Tales From Deep East

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 23 September 2018.

With Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham all winning on Saturday, it seemed imperative that we should be victorious on Sunday afternoon – at West Ham United – too. Not that I have realistic thoughts about winning the league again this season but just that, well, a win is a win is a win. Why not keep this run going for as long as is humanely possible? So far, our perfect start to the league campaign – five out of five – had certainly surprised me, and here was a game that was immensely “winnable.”

The drive through Somerset, Wiltshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire and into London had been memorable for only two reasons. The bastard weather was awful, the worst of the season. Saturday had been horrible; wind and rain. And Sunday was just the same. I drove into three hours of rain and spray. It was not fun. Slightly funnier, though, was the sight – around Maidenhead I think – of a cyclist heading east in the near lane of the M4, quite illegally, and signalling with his left arm to leave the motorway at the next exit. The Chuckle Brothers all had to rub our eyes at the sight.

At just after 11am, I turned off the A4 and parked up outside Barons Court tube station. Waiting for us outside were my two Czech mates George and Petr, who live in Prague, and who I last bumped into together at the Rapid Vienna friendly two summers ago. They had contacted me over the summer about their unquenchable desire to see a Chelsea away game and, although I was far from confident of being able to come up with tickets for the West Ham match, some good fortune came my way a month or so ago and the boys were in luck. They then booked flights, and then accommodation. Their enthusiasm for the day’s events, despite the dreary conditions, was palpable.

As we headed east on the Piccadilly line, and then the Central line, we were surprised at the lack of West Ham, or Chelsea fans. But, for once, we were early. We always seem to leave it unfashionably late at West Ham. At Stratford – tons of home supporters now – we doubled-back on ourselves and alighted at the wonderfully-named Pudding Mill Lane station. At last, the rain had virtually stopped.

Although from the Czech Republic, make no mistakes where George and Petr’s affections lie. They are thoroughbred Chelsea fans. I asked them how the Czech league was shaping up, and it warmed me a little to hear that they were not honestly sure about the placings; Petr thought it was Viktoria Pilzen, Slavia and then Sparta. But it seemed an irrelevance to both of them. I approved.

They were, as if it needed proving, proper Chelsea.

I had mentioned to the lads – The Czechle Brothers – as we passed through Bethnal Green and Mile End, that the area is, or at least was, the stereotypical East End, from which West Ham garnered much of their local support. There is nowhere else in London which is so tied to a football club; Arsenal and Tottenham might share north London, and much of its hinterlands, and Chelsea might draw support from the west and south, and share it with other clubs too, but from the traditional East End out to Essex, that acute angle of support is solidly West Ham.

As we alighted at the final station, with modern high-rises surrounding the former Olympic village, the contrast between the tight terraced streets around Upton Park and West Ham’s new neighbourhood could not have been greater. It is, simply, a stark, modern, airy environment. Everywhere you look are vast blocks of concrete. However, I am sure that the vast majority of West Ham fans still prefer the claustrophobic tightness of Green Street, the Queens Market, the Barking Road and the pubs which made West Ham the club it once was, but is no more.

There was time for a couple of drinks of overpriced lager from plastic glasses in the bar area outside the away sections. With George and Petr lapping up the pre-game thrills of a London derby, I nodded to the two hundred or so Chelsea fans within the area.

“No Chelsea colours.”

In fact, I was exaggerating for effect; there were in fact two people with Chelsea shirts.

“Probably tourists”, I joked, and they laughed.

They probably didn’t get the email.

Weeks ago, I had warned Petr and George about not wearing Chelsea shirts, scarves or hats. But they already knew the score and were well-versed in the dos and don’ts for a London derby.

The team had been announced.

No risks being taken with Pedro. Willian came in. And it was Olivier Giroud’s turn to lead the line.

No complaints. Happy with that.

With a quarter of an hour to go until kick-off, I walked up the steps and into the upper section of the away end. This time, better seats; we were in the fourth row back.

PD and Glenn were low down in the tier below and The Czechle Brothers were way beyond us in the last few rows of the upper section. I had warned them it would be a fight to get much noise flying around the away section. That huge void between the sections is no help.

I noted some signage on the main stand to my left :

“This Is The World’s Stage. This Is For Everyone. This Is London Stadium.”

It seemed the stadium was the star attraction and not the team.

And throughout the afternoon, electronic advertisements flashed constantly on the balcony walls between tiers; music concerts, events, baseball games.

Ah yes, baseball games.

I had to double-take when I saw my team, the New York Yankees, flashed up to my right.

It is the sort of thing I simply do not expect to see while watching Chelsea. In London.

There it was, in broad daylight.

New York Yankees V Boston Red Sox.

My mind wandered, briefly, to next June when the two teams will meet at West Ham’s new home stadium for a two game series. I tried to visualise where home plate would be; probably right in front of the nearest goal to where I was standing. And then I thought of the likely spectators. Yankee fans and Red Sox fans would only make up a relatively small percentage. There would be UK baseball fans from all over; Cubs shirts, Braves shirts, Dodgers shirts, Mets shirts, Phillies shirts. And I paused, again briefly, to imagine a similar scene should our league mirror Major League Baseball and cross the Atlantic.

Imagine a Chelsea vs. West Ham United game in, say, Chicago. It would not only attract fans of those two teams. If my experience is anything to go by, there would be supporters – wearing shirts and scarves – of Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Everton and others, to say nothing of the usual smattering of Bayern, Milan, Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid fans. And each little pocket of fans might well find themselves sitting cheek by jowl with rival fans. It is a scene which brought a wry smile to my face.

70,000 in Chicago.

A 15,000 section for Chelsea. A 15,000 section for West Ham. And a 40,000 neutral zone for all the other top fifty teams in Europe.

No thanks.

As the teams appeared, I spotted a phalanx of people crowding the two teams, separated by black fences. I presumed that this was the West Ham equivalent of Manchester City’s tunnel club, where people pay a dividend to get up-close-and-personal with their heroes.

I was happy that the lanky bugger Arnautovic was not playing.

Don’t we look great in that yellow / yellow / blue?

West Ham added to my thoughts about abandoning their heritage by wearing plain claret shirts, rather than with the blue-sleeves of yore. Maybe it was to honour their highest-ever finish, of second, in 1986.

If we sing about being Champions of Europe, and we sing about London, there is – I am sure people will begrudgingly agree – a slim chance of Arsenal and even Tottenham eventually lifting that trophy, although hopefully not in any of our lifetimes. But what of West Ham? They are easily London’s fourth biggest club, but it would be a minor miracle should they even qualify for the Champions league.

And to think, from 1979 to 1984, they seemed our natural London rivals.

How times change.

This would be my fourth visit to the London Stadium, but I was yet to see Chelsea win. A League Cup defeat, a League defeat and a Depeche Mode concert. I sadly missed our one win which came during our Championship season under Antonio Conte.

Behind me was a chap wearing a “Bulgarian Blues” polo shirt. He seemed involved all through the game. As George and Petr prove, not all of our foreign fans are gormless tools. Far from it in fact.

As the game commenced, I made it a priority to try to analyse the involvement of Jorginho during the next ninety minutes. I also vowed to try to try to keep an eye on Giroud. I confided in Gary alongside me :

“You know what, Gal? It honestly took me a while to warm to Giroud last season, for obvious reasons. But he’s a bloody good player, isn’t he? His lay-offs to Hazard have been excellent of late.”

I thought we played really well in the first twenty minutes or so.

A shot from Hazard forced Fabianski to save low. Our movement was great, full of one touch football, and we were stretching the home team nicely. But chances were certainly at a premium. For all of our attacking verve, it was West Ham who enjoyed the two best chances of the game. Firstly, Antonio broke in on the West Ham left but fired over. Then, Yarmolenko – similar in build to Arnautovic – fired low but Kepa Arrizabalaga smothered well.

One tackle, sliding, beautifully timed, from David Luiz had us all purring.

The grey skies had turned blue and at last there was a blast of sunlight.

I had warned Petr and George that the stadium had no architectural delights. With the slight rake of the lower tier especially, I find it a very bland stadium. It is not dramatic. It has no “wow” factor. The only part of it that seems worthy of comment is the cat’s cradle of steel which supports the roof and the triangular floodlights. Other than that, Upton Park trumped it hands down.

Our best chance of the first-half fell to the head of N’Golo Kante, after a finely volleyed cross from Willian allowed him a clear view of the goal. It was not to be. The ball skidded wide.

At the break, there were grumbles among the three thousand.

Our positive start had not continued. There was a tendency to over-pass. I had been watching Giroud; there was not much to report. He was hardly moving his markers at all. I had been watching Jorginho too. Lots of the ball – pass, pass, pass, – but yet again no flights of fancy to unlock the door. There had been little running off the ball either – the “third man” was lost in Vienna, or Budapest, or Amsterdam. He was nowhere to be seen in East London.

In the stands, the noise was not great. Only once in the first-half did the home fans make a din.

Chelsea chastised them in the time-honoured fashion.

“You’re not West Ham, anymore.”

“You sold your soul…”

Chelsea attacked us in the southern end in the second-half. Amid the chants of encouragement, there were moans and cries of despair too. In truth, it was pretty pedestrian stuff, for all of our possession. And we totally dominated. And yet Willian and Hazard failed to really make their talents pay off. Hazard kept dropping deep. And he rarely hugged the touchline.

More of the same from Jorginho. Not his best game for us. He often lost possession. His passes were to the side or to players being marked. I was getting frustrated with him.

Giroud, under my watchful gaze, rarely made a move into space. He seemed to continually move towards the man with the ball rather than attempt a blind-sided run (oh, Hernan Crespo, are your ears burning?) to create space.

With twenty-five minutes remaining, Sarri replaced Giroud with Morata.

My thoughts :

West Ham were for the taking. Why not play both up front for a quarter of an hour?

Hazard, in on goal, chose to back-heel to Moratra rather than shoot himself.

“Fackinelleden.”

Then, from a corner, the ball fell at the feet of Morata. He had no time to think; he pushed a foot towards the ball but we groaned as the shot hit Fabianski in the face.

“Bollocks.”

The frustration rose.

An injured Rudiger was replaced by Gary Cahill.

As the game continued, and as West Ham enjoyed a little spell, I whispered to Gary.

“Fackinell Gal, I bet they will get the ball out wide, we’ll lose concentration, they will hit a ball in to the box, and one of their fuckers will head home.”

Within twenty seconds, Robert Snodgrass (“more clubs than Peter Stringfellow”) crossed into our box and Yarmalenko rose at the far post, completely and utterly unmarked, but thankfully his firm header veered past the post.

“Fucksakechelsea.”

We then came on strong in the final period.

We begged for a goal.

“Fackinellcomeonchels.”

Ross Barkley came on for Kovacic, and I liked the look of him immediately. He sprayed balls out to the wings with aplomb. Then, a big moment. Collecting the ball from wide, he looked up and curled a ball towards Fabianski’s far post. The bend on it was phenomenal. We were all about to celebrate when the ‘keeper scrambled down low to save.

Then, the last two chances.

A Willian volley, evading a tackle, but it was sent well wide.

Hazard, a tame shot across Fabianski.

At times, that lone cyclist on the M4 had shown a much better understanding of how to negotiate heavy traffic than our attackers.

It finished 0-0.

This had been our poorest performance of the season. As is always the case, we chatted about everything on the slow trudge across London, and then furthermore on the drive home.

What’s the expression? “More questions than answers.”

That seems about right. The Jorginho / Kante dilemma rumbles on.

On the M4, I summed up my feelings.

