Tales From Our National Game

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 30 December 2018.

So, the last game of 2018. Whereas some teams were given a normal Saturday match, Chelsea Football Club ended the calendar year with a game on the Sunday at South London rivals – kind of – Crystal Palace. The game seemed typically out of sync at this odd time of year where nobody really knows what day it is, what to do, nor what day is coming up next. To add to the discombobulation, our game was kicking-off at midday. So, this was another early start for the Fun Boy Four. I set my alarm for 5.30am and was up not long after. I was on driving duties again, but I did not mind one iota. By 7.30am, the fellow Chuckle Brothers were collected and we were soon tucking into a McBreakfast at Melksham.

“Not very busy is it?”

“Not bloody surprising, who else is up at 7.45am on a Sunday?”

Saturday had been a big day football-wise. While I was watching my local team Frome Town capitulate to yet another league defeat at home to Tiverton Town, I was overjoyed to hear that Tottenham had surprisingly dropped points to Wolves at Wembley. Later that evening, we hoped that Arsenal could dent Liverpool’s charge to their first league title since 1990, but an early Arsenal lead was soon overtaken. On Saturday evening, myself and many looked at the bleakest of scenarios. With Manchester City suffering a recent tumble at Leicester, the thoughts of either Liverpool or Tottenham winning the league made many of us shiver.

For Chelsea fans like me, this is a “no-win” scenario. If pushed, and as much as it hurts, I would pick Liverpool over Tottenham. But – grasping at long straws – there is still the prospect of Manchester City, 2014 style, overhauling them both. Chelsea will not win the league this season; like many others, I am hoping that City find some form to pip the other two – hideous – contenders, preferably on the last day and with as much pain to both as possible.

Getting to Selhurst Park in South London from our base in the South-West of England is not the easiest of journeys. From my home, I headed east, then north, then east, then south-east, then north-east, then south-east, then south. At 10.30am, after a journey of three-and-a-half hours, I was parked on a pre-paid driveway within sight of the oddly-shaped barrelled roof of the Holmesdale Road stand, a mere ten-minute walk away. The first friend of many who we met throughout the day – Welsh Kev – caught up with us as we slogged up the hill past the main stand and the busy intersection at the top. The immediate area around Selhurst Park is surprisingly hilly. On this Sunday morning, there were no options to drink in local hostelries. The other three headed inside for a drink while I took a few photographs of a typical pre-match. The floodlights were on at 11am and the air – although mild – was full of an atmospheric glaze of mist. Down the Park Lane, police horses trotted back and forth. The away turnstiles at the bottom of the hill were busy. Programmes were hawked. Lottery tickets were sold. A few good friends walked past. A photograph of Alan and Daryl against the stark red-bricked backdrop of the low wall of the Arthur Wait Stand.

Some stadia are antique and charming – step forward Goodison Park, Craven Cottage and Fratton Park – but Selhurst Park does not thrill many. There are grandiose plans to completely redevelop the main stand – a virtual copy of the Archibald Leitch stand at Fulham, and of the old East stand at Chelsea – and turn it into a curving three-tiered edifice, with plenty of glass to honour the original palace which was dismantled at Hyde Park and rebuilt nearby at Sydenham Hill before being destroyed by fire in 1936.

Many would advocate the modernisation of the dark and cavernous Arthur Wait stand as quickly as possible too.

After bumping into many other friends and acquaintances outside the away turnstiles, there was a slight wait for a body search and bag check. In those few moments while I waited in line, and with the mist hanging heavily over the rising terraced houses of the immediate vicinity, and the chitter-chatter of the Chelsea supporters filling the air, a beautiful bonhomie, I found a new love for this enduring game of ours, still enticing thousands and thousands out of their warm houses every week of the season. Football truly is our national game in this historic and magical land of ours and nothing comes remotely close.

I love football like life itself.

The camaraderie. The banter. The friendships. The laughs. The trips. The players. The teams. The heroes. The stadia. The rivalries. The songs. The humour. The smiles. The tears. The routines. The superstitions. The drinks. The fads. The fashions. The clobber. The game itself.

It’s the bollocks.

There were fleeting thoughts of Selhurst Park which cascaded through my mind. There were images and recollections of previous encounters at the same ground going back into history; the iconic photo of Eccles being lead out by the Old Bill in front of the main stand in around 1969, an infamous game in 1982 involving a certain Paul Canoville, my first-ever visit to Selhurst in August 1989 when thousands of Chelsea descended on the Holmesdale Road after two wins out of two but were humbled 3-0 by a Charlton Athletic team which absurdly contained both Colin Pates and Joe McLaughlin in the centre of their defence, a dull 0-0 against Palace in 1991 when I watched from near the former grass bank in the corner between the Arthur Wait and the Holmesdale, the rain sodden League Cup quarter final in 1993, an equally misty evening in 1996 when we defeated Wimbledon in the FA Cup against a bellowing backdrop of noise from the Chelsea support, a win against Wimbledon in 1999 when I watched from the “Sainsbury’s End”, a Geremi free-kick beating Palace in a pre-season friendly in 2003, the first game in England of the Abramovich era, the recent losses, the recent wins, the constant chanting of “we’re top of the league” in 2014, getting soaked in 2016, and getting abruptly turned over by a previously pointless Palace in 2017.

This had the feel of a very old-fashioned football occasion.

Once inside, I struggled to shuffle through the crowds who were massed in that little area in the corner, where quite commendable dance music was booming out over Chelsea fans nursing plastic bottles of cider and lager, and with occasional community singing for good measure.

More familiar faces, more bonhomie.

The Arthur Wait Stand goes back forever. The view from the rear is horrific – I watched the 2003 friendly from this area, it is like watching the game from inside a post-box – and I am not surprised it is the reason why the font rows are always over-subscribed.

“Stand where you want.”

The team news had filtered through; Olivier Giroud was in, as was Ross Barkley.


Dave – Toni – David – Marcos

N’Golo – Jorginho – Ross

Willian – Olivier – Eden

I shuffled down to row six and took my position alongside Gal and Parky. But Alan met me with some grave news. The wife of one of our extended band of Chelsea supporters had passed away overnight. I was silent with grief.

