Tales From The East

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 9 December 2017.

On Tuesday night, we had walked the seemingly deserted streets outside Stamford Bridge while the Atletico game was nearing completion. We had needed to leave the stadium early to avoid traffic congestion on the M4. As I reported, it was a deeply surreal sensation.

While the first quarter of an hour of the West Ham away game was taking place at the London Stadium at Stratford, we were walking alone outside once again. Despite my best laid plans, which involved leaving home at 7.30am, we sadly managed to get ensnared for over an hour or so in a tedious traffic jam caused by the closure of the M4 motorway between Newbury and Theale.

What a bastard.

Nobody was more annoyed than me. At the end of a week in which I had continued in a new job role at work (UK transport planning for our fleet of vehicles, rather than my fourteen years of exports), it was a particularly damning moment.

“UK transport planner, my arse.”

As we had edged along the alternative A4 – a main trunk road which travels along the course of an old Roman road linking Bristol and London – my frustration grew. At around 10.40am, I eventually re-joined the M4. Like PD on his return home on Tuesday night, I then broke the land speed record and I reached our parking spot at Barons Court at just before 11.30am.

We were then in the hands of London Transport.

“Might just make kick-off, boys.”

What was I saying a few weeks ago about travel documentaries, books and blogs adding some sort of logistical conflict for dramatic effect?

Ooh, the irony.

Sadly, our trip east to the Dickensian-sounding Pudding Mill Lane station on the Docklands Light Railway involved two changes and further delay.

“Reckon we’ll get in at 12.45pm, boys.”

I texted Alan to know that we would be late.

We had seen the team that Antonio had chosen.

There was one change of personnel; Alonso for Moses, though not a simple straight swap.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Fabregas – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Hazard – Morata

We were wrapped up for the cold air of a crisp London day. Overhead, the sky was a clear blue. As we stepped off the train and down the steps at our final station, with the stadium visible in the distance, five or six youngsters flew past us.

“IRONS!”

“IRONS!”

“1-0 to the Cockney Boys.”

Our hearts sank.

We walked on, through a darkened tunnel – very “Clockwork Orange” – and then out, with the stadium now in clear view.

We clambered down a grassy bank, falling and sliding, then made our way up to the away turnstiles. We could hear the Chelsea fans in good voice. I enquired of a young steward :

“1-0, innit?”

“Yeah, 1-0.”

Ugh.

I soon found my place alongside Gary and Alan, and Parky soon arrived too. I looked up at the stadium clock. Eighteen minutes had passed. I remembered back to our visit to the old Upton Park in March 2015; a similar amount of time had passed before we eventually got in. On that occasion, the tube had caused the delays. Memorably, just as I reached my seat, we scored thanks to Eden Hazard.

Sadly, in 2017 there was no such repeat.

Gary quickly updated me, as he had done in 2015. We had been very poor, hardly creating a chance. The ex-Stoke City forward Marko Arnautovic had scored their goal, bursting into the penalty box, and firing past Thibaut Courtois.

Despite their team winning against the champions, the home fans seemed reluctant to make much noise. The first song that I heard from our supporters – split in two sections, in two tiers, separated by a gap of twenty yards or so – was aimed at the home crowd :

“You sold your soul for this shit-hole.”

Quite.

But there simply was not a great deal of noise from either section. Everything was pretty sterile. The West Ham stadium is not liked by many. It is simply a horrible place to watch football. I thought back to the stadium in Baku – with the pitch just as far away from the fans remember – and it certainly seemed much more likable. Those stands were steep and dramatic. The overall design worked. However, this former Olympic Stadium from 2012 is bland, the stands are quite shallow, there is no “wow” factor. I have no doubt these aspects affected the lack of noise.

The game continued with the four Chuckle Brothers in attendance.

Eden Hazard went close with a volley.

The annoying and irritating “from Stamford Bridge to Upton Park” version of our song was aired.

How dull.

I thought that where Cesc Fabregas and Tiemoue Bakayoko – especially Bakayoko – struggled to impose themselves on the game, N’Golo Kante was everywhere in that first period. He broke up attacks. He pushed on by himself. He played in balls to the wide men. He raced on to collect passes. There was a shot from him too, and this was a very rare event in the first-half.

But Bakayoko. Oh boy. Those who know me will vouch for the fact that I hate to pick on players, young players especially, those in their first season even more so, but the lad was so poor. Yet again the phrase “the game passed him by” sums it all up. He was adrift of the play on so many occasions.

Alvaro Morata did not seem “up” for the physical battle. When we had the ball deep in midfield, there was a stunning lack of movement from Morata and Hazard. Both wing-backs seemed to struggle to get past their markers. A minor plus point was the continued form of Andreas Christensen, our best defender.

There were moans at half-time, as expected.

Antonio brought on Pedro for Bakayoko at the break, and I hoped for some extra pace and urgency. We reacted reasonably well as the half got under way. A cross from the right, down below us, resulted in a diving header from Cesc – goal bound – but it was blocked by a West Ham defender. A strike from Zappacosta zipped past the far post. The Chelsea crowd sporadically tried to get behind the team but with the support being split, this proved impossible.

The manager then brought on Victor Moses for Alonso. There was a reprise for Zappacosta’s right-back role from Tuesday.

“COME ON VICTOR.”

However, all around me, fellow fans were getting increasingly frustrated.

“Show some fight.”

“Get into them.”

“Show you care.”

I wanted our players to exhibit tons more passion, tons more desire.

Eden Hazard attempted his fifth back-flick of the game.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

I wanted Moses to show some of his old fight, some of his bullishness. I did not want him to be reckless, but I wanted to see some danger from him.

Sadly, whereas I wanted him to be like a bull in a china shop, all I got was a vegan in a butcher’s shop.

Only once or twice did he decide to take on his marker, instead doubling back on himself, and nursing the ball back whence it came. He simply was not a threat down our right.

Pedro, on the other hand, probing down the left flank at least managed to get the occasional cross in. However, Morata was not picked out too often. We were firing blanks into the box.

Willian was brought on in place of Zappacosta.

On the rare – and I mean rare – occasions that West Ham played the ball out, both Christensen and Azpilicueta defended well. Cahill had a few scary moments, as is his wont. But West Ham rarely got out of their half.

I kept assuring Gary that we would equalise, but the clock ticked by.

Fabregas was awry with both his passing and his shooting. In that second-half, despite dominating play, all of our shots were off target.

The mood among the away loyalists worsened.

A Christensen volley from a corner was blocked by a West Ham defender. There is no doubt that space was at an absolute minimum in the second-half. West Ham defended like their lives depended on it. But they had a huge scalp here, the current champions. It is no surprise that they fought for every ball. But it was gut-wrenching to see the lack of desire in our play.

“COME ON CHELS.”

It was painful to watch as we overplayed it.

Willian to Moses to Fabregas to Kante to Hazard to Kante to Pedro.

With about ten minutes’ left, the best chance of the entire afternoon fell to the trusted boot of Alvaro Morata, picked out by a fine chip by Kante, but the Spaniard skewed it wide of the near post.

The away end was apoplectic.

We pleaded for more shots on goal, but when wayward efforts from Hazard and then Fabregas – again – missed the target, we were overcome with the grim realisation that this was not our day.

Many began leaving with ten minutes to go. With five extra minutes signalled by the assistant linesman, the exodus continued.

At the final whistle, the hurt of a fourth league defeat, and with it, the acknowledgement that the league championship win of 2016/2017 would not be followed by a defence of the title.

Comments on the long drive home.

“You have to admit that although we were pretty awful today, our second-half chances really ought to have given us an equaliser.”

“No complaints, West Ham deserved to win.”

“Hazard was poor.”

“Drinkwater would have loved it out there today.”

“Moses offered nothing when he came on.”

“Can’t honestly remember a single crunching tackle from us the entire bloody game.”

“Dave was his customary 7/10.”

“Morata needs to toughen up.”

“There was no space. It is so difficult to break a team down with eleven men behind the ball.”

“We’ll do well to finish second this season. I have been saying that for a while.”

“It’s almost seems as if this is Conte’s first season with us. Last season was a dream. We caught everyone out. It now seems that Conte has to work through his team selections, his formations, his players, his ideas – just as if this is his inaugural season.”

“Conte on the radio blaming the tiredness of his players, but that’s just a smokescreen.”

Personally, I thought that Conte’s quiet and considered opinions hid a lot of frustration and hurt. But I like him a lot. And I trust him to get it right. It might take a while, but I am not going anywhere.

I am in it for the long haul.

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Tales From The Arkles

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 25 November 2017.

This was our third away game in just eight days. After visits to the Black Country and Azerbaijan, it was now the turn of Merseyside. With a tea-time kick-off at 5.30pm, I was able to enjoy the luxury of a little lie-in before driving the Chuckle Bus north. I collected PD, then Glenn, then Parky. The weather worsened as we headed north on the M5 and then the M6. This would be my twenty-third trip to Anfield with Chelsea. Bizarrely, it would be my first-ever trip with Glenn, my oldest Chelsea mate. His last visit to Anfield was way back in November 1985; that famous 1-1 draw, with 1,000 Rangers fans in their own special section on the Kemlyn Road. On that occasion, he traveled-up from Somerset with the Yeovil supporters on their coach. I had arrived by train from Stoke. We had both been at the game in May 1985 too. Again, he traveled up by coach from Frome and I trained it from my college town.

…all those years ago…we were only twenty and eighteen…yet here we were, repeating the same steps in 2017.

We had parked-up on Utting Avenue, that wide road which shoots off from the city’s ring road, Queens Drive, to the Anfield citadel at the top of the hill. We were headed for “The Arkels” – one of the most famous “away pubs” on our travels with Chelsea – where I had arranged to meet up with a few chaps. There was not the wicked wind of Baku, but it was still a cold afternoon. The rain had momentarily stopped, but a Turner-esque storm cloud was looming in the distance, the fading yellow sun offering a last blast of light as the night fell.

I was reminded of a photograph that I took of the same pub after my very first visit to Anfield in that May 1985 game, which ended with a 4-3 win for the reigning league champions.

The same pub, thirty-two years apart.

We slipped inside “The Arkels” at around 3.15pm. It was frantically busy. It is not an “away fans only” pub – both Liverpool and Chelsea fans rubbed shoulders, but it was the away fans making all of the noise. The landlord welcomed the away fans to his boozer using a microphone.

“Enjoy your visit lads, sing some songs, but please don’t stand on the furniture.”

Although things often used to get a little tense at Liverpool over the years, this particular pub is always welcoming. The locals watched with strained ambivalence as the Chelsea lads sang song after song. I am not convinced that United fans are given equal billing as us. A little gaggle of lads from our home area were already there and The Chuckle Brothers joined them. I spotted my mate Rob and also three good pals from the US. Brian from Chicago was back from his travels to Baku and he was joined by J12 and his wife, and also Cruzer and his wife and daughter.

J12, Jenny, Cruzer, Abigail and Ava all live in Los Angeles.

From La La Land to La Land.

We were in the little room to the left of the bar. It brought back a memory from January 1992 where, on my first ever visit to “The Arkels”, I had found myself drinking at the exact same table. I retold the events of that day to the visitors from across the pond.

I’d like to think that it is worth sharing again here.

