Tales From A Night Of Fun

Chelsea vs. Watford : 15 May 2017.

Friday was bloody magnificent, wasn’t it?

And now Chelsea, after winning the sixth title in our history at The Hawthorns, after a week of rising tension, were following this up with a home game against Watford on Monday. The absolute high from the game at West Brom had not really subsided, but there was a certain strangeness in the air as I drove up to West London with Parky and PD. There was a feeling of inevitable anti-climax, but we took that on the chin. That was certain. It was to be expected. In “The Goose” beforehand – rain clouds overhead dampening the mood a little – there was celebratory talk from Friday with those who had travelled, but the overall feeling was of “after the Lord Mayor’s Show.” In truth, of course, we would not wish to be anywhere else on the planet.

We quickly chatted about the potential team line-up, and I only predicted a few changes.

How wrong I was.

Begovic

Zouma – Terry – Ake

Azpilicueta – Kante – Chalobah – Kenedy

Willian – Batshuayi – Hazard

Compared to our first-choice starting eleven, only two players (N’Golo and Eden) were in their own positions. It seemed like a “B” team. But I wasn’t honestly bothered. With the FA Cup Final looming, I was sure that a strong team would be chosen against Sunderland. It was only right that a few fringe players were picked against Watford.

As I turned the corner and approached the West Stand, I grabbed a programme and soon spotted the new grand signage on the West Stand.

“Home of the Champions.”

It felt good.

Our fifth title in thirteen seasons. Some fans don’t know they are born. Of course, I don’t begrudge the younger element of our support anything; that would be churlish. But it did make me think. If I had seen a Chelsea title in my first season of active support at the age of eight, by the time I was twenty-one, I would have seen a total of five. I find this ridiculous, but for many young Chelsea fans in 2017 this is their actual story.

“Just like the Scousers” as my mate Andy had commentated at The Hawthorns on Friday, referencing their pomp in our shared childhood.

Indeed.

I do not wish to get too maudlin, but I have come to accept – and bizarrely, be thankful for – our championship draught from 1955 to 2004. It has made me appreciate the good times even more. And that is fine with me.

Outside and inside, I greeted a few pals with the same words –

“Alright, champ?”

I had commented to PD that I half-expected a fair few empty seats around the stadium – there had been a lot of spares up for grabs on “Facebook” in the morning – but I was very pleased that the place was filling up nicely. At kick-off, hardly any seats in the home areas were not used. However, Watford only had around 2,000 in their end. The gaping hole in their section was shocking. The “Home of the Champions” signage had been added to the balconies of all the stands too. A nice touch. Just before the teams entered the pitch, “CHAMPIONS” banners were draped from the upper tier of The Shed.

“Park Life” gave way to “The Liquidator” and the Watford team – the starting eleven in white to the right, the subs in red to the left – formed a guard of honour. John Terry, almost certainly for the last time, lead the Chelsea team on to the pitch. Flame-throwers in front of the East Stand blasted orange fingers of fire into the evening air. The noise was thunderous.

Down below, I spotted Cathy, who had been hit with ill-health during the game on Friday. She had come straight from a Middlesex hospital. It was reassuring to see her in her usual seat. Her home record – every game since the mid-seventies – was intact.

Very soon into the match, the surreal tone for the ensuing evening was set when the entire crowd roared “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” and the manager slowly turned a complete circle and clapped all of the four corners of the packed stadium. This often happens, but usually much later. This was within the first two minutes. Just a few seconds after, the Chelsea fans followed this up with a chant aimed at the fellows in second place, a full ten points adrift now.

“Tottenham Hotspur, it’s happened again.”

We began brightly enough and were on the front foot. It was odd to see so many different players on the pitch at the same time. A header back to Begovic by John Terry was loudly cheered, but we soon got used to him. Unlike his previous substitute appearance, not every touch was cheered.

However, that was soon to change.

We had created a few half-chances, and then Willian pumped in a corner from our right. King Kurt rose to head the ball goal wards, and the ball was slammed past Gomes. As the goal scorer reeled away, I soon realised that it was John Terry. Perfect. Oh bloody perfect. He ran towards the fans, jumped up – right in front of Parky, the lucky sod – and was engulfed by his fellow players. A lovely moment. A goal on his last start for Chelsea? Probably.

Chelsea 1 Watford 0.

I looked towards Alan, and waited for him to turn towards me and utter his usual post-goal exclamation. I waited. And waited. And waited. He was watching the match. I glanced over to my left just as Watford forced a very rapid equaliser. I only saw the ball cross the line.

Alan and myself had words.

“I’m blaming you for that.”

We laughed.

As the game progressed, we remained dominant. As if in some sort of subtle homage to our captain, the impressive Nathaniel Chalobah chest-passed a ball to a team mate. He loves a chest-pass, does John Terry. With a similar touch to that which set up our first goal at Wembley against Spurs, Michy Batshuayi was able to flick a ball on with a quite beautiful touch. It had the feel of an exhibition match, with tricks and flicks never far away. Willian was especially full of energy. Hazard went close. On thirty-five minutes, a move from our left forced a save from Watford ‘keeper and captain Gomes. It fell to Dave, who slammed the ball hard and low into the net.

Get in.

Chelsea 2 Watford 1.

More wild celebrations over in Parkyville. Flags waving, the crowd roaring. Super stuff.

It had been a fine half of football. It was amazing to see N’Golo eat up space with such desire and win ball after ball. Kenedy – “I didn’t know Bart Simpson was playing” quipped Alan – was looking to get forward at every opportunity. Dave, unfettered now in a wide position, had enjoyed a fine half too. Kurt Zouma, usually so stiff, seemed a lot more relaxed. All was good.

Kerry Dixon was on the pitch at half-time. However, he did not take part in the usual walkabout on the pitch.

Both Alan and myself, at the same time, spoke : “He’s getting back to the bar.”

Soon into the second-half, a short corner eventually broke to Nathan Ake, who played the ball on to Batshuayi. It was an easy chance.

“He always scores against Watford.”

Chelsea 3 Watford 1.

Unbelievably, and to our annoyance, Watford scored again. Janmaat danced through – waltzing past many blue shirts – and curled one past Begovic. It was a fine goal.

Despite this setback, the mood inside the stadium was still light. The MHL began to get the other stands involved.

“West Stand give us a song” – they did.

“Shed End give us a song” – they did.

“Watford give us a song” – they didn’t.

More songs for Antonio, for JT, for Willian. Batshuayi was involved, getting a couple of shots on target. Two shots from Dave too. But then our play became a little disjointed. Watford, aided by some dubious refereeing decisions, were able to move the ball through our tiring midfield. Watford had replaced Niang with Okaka – “who?” from Alan and yours truly – and we were left eating our words when a cross was pumped into our box, the ball fell between Terry and Zouma, and the substitute slammed home, with Chelsea unable to clear. And the previously mute Watford fans sang loud and danced like fools.

“Bollocks.”

Behrami slashed a drive just past the post. Janmaat blasted over.

“Come on Chels, fackinell”

This was turning in to a very odd game. Three-all. Sigh. I was reminded of our 2005/06 title procession, when heading in to Christmas we hardly conceded any goals. I can well remember how we then proceeded to win 3-2 versus Fulham on Boxing Day. At the time it seemed like a ridiculous goal fest. Of course, our defence has been more porous of late, but this still seemed odd.

We had conceded three goals. At home. Against Watford. Oh boy.

This was hardly our worst effort in a championship season of course. In 1954/55, we lost 5-6 to Manchester United. Sorry, I won’t mention it ever again.

Not to worry, as he has done so often this season, Conte pulled some tactical strings. On came Ola Aina for Kenedy. On came Cesc Fabregas for Chalobah. On came Pedro for Michy, who received a lovely reception. Deep down, I was confident that we would spring a late goal. We pressed and pressed. Substitute Cesc forced Gomes to save from a dipping free-kick. The same player then went close at an angle inside the six-yard box. The pressure mounted. With just two minutes remaining, the excellent Willian rolled the ball square to Fabregas, who bobbled a shot low past Gomes.

Chelsea 4 Watford 3.

“Get in.”

What a crazy game.

In the final moments, Prodl was sent off for a second yellow. There was no way back for the visitors.

Phew. The final whistle blew.

Above, fireworks flew up in to the night sky from above the East and West Stands. Blue and silver tinsel streamers fell from the roofs.

“Blue Is The Colour” boomed.

Some fans disappeared into the night, and we should have set off for a quick getaway too, but we saw the players line up to race over to those still in The Shed. PD and myself decided to stay on too. We watched as the players – and Antonio – slowly walked towards us in the Matthew Harding. This was a surprise. Had someone not realised that our final home game was on Sunday? With flames, fireworks and tinsel in evidence for this penultimate game, I honestly wondered what we had in store for the trophy presentation itself.

Anything less than a fly-past by the Red Arrows with billowing jets of blue and white and I will be writing a letter of complaint, Roman.