Oh my.

Oh bloody hell.

I stood, unable to think, unable to talk. What a cruel world.

My mind was spinning as the teams entered the pitch ten minutes later, and I struggled to get motivated. The teams lined up on the centre-circle and the PA announced that there would be a minute of silent remembrance for all of those Crystal Palace supporters that had passed away in 2018. This was a nice touch, and as the whole crowd stood still and in complete silence, around forty names were displayed on the TV screen above the executive boxes of the “Sainsbury End” to my right.

At the end, the names of the Chelsea players who were sadly taken from us this year was shown too, again a very fine gesture.

Roy Bentley.

Phil McNight.

Derek Saunders.

Ken Shellito.

And then, at the end, a photograph of Ray Wilkins.

My memory recalled that he played – fleetingly – for Crystal Palace too. I still find it hard to believe that Ray Wilkins is no longer with us. On this day, how raw, I remembered one other member of our Chelsea family who was no longer with us.

Rest In Peace.

In truth, I didn’t really feel much like football as the game began. Thoughts of our own, my own, immortality crept into my head.

Chelsea, in all yellow, attacked the Holmesdale Road in the first-half.

Almost immediately, without really thinking – my mind certainly was elsewhere – I found myself singing along to “The famous Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see the Pope” and my mind again went into overdrive, quickly equating what the outcome might be.

“Right, we didn’t sing the word on Wednesday at Watford and a lot of beer had been consumed. Nobody has had much to drink this morning; I can’t see it being sung today either.”

Thankfully, the Chelsea support had read the script perfectly.

“Barcelona, Real Madrid, Tottenham are a load of ssssssshhhhhhh.”

And then I felt like admonishing myself for honestly caring about a song when a good mate’s wife was no longer with us.

Fucking hell, football.

Being so low down, the action in front of the men in black, the Holmesdale Ultras, in the corner to my left was a mystery to me. I struggled to get in the game. At the Frome Town game on Saturday, I had revelled in being able to stand behind the goal at the club end and move to my left or right to get a better view. It felt natural. Here, hemmed in my seats and fellow fans, I was stuck in a poor-viewing position, and it did not help my enjoyment of the game. The pitch had been well-watered before the game and was slick. I wished that our passing was slick, too. For all of our possession – apart from a few early forays into our box, Palace were happy to sit back and defend deep – we struggled to hurt their defence.

Wilfred Zaha began as their main threat – a very nimble skip past three Chelsea challenges even drew muted applause from a few fair minded individuals in the Chelsea section – but as is his wont his role soon diminished.

Chelsea attempts on goal were rare throughout the first-half.

There was rising frustration with our reluctance to shoot.

“Bloody hell, shoot. The pitch is wet. If the goalie fumbles, we can pounce on the rebound.”

We were limited to a few speculative efforts. We had been especially hard on Jorginho, to either release the ball early or to shoot. With that, he took aim from distance and thumped a ball ridiculously high and wide of the target. This was met with howls of self-deprecating laughter.

“Ah, fuck it, you’re right, don’t bother next time.”

Ross Barkley was neat and tidy, economical in possession, moving the ball well. Eden Hazard tried his best to twist and turn, to run at players, to cajole others into action. Willian was under-used out on the right wing, a spare part. Olivier Giroud struggled to get involved. N’Golo Kante was everywhere, chasing balls, nicking possession, moving the ball early, just magnificent.

A foul on Hazard, surprise surprise, allowed Willie to clip a ball against the post, just beyond the dive of the Crystal Palace ‘keeper. Bizarrely, the referee gave a corner. From this, my view was blocked but Barkley hot the same post. Another effort from us forced a bona fide save from the ‘keeper Guaita.

A fine shot, from an angle, from Giroud which beat the ‘keeper was flagged for offside, but my view was impeded that I hardly saw the shot nor the flag.

At the break, there was a noticeable gloom amidst the Chelsea support in the murky twilight of Selhurst Park.

“We’ll win this, Gal.”

“0-0 I reckon Chris.”

As the half-time break continued, I turned my back to the choreographed Lycra nonsense of the Palace cheerleaders and the lame penalty shoot-out, and tried to spot a few friends in the crowd. I had already spotted Lynda and T from Brooklyn a few rows behind us before the game. In the depths of the Gents, I had bumped into Mick from Denver, over for just one game. Somewhere in the home section of the Arthur Wait was my work associate Ben, from Germany, who was visiting these shores again. To the day, it was a year ago that I welcomed him to Stamford Bridge for the Stoke City game, when with his friends Jens and Walt, we enjoyed a lovely pub-crawl around Fulham before the match.

The game recommenced with Chelsea on top.

After six minutes of action, with Palace massed in defence and closing our players down, we watched as Kante spotted an avenue of space, and ran from deep. For us in the Chelsea section, this was great viewing, as his run was in line with all of us. He ran past several blue and red shirts and a perfectly lofted ball – not sure from whom, my eyes were on Kante exploiting the gap – was chested into a yard of space and then the ball was turned low past Guatia. The ball just about rolled over the line.


We were treated to an N’Goalo.

He was mobbed by his team mates and with good reason. The run and finish was quite exceptional.

I turned to Parky.

“Who passed to him?”


“Ah excellent.”

I looked at Alan.

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

Over Christmas, I had re-watched the famous clip of Tommy Doc in the press box at Stamford Bridge after a Chelsea goal when he uttered his famous phrase –

“Go on my little diamonds. They’ll have to open out now.”

We had joked about how we managed to get it all wrong, all arse about face, but agreed that our little superstition would continue on regardless. I am sure Docherty would not object, it is not like we are paying him royalties.

Was there a reaction from the home side? Not at all.

The game rumbled on but still with little likelihood of us increasing our slender lead. The noise around us was quiet, but louder towards the rear. A couple of efforts, from Willian – out of sorts in this game – and Barkley peppered the Crystal Palace goal. The long lost, and probably forgotten, Connor Wickham came on for Palace. There was another disallowed goal for Giroud, who cleanly converted a Willian pass, but then injured himself in the process. He was replaced by Alvaro Morata, cue lots of hilarious “bants.” We still waited for Palace to “come at us now.”

