Tales From An Unhappy Birthday

Norwich City vs. Chelsea : 10 March 2022.

Just after midnight on the day of our game at Carrow Road, I posted on Facebook the following :

“Happy Birthday Chelsea Football Club. Let’s celebrate it with a win later today.”

This was going to be another long old day. I had booked the day off work but was unable to get Friday off too. So it meant that I would be driving straight back after the match. I envisaged around ten hours’ driving in total. I did wonder if we’d completely fill our section, what with the game being only recently re-arranged, but that was soon to be the least of my worries.

I collected the gruesome twosome and by 9am we had stopped for a McBite to eat in the Wiltshire town of Melksham. Just as we were leaving, a friend messaged a group of us on WhatsApp to say that the government were putting sanctions on Roman Abramovich. My immediate reaction was that I wasn’t wholly surprised. But then, within minutes, the word was that it didn’t look good for us. It didn’t look good at all. I quickly turned my ‘phone off and recommenced the long drive east. PD, alongside me in the passenger seat, relayed some snippets of further information. Only season ticket holders were to be allowed at Stamford Bridge, the club shop was to be closed, but also – most worryingly of all – came the news that we couldn’t be sold.

PD summed it all up : “We’re fucked.”

Driving along the M4, nearing Swindon, I advised the chaps to turn their ‘phones off too. In the way that bad news travels much faster than good news, I suspected that the morning would soon be rife with awful rumours and doom-laden opinions about the immediate future of Chelsea Football Club. For a good hour or so, my car has never been quieter on the way to a Chelsea game. All three of us were stunned.

“And on our bloody birthday too. Stick the knife in and turn it, why don’t you?”

And yet. And yet, I could not help think of the poor people of Ukraine, who were at that very moment in time getting shelled by the Russian invaders. A part of me knew that in the very grand scheme of things the comings-and-goings of a football club seemed way less important.

Still we remained largely silent.

But we did mull over a few thoughts. I will admit, at some stage in that mid-morning mess, the three of us contemplated the most horrible “what if?” of all time.

What if Chelsea ceased to exist? What on Earth would we do?

My answer was obvious.

“I’d watch Frome Town. I know I wouldn’t enjoy it anything as like as much, but that’s always been part of my exit plan.”

I could hardly believe that we were thinking it and that I was discussing it. It was a rotten time. Looking back, that hour-and-a-half drive east along the M4 is a blur, a foggy memory, a fugue.

We hit the M25, the M11, the A11 and eventually the fine city of Norwich. I parked up not long after 1.30pm, some five-and-a-half hours since picking up PD in Frome. Despite the sullen thoughts racing through our minds, we promised each other to make the most of the day. Outside, the weather was mild, and overhead the sky was a cloudless blue miracle. I was parked just outside the city centre, just to the north of the River Wensum. We were honing in on one of my favourite pubs, “The Ribs Of Beef” but first we shot into “The Mischief”, a pub that we visited on the day of our FA Cup game in Norwich in 2018.

We all remembered our last trip to Norwich, only two-and-a-half years previous, but that day seems so distant now. In August 2019 – the sun blazing – we watched as Chelsea won 3-2 and Frank Lampard picked up his first win as a Chelsea manager. So much has happened since that it seems almost ridiculous to contemplate it all.

COVID19, several lockdowns, my heart attack, the dismissal of Lampard, the hiring of Tuchel, Champions League glory, Cup Finals, World Championships, a war in Europe and now the forced departure of Roman Abramovich.

My head is spinning as I am listing all of this.

We spent some quality time in the two pubs, and then hopped over the street to finish off at “The Glass House”, where Adam and his merry men and women of the Eastern Blues were enjoying a pre-match drink-up. It was in another pub on that street, “The Lawyer”, where we bumped into Adam and a few more of his crowd in 2018. Alas, that pub is no more. Sadly, the Eastern Blues lost a fine member the past year – Leigh – and it was in “The Lawyer” that we first met him. He was a well-respected Chelsea supporter and I know that he is dearly missed.

RIP Leigh Reeder.

