Tales From A Long Day At The Start Of A Long Month

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 1 October 2022.

My alarm sounded at 6.45am.

Good morning universe.

Here I was, here we were, back in action after an enforced lay-off. Our last game was the home match with Salzburg some seventeen days ago. Yet in this new month of October we faced nine games in just twenty-nine days. The plan will be to try and attend all of them. We were to begin this manic month with a trip to Selhurst Park for a game with Crystal Palace.

My weekend had begun with yet another concert – my sixth in a summer and autumn of music – that involved an act that was around in 1982. On Friday, I saw Toyah perform at the local venue in Frome.

She had opened the set with “Good Morning Universe” and it was stuck in my mind as I drove home after the concert. And it evidently remained in my ahead until the next morning too.

Toyah was a huge name in the UK music scene from 1980 to 1982, but her stardom soon drifted. I had seen her perform to a pretty small crowd in Frome back in 2015, but her popular “Sunday Lunch” videos with husband Robert Fripp, since lockdown in 2020, have put her back into the public eye once again. For someone who is sixty-four, her show was full of energy. I enjoyed it. The venue was packed.

There was always a slight resemblance between Toyah and my first-ever girlfriend from the summer of 1982. Although I did not dwell too much on it at the time, it later dawned on me that Toyah had a lisp, and that my girlfriend had the slightest of lisps too. I was always so delighted that Toyah’s determination to overcome a speech impediment allowed her to fulfil her career path. Forty years on, my own speech impediment still rears its very ugly head at unsuspecting moments and I hate it now as I fucking hated it then.

As I watched the singer on stage in Frome, my mind kept catapulting me back to summer and early autumn some four decades ago.

Here comes another seamless slide into 1982/83.

My reflective look at “the worst season of them all” continues with two Second Division games from forty years ago.

On Saturday 18 September, Chelsea played Oldham Athletic at Stamford Bridge. This game was notable as marking the debut of firebrand striker David Speedie who we had acquired from Barnsley for £80,000 in the previous May. I honestly cannot remember why his first start was delayed. The new boy got off to a flier, scoring two with a goal in each half. The attendance was 10,263. I remember being disappointed with this gate but philosophical too. In those days, such a gate was often reached by a few of the smaller clubs in the then First Division. My diary noted that I was “pleased that we thrashed Oldham 2-0” and I doubt that I was being ironic. A win, any win, in those forlorn days was definitely a thrashing. Trust me.

A week later, Chelsea travelled up to Hillsborough to play Sheffield Wednesday, who were always one of the bigger and more-fancied sides in the division at that time. The team remained unchanged from the Oldham game. The youngster Steve Francis in goal. A back four of Micky Nutton, Gary Chivers, Micky Droy and Chris Hutchings. A midfield of Mike Fillery, John Bumstead, Tony McAndrew and Paul Canoville. The striking partnership of Colin Lee and David Speedie upfront. The new season’s starting striker Pop Robson was already – ominously – relegated to a substitute role. A pretty decent attendance of 18,833 assembled for this game. Sadly, the home team went ahead after just twelve minutes and scored two more goals in the second period before two late Chelsea strikes from Fillery and Lee probably gave the result a much closer ending than it deserved.

I can confirm that I was at home that afternoon, listening to the score updates on Radio Two, because I can remember what was happening elsewhere at other games in England on that particular afternoon. It turned out to be a Saturday for the record books. As always, the striking music that heralded “Sports Report” at five o’clock, followed by the measured tones of James Alexander Gordon as he read out the day’s results, was the highlight of the afternoon. The Scot’s raising or falling intonation would allow the listener to know the result even before the scores were completed. He was a master of his craft.

“Sheffield Wednesday – rising – three, Chelsea – falling – OH SHIT WE’VE LOST – two.”

On this particular day, throughout the Football League, it was raining goals. We have not witnessed the like of it in English football ever since. The First Division led the way. In its eleven games, a mammoth fifty goals were scored.

Aston Villa 2 Swansea City 0

Brighton 1 Birmingham City 0

Coventry 4 Everton 2

Liverpool 5 Southampton 0

Manchester United 0 Arsenal 0

Norwich City 1 West Brom 3

Notts County 0 Ipswich Town 6

Stoke City 4 Luton Town 4

Tottenham 4 Nottingham Forest 1

Watford 8 Sunderland 0

West Ham 4 Manchester City 1

Meanwhile, in Division Three, Doncaster Rovers walloped Reading 7-5 at home. However, one Reading player scored four and still ended up on the losing team. His name? Kerry Dixon.

Chelsea’s start to the new campaign had been fair-to-middling. Nothing more. After seven league games, we had won two, drawn three and lost two. It was hardly inspiring stuff from a team that had finished in twelfth position the previous season. But they were my team, my club, and I loved them dearly. On the near horizon was a trip to Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea play Leeds United and, even forty years later, the thrill of the anticipation of that match still resonates.

As I have often documented, a trip to Crystal Palace’s stadium, deep in the hinterlands of South London, is always a troublesome one. I had been monitoring the best way in for a few days and all of the technical aids at my disposal were adamant that after collecting PD and Glenn, and finally, Lordy, the quickest route would be along the M4. So, this was what I did. Lordy was picked-up at 8.30am, but on nearing Swindon, our world caved in. There was a diversion ahead and so I was forced first south and then north of the motorway along smaller roads. It probably cost us an hour.

At Reading Services, I reset my sat-nav and it was sending me right into the heart of London rather than around the M25.

I drove on.

The route in was familiar. It took me along the A4, up to the junction with the North End Road, past those familiar Chelsea match day pubs. It even took me along Lillee Road, only a few yards from where I normally park for home games. But then, with the realisation that the national train strike had forced thousands onto the road network, our plans were hit hard again. Our slow drive through Fulham took the best part of an hour. We were not aided by some very slow changing temporary traffic lights just before Wandsworth Bridge. Eventually, around five-and-a-half bastard hours after leaving sleepy Somerset, we were parked up at my JustPark spot on Woodville Road with the massive TV pylon that dominates that hilly part of South London clearly visible yet still over two miles away. This huge structure was the tallest in London until as recently as 1990. We had given up on getting a drink before the game, but as we headed towards the already overflowing “Prince George”, we spotted a few friends drinking on the pavement outside a small jerk chicken café. We crossed the road to join them.

Rachel from Devon and Donna from Somerset were there. Rob from South West London was there, but without his mate Bob who was in Somerset watching his local team Waltham & Hersham in the FA Cup against Taunton Town. He has evidently reached that key stage – “local non-league team over Chelsea” – before me but I know that time will come for me too.

Drinks were guzzled. A blue flare was let off on the pavement outside the pub opposite. PD and Parky shot off to collect a ticket. Glenn and I set off just before 2.30pm to sort out tickets too.

By 2.40pm, I was in the queue for the Arthur Wait.

“Makes a bloody change to get to a game at Selhurst Park and it’s not pissing with rain.”

There was the usual bag check. While I waited in line, I spotted a listing of “prohibited items” on a poster next to the turnstile. Featured was an image of a camera with a “detachable lens” and the cold sweats came on. I had memories of the last encounter with Crystal Palace, at Wembley, and we all know how that ended. Thankfully, my camera was allowed in.

I shuffled through the packed concourse.

Selhurst Park. If it didn’t exist, you’d have to invent it.

However, for all of its cramped inefficiencies, people would soon lament its passing should it ever be replaced by a single-tiered stadium – “soul-less bowl” is the go-to phrase, eh? – either on the same site or elsewhere.

Each stand is different. Opposite our viewing area is the main stand, an Archibald Leitch original, eerily similar to the Johnny Haynes Stand at Fulham, and thus, the old East Stand at Stamford Bridge. To the right, the slight tier of seats of the Whitehorse Lane Stand, with ugly executive boxes above. In the corner between the two stands is the platform where Bex and his cohorts appeared in the original “The Firm” film from 1989. To the left, the steep two-tiered Holmesdale Road Stand, with its curved roof, a throwback to the Edwardian era but the newest of all the current stands. The Arthur Wait Stand was once all standing, and it remains a dark and brooding beast of a stand. The three thousand Chelsea fans, as always, were to be based here, though this hasn’t always been the case. The sightlines aren’t great. In fact, with my position in row eight, down low, I soon decided early on to try not to snap too many photos since my view of the game would be so poor.

A few friends spoke of similarly difficult journeys to the stadium. As kick-off approached, I spotted many clusters of empty seats in the home stands. Palace surely have a more local fan base than us, but I suppose the train strike must have had an adverse effect on numbers. It is a pet peeve that not all attendances are published either online or in the Sunday ‘papers these days. It has all changed after all of those games without fans in the nightmarish seasons of 2019/20 and 2020/21. Not even Chelsea’s home programme includes attendance figures anymore. So, maybe we’ll not know the official attendance for a while, anyway.

This annoys the fuck out of me.

My spreadsheet has half-empty columns.

And what is a world with half-empty columns, eh?

Kick-off approached. The teams entered from that far corner. It suddenly dawned on me that we would be wearing that God-awful away strip. Overhead, there were clouds but there was no hint of rain. I was glad that a rain jacket was left back in the car. I was wearing a subtle-coloured Marc O’Polo sweatshirt; an homage to one I that bought in 1986 or so when that particular brand was much-loved by football fanciers at the time. If the 1986 version was apple green, this one was more mint.

There was a minute of silence in remembrance of Queen Elizabeth II and this was followed by a hearty rendition of “God Save The King.”

This, of course, was Graham Potter’s first league game in charge.

In a “Costa Coffee” on the walk to the stadium, I had briefly spoken to fellow-fan Andy about the switch.

“Is Potter an upgrade on Tuchel?”

I just shrugged my shoulders, unsure.

The game kicked-off and it was clear that we were playing four at the back.

Kepa

James – Fofana – Silva – Chilwell

Jorginho – Kovacic

Then God knows what…

Sterling – Havertz – Aubameyang – Mount

From my position down low, it wasn’t clear.

The game began and we dominated the first – er – seven, count’em, minutes. Thiago Silva was our main pass master, touching the ball often, and looking to play balls in to others. However, the home team had hardly touched the bloody ball when Wesley Fofana gave up possession too easily and the ball quickly found Jordan Ayew. I watched in horror as his perfectly whipped-in cross dropped perfectly at the foot of Odsonne Edouard and Kepa was beaten. Sadly, I caught this goal on camera, but thankfully the image is too blurred for my stringent quality assurance department to allow it to be shared.

It was a killer cross. But where was our defence? Answers on a postcard.

Michael Olise impressed me with his direct play in front of me, but it was Eberechi Ebe who then forced Kepa into action.

With a quarter of an hour gone, we had no attempts on target. Then, an easy header looped up easily into Vicente Guaita’s reach.

Gal was getting annoyed with Aubameyang, though to be fair, the striker had not received much service. It’s difficult when players from rivals find themselves at Stamford Bridge. I know full well that I am going to find it hard to warm to Aubameyang. Is it irrational? Who knows? Gal, from his words – that were certainly annoying the bloke behind me – it will be longer for him to approve of the former Arsenal striker.

Put it this way, at this moment in time, Gal rates Mark Falco more than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

There was a header from Mason Mount that flashed wide of the near post.

Halfway through the first period, I leant forward to chat to Calvin : “this is all a bit boring mate.”

Sterling hit the base of a post but I think the move was offside anyway, as was another that quickly followed.

This was hardly inspiring stuff.

The sun was out by now and it was surprisingly hot on this October afternoon.

The central section of around four hundred of their “ultras” – yeah, I know – were now jumping up and down to a chant that was so loud that I couldn’t hear it.

They looked like they were doing some sort of silent flash mob thing.

Bless’em.

(I know they are doing their best to get the atmosphere going, God knows we need it in this bloody country, and they are easy targets…but why just can’t people get behind their teams without this fucking contrived nonsense?)

In their defence, they did produce a few banners in the first-half about the lack of fan involvement in our national game but I am not sure who this was aimed at.

I hope there are similar banners throughout Europe as we rush headlong into the monster of the Qatar World Cup.

There next followed some confusion and more than a little worry. One on one, Silva appeared to hold back Ayew. The defender was booked. VAR then signalled a possible red card. Having not seen the apparent swipe of the ball by Silva’s hand, this was all a bit difficult to work out. Anyway, panic over, no red card.

“Think we got away with that” I said to John, two seats along.

With around ten minutes of the first half remaining, a fine move brought us some cheer. A diagonal found the leap from Silva – strangely well-advanced – and his header found Aubameyang. His quick turn, a swivel, and a shot was exquisite.

GET IN.

The bloke behind might well have ruffled Gal’s hair.

I am sure it wasn’t, but it felt like Aubameyang’s first touch.

It certainly seemed to me that it was an unlikely goal. Unsuspected. Out of the, er, blue.

Chelsea roared : “How shit must you be? Our number nine scored.”

In the closing moments of the half, a back-pass to Gaita was punished with a direct free-kick inside the box. More anguish from the under-performing Mount as his shot cleared the near post. There had been a lovely loose run from Havertz, drifting with ease, past several defenders and I was prepared to celebrate one of the great goals but the shot drifted wide of the far post.

There was time for a quick photo-call with Lordy at half-time.

Soon into the second-half, Potter replaced Jorginho with Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

His slow trudge across the pitch suggested to me – maybe it was just me, I am sure it was – that he realised that he had eventually been found out.

We had a couple of half-chances as the game continued; Chilwell over, a shot blocked from Havertz. Sterling was as lively as anyone, but our link-up play was a little too laboured for my liking, and the away crowd was getting a little frustrated.

As for the defenders, James was the star. I hardly noticed Wilfred Zaha at all.

An upturn in our form was mirrored in the Arthur Wait.

“On when the blues go steaming in, oh when the blues go steaming in, I want to be in that number, oh when the blues go steaming in.”

“Oh when the blues.”

“Oh when the blues.”

“Go steaming in.”

“Go steaming in.”

“I want to be in that number, oh when the blues go steaming in.”

“Oh when the blues.”

“Oh when the blues.”

“Go steaming in.”

“Go steaming in.”

“I want to be in that number, oh when the blues go steaming in.”

It was deafening. Top work everyone.

This was followed by an equally loud “Ten men went to mow.”

Lovely stuff.

With twenty minutes, two superb saves from Kepa, foiling Zaha on both occasions.

On seventy-six minutes, a double switch.

Conor Gallagher for Havertz.

Armando Broja for Aubameyang.

The play creaked along.

A look towards Alan.

“Shite, mate.”

He nodded.

I spent some moments preparing an epitaph to post on “Facebook” at the final whistle.

On eight-five minutes, a final substitution.

Christian Pulisic for the poor Mount.

The epitaph was nearing completion.

“That was a hard watch. Milan must be quaking in their boots. At least Frome Town won.”

Just at that moment, maybe two seconds later, a sideways push of the ball from Pulisic to Gallagher.

A touch, a shot.

