Tales From Another Year

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 2 January 2019.

Another year, another Chelsea game. The evening match at home to Southampton represented the forty-seventh consecutive year that I would be watching my team play “live” and, as the evening developed, at times it felt like it too. Here is a report of Chelsea game number one thousand two hundred and twenty-six – and my five hundred and fortieth consecutive match report.

This won’t be pretty.

PD was on driving duties again. I met up with him, Parky and Glenn in the pub car park opposite my place of work just after 3pm. It had been my first, tiresome, day back at work after an eleven-day break. The highlight was procuring my ticket for the League Cup semi-final at Wembley when they went on sale at 7am. I was not sure if I was being particularly negative, but it certainly felt that the football authorities were up to their conniving best in 2019 already. I remember not so long ago, there would be a full fixture list on New Year’s Day, with only one or two games displaced to the following evening. On New Year’s Day 2019, there were just three Premier League games. The following day, there were six, including ours. So rather than have all day to devote to football, with no rushing around like fools, fans of twelve clubs were forced to travel to games after work. To me, it just didn’t seem right. It felt like we were being short-changed.

However, let it not be said that I don’t enjoy a challenge; I still managed to hit three pubs, admittedly all along the North End Road.

In “The Goose” we sat by the executive boardroom – the disabled toilet – and we chatted to a good dozen or so of the usual suspects. It was not particularly busy. On the day that we had paid Borussia Dortmund a fee of some £58M for the American wunderkind Christian Pulisic, I turned to Glenn and said

“You have to wonder if signing an American Christian right-winger is going to work out.”

The others moved on to “Simmons” but I shot in to “The Cock Tavern” where I had a pretty good feeling that a few friends from afar would be drinking. There was a group of around thirty fans from all over the US in London for the Palace and Southampton games – backed by the “London Is Blue” podcast team – and I had met a few of a previous tour group before last season’s miserable Tottenham game in the same pub. As I walked through a very packed bar, sure enough there was the sound of a few American accents, and a fair few Chelsea scarves – a tell-tale sign that overseas fans were present – so I sensed that I had guessed correctly. There was even one chap wearing a Chelsea hat, but with also what appeared to be a massive Chelsea security blanket, the like of which I have never seen before. I soon met Mike from Tacoma for the first time and he followed me out to the beer garden where the main tour party were based. At Selhurst Park on Sunday, they had sat – quietly, without colours – in a block in the home section of the Arthur Wait. At this game, they would be in the East Middle.

“Blimey, I’ve only ever sat there once.”

It was great to reacquaint myself with a few old friends and to meet some new Chelsea fans for the first time.

I replayed the American Christian right-winger line and got even more of a blank response than I did from Glenn in the first pub.

Of course we chatted about all things Chelsea and I honestly could have stayed there all night. Steve from Seattle had been touring around the south-west the previous few days and must have been very close to my home village at one stage. I am not sure what was the catalyst for the conversation, but I spoke to Brandon and his girlfriend, from Minneapolis, about the Champions League games in Moscow and Munich. I admitted that I am probably, currently, on my tenth stage of being a Chelsea fan – maybe a topic for another “Tale” – but I had to admit that “really, after Munich, nothing really matters.”

I have an inkling that they knew what I meant.

My friend Natalie from Kansas City, who sat alongside me at the famous 6-0 thrashing of Arsenal in 2014, followed me a few yards along to “Simmons” and she met Parky again, the poor girl. She used to work for the MLS team the New England Revolution and was looking forward to seeing Chelsea play in Boston later this season, a game that I have already ruled myself out of. Time was moving on, though, and there was only time for one rushed bottle of “Nastro Azzurro.” At 7.25pm, we needed to hotfoot it to the ground. Nat was watching from the dreaded West Upper.

I reached my seat with about five seconds to spare before the game kicked-off. It is a good job that I work in logistics.

Fair play, a midweek game or not, Stamford Bridge was full to capacity once more. In the other corner, close to where the tour party were based, there were only 1,400 away fans.

Our team lined up as below :

  1. Arrizabalaga.
  2. Azpilicueta.
  3. Alonso.
  4. Kante.
  5. Rudiger.
  6. Luiz.
  7. Jorginho.
  8. Barkley.
  9. Morata.
  10. Hazard.
  11. Willian.

Talking of Munich, Oriel Romeu was in but Ryan Bertrand was out.

It had been a bitter day but Stamford Bridge did not seem quite so raw as I had expected.

The match began.

Southampton were in their traditional red and white stripes of course, but I had to have a double-take a few weeks back when I saw the team play an away game in two-tone red stripes, evidently their third kit. If ever there was an example of a football club taking the piss, this was surely it.

First kit : red and white stripes.

Second kit : yellow and blue.

Third kit : red and red stripes.

As so often happens, we began quite brightly but soon fell away. An early free-kick set up Alonso, but his effort slammed against the wall. A shot from Barkley, making a yard of space nicely, was blocked. For what seemed like the first time in ages, a long ball from Dave was aimed at Alvaro Morata but this great ball was headed meekly at the Saints goalie Angus Gunn (who?). Southampton gave the – false – impression that they were going to make a game of it with efforts from Ward-Prowse and Ings, but we then took a stranglehold of the game. But, I have to say, this was not a great spectacle at all. I lost count of the number of times that the ball was swept back along the defensive four, while the attacking players hardly tested their markers with neither runs into space nor incisive passing.

Alonso to Barkley to Luiz to Jorginho to Rudiger to Luiz to Azpilicueta to Jorginho to Kante to Alonso to Luiz.

Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass.

I was sure that I might receive the ball at one stage.

This was football by numbers, with the players seemingly handcuffed into playing a rather tedious variant of football the like of which I was struggling to find any merit in. It was tough going. At last, a neat lofted pass from Rudiger found Eden Hazard but his full-blooded swipe hit the Southampton ‘keeper in the face and the chance was wasted. An Alonso effort through a ridiculous forest of legs went wide. A Morata shot was deflected wide. There had been a few lofted passes from David Luiz, but none seemed to reach their targets. Eden was quiet. Only Kante seemed to have any urgency.

Willian – not involved to be honest – was injured and was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

Glenn had disappeared for a while and came back with an assortment of confectionary – “I’ve had a hot dog too” – and the game was so poor that this is worthy of a mention.

There were audible boos at half-time.

It was time to vent.

I turned to Alan : “we haven’t seen this sort of football at Chelsea for ages.”

I’m a pretty patient person and I knew that this version of football would take a while to gel, but this was teeth-grinding stuff. It was truly dire. And the atmosphere, of course – obviously – was morgue like.

Into the second-half we went. I was not sure it would be a bountiful journey.

Stuart Armstrong (who?) left fly from outside the box and Kepa scrambled down to turn it around the post. We grew a little, but only marginally, with a little dance and shot from Hazard which was aimed too closely to Gunn. We needed a lift and that was it; the crowd responded a little, but the noise was barely at the 5/10 level.

Ward-Prose hit Battersea Power Station with a rogue Southampton effort and then Jorginho – bloody hell, smelling salts please nurse – hit a riser from outside the box, but it was an easy save for the bearded debutant custodian.

“Bearded debutant custodian.”

Do I get points for that?

An audacious back-heel over on the far touch line from David Luiz – the London Is Blue team must have had a great view of it – found a Chelsea team mate, and the crowd responded with a burst of noise. As Alan commented to me, it is often a single bit of spontaneity that can lift a crowd. And I am not sure that there is too much spontaneity about Chelsea at the moment. I have this dreaded fear that football is headed the way of other sports where choreographed training plays are re-enacted ad infinitum on the pitch with players not allowed to show any individual spontaneity or – for the want of a better word – wit.

I love football that is breathless, off-the-cuff and passionate.

This fucking wasn’t.

On sixty-eight minutes, an ineffectual Barkley was replaced by Cesc Fabregas who played in a more forward role than in other appearances for Chelsea. Not long after, the best passage of play in the entire game involving Hazard and Fabregas set up Morata, who was on the shoulder of the last man. I sensed that he was in, and bound to score. His shot was captured on film, but as soon as the ball hit the back of the net, I soon equated that “yes, he was offside.”

“Of course he bloody was.”

Fabregas played a delightful pass to Morata, raiding in the inside-left channel, but the under-fire Spanish striker’s rather meek effort was well saved by Gunn. Morata was not getting much service throughout the game but it did not seem to matter; this lad could miss one or ten with equal ease.

Ugh.

There were a couple of long shots from Alonso as the game drifted into its final few minutes. The Southampton box became more and more packed. This was simply not to be. There were boos at the final whistle.

Well, that doesn’t help anyone does it?

As I exited the stairs, I spotted Tim, who had been in “The Cock Tavern” before the game and I vented further.

“When the Sarri career comes to an end in maybe ten years, I really do wonder if the Napoli era will be his high-water mark, when he happened to find himself in charge of the right blend of players at the right time, with no real pressure to win anything.”

