Tales From High Above And Down Below

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 18 January 2020.

We reached Bristol Airport at 7pm on the Friday and we soon spotted three familiar Chelsea fans nestled together, pints on the go, awaiting the 8.50pm flight to Newcastle. One of them (from Weston – I think they are all from Weston) used to sit right behind me in The Sleepy Hollow for the best part of ten years, but I never got around to asking his name. We got to know the other two on a flight back from Newcastle in 2015, but again never got around to finding out their names. We joined The Weston Three for a last pint before take-off. All six of us were relishing the trip north. Newcastle is the granddaddy of all away trips. If Goodison is my favourite away stadium, Newcastle is everyone’s favourite away town.

Talk soon turned to previous trips and to mutual friends, and the usual smorgasbord of football banter. Not for the last time on this three-day trip to Tyneside would we be chatting about how we just can’t stop this addiction to travel, to watching live football – the drinking, OK the drinking – and the camaraderie. I mentioned that to many younger fans, football is watched on TV and tablet, in pub or at home, and the nearest involvement some get to active participation is by betting on accumulators.

Not for us. We love being balls-deep in live football. But compared to some, we are novices. Some fans seemingly take it to ridiculous extremes.

One of the Weston Three mentioned that he got to know a rabid Coventry City supporter, sadly now living in a hospice with not long to go, whose trips around England and Europe in search of live football took obsession to a new level. Very often this chap would find himself driving through the night in order to link up games, to meet kick-offs, to get grounds ticked-off the list. In order for this to take place as smoothly as possible, he had three cars parked at strategic places around England to help facilitate quick movement between airports and train stations.

“Bloody hell. I thought I had it bad.”

Parky, PD and I could hardly believe it.

It made my simple collection of the two of them in Frome at just after 6pm that evening pale by comparison.

The easyJet flight left on time, and we landed at Newcastle twenty-five minutes early at 9.30pm. We soon jumped into a sherbet dab, we were soon headed south, soon headed to the wonderful city on the Tyne.

It was superb to be heading over the Tyne Bridge once more.

We were back. At 10.15pm we were booked in.

“It’s bloody magic to be sat here in a lovely hotel in Newcastle on a Friday night, after a good week at work, with good mates, with a cracking weekend to look forward to. Cheers boys.”

To be honest, it felt extra special. I loved the fact that for once my driving only totalled an hour, up over the Mendips, so easy. And now it was time to relax. We could relax further when our pal Foxy, newly-arrived from Dundee, eventually joined us. It was the first time that we had seen him since Budapest in 2018. Since then his hair colour has changed from Russ Abbot ginger to Eminem blonde. It is always a joy to see him no matter where we are. He was down for the corresponding fixture last season too.

The “Becks Vier” was flowing nicely. But we wanted to keep it relatively “light” as we knew we had a heavy day of drinking ahead of us. Again talk was dominated by football fandom rather than plain football itself. Foxy is well-travelled, and he has a little jaunt over to – as he put it – see his “great Uncle Bulgaria” in a few weeks.

He has a Levski vs. CSKA derby lined-up, one of the hottest games in European football. He is going with a lad we both know at Chelsea, who we would later discover was staying in the very same hotel on the southern banks of the River Tyne. It was in fact, just a hundred yards from the apartment where we stayed for the last league game of 2017/18.

Talk of football games, of football cities, of football people, mutual friends, of excessive alcohol intakes.

A year or so back, Foxy and I were talking about going over to East Belfast to see a Glentoran game. Foxy has been a few times, and has even sponsored a game at their Oval ground.

“It’s braw, eh? Nae more than eighty pound. Food. And ye can get blootered. But it’s rough, eh? Efter the gemme, eh hed tae walk through a crime scene tae get tae the chippy.”

He had me howling.

Good old Foxy.

We were up at about 9am on the Saturday and after a leisurely breakfast, we walked over the Millennium Bridge from Gateshead on the south side to Newcastle on the north side. The idea was to hit a few pubs – maybe some new ones – before getting a cab up to St. James’ Park. My camera went into overdrive.

As with our last two visits we settled at “The Slug & Lettuce.”

Newcastle is set on two levels. The Bigg Market and the football stadium at the top of the hill, The Quayside way down below. It works as a city on more than these two levels, though. It has history in abundance, a real working class vibe cuts through it, cracking architecture, the night life is legendary, the locals almost too friendly.

I have said it before…”if I wasn’t a Chelsea fan.”

At bang on 11am, we got the first round in. We settled in a corner at the front of the spacious pub overlooking the river and the famous Tyne Bridge, and then waited for troops to arrive.

We spotted a couple who were sat in the row in front on the plane up. She was a Newcastle supporter, it was her birthday – her uncle was Ollie Burton, a name I can remember from my 1972/73 bubble gum cards, a Newcastle United and Wales player – and we had a giggle.

The day was off to a fine start.

We were then hit with an overwhelming bout of inertia. Different sets of pals from all over the Chelsea Kingdom – and beyond – came to spend time with us and we just decided to stay in the one boozer.

“So much for the pub crawl.”

Eck and his son from Glasgow, Julie from Stafford, Fiona from Bedfordshire, Mark and his family from Westbury, Luke and Aroha from Ruislip, Andy from Trowbridge, his Newcastle mate Russ – featured last season – from Swalwell, Gillian, Kev and Rich from Edinburgh, Kim and Andy from Kent, Sean from New York, Andy from California, Neil from Belfast, bloody hell it was never-ending.

In the middle of all this was an Everton supporter. Chris lives locally, but is a native of North Wales. He travelled up to a Sunderland vs. Everton game many years ago, met a local girl on the way to the game, fell in love and has remained ever since. I had not met him before. But he is the brother of my great Chelsea pal Tommie, who still lives in Porthmadog. Both Chris and Tommie have travelled to watch football in Buenos Aires in the past two years. And Chris has been giving me valuable insights – and his still usable Buenos Aires travel card from 2018 – over the past two months. It was a pleasure to see him, and to listen to his tales from Argentina.

“My first game was Chacarita Juniors. Everyone warned me not to go. Well rough. But I went. Didn’t regret it. Came out of the train station. And there’s a line of police with sub machine guns. And remember there are no away fans. I just kept my head down and avoided eye contact. I asked a local “stadio?” and he said “solo?” pulling a face as if to say “are you mad?” but it was OK. I got a ticket, I got in.”

Midway through the sesh, I realised I needed to slow down a little. Almost six hours of necking lager could easily leave me too light headed to be of use to anyone.

But damn those “Peronis” were hitting the spot.

The pub was quiet at 11am, by 4.30pm it was full.

Geordie lasses.

Say no more, like.

We caught two cabs up to St. James’ Park. A quick walk past the Alan Shearer statue, underneath the huge Milburn Stand, around to the lift. Up we went. I was clicking away as I walked, eager to capture the small pieces which help to build the whole picture.

The weather was cold but not unbearable. We were three thousand strong, as ever. With Rangers playing on the Friday night, there would no doubt be a few “Weegies” – as Foxy termed them – in our ranks.

This was my twelfth visit to St. James’ Park. A low number compared to many. But until the cheap flights turned my eye a few years back, this was often a game too far for me. It’s a dramatic stadium all right. The roof above seems to be floating in space. Everywhere is cool grey, maybe like the Earl Grey statue at the top of that fine Victorian street in the town centre.

The team lined up as below :

Arrizabalaga

James – Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Kante – Mount

Willian – Abraham – Hudson-Odoi

It kind of picked itself I guess.

“Local Hero” is so evocative, so Newcastle, it always brings a smile. I like the way it has entwined itself into the St. James’ Park match day experience.

The game began.

As always, we attacked The Gallowgate in the first-half. Early on we were dominating and this is how it stayed. But this was all too familiar. Tons of possession, but with very few real chances of note. At times the frustration of Jorginho and Kante, looking for runners, was mirrored by the frustrations among the standing three-thousand behind the Leazes End goal. We were dominating play, but there seemed – already – no way through the massed ranks of Newcastle defenders.

The noise wasn’t great. I’ve never known the Geordies to be so quiet.

Unlike in the past two visits, at least all – or damned near – of the seats were occupied. The protests have seemed to have waned as Steve Bruce has cajoled his team into eking out results in a very pragmatic way.

Then, out of nowhere, Newcastle enjoyed a little spell of possession, and I wondered if our defenders might be caught out, such was their lack of prior engagement.

A punch from Kepa foiled one attack, the crossbar was the saviour soon after.

“Fucksakes Chelsea.”

A high shot from Tammy drew moans from our support. We all want him to succeed, but he just needs to work on the physical side of his game. He needs to toughen up. To ask questions of his markers.

Maybe he just hasn’t got it in his locker.

After a great pass by Reece James, a chance for Kante came to nothing, a weak shot at Dubravka.

And that was that.

My half-time notes on my mobile ‘phone were rather brief.

Reece James had showed willing, N’Golo Kante was full of running, but elsewhere it seemed that we were lacking drive and desire. And St. James’ Park was as quiet as fuck.

Some in our midst had sloped off for a cheeky half-time pint and would not return.

The second-half began, and Willian seemed to dominate the focus of my camera – always a photogenic target with his stops, starts, twists and shots – if not the game itself. As often, his dribbles and runs came to nothing. A few tentative shots whistled past defenders’ legs but also past posts. We were again dominating play, but hardly grinding them down to submission. They were hardly on the ropes.

It was, bluntly, a bloody rotten game of football.

And it was so quiet.

On seventy-minutes, Ross Barkley replaced the very poor Mason Mount. He kept the ball well, and for a few minutes it looked like that he might be able to unlock the door to the defence. I was really disappointed with the wing-play, or lack of it, from Callum Hudson-Odoi.

I lost count of the times I bellowed “get past yer man.”

A chance, of sorts, came Tammy’s way down below us but his off-balance stab ended up as a comical aside.

Reece James hobbled off, Emerson replaced him.

The ball was pumped into the box from out wide and Azpilicueta rose well to cushion a header into Tammy, but his lunge at the ball resulted in a brave save from Dubravka.

I would have liked to have seen Michy alongside Tammy, just to change things a little, but instead there was a straight swap.

By now, everything was grim.

One last chance maybe? A quick break, the ball fell to Emerson. A clear run, a clear sight of goal, but the powerful effort was always going wide.

Bollocks.

The home team had a rare effort on goal as the ninety minutes approached, but Joelinton miscued. It was, I am sure, their only chance of note in the entire second-half.

A 0-0 draw looked the obvious conclusion, the result of a dire ninety-minutes.

“No punch upfront, Gal. No zip. No runners. Nothing.”

Four added minutes were signalled.

I subconsciously began thinking about my first post-game pint.

Callum at last broke through a crowded box to the left of the goal as I watched, but crashed it over.

On ninety-four fucking minutes, fucking Newcastle won their fucking very first fucking corner of the entire fucking match.

Willian headed it out. It came in again.

Slow…motion…the cross…a leap…no Chelsea challenge…the ball was in…

Ninety-four minutes.

Newcastle United 1 Chelsea 0.

Fucking hell.

I was numb, as numb as I have felt for ages at football. How had we lost that? How was that bloody possible? They had defended well, but had created very little all game. It was as cruel a finish to a match that I can ever remember.

Ninety-four minutes.

Good grief.

I stood silent for what seemed too long. I could not comprehend it. I was wallowing in the misery of it all.

[inside my head : “at least it means I still care, I haven’t reached the dreaded next stage just yet.”]

Sigh.

A big sigh.

Others drifted away. I was shell-shocked, bamboozled, Loony-Tooned.

Fackinell.