“Never mind Saturday. Say we are playing the biggest game in our history. Tottenham in the European Cup Final. A game we had to win. You would want Kante shielding the defence, right? In his best position. Not Jorginho. You’d want Kante there.”

The lads agreed.

And, not for the first time in our recent history, we have ineffectual strikers.

“Morata is half a striker. Giroud is half a striker.”

Just like in 2013/14.

“Torres was half a striker. Ba was half a striker. Eto’o was half a striker.”

Yep.

More questions than answers.

There is no trip to Anfield for me on Wednesday, but let’s hope we can find some positive answers to these questions on Saturday when we meet Liverpool for the second time in four days.

I will see you there.

 

Eyes On The Ball.

 

A Volleyed Cross.

 

Keeping It Alive. 

 

Working The Space. 

 

Early Ball. 

 

Signs.

 

Face Off.

 

Daisy Cutter.

 

Wide Man.

 

Bend It Like Barkley.

 

Well Wide.

 

My Ball.

Tales From The Heart Of Chelsea

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 8 April 2018.

I had just left work on Wednesday afternoon when my mobile phone flashed a horribly brief news update.

Ray Wilkins, my boyhood hero, our Chelsea captain, an England international, a Chelsea assistant coach, had died.

There were no immediate tears, but certainly an excruciating, horrible silent numbness. I drove home in a state of shock. I was as subdued as I can remember. Ever since we had all heard that Butch had suffered a heart-attack, and had been in an induced coma, we had of course feared the worst. The future did not promise too much hope, and with every passing day, I feared imminent news.

On Wednesday 4 April, it came.

Ray Wilkins. Just the name sends me back, somersaulting me through the decades to my youth, to a time when Chelsea probably meant more to me than I realised, and to the very first few moments of my fledgling support.

In season 1973/1974, Ray Wilkins had made his debut at the age of just seventeen as a substitute against Norwich City in the October. However, I have to be honest, living in Somerset, I don’t think that I was aware of his presence that campaign. I certainly can’t remember seeing him play in any of the – few – games which were shown in highlights on “Match of the Day” or “The Big Match.” In the March of 1974, I saw my first-ever Chelsea game. I like the fact that we made our debuts in the same season. The very letter which accompanied the match tickets for that Chelsea vs. Newcastle United match was signed by “Miss J. Bygraves” and this young girl would later become Ray Wilkins’ wife and mother to their two children. By that stage, my then favourite player Ian Britton had been playing for Chelsea a couple of seasons. In that first game, neither played, and I would have to wait a whole year to see my two boyhood idols play, sadly in a lacklustre 2-1 defeat by soon to be Champions Derby County. Chelsea were managed by Ron Suart at the time of that match, but soon after former defender Eddie McCreadie took over. Very soon, he spotted the leadership potential of Ray – or “Butch” as he was known – and made him captain at the age of just eighteen despite the presence of former captains Ron Harris and John Hollins being in the team. Those last matches of the 1974/1975 season were marked by the manager flooding the first team with youngsters; alongside Ray Wilkins and the comparative “veteran” Ian Britton were Teddy Maybank, John Sparrow, Tommy Langley, Steve Finnieston and Steve Wicks.

With the influx of youngsters, playing against the backdrop of the sparkling new East Stand, I hoped that the future was bright despite our eventual relegation. If anything, it all got worse. A cash-strapped Chelsea were unable to buy any players for a few seasons, and at one stage it looked like we would be forced to sell both Ray Wilkins and Ian Britton. We finished mid-table at the end of 1975/1976, and promotion back to the First Division seemed distant.

It is an odd fact that although I have taken thousands upon thousands of photographs at Chelsea games over the years, in the period from my first game in 1974 to the start of the 1983/1984 season I took just one. It marked the return of Peter Osgood with Southampton in March 1976, but instead of an image of Ossie, the camera is fixed upon the young Chelsea captain, leaning forward to shake hands with his Southampton counterpart Peter Rodrigues.

Ten seasons, twenty-seven Chelsea games, but only one photograph.

And that photograph is of Ray Wilkins. It seems, with hindsight, wholly appropriate.

For season after season, in those dark years of false hope, the threat of financial oblivion, of wanton hooliganism and occasional despair, our young captain seemed to be our one beacon of hope.

He was our Ray of light.

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At the end of that mediocre 1975/1976 season, I can remember being absolutely thrilled to hear that young Butch would be making his England debut.

At the remodelled Yankee Stadium in New York on Friday 26 May, Butch played a full ninety minutes against Italy, playing against such greats as Dino Zoff, Giacinto Facchetti, Roberto Bettega and Franco Causio. I can vividly remember seeing the highlights on the following day’s “World of Sport” (I specifically remember the blue padded outfield walls, and the dirt of the baseball diamond).

Butch had arrived.

That summer, I sent off to the “Chelsea Players’ Pool” – remember that? – and acquired a signed black and white photograph. It was pinned close to my Peter Osgood one. Two real Chelsea heroes.

The following season, Chelsea stormed to promotion with Ray Wilkins the driving force. The man was a dream. Equally gifted with both left and right feet, he had a wonderful balance, and a lovely awareness of others. He didn’t merely touch the ball, he caressed it. He made everything look so easy. There was a languid looseness to him. But he was no slouch. Although not gifted with lightning pace, he had the energy and guile to tackle when needed, but to break forward too. His long-range passing was his party-piece. I have no single recollection of one Ray Wilkins pass, but the buzz of appreciation – cheering, applause, clapping – that accompanied a searching Wilkins cross-field pass, perfectly-weighted to a team mate, is what sticks in my mind. And there were many of them. Those were the days when supporters used to clap a great pass. It doesn’t happen much these days.

And he just looked like a footballer. My Dad always commented how Butch had thighs like tree trunks. There was a certain confident strut to him. I always thought that it was a plus point that his legs were slightly – ever-so slightly – bowed, though not as noticeable as, say, Malcolm MacDonald or Terry McDermott. Many footballers did in those days. I am sure it was not in a ridiculous body-sculpting homage to him, but as I grew up, I noticed that my legs were slightly bowed too. Nobody ever took the piss out of me, and what if they did? I would have an easy answer.

“If it’s good enough for Ray Wilkins, it’s good enough for me.”

I am told he melted a few female hearts too. I remember a few girls at Oakfield Road Middle School mentioning Butch to me.

It must have been the stare from those dark brown eyes when Butch was at his most serious.

Back in the First Division, we finished mid-table in 1977/1978 under the tutelage of Ken Shellito. Before the thrilling 3-1 win over European Champions Liverpool in March 1978 (often over-looked in favour of the 4-2 FA Cup win over the same opposition a couple of months before), I was able to obtain Ray Wilkins’ autograph as he came on to the pitch for the kick-about at around 2.30pm. Access to the players at these moments were an added bonus to getting seats in the East Lower. In those days, I would rush over to the curved concrete wall, spending up to twenty minutes or more reaching over towards the players as they passed. To be so close to Ray Wilkins, within touching distance, as he signed by little black autograph book just thrilled me. Forty years on, just writing this, I am getting goose bumps.

Magical, magical times.

Sadly, the elation of promotion in 1976/1977 and consolidation in 1977/1978 was followed by relegation in 1978/1979. During that campaign, we never looked like climbing out of the drop zone. It was such a depressing season. I went through a tough year at school too. It was not a good time in my life.

And I can always remember the pain that I felt during the very last time that I saw Butch play for us, a home game versus QPR in March 1979. It was a miserable day – we lost 3-1, some mouthy QPR fans were sat in front of us in the East Lower – but I was horrified to hear Ray Wilkins getting a fair bit of abuse from the Chelsea supporters around me. It was obvious that the team was at a low ebb, and perhaps too much was expected of our captain, who was still only twenty-two, but every mis-placed Wilkins pass drew loud boos and moans from those close by. Rather than support for a hero when he needed it there was derision. It made such an impression on me that I can remember the sense of betrayal that I experienced thirty-nine years later.

I only saw Ray Wilkins play twelve times for Chelsea, but from March 1975 to March 1979, he was ever-present in all the games that I saw. He wore the number eight shirt in every single one of them. I saw him score just one goal, against Blackpool, in 1975.

He was one of the most revered footballers in the Football League. He was an England regular. It thrilled me each time I saw him play for the national team. He was our sole England international from Peter Osgood in 1973 to Kerry Dixon in 1985. In 1979, he played his twenty-fourth game for England as a Chelsea player, thus beating his former manager McCreadie’s record as a Chelsea internationalist.

In 1979, despite appearing in the Chelsea pre-season team photograph, Ray Wilkins was sold to the hated Manchester United for £825,000. It was on the cards. I knew that we would never keep him. Chelsea certainly needed the money. But to Manchester United? This was just too much. There was a memory of a home programme from 1975 with Butch holding a Manchester United mug at his family home. Had he been hiding some dark secret from us all along?

In the following years, I watched from afar as Ray Wilkins played for the Old Trafford club. From 1979 to 1984, United were an under-achieving team under Dave Sexton and then Ron Atkinson. His goal against Brighton in the 1983 FA Cup Final was not celebrated by me.

It still hurt.

Thankfully, he never played for United against us.

And the nickname “Butch” never really followed him to Old Trafford.

He then moved over to Italy to play for Milan from 1984 to 1987.

I saw him play for England – as captain – at Wembley in November 1985 against Northern Ireland on a night which saw a young Kerry Dixon make his home debut, and on a night when the cry of “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” could memorably be heard at the tunnel end.

As the years passed, he played for Rangers and then QPR. I can recollect seeing him early in 1989/1990 at Stamford Bridge, and looking as classy as ever. He was only thirty-three. It would have been lovely to see him come back in West London to play for Chelsea and not QPR, who he later managed, but it was not to be. He then played on with other teams – Wycombe, Hibernian, Millwall, Orient – and then retired to manage Fulham. So near and yet so far.

There were the famous “Tango” commercials.

“Smashing.”

He was often the co-commentator on the Italian games which were shown on Channel Four.

“Hello everyone.”

He seemed so pleasant, so decent, so natural.

In 1998, Butch finally returned home to coach alongside Gianluca Vialli. He worked alongside Luiz Filip Scolari. He took charge for one game at Vicarage Road. He then memorably assisted Carlo Ancelotti – his Milan team mate – and helped us win the double. He was a steadying influence, and a much-loved member of the Chelsea family. His sacking by the club – I am guessing – might well have sent him towards a publicised alcohol addiction.

We felt numbed. For some alcohol is never the right answer, and alcoholism is a horrid disease.

But it felt as though Ray Wilkins has always been part of this club. The red devil mug from 1975 was obviously a red herring. He was not only a season ticket holder, but an away season ticket holder too. There were numerous sightings of our former captain at away grounds – I can recollect photos of him posing happily with some friends of mine – at various away sections, despite the fact that he could have spent those afternoons on the golf course, at home with his family, or out with friends.

It is a cliché, but he was one of us.

My good friend Glenn and I only bumped into him at Stamford Bridge a couple of months back. He was warm and friendly, happy to spend time with us, and I am blessed that I was able to see him one last time.

Just writing those words.

Oh my.

…the days passed. Wednesday became Thursday, Thursday became Friday. Friday became Saturday. Saturday became Sunday. Over these days, many stories were told of his decency and his humanity. But this all added to the sense of loss.

Sunday 8 April 2018 would be another emotional day for us all. On the drive to London, it seemed almost churlish to talk about our game with West Ham. We muddled our way through some conversations and predictions. At many moments, my mind was elsewhere.