I am, dear reader, still finding it difficult to warm to the bloke.

On the walk back to the car – the mood among the support was bleak – we heard that Cesc Fabregas had appeared to say his “goodbye” at the end of the game as he strode around the Stamford Bridge pitch looking emotional. A move to Monaco is apparently imminent. He has been a very fine servant for this football club. He may have spent eight years at Arsenal but his five seasons here have resulted in two league title wins, plus two other domestic trophies. I still remember his pass to Andre Schurrle in his first Chelsea game at Burnley, which happened to be my one thousandth, and that sublime disguised pass lit up that particular evening.

He wore a magic hat and he will always be one of us.

You’re a good man Cesc. You’re absolutely Fabregas.

We leave the league well alone over the next two games. We play in the FA Cup at home to Nottingham Forest on Saturday – did someone mention banana skin? – and then Tottenham in the League Cup on Tuesday. The season continues at a pace now. It is no place for the weak nor the meek.

Into the year we continue to go.

Tales From The Tired Ones

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 22 December 2018.

Good heavens, a Saturday three o’clock kick-off. What were they thinking?

I was on driving duties again, and our route to London took a different route for a change. Lord Parky had stayed at PD Towers in Frome Friday night as they had seen the Neville Staple Band in town. I collected them at 8am. Glenn had been out on Friday evening too, on his Christmas works “do”, and he joined us a few minutes later. My Friday evening had been spent typing up my second match report in twenty-four hours (easily the least number of views of the whole year; perhaps posting it on a Friday night before Christmas was not the best idea, but thanks to those who took time to click and read).

On this Saturday, my route took me east via the A36, then up and over the Salisbury Plain, onto the A303 and then in to London via the M3 and the A316, a journey of 108 miles. At Stonehenge, the car park was full of visitors who had witnessed the Winter Solstice. As we drove past the famous World Heritage site, we spotted thousands standing in and around the sarsen stones, the most people that I have ever seen at the monument. We stopped at Fleet Services for a bite to eat, and it wasn’t long before I was heading past the three rugby stadia of Twickenham, the home of the England team, then The Stoop, home of the Harlequins, and then the home stadium of Richmond at Old Dear Park, which also hosts London Welsh. London’s rugby clubs have moved around ad infinitum in recent years. London Irish currently play at Reading Football Club but are due to move in to Brentford’s new stadium underneath the M4 in 2020. Saracens, based in the north, now play in Barnet but have played previously at Watford’s Vicarage Road. London Wasps, originally based in south-west London, moved to Loftus Road in the ‘nineties and then to Adams Park, in leafy Buckinghamshire. In 2014, they moved – bizarrely and ridiculously – to the midlands city of Coventry where they play at the same stadium as the city’s football club. What the supporters of Coventry Rugby Club think of this imposition is not known, but they can’t be happy. Wasps’ exodus to Coventry makes Wimbledon’s move to Milton Keynes look almost acceptable.

I dropped the boys off at “The Famous Three Kings” and I drove on and was parked-up at about 11am on Normand Road, not far from where a blue plaque marks a former home of the 1976 Formula One Champion James Hunt. I dropped in to “The Curtain’s Up” for a coffee, and asked the Albanian barman if the pub gets used by Chelsea fans for games. He replied “yes, for big games” but I suspect he meant it gets filled by people watching on the bar’s TVs since every game at Chelsea is a big game. We always play to 41,000 full houses these days. My walk continued and I spotted two further blue plaques; one for Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, aircraft designer, and one for Mahatma Gandhi.

Boys from Essex, Kent and Gloucestershire were also in “The Famous Three Kings”, joining us four boys from Somerset and Wiltshire. I was still feeling tired and ordered some “Cokes.” We chatted about Budapest and the current state of the team. After a while of sitting and chatting, I still felt drowsy, and could easily have curled up in a corner of the pub and had a quick power nap. Glenn, still slightly delicate from the alcohol of the previous night, was feeling tired. And so too were PD and Parky, tired from the previous night too. I admitted to the lads that I have been “sleep deficient” from Budapest. The midweek flit to London for the League Cup quarter-final clearly did not help. On the horizon, I am not honestly looking forward to the upcoming midweek trips to London for the Southampton and two Tottenham games.

Is the magic starting to fade?

Stay tuned for further updates.

We caught the tube down to Fulham Broadway. The weather was relatively mild. Touts were out in force. One bastard was brazen enough to tout just inches from a policeman.

We were treated to more fireworks and flames bollocks.

What a load of cock.

The team lined up as below :

  1. Kepa Arrizabalaga.
  2. Cesar Azpilicueta.
  3. Marcos Alonso.
  4. N’Golo Kante
  5. Toni Rudiger.
  6. David Luiz.
  7. Willian.
  8. Mateo Kovacic.
  9. Eden Hazard.
  10. Jorginho.
  11. Pedro.

The exact same team as against Manchester City and Brighton. Another full house. Another three thousand away supporters. Blue skies overhead.

We could not believe that the referee had allowed the Leicester City to wear their dowdy grey away kit, which – to our eyes, anyway – clashed with our home kit. Over in the away corner, many fans were wearing grey and orange Santa hats, free-gifts no doubt, which mirrored our club giving the away fans at Goodison Park similar attire a year ago. I rolled my eyes at every Chelsea fan I saw – there were not many, thank fuck – who were wearing Chelsea Christmas jumpers, and whom I immediately wanted to garrote. Down in the Matthew Harding Lower, there was even a lone Chelsea supporter wearing a red and white Santa hat.

Answers on a postcard…

The game began but there was not a lot of noise in the stadium. The away fans were not particularly loud, but they were making most of the racket. Their voices seemed shriller, higher, than usual. Maybe their Baby Squad were all grown up now, but were still waiting for their balls to drop. There was one song about being Champions of England that I could not get to the bottom off. That East Midlands vernacular needed subtitles.

We began with a large proportion of the possession, and dominated the early exchanges.

But it was David Luiz who first caught the eyes with a couple of timely interceptions to thwart the away team. There had only been one potentially hurtful incision into our box, but the chance came and went.

Our first real goal scoring chance came from a Willian corner which was flicked-on at the near post by Pedro of all people, and as the ball dropped at the far post, it just evaded the ungainly leap of Luiz. In the next few moments, Luiz turned provider with a couple of excellent passes through the packed ranks of the Confederate greys of the Leicester lines to the Union blue of Chelsea. But there still seemed a tendency to overpass, or perhaps underpass, in so much that passes to danger areas were missing. This variant of football was still struggling to win everyone over. There was the usual “to me to you” passing from Jorginho. I have a feeling he regards the ball as a triggered hand grenade.

Inwardly I was urging him to take an extra touch and make a killer pass.

I noted that there were often men over, in space, on our right but were often ignored.

A shot from Dave flew over the bar.

At the half-hour mark, I commented to Glenn “maybe football is careering away at such a fast pace, that I am starting to lose my understanding of it, but I just can’t see what Jorginho gives to this team.”

Lo and behold, in time-honoured fashion, Jorginho sent through a brilliant through-ball.

The lads sniggered.

But we upped our game at this stage and the crowd definitely responded.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

Eden – who had been rather quiet until then – pounced on a Leicester City mistake inside the box, turned and slammed a fierce shot against the bar. His one hundredth goal in Chelsea blue would have to wait a little longer. Then, the action swapped to the Matthew Harding end, and there was a brilliant strike from Wilfred Ndidi which drew an equally brilliant save, at full stretch, from Kepa. The Stamford Bridge warmly applauded some excellent football.

A rare shot from Jorginho, a thunderous volley, which Schmeichel palmed clear brought the half to a close.

Chelsea had been well on top.

Before the game, I had predicted a dour game that we would squeak 1-0.

Five minutes into the second period, everything went against us.

An incisive move right through our middle cut us to ribbons. Pereira broke through and released Maddison, who easily spotted the movement of Vardy inside the box. His first time shot whipped past Kepa at the near post.

“Why can’t we do that?” I gasped to Glenn.

There was that 1-0 score line that I had predicted but it was to Leicester, whose fans celebrated wildly.  Immediately after, the home support was roused to get behind the team, but the noise levels never reached those levels again during the entire match. The visitors threatened again with Kepa scrambling away a cross with Vardy unable to pounce on the scraps. A rapid move down our left resulted in a fearsome shot from an angle from Eden which Schmeichel did well to save at his near post with one hand.

But as we attempted to retaliate, I wondered where our shape had gone. Hazard often dropped deep – way deep – to collect the ball. This was a deeply false nine.

Sub-zero, maybe.

Five minutes after the Leicester goal, Sarri made a double-substitution. Loftus-Cheek replaced Kovacic and Giroud replaced Willian with Giroud moving into the middle and with Hazard pushed wide. But we still looked ill at ease. All eyes were on Hazard – at times it seemed like he was our only hope – who became a little self-indulgent.