I was with my old school mate Francis for the Liverpool versus Chelsea game and it would be a seismic weekend for him; a Liverpool fan, this would be his first ever visit. On the Friday night, we had stayed with friends – my college mate Pete and his Evertonian wife Maxine – and then enjoyed a couple of beers in a local pub on the Saturday lunchtime before setting off for the ground. I already had my ticket, procured during the previous few weeks direct from Chelsea. In those days, I am sure that you could show your membership card at Stamford Bridge, pay your money, and get handed an away ticket. No internet. No loyalty points. It was as easy as that. On the previous Wednesday, Liverpool had beaten Arsenal and – all of a sudden – had found themselves back in the hunt for the league championship behind Manchester United and Leeds United. Francis, Pete and I were dropped off near Anfield at around 2.15pm; the plan was for Pete and Francis to stand on The Kop.

However, the streets around Anfield were milling with people. Bizarrely, we bumped into an old college acquaintance – a Scouser with the unforgettable name of Johnny Fortune – and our heart sank when he barked at Pete with incredulity :

“The Kop’s full.”

I could hardly believe it either. Our plans had been hit by a wave of optimism by the Liverpool fans, enticed to Anfield in vast numbers after the midweek win. Not a spare ticket was to be had anywhere.

“Bollocks.”

Without dwelling on it, I quickly thrust my ticket for the away section in the Anfield Road into Francis’ hands.

“Take it.”

There was no way that I was going to allow Francis to miss out on his first ever Anfield game. Fran was almost stuck for words, but I shooed him away and told him to enjoy the match. Pete and I, once we had realised that there was no way in for us, retreated back to “The Arkels”, where we took our seats in the same corner where we were standing and sitting in 2017, drank a lager apiece and half-halfheartedly watched an England rugby international.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry when the news came through that Vinnie Jones had put Chelsea ahead. Liverpool then equalised. With half-time approaching, Pete and I finished our pints and walked past the Kemlyn Road Stand and found ourselves on the Walton Breck Road behind The Kop. The idea was to get some chips. At the half-time whistle, we suddenly noticed that one gate behind The Kop was opened and several – ten, maybe fifteen – Liverpool fans exited the stadium, crossed the road, bought some chips, then returned back inside the stadium.

Pete looked at me. I looked at Pete. No words were needed. We approached the gate. For those who knew the old Anfield, the gate was by the ship’s mast, in the south-west corner. Pete knocked on the gate.

“Alright, lads?”

In we went. In we fucking went. We silently ascended the steps and soon found ourselves among 15,000 Scousers on The Kop. I looked at Pete, smirking.

“Fucking get in.”

Anfield was not a friendly place, neither on nor off the pitch. And here I was, stood right among the enemy on the famous Kop. On the pitch, our form at Anfield was shocking. Save for a lone F.A. Cup win at Anfield in around 1965, Chelsea had not won at the home of Liverpool Football Club since 1937.

Yep, that’s right : 1937.

Fifty-five sodding years.

I watched from The Kop and Francis, the Liverpool fan, watched from the Chelsea section as a Dennis Wise goal gave us a 2-1 win. When Dennis scored, a low shot from an angle, my heart exploded but I – of course – stayed silent. What indescribable joy. We even missed a late penalty too. The locals were far from happy. I can remember one grizzled old chap spitting out a few words of consternation:

“Come on Liverpool. We can beat dese. It’s only Chelsea.”

Inside, I purred with happiness. And I was, deep down, supremely happy to have stood on the old Kop – even though it only amounted to only forty-five minutes – before it was bulldozed two years later.

At the end of the game, Pete and I raced around to meet up with Francis by the Shankly Gates and my first words were –

“We got in.”

I think it is very safe to say that Francis was very relieved.

“Our first win since 1937 and we got in for free.”

Ironically, in the circumstances, Francis had thoroughly enjoyed himself despite his team’s loss. He commented that the Chelsea fans never stopped singing, never stopped cheering. On more than one occasion, he found himself singing along too; I guess that he was caught up in the emotion of it all. One Chelsea supporter kissed him when Wisey scored. Also – fantastic this – Fran was deeply moved by Micky Greenaway’s urging of fellow fans to get behind the team with his demonic “Zigger Zagger” chant as he walked back and forth. It had been, Francis exclaimed, an incredible afternoon.

The years have flown past since.

I limited myself to two pints of San Miguel, sadly served in plastic glasses. The pub was bouncing with noise from around thirty Chelsea youngsters in the far room. I shared another couple of other stories with the US visitors. I told how my father had watched his only game of football – that is, before his trip to Chelsea with me in 1974 – during his WW2 training on The Wirral at Goodison Park, the equally impressive stadium at the bottom of Stanley Park, no more than a fifteen-minute walk away. I then whispered to J12 and Jenny about that infamous aspect of football on The Kop which the locals termed “a hotleg.”

The pub was thinning out. I re-joined The Chuckle Brothers in the back bar. A few idiots were standing on the sofas. At about 4.45pm, we set off, past the four of five police vans parked right outside the boozer.

I remembered how I had shaken hands with the then England manager Fabio Capello before our 2007 CL semi-final as we crossed the road, past the souvenir stalls, past the tight terraced streets.

The Kemlyn Stand of 1985 became the Centenary Stand in 1992. It is now the Kenny Dalglish Stand in 2017. There is now a car park behind the Anfield Road, where once there were houses, and only just recently a fan-zone. There are, I believe, plans to enlarge Anfield further at this end.

Inside, the Chelsea team were already on the pitch, going through their drills.

The team?

A very solid 3-5-2.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Drinkwater – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Hazard – Morata

The three in the middle – the former Leicester City champions plus the new boy Tiemoue – were chosen to dampen the threat of Liverpool’s attacking options. The creativity would have to come from Eden Hazard.

“No pressure.”

The minutes ticked by. A large flag floated over the heads of the Scousers in the lower tier to my left. No end of flags and banners waved in The Kop.

A bittersweet flag – “Iron Lady” – caught my eye. It honoured the memory of the late Anne Williams and her relentless fight for justice after her son Kevin was killed at Hillsborough in 1989.

Thankfully, I am pleased to report only a very short blast of the loathsome “Murderers” chant from the away section all day.

The teams entered the pitch.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

I expected a lot more noise. It was four times as loud at the infamous Champions League encounter in 2005; that match had, I am sure, the loudest atmosphere at any game that I have witnessed in the UK.

To my immediate right, a Chelsea banner was held aloft. A blue flare was set off and the smoke drifted up towards the mountainous new main stand to my right.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

Philippe Coutinho kicked-off.

Game on.

As so often happens, Liverpool dominated the first twenty minutes. Every game at Anfield seems to start in this fashion. Yet they rarely score. This game was no different. In previous seasons, it is so often Coutinho who impresses, but it was Mo Salah who caught the eye. His nimble footwork seemed to dazzle me, if not our defenders, who were more than able to close him down and stop him making a killer pass to others.

A few Liverpool passes zipped into our box, but we defended well, without any signs of panic or concern.

As the minutes ticked by, I gazed up at the rather old-fashioned scoreboard – no flashy TV screens at Anfield, nor Old Trafford – and commented to Gary :

“Over the years, I don’t think I have consistently watched the time pass on a scoreboard more than the one here.”

Gary agreed.

Tick tock, tick tock.

Liverpool struggled to make any real progress despite having much of the ball. At the other end, Eden began a dribble into a danger zone which was eerily similar to his goal at the end of the 2015/2016 season. A shot from outside the box similarly followed. On this occasion, Mignolet scrambled the ball away for a corner. Not so long after, a simply sublime 180 degree turn on a sixpence and a trademark dribble set up Danny Drinkwater, who could not quite get enough of the ball as Mignolet raced out.

Elsewhere, there were mixed performances. Sadly, Bakayoko really struggled to get in to the game at all. Davide Zappacosta seemed a little overawed. But Andreas Christensen was cool and magnificent. N’Golo Kante was N’Golo Kante; enough said. Hazard was the star though. He was on fire. There were a few Hazard and Morata link-ups, but nothing like at West Brom the previous Saturday.

Eden then set up Zappacosta with a teasing lay-off reminiscent of Pele and Carlos Alberto for Brazil in 1970. Unfortunately, the Italian’s rising shot was palmed over. From the corner which followed, an almighty scramble resulted – penalty box pinball – and there were a few swipes at the Liverpool goal without an end result.

For the record, Daniel Sturridge was having a very quiet game. It is hard to believe that he was a Chelsea non-playing substitute on that night in Munich. How things change.

A free-kick from Alonso flew past a post.

Just before the break, that man Salah shimmied, and curled one just past Courtois’ far post. It had me worried, anyway. It was Liverpool’s only worthwhile effort thus far.

At the break, Glenn shouted up to me from row two.

“We won’t lose this.”

“Nah.”

Hazard tangled with James Milner – the world’s most tedious footballer – on the edge of the box. No decision from Oliver the referee.

Oliver had given us a laugh when he had slipped and stumbled on the halfway line. The Chelsea choir did not waste much time.

“Are you Gerrard in disguise?”

Generally, though, the crowd were quiet. The home fans especially. And although everyone on The Kop was standing, as were the Chelsea fans, the Liverpool fans alongside us in the Annie Road were seated quietly.

Sigh. The lack of noise genuinely surprised me.

Sturridge had a weak effort in front of The Kop. Liverpool had begun better in the second period, but the raiding Zappacosta put in a couple of testing crosses from the right. No Chelsea player was able to connect, save for a ball which bobbled up on to Morata’s chest and flew wide.

“John Terry would have scored that.”

He loved a chest pass, did JT.

Courtois saved well in front of The Kop.

Away to our right, Antonio asked Willian, Fabregas and Rudiger to warm up.

On sixty-five minutes, Liverpool worked the ball in to our box and an attempted clearance from Bakayoko only teed up Oxlade-Chamberlain who touched the ball to Salah.

That horrible moment when you just bloody well know that a goal will be conceded.

“Bollocks.”

Salah guided the ball past Thibaut.

“Bollocks.”

To his credit, our former player did not celebrate.

After an age, Conte made a change. We struggled to work out why it was Drinkwater and not the very poor Bakayoko who was replaced by Fabregas. However, a lot more creativity immediately warmed us. Morata suddenly looked livelier. A few wonderful passes almost paid off.

Pedro replaced Tiemoue.

Tick tock, tick tock.

We stepped it up. I kept saying to the lad with a Mancunian accent to my left –

“We’ll get a goal.”

The away support was warmed by our increased urgency. Another cross from Zappacosta was zipped in. Right in front of me, Alonso met the ball at knee height with a volley. I snapped my camera as his effort flew over. It could have been the best goal that he would ever score. It could have been the best photograph that I would ever take. In the end, both shots were consigned to the delete folder.

Sigh.

With seven minutes remaining, Willian replaced Zappacosta. We kept pushing, with Hazard and Fabregas the main assailants. The Chelsea support roared the team on.

With five minutes to go, Willian received the ball in the inside-right channel. He had a man outside, but pushed on. He chose to send over a teaser towards the far post. The ball seemed to hang in the air for ever. I watched, mesmerized, by the spinning ball. It fell out of the night sky, above the clawing hand of Mignolet, and into the top corner of the goal. As it rippled the net, some nameless photographer at The Kop end snapped his camera.

My mouth is open. My eyes are wide.

No words are necessary.

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Pandemonium in the Annie Road.

GETINYOUFUCKER.

A scream and a shout. Arms everywhere. I clambered onto my seat – “please do not stand on the furniture” – and caught the blissful celebrations just yards away. What a moment. The goal was nothing more than we deserved.

In the final moments, a magnificent save from Courtois from Salah was met with thunderous applause.

The final whistle blew.

It was our third consecutive 1-1 at Anfield.