We had set off from Somerset earlier than usual so that we could visit one of Parky’s old haunts from the days when he served in the army in the early ‘seventies. It was something of an anniversary. Forty-five years ago last Friday – 30 March 1973 – Parky stepped foot inside Millbank Barracks in Pimlico for the first time. An avid Chelsea fan despite being born near Arsenal’s stadium, Parky’s first Chelsea match was as a six-year-old in 1961. Being stationed so near to Stamford Bridge in Pimlico was a passport to football heaven. We had booked a table for 12.30pm at his then local “The Morpeth Arms”, which overlooks the river and the M16 building on the opposite bank.

But first, we popped in to “The Famous Three Kings” near West Kensington station at eleven o’clock for a quick pint and I made a toast.

“Ray Wilkins.”

We then tubed it to Pimlico, and had a lovely time in Parky’s old local. We met up with some pals from Kent and the nine of us had a relaxing and enjoyable time. During the two hours that we were in The Morpeth Arms, we spotted two boats heading west on the river which were bedecked in West Ham flags and favours. Often teams from London take a cruise down the river before a game at Chelsea. The game flitted into my mind, but only briefly, at the sight of the West Ham flags.

Glenn and I then split from the rest, and headed back to Fulham Broadway. In “The Malt House” we had arranged to meet up with pals from Bournemouth, Los Angeles, Jacksonville and Toronto. In the meantime, we soon learned that a main West Ham mob had caused a fair bit of havoc in The Atlas and The Lily Langtree, just half a mile or so away. There had been talk of them having a bash at The Goose too. We often frequent those pubs. I am glad we had avoided any nonsense.

It was lovely to meet up with the Jacksonville Blues once again; it was Jennifer and Brian’s first visit, though their pals Jimmy and Steve had visited Stamford Bridge before. Brian had presented me with a Jacksonville Blues scarf while I was over in Charlotte for the PSG game in 2015. It wins the prize as the Chelsea scarf with the finest design that I have seen, bar none. We met up with Tom from LA again, and bumped into Mick from Colorado too. There was a quick hello to Bill, a pal from Toronto who was over for the game. The famous Tuna from Atlanta was in town, but our paths just failed to connect.

“Next time, Fishy Boy.”

Overseas fans sometimes get a rough ride from certain sections of our support, but many are as passionate as fans from these isles. They have tended to add to my experience as a Chelsea supporter, not taken away from it.

There was horrible drizzle in the air. The Floridians were finding it a rather cold few days. But their enthusiasm for the game was bubbling over, or was it the alcohol?

On the walk to Stamford Bridge, we were soaked.

There was just time to pay a few moments of silent respect to the little shrine that the club had set up for Ray Wilkins. His photo had been moved along to a more spacious section of The Shed Wall. I was pleased to see the armband that John Terry had left was still in place. The photo of a young Butch in that darker than usual kit from 1977 made me gulp at the enormity of it all. The thought that both Ian Britton and now Ray Wilkins are no longer with us is – I will admit – a very difficult thing for me to comprehend.

I had a ticket in the MHL for this game – alongside Bristol Pete – and it was my first game there since Olimpiakos in 2008. But I was happy that I’d be getting a different perspective at a home game. We were stood, level with the crossbar and just behind the goal.

Very soon, it became clear that some fans in The Shed would be holding up a few banners, and I steadied my camera. The teams entered the pitch, and the spectators rose as one. There were no words from Neil Barnett – in hindsight, I suspect that he might well have decided that the emotion of the occasion would have got the better of him – and very soon both sets of players were stood in the centre circle. The TV screens provided some images, and the words Ray Wilkins 1956-2018 chilled me. We all applauded. Very soon, a blue flag passed over my head. I would later learn that it was a huge tribute to Butch, so well done to the club for producing it in such a short timescale. There was a chant of “one Ray Wilkins” and the clapping continued.

And then the applause softened, and the noise fell away. The game soon started, but my head was not really ready for it. All of that raw emotion squeezed into a few minutes had taken my focus away from the game. I tried my hardest to concentrate on the play, but I found it difficult. There was an extra constraint; I was not used to witnessing a home game from anywhere other than seat 369 in The Sleepy Hollow. I struggled with the perspective.

Antonio Conte had stayed with the choice of Alvaro Morata up front, and all was to be expected elsewhere on the pitch, apart from the return of captain Gary Cahill instead of Andreas Christensen. The first part of the game seemed pretty scrappy but Eden Hazard threatened with a low shot, and we hoped for further chances.

On eight minutes, there was more applause for Ray Wilkins. I spotted the image of the floral bouquet on the Chelsea bench.

“Blimey, that’s poignant.”

We feared the worst when Marko Arnautovic managed to get his feet tangled and Thibaut Courtois blocked from close range. It would be the visitors’ only real effort on goal during the entire first-half. I was so close to the action; the nearest I have been to the pitch at Chelsea for years. Being so low, both side stands seemed higher than ever. I wondered what the first-time visitors from Florida’s First Coast thought of their first visit to Stamford Bridge.

There was occasional neat passing in the final third, but our chances were rare. Already there was a feeling of nervous tension starting to rise within the massed ranks of the MHL, who were stood throughout. I can’t remember the last time the MHL and the Shed Lower sat throughout a game; a long time ago for sure. But there wasn’t a great deal of noise either. The usual shout of “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” was noticeably missing. On a day when I had flitted around Stamford Bridge – to the north, to the west, to the east, momentarily to the south – it felt that I was watching the match from the heart of Chelsea. The reduced capacity Shed is not the same place as it was in years past, and the MHL has usurped it in many ways as the epicentre of our support. I looked around and, although I did not spot many faces I knew, I certainly felt that I was in the heart of it.

The away fans were boring me rigid with their version of the Blue Flag, and their ridiculous nonsense about “no history.”

A beautiful move ended with a chance from Morata going just past the post. Then, another delicate move ended with Willian forcing a fine save from Joe Hart. With half-time beckoning, and with West Ham more than happy to sit deep, at last there was a reward for our possession. A short corner – which normally I detest – was played back to Moses. I remember thinking “this is usually Dave’s territory and he usually finds the head of Morata.” Well, Moses found the head of Morata and it was none other than Cesar Azpilicueta who managed to get the slightest of touches to stab the ball home – the crowd roared – before running away towards the away support and slumping to the floor.

Up in the MHU, Alan texted me : “THTCAUN.”

In the MHL, I soon replied : “COMLD.”

And that was that. A deserved one goal lead at half-time against an opponent that had rarely attacked, and I just wanted the second-half to produce some more goals. Our recent form has been abysmal. We desperately needed the three points.

Into the second-half and I was thrilled to be able to witness our attacks from so near the pitch, with the full panorama of a packed Stamford Bridge in view. It was a spectacular sight. Throughout the second-half, there were back-heels and flicks aplenty from several of our players – alas, most were to no avail and drew moans – but a deft touch from Eden Hazard set up Willian, who went close. There were more moans – and a growl of consternation from me – when a cross from the raiding Marcos Alonso was touched back by Morata into the path of Victor Moses. With no defender closing him down, and with time for him to concentrate on getting his knee over the ball, he panicked and thrashed the ball high over the bar.

“FORFUCKSAKE.”

We continued to create chances. Morata headed over from a corner, and had a goal disallowed for offside soon after. It looked close from my viewpoint, and it did not surprise me that the linesman had flagged.

In quiet moments, the West Ham ‘keeper was mercilessly taunted by the front rows of the MHL.

“England’s number four. England, England’s number four.”

“You’ve got dandruff, you’ve got dandruff, you’ve got dandruff. And you’re shit.”

…there’s a terrible pun coming soon, by the way…you have been warned.

We still dominated possession. From my viewpoint, all that I could see was a forest of bodies blocking our passage. As I said, there were many attempted “one-twos” and suchlike, but the West Ham defence did not have time for such frivolous play. They blocked, blocked, and hacked away to their hearts content. The groans were growing as the game continued. Hazard, always involved but unable to produce anything of note, was nowhere near his best. He lost possession way too often. His pass selection was off. There was the usual proto typical display of midfield greatness from N’Golo Kante, but elsewhere we struggled. Morata hardly attempted to pull his marker out of position. Moses was as frustrating as so often he is. Fabregas was not the creative influence we needed. Alonso ran and ran down the left flank, but the much-needed second goal just eluded us.

Moses sent a shot curling narrowly wide.

At the other end, the distant Shed, West Ham created a rare chance. A half-hearted header from Cahill was chased down by Arnautovic and he was allowed time to cut the ball back for the onrushing Chicarito – a recent sub – to score with a low shot at Courtois’ near post.

It was, I am sure, their first real shot on goal in the second-half.

“BOLLOCKS.”

There were around twenty minutes’ left.

We urged the team on.

At last, the first real stadium-wide chant roared around Stamford Bridge.

A rasping drive from Alonso forced a magnificent finger-tipped save from Hart, and the ball flew only a matter of feet past my left-hand side. The manager replaced Moses with Pedro, Morata with Giroud. There were shots from Hazard, but there were gutsy West Ham blocks. At the other end, I watched in awe as Kante robbed Arnautovic – showing an amazing turn of pace – inside the box. There was another lovely chase-back from Marcos Alonso to rob a West Ham player the chance to break. A fine looping high cross from Willian found the leap of Giroud, who jumped and hung in the air like a centre-forward of old. We were just about to celebrate the winner when we saw Hart – agonisingly – collapse to his left and push the ball away via the post. It was a simply stupendous save. He was head and shoulders their best player.

There you go. You’re welcome.

The game continued but there was no late joy. A meek header from Cahill and a wild swipe from an angle by Pedro did not bother Hart.

Sigh.

There were boos from inside the MHL at the final whistle.

I had the misfortune to time my exit just as the main slug of away support marched past the West Stand gates. I just walked through them all. Their further taunts of “no history” just raised a laugh from me. And there were moans, of course, once we all met up inside my car on Bramber Road long after the final whistle. As I drove us all home, we chatted about the game, a game that we should have won easily. Those moments when we lack concentration had hit us hard once again. We had our post-game post-mortem. We chose to keep our thoughts to ourselves. Elsewhere, of course, many other Chelsea fans were not so private. As ever, there was much wailing.

I had a sideways look at our current state of affairs.

“We finished tenth in 2016. If somebody had said that we would finish in fifth place and as champions over the following two seasons with Antonio Conte in charge, we would have been ecstatic with that.”

The boys agreed.

“Conte just got his seasons mixed up, the silly bastard.”

The inevitable gallows humour helped us in the immediate aftermath of yet another disappointing result.

It had been a strange day. A day of wild extremes. A day of immense sadness. A day of fine friendships. A day when The Great Unpredictables lived up to their name. A day of memories. A day of melancholy. A day of remembrance. A day of frustration. A day of contemplation.

Meanwhile, this most typical of Chelsea seasons continues.

See you all at Southampton.

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In memoriam.

Ray Wilkins.

14 September 1956 to 4 April 2018.

 

Tales From The East

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 9 December 2017.

On Tuesday night, we had walked the seemingly deserted streets outside Stamford Bridge while the Atletico game was nearing completion. We had needed to leave the stadium early to avoid traffic congestion on the M4. As I reported, it was a deeply surreal sensation.

While the first quarter of an hour of the West Ham away game was taking place at the London Stadium at Stratford, we were walking alone outside once again. Despite my best laid plans, which involved leaving home at 7.30am, we sadly managed to get ensnared for over an hour or so in a tedious traffic jam caused by the closure of the M4 motorway between Newbury and Theale.

What a bastard.

