Tales From The Famous Three Kings

Chelsea vs. Huddersfield Town : 2 February 2019.

In the immediate aftermath of the 4-0 humiliation at Bournemouth on Wednesday, I was not particularly upbeat about the trip to London for the visit of lowly Huddersfield Town. There was not a chance of me swerving it, but I was hardly enthusiastic. I expected another limp performance, perhaps played out against a backdrop of toxic hostility. And then, on Thursday evening, my home area suffered a wintry downfall, and the mood darkened. With a foot of snow outside and with the roads and lanes around my village impenetrable – the Somerset County Council budget would only send its gritters onto the main roads – I was forced to miss work and stay at home. A few conversations took place between my usual match day companions about the chances of making it to London on Saturday. There was not much chuckling. At one stage, we presumed that the hostile roads would condemn us to staying at home while the match took place over one hundred miles to the east. London had hardly been affected; just a light dusting according to others. A fellow season-ticket holder who lives only a few miles away, but in an even more inaccessible location than me, had already declared “no football for us on Saturday.” We all feared the worst. And then on Friday evening, we all noticed a thaw and our spirits were raised a few notches. We decided to “reconvene at 7.30am” and weigh up our chances.

I set the alarm for 6.30am on Saturday and was soon up. The road outside my house still looked icy but it looked reasonable. I messaged Paul and the two Glenns.

“See you later.”

It took an age to defrost the car, but I nervously edged out of my driveway. I dropped the car onto the main road, and tried to pull away.

The wheels spun beneath me.

“Oh great.”

I knocked the car into reverse, managed to get a little traction, and steered it into a groove that had already been compacted by other cars.

“Now or never, Chris, let’s go.”

I cautiously pulled away.

It worked.

I was on my way to London.

“Phew.”

On this wintry day in the South of England, I hoped that Chelsea Football Club would be getting back into the groove too.

The roads were still rather dangerous as I nervously drove into Frome to collect PD and then Glenn. The road outside PD Towers was especially icy. I then made my way over to Parkytown, and he had walked a few hundred yards onto the main road so as not to endanger my safety by chancing the icy roads on the estate where he lived. We were soon breakfasting at Melksham in the local “McDonald’s” and it wasn’t long before I was up on the M4 and racing East on a perfect winter’s day. The fields were pristine, blanketed with snow. The sun shone. What a gorgeous morning. It was a shame that we had to talk about football.

Because talk about football we did. And let’s make no mistake, the second-half of football that we had witnessed in Dorset on Wednesday was bloody awful. We had our own little post mortem as I drove towards London. Despite bright sunshine outside, there were storm clouds inside.

On the Friday, with probably far too much time on my hands, I had carried out some research and painfully discovered the last 4-0 loss that I had personally seen for my own eyes.

“The 1994 FA Cup Final against United.”

The lads groaned. We had all been there.

None of us were relishing the game with Huddersfield Town. We were looking forward to seeing Gillian, Kev and Rich once again – on the 6am flight out of Edinburgh on a day trip – plus the rest of the gang but the football could wait. Regardless, at about 11.30am, we had all assembled at the “Famous Three Kings” – right next to West Kensington tube – which is just over a mile to the north of Stamford Bridge. There aren’t many more “Chelsea pubs” further north. It sits on the A4, the old Roman road which linked Bristol with London and which my father used to use on the Chelsea trips of my youth after joining it at Beckhampton – close to where he did his first month of training during World War Two at RAF Yatesbury – and then leaving it at Hungerford. When I worked in Chippenham, I worked right on the A4. I had crossed over it on my way to the M4 earlier in the day. It is my own personal Mother Road. I can’t seem to escape it, but nor would I want to. Anyway, it certainly felt a whole lot better to be in the “F3K” at 11.30am on a Saturday rather than 3pm on a Sunday.

We were all there.

Glenn, PD and I from Somerset. Parky from Wiltshire. Gillian, Kev and Rich from Lothian. Duncan, Lol, Daryl and Ed from Essex. Andy and Kim from Kent. Alan and Gary from London itself. Fifteen strong.

Unlike the Sheffield Wednesday game, there were no away fans. The pub filled up slowly with rugby fans ahead of the afternoon’s fixtures in the Six Nations, and quite a few were watching the Tottenham vs. Newcastle United game from Wembley before the egg-chasing took over. The pub has been voted London’s best sports bar the last three years and the bar was advertising itself as a venue to watch the following day’s NFL Final.

In the first twenty minutes of chit-chat, we put the world to rights.

We spoke about Maurizio Sarri, Jorginho, Eden Hazard, Gonzalo Higuain, the board, our managerial merry-go-round, the performances throughout the season, Carlo Ancelotti getting the push after finishing second in 2011, our style of play, Antonio Conte, our current defensive frailties. You can probably guess the tone.

I made a point about Antonio Conte.

“Seems to me a lot of our history is being re-written. Seems to me that this new manager’s style of football is seen by many as an antidote to “quote unquote” the counterattacking football of Conte, and Mourinho before him. But wait a minute. That gives the impression that under those managers we simply sat back, inviting teams on to us and then hitting them on the break, and were continually dull. That’s not how I bloody remember it. I remember tons of possession. When we won the league under Conte two seasons ago, were people moaning or even mentioning “counter-attacking” football? I’m not so sure. I know I wasn’t. The way some people talk, they speak of Sarri’s style of play as ultra-stylish, an antidote to the football we played under Mourinho and Conte.”

I shook my head.

Conte’s football in the first part of 2016/17 was pulsating and passionate, and we were relentless in our hunting down of players in possession. The first-half against Everton in the autumn of 2016 remains, possibly, the most exhilarating half of football I have ever seen at Chelsea. The fans and the manager and the team were as one in those days. It was fantastic. So I’m not sure the negative take on Conte is particularly fair.

“At least Conte could change his game plan if he had to.”

