Tales From The Mosh Pit

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 20 August 2017.

After our surprising defeat against Burnley last Saturday, I only wished that more Chelsea supporters had exhibited the considered calmness of Antonio Conte. In a post-match interview, despite some unsurprisingly barbed questions, he spoke serenely with his trademark soft voice, down-playing any concerns about our future, and even finding time to playfully joke about finding a way to cope with his team playing with ten, or nine, men in future games. His personality shone through. Elsewhere, within the ranks of some of our support – some of whom would not have lasted five minutes in the days of Alan Mayes, Mark Falco and the like – there seemed to be hysterics and over-reaction.

And then, on the Friday, there was that extended spell of giggling and laughter when he was questioned about Diego Costa being treated as some sort of criminal.

It was beautiful and therapeutic to watch, wasn’t it?

It must have been the final nail in the coffin for Diego Costa’s last vestige of self-pride. Conte was on top, and there would hopefully be no more nonsense devoted to our out of favour striker and his desire to move on and away from our club.

Going in to the tough away game at Wembley against Tottenham – without Gary Cahill, Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard – here at last were some positive signs.

And we needed some positives. Despite my gung-ho words of last week (“Next Sunday, I might put some money on us to do well against Tottenham. It would be typical Chelsea for us to dig out a result there”), as the week progressed, I became a little less confident. The thought us losing against Tottenham, and with no points from our first two league games, was playing heavily on my mind. And with good reason.

On the drive up to London, the Four Chuckle Brothers were of the same opinion.

“Spurs are a good team. Let’s take a draw today. A win at home to Everton next weekend and we’ll be back on track.”

The game at Wembley – the first-ever league game at the national stadium in almost one-hundred years – would surely be one of our toughest away games of the season. In my pre-season prediction, mirroring that of last season in fact, I had us finishing third behind Manchester City and Manchester United. If Tottenham were playing at the familiar White Hart Lane this season, they might have been in the mix too, but, like many, I predicted that their use of the larger and unluckier Wembley would work against them. I had them finishing fourth, or fifth.

Our drinking completed, we made our way up from the centre of London to Marylebone, catching the 3.20pm train. With only 3,100 away fans in attendance, we were certainly in the minority, but the train carriage that we chose was full of Chelsea. There were high spirits, but – alas – some vile songs of old too. There is no place at football for songs mentioning Nazi death camps. For a few moments I wondered what on earth possesses some people to utter such shite.

Knowing how heated it used to get outside the away end as we turned into Park Lane from the High Road at White Hart Lane, I fully expected a heavy police presence between Wembley Stadium train station and our entrance at the eastern side of the stadium. There was nothing. To be honest, I got the impression that most home fans were already ensconced in the stadium, no doubt jigging along to a Chas and Dave smash from the last century. The walkways to the stadium were relatively clear. I noted a gaggle of Old Bill walking away from us at the top of the incline – maybe one hundred yards away – but apart from a few expletives being exchanged, there was no trouble. I had visions of aggressive Spurs fans picking out stragglers. I had visions of coins being thrown at us – a White Hart Lane tradition of late – and I had thoughts of a few punches being exchanged. In the end, the walk to the stadium was bereft of any nastiness at all.

We made our way to the away turnstiles. At the eastern end – we have been rare visitors to this end over the years – there is much more space outside the gates. A thorough search and we were in. I had decided not to take my proper camera. Too much aggravation. I would have to make do with my camera phone. Imagine my annoyance when I clocked a couple of fans with cameras as big as the one I had left in Somerset. Oh well.

During the build up to the game, we had heard that the local council and/or police (it wasn’t really clear to me) had kept the attendance to a maximum of around 70,000. Conversely, I had heard from a local Spurs fan – I don’t know many – that 90,000 would be the norm this season. Even though Wembley is positioned in a Tottenham heartland, that still seems a massive number. Of course, with us looking to play at Wembley in around 2019, I am very intrigued to see how it all pans out. In the match programme, I spotted that tickets for our game ranged from £35 to £95. By and large, apart from the cordoned-off seats in the highest levels of the top tier, it looked like Spurs had sold out; even the expensive corporate tier looked full.

I think it’s imperative that Chelsea get the pricing structure right when our enforced exile happens. Although the distance from Stamford Bridge to Wembley is three miles less than from White Hart Lane to Wembley, Chelsea has always relied on its bedrock support to come from south of the river. Wembley is a north London venue and Spurs are a north London team. That fit just feels more natural than ours. So, the club needs to get it right. It needs to lower season ticket prices and match day prices to hold on to our existing support in the years ahead when we will leave the familiar surrounds of Stamford Bridge. The club needs to take a hit during the first year especially, or else fans will simply get out of the habit of going to see our games.

Season tickets as low as £500? Why on earth not?

Match day tickets as low as £20? Yes.

The last thing that I want to see at Wembley, with potentially room for 90,000, is for us to be playing some league games in a third-full stadium. The club needs to gauge it right. It needs to safeguard our support. It needs to bridge the gap from the old Stamford Bridge to the new Stamford Bridge. There’s much room for discussion on this subject. I’m sure that the club must realise this. I am sure much discussion is planned between the club and the various supporters’ groups. I just hope that they make the correct choices afterwards.

Much of the talk in the car on the drive to London had centred on Tiemoue Bakayoko. If he was fit, and chosen, he would surely play alongside N’Golo Kante. We chatted about which of the two potential defenders would play alongside David and Dave; Antonio Ridiger or Andreas Christensen? If Bakayoko was not fit – hell – then we wondered if Luiz or even Rudiger might anchor the midfield.

Well, Antonio Conte was ahead of all of us.

He had decided to play Bakayoko, Ridiger and Christensen. We wondered how the team would line-up.

Our section was down low; strangely in a different section to where I watched Bayer Leverkusen play Spurs last season. We were in good voice as the teams took to the pitch away to our right. The home club had issued flags to their supporters, and they feverishly waved them as kick-off approached. The problem for Tottenham is that white is a neutral colour. There was no real impact. It was all rather wishy-washy. It looked, in fact, like seventy-thousand surrender flags being flown.

There were hardly any of the normal, draped, flags on show from the usual vantage points. Instead, Tottenham had decided to transplant the “To Dare Is To Do”, “Spurs Are My Club” and “It’s All About Glory” taglines from White Hart Lane on the top, white, balcony. The lower balconies advertised various supporters’ groups from around the world on an electronic ticker, which changed every few seconds. If I was living in Florida, I would be very worried; there seems to be Tottenham fans everywhere within that sun-addled state– Tampa Spurs, Tallahassee Spurs, Ybor City Spurs, Orlando Spurs.

The game began.

What? David Luiz in midfield? Conte had surprised us all. Whether through circumstance or choice, our manager – thankfully wearing his suit after last weekend’s display – had chosen to play a 3/5/2 formation.

Courtois.

Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Alonso – Kante – Luiz – Bakayoko – Moses

Willian – Morata

Or a 5/3/2.

Or a 3/5/1/1.

Whatever.

But boy it worked.

We dominated the early moments, and Alvaro Morata really should have put us 1-0 up after only a few minutes. A cross from Dave on the right picked out our Spanish striker, completely unmarked, but his firm header was off target by some margin. I noted that Luiz was able to tuck back into a very defensive position – an extra shield – to assist the back three, who were playing as a three together for the very first time.

Tottenham, as expected, began to have more of the ball. Kane troubled Courtois and the derided Alli blasted over from a tight angle. But I was happy with our play. We looked tight defensively. There was pace everywhere. We closed down space. Kante and Luiz were everywhere. This had the makings of a great game. I was just pleased – I will be blunt – that we were in it.

The Spurs offensive – and I find them very offensive – continued. Dembele shot over. But I was still pretty calm. All around me, the Chelsea fans were making a fine racket. The home fans were surprisingly subdued.

And then it started. A bizarre rumble of drums blasted out over the tannoy. We were in fits of laughter :

“What the fackinell was that?”

Good God Tottenham. Have a look at yourselves. Piped drums? What on bloody Earth? It continued at regular intervals throughout the first period. The Spurs fans looked embarrassed, as they should.

Our support? We were in fine form.

“Stand up for the Champions.”

Gary, alongside me, was in good form too. He is small of stature is our Gal, but has a booming voice. Just after they became excited about “standing up if you hate Arsenal”, he initiated the song of the game. Just as they were returning to their seats, he rasped –

“Sit down if you’ve won fuck all.”

The entire away end joined in.

And the Spurs fans duly sat down. So funny. Good work, Gal.

On twenty-four minutes, David Luiz was fouled. We waited for the free-kick, some thirty yards away from the goal. The familiar left-foot of Marcos Alonso swiped and curled the ball over the lilywhite wall. I had a perfect view. Loris was well-beaten. The net bulged and so did we.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.

Our pre-match worries evaporated there and then. We were winning. Oh happy days.

Bakayoko had enjoyed a quiet start but he had a fine run deep into the Spurs half. Harry Kane twice threatened our goal, but his finishing was adrift. Spurs were biting back now, and just before half-time, a low drive from that man Kane came back off the post with Thibaut beaten. Spurs still had time to pepper our goal in the closing moments. We had ridden our luck, no doubt, but I was more than happy. Courtois had made a couple of saves but we looked like a team in control of our own destiny. It had been a very encouraging half. Andreas Christensen had been imperious. It was hard to fathom that this was his full debut. I have a contact through work who is a Borussia Monchengladbach supporter and we have been emailing each other at regular intervals over the past couple of seasons; he was distraught when we brought Christensen back from his loan spell. Elsewhere, we were full of running, full of fight.

Good old Antonio.

At half-time, I found out that the old Tottenham trick of throwing coins had followed them from White Hart Lane to Wembley; friends Liz and Michelle were both clutching coins that had been pelted their way.

That is just shite.

The second-half began. It was more of the same, to be honest, with much Tottenham possession, but Chelsea very compact, forcing Spurs to pass around us rather than through us. Whereas we have width up front and at the back, Spurs’ play was very central and they became stifled. Whenever they did pierce our midfield, I lost count of the number of times that Rudiger, Christensen and Luiz headed clear.

We then enjoyed a fine spell, with Willian teasing and testing the Spurs defence. Morata almost reached a cross. He then shot wide after fine close control although if I am honest I wished that he had not taken quite so many touches. He looks neat though. His goals will come. Moses danced into the box but blazed over. This was a fine Chelsea resurgence. Willian advanced and drilled a shot across the goalmouth, but we groaned as it hit the base of the post. Bollocks.

