Tales From The Villa And The Vine

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 16 October 2022.

It was a relatively late start for me. The 8am alarm sounded and I then collected the Gruesome Twosome by 9.30am. All three of us had chosen black tops – Fred Perry, Ben Sherman, Robe di Kappa – and as we stopped in Melksham for the first McBreakfast for absolutely ages we looked like the senior members of some “ultra” battalion.

Kinda.

Milan was still dominating my thoughts when I woke and over the first hour or so of the journey up to Birmingham. This is often the case, eh? The thrill of a European trip is difficult to forget easily. I soon told PD “I will be honest; I am trying my best but I am finding it hard to get up for this game. It’s a bloody good job I am not playing.”

I stopped for a coffee at Frankley Services on the M5 and I was soon turning off at West Bromwich.

To my right, the angled floodlights at The Hawthorns were easily spotted – “one of only three grounds where Chelsea have won the league, lads” – and the sighting of the stadium from half-a-mile away brought back immediate memories of Milan. On the elevated A4, approaching the end of our journey last Tuesday morning, I was keeping my eye out for the San Siro roof which I knew was a few miles to my right, to the south. Lo and behold, despite the grey and hazy view, I found it relatively easy to catch the ridiculously huge roof beams appearing in a void between some rooftops.

My heart jumped in Milan. But my heart jumped in West Bromwich too as I quickly remembered one of the finest nights of recent memory.

I dropped the lads off about a five-minute walk from the away turnstiles at Villa Park but then turned around and drove three-quarters of a mile north to my usual parking spot for Villa at Perry Barr. On the mile-long walk south, I noted that the horrible walkway – an underpass and a footbridge over the busy A34 – was no more, thus cutting a few valuable minutes off my approach to Villa Park. “The Crown & Cushion”, where we enjoyed a very boozy pre-match before the 2002 FA Cup semi-final, had been razed to the ground a few years back.

There were no real pre-game plans on this occasion. There aren’t too many pubs to the north of Villa Park and beers aren’t served in the away end.

This always was going to be a quick smash and grab raid against Aston Villa.

There is red brick everywhere on the way to the stadium. The terraced houses on Willmore Road where I parked for maybe the tenth time in a row, Perry Barr Methodist Church, the houses on Aston Lane, the Aston pub, the old tramway building and then of course the surrounds of Villa Park itself. Alas, the old Trinity Road stand with ornate gables was demolished in around 2000, but its design features are mirrored in the huge Holte End at the southern side of Villa Park. These days the only terrace in town is the steps which lead up from Witton Lane to the base of the Holte End. These steps are speckled with deep claret railings. Squint and it almost feels like an old-style football terrace.

I needed to wait a while to pass over a spare ticket.

I made it in at 2.02pm.

Phew.

The sun was beating down. My God it was hot. My choice of a black wool pullover seemed rather ridiculous. I sidled in alongside Gal, John and Parksorius.

The team? I tried to work it all out. With Reece James out, we wondered who Graham Potter would play at right wing-back if he decided to choose that system. We wondered about Ruben Loftus-Cheek. As I peered out into the bright sun, I attempted to piece it all together.

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Cucarella

Sterling – Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – Chilwell

Havertz – Mount

Aubameyang

I think.

Before I had time to ponder it all, Tyrone Mings headed a cross from Ben Chilwell up rather than away, and Mason Mount, lurking centrally, was able to pounce. He adroitly touched the ball past Emilio Martinez. Luckily enough, my camera captured it all.

Aston Villa 0 Chelsea 1.

A dream start, eh?

I looked around at Villa Park. It is a really fine stadium. It has been modernised but it still feels like an old ground because the four stands are reasonably different. The oldest current stand at the north end of the ground may not last too long though. There are plans to bulldoze it and build afresh with an even larger two-tiered structure in its place. An acquaintance, who lives nearby, had evidentially been invited in for a hospitality gig in the North Stand. He sent over a ‘photo of former Villa players Tony Morley and Kenny Swain who were in one of the lounges and were now hosting some guests. These two players had taken part in Villa’s European Cup triumph against Bayern Munich in 1982.