Nobody was more annoyed than me. At the end of a week in which I had continued in a new job role at work (UK transport planning for our fleet of vehicles, rather than my fourteen years of exports), it was a particularly damning moment.

“UK transport planner, my arse.”

As we had edged along the alternative A4 – a main trunk road which travels along the course of an old Roman road linking Bristol and London – my frustration grew. At around 10.40am, I eventually re-joined the M4. Like PD on his return home on Tuesday night, I then broke the land speed record and I reached our parking spot at Barons Court at just before 11.30am.

We were then in the hands of London Transport.

“Might just make kick-off, boys.”

What was I saying a few weeks ago about travel documentaries, books and blogs adding some sort of logistical conflict for dramatic effect?

Ooh, the irony.

Sadly, our trip east to the Dickensian-sounding Pudding Mill Lane station on the Docklands Light Railway involved two changes and further delay.

“Reckon we’ll get in at 12.45pm, boys.”

I texted Alan to know that we would be late.

We had seen the team that Antonio had chosen.

There was one change of personnel; Alonso for Moses, though not a simple straight swap.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Fabregas – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Hazard – Morata

We were wrapped up for the cold air of a crisp London day. Overhead, the sky was a clear blue. As we stepped off the train and down the steps at our final station, with the stadium visible in the distance, five or six youngsters flew past us.

“IRONS!”

“IRONS!”

“1-0 to the Cockney Boys.”

Our hearts sank.

We walked on, through a darkened tunnel – very “Clockwork Orange” – and then out, with the stadium now in clear view.

We clambered down a grassy bank, falling and sliding, then made our way up to the away turnstiles. We could hear the Chelsea fans in good voice. I enquired of a young steward :

“1-0, innit?”

“Yeah, 1-0.”

Ugh.

I soon found my place alongside Gary and Alan, and Parky soon arrived too. I looked up at the stadium clock. Eighteen minutes had passed. I remembered back to our visit to the old Upton Park in March 2015; a similar amount of time had passed before we eventually got in. On that occasion, the tube had caused the delays. Memorably, just as I reached my seat, we scored thanks to Eden Hazard.

Sadly, in 2017 there was no such repeat.

Gary quickly updated me, as he had done in 2015. We had been very poor, hardly creating a chance. The ex-Stoke City forward Marko Arnautovic had scored their goal, bursting into the penalty box, and firing past Thibaut Courtois.

Despite their team winning against the champions, the home fans seemed reluctant to make much noise. The first song that I heard from our supporters – split in two sections, in two tiers, separated by a gap of twenty yards or so – was aimed at the home crowd :

“You sold your soul for this shit-hole.”

Quite.

But there simply was not a great deal of noise from either section. Everything was pretty sterile. The West Ham stadium is not liked by many. It is simply a horrible place to watch football. I thought back to the stadium in Baku – with the pitch just as far away from the fans remember – and it certainly seemed much more likable. Those stands were steep and dramatic. The overall design worked. However, this former Olympic Stadium from 2012 is bland, the stands are quite shallow, there is no “wow” factor. I have no doubt these aspects affected the lack of noise.

The game continued with the four Chuckle Brothers in attendance.

Eden Hazard went close with a volley.

The annoying and irritating “from Stamford Bridge to Upton Park” version of our song was aired.

How dull.

I thought that where Cesc Fabregas and Tiemoue Bakayoko – especially Bakayoko – struggled to impose themselves on the game, N’Golo Kante was everywhere in that first period. He broke up attacks. He pushed on by himself. He played in balls to the wide men. He raced on to collect passes. There was a shot from him too, and this was a very rare event in the first-half.

But Bakayoko. Oh boy. Those who know me will vouch for the fact that I hate to pick on players, young players especially, those in their first season even more so, but the lad was so poor. Yet again the phrase “the game passed him by” sums it all up. He was adrift of the play on so many occasions.

Alvaro Morata did not seem “up” for the physical battle. When we had the ball deep in midfield, there was a stunning lack of movement from Morata and Hazard. Both wing-backs seemed to struggle to get past their markers. A minor plus point was the continued form of Andreas Christensen, our best defender.

There were moans at half-time, as expected.

Antonio brought on Pedro for Bakayoko at the break, and I hoped for some extra pace and urgency. We reacted reasonably well as the half got under way. A cross from the right, down below us, resulted in a diving header from Cesc – goal bound – but it was blocked by a West Ham defender. A strike from Zappacosta zipped past the far post. The Chelsea crowd sporadically tried to get behind the team but with the support being split, this proved impossible.

The manager then brought on Victor Moses for Alonso. There was a reprise for Zappacosta’s right-back role from Tuesday.

“COME ON VICTOR.”

However, all around me, fellow fans were getting increasingly frustrated.

“Show some fight.”

“Get into them.”

“Show you care.”

I wanted our players to exhibit tons more passion, tons more desire.

Eden Hazard attempted his fifth back-flick of the game.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

I wanted Moses to show some of his old fight, some of his bullishness. I did not want him to be reckless, but I wanted to see some danger from him.

Sadly, whereas I wanted him to be like a bull in a china shop, all I got was a vegan in a butcher’s shop.

Only once or twice did he decide to take on his marker, instead doubling back on himself, and nursing the ball back whence it came. He simply was not a threat down our right.

Pedro, on the other hand, probing down the left flank at least managed to get the occasional cross in. However, Morata was not picked out too often. We were firing blanks into the box.

Willian was brought on in place of Zappacosta.

On the rare – and I mean rare – occasions that West Ham played the ball out, both Christensen and Azpilicueta defended well. Cahill had a few scary moments, as is his wont. But West Ham rarely got out of their half.

I kept assuring Gary that we would equalise, but the clock ticked by.

Fabregas was awry with both his passing and his shooting. In that second-half, despite dominating play, all of our shots were off target.

The mood among the away loyalists worsened.

A Christensen volley from a corner was blocked by a West Ham defender. There is no doubt that space was at an absolute minimum in the second-half. West Ham defended like their lives depended on it. But they had a huge scalp here, the current champions. It is no surprise that they fought for every ball. But it was gut-wrenching to see the lack of desire in our play.

“COME ON CHELS.”

It was painful to watch as we overplayed it.

Willian to Moses to Fabregas to Kante to Hazard to Kante to Pedro.

With about ten minutes’ left, the best chance of the entire afternoon fell to the trusted boot of Alvaro Morata, picked out by a fine chip by Kante, but the Spaniard skewed it wide of the near post.

The away end was apoplectic.

We pleaded for more shots on goal, but when wayward efforts from Hazard and then Fabregas – again – missed the target, we were overcome with the grim realisation that this was not our day.

Many began leaving with ten minutes to go. With five extra minutes signalled by the assistant linesman, the exodus continued.

At the final whistle, the hurt of a fourth league defeat, and with it, the acknowledgement that the league championship win of 2016/2017 would not be followed by a defence of the title.

Comments on the long drive home.

“You have to admit that although we were pretty awful today, our second-half chances really ought to have given us an equaliser.”

“No complaints, West Ham deserved to win.”

“Hazard was poor.”

“Drinkwater would have loved it out there today.”

“Moses offered nothing when he came on.”

“Can’t honestly remember a single crunching tackle from us the entire bloody game.”

“Dave was his customary 7/10.”

“Morata needs to toughen up.”

“There was no space. It is so difficult to break a team down with eleven men behind the ball.”

“We’ll do well to finish second this season. I have been saying that for a while.”

“It’s almost seems as if this is Conte’s first season with us. Last season was a dream. We caught everyone out. It now seems that Conte has to work through his team selections, his formations, his players, his ideas – just as if this is his inaugural season.”

“Conte on the radio blaming the tiredness of his players, but that’s just a smokescreen.”

Personally, I thought that Conte’s quiet and considered opinions hid a lot of frustration and hurt. But I like him a lot. And I trust him to get it right. It might take a while, but I am not going anywhere.

I am in it for the long haul.

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Tales From Stratford

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 26 October 2016.

There was no doubt about it; there was a definite edge to this one. All of the ingredients were there. A cup game under lights between two rival teams – and supporters – plus the added intrigue of our first-ever visit to a stadium which has been in the news all season. The football world has looked on from outside with bewilderment at the mess which has surrounded West Ham’s move to their new stadium. Not only has there been sporadic outbreaks of old-fashioned hooliganism outside the ground, but outbursts of fighting inside the stadium, between West Ham fans no less, too. Additionally, there has been a sense of alienation among the West Ham faithful at the awful atmosphere, and the poor sight-lines within the stadium. It has been, thus far, a tough move away from the intimate and well-loved Upton Park.

Usually I dread a mid-week away game at West Ham, but at least the drive was easy. I had collected the troops at 3.30pm and we were parked-up at Barons Court at 6pm. Until this season, the route to West Ham United would have involved staying on the District Line for over an hour, and a journey encompassing twenty-three tube stations. It is one of the most tedious train trips. On the last two visits, we have missed the kick-off due to congested traffic flow nearing the final stop.

I got the chaps to pose for a photograph, clutching the most sought-after away ticket of the season, outside Barons Court tube, and we then dived down the stairs to begin our journey to Stratford. We changed at Notting Hill Gate, and then sped along the Central Line.

We arrived at Stratford train station just before 7pm. This was a definite improvement on the painful schlep out to Upton Park. Strangely, I had spotted only one West Ham fan en route. The tube is usually full of them.

At Stratford, a quick handshake with Kenny and Rob who had evidently been on our train, and then a quick look to see which way we had to head. Outside into the mild London night and we followed the crowd, keeping close together. For a while we walked, I noted, in a diamond formation, with myself at the base, Parky and PD to my flanks and Glenn at the tip. It made me chuckle.

There was a certain boisterousness in the air. Occasionally, West Ham fans would bellow out “Irons!” and it sounded like a mating call.

Soon, we spotted the electric blue neon of the London Aquatic Centre, and then the lofty sculpture to its left – the oddly-named ArdelorMittal Orbit – which was glowing a deep red. Taking as a duo, it was a good enough effort to create a claret and blue welcome to West Ham’s new home. Beyond – quite a walk away by the look of it – was the illuminated London Stadium, a dash of white on the horizon.

Thus far, there was no trouble.

At Upton Park, it eventually became an easy away ground to negotiate ever since they moved away fans from the South Bank to the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand. Out of Upton Park tube, past the market, past the Queens pub, then over the road and through some Chelsea-only side streets, with plenty of police on hand in case there was ever any trouble. There never was.

Here, in Stratford, at the site of the 2012 Olympics, everything was vastly different. For one thing, we were in unfamiliar territory. And it was night time.

But to be fair, this was easy. There was no trouble, no mobs, no nonsense.

I spotted Jonesy, and caught him up. He had a different tale to tell. A few of them had been quietly drinking in a West Ham pub, maybe half-a-mile away, and had witnessed a mob of West Ham attacking the Old Bill.

We walked on.

“Irons!”

We approached the stadium, walking underneath the twisted metal of the Orbit statue, then past a long line of punters at the match-day ticket office. A friend, Maggie, grabbed me by the hand and said “nice to see someone we know – nobody is wearing colours” and she was right. As we veered towards the security check outside entrance D, it dawned on me that nobody was wearing colours; no Chelsea scarves, no Chelsea shirts, no Chelsea jackets, no Chelsea caps, no Chelsea hats. It was hardly surprising.

I hadn’t seen many home fans wearing too much other.

It had only taken us twenty minutes to reach the away end from Stratford.

Inside the packed concourse, there were Chelsea songs at last.

PD and Glenn shot off to their seats in the very front row of the lower block 119, whereas His Lordship and myself ascended to midway back in the upper tier 218.

