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.

IMG_9132

Tales From Up’Anley Duck

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 12 January 2012.

I awoke on Saturday morning with a mixture of feelings. Outside, the weather was dark and depressing. I had negative thoughts about the entire day to be quite truthful. After the Swansea defeat on Wednesday, I knew that a redoubtable Stoke team would be looking to heap further misery on the club. And then there were all of the churned-up feelings about the politics of it all; the board, the manager and the supporters were seemingly at odds with each other and emotions were tugging my heartstrings in a hundred different directions. And yet, I knew that there was nowhere that I would rather be on this particular winter’s day. The city of Stoke-on-Trent was my home for the best part of three years, from September 1984 to July 1987. I studied human geography at North Staffs Polytechnic, which was based in the city. For many personal reasons, I always enjoy returning. So, I decided to make the best of the day out in Staffordshire, but I did wonder what my state of mind might be in when I would eventually return. There was no doubt about it; this could be a bad day. A very bad day.

My Facebook status summed things up –

“Off to Stoke. In the cold. In the rain. We know what we are, alright.”

I left home at 10am, with a 150 mile trip to the middle of England ahead of me. I soon texted my partner in crime Alan, who was travelling up on one of the official Chelsea coaches with Gal.

“Duck Kerouac.”

He responded –

“Tom Robinson.”

I was “on the road” to the city where the word “duck” – as a term of endearment – is used at an alarming rate. Alan was on the “2-4-6-8 Motorway.”

I tuned in to the Danny Baker show on five live – if there’s a better programme on the airwaves, I am yet to find it. Baker used to host the original “606” programme when it was first broadcast in around 1991. At the time, it was natural for that programme to follow on from the launch of a thousand and one fanzines just a few years earlier; it gave normal fans the platform to air grievances, but to share anecdotes about the quirkiness of being a football supporter. I remember back in those days, Baker would hardly mention any of the day’s games, nor would supporters care. Talk instead was of comedic moments from fans’ pursuit of their teams, sightings of footballers in unusual places, bizarre pre-game rituals, favourite kits, banter and humour. If anything, Baker actively discouraged the general public from phoning and taking about specific games because – for the 99.9% of listeners who would not have seen the game – it would have been a waste of time. How I wish that ruling was prevalent today; the current “606” show with Mark Chapman and Robbie Savage dwells too much on specific incidents in specific games.

I drove through Bristol, with no signs of the overcast weather lifting. At 11am, I eventually made it up onto the M5; it had been a slow start to the journey.

I randomly selected a CD; a collection of songs by Tears For Fears, a band from Bath – my birthplace – that I used to admire back in the days of my time in Stoke. In those first few weeks of finding new friends at college, Tears for Fears acted as a cornerstone for me.

“I’m from near Bath – where Tears For Fears are from.”

The other two cornerstones were sport-related.

“I’m from Somerset – yep, we’ve got a great cricket team.”

“I’m not from Chelsea – I’m from Somerest.”

As I drove through Gloucestershire, my mood was brightened. I realised that several of the songs perfectly summed-up the current confusion amongst Chelsea fans –

“The Hurting.”

“Shout.”

‘Change.”

“Mad World.”

Tears for Fears’ first album “The Hurting” was coloured by the band’s involvement in primal therapy – and I thought back on some of the album’s other song titles and how they would be the ideal fit for the current Chelsea situation –

“Suffer the children.”

“Start of the breakdown.”

“Watch me bleed.”

…maybe we should have a group primal therapy session in the away section of the Brittania Stadium later in the day.

“Shout, shout – let it all out. These are the things I can do without. Come on…Chelsea.”

Just south of Birmingham, a few fields were dusted with snow. I soon drove past West Brom’s ground; the final straw in the league careers of Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto di Matteo. At the intersection of the M5 with the M6, at last a few splashes of blue above the clouds.

Things were looking up.