I soon met up with Parky, with PD, with Foxy. By the time we had eventually descended the fourteen flights of stairs that took us to street level, it seemed that we were some of the last to leave the stadium. We found ourselves walking behind the old East Stand – I am that old that I can remember it as the most modern of the stands at St. James’ Park – and we eyed-up a burger van. While PD and Parky got their orders in, I took advantage of the lack of fellow spectators and took a few mood shots of the iconic concrete supports, which I have been meaning to photograph for a while. For all of Newcastle’s fine Victorian buildings, it is also infamous for its fair share of brutalist ‘sixties and ‘seventies architecture. Think “Get Carter” and the car parks and high-rises still visible today. The concreted pillar supports – like the unique concrete crush barriers of the old Gallowgate terrace – tie in with that era.

Back in the day, as the kids say, the little rat run from “The Strawberry” up to the away end, past those pillars, used to be termed “Suicide Alley.”

I can see why.

We made our way slowly down into the town, down into The Bigg Market.

The hamburger was superb by the way; £4 and the best of the season thus far.

The drinking continued, and after a few pints in three more gorgeous pubs in the heart of the infamous Bigg Market – “Filthy’s”, “The Beehive” and “Pumphrey’s” – we were back on track.

I even managed, God knows how, to get the number of a local girl, a local heroine maybe, but there was – just like with Chelsea Football Club at this moment in time – no instant gratification.

Some things don’t happen overnight.

The work in progress continues.

On Tuesday, Arsenal await.

I will see some of you there.

BLUE SKIES HIGH ABOVE THE QUAYSIDE

UP IN THE GODS AT ST. JAMES’ PARK

WAY DOWN BELOW

UNDERNEATH THE EAST STAND

Tales From The Cosy Corner

Chelsea vs. Burnley : 11 January 2020.

The home game with Burnley was our tenth match in thirty-seven days, a very intensive period for players and supporters alike. To continue a theme of recent weeks, by the time I would drop off Parky, PD and his son Scott at the end of the day, these ten games would equate to eight trips to London, one trip to Liverpool and one trip to Brighton.

Sixty-five hours of travelling by car to see Chelsea in just thirty-seven days.

Did someone say “gulp”?

I thought I heard it.

But as we have said so many times before :

“It’s what we do.”

This was a typical Chelsea Saturday in many ways.

Another early start for sure. I collected the lads by 7.30am, we Greggsed a breakfast en route, and I was parked up at just after 10am.

I was soon walking down the North End Road with the main intention of grabbing hold of a pair of those magnificent 1970 shorts. Once in the “Megastore” – my fist steps inside for maybe two years – I spotted many shirts, linked T-shirts and tops, but not one single pair of shorts.

“All the shorts have gone.”

Bollocks. Obviously many others of the same demographic group were of the same opinion as me vis a vis Majorca, Bodrum, Ko Samui and Orlando. I guess I will have to wait. And wait I will. I dislike the notion of having to spend £100 for an online order to facilitate a free delivery when I can pick the shorts up in the shop – “call me old fashioned” – for nothing.

In my never-ending quest to capture every nook and cranny of Stamford Bridge, at least I was able to devote myself to a little camera work. At about 10.30am, the forecourt was virtually devoid of supporters. I could pick my moments. Those Peter Osgood boots have scored a few goals, eh?

I took a District Line train down to Putney Bridge and met up with Parky, PD and Scott in “The Eight Bells” at 11.30am. We were in our usual spot, the cosy corner. During the week, a clip of the much-loved BBC comedy “Steptoe & Son” from the late sixties was aired on a Chelsea-related Facebook group and it showed the two protagonists exiting “The Eight Bells”, rather Brahms & Liszt, and getting collared for being drunk and in possession of a horse and cart.

We were sat right next to the same double-doors that Wilfred Bramble had stepped through fifty years ago.

No lager for me. I wanted to stay fresh. I was up at 6am, I would not be home until around 8.30pm. The procession of ice-cold Diet Cokes began.

I have to say that at times, in the now familiar confines of this little pub, it often feels that we are hosting a chat show. After guests this season from Perth in Australia, Edinburgh, Brighton, Chicago and Germany, we were joined by my good friend Russ from Melbourne in Australia.

“I’d like you to put your hands together and give a good Chucklevision welcome to Russ Saunders everyone.”

“Hi.”

“Russ, welcome. Take a seat. You look well, have you been ill”?

“Thanks Chris. It’s great to be back in London.”

Russ is originally from Wokingham and was with his brother Nick. Both would be watching in the rear rows of The Shed Upper. The Reading / Bracknell / Wokingham axis is a particularly strong Chelsea heartland. I first met Russ in Perth in 2018, but our paths must have unknowingly crossed out in Tokyo in 2012 too. I was with him on several memorable nights in Baku in May.

Russ heads up the Melbourne Supporters Group and for many a minute we discussed the very complex ticketing policies that the club has in place for the overseas groups. It seems that many of the club’s relatively new fans in Australia mirror those of many in the US; some have no real grasp of reality.

“This one fan comes up to me and asks for ten tickets for Manchester United at home.”

I smiled and groaned. Then groaned and smiled.

And then we got on to the very contentious and emotive subject of tickets for Chelsea away games.

A lot more groaning this time. And not so much smiling.

Nick wondered how we would fare against Burnley.

I summed things up.

“We’ll begin well. They will defend deep. But the crowd will get frustrated when we don’t score and we’ll try to nick a goal.”

The pub was getting packed now. Thoughts turned to the next two away games. PD, Parky and I are flying up to Newcastle next Friday for the Saturday evening game. Please note that I will not be on Diet Cokes. The Edinburgh and Dundee connection will be with us. The following weekend brings us the FA Cup game at Hull City. I seized while the iron was hot and booked a ridiculously cheap set of rooms to enable PD, Scott, Parky and little old me to stay the Saturday night.

We have around 4,200 tickets for this game. And they are competitively priced at just £12.

Hotel : £7.50.

Ticket : £12.

Superb.

We played against Hull City in the FA Cup in 1982. These prices echo that era.

“I can get used to this retro-themed FA Cup run this season.”

However – there always seems to be a however these days – the choice of 5.30pm on a Saturday night was a poor one, and certainly backs up the commonly-held view that the FA do not give a flying fuck about match-going fans.

On the wall on the forecourt, I had photographed these soundbites for modern football.

“Back at The Bridge. All fans coming together in blue. We’re here for the season-ticket holders and first timers. Without fans football wouldn’tt be the Beautiful Game.”

Maybe there should be an asterisk stating “*kick-off times permitting.”

The Chelsea Supporters Trust quickly issued a statement.

“The FA Cup is the oldest association football competition in the world. It is a competition attended and enjoyed by many. Chelsea’s (CFC) 4th round tie has been selected to be shown on television. Subsequently, the KO time for the game is 17:30. The CST is frustrated by the continued disregard towards match-going supporters. Over two back-to-back Saturdays, CFC KO in the North-East at 17:30 (18th vs. Newcastle United & 25th vs. Hull City). The CST would like to place on record with how disappointed it is. A 17:30 KO for games over 250 miles away from London continues to be widely opposed by supporters.

This has been exacerbated by no trains running back to London after the Hull City game. This is unacceptable. The train timetable was in place when deciding the KO time and as a result, has left many CFC supporters in a challenging position.

The Chelsea Supporters Trust would urge the FA to select more appropriate ties to be shown on television in future. Managers have been widely criticised for “not taking the FA Cup seriously.” The board believe that if unnecessarily difficult KO times are being chosen, supporters may follow in the same manner.

The CST would also like to thank Chelsea Football Club for its continued subsidised coach travel. For many supporters, it continues to be the only realistic option to attend away matches. The CST hopes that this will continue in its current format.

The team news came through.

“Barkley is starting.”

Arrizabalaga

James – Christensen – Rudiger – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Barkley – Mount

Willian – Abraham – Hudson-Odoi

The Crystal Palace versus Arsenal game was on TV behind us. A David Luiz own-goal resulted in a 1-1 draw, more dropped points, lovely. The time absolutely flew past. It was soon time to draw stumps and head north two stops on the District Line.

Fifteen minutes later we were at Stamford Bridge. Perfect.

I walked through the West Stand forecourt – much more crowded now – with Kim, who had been with us in the pub. Kim would me meeting up with me at the Peter Osgood statue after the game to sort out his Newcastle United ticket which I had sorted out with a friend.

“Does it get busy here after the game, Chris?”

“Too right it does. We need another meeting point. They should erect a Trevor Aylott statue too. It would be a lot quieter.”

I looked again at the words on display to my left.

“Without fans football wouldn’t be the Beautiful Game.”

Quite right. It would be rugby.

Inside our home, I soon spotted a yawning gap of around four hundred spare seats in the Burnley section. Everywhere else seemed at capacity.

No pristine 1970s kit this week, rather the children’s geometric stencil set aberration of the regular league shirt.

The game began.

A shot at Kepa was well wide in the opening move of the match but we began to get hold of the ball.

I spotted that within the first few minutes, in which we were treated to a couple of Willian bursts, much of our play seemed to be concentrated within a very congestion area down our left, Burnley’s right. Often play would run itself into a cul-de-sac and would have to be played out and then back in again. Meanwhile, often standing alone in lots of unguarded territory on the other wing stood Reece James waiting to run at the Burnley left flank.

“Let’s use him more, Al.”

Frank must have heard me. We began using him more, and a couple of crosses caused worry in the Burnley defence.

A Burnley goal was flagged as offside and – how dull – VAR upheld the decision.

“Move on, nothing to see here” as they say on the internet.

Tammy hesitated when seemingly clean through, but our play was drawing appreciation from the home stands. The first stadium-wide chant came within just fifteen minutes this time.

Good work everyone.

(He said sarcastically.)

On twenty-five minutes, a ball was played into Willian. He entered the penalty box. From one hundred yards away, I saw him touch the ball, then go down. It looked like the ball had got away from him and the defender’s touch – if there was one – was of no consequence. But the referee soon pointed at the spot.

Alan and I looked at each other.

Old fashioned looks.

Really?

Jorginho, like a dressage horse, all choreographed, skipped and hopped, then unseated Pope.

We were 1-0 up.

The race down to Parkyville and smiles from Ludo, Rachel, Donna, Parky and the two Daves.

GET IN.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

Burnley, to their credit, had a go at us. The game opened up a little. A great spawling save from Kepa, a hack off the line from Ross Barkley.

We grew in confidence. I liked Barkley’s involvement.

On thirty-seven minutes, a ball was played forward with pace to catch an overlap from Our Reece. It looked a tall order. With defenders closing him, and the ball hurtling towards the by-line, I yelled “dig it out Reece.”

Dig it out he did. He sent over a long cross – and Tammy was perfectly placed.

I have to be honest, it reminded me of a cross that I dug out on the right wing, stretching to reach it, in football training for my village team on a dusky summer evening in 1979 for Nige Ashman to head home. This was probably my favourite ever cross from my playing days and undoubtedly the best remembered. The comments of appreciation from the senior players in the team really meant a lot. I was never a confident player, especially for my school, and I remember thinking “bollocks, if only Mr. Freeman had seen that.”

Tammy’s downward header seemed to surprise Pope, who seemed flat-footed, and it fell into the goal.

“Super goal.”

How often have we seen headers fly off the top of our players’ heads in recent weeks?

“Head like a fifty pence piece.”

This one was right on the money.

Ker-ching.

We were treated to a rasper from Reece James, after twisting and turning nicely in the area – almost shades of Gianfranco Zola and Juian Dicks on the same piece of terra firma in 1996 – but Pope was no dope and saved it.

We were 2-0 up at the break and all was well with the world.

The second-half began and we were soon rewarded with some fine attacking play.

Down below us, Mason Mount was strong and held off some challenges and fed the ball to Dave. His cross was aimed towards a rising Tammy, who appeared to get a glance. The ball fell at the feet of Tammy who slip it home.

I did not celebrate. And this was not solely because of VAR. Let us not forget that there were times in the pre-VAR world when goals would be scored and I would choose not to celebrate too much because, well, the goal either looked like being offside or for some other reason, a nudge or a foul maybe. Alan wasn’t celebrating either. Everyone else was. I captured Tammy’s slide for his first league goal. And then came VAR. And the predictable wait. I wondered if the photographs for the goal celebrations would need to be deleted.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

Goal.