Morsels of information and disinformation percolated through to us while we were drinking. I had allowed myself a single pint of “Praha” in the “Ribs Of Beef” and tried my best to relax. But what about away tickets for Middlesbrough? Was it true that we could be sold after all? How would a new owner work with the CPO? What about us retaining our players? Buying new ones? Would the club even exist by the end of the season?

We decided to let nature runs its course. We were but supporters, and all we could do was support the current team.

I parked up closer to the ground in a multi-story. After quickly saying “hi” to Rob and Martin in a restaurant, we dipped into “The Queen Of The Iceni” by the river. This is a pub that Parky and I first visited in 2012 and we had a quiet word with Noel and his wife. The mood was sombre and contemplative. But it was good to share a few thoughts. This pub was virtually full of home fans. Chelsea supporters, it seemed, were amassed in a pub on the other bank of the river, and their songs could be head from some distance. But we had given all that a large swerve. None of us were in the mood for it.

We decided to head into the stadium relatively early. As we turned the corner, I half-expected TV crews and reporters to be pouncing on Chelsea supporters as we neared the away turnstiles, but things were surprisingly quiet.

This would be my tenth consecutive Chelsea game away from Stamford Bridge, a run that is never likely to be repeated.

Tottenham, Manchester City, Brighton, Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi, Crystal Palace, Wembley, Luton, Burnley and Norwich.

I swapped seats with PD so he could be with Parky for a change; they were down the front with Alan and Gary. I was towards the back. There was reassuringly plain and concise talking with Jonesy, King Kenny, Neil, Tim and Cliff. I need not have been worried about the Chelsea crowd. Our section was rammed.

Suddenly, the game was upon us and I flicked my focus to our team.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Christensen

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Saul

Mount – Havertz – Werner

What a lovely first-half, eh?

We created more in those first ten minutes than we did in the entire first-half at Burnley in the previous game. After just two minutes, that rare thing; a Chelsea goal from a corner. Mason Mount slapped it in from the far side and a leap from Trevoh Chalobah did the rest. His glancing header down flew into the net, and the Chelsea contingent roared.

Soon after, the chances mounted up, oh dear please excuse the pun. Two efforts from Kai Havertz were followed by the same player sliding the ball square to Mount, who shimmied and struck high into Tim Krul’s goal. His subsequent slide towards us was euphoric, pure emotion, pure Chelsea.

More of the same please.

The Chelsea crowd were noisy and continuously so.

There were loud chants of “Roman Abramovich” but not everybody joined in.

Ironically, a friend in Detroit – hello Andy – asked me a few months back why we no longer shout Roman’s name at games. I had no real answer to this question. Maybe only on days when we are presented with league trophies at Stamford Bridge? I can’t remember any other occasions in recent times.

I also saw the home fans’ reaction – “Scum! Scum! Scum!” – and I simply didn’t want to contribute to that particular debate.

I remembered the famous exchange in 2005.

“We’ve got a super cook, you’ve got a Russian crook.”

“We’ve got Abramovich, you’ve got a drunken bitch.”

They don’t write them like that anymore, eh?

Back to 2022, and there followed a bizarre chant from us :

“Chelsea get sanctioned everywhere they go.”

Answers on a postcard.

And then, the rarest of songs.

“Chelsea Til I Die.”

This has always been a song that failed to register at Chelsea games, despite many fans thinking that it did. In my mind, and a few friends, it always seemed to be sung by lower level teams for some reason. Yet here we were in deepest Norfolk, and hundreds of Chelsea were giving it an airing for the very first time that I can ever remember.

I guess on this particular occasion it can be forgiven.

Though, to be honest, I’ll be supporting Chelsea after I die too.

We kept pouring forward. Every attack seemed to be with pace, at last, and the front three were continually on the last line of the defence, waiting to pounce. Dave’s energy levels were amazing to witness at close quarters. I lost count of the number of runs he made; many were inch perfect, but sadly many were ignored too. I was impressed with Mase, a bundle of energy, racing forward one minute, tackling back the next.

That shimmy from Thiago Silva as he brought the ball out of defence.

“Now you see it, now you don’t”

Sublime.

A flurry of corners caused concern in the Norwich penalty area. Kovacic and Christensen went close. It was as dominant half of football that I have seen for a while. Oh, since the second-half at Burnley anyway. Norwich were simply not in it. How come we only scored bloody two?

Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Dave at the break. He looked out of place at right wing-back; my eyes took a while to adjust.

In contrast, a stark contrast, the second-half was poor. There was such little quality in the first twenty minutes that I wondered what on Earth the Chelsea players had drunk at half-time. It was the home side that looked the more aggressive as the game continued and Chelsea looked to be tiring. The noise in the away section died a little. On sixty-five minutes, there was a shot that hit a Chelsea defender. My reaction was “handball” before Teemu Pukki gathered the loose ball and Mendy saved well.

The initial handball was given though.

A penalty to Norwich.

Pukki drilled it low, Mendy going the other way.

Bollocks.

“On The Ball City” boomed.

Oh – and another – “Yellarmy!” as encouraged by electronic displays.

Yellarmy. I ask you.

Norwich fancied their chances now, and I didn’t fancy ours. But we needed a win here to silence the baying hordes in the outside world. We needed to hang on.

With five minutes to go, a double flip.

Romelu Lukaku for a poor Timo Werner.

N’Golo Kante for a tireless Mateo Kovacic.

The big Belgian fluffed a chance from inside the box.

“CAM ON CHELS.”

On ninety minutes, Kante passed to Havertz and our slim and silky German thundered the ball high into the goal.

Norwich City 1 Chelsea 3.

Phew.

We walked slowly back to the waiting car. Our mood had been brightened by the result. We tried to be positive. The road west was waiting for me. I eventually reached home at 3.15am.

It had been the strangest of days.

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 A Must-Win Game

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 2 October 2021.

It had not been a great five days. A 0-1 home defeat against Manchester City on the Saturday was followed by a 0-1 away loss at Juventus on the Wednesday. There was much introspection and self-assessment. The second-half at Tottenham suddenly felt a long time ago. Were we not as good as we had thought after we bounced along the High Road? We weren’t wholly sure. And although the two defeats were not thumpings – far from it – they were worrying enough. We suddenly looked an average team – “bang average” as the football chatters would have it – and we needed some sort of salvation against the Saints of Southampton.

There was one phrase that was surely being used throughout the various Chelsea nations.

Chris, England : “This is a must-win game.”

Boomer, Scotland : “Fucking must-win, game, no?”

Kev, Wales : “Must-win game, this.”

Russ, Australia : “Must-win game. Fackinell, mate.”

John, USA : “This is a freaking must-win game.”

Leigh-Anne, Canada : “Must-win, game, eh?”

I had returned from a sensational four days in Turin at around 9pm on the Friday night. At 5.30am, I was up and ready for the next chapter of the season. I called for PD at 7am and Parky at just before 7.30am. It felt odd to be driving east on the A303 and then the M3 just twelve hours after I had been heading in the opposite direction. To be honest, my head was full of Turin, and this just seemed like “The Italian Job, Part Two.” With no fuel drama on this occasion, I was parked up at around 10am. While my co-supporters made a bee-line for “The Eight Bells” I spent a little time at Stamford Bridge, chatting to a few acquaintances and sorting out something at the box office.

At around midday, I met up with PD and Parky in the tiny interior of the best pub in Fulham. We had a typical pre-match. We were joined by friends from near – Ray, Watford – and far – Courtney, Chicago. I first bumped into Ray, who was meeting a former work colleague, at the Rapid friendly in Vienna in 2016. I had never met Courtney before, but he had been reading this blog, the fool, for a while and fancied meeting up for a chin-wag. It was good to see them both.

Courtney was “fresh meat” for PD and Parky who were full of tales of Chelsea’s far-from pristine past, and there was even a tale of a more modern, ahem, bout of boisterousness at Arsenal from a few years ago. There was a bit of rough and tumble at Arsenal before our 1-0 win there in early 2016 and Parky was nowhere to be seen throughout the first-half. During the half-time break, he showed up in the away seats, alongside Al, Gal and myself, but with an ear heavily bandaged.

“Fackinell. He looked Vincent Van Gogh.”

Courtney laughed.

“Anyway, do you fancy a beer, Parky.”

“No. I’ve got one ‘ere.”

Boom.

