Tales From The Hurting

Watford vs. Chelsea : 5 February 2018.

It was just past two o’clock. I had parked my car outside “The Milk Churn” which sits on the A350 just south of the small Wiltshire town of Melksham. It is a new boozer, no older than a couple of years, but is built to resemble an old rustic farmhouse, heavy on tiles, brick and wood. It is run by “Hall and Woodhouse”, a brewery based in the Dorset town of Blandford Forum. My grandfather used to work at the brewery before he left his home town of Wareham to head up to Frome. The pub has acted as a starting point, a base camp, for a number of our Chelsea matches of late. My place of work is opposite. As I joined PD and Parky at their table in the pub lounge, they welcomed me.

“You look a bit happier than last week.”

Last week, last Wednesday, had been a very stressful day at work, and the lads had noticed that I was still in “the zone” after a hectic 6am to 2pm shift. It had taken a good hour or so for me to stop thinking over a few work-related issues as PD drove to London for the Bournemouth game.

On this day, a Monday, I certainly felt a little more relaxed. I ordered some food, gammon steaks all round, and supped at a pint of “Peroni.”

I relaxed with each passing sip.

“Yes. On the face of it, a bit easier today. A bit worried that I’ve had a few chest pains at work this morning though.”

“Blimey, take care, mate.”

“Yeah, I will” I replied, but rather unconvincingly, bearing in mind the stresses that might be forced upon me during the evening’s match at Vicarage Road.

We tucked into our food, and the mood was rather quiet.

“Need to win this one tonight, lads.”

“Certainly do. Especially as Liverpool and Spurs drew yesterday.”

The 2-2 draw at Anfield had presented us the opportunity of going third if we could win at Watford. It was a challenge that I trusted the players to overcome. I did not see any of the game at Anfield. I believe that it was quite a humdinger. I had the best of intentions to watch the highlights on “Match Of The Day 2” on Sunday night, but I chose instead to continue watching an archived programme on the BBC i-Player detailing a storm which had caused havoc in Glasgow in 1968 but caused a rethink on the city’s plans to tear down tenements. This simple choice of viewing encapsulated my thoughts of football these days, or at least football not involving Chelsea Football Club.

Grainy images of Glasgow, social history, town-planning and architecture 1

The Kop, Klopp, Kane and Tottenham 0

After a relaxing lunch, PD set off for Watford. We were in the middle of a ridiculous stretch of nine games with not one of them being played on a Saturday.

Wednesday, Sunday, Wednesday, Monday, Monday, Friday, Tuesday, Sunday, Sunday.

It is a bloody good job that we didn’t draw Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup. I think that my head might have exploded.

I was able to grab a little sleep on the way up to Watford. PD was parked-up at about 5.15pm. Outside, the weather was bitterly cold. Knowing my dislike for large and impersonal superpubs, I managed to coerce the lads to pop into a local called “The Horns” where we enjoyed a pint apiece. It was a smashing boozer, evidently a venue for much music, and there was a permanent stage wedged into a corner. It had the feel of a Western saloon from the cowboy films of my childhood. Behind the till were hundreds of plectrums from live performances. There were musical memorabilia everywhere. But there was no hint that there was a topflight football match taking place a mile or so to the south.

We moved on to “The Moon Under Water” on Watford’s pedestrianised high street. Here was a different story. There was wall-to-wall Chelsea everywhere. I immediately thought back to our away game at Vicarage Road last season when a Michy Batshuayi goal gave us a late 2-1 win, but also where the same pub was reverberating to the short-lived “Antonio Conte does it better” chant before the game. We met up with Alan and Gary, calmly sat towards the rear, and we discussed the current ailments at our club.

I read out the team. I suppose there were two talking points. Marcos Alonso was not involved. Olivier Giroud was on the bench.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Zappacosta

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

The time soon passed. The air in the pub wasn’t exactly electric. A few of the younger element were trying to get some songs started in the main bar, but there were few takers. If anything, they annoyed me.

“As long as you buggers remember to sing in the stadium.”

We set off for Vicarage Road, a simple twenty-minute walk away, past the array of fast food joints, takeaways and restaurants of every hue. In previous visits to Vicarage Road, we have always arrived late and I have always headed straight in. On this cold night, I was able to have the briefest of wanders. Vicarage Road is certainly a cramped venue, wedged into side streets just outside the town centre. It’s a pleasant enough stadium.

We were down low, not far from the front. To my right, the Sir Graham Taylor Stand. To my left, the Elton John Stand. Tucked between the away end – we had around two thousand seats – and the side stand was the stadium’s “Sensory Room.” Despite us being the reigning champions, there were empty seats dotted around the stadium. As the teams entered the pitch, the Watford fans unveiled a large banner at their home end of club owner Gino Pozzo. Rather than provide banners for each and every Watford manager, this was obviously cheaper. They are up to ten – I think – since the Pozzo family took over in 2012. That’s going some. Compared to Watford, Chelsea under Roman Abramovich resembles a steady ship.

The game began. The away fans were in great voice. As ever one song dominated.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

He acknowledged our support for him straight away with some applause for us.

But from the very first few minutes of action, we really struggled to get a foothold in the game. There was a ball-to-hand heart-in-the-mouth moment as the ball struck Gary Cahill. Not long after, the irksome winger Gerard Deulofeu saw his snapshot hit the side netting. The warning signs were there. We were watching from the left of the goal and Gary Cahill was in my sights. I wanted to see how he performed up close. He seemed to marshal his team mates reasonably well at set pieces, but looked ill-at-ease in open play. Very often he played the ball to a Chelsea team mate who was heavily marked. He just does not exude any calmness. Watford came again. Troy Deeney was left unmarked at the far post at a corner but his studied prod at goal was well wide.