To my amazement, Sarri took off his man Jorginho and replaced him with Cesc Fabregas. Giroud was only marginally involved. Loftus-Cheek did not ever really get involved. At the other end Marc Albrighton shot from distance and Kepa did well to keep the ball out with a low drop to his right.

Amazingly, we heard that Manchester City were losing at home to Crystal Palace. Usually, this would have been met with glee, but with Liverpool ahead by four points after their predictable win at Molyneux the night before, this was grim news. We aren’t going to win the league. Anyone but Liverpool or, marginally worse, Tottenham.

A corner from Pedro down below me was floated right into the danger area. Toni Rudiger rose, but Schmeichel managed to put him off with an outstretched arm and his header, admittedly after a prodigious leap, sailed flew wide. There was more agony to follow. A lovely ball from Fabregas was miss-controlled by Giroud.

Then, with the time running out, Kante found the advanced run of Marcos Alonso. The whole stadium held our breath. He steadied himself, but his left-footed shot, seemingly well-placed, hit the left post and rebounded out and across the goal mouth. There was nobody there to tap in the rebound.

It was not to be.

Chelsea 0 Leicester City 1.

Bollocks.

Our immediate post-mortem was easy.

This was not a horrific display, but we were well below our best. We just needed a cutting edge. And we looked tired. Not physically tired, but tired of trying new things, tired of taking chances, tired of the challenge. On another day, with a proper striker, we would probably have won the game easily. I am quite certain that the manager is quite a long way away from where he wants his team to be, and – if he has time, that priceless commodity – his two-year or three-year plan might well come to fruition. But this is going to be a long, slow journey. There seems to be a certain dislike of this new style of football among many in our ranks. I know that I am not wholly convinced, although I am truly no expert.

On Boxing Day evening, we reconvene at Vicarage Road.

I will see some of you there.

 

Tales From The Pride Of London

Chelsea vs. Fulham : 2 December 2018.

I was inside Stamford Bridge in good time. In those minutes before kick-off, with “Park Life” by Blur initiating the pre-game activities, the Fulham fans in the far corner were already voicing their dislike of us.

“We are Fulham. We are Fulham. We are Fulham. FFC. We are Fulham. Super Fulham. We are Fulham. Fuck Chelsea.”

So much for brotherly-love, eh?

This was Fulham’s first appearance at Stamford Bridge since the 2013/14 season. I personally like the idea of them being back in the top flight. An away game at Craven Cottage is always a treat. It’s good to have them back. But when I was growing up, I only ever really envisaged a Chelsea vs. Fulham league encounter taking place in the second tier. They were a club that wobbled between the old Second and Third Divisions. As recently as 1997, they were in the basement of the Football League. They have enjoyed a resurgence, then, in recent seasons, but when they disappeared from the Premier League in 2014, I did wonder if we would ever see them again in the league.

So they have done well to bounce back after just four seasons beneath us.

Ironically, ex-Chelsea midfielder Slavisa Jokanovic was recently sacked as their manager, and was replaced by Claudio Ranieri a week or so ago. In his first season as Chelsea manager, Jokanovic was the bete noire of Ranieri’s team, a one-paced misfit, who drew nothing but ire from the Chelsea fans at games all over England. He was seen as Ranieri’s man. His totem. His man. Jokanovic was known as “the Joker” and Ranieri was similarly mocked by many. In that first season, it took ages for the Chelsea support to warm to the Italian.

With large flags being waved on the pitch, each one indicating the numbers of the starting eleven, the Chelsea PA welcomed back Claudio Ranieri – dear, dear Claudio – to Stamford Bridge, and an image of him appeared on the large TV screen hovering over the away support.

It then got a little nasty.

“He comes from Italy. He fucking hates Chelsea.”

That was out of order.

It is, of course – nothing new here – a fact of life within SW6 that Chelsea fans have historically nurtured a distinct soft spot for Fulham. What is there to hate about Fulham after all? In years gone by, in the days when the terraced streets between Stamford Bridge and Craven Cottage housed a solidly working class population, people would alternate between the two grounds each week. It was a distinct “Fulham thing”, this sharing of the borough’s two clubs. But not QPR, further north. Never QPR.

Fulham had brought three thousand, of course, as would be expected. As the teams entered the pitch, we were treated again to flames and fireworks. But this was a midday kick-off, and it seemed even more preposterous.

Fireworks for Fulham? Give me a break.

We had spoken about the potential line-up on the drive to London and we naturally presumed that Alvaro Morata would be playing up front. But what did we know? Instead, manager Maurizio chose Olivier Giroud. Elsewhere, Pedro got the nod over Willian and Mateo Kovacic still kept Ross Barkley out of the starting eleven.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

Former blue Andre Schurrle did not feature in the Fulham team, out with an injury. We all remembered the second-half hat-trick the German scored at the Cottage in 2014, our last game against them.

Around the stadium on signage, on the captain’s armband, on the match programme and on bootlaces were the seven colours of the rainbow, mirroring the pastel shades of the various Nike, Puma and Adidas footwear.

The game began with a few songs emanating from the Matthew Harding.

It was a very mild Winter’s day.

We started magnificently. Jean Michael Seri was pick-pocketed by N’Golo Kante, and the French midfielder advanced before setting up Pedro in the inside-right channel. Our little Spaniard – “the hummingbird” as my mate Rick in Iowa suitably calls him – cut back on to his left foot and poked the ball past Sergio Rico.

Pedro raced away past the supporters in the Shed Lower and celebrated with a hop and a skip and a jump. His smile lit up the stadium. It was a typically lovely nimble finish from Pedro.

Perfect.

SW6 East 1 SW6 West 0

The sun was breaking through some cloud as the first-half developed and there were some strong shadows forming on the pitch. I kept looking over at the two managers, both former Napoli men, managers separated by more than twenty years; Ranieri, impeccably dressed, Sarri looking like a bloke on his way to a Wetherspoons.

Alan and I briefly discussed the famous game between the two teams at Christmas in 1976. We were on our way to promotion that season – a beguiling mix of mainly home-grown youngsters with a few steadying influences too – and Fulham boasted George Best and Rodney Marsh. A ridiculous crowd of 55,003 attended that game. I was not at the game but I asked Alan of his recollections of the day. He replied that it was ridiculously packed in the forecourt, and he was genuinely concerned about getting crushed. He was sure that many were locked out. I can remember seeing the gate in the following day’s newspaper and it made me gulp.

55,003.

In the Second Division nonetheless.

What a club we were. Or rather, what a potentially huge club we could become.

I was warm and fuzzy at the age of eleven and I don’t think that feeling has ever really left me.

On the pitch, we dominated play, but without many clear scoring chances. Olivier Giroud threatened and forced a save from the Fulham ‘keeper. A poor David Luiz free-kick was struck against the wall. Pedro looked full of drive and energy, and Kante was covering lots of ground. But there were a few patchy performances. Eden Hazard struggled to get involved. And Marcos Alonso was having his own personal hell. There were misplaced passes, and poor control. He was often released on the left, but his final ball was usually substandard.

It was a generally scrappy affair. The sun was getting brighter still, but the play was grey.

It was, of course, ridiculously quiet.

There were occasional chants from the away fans.

“Haven’t you got a boat race to go to?” bellowed Alan.

There were two chances for Giroud, close in on goal, but the tight angles and conflux of opposing players worked against him.

There seemed to be an unwillingness to put a tackle in from our players. In these days, the buzz word in football is the word “press”. You can’t walk two yards or read more than five words about football without hearing or seeing the word “press.”

I remember the closing of space being called “pressing” by Arrigo Sacchi in his Milan years around thirty years ago. It was one of those words of English origin that the Italians often shoehorn into their language. I think at the time the English version was known, loosely, as “getting stuck in” but it has become the word of the season, or possibly the decade.

And the gentlemen of the press and fans alike love it.

The printing press. The trouser press. The cider press. And now the football press. There is no fucking escaping it.

What it means for much of the time is a lot of closing of space but tackling – that black art – being condemned to the pages of history.

Oh well.

I just wanted to see a well won tackle.

It would at least stir the fans.

Modern football, eh?

However, we were by far the better of the two SW6 combatants. There had only been very rare attacks on our goal. Kepa had enjoyed a very quiet game. I am sure there was one moment when I saw him hunting down by his right-hand post for one of Thibaut Courtois’ old word search books.

The half-time whistle blew.

It had been a generally quiet and tepid affair.

I wondered what a few friends from afar had reckoned to the game thus far. We had welcomed the visitors from Toronto and Atlanta again to our pre-match. We met up in The Goose. In addition to Prahlad and his wife Nisha, and Brenda and Ryan, there was another Atlantan too; Emily, who I last saw in Vienna for our friendly in 2016, was visiting from Austria for one game only. Memorably, as we walked past the entrance to Fulham Broadway, Emily bumped into another Chelsea fan from Vienna, over for one game only himself.

As I have so often said, the Chelsea World is indeed a very small world.

