Tales From Two Franks And The Jacks

Chelsea vs. Swansea City : 25 February 2017.

This was going to be Frank Lampard Day at Stamford Bridge. The club had announced that our magnificent midfielder – arguably our finest ever player – would be making an appearance at half-time during our match with Swansea City. There would be a celebratory programme too. It promised to be quite a day. I can well remember his last-ever appearance as a player at Stamford Bridge, in the colours of Manchester City, when he cut such a lonely figure on the pitch at the end of a game in January 2015. He looked desolate. Heartbroken. It would be fantastic to see him once again.

In “The Famous Three Kings” pub at West Kensington, a few of us were remembering another Frank. We had learned on Friday that one of our match-going crew had passed away the previous day. I first met Frank Portingale, a local builder from my town of Frome in Somerset, in the autumn of 1993 when I drove a few of the lads up to a Chelsea vs. Arsenal game. The next time that I remember seeing him was outside Wembley with PD in 1994. He loved his days out at Chelsea and he started going more regularly. From around 1996 to 2007, Frank was one of the gang, and we would take it in turns to drive up from Somerset. For a few years, we took two cars up from Frome. We were a solid bunch; Karen, Dave, Brian, Frank, Glenn, PD and myself. Frank came with us to Stuttgart in 2004 and Barcelona in 2005. He was at Bolton in April 2005 when the other Frank scored a brace to give us our first league championship in fifty years.

During that 2004/2005 campaign, Frank was there for the first and last games; a pre-season friendly at Oxford United’s Kassam Stadium, which coincided with Jose Mourinho’s first game in charge of the team, and a league game at St. James’ Park in Newcastle. These were stunning times to be a Chelsea supporter. It seemed like we were treading alien territory during that era; league titles and a real chance of Champions League glory seemed the stuff of dreams, but we were right in the mix. Heady stuff indeed. In between, there were many others of course. A game alongside the Thames at Fulham, and those games at the Reebok and Camp Nou. And Frank loved it all. The camaraderie, the beers and the laughs.

And there were many laughs with Frank. He would often bring up “Somerset Pasties” from a local Frome butcher for the lads at Chelsea. On that memorable trip to Barcelona, such was his desire to keep them secure, he locked some of his pasties in the hotel room safe. We all had a chuckle at that. Frank gave up his season ticket a few years back – he used to sit along from us in the Matthew Harding Upper – and it was with sadness that we all learned of his passing. He was generous to a fault, bless him, and I remember that he bought us all gold Chelsea rings after a game in 2004. A few years later, Frank built the front porch on my house and I guess there will always be a part of him in my life. Indeed, Frank will always play a role in our collective Chelsea memories.

Parky, PD, Glenn and myself raised our glasses.

“Frank.”

Thoughts slowly turned to the game.

Our little band of brothers have often questioned the desire of managers to play two essentially defensive-minded players at home games against lesser teams. On this occasion, Antonio had decided to relax things a little, pairing N’Golo with Cesc, and Nemanja dropping to the bench. Cesc has delighted us this season with his place in the squad enabling him to dip in and dip out of our line-up, but without complaint. Swansea City would be quite a test for us though; their form had improved over recent weeks. Elsewhere, the team picked itself.

Thibaut – Dave, David, Gary – Victor, N’Golo, Cesc, Marcos – Pedro, Diego, Eden.

With former Chelsea coach Paul Clement now in charge of the visitors – with midfield legend Claude Makelele alongside him – and with former midfielder Jack Cork playing for Swansea too, this was very much a day of reunions in SW6. It was apt that the visit of the Swans coincided with this day of praise for Frank Lampard since he played a handful of games at the old Vetch Field in 1995/1996.

It was an overcast day in London and rain was not far away. Swansea were ably supported by a full three thousand Jacks. A fine turnout in my book; OK, the city of Swansea is not too far away, but they are not known for their large travelling support.

Alan and myself wondered about the intensity that would be given to this one. Swansea were a team that we ought to beat easily. But we were sure that Antonio would fire the team up. It’s all about the league and there are just thirteen games left. It is all about the focus at this stage of the season. For once, I am not missing European football. Whatever will be will be in the FA Cup too. In fact, PD and myself boldly admitted in the car that neither of us would be devastated should we exit that competition at the next stage. Of course we want to beat United, but the league seems all important.

We admitted that the double is certainly “on” though. Heady days again in SW6? Maybe. Just maybe.

The game began.

We were bright in the opening exchanges. Pedro fired over the bar at The Shed End. Swansea seemed competent in moving the ball around but rarely threatened Thibaut at the Matthew Harding. In the middle of all of our creative scheming was the recalled Cesc, who has such a fine touch and an acute eye for a killer pass. Very soon he was picking out the runs of Diego and Eden. I was certainly impressed with our charging down of space, and our desire to get the “second ball.” Again, N’Golo seemed to be everywhere. We were enjoying another lovely game from him; I wonder if Claude was looking on longingly, despite his new affiliation. Once or twice, N’Golo lofted a sublime pass out to the waiting wings.

Claude : “Sigh. I wish I could have done that.”

On nineteen minutes, Eden initiated another move. In all honesty, it was a loose pass in to Diego who had to battle with a Swans defender. Thankfully, the ball was pushed out to Pedro on the right. He picked out the run of Cesc and the ball was bundled in, almost apologetically past the former Gooner Fabianski.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

Soon after, Fabianski made a superb reflex save from a Cesc volley. It really was sensational. Victor was stretching the game out and occasionally asked questions of the Swans defence. Eden was a little quiet. Pedro buzzed as Pedro does. We were totally dominating. N’Golo was in fine form. The boys were hunting in packs all over the Swansea midfield. In an attempt to avoid boredom, Thibaut hopped up on to the crossbar down below us and went through a fine gymnastic display – a handstand here, a somersault, then a fine tumble and dismount.

Then, after it was announced that a minute would be added on to the first-half for stoppages, N’Golo was wrongly – in my book, but I’m biased – adjudged to have fouled in the centre-circle. From Sigurdsson’s perfectly placed free-kick, Llorente – thinly linked with us last month – was able to jump unhindered past Thibaut. What poor marking.

Bollocks.

The half-time whistle sounded and, for once, there was not a mass exodus. This half-time show would rival anything that the NFL could muster. The Frank Lampard banner was held aloft by around twenty supporters in the middle of the pitch. After a fair wait, Neil Barnett introduced our Frank  to the waiting thousands. Dressed in a dapper black suit – brown shoes – he began a walk around the sacred turf. There was tumultuous applause, as expected.

After completing a circuit, Frank took the microphone from Neil and slowly walked, hand in pocket, looking very relaxed, towards us in the Matthew Harding. I felt privileged that he walked towards us; it was, after all, where he had his most emotional moment at Stamford Bridge. That penalty against Liverpool in 2008 will never be forgotten.

