Tales From The Changing Of The Guard

Chelsea vs. FC Red Bull Salzburg : 14 September 2022.

We were in a period of change.

Not only in the little – or not so little – world of Chelsea Football Club, but in the wider world too.

The last game that I witnessed was the home win over West Ham United on Saturday 3 September. We then witnessed an historic week. On the Tuesday, I reached home with seconds to spare to watch our Champions League game at Dinamo Zagreb on my laptop. We began well, pretty positive thoughts, but then conceded via the home team’s first attempt on goal. We simply did not react. What followed for the rest of the match was pretty turgid stuff. We laboured without inspiration and fight. It was horrible to watch. I felt for the loyalists – a fair few who I knew – who had followed the team to Croatia. We allegedly sold just six-hundred or so tickets; it looked far fewer on TV. It was as poor a performance as I had seen for a while; in particular the second-half horror show from substitute Hakim Ziyech must rank as one of the worst personal performances for a few years.

Oh Chelsea, what a mess.

As the following day began, there were a couple of messages waiting for me in a WhatsApp group. Both were asking for the club not to react by giving Tuchel the boot. To this observer, while acknowledging that our form has been patchy for ages, our troubled manager was presumably involved in gathering the new purchases over the summer and therefore should be allowed to sort out his team over the next few months. Not for the first time, I was advocating long term-ism over “slash and burn” at Stamford Bridge.

Less than three hours later, while I was sitting in a planning meeting at work, my manager Matt passed on the news “Tuchel sacked” and I barely reacted. Deep down it was no real surprise. I quickly focused on office furniture deliveries to Munich, Cork and other cities throughout Europe rather than thinking about Chelsea winning in cities throughout Europe.

It’s not that I hadn’t seen this before.

The only shock was that the new regime had seamlessly continued the firing policy that had been so ingrained under Roman Abramovich since 2003.

At least Roman gave Ranieri a whole season to prove himself.

Hot shot Boehly, faster on the trigger, had given Tuchel just seven games into the new season.

I love the phrase that someone conjured up recently to describe Chelsea Football Club of late; “Chaos & Cups” – and am annoyed I never thought of it – as it perfectly sums up modern Chelsea.

Before we had time to dwell too much on who our next manager might be, the following day provided another shock.

During Thursday 8 September, there were reports that HRH Queen Elizabeth II was in grave health. Only on the Tuesday, the new prime minister Liz Truss had met with the Queen at Balmoral. Yet, as I watched on the evening news, with the BBC broadcaster Huw Edwards already wearing a black tie, the nation and the Commonwealth prepared for some sad news. I was watching as Edwards calmly announced that the monarch had passed.

I am no huge royalist – or at least not of the flag waving type – but I am no republican either. However, my real sadness as I watched the TV for the next hour or so genuinely surprised me. This was something that I could not easily brush off nor let pass without gentle reflection. I had my own thoughts, my own period of remembrance.

I was numb for a while, but then life slowly creaked on.

It was soon announced that the football would be off at the weekend, though. No trip to Fulham beside the Thames, nor no second prize of a Frome Town game either. So be it.

In my life I saw the Queen twice. The first time, way back, was at Windsor Great Park, when I watched from afar with my parents and an aunt and an uncle; there was some sort of parade, I was only around three, it is all very blurred. My father took some equally blurry film of the occasion. But I can remember being absolutely thrilled that a queen, The Queen, was in the same field as me.

In 1977, I went with my mother to see Her Majesty on a walkabout in Bath during the Silver Jubilee celebrations. I was only a few yards from her as she walked past, and if I remember correctly, my red, white and blue hooped shirt was spotted on the local BBC news that evening. A couple of again blurry photos remain from that day.

I was undoubtedly a royalist in 1977, and then in 1981 for the Royal Wedding. Since then, my feelings have changed. But now is not the time to bore everyone.

I know this; the Queen was well loved, well respected, and I absolutely admired her.

Meanwhile, on the Friday, back on Planet Football, Chelsea appointed the Brighton manager Graham Potter as the new man at Stamford Bridge.

Everything was changing.

Wags were commenting “two prime ministers, two monarchs and two Chelsea managers within three days.”

Quite.

Change in Downing Street, change at Buckingham Palace, change at Stamford Bridge.

I honestly haven’t bothered to read too much about the reasons behind the Tuchel sacking. In some ways, it doesn’t matter. It’s in the past.

An unwillingness to join in fully in the recruitment of new players? A worsening relationship with the existing players? Personal problems? The break-up of his marriage? A reluctance to play young players? Who knows?

I will say this. It took me a really long time to warm to the bloke; too long probably. Despite the win in Porto, I didn’t really have a bond with him, unlike with Lampard and Conte to name but two. But the way he kept the club going during that crazy period of sanctions last season was undeniably magnificent. While nobody else at the club was willing to utter a single word – the board were as weak as I had suspected all along – Tuchel bonded us all together and it was truly the stuff of legend.

Please allow me a moment of hyperbole; it was almost Churchillian.

I loved his comment about him driving a seven-seater to Europe if needed.

Thanks for your efforts Thomas Tuchel. I felt I never really got to know you. But thank you for the Champions League in Porto, the Super Cup in Belfast and the World Club Cup in Abu Dhabi.

The ironic thing is that even if we had won both domestic cups last season, and the FA Cup in 2021, he would still be gone.

Chelsea. Fackinell.

It was announced that our up-coming game against Red Bull Salzburg would be taking place, as planned, at 8pm on Wednesday 14 September. Time to re-focus, maybe, and start thinking about the future.

Graham Potter, eh?

Will he turn out to be the English version of Andre Vilas-Boas, himself a rated young manager, touted for great things, yet to fail? Or will he oversee a bright spell in the fortunes of our beloved club? Only time will tell, eh?

However, by the morning of the trip up to The Smoke for the Salzburg game, I was already pissed-off with the amount of Harry Potter references.

Do fuck off.

I worked a very early shift to get away at two o’clock for this one. Alongside PD in the front, Simon joined us, a colleague from work, and heavily involved in those deliveries in Cork and Munich. I think this was his first game with us since that away game at Brighton last season. I was wedged into the back seat, a defensive three, with Chopper and Parky to my flanks.

Despite some misty rain when I woke at 4.45am, the weather now was bloody superb. We chatted about upcoming games. October will be so, so busy. Chelsea are due to play nine games and PD, Parky and I hope to be at all nine. We are now booked-up for the away games in Milan and Salzburg. Following hot on October’s tail, we are flying up to Newcastle for the last match before the break. That game has been confirmed for 5.30pm; just perfect.

Chris : “We’ll just stay down by the quayside for that one. Big old sesh ahead.”

PD : “And get a cab up to the hill to the ground.”

Parky : “Cab? Ambulance!”

We all howled.

Simon and I chatted a little about work, but that soon slowed.

Two nights earlier, Parky and I had popped into Bristol to see yet another band that were around forty years ago. Altered Images were excellent. Parky and I are not alone among my Chelsea mates to have seen them this year. Ah, 1982.

Continuing my reflections on our 1982/83 season, our next two games in that historic season were both away from home.

On the evening of Wednesday 8 September 1982, we played at the Baseball Ground against Derby County. The game was lost 0-1. The gate was just 8,075, a very poor attendance to be honest. Only seven years earlier, Derby County had been English champions and had beaten Real Madrid 4-1 in the then European Cup the following autumn. They had fallen just like Chelsea.

On Saturday 11 September, there followed another away game against a big club now languishing in the second tier. We played at St. James’ Park against Newcastle United, boosted by the signing of former European footballer of the year Kevin Keegan. His transfer from First Division Southampton to Newcastle really was the talk of the summer. It was huge news. As a result, a massive gate of 29,084 gathered to see a 1-1 draw with Colin Lee grabbing our goal but they then equalised. The Newcastle team included Mike Channon, Imre Varadi and Chris Waddle too. My diary notes that “The Big Match” – now on Saturday nights – surprisingly showed the goals what with the game being in the Second Division. Seeing Chelsea on the TV in that era was such a rare event

The traffic was light and PD was parked up at our usual spot at 4.30pm.

We had three-and-a-half hours to enjoy before kick-off.

PD and Parky popped into “The Goose” while the others popped down to Stamford Bridge. Atop the West Stand, the Union flag was at half-mast. There were a couple of images of the Queen on LED displays.

I took a photograph or two.

With Peter Osgood in the background, I wondered if I could get away with commenting “The King and The Queen” without offending anyone. Simon and I spent a very pleasant time in the Copthorne Hotel with a few friends. Outside, the sun beat down. It was a ridiculously lovely early-evening in London.

Simon and I retraced our steps and joined up with Alan and Daryl in “Simmons” which was surprisingly quiet. We were joined by Andy, Simon, Chris, Nick, Deano, Gal, then PD and Parky. I allowed myself two pints of “Estrella”, my first alcohol in over two months.

Talk touched on the Tuchel sacking rather than the appointment of Potter.

“Apart from the four or five Tottenham games and all the Liverpool games” – oh, and the semi in Madrid – “our play over the past twelve months has been poor.”

Chat about football and all the more important things in our individual lives continued. Laughter, as always, wasn’t far away.

At work in the morning, a work colleague had asked me if was looking forward to the evening’s game.

I was brutally honest.

“Not really.”

It was going to be a long, long day and it was unlikely that I would get any sleep in the back seat of PD’s car, but now I had absolutely warmed to it all. Being among friends had cheered me. The football would take care of itself, eh? Outside, we bumped into Ludo, for the first time since attending his wedding reception three weeks earlier.

“Parky had said you weren’t coming tonight, now you are married.”

Ludo smiled. We gave him a hug and we departed for the ground.

The place soon filled up. I was expecting more away fans; there were no more than five-hundred. Apparently they had walked in silence from Earls Court as a mark of remembrance for The Queen. That was lovely. Well done them.

I wasn’t really sure what form the pre-match would take.

But as kick-off approached, there were no songs, no “Parklife”, no “Liquidator.” Just silence. The players went through their paces down below us. Over on The Shed balcony, a parade of Union Jack flags flanked a banner simply stating “RIP YOUR MAJESTY.”

Just before the teams appeared, two Chelsea pensioners laid wreaths on the pitch in readiness for the minute of silence.

The Austrian flags held up a large black banner in the Shed Lower : “ IN MEMORY OF QUEEN ELIZABETH II.”

As the teams lined-up, out from nowhere, the crowd sang “God Save The King” and I joined in.

Very soon, the teams gathered on the centre-circle; Kepa, in the team, had to race from his goalmouth to join in.

A peep from the referee’s whistle.

Everyone stood in silence for one minute.

Unlike at Anfield the previous night when the referee could only allow just over twenty seconds of Liverpool Football Club’s self-proclaimed “period of remembrance”, this was pristine.

At the end of it, I wanted to catch Alan’s eye and tell him “that’s what you call an impeccable silence” but as he turned towards me, he said :

“That’s what you call an impeccable silence.”

We smiled.

Our team?

I had seen the names on the screen but as the players lined-up I was a mite confused.

Anyway, Kepa again between the sticks.

What looked like a back four of Cucarella, Silva, Dave, Reece.

Then further forward we had Jorginho and Kovacic in the middle.

Mount too.

Upfront were Sterling, Havertz with Aubameyang in the middle, at last a focal point.

But soon into the game, I was further confused. At times it looked like a three at the back with Sterling as the pushed-on left wing-back. At least I was toying with the right number of players on the pitch. I hope that there is no truth in those pernicious rumours about Todd Boehly wanting to try a 4/4/3 formation.

If so, God help us.

The new manager Graham Potter was introduced to the crowd. The applause was hardly deafening.

The game began with Chelsea attacking The Shed.

The Salzburg grey reminded me of the Barcelona colours from that classic in 2005.

It was a full house. It seemed we are still managing to get the pricing right. It was £35 for us in The Sleepy Hollow, though the £70 tickets were snapped up in West View. It staggers me that people will pay such sums. Oh boy.

Football, the working man’s ballet?

Not anymore.

We penned Salzburg into their own half for every minute of the first twenty minutes. Unlike in Zagreb, Aubameyang – with Zorro mask – was in on goal early on and elected to shoot. It flew over. There were a few half chances as we began well, showing more willingness to pass early and pass forward. On twenty-one minutes, the crowd applauded Thomas Tuchel on account of the win in Porto in 2021.

It had been all us, but their ‘keeper Philipp Kohn had not made a single save. Just after the minute’s applause, though, the first effort on goal but this was an easy catch for him.

There was a block on a shot from Aubameyang.

Reece James beat his man and drilled a low cross the penalty area but sadly no Chelsea player had gambled.

On twenty-six minutes, the away team enjoyed their very first attack but it amounted to nothing.

The atmosphere was unsurprisingly muted.

There were a couple of Chelsea half-chances, but nothing of note. A shot from Sterling was blocked, an effort from Mount was blazed over.

On forty minutes, another rare Salzburg attack when a curler from Benjamin Sesko forced Kepa into a fine save down low.

At The Shed, an odd deflection from an Aubameyang cross and a Kovacic header. The chance passed.

It had been a pretty forgettable first forty-five minutes.

In fact, the absolute high spot was, on reflection, the timing of my visit to the little boys’ room during that odd intermission when the officials sorted out their FIFA Playstation headsets.

The half-time stats stated 72% possession and eleven efforts. I remembered less.

Soon into the second-half, a fine rapid move down our right involving a burst from James and a ball to a raiding Mount caught the Austrian defence on the back foot. A low cross from Mount wasn’t cleared. In fact, a defender deflected the ball on, just passing the waiting Aubameyang. It whipped past another defender and ended at the feet of Sterling. He controlled the ball, rolled his studs on it, then curled it powerfully home.

GET IN.

Did we power on? No, not really.

On the hour, the loudest chant of the night : “Carefree” rolled around the four stands.

A fine lofted pass from Jorginho set up Havertz but he fluffed his lines.

On sixty-seconds, Potter made some changes.

Armano Broja for Aubameyang.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for a very quiet Havertz.

Soon after coming on, Broja was released and broke in from a wide position but I that felt a challenge put him off. He shot wide.

With fifteen minutes remaining, Salzburg broke down their right. We appeared stretched. At first I thought that Emperor Silva’s slide was timed to perfection, but alas not. Junior Adama rode the challenge, collected the ball and advanced. His slide rule cross was easily turned in past Kepa by Noah Okafor.

Bollocks.

Cucarella set up James from a free-kick but he walloped it high and wide.

By now, I was literally sitting forward, not exactly on the edge of my seat because space would not allow it, but alert and involved, I could not help but think that if I had been watching at home, I would probably have been stretched out on the sofa, my attention possibly elsewhere. I am simply not a TV fan these days. Football has to be live for me now.

There was a flurry of late substitutions.

Conor Gallagher for Kovacic.

Hakim Ziyech for Dave.

Sterling played in Ziyech who crossed for Broja to bite at the near post but Kohn blocked well.

Lastly, Christian Pulisic for Sterling.

By now, I had completely lost track of the shape and who was playing where. God only knows what Boehly made of it.

Then, with time running out, a deep cross from Ziyech found Broja who headed the ball back across the box. The ball was kept alive only for our Albanian international to smash a loose ball over.

Finally, a hopelessly weak header from that man Ziyech close in had us all grumbling.

Fackinell.

In a period of change, both our lack of potency in front of goal and our charitable tendencies in defence seem difficult to budge.

On the walk out, I was annoyed with two smiling and laughing young female supporters, bedecked in Chelsea scarves, presumably not caring one iota that we were now bottom of our group with just one point from two games. I then glowered at a lad in his early ‘twenties who – laughing with a mate – proclaimed “Tottenham are better” and he soon got the message.

All three were visitors to these Isles. There are always many overseas visitors to HQ for these European games, more so than standard league matches. I welcome them. But maybe some should be asked to complete a due diligence test on arrival at the turnstiles.

I am only half-joking.

We met up back at the car and PD set off for home. I managed to drop off to sleep, no doubt dreaming of those last minute misses. I eventually got home at just after 1am. It had, indeed, been a long day.

