Tales From A Humdrum Town

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 16 April 2017.

I awoke early, and I will admit that I felt slightly agitated. I wasn’t particularly calm. My nerves were jangling. The massive game at Old Trafford had obviously dominated my thoughts as the Easter Weekend had approached. It not only represented our toughest remaining league fixture of the 2016/2017 campaign but there were some heavy sub-plots, too. We had already beaten Jose Mourinho’s new team twice this season, and by the law of averages alone, it would be no surprise for United to give us a tough old time. In fact, I was damned sure that Mourinho would be making sure that a third defeat of the season at the hands of our new man Antonio Conte would simply not happen. Jose, for all his faults, is no mug in these big matches. A draw – I reconciled – what be totally acceptable in the circumstances.

But we live for days like these, don’t we? The stakes were high. This was going to be one of the away trips of the season, or any season for that matter.

Before I set off, I began with a post on Facebook. I had arranged to meet up before the game with my old college friend Rick – a United season ticket holder for many a year, and like me, a fan of The Smiths – and with this in mind, I referenced one of the band’s iconic images. It came from a United away game in 2006 (a 1-1 draw, a Riccy Carvalho header) when I dropped in to visit a local landmark that was famously featured on the band’s “The Queen Is Dead” album of 1986.

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With the game resting heavily on my mind, I added a comment which hoped that our charming manager would prevail.

In fact, I  soon thought about the two men in charge of the respective teams. Compared to the sour-faced Mourinho – with that dismissive smirk never far away these days – our manager is a picture of positivity and light. Indeed, with Mourinho – totally unlovable at United – now ensconced at Old Trafford, I could not help come to a quick conclusion about our former boss.

He was looking for a job, and then he found a job, and heaven knows he’s miserable now.

I collected The Chuckle Brothers and we headed north. The traffic was surprisingly light. The day had begun with clouds but sun too. Just north of Birmingham the rain started. By the time I pulled in to the car park of “The Windmill” pub just off junction 19 of the M6, the drizzle was continuing. This was going to be a typical football day out in rain town. I got a round in and looked up to see my pal Rick approaching. I had my opening line sorted :

“The rain falls hard on a humdrum town.”

Rick smiled and we set about a good old natter about our respective football teams. Rick was with his eight year old son Frazer, who has just started going to games with his father. Rick had recently been in Brussels with 1,200 United fans for their game with Anderlecht. I told Frazer that over thirty years ago his father and myself played upfront in our departmental football team, with Rick as the elbows out battering ram and with me feeding off the scraps. I asked Rick what United thought of Mourinho. His answer was favourable, but he did mention that at times the entertainment value has only just surpassed that of the Van Gaal era. Before we knew it, the time was pushing on – 2.15pm – and we needed to be on our way.

The new A556 road – which was mid-construction for the City game in the autumn – helped our approach to Old Trafford. I was parked-up at the usual £10 garage at around 2.45pm. Just right. The rain was easing slightly but there always seem to be dishwater skies in Manchester.

We plodded off to the stadium. We met up with Big John on the way – “take a draw now” – and we were soon on the famous forecourt. I took a few photographs of the match-day scene. I know they sell half-and-half scarves at Stamford Bridge, but at Old Trafford it is on a different scale.

“Ten pound yer match day scarf.”

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before, but I noted with sadness that there was a huge advertisement for one of United’s commercial partners – Aeroflot – right behind the statue of Sir Matt Busby. In fact, who else but United would place such a statue of their much-loved former manager right in front of their megastore?

We had heard rumours that Thibaut Courtois was out. We then heard talk that Cesc Fabregas was in.

“Going for it.”

At the turnstiles, I was met by an over-zealous team of stewards who stopped me from taking my camera inside. This is the second time that this has happened at Old Trafford and it meant I had to traipse around to a “bag drop” porta cabin behind the Alex Ferguson Stand. On the walk underneath the Stretford End, I noted many supporters holding those God-forsaken noise-makers, much-beloved at Leicester City and Fulham. I tut-tutted. Modern bloody football.