The lads were chatting in small groups, enjoying each other’s company, spoiled only by a single Tottenham goal which would give them three huge points.

We mulled over the team.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Willian – Higuain – Hazard

“So, we know the substitutions then.”

“Pedro for Willian 65 minutes, Kovacic for Barkley 75 minutes, Giroud for Higuain 80 minutes.”

We laughed / groaned.

Chelsea Candid Camera At The F3K.

We caught the tube to Fulham Broadway. I always love this part of the day. There was a gaggle of Huddersfield Town youngsters in MA.Strum and CP on the District Line train from Earl’s Court, singing a version of “Dirty Old Town” but with virtually unintelligible lyrics, and with only the slightest hint of the original tune. I think that I was able to decipher “we’re going down, but we support the town” but I might have been way off, like a Morata offside decision. Outside on the Fulham Road, there seemed to be more than the usual number of touts trying to offload spares. I was sure that there would be discernible gaps in the home areas after Wednesday. Fanzine sellers, grafters selling scarves, hot dogs and hamburgers, the usual match day buzz. I took a smattering of photographs outside the West Stand. I have never really noticed it before, but I like the way that this entrance is still officially called “The Britannia Entrance”, named after the pub which used to sit on the corner of Fulham Road and Britannia Road. I like that. I remember that The Britannia Entrance being mentioned on tickets and in programmes when I first started going in the mid-‘seventies. I like that the club has not renamed it.

Huddersfield had about 1,100 maybe. They would not be the noisiest away fans this season.

The teams came on as the usual fireworks and flames flew up into the air.

I popped down to see Big John in the front row.

“After Wednesday, all of this looks especially misguided doesn’t it?”

In the cold light of day, it looked ridiculous.

Just get on with it for fuck sake. Just give us ninety minutes of football. Just like the old days. We’ll moan a bit. We’ll grumble. But it is our release from the daily grind, away from the strains of work, away from the pressures of family life. And we’ll sing and shout, or at least try to. We’ll support the team. We’ll do it ourselves. We don’t need the atmosphere to be enforced upon us. Just give us the fucking football. We don’t need bloody fireworks. This ain’t the Superbowl. This is fucking Chelsea on a cold winter afternoon.

The game began.

Huddersfield were in a fluorescent-kitted homage to the old – and hideous – Borussia Dortmund get-up of the late ‘nineties.

Thankfully, there was not the level of toxicity that I might have feared. No negativity to speak of. Though, if I am honest, there was not much of anything. It was all pretty quiet, except the away fans enquiring if Stamford Bridge resembled an institution where written matter, in the main, could be taken out periodically and then returned at a later date with the use of a token.

A Barkley shot got the game started, and then the beautifully-named Aaron Mooy headed over from close-in.

PD was not perturbed : “the ‘keeper would have got that.”

Following on from the first-half on Wednesday, if not the second, I again liked the movement from Higuain. An early shot from him after a nice Jorginho forward pass – yes, I know – was deflected wide. Kante was his usual ebullient self, tacking and prodding, and Jorginho played another forward ball – yes, I know. Shots from Hazard went close. Huddersfield were poor, but we knew that. With just sixteen minutes on the clock, and after a magnificent through ball from our man Kante, Higuain whipped the ball into the Shed End goal from an angle. It was not dissimilar to the effort that he had on his debut against Wednesday last Sunday. We roared, and the marksman ran down to the corner (he must have been tipped-off : “when you score, just run to the corners, the supporters like that, and Chris Axon can take a few photos”) and was instantly mobbed.

Gonzalo Higuain’s First Chelsea Goal.

There were efforts from Barkley – again – and Higuain – again. Ross seemed to be at ease with the ball, and was an early star. Huddersfield’s forays into our half were rare indeed. Just before the break, as a player was down injured, I – like many – went off to turn my bike around. As I climbed the steps into the MHU, I saw Dave being tackled and a penalty was signalled.

We waited. Eden struck. Get in.

Eden Hazard’s Penalty.

Immediately after, a long and scurrying run from Eden right into the heart of the Huddersfield defensive lines resulted in him falling to the ground inside the box but play was waved on.

“…mmm, can’t see the referee giving two pens in a minute.”

There was applause from the stands at half-time. The memory of the debacle in Dorset was starting to subside. It had been a good first forty-five minutes of football.

But we blossomed in the second-half.

There was an early effort from Willian which curled close and then a few scintillating turns and touches from Eden got us all excited. As our confidence rose, so did our support of the team (though it never really got past the 6/10 mark the entire afternoon). It was all Chelsea. With twenty minutes played, a pass from Barkley was caressed into space by Hazard and he moved the ball past the ‘keeper and slotted in from an angle. He did me proud by trotting over to The Sleepy Hollow.

Eden Hazard’s Second Goal Of The Day. 

Very shortly after, beautiful passing between Kante and Hazard set up Higuain some twenty-five yards out. It would be doing him a disservice to say that he swung his boot at it. But the ball sat up nicely and his strong, curling, shot dipped and crashed into the net. It was some goal. He raced over to see us, and the photos followed. Good lad. We would learn later that his swipe took a slight deflection, but this did not detract from the beauty of the effort.

Celebrations For Gonzalo Higuain’s Second. 

Before the game, I would have been happy with a 1-0 win. But here we were cruising at 4-0 with over twenty minutes to go.

“Time for a few more, Al.”

Well, Sarri pulled the rug from under our feet and all three late substitutions were surprises. First, off went Jorginho – yeah, I know – and on came Kovacic. A strong shot from him signalled his arrival. Callum Hudson-Odoi then replaced Hazard (on a hat-trick, boo!) and then Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Kante.

I was glad that Barkley stayed on. It was his best game for ages. And Willian, his confidence rising throughout, had a super second-half.