Our attacks, so obviously lacking a focal point, floundered time after time. Pedro was full of running but with nobody moving off the ball ahead of him, the resulting pass was often played back or square. We looked utterly impotent in attack. Victor Moses was often left in acres of space, but was reluctant to release the ball early. David Luiz tended to vary things a little, choosing to play balls to the feet of Eden and others, but often a ball was hoofed up field to our three midgets. The away end was getting frustrated.

A wild shot from Willian blazed over the bar. It was our only real effort on goal. Watford kept attacking and Thibaut’s goal was under threat.

The noise from the away section remained impressive.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

Although I was trying my best to encourage Tiemoue Bakayoko when he did something half-decent – “go on my son” – he was having a nightmare. He gave up balls so cheaply. His night and our night was soon to darken. After a foul on Etienne Capoue by Bakayoko and a yellow card, there was a lunge on Richarlison in the middle of the pitch. I have to admit, from our perspective, it looked like there had been a foul on Bakayoko, but as Richarlison stayed down, and players swarmed, there was that horrible moment of hurt as referee Mike Dean flashed a card at Bakayoko.

Off he went.

Fuck it.

Only thirty minutes had passed.

Antonio Conte was furious and had to be calmed by the referee.

After a few minutes of wondering how the manager would react, I was frankly amazed that he chose Cesc Fabregas to replace Willian. I thought about moving Luiz into midfield and going 4/2/3 or bringing on Danny Drinkwater. But what do I know? I’m just a transport planner for an office furniture company. The addition of the lightweight Fabregas seemed odd. Very odd. It felt harsh on Willian who can always be relied upon to put in a shift.

Our play did not improve. Just before half-time, a ball was played forward to the lively Deulofeu who touched the ball on. Out rushed Courtois and I just knew what was going to happen next. A touch, down he went, a nailed-on penalty. Two knobhead fans chose to walk past me just as Deeney took the penalty. I would have missed the save if there had been one. There wasn’t. The home crowd roared and we were one-down.

Shite.

There was a run and shot from Pedro in the inside-left channel, but it blazed well over. To be honest, a goal then would not have reflected the balance of play. Watford were full of running, full of pace, and were well-deserving of their lead. We looked devoid of confidence. There was nobody willing to take ownership of the ball and create. Down to ten men, we stared a second successive league defeat in the face.

The second-half began.

I was so happy that the away fans were trying our hardest to get behind the team. One song dominated. It was a song which, I always remembered, seemed to be aired specifically during the second-halves of games, and especially away games, when the team needed it. This game certainly fitted the bill.

“Amazing Grace” was given the full Chelsea treatment.

“CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.”

I was joining in. So were many others. But I looked around, and back, at others to see how many were actually joining in too. It was at about the 50% level at best. It sounded like more were singing. But those that were involved were keeping it going for a fair few minutes. I was sure that the noise was carrying and that the TV millions would hopefully be impressed. The home fans, by comparison, were ridiculously quiet. Despite winning, the folks to the left of me in the Elton John Stand hardly sung all night.

Modern football.

Despite a clash of heads with a Watford defender, Moses began to get a little more space in front of us down the Chelsea right. At last we were playing to our strengths; intricate passing, movement off the ball, a ball into space, a cross. Moses broke through, glided past a couple of defenders and played the ball across the six-yard box.

Guess what?

Nobody was there to meet it.

Chelsea were trying to get into the game, and there was a definite improvement as the second-half progressed. But at the other end, Watford again and again broke through. Shots curled past the far post. Thibaut was forced to strongly save on two occasions. They were out-gunning us.

We still kept singing though, we still kept going.

We spotted Olivier Giroud warming up on the touchline. One nasty little outbreak of Billy Ray Cyrus down to my left thankfully failed to gather momentum. With twenty-minutes left, the former Arsenal target man made his Chelsea debut. His beard appeared to have been trimmed a little. Good. Fucking good.

He went up for a header, which he won, and he began his journey from Arsenal wanker to Chelsea player. We urged the team on. All of a sudden, we looked more like a team. More options. More drive. More energy. We enjoyed a few half (quarter?) chances but the mood was rising.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

Eden Hazard, in the same channel that Moses had ploughed earlier, flitted away from markers and suddenly looked like his old self. He buzzed into the box, and the ball reached Fabregas. This was our big chance, our big moment. The shot was weak, low and an easy save for the Watford ‘keeper.

The howls rang out from the away end.

Just after, Hazard – clearly buzzing now after his confidence-boost of a run earlier – collected the ball around twenty-five yards out, broke into a little space and guided a magical shot around the defender, using him as a block for the ‘keeper, and into the side of the goal.

We went ballistic.

GET IN.

The celebrations were wild and unfettered. Eden pointed towards us. We were back in the game. At that moment, oh the stupidity of it all, it felt to me like we would go on to win.

The Chelsea support roared again.

There was maybe ten minutes or so left.

“COME ON CHELS.”

Bizarrely – there was no explanation – the play returned to the other end. Another Watford effort slid past the far post. I then watched with growing concern as a fine Watford move spread across the box from right to left. I yelled, in vain, as a Watford player appeared to tiptoe into a danger area.

“Don’t let him shoot.”

There was no tackle. There was no block. Janmaat shot. Janmaat scored.

Watford 2 Chelsea 1.

The hurt was palpable. I remained standing but inside I slumped to the floor. Thankfully there was no chest pains, just an emptiness.

Four minutes later, their star player Deulofeu was able to shoot after a short run at the heart of our defence.

Watford 3 Chelsea 1.

With that, many Chelsea fans decided to leave. A swathe of empty yellow seats soon appeared in front of me. I was fuming. Two lads motioned to me to let them pass. I did not move. They had to squeeze past me. I glowered at them. They glowered back.

