Tales From Two Halves

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 24 January 2018.

It has taken me a while to realise it, but I have an aversion to large and impersonal pubs. From now on, I am going out of my way to avoid them. The prices of the ales, ciders and lagers might be cheaper at a “Wetherspoons”, “Walkabout” or a “Yates”, but everything else about them leaves me cold. Many are on the site of former large shops and banks. Many of these “super pubs” are blandness personified; rectangular voids with no charm and no fun. And I realise that we have frequented a few of them in recent seasons; “The Moon Under Water” in Watford, “The Shakespeare’s Head” for Arsenal, “The Admiral of The Humber” in Hull, “The Thomas Frost” at Everton. The list goes on. I’m not a fan. So it was with a bounce in my step that I ascended the steps at Piccadilly Circus tube station at around 5.30pm. I had completed my homework and had hand-picked a traditional London pub for our pre-match drinks for the League Cup semi-final against Arsenal. Three weeks ago, we had alighted at the same stop and chosen “The Duke’s Head” on Denman Street. This time, we walked a minute further up Sherwood Street and turned into “The Crown.” It immediately took my fancy; busy, dark, a little cramped, but full of atmosphere and with attentive bar staff. We shuffled through the main bar and found a spare corner, and relaxed on some old leather seats under some dark wooden wall panels. The four of us – Young Jake, Oscar Parksorious, P-Diddy and I – settled in for an hour and-a-half of drinks and giggles. I’d be doing no driving this night; there would be the chance for a few pints of “Peroni.” We had already run through our opinions and thoughts about the upcoming game.

“I suppose Arsenal will be favourite. They’re at home after all.”

“Hope we play 3/4/3.”

“At least Sanchez has left. Always does well against us it seems.”

“Just hope there’s no extra time and penalties.”

Indeed. With a little foresight and planning, I had taken care of that most unloved of outcomes. Fearing the worst, and remembering well from the extended Norwich City replay the preceding week, I had taken some precautions. If the game at The Emirates would go to extra-time and then penalties, the game would likely finish at 10.45pm. We would not be back to the car until around midnight. A two-hour trip back to Melksham. A further thirty minutes to my house. I’d not get to bed until 2.30am. And I’d need to be up at 5am for work.

Screw that.

I had booked myself into the hotel opposite work for the night and looked forward, whatever the result, to an extra hour in bed. With the football only costing a tenner, I figured I could easily justify it. At times my life of late has involved only sleep, work and football. This would certainly be no exception.

This would be Young Jake’s first trip to The Emirates. I’ve only missed one; the time we took nine-thousand up there for the League Cup game in 2013. On this occasion, we were taking 5,500, and all four of us had been given tickets in Section 25, which would normally be a home area. I wondered if the facilities in the concourse would offer an improvement to the pokey confines of the away sector. The drinks were going down well. The pre-match banter was a fine antidote to further stresses at work. I shared some insider knowledge about the pub.

“Mozart played here when he was nine. In this very pub.”

For once, there was silence from The Chuckle Brothers.

“Anyway. Moving on.”

At seven o’clock we caught the tube north. It was, of course, a familiar ride now. We had travelled the same journey three weeks earlier. It annoyed me that there was an announcement that “this train will not be stopping at Holloway Road, next stop is The Arsenal.”

The Arsenal. I could hear Alan moaning at the mere mention of it.

“The Arsenal. Like it’s some sort of bloody institution.”

On the walk up through the rabbit warren at Arsenal tube, there were a few chants from both sets of fans. I spotted a Chelsea supporter with a blue “Patagonia” rain jacket. I was reminded of the catchy “Brightonia” banner at “The Amex” that I spotted last weekend, using the same font and logo.

There were a few – hardly loud – chants of playing football “the Arsenal way” but I was far from convinced. For all of their crisp-passing under the early Wenger years, the spectre of decades of dull and boring football has not drifted from my consciousness.

“Arsenal. Bloody hell. The only time they have been entertaining was when Eric Morecambe sneezed or coughed.”

The lights of The Emirates soon came into view. No doubt it will soon be named after some other corporate-brand; not even “The Reebok” is “The Reebok” anymore. Why Arsenal could not have at least used “Arsenal Stadium” in lights on the façade – some sort of permanent statement – is beyond me. Beneath “Emirates Stadium” were large graphics of Arsenal players from across the ages inter-locking arms. I suppose this was conceived as a nice idea, but I just saw a load of arses.

We were inside with about ten minutes to spare. So much for more space behind section 25; there was a huge line for the gents. It would have to wait until half-time. There was a dimming of the lights and a half-arsed light show. I looked around at all the empty seats in the upper tier.

Pauline and Mick were stood behind me.

“Bloody hell, a tenner and they still can’t fill it.”

I was to eat my words as it all filled-up after a while.

But I certainly realised that new spacious stadia thrill me as much as “super pubs.” Give me “The Crown” and Highbury – what a stadium – ahead of “Spoons” and “The Emirates” any day, any season, any year.

The team was missing Courtois and Morata, and the manager went with a 3/4/3 variant; no Michy Batshuayi, but Eden Hazard to play in a central but surely drifting role.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

The Three Amigos

The players entered the pitch. Behind the teams at the opposite end, an Arsenal flag bearing the rebranded gun emblem – now pointing to the right after decades of pointing to the left, bloody hell I need to get out more – moved slowly above the heads of the Arsenal hardcore. A flag featuring Charlie George was spotted. What a lanky dullard he was. He was no Peter Osgood for sure. In fact, he was the antithesis of Peter Osgood; North London dull and North London gormless. Proper Arsenal. In later life, he managed to cut off a finger while mowing his lawn. Don’t ask.

There are banners everywhere on the balconies at The Emirates, all signalling various degrees of self-love.

The game began and we began well despite a shot from Tiemoue Bakayoko which was well off target. Just after, a trademark lofted ball from Dave and a finely placed header from the diminutive Pedro beat David Ospina, but I had spotted an offside flag. We were well on top, and Arsenal had hardly offered an attack. On seven minutes, Kante played the ball to Pedro who in turn touched in to the path of Eden Hazard. His easy finish summed up our domination.

There were wild celebrations in Sections 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 and 25.

GET IN.

We were one up and playing well.

Sadly, our lead soon disappeared in the mild North London air. A corner dropped right onto the head of Nacho Monreal, but his header then unluckily struck Marcos Alonso, and from there the footballing Gods were not on our side. The ball ricocheted onto Toni Rudiger’s forehead and in. I looked around at the gurning Goons in the corporate tier above me and I felt sick.

But we still dominated, retaining the ball well and moving it crisply. Willian dragged the ball wide of the far post. A special word for Bakayoko who I thought performed very well throughout a dominant first-half. He put his foot in, he retained the ball, he moved it on, he pushed forward when space opened-up. Well done to him.

On the half-hour, Willian had a knock and sadly had to be substituted. Nobody had been warming up of course, but Ross Barkley was chosen to enter the fray for his Chelsea debut. I watched as he entered the field of play. I mused that there haven’t been many signings from Everton over the years. Only Duncan McKenzie and the great Tommy Lawton came to mind. I hoped that Barkley would not suffer the same fate as Lawton – much lauded and a stratospheric transfer at the time –  who was transferred to Notts County after just three seasons. His first few moments did not bode well. Xhaka went close with an angled free-kick after a Barkley foul on Koscielny. Worse was to come.

I rolled my eyes at the awful chant that the away supporters had up their collective sleeves :

“Viva Ross Barkley, viva Ross Barkley. He left the Scouse ‘cus they robbed his house, viva Ross Barkley.”

Well done. Well bloody done. I’m sure as a Scouser he would appreciate that one.

It’s like us singing something for Antonio Conte which takes the piss out of Italians.

He’s one of us now, lads. He’s one of us. Support him.

While I’m at it…

“We’ve won it all.”

Bloody hate that one too.

Elsewhere, we were edging it, with Rudiger and Christensen strong and dominant. However, the pondering Victor Moses was frustrating the absolute hell out of all of us. There were extra, and heavy, touches every time he received the ball. At the break, everyone around me was relatively happy. Arsenal had grown stronger as the half had developed but I think we had shown enough for us to be confident of progression. I wanted Eden to be involved more. But I was happy.

At half-time, the queue at the gents was still ridiculous. The khazi was smaller than in the away end. So much for a high quality and spacious stadium.

I suggested to Big John that “we’re the only team in London with a European Cup” ought to be replaced by “we’re the only team in London with some spacious fucking bogs.”

Well, the second-half.

Must I?

What a let-down.

Eden had a couple of bursting runs through the middle – on one occasion, slipping when it appeared that he had been tripped – but Arsenal were soon moving the ball around and causing problems. We seemed listless and without much direction. After twenty tiring minutes of playing second fiddle, the ball was worked through the Arsenal inside right channel. I looked up at the large scoreboard to my left just to check who was the Arsenal number twenty-nine when the very player – Xhaka – tucked home. I only saw the celebration, I only heard the roar.

