Tales From The Long Goodbye

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 21 May 2017.

If ever the old adage of “Chelsea is not just about football” was true, then it was certainly true for our last league game of the season against relegated Sunderland. And although there was chatter among some fans for us to achieve a Premier League record thirty wins, my mind was full of anticipation for the trophy celebrations at the end of the game. To be honest, I thought that the win was a foregone conclusion. Sunderland have finished bottom of the division for a reason. Label me, for once, as being blasé, but I am sure that I was not alone. There was also the emotion of John Terry’s last-ever appearance in a Chelsea shirt at Stamford Bridge. I wasn’t quite sure how that would play out, but it promised to be quite a day.

On the Saturday evening, I replayed John Terry’s speech at the end of our last game of the 2015/16 season, when he spoke of the team’s struggles throughout the campaign, but also of his desire to stay at Stamford Bridge for another year, and to indeed retire as a Chelsea man. On several occasions, his voice faltered. Always an emotional man, I honestly wondered how on Earth he would cope one year later. For us fans, a day of high emotion was on the cards. For him, it would be even more intense. I had a feeling that everything would be about our captain. There was a realisation that it would possibly overshadow, if that is possible, the trophy presentation. Oh well. Whatever will be will be, as they say in football circles.

While I was watching John Terry on “You Tube” on Saturday evening, many other Chelsea pals were at an event at Stamford Bridge which paid homage to Eddie McCreadie’s team of the mid- ‘seventies. It represented his first appearance at Chelsea since he was sacked in 1977 – infamously for allegedly asking the board for a company car – and it was a major coup. For decades, he had not ventured from his new home in Tennessee due to his fear of flying. It looked like a top night. For once, I looked on from afar, and lived vicariously through the photographs of others. Many of the players from that era had attended the event. Lovely stuff.

On the Sunday morning, an early start for The Chuckle Bus, I drove up to London for the last time this season. For the FA Cup on Saturday, Glenn is driving; I will be able to relax and enjoy a few pints ahead of a final hurrah at Wembley. Glenn and myself headed down to the ground early on. We made a bee-line for the hotel where I hoped to be lucky enough to bump in to Eddie Mac. We stayed for a while, met a few friends, but our former manager was elsewhere. Not to worry, I got to meet Steve Wicks – our “flaxen-haired pivot” as much-lampooned former programme editor Colin Benson described him during his second spell at the club from 1986 to 1988 – and it is always lovely to meet former heroes. I wondered if Eddie McCreadie would be on the pitch at half-time. I never ever saw him play for us. There was also a quick word of welcome to former manager Ken Shellito, now living in Malaysia. Brilliant.

As we headed back to meet up with the lads in “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, we noted that the club were handing out free match programmes. The sun was out. It was going to be a lovely day.

The usual faces had assembled in the pub for our final Chelsea home game of the season. I spotted several Juventus supporters in the little snug upstairs. They were assembling for their game against Crotone which would kick-off at 2pm. It would be a potential league decider. I couldn’t resist saying a few words to them in both Italian and English. It turned out that the boozer is the HQ of the Juve London Supporters Club. What a small world. They spoke of Antonio Conte and of Juan Cuadrado. The two clubs have shared many players and managers over the years, and that’s lovely for me. I showed them a photo on my phone of me at the Stadio Communale in 1988, and this was met with wide smiles. I bellowed “Vinci Per Noi” as I left.

We called in to “The Clarence” – news broke through that JT was starting –  and then made our way to Stamford Bridge, bumping into others en route. On the approach to the stadium, Fulham Road was adorned with signs declaring “The Home Of The Champions.” There already was an air of celebration in the air. The football match almost seemed an afterthought.

I briefly centred my thoughts on our team. I had presumed that JT might come on as a substitute, probably for Gary Cahill, so he could be on the pitch at the end of the game. Antonio Conte had obviously decided upon other plans. Elsewhere, a strong team, and with Fabregas instead of Matic and Willian instead of Pedro.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Terry, Luiz – Moses, Kante, Fabregas, Alonso – Willian, Costa, Hazard.

The hotel was being used as a canvas for two huge murals. To the left was a large image of John Terry and Antonio Conte in an embrace. To the right, the two words being uttered by them both :

“Thanks.”

“Grazie.”

Perfect.

Sunderland had brought down 1,500 from the north-east. It has been a Weary season for them. Their supporters looked like a sea of red-and-white striped deckchairs in the lazy summer sun. The minutes passed by. The usual pre-match Chelsea songs echoed around the packed stands.

It seemed that every seat was being used. Sadly, down below me in the Matthew Harding Lower, one seat was empty. After being recently hospitalised, Cathy was forced to miss her first Chelsea home game since 1976, and only her second one ever since that date. She was undoubtedly in my thoughts, and in the thoughts of others, throughout the day. I have known Cathy as a “Chelsea face” for decades, but only really got to know her via trips to the US in 2006 and 2007. Her support has known no bounds. I hoped that her next match would be at Wembley next weekend.

“Get well soon, Cath.”

The league season had begun with the silvery shimmer of the Italian flag in the Matthew Harding Upper. As the teams appeared on the touchline, The Shed unravelled its most ambitious project yet; yet more shimmering mosaics, horizontal blue and white, with a large image of John Terry centrally-placed, and with trophies in front. Then, a huge sign was draped over the balcony –

“THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING.”

There was another JT-themed flag in the Matthew Harding Lower below me. On the pitch, our captain led the team out with his two children Summer and George walking alongside him. It was a spectacular scene. The applause increased. Flames roared in front of the East Lower. Bathed in sunshine, a riot of colour, Stamford Bridge had rarely looked more photogenic.

The game had barely begun when the home crowd boomed “Antonio! Antonio! Antonio!” and the dapper Italian did a slow 360-degree salute to us.

Soon after, the crowd followed this up with a chant for Roman Abramovich. To my surprise, not only did the bashful owner smile and wave, he stood up too. Bless him. It is only right that we show him some love too.

Our game at the Stadium of Light in December was a 1-0 win – that Courtois save, wow – and had given us three vital away points. It seemed like a highly important victory at the time. It gave us belief heading in to Christmas. How odd that they could not break through on that night, but it only took them three minutes in the home game. A Sunderland free-kick resulted in a ball ending up at the feet of the unmarked Javier Manquillio – who? – at the far post. As John Terry scrambled to cover, the Sunderland player smashed the ball past Thibaut.

Oh bugger it.

There would not be another clean sheet for our ‘keeper.

On six minutes, the away fans in the far corner began singing in honour of their own club legend.

“One Bradley Lowery, there’s only one Bradley Lowery.”

I joined in, momentarily, but I was in the minority. The away fans sang away, bless them. At the end of the sixth minute, we were awarded a free-kick. Marcos Alonso slammed a curler against the bar and we watched with increasing incredulity as player after player passed the ball in and around the packed deck-chairs inside the Sunderland box.

The ball came out to Diego Costa, who shifted the ball to Eden Hazard, who moved it on to George Hilsdon. Then the ball was swept out to Jimmy Windridge, then to Tommy Law, then to Hughie Gallacher. A shot was blocked. Tommy Lawton pushed the ball to Tommy Walker, then to Roy Bentley. Another blocked shot. The ball fell to Ken Shellito, who shimmied past his marker, and touched the ball inside to Barry Bridges. A firm tackle robbed him of the ball, but John Hollins pounced and won the ball back. A fine move involving Clive Walker, Pat Nevin, Kerry Dixon, Gianluca Vialli and Claude Makelele set up Frank Lampard. His shot ricocheted into the path of John Terry, who swiped at the ball but could not connect. Eventually, the ball reached Willian who smashed the ball home.

Thank fuck for that.

Willian leapt in the air right in front of a gaggle of mates who were watching in the Shed Lower. The ground, unsurprisingly, roared.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

We went close on several other occasions and were in total control. Willian was right in the middle of everything, causing panic in the Sunderland box whenever he had the ball. John Terry caught a loose ball well but his shot was deflected away for a corner. It came from just outside the “D” of the penalty area. It could have been his crowning glory. He still, I am sure, has not scored from outside the box. Moses fired over. David Luiz went close. It was all Chelsea.