Eden walked towards us and, on hearing his name being bellowed, clapped and gave us a thumbs-up.

Two late substitutions followed; Emerson for Willian (an odd game for our number twenty-two, he really struggled to get involved) and Mateo Kovacic for Barkley (“he’s not given the ball away much, but he hasn’t done much with it”).

A wild shot from Palace went the same way as the Jorginho effort an hour earlier. But things were now getting nervy in the away section. If we could hang on, we would be a mighty five points ahead of Arsenal. In the last five minutes, Palace at last found their compass and their attacking boots. That man Wickham thankfully slashed a rising ball over after a headed knock-down.

Four minutes of extra time were signalled.

My eyes were on referee Craig Pawson.

With a cheer, he blew up and the game was won.

There is a common phrase, possibly “proper Chelsea” – please God, not “Proper Chels” – and maybe even Chelsea-esque which is doing the rounds these days and it is this :

“Bloody hell, we made hard work of that.”

And dear reader, without more quality in front of the goal, we will hear this phrase again and again.

The players came over to see us, but Sarri did not join them. He likes to keep his distance, which I find a little odd. Alonso threw his shirt into the crowd and there were waves from Luiz and a defiant “Keep the Faith” from captain Dave.

Job done.

We slowly made our way to the top of the stand, and dived in to use “the facilities” one last time. The gents’ toilets at Selhurst are rather primeval, and you need a certain constitution to use them. There were jokes about having to wear Wellington Boots, and to avoid the deep end, but as I descended into hell, I met Alan coming up the steps and he chirped :

“I enjoy potholing.”

That made me chuckle.

Outside, as we gathered together and turned to set off up the slope, Ben from Germany suddenly appeared with his two mates. It was perfect timing. They had attended the darts on Thursday, the Fulham game on Saturday and had now seen Chelsea play once more. It was great to see them again. I had been certain that I would bump into them some when during the day.

We trudged back to the car, and I then headed slowly north and our escape route took us tantalisingly close to Stamford Bridge. Over Wandsworth Bridge, the Thames looking greyer than ever, and then up towards Fulham Broadway. We stopped for food on the North End Road – “can’t keep away” – and I pointed the car west for one last time in 2018.

As I deposited Parky, Glenn and PD off at each of their homes, I said the same thing to all of them.

“Thanks for your friendship this year. See you on Wednesday.”

It has been a great year again. I remember gasping earlier this week when I saw one Chelsea fan describe it as “difficult”; well fuck that, we won the FA Cup in May.

Turning inwards, a word of real appreciation for those of you who continue to support me in my efforts with this website. Just before Christmas – on Christmas Eve no less, almost perfect timing – I was happy to see that I had reached one hundred thousand views since I set this all up in the summer of 2013. And, over the next few hours, last year’s total of 23,847 views will surely be eclipsed (currently on 23,835) although total visitors this year is down.

In those five years, I have seen the UK viewing figures increase and that means a lot to me. Originally on the “Chelsea In America” website from 2008, I have witnessed a decrease in views from the US, but levels have grown elsewhere. I like that. So, thanks to all once more.

For those interested – who does not like a list? – here is the Top Ten.

  1. USA – 41,409
  2. UK – 38,568
  3. Canada – 2,471
  4. Australia – 2,018
  5. Ireland – 1,197
  6. India – 1,002
  7. Germany – 965
  8. Indonesia – 841
  9. Belgium – 679
  10. France – 606

Here’s to 2019. I hope that everyone stays healthy and happy. After a particularly stressful year for me – in a nutshell, work – I am looking forward to a more relaxed twelve months ahead. It really is all about staying healthy and well. Everything else really is gravy.

I will see some of you at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday.

Tales From Miseryside

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 7 November 2010.

My sporting weekend began on Friday evening when San Francisco Bob, Lord Parky and I visited a local pub to see Ron Harris and Charlie Cooke, who were in the middle of a spate of appearances all over the United Kingdom. We had a great time. I have heard most of Ron’s stories from his playing days before, but it was refreshing to listen to Charlie’s tales from Scotland, England and America. I especially enjoyed Charlie’s reminiscences of playing amongst Docherty’s Diamonds. Tommy Doc was quite a character and I think there was a certain kinship between player and manager since they both came from hard-nosed working class areas in Scotland; Cooke, a Protestant, from Greenock on the banks of the Clyde and Docherty, a Catholic, from the bleakest of inner city areas of all, The Gorbals. We were whooping with laughter at the stories about Peter Osgood, Tommy Smith, Peter Bonetti and Bobby Charlton.

On the Saturday, Bob and I watched local Zamaretto League team Frome Town play Clevedon Town. My two friends from school days Steve and Francis were at the game too and it made a nice change. Steve was a big Bristol City fan as a youth and it is ironic that his eldest son Harry is now banging in the goals for one of Bristol Rovers’ academy teams. Frome came from 0-1 down to nab an unlikely 2-1 win with a goal in the very last minute. However, my elation was short-lived when Bob told me that Manchester United had also scored a last minute winner. Bloody Hell.

On the Sunday, it was Chelsea’s turn to play.

I collected Bob from his hotel in Frome Market Place and drove over to Westbury. From there, my friend Mark – with his daughter Kerry – took over the reins. By 10.30am, Lord Parky was aboard and we were on our way to Merseyside. I was feeling slightly jaded from a whirlwind pub crawl of my local town with Bob on the Saturday evening. Parky was his usual ebullient self, though, and we hadn’t reached Bath before he asked –

“Are we there yet, Mark?”

So, at last, a game in the North West without me at the wheel. I sat back and relaxed as Mark made good time. I first met Mark on that fateful day in April 1984 when we beat Dirty Leeds 5-0 and won promotion to the top flight. We reminisced about that day plus a few others from around that time. Parky and Mark’s mate Les phoned and asked about tickets for the Birmingham away game. This elicited a funny story from Lord Parky. Many years ago, Les used to work as a butcher in the Trowbridge firm of “Bowyers.” On one Saturday morning, Les did a morning shift and didn’t have time to get changed from his white butcher’s overalls. He drove Parky and a few other Trowbridge ruffians up to Chelsea in his car and parked up close to the ground. As a master butcher, he always kept his set of expensive knives in the car boot. As he hurriedly parked his car, his all-white tunic attracted the attention of a passing policeman, who was further taken aback when he glimpsed Les’ set of sparkling knives in the car boot.

