Tales From Our Home City

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 6 August 2017.

The Football Association Community Shield. The Premier League Champions versus the F.A. Cup holders. A full house at Wembley on a sunny afternoon in the nation’s capital.

It sounds fantastic doesn’t it?

Well yes, in theory.

In practice, maybe not.

The trouble is that the Community Shield has become something of a wearisome burden these days; it’s akin to a practice run-through for a wedding or an interview for a job that you don’t really want. Or – even worse – a practice run-through for a wedding that you don’t really want. There is not much of a thrill these days. There was a certain “familiarity breeds contempt” at work here too. This would be my third consecutive Chelsea match featuring Arsenal. Never before have I seen the same opponent in three games back-to-back-to-back. This would also be my tenth Charity Shield / Community Shield in twenty-one seasons – oh, how blasé does that sound? – and, of course, it would be yet another traipse up to the new but derided Wembley Stadium. It would be – believe it or not – our seventeenth visit to Wembley in just over ten years.

So, taking all of this in to consideration, the general feeling among a sizeable section of the Chelsea support leading up to the game was of pained acceptance that this was a glorified friendly that we were almost duty bound to attend.

And yet, and yet. When I picked the Fun Boy Three up between 8am and 8.30am, I would not want to be going anywhere else. First and foremost, of course, the day would be all about seeing a few good mates once again after the summer break. A little banter, a catch-up, a gentle easing-in to the new season.

The meet was arranged for around 11.30am at “The Moon On The Mall”, a traditional and spacious London boozer on Whitehall, just a hundred yards to the south of Trafalgar Square. As I skirted the southern edge of the famous London landmark, I was taken back to my first-ever visit to London in 1972 — or rather the first I can remember – when we momentarily stopped off to see Nelson’s Column on the way back from the Tutankhamen exhibition at the British Museum. I remember being fascinated by the buildings, the tourists – the bloody pigeons – and that day came hurtling back into my consciousness. How right that we should be beginning the domestic campaign slap-bang in the middle of London; Chelsea’s home, Chelsea’s town, Chelsea’s city.

A couple of crisp lagers were quaffed and the boys chatted about the new signings, or lack thereof.

Lacoste Watch.

PD – royal blue

With it being a 2pm kick-off, we only had time for an hour’s revelry. My main agenda for the time in the pub was to not get all “China Wanker” in front of my mates. Glenn and myself did OK. We only mentioned our trip to Beijing and Shanghai fifty-three times. Good effort. Up to Marylebone, and away, the familiar twelve-minute mainline train to Wembley Stadium station. With it looking like our forced exile from the beloved Bridge would see us plot up at Wembley – post Tottenham – for three years or more, we are going to have to decide on a new routine for home games when we eventually move in as tenants in 2019 or 2020. A drink in central London before flitting up to Wembley could be the norm. It’s not as if we have a limited supply of pubs from which to choose. Watch this space.

The team news filtered through. I was surprised – but of course pleased – that Pedro had recovered from his horrible injury to start out wide. The rest of the team picked itself. New signing Morata would surely become the resident striker as the season progressed – alone or alongside Batshuayi – but for now he was on the bench.

3-4-3 it was in 2016/2017 and 3-4-3 it was for this game.

Thibaut

Dave – David – Gary

Victor – N’Golo – Cesc – Marcos

Willian – Michy – Pedro

The sun was beating down as we made the short walk up to the stadium. I noted that there was a seemingly thorough bag search taking place inside. I circumnavigated this by diving past the security. I see that – officially – cameras are banned from Wembley. I foresee a war of wits once we move in. I think I’d have a OCD breakdown if my trusty camera was not allowed inside the stadium during our tenancy.

We reached our seats high up in the south-west corner – a new part of the stadium for me – with ten minutes to spare. The Grenfell Choir were in the middle of singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and a couple of club-coloured “For Grenfell” banners were being passed along the Chelsea and Arsenal lower tiers.

Such a tragedy.

There were gaps all over at this stage, but as kick-off time approached, seats were filled. There were still some noticeable gaps at kick-off, however. So much for a sell-out.

On the referee’s whistle, the huge stadium fell silent – completely silent – in remembrance of the souls who perished in the Grenfell fire. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea was remembered in the borough of Brent. Two communities united.

The game began. There was no roar. There was no crescendo of sound. The game began with a whimper. In addition to the players trying their damnedest to attain match fitness, so were the fans. Again, we were in all blue. The white socks will debut for me next week against Burnley. But the kit looks bloody lovely. The royal blue is just perfect. We began comfortably and enjoyed a little early possession. We looked comfortable on the ball. David Luiz became our main play maker in the first quarter of an hour, knocking the ball ahead for Batshuayi, or out to Alonso and Moses. Arsenal then seemed to get a grip on the game and looked the more dominant, making advances down our right flank especially. Welbeck’s header was easily saved by Courtois, and then new signing Lacazette was allowed time to pick a corner and curl a fine effort which bounced back of the post.

One young lad, buoyed by too many lagers or too much Colombian marching powder, was constantly urging us to get involved in some community singing. He was constant. I’m sure he will come good as the season progresses, but he was in danger of peaking way too soon.

He was just too much.

“On your own mate.”

A rasping “Zigger Zagger” then took hold from a few rows below him and we all joined in.

“That’s how to do it, pal.”

The game then faded a little.

But Kante looked match fit and eager. He ate up the ground and looked the same player who cheered us so much last season. David Luiz was calmness personified. Pedro looked fit and agile. Alonso was getting plenty of space down the left. Elsewhere, there was not much. Batshuayi found it hard going. The ball does not stick to him too much, eh? As the old cliché goes, his second touch is a tackle. He needs to toughen up still. Willian was not involved. Fabregas was marginal. Moses was frustrating.

The atmosphere, as to be expected really, was dreadful. Little pockets of noise threatened to develop but we had to wait until an enforced stoppage – Mertesacker injured – for the Chelsea choir to get things together.

At last Wembley boomed.

“We’re the only team in London with a European Cup.”

We then dominated possession for the remainder of the first-half. A fantastic ball from Willian, arched diagonally across the Wembley pitch, found the darting Pedro, who took a touch before forcing Petr Cech to save.

But still there was hardly a murmur from the crowd. Chelsea were quiet and Arsenal worse.

Willian was alleged to have dived inside the Arsenal box. It took place about three miles from where I was sat. I could not tell.

Two American kiddies in the row behind were annoying the fuck out of me as the game progressed. Constant chitter-chatter. Constant opinions. I was not sure if they were Chelsea; I suspect not. At one point, one of them blurted out –

“Chelsea suck.”

The chap next to me fidgeted. I quickly turned around and glowered.

“Just remember where you are mate.”

A cushioned flick and back-header from David Luiz to Courtois drew sumptuous praise from the Chelsea hordes. It was almost the highlight of the first period.

At half-time, no goals, and not too many thrills.

Many supporters were still in the bar or the toilets when the second-half began. A corner on the far side by Willian was cleared, but only as far as Gary Cahill, who headed the ball forward. Victor Moses – arguably our poorest player until that stage, and probably still smarting from the Cup Final – was able to sweep the ball past Cech.

“GETINYOUFUCKER.”

He dived headlong onto the Wembley pitch and was mobbed by Michy and then the rest of the team.

Phew.

The goal seemed to calm us a little and we enjoyed a little spell. Kante was again in the middle of it all. He has, thank heavens, hit the ground running this season. We enjoyed a couple of chances, but then Arsenal countered. A Luiz block saved our skins.

With around a quarter of an hour to go, Antonio replaced Michy with Morata. He received a fine reception.

Substitute Walcott played a fantastic ball in to the penalty box but thankfully no Arsenal player was able to connect. It was the ball of the game. Soon after, Thibaut produced the save of the game, flinging himself high to his right and finger-tipping a long shot from Xhaka around the post. It was simply stunning.

Then, Willian surpassed Walcott and floated a fantastic ball in to the path of Morata. Sadly, it was slightly too long. A stretching Morata could only deflect the ball wide.

Ten minutes to go.

We watched as a coming together of Pedro and Elneny resulted in both players lying prostrate. We thought nothing of it. The time passed. Pedro was still down. As he rose to his feet, referee Truly Madly Deeply waved a red card at Pedro.

“Answers on a postcard.”

From the ensuing free-kick, we watched as the Chelsea defence back-peddled en masse. There was a massive sense of doom. I guess we have just watched too much football. We knew. Substitute Kolasinac rose with not a care in the world and headed in, past Courtois.

Oh fuck.

For the first time in the game – honest, honest, honest – the Arsenal end sung something that was able to be heard at our end.

Give yourselves a biscuit.

Antonio had replaced Alonso with Antonio Rudiger just prior to the sending off. He now brought on Charly Musonda for Willian. Arsenal attacked our box in the final ten minutes, but thankfully our defence held firm. A Morata header from a Fabregas free-kick flew past the post. I’m pretty sure that a goal then, late on, would have been absolutely roared. But, alas, it was not to be.

Ugh.

At the final whistle, it ended 1-1.

Penalties.

And a new format.

And plenty of Abba song titles.

I am sure plenty of computer programs, capturing all sorts of empirical data, have been run over the past few seasons with the conclusion that the team taking the second penalty are disadvantaged. And indeed I am sure it is a laudable attempt to reduce the impact of pure chance, the flick of a coin, on the outcome of penalties. But the rank and file support at Wembley Stadium were clearly not impressed.

I commented to the bloke beside me –

“If the penalties are at their end, we’ll lose. If they are at our end, we’ll win.”

They were at their end. Oh great. The sense of foreboding was palpable.

We waited.

Gary Cahill – boom, get in you beauty.

Theo Walcott – goal, bollocks.

Nacho Monreal – goal, prick.

We then collectively groaned as we saw Thibaut loitering towards the penalty spot. I remembered his penalty against PSG in Charlotte but – again – we knew. We bloody well knew.

The ball soared way over the bar.

Alvaro Morata – wide, bollocks.

Many Chelsea left.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – goal, prick.

Olivier Giroude – goal, fuck.

We had lost the Community Shield again. I have seen us play in ten and we have only won three.

We gathered our belongings and slowly shuffled out. A little post-mortem. No team was overly dominant on the day. We obviously need to make some more signings. It had been a middling performance. Definitely room for improvement. But everything is now focused on the all-important opener against Burnley and we all know it.

At Barons Court tube station, on the walk to my waiting car, I was the ultimate philosophical pragmatist.

“Hey lads, Arsenal would swap the FA Cup and the Community Shield for our League Trophy in an instant.”

The boys agreed.

I drove home, the game a fading memory.

“Good day out apart from the football.”

“As always.”

“Yep. As always.”

Let’s reconvene at Stamford Bridge on Saturday afternoon and get this season started.