On twenty-six minutes, Jordan Pickford booted the ball off for a throw-in.

“Well, that was odd.”

It then all slotted in to place.

It was obvious that John Terry was to be substituted. I remembered back to 2015 and Didier’s last game when he was carried off by team mates. That seemed a little excessive, but seemed OK in the grand scheme of things. For John Terry, things were more contrived. He clapped us all, received hugs from his team mates and a few Sunderland players, including former blue Fabio Borini, and was given a guard of honour by his Chelsea team mates. Of course, the Chelsea crowd were lapping it all up. I was in two minds. A classy gesture or pure showbiz schmaltz? I am still undecided.

Ron Harris’ thoughts would be interesting to hear.

Regardless, he was given a fine ovation. He was, appropriately, replaced by Gary Cahill.

Alan, ever thoughtful, sent a video of the JT substitution to Cathy in her Middlesex hospital.

Willian, the constant danger, went close. For a while, it seemed implausible that we would not score a second goal. With Diego Costa on the periphery, however, we lacked a goal scoring touch inside the box. Diego was booked for a messy scuffle with John O’Shea, the lanky deck-chair attendant. Would it be one of those Diego games?

At the break, it was tied at 1-1 and we could hardly fathom it.

Sadly, Eddie McCreadie did not make it down to the pitch during the half-time break. Neil Barnett did mention him, though. He was watching from a box in the corporate tier of the West Stand. Additionally, we spotted Claudio Ranieri was sitting a few seats away from Roman.

The second-half began and it was much the same as before. Victor Moses took over Willian’s mantle and put in some lovely advances down the right. On the hour, at last we broke through. Eden Hazard drifted in from the left and effortlessly smashed the ball past Pickford.

We were 2-1 up. Get in.

The noise boomed again around Stamford Bridge. We were winning. Eden had just scored. Roman was happy. We were all happy.

“Carefree. Wherever you may be.”

Antonio was serenaded again. The 360 again. He then replaced Diego Costa with Michy Batshuayi. As he strode off, he too did a 360, but tellingly waved both hands to all four stands.

“He’s off to China then.”

When Pedro replaced Eden on seventy minutes, my eyes seared in to his skull and I begged him not to wave too. Thankfully, he didn’t.

Meanwhile, on Humberside, that lot were scoring five, six, seven. I wondered when they would be allowed to play their three extra games to allow them to be champions this season. At Anfield, Liverpool were winning, thus condemning Arsenal to fifth place. When we ended up in tenth place last season, there were no protests nor public outcry, nor a reduction in attendance figures. After Arsenal’s season – “fifth place, how dare they!!!” – expect the end of the world as we know it.

With around ten minutes to go, Pedro nipped in to head home after Cesc’s long ball was not gathered by Pickford. I was reminded of the same player’s rapid strike against Manchester United in the autumn. His gleeful little dance below me was joy itself.

Bizarrely, man of the moment Michy Batshuayi then scored two further goals in time added on for stoppages. Firstly, an opportunist toe poke from a fine pass from Pedro. He loved that. Soon after, wide on the right, he appeared to be offside and almost gave up the chase on a ball that was pumped in to space. He almost apologetically picked the ball up, strode forward and curled a fine shot past the luckless Pickford.

Chelsea 5 Sunderland 1.

The final whistle followed just after.

Just champion.

Unlike in previous seasons – even when we won it in 2015 – virtually nobody left the stadium. We waited patiently for the trophy presentation. But, I guess, many were waiting for John Terry too. The Sunderland fans gradually drifted away. Elsewhere, the stadium remained at capacity. We waited.

Dennis Wise appeared with the 2016/17 Premier League trophy and slowly walked out to place it on the plinth, which was luckily placed at our end of the stadium. We were in prime seats. Dennis kissed the trophy and smiled the cheekiest of grins. Inexplicably, and to my surprise, my eyes became moist. It was Dennis – “The Rat” – who had hoisted the FA Cup at Wembley in 1997, the greatest day in my life at that time. I was sent reeling back in time, and I welled up. Oh how we celebrated at Wembley on that glorious day. Our club was a different beast in those days. In truth, it felt more like my club in 1997 than in 2017 for reasons which are far too profound for me to tackle at this moment in time. Suffice to say, it all felt a lot more personal and pertinent – and relevant – twenty years ago than now. In 1997, we were a tight bunch. We had been through it all. The FA Cup was a final reward for our years of penury. These days, any Tom, Dick and Harriet supports Chelsea and successes seem to be expected by many.

For those who were there, in 1997, I am sure my emotions are easily understood.

I gathered myself, wiped my eyes, and awaited the next stage of the trophy presentation.

Neil Barnett was the MC.

First up, a few squad members who had not featured, including Eduardo and Masonda. Then, the manager Antonio. What a reaction from the crowd. He looked euphoric. Then, each and every one of the first team regulars were announced. Special cheers for N’Golo, for Eden, for Dave (who had, remarkably, played every single minute of our league campaign this season.)

Then Gary Cahill. Big cheers.

Then John Terry’s face appeared on the TV screen. His bottom lip seemed to be quivering.

“Oh, for fuck sake John, keep it steady.”

The captain walked slowly towards the trophy. A pause. Both John and Gary picked it up. Another pause.

And then the joint lift of the huge trophy above heads.

More flames and tinsel.

GET IN YOU FUCKING BEAUTY.

  1. 2005. 2006. 2010. 2015. 2017.

How sweet it is.

The players were then swamped by wives, girlfriends, sons and daughters, plus the gentlemen of the press. The central area became crowded and too much was going on. We had a superb view of it all but I felt for the fans in The Shed.

“We sort out the pre-match display and are then the forgotten ones.”

The trophy was passed from player to player. We spotted the Sky team of Jamie Carragher, Gary Neville and Graeme Souness chat to Thibaut and Eden.

Inevitably, eyes turned towards John Terry. A montage of his most famous moments in our colours was featured on the TV screens. He stood, motionless, watching too. It looked like his bottom lip was going again. Neil gave him the microphone. His first act was to thank Steve Holland, off to pastures new with England, and he was given a fine reception. John Terry then walked past the photographers and spoke of the love that Roman Abramovich has for the club. For a moment, with John looking up at the owner in his executive area, speaking with such feeling, it resembled a footballing version of Romeo declaring undying love under Juliet’s balcony.

Roman’s name was again given a resounding roar. More embarrassed waves from the owner.

John then spoke of his love for the club, for us fans, but especially his love of his own family.

“I love you all” and his voice broke.

My eyes became a little moist. Good job I had my sunglasses on.

I then wondered if we had all lost the plot.

It’s only football, right?

Shankly was of course wrong. It’s not more important than life and death. What is?

And yet sport – football for me – does stir these incredible emotions. It is not to be laughed at. Football has given me some of my most amazing moments. I could only imagine what John was going through. His last day at his place of work for the past twenty years. A last goodbye.

I have only experienced something similar once before. My last visit to the old Yankee Stadium in 2008 – after twenty-three visits – left me a blubbering wreck. Heaven knows what I will be like when we move out in two years’ time. After around three-hundred and fifty games at Stamford Bridge, John had every right to be suitably moved.

Football has the power to touch us in so many ways and long may it continue.

I stood with Alan, Glenn and PD, our arms around each other’s shoulders.

It was a proud moment for PD; he had completed a full set of league games for the first time ever.

A hug for John Terry with Antonio Conte. A few words from the manager. A last few photographs of the captain in front of the Matthew Harding.

A wave to us.

And then a slow walk down to The Shed.

For many of our new fans, it must seem impossible for a Chelsea with no John Terry. But this club will continue. And we are in a supremely healthy position; the manager has formed a fine team ethos this season. And I know that many words have been written to describe John Terry, but my last comment for now is that during a potentially frustrating season for him, John has exemplified what a consummate professional he is by not giving the media a single story of negativity nor nonsense. For this reason alone, it has been one of his finest seasons. Bless him.