“What’s going on here? What are you doing?” the copper asked of Les as the butcher’s robes were being discarded.

“Sorry, what do you mean? I’m getting out of my work clothes” replied Les, sensing the chance of some laughter.

“Why, what do you do?” the policeman asked.

Les looked him in the eyes and replied “I kill pigs.”

We drove past Tewkesbury and the Malvern Hills were shrouded in low-lying clouds to the west. Parky opened up a can of “Fosters” and almost covered himself in beer spray. After a couple of corrective gulps, he wiped his mouth with his hand and enquired –

“Are we there yet, Mark?”

I posed my favourite question about which football stadia can be seen within five minutes of each other in the Birmingham area and Kerry answered correctly. Incidentally, guess who Kerry is named after? Too easy, eh? Alan and Gary were on their way north on the Chelsea train and Burger and Julie were Liverpool-bound too. We shot past my former stomping ground of Stoke-On-Trent and Parky opened another lager.

“Are we there yet, Mark?”

Bob was taking it all in, with his excitement rising as each exit on the M6 was passed. This was to be Bob and Kerry’s first visit to the fields of Anfield Road, while Mark’s last visit was in 2002. I think Parky’s last visit was back in the ‘eighties. We flew over the Thirlwall Viaduct and then off at exit 23. Mark now had Liverpool in his sights and the chat got quicker and more intense.

We parked about a mile from Anfield and the weather was sunny, yet with quite a cold wind. As we crossed the road, a gaggle of Scousers were eyeing us up and asked the fabled question –

“Watch your car mate?”

To be truthful, Mark didn’t have a clue what they had said since it sounded more like “Washyercamate?”, that nasal Scouse accent to the fore. We ignored them and walked on by.

We walked through the Stanley Park cemetery, then out onto Utting Avenue. A chap dressed in an army uniform was playing “The Fields Of Athenry” on the bagpipes as we headed up the hill and another soldier had a bucket collecting for Remembrance Day. Our jackets were protecting us from the cold. We skipped past The Arkles as it looked too busy. Instead, we made our way to The Flat Iron. Pints were purchased and we made our way into the lounge bar just as “Going Underground” by The Jam started on the pub juke-box. How appropriate I thought. Going underground, going behind enemy lines, going undercover. We stayed there for about an hour, a little gaggle of Chelsea in one corner, surrounded by Scousers all around us. A lad called Andy joined us and it turned out that Andy has the fortune of sitting next to Parky in the Shed Lower. Small world, eh? We were then joined by Julie and Burger, then Cathy and Dog. I was still struggling with the remnants of my hangover, so regrettably didn’t join in further rounds. My mate Francis, a Liverpool fan, texted me to say that Essien wasn’t playing.

Oh dear.

Kelly was on way up from the city centre, along with his sister and wife. I met Kelly in Texas last summer and this was his first Chelsea game on English soil, albeit in that very strange part of England called Merseyside. Maybe there needs to be an asterisk there somewhere. At about 3.15pm, we decided to head off to circumnavigate the ground and take in the sights

As we headed towards the back of The Kop on Walton Breck Road, we passed five or six Scousers sitting on a low red brick wall. They were sporting tight dark jeans with old school Puma and Adidas trainers, like throwbacks to that golden era of Scallydom in the late ‘seventies. We soon found ourselves right underneath the red brick and grey roof supports of The Kop. Touts were looking for business, street traders were grafting away and there was the usual mix of sounds and smells of matchdays…those impenetrable thick Scouse accents, the shouts of fans, the smell of chips, the noise, the tribal routines and the anticipation.

The Bill Shankly statue was centre-stage. As Burger and Bob took a few photographs, I was reminded of a story which I heard Peter Osgood tell many years ago. He himself heard this story from the Liverpool hard man Tommy Smith and it centres on Bill Shankly, that tough and wily manager who first put Liverpool on the map. On a visit to Anfield in the mid-sixties, an un-named away team went 1-0 down in the first-half and endured a horrendous day, having to resort to desperate measures to keep Liverpool from scoring again and again. Wave after wave of Liverpool attacks were repelled, the woodwork was hit countless times and Liverpool should have been 5-0 up. Then, in virtually the last kick of the game, the away team miraculously broke up field and a ball was played into the waiting centre-forward. Liverpool had a ‘keeper called Tommy Lawrence at the time – he was bizarrely nicknamed The Flying Pig – and as the striker shot, the ball flew right through Lawrence’s legs and into the goal. The ref soon blew up and Lawrence was mortified. He was the last off the pitch, not wanting to face his team mates, nor – worse – the acid tongued Shankly. The changing room was silent and Lawrence took his seat. Not a word was said. Eventually, Shankly appeared and stood in the middle. No player dare look up. They should have killed the visitors off. After what seemed like ages, Lawrence looked up and spoke –

“Look boss, it’s my fault. I should have saved that shot. I should have kept my legs together.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Shankly barked in that tough Glasgow burr “No son…it was your mother who should have kept her legs together.”

Some character, Shanks.

We then edged around towards the away stand and walked through the Shankly Gates, erected soon after the passing of Bill Shankly in 1981. The gates were forged in my home town of Frome, strangely enough. We momentarily stood by the Hillsborough Memorial and I noted quite a few Scousers touching the black granite with 96 names etched in gold. I bought a copy of “CFCUK” and there was an obituary by Beth for her beloved friend Simon Turner. We heard another rumour that Drogba was on the bench.

Oh dear.