As for Arsenal, they can go fourth and multiply.

IMG_8395

 

Tales From Blue Saturday

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 26 November 2016.

It all began on Saturday 1 December 1990 when the visiting Tottenham Hotspur team kicked-off at Stamford Bridge, with football in England enjoying a resurgence after the exploits of England during Italia ’90.

264584_10150299031957658_792083_n

The Tottenham side included England stars Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne – forever linked to that “have a word with him” moment at the Stadio delle Alpi semi-final against West Germany – but we had a strong side too, including Italia’90 squad members Dave Beasant and Tony Dorigo. I watched the ensuing ninety-minutes from the West Stand seats with my mate Pete, a Newcastle United supporter on his first-ever visit to Stamford Bridge. It was a cracking game, bristling with good football and played out in front of a vibrant Chelsea crowd of 33,478 which was as about as good as it got in those days. Chelsea deservedly won the game 3-2 but who would possibly guess that the same fixture would not provide an away win in the ensuing twenty-six years?

As the four of us alighted at Paddington Station at around 10.30am, there was a strong desire to see us win our seventh straight league game of a surprisingly golden autumn, but much of my focus was to just keep the run going. I just hated the thought of us losing to them, and thus ending a ridiculous show of ascendancy over our rivals from N17. In my mind, a draw would be satisfactory. Over breakfast in a diner out on Praed Street, my stand point had toughened.

“Let’s beat them.”

And Tottenham were beatable. After a disastrous defeat in Monaco, they were out of the Champions League, and were probably at a low ebb. We, on the other hand, seemed invincible.

With the kick-off some seven hours away, we had planned a pub-crawl away from the gathering legions around Stamford Bridge. We have decided that we aim to do this more frequently over the next few years. We have certainly visited virtually all of the pubs around Stamford Bridge; it is time for us to broaden our horizons. After a very enjoyable pub crawl along the Thames in September before the away game at Arsenal, we settled for a small walking tour around Covent Garden. The four of us – The Chuckle Brothers, Parky, PD, Glenn and myself – took the tube down to Embankment, and inadvertently bumped into Kim, Dan and Craig, fellow Chelsea supporters, who we knew from The Goose. They didn’t take much convincing to join us. We started off with three pints in “The Coal Hole”, alongside The Savoy Hotel on The Strand. We were joined by Andy and Wayne, from Kent, like the others. From there, a brisk walk past Covent Garden to “The White Swan”, “The Round Table” and then “The Salisbury.” The beers were flowing, as were the tears of laughter.

The game was hardly mentioned. We were too busy laughing.

img_0553

We split up, with the five lads from Kent shooting off to pick up tickets near the stadium. We grabbed a slice of pizza at Leicester Square and then caught the tube from Piccadilly Circus to South Kensington. Time for a quick drink at “The Zetland Arms” and then a cab down to Stamford Bridge. Actually, as pub crawls go – with the idea being to experience new boozers – we failed miserably; we had been to all of the pubs before. Must do better next time.

“The Chelsea Pensioner” was heaving and we weren’t allowed to enter. Not to worry. It was about 5pm. Let’s get inside. Not surprisingly, the alcohol was keeping the winter chill at bay.

With Christmas approaching, the West Stand was festooned with blue and white lights, and I have to say it looked pretty effective; a waterfall of neon greeted us as we headed off to the MH turnstiles.

We were inside with time to spare. Spurs had a few flags hanging over the balcony of The Shed. With fifteen minutes to go before kick-off, there was a buzz of excitement. For me, with each passing season, there is no bigger home game than Tottenham. I looked over at their fans and wondered how many had endured, in the same corner of the stadium, the traumatic events of 2 May.

This would be the second time that I would be seeing Tottenham play this month.

“What?” I hear you ask. Let me explain.

Back in the first week of November, I met up with my old friend Mario, who I have known since the summer of 1975, and who I have mentioned many times before in these chronicles of Chelsea Madness. Mario is a Juventus supporter from Diano Marina in Italy, but has been living in Germany for twenty years. His adopted club is Bayer Leverkusen (we watched the Bayer vs. Chelsea game in 2011 together), and he was able to get me a ticket for the Bayer game against Tottenham at Wembley. What a magnificent day we had. It was Mario’s first-ever visit to England and, after knowing him for forty-two years, it just seemed so right that the first time that I would see him in England would be at Stamford Bridge under the Peter Osgood statue. I treated Mario to a tour of Stamford Bridge, before we explored the capital’s main sights on a whirlwind tour; Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, Downing Street, Westminster, The Thames. We ended up with a cracking meal in a pub on the South Bank. And then, the odd sensation of a Champions League game in London not involving Chelsea. I hated the walk down Wembley Way from Wembley Park tube station, with the whole area covered in Tottenham favours and trinkets. I hated seeing the Spurs badge superimposed on Wembley’s façade. I just wanted to get inside, away from them all.

The game itself was hugely enjoyable. Bayer Leverkusen had the upper hand throughout and I loved the experience. They were noisily supported by around 2,500 fans; they made a fantastic din. By comparison, the home support was woeful. I can honestly say that I only ever heard two Spurs’ songs during the entire evening.

“Oh when the Spurs – go marching in…”

“Come…on…you Spurs.”

Two. That was it. Honest.

For huge periods of the match, they hardly sung at all.

Bayer’s fans were led by a capo at the front of the lower tier who orchestrated each song, using a loudspeaker and what looked like a series of hand codes.

Clenched fist – song A.

One finger – song B.

Two fingers – song C.

It was odd to be in an away section that was so different to that which we experience in England. At a Chelsea away game, there are constant murmurs of songs being started throughout the away enclosure, and once a critical point is reached, songs envelope the whole area. It’s pretty democratic and organic. Songs rise and fall. At Wembley, the Bayer fans around me did not sing at all, or at least they did not start their own songs. Once the capo began, though, they all joined in. There was an awful lot of “sha-la-la-las” and a lot of rhythmic clapping.

“SHA – LA – LA – LA – LA – LA – LA.”

“LE – VER – KU – SEN.”

I must say I preferred the English model though.

When Bayer’s Kevin Kampl slammed a goal past Hugo Loris from inside the six-yard box on sixty-five minutes, I can honestly say I went doo-lally.

Tottenham Hotspur 0 Bayer Leverkusen 1.

Oh my aching sides.

Walking back up to Wembley Park after the game with Mario was schadenfreude at its very best. The Spurs fans were silent again, except for the occasional moans about how poor they had been. I lapped it up. A wink and a smirk to Mario was enough for me.

Oh happy days, oh happy night.

The stadium filled to capacity and Stamford Bridge grew expectant.

These memories of Wembley toyed in my mind as I looked over towards them.

“Hey, Tottenham. I have a song for you. Do you know this one?”

ONE FINGER.

The team was unchanged once again. Why change it? No reason.

We were treated to the darkening of the lights and another electric storm of flashing strobes, blinding flashes and a pulsing heartbeat. It looks impressive, but I’d much prefer us to be left to our own devices, and to generate some atmosphere ourselves. Additionally, there was just enough time for a two-tiered display in The Shed just before the teams entered the pitch.

In the Upper Tier : “ONE STEP BEYOND.”

In the Lower Tier : “CHELSEA ACID HOUSE.”

This football and music crossover continues on. The staples of the English working classes.

I’m personally waiting for a Cocteau Twins banner to be flown from atop the East Stand.

At 5.30pm in deepest darkest SW6, the game began with not a seat in the house empty.

Let’s not ignore the facts. Tottenham completely bossed the first-half. I captured on film the free-kick which resulted in Spit The Dog bundling the ball in but photographic evidence backed up the linesman’s decision that he was clearly – “clearly I tell ya” – in an offside position. Tottenham then took the lead on just eleven minutes when the ball was worked to Christian Eriksen, who unleashed an unstoppable drive, with minimal back lift, past Thibaut Courtois.

They celebrated down below us. The Spurs fans roared. We had conceded our first goal since the last ice age. Fiddlesticks.

We looked lethargic in possession and lacking confidence. It came as a major shock to all of us. Spurs, in comparison, resembled the team that had – “cough, cough” – pushed Arsenal to second place in the league last year, showing a greater determination to work as a team. Our first real effort on goal was a trademark David Luiz side footed free-kick, which Loris easily gathered. In the stands, frustrations were overflowing. Our back three at times looked like a plan gone wrong. And Spurs continued to dominate. Spurs peppered our goal with shots from everywhere.

There were small – ever-so-small – signs of improvement. A Hazard shot.

“Let’s just get to half-time. Conte needs to talk to them.”

On the cusp of half-time, Matic played the ball forward to Pedro. He was around twenty-five yards out and for once was allowed time to turn. In an instant, he moved the ball out of his legs, and with no Tottenham challenge forthcoming, curled an exquisite shot past Loris and in to the goal, just inside the far post. It was not dissimilar to Diego Costa’s strike at Southampton. And the turn reminded me of Oscar’s goal against Juventus in 2012.

Anyway – “YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

Mad celebrations.

Undeserved but level at the break.

Phew.

Time to take stock, time for the manager to try to instill some confidence in the team. At this stage, I probably would have taken a point. We had been, as if I have to say it again, quite poor.

With Chelsea attacking the MH in the second-half, the crowd seemed enlivened as the game re-started. A shot from N’Golo Kante stung Loris’ hands, but the Spurs ‘keeper was not troubled.

Soon after, Eden Hazard pushed the ball on to Diego Costa, who dribbled deep, and with real skill, into the Spurs box. He slowed, then drifted past the last challenge before pushing the ball diagonally across the box. From my viewpoint, I saw it all. I saw Victor Moses rush in completely unmarked at the far post. If we were playing three at the back, Spurs must have been playing two because nobody was near him. We watched – the time seemed to stand still – as he smacked the ball goal wards. In reality, the ball struck two Spurs players on the way in, but I just waited for the net to bulge.

2-1.

The Bridge roared once again; the noise was deafening. It must have woken some of those in the adjacent Brompton Cemetery. All around me, people were bouncing with joy. The look on Alan’s face was a picture.

img_0640

Diego Costa then similarly set up Marcos Alonso, but his shot was rushed and flew high over the Tottenham bar. It felt that Chelsea were back on top, although chances were proving to be rather rare for both sides.

On sixty-three minutes, a poignant moment as the crowd applauded the memory of Chelsea fan Robert Huxley, so tragically killed in the recent Croydon tram disaster. It is a tram that Alan has used on many a day.

The game continued. No team dominated. It was a game of only half-chances, quarter-chances. Antonio Conte replaced Eden Hazard with Willian, Victor Moses with Branislav Ivanovic and Pedro with Oscar. The crowd roared the team home.

The run had continued.

Saturday 1 December 1990 to Saturday 26 November 2016.