With four minutes remaining, a Willian corner was forcefully headed goal wards by David Luiz. I did not realise it at the time, but there was so much power on the header that the deflection off a defender merely changed its flight.

David Luiz Scores Our Fifth.

Five nil, get in.

This was a fine performance (I honestly feel that there should be asterisks throughout all of this : *Huddersfield) and it was certainly needed. It was just a pleasure to see us hit a bit of form. The Stamford Bridge crowd were certainly not singing “Maurizio” at the end, but it undoubtedly warmed the cockles of our hearts on a cold afternoon in London.

Trying To Catch 22.

Next Sunday, we might be shuddering up in Manchester when we go up against Pep Guardiola’s City.

I will see some of you there.

Tales From A Shocker

Bournemouth vs. Chelsea : 30 January 2019.

Another tough match report. Are you sitting uncomfortably? Let’s go.

At half-time, I went on a little wander to meet up with Parky and PD who had travelled down independently and were in fact staying the night in a Bournemouth town centre hotel. I soon found them, full of giggles and laughs, and we gave each other a hug. They had enjoyed a good old pre-match at the usual pub we frequent on visits to the town, and were not particularly bothered by our performance thus far. They had been sitting next to Alan and Gary towards the corner flag. My position had been towards the half-way-line of the stand along the side of the Vitality Stadium, in the back row all but one, and I had driven down with Young Jake. I bumped into a few other Chelsea mates during the break. I assured one set of friends that things would improve in the second period.

“We get one, we’ll get a few” and my comment was met with nods of agreement.

Well. That shows how much I know about football, or rather this current Chelsea football team.

Fackinell.

So, The Chuckle Brothers had taken two Chuckle Busses to Dorset. PD had collected Parky at around 10.30am and at around 12.30pm they were ensconced at “The Moon On The Square”, no doubt enjoying the freedom of a midweek drink-up, and they had unsurprisingly bumped into a few of the travelling Chelsea army during their six or so hours of guzzling. I left work at just after 4 o’clock, and collected Young Jake in Warminster half-an-hour later. He had taken a half-day holiday from his warehouse job in Salisbury. His last game was the Manchester City game when he took my ticket at the last minute. He was nice and excited to be ticking off another new away stadium. This was an ideal midweek away game for me. I didn’t have to leave work early. Just a sixty-mile drive. Perfect. Despite a pre-advised bottleneck on the main road into Bournemouth, I guessed that I’d be parked up outside the stadium in a private driveway at around 7pm. We stopped at Shaftesbury – a town which is home of the cobbled hill which was famously featured in the famous “Hovis” commercial of the mid ‘seventies – and grabbed a burger and some fish and chips, sustenance for the evening’s predicted cold weather. Just south of our pit-stop, the usual route was closed, so I was sent on a diversion south-east across the hills and fields of Cranborne Chase. It was a route that I have never taken before, but it was a fine drive, alongside lanes with high hedges, and little traffic. There were signposts for Melbury Abbas, Tarrant Gunville, Tarrant Hinton, Tarrant Launceston, Tarrant Monkton, Tollard Royal, Gussage St. Michael and Three Legged Cross. I have said it before; Dorset has the best names. We drove past several magnificent country pubs. On another day, with more time, we would have been tempted to stop I am sure.

We hit the expected traffic snarl-up on the main Salisbury to Bournemouth A338. But as expected, at just after seven o’clock, I edged into my pre-paid parking space on Littledown Avenue, just a five-minute walk from the stadium. Another Chelsea car was parked alongside me. This would be my sixth visit to the stadium that used to be called Dean Court. We have garnered three wins in the last three seasons. I have enjoyed them all. The floodlights at the Vitality Stadium are on four poles, how old-fashioned. It was a photo opportunity that I could not avoid. The weather was cold, but not drastically so.

To be honest, the Cherries of Bournemouth have been in my thoughts more this past year or so than in other times. We played them in the League Cup at the same stage in 2017 and 2018. They walloped us three-nil in January 2018 – three second-half goals, mmm – and I have been impressed with Eddie Howe’s team this season. Out in Australia, I was reunited with Uncle Brian, Bournemouth-born and a Bournemouth supporter and match-goer in his youth, who I had last seen on an evening in 1994 when I watched a Chelsea League Cup game at Dean Court with him and his brother Peter. His son, Paul, was born in Bournemouth but became a Chelsea supporter when he heard about my fanaticism for the club on a visit to England in 2008. Paul’s children and grandchildren support a mixture of Arsenal, Chelsea and Bournemouth. I know Paul has an understandable soft-spot for his home town team.

So, I have family ties on my mother’s side to Bournemouth.

But I have much stronger links on my father’s side. My father was born in Wareham on the Isle Of Purbeck. Dad did not grow up as a football fan and his childhood footballing memories are rare. I always remember him saying that Wareham’s kit consisted of a shirt consisting of brown and yellow halves, maybe like one of those mint humbugs, or perhaps a two-tone toffee, that might well be purchased in one of those old-fashioned sweet shops that are rare these days. His mother was a native of Parkstone, nearer Poole than Bournemouth, and it saddens me that I only have one very scant memory of her since she passed away when I was only two years old. But my father told me that his mother was a very passionate football supporter, and a very outspoken Labour supporter to boot, and I often wondered if my footballing passions came from her, maybe more so than my football-playing grandfather on my mother’s side, who liked football, but to no real degree.

Outside the away end, I met up with my friend Paul from nearby Poole – for whom I had a ticket – who I last saw in the summer of 2012 when he very kindly put my name on the guest list of a Buzzcocks gig in the musical venue that he helped run. On the night of the gig, we met up in a pub for a pint before heading off to the venue. It was a fantastic gig, the first time that I had seen the band, and it was an excellent night. I saw the same band with Parky last summer in Bath, another enjoyable night. With the recent sad passing of Pete Shelley, there will be no more.