Frank spoke for around a minute, and thanked the club for allowing him this chance to say a few words. He thanked us repeatedly for all of our support. There was a brief moment when his bottom lip momentarily wavered and I am sure that the penalty in 2008 flitted through his mind. It was another emotional occasion to be honest. But Frank battled on and did well. It was another perfect Chelsea moment.

The second-half began. Eden blasted at Fabianski. Just after Diego set up Cesc, whose rising shot struck the bar with a loud thud. Surely a goal would come. But the visitors were providing dogged resistance. I missed the Dave “handball” and was not convinced that the Diego incident warranted a penalty either.

It seemed to be all Chelsea at this stage. I was convinced that we would get a winner, though. There is an innate confidence in the team this season. It’s a beautiful thing. With around twenty minutes’ left, Cesc played the ball to Pedro, who was allowed to run. He struck a tentative shot from around twenty-five yards, and I watched as it curled in at the far post.

Here was the goal we craved. Stamford Bridge erupted.

“GET IN.”

Pedro ran off and celebrated wildly with Cesc. Fantastic.

The main Swansea threat Sigurdsson forced Thibaut to save well from a free-kick. There was a moment of lazy and loose football – involving David and Gary – as the defence took a few sloppy touches. That it warrants a mention in this match reports just shows how rare these occasions are. Antonio surprisingly replaced Pedro with Nemanja, who quickly ran deep in to the Swansea box. His pull back to N’Golo was excellent. The finish was not so great; it was blasted over.

Claude : “As good as me.”

Soon after, Eden took his turn in dancing down the left and pulled the ball back for Diego to slam home. Diego had to adjust on his approach to the ball and it was a fine finish. Diego made a point of signalling over to Eden for pulling the ball back and the two hugged. The rest of the team soon joined in. In the resultant melee, Dave hoisted himself  onto his team mates. Smiles all over. The game was surely over and the three points had been won. Antonio brought on Kurt for Victor and Willian for Eden. Cesc went close at the end, but it stayed at 3-1.

It was another fine Chelsea win.

I turned to Alan :

“That one is for Frank.”

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Tales From A Sunday In Swansea

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 11 September 2016.

For once, I was in with quite a while to spare. The kick-off was over half-an-hour away. On the pitch, the Chelsea players were in the middle of their warm-up drills, chatting away, looking at ease. I soon spotted the wild hair of David Luiz. He looked a little subdued to be honest. Despite rumours of him being selected in the team, he was to take a place on the bench. While the players moved over to a more central area to take shots at Asmir Begovic, there was a song for our returning centre-half / defensive midfielder.

“Oh David Luiz, you are the love of my life…”

The blue Carabao training gear looks slightly better than the hideous yellow, but only slightly.

I captured Luiz taking a shot at goal, with him looking away at the last minute, something of his trademark. Inside, I purred.

But there would be no place for David Luiz in the starting eleven against Swansea City on this Sunday in September. Ever since the news broke through that Chelsea were in talks to re-sign our former player, I have warmed to the idea of having him back in the fold. Yes, his defensive frailties are well known, and this is what concerned me most. I’ll not lie, I was quite stunned when I heard the news. We all remember the glee that we felt when PSG stumped up fifty million big ones just before his disastrous World Cup in 2014. Why on Earth would we want him back? And then I remembered that our new man in charge Antonio Conte favours a 3-5-2, or at least he has done in the most recent past. I started thinking about football formations, team shapes, and for many an hour I was lost in my own little world, conjuring up images of tactics board after tactics board, arrows pointing this way and that way, formations, formations, formations.

I thought back to the 1995/1996 season when Glenn Hoddle embraced a 5-3-2 – or was it a 3-5-2? – for the very first time, with Dan Petrescu and Terry Phelan as pushed-on wing backs, and a trio of central defenders, which varied a little, but tended to consist of David Lee, Michael Duberry and Steve Clarke.

This formation was relatively short-lived at Chelsea, but it produced a few thrilling performances. The FA Cup winning team of the following season was a more predictable 4-4-2, but there were three central defenders famously used against the aerial bombardment of Wimbledon in the semi-final. So it is a formation that we have experienced before. Anyone who knows me will know that I am not an expert on formations and tactics. It’s not really my thing. But I thought of David Luiz, playing in a defensive three, alongside two more robust central defenders, and I wondered if he could be our version of Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci, who caught my eye in the euros in France, spreading passes around with ease. Think of David Luiz being Frank Leboeuf with hair, and lots of it. The thought of Luiz, however, in just a flat back four scared me a little.

I then heard talk of 3-4-3 formations and I threw my tactics board out of the window.

Formations come and go. The standard 4-4-2 at Chelsea – ah the memories of Jimmy and Eidur – gave way to Mourinho’s 4-3-3 for a while before the 4-2-3-1 gained favour. There was also the famous 4-3-2-1 “Christmas Tree” though hardly used by us.

It begs the age old question, does a manager fit players around a formation or a formation around players? Over the next few months, I suspect we will see Conte trying out a few variations. It might be some time before he is settled. It took Claudio Ranieri most of his first season at Chelsea to figure it all out. At the moment Antonio Conte favours a 4-1-4-1.

It seems incredible to me, really, that so few teams play with more than one attacker. The days of Jimmy and Eidur, and certainly Kerry and Speedo, seem light years away. Maybe we’ll see its return one of the days.

David Luiz, in his second spell with us, would be wearing squad number thirty. This got me thinking about the past too. We first experienced squad numbers in the 1993/1994 season, the second campaign of “Sky TV” and all of its hideous mixture of subsequent pros and cons. Until then, there was something special about the simple 1-11 shirt numbering system. I didn’t like the idea of messing with it. It all seemed too American for my liking. And we also had to suffer players’ names on the back of shirts too. More finicky changes. More commercialism. More shite. Groan.

Very soon into 1993/1994, our Danish central defender Jakob Kjeldbjerg was given shirt number thirty-seven, and a little part of me died.

“37?”

“Bloody hell, the world has gone mad.”

In today’s parlance – “Against Modern Football.”

In the good old days, the system was simple.