Antonio was, unwittingly perhaps, the star of the show again, leading the cheers and lapping up the warm adoration from the stands. But my eyes were on John Terry too. What emotions were racing through his mind? The goal must have warmed him. What a satisfying moment. I had always hoped that he would score a net-stretching scorcher from outside the box, but virtually all of his goals have been close range headers and prods from inside the six-yard box. One of his finest goals was a volley – I forget the opposition – at the Shed End when he changed shape mid-air to flick the ball home. Not to worry. This night was his, even though I was to learn that he was at fault for the first equaliser.

Antonio grabbed an inflatable Premier League trophy from a fan behind the goal, and gleefully smiled the widest of smiles. His legendary status grows.

The three of us met up at “Chubby’s Grill” and continued the season-long tradition of “cheeseburger with onions please love.” It had been a fun night to be honest. I won’t dwell on a few deficiencies; it is not the time for silly analysis after such a game.

I began the drive home. It would be the last midweek flit of the season. I was glad that there would be no more. And then I realised that I should not complain. If anything, it made me appreciate the long hours that fans across the country put in week in and week out in support of their chosen teams. Fair play to all of them. The ones who follow mid-table teams, locked in to another season of obscurity, and the ones who support those teams in relegation dogfights are especially worthy of praise. These are the real stars of the football world. This season – as champions – was a relative breeze for me and my trusted Chuckle Bus.

Nevertheless, I would eventually reach home at 1am. I would not, as always, be able to go straight to sleep. I would eventually nod off at 1.45am. Four hours of sleep would leave me exhausted the following day at work.

As I once commented to a work colleague, who admitted that he could never do what I do in support of my team :

“I bloody love it, mate.”

As do many others.

See you all on Sunday.

IMG_5693

Tales From My Second Home

Chelsea vs. Hull City : 22 January 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The team was announced.

Courtois.

Cahill, Luiz, Azpilicueta.

Alonso, Matic, Kante, Moses.

Hazard, Diego Costa, Pedro.

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

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

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

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

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

His shot narrowly missed Thibaut’s post.

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

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

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

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

This was not going to plan at all.

Bollocks.

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

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

Sigh.

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

Chelsea 1, Hull City 0, thank fuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was that second goal.

Phew.

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

The joy was palpable.

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

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

At last there was some noise worthy of the occasion.

“Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego!”

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

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

Catch us if you can.

img_2072

Tales From The King Power Stadium

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 14 January 2017.

The Chuckle Bus was on the road again. There had been a breakfast at a canal-side café in Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, a lunchtime drink at a pub with a roaring fire in Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire while watching a few moments of the televised Tottenham vs. West Brom game, and a further pub stop in the Warwickshire village of Wolvey. We were taking our time. The kick-off in Leicester was not until 5.30pm. There was no rush. In all honesty, the mood in the car was a little pessimistic. I think it shocked us.

The reason for our noticeable solemnity was due to the rumours flying around the internet, the radio and the TV about Diego Costa. There was no absolute ratification from Chelsea regarding the reasons for Costa not travelling to Leicester. But the rumours were rife. Was he genuinely injured? Was he seeking a change in China? Was he the centre of a media-led campaign to unsettle us? We didn’t know. We tried not to get sucked in to a maelstrom of negativity, but it was difficult.

In a nutshell, Diego Costa is currently at the peak of his game. If he was genuinely injured, no problems. If there were darker Machiavellian reasons for his absence, what a mess.

Either way, it darkened the mood considerably. After a loss at Tottenham ten days previously, we briefly considered a team affected by the loss of Diego, a subsequent second successive loss in the league in 2017 and storm clouds gathering ahead of tough games against Liverpool and Arsenal. Well, Liverpool anyway. I simply do not fear playing Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. The match at a hostile Anfield will be a different kettle of fish, or dustbin of cats.

But by the same token, we trusted Antonio Conte to enliven his troops against a Leicester City team which would be missing a few key players. Against the immobile rugby-players Huth and Morgan, I fully expected the three-pronged attack of Hazard, Pedro and Willian to turn them inside and out.

We were parked up in good time. Although I had dressed for the Baltic – quilted jacket, and warm pullover, Timbers – the walk to the stadium was not as cold as I had expected.

The three sporting stadia in Leicester are clustered together to the south of the city centre; cricket’s Grace Road, rugby’s Welford Road and football’s King Power Stadium. They are all within a twenty-five-minute walk of each other. The latter, replacing Filbert Street, is a typical new build. A single-tiered identikit stadium. Replace the blue seats with red, and it could be Southampton’s St. Mary’s. It perfectly suits Leicester City, but it’s hardly an interesting site, or sight.

Our own beloved Stamford Bridge had been at the forefront of my mind since the last game. On Wednesday evening the local Hammersmith & Fulham Council met to vote on the planning application for our spectacular re-build.

At around 10pm it was announced that they had said “yes.”

What wonderful news.

I remembered the black days of autumn 2011 and the invigorating “Say No CPO” campaign, which defeated the club in their attempt to buy our shares, but which then forced the club to do a complete 180 degrees on a re-build at Stamford Bridge.

Just magnificent.

Thank you so much for listening Roman. And thank you so much for taking every care in choosing a team of architects that has produced such a breath taking and iconic design. I think the design, bearing in mind the considerable constraints forced upon it, is wonderful. It will break the mould of football stadia in this country. No copycat stadium for this club. Not everyone is a fan, but I feel that the detractors are focussing on the aerial view. But that misses the point. From street level, I believe that the structure – London brick, rising high, strong, iconic, unique – will be mesmirising. At night time, for an evening game, with the roof under lit, the stadium will be spectacular.

Of course the negative in all of this will be a hiatus at Wembley, in all probability, but compared to the dark days of the “Save The Bridge” campaign in 1986 – buckets outside The Shed End – and the attempted land grab in 2011, we should not be too disheartened. It is up to the club to be creative in its match day pricing during our seasons among the red seats at Wembley in order for us to maintain our level of support.  My real fear is of a mediocre team with sub 30,000 gates for lesser opponents.

No pressure, Antonio.

I rewarded myself for getting the lads to yet another game with a pint of lager. In the bar area below the steps to the stadium, there were the usual faces, and the Chelsea fans were in good voice. Yet more Aquascutum scarves.

A text came through on my phone : Frome Town were beating Redditch United 6-1. It soon became 8-1. My hometown team are currently enjoying their best ever season, a nine-game unbeaten run, and now their biggest win at that level. Good times indeed.

Back in the rarefied atmosphere of the Premier League, the main two results went against us; there were easy wins for Tottenham and then Arsenal.

The team was announced. Conte had opted for solidity with Nemanja Matic alongside N’Golo Kante.

We had seats down low by the corner flag. Just before kick-off – out of nowhere – my mate Tuna from Atlanta suddenly appeared, bouncing down the steps. What a small world.

This would be my first sighting of Leicester City this season; I had missed the 4-2 League Cup win and the 3-0 home victory in the league. On a dark evening, Gary and myself wondered why we were wearing black and not white. Thank goodness the home fans had not been issued with those damned noise-makers.

Not long in to the game, the away fans roared our support of a missing player.

“Diego, Diego, Diego, Diego, Diego,”

I approved.

The home team started on the front foot and Thibaut Courtois was called on to thwart an early attempt on our goal. We reacted superbly well to this early threat. After just six minutes, a cross from Cesar Azpilicueta reached Pedro. He was falling, under pressure, inside the box, but was able to touch the ball to Eden Hazard. The away section held our breath. A goal was on the cards. Eden played it out to Marcos Alonso, who smashed the ball past low Kasper Schmeichel.

Get in.

Wild celebrations, get off Tuna.

Leicester City responded well to be honest. Although Chelsea maintained high levels of possession, pushing the ball around well, the home team caused us a few problems. A ball from out wide often caused us concerns, but on every occasion, the defensive three plus the reliable Courtois were able to clear.

On ten minutes, the stadium lit up with mobile phone spotlights as a nod of support to former player – and now match day host – Alan Birchenall, who suffered a heart-attack on the previous Thursday. Birchenall once played for Chelsea, and one of his ports of call after leaving Leicester City was to manage Trowbridge Town from my neck of the woods back in their hay days, when they battled away in the Conference for a few heady seasons. The ups and downs of non-league football; Trowbridge Town are now many levels below Frome Town.

Mark Albrighton, Danny Drinkwater and that man Jamie Vardy looked dangerous at times. I was able to focus on Vardy’s battle with Gary Cahill; a good old-fashioned drama.

Over on the far side were two loved Italians; Claudio Ranieri and Antonio Conte.

The home fans to our left were engaged in a bit of banter with us. They were clearly enjoying their post-championship European campaign.

“Are you going to Seville?”

While we patiently played through our midfield, with Alonso overlapping well and enjoying a fine game, Leicester played the role of counter-attacker. Vardy caused more anxiety for Courtois. There were few chances for either side, though. A free-kick from Pedro failed to test Schmeichel just before the break.