Played : 27

Won : 18

Drawn : 9

Lost : 0

After the game, everyone was euphoric. We quickly met up with some pals outside the Ossie statue, and then some others back at “The Malt House.” No room at the inn there either. We cut our losses and headed back to Paddington. Pub number seven of the day was “The Sawyers Arms” and there was still time for a couple of rounds of shorts before the train home.

One thought kept racing through my mind. I know hate is a strong word, a horrible word really, but if Chelsea dislike Tottenham, they must fucking hate us. Our dominance continues even when we play below par. They must be truly sick of the sight of Fulham Broadway tube station, the CFCUK stall, Chubby’s Grill, the knobhead with the loudspeaker, the Oswald Stoll Buildings, Café Brazil, The Butcher’s Hook, the whole bloody stadium. And I would not have it any other way.

Another huge game awaits next Saturday; a lunch time kick-off at Manchester City.

I will see some of you there.

img_0668

Tales From A Day Of Sobriety

Hull City vs. Chelsea : 1 October 2016.

A few years ago, it was announced that the city of Kingston-Upon-Hull was to be awarded the title of UK City of Culture of 2017. This is a relatively new award, with the city of Londonderry in 2009 wining the inaugural competition. It is not to be confused with the European City of Culture, which encompassed Glasgow in 1990 (I can still remember Rab C. Nesbitt’s thoughts about that) and Liverpool in 2008. When Chelsea visited the home of Hull City during the 2013/2014 season, the natives were full of self-deprecation, chanting at us that we were only “here for the culture.” With 2017 approaching, I remained a little oblivious to the events planned for the city on the River Humber, er Hull, but presumed that events were taking shape to give the much-maligned city – once voted the UK’s most boring town –  a boost for their big year.

Then, back in the summer, a news story gathered pace over a weekend which brought the city back into the limelight. Photographer Spencer Tunick was up to his old tricks again, enticing thousands of people to assemble at daybreak on a Saturday morning in July, disrobe, and daub themselves in subtle shades of blue paint, in order for Tunick to capture several photographs around the quiet city centre. The resulting photographs were stunning.

After our recent games – two sad losses – against Liverpool and Arsenal, all eyes were on our manager and players. The pressure was on Chelsea to reshape, to re-group and to bounce back.

However, I wondered if my trip to Hull would result in Chelsea Football Club’s very own homage to Spencer Tunick.

Was the football world about to be horrified by the sight of many blue arses being exposed and solemnly embarrassed in a public place?

We hoped not. We bloody hoped not.

This was always going to be a long day. I set off early at 6am, the night still shrouding everything in darkness. I collected PD first, then Young Jake and Old Parky. We wolfed down a McBreakfast on the hoof, and then the long drive north began in earnest. The sun crashed through towering banks of cloud as I drove along the Fosse way, through the Cotswolds and its charming countryside. I was last on this famous old Roman road a mere two weeks previously, when I was tempted to Stratford-Upon- Avon to watch Frome Town play. We skirted Coventry on a new city by-pass, and we soon found ourselves on the M1. This was my fourth visit to see Chelsea play at Hull City, and there had been three victories out of three. I made great time, and the weather was exceptional. I drove into Hull, past the large and impressive Humber Bridge, at bang on 10.30am, and bang on time.

We made a bee-line for a drink in the large and impersonal Wetherspoon’s in the city centre. “The Admiral Of The Humber” would be base camp until we would leave for the game later in the day. We were last there in March 2015, and PD soon spotted a local chap who he and Parky chatted to on that occasion. Parky went over to say “hi” and he soon recognised us. He was wearing an old retro amber Hull City shirt from years ago. I am quite fond of their club colours; very effective. We chatted away to him and he told us a few home truths about the recent events at his club in recent months. It seems that discounted season tickets are no more, and everyone pays the same price, even if they are pensioners or youngsters. In fact, season tickets in general are no more. Now, everyone has to be a member, with home games having to be bought – ad infinitum – via direct debit. The club owner Assem Allam is hardly flavour of the month in Hull. His desire to rebrand Hull City as Hull Tigers caused outrage a few years back, and he continues to upset many. Steve Bruce, a decent enough manager, left during the summer, seemingly tired of the politics. The gates thus far into the new season have not reached capacity. Despite a promotion campaign last season, I sensed that all was not well.

The Hull City fan spoke about a visit of Newcastle United, when the very same pub was mobbed by visiting Geordies. They very soon started singing a song, aimed at him, based on the fact that his grey beard and glasses made him resemble an infamous person in Britain’s recent past.

“One Harold Shipman, there’s only one Harold Shipman.”

He smiled as he re-told the story of how he remonstrated with them, and how this resulted in the Geordies buying him drink after drink.

“I love that about football, the banter” he joked.

I popped out for an hour, but my little tour of the city was disrupted by a sudden downpour. The city centre seemed to be in a state of disruption, with virtually every pavement getting re-laid, presumably in preparation for 2017. I spotted a couple of colourful “bugs” on the walls of buildings and wondered if this was the Hull equivalent of Liverpool’s “Super Lamb Banana” sculptures in 2008, Bristol’s “Gromits Unleashed” in 2013 and Dundee’s current “Oor Wullie” trail. There will be a time when every city in the UK is overrun with comic sculptures and what a fine time that will be. I popped into “The Mission” – a converted building, once ecclesiastical, now a place for revelry – to get out of the rain.

No beer for me though, being the driver, and with a tiring drive home ahead of me. In fact, the superstitious part of my nature came to the fore on this day in Hull; in all of the previous domestic games this season, Chelsea were unbeaten when I had gone without a beer, whereas the two occasions when I had enjoyed a pre-match beer had resulted in losses.

I was taking one for the team.

No beers for me.

Outside the rain stopped.

Kingston-Upon-Hull was full of Saturday shoppers and it went about its way, oblivious to the two-thousand Chelsea fans that had descended upon it. I once described Hull as the UK’s unknown city and it remains so. It does not have the clout of others. It is not famous. In Elvis Costello’s famous song, the boys from the Humber did not even make the shortlist. I inwardly wished the city well in its year in the spotlight in 2017. Many might deride the decision to award Hull the title of City of Culture, but I suppose that the whole point is to use it as a stepping stone to some sort of rejuvenation to the area, to give the locals something to invoke some civic pride, and to celebrate the area’s culture, however it manifests itself. Past Everything But The Girl and The Housemartins, I was struggling to pin down some cultural reference points but I am sure there are others. Do Hull Kingston Rovers count?

Back in the boozer, the boys recounted a funny story. A few Chelsea fans had heard that some others were in a pub called the New King Edward. A six-seater taxi was booked and it pulled up outside. The six Chelsea fans piled in.

“Right, where do you want to go?”

“The New King Edward.”

The driver reversed ten yards. The pub was next door.

Ha.

The place was heaving with Chelsea now, and the large pub was reverberating with song. We watched, sadly, as Liverpool came from behind to beat Swansea 2-1.

Also in town were some Salford rugby league fans, playing at Hull KR, but we did not bump into any of them, save for one who seemed to think it would be mayhem later in the evening with three thousand Mancunians in town. We gave him a wide berth.

At about 2.15pm, we hopped into a cab outside the railway station, and were soon dropped-off right outside the renamed KCOM Stadium.

The team news had filtered through. We already knew that John Terry was out with an injury, and the news that Gary Cahill was the stand-in captain was met with a few disdainful comments. Elsewhere, Victor Moses was handed a start for the first time since the days of Rafa Benitez.

I found myself shunted further around the corner at the KCOM stadium. Back in 2007, I watched behind the goal, towards the west stand, and since then the away end has moved further east with each season. Parky, Alan, Gary and I were in row E, PD and Jake were in row B. It made a lovely change to be so close to the action. Thankfully, after hundreds of no shows at Swansea, virtually every seat was filled in the cramped away corner. And the Chelsea fans were in good voice for sure. I spotted a few patches of empty seats around the home areas, including a large block of the upper tier opposite. I like Hull’s stadium. Low on three sides, it rises dramatically on the western side. It’s a little different. I approve.

The game began, and it seemed that the home team started with a little more bite than us. Robert Snodgrass – one of the few City players I recognised – was heavily involved. Very soon into the match, it was a fine free-kick from the former Leeds United and Norwich City midfielder which forced an equally fine save from Thibaut Courtois.

For once, the home fans decided not to play the role of gobby Northerners, and their reluctance to make much noise surprised me. Maybe the malaise within the club is deeper than even I imagined. Whereas the Chelsea supporters were making some noise, we struggled to get going on the pitch. With Marcos Alonso playing in a very advanced position on the left, it gradually became apparent that Conte was playing a three at the back for the first time. David Luiz had Gary Cahill to his left and Cesar Azpilicueta to his right. On the right flank, Victor Moses was up and down like a yo-yo.

To be fair, there were no boos, nor negative noise, aimed at Gary Cahill. I approved. At a time when football clubs seem to be increasingly followed by a nerdy tribe of experts and critics, it is time for the match-goers to revert to the role of supporters, cheering the players on, and thus creating a platform for them to perform.

Chances for us were at a premium. I remembered our last visit in 2015 when we were abysmal but still eked out a win. Mbokani looked a bit of a handful up front for attack. We tried to get in to the game, but Hazard – playing a little more central than usual – was peripheral, and Moses lacked a quality final ball despite all of his resourceful forays down the far flank. But Moses was soon getting applauded by us.

A Chelsea winger who goes past defenders? Whatever next.

A Cahill shot bothered the home fans in the south stand rather than Marshall in the Hull goal.

A few half-chances, but nothing of note.

Just before the half-time whistle, Hull City broke but Courtois did well to save from Mason.

There was a fair amount of doom and gloom at the interval.

Sigh.

I commented to Gary : “Apart from coming for crosses, the Hull ‘keeper has hardly touched the ball.”

During the break, around a thousand flag-waving, blue track-suited City of Culture volunteers walked around the perimeter of the pitch. They were virtually all pensioners. A veritable army of Doreens, Normans, Norahs and Brians – we saluted them. Thankfully there was no Spencer Tunick moment on the centre-circle.

Soon into the second-half, it was easy to spot an added desire in our play. That man Conte had obviously spoken a few “bon mots” in the interlude. First Alonso threatened, and then a classic dribble, body shake, and shot from Eden brought us renewed hope. The rasping shot from Hazard was spectacularly tipped-over by Marshall.

“It’s all Chelsea, Gal.”

Then, a dynamic run by Diego Costa, out-muscling two defenders, and rounding the ‘keeper, but his firm shot hit the post. The ball fell to N’Golo Kante, but we were gobsmacked as his effort flew over.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.”

On the hour, after more Chelsea pressure. Willian worked his way into a little pocket of space inside the box and carefully curved an effort past Marshall and into the goal. It was a divine effort and one which was met with wild approval in the Chelsea quadrant.