  1. Green shirts. Big gloves.
  2. Right-back. Always. No questions asked.
  3. Left-back. Always. Easy. For some reason, he always had “an educated left foot.”
  4. Midfield dynamo. Think John Hollins. Billy Bremner. Tended to be on the short side, don’t ask why, just accept it.
  5. Centre-back. Blocker. Man mountain. The leap of a salmon. Strength of a shire horse, brains of a rocking horse. Tackle first, ask questions later. Think Micky Droy, Steve Wicks, Joe McLaughlin.
  6. Centre-back. But the more skilful one of the two. Think Alan Hansen. Marvin Hinton.
  7. Right-winger. Again, for some reason, a short-arse. Think Steve Coppell, Ian Britton, Jimmy Johnstone. Pat Nevin. A skilful bugger, prone to mazy dribbles. And falling over.
  8. Box to box midfielder. The fulcrum of the midfield. Think Nigel Spackman in 1983/1984.
  9. The centre-forward. The most iconic number ever. Peter Osgood, Tommy Lawton, Jackie Milburn, Alan Shearer, Kerry Dixon. Goal scorer supreme. Dream maker.
  10. A smaller, more agile, version of the centre-forward, playing off the number nine. David Speedie. Why am I referencing 1983/1984 here? Too easy. Ah, think Peter Beardesley, but not for too long, that boy was hardly a looker.
  11. Left-winger. And for some reason, a lanky bugger. Peter Houseman, Peter Barnes. Davie Cooper as the exception.

And there we have it. Growing up in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, this was the accepted numbering system. Liverpool buggered it up, as is their wont, in around 1977 when Ray Kennedy, a skilful left-sided midfielder, was given a number five shirt. I can still feel the sense of betrayal and confusion to this day. Phil Thompson slid into a number four shirt, and for a while, this was the one exception. Then it became the norm for central defenders to take a number four shirt – paging Colin Pates – and at Chelsea, this resulted in John Bumstead wearing number six. It is at around this time that Western Civilisation began to fall apart, and we all know why.

I blame Ray Kennedy.

Thinking about the numbering system of old, the simple one to eleven, I quickly ran through the Chelsea team to face Swansea City and came up with this.

  1. Thibaut Courtois.
  2. Branislav Ivanovic.
  3. Cesar Azpilicueta.
  4. N’Golo Kante.
  5. John Terry.
  6. Gary Cahill.
  7. Willian.
  8. Nemanja Matic.
  9. Diego Costa.
  10. Oscar.
  11. Eden Hazard.

Admit it, it looks strange but quite perfect at the same time doesn’t it?

And no names on the jerseys.

And no “Yokohama Tyres.”

Perfect.

As the minutes passed by, and as the players disappeared down the tunnel, the away end seemed to take forever to fill.

Swansea is an easy away game for The Chuckle Brothers and myself. Our pre-match drink, in the same bar as last April, down by the marina, soon followed the two-hour drive from our homes on the Somerset and Wiltshire border. We were joined by a mate from Atlanta, Prahlad, who was over on business for a while, and who was supremely excited to be able to go to a Chelsea away game. A mate had not been able to attend, and so I arranged for Prahlad to pick up his ticket. Both parties were happy with the result. Incidentally, Prahlad has been working up on Merseyside for a few weeks, and I wondered if his name was changed to “Soft Lad” once the locals realised that he was a Chelsea fan.

The minutes ticked by.

I was sat – stood – alongside Parky, Alan and Gary. PD and Young Jake were right at the front, below us and behind the goal, awaiting to be captured on TV camera. Prahlad was over on the other side of the goal in the lower section of Chelsea support.

I had received a photograph on my phone from another mate from the US, John – from LA, over on business too – but his view was from the other end. His decision to attend the game – his first Chelsea away game in England, er Wales – was a last minute affair, and he had missed out on tickets in the Chelsea allocation. Instead, he had managed to pick up a front row seat from the Swansea City ticket exchange at face value. I quickly spotted him. It reminded me of the time Glenn and I watched from the home end in 2013/2014.

At kick-off, there was an empty seat to my immediate left, and an empty seat in front of me. I got the impression, as I looked around, that there were many empty seats in our section.

This was really galling.

Of course, now that every single away ticket in the Premier League is set at £30, it is obvious that many Chelsea supporters are simply buying tickets without attending the actual game, stacking up loyalty points for the big games along the way, and perhaps offloading them if they can.

This can’t be right, can it?

Sure, buy a ticket, but only if you can be sure of passing it on to someone who needs it.

As the game progressed, many seats remained unused, yet poor John was having to slum it in the home end, away from his Chelsea brethren, and our support must’ve looked poor to the home fans and those watching on in TV Land.

I am surprised that we were not treated to a chant – “sell all your tickets, you didn’t sell all your tickets” – from the locals.

This was a black and white show at the small but trim Liberty Stadium. Swansea, having jettisoned their particularly neat Adidas in favour of a poor Joma kit – were in all white and we were in our all-black abomination.

Why weren’t we wearing blue?

I refer you to my “Against Modern Football” comment and its associated moans above.

Alan and Gary had travelled down from London on one of the official coaches and had, as with last season, enjoyed some fish and chips outside the stadium before the game. Alan was so contented with his food that he took a photograph.

[AWFUL ANNUAL “WHOSE COAT IS THAT JACKET?”JOKE WARNING, ADVANCE WITH CAUTION]

I looked at it and said –

“Whose cod is that haddock?”

[THIS VERY SAME LINE WILL BE REPEATED NEXT SEASON TOO. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED]

I’ll get my coat.

Er, jacket.

We played well in the first-half, and for a fleeting moment I thought that we would see a repeat of our dominant 5-0 win in 2014/2015.

Soon into the game, the dire Conte chant was aired, but it thankfully did not reappear all game.

Willian, out on the right, teasing away in his number seven jersey – sorry, number twenty-two – caused Fabianski to make strong saves. We were attacking down the left flank too, with Eden Hazard looking lively. On eighteen minutes, a spell of Chelsea pressure allowed Diego to work the ball to Ivanovic. He let fly with a fierce shot, but the ball was not cleared. Oscar did well to gather under pressure and lay off to Diego Costa. His shot was perfectly placed to Fabianski’s left.

One-nil to us, happy days.

Eden Hazard is simply unplayable when he sweeps in from the wide left position, leaving defenders in his wake, and he drove hard into the box. Sadly his shot was saved by the Swans’ ‘keeper. Despite our dominance, the Chelsea support was rather subdued in my mind.

The home support is strong in the side section to our left, but elsewhere the Liberty Stadium is not particularly intense.

Chances came and went for us, and surely a second goal would kill Swansea off. Dave went close. Kante was everywhere. Swansea rarely threatened Thibaut’s goal.

Diego, bless him, drew the ire of the home fans with every tackle, every challenge. He soon became their pantomime villain. He would be booed by the Swansea fans every time he had the ball. Unbelievably, Diego managed to plant the ball wide of the goal when only a few yards out. From our end, we simply could not fathom how he had missed, nor how a Chelsea player had failed to get a touch.

There was a little “Wales” / “England” banter during the first-half, but that bored me rigid.

The only meaningful attempt by Swansea on our goal took place in the closing minutes ofv the half, when Dave allowed Gylfi Sigurdsson to much space, but thankfully his firmly-hit shot fizzed past out far post.

In many a conversation at the break : “we should’ve scored a second.”