More old-fashioned looks twixt Al and me.

“How was that not offside?”

(On “MOTD” later, I would learn that Tammy did not get a touch.)

Hey ho.

Three-up, great stuff.

The cosy corner in the boozer had now been transplanted to a corner of the Matthew Harding Upper. All certainly was cosy in our little world. It was a sudden joy to be able to relax a bit and enjoy an easy win.

The rest of the second-half really should have resulted in more goals. We were utterly dominant. I loved the way that Callum – Our Callum – grew in confidence after his goal, and some of our touch play, movement, and spirit – for the want of a better word – was excellent.

Bloody hell, there was even some audible chanting.

Steady on, everyone.

Pope saved from Tammy and then Tammy was frustrated as he saw a relatively easy header drop wide. Shots rained in from Willian, from Mount. Barkley continued his confident play. But I was so impressed with Reece James, supplying quality cross after quality cross to order. Let’s see how he develops over the next twelve months. He looks mustard.

Once all fit, our young Lions could form a new group to lead us forward.

Reece, Callum, Mason, Tammy maybe, Ruben maybe.

A wild shot from Mason drew some sarcasm from the MHL.

“What the fackinell was that?”

Knowing that we let a 4-0 lead slip at Turf Moor in late October, I joked “it’ll soon be 3-2.”

But we held on. Wink.

A fine game. I enjoyed it.

Positivity!

Waiting at the base of the Peter Osgood statue, I waited for Kim. I picked up two other Newcastle tickets for the Edinburgh connection from another mate and I observed that two other sets of Newcastle United away tickets found new homes as strangers met to pass on to fellow fans. After a short wait, Kim was sorted too.

Job done.

Right. Newcastle away it is, then. We are flying up on Friday evening from Bristol. A quayside pub crawl is planned.

Bring your wallets. See you there.

Tales From The Second-Half

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 December 2019.

I was sitting in a cosy corner of “The St. James Tavern” just off Piccadilly Circus with PD and Lord Parsnips. There was just time for a couple of scoops before it was time to head on up the Piccadilly Line to Arsenal. Pints of Peroni had been poured, but not just any pints. At £6.30 a go, these were – I am quite sure – the most expensive pints in the UK that we had ever purchased. Bloody hell, they must have seen us coming. In fact, they certainly had seen us coming; we had popped in at 11.30am but had been unceremoniously told “no alcohol until midday” so we just had a little meander to kill some time, so imagine our annoyance when we re-entered at 11.55am to see some punters with pints three-quarters imbibed already.

“Oh, so you were serving alcohol before midday then.”

The bar staff chose to ignore me. To be honest, two pints was ample, but it was a shame they were a little rushed. The day had started off quietly – I was away at 8am – and the weather outside was mid-winter bleak, but at least with no rain. We had again parked-up at Barons Court – like last Sunday, bang on time at 11am, a three-hour trip exactly on target – and I liked the fact that right in front of me was a car with a Chelsea number plate – JC03 CFC – and I wondered if the owner had driven in like myself or was a local. Either way, I looked on it as a good omen.

There was a good deal of symmetry about the game at Arsenal.

We had played nineteen games. The end of the first-half of the season had been completed. The last away day of the first-nineteen games was also in North London, at Tottenham, and the first away game of the second nineteen games was just four miles away in Islington. Heading into 2020, our twentieth league game of the season was just a couple of hours away.

There and then, I decided to call this particular match report – number 597 – “Tales From The Second-Half.”

It would be rather prescient.

We arrived at a sunny Emirates bang on time at 1.15pm. To be honest, this made a refreshing change. Arrivals at Arsenal are usually ridiculously hurried. Very often, we get in with seconds to spare. I was able to take my time and take a few mood shots outside. Walking over the southern bridge, a statue of Herbert Chapman greets supporters.

It’s a fine statue. I imagined that many of our new supporter base – FIFA ready, eager to impress, scarves and replica shirts at the ready – do not know who Ted Drake is, let alone Herbert Chapman. Mind you, it’s quite likely that many of Arsenal’s new supporter base – FIFA ready, eager to impress, scarves and replica shirts at the ready – do not know who Herbert Chapman is. It is a major shame that many believe that football began in 1992, and is even more galling to hear those in the media forever banging on about Premier League records as if all other data has been expunged from the record books.

I was hanging around to make sure the safe transfer of a spare ticket had taken place OK. Although I didn’t need to meet the two parties, I didn’t want to leave them stranded.

At about 1.20pm, I got the OK by text. I could relax a little. I bumped into a few mates. Took some more photos. We weren’t sure, collectively, how to regard this match.

“At Tottenham last week, I would have been happy with a draw. No question. With Arsenal, I feel we need to beat them. We are away, after all. Less pressure. Hopefully more space. But, it could go one of any three ways – a win, a loss, a draw. They’re poor though. Worse than Tottenham.”

Inside the stadium, everything was so familiar. This would be my fourteenth consecutive league visit to this ground; the only game I have missed was when we took 9,000 in that League Cup game in 2013. There was also a ropey League Cup semi in 2018.

It has been a stadium of mixed results.

Thus far in the league –

Won : 4

Drawn : 5

Lost : 4

Stepping out of the Arsenal tube, I am always reminded of how magnificent Highbury was. Those art deco stands were beauties. And on the corner of Gillespie Road, as it turns into Drayton Park, is one of my favourite art deco houses of all. I just never seem to have the time to stop and take a photograph. Maybe next season. Can somebody remind me? I consider it a failing of whoever designed the new Arsenal stadium (and that is what it should really be called, it won’t be sponsored by Emirates in twenty years’ time will it?) that there is no reference to the old Highbury ground. Not a single nod. Not one.

It’s an Arsenal Stadium Mystery.

And, I know it sounds silly, but compared to Tottenham’s new home, Arsenal’s pad looks less impressive with every visit. Yes, there is comfort. Yes, every seat is padded (imagine that in 1984 when we scurried out of the Arsenal tube and queued up at the Clock End to squeeze our young bodies onto that large terrace – padded seats in the away end!), yes it’s modern, but it lacks a visual impact, it lacks charm, it lacks intimidation. As my mate Daryl commented in the concourse “it’s like a shopping centre.”

Indeed.

Kerching.

We were down the front for this one, row three. I met up with Alan, Gary and Parky. I tried to remember if the stewards at Arsenal gave me a hard time with my camera; I think I would be OK.

The team news filtered through.

Another outing for the 3/4/3.

I guess it worked at Tottenham.

Arrizabalaga

Rudiger – Zouma – Tomori

Azpilicueta – Kovacic – Kante – Emerson

Willian – Abraham – Mount

I had been in contact with two Arsenal lads that I had met on the outbound trip to Baku in May – it still seems like a dream – but I would not be able to meet up with them for a quick handshake as they were both pushed for time. I wished them well.

Kick-off soon arrived.

As always, we attacked the North Bank in the first-half.

First thoughts?

Yes, it was odd seeing David Luiz in Arsenal red and white. Very odd.

In fact, our former defender was heavily involved in the very first few minutes, jumping and narrowly missing with a header from a cross, attempting an optimistic scissor-kick from inside the box, and a trademark free-kick from outside it. Thankfully, Kepas’s goal remained unscathed. Sadly, despite our manager’s emotional and heartfelt protestations about his under-performing players against Southampton, it was sadly business as usual for the early part of the game. Arsenal seemed more invigorated, livelier, and they put us under pressure from the off.

We managed to create a chance for Mason Mount at the North Bank, Willian working a short free-kick, but his tame shot was saved by Bernd Leno.

Shortly after, a whipped-in corner from Mesut Ozil was headed on at the near post and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang nodded in, with our marking awry.

“One nil to The Arsenal” sang the home areas. It was the first real noise of the entire game.

With their nippy winger Riess Nelson looking impressive on the Arsenal right and with their other players closing space, we drifted in to a very uncomfortable period of play. Our passing was strained, and there was a lack of movement off the ball. Yet again, Toni Rudiger was given the task of playmaker as others did not have the time and space to do so. But he, like others, found it difficult to hit targets. I’d imagine that teams have sussed out the diagonal to Emerson by now. Arsenal were full or funning and intent. They looked by far the better team. To be brutally frank, a better team than Arsenal would have punished us further, because we were not at the races, the amusement arcade, the pantomime or the family outing to Ramsgate. It was dire stuff and the fans around me were huffing and puffing their disdain.

Nothing vitriolic – we save that for the home games – but noticeable.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

The usual terrace regulars were regurgitated.

“Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that.”

“We’ve won it all.”

(We haven’t.)

No, this was poor football. Only Kante and, possibly – only possibly – Kovacic seemed up for the task ahead. Tammy was not involved; of course there was a drought of service, for sure, but there was poor involvement through being unwilling to move his marker.

Just after the half-hour mark, Frank changed it. Off came Emerson, to be replaced by Jorginho. And a change of formation. Dave switched sides, Tomori moved to right back. There was, of course, immediately more solidity in midfield. Emerson was always a steady player – I rated him, generally – but his form has certainly dipped of late. I struggle with his reluctance to take players on when “one-on-one” and he has recently been a subject of the boo boys at games and the ranters on social media.

Our attacking abilities noticeably changed and we, arguably, had the best of it over the last ten minutes of the half. There were half-chances for both teams. However, over the course of the entire half, I think, generally, we had got off lightly. And yet. How many times did Kepa have to scramble to save shots, to tip over, to lunge at an attacker’s feet? Not many.

It wasn’t the best of games.

It was 100 % doom and gloom in the crowded concourse and in the padded seats at the break.

Inside my head : “Frank is new to this game. It’s only his second season as a manager. Has he got it in his locker to motivate the players, to get across his ideas, but to remain calm and focussed too?”

I bloody hoped so.

For all our sakes.

Soon into the second-half, I whispered to Alan.

“Seems like a proper game now, this.”

Tackles were being won, passes were being threaded through, players were running off the ball, this was more fucking like it boys.

A special mention for Jorginho. Excellent.

How to accommodate both him and Kante in their strongest positions?

This season’s $64,000 question.

On the hour, fresh legs and a fresh player for that matter. Making his debut as a replacement for Tomori was Tariq Lamptey.

Bloody hell, he looked about twelve.

Even I would tower over him.

He was soon involved, and impressed everyone with a turn and run into the heart of the Arsenal defence before slipping a ball right into the path of Tammy Abraham. The steadily improving striker’s first time shot was blocked by the long legs of David Luiz. There was the usual noise of discontent about Tammy not shooting earlier, but – honestly – he struck it first time and I am not sure he could have reacted any quicker.

Dave headed tamely over.

The final substitution took place; number 20 Callum with 20 to go.

Again, he looked lively from the off, and seemed more comfortable in his own skin, dancing past players and intelligently passing to others. Behind all this was the magnificent work rate of Kovacic, Kante, Jorginho – some splendid tackles, one nasty one, unpunished – and Willian looked a different player.

“Come on Chelsea.”

“Come on you blue boys.”

“Come on Chels.”

A simple header from Tammy at a corner was straight at Leno. A yard either side and we would have been celebrating.

At the other end, a rare Arsenal chance, but Joe Willock, the silly pillock, swept it wide.

A second goal then would have killed us.

Throughout the game, I thought the home areas were dead quiet. Only when they sensed a home victory did they bother.

“We’re the North Bank. We’re the North Bank. We’re the North Bank Highbury.”

“We’re the Clock End. We’re the Clock End. We’re the Clock End Highbury.”

“We’re the North Bank. We’re the North Bank. We’re the North Bank Highbury.”

“We’re the Clock End. We’re the Clock End. We’re the Clock End Highbury.”

Seems the Arsenal fans have remembered the old stadium in the new stadium, even if the architects hadn’t.