Lovely to see the players celebrate so wildly. A hug from Willian from David Luiz.

Braziliant.

Willian dropped to his knees, pointed to the sky and no doubt silently whispered a word of dedication for his ailing mother.

More Chelsea pressure. A shot from Diego Costa. A shot from Nemanja Matic was blocked, but it fell conveniently at the feet of Costa. He automatically, without having time to doubt himself, curled the ball wide of the Hull ‘keeper. It was a pretty good copy of Willian’s goal.

Hull City 0 Chelsea 2.

Phew.

Moses, hardly similar to his aged namesake, and certainly without the need of a mobility scooter, kept racing past his foes. He had a great game. We could hardly believe that Willian was not awarded a penalty after having his legs clipped.

Victor Moses was given a fine reception, and his personal “Pigbag” song had a thorough airing, when he was replaced by Pedro. There were further appearances, off the bench, for Pedro and Nathaniel Chalobah.

When Tom Huddlestone came off the bench for the home team, Gary was soon to comment.

“Fackinell, you’ll never get past him. He’s like a barrage balloon.”

After a poor first-half, but a much better second-half, we exited the tight stands of the KCOM Stadium in good spirits.

I left the City of Culture 2017 at 6pm. The sun was soon to set. The road south seemed endless.

At Goole, we stopped off for some good honest Northern food from a chippy.

“Have we ever lost to Hull City?”

“Nah. Not in my memory.”

“Great chips.”

“Yeah, great chips.”

I reached home at 11.30pm.

It had been a good day.

Our next game is in two week’s time against Leicester City.

Do I have a beer or not? Let me think on that.

img_9883-3

Tales From The Tar Heel State

Chelsea vs. Paris St. Germain : 25 July 2015.

The very first time that I visited North Carolina, I was on a bicycle.

Let me explain.

After I left college in 1987, I wasn’t set on a clear career path, and my main desire in those days was to travel and experience different cultures. I had already criss-crossed Europe on several inter-rail marathons, but needed to expand my horizons. From May 1988 – relegation to the second division, ugh – until August 1989 I worked in the cold store of a local dairy in order to save several thousand pounds to head over to North America with my college mate Ian. We had a rough plan; east to west, ending up at my relatives in Vancouver in time for Christmas 1989. Travel would be by bus, train and bicycle. Yes, that’s correct; we planned to cycle our way around at least a part of the gargantuan continent. We had both cycled as kids, as teenagers, but I had not owned a bike since 1981 when I was sixteen.

What the hell. Cycling would be a cheap mode of transport, it would enable us to see proper America and proper Americans, and it would add a sense of adventure to our stay.

Our adventure in North America began in September 1989. We spent a week in New York, a few days in Washington DC, then bought our bicycles and our camping gear in Richmond, Virginia. After three days of cycling through that state, we crossed in to North Carolina just south of a state park in Clarkesville, where I remember cooking up some bacon and beans on our little camping stove, and sharing a joke with the resident park ranger when she explained how she came to learn that the word “fanny” in English is – ahem – slightly different to its American meaning.

We crossed the state line into North Carolina on route 15, and cycled over sixty miles through rolling countryside on small roads through little villages and towns such as Bullock, Oxford and Creedmoor, before staying the night in another state park, this time in the relatively unknown city of Raleigh.

After that, we headed further south, but our path was severely disrupted by the course of Hurricane Hugo which brought severe destruction and desolation when it hit land at Charleston, South Carolina. We were holed up in a cheap motel just off I-95 in a place called Dunn for two nights, and thankfully missed everything. After cycling further south to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, we ended up cycling 120 miles in order to get through the disaster area.

Our cycling adventure was real. We laughed at the timing of all of it.

“We buy bikes on the Saturday. A week later, a bloody hurricane strikes.”

“What a couple of schmucks.”

However, it has to be said…it was an amazing few days.

Eventually, we ended up cycling around nine hundred miles down that Eastern seaboard of those historic and at times troubled South-Eastern states. We cycled through Georgia, then reached the promised land of Florida just north of Jacksonville. It had been a tough, but magnificent three weeks.

As an aside, and with typical irony, I only saw two Chelsea games in that 1989-1990 season – just before I left for NYC in September – and therefore missed our highest-placed finish since around 1971.

I wasn’t too bothered however. My first experience of the USA – and Mexico, and Canada – more than made up for that.

Almost twenty-six years later, I was again heading south to North Carolina.

After our surprising 4-2 loss to the New York Red Bulls on the Wednesday, I caught a New York Yankees game on the Thursday afternoon – an easy 9-3 win against the Baltimore Orioles – and then set off on my mammoth ten hour drive south to the city of Charlotte and our game against our new and seemingly bitter rivals Paris St. Germain. After five hours of driving through generally busy interstates, I stopped off at a hotel in Martinsburg, West Virginia. I then pushed on, heading south-west on the glorious interstate 81 which runs parallel with the Shenandoah Valley. The views were spectacular. This was a Chelsea road trip on another level. It was slightly longer than my drive from North Carolina to Chicago in 2006 for our game against the MLS All-Stars, which topped out at around 630 miles. I did that in one session though.

This one, from Yankee Stadium, New York to Charlotte, North Carolina would be 660 miles.

Ah, the American road. For those who know me, my love of driving is clear, even on the jam-packed and bottle-necked roads of England. If there is a Chelsea match at the end of it, even better.

As I pulled off I-81 and then headed due south in to North Carolina – “hello again” – it wasn’t long before we descended down from an Appalachian ridge down into the North Carolina piedmont on I-77. The vista, looking out over thousands of acres of greenery, was stunning.

Oh happy days.

Unfortunately, my original planned arrival time in to Charlotte of around 1pm never materialised due to traffic problems leaving New York City, several delays en route, and then further congestion to the north of Charlotte, with its city centre skyscrapers tantalisingly in view.

At around 5pm, I pulled up outside my friend and fellow Chelsea fan Brian’s gorgeous house a few miles to the south of the city centre.

I had arrived.

Phew.

Brian and I go back a few years; maybe a decade. He was, in fact, one of the first – if not the very first – US based Chelsea fan that I ever emailed. As soon as it was announced that our beloved team would be playing in his home city, Brian wasted no time in inviting me to stay with him and his family for a couple of days.

Fantastic.

I met Brian’s wife Jenny, their three lovely children – all Chelsea, all going to the match – and his good friend Leo, who I had met in previous tours. Perhaps I just needed someone to talk to after being alone in my car since 8.30am (please do not tell Parky that I missed him…) that I soon wasted no time in talking about all sorts of football, Chelsea and sport-related subjects. In their huge kitchen, I gabbled away manically like some sort of fool, as I ironed a shirt to wear for the evening’s pre-game activities.

Brian, Leo : I hope it all made sense.

We soon headed in to the city through indescribably picturesque tree-lined streets, and within ten minutes, were being deposited right outside the little park which links the city centre proper and the city’s two sport stadia. The sun was glinting off the towering skyscrapers, the weather was hot, but not unbearable. It was perfect. I was buzzing yet again.

Chelsea were in town.

In the same way that I knew virtually nothing of the city of Raleigh in the autumn of 1989, I am ashamed to say that I knew little of the city of Charlotte as this summer tour approached this year. I had visited its large airport twice before, in 2004 and 2006 on visits to see my friend Roma and her family in the mountains of North Carolina to the west, but Charlotte itself was virgin territory. I mentioned to Brian and Leo that, to be truthful, Charlotte is an almost unknown American city to us over in England. I was stunned to read that it is the ninth most populous city in the US. And yet, I would suggest, people in England would be hard-pressed to say which state it is in, let alone tell of its history and character. It would be a major disappointment on this trip that I would only be in town for three days.

During the hour or so that we spent chatting in the kitchen, I was reminded that the big college rivalry within North Carolina, despite being in the football-obsessed south-east, is in the sport of college basketball. Brian smiled when I explained that I have owned, in the past, a couple of items in support of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. Their rivalry with the despised Duke is intense.

Elsewhere in Charlotte, the NFL Panthers – a relatively new franchise – and the NBA Hornets – now returned after exile in New Orleans – battle for affection. There is also a soccer (there, I said it) team called Charlotte Independence which competes at the sub MLS level.

As we walked to the little knot of pubs and bars opposite Romare Bearden Park, Charlotte looked just perfect.

This was going to be a great night.

And so it proved.

From around 7pm to midnight, and beyond, the small courtyard which hosted several bars, became increasingly full of Chelsea supporters from various parts of the United States, plus a few of us from England.

Songs, beer, handshakes, laughter, smiles, piss-taking…fun.

The Bayou City Blues from Houston and their charismatic leader Jesus.

The Chicago crew.

The ex-pats Simon and Tuna from Atlanta.

A little group from Jacksonville, Florida; kind enough to give me one of their very stylish chapter scarves.

Familiar faces everywhere.

Andy from Detroit.

Rick and Beckie from Iowa.

The Bobster from Fremont, California.

Beth. Always Beth.

Sam, Phil and Chris from Iowa.

Samantha and Larry from New Jersey.

Tim from Philly.

Charles from Texas, so thrilled at meeting Paul Canoville for the first time.

Steve from New Orleans.

Natalie from Kansas City.

Mark, David, Cathy from home.

Danny and a few of the infamous OC Hooligans.

Bobby Tambling.

Mario Melchiot.

JR from Detroit.

Pete from Florida.

Hoss from Oklahoma.

The beers were flowing. It was superb. This night was rivalling Baltimore in 2009 for the best Chelsea piss-up in the US. I dotted in and out of the packed bars, taking photographs, chatting away. It was lovely to receive a few words of genuine appreciation from many folk who I had never met who thanked me for my efforts in posting my thoughts on this website.

I was touched.

[Parky’s voice from three thousand miles away : “who by, you fucker?”]

I darted off for a pizza, and sat outside chatting with Steve from New Orleans, Robert from London and Neil Barnet. Brian and Leo called by. Chelsea talk dominated.

I dropped back over to the bar area around 1pm but people had drifted away. There were just a few left. I caught a $10 cab and headed home.

Out on the porch, until 4am, Brian, Leo, Leo’s brother Vince and I chatted away.

The Cocteau Twins played in the background.

“Heaven or Las Vegas?”

I’d take Charlotte anytime.

I slept well, from 4am to 11am, and amazingly woke without the merest hint of a hangover.

Due to the fact that I needed to keep on top of these match reports – and with three games against Arsenal, Fiorentina and Swansea City coming up in rapid succession on my return home – I spent a while writing up “New Jersey.”

It was early afternoon on game day. While others decided what Chelsea shirts to wear, I reverted to type. Brian smiled.

Lacoste Watch.