As the second-half started, the tackles continued to come in thick and fast. It was turning to a feisty affair. Diego, continually booed, seemed to be inspired by this depth of hatred towards him, and twisted and turned past opponents as he continually broke with the ball at his feet. At times he hangs on to the ball, but here he seemed to release others at just the right time.

Then, a calamity.

A Swansea counter attack and a long reaching ball played across the edge of the box. Courtois, living a quiet life until then, raced out and fouled Sigurdsson just inside the area. Was his judgement at fault? I think so. It was no guarantee that the Swansea player would score.

The same player thumped the ball past Courtois from the penalty.

The home fans roared.

“And we were singing.

Hymns and arias.

Land of my fathers.

Ar hyd y nos.”

Bollocks.

More bollocks just three minutes later when Gary Cahill was caught as he struggled to control a pass from John Terry. He was robbed by Leroy Fer, and could only watch as the Swansea player raced on and somehow bundled the ball past Courtois, after the ‘keeper initially partially stopped the first effort. From my position over seventy yards away, it looked like Cahill was at fault. The referee, Andre Marriner, was much closer to the action than me…

More hymns and bloody areas, the Welsh national anthem, and “I can’t help falling in love with you.”

At least none of the buggers were dressed as Teletubbies, unlike two unfortunates in 2015.

So, rather than a second goal for us, and the chance to go four for four, and sit atop the table, we were now 2-1 down.

Crazy.

We continued to attack. I looked over at the manager, seemingly about to self-detonate at any moment. He urged, he cajoled, he bellowed, he shouted, he gestured. He was stood the entire game.

Oscar curled one towards to goal, but Fabianski did well to arch his back and tip over. Diego went down just outside the box. Maybe even I am beginning to think the same way as others; his fall looked too easy. The referee waved play on. The Chelsea end was livid.

Oscar headed weakly at goal.

Conte changed things.

Cesc Fabregas replaced the shuffling Nemanja Matic.

Victor Moses replaced Willian.

I genuinely expected us to equalise.

Within five minutes, constant Chelsea pressure paid off. Oscar played in Ivanovic, who glided past his man and shot right down below me. The ball caromed off a defender and looped high towards the far post. Diego Costa – who else? – was waiting for the ball to fall. Time was precious and he soon decided that he could not wait any longer. He jumped, swivelled, and hit an overhead shot goal wards. The ball hit a Swansea defender, but its momentum carried the ball over.

“GETINYOUBEAUTY.”

2-2.

Pandemonium in the North Stand.

This was all we deserved.

I could not fault our spirit to keep going, to keep pressing, to keep attacking.

The game ended in a frenzy of chances. Diego forced a fine save from Fabianski after a gliding run from Hazard.

Hazard then took one for the team after losing possession to Barrow. He chased the advancing Swansea attacker and cynically pulled him back. A goal then would have killed us.

Two final chances to us – Fabregas, Moses – did not test the Swansea ‘keeper and it stayed 2-2.

Despite my honest pleasure in seeing us fight back to get a share of the points, there was a definite sense of dissatisfaction that such long periods of domination over the entire game did not give us three points.

We met up after the game.

Prahlad had certainly enjoyed himself.

But oh those missed chances.

And oh those empty seats.

I bumped in to John on the walk back to the car. He had enjoyed himself too – behind enemy lines – but I didn’t have the stomach to tell him that there were many empty seats in our end.

It was a fine evening as we drove back towards England, the sun fading, the evening drawing in, music on, chatting away, another match, another day on the road following the boys, with thoughts of other games on the horizon.

I watched “Match Of The Day 2” later in the evening and it was obvious that myself and Andre Marriner were wrong on both occasions. Gary Cahill was fouled in the build-up to their second goal. Diego Costa had been fouled outside the box too. Bollocks and bollocks again.

On Friday, we play Liverpool and the top of the table is beckoning.

I’ll see you there.

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Tales From The Away Club

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 9 April 2016.

Swansea away still seems fresh. It manages to tick a few boxes. I still count it as a new ground, in essence. I do not know, yet, every nook and cranny of the Liberty Stadium and its environs. And it is such a rare treat to have an away ground relatively close to home. It’s only around two hours away. Not as close as Southampton and now Bournemouth, but still an easy drive. And I also relish the chance to drive on roads other than the eastbound M4 and the northbound M5 and the M6 on Chelsea match days.

The day had started with bright blue brilliance in the skies overhead as I gathered the two Chuckle Brothers. We were on the road at 8am.

“Jack Kerouac” and on our way to Jack City.

However, typically, by the time we had crossed the River Severn, the skies had clouded over and rain soon followed.

There is nothing gloomier, nor murkier, nor more depressing than a rainy day in South Wales.

With memories of childhood holidays in Tenby and visits to relatives in Llanelli, I motored past the Celtic Manor hotel and golf course – site of a recent Ryder Cup and a more recent G8 summit, through the Brynglas tunnels, past Castle Coch. Actually, this is a familiar road after all, it just does not feel like it. It’s a decent road.

We made good time, and thankfully, just as the curve of Swansea bay was sighted – and then the towers and chimneys and pipes and foundries of the threatened Port Talbot steelworks – the sun had returned. We were going to be OK, weather-wise. Dave, who had left Paddington on an early morning train at 7.30am, was collected right outside the Swansea train station at just before 11am.

We were going to head down to The Mumbles and while away a couple of hours in a few pubs, but I happened to stumble across a sighting of “The Waterfront” pub, which overlooks the Swansea Marina, albeit not a very well established part of it. Elsewhere there would be yachts and boats moored, but our view consisted of an old dock bereft of pleasing detail, with new apartments on one side, but cranes and derelict land on the others. There were no boats to be seen, nothing to soften the blow, just the flotsam and jetsam that you often witness in such areas; a piece of wood, a plastic bottle, Radamel Falcao.

We spent almost three hours in the pub. It was quiet, save for the raucous laughter emanating from the Chuckle Brothers’ booth in one corner. Lord Parky was in especially rare form, leaving Dave curled up in a foetal position on the sofa at one stage, crying with laughter.

The bar reminded us of our pre-match get together along the coast ahead of the game with Cardiff City almost two years ago.

On the waterfront, in a bar, having a giggle.

We had heard that there was a snarl-up on the M4 around Swindon causing delays and consternation for many coming from the Home Counties. Al and Gary – on one of the club coaches – were being diverted via the M5 and would not be arriving for a while. There would be the usual jokes about the Welsh among the Chelsea faithful as they headed west.

“Whose coat is that jacket?”

The time flew past and, alas, it was time to leave the pub.

Sometimes – some might say most times, certainly this season – the football gets in the way of a fine day out.