I suppose we should have no complaints, but I cannot help but think that if the game had continued for another five minutes, we would have found a winner from somewhere.

It had taken forever to drive up to Anfield – a few minutes’ shy of five hours – and it took an equally long time to retrace our steps. There was slow-moving traffic on Queens Drive, heavy rain on the M6, and a 50 miles per hour speed limit too.

At a Balti House in West Bromwich, we enjoyed some curries while watching our game on “Match Of The Day.”

“Willian, did you mean to shoot?”

“Of course.”

We weren’t so sure.

After setting off at 9.45am, I was back home at 2am. It wasn’t as far as Azerbaijan, but bloody hell it felt like it.

On Wednesday, we return home to Stamford Bridge to play Swansea City.

See you there.

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Tales From Via Del Governo Vecchio

Roma vs. Chelsea : 31 October 2017.

I will never forget my first visit to the Eternal City of Rome.

July 1986. My twenty-first summer. I was there for barely twenty-four hours but it left a lasting impression.

Hot on the heels of my month of Inter-Railing around Europe in 1985, I again chose to spend the summer of the following year along similar lines. Whereas my ’85 Grand Tour had concentrated on central Europe – from Marseille in the south to Stockholm in the north and with many places in between – the 1986 edition had a decidedly Mediterranean feel to it. My travels took me to France, Spain, Italy and the Greek island of Corfu. And, typically, football was never too far away. On my quick dip in to Spain for the very first time of my life, I visited Barcelona and I made a bee-line for Camp Nou. It was the undoubted highlight of my day in the city. On the same trip, I visited the San Siro in my few short hours in Milan and that stadium thrilled me too. However, as I took a train from Pisa to Rome, for once football was not wholly dominating my thoughts.

Rome. Just the thought of such an ancient and interesting city had my nerves jangling and my heart racing.

I had visited Italy in 1975, 1976, 1979, 1980 and 1981 – all family holidays – and again in 1985, but this would be my first visit to the South of Italy. I can remember standing up in one of those old-style Italian train carriages with an aisle to one side and individual compartments, watching with increasing scrutiny at every passing sight on the way in to Rome and its marbled Termini station. The one thing that certainly sticks in my mind are those gorgeous and iconic pine trees which seem to flourish in the Rome hinterlands. I always used to think that they were olive trees, but the angled trunks and branches – seemingly altered by the wind, blown out of shape – and the floating canopy of leaves above are stone pines.

I arrived in Rome on a sunny afternoon. I deposited my ruck-sac at the train station and caught the subway down to The Colosseum. I was overwhelmed. It was, I suppose, the most famous stadium of them all. I had ticked off another one. From there, I embarked on a walking tour which saw me head past the ruins of the Roman Forum, the ostentatious Vittorio Emmanuelle monument, and then deeper in to the epicentre of the city – dusty, occasionally dirty, but deeply atmospheric – and over the deep gorge of the River Tiber and on to St. Peter’s Square and The Vatican, by which time the sun was setting and my desire for new sights and experiences had been fully satiated. That night, I slept rough in one of the waiting rooms at the train station alongside many other backpackers – I was on a typical shoestring budget – and as I awoke early the next morning, after a “wake-me-up wash” with cold water, I had one Roman sight remaining. Not The Pantheon. Not the Trevi Fountain. Not the Spanish Steps. Not Piazza del Popolo.

Yes, you have guessed it.

The Olympic Stadium.

I took a metro to the Vatican again, and chose to walk the two miles or so north to the stadium, thus saving money on buses. I recollect walking through the complex of buildings which were purposely constructed for the 1960 Olympics. I don’t remember seeing the infamous Mussolini obelisk on Foro Italico, but I certainly recall the heroic statues of ancient Romans which surrounded the practice running track adjacent to the main stadium. I was lucky enough to spot a chap who was working in the grounds of the stadium, and he allowed me up into the seating area. It will surprise nobody that I took a few photographs. The whole stadium was a lot shallower than today. There was a slight roof on the main Monte Mario stand opposite, which housed proper seats. Elsewhere were bench seats; a clean and cool light cream if memory serves, with curved terracing at both ends. The sun beat down. Everything was quiet. The games came racing back. Liverpool beating Borussia Moenchengladbach in the 1977 European Cup Final. The 1980 European Championships Final; West Germany defeating Belgium. I remembered the infamous Roma vs. Liverpool European Cup Final only two years previously. I let my imagination run away with me for a few moments. Soon, the chap was shouting for me to leave, but those fleeting glimpses inside the still bowl were wonderful.

There is always something about a dormant stadium.

With my visiting complete – more cultural sights would have to wait for further visits, of which there have been plenty – I returned to Termini and caught an early afternoon train to Brindisi and on to Corfu.

My first twenty-four hours in Rome were complete.

But Rome stirred me then, and I just knew that it would stir me in 2017 too.

I only managed two hours of sleep before I was awake for the drive to Stansted Airport in the very small hours of Monday morning. I collected PD at 3am and Parky at 3.30am. There was little traffic on our trip East. Buoyed by coffees, I was loving the excitement of yet another European Away. It would be PD’s first-ever trip abroad with Chelsea; it was long overdue. The first trip should have been way back in 1995 when I booked around twelve lads on a coach trip to Bruges for our ECWC game. Then, notoriously, England rioted in Dublin and the over-reaction went in to overdrive. Fear of any sort of repeat by Chelsea resulted in a lock-down of many travel itineraries and the independent travel company that I booked with pulled out of the trip, costing us all around £100 each. Having to make a number of telephone calls to my good mates in order to pass on the bad news was undoubtedly a low-point in my life as a Chelsea fan.

I managed to catch a little sleep on the Ryanair flight to Rome’s miniscule Ciampino airport. We landed at around 12.30pm. Outside, waiting for the transfer bus to take us in to the city, the sun played hide and seek with some dark clouds for a few minutes. A local wearing a Manchester United baseball cap collected our bus tickets (…insert cliché here).

At last, we were on our way into the city.

The ride in from Ciampino in the East was not the most grandiose of journeys. Down-at-heal local shops and markets. Sketchy apartment blocks daubed with graffiti. Slow-moving traffic. But then the welcoming stone pines. I smiled. We were deposited at Termini, and we immediately caught a cab to our apartment in the heart of the city. The route took us over Via Magenta which housed the hotel where we stayed for the Roma match in 2008, and also for the Napoli game in 2012, when we split our trip between the two cities. The cab took us very close to Via Gaetta, where my good pal Steve from Philadelphia stayed whilst an overseas student at the local university in the mid- ‘nineties and where one of his roommates would become his wife. I quickly texted him, and I sensed the yearning to be with us over the thousands of miles in his reply. The hotel where we stayed in 1999 for the Lazio game was just around the corner.

As we raced down the cobbled streets, memories continued to race through my mind. Halfway down Via Nazionale, I spotted the shop that a few of us raided in 2008 for a few items of Italian menswear – a couple of CP crisp cotton shirts for me, both of which, amazingly, I can still wear without buttons flipping off – at ridiculously cheap prices. I wasn’t so sure there would be a repeat this time around. The noise of the cab bouncing over cobbled streets and the ever-present screech of wailing police sirens created a familiar aural backdrop.  PD was laughing at the driving style of the cab driver; he was living up to the stereotype for sure. Down into Piazza Venezia, I spotted the bar where a few of us drank brandies in the dead of night before the Lazio game. On that occasion, after a night of alcohol abuse, we made our way home as dawn was breaking and I remembered one moment fondly. About six of us, walking up a slight incline, were bellowing out “Carefree” and the Roman walls were echoing to our tuneful wailing. We turned a corner, only to be met with two carabinieri sitting in their car. One of them just brought his finger to his pursed lips and pleaded for quiet.

“…sssssssssshhhhhhhhhhh.”

We were silenced.

Rather than get out of his car and start whacking us, we appreciated this approach.

We passed the staggering Vittorio Emmanuelle monument once again to our left, and I spotted the infamous balcony of the building to the right – now opened-up after decades of guilty closure – where Mussolini spoke to his followers. Then the roads narrowed as we approached the area around Piazza Navona. I was buzzing. I made a call to our host and Christina met us outside the huge wooden doors to our apartment on the intimate and paved Via Del Governo Vecchio. We made our way in. A towering courtyard met us. The place was an old palazzo. We were stunned. The boys thanked me for booking such a great residence. We were all buzzing.

From Frome to Rome.

We had arrived.

After a quick freshen-up, we were soon out and about. It had just turned 3pm. Just a few doors down, we enjoyed the first of many cold beers – Peronis were only 2.5 euros each – at a small and intimate bar called “La Prosciutteria Navona” and the friendly waitress soon served us up a mixed platter to share.

We piled into a lovely selection of cold meats, cheeses, olives, aubergines, courgettes, bread, tomatoes and fruit.

“La Dolce Vita” never tasted better.

It was a lovely afternoon. Perfect weather. The excitement for what lay ahead was palpable.

Our two pals Kevin and Richard – Chelsea and Hearts fans from Edinburgh – joined us. They had arrived on the Sunday and were enjoying their first visit to Rome. This was Rich’s first Chelsea European Away too. Their apartment was a ten-minute walk away, across the nearby Piazza Navona. We sauntered past a variety of bars and cafes on Via Del Governo Vecchio and chose a bar which served San Miguel on draft at 5 euros a pop as the narrow road opened up onto Piazza di Pasquino. My good pal Foxy – last featured in Tales From China – soon joined us. He had flown in from Amsterdam. We gulped down a few beers and then had a wander, our version of the famous Italian “passaggiata.” We were for ever on the lookout for local bars – and not Irish bars, thanks very much, screw that – where we could continue drinking at low prices. It was hit and miss. One bar close to the touristy Piazza Navona had the audacity to ask for 7.5 euros for the same small bottle of Peroni that we had enjoyed at the first bar.

Swerve.

We dipped into an internet café, and cheaper beers were quaffed.

Lastly, but by no means least, at around 6.30pm, Alan and Gary joined us. Their hotel was up near Termini. Like myself, both were lacking sleep, and Gal looked knackered. After a few crisp lagers, he soon perked up.

The eight of us then returned to the first bar – our “local” – and the drinking continued. I tasted a very nice lager from Sardinia – “Ichnusa” – for the first time. I toasted Gianfranco Zola. The laughs and banter increased as the evening turned to night. Not long into proceedings, Foxy remembered the famous European Cup semi-final between his team, Dundee United, and Roma back in 1984. Following on from their sole Scottish Championship win in 1983, which included ex-Chelsea players Eamonn Bannon and Ian Britton, Dundee United went on an amazing European run the following season. In the first-leg of the semi at Tannadice, United beat Roma 2-0. Sadly, for Foxy – and for me, I have a massive soft-spot for Dundee United; I blame the girl from Lochee that I met on holiday in Italy in 1979 – the return leg in Rome was lost 3-0 under deeply suspicious circumstances.

“I hate Roma” said Foxy, not once, but twice, but many times during the night.

That 1984 European Cup Final was so nearly Dundee United vs. Liverpool. Instead, Liverpool beat Roma in their home city on penalties, and the natives violently ambushed many of the visiting scallies after the game, providing part of the back-story for Heysel the following season.

It was 9pm. We moved on and enjoyed a meal a few doors down the street. We all commented that a fantastic pub crawl could take place within the seventy yards of Via Del Governo Vecchio alone. I wolfed down a pizza with gorgonzola, mozzarella and radicchio and then we hit the Limoncello.

Or, rather, the Limoncello hit us.