Ah that year again.

On Saturday 16 October 1982 – forty-years ago to the very day – Chelsea lost 0-3 at Ewood Park against Blackburn Rovers. The gate was a paltry 6,062. It was that bad that Alan Mayes made his first appearance of the season.

There is no punchline.

I was really happy with our start. In addition to the early goal, we were moving the ball well and the whole approach to attacking seemed to hark back to a more free-spirited time. We were looking to attack in a variety of ways.

Long and short. Over the top. Sideways into space.

And despite my ambivalence on the way up, I was absolutely enjoying this game. I was on it and hopefully not likely to fall off.

But then, imperceptibly, the home team grew into the game and for the rest of the first-half we were second best. There were defensive errors – Cucarella was the main culprit but even Silva on occasion – as Villa ran at our retreating backline.

A cross from the Villa left resulted in a melee at the back post. A header crashed against the top of the bar.

Kepa had already been involved before we were treated to three magnificent saves during the same move as Villa peppered our goal. The second one, especially – down low – was magnificent. The third save, in the end, did not matter as an offside flag was raised.

Regardless, our ‘keeper was cheered loudly by the Chelsea contingent.

“He’s magic, you know.”

An errant pass from the poor Aubameyang let in Danny Ings. Kepa was equal to a strong shot, pushing it away for a corner.

The best was yet to come. On the half-hour, Ings headed at goal from close in and I absolutely expected a goal, the equaliser. From right underneath the cross-bar, the Spanish ‘keeper managed to claw it out. I always cite a Carlo Cudicini save at Tottenham as the best save that I have ever seen by a Chelsea ‘keeper but this might well have beaten it.

I was in absolute awe.

“He’s better than fuckin’ Thibaut.”

We had spotted that Loftus-Cheek was now asked to deploy the right wing-back berth with Sterling further forward. Mount withdrew deeper. Both players then initiated a fine move, our first for a while. Loftus-Cheek strode out of defence and passed to Mount. The ball was moved on. A strong run from the previously quiet Kai Havertz was followed by a pass to Raheem Sterling.

“Curl the fucker.”

Curl it he did, but the ball smacked the bar.

Ugh.

At the break, we all knew that we had rodden our luck.

“Getting roasted here Gal. On and off the pitch.”

Potter reacted with some substitutions.

Kalidou Koulibaly for the battle-weary Cucarella.

Dave for the weak Havertz.

The team was re-jigged.

We were soon treated to a John Terry-style chest pass from the current “shirt 26 wearer” Koulibaly. I am sure that I wasn’t the only one who noticed JT’s trademark resurfacing.

The Chelsea crowd were giving the Villa manager some Ba-llistic pain with a certain song from 2014 being repeated again and again. This was followed up with a chant that was also aired in Milan last week.

“Just like London, your city is blue.”

Now, I can concede that Internazionale might well have a claim to “own” the Italian city. But I wasn’t having Birmingham City being the top dogs in our Second City.

I turned to Gal : “Maybe they are including West Brom too, a joint bid.”

Chances were shared at each end.

Further changes ensued.

Conor Gallagher for a quiet Aubameyang.

Jorginho for Kovacic,

“Kovacic has run about today but he hasn’t done too much, Gal.”

On sixty-six minutes, a run into space by Mount resulted in a foul by Mings the merciless.

“I fancy this, Gal.”

Mount sized it all up. His dipping free-kick was perfection personified.

Goal.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Aston Villa 0 Chelsea 2.

Phew.

Steven Gerrard was again getting it in the neck.

“You’re getting sacked in the morning…”

On the right wing, down below us, Gallagher mirrored the current government with a quick U-turn to free himself of his marker. A fine searching cross found the head of Sterling but his downward header bounced past the near post.

In the last minute, one last sub.

