Tales From Modern Football

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 22 September 2019.

I really don’t want to mention VAR every bloody week, but…

It comes to something when a Chelsea supporter such as myself feels genuinely aggrieved when Tottenham get a good goal chalked off when one of their players is adjudged to be offside by around twenty millimetres.

As I watched “Match of the Day” on the Saturday night, ahead of our game with Liverpool on the Sunday, I saw Manchester City dismantle a hapless Watford by eight goals to nil. But I knew that the Leicester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur game might well wrestle more attention. I had heard that VAR had played an integral role in that game as the scores dripped into my consciousness during Saturday afternoon and early evening. I watched as a Leicester City goal was called back for offside and, although I am generally against VAR, I thought to myself “fair play with that decision, I can’t complain at that.”  However, it was the Tottenham goal that made me see red. I watched the goal being scored and wondered where on Earth the offside had occurred. I couldn’t see it at first glance. And then, good grief, it was shown that a Tottenham player was marginally – see above – offside. Yeah, we don’t like Tottenham, we love seeing Leicester City – if not us – beat them, but for fuck’s sake.

Modern football, eh?

Everyone knows my thoughts.

Saturday evening and Saturday night turned to Sunday morning. There was an early start as we wanted to be up in London early enough to secure a table at “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge. I collected PD at eight o’clock, collected Glenn’s season ticket, and then picked up Young Jake – he’s getting on a bit now, he’s thirty-one – and headed east. The weather seemed to pose a conundrum. It was going to be warm but with a threat of rain. Rain jackets were selected.

The pre-match ran to plan. Three pubs, a Sunday Roast, chat with friends from near and far, plenty of giggles. It was glorious. Although there were moments when the sky was dark and brooding, the rain had mainly held off.

Inside Stamford Bridge, though, my light jacket was placed on my seat back. It was certainly not needed. It was warm and muggy – a bit sticky – and not particularly pleasant.

Here we were, then.

As many friends had commented, Liverpool presented us with a real test. In the car and pub, we had all agreed that we’d be more than happy with a draw against the league leaders. There had been a couple of wilder projections involving a Chelsea win, but I was not in that camp.

I wasn’t getting carried away.

There was good news in Frank Lampard’s team selection. N’Golo Kante was in, as was Mason Mount. Alas, Toni Rudiger was not available. But this was a good enough team for sure.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Christensen – Emerson

Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante

Willian – Abraham – Mount

We had briefly discussed Liverpool; a very able defence, a quick and nimble front three, but a seemingly average midfield. It was, we surmised, a team that was greater than the sum of its individual parts. Previous Liverpool teams, God knows, had certainly possessed greater individual players. But here was a team that certainly worked to a plan with great determination.

I commented to Alan “I’ll take a 0-0 now.”

Prior to the teams entering the pitch, we had embarrassingly witnessed the Eden Hazard flag float over the heads of the spectators below us in the MHL. That wasn’t a good sign; somebody must have made an error. We hoped and prayed that the manager’s choices were better.

There were, of course, three thousand away fans in the far corner, but hardly a flag or banner to accompany them. What? No six stars to be seen anywhere? Others had made poor flag choices too, it seemed.

The game began. It was a lively start. Liverpool probably edged possession, and we were on the back foot a little. We did have periods of positive play. However, with approaching a quarter of an hour played, Liverpool were presented with a little too much space in the middle of our half and the ball was played through to Sadio Mane who was chopped down by Andreas Christensen.

I was comforted by the fact that the position of the free-kick seemed too central to get an angle past the wall, and too close to goal to chip the ball over and down. Sadly, we watched as a well-constructed free-kick saw a Mo Salah back-heel set up Trent Alexander-Arnold to smash the ball past Kepa. The silence all around me was deafening and other clichés. I didn’t like the way that he ran towards the Chelsea supporters to celebrate. Git.

There was a tedious reply from the home stands : ”Murderers.”

I thought we’d all moved on. I hadn’t heard it at a Chelsea / Liverpool game for a while.

There was, however, a rasping “Carefree” soon after and we did our best to get behind the team.

An enforced substitution took place, with Marcos Alonso taking over from Emerson at left-back. We kept plugging away. Now that Tammy Abraham has secured his place as Frank Lampard’s preferred striker, I have mentioned to friends that we can now concentrate on meshing him into the team, playing to his strengths, and perhaps releasing him early as he gets to understand how his team mates work around him. Indeed, there was a signal from Tammy to a midfielder to release the ball into the inside-right channel but as the ball was played he momentarily paused. It was a chance lost. However, not long after, a carbon copy ball was played from deep by Christensen, and the striker’s run into space was perfect. He advanced but annoyingly shot straight at Adrian.

Approaching the half-hour mark, we worked the ball down our left and a cross from Willian hit the danger area. Abraham made a lunge at the ball, and after the effort hit Fabinho, Adrian clawed it off the line. The ball was begging to be pounced upon. Dave swept it in and we screamed our pleasure.

GET IN.

I watched the captain’s joyous run down towards the corner flag, and he was soon mobbed by his team mates. The Bridge was jumping. There were photos aplenty.

Lovely.

And then, a sword to the heart. We spotted on the TV screen above the Micky Mousers that there was a VAR review.

“Why?”

“What for?”

We waited.

We held our breath, what an odd sensation.

Strangely, the away fans seemed to be celebrating before an announcement was made. This wasn’t good. This wasn’t good at all.

The TV screen told the story : “NO GOAL.”

A little part of me died again. But what could I do? I stood silent, surprisingly calm, but in truth I was just weak with what had just happened.

If I was Spanish, I might have reached for a white handkerchief.

Not long after, what looked like an innocuous challenge between Dave and a Liverpool player – the ball was hanging in the air, both players jumped – went against us and the resultant free-kick was swept in towards the six yard-box. Roberto Firmino rose unhindered and powerfully headed past Kepa.

We were now 0-2 down and seemingly out of it. What a rotten few minutes for us and for Honest Dave especially. I really felt for him.

The rest of the first-half is pretty much a blur. We were deflated, players and supporters alike. It was a horrible sensation.

The Liverpool supporters aired an old song, and if it was because of the VAR incident, they exhibited far more intelligence than they are usually credited.

“Luis Garcia, he drinks sangria.”

Memories of that bastarding night at Anfield in 2005, that ghost-goal, The Kop, and no goal-line technology, the sardonic bastards.

Fuckers.

Just before half-time there was another enforced substitution; Kurt Zouma on for the injured Christensen.

“It gets worse” I thought.

At half-time, VAR dominated our thoughts and our conversations. Information eventually reached us. The incident leading up to our “goal” that was adjudged to have been offside involved an early pass to Mason Mount, quite some time before the goal was turned in. Of course, us spectators in the stadium are, ironically, the last to know about all of this.

I vented to a few people.

It seems to me that there is a huge discrepancy between how VAR is judged by fans that go to games (JD opined “I don’t know anyone who likes it”) and those who tend to watch at home or in bars and pubs on TV. It seems that the chasm between match-goers and those who consume football via TV has grown even wider thanks to VAR.

And that is a shame. The football family should be as one.

My views on all this have been well documented over the past ten years or more. I was even against goal-line technology because I knew damned well that this would just be the tip of the iceberg. I knew full well that before long there would be intrusive video replays holding up the flow of the game. But even I could not have foreseen the madness that has developed this season.

Chaos theory ain’t half of it.

Sigh.

It almost seems that VAR was created for those watching at home. It almost seems that VAR has been brought in under the guise of “fairness” but is just a thinly-disguised extra for the watching millions. I have long said that very soon we will have commercial breaks during VAR hold-ups. It happens in North America, where the native sports tend not to have the sense of flow of our national sport. I can see it happening during the 2022 World Cup, for sure.

The mood at half-time was rotten.

In other seasons, that ball to Mount would have passed without incident. There would have been no appeal for offside, just as there was no appeal by any Liverpool players on this occasion. The moment, that split second, would have been lost in the ether of time. But on this day, the move was deemed illegal, the goal was cancelled, our celebrations quashed.

Some tedious fuckers might whine that “well, actually, he was offside.”

But these little moments are being given far too much weight, far too much importance.

VAR produces decisions which – and here is my final word, for now – seem to be against the spirit of the game.

We’re on a slippery slope here, and some of us are losing the will to stay on our feet.

At the break, losing 0-2, I was reminded of a similarly grave situation at half-time against the same opposition in the Cup in 1997. Losing 0-2, we witnessed one of the most amazing come-backs as we won with style and guts, eventually winning 4-2.

Into the second-half, I truthfully hoped for damage limitation above anything else. We were soon on the back-foot, and only a sublime stop at full stretch from Kepa stopped that man Firmino from increasing the Scousers’ lead. It was a bloody magnificent save. A similarly excellent save soon followed, but an offside flag had ruled out any real concerns. Kepa was at last showing that he had strong wrists.

We then started playing, and the crowd responded. A cross from Dave on the right was delicately touched forward by Abraham, but we watched as it drifted well wide. Before I knew it, it suddenly dawned on me that we were totally dominating possession and Liverpool’s attacks had almost petered out.

