Tales From North Staffordshire

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 18 March 2017.

This would be Chelsea’s eleventh visit to Stoke City’s stadium at the top of the hill. It is one of those stadia where I have seen all of Chelsea’s previous visits and although our away record against Stoke City was pretty reasonable at one stage, we have recently struggled, with three defeats in the past four games. Last season was particularly painful, with two losses in just eleven days. After our FA Cup game with Manchester United, all eyes were now firmly-focused on the Premier League. With an international break after the Stoke game, it was vitally important that we kept our momentum going, to maintain our gap at the top and to – well – just keep winning.

Although I try to keep a reasonable balance in these match reports, I am aware that there are a few times when I tend to get rather self-indulgent. Rather than reporting on the club, the team and its supporters, sometimes I delve into my own personal story; I have heard some supporters say that they enjoy all of this background stuff, but I am sure that there must be others who wonder what on Earth I am blathering on about. I spent three seasons – er, years – in The Potteries, when I was a student at North Staffs Poly in the ‘eighties. On all of the previous visits to the city covered by these tales, I have touched on various memories from my college life mixed in with my love for football in particular, and Chelsea – of course – at the centre of it all. There can’t be much left to say about my experiences in the city of Stoke-on-Trent from September 1984 to July 1987. But worry ye not, there will be a couple more during this one.

“Oh great” said 50%.

“Oh great” said 50%, sarcastically.

The weather was overcast as I drove PD, Parky and Scott north on the M5 and M6. I turned off onto the A500 – “the D Road” in the local vernacular – and soon breezed past Stoke City’s home ground on the hill at Sideway to my east. The Britannia Stadium has now been re-named the “Bet365 Stadium” since our last visit.

Yeah, I know. It will be a while before I stop calling it “The Britannia.”

Like last season, we spent a while in “The Terrace” pub, right opposite the playing fields of my old college. Although it is a good two miles away from the stadium, it is – crucially – the nearest pub to the Stoke-on-Trent train station. The pub was packed with Chelsea fans, and only Chelsea fans, and the ranks were swelled every twenty minutes or so as another train pulled in. I was able to park my car right outside the boozer.

“Talk about door to door service, lads.”

I was able to chat to a couple of local Chelsea fans. It brought back memories of my time at Stoke, when I became friendly with a few local lads who followed Chelsea and who used to occasionally pop into our local “The King’s Arms.” Memorably, they once stopped me from a potential roughing-up from some Chelsea fans from London. It was in 1986 or 1987, and I was walking in to Stoke from my house near the old Victoria Ground. I was wearing a T-shirt, purchased from the old Chelsea shop by the main gates at Stamford Bridge, which celebrated our new-found use of celery at games.

“Chelsea ICF – Inter Celery Firm.”

I breezed past some lads, and I heard one Cockney voice yell – aggressively – out “Chelsea ICF? What’s that about mate?” I suddenly feared the worse; that would be ironic, me getting roughed-up by a Chelsea fan, thinking I was possibly a West Ham fan wearing a shirt which took the piss out of Chelsea.  Thankfully, one of the local Stokies that I knew validated that I was Chelsea and a potential nasty situation was averted.

The West Brom vs. Arsenal game was on the TV, and the pub erupted as Arsenal conceded one and then two.

We left The Terrace at just before 2pm, allowing me plenty of time to get to my anointed parking place on a grass verge outside the stadium. Cars were parked everywhere; on bridges over the D Road, on pavements, on verges. It was quite feral. Up the path past the canal and the familiar sight of the stadium, high on the hill.

It was good to back in Stoke, among the familiar clipped accents of the locals.

Back in North Staffordshire.

Or “Nawth Staff’she” as they say in Fenton, Longton, Tunstall, Etruria, Hanley, Kidsgrove, Bentilee, Shelton and Trent Vale.

I remembered my very first visit to the city, during the summer of 1984. I recollected the interview that I had with a grizzled old lecturer at the poly, a local Stokie, sporting a Zapata moustache and an NUM badge, and who we later learned was a Port Vale supporter. During the interview, I mentioned that Stoke City used to have a chairman called Percy Axon – no relation, but I thought it was worthwhile mentioning, as I would – and I think that the bloke was amazed that I had heard of him. In his role as a local councilor, the lecturer had known Percy Axon. My surname is relatively rare and I am always amazed when I encounter it anywhere. We must’ve shared a laugh about it. I remember asking the interviewee, quite candidly I thought, what I needed to do in order to fail the interview, since I had been virtually offered a place despite far-from-impressive “A Level” results the previous November.

Just as candid, the lecturer, replied :

“Be obscene.”

I got it. I understood. It seemed Stoke needed me more than I needed Stoke.

Memorably, this very same lecturer took our very first “getting to know you” session in the September of that year. His opening line went down in our college folklore.

“So, bearing in mind you ended up in Stoke, how many of you fucked-up your A Levels?”

In the away end, slowly filling with the loyal three-thousand, we heard that Eden Hazard had fallen victim to an injury. Pedro was to play with Willian and Diego Costa. We also heard that Arsenal had capitulated further at The Hawthorns, losing 3-1. What a joke club. Every year the same old story.

Stoke is one of the coldest grounds going, but this was bearable. I had known worse. We were down low, row seven, right behind the goal. It wasn’t the greatest viewpoint but it made a change. I spotted the spire of St. Thomas at Penkhull just to the left of the Boothen End. For once, a stadium with some sort of view. It made a change not to be completely encased. I noted that the scoreboard to our right was no more; maybe the club is infilling that corner now.

The usual flurry or red and white-checked flags accompanied the two teams.

Chelsea in all blue.

“Come on boys.”

The place was virtually a sell-out; just a few empty seats in the home areas. I wondered if my pal Chad, newly-arrived from Minneapolis in the morning, had made it in. He had posted a picture on Facebook of him inside a cab, on his way to the stadium, with time running out.

Over on the touchline were Mark Hughes and Antonio Conte. The teams were living and breathing embodiment of the two managers. Stoke City, intimidating and physical. Shorn of Shaqiri and Bojan, they were more like the Tony Pulis model. Chelsea, now fully Conte-esque, stylish and cool, yet passionate too. The two contrasts could not have been greater.

We looked at ease in the first few moments, and the away crowd were in good voice. We were stretching the home side down both flanks. It was a fine start. Marcos Alonso was hacked twice by Arnautovic, and referee Anthony Taylor blew up for a foul, out wide on the edge of the box. This was Willian territory alright. We waited for the ball to be swung in to the far post, but to everyone’s surprise the ball was whipped in towards the near post. I didn’t have a clear view, but we eventually heard the roar of others in our end who had seen the net ripple.

“Get in, duck.”

Willian reeled away and was mobbed. We were ahead after only thirteen minutes. What a dream start.

Stoke had already put their formidable footprint on the game, with intimidation mixed in with some late and dangerous challenges. Diego Costa drew the considerable ire of the home crowd and was booed every time he touched the ball. He was then booked for a foul on Martins Indi, which produced an odd response from the Stokies.