Chris – white.

Brian’s parents, with his father wearing a Chelsea away shirt from 2004-2005, a fine vintage, arrived and we set off in two cars for the local train station. On the short ride in to town – how English – the train compartment comprised of around fifteen Chelsea supporters and two PSG. This ratio was a good pointer for the rest of the day.

At around 4pm, we reappeared at the scene of devastation the previous evening. There had been reports of a little altercation earlier in the day. There had been a blue-smoked flare let off. The local police were in evidence. I again met up with the usual suspects. The notable arrivals were the New York Blues, unchained for a weekend on the loopy juice.

Mike, Frank, Lawson, Eliot, Julian – top lads one and all.

As I had a long drive ahead of me on the Sunday, my “intention” was to keep it light.

A couple of cans of “Blue Moon” later, I wasn’t so sure.

One special group of Chelsea supporters arrived at around 4.30pm.

Roma, her daughter Vanessa, hair dyed Chelsea blue especially, her son Super Shawn, plus Ness’ new boyfriend Dave and their friend Justin – who I remember as a three year old in 2004 – had driven in from their homes on the Tennessee and North Carolina border.

Just a three hour drive for them.

It was fantastic that Chelsea should be playing so close.

We waited for JR’s mother – her first Chelsea game – to arrive and then walked over to the stadium, the corporately-named Bank Of America Stadium, which is a typical NFL structure, with two tiers, and little charm.

Outside the main entrance, two statues of snarling panthers about to pounce, were the only feature which seemed to worthy of note. It was a modern and efficient stadium, but oh so bland. Thankfully the new Stamford Bridge, God-willing, will set new standards in design.

In Roman Abramovich – and his architectural design team – we trust.

As game time approached, the heat was still intense. I took respite in the dark and cavernous concourse. I walked past a merchandise store and it was unbelievably manic. Both Chelsea and PSG goods were on sale. The lines at the tills were ridiculously long. Maybe I would buy a tour T-shirt in DC. Not today. Too busy. All around me, folk in Chelsea shirts darted past me. Further evidence yet again of how our global reach has touched so many.

Again, to go back.

When I travelled up to Pittsburgh with Roma and Vanessa and a few others in 2004 – and when I printed up seven “North Carolina Blues On Tour” T-shirts, the Chelsea section was no more than 150. The gate in Pittsburgh was no more than 15,000, despite more tickets being sold, hence the 25,317 official figure. This game would be around the 60,000 mark.

Stunning.

To see so many Americans wearing Chelsea shirts blew my mind.

The PSG tagline for their tour was quite clever.

“PARIS LOVES US.”

In to the stadium and the team were going through their drills. However, as often happens, my focus was 180 degrees opposite and I observed the massed ranks of the Chelsea fans behind me. My camera clicked. I was sat just behind Bobby Tambling and his wife Val. Fantastic.

It was clear that there were many more Chelsea fans than those of PSG. There appeared not to be any specific PSG section. We were in Block 122, right behind the goal, with the New York Blues. Other supporters groups were behind me and to my left. There then seemed to be a general level – general sale, not Chelsea only – in 121, before some recognisable faces appeared in 120. This was Chelsea central then. If there were – what? – 50,000 folk favouring Chelsea in the sky-blue stadium of the Carolina Panthers, the hard core behind the goal numbered a couple of thousand.

But this is not black and white, nor even blue and white. For example, right in front of Bobby Tambling were two chaps wearing Arsenal jerseys, and one of them had “Fabregas” on the back.

Work that out.

In the stadium, other English jerseys were spotted, notably – and with no surprise – Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City. In this sky blue state, the colours of the Panthers and the Tar Heels, maybe Brian will see an upturn in City shirts.

Even in our Chelsea section, there were sporadic shouts of “PSG” during the game. More of that later.

The teams walked out on to the pitch several minutes later than intended. The US national anthem was played, people stood, caps were removed. I am not one for the bluster of nationhood, but even I joined in.

“…and the home of the brave.”

The game started around ten minutes late.

Roma and Shawn had witnessed the Chelsea and PSG game at The Bridge in March. Who would have possibly thought that we would be all here together in Charlotte only four months later? Shawn, still sporting his David Luiz locks, is one lucky boy.

Jose fielded a very strong team, though Asmir Begovic was selected ahead of Thibaut. In came Matic, in came Hazard,in came Diego.

Begovic – Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta – Mikel, Matic – Moses, Fabregas, Hazard – Diego Costa.

All eyes were on David Luiz – once a hero, now a figure of fun, but sadly booed by many in our ranks in the first-half – and also the talismanic Ibrahimovic.

Chelsea began reasonably well, but as the first-half progressed, PSG tended to enjoy more of the ball. We began probing from out wide, but a lack of quality in to the box was present. PSG, however, looked a more rounded outfit.

The Chelsea support, in pockets, rather all together, was trying their best.

After about ten minutes, with things quiet, I struck.

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

(I always try and do eight…I was counting them up…ugh…keep going son…I was smiling towards the end)

“ZIGGER”

“OI.”

(Slowing right down now…)

“ZAGGER”

“OI.”

(Phew…one last one.)

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER.”

“OI OI OI.”

My job was done.

Smiles all round.

Sadly, my endeavours were not rewarded on the pitch.

Twenty-five minutes in, Mikel sadly lost possession and Augustin snapped a fierce shot against Begovic’s right post, but to our dismay the ball rebounded to the feet of Ibrahimovic, who slammed the ball into a virtually empty net.

That hurt.

There were – bizarrely – cheers from within the Chelsea sections. I cannot explain that.

America…over to you.

Right from the offset, everything about this game seemed to be much more important and relevant than our game on Wednesday. These were two massive clubs, with a recent history of animosity.

This one counted.

Diego Costa crashed a shot against the woodwork, but our chances fell away.

Sadly, PSG continued to dominate as the first half continued on. The rest of the half will be remembered for three stunning saves – all different – from Begovic. He received resounding applause from us as he walked away at the break.

At half-time, a beer, and a cool down in the concourse.

The noise thus far had been patchy. I hoped for greater things from both players and supporters alike in the second-half. At least we would be attacking our end.

On came Courtois, Zouma, Ramires.

There had been strong challenges throughout the first-half and this continued as this tale of two cities continued. After Cesc Fabregas took too many touches, dallied and saw his shot blocked, Vanessa – who thinks Cesc is gorgeous – remarked –

“He’s always nervous around me.”

Oh, that made me smile.

Nice one Vanessa.

For a few moments, we were treated to the “Let’s Go Chelsea, Let’s Go” chant.

Awesome.

Nobody in the central core sung this.

The NYBs continued to sing a huge variety of songs, but with not many people confident enough to join them..

I sang “We Are Blue, We Are White, We Are Fackin’ Dynamite” to a sea of blank faces. For an odd few moments, there was an odd game of pinball between the two factions of support in the stadia, initiated by the other three stands I hasten to add.

“CHELSEA / PSG / CHELSEA / PSG / CHELSEA / PSG.”

A little similar to the “UNITED / SHIT / UNITED / SHIT” chant of old.

With Chelsea getting back in to the game, Fabregas picked out the movement of Victor Moses, who volleyed home from close range. There was a massive roar – GET IN! – and who says these pre-season games do not count. Victor’s somersault was spectacular. We bathed in his glory. It was magnificent.

Radamel Falcao was introduced to the proceedings and the roar was heartfelt. Chelsea grew in confidence and chased the winner. Willian, Oscar and Cuadrado entered the fray. A shot from fellow sub Loic Remy was pushed away. We roared them on. Sadly, amongst all this, the wave wrapped itself around the stadium for a few minutes.

Sigh.

This was excellent stuff, with the Chelsea fans around me full of smiles and encouragement. A few half chances were all we had to cheer, however. The last meaningful action of the game was a fine save up the other end from Courtois.

At least we didn’t lose.

Then, to all of our amazement, it was announced that there would be penalties, in a strange hark-back to the NASL days when no game ended in a tie.

“Damn, let’s take a draw and head back to the boozer” I thought.

We had a little think in our section.

Would this be our first penalty shootout since Munich?

I thought so.

I watched, calmly, and photographed the ensuing drama through my camera lens. I watched some penalties on the huge HD TV screen behind the goal.

As Cuadrado stepped up…”he’ll miss.”

Others agreed.

He missed.

Thankfully, that man Thibaut saved twice from Baheback and then, during sudden death, against Thiago Silva. Before we had time to think, we saw the tall figure, head to toe in 1987 jade, place the ball on the spot and smash the ball high into the goal.

GET FUCKING IN.

Oh boy, such a bizarre feeling, but one which was heartfelt.

We did it.

A win is a win is a win.

I sadly lost contact with Team Roma; they had to shoot off to their homes as they had to work in the morning. I slowly walked back past the post-game crowds. I was alone with my thoughts.

Rather tired, rather exhausted, my throat hurting after those rasping “Zed zeds” but supremely happy with my lot.

I bought another can of “Blue Moon” and waited for friends to arrive. I spotted Bob, then JR. The atmosphere was lovely. Charlotte had been very good to us. Then, out of nowhere, three lads from the Chelsea Fans Channel – one of whom I had met in New York on Tuesday – enticed JR and myself for a few opinions on our performance.

Here we go :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=vqCX3E4Tbcw&app=desktop

As soon as we had finished, I commented to JR “I called us schmucks. I never use that word.”

“You’ve been in New York too long.”

“Not used that expression for years. Maybe not since Hurricane Hugo.”

We returned back to a lovely restaurant under the towering central skyscrapers for a good old Carolina BBQ.

Great times.

Thank you Charlotte.

Your city, your stadium, our club.

IMG_1308

Tales From The Group Of Death

Chelsea vs. Shakhtar Donetsk : 7 November 2012.

This game was my fifty-sixth Champions League game at Stamford Bridge and there have been few which have turned out to be more dramatic. In fact, this one turned out to be one of the most dramatic home games that I have ever seen.

Well, since last Wednesday, anyway.

Parky was back in the fold again and he accompanied me on my Wednesday evening drive to the city. As part payment, he plied me with a Cornish pasty and a Coke. In return, I made sure we were safely was parked up at 6.30pm.

I have mentioned before that my mate Simon is heavily involved in the shooting of a film and he had been in touch during the week in the search for a specific prop. He was in need of an old style, pre-modern badge Chelsea pennant to hang in the front of a car. He asked a few of us if we could come up with anything. I had a rummage around. I was successful.

The pennant race was over. Inside The Goose, I handed over a rather tattered plastic pennant with wonky lettering from around 1970. I said I wanted a mention in the film credits. The filming starts on Saturday and Simon is in for a very intense four week period. The game against Shakhtar will be his last for a while. I’m not too sure what the film’s plot entails, but it stars Aiden Gillen from “The Wire.” There will be one scene to be shot inside a boozer and all of us were hoping to be involved in that, but Simon told us that the date for that particular scene was a Wednesday. The Wednesday, in fact, of the last Champions League group phase game, when we play the team from Denmark with the unpronounceable name.