I eventually made it in with ten minutes to spare. The away support was strong in number and voice. Not so many women. Hardly any kids. Hardly any colours. Just a couple of divs away to my right with half-and-half scarves.

Not only was Courtois out, but Marcos Alonso too, apparently injured during the warm-up. This had resulted in a last minute shift of personnel which must have greatly disrupted everyone’s thoughts.

Begovic.

Zouma – Luiz – Cahill.

Moses – Kante – Matic – Azpilicueta.

Pedro – Costa – Hazard.

No Fabregas, then. Maybe just as well. I was surprised that Ibrahimovic was relegated to a place on the bench. I tried, briefly, to work out Mourinho’s game plan.

Old Trafford is a huge stadium these days. I am told they are looking to enlarge it further. Up, up and away, reaching up in to the sky.

To my right, the famous “Manchester Is My Heaven” banner.

A new song has been doing the rounds at United of late and the tune on which it is based, “I’m Into Something Good.” by Herman’s Hermits was played on the PA with a few minutes to go. There were banners everywhere – too many to mention. As the teams entered the pitch – a smudge of blue in the far corner – I spotted a forest of flags on sticks over to the opposite corner of the old “K Stand” just where Rick has his season ticket. Chelsea are trying to do the same in The Shed. Think The Kop, if you must, but on a smaller scale. To the left of the Stretford End – presumably the corporate section – I spotted hundreds of those damned noisemakers. They must have contained a message or a slogan, because many were being held aloft.

It probably said –

“I don’t really like football. I’m here on a freebie. I haven’t a clue.”

The two managers took their places in the technical areas. Antonio Conte chose to wear a baseball cap with his usual smart suit. It jarred. I wondered what on earth possessed him to do so. Ugh.

United were the first out of the traps. Marcus Rashford was allowed a run in on goal, with Luiz floundering, but screwed the ball well wide of Asmir Begovic’ far post. I grimaced and exchanged words with Alan. His reply summed up the mood of the hour :

“Please, please, please let me get what I want, this time.”

A Chelsea attack petered out, but we spotted a handball. Sadly, the referee Bobby Madley waved play on. Ander Herrera stroked an inch-perfect ball in to the path of that man Rashford. David Luiz was nowhere, and the United striker pushed the ball through Begovic’ legs. That horrible sight – the ball hitting the back of the net – was met with a huge roar from the home support. The game was but seven minutes old.

“Oh fuck.”

For a few moments, Old Trafford was a cauldron of noise.

“U. N. I. T. E. D – United are the team for me.”

We had spoken in the car of how, if asked to choose between a win against United in the league, or a win against Tottenham in the cup, all four of us chose the former, since the league is the more prestigious one to win. Now I was renegotiating with the Football Gods.

“A draw, please.”

United dominated the play. It wasn’t that they flooded our half every time that they won possession, it was just that with Rashford and also Lingard attacking at will, we just looked so fragile. On the far side, I really needed Victor Moses to assist Kurt Zouma. That looked a problem area straight away. Elsewhere, we struggled to get any sort of pattern to our play. Eden Hazard was marked to oblivion. We were struggling all over. After only twenty minutes, Conte decided to swap the wing-backs, with Dave disappearing over to the far side and Moses taking up a position in front of us.

Ashley Young went close on two occasions. Moses slipped inside the box, allowing Rashford to cross. Cahill watched as his headed block looped up and on to the bar.

Diego Costa was getting in to all sorts of bother with players and officials alike. I have spoken up for him over the past few weeks, but in this game, he seemed to be channelling everything towards confrontation rather than towards the team ethic. There were wails of protest from the Chelsea support every time that referee Madley gave a decision against us. However, I have to say that many of our tackles in that first-half were poorly timed and poorly executed. They summed up our performance. We couldn’t even tackle.

A shout from Gary : “Matic, you couldn’t pass water.”

In fact, our only shot at goal during the entire first period was a wild shot from distance from Diego Costa which went well wide. That came in about the forty-third minute. This just wasn’t good enough. In the closing seconds, Ashley Young shot wide again. Nobody, with the possible exception of N’Golo Kante, had played well during the first-half. A typically spirited run from him in the closing seconds of the half hinted at a better second-half of football.