Six minutes into the second-half, we struck again. A Willian corner from down below us was only partially-cleared and the ball fell invitingly to none other than Marcos Alonso. He swiped at the ball – using his left foot this time – and he kept the ball down well. A slight deflection steered it away from Schmeichel.

Bloody hell, Alonso again, get in.

I caught his joyous run down to our section on film.

img_1827-2

It was all Chelsea now, with everyone playing to their maximum. Kante seemed to win every 50/50. He was inspired. Matic was solid. Alonso and Moses were full of graft and running. Every time that Alonso received the ball, he was urged to “shoot” by the away faithful. What fun.

Gary Cahill had an outrageous overhead kick which surprised us all, and then Alonso had a big moment. The ball ballooned up in the air. At that moment in time, Alonso had two options.

“Do I hit it on the volley? Do I score my first-ever hat-trick since I was in Senorita Ramirez’ class in secondary school, that sunny day in Madrid, I can still see it now, Juan Martinez you did not stand a chance, you horrible little twat, the Chelsea fans will love me, it will make up for Tottenham, not my best game, yes I’ll plant this into the goal and the match ball will be mine. Or do I trap it and lay it off? Am I confident? Too bloody right I am. I’ll hit the fucker. Here I go.”

It whistled narrowly wide.

We were purring. I lost count of the one-touch angled passes played into space by Hazard, Pedro and Willian. It was spectacular stuff.

With twenty minutes to go, we scored a lovely third goal. More dogged perseverance from Moses, a clean and crisp ball from Kante, an impudent back-heel from Pedro. Willian reached the ball just before Schmeichel, and his lofted chip was headed home by Pedro.

3-0, get off Tuna.

More lovely celebrations in front of us.

Pedro had enjoyed another fantastic game for us. One moment sticks in my mind. After the third goal, he flung himself in front of a Leicester defender as he attempted to clear from just a few yards outside their penalty area. It summed up the spirit coursing through the veins of our whole team this season. Top marks.

Conte made some late change; Cesc Fabregas for Eden Hazard, Michy Batshuayi for Willian, Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Pedro.

It stayed at 3-0.

At the end of the game, the entire team walked over to us. The away support were bouncing in praise of the manager and his troops.

The memories of our match at the same stadium last season – that bleak night, Mourinho speaking of “betrayal” and his last-ever game as our manager – seemed from another age, another era.

In 2016/2017, there is a new leader of our team.

“Antonio, Antonio – Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

img_1791

Tales From The Clarence

Chelsea vs. Peterborough United : 8 January 2017.

In the pub, there was only the briefest most-mortem of the loss at Tottenham on the previous Wednesday. A few of us had been present at the game; others had watched on the TV. We all agreed that we hadn’t been atrocious. We all agreed that Tottenham hadn’t ripped us to shreds. In the circumstances, a run-of-the-mill 2-0 loss at one of our toughest away venues of the season was met with a gentle acceptance. A few mentioned that Marcos Alonso – I honestly could not remember him from his spell in England with either Bolton or Sunderland – has not performed too well of late, and I had to agree. There was a slight mention of the transfer window, but nobody had too much to say about that. Where does our squad need strengthening? Maybe a left-back, then, and maybe another striker. With Kurt Zouma about to return against Peterborough United later in the day, and – presumably – with Andreas Christensen due to return from his very successful spell at Borrusia Moenchengladbach in the summer – there is surely no need for the club to sign a central defender, despite the constant rumours linking us with Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci, in the January window.

Around ten of us were trying out a new pub for the first time. After the demise of The Goose – it’s still frequented by some, but some of us fancy fresh pastures – we are still trying out new options. On this occasion, it was the turn of The Clarence. Heading north along the North End Road from The Goose, are three similar old-style pubs; The Elm, The Old Oak and The Clarence. These are small parlours and are strikingly similar in many ways. Old-fashioned décor, tired carpets, darkened wooden panels, fixtures from the ‘seventies, no frills and thrills, faded framed paintings and packets of crisps as the only bar snack. There was a time when all match-day pubs were like this. Our old haunt The Harwood Arms – 1995 to 1999 – certainly was.  The Seven Stars is no more, but that used to line the North End Road too, just opposite The Clarence. Then up at West Kensington is The Famous Three Kings. Since The Clarence housed only around twenty customers on this particular pre-match, we surmised that this pub just about marked the most north-westerly outpost of Chelsea drinkers on match days. It was OK. At least the beers were served in glass pints. To be honest, it filled a need but it was anything but posh.

I had spotted only a handful of Peterborough United supporters on my pre-amble to the boozer. They were to be six thousand strong, but I didn’t see any of them in any of the pubs around the stadium. I suspect a lot of them were doing their drinking around Earls Court. There had been a brief chat with some usual suspects at the CFCUK stall about the game at White Hart Lane – “I’d prefer this to be a league game to be honest, let’s get back in to the routine and get some points in the bag” – alongside talk of Adidas trainers and the imminent new stadium planning presentation to the local council on Wednesday evening.

That will surely prove to be one of the most historic nights in our history.

I spotted a new selection of royal blue pennants lining Fulham Broadway and Fulham Road. There were images of our silverware, along with pennants showing the words to two Chelsea standards; “Blue Is The Colour” and “The Blue Flag.”

Inside the stadium, the six thousand away fans took up the entire Shed End. Parky had been pushed to a seat in the West Lower, the poor bugger.

I approved of the retro-style programme cover which mirrored that of our 1965 FA Cup Quarter Final against Peterborough United; a nice touch.

We had been told that both Kurt Zouma and Michy Batshuayi would start against The Posh. In the pub, the starting eleven chosen by Antonio Conte, puzzled us a little. We found the thought of Branislav Ivanovic as a starting wing-back too weird for words. And Pedro, too, for that matter. Who would ever have thought that these two players would be playing the same role in a Chelsea starting eleven? We live in tactically-interesting times, eh?

Begovic.

Zouma, Terry, Cahill.

Ivanovic, Fabregas, Chalobah, Pedro.

Loftus-Cheek, Batshuayi, Willian.

It was obviously lovely to see King Kurt back after a very lengthy spell out. I wasn’t sure about Ruben playing in a wide position, but it gave him a chance to impress.

We played Peterborough United in the same round of the competition in 2001 and won 5-0. On that occasion, the visitors wore a lurid lime green kit. This time, it was a lurid yellow. The game began, and I was a little disappointed that the away fans seemed quiet from the off. Despite a bright start from their home town heroes, they mainly stayed seated. There were no FA Cup balloons, another dying tradition.

Our first chance came from a near post flick from Gary Cahill after a low Willian corner, which caused an immediate scare in the away end. The ball bounced back into the arms of the ‘keeper – lurid pink – off the post. At the other end, a scare for us. A fine cross into our box was met by a lunge from a Peterborough striker. Asmir Begovic’ point blank stop looked exceptional, though this was just a save brought about by exceptional positioning than dynamic ability. A volley from John Terry ended up being planted straight at the Posh keeper’s stomach, and then Peterborough threatened Begovic again. It was quite a start for them.

Zouma reached row Z of The Shed with one effort, and then Willian reached row W with another. It was a very bright opening.

Following a shot from Chalobah which was palmed back out by the ‘keeper McGee, Pedro controlled the loose ball, lost his man with a deft shimmy, and smacked the ball in – high – at the far post.

Get in.

Pedro made a point of running down past the away fans to the far corner. Somebody obviously failed to tell him that The Shed wouldn’t be housing any home fans on this occasion. He looked a bit sheepish.

We put the Peterborough goal under pressure, with efforts from Batshuayi and Loftus-Cheek. Pedro, in a copycat move, slammed the ball high, but this time the ball crashed against the bar.

Just before the break, a fine move involving a hooked past from Willian to an advanced Ivanovic, resulted in Batshuayi calmly slotting home after a delicate lay-off from Loftus-Cheek.

Coasting now, 2-0, but I whispered to PD and his son Scott : “remember Bradford City in 2015.”

Willian had enjoyed an excellent first-half, full of running and intelligent passing.

It felt odd watching JT, the returning war horse. I watched on, seeking to praise him at every opportunity, in the same way that I would a youngster from the ranks. In this, surely his last season, I do not want to see him embarrassed again in the same way as he was at West Ham in the League Cup.

At the break, misty rain appeared. Neil Barnett introduced winger Bert Murray from that 1965 game, which we won 5-1.

Not long in to the second period, we broke with ease up the left flank. A marvellous pass from Cesc to Pedro who pushed it on to Willian. A touch inside his marker, and the ball was adeptly dispatched low past McGee. There was a lovely little celebratory dance with Kurt Zouma.

I turned to PD : “there will be no Bradford City today.”

We kept pressing at every opportunity. However, I had to admire how everyone chased and harried once the opponents threatened. I lost count of the number of times that Pedro ran at pace at defenders one minute, but was then seen deep in our own penalty area clearing an attack, or making a timely tackle. If it had been Willian’s first-half, it was surely Pedro’s second. There was one run which I captured on film – click, click, click – which featured a ridiculous high-speed step-over. I almost fell over just watching it. He is surely having one of the best seasons.