Armando Broja for Sterling.

I fancied us to score another to rub salt in the wound, but it stayed at two.

Phew.

I’ll say it again.

Phew.

“That’s five wins in a row now, John.”

“Four clean sheets too.”

“Unbeaten in six.”

“Off to a great start, Potter, eh?”

Mason Mount, with his first two goals of the season, took the eye, but Kepa – surely – was our star man. Without him, we could have been 3-1 down at the break. Conor Gallagher injected some energy and movement when he came on. Thiago Silva was excellent. Kalidou Koulibaly looked like the footballer that we thought we had purchased rather than a mistake waiting to happen. I liked Ruben Loftus-Cheek too; steady, though I am not sure that when he runs with the ball he is deceptively fast or deceptively slow. The negatives were Cucarella, Havertz and Aubameyang.

On the walk back to the car, PD mentioned the now missing underpass by the A34 as being the location of an almighty ambush by some Villa lads after the mad 2-2 draw on the last day of the season in 1990/91.

As is so often the case, we called in at “The Vine” at West Bromwich for an early-evening curry. PD enjoyed his Lamb Madras. Parky and I had the same dish, Manchurian Chicken. All very tasty, all immediately served within five minutes of ordering. I was just surprised that Michelle, Dane and Frances didn’t show up.

Please come back into the top flight West Brom so we have another excuse to stop off.

It was a decent drive home.

I was back inside at about 8pm.

Next up, our sixth game of nine in October is on Wednesday at Brentford.

I will see some of the lucky ones there.

Outside

Inside

Tales From Boxing Day 1996 And Boxing Day 2021

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 26 December 2021.

We don’t always play on Boxing Day, but when we do it’s usually at Stamford Bridge. However, for once this was going to be a rare trip to the Midlands for this particular festive fixture and that suited me. Sometimes Boxing Day fixtures at Stamford Bridge, especially the dreaded early kick-offs, can be eerily quiet affairs.

Back when I was younger, attending Boxing Day football was fraught with logistical problems. I didn’t see my first Boxing Day Chelsea game until as late as 1992 when, at last with a car to drive, I made my way up from deepest Somerset to see us play Southampton at home.

Since then, I haven’t attended every Boxing Day game; most but not all.

However, the game at Villa Park on Boxing Day 2021 would only be the fourth away game out of twenty Boxing Day fixtures that I would have watched. The league computer certainly favours us to play at Stamford Bridge on this most traditional of footballing days. We missed out on an away game at Arsenal last year; and that was probably just as well.

I set off at around 9.15am but instead of heading off to collect PD, Glenn and Parky, I was headed due south for half an hour to collect Donna in Wincanton, a town in Somerset that I rarely visit. I fuelled up, then drove through Bruton and I soon realised that unless we play Yeovil Town in the FA Cup it’s unlikely that I would ever take this road to see Chelsea ever again. It was mightily heavy with fog as I crept past the Wincanton Race Course, opening up for its annual Boxing Day Meet. I collected Donna at 10am, then made a bee-line for Frome. I’ve known Donna for a while – I spent some time with her and some other friends in Porto in May – but even though I had seen her at various Chelsea games over the past ten years or so, I only found out from Parky that Wincanton was her home relatively recently.

Donna’s first ever Chelsea game was a pre-season fixture against Bristol City in 1995 just after Ruud Gullit signed for us. I remember that I eagerly travelled down to Devon to see us play Torquay United and Plymouth Argyle during the week before the game in Bristol on the Sunday. Supporters of our club that were not around in the summer of 1995 will, I think, struggle to comprehend the excitement that surrounded the Gullit signing. It absolutely thrilled us all. We both remembered it as a swelteringly hot day – we drew 1-1 – and Donna reminded me that for a long period during the pre-match “kick in”, our new Dutch superstar wandered around the pitch talking on his mobile phone. It just felt that only he would ever be allowed such a privilege.

Twenty-six years ago and a Chelsea pre-season tour in the West of England.