I watched the ball fly into the goal despite what looked like a valiant attempt by Guaita to claw it over. His fingertips could not deny us a goal.

I roared.

The away end roared.

Fackinell.

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

Chris : “come on my little diamonds.”

For the second time in eight months, a last minute goal at Selhurst Park had sent us into a frenzy.

At the final whistle, Gal and his nemesis – at it like hammer and tongs in that feisty encounter in the first-half – embraced with smiles.

I thought to myself : “get a room, lads.”

This was a fortuitous win, no doubt. I am not going to enthuse too much about it. I have to say that I am particularly worried about our two games against Milan over the next week or so, but I am filled with a huge sense of anticipation too.

Maybe not as much as the Leeds game in 1982 but you catch my drift I am sure.

In reality, more than a few friends have admitted that if we do drop into the Europa League, at least we might get some good trips out of it.

“The final is in Budapest” Calvin had reminded me.

But it’s just the fear of getting humiliated against Milan that I fear most. Nobody wants that. They should be two huge games. I honestly can’t wait.

With traffic locked, we popped into a cheap and cheerful “Chicken Cottage” – they evidently love their chicken in around Selhurst Park – to let the flow ease up a little and eventually left Thornton Heath at 6.15pm. Via another diversion on the A303, I eventually reached home four hours later.

I had picked PD up at 8am. I had dropped him off at 10pm.

Just in time for “Match of the Day.”

Just right.

Next up, one of the Italian greats.

Chelsea versus Milan at Stamford Bridge.

I’m off to practice some Italian swear words.

See you on Wednesday evening.

Postscript :

The BBC recently took the shocking decision to drop the reading out of all of the classified football scores on Radio Five Live at five ‘clock every Saturday.

Words fail me.

Tales From Difficult Shapes And Passive Rhythms

Everton vs. Chelsea : 6 August 2022.

My summer had been quiet. I never fancied another CFC tour to the US during the close-season, and there was no holiday abroad to excite me. It was simply a case of staying at home, saving pennies and attempting to relax from the burden of work which was as busy as ever. The highlight of my summer season was a little burst of gigs involving some music from my youth; Tom Robinson, Tears For Fears, Stiff Little Fingers and China Crisis. Waiting in the wings in September are Altered Images and Toyah. It will be 1982 all over again and that is never a bad thing.

The summer was also short. The gap between the last game of 2021/22 to the opening match of the new season was a brief ten weeks. As time passed, I became increasingly bored with the constant tittle-tattle of rumour and counter rumour regarding our transfer targets. I realised how much I disliked the mere mention of the name Fabrizio Romano; nobody likes a smart arse. I again squirmed every time fan after fan, supporter after supporter, FIFA nerd after FIFA nerd used the phrase “done deal” without transfers being completed. Once players sign, then we can talk.

Maybe it’s an age thing but sometimes I feel that I am from another footballing planet compared to a lot of our support.

Our season would open up in a grand fashion. To start, my favourite away stadium with a trip to Everton’s Goodison Park and then what I would class as our biggest home game with the visit of Tottenham. Two absolute belters. Early on in the campaign there would also be visits to Leeds United, Southampton and Fulham. These are three cracking away trips too. But the downside of this opening burst of away games is that we only just visited Everton, Leeds and Southampton very recently. Could the league computer not have spaced the buggers out a bit?

As the new season approached, I was inevitably concerned that my enthusiasm levels weren’t at especially high levels, but this is so often the case. I often find that I need the season to begin for me to get fully back into the swing of things. But my indifference to the new campaign actually shocked me this summer.

I was faced with the age-old question: was my love of the game waning? It’s a strange one. Many aspects of the modern game leave me cold. So cold. Yet I lap up the chance to attend live matches. There is the old cliché about football – Chelsea – being my drug and I can’t dispute this. Perhaps I should add that my summer season included four Frome Town friendlies, my most ever.

Football, eh?

I hate you but I love you too.

The alarm was set for the new season at 5.30am. By 7.30am I had collected the Fun Boy Three – PD, GG and LP – and we were on our way once again.

I made good progress. After picking up PD at 7am, I had deposited the three of them outside “The Thomas Frost” boozer on Walton Road just south of Goodison only four hours later. It was surely my quickest-ever journey up to Merseyside.

While my fellow travelling companions settled down for five or more hours of supping, I began a little tour around the city, one that I had been promising myself for ages. It was also time for a little more introspection.

This would be my fiftieth consecutive season of attending Chelsea games – 1973/74 to 2022/23, count’em up – even though my fiftieth anniversary will not be until March 2024. Additionally, this would be the fifteenth season that I been writing these blogs. Long gone are the viewing figures of when these were featured on the Chelsea In America bulletin board, but these are such a part of my match-going routine now and I can’t give them up. However, over the summer one of my close friends, Francis, suggested that I should take a year out of match photography and blogging. Just to give myself a rest. An average blog takes four hours of my time. But the look that I gave him probably shocked him to the core.

“Nah. It’s what I do mate.”

I will be honest, I did go over the options in my mind though.

But here I am. Writing away. Taking photos.

I hope that I still maintain the will to keep doing this for a while yet. With the rumours of us partaking in a partial rebuild of Stamford Bridge under the new Todd Boehly regime, I have to continue on until that is finished surely? The success of the Roman Abramovich era might never be matched but there is always something to write about at Chelsea.

On we go.

On my own now, I edged my car south and west towards the River Mersey. Within five minutes, I was parked up a few hundred yards away from the construction site of the new Everton Stadium at Bramley Moore Dock. Camera in hand, I set off to record the progress being made.

I hopped up onto a small wall to gain a good vantage point of the overall scene. This would be photo number one of the season.

Snap.

On leaping down from the wall, my legs crumpled and I fell.

Splat.

The camera and spare lens went flying. My knees – my fucking knees! – were smarting. I was sure I had torn my jeans. There was blood on my right hand. What a start to the season’s photographs. I dusted myself down, then let out a huge laugh.

The first fackinell of the season? Oh yes.

One photo taken and carnage.

Ha.

I limped further along Boundary Street and spent a good twenty minutes or so taking it all in. I found it rather funny that a bold sign warned against site photography and sharing images on social media. During my spell there, around fifteen other lads – not being sexist, they were all lads – called by to take some photos too. I am not ashamed to say that I have recently subscribed to two YouTube channels that provide drone updates of the construction sites at Bramley Moore and also Anfield.

I love a stadium, me.

So, the scene that I was witnessing was indeed pretty familiar. The skeletal shell of the new stadium is rising with the two end stands – the south and north – being the first to pierce the sky alongside the murky grey of the famous river. There are seven cranes covering the site. Maybe those lads were just crane spotters.

I must admit it looks a glorious setting for a new stadium. Evertonians – like me, no doubt – will hate the upheaval of moving out of good old Goodison in a couple of years, but the move represents the chance to level up the playing field with their more moneyed neighbours at the top of the hill up on Stanley Park. I had a fear that last season’s visit to Goodison would be my last. I believe that the new stadium is slated to open up during the 2024/25 campaign.

There was a chance – with Everton likely to flirt with relegation again perhaps – that this day would mark my last ever visit to Goodison.

I hoped not.

I have a personal history with this stadium that I have often mentioned.

I marched back to the car and then drove south towards the city centre. I immediately passed a huge derelict warehouse – a tobacco warehouse I believe – and I had visions of the red brick structure being upgraded to a hotel to take care of the new match day traffic that the new stadium would attract.

But I then heard a voice inside my head, of my mate Chris, a staunch Evertonian.

“Chris lad, all our support comes from Merseyside, The Wirral, the new towns, out to the North Wales coast, we don’t have any day trippers, la.”

I continued on. I have driven around the city centre – or at least the area by the Albert Dock – on many occasions but the scale of the Liver Building knocked me for six. What a building. It’s magnificent. But I drove past it – I spotted a massive bar called “Jurgen’s” – and headed up the hill inland. For many years, ten or more, I have wanted to visit the two cathedrals in the city. This was as perfect a day as any to get this accomplished.

I parked outside the massive Anglican Cathedral on St. James Mount. The sandstone used immediately reminded me of the stone used on the tunnels approaching Lime Street – and the “Cockneys Die” graffiti – and of Edge Hill Station on that first-ever visit to the city for football in May 1985. The building is huge. It is the longest cathedral in the world. I popped inside as a service was taking place. The visitors – there were many – walked around in hushed tones. A few photographs were inevitably taken.

I then headed north and then west and aimed for the second of the city’s great cathedrals, or the fourth if the cathedrals at either end of Stanley Park are included, the Metropolitan Cathedral. This Roman Catholic cathedral – made of concrete in the ‘sixties – sits at Mount Pleasant.

Hope Street links the two religious buildings. It looked a very lively place with theatres and eateries. I dived into the granddaddy of all Liverpool’s pubs, The Philharmonic, famous the world over for the elaborate porcelain fittings in the gents. More photographs followed both inside and out of the funkier of the two cathedrals – nicknamed “The Mersey Funnel” and “Paddy’s Wigwam” – and I was lost in my own world for a few moments.

The art deco Philharmonic Hall looked a magnificent site. The TV tower in the city centre was spotted between a canopy of green leaves. There were blue skies overhead. The Liver Birds could be seen peaking over some terraced rooftops. A few hen parties were making Hope Street their own. Maybe on another visit to the city, I will investigate further.

But it was time to move on. I dabbed a CD on as I pulled out of the car park – China Crisis’ Gary Daly’s solo album “Luna Landings”- a 2020 issue of some synth tracks recorded in the ‘eighties – and it was just perfect.

My route took me past some old, and grand, Georgian houses no doubt once owned by the cream of Liverpool’s entrepreneurs, businessmen and traders when a full forty percent of global trade came through the port of Liverpool. But it then took me past Edge Hill, and onto Tue Brook – past the drinking dens of “The Flat Iron” and “The Cabbage Hall” of match days at Anfield in previous years – and everything was a lot more down-at-heal, the Liverpool of hackneyed legend.

At around 3pm I was parked up in Stanley Park. Up to my left, the extension of the Annie Road Stand at Anfield was in full flow. It will bring the capacity up to 61,000. The new Everton one will be just under 53,000.

Ouch, la.

I popped into “The Thomas Frost” – my least favourite football pub – and located the lads, who had been joined by Deano and Dave, plus a cast of what appeared to be thousands. A friend, Kim, had not been able to attend due to COVID so her ticket was passed on to another pal, Sophie. The chaps had witnessed the Fulham and Liverpool 2-2 draw, and PD was shocked at the hatred that the watching Evertonians showed their local rivals.

Heysel robbed Evertonians of a tilt at European glory and it is not forgotten by many.

A song for Marc Cucarella was aired by the younger element. It would become the song of the day.

I excused myself and squeezed out of the boozer.

This particular corner of Liverpool, along the Walton Road, is a classic pre-match location for Everton home games. “The Thomas Frost”, “The Clock”, “The Party Pad” and “St. Hilda’s” are close, and drinkers from both clubs were inside and outside all of them. At just gone 4pm, my friends – and brothers – Tommie (Chelsea) and Chris (Everton) approached “St. Hilda’s” and it was glorious to see them again.

Here was the reason why we go to football.

Lads enjoying a laugh, a catch-up, a bevvy.

I was welcomed by the Evertonians that I met outside the pub. I loved it.

This is football.

Chris was in the middle of a punk festival – “Rebellion” – up the road in Blackpool and so was now mixing up his twin passions. The brothers are off to watch Stiff Little Fingers together in Dublin over the next few weeks. That 1982 vibe again. Both of the brothers helped me plan my Buenos Aires adventure a few years back and we all love our travel / football addiction.

We briefly mentioned previous encounters. This was the first time that we had begun a league season at Everton in my living memory, though there had been opening games at Stamford Bridge in 1995 – Ruud Gullit’s league debut, a 0-0 draw – and also way back in 1978. The earlier game – a 0-1 home loss – was memorable for two of my pre-match friends in 2022. It was Glenn’s first ever Chelsea game and he still rues a miss by Ray Wilkins. It was also Chris’ first visit to Stamford Bridge with Everton. I spoke about it with him. It has gone down in Chelsea folklore as being the “High Street Kensington” game, when Chelsea ambushed Everton’s mob at that particular tube station. This inspired the infamous “Ordinary To Chelsea” graffiti outside Lime Street, aimed at uniting both sets of fans to travel together to Stamford Bridge for the Liverpool league fixture later in the season. The graffiti is so iconic that sweatshirts are being produced featuring the image almost fifty years later.

Time was again moving on.

Chris and I sauntered off to opposite ends of the Bullens Road.

I left him with a parting shot.

“Up The Fucking Toffees.”

He smiled.

“Up The Fucking Toffees.”

The kick-off was at 5.30pm and I was inside at around 4.45pm or so.

At last, I had a seat that wasn’t tucked way past the goal-line. In fact, it was right on the goal-line. Compared to previous visits my seat 38 felt as if I was watching from the royal box.  John from Paddington now sits with Alan, Gary, Parky and little old me at away games now; the Fantastic Five. I looked over at the Park End; Everton had handed out tons of royal blue flags for their fans to wave. I heard Chris’ voice once again.

“Typical Kopite behaviour.”

I hoped that the ground would be full of shiny unhappy people by the end of the game.

John asked me for my prediction.

I thought for a few seconds and went safe : “0-0.”

It was time to reacquaint myself with more than a few friends as the kick-off time approached. I had recently seen Julie and Tim at the SLF gig in Frome. And I had shared a fine evening with Kev in Aberdare at the recent China Crisis gig.

“From Abu Dhabi to Aberdare” anyone?

Kev, in fact, was wearing a China Crisis T-shirt. I had joked on the night that I would wear my exact same copy to the game too, but I had forgotten all about that. Probably just as well, eh Kev?

We could work out the starting line-up from the drills taking place in front of us. The confirmation came on the twin TV screens at opposite ends of the ground.

Mendy

Dave – Silva – Koulibaly

James – Jorginho – Kante – Chilwell

Mount – Havertz – Sterling

In light of our former chairman’s departure, I am surprised that nobody else but me did the “$ out, £ in” joke over the summer.

The PA ramped up the volume with a few Everton favourites, and then the stirring “Z Cars” rung out around Goodison.

It was unchanged as it has been from around 1994.

The rather mundane and bland single-tier of the Park Lane to my left. The still huge main stand, double-decked, sloping away in the top left corner. St’ Luke’s Church peeping over the TV screen in the opposite corner and then the continuous structure of the Gwladys Street bleeding into the Bullens Road, the Leitch cross-struts on show for decades but not for much longer.

A couple of large banners were paraded in the Gwladys Street.

To the left, an image of The Beatles with an Everton scarf wrapped around them all. Were they really all Evertonians? Well, they weren’t day trippers, that’s for sure.

I hoped that their team would be The Beaten.

To the right, there was an image of our Frank on a banner. Gulp.

The teams lined-up.

A shrill noise.