As I turned into the A500 at 12.45pm, I noticed a group of policemen in a lay-by, on motorbikes, in cars, on the look-out for Chelsea coaches and cars. With the Britannia Stadium on a high ridge of land to my right, I drove on up to the city centre in Hanley.

And here’s the inevitable history lesson. During the industrial revolution, the area now known as The Potteries consisted of several independent towns; Stoke, Fenton, Longton, Hanley, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Burslem, Tunstall and Kidsgrove. Pottery was the dominant industry, although the area was endowed with a local coalfield which ably provided the fuel to fire thousands of bottle kilns. First canals and then railways ferried china clay in and pottery out, to markets throughout the UK, Europe and further afield. The names Wedgewood, Minton and Spode became world famous and put the area on the map. It was a hive of frantic activity, a real industrial hotspot.

In 1925, five of the towns – Stoke, Hanley, Burslem, Fenton and Longton – came together to form the city of Stoke-on-Trent, although the slightly aloof town of Newcastle remained separate. My first few weeks in Stoke were spent trying to decipher the local geography and the local accent alike. The biggest anomaly of all was that the de facto city centre, housing the large department stores, library, theatres and bus station, was in the centrally-located town of Hanley. I lived in Stoke, the southern-most of the five towns. Stoke had the train station, the polytechnic and Stoke City Football Club. The town centre of Stoke was only marginally bigger and busier than my local town of Frome. The most northerly town of Burslem housed the city’s lesser football team, Port Vale.

As Chelsea Football Club now reside in the upper echelons of the football stratosphere these days, I am sure that millions of our global fan base has never even heard of Port Vale. If they have, I’m sure that many are unaware that the club is located in Stoke-on-Trent, even less that it is in Burslem.

On my previous visits to the city with Chelsea, I have tended to re-visit my more familiar haunts to the south in Stoke and ‘Castle. This time, I decided to head into Hanley.

Or – in the clipped and peculiar vernacular of the locals –

“Ah’m gooin’ oop’Anley, duck.”

By 1pm, I was parked up and was soon outside in the biting wind, stumbling around the city centre, attempting to recognise landmarks from a quarter of a century ago.

To my surprise, it was a bit hazy. I found my way to The Tontine pub and dipped in out of the cold. As students, we had to be wary of which pubs were “student-friendly” and quite a few pubs in both Stoke and Hanley were anything but “student friendly.” The Tontine was our safe haven on our nights out in Hanley, which tended to end up in a large multi-floored nightclub called “The Place.”

In The Tontine, I ordered a pint of lager (“lahh-geh”) and was surprised how cheap it was.

“Two qued fefty, duck.”

The long narrow pub hadn’t changed much in the 25 years since my last visit. I noted a few Stokies talking to a couple of Norwegian Stoke fans who were in town for the game. The world gets smaller and smaller, doesn’t it? In my time in the city, the locals were very insular and local to their town. I was reminded of a story which one of our lecturers told in an attempt to explain the colloquial nature of the Stokies’ mindset.

One of his aunts was touring America and she found herself on a local radio phone in. The radio presenter asked where the woman was from, since the accent completely threw him.

“Ah’m from Longton, duck.”

Not only did the woman presume that the presenter had realised she was from England, she didn’t even bother with the city name of Stoke-on-Trent, which the poor bloke might – just might – have heard of.

Seeking clarification, he quizzed her further…maybe he thought she was from Canada or Australia –

“OK. Where’s that?”

She replied, nonchalantly – “near Fenton, duck.”

The QPR v. Spurs game was on TV, but I gave it scant regard. I thought back to my time in the solidly working class and industrial city. Football dominated my thoughts. Over the three years in Stoke, I probably went to around ten Stoke games. In two of the years, in fact, I lived in a terraced house only twenty yards from the Victoria Ground. However, in November 1985, thoughts were of a game further afield; how “un-Stoke.”