“Your club’s embarrassing.”

Odd. Never heard that one before. I didn’t dwell on it.

We kept applying good pressure. Thankfully, others were stepping up to fill the void provided by Hazard’s absence. Defensively, we looked at ease. David Luiz was in control.

Completely against the run of play, Stoke caused a scare. A deep corner from their right was headed back in to the box and Martins Indi headed the ball past Thibaut. The home fans roared – “bollocks” – but after a few seconds the referee spotted the linesman flagging for an indiscretion. We waited, and the body language of the two officials looked good. The referee flagged for a free-kick to us. No goal. Phew. Though none of us knew what had actually transpired.

Sadly, not long after, the referee swayed in the favour of the home side as an innocuous challenge by Gary Cahill was deemed worthy of a penalty. We were furious, and figured that the referee was not 100% convinced that he had made the correct decision in cancelling the Martins Indi goal.

Walters smashed the ball in, and celebrated wildly, possibly gaining some sort of retribution from his darkest hour against us in 2013.

The game became scrappier, and it genuinely seemed that it was all down to the Stoke players. Costa was continually fouled, but still the home fans howled. One challenge on Diego made Antonio Conte jump into the air and stamp both his feet into the ground. Pedro fired over just before the break.

It was time for quiet but strong words from Antonio Conte during the interval.

“Keep going. Do not lose your nerves. Keep calm. Keep playing. We will win.”

Chelsea began the second-half well. We did indeed keep calm, no more so than Diego Costa who simply did not give in to more hard line tactics. He did not yield. He was strong in possession and kept others in the game. I lost count of the times we played the ball intelligently in and out of – and around, and in between – the scurrying Stoke players. Kante was everywhere again. I’m sure I spotted him atop the church spire at Penkhull, mending a clock face, during the second-half. Pedro cut in after a defensive error on the Stoke flank but Grant saved.

Still the Stoke players hacked away. I turned to Alan and said “I can’t see it staying with eleven versus eleven, mate.”

A free-kick was awarded to us after Pedro was fouled. Luiz waited, but it was Alonso who crashed the ball against the bar with a sweet left-footed strike.

Conte replaced with Moses with Cesc Fabregas. In the excitement of the closing quarter of the game, I hardly noticed the change in formation. An extra man in midfield added pressure and stress to the home team and the home crowd, who were remarkably quiet, save from a few trademark “Cum On Stowk” chants.

But this was an odd game. Despite our continued dominance, Stoke occasionally threatened. Although deep down, I fully expected a winner, there was still a chance that Stoke could nab an unwarranted winner of their own. Inside, I knew I would be happy and sad at the same time if it stayed at 1-1.

Conte replaced Nemanja Matic with Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Fresh legs.

He was soon involved. He unknowingly played a one-two with himself, a la Kante at West Ham, and forced a corner. There were just a few minutes’ left. Cesc thumped a high ball in. Luiz, a little off-balance, was only able to prod it goal wards but with no real menace. Thankfully, a poor clearance by Pieters set up Gary Cahill. The entire away end was on tip-toes. Gary thrashed it high past Grant and the hexagons of the white netting were stretched and contorted as the ball flew in.

“FUCKINGGETINYOUBASTARD.”

What a roar. What mayhem high on the hill. The players raced over to my left. I yelled. We pushed and shoved. A forest of arms and fists punched the air. Some fans ended up in Newcastle-under-Lyme.

There was the winner.

Stoke City 1 Chelsea 2.

There was still time for Diego – what a performance during that second-half – to strike the base of Grant’s left post and for Loftus-Cheek to go close too. As a fitting ending, Bardsley was sent-off for a second yellow (a foul on Diego, what a shocker.)

We counted down the injury-time.

The whistle was greeted by a massive roar of relief by the Chelsea faithful.

Very soon the crowd were singing “We’re gonna win the league” and I joined in, and then quickly stopped. Not yet, Chris, not yet. It was one of those games where you just shake hands and embrace everyone and anyone around you, just to magnify the moment and to cherish it too. We watched as the players celebrated and I snapped away as Antonio Conte, the mad man, walked towards the Chelsea crowd, his fists pumping, completely losing himself in the moment, his face a picture of ecstasy.

Football can do this.

It is fucking wonderful.

Outside we were bouncing. More handshakes and hugs.

I kept repeating the phrase “season defining.”

At that moment, it felt like we were on the cusp, though there were still ten games left.

The shout went up again.

“We shall not be moved. We shall not, we shall not be moved…”

Outside in the North Staffordshire night, I joined in, weakening…I could not resist. 

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Tales From New Year’s Eve

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 31 December 2016.

On the last day of 2016, Chelsea Football Club were going for our thirteenth consecutive league win. A run that began way back on the first day of October at Hull City has surprised, entertained and thrilled us along the way, and now the red-and-white striped shirts of Stoke City were our next opponents. A game on New Year’s Eve is a relatively rare event. In over forty years of going to games at Chelsea, this would only be my fourth such game. All of these have been at Stamford Bridge. The last one was a dreadful 1-3 defeat at the hands of Aston Villa in 2011.

It was a miserable end to that particular year. Who could have possibly guessed how that 2011/2012 season would end?

None of us.

The pre-match routine for the Stoke City game mirrored that of the Boxing Day match with Bournemouth. Parky, Glenn, PD and myself. Me driving. Pints in “The Chelsea Pensioner” and then outside “The Fox & Pheasant.” Banter. Drinks. Songs. Laughs along the way with pals from both sides of the Atlantic. Whereas there had been clear, crisp skies on Boxing Day, here was a more typical winter’s day in London; dampness, greyness and cloying fog. It was as if it was made to order for the visiting Americans.

As for the team, we knew that Pedro would be out, and that Kante and Costa would undoubtedly return. We pondered about Fabregas. Antonio Conte decided to retain him.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill.

Moses – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso.

Willian – Costa – Hazard.

The tried and tested 3-4-3. It’s hard to believe that we toyed with playing a 4-4-2 variant at the start of the season. This 3-4-3 seems to have been with us forever such is how natural it all seems.

Unsurprisingly, Stoke City brought only 1,500 down from The Potteries. Neil Barnett made a point of welcoming back both Mark Hughes and Eddie Niedzwiecki, players from two of the most-loved Chelsea seasons of them all (Sparky in 1996/1997 and Eddie in 1983/1984). There was also a mention for former blue Glen Johnson and former Matthew Harding season-ticket holder Peter Crouch. There was a rare start for Crouch. With him alongside the diminutive Xherdan Shaqiri, it brought back memories of a game decades ago when Micky Droy stood alongside Ian Britton for photographic effect.

Shaqiri – so small that his arse rubs out his footprints – looks out of place on the pitch. But he is a lovely footballer. Elsewhere in the Stoke team were familiar foes Charlie Adam, Joe Allen and Ryan Shawcross.