Ten minutes to go.

Pedro for Willian. Batshuayi for the exhausted Morata.

“Come on Chelsea.”

On eighty-two minutes, and after countless crosses being claimed by Courtois, or headed away by the defenders, we conceded a free-kick out wide and I immediately sensed danger.

I almost held myself back from saying it, not wishing to tempt fate, blah, blah, blah, but I simply could not help myself. I whispered to Gal –

“These are the free-kicks I hate us defending.”

Two seconds later, the danger man Eriksen whipped in a head-high cross.

Bam.

1-1.

Fuck it.

The action was so far away that I did not even notice that it was a Chelsea player – the luckless Batshuayi – who had thumped the ball in.

At last the Spurs fans exploded with noise.

And, I will be honest – I am hopefully honest in these reports – the place was fucking rocking. Only on a couple of other occasions have I heard more noise at an English football stadium. They only seem to have two songs, the fuckers – “Come On You Spurs” and “Oh When The Spurs Go Marching In” – but it was as noisy as hell. The rabble down to my left were pointing, gurning and strutting like Mick Jagger. What an unpleasant sight.

“Bloody hell. OK, deal. A draw here. A win against Everton. Back on track. Just don’t concede another.”

To be fair to us, we kept pressing. It was a fantastic game of football. With time running out, a ball was played in to Michy, but he crumpled under the challenge. We won the ball back – Luiz, magnificent – and he played in Pedro, fresh legs and full of guile. With Spurs a little flat and half-asleep, he fed in Marcos Alonso.

He advanced.

He struck low.

The ball zipped beneath Loris.

Oh my fucking goodness.

2-1.

What happened then has only happened on a few rare occasions in my football-life. I lost it. We all lost it.

A last minute winner.

Against Tottenham.

At Wembley.

On their big day.

Their big fucking day.

I bounced up and screamed. I quickly grabbed my sunglasses because I knew they would fly off. Damage limitation. I noticed fans flocking down the aisle steps, heading down, I had to join them, destiny. I wanted to run, but steadied myself as other fans knocked me sideways. It was mayhem. Arms flailing everywhere. Pauline had been knocked to the floor. I raced on. Bloody hell, what is Parky’s crutch doing here? At the bottom of the terrace, a mosh pit of ecstasy. Fans bouncing, jumping, arms pointing, bodies being grabbed, hugs with strangers, smiles wide, screams, screams, screams.

And a surreal sight ahead, just yards away.

I looked up to see the entire Chelsea team, or at least the ten men in royal blue – and the royal blue seeming, strangely, out of place among the away end regulars – celebrating wildly with the nutters in the front row.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

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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.

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Tales From A Game Too Far

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 27 May 2017.

The F.A. Cup Final. The grand finale to the domestic season. Chelsea’s last game and my last game of 2016/2017. The final hurrah.

There is nothing quite like an F. A. Cup Final.

Or to be precise, there was nothing like an F. A. Cup Final.

Before we experienced wall-to-wall football on TV, before the Champions League skewed club priorities every season, back in the days of when the nation stopped as one and all the talk in the preceding week was about the game, the F.A. Cup Final was a truly magical event. When did the magic start fading? For me, it was when the game left the old Wembley Stadium, before it took temporary refuge at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff for six seasons, and then returned to the spanking new, but generally unloved, new Wembley.

The Cup still stirs emotions, but that magic – difficult to describe to anyone who never grew up in an England which only showed one club game of football live on TV each season – has long since gone.

But, after the season-long chase for the title which was undoubtedly the main focus – to the point of obsession – we were gifted the chance to end the campaign with further glory and further fun. Tickets were purchased, plans were made. This was going to be a fine end to the season.

And then, two events happened which changed everything.

Staying up late, as I often do, on Monday night, I watched – horrified – on TV as news filtered through regarding the atrocity which befell the proud city of Manchester. I felt sadness, pain and anger. I slipped into a disturbed sleep and awoke the next day to the news of the full extent of the carnage. What sorrow. Immediately, there was the realisation that the F. A. Cup Final would be under intense scrutiny as there was the risk for similar attacks on personal freedom. There was, of course, no way that I would not go.

However, there was more sadness. At work on the Tuesday morning, I received a message from my wonderful friend Alan. After the game against Sunderland on Sunday, we had said our goodbyes at “The Lillee Langtry” and as we headed home, he paid a visit to his dear mother in a South London hospital. Sadly, the message relayed the heart-breaking news that his mother had passed away that Tuesday morning.

I fell silent and felt a great deal of pain. I only met Alan’s mother once – in around 1996 or 1997 if memory serves – but she was a lovely South London lady, just as her son is a lovely South London man. I passed on my sincere condolences to Alan – an only child like myself, our friendship goes deep –  and our solid group of friends rallied support for Alan throughout the week. We hoped and prayed that he would be well enough to attend the game on Saturday.

There was a real feeling of relief, and happiness – if that is the right word – to hear on Friday that Alan would be attending.

This brought back some bittersweet memories for me of course. And it made me think. How very odd that my mother’s passing in 2015 was followed by a Chelsea Cup Final at Wembley Stadium, and that the first game after Alan’s mother’s passing would be a Chelsea Cup Final too. Two years ago, I needed to be around the greatest of friends to help me through the day. I am sure that Alan’s thoughts were along similar lines. And as he explained to me, his mother – who keenly followed all of our matches – would not have wanted him to have missed the game on behalf of her.

The football, at times, seemed irrelevant throughout the week, but as Saturday finally arrived, there was a new focus for all of us.

An intense lightning storm woke me at 3am during the night, followed by deafening thunder and a monsoon-like deluge. It was a dramatic start to the day for sure. I struggled to get back to sleep. Would Saturday be sunny, as forecast, or would the rain continue? With a Chelsea Football Club statement asking for no bags to be brought to Wembley in light of the terrorist threat, I pondered options for getting my camera into the stadium. Eventually I drifted back to sleep.

Glenn picked me up at 7.45am. He drove in to Frome to collect PD, who had also awoken amid the light show at 3am. On to collect Parky, a breakfast of champions at Bradford-on-Avon at 8.30am, and Glenn then headed east, London-bound for the last time this season.

We wanted to continue a theme for this season; a little pub-crawl in previously virgin territory. Yes, we knew that there would be songs and chants and revelry at a number of watering holes throughout the capital, but we opted for a little tranquility before joining forces with Alan and others later. From 11.30am to 2pm, we nestled ourselves within the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and sampled four pubs within a few hundred yards of each other; “The Wilton Arms”, “The Nag’s Head”, “The Star” and “The Grenadier.” We were in Belgravia, one of the most expensive pieces of real estate going. It felt right that we should be starting our day in Chelsea, although of course Stamford Bridge itself is in Hammersmith & Fulham. Each pub had hanging baskets outside, wooden interiors, tons of character, lots of history. The sun was out, LP’s and PD’s shorts were on, and the beer was certainly hitting the spot.

At “The Nag’s Head” we chatted to a Russian Chelsea fan from Moscow, living in London since 2004, and off to the match too.

Just as we arrived at “The Star”, two US Arsenal fans, wearing replica shirts – shocker – were just leaving. I reminded them of the Arsenal way : “remember to beat the crowds, stay until the end.” They laughed, but I’m not convinced they understood what I meant.

Four pints to the good, we headed up towards Paddington, where the London-based lads were waiting at “Fountains Abbey” on Praed Street.

A hug for Alan, and I was pleased to see that he was full of smiles. We chatted away and it was lovely to see that he had made the right decision. His dear mother, although probably in a little pain on Sunday night, had enquired how Chelsea had fared in our last game of the season. That simple question – his mother asking about the team – had probably swayed him further. There was no way that Alan would miss the Cup Final.

Ah, the final. Throughout the week, when the game flitted in to my head, I remained confident. I hadn’t been more confident leading up to a major final since the 1998 trip to Stockholm. It seemed that everyone shared similar thoughts. I chatted to Ed, who was one of the few who were mentioning the game itself. He had been confident, yet was beginning to worry as kick-off approached. I calmed him a little.

“Nah, we’ll win. We’re too good for them. No doubt. And there is no point feeling guilty about being confident. Listen, it’s what Liverpool fans in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties were, and what United fans around fifteen years ago were. They were great teams and their fans knew it. Nothing wrong with being confident.”

After five pints or more, I was even beginning to convince myself too.

In another moment – maybe when I was less confident – I spoke quietly to Glenn.

“Of course, you realise that if we lose to these fuckers, our next two games will be against them too; in July in Beijing and in August at Wembley.”

Shudder.

In light of the call to be inside the stadium an hour before kick-off, we headed off for the tube earlier than normal. No last minute flit to Wembley this time. In previous finals, we have often arrived just in time for the last few formalities. No chance of that this time.

We tubed it to Marylebone and caught the train north. Our carriage was mainly Chelsea. The few Arsenal fans spotted were wearing replica shirts in the main. Of course, many Chelsea were too – it’s a Cup Final tradition, I wore a 1970 replica in 1994 – but there was a noticeable difference before the two sets of fans. Of our group of ten, only Gary and John were wearing club merchandise.

Lacoste Watch :

Parky – white.

Ed – chocolate.

Chris – pale blue.

(Incidentally, I was wearing blue all over : blue shirt, blue jeans, blue trainers, blue rain jacket and even my aftershave came from a blue bottle. And there was blue language too of course.)

We arrived at Wembley Stadium station at around 4.30pm. Chelsea were all around. I suspect Arsenal were using the more traditional Wembley Park option. The sun was beating down. There was not much of a queue to get in. My camera, slung around my neck, was waved in, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Up the escalators and inside. Wembley looked vast and we were in with plenty of time to spare, located in the upper tier, above the “Frank Lampard corner flag.” Alan, Gary, Ed and Neil were about thirty seats away. There were a few familiar faces nearby. It is amazing how we always seem to find ourselves among friends. At each seat, there was a Chelsea flag and a Chelsea bar scarf. A young lad appeared in the row in front and he was wearing an authentic Benetton rugby top from the mid-‘eighties. If ever there was a garment which is much desired to this day from that golden age of football clobber, then this was it. It is the holy grail of casualdom. I once owned one, albeit for only a few weeks, and that is a tale which I will eventually tell when the mood takes me, and originals now fetch ridiculous sums. I told the kid that I wanted to kill him and he smiled.