Who knows, he might even score the winner at Wembley next Saturday.

 

For Cathy.

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Tales From Winter On Wearside

Sunderland vs. Chelsea : 14 December 2016.

This was the longest trip of the season. I had set off from deepest darkest Somerset at 6am, with PD and LP keeping me company for the long – 320 miles – drive north. After around seven hours battling the traffic, we finally arrived. We checked into our hotel, no more than a mile from the Stadium of Light. The stadium in fact was clearly visible from my room on the fifth floor. There were clear skies overhead. Winter on Wearside didn’t appear to be as bleak as I had originally thought. Our good friend Kevin, from Edinburgh, soon arrived and joined us for a pint at the hotel bar. The plan was to travel by train to Newcastle – a far more interesting and photogenic city a few miles to the north – but we soon decided to cut our losses and stay in Sunderland. On the walk in to the centre, we spotted a few half-decent pubs. We popped in to the first one – “Vesta Tilley’s” – and were suitably impressed that four pints cost just over a tenner.

Over the road, we popped into “The Dun Cow” and I immediately fell in love with it. It was a fantastic find. Outside, it was an architectural gem, with intricrate stone carvings above its bay windows, ornate roof gables and even a clock tower. Inside, it was a classic old-fashioned pub, with mirrors, stained-glass, wooden panels, shiny beer pumps, a plethora of ales, and a very warm atmosphere.

The four of us spotted a free table in the “snug” at the rear of the pub.

A “Birra Moretti” never tasted better.

I quickly toasted Everton Football Club, who had miraculously defeated Arsenal 2-1 the previous night. This simply meant one thing; if we won our game against Sunderland later that evening, we would be six points clear at the very top of the most competitive league in the world. And it would mean that we would stretch our consecutive win streak to a mighty ten games.

We chatted about the season so far, and a host of other topics. Two lads from Stockport – Mike and Liam, both Chelsea – were sat close by, and soon into the introductions it transpired that Liam had sat right next to Kevin in the home seats at Porto last September. What a bloody small world. Quite ridiculous.

My good friend Orlin – from first Sofia and then San Francisco – arrived with his two pals Ivan and Plamen, and it was a pleasure to see them. Orlin, evidently keen to experience as many new football experiences in England as he can, had dropped in to Elland Road on the previous night for Leeds United’s game with Norwich City. He had enjoyed it. The rawness of it all. The fervour of the home support. The noise. The passion. I reminded him of Leeds’ last league game against us, at Stamford Bridge in May 2004, when I remember the South Yorkshire legions claiming – with certainly a hint of truth – “if it wasn’t for the Russian you’d be us.” Peter Ridsdale and Ken Bates had gambled on spending big and gambling on immediate success, but there was no sugar daddy to step in at Leeds.

Orlin, though still disliking Leeds United, came away from their game with a little respect, and I think it shocked him.

Fellow season ticket holder Ian, with a few mates, and then Pete arrived. This was clearly becoming a base camp for many.

Kev’s two pals from Edinburgh John and Gary then joined us and the beers flowed at a more rapid pace. All three are Hearts fans first, and I had an enjoyable chat with them about my visits to Tynecastle in 1982 and 1997, Scottish football in general, and our differing opinions of Pat Nevin. This was obviously turning out to be a fantastically enjoyable pre-match. The four hours raced past.

“Bloody hell, it’s seven o’clock.”

We buttoned our jackets and bounced outside into the night, and over the oxidised green iron Wearmouth Bridge, looking rather beguiling in the evening light, with the rail bridge – ancient and green too – just a few yards to its left. There is something quite wonderful about supporters walking towards a football stadium, lights shining in the distance, our pace quickening as we get close to the ground. I never ever made it to the old Roker Park and it is a shame. It was a mile from the site of the current stadium, towards the North Sea, planted among the terraced streets of Roker. The Stadium of Light stands alone, high on the exposed banks of the Wear as it wriggles its ugly way into the sea.

I quickly gobbled down a cheeseburger with onions. Past the Bob Stokoe statue – Leeds again, ha – and I made my way up the many steps to the away deck.

We were inside the stadium with about ten minutes to spare. It meant that we had missed out on those special moments involving Sunderland supporter Bradley Lowery, the brave five-year-old lad who has been given a few more months to live, and who has captured the hearts of many. As the teams entered the pitch down below, the hearty Chelsea following of almost three thousand roared our support.

The news that Eden Hazard had not travelled to Sunderland had been the breaking story of the morning. We had wondered if Willian would come in for him; it was no surprise to see him in the starting line-up. A bigger surprise, no doubt, was the inclusion of Cesc Fabregas at the expense of Nemanja Matic. Elsewhere there were familiar faces.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill.

Alonso, Kante, Fabregas, Moses.

Pedro, Costa, Willian.

Our seats were virtually in the same position as our visit in May. On that day – when we had meekly lost 3-2 – we were concerned that we had probably witnessed John Terry’s last-ever game for us. Who would have thought that he would get an extra season, yet we would not be unduly worried that his absence from our team over the past two months would cause little concern? It is a mark of his professionalism that he has quietly supported the team from the side-line, knowing that a winning team is paramount. Nine wins in a row without John Terry? Who would have ever thought it?

Sunderland’s team included three former Chelsea players; Patrick Van Aaanholt, Papy Djilobodji and Fabio Borini. I had bright hopes for two of those, but never the other. On the side-lines were our man Antonio Conte and their man David Moyes. The football world had bright hopes for Moyes at one stage. How his star has fallen since leaving Goodison Park.

The stadium was pretty full, but there were sections of empty seats in the upper tier to our right, beyond the packed Chelsea section.

The game was in its first few nascent stages when both sets of fans acknowledged brave Bradley. A number five shirt – Lowery – was displayed on the TV screen – and we all clapped, the noise ringing around the stadium. Very soon we joined in with a song.

“One Bradley Lowery. There’s only one Bradley Lowery. One Bradley Lowery.”

Lovely stuff.

Lovely apart from one boorish fan behind me who decided to sing “one Matthew Harding” instead. I turned around, shook my head and glowered at him. I won’t mention him by name, but he’s a prominent face – and famously ugly – at all Chelsea games, and he has always struck me as a tedious fucker. And that moment just proved it.

Chelsea enjoyed much of the early possession, but Adnan Januzaj had the first effort on goal. I was proud of the way we got behind the team. It was clear that not only our little group of Chelsea followers had enjoyed the hospitality and cheap prices of the boozers of the North-East. We were keeping the ball well, moving it quickly, and we tried our best to carve out a chance. Sunderland had the occasional effort, but Courtois was in commanding form. A chance fell to Diego, bit his volley was well off target. In a packed box, Pedro was found, and he drew a fine save from Sunderland’s Jason Pickford. A David Luiz free-kick tested the Sunderland ‘keeper. We were turning the screw. With five minutes of the half remaining, a fine move through the middle resulted in a lovely one-two between Cesc and Willian. I was able to watch the path of the ball as Fabregas calmly stroked the ball past the home ‘keeper and in to the goal.

How we roared.

And how we celebrated, with the players down below us enjoying it equally as much as us.

GET IN.

Whisper it, but our tenth win in a row was on the cards.

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

Chris : “Come on wo’little diamonds.”

The away end soon sung praise to the scorer.

“He’s got a magic hat.”

Diego headed weakly over and then Willian went close with a free-kick from just outside the box.

There were positive vibes at the break. The drinkers in our support topped up their alcohol levels and the noise continued as the game continued.

In virtually the first move of the second-half, the ever-troublesome Jermaine Defoe attacked us at the heart of our defence and played in Januzaj. His low shot was flicked away by Courtois’ outstretched left leg. It was a fine save.

For virtually the rest of the game, it was all Chelsea. Willian set up Moses who blasted wide. Willian’s shot was deflected on to the bar. It seemed that a second goal was only a heartbeat away. A fine run and shot from Costa. Moses flashing wide, then Willian, both after losing markers with a shimmy this way and that. It was all Chelsea.

“We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league.”