Football was back.

Alas we were back in the odd away kit. From a long way away, it looks reasonable, but up close I can’t say I am too fond of the stencilled lion nonsense on the light blue / turquoise hoops. This overly fussy design, which is mirrored in the collar of the home kit, resembles a great aunt’s frock design from 1971 far too much for my liking.

Me, bored rigid on a family outing, stifling yawns :“Yes, I’d love another piece of fruit cake please auntie”…but thinking “your dress looks ridiculous.”

To be honest, in the pre-release glimpses, the colour looked more jade green than blue. Eck from Glasgow, sat to my left, must have been having kittens.

Both teams were wearing white shorts. I think that ruling has changed only recently.

The game began. I was immediately warned by a sweaty steward to not use my camera. In the ensuing moments, Eck leant forward and shielded my illicit pursuits. It worked a treat.

As the game started to develop, the away crowd got behind the team, but with the lower tier of the Bullens outdoing the top tier. I must admit I didn’t sing too much during the whole game; I am getting old, eh? Soon into the game, I experienced chant envy as I couldn’t make out the Koulibaly song being sung with gusto in the lower deck.

Goodison has been an awful venue for us of late. Our record was of four consecutive losses.

But we began as we often began with the majority of possession.

The first real incident involved Kai Havertz who picked up a wayward clearance from Jordan Pickford after a poor back pass from Ben Godfrey. Rather than pass inside, he lashed the ball against the side netting. Attempting to tackle, Godfrey injured himself and there was a delay of many minutes before he was stretchered off.

There was a swipe from Mason Mount that Jordan Pickford managed to claw away. At the other end, a deep cross from Vitaly Mykolenko was headed goal wards by James Tarkowski but Edouard Mendy did ever so well to tip it over.

Everton occasionally threatened, but our defence – the veteran Dave especially – were able to quell their advances. N’Golo Kante, right after a Chelsea attack, was able to block an Everton shot back in his own penalty area. He had no right to be there. The man was starting the season as our strongest player.

Next up, Thiago Silva – the calm and cool maestro – cut out an Everton break down our right, and this drew rapturous applause.

A shot from Kante was fumbled by Pickford but although Raheem Sterling pounced to score – a dream start? – he was ruled offside. It looked offside to me, way down on the other goal line. Who needs cameras?

To be truthful, despite corner after corner (or rather shite corner after shite corner) that resulted in a few wayward headers, it wasn’t much of a half. The home fans were quiet, and the away section in the upper tier were getting quitter with each passing minute.

But corner after corner were smacked into the Everton box.

“More corners than a Muller warehouse.”

I noticed that the movement off the ball was so poor.

I chatted to Eck : “Without a target man, our forwards need to be constantly moving, swapping over, pulling defenders away, allowing balls into space.”

There was sadly none of it. I couldn’t remember two white-shirted players crossing over the entire half.

I had visions of a repeat of the dull 0-0 at Stoke City that began the 2011/12 campaign.

In injury time, Abdoulaye Doucoure manhandled Ben Chilwell on a foray into the box. It looked a clear penalty to me.

Jorginho.

1-0

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds, like.”

It was the last kick of the half. Phew.

As the second-half began, the sun was still beating down on us in the upper tier. I was getting my longest exposure to the sun of the entire summer. But the game didn’t really step up. The noise continued to fall away. If anything, Everton threatened much more than us in the second-half.

A shot from Demarai Gray – after a mess up between Silva and Mendy – was thankfully blocked by our man from Senegal.

Celery was tossed around in the away section and some local stewards looked bemused.

Some substitutions.

Christian Pulisic for a very quiet Mount.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Chilwell.

Reece swapped wings and Ruben played wide right.

It was pretty grim and pretty tepid stuff this. A tough watch.The practised attacking patterns needed more work. It just wasn’t gelling at all. And during that second-half we allowed Everton a little too much space in key areas. It is early days though. But I have to say it as I saw it.

I could lose myself in this honesty.

More substitutions from Thomas Tuchel.

Armando Broja for a weak Havertz.

Marc Cucarella for Koulibaly.

I wasn’t too happy about us singing Frank’s name during the game.

It took bloody ages for us to get an effort, any effort, on goal. It came on eighty-one minutes, a James free-kick, tipped over. Then, just after a pass from Cucarella to Sterling and a shot deflected for a corner.

To be fair, Pulisic looked keen when he came on and added a new dimension to our play. Cucarella looked mustard too. He looked neat, and picked out a few lovely passes, zipped with pace.

“He’s from Marbella, he eats Bonjela” wasn’t it?

And it was a joy to see Broja on the pitch, charging into space, taking defenders with him, a focal point. I hope he is given a full crack of the whip this season.

In the eighth minute of extra time, Conor Gallagher made his debut and I caught his first touch, at a free-kick, on camera. I see great things for him.

It ended 1-0.

Outside, I bumped into Sophie, with Andy her father, and remembered that she was soon off to Milan, with a side-visit to Como after talking to me in the pub at the end of last season.

“Did you know Dennis Wise is the CEO at Como?”

It made Sophie’s day. Dennis is her favourite ever Chelsea player.

We walked back to the waiting car and shared a few thoughts about the game. It was no classic, but we were all relieved with the win. Tottenham, our next opponents, won 4-1 at home to Southampton and I admitted to PD :

“I’m dreading it.”

“I am too.”

Out

In

I made good time on the way south, only for us to become entrenched in a lively conversation about all of the players’ performances just as I should have veered off the M6 and onto the M5.

“Isn’t that the Alexander Stadium? Bollocks, I have missed the turning.”

A diversion through the second city was a pain, but I was eventually back on track. As the three passengers fell asleep, I returned to the ‘eighties and Gary Daly.

And I wondered what I should call this latest blog.

Some people think it’s fun to entertain.

Tales From East Somerset To East Lancashire

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 5 March 2022.

We were in the midst of a run of away games at venues that could well be described as “old school.” After Selhurst Park and Kenilworth Road now came Turf Moor. Many in our support hate a trip to Burnley’s home and many dislike the team too. Under Sean Dyche, and over the past eight seasons of top flight football, the team has become known for its rather rudimentary and physical style of football. But I love a trip to this particular corner of East Lancashire. I especially love the approach up to the ground from the town centre. I have shared a few words about this walk in previous episodes so I won’t repeat myself again. Suffice to say, it takes me back to an older time, and that is no bad thing. And in this old mill town, football goes back a long way. Burnley Football Club have played at Turf Moor since 1883.

I had set off from East Somerset at 7.30am and had made perfect timing. As I turned onto the M62 from the M6, the road signs soon indicated that I was in the middle of the old football heartland of England. There were signs for Manchester and Leeds, but also for Blackburn and Bury, for Rochdale and Oldham, for Accrington and Burnley. On my last visit to Turf Moor in the October of 2019, our pre-match took us to a pub in Clayton Le Moors. On this occasion, I had highlighted a pub in Accrington. But this was not just any pub. My destination was “The Crown Inn” and what made this pub so special was that it was right outside one of the entrances to Accrington Stanley Football Club. We arrived bang on midday.

This was just perfect. Burnley was only a ten-minute drive away. The pub looked warm and inviting. PD, PDs’s son Scott – on his birthday – and Parky ordered pints of lager, and I sipped at something a lot less alcoholic. It was time to relax for an hour and a half or so. A friend of a friend – David from Silverdale on Morecambe Bay, last seen at Anfield in late August – soon arrived and picked up a spare ticket.

I zipped outside to take a small selection of photos of the nearby Wham Stadium, a ground where I am yet to witness a game, looking neat and tidy in the winter sun. A local, who had been sitting in the pub when we arrived, walked past me on his way to watch Accrington’s away game at Portsmouth in a brand new hospitality suite that was opening for the very first time that day. He spoke to me about his joy of how the ground has been recently developed. The club has risen from the ashes after being turfed out of the Football League in the ‘sixties. He enthusiastically answered my question about the whereabouts of their old Peel Park ground which was evidently just a mile away.

“Where are you from, then?”

“Oh, Somerset. We’re Chelsea.”

“Are you going to the game?”

“Yeah.”

“Hope you beat those bastards.”

This was a view shared by a lad in the pub, who was drinking next to us with a mate. I had to ask of his allegiance.

“Are you Blackburn?”

“Oh aye. He’s a Knob Ender, like, but yeah.”

The fact that the two lads were watching Blackburn Rovers’ game at Craven Cottage – in SW6, of all places – was a clue, but nothing is ever a certainty in football.

In a space of five minutes, I had met supporters of Accrington Stanley, Blackburn Rovers and Preston North End. It was a perfect welcome to the area.

Back in 1888, all three clubs – plus the seemingly despised Burnley – were founder members of the Football League. It seemed just right that we should be drinking at the epicentre of the origins of the game in England.

All four clubs lie within twenty miles of each other. Bolton Wanderers, another inaugural member, are close by. The other seven clubs – Everton, Stoke City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa, Derby County and Notts County – are further afield.

At the end of our spell in the cosy pub, we wished each other well and the Blackburn fan said “I hope you beat them four nil.”

The short drive from Accrington to Burnley was a breeze. I must admit I love the sight of the naked Pennines to the north-east of the town and on this occasion they didn’t disappoint. I have noted before that other clubs might well be geographically more northern, but there is no club that is spiritually more northern that the one that resides along Harry Potts Way in deepest Burnley.

We nabbed what seemed like the last car park spot near the town centre and were soon walking towards Turf Moor. The cold wind almost cut me in two, but nearer the stadium, in among the terraced houses, the wind seemed to quieten. There has been a fair amount of gentrification of good old Turf Moor of late – a splash of paint here and there, the wooden seats in the away end have eventually been replaced, there are corporate tiers rising up above two of the corner flags and the Blackburn fan had warned us of every spare inch now being devoted to neon signage – but I liked how “Burnley Football Club”, in ‘sixties font, was still emblazoned on the old stand adjacent to Harry Potts Way.

There was time for one more drink in the awning adjacent to the away concourse and we then made our way to our seats in the away end. In that packed concourse, it again seemed that Aquascutum scarves were everywhere. It must have been the threat of the cold. As with my last visit, I was adjacent to the home fans, right behind the goal. A few very drunk youngsters stumbled in. I was stood next to Parky and Gary, but also Sophie – Porto 2021 – and her father Andy was two rows in front. PD and Scott were ten rows behind us.

The minutes ticked by.

The teams were shown on the two large TV screens in the corners.

Chelsea lined-up as follows :

Mendy

Chalobah  – Silva – Rudiger

James  – Jorginho – Kante – Saul

Mount – Havertz – Pulisic

Talking points? No room for Romelu Lukaku then, and I had no complaints. Saul at left wing-back? I trusted the manager.

The teams appeared. Chelsea wore the nasty and messy jade, orange and black. I suddenly felt nauseous.

There was an announcement from the PA that detailed a minute of applause for the people suffering in Ukraine. The teams stood in the centre circle. The scoreboard, the advertising boards, the balcony walls and the roof fascia all around the ground turned yellow and blue. I took a few quick photos and then joined in by clapping alongside thousands. I was far from pleased that hundreds of Chelsea fans decided at that moment – during the minute of applause – to yell out the name of our owner.

Sophie and I spoke.

“We’ve done ourselves no favours there.”

Indeed.

The timing of this support of Roman Abramovich was completely wrong. This was no time to roar his name. This was no playground pissing contest. This was a moment to show solidarity with the poor folk who were being shelled by Russian troops. It came over, I am sure, as a reaction against the minute of applause rather than a show of support for our owner. I just didn’t need it. Chelsea Football club didn’t need it. The locals a few yards from me were pretty livid. And I think they had a point.

Fackinell.

There were prolonged periods of debate about our recent funding between a few Chelsea fans standing nearby and some equally headstrong locals throughout the game. It was a sideshow that I didn’t warm to.

It was a dire first-half. In the first twenty minutes, Burnley – playing with light blue shorts at home just didn’t look right – easily carved out the better chances. Thankfully our defence were strong both individually and as a unit. As with the last visit – OK, not last season, that doesn’t count, I couldn’t even remember the score – Dwight McNeil looked dangerous on their right. Wout Weghorst is a big lump, eh? A cross from Aaron Lennon found Weghorst but that prince among men Thiago Silva was able to clear off the line. A few defensive headers at set pieces kept Burnley at bay.

Thankfully, Chelsea saw off the early Burnley pressure and saw more and more of the ball. However, a long shot from outside the box from Toni Rudiger, which the ‘keeper Nick Pope did well to smother at his post, was the only real effort on goal.

The locals to our left were noisy at the start of the game but neither Sophie nor myself could decipher much of it.

It’s funny how I sometimes pick on certain things during games. In that first-half, as we were positioned right behind the goal, it was so noticeable that on three or four occasions when Silva was bringing the ball out of defence, I noticed a channel of space right up the middle of the pitch – maybe five yards wide – with no players blocking a pass to a run from a player into space. Alas, there were no runners and thus no ball was pinged at pace into the final third. And if anyone could ping a crisp ball to feet it was Silva. It was so annoying. But this lack of movement encapsulated our play in that woeful first forty-five minutes. It was exasperating stuff.

With our goalkeeper only a few yards away, he was serenaded loudly with his own song.

“He comes from Senegal.”

Thankfully, the home team ran out of ideas and were pushed back by us.

Gary : “they’re playing for 0-0.”

Chris : “So are we, mate.”

On the half-hour, a ball was skied way high and Mendy had to time his leap to perfection. Sadly, he seemed to mist-time everything and his punch fell to Jay Rodriguez, but his shot was off target. We applied a little more pressure as the first-half came to its conclusion but created only half-chances.

In the crowded concourse, I crept past a few pals on the way to the miniscule gents. Our performance was summed up by myself in the briefest of ways.

“Shite, eh?”

The second-half began and how. Chelsea were now attacking us, the two and a half thousand members of the away army. With the second-half just three minutes old, I had a perfect viewpoint to watch Reece James collect the ball just outside the box with a defender immediately up against him. Some sublime skills – a beguiling mixture of twists and dummies – allowed him a spare yard. I expected a cross. Instead, the ball was drilled into the far corner, low at the post.

We erupted.

Reece beamed. His face was a picture as he raced off down to the far corner. We love our post-goal celebrations at the corner posts, eh?

Just five minutes later, a magnificent cross from the boot of Christian Pulisic was absolutely inch perfect, allowing Kai Havertz to leap and head in at the far post. Space was at a minimum. The header had to be as perfectly placed as the cross.

It was.

We roared again.

Two minutes later, we watched a cracking move involving Mason Mount, N’Golo Kante and James develop. A low cross was bundled home by Havertz from very close in.

Three goals in ten minutes. Bloody hell. Nobody could have expected such a blitz at the start of the half. Surely the game was safe? Maybe not. In 2019, we went 4-0 up with goals that included a perfect hat-trick from Pulisic, only for us to gift the home team two late goals.