Fuck them.

The night became even more bizarre. A lone spindly youth ran on to the pitch, I think from the side stand, and bounced up and down on the pitch, seemingly on the ‘phone to somebody. No stewards bothered with him. He stayed on the pitch, gurning like a fool, for what seemed like thirty seconds or more. With my eyes drilling in to him, I missed the build up to Watford’s fourth goal.

Watford 4 Chelsea 1.

Bloody hell.

In a show of defiance, the remaining Chelsea fans collectively thought “well, fuck this” and got behind the team once more.

“We love you Chelsea, we do. We love you Chelsea, we do. We love you Chelsea, we do. Oh Chelsea we love you.”

A half-chance from that man Giroud almost brought a cheer, but the game ended with no further incident.

But there here was still time for another round of “Antonio.”

And there was even a relatively loud “Three Little Birds” as the game ended.

At the final whistle, I watched as Antonio Conte darted down the tunnel. I honestly wondered if I would see him again as a Chelsea manager. I gathered my stuff, as stony faced as I have been for a while. Parky was surprisingly upbeat alongside me and for a few seconds I wanted him to be quiet, be still, be solemn. His obvious indifference to defeat annoyed me, but then I had to smirk as we met up with others and headed up the steep terrace. There was a chat with a few good people.

Mark from Hastings was fuming :

“Those people who left, I just don’t get it. Us losing should make them want to stay, to stay and cheer us on. What is the point in them leaving?”

I agreed. We smiled and shook hands.

Mark from Westbury put everything into some sort of perspective :

“We’ve seen worse, Chris.”

I smiled.

“Yes, we have mate. Not at Watford, though.”

It was Mark’s time to smile.

We were some of the last to leave.

There would be a time to evaluate the current dip in form at Chelsea at a later date, a later time. Maybe things will be crystal clear in my mind for the West Brom game, but I doubt it. These waters are muddied. And my mind is addled with the constant rumour and counter-rumour which surrounds this club, as ever.

At around 10.45pm, Parky, PD and me were sitting in a “Subway” on the Watford High Street. Although my jacket had kept me warm at the game, the winter chill had bitten hard on the walk back from the stadium. We silently devoured some food. The moment, oddly, reminded me of a late night snack in a small café in Rome after an equally shocking defeat. In Rome, we were able to look out on a piazza and monuments, and enjoy the moment. In Watford, we looked out on waste bins, concrete paving slabs and “Poundworld.”

“At least there were no chest pains.”

The hurt on a cold night in Hertfordshire was only mental, but it was real enough.

PD set off for home at 11pm. Thankfully, I managed to get some sleep once we left the M25 and hit the M4. We were back at “The Milk Churn” at 1am. I was home at 1.30am. I was asleep at 2am. The alarm would ring at 5am.

At 6am, co-workers would be asking me if I was at the game at Watford.

“Yep.”

The three of us agreed that we all needed a break from football. In the pub, even Gary had commented that he had enjoyed having the recent weekend off as it gave him some precious time to get a few things done away from Chelsea. At the moment, this football lark is hard and relentless. On players and fans alike. The next game is on Monday. There is time for a rest. There is time for a break. There will be time to re-focus and to re-charge the old batteries.

I’m going to enjoy it.

The race for second place will begin again soon enough.

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Tales From The Late Show

Chelsea vs. Watford : 21 October 2017.

Expectations were high. Although we knew that Watford were quickly evolving into a pretty decent team under the tutelage of Marco Silva, the first of three very “winnable” games in eight days had us all dreaming of three points. Watford at home, Everton at home, Bournemouth away. Three wins, six points, consolidation in the top four, and into the last eight of the League Cup? We really hoped so.

Due to the game kicking-off at the early – and disliked – time of 12.30pm, there was a very truncated pre-match in the rarely-visited “The Cock Tavern” at the bottom end of the North End Road. The place was well-packed. It is an important pub at Chelsea for me; it is the boozer where I had my very first pint at Chelsea, when it was known as “The Cock”, on the day of the 1984 promotion-decider with Leeds United. A couple of lager and limes if memory serves. How ‘eighties.  I was aware that it was the first time, I am sure, that I had visited the pub with PD since that particular day.

“Over thirty-three years ago, mate.”

“Amazing.”

I remember the place absolutely rocking that Saturday lunchtime. The song of the moment, more so than now, was “One Man Went To Mow” and I remember us all standing on the sofas at “ten.” I had travelled up from Somerset with four other lads. I have season tickets with two of those chaps. I see a third every month or so. It’s wonderful how we have all stuck together over the seasons. Brilliant memories. May they stay strong.

The four of us quickly quaffed some early afternoon drinks and made our way to the stadium. We were in early.

The team was a familiar one, though I have a feeling that the presence of Gary Cahill will have upset many.

Courtois

Rudiger – Luiz – Cahill

Azpilicueta – Fabregas – Bakayoko – Alonso

Pedro – Morata – Hazard

Such is the way of my world these days that it soon became apparent that I was able to reel off Watford’s players from the early ‘eighties (Steve Sherwood, Kenny Jacket, Wilf Rostron, Steve Sims, Nigel Callaghan, Luther Blissett, Ross Jenkins, John Barnes…) than the current team. In 1982/83, Watford finished behind only Liverpool, ahead of all other teams, including the big-hitters of London. It was a mini-miracle to be honest, and probably the finest finish from a small club since Leicester City came along in 2016.

I expected to see Watford in the yellow and black of that period. That they showed up at Chelsea wearing all red is typical of modern football.

There were a few empty seats around Stamford Bridge. Watford had the higher three-thousand allocation.