There had only been a little chat about the game throughout the night. We expected a tough old game for sure. On our previous visit, Roma had handed us a deserved 3-1 thumping. This would be Chelsea’s third tie against Roma; we played them in the 1965/66 season too and the game at the Olimpico saw Chelsea players tackled crudely by the Italian players on the pitch and bombarded with coins by the Roma fans off it.

The meal finished, we headed on to two more bars, the Limoncello chasing our Peronis and almost catching them up.

What a night. What a laugh.

Alan recorded a small clip of us all singing – too slowly, out of tune – a song for Antonio, and posted it on Facebook. I suspected my number of Facebook friends to plummet overnight.

In one of the bars – Café Bianco – I got chatting to two Juventus chaps, and one of them showed me a photograph on his phone of his friend Sergio Brio, who played in the very first Juve game that I saw in 1987. It was great to be able to converse, however slightly, with the locals.

After around nine hours of revelry, it was time to call it a night. We had not seen a single Chelsea fan on our travels around our little piece of Rome. But it had been a hugely pleasurable time.

Just the eight of us. Just enough.

“Friends. Romans.”

“Countrymen.”

Carry on, Chelsea.

On the day of the game, there was a leisurely start. We had a lovely breakfast at a quiet café a few doors down and then met up with Kev and Rich. We popped into a menswear shop on the walk to Piazza Venezia – lots of lovely Paul & Shark, but no purchases this year – and we then took a cab up to Via Cavour to collect our match tickets. The driver was a Napoli fan, he hated Roma, and he looked a bit of a loon. Without much of ado, the tickets were firmly in our mitts. For a few hours we based ourselves at a nearby bar, and were able to enjoy a few lunchtime drinks as the Chelsea fans headed down the steps to collect their tickets too. I lost count of the number of people we recognised.

A special mention for my mate Charles, who had flown in that morning from Dallas for a three day visit to Rome. He soon collected his match ticket, too, and joined us for a few beers. It was a very relaxing time. Over the course of the morning, we had heard how some Chelsea, including some that we knew, had been attacked during a cowardly attack at the nearby “Shamrock” Irish bar – please refer to my last comments about Irish bars – by around forty Roma ultras. This was typical of the locals. I can just imagine a few Roma fans driving around the city on their scooters, keeping a watching eye on all of the Irish pubs where English fans traditionally congregate in most foreign cities, and then reporting back. Thankfully, no Chelsea fans were injured, save for a few bumps and bruises. Apparently, some flares were thrown inside the pub, but the locals did not enter.

It did not help that the pink sports paper “La Gazzetta” had reported the day before that “two thousand hooligans” were on their way to Rome.

Two thousand?

Ridiculous.

We made our way to another bar, then met up with Mark, Les and Andy from the local towns of Westbury, Trowbridge and Melksham. Mark was one of the “Bruges 12” from 1995. It was especially good to see him. We then posed for photographs with The Colosseum looming in the background, mirroring photographs of myself in 1986 – with map in one hand and provisions for the evening in another – and Alan and myself in 2008.

There was time for a wandering walk back to our part of town, time for a meal – gnocchi with gorgonzola for me – and for some Peroni in frosted glasses. A quick change, then out for one or two beers at “the local.” We then caught two cabs up to the Villa Borghese where, as in 2008, we were told to assemble to catch the buses up to the stadium for our own safety. The city traffic was solid. PD and myself arrived just in time to hop on the same coach as Kev, Rich and Parky. Perfect timing. This contrasted heavily with 2008 when we were kept on the buses for an hour before setting off. It was around 7pm. We were given a police escort on the twenty-minute drive to the stadium. I remembered back to 2008; on the day of the game I did not see a single person wearing Roma gear until we reached the stadium. This time, I had only seen three or four. There was loud singing all of the way to the Olimpico on our bus. I hoped that it would continue at the stadium.

Our tickets were presented to the security along with our passports, with checks on both sides of the turnstiles. A quick frisk and we were in. Thankfully, my camera was waved through.

It was soon clear that the gate would be much bigger than the 35,038 at the 2008 match. Our away following that night was a paltry five hundred. The stadium was filling up all over, not just in the Curva Sud. I was of the opinion that 55,000 to 60,000 would be present. The Chelsea fans were in a thick wedge in the 5,700 capacity north-west distinti. The numbers of our tickets sold ranged from 1,750 to 2,500. It felt like around 2,250. A fair bit of noise before the game. Quite a few flags. I left my “VPN” in the apartment; I didn’t fancy it getting pulled for being too provocative, in Lazio sky blue too.

The team had been chosen. Sadly, Kante was not even on the bench. A big game for Hazard. A big game for Fabregas too, who had not played club football in Italy, despite advances from some of their top clubs. The returning player Rudiger was chosen to play to the left of Luiz and not Cahill. Dave was chosen to play as a wing back.

Courtois.

Cahill – Luiz – Rudiger

Azpilicueta – Fabregas – Bakayoko – Alonso

Pedro – Morata – Hazard

The stadium filled. I wondered if my guess was on the low side. We were treated to two Roma anthems; odd songs which reminded me of the days of variety from the years between the wars.

The Curva Sud was full. The flags were constantly waving. The rest of the stadium was all Limoncello yellow and Roma red.

We were ready.

Our end was looking pretty healthy. In 2008, we were allotted the whole section, but only filled thirty rows of a small section. This time, we reached from row 1 to row 75 in a broad wedge.

The teams, the flag, the anthems. The PA announced the first names of the Roma team, the fans roared their surnames.

The game began. Within twenty seconds, Pedro was sent through by Bakayoko, but finished weakly. Within as many seconds later, a cross from Kolarov down below us from deep on the Roma left was aimed at the head of Edin Dzeko, but the ball spun off him, right in to the path of El Shaarawy.

I feared danger. I was right.

The ball flashed past Courtois.

Just thirty-nine seconds had passed.

As the Roma players celebrated in front of us, the PA bloke pissed us all off.

Stephen – “EL SHAARAWY.”

Stephen – “EL SHAARAWY.”

Stephen – “EL SHAARAWY.”

Stephen – “EL SHAARAWY.”

I was reminded of the “Tomas – MULLER” bollocks in Munich.

Rather than quieten, our support responded ever so well. Alvaro Morata looked up for the fight early on. Eden Hazard broke, but dallied too long, and his weak shot was easily parried by Allison in the Roma goal.

Over in the adjoining Curva Nord, the Roma fans were having a dig at us.

“Chelsea, Chelsea – vaffanculo.”

“Chelsea, Chelsea – vaffanculo.”

Eden cut in from the left again, but his fine run ended with a weak shot right at the ‘keeper. It would be a familiar story throughout the first half. Pedro fed in that man Hazard, and another shot at the ‘keeper. All around me, the singing from the away supporters was fantastic.

One was the song of the night :

“Score, score, score, when you get one you’ll get more. We’ll sing you an assembly when we get to Wembley so come on you Chelsea and SCORE, SCORE, SCORE.”

I was proud as fuck.

Despite Roma not needing to go on the attack at will, we edged possession and kept testing their back line. Some fans around me were negativity personified, but not me. I kept urging the team on. We weren’t playing badly at all. Unbelievably, Morata blasted over from eight yards out after a clearance was charged down by Pedro and the ball fell at our Spaniard’s mercy.

We kept going.

“Come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea.”

A rare attack from the home team followed. Courtois saved well from the danger man El Shaarawy after a rash challenge by Luiz set up Dzeko to play in his team mate.

Then, with our support still making tons of noise and with hopes of an equaliser, our hearts were broken. A ball pumped forward by Nainggolan was allowed to drop by Rudiger, who looked for all intense and purposes that he had got a call from Dave to leave the ball. In the confusion, El Shaarawy again pounced and clipped the ball past Courtois.

“Ah fuck it.”

Watching them celebrate in the same place was sickening. Our support immediately quietened.

A shot from Alonso was hit at Alisson. A familiar story. Copy and paste. Copy and paste. Copy and paste. Bakayoko headed over from the corner.

Doom and gloom at the break. I certainly felt that we were well in it until the second goal, but held little hope of retrieving anything from the game.

Dzeko went close in the first few minutes of the second period.

Willian replaced Cahill and Pedro went to right wing back, with Dave pushed inside. A nice little move eventually found Morata – quiet after his initial burst – but he screwed it wide.

Just past the hour, we watched in horror as Cesc Fabregas lost possession on the halfway line and Kolarov played in Perotti. Nobody took responsibility and the Roma player ran and ran. He slammed a strong shot past Thibaut.

Roma 3 Chelsea 0.

Shades of 2008. The mood darkened. The mood darkened several shades further when we watched in absolute shock and horror as all three of our central defenders raced over to close down Dzeko on a raid from deep, leaving Perotti free on the other side of the box. We heaved a massive sigh of relief when he ballooned it over. But what shocking defending. This was turning in to a night of infamy.

“Infamy. Infamy.”

“They’ve all got it in for me.”

Danny Drinkwater came on for a very poor Fabregas. Michy came on for Morata. It was a lost cause. Only two stupendous saves from Thibaut stopped the result becoming a rout, the second an astounding point-blank block from Manolas. The game drifted away.

Only the amazing news from Madrid, where Qarabag held Atletico to a memorable 1-1 draw provided any sort of comfort. Out came an abacus and we soon calculated that if we get a win in Azerbaijan, we will qualify for the next stage. For all the talk of Antonio Conte being under pressure – totally unwarranted in my humble opinion – imagine the pressure that Diego Simeone is under. His Atletico team is without a win in four games in our group.

And, if nothing else, it means our trip to Baku will mean something; it always was a bloody long way to go for a nothing game.

We were kept in for an hour after the game. It was OK. We have known worse. It was ninety minutes in 2008. Our gallows humour kept us going. There was predictable mayhem getting on the buses which took us back to Piazza della Republicca.

In a small café on Piazza Venezia, we stopped for a couple more beers and a porchetta pannini.

We briefly talked about the game.

I spoke of the difficult task once we had gone 2-0 down, away to a fine team. It would always be difficult to bounce back from that.

PD, on his away debut, had me beaten all ends up –

“They did it to us.”

I sighed.

“Yep. You’re bloody right, mate.”

I was dazed and battle-fatigued. We spoke for a few more minutes about the current malaise, but soon concluded that with Kante back, our solidity should improve. The manager? I trust him without doubt. I am behind him 100%.

The bar was looking to close.

It was 1.30am and it was time to head off to bed.

On the Wednesday, we enjoyed a city-tour on a double-decked bus. There were blue skies overhead and the weather was fantastic. The defeat of the previous night hurt, of course, but we have seen worse. We met up with three good friends by the Colosseum; they had been in the pub that was attacked on the Monday night. One was bloodied on the night by a piece of glass. Like us, they were hurting from our defeat but were still smiling.

What a carry on.

A cab, a bus and a plane took us back to England.

It had been a fine trip to Italy once more, but I realised that after six visits to my favourite European country with Chelsea, I was yet to see us win. Four losses and two draws. Maybe I shouldn’t go next time?

No, I’ll keep going.

I’ll carry on, regardless.

We landed at a cold Stansted an hour late at 7.30pm with a heavy old bump. I reached home at about 11.30pm.

On Sunday, we are back to basics and back to our bread and butter.

Chelsea host Manchester United.

See you there.

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Tales From Saturday’s Boys

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 28 October 2017.

The Chuckle Bus bumped and swerved through picturesque tree-lined country lanes en route south from Salisbury to Bournemouth. There had been a road closure on the usual direct route, so Glenn – the driver – was forced into a Plan B. Sitting in the back of his VW Chuckle Bus, I was tossed around like a buoy on the ocean wave. I craved for dry land so I could steady myself.