Ola Aina – perhaps unlucky not to start – replaced Gary Cahill on the hour.

A rare Peterborough break then caught John Terry unawares. Angol pushed the ball past him, and Terry lunged. It looked awfully messy, but my immediate thought was that, although a red card was possible, Ivanovic was covering. The roar from the away fans put paid to that notion.

A red card for John.

In a reshuffle, Dave replaced Loftus-Cheek, who had been steady rather than spectacular. Of the other youngsters, Zouma looked a little rusty. Batshuayi held the ball up well and a goal for him will boost his confidence. Chalobah was fine.

Against the run of play, Peterborough worked the ball down our left-flank and a low cross was turned past Begovic by Nicholls.

A slight Bradfordesque tremor? Not really. Conte played a strong card from the bench, replacing the excellent Willian by the redoubtable N’Golo Kante. Aina pushed the ball up to Batshuayi, who set up the waiting Pedro. The man of the match quickly slotted the ball home, low past McGee.

Chelsea 4 Peterborough United 1.

We still kept going, searching for more goals. There is no mercy rule in English football, and why should there be? Goals breed confidence, and despite no more ensuing goals, there was certainly a feel-good atmosphere bouncing around Stamford Bridge at the final whistle.

On Saturday evening, it’s back to the league campaign with an away trip to Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City.

Just champion.

img_1614

Tales From Our Rejuvenation

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 23 October 2016.

We all remember where we were when we heard that Matthew Harding had died. For a generation of Chelsea supporters, it is our Kennedy moment.

On the morning of Wednesday 23 October 1996, I was at work in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, in a factory’s quality assurance office. I had not been present at the previous evening’s League Cup tie at Bolton, where we had lost 2-1. I tended to mainly go to just home games in those days. In fact, another sport was occupying my mind during that week as I was in the midst of watching my New York Yankees playing in a World Series for the first time since 1981. I had listened to the League Cup game on the radio before catching a few hours’ sleep before waking at around 1am to watch Game Three from Atlanta. The Yankees won that night, and after the game had ended at around 4am, I squeezed in a few more hours of sleep before waking at 6am for a 7am start at work. While setting off for work that morning, I briefly heard a mention about a helicopter crash involving Chelsea fans returning from Bolton. It was possibly just a rumour at that stage. With me being rather sleep deficient, I possibly wasn’t giving it the gravity that it deserved.

At around 8am, the news broke that Matthew Harding had been aboard the helicopter, and that he had been killed, along with the fellow passengers. I was full of sudden and overwhelming grief. I had been so impressed with Matthew since he had arrived on the scene at Chelsea in around 1993, and saw him as “one of us.” I remember I had seen him on a Sunday morning politics programme just a few weeks before, lending his support to the New Labour campaign. He seemed to be perfect for Chelsea’s new vision; young and enthusiastic, one of the people, but with a few bob to spare for our beloved club. It almost seemed too good to be true.

Soon after I heard the news, I received a phone-call on the office phone from a friend and journalist, who lived locally in Chippenham, and who had – with Matthew’s assistance – written a book about Chelsea’s 1994 FA Cup Final appearance and consequent European campaign the following season (“Blue Is The Colour” by Khadija Buckland). Within seconds, we were both in tears. My fellow co-workers, I think, were shocked to see such emotion. Khadija had only spoken to Matthew on the phone on the Monday. My head was in a spin. I was just devastated.

I had briefly met Matthew on one or two occasions, but I felt the loss so badly. I remember shaking him by the hand in The Gunter Arms in 1994, the night of the Viktoria Zizkov home game. My friend Glenn and myself watched from the Lower Tier of the East Stand that game, and I remember turning around, catching his eye in the Directors’ Box, and him giving me a thumbs up. His face was a picture of bubbly excitement. I am pretty sure that I met him, again briefly, underneath the East Stand, after a game with Bolton in 1995, when he appeared with Khadija, and we quickly shook hands before going our separate ways. In those days, both Glenn and myself would take Khadija up to Stamford Bridge where she would sell copies of her book in the corporate areas of the East Stand.

We all remember, too, the outpouring of emotion that followed on the Saturday, when Stamford Bridge was cloaked in sadness as we brought bouquets, and drank pints of Guinness in memory of Matthew, before a marvellously observed minute of silence took place before our game with Tottenham. The Spurs fans were magnificent that day. We won 3-1, and the victory seemed inevitable. It had been the most emotional game of football that I had ever witnessed. Later that Saturday night – in fact in the small hours of Sunday morning – I watched as the Yankees came from 2-0 down to win the World Series 4-2. At the end of that sporting day / night doubleheader, I was an emotional wreck. It had been a tough week, for sure. Sadness and joy all tumbling around together. Later, my mother sent a letter of condolence to Matthew’s widow Ruth, and I have a feeling that she replied.

I remember how happy a few friends and I were to see Ruth Harding in a Stockholm park ahead of our ECWC Final with Stuttgart in 1998.

Matthew would have loved Stockholm. He would have the triumphs that he sorely missed over the past twenty years. He would have loved Munich.

As our game with Manchester United, and the return of you-know-who, became closer and closer, I thought more and more about Matthew. And I was enthralled that the club would be honouring him with a specially crafted banner which would be presented to the world from the stand which bears his name.

Tickets were like gold dust for this one.

It promised to be a potentially epic occasion.

I had missed a couple of our most recent games – both the matches against Leicester City – and nobody was happier than myself to be heading to Stamford Bridge once again.

We set off early. In the Chuckle Bus – Glenn driving, allowing me to have a few beers – there was caution rather than confidence. Despite the fine performance against Leicester last weekend, Mourinho’s United would surely be a tough nut to crack. I am sure that I was not alone when I predicted a 0-0 draw.

“Just don’t want to lose to them.”

Once at Chelsea, we splintered in to two groups. PD, his son Scott and Parky shot off to The Goose, while Glenn and myself headed down to the stadium. I met up with good friends Andy, John and Janset from California, and Brad and Sean from New York, over for the game, and trying to combat jetlag with alcohol and football.

It was a splendid pre-match and the highlights were personalised book signings from both Bobby Tambling and Kerry Dixon. Glenn was able to have quite a chat with Colin Pates, and it is always one of the great joys of match days at Chelsea that our former players are so willing to spend time with us ordinary fans. It really did feel that we were all in this together, “Matthew Harding’s Blue And White Army” for sure. Into a packed “Chelsea Pensioner” (now taking over from “The Imperial” as the place to go for pre-game and post-game music) for a beer and then along to “The Malthouse” for a couple more. We chatted to former player Robert Isaac – a season ticket-holder like the rest of us – once more and shared a few laughs.

A couple of lads recognised Glenn and myself from “that night in Munich” and it was bloody superb to meet up again and to share memories of that incredible day in our lives. We had all caught the last train from the Allianz Arena at around midnight, and we were crammed together as the train made its painfully slow journey into the centre of Munich. They were Chelsea fans – ex-pats – now living in The Netherlands, and it was great for our lives to cross again after more than four years.

With a few pints inside me, I was floating on air as I walked towards The Bridge.

The match programme had a retro-1996 season cover, with Matthew featured prominently. The half-and-half scarves were out in force, and I aimed a barb at a dopey tourist as I made my way through to the turnstiles.

The team had been announced, by then, and Antonio Conte had kept faith with the same team that had swept past Leicester City.

So far this season, our usual 4-2-3-1 has morphed into 4-2-4 when required, but here was a relatively alien formation for these shores; a 3-4-3.

Conte was changing things quicker than I had expected.

Thankfully I was inside Stamford Bridge, in the Matthew Harding, with plenty of time to spare. The United fans had their usual assortment of red, white and black flags. There was a plain red square, hanging on the balcony wall, adorned with Jose Mourinho’s face. It still didn’t seem right, but Jose Mourinho was not on my mind as kick-off approached.

The stadium filled. There was little pre-match singing of yesteryear. We waited.

The balcony of the Matthew Harding had been stripped of all other banners, apart from two in the middle.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

I noted the phrase “Matthew Harding – One Of Our Own” stencilled on the balcony wall too. That was a nice touch; I hope it stays.

Of course, should the new Stamford Bridge come to fruition, the actual stand will be razed to the ground, but surely the club will keep its name in place.

Without any fuss, a large light blue banner appeared at the eastern edge of the Matthew Harding Lower. It was stretched high over the heads of the spectators and slowly made its way westwards.

It depicted that famous image of Matthew leaping to his feet at a pre-season game in the summer of 1996.

MATTHEW HARDING

ALWAYS LOVED

NEVER FORGOTTEN

There was no minute’s silence, nor applause, the moment soon passed, but it suited the occasion very well. There was no need for excessive mawkishness much beloved by a certain other club. Matthew would have hated that.