At the Eastern end, a huge Arsenal banner hung from the rafters :

“History. Tradition. Class.”

I think they left out “pomposity.”

At our western end, a simpler message :

“Pride Of London.”

As the minutes ticked by, the stadium filled. Our end appeared to fill quicker. Glenn noted a new feature, a thin section of obviously corporate spectators in the upper deck above the Royal Box; no colours on show there. In the corporate middle tier, I reckoned that there was just as much blue as red, a positive sign. Wembley has recently tightened the rules on bringing flags and banners into the stadium and the arena looked less football-like because of it. It’s as if they are saying “leave the atmosphere to us.”

A huge FA Cup mosaic adorned the pitch. Young dancers sprung on to the pitch waving bar scarves.

“It wasn’t like this in 1997.”

Of course, the team picked itself. It was the team that I would definitely have chosen.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill

Moses – Matic – Kante – Alonso

Pedro – Costa – Hazard

The minutes ticked by.

The next part of this FA Cup Saturday was about to unfold. And it is quite a story. Over a year ago, my good mate Rob took part in a short film which followed two football fans on a personal journey into the once elitist world of opera. Rob and Harry are Chelsea fans of a certain vintage and were not into opera at all. They were coerced by their pals Mike and Adam to attend various operatic shindigs, culminating in a performance of Giussepe Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the Royal Opera House, all the while being filmed along the way. It is a lovely film and won awards at the London Film Awards in 2016. Adam and Harry recently attended a film festival in LA too.

London.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QxaLMiHsUU

Los Angeles.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEI1PmgMLVA&t=328s

To cut a very long story short, Rob and Adam – Harry was on a family holiday so could not attend – were to join twenty other football fans from around the country in the singing of the traditional Cup Final hymn “Abide With Me.” I promised Rob that I would capture the moment with my camera; it is why I was so worried about getting the long lens inside the stadium. I spotted the group walk onto the pitch. My camera was ready.

Just before their moment, a montage appeared on the huge TV screens. As Eddie Newton and Sol Campbell were chosen to bring the FA Cup on to the pitch, a grainy clip of Eddie’s goal against Middlesbrough in 1997 was shown. An echo of a different era really. How time flies, eh?

The crowd quietened. I have noticed how “Abide With Me” seems to play less and less a role in the FA Cup Final these days. On my first visit in 1994, with my father having passed away the previous year, the words drew tears from myself as I sang along. Since then, on all subsequent visits, I have noted fewer and fewer fans joining in. Whether or not it was because of the events of Manchester or not, and the need to show a sense of community and shared kinship, on this occasion I sensed more than usual joining in.

As the words flowed, I joined in, and clicked away.

My thoughts were with Alan, just yards away.

Next up, the national anthem. Another show of solidarity. It was as loud that I can ever remember at Wembley.

The stadium was full now. A red-half and a less prominent blue-half. The two teams assembled on the centre-circle. Thoughts were now centred on the events of Monday night. At first there was applause but as the announcement continued, everyone hushed. I was very impressed. There followed a minute of complete silence in memory for those slain in Manchester.

RIP.

The game began. We stood, high up in row 22 of the top deck, for the entire game. Not everyone was stood, though. A fine long ball from David Luiz found Pedro but we failed to capitalise. For the next few minutes, we struggled to get a foothold. Arsenal looked livelier and more focused. N’Golo Kante struggled to keep the ball and we watched as an Arsenal move developed. A ball was slung in to our box. A clearance was knocked towards Alexis Sanchez who raised both arms and appeared to pat the ball down with his hands.

“Handball” thought everyone.

There was no referee’s whistle, nothing. Our players appeared to momentarily stop, but play continued. Sanchez slotted home.

“Well, that was good of you, you prick. It was handball, knobhead.”

But there was still no whistle.

The referee, oddly, raced over to the linesman.

“Not sure why he is doing that. He was only a few yards away from the handball.”

The referee and linesman chatted for a few seconds. I was absolutely adamant that the goal would be disallowed. It wasn’t. The referee pointed to the centre-circle. Disbelief all round. The Arsenal players seemed to not celebrate as if they were shocked too. Bollocks. Barely five minutes were on the clock.

During the first quarter, we really struggled and it was a huge surprise to us all. Where there had been fight and togetherness during the league campaign, here we looked listless and disjointed. We were slow in closing Arsenal’s attacking threat, and I lost count of the number of misplaced passes. As our play failed to live up to the standards set by the team this season, our support quietened. We were all in shock.

Sanchez set up Ozil, whose touch took him a little wide. His shot beat Courtois, but Gary Cahill’s nimble back-heal on the goal-line saved us from going 2-0 down. Then, Welbeck headed down and onto the post from a corner, and an Arsenal player was thankfully unable to follow it up.

We could have been 3-0 down. Heads were shaking all around me.

“When have we played as bad as this?”

“Arsenal away.”

We tried to rally.

“Come on Chelsea.”

We tried moving the ball into dangerous areas. To be truthful, Pedro was his usual energetic self and was our biggest threat of the opening period. Diego Costa had a couple of half chances. Eden struggled to get involved; I had hoped that this would be his final. Moses out on the right had a lot of the ball but struggled with the final ball. But it was our defensive frailty which caused us more worry. Matic was especially slow in covering ground and blocking.

Arsenal threatened further with Sanchez a huge threat. Courtois saved well from Xhaka.

With the first-half moving on, we improved slightly. Hazard fed in Pedro, but his shot from only fifteen yards out flew high over the bar and in to the packed Arsenal lower tier, full of jester hats, and face-paint too, no doubt. That was our best chance of the game thus far. But we were clearly second best.

Just before the whistle, we won a free kick on the edge of the box after Pedro’s heels were clipped. It was a perfect position for the left foot of Marcos Alonso. His effort sailed over, knocking the jester hat off an Arsenal fan in row Z.

At the break, neighbouring fans passed on news that the Arsenal goal should have been disallowed for offside in addition to the obvious handball. The ghost of David fucking Elleray lingers on.

Only one phrase dominated my thoughts at half-time :

“We can’t play as badly in the second half.”

I would have like to have been a fly on the wall inside our changing room during the interval. Thankfully, we started the second period a lot more positively. It roused the Chelsea support, who had been generally quiet as the first-half passed. A few shots from Pedro, Kante and Moses hinted at a fine reaction. The Chelsea support roared.

“Carefree.”

Pedro continued to be our biggest threat. We watched as he curled a fine effort just past the far post.

PD wanted Pedro to drop back and replace Moses at right back with Willian being brought on. I concurred. The manager had a different idea. On the hour, Conte replaced the very poor Matic with the much-lauded Cesc Fabregas. “The Magic Hat” reverberated around our end. He was met with boos from the the Goons of course. The Wembley pitch looked huge and we seemed unable to exploit its spaces. Bellerin tested Courtois from just inside the box, and our ‘keeper made the save of the match, pushing the ball out with outstretched arms. We roared our approval.

Down below us, Cesc shot wide. The minutes were ticking by.

With about twenty minutes remaining, Moses – who was having an up and down game – fell weakly inside the box. The referee judged a dive. It was his second yellow. Despite much protest, he left the field.

Twenty-eight thousand fans inside the stadium thought the same thought : “that’s fucked it.”

Willian replaced Pedro, who had arguably been our best player. He was soon involved down our right. Strangely, we looked more effective. A rare corner amounted to nothing, but then Willian crossed in to the box. For the first time all match, the Arsenal defenders were sloppy and indecisive. Diego took a touch and volleyed past Ospina.

“GET IN YOU BASTARD.”

Our end exploded. A moment of pandemonium mixed with real disbelief.

“How the bloody hell are we back in the game?”

Less than a minute later, that bearded knobhead Giroud sent over a cross which Ramsey headed in, past Courtois, a gaping goal an easy target.

Despair.

The Pompous Ones boomed with joy at the other end, and probably spilled their popcorn.

“Fuck.”

With time quickly disappearing, we tried to counter. David Luiz, who had supplied the attackers with a couple of excellent long passes, and who had been well-placed to head away several Arsenal efforts, went close with a header from an angle.

Bellerin, breaking with pace, could have sealed our fate but brushed a low shot wide. I turned around and sighed. This was too much.

In a position which mirrored his goal, Diego volleyed at Ospina. A yard either side of the ‘keeper and we would have miraculously levelled it again.

The clock ticked on.

Conte replaced Diego with Michy Batshuayi. Ozil hit the post at the other end. Luiz spent a fair portion of the last few minutes as a spare attacker.

It was simply not to be.

As the last few seconds ticked by, we slowly edged our way out.

The final whistle blew. We just wanted to leave, to get ourselves on the train back to the city centre. We should have, in hindsight, stayed to applaud the team, but we just wanted to get home. This was my forty-seventh game of the season and I felt exhausted.

Bizarrely, there were a few Arsenal fans in the line for the train. We wondered why they did not want to stay to see the trophy lifted. The magic of the cup, eh? In that line for the train – gallows humour to the fore, jokes helping us through – it appeared that we were in brighter spirits than the victorious Gooners. What an odd bunch they are. Maybe it was dawning on them that this would not be Wenger’s last game at the helm after all. How we laughed.

On the train, there was a fair bit of mainly good-natured banter between both sets of fans. A little knot of Arsenal kept singing in praise of Petr Cech, and it got boring. There was nothing malicious. However, they then decided – oh, you fools – to sing “WWYWYWS?” at us and this was met with a far more prickly response. The message was clear; you can take the piss out of our players, our club, but do not take the piss out of us, the fans. And do not, ever, sing that song to us.

Our support has never weakened. We have always shown up.

One Chelsea supporter stood up, and ranted at them, and it was powerful stuff. Although I can’t condone violence nor the threat of it, it certainly shut the fuckers up.

Very soon we sang :

“It’s gone quiet, over there.”

They had no answer.

Fuck’em.

We made our way back to Barons Court. The last tube journey of the season. We chatted to a few fellow fans. There was the briefest of post-mortems. One chap advocated using Cesc from the very start to open up the vast Wembley spaces. But, in hindsight, I would not have altered the starting eleven that the manager chose. It just seemed that it had been one game too far. Regardless of the farce of the first goal, we knew that we were well beaten. It had been a long day. At a service station on the A4, where Glenn and myself once bumped into Mark Hughes after a Chelsea game in 1998, we had an impromptu feast. The last food had been at breakfast. My mouth was as dry as a desert; a bottle of Coke has never tasted better. We were exhausted. I fell asleep on the drive home. Glenn made good time and I was back home before midnight.