And Stoke certainly had more of the game in the first-half, at least to my eyes. Their biggest threat came via corners and free-kicks, and we had to be at our best to keep them at bay. With Eden Hazard relatively quiet, our play lacked a little sparkle. We had a few pot-shots at goal, but nothing of note. The stadium needed wakening. It was pretty quiet.

I loved the way that David Luiz, charging out of defence to cut out a lofted ball, was able to replicate a John Terry trademark chest pass. The ball landed right at the feet of a team mate. Lovely stuff.

Stoke still caused us problems, with Shaqiri and Adam going close. Our play was a little slower than usual. Where there had been players taking a couple of touches, now the same players were taking extra touches. It slowed our play down. Victor Moses was often alone out on the right wing in acres of space. Our play tended to develop down our left. It often felt that Moses’ role was just to stretch the Stoke defence out, regardless of whether or not he received the ball. He must’ve felt like a spare prick at a wedding.

Just after half-an-hour, Cesc Fabregas thumped a corner into the box and Gary Cahill was able to jump high and head in. It was, ironically, a goal more synonymous with that of our visitors.

1-0, phew.

Mark Stein was introduced to the crowd at the break, and he was warmly applauded by both sets of fans, having played for both teams in his career. In the match programme, there was a feature on “Steino” and he recollected the red-hot atmosphere at Stamford Bridge for our famous victory against Bruges in 1995. Never had 28,000 – our then capacity – made so much noise at The Bridge.

There was also a simply fantastic photograph of Stoke City’s visit to Stamford Bridge in 1963, featuring 48 year old Stanley Matthews and 18 year old Ron Harris. The gate? Only 66,199. Another Second Division attendance too.

File under “Debunking The Chelsea Were Never A Big Club Theory.”

The second-half began, and in the most dramatic of ways. A ball was pumped into our box, that man Crouch headed down, and Martins Indi somehow managed to react the quickest of all, stabbing home despite being surrounded by three or four Chelsea players. Now that was a typical Stoke City goal.

1-1.

Game on.

At last the Chelsea crowd got involved, realising that the team needed a helping hand. Shots started to pepper the Stoke City goal.

As the ball was worked out to Victor Moses, I found myself commentating.

“Go on Victor, get past him, get behind him my son, whip it in.”

Whip it in he did. Hazard cushioned the ball for Willian to hit home.

2-1, phew.

Win thirteen?

Steady on.

Five minutes later, the stubborn visitors caused us problems in our box, and when the ball was played out to Diouf, I immediately sensed fear. Lo and behold, the ball was whipped into the box and Peter Crouch stabbed it home.

2-2, bollocks.

This was breathless stuff now, and within a minute, Cesc Fabregas played in Willian with a beautiful ball, and our Brazilian livewire ruthlessly blasted high past Grant in the Stoke goal. He again ran over to the far corner to celebrate with fans and team mates. Celebrations were equally manic in my little section of the stadium.

Smiling faces, pulses racing, eyes wide in ecstasy, fists pumping, shouts of joy.

I had to grab on a nearby barrier.

“Bloody hell, felt myself going there.”

Ha.

3-2, back on top once more.

Antonio Conte replaced Fabregas with Nemanja Matic, with a nod to tightening things, but the game still continued to entertain. A super break involving the twin threats of Willian and Hazard allowed Diego Costa a clear shot on goal, but he surprisingly blasted over. It had been another wonderful performance from Diego; chasing lost causes, hounding defenders, holding off challenges, touching the ball to team mates, leading the line.

Branislav Ivanovic replaced Victor Moses, who had been much more involved in the second-half. Nathaniel Chalobah took over from Willian.

There was still time for one last hurrah. A seemingly innocuous throw-in was chased down by Diego Costa, who caused mayhem for Shawcross and Martins Indi. Showing fantastic strength, he held off a challenge, and slammed the ball into the net with a left-footed swipe. It was a goal of his own making. It was all his.

It was a pure unadulterated Diegoal.

Now it was his turn to fist pump, and for his eyes to explode with joy. He ran towards the corner flag and replicated Pedro’s Kung Fu kick from Boxing Day before being mobbed by all of his nine other outfield players. It was a lovely picture of solidarity and togetherness.

4-2, just beautiful.

So, this amazing run continues.

Thirteen.

Just magnificent.

At the half-way stage of the season, everything is looking rosy.

1. Chelsea – 49 points.

2. Liverpool – 43 points.

3. Arsenal – 40 points.

4. Tottenham Hotspur – 39 points.

5. Manchester City – 39 points.

6. Manchester United – 36 points.

There is then a ridiculous nine point gap to Everton, but then the other thirteen clubs are differentiated by just fifteen points. The numbers do not lie. It’s looking good, but we are only halfway to paradise.

The Chuckle Bus returned back to the shires of Wiltshire and Somerset. The four of us all had New Year’s Eve drinking to be done. My evening was spent at Frome Town Football Club, where I saw my first-ever football match way back in the autumn of 1970, a full four years before my first Chelsea game. It seemed appropriate. It was a great night and it ended a roller-coaster year for me, for us all.

As 2017 begins, there are two eagerly-awaited away games to attend. On Monday, Frome Town play at local rivals Chippenham Town, and then on Wednesday – on a different scale this one – Chelsea visit the N17 badlands to play Tottenham. They will be up for revenge after our last two games – remember them, ha? – but I’d like to think that we have a little revenge in store too.

Remember that 5-3 defeat on the very first day of 2015?

Yes, so do I.

Let’s go to work.

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Tales From Four Games In One Day

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 5 March 2016.

“I just hope that – and it might be just me that thinks this – the whole day doesn’t slide by with people, fans and players alike, more concerned about the game against PSG on Wednesday. This game against Stoke has kinda snuck up on me to be honest and I’m a bit worried. It’s a game we can win, but I just hope we are all focussed.”

These were my words soon into the drive up to London for the visit of Stoke City. Without a doubt, the return leg of our Champions League tie with Paris St. Germain was certainly looming large. I think that the extra week between the two games has added to the sense of drama, and the tie couldn’t be more evenly poised. It promises to be a tremendous occasion.

But the game against Stoke City was in my sights now, and I was hopeful that this would be our main focus.

We had our first snow of the winter overnight, but there was just a residual dusting left on the fields around my home as I set off to collect the two Chuckle Brothers en route to SW6. We had just enjoyed two of the most enjoyable away games for a while, in Hampshire and Norfolk, and we were now set for two games at Stamford Bridge in five days. The games are coming along in bitesize chunks for me at the moment; two home, two away, three home, three away, three home, two away and now two at home.

The games against Stoke City and PSG would certainly be something to get my teeth into.