We were inside Stamford Bridge in good time once again. The three thousand away fans were already settled into the away section, and this already had the feel of a good old-fashioned football Saturday. The pleasant weather of late was now replaced with grey clouds and rain. It had the air of a traditional autumnal football game. Some would say “run of the mill” but I was pleasantly excited as the minutes clicked towards the old-fashioned kick-off time of three o’clock.

Blur’s “Park Life” got the juices flowing further as it was aired with ten minutes to go.

“All the people. So many people.”

It just seemed to add to the air of anticipation.

The teams entered. There was a minute of applause in memory of one of England’s 1966 winners, the recently deceased Roger Hunt.

RIP.

The rain was falling as I checked the Chelsea team.

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

Azpilicueta – Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – Chilwell

Werner – Lukaku – Hudson-Odoi

In Thursday’s “La Gazzetta”, Mateo Kovacic was judged to have been our best player on the night against Juventus, scoring a 6.5 mark out of 10. Federico Chiesa was quite rightly judged to be Juve’s star performer with a justifiably fine 8.5. Most of Chelsea’s troops scored 5 and 5.5. It was a fair summary to be honest. Against Southampton, we needed a few players to score 7 and 8 or more. But our opposition would be no mugs. They still boasted the Munich man Oriol Romeu but also the new acquisition Tino Livramento.

Martin Atkinson blew his whistle and the game began.

The malaise in our midst seemed to have been exorcised after only a few minutes of play. We started very well, brightly probing away in all areas of the pitch.

After just nine minutes, a corner from deep in Parkyville – near where Courtney was watching – was taken by Ben Chilwell. It swing in and reached the leap of Ruben Loftus-Cheek at the edge of the six-yard box. His flick on bounced down and Trevoh Chalobah stooped at the far post to head it home. There was a roar from the Chelsea faithful – “back on track” – as the scorer ran over to the other corner flag, sliding on his knees, triumphant.

“Nice one, Clever Trevoh” and I suddenly realised that Clive, sitting alongside me, deserved an assist for this goal. He had just been mentioning a concert coming up involving Ian Dury’s son Baxter.

“Knock me down with a feather.

Clever Trevor.”

One-nil to Chelsea and everything was alright in the world again.

We attacked with pace, and found space, but it certainly helped that the away team were happy to attack us when they could. This opened up the game and we fully exploited the spaces to be found in their defensive third. It was already proving to be an entertaining game. In their most fruitful attack, the trusted boot of James Ward-Prowse sent a shot narrowly wide.

A peach of a volley from our Ruben went narrowly wide too.

Next up, Ben Chilwell advanced but a shot was blocked.

“Alonso would’ve volleyed that.”

But Saints were not playing dead, and Theo Walcott should have finished with a goal but his header was wide. The away fans were not particularly loud but their “Oh When The Saints” was a constant backdrop in the first half of the first half.

Antonio Rudiger embarked on a typically spirited dribble up through the inside left channel, and players backed off. He shaped to shoot, but instead played in Lukaku with a deft pass. The striker turned it in. I celebrated for a nano-second but soon saw the raised yellow flag in front of the West Lower.

Bollocks.

I loved the way that Ruben was playing. Strong, determined and running in straight lines, how old-fashioned. Long may he flourish.

With four minutes of the first-half remaining, the ball was switched from one side of the box to the other. Near the goal-line, Callum Hudson-Odoi took his time to review his options. A fine scooped cross easily found the leap of the often lambasted Timo Werner. His leap was clean, as was his header from close-in.

Get in.

At last a goal for the under-fire German. How he celebrated. How we celebrated. Two-up, happy days. But…there is often a but these days. There seemed to be a delay. To our obvious dismay the TV screen signalled “VAR Review : Possible Foul Play.”

Who? What? Where? When? Why?

Not only was there no recollection of a foul in the build-up to the goal, the decision took a while to come through.

No goal.

Boos. Lots of them. An incandescent Tuchel was booked.

Bollocks.

It transpired that Dave had committed a foul on a boy wearing an Athletic Bilbao striped shirt when he was a mere twelve years old, thus rendering Timo’s goal illegal.

Oh boy.