A few “hello mates” to the usual suspects as I made my way to my seat, right behind the Annie Road goal. Such a familiar view these days – this would be my seventeenth visit to Anfield, probably more than a lot of Liverpool fans. Bob and Kelly were sat just five rows behind us. Unfortunately, the pre-match rumours were true. Not only no Frank Lampard, but no Michael Essien and no Didier Drogba. The midfield three looked particularly second rate. A big game for Nico upfront. In the match programme, I loved seeing five or six black and white photographs from a Chelsea vs. Liverpool game from March 1978. I saw the game with my parents in the East Lower and we beat the reigning European champions 3-1 after going a goal down. Fantastic memories. Our goals were scored by the stalwarts from the America Tour of 2009, those likely lads Steve Finnieston and Tommy Langley. Tommy rates his first goal from that game as his best ever Chelsea strike.

Gerry and The Pacemakers did their usual turn and thousands of red and white scarves were held aloft. It seems hard to believe these days, but back in the ‘seventies and early ‘eighties, “YNWA” was not restricted to the terraces of Anfield. Back in those days, a lot of clubs used to mimic The Koppites. The Shed often used to sing “YNWA” and blue and white scarves were held overhead. Strange, but true.

We kicked-off and kept possession for 63 seconds. I think this was our best spell of that first-half. Joking aside, we were bloody awful. Liverpool chased us down at every opportunity and we had no time on the ball. Of course, Torres pounced on about ten minutes to outwit a tangled John Terry and neatly finish with a clipped flick to the far post. Seeing the net bulge made me feel ill. The home support roared and Torres reeled away. A sickening feeling. I just stared at the celebrating home fans and it hurt. Soon after, an Ashley Cole cross found Salomon Kalou who forced a great save from Pepe Reina. However, apart from a couple of long shots, I can’t remember any other Chelsea chances in that arid first period. I thought Mikel was solid, but Zhirkov and Ramires were sadly deficient. They were neither defending well, nor breaking forward in support of the stranded Anelka. I hadn’t seen a more insipid Chelsea midfield for quite a while. The one high spot of the half was watching Alex go up a gear to effortlessly beat Torres in a beautiful sprint for a loose ball. He was like a middle-distance runner turning it on during the last 100 metres of a race. Then of course, a slip by Ashley and the ball was splayed wide to Torres. I immediately sensed danger. Ivanovic should have forced him outside, but gave him too much room. Torres advanced, dropped a shoulder and craftily curled the ball past a stranded Cech and into the goal. The net bulged again and the Scousers roared even loader. Oh God. It pains me to say that the two Torres goals were of exceptional quality.

Long faces at half time. I said to Gary “I can’t see us getting back into this, mate. In fact, I can see us conceding more.” I wanted a big team talk from Carlo at half-time. He’d have to change things. Bringing on Drogba was a no-brainer.

The second-half was, of course, much better. However, could we really have played any worse? We enjoyed a lot more of the ball. On 59 minutes, Ramires rose and headed over from a Cole cross and this stirred the away support. We had been standing all game and we never stopped cheering the lads on. As we got more and more into the game, the Scousers quietened down. This was a lot better and we urged the team forward. I was thoroughly enthralled in the game – though it never felt like we would get the goals back. However, I was kicking every ball, heading every cross, sliding in with every tackle.

The Scousers sang of “No History” and “Rent Boys.”

“At least it’s a job!” retorted Alan.

One thing annoyed me. Drogba was tackled but was not given a free-kick. With rising anger, I watched him slowly get up – with a Chelsea attack developing around him – and slowly walk twenty yards towards the penalty area, oblivious to the play to his left. At one stage, the ball was played to him and he was facing the wrong way. Groin strain or no groin strain, this sort of behaviour is not wanted at Chelsea Football Club. However, I suddenly realised that Liverpool had hardly touched the ball during the previous fifteen minutes.

“Come On Chelsea.”

A great show of strength from Drogba – at last! – and a ball was slammed into Malouda, but his shot was saved at point blank range by Reina. We groaned like never before. Despite good wing play from substitute Bosingwa and the lively Ashley Cole, we didn’t carve out many real chances. John Terry often raced forward to support the attack, but Liverpool defended resolutely. Carlo made some changes and Sturridge had a couple of half chances. I couldn’t believe that Ramires wasn’t substituted, though. The game passed him by completely. I was really pleased that hardly anybody amongst the 3,000 Chelsea loyalists left before the end of the game. We stayed with it. We all knew how important this game was. Anelka hit the bar from close in with five minutes to go and the ball spun back into the lucky Reina’s arms. We just knew it wasn’t to be our day.

Where was The Flying Pig when we needed him?

We marched back to the car and we were soon headed south. Within a few minutes of getting onto the M6, Parky inevitably asked –

“Are we there yet, Mark?”

We had the predictable post-mortem…why didn’t Didier start, why were Yuri and Ramires so poor, how did we give Liverpool so much space? I felt tired and, for once, I was able to get some sleep…a rare luxury for me on Chelsea match day journeys. By the time we had stopped at Stafford for some refreshments, the mood had lightened a little. I commented to Mark that we ought to put this into perspective. We were depressed after an awful first-half, but there are thousands of football fans who travel the congested roads of England and Wales in support of their teams and, for many, there is no end to the agony, no end to the run of defeats, no cash, no future, no light at the end of the tunnel. Only the friendships of fellow fans to get them through the murky gloom.

Back in the car, Parky opened up another can.

“Are we there yet, Mark?”

Mark made good time and Parky kept us all in good spirits with joke after joke. It was great to be laughing again. I’m not saying that the Liverpool debacle was swept under the carpet, but I was pleased that we were reacting to defeat with typical gallows humour. Proper Chelsea. We chatted non-stop for a while about all sorts…Tiswas, Sally James, The Liver Birds, favourite sandwiches, Lily the Pink, beans on toast, Donald McGill seaside postcards and yet more Parky jokes. Some good, some bad. After one particularly poor example, nobody laughed and there was a pregnant pause…

“Are we there yet, Mark?” I asked.

Parky was shoved out of the car at 10pm…”see you on Wednesday, mate.” Goodbyes to Mark and Kerry at Westbury and a goodbye to The Bobster in Frome. It had been a bad day at the office, but we have two winnable home games coming up.

Let’s regroup and go again.


Tales From The NW Corner Of The MHU

Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers : 23 October 2010.