And here was my real problem with West Ham’s new stadium. In truth, I was never a fan of the aesthetics of the former Olympic Stadium – quite bland, quite dull – but as it became apparent that the oft-quoted “football refit” had resulted in away fans being split in two tiers, it did not take me long to tell friends that I had spotted a problem.

The bottom tier seemed to be ridiculously isolated from the upper tier. Surely there would be a segregation issue here, especially since there would be home fans sharing the lower tier too. And then as the season began, we heard rumours that segregation inside the stadium – surprise, surprise – was a major problem. And wait – there’s even more. Police were not patrolling the inside of the stadium due to radio communication issues.

In my mind, right from the off, surely it would have been better to allocate away fans with a single block of tickets in a thoroughly-segregated upper tier, which is what happens at Sunderland and Newcastle. This would keep all away fans together in an area which would be easier to marshal.

I mentioned this, but with more succinctness and with many more swear words, to Jason who was two rows in front. He agreed.

I looked around.

Lots of empty seats. Such a wide open stadium. Not a football stadium.

“Thank heavens we don’t play here.”

The empty seats never did fill up as kick-off approached. There would be around ten thousand empty seats on the night. Conversely, I did not spot a single empty seat in our 5,200 allocation, which was probably split something like 1,700 downstairs and 3,500 upstairs.

We hadn’t spoken too much about the actual game on the drive up. We had heard that Michy Batshuayi and John Terry were playing. We wondered if John would play centrally in the back three.

Antonio Conte had mixed youth and experience. It was a typical Chelsea approach to the early rounds of League Cup football.

Asmir Begovic.

David Luiz – John Terry – Gary Cahill.

Cesar Azpilicueta – N’Golo Kante – Nathaniel Chalobah – Ola Aina.

Willian – Michy Batshuayi – Oscar.

The PA pumped “Bubbles” before the teams came out and then faded at the “fortunes always hiding” line to allow the home fans their big moment. It was loud, I’ll given them that.

The teams entered the pitch. The Chelsea fans were in good voice. The scene was set.

I did note that the manager had jettisoned his usual neat black suit for blue Chelsea gear.

I guess nobody had bothered to tell him the dress code for the night –

“No club colours.”

He was casual, but not in the way that some of our away support was; I just hoped his approach to the match wasn’t casual either.

The PA then repeated “Bubbles” again just before the kick-off and I groaned; nothing like overdoing it, eh?

I had a quick thought blitz through my mind.

“A sterile stadium and manufactured atmosphere. I hate modern football.”

I simply could not believe how far the directors’ box was from even the nearest touchline; it must’ve been fifty yards. The subs and management team were a good thirty yards from the same touchline. It is no wonder that Conte and Bilic stood in their respective technical areas all evening.

We began well to be honest, moving the ball around well. We had a couple of chances. First from John Terry at the near post and then from a Kante shot.

The mood in the away sections would soon change.

West Ham won a corner down below us – OK, some thirty yards away – and the cross was headed away, but only as far as Mark Noble out on the West Ham left. His cross was played in with pace and was met unchallenged by a perfectly-timed leap and header from Cheikhou Kouyate. The ball screamed past Begovic.

With this, the home areas boomed. The West Ham players gleefully celebrated at the near corner flag, and we were met with quote a surreal scene as both sets of fans goaded each other – separated by fifteen feet of open space – while bubbles from a machine drifted around in the background.

The West Ham fans to my left in the upper tier then began antagonising us and I tried my best to ignore them.

We reminded them of the poor show from them :

“They’re here, they’re there, they’re every fackin’where, empty seats, empty seats.”

They responded with the oh-so tiresome “WWYWYWS?”

The banter was flying now and our “You’ve won fuck all” soon morphed into a new Chelsea song –

“WE’VE WON IT ALL.”

And so we had.

Ha.

On the pitch West Ham then dominated the rest of the first-half. Our goal lived a rather charmed life as Michail Antonio drilled a shot wide. Manuel Lanzini then misfired on the half-hour mark.

John Terry was grimly exposed for pace when one-on-one with a West Ham attacker and it was horrible to see. Elsewhere, Oscar was especially poor, quick to pull out of tackles and awful in possession. Aina and Chalobah did their best but were not aided by the more experienced players on show. Kante was not at his best. Batshuayi did not get the early ball, nor the late ball for that matter; his service was poor. At the back, we looked nervous. It was a pretty grim story all round. Thank heavens for the excellent Begovic between the posts who kept us in it with a few fine saves and blocks.

In the closing moments of a dire half, Oscar found Batshuayi inside the box. From around one-hundred and fifty yards away, it looked an easy chance. But from twenty yards, it proved otherwise. Batshuayi shot high and over the bar.

Ugh.

At half-time we expected changes.

“And please – no extra time and penalties.”

I needed to be up at 6am on Thursday and, with penalties, I would not get home much before 3am.

Another “ugh.”

We heard from a chap from Gloucester that a Chelsea crowd of around three hundred had been the victims of Police kettling outside the stadium, at the bottom of the steps leading to the away turnstiles, for a full thirty minutes, thus missing most of the first-half. I have no idea why.

There seemed to be a strange atmosphere surrounding the game all night.

The second-half began and within just three minutes of the re-start, we were groaning again. Begovic saved from Payet, but the ball broke to Edmilson Fernandes who drilled the ball back and into the net.

2-0, bollocks.

More goading from the home fans to my left.

I had hoped that Conte would pair Batshuayi with Costa upfront, but instead our young striker was just replaced.

Hazard came on for Chalobah, Pedro for Aina.

It amazed me that Oscar had remained on the pitch.

There was a good chance for Willian, inside the box, but his shot narrowly missed the far post.

We built up a little head of steam, but we were plainly not “on it.”

Two consecutive corners from Willian failed to clear the first man.

Hazard and Diego fluffed good chances.

This was hurting.

There was still no end of aggressive pointing and gesturing from the West Ham fans to my left. One fan in front of me, clearly drunk, was annoying the fuck out of me with his solitary and boorish goading of the home fans, which involved the monotone singing, ad infinitum of “where were you at Upton Park?”

Ugh.

“And only four hours sleep if I am lucky.”

John Terry headed wide, a penalty claim on Eden Hazard was not given. With ten minutes to go, many Chelsea fans headed for the exits. There was talk of us being given an escort (how ‘eighties) back to the wonderfully-named Pudding Mill Lane, and so I wondered if the early-leavers would be allowed to leave the stadium.

And then the madness started.

The walkway behind the seating area of the lower tier became the subject of everybody’s attention. It appeared that objects were being thrown from both sides of the seated area, which then instigated a rush towards the stewards guarding the small wall of segregation behind the seated area. From memory, I thought that the West Ham fans were the instigators but “I would say that wouldn’t I?”

Fans from the upper tier moved downstairs. I noticed how fans could easily rush towards the problem area along unguarded alleyways connecting the lower tier seats to the concourse below us. It was an ugly scene. The stewards were in the brunt of it, though few punches were thrown. Many had vacated the lower seats, but were replaced by others who evidently wanted to join in the antagonism. The flashpoint was still the walkway behind the lower tier of seats; there was a mesh of segregation between the fans in the lower level which remained virtually intact the entire time.

My pre-match thoughts about the new stadium were being proved right; there was just too much space to monitor, too much shared-space, and not enough segregation. At last, as a token gesture, a few police arrived on the scene, woefully late, and apparently without much direction or idea.

Gary Cahill knocked a goal in, if anyone cared, and I had this sudden thought.

“Bloody hell, if we score an equaliser, another thirty minutes of this will be a nightmare.”

Was I surprised that there was this nasty outbreak of civil disobedience?

Not at all.

For an element among both sets of fans, this night was – sadly – always going to be more than about the football. The throwing of objects – plastic bottles, seats, even coins – was sheer stupidity. It has no place in football.

At the end, I was glad to hear the final whistle so I could go home and get some sleep.

We all met up downstairs in the concourse.

Outside, bizarrely, there was an overkill of police waiting for the Chelsea fans. They were all lined up, geared up too, and told us to head to Pudding Mill Lane. I thought like saying “where were you lot inside the bloody stadium?”

On the quick walk to the station, I turned around and expected to see hundreds of Chelsea fans behind me. There were hardly any. I had a chuckle to myself.

The others had obviously avoided the escort and had decided to run the gauntlet – for better, for worse – back to Stratford.

The four of us met up with a few old friends and were soon away, catching the Docklands Light Railway train to Poplar, where we stopped momentarily beneath the towering masses of the towers at Canary Wharf, before heading back to normality and west London.

We chatted to a couple of lads who were among the thousands who had returned via Stratford. There had been outbreaks and scuffles all the way back.

“All of a sudden – course you don’t know who is who – we found ourselves among the West Ham lot, so we drifted off, and lost them.”

We spoke about the game. The euphoria of Sunday had dissipated by the time we all reached Earl’s Court. There was talk that Conte should have played a stronger team, yet there is always a call that we don’t play the youngsters. It is a tough balancing act.

“Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.”

The real problem has been that good players such as Chalobah and Aina have been played so sparingly by Mourinho and Hiddink in the past, that a potentially strong squad on paper includes many youngsters who are simply not experienced enough.

It is time that we give these youngsters more games, not less.

At the moment our signing of young players, and then putting them out on loan, or not playing them in the first team at all, is akin to stockpiling carrier bags, stuffing them in the drawer beneath the sink, then forgetting that they are there, and yet still paying money for new ones.

It is a mania that has to stop.

It had been a strange evening. We felt sure that West Ham would be fined for the problems with crowd segregation. In fact, we found it difficult to comprehend that a safety certificate had been awarded to the stadium at all. Already, some Chelsea fans were saying that they would never return. I will be back later this season, but it is a stadium that does not thrill me. I can completely understand the West Ham support’s displeasure at the sterile structure, so unbefitting of football. I am just so relieved that our stadium redevelopment involves more intimacy and more consideration towards those things that we hold dear.

On Sunday, it’s back to league football. See you there.

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Tales From A Night Of Ignition

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 15 August 2016.

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As soon as I reached the familiar surroundings of the upper tier of the Matthew Harding Upper, I was met by the odd sight of many green tin foil flags being brandished by my fellow supporters. It was a bit of a shock to the system.

“Green?” I asked Alan, who left the pub a little before the rest of us.

“The Italian flag, mate” replied Alan.

Ah yes. The Italian flag. It all made sense now. I looked over, past the green section and spotted silvery-white and red flags too. Once combined, the mosaic of an Italian flag was taking shape in the upper tier, while it seemed that fans – or at least some of them – in the lower tier had been given standard royal blue flags.

An homage to our new manager Antonio Conte.

I approved.

Conte would be the latest in a revered and respected group of Italians who have managed our club.

Gianluca Vialli. Claudio Ranieri. Carlo Ancelotti. Roberto di Matteo. Antonio Conte.

In addition, we have had our fair share of Italian players too, from the idolised Gianfranco Zola and Carlo Cudicini to bit-part players such as Pierluigi Casiraghi, Sam Dalla Bona, Christian Penucci, Gabrielle Ambrosetti and Marco Ambrosio.

It has always felt right, this Italian thing. The passionate azzurri playing with pride and passion in the royal blue of Chelsea. That there has been a strong Juventus link – Vialli, Casiraghi and now Conte – has made it all the more sweeter for me personally. It has evolved into a lovely subplot of my love affair with Chelsea over the past twenty years.