BOLLOCKS.

On the TV replay, it appeared that we were undone by another bloody deflection, off the back leg of the hapless Rudiger.

Oh boy.

The second-half of woe continued. We were all stood of course, but there were only pockets of song. I expected more from 5,500 of our beered-up loyalists. I was well aware throughout the second period as I was watching, hands in pockets, bellowing out encouragement, joining in with song when I could, that I was watching the game with the combined weight of the clichéd opinions and criticisms of all of social media in all its glorious forms hanging heavy in my mind and on my shoulders. And all of the negative stuff seemed to dominate my thoughts. In days of yore, we just got behind the team and shared our thoughts with a few close friends. If there was a little negativity, it was tempered by a little humour and some gallows humour. These days I now have the sour-faced, overly-grave, doom-laden – and deadly bloody serious and truly bloody tedious – opinions of Loudmouth from Sidmouth, Knobhead from Knoxville, Tosser from Osset, Jackass from Jacksonville and Cocksocket from Nantucket ringing in my ears.

All that bloody negativity. Football was never meant to be like that. Not for a club that has enjoyed so much success in the past fifteen or twenty years.

I could not help but feel that there are just too many Chelsea fans in the world today and not enough Chelsea supporters.

I see nothing wrong with objective criticism. Why would I? But so much of it now just hints at spoiled and new – but not entirely – fans throwing toys out of prams at the merest hint of a sub-par performance.

It does my fackin’ head in.

Sigh.

But on the night, we had to face facts. Despite the constant prompting along the touchline from the always involved manager, Arsenal bossed us and they bossed the game. There was one memorable burst of energy down the right from Ross Barkley. Caballero saved with his leg in a typically unorthodox way from Iwobi. There was added spirit from substitute Zappacosta, in place of the poor Moses, and a few flashed crosses, but elsewhere we were lacking. Michy Batshuayi had replaced Pedro, but he did not get much service. And he still has the annoying tendency to turn into trouble.

What were we told at school?

“Play the way you are facing.”

Unless your name is Eden Hazard of course.

Michy isn’t. He needs to play to his strengths.

There was a rushed free-kick from Marcos Alonso and the ball is still circling above Heathrow waiting for clearance to land. We howled our agony. The Arsenal fans, so quiet in the close 2-2 draw on the third day of 2018, were making an uncharacteristic din.

We kept singing until the end, but it was not to be.

We met up outside and slouched out. We began our slow walk down the Holloway Road where I had once attended an open day at North London Poly in 1983. Studying at a college just a mile from Highbury? What was I bloody thinking? We walked on. The best cheeseburger of the season thus far lifted some of the gloom, and – thank heavens – we made good time on our return to Barons Court. PD headed west and I drifted off to sleep and even Parky’s incessant prattling could not stop me.

By 1.30am, I had fallen into a deep sleep in my hotel room, with the Chelsea subsection of the internet no doubt going into meltdown once again.

On Sunday, we gather together for another stab at Wembley.

See you there.

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Tales From Diamonds In The Mist

Brighton And Hove Albion vs. Chelsea : 20 January 2018.

This would only be our third ever league game at Brighton and Hove Albion. The other two matches were during our now distant dips into the old Second Division in 1983 and 1989. Now, newly-promoted into the top tier for the first season since 1982/1983, Brighton were about to host the current champions. On the face of it, this was another fantastic away game, and I hoped that the early kick-off– 12.30pm – would not spoil my enjoyment of the day; alas, there would be no chance of a pre-match or post-match get-together at a local boozer. Additionally, due to the awkward location of the stadium, we would need to plan our day with a great deal of care. But we’re good at that sort of thing. As Saturday approached, all was planned.

Parky and I attended our pre-season game at the Amex in August 2012, which marked the team’s first game in England since the glories of Munich and also the first appearance of Eden Hazard on these shores. To be honest, the game wasn’t fantastic. We went 1-0 up, only to lose 3-1, and it perhaps signalled that our season as European Champions would be no procession. On that day, around four thousand Chelsea supporters were given the top tier of the main three-tiered stand, and I was taken by the home team’s new stadium which had opened the previous season. At the time, a top tier was being added to the stand opposite. Once completed, I knew that it would look fantastic. As we set off for Sussex at 7am, I was certainly looking forward to seeing the updated stadium, now increased to a tidy thirty-thousand capacity. Back in 2012, there was panoramic views of the stadium and the rolling hills of the South Downs to the north.

In 2018, we would be locked in to the stadium – low down behind a goal – but I was sure that I’d enjoy the view.

There was so much damned negativity swarming around the team over the past few weeks, that I was just happy to be able to attend the game, try to ignore the moaning millions, and get right behind the team. And there was the added bonus of – virtually – a new stadium. This away trip would tick lots of boxes. I couldn’t wait.

It was Glenn’s turn to drive the Chuckle Bus and, no surprises, he made good time despite the grey and murky weather outside.

Past Warminster, through Salisbury, past Southampton and Portsmouth, past Chichester, then Arundel. We were parked-up in Patcham – just a couple of miles from the stadium – at our mate Walnuts’ bungalow. As in 2012, his wife Sue would drop us off at the stadium, and collect us too. Located at the site of the city’s university at Falmer which is a few miles to the north of the city centre, there is limited parking space at Brighton’s stadium.

On my infrequent visits to Brighton, I have always liked its charms. Pleasant housing estates are scattered over some surprisingly steep hillsides as they tumble down to the coast. The architecture is grand in some areas, yet quirky and eccentric in others. It’s a typical British seaside town with a definite twist. For decades, Brighton has always had a slightly decadent air. Think of “Brighton Rock” featuring our very own Richard Attenborough as “Pinky.” Think of businessmen taking mistresses away for a weekend of fun in Brighton. There certainly remains a laissez-faire attitude to this day. Nudist beaches by the marina, and a certain pride in its sexual freedoms. Politically, there is no place like it in modern Britain.

There was a memorable night out in Brighton on the Saturday before the history-making league game with Liverpool in 2003. Many of my current Chelsea mates were involved and we went down for the weekend. Some of us took the train to the horse racing at Lingfield Park on the Saturday afternoon – I had two winners – while others chose to visit the myriad of attractions by the beach. We then hit the town in the evening. What followed was a deeply memorable night of beers which included some impromptu fun and games with a couple of hen parties.

The bride to be : “I have a list of forfeits. One of them is to get a pair of underpants.”

Me : “Blimey. This is all very sudden.”

The bride to be : “Ha.”

Me : “I’m going to be missing some underwear though. I think we should swap.”

The bride to be : “Deal.”

It was with some deal of pleasure that the bride-to-be’s thong was acquired. In light of the importance of the Chelsea vs. Liverpool game on the following day – the winner taking the all-important fourth Champions League place – I christened it a “thong for Europe.”

In our bed and breakfast the next morning, Alan suggested that I should wear it as some sort of “good luck” charm.

I was ahead of him. I already was.

What a laugh.

Good old Brighton. I am still yet to have a wander around the town’s compact and eclectic central streets. I hope they stay up this season, so I can truly explore the area on future visits. There is certainly unfinished business in Brighton. For starters, I need to locate a missing pair of underpants.

Just like in 2012, there was light drizzle as we approached the stadium on a long slow walk, past the train station and with university buildings in every direction.

There was a large photograph of former goal-scoring hero Peter Ward on the curved façade of the main stand. The stadium was as I remembered it; crisp, clean, spacious.

I spotted the Bristol Crew and could not waste the opportunity for a rant.

“All the negativity around the club does my head in. For fuck sake, we’re a good team, let’s get behind the team and enjoy the moment.”

They assured me there would be no negativity from them.

“Proper job, my babbers.”

Inside, I soon started snapping away from my vantage point in the front row, right in line with one of the goalposts. The stadium is indeed excellent. I like the way that the corners have been infilled with quirky viewing galleries, and corporate boxes tucked into every spare space. The three-tiered main stand is surprisingly tall. It just looks the part. It’s no identikit stadium this one. The seats were padded, not that the three-thousand Chelsea would be sitting. The lads soon arrived; Alan, then Gary, then Parky. Just along the row were fellow Chucklers PD and Glenn. Gary reminded me that he had worked inside some suites within the main stand several years ago in his job as a French polisher.

Alan : “You polished some wooden tables, some wooden wall panels, some wooden cabinets, and you polished off hundreds of packets of biscuits.”

I watched as the players went through their routines. There was the first sighting of Ross Barkley in match-day uniform. I wondered if we would see his Chelsea debut. The away end slowly filled. The drizzle continued.

The team news surprised nobody, save for the goalkeeping change forced by a late knock to Thibaut. We were so pleased that Antonio Conte chose the 3/4/3 variant.

Caballero – Azpilicueta / Christensen / Rudiger – Moses / Kante / Bakayoko / Alonso – Willian / Batshuayi / Hazard.