A few years ago, my Canadian cousin Kathleen – whose grandfather Bill and my grandmother Gladys were brothers and sisters (they had the magnificent surname Lovelace) – shared the marriage certificate of my grandmother and grandfather. Well, lo and behold, not only was my grandmother Gladys living on Britannia Road in Parkstone at the time, her house was no more than a two-minute walk from the pub that we had visited, and my grandparents were married at St. Peter’s Church, which sits no more than fifty yards from the venue where we saw the gig. Who knows, my grandparents might have even had their reception in the pub itself.

In addition, my father’s cousin Julie – she went from an Axon to a Loveless through marriage, there is a lot of love in my family it seems – lived in Bournemouth and left my mother and myself a nice little sum in her will when she sadly passed away in 2004. It funded my first trip to the US with Chelsea, thus opening up a whole new chapter in my life, and I owe dear Julie so much.

So, yeah – Bournemouth, and Dorset. I have ties with the area.

There was a quick line at the turnstiles and after a bag check – “don’t tie that security band too hard, my leg will fall off” – I soon bumped into Alan and Gary. Alan was talking to Welsh Kev about the horrible thought of Liverpool winning their first title since 1990.

Alan had contingency plans : “I’m booking a flight to the furthest place away from England if they win. Tristan de Cunha looks the best bet.”

“Love it Al, never thought that I would hear the words Tristan de Cunha at a Chelsea away game.”

Tristan de Cunha I thought, sounded like a striker that Newcastle United might buy.

Paul had mentioned that Chelsea had gone through a morning training session at Poole Town Football Club. The team play in the same division as my local lot Frome Town and, having left their old stadium, now play on a make-shift pitch adjacent to a junior school that Paul’s granddaughter attends. The players – maybe not all of them – popped into the school apparently. A nice gesture, though I had to wonder why Maurizio Sarri was so keen to continue this practice. Surely there is no need for a training session on game days?

I was happy with my position high in the stand. My camera was poised.

Right, the team.

  1. Arizabalaga.
  2. Azpilicueta.
  3. Emerson.
  4. Jorginho.
  5. Rudiger.
  6. Luiz.
  7. Pedro.
  8. Kante.
  9. Higuain.
  10. Hazard.
  11. Kovacic.

For Bournemouth, Artur Boruc and no Asmir Begovic, but no Callum Wilson either. Nathan Ake was in their defence. Dominic Solanke was on their bench.

The ground took a while to fill. Is there a more unassuming football club in the top division than Bournemouth? They have a small and homely ground, are managed by a genuinely decent and softly-spoken manager, and seem to be ridiculously happy just to be there. Even their stadium is painted pretty pink, the corporate colour of the sponsor.

No threat?

…mmm.

“Sweet Caroline” was played on the PA before the game – it was played right after our defeat at The Emirates a few weeks back – and has somehow made its way from Fenway Park in Boston to these shores.

I despise it.

How is it remotely a song that is seen to be suited for football stadia?

Sigh.

The teams entered the pitch, Chelsea in dull grey and day-glo orange. While the Chelsea supporters to my left tussled with the bright yellow “CHELSEA HERE CHELSEA THERE” banner the home fans – those in the stadium – chimed in.

“You don’t know what you’re doing.”

As the flag disappeared down the seats, I noted that the red staff of the lion was on the wrong side. It had been hoisted completely upside down. A metaphor for the evening? We would find out later.

The game began with many empty seats in both home and away areas. I struggled to understand how we, as a club, can’t fill out every one of our 1,200 seats at a stadium just one hundred miles from Stamford Bridge. It surprised me to be honest, midweek game or not. In the concourse, at least, I had spoken to a few fans from my home area that had previously been unable to attend any of the three other games at the Vitality Stadium due to the dearth of tickets.

In the first few minutes, David Luiz was painfully struck in the face from a shot and he stayed down for a while. But Chelsea began the strongest, if measured in terms of possession. Within five minutes, most of the previously unoccupied seats in the home areas were filled.

The away support boomed : “Here For The Chelsea.”

An early chance, the first of the game, presented itself to a lunging Mateo Kovacic who just about reached a cross from Pedro. The header flew towards goal, but Boruc finger-tipped it on to the bar. It was, sadly, a stunning save.

We then dominated for long periods, with the trademark passing that we have got to love – cough, cough – this season. Amidst the constant passing, if not constant movement of our players, N’Golo Kante was excellent, tackling and breaking up play. I absolutely adore his economy of movement; how he can intercept a ball and touch the ball once but with absolutely the correct amount of firmness and direction that his next touch is in space, moving forward, effortless. He is a magnificent footballer. I promised myself that I would pay extra attention to Gonzalo Higuain, and I watched his off-the-ball movement and active participation throughout the first-half. I liked what I saw. He made a few blind runs, but a couple were offside, though the fault was with the passer rather than him, as there was often a delay after the optimal time to release the ball. He looked like he has goals in him. It is just difficult to gel immediately with a new set of players. There was no space in the areas that Higuain was attempting to exploit, but at least he was trying his level best to find pockets of space in preparation for a ball. Jorginho was breaking up play more than usual, and there were bursting runs from Emerson on the left. David Luiz attempted one or two long bombs from defence, and at least this meant there was a variation in our play. Too often this season we have only been interested in half-hearted attempts to pass the ball in the way that the manager craves.

Not too long into the game, someone must have heard that Tottenham were losing.

Out came a song, lamenting the joyful failure of them to win the top division.

“Spurs. Spurs Are Falling Apart Again.”

There was a shot from Pedro, a shot from Hazard, a shot from Dave. But all were easily cushioned by Boruc.

“Keep knocking on the door, Chelsea” I thought to myself.

The noise from the away support wasn’t great. Maybe our song sheets were upside too.

“Not a bad game, though, Jakey-Boy.”