Around ten friends and I travelled down to Wembley on an official Stoke City coach for the final World Cup qualifier for the 1986 Finals in Mexico. England had already qualified, but there was a chance that England’s opponents Northern Ireland could qualify too if they could muster a draw at Wembley.

However, I had another reason. It would mark Kerry Dixon’s home debut for England.

I had to be there.

Kerry had broken in to the England squad on the summer tour of Canada and Mexico, but had yet to play at Wembley. I don’t remember the trip down to London at all, save for the fact that it was a strange mix; half Stokies, half students from the poly, most of which I knew. Two friends – Nigel and Trevor – were from “Norn Iron” and were gung-ho about their team’s chances.

We all had standing tickets in the “home” end (the tunnel end) at the old Wembley. What a thrill to see Kerry Dixon, in a plain white shirt, play at Wembley on that misty night. Chelsea used to go en masse to England home games in those days and as the game developed, there were quite a few chants of “Chelsea – clap, clap, clap – Chelsea – clap, clap, clap – Chelsea – clap, clap, clap” in that home end. Of course, I joined in. It felt like Chelsea had taken over the entire end. It was a magical feeling.

Untouchable.

England fielded players such as Peter Shilton, Kenny Sansom, Paul Bracewell, Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle. Gary Lineker lined-up along side Kerry in a traditional 4-4-2. The captain on the night was Ray Wilkins. Sadly, it wasn’t a great night for Kerry, who missed a couple of good chances, which are shown in the following clip (with apologies for the sighting of a Juventus-era Michel Platini in the TV studio…)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ESdUZAdO24

The game ended 0-0 amidst jeers of “It’s a fix, it’s a fix, it’s a fix.” At least Trevor and Nige were happy.

It was 1.45pm and I needed to drive the two miles south to the stadium. I decided to drive past my old faculty building on Leek Road. However, the traffic was horrendous. I slowly made my way down the hill from Hanley and I soon crossed over Cauldon Canal, with one of the last remaining bottle-shaped kilns alongside it. Ahead of me was a large open space of land which was formerly the site of a large pottery. Beyond, red brick terraced houses, then industrial units, then the open wasteland up on the hill. Pretty, it certainly wasn’t.

I was taken aback by the amount of new buildings which had sprung up on the old football and hockey pitches at the polytechnic, which was renamed Staffordshire University a while back; we had a “Sports & Recreation Studies” faculty – or shortened to “Sport & Rec” or, mockingly, “Fruit & Veg” – and we had a healthy rivalry with Loughborough University. A bit like Ohio and Michigan, Auburn and Alabama, UCLA and USC (he said sarcastically.) A new sports centre for the University had been built and was named after the city’s most famous son Sir Stanley Matthews, a native of Hanley, who played for Stoke in two spells from 1931 to 1965. He was Europe’s first player of the year and played until the age of 51. A real legend, believe me.

As the traffic slowed just outside the old entrance to the Leek Road campus, I spotted hundreds of Chelsea fans, newly arrived at the nearby train station, awaiting buses to take them to the game. I spotted a few faces – Aggie, Callum, Tim – and it was a weird sensation. A personal space, to me, had become a shared space for many Chelsea fans. It couldn’t have been stranger if the same people had been spotted outside my village shop.

By 2.40pm, I was parked up on the grass verge of a road to the south of the Britannia. The cold wind was unrelenting as I quickly walked towards the bright features of the stadium, over another canal, the past never far away. There’s surely not a more inhospitable location for a ground in all of England. Like a fortress, The Britannia stands indignantly on that ridge of high land, its inhabitants ready to wail at visitors.

“We are Stoke, we are Stoke, we are Stoke” they yell.

On its day, it’s a red hot – and white – atmosphere.

The Chelsea section, three thousand strong, took up three-quarters of the south stand. The Brittannia Stadium is a strange one architecturally; two stand-alone structures, but two stands joined. I stood alongside Al and Gal in the second row of the upper tier, just to the right of the goal.

I scanned the team and noted the changes since Wednesday. Great to see Petr back, that’s for sure.