But there were bleak faces in the Chelsea quadrant during the break. I tried to look for positives.

“Put it this way, surely we can’t play as bad in the second-half.”

The Chelsea players were out a good two minutes before the United players for the start of the second period. The Manchester United mascot Fred The Red was gesticulating to both sets of fans right in front of us for a few moments. Hand signals were exchanged. The mascot was trying to wind us up.

Another gem from Gary : “That’s Mourinho.”

The second period began. A United free-kick from out wide on the right appeared to be going off, and I thought the whole team had momentarily switched-off. United kept the ball alive and the ball eventually fell to Herrera. He took a swipe inside the box and we watched, aghast, as the ball took a wicked deflection and spun over Begovic, stranded forever. Only four minutes were on the clock.

This was awful. The United hordes boomed again. It seemed like 72,000 were gazing and smiling at each and every one of us. We were right in the firing line. Hateful stuff.

“With a nick nack, paddy whack, give a dog a bone, why don’t City fuck off home?”

We stood silent. We had been kicked in the bollocks. Bigmouth had struck again.

In those moments, there are really no places to hide. The lead down to four points. Tottenham chasing us. Sky TV and BT Sport would be salivating. Tottenham on Saturday. Panic on the streets of London. Sigh.

But then, out of nowhere, we responded. For ten, eleven, twelve minutes – maybe more – we sang and sang and sang.

“We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league.”

I kept looking around at my fellow fans and was pleased to see smiles among the defiance. It made me proud. We sang on. This seemed to inspire the United fans too, who themselves responded. The atmosphere was electric. Louder than bombs.

Sadly, on the pitch, everything was still flat. Conte replaced Moses with Fabregas and there was a change in formation. To be fair, we dominated possession for the rest of the game, but never really looked like scoring. Diego – sorry, but I have to single him out again – kept coming too deep. We needed him on the last man, ready to explode in to space. Pedro ran his socks off in the second-half and went close on two occasions, but still De Gea did not have a shot to save. Elsewhere we lacked any real cohesiveness. Hazard was the centre of most of our attacks but Mourinho knew what he had to do. The supporters’ coaches from Devon, Surrey, North Wales and Norfolk were parked in front of the United goal.

Matic was replaced by Willian. It was really nothing.

Lingard went close, hitting the side netting with a long-range effort and then the lively Rashford forced Begovic to block down low. Our passes went astray with scary regularity. The confidence had been knocked out of our side early on and we never ever recovered.

You know it is a bad day at the office when Fellaini bosses the midfield.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Kurt Zouma. I had lost the will to work out the formation by then.

We still never looked like scoring. In fact – let’s be blunt here – a goal would have flattered us. De Gea never made a save.

The final whistle signalled the end of a pretty miserable game. The lads made their way back to the car while I – oh deep joy – walked through thousands and thousands of United fans to reach the bag-drop. The rain was falling now. My shoes stepped through the puddles. The United fans were in full voice and I hated every minute of it as they brushed past me.

“Woke up this morning feeling fine. Got Man United on my mind. Jose’s got us playing the way like United should. Oh yeah. Something tells me I’m in to something good.”

I retrieved my camera. The heavens opened again. Splash. Splash. Splash.

As I bought a cheeseburger on Sir Matt Busby Way, I bumped into Neil Barnett, himself looking drenched with both weather and our poor showing. He quickly told me that Thibaut had allegedly been injured during the filming of an advertisement for the NBA. Oh bloody hell. We chatted away, then went our separate ways as the rain continued.

Splash. Splash. Splash.

I posted on Facebook once again : “Soaked to the skin. Worst cheeseburger of the season. Two hundred miles from home. Oh Chelsea we love you.”