Of course it has been a tough season. I would imagine that the, ahem, “newer” fans have found it particularly odd. But I think that as a whole, generally speaking, we have coped relatively well with this catastrophe of a season. There have been periods of rancour, but I think we’ve held it together reasonably well. Everyone copes in their own way. There are still huge doubts in my mind about the actual reason for our horrendous start to 2015-2016, but as the season closes, with a new and seemingly energetic manager waiting in the wings, I suppose that I should be looking forward and not back.

But the four of us have had a blast this season.

“Norwich away was superb, Southampton too. Arsenal was great. Palace was good. Enjoyed West Ham away, not the result. Even Everton was good to an extent.”

All away games.

The schism between home and away games grows ever wider.

You know the score.

Add trips for me to Newcastle, Porto and Haifa, and – yes – it has been a good season. The highlight of the whole season was my day trip to Jerusalem with Alan and Kevin. Memories from that day will last a lifetime. So, I don’t think that I will ever tire of away games. And we still have two enjoyable and fun trips coming up. There is the St. George’s Day beano to Bournemouth in a fortnight. And then Parky, PD and I are flying up to the Sunderland game too, when it certainly looks as though we might be saying a “so long, farewell, pet” to top flight football on Tyneside and Wearside. That will be a shame.

There is also a midweek trip to Anfield.

Sigh. Not so enjoyable that one, eh?

I was soon parked up at my usual place, but in typical Chelsea fashion only made it to my seat, in the front row of the upper block, with two minutes to spare. I noticed a few empty seats around me. Maybe some were saving their beer tokens for Bournemouth. After a very long and tiring coach journey, Alan and Gary were able to pop across the road for a portion of fish and chips, washed down with a can of lager. I couldn’t resist :

“Whose cod is that haddock?”

And then the laughter stopped as the game began.

What a let-down.

Guus Hiddink had certainly rung the changes and had given many of our supporters what they had requested; the kids were in.

Begovic – Baba, Ivanovic, Miazga, Azpilicueta – Mikel, Fabregas – Pedro, Loftus-Cheek, Oscar – Pato.

On the bench were some new names to the Premier League.

Ola Aina.

Kasey Palmer.

Charlie Colkett.

Right from the very first moments, Swansea seemed a lot more dangerous. They are a team that I constantly need to check; one minute they can be flirting with relegation and the next minute they are in mid-league safety. Our four previous visits in the league to their neat Liberty Stadium had resulted in firstly two draws and then two wins. The five-nil win that we all enjoyed in January 2015 now seems like it came from a different team, a different club, a different world.

It was a very poor first-half from us, and the away support seemed unwilling to get behind the team. Maybe it was because we had such good, unobstructed views, but neither Gary, nor Alan, nor Parky nor myself stood the entire game. This is very rare in The Away Club. We usually stand all of the way through.

Asmir Begovic – not sure why he got the nod over Courtois – was called in to action and thwarted a couple of Swansea attacks. He looked alert and impressed me. Our attacks lacked focus, and we hardly threated Fabianski. Begovic saved well again, a fine block from Sigursson, then watched as Rangel sent one wide. We were on the ropes and the home fans – unlike us – were in full voice. On twenty-five minutes, dogged determination from Jefferson Montero on the Swansea left resulted in him getting a yard of space. His cross was meekly headed out by Miazga, looking a little nervous this week, and the ball fell for Sigurdsson to volley past Begovic.

The Swansea fans roared and we sat silently.

Although the noise does not boom from all sections of the Liberty Stadium, the two or three thousand in the adjacent east stand certainly get behind their team well. We were treated to the usual “Hymns and Arias” and also an extended version of “Just Can’t Get Enough” which seemed to go on for ever and ever.

Then – the cheeky buggers – in a deep and scornful accent :

“Yur for the Swansea, yer only yur for the Swansea.”

Begovic, by far the busiest goalkeeper, then reacted well to deny further Swansea attacks.

At the other end, just on half-time, Fabregas – so quiet – spotted Oscar – so quiet – who turned and managed to get a shot on goal. The ball rebounded to Pato – so quiet – but his stab was well wide.

There were hearty grumbles in the crowded bar areas below at the break.

“Rubbish.”

“No energy.”

“No intensity.”

There was a real surprise at the break. Off went Miazga, and Mikel slipped back to play alongside Ivanovic at the heart of the defence.

That was odd.

Had Miazga been that poor? Or was the move needed to instil more pace? Kenedy came on, with Oscar dropping alongside Fabregas. Kenedy then spent the second-half running into dead ends, blind alleys and falling over.

Loftus-Cheek, full of a more productive type of running, then went close, then Pato slotted home but was ruled to have controlled the ball with his arm rather than shoulder. It looked like handball to me. Pato looked neat and tidy to be fair. There were worse players on the pitch in Chelsea blue. Just after, our best chance of the game thus far fell to Pato, who was played in by Pedro – another one prone to falling over for no apparent reason – but the Brazilian’s deft flick sent the ball agonisingly wide.

Begovic made a magnificent save at full length from former Chelsea player Jack Cork.

The Swansea support was quiet at times. And then it would roar itself back to life.

Our support rallied a little towards the final quarter. We tried our best to inspire the players. There were mediocre, at best, performances throughout the team but I thought that Jon Obi Mikel was excellent in the unfamiliar role of central defender.

Bertrand Traore replaced Alexandre Pato.

Reuben Loftus-Cheek was replaced by Radamel Falcao, hooked up from Swansea Bay earlier in the day.

Swansea, their first attempt for a while, really ought to have scored a second but Montero headed over when it appeared easier to score.

At the end of the game, Falcao had a half-chance, but by that time the home fans were bouncing – “The Jacks Are Staying Up” – and there was no real threat of a Chelsea equaliser.

This was a poor performance, with a distinct lack of passion and desire. I lost count of the number of “50-50” tackles that we lost. I lost count of the number of “second balls” that were squandered. We only had a couple of shots on goal, damn it.

Bloody hell, Chelsea.

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Tales From The Liberty Stadium

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 17 January 2015.

As I slowly pulled away from the busy roundabout at the bottom of the hill, with the white steel supports of the Liberty Stadium roof still glowing from the floodlights beneath, and with thousands of home fans making their way back to their cars, Jose Mourinho was being interviewed on Radio Five Live, only a few hundreds of yards away. There are times when I wonder if Jose might suddenly lose his composure after being asked yet another clichéd and banal question by those in the media, but I am always impressed how he usually takes a pause, waits, and then simply answers the question truthfully and with ease.

On this occasion, Mourinho stated that the game against Swansea changed within the first minute of play; that goal caused the home team to instantly re-assess their game plan, but it also gave our players belief and self-confidence. And how true this was.  Imagine how easier each of our working days would be if we got the equivalent of a goal within the first five minutes of our shift, perhaps in the guise of an email of thanks from a manager, or some good news from a client who had previously made life difficult. With such a lift, everything would become easier and decisions would be made with a greater degree of trust in ourselves and others.