I can’t see that ever happening again, eh?

The first Chelsea away game that I attended on a Boxing Day was at Villa Park too; in 1996/97, a nice 2-0 win, two goals from Gianfranco Zola , and I even won some money on him as the first scorer. Our lovely “1997 FA Cup Final” season was just gaining momentum and times were good, now with a team including Gianluca Vialli, Gianfranco Zola and with Ruud Gullit now as the player-manager. The greatest of times? It absolutely felt like it.

Only the previous April we had assembled at Villa Park for an ultimately agonising FA Cup semi-final with Manchester United; the memory of walking back to my parking spot amidst a sea of United fans haunts me to this day.

But Boxing Day 1996 was a cracking day out; twenty-five years ago to the day. Blimey. File under “where does the time go?” alongside many other games.

I collected the remaining passengers and we were on our way. There was fog, but not as heavy as on the trip up the same M5 to Wolverhampton a week earlier. I made good time and I pulled into the car park of “The Vine”, tucked under the M5 at West Bromwich, for the second time in a week at bang on 1pm. We had enjoyed our meal there so much after the Wolves game that we had decided to do so again.

“The Vine” – good food, a quiet chat, a few drinks – would do for us.

Curries and pints were ordered. Chelsea tales were remembered. Three hours flew past. A trip to Villa Park was long overdue. It has been a mainstay on our travels for decades, but the last visit was as long ago as April 2016 when Pato scored. We remembered that, ironically, I had plans to take Donna to Villa Park for our game in March 2020 – Donna had broken her wrist and was unable to drive – but of course that game was the first one to be hit by the lockdown of two seasons ago. Like me, Donna kept the tickets for that game on her fridge as a reminder that, hopefully, football would be back in our lives again.

It didn’t take me long to drop my four passengers off near Villa Park before I doubled-back on myself and parked up on the same street that I have been using for years and years. We used to drop into “The Crown And Cushion” pub on the walk to the stadium but that is no more; razed to the ground, only memories remain. We had mobbed up in that very pub for the Fulham semi-final in 2002; there is a photo from that day of a very young-looking Parky and a very young-looking me.

I stood outside the away end, a few “hellos” to some friends. I had a spare ticket but couldn’t shift it. Unperturbed, I made my way inside the Doug Ellis Stand. I was rewarded with a very fine seat; the very front row of the upper deck. Alas, Alan wasn’t able to attend again, but Gary and Parky were alongside me.

I dubbed it the “Waldorf & Statler” balcony.

Villa Park is a large and impressive stadium. I looked around at the familiar-again banners, flags, tiered stands and other architectural features. Was I last here almost six bloody years ago?

Tempus fugit as they say in Sutton Coldfield.

The stadium was full to near capacity. The players appeared from that quaint “off-centre” tunnel that Villa decided to keep as a motif from the old, and much-loved, Trinity Road stand of yore. Chelsea as Borrusia Dortmund again; yellow, black, yellow.

The team?

Mendy

Chalobah – Silva – Rudiger

James – Jorginho – Kante – Alonso

Hudson-Odoi – Pulisic – Mount

We were up against Ings, Mings and otherlings.

Let battle commence.

The first thing of note during the game was the realisation that I had forgotten to include a good four of five songs and chants from the Chelsea catalogue at Brentford on the previous Wednesday. I had mentioned thirty; a few friends had added a few more later, yet I was hearing some others too, repeated in The Midlands. It’s a fair assumption that the tally at Brentford must have reached forty.

I doubt if it has ever been bettered.

On the pitch, there were some early exchanges and Thiago Silva continued his lovely form from the previous Sunday at Wolves. The singing in the two-tiered Doug Ellis quietened down as our play deteriorated a little.

But we were still the loud ones.

“Shall we sing a song for you?” was robustly answered on around twenty minutes by the home fans in the North Stand, which was met with sarcastic clapping from the away section.