With twenty minutes to go, Kante collected the ball centrally. I bellowed for his team mates to move into space, to offer options, but our little prince did not require assistance. He turned into a little parcel of space, cut through with a Hazard-esque shimmy and struck a shot – almost a toe-poke, certainly no back-lift, shades of Ronaldinho at the same end in 2005 – and we watched as it floated beautifully past Adrian.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

The manager replaced Tammy with Michy.

The crowd roared and roared.

On one occasion, with what seemed like the entire crowd as one, a “Carefree” united us all and it was spine-chilling stuff.

Bollocks to VAR.

This is fucking football.

We raided again and again.

Headers from Alonso – drifting wide, losing a marker, but ultimately offside – and then from Batshuayi – just past the far post – brought hope but also agony.

Another effort from Michy, a back-to-goal flick. Wide.

But this was how football should be played. Honest, with determination, with integrity. It was becoming a pulsating match to be part of.

“Liverpool fans are dead quiet, Al.”

We hadn’t heard from them throughout the second period.

We kept coming.

There was one moment when we knocked in a ball, and Liverpool were all over the show, collectively ball-watching, hopeless.

There for the taking.

COME ON CHELSEA.

Right on ninety minutes, Alonso – who was becoming an increasingly important and involved player on the left, often a spare man, a welcome addition to our attack – played in Mount. His first-time effort was snatched and flew high over the bar.

Oh we groaned.

We begged for another goal and kept trying.

It was a fine effort, a great game.

Alas, the whistle blew.

As I filed out – “see you Wednesday” – I could not help but be touched and moved as the home support clapped the manager and players, who – along with the nearby Liverpool players – were applauding back. We were not fooled. We knew that this emerging team had given its all. We were taught a lesson in the first-half, but once we found our feet, we produced a thoroughly pleasing performance. It was beautiful to see us supporting the team despite the loss.

Well done everyone.

On the walk back to the car, there were a few conversations.

To Duncan and Lol : “Fucking hell. It comes to something when I am genuinely upset that Spurs had a perfectly good goal cancelled.”

To Louise, Denise and Stacey : “We know what Frank is doing. We’re together. We’re on the same page.”

To Mark : “VAR is killing football, mate. Seems like the TV viewers need to be entertained. But we don’t go to football to be entertained. We go to support our team. We spend our money and we travel God knows how many hours getting to games and we just want to lose ourselves watching football.”

On Wednesday night, I’ll try to lose myself once more.

Stay tuned to this channel for our game with Grimsby Town.

Cheers.

 

Tales From Two Number Nines

Chelsea vs. Valencia : 17 September 2019.

I walked to Stamford Bridge with Alan. As we turned into the West Stand forecourt, and after we had bypassed the programme sellers and after we had safely navigated the bag search, I looked up and spotted Champions League insignia adorning, as I had expected, the West Stand frontage. I took a photo with my Samsung phone and posted it on “Facebook.”

“The Champions League. Chelsea Are Back.”

I knew I’d have to linger a while and take some images with my trusty Canon EOS1300D.

“See you inside, mate.”

We had spent the previous forty-five minutes or so in “Simmons” in the company of some very good friends – mainly from London and the Home Counties – and, before that, PD and I had spent a similar period in “The Goose” with lads and lasses from mainly the West Country. We had commented to each other that we thought both pubs were quieter than usual. There was no doubt in my mind that this did not suggest a less than full house for the visit of Valencia, but rather it was an indication that such nights see increasingly fewer “regulars” in attendance. Milling around outside Stamford Bridge were, indeed, natives of many nations.

European nights at Chelsea always did attract a more cosmopolitan and diverse crowd.

I took a wide-angle shot of the stand head-on, with everything nice and symmetrical. I then noted that the evening sky was gradually changing from a solid blue. On the drive up in the car – just PD and I again – the sky had been completely devoid of clouds. It had been a cracking afternoon. And now, at around 7.15pm or so, the sky above was infused with delicate pinks.

I walked towards the Peter Osgood statue, and did my best to capture a little bit of everything.

Peter Osgood and the Chelsea flag atop the stand. Peter Osgood and the list of our trophies. Peter Osgood and a specific image of the 1971 ECWC trophy. Peter Osgood, in profile, against the early evening sky.

The King of Stamford Bridge would have loved a night like this. And it is truly sickening to think that he was taken from us at the relatively early age of fifty-nine. In comparison, Ray Wilkins and Ian Britton were sixty-two when they sadly passed. In my mind, I find this impossible to comprehend. Not only are my three favourite Chelsea players of my childhood (my some margin) no longer with us, but Ossie was taken from us at the earliest age. Of the three, he will always be the elder statesman, the most revered, the most loved, the most iconic, The King.

Fifty-nine.

It’s no age, is it?

It is only five years older than me.

A deep deep sigh.

Our time is so precious.

On some European nights, I make the point of touching one of the boots at the base of the statue. It’s not a strong superstition, sometimes I forget.

On this night, I didn’t.

Inside the stadium, it took a while to fill. Over in the away section, there were very few Valencia fans inside. They surely brought more in 2006/7, 2007/8 and 2011/12.

Ah, that season…

By kick-off time, the stadium was full to capacity. These CL group phase tickets are just £35. That’s great value, eh?

In the pub beforehand, though, Andy from Nuneaton and I had briefly touched on the demands of midweek football, especially for us that live a hundred miles or more from HQ. Sometimes, with an early start for work the following day dominating our thoughts, I just find myself wanting for the game to end and get home to get some sleep. Not so much on European nights, though. However, I will be honest; next Wednesday’s match against Grimsby Town might be one of those occasions.

The team was announced; it was the team that had started the second-half against Wolves on Saturday.

Arrizabalaga.

Christensen – Zouma – Tomori

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Willian – Abraham – Mount

This was an eight o’clock kick-off, and with a few minutes remaining, the players appeared on the TV screens, massing in the tunnel. Then, the iconic walk across the Stamford Bridge pitch, past the billowing circular black and white Champions League banner, and across to the West Stand. A slight pause, and then the Champions League anthem.

Chelsea were indeed back.

Hearing the familiar anthem, I am unashamed to admit, caused me to feel a surprisingly warm tingle. It surprised me because many see the Champions League as the epitome of the way that money has won out in this magical game of ours, and that this possibly cheesy and overly-dramatic anthem is a step too far. But it genuinely moved me. One word kept entering my thoughts.

“Barcelona.”

No European team has played us more over the past twenty years. No team has been at the centre of more drama. The anthem takes me back to 2000, to 2005, to 2009, to 2012 and to 2018, our last tie in this competition. I thought of Terry, of Iniesta, of Drogba and shuddered again.

The game began.

I turned to Alan.

“Just weird that Joaquin isn’t playing.”

It seemed that in every game against Spanish opposition not involving Barcelona featured the well-travelled winger. He played against us for Real Betis in 2005/6 and against us for Valencia in 2006/7 and in 2007/8. He even showed up at Stamford Bridge in 2015 in the colours of Fiorentina in that pre-season friendly (Marcos Alonso played too).

But no Joaquin.

Not even on the bench.

Just before the kick-off, and for a few moments, maybe twenty seconds in total, Tammy Abraham stood waiting for the whistle. He was loudly serenaded by the Stamford Bridge crowd. Wearing the famous number nine shirt that Peter Osgood wore with distinction in his two spells with the club, I wondered what was going through his mind. With seven goals to his name already this season, and fresh from his three-goal haul at Wolves, his confidence must have been pinky-blue sky high. And here he was, about to kick-off his first ever Champions League game.

What a time to be alive, Tammy Abraham.

At eight o’clock, Tammy kicked the ball towards the Matthew Harding and we were off and running.

We dominated – utterly – the first twenty minutes. The visitors – in the traditional white shirts and black shorts with the distinctive red, yellow and Batman black badge – hardly entered our half. There was early concern when Mason Mount was fouled and looked in pain. He tried his best to continue, but the foul by former Arsenal Goon Francis Coquelin proved too much. He fell to the floor again and was replaced by Pedro who took position out wide.

We dominated the play but did not create a great deal. There was a fine move down our right and a tight cross from Azpilicueta that Abraham met at the near post. We often played the diagonal to Alonso. Another quality Azpilicueta to Abraham cross amounted to nothing. We were lucky when a rare Valencia attack resulted in a low shot that was blocked by another Valencia player. We kept chipping away at them. It was Willian who managed our best efforts on goal. On the half hour, he twisted in and out of space and ran centrally and quickly but slashed a shot narrowly wide. Later, Kovacic spotted Willian’s run with a sublime ball from deep. The Brazilian chested the ball magnificently but his rushed shot was well over. There were occasions when Willian elected to pass out wide rather than shoot, but he was our main attacking threat. As the first-half drew to a close the last of his three efforts on goal produced a fine save at the near post from Jasper Cillesson in the Valencia goal.

We had most definitely dominated the first-half. Our 60% possession told that story. But Tammy had not received the best of service throughout the half. Our crosses, with a couple of exceptions, had been poor, often rushed and lazy.