The teams appeared, but my pals in the Sleepy Hollow did not; they were still outside as the game began. To be fair, I was still settling myself down for the game ahead – checking camera, checking phone, checking texts – as a ball was pumped forward. It fell in the middle of an equilateral triangle comprising of Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling and David De Gea. Confusion overcame the three United players. In nipped the raiding Pedro, who touched the ball square and then swept it in to an open goal, the game just thirty seconds in.

The crowd, needless to say, fucking erupted.

The players raced over to our corner and wild delirium ensued. It was like a mosh pit.

Shades of Roberto di Matteo in the Matthew Harding Final of 1997? You bet.

This was a dream start.

Alan, PD and Scott appeared a few moments later. There were smiles all round.

I was so pleased to see us a goal up that the next few minutes were a bit of a blur. The crowd soon got going.

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

Luiz jumped with Ibrahimovic and the ball sailed over Thibaut Courtois’ bar.

Eden Hazard – his ailments of last autumn a distant memory – drove one past the United post. So much for a dour and defensive battle of attrition that myself and many others had predicted.

After around ten minutes, it dawned on me that I had not once peered over to see what Jose Mourinho was doing. Apart from taking a few photographs of the two managers, the men in black, on the touchline with my camera, I did not gaze towards Mourinho once the entire match.

This was not planned. This was just the way it was.

I loved him the first-time round, but grew tired of his histrionics towards the end of his both spells with us. When he talks these days, the Mourinho snarl is often not far away; that turned-up corner of his lip a sign of contempt.

My own thought is that he always wanted the United job.

Conte is my manager now.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

Twenty minutes in, a little more Chelsea pressure forced a corner. Hazard centered, and the ball took a couple of timely touches from United limbs before sitting up nicely for stand-in captain Gary Cahill to swipe home.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Two bloody nil, smelling salts please nurse.

Gary ran over to our corner and was again swamped with team mates.

United had the occasional chance at The Shed End, but our often criticised ‘keeper was in fine form.

A swivel and a shot from Diego Costa was blocked by a defender.

At the half-time whistle, all was well in the Matthew Harding.

Neil Barnett introduced Matthew’s three children to the crowd, along with former legend Dan Petrescu. We clapped them all as they walked around the Stamford Bridge pitch. The travelling Manchester United support duly joined in with the applause and this was a fine gesture. Of course, such disasters have united both clubs over the years.

Like Tottenham in 1996, respect to them.

As the second-half began, Alan and PD were showing typical Chelsea paranoia.

“Get a third and then we can relax.”

Although I was outwardly smiling – we were well on top – I agreed.

Juan Mata joined the fray at the break, replacing Fellatio, who had clearly sucked in the first-half.

Soon into the half, the little Spaniard came over to take a corner down below us and we rewarded him with a lovely round of applause. I still respect him as a person and player. He will always be one of us.

The second-half began with a few half-chances for Chelsea, and a few trademark Courtois saves thwarting United. Just past the hour, a lovely pass from the revitalised Nemanja Matic played in Eden Hazard. He dropped his shoulder, gave himself half a yard and curled a low shot just beyond, or below, the late dive of De Gea.

Three-nil, oh my bloody goodness.

Thoughts now of the 5-0 romp in 1999 when even Chris Bloody Sutton scored.

It was time to relax, now, and enjoy the moment. Every time Courtois and Ibrahimovic went up together for a cross, I had visions of their noses clashing in a football version of the rutting of stags, bone against bone.

We continued to dominate.

Ten minutes later, we watched with smiles on our faces as N’Golo Kante found himself inside the box with the ball at his feet. He sold a superb dummy with an audacious body swerve and cut a low shot past the United ‘keeper to make it four.

Chelsea 4 Manchester United 0.

Conte, who must have been boiling over with emotion, replaced Pedro with Chalobah, Diego Costa with Batshuayi and Hazard with Willian.

Willian, after losing his mother, was rewarded with his own personal song.

The noise was great at times, but – if I am honest – not as deafening as other demolition jobs of recent memory.

Courtois saved well from Ibrahimovic, but the game was over.

“Superb boys – see you Wednesday.”

There was a lovely feeling of euphoria as we bounced away down the Fulham Road.

There was a commotion over by the CFCUK stall, and we spotted Kerry Dixon, being mobbed by one and all. The excitement was there for all to feel.

“One Kerry Dixon.”

Back at the car, we had time to quickly reflect on what we had seen.

“It’s hard to believe that Arsenal, when we were dire, was just four weeks away.”

Sure enough, we were awful on that bleak afternoon in North London. I am almost lost for words to describe how the manager has managed to put in a new system, instil a fantastic work ethic, and revitalise so many players. It’s nothing short of a miracle really. Antonio Conte has only been in charge of nine league games, but he has seemingly allowed us to move from a crumbling system to a new and progressive one in just three games.

What a sense of rejuvenation – from the man who once headed the Juve Nation – we have witnessed in recent games. The three at the back works a treat. Luiz looks a much better defender than ever before. Cahill is a new man. Dave is as steady as ever. Courtois has improved. On the flanks, Alonso has fitted in well, but Moses has been magnificent. Matic is back to his best. Kante is the buy of the season. Hazard is firing on all cylinders. Pedro and Willian are able players. Diego is looking dangerous again. It’s quite amazing. And the manager seems happy to blood the youngsters.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

A fantastic result to honour a fantastic man.

The five teams at the top of the division are now separated by just one point.

All of a sudden, there is confidence and enjoyment pulsating through our club.

Matthew would certainly approve.

img_9976

Tales From A Night Of Hurt

Chelsea vs. Paris St. Germain : 9 March 2016.

IMG_6380 (2)

The second goal killed us. As soon as that ball was played through our defensive line out to Angel Di Maria, cutting us wide open, I had feared the worst. Sure enough, Di Maria’s low cross in to the box was touched home by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and our hopes were extinguished. The sight of the tall Swedish talisman reeling away, arms outstretched, towards the Chelsea fans in The Shed will haunt me for a while. It meant that we now had to win 4-2 to progress. It was an impossible task.

Most Chelsea fans remained silent, hurting inside, and as I looked over at a few PSG players celebrating in front of their contingent, I was hurting too.

However, within seconds of us conceding that killer goal, I spotted one middle-aged gentleman (and when I say middle-aged, let me confirm that this just means “older than me”), who immediately stood up, pulled a rather sour face, “tut-tutted” to his neighbours and headed for the exits.

Perhaps he had just that moment heard that his granddaughter was about to go in to labour and needed to shoot off to take care of his family’s needs. Perhaps he needed to set off at 9.10pm in order to catch the last train back to his home in Preston which left Euston at 10.15pm. Maybe he had felt a twinge of sciatica, that bloody sciatica, and couldn’t face being jostled in the melee for the tube at the end of the game, so needed to leave with time to spare. Maybe he needed to leave at that time in order to get back to his place of work in Croydon in time for the nightshift.

Maybe there were valid reasons for his sudden disappearance into the night.

Or maybe, just maybe, he was a twat.

For even though we had just conceded a goal which had almost certainly sealed our fate against Paris St. Germain, almost a year to the day to our exit in 2015 against the same opposition, there is surely no valid reason for deserting Chelsea Football Club with a full half an hour remaining. What sort of support is that? It made me despair. OK, it was hugely unlikely that we would score three times in the remaining portion of the game, but as fans we needed to stay and watch the match, and be there until the end. We were on TV. Millions would be watching in the UK and elsewhere. What sort of message would it send out if thousands of fans reacted in the same way as him? Seeing this chap leave so early made me question just what sort of Herberts our club attracts these days.

Alongside Alan and myself was my good friend JR, from Detroit, who had flown over on Tuesday and was leaving early on Thursday. His stay in London would equate to around just forty-six hours. Although he had shoe-horned a little trip down to a wet Craven Cottage on Tuesday for the Fulham vs. Burnley game, make no mistake that he was, as the song goes “here for the Chelsea.” Through a little luck which landed in our laps, I had managed to shift tickets around so that he could watch alongside us in the Matthew Harding Upper. As the weeks and then days had evaporated before us, JR’s excitement about watching a Champions League game at Stamford Bridge for the very first time was a joy to witness. He was last over for that fine week of football in 2011 which saw us defeat West Ham United and Tottenham – Torres’ first goal in the puddles and a late Kalou winner – and we have been the best of friends ever since.

Parky and myself had strolled in to The Goose just after 6pm, and it was a joy to see him once more. I had spent a lot of time with JR on the summer tour, especially driving up from Charlotte to DC one memorable Sunday, but Parky had not seen him since 2011. There was a fun pre-match in the pub, though talk of the game was limited. I introduced JR to a few of my Chelsea pals. Everyone was full of praise of his support.

“You’re over for just two days? Bloody hell.”

The San Miguels and the Peronis were hitting the spot.