I wasn’t expecting a barrage of noise, what with reduced drinking times and the opposition.

This was Watford 2017, not Leeds United 1984.

The game began.

The first thing that I noted was that Gary Cahill seemed to start in the middle of the back three, which surprised me, but David Luiz soon moved in from the left. Alvaro Morata was very neat in the first few minutes, adeptly bringing the ball under his command, and laying if off to others with the minimum of fuss. One instant turn and long ball out to the left wing was worth the admission money alone.

The crowd quickly showed support of the manager.

“Antonio. Antonio. Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

Despite the hiccups of late, we are – obviously – with him.

After twelve minutes, a corner was awarded to us when it certainly looked like Eden Hazard had the last touch. Fabregas played a short corner – usually the bane of my life – to Hazard, who rolled the ball to Pedro. His first time effort curled high over everyone, wildly so, and struck the far post before crossing the line. It was a magnificent opportunist strike. We roared, and watched as Pedro raced over to Parkyville. The effervescent scorer was quickly surrounded by his team mates. It was a perfect start.

Not long after, that man Morata picked out Fabregas, who probably had too much time. He slowed, and decided to try to dink a delicate lob over the Watford ‘keeper Gomes. The derided former-Spurs player stood up to the challenge and saved easily.

Watford’s fans were soon goading us.

“Is this a library?”

I could not disagree.

Our advantage continued and Pedro smacked a low drive past Gomes’ far post. A Luiz shot from distance was straight at the ‘keeper. But then we eased off a little. Watford managed to get themselves back in to the game. Courtois seemed to move late but was able to punch out a firm free-kick from Tom Cleverley. Watford dominated for a while. Our play seemed to lack direction and intent. On the half hour there was a flurry of Watford shots. Pedro was our standout player, with his usual movement and enthusiasm, plus some crisp passing. Everyone else seemed to dip.

We seemed to want to play the early ball for a change, but only rarely did it cause Watford much distress.

A corner was met on the volley by David Luiz, but his body shape was completely wrong. He side-footed it towards Henry Forbes-Fortesque and his son Jonty in row seven of the Shed Upper, resplendent in matching Watford shirts. It knocked them sideways. They were bloody livid.

Just before half-time, a long throw was headed out by David Luiz, but the ball took an unfortunate deflection off Bakayoko – my “good header” exclamation was sadly premature – and Doucoure blasted in at the near post. He could not have hit it sweeter, spinning away from Thibaut’s dive.

The Forbes-Fortescues were up on their feet.

The Chelsea support groaned. It was certainly a crushing blow. Over the course of the first forty-five minutes, Chelsea had enjoyed spells of dominance but the visitors had little periods of fine play too. It had been an odd half. It was like a curate’s egg. We hoped that Antonio Conte would inspire the boys during the break.

In the opening few minutes of the second-half, Pedro had a fine run and his drive from outside the box was narrowly wide. Morata squandered a chance from six yards. These two chances were a false dawn.

We then went to pieces. Watford broke with pace down our left and Femenia crossed and we watched, open mouthed, as Richarlison met the ball with the goal at his mercy. The Chelsea defenders were nowhere to be seen. Incredibly, his effort was poked wide. Just after, Richasrlison seemed to drag our complete defence out of position, so that when his ball into the box was met by Pereya, no Chelsea players were located within the same post code area. I rolled my eyes to the skies. I brought them down to see the net ripple.

Fackinell.

A brief “COME ON CHELSEA” suggested that the crowd would react to this calamity, but no.

It got worse. Britos crossed, only for Richarlison to head down but past Courtois’ charmed goal.

For fifteen minutes or so – believe me it seemed longer – our play was simply rotten. The defence, as described, were at sixes and sevens, and probably eights and nines too. In that period, even the previously impressive Rudiger and Bakayoko were shadows of their former selves. How we missed the human metronome Kante. Cahill was the usual mixture of brave challenges and nervy distribution. Fabregas was quiet. Hazard too.

And Stamford Bridge was like a morgue, as bereft of noise as I can ever remember. There was just no reaction from the home supporters at all. At least there were no boos, but none were expected. A repeat of the severe “you don’t know what you’re doing” which was a chant aimed at Villas-Boas and Benitez among others in our recent history, was never likely to happen. There is too much love for Conte, too much goodwill, and too much trust, for that.

But when Alan turned to me and, noting Conte’s body language – hands in pockets, shoulders a little slumped, not so many animated gestures – he wondered if the manager had given up. So, that depressed me further. The black dog, if not vultures overhead, had momentarily returned. How I wanted the supporters to get behind the team. It was a horrible few minutes.

Morata was substituted by Michy Batshuayi, and we thought back to his less than stellar showing at Selhurst Park. The portents were not great. Another chance for the impressive visitors came and went. Soon after, Willian replaced Alonso. I thought that we changed to four at the back, but I did not have much time to dwell on it. Thank heavens our play improved.

On seventy minutes, Willian pushed the ball out to Pedro in some space. His cross – right on the money – was perfect for Batshuayi to barge past a couple of defenders and to rise unhindered. He steered the ball past Gomes with a flick of the neck. We were back in it.

You beauty.

Conte was more animated now. We all were.

Michy curled a low shot just past the far post. He then blasted over from inside the box after an innovative free-kick from Fabegas. The noise thankfully increased. We had found our voices at last.

But Watford still threatened as the game opened-up further.

The clock tick-tocked.

Zappacosta replaced Pedro at right-back. His first touch, a cross, was sublime.

With just three minutes remaining, a shake of the hips from the mercurial Willian on the right allowed him space to cross. The ball was whipped in and Michy shaped to head home, but the ball took the slightest of deflections. Of all people, Dave was immediately in line to head home.