With a goal to the good, and less than a minute on the clock, our working day had begun perfectly.

I had left my home village at around 9am, but was met with snow and then sleet on the drive to collect Parky. The wintry weather reminded me of the occasion of our League Cup semi-final second leg against Swansea City in 2013, when the threat of snow and ice caused me to miss the game – the one featuring the ball boy incident, if anyone had forgotten – in case I ended-up being stranded in my car in darkest Wales. This would be our fourth League match at the Liberty Stadium; it hasn’t been the richest of hunting grounds. Previously there had been two draws and a narrow win.

It was an easy drive into South Wales. Although the Brecon Beacons to the north were dusted with snow, driving conditions were fine. I headed straight into Swansea, but didn’t stop. Rather than spend a couple of hours in a generic city centre hostelry drinking lager out of plastic pint glasses, we had decided to head on out to The Gower. Even though it was the middle of January, we were happy to head off out of the city and spend an hour or two on this peninsula of fine countryside and unspoilt beaches, maybe to do some reconnaissance for that moment when the FA give us an away trip to Swansea in August or May and when we could truly make use of the stunning scenery on offer.

When I was growing up, Wales was close-by. Living in the west of England, our local independent television station – HTV – had a sister station in Wales, and we would often get treated to television programmes in Welsh, perhaps when the TV aerial had managed to be dislodged by half-an-inch or so. We occasionally visited relatives in Llanelli. We holidayed in both South and North Wales – Tenby and Criccieth – and although I loved these coastal resorts, there was still an over-riding feeling that Wales was a dark and moody country. These trips were full of industrial landscapes, deep valleys, impenetrable accents and a subtle dislike by some natives of the English.

On the drive out to our end destination on the Gower – the little village of Port Eynon – I was reminded of another facet of Wales; it always seemed to be raining. The trees were coated in moss, lichen and ivy, the air was damp. I began to doubt the decision of heading further away from the city. However, the scenery was splendid and it reminded me fully of the New Forest in Hampshire. There were even wayward sheep and ponies just roaming the moors, unfettered by anything as organised and English as a hedge or a fence.

We spent an hour or so in The Ship at Port Eynon. I treated myself to a bowl of soup called Welsh Cawl – pronounced “Cow-ul” – and the Peronis went down well. I even meandered out to the beach in order to take a few photographs of the sand dunes and the broad bay. By the time I had returned, Parky had finished his last pint, and it was time to move. The match had hardly been mentioned.

The slow drive back in to the city was increasingly fraught as match-going traffic slowed everything down; eventually, I reached my usual parking place, but with only twenty minutes to spare.

The capacity of the Liberty Stadium is just over 20,000. Therefore, the rules of the Premiership dictate that we only received 2,000 tickets; the ruling is “10% or 3,000 – whichever is smaller.” I have been in the away scheme since 2006-2007, so thankfully I don’t need to go through the rigmarole of applying game-by-game on the club website, the constant inspection of loyalty points and the tedious checking of updates (to say nothing of the box office page crashing on occasion), which is a modern day hell for some fans. As recently as 2004-2005, all of this was much different. Fixtures for the forthcoming season were announced mid-June and it was my anointed task, among my match-going friends – all season ticket-holders – to send a letter off to Chelsea. After a week or so of the new fixtures being studied, mates sent me a list of away games and I simply wrote Chelsea a letter; it was as simple as that. I really can’t remember if many did the same; away games were not so much of a political hot potato in those days. Of course there was a clamour for some tickets, but not every game sold out. In these days of online booking, and immediate confirmation, I just find it odd, looking back, that we could apply for a ticket some nine months in advance. And that Eddie Barnett didn’t lose my letter.

However, I know one thing. I am truly thankful that in the summer of 2004, I applied, in a hand-written letter to the box office at Stamford Bridge, to ask for seven tickets for the Bolton Wanderers vs. Chelsea game on Saturday 30 April 2005.

I reached my seat – towards the rear of the lower tier – just before the game kicked-off.

I was in, alongside Alan and Gary, with around five seconds to spare.

Chelsea in all blue.

Petr in goal, Luis at left-back, Gary in…mmm, who else?

There was just time for me to talk through the team with Gary, when the ball broke after a little early home possession and Oscar was in on goal. I was begging him to curl one, away from the ‘keeper’s clawing leap, towards the right hand post. Instead, he whipped a shot past the ‘keeper into the other corner, and we were 1-0 up on around 45 seconds.

Parky suddenly appeared behind me, and there was much back-slapping, mayhem and mirth.

Rob Brydon : “They’ll have to come sat us now, boyo.”

Dylan Thomas : “Of course they always accuse the Welsh of using too many words, too much emotion, or perhaps too much sentiment, but at this moment in time, with my heart pounding and my body spinning in tumultuous jest, without any fear of contradiction, I can truly say to you – come on my little diamonds.”

Tidy.

“The shot seemed to go through the goalkeeper, Gal.”

Soon after, Sigurdsson came close with a fine shot which clipped our right-hand post. But it was then time for us to totally control the rest of the first-half. Willian and Oscar rifled shots at the Swansea goal, and we played the ball around the entire pitch with tons of confidence. On nineteen minutes, a beautiful move, tight on the edge of the Swansea “D”, eventually found the ridiculously unmarked Diego Costa.

I shrieked – “Gotta be a goal.”

It was.

We were now 2-0 up and were laughing.

There had been a fair bit of noise from both home and away fans until this point, but as our domination continued unabated, I sheepishly admitted to Alan “we seem to be safe here…unless we score four or five, I reckon our support will be crap.”

We were treated to the usual “WWYWYWS?” from the home fans in the side stand to our left. Alan reminded me that “WE WERE HERE” in late 1983 when we were happy enough for Swansea to pull our game with them forward a week or so in order for funds to be raised as there was a risk of Swansea going under.

Our breath-taking one touch football – I almost hesitate to use the much-derided phrase tiki-taka – was exceptional. Swansea just couldn’t get the ball from us. Costa shot over, Willian slammed a powerful shot against the post. Then, a suicidal back-pass was seized upon by Costa and he scored from an angle. Soon after, Costa provided Oscar with a goalscoring chance and our Brazilian rifled home.

3-0, then 4-0, bang bang.

To our merriment, one Swansea supporter had decided to dress in a Teletubby “onesie” – why? For the love of God, why? – and then left when his team were losing 0-3.

Who are these people and how are they allowed out in public without a carer?

Then Willian hit the woodwork a second time. Diego Costa was then set up by his partner in crime Fabregas, but he was forced too far wide to shoot and the chance petered out

Alan : “I ain’t seen so much domination since you lent me that dodgy DVD, Gal.”