We began pretty poorly in the second-half. Fulham forced an attack but Antonio Rudiger was able to block a shot. Then, from the ensuing corner Arrizabalaga reacted so well to thwart a Calum Chambers. To my liking, the whole ground replied with a roaring with a defiant “Carefree”. It had taken almost an hour for Stamford Bridge to raise a song, but at last we were back to our best, supporting the team as we should. And I loved this. We knew the team were struggling collectively and we rallied behind the team. Eric, from Toronto, and Emily were watching from the front row of the Matthew Lower, but from different sides of the goal. The Atlantans were up in the Shed Upper. I hope they appreciated the sudden burst of noise.

Another effort from Chambers. Another Kepa save.

In the stadium, the fans grew restless. Our play was slow, ponderous, tedious. Nobody shone in my mind apart from Pedro and Kante. And Kepa was certainly keeping us in the game. But we were passing to oblivion and the Chelsea fans were getting more and more frustrated. It was a very odd half of football. We were begging for a second goal. But there were more misplaced passes, and mistimed tackles.

Who expected Fulham to get an equaliser?

We all did.

There were moans aimed at Jorginho and Kovacic, neither of whom were playing well.

Some substitutes were soon warming up under the East Stand.

Within a few seconds of each other, Big John and I independently bawled the same thing.

“Get yer boots on Zola.”

How we missed a little of his creativity.

The manager, thankfully, looked to bring in fresh ideas and fresh legs into our midfield by replacing Kovacic with Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who was given a hero’s welcome.

He was very soon running at the heart of the Fulham defence. He was warmly applauded. Just after, Giroud – no service in the second-half – was replaced by Alvaro Morata. A shot from Hazard was parried by the Fulham ‘keeper but from only six yards out, Morata shinned the ball way over the bar. There were groans and Chelsea eyes looked heavenwards. Emily would have got a good view of that. I wondered what her thoughts were.

A Hazard free-kick was hit straight at Sergio Rico.

The mood inside Stamford Bridge was becoming stiflingly nervous. We just needed a win to get our season back on track, to stay tucked in, on a day when three of our main rivals were playing too.

Davide Zappacosta replaced Marcos Alonso and Dave switched flanks.

I wondered if Jorginho – Sarri’s kingpin – would ever be substituted. I wondered if he would be known in some quarters as the modern multi-million-pound equivalent of Ranieri’s Jokanovic.

With the nerves still jangling, the ball was worked adeptly between Hazard, Pedro and Loftus-Cheek. The ball stood up nicely for Ruben to strike purposefully past the Fulham ‘keeper. It had easily been our most effective move of the half.

Get in.

Emily would have loved her view of that.

I watched as Ruben ran over to the far corner and as was mobbed by his team mates.

SW6 North 2 SW6 South 0.

So this was certainly a strange game. We absolutely struggled in that poor second-half. And all of us admitted that we had rarely felt more underwhelmed – possibly even deflated – after a win. Feelings seemed confused, messy. I think that in the back of our minds the horror of Wembley the previous week would not subside, and we knew that Manchester City, to say nothing of a potential banana skin at Molineux, were looming in the distance.

It was such an odd game. And we had a quiet and reflective drive home. I battled the rain and the traffic of the M4. We were quiet. I remembered back to Jose Mourinho’s first league game as Chelsea manager, way back in the August of 2004 when a 1-0 win against the might of Manchester United could not disguise our sense of bewilderment that a team so rich in attacking verve could kill the game at 1-0.

“Fucking hell. We’re not going to win the league playing like this, are we?”

It is one of those sentences I always remember saying.

But, in 2018, are we unnecessarily tough on Sarri and his new system? Quite possibly. This is a learning curve for all of us. As fans, we have been given the task of adapting to a new modus operandi too. It might not be easy. As I said to Glenn, regardless of the merits of a new style, we have won the league two out of the past four seasons. I’m not sure if that makes us spoiled or ultra-critical. But I know the sense of frustration from the stands for our underperforming players was no illusion. In the end the history books will say that we won 2-0 but it was almost in spite of ourselves.

I’m still working Sarri out. It might take a while yet.

We have a testing week ahead. Let’s hope we can regroup for the two games. Maybe we, as fans, need to show a little more patience, but that is easier said than done. At least the next game is away, when the fans are usually a little more supportive, and certainly a whole lot noisier.

Right then. Wolverhampton Wanderers on Wednesday.

See you there.

 

Tales From A Sunday In Manchester : Part Two – Blue

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 4 March 2018.

Part One finished with these words :

“Bollocks. Fifth place now. Bollocks!”

For a while, it honestly looked like there would be no Part Two. With most parts of the country being attacked by a winter chill during the early part of a week which was to see us play two matches in Manchester, I waited for the snow to hit the West of England. My home area was clear until Thursday, but then I was sent home from work in light of the impending snowfall. Indeed, my county of Somerset was on “red alert” as I worked at home on Friday. On Saturday, with the country still gripped by a Baltic freeze, I sounded out the others. There were concerns about roads out of my village being impenetrable with more Arctic weather to follow. I was especially concerned about getting stuck up north in the middle of a fresh fall of snow and thus not being able to get to work on Monday.  We took the decision not to travel to Manchester. It was a wise decision, we all thought. There was no need for us to make heroes of ourselves in support of our team. We had nothing to prove.

But the guilt – yes, guilt – kept nibbling away at me. Should I make an attempt to go if the roads had cleared by Sunday? I had a troubled mind – or rather an unsettled mind – for quite a while. I was not in a comfortable place. And then I dismissed these silly feelings, and made tentative plans to watch the City game in the pub with PD and Glenn in Frome.

That was the plan.

I woke on Sunday at about 9.30am after a nice lie-in. I peered outside. There had evidently been a sizeable thaw overnight and the main road outside my house was almost clear of ice and snow, with just a slushy residue left at the roadsides.

What to do? What to do?

I contacted PD and Glenn.

“Get your boots on.”

The kick-off was at 4pm, so if we left at 10.30am we could make kick-off. Sadly, Oscar Parksorius was unable to join us, but we set off from Frome – kinda bright-eyed and kinda bushy-tailed – at 10.45am.

The Chuckle Brothers were on the road.

“Of course, you know we’re going to get mullered, don’t you?”

There were grimaces from my travelling companions.

I ate up the miles as the morning became afternoon. Not too many others had decided to travel and the roads were relatively clear of traffic. At times, the sun attempted to break through the cloud. There was snow on roadside fields, but the motorways were fine. We stopped for snacks en route; there had not been time to even grab a coffee before I had raced out of the house.

We thought about the team that Antonio Conte might play. Glenn wondered if we would pack the midfield in a 3/5/2, and asked if I preferred Olivier Giroud or Alvaro Morata to lead the line. I think that my response would have mirrored that of many Chelsea fans that early afternoon:

“Giroud.”

Although, if I was honest, I had a feeling that the manager might settle with the three amigos of Willian, Hazard and Pedro.

With both arch-rivals Liverpool and Tottenham winning on Saturday, there was an unease in my mind as my thoughts drifted sporadically back to our game at The Etihad. I wasn’t kidding myself, City were a fine team, and even the thought of grabbing a point later that afternoon seemed fanciful and unlikely.

We listened to the radio as Brighton stormed to a 2-0 lead at home to Arsenal – that cheered us up, bloody hell Dunk scored and in the right goal this time – and we were soon on the familiar approach into Manchester, though this time turning east towards Stockport rather than west towards Carrington. As the M60 heads through – or rather over – Stockport, I always and without fail think back to our club’s first-ever competitive game at Edgeley Park in 1905. The ground – a non-league ground now – sits right by the main London to Manchester railway line and I always used to peer at it with a certain feeling of nostalgia each time I passed it. In fact, with the grand railway viaduct and a couple of huge red-brick mill buildings dominating the valley that the town sits in, my once-a-season hurtle through Stockport is one of my favourite pieces of urban driving in the UK.

At Ashton Under Lyne, I turned off the M60 and I knew that the San Siro style towers of The Etihad would soon be in view.

Although the drive to Manchester had been full of laughs, and we were just so happy to be able to be attending the game – number forty-five of the season for me – the mood in the car as the stadium drew closer and closer became a little sombre.

As I waited for a red light to change at a junction, I blurted out –

“Fucking hell, I’ll be happy with 3-0 lads.”

And I think I was serious. City had just beaten Arsenal twice by that score in the space of five days, and we had the impression that they had played within themselves during the second-half of Thursday’s game in order to save themselves for this one.

“They’re a great team. We could get found out here.”

I silently gulped.

At last the stadium was in view. The days of calling it simply Eastlands seemed from a different era, and rather old hat, like a bobble hat maybe. I slowly drove along Ashton New Road, which was flanked by red-bricked terraced houses, and with tramlines now running its course. We were parked up outside a home fans only pub at 3pm. The weather wasn’t too hurtful.

I paid some locals £7 to keep our car safe.