The…place…went…wild.

I yelled like a fool. What noise.

With my body boiling over, I needed to focus. I don’t honestly know how I did it but I managed to snap Dave’s run towards us, the smile wide, the eyes popping, the point at the badge, the leap, the euphoria, the joy.

What a fucking player.

Everybody loves Dave.

My captain.

What a moment. He was lost in a mosh pit of emotion down below me, engulfed by players and fans alike.

It’s very likely that the manager jumped so high that he was able to pat George Hilsdon on the head.

After the chaos had subsided, I stood and leaned on the barrier adjacent to my seat. I was quiet and still for a few moments. I wallowed in the sweetness of the moment. My emotion got the better of me and it quite honestly surprised me. There were no tears – not for Watford – but I was pretty close to it. It’s mad, quite mad, how football can take me to another place.

As I have said once or twice before, I fucking love this club.

A cross from Willian just evaded Rudiger.

Lo and behold, deep into the five minutes of extra time, Bakayoko lobbed the ball forward after a Watford clearance went awry, and Michy was strong enough to hold off a strong challenge and slot the ball past Gomes. It was a very fine goal. What an enigma, this Michy.

More celebrations. More smiles. Everyone happy. A wild swagger from Batshuayi as he trotted over to the East Lower.

Phew.

The game was safe.

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Tales From A Night Of Fun

Chelsea vs. Watford : 15 May 2017.

Friday was bloody magnificent, wasn’t it?

And now Chelsea, after winning the sixth title in our history at The Hawthorns, after a week of rising tension, were following this up with a home game against Watford on Monday. The absolute high from the game at West Brom had not really subsided, but there was a certain strangeness in the air as I drove up to West London with Parky and PD. There was a feeling of inevitable anti-climax, but we took that on the chin. That was certain. It was to be expected. In “The Goose” beforehand – rain clouds overhead dampening the mood a little – there was celebratory talk from Friday with those who had travelled, but the overall feeling was of “after the Lord Mayor’s Show.” In truth, of course, we would not wish to be anywhere else on the planet.

We quickly chatted about the potential team line-up, and I only predicted a few changes.

How wrong I was.

Begovic

Zouma – Terry – Ake

Azpilicueta – Kante – Chalobah – Kenedy

Willian – Batshuayi – Hazard

Compared to our first-choice starting eleven, only two players (N’Golo and Eden) were in their own positions. It seemed like a “B” team. But I wasn’t honestly bothered. With the FA Cup Final looming, I was sure that a strong team would be chosen against Sunderland. It was only right that a few fringe players were picked against Watford.

As I turned the corner and approached the West Stand, I grabbed a programme and soon spotted the new grand signage on the West Stand.

“Home of the Champions.”

It felt good.

Our fifth title in thirteen seasons. Some fans don’t know they are born. Of course, I don’t begrudge the younger element of our support anything; that would be churlish. But it did make me think. If I had seen a Chelsea title in my first season of active support at the age of eight, by the time I was twenty-one, I would have seen a total of five. I find this ridiculous, but for many young Chelsea fans in 2017 this is their actual story.

“Just like the Scousers” as my mate Andy had commentated at The Hawthorns on Friday, referencing their pomp in our shared childhood.

Indeed.

I do not wish to get too maudlin, but I have come to accept – and bizarrely, be thankful for – our championship draught from 1955 to 2004. It has made me appreciate the good times even more. And that is fine with me.

Outside and inside, I greeted a few pals with the same words –

“Alright, champ?”

I had commented to PD that I half-expected a fair few empty seats around the stadium – there had been a lot of spares up for grabs on “Facebook” in the morning – but I was very pleased that the place was filling up nicely. At kick-off, hardly any seats in the home areas were not used. However, Watford only had around 2,000 in their end. The gaping hole in their section was shocking. The “Home of the Champions” signage had been added to the balconies of all the stands too. A nice touch. Just before the teams entered the pitch, “CHAMPIONS” banners were draped from the upper tier of The Shed.

“Park Life” gave way to “The Liquidator” and the Watford team – the starting eleven in white to the right, the subs in red to the left – formed a guard of honour. John Terry, almost certainly for the last time, lead the Chelsea team on to the pitch. Flame-throwers in front of the East Stand blasted orange fingers of fire into the evening air. The noise was thunderous.

Down below, I spotted Cathy, who had been hit with ill-health during the game on Friday. She had come straight from a Middlesex hospital. It was reassuring to see her in her usual seat. Her home record – every game since the mid-seventies – was intact.

Very soon into the match, the surreal tone for the ensuing evening was set when the entire crowd roared “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” and the manager slowly turned a complete circle and clapped all of the four corners of the packed stadium. This often happens, but usually much later. This was within the first two minutes. Just a few seconds after, the Chelsea fans followed this up with a chant aimed at the fellows in second place, a full ten points adrift now.

“Tottenham Hotspur, it’s happened again.”

We began brightly enough and were on the front foot. It was odd to see so many different players on the pitch at the same time. A header back to Begovic by John Terry was loudly cheered, but we soon got used to him. Unlike his previous substitute appearance, not every touch was cheered.

However, that was soon to change.

We had created a few half-chances, and then Willian pumped in a corner from our right. King Kurt rose to head the ball goal wards, and the ball was slammed past Gomes. As the goal scorer reeled away, I soon realised that it was John Terry. Perfect. Oh bloody perfect. He ran towards the fans, jumped up – right in front of Parky, the lucky sod – and was engulfed by his fellow players. A lovely moment. A goal on his last start for Chelsea? Probably.

Chelsea 1 Watford 0.