I was sure a goal would come. I am, undoubtedly – unlike in life itself – an optimistic bugger when I go to games.

There was the slightest of chances for the impressive David Brooks after a move on their left but it amounted to nothing. We still kept trying to break through the two banks of eighteen. It was like trying to navigate a maze. Amidst our dominance, there were two lung-busting bursts right through the centre of the pitch, the first from the nimble Brooks and the second from Joshua King. The resulting shots did not threaten Kepa. Only towards the end of the first-half did the mood among our section of the away support get frustrated, with the usual moans about over-passing and the grey dullness of it all.

So, half-time and my wayward prediction for the second-half.

Oh boy.

What happened during the second forty-five minutes?

God only knows.

I was busy taking the third of only three wide-angle photographs during the game when I heard a roar from the home areas. Barely two minutes had elapsed. I had missed the goal, in reality, though the final shot is captured on my camera, but is not worthy enough to share.

Bloody hell.

Bournemouth 1 Chelsea 0.

The goal scorer? Josh King, apparently.

Someone once opined that “anger is an energy” but although there was much anger in the stand, there did not seem to be too much anger on the pitch, nor certainly any real energy from our players in attempting to battle through our set-back and stretch the defence, and run and run and run some more.

The mood in the away section worsened now.

The home fans were absolutely buoyant and it was not surprising.

Pedro set up a lovely run from Kante but the ball just evaded him. Where is Frank Lampard when you need him?

We didn’t really huff and puff, we just pushed the ball from hither and thither.

Of course we had much possession, but it led us up blind alleys. On one or two occasions, I saw Hazard break from a wide to central position, pointing behind him for the ball to be released to the overlapping Emerson. Emerson advanced but no ball was forthcoming. Instead, it seemed to me we wanted to spread the ball out to our right flank where Dave and Pedro, and then Willian as his replacement, whipped in an unending supply of poor crosses, the majority of which were low. Ironically, there had been a superb low cross from Dave in the first-half during our period of domination, but it missed everyone. But in the second-half his final ball was woeful. It was a motif for the whole second period. I felt sorry for Emerson, who at least showed willing. Our Eden was poor. If ever there was a game that he needed to gather by the scruff of the neck then this was it. But the whole team looked insecure and unsure of each other. After a reasonable start to the game, Jorginho greatly disappointed. Kovacic too.

Just after an hour of increasingly frustrating football, David Luiz attempted a clever pass but miss-controlled and the ball eventually fell to the breaking Brooks, who swiped the ball past Arizzabalaga after side-stepping a challenge from the recovering Luiz. He raced over to the corner and my stomach ached.

Bournemouth 2 Chelsea 0.

The home support now seized their chance for revenge : “Here For The Bournemouth.”

Quite.

The buggers.

This then roused the away support but I did not like the tone.

“You’ve won fuck all.”

Goodness sake, Bournemouth are a small club, with a small fan base, a minute stadium, with moderate means, and probably limited aspirations. They are quite benign, and no rival to us. They are, I am sure they will be the first to admit, over-achieving at this level. They are not an Arsenal, nor a Tottenham, nor even a Middlesbrough or a Leeds United. Mugging off their fans was a poor show. We are followed by some proper morons.

There was also the “we’ve won it all” dirge, which is plainly not true. Yokohama in 2012 is proof.

Sigh.

Right after the second goal, Higuain was replaced by Olivier Giroud. I could not believe it. I wasn’t expecting the manager to play two up front – “as if” – but I was surprised he had replaced his man. Anyway, like for like, blah, blah, the same shape, the same bloody shape as always.

“You don’t know what you’re doing” rained down at Sarri.

A lad behind me : “it’ll be 3-0 before 2-1.”

A chap commented : “it’ll never be 2-1.”

I turned around and nodded in agreement.

Did we create a single chance of note in that second-half? I think not. An advertisement for a medical product was flashed up on the TV screen.

“Kill The Pain.”

If bloody only, I thought.

Eight minutes later, another crisp and effective Bournemouth move was finished off with a clean finish from King, after being fed by Stanislas. Our defence was being cut to ribbons. Among all this obsession with passing in the attacking third and the – buzzwords coming up, brace yourself – “high press”, has the manager completely forgotten that defences win league championships?

Bournemouth 3 Chelsea 0.

The crowd turned venomous now.

I tried to condense my thoughts.

OK, Sarri was brought in to implement a new style of play, his methodology, his terms, and a part of me gets that. He needs time, his supporters say. But I have to say that he was under little pressure to win anything at Napoli. They hardly share Bournemouth’s aspirations, but there would have been more pressure at Juventus and the two Milan teams, serial winners one and all. Napoli have only won the league twice. Why not modify his ideas to make use of the players at his disposal right now – at this “half-way house” stage – to get results and then push on using his own players in the summer? I have to say, should things continue as they are, I doubt if he will have the luxury of a second season. If I totally backed his ideas – I have tried my best to comprehend his way of playing and I am far from convinced – I too could buy into his plan. But I still can’t warm to him, and I know how much results matter.

The players it seems are not on the same page. The reasons for this? I don’t know. Maybe they think they can see through him, just like a few key players who would go on to triumph in Munich saw through Andre Villas-Boas in 2011/12. At the moment, some supporters are against Sarri, while some are annoyed with some players, and some are angry with everyone. Some philosophical questions can be aired. Player power is OK if John Terry, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole do it but not if Eden Hazard, Willian and Pedro do it? I don’t know. Who does Sarri report to on a day-to-day basis? I don’t know. These are muddied waters.

Kovacic was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and I felt so sorry for him. Another ad on the TV screen, this time for greyhound racing at Poole.

“We’ve gone to the dogs tonight, already.”

Ruben looked up for the battle, but compared to the others on the pitch this was not an accomplishment worthy of much note. He dragged a shot wide of the far post. I looked over at the TV screen again and eighty minutes had been played.