I eventually reached the car, threw my soaked jacket in the boot, pulled out on to the Chester Road and headed south. Over the next four hours or more, we spoke about the game, our poor performance, our remaining games. As always, there is usually a prolonged chat when things do not go our way. If we win, the game is not dissected quite so much. The lads had heard the rumour about Courtois. We spoke about all sorts. Of the game, we concluded that Conte was undoubtedly rushed into making those last minute changes. With more time to think about things, maybe he would have chosen different personnel. We mentioned the recalled Nathan Ake. Maybe he should have played. It just looked to us like Conte was never at ease with his eventual team selection, nor were the players themselves.

We spoke about how odd it was, really, to see such a team as Manchester United, with its rich history of attacking flair, to be so happy to play spoilers. But that is not to take anything away from them. They did a job on us, no bloody doubt.

Six huge league games are left. They are the undoubted priority. But we are four points clear of Tottenham and we have a better run in. We didn’t think that Spurs would win all six of their games. It’s certainly “advantage us” still, although it doesn’t bloody feel like it. We are not used to this. In 2005, 2006 and 2015 it was a procession. In 2010, it was us doing the chasing. We are not used to being the ones being chased. What difference does it make? Only time will tell.

However, in the final month or so of the season, the next game in the FA Cup might well define our campaign. Win, and we might just knock the stuffing out of Tottenham, the new media darlings. If we lose, it will be a different story.

See you at Wembley.

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Tales From Turf Moor

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 12 February 2017.

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

We were well and truly “up north.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a cosmopolitan set.

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

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

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

Nowt fancy at Turf Moor.

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

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

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

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

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

“We are those bastards in claret and blue.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

A woman behind me bit back:

“But we will, though.”

I retorted:

“But it’s bloody February.”

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

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

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

Another “ugh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was definitely a case of “game on.”

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

“Eden has been quiet.”

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

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

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

“Johnny two hats.”

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

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

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

A shot from Azpilicueta did not really trouble Heaton.

My feet ached with the cold.

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

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

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

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

It was not to be.

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

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

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

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

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

I will see many of you there.

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Tales From Winter On Wearside

Sunderland vs. Chelsea : 14 December 2016.

This was the longest trip of the season. I had set off from deepest darkest Somerset at 6am, with PD and LP keeping me company for the long – 320 miles – drive north. After around seven hours battling the traffic, we finally arrived. We checked into our hotel, no more than a mile from the Stadium of Light. The stadium in fact was clearly visible from my room on the fifth floor. There were clear skies overhead. Winter on Wearside didn’t appear to be as bleak as I had originally thought. Our good friend Kevin, from Edinburgh, soon arrived and joined us for a pint at the hotel bar. The plan was to travel by train to Newcastle – a far more interesting and photogenic city a few miles to the north – but we soon decided to cut our losses and stay in Sunderland. On the walk in to the centre, we spotted a few half-decent pubs. We popped in to the first one – “Vesta Tilley’s” – and were suitably impressed that four pints cost just over a tenner.

Over the road, we popped into “The Dun Cow” and I immediately fell in love with it. It was a fantastic find. Outside, it was an architectural gem, with intricrate stone carvings above its bay windows, ornate roof gables and even a clock tower. Inside, it was a classic old-fashioned pub, with mirrors, stained-glass, wooden panels, shiny beer pumps, a plethora of ales, and a very warm atmosphere.

The four of us spotted a free table in the “snug” at the rear of the pub.

A “Birra Moretti” never tasted better.

I quickly toasted Everton Football Club, who had miraculously defeated Arsenal 2-1 the previous night. This simply meant one thing; if we won our game against Sunderland later that evening, we would be six points clear at the very top of the most competitive league in the world. And it would mean that we would stretch our consecutive win streak to a mighty ten games.

We chatted about the season so far, and a host of other topics. Two lads from Stockport – Mike and Liam, both Chelsea – were sat close by, and soon into the introductions it transpired that Liam had sat right next to Kevin in the home seats at Porto last September. What a bloody small world. Quite ridiculous.