The minutes ticked by.

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

On eighty-three minutes, I steadied my camera to snap Mason as he weighed up the options before taking a free-kick just fifteen yards from me. He swiped and I snapped. I saw the ‘keeper miss the flight of the ball and I exploded as Jorginho tapped the ball in to an empty net.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

That I managed to get any photo at all of the delirious scenes is a minor miracle.

Beautiful.

Three minutes later, Chelsea in the ascendency, we found ourselves momentarily defending deep. The ball broke, and I thought to myself “here we go” and brought the trusty Canon up to my eyes. Over the next thirty seconds or so, I took twenty-seven photos – and the better ones are included. The strong and purposeful run from Tammy – up against Shkodran Mustafi – and the pass outside to Willian. The return pass.

I steadied myself, waiting for the moment – “We’re going to fucking win this” – and watched as Tammy turned a defender – Mustafi again, oh bloody hell – and prodded the ball goal wards.

Snap.

Right through his legs.

FUCKING GET IN.

Pandemonium in the South Stand, pandemonium in South Norwood, pandemonium in Southsea, pandemonium in South Korea, pandemonium in South Philly.

I felt arms pushing against me – I steadied myself – but missed Tammy’s slide. But I captured the rest, more or less. What a joy to see the players – Tammy especially – so pleased.

Tales From The Second-Half?

You had better fucking believe it.

Screams, smiles, roars.

“Scenes” as the kids say.

I prefer to call it “Chelsea Soup.”

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

We were in our element. One song dominated. It dominated at Tottenham a week previously and it took over the away end at Arsenal.

“We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

(I whispered an add-on – “but not this season.”)

“We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League. We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League. We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League. We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League. We’ve got super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

It was our Christmas carol for 2019.

Tammy fired over in the last few minutes, but we did not care one jot.

The whistle blew and we roared.

We had done it.

No, wait, Frank had done it, Tammy had done it, the players had done it.

We had played our part, but the players had stepped up.

Top marks.

Inside my head : “So, so pleased for Frank. These have been worrying times. And so pleased for Tammy. He may not be a Didier or a Diego, but he gets goals. Well done him. Until it changes and we have an alternative, let’s sing his name.”

Won : 5

Drawn : 5

Lost : 4

The players came over. As some returned to walk towards the tunnel, Frank turned them around. The manager wanted his charges to thank us. I clambered onto my seat and snapped away. Smiles everywhere. Just lovely.

Tottenham Mark Two.

Franktastic.

There was no rush to leave the stadium. My car at Barons Court was safe. As with last January’s game, we dropped into a Chinese restaurant on the Holloway Road for some scoff. We made our way slowly back, via the tried and tested Piccadilly Line once again, reaching my car at 6.30pm. We eventually made it home for 9.30pm, another six hours in the saddle.

No doubt many Chelsea supporters / fans / wannabees had been venting huge displeasure on every platform available about our ropey first-half performance, but I think that they might have failed to realise that a game is just not a first-half, a season is not nineteen games, this project will not be finished in May.

Chelsea is for life, not just for Christmas.

Next up, we play our first game of 2020 at Brighton.

Another away game.

Frankie says relax.

Postscript 1.

I recently joined in with the Facebook Ten Football Images In Ten Days “thing.” One of them was the cover of the “Shoot” annual of 1973. I chose it for a couple of reasons. I was in hospital in December 1972 for a minor operation. Gleefully it meant that I was able to miss taking part in the school nativity play which would have bloody terrified me. I can distinctly remember – as a pre-Christmas present I guess, a “pick-me-up” – a copy of this said publication. I remembered buying a normal copy of the weekly “Shoot” earlier that autumn while on holiday in North Wales (I can even remember that an Arsenal vs. Manchester City game was featured in the centre pages; a game that I had seen on “The Big Match” that involved Brian Moore getting very opinionated about an Arsenal handball on the line that stopped a City goal, but was not given as a penalty. I remember a very irate Francis Lee. VAR anyone?) This annual featured a photograph of my Chelsea hero Peter Osgood climbing high in the Highbury sun to win a header against Frank McLintock, the rugged Scottish centre-back. This book played a big part in my growing love of football. I can even remember a feature.

“Chelsea’s Deadly H Men.”

Step forward John Hollins, Peter Houseman, Ron Harris, Ian Hutchinson, Marvin Hinton and Alan Hudson.

Sadly, I lost my copy.

Imagine my happiness when I spotted an edition in the shop window of a second-hand shop in Frome about twelve years ago. What luck.

I snapped it up.

It brought back some lovely memories.

Frank McLintock, whose eightieth birthday was on the Saturday, was featured in a half-time chat on the pitch during the game. It was good to hear his voice. These players of our childhood are starting to leave us now. It’s so sad.

I almost thought about renaming this “A Tale Of Two Franks” but that has already been taken.

Postscript 2.

As we leave one decade, and enter another, time to reflect a little. It has been a wild time. Late on, after I had flicked through some photos and just before I settled down to watch “MOTD2”, I posted this on Facebook and I think it struck a chord because it has been shared twenty-two times already.

“2010 : League & FA Cup.
2012 : FA Cup & Champions League.
2013 : Europa League.
2015 : League Cup & League.
2017 : League.
2018 : FA Cup.
2019 : Europa League.

10 trophies in 10 seasons. Please excuse me if I am not too bothered about winning fuck all for a bit.”

May I wish everyone a happy new decade.

Keep the faith.

See you all at Brighton.

Tales From Frank, Incensed

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 14 December 2019.

A Figure In Black And White.

Our home game with AFC Bournemouth, to give them their full name, would be my twenty-fifth match of the current season. I was in London, in Fulham, early and I had a little time to kill. I had dropped the lads off at West Brompton tube station at around 10am, and had then parked the car outside the mews on Bramber Road where James Hunt, the former Formula One champion, had lived for a while. I needed to be in The Goose to collect a ticket for a mate at 11am, and had about an hour to kill. I decided to head down to Stamford Bridge and pop in to the Copthorne Hotel for a coffee and to see who else was around and about.

Everything was pretty quiet. It was a bitterly cold morning. It felt like it was yet to become a match day in these familiar streets. As I neared the site of the old red-bricked Fulham Broadway tube station, I was surprised how still and silent it all was. The long expanse of pavement outside the Broadway Bar & Grill, which then lead on past the former entrance hall of the station, was totally devoid of people. I was touched by the serenity of the scene. I decided to take a photograph with my ‘phone as a scene-setter for my day at Chelsea. I had decided to mention that I loved the fact that my grandfather had probably exited that very same station in the early part of the twentieth century as he made his way to Stamford Bridge, the only stadium he would ever visit apart from a midweek trip with my parents and I to see Chelsea at Bristol Rovers in 1976. I love that on every trip to our home stadium, I walk in his steps.

I steadied myself and was just about to “shoot” when I noticed the figure of a man, cigarette in hand, white silk scarf around his neck, like a figure from the inter-war years. I then realised that it was no ghost from the distant past. It was none other than Tommy Baldwin who I had seen play just once, my second-ever game against Tottenham in 1974, but who was a huge part of our famous team of the ‘seventies.

He was the leader of the team, after all.

I approached him, shook his hand, and he seemed surprised that anyone would recognise him.

It was a lovely little moment.

I continued my advance to Stamford Bridge. It was so early that the fellows on the “CFCUK” stall were only just setting up shop. I walked on, into the forecourt, underneath the old Shed Wall. Past images of our former stars; Bobby Tambling, Kerry Dixon, Peter Osgood, Frank Lampard, Ron Harris and all. And one of Gianluca Vialli – the first one if the walk begins outside the hotel – who is still battling cancer. I took some photographs.

So many memories.

I have said before that I can often walk around the centre of my local town for thirty minutes and recognise nobody, but already on this morning in SW6 I had spoken to Mick and Pauline, Tom, Raymondo and the leader of the team.

At Chelsea, I feel like I am at home and I love that feeling.

In the hotel, I chatted to some others, then picked up the ticket at The Goose.

I was then on my way to Putney Bridge, to The Eight Bells, to my “local” some one hundred miles away from my house.

The Chelsea Social.

I arrived at about midday and my travelling companions – Simon, PD and Parks – were already on their fourth pint. Guests of honour were Gillian and Kev from Edinburgh – their second home game in a fortnight – but we were also joined by Gary and John from Edinburgh too. I chatted to Gary and how his local team, Hearts, have instigated – along with many other league teams north of the border – a “keep fit” campaign based at their Tynecastle stadium. I love the fact that Gary is able to use the stadium as a backdrop to his efforts to lose weight; up and down the terraces, stretches against the seats, press-ups in the tunnel. It is inspired. As an adjunct to this, Gary took part in a half-time shootout at Hampden Park during the Scottish League Cup tie with Rangers. He played in goal – in front of 52,000 – and saved three out of five shots on goal. What a great story.

Later, Mike and Courtney from Chicago joined us, and I spent an unusually long time talking to them both about baseball. I admitted to them that part of my fading love of that sport is the simple fact that my team – and Mike’s, definitely not Courtney’s – the Yankees moved out of their historic home in 2008 – dramatic, fearsome, cramped – and into an anaemic and watered down version in 2009.  I am always aware of the role that stadia play in our appreciation of sport. Too many resemble shopping malls these days. Balls to shopping malls. Give me stands that drip history, ooze memories and reverberate to the sound of honest fans and not consumers and wannabees. At old Yankee Stadium in 2008, I struggled to squeeze past fans in the claustrophobic concourses which reeked of sweet popcorn, salted pretzels and beer. In 2009, at the new pad, I was able to watch as a butcher took great delight as he went to work on rare cuts of beef behind a glass screen, as some sort of entertainment, and – fuck me sideways – I know what version I preferred.

And it is getting worse.

My good friend Steve in South Philly – while we were talking about the new riverside stand at the wonderful Craven Cottage – sent me notice that in his part of that great city, there are plans for a $50M e-Sports venue where – let me get this right – people go to watch people gaming.

I am glad I’ll be dead in thirty years.

The Game.

We made our way to the stadium. Mike and Courtney were in the Shed Upper – using the same season ticket seats belonging to a friend that Mike met while living in Richmond upon Thames for a year in around 2008 – and I promised that I’d try to spot them with my zoom lens. I did. The four from Edinburgh were dotted around the Matthew Harding. I took my place alongside PD and Simon in The Sleepy Hollow.

The team? Mason Mount in for Mateo Kovacic.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Zouma – Emerson

Jorginho

Mount – Kante

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

As a contrast to our league of nations, Bournemouth fielded a team consisting of solid, and relatively unknown, Anglo-Saxons

Ramsdale, Stacey, Francis, Mepham, Billing, Cooke, Gosling, Fraser and King. It all sounded like a school register from my childhood.

“Yes miss.”

Bournemouth only average 10,000 home fans so it was perhaps no surprise that there was a section of their three-thousand unfilled.

We attacked The Shed End as the game began.

Fraser on the Bournemouth left immediately made an impression and looked the liveliest of the away team. But we were soon on the attack, and a sublime ball from deep from Jorginho found the advanced run of Mount. From an angle, it was always going to be a tough ask, and his shot drew a save from Ramsdale in the Bournemouth goal.

Little did we know that this effort inside the first ten minutes or so would be our main effort on goal during the entirety of the first half.

The atmosphere was morgue like, and the away fans made more noise.

“Red Army.”

A lone voice in the Matthew Harding Upper was heard to mutter :

“Fuck off back to your care homes.”

Guilty.

Chelsea were faced with a packed final third as players took it in turns to pass their way around the danger zones as if there was a force field centered on the penalty spot. There were shades of last season – pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass – and the home fans sat in sombre silence. On too many occasions players failed to take ownership to make a killing ball. Yet there was poor movement off the ball too. A shot from Tammy midway through the contest narrowly missed the target.

It was all very humdrum.