This last action spoiled the first-half, but there was much to admire. Chalobah looked in fine form, strong in possession, and positive when under pressure. Loftus-Cheek was a lovely revelation. We hoped for further dominance in the second period.

We began well enough with the honest endeavour of Timo the highlight. But then we seemed to fall apart a little. I found myself thinking “this isn’t joined up” just as Clive spoke about things being “disjointed.”

On the hour, a terrible lunge by Chilwell on Livramento inside the box gave Atkinson the easiest of decisions.

“Nailed on penalty. What was he thinking?”

Ward-Prowse tucked the ball in.

Bollocks.

Tuchel exchanged Mason Mount for the disappointing Hudson-Odoi. There was a slight improvement, but only just. We stumbled along and Southampton looked a little stronger.

“We could lose this.”

Another half-chance for Werner.

Jorginho for Kovacic.

With the substitute trying to scoop the ball out to Rudiger after a Mendy faux-pas, he was brought to the ground by the scorer Ward-Prowse. The Italian seemed to make the most of it to my eye. Atkinson waved a yellow at the Southampton midfielder, but then VAR wriggled its way into the game again. Another delay. A few people chanted “VAR.”

“I ain’t cheering if this is a red. Looked like Jorginho went down too easily to me. Bloody VAR.”

We waited and waited.

Red.

I didn’t cheer.

The rain was falling heavily. The stadium had a typical autumnal vibe.

“Don’t fancy the walk back to the car, PD.”

Chelsea, maybe seizing the advantage now, suddenly looked stronger.

Barkley for Loftus-Cheek, who had tired in the second-half.

Chelsea dominated again now, and a sublime lofted pass that split the defence from the last substitute Barkley out to the raiding Azpilicueta was simply sublime. A first time cross from Dave picked out the run from Werner, who guided the ball past McCarthy in the Saints goal.

Get in.

“WHATAFUCKINGGOAL.”

The Bridge erupted. A slide from Timo this time. He was then mobbed justifiably, by his team mates.

Superb.

There was time for a crazy denouement. Sustained Chelsea pressure in the Southampton box resulted in the goal frame being clipped not once but twice in quick succession, by Lukaku and Azpilicueta, and the crowd were quickly into convulsed with frustration. The loose ball broke to Chilwell, the left-back. He swiped at the ball as it sat up nicely for him. The goal bound shot looked perfect. McCarthy clawed at it, but from my viewpoint, it looked like it had crossed the line.

Goal Line Technology spoke : goal.

Yes!

To Clive : “Alonso would’ve volleyed that.”

The players celebrated wildly down below us.

Chelsea 3 Southampton 1.

Beautiful.

The Saints had been beaten in the October rain.

This indeed was a lovely, action-packed game of football. VAR had been involved, never a good thing in my mind, and had annoyed most of the fans present. But we came away with three points, and three points that put us top of the pile once more. However, our joy was about to be clipped.

Downstairs, my good friend Rob approached me. I had seen him ever so briefly before the game. But he spoke to me in greater depth now.

His face was red.

“Just to let you know. My Mum passed away today. I saw her this morning in the home. The last words I said to her were “I am off to see Chelsea now” but I took a ‘phone call from the home on the way here.”

I gave Rob a big hug. What words are of use at a time like this? It was a terrible end to an otherwise fine day.

“It’s weird because my first ever game at Chelsea was a 3-1 win over Southampton.”

I wished Rob well and I sent him a little text message later in the evening.

We got drenched on the walk back to the waiting car – soaked, absolutely soaked – but that seemed irrelevant.

Betty Luxford RIP.

Tales From A Love Story

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 14 August 2021.

I don’t think it is too far-fetched to say that there have been few games – few occasions, few spectacles – in the history of Stamford Bridge that have matched our game against Crystal Palace on Saturday 14 August 2021. Sure, the first league games back at the old ground after the Great War and the Second World War must have been emotional affairs. And let’s not forget the gate of more than 100,000 against Moscow Dynamo in 1945 that unofficially signalled the start of a return to football in peaceful times. But this one was different. Everton at home in the early spring of 2020 seemed so distant and never in the history of English football has there ever been such a period of uncertainty and sadness.