The home fans were quiet now, with only the occasional song about “Bastard Rovers” to keep them warm.

Sophie joked that three goals in ten minutes had given us a false expectation as the second-half continued. As ten minutes and then twenty passed, we grew restless.

“Boring now, innit?”

I laughed.

With twenty minutes to go, Saul knocked a ball into the danger zone. James Tarkowski took a swipe in an attempt to clear but Pulisic was on hand to smash it in from inside the six-yard box. Thankfully there were no chants of “USA” – ironic or not – to accompany our fourth goal unlike in 2019.

Burnley 0 Chelsea 4.

Excellent.

We had now scored four goals on each of my last three visits to Turf Moor. That Blackburn fan in the pub would be happy.

Thomas Tuchel made some late changes to rest weary legs.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for James.

Mateo Kovacic for Kante.

Timo Werner for Mount.

“Bloody hell, Soph, Ruben is playing right back now.”

We saw the game out. I summed the game up in one sentence.

“First-half everyone was 5/10, second-half 8/10.”

We shuffled out into the dusk of a Burnley evening and there was the usual amount of posturing behind the guard of two police horses from the home fans as both sets of supporters headed under the bridge on Harry Potts Way. We made it back to the car in double-quick time; it was our quickest ever exit from the town centre. A smash and grab raid? Maybe. As I headed west towards the M6 on top of the ridge of high land on the M65, the views of the Ribble Valley beneath the hills to the north and the peaks of the Lake District further west were quite spectacular.

Burnley never lets me down.

Next up, a long drive east to Norwich City on Thursday.

“Thursday?”

“So am I, see you in the pub.”

Tales From Hi Ho Wolverhampton

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Chelsea : 19 December 2021.

Six days before Christmas, we weren’t worrying about expensive gifts; we just wanted our football fix. After Everton on Thursday, many wondered if that was it for a while. I certainly half-expected our match at Molineux to be postponed due to the increase of omicron cases throughout the UK. But despite other games being called off on the Saturday, our Sunday afternoon game against Wolves remained most definitely “on” and so PD, Parky and I set off in good time in order to attend.

Deep down, I was still preparing myself for the news that the game could be called-off while we were heading north towards the Black Country. We kept our ‘phones on during the trip and secretly dreaded any incoming text alerts or ‘phone-calls. To my surprise, there was nothing.

We had left at 9am and we were parked-up at a very convenient parking spot no more than a ten-minute walk from the stadium at around 12.30pm. Molineux lies in a dip just to the north of the compact city centre at Wolverhampton. Although the pitch has been shunted a few yards to the east during its rebuilding a few decades ago, Molineux has played host to Wolves’ games since 1889.

The old stadium was so recognisable in past days. And in my mind, honestly, whenever I think of Wolves my mind quickly flicks up images of that old gold multi-tiered roof of the stand opposite the stand that housed the TV cameras in the ‘seventies. The voice of the ITV football commentator Huw Johns – he covered the teams in the midlands – also appears fleetingly before an image of the huge South Bank behind the right hand goal completes the picture. If I hear Wolves, I rarely think of the new stadium. Molineux was Wolves and Wolves was Molineux. It was quite simple. And during my childhood, this was the same for all of the clubs.

Stamford Bridge was Chelsea and Chelsea was Stamford Bridge.

Highbury was Arsenal and Arsenal was Highbury.

Anfield was Liverpool and Liverpool was Anfield.

I am not so sure this works quite so well these days. To my mind, stadia have become similar and there are simply not so many idiosyncratic and distinct stands in modern football. It’s our collective loss and is such a shame.

The old Molineux, before that old treasure of a stand was dismantled in around 1979, was completed by a cranked main stand opposite and, in the circumstances, a rather mundane roofed terrace behind the left-hand goal. In the ‘seventies – the golden age for many – there wasn’t a more interesting nor recognisable stadium in the Football League than Molineux.

Stamford Bridge maybe. But I suspect I am biased.

The three of us made our way to the stadium, emerging from the infamous subway and out into an area housing many food stalls, badge sellers, a tented beer area, and then a statue of Sir Jack Hayward was spotted in front of the turnstiles to the home end, the old South Bank, which now bears his name. The once huge terrace was embedded onto the natural slope of the hill with the pitch way below. Under the statue, a chubby Wolves fan in a blue fleece was sat stuffing his face full of chips.

As we began walking down the slope to the away turnstiles, I was asked by a fellow with a lanyard and a clipboard to show him my COVID pass. Out came my ‘phone. Check. There would be another check – another lanyard and clipboard, a sign of the times – right outside the away entrance at the bottom of the hill. While I waited for a couple of acquaintances to arrive to sort out tickets, I realised how cold it all was. A mist, maybe even a fog, was giving the pre-match something of an old fashioned feel. It felt great, just right. I half expected Billy Wright or Ron Flowers to walk past in monochrome. The fog had accompanied us up on the drive throughout the morning and it showed no signs of shifting as kick-off time approached.

I chatted to a few Chelsea friends in the concourse in the Steve Bull stand. Talk was of COVID and of how Chelsea had asked for a postponement of the game that very morning. I am not sure if I was being selfish or not, but I was just glad that the game was still on.

As I took my place in the second row, not far from the halfway line, it became clear that many had decided not to travel. I am not exaggerating when I say that in the immediate five or six rows behind me, around twenty-five seats remained unused the entire day. The risk of infection, no doubt, had caused this.

News broke not of our team, but of our bench with just four outfield players and two goalkeepers. The same joke about Kepa playing upfront took place in a grand total of one hundred and fifty thousand different locations throughout the world. I just hoped that despite the push to get the game postponed, the right preparations had not been skipped.

At least Emperor Kante was back with Mateo Kovacic on that bench.

Mendy

Azpilicueta – Silva – Rudiger

James – Kanye – Chalobah – Alonso

Ziyech – Pulisic – Mount

Pre-match, with me wishing I had worn another layer aside from a long-sleeved polo shirt and a jacket, everyone in the front rows were wonderfully warmed by the leaping flames that flashed in front of us in the away areas.

“Have you brought some marshmallows, Gal?”

Elsewhere, the fog loomed. The silhouette of a few trees beyond the south-west corner, now devoid of the temporary seats that Wolves used in that area for a while, looked like something from an oil painting of a rural scene rather than from inside a city.

Chelsea fans, stretched out the entire length of the lower tier, were trying hard to make ourselves heard. We were beaten when the home fans, mainly in the Sir Jack Hayward Stand to our right, augmented the team’s pre-game song being played on the PA.

“Hi Ho Wolverhampton.”

The game began with the Chelsea going right to left and with Marcos Alonso hugging the touchline in front of us all.

You all watched it. The first-half was shite, eh?

It began promisingly enough with a few early raids. But then Wolves muscled in on things and I photographed Daniel Podence before he shot from distance at Mendy in front of the now two-tiered Stan Cullis Stand to our right, the second stand to have stood there since the ‘seventies.

Gary, Parky and I were making the most of a so-so start to the game, and were all giggling like fools when we spotted lookalikes in the crowd of Francis Rossi, Mick Hucknall, the bloke out of Boney M and Shirley Crabtree.

You had to be there.

On a quarter of an hour, we wished we weren’t. Wolves went one-up after a ball was flashed across our box and Podence tucked it home.

Snot.

Then, after what seemed an age, and with no VAR signalled, we spotted the lino on our side hoist his flag. The Wolves fans were quietened. Of course I had no idea why the goal was disallowed; we presumed offside, but it could have been for a foul. These days, who knows?

The mist was staying. This really felt like something from the past.

It’s always so difficult at Wolves to get a sing-along started with everyone so distant from each other. We tried our best.

“He came from PSG. To win the Champions League.”

On half-an hour, although Thiago Silva should have met the ball before it bounced, I marvelled at his rapid recovery and how he not only won the ball but how he played it coolly out to a team mate. For a few minutes previously, I thought our great Brazilian had looked a little cold – long sleeved undershirt, gloves – and moved a little cagily but he soon moved up the gears when needed.

There was a smirk when I had mumbled to myself : “should have worn some Long Johns, Silva.”

Thankfully nobody heard me.

The great performance of the half belonged to N’Golo Kante, back to his best; rampaging, striding, probing, passing, eating up space with joyful glee, the engine room. It was a joy to see him again. What a player.

To paraphrase the pre-match anthem :

“You’re everywhere baby.”

Apart from a few corners – oh, I remember a Pulisic chance that wasn’t – there was absolutely no real threat on the Wolves goal throughout the half. There was earnest endeavour but nothing in the final third. Did we force a save? I think not.

At the break, I moaned to an acquaintance “we might have bodies up front, but we have no presence.”

And no presence at Christmas ain’t fun.

In the concourse, the youth were blasting out a reworking of a Jona Lewie Christmas hymn from 1980; rhyming Tuchel with bugle, I can’t see it catching on.

The second-half? It was better, but it couldn’t have been much worse could it?

Thomas Tuchel replaced Chalobah with Saul and we held our breath.

I whispered to Gal : ”Our Saul.”

He hasn’t set the world alight, has he?

Whereas Wolves showed a little desire to attack in the first-half, in the second forty-five minutes it seemed to be all one-way traffic. Yet here’s the thing; not once was I convinced that we would grab a goal. We kept trying to find gaps and spaces in the Wolves half but something was missing. We missed a Fabregas to unlock the defence for sure. But I can’t fault our desire to win tackles and keep the momentum going. Maybe the fog wasn’t helping; cross-field balls to spare wide men were in short supply. Though, to be fair, once balls were played to the flanks, what sort of cross should we play in? Clearly we had no aerial threat. Precision low balls to feet needed to be that; in such a crowded box, there was no margin for error.

On the hour, the return of Mateo Kovacic, on for Ziyech.

There was now more solidity in the midfield. Saul was finding his feet. Our domination continued. But chances were oh-so rare. Shots were blocked, as were intended crosses. With ten minutes to go, the chance of the game and with hindsight perhaps the only chance of the game; Alonso played in Pulisic but his finish was just too close to the Wolves keeper Kilman and a limb defeated us.

Bollocks.

In the ninetieth minute, with the Wolves substitute Adama Traore about to pounce on a punt up field, I watched mesmerised as that man Silva, from a standing start, almost flat-footed, leapt magnificently to head clear.

His performance throughout the game was truly worth the admission money alone. He never panicked, he glided throughout the entire match. What a player.

With a depleted squad and team, a 0-0 draw was half-decent wasn’t it?

I think so.

On the way home, we called in at “The Vine” – along with a few other Chelsea fans – at West Bromwich for a welcome curry. A lamb dhansak and peshwari naan warmed me up. The Baggies might be out of the top flight, but “The Vine” isn’t. It’s well recommended.

I eventually reached home at about 8.30pm, the game quickly disappearing from view in my mirrors.

But, the winter draws on.

Brentford await.

Wear something warm.

See you there.

Tales From The London Stadium

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 4 December 2021.

This was another early start. At 7am I called for PD and at 7.30am we collected LP. Another cold day was on the cards as I pointed my car eastwards. As with any other Chelsea trip, there was the usual early-morning sequence of chit-chat, laughs and piss-takes. Outwardly, my main conversation point to my two travelling companions was this :

“Never bloody seen us win at their new place.”

For it was true.

26/10/16 : League Cup – lost 1-2

6/10/17 : League – won 2-1 (I did not attend – work)

9/12/17 : League – lost 0-1

23/9/18 : League – drew 0-0

1/7/20 : League – lost 2-3 (I did not attend – behind closed doors)

24/4/21 : League – won 1-0 (I did not attend – behind closed doors)

Inwardly, I was humming a tune to myself, but I was not convinced that I would be able to remember the exact words later in the day if required.

The key word was “zangalewa.”

“Tsamina mina, eh, eh.

Edouard Edouard Mendy.

Tsamina mina zangalewa.

He comes from Senegal.”

After the really lucky win at Watford on Wednesday, everyone seemed to be of the same opinion ahead of our game with West Ham who were surprisingly flying high, albeit not from Stamford Bridge to Upton Park.

“Tough game coming up.”

Despite the undoubted strength of our overall squad, despite the fine managerial nous of Thomas Tuchel, despite our fine showing in several recent games, there were of course questions everywhere. But this is to be expected. We are still a learning team, a growing team, a team in embryo.

Despite our real worries about our fate in East London, we were on our way.

One of these days, the Premier League fixtures will be kinder to us for an away game at the former Olympic Stadium in Stratford. Of my three – soon to be four – visits, one has been a night game and three have been early kick-offs. We have a traditional East-End pre-match lined up to take place at some point in the future; a pint at “The Blind Beggar” and some pie and mash somewhere local. Time was against us on this visit, but one day we’ll do it.

I was parked-up at Barons Court at bang on 10am. Our race out east involved three railway lines and changes at Green Park and Canary Wharf. We arrived at Pudding Mill Lane at bang on 11am. The walk to the away turnstiles took just ten minutes.

Just over four hours from PDs’s door to an Iron door.

Ideally, I wanted to circumnavigate the stadium for the first time to take some photos but we were soon funnelled into the away turnstiles. I had taken a photo of the ArcelorMital Orbit on the walk to the stadium, but it was a terribly flat photo. I had been hoping to take other photos of not only it but of the stadium too. Again, some other time maybe.

It was all rather ironic that I chose to wear a classic navy New York Yankee cap on this cold day in London. Back in June 2019, the Yankees played two “away” games against the Boston Red Sox at West Ham’s stadium and it was natural that many of my friends expected me to attend as I have been a long-distance admirer of the Bronx Bombers since 1990. But I wasn’t having any of it. As a vehement opponent of the “thirty-ninth game” or any variant of it, it would have been pretty hypocritical of me to watch the Yanks outside of North America.

We were inside with a long wait until kick-off and I was able to chat to many good people in the large concourse area outside the seating bowl.

It was fantastic to chat to Tommie and Kevin for the first time in a while. Both follow Wales over land and sea. They feel ill at ease contemplating a possible place in the finals of the Qatar World Cup. They feel conflicted should Wales win their two play-off games. Both dislike the idea of that nation hosting the tournament; the ridiculous heat, the lack of a local football culture, the obvious back-handers involved in the process of choosing that country, the deaths of migrant workers in the construction of the shiny new stadia, the human rights violations.

I feel for them.

Personally, I have decided to boycott watching the FIFA 2022 World Cup. It’s a personal choice. I recently decided not to watch any qualifiers either.

Talking of the Arabian Peninsula, I heard that a few fellow fans had already booked their passage to Abu Dhabi for the long awaited World Club Championships. This is now finalised for the first few days in February. I want to go. Under normal circumstances, my flight and accommodation would be booked. There are of course other outside influences to consider. A couple of The Chuckle Brothers are interested too. Let’s see how COVID behaves over the next few weeks.

I sense an incoming barrage of “whataboutery” questions heading my way.

Is it hypocritical of me to boycott Qatar but to embrace Abu Dhabi?