It had been a long old day and a long old season. It ended with a poor performance, but we must not focus on that. It has been an exceptional campaign, hasn’t it? I must say that I have loved every damn minute of it; from the excesses of the US in the summer to the biting tundra of Ice Station Burnley, from the pubs of Sunderland and Liverpool to the bars around Chelsea, from the many highs to the few lows, from the Chuckle Bus and beyond, one step beyond, it has been one of the most rewarding seasons ever.

2016/17 : the numbers –

650 miles by train.

8,000 miles by plane.

12,500 miles by car.

115,000 words.

7,500 photographs.

1 league championship trophy.

We went to work, didn’t we? Too bloody right we did.

Grazie mille Antonio.

Have a great summer everyone – and many thanks for your continued and precious support.

In memory of Eileen Davidson : 28 July 1931 to 23 May 2017.

IMG_6611

Tales From A Wembley High

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 22 April 2017.

We all knew how important this FA Cup semi-final was. We had suffered a recent blip in the league with two defeats out of the past four games and so we all realised that this game against Tottenham Hotspur – aka “that lot” – had the potential to make or break our season. A once seemingly impenetrable lead of ten points had been frittered away to a meagre four. A defeat – God forbid – at the hands of that lot at Wembley, we reasoned, would strike a horrible blow to our self-belief, while handing a lifeline to them.

No further build-up required. It was a massive match.

I woke early – again before the alarm – and unsurprisingly nervous. I was, if I am honest, full of trepidation. And this certainly felt odd. In recent years I have rarely felt so unsure of a Chelsea win and, with it, a grand day out from start to finish.

The four Chuckle Brothers – Lord Parky, PD, Glenn and myself – had travelled up by train once again. It brought back memories, thankfully briefly, of the train trip that we all took just a few days after my mother passed away for the League Cup semi-final against the same opponent just over two years ago. On that day, I didn’t feel much like football, but my friends famously pulled me through. We had set off from Frome at 8am, and were soon at the lovely and delightful Paddington Station. There is something quite wonderful about alighting at a grand terminus, especially on a football day out. We had not spotted fans of either team on the journey to London. I certainly expected to bump into groups of “them” throughout the day.

As we strode out across the busy concourse towards Praed Street, I pointed out the metallic bench seats where the four of us had slumped – silent, stony-faced, sad – after the away game at The Emirates in September, and we all remembered those fleeting moments of pain and worry. The bench really sticks in my mind. It is undoubtedly one my personal totems of this incredible season. It made me think of another football club and one with which our current manager is heavily linked. I always remember that during the ceremony to mark the opening of the new Juventus Stadium in 2011, a bench played a starring role, since the famous old club was formed by some youngsters who met by a bench in one of Turin’s main streets. A replica of that bench was floodlit, in the middle of the pitch, as all other lights were dimmed. It was a simple and fine image. It represented a pivotal moment in time for that club. I promised the boys that if we ever made it to the FA Cup Final in May, we would make a point of returning to sit on that same bench on the Paddington concourse – maybe as league champions – and remember how far this team has come. Imagine returning on the evening of Saturday 27 May after an FA Cup Final with some silverware in our back pockets. Sometimes it is easy to forget how far we have travelled in 2016/2017. After that game at Arsenal, it felt like we were down and out. We had a team in need of fresh blood. The mess of the previous season was set to continue. Our new manager had been found out. We were to face a long and testing season.

I had sorted out a little pub crawl. After scoffing a great breakfast outside the station, we were the first patrons to enter “Sawyers Arms” bang on 11am. We had already admitted to ourselves that we were all nervous about the game. Over a “Peroni”, the talk continued about the game. We all admitted that the result at Old Trafford had really been a “bad day at the office” especially when the news broke that a few players had been stricken with a stomach bug. The team had obviously been knocked sideways by the pre-match changes. In retrospect, everything looked out of kilter. But we were sure that the manager would be suitably prepared for the semi-final. Of course, the loss of Gary Cahill would be a tough one. We favoured Nathan Ake over Kurt Zouma and John Terry.

As we approached “The Sussex Arms” I spotted a gaggle of Herberts supping pints outside.

“Oh here we go. This could be them.”

As I got closer, I recognised a few familiar faces. Inside the dark boozer, I recognised even more. Many of the Chelsea fans from our neck of the woods had evidently decided to forego the bars closer to the station. I took my pint of San Miguel and chatted to one of the Swindon lads, Paul. Close by were lads from Melksham, Westbury, Trowbridge and Gloucester. Outside, the banter continued. None of us were overly confident. We were joined by three Chelsea lads from California – Tom, Brad and Mike, all in and out for just the one game – and we then headed off to the next pub on the list.

“The Victoria” is a cracking pub and I last visited it on the day of the 2012 FA Cup Final with Parky. The return visit in 2017 was, I will admit, a superstitious move by myself. But it is a fantastic boozer and it has retained its charm. A couple more drinks went down well. It was approaching 2pm.

We hailed a cab and darted off to “The Green Man” by Edgware Road tube. Daryl, Ed, Gary, Alan, John, Simon and Milo were already there, and the pub soon became swamped with many of the West of England Chelsea that we had met in “The Sussex Arms”. There was a moment when I looked up and each and every one of my London mates were chatting to lads from my part of England. It was a lovely moment. It encapsulated the buzz that I get out of following the team all over this country and beyond. All of us united by our love of Chelsea. All of us loving a beer. All of us loving a laugh.

The pub is nestled under the Westway and we were able to spot the Manchester City team bus that became stuck in traffic It was daubed with the club crest and a huge image of their players doing a “Poznan.”

I hope that Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Vincent Kopmany appreciated the variety of hand signals that welcomed their slow advance into London.

Believe it or not, we were yet to see any opposing fans. Not one. Or at least, none that were wearing club colours. Maybe a few had sidled past us at Paddington but we would not have known. We had spotted little knots of police at Paddington, but there had been no Spurs fans. We walked to Marylebone train station. On the ten-minute ride to Wembley Stadium train station, right next to the ground, I spotted my first two Spurs fans of the day. One of them overheard me say “oh, there’s one” and apologised.

“Sorry.”

That made me smile.

The team news had broken through and it surprised us. Completely.

Out went Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, in came Willian and Michy Batshuayi.

Wow.

As for Gary Cahill’s replacement, we were right. In came Nathan Ake.

Unlike in previous years, there was no last-minute struggle to get in before the kick-off. We were all in with plenty of time to spare. The four of us were high behind the west end goal. Just like in the 2009 and 2012 finals, we were in that small section right above the TV screen. More positive superstition. Wembley is huge, of course. We preferred to be up high, since the patterns of play are able to be followed easier. Nearer the pitch, it becomes difficult to get much of a perspective.

Overhead, a mixture of sun and cloud.

Hardly any flags and banners were on show. New stadium regulations had meant that flags over a certain size needed to be pre-registered and have fire-certificates, thus stopping most from being allowed in. The cynical view is that banners obstruct advertisements along the balcony walls. Only one winner there, I am afraid.

It was lovely to spot thirty Chelsea Pensioners sitting in the lower deck to my left.

A few songs boomed out of the PA. A white flag wended its way from left to right in the lower tier of the east terrace, a blue flag moved over the heads of our supporters down below us. As the teams entered the pitch, supporters in our end frantically waved thousands of royal blue flags, while the other end depicted “COYS” amid alternate white and navy sections.

The scene was set.

But first, a minute of applause as the football world remembered Ugo Ehiogu, the former Aston Villa and Middlesbrough defender, who had sadly passed away the previous day. He was a fine player. Both sets of players wore black armbands. Towards the end of the minute’s applause, we joined in chanting “Ugo” too.

We stood the entire game as did the majority around us and below us.

The match began and we started very well indeed. We thwarted an early attack which resulted in a corner but a fine Nathan Ake tackle set us off on a rapid attack of our own. A lovely touch from Michy set the raiding Pedro on his way. As he approached the penalty box, he was clumsily tackled by Toby Alderweireld. Barely three minutes had passed. A free-kick in “Willian territory.”

He steadied himself before clipping a fine shot just over the line of defenders. The net rippled and we roared. What a dream start and other clichés. The players raced over towards the side of the pitch, no doubt winding up both the opposing fans and also Mauricio Pocchetino, watching on like Rodney Bewes in a dark grey flasher mac.

I spotted a plane trailing an “ANTONIO ANTONIO” banner.

The pre-match worry had been temporarily lifted. For a while, we looked in control and at ease. Nathan Ake, bless him, looked particularly good. His movement is so natural. Sadly, this purple period did not last. A corner from Cristian Eriksen was cleared but he had a second bite of the cherry. A cross towards the near post was met by a stooping header from Harry bloody Kane, whose slight touch took the ball bouncing into goal way past the dive of Thibaut Courtois.

Ugh.

Game, as they say, on.

There wasn’t constant noise, but the atmosphere wasn’t at all bad. The slow and dirge like “oh when that lot go marching in” was matched by a few “carefrees.”  I was able to spot a few empty seats around and about but this was virtually a full house. There were little battles everywhere. N’Golo Kante was right in the middle of everything. I couldn’t work out why Son was playing at left-back. Victor Moses had a few trademark runs down that flank. That lot began to dominate and our defenders did well the repel their attacks. Luiz was at the centre of those blocks, ably aided by Ake to his left and Dave to his right.

Just before the break, the ball was pushed forward to Moses. He took a touch, but the poorly-timed challenge from Son immediately looked promising. After a split second, the referee Martin Atkinson pointed to the spot.

“Get in.”

We waited. It looked like Batshuayi wanted to take it. Silly boy. Thankfully, Willian grabbed the ball. There was a slight stall as he approached the spot. Hugo Lloris was already on his way to his left as Willian struck it to his right.

“Yes.”

We punched the sky. But whereas there was wild euphoria with his first goal, there was just relief with this one.

The French ‘keeper appeared to touch the ball outside of the box, but we were one hundred yards away. At the break, texts came through to say that the touch was outside the box.

But the mood was buoyant at the break. We were halfway to paradise.