Elsewhere, three other games were occupying my thoughts. There was the lunchtime North London Derby. A draw was my preferred result for this one, though if there was to be a winner, my choice was going to be with Arsenal. For any game there are three points up for grabs and I always say that between rivals, a draw is always best, since one of the three points disappears into the ether. And of course, I am talking here as an advocate of Leicester City winning the league. A draw between Arsenal and Spurs would be fine by me. A Spurs win would invigorate them again, and – for fuck sake – we do not want to even think about Tottenham winning the league after fifty-five years. Even with an Arsenal win, I couldn’t see them having the mental strength to win the league. So, a draw for me please.

There was also Leicester City’s game at Watford in the evening. We’re all Leicester fans now, and a win there would be bloody superb. Even if we took out the Claudio Ranieri factor, who wouldn’t begrudge the Foxes a first-ever title. It would be the most sumptuous fairy story for decades and decades.

My mind was also on my local non-league team Frome Town and their home game against Biggleswade Town. A much-needed win would boost our chances of surviving in the seventh tier of English football.

So, four games.

And I was worried about focussing on one.

It was the usual busy build-up before the game, with meet ups with Chelsea fans from near and far. Down at the stadium, I picked up a programme, and was pleased with the retro cover, in the style of the 1969/1970 edition, in deference of the anniversary of Peter Osgood’s passing ten years ago. In and around the stadium, I chatted to friends from places as far flung as Atlanta, Edinburgh and Bangkok. It is always a treat to see the look of excitement on the faces of supporters who are not able to see the team quite as often as my usual cronies.  On the way back to The Goose from Stamford Bridge I couldn’t help but notice a swarm of yellow-jacketed stewards demanding that supporters showed them their tickets. I had never noticed this before, and it seemed out of place, almost rude. I couldn’t see the point of it. It was especially galling when touts – with plenty of bloody tickets – were plying their trade a few yards away. I approached a callow youth, entrusted with a loudhailer, and vented :

“Excuse me mate, I think it’s a bit off, asking for genuine supporters to show you their tickets. Why don’t you ask the touts to show you theirs?”

He mumbled something about plain clothes policemen monitoring them, but I simply did not believe a word of it. You can be sure that the same leeches will be out in force on Wednesday night.

In the pub, for once, the televised game was getting stacks of attention, although I only occasionally glimpsed at the score of the Tottenham vs. Arsenal match. The reactions of the Chelsea fans in the pub was interesting and a litmus test of loyalties. I entered the pub with Arsenal 1-0 up.

“Oh well, better than Spurs winning.”

While I chatted to Kev and Rich from Edinburgh, no noise at all accompanied Tottenham’s two goals, and I was simply not aware that they had scored on either occasion. Arsenal’s late equaliser, however, was met with a resounding cheer. There was little doubt that we were all thinking the same things.

“A draw, great, come on Leicester, but Tottenham must not – MUST NOT – win the league.”

I was inside Stamford Bridge in good time. Around one thousand Stokies had left their houses in North Staffordshire and were ensconced in the away section. I spotted Brenda, the guest from Atlanta, up above me in the Matthew Harding Upper. I popped over to see her, but she looked petrified.

“I’m scared of heights. I daren’t move.”

I grimaced and replied :

“You’re scared of heights? So are fucking Arsenal.”

As the teams entered the pitch – or just after – a large “Osgood 9” banner appeared in the Shed Upper, with a lengthy banner, draped over the balcony wall, below :

“OUT FROM THE SHED CAME A RISING YOUNG STAR.”

I always went with the other words – “The Shed looked up and they saw a great star” – but top marks for effort.

Guus Hiddink was forced to rest Diego Costa as he had a niggle. Instead, the so-far impressive Bertrand Traore was picked ahead of Loic Remy, who was on the substitute bench along with Alexandre Pato. Matic was picked to play alongside Mikel, but no Fabregas, who Hiddink was presumably resting for Wednesday.

It was rather a cold day in SW6, and I noticed that the stadium took ages to fill up, but even after a good few minutes of play there were occasional gaps. The Shed upper, certainly, had a fair few empty seats dotted around. There were a couple of early renditions of “Born Is The King” but the atmosphere soon quietened to its usual muted levels.

My fears seemed to have been validated, as we lacked focus and really struggled to impose ourselves on the game. Stoke City, with the skilful Shaqiri catching the eye early on, have morphed into a more modern team these days, and do not really on the “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” style of football of Tony Pulis. Arnautovic looks a handful though. We toiled away in the first half, occasionally finding our rhythm, but it was our black-clad visitors who had the best of the chances. Thibaut Courtois saved well from Afellay. Then a fantastic ball from Diouf, with a perfect amount of fade, allowed Arnautovic to play in Diouf, who had supported the attack well, but his touch was heavy and the ball thankfully cleared the bar.

Willian fired wide soon after, but we were hardly threatening Jack Butland in the Stoke goal. Shaqiri, who had given Baba a torrid time in the league game in November, swept a ball in from the right, but Diouf again wasted a fine chance. In my book, we could have been 2-0 down.

With the first-half coming to its conclusion, Betrand Traore – a peripheral figure until then – received a pass from Nemanja Matic, and confidently swept past a defender before leathering it hard and true into the Stoke goal from around twenty yards out. It was a sweet strike, and Stamford Bridge roared its approval.

“Get in.”

At half-time, I read a few of the many pieces devoted to Peter Osgood in the match programme. It seems that my memory of Ossie’s Chelsea trial, recounted previously, was slightly askew, although the main gist was correct. Here are the words, then, of the great man himself :

“I got the forms back saying report to Hendon (Chelsea’s training ground at the time) on a Saturday morning about 11.30am. I said to Dick Foss “I’m Osgood, down from Windsor, is there any way I can play in the first half hour of the trial game because I’ve got a cup game for Spital Old Boys in the afternoon?” and he said “certainly.” And after half-an-hour I came off and it was “can you sign here?” And I’d actually signed for Chelsea. It was as simple as that.”

At half-time I heard that Game Three was going well; Frome Town were winning 2-0.

Into the second-half, and again our intensity was missing. Courtois parried an Arnautovic effort. The same striker then broke through in the inside left channel but was robbed of the ball with an exquisite tackle from Gary Cahill. It was simply sublime. However, just after, Cahill allowed Shaqiri a little too much space and we watched, nervously, as his low shot narrowly missed Courtois’ far post.

Cahill, in the thick of it at both ends, found himself free on the edge of the Stoke box and his fine turn and shot was saved by Butland.

Hiddink replaced Hazard – resting him, eyes on PSG – with Loftus-Cheek, and then Traore with Remy.

We were able to get players in wide positions – Oscar, Baba, Willian, even Mikel – but on many occasions there was nobody in the killing zone of the six yard box. How we missed Diego Costa.

Stoke, however, were constantly stretching us, and I was worried.

Oscar fell to the floor after a clumsy challenge by Muniesa but Clattenburg waved away the howls for a penalty.

Hiddink then caused Alan and myself to scratch our heads. He brought on Fabregas for Matic, and we were certainly not expecting that. It softened our midfield, but also exposed Cesc – surely a starter on Wednesday – to injury.

“Answers on a postcard.”

