Tales From A Simple Saturday

Chelsea vs. Burnley : 27 August 2016.

Oh dear. How soon people forget. It wasn’t long into the journey to Stamford Bridge that – despite our struggles against most teams last season – I was heard to comment that I expected us to easily win our game against Burnley, despite their recent surprising 2-0 win against Liverpool. This was based on the assumption that our manager Antonio Conte had managed to reverse the malaise of the previous campaign, which in itself was based on a handful of pre-season games, a narrow win against Bristol Rovers, and two equally close victories in two league games. Two league games. My – our, the other three Chuckle Brothers shared my view – new found optimism in all things Chelsea was, really, based on our performances in just two league games.

After such a troublesome season in 2015/2016, I wondered if my optimism was misguided. Was I overdosing on positive-thought? Surely, there are no games in the top division these days which should be taken as lightly as I evidently was taking this one? The others had predicted theirs scores, and I don’t usually join in with these parlour games. I jokingly retorted “7-0”, not wishing nor wanting to be taken seriously.

As the day unfolded, I was to find out if all of this new-found confidence in the manager and team was warranted.

There was something strikingly satisfactory about the game against Burnley. It would start up a three-day bank holiday weekend and it was a three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. There is just something about this; the traditional kick-off time for all football games in the United Kingdom before the TV companies got their grubby hands on the TV schedules, sending fans off around the country to witness ridiculous games at ridiculous times in ridiculous places.

3pm, Saturday, simple.

Glenn and myself had our own little pub-crawl before the game. We started off with a quiet drink in the newly re-opened “Wellington” on Haldane Road, tucked away behind the busy North End Road. We recently heard that the landlords at “The Goose” (our regular pub, in the main, since around 1999, apart from a few months of exile in “The Mitre” and the “Fulham Dray”), were to leave at the end of September and I suppose there will be a chance we will move on too, if the new incumbents do not run the pub in the way that we have been accustomed with Lorraine and Reg.

We spoke about the transfer policy of the club, or lack thereof.

I almost feel that everyone within the Chelsea Nation feels – roughly – the same way about all of this, so I have nothing much to gain from sharing my own particular views.

Ake, Bamford, Christensen, plus twenty-three others, an A to Z of confusion and mess.

I just hope that Kurt Zouma – the last on the A to Z, but the first in my mind – recovers as soon as possible this autumn. Most fans recognise that we need extra bodies in defence, but if Kurt can recover soon, and it is the biggest worry that he will not, we might – just might – be able to get through all of this without spending typically silly money on a panic buy. Daryl and myself spoke about this on Tuesday. This was before the promising Ola Aina had a knock.

I mentioned to Glenn it is the strangest thing that with all of our Italian managers, dating back to 1998, we have never bought a tried and tested Italian defender, apart from the short-lived and unsuccessful loan of Christian Panucci in 1999. You would have thought that an Italian manager at Chelsea would love a trusted defender from his own country. They know how to defend, those Italians.

In The Goose, there was a cast of thousands, seeping out from the bar and into the packed beer garden. There was the usual alcohol-induced banter, apart from me, a miserable bastard on “Cokes.” Daryl was knocking out a nice line in new Chelsea badges, while Gary was chatting away to two South London “sorts” and was the subject of much piss-taking.

“They’re from my area, Chris; Croydon.”

“Oh nice – are you talking about chip shops you all frequent?”

Wayne pointed at Gary and said “he’s quite the magnet, isn’t he?”

“Yeah,” I said. “You’ll always find him near a fridge.”

There were a few – around twenty – claret-and-blue clad away fans in the beer garden, minding their own business. We wondered if, given that the most away fans pay for away games is now £30, they would take their full 3,000 allocation.

Glenn and I also called in to “The Malthouse,” just as the team came through on our phones, before continuing our walk to the stadium. We had heard on the grapevine that the “Lillie Langtry” at West Brompton had recently re-opened, and I noticed that the pub on Fulham Broadway previously known as “Brogan’s” has re-opened, or re-branded as they say these days, as “McGettigan’s.” It is a pub that I have only ever visited once and I don’t know of anyone that goes there. Odd. I guess we all have our favourites. If “The Goose” fails to impress, we might need to find alternatives.