There was a rousing “Sussex By The Sea” and the teams entered the pitch. In the away end, just behind me, a new bright yellow “crowd-surfing” banner – “Chelsea Here, Chelsea There” – made its first ever appearance. The iconic striker Cyrille Regis was remembered before the game began, just as much for his ground-breaking legacy as his footballing prowess I suspect, and there is nothing wrong with that. There was warm applause for the former England international.

A couple of seagulls soared inside the stadium. Perfect.

Despite a misty old day in Falmer, we wore the murky grey camouflage kit. There was still slight drizzle as the game began, and the roof above did not keep us remotely dry. I took a few early photos, and could not believe how monochrome everything looked. I hoped that our players could pick each other out.

I need not have worried at all. After just three minutes, Victor Moses advanced inside the box and played the ball back to the waiting Eden Hazard, who touched the ball to his right and lashed the ball home, across the Brighton ‘keeper Ryan.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

After another three minutes, the ball was played into Willian, who smacked a firm shot just inside the post. Being so low, I could not really appreciate the intricate passing which lead to the goal – there was a text from a pal in the US lauding its beauty – but I certainly knew from the moment that Willian struck the ball that a goal would result; I was right behind the trajectory of the shot. We were 2-0 up and purring. What a relief after our constipated efforts to score of late.

But to be fair to Brighton, they did not cave in. They didn’t crumble. Despite virtually no discernible support from the home areas – there were no empty seats in the house – the home team launched a series of attacks on our defence.

A wild Wily Caballero challenge on Ezequel Schelotto was waved away by referee Moss. The way that he vacated his six yard box, racing out, the keeper was more like Wile E. Coyote.

Brighton certainly stretched us in the wide areas, and there were a number of crosses which were zipped into our box. Our defending, certainly in the central areas, was of top quality. There was fine positional play, plenty of blocks, and calmness under pressure.

Schelotto was proving to be a troublesome presence and when he pushed the ball past Tiemoue Bakayoko, the Chelsea midfielder stretched out a leg. I certainly thought that a penalty was going to be given, as did those around me. Moss again waved it away. This annoyed Schelotto, who was booked for dissent. As the referee beckoned the Brighton right-back towards him, the player intimated that the referee should walk towards him. I’ve never seem that before.

“Send him off for that ref.”

I repeated a request from the Norwich City cup replay on Wednesday as Schelotto teased Marcos Alonso :

“Don’t let him fucking cross.”

Alas, there was no hint of a tackle or block from Alonso and a fine cross. Thankfully, there was a sensational save from Caballero under his bar from the head of Tomer Hemed.

We all shouted out to him.

“Nice one Wily, son.”

The drizzle continued. Our support was so-so. Perhaps my position in the front row meant that any noise did not reach me, but I have known noisier away days.

But this was certainly a fine game, open and enjoyable. We went close with a few efforts at the other end. Eden Hazard was our catalyst, our diamond, and his close control was at times sensational. He was ably assisted by Willian, himself a box of tricks. It was lovely to see Bakayoko enjoy a steady game alongside N’Golo Kante. If I was to be critical, it would be of the two wide wing-backs who were gifting some space to the Brighton attackers.

Still, there were smiles at the break.

“Good stuff lads.”

The second-half began. There was a clash of heads involving Andreas Christensen who stayed down for a while. Brighton did not let up with their willingness to attack us, and we all thought that towering centre-back Davy Propper had scored with a firm header. The ball caromed back off the post with nobody in striking distance to touch home.

After his knock, Christensen had to be substituted. He was replaced by David Luiz.

Willian struck a magnificent free-kick – which everyone thought Luiz had taken with his first touch – and I managed to capture this on film. I was celebrating another fine goal, only to see ‘keeper Ryan saving superbly. It was indeed a stunning stop. At the other end, Caballero spread himself to block an effort from Schelotto. Brighton still came at us, though without the pace of the first-half. A word about Michy Batshuayi; strong in some areas, weak in others, it was a typical Michy performance. But – thankfully, rejoice! – there was no barracking of any player. Top marks to all.

With fifteen minutes to go, Davide Zappacosta replaced Alonso. Soon after, Willian picked out his partner in crime Hazard, who set off on a merry dance. He waltzed past several players and it looked to me that he soon realised that the only way for a goal to be scored was for him to continue on and on until he came within range. His run continued, before he decided to cut the ball back into the opposite corner. That was it, the game was won.

GET IN.

He danced over to the corner and a little leap was followed by a beaming smile. His play had been just magnificent all day long.

With ten minutes to go, and with the home crowd starting to thin a little, Charly Musonda replaced Willian. He looked up for it and was soon involved in Willian’s position wide on the right. With just one minute of normal time remaining, he picked out the run of Moses with a fantastic lofted ball. The ball was brought under immediate control and touched home. A slide from Victor and the away support were jumping.

Brighton & Hove Albion 0 Chelsea 4.

Blimey, it did not seem like a 4-0 win. I have to concede that the home team had battled well, and certainly did not deserve such a thumping. I fear for their survival this season, but I for one hope they survive. Like so many promoted teams of recent years, they lack a proven goal scorer. As for us, we rode our luck a little – it is a well-repeated phrase of mine that it is perhaps better to be lucky than it is to be good – but surely we deserved the win. Our play was at times fantastic.

And, let us not forget, another clean sheet too.

With its decadent charms, clean sheets are still a rarity in Brighton.

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Tales From The Benches

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 13 January 2018.

Last Saturday at Norwich, I bumped into a chap who I had not seen at a Chelsea game for years and years. Dave, originally from St. Albans, used to sit alongside a few of us on The Benches in the West Stand at Stamford Bridge in the mid-‘eighties. I was thrilled to see him again, and even more thrilled to hear that he was planning to meet up with two other lads from that era – Simon, who I see occasionally at Chelsea, and Rich, who I have not seen for three decades – at the Leicester City home game. As the Chuckle Brothers made our way to London, my mind was full of thoughts about this most brilliant of reunions. And it got me wondering about the absurdities of fate.

As I recalled the circumstances that led to us all getting to know each other, it just seemed that some things were just meant to be.

Rewind to the evening of Saturday 10 March 1984.

Glenn and I were on our way back to King’s Cross on the Chelsea Special after an action packed day watching The Great Unpredictables at Newcastle United’s St. James’ Park. Glenn shot off to the buffet, leaving me to read the creased match programme one more time. Coming out of Newcastle, the train had been bricked by some far-from-friendly locals and a window in our compartment had been shattered, leaving a young lad wearing glasses with bloodied cuts to the head. It was a rude awakening to the pitfalls of travelling by train in support of Chelsea. A few others, more experienced, more seasoned, had put the blinds down as soon as we had left Newcastle, just in case this very thing happened, to try to stop the glass flying everywhere. I probably tried to catch some sleep – we had been awake since 4am – but the compartment was so cold that sleep was probably out of the question. After an hour or so – “blimey, what has happened to Glenn?” – my travel companion returned.

“Just been talking to some lads from Brighton. A good laugh.”

I thought no more of it.

Fast forward to the afternoon of Saturday 31 March 1984.

In the days before we had spare money to pop into the pubs around Stamford Bridge on match days, Glenn and I were in early for our game against Fulham. We had watched our first two games together against Newcastle United in November and Manchester City in December on The Shed, but our next couple of matches – Portsmouth, Sheffield Wednesday – had been in the trendier and more enjoyable benches which used to run alongside the old dog track in front of the West Stand. It was where I had seen my very first game at Chelsea ten years’ earlier. But where there was a mixture of middle-aged supporters in suits and ties, young schoolkids, and pensioners mixed in with the teenagers in 1974, in 1984 the benches were occupied by a very different beast. In the main, and certainly at the northern end of The Benches, as near to the hated away fans as it was possible to get, were legions of Chelsea supporters – 99% male and 99% aged sixteen to twenty-five – who were dressed to impress with the latest casual labels of the day.

You would pay your general admission money to get in The Shed – £3? I forget – and then show your membership card at the back of the Shed terrace to a club official and then pay an extra quid at those peculiar turnstiles (a unique feature really, a turnstile inside a stadium) at the bottom of those steps between The Shed and the West Stand. And then you were in, walking the catwalk of that wide walkway at the back of the enclosure, watching the peacocks strut their stuff, and sing their songs.

This was all relatively new to the two of us from Frome.

1983/1984 was a season of enlightenment for the two of us and there has not been a season like it before or after.

The wedge haircut, blonde highlights, Lacoste polo shirts, Sergio Tacchini tracksuit tops, Fila roll-necks, Adidas rain jackets, Patrick cagoules, complete Kappa tracksuits, Lyle and Scott pullovers, Pringle pullovers, Gabicci cardigans, light blue Levi jeans, Lois jumbo cords with side splits, Nike Wimbledons, Diadora Borg Elites, Puma Guillermo Vilas, Kickers, swagger, swagger and more swagger.

The two of us were overdosing on football and fashion and we could not get enough of it.