I looked across to the main stand, in two-tiers, unlike the rest of the stadium, and set well back from the pitch. There was Tony Pulis, in trademark baseball cap, alongside Rafa Benitez, already cajoling the Chelsea players with his strange selection of hand jives. Most importantly of all, I checked to see his tie colour.

Check.

And then I saw a sight which warmed my heart and made me proud; high on the roof above the Boothen End –

“The Boothen End Sponsored By Staffordshire University.”

…excellent.

We certainly weathered the Stoke storm in the first-half. A Kenwyne Jones effort after just 7 minutes whizzed wide of the far post when we were all expecting a goal. A succession of Stoke corners caused us to be fearful, but everyone was repelled. Branoslav Ivanovic was showing great positional sense with no signs of suffering from his performance on Wednesday. A shot from Lamps on 24 minutes raised our spirits. Frank began to impose himself from deep and was the instigator of a few attacks. Hazzard and Mata buzzed around. Another shot from Frank, but Ramires couldn’t follow up.

I commented to Gary about the two defeats against QPR and Swansea. My succinct summing up was met with agreement –

“To be honest, Gal, we created tons of chances and in 9 out of 10 times, we would have won both games.”

The home fans seemed surprisingly quiet. Chelsea were full of song and with – thankfully – not much negative noise. With a look at the clock, I suggested to Gal that a “goal would be nice.”

What a brilliant own goal from John Walters, as ordered right before half-time, under pressure from Demba Ba.

“Get in!”

It was cold, but not as cold as our first-ever visit to the stadium in 2003 for our FA Cup game. Alan and I agreed that, in comparison, the weather was positively balmy. That Sunday afternoon ten years ago was the coldest I have ever been watching Chelsea.

A rasping shot was gloriously tipped over by Petr Cech on 53 minutes, but Stoke thought they had been awarded a penalty just after. Thankfully, an offside was given instead. We breathed a sigh of relief. We got into our stride and continued to exploit the spaces as Stoke attempted to get back in the game. From a corner, that man Walters headed blindly into his goal with Frank right behind him. We exploded with joy again, but nothing compared to look of biss on Frank’s face as he beamed a massive smile as he spun around and shared his joy with the away fans.

It was a lovely moment.

Next, a chop on Mata and a penalty.

“Give it to Walters” chimed Gal.

Frank drilled it high past Begovic and we roared again.

194 goals for Frank Lampard. Fantastic stuff. The goal was filmed on hundreds of smart phones. Just after, with the away end booming, Frank almost reached 195 but couldn’t quite reach the rebound of a shot.

After a little provocation, the Stoke fans finally made some noise, showing commendable qualities in getting behind their team when losing.

Well done Stoke.

The game was wrapped up when Juan Mata fed in the excellent Hazard, who unleashed a swerving bullet into the top corner of Begovic’ net. I was right behind the course of the ball and detected the slightest of deflections.

4-0? Beyond my wildest dreams.

It still didn’t save Benitez, though. The loudest chant of the day was his. However, at least I didn’t detect any booing of Torres when he replaced Ba.

The game was due another comedic twist when substitute John Terry felled Walters inside the box. The troubled Walters blasted over and we howled with laughter.

“Walters – Man of the match. Walters, Walters – Man of the match.”

“Johnny Walters – He scores when he wants.”

I hurriedly rushed down to my waiting car amidst hundreds of quiet Stokies. The “feast and famine” football was continuing and Chelsea Football Club was playing games with my addled brain. I pondered the notion of only attending every other game; satisfaction guaranteed surely?

I wondered about the welcome that Walters might get from his wife as he returned home later that evening.

“Hi love. Did you have a good game?”

Within three minutes – I love Stoke, especially leaving it – I was back on the M6.

Happy days.

Tears For Fears know fcuk all.

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Tales From One Of The Few

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 8 May 2012.