We headed off early, in order for JR to experience the uniquness of a typical Champions League night in SW6. There was the usual buzz of excitement. We chatted excitedly on the walk down to The Bridge. Unfortunately, Mark Worrall must have just left the “CFCUK” stall; maybe next time. Back in 2011, I remember that I had photographed JR as he turned into the approach to Stamford Bridge – “captured for posterity” – as he set eyes on the stadium for the very first time. Almost five years later, we were walking the same steps.

Inside The Bridge, JR chatted with a few more friends. There were a few photographs. The kick-off was approaching.

Paris had a full three-thousand fans, split one third in the top corner, and two-thirds in the lower tier. They were, pre-match, rather quiet. There were scarves on show, individual flags, but no banners.

It was a relatively mild evening.

The team news was met with approval.

Courtois – Dave, Gary, Brana, Kenedy – Mikel, Fabregas – Willian, Hazard, Pedro – Diego Costa.

“Park Life” by Blur got the crowd singing along. The individual blue flags, mocked by the Scousers, were waved enthusiastically. Then, surprisingly, for the first time for a Champions League game at Chelsea, the lights were dimmed, and that electronic heartbeat boomed out.

BOOM BOOM

BOOM BOOM

BOOM BOOM

BOOM BOOM

What a dramatic sight.

A flag was hoisted in the Shed Upper; a strikingly simple silhouette of our trophy from May 2012.

I am sure that JR was on edge.

Champions League, under the lights, perfect.

And yet.

Among many thousands of other football supporters in the UK, I was saddened to hear of the clandestine meeting which took place recently involving representatives of a few of England’s top clubs with an apparent view to “improve” the current Champions League format. For anyone who knows me, and who gets bored with my dislike for certain aspects of modern football, I suggest you look away now. Although we can’t be sure, exactly, what was discussed in the meeting, two strong rumours soon circulated.

The first involved the guaranteed presence of a number of the largest clubs in Europe of a place each year and every year, regardless of performance the previous season. This makes me heave. It takes away the very essence of what makes European club football the envy of the entire world; that any team, given correct management and stewardship, can rise to the top if they get it right on the pitch. The thought of the same old bloated clubs – we know which ones – showing up every single season in the Champions League, and getting richer, through self-basting, makes me despair. I do not have the words which adequately describe the loathing that I have for Charlie Stillitano’s smug and despicable comment about “the Champions League not needing the likes of Leicester City” and nor should I need to.

Those who read my thoughts in these match reports surely know how I would react to this.

Of course all of this talk of a restructuring of the Champions League is ironic to me at least, since it was the rumours of the “Big 8” – or whatever it was – forming a European Super League in around 1992 that coerced UEFA to form the current Champions League format, expanded from the much loved and missed European Cup straight knock-out format. The current format, involving more games, and more of a chance of the richest clubs to progress every year, was intended to satiate the desires of the likes of Real Madrid, Milan, Bayern Munich, Manchester United et al.

And yet, it would seem, they are still not happy.

Additionally, Stillitano’s naïve desire to compare the world football model – organic clubs rising and falling, relegation and promotion – to the closed shop nature of his own US system does not wash with me.

What is more beautiful than a Leicester City, a Parma, a Wolfsburg, a Dundee United, and a St. Etienne, climbing up and competing at the very highest of European competition?

That a representative of my club – step forward the loathed Bruce Buck – was at these meetings does not surprise me.

These fuckers know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

The second rumour – possibly even more heinous – of qualifying games taking place in the US (what a surprise Mr. Stillitano) would be the last straw for me.

Although it would tear me apart, I would walk away.

Frome Town would be my team, and I’d probably visit a few European cities and ground hop for a while. I was only recently looking at the city of Budapest and day-dreaming about watching games in that lovely Hungarian city on an extended break. Ferencvaros, Honved and MTK do not need the likes of Charlie Stillitano.

Straight after the Champions League anthem “The Liquidator” boomed around the stadium. The blue flags waved again. The atmosphere was rising.

“The crowd is in fine form” I said to JR.

The match began, and we were immediately wired in to every pass, every kick, every tackle. I could not resist focussing on the wildchild Ibrahimovic, or the wildness of the former idol David Luiz.

I thought we began reasonably well, but then failed to stop the impressive talents of PSG gain momentum. For a while, they dolloped balls into space and at the feet of their attacking players and we were nowhere. Ibrahimovic bundled the ball past Thibaut Courtois, but the German referee had spotted a flag for offside.

Phew.

Then, calamity. PSG pushed the ball out to Ibrahimovic, who had lost his marker Gary Cahill with consummate ease. It was, undoubtedly, a shock to see Cahill all at sea after an impressive run of form. From a wide position, a low cross found Rabiot, who found the net with ease.

We were 3-1 down on aggregate and needed to score twice to draw level – penalties, maybe – or three times to win on aggregate. Harking back to our friendly with PSG in Charlotte in the summer, I joked with JR :

“9-9 on penalties tonight, Thibaut to score the winner.”

Then, thankfully, Chelsea got back in to the game. Diego Costa was the main spark but Pedro made some intelligent runs, and Kenedy really impressed. Willian’s energy was good to see, but elsewhere Fabregas and Hazard struggled to make a difference. Mikel did what Mikel does. Collectively, we were improving.

Just before the half hour mark, the ball was won, and played forward to Diego Costa, who twisted and turned past his marker with a fantastic move of body and mind. He quickly dispatched the ball, with his weaker left foot, past Trapp in the PSG goal.

The Bridge boomed, and I felt JR shudder next to me.

We were back in it for fuck sake.

The noise increased and this was just wild blue heaven.

We played with a better tempo, and with more desire, and in my mind we bossed the last portion of the half. But how we yearned for a second goal. PSG were playing hardball though, and we were livid with some of the tackles going unpunished. The PSG fans were very quiet; surprisingly so. Their level of noise was simply not on the same scale as many other European visitors. We had a few chances – Fabregas, Costa – but a second goal did not materialise. PSG still looked comfortable on the ball, of course, but there were positive signs.

As we edged towards the break, my huge fear was that the momentum that we had built up over the preceding twenty minutes or so would now dissipate into the London air as half-time was reached.

In the second-half, there was an immediate flurry of activity down below us as we stormed the PSG box. In one crazy period of play, shots were blocked by limbs and torsos, and we were left breathless.

Just one goal would set us up for one of the great European comebacks.

Just one goal.

The play eased a little, and we sadly watched as Diego Costa, in discomfort, was forced to leave. Without him – he had been excellent at times – I wondered where on earth a goal would come from. I think everyone else thought the same. Bertrand Traore replaced him.

I thought back on the 1997/1998 European campaign when our strike force consisted of Mark Hughes, Gianfranco Zola, Gianluca Vialli and Tore Andre Flo.

In 2016, our main striker is augmented by Loic Remy and the youngster Traore. Falcao and Pato are not mentioned for obvious reasons. What a mess.

Eden Hazard, obviously injured, showed a little more desire and promise.

“Still half an hour JR, we can still do it. Two more goals, then extra time.”

Sadly, that ball out to Di Maria on sixty-seven minutes put an end to our hopes.

For the last twenty minutes or so, thankfully most spectators stayed to watch, but the war had been won, and there was no fight from players and fans alike. The play deteriorated. We were a pale shadow of the team that had ended the first-half so strongly. Throughout the game, Fabregas and Hazard were poor. For all of Pedro’s scurrying around, very rarely does he create anything. Even Willian was poor. The only bright spot for me was the performance of Kenedy in the first-half. Where Baba is nervous and reticent, Kenedy exudes confidence and spirit. We need to persevere with him.

It was not to be.

We lacked desire, sustained over ninety minutes, and our ailments of autumn came back to haunt us again. The hunger of previous Champions League campaigns – oh for a Terry, a Drogba, a Cole, a Lampard – was missing.

It hurt.

If our plans to relocate and rebuild are met with approval, this may well have been the current Stamford Bridge’s last ever Champions League night.

As we walked out on to the Fulham Road, I told JR to take one last look at it.

With a young baby on the way in the summer, it might be a while before JR returns. His next visit might witness a completely new stadium.

Parky, JR, and two of JR’s UK-based mates, the brothers Dan and Matt, met up with me back at “The Goose” for a pint and a reflection on what might have been. We ended up next-door for some pizza. It reminded me of the quiet and reflective post-mortem that we had over a curry after the loss to Inter in 2010, when we were again joined by visitors from the US.

It was approaching midnight as we said our farewells.

JR – of course – had loved the experience of his first ever Champions League night at Stamford Bridge.

“Safe travels mate, see you soon.”

On the drive home, I was pragmatic. Over the two legs, we were not good enough.

We don’t lose many games at home in European competitions. It used to be a proud boast that, until Lazio in 2000, we had never lost one. Now, sadly, this defeat at the hands of PSG meant that we had now lost eight in our history.

Lazio 2000.

Besiktas 2003.

Barcelona 2006.

Internazionale 2010.

Manchester United 2011.

Basel 2013.

Atletico Madrid 2014.