My good friend Orlin – from first Sofia and then San Francisco – arrived with his two pals Ivan and Plamen, and it was a pleasure to see them. Orlin, evidently keen to experience as many new football experiences in England as he can, had dropped in to Elland Road on the previous night for Leeds United’s game with Norwich City. He had enjoyed it. The rawness of it all. The fervour of the home support. The noise. The passion. I reminded him of Leeds’ last league game against us, at Stamford Bridge in May 2004, when I remember the South Yorkshire legions claiming – with certainly a hint of truth – “if it wasn’t for the Russian you’d be us.” Peter Ridsdale and Ken Bates had gambled on spending big and gambling on immediate success, but there was no sugar daddy to step in at Leeds.

Orlin, though still disliking Leeds United, came away from their game with a little respect, and I think it shocked him.

Fellow season ticket holder Ian, with a few mates, and then Pete arrived. This was clearly becoming a base camp for many.

Kev’s two pals from Edinburgh John and Gary then joined us and the beers flowed at a more rapid pace. All three are Hearts fans first, and I had an enjoyable chat with them about my visits to Tynecastle in 1982 and 1997, Scottish football in general, and our differing opinions of Pat Nevin. This was obviously turning out to be a fantastically enjoyable pre-match. The four hours raced past.

“Bloody hell, it’s seven o’clock.”

We buttoned our jackets and bounced outside into the night, and over the oxidised green iron Wearmouth Bridge, looking rather beguiling in the evening light, with the rail bridge – ancient and green too – just a few yards to its left. There is something quite wonderful about supporters walking towards a football stadium, lights shining in the distance, our pace quickening as we get close to the ground. I never ever made it to the old Roker Park and it is a shame. It was a mile from the site of the current stadium, towards the North Sea, planted among the terraced streets of Roker. The Stadium of Light stands alone, high on the exposed banks of the Wear as it wriggles its ugly way into the sea.

I quickly gobbled down a cheeseburger with onions. Past the Bob Stokoe statue – Leeds again, ha – and I made my way up the many steps to the away deck.

We were inside the stadium with about ten minutes to spare. It meant that we had missed out on those special moments involving Sunderland supporter Bradley Lowery, the brave five-year-old lad who has been given a few more months to live, and who has captured the hearts of many. As the teams entered the pitch down below, the hearty Chelsea following of almost three thousand roared our support.

The news that Eden Hazard had not travelled to Sunderland had been the breaking story of the morning. We had wondered if Willian would come in for him; it was no surprise to see him in the starting line-up. A bigger surprise, no doubt, was the inclusion of Cesc Fabregas at the expense of Nemanja Matic. Elsewhere there were familiar faces.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill.

Alonso, Kante, Fabregas, Moses.

Pedro, Costa, Willian.

Our seats were virtually in the same position as our visit in May. On that day – when we had meekly lost 3-2 – we were concerned that we had probably witnessed John Terry’s last-ever game for us. Who would have thought that he would get an extra season, yet we would not be unduly worried that his absence from our team over the past two months would cause little concern? It is a mark of his professionalism that he has quietly supported the team from the side-line, knowing that a winning team is paramount. Nine wins in a row without John Terry? Who would have ever thought it?

Sunderland’s team included three former Chelsea players; Patrick Van Aaanholt, Papy Djilobodji and Fabio Borini. I had bright hopes for two of those, but never the other. On the side-lines were our man Antonio Conte and their man David Moyes. The football world had bright hopes for Moyes at one stage. How his star has fallen since leaving Goodison Park.

The stadium was pretty full, but there were sections of empty seats in the upper tier to our right, beyond the packed Chelsea section.

The game was in its first few nascent stages when both sets of fans acknowledged brave Bradley. A number five shirt – Lowery – was displayed on the TV screen – and we all clapped, the noise ringing around the stadium. Very soon we joined in with a song.

“One Bradley Lowery. There’s only one Bradley Lowery. One Bradley Lowery.”

Lovely stuff.

Lovely apart from one boorish fan behind me who decided to sing “one Matthew Harding” instead. I turned around, shook my head and glowered at him. I won’t mention him by name, but he’s a prominent face – and famously ugly – at all Chelsea games, and he has always struck me as a tedious fucker. And that moment just proved it.