I looked towards Alan, and waited for him to turn towards me and utter his usual post-goal exclamation. I waited. And waited. And waited. He was watching the match. I glanced over to my left just as Watford forced a very rapid equaliser. I only saw the ball cross the line.

Alan and myself had words.

“I’m blaming you for that.”

We laughed.

As the game progressed, we remained dominant. As if in some sort of subtle homage to our captain, the impressive Nathaniel Chalobah chest-passed a ball to a team mate. He loves a chest-pass, does John Terry. With a similar touch to that which set up our first goal at Wembley against Spurs, Michy Batshuayi was able to flick a ball on with a quite beautiful touch. It had the feel of an exhibition match, with tricks and flicks never far away. Willian was especially full of energy. Hazard went close. On thirty-five minutes, a move from our left forced a save from Watford ‘keeper and captain Gomes. It fell to Dave, who slammed the ball hard and low into the net.

Get in.

Chelsea 2 Watford 1.

More wild celebrations over in Parkyville. Flags waving, the crowd roaring. Super stuff.

It had been a fine half of football. It was amazing to see N’Golo eat up space with such desire and win ball after ball. Kenedy – “I didn’t know Bart Simpson was playing” quipped Alan – was looking to get forward at every opportunity. Dave, unfettered now in a wide position, had enjoyed a fine half too. Kurt Zouma, usually so stiff, seemed a lot more relaxed. All was good.

Kerry Dixon was on the pitch at half-time. However, he did not take part in the usual walkabout on the pitch.

Both Alan and myself, at the same time, spoke : “He’s getting back to the bar.”

Soon into the second-half, a short corner eventually broke to Nathan Ake, who played the ball on to Batshuayi. It was an easy chance.

“He always scores against Watford.”

Chelsea 3 Watford 1.

Unbelievably, and to our annoyance, Watford scored again. Janmaat danced through – waltzing past many blue shirts – and curled one past Begovic. It was a fine goal.

Despite this setback, the mood inside the stadium was still light. The MHL began to get the other stands involved.

“West Stand give us a song” – they did.

“Shed End give us a song” – they did.

“Watford give us a song” – they didn’t.

More songs for Antonio, for JT, for Willian. Batshuayi was involved, getting a couple of shots on target. Two shots from Dave too. But then our play became a little disjointed. Watford, aided by some dubious refereeing decisions, were able to move the ball through our tiring midfield. Watford had replaced Niang with Okaka – “who?” from Alan and yours truly – and we were left eating our words when a cross was pumped into our box, the ball fell between Terry and Zouma, and the substitute slammed home, with Chelsea unable to clear. And the previously mute Watford fans sang loud and danced like fools.

“Bollocks.”

Behrami slashed a drive just past the post. Janmaat blasted over.

“Come on Chels, fackinell”

This was turning in to a very odd game. Three-all. Sigh. I was reminded of our 2005/06 title procession, when heading in to Christmas we hardly conceded any goals. I can well remember how we then proceeded to win 3-2 versus Fulham on Boxing Day. At the time it seemed like a ridiculous goal fest. Of course, our defence has been more porous of late, but this still seemed odd.

We had conceded three goals. At home. Against Watford. Oh boy.

This was hardly our worst effort in a championship season of course. In 1954/55, we lost 5-6 to Manchester United. Sorry, I won’t mention it ever again.

Not to worry, as he has done so often this season, Conte pulled some tactical strings. On came Ola Aina for Kenedy. On came Cesc Fabregas for Chalobah. On came Pedro for Michy, who received a lovely reception. Deep down, I was confident that we would spring a late goal. We pressed and pressed. Substitute Cesc forced Gomes to save from a dipping free-kick. The same player then went close at an angle inside the six-yard box. The pressure mounted. With just two minutes remaining, the excellent Willian rolled the ball square to Fabregas, who bobbled a shot low past Gomes.

Chelsea 4 Watford 3.

“Get in.”

What a crazy game.

In the final moments, Prodl was sent off for a second yellow. There was no way back for the visitors.

Phew. The final whistle blew.

Above, fireworks flew up in to the night sky from above the East and West Stands. Blue and silver tinsel streamers fell from the roofs.

“Blue Is The Colour” boomed.

Some fans disappeared into the night, and we should have set off for a quick getaway too, but we saw the players line up to race over to those still in The Shed. PD and myself decided to stay on too. We watched as the players – and Antonio – slowly walked towards us in the Matthew Harding. This was a surprise. Had someone not realised that our final home game was on Sunday? With flames, fireworks and tinsel in evidence for this penultimate game, I honestly wondered what we had in store for the trophy presentation itself.

Anything less than a fly-past by the Red Arrows with billowing jets of blue and white and I will be writing a letter of complaint, Roman.

Antonio was, unwittingly perhaps, the star of the show again, leading the cheers and lapping up the warm adoration from the stands. But my eyes were on John Terry too. What emotions were racing through his mind? The goal must have warmed him. What a satisfying moment. I had always hoped that he would score a net-stretching scorcher from outside the box, but virtually all of his goals have been close range headers and prods from inside the six-yard box. One of his finest goals was a volley – I forget the opposition – at the Shed End when he changed shape mid-air to flick the ball home. Not to worry. This night was his, even though I was to learn that he was at fault for the first equaliser.

Antonio grabbed an inflatable Premier League trophy from a fan behind the goal, and gleefully smiled the widest of smiles. His legendary status grows.

The three of us met up at “Chubby’s Grill” and continued the season-long tradition of “cheeseburger with onions please love.” It had been a fun night to be honest. I won’t dwell on a few deficiencies; it is not the time for silly analysis after such a game.