No surprises, we were dominating possession but Villa were looking decidedly useful when they countered with pace. A run and strike by Ollie Watkins was ably blocked by the nimble reactions of Trevoh Chalobah, and the away fans applauded.

We were having a little difficulty in building our attacks. Reece James struggled with crosses and gave away the occasional ball. From a wide position on the left, Mason Mount slung in a ball that tickled the crossbar; I am not sure if the attempt on goal was intentional.

Sadly, Villa themselves were breeching us too often for our liking. Just before the half-hour mark, a cross from Matt Targett was flicked on – in an effort to block the cross – by James. The ball spun up and over Mendy’s head and outreached arms. Our goalkeeper was stranded and the ball nestled in the net. Villa probably deserved their lead.

At that time, we were looking a little weak as an attacking threat, with only Kante – “imperious” the bloke next to me called him – living up to his billing. Callum Hudson-Odoi seemed as reticent as ever to take people on and Christian Pulisic just looked lost. Thankfully our response was quick and a little surprising. Marcos Alonso pushed the ball forward and Matty Cash lunged at Callum inside the box. It was an ugly challenge and a clear penalty.

Despite Martinez’ merry dance on the goal line, Jorginho rarely misses and he didn’t this time.

1-1.

Back in the game.

The first-half ended with a period of huff and puff with not much real quality.

At the break, the fifth cavalry appeared on the horizon. Although Chalobah had performed admirably, it was his place that was jeopardised in favour of Romelu Lukaku. Pulisic, out-fought and out-puzzled in a central attacking role “of sorts” was pushed back to right wing-back. Soon after the restart, Silva slowly walked off to be replaced by Andreas Christensen.

There is no doubt at all that the changes resulted in a noticeable improvement in our play, the vast majority of which seemed to take place down below us on our right wing. Pulisic looked a lot more potent and of course it was a huge advantage to have a target, a hit-man, a goal scorer on the pitch.

But there were the usual moans and grumbles when Hudson-Odoi fluffed a goal scoring opportunity in his favoured inside-left channel. However, those chastising our youngster were soon eating humble pie. His perfectly floated cross towards the incredible bulk of Lukaku just outside the six-yard box was nigh-on perfection. Our number nine lept and angled the ball past the Villa ‘keeper.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

Our play improved. We looked more confident, more at ease. There was greater intent.

On the hour, Mateo Kovacic replaced Kante and we hoped our little miracle-worker wasn’t badly hurt.

A fine long ball from Christensen played in Mount. He drew the ‘keeper on an angle but with two team mates in good positions, decided to go for goal. With the ‘keeper having over-run his challenge and in no man’s land, Mount’s effort didn’t hit the target. The ball kissed the side netting.

There were howls from the Chelsea support.

At the other end, a rare Villa attack and – if I am honest – a cumbersome challenge looked a definite penalty but we were saved by an offside flag.

A strong run from Lukaku eventually tee’d up Callum again. But this was followed with a weak finish but also an excellent low save from Martinez.

More howls.

Late, very late, in the game, I was poised with my camera as Lukaku started a chase to reach a ball pumped forward by Hudson-Odoi. I watched through my lens as he quickly made up ground on Targett, and raced past. The defender lost his footing and ended up stumbling around like a newly born fawn. Our striker raced on, seemingly ripping up the turf as he sprinted away. It was simply a glorious sight. It was an instant classic, a reminder of older days when strikers were unshackled and free. He advanced into the box, and I was preparing for a Roy Of The Rovers – or Hotshot Hamish – thunderbolt. Instead, Ezri Konsa took his legs away.

Another penalty.

We waited.

Jorginho again.

Goal.

Phew.

But that run from Lukaku. The highlight of the season? Possibly. More of the same please. The second half had been a fine turnaround. Everyone was happy. I kept saying “round pegs in round holes, square pegs in square holes” as we made our way down the many flights of stairs to street level.

As we all walked back to the car, a group of Chelsea fans were singing in the dark distant night.