I remember my games master – Mr. Ward, a Stokie who was on the books of Stoke City until a leg-break – once lambasted me, as a winger, for a lazy cross and I wondered what he meant. It soon struck home. It meant that I didn’t focus on the options, on the team mate running into space, on the best course of action. I guess that I simply looped it in. I was hurt that I was being castigated for a key part of my game but I hope I learned from it. It is a phrase that has stuck with me to this day.

At nine o’clock, the players reassembled.

Alas, as against Leicester City and Sheffield United, there was a familiar second-half story about to unravel before our eyes.

The atmosphere had been far from red hot throughout the first-half and the noise faded away during the opening moments of the second period as the away team, attacking The Shed, eased themselves more and more into the game. Everyone was sensing that we were defending deeper, and looking uncomfortable in possession. Rather than produce an invigorating and noisy backdrop in which our players would be lifted and taken to another level, we collectively sat back and became as nervous as the players.

There were only one or two occasions when we decided to get it going with our standard “COME ON CHELSEA” battle cry.

Not good enough.

Ten minutes in, a short corner resulted in a shot from Kevin – Kevin? – Gameiro flashed narrowly over from the edge of the box. On sixty-one minutes, Willian and Alonso stood over a free-kick. We were all expecting Alonso to flip the ball high and arch it over the wall. Instead, he struck a low drive which the Valencia ‘keeper scrambled away with a late dive at his left-hand post. Our chances then almost dried up. Tammy was isolated throughout the half. We rarely attacked with any cohesion. How we missed Eden Hazard down below us.

On seventy minutes, Frank Lampard bravely replaced Kurt Zouma with Olivier Giroud, switching to four at the back and paying with two upfront.

Just after, a silly challenge by Kovacic gave the visitors a free-kick from a central position. There was a smart run into space by Rodrigo and the ball was played perfectly to him. His snappy finish left us in complete silence. All ten Valencia outfield players raced over to celebrate in front of the three hundred away fans.

Our reply was immediate.

“Come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea.”

In reality, only a fine effort from Giroud – creating space and moving the ball neatly – bothered the Valencia goal. They were now defending deep and space was at a premium. Very often an outstretched leg would stop a pass from reaching its destination.

With ten minutes to go, Ross Barkley replaced Mateo Kovacic.

On eighty-three minutes, a corner from Willian was met with a leap from Fikayo Tomori. I photographed the downward header and did not cleanly see what happened next. There was an appeal for handball, although neither Alan nor I were sure.

Sections of the home crowd began shouting “VAR, VAR” and a little part of me died.

I saw JD shake his head.

After a slight delay, it was announced that VAR was in operation.

We waited.

And waited.

And waited.

No decision.

The referee then sprinted over to watch a replay, and another replay, and another replay, on a TV screen which was on some sort of contraption in front the West Stand. Evidently, a team of experts locked away in a room in Nyon in Switzerland, or somewhere, could not decide, so it was back to the referee who had been standing around ten yards from the initial incident.

Alan : “Surely, if there is any doubt whatsoever, there should be no penalty.”

Chris : “Agreed. 100%.”

After what seemed like an ice age, the referee pointed to the spot.

For the first time that I can ever remember, I did not celebrate a Chelsea penalty. I looked at Alan and our expressions mirrored the opinions of each other.

“Good grief.”

Ross Barkley took the penalty after a considerable wait. His shot clipped the top of the bar and the ball flew into the stand.

Bollocks.

It was not to be.

We don’t lose many European home games, do we?

Lazio, Besiktas, Barcelona, Internazionale, Manchester United, Basle, Atletico Madrid, PSG, Valencia.

Nine.

I have seen them all, damn it. But it is a fantastic record, eh? I alone have seen ninety-nine European games at home from 1994 to 2020. And the complete record is just nine defeats out of one hundred and twenty-two games at Stamford Bridge in all UEFA games. That’s OK with me. It is a stunning run of numbers.

But, records aside, we have done ourselves no favours and this group phase will be – now – doubly difficult to escape from.

I whispered to JD as we trudged down the Fulham Road, “Gdansk is lovely in May.”

There was talk at the start of this week that the three games against Wolves, Valencia and Liverpool will be very testing.

Liverpool is next.

See you on Sunday.

Tales From This Football Life

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 11 August 2019.

Exactly one year after our first league game of last season, we were on the road to a northern city once again. On the eleventh day of August in 2018, we assembled in Huddersfield for new manager Maurizio Sarri’s opener. That day felt like a huge step into the wide unknown, and a step outside of our comfort zone. It was meant to be intoxicating and different, with a new system, new players and a new approach. It wasn’t a bad day out at all to be honest. It was an easy win. At the end of that game though, I noted that the new manager did not walk over to us at the end of the game. I was to learn later that it was one of his many quirks and superstitions to never enter the pitch on game day.

What an odd fellow he was.

But one thing is for certain. If somebody had suggested that come the opening league game of the following season – and despite a third place finish, a domestic cup final appearance and a Europa League win – Frank Lampard would be our manager, there would have been widespread surprise and disbelief.

But this is football these days. Or, rather, this is Chelsea these days. Nothing is for certain, nothing seems constant, nothing seems ordinary.

Yes, dear reader, season 2019/20 was upon us with our beloved and admired former midfielder in charge and the general consensus within the Chelsea Nation was that it was time for the nonsense to stop. We just wanted a period of stability within the club. We wanted Frank Lampard to oversee a calm period. The transfer ban meant that for a year or so, we would have to look within ourselves – in more ways than one – and promote from our ranks. Again, the consensus was that we were OK with that, not that we had any choice.

Pre-season had been completed; seven games all told. I had managed to get to two of them; the wins in Dublin and Reading. My season opener against St. Pat’s was a full four weeks ago but it had felt like a short close season and time had soon passed.

The season was now upon us.

We were on our way.

It was going to be, inevitably, a long day on the road in support of The Great Unpredictables. I had woken one minute before my alarm clock at 7.30am – I suppose this loosely means that I was ready – and I collected PD and Glenn at 9.30am, and Parky at 10am. The first part of the journey was not devoted to football, but rather an update on various health issues that have affected the four of us, and some of our loved ones, over the summer. Thankfully, news was generally upbeat. Of the four of us inside The Chuckle Bus, I was able to report – perhaps – the healthiest news. I have been on a diet of late and am pleased with my progress.

And then we spoke about the football.

Many words were shared.

My take was this :

“Happy with the ‘keeper. Not sure about the defence, especially now that Luiz has gone. That might be a big loss. He’s experienced and a good presence. But – let’s be frank, or even Frank – if he didn’t want to fight to retain his place, then he is best away. We are over stacked in midfield. Some real talents there. Especially if Ross and Ruben step up. But our attack worries me. Not sure about either of the three central strikers. Giroud is half a striker. Michy is half a striker. Tammy is half a striker. Real worries exist.”

Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire.

There were periods of rain, periods of cloud, brief periods of sun.

Stupidly, I hadn’t packed a light rain jacket, only a thick coat from last season remained in my boot. I was horrified by my tactical naivety.

We glossed over the games so far. Typical heavy wins for City and Liverpool. A late, horrible, win for Tottenham. I hoped that Arsenal, never good travellers, might come unstuck at the day’s early game at Newcastle.

Staffordshire, Cheshire, Lancashire.

We recalled the horror show which had unfolded at West Ham; the VAR crimes on football, the frustration of ecstasy being denied, the ersatz pleasure of applauding an electronic decision, the mess of it all.

Fucking hell.

There had been delays en route, but this is nothing new on the M5 and M6. As with the previous two visits to Old Trafford, we called into The Beehive, just off junction nineteen of the M6. Waiting for us to arrive, at just gone 2pm, was my old college mate Rick, from nearby Northwich, and a long time United season ticket holder. It was a pleasure to see him once more. Since graduating in 1987 and going our separate ways, it was only the fourth time that we had seen each other, but it is always lovely to see a face from the past. We chatted about our summers, our thoughts on the immediate season, and about mutual friends from those grainy days in Stoke-on-Trent in the mid-‘eighties.

“To be honest, we were glad to see the back of Mourinho in the end.”

And we knew exactly how Rick felt.

I mentioned to Rick how the highlight of my summer was a weekend flit over to Italy three weeks ago, primarily to meet up with my oldest friend in the whole wide world Mario, who was visiting his father in the town on the Italian Riviera where I first met him in 1975. Mario has appeared within these reports over the years as an endearing token of how football can add so much to our lives through the people that we meet along the way. People are mistaken if they think that football is just about tactics, players, formations, counter-attacks, transition, blocks, presses and assists.

Football is about people. It’s about the fans. The ones we meet. The ones who provide humour and laughter. The ones who provide comfort and support. The ones that you just love meeting again and again.

It’s true with Rick. It’s true with Mario.

In Diano Marina, it was magical to step inside Mario’s family home for the first time since 1988, and to meet his father Franco – now a ridiculously healthy and busy eighty-four-year-old, but still suffering as a long time Genoa fan – for the first time since then. Since those days of my youth, I had met Mario, and stayed at his house, for the Bayer Leverkusen Champions League game in 2011, and then again in 2016 when we toured Stamford Bridge in the morning and saw Leverkusen win 1-0 against Tottenham in the evening.