It wasn’t a day out on the South Coast in the April sun of the two previous seasons, but The Chuckle Brothers were still happy to be on our way to Bournemouth on a pleasant autumnal morning for our tea-time encounter with the underperforming Cherries. We would be spending a lot of time in each other’s company over these last few days of October. There is a trip to Rome coming up for PD, Parky and myself. And the four of us had spent a very enjoyable evening together on the Friday night; for the third time in three years, we saw From The Jam in Frome’s much-prized musical venue, The Cheese & Grain (terrible name, great setting for music.) Over the past ten years or so, I have seen a fantastic array of gigs there; The Damned, Stiff Little Fingers, Glenn Tilbrook, Big Country, Toyah, Inspiral Carpets, The Blockheads, Hugh Cornwall and Grandmaster Flash. Not bad for a small town with a population of just 27,000. Famously, Frome hosted the Foo Fighters this year. It’s a town which continually punches above its weight and I bloody love it.

It was a brilliant gig, featuring the bass player from the iconic band The Jam, Bruce Foxton.

All the old favourites. The place was truly rocking.

“Saturdays boys live life with insults.
Drink lots of beer and wait for half time results.”

Yes. That’s us alright. The Saturday boys.

Once parked-up in Bournemouth, we only had to walk for five minutes before we found ourselves in the same pub as last season, The Moon On The Square. We walked past the hotel where the team, and a few lucky supporters, had stayed on the Friday night. We had missed another “walk in the park” by the players, but we were not too bothered.

We spotted a few of the usual suspects and sat ourselves down for around four hours of chat and laughter.

I was still feeling sea-sick from the voyage down on the Good Ship Chucklebus, so my first couple of pints were non-alcoholic.

An hour later, I was on San Miguel. Everyone was chilled and relaxed. There was a nice vibe.

The news that United had beaten Tottenham was met with a shrug off the shoulders, but Glenn observed that a win at Bournemouth would put us just a point behind Tottenham.

At 4.30pm, with other scores confirmed and with no real surprises, we caught cabs to the Vitality Stadium a mile or so to the north.

This was my second football match in the county of Dorset within five days. The day before our League Cup game with Everton, I drove down with my old friend Francis – school, five-a-side football, concerts, football – to watch my local team Frome Town play at Weymouth. Frome have been playing in the Evostik Premier – formerly the famous Southern League, once a rival to the Football League itself – for seven seasons now, but I was yet to visit Weymouth’s Wessex Stadium. It was a fixture that I was longing to tick-off.

We had a blast. A real blast. It seemed like a proper away game. We had both attended the reverse fixture at the start of the season, when a quick and skilful Weymouth handed Frome a crushing 4-1 defeat. The visiting away fans from the resort town on the Dorset coast bolstered the crowd to over 400.

The drive down took about an hour and a half. The fog thickened over the last few miles. We prayed that our first visit to their stadium would not end with a postponement. This would be a tough old game. Weymouth were on a six-game winning run. After a poor start, Frome have enjoyed a recent resurgence in the league.

But just the buzz of an away game was enough. I loved it.

Weymouth are a large club within the non-league scene. Somerset and Dorset are two counties which are certainly not known for their footballing heritage, but there are signs of growth. Yeovil Town, with a rich history and a county-wide catchment area was promoted to the Football League in 2003. For many years, The Glovers were the best-supported non-league team in the country. They were promoted to the heady heights of the Championship a few seasons ago – quite a story – but are now in the Second Division. I keep a look out for their results, nothing more than that. They remain my home county’s sole members of the Football League. To ignore them would be plain rude.

It could have been a very similar story for Weymouth over the past decade or so. They too have always been very well supported. Until Yeovil Town, their fierce rivals, joined the footballing elite, Weymouth too enjoyed a large catchment area. There were no Football League teams nearby. Exeter City was fifty miles to the west, the two Bristol teams were seventy miles to the north and Bournemouth was forty miles to the east. They have a neat stadium on the edge of town. It holds a creditable 6,600. They are a Football League club in terms of set-up, support and “clout.” Previous managers over the past fifteen years have included Steve Claridge and our own John Hollins.

We had passed through Dorchester, just fifteen minutes away from Weymouth – another sizeable club with better-than-average gates with a fine stadium – and I remembered my trip there in 2015 with Frome when a 1-1 draw was a fair result. I always remember that a “Chelsea XI” opened-up Dorchester’s new stadium in 1990.

When Weymouth visited Dorchester this season, over 1,500 attended.

In this footballing backwater of England, in a straight line from Yeovil through Dorchester to Weymouth, maybe there will be a continuing resurgence. I certainly hope so.

Francis and I enjoyed a pre-match lager in the club bar and then made our way into the seats of the impressive main stand. We shared some chips. The misty rain threatened. The pitch was greasy, but immaculate. It was a perfect night for football. High above the pitch, which has old-style covered terracing on the three other sides, we were able to watch unhindered as Jake Jackson prodded the ball home on eighteen minutes. Frome put in a fine performance for the rest of the game. Nobody had poor games. At half-time, we walked all around the stadium, and bumped into some of the forty or so away fans who had made the journey. Buoyed by cheap admittance prices for children – taking advantage of half-term – the attendance was a healthy 805. In the closing minutes, the home team threw everything at the Frome goal. Their ‘keeper twice came up for a corner. One Weymouth effort was cleared off the line. We were under the cosh. Another corner followed, deep in injury time, and the Weymouth ‘keeper volleyed straight at his Frome counterpart Kyle Phillips, who miraculously saved. What drama. But more soon followed as the ball broke and Frome substitute Darren Jeffries found the ball at his feet with the entire pitch ahead of him, with a chasing pack of Weymouth players, proper Keystone Kops, huffing-and-puffing behind him. From thirty yards out, he steadied himself and swiped at the empty net. We watched as the ball trickled over the line. It was hardly Fernando Torres in the Camp Nou, but it brought the same guttural roar from myself.

Weymouth 0 Frome Town 2 – bloody fantastic.

I honestly cannot remember a better Frome Town performance.

It had proved to be a hugely enjoyable first-visit to Weymouth. Driving away, I joked with Fran that it reminded me of my first-ever trip to Old Trafford in 1986 when Kerry nabbed a late winner.

You can’t beat a good away game, at any level.

The cab dropped us right outside the neat Bournemouth stadium. Its capacity is listed as 11,360. It seems even smaller. There was contradictory talk from a couple of locals during the day about the club’s plans to either enlarge the stadium or find a new location. The problem is that the ground is in the middle of a residential area. I’m not so sure it could cope with an extra ten thousand visitors on match days. To be frank, the current set-up is crying out for a return to terraces at both ends, increasing the capacity to around 15,000 and seeing if that would suffice. Of course, that will never happen. Maybe a new build, further out, is the logical conclusion.

We were inside with a good thirty minutes to spare.

The players were doing stretches and shuttle runs. After a while, I noted four of the substitutes – Ampadu, Cahill, Drinkwater, Christensen – laughing and smiling as they knocked the ball about between them.

Player unrest at Chelsea? No evidence of it there.

Clearly “bullshit.” Ask the manager.

The team?

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger

Zappacosta – Bakayoko – Fabregas – Alonso

Pedro – Morata – Hazard

Although my bag was thoroughly searched outside the turnstiles, and my camera waved in, my position in the second row, next to the exit – surrounded by stewards and police – made me wonder if I would quickly be told to put my trusty Canon away. Thankfully, I was able to snap away to my heart’s content.

One-nil to me.

The game began.

Chelsea in a reverse of the home kit.

White – white – blue.

We dominated possession in the first-half, with Zappacosta overlapping well down the right, and Morata freeing himself from the attentions of the Bournemouth defenders, who of course included our very own Nathan Ake. The steward next to me said that he hasn’t set the world alight since his move to Dorset. In goal was Asmir Begovic and he was much busier of the two ‘keepers. Pedro slashed high after a run into space, but this was our only real chance of the first fifteen minutes. The Chelsea support started in good voice. Saturday boys bemoan the movement away from traditional 5.30pm kick-offs, but love the fact that it results in more beers and more boozy songs. Bournemouth’s attacks were rare and David Luiz, especially, always seemed to do enough to keep trouble at bay. He was ably supported on his flanks by Rudiger and Azpilicueta.

A miss-kick by Begovic ended up at the feet of Eden Hazard, who set up Alvaro Morata, but he inexplicably shot wide when the entire Chelsea support of 1,200 were seemingly celebrating the net rippling.

The home fans to my left chortled :

“You thought you had scored, you were wrong, you were wrong.”

It was the loudest they would be all evening.

Just after, a Luiz shot was blocked and Morata bundled the ball in, only for an offside flag to be raised.

Another chorus of “You thought you had scored, you were wrong, you were wrong.”

The Chelsea choir belted out some old classics throughout the first period; there were songs for Matthew Harding, Dennis Wise and Salomon Kalou.

Bakayoko, his hair now a ridiculous shade of blue, was not as involved as I would have liked. The game was passing him by. And Eden was having a quiet one. Another chance fell for Moata, but Begovic saved well. Although we were dominating play, there was a spark missing. There were no groans at half-time, but we knew we had to step up in the second period.

With Chelsea attacking “our goal” in the second-half, I was able to witness as close hand the speed and skill of our attacking threat. On fifty-one minutes, a mistake by a Bournemouth player was pounced upon by Hazard. He advanced on goal, shot with unnerving accuracy at the near post with his left foot and we roared as the net finally rippled.

GET IN.

Eden’s run towards us – tongue out, slide, swagger – was caught on film.

I moaned at Eden’s inability to grab the game at Selhurst Park by the scruff of the neck, but he had done so under the floodlights at Bournemouth. The celebrations on the pitch were mirrored by us just yards away. I love the fact that the pitch is so close to the fans at the Vitality.

However, rather than push on, we allowed the home team a few half-chances as the game wore on. The appearance of substitute Callum Wilson was heralded by the home support as the second coming of Christ. I wondered what he had in store for us.

A lovely ball by Hazard, sometimes playing deep, in the centre, set up Pedro but his return pass was blasted over by Eden.

Into the final quarter, I kept thinking “bloody hell we are making hard work of this.”

Danny Drinkwater replaced Pedro for his league debut.

Michy Batshuayi replaced Morata.

A similar run to Hazard’s goal found him deep inside the Bournemouth box but his movement ended up being blocked by resolute defending. He then set up Fabregas, in close, but his shot was blasted over from an angle.

Willian replaced Hazard with five to go and looked willing to punish the home team further. His sudden bursts are the last thing that tiring defenders need late in the game. However, as the minutes ticked by, I almost expected a late equaliser. Bournemouth, to their credit, kept going and in the last few minutes a shot was easily saved by Thibaut. It would be, I was to learn later on “MOTD” his only save the entire game. We deserved to win, no doubt, but a 1-0 margin is always a nervous ride. I immediately likened it to our narrow 1-0 at Middlesbrough last season.

After the Roma draw, I hoped for three consecutive wins. Thankfully, we got them.

Ah Roma.

The eternal city awaits.

Andiamo.

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Tales From An Old Gold Adversary

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Chelsea : 18 February 2017.