Alonso at Pickford. Willian at Pickford. For some reason the second goal just would not come. A single thought flashed through my mind –

“Bloody hell, how disappointing it will be if we conceded a goal and we only drew.”

Nemanja Matic replaced Pedro, and the domination continued.

A run from deep from Costa and their ‘keeper scrambled to save at his feet before he could pull the trigger. A delightful dink from Costa to Fabregas but his volley was well wide.

Chalobah for Willian. Ivanovic for Moses.

Sunderland then caused us to rue all of our missed chances when they pumped a few high balls into our area. After one clearance was knocked out to Van Aanholt on the edge of the box, we watched – agonising stuff – as the ball seemed to be flying into the goal. Thibaut leaped to his right, flung his arm up, and clawed it away.

It was a stunning save.

The away end erupted as if a goal had been scored.

“Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut!”

Phew. It should have been 3-0, maybe 4-0. It could have been 1-1.

We had done it.

Ten league wins in a row.

I quickly posted an image of Bo Derek on “Facebook” and I felt sure more than a handful of fellow fans would “get it.” Down the stairwell, the noise bounced off the walls.

“Antonio, Antonio, Ten In A Row.”

Outside, we strode back in to town, and it seemed that the majority of home support had buggered off early, leaving our path clear. We met up with Daryl and Simon, who along with Alan and Gary had travelled up on the discounted club train. There was a long and tiring journey for them to look forward to. I, for one, after a long drive, eight pints and a tense game of football, was supremely happy that I had a bed just ten minutes away.

A kebab and chips on the walk back to the hotel was followed by a gin and tonic in the hotel bar.

It had been a long day and now it was time for slumberland in Sunderland.

Our third game in seven days takes place at Selhurst Park on Saturday.

Let’s make it eleven.

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Tales From Tyne And Wear

Sunderland vs. Chelsea : 7 May 2016.

The four of us were in town. I had traveled up from the West of England with PD and Parky. Kev had traveled down by train from Edinburgh. The plan was to enjoy a little pub crawl in Newcastle, where we would be staying that night, before heading off by metro to the game in Sunderland. First up – my choice – was “The Strawberry” right outside the Gallowgate End at St. James’ Park. Away fans rarely get a look in on match days, hence my desire to visit it on this particular day. What a fantastic pub; small and cosy, with Newcastle United photographs and memorabilia on every wall. We continued our little trip, heading down the hill towards the station, and called into “Rosie’s Bar” and then “The Mile Castle.”

We bumped into a few Chelsea fans at the train station, then grew frustrated as our journey was delayed by a slow-moving train.

“Don’t think we’ll make the kick-off, boys.”

The walk from the Stadium of Light metro station to the ground took around ten minutes. We found ourselves walking through the alleyways between red-bricked terraced streets. The white steel supports of the Stadium of Light were shrouded in mist. It might have been May, but it seemed like the month of November. There was no time to waste. We could hear the crowd’s muffled sounds from inside the stadium’s white casing. Deep inside there was a voice begging Chelsea not to score until we were in. It was a deep irony that even though I had been awake before the alarm at 3.40am, I would still miss the bloody kick-off. The eight or ten flights of stairs were eventually navigated and – deep breaths – we were in. I glanced up a TV screen inside the concourse. We had missed just eight minutes.

Phew.

I am a very rare visitor to Sunderland. I never ever made it to Roker Park. This would only be my third visit to the Stadium of Light. My first visit was in 1999, when a Kevin Phillips hat-trick helped inflict a 4-1 defeat on the boys. In 2009, the last game of the season, we won 3-2 in a game which brought me a fair bit of pride at the time; it marked the first time that I had watched all thirty-eight league games, home and away, the full set. On that day, while we were battling Sunderland, their fierce local rivals Newcastle United were losing at Aston Villa, a result which relegated the Geordies. I can well remember the home fans booming with joy when they heard the Newcastle result. Damian Duff, if I am not mistaken, assisted in the loss, scoring an own goal.

In 2016, seven years on, fate had transpired to replicate the set of fixtures.

Aston Villa vs. Newcastle United.

Sunderland vs. Chelsea.

The joke during the week had been that Chelsea would win at Sunderland, Newcastle would win at Villa – of course – and we would get back to a jubilant Newcastle town centre, where friendly locals would buy us drinks all night.

That was the idea.

Before these two twin games, we heard that Norwich City – the other protagonists attempting to avoid the relegation trap door – had narrowly lost 1-0 at home to Manchester United. I wasn’t exactly sure of how that left things. At one stage it appeared that our weekend on Tyne and Wear might well be a “so long farewell” to the region’s two teams. Now, with Norwich looking unlikely to avoid the drop, the script had further changed.

I shuffled along the row to stand beside Alan and Gary, with Parky soon joining me. Our away end seemed pretty full. It was a good showing. In the previous two visits, the away section was in the southern end; the single tier. In 1999, to the left, in 2009, to the right. Since then, shades of St. James’ Park, the away crowd has been banished to an upper tier, behind the goal to the north. It was a fine view to be fair. The crowd was virtually a sell-out. A few pockets of empty seats around and about, but a good show by the locals.

Sunderland in their famous red and white stripes, black shorts and black socks.

Chelsea – keeping it simple – in the traditional blue, blue, white.

Time to quickly scan the starting eleven.

Courtois – Dave, JT, Cahill, Brana – Matic, Mikel – Willian, Fabregas, Hazard – Diego Costa.

In 2014/2015, this would have been regarded as our strongest starting eleven. This season, we have been wondering why the same eleven have rarely showed up en masse. What a year it has been.

Just as I was settling, getting my bearings, warming up my vocal chords, we pushed deep in to the Sunderland box, and Diego Costa picked up a loose ball down below us. An instinctive shot at goal – one touch – had Mannone beaten. As easy as that, we were 1-0 up.

Alan : “They’ll have to came at wo’now, like.”

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

How nice of the boys to wait until we had settled in before scoring.

The game opened up a little, with Chelsea in the ascendancy, but there were a number of half-chances for both teams. Ivanovic zipped a low cross right the way past the goal, but there was no Chelsea body close enough to convert. Down at the far end, the Chelsea defence was well-marshaled by John Terry, and Courtois was able to gather any high balls lofted towards him.

However, a free-kick was not sufficiently cleared, and it fell to USPA (Unknown Sunderland Player A). Although a long way out, USPA steadied himself, and took a swipe at the ball. We watched mesmerised as the ball flew into the Chelsea goal.

Bloody hell. What a goal. I didn’t applaud it, but I felt like doing so.

“Cracking goal. The way he kept it down.”

It brought me no satisfaction to see USPA – Wahbi Khazri, I think I prefer USPA – celebrate with the home fans, who hadn’t been as loud as I had expected until then. It ignited them, but we were soon back on top. Just a few minutes later – deep in to injury time in fact – Sunderland’s defenders were at sixes and sevens, allowing Dave to set up Matic. He had not had a great first-half, in the same way that he has not had a great season, so it was odd to see him calmly advance and slot home. We celebrated wildly, while he was mobbed by his team mates below us.

Phew. We rode our luck a bit, but in we went at the break.

2-1 up.

Those free drinks back in The Toon were on my mind.

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles to the south, it was 0-0 at Villa Park.

We began the second-half in relatively fine fettle. We dominated possession, and looked at ease. However, time and time again, we seemed intent on taking one extra touch, and one extra touch especially in front of goal. We were getting behind the Sunderland defensive line, and creating a few chances. Hazard seemed to be full of tricks, and set up Diego Costa, but his shot was blocked by the ‘keeper.

Another lovely move, reminiscent of our play from last season, involving Hazard and Fabregas, and then Diego Costa, had us all on our feet, expecting a goal.

It went something like this.

Eden Hazard.

Pass.

Cesc Fabregas.

“Shoot, for fuck sake.”

One touch.

Pass.

Diego Costa.

“Shoot, for fuck sake.”

One touch.

Shot.

Smothered by Mannone.

“Bollocks.”