What memories.

I met up with his wife Gabi, and their football-mad boys Ruben, Nelson and Valentin. They reminded me of us in 1979,1980,1981…absolutely smitten with football, the teams, the players, the history, the colours, the fans.

In Diano Marina, I walked on the section of beach where Mario and I first kicked a ball to each other in 1975, and we re-created a photograph from that summer in his father’s garden, which abuts the Mediterranean Sea, and with a ball always close by.

What memories.

And we thought of potential Champions League match-ups in 2019/20 involving Chelsea, Bayer Leverkusen (Mario and two of his sons are season ticket holders, Ruben the lone Borussia Dortmund fan) and Juventus (Mario is a long time Juve fan, he had a ticket for Heysel, it is a story told before) and we thought of return visits to London and Leverkusen.

What memories waiting to happen.

This football life is a wonderful thing, eh?

At just after 3pm, we said our goodbyes and set off in our two cars. As the driver, no beers, no Peronis, I wanted to be fresh. There were still clouds overhead. I prayed for no rain, but the forecast was gloomy.

The new A556 link road zoomed us onto the M56, and I found myself navigating the familiar Manchester Orbital once more. At about 3.45pm, we were parked up at the usual garage off Gorse Hill Park. This would be my twenty-fifth visit to Manchester United with Chelsea. In all of the previous twenty-four, I had seen us win just five games; 1985/86, 1986/87, 2004/5, 2009/10 and 2012/13.

We had whispered it among ourselves within the first hour or so of the day’s journey.

“Of course, we could get walloped here.”

There were nods, silent nods.

“Bloody hell, be happy with a draw.”

The rain was holding off. The others had light jackets, I just wore a sombre black Benetton – how ‘eighties – polo.

We were soon at Old Trafford, and the same old approach to the famous stadium. Some United fans aired a new song.

“Harry Maguire. Harry Maguire. He fucked off Leicester for Manchester. His head’s fookin’ massive.”

We dived inside pretty sharpish amid taunts of “Chelsea Rent Boys.”

There were handshakes and nods of acknowledgement with many of the travelling three thousand. I immediately sensed a noisier crowd, a far more enlivened crowd, a happier crowd. The Frank Lampard effect? Oh yes.

We heard the team.

“Mason Mount in, big game for him.”

On the way up in the car, Glenn had asked me who I would start up front.

“I’ll trust Frank, but Giroud has the experience for places like this. I’d start him.”

But it was Tammy.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Zouma – Emerson

Jorginho – Kovacic

Pedro – Mount – Barkley

Abraham

It was lovely to see Alan and Gary again. The away club was back together for another season of sunshine and smiles, rain and agony. I stopped to chat to a few in the away quadrant. Our seats were in a similar spot to last season.

Neil Barnett breezed past.

“I’m happy with the team.”

The rain was holding off. Old Trafford looked the same, apart from one or two new banners.

“Every single one of us loves Alex Ferguson.”

I chatted to JD, who had posted on Facebook earlier that he was a little underwhelmed by it all. He aired a few of my pet peeves – VAR, the farce of Baku, a support base that is full of irksome divs – and I tended to agree with him.

I commented :

“When they announced Frank as the manager, I got a proper buzz, but that seems to have worn off a bit. It’s all the other shite that goes with it.”

But JD is a good man and his humour will see him through.

As kick-off time approached, our section was full of support of the new manager but one song dominated, a song from our last visit.

“Just like London, your city is blue.”

United were back to their usual white shorts this season, but with a muted red shirt.

Our kit? You know the story. Shudder.

The game began and as usual we attacked the Stretford End. It soon dawned on me that United were doing the defending, they were letting us dominate. How different from days gone by when the midfield would be a warzone, with tackles flying in, and attacks jumping to life when advantage had been gained. United let us play. And we looked good. We played coherently with confidence. After only four of five minutes, a corner was not cleared and Tammy received the ball, spun nicely and unleashed a waist-high drive which bounced back in to play off the far post with De Gea beaten.

The away end “ooooohed.”

A Kurt Zouma error allowed Martial a shot on goal but the effort did not bother Kepa.

We were bossing the game. Barkley looked at ease. Kovacic was winning the ball and moving it on. We definitely had the advantage. A cross from Dave, a shot from Mason Mount. It was going well.

Then, on eighteen minutes, Jorginho swiped at a United attacker but play was moved on, and with Rashford advancing at pace into the box – and with me fearing the worst – a horrible lunge from Zouma gave the referee no option but to award a penalty.

Rashford struck it high past Kepa.

We were 1-0 down.

Bollocks.

We hadn’t allowed the United cheers to subside before we got behind the team, though.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

More of that all season long please.

United, strengthened in spirit and desire after the goal, now dominated for a little spell, though they did not create too much of note.

But Zouma looked at sixes and sevens. He looked clumsy and awkward, like me in front of a woman. His limbs don’t seem to be programmed correctly. The fans around me noticed it too. But we kept the support up.

“One-nil and you still don’t sing.”

It is a mystery how United have the most vociferous away support of any in the top flight yet their home games at Old Trafford tend not to fizz these days. The quietness even shocked me. I almost wanted the bastards to make some noise.

United had the ball in the net a second time though every man and woman in the stadium surely realised that the player was a few yards offside. But on came the VAR review and a huddle of sweaty nerdicians in Stockley Park got to work.

“Offside.”

Thanks for that.

I hate modern football.

Mount chose to pass rather than shoot and there was little weep of frustration. But we kept attacking. A shot from Barkley drew a messy save from De Gea and the rebound was not cleared. Jorginho’s follow-up effort was blocked for a corner. The best chance of the closing moments fell to an unmarked Emerson, who picked up a cross by Jorginho that just evaded the leap of Mount. His swipe hit the same post as Tammy’s effort in the first five minutes.

It was, clearly, one of those halves.

At the break, the mood in the camp was positive.

“How are we losing?” was a common question asked.

I certainly had few complaints, though if I was to be picky, I would look at our A to Z.

Tammy Abraham – I wanted him to move his marker more, be more cunning, be more devilish, be stronger.

Kurt Zouma – I wanted him to look more relaxed, to trust himself more, to look more at ease, to gel.

For old times’ sake, The Baku Half-Time Moaners club was revived as I chatted to Welsh Kev, though to be truthful we had little to moan about. On my way back to my seat, I stated the bloody obvious.

“Next goal is massive.”

There were no changes at the break.

Overhead, the clouds were classic Mancunian. November in August. Tupperware skies.

I commented to Alan :

“Those clouds have more rain in them and this game has more goals in it.”

The second-half began mildly, with no team dominating. Our chances were rare.

On fifty-eight minutes, Christian Pulisic replaced Ross Barkley, who had enjoyed a mixed game and was certainly starting to tire. Pulisic, from Hershey in Pennsylvania, is touted for great things. I have only seen highlights of him, I do not have the time to endlessly gorge on football, but he looks the business. If he can make that tract of land down the left wing his own in the same way that Eden Hazard did from 2012 to 2019, we will all be very happy.

Sadly, on sixty-seven minutes – and with Tammy pole-axed in United’s box – a very quick counter resulted in our defenders scampering around like chickens having glimpsed the pointed ears and bushy tail of a fox enter their coop. A cross from the right from the boot of Andreas Pereira was inch-perfect, but Dave will be unhappy that Martial reached the ball before him. He poked it past Kepa.

We were now 2-0 down.

No way back? Nah. We looked out of it.

Bollocks.

Olivier Giroud replaced Tammy.

Just a couple of minutes later, we were 3-0 down. I must admit that I missed the long pass out of defence from Paul Pogba which lead to Rashford running unhindered through our defence and poking the ball past a hapless Kepa. In the split second that my mind wandered, I found myself looking at the horrific Chelsea tattoo on the shin of a nearby supporter but don’t worry my concentration levels will increase as I get match fit. I saw the neat finish alright. Fuck it.

The United fans went doolally.

There is a problem at Old Trafford. From the curve of the away section, spectators have an unimpeded view of the home supporters down below us, especially in the paddock in front of the old main stand. Their faces were of delirium. They were bloody loving it. I felt ill.

Our little prince N’Golo Kante replaced Jorginho with twenty minutes remaining and I guess that Lampard just wanted to give him “minutes.”

Lo and behold, despite our best efforts to stem the tide and to, maybe just maybe, grab a goal ourselves, the fates contrived against us, and just after an odd moment. Jose Mourinho must’ve been spotted in a TV studio because a sizeable proportion of the United support in the nearby main stand and “Stretty” spotted him and serenaded him

“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”

Now, that was an odd sensation.

With that, United broke – supremely well – and Pogba ran and ran and ran. His cute pass to substitute Daniel James set the debutant up, though he needed two bites of the cherry.

A deflection hindered Kepa and we were 4-0 down.

Fackinell.

My mind spun.

“That’s my biggest defeat up here.”

“The biggest loss to them since the 1994 FA Cup Final.”