With the game entering its closing moments, my fears were again confirmed. A cross from the right by Shaqiri, ever-troublesome, was punched inadequately by Courtois. Disastrously for us, Diouf made up for his earlier misses and sent a header back in to the empty net.

Ugh.

The Stokies celebrated and we watched in silent annoyance. With that one equalising goal, Alan soon informed me that we had plummeted from a healthy seventh place to a much more mundane eleventh.

Ugh again.

Fabregas flicked an Oscar corner over from close range, but the final whistle soon blew.

A draw was undoubtedly – and sadly – a fair result.

“Not good enough today I’m afraid.”

Wednesday, evidently, was on everybody’s minds after all.

Back in the car, with Parky and PD, we slowly made our way out of London. I was so pleased to hear that Frome Town had hung on to get three points against Biggleswade. Survival now beckons. We heard snippets of the evening game on the radio as we drove back home. As we passed Reading, we punched the air as a Riyad Mahrez goal sent Leicester City on their way to a hugely important win at Watford. It reminded me so much of a win at Norwich in 2005, on a day when Manchester United only drew at Crystal Palace and we, ourselves, went five points clear of the pack.

Leicester’s goal cheered us no end.

They are now nine games away from history and I, among many millions more, wish them well.

“Anyone but Tottenham.”

On Wednesday, we reconvene again at Stamford Bridge for a potentially historic night of European football.

Under the lights.

A tale of two cities.

London and Paris.

“Let’s Go To Work.”

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Tales From The Terrace

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 7 November 2015.

The day had begun in fine fashion, with Parky and myself stopping off for a mammoth breakfast apiece in the local town of Bradford-on-Avon, thus replicating the start of our trip to The Hawthorns in August. Blimey, after that game against West Brom, we thought that our season-opening blip had ended and that, surely, by the start of November our league campaign would be back on track.

Little did we know, eh?

Straight after our galvanising breakfast, I headed back to the car, while His Lordship powdered his nose. I have a new car – a black Volkswagen – and I quickly rushed over to it, tapped the unlock function on the key fob, and let myself in, thus avoiding a few drops of rain. I settled down in the seat. I took a look around.

Sandwich wrappers and parking tickets.

What?

There was silence.

It wasn’t my car.

I had let myself in to an identical black Polo and my head was spinning. I quickly exited, locked the doors, and spotted my car three cars down. Rather sheepishly, I sat inside and waited for Parky to arrive. He had a good old look in the first car just to check if I was inside. Once he realised that my car was a few yards away, he joined me.

“You ain’t gonna believe what I just did.”

In the minute that it took me to explain what had just – bizarrely – transpired, the other car had disappeared, with its driver presumably none the wiser.

“Bloody hell Parky, if the inside of his car wasn’t so full of rubbish, I’d be driving up to Stoke in the wrong bloody car.”

We laughed. I knew that this would be a story that a few of the lads would love to hear later in the day. We wondered if, inexplicably, I had been given a VW master key. We laughed again.

“Next time I’m over your house Chris, you’ll have a fleet of black Volkswagens.”

“One for every day of the week.”

“And two for Sundays.”

“Nah, one for Aston Villa away, one for Leicester City away, one for Stoke away, one for Stoke away in the cup…”

We laughed again.

Despite the ‘orrible grey weather and miserable rain, I made good time on my drive north. It seemed odd to be heading back up the M5 and M6 for a second consecutive away game at Stoke City. In my forty-five years of following the team, I’d never attended two consecutive away games at the same stadium, though in the days of extended FA Cup replays, I am sure there have been precedents.

Wrexham in 1982 springs to mind.

At just after midday, I slowed outside Stoke-on-Trent railway station. Waiting to join us was Dave, newly-arrived on a regular service train from London. There were over five hours until our match would kick-off at 5.30pm. It was time to kick back and enjoy the familiar surroundings – stop sniggering in the cheap seats – of my old college town.

We headed over to the neighbouring town of Newcastle-under-Lyme, a distinct entity to the city of Stoke-on-Trent, but not before I had given Dave a little tour past the site of the old Victoria Ground where Stoke played from 1878 to 1997. It is always galling to see an empty space, overgrown with weeds, where Sir Stanley Matthews once shimmied and swayed.

From 1985 to 1987, I lived no more than fifty yards from its away end.

There was an unsurprising dart in to a favourite menswear shop of yore, still selling casual gear of a high standard to this very day. I told the story of how I bought a “Best Company” T-shirt in the same shop in 1986 for the then astronomical price of £25 and how I felt like the dog’s doodahs when I saw the very same label being worn by Italians on holiday later that summer.

Good times.

If only I had kept it, I am sure it would be worth a mint today.

We enjoyed a pint in “The Golden Lion” while the Huddersfield Town versus Leeds United game was being shown on TV. It is hard to believe that there are new Chelsea fans that have never experienced a Chelsea against Leeds league game. Though out of sight, Leeds are never really too far out of mind. They are a massive club, and it feels very odd not playing them every season. They were, of course, League Champions in 1992 and are a good example of how successful clubs sometimes implode. Whisper it, but after narrowly edging the other United to the League title in 1992, they finished in lowly seventeenth place the following May. I can well remember that they didn’t even win a single away game in 1992-1993.

At least we have West Brom this season.

Gallows humour? You bet.

On their last visit to Stamford Bridge in 2004, before disappearing from view in a massive meltdown, their fans goaded us with this little ditty :

“If it wasn’t for the Russian, you’d be us.”

One supposes that there may well have been a grain of truth in those words.

Anyway. Leeds United. There you are. Hopefully the only time that they feature in these match reports for a few years.

We popped next door into “The Kiln.” By this time I had spilled the beans to Dave about my worrying escapade involving the two Volkswagen. This kept us chortling for a while, but there was also serious talk about the chances of us filling Wembley if we end up in exile from Stamford Bridge for three or four years.

On the walk back to the car, the boys sampled the delights from the nearby “Wrights Pies” shop. I know this sounds silly, but the three of us were having a cracking pre-match.

On getting back to the car park, Dave tee’d me up nicely.

“Which one is your car, Chris?”

“Bollocks, the nearest one.”

I pointed out where Alan Hudson, still heavily revered in The Potteries, used to own a wine bar in the ‘eighties, then aimed my car over the hill and down in to Stoke once again. I parked up outside a no-frills boozer called “The Terrace” which was just across the road from my old college, in an area called Shelton, and, specifically, its playing fields. This pub, though to the north of the station whereas the Britannia is to the south, was where the Chelsea fans were basing themselves. We were over two miles away from the stadium.

There was a police van parked outside, no surprises there. I passed over a spare ticket to a mate, and said a few “hellos” to a few familiar faces. I never used to drink in “The Terrace” back in my student days – I was more “Kings Arms”, “Roebuck”, “Station”, “Corner Cupboard”– but I must have visited “The Terrace” at some stage in those drinking years of around thirty years ago.