After two easy home wins against Peterborough United and Brentford in this season’s FA Cup, we were on our travels. I would have preferred a new ground – Huddersfield Town, Sutton United, Lincoln City, not Millwall – but the Football Gods had given us an away fixture at Wolverhampton Wanderers. This was fine by me. Our last visit was five years ago and, since then, a new stand has been built, so there would be something new to see. Wolves away is an easy drive for me too; after the arduous trek to Burnley last weekend, this would be easy.

I remembered our last game against Wolves in the F. A. Cup in the spring of 1994. Our game at Stamford Bridge – on TV, on a Sunday – was only our second FA Cup quarter final in twenty-one years, and the stadium was bouncing. Memorably, there were blue flares in The Shed before the game, and the old – and huge – original “Pride Of London” flag made its first-ever appearance that day. From memory, it was the biggest “crowd-surfing” flag ever seen at a London stadium at the time. The 2,500 Wolves fans were allocated a large section of the East Stand because the North Stand was recently demolished. I watched from the old West Stand as a Gavin Peacock lofted chip gave us a 1-0 win. We were on our way to an F.A. Cup semi-final for the first time since 1970 and – boy – how we bloody celebrated. We flooded the pitch afterwards; in fact it would be the last time thst I would walk on the hallowed turf. However, the one thing I really remember from that game was the noisy repetition of “The Blue Flag” which really became an immediate and legendary Chelsea song on that particular day. It had not really been sung much until then. On the Monday, at work, I could not stop singing it to myself. The photographs from that day show a much different Stamford Bridge and a much-changed support. Of course I miss it.

Twenty-three years later, the four of us (Parky, PD, Scott and myself) were in Wolverhampton over four hours before the game was due to commence at 5.30pm. We darted into the first pub we saw, The Wheatsheaf, and once inside, soon realised the errors of our ways. We didn’t mind that it was a home pub – there were Wolves shirts pinned to the walls and ceiling – but the clientele soon began to change. We stood to one side of the bar supping our pints and watched as a few Wolves lads came in. We wondered if they were in the “Yam Yam Army”. I was certainly being eye-balled by a young chap. You could tell they had us sussed. One bald lad sauntered in – blue Stone Island jacket – and we soon decided to cut our losses. A few minutes later we were settled in an “away fans only” pub – big gothic columns outside, formerly “The Walkabout” which we have visited before, now renamed and re-branded as a nightclub – and we could relax a little. There were a few Chelsea “faces” of our own on a table on the back wall, and a few more friends and acquaintances soon arrived. I had a laugh with a local copper about the previous pub.

“Didn’t you think it odd there were Wolves shirts there?”

“Yeah, but there are home pubs and there are home pubs. This one was a little – pause – tense.”

“Ha. Bet your arse was twitching like a rabbit’s nose.”

Songs were soon bellowing around the cavernous and dark boozer. There were only a precious few “away only” pubs in Wolverhampton and I was glad we had stumbled across one of them. We had heard that – quite a miracle – non-league Lincoln City had won at Burnley with a goal in the last minute of play. What a stunning result. At around 3.45pm, I left the others to it and departed for the stadium. Outside the pub was a sport shop owned by former player Ron Flowers. I walked past a pub called “The Billy Wright.” I wondered if another pub called “Slaters” was named after the former Wolves defender Bill Slater. I did wonder, in fact, if there were other such places in Wolverhampton, a town famous – only? – for its football team.

“Maybe it is all they have.”

Maybe in other streets there are the George Berry Tea Rooms, the Sammy Chung Bowling Green and the Kenny Hibbitt Bingo Hall.

In a previous edition, I briefly flitted through Wolves’ history.

Tales From The Old Gold And Black Country : 20 February 2010.

“The stadium in Wolverhampton is right at the heart of the city and I like it. The long natural incline leading down from the town centre once formed the basis of the huge Kop until the ground was slowly – very slowly – remodelled in the ‘eighties. When I think of the Wolves of my childhood, not only do I think of players such as Jim McCalliog, David Wagstaffe and Derek Dougan, but I also I think of the idiosyncratic Molyneux stadium. There was the immense Kop to the right and the unique multi-spanned roof opposite. All of these individualistic stadia are long gone these days and it’s a shame. I can also hear the gentle burr of the ‘seventies ATV commentator Huw Johns telling of some action on the pitch. He had such an evocative voice and often commentated on Wolves games. Before my time, Wolves were the team of the ‘fifties – winning three league titles – and they captured the imagination of the nation with their unique set of friendlies against teams such as Honved. In their distinctive old gold shirts, they were some team, led by England captain Billy Wright. If the Munich air crash had not happened in 1958, catapulting Manchester United into the nation’s hearts, maybe Wolves would be a major player these days.”

By the time of my next visit, I was able to update on Molyneux’ expansion plans.

Tales From A Dark Night : 5 January 2011.

“Wolves almost went to the wall around 1985 as a result of their relegation to the old fourth division and debts caused by the messy redevelopment of their stadium. For many seasons, the Steve Bull Stand – built in 1979 and very similar to the Spurs West Stand of the same year – stood way back from the pitch, with the rest of the crumbling stadium unable to be rebuilt and moved to meet up with the new stand’s footprint. The three new stands were eventually completed in around 1993 and it’s a neat and compact stadium, with the iconic old gold used on stand supports and seats. It feels right. Alan and Gary had been talking to a Wolves fan as they waited for me to arrive and he told them that there were plans to build again, with the end goal being a 50,000 stadium. I guessed that relegation might halt such grandiose plans.”

I was looking forward to sitting in the upper deck of this new stand, which was still being built on my last visit. However, the Wolves of previous eras were dominating my thoughts as I walked past pub after pub of home fans, each one with bouncers outside.

The Wolves of the ‘fifties were indeed a grand team. And the game against Honved in 1954 – during our first league title season – was shown live on BBC; a very rare event in those days. Played under new floodlights, Wolves played the game in special shimmering old gold silky shirts to add to the drama. Many observers have credited the series of Wolves friendlies against Honved, Tel Aviv, First Vienna and Spartak Moscow as kick-starting a pan-European knockout competition. In the very next season, Chelsea were advised, of course, not to take part in the inaugural European Cup by the curmudgeons in the English FA. One can only imagine how spectacular the Wolves vs. Honved game seemed at the time. The Honved team included six of the Magyars who had defeated England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and again 7-1 in Budapest in 1954 including the legendary Ferenc Puskas. Watching on a TV in Belfast was a young lad called George Best, who chose Wolves as his team. The game must have had a similar effect on many; my next-door neighbour Ken is a Wolves fan and would have been a young lad in 1954.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxoI4AjgokU

Of course, Wolves were our nearest rivals back in that 1954/1955 season. A Billy Wright handball at our game at Stamford Bridge is the stuff, as they say, of legend.

Our paths memorably crossed during the 1976/1977 Second Division season too, when a 3-3 draw at Stamford Bridge was followed by a 1-1 draw at Molyneux. Wolves were promoted as champions that year, with Chelsea also going up just behind them. I wrote a few words about this during our last visit.

Tales From A Work In Progress : 2 January 2012.

“Alan and Big John were reminiscing about their visit to the same ground in April 1977 when our fans were officially banned, but around 4,000 fans still attended. A Tommy Langley goal gave us shares in a 1-1 draw and secured our promotion. Those were heady days. That was a cracking season. I only saw three games in our promotion push, but the memories of those games against Cardiff City (won), Bristol Rovers (lost) and Millwall (drew) are strong. On the day of the Wolves match, I can vividly remember running up the slope outside my grandparents’ house once I had heard that we had secured promotion and jumping in the air. But then the realisation that, as the lone Chelsea fan in my village, I had nobody to share my enthusiasm with.”

So, 1954/1955 and 1976/1977 and 1994/1995 – three instances when the two clubs have been thrown together. I wondered what 2016/2017 would bring. I approached the stadium from the south, and used the infamous subway, much beloved by home fans who used to ambush away fans in previous eras. It has something of the feel of “A Clockwork Orange” and it spawned the Wolves firm “Subway Army.”

I reached Molineux unscathed and rewarded myself with a cheeseburger.

There were Chelsea supporters milling around the Steve Bull Stand, whose lower tier would house 3,000 of our 4,500 supporters. But I headed on and took a few photographs of the stadium, which has changed so much over the past few decades.

It was soon clear that many away fans had been drinking heavily from London to the Black Country; the concourse in the lofty Stan Cullis Stand was soon full of Chelsea song and football-style rowdiness. One fan collapsed on reaching the final step, overcome with alcohol. Some younger lads could hardly stand. I made my way to our seats – black in this visitors’ quadrant, as opposed to old gold elsewhere – and I loved the view. A new perspective on Molineux. Many other away regulars had chosen seats in this section too. I noted that the Steve Bull Stand was so far from the pitch, but Molineux remains a neat stadium. We watched the sun disappear to our right and the air chilled.

Antonio Conte had chosen a relatively experienced team; our attacking options did not lack any punch. There was all change in the back three though, with the manager choosing John Terry, Kurt Zouma and Nathan Ake.

Begovic, Moses, Zouma, Terry, Ake, Pedro, Chalobah, Fabregas, Willian, Costa, Hazard.

Happy with that.

I liked the wordplay of the slogan on the balcony of the Stan Cullis Stand :

“This is our love and it knows no division.”

From Champions to the depths of Division Four, Wolves have seen it all.

The stadium took a while to fill, but with a few minutes to kick-off, the place was packed. Although Wolves play to gates of around 18,000 to 24,000 for most league gamers, this one would be a 30,000 capacity. Wolves used to play “Fanfare For The Common Man” before the teams entered the pitch, but we were treated – oddly – to “The Wonder Of You.” More than a few Chelsea fans joined in. That drink again. As the teams appeared, the PA played the customary “Hi Ho Silver Lining” and the place roared.

“And it’s hi ho – Wolverhampton.”

Soon in to the game, the Wolves fans to our right bellowed “The North Bank!” and it sounded like something from another era. The home fans were the first to be treated to a chance on goal when a loose header from Kurt Zouma allowed the unmarked George Saville a shot on goal. I sucked in some cold air and expected sure disappointment. Thankfully, his firm strike hit a post. The danger was still there, but again thankfully Andreas Weinmann ballooned over.

Just after, a fantastic pass from Fabregas found Willian in a central position, but he took a little too long to control the ball, and the chance was wasted. I sensed that Victor Moses had the beating of his opposing defender; an ugly tackle was clear evidence that he was a threat. Eden Hazard, despite plenty of willing support from the overlapping Pedro, was quiet. Nathan Ake oozed class and was easily the best of the three at the back. Kurt Zouma still looks so stiff. He did enjoy one “balls out” run deep in to the Wolves half though and – it reminded me of those barnstorming runs that Michael Duberry used to love. I have a feeling that King Kurt will one day score an absolute screamer following a typical run.

One fan in the Steve Bull Stand was clearly enjoying his five minutes of fame; he was spotted gesticulating to the away hordes, and he was soon singled-out.

“Who’s the wanker in the pink?”

(For those who remember, this is a famous chant from 1983 – even mentioned in “The Football Factory” by John King if memory serves – when the pastel-clad casuals from Portsmouth’s 6.57 arrived en masse on our North Terrace and one similarly-attired lad was picked out by the scallywags on The Benches. I know because I was one of them.)

Wolves were carving out occasional chances and Begovic saved low from Helder Costa (hair c. 1991). There were certainly grumbles throughout the first-half. I can only really remember another effort on goal; a cross from Moses was unable to be tucked in by the quiet Diego Costa. Wolves must have been annoyed as hell that their slight dominance did not result in a goal. But I was so confident that we had enough quality in our ranks to be victorious. What we did not want, almost as much as a defeat, was a horrible replay. But ours was a very patchy performance and we needed Antonio to fire up the troops.