I began the drive home. It would be the last midweek flit of the season. I was glad that there would be no more. And then I realised that I should not complain. If anything, it made me appreciate the long hours that fans across the country put in week in and week out in support of their chosen teams. Fair play to all of them. The ones who follow mid-table teams, locked in to another season of obscurity, and the ones who support those teams in relegation dogfights are especially worthy of praise. These are the real stars of the football world. This season – as champions – was a relative breeze for me and my trusted Chuckle Bus.

Nevertheless, I would eventually reach home at 1am. I would not, as always, be able to go straight to sleep. I would eventually nod off at 1.45am. Four hours of sleep would leave me exhausted the following day at work.

As I once commented to a work colleague, who admitted that he could never do what I do in support of my team :

“I bloody love it, mate.”

As do many others.

See you all on Sunday.

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Tales From 2015/2016

Chelsea vs. Watford : 26 December 2015.

What were my expectations for this game? It would be easy to simply say “a win.” But in this most ridiculous of football seasons, where north is south and where black is white, it seems that I am constantly having to re-calibrate my hopes on a match by match basis. Here was another game that illustrated how this campaign has been turned 180 degrees. Watford, newly arrived in the top flight after an eight year hiatus and with a new manager to boot, were enjoying a recent burst in form, taking them up to the heady heights of seventh place in the table.

Chelsea, the Champions, were languishing in fifteenth position.

Yep.

This is 2015/2016.

Up is down. Big is small. Wet is dry. Bill Gates is Apple. Coke is blue. Puma has three stripes. The Confederates are from the North. The Pope is agnostic. A bear shits in a bathroom.

It is as difficult to unravel as an Agatha Christie whodunit with half the pages missing.

I had traveled up to London on a very mild but also a very grey and nondescript Boxing Day morning with Lord Parky and P-Diddy. My Christmas Day had come and gone with little cheer. Having lost my mother in February, the first Christmas without her warm smile was always going to be a tough one. My Christmas Day was somewhat of an emotional wasteland for me. As I drove towards London, its grey shadow lingered long in my thoughts. To be honest, I was struggling to conjure up too much enthusiasm for the game at Stamford Bridge against Watford. My thoughts were more focused on Monday’s away game at Old Trafford – always one of “the” trips each season – what with the current malaise affecting that particular club too. Add all of the conjecture about Mourinho joining United in to the mix, and you have a highly intriguing scenario.

Monday will be a cracking day out.

Prior to the game with Watford, I spent a couple of hours in the company of Peter, a pal now living in the United States. I last met him on his own turf, in Washington DC, for the game with Barcelona during the summer. We were joined by two Stamford Bridge game day virgins Chris and Kate – also from the US – all giddy with excitement about seeing the boys in the flesh in SW6 for the first time. I gave them a few insights into our club as we set off to meet up with the usual suspects in The Goose.

The pub seemed quieter than usual. As soon as we had settled, there was a roar as Stoke City went a goal up against Manchester United. A second soon followed. After United’s poor run of form, a trip to the Potteries is the last place that they would have wanted to visit. The stakes for Monday were raised further.

I met up with Jeff from Texas, who had just flown in that very morning. It was lovely to see him again. This was a similar scenario to our game at St. Andrew’s on Boxing Day in 2008 when Jeff and two friends had driven straight from Heathrow to Birmingham. This time, Jeff was with his wife, another Stamford Bridge game day virgin. In order to save money for this trip, Jeff – who is a school teacher – took on a second job throughout the summer, mowing lawns, possibly with a dog called spot. I heartily approved of this. It annoys me at times how so many of our US fans moan about not being able to travel to England to see us play – hell, some even moan about Chelsea not playing in their part of the country during US pre-season tours – so “fair play” to Jeff for working a second job to see us in England. It immediately reminded me of the story that my good friend Andy told about his schooldays. Andy would often go without school meals during the week in order to save money for the train fare down to London from his Midlands home to see Chelsea play at Stamford Bridge.

Top work from Andy in 1979 and top work from Jeff in 2015.

Outside the West Stand, and underneath Peter Osgood’s boots, I met up with three or four more acquaintances from the US, those that I have befriended through Facebook or met on pre-season tours, but these were only part of a bigger “Chelsea In America” ensemble – those who have been saving their lunch money over the past few years – and I was very happy to take a group photo of them all. There were a good few Stamford Bridge virgins among this little group too, although some were on a repeat visit.

Peter, Chris, Kate, Su, Tim and Dan posed with Howard, Marion, Ralph, Richie, Arnold, Al, Fonzie, Joanie, Chachi, Potsie and Pinkie. Laverne and Shirley were still in the pub.

Happy days.

After taking the photo, I repeated something that I always say to first-time visitors –

“And if we lose today, you’re not fucking coming back.”

Some would be at Old Trafford on Monday too, the lucky bleeders.

Inside Stamford Bridge – I was in early – both sets of players were going through their re-match drills. Unsurprisingly, Watford brought their full three thousand.

Neil Barnett introduced Guus Hiddink to the Stamford Bridge crowd and he drew a fine reception. Hiddink seems a good man, a steadying influence after the storm which accompanied Mourinho’s closing months, and if memory serves he was well-liked by all of the players during his tenure in 2008/2009.

I whispered to Alan : “When we sang ‘we want you to stay’ to Guus at Wembley in 2009, who would honestly have thought that we would be welcoming him back almost seven years later. And that he would be replacing Mourinho.”

The team was virtually unchanged from the win against that very poor Sunderland team. Gary Cahill replaced Kurt Zouma.

Chelsea dominated the first quarter of an hour with the opposition, in all black, hardly crossing the halfway line. An early chance for Diego Costa from inside the six yard box was headed over. I wondered if the watching guests from the US – in the Shed Lower, Parkyville – would be rewarded with a first-half goal. We came close with a couple of efforts and the mood inside The Bridge was good, although the atmosphere was not great. Watford then seemed to awake from their slumber. They perhaps subconsciously remembered that they were, statistically, the better team. They came to life with Ighalo looking dangerous on two occasions.