Chelsea enjoyed much of the early possession, but Adnan Januzaj had the first effort on goal. I was proud of the way we got behind the team. It was clear that not only our little group of Chelsea followers had enjoyed the hospitality and cheap prices of the boozers of the North-East. We were keeping the ball well, moving it quickly, and we tried our best to carve out a chance. Sunderland had the occasional effort, but Courtois was in commanding form. A chance fell to Diego, bit his volley was well off target. In a packed box, Pedro was found, and he drew a fine save from Sunderland’s Jason Pickford. A David Luiz free-kick tested the Sunderland ‘keeper. We were turning the screw. With five minutes of the half remaining, a fine move through the middle resulted in a lovely one-two between Cesc and Willian. I was able to watch the path of the ball as Fabregas calmly stroked the ball past the home ‘keeper and in to the goal.

How we roared.

And how we celebrated, with the players down below us enjoying it equally as much as us.

GET IN.

Whisper it, but our tenth win in a row was on the cards.

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

Chris : “Come on wo’little diamonds.”

The away end soon sung praise to the scorer.

“He’s got a magic hat.”

Diego headed weakly over and then Willian went close with a free-kick from just outside the box.

There were positive vibes at the break. The drinkers in our support topped up their alcohol levels and the noise continued as the game continued.

In virtually the first move of the second-half, the ever-troublesome Jermaine Defoe attacked us at the heart of our defence and played in Januzaj. His low shot was flicked away by Courtois’ outstretched left leg. It was a fine save.

For virtually the rest of the game, it was all Chelsea. Willian set up Moses who blasted wide. Willian’s shot was deflected on to the bar. It seemed that a second goal was only a heartbeat away. A fine run and shot from Costa. Moses flashing wide, then Willian, both after losing markers with a shimmy this way and that. It was all Chelsea.

“We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league.”

Alonso at Pickford. Willian at Pickford. For some reason the second goal just would not come. A single thought flashed through my mind –

“Bloody hell, how disappointing it will be if we conceded a goal and we only drew.”

Nemanja Matic replaced Pedro, and the domination continued.

A run from deep from Costa and their ‘keeper scrambled to save at his feet before he could pull the trigger. A delightful dink from Costa to Fabregas but his volley was well wide.

Chalobah for Willian. Ivanovic for Moses.

Sunderland then caused us to rue all of our missed chances when they pumped a few high balls into our area. After one clearance was knocked out to Van Aanholt on the edge of the box, we watched – agonising stuff – as the ball seemed to be flying into the goal. Thibaut leaped to his right, flung his arm up, and clawed it away.

It was a stunning save.

The away end erupted as if a goal had been scored.

“Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut!”

Phew. It should have been 3-0, maybe 4-0. It could have been 1-1.

We had done it.

Ten league wins in a row.

I quickly posted an image of Bo Derek on “Facebook” and I felt sure more than a handful of fellow fans would “get it.” Down the stairwell, the noise bounced off the walls.

“Antonio, Antonio, Ten In A Row.”

Outside, we strode back in to town, and it seemed that the majority of home support had buggered off early, leaving our path clear. We met up with Daryl and Simon, who along with Alan and Gary had travelled up on the discounted club train. There was a long and tiring journey for them to look forward to. I, for one, after a long drive, eight pints and a tense game of football, was supremely happy that I had a bed just ten minutes away.

A kebab and chips on the walk back to the hotel was followed by a gin and tonic in the hotel bar.

It had been a long day and now it was time for slumberland in Sunderland.

Our third game in seven days takes place at Selhurst Park on Saturday.

Let’s make it eleven.

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Tales From A Sunday In Swansea

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 11 September 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“37?”

“Bloody hell, the world has gone mad.”

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

In the good old days, the system was simple.

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

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

I blame Ray Kennedy.

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

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

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

And no names on the jerseys.

And no “Yokohama Tyres.”

Perfect.

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

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

The minutes ticked by.

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

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

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

This was really galling.

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

This can’t be right, can it?

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

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

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

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

Why weren’t we wearing blue?

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

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

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

I looked at it and said –

“Whose cod is that haddock?”