“Our biggest opening day loss in memory.”

But most of the Chelsea support stayed to clap the boys off. Frank Lampard approached and clapped us too. He had looked the part the entire game, suited and elegant in the technical area, although he did retire up to the seated area in the stand at 3-0.

The four of us regrouped and began the walk back to the car, up the famous forecourt, where I watched one United lad swagger across, smile wide, and bounce right into the middle of us. I half expected someone to get a clump, but there was no “afters.”

There was the usual “Hollow Hollow Hollow” and yet more “Chelsea Rent Boys” schoolyard chants. We kept together, kept our heads down, looked after each other, moving slowly out.

A few United fans, talking among themselves, said that they had been lucky to get four. I had to agree. It didn’t feel like a 4-0 throughout the match, although at the end I felt it certainly did.

Crossing the main road, I spoke about our attacking options.

“I’m not sure Frank knows who is his best striker. I hope he soon decides. If it is Tammy, then he needs time to embed himself in the team, to work with his team mates, to know when to move, to know when to go.”

The game – yes, I know it is only the first one – worried me.

“I just don’t think we’ll score enough goals this season.”

We walked past supporters’ coaches headed for North Wales, for Fife, for Devon.

In the car, we heard Frank Lampard speak intelligently, with clarity, with a little humility, with calmness.

I expected nothing less really, but it was wonderful to hear someone talk so much sense.

Stuck in traffic, I posted a selfie of the four of us in my car, smiles wide and defiant.

“Oh Chelsea We Love You.”

It ended up getting a lot of likes.

The drive home went well, maybe those tedious trips south after games at Manchester United are a thing of the past.

I was back home at 11.30pm, a little bruised, but still proud to have been at Old Trafford.

Where else would I have rather been?

Nowhere.

 

Tales From A Moral Victory

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 8 January 2019.

Not many Chelsea were saying too many positive things about this League Cup semi-final against Tottenham at Wembley. I was one of them. Just before I left work at 3pm, one of my work colleagues reminded me that I had uttered words of concern and apprehension a few hours earlier. It had been a reasonable day at work, but had become much busier with various problems snowballing in the two hours before I was set to join PD and Parky on a midweek flit to London once more. As I closed my computer down and packed up my goods and chattels, I uttered something to the effect – half-jokingly – that I’d rather stay on a few hours and get to the bottom of a few of these work issues than head up to The Smoke where Tottenham would be a very tough nut to crack.

But I left work, and grabbed a couple of items from the conveniently-located “Greggs” which sits just across a roundabout on the A350, next to “The Milk Churn” pub and a drive-thru “Starbucks” – all mod cons – and we made excellent time as PD drove to London. This was always going to be a long old evening. To that effect, I decided to take the Wednesday off work. So, as PD climbed onto the M4 at Chippenham, it felt good knowing that I would not be starved of sleep at work on the Wednesday where those problems would have required my full attention. I was even able to catch an hour of intermittent sleep. Such decadence. I awoke as PD was flying over the elevated section of the M4 just before Brentford’s new stadium came in to view.

As I came around, oddly spotting the Wembley Arch highlighted in a mid-blue, looking more Chelsea than Tottenham, “The King Of Wishful Thinking” by Go West was on Radio Two. It seemed almost appropriate, despite us heading east and then north. The game required a lot of wishful thoughts. We soon parked up at Barons Court and were soon enjoying the comfort of “The Blackbird” pub at Earl’s Court.

For an hour, we were the kings of wishful drinking.

It had taken PD a couple of minutes’ shy of two hours to cover the journey from the west of England to the west of London, possibly a personal best for these midweek trips. We were not sure where the other of the five thousand Chelsea fans would be drinking before the game. No doubt Marylebone would be the epicentre. In the pub, we ran through plans for the next run of games, but noticeably chose to ignore the evening’s game. In a nutshell, we were still hurting after the 1-3 defeat at Wembley in late November and, if anything, they have become stronger and we have become weaker.

I am sure that I was not alone in contemplating a possible heavy defeat. Involving goals, and lots of them, but let’s not be rude and mention actual numbers.

However, to be honest, an absolute shellacking has been very rare for our club for many years. In another conversation with a work colleague, I had reminded myself, from memory, that our last heavy defeat to any team in the league football was a 1-5 reverse at Anfield in the autumn of 1996. As a comparison, we have put six past Tottenham in 1997, six against Manchester City in 2007, six past Arsenal in 2014, six past Everton in 2014, not to mention sevens against a few smaller clubs and even eight on two occasions.

We have enjoyed the upper hand, in general, over many since that game at Anfield twenty-three years ago.

There were, however, these two games against the evening’s opponents :

2001/02 League Cup : Tottenham Hotspur 5 Chelsea 1

2014/15 League : Tottenham Hotspur 5 Chelsea 3

So, despite us lording it over our rivals from North London over the past three decades, they have represented two of our biggest losses within the UK in the past two decades. By the way, if I am wrong (I have not forgotten our 3-5 loss to Manchester United in 1999 – shudder), I am sure another like-minded pedant will correct me.

So, I think we were all fearful of another cricket score.

In retrospect, I needed those two pints of “Nastro Azzurro.”

At 6.30pm we caught the tube to Edgware Road, then walked to Marylebone. There were no residual drinkers at the bar outside the station. We must have been some of the last to travel to Wembley. We caught the 7.15pm train to Birmingham New Street, which would make an additional stop at Wembley Stadium.

Perfect.

We were soon at Wembley Stadium station. Again, there were very few Chelsea around. There were a few isolated Yelps from the locals.

I tut-tutted.

We walked past a few souvenir stalls. To get around counterfeit rules, there were half-and-half scarves quoting “TOTTENHA9” which I thought was quite clever (for those not au fait with the UK postal service, Wembley Stadium is in Harrow, with its HA9 postcode).

We joined the line at the away turnstiles where at last there were more Chelsea fans. My usual camera was too much of a risk again, so the phone had to do.

In the rush to get to the stadium – in the end, we were inside at 7.45pm, well ahead of the 8pm start – I had only glimpsed at the team on my ‘phone. I had focused on the lack of Olivier Giroud or Alvaro Morata in the line-up, but elsewhere Andreas Christensen was in for David Luiz, and our Callum had retained his place.

Arrizabalaga – Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger, Alonso – Kante, Jorginho, Barkley – Willian, Hazard, Hudson-Odoi

PD and Parky were down in the corner, along with Alan and Gary. I popped down to see them. I was further along, behind the goal. My mate Andy offered to swap so I could be with them. But this would be a different viewpoint – I would be in that part of the stadium for the first time – so I explained how I’d be able to take a different set of photographs during the night (though, if I am honest, I knew that the subsequent quality would not be great).

“It’s not all about the photographs, though, Andy.”

“I think it is, Chris.”

I laughed, trying not to agree with him.

I walked over to gate 113 and to my seat in row 12. There were no spectators at all in the top tier; capacity had been capped at 51,000, still a healthy figure.

The teams came on.

TOTTENHA9 vs. CHELSW6.

Unlike the game in November, we were in all blue. It looked right and it felt right too.

Bizarrely, oddly, surprisingly, we began well. To my pleasure this was met with a fantastic salvo of many different Chelsea songs, as if we were forced to prove a point to the watching world that we are not all about the Y Word. Even when “that” song was aired, it ended with a whimper of “sssssshhh” rather than anything more sinister.

Why?

Because it just was not worth it.

It was a great selection of songs and chants. I knew that the other lot would not be able to compete with our selection.

Son Heing-Min and Christensen fell against each other, but no penalty. Despite our early domination, Spurs had the best of the chances in the first quarter of an hour when there was a timid overhead kick from Harry Kane which Kepa easily claimed. At the other end, Barkley, Hudson-Odoi and Hazard tested the Tottenham ‘keeper Paulo Gazzaniga which sounded like something that Paul Gascoigne might have called himself at one stage in his odd life.

Then, with Chelsea honestly dominating and looking at ease, having quietened the home support, a long ball for Kane to attack was played out of the Spurs defence.

This always looked like a problematic moment.

This is what happened in my mind.

  1. That bloody ball is going to drop right in the correct place, right in no-man’s land, we are in trouble.
  2. I did not spot the linesman’s flag, my main focus was on the race to the ball between Kane and Kepa.
  3. Kepa’s approach was full of hesitation. I feared the worst.
  4. There seemed to be contact.
  5. I expected a penalty.
  6. But there was no immediate decision. I presumed that there had been no touch.
  7. Then it dawned on me that the dreaded VAR would be called in to decide on the penalty.
  8. It became muddied in the away end with fans talking about an offside flag.
  9. The TV screen mentioned “VAR – penalty being checked.” Bollocks.
  10. The wait.
  11. The point to the spot by referee Oliver and the roar from the home fans.
  12. The further wait for the penalty to be taken.
  13. The goal, the roar, the run and jump from Kane.
  14. The bemusement – at best – and anger – at worst – that the fans in the stadium had not seen the evidence that perhaps other had seen.
  15. I hate modern football.