In the match programme, there was a nice piece by Rick Glanvill concerning the Queen, the royal family and its links with Chelsea Football Club.  It was rumoured that the Queen’s grandfather, George V and her father, King George VI, were both Chelsea followers. The nearest football club to Buckingham palace is, after all, Chelsea. The first football match that the Queen watched was Chelsea’s war time Cup final with Millwall in 1945.

I have a spare programme. Who wants one?

A Chelsea player met the Queen at the British Embassy in Rome, but was really taken aback when the Queen commented : “Ah the famous Italian international footballer.”

Who was he?

Answers to : c.axon@talk21.com.

Let’s hope this garners more entrants to my last competition when just one person bothered to respond. I am going to limit it to overseas followers please. Chelsea programmes are a bit easier to get hold of in the UK. No due diligence test required. Good luck.

Tales From September 1982 And Forty Years Later

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 3 September 2022.

September 1982.

Due to the timings of games and thus match reports this season, my personal recollection of 1982/83 in this edition encompasses two consecutive home games at Stamford Bridge.

On the evening of Tuesday 31 August 1982, Chelsea played Wolverhampton Wanderers at Stamford Bridge. After winning the Football League Cup in 1980 against the then European Champions Nottingham Forest, Wolves suffered relegation just two years later. They dropped down into the Second Division alongside Leeds United and Middlesbrough. I suppose that they must have been one of the favourites for promotion that season. Our team was the same one that had played at Cambridge United on the Saturday. The game finished 0-0. The gate of 14,192 was a pretty decent one considering our predicament at the time. In the previous season we had averaged 13,133.

Next up was a match with Leicester City on Saturday 4 September. I was seventeen and just back at school. I was now in the Upper Sixth, with a worrying year ahead with A Levels in Geography, Mathematics and Technical Drawing on some hideous distant horizon. It was a horrible time. At Frome College, everywhere I looked I saw Julie’s face but she was now living in a little village to the east of Reading. At the time, Reading seemed like being a thousand miles away. A few years ago, I had a little sigh to myself when I heard that a mate’s schoolgirl daughter was seeing a boy in Reading. Distances seem to be squashed these days. It didn’t really help matters that the Westbury to London Paddington line took me to within half a mile of Julie’s house on that trip up to see Chelsea play Leicester. As the train whizzed past Charvil, I peered out of the window with a lump in my throat and a pain in my heart.

In those days, my school mates rarely went to football, proper football. My pal Steve often used to go to see his Bristol City play on their nosedive through the divisions. He also watched many Frome Town games. Steve would have been with me at the Wellington game the previous Saturday, just as he is alongside me at Frome games forty years later. He is currently the club’s official historian. Another mate, Francis, saw his Liverpool team at Ashton Gate in 1980.  Another mate, Kev, went to see his Tottenham team around 1980 too, but that was it. I was one of a very few who used to go to league football. The Leicester City game would be my twenty-fourth Chelsea match. I didn’t have a part-time job in those distant days. I just saved my pennies to watch my team. Chelsea was my life.

Living over a hundred miles away, I could only afford a few games each season. From 1981/82, I started going up alone by train. The independence that I gained on those trips to London put me in good stead for further travelling adventures in the future. But in 1981/82 and 1982/83, I became closer to the club by subscribing to the club programme. I loved the small programmes of that era, nicely designed, they had a stylish look about them I thought. I used to love the arrival of the postman in those days. I have no idea why I stopped in 1983/84 when the programme became larger but lost a little of its style in my opinion.

My father would have dropped me at Westbury train station to catch an 8am train to The Smoke. It would arrive in Paddington at about 9.45am from memory. In those days, with no spare money and plenty of time to kill I usually walked over to Hyde Park and sat beside The Serpentine on a park bench – it became a superstition in 1981/82 – and I probably did the same on this occasion. Then a walk to Lancaster Gate tube and the journey down to Stamford Bridge. In those days, I knew nobody at Stamford Bridge, not a soul. Before the game, I bought the newly published “The Chelsea Story” by John Moynihan with money that my mother had given me. The book cost £5.95, a costly sum in those days. I watched the game in The Shed, my usual place towards the tea bar, but under the roof.

I am not honestly sure if I bought a programme on the day of the game. It cost 50p. I have a feeling I would have waited until I received one through the post.

Times were hard.

On viewing that same programme forty years later, I am reminded of the perilous financial predicament that we were in. Although Ken Bates had bought the club for “only a pound” in the Spring of 1982, we were still struggling to balance the books. On the rear cover of the programme, in a space reserved for sponsors, there is a stark message against a black, and blank, page :

“We’re known by the company we keep, we’d welcome your company on this full colour back page. For full details please contact the Club’s Marketing Department.”

It’s hard to believe I support the same club in 2022 where every square inch of the club’s body and soul is sold for profit.

The team was almost unchanged again, but with debutante Tony McAndrew replacing Clive Walker, although not by position. The game ended 1-1 with Micky Droy scoring for us in the fiftieth minute and then Gary Lineker equalising in the last five minutes. The gate was another respectable one of 14,127.

The old joke about the crowd changes being announced to the players at Stamford Bridge did appear in this case to be spot on.

I have one distinct memory from the game. I looked over to the Whitewall and the Middle and thought this :

“We may be in the Second Division with a slim chance of getting promotion, and this ground might look a third full but still around 15,000 supporters have gone out of their way to come and support the team today. There is something rather noble about that. It feels right that I am there.”

On the way back, I devoured the new book. I loved the introduction by athlete Seb Coe.

“Following the club could be as frustrating as chasing spilt mercury across a laboratory table.”

I was a quiet and world-shy teenager, but I remember a smile from within and me nodding in agreement, as if I was a footballing sage.

My diary for the day reports “probably one of the most boring games I have seen – a shame really after spending all that money.” There was talk of a party when I returned to Somerset although I am not sure where this was. My diary continues “enjoyed it, only slightly drunk, but soon sobered up.” It is probable that my father would have picked me up at the end of the night.

So there we have it. My twenty-fourth Chelsea game. My twenty-fourth Chelsea day. My Dad at the start of it. My Dad at the end of it. How I miss those times.

Forty Years Later.

The build-up to this game was way different. There was a drive to London with friends, a quick visit to Stamford Bridge to take some early scene-setting photographs, a spot of breakfast in the café and then my usual seat in the pub.

Outside Fulham Broadway, DJ had thrust a copy of “CFCUK” into my hands and I read a little of it in the café. While I waited for my food, I couldn’t help but notice the characters already sitting at tables. There was one loud voice, an American with the voice of a woman, sharing his thoughts a few tables away. Two English chaps close to me were deep in conversation and one appeared to be re-writing a script or manuscript of some description in between bites of a bacon sandwich. A group of younger folk were behind me, gregarious and chatty. The café owner, foreign by birth, my guess was Italian, bellowed orders and chivied his staff as if he was the conductor in an orchestra.

I devoured a piece in “CFCUK” by Walter Otton who wrote about his experiences of the Tottenham game which he watched in a pub after a tortuous day spent walking for miles and miles in the hinterlands of suburbia with friends. He detailed the people he observed while waiting for a train at Worcester Park, a station that I know well after parking at a mate’s near there for football between 1991 and 1993. I loved these words :

“To my right, I study a haunted young man with high cheekbones as he stares directly at his feet. He’s got the regretful face of man who last night had a vacancy sign up, but then he went and let the wrong person in.”

I messaged Walts to say how much I loved this. I had seen him briefly after the debacle at St. Mary’s on Tuesday.

I spent two-and-a-half hours in the cosy “Eight Bells” and I was surprised how quiet it all was at 11.30am. It took an hour to fully reach respectable figures. The Norwegians called in again, this time with an extra fan from Bergen, the wonderfully nicknamed Einstein. The Kent lads were close by, as were three young lads from Ilminster in Somerset who we had not seen before, but were dead chatty about the current malaise in the team. Steve from Salisbury appeared alongside Simon from Andover, another new face.

Andy and Sophie arrived and I spent some quality time at their table.

Andy and I raised a glass to “Ginger Terry.”

With a great deal of sadness, I learned on Thursday that Terry O’Callaghan had passed away that day. He was a lovely man, softly spoken, a true gent and was well-loved by those at Chelsea who knew him. I would bump into him at all sorts of odd, and far-flung, locations. He always stopped to say hello. Ironically, I first met Terry on a coach from Gothenberg in Sweden to Oslo in Norway alongside Andy for our match against Valerenga in 1999.

During the summer, I was shocked to hear of the passing of another of life’s good guys. I first met Henry Hughes Davies out in New York on a trip to see the New York Mets play a baseball game alongside around ten other Chelsea supporters. Unfortunately the game was rained-off but I remember how pleasant he was on that occasion and during the two or three other times I met him in “The Goose” with other US-based Chelsea fans. From London, Henry was killed in a road accident out in South-East Asia and it hit me hard.

RIP Terry.

RIP Henry.

I also, sadly, need to mention the passing of Depeche Mode member and life-long Chelsea supporter Andy Fletcher. During the summer, I attended a lecture by Chelsea Communications Director Steve Atkins at his former school in Warminster – he came across well – but the night was soured when, immediately after, I heard that “Fletch” had suffered a heart-attack and had passed away at the age of just sixty.

The music of Depeche Mode first thrilled me in 1982 – that year again – and has been a constant companion to me over the years. I have seen the band in 1993, 2001, 2006 and 2017.

RIP Fletch.

Andy, Sophie and I had a very enlightening “state of the nation” chat about Chelsea Football Club and other clubs.

How sometimes it can be a bit hard to get “up” for some games for example.

“I woke with the alarm at 5.45am this morning. I know exactly what you mean.”

How we have 22 million followers on Twitter yet we were outnumbered by Arsenal in Baku in 2019.

“They, Arsenal, are still the biggest club in London.”

How we only sold six-hundred for Dinamo Zagreb.

“Too early for me, for sure.”

How we might struggle to pack in 60,000 at a refurbished Stamford Bridge in light of Tottenham playing to capacity crowds at their new stadium.

“Saw some Tottenham at Fleet Services and also some at Putney Bridge tube, no doubt on their way to the Fulham game. Admittedly, there is the “wow” factor of a superb new stadium but their crowds have been constantly full-houses. They have a huge support in the home counties.”

How the pricing structure at West Ham is paying dividends.

“After a dodgy first season, they seem to have got it right. Full houses now, eh?”

How some Chelsea fans want Thomas Tuchel gone.

“But come on. We have only played five bloody games.”

How Sophie was looking for a spare for Crystal Palace in a few weeks.

“Might have one. Will let you know.”

We marched off to the tube station together and I spotted ex-England cricketer Alex Stewart chatting at Fulham Broadway.

I was inside with around fifteen minutes to go.

It was time to focus on the team.

Alas, a fleeting look at Billy Gilmour pre-match at Southampton on Tuesday would be the last that I would see of him in Chelsea colours. His permanent move to Brighton disappointed me. But at least this sad news was tempered by the fact that Armando Broja had signed a new multi-year deal. But, to our annoyance, Thomas Tuchel still went with the “after you Claude” false nine with Broja on the bench. A debut for Wesley Fofana in defence. We had all tried to remember if he had played against us in the 2021 FA Cup Final. I hoped for a more successful career for Wesley Fofana than Tony McAndrew. Mason Mount and Kai Havertz were both dropped and I was OK with that. It was generally accepted that in Southampton they were sinners, no saints.

No Jorginho, either.

A brave Tuchel?

Maybe.

Here we were :

Mendy

Fofana – Silva – Koulibaly

James – Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – Gallagher – Cucarella

Sterling – Pulisic

I had to laugh when Clive appeared in a claret-colured Stone Roses T-Shirt. Both PD and I were wearing light blue T-Shirts; Paul, Lambretta, me, Paul & Shark.

“Bloody West Ham.”

“Jesus.”

I thought back to a photo that I had taken in the hotel bar looking out onto the forecourt earlier in the day. The plastic flowers on show there were shades of purple in light blue vases.

Good job, I’m not superstitious, cough, cough.

West Ham kicked off and a high ball was pumped forward. After four seconds, the new boy Fofana had his first touch as a Chelsea player, a strong header putting the ball back whence it came.

Alan : “I hope Fofana is more Kante than Drinkwater.”

Clive : “Drinkwater had one good season for Leicester.”

Chris : “I had one good season. Summer 1982.”

It wasn’t much of a first-half. And the atmosphere was very poor for a London derby.

The highlights?

How about the lowlight first?

Marc Cucarella failed to beat the first man on two early corners down in Parkyville.

“Bloody shite, should be fined for that. No excuses.”

Despite our almost total domination of possession – it was absolutely all us in the first fifteen minutes – West Ham packed their defence solid and we soon seemed to look flat.

There was a shimmying run from Raheem Sterling into the box but the resulting corner was a Cucarella special.

Reece James out on the right fizzed a low ball into the danger area, pinball ensued, but Christian Pulisic’ effort was blocked for another corner.

Finally, we were treated to a flowing move with passes hitting runners into space.

Then, a low shot from Mateo Kovacic but he drove the ball just wide.

It wasn’t as bad as Southampton, but it was all pretty dire stuff.

I suspect that the first-half against Leicester City in 1982 was no better.

At the half-time break, the three of us posed in our claret and blue shirts, the shame.

For the record, during the first-half Kurt Zouma was neither clapped nor booed. It was if he had never played for us.

The second-half begun with a still woeful atmosphere in the stadium. I was surprised how quiet the three thousand West Ham fans were. I wasn’t surprised how quiet we were.

There was a clash between James and Michail Antonio; both booked. This stirred some emotions within the stadium.

At last, the atmosphere improved and it felt like a proper game of football rather than some computer-generated monstrosity.

There was a very loud and piercing “Amazing Grace” :

“Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea, Chelsea – Chelsea.”

Exactly on the hour, Tuchel changed it around.

Armando Broja for Gallagher.

Mason Mount for Pulisic.

At the Shed End, a corner to West Ham.

Chris : “You know what’s coming.”

It was hoofed away by Reece James.

A second corner was fisted high and away by Mendy. The ball was then volleyed back at goal by Jarrod Bowen. This effort from distance was nervously palmed away by Mendy again. This was the first real scare for us, but also the only meaningful shot on target for either side. However, from the corner that followed, there was an almighty scramble with Mendy not exactly covering himself in glory. His jump and save from under the bar only kept the ball alive. The ball landed at the feet of a West Ham player who prodded the ball back into the six-yard box. That man Antonio slammed it in from close range.

Fackinell.

Thomas Tuchel’s doubters were sharpening their pencils.

The new man Broja was soon sniffing inside the box, and I was purring with his intent. We now had a natural striker up front, a physical presence, a predator. Whereas Sterling was like an eel, slithering into space, Broja was shark-like, ready to snap at anything.

On seventy-two minutes, another double-switch.

Kai Havertz for Kovacic.

Chilwell for Cucarella.

The noise levels were ever-increasing now. We prayed for an equaliser.

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

Havertz almost had an immediate impact, trying to reach a through-ball but Lucasz Fabianski foiled him with a brave challenge on the edge of the six-yard box.

Just after, a lofted chip from the cultured boot of Thiago Silva from deep found the on-rushing Chilwell down below us in The Sleepy Hollow. His head beat the rather stunted leap of two defenders and the ball dropped nicely for him to run onto. In the blink of an eye, he had touched the ball through the legs of a star-jumping Fabianski and I could hardly believe my eyes as the ball continued over the line.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Chilwell’s leap was perfect for me.

Snap, snap, snap.

He celebrated with Broja but I was impressed that nobody else joined in. There was business to be done. Top marks.

This was a real game now and the Chelsea hordes had now found their voices.

With four minutes to go, a huge scare and a massive “get out of jail card.”

Alan and I were actually mired in the middle of a pun fest.

Alan : “Surprised Cornet ain’t wearing number 99.”

Chris : “That’s a flaky comment.”

Alan : “Saucy.”

Chris : “You got hundreds and thousands of these, mate?”