Back in the August of 1996, I welcomed Di Matteo and Vialli to Stamford Bridge with my very own “VINCI PER NOI” banner draped over the MHU balcony wall against Middlesbrough, and I ended that particularly wonderful season at Wembley against the same opponents with an Italian flag adorned with “FORZA AZZURRI” as we won our first trophy since 1971.

1996/1997 was a season with a distinctive Italian flavour.

And I wondered if the current campaign would be similarly seasoned.

As the first weekend of the Premier League got underway without us, all of my focus seemed to be on our new manager, our new don, our new capo, our new “Mister.” After the ersatz atmosphere of the US tour, suddenly I was thrust right into the venom of a bitter London derby against West Ham United and I wondered how the new man would get us playing.

This was the real deal, the real thing, the league opener, us against the world.

After a torrid day at work, it took a while for me to fully focus on the evening’s game as I drove up to London, but once inside Stamford Bridge, the anticipation was rising. I was getting back in the groove.

“What else you gonna do on a Monday evening?”

And the focus was certainly on Conte.

I have mentioned already that I have a particular phrase for the new manager Conte which sums him up.

“Quietly spoken but with eyes of steel.”

It seems apt. Tons of passion too. Passion by the bucket load. That is fine by me. Passion is good. Passion is a good thing. Bring it on Antonio.

Let’s get my Antonio Conte story out of the way early, although I have touched on it once before in these despatches.

Back in 1999, I attended my friend Tullio’s marriage to Emanuela in their home city of Turin. It was a fantastic day, and evening, and night, and one of the nicest weddings that I have ever attended. Many beers were quaffed by myself (I honestly think they had got the beer in especially for me) and when I woke the next morning, I always remember my bloodshot eyes looking back at me from my hotel bathroom mirror. The wedding had been on the Saturday, and on the Sunday afternoon, I was to attend the Juventus vs. Fiorentina game at the Delle Alpi. It was perfect timing really. It could not have been better.

Juve, with Thierry Henri playing for them – and Zinedine Zidane too, as a substitute – were a team of superstars and I watched high up in the stands, towards the home Curva Scirea, as Juve went a goal up. During the previous week, the same stadium had witnessed the visit of Manchester United in the Champions League semi-final, and the atmosphere during the game had not been great. But a win against bitter rivals Fiorentina would cheer the bianconeri after their defeat at the hands of Roy Keane et al. Sadly, the viola equalised late on. I had arranged with a local taxi driver to collect me outside the stadium at the final whistle in order to scoot me back to the city’s airport at the end of the game. I pondered if I should leave with a few minutes left in order to beat the crowds and possible traffic congestion. A little voice inside my head told me to hang on.

Right at the death, who else but Antonio Conte – an industrious box to box midfielder – popped up inside the Fiorentina area to fire home. I watched, delirious, as he raced over to the segment of travelling away fans and picked up the corner flag and brandished it towards them.

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It was a perfect end to my weekend in Turin. Immediately after, Conte gained a great deal of notoriety within the Italian media for his actions, since many thought it confrontational, while in Juve circles he gained a great deal of respect. Incidentally, Conte was the Juve captain in those days and his manager on that day over seventeen years ago? Carlo Ancelotti.

This is the Antonio Conte that I observed during the otherwise lacklustre Euros over the summer. This is the Antonio Conte that I want to see at Chelsea. Passion, fire, vigour, energy.

God knows we missed these qualities last season.

On the walk from the pub, I had checked my phone for the manager’s first starting eleven of the new season. Chelsea Football Club had described the formation as 4-1-4-1, with this team :

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Terry – Cahill – Ivanovic.

Kante.

Willian – Matic – Hazard – Oscar.

Costa.

It was no surprise to me that his much vaunted 3-5-2 was not chosen. The players – his players – were not in place for that yet. If this is his preferred option, it will be a while before the team is morphed to a new shape. It is always a balancing act of players and formations, form and function. I trust that the new man will manage the changes with his apparent studiousness and professionalism. I certainly liked what I had heard about him; his Mourinho-esque attention to detail, his obsessive devotion to the game, his management style.

It was a perfect evening for football. There was not a single cloud in the sky.

Eight o’clock was approaching fast.

By a strange quirk of fate, our first league game of 2016/2017 was another landmark game for me.

Just over two years ago, I had driven Glenn, Parky and PD in the Chuckle Bus up to Burnley for our away game at Turf Moor – the league opener – for my one thousandth Chelsea game. Here, in 2016, two years later, I had driven the same three friends up to London for our league opener against another team in claret and blue for game number 1,100.

A little coincidence there, for those that like them.

Let’s hope that this season ends in the same way as 2014/2015, eh?

(…incidentally, I don’t usually do predictions on here, but I had the top four for this new season as follows : 1 – Manchester City, 2 – Manchester United, 3 – Chelsea, 4 – Tottenham Hotspur).

Over in the far corner, three thousand away fans were sat and stood, with more than the usual number of flags. Maybe they made a special effort. Elsewhere, Stamford Bridge appeared full, save for a few late arrivals in the top rows of The Shed. Familiar flags were spotted.

Zola.

Tambling.

Ulster Blues.

Tim Rice.

As the teams entered the pitch, the mosaics in our end were furiously waved.

Three colours green.

Three colours white.

Three colours red.

“I tricolori.”

Maybe I need to buy myself a retro away scarf of 1973 red, white and green this season.

It was a grand old sight and I feverishly clicked away. I hoped that they would not be the most exciting snaps of the entire night. Flames were thrown up in front of the East Stand – just a little bit too much razzmatazz for my liking to be honest – and we watched as the teams went about their usual routines.

It was then time for Alan and myself to make some comments about the tin foil flags in our midst.

“Knowing Gary, he’ll be collecting these at the end of the game and will use them to wrap his Christmas presents.”

“Nah, he can wrap himself in these after his latest marathon. Or Snickers, or whatever they call it these days.”

Chelsea in the traditional blue, blue, white, and West Ham in their traditional claret and blue.

An opening game between two bitter rivals, just as in 2000 when Mario Stanic – remember him? – scored on his debut with a sublime volley, with a young Frank Lampard looking on.

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The game began – our season began – and we attacked the MH.  West Ham began on the front foot, but there was a noticeable increase in the intensity shown by our players. It was hardly a new set of players – far from it – as all were on our books last season apart from the new lad N’Golo Kante, but it was remarkable how we easily noted an extra desire, passion and zip.

Oh dear. I apologise now for the number of times I will write the words “passion” and “desire” this season.

Sadly, Kante was booked early on for a tackle on Andy Carroll.

I noticed how animated the new manager was. He had given up his grey training gear of pre-season for a dark grey suit, and black tie, and he certainly looked the part. His trademark stance seems to be him standing with one arm across his stomach, one hand up to his mouth, surveying all and sundry.

West Ham were soon into their tiresome tirade of Chelsea-obsessed songs.

“Fucking hell, sing some of your own songs, will you, it’s getting boring now.”

Although the formation was officially 4/1/4/1, I couldn’t really spot much of a difference from last season’s shape. Matic seemed to be alongside Kante. Maybe there was extra width. Hazard was soon twisting away from markers, turning on a sixpence, and creating chances. Diego looked keen, yet still showed his propensity to dribble, head-down, rather than bring another players in. Matic began well. Kante really took my eye though. Tons of energy, and there is not that Matic-like tendency to dawdle once in possession.

Touch, move, pass.

One, two, three.

Keeping the momentum going.

Of all people, Branislav Ivanovic, ghosting past his man, provided the first real chance for us this season, but his firmly-struck shot went narrowly wide of the near post, forcing a low save from Adrian.

We got in to the game.

Another Ivanovic shot was hardly worthy of the name.

We knew that Carroll would be a problem, but were also thankful that their star Dmitri Payet was only on the subs’ bench. Oh, while I am on the subject : “Achy Breaky Heart” at football.

Fuck off.

West Ham were stood in the Shed lower, but many chose to sit in the upper. There was not a great deal of noise from them.

Oscar went down after a clumsy challenge in the box, but neither Alan nor myself were too convinced that it was a penalty. Chances were at a premium to be honest. Diego was booked amid protests after. It was beginning to heat up.

Eden Hazard proved to be our talisman again and he burst through on goal but a fine shot was narrowly wide of the mark. How I love to see Eden tease his opponents. Often he slows and almost walks towards them, a hark back to the tricky tanner ball players much beloved in Scotland, the intricately skilled wingers such as Davie Cooper, Jimmy Johnstone, John Robertson, our own Charlie Cooke and Pat Nevin. Often Eden will almost lower himself, a crouch, in order to concentrate his thoughts on how to get past his marker. It is one of modern football’s most wonderful moments.

Eden versus his man. What will he do next?

I heard myself saying to Alan “how does he do that?” as he effortlessly swept past a defender. What a player he is when he is in the mood.

Diego fired over, but chances were still rare. It really was all Chelsea. West Ham were poor. They surprised me.

Late on in the first-half, Willian forced a save from Adrian from one of his trademark dead balls. Dave headed the resultant corner over.

All level at the break.

We were treated to Ricardo Carvalho at half-time..

We teased the away fans :

“Riccy Carvalho – he’s won more than you.”

No complaints at the interval.

PD, Glenn, Alan and myself – who sit all together – were happy with things.

I never like it when we attack The Shed in the second-half. It seems odd. Out of kilter. However, we were all howling with pleasure after Dave was bundled over just inside the box after a shot from Diego came back into play.

All eyes were on Eden as he placed the ball on the spot. For once, he blasted it high, and I am sure I was not the only one whose first thought was “oh no, he’s missed.”

We were 1-0 up and the stadium was alive.

Ronny : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Reggie : “Come on my little diamonds.”

We continued to press and Willian went close. West Ham, again, as if to ratify further, were nowhere.

For a while, we turned the tables on West Ham, and there was a prolonged Frank Lampard songfest.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

“He scored two hundred.”

It was lovely stuff.

Gary Cahill chased down a West Ham attacker and made a lovely defensive tackle. Alan and myself spoke how Conte’s intense training sessions over the summer may be bearing fruit already.

“Twelve months ago, he may not have been able to reach that.”

It was a good simple, clear sign that we were a far more focussed, fit and forceful team in this season’s opener. They were handing out free tins of “Carabao” before the game but I am sure that the team’s vim was not due to this new energy drink alone. Conte had got the team playing and how.

The game continued, again with only a few chances. Eden began to tire a little. Willian was having a quiet game. Matic slowed – if that is possible.

Payet, the danger man, came on.

With a quarter of an hour left, I remember thinking “bloody hell, Courtois has hardly had a single shot to save.”

Dave was adjudged to have raised a foot to Carroll, whereas it looked to us that the West Ham totem pole had stooped. From the free-kick, Payet forced a save from Thibaut. From the corner, we blocked the initial effort on goal, but the ball rebounded to ugly bald ginger goon Collins who slammed home.

Bollocks.

Alan : “from a free-kick that should not have been given.”

Ugh.

1-1.

Their first effort on goal.

Billericay Dickie, Dagenham Dave and Plaistow Patricia were making all the noise now.

“Arseholes, bastards, fucking cunts and pricks.”

Conte is not the typically cautious Italian and he soon replaced the quiet Willian with Pedro, always a willing worker.

Soon after, further attacking intent with two further substitutions; Batshuayi on for Oscar, who had shown a lot more bite than of late, and Moses on for the tiring Hazard.

This was the fabled 4/2/4, and we pushed and pushed. A forceful run from Moses, followed by a fine volley from Pedro, but his low shot flashed agonisingly past the far post.

Damn.