So, the last domestic away trip of this roller-coaster of a season. I had booked two half-day holidays to cover my trip up to Anfield, from 1pm on Tuesday to 1pm on Wednesday. There is nothing worse than getting home from a long drive “up North” and having to get in to work after only four or five hours sleep. Unfortunately, my partner in crime Lord Parky informed me that his knee was causing him major pain and discomfort and he would not be able to accompany me on my long trip to Anfield. Suffice to say, I was sad to hear this news. He had been alongside me for all but two other domestic games this season – the aways at Wigan and Spurs – so he would be missed.

My working day was busy and I left a little late at 1.15pm. I quickly dived into the local “Tesco Express” to buy some provisions – I hate to use the term “junk food” – to keep me going. I chose to drive up on The Fosseway once again, before cutting down on to the M5 motorway at Birdlip. It was a magnificent spring afternoon to be honest. Just before I passed by “The Air Balloon” pub, I had a quick look west and the view was a beauty. The Vale of Severn was down below me, with undulating hills in the foreground and brooding Welsh Mountains away in the distance. The fields were enlivened with the bright yellow of oil seed rape. The sky was dotted with small fluffy clouds. Never has that vista seemed more breath-taking. I wish I could have stopped to take a photograph to share with everyone.

My musical accompaniment for the trip to Liverpool was the new album by Vince Clarke and Martin Gore – following on from the Depeche Mode theme of Wembley – which Parky had gifted me recently. It’s their first collaboration in thirty years and the techno-beats provided me with a perfect musical backdrop as I ate up the miles on the M5 and then the M6. With no Parky in the passenger seat, I was able to let my mind wander through memories of this season and dreams of the future. For once, I was not thinking too much about beer halls and bratwursts in Munich but of the possible joys waiting in store for the summer. Chelsea had – finally – confirmed the full US tour details and I was just finishing off my planning before booking flights. My plan is to arrive in Boston on Saturday 14 July, hire a car and tour New England (which is currently one of the parts of USA that I am relatively unfamiliar), before joining in with the madness of Chelsea in New York and then Philadelphia. I am avoiding Seattle due to financial reasons. I am avoiding Miami due to the need to be back at work on the following Monday. But two out of four ain’t bad. It mirrors my participation in the 2009 tour. It means I that I can also see Mets vs. Dodgers and Yankees vs. Red Sox baseball games, too. Throw in four days of “R & R” in New England and it’s pretty much a dream holiday for me. Oh – and the small matter of meeting up again with some good friends from various parts of the US.

My journey took me past the towns of West Bromwich, Wolverhampton and Stoke-on-Trent. Memories of those three away games this year; a hopeful draw, a hard-fought win and a woeful defeat in AVB’s last game. The landscape of England is littered with similar football memories, eh? I was aware that Ben from Boston was making his way up to Liverpool for his first-ever away game and I told him to check out the supremely clear view of Manchester from the towering Thelwall Viaduct, rising high over the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal. I was making great time and I have to say, even though I was going slightly crazy without Parky’s voice alongside me, I was loving every minute. I know some folks hate driving, but I love it. I love every part of it, from the scenery, to the geography of England, from the road-side sights, to the stops at service stations and the minutiae of a long distance football follower.

It’s what I do.

Working in transport, I have inherited a feverish tendency to check out the names of the articulated trucks which shudder past. I’ve used many of the companies in my job, of course, and I suppose it is only natural for me to relate to these monsters of the road as I travel the length of England.

Gerry Jones Transport – ah, yes, I remember that troublesome tail-lift delivery down in area 38 in France.
P&O Ferrymasters – wonder if he’s heading up to Liverpool on the night crossing to Dublin.
DHL – the rivals, the hated rivals.
Ntex – ah Tony, the operations manager, the Arsenal fan, not so chatty now are you?

Oh dear. The madness was setting in.