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

I’ll get my coat.

Er, jacket.

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

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

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

One-nil to us, happy days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, a calamity.

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

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

The home fans roared.

“And we were singing.

Hymns and arias.

Land of my fathers.

Ar hyd y nos.”

Bollocks.

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

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

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

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

Crazy.

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

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

Oscar headed weakly at goal.

Conte changed things.

Cesc Fabregas replaced the shuffling Nemanja Matic.

Victor Moses replaced Willian.

I genuinely expected us to equalise.

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

“GETINYOUBEAUTY.”

2-2.

Pandemonium in the North Stand.

This was all we deserved.

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

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

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

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

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

We met up after the game.

Prahlad had certainly enjoyed himself.

But oh those missed chances.

And oh those empty seats.

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

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

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

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

I’ll see you there.

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Tales From The Group Phase

Chelsea vs. Steaua Bucharest : 11 December 2013.

When the European Cup became the Champions League over twenty years ago, Chelsea Football Club looked on from afar. Until that point, European football was a rare treat. However, within the football fan community, there was immediate disdain of the participation within it of league runners-up. The “Champions League” suddenly became a misnomer. Then, the cut-throat knock-out nature of the old competition was thrown away in favour of a mini-league format. Football fans, showing considerable unity throughout the continent of Europe, were again dismayed. Most saw  its formation as UEFA appeasing the fat cats at the top table, virtually guaranteeing them all top level competition on an annual basis and staving off threats of a breakaway pan-European league. Since those days, Chelsea’s participation within the competition has been a regular event. This would be our eleventh season in a row. For us supporters, the real advantage of the Champions League group phase, played under lights in various degrees of midweek darkness every autumn, has been to pick and choose which of the three away games we are able to attend. Very often, the home games – especially on match day five or six – offer little distraction.

The Chelsea vs. Steaua Bucharest game, in itself our fourth match-up with the Romanians in nine months, was therefore hardly filling me with enthusiasm during the day. In fact, if truth be known, as the day progressed, I kept questioning myself as to why I was bothering to attend. Our passage into the last sixteen was already assured, there would be a tiring drive into London, probably a poor atmosphere, little drinking time before the game and a late finish in the small hours of Thursday morning.

I came to the conclusion that the main reason, on a personal level, was for me to witness – let’s hope – the immediate and entertaining upturn in our play since the Stoke City defeat on Saturday. I simply hoped for goals, attacking football and a reaffirmation of our collective love of Jose Mourinho.

A hope for better things.

A just reward for my Wednesday evening sortie into town.

It reminded of the days of following the club in the era, much doted upon by Chelsea supporters of a certain vintage, of “the drought” when we didn’t expect entertaining football at Stamford Bridge, or even a win, but we just attended games out of blind devotion and the hope, however small, that our patience would be rewarded with an entertainment-ridden goal fest.

Due to patchy fog in Wiltshire and traffic congestion in London, the drive to Chelsea took three full hours. Parky and I jostled into the boozer just after 7pm. There was a quick “hello goodbye” and then I was off with Alan to The Bridge. There was time to mull over a few talking points.

Within parts of the Chelsea fan base, there had been surprising reactions to the defeat at the Britannia Stadium. There was the call to move Petr Cech on and recall Thibaut Courtois. I found this to be rather harsh. At the Stoke game, he certainly erred for the first goal, but could hardly be held responsible for the others.  There was also a desire among some fans for Mourinho to recall David Luiz; his errant behaviour, much-frowned-upon and castigated by many of those same fans, forgotten. There was even frustration with Mourinho himself.

My thoughts?

Chill.

We all know that this team, this squad even, is changing.

I’d rather have Jose in charge than anyone else.

Anyone.

That is not to say we should bow down and follow blindly. There is always room for opinion and debate. Even I have tired of Mourinho’s snipes at our strike force’s lack of goals. However, as always, there is a thin line between quiet and constructive criticism as opposed to loud and knee-jerk negativism.