So, we will miss out on being involved in the film. A shame. We’re good in pubs.

I endeavoured to make it inside for the kick-off. It was a close-run thing. A large line at the MHU turnstiles meant that I missed the teams coming out onto the pitch, but thankfully I made the start. I ran through the team and there were a few changes from our trip to Swansea. The biggest surprise was the omission of John Terry. There were only a few empty seats in the away section. It held around 1,300 Ukrainians. This far surpassed our following in Donetsk which was in the 150-250 range. I have no doubt that the 1,300 in the south-east corner were bolstered by many Ukrainians who now call London home. It is, after all, the most cosmopolitan of all European cities.

I had a quick scan of the match programme. There was a little preview of our game on November 20th in Turin when we play Juventus. Unbeknown to me, the Piedmont capital is twinned with the city of Detroit, due mainly to both cities’ links to the motor industry. Soon into the game, I received a text message from my mate Tullio in Turin to say that he had managed to secure a ticket for the match. Just as in 2009, we will be watching our two teams play against each other. I have known Tullio since 1981. More of that later.

We began like a team possessed. After only a few minutes, Oscar sent over an absolutely fantastic cross from wide on the right wing. Not only was it played with perfect depth and precision, but it even dropped right on the six yard box, making the goalkeeper Pyatov have to judge the immediate bounce of the ball. An onrushing Fernando Torres was only inches away from connecting. The keeper then failed to read a back pass and Torres charged down his poor attempted clearance. By the time the ball had crossed the line, the Stamford Bridge crowd were roaring and Fernando Torres was running down to Parkyville in wild celebration.

Get in!

It was Fernando Torres’ nineteenth Chelsea goal and – yes, here we go again – I have seen every one of them.

Alan – in a generic Slavic accent:

“They will have to come at us now.”

Chris – similarly:

“Come on my little diamonds.”

Almost immediately after, Torres broke free and almost scored a second, but his shot was parried. Crazily, Shakhtar equalised in the very next move. Fernandinho – possibly some lost relative of the gruesome twosome from Peckham – was allowed to cross from the right and a virtually unmarked Willian easily prodded home.

Game on.

There was no denying it; our visitors – wearing a bright orange and black kit – played some superb football in the first-half. Their play reminded me of our home game with Manchester City last December, when they made us look like fools in the first half. Their passing and movement was excellent. But, equally so, our defending was shocking. We gifted their playmakers far too much room and continually failed to close down the man with the ball. That’s a cardinal sin in my book. In particular, though I hate to single him out, Ryan Bertrand was continually out of position. Mistakes were being made all over the pitch though. We seemed to be half-asleep. We were sloppy.

Alan and I gave a running commentary throughout.

“Come on Ramires, that’s poor…Ivanovic, what are you doing…come on Cech, talk to your defenders…oh God, Luiz, just clear it…Ryan, watch your marker…come on boys…get in the game, Oscar…get stuck in Torres…Mata looks knackered.”

We agreed that Mikel was the one player holding firm and doing his job well.

Cech scrambled away a quickly-taken corner which caught everyone unawares. Eden Hazard found Torres, who nimbly turned on a sixpence but hit the side-netting. Teixera was narrowly wide with a low drive which zipped low past Cech’s right hand post. There was no denying it, Shakhtar were mustard.

Before the game, it was obvious that this would be a tough one. In theory, we had to win it. Of course, a lot depended on the Juventus game. If they dropped points, could we –just – afford to also? The news came through that Juve were ahead.

Porca Dio.

Oh boy. Anyone who thought that this would be an easy qualification group was wrong. This was as tough a group that I have known.

Italian Champions, Ukrainian Champions, European Champions.

Forget faltering Manchester City’s group. Here was 2012’s Group of Death.

This was a quiet and definitely nervy Stamford Bridge. We were too edgy to sing many songs. The MHL were all standing – a good sign – but there was hardly any noise. I watched with gritted teeth. I sensed that my face must’ve been a picture.

“Look at that miserable bastard.”

My face changed on forty minutes. A Mata ball was headed away by the Donetsk ‘keeper, who was under pressure from Ivanovic, of all people. The ball fell right at Oscar, but he chose not to take a touch and control the ball. He knew that the ‘keeper was stranded on the edge of his box, so he decided to act quickly. He side-swiped a volley back over the doomed ‘keeper and we all watched, amazed, as the ball flew into the net.

YES!

We could hardly believe it. It was a magnificent strike and the crowd thundered. Oscar ran towards The Shed and his delirious team mates soon joined him. I remember a similar lob from distance from the late David Rocastle in the Viktoria Zizkov game in 1994.

At the break, we knew that we were extremely lucky to be ahead. Tore Andre Flo was on the pitch at the break. We all loved him down at Chelsea, though at first he looked gangly and was unconvincing. His two goals at Real Betis in 1998 turned him into an instant Chelsea folk hero.

Well, lamentably, we were still asleep at the start of the second. A quick move by the visitors and the ball was crashed low into the box by Srna. That man Willian was there again to pounce.

2-2.

Bollocks.

With Juventus wining easily, things were looking desperate and my face mirrored the situation. Frown lines appeared and my hair grew even greyer.

For the next forty minutes, Chelsea fought to get a grip on the game. Chances were created, but the tension grew as each minute passed with no goal. Jon Obi Mikel shot over and then Shaktar countered with a long shot from distance with thudded against the base of Cech’s post. Mikel then scored, but the linesman had flagged early for offside. Ramires, after a poor first period, was back to his old self, tackling with perfect timing and balance, charging forward with gusto.

On 73 minutes, Eden Hazard – who was becoming more and more involved – sent a ball through for Ramires. His run was perfectly timed and he looked confident and strong. Just as he was about to pull the trigger he fell to the floor and we all expected the Spanish referee to blow. To our consternation, he waved play on.

I was so angry, I couldn’t speak.

I sat down and put my head in my hands.

Had I miss-read what I had just seen? Am I so blindly partisan that I immediately think that any challenge against a Chelsea player is a foul? Am I that far out-of-touch?

No. It was a penalty.

The home crowd erupted in displeasure.

Here we go again.

The game continued on and I spent a lot of my time clock-watching. It’s always the same when we are chasing the game.

“I’m surprised there’s been no subs, Al.”

We tried to engineer our way through the orange and black rear guard. The Shakhtar defence were giants. Oscar was replaced by Moses.

The quote of the night came from Alan alongside me after a Shakhtar player had stayed down too long after a Chelsea challenge.

“Get up you radioactive cnut.”

We had a lot of corners. Obi wide with a volley. Cahill over from a corner. The tension mounted. In truth, the visitors had not been so much of a threat in the second period. They were obviously happy with a share in the spoils. And yet, they had a flurry of half-chances in the very last minute as the game was agonisingly stretched. I was aging by the minute.

The referee signalled three extra minutes. I sighed once again. We would have to go Turin and win.

We were mired in third position with only five points from twelve.

Sorry, Tullio. Sorry, Mario. Needs must.

On 93 minutes, Alan rose and said “well, in light of what happened last week, I’m off. See you Sunday.”

“See you Sunday, Al.”

A few seconds later, we won a corner and the crowd roared our support. Juan Mata walked over to take it. I held my camera and centered on the action. I focussed. I saw Mata strike the ball well.

Bloody hell, that’s a great corner – that’s right on the money.

Click.

I caught the leap of Victor Moses. My photograph caught that moment in time of when the ball is but a foot away from his forehead and is on its way.

I watched as the ball crashed into the goal and the net bulged.

The net bulged.

Anyone who is into football will know that feeling.

The net bulged.

YEEEEEEEEEES! GET IN!

I was bubbling over again, but captured the resultant race of the players alongside and behind Moses as he ran towards the NE corner. One photo has Pyatov hacking the ball away disconsolately. I immediately turned back to my right and saw Alan racing back towards me, his face an absolute picture, his fist clenched.

YES!

There was a massive celebration taking place on the far side. Moses was engulfed by fellow team mates and the moment seemed to last forever.

Within seconds of the restart, the Spanish referee blew for time.

We had done it again. Bloody hell.

There was a predictable mood of euphoria as the teams left the pitch, but also one of bewilderment. Two consecutive Wednesdays, two consecutive nights of high drama, two games where goals were scored in the 94th minute.

Oh boy.

There are no doubts that the visitors were desperately unlucky not to at least draw. Over the two games, they were by far the better team. In fact, had the two games been played in the knockout phase, Chelsea would be out, since the Ukrainians scored more away goals than us.

But we kept battling, we kept going. The Chelsea of old has not been completely dismantled. For once, let’s look on the bright side. Let’s wallow in the positives. We didn’t give up. Full credit to us for that.

Liverpool – be warned.

IMG_0727

Tales From Jack City

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 3 November 2012.

A day of international travel and unintelligible road signs, of wild scenery and heavy industry, bright sunlight and then darkening skies, rainstorms, hail stones, police cars, wailing sirens, lightning and fireworks.

But, sadly, no three points for Chelsea Football Club.

During the week, I had been toying with ideas of what to do before the game. If the weather held up, I had plans to venture further west; past Swansea and on to see the beaches of the Gower peninsula. Maybe take a few photographs. I contemplated a pub lunch overlooking the sea. On these football away days, I’m always keen to try something different for a change. Last season, on the last day of January, during the death throes of Andre Villas-Boas’ reign l, Parky and I had a grand day out in Swansea. We spent an enjoyable couple of hours on The Mumbles, the bay side area just to the south of the city, before heading up to the Liberty Stadium for the game.

Initial thoughts on the Saturday were that we were in for a day of wind and rain. Sadly, it would seem that the beaches would have to wait until next season.

At 9.15am, with the weather swaying from brooding clouds one minute and bright sunshine the next, I left my home in East Somerset.

I sent a single text out to my mate Alan.

“Kerouac >>>>> Jacks.”

He replied –

“Ivor the engine.”

And so a day of Welsh accents and Welsh stereotypes, Welsh phrases and Welsh jokes began.

Depeche Mode accompanied me on my first twenty miles, but The Jam took over as I headed through Bristol. To be fair, the weather was surprisingly good. As I drove up on to the M4, the visibility was magnificent. At the crest of an incline, the twin bridges over the River Severn and the black hills of Wales were clearly visible to the west.

All was good with the world. It looked like the weather was holding out and I’d soon be in Swansea to see the European Champions.

Tidy.

Once over the river, a sign welcomed me to Wales.

“Croeso i Cymru.”