Possibly. I’ll do some research. I’ll get some answers. It might prove to be a difficult decision. It might be an easy one. This is what Tommie thinks about Qatar too.

…a voice from the gallery : “you OK on that soap-box, mate? You finished pontificating?”

Well. If you insist.

I saw that the Chelsea U-21 team again took part in the autumn group phase of the “EFL” Cup, which was originally known as the Associate Members Cup when it was originally floated back in the mid–eighties. For years and years, this was the sole preserve of teams in the third and fourth tiers of the professional pyramid and gave the competing teams the chance to reach Wembley Stadium. For a while this was known as the Johnstone Paints Trophy, and allowed Southampton to have a self-deprecating dig at us in recent years.

“Johnstone Paints Trophy – you’ll never win that.”

Premier League teams have been allowed to enter their U-21 teams since 2016 and I – and many others – are dead against this. I see no merit in it. It could potentially rob a smaller club of their day out at Wembley. In 1988, for example, Wolves beat Burnley 2-0 in the Sherpa Van Trophy in front of 80,000 supporters at a time when both clubs were floundering. As recently as 2019, over 85,000 saw Portsmouth beat Sunderland.

Seeing Chelsea U-21 at Wembley in a final would not thrill me; far from it. Despite us playing at nearby Bristol Rovers and Forest Green Rovers in the past month, I boycotted those two games. No interest, no point and just wrong in my book.

The two Robs appeared.

“Have you got the Mendy song sorted?”

I replied I wasn’t sure but I thought there was mention of the word “satsuma” somewhere within it.

I made my way up the steps to the upper level of the seating bowl. This was my first time back in over three years and I had forgotten how ridiculous a stadium it really is. I was in row thirty-six, so heaven knows what the view was like in row seventy at the rear. That vast amount of wasted space between the two end tiers is such an eyesore. For a one-time Olympic stadium, I am always struck with how undeniably bland it all is. The only unique feature about it is the upturned triangular pattern of the floodlights. The “running” track area is now claret-coloured, the one change since 2018.

On the balcony of the main stand, or at least the one with the posh boxes, which is the only one not named after a former player, a potted history of West Ham’s successes is listed.

The list does not extend too far.

FA Cup 1964

ECWC 1965

FA Cup 1975

FA Cup 1980

Not much of a list, really.

I said to Gary : “I am surprised they haven’t added ‘East 17 Xmas Number One 1994’ to it…”

To be honest, silverware-wise, Chelsea and West Ham were scarily similar for decades; only four major trophies apiece up until 1997. Since then, well…our two trajectories have differed.

We knew that Thomas Tuchel was still battling injuries but we had also heard that Reece James and Jorginho were to return.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Christensen

Alonso – Jorginho – Loftus-Cheek – James

Mount – Havertz – Ziyech

Still no sight of Romelu Lukaku in the starting eleven; we guessed he wasn’t 100% and was being eased back in.

Ex-Chelsea favourite Kurt Zouma was in the West Ham team.

Chelsea, in yellow and black, attacked the home end in the first-half and quickly dominated possession.

In the opening few minutes, the two sets of fans went with some tried and tested chants :

“From Stamford Bridge to Upton Park, stick your blue flag up your arse.”

“You sold your soul for this shit hole.

On six minutes, the mood in the stadium dramatically changed as an image of the murdered young boy Arthur Labinjo-Hughes was shown on the two giant TV screens. It seemed that everyone stopped to clap. What a terrible waste of a beautiful young life. I have rarely felt such sickening sadness and anger as when I saw, and heard, his sweet voice on the TV.

Bless you Arthur. Rest in peace.

Despite our dominance, West Ham were actually ahead on chances created in the first quarter of an hour, with one shot from Jarrod Bowen going wide and a free header from another who I thought was Mark Noble but then realised he wasn’t even playing. It is, after all, a long way from the pitch in the away end.

All of the noise seemed to be coming from us.

A well struck shot from Reece James was easy for Fabianski to hold.

“One shot on goal in fifteen minutes, Al. That equates to just six in the whole match.” My eyesight might have been shite, but my maths was up to scratch.

Another chance to the home team, but Mendy saved from Craig Dawson.

In the wide open space between the two tiers of Chelsea support, around twenty police were positioned.

“Most Old Bill I’ve seen inside an away ground for ages, Al.”

It had made me chuckle just before the match had started to see Goggles, the football-liaison officer at Fulham Police Station, chatting away to a known Chelsea hooligan, admittedly of yesteryear. It also made me laugh to see, at various stages of the match, all twenty police officers avidly watching the game, seated in a separate section, rather than eyeballing the crowd.

I called it The Goggle Box.

At last, another effort on the West Ham goal; on twenty-five minutes a very fine cross from James picked out the unmarked leap of Kai Havertz. Sadly, this was saved.

A corner followed, and then another. Mount crossed to meet the unhindered leap of Thiago Silva inside the box. His header forced the ball downwards and it bounced up and into the goal. The net rippled and the three-thousand Chelsea fans roared. The goal immediately reminded me of the first Chelsea goal that I ever saw in person, another “up and down” header from Ian Hutchinson in 1974.

Twenty-eight minutes had elapsed and all was well in the world.

“Maybe I will see us win here after all.”

We spotted Joe Cole and Gianfranco Zola, and Rio Ferdinand, out in the open, in front of the BT studio no more than thirty yards away.

Hakim Ziyech was involved in some nice flourishes, and the fleet-footed trio up front were causing West Ham more problems than they would have wished. There was still a reluctance for any of our team to take a pop at goal though. It was infuriating the hell out of Alan and myself. At last, an effort from distance from Mason Mount – nothing special to be honest – cheered us.

“Need to do more of that. Get players following up, it might squirm away from the ‘keeper, let’s keep firing shots in, deflections, touches, make the ’keeper work.”

Two more shots at the West Ham goal followed.

West Ham were still offering an occasional threat, though. Sadly, on forty minutes, an under-hit back pass from Jorginho put Edouard Mendy under all sorts of pressure. Knowing that our fine shot stopper is not gifted with even average distribution, we always wonder Why The Fuck do we seem obsessed in playing the ball back to him, especially when opposing teams are putting us under pressure in our third. It is fucking unfathomable. Well, surprise surprise, a heavy touch from Mendy followed, and as he saw himself lose control, he took a low swipe at that man Bowen.

It was a clear penalty.

Fucksake.

Lanzini smashed in the equaliser from the spot.

Only four minutes later, a fine move involving Ruben Loftus-Cheek pushing the ball out to Ziyech resulted in a long cross-field pass to Mount, unmarked, in the inside-right channel. His first time effort was incredible; a potent mixture of placement and power, the shot being cushioned with the side of his foot, but with so much venom that Fabianski did not get a sniff. It crept in low at the near post.

It was a fucking sublime goal.

There were generally upbeat comments at the break. The noise hadn’t been too loud throughout the half, but it is so difficult to get the away support – in two distinct areas – together to sing as one. I hardly heard the Mendy song, but on its rare appearance, the young bloke behind me was making a spirited effort to mangle every syllable in the entire song.

I kept quiet. I knew I would hardly be any better, satsuma or not.

At half-time, Lukaku replaced Havertz.

“Is it me, Al, or has he put on some weight? He was pretty trim when he returned from Italy.”

He must love Greggs’ steak bakes and sausage rolls. And their doughnuts and yum yums.

There was a little nip-and-tuck as the second-half began. Ten minutes in, Gal chirped “the next goal is massive.” Within a minute, West Ham broke with ease down our left and just before Bowen struck, I feared the worst and sighed “goal”; it was therefore no surprise to me to see the net ripple again, this time at the far post.

Bollocks.

Our Callum came on in place of Ziyech; a tad unlucky I thought, but maybe he was tiring. Callum began up front in a three and had a few nibbles. But ten minutes later, Alonso was replaced by Christian Pulisic, so Callum reverted to a left wing back. We enjoyed a little spell of around ten minutes when we looked to be knocking on the Irons’ door, but I have to say that the integration of a returning Lukaku – either unable or unwilling to shake off markers – was a problem. We enjoyed reasonable approach play but floundered in and around the box.

“Hit the fackin’ thing.”

Our efforts on goal hardly caused Fabianski to break sweat.

“Fackinell Chels.”

Callum’s reluctance to drift past his man was frustrating. On the rare occasions that he was in a good position to shoot, he declined.

Sigh.

With three minutes to go, and with a few Chelsea fans already trickling out of the away end, a relatively rare West Ham move found itself wide on our right.

Out of nowhere, Arthur Masuaku took a swipe at the ball, no doubt intending to send a cross into our box for the impressive Michail Antonio – much more agile than Lukaku – or anyone else who was nearby to attack. To our horror, the ball appeared to be sliced. It made a bee-line for the goal, and Mendy – expecting the cross – was caught out. His back-peddling and side-shifting was a terrible sight to see. Again that same net rippled.

The home fans, I have to say, made an absolute din.

Ugh.

With that, hundreds of Chelsea fans poured out of both tiers.

Alan, Gary, Parky and I stayed to the end, but I had packed away my camera long before the final whistle.

“Still not seen us win here.”

The Chelsea crowd shuffled out. Jason – another Chelsea fan from Wales – cheered me with a positive spin on things.

“Tough one but we move on mate” and a smile.

On the walk away from the stadium, there was honest annoyance but also a little pragmatism too.

“Should have won that. Fluke goal, the winner. A mate reckoned it deflected off Ruben’s leg. But we didn’t create enough clear chances. God, we miss Kante.”

As we walked on, the mood shifted further. Let’s not get too silly about this. Nobody likes losing but on this day, a day of two Arthurs, maybe a little perspective is needed.

Arthur Labinjo-Hughes.

Arthur Masuaku.

Do I have to spell it out?

The return trip out west went well. Pudding Mill Lane station was soon reached. It must be one of London’s hidden secrets; we never wait too long there. In the short line for the lift to take us up to the platform, a West Ham fan, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Bernie Winters, soon sussed that we were Chelsea but when he heard that we went to all the games could not have been friendlier.”

“Good lads.”

I finally took my photo of the ArcelorMital Orbit from the platform as we waited for a train to whip us back to Canary Wharf.

We were back at Barons Court for around 4pm. Our trip back to Wiltshire and Somerset was quick and uneventful, but one moment disrupted us.

“Liverpool just scored. Ninety-fourth minute.”

With Manchester City winning too, we suddenly found ourselves in third place. There will be no dishonour if this fledgling Chelsea team, still learning about itself and its manager – and vice versa – finishes third this season.

Personally, I’ve got my beady eyes on the World Club Championships. If we win that, the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy really won’t matter at all.

There is no midweek flit to Russia for me, so next up it’s the old enemy on Saturday.

Chelsea vs. Leeds United.

Salivate away everyone.

I’ll see you there.

Tales From The Old And The New

Chelsea vs. Juventus : 23 November 2021.

Back in February 2020, not long after Chelsea were given a masterclass in elite football by Bayern Munich, I had walked back up the North End Road with my friend Jaro. He had been in town for both the Tottenham game – good, very good – and the Bayern game – bad, very bad – and we said our goodbyes at the intersection with Lillie Road. He was heading back to his hotel before an early morning flight to whisk him back to his home just outside Washington DC. In the intervening twenty-one months, who could have predicted what would have happened to the world and to Chelsea Football Club?

It was 5.40pm, and I stepped into the Italian restaurant next to “The Goose” on a cold London evening. It was a mere ten yards from where Jaro and I went our separate ways all those months ago. This time Jaro was in town with his son Alex and they had just arrived to secure a seat for a quick bite to eat before the Champions League group phase game with Juventus. My travel companions Parky and PD came in to see the two visitors – handshakes and hugs – before they popped into “The Goose” for a drink or two.

I settled down, perused the menu, and ordered a beer and a pizza.

Time to relax a little, time to start talking football, time to think about the game. But first I thanked Jaro for his friendship over the weirdest time of our lives. He has been a good friend of mine in this period – on-line chats, occasional phone-calls – and I wanted him to know it was appreciated. Alex’ only other visit to Chelsea was for a league game with Newcastle in the early months of Frank Lampard’s short tenure as manager. To say both were excited about being back in London again would be a grave understatement.

The evening would unfold in due course, but I had a little teaser for them both before the evening got into full swing.

I poured a small Birra Moretti into a half-pint glass.

“Right. Bearing in mind tonight’s game and the two teams involved, what is the significance of this beer?”

Puzzled expressions. I added another few words.

“This beer is a thirst quencher, right? Well maybe it could be called a first quencher.”

Still puzzlement.

I then realised something else.

“Ah, it’s in a half-pint glass. A half. That’s a clue too.”

Jaro and Alex were stumped. The conversation moved on a little, and I realised that they weren’t going to be able to solve my little riddle.

Out of interest, it is worth saying that a few tables down from us, a lad was wearing a long-sleeved red Bari training top. This acted as another clue for those playing along at home, if not for Jaro and Alex.

To re-cap.

Birra Moretti.

First-quencher.

Half.

Bari.

Give up? OK, here goes.

Despite the game at Stamford Bridge being the sixth game between Chelsea and Juventus in the Champions League, the very first encounter took place in the southern Italian city of Bari in August 2002 in the Birra Moretti Cup. On the same night, Chelsea played half a game against Juventus (drew 0-0, lost on penalties) before losing 0-3 to Inter in another forty-five-minute game. I remembered watching it all unfold on Chelsea TV.

In those days, Juventus of Turin, of the whole of Italy, were European royalty. I still find it hard to believe that Juventus of Turin and Chelsea of London have both won the same number of European Cups.

The pizza was damned fine. The little restaurant was full of Chelsea supporters. We chatted about pandemics, Champions League Finals, heart attacks, Chelsea and Juventus.

In the dim and distant past, when Jaro was a teenager back in Poland, Juventus must have tugged a little at his heart strings. I remember that he told me that he had got hold of, I know not how, a Juventus scarf, which must have been quite a capture in communist Poland. He had since mislaid it. However, in packing for this trip he had stumbled across an old suitcase and – lo and behold – the old Juventus scarf was unearthed after many a year. Jaro thought that this was undoubtedly a good sign ahead of his trip across the Atlantic.

Outside, yes, a cold night. I was glad that I had worn an extra top beneath my jacket. I didn’t see a single Juventus fan on the walk down to the ground with PD. Jaro had spotted little knots of them in the afternoon as he circumnavigated the stadium not once but twice.

We all made it inside Stamford Bridge earlier – much earlier – than usual.

I was inside by 7.15pm, a good forty-five minutes before kick-off. I spent a few minutes at the rear of the Matthew Harding upper tier, right above where I sit, and took a few shots of the scene. In my quest to photograph every square yard of Stamford Bridge, inside and out, for my pleasure if nobody else’s, it was a well-spent ten minutes. Over in the far corner, the travelling Juventus supporters were positioned in two tiers. The Champions League logo – a large plastic flag – was lying still over the centre circle.