Watford, famously sticking two fingers to the football world, and playing a traditional 4-4-2, had originally seemed content to hump long balls forward towards Ighalo and Deeney. It had been a nod towards their own particular footballing heritage under Graham Taylor in the ‘eighties when their rudimentary long ball game was a particular component of that footballing era. In those days, the two strikers were Ross Jenkins and Luther Blissett. Even in the more traditional ‘eighties – before we had heard of “false nines”, “double pivots”, “transition phases”, “attacking mids” and “tiki taka” – Watford’s style of play was the most basic of all. I always thought that it contrasted, ironically, so well with the more pleasing football played by their great rivals Luton Town under David Pleat. Both teams romped to promotion from the Second Division in 1981/1982, when we were still trying to harness the very unique talents of Alan Mayes in our own 4-4-2 variant.

Watford were indeed posing us problems, and our midfield – Fabregas in particular – was finding it hard to shackle their movement. However, rather against the run of play, a corner from in front of the US guests found the high leap of John Terry at the far post. The ball bounced down, not specifically goal wards, but towards where Diego Costa was lurking. A quick instinctive spin and the orange ball flew high in to the net past Gomez.

The crowd roared as Diego reeled away, accepting the acclaim from the crowd, and especially those in Parkyville. Throughout the game, there had been no significant boos for any player to be honest. Perhaps there was just the slightest murmurs of disdain for Costa when the teams were announced. But nothing on the scale of the previous game, which the media took great pleasure in highlighting. Maybe the protest at the Sunderland match was well and truly behind us now. I am pleased, if this is the case. Under Hiddink, we need to move on.

Oscar came close, but then Watford attacked us again. A free-kick was deflected over and from the resultant corner, Matic was correctly adjudged to have hand-balled inside the box. Deeney converted, low past Courtois.

“Here we go again.”

Just before the half-time whistle, a fine run by Pedro down the Chelsea left was followed by a low cross which just evaded the late run of Diego Costa.

It had been a frustrating half. Our early dominance had subsided and we were back to questioning various aspects of our play.

There was a surprising substitution at the break, with Hiddink replacing the admittedly lackluster (aka “shite”) Fabregas with none other than Jon Obi Mikel.

Soon into the second period, Watford peppered our goal with two shots in quick succession. Capoue was foiled by Courtois and then a follow-up was bravely blocked. I thought to myself “under Mourinho, one of those would have gone in.” Sadly, just after I was to rue my thoughts. The ball found Ighalo on the left, but hardly in a particularly dangerous position. To be honest, I was quite surprised that he had decided to shoot. I looked on in horror as his shot deflected off a defender and into the empty net, with Courtois off balance and falling to his left.

We were losing 2-1.

“Here we go again.”

To be fair, we upped our play and began to look livelier. A key move began in inauspicious circumstances, though. Watford played a long ball out to their left and Ivanovic had appeared to have lost his man. However, with grim determination and resilience – the Brana of old – he recovered remarkably well. A sturdy tackle halted the Watford attack. Brana played the ball simply to Oscar. Oscar passed to Willian. Our little Brazilian livewire played – probably – the pass of the season into the box, and into the path of Diego Costa, who was thankfully central. He met the ball and adeptly cut it past the despairing dive of Gomez.

2-2.

The crowd roared again. Diego Costa ran towards the sidelines. My photographs captured the joy on the faces of the fans in the East Lower, but also the look of – what? Disdain? Annoyance? Umbrage? – on Costa’s face as he turned towards the Matthew Harding and remembered the boos against Sunderland.

Regardless of the politics of booing, we were back in the game.

After capturing both of Diego’s goals on film, I clasped my camera and wondered if I might be able to photograph a possible third.

We went close on a couple of occasions, and it honestly felt as if a winner was on the cards. Watford were offering little now. It was all Chelsea. Hiddink brought on Hazard for Pedro. Thankfully there were no boos. We need to move on. Dancing and moving in that mesmeric way of his, Hazard soon got the bit between his teeth with a couple of dribbles down below me. He was clattered by Behrami, and referee Marriner quickly pointed towards the spot.

Phew.

Here would be my third Diegoal of the afternoon.

Here would be a deserved winner.

Hazard needed treatment and the penalty was delayed.

We waited.

Alas, Oscar decided to take the kick and his dramatic slip resulted in the ball being ballooned high over the Watford bar.

The Stamford Bridge crowd groaned.

Then it was Watford’s turn to go close at the other end. It was a pulsating game of football, if not the most technically brilliant. Apilicueta was maliciously scythed down but the Watford miscreant was not red carded. Then, so stupid, a wild tackle by Diego Costa – also on the half way line – resulted in a yellow. I half-expected a red. It would mean that Costa would not be joining us at Old Trafford on Monday. It undoubtedly took the shine off a much better performance from Diego Costa, who was back to – almost – his best. Mikel, by the way, was exceptional in the second-half. It was his shot, late on and from a good thirty yards out, which whizzed past Watford’s post in the last meaningful moment of the game.

I had to be honest.

As a game of football, I had enjoyed it. It was a decent game.

As a Chelsea fan, however, there are still questions to be asked of our troubled team.

Back in the car, my views were shared by my two mates.

“Not a bad game. Should have won it.”

Before I knew it, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim were soon fast asleep. I drove on, eating up the miles. Thankfully I made good time and I was back home by 7.30pm, with my mind now realigned towards Old Trafford.

Oh, and Southampton, where Arsenal were being dicked 4-0.

Yep.

This is 2015/2016.

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