As for the starting-eleven, Antonio Conte had kept Oscar instead of Fabregas and this surprised me, especially after his assists at Watford.

Courtois.

Brana – Gary – JT – Dave.

Kante.

Willian – Matic – Oscar – Hazard.

Diego.

There were a few spots of rain as we waited in line at the turnstiles this would soon pass. Inside, a quick glance over to The Shed, and only 1,500 Burnley fans.

Oh well, I have to remember how small the town of Burnley actually is. It has a smaller population – 73,000 – than places such as Bath, Gloucester and Eastbourne.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, Neil Barnett said a few nice words about Ian Britton, who sadly featured in these match reports last season.

I applauded his memory but the vast majority decided not to.

Thankfully there were no flames being thrown up in to the air from in front of the East Stand as the teams emerged. I looked over to see if Roman Abramovich was present. He had watched the Rovers game on Tuesday, with Andre Shevchenko sitting a few seats in front, but he was not able to be spotted for this game.

“Typical JCL, picking and choosing his games.”

It was a perfect afternoon for football.

For the second successive home league game, our opposition was in claret and blue. We hoped that Burnley would go the way of West Ham.

The pre-match drizzle had given the pitch an extra zip, and we were soon celebrating. With the game not even ten minutes old, Nemanja Matic released Eden Hazard inside his own half. He had the entire right flank of Burnley’s defence at his mercy and he drove on in to acres of space. He teased and toyed with his markers, but effortlessly drifted inside with his trademark drop of the shoulder and softly curled a beautiful low shot beyond the dive of goalkeeper Tom Heaton. As the team gathered around him to celebrate, he was soon to thank Diego Costa for a run which took the attention of other defenders away from his own run. It was textbook stuff.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

We were then treated to a period of sumptuous football from Chelsea, if not a little over-indulgent on occasion. Both Willian, stopping, then darting past his marker, on the right, and Hazard, gliding with 2014/2015 ease past everyone, were the main stars going forward, but that man Kante soon impressed me with his energy, work rate and industry. It would turn out to be a masterclass from him.

Burnley were simply not in it.

Hazard again went close. A Gary Cahill volley, which reminded me of that scissor-kick goal from JT at The Shed a few years back, was deflected for a corner. Dave went close. A Terry header was at Heaton.

With Kante anchoring the midfield, Matic was able to move further up the field. He needs to be teased out of his defensive shell. He needs support from everyone to reach his 2014/2015 level, when he was magnificent. Maybe we can help him. Support him. Cheer him on. That’s our job, right?

Fair play to their fans, though. From mid-way through the first-half for a good fifteen minutes, they supported their team well. They sang non-stop, presumably about the hated Blackburn Rovers, and it was a fine performance. I didn’t catch much of it, nor – more to the point – was able to decipher it, save for their most famous song.

“And it’s no nay never.

No nay never no more.

Till we play Bastard Rovers.

No never no more.”

I am sure that all of the other songs and chants uttered in thick Lancastrian were similarly aimed at the fans and players of Blackburn Rovers.

Songs about how the Burnley Womens’ Institute regularly get more gold medals in the Lancashire frock making competition than that of Blackburn. Chants about how the “Pig and Whistle” darts team in Burnley whip the arse of Blackburn’s “Red Rose” pub every year. Ditties extolling the virtues of the fair maidens of Burnley as opposed to the gin-addled whores of Blackburn. It’s a local vibe in that part of East Lancashire, alright.

Fantastic play between Willian and Oscar set up Diego, who shot low, and Heaton was able to parry. There was a little frustration, certainly within me, that our domination – total – was not being rewarded. Thankfully, we were soon to be rewarded with a deserved second goal. Diego had time to play a lateral ball out wide to Willian, who quickly assessed the situation. He moved the defender out of his way with a shake of the hips, then guided a low shot towards Heaton’s far post. It was a beautiful goal. It was what we had deserved.