At half-time, it could have been 7 or 8.

Of course, no surprises, we never lived up to our scintillating performance of the first forty-five minutes after the break. Fair play, though, to the home supporters – or at least the two thousand in that noisy section to our immediate left – who created a wall of noise in the first fifteen minutes of the second half. It irritated the away fans, but I had to tip my hat to them. They were losing 0-4 at home, but they were making a hell of a din.

“Gary Monk’s black and white army.”

Deep-down, very deep-down, I was almost jealous of them.

“Twenty years ago, that would have been us.”

Our support was OK, but if I am honest, it didn’t befit a team still going strong in all four competitions this season.

The changes were rung and the substitutes appeared. Eden Hazard and Oscar went close. A surging run from Hazard set up Branislav Ivanovic, who tee’d up an easy tap in for substitute Andre Schurrle.

Swansea City 0 Chelsea 5.

Another substitute Loic Remy fired in one last shot at the hapless Fabianski, but no more goals were forthcoming, despite the away fans clamouring for six.

It had been an enjoyable match – of course – but it was almost too easy. As we walked back to the car, the game was soon behind us. There would soon be bigger, tougher matches ahead.

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Tales From Swansea / Hanesion O Abertawe

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 13 April 2014.

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Parky, Glenn, Bob, Chris.

So there we were; the four of us, basking in the early-afternoon sun at Bracelet Bay, just south of The Mumbles on the Gower Peninsular. We had just enjoyed a fine lunch at the Castellamare restaurant – where Parky and I enjoyed a similar pre-game meal before the January 2012 game – and were just about to head back into town to join the rest of the supporters for the Swansea City vs. Chelsea game. It had been a fine trip thus far. Due to the – relative – close proximity of the Liberty Stadium to my home (110 miles in case anyone is wondering) and the relatively “newness” of this venue, this always was going to be one of the most anticipated away days of 2013-2014. The four of us were having a blast, in fact. The story of how the trip came about is an interesting one.

Parky.

Until about a week before the game, Parky wasn’t going to be attending this game. Although he is a Chelsea season ticket holder, he had missed out in the application process. This was a real shame. We had enjoyed our first league game in Wales for 28 years on that trip in 2012 and were keen to repeat it. I was hopeful that a ticket might somehow become available from a Chelsea mate, but I also had a back-up plan. I work in logistics and one of our suppliers is based in Swansea. About a month ago, after we learned of Parky’s cruel twist of fate, I enquired if they could possibly muster up one ticket from somewhere. After a couple of subtle hints, the dialogue dwindled. I wasn’t too hopeful. Then, out of the blue, I received the great news that not one but two tickets had been acquired. Not only that, they were gratis…free…complimentaries. This was a result of the highest order. I quickly ‘phoned His Parkyness to tell him; he was, as the old cliché goes, “over the moon Brian.” I quickly decided that Parky would have my ticket, alongside Alan and Gary in the away section, while I would make use of one of the complimentaries. Who would get the other one? It was an easy decision.

Glenn.

My good friend – in fact, my oldest Chelsea friend by a good few years – Glenn was free on Sunday 13 April and so he unsurprisingly jumped at the chance to travel with me to Swansea for the game. Glenn has been keeping an extra special eye on my ailing mother of late and so here was a lovely way to reward him for his time, not that a reward was being sought of course. It was just nice that he was free, that we could watch the game together. Originally, I had visions of us schmoozing in a corporate area, but I found out on the Wednesday that the two tickets were located within the home end. This wasn’t a problem. The tickets – two season tickets – were posted to me and arrived on the Friday. This was coming together rather well. I longed for the weekend. It was, quite possibly, going to be the best weekend of the year so far. On the Friday, I saw iconic punk poet John Cooper Clarke in my home town with a few old (non-Chelsea, gasp) friends and on Saturday I awaited the arrival in town of a Chelsea friend from afar.

Bob.

I first met The Bobster in Palo Alto in 2007, ahead of our game against Club America on a perfect Californian summer day, and we have become very good mates during the intervening period. Bob has travelled over to England on around six or seven occasions since then – plus away games in Rome and Paris – and has even travelled down to my home town in Somerset to see my local team play. Bob had this trip booked, in that meticulous way of his, some months ago. There was always going to be a trip to Frome on the day before the jaunt to Swansea, and Parky was always going to be accompanying us, regardless of match ticket. Additionally, there was always going to be a boozy rendezvous around the pubs of Frome (aka “Dodge City”) too. What made it all the more enjoyable was the sudden news about the extra two tickets. Four of us were going to South Wales and it was going to be a cracker.

Chris.

I followed up the night out on the Friday with a well-planned pub crawl around Dodge on the Saturday. I invited two local Chelsea stalwarts – PD and Brian – to join Glenn, Bob and I and the evening’s entertainment began at PD’s local “The Crown.” I had warned Bob that this pub would be as “old school” as they came. The linoleum on the floor and the – ahem – minimalistic décor proved my point. Bob’s enquiry if the pub served food was met by a quick rebuttal from me. We assembled just after 7pm, but were saddened to see Wigan squander a 1-0 lead and to end up losing their F.A. Cup semi-final against Arsenal. The drinks went down well. It was lovely to be out in my local town with four other Chelsea supporters. We felt untouchable. Glenn and I ended up at an “80’s Night”, where the drinking continued, and where – in one surreal moment – we found ourselves up on stage dancing to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now.” It was a good night. Thankfully, I awoke the next day hangover-free. Glenn didn’t fare quite so well.

I had collected The Bobster outside his hotel in Frome’s Market Place at 9.15am and I called for Glenn soon after. To be honest, I was just thankful that he was in the land of the living. However, on a day when our behaviour in among the home fans would probably be under intense scrutiny (“who are those two, by there?) – and heaven knows we had joked about us putting on Welsh accents, and growing moustaches, to blend in – I was taken aback by Glenn’s choice of puffa jacket.

It was royal blue.

“Nice neutral colours, Glenn.”

“Oh shit. I got dressed in a hurry. Look!”

He had a royal blue Quiksilver polo, too.

“Oh boy.”

We swung over to collect His Lordship. A quick breakfast at McMelksham (“look at those two twats with their Arsenal shirts on”) and then up onto the M4. It was a splendid day. The weather was superb. As we rose on a hill to the north of Bristol, we could easily see the hills of Wales on the horizon. The view was exceptional.

I drove over the new (well, circa 1997) Severn Bridge and we were soon in Wales.

“You been to Wales before, Bob?”

“Nope. First time.”