As I walked down to share a few words with Frank from Oxford, who sits in the row behind me, and then to re-join PD, the players of both teams entered the pitch for their choreographed drills and pre-match routines. Very soon the entire pitch was covered in people. Not only the starting elevens, but the substitutes too. A few coaches, maybe a few of the medical staff. Around ten chaps forking the pitch. UEFA officials swarming everywhere. God knows who else. Easily a hundred people were on the pitch. It was ridiculous.

I immediately spotted Jaro and Alex in the second row of The Shed, right by the corner flag. At this time of year, I know that many US supporters travel over – making use of cheaper than usual international flights at Thanksgiving since the vast majority of Americans only travel domestically to see family members – and I knew that many were close by in Parkyville.

These Autumnal group phase matches – part and parcel of our game now – can be viewed as an unnecessary burden by some. Are they an integral part of the calendar and a key part in the selection of the fittest and finest teams to head into the latter stages in the new year? Or are they simply money-spinning stocking fillers before Christmas, ostensibly nothing more than extra games, the source of extra revenues with the accompanying extra chatter, extra debate, extra noise?

I think we know the answer.

The saving grace, of course, is that this format allows match-going fans of a certain disposition – step forward, you know who you are – the chance to watch their idols play in three, hopefully, interesting and exotic cities each time qualification is gained. For that reason alone, I am glad that the bloated Champions League format exists though, deep down, the simpler knock-out style of European competition pre-1992 has many admirers too.

The minutes ticked by. PD and I were joined by Rich from Edinburgh and Alan from South London in The Sleepy Hollow.

A text from Tullio in Turin : “let’s go to work.”

Despite my soft-spot for Juventus, I fended off the need to buy a half-and-half scarf. Out in Turin, the nearest I got to it was a “I was there” jacquard scarf depicting the date of the game and the venue.

This would be my thirteenth Juventus game. I hoped it would be unlucky for them and not for me.

The first dozen :

1987 : Juventus 3 Panathinaikos 2.

1988 : Juventus 1 Internazionale 0.

1988 : Juventus 3 Napoli 5.

1989 : Juventus 1 Fiorentina 1.

1992 : Juventus 0 Sampdoria 0.

1995 : Rangers 0 Juventus 4.

1999 : Juventus 2 Fiorentina 1.

2009 : Chelsea 1 Juventus 0.

2009 : Juventus 2 Chelsea 2.

2012 : Chelsea 2 Juventus 2.

2012 : Juventus 3 Chelsea 0.

2021 : Juventus 1 Chelsea 0.

In the last few minutes, the place suddenly filled. There were around one thousand away fans opposite me.

The Chelsea team was almost the same one that ended the game against Leicester City.

Mendy – Rudiger, Silva, Chalobah – Chilwell, Kante, Jorginho, James – Hudson-Odoi, Pulisic, Ziyech

The stadium packed to capacity, save for a few late arrivals, the teams appeared.

First Chelsea, with blue tracksuit tops, then Juventus also in blue tracksuit tops.

I remember hating the sight of Juve, back in 2009, showing up at Chelsea in a bronze away shirt. Thankfully on this occasion they opted for the Notts County “hand-me-downs” of black and white stripes, but there was something about their uniforms that didn’t strike me as being particularly “Juve”. Were the stripes too narrow? Were the shorts not baggy enough? Did I miss seeing “Ariston” and the “Robe di Kape” labels? No. Of course it was the black socks. Ugh.

I clapped the former two Chelsea players Juan Cuadrado and Alvaro Morata.

Neither looked happy to be back.

“We hardly knew you.”

The game began. Nobody was expecting Juventus to come at us like their life depended upon it, but our dominance in the first five minutes was astounding. It took them until the sixth minute, I think, for them to get the ball out of their own half.

With both Timo Werner and Romelu Lukaku on the bench, it was left for Christian Pulisic to take over from Kai Havertz as the central false-nine, and Alan commented early on how high King Kante was playing on the right.

A “sighter” from the currently impressive Ben Chilwell was fired over the bar. We enjoyed a lot of early possession, and it settled the whole stadium.

“Champions of Europe, we know what we are.”

Juve attacks were rare, and efforts from Chalobah and Hudson-Odoi caused panic in The Old Lady’s defence. Our youngsters were raiding at will, and the watching bianconeri in The Shed must have been impressed with our fluidity. The ex-Arsenal ‘keeper Wojciech Szvsazvxsaeneszxeyezcsy was involved early and involved often. He ably stopped a fine free-kick from our man of the moment Reece James.

When we were awarded a corner, Alan commented that he wanted Morata to find himself inside the six-yard box and to awkwardly jump and head a ball past his ‘keeper.

“Knowing our luck, the fucker would be offside, Al.”

As Hakim Ziyech trotted over to take a corner in front of the away support on twenty-five minutes, I noticed more than a usual number of Italian flags being waved. It struck me as a little odd. It’s something that club teams tend not to do on travels around the continent. I have certainly not seen this from Juventus before, nor other Italian teams, where local identity and allied tribal imagery is usually much more important. Maybe somebody had them on sale in a local Italian restaurant.

The ball was floated in, Antonio Rudiger rose, the ball ended up at the feet of Trevoh Chalobah.

Smack.

Goal.

One-nil.

“YES.”

The Bridge erupted.

I captured the slide down in front of the away fans.

Unlike “Song 2” by Blur – of all bands – being used by the Juventus PA out in Turin in September when Chiesa scored, there is no song used by Chelsea when we score and long may this continue. It would be just another nail in the coffin.

We are Chelsea and we make our own noise.

Woo Hoo.

While we were waiting for the game to restart, there was a rumour of a VAR check, but nothing was really made clear.

“Whatevs” as the kids say.

A text from Tullio : “volleyball.”

The defensive highlight of our game then thrilled us all. Locatelli unlocked our defence with a fine chipped lob to Morata, and with Mendy flummoxed and on his arse, the Spaniard was denied a certain goal when the back-peddling Thiago Silva hooked the ball away.

The applause rang out from all four stands.

The old man had thwarted the Old Lady.

However, I equally enjoyed the Rolls Royce-like burst from Silva down our left flank when a Juventus attacker threatened him. His effortless glide past the hapless striker was an absolute joy to watch.

Efforts from James and Rudiger towards the end of the half made sure that the Juve ‘keeper was kept busy. I can’t remember Mendy, the Morata cock-up aside, ever being in danger.

Sadly, there was an injury to Kante, and he was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

At the break, much positivity.

“Pulisic is quiet though, Al.”

The second-half began with Chelsea attacking us in the Matthew Harding. We continued our domination.

I loved it when I spotted Thomas Tuchel fist-pumping and demanding some noise from the adjacent fans in the East Lower; it’s the family section, someone should tell him.

On fifty-five minutes, a cross from Ben Chilwell down below us was headed on its way. It fell to the feet of the lurking James on the angle. A chested touch to control and take out the defender was followed by a low pile driver that flew into the net.

I captured that bastard on film.

What a strike.

Despite bubbling over, I managed to snap the subsequent shrug from Reece and then the triumphant pose in front of the MHL.

Two-up on the night, we were now top of our group.

A couple of minutes later, a cracking move involving Rudiger, James, Ziyech and some lovely close-in dribbling from Loftus-Cheek set up Our Callum. Once this final ball was played in, there was that glorious feeling knowing that a certain goal was just about to be scored.

Bosh.

3-0.

I reached for my camera and tried my best to capture Callum’s wild euphoria. He was mobbed by all. Great scenes.

The atmosphere was good, but not at a stratospheric level. The Juve fans kept singing throughout. It’s what they do. I gulped when I spotted a “+39” banner in their section.

Sadly, Ben Chilwell was injured and had to be assisted off. He was replaced by Captain Dave, a rare sight these days. Other late substitutions followed. Timo Werner for Pulicic, then Mason Mount for Hudson-Odoi.

The Chelsea choir to the luckless ‘keeper : “You’re just a shit Fabianski.”

Juventus enjoyed their best spell of the game, and the otherwise out-of-work Mendy did ever so well to save from the American Weston McKennie. However, as the game drew to a conclusion, I always fancied us to score a very late goal. Ziyech grew as the game continued and drew another fine save from “triple points score in Scrabble” as Chelsea continued to pile on the pressure.

On the ninety-five-minute mark, we were rewarded.

We watched in awe as James sent over an absolutely perfect ball – with just the right amount of spin, dip and fade – towards Ziyech. We were a little lucky in that a Juve defender mistimed his interception, but the Moroccan’s cross was so good that not even Werner missed it.

Goal.

On a splendid night in deepest SW6 when so many Americans were present, there was only one phrase needed.

“Totally foursome.”

It was a night when three academy players scored three goals against a tough Italian defence. It was a night when our youngsters – aided and abetted by one masterly old’un – totally dominated against La Vecchia Signora. It was a night when our new guard drew praise from everyone.

How ironic that Juventus means “youth.”

Move over, Juve, there are new kids on the piazza.

We headed out into the cold London night.

A text from Tullio : “no words.”

In the style of La Gazzetta Dello Sport, and its incredibly tough way of ranking players – I have never seen a ten, even nines are ridiculously rare – here are my player rankings.

Mendy : 7 – a night-off, but one fine save when called-upon.

Rudiger : 8 – solid as ever, and an occasional threat in the opposing box.

Silva : 9 – calm, cultured, a masterclass in defensive nous.

Chalobah : 8 – a fine game, took his goal well, never embarrassed.

James : 9 – a thunderously fine performance, solid defensively, always a threat going forward, man of the match, man of the moment.

Kante : 7 – a little bit of everything until an injury took him out of the game.

Jorginho : 7 – understated but so efficient, he kept the team focussed.

Chilwell : 7 – a good overlapping threat, sadly his night ended with a bad injury.

Hudson-Odoi : 8 – at last he is fulfilling his great potential, always a handful.

Pulisic : 5 – a quiet game, not involved in many key moments.

Ziyech : 8 – arguably his match thus far, he grew in confidence and stature as the game continued.

Subs : Loftus-Cheek 7, Azpilicueta 6, Mount 6, Werner 7

Chelsea : top of the Premier League.

Chelsea : top of the Champions League.

Frome Town : top of the Southern League Division One South.

Next up : Manchester United at home.

Life : good.


Tales From Beneath The Whispering Gallery

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 19 September 2021.

I have said it before and I suspect that I will say it again and again; to me Tottenham is our biggest away game. It’s certainly the one that I look forward to more than no other. It has history. It has substance. It has animosity. It has hate. With Chelsea flying high, and Tottenham faltering, I couldn’t wait to set off for their new spanking stadium that soars over the more down-at-heel shops and houses on the Tottenham High Road and its associated neighbouring streets.

But first an FA Cup tie.

Yes, dear reader, this was another weekend of football that was to give me the twin gifts of League and Cup.

I assembled at Frome Town’s ground Badgers Hill for the 3pm kick-off on the Saturday for a game against National League South outfit Oxford City, a team that we had recently played in the same step of the football pyramid. Since then, the Hoops have advanced one step, while the Robins have descended one.

What transpired was a stunningly perfect afternoon of FA Cup football, played out under a mottled sky, warming sunshine and with a really gratifying attendance of almost six hundred spectators. Frome soaked up some steady pressure in the first-half and an Oxford goal was called back for offside. Two stunning breakaway goals by James Ollis and Joe O’Loughlin gave the home team a surprise 2-0 lead at the break. Frome then improved further, with more attacks, more efforts on goal. But just at the very moment that my mate Francis uttered the immortal words “they look like scoring” and I replied “you’re right” – they did.

Despite an increasingly nervous last quarter of an hour, manager Danny Greaves’ side held on to win 2-1.

My friend Steve, the newly-crowned club historian, believed this to be Frome’s first win in the Cup against a team two divisions higher than us since a 1984 win against Bath City.

So, into the Third Qualifying Round we go. I remember watching Frome Town play against Team Bath at the same stage around ten years ago; a 2-2 draw at home, a heavy 0-4 loss away, at Bath City’s Twerton Park.

We would await the draw on Monday with keen interest.

I collected PD and Parky at 9.15am on the Sunday morning and pointed my Chelsea Blue Chuckle Wagon eastwards. We tend to break up the journey with a Greggs breakfast – being on a diet ain’t easy with all of the miles we travel for football – just before the A303 meets the M3. The woman serving us at Popham Services – Eddie Large in drag – has got to know our ugly faces the past two seasons and there is usually a little football banter while we order baps, baguettes and slices. She’s a Liverpool fan. Yes, you can only imagine.

Just as I slid the car away, PD announced :

“Jimmy Greaves has died, then.”

Oh no. What sad news. I know that he had been ill for some time.

“Did he pass away today? Bloody strange if he did, what with Tottenham playing Chelsea.”

I ate up the miles, and we were parked up at Barons Court tube at 11.45am; as quick and as easy a journey in as I can remember. We would eventually hope to catch the 3pm over ground service from Liverpool Street up to White Hart Lane, but we didn’t particularly care to be surrounded by coke’d up wannabes in the pubs that cluster around that station for a few hours, drinking out of plastic glasses and under the eye of the OB. I fancied somewhere different. We changed from the Piccadilly to the Central at Holborn, then alighted at St. Paul’s.

We made “The Paternoster” our base for a couple of hours or so. In a break from the light drizzle and then steady showers, I sped outside for twenty minutes to take a few photographs of Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece. I looked up at the huge and impressive dome, and remembered tales of The Whispering Gallery. I had been past St. Paul’s Cathedral once or twice by bus in recent times, but the last time that I had actually stood outside it was on a family trip to London in 1981. While my parents and an aunt toured inside the cathedral, I just walked to Stamford Bridge. It seemed the most logical thing to do in the circumstances.

From one cathedral to another.

I can distinctly remember reading the Jimmy Greaves autobiography “This One’s On Me” around that same time and, thinking back, it was undoubtedly the first footballer’s autobiography that I ever read. I can remember reading how he hated his time in Milan after his forced move from Chelsea. His decline into alcoholism was quite harrowing for a sixteen-year-old to read.

I wasn’t going to have a single beer, but I bought a single “Peroni” to toast his memory.

“Oh, he did die today. How uncanny.”

There was a photograph on the internet of Jimmy Greaves, from around maybe fifteen years ago, being presented pitch side at Stamford Bridge. I must have been there, yet – alas – I have no recollection of it.

Outside, the rain, but only a few spots. At 2.40pm, we whizzed up to Liverpool Street, and then found an empty carriage at Liverpool Street for the last leg of the journey. It was the earliest that we would be arriving in N17 for ages. On the twenty-five-minute journey, PD surprised us all and began chatting to some Tottenham fans. Parky and I kept our silence. To be fair, they were decent lads and we wished each other well, although I am sure none of us fucking meant it.