Bloody lovely stuff, Chelsea.

Burnley – let me say – had been poor and it was not until the forty-second minute that they attempted a shot on goal. Scott Arfield, who had scored against us on that drizzle-filled day in Burnley in 2014 – ah that pass from Fabregas to Schurrle still warms me – banged in a low shot which fizzed past Thibaut Courtois’ far post.

At the break, all was well. We had played some sumptuous stuff at times. It could easily have been 4-0 at the break. Maybe my “7-0” would not be such a stupid remark after all.

As the second-half began, it was more of the same. High intensity everywhere across the midfield, and constant forays into the Burnley defence. Burnley were twisted this way and that. They probably didn’t know what day of the week it was. Diego failed to hit the corners of the goal after a fine passing move found him in the box. Heaton, a fine young goalkeeper, kept thwarting our efforts with a few fine saves. From a pin-point Willian corner, Hazard volleyed at goal, but Heaton saved well, down low, after probably seeing the ball late. John Terry blazed over, from inside the six-yard box, and we all wondered “how.”

Hazard broke in on goal once more, but another fine Heaton save, damn it.

Kante continued to impress during the second-half. It seems sacrilegious to even write these words, but this small, slight player, so much like Makelele in many respects, could even turn out to be a better player than our former midfield legend. I have mentioned it previously, but I love the way he wastes not one second of time in moving the ball on. He covers space, he tackles, he blocks, he hustles, he harries, he chases, he destroys. He is bloody magnificent.

Typically, a mere minute after I said to Alan “Kante has not put a foot wrong all day” he miss-played a simple pass to Diego.

The exception that proves the rule? Possibly.

With the end of the match approaching, I could hardly believe that Burnley had managed to keep it to 2-0. There was the usual flurry of late changes. With Willian having played well all game, he was given a good ovation when he was replaced by Victor Moses. Soon after Michy Batshuayi and Pedro replaced Diego and Hazard; much applause for them too.

Batshuayi made room for himself well, but blasted over, wildly. He needed ice in his veins at that last crucial moment. It looked like a third goal would be elusive.

At the death, I applauded the fact that Mark Clattenburg – never flavour of the month at any time of the year – allowed play to continue after a late challenge on Oscar by Tarkowski. Batshuayi played the ball out to a raiding Pedro. Burnley were wide-open.

“We’ll score here” I whispered to Alan.

A few touches from Pedro, and a perfect ball was played towards the on-rushing Moses, who prodded the ball home perfectly.

Alan and myself, smiles as wide as the gaps in Burnley’s defence, looked at each other with glee.

Three goals, three points and a perfect day.

It seemed that my pre-match concerns about being overly-confident were wide of the mark. Burnley, for all their huff and puff, were poor. They did not have a single effort on target the entire game. Thibaut has surely never had an easier day at the office.

Although the noise from the home sections did not match the quality of football on the pitch, thankfully Chelsea did not bother with that Conte chant from Watford – hopefully resigned to a place in the list of “Chelsea One Hit Wonders” – and Burnley, God bless’em – didn’t do a Billy Ray Cyrus.

There was another feel-good vibe as we slipped back to our car. Parky was even waiting for us on Lillie Road with a pizza for us to share.

Three games, nine points, simple.

Top of the league, having a pizza.

Good times in SW6.

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Tales From Scouserbowl XXXIV

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 6 February 2011.

Has there ever been more anticipation for a regular league game than this one? The build-up throughout the week, from the signing of Fernando Torres late on Monday, dominated the UK media and, with each passing day, I could not wait for Sunday to finally arrive. Putting aside the concerns over the money invested in Torres – and David Luiz – for one moment, this was a phenomenal transfer, the like of which we rarely see. This was Chelsea Football Club’s most newsworthy signing since Ruud Gullit back in 1995 and a massive statement of intent. On the Richter scale of Chelsea transfers involving centre-forwards, I would imagine it is up there with the sepia-toned signings of Hughie Gallagher and Tommy Lawton.Strikers in their prime. The best in the business.