With that, a cross from the West Ham left found the leap of that man Cornet but his free header hit the post.

Fackinell.

The game continued.

Broja was up against Vladimir Coufal down below us. He teased and cajoled the West Ham defender before finding some space with some fine control. His pass to Chilwell on the overlap was perfect. The ball was drilled into a packed box. Havertz was waiting to pounce.

BOSH.

Chelsea 2 West Ham 1.

GET IN.

I caught the celebrations on film too. Havertz brought his finger up to his mouth, no doubt a reaction to some doubters among the Chelsea support. I found it a little odd, a little disrespectful.

Was he right to do so?

Answers on a postcard.

But, directly after, West Ham broke and I watched aghast. This all happened so quickly. Mendy rushed out, went down, the ball ran to Cornet. He lashed it home.

Fackinell.

West Ham screamed :

“You’re not singing anymore.”

Back to 2-2, bloody hell.

But then, a delay, and it slowly became apparent that VAR was being summonsed. Yet again, the spectators in the stadium – no commentary for us of course, as if it needs to be stated – seemed to be the last to know what on Earth was happening.

Yep, VAR.

The referee Andrew Madley eventually walked over to the pitch-side monitor. I didn’t like the way that he was being hounded by players of both teams.

After an age – but with each passing second, I felt more positive – he signalled “no goal.”

I was relieved but honestly did not feel like celebrating.

Bollocks to VAR.

Elsewhere, the Chelsea support was howling :

“YOU’RE NOT SINGING ANYMORE.”

We hung on.

This wasn’t a great game of football, but we kept going which is all you can ask for. The stupor of the first-half gave way to a far more entertaining spectacle in the second-half as we loosened the shackles and played, what I am going to term, a more emotional type of football.

There were relieved smiles at the end, but only at the end.

I am not going to Zagreb, but Alan is going. He is one of the six-hundred. As he wriggled past me, I said.

“Have a great time in Croatia. You’d best split.”

He groaned.

Immediately after the game, we received texts from others…

It looked like we got away with murder.

Next up for me, our home away from home.

Little old Fulham.

See you there.

Tales From A Muggy Night

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 30 August 2022.

An away trip to Southampton early this season meant that we were repeating three of the last four away games of the last campaign in the first three matches of the current one.

Last season we lost to Everton 1-0; this season we beat them 1-0.

Last season we beat Leeds United 3-0; this season they beat us 3-0.

Last season we beat Southampton 6-0; surely not?

The Famous Five left Melksham at around 3.15pm. I was driving again, and my fellow passengers were PD, Parky, Sir Les and Glenn the birthday boy, celebrating his fifty-fifth birthday a day before he was to begin a new job.

Southampton away is a breeze. At around 5pm, I was parked up in the small car park outside the city’s Central train station.

The evening heat surprised me.

“It’s nice out” I said.

“It is yes, but put it away, someone will see it” replied Parky.

The others dashed off to “Yates” for a pre-match tipple while I decided to grab a bite to eat in a nearby Italian restaurant. There were a couple of familiar Chelsea faces in there – “alright, boys?” – and I soon sat down for a pizza. This is standard for me. I reckon we could play in Kazakhstan, Bolivia or Zimbabwe and I’d still order a pre-match pizza.

I joined up with the lads in the pub, but none of us were keen to stay for any longer. There was a quick “hello goodbye” to a few troops before we set off to walk the twenty minutes or so to the stadium. The three Norwegians – four actually, I neglected to mention Jon in the Leicester City report – had been spotted in the pub. A couple of local lads were there too.

“Good trip down, Chris?”

“Oh yeah, easy.”

“Did Les come with you?”

“Yeah mate. But with PD in the passenger seat and Les sat behind him, the car kept veering to the left. It took me three attempts to get out of Melksham.”

We were down at the stadium as early as 6.15pm. It felt odd being there so early. I had to sort out a ticket for Young Jake, who none of us had seen for ages. We thought that his last game with us was the Norwich City FA Cup game at Carrow Road in 2018. There was time to chill out a little and relax. I shot off to take a few shots of the stadium.

“It’s no San Siro but surely there’s the chance to take a few decent photographs?” I thought to myself.

There wasn’t.

St. Mary’s is as bland as bland can be.

Talking of the San Siro, we – PD, Parky and I – are booked to head over in October, but we will be staying in Turin for three nights and will be joined by Dave who now lives near Nice and was last seen before the Tottenham away game late in 2018. I will be driving in to Milan on the day of the game. A version of “The Italian Job” perhaps? In a Fiat Chucklecento maybe? No, too much of a tight fit for four of us. Why Turin? When I returned home from Chelsea on Saturday night, it seemed that all the cheap flights to Milan had gone. The accommodation looked expensive too. I have no qualms about returning to Turin once again; it’s my favourite Italian city and far more interesting that Milan. As for the other Champions League aways, we are not going to Zagreb but I suspect that a trip to Salzburg is likely.

This was my second game in two days. On the Bank Holiday Monday, I drove to Bath to see Frome Town wallop local neighbours Larkhall Athletic 4-0. With the upcoming game against West Ham now taking place on Saturday, I am forced to miss Frome’s home FA Cup tie against Tiverton Town.

Now is a good time to slip into the conversation my second memory of the 1982/83 season. On Saturday 28 August, Chelsea opened up our fourth consecutive season in the old Second Division with an away game at Cambridge United’s Abbey Stadium. Did I go? No. I was still at school and would only go to four games that season, the same as in the previous campaign. On that particular afternoon, Frome Town got my attention as I watched a 0-0 home draw with Wellington in the old Western League – “a terrible game” says my diary – but I would have been no doubt elated with a 1-0 win.

Chelsea finished mid-table in 1981/82 and only the most optimistic of Chelsea fans would have hoped that we would make a sustained promotion push in 1982/83. Our only real outlay throughout the summer had been the almost laughable acquisition of much-travelled Bryan “Pop” Robson, who was thirty-six when we bought him. I for one, was not impressed.

The team that day?

Steve Francis in goal. Gary Locke and Chris Hutchings the full backs. Micky Nutton and Micky Droy as centre-backs. Colin Pates, John Bumstead and Mike Fillery in midfield. Colin Lee, Clive Walker and Pop Robson upfront, with Paul Canoville as a substitute.

Interestingly, Pates, Chivers, Bumstead and Canoville are currently employed by Chelsea to this day as match-day hosts in the corporate areas.

Even more interestingly, my friend Daryl spotted Pop Robson near Red Square before the Champions League Final in 2008, presumably on some junket with a UEFA sponsor.

Our match winner forty years ago?

Bryan “Pop” Robson.

I was to eat my words, for one game at least.

The gate was 8,124, and I am sure that around half would have been Chelsea.

Back to 2022.

Jake soon arrived and there was the chance to chat to a few friends from near and far. The “Ticket Man” arrived on schedule at 7pm and we were in the stadium just after. Down in the darkened but spacious concourse, more chit-chat with some and a few “nods” to others. With plenty of time to kick-off, I swapped tickets with PD and sat next to Glenn towards the back of the away section, right behind the goal. I usually watch from down low so this made a nice change.

Glenn is often with us at Southampton. There were a few games at The Dell and he was also with us in August 2001 when we opened up the new stadium with a 1-0 win. I have seen all of our fourteen games against the Saints at St. Mary’s – minus the COVID ones – and I kept saying to the lads “we’ve only lost once down here, the Benitez spell in 2013.”

As we waited for the game to start, there were a few half-hearted flames in front of the stand to our left. A brass band appeared, walking towards us, left to right, and they played “Oh When The Saints” as a large banner surfed along from right to left.

I turned to Glenn and said “I always remember a game here in 1994 when you were excited about starting a chant in the away end.”

We were in the seats along the side and Glenn began bellowing “Dennis plays for England” which the rest of the Chelsea support joined in with. Glenn’s recollection was that Wisey scored a late winner. Looking back, it was actually Paul Furlong on eighty-nine minutes. Perhaps Glenn had mentally confused the two moments.

To my surprise, Billy Gilmour and Ethan Ampadu were among the named substitutes.

The team drew a few shocked reactions.

Mendy

Dave – Silva – Koulibaly – Cucarella

Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – Mount

Ziyech – Sterling – Havertz

No Reece James, no Trevoh Chalibah, we presumed injured.

The teams entered. As at Leeds United, we played in dark blue socks and I wondered why. Surely we have some royal blue socks knocking about somewhere. The home team’s kit was a shocker. Hummel brought out some absolute killers back in the ‘eighties and Saints even had their copy of the half-and-half Denmark kit. This current shirt – predominantly white – misses by a mile. The shirt of the Keegan era would surely have looked better; predominantly red with a broad white central stripe rather than the current version. I wasn’t even sure I liked the white socks either. Very odd.

The home areas took ages to fill up and there were quite a few empty seats dotted around. I saw no unused seats in our allocation of around three thousand. We took a while to get going but the songs soon boomed around the away end.

It was a muggy night in the Northam Stand.

As is so often the case with away matches in Southampton, the home team enjoyed the best of the early exchanges. We then began to get a foothold on the game. The pitch, usually excellent, was worn in many places, as if it was a mid-season game.

Our chances, or half-chances, started to stack up. Raheem Sterling scuffed a shot right at the Saints ‘keeper Gavin Bazunu. A chance for Hakim Ziyech came and went. Sterling looked as lively as any player on the pitch and on twenty-three minutes, a lovely move down our left involving first Kai Havertz and then Mason Mount set up the central striker. Sterling appeared to lose control of the ball on the six-yard box but was the first to react as it spun loose. He stabbed the ball in and wheeled away in delight.

Phew.

I suspect that this is just the sort of goal that is practised ad infinitum on the practice pitches at Cobham; all movement, all together.

The away crowd soon responded.

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel.”

Not long after, Ziyech played in Havertz in the inside-left position. He got his shot in from an angle but the shot was hit right at the Saints keeper.

From that moment, our play drifted.

Just five minutes after we had scored, Dave decided to whack the ball out for a corner rather than play it back to Edouard Mendy to deal with. At the time, I understood that call.

What were we always told at school?

“Safety first.”

Sadly, the resulting corner fell to an unmarked Southampton player – Romeo Lavia – who was loitering with intent outside the box. He took one touch and lashed it home. Glenn was raging. Only a few minutes earlier he had spotted two Saints players unmarked at the back stick at a previous corner.

Of course the home fans roared.

Our play deteriorated as the home team became stronger. I lost count of the number of passes that Ruben Loftus-Cheek misdirected. One run out of defence by him seemed to be in slow motion.

“Ross Barkley is a big unit but even he had a burst of pace” I moaned to Glenn. “Ruben makes Micky Fillery look quick.”

Our midfield in general – without a midfield general – looked so poor. Dave was caught out of position on a couple of occasions. We had no bite. The only plus point was watching Thiago Silva scoop a few balls up and over the heads of the advancing opposition out to the right wing. I could watch that man play football for hours.

Glenn was getting frustrated further : “no tackles!”

There was an awful moment when I thought that I had been transported back to the early nineties under Ian Porterfield when there seemed to be a never-ending sequence of head tennis on the halfway line. This was rotten football.

With the home support energised, it turned into a temporary Pompey Hate Fest. Mason Mount was deemed public enemy number one.

With the half-time whistle approaching – “blow up ref, let’s regroup at the break” – a laughably poor attempt at a tackle by Jorginho failed dismally and Southampton advanced with speed and purpose. As the move progressed I repeatedly shouted two words :

“Too easy! Too easy! Too easy!”

The ball was smashed home after a fine move by Adam Armstrong.

Too easy.

Two-one to Southampton.

“Oh When The Saints” boomed around the home areas.

Fackinell.

The referee blew for half-time almost immediately.

I turned to Glenn at the break : “this has been a timid performance.”

We both wanted Tuchel to bring on Armando Broja for the miss-firing Havertz. Towards the end of the half-time break, with the grass getting an extra dose of water from the sprinklers, we spotted Tuchel chatting with Mateo Kovacic on the pitch. The manager then sat alone on the bench for a number of minutes.

I just found all of this a bit odd.

One presumes that he had said enough to the players in five minutes and didn’t need ten. Personally, I would have taken fifteen.

“Oh, before you go back out on that pitch, just be aware that there are supporters out there who have travelled down from the north of England, from the Midlands, from East Anglia for tonight’s game and they won’t get home until about 2am in the morning but will need to be up again for work within a few hours, knackered, and they will do it all again and again and again…”

I saw him studying some sheets in a folder.

It almost raised a wry smile.

“Never mind the first-half stats, pal, just fire some fucks into them.”

No real surprises, Tuchel replaced Loftus-Cheek with Kovacic.

“Kovacic, Our Croatian Man…”

Soon into the second-half, Southampton broke down our right and a shot from close in was blocked on the line by Cucarella. Mendy made a fine reaction save to tip over the follow-up effort.

The home fans really turned up the heat on Mason.

“You skate bastard. You skate bastard.”

“Mason Mount, we fucking hate you.”

We struggled to get things moving. Oh for a playmaker, oh for a Cesc Fabregas.

On the hour, there was a loud, proud and defiant “Carefree” from us followed by derisory applause from the home fans.

Sadly, our play stagnated further. I saw little movement off the ball and the mood in the away end was falling fast.

With twenty minutes or so left it was all change, three substitutions :

Ben Chilwell for Jorginho.

Armando Broja for Dave.

Christian Pulisic for Havertz.

I expected a ripple of applause for Broja from the home fans; there was nothing, the ungrateful sods.

We all revelled in the great rush into space from Broja and his strength in twisting and turning past two players. He left them for dead before sending in a cross. This augured well for the rest of the game or so we hoped. In reality, despite his more aggressive movement and enthusiasm, his only other noticeable action involved a header near a post that never looked like troubling the ‘keeper. Kovacic added a little burst of energy too, but this soon petered out as moves slowed down and died. Pulisic looked remote and uninterested wide on the right. My recollection is of him hardly bothering to go past players, but my photographs would prove otherwise. How Ziyech stayed on all game is a mystery.

The minutes ticked by.

From a corner, Silva was in the right place at the right time. The ball hit him on the line.

I fully expected us to lose another goal.

3-1 would not have flattered them.

In a scene that was reminiscent of the Leicester game, Mendy appeared in the opposing box for a late corner or two.

When the ball was hoofed up field, one of my photographs completely captured our night, with Cucarella nervously falling to head the ball away, being pressured by a Saints attacker, the goal open and vulnerable.

I spent some of the last minutes of the game watching that fucking dachshund on the “Vitality” advertising boards trot around the stadium at roughly the same pace that our team had been doing all match.

The final whistle blew.

Southampton 2 Chelsea 1.

We got what we deserved, no doubt.

A posse of young Southampton fans to our right spent many a minute goading us as we waited to drift away into the night. I was pragmatic about it.

“Bollocks. Let them enjoy themselves, the little twerps.”

Some other Chelsea supporters were a little more hostile.

It was all a pantomime show to me.

In days gone by, there is no doubt that Chelsea would not have taken such a defeat well. Recriminations would have been enacted outside the stadium as fans would have sought revenge.

“We’re a right bunch of bastards when we lose.”

We all met up outside and slowly trudged back to the car. That walk always seems twice as long when we lose.

There was a small scale altercation.

A mouthy young Southampton fan wearing the hugely odd combination of a bar scarf and a Stone Island sweatshirt was heard to shout “Chelsea Rent Boys.” This was like a red rag to a bull to one or two in our support. The youngster escaped into the night with a warning.

All five of us were at a low ebb. There really were no positives from the night. Only two or three players had average performances.

On a muggy night in Southampton, we were the mugs.

We stopped off at the always-busy “McDonalds” at the bottom end of the A36 at about 10.30pm. A couple of lads enjoyed a burger. I downed the inevitable coffee. Outside, the air still warm, I got a little philosophical.

“We are so unused to defeats. Over the last twenty years, we have had a magnificent ride. It’s all been massively good fun. But remember that ninety per cent of people who go to football in this country have no hope of seeing their team win anything. That’s quite something really. That so many go just for the love of their team. Quite admirable really. Not saying we should not get concerned about defeats, but maybe we just need to re-focus our targets.”

