Tales From The Gang Of Four / 四人帮派故事

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 22 July 2017.

I remember when I first heard about our game in Beijing. We were hopping between some familiar pubs in the West End of London before our home game with Tottenham way back in late November. I was with Glenn, Parky and PD, plus a few Chelsea lads from Kent that we had bumped into en route. The news of the game suddenly popped up on social media. It immediately piqued our interest.

“Beijing. Fancy that Glenn?”

“Too right.”

There and then, Glenn and I mentally signed-up for a trip to China’s capital, secretly hoping that there would be a secondary game – maybe in Shanghai – too.

As the months passed, the game in Beijing dominated our thoughts – I can’t exactly remember when our opposition was announced as being Arsenal, but that seemed almost irrelevant. Eventually, the rest of the Chelsea tour took shape. After our game in China, we would play two games against Bayern Munich and Inter in Singapore. Glenn and myself chatted about options. Although it would be a long way to go for just one game, we soon realised that we were happy with just a Chinese holiday, with a few days in Shanghai after our stay in Beijing for the football. An onward flight to Singapore – another six hours of travel – would have added extra expense and lengthened our holiday. And although I am sure Singapore is a fine destination, it didn’t tick too many boxes for me. It has a reputation for being rather staid and bland, plus supremely expensive, and I wasn’t too enamoured about seeing two games in the same stadium. My dear parents had stayed in Singapore, after a few days in Hong Kong, on their round-the-world trip in 1991, and even they commented that it was a rather sober destination.

Back in March, I took the bull by the horns and booked us on a Finnair flight from Heathrow to Beijing via a small stopover in Helsinki. The price was pretty reasonable. Since then, the holiday took shape, and I loved how excited Glenn was getting with each passing week. We decided, indeed, to head down to Shanghai for three nights after Beijing – travelling by bullet train to save money, but to also add to the sensory experience. I just fancied seeing what China was all about. I booked a day trip to The Great Wall; regardless of the footy, this would make Glenn’s holiday since he has always wanted to visit this famous landmark, one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Hotels were booked, again at very reasonable prices; around £50 per night for single rooms. Lastly, there was the visa application process. A day trip up to London resulted in myself appearing in person at the visa application centre deep in the city, but despite sweaty palms and a beating heart, our completed forms were accepted, and we were on our way.

Our good friend Big John, who sits a few rows in front of us in the MHU, would be attending the game in Beijing too. Every time that we chatted at a game, our conversations would consist of these two phrases :

“How’s Glenn? Excited?”

“Excited? Like a dog with two dicks, mate.”

My mate Foxy, from Dundee, who I last saw at the Middlesbrough away game, just before Beijing was announced in fact, also decided to join us. He too was not bothered about Singapore; he had visited it many times before, but had not visited China. He was happy to join us in Shanghai after the game in Beijing too. Foxy would be able, also, to squeeze in an extra day to visit the famous Terracotta Army in the ancient city of Xi’an.

So, the plans were set in stone.

The days and weeks ticked by.

The League Championship was won. The FA Cup Final was lost. The long dull days of summer reached out in front of us.

My last act was to book the bullet train tickets, which only went on sale three weeks before the date of travel.

China. The mere mention of the word made me slightly light-headed. This would, surely, be one of my most wonderful adventures.

On the way over to Tokyo in December 2012, I had spent five long hours at Beijing airport – deep snow outside, a horrible meal inside – and I suppose that it didn’t realistically count as a proper visit. At the time, though, I remember being highly excited about being locked inside Sir Norman Foster’s huge sweeping terminal, just twenty miles from Tienanmen Square.

In July 2017, I would be able to – gulp – step outside.