Although I was stood in the first half, now I was sat, resting my feet. It had been a long old day. I had already been awake for more than twelve hours. I was awake before the alarm sounded, and awake even before the dawn chorus. Our early-morning flight from Bristol to Newcastle seemed ages ago. Our singing wasn’t great as the game went on. There was one song which dominated, and – if I am honest – it is starting to annoy me a little.

Frank Lampard. Two hundred. West Ham United.

Sunderland weren’t giving up, and they grew stronger. I noticed that Branislav Ivanovic was on the floor on the half-way line, and it was easy to spot that a few Chelsea players were distracted. As the move developed I sensed fear. Patrick Van Aanholt – when he first broke in to our team, I rated him more than Ryan Bertrand – was able to pull the ball back for Fabio Borini – another former Chelsea player – to strike. Courtois, not exactly flavour of the month in the away section, seemed to react slowly, and the ball half-heartedly, apologetically, squeezed past his late dive.

2-2.

“Bollocks.”

Hiddink replaced Ivanovic with Baba Rahman, with Azpilicueta switching to right back.

Within a few seconds, we were all regretting the substitution. A rash, poorly-timed challenge by Baba, set USPB – DeAndre Yedlin –  up to cross from the right. We again sensed fear. A deflection set the ball up perfectly for Jermaine Defoe to smack home.

The Stadium of Light boomed. I watched as the folks sitting in the front row of the main stand to my right– plus those on the Sunderland bench – jumped to their feet and raced a few yards ahead, energised and electrified. I knew how they felt. On Monday, we had felt the same against Tottenham.

Hiddink replaced a very quiet Willian with Oscar, and Mikel with Traore. We still kept pressing, but a goal never ever seemed likely. Baba continued to make hopeless, ill-timed challenges. I want him to do well, but he looks so green it hurts. Our play stalled. We lost all drive. The mood among the away support was deteriorating with every minute. Bloody hell, Chelsea.

Things would get worse still.

I had missed Gary Cahill’s booking in the first minute.

I witnessed John Terry’s booking on the eighty-seventh minute.

As yet another Chelsea attack looked like petering out, the ball was cleared and was bouncing in no man’s land on the halfway line. I saw John Terry racing towards the ball, along with Sunderland’s Sebastian Larsson. My thoughts were this :

“Good on you John. At least you care. Good to see you trying your damnedest to keep the ball alive, to keep the ball in our possession, go on my son!”

Both players leapt for the ball, both legs were high. My honest appraisal at the time was this :

“50/50 ball. Maybe our free-kick.”

Both players stayed on the floor.

My next thought.

“Not like JT to stay down. God, hope his Chelsea career hasn’t ended right there.”

I then saw referee Mike Jones brandishing a yellow card at John Terry, scrambling to his feet, and then – the enormity of it all – a red card.”

Oh no.

Thoughts whizzed through my head.

There had been no news about a contract extension over the past few months. The silence had been deafening. No news from the club. No news from Antonio Conte. No hint of another year. Silence. Damned silence.

A red card. A two game ban?

That’s it.

We had – surely – just witnessed John Terry’s last-ever game for Chelsea Football Club.

I watched through my telephoto lens as he walked, stony-faced, past Hiddink and down the tunnel.

Photograph one.

Photograph two.

No more.

No more John Terry.

My heart sank.

The game ran its course. It was a horrible loss. After the euphoria of the draw against Tottenham on Monday – football at its best, Chelsea at our best – we stood disbelieving at the lack-lustre show from the team in the second-half. Outside, with the wind bitterly biting at us from all directions, we met up, and began a slow march in to Sunderland town centre. Alan and Gary were due to catch the subsidized Chelsea special back to London at 6.45pm, so we decided to share a couple of pints with them in a central pub. Sunderland fans, of course, were boiling over with joy. We edged past the lovely statue of Bob Stokoe – Wembley 1973 – and then out on to the main road. The bridge over the River Wear, a poor man’s version of the grander one over the Tyne, was shrouded in mist. Whereas Newcastle is a grand city in every sense of the word – architecturally pleasing, an iconic and photogenic setting on that deep gorge, with fine shopping, nightlife, attractions – Sunderland pales by comparison. Its town centre resembles a ghost town. It is no wonder Geordies look down their collective civic noses at their near neighbours.

Inside “The William Jameson”, we raised pints to John Terry.

Reports came through of him throwing his armband down, of a two game ban, of this being his last game.

How typical of this mess of a season. It was the perfect metaphor for the campaign. And how typical for John Terry too. Undoubtedly he has enjoyed a wonderful career at Chelsea; a fantastic leader, a respected captain, and well honoured in his time at Stamford Bridge. And yet. And yet. John missed our most famous game – Munich 2012 – due to an indiscretion in Camp Nou. He missed the Europa League Final too. His most famous moment, in some circles, was the infamous slip in Moscow. It has not been a career without blemishes. There have been indiscretions. And how typical, how Terryesque, that his Chelsea career would end with a sending off. There would not even be a grand finale at Stamford Bridge against Leicester City.

Bloody hell.

Newcastle had only managed a 0-0 draw at Aston Villa. Sunderland were now in the ascendency. A win for them against Everton on Wednesday would keep them up.

All of a sudden, I wanted the season to end. The trip to Anfield on Wednesday hardly enthused me; it would surely prove to be one of the least anticipated trips with Chelsea for ages. There would be the bittersweet last game of the season against the new champions, but I was ready for the summer.

We said our goodbyes to Alan and Gary, then headed back in to Newcastle. There were laughs on the return journey, and the four of us were soon enjoying pints in a number of town centre pubs. Newcastle is such a fantastic city that our poor loss against Sunderland soon drifted away from our collective thoughts. “The Bridge Hotel” overlooking the river, and live action on the TV of Leicester City’s celebrations. “Akenside Traders” and an ‘eighties sing-song, and some Burnley fans celebrating a promotion. A quiet pint in the “Pitcher & Piano” overlooking the floodlit Millennium Bridge. Then up in to town and yet more drinks at “Sam Jack’s” and laughs with a few Chelsea fans out on the town. Then down to “The Rose & Crown”, with a karaoke, and a chat with a Leicester City fan – so happy – and a Brighton fan – so low after only a draw at ‘Boro. The lagers gave way to gin and tonics. Our chats became blurred. After a day in Tyne and Wear, we were getting a little tired and weary. The night continued but there were no free drinks for us Chelsea fans this time. In fact, I think I bought the Leicester City fan a drink, but it’s all a bit hazy.

Ah, the madness of a night on the toon.

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Tales From Typical Chelsea

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 19 April 2014.

This was a match that I just couldn’t wait to attend. In this bewildering football season, a rather forgotten striker by the name of Connor Wickham had effectively opened the fight for the title right up. His two goals at The Etihad during the week had taken the edge away from Manchester City. Suddenly, miraculously, Chelsea were back into contention. Although the media love-fest with Liverpool had shown no sign of abating, the tantalising truth was this –

If we rolled off four league wins in a row, Chelsea Football Club would be league champions for the fifth time in our history and for the fourth time in just ten seasons.

I was up early – too early, 6.45am – and began the day with a few errands. At 11.45am I had collected Young Jake from Trowbridge, at midday Lord Parky joined us and Bournemouth Steve was picked up at Amesbury Services, close to Stonehenge, at 1pm. The sense of anticipation was palpable. Talk was now of the league, whereas en route to Swansea the Champions League had taken precedence. Of the two, I found it hard to choose. But, to be honest, why did I have to choose? Whatever will be will surely be. After a few miles, I gulped down a can of Starbucks double-espresso (my second of the trip) while Parky and Jake were on the lager.

On the way up, Young Jake asked Parky and I about our favourite Chelsea goals that I had seen live. My stock answer to this question has always been the same. Had I been present at the Chelsea vs. Norwich City cup replay in 2002, I might have chosen Gianfranco Zola’s impudent flick. My answer came from a few years earlier.