And, to reiterate, the away team were unwilling to attack and open the game up, more’s the pity.

We were forced to trudge slowly over quicksand.

It was dull stuff.

I willed the boys on, but chances of any real quality were rare. Eddie Howe’s team, on a very poor run of form, seemed to grow more resolute as the tedious half progressed. On their rare forays up field though, such is our fragility these days, it always seemed that they might score.

Sadly, I have to report that there was not one single “stadium wide” song of support and encouragement throughout the first forty-five minutes.

We’re all getting older, we’re all getting quieter, we’re all fighting a losing battle.

The most repeated ball of the half was a long diagonal from Rudiger to Emerson or Pulisic on the left, but I wished that there was the occasional quick ball over the top for Tammy to eat up. On one occasion, nearing the end of the half, a gap was yawning to Tammy’s left, but the ball was played elsewhere and our young striker flung his arms up in frustration. He had a point. In the last dying embers of the first period, a corner from the boot of Willian found the leap of Tammy but the striker could not get over it and it flew over the crossbar.

It had been, definitely, a tough watch.

At least there were no boos at half-time.

Inside my head : “we tend to play better in the second-half, Frank will sort them out, we often make amends for a lacklustre first period with a more determined second-half show. Come on Chels.”

To a pal : “the last time we went in 0-0 at half-time against this lot, we let in four in the second-half.”

The second-half began and, alas, there was no noticeable improvement. If anything, we had deteriorated further, and the away team were more involved in attacking play.

Inside my head : “that will help us, draw them in then counter-attack them with pace.”

But this never really happened.

Rejoice – on fifty-one minutes, at last a Chelsea song joined us all together. It was hardly deafening, but it was a start. Willian struck the red and black wall from a far-too-central free-kick and then Pulisic broke through with a trademark burst but seemed to lose his footing as a shot skidded wide.

But the mood in the Stamford Bridge stands was not good at all.

I kept silent – lips pursed, hands in pockets, the occasional scowl, the look of a worried man – but elsewhere others were happy to howl and swear and yell obscenities. That upset me a bit. I hate that a misdirected pass – of which there were an increasing number – drew five times as much noise as a fine touch.

To hear someone close by call our players “fucking wankers” was one of the low points of my year.

Aren’t supporters meant to rally behind our team when players need encouragement? I get the frustration, but at times it was too much, too audible, and I am adamant that it affected the players’ collective confidence. It reminded me of the “you don’t know what you’re doing” phases of the Scolari, Villas-Boas and Sarri eras when it was possible to see players undergo some sort of meltdown with misplaced passes and poor control as they fell apart.

But that’s my standard view. It hasn’t fucking changed in years.

Managers manage. Players play. Supporters support.

It took a fantastic last-gasp tackle from Kurt Zouma to get the crowd in a positive mood. But elsewhere, everything seemed to be falling apart. We over-passed, and at times the passing was so poor. Misplaced balls from Rudiger and Zouma from deep, misplaced passes from Jorginho, and even from Kante who was – a tell-tale sign – being dragged down to the level of others after a strong start to the game. Rudiger, actually – everyone’s favourite when he was side-lined – had a ‘mare and to see his form deteriorate over the second forty-five minutes was equally surprising and shocking in equal measure. In fact, nobody played well.

On sixty-five minutes, a double substitution.

Mateo Kovacic for Pulisic.

Callum Hudson-Odoi for Willian.

After a ridiculous bout of pinball in the penalty area below me, Emerson headed straight at Ramsdale. From the angle where I was watching, it looked like it hit the bar. The crowd groaned.

Fackinell.

Abraham stretched but saw a header go wide. But we barely created anything of note.

Frank went for two upfront as Michy Batshuayi replaced Jorginho.

With ten minutes to go, a Bournemouth attack and the ball was lofted up into the box.

An offside flag.

But the ball was lobbed goal wards.

Dave seemed to clear it.

The Bournemouth fans celebrated.

I did not react.

“Offside, you wankers.”

Oh no.

A delay.

Oh bollocks.

VAR.

A wait.

A bad sign.

Goal.

And nobody that I was sat with really knew what was going on. We presumed the bloke wasn’t offside, but there was no real clear explanation.

Great.

CFC 0 AFCB 1.

Only in the fading moments of this dire game did we seem to want to go at their defence. A couple of thrusting runs from Hudson-Odoi hinted at the kind of football that we should have been producing all afternoon but it was too little and too late.

At the final whistle there were boos.

Really?

I know – I am not stupid – this was a bloody poor performance, but are people so mean spirited that the “give our kids a chance, we’ll be happy with tenth this season, Frank knows the club” mantra has been so easily jettisoned?

For many, it would appear so, eh?

But there again, the league table doesn’t lie, and we are fourth from bottom and out of the Champions League. And we have spent £200M on new players since the end of last season.

Frankly.

As I drove home, I was relieved – so relieved – that my ‘phone was off and I was not able to see the reaction – over reaction? – of so many on social media. Again, I get the passion, and I get a lot of constructive analysis, but some comments I would later discover were just excruciating.

I trust Frank. He knows football. He knows more about football than you and I. I’ve never wanted a Chelsea manager to succeed more than Frank.

In his post-game interviews, he was clearly rattled, as he should be, and – again – I loved his honesty and intelligence, and how we need to improve all over the pitch for the game at Tottenham. Despite his annoyance, his desire to get it right shone through. And unlike last season under Sarri, at least Frank understands what it means when we play at Tottenham.

I will see some of you – the lucky ones – there.

Tales From City, Chips And Gravy

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 23 November 2019.

At around 1pm – bang on target, just as I had predicted, have I mentioned I work in logistics? – I pulled into the car park of The Windmill pub just off the roundabout on the M6 which crosses with the A556.

Exit 19.

It did not seem five minutes since we were last there. It was, in fact, three months ago that we stopped for an hour or so as we met my old college mate Rick before the league opener against Manchester United. On this occasion, ahead of our enticing game with Manchester’s other team, we were stopping for considerably longer. I had enjoyed the trip north; grey skies, but no rain, a clear run. The usual three – PD, Parky and little old me – were joined by PD’s son Scott. This would be his first visit to Manchester, for football or for anything else for that matter. The drive was four hours in length, and we chatted intermittently about all sorts of shite. The game itself was touched upon but only fleetingly. We mentioned that it was likely that Frank Lampard would go for a little more robust midfield three than against other teams; Jorginho, Kovacic, Kante. But other topics of conversation were wide, and wild, and various. This is often the case. I have mentioned before that on match days we often treat the game itself as a discussion topic as if it was the eye of a storm – tranquil, peaceful, calm – while other games are voraciously discussed, with whirlwinds of memories cascading around of past matches and past battles, with the future games discussed at length too, with plans and itineraries debated ad nauseam.

We ordered drinks – three ciders and a diet Coke, no point in guessing which was mine – and studied the varied menu. For some reason that I cannot recall, one of the various “non-football” chats en route to the north-west was of types of food, maybe from our childhood, I can’t remember. I had mentioned steak and kidney pudding – home-made, with suet – and lo-and-behold, a steak and ale pudding was on the menu. PD and I ordered it. Parky chose lasagne. Scott chose ham, eggs and chips.

Is everyone still awake?

The suet pudding was crammed full of steak, the chips were authentic chip-shop style, the garden peas were sweet and juicy, and in typical Northern fashion, everything was set off with thick gravy.

Northerners love gravy.

It was bloody lovely.

Although the City stadium was twenty miles away, and we didn’t think that we would see anyone we knew, after an hour or so Mark from Slough spotted me and came over to sit nearby with two fellow Chelsea mates. I bump into Mark occasionally, but our paths do not cross too often. The most memorable occasion was in China when he was a late addition to the coach trip to the Great Wall of China that I had booked in 2017. Mark, like me, follows his local non-league team. For a few moments we bored the others rigid with stupefyingly dull talk of the two Towns, Frome and Slough, respectively.

After three diet Cokes and a large cappuccino, I was raring to go to the game.

We left there at just after 3.30pm. It was an oh-so familiar drive to the Etihad, and it took us right past the site of Maine Road. Now then, dear reader, I have already detailed two of my three visits to this much-loved old stadium in these reports before so it is appropriate that I complete the story with some notes from the away game in 1985/86.

I am nothing if not consistent.

In fact, on this occasion I am lifting some words straight out of my 1985 diary.

“Caught the 8.32am to Manchester. A pleasant journey through the usual South Cheshire towns. Arrived at Piccadilly at 9.30am. Saw football coaches pull up at the station, so hopped on one. A chap from Stafford had a natter; definitely remember him from the Chelsea vs. Sunderland train. Let inside at 10.30am. A 60p hot dog and up on to the small corner terrace. I suppose we had 2,000, maybe 2,500. A pretty poor turn out really. Chelsea had seats behind the goal. Didn’t see any of the lads. Chelsea began well, causing City’s defence many problems. In about the tenth minute, Speedie flicked the ball to Dixon who, by the penalty spot, calmly lobbed the ball over the ‘keeper. A super little goal really. Chelsea had a good spell, then City put in some long crosses but didn’t cause Eddie much of a problem. The game deteriorated in the last fifteen minutes of the half. I can’t honestly say the second-half improved at all. Only Canoville – on for Hazard – seemed to want to take the play to the home team. We were made to look very plain by a team that were not exactly high on confidence. The highlights were three great blocks by Eddie which saved us from a boring draw. I think he was our best player, always a bad sign. He didn’t put a foot wrong. We were kept in for a while. Spotted our firm waiting to my left as I boarded the bus back to the station. Spotted Winkle. Eventually back to the station for 2pm. A quarter-pounder. Caught the 2.42pm back to Stoke, getting back at 3.45pm. Many flared cords today. Even Chelsea.”

Some notes to add.

I was living in Stoke-on-Trent at the time. Far be it for me to suggest that its location slap-dab between the football “awayday” cities of Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester might have, perhaps, influenced my decision to live there for three years.

My proclivity to record fine detail of train times, and timings in general,  continues to this day. Did I mention I work in logistics?

The early kick-off? Probably, no undoubtedly, a result of our reputation at the time of being Public Enemy Number One, and on the back of the previous visit, in late 1983/84, which resulted in seven thousand Chelsea roaming Moss Side and taking unbelievable liberties.

I travelled alone and did not chat to any close friends. Sometimes it was like that.

Winkle. A young lad, a bit of a face, who was pointed out to me by Alan – probably – and who was in and around the firm at the time. I learned quite recently that he had passed away some time ago; a relatively young death, a heart attack I believe. He is often mentioned on a few chat sites.

Flared cords. After the bright sportswear of 1983/84, it all went a little undercover and muted in 1984/85, and even more so in 1985/86. I have recently seen reference to this period in terrace subculture as the “anti-suss” era. After the skinhead and boots era passed, and as casualdom took hold, it eventually dawned on the police that those lads in smart sportswear with expensive trainers and the wedge cuts were hooligans. Lads needed to divert further. Out came plain pullovers, darker trainers, black leather jackets, darker jeans. Less gregariousness, and still one step ahead of the authorities. In the north-west, and Leeds – always Leeds – this manifested itself in slightly flared cords and jeans, a new trend after tight and faded jeans of the early ‘eighties. In fact, it all looked – hugely ironically – quite mainstream. But the devil was in the details. Heavy Armani pullovers, Hard Core jeans, Aquascutum and Burberry, Berghaus and Boss.

Hot dogs and hamburgers. The fodder of football. Nobody asked for a salad at games in 1985, and nor do they do now.

The gate on that Saturday morning was just 20,104, but this was especially low because – I do not doubt – it was at such an early time. In addition, I have a feeling our allocation was all-ticket, a rarity for those days. That season was eventually won by Liverpool despite Manchester United going on a nine or ten game winning streak at the start. As if it needs stating again, no leagues are won in October nor November. Low gates predominated in our football at this period, a time when football hooliganism had scared many away. Those that went were often treated shamefully. Out of interest, the top ten average gates from that season are featured below.