I paid the £6 bridge toll. Paul Weller was singing about bombs in Wardour Street and then tube stations at midnight. The Chelsea army was invading Wales and it felt good. I skirted the town of Newport / Casnewydd as I played a Massive Attack CD. I was happy to hear two of my favourite female singers, Elizabeth Fraser and Tracy Thorn, featured. Heading past the capital city of Cardiff / Caerdydd, the weather was still holding firm.

However, it was too late to change my plans. Instead of spending some time to the west of Swansea, I was going to spend a little time at an outlet mall to the east. At 11am, I veered off the M4 at Bridgend and did some snappy shopping. In the “Berghaus” store, I typically spotted a fellow Chelsea supporter, who sits a few yards from me in the MHU, who had similarly been tempted with some retail therapy. With two shirts plundered, I continued west.

Heading over another crest of a hill, a startling vista opened up in front of me. Away in the distance were the smoking chimneys and the ugly buildings of the Margam steel works to the immediate south of Port Talbot. Beyond, there was the broad sweep of Swansea Bay. I even spotted the lighthouse at Bracelet Bay, away in the distance, where Parky and I had enjoyed some fish and chips and a couple of pints of Grolsch in a seaside café last season.

However, there were now clouds above and the mood suddenly became gloomier.

On the long straight of the motorway which bordered the steel works, I spotted that the other carriageway was devoid of traffic. There was a police car strategically placed on a bridge. The busy road had recently been closed to vehicles. I wondered what lay ahead. As traffic slowed, I saw another police car parked on the bridge, with two police officers scrambling down the embankment.

On the paving slabs, some way from the motorway, was the body of a man. As further police cars hurtled towards the scene, sirens wailing, I wondered if I had seen a dead body for the only the second time.

“Welcome to Wales” indeed.

I hit some traffic as I approached Swansea / Abertawe city centre. I turned right at the “Swansea Jack” pub and was soon parked up.

It was 12.15am. Alan, Gary, Daryl and Rob were already enjoying a few beers in the Grand Hotel opposite the main train station. I battled against Saturday shoppers and a cold wind to join them. I had forgotten how hilly Swansea was. Terraced streets appeared to be layered one on top of the other. I had only been inside the small bar for a couple of minutes when Van Persie shot United ahead at Old Trafford against Arsenal. The game was being shown on the TV, but not many people were watching intently. Van Persie always seems to be able to hit the corners of the goals when he becomes within range. In a flight of fancy, I wondered how he would fare at the tip of our team, instead of the hit and miss Fernando Torres. Daryl reckoned with only a hint of exaggeration that he would end up with fifty goals in our team this season.

Rob was outside talking with Cathy and one of Roman’s bodyguards. A few familiar Chelsea fans drifted in and out of the bar. A few police officers entered the pub and the singing increased. One song was to dominate the day –

“We all hate Leeds and Leeds and Leeds and Leeds.”

On that matter, we were united.

We had heard on the grapevine that a few hoodlums had travelled down by train but had alighted at Neath, no doubt expecting a little altercation with the Swansea firm. I rolled my eyes to the sky. With the bar getting busier and busier, I excused myself and re-traced my steps to the car park. I needed to drive up to the stadium and locate the “free” parking space that I used in January.

As I walked down towards the white steel of the Liberty Stadium, underneath a couple of railway bridges, the first rain spots of the day fell. Nearing the stadium, a sudden burst of hailstones caused fans to rush for cover. Once inside the crowded area below the stands, I was reminded of the humorous signage which dominated the small enclosed area. This made a refreshing change. I especially liked one which simply stated “Mumbles” – with an arrow pointing outside– and “Singing” – with an arrow pointing into the stadium. And there was one which said, similarly “Beautiful Beaches. Beautiful Game.”

More of that please.

Around 200 Chelsea fans were silently staring at the closing minutes of the game from Old Trafford, like the members of some obscure sect, their faces blank, the children of the damned. Watching Manchester United and Arsenal will do that to you.

Inside the neat stadium, my eyes seemed to be drawn to the sky even though the teams were gong through their pre-match routines on the pitch. One moment, the rectangle above was a dull grey, the next it was a mixture of blue and white. At times during the afternoon, the stadium was lit up with a strange and surreal autumnal glow.

The Chelsea team was announced and the main talking points were the shuffling along of Ivanovic into the centre of the defence and the addition of Moses in place of Mata.

It wasn’t much of a game.

In fact, it was a half-hearted affair all round.

For the first time that I can remember for quite some time, I sat for the vast majority of an away game.

Swansea City are a fine team and, despite a few poor performances, the work that ex-Chelsea employee Brendan Rodgers started is being continued by Michael Laudrup.

Yes. Michael Laudrup.

I was looking forward to seeing the former Juventus player in person once again. I last saw him playing for Juventus in 1988-1989. They used to call him “Michaelino” in the city of Turin. And there he was, over to my right, sitting on the Swansea bench, just beyond the suave figure of Robbie Di Matteo who was patrolling the technical area.

From Turin to Swansea.

It is the exact opposite journey which ex-Juventus legend John Charles made all those years ago.

Swansea had the best of the opening twenty minutes and certainly fancied their chances down our left, where Ashley Cole was coming under attack from the raiding Swansea players and the supporters in that noisy corner section alike. Eventually, we got into the game, but struggled to do much with the ball. Our passing should have been aided by the slick Welsh turf, but our play was rather laboured.

The home supporters, especially the couple of thousand to my left, were roaring the home team on. On the occasions where they sung the quasi-Welsh national anthem “Land of my Fathers”, the stadium rocked to its foundations. I have a feeling that the upward slope of the roof greatly aided the acoustics. I’ll be honest. It was a bloody noise. Well done Swansea.

The Leeds United chant echoed around the away end. In fact, at times, with Swansea in their trim all-white kit, it felt like we could easily have been playing Leeds.

Hernandez and Michu caused us a few problems but Petr Cech’s goal wasn’t really threatened. A Torres header, weak and at the reserve ‘keeper Tremmel, was our most notable effort of a poor opening period. As the first-half continued, the Chelsea fans became quieter and quieter.

At the break, we all knew we hadn’t been playing well.

Ramires replaced the rather one-dimensional Romeu at the break and our little Brazilian certainly energised the midfield. We watched eagerly as Torres twisted one way and then the other and then picked out Victor Moses, quiet until then, with a fine chip. Unfortunately, our new signing headed over. Swansea then came into the game again and our defence was tested.

After a decision went against them, the Swansea supporters sang a ditty which I honestly haven’t heard, let alone during a game, for years and years.

“How’s your father?
How’s your father?
How’s your father, referee?
You haven’t got one.
You never had one.
You’re a bastard, referee.”

That made me chuckle.

On the hour, a free-kick from Hazard was turned around the post for a corner. Oscar, wearing a pair of royal blue gloves to the consternation of Gary, clipped in a ball which found the head of Gary Cahill. The ball flew goal wards, but Victor Moses was able to glance it in at the far post after reacting very quickly.

YES!

I caught the immediate aftermath of the goal on camera. I was right behind the goal, merely twenty yards away.

The turn and sprint towards us, the slide, the scorer beaming at us in the away enclosure, the sliding Gary Cahill, Cahill jumping on his back, the arrival of the ecstatic Torres and Ivanovic, then Ramires and Mikel, then the other players all joining in.

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

Photographs from the frontline.

Swansea countered again, aided by the nimble and gifted substitute Nathan Dyer. The manager replaced Moses with Daniel Sturridge, who hugged the right touchline for the remainder of the game. In the closing twenty minutes, the rain turned heavy and then the sky filled with hailstones.

It was quite an apocalyptic scene. The ice filled the air and turned it white. Chelsea were now under attack. Ryan Bertrand replaced Oscar. Alas, with just three minutes remaining, a fine move down the Swansea right resulted in Hernandez having the calmness of mind to slot the ball past an unsighted Cech.

The Swansea hordes boomed and “Land of my Fathers” shook the place to its foundations.

Oh boy.

We didn’t deserve anything more than a draw. After the two tumultuous games against Manchester United, we never really set the right tempo against Swansea. Too many players underperformed. There was a collective responsibility in the team’s deficiencies. Even us fans seemed subdued.

We were all, clearly, under the weather.

I bade my farewells to Alan and Gary – “see you Wednesday” – and prepared myself for the wintry scene outside. On the ten minute walk back to my car, through the car park, over the roundabout and up the hill, the hail continued to fall. Footstep after footstep was met with the crunch of ice underfoot. In all of my years of supporting Chelsea in person, all nine hundred and twelve games, I don’t think I’d every encountered such a wretched walk back to a waiting car. I truly pitied the poor souls who faced a thirty minute walk back to the train station.

Despite being stuck in traffic for a while, I eventually pulled away and soon found myself heading east. The hail had turned to torrential rain. Oh fun, fun, fun. As I drove past Port Talbot, the array of lights at the steel works cut into the night. The plumes of smoke still billowed heavenwards. Then, the explosion of light as several lightning flashes lit up the entire sky. This was turning out to be some day in deepest, darkest South Wales. To add to the drama, fireworks – ahead of Monday’s Firework night – lit up the sky too. I found the driving to be rather tiring, but I wanted to get home. No coffee stops, no respite.

I got the cheapest of thrills as my headlights lit up a road sign.

“Welcome to England.”

I was in no mood to listen to the football on the radio. Music accompanied me on the two and a quarter hour journey back to Somerset. It was only as I was nearing my end destination that I flicked on “Five Live.” There was a small amount of consolation in the fact that Spurs had lost at home to Wigan and that Manchester City had only drew at West Ham. United’s win meant that we had slipped down to second place, but we are still conveniently placed.

On Wednesday, we have a must-win game against Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League. On Sunday, we meet Liverpool at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League.

These are the days, my friend.

IMG_0617

Tales From Wigan In The Rain

Wigan Athletic vs. Chelsea : 19 August 2012.

Our pre-season was behind us. Chelsea obviously struggled over the six games, winning just the first one against Seattle Sounders. A draw against PSG was followed by defeats against the MLS All-Stars, Milan, Brighton and Manchester City. My pre-season involved the long, wondrous, descent from the heights of Munich-based euphoria to preparations for the US Tour and even for Tokyo in December. The US Tour brought new players, but my focus was on meeting friends and enjoying the craic. The football was a sideshow. However, I felt a rapid increase in my enthusiasm immediately before and then after the Community Shield match. My mind was all geared up for another assault on silverware, another campaign of tortuous journeys around England and Wales and the familiar way in which the club takes over my life from August to May each year. Of course, it has always been like this. Once August kicks off, every Chelsea game counts. From the wretched days of the Second Division in February 1983 to the Champions League Finals of May 2008 and May 2012, every game matters. There was a part of me, however, that toyed with the idea of discontinuing my match reports after Munich; how could any story beat that one? After four years of “Tales” – and well over half a million words – I began to wonder if I would be able to continue. From a personal level, it was the hardest part of my pre-season. Should I stop or should I press on regardless?