“Oh what fun it is to see Chelsea win away…”

Boxing Day 1996.

Boxing Day 2021.

Tales From The Underdogs

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 12 August 2012.

The weather on the oh-so familiar drive up the M5 to Birmingham was horrendous. The near constant rain was painful enough, but the inclement driving conditions resulted in the traffic slowing right down to the speed of a Florent Malouda dribble. As a result of the delays, our pre-game plans of popping into the Crown and Cushion for a couple of pints of Red Stripe were knocked into touch.

I didn’t park up until 12.50pm.

It didn’t seem that long ago that Parky and I had last visited this particular part of Birmingham; the 4-2 win against Aston Villa seemed like yesterday. Ah, a lovely Torres goal too, I seem to remember.

We were parked to the north of Villa Park; the end allocated to the City fans. I expected the area to be inundated with them. To be honest, it was surprisingly quiet. There was a mixture of Chelsea and City fans milling around in the warm drizzle. It soon became apparent that many fans had expected warmer weather. Many were wearing shorts with trainers and plimsolls, with no rain jackets for cover.

It appeared to me that the drizzly conditions had travelled south with the thousands of Mancunians.

It was typical Manchester weather.

As we approached the stadium, we spotted a gaggle of familiar faces sheltering under the slight overhang of the Doug Ellis Stand. It was good to see them all once again. The others were off to sit in the two-tiered Holte End (the home end at the stadium), while I was by myself in the upper tier of the Doug Ellis. Just as I was finding my bearings, none other than Lovejoy walked past. I hadn’t seen him for almost two years. I was wondering if I’d see him at football ever again.

My seat was in the second row from the rear of the upper deck, down at the south end, behind the goal line. It soon became apparent that the 42,000 capacity was not going to be tested on this particular match day. I spotted large gaps in both tiers of the Holte End. Chelsea had been entitled to over 13,000 tickets for this game, but it was clear that we were a few thousand short of that figure. As kick-off approached, there were just as many gaps in the City sections. City had fans on three sides; the main west stand, the north stand and about a quarter of the Doug Ellis.

It was easy for me to think back to the one game that this scenario reminded me of; our 1996 F.A. Cup semi-final against the other Manchester team, in the days when Gullit and Hughes played for us and Cantona and Beckham played for them. I used to love attending F.A. Cup semi-finals en masse at these neutral venues. I loved the idea of 20,000 Chelsea fans taking over large swathes of other clubs’ stadia. And it preserved the thrill of Wembley for the Cup Final itself. How I wish the F.A. would revert to this, but I know it will never happen again.

Chelsea had both tiers of the Holte End for that game and, as luck would have it, our seats were in the very first row of the upper tier. I immediately seized this opportunity and decided to make a banner to hang over the balcony wall.

Over a week, I painstakingly made my “Ruud Boys” banner, featuring the smiling face of our dreadlocked hero who had so thrilled us in his first season.

The Chelsea fans were out in force on that Sunday in the spring of 1996. Our end was festooned with banners, streamers and balloons as the teams entered the pitch. I always remember that the United sections filled up really slowly and I am pretty sure that there were empty seats throughout the game. Just before the break, that man Gullit leapt at a cross and headed us into a lead.

Oh, how we celebrated that one.

Sadly, two defensive errors – and some unfortunate injuries to key players – allowed United to recover and win 2-1. Wembley would have to wait for one more season.

However, the story continues.

The sight of the Chelsea fans packing out the Holte End in a riot of colour must have been spectacular. There are many photographs of us from that day. One in particular was used in two publications.

One photographer down at pitch level took a photo of my Ruud Boys flag and it was used by “Action Images” to illustrate a piece on Chelsea’s influx of foreign players in a copy of “Total Football” later during that year.

It gets better.