“Come on ref, blow up, put us out of our fucking misery.”

Many had left at 0-3. A block of around forty seats to my left were empty. I could never leave early, I’m just a fool. There were four or five minutes of extra time, I wasn’t cold, I just wanted to go home. In the last very moment of the game, a cross from a free-kick out on our right was headed on – with not a challenge from any of our players – by substitute Charlie Daniels. We watched in agony as the ball looped up and over everyone and into the net.

Bournemouth 4 Chelsea 0.

Our hearts sank.

What a humiliation.

The whistle blew and I stood stunned.

Four nil.

I wondered if any players would step towards us. To be fair to us, we clapped them over. David Luiz, our only leader, walked slowly towards some Chelsea supporters down the front. He said nothing. His face said it all. He had eye-contact with a few, and tapped his chest – John Terry used to do this – and his body language just said “I’m so sorry.” It took guts to do that. I clapped him. Some players “get it” – or at least I hope they bloody do. Dave walked over but stopped a good ten yards away. Nobody else bothered.

My mind raced through time.

I quickly remembered my first-ever visit to Dean Court in the first few weeks of the 1988/89 season when we lost 1-0 to a team that was managed by Harry Redknapp. It was our first ever match with them, and they had just recently been promoted from the old Third Division after rising from the Fourth Division in the early ‘eighties. I certainly expected a Chelsea win. We were humbled 1-0 and, having not gone to the 6-0 shellacking at Rotherham United in 1981, it was – until then – my own personal “Millmoor” moment. I stood on the packed away terrace and, through a ridiculous viewing position – I can remember how packed it was to this day – looked on as we lost. The train trip home was a lonely affair that evening, and I drowned my sorrows with a few pints in a few Frome pubs. A personal nadir for sure.

But this?

This was ridiculous.

Bournemouth 4 Chelsea 0.

Only recently in one of these match reports, I had written this :

“I had reminded myself, from memory, that our last heavy defeat to any team in league football was a 1-5 reverse at Anfield in the autumn of 1996. As a comparison, we have put six goals past Tottenham in 1997, six against Manchester City in 2007, six past Arsenal in 2014, six past Everton in 2014, not to mention sevens against a few smaller clubs and even eight on two occasions. We have enjoyed the upper hand, in general, over many since that game at Anfield twenty-three years ago.”

As I exited the seats, we were one of the last to leave, I mentioned the Liverpool game – I did not go to that one – to two or three friends.

Sigh.

A four-goal defeat in the league was a long time coming, but it eventually came not against Manchester City, nor Liverpool, nor Manchester United nor Arsenal, nor Tottenham Hotspur, but bloody Bournemouth.

Altogether now : FACKINELL.

Outside, Jake – who had spent the last few minutes of the game rolling a cigarette – was puffing on it like his life depended on it.

“Bet Sarri, like you, is puffing on a fag right now mate.”

We reached our car, shell-shocked. We drove home, shell-shocked.

It had been a shocking night.

Tales From Holloway Road

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 19 January 2019.

Chelsea together? Hardly. During and after this game, it certainly seemed like Chelsea divided. This is going to be another difficult one to write. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Looking ahead to the game at Arsenal, I always feared the worst. Bizarrely, I have positive vibes about the Tottenham game at Stamford Bridge on Thursday – don’t ask me why, football is not an exact science, I just have a hunch – whereas the Arsenal match filled me with dread. They were on the “up” – generally speaking – but we were stalling.

This was another 5.30pm game. Just two of us travelled up from the west of England for this one. I picked up PD at 10.30am, and we approached London via the “southerly” route of the A36, the A303 and the M3. I was at Barons Court at 1pm. On the drive up – the misty rain cleared, eventually – I mentioned to PD “I’ll take a draw, now.”

I spoke about how I had enjoyed the game against Tottenham in the League Cup at Wembley. It was a game that we had lost, but not without a fight. We had shown a great deal of vim and vigour – it surprised me to be honest – and I felt involved all of the way through. Conversely, the win at home to Newcastle United a few days after had left me cold. The performance was dull, the atmosphere worse. I had thus enjoyed a Chelsea loss, but not a win. What did I say about football not being an exact science?

We had been tipped off to make our way to a new boozer for this match. I have mentioned before how I loathe large and cavernous pubs. Therefore, I did not mind one iota that the huge “Shakespeare’s Head” at Holborn was thus swerved, and we headed instead for a much more intimate pub near Highbury & Islington station. After bumping into Alan and Gary, we set off. On the walk to this new destination, we spotted one pub called “The Library” and this raised a chuckle. We met up with Daryl, who was the first to arrive, and the pub looked like ticking all the boxes, although it was awkwardly borderline-hipster. There were high tables and craft ales, but no knobhead Arsenal fans, and we settled down for a good two hours of Chelsea chat and a few pints. It had been the venue that had hosted Madness, The Specials and The Stranglers in the dim and distant. I definitely approved.

At 4.45pm, we set off for The Emirates. We were walking up part of the A1, and this became Holloway Road at Highbury Corner. It brought back a fragile memory from 1983 when I attended an open day at the then North London Poly, before my “A Levels” and with thoughts of attending that particular institution for a three-year geography degree. On that day, I was well aware of how close the campus was to Highbury, Arsenal’s venerable stadium. Maybe it was the thought of spending three years in the shadow of Arsenal that resulted in me fucking up my “A Levels.”