Regarding the lack of goals from Fernando, Demba and Samuel, Alan wisely noted –

“We can’t win. We should be happy the goals are being spread out among the team. If only Torres or Eto’o was scoring, people would be bemoaning the lack of firepower from elsewhere.”

Football fans are never happy.

We were inside Stamford Bridge as early as 7.25pm and my immediate concern was the vast amount of blue seats clearly visible. By 7.45pm, my fears had subsided. It was yet another near full house for a Champions League night. Our support, often derided, should again be applauded. Steaua brought a full 3,000 in March; tonight it was around 2,000. As the teams entered the pitch, the away end was lit with the many lights from the travelling Romanians’ mobile phones. There were obviously Steaua fans in the East Upper too; lights there also.

Mark Schwarzer was in goal, Ashley Cole was at left-back, David Luiz was partnering JT,  Frank was paired with Mikel in the anchor roles, Willian and Oscar recalled alongside Hazard, Ba upfront.

Chelsea began positively and a goal came under just ten minutes. Willian sent over a corner which was flicked on at the near post by Oscar and Demba Ba pounced.

Good start. Nerves settled. Let’s go to town.

Alas, the rest of the first-half offered little to cheer. In fact, Steaua could easily have levelled the score, only for Iancu to shoot wide. On several occasions, they worked the ball into our box but – thankfully – the ball tended to miraculously avoid an away player. Both Oscar and Hazard were quiet. Mikel had started poorly, managed to get himself booked, but then redeemed himself with a few cool pieces of play. At a Chelsea corner, I watched as an unmarked Lampard on the edge of the box signalled for the ball to be played out to him. The resultant volley was spectacular but was hit high of Tatarusanu’s bar.

Lots of huff and puff in the first-half, not much quality.

I noted that the scoreboard above the away fans was showing that Demba Ba had scored for Steaua and we were losing 1-0. I wondered if the work of Nicolae Ceausescu was still being done.

At half-time, a lovely moment.

Our much-loved former right-back / wing back / midfielder Dan Petrescu was given a lovely introduction by Neil Barnett. Dan was the first “foreigner” to play two hundred games for us. How we loved his shuffling style and his incisive passing. He was serenaded by Chelsea fans and Steaua fans alike. He played for Steaua in the 1989 European Cup Final versus the mighty Milan. I love it that he now manages Dynamo Moscow; a club forever linked with the history of Chelsea Football Club. At The Shed, he momentarily picked up a Steaua scarf and the away fans lapped it up.

Superb stuff.

That was probably the highlight of the night.

As the game restarted, a few fans in the Matthew Harding attempted to “get things going” and I, at least, joined in. But generally, it was quiet. There was not one single song from the 12,000 spectators in the West Stand. The Shed were quiet. It was one of those nights.  I often wonder what a lost soul from the “drought years” would make of these European Nights at Stamford Bridge these days. What would an exiled Brit, maybe now living in Australia, returning to a revamped Bridge for the first time since 1990 make of it.

“Fackinell, I used to dream of nights like this at Chelsea. The stadium looks brilliant. Everyone close to the pitch. Flags everywhere. Loads of colour. Should be made for nights like this. But why is nobody fackin’ singing?”

There were few highlights in a very low key second period.

Ba had a great chance soon into the second period but blasted high.

Andre Schurrle, who had probably his best game in a CFC shirt in Bucharest, was introduced by Mourinho and soon enjoyed an impressive run at the heart of the Steaua defence. His direct play pleases me. On this occasion, he struck at goal and the rebound was headed over by Hazard.

Ba was played in and volleyed home, but was ruled offside.

As the match continued on, for once I was egging the clock to reach “90.”

Not to signify a Chelsea win, just for the game to end and for me to get home.

This was clearly a mediocre Chelsea performance. I sensed a great feeling of numbed disappointment in the lack of attacking verve rather than euphoria about cementing pole position in our group. There was little there for me to admire.

As I left the stadium, I walked around to touch the Peter Osgood statue; a bit of a superstition on Champions League Nights for me.

A quick touch of his right boot.

And thoughts of Athens, Istanbul, St. Petersburg, Milan and Leverkusen.

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