Coming not long after my operation in October of last year, the twin games against Leeds United and Krasnodar were out of the question for me in my high-risk state. And I wasn’t really tempted by the home game against Leicester City in May either; I know that many were, and those that went thoroughly enjoyed it. But I wanted my first game back at HQ to be alongside all of my mates, all of my pals, and in a full house. Back with a vengeance, back to normality, back to life.

I returned from Belfast late on the Thursday and battled fatigue in my one day at work – Friday the thirteenth seemed wholly appropriate – but when I woke on Saturday morning, Belfast was still dominating my every thought. It felt as though it hadn’t worked its way out of my system just yet. Belfast was Chelsea game number 1,300 for me and I secretly wished that game number 1,301 wasn’t until the Sunday.

But beggars can’t be choosers, and a Saturday game it was.

I awoke at 6am, ahead of the alarm.

My first task of the new league season was to fill up the fuel tank of my car in a nearby village. As I walked into the shop to pay, I easily spotted a woman who I went to school with as a child. She was – if I am not mistaken – the first girl to ever give me a kiss, possibly when I was around seven years of age, and – again if my memory serves me correctly – this momentous occasion took place on the village recreation ground, in the long grass, no more than a quarter of a mile from where I am typing these notes. I see her around occasionally. I am sure she has forgotten all about me and I can’t say I blame her. The petrol station was, ironically, in the village of my first-ever girlfriend – summer 1982, aged seventeen – and as I set off on the trip to London I smirked about these romantic incursions into the day of me reacquainting myself with the love of my life.

I collected P-Diddy at 7.30am and I collected L-Parky at 8am.

Up the A303, into London, parked up near Queen’s Club at 10.15am.

Bosh.

For those regular readers, my pre-match routine for the opening league game of 2021/22 followed a familiar pattern. We started at “The Eight Bells” at the bottom end of the Fulham Road – Dave from Northamptonshire and Deano from Lancashire soon joined us – before we all decamped to “Simmon’s” at the bottom of the North End Road to join forces with Alan, Gary, Daryl, Ed, Andy and Sophie.

It was the first time that I had seen Alan since that Everton game nigh-on eighteen months ago. I sat alongside him and it felt so good.

On the walk to the second of the two pubs, I had briefly called by the CFCUK stall to say a few words to Marco. On that fateful day in October – with me in the emergency ward at a hospital in Bath – it was Marco, himself having recently suffered heart problems, that kept me going with a series of text messages. We shook each other’s hands and wished each other well. It was super to see him.

I am not going to comment every week on the clown’s clothing that Chelsea Football Club has decided to dress players in this season, but on the walk to the ground it did dawn on me that the 2020/21 shirt – the one that we wore in Porto – was hardly a Chelsea royal blue at all. It just seemed darker than it should be and rather muted with no vibrancy. It never really dawned on me before. I hardly saw anyone wearing this shirt in my home area this past season, and I don’t think I really noticed it in Porto, but it really jarred when I saw it on this particular day.

Maybe next year, we’ll get a clean and crisp royal blue shirt.

Don’t hold your breath.

As far as I could see, nothing had changed too much along the walk to Stamford Bridge, and I noticed that most fans were not wearing face-coverings outside the stadium. My bag was checked, I bumped into a few friends, my COVID19 passport was inspected outside the Matthew Harding and I joined that oh-so familiar queue before using a new style ticket-scanning machine and then…pause for effect…through the turnstiles…click, click, click…and I was in.

I ascended the six flights of stairs to the MHU, keeping to the left – my superstition – as always.

Inside the stand. I was home.

Phew.

Greeting me was Clive, who has taken Glenn’s season ticket.

Glenn finally decided to give it up after twenty-four seasons. But Glenn hasn’t given up completely; he will still go to a game every month or so, depending upon his working patterns and availability of tickets. I have known Clive since around 2003, so he is a familiar face. I last saw him at a New Order gig in Bristol in July 2019.

With the new rail seating in The Shed, everything looked bluer.

I spent a few minutes or more chatting to various folk in The Sleepy Hollow who I had obviously missed the previous year and a half. Albert, who sits directly in front of me, shared an opinion which had great resonance with me. He too has been a ST holder since 1997.

