walcott’s pace had the beating of Kante on one occasion, but then our little prince fared better in a second duel.

But Alan wasn’t impressed.

“Walcott’s had more dribbles than Stephen Hawking.”

There were efforts from Kovacic, from Mount, a drive from outside the box from Christensen. As the game continued, our exasperation increased. Another shot from Mount, a flash from Azpilicueta that was finger tipped over by Pickford.

On seventy minutes, Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced Willian.

On eighty-two minutes, Michy Batshuayi replaced Reece James.

Frank played with two up top.

Sadly, the game was decided with eighty-four minutes on the clock. Kepa tried to find Zouma but his long pass was poor. Theo Walcott collected it, and found Calvert-Lewin. I immediately growled. This looked dangerous. A back-heel from him found Tom Davies, a substitute, and as he stumbled Calvert-Lewin pounced to stab home the loose ball.

Everton 3 Chelsea 1.

Fackinell.

Despite a day of rainbow flags, rainbow armbands and rainbow laces, the Park End then sang about rent boys.

Original, eh?

The game ended.

The home crowd roared “Duncan, Duncan Ferguson” and I thought back to the “dogs of war” team of his era when players like Barry Horne, Dave Watson and Paul Rideout showed no mercy in every game they played. It was a similar performance from the home team on this occasion.

There was the shaking of heads and the pursing of lips in the Bullens Road. It was another strange one. A game of defensive lapses, and a game of goal-shy forwards. Pulisic was lightweight and had a shocker. The defensive four were individually poor and collectively worse. Kante and Kovacic shone like beacons. The game passed Tammy by. And our support wasn’t great.

I spoke to a couple of mates.

“Didn’t seem like a 3-1 game.”

And it didn’t. We weren’t too far away from a draw, but a loss was sadly predictable. We have now lost three of the last four league games. And we play Lille at home in the Champions League on Tuesday, a game that might well affect our self-confidence over the next three months.

We walked back to the car, a little downbeat, but a little pragmatic too.

“Frank is still testing his ideas, testing his thoughts on the best formations, the best mix of players. It’s still a work in progress.”

The escape route out of Stanley Park, down Utting Avenue, past the Liverpool pennants on the lamp posts, and onto Queens Drive was the quickest ever. Maybe the Evertonians were still ensconced in Goodison celebrating their surprising win.

I made good time on the way home, yet I missed a turning from the M6 and down onto the M5. I found myself driving past Villa Park – on the day that their former boss Ron Saunders passed away – but still had time to head over to “The Vine” at West Bromwich which is one of the most famous football pubs in the UK.

Chicken jalfrezi, mushroom rice, peshwari naan.

It took my mind of the football. Just.

I reached home at about 8.30pm, but found myself falling asleep during the “MOTD” coverage of our game. It was probably just as well.

Later, I looked at the record of my twenty visits to Goodison Park. It made for sobering viewing.

The first ten games : 1986 to 2011.

Won 5

Drew 5

Lost 0

The last ten games : 2011 to 2019

Won 2

Drew 1

Lost 7

It has become, ridiculously, a huge bogey ground for us.

Right.

Tuesday.

Lille.

See you there.