In the very last minute, a ball was pumped up to the new lad Batshuayi who managed to head on towards the waiting Diego Costa. Costa was a good thirty yards out, and had a lot to do, but West Ham seemed reluctant to close him down. With space ahead of him, Diego had time to stroke a shot towards goal. The ball hit the target and we erupted.

“Getinyoufuckingbeauty.”

Diego ran on down to Parkyville, but my photographs of his intense celebrations were too blurred, too fuzzy.

2-1 to us, oh you lovely man Diego.

It was not Tottenham last season but it was bloody close. The stadium echoed to an old favourite.

“And it’s super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC” and The Bridge was on fire.

A last chance – their second of the match? – fell to Carroll, but Thibaut fell on the ball and we could breath.

The whistle blew and we yelled our joy.

The manager’s emotional response to the winner was shown on the TV screens. Oh my goodness.

Ha.

This was a fine feeling alright. The boys were back in town and the new man Conte had pulled the strings to engineer a lovely win. “One Step Beyond” boomed and we bounced out of the stadium in very good spirits. The feel good factor was back. It felt oh-so good to be a Chelsea fan again.

Thanks Antonio, thanks boys.

A new love affair has been ignited. Let’s go.

See you all at Watford on Saturday.

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Tales From Vanessa’s Birthday Weekend

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 19 March 2016.

PSG hurt. And Everton really hurt. Those were two tough losses.

Heading in to our game with West Ham United, our season suddenly felt rather flat. Season 2015-2016 now had an end in sight. We had nine games left – four at home, five away, all in the league – and I was wondering where on Earth our season had gone. From a results perspective, it had clearly gone up in smoke, but this has seemed a very quick season, despite the troubles along the way. It did not seem five minutes ago that I was catching a train with my friend Lynda en route to the season’s first game in New Jersey in July.

And now I could hear New Jersey’s favourite son Frank Sinatra singing.

“And now the end is near.”

Nine games left. These games would soon fly past. And yet I’m still relishing each and every one of them. The five away games would be enjoyable just because they are away games. The four home games would be important, for varying reasons.

And there would be the usual laughs along the way.

There was an extra-special reason for me to be relishing the visit of West Ham to Stamford Bridge. My friends Roma, Vanessa and Shawn – often mentioned in dispatches – were visiting London for five days, lured by the chance to see our captain John Terry one last time before he, possibly, heads west to the US or east to China. I have known Roma since 1989, when my cycling holiday down the East coast of the US took me to her home town of St. Augustine in Florida. Since then, there have been many laughs along the way, and also many Chelsea games too.

Roma announced to me a couple of months back that she was planning a visit to London, specifically Chelsea-centred, with her daughter Vanessa and son Shawn. Tickets were hastily purchased, and we waited for the day to arrive. Vanessa, fourteen years after her first game at Stamford Bridge against Fulham in 2002, was especially excited. She would be celebrating her twenty-fifth birthday while in London. This was very much her trip.

And I so hoped that John Terry, side-lined for a while, would be playing. He was the reason, in a way, why the three of them had decided to visit us. I was so relieved when our captain made a late appearance off the bench at Goodison last weekend.

I made an early start. I left my home town as early as 8am. Just after 11am, I turned the corner outside the West Stand and spotted my three friends from North Carolina and Tennessee walking towards me. It was lovely to see them again. Shawn was wearing not one but two Chelsea shirts, plus a Chelsea tracksuit top. His favourite player is Diego Costa and he was wearing a “19” shirt. Vanessa favours Cesc Fabregas and was wearing a “4.”

My love of Chelsea Football Club has certainly rubbed off on Roma’s family. Her other daughter Jenny now has a two-year-old boy, who himself yells “Chelsea” at the TV set whenever we are playing. This is all too crazy for me to comprehend at times. Back in 1989, Chelsea were off the radar in the US.

We spent a lovely hour or so mixing with a few of the former Chelsea players who meet up in the Copthorne Hotel before each and every home game. The three visitors first met Paul Canoville at Yankee Stadium in 2012; there was an updated photocall in 2016. The girls loved being able to meet Bobby Tambling again too. They recreated a photograph from Charlotte. John Hollins and Colin Pates gave them signed photographs.

Good times.

My friend Janette from LA was also in town, excited at getting a last minute ticket, and it was great to meet up with her at last. Elsewhere, there was a contingent from the New York Blues honing in on The Goose. Chopper – the NYC version – called by at the hotel before moving on. There was talk of how I picked up Chopper and two others at Bristol airport on a Saturday morning in 2007, before our Carling Cup win against Arsenal in Cardiff, and how – just over an hour later – we were drinking fluorescent orange scrumpy in a Somerset cider pub.

Good times then, good times now.

This was another mightily busy pre-match.

On leaving the hotel, I spotted Kerry Dixon and offered a handshake. It was good to see him again, especially at Stamford Bridge, and he appreciated my well wishes. Back in 2005, Roma had posed for a photo with Kerry in “Nevada Smiths” before a game with Milan, but there would not be time, alas, for a repeat in 2016.

Back at The Goose, more New York Blues arrived. I think around twenty were over in total. It was lovely to see some old friends once again. Mike, the NYB’s chief bottle-washer, was over from NYC for a bare twenty-four hours, flying in at Heathrow at 10.30am and leaving on Sunday morning, his birthday. Such dedication is truly heart-warming. There was whispered talk of the upcoming 2016 US summer tour, and the inevitable moans from some “huge” stateside Chelsea fans about the club not playing in their part of the country. Some of them should take a leaf out of Mike’s book.

We worked out that Shawn, only nine, would be seeing his seventh Chelsea game.

“Seven! You are a lucky boy. When I was nine, I had only seen three, and you live four thousand miles away!”

Team news filtered through.

“John Terry is playing.”

Fist pump.

Who would have guessed that Loic Remy would have been given the nod over Bertrand Traore? There was no Eden Hazard, injured. The surprise was that Kenedy, who Roma, Vanessa and Shawn saw make his debut in DC, was playing in an advanced midfield role. Elsewhere there were the usual suspects. There were grumbles that Ruben Loftus-Cheek was not involved from the start.

The beer garden was packed.

There were memories of last season’s game against Southampton, when Shawn was filling The Goose beer garden with bubbles from a toy. I joked with Roma then that it was a West Ham thing. Suffice to say, there were no bubbles in The Goose beer garden in 2016. There were, however, a small group of West Ham fans, wearing no colours, minding their own business. As we left the pub, early, at just before 2pm, I sensed that another little mob of West Ham walked past. I decided to hang back and let them walk on. The last thing that I wanted was for my guests to witness any match day silliness. To be fair, I didn’t see any trouble the entire day.

It is not always the same story when West Ham come visiting.

Roma, Vanessa and Shawn took their seats in the rear rows of the West Stand, underneath the overhang. They would soon be posting pictures. Fantastic.

The stadium slowly filled. How different this all is to the “pay on the gate” days of yesteryear, when the terraces often became full a good hour before the kick-off oat some games. In those days, the atmosphere would gradually rise with each passing minute. There would be songs from The Shed. On occasion, the pre-match “entertainment” would involve scuffles in the North Stand as opposing fans battled for territory.

In 1984, the ICF arrived very early in the seats of the old West Stand, causing me – a teenager on the benches – to worry about my safety.

Different times.

Prior to the game, Ron Harris presented John Terry with a memento marking his seven-hundredth Chelsea game the previous week. For a while, I wondered if Ron’s 795 might come under threat. Unless the club have a change of heart regarding John Terry, that record will go on forever.

There were three thousand away fans – three flags – in the far corner. They were mumbling something about “pwitty bahbles in de air” as the game began.

The first-half was a poor show to be honest. From the moment that Manuel Lanzini looked up twenty-five yards out and fired a fine curling effort past Thibaut Courtois on seventeen minutes, we struggled to get much of a foothold. A few chances were exchanged, but I felt that West Ham looked a little more focussed when they attacked. A penalty claim was waved away by new referee Robert Madley as the ball appeared to strike the arm of Enner Valencia. I am not one to moan about referees as a rule, but this was one of the first of many odd decisions made by the man in black.

We plugged away, but it was hardly entertaining or productive. I was slightly surprised that West Ham didn’t hit us further; they seemed to resist the temptation to attack at will, despite having a one-goal cushion.

This was not going well.

Aaron Cresswell struck a shot wide, Willian hit a free-kick over.

In the third minute of extra-time in the first-half, we were awarded another free-kick and I am sure that I am not the only one who presumed that Willian would take another stab at goal. Instead, Cesc Fabregas struck a magnificent free-kick over the wall and past the flailing Adrian.

Vanessa’s man had done it. We exchanged texts.

“Happy?”

“Extremely.”

“Bless.”

I instantly remembered Vanessa’s funny comment in Charlotte after Fabregas had fluffed an easy chance against Paris St. Germain…

“Ah, he’s always nervous around me.”

Not so today, Ness.

I am not sure what magical dust Guus Hiddink sprinkled in the players’ half-time cuppas, but it certainly worked. Pedro replaced the injured Kenedy, and we then upped the tempo. Apart from a John Terry goal-line clearance from the mercurial Payet in the first attack of the half, we dominated the second-half right from the offset.

An effort from Oscar, a header from JT. We were getting behind the West Ham full backs and causing problems.

And yet…and yet…completely against the run of play, Sakho played in the overlapping Cresswell who smacked a shot against the bar with Courtois rooted to the floor.

Remy, twisting, forced a save.

The crowd sensed a revival but the noise was not thunderous as I had hoped.

Andy Carroll, who scored the winner at Upton Park earlier this season, replaced Sakho. His first bloody touch turned in Payet’s through ball.

Bollocks.

With West Ham going well this season, I almost expected a few to get tickets in the home areas of The Bridge. When they nabbed this second goal I looked hard to see if there were any odd outbreaks of applause from away fans in home areas – the corporate West Stand especially – but there was nothing.

Traore replaced Remy, who had struggled.

Over in the far corner :

“Fawchunes always idin.”

We rallied well, and the West Ham goal suddenly lived a very charmed life. A Fabregas header went over, an Oscar shot was blocked, and Fabregas’ bicycle kick flew over. Corner after corner. A Terry header went close.

Carroll then twice tested Courtois, but the threat was averted.

The time was passing.

This would be Guus Hiddink’s first loss in the league.

Keep plugging away boys.

At last Ruben Loftus-Cheek appeared, replacing Oscar, who had another indifferent game. Ruben’s run into the box was curtailed by Antonio. It looked a clear penalty to me.

Fabregas coolly sent Adrian the wrong way.

2-2.

Phew.

Vanessa’s man did it again.

At last…at last…the noise bellowed around Stamford Bridge.

I thought that we had definitely deserved a draw on the back of a more spirited second-half show. The first-half had been dire. We kept going. I thought JT was excellent, as was Mikel. Elsewhere, I liked Kenedy and Loftus-Cheek. They must be given more playing time in the remaining eight games.

At the Peter Osgood statue, my three American friends were full of smiles.

Lovely stuff.

As I drove towards Barons Court, I realised that there would be no home game, now, for four whole weeks.

Oh Stamford Bridge, I will miss you.

“Oh wait. Hang on. I’m back again tomorrow.”

On Sunday, there would be day two of Vanessa’s birthday weekend, with a stadium tour, a quick call at the highly impressive Chelsea museum – and my first sighting of the excellent 3D model of the new stadium – a Sunday lunch on the banks of the Thames at Chiswick and a couple of hours under the shadow of Windsor Castle in Peter Osgood’s home town.

It would turn out to be a simply wonderful weekend.

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Tales From The East End

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 24 October 2015.