“This football club has been a massive part of my life. But last season, I didn’t really care. Sometimes I’d be watching us play on TV and I would switch channels at half-time but instead of watching our game again, I’d continue to watch the new programme.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

I knew of many season ticket holders who hardly watched us on TV.

It just wasn’t the same.

The teams were announced.

No Romelu Lukaku. Not yet.

Mendy

Chalobah – Christensen – Rudiger

Dave – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Werner – Pulisic

“Park Life” sounded on the PA. There were no crowd-surfing banners due to COVID19. The players, Chelsea in blue, Crystal Palace in Villareal yellow, entered the pitch but instead of walking over to the West Stand – a Chelsea trademark that I have grown to love – they stood on this occasion in front of the East Stand.

And then the two teams linked arms and stood on the centre circle. We were asked to silently remember those who had lost their lives during the global pandemic. On the TV screen around twenty-five names were listed, in groups of four, of Chelsea supporters who had passed away. At the end, a fleeting phrase flickered onto the screen and then faded as quickly as it had appeared.

BLUES FOREVER

One of the Chelsea supporters was Scott La Pointe. I first met Scott in Charlotte in North Carolina in 2015 when, along with his wife and two children, they joined in with some lovely pre and post-match socialising around the game with PSG. His young son Alex memorably entertained the troops with his endearing version of “Zigger Zagger”. It was clear that Scott was a family man who dearly loved both his family and Chelsea. I met up with them all, and many other from the Detroit supporters group of which Scott was a proud member, at Ann Arbor in Michigan the following summer. The game against Real Madrid – to this day the largest official crowd at any Chelsea game anywhere – must have been so special for Scott’s family. It was like a home game for them all. Sadly, not so long after this game, Scott was diagnosed with ALS / Motor Neurone Disease. Scott battled the disease with great strength and great dignity. This was painful for me since one of my Godparents, my uncle Gerald, died from the same disease in around 1988. Scott held out for Christmas 2020 and – amazingly – for the 2021 European Cup Final in Porto too. He watched from his bed in his house in the Detroit suburbs. I often messaged him on Facebook. His last message to me was on the day after the final.

“I really didn’t think I would be here to see yesterday’s match. I can’t tell you how excited I was for them to win. I love your pictures that you posted. Every time the camera went to the crowd, Jamie and I were looking for you. Cheers my friend!”

Scott sadly passed away not long after his forty-third birthday.

He will live on in the memory of all those who knew him.

He was loved by all.

Scott La Pointe : 6 June 1978 to 22 June 2021.

There were a few empty seats dotted about, but not many. The immediate build-up to the game against Patrick Viera’s Crystal Palace was somewhat overshadowed by the very late announcement that some season ticket-holders would not be able to watch from their usual seat in the MHL due to delays in the rail seating. The club must have known there was going to be a risk of this when they sold all other available seats. Surely they should have kept some to one side just in case.

Insert a comment about Chelsea being a well-run football club here :

Before the game began, we heard that Manchester United had walloped Leeds 5-1 at Old Trafford. My mind immediately raced back to forty years ago, opening day 1981, when Leeds lost 5-1 at newly promoted Swansea City, a result that was wildly celebrated at Stamford Bridge as I saw us beat Bolton 2-0. It was the first game that I had ever travelled to independently.

Forty bloody years ago.

Altogether now everybody : “Fackinell.”

Kudos, by the way, to our benign neighbours Brentford on their fine – very fine – 2-0 win against Arsenal the previous night. Fantastic stuff.

We began positively and absolutely dominated possession. Having not seen Palace play for much of the past eighteen months – I found myself not even bothering with “MOTD” in the latter part of last season – I hardly recognised anyone in the Palace team, which was well changed anyway from the last time I had clapped eyes on them. Former Chelsea prospect Mark Guehi took up a position in their defence. I had seen both of his appearances in our colours in the League Cup of 2019/20.

The crowd was in a boisterous and jubilant mood. The time for venom and heated passion will come against more hated rivals.

There was intelligent use of space and we always seemed to have a spare man to stretch the Palace defence. Chances for Dave and Christian Pulisic hinted at a game of goals. There was a further chance from Mateo Kovacic.