I love going to football during the month of October – it feels like the football season is up to full speed, the European campaigns are shaping up, the English countryside is entering its most picturesque period and there is a lovely “nip” in the air. My parents used to guarantee me ”one game before Christmas and one after” and this would often result in a game at The Bridge in October. Back in the seventies, Dad used to park at Ealing Common and we’d get the Piccadilly Line in to Fulham Broadway. I have distinct memories of walking back across Ealing Common at around 6pm, the autumn light fading, my mind full of Chelsea memories from the game we had just witnessed and me kicking conkers across the common, maybe recreating a Garry Stanley pile-driver or a Ray Wilkins blast.

I collected His Lordship at 9am and we were soon heading east. I made the mistake of asking Parky about his army days as we passed Swindon and he was still talking about it as we reached Slough. We were parked at 11am and this was followed by a hearty breakfast and a quick spin around the corner to The Goose.

The usual faces began to appear over the next hour. I spoke with Mark from nearby Westbury and sorted out plans for Anfield. For once, I’m not driving and that will be a nice break for me. Of all the people I would meet in the pub, I’ve known Mark the second-longest. Let’s think…Alan 1984, Mark 1984, Andy D. 1984, Gary, 1989, Daryl 1991, Neil 1992, Frank 1993, Simon 1993, Andy B. 1994, Woody 1998, Parky 2001 and Rob 2006. My closest Chelsea mate ( Glenn 1977 ) wasn’t attending on this occasion. I hate it when work gets in the way of Chelsea. The Tottenham vs. Everton game was on the TV, but nobody was bothering with it. Simon’s son Milo ( 2000 ) was the centre of attention for a few moments…he’s growing up fast these days, his voice is breaking, he’s getting taller…I’m convinced he is noticeably different from the time I last saw him against Arsenal, merely three weeks ago. At his current rate of change, he’s going to have stubble on his chin by Birmingham away and a full beard by the time we play Villa at home on New Year’s Day. He was wearing a lovely Lyle and Scott navy pullover and has long outgrown the desire to cover himself in Chelsea / Adidas / Samsung leisurewear. He’s fitting in nicely with our little family of old school Chelsea die-hards. Milo mentioned his fashion favourites are Fred Perry, Lyle and Scott and Carrhart and I had the distinct impression that he made sure his father was in earshot. It’ll soon be Christmas after all.

Good lad.

The week had been dominated by all of the Rooney nonsense and I was still trying to work out all of the strange developments, the statements, the rumours and counter-rumours. One minute Ferguson appeared crestfallen, the next everything was rosy. I spoke with Parky and Alan about it. I just think it was just horrendous PR from United. I can’t believe that this was a plot by Ferguson and Rooney to engineer funds to become available from the board – especially since the name of Manchester United was dragged through the mud, Rooney’s reputation was hurt and the fans must have been let-down too. I can’t believe Ferguson would have sanctioned that. Let’s hope that the United dressing room is as confused by the events as I am. Let’s hope they continue to drop points. Anyway, that’s enough about United.

Schadenfreude has certainly been rife this past week or so…Liverpool are still in a state of self-inflicted turmoil, Manchester United have endured a nightmare spell and at 8.30pm on Wednesday, Tottenham were 4-0 down at the Giuseppe Meazza.

Happy days.

However, I was pretty dismayed to hear that Portsmouth were possibly playing their last game at Hull City, with their former owner demanding payment on monies owed. What a sad story. I just wish the FA would thoroughly overhaul their “fit and proper persons” check…however, I did make the point that football clubs have been run by useless chairmen for years and years. There’s nothing new in football. It’s just the scale of things these days.

2.30pm soon came around and we departed for the match. I noted to Parky that, apart from a quick comment about Didier Drogba coming back into the team, we had not spoken about the imminent game all day. I met up with Bournemouth Steve ( 2005 ), who was having Glenn’s season ticket for the day, outside the tube and we walked past the Peter Osgood statue on the way in to the Matthew Harding Upper. I bought an extra programme for our mate PD ( 1984 ) who is still in a poor way, struggling to come to terms with his horrific ankle injury. The programme contained confirmation of our Asian tour dates next summer – as it stands, I’m thinking about doing just the Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok games. I have a mate, originally from Frome ( the best footballer in my school year, in fact ) in Thailand and I’d like to spend some time with him and his wife. It would be rude to just call in for a couple of days. They were back in Frome in April and May, just as we were nearing the League title, and I promised them a visit over the next couple of years. With us playing in Bangkok, there are simply no excuses. I’ve never visited Asia – it ought to be a wonderful experience.

Yep, Drogba was back in the team. Good.

As the game began, I had the usual scan of the stadium to see what was going on. Wolves had 1,500 fans in the SE corner. The “Devizes-Wolves” flag was present again. In two weeks, a few of us are going to a Ron Harris and Charlie Cooke evening at a pub near Devizes and that promises to be a good craic. I noted that a few permanent banners had been repositioned…the Roy Bentley, John Terry, Frank Lampard and “Fulham Road” banners were now on the rear wall of the MHU. However, not a good move…lots of fans in the back row constantly stand during the game ( I know I would…) and so the banners are partly hidden. A re-think is needed there.

Wolves began brightly, but we then got into the groove. After 12 minutes, Jose Bosingwa made one of his trademark advances deep into enemy territory and was played in. He unleashed a low shot, but Marcus Hahnemann did well to divert it past his right post. I think everyone in the ground believed he had scored. After 18 minutes, we wondered why Drogba was lining up to take a free kick from about 40 yards out. Surely he should be in the box, for heaven’s sake. However, a great free-kick was played in to a leaping John Terry – completely unmarked – who then headed poorly wide. Wolves had a few attacks – a free header being the best chance.

A lovely move involving Nico and Yuri ended with a great ball being played into Florent Malouda. He was just perfectly positioned and coolly finished. I immediately thought of Danny, out in Rancho Cucamonga, whose first game at HQ last November was against Wolves and Malouda scored first in that game too. Like me, Danny used to get so frustrated by Malouda, but we both acknowledge his massive improvement in form. Soon after, Nico was clean through but shot wildly. He didn’t even hit the target. Despite the lead, the crowd were desperately quiet.