There was another “hi ho – Wolverhampton” and the second-half began.

With Chelsea attacking our stand, things began to brighten. There were speculative efforts from Zouma and Pedro and then Diego carved out a fine chance for himself but his strong shot hit the side netting. On sixty-five minutes, we were warmed by an excellent move involving Cesc, Diego, Hazard and then Willian. As he paused momentarily, I spotted Pedro racing in at the far post and I hoped that Willian had seen him too.

No need to worry; an inch-perfect cross was sent over to the far post and The Hummingbird jumped, hovered in mid-air, and headed home. There was an enormous roar and soon the away end was covered in a blue sulphurous haze of a flare – the second of the day, how 1994. Wolves tried their best to mount a counter but rarely threatened again and the home atmosphere died. In one surprisingly dramatic race, we watched as John Terry just about reached a through-ball a mere  nano-second ahead of an attacker.

Phew.

The away fans were now in good voice. This was much better. There were songs of Wembley.

Antonio made three late substitutions involving Dave, Kante (all Wolves fans : “ah, bollocks”) and Loftus-Cheek.

We enjoyed a few more chances; Willian slipped while inside the box, Fabregas shot wide and Zouma went close with a header.

In the final minute, a loose ball was slammed home inside the box by Diego Costa.

“Get in, game over.”

Into the last eight we went.

The temperature had greatly-dropped in the second-half, but after the tundra of Turf Moor, this was no real issue. There was a rare event of a police escort back in to the town centre. Such must be the problems in keeping home and away fans separated in Wolverhampton. The police were out in force and the “Yam Yam’s” day was over.

On the drive home, we wondered about the draw for the quarters, while looking ahead to the league game against Swansea City next Saturday.

It had been a fine day in the Black Country.

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Tales From A Liverpudlian Pub Crawl

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 31 January 2017. 

It had been a horrid time for Liverpool Football Club. In addition to a loss at home to Swansea City in the league, they were ousted from the two domestic cups within a few days. Not only were they “out” but they were Micky Flanagan “out out.” As for us, after our easy win in the FA Cup on Saturday, we were careering towards a huge game at Anfield, and it was a game that had thrilled and excited me for weeks, especially since Liverpool’s league campaign had faltered over recent months. The Chuckle Brothers, with no European adventures this season, had decided to stay over on Merseyside for this midweek match. And after overnight stays in Middlesbrough and Sunderland already this season, this one had the potential to be the best of the lot. Parky, PD and myself were joined on our trip north by my old school mate Francis, who has been an occasional visitor to Chelsea games over the years. I had collected all of the lads by 6.30am and made slow progress underneath cloudy skies; the rain was incessant. Eventually the skies cleared. I dropped down into the city of Liverpool and was parked-up at our city centre hotel by 11.15am. The trip to Liverpool had taken a full five-and-a-half hours.

The idea was for Francis and myself to head off on a little tour around the city before joining up with Parky and PD – who was celebrating his fifty-fifth birthday – in the afternoon. Francis had recently visited the city with his daughter, but – like me – had hardly seen much of the place over the years. I knew the stadia, and the area around the revitalised Albert Dock, but not much in between.

“Let’s just have a pint in a pub, come up with a plan and take it from there.”

The game was to kick-off at 8pm. At just after 11.45am, the four of us were settled in a magnificent old pub with wooden panels, stained glass, a low ceiling – “Rigby’s” – and I had a little chuckle to myself.

“Good effort boys – over eight hours to kick-off.”

Well, the first pint hardly touched the sides. One pint became two, then three, then four. Francis and I and soon decided to postpone the walk around the city centre until next time. Behind the bar was a black and white photograph of Dixie Dean, and this initiated a lovely chat with the landlord – a mad-keen Evertonian – who was soon taking the piss out of his city’s rivals.

“Well, you won’t hear many Liverpool fans going to the match tonight who will be speaking English. Norwegian, Danish, Swedish maybe.”

The landlord traded stories and memories of games and players with us, and a couple of Evertonians – supping pints on their lunch break – joined in.

Brian Labone, Pat Nevin, Colin Harvey, Alan Ball, Tommy Lawton.

I mentioned how my father had visited Goodison Park during World War Two, and talk centred on Everton’s stadium for a while. I mentioned that I had once seen a game from the top deck of the main stand – when Robert Fleck scored in 1992 – and the landlord mentioned that he had seen a few games at Goodison during the 1966 World Cup. I mentioned Archibald Leitch, the structural engineer who had planned many of football’s stadia over one hundred years ago, including Goodison Park, Anfield and Stamford Bridge.

“Archibald Leitch’s office was in that red brick building opposite just a few yards away. You probably walked past it this morning.”

What a small world and, indeed, we had. I had spoken to Francis about its imposing façade as we had walked along Dale Street earlier.

As he disappeared into the other bar, he commented that I should read a book called “Engineering Archie” which detailed Leitch’s life.

“I’ve got it mate.”

He smiled and said “you’re good, you.”

I laughed.

To our left were two Liverpool supporters from Austria. To our left were two Liverpool supporters from Germany. The landlord was right.

As the beers were downed, the landlord told the story of how he had not seen Everton play for a few years due to his increasing dislike of the way the club was being run. But he then had the chance to go to a game with a mate who he bumped into a few months back. Guess which one? It was the game at Stamford Bridge back in the autumn when we annihilated them.

He pulled a face.

“Youse lot were amazing that day.”

Interestingly, he mentioned that the girls serving food and drink in the away section at Chelsea wore Dixie Dean T-shirts. A nice touch, I thought.

From Dixie Dean to Dixie Dean, a circle was completed.

Steve, newly-arrived from Lime Street, joined us and it was great to see him again. He has been working over in Vietnam for a few years but still makes it back for a few games each season. We remembered our time together in Tokyo for the 2012 World Club Championships and also the time in Philadelphia when we posed with the club banners on the city’s famous Rocky Steps. Before we left, the landlord posed us a question. Apparently, in around 1968 or so, Everton played Chelsea and all six half-backs in the game had surnames that began with the letter “H.” We quickly came up with Harris and Hinton for Chelsea, but had no hope of getting any of the Everton ones. This brain-teaser soon morphed into the old question of naming the seven Chelsea players from the ‘seventies with surnames beginning with “H.” We all chirped in.

“Harris.”

“Hollins.”

“Houseman.”

“Hinton.”

“Hudson.”

“Hutchinson.”

“Are you sure there were seven?”

“How about Hosgood?”

We giggled.

We moved a few yards down Dale Street to pub number two, “The Vernon Arms” which oddly had a sloping floor. To our right there were two Liverpool fans from Dublin.

“No English accents.”

We had to laugh, the landlord from the first pub showed up on his break.

“It’s cheaper.”

The beers were certainly flowing now. We moved on to pub number three, “The Exelsior” and the drinking continued. We bumped into a couple from Dundee – Chelsea fans down for the game – and we soon found out that they knew our mate Foxy, he of the Dundee-based “Charlie Cooke Flying Squad.” Again, a comment about a small world is surely in order.

The next pub – just a few more yards along Dale Street – was “The Ship & Mitre.”

Here, it certainly felt like we were enacting The Pied Piper Of Hamelin, as we were joined by Kev, who loves his real ales and who sits very near me at Chelsea, and Jeremy, from Kansas, who I last saw in the US. More drinks, more laughs, oh bloody hell, what a giggle.

We asked Kev about the riddle involving the Chelsea players.

“Hosgood?”

We laughed again.

The Chuckle Brothers were in town alright.

Time was moving on. At around 7pm, we took two cabs up to Anfield; PD, Parky and myself in one, Francis and the Charlie Cooke Flying Squad in the other. The accumulative effect of a ridiculously long drinking session began to take its toll. There were a few fraught minutes when I thought that I had mislaid my match ticket. I made my blurry way over to “The Arkles” at about 7.15pm where I had hoped to meet up with a couple of friends. Sadly, they were nowhere to be seen. Francis suddenly appeared in the bar and we hurriedly wolfed-down a couple of large gin and tonics.

With only a few minutes to spare, I made my way in to the away end and finally edged my way along to meet up with Alan and Gary. The Kop was full of scarves and flags, but my attention was taken up by the huge new stand to our right which dwarfed the other three structures at Anfield. The dull grey roof sloped down in sections towards The Kop and the Anfield Road. The rain was sleeting down. It was a horrible night but the green carpet glistened. Our end was packed. Elsewhere, I could hardly see any empty seats.

It was time for me to quickly assess the team that Antonio Conte had chosen. Matic was selected alongside Kante. Willian had got the nod ahead of Pedro. Mark Clattenburg whistled the start of the game and it felt so odd to see Liverpool attacking The Kop in the first-half. In all of my years of attending games at Anfield – this was game number twenty-two – I could not remember many other matches that had begun in a similar fashion. One stood out, for all of the wrong reasons; that Louis bloody Garcia game in 2005. I tried my best to focus and concentrate on the action being played out in front of me. Liverpool certainly enjoyed a huge amount of early possession and I think that it surprised us all. The ball was moved across the pitch at will by Liverpool but to be truthful they rarely breached our defensive line nor exposed us.

Not long into our game, news filtered through that Arsenal were losing 2-0 at home against the might of Watford. Oh my aching sides.

We began to grow into the game. A run by Eden Hazard was abruptly stopped and we waited for the resulting free-kick. Willian stood over the ball. I took a photograph of him waiting. The referee whistled and David Luiz – not Willian – raced at the ball. His customary side-on strike caught everyone unawares. It certainly caught me unawares as he was too quick for my trusty camera. The ball dipped and curled at all the right places and made the net ripple, with Mignolet miles away.

My first thought; David’s first goal for us since his return.

This was followed a nano-second later with another thought.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

It was our first real effort on goal.

The three-thousand Chelsea supporters roared as Luiz reeled away and sprinted over to the Chelsea bench. Thousands of inhabitants of the new stand looked down in dismay.

Chances were at an absolute premium as the play continued. The ball zipped over the wet surface and although the two teams tried their best to engineer chances, the play was of great intensity but of little guile and craft. Liverpool again had most of the ball, but Thibaut Courtois was largely untroubled in front of The Kop.

Soon into the second-half, Firmino wasted a great chance for Liverpool, blasting high and wide.

At the other end, Moses scraped the outside of the post in a rare Chelsea attack.

Just before the hour, a deep cross from Henderson found Milner, only a few yards away from us in the away section. His header back across the six-yard box was subsequently touched home by Wijnaldum.

Bollocks.

I feared the worst, to be honest and kept glancing at the clock, willing the clock to keep moving on. We tackled and closed space. This really was a war of attrition. Kante won tackle after tackle.

With twenty minutes to go, Conte replaced Hazard with Pedro.

In one of his few forays into the Liverpool box, Costa was caught by Matip and – yes! – Clattenburg pointed to the spot. I can’t imagine what it must be like to step forward and take a penalty in front of The Kop, but sadly Diego shot weakly to Mignolet’s right – a very poor effort – and the ball was pushed away for a corner.

Fabregas replaced Willian in the closing moments and he added some steadiness amongst the frantic pin-ball. Both sets of fans were baying for a winner. Pedro, adding extra pace to our attacks, came close and then Firmino headed weakly at Thibaut. Batshuayi replaced Diego Costa.

The whistle blew. There was rapid confirmation that Arsenal had indeed lost against Watford, but also Tottenham had only garnered a draw at basement dwellers Sunderland. It had been a game that never really delivered its share of excitement, but it did not matter. We had increased our lead at the very top of the table to a massive nine points.