  1. Manchester United – 46,322 (4)
  2. Liverpool – 35,319 (1)
  3. Everton – 32,388 (2)
  4. Manchester City – 24,229 (15)
  5. Arsenal – 23,813 (7)
  6. Newcastle United – 23,184 (11)
  7. Sheffield Wednesday – 23,101 (5)
  8. Chelsea – 21,986 (6)
  9. West Ham United – 21,289 (3)
  10. Tottenham Hotspur – 20,862 (10)

It always makes me giggle to see that West Ham’s highest ever league placing still resulted in a lower gate than ours.

“Where were you when you were shit?” they ask us.

We should sing this to them :

“Where were you when you were good?”

Enough of 1985/86.

I made my way through the city. The traffic flowed surprisingly well.

I always find it odd that Manchester is often abbreviated to “M’cr” on many road signs.

“T’ls F’rm M’cr” anyone?

I dropped the lads off outside The Etihad at about 4.15pm and then drove on to park up. For the first time ever, my away ticket had failed to materialise and so I had needed to call Chelsea the previous day for a reprint to be arranged. I soon collected it at the away end ticket office. We bumped into others; Deano from Yorkshire, the Bristol lot, Scott and Paul. Everyone excited about the game.

PD and LP were in the middle tier. Scott and I were up in the third tier. This added a little frisson of excitement for me; my first time in the lofty heights of Level Three since the stadium was expanded in 2015. Others were sampling the top tier too, and were equally looking forward to it.

My seat – as if I’d be seated, none of us were – was in row W, but this was only halfway back. The tier goes on forever. But due to the layering of tiers, and the steepness of the rake, the pitch honestly does not seem too distant.

We had heard horrible news from elsewhere; a Tottenham win, a Liverpool win, and my local team Frome Town had let a 2-0 lead in Portsmouth evaporate against Moneyfields, who themselves were down to ten men, conceding an equaliser in the final minute. It is not known how Slough Town did.

Frome at Moneyfields.

Chelsea at Moneyfields.

I’d be more than happy with a 2-2 in Manchester.

The team had been announced. No real, huge, surprises.

Arizzabalaga

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Zouma – Emerson

Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante

Pulisic – Abraham – Willian

Barkley and Pedro are way down in the pecking order now, eh? It is clear that Frank loves Willian. He is enjoying a fine season, again, after an indifferent start.

The night had fallen by kick-off time.

I waited as the minutes ticked by. Scott ascended the stairs after squeezing in a final lager. There were a surprising number of people that I knew settling down alongside me.  I had incorrectly presumed that most ASTs would have been located in the other levels. With no cameras allowed at The Etihad, I was planning to utilise my ‘phone and I therefore knew that my match photographs would be limited to broad panoramas. There was the usual audio visual countdown to kick-off, but how many times can the world hear Martin Tyler scream the word “Aguero!” without feeling slightly jaundiced by it all. Yeah, I know, even if that goal was a kick in the solar plexus for Manchester United and its millions of fans.

I am surprised, actually – knowing how City like to “one step beyond” wind us up – that Frank Lampard’s goal against us in 2014 was not part of the countdown on the TV screens.

Yeah, Frank Lampard at Manchester City.

What the fuck was all that about?

At last, the final minutes. A huge City banner – “125 years” – welcomed the teams onto the pitch. To the side, an equally large banner declaring “This is our city.”

Blue Moon boomed.

As at many stadia, banners covered every inch of balcony wall. I am always bemused by the small flag to the left on the Colin Bell Stand that simply says “Reddish Blues.”

For the geographically-challenged, Reddish is a part of the Manchester conurbation.

In another universe, it might represent a small band of Mancunians who like United and City.

And it would be a very small band, marooned in Reddish for eternity.

Both clubs despise each other alright.

United and City.

Reds and Blues.

Munichs and Bitters.

A City most definitely not united.

A City divided.

I looked over at Frank Lampard, track suited, and wondered if he ever gave his bizarre stint as a City player much thought. Guardiola in the other technical area was casually dressed as always.

City in blue (with an odd hint of purple on the sleeves) shirts, white shorts and white socks. They seem to change that blending every year. I prefer them in the blue socks of my youth.

Chelsea in royal blue shirts, royal blue shorts, royal blue socks out of necessity.

If only City had kept to blue socks.

The game began.

I had mentioned in the pub, or the car, how City often start peppering our goal at The Etihad from the off. And it invariably involves Sergio Aguero. On this occasion, soon into the game, it was Kevin De Bruyne who flashed a low shot from an angle just inches past Kepa’s far post. I looked to the skies, or at least the towering stand roof above my head.

“Here we go again.”

But as the game developed, we showed no cowardice in taking the game to City. The last two league games at the same stadium had produced different game plans, but still the same result.

In 2017/18, Antonio Conte played ultra-defensively, lost 1-0, and lost many friends, despite it almost paying off.

In 2018/19, Maurizio Sarri attempted to play City at their own game and lost 6-0, one of the worst days out of my life, so thank you for that.

In 2019/20, Frank Lampard’s team played with great spirit, good movement, a fast tempo, and for a while it looked like we could pull off a wonderful victory.

A Willian shot from the inside the box in the inside-right channel missed Ederson’s far post by the same margin as the De Bruyne effort a few minutes earlier. Tackle for tackle, pass for pass, punch for punch we were matching them.

I focused on Tammy Abraham for a while. There always seems to be an element of doubt about how successful Tammy will be when he receives a ball. I am never sure of his intentions, and I am not sure if he is either. Did he really mean to keep possession or did he really intend to control it quickly and then distribute it to a team mate? Did he mean that flick? However, one scintillating feint and a quick turn into a sudden patch of space left his marker questioning his career choice. This was just wonderful.

“Well done, Tammy, son.”

Willian was full of intelligent running, sometimes the overlap option and often the underlap option, and saw much of the early ball. Christian Pulisic looked in fine form on the opposing flank. A shot from Fikayo Tomori went close.

A rare City foray into our box was met by not one but four Chelsea defenders lining up to block a goal bound shot. Magnificent.

With twenty minutes or so gone, Mateo Kovacic released a magnificent ball right into the heart of the City defence. It dropped majestically into the path of N’Golo Kante, who touched it on. I felt myself relax, as if I knew a goal was coming. I sensed that he only needed to poke it past a manically exposed Ederson.

He touched it, and it slowly rolled goalwards.

I remained remarkably calm.

Tammy followed it home.

City 0 Chelsea 1.

I was calm no more.

I exploded with noise.

This place has not been a happy hunting ground for us of late. We usually lose. Could we repeat those – magnificent – rare wins in 2013/14 and 2016/17?

Scott hoped so; he had bet £50 on us at 13/2.

City had been quiet all game, and were silent now.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

We looked imperious. City’s defence looked porous. We prodded and teased all over the pitch. This was a great game. I was loving it.

Out of nowhere there was a ridiculous “Fuck Off Mourinho” and I was pleased that very few joined in.

We were playing with skill, speed, purpose and pleasure.

But then.

We lost possession poorly and the ball was quickly threaded through to De Bruyne. A shot from outside the box drew the attention of three or four defenders willing to throw their bodies towards the ball, but on this occasion luck was not with us. A shot was cruelly deflected off a limb and Kepa was beaten.

City 1 Chelsea 1.

Fackinell.

The home team was roused and we gulped as a De Bruyne shot was slashed narrowly over. Just eight minutes after the first goal, Mahrez cut inside – past Pulisic and Emerson, both dumbfounded by the trickery – and we watched as his low shot nestled inside the far post.

The game had been turned on its head.

And now the score line had a sadly typical feel.

City 2 Chelsea 1.

Sigh.

Now City’s fans roared.

“City. Tearing Cockneys apart. Again.”

Our play grew nervous. Kamikaze back-passes, nervy touches. A shocking clearance from Kepa went straight towards that man Aguero – “here we fucking go” – but to our relief (not pleasure, this was not pleasurable) his shot struck the bar full on.

At the break I muttered some usual phrases from the earlier part of this season.

“Naïve defending. We need to know when to clear our lines, we are just inviting them on. Silly mistakes.”

The first quarter of the game, with us playing so well, had seemed like a cruel false dawn, a fib, a lie.

I bumped into some good pals at half-time and their smiles cheered me. It was great to see Dave from Brisbane, over for this and Valencia, again. In the toilets, I involuntarily began smoking for the first time since my schooldays.

Cough, cough, cough, cough.

Sadly, the second-half was a poor shadow of the high-tempo attack and counter-attack of the first period.

N’Golo – a real force of nature in our purple patch – struck at goal down below us but his shot was blocked. It would be our only goal bound effort for ages.

Reece James replaced Emerson, with Dave swapping wings.

“It worked last time, Scott.”

City came close at the other end. We were riding our luck. We found it hard to repel City, who were growing stronger with each passing minute.

Michy Batshuayi for Tammy.

Mason Mount for Jorginho.

A dipping effort from Willian caused a fingertip save from Ederson, but it seemed that we would never score. Mason Mount took responsibility for a very central free-kick in the dying minutes but the effort drifted well wide.

Sigh.

Just after, Raheem Sterling slotted home, but VAR ruled it offside. Nobody in the away end celebrated it, nor should they.

Fuck VAR.

It ended at approaching 7.30pm with our first league loss since the home game with Liverpool.

As I slowly began the slow walk down many flights of stairs, I muttered “no complaints” to many.

And there really were no real complaints.

In the grand scheme of things, we played OK, but no more. At times we were fantastic, at times not so. But City – “Stating The Bleeding Obvious Part 859” – are a very fine team. They are not firing on all cylinders just yet, but when they do…

There were steady 7/10s across the board.

I met the boys outside.

“At least we have pissed off ninety-five billion Liverpool fans this evening.”

We walked along Ashton New Road in the rain, in Raintown, as is so often the case.

Not the glory of 2014 nor 2016 this time.

At 8pm I began the long drive home.

I made good time as I headed south, stopping off at Stafford Services where we feasted on a ridiculous amount of junk food. Jason Cundy was spotted in the adjacent “Costa” though I did not have the energy to say hello.

The rain continued for hours. But I was cocooned in my car. I had no concerns, of the game nor my long drive home. We had seen worse, eh? I eventually arrived back home – no rain, now – at 12.30am, the day’s total mileage hitting 420 miles.

It had been a good day out.

I am not going to Valencia – safe travels to all – so the next instalment will feature the home match with West Ham United.

And I will see some of you there.

Talking of the ‘eighties…

Tales From Youngsters And Veterans

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 9 November 2019.

Like many match days at Stamford Bridge, this was a day that was devoted to meeting up with good friends just as much as cheering the team, and hoping for yet another league win. But it was also, of course, a day that Chelsea Football Club honoured those that have served our country. I am always pleased when we have home matches at Stamford Bridge over Remembrance weekends. Chelsea manage this day so well.

This home game against Crystal Palace came just four days over a complete year since the corresponding fixture in 2018/19, a relatively easy 3-1 win.

This one was a 12.30pm kick-off, a lunchtime kick-about.

It meant that I needed to leave home as early as was feasible in order to squeeze as much out of a Chelsea Saturday as was possible. I had set the alarm for 6am ahead of a planned 7am departure from my dormant Somerset village. Unfortunately, I awake anyway at just before 5am and could not get back to sleep.

I peeked out of my landing window; there was a frost, the first of the year. Winter was with us now.

I collected Simon, a work-colleague, and PD in Frome and then shot over to pick-up Parky. We were soon headed over Salisbury Plain and London was beckoning us. We usually speed past Stonehenge during its normal opening hours, but at around 8.15am the site was devoid of visitors. The historic stones stood alone on a blanket of delicately frosted grass. It was a striking sight. Sometimes I have to blink at the magnificence of our land. It is so easy to take such sights, and sites, so much for granted.