What was my favourite ever Chelsea goal? It was Gus Poyet’s scissor-kick volley from Gianfranco Zola’s sublime lob in our league opener against Sunderland on Saturday 7 August 1999. As I reminisced, I easily remembered the complete joy that I had experienced on that sunny Saturday almost fifteen years previously. Although the shot from Poyet was magnificent enough, it was the other-worldly lob from our Sicilian maestro which made it so wonderful. Zola’s vision and intelligence, plus his perfect application, still makes warms me after all these years.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F_lkik83PMc

I love the way that Zola controls the ball and touches it – caresses it – into the correct position in order for his audacious assist. It was pure artistic brilliance. The goal sent the Stamford Bridge stadium into a blue frenzy. Immediately after, I recollect that my friend Glenn and I clambered up to the walkway immediately behind our seats and, there and then, recreated the high-kick from Poyet. We were already calling it the goal of the season. What wonderful and happy memories.

The irony of Poyet (who has had a love-hate relationship with us Chelsea supporters since his departure in 2001) returning to Stamford Bridge with Sunderland was not lost on me.

So, Connor Wickham. I pondered what role his two goals at Manchester City might play in the final outcome of the league title. In truth, the goals may not mean much at all. The championship is decided after each participant has played thirty-eight games. The two goals at City may be a minor detail. However, with just four games to go, it meant that City’s final position was not, now, in their hands. It pushed the advantage back towards firstly Liverpool, but also us. I was bristling with excitement throughout the last few miles of the journey. It was a fine day in London. Let the fun begin.

It was a typical pre-match in The Goose. Talk was of other things – not really the Sunderland game – and a few lads were full of Madrid and, whisper it, Lisbon. As I lined up in the queue for the turnstiles underneath the blue sky above the Matthew Harding stand, it dawned on me that a win against the bottom team in the division was perceived by many to be a foregone conclusion.

Did I? Well, maybe yes. Guilty.

I checked the team.

In came Mark Schwarzer to replace Petr Cech. The back-four picked itself. Matic and Ramires holding. The attacking three were Willian, Oscar and Salah. Upfront, alone, Samuel Eto’o.

Sunderland only brought around eight hundred fans.

We were a little laboured at the start and I commented to Alan that there was a lack of a spring in our step. Was this the result of our number of games this season? Debateable.  A shot from our former striker Borini flashed wide, but soon after a Chelsea move led to a corner, from where we struck. A nicely played delivery from Willian, with just the correct amount of pace and dip, found Samuel Eto’o, with held off a half-hearted challenge to volley home from the six-yard box.

Eto’o wheeled away to celebrate in front of the Chelsea match.

Alan : “They’ll have come at us naaaa, like.”

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

Pressure off? Not a bit of it.

Sunderland worked a corner well, though our collective lapse in concentration was culpable, with the ball being played back to the unmarked Alonso. He volley flew through a pack of players and Schwarzer was unable to gather. The ball spilled away from him and Connor Wickham, yes him, neatly flicked home.

1-1.

The game opened up, and Oscar had shots on goal. On thirty-five minutes, another Willian corner produced more uncertainty in the Sunderland box. On this occasion, a thundering Ivanovic header was forced up on to the underside of the bar by Manone. Matic  fancied a dig from outside the box, but Manone saved. Sala, playing well on our right, reacted well but Manone just reached the cross before Eto’o could pounce.

There was frustration at the break, despite some good work from Salah, Matic, Oscar and Willian. Eto’o had shown good control, eager to go and find the ball, but I sensed the need for an extra presence in the box. I suggested that Ramires should be replaced by Demba Ba, with us playing 4-1-3-2. Did we need two defensive midfielders at home against lowly Sunderland?

“I won’t worry. Mourinho will sort it out.”

The second-half began and we began well. Willian, from deep, ran with the ball for what seemed an eternity. With the Sunderland defenders back-peddling and seemingly over-stretched, Eto’o was played in. His deliberate shot curled tantalisingly past the post. I was already up and celebrating. I howled in agony. On the hour, Jose replaced the fitful Oscar with Demba Ba. I was very pleased to hear the home support rallying behind the team in their half-hour of need. This was good stuff. I felt encouraged and hoped that the players could feed off the positivity. Willian teed up Ba, but our striker was off balance and his shot was screwed off target.

Mourinho replaced the tiring Salah with Schurrle and I implored him to stay wide and hug the line. Some half-chances came and went. A shot from Schurrle drew a save from Manone. We were on top, but lacked a finish. The cutting edge, the cliché of our season, was nowhere to be seen.

With a quarter of an hour left, Fernando Torres replaced Eto’o. A spectacular bicycle-kick from one of many Willian corners flew over. A Torres header was saved. The clock ticked. The atmosphere grew more nervous.

With less than ten minutes remaining, the usually steady and reliable Azpilicueta slipped calamitously as he brought the ball out of defence, with Altidore lurking. I sensed danger immediately.

“Oh no.”

Altidore galloped away, but Azpilicueta lunged at him just before the American was able to pull the trigger. Dave’s challenge – to my eyes, some hundred and twenty yards away – looked like a definite penalty. Mike Dean – “the Scouser in the black” was never more apt – had already ignited a great deal of animosity within our ranks all afternoon and he added to his role as a figure of hate by pointing to the spot.

Two things hit me.

If they score this, we will probably be right out of the league title race.

If they score this, the Mourinho league run could be over.

Borini – on loan from Liverpool, ugh – calmly slotted home.

Chelsea 1 Sunderland 2.

Schurrle broke in from the left and Mannone flew himself into the air to dramatically tip over. For all of our possession – and chances – the Sunderland ‘keeper had few saves to make all game. Torres’ claim for a penalty was waved away by Dean, now the devil incarnate, and the derisory boos grew louder. Five minutes of extra time was signalled, but our attacking spirit had dwindled to a memory.

I was in agony during those final minutes. I looked away. I stared at the floor. My mind was full of defeat. It was such an alien feeling after our dominance at Stamford Bridge over the past ten years.

At the final whistle, hideous and hateful boos behind me.

Yes, it’s true. Some of our “fans” are spoiled fools.

What is the saying…”if you can’t support us when we are bad, don’t support us when we are good.”

Versus Sunderland, I don’t think we were bad. Several players did themselves proud. But our finishing was bad.

It has become the story of our 2013-2014 season.

Young Jake, Steve, Lord Parky and I met up at the Fox & Pheasant after walking past a few ridiculously upbeat Mackems. I spotted an American wearing a Philadelphia Phillies cap and I blurted out “Let’s Go Phillies” to which his friend, wearing a Chelsea tracksuit top, replied, with a pitiful smirk on his face –

“Yeah. And they suck too.”

I just glowered at him.

Back at my favourite Italian restaurant, we tried to lighten the mood a little. Pizzas hit the spot, but conversation was difficult. The rug had been pulled from underneath us and our hope of a title had been seemingly extinguished. I can cope with near misses and missing out on silverware – of course – but it was just the sudden shock of defeat, when we appeared to be hitting some form, which made this defeat seem so tough. It was, as the phrase goes, just typical Chelsea.

Beat the strong teams, lose to the weak ones. It was our way for years.

However, after Villa and Palace, it was also the third game where we had prefaced a Champions League game with a meek league defeat.

Ah, the Champions League.

I looked ahead briefly and quickly to a potentially riotous second-leg against Atletico Madrid in around ten days’ time and experienced a flutter in my heart.

Maybe. Just maybe.

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Tales From Yet Another Semi-Final

Chelsea vs. Swansea City : 9 January 2013.

Our second domestic cup game in five days provided us with a Capital One Cup semi-final first leg against those entertaining and resourceful fellows from Swansea City. There had been virtually no “build-up” for this game. I’ve probably never been less bothered about a semi-final. Of course, there is a tinge of guilt about that, but we are in a frantically busy spell. After our nine games in December, there would be a further nine in January. It is unlikely that these two months have ever been more demanding. No time to sit back and relax; game after game after game. Of those nine matches in December, I missed four. There were various reasons for this – my trip to Tokyo sucked a lot of my time and resources – but I would be back on track for January. God willing, I hope to attend all nine. It will probably turn out to be my busiest Chelsea month ever.