I wanted to take a few photographs of the stadium, so excused myself. Let’s not waste any time here; the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is a stunner, an absolute beauty, surely the finest football stadium in Europe. That it sits cheek by jowl alongside the same fried chicken joints, nail shops, kebab houses and grimy pubs as the old White Hart Lane gives the place a very odd feeling, as uneven a setting as there is ever likely to be. It might be on The High Road, but it overlooks The Low Road.

Simple black and white images of Jimmy Greaves MBE appeared on the outside and inside of the stadium. His presence was everywhere. Again, how odd and yet fitting that he should pass away on the day of the derby between his two main teams. I was reminded of Dixie Dean passing away at Goodison during the Merseyside derby in 1980.

I whirled away, bumped into some Chelsea acquaintances from Bristol and New York on the High Road, then spun around to enter the away turnstiles in the north-eastern corner.

Just as I entered the away concourse, there was an almighty commotion and I couldn’t quite work out what was occurring.

United were winning 2-1 at West Ham, but there was a late penalty for the home team. Noble then missed. Bollocks.

How’s that for a match report?

This was Parky’s first visit to the new place. I looked at the towering South Stand and could hardly believe how high it extended.

The troops arrived.

Alan, Gary, Foxy and Drew from Dundee, Margaret and Pam, Calvin, Becky and Cath. There were a few chats with many of the usual suspects.

Turin dominated.

I had succumbed on Friday to a four-day trip to the home city of Juventus for our game in a couple of weeks’ time.

I chatted with Patrick, then Ali and Nick, then Alan, then Tim. There were differing levels of understanding of what testing and procedures were required. It would, no doubt, be a stressful time over the next week or so. Preparations for Porto proved to be a drain on my brain and I am sure Turin will be too.

“Mendy’s out.”

Bollocks.

The stadium filled. I couldn’t work out if the seats are all muted slate grey or a dull navy. Regardless, virtually all were filled. We were in row four, right down the front, not far from our spot in the 2019/20 season.

It shows how disconnected we were last season that neither Alan nor Gary nor myself could remember how we did at Tottenham last season.

“Draw, wannit?”

One of the former players being interviewed for the in-house TV Channel was Gary Mabbutt, his Bristol twang taking me back to when he used to play for Bristol Rovers, then Tottenham, then England.

Gary : “Good player, Mabbutt.”

Chris : “His father, Ray, used to play for Frome.”

The team was announced. Not only no Mendy, but no Kante either.

Kepa

Rudiger – Silva – Christensen

Dave – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Lukaku – Havertz

Just before kick-off, that same image of Jimmy Greaves appeared on the TV screens in the four corners of the stadium, high above the pitch. Both sets of fans roundly and solidly applauded his memory.

He was loved by the fans of both clubs and the whole of the football world.

Jimmy Greaves was the greatest ever goal scorer produced by the English nation.

I remembered that in 2019, Martin Peters – unlike Greaves, a player in the 1966 World Cup Final – was similarly remembered.

Glenn Hoddle appeared out of nowhere and was given a fine reception by the 3,000 Chelsea fans in the corner as he walked around the edge of the pitch.

The game began. Tottenham attacked our northern end. With them playing in navy socks this year, we were allowed to wear our white socks. I approved. I soon found myself being distracted a little by all of the constant messages being blitzed across the various balconies. Supporters clubs from all over the world were featured. One made me double-take.

Baku Spurs.

Baku? Bloody hell. Probably just one bloke with a Tottenham mouse mat.

There is no denying it. Tottenham were quicker out of the traps than us in the first quarter of the game. We plodded along, and struggled to link passes through our midfield, whereas the home team looked sharper and created a little more.

With the home crowd singing “Oh when the Spurs”, Tottenham were given a central free-kick. The singing continued as the build-up seemed to take forever. Harry Kane was to take it. The singing grew louder.

“Fuck, if he scores now, after that song as a pre-curser, this place will bloody explode.”

He hit the wall.

Phew.

A rapid break in the inside right channel involving Mason Mount got us on our toes – the rail seating is excellent at Tottenham, I was able to lean forward on many occasions – but after a messy one-two with Lukaku, the chance was spurned, pardon the pun.

This was a tight game, and the home team were edging it. Havertz looked out of sorts, and on too many occasions Tottenham were able to cut through us. However, the away support was full of all the old favourites which we love to air in this particular part of North London.

“We’re the only team in London…”

“We won 6-1 at The Lane…”

“And the shit from The Lane…”

Alas, the players were not as entertaining. Tottenham managed a few set pieces, but corners were steadfastly headed away by various defenders. It was all a little underwhelming. After Tottenham – players and fans alike – were found to be bellowing at any perceived Chelsea foul or piece of wrong-doing, the noise levels increased. Gary had his usual response.

“Fackinell. More appeals than Blue Peter.”

Kepa saved well at the feet of the raiding Son, and was injured. Thankfully he recovered. Then an errant back-pass by Rudiger had only just been despatched in time by Kepa. Only a couple of shots from distance – wide and blocked – were forthcoming from the Chelsea attack the entire half. Their ‘keeper Hugo Loris had hardly had a shot to save.

That would soon change.

I turned to Gary : “Well, they can’t play as well as that in the second-half.”

I returned a little late at the break and missed the restart.

“Kante on? Who’s off? Mount?”

As much as we all love Mason, he had not enjoyed a great half at all. In came our tigerish tackler to replace him. I couldn’t quite work out how the new addition would fit in alongside Jorginho and Kovacic, but soon into the second-half I didn’t care.

There soon followed a sublime piece of football that had me purring. Thiago Silva pinged a wonderful ball into space for the on-rushing Marcos Alonso. It cut out everyone. A trademark volley at an angle from the left wing-back was superbly saved by the cat-like reflexes of Loris.

“That’s more like it Chels. Come on!”

The Chelsea pressure mounted. A few corners were whipped in just in front of us by that man Alonso. One more corner was then aimed centrally, from the other side of the pitch, and the silver hair of Silva was seen to rise above all those around him and the ball flashed past Loris into the Tottenham goal.

FUCKINGGETIN.

The goal on film, I remained steady to capture his exuberant run towards the Chelsea fans who had now been let loose into a wild orgasmic frenzy of arms and legs, or “limbs” as the kids say. Such joy. Such happiness.

This is why we go to football.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Donna and Rachael suddenly appeared in front of us after having disappeared a few minutes before the break for some bevvies. They had missed the first goal. But they did not miss the second one. Just after Dier blocked a shot from Alonso on the goal-line, a shot from distance from N’Golo – it could only be termed, at its most optimistic, as “speculative” – took a wicked deflection off Dier. The ball spun goal wards, hit the base of the post nearest us, and we watched – eyes on stalks, balancing on toes – as the ball skewed itself over the line and into the goal.

Laugh? I almost bought a round of drinks.

Oh that was beautiful.

“Tottenham Hotspur, it’s happened again.”

Kante looked, of course, so bashful. Bless him.

Just twelve minutes into the second-half, and we were now well on top. The home fans were now completely muted.

The whispering gallery had been moved from inside the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral to the top tier at Tottenham.

One of the many messages flashed all over the LED displays on the balconies at Tottenham mentions the Spurs Skywalk. This takes the unfortunate supporter out onto the roof, where – if they look well – they can just make out the East Stand at Stamford Bridge, the home of the only club in London with not one, but two, European Cups.

I thought to myself :

“Those Tottenham players had best book themselves onto that skywalk. It’ll be the highest they will ever fucking get.”

Kante was everywhere and I mean everywhere. The whole team had been revitalised by his appearance at the start of the second period. Elsewhere, we suddenly had runners, and our attacking performance reached lovely levels.

A lone shot from the hidden, or hiding, Kane was well saved by Kepa. Silva, our man of the match, was foiled by Loris, who was easily the Tottenham man of the match. Yet more saves followed from Alonso – again! – and Timo Werner, a late substitute for Havertz. Lukaku enjoyed a late surge, running centrally on a few occasions at the disillusioned Tottenham defence, twisting and turning, turning defenders’ legs into jelly, Dier and Romeiro pleading for salvation, but Loris foiled both him and Kovacic. The Croatian was one of the stars of that second period. We were on fire.

If it had been the Bernabeu, white handkerchiefs would have been waved.

There was even time for a “Bouncy Bouncy” : how 2013.

Right at the end, with many of the home fans having decided that “enough was enough”, the ball was picked up and Timo Werner did ever so well to pull the ball back for Rudi to pick a corner and drill the ball in.

Tottenham 0 Chelsea 3.

The crowd erupted once more.

There was another ridiculously jubilant run by the scorer to our corner, and with Jorginho absolutely pissing himself, the photos were a joy to snap.

I turned to Gary again.

“We top?”

“Yeah.”

Parky and I met up with PD, who had enjoyed a great view in the back row of our section, and we slowly walked away from the ground. I overheard someone say “three league wins out of three here” – oh, it wasn’t a draw last season? – and maybe it is time to well-and-truly rename the new gaff Three Point Lane.

The Stadium.

The Game.

Us.

Our exit strategy was the same as at Christmas 2019; find a fast-food place for a chicken burger and wait for the crowds to disperse. We caught the 7.48pm train from White Hart Lane back into town, and the carriage was full of moaning Tottenham fans. A heavily made up woman with lips that looked like they had been filled with air was the main noisemaker :

“Right. I’ll say it. Don’t care. We are shit. We just gotta acclimatise ourselves into realising we ain’t that good.”

I looked at PD. Parky looked at me.

I whispered : “She’s got a point.”

Unlike Tottenham.

On we go, Villa next, see you there.

The End.

Tales From Porto : Part Two – Reach Out, Touch Faith

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2021.

Just as in Moscow in 2008 and Munich in 2012, I travelled the last few miles to the venue of the Champions League Final by tube. In Moscow, the carriage was full of noisy fans of both clubs. In Munich, the stifling air of the U-bahn made singing uncomfortable for the Chelsea fans who almost filled the entire carriage. This time, Charlotte and I stood the few miles in comfort as there was space to both talk and think. Only Chelsea fans were inside this carriage. We were on our way to Combatentes tube station to the west of the Dragao Stadium to the north east of the city centre. The Manchester City support would be heading to a different station. In Moscow, the Chelsea hordes were housed in the southern end of the Luzhniki Stadium. In Munich, we took our place in the three tiers of the Nord Kurv. In Porto, Chelsea would again be located at the northern end.

Charlotte and I, both from Somerset, continued our match day chat and touched on our early memories of going to games. Charlotte’s first game at Stamford Bridge was a 3-1 win over the then European Champions Liverpool in 1978, a game that I attended too. I liked that. We spoke of how Chelsea had become a major part of our lives, and how people “on the outside” probably never come close to understanding the pull that it has on us all. I only met Charlotte for the first time in Kiev in 2019, but have bumped into her and her husband Paul – injured for this final, a broken ankle – at a few games since.

As in the crowds outside the bars near the fan zone, one song dominated the ten-minute journey north. I have often maintained that the football song that stems from the Depeche Mode song “Just Can’t Get Enough” should always have been a Chelsea song long before Liverpool and Celtic, and then others, grabbed hold of it. Band members Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher are big Chelsea fans. It should have been The Shed and not The Kop “do, do, do, do, do, do, do”-ing these past ten years. But this song was now – at last – a new and vibrant part of the Chelsea songbook. Timo Werner is the subject matter of our version and the song was being bellowed out with gusto as the Chelsea faithful exited the train and clambered up the stairs. Tube stations are always fine locations for a pre-match sing-song, the bare walls echoing nicely.

On the coach down to Munich from Prague with Glenn in 2012, one song got inside my brain, the iconic “The Model” by Kraftwerk. We kept singing it to each other. A real ear-worm for that day. By the time we joined up the rest of the lads in a sunny Munich beer garden, Alan had changed the words slightly.

“Gal’s a model and he’s looking good. He loves his main course and he loves his pud.”

Alas neither Alan nor Gary would be in Porto this time around; nor the other members of our Munich tour party, Daryl, Neil, Glenn, Simon and Milo.

Kraftwerk in Munich, Depeche Mode in Porto. A nice progression.

As we reached the top of the stairs, I spoke to Charlotte :

“Never before in the history of football has a song been sung so loudly and so devotedly in honour of a striker who has scored such a paltry number of goals.”

Outside, the air was perfect. We slowly walked east to the stadium which eventually appeared in the distance, it’s large roof trusses discernible through some trees and over some rooftops. This was a well-to-do part of the city. A tree-lined road, with decent houses nearby, steadily dipped down to the stadium. We bumped into Scott, Gerry and a very giggly Paul, who was looking like he had imbibed one too many ports. It was great to see them; they go everywhere. I remember chatting to Scott and Paul in Australia in 2018.

At just before 6pm, it was my big moment. At the turnstiles outside the north-west corner of the stadium, I scanned my match ticket and showed my yellow bracelet, which basically took the place of my printed negative test result email.

I was in.

A little rush of adrenalin. I then moved towards the security guard inside the perimeter of the stadium. While a chap next to me was sounding off about not being allowed to take his “ever so slightly bigger than A4 size” bag in to the stadium, I pushed through. I had my mobile phone in my left jeans pocket and my new camera in my right pocket. The steward brushed them without really being too bothered. He was more concerned for me to open up the three compartments of my newly-purchased CP bag. Inside was my passport, my medication, my glasses, my boarding passes, a pen, some wet wipes and a couple of chargers. He barely looked inside.

My camera was in too.

Another adrenalin rush.

We walked on, and I took a few photographs of the stadium, it’s bright curving stands beneath a perfect Portuguese sun.

It was a gorgeous evening. I had been pleasantly surprised how many Chelsea had taken head of the warning to travel to the stadium in good time. I was inside the grounds of the stadium before 6 o’clock. Too sensible by far. In Munich, we all got in with ten minutes to spare.

I bought myself an espresso and slowly walked down to my seat in block 23.

The stadium opened up before me, the green turf ahead, blocks of concrete, the colour blue, great expanses of steel overhead.

It was as if I was waking from a complete season in hibernation. My alarm clock had sounded very late; it allowed me to watch the FA Cup Final on that wet and dreary Saturday two weekends ago, but there was such insipid performance that day that it soon became distant. That game was so difficult for me to rationalise. In retrospect, that whole day seemed like a dream. In fact, I have almost sleepwalked through the past nine months, aware that my interest in the love of my life was waning with each passing week.

But I was awake now.

As I have said on many occasions recently, the thought of us reaching a European Cup Final and me not being present had haunted me all season long. Others were excited by our European run. I was not so enthusiastic. The thought of me being absent from the final was killing me.

But here I was. In Portugal. In a pandemic. With my face mask and my camera and a head full of emotions to last a lifetime.

I guzzled that coffee and toasted absent friends, sadly too many to mention.

To get my bearings I quickly looked up to my left and spotted the section of the upper tier of the east stand where I watched us play Porto in 2015. I noted that the black netting that spoiled our view six years ago was tied back under the roof for this game.