On that day against Fulham, we had nabbed the very back row of the benches; always a highly-desirable spot. We were on the halfway-line. Prime seats. No tickets in those days; first-come first-served. Lo and behold, who should arrive a little later and be sitting right in front of us than the two lads “from Brighton” who Glenn had met on the way home from Newcastle. In fact, only one was from Brighton; Paul – aka Stamford in lieu of his mane of blonde hair – while Alan was from Bromley, a proper Sarf Londoner. We struck up a little conversation. Glenn must have introduced me. It felt nice to meet some young lads who were as mad on Chelsea as us. Growing up in rural Somerset, it was a rarity to find another blue, let alone one who were as feverish about our club as Glenn and little old me.

The next game that Glenn and I attended at Stamford Bridge was the legendary promotion-decider against Leeds United. Again, we aimed for the back row of The Benches. The pre-match was a little different on this occasion, though, and rather historic too. We had popped into a pub called “The Cock” and I had supped my very first pint before a Chelsea game – a lager and lime if memory serves – and we had arrived a little later than planned. As I remember it, Alan and Paul made us some space on the back row, and I am sure that we also met a few other lads that day too.

Leggo from Bedford, Mark from Sunbury-on-Thames, and the trio of lads from the St. Albans area, Simon, Dave and Rich.

Chelsea won 5-0 and promotion was secured.

They were the days of our lives.

Back in the top flight for the first time in five seasons, the next campaign was one of the best-ever too. Even though I was at college in Stoke, I managed to attend 16 out of 21 home league games. There was a smattering of away games; Arsenal, Sheffield Wednesday, Leicester City, Liverpool, Stoke City. I would save my pennies through the week, eating frugally, and live for my magical footballing Saturdays. Throughout the season, the little gang of us would always gather on the back row at the halfway-line. Often we would get in at 1.30pm when the gates opened. From memory, for the big games – Liverpool, United – the gates were open at 1pm. We would sit, read the programmes, soak up the pre-match atmosphere, laugh and joke about previous games, watch the players warm up, sing out their names, enjoy the camaraderie.

What a buzz.

I used to take my camera in those days too.

In the spring of 1985, on the day the club celebrated its ninetieth anniversary against Tottenham – all-ticket due to the risk of violence, but only 26,310 attended – I snapped away. In the first photo are Stamford, Alan and Dave, sporting the ski-hats which were all the rage that season. In the second one, in profile and with The Shed behind, are Alan, Dave, Rich, Mark and Leggo in his bloody awful ginger leather jacket. It is no surprise that Simon is not in either picture, since he always tended to be the last to arrive, and usually the worse for wear after several pints in the pub.

By then of course, after the riot against Sunderland in the Milk Cup semi-final, the wooden benches were no more. They were replaced by cold concrete slabs. In the picture below, also from the Spurs game in 1985, the full roll-call is as follows :

Gareth (another Bedford lad), Glenn, Stamford, Alan, Dave, Rich, Swan (one of our lot, from Radstock, an Ian Botham-lookalike), Mark with his back-turned and Leggo and Leggo’s jacket.

We would meet up again, with slightly dwindling numbers in 1985/1986, but by 1986/1987 the group had tended to disperse. The wooden benches were no more and the concrete slabs just didn’t cut it. On my visits to Stamford Bridge, I mixed it up a little; The Shed one week, The Benches the next. By the time of 1988/1989 Alan had moved over to a season ticket in the front row of the East Upper, and I only bumped into the others on rare occasions.

Fast forward to Saturday 13 January 2018.

I had dropped Glenn, Parky and PD off at “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, and drove off to park my car on Normand Road, just in front of Normand Mews where former F1 World Champion James Hunt used to live, as the small blue plaque commemorates. I was therefore late to the party when I strolled in at around 11.30am. But there they all were, The Benches from 1984/1985.

Rich, Simon, Glenn, Chris, Dave, Alan.

What a joy to see each other again. It would be the first time that we had all been together since, I reckon, around the autumn of 1985. We wasted little time in turning back the years. We spoke about the others. Swan moved up to Leeds, we think, and the last time I saw him was in Bath in around 1986. Gareth used to go, but has not been seen for two decades. Mark still goes home and away, I see him everywhere. Leggo has not been seen at Chelsea for fifteen years. Neither has his jacket. Stamford aka Paul aka Walnuts still goes, and will be at the Brighton vs. Chelsea match next week. As I said, I still see Simon at games, though for many years, his was a missing face. I remember how pleased I was to see him at Wolves in 2003 after not seeing him since the mid-‘eighties. I saw Dave for the first time in ages at the Luton Town semi at Wembley in 1994 and again at the Nou Camp in 2000, and he still goes, though our paths have not crossed. Rich goes, but not so often.

It was a miracle that we were all together again in 2018.

And we owed it all to Glenn going to the buffet on a Chelsea Special in 1984 and the lure of The Benches at Stamford Bridge.

The banter continued.

Alan : “When Dave saw Glenn he called him “Polly”.

“Polly” – I had quite forgotten this. Indeed. “Polly.” I scratched my head as to why this was.

Dave, Rich, Simon and Alan were soon locked in to a special memory from September 1983 when they drove up to Sheffield Wednesday in Rich’s Ford Cortina and played an impromptu game of football on the moors above Hillsborough.

Alan : “It was cowpats for goalposts.”

Photographs were shared from our mobile phones.

Simon : “Here’s a photo of Kerry and me at Aberystwyth in 1983.”

We remembered the fashions of the day.

Dave : “Rich, I am sure that we went to Highbury in 1984 wearing white tennis shorts.”

Glenn : “Remember those multi-coloured jackets made from suede and leather? We all had them.”

Chris : “Remember those two girls who sold programmes from that hut on the main forecourt and then walked behind the goal at The Shed End to The Benches every home game?”

We did. Of course we did. Ah, Sharon and Paula, where are you now?

I was reminded of the time in 2004 when Glenn and I posed for a couple of photographs outside The Goose with photos from The Benches which Alan had taken. The one of me with the black jacket is the one which appears with my piece on “Arsenal 1984” in Mark Worrall’s book from a few years back. In the photo that Glenn is holding, he is with Dave and Simon.

Chris : “Never mind Polly, we should have called you Shirley Temple with that Barnet.”

We chatted about the hold that Chelsea has on all of us. We updated each other with what we have been doing with ourselves in the past thirty-odd years. I have to be honest, it was the most wonderful pre-match for ages. The chat and the laughter bounced around the pub. It was bloody lovely.

With kick-off time approaching, we started to finish our drinks. We looked up and saw about forty of Leicester’s “lads” enter the pub, a strange mix of middle-aged henchmen and Stone Island patches, Adidas trainers, CP goggles, Aquascutum scarves, Ma.Strum jackets and glowering looks. I suspect that they were remnants of the Baby Squad, but we wasted no time in finding out. Rather than involve ourselves in conversations with them about the export/import imbalance, the threat of global warming, heightened political tension in the far east, the lack of funding for the arts by the current government and the futility of life itself, we decided to down our pints and head out.

With us were Kev and Rich, the Jam Tarts, down from Edinburgh for the day. It had been a proper gathering of the clans.

Inside Stamford Bridge, Leicester City were backed by a strong three-thousand. I recollected a game that I had attended – all on my lonesome, September 1982, hating sixth-form, trying and failing to get over my first girlfriend, not exactly enjoying life – between Chelsea and Leicester City. It was just a run-of-the-mill Second Division game, and yet over 14,000 like-minded souls had evaded the clutches of loved ones, made excuses, saved hard, traveled long distances, and bothered to attend. I remember looking over to the middle of The Shed and thinking :

“We’ve got something here. This huge stadium. A loyal support. If only we had a good team.”

Who would have thought that thirty-five years later, the two teams involved on that sunny afternoon in 1982 would be Champions of England for three consecutive seasons?

Antonio Conte had opted for a 3-5-2 although all four of us in The Chuckle Bus had wanted a more fluid 3-4-3.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Morata – Hazard

At ten to three, the musical countdown began.

“Park Life.”

“The Liquidator.”

“Blue Is The Colour.”

The teams, the flags, “COME ON CHELSEA.”

The game began with a shot that Victor Moses slashed wide from a Cesc Fabregas pass. But then the visitors got their arses into gear. Bloody hell, Leicester– dressed in all black, how original – were all over us. I have no idea why our defenders allowed so much space for the visiting attackers, but they could have been two-up after just eight minutes. Firstly, a cross from down below me from their left was played into Shinji Okazaki but his connection was poor. Then, twice in a minute, Jamie Vardy could have scored on both occasions. We were simply not at the races.

“FACKINELL CHELS.”

Next up, was a fantastic diving save from Courtois from Wilfred Ndidi. The crowd around me were already restless and barely ten minutes had passed. At least – I was hunting for any scrap of positivity that I could – the crowd seemed to be slightly more involved than of late.

To the tune of “Amazing Grace” – our name boomed from the Matthew Harding. However, amazing we certainly bloody weren’t.