That reset button might have to be adjusted again over the next few weeks.

The immediate reaction out there in Chelsea Land was split. Some want Tuchel gone. Some want to persevere.

Me?

I’m fucking looking forward to the San Siro in October I know that.

See you against West Ham.

Tales From Munich Day

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 19 May 2022.

The finishing line was in sight now. With Champions League qualification already achieved, the next target was to attain third spot in the Premiership, a position that I have been saying all season long would be our rightful place in May. If we couldn’t win the league, let’s at least finish as the pyramid’s top London team. And the pain of another FA Cup Final defeat was behind us now. But I did wonder how the exertions in the baking sun would impact on an already tired squad against Leicester City. I certainly wasn’t expecting a spectacle of scintillating football.

But this game, on this date, meant a little more than a run-of-the-mill match at the arse end of the season. On the tenth anniversary of our monumental Champions League victory in Munich, what no better way to celebrate than all of us being together for an evening game at Stamford Bridge.

I worked until 3pm. Dan, from Frome, joined us on the trip to London. Dan had taken my ticket for the Tottenham league game back in January when I was hit with a bug and this would be the first time that I would be sat with him at Stamford Bridge. He has played for my village team in the Mid-Somerset League for a few years now – I turned out in the reserves on a few occasions from 1978 to 1981 – and I was aware that the team had recently won three trophies.

PD drove to London and he made good time. Parky was with us too. It was a typical mid-week pre-match. First, a pizza for me on the North End Road at about 5.30pm. At the end of my meal, I spotted two tables of Chelsea supporters near the door and so approached them.

“Happy Munich Day!”

All four looked at me as if I had grown an extra head and I silently wished that I hadn’t fucking bothered.

I popped next door for a meet up with a few pals in the beer garden of “The Goose” and a nice and relaxing time ensued. A special mention to Kev from South Gloucestershire who was clocking up Chelsea game number 1,500 against Leicester City.

Great effort, mate.

This would be number 1,352 for me.

Finally, a quick chat with others in “Simmons”. Both boozers were as quiet as I have ever seen for a Chelsea home game. There were spares floating around all over the place. Daryl had recently enjoyed a wonderful trip up to the outer reaches of Scotland with his wife Pam, but it was typical that ninety-five percent of his recollections about the holiday detailed how he had bumped into Ally McCoist at a hotel on the Isle of Lewis, as far away from the mainland as it is possible to get.  Daryl confirmed that the Rangers legend is a Chelsea supporter,

Outside “Simmons” a pop-up bar has opened over the past six months and, with hindsight, we really ought to have added that to the itinerary too. “Biergarten” is a little bar in the style of those German Christmas market huts that now appear all over Europe, resplendent with light blue and white Bavarian flags and steins of beer. I recognised a couple of mates quaffing some lager at a table.

We were inside with a good ten minutes or more to spare, but there were too many yawning gaps everywhere, sanctions notwithstanding. It was clear that Leicester hadn’t sold their allocation of 3,000; it was nearer 2,000.

What with the sanctions hitting hard – still – I was pretty sure that the club would not be able to fly any of the glorious 2012 squad over and, indeed, the celebrations of Munich just involved a paltry video show on the TV screens before the entry of the teams. In days gone by, the sadly-missed Neil Barnett would have been in his pomp, and it annoyed me that the club had been unable to celebrate Munich in a proper fashion. Before the game, a huge crowd-surfing “tifo” – a bit of a misnomer really – appeared over both tiers of The Shed honouring Thomas Tuchel. However, could that not have waited until next season? We only had one opportunity to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Munich and it turned out to be a damp squib.

This was our Munich Day and we messed it up.

Typical Chelsea.

The fading sun again turned the light brickwork of The Shed hotel into a warmer hue and the sky was a mix of blue and white. I spotted the saddest of all Chelsea flags draped from the Shed and overlooking the West Lower. Kyle Broadbent and his father Tony travelled together to Munich on that iconic day ten years ago. Not many years after, Kyle died in a horrific accident at work, while labouring with his father. Then, sadly, Tony passed away from cancer. I did not know Kyle. Tony was a friend on “Facebook” and I met him once or twice in “The Goose.”

RIP.

The teams entered the pitch.

Thomas Tuchel chose this starting eleven :

Mendy

Rudiger – Siva – Chalobah

James – Jorginho – Kante – Alonso

Pulisic – Lukaku – Ziyech

Not too many changes from the marathon on Saturday; only two players were dropped, Mount and Kovacic.

I accepted that this might be a struggle from the start. People can moan all they like about “players on £100,000 a week playing two games in six days” but the sixty-three games this season must surely have taken its toll.

Leicester appeared in a jade green kit that looked half-decent. Thank God I only had to endure our jaw-dropping monstrosity for two more games this season.

The English Football Gods : “Sorry, Chelsea. You’re not collecting any fucking silverware this season looking like that.”

We attacked the Matthew Harding as the game began. I always feel uneasy when that is the case. The match got off to a slow start but one which we were easily dominating. However, after just seven minutes, a long throw out from Kasper Schmeichel into space down their right was not dealt with properly. Marcos Alonso dawdled and Antonio Rudiger dallied. Neil Maddison was able to move the ball in to space and – damn it, I hate it when this happens – I was in line with the flight of the ball and able to see a firmly-struck shot curve in at the very last moment. It was a superb strike. I guess that why they are paid hundreds of thousands of pounds per week.

In “The Goose” before the game, Andy from Nuneaton and I were talking about the noisy Leeds support the previous Thursday. I liked how they immediately got behind their team when they conceded the first goal.

“Just like we used to do. We don’t do that anymore.”

Well on this night, we did.

A loud and defiant “Carefree” echoed around Stamford Bridge and I liked that a lot.

I liked our response too. There was a trademark shot from distance from Trevoh Chalobah – “shooooooooot” – that Schmeichel – a thorn in our side, a hero in theirs, for years now – did ever so well to tip over. Then Kante won the ball and slid in Lukaku but a defender recovered with a sliding block.

But then we reverted to type and were guilty of the two Chelsea cardinal sins of the latter part of this season; runners not running, passers not passing.

Alan : “Jorginho has more square balls than Sponge Bob Square Pants.”

Midway through the half, I was stifling a few yawns.

“If they get a second, it’s game over, Al.”

I spotted advertisements for the upcoming US Tour splashed over the electronic signs at pitch-level.

16 July : Chelsea vs. Club America, Las Vegas, Nevada.

No thanks. I’m not a fan of Vegas. I hate it in fact. I prefer real cities.

20 July : Charlotte FC vs. Chelsea, Charlotte, North Carolina.

No thanks. I saw Chelsea play PSG there in 2015 and see no point in returning.

23 July : Chelsea vs. Arsenal, Orlando, Florida.

No thanks. Florida in the height of summer? Are you taking the piss?

On thirty minutes, a shot from Ziyech was blocked. From the corner that followed, Silva headed over. Five minutes later, Kante prodded the ball on to Reece James and – I was in line with the ball, but more enjoyable now – lofted a ball out wide towards the on-rushing Alonso. It was absolutely perfect.

“Have a bash, Alonso.”

Wallop. It was a trademark Alonso finish, another volley, another goal. That boy owns that part of the opposition penalty box, eh? I just wish he owned more of the defensive left-flank too.

The game limped along until half-time. I was sure that their only shot on goal the entire game thus far was the one from Maddison for their goal.

Sigh.

At the end of half-time, Dan left us in The Sleepy Hollow and watched from the front row of the MHU, utilising one of the many vacant seats nearby. Throughout the stadium, gaps were everywhere. This was easily the worst-attended game in recent memory. Sadly, Dan’s new prime viewing position did not mirror prime viewing. It was to be a sluggish half.

On fifty-two minutes, the much-maligned Lukaku showed great perseverance to win the ball back and push on down into Parkyville, but his low cross into the six-yard box went begging with nobody set to pounce.

“Shouldn’t he be in there, Al?”

A few minutes later, there were two weak Ziyech efforts. The first from a free-kick, the second after cutting in but hitting centrally. Then just after, Lukaku fed Pulisic with a square pass but much to everyone’s consternation, the patchy American made a complete hash of a relatively easy finish.

The crowd howled.

“Fucksakechels.”

We sought pleasure elsewhere.

“Jamie Vardy. Your wife is a grass.”

We had a few chances. We were absolutely dominating this half, even more so than the first. Leicester’s lack of desire was depressing.

A couple more efforts came our way. A glancer from Lukaku at the far post, wide, after a fine pass from Ziyech that really should have tested the ‘keeper. A shot from Rudi in the inside the box was then saved well by Schmeichel.

Some substitutions.

Dave for Christian.

Ruben for N’Golo.

Chalobah rose inside the box from a corner but his header was easy meat for the Leicester ‘keeper.

Kai for Romelu.

Time was running out now, and so were the chances. Havertz’ legs seemed to become entangled as he was fed by Ziyech inside the box, and couldn’t get his shot away.

However, with just four minutes remaining, Edouard Mendy needed to put down his crossword puzzle and come out to smother a rare, very rare, Leicester attack when it was case of one versus one.

In a show of solid defiance, despite the poor fare being offered on the pitch, the Chelsea choir were loud and constant during the closing minutes of the game.

“Chelsea. Champions. Chelsea. Champions. Chelsea. Champions. Chelsea. Champions. Chelsea. Champions. Chelsea. Champions. Chelsea. Champions. Chelsea. Champions.”

It ended 1-1.

On descending the steps to street level, a little gloom.

“We’ve not really pushed on this season.”

In the car back to Wiltshire and Somerset.

“More questions than answers at the moment.”

Tales From The Burger Van

Everton vs. Chelsea : 1 May 2022.

Well, that was a bloody long way to go for a curry.

I had always thought that our match at Goodison Park would be a very tough fixture. In fact, leading up to it, I was telling everyone that was interested to know my opinion, and maybe some who weren’t, that I thought that we would lose at Everton. It was set up for it. A notoriously difficult place for us to get results of late, the Frank Lampard thing, an absolutely red-hot atmosphere, the fact that it would be “typical Chelsea”, the entire works. Coming out of Old Trafford on the Thursday, I said to the boys :

“Yeah, we’ve done really well tonight, but it will be much harder at Everton on Sunday.”

Everton harder than Manchester United? An away game against a team in the bottom three would be harder than one chasing a European place?

Oh yeah. Oh definitely.

There was a very early start to my Sunday. The alarm rang at 5am and I picked up PD at 6am and Parky at 6.30am. I planned in a little more slack than usual because, damn it, I was flashed on the way home from Old Trafford on Thursday evening. After years and years of no speeding offences, I was now looking at six points in around four months.

Three after Villa on Boxing Day.

Three – I presumed – after United.

Six points. Ugh. I would need to slow things down for a long time now.

At just after 9am, I navigated my way through the streets of Stafford to make an additional stop. Through my network of mates at Chelsea, an extra ticket in the Chelsea section had become available. It belonged to Alex, a Londoner who I often see in “The Eight Bells” but who has been residing in Stafford for around thirty years. When I heard about the spare, I quickly put two and two together. My pal Burger – aka Glenn – has himself been living in Stafford for almost twelve years since his arrival, with his wife Julie, from Toronto in the summer of 2010. I got to know the two of them on the US tours in 2007 and 2009 and we have become good friends over the years. A couple of texts were exchanged and, yes, Burger was in. I left it to Alex and Burger to sort out the ticket in due course.

I collected passenger number three and immediately called “The Chuckle Bus” an alternative name.

For one day only it was “The Burger Van.”

Lo and behold, there was quite a tale involved in the extra ticket. Burger and Alex had chatted and had arranged to meet up in a local pub. For years I have told Burger about Alex and Alex about Burger.

“You must know him. There can’t be too many Chelsea in Stafford.”

Well, it became apparent that the two of them used to drink – and probably still do – in another Stafford pub. After European aways, Burger would always bring home a friendship scarf from his travels at the behest of the barman. And Alex would always spot that a new scarf had appeared behind the bar and would ask the barman where it came from.

“Oh, from that bloke I told you about. You sure you don’t know him?”

They must have missed each other drinking in that pub on many occasions. They were like shadows haunting the pubs of Stafford. They even lived in the same area for a while. And all along, I had pestered both of them with tales of each other’s existence. Well, at last they had met, and I took a little pride that it had eventually been through me. They were only going to meet up to pass over the ticket over a single drink but they stayed for four.

Proper Chelsea.

On the drive north, we chatted how you never see club colours on show in cars on match days – or any other days for that matter – in England anymore. Tensions have generally cooled since the mad old days and yet you don’t even see a mini-kit on display. Those were all the rage thirty years ago. On this trip, covering almost five hours, I didn’t see one Chelsea nor Everton favour.

PD : “My old car used to be a shrine. By the rear window. Scarves. Cushions. Rosettes.”

It’s an odd one alright.

I was parked up in Stanley Park at around 10.30am with memories of the last league game of 2010/11 at Goodison when I had travelled up with Parky, Burger and Julie. That ended terribly, with Carlo Ancelotti getting the “Spanish fiddler” in the tunnel after the game. I wonder whatever happened to him?

While the three of them headed off to “The Thomas Frost” I began a little wander of my own. My friend Chris – the brother of Chelsea fan Tommie – is an Evertonian from North Wales who now lives near Newcastle. We had been talking about meeting up for a pint before the game in a pub called “St. Hilda’s” which is just a couple of hundred yards from “Thomas Frost”. Chris – and Tommie – gave me invaluable advice for my Buenos Aires trip in early 2020, and we owed each other a meet up. During the week, it dawned on me that this could be my last ever visit to Goodison Park, what with the threat of relegation and a new stadium by the river, and so I was determined to wring every ounce of football out of it. I asked Chris if the church that abuts the ground, St. Luke the Evangelist, was open on match days. I was told that the church hall next to it has an upstairs room devoted to Everton memorabilia. That would be perfect. I even had a working title for the blog worked out.

“Tales From St. Luke’s, St, Hilda’s And The School Of Science.”

The trouble was that Chris was currently waylaid on his cross-Pennine trek, courtesy of inefficiencies of the British rail network. Not to worry, I walked along Goodison Road, underneath the towering blue of the main stand, a path that my dear father may well have chosen on his visit to Goodison for a war-time friendly in around 1942 or so. It would be his only football game before Chelsea in 1974. I reached St’ Luke’s at around 11am and approached a couple of ladies that were seemingly guarding the entrance to the church hall, but were actually pedalling match programmes from a small table. It soon transpired that I had caught the both of them at a bad moment.

“You’ve got a bad mental attitude.”

“No, you have.”

“Let’s go outside.”

I could hardly believe my ears. These frail women were having a proper go at each other. It made me chuckle.

With hindsight, it set the tone of aggression that would mark the entire afternoon in and around Goodison Park.

After the dust settled, I was told that the room upstairs would only be open at 11.30am. I had twenty minutes to kill and so set off for Kirkdale train station? Why? My good friend Alan – another aficionado of Archibald Leitch, the architect of so many iconic football stands and stadia – had noticed a little homage to Leitch’s cross-hatch balcony walls at that station when he caught a train to Southport a few years ago after a game in Liverpool. I owed it to myself to go and take a visit myself.

The only problem was that there was a little drizzle in the air. I zipped up my Paul & Shark rain jacket, flipped the hood and set off. My mind wandered too.

In November 1986, on my second visit to Goodison – my second visit of 1986 in fact – at around that exact same spot where I crossed Goodison Road, a gang of around four scallies – early teens, no more – had begun talking to me well before the game began. They had soon sussed I was Chelsea and started to ask me a few questions. I was, it is true to say, a little wary. However, I must have a non-aggressive demeanour because the lads – after my initial reluctance to engage in a conversation – just seemed football-daft and chatted to me for a while. Thankfully they posed no threat. These weren’t spotters leading me to danger and a confrontation with older lads. We chatted about the game and all other associated topics.

“Where you from mate?”

“Is Nevin playing today?”

“What’s Chelsea’s firm called?”