Wednesday – Saturday –Wednesday – Saturday – Wednesday – Sunday – Wednesday – Saturday – Wednesday.

The nearest I got to an official build-up occurred at about 3.45pm in Chippenham. In the office at work, there are eight co-workers. There are only two who are also footy fans – typically, Liverpool and Manchester United. Andy, however, is not in to football at all. He is, however, from Swansea. Just before I left Chippenham on the drive up to London, I asked him –

“No banter, then?”

Seizing his moment, Andy bristled “no need, Chris. We’ll win tonight. 2-1.”

I smiled and said “oh – that’s banter, mate.”

He replied “and we’ll win 3-1 in the next game, too.”

I smiled again. This wasn’t a sign of me underestimating Swansea’s threat over two games. It was more a result of Andy’s new-found hobby of forecasting scores.

Semi-finals used to be a ridiculously rare event in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties.

From our famous League Cup semi-final in 1972 against Tottenham (I don’t remember it, but Chris Garland’ s finest hour), we went a complete thirteen years until our next one; another League Cup semi-final (in the guise of The Milk Cup) against Sunderland in 1984-1985.

Yes, that’s correct.

Thirteen years with not one single semi-final appearance in any cup competition.

Read it and weep.

Another League Cup semi-final followed in 1991 against Sheffield Wednesday, when it was known as the Rumbelows Cup.

And then came an FA Cup semi-final in 1994 against Kerry Dixon’s Luton Town (now a non-league team)…a wait of 24 years in that particular competition.

So, you hopefully get the message; these games were rare events for us Chelsea fans. To put it bluntly, from the age of 7 to the age of 28 (my prime, damn it!), I witnessed just two Chelsea semi-finals.

And now the other side of the coin.

The Swansea City game would be our twenty-fifth cup semi-final in twenty seasons.

1993-1994 FA Cup
1994-1995 European Cup Winners Cup
1995-1996 FA Cup
1996-1997 FA Cup
1997-1998 League Cup
1997-1998 European Cup Winners Cup
1998-1999 European Cup Winners Cup
1999-2000 FA Cup
2001-2002 League Cup
2001-2002 FA Cup
2003-2004 Champions League
2004-2005 League Cup
2004-2005 Champions League
2005-2006 FA Cup
2006-2007 League Cup
2006-2007 FA Cup
2006-2007 Champions League
2007-2008 League Cup
2007-2008 Champions League
2008-2009 FA Cup
2008-2009 Champions League
2009-2010 FA Cup
2011-2012 FA Cup
2011-2012 Champions League
2012-2013 League Cup

Our winning percentage in these ties? 63%.

For our legion of new fans; you lucky gits.

But, let’s go back to 1985, the year the drought ended. Season 1984-1985 was a classic Chelsea campaign. We had won promotion in 1983-1984, with the likes of Colin Pates, John Bumstead, Micky Thomas, Kerry Dixon, Pat Nevin and David Speedie entertaining us along the way. We found the transition to top flight football to be relatively easy and the season was memorable for a successful Milk Cup (named after the sponsors, the Milk Marketing Board) campaign. Sheffield Wednesday were memorably dispatched over three tumultuous games in the quarters and we were paired with Sunderland in the semis. We unfortunately lost the first-leg at Roker Park on a bitterly cold night 2-0. The return leg was originally pencilled in for Wednesday 20 February. I was at college in Stoke-on-Trent at the time and can remember walking to the train station, buying a paper and then being shocked to see that the evening’s game was not listed. The winter had been particularly cold with many cancellations and I picked up another paper to see that the game had indeed been postponed. It’s amazing to think that in these days of internet and smartphones, a person living in the Midlands would not have known that a football game in London had been postponed, but it shows how the world has changed. I can certainly remember my crestfallen walk back to my house on that Wednesday afternoon. I was gutted. This would have been my first ever home midweek game too; living in Somerset, a trip to Stamford Bridge on a Wednesday would have been nigh on impossible. The game with Sunderland was rescheduled for Monday 4 March; it was my 55th Chelsea game.

Some 28 years later, I can remember lots about that day, though little is very positive. I attended some lectures in the morning and then caught a lunchtime train from Stoke down to Euston. I remember getting over to Chelsea really early and lining up at The Shed turnstiles. The kick-off was the usual 7.45pm, but as the game wasn’t all-ticket (games very rarely were), I wanted to make sure of my place in the stadium. By 4.30pm, I had joined the back of the already 500 strong line as it wended its way down the Fulham Road. There was real, uncontainable excitement in the air. Supporters were just so thrilled to be watching a semi-final at The Bridge for the first time in 13 years. I remember that the early evening was bright and sunny. It just felt so strange for me to be in London at that time of the day. I was totally thrilled by the whole experience. My first semi-final. My first mid-week game. And hopefully a trip to Wembley, that sacred ground, at the end of the evening.

Fantastic.

As crazy as it sounds, I got in the ground as early as 5.15pm. In those days, it was about £5 to go in The Shed and you could then show your Chelsea membership card at a gate into the West Stand Benches, pay an extra £1 and get a seat in the enclosure. These were magical times at Chelsea. And I always felt that The Benches were my spiritual home. My first ever game – in 1974 – had been in the Benches too. I sat with Alan – and a few other mates…Mark, Leggo, Dave, Rich – in the very back row, right on the half-way line. From 5.15pm to 7.45pm we waited. The stadium soon filled-up. The Sunderland hordes…some 5,000 strong…filled a few pens in the large, sweeping north terrace to my left. The night fell. It got colder.

Chasing a 0-2 deficit from the first leg (Dale Jasper’s far from finest hour), we broke through after just 6 minutes when Pat set up Speedo. The 38,000 crowd exploded. If I was to try to recreate in words what the noise was like back in those days, I would fail. It seemed like the world would cave in. After this opener, with more to hopefully come, it is very likely that the entire Benches would have jumped up, landed on top of a neighbour, pushed themselves upright, hugged a neighbour, yelled, screamed, with faces contorted with near-orgasmic delight.

We were, however, stunned when former Chelsea favourite Clive Walker equalised down at The Shed.

Oh boy.

The noise continued into the second-half, however. We would not go meekly. We had a few chances and they hit the bar. Walker scored their second.

We were losing 2-1 on the night and 4-1 overall.

This is when it got nasty.

Fans in the East Lower ripped up their seats and threw them on the pitch. Fellow citizens in The Benches, away to my left, ripped up the wooden struts and launched them onto the pitch. A pitch invasion was attempted. The Old Bill attempted to quell the situation. There were policemen and photographers swarming everywhere. Police horses raced around the pitch from behind The Shed. Chelsea fans again attempted to get the game called-off by encroaching onto the pitch. Believe it or not, when Sunderland scored their third goal, a policeman was standing inside our six yard box.

Then, with disarray all around me, a Chelsea fan – John Leftly – ran onto the pitch from a few yards away and tried to assault Clive Walker, the former hero turned villain.

By this stage, I was mortified and in deep shock.

So much for Wembley.

I was deeply saddened by the hooligans. This was the real face of 80s hooliganism. Wanton violence and destruction, yobbish and callous behaviour. This was just after Millwall at Luton. Just before Leeds at Birmingham. Just before Heysel.

I was pig sick and couldn’t muster a cheer as Pat lobbed the goalie from 8 yards to make it 2-3 on the night.

No one cared.

I remember I walked back to South Kensington tube just to avoid the inevitable trouble which would have occurred at Fulham Broadway; not only between Chelsea and Sunderland, but West Ham were down at Wimbledon in an FA Cup tie on that night and I didn’t fancy being in the vicinity when the ICF came through Fulham Broadway.

It was a long train ride home back to Stoke-on-Trent that night.

28 years later, the Chippenham to London drive only took two hours and fifteen minutes. On the short walk from the pub to the stadium, I happened to glance at the poster on the window of a bookie.

Michu : First Goal Scorer – 7 to 1.

“Yep, that Michu is a cracking player. We’ll have to watch him” I thought as I rushed past.