I made a point of looking over to the two hundred or so Tottenham supporters closest to the Chelsea crowd to my left. After only around ten seconds of the goal being scored, there was no ribald behaviour, no shouting, no pointing, no screaming, no gesturing, no passion. This was Tottenham vs. Chelsea and their lot didn’t seem to be bothered.

Bloody hell, I hated modern football further.

However, the dynamic of the game had changed irrevocably and the first goal seemed to inspire the home team and home fans alike. Their two dirges rang around the stadium.

“Oh When The Spurs.”

“Come On You Spurs.”

Y.

As in Yawn.

We lost our verve a little. Willian was enduring a poor game, seemingly unwilling to even try to get past his man. Eden Hazard was dropping ridiculously deep. Yet again, there was no threat in the box. Crosses were dolloped towards Kante. Quite ludicrous. Thankfully it was still Chelsea who were seeing more of the ball. The home team were content to sit deeper than usual. Towards the end of the half, a low Alonso cross from the left was nudged against the base of the hear post by N’Golo Kante.

We were amazed that there were just two minutes of added time; the VAR nonsense alone seemed to take more than that. Hudson-Odoi, enjoying a surprising amount of space on the right, played the ball in and it took a deflection up from Danny Rose and was deflected up and on to the bar, with Gazza back peddling, fake tits and all.

At half-time, I had a wander and the mood in the wide Wembley concourse was positive.

“We’re doing OK.”

I then spotted a “Krispy Kreme” stand.

At football.

For fuck sake.

There were police vans lined up outside Wembley and now we had Krispy Kreme stands inside it. Modern football, eh? From the threat of sporadic hooliganism to benign consumerism; what a mixture of oddities combine to make up the modern – or post-modern, I can never be sure – football experience.

Back in my seat, the chap next to me commented that we had “out shot” them by nine efforts to two. This mirrored my thoughts on the game thus far. I was enjoying it, and this surprised me. Although it had not been a riot of noise as befitting a London derby – far from it – this game was keeping me wholly involved.

It was hugely better than the November match.

This feeling of involvement would continue as the second-half began.

Spurs’ simply played very little football in our half throughout the second period. And the Chelsea fans, though not wildly loud throughout, kept backing the players in royal blue. As the game developed, I was heading every clearance and making every tackle. There was a rare chance for Tottenham, but a shot from Kane resulted in a strong-fisted save from Kepa. But for all our share of the ball, there were far too many lazy crosses, in great positions, to the far post where there were only Tottenham defenders. It seemed that a few of our players were suffering from old habits; on reaching the goal-line, how often had they been told to clip a ball to the far post throughout their footballing career? It is a standard move. But it tended to dominate our play at times. They must have strong muscle memory because this ball was often repeated, which caused much frustration in our ranks.

But a few of our players grew in the second-half, with Hazard becoming our main hope. He dominated the ball at times. I was fascinated with how he goaded players into a mistimed tackle before moving the ball on. But it was always frustrating to see such dominance hardly muster up many golden chances. We did well to work the ball into spaces, if only we had a cutting edge.

Hazard hit one straight at Gazzaniga, Kante caused the same player to stretch out and keep the shot out.

Just before the hour, Barkley – who had started strong but was drifting – flicked on a corner towards the far post. We all switched our gaze like those courtside spectators at a tennis match and spotted Andreas Christensen, unmarked, but his clumsy effort, confusing his left leg with his right leg went begging.

Pedro replaced Willian, but despite often overloading with wing play down our right, the final killer ball would never be played the rest of the game. We did have tons of space in front of the “Chelsea Corner” and it was tough to see it not coming to any use.

On sixty-five minutes, with Chelsea totally on top and pushing them back and back, Kane went down – classic gamesmanship from their captain – and play was halted. It took the wind from our sails momentarily. The home found responded with a rousing Billy Ray Cyrus, the twats. But we were not perturbed. We came back again. The fans were well in this game. We knew that our players were putting a great show of endeavour and fight.

Mateo Kovacic replaced Barkley.

We continued to run the show, but there was one rare Tottenham break which looked like danger. It was a one-on-one, I forget the Tottenham player, but a seemingly ugly challenge by Antonio Rudiger went the other way. Free-kick to us. Answers on a postcard.

To our frustration, Hudson-Odoi was replaced Olivier Giroud with ten minutes to go. Another “answers on a postcard” moment.

Why? What? Who? When?

It made no bloody sense.

The clock ticked and I was still sure we might get a last-ditch equaliser. We still sang towards the end. Five thousand in a fifty-one thousand crowd seemed right; if only we could be allowed such a share in all games. I was surprised that Tottenham were so happy to defend deep. Were they sure that a 1-0 margin would honestly be enough?

Alas, the final whistle blew. We had – I think – deserved a draw. It was a loss, but it felt like a moral victory. On the walk out towards the train station – we would be on the last one out – it was reassuring to hear several groups of Tottenham fans saying that the 1-0 result had flattered them, that Eden Hazard was such a fantastic player and that the tie was far from over.

We made it back to Barons Court at 11.30pm and to Melksham to swap cars at 1.30am.

“Bloody enjoyed that lads. See you Saturday.”

Bizarrely, on the ten mile drive home from the Milk Churn car park, I narrowly avoided running over a badger, a cat, a fox and a rabbit.

If I had seen a cockerel, it might not have fared so well.

I was home at 2am.

It had been a good evening.

Tales From The Nightshift

Chelsea vs. Norwich City : 17 January 2018.

2.00pm : I clocked out from work, what a relief. These past few days have been as manic as I can remember. Over the road to “The Milk Churn” for a quick bite to eat and a drink with PD before the drive to Chelsea. Alas, Parky would not be joining us.

2.45pm : PD pulled out of the pub car park and set off north onto the A350 and up onto the M4. For a little while, I managed to catch some “shut-eye” – I knew that sleep would be at a premium after the game as I would need to be up at just before 5am for work on the Thursday. The spectre of extra-time and penalties loomed large.

4.30pm : PD parked his trusty Chuckle Bus on Mulgrave Road. The weather was chilly and likely to get colder still as the evening would develop.

4.40pm : Into “The Goose” on the North End Road. Two pints of “Amstel”, and work was physically one hundred miles away but in reality a thousand miles away. It was time to relax. We enjoyed a lovely time chatting to Chelsea stalwarts Wycombe Stan and Tooting Pete, about their love of the club and of their first few reminiscences of their first games. Pete’s was in January 1966, a trip to Stamford Bridge with his neighbour when he was aged ten. From that day on, he was hooked. The pub seemed quiet. We soon heard why; there were widespread delays on the London Underground.

6.00pm : Down to “Simmons Bar” towards the ground and it was even quieter. Only one mate was there, Duncan, newly-arrived after ridiculous delays en route from his home in Southend. He mentioned that Daryl, travelling in from the city, needed to divert as far north as Willesden Junction. There was talk of trains stuck on the District Line. A few late arrivals entered the little bar as the evening drew on, but the place was so quiet. Two bottles of “Peroni” and memories with Duncan of games at Old Trafford, the Baseball Ground and the Goldstone Ground in the good old ‘eighties.

7.15pm : Ah, another retro programme cover. Nice work, Chelsea. This was from 1968/1969

7.30pm : On walking up the steps to the top tier of the Matthew Harding, the PA announced a delay in the kick-off time to 8pm to allow for the tube’s later arrivals. Oh great. This had all the makings of a later night. I posted on “Facebook” to that effect :

“Kick-off delayed until 8pm. Great. This has all the hallmarks of a 0-0 after extra-time and a 16-15 win on penalties. And me getting to bed five minutes after I should be waking up. Football. I loves it.”

7.45pm : Eventually the stadium started to fill, but it took ages. Norwich were supposedly bringing 6,000 and packing The Shed, yet vast swathes were empty. Something didn’t ring true. At last the troops arrived. Alan made it in. Daryl too. There were gaps in the very top corners of the East Upper, but elsewhere the home areas looked pretty full. With games stacking-up now, this looked like a very fine effort from our club. Top marks to all.

7.50pm : Time to check the Chelsea team. It was virtually the same team that had eked out that horrific 0-0 at Norwich ten days ago, but with Ethan and Dave in place of Toni and Gary.

7.55pm : The TV screens splashed images from our history as the kick-off approached. I always find myself singing along to “Blue Is The Colour.”

8.00pm : Kick-off, better late than never. Norwich, in the end, only had around 3,000 fans. A poor effort, really. The Norfolk club must have been out of pocket on that deal.

8.06pm : Danny Drinkwater shot wide as we began well. After the lethargy of the first game, it looked like Antonio had lit a fire under a few of the players. The away fans were singing in support of their team.

“Yellows! Yellows! Yellows!”

8.09pm : Kenedy lashed in a corner from in front of the empty seats of Parkyville and David Luiz rose to head towards the goal. It bounced just past the far post, and just before a Chelsea player could touch it home.

8.10pm : A Willian shot, wide. This was indeed a fine start. After just ten minutes, we had created more than in the entirety of the first game by the banks of the Wensum.

8.12pm : A fine piece of play by Tiemoue Bakayoko brought a pleasing rally of support for our under-fire midfielder. It was nice to hear. Well done to those who chose to support him.