Cesc broke into the box at the other end and drew a smart save from Kasper Schmeichel. But this was very much a “one-off” as the visitors tore us to shreds. On a cold afternoon in SW6, Glenn was huddled up close to PD and Alan, his hat over his ears. He acknowledged that a brilliant pre-match had taken its toll.

“I had an opinion before six pints of Guinness.”

We laughed.

We had to laugh at something. Down on the pitch, we were as lacklustre as it gets. Our tackling was off. Our passing was so slow. Eden was finding it hard to get an inch of space anywhere. I so wanted Tiemoue Bakayoko to have a solid game, and I went out of my way to encourage him. But, let’s not kid ourselves, he had another stinker. His intensity was off, and he gave virtually nothing to the side in that woeful first-half. He struggled to fit in. He seemed unsure of his role, as did I. I wondered if he will continue to exist as some sort of Corporal Sponge to the other more established stars in our team, pottering around like one of those members of McDonalds who are only trusted to wipe dirty surfaces and dispose of debris in the rubbish bins.

We seemed to be overmanned in central midfield, yet we were over-run too. How is that possible?

A great tackle from Cahill managed to repel the threat from the fleet-of-foot Mahrez, enjoying a fine game, and a trademark crunching block from the same player stopped Vardy.

The crowd tried to lift the players.

“ANTONIO.”

Gary Cahill was then replaced by Andreas Christensen, after the captain fell, clutching his leg. The youngster soon impressed. Alvaro Morata for once set himself free of his markers and caused Schmeichel to save at his near post. But our chances were rare. At the other end, there were countless breaks from the twin threats of Mahrez and Vardy, and Leicester continued to dominate. Marc Albrighton slammed one wide. Only in the final five minutes of the half did we look like getting back to our old form. When we did, the crowd were noticeably more involved. But it shouldn’t have to be like this, should it?

Back in the “F3K”, Glenn had spoken about our time on “The Benches.”

“We didn’t know too much about tactics or formations. We just showed up and sang until we were hoarse.”

Quite.

If only supporters could support.

Not rocket science is it?

And although it is surely a myth that Stamford Bridge was a cauldron of noise three decades ago – it wasn’t because so much of the noise generated by our support simply drifted away into the London air, with the supporters so far away from the pitch –  at least we bloody well tried. The Shed tried, The Benches tried, Gate 13 tried. We all tried. Once we were in the midst of it, the noise sounded deafening…it just didn’t travel too far.

The second-half began. There was no noticeable step up from us in terms of quality nor intensity. This was all very strange. After ten minutes of play, Leicester City had a penalty appeal turned down and I commented to Alan that instead of Thibaut releasing the ball early to Morata while many of the opposing players were still moaning at the referee, and the team in momentary disarray, our Belgian ‘keeper held on to the ball and allowed the visitors to regroup. For some reason, I heard Jose Mourinho’s voice yelling at Thibaut and not Antonio Conte, not sure why. Maybe it was a definite Mourinho trait for his teams to expose the slightest weakness in any opposing team.

That man Mahrez threatened again. We were lucky that his shot – deflected – ended up spinning wide.

At last, a change.

Hazard was replaced by Pedro. Fabregas was replaced by Willian. Neither had been special. In fact, they had both been poor.

So, we got our desired “3-4-3.”

I was reminded back to Manchester United in around 2005, when we were in our pomp, and it was perceived by many among United’s match-going support that Sir Alex Ferguson was evidently “losing” it with his dalliance of new formations. On many occasions, the United support used to bellow “4-4-2, 4-4-2, 4-4-2” at their manager when things were not going their way. It made me chuckle that plasterers from Prestwich, accountants from Ardwick, taxi drivers from Totnes, nurses from Norwich, electricians from Eccles and lorry drivers from Launceston suddenly knew more about the Manchester United players and their strengths and weaknesses than one of the most revered managers the game has ever seen. Still, in this day and age, the customer is king. It is the way of the world to boo. We are a nation of moaners. And I am not saying that there was no negativity in days gone by, but the vitriol today seems to have reached new, horrible levels. There was, surprisingly, hardly any boos though at halftime, but if the score remained the same, I wasn’t so sure of a familiar outcome on ninety minutes.

Immediately, Pedro on the left and Willian on the right helped to energise us. There was a lot more pressure to win the ball, and we hoped we could breach the Leicester defence.

Chris to Alan : “Bakayoko, thirty yard screamer.”

Unfortunately, the only screaming came after a couple of Bakayoko shots were woefully off target.

“WE ALL FOLLOW THE CHELSEA, OVER LAND AND SEA.”

I was so pleased to hear a reaction from the home support. Not deafening, but at least it was something. The Benches of 1984 would have been proud of us. Maybe.

We were then handed some help when Ben Chilwell was sent off for two yellows in quick succession. It seemed that we had tons of the ball now, but with only Vardy upfront, Leicester were packing their box with players. There was no space. But our crossing was poor. Moratra, the poor bleeder, had not had much quality service the entire match. We tried and tried. I saw effort, in the main, but not much more than that. Our movement off the ball was especially woeful. Morata was at times immobile. It was, perhaps, a miracle that our man Tiemoue stayed on the entire game, but the manager obviously wants to persevere with him. Shots from Kante and Willian did not really test the ‘keeper.

In the last few minutes, a Marcos Alonso free-kick flew over the wall, and dipped, but Schmeichel scrambled low to push the ball around the post. The game ended as it had begun, with a shot from Moses which was so wide of the goal as to almost warrant being called a defensive clearance.

At the final whistle, our third 0-0 in a row and the inevitable boos from a few.

“Triffic.”

Back in the car, there were of course the expected moans – and not much chuckling – as we went through our usual post game post mortem.

Within twenty minutes, all three passengers were dozing as I headed home on the M4.

It was another day that had been spoiled by the football – ah, that familiar refrain, as pertinent now as in 1984/1985 – and I knew that my phone, tablet and computer would be on fire throughout the evening with rants, moans and complaints. Those who know me well will not be surprised by my response to the bitching and moaning which was taking place across the globe, in cyberspace and in cider space alike. I’d try to be pragmatic. I’d try to keep an even keel. I’d try not to over-react. I’d acknowledge how little we really know about the mechanics of a football team. I’d respect how hard it must be for one manager to work for a trigger-happy owner and to continually try to inspire and cajole a squad of millionaires. After all, it can’t be easy to win the league every year.

Even in 1984/1985, back on The Benches, I always was the boring and sensible one.

IMG_3659

 

Tales From A Chelsea Ramble

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 30 December 2017.

Our third game of Christmas, and our last match of 2017, was surely another “winnable” one against Mark Hughes’ visiting Stoke City. Back in September, an Alvaro Morata hat-trick helped secure a 4-0 away win in The Potteries, and although our performances since then have wavered at times, I was confident of a seventh consecutive home league win.

On the drive to London – Glenn was in charge of Chuckle Bus duties for the day – we had a little chat about our season thus far. There were few complaints. We are still enjoying our football, despite some of the negatives which swirl around our game at the moment.

We ran through a few of our success stories, player-wise, and top of the list was Andreas, who has warmed the hearts of all Chelsea supporters this season. The youngster has hardly put a foot wrong. He looks the finished article already. And, perhaps as he was not signed for a ludicrous sum in the summer, or perhaps because he has gone about his task quietly and efficiently, he has performed “under the radar” of many in the usually claustrophobic media. Elsewhere there are many positives; Eden continues to trick his way past players and add some Chelsea-esque panache to our play, N’Golo maintains his amazing abilities to close people down and keep us ticking and Dave is as consistent as ever and possibly our most-respected player. Thibaut rarely lets us down. Last season’s over-achievers Marcos and Victor might find their positions under threat in the next six months or so, but there is much to admire in their play. As a supporter, I always try to get behind players who may not be the most gifted, but those who try their damnedest in a royal blue shirt. I often reminisce on our championship season of 2016/2017 and the image Pedro keeps popping up. His first season in our colours was largely average, but he really stepped up under the tutelage of Antonio Conte. His relentless movement was a constant motif throughout last season. With Conte often choosing a 3-5-2 in this campaign, it is a damned shame that Pedro often misses out. Willian still seems to annoy many, but I have few complaints. Gary infuriates as only Gary can, and I am sure that Antonio might well nurse a little regret that Dave was not handed the captain’s armband at the start of this season. I like the look of Toni, and his game improves with each look. Alvaro may never toughen up in the same way that we would like, but he is a fine player and we need to persevere. Tiemoue has had a tough baptism, often looking lost, but he shows occasional promise. Danny has hit the ground running and I think will be a key fixture in our squad over the next few seasons. Cesc is a quality player, and we are lucky to have him in our squad. Davide is full of enthusiasm but often gets caught flat-footed and out-of-position. Michy is Michy, and I hope to God he tries harder than ever to fulfil his promise. He has a good eye for goal, but needs to expand his mind and expand his game. David, the forgotten man at the moment, is a crucial squad member and able to play in both midfield and defence. To lose him to another team in the January transfer window would do us no favours in my mind. Ethan, despite only a few appearances, is clearly a naturally-gifted footballer with much potential.