Along Vanston place, I overheard a couple of Chelsea fans running through a couple of “Ba” songs. Three songs to his name on Sunday, with plenty more to follow no doubt. On the ascent up the six flights of stairs to the Matthew Harding Upper, an irate fan was loudly berating Benitez about the dropping of Ba and the insertion of Torres.

Inside the stadium, I soon noted that Swansea’s away following was a lot less than I had expected. I’m sure that Swansea has never appeared in a major cup final. Therefore, was this their first-ever semi-final? Either way, I certainly expected 3,000 (if not 6,000) followers from South Wales to attend the game at Stamford Bridge. There was a large section of around 800 seats unused in the upper tier and the lower tier wasn’t 100% full. Therefore, I guess that they only had 2,000. I remember Burnley bringing down 6,000 in 2008 for an early round in the same cup. I suppose many Swansea fans thought “been to Chelsea last season, not going again.”

I found this a bit sad really. The tickets, after all, were only £25.

Alan was sat elsewhere in the MHU with Gary. It felt decidedly odd to be sat by myself at a home game. I don’t think it has ever happened in the 15 years of having a season ticket; either Alan or Glenn is always sat alongside me.

A quick scan of the team; Ross in goal. A sturdy back four of Ash, Gary, Brana and Dave. Luiz and Rami holding in the deepzone. The three amigos of Oscar, Mata and Hazard in the shallowzone. Torres as the target man.

The game began and the first song from the home fans poked fun at the Swansea contingent.

“Is that all? Is that all? Is that all you take away? Is that all you take away?”

Swansea sang “Land of my fathers” all through the night.

The Swansea away kit made me smile. Although the red / white / green mirrored the colours of the Welsh flag, these are also the colours of Hungary. Our former manager Dave Sexton so admired the ground-breaking football of the Hungarians of the ‘fifties – Puskas, Hidekguti, Kocsis et al – that he chose the national colours of Hungary as our away kit from 1972 to 1974, which was also reprieved in 1975-1976. I looked down on the players and had a sudden and heart-warming thought. The last time I had seen that lovely combination of red shirts, crisp white socks and light green socks in a live game was at the Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea game in November 1975. For a spilt second, I was transported back to Eastville Stadium, the Tote End, Rover’s blue-and-white quartered shirts and their “Smash & Grab” strikeforce of Alan Warboys and Bruce Bannister. On that Saturday afternoon, my mother and I had seats among the home fans and we saw us win 2-1. There were quickly lovely memories of a goal from Teddy Maybank and Bill Garner getting sent off.

Red / white / green.

A classic Chelsea combination. And – the magic of memory – I was a ten year old boy once more. Incidentally, the red / white / green bar scarf was often seen on The Shed for many years. It remains a cult item of clothing amongst Chelsea fans to this day. My friend Daryl sometimes wears his; it looks fantastic.

On ten minutes, a really exceptional move cut through the Swansea defence and Ramires seemed certain to be able to shoot early. Instead, he held on to the ball slightly too long and was only able to poke the ball towards goal. The ‘keeper saved easily.

We began the game well. On 16 minutes, the RDM minute. Although I only clapped for around 10 seconds at Southampton, I clapped for a few more against Swansea. I looked around and had a quick vox pop. In the MHU, maybe one in five were clapping. Down in the MHL, it was nearer 50/50. In the East Stand, maybe one in ten. In the West Stand? Who cares about the West Stand?

The travelling fans were making some noise…

“We’re Swansea City, We’ll Sing On Our Own.”

On 22 minutes, Azpilicueta – who was defending well – struck a low shot just past the Swansea far post. From a similar location a week earlier, SWP had been more successful. On 25 minutes, the best chance of the game; a sublime Hazard dribble set up Juan Mata, but his shot was weakly hit and straight at the ‘keeper. I noticed that the entire MHL were standing; always a good sign that the spectators were “up for it”, yet the noise was again pretty poor. On the half-hour, an Oscar back heel set up Mata, but he shot wide. Then a fantastic ball from David Luiz from deep picked out Oscar, but he had a poor first touch and the ball bounced away. Luiz was having a pretty good game, though he tended to react to play rather than being able to predict play. On many occasions, his speed came to his assistance. His tackling was fine, his reading of the game not so good.

A text from Philadelphia summed up my thoughts too –

“Plenty of chances. One of these will go in, no?”

Right after, an Ivanovic error gave the ball away. It was played in to Michu – yes, of course – and he slotted past the diving Turnbull.

It wasn’t what Philly Steve nor I had meant.

Just before the break, Ivanovic turned nicely and, attempting to make up for his error, struck a sweet shot which the ‘keeper did well to turn wide.

There were a few boos at the break. Former custodian Dave Beasant was on the pitch at half-time; looking pretty fit and healthy. Beasant memorably injured himself while at Chelsea by dropping a bottle of salad cream on his toe. True story.

To be honest, we were playing OK, moving the ball around nicely. However, Torres – apart from winning a ball out wide and playing the ball in for others – was quiet. Swansea were clearly a better team than QPR, but it was noticeable that it was all eerily similar to that game seven days before. I joked with the guy next to me –

“I have a ticket for the away leg but, to be honest, I was hoping for a big win tonight and then I might not bother with the second leg. Give myself a night off. Well…it looks like I’m going to Swansea.”

We were worse in the second-half, no doubts. With every passing minute, the frustration rose with the team and manager alike. David Luiz shot wide from a fee-kick and he then had a low shot saved. But chances were at a premium. In truth, Swansea were well marshalled and didn’t really need to attack. Frank Lampard and Demba Ba were serenaded as they warmed up in front of the family section.

“We got Demba Ba. Say we got Demba Ba. We got Demba Ba. Say we got Demba Ba.”

Frank replaced Ramires and I predicted that Frank would score a last minute penalty. He rattled in a trademark shot which was well hit, but an easy take for the Swans’ keeper.

With only ten minutes remaining, Demba Ba appeared on the far side of the stadium and the applause rang out. Torres was the man to be substituted and then, to my sadness, the stadium was full of boos, perhaps the loudest I have ever heard for a Chelsea player. I just wished that those same fans had reached similar volume levels when we were in possession and attacking. Like most people who have been steadfastly attempting to defend Torres, I am finding this an increasingly difficult task. Yet, here is the crunch; discuss his faults away from the game by all means, but please support him while in the stadium. Not just Torres, any player. Surely this is the golden rule of Chelsea Fundamentalism?

To be fair to Ba, in those ten to fifteen minutes, he made a massive impact. He had two good headers and was also sent sprawling in the penalty box, but was bizarrely booked for simulation. Marin replaced a poor Oscar, but further catastrophe was just around the corner. Ivanovic’ back-pass to Turnbull was intercepted by Graham who rounded Turnbull and slotted in.

0-2.

There was a tumultuous rendition of “One Di Matteo, There’s Only One Di Matteo, One Di Matteo” immediately after this second goal – I didn’t join in – and I wondered what the members of the board were thinking. The final twist of the knife saw a rampaging Ba blast the ball in, only for an offside to be given. Unsurprisingly in these circumstances, a volley of boos echoed around the emptying stands at the final whistle.

I have heard a few fans call this particular brand of the beautiful game “Feast and Famine Football.” This is certainly the Chelsea of old; the Great Unpredictables. After the win in Southampton, Bob in California quite succinctly called it “Bi-Polar” football.

On the walk to the car, I realised that attending games at Stamford Bridge is not enjoyable at the moment. That’s a terrible thing to be forced to admit. Thoughts turned to the away leg. We have the capacity to turn things around in the second-leg, but we will be foolish to chase the game in a gung-ho fashion right from the start. With Dyer, Routledge, Britton and Michu playing their own little brand of tiki-taka in deepest Wales, Swansea could easily increase their aggregate lead.

Which Chelsea will show up? Please send your answers to our usual address.

As I drove home, I got some comfort in the fact that, at least in Swansea, I will be amongst the more vociferous members of our support. At that point in time, I was grateful for any positives that I could find.

The only other positive was that Swansea Andy didn’t text me.

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