At moments throughout the week at work, with Liverpool fans being sheepishly quiet, I couldn’t help but think to myself –

“Bloody hell – we’ve got Fernando Torres.”

From a simple fans’ perspective, I found it nerve-tingling stuff.

And yet, there were still the niggling doubts and concerns eating away at me throughout the week too. Over the past few years, we have preached financial sobriety with the end goal being that of planned and sustained self-sufficiency. Our signings have been in moderation compared to the “splash” of the summer of 2003. How did the sudden, dramatic splurge of £70M on two players sit in my mind? I was uneasy with it if I am truthful – I am always so wary that this great Chelsea Experiment could implode at any given moment…this is Chelsea after all…and the financial noose that has now been put around our neck is substantial.

In a nutshell, we must keep winning.

And then there are concerns of Torres’ fitness and how we could fit him in to our team, so reliant on the trusted 4-3-3 since the arrival of Jose Mourinho in 2004.

We then had the incredible appetiser of the games on Saturday. On a day when a record number of goals were scored, not only Arsenal did let in four late goals at Newcastle United, but Manchester United lost at Molyneux too. But there were also wins for Spurs and Manchester City, though…

On a weekend when Superbowl XLV was taking place, I had no doubts in my mind that the Chelsea vs. Liverpool game would be The Greatest Show On Earth. In preparation, I consulted my big old spread sheet – growing with each passing week – of Chelsea games…I have now laboriously entered team line-ups for the first 200 games that I have had the pleasure to attend and am therefore almost a quarter of the way towards completion. It acts as a great memory aid to be honest…so many games, so many moments, so many Kerry Dixon goals, so many Pat Nevin dribbles, so many Eddie Newton turns…

Some facts and figures – the game on Sunday 6th. February 2011 would be my thirty-fourth Chelsea vs. Liverpool game. In the thirty-three previous games (24 League, 5 Champions League, 3 F.A. Cup and 1 League Cup), we had only lost four…a pretty remarkable achievement. I have only missed two Chelsea vs. Liverpool games since 1979 in fact – on both of those occasions, I was on holiday in the USA (1989 in Seattle and 1993 in St. Augustine).

The first three of these games all resulted in Chelsea wins – and this was back in the days when Liverpool was a force to be reckoned with. Then, two home games in 1985-86 and Liverpool started to redress the balance. Firstly, Liverpool beat us 2-1 in the F.A.Cupin January when Kerry went off with a groin strain and was never the same player again. Then, dramatically, the league game in May – and a goal from Kenny Dalglish which gave Liverpool the title. Liverpool brought thousands down to that one and packed the crumbling north terrace. I have one distinct memory of that game. I watched the game from The Benches and, a few moments after the game had ended, I was walking up the Shed terrace, by the Bovril Gate, just as the Chelsea PA played “We Are The Champions” and I had a little moment to myself, thinking –

“Bloody typical – the only time I will ever hear that song at The Bridge is when some other team wins the league here.”

Charlton Athletic in May 2005 was indeed a long way off.

I collected Parky at 9.30am and it was a desperately bleak day. There seemed to be hardly a hint of colour in the countryside as we rolled eastwards. However, the densely-packed tress which lined the M4 – neither brown, nor grey – had a stark beauty all of their own. Despite the lead grey skies and the austere landscapes, we were in good spirits. I popped an album by “Keane” on the CD player and our chat abated as we drove on, the music combining perfectly with the countryside all around us.

In the small hours of Friday morning – 4.20am to be precise – Andy Wray had awoken me with a text with the simple message –

“Jack Kerouac. See you Sunday.”

Ah, great stuff…I was previously unaware that he was coming over for the game, but I had made plans to meet up with him. We were parked up at 11.30am – the skies still grey, but at least no rain. Parky and I raced down to “Lloyds” – above the Fulham Broadway tube – and got stuck into a match day brunch. Andy, plus fellow Orange County stalwarts Tom “there has to be another way” Motherway and SteveO, soon arrived and joined us for breakfast. This was SteveO’s first game at Chelsea, though I had previously bumped into him in Baltimore in 2009. I think that SteveO was suffering the excesses of the previous night, bless him. This was a whirlwind trip for them – for Tom, especially…arrive Saturday, match Sunday, depart Monday. I take my hat off to them.