The four Chuckle Brothers splintered off on our arrival in London.

PD and LP chose “The Goose.”

Glenn and little old me had a more varied itinerary, which would include a few pubs on a ramble around the high roads and side streets of SW6. Outside the Copthorne Hotel, I met up with Ben, a work colleague from Germany. He is currently visiting London with two good friends – Jens and Walt – and it was a pleasure to welcome them to Stamford Bridge. We soon met up with another great friend, Kyle from Los Angeles, and it was fantastic to see him too.

I had last met Kyle at the same Copthorne Hotel back in the summer of 2016 when he was visiting London for the first time with his family; I drove up to London specially to see him for an evening’s meanderings around Stamford Bridge – alas no game – and we had a fine evening of recollections of summer tours to the US and more local affairs. I was pleased, so pleased, that he would be watching his first-ever game at Stamford Bridge in under four hours. The look of excitement on Kyle’s face as I ordered the first beers of the day was wonderful. And I need to make a special note of my friendship with Kyle. When I first started writing these match reports on the old Chelsea In America website around ten years ago, I was indebted to the support of some good friends – and from Kyle in Los Angeles and Steve in Philadelphia in particular – who prompted me to keep going and to continue with these rambling recollections of Chelsea games. Over the years – I first met Kyle in 2007 – we have shared some very fine times and many a laugh. His first game at Stamford Bridge was long overdue. He knew it and I knew it. I wanted to make his game as memorable as possible.

I had only met Ben once before, on a visit to our offices in around 2014, but we are in constant communication on a weekly basis. Often, our work-based emails contain some football chat. Ben, although living right on the border with Switzerland in the very south of Germany, is a lifelong Borussia Monchengladbach supporter. There have been many an email over the past few years in which he has updated me on the performances of Andreas Christensen. He has been my eyes and ears over in Germany. All has been positive.

Up in the bar area, there were some lovely moments with Ron Harris, Bobby Tambling, Kerry Dixon, Colin Pates and John Bumstead. The smiles were genuine, from both supporters and players alike. I explained to Ben and his friends how important Ron Harris and Bobby Tambling are in the history of our club.

For Ben, Ron Harris is Chelsea’s Berti Vogts.

Down in reception, I spotted Ken Bates, our erstwhile chairman. I could not resist a quick photograph. I had to get Glenn in on the picture. Kyle did the honours. As I approached him, he whispered :

“Oh, this looks like trouble.”

We had a few brief words, and he was pretty amicable, even when Glenn reminded him that he had sold off Benches tickets for the United game in 1985 for a tenner.

With typical abrasiveness, Ken replied “I should’ve charged more.”

I wish now that I had thanked him for setting up the Chelsea Pitch Owners in 1993. There has always been a love-hate relationship with many Chelsea supporters and Ken Bates, myself definitely included, but despite his gruffness and petty-mindedness, the formation of the CPO was an absolute masterstroke. I will always be in his debt for this far-sighted move some twenty-five years ago.

Via a quick stop at The Shed wall, and an homage to the image of Ron Harris – so that the German visitors especially could join some dots – we moved on to The Butcher’s Hook, where our club was formed all those years ago.

There then followed another Chris Axon history lesson – “Stop if you think you’ve heard this one before” – but with added resonance after our chance meeting with Ken Bates. I retold the story of the CPO, the attempted buy-out in 2011 and the “SayNoCPO” campaign; arguably the finest moment in the history of the supporters of our club.

No eyes were glazing over. Result.

On the matter of the new stadium, should anyone wish to keep up to speed with the progress – “or lack of” I hear some saying – there is no website better than Skyscraper City. For those suffering with what Simon Inglis has termed “stadiumitis” – like me – it is a fantastic resource. It will, thankfully, mean that I will no longer need to explain how there can be no huge, single end at the new stadium.

Here is a link to the thread about the new Stamford Bridge.

http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=1079233

96 pages of diagrams, videos, conjecture, analysis, debate, projections, timelines and more. While you are at it, there are threads detailing the new Spurs stadium – “should you feel the need” – and a relatively new thread devoted to a new stand at Selhurst Park and another one for a Riverside Stand upgrade at Craven Cottage – “ditto”.

We headed past the usual sights and sounds of a typical Chelsea Saturday.

On the walk, Kyle and myself spoke about the monstrosity of friendship scarves. With it, came a funny story about the transience of some US sport(s) fans, who often seem to chop and change teams at a moment’s notice. An alumni of UCLA, Kyle obviously follows them in all collegiate sports, though often he meets friends and acquaintances who follow UCLA in one sport but their bitter rivals USC in another.

Kyle : “They don’t even keep to that most basic of rules, of following one team.”

The laughter continued as we nipped into “The Elk” for the first time in years. As I explained to the visitors, we are truly blessed with boozers around Stamford Bridge.

“One of the reasons why we never wanted to leave this area. Even moving just one mile would be horrific.”

Walt kept mentioning throughout the day that virtually all stadia in Germany are out on the edge of towns and cities with hardly any bars nearby; I could tell that they were enjoying the close proximity of the twenty-five or so bars within a twenty-minute walk from Stamford Bridge.

Long may it continue.

Next up was a five-minute walk to The Mitre on Dawes Road; a pub that we used to frequent for the best part of a season in around 2002. Surprisingly, I seem to be the only one who can remember this. It must have been something they put in the drinks.

Our good friend John, with his son Chris, was celebrating his birthday out in the beer garden. The laughter and banter continued.

This was a fine time.

This was the “sweet spot” of any pre-match at Chelsea.

A few beers to the good, still a couple of hours before kick-off, no worries in the world.

I said to Kyle : “This is where we want time to stand still really.”

How often I have thought this; that a game could be put back a few hours so we can just wallow in the fuzzy camaraderie of friendship and football.

The last sweet spot was back on the North End Road, and we met up with a few fine members of The Bing inside “Simmons Bar”; Alan, Gary, Daryl and Ed. I was so pleased that Kyle got to meet some really fine friends on his first visit to Stamford Bridge. There was astonishment on Kyle’s face when I invited Gary over to confirm that he has, indeed, missed just one Chelsea home game since 1976.

I can hear Kyle now : “that is unbelievable.”

We sauntered – sauntered I tell ya! – out of the last boozer and made our way to Stamford Bridge. In the busiest pre-match for a while, the team news had passed me by.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Drinkwater – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Pedro

I felt for the four visitors, who had hoped that Eden would start. It was obvious that the manager was saving him – and his bruised shins – for Arsenal away on Wednesday.

We had already heard that the Stoke City team would be hit with injuries, but nobody really expected such a weak B team. Seeing Charlie Adam on the pitch was a real shock, and it was a reminder of how much I disliked him. He has a pasty complexion, a barrel-chested physique and a receding hairline from the 1920’s– and possibly tuberculosis too. I had a feeling that he would soon be sneezing and coughing over Danny Drinkwater. Either that, or kicking lumps out of him.

Stoke had only brought around 1,400. It did not surprise me. The match began with the three German visitors down below me in the Matthew Harding Lower and Kyle right behind the Shed End goal.

Over in The Shed, the away fans could be heard, but only faintly.

“COME ON STOWKE, COME ON STOWKE.”

After just three minutes, a cross from a free-kick wide on the right from Willian was perfectly played for Toni Rudiger to leap high at the back stick and to head home. This was as clean a header as it gets. It was a fine goal. We could have not have asked for a better start.

The dream start continued. On nine minutes, Pedro wriggled himself into space out on the left side of Stoke’s penalty area, and after his cross was blocked, the ball spun up towards Danny Drinkwater. The midfielder controlled the ball with his thigh and then purposefully prodded the ball towards the Shed End goal. Time again seemed to stand still. We watched as the ball sailed through the air with the Stoke ‘keeper Jack Butland rooted to the ground. The net bulged and the stadium erupted. What a fine goal, hopefully Danny’s first of many. Perhaps over-burdened in the middle of midfield, Drinkwater’s signing surprised many, but he has to be a fine addition to our ranks. I can well remember the disdainful comments from many when we signed him from Leicester City.

Soon after, we had hopes for another goal, but Alvaro Morata – bursting through in the inside right channel – was sadly denied at the near post by Butland. Kyle was getting all of the action on a plate for him.

On twenty-three minutes, Willian passed to Pedro. With a sublime touch, he turned into space and despatched a low shot towards the far post, a goal that I was able to celebrate before many as I was directly in line with the ball’s trajectory.

GET IN.

Game over? Surely.

The Stokies in the away section responded with an audible dig in that particular twang of theirs.

“Thray-nell, and yeh still don’t seng.”

I had to agree. I could detect a few supporters trying to get things started in The Shed but it was all very piecemeal. In the Matthew Harding, there had hardly been a song in the first quarter of the game, despite our fine play. It is hardly worth me writing that neither the East nor West Stands were joining in; they hardly ever do.