“You going in the seats at the Park End?”

I remembered that they were from Kirkdale, just a twenty-minute walk from Goodison. I also remembered that these lads were on the prowl for free tickets which, a surprise to me, were sometimes handed out to local lads by Everton officials. A nice gesture.

Yes, I thought of those young lads. They’d be in their late ‘forties by now.

Bizarrely, we played at Anfield in December 1986 and, walking along the Walton Breck Road behind The Kop before the game, the same lads spotted me again and we had a little catch up. I never did find out if they were red or blue, or maybe a mixture of both.

I crossed County Road. This wide road inspired the name of one of Everton’s earliest gangs – “The County Road Cutters” – and the rain got worse as I crossed it. Would I regret this little pilgrimage to Kirkdale in the rain this Sunday morning? I wondered if my father had taken the train to Kirkdale all those years ago and if I was treading on hallowed ground.

I reached the station and headed down to the platform where “The Blue Garden” – sadly looking a little shabby and needing a makeover – was placed. The rain still fell. I took a few photographs.

I retraced my steps. I passed “The Melrose Abbey” pub, itself sadly looking a little shabby and needing a makeover. I was tempted to dive in – I saw a huge pile of sandwich rolls stacked on the bar ahead of the football rush – but decided against it. I was lucky in 1986 with some lads from Kirkdale and although time has moved on, I didn’t want to push my luck thirty-six years later.

On the walk back to Goodson the hulk of the main stand at Anfield could easily be seen despite the misty rain over Stanley Park. I approached Goodison again, a fantastic spectacle, wedged in among the tightly terraced streets of Walton. Ahead, things were getting noisy and getting busy. In the forty-five minutes that I had been away, the area beneath the main stand had become packed full of noisy Evertonians. Some were letting off blue flares. We had heard how some fireworks had been let off outside the Chelsea hotel. And now this. The natives were gearing up for a loud and confrontational day. I guessed that they were lying in wait for the Chelsea coach. I sent an image of the blue flares outside The Holy Trinity statue to Chris, still battling away in Rochdale. His reply suggested he wasn’t impressed.

“Kopite behaviour.”

Pungent sulphurous fumes filled my nostrils. Ex-player Alan Stubbs walked through to the main entrance. The atmosphere was electric blue. I hadn’t experienced anything like this at a game in the UK before apart from a European night or two at the top of Stanley Park. I was hearing Everton songs that I had never ever heard before. The home support was going for broke.

I must admit that it felt so surreal to hear Scousers singing “Super Frank.”

I entered the football exhibition at St’ Luke’s and was met by a black and white photo of Tommy Lawton. He would sign for us after the Second World War. It still baffles me that we bought two of the greatest strikers of the immediate pre and post-war era in Hughie Gallacher and Tommy Lawton yet didn’t challenge in the First Division at all.

Typical Chelsea.

Of course, the greatest of all was William Dean, or simply Dixie. He must have been some player. I snapped a few items featuring him. His statue welcomes visitors to Goodison on match days. I always used to love that he scored sixty goals in the 1927/28 season, just after the other sporting hero of that era Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs for the New York Yankees in 1927. That Dixie Dean should die at Goodison Park during a Merseyside derby just seems, in some ways – as odd as it sounds – just right.

Proper Everton.

I could – and should – have stayed longer in that attic at St. Luke’s but I needed to move on. I sadly realised that I wouldn’t be meeting Chris, not even for a pre-match handshake, so I headed away from the ground again. I battled the crowds outside. There was a line of police – Bizzies – guarding the main stand and it took me forever to squeeze through. I may or may not have said “scuse me mate” with a slight Scouse twang a few times. The songs boomed in my ears.

“The boys from the royal blue Mersey.”

Eventually I was free and raced over to “The Thomas Frost”, one of my least favourite football pubs. There was, according to the steward, no room at the main entrance. I simply walked over to a corner door, chatted to Darren from Crewe, and went in there. I eventually met up with PD, Parky, Burger but also Deano and Dave. The Old Firm match was on. There were plenty of Scottish accents in the crowd and I supposed they were ‘Gers fans down for the game.

Shouts above the noise of a frantically busy pub, pints being consumed, everything so boisterous.

This football life.

Chelsea songs too. To be fair, both sets of fans – Everton and Chelsea – were drinking cheek by jowl with no nastiness. Chelsea tend to side with Rangers. Everton tend to side with Celtic. I had noticed a box of Celtic programmes at St. Luke’s – but no Rangers ones – as if no further proof were needed. A potential tinderbox – Everton, Chelsea, Rangers, Celtic – was passing with no trouble at all.

We left for the ground. I remembered seeing Burger with his father outside Goodison for the away game in early 2015/16, another loss. I had travelled up with just Deano for that one. All these lives intertwined.

I was inside in good time. Yet again our viewing position was awful, shunted way behind the goal line. Since our last visit in December 2019 – guess what, we lost – a mesh had been erected between the two sets of fans between the Bullens Road and the Park End. Everton certainly missed a trick in around 1994 when the simple single tier of the Park End replaced the older two-tiered stand. There is a lot of space behind that stand. It could have been much grander. But I bloody love Goodison and I will be so sad when it is no more.

It’s the antithesis of the old Stamford Bridge, the first ground I fell in love with. Our home was wild and rambling, spread-out, away from the road, a land of its own, a land of undulating terraces, inside and out, of shrubs and trees, of turnstiles, of forecourts, of differing stands, of corrugated iron, of floodlight pylons, of vast stretches of green, of views of Brompton Cemetery, of Earls Court, of London.

Goodison was – and is – cramped, rectangular, uniform, encased and with only St. Luke’s church of the outside world visible from inside.

I loved and love both.

We were at the very front of the top tier.

We waited.

The noise increased.

“And if you know your history.”

It seemed that the whole day was about Everton. Yes, we were chasing a third place but it was all about them. And that was what scared me. I envisioned them fighting for everything, the dogs of war of the Joe Royle team of around 995 revisited.

“Z-Cars.”

Spine-chilling stuff. I closed my eyes and breathed it in.

As the teams entered the pitch from different entrances, flags and banners took over, and the heavy smell of the flares hit my senses once again. I spotted a flag in the Gwladys.

“We Are The Goodison Gang.”

What on earth was that? It sounded like a ‘seventies children’s TV programme.

Thomas Tuchel had chosen an eleven against Frank Lampard’s Everton.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Azpilicueta

Alonso – Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – James

Mount

Werner – Havertz

Alan : “Not the most mobile of midfield twos.”

There was a mixture of new and old names for Everton. I had heard good stuff about Anthony Gordon.

As for Seamus Coleman, wasn’t it time he retired and fucked off to run a pub in Cork?

Borussia Chelsea in yellow and black. Everton in old-style white socks, la.

I would later learn that Chris got in with five minutes to spare. He works in logistics too.

It was fifty-fifty for much of the first-half and although the Everton fans seemed noisy as hell in the first segment of the game, the noise fell away as the game progressed. I noticed that for virtually the entire first period, the denizens of the Park End to our left were seated.

“Just not good enough. Must do better.”

A save from Edouard Mendy from Demarai Gray was followed by a dipping shot from Mason Mount and this indicated a bright start. But thrills were rare. On eighteen minutes we witnessed an amazing piece of skill from Mount, juggling on the run, flipping the ball up, and bringing it out of defence. Sublime stuff. Just after, sublime play of a different kind when Antonio Rudiger recovered well to make a magnificent run to cover the right-wing thrusts from Everton with a great tackle.

I could not understand the chants from our end for Frank Lampard. We love the bloke, of course, but I thought all that was silly and miss-guided. We were struggling on the pitch. I was not sure how a song about Dennis Wise in Milan was helping the cause either.

Parky was annoyed too : “Is he playing?”

Another shot from Gordon, just wide.

This was dreary stuff.

Only a lovely run from deep from Ruben Loftus-Cheek enlivened the team and the fans. With each stride, he seemed to grow in confidence. It was a graceful piece of play, but one that begged the question “why doesn’t he do it more fucking often?”

There was a fine block from Thiago Silva late on in the half, but – honestly – was that it?

It was.

For the second-half, Tuchel replaced Jorginho with Mateo Kovacic and we hoped for better things.

Alas, we imploded after just two bloody minutes.

Oh Dave.

Our captain dithered and Richarlison pounced.

Everton 1 Chelsea 0.

Bollocks.

A little voice inside my head : “yep.”

Howls from the Chelsea sections of the Bullens Road. Yet again a moment of huge indecision in our defence had cost us dearly. When Tuchel came in last season, our defensive errors seemed to magically disappear. The current trend is so worrying.

Just after, Everton really should have been two goals to the good but Vitalii Mykolenko shot high and wide at the Gwladys Street.

We tried to get back into the game but the movement upfront was negligible. But, to be honest, there was more room on the Goodison Road at 12.30pm than there was in the Everton final third. We were met with block after block, tackle after tackle. They harried and chased like their lives depended on it. Which they probably did.

There seemed to be more than normal amounts of time-wasting. Richarlison went down for cramp twice, as did others. The away fans howled some more.

On the hour, we howled again as a Marcos Alonso cross picked out Havertz who did well to head on to Mount. His shot not only hit both posts but the follow up from Dave was saved – magnificently, I cannot lie – by Pickford.

From the resulting corner, a header was knocked on and Rudiger raced in to smash the ball goal wards but the ball hit Pickford’s face.

Fucksake.

The Evertonians seemed to relish a new-found love of England.

“England’s Number One, England’s, England’s Number One.”

We kept going, but I wasn’t convinced that we’d break them down. Two headers in quick succession from Kai and Timo amounted to nothing.

Tuchel made some substitutions.

Christian Pulisic for Dave.

Hakim Ziyech for Werner.

There was a little injection of skill from Pulisic, wriggling away and getting past a few challenges but there was no end product. We enjoyed another barnstorming run from Ruben, even better than the one in the first, but we lacked invention. Everton appeared to take time-wasting to a new level. A scally in the paddock on the far side simply shoved a ball up his jumper rather than give it back.

A hopeful but hapless blooter from Rudiger.

A rising shot from Ruben after a neat run again.

A shot from Gray was smashed just over the bar up the other end. I envisioned seeing the net bulge on that one.

The noise was loud now alright.

Seven minutes of extra time were played but we could have played all night long without getting a goal.

A scuffler from Kovacic proved to be our last effort but Pickford collapsed easily at the near post to smother.

The home crowd erupted at the final whistle and we shuffled out along the wooden floorboards.

Everton are still not safe.

I wonder if I will ever return to Goodison Park?

We met up outside and I summed up the game and the season.

“No cutting edge.”

I overheard an Evertonian from South Wales talking, rather exuberantly, to a friend as we walked back to the car.

“Best game I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been to a few.”

He was about the same age as me too, maybe a tad younger.

Bloody hell, mate.

I made good time getting out of Stanley Park, Queens Drive, then onto the motorways. I dropped Burger home and then headed, once more, to “The Vine” at West Bromwich. We were joined by Michelle, Dane, Frances and Steve, Chelsea supporters all.

I had honey and chilli chicken, chilli chips and a peswari naan.

It was indeed a bloody long way to go for a curry.

Next up, Wolves at home.

See you there.

This Is Goodison.

The Blue Garden.

Flags And Flares.

History, La.

Pre-Match.

The Game.

Tales From A Tough One

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 20 April 2022.

After the away game at Southampton, there was football everywhere. Sadly, however, I was not involved in all of it.

On the Tuesday came our away match at Real Madrid in the Bernabeu. I watched this one at home, alone. I hate watching us in pubs. What a performance. I can rarely remember a more spirited show from us in recent years. It was a game for the ages, a high-energy tactical joy. And we almost pulled it off.

A couple of things to say.

I could not but help notice that there seemed to be a definite difference in the reactions – OK on Facebook, my main reference point – between those commenting on our performance between those in the UK and those elsewhere. In the UK, there was an immense sense of pride in the team and management, stated by virtually everyone. Outside the UK there seemed to be a different story. I often spotted fingers being strongly pointed at certain players and it made me gasp. This seemed particularly mean-spirited.

Massive kudos to two friends – from outside the UK, but I am sure they were full of pride too – who travelled vast distances to attend the game in Madrid. Well done to Shari from Australia’s Gold Coast and well done to Bob from Northern California. They both travelled over to Spain for just that one game. Respect.

On the Saturday, I travelled to South Gloucestershire to see Frome Town play – and win 2-0 – against Slimbridge. It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon in the sun. This was a fine performance after a few patchy results and one that really pleased me. The team solidified its place in the play-off positions now that Plymouth Parkway have edged into pole position for automatic promotion.

On the Sunday, I travelled with Glenn, PD and Parky to London for the FA Cup semi-final against Crystal Palace. Alas, I was not allowed into Wembley because I was carrying my usual SLR camera and lenses. I pleaded with security that the self-same camera had been allowed in on well over twenty previous occasions but this fell on deaf ears. I trudged back to the train station and made my way back to where Glenn’s van was parked at Barons Court. I was pretty demoralised. Sigh.

On the Bank Holiday Monday, there came salvation in the guise of Frome Town. For the game against local rivals Paulton Rovers, a few friends and I were sponsoring the match. Glenn was a guest of mine too. Ironically, the club’s official photographer had hurt his back and was unable to attend and so I was asked to slip into his shoes, and gleefully accepted. It was another fine day at Badgers’ Hill. Frome won 2-1 in front of a massive 731 gate and I was happy with my photographs. I snapped all three goals and, after “camera gate” at Wembley, this proved to be a really cathartic experience.

Good old Frome.

Next up was Arsenal at home.

At work, I mentioned to a colleague “I fancy us to win 4-0.”

Again, PD drove up with Parky and little old me. Just as we approached “The Goose” I spotted Raymondo and it was a joy to see him. He is well-loved at Chelsea and this was his first game since before lock-down in the Spring of 2020. Superb. Down at “Simmons” I met up with Johnny Twelve Teams from LA and also Ben and Christina from Louisiana in addition to all the usual suspects.

We all agreed that it would be so weird to see The Bridge well below capacity against the Gooners. We expected a gate of around 28,000. Team news filtered through. We weren’t too enamoured with the defensive set up.

In Tuchel we trust.

Before the game, Stamford Bridge was bathed in the glow of a pink and orange sunset beyond the West Stand. The yellow brickwork of The Shed End was warm with colour. The steel of the East Stand roof was a delicate pink. What with the empty seats – though not as many as I had expected – there seemed to be a surreal feel to the evening. Stamford Bridge – those familiar stands, the spectators, the flags and banners – often feels the same at most games, especially during the dull winter days. On this evening, I sensed a different vibe, one that is difficult to describe. Sometimes the old place can feel different and I often sense this during the first evening game in the light of Spring. This was one of those occasions.

Alongside Alan, PD and myself was Simon, a work colleague. There were three thousand away fans. One of them, Noah, was a guy I met up with on the long haul to Baku in 2019. We don’t often chat, but he told me that he’d be in attendance.

Arsenal, eh? It seemed that they have enjoyed the upper hand a little recently, but this isn’t really true. Sure, there had been the FA Cup losses in 2017 and 2020, but we had beaten them heavily in Azerbaijan and our last loss that I had witnessed at Stamford Bridge was the 3-5 reverse in 2012. The 0-1 defeat last May is only vaguely remembered. There were a few good wins at their place too.

Over on the balcony wall in their section of The Shed, there were a few Arsenal flags on show.

The “E.I.E.” one raised a smile. There is a possibly apocryphal story about that and how it all started involving an enthusiastic member of The Herd and a meat pie.

So, our team?

Mendy

Sarr – Christensen – James

Alonso – Kante – Loftus-Cheek – Azpilicueta

Mount

Lukaku – Werner

Very soon into the evening, the away fans seized the moment.

“Just like the old days, there’s nobody here.”

One-nil to The Arsenal. Sigh.

Chelsea responded with the same tune :

“Champions of Europe. You’ll never sing that.”

…thinking to myself :

“…mmm, how can a chant be constructed that describes Arsenal’s published attendances always showing 60,000 yet with often a third of the seats being empty?”