The Wolves fans bellowed “1-0 and you still don’t sing” and I sighed.

At the break, Neil Barnett paraded former Chelsea manager Tommy Docherty around the Stamford Bridge pitch and the applause was heart-warming. He’s now 82 years old, but looks very well. As he walked in front of The Shed, he crouched down and put his hand on the penalty spot – his own little homage to Peter Osgood.


At the start of the second period, Wolves substitute Stephen Hunt was gently reminded of the word with which his surname rhymes.

Soon after the second-half began, Yuri played in Ashley Cole on one of his world-famous overlaps. It was a delightful ball. However, with three on-rushing Chelsea attackers grouped together on the edge of the box, Ashley seemed to be unsure of which teammate to play in. The chance was lost. As the minutes progressed and as Wolves got more and more into the game, the agitation amongst the home support grew and grew. We were definitely restless. But still the crowd were quiet…only moans were heard, not rousing support.

Shots from Nicolas Anelka, Didier Drogba and Michael Essien were blasted high and wide.

A tremendous through-ball from Ivanovic was played into acres and acres of space for Didier Drogba. We held our breath and expected a goal. However, a poor touch from Drogba and the Wolves ‘keeper smothered the chance. Wolves peppered our goal, but Cech managed to be in the right place at the right time on all of the occasions that an attack developed.

More unrest. More anxious yelps. How we craved a second goal in order to kill off the Wolves threat.

I mentioned to Alan that JT was making more and more forward runs from defence – something I have noticed in recent weeks. This is something which would never have happened under Mourinho and – I have to be honest – I am not so sure I approve. However, I am sure that one day, maybe not for a few years yet, John Terry will go on a 30 yard run and hit an unstoppable shot into the net. Of all his career goals, I cannot remember a JT strike from outside the box.

One day.

Salomon Kalou came on for Florent Malouda on 72 minutes. Within ten minutes, a lovely move ended with a perfect pass from Michael Essien into the path of the substitute. Without blinking an eye, Kalou despatched the ball into the net…

“Thank Heavens For That.”

Not a great game, not a great performance. Our finishing was thoroughly atrocious. No attacking player warranted more than 6/10, though the defence was solid. Drogba was in one of his moods and was more miss than hit. On the way home, I dropped in to Reading Services and a Chelsea fan said that Wolves had been the better team. I simply couldn’t agree with that, but they had certainly given us a good game and looked much-improved from last season. Not to worry, teams tend to struggle after long trips back from Champions League games…after the arctic temperatures in Moscow during the week, at least we won. When I got home, I did some maths. Our last eight Premier League games at Stamford Bridge have all resulted in Chelsea wins. Eight in a row. How many goals have we scored in that run? A mighty thirty-two. How many goals have we conceded? None…none at all.

Our form at home is truly remarkable and I am convinced that the lack of a loud and constant support at home games these days is a direct result of this…we have grown bloated and spoilt as our victories have continued . To remind everyone, our last 126 league games at Stamford Bridge have resulted in just 3 defeats. There is every chance that there are many Chelsea fans who began watching us in the Spring of 2004 and have only seen us lose three times at home in the league. Is it any wonder that some fans think that success is easy – expected, almost – and so why should they bother to sing, shout and get involved? I very well remember the horrible boos last December after we “only” drew 3-3 with Everton. Factor in the obvious socio-economic changes in our support since 1996 and this is what we are up against, everyone. We are victims – atmosphere wise – of our own success.

I’m told we have sold over 3,500 tickets for the away game at Ewood Park next Saturday, so at least I’ll be amongst the more passionate element of our much-maligned support. I’ll be there with Burger and Julie ( 2006 ). There will be a certain poignancy about next week – I’d suggest the away game at Blackburn was the low point of last season. We had just lost at home to Inter, we had a grumbling post-mortem in The Fernhurst car park, United defeated Liverpool just before our game began and we only drew 1-1 against Rovers. I hated the drive home…we were adrift of United and time was running out. Here’s hoping for a better day out in Blackburn this season.

Be sure of one thing though – it will be raining.

You’ll need to bring your jacket – see you all in The Fernhurst.


Tales From Slumberland

Chelsea vs. Middlesbrough : 28 January 2009.

As is so often the case, the pre-match was better than the actual game, but we dug out an important victory against The Smoggies.

So often we talk of a “must-win” game, but after Aston Villa and United’s wins on Tuesday, nothing less than three points would do. We needed to have a solid base from which to feel confident for our summit meeting at Anfield on Sunday.

Work is quiet at the moment and I was able to release myself from the daily grind earlier than usual at 3.30pm. Parky had been dropped off at The Pheasant by his better-half at 2.30pm and was well on the way, three pints to the good.

It was a murky, horrible drive up to London…a few stretches of fog. Not enjoyable driving. But Parky, the lager working nicely, was full of chat. Heaven knows what we talked about – the usual load of blokey tripe, no doubt. I had agreed to meet John ( mgoblue06 ) and Chris ( captdf ) in The Goose at about 5.30pm. We were parked up and made our way into the steamy interior of The Goose at just after half-five…Parky went off to get the lagers in while I located Chris, his wife Abbey and their mate Keith. They had all been in London for about a week, but were obviously saving the best to last. Introductions over ( I vaguely remember Chris from LA 2007 ), I headed over to the rear of the bar to sup my beer and say “hello chaps” to the cluster of mates already present. It was a pretty good turnout. The towns of Frome, Westbury and Trowbridge were represented by Frank, Parky, Mark, Andy and myself. Nice to see some familiar faces from home.

Soon after I received a call from John who was on his way up the North End Road from the tube station. It was good to see him again. He was with fellow Reading student Lisa, who was going to be seeing The Mighty Blues for the first time. It would be Keith’s first game too. Great stuff. I’m a lucky chap to be able to share the excitement of others’ first games. I hoped they were in for a good time. I introduced John and Chris to each other – I joked with Abbey “hi, my name is Chris and I am your host tonight.”

