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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Tales From The New Blueprint

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 30 October 2016.

In the pub before the game, we felt sure that Antonio Conte would revert to the same team that had mullered Manchester United a week previously. I suppose that the only question mark was over Pedro; would Willian get the nod?

“Nah, keep Pedro in. He has deserved it.”

And there, in an instant, was a good example of how far we had travelled in such a short period of time. It really wasn’t so long ago that respected friends of mine were questioning what Pedro gave to the team. Think back on those games against Liverpool and then Arsenal when we looked like a pale shadow of ourselves. Think about the under-fire Pedro. And think about Gary Cahill, too. Think back to only a few games ago when poor Gary was being blamed for virtually every goal that we had conceded, the breakdown of the defence, the falling value of the pound, the Syrian refugee crisis and more. And think how pilloried Nemanja Matic has been over the recent and the not so recent past; stretching back to the dark days of autumn 2015, he has often been the “boo boy” among the chattering, twittering and twattering classes of “social media.” Thibout Courtois is another one; lambasted by some for his reluctance to come for crosses and to dominate his box. For a while back there, certainly at half-time at Arsenal, the immediate future looked as bleak as the horrid tower block that greeted us outside Southampton Central train station, where I had parked up as early as 10.30am.

At Arsenal, I worried deeply about the task ahead of new manager Conte. Since then, we have enjoyed a dramatic improvement.

With three straight wins in the league campaign, against Hull City, Leicester City and Manchester United, and with no goals conceded, but with our goals steadily increasing (“2,3,4” – it sounded like the introduction to a punk song), we swept into Southampton’s St. Mary’s Stadium intent to stay among the tight group at the top of the table.

One of these days, I’ll truly get to explore Southampton. After leaving PD and LP to the noise of “Yates”, Glenn and myself had headed off to check out the marina, a twenty-minute walk to the south, but we soon heard that Alan, Gary and Daryl were settled in the “Bier Garten” bar. We soon joined them. There were Bavarian blue and white diamonds everywhere; we re-created our own little Mini-Munich and enjoyed a few beers and some good laughs, the highlight being Alan reciting, word for word, “Rappers’ Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang.

“You see, I’m six foot one, and I’m tons of fun
When I dress to a T.”

What a giggle.

The team was announced as we had predicted; the same as against United.

We made our way to the stadium; only a twenty-minute walk. We were soon inside. The away end was packed; no more the nonsense of Swansea, when so many decided not to travel. We have gone for seats at the front of the away end this season; Parky soon joined Alan, Gary and myself in row E. PD and Glenn were within distance, in row B.

With hardly a cloud in the sky, the stadium looked a picture. The teams entered the pitch and there was a minute of silence for the fallen. It would be the Southampton’s last home game before Remembrance Sunday.

Ryan Bertrand and Oriel Romeu – in the team and on the bench on that night in Munich – were in the opposing team, who had enjoyed a fine run of form of late. They would certainly be no pushovers.

Glenn had confided “I’ll be happy with a draw” and I almost agreed.

“A win would be fantastic.”

It was a very lively start with both teams attacking down the flanks and asking questions of each other’s defensive qualities. Dusan Tadic looked a skilful bugger out on Southampton’s right and for a while it looked like Marcos Alonso would be in for a torrid afternoon. Romeu lobbed a shot at Thibaut Courtois but he was not troubled.

We were already spreading passes around with ease, and a move built steadily. Eden Hazard pushed the ball out to Victor Moses out on the right. Hazard moved in to the box to receive the ball back. From our angle, down low and far away, it looked ridiculously tight. Hazard stopped, cut back on himself and tucked the ball in.

A mixture of wild celebration and “howthefuckdidhedothat?”

It was a joy to see Thibaut leap and punch the air as the goal was scored. I almost expected him to do a hand-stand and a back-flip.

It wasn’t a “thirty seconds Pedro” but it was good enough.

Saints 0 Sinners 1.

We continued to the play the ball with confidence, looking to play in Eden as often as we could, and often attempting the long cross-field ball to an unmarked Moses.

The Chelsea support had again enjoyed a hearty pre-match in Southampton; the support was strong and belligerent. The songs were varied.

I still think that mocking of medium-sized clubs with “Champions of Europe – You’ll never win that” a little of-the-mark, though. Having a dig at Tottenham, Arsenal and West Ham is fair game. Southampton and Hull City, not so.

Southampton, by contrast, were ridiculously quiet. I was disappointed that they didn’t air their “Johnstone Paint Trophy” chant.

After a while, Southampton managed to get a foothold. For a while, they enjoyed some possession. Courtois saved from the impressive Tadic. We countered with efforts from the two wide men, Hazard and Moses. A lovely ball from deep from Luiz had found Eden; he can certainly pick a lovely pass. Just before the break, Forster blocked an effort from Costa.

It had been a good half of football. Matic had been especially impressive, looking a lot more mobile and willing to venture forward than in a more recent, conservative, past. Alonso had settled, linking well with others. Luiz had hardly put a foot wrong

We started strong in the second period. Neat passing was the key, but with good movement off the ball. Southampton were getting swamped in midfield. The momentum was certainly with us. Alonso flashed wide, and then came a moment of magnificence.

Diego Costa gathered the ball from Eden Hazard about twenty-yards out. Southampton had given him two much space. He looked up, realised that he was in range and struck a sweet and sensual shot – right towards me – which curled in and beyond the late dive of Forster. It was as if the shot was especially for my eyes only; I was able to follow the curve and the trajectory. It left me breathless.

What a strike.

The away end roared.

Inside I exploded, but as Diego yelled and ran towards us, I knew I had to act fast.

Click, click, click.

The Chelsea players – a blur of blue – celebrated wildly in front of us. Moses jumped on top of Diego, the others screamed their pleasure.