The former Wimbledon striker Dean Holdsworth once had an affair with glamour model Lindsey Dawn MacKenzie. At a game at Selhurst Park in the 1996-1997 season, the Chelsea fans were full of rude comments about this romantic liaison. In the “Daily Sport” newspaper – that beacon of journalistic integrity – the following day, there was a photo of Lindsey Dawn MacKenzie (baring all) with a headline to the effect of “How dare Chelsea fans be rude to both Dean and me.”

The editor chose to illustrate her tirade at the Chelsea fans with a picture of some Chelsea fans, set just behind a large photograph of Lindsey Dawn and her quite substantial charms.

The photo that the editor chose was from the Villa Park semi-final. It was the photo of my Ruud Boys flag. Or rather, a close-up photo of Glenn and me (looking, strangely, straight at the camera).

Imagine the scene.

Glenn was sitting with his workmates during a tea break when one of them opened up the middle pages of his “Daily Sport” to exclaim –

“Hey, Glenn – there’s a picture of you and Chris Axon next to Lindsey Dawn MacKenzie here!”

The Chelsea and Manchester City teams entered the arena from that quirky tunnel towards the corner of the main stand. I guess this was a conscious decision by the Villa club, who were lambasted for replacing the much loved Trinity Road stand with a brutal structure, to maintain certain elements of the old stand. The curved panelling of the original Leitch balcony has been replicated, too.

Chelsea were in the royal blue of old, while City wore a new away kit of Torino pomegranate. The guests of honour were the former city winger Mike Summerbee and none other than our very own Ron Harris. I saw Ron sharing a joke with several of the Chelsea players as he was introduced to them.

The game began and it was clear that di Matteo was staying with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1, with Mikel and Lamps in the withdrawn roles, and Ramires out right, Hazard out left, Mata in the middle. With our influx of new players, I wondered if the manager was wondering about testing the old conundrum of whether teams should be system based or player based.

Should the formation dictate which players to use or should the players force the formation? One suspects that the answer, like a lot of things in life, is a muddy compromise.

The rain had ceased and Manchester City created a flurry of early chances. Petr Cech was in the thick of it and was soon covering himself in glory as he repelled several City efforts. With time, though, we began to make inroads as the game progressed. Eden Hazard took a few nice touches, but then drew instant laughter from the City hordes when he cut inside but tripped over his feet as he attempted a back-heel to Ashley Cole. I’m sure we’ve all done that in our time on the football pitch; I know I have.

I must admit, I didn’t know too much about Eden Hazard before we became linked with him. My knowledge of his attributes is due to a typical search on YouTube; I was mightily impressed. I just hoped that there wasn’t another selection of Eden Hazard clips on YouTube involving him falling over himself, clipping balls Gronkjaer-esque into row Z of the stands at Lille, losing possession after one touch, missing clear chances and setting up opponents’ goals with lazy back-passes.

Two chances in quick succession raised our hopes; a flowing move involving Mata and Ramires allowed Fat Frank to shoot straight at the City ‘keeper and then Hazard cut inside before shooting low.

It then occurred to me – in a lovely moment of self-awareness – that after three games of varying involvement, I was now right back in to the football. After the surreal experience in New York, the boozy song-fest of Chester and the docile frustration of Brighton, I was now kicking every ball, making every tackle, shouting words of encouragement and getting more and more involved with every passing minute.

This turned out to be the most important moment of the entire afternoon for me.

There may come a time when I suddenly lose this passion for Chelsea, but I knew at around 2pm at Villa Park that it wouldn’t be this season; European Champions or not, there are still games to attend, games to win and songs to be sung.

“Come On You Blue Boys.”

With the first half coming to a close, we were rewarded for our slight improvement in play with a goal against the general run of play. What a lovely finish from Fernando Torres, who deftly flicked the ball over the ‘keeper from Ramires’ through ball. I celebrated wildly – yes, I was back – and still managed to capture several shots of El Nino reeling away towards the Chelsea fans in the upper deck of the Doug Ellis. Another goal for him at Villa Park. I maintained my proud record of seeing every Fernando Torres goal in the flesh, from Stamford Bridge to Old Trafford to Camp Nou to Villa Park.