Simon works as a project manager at my place of work; he joined in 1995, I joined up in 2003. Whereas it is my job to deliver our products – office furniture – it is his job to oversee the installation programme.

I’m a Ruben Loftus-Cheek to his Tammy Abraham.

Kinda.

It stayed fine throughout our trip to London, though there were reports of rain to follow later in the day. Our pre-match was at an unusual venue for us, “The Oyster Rooms” which sits above Fulham Broadway.

Dennis and Kazuko, still buzzing from the Ajax game, were already in the bar when I arrived. I had joked with Dennis about them putting other travel plans on hold once they had experienced match day at Stamford Bridge; I was to be proved right. They were already planning on a return visit before the end of the season. The queue for the drinks was heavy. Eventually everyone was served. We were joined by Ben and Christina, husband and wife, from Louisiana. Ben and I first started chatting in Philadelphia in 2012 ahead of our game against the MLS All-Stars in Chester, Pennsylvania.

I was reminded that Ben was a passenger on the same bus, one of the four school buses that had been arranged to take us to the game, that I was on. It turned out to be quite a fateful journey. I had chatted to other supporters on that bus and these have become firm friends with them since; Karen from Connecticut, and Kathryn and Tim from Virginia. Well, what a shocker – Dennis was apparently on the same bus too. What a small world. That bus ride was such fun. Each of the four yellow buses took turns in overtaking in each other. Fans flicked Vs at each other. Then the Chelsea team bus made a brief and fleeting appearance as it sped past as we headed south on interstate I-95. What a laugh. Phantastic times in South Philly.

There had been little talk of the upcoming game, but we knew that it was likely that N’Golo Kante would step in to take the place of the suspended Jorginho, who – we are sure – took a yellow at Vicarage Road so he would miss the Palace game so he would be ready for Manchester City.

I appreciated that Dennis made a point of shaking Parky’s hand as he thanked him for his service. Both had served in the armed forces. Both were veterans. Indeed, Dennis was in for a treat, if that is the correct word in such circumstances. I am deeply proud of the way that our club goes about honouring our war veterans in the first week of November each year.

For this reason alone, I made sure that I was inside the stadium in good time.

I loved seeing the special banners that Dennis had reported seeing being fastened to the buildings behind the Shed End on a stadium tour during the week. To the left, a lovely photograph of some Chelsea Pensioners, their red tunics and black tricorn hats adding a different colour to Stamford Bridge for this particular match day. To the right, the simple “Chelsea Remembers” backed with poppies, and more red. With Chelsea in blue and white, and Crystal Palace in a ‘seventies-inspired away kit of white edged with blue and white, this day really was all about the colours of the Union flag.

The team news came through.

Indeed, N’Golo Kante came in for Jorginho. Emerson was in for Marcos Alonso. Pulisic kept his place, and quite rightly too.

But the big news, really, was that Reece James was in for Cesar Azpilicueta. Dave has been such a solid regular, almost an ever-present, in this team since 2012 that not seeing him in the line-up was an odd feeling. But after James’ excellent substitute appearance on Tuesday, plus the threat of Wilfrid Zaha, it was a decision that was wholly understandable.

Arrizabalaga

James – Zouma – Tomori – Emerson

Kante – Kovacic

Mount

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

Two Chelsea pensioners in scarlet lead the teams out, past a huge flag of a poppy and our club crest, and after the teams had gone through all of the pre-match presentations, we stood in silence as we remembered the fallen. Poppies fell against a simple white backdrop on the TV screen above the three-thousand away fans.

Right at the end, a lone voice from the away end.

“God Bless Them All.”

This was not expected, nor strictly something that should be supported, but I was OK with this. It added a dramatic, and unexpected twist, and certainly didn’t detract from the moment in my opinion.

The resulting lone shout of “wanker” from the Matthew Harding Lower immediately after was not so wise.

The game began.

Unsurprisingly, we began on the front foot and dominated so much of the early stages, with the visitors more than content to drop and soak up pressure. An early cross, excellent, from Reece James high up the pitch on the right flank hinted at a productive afternoon from the young defender. At times, I was annoyed that we did not utilise him more. At times he found himself in acres of space. I liked the look of Christian Pulisic, in that inside left position in the main rather than always hugging the line, who showed neat footwork from the off. A shot from him went wide early on. But soon after, Pulisic collected a pass from Willian and showed excellent skill in drifting past a last defender with a shimmy that Eden Hazard would have been pleased, but his shot was saved by the Palace ‘keeper Vicente Guaita.

One of the highlights of the first-half for me was a full-on, rather old-fashioned, race up the right touchline by Reece James. Not only did he show great control, real pace, and spirit, but he stayed on his feet throughout despite a couple of challenges that might well have sent others sprawling.

I was dead impressed.

A free-kick was awarded in a central position.

“Give it to Zouma. He needs shooting practice.”

In the end, the resulting effort from Willian drifted past the near post. Not long after, Emerson tested the Crystal Palace ‘keeper from a similar position, but again wide.

Despite our dominance, the atmosphere was hindered by the early kick-off; in a nutshell, not enough alcohol. A simple truth.

A free-kick from Mason Mount did not clear the wall.

Crystal Palace rarely enjoyed much of the ball at all. On a rare foray up field, they were awarded a free-kick down below us, but it was over hit and screamed past the far post.

“Awful.”

We carved out a couple of chances; a Pulisic header, and then a shot from Tammy Abraham that was blocked by right in front of the goal as the first-half minutes ran out.

There was a hint of deep irony that a full four minutes of added-time at the end of the first-half were signalled.

“Great. Where was that on bloody Tuesday night?”

Just before the break, a truly horrific pass from Kepa to Zouma, with an attacker breathing down his neck, had us all screaming and roaring . Sometimes his distribution is just awful. King Kurt had enjoyed a solid first-half in fact. A double tackle, sliding, perfectly timed, was one of the highlights. Or was that in the second-half? I forget.

It had been, generally, a good half but not a great one. Tammy’s movement was not great, but on a few occasions we did not spot the option of an early ball into space, over the top. There were positives in midfield with excellent play from Kovacic, always involved, and Mount, always running and closing down space.

As an aside, can anyone remember what football was like before pundits, and some supporters – not all, you know who you are – used the word “press” every five fucking seconds?

For goodness sake, talk about buzz words.

There was talk between Alan and little old me at half-time about the possibility of Frank being bold and taking off Tammy and replacing him with Michy at the break. Alan had spotted that Tammy’s body language had been a little “off” during the first forty-five minutes. He had, possibly, become frustrated with the service.

Lo and behold, seven minutes into the second-half, with a noticeable increase in speed of movement on the ball and off it, we watched as a great move unfolded. Lovely interplay between Kovacic and Willian – a simply wonderful flick into space, quite exquisite – played in Tammy. He steadied himself, and slotted home.

Just what he needed.

Lovely.

GET IN.

His face in the celebrations displayed a certain melancholy. The last shot that I took almost hinted at an apology :

“Sorry I haven’t scored before now.”

We hoped that the goal would jump start his confidence.

Elsewhere we began to show greater freedom, greater confidence and greater awareness of others moving off the ball. I loved the way that a player, usually Mason Mount, would “nibble” at a Palace player in an attempt to nick the ball. If the ball was not immediately won, very often the challenge caused the player in possession to miss-control and this tended to result in a second or even third Chelsea player winning the ball. This instilled momentum, and moves developed at pace.

It was excellent.

We improved as the second-half continued, and as the rain eventually arrived.

Pulisic drifted past some defenders and let fly from a central position. His rising drive was admirably saved by Guaita.

The visitors enjoyed around ten minutes just after the hour mark where our play was not quite so solid. There was a perfectly-timed block from King Kurt inside the box. Once or twice, but no more than that, Zaha had the better of Reece James. Generally, the youngster had enjoyed a very fine league debut. Early days, but he looks a very great prospect indeed.

Another shot from Pulisic. This time it flew over.

But the boy from Pennsylvania had impressed me again. He looked confident and keen to take players on.

Michy Batshuayi replaced Tammy Abraham.

With around ten minutes remaining, Pulisic controlled a long cross-field ball with ease and he worked it into Michy. His shot was blocked and as the ball ballooned up into a dangerous position inside the six-yard box, Pulisic was able to react quickly and nod he ball in.

GET IN.

I caught his joyous run and leap on film, snap, snap, snap.

Sadly, more “USA USA USA” claptrap.

The scorer was replaced by Callum Hudson-Odoi.

At the other end, Kepa continued his tradition of late lunges to his left to stop certain goals as a James McCarthy effort was wonderfully pushed around the post.

Was it his only save of note?

We thought so.

Chances still continued, with Willian – enjoying a really fine game as captain – and Batshuayi threatened the Palace goal.

Billy Gilmour was a late substitute for Mason Mount, who had been everywhere. I even saw him buying drinks for Chelsea supporters at half-time. He has an engine that would not be out of place at Silverstone, Monza or Monaco.

The minutes dried up.

It stayed at 2-0.

We improved as the game had developed. There were solid seven and eight of ten performances throughout the team. We were soon to learn on the drive home – into dark clouds and through more rain – that this would be our youngest-ever starting eleven since the Premier League began in 1992.

The kids are alright, as someone once said.

We laughed as Tottenham dropped points at home to Sheffield United as I drove along the A303 towards Stonehenge. Later, Arsenal lost too.

Good times. Again, we are London’s top club.

Later that evening, dried out at home, I watched the Service of Remembrance from the Royal Albert Hall, and the highlight, as ever for me, was the appearance of the Chelsea Pensioners. There was an extra special treat this year, though; an extended rendition of “The Boys Of The Old Brigade” with the fine voice of a lone Chelsea Pensioner leading the way.

It was brilliant stuff.

The boys of the old brigade.

The boys of the young brigade.

On this day, and hopefully in those days to come, Chelsea got it right.

 

Tales From Wet Watford

Watford vs. Chelsea : 2 November 2019.

…although I did not watch a single second of the game, I soon learned that England Rugby had mirrored Chelsea Football Club in failing to become World Champions in Yokohama.

There. That’s my first rugby reference for a few years out of the way.

This weekend was all about football. It was all about Watford away. This was an early evening kick-off at 5.30pm. This meant that I didn’t really need to leave at the crack of dawn or the crack of anything for that matter. I picked up PD at 11am and then made my way to collect Parky. All evidence suggested a stunning autumnal morning. For a while – over an hour – the fine weather continued. It was one of those mornings that made driving a pleasure. Bright skies, a sky bursting with differing cloud formations, the fields rimmed with various autumnal hues, leaves on the change. A perfect football day. The slip-up against Manchester United during the week had been confined to the past. The immediate future was all about league points, and away points, which we have regularly amassed since the loss at Old Trafford. We were looking for our fifth consecutive away win in the league.

I stopped for a coffee at the halfway point, Reading Services, but then the rain started. It was a horrible reminder of the previous weekend’s drive to Burnley.

Nevertheless, I was parked-up in our usual spot in Watford at just before 2pm. Unlike the mighty seventy-five games against Manchester United, this was only game number nineteen against Watford, and only my seventh away game, all since 2007, at Vicarage Road. I am a late bloomer when it comes to Watford.

As far as I have worked out thus far, the Hertfordshire town does not offer too much to the football visitor aside from the ridiculously well stocked High Street; many bars and restaurants, cafes and nightclubs sit cheek-by-jowl on this pedestrianised road and we have noted a new shopping centre that has risen at the southern end during our past few visits. We have generally fared well at Vicarage Road but the 4-1 shellacking in 2017/18 still hurts.

Our most famous match at Vicarage Road was – possibly – in 1981/82 (and my match day companion Alan would mention it during the game) when Chelsea supporters were on an away ban yet around three thousand Chelsea showed up, and the local police decided that it would be far wiser to let them all in to the stadium than have them roam around the town centre – pubs closed at three o’clock in those days – for hours on end.