Our old rivals started the second-half the brighter. Luiz was soon heading and blocking in fine style. As Eriksen was allowed a little space, Glenn uttered the immortal words “no, don’t let him” and at that moment, we let him float a superb ball in and Delle Alli was able to meet the bounce of the ball and prod it high past Courtois.

“Bollocks.”

Only seven minutes of the second-half were on the clock.

That lot then dominated for quite some time, though in all honesty rarely threatened our goal. Luiz headed cross after cross away. A strip of sun edged slowly towards the eastern side of the stadium as the game continued. Elsewhere the pitch was in shadow. The songs ebbed and flowed.

On the hour, our manager pulled the strings. Off came Willian the goal scorer and on came Eden Hazard. Off came Batshuayi and on came Diego Costa. After a bright start, Michy had been largely stranded up front as the game continued. I heaved a sigh of relief. What a bonus for us to bring on such quality from our bench. They still had most of the ball though, but again found it so difficult to get behind us or even through us. Our royal blue wall was not going to be easily breached. Time after time, their attacks petered out.

Cesc Fabregas then replaced Pedro, who had also started brightly but was beginning to fade. Very soon, we won our first corner of the game. The ball reached an unmarked Eden Hazard, lurking just outside the box. He took one touch and shot low, through a forest of legs, and we watched – on tenterhooks – as the ball continued unhindered into the goal.

GET. FUCKING. IN.

Our end boomed.

A quarter of an hour remained.

“And its super Chelsea. Super Chelsea FC. We’re by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen.”

This was the loudest that I think that I had ever heard us at the new Wembley Stadium.

Five minutes later, our two craftsmen combined inside the box. Fabregas twisted a ball back to Hazard from the bye-line, and Eden took a couple of touches as he ran across the pitch, just keeping the ball under control. The ball was pushed towards Nemanja Matic, some thirty yards out.

Smack.

The ball crashed in off the underside of the bar, Lloris beaten, the whole team beaten.

Our end roared once again.

Chelsea 4 Tottenham Hotspur 2.

Oh my bloody goodness.

At the other end, red seats started appearing. They had seen this all before. They were off home. In 2012 we administered their sixth consecutive semi-final defeat. Now, in 2017, we had given them their seventh in a row.

Incredibly, Hazard and then Costa came close in the final few moments. A Kane free-kick in the dying embers of a fantastic game was saved by Courtois.

At the final whistle, of course many more red seats visible now, the joy of reaching another FA Cup Final almost matched the joy of beating “that lot” in a hugely important game in this most incredible, mesmerising, entertaining and dramatic of seasons.

The players cavorted down below. The manager looked breathless. The twin staples “One Step Beyond” and “Blue Is The Colour” boomed.

“Sing Chelsea everyone.”

The return train trip into the centre of London was full of smiles. At a bar outside Marylebone station, we met up with more Chelsea pals. Outside the redbrick hotel opposite, we spotted the Manchester City coach. Apparently, the Chelsea team had stayed at the very same hotel the previous night. We caught the 10pm train home, and there was time for one last gin and tonic from the buffet. Looking back, I should have asked for a double.

We reached home at midnight. It had been another fantastic day.

On Tuesday, the show rolls on. There is no time to rest. Southampton at home. See you there.

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Tales From The Red Seats

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 2 August 2015.

What is the old saying?

“Familiarity breeds contempt.”

For the Football Association’s season opener this certainly seems to be the case. Long gone are the days when a trip to Wembley Stadium elicited a warm glow for myself and thousands like me. We are, as another old saying goes, a victim of our success. This would be Chelsea’s ninth such game – Charity Shield, then Community Shield – since 1997, and our eleventh in total. The 1955 game (beating Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge in front of just 12,802) is hardly ever spoken about. The 1970 game (losing to Everton at home, with a gate of 43,547, and Stamford Bridge never looking more sun-kissed) is on the outer reaches of modern Chelsea fans’ awareness. From 1997 though, our appearance in this game – first as F.A. Cup winners and then, get used to it world, as league champions – has been a regular event.

However, as of 2015, it is the one game every season that is starting to pall.

With the summer trip to the United States behind me, and with the league opener against Swansea City not far away, I was trying my hardest to get “up” for our Community Shield game against Arsenal. Of course it would be great to see a few Chelsea mates for the first time of the summer, but as for the game itself, I was struggling. There seemed to be a common understanding among fellow fans that a game against local rivals would add a little excitement to the game. There was talk of a “mark” being set for the season. There was also to be the strange sight of Petr Cech in Arsenal colours. Despite all of this, I was still having difficulties.

It was almost as if I was travelling to Wembley under some sort of strange sense of duty, which sounds rather pompous and silly. But, by the same token, there was no chance of me ever missing it.

“You’ve got me Chelsea, you’ve got me.”

I collected His Lordship at 9.30am. The domestic season was up and running.

On the drive to London, I chatted to Parky about the summer tour, which was over way too quickly, but left me with many lovely memories. Funnily enough, despite the joy of meeting up with a host of old and new Chelsea friends and the three games themselves, I think that the resounding memory for me is the time that I spent on The Great American Road. In my twelve days away, I covered 1,962 miles in my hire car, and the vast majority came in that massive “V” which I cut into the heart of America, travelling from New York City down to Charlotte in one trip and then from Charlotte back up to Washington DC the next. There were journey times of eleven hours and of eight hours respectively, with memories from each to last until the cold winter months and beyond. There was even one song – “Uma Thurman” by Fall Out Boy – which will forever be synonymous with my US trip of 2015, since I could not escape it, no matter what radio station I found. The summer tour also had other totems. The tour beers were “Shock Top”, “Rolling Rock”, “Blue Moon”, “Yuengling” and “Corona.”

From a football perspective, the theme was “penalties.”

And Bobby Tambling.

Good times, good times.

As we rose steadily on the elevated section of the M4, I glanced north and spotted the Wembley arch, clearly visible and with the late morning sun picking it out perfectly against the blue North London sky. We were soon parked at Barons Court. At about 12.30pm we met up with Alan, Gary, John and Dave at The Tyburn near Marble Arch. The last time that I was in this pub, and my last visit to Wembley in March, I was in my own little world of sadness.

As I sipped on a pint of San Miguel, I genuinely felt that a new season would help me move on from the grief which took over the closing months of 2014-2015.

Alan and Gary left for the game at about 1.45pm. Dave, Parky and myself stayed on for – you have guessed it – “one last beer.” We then had to hotfoot it to Marylebone to catch the 2.28pm train. It would be a fight to make kick-off. We never learn, do we? We bumped into the rumbustious crew from Trowbridge and Westbury on the fifteen minute train journey – “Parky!” – and it was great to see them again. To be honest, they would be the only familiar faces that we would see all afternoon. Maybe others were finding it hard to get “up” for this game too.

Inside the stadium concourse, I spotted Alan and Gary behind me.

“Got waylaid, son.”

We reached our seats just as the game kicked-off.

Phew.

We had super seats; row four of the upper tier, on the Royal Box side, midway inside the “Chelsea half.”

With people still lining up for beers in the area outside, the stadium was not remotely full at the start. However, after ten minutes, things were looking better and seats were filling up. It was obvious, though, that there were more empty red seats in our western end than in the Arsenal end. It was also noticeable that the Arsenal supporters in the lower tier were standing, whereas Chelsea were sitting. As an indicator of which set of fans were more “up” for the game, Chelsea were coming in a poor second.

I sighed.

The team contained few surprises, but we guessed that Costa was being protected in light of his recent injury scare in Maryland. Loic Remy deputised

It was immediately disconcerting to see Petr Cech in the monstrosity of an Arsenal kit.

Wembley Stadium was bathed in sunlight, with its huge and cumbersome roof supports causing strong shadows. It is a huge stadium, but I am still finding it a difficult stadium to admire. I still can’t believe that such a complex array of under structure does not support a sliding roof. It is a little ironic that the designing and building process for the new stadium – which took seven long years to be completed – was headed from 1997 to 2001 by none other than Ken Bates. That Chelsea Football Club might be moving in to Wembley for three years while Bates’ “Chelsea Village” is razed to the ground is doubly ironic.

There were few Chelsea banners on show.

One Arsenal banner caught my eye. The standard “Believe” had a yellow ribbon tied around the “I” which alludes to their bespoke F.A. Cup Final song. Quite clever.

I thought Chelsea began reasonably well, but then played second fiddle to a more energised and incisive Arsenal team for most of the first-half. I looked over at the Arsenal team which flashed up on the scoreboard. I must have reached that part of my Chelsea Life-Cycle which results in me being increasingly indifferent to players on opposing teams. In an identity parade, I would be hard-pressed to name Monreal, Bellerin and Coquelin.

It’s all about Chowlsea these days.

As I watched play develop before me, with Walcott finding Oxlade-Chamberlain, there was a clear moment when Dave saw enough of the ball to make a clearing tackle. That crucial moment passed and the Arsenal player struck an unstoppable riser past Courtois into the net. The Arsenal thousands roared, while we sat silently.

Until that point, it had been a relatively quiet affair of the pitch. While Arsenal made some noise, Chelsea retorted :

“Stand Up For The Champions.”

We did our best to get the singing going, but our section was unsurprisingly docile.

It was typical that while we clapped and applauded Petr Cech – though not ridiculously so – Cesc Fabregas was booed by his former Arsenal family every time he touched the ball.

Pathetic, really.

We found it difficult to get our game going in the first-half. To be fair, Willian was our main threat, moving well and more inclined to attack directly than in the past. I lost count of the times Ivanovic failed to deliver a cross by hitting the outstretched leg of his full back.

Two chances fell to Ramires. A shot went narrowly wide, but then a more glaring error. With the goal at his mercy, he headed over from a Remy cross. To be truthful, the ball was slightly too high for him. Or maybe he jumped too soon. It was a clear chance though. Elsewhere we struggled. A goal-line clearance from Ivanovic, with archetypal Goon Mertesacker breathing down his neck, stopped a second goal.

We hoped for a masterful Mourinho tongue-lashing at the break. He replaced Loic Remy with Radamel Falcao. We hoped for good things. Oscar soon replaced Ramires, and I immediately noted a bigger desire from him to attack the defensive lines. On a couple of occasions, he drifted inside and past his markers with ease. More of the same this season please.