The clouds were subtly changing colour overhead – now tinged with the embers of a dying sun – and it was noticeably colder. I stood with my pint of lager and was lost in thought as I looked over the road at my former college. Right opposite from where I was standing, I had played in many games of football on the college playing fields. It felt strange. The memories of a spectacular volley which narrowly whizzed over the bar from my right boot some thirty yards out, a couple of goals here, a tackle there. Memories of friends.

The class of ’87 – with “The Terrace” fifty yards out of shot to the left.

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Mike, Dave, Bob, Adam, Rick, Ian, Richie.

Chris, Sean, Trev, Nige, Steve.

Five of these lads – Bob, Ian, Richie, Nigel and Trevor – have stood and sat alongside me at Stamford Bridge for more than a few games over the years, bless them all.

“Friendship and Football.”

It was quite surreal to be back.

However, it was even more surreal back in early July this year when around fifty – a nifty fifty rather than a naughty forty – met up for a college reunion. We had a magnificent time. Of the lads pictured in the team photo, six were there. I had not seen Rick and Sean since graduation in 1987, nor Steve since 1995. We took over the old Student Union, now modernised and plush, and loved every minute of it. At times, 1987  seemed like last year. I know it is a most hackneyed saying, but where does the time go?

There is, somewhere, in the darker and grimier parts of the internet, a short video of a few of us dancing to “What Difference Does It Make?”

At around 4.15pm, we needed to get moving. I said my goodbyes to the class of ’15 and drove south to the area of the city that the locals pronounce “Siddaway, duck.”

On the walk towards the Britannia Stadium, there is a section of footpath which cuts alongside the Cauldon Canal. For the past few seasons, a canal boat has been moored, and that distinctive Potteries delicacy the oatcake has been sold. I was in too much of a rush to indulge at the League Cup game, but on this occasion, I was able to stop and sample one. I treated Dave and Parky too.

“Three bacon and cheese oatcakes please, duck.”

They went down a storm. My two match day companions were duly impressed.

As we turned the corner at the top of the path, just before the bridge over the canal, a Stoke City supporter was selling the club’s fanzine, “The Oatcake.” Time for a culinary diversion methinks. Similar in appearance to a pancake, these cherished snacks are made without eggs but with oats and flour. They were the staple diet of a few fellow students while at college.

The boys were getting the complete Stoke experience. “Wright’s Pies” in ‘Castle, a couple of pints in Shelton, and now oatcakes in Sideway.

I was soon inside the away end at The Britannia once again, a mere eleven days after the last visit. This time, the four of us – Al, Gal, Parky, myself – were in the lower tier, but right behind the goal. The time soon passed. There was a raucous air of defiance within the Chelsea ranks. I was lifted by our performance against Kiev, and was adamant that we would win this one. The team line-up showed a few noticeable changes.

Begovic – Azpilicueta, Terry, Zouma, Baba – Matic, Ramires – Pedro, Hazard, Willian – Costa.

One familiar face was missing.

Jose Mourinho, locked away in the Fenton Travelodge along with his tea and coffee making facilities, trouser press and free wi-fi, was nowhere to be seen. We presumed that he would be in constant contact with the makeshift management team of Rui Faria and Steve Holland.

“Reception, hello…what is the wifi password? I need to send a PowerPoint presentation. Yes, yes, the pillows are very soft, but I need the password. Now. Puta.”

For a while before the teams appeared, the stadium resounded to applause for the various strands of the armed forces – from army cadets through to those serving today to veterans – as they walked the perimeter of the pitch. The two captains, Shawcross and Terry, lead their players out. There were servicemen and women to the left and to the right. After the handshakes, the teams reassembled in the centre circle.

There was a little applause, but thankfully this soon evaporated.

Arms were linked.

Silence, save for a perfect rendition of The Last Post.

“We Will Remember Them.”

The game began well for Chelsea, and I was very pleased to see Eden Hazard, especially, taking the ball towards the Stoke defence time and time again. He seemed to be heading back towards a more confident place. The Chelsea fans around me seemed to be cheered. The noise was fine.

“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”

We came close with efforts zipping across the Stoke six yard area. Pedro and Hazard seemed to be on form, and we were pretty much on top. However, as the half progressed, Xherdan Shaqiri – so short that his arse rubbed out his footprints – kept getting the better of an increasingly nervy Baba at left-back. Sadly, rather than yells of support for our defender, there were groans of annoyance. He ended up having a torrid time.

Charlie Adam, one of my most disliked players of this and any year, continued his personal vendetta on all things blue and chipped away at Pedro.

A fine move found Diego Costa, wide right, but his shot was poor. Despite Chelsea having most of the ball, Stoke were edging back in to the game.

As Dave joined us in our row ahead of the second-half, I confided : “this has 0-0 written all over it.”

Sadly, soon in to the second period – and with Jose Mourinho pacing around room 14 of the Fenton Travelodge, nibbling on a Harvest Crunch biscuit – our game plan was hit with a body blow.

A cross from the Stoke right, indecision in our ranks, and a swivel in mid-air from Arnautovic at the far post.

One-nil to Stoke.

“Here we bloody go again.”

With that, the home supporters sung – very very loudly – their theme tune “Delilah” and I have to admit it was pretty impressive.

Ugh.

I sighed.

And Jose Mourinho punched a hole through to room 15.

The Chelsea support rallied straightaway, but easily fell into the silly trap of “You Never Won Fcuk All”, ignoring the simple fact that Stoke City beat Chelsea Football Club at Wembley in 1972.

Another “ugh.”

The rest of the game, regardless of individuals involved, seemed to follow the same pattern.

Chelsea in possession, Stoke with a blanket defence. Chelsea keeping the ball, Stoke tackling hard. Chelsea running wide, Stoke keeping their shape. Chelsea unable to break through, Stoke standing firm. Chelsea nil, Stoke one.

Willian’s free kicks for once, were poor.

Hazard seemed the one to unlock the defence, but he seemed increasingly forlorn.

“Costa, get in the fackin’ box.”

The Stoke challenges, of course, bordered on the grotesque.

The Chelsea supporters grew frustrated but we still tried our best to help entice a goal from somewhere. Our support only waned slightly.

So much for winning, this was a game we now needed to draw.

What a season.

At the other end, thankfully all of Stoke’s rare attempts on goal were wayward.

Then, hope. A fine move involving Matic and then Hazard set up Pedro, who opened up his body and aimed a curler at the far post.

I could not resist.

“Goal.”

The ball hit the base of Butland’s right post and bounced away to safety.

I turned around and screamed.

“Fuck.”

Mourinho knocked a hole in to room 13.

Fabregas and Oscar came on in place of Baba and Pedro, but in all honesty offered little.

Pass, pass, pass, block, block, block.

We rarely got behind Stoke, we rarely put Butland under pressure.

The home fans, realising that they were close to a memorable double over the reigning champions grew louder.

“C’mon Stoke. C’mon Stoke. C’mon Stoke.”