Bob was soon chuckling at the dual road signs on show as I thundered past Newport, then Cardiff, then Bridgend, then Port Talbot. In a little more than two hours after leaving Parky’s Wiltshire village, I had parked-up outside the Swansea train station to allow Bob to deposit his overnight bag in the Grand Hotel opposite. A few Chelsea faces were already drinking in the hotel bar – I paid it a visit last season in fact, during the dying embers of Roberto di Matteo’s tumultuous reign. Parky didn’t accompany me on that trip. Both of the league games at the Liberty Stadium ended as 1-1 draws. As for the League Cup semi-final (which none of us attended), the less said the better. So, three visits to Swansea and three draws. On the trip, little was said about the up-coming match. I have sensed that there is a shifting of focus by Chelsea supporters from the domestic league towards European glory. Although I was hopeful of a Chelsea win later that evening, and with it a continued presence in the crazy and unpredictable title race, I was surely not alone in thinking that our league campaign might end with most Chelsea fans focussing on Madrid and Lisbon. This, to be honest, was unlike me. I have always counted league glory over European glory. And yet…and yet…Munich gave me the best night of my life and the best weekend of my life. How could I not want a second European Cup? These are heady days.

For an hour or so, the four of us chatted over lunch. Glenn’s hangover had subsided, but Bob gave us all headaches when he informed us that Manchester City had let in two early goals at Anfield.  In that moment, had the power shifted towards the city of Liverpool?

As I drove slowly back into the city, we were given a sightseeing tour by Parky. He had been so smitten by The Mumbles on our visit in 2012 that he had soon returned back with his far-better half Jill for a few days. As I passed through The Mumbles, Parky spoke of that visit. It seemed that there were few pubs that Jill and Parky hadn’t frequented.

Then, mayhem. The news came through that David Silva had not only scored once but twice at Anfield. When the second one was announced on Five Live, we roared. My car may have shifted a few lanes. Suddenly, in Swansea, with the terraced houses clinging to the surrounding hillsides, and the sky so blue, we were back in it.

Then, just after the stadium came into view…utter dismay.

Liverpool 3 Manchester City 2.

I parked up and we sauntered down to the neat stadium, the sun warming the Welsh air. Outside, I said my goodbyes to The Bobster. He walked with Parky up to the northern end of the stadium, while Glenn and I headed to the other end. After a few paces, I spotted a Swansea face; one of the wannabee hooligans featured in that laughable documentary about an ill-fated trip to Notts County game a few years ago.

Johnny The Brains.

Oh boy.

We had no problems entering the stand. In a quiet moment, I whispered to Glenn –

“The last time we were sat in the home end together was in Barcelona in 2005. Wonder if a bloke will prod you with his walking stick like at Camp Nou.”

Glenn laughed.

“I don’t think he was too impressed when I said ‘VIVA MADRID’ was he?”

Inside, we had great seats. We were in only the fifth row in the lower tier, just yards from the goal. Around us, of course, were natives. We spoke in hushed tones. I have watched games in home areas before of course; Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton, Blackburn Rovers, Bristol Rovers, Bournemouth, Bristol City to name a few. I have never encountered any trouble. However, this game was a little different. I was using someone else’s season ticket; it was likely that we would soon be sussed. We vowed, therefore, to randomly cheer the odd Swansea move, but – obviously – stay silent should Chelsea score. I also didn’t want the kind benefactor to be reprimanded by the club for letting in away fans.

I already had a story : “We’re visiting our sons at Swansea University and had the chance of tickets.”

Glenn : “What subjects?”

Chris : “I don’t bloody know. Football?”

The Chelsea end slowly filled-up. I spotted Bob, Alan and Gary. This was going to be a weird sensation for me. For once, I would be the outsider looking in. There were a few flags. But quite a few empty seats.

The teams entered the pitch and the hitherto quiet home sections were roused.

Then, a whistle.

We remembered the ninety-six Liverpool fans, including one lad from Swansea, who tragically perished twenty-five years ago.

R.I.P.

At 4.07pm, the game began and it was pretty surreal to be among strangers. We had made a point of clapping some of the Swansea players as their names were announced, but one lad behind us kept giving us some very old-fashioned looks. It was great to be so close to the action. Swansea began well. A lot of our early play came down our right, just where we sat, and I so wanted to give support to Mohamed Salah, Branislav Ivanovic or Demba Ba, so found it hard to sit motionless. A fine move found Brana but his excellent cut-back was tucked wide by Salah. Willian buzzed around and Matic looked in control. Another Salah effort, then a header from Bony. The home support was predictably loud –

“Gary Monk’s Barmy Army”

CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP.

But the Chelsea fans matched it well –

“He Hates Tot’num, He Hates Tot’num.”

The game, however, changed when Chico Flores was booked twice within a few minutes. Swansea were down to ten men. The home fans were incandescent with rage.

One chap behind said –

“I fcuking hate Chelsea.”

We seemed to have all of the possession then, but never looked like getting behind their back-line.

“If we can’t beat ten men…”

A few chances were exchanged, with Salah and Willian heavily involved. When Andre Schurrle was booked, the Swansea fans cheered and clapped. I joined in.

“Bloody hell Glenn, I’m confused.”

It had been a strange game. Our play was slow and I wondered what magic might issue forth from Jose Mourinho’s mouth at the interval. At the break, two changes – Oscar for Ramires and Eto’o for Schurrle. We were now on the offensive and Oscar was very involved. We stepped up the pressure, moving things nicely in the Swansea half. A Ba header was flicked wide. Then, with Eto’o just yards from goal and centrally placed, he shanked it wide. I silently sighed. Then, a shot from Ba. The chances were mounting up.

The home fans responded –

“And We Were Singing, Hymns And Arias, Land Of My Fathers, Ar Hyd Y Nos.”

And so did the team. Only a timely block from John Terry denied Routledge. The clock was ticking and I again wondered if we would ever score. Would our league title challenge end with a whimper in Wales?

A quick throw in by Dave found an unmarked Matic. This was poor defending by Swansea, but their ten men had chased us down for an hour. They were starting to tire. Matic wasted no time in toe-poking the ball up-field to Demba Ba. Our number 19 adeptly brought  the ball down. He edged left and shot early. Vorm could only deflect the ball in. I remained silent and still. Two thousand Chelsea fans were doing the celebrating for me. It was a great, immediate, bellow of noise.

A few more Chelsea chances. Mourinho then put the bolt across our defence and brought on Mikel for Ba. A great reflex save by Petr Cech from Shelvey, just ten yards away from Glenn and I, kept us ahead. I wanted to yell out my support. Instead, I whispered to Glenn –

“That’s why he’s still our ‘keeper.”

By then, many of the home fans around us had already left.

The final whistle blew. Our foray behind enemy lines had been a huge success. However, it had been an odd game. We had enjoyed tons of possession, and had peppered the home goal with a multitude of shots, but it was all much laboured. But let’s be honest, at this stage of this very strange season, all we can attempt to do is win.

Job – most definitely – done.

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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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