Well, here I am.

My Saturday was the perfect pre-cursor to my drive north on the Sunday. I juggled doing some chores throughout the day with three football incursions. When I’m at home, I never miss the BBC’s lunchtime preview show “Football Focus.” Typically, we were hardly mentioned, but my biggest complaint was the way in which the host and the two guests meekly dismissed the importance of the shocking decision by Cardiff City’s new Malaysian owners to change the team’s primary colours from blue to red. Imagine if Roman’s first move as Chelsea chairman was to kit us out in red? I would have been apoplectic.

Mark Lawrensen’s reaction was “if the team starts winning, it won’t be a problem.”

I am sure Cardiff’s hardcore don’t share this opinion.

I find it quite shocking for so-called “experts” to pontificate on subjects on which they appear clueless. The TV world is full of them. No – I’ll amend that statement. The world is full of them.

On Saturday afternoon, I paid my first visit of the season to watch my local team Frome Town play pre-season favourites AFC Totton, who hail from down near Southampton. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Frome’s team was full of new players and went 1-0 down not long into the game. However, two knock-ins from close range gave The Robins a 2-1 lead at the break. A superb goal mid-way through the second-half wrapped-up the points, despite a Frome player getting sent off. I went to nine games last season and virtually all were pretty dire. I just saw Frome win once. This game was better than all of them. It was a lovely afternoon, watching under a perfect sky with a few school mates. During the game, talk drifted around all sorts of subjects, as they always do at Frome Town. I mentioned that the Chelsea game on the Sunday at Wigan would be my 900th game. Talk turned to the next milestone; my 1,000th game. I have promised myself a nice celebration for that game, which will hopefully be at HQ. In fact, I wondered if I would be tempted to engineer a home game rather than a tiring trip up north.

“Chris – going to Everton on Saturday?”

“Uh – no.”

“Why’s that, mate?”

“Didn’t fancy it – see you the following Wednesday against Juventus.”

What a lovely array of results on the opening day of the Premiership season too; defeats for Tottenham and Liverpool, an embarrassing home defeat for QPR and no goals for Arsenal. My Saturday was completed when I watched the highlights from all of these games on “Match of the Day” in the evening. Watching “MOTD” on a Saturday night just seems the perfect way to end the day.

I should know. I’ve been doing it since 1972.

I awoke on the Sunday with my head full of plans for the day ahead. Unfortunately, Parky wasn’t accompanying me on my drive north. At 8.45am, I set off for Wigan. The weather was murky outside. I had prepared for the worst; it may be August, but rain was predicted in Lancashire.

Without Parky sitting alongside, my mind was left to wander. Rather than concentrating on new players and new formations, I set off on a train of thought which saw me loosely planning away trips for later in the autumn.

I quickly chose the music for the first hour’s travel; New Order’s 2001 album “Get Ready.”

Pretty apt.

Next up were Stiff Little Fingers and then The Style Council. The rain started to fall as I passed Stoke-on-Trent but the traffic was flowing well. The 200 miles from Somerset to Lancashire took me three-and-a-half hours. It was a pretty relaxing time. The music was helping me kick back and relax.

Don’t Worry About A Thing.

I looked down at the passenger seat and spotted that the ticket for the day’s game was just £20. The low price amazed me. It had cost me £10 to see Frome Town play the day before.

Just twenty quid to see Chelsea play? Get in.

Surprisingly, I hadn’t seen a single Chelsea car on my solitary drive north. As I slowly edged along the last few miles of my journey, I spotted a Sunday football match taking place to my left. Young mothers pushed prams and teenagers darted in and out of the rain against a back-drop of typical red-brick terraced houses. It did not seem feasible that the European Champions were due to play less than a mile away in an hour’s time. It seemed that the town of Wigan was turning its back on us.

I parked-up and soon spotted four friends from Yate, just outside Bristol, making their way to the DW Stadium. Tim was wearing the classic British summer combo of shorts with rain jacket. The weather was horrible; it was muggy and still raining. I had to wear a rain jacket and baseball cap to defeat the elements.

This was my ninth straight visit to Wigan’s neat, but rather bland stadium; eight in the league, one in the F.A. Cup. It seems that we either play them on our very first game of the season (2005 and 2012), our first away game (2008 and 2010) or in the depths of winter. This is probably just as well; by the time April and May come around, the pitch seems to be pretty ropey, since Wigan Warriors play rugby league on the pitch, too. With four previous trips to Wigan already described in these match reports – including a history of Northern Soul, rugby league and Wigan’s often-lampooned support – there was nowhere else to go. However, I have myself to blame; in all of these trips to Wigan, I have never ever ventured into the town centre since the easily-accessible stadium is on the western approach to the town.

One day I’ll make it.

Despite my 900th game, there were no celebratory alcoholic drinks for me. I made my way into the steep stand, set to house over 4,500 travelling supporters. It didn’t take long for Alan and Gary to arrive. Alan handed me my QPR ticket.

Wigan – £20.
QPR – £55.

Pah.

I quickly popped down to chat with Gill and Graeme in the front row. Gill and I agreed that, since Munich, nothing – really – matters any more.

“We’ve seen the best Gill. Whatever happens, happens. It doesn’t matter. It’s all good.”

And this has long been my approach; enjoy the moment, enjoy the journey, support the team, rally the troops, savour every last fcuking second of it.

As with every trip to Wigan, the match DJ was spinning some quality soul classics during the pre-match kick-in. The team was announced with Ryan Bertrand included on the left, with Eden Hazard moving over to the right to replace the missing Ramires.

Our 2012-2013 began with the massed ranks in the north stand reminding the world of Chelsea Football Club’s amazing achievement of the previous campaign.

“Campiones, campiones, ole, ole, ole.”

“We are the Champions, the Champions of Europe.”

My pre-season had put me in good stead; my voice was roaring with deep resonance. All that croakiness in New York had toughened me up.

As the singing continued, a delightful turn on a sixpence from Eden Hazard was followed by a fine through ball for Branislav Ivanovic to take in his stride. A touch to his right and then a low drive at the near post, similar to Ramires’ effort in the F.A. Cup Final.

1-0 to the European Champions and not even two minutes had passed.

I roared and turned towards an equally exuberant Alan. As one, we blurted out –

“They’ll have to come at us now. Come on my little diamonds.”

Within five more minutes, we were 2-0 up. Eden Hazard was manhandled, not once but twice, in the box and Frank Lampard struck from the resultant penalty. It wasn’t a brilliant kick; far too close to the diving Al Habsi, but Frank rarely misses.

Phew.

The Chelsea support roared the team on and the Wigan fans looked crestfallen.

In truth, we didn’t really threaten the Wigan goal on many more occasions in the first-half. Wigan themselves proved to be the more aggressive. They certainly had the better of the second quarter. Old Chelsea boy Franco di Santo – their player of the year last season – had numerous heading duels with Ivanovic, going close with one effort. On 37 minutes, Chelsea target Victor Moses cut inside and unleashed a flashing shot which zipped across the box, but Petr Cech managed to deflect it for a corner.

Nice to hear a song for the hero of Munich.

“Didier Drogba – tra la la la la.”

He now joins the ranks of previous players who have songs sung about them at games, along with Dennis Wise, Peter Osgood, Gianfranco Zola, Tommy Baldwin and – er – Robert Fleck.

The Chelsea choir then turned our attention to a possible new signing –

“We’ll see you next week. We’ll see you next week. Victor Moses – we’ll see you next week.”

Classic.

Wigan’s pressure continued and a failed block by David Luiz set up di Santo, but he seemed to take an extra touch as he bore in on goal. Petr Cech was able to narrow the angles, spread his body and block. It is, actually, a trademark move from Big Pete. He is still a fantastic ‘keeper.

There was consistent fouling from the home team during the first-half, but Luiz was the first to be booked. I thought Mikel did well in the first period; breaking up play, but then keeping possession, unlike at Villa Park the previous week. Wigan’s Shaun Maloney looked lively. In truth, he is just the sort of player that I am always drawn to.

Small, waif-like, a dribble here, a body swerve there.

Did someone mention Pat Nevin?

At half-time, I descended into the concourse below the seats and was hit by a wall of heat. It was like a sauna. Beers were being consumed, songs were being sung. The Munich honeymoon, halted previously, was back in full flow.

Soon into the second half, the song of the afternoon was aired for the first time. It hinted at the infamous song in Genk, but now flourished with new words and new meaning.

“We know what we are.
We know what we are.
European Champions.
We know what we are.”

Oh, how I loved that. We sang it clearly. We sang it magnificently, with perfect cadence and diction.

Good work, troops.

Two chances came and went. An Ashley Cole effort was ballooned high and wide. Then, Fernando Torres ran onto a lovely ball, but appeared to be tugged from behind just as he poked out a toe to send the ball goal wards beyond the on-rushing Al Habsi. We begged the ball to cross the line, but a towering Wigan defender recovered to kick the ball away. Torres lay distraught in the box for a few seconds, but we immediately rewarded him with instant acclaim.

“Torres! Torres! Torres! Torres!”

The new boy Oscar replaced Eden Hazard; God, he looks young. Not long into the game, Torres ably set up our new Brazilian with a fine cushioned header into his path. Oscar struck the ball early, but the low drive was narrowly wide. For the rest of the game, he struggled, but we’ll give him time.

Ryan Bertrand – despite his Munich appearance, he hardly featured in many fans’ starting XIs over the pre-season – grew in confidence as the game progressed. He hardly put a foot wrong. His performance was one of the plus points from the game.

In truth, we faded fast in the last quarter and Wigan looked the better team again. Ivanovic, especially, seemed to be caught out of position on a few occasions. We had a few nice moves, but it would have been no surprise to me if Wigan had scored in the closing minutes. In the end, we hung on.

Poor Wigan. They really must hate us. Apart from their 3-1 win in September 2009, they always give us a hard game and yet usually end up with nothing. All of these away games – all nine of them since 2005 – are starting to blend into one.

I got soaked on the fifteen minute march back to the car. I was soon on the M6, listening to The Smiths, then The Killers, then Depeche Mode. At Stafford, the clouds cleared and the sun appeared. Over a section of a few miles, the M6 took me right into the heart of the English countryside, with bales of hay neatly stacked in one field, sheep grazing in another. It was an idyllic agrarian landscape. It was as if the motorway had played tricks on me and had escorted me back to the mid eighteenth century. The rest of the drive south was very enjoyable. The sun brought out the best of the late summer evening.

Back home in Somerset, it was still shining as I pulled into my drive at 7.45pm.

IMG_9711