That’s a tough one.

I looked around. Despite the limited ticket sales – season tickets, corporate sales and away fans, right? – the stadium looked pretty decently filled. The Matthew Harding looked full. The Shed too. Yes, there were empty seats in the upper wings of the East and West Stands, and large gaps in the family sections of the East Lower, but it looked more than the expected 28,000. I couldn’t work it out.

Chelsea in our awful kit, Arsenal in their homage to Ajax or something.

The game began and it was off to a hectic start. Chances came and went in that opening ten minutes or so, with Chelsea dominating. A rare Arsenal attack saw a half-chance from Granit Xhaka saved by Edouard Mendy. There was an effort from Romelu Lukaku at The Shed End that flew past a post.

Sadly, on an unlucky thirteen minutes, there was a case of déjà vu down below. A boot up field from Nuno Tavares – “he looked like more than a woman to me” – was looking to be gobbled up by Andreas Christensen, drifting right. In a scene sadly reminiscent of the defensive howler against Real Madrid, his intended back pass to Mendy fell short and Eddie Nketiah intercepted and tidily finished.

Fackinell.

“One nil to The Arsenal” sang the away fans.

Only four minutes later, Ruben Loftus-Cheek won a ball and played it out to Timo Werner. His little run at the Arsenal defence resulted in a shot that appeared to be quite scuffed from over one hundred yards away, but his shot bobbled in.

The goal surprised me so much that I hardly celebrated and that worried me. But I then saw that Timo’s reaction was equally muted and my worries subsided. Football is a funny old beast, right?

Anyway, we were back in it. The replay on the TV screen showed a slight scuff, but a deflection and a bobble as it passed Aaron Ramsdale.

We had a little spell with a few lively attacks, but seemed obsessed with hitting them down our left. On more than one occasion, Dave was full of space on the right but unused. Maybe we had been told not to use him too much as his engine isn’t what it was and we were trying not to get him caught out high up the pitch. With Reece James inside, it seemed the two of them were in the wrong positions.

But who knows, I am no expert.

A riser from Mason Mount was off the target.

“Come on Chels.”

On twenty-seven minutes, the ball was worked in by Arsenal from their right and our defenders seemed shy in making a challenge; were they waiting for a fucking written invitation to tackle? A cool finish from the accountant Emile Smith-Rowe nestled in a corner. I resisted to waste any photographs of the fuckers celebrating down below me.

This goal was against the run of play.

Yet just five minutes later, a lovely cross from Mount on the left was played into a danger zone and Dave – “fuck this standing around, I’m going in” – magnificently swept the ball in past the Gooner goalie.

His celebrations in front of the away fans made my heart sing.

Good old Dave.

This was a messy first-half, but breathless too. Arsenal grew stronger as the first period neared its conclusion, and Marcos Alonso – outwitted far too often in defence – was unable to keep a trademark volley down after excellent work by Werner and Mount.

It was quite a half.

Phew.

So much for my 4-0 prediction.

So far it was a Bishop Desmond, with more goals very likely.

We saw Thiago Silva arrive pitch-side and we presumed that Chistensen was off. We were correct. Reece and Dave switched positions.

The second-half began.

We enjoyed a sudden burst of energy and spirit at the start of the second period. But then, all of a sudden, instead of being invigorated by the pep-talk at the interval, we suddenly looked tired and leggy.

On fifty-seven minutes, another Chelsea calamity.

Arsenal broke and attacked. A Silva tackle was to no avail. Inside our packed box, we had the chance to clear, but a hapless series of miss-timed challenges and horrible deflections allowed Nketiah to poke it past Mendy.

Fackinell.

On came Kai Havertz for the quite hopeless Lukaku. His body language was terrible all night long. I remember one header that he bothered to win. On several occasions, he just couldn’t be arsed.

We were still looking leggy, with Ruben never once going on a trademark dribble. Even the once indomitable Kante looked to be running on ether.

Miraculously, we did conjure up a couple of half-chances, but that elusive equaliser never really looked like materialising as the evening grew a little colder.

I heard Cath do a spirited “Zigger Zagger” down below me but it drew a lukewarm response from those around her.

With ten to go, Hakim Ziyech replaced Alonso and I couldn’t even be bothered to see how he fitted into the team. He hardly got a touch anyway.

The home support was drifting out into the London night.

I looked over to PD.

“Arsenal have done a job on us here. They’ve been the better team.”

They had chased us down, had put us under pressure, had stopped us.

Of all people, the once lampooned Timo Werner was the only player that could honestly escape criticism.

In extra-time, a final twist of the knife. Dave and Bukayo Saka tussled and tumbled inside the box. From my vantage point, it looked a penalty. With that, thousands left.

“Thanks, then.”

Sako converted and the Arsenal lot celebrated like they had won the World Club Championship.

As fucking if.

The whistle blew.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 4.

The Chelsea conundrum was continuing still.

And then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, and after three decent performances and three wins, the knives were out for our manager in many parts of cyberspace, and from undoubtedly within the UK this time too. Additionally, some players were being called the most horrific names.

This admittedly shambolic show was indeed all very difficult to comprehend.

And yet, and yet.

Just five league defeats all season. Third place almost guaranteed in my eyes. Two domestic Cup Finals. A manager that was being vaunted as one of the very best in the world after the game at the Bernabeu. An obviously tired squad. Out of a maximum of sixty-six games that we could possibly play this season, we will be playing sixty-three.

As I have said all season long…we have a team just starting out, a team that needs to develop, a team that needs to grow, a team that needs to find the right blend. Let’s get Gallagher and Broja back next season and see what that does.

I am hopeful that a few of the perpetrators of the bile that was aimed at some of our squad on Wednesday evening woke up on Thursday morning with the dull pain of regret.

Next up, Lymington away on Saturday and West Ham at home on Sunday.

I will see the lucky ones 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 The Loony Toon

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 30 October 2021.

At 1.37am on Saturday morning, I posted this on “Facebook” :

Get Daniels. Get Parkins.

And then a six hour drive to The Loony Toon where a team awaiting transformation lie in wait.

“You’re a big club but you’re in bad shape.”

I watched “Get Carter”, the 1971 original and not the US remake, a few months ago. I was shocked with how shocked I was. The film’s subject matter featured the criminal underworld of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and the brutality of a few scenes matched the brutal architecture that appeared in the ‘sixties in that particular city.

For the second time in around six weeks I was heading to a black and white city, a favourite along with Turin, and to a place where Michael Caine had starred in films. In the build-up to the bank raid in Turin, his famous line about “blowing the bloody doors off” is well-remembered. In “Get Carter” the line about a fellow gangster, altered slightly on this occasion to describe our opponents, is equally memorable.

Anyway, enough of this waffle.

We usually fly up from Bristol for games in the North-East. On this occasion, the prices of flights were much higher than usual, so after a little deliberation, I decided to take the bull by the horns and drive up. I wangled an early shift at work on the Friday, finished at 3pm, and was asleep by 6pm.

The alarm woke me at 12.30am. I fuelled-up en route to collect PD at 2am. We collected Parky at 2.20am. What God-forsaken times, eh? Needs must.

We were on our way to The Toon.

I had booked an apartment in the city’s West End, around a twenty-minute walk from St. James’ Park, and hoped that the rain that was expected to fall later in the day would not drag on until the evening. The aim was to get to Newcastle at around 9am, then join in the pre-match fun on the quayside, but then have a relaxing evening, not go too crazy, in preparation for the return journey on the Sunday.

Now then, there are many who take the time to read these match reports who appreciate the most minute details of these trips. For those living far away from these shores, and especially those who have not been able to see us play, I love the fact that many like being able to experience my match days and my match day routines. The word that I hear most is “vicarious”.  These next few paragraphs are for those who live vicariously through my words ( he says rather pompously)…

For the others, feel free to skip ahead. I won’t be offended.

Driving to Newcastle from my part of the world is around a three-hundred and thirty-mile journey. With non-stop driving, it’s five-and-a-half hours. It’s a long one. I have driven to Newcastle for Chelsea games on two other occasions; once for our 1-3 loss in the spring of 1997, and again in early autumn for a dire 0-0 draw, a game that would mark Gianluca Vialli’s last game in charge.

Incidentally, the longest trip that I have undertaken without stopping over was Middlesbrough in 2008. That topped out at 580 miles and I vowed “never again.”

I soon found myself bypassing Bath and by 3am I was joining the M5 from the M4. There was a little rain through Gloucestershire but nothing too heavy. PD had managed five hours’ sleep, Parky four. I fully expected them both to “drop-off” at some stage on the long haul north. There were two diversions, near Gloucester on the M5, and near Tamworth on the M42, the result of roadworks. A few more minutes were added to our travel time. PD was in charge of the mobile tuck shop and as I wended my way through some quiet Warwickshire roads, I wolfed down a couple of treats that he had prepared for the journey. We hit the M1 at around 5am and I was happy with our progress. Outside the night was black, and the traffic – even on the M1 – was pretty sparse. Parky was asleep in the back.

I continued the long road north. It seemed that signs for Leeds appeared often, too often, like ghosts from the past. As I veered off the M1 near Sheffield, I thought I had seen the end of them, but Leeds still appeared for many miles.

Up and onto the A1, I soon stopped to refuel at Beverley Services. The traffic thinned out further as we saw signs for Scotch Corner and Teeside. At around 7.30am, just south of Durham, I decided that I needed a rest. My eyes were heavy and a “power nap” was in order. I dropped off for about thirty minutes. When I awoke at 8.15am, it was light. I soon realised that I had done the right thing. That thirty minutes would see me well for my final approach into Newcastle, but would also give me fresh energy for the rest of the day.

Anthony Gormley’s “The Angel Of The North” overlooks the main approach road through Gateshead and into the city centre. It looked dark and foreboding on this visit, its usual rusty colour now blackened in the morning murk.

I spotted, for the first time, road signs for Low Fell, and it brought a lump to my throat. Here, on the main London to Newcastle railway line, former Newcastle United and Chelsea legend Hughie Gallacher committed suicide in 1957 by throwing himself in front of a train. One day, on one visit to this area, I will pay my respects. He remains the one player from our distant history that I wish I had seen perform.

On the train home after the famous 1-1 draw in March 1984, on the same line, our train carriage was “bricked” by locals. I remembered a young lad getting bloodied from the shattered window. About a year or so ago, on a “Chelsea In The ‘Eighties” forum on “Facebook” I happened to mention it, and the actual chap who had been hit soon replied to my comment. How often do I mention how small our Chelsea World can be?

So, here I was; on the cusp of driving over the River Tyne in my own car for the first time since 2000. The A184 served me well. A slight curve and there she was; Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in all her glory. The buildings rising up from the quayside, the wonderful array of seven bridges traversing the river, and the glass and steel edifice of St. James’ Park perched at the top of the hill. Everything so clear, everything so immediate. It was a wonderful sight. It took me back to the first time I ever crossed the River Tyne for that game in 1984. Wild times then, not so wild now. But the city was still so dramatic. It was super to be back.

The route took us to within five hundred yards of the stadium, but we then veered west. At just before 9am, as per my planning, we had arrived. We left our bags in my car, ‘phoned for a cab – which never arrived, so a second call was needed – and at just before 10am we had ordered our breakfast at the already busy “Wetherspoons Quayside” pub.

We had made it.

A few familiar faces were already inside and we were to be joined by a few more.

A special mention for our pals Gillian and Kevin from Edinburgh. Kev had proposed to Gillian the previous evening – Newcastle is a favourite city of theirs too – and Gillian was sweetly, and proudly, flashing the silver engagement ring.

“Ah, congratulations you lovebirds.”

Unfortunately, they were not fortunate enough to get match tickets. I had heard a familiar story from others. The demand wasn’t able to be met. I guess a fair few had travelled to Tyneside without the hope of a ticket. This just shows how much fellow fans have missed matches since the game was taken from us in March 2020, but also illustrates the lure of a night in Newcastle, and on Halloween weekend to boot.

We wolfed down the breakfast but outside the rain became worse by the minute. The idea was to hit five or six quayside pubs. But the rain stalled our plans. We stayed put for an hour and a half. Two “San Miguels” and a lighter “Coors” went down well. More and more Chelsea arrived; Pauline, Mick, Paul, Rob, Dave, Alex, Chay, Dave, Rich, Donna and Rachel.

Then Andy, from our area, with his mate Russ, who we have met a few times. Russ is from Newcastle and a fan of his home town team. Like many, he was relieved to see the back of Mike Ashley. We didn’t talk too much about the Saudi takeover. It’s too much of a moral minefield in my opinion. I am just glad that my club isn’t now owned by a group from Saudi Arabia. Shudder.

This would be my twelfth visit to St. James’ Park with Chelsea. For many years, I just couldn’t afford these trips. Thankfully, my financial situation has improved over the past twenty years and I try to make it each season. As everyone knows, our recent record up there is rather wobbly. But this game never felt like a potential banana skin to me.

On that visit in 2000 to Newcastle, I travelled up with Mark, a former work colleague who went to university in the city in the late ‘eighties. He was, and is, a Blackburn Rovers fan, and just fancied revisiting his old stomping ground for the first time in a while. Memories of that weekend got me thinking.

I haven’t seen too many non-Chelsea games in my life. I have seen half a dozen at Stoke City, plus a handful at Fulham, Swindon Town, Derby County, Brentford, Portsmouth, York City, Port Vale, Bristol City, Bristol Rovers, Yeovil Town and Blackburn Rovers within the English league structure. A grand total of around twenty games, as opposed to over 1,300 Chelsea matches.

However, in 1992/93 I actually saw Newcastle United at three away venues during their Second Division promotion campaign. Around that time, I wasn’t in a particularly well-paid job and in the seasons 1990/91 to 1993/94 I only averaged around twelve Chelsea games per season.

I think a little explanation is required, don’t you?

My good friend Pete – a college friend living nearby in Bristol then and just outside Bristol now – and a lifelong Newcastle United fan coerced me into the away game at Brentford when I was visiting mates in London. He also asked me to attend the more local matches at Bristol City and Swindon Town.

I am sure it’s not too uncommon for fans of one club to watch other teams, though I definitely haven’t made a habit of it.

“Chelsea one week, Fulham the next” as the saying went in days of yore.

Pete is from Scunthorpe, and he memorably went to see us win the Second Division Championship on the final day of 1983/84 with our game at nearby Grimsby Town. He was also present, of course, at that game in Newcastle in 1984.

At the game against Brentford at Griffin Park in October 1992, Pete watched in the away end, but I watched the match with two other college mates in the home end. Memorably, we bumped into Kevin Keegan and Terry McDermott hours before the game began outside the stadium. Newcastle won that 2-1. In January 1993, I was in the wet away end with Pete to see Newcastle beat Bristol City 2-1, with Andy Cole playing for City. In March, I watched with Pete in the packed away end at Swindon Town as Andy Cole made his Toon debut, but Swindon won 2-1.

I also saw Chelsea beat Newcastle United 2-1 in the League Cup at Stamford Bridge in the October of that season – 30,000 and a good 5,000 Geordies – so I actually saw them play four times that season.

I enjoyed the experience of watching them in 1992/93. It was something different. Under Keegan, they were a very entertaining outfit.

In fact, in around 1996/97, I’d hazard a guess that Chelsea and Newcastle vied for being most fans’ “second favourite team.”

Strange but true.

The rain abated slightly, so we moved on down the river. I had discovered a new pub – or at least one not previously visited by us – and on the way to the “Head Of Steam” we bumped into Kimmy and Andy. Three pints in there – “Angelo Poretti”, a relatively new kid on the block – and we were joined by Jack and Andy too.

I was feeling a little light-headed, but oddly after one pint of the tried and trusted “Peroni” in “The Slug And Lettuce” I was feeling fine again.

Outside “The Akenside Traders” we were so lucky to catch a cab up to the stadium at around 2.30pm.

Unbelievably, despite leaving home at 2am, I reached the seats in the upper tier a mere few seconds before 3pm.

“Just in time” logistics at your service.