On the hour, a second glaring miss of the match. Fabregas played in Eden Hazard, our player of the moment, and we fully expected him to rifle a shot low past Cech. Instead, his shot immediately rose high and flew over the crossbar. Such a rare piece of shoddy finishing from Eden shocked us all.

Fackinell.

A free-kick from Oscar – one of many which we were awarded in the final quarter – forced a save from Cech in the Arsenal goal. It probably looked more difficult than it was. The Arsenal thousands roared.

Kurt Zouma replaced Dave at left-back. That surprised me. On the other flank, Ivanovic was continuing to flounder.

As the game progressed, we never really looked like equalising. The atmosphere was deadening, though few Chelsea fans had decided to leave, which was a good sign.

Victor Moses replaced Terry, and Mourinho re-jigged things. Moses’ pace was not utilised and the equaliser proved elusive. Falcao had chased a few scraps, but his service was not great.

In the closing minutes, Arsenal had a couple of chances to increase their lead.

To be truthful, it hadn’t been a very entertaining match. We had looked a little sluggish, with our key players unable to match the creativity in key areas shown by Arsenal. At the final whistle, the Arsenal fans feverishly waved their red and white flags as if they had won a cup final.

Yes, I know, I sound bitter don’t I?

I was well aware that this reaction would be typical of the Chelsea supporters.

A win, and an important marker for the season ahead in a vital showcase game.

A loss, and an irrelevant result in little more than a friendly.

At the queue for the train back to Marylebone, there was a little chat among a few of us about the possibility of Chelsea using Wembley as a temporary home for several seasons should our planning application for the complete overhaul of our stadium be accepted. For some, Wembley would be a preferred option. For me, coming to London from the south-west, I think I would prefer to use Twickenham. Wembley, in my opinion, should not be used for club games, though you can be very sure that the Football Association would readily accept Roman’s millions for three seasons. It would also, perhaps forever, take away what remaining buzz of excitement that I get from visiting Wembley with Chelsea, if we were to play eighty games there in three years. There are also logistical problems getting in and out of central London. It would extend my day by an extra hour at least. The atmosphere isn’t great at Wembley. How would it cope with 50,000 Chelsea fans? I am not sure. Would we be able to get it jumping? It would be tough.

There is also the painful sight of Chelsea playing home games in a stadium of 90,000 red seats.

Ken – could you not have chosen a more neutral colour?

Royal blue, maybe?

To be fair, despite my moans about added travel time, we were back at Barons Court by 6.30pm.

On the way home, I glanced north once more. The Wembley arch was only just visible now, barely distinguishable against the early evening cloud.

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Tales From A Blue Day

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 1 March 2015.

On the morning of Sunday 1st. March, I was in no mood for a game of football. And now, a day later, if I am honest I am in no mood to write this match report. This is a “Tale” that I have feared for some time. Its inevitability was certain. It was only a question of time.

At around 10pm on Thursday 26th. February, my dear, sweet, gentle and kind mother sadly passed away. Words will be difficult to find, words might struggle to flow, but no end of words will ever do justice to the life of Esme Amy Axon, who left us a few days ago at the age of eighty-five. In the last chapter, I spoke about my mother’s recent short stay in hospital and how I was buoyed by her seemingly good recovery from ill-health, but it was a horrible false dawn. Worried by my mother’s weight loss, I decided to miss the Burnley home game to stay and look after my mother and I stayed away from work all week, too. I am so grateful that I made that decision. As the days passed throughout that week, with my Mum’s health faltering and then momentarily improving, I quickly sensed that work didn’t matter too much and neither did football. Chelsea, my obsession, was put into bleak perspective; after attending seven games in January, I only attended one game in February. It eventually became the darkest month of my life.

The first day of March would be a testing day for me, but I had soon decided that I needed to attend our Capital One Cup Final against Tottenham. To stay at home, possibly alone, would have been unthinkable.  As I awoke after a solid and sound eight hours of sleep on Sunday morning, football itself seemed an irrelevance, but my main desire was to meet up with some of the most wonderful friends anyone could ask for. I collected PD at 7.30am and Parky at 8pm. To give me a break, we caught the 8.37am train from Chippenham. Soon into the journey my two companions were knocking back the cider. I sipped a strong coffee. I was doing OK. I was quiet but content. Zipping through the towns of Reading, Maidenhead and Slough brought back fresh memories of a trip by train to Chelsea with both my parents in 1981 and 1982. Good memories. Strong memories. As the day developed I was sure there would be more.

It was a cold but sun-filled morning. We hopped on the tube at Paddington and were soon meeting up with others at The Tyburn at Marble Arch. We soon bumped into Gal, and I received the first of many warm embraces from friends throughout the day. Bob, over from San Francisco for a couple of games, was already in the pub. Daryl, then Neil, then Alan soon arrived. More hugs. Breakfasts were ordered. Again, I was OK. It was lovely to be among friends.

At around 11.15am, we shifted to our old favourite, The Duke Of York. The pub was already full of Chelsea. A sizeable portion of The Goose’s regulars had simply shifted a few miles north. More hugs. To be honest, after we toasted the memory of my mother, I was hardly in the mood for lager. I don’t think I have ever sipped two pints so slowly in my life.

There was time for me to detail the events of the past few days, weeks and months. Friends shared a few memories of my mother, who made the occasional trip to Stamford Bridge in her later years, and who also met friends on their visits to Somerset. Off the top of my head – and few friends would doubt my memory –  my mother’s last five trips to Stamford Bridge were against Charlton Athletic in 1988, Everton in 1991, PSV Eindhoven in 1996, Birmingham City in 2005 and Watford in 2010. It was a joy for me to be with my mother for the 2005 game; my mother had witnessed a part of our first League Championship in fifty years.  What joy! The Watford game five years later was on my mother’s eightieth birthday. Again, a wonderful memory. Does anyone think that was my mother’s last ever live sporting event? If you do, you are wrong. Later in 2010, I took my little mother to the US and we saw baseball games in Philadelphia and at Yankee Stadium. And only sixteen months ago, on a trip to Scotland, Mum was alongside me at Brechin City’s outrageously picturesque Glebe Park for a game versus Ayr United. Mum loved her trips to Scotland; after my father passed away in 1993, it became a regular event. For six straight years, we made an autumnal trip to various cities in Scotland. Mum saw Scotland – and Pat Nevin – at Hampden Park in 1994 and we also paid a lovely visit to Arbroath in 2009. I have photographs from most of these trips and – of course – I will be hunting these out over the next few emotional and delicate weeks.

All told, my mother went to a few games shy of thirty Chelsea games.

Two other games are worthy of re-telling.

In around 1972, I saw my first-ever Frome Town game. I had watched my local village team, who I later played for on a few occasions, at the local recreation ground, but the trip to Badger’s Hill for a Western League game on a wet autumn afternoon was the first time that I had seen a ‘’proper’’ game. Sadly, Frome lost that day – I remember being really sad – but my most vivid memory is of sitting alongside my mother (my father was working in his menswear shop in the town centre) and sharing a bag of cherries at half-time. Yes, that is correct – my mother took me to my first ever ‘’real’’ game of football. Bless her.

One of the travelling salesmen who used to periodically call in at my father’s shop was a chap from Exeter. My father soon told him of my love of football and, in a pre-curser to corporate hospitality, the salesman managed to obtain three of Exeter City’s allocation of tickets for the 1978 Football League Cup Final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. I must admit at feeling rather guilty about travelling to a game not involving my team, but seeing a match at Wembley was a huge thrill. We had three lower-level wooden bench seats near the Forest end. It was a pretty dull 0-0 draw, and I remember thinking how small Wembley seemed. I expected it, from the fish-eye lens perspective of TV cameras to be ridiculously huge. I remember thinking Stamford Bridge to be smaller than I had imagined on my first visit, too.

Anyway, there you have it. In 1978, my dear mother attended a League Cup Final at Wembley.

Thirty-seven years later, I was too. Of course, our two most recent League Cup wins were in Cardiff. In fact, our sole Wembley win in the competition was back in 1998 versus ‘Boro. Our other win – one of only four major trophies that our club had won in its first ninety-two years – was a two-legged final in 1965.

I fancied a little time to myself, so left the other drinkers, and walked to Marylebone. It really was a crisp and sunny day, but with a wicked swirling wind.

I was soon alighting at Wembley Stadium at around 2.45pm. There was a quiet calm. To be honest, the walkways around the stadium seemed eerily silent. Maybe the old Chelsea adage of “one last pint” was in full effect. This game, incredibly, would be our thirteenth game at the new Wembley.

I had managed to source a ticket from a mate for another mate who was travelling down from Glasgow, but arranging to meet both parties at 3.30pm meant that I was caught up in a major melee to enter the block K turnstiles. Frustrations were running high; sadly, I missed the kick-off by a couple of minutes. I took my seat alongside nine friends.

Daryl, Neil, Alan, Gary, Parky, PD, Walnuts, Milo, Simon, Chris.

We were in the very last row of the upper tier above the corner flag where Frank Lampard did his spontaneous homage to his father after scoring against Everton in 2009. We stood the entire game.

Chelsea in all blue.

The scale of the new Wembley is quite staggering, especially from our lofty perch. The side stands go on for ever. I spotted a few Chelsea flags draped on the balcony walls, but very few Tottenham ones. Although I hated the defeat to them in the 2008 final, my worst memory of that day was the fact that Chelsea were heavily out sung by them. I did not want a repeat. In all honesty, I thought both sets of fans were rather quiet, especially in the first-half.

The big surprise was the appearance of Kurt Zouma in a midfield role alongside Ramires. Petr Cech in goal. A midfield three of Cesc, Eden and Willian. There were few chances in the first-half. Chelsea had a few headers which did not cause Spurs too much anxiety. After a run by Kane, the undoubted danger man, a free-kick was rewarded to Spurs outside our box. A hard strike by Eriksen thumped against Cech’s bar. Hazard shot wide. Our play seemed to be a little unadventurous at times, with most of our chances coming from set plays. I thought John Terry had a magnificent first-half, with Willian buzzing around tirelessly. Dave, too, was solid. With half-time approaching, I looked across at the huge upper tier opposite; I could hardly believe that so many fans – and they were mainly our fans – had vacated their sets with still a few minutes left. Why would they choose a pie, a pee, or a pint over watching a Chelsea Cup Final?