Paris St. Germain 2015.

I’ve seen them all, and it hurts each time. There were also two draws, against Monaco in 2004 and Barcelona in 2009, which felt like defeats since we went out on away goals on those nights. And there was also the game against Real Zaragoza in 1995, which we won 3-1, but was not celebrated since we had lost the first-leg 3-0. Regardless, a European defeat at Stamford Bridge always feels so damning, so final. It feels especially hurtful in the first knock-out round, after a little break, before we can get a head of steam and push on.

However, Europe in general, has treated us well, despite the seemingly endless procession of bad luck from 2005 to 2009.

We have, after all, won all of the three major trophies.

And I have been blessed enough to have seen eighty-five European games at Stamford Bridge now, and my / our record is an impressive 56-21-8. Of course, I shouldn’t be too picky, but each of those eight defeats leave a memory which haunts.

But our European campaign in 2015/2016 is now over. We know that our final game of the season will either be at home to Leicester City on Sunday 15 May or at Wembley for the F.A. Cup Final on Saturday 21 May. On Saturday, we head up to Goodison Park to try to prolong this very odd season for one more week.

After all, what is the month of May without a Cup Final?

IMG_6316

Tales From 1905 To 2016

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 7 February 2016.

I love a good list. If it is football-related, even better.

A week or so ago, I stumbled across a little gem which I had originally seen a year or so ago. It was a complete list of the teams with the highest average home attendances, year on year, since the Football League’s inaugural season of 1888/1889 to the current day. The timing was impeccable; it came just in time for the visit of Manchester United. The Red Devils, in my lifetime, have topped the list of highest home attendances in what seems like nearly every season. They have dominated, much to the chagrin of their closest rivals. And yet I knew full well that Chelsea, especially in our early years, drew phenomenally large crowds at Stamford Bridge. I have touched on my desire to debunk the myth about Chelsea being a “small club with money” on a few occasions before and so it was with great relish that I studied this list once more.

Of course, there is a famous line about “lies, damned lies and statistics” but this particular statistical nugget provided a really intriguing insight into the growth of football, and football fandom, over a span of one hundred and fifteen seasons – of which I have attended games in forty-three of them – and helped to illustrate how certain clubs dominated certain eras.

Let’s start at the beginning.

For the first ten seasons, from 1888/1889 to 1897/1898, one club dominated the attendance record. That club was Everton, who finished with the highest average gate in every single one of those seasons, despite being league champions just once. During the very first season, the average attendance in the top division was 4,639, and Everton’s average was 7,260. By 1887/1898, the average had grown to 9,558, while Everton’s had swollen to a weighty 17,390.

Next up were Aston Villa, taking over Everton’s mantle as top drawers, with six straight seasons of league-leading averages. In 1898/1899, Villa’s average was a sizeable 23,045. In the league’s first twelve seasons, Villa were the first real powerhouse force, claiming the league five times. The early years of professional football in the late nineteenth century were dominated by teams from the Midlands and the North. For many years, the Football League did not consist of a single southern team.

Taking over from Aston Villa were Newcastle United, with three straight seasons of leading the league in average home gates, which mirrored three championships for the Geordies in the first decade of the twentieth century. The average on Tyneside in 1906/1907 of 33,235 dwarfed the top flight average of 15,526. Interestingly, my grandfather – the cricketer and footballer, from whom I think I received my sporting genes – was a young boy at around this time, and perhaps it is no wonder that, although he was not a fervent fan, if ever pressed, he always said that he used to follow the results of Aston Villa as a young lad, and also – to a lesser extent – Newcastle United, as he became a young man.

In to this new sport, with clubs jousting for attention, came Chelsea Football Club.

Chelsea, formed in 1905, were able to take part in the Second Division during 1905/1906. In that inaugural season, our home average was 13,370, compared to the divisional average of 13,429. That seems a reasonable start, yet this only tells half of the story. Most attendances at Stamford Bridge were around 8,000 to 10,000. But there were 25,000 present for the visit of Bristol City, who would end up as Second Division Champions, and 30,000 for the game against Glossop on Easter Bank Holiday Monday.

However, this is where the story comes alive.

The Chelsea vs. Manchester United game on Good Friday 1906 was watched by a staggering 67,000.

I have always been astounded by the size of this gate. It seemed to come, unannounced, out of nowhere. I have no evidence to back it up, but I’d suggest it created a new league attendance record at the time. It would be Stamford Bridge’s first colossal crowd. One can only imagine the frenzied activity around the pubs and saloons on the Fulham Road and the melee at each of the busy turnstiles as such a number of spectators feverishly entered the stadium, ascended the steps, and then saw the vastness of the Stamford Bridge arena from the top of the terracing. Both Chelsea and Manchester United were excelling towards the top of the table, and I can only imagine that the Easter crowd were drawn to watch two promotion hopefuls going toe to toe. I hope they all witnessed a fine game. It ended 1-1. However, Chelsea would not win any of our remaining five games in 1905/1906, finishing nine points away from Manchester United, who were promoted alongside Bristol City.

Of course, in those days, virtually all of the spectators would have lived in London and the Home Counties, travelling in by train, tram and charabanc. Unlike in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies – and later – there would have been no sizeable United following at Stamford Bridge. The mere thought of all of those people, all those lives touched by the sport of football, the enormity of it all makes me lose myself in thought. For many, perhaps, it would be their first ever football match. I wonder what they thought of it all. It must have been an amazingly potent and visceral experience. The sense of occasion, the colour, the cigarette smoke, the ribald laughter, the cheers from the crowd, the players.

67,000 in our very first season; what a start for the young pretenders.

Chelsea had made their mark.

Is this the end of this trip down memory lane? Not a bit of it.

It gets better.

In season 1907/1908, Chelsea were the team with the highest home league attendance with a hefty 31,965, almost double the First Division average of 16,809. It was our first season in the top flight. The young pretenders, despite finishing in an unremarkable thirteenth place, were setting the football world alight. By comparison, Arsenal were one place behind us, but their home average was a lowly 13,765.

In fact, from 1907/1908 to 1925/1926 – fifteen seasons, allowing for the hiatus enforced by World War One – Chelsea finished top of the averages on nine occasions. It would be our high water mark in terms of attendances. In 1919/1920, we finished third in the First Division but we topped the attendances with an average of 42,615, which – at the time – was an all-time record across all clubs. It was a heady time to be at Stamford Bridge, despite silverware eluding us. A particularly impressive season was 1925/1926 when we recorded a league leading high of 32,355 despite playing in the Second Division.

So, take a moment and suck all of that information in.

Chelsea were always a small club with poor gates? Not true.

In later years, other clubs’ periods of dominance were reflected in high average attendances. In the ‘thirties, Arsenal ruled, with nine consecutive seasons ahead of the pack with an impressive high of 46,252 in 1934/1935. Newcastle United – again – and then Tottenham Hotspur dominated in the immediate years after World War Two. Chelsea’s last season of topping the attendance chart was our Championship year of 1954/1955 with 48,260.

Interestingly, Manchester United did not register the league’s highest average until as late as season 1956/1957. The year after, of course, the supreme sadness of the Munich air disaster galvanized an entire nation and Manchester United have dominated attendances ever since. In the past fifty-nine seasons, they have finished with the highest home attendance some forty-eight times. Since 1966/1967, their dominance is especially marked; only five Liverpool seasons have interrupted their procession. For the past twenty-two straight seasons, United have finished in first place.

For as long as I can remember, they have always pulled the crowds.

My first Chelsea game was in 1974, yet it took me ten years until I saw those famous red shirts of United at Stamford Bridge for the very first time.  A grainy photograph from the West Stand benches takes me back.

On that occasion, just after Christmas 1984, the gate was 42,197 and we sadly lost 1-3. Alongside me on that day were Alan and Glenn, and we would be watching together some thirty-two years later. In those days of course, the open north terrace housed up to eight thousand away fans and United certainly brought thousands.

However, it was a black day for me; seeing United for the first time, yet losing.

Before I close this walk through the turnstiles of the past, here is a summary of teams that have finished with the highest average home attendance each season.

Manchester United – 48 times.

Everton – 13 times.

Arsenal – 12 times.

Newcastle United – 11 times.

Chelsea – 10 times.

Aston Villa – 7 times.

Liverpool – 7 times.

Tottenham Hotspur – 6 times.

Manchester City – 3 times.

For those with an interest in all of this, here is a link to the website.

http://www.european-football-statistics.co.uk/attn/nav/attnengleague.htm

…from 1905/1906, I need to bring all of this up to date.

The weekend drew near, but although the lure of another Chelsea vs. Manchester United game – my thirty-fourth at Stamford Bridge – was exciting enough, the chance to meet up with my mates again was even more important. After three away games in north London and to the north of London, it would be good to be back home again in deepest SW6.