I hope that continues.

I spotted Mick and Della a few yards away from me and I walked over to say “hi” just as the Ivanovic tackle happened. My first reaction was that it was a tough decision; replays on the TV in the bar area at half-time suggested that Kevin Friend got it right. Down to ten men, I doubted that we would be able to hold off a physically tough City side. Up front, Tevez and Aguero looked the business.

I had more words with Mick and Della at the break; they had thoroughly enjoyed their time with Ron Harris in New York and it was great to see them once again.

At the start of the second half, Mancunian drizzle and then Mancunian goals. A couple of lax defensive clearances allowed the ball to fall to Kolo Toure. He smashed it goal wards and I was right behind the path of the ball. I said “goal” as soon as it left his foot.

The City fans, who had swelled their numbers considerably during the first-half, now roared. Their version of “Hey Jude” was deafening to be fair. I wondered if there had been traffic problems for the City fans on their trek south down the M6 from Ancoats, Hyde, Droylesden and Longsight.

A sweet strike from Tevez and a flick from Nasri got them singing again. This now looked like “damage limitation” for us. I wanted Friend to blow up straight away. As Daniel Sturridge warmed up, he took tons of abuse from the City fans in the main stand.

“One greedy bastard, there’s only one greedy bastard.”

That’s ironic, eh? Half of City’s team are only there for the sheikh’s millions.

Oh well. It is what it is.

It was sad to hear the Chelsea support so quiet. Even when we were 1-0 up, the noise was no more than a murmur.

Must do better.

I thought back to the game at Yankee Stadium. The only three English shirts I saw at the stadium which were not Chelsea belonged to two Manchester City supporters and one Manchester United fan. I was expecting more to be honest. I was certainly expecting shirts to be worn by a few Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal fans in a sad attempt to wind us up. There is nothing sadder than that, in my opinion. However, the sight of the two City shirts certainly made me double-take; outside of Manchester, sightings are rare. In NYC, I decided to take the “good cop, bad cop” approach.

To City Fan #1 – “You’re at the wrong game mate”

This resulted in the City fan puffing his chest out and giving me a look of aggression.

To City Fan #2 – “Congratulations on the title…at least you’re not a red.”

This resulted in the City fan looking confused and befuddled at my – honest – compliments.

Late on, a Daniel Sturridge shot was only parried by Pantilimon and the other substitute Ryan Bertrand pounced. We roared again. Could we rise up from the dead and snatch a draw? Despite a late charge, including big Pete coming up for a corner, it was not to be.

In truth, City could have scored again at the death but Sergio Aguero screwed the ball wide in front of a virtual open goal. With us a man down throughout the second-half, a 3-2 loss was no big deal. Outside, Parky was sage like and philosophical, sharing the opinion that there were several plus points to take from the game.

With a lot of the City fans still inside, our escape route north and then west to the M6 was clear of traffic and, aided by some classics from the Stranglers, we made good time on the drive south.

Throughout the game, I had soon realised that City were the new target for all clubs in the division this season. They are a formidable team – solid in the right areas, with many attacking options. I also realised that it certainly felt “right” for Chelsea – or at least “my” Chelsea – to be classed as the underdogs once more. I’d guess we are third favourites for the league, behind the two Manchester clubs, but I can deal with that. After all, I dealt with it – and the club certainly dealt with it – against Barca and Bayern.

It’s no big deal. I quite like it. After all, a goal scored by the underdogs is celebrated five times as loudly as a goal by the favourites.

I won’t deny that there are the inevitable concerns about our team at this very moment in time. But let’s give everyone time to adapt to each other, to let the newcomers settle, to give the manager his six months to sort out his formation and his methodology. With the possible triumvirate of Hazard / Mata / Oscar feeding Fernando Torres, we could be in for quite a ride.

The league season is almost upon us.

Wigan awaits.

I’m ready.

Let’s go.

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