We had a nice time in The Goose, chatting about all sorts of nonsense. John’s new mate Lovejoy was in attendance, flitting around, smoking cigarettes in the beer garden, talking on his moby, sipping a few glasses of Rose. I inwardly cringed when I saw John introduce him to Lisa. To say Loveloy has a reputation would be an understatement. I spoke to Keith about Chelsea and what it all means to all of my mates. He was keen to learn about the club and it was a pleasure explaining a few things to him. As is always the case, the time in the pub went by all too quickly and it was soon time to leave.

There was slight drizzle as we fastened our coats and headed south down the North End Road. Chris spoke to me about the circumstances which lead to his first ever game at Chelsea, way back in 1998 and I promised to try to send him some photos from that game, a 3-1 over Coventry City. Mark Nicholls scored apparently – whatever happened to him? This would be his fourth game at HQ, I believe. We stopped for a group photo outside The So Bar, the mammoth West Stand in the background. Programmes were purchased and we went our separate ways – Chris, Abbey and Keith had seats in The Shed Upper, Lisa, John and myself were headed for the Matthew Harding Upper.

We weren’t expecting a great turnout from The Smoggies and I suppose they brought about 300 or so. Pitiful really. I had picked up PD’s spare ticket so I wasn’t sat in my usual berth. I was further towards the North goal, but only one row further back. It’s a good seat and I was able to lean on the barrier in classical “concerned sports fan” style. Frank, Andy and Mark were three seats down. Chris and Lisa were sat next to Alan in The Sleepy Hollow. All of us within a few yards of each other.

Well, it wasn’t a great first-half at all. In fact, we were rubbish. We had tons of possession, but had no real clean cut chances. The whole crowd appeared to be docile too…maybe the rain had dampened their spirits…what an under-whelming experience for poor Lisa and Keith. Of course, there are 40,000 experts at every home game and I am no different. I usually try to give the players the benefit of the doubt, though. But on this occasion I was getting as frustrated as the next man.

A quick synopsis of our first-half woes coming up.

Pass, pass, pass – to the point of distraction. And so slow. Everyone knows that I am not Ballack’s biggest fan, but he frustrated me more than anyone. How often does he receive the ball and choose to play the simple ball – giving the onus to somebody else? How often do you see him get the ball under control and look up, ears perked, salivating at the chance to make a quick, killer ball? I think you all know the answer. The man is too languid for me. If we had pace elsewhere in the team, I could accommodate him, but he just adds to our problems. I can accept Mikel being pedestrian, but not two of our three midfielders. To be fair, Mikel did OK. Frank was buzzing about as per normal, always involved, but unable to break down the defence. Of course, it can’t be easy against ten men behind the ball. But – I don’t know…where is the movement, the drive, the pace, the commitment to work for each other? We lack pace upfront and it hurts. Anelka looked disinterested in the first period. I know he doesn’t thrive on the early ball, but we never hit him with a quick release from the back once. Malouda and Kalou were unable to shrug off their markers. The whole thing was so laboured. Add to this Frank’s woeful one-paced chipped corners and Cech’s pitiful clearances and you get a frustrating performance. The team seemed to lack confidence in each other. Deeply worrying.

Only one thing gave me a smile. I looked over towards the ‘Boro bench and there was Lovejoy in his front row seat, head bowed, sleeping. Both Alan and John had noticed too. He had slept through the entire first-period. Perhaps he knew something that we didn’t. Wise choice.

Behind the seats at half-time, next to the tea bar in the MHU a familiar face ( name unknown ) was “going into one”, effing and blinding, Scolari this, Scolari that. It was quite a spectacle. One bloke in the queue for the gents said “don’t worry, he was like that when we won the league.”

I walked over to chat with Alan and John. Oh dear – what a dab spectacle. We hoped for some goals in the second period.

To be fair to the team, the performance was better. And after a while, the crowd awoke from their slumbers. Well, everyone but the Joy Of Love, who resolutely refused to be awoken throughout the half-time period. What a star.

Everyone knows, too, that since Moscow ( and maybe, if I am honest, well before ) I am not Didier’s biggest fan. But – credit where credit is due, he ruffled a few feathers when he came on for Malouda ad genuinely looked motivated, with points to prove. More of the same please, Drogba. But the formation still stayed as 4-3-3, with Anelka out on the right for the most part.

After a Kalou header which, somehow, was flicked over from three yards, our luck changed.

Thank heavens for the two Frank Lampard corners and for the two close range Salomon Kalou goals. Much relief all round. Once the first one went in, I glanced over to John and we both roared and punched the air. Alan and myself have this little routine every time we score, which I may have mentioned before. In a Chelsea video from around 1991, there is a sequence featuring Tommy Docherty, high up in the old East Stand gantry, on film, just after Chelsea have scored. He looks at the camera and says “Come on my little diamonds. They’ll have to open up now.”

Of course, we misquote this, but every time we go ahead, Alan says to me “They’ll have to come at us now” and I say to him “come on my little diamonds.” We even text “THTCAUN” and “COMLD” to each other from different parts of Europe. After Kalou’s first, he raced over, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

The goal woke Lovejoy up too!

I captured both Frank’s corner, down below me, and Kalou’s header on film. Keep a look out for those. We then heard that Wigan had equalised at home to Liverpool. Fantastic. A medley of Liverpool songs followed. That’s more like it – a bit more of an atmosphere for my American friends.

Stoch came on – way too late, but looked keen. Let’s play him for the full game at Watford.

After the game, we all reassembled outside the entrance to the Chelsea Hotel. One last treat…I had again arranged for Ron Harris to meet Chris, Abbey, Keith, John and Lisa. He was up in the bar area with his son Mark, a former Chelsea youth player. He happily posed for a team photo.

From both ends of the spectrum…Ron Harris 795 games, Lisa and Keith 1 game.

We said our goodbyes to Chris, Abbey and Keith – they are soon headed back to Orange County. I dropped John and Lisa back at their digs in Reading, then Parky fell asleep as I drove back West.

I would be meeting up with John in Liverpool on Sunday. Perfect – we had just edged above them at the top end of the table.

Got home, knackered, at 1.30am…altogether now…”Awesome.”