On Tuesday night, it has been decided that Ajax will not be allowed in to Stamford Bridge after previous misbehaviour, but the Watford policy of 1982 will not be followed. We have all been warned to bring along photographic identification with our match ticket prior to entering Stamford Bridge.

They – the Dutch –  shall not enter.

It all seems a bit draconian to me. And with no away fans to stir up some energy and emotion in the stadium, we will probably witness the flattest ever atmosphere for a Champions League home game.

The Watford High Street might well have been crammed with pubs and bars, but we chose our usual hostelry right on the northern boundary. It would be our third visit to “The Horns” and two good friends were waiting for us.

Ollie and Julien, two proud Frenchmen from Normandy, had been in the pub since midday. As soon as I walked in, I welcomed them.

“Bonjour, mes amis.”

They were last with us for a pre-match drink at home to – ironically – Watford last Spring. In fact, the first time that I ever met Ollie, after being Facebook friends for quite a while, was before the Watford away game in 2016/17, just before Antonio Conte got it together with his 3-4-3.

We spent a fine hour and a half in their good company before they had to head off to sort out Julien’s match ticket. We delved back in to Ollie’s personal Chelsea story. I am always pleased to hear from our many overseas’ supporters about their individual journeys. They can be wide and varied. Ollie’s story began in around 1984, listening in to our football on the old Radio Two in his home village in Northern France. He was drawn in with talk of the atmosphere in and around our games, but also he hinted that the rowdier nature of our support beguiled him, as it did many at that time.

I agreed.

“There was an edge to football. It made for a raw atmosphere. But it was also pretty scary at times.”

Olllie’s first Chelsea match was at home to Sheffield Wednesday in August 1989. He just loves the club. And he has some fine credentials. He comes over three or four times every year. He is a familiar passenger on the crossings between Dieppe and Newhaven. We listened intently as he spoke of his deep passion for our club.

I joked with him.

“You are our most famous French fan.”

Tattoos were shown. PD and LP joined in.

Shirts were taken off.

I stepped nervously from one foot to the other.

“OK. Moving on.”

Regardless, it was magical to hear of his Chelsea past.

Conversely, any journey that begins “I started playing as Chelsea on FIFA” is not so well received.

Outside the weather had deteriorated significantly. We watched aghast as new customers entered the busy pub with their outer layers completely drenched. On the twenty-minute walk to Vicarage Road, past pubs teeming with people, we were drenched too. It was as bleak an afternoon that I can remember.

At about 4.45pm we met up with friends from Yeovil and PD’s match ticket was sorted. There were ridiculous rumours floating around about Aston Villa beating Liverpool at home and Southampton winning at Manchester City. Sadly, these games ended up being won by the usual suspects. At least Arsenal dropped points at home to Wolves.

We were inside Vicarage Road good and early for a change. In the same way that it had not seemed possible that it had been ten full months that I had sat at the bar in “The Horns” – on Boxing Day 2018, hanging my coat on the “fighting octopus” beneath the bar, supping a lager – neither did it seem wholly believable that it was ten months that we had all last visited this now familiar away stadium, these same seats too, more or less. It seemed closer, maybe a few months back, not almost a whole year ago. All of these games, these away games, getting joined up – dot to dot – and I wondered how long all of these dots would continue to be joined. If Watford didn’t buck their ideas up, this sequence might not be continued next season.

Out in the ridiculously packed concourse at the top of the away seats, four fans were singing a previously unheard of song that referenced – painfully – David Luiz, Fikayo Tomori and the size of the latter’s manhood.

Good grief.

Thank heavens I never heard it during the game.

The minutes ticked by. Familiar faces everywhere.

“Z Cars” played on the PA, but it seemed out of place. Everton, yes. Watford, no.

The rain was still lashing down as the teams emerged from the Elton John Stand. There were considerable numbers of unoccupied seats in all home areas. As this was the nearest Watford home game to Remembrance Day, we observed a minute of silent appreciation, all players with their arms linked.

I bowed my head.

Sadly, some late arrivals in the away concourse needed to be “shushed.”

Our team lined up as below –

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Zouma – Tomori – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic – Mount

Pulisic – Abraham – Willian

Watford have ditched the yellow and black stripes of last season and now wear yellow and black halves. I like neither.

We began attacking the home end. After just five minutes, we were in rapture. The ball was played back to Jorginho, quite deep, and without so much as a blink of an eye or a break in step, he played a curling, sweeping ball over the heads of a few Watford defenders and – right on the money – in to the path of Tammy Abraham, who was in a dead central location inside the box. Tammy met the ball just before it became within Ben Foster’s reach and he guided it over the Watford ‘keeper and into the now vacated goal. The net rippled. We roared. Tammy raced over to the goal-line in front of the home fans and slid on his knees.

What a bloody pass. What a bloody goal.

The away end roared some more.

The assist from Jorginho, utterly perfect in strength and trajectory, was the pass of the season thus far. And it was warmly appreciated by all. In the Norwich match report, I noted how our passes into the final third were much more varied than the claustrophobic monotony of last season. Here was proof. A ball swung in from deep, the defenders unable to cope, a striker waiting to pounce.

Boom.

It was some goal.

“Oh Tammy, Tammy. Tammy, Tammy, Tammy, Tammy Abraham.”

So, we were 1-0 up early on. Before the game, I had joked with a few mates how we were likely to be treated to another 4-1 or 4-2 away day goal fest. We dominated possession, but on the rare instances that Watford summoned up enough courage to attack us our defence looked in control. In fact, at times our defence looked too calm. I know we like to smother the ball and pass it out, but sometimes our tendency for Kepa, especially, to play balls to defenders who have opponents breathing the same air as them is inviting trouble. Sometimes an agricultural “hoof” up field is quite acceptable.

It really is.

I turned to Alan :

“This new rule about goal kicks being allowed to be played to defenders inside our box. It doesn’t mean that they have to every single time.”

There was a rare Watford poke at goal which was easily saved by Kepa.

Still the rain came down.

“Jorginho. Jorginho. Jorginho, Jorginho, Jorginho.”

Watford are not known for their support and I noted that I had not heard a single shout from their fans all game. Watford are such an inoffensive club. They are the chicken korma of the Premier League.  I waited and waited for a song from them.

I love to see Mason Mount running at defenders – he is so natural – and one such run resulted in a shot on goal. From the block, Tammy pestered the Watford goalkeeper but Foster saved well again. From a corner, a fine leap from Christian Pulisic forced a very fine acrobatic save from a back-peddling Foster.

All this before twenty minutes.

We were loving it.

Out of nowhere came a loud chant from within the travelling two thousand supporters in support of Gianluca Vialli, who is battling cancer. We all joined in.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

He was, of course, manager at Watford for a while after he left us in 2000.

Just in front of us, down towards the corner flag, there was a ridiculous few seconds of showboating between Kovacic and Jorginho. The ball was kept alive with a tantalising medley of flicks and kicks. It paid off, but I had to wonder if that sort of stuff should best be saved for when we are 4-0 or 5-0 up. Regardless, we got away with it.

There was another rare Watford attack, and a low shot from Gerard Deulofeu that whizzed past the far post. In truth, Kepa had been rarely tested.

We watched as Mount wriggled in from the left-wing, hopscotched past challenges, and then whacked a fine shot at goal. But the resolute Watford goalkeeper thwarted us once more, leaping high and touching the goal bound shot onto the bar. He had been, undoubtedly, our first-half nemesis.

I wished that Foster had fucked off to Gloucester in this shower of rain.

Reaching my seat at the end of the interval, I spotted Ollie and he came over to join us in row HH for twenty minutes or so.

Still the rain fell.

Deulofeu ran at our defence early in the second-half and he rolled the ball square to Andre Gray but a brave block by Kurt Zouma – no longer the nervous wretch of the first few games of the season – came to the rescue.

As the game developed along similar lines as the first-half, it seemed that Mateo Kovacic was everywhere; twisting and turning out of trouble, striding confidently with the ball, allowing others to move before passing to their feet. The away crowd soon rewarded this very fine masterclass in midfield dominance.

“Kovacic. In the middle of our pitch.”

Willian burst through the midfield and set up Mount with a perfect pass. Doctor Foster clinically removed the threat with yet another fine save.

Just after, a very similar run from Willian in the same area and the ball was dispatched out to Tammy right in front of us. His low cross into the six-yard box was prodded home by Pulisic. It was another lovely move. Tammy waited for his team mates to celebrate with him. I was pretty lucky to be able to snap away as the players swarmed a mere thirty-feet or so away.

“Ole, ole, ole, ole – Chelsea, Chelsea.”

Lovely.

Fun and games in the way end were then abruptly halted.

“USA. USA. USA. USA.”

No. Just no.

Kovacic, in the middle of his pitch, dribbled forward and set up Pulisic. Another great stop from Foster. We were attacking at will now, with Kovacic himself and then Tammy – twice – going close.

I was still – honestly – waiting for the first Watford chant of the day, as indeed were many more in our support.

“Watford – give us a song. Watford, Watford – give us a song.”

(a quick reality check. I am a fifty-four-year-old man detailing how one set of football supporters were goading another set of football fans into singing support of their team. Is this a reasonable thing to do? All a bit childish, innit? Yep. Guilty.)

With a quarter of an hour to go, how we all wished that Kovacic or Jorginho had “hoofed” the ball away, but instead the “to me, to you” nonsense inside the Chelsea box resulted in a challenge between Jorginho and Deulofeu.

The referee firstly seemed to signal a goal-kick.

Then, a delay.

Then, VAR.

Then, a delay.

It is of my opinion that there should be a twenty-second-time limit on VAR decisions. If nothing can be decided within twenty seconds, nothing is clear, therefore the original decision stands.

We waited.

And waited.

A cure for cancer was found, Parky bought a round, Brexit negotiations reached a conclusion, World poverty was no more, oil companies acknowledged climate change, Lenny Henry was funny again, Israelis and Palestinians signed a peace-pact, Donald Trump said something insightful and Tottenham won a trophy.

Then, a penalty.

A replay – just once – of the “challenge” was shown on the TV screen in the stadium.

The Chelsea crowd were incandescent.

“FUCK VAR. FUCK VAR. FUCK VAR, FUCK VAR, FUCK VAR.”

(a quick reality check…I am a fifty-four-year-old man…is this a reasonable thing to do? All a bit childish, innit? Yep. Guilty.)

Deulofeu rolled it home.

Game…as they say…on.

Despite this lifeline, many Watford fans decided to join those that had already left at 0-2.

Morons.

There was an instance, not long after the Watford goal, when some – many – in our section were shouting for VAR after a decision went against us.

For.

Fuck.

Sake.

The world is full of fucking idiots.

Michy Batshuayi came on for Tammy with two minutes to go, and spun himself in to space, but was thwarted.

Deep in injury-time, a free-kick to Watford was awarded around thirty-five yards out. Foster joined the attackers inside the box. Our nerves were being tested. I was tempted to use my sports-mode setting on my camera, but – always so superstitious – I remembered the United goal last Wednesday.

“Nah.”

The ball was sent in. The ball was flicked on. It found a Watford head – Foster, it had to be him – and the ball was, in my mind, goal bound.

We had fucked it up.

But no. We saw the jade green of Kepa lunge to the left and the ball was spooned away.

Phew.

With that, the referee blew the final whistle.

We had consolidated our place in the top four on top of a pretty pleasing performance.

And then we witnessed one of the highlights of the day. The players came over to thank us for our support and there were smiles aplenty. But all eyes were on Frank Lampard. He walked over, sedately at first, but with each photograph that I took, his emotions took over.

He smiled, he clapped, his eyes twinkled, his smile grew wider, his face was one of pride and joy.

It was – I’ll be honest – quite wonderful.

How good did this all feel?

It felt Franktastic.

NB : No trophies were won by Tottenham.