On forty-five minutes, a lofted ball by Terry was sent over to Ivanovic, but Chadli fouled our right-back. The resultant free-kick by Willian seemed to ghost past several Spurs defenders before eventually being deflected back to John Terry. To be honest, I was watching all of this through my camera lens, so details are scant. I did, however, see the net bulge and I did hear the resulting roar.

I did not react. I don’t think I will ever react to a Chelsea goal at Wembley as calmly as I did at around 4.45pm on Sunday March 1st. 2015. I think that the events of the previous three days had taken their toll. Sure, I had encouraged the team on with shouts of support during the first-half, but I did not feel the need to “lose it” on this occasion. I simply took a few photographs of John Terry – so glad it was him – running away towards a Tottenham corner and being mobbed by his comrades.

Phew.

There were a few lovely smiles towards me from the chaps.

Just after, unbelievably, we had a great chance to double our lead. Cahill rose to head low, but Loris reacted superbly and clung on to the ball.

At half-time, I had time to explain to a few of the lads why I was wearing my “Chelsea The Blues” scarf, which last saw the light of day on a rainy day in Moscow. After my very first game at Stamford Bridge in 1974, while I was talking to my father outside the West Stand, my mother – on the quiet, quite unannounced – shot off to buy me this scarf from one of the blue wooden huts which teetered at the top of the bank of steps leading down to street level. It has stayed with me for the past forty-one years. It is in remarkably good condition. Now, I’m not a wearer of club colours, but I chose to wear it in Stockholm – definitely a lucky charm – in 1998 and then again in 2008. Wearing it in 2015 was a simple choice.

With noise levels noticeably higher in the second-half, we went from strength to strength. A surprising overhead kick from the otherwise quiet Fabregas tested Loris and we were clearly the better team. A neat move found Costa advancing on Kyle Walker and as he shimmied past his man, I confidently blurted out –

“He’ll never score from there.”

He did. His powerful shot miraculously ended-up in the net (it was a mystery to me at the time how it evaded Loris) and the strangers to my right were hugging me and laughing at my comment. Now I could celebrate a little more. This felt great. I snapped as Costa ran to the corner. The noise boomed around Wembley. More lovely smiles from the lads.

The heavens opened and the rain poured down. The wind seemed to be blowing it towards the Tottenham fans, and many in their lower tier hid for cover. The first few red seats were starting to appear. Two good chances from Hazard and Fabregas came close. We were rampant. The noise increased. A lovely rendition of “Born Is The King” swept around the western terraces. Although I had been too subdued to sing along to many of the Chelsea standards, I knew I had to join in with that one. I commented continually to Simon; I was able to relax and enjoy – if that is the right word – the last thirty minutes, twenty minutes, ten minutes, five minutes. A fine defensive performance was highlighted by a couple of wonderfully-timed blocks by Cahill and Terry. The kid Zouma was fantastic. We simply gave them nothing. Our end was awash with royal blue flags. The minutes ticked by.

At the final whistle, there was a smile from myself to my mother and a kiss of her scarf.

The boys came over, one by one, to hug me.

In Munich there were tears of joy.

There were no tears at Wembley. There had been little moments of silence, of quietness, of tears, throughout the day, but at Wembley I was just happy that the team had won. A defeat, after the past few days, would have been awful.

We did it.

Simon took a photograph of me and the scarf. It was a very special moment. I looked behind me and spotted that the Wembley arch had turned blue. As the cup was presented and as the players joyfully cavorted in a time-honoured Chelsea tradition dating back to May 1997, I was calm. There were the usual Chelsea songs at the end of the celebrations; I quietly whispered the words of “Blue Is The Colour” and a few of the boys were dancing to another favourite. As always, we were some of the last to leave. As we began the descent, our hymn from 1997 boomed out.

“The only place to be every other Saturday is strolling down the Fulham Road.”

What lovely memories of one of the best Chelsea weekends ever. The words washed over me, and I sang along. However, I held back in order to hear a few words. I was waiting for one specific line, delivered by Suggs with a subtle key-change…

“Now even heaven is blue today.”

I kissed my scarf again.

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Dedicated to the memory of my little Mum, who gave me so much and expected so little in return. In my heart forever. 

Esmé Amy Axon : 3 January 1930 to 26 February 2015.

Tales From Section 120

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 14 April 2013.

There was no doubt that an F.A. Cup semi-final against Manchester City would always be a very stern test. When we were still mired in our battle in the quarter-finals against Manchester United, the news that we had drawn their city rivals in the semis was met by a big silent groan from me. I am sure I was not alone.

Manchester United were eventually despatched and City loomed on the horizon. Our timetable has been ridiculously busy, but a day out at Wembley was always in my focus. It would undoubtedly be a huge game, a huge day out. I couldn’t wait.

After a wet day on the Saturday for the Wigan Athletic vs. Millwall semi-final, the weather on Sunday morning was a lot more agreeable and almost Spring-like. Parky was collected en route and the banter commenced. Apart from his visits to Stamford Bridge with me this season, his only other games were the August matches at Brighton and for the Community Shield game against City at Villa Park. This hasn’t been the best of times for him; however, the game at Fulham on Wednesday should be his first “proper” away match this season. I’ve missed his company on those away trips up north this year. As we rattled along the A303 and the M3, our anticipation for the day ahead increased. Parky was in good form. We were both bolstered by a large McCoffee apiece and the caffeine did its trick. Tons of laughs. Tons of banter. Tons of jokes.

“I’ve missed you, mate.”

I was well aware that there would be a number of ways in which I could describe our recent magnificent run of results in cup competitions. There were numbers flying around my head all weekend; I was performing various routines of numerical gymnastics on Saturday and as I drove to London on Sunday morning.

Our game at 4pm against the current league champions would be our 11th. F.A. Cup semi-final since 1994.

11 F.A. cup semi-finals in 20 seasons.

Pretty impressive, eh?

But that’s only the start.

Since the opening of the new national stadium at Wembley in 2007, the game would be our twelfth visit (4 F.A. Cup finals, 4 F.A. Cup semi-finals, 3 Community Shield games and 1 Carling Cup final.)

12 visits in less than 6 years.

Again, impressive stuff.

Looking further afield, the numbers became even more extraordinary.

Since season 1993-1994, we have stacked up an incredibly impressive 28 cup semi-finals (11 F.A. Cup, 6 Champions League, 6 League Cup, 3 European Cup Winners’ Cup, 1 Europa League and 1 World Club Championship.)

That’s easily more than one per season. This season, for all of its faults, we have hit four semis.

Not all have been in the Abramovich era I am quick to add.

10 came in the 1993-2003 era; 18 since.

Who says that our success are recent, our history negligible, our success due to Roman alone?

Yet, here is the contrast.

From season 1973-1974 to season 1992-1993, we appeared in just 2 major semi-finals.

1973 to 1993 : 2

1994- 2013 : 28

Oh boy.

Looking back, with my first Chelsea game having taken place in 1973-1974, I’m wondering if I was some kind of jinx. Not to worry, those twenty years of famine were not my fault. And we’ve certainly made up for it since. What was the catalyst for change in 1993-1994, then? Parky and I discussed this on the drive to London. The answer was Glenn Hoddle, who arrived in the summer of 1993 as one of the hottest properties in English football, having steered Swindon Town to promotion to the top division, playing some gloriously entertaining football along the way. 1993 was not a good year for me, but my spirits were raised several notches when Ken Bates managed to capture Glenn Hoddle’s services. Hoddle transformed the way we played on the pitch – a passing game rather than a more rudimentary style of football – and also off it, by modernising our training methods and dietary regime.

The new Chelsea awoke from its slumbers in 1994.

We have, without much doubt, never looked back since.

And there’s my “stop moaning about Chelsea’s recent poor performances, you buggers, you lot wouldn’t have lasted two minutes in the grim old days” section of the match report completed.

I reached West Brompton at 11.30pm and parked near The Atlas, where an upcoming Chelsea Supporters Trust meeting is to be held. The weather was indeed much improved from Saturday. We debated whether or not to take our jackets. The top of the East Stand at Stamford Bridge was just visible to the south. Within a few yards of the Atlas pub, the F.A. Cup Final was held in 1873 at the now long departed Lillie Bridge ground with Wanderers beating Oxford University 1-0 in front of a gate of just 3,000. I have an image of dashing footballers in natty shirts and long britches, an uneven pitch surrounded by ropes to restrain the crowd from encroaching, top hats, flat caps, cigarette smoke, and the shouts of hundreds of inquisitive Victorian gentlemen, lured in from various parts of London, to witness the new spectator sport of association football. Of course, Stamford Bridge itself hosted three finals in 1920, 1921 and 1922

From Lillie Bridge to Wembley, we’ll keep the blue flag flying high.

Incidentally, “The Blue Flag” was born in that 1993-1994 F.A. Cup run and has been a constant companion on our jaunts to Wembley ever since.

After a change of train at Notting Hill Gate, we were soon at Marble Arch. Then a quick walk up the Edgware Road to Harrowby Street. Some mates were already basking in the early-afternoon sun outside the Duke of York. We stayed from 12.15pm to 3.15pm. Three hours of kicking back and enjoying each others’ company. The days of us dressing up in Chelsea shirts of various vintages to watch us at Wembley are now long gone; I think I’ve only ever worn Chelsea shirts – both of the vintage variety – on two occasions. Instead, the lads were dressed normally; or as normally as we can under the circumstances.

Parky : an blue Aquascutum polo-shirt and a swish new pair of Forest Hills.

Daryl : a trusty lemon Lacoste and Ben Sherman desert boots.

Millsy : an Armani sweat top.

Alan : an Yves Saint Laurent shirt.

Rob : a Paul and Shark shirt.

Chris : a black Henri Lloyd polo and a pair of Nikes.

Detail, detail, detail.

What did we talk about? Anything and everything. Not many of my Chelsea acquaintances are venturing to the away game in Basel. We learned that hotels in the Swiss city are virtually non-existent due to a massive watch and jewellery convention which is taking place at the same time. Most Chelsea fans are staying in other cities. Of my close mates, only Rob is thinking about going. As for the rest of us, all eyes are on Amsterdam. There are already a few contingency plans afoot for the potential Europa League final on Wednesday 15 May. After 40,000 Chelsea fans invaded Munich last May, surely similar numbers will travel to Holland’s sin city in 2013. We laughed as we remembered Spurs’ exit from the completion on Thursday; Adebayor’s miss especially.