As I edged towards the city of Liverpool, thoughts suddenly turned towards the football. There is, of course, a very strong chance that had Chelsea lost the Cup Final on Saturday, this trip to the delights of Merseyside may well have been a trip too far for me. If I had known that Parky was not going to be able to make it, maybe the probabilities would have been further stacked against this trip. Who knows? We’ll never know. All I know is that I reached Queens Drive at around 4.45pm and I was relishing the game; game number 56 in this bizarre season. This represented a record for me in fact. It meant that my previous “bests” of 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 had been bettered by one game. Blackburn will be 57, Munich will be 58. It had taken me until the Queens Drive to witness my first Liverpool shirt of the day. Most strange.

As I approached Anfield, I was in a dilemma, though. After the festering animosity between the two clubs being heightened by the Wembley Cup Final, I was a little more wary for my safety. Stories of lone Southerners getting picked off by gangs of scallies are, of course, the stuff of legend, especially during the dark days of the late ‘seventies and early ‘eighties. There was a reason why hardly any clubs brought much away support to Liverpool in the ‘seventies. It was a tough old city and outsiders sporting different colours were given a notoriously rough ride. The Scousers love of a Stanley knife is well known.

“Have you met Stanley?”

I’ve had a couple of near escapes at Liverpool. I was chased at Lime Street after an Everton game in 1986, for example. I was lucky to get away unharmed on that occasion. Of course, things have generally calmed down now, but I was still wary. I was faced with a choice of chancing free roadside parking around 20 minutes from Anfield or secure £10 parking closer in. It was still only 5pm, so I drove around the block for a few moments trying to decide. My little journey took me past the Anfield Road stand and down the hill towards Goodison Park. For the first time, I noticed the grey murky waters of the Mersey to my west. I eventually decided to go for the safe option; I duly paid £10 and then headed up the hill towards Anfield. Outside “The Arkles” I spotted a police van. I killed a little time outside the stadium, but things were desperately quiet. Ben was now in the city centre, so I decided to head back to “The Arkles” to await his arrival. There was some sort of sure inevitability about me entering this famous old pub on the corner of Arkles Lane and Anfield Road.

“…just like a moth to a flame.”

It has historically been “the” away pub for trips to both Liverpool and Everton, though I am sure it has seen a share of the action in days gone by. Images of scallies running invading Mancunians and Cockneys around the red-bricked terraced streets before during and after games at Anfield in the late’seventies bring a chill to the bone. In those days, The Kop was the home to the fan, the “Annie Road” was the home to the scally and the hooligan element, resplendent in wedge haircut, drainpipe jeans, Adidas Trimm Tabs and Peter Storm rain jackets.

Not to worry, I peered inside the pub and spotted a couple of familiar faces. Dessie was leading the singing, Tom was quietly drinking a lager. Chelsea had taken over the side room and there seemed to be no bother. Outside, I had noticed that the boozer was now guarded by three police vans. Alan and Gary soon arrived, carrying two pints apiece. Ben arrived at about 6pm. Tom and I had spoken a little about the on-going CPO debate; like me, he was present at the two most recent meetings. We both believe that Fulham Council desperately want Chelsea to remain in their borough. The most recent statement by them surely proves that.

The Chelsea songs were continuing and despite a few songs which tested our welcome, Team Dessie thankfully decided not to air the infamous “Murderers” chant. I heaved a sigh of relief. Not to worry, though – the lager was only being served in plastic glasses.

At 7pm, Ben and I decided to leave and I took Ben (rather reluctantly, I felt…) on a circumnavigation of Anfield. I pointed out the spot where I once shook hands with Fabio Capello before the CL semi-final of 2007. Oh, those CL games – how amazing they were. They are, most probably, the main reason why we have developed as massive rivals over the past seven years. To be honest, it felt strange for me to be at Anfield on a May evening and only a mundane league game to anticipate. I lead Ben down towards the chippies on Walton Breck Road, then past the old ship’s mast from the SS Great Eastern which acts as a flag post next to The Kop. Past the impressive Bill Shankley statue, then onto the wasteland where I took an atmospheric shot of a haunted-looking Ben, against a back drop of urban blight and dereliction.