8.14pm : Willy Caballero seemed to mistime his attempt to clear. The Norwich City attacker could not reach the ball in time. Phew.

8.19pm : A Davide Zappacosta cross allowed Michy Batshuayi to shoot but there was a block. The Chelsea crowd were as loud as could be expected. We sung in praise of the manager, who was standing throughout the game, as ever, pointing and gesticulating at his charges. I saw no diminution of his fight and passion on this particular night. And then we seemed to take our foot off the pedal a little.

8.25pm : Alan – “Come on, move about. You’re all slower than the District Line tonight.”

8.30pm : A shot from distance from DD saw the ball crash against the underside of the bar. Howls from the home fans.

8.31pm : Oh dear Michy. Our maligned striker gave the ball away in his own half and we watched, pain-stricken, as Nelso Oliveira sent a dipping shot onto our bar. It was the away team’s first real effort. But it certainly woke them.

8.35pm : The Norwich number nine then slashed wide. The home support was getting restless.

8.50pm : Gary commented at half-time “this has got 0-0 written all over it.” On the TV screen by the toilets, I spotted Gianfranco Zola as a halftime guest on the BBC. There was the memory of his back-heeled flick against the same opposition in an FA Cup replay in around 2002 – a game I sadly missed through work – and I realised that had I stayed in my usual position at half-time (standing against the barrier by the steps near my seat) I would have been in camera shot in the distance.

9.05pm : Michy gave away a silly foul, and the frustration rose again. It annoys me how he turns into trouble rather than play an easy ball. He then so often fouls. Soon after, he was annoying us again and Alan wanted him off.

9.15pm : Down below us, Willian worked the ball well to Kenedy, who raced away and crossed into the box. Who was there, awaiting its arrival, but Michy. He touched the ball in and the place roared. Get in you bastard. I looked at Alan and gave him an old-fashioned. How Michy enjoyed that.

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9.16pm : There was a loud – “ish” – “CAREFREE” from the Matthew Harding. Positive signs.

9.20pm : Almost a calamity down at The Shed End, when Caballero and a Chelsea defender came for the ball, colliding, and the loose ball was slammed against the post by James Maddison.

9.22pm : Pedro, storming into the box, went flying and I had no idea one way or the other. The referee booked him for diving.

9.24pm : DD gave the ball away carelessly and Maddison forced a sublime save from Wily Caballero. Top marks.

9.34pm : An excellent break by Willian, fantastic feet, and the lay-off to DD should have given us a second goal. It was fired over.

9.35pm : Oh dear Michy. A woeful shot from distance.

9.37pm : A shot from Bakayoko. More applause. Good to hear.

9.39pm : The away fans were pretty quiet to be honest, but we were just about able to discern a vaguely humorous chant from The Shed :

“If we score, we’re on the pitch.”

9.41pm : Antonio replaced Michy with Alvaro Morata and Ethan Ampadu with Andreas Christensen.

9.42pm : DD was not enjoying the best of games but he did ever so well to reach the goal-line and cut the ball back for Morata to head down, but the ‘keeper Gunn scrambled the ball away. Home fans began leaving. The end was surely in sight.

9.45pm : N’Golo Kante replaced Kenedy, who had played his best game for us. A good effort. Surely we would close this out.

9.47pm : Morata, stretching, just could not provide the final touch.

9.50pm : Willian could not get the ball out of his feet, and the elusive second goal went begging.

9.51pm : Norwich kept plugging away. As a move developed down their left. We were deep into the four minutes that the referee had added. With surely only seconds remaining, we were deep in Iniesta Time. I yelled out – loudly, and in pain – “STOP THE FUCKING CROSS.”

9.52pm : We didn’t stop the fucking cross. Jamal Fucking Lewis rose and headed home off the post. Christ on a velocipede. The worst-ever scenario had happened. Another thirty minutes. Bollocks.

9.53pm : A text from Glenn, watching on TV – “FFS.”

10.00pm : So, extra-time. The rain continued to fall. There was talk of a fourth substitute if needed. I looked around and there were thousands of empty seats, like Dodger Stadium after the seventh inning stretch. I missed the start of the “third period” – too busy turning my bike around – but as I took my seat, I was aware of an injustice. It seemed that we had a penalty claim turned down and Willian had been booked, like Pedro, for simulation. Alan and I were not aware if VAR – expletives! – was being used or not. What a bloody shambles.

10.09pm : Our fourth substitute of the night was Eden, who replaced DD.

10.10pm : More positive noise and the remaining 30,000 bellowed “COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.” The team needed us now. It was great to hear.

10.12pm : Two close saves by Gunn from Willian and then Morata kept Norwich in it. It looked like they were playing for penalties and who could blame them?

10.17pm : The fourth period began. I dreaded the thought of pens – delaying our getaway further – but I did not sense that we could score. Hazard weaved his way on a few occasions but was met by a wall of yellow.

10.19pm : A handball by a Norwich City defender was waved away.

10.23pm : Morata headed weakly from a Zappa cross.

10.25pm : A silly late challenge on Hoolihan by Pedro resulted in a second yellow. What a silly man. No complaints with that. But the outlook was looking bleaker than ever.

10.29pm : Morata burst into the box right down below us and I am sure I saw Zimmerman reach up and pull across Morata’s chest, and there was a loud shout for a penalty from us. No, the referee now booked Morata for a dive. I called the referee a very very bad name and I will go to hell. Morata, who had already showed a very short fuse after being tackled with no foul being rewarded in his favour, flared up at the ref and a red card followed. Despite the protestations of Eden and Dave, the referee – EXPLETIVE – would not budge. So, down to nine men. Fuck this.

10.33pm : A header from Klose was thankfully saved by good old Wily. The whistle soon followed. I joked “I don’t care who wins now, I just want to go home.”

10.38pm : With both teams watching in the centre-circle and the Chelsea management crouching on the touchline, it all began. Thoughts of Munich? Of course. But also thoughts of our last two penalty-shootouts at Stamford Bridge. At The Shed End in 2011, a loss to Everton in the FA Cup. Before that, in 2005, a League Cup loss to Charlton at the Matthew Harding. Each Norwich penalty taker was dutifully serenaded ; “Waaaaaaanker.”

10.39pm : First up was Willian. Scored. GET IN.

10.40pm : Oliveira for Norwich. Saved. GET IN YOU FUCKING BEAUTY. NICE ONE WILY MY SON. David Luiz for us, scored, oh you beauty.

10.41pm : Maddison. Scored. Ugh.

10.42pm : Dave. Scored. YES. Vrancic. Scored. Ugh.

10.43pm : N’Golo. Scored. YES.

10.44pm : Murphy. Scored. Ugh. ONE MORE TO WIN IT.

10.45pm : Eden. A slow approach. Scored. FUCKING GET IN.

Phew. A truly mad game of football was over. Eden hugged Wily and the night was done.

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We had found a way to win, despite the knobhead referee. I felt drained. There was time for a few customary “goodbyes, see you at Brighton” and we were on our way out. I was just glad to be on my way home. My day shift had ended at 2pm. The evening shift had lasted 2pm to 10pm. We were now well-and-truly into the nightshift. As PD and I walked up the North End Road I asked him :

“Are we getting a shift bonus for this?”

11.15pm : PD set off home. I was – thank heavens – able to get an hour of sleep as he battled the rain on the M4.

12.55am : I swapped into my car in the pub car park.

1.25am : I reached home sweet home.

The magic of the cup continues in ten days. Meanwhile…”see you at Brighton.”

Tales From The Chelsea Stadium Mystery

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 10 January 2018.

If I ever needed evidence to support the notion that us Chelsea fans are gluttons for punishment, it came in the form of the “viewing figures” of my last two match reports on this site. Last week, there was a competitive away game in the league at Arsenal in which there was an incident-packed second half and a roller-coaster of emotions. On Saturday, there was an FA Cup tie – a much-maligned competition these days – at Norwich City, but the game was a true snore fest. And yet, twice as many people clicked to read the Norwich game as the Arsenal match.

You are a bloody odd bunch, aren’t you?

Next up in this ridiculously busy period – nine games in December and eight games in January – was the first-leg of our League Cup Semi-Final against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. Over the course of the two games, I did not fear them. I believed us to be the better team, no doubt. As I left the office at 2pm, a work colleague asked how I thought the game at The Bridge might go.

“7-0” I replied.

One can but dream.

PD took charge of the reigns once more and The Chuckle Bus headed east on a crisp and clear January afternoon. On the drive to London, I predicted that the retro programme theme of this season’s League Cup run would continue with a replica of the cover from the 1997/1998 season when the same two teams met at the same stage. I drifted back to that tie. In the first-leg, we were very poor at Highbury, but a late Mark Hughes goal gave us a lifeline. A week or so later, after a league defeat at Arsenal, manager Ruud Gullit was given the push. Next up was the return leg of the League Cup tie at HQ. On a very emotional night, new boss Gianluca Vialli famously assembled the players together in the dressing room before the game, poured champagne into glasses and toasted a bright future. A resounding 3-1 gubbing of Arsenal followed. It was a fantastic night at Chelsea. Back to 2018 – twenty years on, good grief – we wondered if Antonio Conte would choose our strongest team; we expected so. What would be the point of fielding two consecutive “B Teams”? Arsenal have a history of fielding youngsters in their recent League Cup history. I speculated if they would do the same in 2018. I thought back to the 5-0 thumping we gave them at Highbury in 1998/1999 when – let’s not kid ourselves – their team was very raw.