Outside in the cold night air, we all treated ourselves to burgers outside The Kop, before we piled in to the final pub of the day “The Valley” which sits at the end of Walton Breck Road as it meets Everton Valley. I can remember being marched en masse by the local “bizzies” past this big old pub on many occasions during the dark days of the ‘eighties. It looked a grim old place in those days and I always used to think that an ambush by battle-hardened locals was only a few seconds away. There were more drinks – more gin and tonics – and quiet chat among the four of us. It had been a fantastic pub crawl alright. Six pubs all told. We caught a cab back in to town, down the famous Scotland Road, and finally reached our hotel. There was time for one last nightcap, and a chat with two more Chelsea lads from Scotland, Andy and Graham, in the hotel bar.

After a long hard day it was time to call it a night.

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Tales From My Second Home

Chelsea vs. Hull City : 22 January 2016.

Sunday at half-past-four. What a bloody annoying time for a game of football.

The lads had been deposited in The Goose – “see you later” – while I had to pick up some tickets for a couple of future away games down at the stadium. We were in town ridiculously early – midday – but with a little time to kill, I thought I would spend a while with my trusty camera and take a smattering of photographs of Stamford Bridge. This would be our first home game since the announcement that the local council had approved the plans for the rebuild, and it made sense for me to pay homage to Stamford Bridge’s current hotchpotch of stands, irregular angles and unique aspects. The new stadium will be very different of course; there will be one design, one style, one theme, one vision. The current stadium, built between 1972 and 2001, is typical of many stadia in England at the moment. There have been piecemeal additions over the years and although the interior hints at a common design, the overall result – especially from the outside – would suggest otherwise.

As I walked down behind the East Stand, now a grand old lady of forty-three years of age, I was struck with how little room had originally been set aside for extra-curricular activities such as restaurants, bars and corporate suites.  From the rear, it reminded me of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, with all of its skeletal construction, heating pipes, air-conditioning units, roof supports and associated infrastructural necessities all on show. Although this stand won a few architectural awards in its day – London had never seen a three-tiered stand of such size and scale before – it remains rather ugly from the rear. My memory from watching games inside the East Stand – especially the East Upper – is of how cramped everything was behind the scenes. And yet, when the current stadium is razed to the ground in just a few years’ time, I will miss the East Stand more than any other. When I saw my first-ever game at Chelsea in 1974, watching from the wooden benches of the West Stand enclosure, the East Stand was still being built opposite. It dominated Stamford Bridge in those days in a way that is difficult, now, to imagine. It dwarfed all other parts of the ground, and certainly the adjacent low and rambling North Stand terrace and Shed End. I watched football from the East Lower from 1974 to 1980 with my parents – a total of thirteen games – and it will always have a place in my heart.

As I continued my walk around the outside of The Bridge, I remembered “Drakes” on the corner of the Matthew Harding Stand – now re-named the Champions Club – and how it was the sole domain, when it opened up in 1994, of CPO shareholders only, and how Glenn, Alan and myself used to frequent it for a pre-match meal and pint. It used to be remarkably quiet and an enjoyable place to meet-up. In around 1996, it was opened up for club members and suddenly became ridiculously busy, and we soon moved on to The Harwood for our pre-match festivities.

The outside of the West Stand is vastly different to the East Stand. All of its pre-match function rooms are concealed in a huge wall of brick, but I have to say it would hardly win any design awards. It serves a purpose I suppose, but I am not a huge fan. I love the way that the Peter Osgood statue always casts a shadow on its lower reaches.

The Shed End is lost within the guts of the Chelsea offices, the apartment block and the Copthorne Hotel. From the forecourt, Stamford Bridge doesn’t even resemble a football stadium any more.

How everything has changed over the past twenty years. It is one of my big regrets that I didn’t take as many photographs – both outside and inside – of the old Stamford Bridge in its last few years as I ought. How I wish I had captured those little kiosks embedded within the supporting wall of the Shed terrace as it swept its way around to the East Stand. Or those huge floodlight pylons. Or the corrugated iron of the away turnstiles behind the West Stand. Or the dark and moody walkways which ran behind the main body of The Shed terrace. Or the steps leading down from the top of the West Stand to those extra turnstiles within the stand before you reached the benches. Or the unique angled aisles of the old West Stand. Or the Bovril Gate, a gaping hole, in the large Shed terrace. Or that exit walkway that lead down at an angle behind the West Stand. Or those fading advertisements which were etched on to the rear of the shops on the Fulham Road. All of those images, lost and gone forever, but my memory of the old place remains strong.

Stamford Bridge really was – and is, and hopefully shall be in the future – my second home.

There was a couple of drinks in “The Goose” where Daryl and myself chatted with Mick, a fellow-Chelsea supporter who we had not seen for quite a while, possibly for the first time in ten years. We remembered a lovely trip to Rome in 1999 for the Lazio game and how we were drinking brandies in Piazza Venezia at an ungodly hour as early morning risers were coming in for their “wake me up” espressos. After that game, we somehow found ourselves getting a lift back to the centre of Rome on the same coach as Ron Harris and Peter Osgood. I had forgotten, but Mick said that he had sat next to Ossie on the coach and what a lovely memory for him.

We watched on a TV screen as an image of Diego Costa arriving at the stadium was shown. And just like that, Diego was back in the fold, and the China crisis was over. The game had been discussed but only very briefly throughout the day. I think it is very fair to say that three points against Hull City was absolutely expected. On the Saturday, we had been enlivened by Swansea’s surprising lunchtime win at Anfield and then, in the evening, points had been shared between Manchester City and Tottenham. The fact that Manchester United had dropped points at Stoke City seemed inconsequential.

The team was announced.

Courtois.

Cahill, Luiz, Azpilicueta.

Alonso, Matic, Kante, Moses.

Hazard, Diego Costa, Pedro.

Daryl and myself then had another drink in “The Malt House” before heading in to the stadium. I peered into The Broadway Bar & Grill and uttered an obscenity as I saw that Arsenal had taken a 1-0 lead at home to lowly Burnley. On walking towards the MH turnstiles, a fan announced that Burnley had miraculously equalised. I gave him a hug. By the time I had reached my seat, my mood had completed a 180 degree switch; Arsenal had scored a ridiculously late winner.

Not exactly a Carlsberg weekend, but maybe a Carlsberg top weekend.

Within the very first few seconds, Diego Costa raced on to a long ball from David Luiz and belted a low shot just past the Hull post.

It’s hard to believe that Tom Huddlestone is still playing football; he seems to have been around for ages. However, much to my chagrin, he seemed to be at the heart of a lot of Hull’s moves. I was soon getting annoyed at how much space we were giving him.

“Come on. Get on him. He’s their playmaker.”

His shot narrowly missed Thibaut’s post.

Hull City had brought around 1,200 fans, but were hardly noisy. Neither were we. In fact, it was ridiculously quiet.

Not long in to the game, Gary Cahill rose for a high ball, but only connected with Ryan Mason. Both fell to the floor. Both seemed immobile for a while. There was genuine concern as players from both teams swarmed around their two team mates. The minutes ticked by. Thankfully Gary Cahill stood, then walked off to the side line. Ryan Mason had evidently fared worse as a stretcher took him off for attention. The entire stadium rose as one to clap him off. Chelsea fans in laudable behaviour shock.

The extended delay seemed to affect Chelsea more than Hull City, who enjoyed a little spell. Marcos Alonso saw his effort from outside the box take a wicked deflection and dip alarmingly, but the Hull ‘keeper was able to scramble back and tip over. In all honesty, Chelsea were enjoying a lot of the ball, but were finding it difficult to break Hull down. Eden Hazard, very often the main threat, seemed to have a lot of the ball, but kept being forced wide. Pedro was quiet. Moses was often used, but wasn’t at his best. Still the atmosphere was morgue like. At times, I am sure there was complete silence.

Harry Maguire, who sounds like a petty criminal from a ‘sixties film – “I never did nuffink, see” – forced a fine save from Courtois.

This was not going to plan at all.

Bollocks.

A weighty nine minutes of injury time was added to the first-half. Can anyone remember anything longer? Not me.

The silence continued, a few disappeared off for half-time pints.

Sigh.

Then, with time running out, Moses was able to get behind Hull’s defence and send over a low ball. It miraculously ended up at the feet of Diego Costa who calmly slashed the ball home.

Chelsea 1, Hull City 0, thank fuck.

Diego danced over to Parkyville. Of all the people it had to be him. The Chelsea team mates mobbed Diego. What a moment.

Not long in to the half-time interval, Neil Barnett – in hushed tones – spoke of the recent death under highly suspicious circumstances of the Chelsea supporter Carl O’Brien. He spoke of how Carl once worked on the ground staff at Stamford Bridge, and how he attended games at Chelsea for decades. An image of Carl appeared on the large TV screens, and Neil spoke of the planned minute of applause which was to commence on fifty-five minutes. It would mark Carl’s age on his passing. Fifty-five; it is a very Chelsea number, but it represents a terribly young age to be taken from us. Carl was one of probably hundreds of Chelsea supporters who I knew by face only, and who float in and out of my life at various stages, various moments, various games. I remember first spotting him on a terrace in Zaragoza way back in 1995 when the Spanish police decided to baton charge us. He was a tall chap, with long hair; quite distinctive really. I can remember seeing him only a few months ago at Stamford Bridge. According to the eulogies, he was a gentle giant, a lovely man. I just hoped that the minute of applause on the fifty-fifth minute would be well-respected. I also hoped that it wouldn’t get lost in, for example, a cacophony of abuse being aimed at the referee, or maybe even a rousing song or chant, which would cloud the moment.

The two teams exchanged efforts on goal in the first ten minutes of the second-half. Huddlestone was still a main threat for Hull.

On fifty-five minutes, with the ball in a neutral area, Stamford Bridge celebrated the life of Carl O’Brien. Many stood, including myself.

“God bless, Carl, memories of Zaragoza in the sun.”

At the end of the minute, I realised that the Shed had held up a banner in memory of him too.

The game continued, but with the visitors dominating for a while. PD was feeling the frustration of an eerily quiet Stamford Bridge, often joining in alone with chants emanating from other parts of the stadium. I joined in too, but it’s difficult to keep it going when there are only two or three singing in a section of several hundred.

This was turning into a proper struggle, both on and off the pitch.

I must’ve thought “we need a second” many times.

Conte replaced the ineffectual Hazard with Cesc Fabregas and Pedro with Willian with twenty minutes to go. I struggled to see if there was a slight adjustment to our formation and after trying to see where Fabregas fitted in I gave up. To be fair, both additions revitalised us a little.

Willian was upended after a fine run down below me. We waited for Cesc to take the free-kick. His delivery was Postman Pat perfect and Gary Cahill rose unhindered inside the six-yard box to head home.

There was that second goal.

Phew.

Gary ran over to our corner, fell to the floor, and was then mobbed by his team mates.

The joy was palpable.

Just after, Fabregas – running the show now – fed a sublime ball through for Diego. We expected a third goal, but his shot was blocked by the ‘keeper.

Michy Batshuayi then replaced Diego, and the Stamford Bridge crowd rose again.

At last there was some noise worthy of the occasion.

“Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego!”

This was clearly not a memorable Chelsea performance, but if ever we needed to win ugly, with Diego Costa we certainly have the man to do it.

And with points being dropped by three of our main rivals, our hard-fought win had put us eight points clear.

Catch us if you can.

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