There were no surprises at all with the team that Maurizio Sarri chose. There was neither room for Alvaro Morata, so shorn of confidence, nor Olivier Giroud, so lacking in playing time and also goals.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

I was inside with about five minutes to spare. There did not seem to be too many empty seats anywhere, unlike the last few months of the Wenger regime. I soon spotted two Chelsea supporters to my immediate left wearing the hated and infamous half-and-half scarves. I tut-tutted once again. You have to wonder about the mentality of some of our “fans”. Surely these people must know how we dislike these damned things. Many of my US fans acknowledge how ridiculous these scarves are. Surely nobody among our rank and file buys them. What I can’t understand is if a friendship scarf is purchased as a memento, why bloody wear it, and if it is worn, why not just show the Chelsea half? Virtually all friendship scarves are worn with both halves on show – both teams on show – draped vertically and limply around the neck. Don’t these people know how to tie a scarf?

It does my nut.

We were just a few rows back from the corner flag. In front of us several fans held up a banner –

“THANK YOU PETR – CHELSEA LEGEND.”

So, The Emirates. On many counts, a magnificent stadium, but on other counts it still leaves me cold.

Even though we knew that a win would put us a mighty nine points clear of our North London opponents, I was hardly going dizzy with the thought of that coming into fruition. I am nothing but a realist.

Up close, I realised how truly awful both kits were. Those flecks on our shirts and a very odd block of red on their jerseys.

Arsenal were like greyhounds out of the traps. It is some time since I have seen an opposing team create so many chances with such gusto in the first five, then ten minutes. We were suitably shell-shocked, and – for the want of a better footballing cliché – were chasing shadows. There were errors everywhere, with a wayward pass from David Luiz signalling the first of much wailing which took over the three-thousand loyalists in the south-eastern corner with growing regularity throughout the evening.

They were all over us like a bloody rash.

Shots and crosses rained in on us. Aubameyang shot wide from close in, then Sokratis headed wide from point blank range. Kepa was rather lucky to see a header from Koscielny hit him on the chest. In the midst of all this Arsenal pressure, a meek shot on a rare attack from Eden Hazard did not test the Arsenal ‘keeper Bernd Leno.

On fourteen minutes, a corner on the far side was worked to the menacing Lacazette, who danced past a ridiculously half-hearted challenge from Marcos Alonso, and from a tight angle, the ball was lashed high into the net, beating Kepa at the near post.

Fuck.

Kepa then managed to block an effort from Aubameyang. This was hurting.

But I have to say the noise levels at the Emirates were poor. Despite their lead, the home fans hardly raised the roof. Our support was sporadic at best. There were more groans and grumbles and moans and mumbles from us than a defiant wall of noise.

Then, out of nowhere, a sublime long ball from David Luiz to Pedro – a replica of sorts of the first goal against the Geordies last week – but Peds’ chip dropped just outside the frame of the goal. To be honest, we enjoyed a little resurgence, but this was relative. In the first twenty minutes, we had been merely spectators. There appeared to be an abundance of space on our right which we continually failed to take advantage of. That man Aubameyang went close with an acrobatic flourish, and this was a hint of further damage. A ball was played into our box with too much ease and Koscielny jumped at the ball, and we watched as the ball looped up and over Kepa.

Fuck.

Again, a roar from the home fans, but they then went back to knitting, playing with their I-Pads, and lining up for half-time coffees.

By now, the mood in our section was rife with shouts and screams at players and manager alike.

Jorginho – never flavour of the month at Chelsea right now – was getting pelters from many.

Two chaps to my left were heavy on criticism, but not so eager to sing and shout in support of the team.

Willian was the centre of attention for one of them.

I had to speak out again, just like at Spurs in November.

“He’s not a cunt though, is he, mate?”

Just before Anthony Taylor blew up for half-time, a Willian header was met full on by a leap from Marcos Alonso which edged against the far post and went off for a goal kick.

It had been a grim old half of football.

At half-time, I wandered around the concourse for a few minutes, almost punch drunk from the onslaught that we had suffered in the first opening period, and spoke to more than a couple of good Chelsea people. A common line was “bloody hell, we could be 4-0 down” – or maybe more. None of us were relishing the second forty-five minutes. But I shuffled back to my standing position next to PD, Gal and Alan in row seven, and waited for the Arsenal players to join up with the Chelsea players who had been sent out of the dressing room early.

If nothing else, in the second-half at least we stemmed the flow of goals. But it was another frustrating forty-five minutes. At no stage was I confident that we would even score one goal. N’Golo Kante was his usual self, or rather his usual 2018/19 self and effectively this means several notches below his 2016/17 self and his 2017/18 self. Eden Hazard looked disinterested at times. Mateo Kovacic huffed and puffed but did little to change things. Pedro was keen and full of running, but often by himself and without runners alongside him. It was Peds who had an early chance from a set up by Willian on the left in front of us, but he skied it with his shin.

Mateo Kovacic was replaced by Ross Barkley.

Altogether now “like for like.”

But nobody liked this.

Why not bring on Olivier Giroud? Answers on a postcard.

What upset me most was that we were not creating space off the ball. Too often we were loath to lose our markers, and create a little pocket of space for a positive pass. We kept moving the ball around and Arsenal surprisingly let us play. The home team were well on top. They defended in a great shape and were first to too many fifty-fifties. I was slightly surprised that they did not push on and endeavour to score more goals, but I have an inkling that they wanted us to have the ball and stifle ourselves, rather than let us have space to counter.

It’s a rum old state of affairs when the opposing manager knows our strengths and weaknesses, and not our own manager.

At last the manager introduced Giroud, who came on for the poor Willian.

We were still shot-shy. The moans increased. Only occasionally was there a sustained chant from the away crowd.

Pass, pass, an Arsenal tackle.

Pass, pass, an Arsenal block.

When we were within shooting distance, I kept shouting “buy a raffle ticket!”

The ball was being moved along the same lines, between the same players.

In a cartoon chase, remember how the background was repeated every few seconds?

A tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate.

At the Emirates, the ball saw the same players ad infinitum.

Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso.

The bloke in front of me shouted “shoot!” and a voice behind him whispered “shoot the fucking manager.”