Parky left us to go back to The Goose. I trotted up to the hotel with Tom who was keen to see if Ron Harris was available for a quick chat and photo call. Our luck was in – we spent a good fifteen minutes in the company of our leading appearance maker and I took the requisite photo of Ron Harris With Smiling American Guest, for what must be the twentieth time. A pint in the hotel bar while we waited for Andy and SteveO to join us. From there, we spun round, over the bridge, past The Black Bull and down to The Fox And Pheasant. This is one of my favourites – a miniscule pub in a mews, with the the East Stand roof visible only 300 yards away. We took our pints and stood outside on the pavement along with a hundred more. We had hardly seen a Scouser. Tom spotted a sign outside the pub – and commented that this would just not be seen anywhere in America.

“Sorry – No Admittance To Away Fans. Chelsea Supporters Please Show Match Tickets, Members Cards, Season Tickets.”

We spoke for a few minutes about the various differences in the sporting rituals of our two nations – now, there’s a book waiting to be written! – and enjoyed the lovely pre-match. The skies were still overcast, though – and SteveO was still looking, ahem, under the weather. I had to go off and wait for a mate outside The So-Bar, so we got some chap to take our photos outside the main entrance and went our separate ways. Unfortunately for them, the three Californians had seats in the deathly quiet East Lower, albeit next to the away 3,000. I hoped that “Ring Of Fire” would not be ringing in their ears for the next few days.

The match? This is where I may have a writer’s block.

Despite the heightened anticipation all week long, I thought that the atmosphere was strangely muted. I got in rather early for me at about 3.40pm, just as the players were leaving the pitch after their pre-match warm-up. That first photo of our new Number Nine would have to wait. The Scousers took a while to fill their section, but it was another full house at Stamford Bridge. We should be justly proud of our attendance record these days – constant league sell outs for ages…only three sub 40,000 league games since 2003. And despite Liverpool’s obvious status as a big club, Anfield was 4,000 short during the week.

There was a minute’s polite applause for 1955 Championship winner Les Stubbs who had sadly passed during the week.

Rest In Peace.

On the Shed End screen, the cameras lingered on the teams waiting on the steps in the tunnel. A tense moment. JT alongside Gerrard. Stony faces. No communication. There is no love lost.

As the teams entered the pitch, all eyes and cameras were on Fernando Torres. I snapped away during the walk across the sacred turf. I was struck with how thin Torres is. The handshakes between former players. A scene reminiscent of Manchester City at home a year ago – another game witnessed by Andy and Tom…another fly in, fly out game. Amidst the hype of Torres, I had largely forgotten about Joe Cole. A lost soul now, but still a Chelsea legend. Would we boo him, should he play? Of course not. The Scousers though, visibly wounded by the Torres transfer, had already made their position clear.

There were boos for Torres, but also two specially crafted banners –

“He Who Betrays Will Never Walk Alone.”

“Breaking News – Ya Paid 50 Mil 4 Margi Clarke.”

The Chelsea support were roused at the start with a couple of corkers –

“He Wants To Play For A Big Club.”

“F*** Your History, We’ve Got Fernando.”

However, the tense game which unfolded seemed to sap our strength and our ability to support the troops. I only – very briefly – heard the Chelsea Torres song once…despite it appearing on thousands of texts, emails and websites over the past week. To be honest, I was rather sickened to see an exact copy (but in blue) on Facebook of the Liverpool “El Nino” banner which had been produced by Chelsea fans over the past few days. I was hoping that it would only be used for this one game only – a one game wind-up – but I have a feeling it will be paraded around away grounds for a while. Could we not come up with our own banner? To be honest, I didn’t see it at the game…only on TV after…and my heart sunk. It looked so “un-Chelsea” it was ridiculous. Let’s hope it doesn’t appear again.