So this was it, then. This was to be Chelsea Football Club’s last ever game at West Ham United’s Boleyn Ground, or Upton Park to give its more commonly used title. Next season, they vacate their century-old stadium within the cramped terraces of E13, and head off a few miles to the west and north to Stratford and the former Olympic Stadium.

The plan was to have one last look around the old place – hardly a personal favourite, in fact far from it – before going inside to join the three thousand royal blue loyalists. I had not ventured much past the main stand on Green Street in past years, not since the away end has flip-flopped from the South Bank to the North Bank in around 1993. That main stand, updated and enlarged in 2001, of course houses a ridiculous frontage consisting of a pair of Lego style towers. I wanted to have one last laugh at that. However, I also wanted to pop down to see the statue featuring West Ham’s 1966 heroes for the very first time before, I presume, it would take residency at their new home. I also wanted to rekindle a few memories – God only knows why – of a couple of visits to the South Bank, both heavy losses, in 1986 and 1988.

As I say, that was the plan.

I had missed the creditable draw in Kiev during the week. It was the first match that I had not seen thus far into the current season. I thought that we performed rather well in the Ukraine, especially in the first-half, and really should have put the game away. We tired in the second period and, in the end, were lucky to escape with a 0-0 draw. The reporting of an ambush by locals on a small group of Chelsea fans sickened me to the core. I was keen to hear from a few friends who had travelled of their experiences.

London was calling me.

I was relishing this one.

I left my home town relatively early at just after 7.30am. A long day lay in wait. Leaving so early meant that the M4 was clear.

It was a relaxing drive.

On the approach in to London, the last forty-five minutes maybe, I drove to the sound of New Order’s excellent new album “Music Complete.” The band from Manchester are back to their best. I can’t wait to see them – unbelievably for the first time – in Brixton in three weeks’ time.

Football and music.

Music and football.

New Order are a band – there are a few – that transcend both.

We were parked up at Barons Court at around 10.30am. PD, Parky and myself headed straight in to town on the District Line, but instead of joining up with one of many Chelsea pre-game rendezvous in various hostelries throughout the city, we had other plans. We alighted at Embankment, slap dash in the middle of the nation’s capital. There was to be no trip on the District Line from the West End to the East End on this occasion. Instead, the three of us caught a river bus from Embankment, just along from Westminster and the Houses of Parliament, to North Greenwich, adjacent to the O2 Arena, formerly the Millennium Dome.

Although the skies were grey, with no hint of sun, and the waters of the River Thames bleak, we thoroughly enjoyed our trip through the very centre of London. Of course, I snapped away like a fool. What did you expect? Oil paintings?

I have only ever taken a boat trip along the Thames once before, and that was with some US friends in 2002, when the trip was at a more leisurely pace and with a guide to hand. This one took around fifty minutes. And it was fantastic.

The Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Bridge, the Royal Festival Hall, the London Eye, Cleopatra’s Needle, the Oxo Building, the Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London Bridge, the Nat West Tower, The Gherkin, The Shard, The Walkie-Talkie, the GLC Building, The Tower Of London, Tower Bridge.

And then river boat sped around the broad sweep of the Thames, with that odd mixture of geometric architectural shapes appearing at first to our left and then to our right as our perspective changed.

Canary Wharf, and its financial towers, and then the slowly rising curves of the O2 Arena.

At just before midday, we were setting foot on the south side of the river. Twenty minutes later we found ourselves ordering pints of cider and lager in The Pilot public house a few hundred yards to the south east of the O2. In an area of massive urban renewal – huge blocks of concrete everywhere – this lovely pub was at the end of a row of old London terraced houses, allowed to remain amidst change.

We settled down and chatted about all sorts. We tracked others using our phones. Andy from Los Angeles – in town for just three days – was with others a mile or so away in a “proper” pie and mash shop in Poplar.

“We’ll do that next time. Not had pie and mash for years and years.”

There were a few Charlton Athletic fans in the pub – the Valley is around a thirty minute walk away – but, unsurprisingly, no Chelsea or West Ham fans. It was just pleasant to be doing something a little different at an away game.

Team news came through, and it was an unchanged eleven from Tuesday. I approved.

“The plan” went awry unfortunately. We didn’t leave the boozer until gone two o’clock, meaning that my planned walk down to the statue of Moore, Hurst and Peters – and Wilson – would disappear into the ether.

Unfortunately, mirroring the game in March, we were further delayed on the eastbound District Line from West Ham to Upton Park due to – again – “football crowds on the platform.” This was really frustrating. We were all restless as the train stalled for a few minutes at Plaistow. We walked up the shabby steps of Upton Park station for the final time and headed off to the game. We knew that we’d miss kick-off.

The Chelsea mantra of “one last pint” had struck again.

Bollocks.

We were funnelled down a familiar side street and soon entered the away end. We got in with around five minutes on the clock. I was just getting my bearings when Andy – Los Angeles – suddenly appeared next to me. Not only had he enjoyed some pie and mash, he had also visited one of the most infamous boozers in all of London, The Blind Beggar in Whitechapel, scene of gangster Ronnie Kray’s murder of rival gang member George Cornel in 1966.

Seat numbers were ignored by many as the late-comers just shuffled along the rows.

The Boleyn Ground.

Upton Park.

Our final game.

This would be my eleventh visit to the London Borough of Newham to see Chelsea play West Ham United. My first visit should have taken place on New Year’s Day 1986 – with both teams mounting a twin assault on the league title – but sadly I only reached Aldgate East tube station before hearing from fellow fans that the game had been called off due to a heavily frosted pitch.

My first visit was on Saturday 11 October 1986 – just over twenty nine years ago – and some details are remembered to this day.

There was a visit to Nathan’s Pie and Mash Shop on Barking Road, just behind the away end, and I can remember a West Ham supporter trying to illicit a conversation with me about the Hammers’ recent form. I was having none of it. I kept quiet. There was a clear singularity to my actions behind enemy lines that day; “don’t get sussed.” Although the match was “pay on the gate” (as usually they all were in those days, or at least, for the standing areas), we had to show our plastic Chelsea membership cards to be allowed access into the away enclosure, which was a tight and heavily partitioned area, full of metal obstructions and associated ugliness. I remember the away end being packed. I remember the heavy police presence. I remember Chelsea supporters being lugged out for swearing. I remember that bloody awful Chelsea Collection kit. What was Batesy thinking? I remember us going 3-2 ahead, but then letting the game slip away in the last five minutes, eventually losing 5-3.

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At the very end of the game, West Ham fans – from outside, to my left I think – threw a couple of flares into our end. The away support was 99% male. I remember being gutted to have lost. The Chelsea fans were given an escort – of some sort or another – because we were sent packing on a train west from Upton Park which did not stop until it reached Victoria. It meant that I had missed a connection to take me back home, but who mentioned anything about football fans being treated “normally” back in the ‘eighties? Certainly not me.

In 2015, although there were more females than in 1986, the Chelsea support was still predominantly male. As in 1986, colours were hardly worn.

With West Ham attacking us in the “Sir Trevor Brooking Stand”, I tried to settle. The Chelsea support was getting behind the team, with one particular favourite getting a good airing.

“Frankie Lampard scored two hundred…”

We probably edged the first portion of the game, but West Ham enjoyed the first real chance, with Begovic leaping high to palm Payet’s free-kick over. Sadly, the resultant corner was not cleared and Zarate’s low strike whipped past our ‘keeper and into the bottom corner.

Here we go again. Bollocks.

We tried to chip away at West Ham, who seemed happy to defend deep. We had a few half-chances. The mood in the away end was of grim resilience. I managed to capture on film – snap! – the moment of impact between ball and Kurt Zouma’s forehead as he rose to meet Fabregas’ corner. He headed down, but the ball was cleared.

Soon after, West Ham should have increased their lead as Lanzini broke, but thankfully his lofted effort just cleared our bar.

A chance at the other end; after good work from the tireless Willian, Fabregas’ fine low shot ploughed into the goal, only for our celebrations to be halted by the sight of the linesman’s yellow flag on the far side.

Just before half-time, Matic – already on a yellow – made a clumsy and needless challenge on Sakho, only a few feet from the right touchline. I sensed danger immediately. Matic walked away but I feared the worst. He was called back to receive a second yellow. In my mind, it was academic.

Matic was nothing but a fool.

Brainless.

In the ensuing melee by the touchline, two yellow cards were further brandished to complaining Chelsea players.

This again was brainless.

Did Diego Costa and Azpilicueta believe that their waling would reverse the referee’s decision?

This was just poor discipline.

The mood was dark at half-time. Down to ten men, a goal down, this was going to be a tough ask in the second period. There was a brief chat with Calvin about the perils of Kiev.

“We walked to the stadium. Tell you what, if it wasn’t for the army escort, we’d have got battered.”

Mourinho replaced Fabregas with Mikel. We didn’t notice it straight away, but the manager did not take his normal position in the technical area or in the dugout. We were not sure why.

Rather than succumb to continued West Ham pressure, we controlled much of the ball as the second half got underway. After ten minutes, Zouma managed to get on the end of Willian’s corner. The ball bobbled inside the area, and the Chelsea support sensed something. The ball fell, not ideally, to Gary Cahill, who managed to adjust slightly and smash the ball in.

Pandemonium in the North Bank. I was pushed forward, and clung on grimly to a few friends, rather than tumble on top of the person in front. Shins were bruised, but I remained on my feet. Sometimes having plastic seats in an area where people are standing all game is asking for trouble. I’m not sure why – maybe it is because of the shallow rake – but away fans’ celebrations at West Ham always look mad on TV.

How did we look?

Our faith restored, we roared the team on. Our players responded so well and continued to boss the game. It was indeed hard to believe that we were one man down. It was heart-warming stuff. The teams exchanged a few chances, but we remained ahead on points. Everyone around me was full of praise for Willian who worked relentlessly. It was sad to see, though, Eden Hazard unwilling to move in to space in that tight final third. Is his play simply due to a dip in confidence or are there other reasons for his collapse in form? Diego Costa seemed to be having an off-day too. Although we were enjoying possession, that final ball in to the danger area was missing.

Zarate was substituted, with Andy Carroll joining the fray.

The away crowd immediately chirped :

“Man or a woman? Are you a man or a woman? Man or a woman?”

As the game continued, we were more and more exposed down the West Ham left. A sliced clearance by JT was played back out to Creswell, who had time to spot Carroll in the middle. His prodigious leap over our defenders was oh-so predictable, as was the slow looping header which dolloped down and in, with Begovic caught in no man’s land. To be honest, it is doubtful if he had stayed on his line he would have saved it.

We slumped.

The home fans roared.

Throughout the game, of particular annoyance was the sound of them singing a ditty in praise of Dimitri Payet to the tune of “Achy Breaky Heart.”

For.

Fuck.

Sake.

Now they were in full voice.

I half expected the Chicken Run to start fucking line dancing.

We brought on Baba Rahman and Radamel Falcao late on, but despite the tireless energy of Willian inspiring the support, an equaliser never really looked likely.

The game was over.

And so was our last ever visit to the Boleyn Ground.

On the walk back to the long line at Upton Park tube, I chatted – I think you can call it a superheated conversation – with Mark from Westbury.

“It’s no good Mourinho blaming every one, and everything. The man needs to take responsibility. And the players too. Everyone. We need to stand up. All this of this blaming others…it probably gives the players the wrong message. He just has to prove that he is the manager that we know he has been and hope he still is.”

It was a long trip back to the familiar streets of West London and then our homes in the West of England.

Five losses out of ten league games.

That’s it. I’m not going to football ever again. I will see some of you at Stoke on Tuesday evening.

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