Ah, the manager. Do we give him the benefit of a massive amount of doubt and wait until he gets his players in during the summer? We should do, right? We would plead for time on any other occasion. But it grates with me that for all of his fanciful philosophy, I would love to see him adapt to his current squad and arrange his team to the benefit of our stars, no names and no pack drill.

At last Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced Pedro wide on the right but he was not really involved too much. It was more of the same, more of the same, is anyone bored yet?

I said to PD “I bloody hope their ‘keeper isn’t on piece work. He hasn’t made a save.”

As if to prove the ineptness of our play, substitute Giroud swung and missed when only ten yards out.

Fackinell, Chelsea.

To be fair to ourselves, I was really pleased – and proud – that very few of our support left until the last five or ten minutes, and even then it was a trickle and not a rush. There was a mighty six minutes of extra time but I had decided that we would not score in a month of Saturdays and Sundays and packed my camera and lenses away for the day. At the final whistle, we were put out of our misery.

And it had been a dire performance.

We shuffled out.

PD and I decided to wait for the queues to die down and so we popped into a Chinese restaurant on Holloway Road for a bite to eat. The food was good, but the conversation soon dried up. We were now only three points ahead of the twin threats of Arsenal and Manchester United, with many a tough game on the horizon. As we made our way across London – due south, then due west – we heard that the manager had publicly lambasted his players, which surprised me.

“Keep all that in house, Sarri.”

There was talk of the current squad being unresponsive to his ideas.

I wonder if a common response from any one of our players might be this –

“What have you won? We’ve won the league twice in four years. You dress like a regular at William Hill and you eat cigarettes.”

On Thursday, we have to fucking beat Tottenham.

See you there.

Tales From Another Year

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 2 January 2019.

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

This won’t be pretty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have an inkling that they knew what I meant.

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

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

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

Our team lined up as below :

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

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

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

The match began.

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

First kit : red and white stripes.

Second kit : yellow and blue.

Third kit : red and red stripes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were audible boos at half-time.

It was time to vent.

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

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

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

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

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

“Bearded debutant custodian.”

Do I get points for that?

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

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

This fucking wasn’t.

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

“Of course he bloody was.”

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

Ugh.

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

Well, that doesn’t help anyone does it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the year we continue to go.

Tales From The Tired Ones

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 22 December 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

Is the magic starting to fade?

Stay tuned for further updates.

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

We were treated to more fireworks and flames bollocks.

What a load of cock.

The team lined up as below :

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

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

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

Answers on a postcard…

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

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

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

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

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

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

A shot from Dave flew over the bar.

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

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

The lads sniggered.

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

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

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

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

Chelsea had been well on top.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sub-zero, maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

It was not to be.

Chelsea 0 Leicester City 1.

Bollocks.

Our immediate post-mortem was easy.

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

On Boxing Day evening, we reconvene at Vicarage Road.

I will see some of you there.

 

Tales From The Pride Of London

Chelsea vs. Fulham : 2 December 2018.

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

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

So much for brotherly-love, eh?

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

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

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

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

It then got a little nasty.

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

That was out of order.

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

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

Fireworks for Fulham? Give me a break.

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

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

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

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

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

It was a very mild Winter’s day.

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

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

Perfect.

SW6 East 1 SW6 West 0

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

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

55,003.

In the Second Division nonetheless.

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

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

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

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

It was, of course, ridiculously quiet.

There were occasional chants from the away fans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh well.

I just wanted to see a well won tackle.

It would at least stir the fans.

Modern football, eh?

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

The half-time whistle blew.

It had been a generally quiet and tepid affair.

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

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

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

Another effort from Chambers. Another Kepa save.

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

Who expected Fulham to get an equaliser?

We all did.

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

Some substitutes were soon warming up under the East Stand.

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

“Get yer boots on Zola.”

How we missed a little of his creativity.

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

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

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

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

Davide Zappacosta replaced Marcos Alonso and Dave switched flanks.

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

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

Get in.

Emily would have loved her view of that.

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

SW6 North 2 SW6 South 0.

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

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

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

It is one of those sentences I always remember saying.

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

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

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

Right then. Wolverhampton Wanderers on Wednesday.

See you there.

 

Tales From A Sunday In Manchester : Part Two – Blue

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 4 March 2018.

Part One finished with these words :

“Bollocks. Fifth place now. Bollocks!”

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

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

That was the plan.

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

What to do? What to do?

I contacted PD and Glenn.

“Get your boots on.”

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

The Chuckle Brothers were on the road.

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

There were grimaces from my travelling companions.

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

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

“Giroud.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I silently gulped.

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

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

This was a mighty three quid cheaper than United.

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

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

This was “up north” alright.

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

You may have noticed.

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

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

Inside I met with a few fellow foot soldiers.

“Did Arsenal lose?”

“Yeah, 2-1.”

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

Alan passed on the team news.

“No Kante.”

“Oh no.”

“And no Morata or Giroud.”

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

“Oh lovely.”

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

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

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

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

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Drinkwater – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

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

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

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

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

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

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

I glowered and glowered some more.

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

“Ah bollocks, did he.”

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

I turned to Alan :

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

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

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

“Whoever wins the midfield, wins the game.”

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

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

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

But then scruffy City Fan irritated me further.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scruffy boy was still ranting away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bollocks.

The City support roared.

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

“City – tearing Cockneys apart again.”

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

“That’s a United song.”

“Ryan Giggs.”

They just smiled benignly and were having none of it.

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

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

I was having some of that.

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

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

This seemed to impress Scruffy Boy.

He nodded…and was rather subdued now.

”Yeah, so was I.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloody hell.

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

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

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

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

I turned to Al and Gal :

“See you next Saturday, boys.”

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

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

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

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

Be careful what we wish for.

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

I drove on.

Glenn read out quotes from the manager :

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

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

I drove on.

Who ever said supporting Chelsea was easy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

In memory of Joe Buchmann.