This was a mighty three quid cheaper than United.

I could hear the nasal whine of some United fans baying “always in our shadow.”

The familiar walk to the stadium, criss-crossing the road, and the tram line. To my left, a graffiti-lined wall overlooked a lock on the Ashton Canal.

This was “up north” alright.

Bloody fantastic. I never tire of travelling to these football-mad cities on our historic little island.

You may have noticed.

I spotted many City fans “of a certain age” – my age – wearing sky blue and white bar scarves edged with the purple of earlier kits. I wondered if it was how some fans denoted that they were “old school” in the same way that some Chelsea fans sometimes wear red, white and green bar scarves.

There was a swift security check. No bags, no cameras allowed, the same as last week, so my phone became all important. After the atrocity at the Manchester Arena last year, I understood why there was tightened security.

Inside I met with a few fellow foot soldiers.

“Did Arsenal lose?”

“Yeah, 2-1.”

“Love it. I love it that they had a little glimmer of hope but still lost.”

Alan passed on the team news.

“No Kante.”

“Oh no.”

“And no Morata or Giroud.”

Things were sadly slipping in to place. It looked like it would be an afternoon of attempted containment and I sensed that the mood among the little band of Chelsea fans was far from buoyant. My seat was at the front – row C, but rows A and B were unused – of the little middle tier, with Chelsea fans below and above. I was positioned just eight feet from the home support.

“Oh lovely.”

I soon spotted PD and Glenn down below in the front row of the lower tier. The fans above were out of view, but it certainly looked that our away section was pretty full. It was a great effort from everyone. We waited for a while and the pre-match wind-up then started, with a Mancunian voice taking over the tannoy, as in other years, jabbering on about “We Are City” and other “stirring” soundbites. Alan joined me and we remembered last season’s game. He had re-watched the full game on Chelsea TV during the week.

“I’d forgotten how dominant they really were before we scored.”

I agreed. That miss from Kevin De Bruyne spurred us on to a classic display of counter-attacking excellence. I had watched the highlights during the week too. The strength with which Diego Costa beat off the defenders and steadied himself to slot home was just sublime, and it was a goal which I sadly realised Alvaro Morata could not be relied upon to repeat on current form. I had to admit it; he was a bit of a prick at times, but bloody hell we have missed Diego Costa.

The teams entered the pitch and I ran through the starting eleven.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Drinkwater – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

“Big game for Danny Drinkwater” I thought to myself.

There was a banner depicting De Bruyne down below and to my left; I wondered how he would perform. I have obviously watched from afar this season, but some of his passing has been simply magnificent. He can certainly thread a ball through a tight area. He is some footballer. And there was David Silva. And Leroy Sane. And Sergio Aguero too.

The City lot roared a healthy “Hey Jude” and the game kicked-off.

There was one inflatable banana being waved around in the lower tier. Maybe it was his version of the sky blue, white and purple bar scarf.

I could not help but watch the clock as the minutes ticked past. I kept thinking to myself “10 minutes – safe so far” and “15 minutes – one sixth of the game gone” and “20 minutes – almost a quarter of the game.” Of course it was all City. They pushed the ball around with ease, but their advances were kept at bay. Our defensive unit looked in good condition. Two City fans to my left were keeping me occupied. After Leroy Sane skied an effort over the bar, I turned to my left and pulled a face of relief to a City gent in his ‘seventies. He gestured that the ball had just cleared the bar by inches. I stretched my arms up to signify “and the rest.” He laughed and I laughed. The City fan just in front of him – scruffy beard, scruffy scarf and scruffy shoes – was a different matter altogether. He loved the sound of his own voice and would not bloody shut up.

“Champions? You’re shit. You’re in fifth place.”

I glowered and glowered some more.

A very reckless challenge by their young defender Zinchenko on Victor Moses brought howls from us. The move was allowed to continue but the referee only showed the player a yellow card once the attack inevitably petered out. A City fan to my left scowled and shouted across to me “he got the ball.”

“Ah bollocks, did he.”

As the game continued, I realised that Chelsea were allowing City the ball, allowing possession, conceding possession even. I had not seen the like of it – on such a scale – ever before. And I suppose from that moment, the game took on a different dimension. Not only did I watch as a supporter of the team – trying to will the team on with song – and as a spectator of a game in which the players were cast as often spectators too, but I watched as a fan of Antonio Conte as I tried to get inside his head and to attempt to evaluate his methodology.

I turned to Alan :

“It’s as if the manager has told the players not to expend any extra energy in charging around and making reckless challenges. He has told them to soak, soak, soak. To sit back and cover space rather than man mark.”

This approach is not new to football, but it certainly felt that this was anathema to us. It seemed so alien. Yet Conte is an Italian. This is a common approach – or it used to be in the suffocating systems of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies – and he obviously felt that the threat of an on-fire City was worthy of this very cautious method of football. The supporters around me were caught in two minds; some were voicing annoyance among themselves, but there were still shouts in praise of the manager.

Us British love to see a player charge around, closing space but also making tackle after tackle. Or maybe we used to when the midfield was the most important part of the game plan in my youth. What were we told?

“Whoever wins the midfield, wins the game.”

These days, with many teams happy to sit off and let other teams hold the ball – “there you go, see what you can do” – it is often the transition from defence to attack that wins games. The days of enthusiastic tackles in the midst of a midfield battle seem long gone. You see blocks these days, but not so many great tackles.

The match continued and I tried my best to get behind the team. Our attacks were very rare. We were able to reach the wide players on occasion but were unable to create much at all. It was, of course, very frustrating.

I got rather bored with our constant “Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that” goading of City.

But then scruffy City Fan irritated me further.

“Ha, you won it on penalties! Penalties!”

I thought to myself “I bet you would not be fackin’ complaining if City won it on spot-kicks in Kiev this season.”

Our same modus operandi continued. I still thought hard about the tactics that the manager had asked of his players. It was evident that he was of the opinion that a gung-ho approach – “taking it to them” in popular parlance – was not a gamble that he was willing to take. I had to admit to myself that if we were to allow them any space, by stretching the game, by over-indulging, a City team twenty-two points clear of us in the table would probably score at will. If anybody thinks otherwise, they have not been paying attention.

What were our pre-match thoughts? I would have murdered for a 0-0. Damage limitation, I am sure, was on many peoples’ minds. Although there had been a red alert during the week, here was a blue alert which had evidently troubled the manager and many more besides.

But bloody hell it was hard to watch. City peppered our area with crosses and there were strong blocks from Rudiger and others. We held on.

The City fans in the East Stand – the modern equivalent of The Kippax I guess – were adamant that we were “fookin’ shit.”

Scruffy boy was still ranting away.

“We’re twenty-two points clear. We’re mint.”

At one stage, the elderly City fan bent forward and told him to be quiet.

Bernardo Silva went close with a curler which again flew over the bar and the elderly City fan looked across at me and smiled, his hands coming together as if to say “that was closer, lad.”

The first-half continued on – “30 minutes, a third of the way there” and our defence limited City to few chances. There was, if I remembered correctly, just one Kevin De Bruyne cross into the box but it was quite poor and evaded everybody. City’s finishing was quite poor to be honest.

Dave had starred during a first-half of constant pressure. Nobody had hounded and blocked and harried better than him throughout the first-period.

The first-half came to an end. Apart from a couple of rousing “Blue Moons” the City fans had not been too noisy at all. At Old Trafford – in Part One – hardly a seat was not used, whereas at City there were hundreds of seats dotted around the stadium not filled. I looked back on the half. For all of our defending, we had kept City at bay for long periods. Our attacks were very rare. It annoyed me that when we attempted long balls out of defence, unless they were to the wings, they were often over hit which just meant that Ederson raced off his line to claim. I remembered a couple of fine through balls by Cesc Fabregas, but I had to admit that there was very little attacking verve from us.

As I made my way out to the concourse at halftime, I spotted Pete – now living in Manchester – and I smiled as I said “halfway to paradise.”

The second-half began. During most games – though not all – I write a few bullet points on my phone as the day and the game develops. After thirty seconds, I debated writing “can we hold on?” but decided against it. A move by City was not cleared by the otherwise fine Andreas Christensen and the ball broke to Aguero, who helped move it on to David Silva. His low cross into the six-yard box was prodded home by Bernardo Silva, with Marcos Alonso sadly adrift of play. And yet it would be churlish to be too scathing of Alonso, who must have been crushed by the news of the death of his former Fiorentina team mate Davide Astori as he awoke before the game.

But we were a goal down with barely a minute of the second-half had gone.

Bollocks.

The City support roared.

A song that I have not heard at City before got an airing :

“City – tearing Cockneys apart again.”

And yet this re-working of the Joy Division number was originally a United song, and one which exalted the gifts of the presumably hated Ryan Giggs. Alan and I were mystified and we both shouted over the great divide at the home fans and asked why on earth they were singing that?

“That’s a United song.”

“Ryan Giggs.”