“Welcome to Liverpool, soft lad.”

I did my best to give Ben a guided tour – “there used to be a half-time gate here, the Shankly Gates were forged in my home town” – but I sensed that Ben was uneasy about being surrounded by so many red shirts. As a Yankee fan in Boston, he should be immune to it all by now. We waited outside the away turnstiles for a little. I noted many foreign fans – easily distinguished by the ubiquitous friendship scarves and an overabundance of Liverpool paraphernalia. They love their scarves, the Scousers. It’s not really a Chelsea thing. It’s more of an Arsenal thing in London, to be honest. I suppose that the Scousers feel forced to adorn scarves so that they can take part in the ritual singing of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before each game. It wasn’t always like this. In the days of my youth, when I used to listen to Bryon Butler and Peter Jones (do any of the expats remember them?) on Radio Two’s coverage of those Liverpool nights in Europe, “YNWA” would spontaneously erupt during the games on many occasions. For a young kid, listening on a small radio under the bedclothes, it was hauntingly beautiful. These days, “YNWA” seems to be part of the choreographed Anfield package; played at the start of the game on the PA, then sung at the very end of the game by The Kop. Wave that scarf high, be part of the Anfield Experience. I preferred the spontaneity of yester year.

Inside the away end, the signs were not good. I realised that hundreds of seats were going to be unused; a complete section of maybe 1,000 in the corner untouched. Elsewhere, I could sense that the mood amongst the home fans was pretty sombre. There was no pre-match buzz, no sense of occasion. In truth, this has been a disappointing season for them and the F.A. Cup Final defeat made their failings all the more apparent. I took plenty of photographs of the Chelsea players in their pre-match routines. Anfield is cavernous; the dark reaches of The Kop go back way in the distance. It held 30,000 when it was in its prime (with no gangways or walkways – when you were in, you were in) but it now holds around 12,000. It’s still pretty impressive. I once stood on The Kop – the old Kop – in 1992 and it was an amazing old stand. It was the day we won at Anfield in the league for the first time since around 1937. What a day – what a game. When I have enough time, I’ll tell you all about it one day.

The entrance of the teams. A last chance for me to look around. Our away following was poor; maybe around 1,200. However, I did note empty seats in the home areas; not many, for sure, but around 2,000 dotted around in several main sections. It was a night when I would be part of Chelsea lowest league away support for years and years. Had we lost the Cup Final, I dread to think how few would have attended.

Our team was a mix of the young and the willing, the old and the tested. Whatever will be will be.

As the teams lined up and then broke, Gerry Marsden did his bit.

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v…type=2&theater

What a disappointing game to mark the last away game of the league season.

Despite his poor showing at Wembley on Saturday, Luis Suarez (he of the Depeche Mode song in his honour) was soon buzzing around and causing our entire defence a whole host of problems. After just 7 minutes, he spun clear but shot narrowly wide. A back heel from Suarez but Andy Carroll shot wide. However, the noise levels were pretty low. The away fans taunted the natives with –

“Where’s your famous atmosphere?”

I feared for Torres, marked by Jamie Carragher, in front of 12,000 baying Scousers in The Kop. Sturridge had a run and his shot was deflected wide. From the following corner, Ivanovic almost repeated his goal from 2009, but his header struck the right post.

Then Suarez struck. A run deep in to our box and the ball was played back into the hapless Essien, who could not avoid scoring an own goal. He slid into the goal and held his head in his hands. One of the images of the season. Soon after, another JT slip let in Jordan Henderson who adroitly side-footed past Ross Turnbull. Now the natives were roaring. Thankfully, we didn’t revert to the “Murderers” chant and, instead, sang a new one –

“It’s never your fault, it’s never your fault. Always the victim, it’s never your fault.”

In the circumstances, pretty restrained stuff, Chelsea. Good to hear.