Remy replaced Ramires.

We played three at the back. John Terry moved forward to support the attack on more than one occasion, with Matic dropping back. To be fair, Remy seemed to inject a little more directness in to our play. The Chelsea support seemed to be rapidly losing patience with Costa now.

With time running out, Remy was set free inside the box. The ball was just ahead of him, but we sensed a real chance. In the flash of an eye, Butland came out to block, Remy hurdled him, but lost his footing, with the ball running wide. He slipped, and the shot was shanked high.

Without the benefit of an action replay, I stood dazed, trying to evaluate what I had seen.

On another day, Remy would not have been so quick to react – nor as honest – and Butland would have given away a penalty.

A few half-hearted chances were created, but there was a mood of gloomy pessimism inside the away end now. There would be no last gasp goal at Stoke City on this visit. We clapped the boys off at the end, but I was so disappointed. Chelsea had played well in fits and starts – the fight was there, but not the know-how – and this was another tough loss.

If only the Stoke defence was as easy to unlock as that black Volkswagen in Bradford-on-Avon.

As Parky and I walked back to the waiting car, amid the clipped and familiar accents of the locals, I could not help but think this :

“Seven defeats in twelve league games.”

And, how hateful, another international break – two long interminably long weeks – for us to stew in our own juices.

Football.

Sometimes I hate you.

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Tales From Mourinho’s Men

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 27 October 2015.

After Saturday’s narrow loss to West Ham United, here was a chance for immediate redemption. A trip to the Britannia Stadium for a Capital One cup tie against Stoke City offered the chance for a little respite from the travails of our surprising implosion in the league. Here was a match in which we could show some fight and bottle. Here was the chance for a calming victory ahead of two monumental home games against Liverpool and Dynamo Kiev. Here was the opportunity to halt our faltering slide.

Or, if some sections of the media would have it, here was a potential banana skin on which Chelsea Football Club could have an almighty slip.

In other seasons, perhaps, I may not have fancied a three-hundred mile round trip during the week for a League Cup tie. Historically, this game might have been one that I might have missed. However, I have an emotional tie with the city of Stoke-on-Trent which meant that I had decided as soon as the draw was made that I would be attending. I have not missed a Chelsea game in my old college town since a League Cup tie in 1995. I have attended all eight of our games at Stoke City’s new windswept stadium at the top of the hill. Parky was “up for it” too. And last week, Glenn decided to go. The more the merrier.

I left work bang on 3.30pm. Ahead of me, unfortunately, was a grinding three and a half-hour journey, with the early winter evening enveloping us in increasing darkness, in to the heart of The Midlands. I was forever clock-watching. It was a tedious journey, thankfully enlightened with banter along the way.

Once again it seemed that Chelsea Football Club was at the eye of a media storm. All of the focus was on us, and our manager – and owner – especially.

From reading opinions of supporters both in the UK and abroad, both old and new, it was clear that there was a myriad of views. The majority, I have to say, were in support of the beleaguered manager. Yet opinions were hugely varied.

On one hand we had the slash and burn merchants, who wanted the club to dispense of the services of Jose Mourinho, citing the clichéd “losing the dressing room” as one of their main reasons, though there were others. That’s a pretty extreme view in my opinion and not one that I adhere to. And it would be easy, too easy, to make the broad-sweeping assumption that this view was that of the new wave of post Roman, post 2005, post Munich “Johnny Come Lately” half-and-half scarf-wearing new supporters that have sprung up in various parts of the world. This is the view, too, of a few of the so-called “old school” fans also; that we should get shot of Mourinho the loose cannon.

On the other hand, we have the pro-Mourinho faction who believe that dispensing with the services of Chelsea’s most successful manager ever – let that sink in – would be a sure sign of idiocy on a grand scale by the Chelsea board. There was even talk in some quarters of allowing the manager a leave of absence in order for him to be with his very ill father in Portugal, and for him to get his head straight after an increasing number of typically rambunctious outbursts. The view was that Mourinho was “one of our own” and that the club “owed him one.” This is more in line with my feelings. Did you expect anything else?

But I am not a fawning sycophant either. I certainly acknowledge our manager’s odd idiosyncrasies. Some of his outburst have made me cringe. And yes, Mourinho is a cantankerous bugger at times – though, which successful manager isn’t? – but I take great stock in the wise words of respected former players who continually triumph our manager’s fastidious preparations, tactical nous, man-management skills and his love of the club.

Some of his decisions this season – well documented elsewhere, I won’t bore you – have been odd. But I honestly have to say that I find it hilarious – I mean, really hilarious – to read the opinions of various Chelsea supporters who sanctimoniously and pompously deride one of modern football’s greatest managers. And yes – I know – we all have opinions. That’s OK. That is a given. What is the famous cliché? “Football is all about opinions.” Yep. But unfortunately, sadly, I have to read some of them.

It’s lovely – just lovely – when a back-bedroom keyboard warrior in Badgercrack, Nebraska, armed with no experience of playing the sport, nor coaching it at any level, but a rich history of gaming skills on FIFA2016 (“we need to buy Bale as he is awesome”), a nerd like devotion to spending a vast fortune on every Chelsea shirt from the past ten seasons (“no, I can’t afford to travel to London to see The Chels”) and a stomach-churning sense of entitlement (“we have to win at least two cups this year”) starts deriding Jose Mourinho.

At around 6pm, Glenn noted on Facebook that some Chelsea supporters were already ensconced in a few Stoke boozers.

“Tell them we’re still at Walsall, stuck in the last round.”

Eventually, I was parked up. It was bang on 7pm. Just right. I had predicted a crowd of around 20,000, but the roads around the stadium were full of cars. On the slow ascent up the hill and over the canal, the lights of the stadium lit up the darkness of a Staffordshire evening. Inside the stadium, it was soon clear that we had brought reassuringly large numbers up to The Potteries on this Tuesday night. The away section – an entire end, just like my first visit for that FA Cup tie in 2003 – was filling up nicely. This was a great show of strength from the Chelsea support.

There were rumours that the entire Chelsea board had traveled up for the game. I have to be honest, I was surprised by my reaction to this. At first I thought “ah, good for them – showing support for the team and manager.” But then, another thought entered my head.

“Wait a bloody minute. Shouldn’t they be at every bloody game? We are.”

There is no doubt, though, that certain sections of the media would be twisting this story, putting extra pressure on the manager, with something along the lines of “Chelsea board in crisis meeting at Fenton Travel Lodge as pressure mounts on Mourinho.”

Pah.

We had discussed options for the evening’s team on the drive up.

In the end, the manager went with Begovic, Baba Rahman, Terry, Cahill, Zouma, Mikel, Ramires, Oscar, King Willian, Hazard, Diego Costa.