The stadium looked a picture. Large multi-tiered stands to the side, topped by huge curving roofs. Behind both goals, a single tier but in two sections. The roof above both end stands floated in the air, supported only from the sides and not from the rear. I have rarely seen a stadium with such a feature. The colour scheme of royal blue seats met with my approval, and the deep blue sky above completed a perfect setting.

I stood the entire time and kept a lookout for friends and acquaintances. I soon spotted Ali and Nick from Reading around ten rows behind me. Andy and Sophie too. Aroha, Luke, Doreen close by. Then Big John appeared, dressed in all black, but far from impressed with his seat for the evening. He was located right in the corner, as low as me, but John had paid a higher priced ticket than everyone else in the section. We briefly spoke again how crazy this season had been. And this night in Portugal was typically odd too.

“Surreal, innit?”

Fellow spectators slowly entered the stadium. Music played on the PA. There were a few rare chants. At our seat, there was another Chelsea goody bag. I had already been given a Chelsea badge in the fan zone and here, in a specially logo’d Porto royal blue kitbag was a jacquard Final scarf. A flag was propped up by my seat too. The kit bag soon housed all my goods and chattels. It came in very useful. I dropped my top on the back of my seat and tried to take it all in.

In the build-up during the previous week, I had mentioned to a few friends that in 2012 it seemed that we were a well-established team, long in the tooth when it came to the Champions League. It seemed that 2012 was “the last chance saloon” for many; for Drogba, for Terry, for Cech, for Cole, for Lampard. In reality we really should have won the biggest prize in world club football in any year from 2005 to 2010.

So 2012 came along at just the right time. And how.

Since then, despite Amsterdam in 2013 and Baku in 2019, I had admitted to myself that we simply would not win the European Cup again, or at least not in my lifetime. Going into this season I certainly felt that. Last season, as youngsters, we were torn apart by a hugely impressive Bayern ensemble.

This season? It has been sensational. First, Frank getting us out of the group phase. Secondly, Thomas navigating the stormy waters of the knock-out phase, which included a couple of games against Porto – of all teams – in Seville.

But here is the sad fact. I never felt close to this team. I never felt that involvement. I was emotionally distanced from it all. Until Wembley, I had never seen Timo Werner, nor Ben Chilwell, nor Kai Havertz, nor Edouard Mendy, nor Thiago Silva, nor Hakim Ziyech. Not in Chelsea blue anyway.

None of them.

What a fucking mess.

It felt that this team was only just beginning. It was in its formative stage. A baby turning into a toddler, no more. Yet here we were at a Champions League Final. Whisper it, but it almost didn’t seem right to me. I have been saying for a few months “we’re not even a team” insomuch as apart from a couple of sure-fire starters – N’Golo, Mason – not many Chelsea fans would be even able to name their favourite eleven. We never had this problem in 1983/84, 2004/5 nor 2016/17.

And there was a considerable feeling of personal guilt too. It would appear that thousands of Chelsea fans were more involved than me this season. Yet here I was in Porto at the Champions League Final. What right did I have to be here?

Champions League Final Wanker? Quite possibly.

I knew only this; I had to be in Portugal, in Porto, at Estadio do Dragao, in the north terrace, in section twenty-three, in row three, in seat fourteen for my sanity.

At around ten minutes to seven, two UEFA officials brought the Champions League trophy – daintily decked in one royal blue ribbon and one sky blue ribbon – to the adjacent corner flag. It was placed atop a clear plastic plinth. The press photographers nearby took a photo as did many fans. The photographs that I took, on my new Sony camera and my Samsung phone, were sadly not great quality. Maybe I panicked.

One thought raced through my head.

“I can almost reach out and touch it.”

Then my mind re-worked it.

Reach out.

Reach out, touch faith.

Faith. This football lark is all about faith isn’t it?

I uploaded my phone photo to Facebook, with the simple caption.

“Reach Out, Touch Faith.”

I stood and checked that it had uploaded. Within maybe sixty seconds, my ears detected an oh-so familiar electronic beat on the stadium PA.

The jarring of synthesisers and the pounding of a drum machine…

“Feeling unknown and you’re all alone, flesh and bone by the telephone.”

My brain fizzed, my senses sparkled.

“Things on your chest, you need to confess, I will deliver, you know I’m a forgiver.”

Oh my bloody goodness.

“Reach out, touch faith.”

At that moment, at that fucking moment, I knew that we would win the 2021 European Cup Final. Depeche Mode had come to the rescue and “Personal Jesus” boomed around the stadium. Now, let’s get serious, it would take a bloody fool to openly declare Chelsea Football Club as some sort of sporting personal Jesus to many of us : to cheer, to bring sustenance, to provide warmth, to bring succour, to provide nourishment, to add depth to our lives.

I am that bloody fool.

Football. Fackinell.

The Chelsea team was announced, and was met with cheers from the ever growing band of supporters.

Mendy.

Dave. Silva. Rudiger.

James. Jorginho. Kante. Chilwell.

Mount. Havertz. Werner.

It was the team that I would have selected. Maybe Kovacic for Jorginho. But I wanted Havertz to start.

I mentioned to two lads to my left : “Everyone is talking about Werner having a big night tonight, but I think Havertz is the man. He has an edge.”

From 7.15pm to 7.30pm, the players trotted on to the pitch and went through a few drills to warm their bodies up further. The messy training top that they were wearing was less hideous than both the 2019/20 kit and the 2021/22 kit.

The minutes passed by.

I had presumed that the stadium would be split down the middle; northern section Chelsea, southern section City. However, not only was the entire top section of the stand to my left City but there were City fans mixed in with Chelsea fans in the presumably CFC section of the lower tier too. We all know that City sold 5,800 but we had only sold 5,000 (rumours of Chelsea unable to move the extra 800 to independent travellers due to stringent UEFA rules were yet to be ratified), but City seemed to have more than an extra 800. It worried me. I hated the thought of this being their final, their evening.

But we had spoken about all of this during the day. This was City’s biggest ever game. Someone had likened their boisterousness in the city during the day to our type of support when we took over Stockholm in 1998. We must have had 25,000 in the 30,000 crowd against Stuttgart. It was the biggest airlift out of the UK since World War Two, but was sadly beaten by United in Barcelona the following year.

In recent years, we have enjoyed UEFA finals in 2008, 2012, 2013 and 2019. Without sounding like knobheads, or being blasé, we were used to this. But I hoped our support would match City’s which was starting to call the shots in the stadium.

Two songs on the PA : “Blue Moon” first and then “Blue Is The Colour”.

I sang along to every word.

…”cus Chelsea, Chelsea is our name.”

At around 7.45pm, a firework show took over the pitch and the Champions League anthem roared via the PA. Both the City and Chelsea support booed throughout, but I am not so sure the result was particularly loud nor noticeable to those watching at home and the executive areas. My real wish was for both sets of fans to come together with a loud and constant chant during the game.

Two sets of four letters.

Have a guess.

The teams entered the pitch; two hues of blue under a sensual sky.

Flags were enthusiastically waved in distinct parts of the stadium; City in the top deck to my left, City in the far end of the lower tier to my left, Chelsea to my right in our end.

The players met the dignitaries, the huge silver trophy glinting in the distance.

The City team didn’t really interest me. I knew who to look out for. Both teams were playing without a centre-forward and a sizeable part of my brain struggled with the basic concept of this, but then jerked back into life as I imagined experts talking about “pockets of space” and “creating space” and maybe even “space the final frontier.” Football is supported by more and more nerds these days after all.

The 2021 Champions League Final began.

There was a lively start to the game, and within the first fifteen minutes it seemed that we had enjoyed more strikes on goal than in the entire final in Munich. I immediately liked the look of young Mason Mount as his energy shone. And Timo Werner was making those trademark runs out wide, taking players with him. Ben Chilwell really caught my eye throughout the opening quarter, staying tight to Mahrez and Walker, robbing both of the ball, flicking the ball on to team mates, showing great skill and tenacity. Thiago Silva – his name sung probably more than any other Chelsea player at the start – looked in control.

I glanced at the two coaches. Tuchel, at last not festooned in royal blue, and looking smart in black. Guardiola, so slight, but a master tactician too.

The City support had been dominant in the city and also in the half-an-hour leading up to kick-off. Their noise boomed out in the first quarter of an hour of the game too.

“Blue Moon, You Saw Me Standing Alone.”

“City, City, The Best Team In The Land And All The World.”

“We’re Not Really Here.”

The first real chance of the match followed a laser-like missile from the boot of the City ‘keeper Ederson, dressed in all pink, and my muscles tightened as Raheem Sterling edged past Reece James but our right back recovered well and robbed the winger of a worthwhile strike on goal. It was a warning for sure.

At the other end, Kai Havertz played in Werner but this resulted in a shank, an air-shot, a fluff. City countered and a Sterling chance was blocked by that man Chilwell. Then, the tide seemed to turn a little. Within a few minutes, Werner had two chances. The first although straight at Mr. Pink, at least hit the target. His second slithered against the nearside netting.

At around this time, the Chelsea support grew.

One song dominated and was our call to arms.

“He’s Here. He’s There. He’s Every Fucking Where. Joey Cole. Joey Cole.”

He had to be in the stadium I surmised.

“Carefree, Wherever You May Be.”

The old stalwart.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

A nice touch. Do we even have a song for Thomas Tuchel? See what I mean about a team that is not yet a team?

“Oh Dennis Wise.”

This song continued for a while, longer than usual, I wondered if he too was in the stadium.

I turned to the two lads to my left (I realise I will never recognise them if I see them again because they, like me, were mask-compliant) and said that the City support had quietened.

“The beer buzz is gone.”

But I sensed that they were far from happy that we were now dominating play. A rare break, a shot by Phil Foden and a sublime block by Toni Rudiger only emphasised the rarity of their attacks.

Kante found himself dribbling inside the box and set up Havertz but his shot was smothered.

Chelsea were letting City have it from both barrels now.

“Your support is fucking shit.”

It had certainly quietened, no doubt.

“You’re only here on a freebie.”

Love it.

There had been a worry when Thiago Silva stopped not once but twice, in pain with what looked like a strain of some description. Sadly, with around ten minutes of the first-half remaining, he could carry on no more. I felt for him. He covered his head with his shirt. There must have been tears.

Chelsea in adversity, but we have found a way past that imposter in previous European triumphs. Andreas Christensen joined the fray.

Not so long after this substitution, I looked up to see a ball touched inside to Mount. He was in space, but so too was a rampaging Havertz. The ball that Mount played through to our young German was inch perfect. The City defence, loitering towards the halfway line as is their wont, were asleep.

They weren’t really there.

One touch from Havertz.

I was able to move slightly to my left – ah, the joy of being able to move on a terrace – to see him move on past Ederson, and knock the ball in to an empty net. I was in line with the ball. I saw the net bulge.

That glorious sight.

I turned to the lads to my left, my two forearms stretched out, tight, my muscles tense, and I screamed.

“Fucking, yeeeeees.”

The lad in the front row looked at me, pointed to me :

“You called it. Havertz.”

I turned to my right and snap, snap, snapped as fans tumbled down to the front row.

Limbs everywhere.

Off the scale.

Fackinell.

Euphoria.

Joy.

Relief.

Pandemonium in the North Stand.

I updated Facebook.

“THTCAUN.”

Garrett in Tennessee was the first one to reply correctly :

“COMLD.”

Noice one, shun.

I had a little laugh to myself…

“Manchester City 0 Adversity 1.”

The half-time whistle soon came. What a magnificent time to score a goal. Beautiful. There was an air of bewildered disbelief at the break, but also one of joy and hope. I spoke to a few friends :

“Savour these moments. They don’t come around too often.”

I dreamed of a second goal.

The half-time break shot past.

I soon realised, and it was regardless of the goal, that I was back. Football had got me. The months of wandering in the wilderness was over. My first game against Leicester City was difficult. I couldn’t concentrate, I was too easily distracted, and I didn’t know the players. On this night, in lovely Porto, I was kicking every ball, watching the movement of the players, singing songs, laughing and joking with nearby fans, listening for new chants.

I was in my element.

Throughout the second period, I watched the clock in the far corner and announced to the bloke to my left when a five-minute period had elapsed. It helped the time pass quicker, no doubt.

“Five minutes.”

“Ten minutes.”

“Fifteen minutes.”

Of course City enjoyed most of the possession. But did they really enjoy it? I don’t believe their fans enjoyed it at all. Their silence was deafening.

And their players did not create too much at all. My abiding memory of the second-half is of an array of truly awful crosses into our box from various City players. Rudiger seemed to head every single one of them away. Reece James kept Sterling at bay with an absolutely brilliant display of cool and resolute defending. N’Golo Kante just got better and better and better all game. I was convinced that with City on the attack, he would pinch the ball on the half-way line and play the ball in to Havertz a la Claude Makelele and Frank Lampard at Bolton in April 2005. To say Kante was everywhere would not be too much of a ridiculous over statement.

I did not see the challenge by Rudiger on De Bruyne. But I was more than happy when he exited the field. I certainly saw the rising shot from Sterling that struck Reece on the chest in the penalty box. No penalty and quite right too.

“Carefree” rung out.

We really were loud now. I was so happy. To be truthful, when the gate of almost 15,000 was announced, I could hardly believe my eyes. It certainly seemed so much more. And yet an empty stadium, with empty seats echoing the noise away rather than the fabric of clothes muffling it, surely helped.

“Twenty minutes.”

“Twenty-five minutes.”

I watched with a mixture of hope and panic as a City shot was miraculously scooped high over the bar by Dave. I remembered, exactly at that moment, a similar clearance – under his bar – by a lad called Wayne Coles in a Frome College game against a team from Chateau-Gontier, a twin town, in the spring of 1979, with me watching from the centre-circle. Both were astounding.

Christian Pulisic for Timo Werner.

“Thirty minutes.”

Our best, perhaps only, chance of a tight second-half fell to Pulisic, raiding the City half and put through by Havertz, but his dinked lob dropped wide of the far post.

“Thirty-five minutes.”

Mateo Kovacic for Mason Mount.

“Forty minutes.”

The nerves were starting to bite now. Please God, no fucking Iniesta – Spanish or Scottish – moment now.

“Forty-five minutes.”

But by now an awful seven minutes had been added. I stopped counting. I was focussed on the game, but needed to expel some energy.

“Carefree Wherever You May Be, We Are The Famous CFC.”

Seven minutes…tick, tock, tick, tock.

The last chance, very late, fell to Mahrez. His tired shot never looked like troubling Mendy, who – apart from reaching a few crosses – hardly had to stretch for a shot all night.

In the last minute, I clock-watched again. I wanted to photograph the exact moment that the referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz blew his whistle. But I wanted to capture the fans, who had serenaded the team all night long, in the north stand. I wanted them – us – to be the Final stars. I stood up on the seat in front of my row. Arms aloft. Camera poised. The fans still sung. A quick look to the field. Another City attack. I saw the referee bring a hand up to his mouth.