At the other end, Courtois jumped up on to the crossbar and performed a gymnastics display.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

A few weeks back, a two-nil lead against Manchester United didn’t seem enough. On this occasion, two goals to the good, it seemed that the game was as good as over.

Ten minutes of the second-half had gone, and we were in control.

At times we purred in the second-half. The interplay between Diego and Eden – possibly the very fulcrum of potential success for us this season – was a joy to watch. Victor Moses, so full of running and energy, took aim and hit a low drive towards goal. Forster, usually such a dependable ‘keeper, could only scramble a block. The ball fell to Eden, who touched it to Diego, who set up Pedro, but he just couldn’t find his footing to knock it goal wards.

Southampton to their credit kept plugging away and a fine move resulted in a Bertrand cross, which Charlie Austin headed over.

Chelsea countered with a lung-bursting run from Pedro, who then played in Eden. How often have we seen him cut in from the left and strike home? Sadly on this occasion, he low shot was too near Forster. At the other end, a looping header from Steve Davis, dropped on top of the bar.

At last some noise from Southampton – some banter from them about West Ham. We responded with “Play Up Pompey.”

They didn’t care : “We’re all going on a European Tour.”

Victor Moses blasted a pile-driver right at Forster.

There were a few late changes from the manager.

Willian for the tireless Pedro; warm applause for Pedro, a song for Willian.

The bearded Brana for Moses; a loud and resonant cheer for Victor.

Michy for Diego; songs of love and devotion for our main striker. He was back to his best.

It finished 2-0, and this was a mighty fine performance. Southampton were not without merit, but they could not cope with our organisation, our spirit, and some top class performances from all of our main men.

Of course it helps to have superb players, but Conte has got them playing for each other.

“Another clean sheet, chaps.”

Fantastic stuff. We all played well. Kante was a little quiet, but only by the slightest of margins. It was a hugely enjoyable game.

And a hugely important win.

The top five teams are now tightly-packed.

  1. Manchester City – 23.
  2. Arsenal – 23.
  3. Liverpool – 23.
  4. Chelsea – 22.
  5. Tottenham – 20.

It’s always a long slog back to the train station at Southampton, but the Chelsea fans were buoyant as we slowly marched back to the waiting car. On the first day of winter, the future is far from bleak. There was a new song about Azpilicueta but it was too difficult to latch on to. Back in the car, I spoke about the upcoming week.

“It’s fantastic that Conte can now focus on Everton on the back of four superb wins. There will be no soul-searching about deficiencies. No worry about having to find a way to change the system. Just the desire to keep it positive. Keep playing this new way. Just keep the confidence levels high. Have Monday off. Come back on Tuesday and keep the unit together. Keep them smiling. Keep us smiling.”

Four wins. Four clean sheets.

It all started at Arsenal, when the manager replaced Cesc Fabregas and replaced him with Marcos Alonso, and went to a three. It was met with much-head scratching at the time, but at that low point, Conte – with hindsight – may well have instantly changed our whole season. With hindsight, it was inspired.

“3-0 down, I need something new, why not change it now.”

It was a brave thing to do, eh? Since then, he has been totally vindicated.

Since then, it has been remarkable, hasn’t it?

Antonio Conte’s new blueprint for our future looks damn good to me.

We move on. There is a lovely mood in the club and on the pitch and on the terraces right now. Kudos to the manager for changing the system so seamlessly, and just as much love and respect goes to all of the players too. They have responded so well.

This is going to be a great season.

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Tales From Our Rejuvenation

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 23 October 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tickets were like gold dust for this one.

It promised to be a potentially epic occasion.

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

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

“Just don’t want to lose to them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conte was changing things quicker than I had expected.

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

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

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

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

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

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

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

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

MATTHEW HARDING

ALWAYS LOVED

NEVER FORGOTTEN

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

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

The crowd, needless to say, fucking erupted.

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

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

This was a dream start.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conte is my manager now.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

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

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Two bloody nil, smelling salts please nurse.

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

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

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

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

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

Like Tottenham in 1996, respect to them.

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

“Get a third and then we can relax.”

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

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

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

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

Three-nil, oh my bloody goodness.

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

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

We continued to dominate.

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

Chelsea 4 Manchester United 0.

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

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

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

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

“Superb boys – see you Wednesday.”

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

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

“One Kerry Dixon.”

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

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

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

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

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

A fantastic result to honour a fantastic man.

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

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

Matthew would certainly approve.

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Tales From A Sunday In Swansea

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 11 September 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“37?”

“Bloody hell, the world has gone mad.”

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

In the good old days, the system was simple.

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

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

I blame Ray Kennedy.

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

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

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

And no names on the jerseys.

And no “Yokohama Tyres.”

Perfect.

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

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

The minutes ticked by.

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

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

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

This was really galling.

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

This can’t be right, can it?

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

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

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

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

Why weren’t we wearing blue?

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

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

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

I looked at it and said –

“Whose cod is that haddock?”

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

I’ll get my coat.

Er, jacket.

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

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

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

One-nil to us, happy days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, a calamity.

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

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

The home fans roared.

“And we were singing.

Hymns and arias.

Land of my fathers.

Ar hyd y nos.”

Bollocks.

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

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

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

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

Crazy.

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

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

Oscar headed weakly at goal.

Conte changed things.

Cesc Fabregas replaced the shuffling Nemanja Matic.

Victor Moses replaced Willian.

I genuinely expected us to equalise.

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

“GETINYOUBEAUTY.”

2-2.

Pandemonium in the North Stand.

This was all we deserved.

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

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

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

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

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

We met up after the game.

Prahlad had certainly enjoyed himself.

But oh those missed chances.

And oh those empty seats.

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

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

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

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

I’ll see you there.

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