There was a succession of corners from our left with Mason Mount pumping the ball in but with mixed results.

Just as we found an attack being thwarted by a foul on Mount just outside the box, I overheard Alan and Clive in a general discussion about a few players. I memorably heard Al say “Alonso worries me” and I silently smiled as I saw the Spaniard place the ball in readiness for a shot on goal.

“Bloody hell Al, that’s tempting fate. This is Alonso territory.”

With that, I snapped as the ball was whipped up and over the wall, curving perfectly away from Vicente Guaita. I saw the spinning ball, through my lens, nestling in the goal. The ‘keeper did not bother moving.

I jumped to my feet – GET IN – and smiled at Alan.

One-nil to the European Champions.

“THTCAUN.”

“COMLD.”

The noise levels then hit stratospheric levels.

On my feet – “Champions Of Europe. We Know What We Are.”

We were back.

And this was perfect Chelsea weather. Memories of opening day wins in recent years against too many teams to mention.

We seemed to be missing an aerial threat in the Palace box, but no doubt the returning Lukaku would remedy that ailment.

A free-kick from Mason hit the wall, but we extended our lead just before the break. A fine move, with Dave setting up Mount with a fine return pass, which lead to the ball being sent low into the box. The ‘keeper got something on the cross but the ball fell to Pulisic, who twisted his body to prod the ball home.

Two-nil to the European Champions.

A late chance for Timo Werner hit the side-netting and we went into the break well on top. In fact, up to the point of our second goal, I could only remember one very rare Crystal Palace attack that soon fizzled out down below me in the area of the pitch that I will forever call Hazardous.

Never could I remember such a dominant first-half performance or rather such a poor opponent (edit : the first-half against Everton in 2016 was exceptional, but Everton were not so woeful as Palace, surely?)

In the back of my mind I was hoping for at least two more goals – maybe more – in the second-half. A trademark volley from Alonso went close.

I noted that – strangely – the song of the night in Belfast, the Belinda Carlisle ditty, was noticeable by its absence in the Stamford Bridge sun. Its time will come again I am sure.

A very rare attack was easily stubbed out by the Chelsea defence. They really were poor. I loved the way that the midfield pairing of Jorginho and Kovacic kept things ticking over in the middle of the park. Werner was in his usual “one step forward, two steps back” mode, looking great one minute and then mediocre the next. Pulisic twisted and turned. He needs a run of games, but I have a feeling that Tuchel is going to rotate a few players behind Lukaku this season. It will be interesting to see how Havertz develops. I really have my eye on him.

Just before the hour, the ball was played to Trevoh Chalobah. He had space to run into, and maybe buoyed by the home crowd chanting “shoooot”, he let fly with a sweet and low rocket. I managed to capture this goal too. The shot was aimed to perfection, just clipping the base of the far post before nestling inside the net.

3-0.

Magnificent.

I also caught the players hugging the excited youngster.

Joyous scenes, eh?

I remember my mate Tom, in his home city of Minneapolis for the Milan game in 2016, coming up with the “He’s Chalobah!” (as in “He fell over!”) chant for Trevoh’s brother Nathaniel.

Let’s get it going again.

I was hoping for more goals but the manager – still without a song, in truth we hardly know him – made some substitutions.

James for Dave.

Havertz for Pulisic.

Emerson for Alonso.

A rare Palace attack on goal – the only one? – from the old warhorse Christian Benteke was easily saved by our man Mendy.

The game ended 3-0.

It was a fine performance, hardly any negatives, but it was only Palace.

I’d score myself 7/10; not as overblown with emotion as others, but I did join in with a fair few songs. I think the football came second to seeing everyone again on this particular day. I am sure that football is still trying to win its way back into my heart if I am honest. But I am equally sure that this will improve with each game and I am bloody sure that I will soon be back to my March 2020 groove before long.

I just need a couple of tough away games to sort myself out and to get myself focused.

What’s that I hear you say?

Arsenal away and then Liverpool away?

OK. Let’s go. Mow those fucking meadows.

The Sleepy Hollow : Season 2021/22 – Chris, Alan, Clive, PD & Gary.