Before the game, the crowd were treated to the appearance of some members of the League Cup winning team of 1972. In normal circumstances, this would not illicit much of a reaction from the Chelsea following, but the mere mention of the name Gordon Banks meant that these players were given a good round of applause as they posed for photographs. Banks, a World Cup winner in 1966, is one of our most revered football icons. I last saw him at a Tony Waddington testimonial at the old Victoria Ground in the last few months of my life as a student in 1987. It was lovely to see him again, along with some familiar – in my memory – names from the past such as Terry Conroy, Mike Pejic and John Mahoney.

That win – against us of course – in 1972 is Stoke’s only piece of silverware. I wonder if their fans are quite so needy.

There were areas of empty seats in the periphery of the home stands, and a few empty seats in our end, but this was a healthy crowd. The fact that the ticket prices were just £20, and that this was half-term, meant that there were many more schoolchildren in attendance than normal.

With that very quaint, ‘fifties-sounding “We’ll Be With You” song accompanying the teams on to the pitch, the noise was ramped up and the 4,500 or so away supporters were in good voice.

Chelsea began really well, attacking the home end, The Boothen End, away in the distance. This was more like the Chelsea of old, with intelligent passes from Oscar setting Hazard away down the left, and solid work from Mikel and Ramires allowing Willian to shine. Diego Costa looked a threat. We created several chances, though Stoke enjoyed a couple of efforts on our goal too. An overhead kick by Muniesa just dropped over. There was a neatness to our play and it was pleasing to see. Very soon in to the game, the away support rallied behind the manager with loud and extended shouts of his name. It was clear from the onset that the team, the supporters and the manager were as one for this tough encounter.

As it should be on game day.

As I have said before, save the internet jousting for now, and the moans for the bar and car; match days should all be about supporting the team.

A lovely move set up Ramires, but from a very tight angle he could only hit the side netting. It was the closest that we had come.

In the stands, the noise was impressive.

There were songs for Dennis Wise, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Tore Andre Flo.

After a few Stoke challenges were waived away, a new song, born of frustration at West Ham :

“Mourinho’s right, the refs are shite.”

Sadly, Diego Costa was forced to leave the field, after play stopping on two occasions for our medical staff to attend to him. Loic Remy entered the fray. A ferocious effort, again from an angle, from Hazard was blocked well by Butland. Just before the break, Stoke’s best chance of the entire game was snuffed out by a fine falling block by Begovic at the feet of Walters.

There was positive noises at the break; this was better, though the thought of extra-time and penalties (I wouldn’t be back home until around 2am, and I’d have to be up for 6am) loomed large.

Soon into the second period, Stoke took the lead when an unstoppable strike from Jonathan Walters crashed in off the underside of the bar from around twenty-five yards. The goal came out of the blue. It was a rare Stoke attack. We were dumbfounded. Walters reeled away and, for a few moments, was able to forget his nightmare against us in 2013 when he scored two own goals for Chelsea and missed a penalty. The Stoke fans, not as loud these days as ten years ago, belted out “Delilah.”

The mood within the Chelsea end changed a little. We became more anxious. Three visitors from Scotland – Glasgow from their accents – behind me provided a constant barrage of negativity.

“Get about it Chelsea.”

“That Remy is pish, by the way.”

Elsewhere the songs of support were quieter.

I became a little frustrated with the lack of movement, but we kept the ball well. Kurt Zouma was an unlikely threat on the right and he crashed a low shot against the base of Butland’s bar.

Around me, a few Chelsea fans began singing a song from our recent past which doesn’t get aired too often. I first heard it at a wet Fratton Park in 2010. It slowly grew as more and more fans joined in.

“Don’t worry about a thing, ‘cus every little thing is gonna be alright.”

Blind faith, positivism or irony?

I’m not sure.

Mourinho brought on Kenedy for Rahman and Ramires slotted in at left-back. He immediately looked the part and struck a low shot after gliding past a lunge but Butland saved easily. On several occasions, from a grassy knoll behind me, our Glaswegian friends urged the substitute to do the same :

“Shoot, Kenedy.”

Mourinho replaced Ramires with Traore. Things were looking desperate as the ninety minutes neared. To be honest, despite all of our possession, I simply could not see us equalising.

Four minutes of extra-time.

A lifeline.

We won a corner and Willian planted the ball in the six yard box. Like at West Ham on Saturday, King Kurt managed a touch, and the ball fell invitingly for Loic Remy to smash high in to the net.

Get in.

The away end exploded, with bodies falling forward, and arms flailing everywhere. There is nothing like a last minute goal, to win or at least to draw.

“Pish, right?”

Now the Chelsea fans roared the noisiest of the entire match. It was deafening. To add to our joy, Bardsley was sent off for a rash challenge on Kenedy as he broke down below us. I was convinced that we would now prevail. Our confidence would be high, Stoke’s low, and we had the extra man. Let’s win this one boys.

It was more of the same in both periods of extra-time. Tons of Chelsea possession, but unable to break through the Stoke ranks. I loved the way that Mikel was applauded by sections of our support for his steady play throughout the game. He rarely gave the ball away and even played a few fine balls forward. Traore and Hazard came close. The time flew past. Our attempts on goal stacked up, with Stoke only rarely threatening. A fine save from that man Butland from Kenedy was the last effort of the one hundred and twenty minutes.

Penalties.

Although I had witnessed penalties on the summer tour in Charlotte and DC, this would be most Chelsea supporters’ first experience of them since a night in Munich over three years ago.

I was annoyed that they would be taken, like Munich, at the home end.

Stoke – Adam : in.

Chelsea – Willian – in.

Stoke – Odemwingie – in.

Chelsea – Oscar – in.

Stoke – Shaqiri – in.

Chelsea – Remy : in.

Stoke – Wilson : in.

Chelsea – Zouma : in.

Stoke – Arnautiovic : in.

Chelsea – Hazard.

Oh dear. It was all down to Eden, our troubled maestro. A goal for survival, or a miss and a continuation of his personal nightmare. A goal to save Mourinho more misery, or a goal to go in to sudden death. A goal for survival. His run up was relaxed, but his high blast was spectacularly palmed over by Butland. He slumped. We all slumped.

I gathered my bag and quietly and quickly left.

During the entire evening, there had been nothing but noisy encouragement from the travelling hordes, and this tide of positivism continued as I joined in the clapping of the players as they left the pitch. There was certainly no hint of any boos.

It had been a tough loss, but there were lots of fine things to come out of the night.

A phenomenal away support had roared the team on. On another night, in any other season apart from this one, we would have won easily. This season, we seem fated to miss out, occasionally by the narrowest of margins. As I drove home, there were similar messages of hope being shared by many. Glenn, his away games a rare treat these days, had bloody loved it.

It was a tiring drive home. As I turned off the M4 at Bath, I was plagued with heavy fog lapping at my car, which meant that – painfully – I had to slow right down. I eventually reached home at 1.45am.

It had been, I’ll be honest, an enjoyable evening and night in Staffordshire.

There were more positives than negatives.

I’ve seen us lose so many over the years, that one more won’t kill me.

And I always love a sing-song with four thousand close friends.

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