My first view of the pitch way down below me allowed me to see the two teams standing silently in the centre-circle in memory of the fallen.

I soon located Alan and Gal. Parky and I took our seats (*we obviously stood) alongside them.

The game started and I had to play “catch up” to take everything in. A full house, but not much immediate noise from the home fans. I was expecting more. The team?

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Christensen

James – Kante – Jorginho – Chilwell

Ziyech – Havertz – Huson-Odoi

But then.

Those hours of driving through the night, the time spent down on The Quayside and then the rushed cab ride seemed to be pointless. The first-half was a damp squib. What a let-down. Newcastle, no surprises, sat back and let us attack and grimly hoped that their defence would hold out. This was their Plan A, but there was no hint of a Plan B. They did occasionally offer a rare attack, but for most of that first forty-five minutes their team were so deep that every punted or hoofed clearance did allow support to Wilson nor Saint Maximin, their undoubted two stars.

Chelsea, of course, dominated the game yet there was little to admire. I have mentioned before how dull modern football can be at times, especially when one team is so defence-orientated. With players’ fitness levels so good these days, space in the final third was at an absolute premium. However, what space there was, we didn’t really exploit.

Many Chelsea fans hate being so high up at Newcastle. I don’t mind it at all. It only happens once per season. This time, as with many others, I usually get a very central viewing position. It does, undoubtedly, offer a very unique perspective on the positioning and placement of the attacking and defending teams.

I also love that it allows a view of the outside world, squeezed between The Gallowgate and the horizon. In days gone by, this was often the case. The Thames at Fulham, the church at Goodison, the tower blocks at Upton Park, Earls Court at Stamford Bridge. The stadium as a part of the city.

It’s lovely that so many of the city’s landmarks can be seen from inside St. James’ Park.

Our first real chance of note came on around the half-hour mark, but Hakim Ziyech’s goal after a lovely Jorginho pass was called back for off-side. I saw the flag early so wasn’t guilty of premature jokulation.

The same player then skied a shot wildly over the bar.

Fackinell.

I pleaded with Hudson-Odoi to stretch the defence, to get past his marker. I found him particularly frustrating.

Our only other notable effort was again from Ziyech. It looked like Reece James was shaping to take a centrally-placed free-kick just outside the “D” but it ended up in The Gallowgate. Maybe Reece should have demanded the ball.

I sent this message to a few friends in the US at the break.

“No intensity. No passion. No invention. No nuffing.”

Into the second-half, and somewhat surprising for someone who certainly hasn’t really impressed too much at Chelsea thus far, it was Ziyech who again threatened Darlow in the Newcastle goal down below us. A couple of shots, with a save and the post saving the home team. Shots from Havertz and James stirred the crowd.

The manager had obviously said a few things at the break.

A new chant was aired at a game for the first time and, although I wasn’t too happy that the Frank Lampard chant had been re-jigged, it certainly gathered momentum in that second-half.

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel. He knows exactly what we need. Thiago at the back. Timo in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

Funny, when we sang it about Frank winning the Champions League, it did seem somewhat preposterous. But Tommy has already won the bastard.

Crazy, right?

On sixty-four minutes, a double-swap.

Barkley for Ziyech.

Loftus-Cheek for Kante.

Within a minute, at last a devilish wriggle down the left from Callum and a cross into the box. The ball eventually fell to James. A touch with his right foot, a smash with his left. The ball flew into the net from an angle. What a clean strike.

GET IN.

Would the single goal be enough? I suspected so. However, around ten minutes later, the ball ricocheted back off a Newcastle defender after a shot from Loftus-Cheek. It ended up, rather quickly, at the feet of James again. No time for thought, he smashed it in with his right foot this time. Two amazing goals. Euphoria in the top tier of The Leazes.

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel. He knows exactly what we need. Thiago at the back. Timo in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel. He knows exactly what we need. Thiago at the back. Timo in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel. He knows exactly what we need. Thiago at the back. Timo in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

Frank’s version had Tomori and Tammy. The new song kept the theme going.

The Teutonic technician Thomas Tuchel – plus Thiago and Timo – at the top in The Toon.

Phew, I need a drink.

Maybe a tea.

Not long after, a clear foul on Havertz gave Paul Tierny no option.

Penalty.

“Give it to Reece!”

No, Jorginho claimed the ball.

Alan : “A skip or no skip?”

Chris : “A skip.”

No skip, but a goal.

Newcastle United 0 Chelsea 3.

Love it.

Saul came on for Callum, but by then the vast majority of the home fans were heading, er, home.

The final whistle blew.

And Newcastle was blue.

Superb.

With Manchester City, incredibly, losing 2-0 at home to Crystal Palace and with Liverpool letting a 2-0 lead slip with a draw at home to Brighton, this was a magnificent day. We were, unbelievably, three points clear at the top.

The three of us slowly walked back to our digs and then reconvened at “The Bridge Hotel” at just after 7.30pm. A relaxing few drinks with Gillian and Kev was then followed by a curry. It topped off a perfect day in The Loony Toon, which was clearly living up to its reputation as the UK capital of alcoholic excess, debauchery and hedonism. I am not quite sure what the Saudis would make of it.

We set off for home as early as 9am on the Sunday. Despite some truly horrific driving conditions during the first two hours or so – so much spray, so much rain, but then when blinding sun arrived it was like driving through snow – I made it home at 4pm.

Seven hours up, seven hours down, three points in the bag.

See you, I hope, next season Newcastle.

My next game is at home to Burnley on Saturday.

See you there.

Under The Tyne Bridge.

Autumn In The Toon.

The Gallowgate.

Sir Bobby.

The Baltic Art Centre, Grey’s Monument And The Millennium Bridge.

All Saint’s Church, Sage Gateshead, Autumn Colours And Wind Turbines.

Windscreen.

Hakim Ziyech.

The Tyne Bridge.

In The Air.

The High Ground At Gateshead.

Swipe.

Second-Half Panorama.

Crowded Out.

Jorginho.

A Goal One Celebration.

A Goal Two Leap.

A Goal Three Certainty.

Let’s Gan, Like.

Tales From The Club With Two Stars

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 25 September 2021.

Just another Saturday? Hardly.

Even without the added weight of Porto, this was always going to be one of the games of the season. The current European Champions versus the current English Champions. Undoubtedly the biggest game in club football over the weekend, not just in England, but the entire World, was due to kick-off at 12.30pm at Stamford Bridge. And that was the only downer; that such a big game was being played at such an awful time. Well, I hope that the watching millions in Malaysia, Japan, The Philippines et al appreciated the match goers getting up at silly o’clock for them.  I am not so sure the TV viewers in North America were quite so excited; in California this meant a 4.30am kick off. Ouch.

The biggest game in the entire world. That’s quite something. When you grow up with a football club and try to get to as many live games as is physically, economically and geographically possible – why? That doesn’t need an explanation does it? – sometimes it is easy, too easy, to take the match day experience for granted. The grizzled old “every-gamers” can be a curmudgeonly lot at times, and we can sometimes forget to realise how excited those fans who only get to see us live once in a blue moon – sorry, poor analogy that – when the moons align – ditto – and they too join the match-going crowds at Stamford Bridge or elsewhere.

But this never felt like any other game.

I had been relishing it all week. City are a well-established team, tutored by the Catalan Pep Guardiola, and worthy champions in three of the last four seasons. They are still the team to beat this season. Although Chelsea has made great strides – leaps – the past eight months since Frank Lampard was jettisoned in favour of the Teutonic teacher Thomas Tuchel, we are still a work in progress, a team finding its feet, its optimum way of playing, its groove.

And I will say it once again. We are a team that is in a building phase, yet we are European Bloody Champions.

Weird ain’t half of it.

In the packed “Eight Bells” at the bottom end of Fulham, we were all enjoying a lovely, yet brief, pre-match. I had booked a table for five at 10am. PD and Parky were on time. After I had parked the car, I bumped into Kev and Rich on the District Line train as it pulled into Putney Bridge. We joined the fray at 10.20pm. It would leave us barely ninety minutes of “pre-match” but we were not fazed. Kim, Dan, Andy and the Kent boys (including three brothers, the Loaders, a load of Loaders) were already ensconced in the corner, and the three late-comers sidled in alongside. I was driving, so on Diet-Cokes. But that’s fine. The laughs ripped through the cosy pub. We chatted with enthusiasm about the upcoming game, and the pub was noisier than usual. There was a real buzz to the place. One of the most overworked words in modern parlance – along with shenanigans, are you paying attention America? – is “proper”, so excuse me if I lazily use it here.

The “Eight Bells” is a proper football pub.

It is so old school, traditional, working class, call it what you will, that of the one hundred or more Chelsea fans squeezed inside, or overflowing onto the seated area outside, there was not one single woman. I realised this as I walked through as we exited at just after 11.45pm. To be truthful it shocked me. I am all for the fairer sex attending games, but the complete lack of females took me by surprise. To be blunt, I was shocked.

We caught the train, and we were soon walking along the Fulham Road. Rain had been threatening to make an appearance, but thus far all was fine. On the West Stand forecourt, scarves bearing the name of a company – I won’t bother saying which one – and the two club crests were being handed out by a few happy smiley types, who were also trying to persuade the match-goers to take a concertina’d noise-maker too.

I walked by and said “no, no, no, no, no, no, no.”

This ain’t fucking Disney World, this ain’t Fulham, this ain’t Leicester.

As club historian Rick Glanvil pointed out as he walked alongside me they were even the wrong bloody colour; light blue, but light blue was the corporate colour involved.

Fuck that.

Anyway, suffice to say, I did not spot one single noisemaker inside the stadium.

Good work everyone.

As the teams took to the pitch – I have to say I miss the walk towards the West Stand – two flags floated above the heads of spectators at both ends of the stadium; a simple outline of the European Cup in The Shed, the “Pride of London” one in the MHL now adorned with two yellow stars.

I absolutely love that the club badge that I grew up with from 1971 to 1986 – with two stars either side of the lion rampant – has now developed a new meaning. If I had my way, this old lion would be reinstated in favour of the 2005 badge which already looks a little jaded.

It was our best badge.

I can well remember visiting a menswear shop in the nearby town of Warminster with my father in around 1971 or 1972. I had already been gifted a plain blue cotton shirt, but there was nothing to signify that it was “Chelsea.” While my father was talking business with the shop owner, my gaze was fixed on what looked like iron-on patches of a few football crests on display way above the counter. The Arsenal gun, the Tottenham cockerel, the Liverpool bird. I looked at a patch with a lion with “CFC” below and wondered if that was the Chelsea badge. On walking back to my father’s car, I mentioned the badges to him, and to my great surprise and undoubted joy, he marched me back into the shop and bought me the Chelsea patch badge. My mother would affix to my royal blue shirt, but alas it was soon to fade. There must be hundreds of Chelsea fans from that era with a faded Chelsea badge on their shirts.

It’s nice that those two stars, signifying the twin cup successes in 1970 and 1971, now represent the grander triumphs of 2012 and 2021.

Proper.

The minutes soon ticked by to kick-off.

Our team was with a new formation, albeit that which took command in the second-half during that heady game at Tottenham last Sunday.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – James

Alonso – Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante – Dave

Werner – Lukaku

One suspects that there were few complaints about this line up and personnel at kick-off. Be honest with yourself here. It was OK for me, though the duo up front was obviously a gamble as they had only played together in the Wednesday game against Villa late on.

The game began and I wish it hadn’t.

I soon wished that the coach bringing the City players into town had not been able to be refuelled and was stuck on the M25 near Watford. There had been a sudden mania for filling up cars with diesel and petrol amid rumours of a lack of tanker drivers being able to re-fil bunkers of fuel at garages all over the UK. We had witnessed a few queues on the way into London that very morning.

But no. The City players were at Stamford Bridge and were soon running amok. They absolutely bossed the first-half. Jack Grealish, the pantomime villain, was enjoying tons of the early ball down below us, and the energy and running of the City players made our movements look insipid and half-paced. While Tuchel had gone back to the ‘nineties with a twin pairing up front, Guardiola had gone the other way, backing into the future with a false nine in the guise of the diminutive but nimble Foden.

They shook us to our foundations in that first forty-five minutes.

Although we goaded the City entourage with songs from Porto, the City players did the fans’ talking on the pitch. They buzzed around like fireflies, and put us under immense pressure once we had the ball.

Alas, we did not show the same willingness to close them down.

In days of old I would shout “put’em under” and I am resisting to shout the ridiculously over-used word “press” with every sinew in my body. But they did. They pressed us all over the pitch as if it was going out of fashion, and God I wish that phrase would. They hunted in packs like the great United midfield of Beckham, Scholes, Keane and Butt. They were relentless.

Early on, maybe five minutes into the game, a ball was launched forward and Romelu Lukaku rose to head it at an angle in the general vicinity of Timo Werner. But it didn’t work, nor did it really come off for the rest of the game.

I turned to Al :

“What did I just see? A big central striker trying to play in a slighter second striker? Can you explain that to me, mate? I have a vague memory, but…”

City gathered momentum and our attacks were rare. Timo Werner bent a forward run to perfection on fifteen minutes to receive a ball from the trusted left boot of Marcos Alonso, and the German prodded the ball in to Lukaku but his effort was blocked. There would be not much else to give us hope and sustenance in that arid first half.

City were penning us in and we were lacking ideas on how to attack once we had the ball. The midfield three that had rampaged at will against Tottenham looked tired and weary. The front two upfront were stranded.

“I’ll take a draw now.”

Sadly, just on the half-hour, Reece James was forced to leave the field. He was replaced by the calming presence of Thiago Silva. After being substituted in Porto, it was ironic that he would now enter the pitch in this game with City.

“Champions of Europe. You’ll never sing that.”

For all of City’s possession, and it was impressive, Mendy was virtually untroubled. A mixture of wayward shooting from City and some excellent blocks, often from close in, from many Chelsea defenders meant that the game continued without a goal. There was City corner after City corner. A wild finish from Rodri just before the break summed up City’s profligacy.

We were really struggling. There was a massive gap between the midfield three and the two upfront. Nobody was breaking to support.

“Lukaku’s second touch is a tackle.”

City’s defenders had hardly been turned all of the first-half; all of the play was in front of them. This was too easy for them.

It had been a really poor half.

“Have we had a single shot on goal? I can’t remember one.”

It was time for a technical master class from our manager at half-time. While fellow supporters chatted with worried expressions in the stands, I hoped that Tuchel was conjuring up a change of system, or at least a change in attitude.

“Tell you what, Guardiola is going to be gutted, annoyed even, they are still without a goal at the break.”

Chelsea needed to change things around.

What would I have done?

No idea. I am a mere supporter.

Over to you, Tommy, lad.

Sadly, and seamlessly, City’s dominance absolutely continued in the first opening minutes of the second period.

At last an invigorating run from Timo down our right brought a ray of hope.

Al : “Need something like that to get the crowd involved.”

The noise from the Matthew Harding had been sporadic; loud at times, but not often enough.

Not long after, Grealish wriggled free in the inside-left channel and buzzed a low shot just past the far post. The deflection earned a corner which was taken short. Sadly, the inevitable happened. Gabriel Jesus was able to turn and prod the ball home inside a packed Shed End goa. From the northern end, I was unable to pick out an apparent deflection. It appeared to be in slow motion.

But the goal was on the cards.

The City legions boomed :

“We’re not really here.”

Mendy did so well to tip a shot from Grealish past the post.

An Alonso corner summed up our afternoon; it didn’t clear the first man but when the ball ended up at the feet of a tired N’Golo Kante, the French midfielder could only shuffle the ball all of the way back to Mendy.

“Fackinell Chels.”

Silva cleared off the line.

“Fackinell Chels.”

On the hour, Kai Havertz for Kante. I focussed on his chiselled features as he took position up front on the left and dreamed of Porto.

Back to a 3-4-3 formation.

I was up celebrating a Lukaku tap in from an early Havertz ball, but the German had strayed into an offside position.

Bollocks.