On the Saturday before the game, which marked the fifty-eighth anniversary of the previously-mentioned Munich air disaster, I was pleased to see so many of my fellow Chelsea supporters being respectful on “Facebook” with quite a few posting kind words and pictures in remembrance of those that were killed so many years ago. It really warmed me. It contradicted the still widely-held view that a lot of football followers are mindless hooligans.

This fact was touched upon during an hour or so spent at “The Bottlery”, near Earl’s Court, where I shared a couple of pints with Glenn and Dave. Glenn had volunteered to drive us up to Chelsea, and so this allowed me a few pints for a change. Dave was over from France, and was following up Wednesday’s evening of fun – cough – in Watford with a home game. Parky and P Diddy had diverted off to “The Goose” where they were launching into a gallon of cider apiece. So, on a perfect Sunday, Dave, Glenn and myself supped some beers, had a bite to eat, and talked about a few topics close to our heart. We spoke about Leicester City’s amazing season. It seems everyone wants them to win it. We touched on the protest among Liverpool fans at their game at the weekend. If pushed, I would walk out from a Chelsea game too, if all other avenues of discourse were blocked. We spoke of the away game in Paris. Dave is going, though is honestly not convinced that he knows why. We spoke about Hillsborough. The horror still haunts. We spoke about standing areas. Celtic will be a test case. We spoke about the redevelopment of Stamford Bridge. We were optimistic. We spoke about an exile at Wembley. We were pessimistic. We spoke about all sorts.

Intelligent football talk? If only the people who still think that we are knuckle-dragging oafs could have heard us.

We were having a lovely time.

We then sped over to a local pub, “The Pembroke”, where two visitors from California were waiting. Alex and Annissa were in town for a few days, and I had arranged to spend a bit of time with them before they watched their first ever Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge. They just wanted to experience an authentic pre-match with some of us regulars. The two of them watch most of our games at the famous “Olde Ship” in Santa Ana, California, and were full of giddy excitement at the thought of seeing Chelsea, and no doubt Manchester United. It certainly was a great game, on paper, for a Stamford Bridge debut. In an email exchange, I had written, tongue in cheek:

“See you in the pub. We’ll be the ones not wearing Chelsea shirts.”

We ordered some beers, and the chat accelerated away. They were so happy to be able to meet some old-school supporters.

After a few moments of getting to know each other, Annissa whispered to me “so why don’t you wear Chelsea shirts?”

“Oh gosh. How long have you got?”

We then gave the two visitors a crash course in a few Chelsea fundamentals. We spoke about how I first met Glenn at school in 1977 and on The Shed in 1983, and how I first met Dave in Los Angeles in 2007. We chatted about our usual routines on match day, the Chelsea pubs, which are sadly closing one by one. The days of ska at “The Imperial”. How skinheads and boots gave way to Adidas trainers and Lacoste polo shirts in the days of our youth. Talk of Gus Mears and Brompton Cemetery. The fact that Stamford Bridge, unable to be expanded in 2011, is now looking to expand by 18,000. The Banter. Pints. Memories of Munich. The three of us were taking the piss out of each other and everyone else. The two Californians were lapping it up.

In “The Goose” Arsenal were on the TV, but nobody was watching. With so many nearby pubs closing, the pub gets busier and busier with each passing game. Annissa and Alex purchased the iconic “Chelsea and Proud” pensioner pin badge. Their smiles were wide. I could tell they were loving it.

In among the laughter, there was a moment of farce.

My friend Alan had written to the club and had asked that an obituary for dear Tom be placed in a match programme. Alan had texted me on Friday to say that there would be a short piece, written by Alan, plus a photo of Tom, in the Manchester United programme on the Sunday. The photo chosen was a rather nice one, featuring Tom at the front, with Alan, Glenn and myself, behind.

Imagine our displeasure when we heard that the imbeciles at Chelsea had cropped Tom from the photograph completely, leaving just a head shot of Alan to accompany the obituary. I was fuming. Alan, after his initial exasperation, was still annoyed, but was sure that Tom would be finding the funny side of it.

What a bloody farce.

After a while, a few texts started coming in from those friends who had already purchased a match programme.

“Bloody hell, Alan, you looked fine at Watford.”

Annissa and Alex left early to catch the pre-game stuff. They had seats in the MHL, down below Alan, Glenn, P Diddy and myself, all seated together. To be honest, there had hardly been much time to pay attention to the team. Suffice to say, Guus Hiddink went with the same team that began against Watford; no place, again, for Eden Hazard.

I had predicted 0-0 for the game at Old Trafford in December. My prediction for the return game was the same.

The United fans, the men in black, were already singing by the time I reached my seat. They had brought a few more flags than usual. One with the Munich clock. One for the “Ralph Milne Ultras.” Ferguson’s most unlikely signing in 1988, Ralph Milne became something of a cult figure at Old Trafford. He is their Robert Fleck. Kinda. Milne sadly passed away in 2015 and his flag bore the tangerine and black of his former club Dundee United, with whom he won a Scottish championship medal in 1983.

So, the Ralph Milne Ultras.

Not everything in Planet Football makes sense.

With Stamford Bridge full to its current capacity of 41,000, it was time for the focus to turn to the game itself.

IMG_5707 (2)

IMG_5755 (5)

Manchester United have reverted back to Adidas this season, and their red, white and black is deeply reminiscent of the kits that were worn by United in their under-achieving years of the mid-‘eighties. I have to say it is a classic kit. The three stripes looked at home.

Sadly, United got out of the traps the quickest. Chelsea seemed unable to stop their quick passing, and although I was trying my hardest to ignore how much possession they were enjoying, by the time they started to rack up corner after corner, it was obvious that we were second best. It still hurt to see the smiling face of Juan Mata in red. His delicious touch made it all the more difficult to watch. However, a Courtois save from Martial was thankfully the only time that our goal was seriously threatened in the opening period of play. We struggled to create anything of note. A shot from Diego Costa flew wide of the post. The United fans were, unsurprisingly, the loudest. In all honesty, it wasn’t much of a contest. The Chelsea support hardly sang a note. There had been loud shouts in honour of John Terry at the start, but it was as quiet a Chelsea vs. Manchester United game as I could remember. Although Kurt Zouma shows great promise, both Alan and myself wished that he had more confidence in his own ability to allow him other options than a quick hoof of the ball in to row Z.

We were warmed slightly with a couple of half-chances, but then United, in turn, threatened us too. The big bearskin of Fellaini met a corner, but he was thankfully off target. It was a decidedly humdrum affair. Towards the very end of the first period, a John Terry effort struck the arm of Blind. It didn’t seem to be “ball to hand.” From my viewpoint, it was hardly point-blank range. Surely Blind could have moved his arm away? Despite our howls of derision, no penalty was given.

At the break, all was quiet.

United continued where they had left off as the second-half began. This was tough to watch. Shots flew at Courtois.

Hiddink, admonished for using just one substitute at Watford, soon replaced the quiet Oscar with Eden Hazard. Then, Kurt Zouma fell awkwardly. A stretcher was soon called for, but it seemed to take a while for him to leave the pitch. We wondered what the problem was; it was not clear. It didn’t look good. I felt guilty for being negative towards him earlier. Gary Cahill was the easy replacement.

On the hour, the best move of the match. United worked the ball out to the left, where Borthwick-Jackson (who?) struck a low cross in to the box. Wayne Rooney touched it to Lingard, who seemed to be unhindered as he brought the ball under control and struck it past Courtois.

Ugh.

All was not good.

The home fans still sat silently. There seemed to be no will to generate much noise. I felt for Annissa and Alex down in the tier below.

We slowly created a few more chances. A Willian free-kick, and then a powerful volley from Ivanovic both tested De Gea. Fabregas was the next to threaten the United goal, but another fine stop from the United ‘keeper. Pedro replaced Matic.

There was only a slight response from the Chelsea support.

However, as the minutes ticked by, we enjoyed more and more of the ball. A few wayward efforts frustrated us. It seems churlish to knock Willian after his exemplary form in the first few months, but he seems to have faltered of late. Some of his corners and free-kicks were woeful.

Then, a hope of salvation.

There were an added six minutes.

The crowd at last responded.

“Come on.”

With the United defence massed behind the ball, Cesc Fabregas miraculously found an unmarked Diego Costa in the middle of the penalty area. I could hardly believe it. Time seemed to stand still. I immediately stood up, expecting a goal. Diego turned, rode the challenge of a defender and pushed the ball wide of De Gea. With me just about to go in to orbit, Diego coolly slotted home from an angle. At last The Bridge thundered. I turned to see Alan screaming right at me.

Get in.

Down below, a fist pump from Diego Costa, and a hug from John Terry, who had sauntered up field to add support to the attack. Stamford Bridge echoed to the sound of a relieved home support. And I bet Annissa and Alex were in heaven.

In the final minute, a lovely moment. Juan Mata was replaced by Herrera and Stamford Bridge rose, seemingly as one, to applaud our former number ten.

Just like in 1906, the game had ended 1-1, though I can only hope that the match that drew 67,000 all those decades ago was a far better game.

IMG_5715