In a passage of play which reminded me of Vinnie Jones getting booked after just 10 seconds in 1992, Mikel was booked after 30 seconds. We began with lots of possession.

Fernando Torres collected an errant pass and settled himself outside the “D.” However, his shot sailed over. After a few Liverpool breaks, we raised our game with a few chances. A Lampard corner, in swinging towards the near post, but Ivanovic headed over. Soon after – in retrospect – the chance of the match…a break, a ball from Didier Drogba into Torres in the inside-right channel, but that old warhorse Carragher stretched out a leg to block. Then a gilded chance for Liverpool. Steven Gerrard was involved in a lot of the play and his ball into the box bobbled just as Maxi Rodrigues pounced. It was an open goal, but he shinned it up onto the bar from just six yards.

We weren’t playing well and everyone knew it. The midfield was off the pace and – of course, my big fear – we had no width.After the goal fest of Saturday, how typical that this one looked like it was going to be a lot less lively.

The crowd seemed to be roused a little after the break – perhaps the top ups of beer had the desired effect. At a corner, I spotted Carragher and Torres tussling and snapped. The photograph I took is amazing. It shows Carragher grabbing hold of Torres’ arm with both hands and applying a tight grip. We were fuming. However the noise soon subsided and The Bridge fell eerily quiet. A Nicolas Anelka shot bobbled narrowly wide. Then – oh dear – Torres was substituted and the away fans roared. They had been reasonably quiet in the first half, but grew louder as Liverpool had more and more of the ball. At times, they were all over us in midfield. Gerrard was dominant, Lampard absent.

“Clap, clap – clap, clap, clap – clap, clap, clap, clap – Dalglish” echoed around red-half of The Shed.

To be honest, I don’t mind Dalglish – a superb player and a decent man. I find it strange that many newer generation Liverpool fans can’t pronounce his name correctly, though.

Kenny Daglish never played for Liverpool.

The game wore on and Liverpool was chasing every ball. Then, a rare chance as Essien sent a curling left-footer over on 66 minutes. But soon after, a calamity. Gerrard seemed to be hemmed in right down in the corner, near to where Parky watches the games from. However, Lampard gave him too much room and a cross was lobbed into the box. What happened next was a terrible blur. The ball by-passed Cech and Ivanovic and was nimbly poked home by Meireles. The Scousers erupted and there truly is nothing worse in the entire world than watching 3,000 away fans celebrating a goal at Stamford Bridge. And yet – I must be some sort of masochist – I always have to watch.

“God – look at them, they’re losing it big time.”

The twist of the knife was seeing Gerrard sprint 40 yards and outstretch his right arm and touch many fans as he raced by.

We knew we were beaten, despite 20 minutes left on the clock. The Bridge was supremely funereal. The only bright spot from the entire day was the assured debut of David Luiz in the last quarter. He made two great tackles and was soon ordering team mates around. He looks a quality defender. One moment brought back memories of Frank Lebouef, when Luiz had the ball at his feet some forty yards out and seemed to move the ball, just like Lebouef, onto his right foot in preparation of a snorter. Alas, he didn’t take that option, but I wish he had. A further twist of the knife occurred when an obvious foul by Glen Johnson on Ivanovic was not justly rewarded with a penalty and our time was up. It was not to be. As much as it pains me to say it, we did not deserve the win and now the doubts are setting in again…

I picked up the last “CFCUK” left at the stall and – seeing a mate – I briefly summed it up in three words…

“Too much hype.”

With Parky sleeping like a baby, I was diverted off the M4 due to an accident and so was forced onto the M3. Just what I wanted! The long, mournful, drive home seemed to take forever. Yet again, words to a song on the CD player seemed to sum things up, almost too-perfectly…

“My side.
Is it any wonder I’m tired?
Is it any wonder that I feel uptight?
Is it any wonder I don’t know what’s right?”

I watched – with gritted teeth – “Match Of The Day Two” and then caught some of the action from that other game taking place that night, deep in the heart of North Texas.

“See that massive HD TV screen? John Terry hit that.”

By the time of the half-time show, I too was sleeping like a baby…

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