They just smiled benignly and were having none of it.

The scruffy lad suddenly started rabbiting about our support, chastising it, and wondering if we were United fans a few years back. He then referenced, for reasons unbeknown to me, a game from almost thirty years ago.

“Were you here in ’89 when you were shit?”

I was having some of that.

“Yes! Yes I was. And we fucking beat you 3-2.”

Ah, yes. Tony Dorigo running for ever and ever and turning it in at the Platt Lane in front of a cool ten thousand Chelsea supporters. Bliss. I have detailed that iconic away match in these reports before, but here are a few photographs of another era, another time, another club. Another two clubs.

This seemed to impress Scruffy Boy.

He nodded…and was rather subdued now.

”Yeah, so was I.”

He motioned towards me to shake my hand. You know what went through my mind? The prick is going to pull his hand away – “Soccer AM schoolboy error” style – and leave me stranded. But no. He held his hand out. Rather than shake it, I slapped it derisively.

Then, presumably in a show of some sort of Mancunian wit, the whole ground sang  as one :

“Sing when we’re winning. We only sing when we’re winning.”

I guess they have been singing rather a lot this season.

To add to the gloom, the rain fell heavier and I saw that PD and Glenn were getting soaked.

Bizarrely, City struggled to capitalise further in the next fifteen minutes, and it was Chelsea who came closest to scoring. After a ball was played into space, Victor Moses raced in to the penalty area, with the entire away end praying for a goal. He hesitated just slightly, and rather than wrap his boot around the ball, and force Ederson to save, he sliced the ball high and wide of the near post. I daren’t look at the elderly City fan who probably had his hands poised to signify “high.”

Then City came into it again, and Courtois was able to save well from David Silva at the near post. A few of our clearances from defence were shocking; hoofed up high in to the air. Reckless, rushed, ruthless.

Bloody hell.

We seemed to have a few more breaks as City pushed for a second goal – I guess this was the plan –  but our final ball and our movement was off-kilter. But each time either Pedro or Hazard or Willian broke, the away support roared the team on. The support inside the stadium, though difficult to sustain over three disjointed tiers, did not relent. I was proud of that. We were all baying for a change from the hour mark, so it was surprising – to say the least – that Conte took until the seventy-seventh minute to replace the tiring Willian with Olivier Giroud. He had kept it tight for so long, I guess his Italian past did not allow him the freedom to gamble. Just after, Pedro was replaced by new boy Emerson. Although it had not been pretty to watch, there is no doubt that the players had carried out their manager’s wishes to the letter. They at least worked with him. But I am sure it could not have been easy. As the game continued, I did not give up hope. As bizarre a result as it would have been, I sensed that we might just grab a late equaliser. As we attempted sporadic attacks, there was definitely a nervousness among the City support. I could sense it. They were not happy. The game had a couple of bizarre final twists.

Conte brought on Alvaro Morata for Eden Hazard with just two minutes remaining.  Hazard had relentlessly shuffled around closing space all afternoon long.  I watched Eden as he exited the pitch and hoped that he did not head off down the tunnel in a huff; he did not, he donned a jacket and took his seat on the bench.

And then, ridiculously, right at the final whistle, Marcos Alonso slashed at a ball on the edge of the box but we watched – such pain – as the ball spun away from the goal rather than towards it.

At the final whistle, I stood and let the immediate rush of people leave. I watched as a few players – maybe five or so, Giroud, Fabregas I think, Azpilicueta, Courtois, maybe Alonso – walked over to acknowledge a damp and dejected support. We clapped them too.

I turned to Al and Gal :

“See you next Saturday, boys.”

As I walked away, I looked back at the City Gent and Scruffy Boy. I gave them a small clap and they responded similarly.

I thought to myself : “Yep. Good team City. Anyone but United. Anyone but Tottenham. Anyone but Liverpool.”

I soon caught up with a drenched PD and Glenn and we began a silent march back to the car. Last season, that walk was triumphant. This season, we just got wet.

There was the inevitable post-mortem in the car as I headed away from Manchester. Many words were exchanged. I still liked Antonio Conte. He had not suddenly become a horrible manager overnight. Three Juventus titles after a few seasons of draught. Then a World Cup with Italy had everyone using the phrase “a tactical masterclass” – to the point of cliché – as we described him and relished him joining us. A league title with Chelsea followed. I have a feeling, as I have said before, that this feels like a first season; transition, change, conflicts. He has not managed the pressure particularly well, but the hatred aimed at him from some sections of our support openly shocked me. As I drove home, Glenn kept me updated with some highlights from the wonderful world of social media. From the comments of some, it honestly felt like we had lost 7-0 rather than 1-0. And from the way some people were allegedly talking, some fans would rather that we lost by such a score rather than a 1-0 defeat using the tactics employed.

Be careful what we wish for.

I am not so sure a possible 4-0 or 5-0 shellacking against – possibly – the second best team in the game right now would have been the best preparation for the next few games, one of which is against the best team in the world. I again thought about the manager’s thought processes; he knows his players, their mentalities. Again, his view was to keep it tight.

I drove on.

Glenn read out quotes from the manager :

”We wanted to close space, stop them playing between the lines, limit them.”

It was as I expected. A critique of the manager can’t ignore his background, his Italian history. His decisions were a reflex response to danger to defend first. It obviously upset some people.

I drove on.

Who ever said supporting Chelsea was easy?

Remembering the horrific traffic after the United game, it was a joy to be heading home on the Manchester orbital and then the M6 at normal speed. The rain had stopped. The roads were clear. We eventually reached home at about 11pm. It had been a tough game – but I can honestly say that I would not have wanted to have been anywhere else in the world than in deepest Manchester with many good friends.

I skimmed through many comments on social media, and the majority were scathing of the manager’s tactics. That’s fine, we are all entitled to an opinion. It had been an odd day for sure.

And this has been an odd match report to write; a difficult one, but one which has summed up my feelings as honestly as I can.

I’ve tried to get inside the manager’s head. I’ve tried to be objective as possible.

As the night wore on, and I continued reviewing some comments on “Facebook”, I took a great deal of solace in a couple of comments from one Chelsea pal, whose pragmatic views about the game were level-headed and mirrored a few of my own. The bonus was that he was a former Chelsea player – 1985 to 1987 – and it was nice to read his thoughts.

Robert – I owe you a drink next time I see you.

In memory of Joe Buchmann.

Tales From The Benches

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 13 January 2018.

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

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

Rewind to the evening of Saturday 10 March 1984.

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

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

I thought no more of it.

Fast forward to the afternoon of Saturday 31 March 1984.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chelsea won 5-0 and promotion was secured.

They were the days of our lives.

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

What a buzz.

I used to take my camera in those days too.

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

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

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

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

Fast forward to Saturday 13 January 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

The banter continued.

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

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

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

Alan : “It was cowpats for goalposts.”

Photographs were shared from our mobile phones.

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

We remembered the fashions of the day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Morata – Hazard

At ten to three, the musical countdown began.

“Park Life.”

“The Liquidator.”

“Blue Is The Colour.”

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

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

“FACKINELL CHELS.”

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

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

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

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

We laughed.

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

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

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

The crowd tried to lift the players.

“ANTONIO.”

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

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

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

Quite.

If only supporters could support.

Not rocket science is it?

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

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

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

At last, a change.

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

So, we got our desired “3-4-3.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Triffic.”

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

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

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

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

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Tales From The Pack

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 16 December 2017.

The four of us were hurtling towards London in The Chuckle Bus, and we were chatting about the current state of affairs at the top of the table. We spoke about our recent performances, and those of our immediate rivals. Manchester City, who were due to play Tottenham later in the day at tea-time, appear to walking away with the title this season. Of course all we can aim to do is keep winning as many games as possible, and to finish as high as we can. If, as is likely – though not certain – City go on to win the title, then so be it. There are many other, darker, alternatives.

I thought about things and did my best to sum it all up.

I slowed myself down, and spoke gently and firmly, and my tone reminded me of Tommy Shelby.

“If we finish above Arsenal. If we finish Manchester United. If we finish above Liverpool. If we finish above Tottenham. That will bloody well do for me.”

“Too bloody right.”

“By order of the Chuckle fucking Brothers.”

I was unable to attend the away game at Huddersfield Town during the week due to work commitments. I listened with interest as Parky and P Diddy spoke of their time in The Crown public house and the John Smiths Stadium. Of all the teams likely to be embroiled in the relegation battle this season, Huddersfield are the team that I would like to scramble clear; I had never visited Leeds Road, I have never visited their new place. It is on my footballing bucket list.

Our pre-match was spent under the large TV screen in “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, which was showing the Leicester City vs. Crystal Palace match. We touched on those teams battling at the bottom. Over half of the teams in the top flight, I would suggest, will be mentioned in dispatches about those likely to be relegated.

It’s turning into a strange season.

Manchester City striding alone at the very top. A chasing pack of six or seven, battling each other for Champions League spots. And then, the rest who are scrapping under a threat of relegation, while swapping and trading managers in some sort of bizarre ritual along the way.