As the pints of Staropramen went down well, talk inevitably turned to discuss the idiotic behaviour of a few Millwall fans at the other semi-final. The general consensus was that it was simply pockets of various factions of their combustible support rowing amongst themselves. Rob, who always seems to be the most knowledgeable on these things, reckoned that it was, for example, Millwall Peckham having a go at Millwall Bermondsey. I won’t give these idiots the oxygen of publicity but I will comment on a Millwall fan who ‘phoned “606” on Saturday. He believed that “there was Chelsea and West Ham in the Millwall end. It was easy to get tickets. And then Millwall gets the blame.” What a load of nonsense. Why would a handful of Chelsea fans enter a stadium holding some 30,000 Millwall fans, probably a good 10,000 of whom were “up for a bundle?” If Chelsea – or West Ham – fancied “getting it on” with Millwall, it would be well away from Wembley, not under the scrutiny of CCTV.

All of us were just relieved that “The Wall” were out. I still have memories of a momentous battle at Stamford Bridge between Chelsea and Millwall in 1977 and I was not ready for a re-match. I’ll be quite happy if we never play again; they truly are a blight on football.

The sun was beaming down and there was a succession of ‘eighties pop on the pub juke box. Sunderland were winning at Newcastle. Parky was winning at drinking.

“Fancy a Jack Daniels Parky?”

On the walk to Marylebone station, I chatted to Simon about the first of our run of F.A. Cup semi-finals; a game against Kerry Dixon and Luton Town at Wembley in April 1994. I always maintain that the match, which we won 2-0 with two goals from Gavin, was a very pivotal game in our history. If we had lost, we would have had nothing to show for our efforts. However, because Manchester United, who we would meet in the subsequent final, were soon to win the league – and with it a berth in the following season’s Champions League – our participation in the Cup Final automatically guaranteed us a place in the old ECWC.

The win versus Luton therefore allowed us European football for the first time since 1971, where we reached the semi-final stage the following spring before losing to Gus Poyet’s Real Zaragoza. Our profile was raised within Europe and in the summer Ruud Gullit signed, to be closely followed by Mark Hughes.

The times they were a changin’.

Simon agreed with my appraisal, but added that the 2-1 win over Liverpool in 2003 was much more important. I soon realised that he was correct. Although we did not know it at the time, out finances were in a perilous state after years of over-spending. The win gave us Champions League football and how we celebrated. Waiting in the wings was Roman Abramovich and the rest…as they say…is…er, history.

A defeat against Liverpool may well have a signaled a Leeds United-like plummet through the divisions. In fact, when we played Leeds in the last league game of the following season, with Chelsea having reached a Champions League semi versus Monaco while Leeds were enduring a relegation campaign, the Leeds supporters regaled us with a very pertinent ditty –

“If it wasn’t for the Russian, you’d be us.”

In amongst the talk of these pivotal games in our history, the game at Bolton Wanderers in 1983, of course, should never be forgotten.

We caught the 3.26pm train from Platform One at Marylebone; it was all Chelsea. There were lovely memories of last season’s double trips on the same route for the Spurs and Liverpool F.A. Cup games. The singing was minimal, though; maybe we are getting used to all this. Of course, this is true. However, I was very relieved that all of our allocation had been sold for this game. We had, in fact, been given extra tickets. This measured up favourably to last year’s Spurs semi-final when several hundred seats went unused.

Within ten minutes, we had arrived at Wembley Stadium train station. Up the hill, with the huge bulk of the stadium ahead, the wind increased. In the shadows of the stands, I was grateful I had packed a light jacket.

I was inside with fifteen minutes to spare. I had a seat along the side of the pitch in the lower tier for the first time. All my mates were dotted around the stadium; I think most were in the lofty top tier. From row twelve, the colossal size of Wembley was all too apparent. It is quite massive. Looking around, I only spotted two or three faces that I knew. I hoped that my section would sing. If not, it would turn out to be a long afternoon, with my frustration undoubtedly rising with each failed attempt to generate some noise. Being so close to the pitch, my camera was primed for some action shots, but I first took a few photographs of the stadium. Around the top balcony, all of the previous winners are listed alphabetically – from Arsenal and Aston Villa, to Chelsea and Clapham Rovers, to West Bromwich Albion and West Ham United. Just behind me, there was an old school Union Jack, with dirty cream lettering spelling out “Chelsea FC” which was draped over the top balcony right next to Leeds United.

Adversaries after all this years, memories of 1970, Osgood, Bonetti, Bremner and Gray.

“If it wasn’t for the Russian, you’d be us.”

The teams soon appeared on the far side. We, however, were in that awful black away kit and I wasn’t happy. With John Terry and Frank Lampard dropped as per the rumours, the team was what we could have predicted. Fernando Torres, possibly deserving a start, was the one question mark. The City hordes to my left, stacked high in tiers, were the more colourful of the two sets of fans. They clearly still think it necessary to dress in team colours for big games; we think that is so 1990’s.

They also slightly edged the number of banners. None of our large ones had made it from the royal blue balconies of Stamford Bridge.

Manchester City, as is so often the case these days, were all over us like the proverbial rash in the first twenty minutes. There was immediate tension and concern among the Chelsea supporters. I must admit that one of my first thoughts as we battled in vain to get a foothold was “where is Drogba?” I think we grew silent very quickly as our players chased shadows. The City fans were definitely in the ascendency, bellowing “Blue Moon” and “We’re Not Really Here.”

This was not good. This was not good at all.

Milner, Aguero and Tevez were causing us problems with their quick movement, while Yaya Toure was his formidable self in midfield. A mixture of resolute and lucky defending managed to keep City at bay. Petr Cech was in top form; he needed to be. The shots were raining in on his goal. Our only real attempt in the first thirty minutes was a bouncing shot from Eden Hazard which was easily cleared off the line by the cool Kompany. Just when Chelsea’s play began to improve with better possession and movement, City struck. That man Toure broke from halfway, with no Chelsea midfielder within ten yards. He pushed the ball into the penalty box – level with myself – and the ball deflected into the path of Samir Nasri who quickly thumped the ball past Cech.

1-0 City.

Fcuk.

The whole west end then turned its collective back on the play as the City faithful did a massive “Poznan.” The fans in the lower tiers were, in fact, able to keep watching the game on the large screens above them.

“God”…I thought…”if they score now, their heads will explode.”

Surprisingly, Chelsea responded and a lovely curling effort from the previously quiet Juan Mata fizzed past the far post. However, this was a brief moment of hope in a poor first half. Further chances came to City and only a mixture of awful defending and greatness from Cech kept us in the game.

Chelsea fans were still making their way back to their seats as the second period began. Many will have missed the crushing blow of City’s second goal; a cross from Gareth Barry found Sergio Aguero, whose loping header found its way into Cech’s goal. It was eerily reminiscent of Chicarito’s goal at Old Trafford.

Ugh.

I tried to be positive – “well, we were 2-0 down against United” – but even I wasn’t optimistic. We enjoyed slightly more possession, but with little end product. With the clamour around me – and elsewhere I am sure – for Torres to enter the fray, Benitez surprised us all. He took off Mikel, changed things and put Torres up front, dropping Oscar alongside Ramires. There was genuine pleasure that we would now be playing with two upfront. There was, surely, nothing to lose.

The impact was immediate and stunning. Torres ran through to join Ba up front as David Luiz pumped a ball up the middle. The ball evaded the leaping Torres and Kompany, but fell behind Ba. In one gorgeous moment, he swivelled and dragged the ball from behind him, volleying it to the City goal. The nets at Wembley are especially deep but how we roared when the net eventually rippled.

Game on.

I looked at the two chaps in front and we laughed –

“Rafa Benitez. Tactical genius.”

To be honest, Torres and Ba never really played as a pair for the rest of the game; Torres, instead drifted wide in the way that Anelka used to do. However, it was now all Chelsea. Both sets of fans roared their teams on; first Chelsea as we sensed the tide had turned, then City as they realised their team was on the ropes.

Proper support. Lovely to see – and hear.

It was turning into a simply enthralling game of football. We urged the boys on further.

Mata’s shot hit Pantilimon, and then Hazard danced into the box and reached the bye-line before pulling the ball back for Ba. Just six yards out, he shot straight at the City ‘keeper.

Aaaarrrggghhh.

A free-kick from David Luiz dipped wide. The minutes ticked by.

Torres was through on goal…his big moment…but soon got sandwiched. From my viewpoint, I struggled to see any foul. That he stayed on his feet probably did him no favours. A foul on the far side on Luiz – again I was unsighted – elicited a few texts implying that Aguero stamped on our Brazilian, who was having a fine game.

The minutes faded away…four minutes of extra-time, but no more chances.

It was not to be our day.

At the final whistle, I wanted to leave the stadium as quickly as I could. The PA boomed out “Blue Moon” and I looked over to the west end, now a riot of sky blue shirts and scarves held aloft. As I clambered over the red seats, I chuckled to myself “bloody Mickey Mouse Cup, anyway” but of course I was lying.

I waited outside for Parky to arrive. Every single one of the City fans who I heard speak did so in heavy Mancunian accents.

Insert cliché here.

They were clearly happy. Overjoyed, even. This was only their second semi-final of any description since 1981. Good luck to them. Unfortunately, Parky had been pushed around to the north of the stadium and was at the back of the queue. We therefore made our own journeys back to West Brompton. As I filed out of the Wembley concourse, down to the line for the trains, I was surrounded by City. However, it could have been worse, much worse. It could have been Liverpool, United, Spurs, Arsenal or West Ham. Or Millwall.

I still don’t mind City fans. As I said to a fellow fan who I knew –

“However, if they keep beating us for the next ten years, I might change my tune.”

As we slowly edged forwards, pockets of Chelsea fans kept our collective spirits up by singing a selection of old favourites. Songs about Tommy Baldwin, Bertie Mee, Bill Shankly and Colin Pates – ah, memories of the idiotic Full Members Cup win over City in 1986 – brought many a smile from those taking part. I think this was a reflection of the riches that we have witnessed in recent seasons. I was pragmatic about the defeat and I think other Chelsea shared the same view. The better team had won, losing was not a disgrace, and we’re still the Champions of Europe. In contrast, the City fans looked bemused. Although they had been in good song during the game and only a few minutes earlier at the top of the hill, their songs had now dried up. I had to laugh. We, however, were in good voice.

Defiant. Happy and glorious. Proper Chelsea.

Millwall take note.

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