Soon after, Ross Turnbull did well to tip a Suarez chip over, but Liverpool scored a demoralising third when Agger headed in from close range.

“Fcuk off Chelsea FC – you ain’t got no history.”

This was hurting now. Andy Carroll forced a superb save from Turnbull. All around, our players were misfiring. Essien was toiling and it hurt to see him play. Romeu, so impressive when we were playing well, was off the pace in this poor performance. However, a quick break at the other end and Fernando Torres struck the bar from a ridiculously tight angle. If that had gone in, how pleased we would have been.

How pleased he would have been.

A chance for Liverpool now – a lob by that man Carroll, rejuvenated after Wembley – hit the bar. Then, calamity…from our viewpoint, Ivanovic just stood his ground with Carroll breathing down his neck, but the referee Kevin Friend decided that it was a penalty. Terrible decision. JT argued with the referee, while Torres looked ruefully on. Thankfully, Downing’s daisy-cutter slapped against the post.

Half-time. Oh boy. What a shocker.

“I’d take 3-0 now, Gal.”

In truth, it could have been 6-2 at half-time. In this season of high-scoring results between the top teams, I feared the worst.

Surprisingly, we grabbed a goal back on 50 minutes when an in swinging Florent Malouda free-kick was touched home by Ramires. Thoughts of a surprise come-back flickered through our minds, but we showed the same level of ineptitude as in the first half. On the hour, the game was over when a poor clearance by Ross Turnbull ended up at the feet of Shelvey. He took a touch, then drove it straight into the empty goal. It was another goal that I was right behind the flight of this season.

Liverpool 4 Chelsea 1.

If it stayed like this, we would have experienced our heaviest league defeat in 16 years. The previously biggest defeat was a 5-1 reverse at the same ground during the nascent growing pains of Ruud Gullit’s stewardship in the autumn of 1996.

Wait a second. Let’s think about that. Our heaviest league defeat in 16 years. That just goes to show how Chelsea have played since 1996. What an amazing period for us. In recent memory this season, United have lost 6-1, Arsenal have lost 8-2…yet our biggest defeat in 16 years was 4-1? Pretty damn amazing.

In truth, the rest of the game was memorable only for a few bursting runs from substitute Romelu Lukaku and the resilience of Ryan Bertrand at left-back. Elsewhere, we were shoddy and shocking. Lukaku headed straight at Reyna from inside the box. At 4-2, it would have matched our 4-2 defeat against City in 2010. Two more chances came and went for Andy Carroll. A header from Agger flew past the far post. At times our defending was comical, like something that the Keystone Cops would have been embarrassed to be linked with. However, despite the baying thousands in The Kop and the Main Stand, let’s reflect on this game and the previous one; an F.A. Cup win over a meaningless 4-1 defeat every time please.

I wasted no time in hurrying out at the end. There was only a short wait at the car park and I was soon on my way home. For once, I had beaten the traffic – a lot of the home fans had waited behind to see the Liverpool players perform a lap of honour.

Out on the M6, the music was on and by the time I had stopped to refuel with a pasty, a sandwich, some crisps and some “Cokes”, I can honestly say the game was drifting out of my consciousness. I was in cruise control mode now, enjoying the night driving, enjoying the music, enjoying my own company. I drove past the Chelsea supporters coach; Alan and I exchanged texts. The journey south is a familiar route. I must know every bump in the road. I eventually reached home at a fraction before 2am. The rain was now falling and I just wanted to get inside to bed.

It was a bad day at the office. Let’s hope that games 57 and 58 are not similarly bleak.

Bryon Butler : The Voice Of My Childhood.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WEPbRoA5Usw

“Maradona, turns like a little eel, he comes away from trouble, little squat man… comes inside Butcher and leaves him for dead, outside Fenwick and leaves him for dead, and puts the ball away… and that is why Maradona is the greatest player in the world.”

From the days when commentators were wordsmiths.

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