Our visitors Southampton suffered a setback during the week after losing to Leicester City, who themselves were getting slammed by Crystal Palace on the TV. In a season where teams appear to be taking points of each other, three points are king. I was not overly-worried by Southampton, but hoped that the players would be totally focused.

Outside, there were grey skies, and occasional rain. The pub was pretty quiet.

We spoke about our chances of silver wear this season.

I was brutally frank.

“To be quite honest, we might not win anything this season.”

It doesn’t matter. We’ll still show up week in, week out. We have nights away already planned for Norwich, the Nou Camp, and Newcastle.

Whatever will be will be.

We chatted about the various shapes that Conte can chose from. We all admitted that it is a benefit to have options at our disposal. The 3-4-3 of last season with wider support players for Morata. The 3-5-2 of this season with Eden tucked in. The “false nine” – or not, please don’t email me – of the three chosen for Huddersfield, with Eden, Pedro and Willian flitting around with menace.

Among all this was the enigma of Batshuayi.

Some strikers have always struggled at Chelsea.

Even in the all-conquering 2004/2005 season we had Mateja Kezman, another player who left us for Atletico Madrid, but with his reputation sullied.

Do not be surprised if Michy is moved on in the summer.

We caught the tube down to Fulham Broadway. We spotted that the little gaggle of lads who had been drinking in the pub looked a little lost at Earl’s Court, and mistook P Diddy’s West Country burr to be that of a Southampton supporter. They were obviously away fans. On the slow walk out of Fulham Broadway, a few of the lads growled a chant.

“Red Army.”

It was soon met with a robust “Carefree.”

There was no trouble though, why would there be?

I was in early at 2.45pm. I soon spotted that Southampton would be backed by a full three thousand. They don’t always turn up at Stamford Bridge, even though their city is but seventy-five miles away.

Over in the lower tiers of the East Lower, I spotted specks of white. Santa Hats had been draped over the seats as a gift from the club, and a few hundred were already wearing them.

I then realised that not only children were wearing them.

I suspect that the adults wearing them were the same type of person who revels in wearing Christmas jumpers.

And comedy ties.

And comedy socks.

They should get out more.

Or stay in.

Preferably the latter.

We reviewed the team that Antonio Conte had chosen. Again no Michy. See above.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Moses – Bakayoko – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

I was surprised that neither Austin, Tadic and Van Dijk were not starting for the visitors.

The flags drifted over the heads of those in the Matthew Harding and The Shed. Southampton have gone retro this season, wearing a reasonable replica of their Patrick kit from the early ‘eighties, which was worn by Kevin Keegan in his two seasons at The Dell.

The game began.

After an even start, Southampton edged the first quarter of an hour. A rare mistake by N’Golo Kante resulted in Southampton picking up his loose pass and Nathan Redmond crossed into the box, and Gary Cahill nervously cleared, but not before stumbling in that way of his.

Chelsea started to create some chances of our own. A busy Willian carved out a fine chance down the left but his shot was just wide. An Alonso volley. Tiemoue Bakayko struck from distance but a defender was able to block. A Cahill shot from outside the box was saved by Fraser Forster. A rising shot from Kante was hit with power but Forster moved well to save.

Santa hats or not, the atmosphere was dire.

At the half-hour, there had not been a single stadium-wide song or chant, not even the standard “go to” one in praise of the manager.

A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.

I know.

I bloody heard it.

A quick break involving all three of our strikers and a shot from Willian was blocked. At times we were a little self-indulgent, but we were well in control. An Alonso turn and shot was saved by the Saints ‘keeper, who was by far the busier of the two.

There was a muted “come on Chelsea”, barely audible, from the Matthew Harding Lower.

Ryan Bertrand was often involved in the rare forays that Southampton enjoyed throughout the first-half. As he chased an over hit ball down by in front of the corner flag, he ended up next to some Chelsea fans; one fan must have said something amusing because Ryan beamed a lovely smile. It was a super moment.

I wondered what the fan had said. It was, no doubt, Munich-related.

With half-time approaching, Pedro danced into the box with a typical shimmying run, but saw his shot bounce off the post.

Then, just as half-time was surely only a few seconds away, we were awarded a free-kick around twenty-five yards out. It was to the left of the “D.”

Chris : “Willian territory.”

Glenn : “Come on Marcos.”

Chris : “Nah. Wrong side, Willian will have this.”

With that, Marcos Alonso took me – and Forster – by surprise, and curled a free-kick over the leaping wall, which crept in just inside the post.

GET IN.

Much laughter from myself, from Alan, from Glenn, plus Albert in front, who was thinking the same thing as me.

Ha.

It was, of course, the perfect time to score, bang on the half-time whistle.

Willian began the second-half in the same way that he had begun the first period, speeding into space despite being heavily marked but blasted over.

A shot from Dave was high and wide. Damn.

With ten minutes of the second-half on the clock, at last a song rang out around Stamford Bridge, to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea – Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

Southampton brought on Charlie Austin and the striker caught us a little flat-footed at the back, causing a Thibaut to save well.

Antonio Conte replaced Pedro with Cesc Fabregas.

Down below us, Eden Hazard smashed home after being teed up by Fabregas, but it was obvious that Cesc had drifted into an offside position.

There was a little more noise, but not much more.

Willian drilled a chest-high pass towards Alonso, who did well to control before volleying towards goal. No surprises, Foster – rather dramatically – saved.

Another change; Alvaro Morata replaced Eden Hazard.

The substitute soon forced another save from Forster.

Down at the Shed End, the lively Austin forced another save from Courtois, on his haunches, and the chance went begging.

A quickly-played free-kick down below us resulted in Fabregas gliding into the box, drawing the goalkeeper out, then subtly pushing the ball past him. Time slowed to a standstill as the ball rolled along the line, but without the necessary spin to carry the ball over.

Bollocks.

Oh for a second goal.

The rain fell.

Davide Zappacosta replaced Moses.

With a slender 1-0 lead, things became predictably nervous. Southampton had certainly improved after the addition of Austin. Nathan Redmond had developed into a threat as the game progressed.

That man Austin went close at the near post after a low cross.

In the last remaining minutes, we thankfully dominated. A Bakayoko header was followed by efforts from Alonso, Morata, Fabregas and Azpilicueta. But Forster, the man of the moment, was not to be beaten a second time.

So there we have it. A game that will not live too long in the memory.

There was no standout player.

There were steady 7/10 performances throughout.

But sometimes it is just fine to have a team full of Daves.

On the drive home, with thankfully no traffic nightmares this time, we listened half-halfheartedly as Manchester City demolished Tottenham 4-1. There was pleasure at Spurs’ defeat more than displeasure at City’s win.

On the M4, the Chuckle Bus overtook the Southampton team coach just before it turned south on to the M25.

Chelsea’s pursuit of Manchester City will not be so straightforward.

If this is to be some sort of bizarre chase to second place this season, then so be it.

See you on Wednesday.

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Tales From Turf Moor

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 12 February 2017.

It seemed wholly appropriate that our visit to the most austere town on our travels this season was coinciding with the worst weather of the campaign thus far. There had been a short burst of winter sun as I had climbed towards Blackburn on the M65, but the bleakness soon returned. Lo and behold, as I raced on past signs for Accrington and then Clitheroe, I spotted snow on the distant Pennine Hills beyond Burnley.

We were well and truly “up north.”

We had set off from Somerset at 6am. Five hours later, I fitted my car inside a parking space outside Burnley’s bus station in its compact town centre. We gingerly opened up the car doors. Within seconds, we were scurrying to grab coats, scarves, and hats from the car boot. An arctic wind was howling and for fuck sake it was cold.

I had driven through the town centre and had noted a few pubs which seemed to be overflowing with locals. Rather than chance our arm there, we quickly decided to cut our losses and head towards the stadium, where – like at Swindon Town – there is a cricket club adjoined to the football club which allows away fans a drink or two.

Burnley. Such is the nature of the town that it allows no added affectation to its football club. Even the town’s stadium, Turf Moor, is named as abruptly as possible. But for all of the hackneyed jokes which would undoubtedly be aimed at the much-maligned town during the day by the visiting hordes, I approved. This was a grand old football team – twice Champions – playing in a grand old football town – population just 75,000 – and there is much to admire of the way the area has supported its club over the years.

I even approved of the quick ten-minute walk from the car to the stadium; it was a walk deep into Football Land.

Locals rushing by. The proud claret and blue. Ancient mill chimneys in the distance. Narrow streets and terraced houses. Police cars flitting past. A grafter selling scarves and trinkets. An ornate and historic bridge carrying a canal over the busy road. Echoes of an industrial past. A Balti take-away. The thin floodlights of Turf Moor. A couple of pubs. The rain starting to fall. A working men’s club. The grey of the main stand. Grizzled old locals selling lottery tickets. Programmes. Flags billowing in the wind.