On sixty-seven minutes, our first shot on goal. But this would be an Alonso free-kick, in prime territory, that hit the wall. Soon after, at last, a bursting run from Kovacic warmed our spirits, but it all petered out rather too predictably.

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

Edouard Mendy was keeping us in the game, or so we naively hoped, with a succession of fine saves. To be truthful, all of the defenders in that central three had been excellent; no complaints. It was just our attacking players that had struggled all day long with the tenacity and hunger of the away team.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced the very poor Jorginho with a quarter to go. The noise increased as the crowd sensed that a sudden late upsurge in our play might entice a slightly unwarranted goal from someone in our midst. Despite some nice flourishes and a little more bite and energy from our Ruben that had been sadly missing, the late substitute just couldn’t ignite the team. The other substitute, Havertz, had offered little.

Mendy made one last save, a super one at that, from that man Grealish, but the game was done, the game was over.

City had totally deserved the win. A hundred thousand post-mortems would suddenly be happening at once all over the world. But the manager is no fool, no simpleton, and he will be soon at work to identify what decisions, including his own, engendered such a poor performance.

Don’t worry. We are in good hands.

We reconvened in the austere beer garden at “The Goose” to meet up with Kev and Rich before their evening return from Gatwick to Edinburgh.

Poor Kev’s last three visits to Stamford Bridge – Bournemouth, West Ham and now Manchester City – have all ended up as 0-1 Chelsea losses.

Imagine what Tottenham fans must feel like.

We headed home, philosophical, but pleased that both Manchester United and Liverpool had dropped unexpected points. However we couldn’t disguise how poorly we had played. On a day when the United Kingdom scurried around in search of fuel, it certainly seemed that Chelsea had been served two-star petrol, while City had been issued turbo-charged four-star.

Before I returned home, I was pleased to be able to fill my tank at my local garage in preparation for my early morning jaunt to Stansted on Tuesday for my, hopeful, flight to Turin.

I just need to get a negative reaction to a lateral flow test.

Juventus lie in wait.

I will see some of the famous five hundred out there.

Andiamo.

Tales From Under A Pure Blue Sky

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 28 August 2021.

Before we get too deep into this, give yourself a point if you either uttered or thought this line after the game at Anfield :

“I would have settled for a draw before the game.”

Everyone? Everyone gets a point. Everyone apart from Arsenal. Thought so.

This was a cracking day out. A long day, but deeply pleasurable. It almost had it all.

I had set my alarm for 7.30am but was awake at 6.45am. No point trying to go back to sleep. I needed to fuel up again, and on the short four-mile drive to the nearest garage, I briefly found myself doing eighty miles an hour through the Somerset back-roads. Proof, if anything was needed, that I was keen to get “on the road” and on my way to Liverpool for this one. Our fine start to the season, admittedly against far from high calibre teams, had got me chomping at the bit for this mouth-watering fixture at Anfield. It would be twenty-eight months since my last visit, a weak 2-0 defeat in April 2019.

I collected PD and Glenn in Frome bang on 9am.

Our initial plans had been adjusted as Parky was still laid low with COVID19. We called in to see him and he handed over tickets for Anfield as if they were atomic waste; face masks on, gloves on, everything at a distance. Sadly, Parky would be absent, and so would Alan and Gary too.

Regardless, the Frome Three headed north, diverting into Melksham for our first match day McBreakfast for months and months and months.

I headed north.

A familiar route, though less travelled these days.

My last trip up the M5 for football was for Hull City in January 2020. My last trip up the M6 for football was for Everton in December 2019.

Driving north, the three of us enjoyed a lovely chat about the state of our club and team at the moment. Many positives. Too many to mention.

With this being a bank holiday weekend, we predictably hit a few areas of traffic congestion.

One of my favourite vistas on my travels around this Sceptered Isle with The Great Unpredictables is from the Thelwell Viaduct. On this particular day, the high-rises of Manchester’s city centre were clearly visible to the east. Beyond Saddleworth Moor and its notorious history. Ahead, Winter Hill – appearing so close, despite being twenty miles away – with the home of Bolton Wanderers nestling a few miles to the south. To the west, the cooling towers and bridges at Runcorn, but the almost mythical city of Liverpool out of sight.

Football Land.

I had earmarked an arrival at Liverpool – or to be precise the car park outside Goodison Park, the blue-half of the city – at 2pm. In the circumstances, my arrival at 2.20pm was half-decent. Happy with that.

A short walk away, past the Dixie Dean statue, was The Abbey pub, which was to be our base for around two hours. Already inside were Kev and Rich, veterans from Belfast, and I had kept their arrival a secret from PD and Glenn. It was a nice surprise for my Somerset Chuckle Brothers. Next to arrive was Deano, just a short hop down from Silverdale near the Lake District. To complete the group, Kim, ex California, ex Florida and now a resident of Crosby a mere ten-minute drive away. The pub was a new one for me; I have walked past it many times en route to and from Goodison. It was a decent boozer. There were three other Chelsea fans on a nearby table. The locals were fine. The prices were cheap. Everything was good. On the way up, we chuckled as Arsenal lost again, and lost without scoring again.

They said that The Titanic would never sink.

Full steam ahead, Arteta, and fuck the icebergs.

We made the short walk up through Stanley Park – the scene of much aggro, hooliganism, violence and associated nastiness in previous decades – and I have to say it was a surprisingly lovely walk. It was the first time I have walked to Anfield from the north for a game. The sun was out, a clear blue sky, and there were Victorian features to the park which made it all very pleasant.

Was I really in Liverpool?

The shining mass of the new stand at Anfield that peered over the trees to the south confirmed that indeed I was.

There was the quickest of security pat downs outside the away turnstiles and we were in at 4.50pm.

I was almost blinded by the sun as I walked into the lower tier of the Anfield Road Stand – “The Annie” as the locals call it – and I quickly found our seats.

Row five, equidistant twixt the six and eighteen yard boxes. Ideal.

It was a familiar view, this. This would be my twenty-fifth visit to Anfield with Chelsea. There have been the same number of visits to see us at Manchester United but, what with the two FA Cup Semi-Finals in 2006 and 2007, Old Trafford slightly edges past Anfield.

I spotted a few friends. PD, taking Parky’s ticket, was alongside me. Also alongside me were the empty red seats that would have been occupied by Gary – COVID positive – and Alan – COVID negative, but unable to make it – and it felt odd not having them alongside us.

Anfield took a while to fill. There were no COVID19 checks again this week.

I could not have been the only Chelsea supporter who thought “if I don’t catch it at Anfield, I won’t catch it anywhere”…

Pre-match songs included “Ring of Fire”, “Heroes” and “The Fields Of Anfield Road.”

Chelsea broke into song as the afternoon progressed.

One song dominated :

“Champions Of Europe…You Know The Rest.”

Out on the pitch, the game’s undercard was The Battle Of The Shit Training Tops.

Chelsea won it easily.

The clock ticked towards to the kick-off at 5.30pm.

The Liverpool PA announcer’s ridiculously deep and monotone voice announced a few items in that dead pan voice of his. Think Ringo Starr but at several levels lower.

The team was almost the same as the one that started against Arsenal.

Mendy

Rudiger – Christensen – Azplicueta

Alonso – Kante – Jorginho – James

Havertz – Lukaku – Mount

The teams came on, Chelsea first, then Liverpool. The line-up. The Kop was ready with its myriad of DIY banners, and of course, their scarves.

The away end was virtually a scarf-free zone.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Not as loud as on many previous occasions.

Must do better.

It annoyed the fuck out of me to see a couple of Chelsea / Liverpool scarves in our cramped away section. These fuckers evidently didn’t bother reading the small print in their Chelsea contract.

Liverpool and Chelsea. Two league wins apiece thus far. This was a game that I had been relishing all week. I predicted a 2-2 draw.

Romelu Lukaku took the kick-off before the pre-game “knee” and I hoped that it would not be the last time that he would be out of synch.

The game began.

As always, we attacked The Kop in the first-half.

Not surprisingly, Liverpool came out of the traps firing on all cylinders and other clichés. Their youngster Harvey Eliott looked neat and purposeful in the opening moments. His shot was knocked wide. Mason Mount fired over from the edge of the box. The next chance of the game came down the Liverpool right as Terence-Trent Darby-Alexander-Arnold pumped a long ball into our box that Jordan Henderson reached, but could only prod the ball wide with what appeared to be his heel.

It was an even start.

Liverpool were aggressively closing down our defenders but the ball was moved with pace out of areas that would hurt them.

I grimaced every time Mo Salah came at us. He was a very real threat for sure. A Van Dijk header at the far post was blocked.

Despite our regular utterings of “Champions Of Europe” there was, surprisingly, no usual retorts from the home support about our lack of “history.” This was a real surprise. This is their usual stock, almost Pavlovian, answer to any of our chants that either praise our successes or mock them. Maybe they are learning their history lesson after all these years.

It was, in fact, refreshing to hear no “Murderers” chanting from our section either.

Had the lockdown affected us all that much?

After some dogged perseverance from Marcos Alonso underneath the dreaded Anfield Clock, we won a corner.

Reece James pumped the ball in towards the near post. I snapped as Kai Havertz – already showing silky sweetness in attack – leapt. I watched, and snapped again, as the ball looped up and over everyone into the far corner of the box.

GET IN!

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

In truth, I had no idea how the ball had ended up in the net. I wasn’t even sure that Havertz had touched it last. Was it a defender’s head that had looped it on? I simply did not know. It all happened so quickly.

The scorer was announced as Havertz.

How did he manage it? It was from the corner, at least, of the six-yard box? I was flummoxed. What a goal.

People mention “The Catch” in baseball and everyone knows it’s Willie Mays at The Polo Grounds. “The Try” in rugby union, and it’s the Barbarians at Cardiff. “The Save” in football and it’s Gordon Banks against Pele in Mexico in 1970.

Now we have “The Header.”

It defied physics and football. He had his back to the goal, his back to the ‘keeper, his back to everyone. His flick managed to twist the ball up and over everyone in a perfect parabola. In the end, it dropped into the goal amidst so much space that it was almost unkind on Liverpool.

It was an absolute beauty.

A couple more Chelsea half-chances strengthened the air of positivity – if not euphoria – in the Chelsea end.

“Shall We Sing A Song For You?”

Playground stuff really, but you could tell the locals didn’t like it.

There were often long balls from Liverpool, in a red kit oddly trimmed with salmon pink, looking to catch us on the back foot.

Edouard Mendy anticipated an early ball and raced to clear with Mo Salah – or was it Michael Angelis from “The Liver Birds” and “Boys From The Black Stuff” – lurking menacingly.

A delightfully constructed passage of play down the inside light channel, allowed Lukaku to feed in Mount but his shot was brushed wide.

Firmino was hooked by Klopp to be replaced by Jiota.

Three minutes of extra time.

“Come On Chels.”

A Liverpool corner from their left.

Madness ensued.

A knock on. Matip managed to loop the ball up into the air. Both Mendy and Alonso went for the ball. Matip again, and onto the bar. By this time, I was already befuddled. Bodies swarming the six-yard box, a mere twenty-five feet away from me. A shot, blocked on the line – twice – then hacked away.

Phew.

Alas, alas, alas…a late VAR review, and the bloody inevitable result.

A Liverpool roar. In the confusion, a red to Reece James, which I missed amidst the madness, and a yellow to Rudiger.

That man Salah.

A swipe at the ball.

Goal.

1-1.

Bollocks.

PD : “We’re up against it now.”

A yellow for our ‘keeper.

Chaos on the pitch.

The Liverpool support, which had grown quieter throughout the first period, suddenly erupted.

At half-time, which immediately followed, there was a mixture of disbelief and anger in the away end. Of course, the strange thing is that even though I was so close to the action that lead to the penalty, the viewing millions had a much better view of everything than me.

The consensus was that the penalty was right to be given as the hand stopped a goal, but the ball was blasted at James from two yards and hit his thigh first.

Had the world gone mad?

How could that be a red?

We girded our loins at the start of the second-half and of course Thomas Tuchel made the inevitable changes.

He took off the unlucky Havertz and replaced him with Thiago Silva who bolstered the defence. The injured Kante was replaced by Mateo Kovacic.

We strapped ourselves in for a difficult forty-five minutes.

Five at the back – in reality – with three in midfield and the lone Lukaku upfront.

But I have to say that whenever we broke away, Alonso was up and down that left flank as if his life depended upon it.

What we hoped for was a defensive master class.

And that is exactly what transpired.

Liverpool, of course, dominated the ball, but we defended with such regimen and aplomb that I was only worried about our line being breached on a few, rare, occasions. Everyman played his part. Dave was sensational, the incoming Kovacic tackled, covered, and occasionally raided, but I thought Silva was magnificent.

Calm, assured, reliable.

A great performance.

Rudiger made a few rash decisions but more than made up for it with his steely determination. A super game from Christensen too. Jorginho was solid, and worked tirelessly.

As for Mendy. Utterly superb.

Soon into the second-half, I said to PD.

“Look at us.”

We were identical. Arms folded, one arm up, hand clenched and nested beneath our noses.

Classic art critic poses, as if we were studying a Turner, a Picasso, a Hopper.

Of course, we were witnessing a master class in defending.

We were, let’s make no qualms about it, sensational. There were echoes of Porto if I am honest. And just like that night in Portugal, I became obsessed with that bloody Anfield Clock.

55 minutes, 60 minutes.

PD was watching it too.

Salah to Jiota, a header. Over.

A long shot from Van Dijk, a daisy cutter, and Mendy scrambled to save. As similar save from Fabinho. A parry from a Robertson volley from distance.

The first-part of the second-half seemed to take forever, and then as the Liverpool chances grew less frequent, the time sped along nicely.

A rare attack, initiated by a strong break from Alonso, eventually enabled Mount to loft a ball in to Lukaku but his shot was blocked.

If I am honest, Lukaku struggled a little against Matip and Van Dijk, but his was a thankless task in the second-half. Van Dijk has fast feet, and on this occasion Lukaku had relatively slow feet. Let’s hope his feet won’t be the stumbling block to his progress this season.

The clock ticked on.

Sixty-seven minutes, thirty seconds.

“Half-way through the half PD.”

“I was going to wait until seventy.”

That man Lukaku then linked so well with Kovacic but his shot was weak and at the ‘keeper.

This was tense stuff.

A Liverpool break and the ball fell to Salah, centrally positioned. I had a mental image of him rolling into the corner, to Mendy’s right, my left, and The Kop going berserk. But his pathetically weak shot – shades of Pat Nevin against Manchester City in 1984 –  rolled apologetically to Mendy’s left, my right, and the chance passed.

Eighty minutes.

It was a joy to see many Liverpool fans head for the exits.

Eighty-five.

Trevoh Chalobah – surely he should come from Manchestoh with a name like that – replaced the tiring Jorginho.

Ninety.

An extra three, just like on forty-five.

We held on.

Ten Men Went To Mow.

Magnificent.

The away end was jubilant, but as at Arsenal last Sunday, I noticed only stern and serious faces on the Chelsea players. This shows amazing self-control. I am not so sure that we would have been quite so reserved under other managers.

Because make no mistake, a 1-1 draw at Anfield is a bloody fine result and us supporters almost regarded it as a win.

Walking back to Goodison, out through Stanley Park, the quietness of the home fans was a joy.

We had set our marker for the season with this result.

Lovely.

My exit route out of the city took my car right alongside the stands on the Bullens Road at Goodison park.

After the Annie Road at Liverpool, we now found ourselves on the Gwladys Street at Everton.

I made a quick exit, out onto the East Lancs Road, then the M57, then the M62, then the M6.

We stopped a few miles down the M6 in well-heeled Cheshire, now solidly in United territory.

“I love it how, through football, us three lads from Somerset can suddenly find ourselves in a curry house in Knutsford at ten o’clock on a Saturday night.”

The Eastern Revive on King Street did us proud.

I made it home at just after 1.30am in the small hours of Sunday.

It had been a good day.

Anfield.

The Header.

Gallery.


Chelsea at Anfield.

Played : 25

Won : 5

Drew : 7

Lost : 13

For : 26

Against : 39