So, the usual moan from me about the lack of atmosphere at Stamford Bridge.

Our dominance continued. We moved the ball around at will. Stoke, on a very rare attack, bundled the ball in via a break from Diouf, but the referee had signalled an offside.

At the break, we all dreamed of a cricket score, with memories of a 7-0 shellacking in our 2010 vintage. Their record at Chelsea in recent years has been simply shocking.

Thibaut was forced to throw his word search back into his goal and block a shot from Berahino as Stoke threatened in the first few minutes. Rather than see us push on and go hell-for-leather in search of more goals, there was a definite air of frustration among the Chelsea fans as Stoke attempted to get the tiniest of foot holds in the game. Nothing really materialised, but it stemmed our flow of intent and desire. Things fell a little flat.

Davide Zappacosta replaced Victor Moses.

Pedro flashed a shot wide.

In an eerily similar position to his chance in the first-half, Morata approached Butland – “you again” – but probably took an extra touch. Butland again blocked.

“Ugh.”

Another strike from Pedro was aimed goal bound but this time a save.

Tiemoue Bakayoko replaced N’Golo Kante. Legs were being saved for Wednesday. Michy Batshuayi replaced Alvaro Morata, who had not enjoyed the best of outings.

With twenty minutes remaining, Willian burst into the penalty box and was adjudged to have been sliced down by a Geoff Cameron. From my vantage point, it looked a soft one.

Willian himself took the penalty. A feint and the ‘keeper was easily beaten by Willian.

The 4-0 score line was a long time a-coming.

Still, the atmosphere was lukewarm.

Only an “Antonio” chant really brought the Matthew Harding together as one.

With two minutes remaining, Zappacosta pounced on a loose ball and smashed the ball low past Butland.

Chelsea 5 Stoke City 0.

Yes, that was better.

Throughout the game, Stoke City had been truly shocking. They offered hardly anything. In some respects, this was some sort of non-football.

Total dominance from one team.

Meek capitulation from the other.

Played out to a backdrop of pitiful noise.

Yes, we have been spoiled over the recent – how many, twenty? – years, and have handed some severe poundings to most teams at Stamford Bridge in that period. In the league alone, we have enjoyed these wins against a few of our main rivals –

Chelsea 6 Arsenal 0

Chelsea 6 Manchester City 0

Chelsea 5 Everton 0

Chelsea 5 Manchester United 0

Chelsea 5 Newcastle United 0

Chelsea 5 West Ham United 1

Chelsea 4 Tottenham Hotspur 0

Chelsea 4 Liverpool 1

In the circumstances, I suppose a 5-0 defeat of a weakened Stoke City team is regarded by many as hardly on the same scale.

Noise or no noise, we jumped past Manchester United into second place. On the drive back to the West Country, the Chuckle Bus was very happy to hear that Mourinho’s men had been held 0-0 by Southampton.

Second place was ours.

Good work boys.

I mentioned at the start of this piece that Andreas Christensen was operating “under the radar” at the moment. The same, could, quite possibly be said of Chelsea as we leave 2017 and look set to enter 2018. While the love-fest with Manchester City is still continuing – and with reason, let’s admit they are playing some lovely stuff – there still remains an obsession with Harry Kane and Tottenham, to say nothing of renewed interest in a Mo Salah-inspired Liverpool. As Mourinho continues to annoy those inside and outside of his Manchester United, the inevitable media circus which follows him around shows no signs of abating. Let the media focus on these teams. That’s no problem for me. And while there are still a few barbs being aimed at the manager by some pernicious buggers in the media, hoping to stir up a little hostility and unrest, I honestly see a calmness from Antonio Conte and a steely desire to keep in contention. There have been few managers in my time as a Chelsea supporter that I have liked more. I desperately want Roman Abramovich to keep a steady head and to give the manager as much time as he needs.

We are in a good place at the moment.

The new year promises much.

On we go, into 2018 and beyond.

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Tales From Blue Crimbo At The Home Of The Holy Trinity

Everton vs. Chelsea : 23 December 2017.

With work finished for the year, and with a ten-day break to look forward to, most sane people would probably treat themselves to a little lie-in on the Saturday before Christmas. With my alarm ringing at 5am, I was soon reminded that sanity plays little part in the life of the foot soldiers of Chelsea’s away support. But this was an away trip that is right at the top of the list for me; not much comes close to Everton away. I can’t fathom why some in our support always deride Goodison Park. Admittedly the seats in the upper tier of the away stand are rather cramped, and there a few obtrusive roof supports, but I prefer its myriad of plus points.

There is surely much to admire. An historic stadium which has remained locked into a solidly working class environment from which our game was born. Two original Archibald Leitch stands, with the Bullens Road still maintaining the iconic cross-struts on the balcony. The Church of St. Luke’s still peeping from its corner between the shockingly huge main stand and the oddly-named Gwladys Street home end. The closeness of a few pubs. The walk along Goodison Road, full of hustle and bustle, one of the loveliest walks in football. The closeness of the pitch to the supporters. The teams coming onto the pitch to “Z Cars.” The sense that you are dipping into history.

There are two other personal stories which add an extra piquancy for me.

In around 1942, my father visited Goodison Park while undergoing training on an RAF base on The Wirral. It would be his only football game before he took me to Stamford Bridge in 1974.

In 1999, I took my then girlfriend’s son to his first-ever football game. It was a magnificent day and the nearest that I will ever get to taking a child of my own to a first-ever Chelsea game.

So, yeah – Goodison Park. It’s my favourite away stadium.

And still, hundreds of our supporters deride it as being a “shit hole.”

Get out you Philistines.

What are the alternatives? Of all the teams that are playing in England’s top division, we are bombarded with relatively bland new-builds.

Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Leicester City, Huddersfield Town, Brighton, Southampton, Stoke City, West Ham, Bournemouth and Swansea City.

There are a few stadia which have remained in situ, but with substantial changes in recent seasons involving three or four stands.

Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Watford, Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion.

There are two which have had changes to two of their four stands in the past twenty years.

Burnley and Crystal Palace.

And there is one which has experienced just one new stand over the past five decades.

Everton.

It is an anomaly in modern football, a reminder of a rich history, a simpler time, a reminder of my childhood, my youth, my footballing past. Once Everton eventually decamp to their planned new home over by the banks of the Mersey, I will feel rather sad.

I collected PD and Glenn in Frome at 6am, then zipped over to Parkyville to collect Lordy at 6.30am. Outside, there was nothing but darkness. We soon stopped for a breakfast at McChippenham.

Parky : “I’m bloody starving. I could eat a horse, and go back for the jockey.”

The other three had attended a Neville Staple concert in Frome the previous night, and they were all sleep-deficient. By the time I had hit the M5 just north of Bristol, two of the three were asleep. Day eventually broke at around 7.30am. I made good time on the well-travelled trip north despite long spells of fog. With Everton enjoying a little resurgence under Big Fat Sam and Little Fat Sammy, we all – reluctantly – agreed that we would be happy with a draw at Goodison. The league was City’s, we just needed to get our noses in front of United. I had heard that there was a fair few “spares” floating around for the game, and I immediately felt a twinge of guilt that I had not notified my mate Deano, a Chelsea fan who lives relatively close by, and who had visited Goodison with me in 2015. I wondered if he would be present. He doesn’t always get tickets for away games.

At bang on 10.30am, I snapped up one of the last “free” parking spaces on Utting Avenue which runs up to Anfield.

“Four and a half hours, boys. Happy with that.”

It was still misty. Visibility was only a few hundred yards. It added to the atmosphere, the old-time feel. I’m avoiding the use of the phrase “proper old school” in this match report, but it would certainly sum things up. On the walk to Goodison at the bottom of Stanley Park, the hulking mass of the new Anfield, only a quarter of a mile away, was lost in the mist. Glenn and I had an appointment at a nearby boozer, but after their dancing extravaganza of the previous night, it was as much that Parky and PD could do to simply reach Goodison.

“See you both inside.”

At about 11am, we walked into the “Thomas Frost” on Walton Road. It was a new away pub for me, and was full to the brim of both Everton and Chelsea supporters. Just inside the door was my mate Foxy and his dear mother. Foxy was visiting Liverpool as a fiftieth birthday present to himself. A Chelsea game was as good a reason as any to celebrate his birth.

I said to his mum “and it’s only right that you are here, because you were there too.”

And Foxy now had a personal Goodison memory of his own.

My father. His mother. Goodison. Perfect.

The pub was a typical “Wetherspoons”, large and impersonal, but with cheap beers. It was the first time that Foxy, Glenn and I had been together since our goodbyes in the hotel foyer in Shanghai in August. To celebrate, I supped at a lovely bottle of “Tsingtao”, clearly becoming one of my favourites. There were laughs with Foxy as there always are. He is off to Barcelona and I invited him to stay in our apartment. Happy days. In the Everton section of the boozer, I spotted many Christmas jumpers.

I cringed.

And to think that the cult of looking smart at football began in these pubs, these streets, these houses back in the late ‘seventies.