We settled in at the cricket club and watched from the warmth of the first-story bar as the rain turned to sleet and then to snow. There was the usual chat with an assortment of friends from near and far. We all expected a tough game against Burnley, who had won nine of the thirteen games played at Turf Moor previously.

“A win would be bloody great though. Twelve points clear. What a message to the rest.”

Outside the away end, I was dismayed to see that the montage of past Burnley players was no longer present. I had hoped to pay my silent respects to the lovely image of Ian Britton, bless him, which was originally just along from the away turnstiles. It did not seem plausible that it was a full ten months since I had attended his funeral at the local crematorium. Instead of the montage, the stand was now covered with more formal photographs of former players.

The lads supped one last cider in a marquee outside the away concourse, and we then made our way inside. Memories of my only two previous visits came flooding back.

January 2010 : an equally bleak day, just after the John Terry / Wayne Bridge fiasco, when JT scored a late winner. There was snow on the way home after that one I remember.

August 2014 : my one-thousandth Chelsea game, and Chelsea league debuts for Thibaut Courtois, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa. The night of “that” pass from Cesc to Schurrle.

We had predicted an unchanged side on the long car ride north; Antonio did not let us down.

Thibaut – Dave, Luiz, Cahill – Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso – Pedro, Costa, Hazard.

What a cosmopolitan set.

In contrast, the home team was singularly Anglo-Saxon and solidly no-frills 4-4-2.

Heaton – Lowton, Keane, Mee, Ward – Boyd, Barton, Westwood, Brady – Barnes, Gray.

It was noticeable that the exotic Tarkowski, Darikwa and Gudmundsson were banished to the bench.

Nowt fancy at Turf Moor.

The sleet was still falling as the players went through their drills. I took the time to ask a steward why there is always a section of seats which are empty in the away end at Turf Moor. She answered that it is for the team members of both clubs that are not involved, plus other club officials, and sometimes wives and girlfriends. Glenn and I were down in the front row, and we were immediately soaked.

For the opening game of the 2014/2015 season, Chelsea had over 4,000 seats and the entire end. At the time, Burnley wanted to concentrate all of their support in three stands. For this game, the end was shared with Chelsea having to “make do” with around 2,400.

As the game began, it was the home fans in our end – to my left – who were the noisiest. As before, they shared taking pot shots at us with songs of derision for their bitter local rivals from Blackburn.

“And its no nay never, no nay never no more ‘til we play bastard Rovers, no never no more.”

Lots of hatred between these two cities, eh? The venom was there alright.

“We are those bastards in claret and blue.”

They rolled up with a song calling us “rent boys” and I wondered why it had taken fifteen years to reach Burnley from Liverpool and Manchester.

To my right, John Terry was spotted in the cordoned-off area. Many fans posed with him for selfies. He looked cold, too.

We began very brightly indeed with tons of crisp passing and quick one-touch possession. It was a joy to watch. Pedro, Moses and Kante were always involved. After a fine passing move, an Eden Hazard shot should have caused Heaton in the Burnley goal more trouble. Just after, a Burnley attack disintegrated and we quickly exploited gaps in their defence. Hazard played an early ball wide to Victor Moses, who rode an ugly tackle before playing the ball in to Pedro, who arrived just at the right time to steer the ball low past Heaton. The Chelsea end exploded.

I screamed and stretched my arms out wide and could not help noticing Thibaut, just a few yards away, jump up, turn towards us in the away stand and do the same. His face was a picture. A lovely moment.

The Pedro strike was reminiscent of Frank Lampard at his very best. However, it was noticeable that it was Victor Moses, in lieu of his strong run and pass, that drew the plaudits and applause rather than the goal scorer.

Soon after, very soon after, parts of the away end decided to sing – ugh – “we’re gonna win the league” and I turned around to spot who was perpetrating this monstrosity and glowered accordingly.

A woman behind me bit back:

“But we will, though.”

I retorted:

“But it’s bloody February.”

At least wait until April when we are on the brink.

Back in 2005 – when we were ten points clear in early February – I think we sung it first at Southampton in early April. Even then, I wasn’t too happy.

There then followed the equally obnoxious “we’ve won it all.”

Another “ugh.”

At least we were saved from hearing the nastiest chant of them all – “Chelsea till I die.”

I could not help but notice that David Luiz, for once, was beset with problems with his distribution. I let it go the first couple of times, but as the half progressed, I became increasingly annoyed that he found it increasingly difficult to hit Diego or Eden or Victor. It was all Chelsea in the opening quarter, though, and I hoped for a crucial second.

The sleet continued. This would not be a day of too many photographs; a shame since I was virtually pitch side.

Burnley began to attack with a little more conviction – Ashley Barnes shot wide – but we always looked dangerous on the break.

Then, after twenty-five minutes, Burnley won a free-kick just outside the box. I watched as Thibaut arranged the all blue wall. We waited. Robbie Brady, with a fine curling effort whipped it over the Chelsea players and it screamed into the top corner of the net, just fifteen feet away from me. Courtois’ dive was in vain. It had might as well have been in Spain. He was nowhere near it. Brady was in ecstasy – like a proper Clitheroe – and the home fans roared.

For a few moments, we were reeling. Thibaut blocked a save at close range and Gary Cahill flung his whole body to block another goal-bound shot.

It was definitely a case of “game on.”

Glenn and myself walked back to join up with the lads at half-time and shelter from the sleet and rain.

“Eden has been quiet.”

Our support had died a little during the closing moments of the first-half. I think my support had died from the feet up. They were bloody freezing.

Glenn quickly shook Cesc’s hand as the substitute raced past us before taking his position on the bench. His face was covered in a black scarf. He looked freezing too.

The second-half resumed. More rain. More sleet. More plunging temperatures. My toes were tingling with the chill. Everybody had their hoods up, their hats on. One nearby steward wore a bobble hat and a baseball cap.

“Johnny two hats.”

His icy cold stare back at me suggested that his brain had already seized.

With Chelsea attacking our end, and with me yards from the pitch, I was looking forward to tons of action right in front of me. Instead, it was Courtois who was called in to action at the start of the second-half. He saved well, down low, after a ball evaded the lunges of both Cahill and Luiz. I am not sure if this was some sort of reaction to Luiz playing with his hair tied back, but his passing continued to disappoint. Maybe there are some sensors within that usual free flowing frizz, but against Burnley in the wet and the cold, his mechanics were off. He defended well, but his distribution was shocking.

Chelsea – not surprisingly – dominated possession. We kept the ball well, but just could not break the two banks of four. Time and time again, the ball was pushed out wide for either Moses, Pedro, Hazard or Alonso, but we failed to play in any balls to hurt the defence. The twin pillars at the back – Keane and Mee – won virtually every high ball. Diego simply could not reach.

A shot from Azpilicueta did not really trouble Heaton.

My feet ached with the cold.

Conte replaced Matic with Cesc Fabregas and we prayed for a Schurrle repeat. Matic had not been at his best, though to be honest many players were not performing too well. But they never stopped trying. They never stopped running into space, to try and tease an opening, nor did they shirk any tackles. There were no complaints from me about the effort from the boys.

Willian replaced Moses. The crosses still came over, but were dealt with admirably. It was all Chelsea again in the final quarter of an hour, and I was convinced that we would nab a late winner. I looked hard at Fabregas and saw him spot runners before lofting balls towards his team mates. I was enjoying the game from this fresh viewpoint; despite the extreme temperatures, this was a good enough game, full of tough tackles and earnest endeavour. The skilful stuff was missing, but if football is a chocolate box, there has to be room for the occasional nut brittle.

Batshuayi came on too late for my liking. It was another “three minute hero” appearance, but he hardly touched the ball. On a day when we needed to flood the Burnley box, I found his late appearance a little baffling. Surely better to support Diego with Batshuayi if the crosses continued to come in. Although it was difficult to tell from such a low angle, we wondered if Conte had changed to a 4/4/2 since Dave seemed to support Willian in an advanced position. He even found time to put in a few crosses from out wide on the right.

Wayward efforts from Pedro and Hazard just about summed the game up.

It was not to be.

Instead of a gap of a dozen points, we were now ahead of the pack by ten points.

We slowly walked back up the icy steps of the away end, gathered together, then headed back to the car. The walk back began to get some life back in to my frozen limbs. Inside the car, off came the wet jacket and pullover, the blowers were turned to turbo, and I began the five-hour drive home. The draw, we admitted, had been a fair result. No complaints at all.

“Hey listen, we’re not going to win every bloody game you know. Tough place Burnley. Especially on a day like this.”

I had enjoyed it. Despite the wind and the rain and the sleet and the snow – or maybe because of it – it had felt like a good old-fashioned football day out in good old, ugly Burnley. Not every away game is the same, thank heavens, and I relished the whole adventure.

Next week we visit another classic football town, Wolverhampton, that used to have a grand old team of their own a few years ago.

I will see many of you there.

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