All these games against Arsenal. They are a very familiar opponent. Prior to the game, I read somewhere that this would be our one hundred and ninety-fifth game against them in our history, not including friendlies. I did some digging, and realised that it would be my sixtieth game out of that total. Almost a third. It caught me unawares. Am I that bloody old?

League – 47

FA Cup – 6

League Cup – 3

Community Shield – 3

Champions League – 1

The usual routine was followed for midweek games; drinks at both ends of the North End Road in two different hostelries. We met up with my old friend from Frome, Russ, and he mentioned the “champagne moment” from 1998. Back in 1994, we took him to his very first Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge when he was a fourteen-year-old schoolboy. It was his first game for a while and it was a pleasure to see him once more. He asked me who my player of the year was thus far.

“Good question.”

I thought for a few seconds.

“Maybe Christensen.”

PD suggested Dave.

“Yeah, good shout.”

In the pub, the team news game through.

“Strong team lads. Probably our strongest.”

The manager had gone with a 3-5-2

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Fabregas – Drinkwater – Alonso

Hazard – Morata

I spotted the odd – very odd – Arsenal favour being worn by a few folks on our walk to The Bridge. They would have around 4,000 in The Shed. We were inside at about 7.45pm for the slightly later 8pm kick-off. I was right about the programme. It did show a 1998 cover. I did my usual sweep of the balcony and its away flags and banners. One caught my eye.

“The Arsenal. This isn’t a franchise.”

What typical Arsenal pomposity and what typical Arsenal attempted one-upmanship. But think again. Not a franchise? Tell that to the people of Woolwich, where the club once played before upping sticks and relocating to North London. I have read that in terms of travel time using the mode of transport available at the time, the move from Woolwich to Highbury in 1913 was very similar to that of from Merton to Milton Keynes in 2004.

Arsenal were the MK Dons of the early twentieth century and Tottenham Hotspur have never forgotten it.

Somewhere among the 4,000 away supporters were the loons of Arsenal TV, ready to implode at any moment.

Before the kick-off, the lights faded and we were treated to another light show at Stamford Bridge. I’m in two minds about all this. It does look pretty dramatic, but it still seems like the club are trying to take over the atmosphere on our behalf. Maybe too cynical? I don’t know. Regardless, I could not resist a few photographs. From the lights of thousands of mobile phones, I was not the only one.

There were some familiar names in the Arsenal team, though not as flooded full of bona fide stars as our starting eleven. The portents were good.

As the game began, there was noise.

Thank God.

There must be a formula for the amount of noise generated at football games which includes such variants as rivalry between the two teams, geographical proximity of the two teams, number of hours available before the game for alcohol consumption, recent form of teams, the return of a formerly hated manager, the return of a formerly hated opponent, the memory of the threat of real or perceived violence off the pitch in previous years between both sets of fans, the proportion of the ticket sales given to newbies and/or tourists, the proportion of ticket sales given to loud and leery teenagers, the importance of the match, with a super-loaded quotient if the game involves Tottenham or if the game is a Champions League knock-out game.

I think that has covered it.

The “noise level” at the start continued for a while, maybe ten minutes, as the teams tested each other with small periods of possession. In the first few Chelsea attacks, Alvaro Morata looked hungry and was full of movement, no doubt wishing to atone for recent misdemeanours. One shot hit the side netting at The Shed End. That ‘orrible little runt Jack Wilshere was involved quite often for Arsenal. Eden Hazard was heavily marked, often finding three Arsenal players around him.

On twenty minutes, the best chance of the game thus far, but Lacazette – clean through after a lofted pass from Wilshere – slashed wildly over.

This was an even game.

Russ : “Typical cup tie. Cagey.”

Victor Moses cut inside his marker in front of the Goons in the West side of The Shed, but his shot was claimed by Ospina.

After an Arsenal attack was smothered down below us, Andreas Christensen did ever so well to bring the ball under his control and take a few touches. Thankfully, he did not hear the advice given to him by a fellow sitting a few rows behind me.

“Get rid of it, you c**t.”

I have to ask myself, what sort of a human being uses such language so effortlessly in his alleged “support” of a fine, young and well-liked Chelsea footballer?

I thought to myself : “only one c**t in this stadium, mate.”

The move developed and it was a joy to watch. Kante took the ball on, breaking with pace. He received it back from a team mate, and the ball was eventually played over to Marcos Alonso on the far side of the Arsenal penalty area. His low shot was not too far wide of the far post. It had been the move of the match, but sadly did not draw the applause or approval that it really merited.

Another shot from Moses and an Ospina save. This was followed by a Danny Drinkwater which was ballooned high – very high – over the bar. On this occasion, DD didn’t work wonders. This was a game itching to get going, but it remained rather one paced. Containment was the key. Space was rare. The home fans began to get behind the team again, or rather, have a dig at the away fans.

“We’ve won it all” (asterisk – apart from the World Club Championships, let’s not get too much up our own arse).

The away fans quickly countered : “You’ve bought it all.”

Yes, quite, indeed we have. Let’s call it karma for all the years – one hundred of them – when we were the fifth-best supported team in England and yet won virtually fuck all.

Our response in the Matthew Harding was typical.

“CHAMPIONSOFEUROPEYOULLNEVERSINGTHAT.”

On thirty-eight minutes, Thibaut Courtois saved so well after an Alex Iwobi shot flew at him.

Just after, a rough challenge by Moses on Iwobi was met with a minute or so of nonsense as the Arsenal fans chanted “VAR! VAR! VAR! VAR” like a load of schoolkids, referee Martin Atkinson put his hand to his ear, the game stalled and we looked on like fools.

Oh boy. The future of football. What a load of old shit.

Before we know it, “VAR” will be part and parcel of our once breathless game. There will be breaks in play. Momentum will be lost. Television companies will be wanking off advertising executives as they try to sell in-game commercial segments for those highly-profitable delays. Referees will debate questionable off sides and dodgy handballs with a bloke called Kevin in front of a TV monitor. Games will take longer to conclude. Night buses will be missed. Trains will be missed. Everyone will get home from night games that little bit later. A strange future awaits.

A header from Fabregas from a lovely cross from Dave did not bother Ospina.

Just before the break, the pass of the night from Fabregas was played into space for Eden to reach – just near the Peter Osgood penalty spot – but his heavy first touch meant that Ospina easily gathered.

So, what of the first-half? Cagey, indeed. It wasn’t necessarily a bad game, but there was a spark missing. There wasn’t the intensity of previous semi-finals.

At the break, Neil Barnett introduced a number eight for the future and a number ten of our recent past. Ross Barkley, in a Chelsea blue trackie, was introduced to the Stamford Bridge crowd. He received a good reception. Then, with a Peaky Blinders cap the size of a deflated medicine ball, Joe Cole. Lovely to see him again.

The second-half began with added intent from Chelsea, and the crowd reacted with extra noise. A Kante shot was thundered in, but was blocked by Christensen. Our young defender then got underneath a cross and headed over.

After this miss, I whispered to Russ :

“I can see this ending 0-0.”

Morata, struggling still with the physicality of the game, slammed a shot from outside the penalty area, but the Arsenal ‘keeper saved once more. He then went close from a very acute angle, the ball shaving the post. We were well on top, but chances were rare. The noise had dampened as the night grew colder. A Moses shot, another Christensen header. The game continued, with the fans around me deciding not to “bring the boys home” with an endless cacophony of noise. How different from the League Cup Semi-Final from 2015 against Liverpool – admittedly a second-leg – when there was constant and relentless noise from all stands from start to finish.

It is a constant mystery to me how our support sometimes lets us down at Stamford Bridge.

A typical example of a certain lack of intensity or concentration was typified when Alonso gave away a throw-in, but lackadaisically turned his back to the throw-in. The lad is enjoying a fine season, maybe it seems churlish to pinpoint a little negativity but it seemed a typical motif of the night’s game.

Antonio replaced DD with Willian. Our substitute rasped a shot close from distance.

Eden Hazard was replaced by Tiemoue Bakayoko and 845,649 keyboard warriors around the globe went into overdrive.

In the last five minutes or so, Michy Batshuayi replaced Morata, who just before was derided for lacking control on the touchline.

Sadly, it was Arsenal who looked the stronger in the last few moments, buoyed by their substitute Alexis Sanchez.

After ninety minutes, the referee signalled five whole minutes of added time, though I thought that the “VAR” delays should have merited more. In a nervous finale to a humdrum game, we managed to repel a couple of late Arsenal bursts.

It stayed 0-0.

Our second goal-less performance.

Our third draw in a row.

The keyboard warriors would be at it again.

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