On the walk up to Goodison Park, we passed a few buildings which were clad in blue and clearly owned by Everton Football Club; a community centre, a school maybe? Perhaps their “school of science” moniker from their glory years wasn’t far off the mark.

“It’s just full of Bunsen burners, Foxy.”

I turned a corner and spotted a sign; “Everton Free School.”

What was I saying about a club locked into its local community?

At the Dixie Dean statue, I bid farewell to Glenn, Foxy and his Foxy mother, and departed on my own little circumnavigation of Goodison Park. I always like to do this, but did not have the time to do so before our euphoric 3-0 win last season. Ever few years, Everton give Goodison a proper spring-clean, and at the moment the main stand is clad in blue and with huge murals of some of their heroic number nines.

Joe Royle.

Graham Sharpe.

Dixie Dean.

Bob Latchford.

Dave Hickson.

Alex Young.

If I had my way, Tommy Lawton would have been featured too.

As ever, there is an Everton “timeline” which wraps its way around the stadium – or at least the three oldest stands – and this is well done, above the blue brick and turnstiles.

Recently, a friend – thanks Kev – mentioned to me that Alex Young (“The Golden Vision”, one of the lesser known Evertonians) was featured in an iconic film based on Everton Football Club from the ‘sixties. It’s a lovely little period piece, and features some great shots of old-time Goodison, plus the well-worn features of Brookside actor Bill Dean for good measure.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcAmE5GxGd0

I was quickly inside the Bullens Road after a quick security check. There was time for a chat with a few friends and the chance to wish them a “Merry Xmas.” Inside, I handed out a few Christmas cards. I need not have worried about Deano. Not only was he at the game, but he was sat right next to Parky, just two seats away from me.

“Chelsea World is a very small world – part 687.”

There were a few empty seats dotted around. Christmas shopping doesn’t get done by itself, does it?

I spotted that there were blue and white Chelsea Santa hats draped on every seat.

I groaned.

I am just bloody glad that the vast majority of the three-thousand away supporters chose not to wear them. Imagine if every single one of us wore them.

Three thousand Santa hats.

“Is this what it has come to?”

For. Fuck. Sake.

With Michy Batshuayi not chosen, this was another chance for the three amigos of Hazard, Pedro and Willian to harass, pester and worry the statuesque Evertonian defenders Phil Jagielka and Michael Keane.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

I still struggle with us not having a focal point for our attacks. I wonder what Bob Latchford is doing these days. We were surprised that Wayne Rooney was not playing. Upfront, Allardyce chose Lennon but there was no McCartney alongside him. Instead there was the much-admired youngster Calvert-Lewin and the silky Sigurdsson, who must be rueing his transfer to Everton, now that Allardyce and his “hoof it” tactics have replaced the more “school of science” approach of Ronald Koeman.

The mist still hung in the air. Ah, this was perfect. It had been a brilliant day thus far; all I would ever want from an away day in 2017. We waited for the game to start.

“Z Cars” heralded the two teams.

First thoughts : “God, that off-white kit of ours gets worse every fucking time I see it.”

Second thoughts : “Both teams are wearing white shorts. Brian Moore would be turning in his grave.”

At 12.30pm, the game kicked-off.

On the TV screens were the motif “#Blue Crimbo.”

We certainly dominated the early moments, buoyed by a beer-addled away support. The home fans were typically muted. We looked to play the ball in early to the front three, and Pedro was the first to threaten the Everton goal at the Gwladys Street, now named in remembrance of Howard Kendall, one of the Holy Trinity.

On ten minutes, we could hardly believe our eyes as a shot from Tiemoue Bakayoko and then Willian had shots cleared off the line by the old war horse Jagielka in quick succession. It would prove to be symbolic of the entire game. On several occasions in the first-half, we chose to hit a long diagonal to Marcos Alonso on the left, but his first touch was often lazy and laboured. I was begging for a first time cross to be whipped in.

“Here for the Chelsea, you’re only here for the Chelsea.”

This was a solid performance from us, and Bakayoko was working well with N’Golo Kante. Everton rarely threatened, despite the space that Sigursson found on a number of occasions. Everyone was defending well. Surely a goal would come.

“Feed the Scousers. Let them know it’s Christmas time.”

Victor Moses, the quieter of the two wing-backs, was fouled just outside the box. We waited for Willian to strike. Over it went. Bollocks.

We faded a little on the half-hour mark and Tom Davies – why do I like it that he plays with his socks hallway down his shins? – was able to pick up a ball, drive through midfield but his shot was wide. It was then Bakayoko’s chance to run from midfield. He strode right through the Everton half and passed to Pedro. I admired the lovely shape as he smacked the ball goal wards, but Jordan Pickford palmed over.

Just before half-time, Andreas Christensen uncharacteristically lost possession in front of the towering main stand and we watched, no doubt worried, as Calvert-Lewin drove into our box. He stalled, unsure of what to do, and the ever-reliable Azpilicueta blocked.

At the break, we were a little frustrated not to have broken the deadlock. After a little noise at the start, everything had died a little. I could not remember a song in praise or anger from the Evertonians the entire half. We could hardly believe that Big Sam had decided to take off the midfielder Davies in place of the bulky defender Williams. It seemed to re-enforce his battle plan.

Soon into the second-half, Pickford was soon called into action, saving well from a drive from Eden. The rebound fell to Alonso but Williams hacked it away.

The sun had now burned the mist away, but the only sunny part of the Goodison Park pitch was the Chelsea penalty area. We watched as Thibaut looked rather concerned as he shielded the sun from his eyes. He came for a cross from a rare Everton foray, confidently punched, and we heaved a huge sigh of relief.

We dominated fully now. Everton’s answer to receiving the ball from a clearance or a miss-placed pass was to simply hoof the ball up and away. I looked over at the Evertonians in the Park End and wondered how much of this they could stomach.

Eden Hazard was at the centre of everything. His change of pace, his slight of foot, his acceleration, his awareness of others was simply sensational.

Cesc Fabregas replaced Pedro. There was a slight change in shape.

I was a little annoyed with both wing backs. I spoke to Gary :

“Both Alonso and Moses seem to take forever to get going once they have the bloody ball. Zappacosta, who is not as good a player, at least gets out of the traps pretty damn quick.”

Hazard forced another excellent save from Pickford in the Everton goal. This was turning into “one of those games.”

With twenty minutes of the second-half gone, the locals behind the goal at last erupted in song. I almost feinted.

“EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TON. EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TOOOON. EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TON, EV-ER-TON. EV-ER-TON. EV-ER-TON.”

Next home game, I hear that they are going to attempt to master four fucking syllables.

Michy Batshuayi replaced Willian, and was warmly applauded. The Chelsea support, to our immense credit, have not turned on him, and we realised that he might well turn out to be our saviour. His first fine touch was cheered by all.

“COME ON MICHY, SON.”

A Moses cross was headed – THUMP – against his own bar by Williams. This was just typical of our luck all day. I lost count of the number of crosses or shots which were deflected wide or over or blocked by a loose leg.

With the last throw of the dice, Zappacosta replaced Moses. One of his first crosses was sliced high into 2018.

A Rudiger strike went straight down Pickford’s throat. A daisy-cutter from Cesc was deflected away for a corner.

“How the fuckitty fuck have we not scored in this game?”

Then.

There is always a then.

An Everton corner from where the Bullens Road meets the Gwladys Street.

“Here we fucking go.”

Our nerves jangled. Our buttocks tightened. Our heartbeat increased.

A Sigurdsson corner evaded everyone apart from the head of Keane, who rose – nobody near him, for heaven’s sake – but thankfully thumped his header way over the bar.

There was a collective and profound sigh to be heard in both tiers of the away end.

Despite an added four minutes, our attacks petered out. At the final whistle, we were silent. There were no boos, and not a great deal of cheer either. As the players and manager came towards us, I heard a good level of support and that cheered me. Parky and I soon made our way out and waited for PD and Glenn to join us.

We were as philosophical as ever.

“We had said we would have been content with a point.”

“With just a little more luck, we would have won that two or three naught.”

“How awful were Everton, though?”

We hot-footed back to the car and were soon on our way south.

At Stafford, we stopped for some much-needed scran, and I was able to drive on, refuelled and replenished. We listened to the radio intermittently. An away win for Tottenham was met with subdued moans. The events at Leicester City were left to unfold by themselves; I simply did not have the stomach for it. The radio was turned off.

I eventually reached home at 9pm.

I clicked-on the TV.

Leicester City 2 Manchester United 2.

Ha.

“As you were boys.”

We are now at the halfway stage in our league season. Back in August, I predicted a championship win for Manchester City, with United finishing in second place and us in third. I think I predicted Spurs to finish fourth. As it stands, Chelsea will be right in the mix for an automatic CL berth, but I honestly think that we can pip United to second place. In one hundred and twelve years, we have only bettered that on six occasions. Sometimes it is perfectly fine to come second.

See you all on Boxing Day.

 

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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