In the build-up to the holiday, I bought a couple of guide books to the cities of Beijing and Shanghai. I also purchased a fine piece of travel writing by Rob Gifford called “China Road” which, although published in 2007, contained a lot of pertinent historical information about the changes which have been experienced in the great nation – empire – of China over the years. His book details his travel from east – Shanghai – to west on route 312, and he interspersed his modern day experiences along its length with fascinating sections about China’s rich and interesting past. Within the opening chapter, Gifford referenced “The Grapes Of Wrath” and also “On The Road” and so I immediately knew that I’d be on to a winner. There was so much to take on board though. I felt like I was only skimming the surface of China. Thankfully, help was at hand. In the very last week, we were lucky to see TV programmes devoted to Beijing’s Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army, and a re-run – from 1997 – of a Michael Palin travel documentary involving a rapidly changing China. Memorably, his short stay in Shanghai involved him looking out past the tug boats and barges on the Huangpo River at the new builds across the water in Pudong. In 2017, that same view is much changed and I could not wait to see the updated view in person.

China. This mysterious nation, the world’s most populous at 1.3 billion, and one which was changed by the hard hand of Mao Zedong from 1949 until his death in 1976, and has since been bitten hard by capitalism, but which is still a one party state. This complex behemoth of the east would surely bewitch and beguile me.

Visiting from the far more liberal and relaxed west, I would be an occidental tourist.

The days evaporated. We were on our way.

I collected Glenn in Frome at 5am on Tuesday 18 July. We had a perfect drive up to Heathrow, an easy flight to Helsinki, and a pretty reasonable flight over Finland, Russia, Mongolia and we landed at Beijing International airport at around 7.30am on Wednesday 19 July. I remembered the terminal from my visit in 2012. It was wonderful to be back. We quickly made our way through the immigration checks and hailed a cab to take us to our city centre hotel. It was early morning rush hour. My eyes – not tired – were on stalks. My first observations on that hour long cab ride? –

Road signs in Chinese and also English.

Car registration numbers with western style letters.

No advertisement hoardings along the road sides, nor on street corners, nor anywhere.

Shiny Western cars – Audis, BMWs, VWs – alongside unknown Chinese makes.

Cars weaving in and out, hardly bothering with indicators.

Huge high-rise apartments. Like Moscow. Almost brutal.

A clogging urban haze enveloped the city, making visibility difficult.

Massive skyscrapers – some under construction – in the financial district to the east of the city centre.

Traffic. Traffic. Traffic.

We arrived at our hotel, paid the cab driver – 129 yuan, or around £15, get in – and I practiced the only words of Chinese that I had learned.

“Xiexie” is pronounced like a gentle, soft sneeze, and I thought it was difficult to get it right. The cabbie seemed OK with it.

The hotel was rather dated, but suited our needs. It didn’t seem particularly busy. For this reason alone, I suspect, we were upgraded to a suite apiece on the seventh floor. Downstairs, we bumped into Cathy, who was staying in our hotel too. She had arrived via Warsaw an hour before us. Cathy had already booked a couple of local tours. The three of us hoisted the first beers of the trip – the crisp and tasty Tsingtao – before disappearing upstairs to our suites for some power naps.

In the late afternoon, Glenn and myself slapped some sunscreen and mozzy repellent on, and marched out along Qianmen Street. Unlike in 2012, Tienanmen Square was just a ten-minute walk away. The first few minutes were difficult. The heat was stifling. We walked on. We reached the square at its southern edge, alongside the imposing Mao mausoleum. The square was very impressive and it took my breath away. I could not – honestly – believe that I was there. It is, allegedly, the largest public square in the world. In the middle, a large column, surrounded by red flags. They were not Chinese flags, with gold stars, but plain red ones. The effect was stunning. To the east and west, two huge authoritarian buildings, the one to the west the largest building I think I have ever seen. And to the north, the dark red – almost vermilion – walls of the Forbidden City. In the centre, just about discernible, the face of Mao Zedong.

Gulp.

We were in China. In Beijing. In Tienanmen Square.

Not surprisingly, there were thoughts of that ridiculously iconic image of the lone student protesting against an army tank in 1989. In those protests, hundreds were slain in the very square in which I was stood. The world whirled around me. In my thoughts leading up to this trip, I reached right back to my earliest memories. Before Chelsea even. Pre-1970. My earliest memories. Before I went to school in 1970, my father used to return home from his shop in Frome for lunch every week day – apart from Wednesday, market day – and we used to have lunch (the biggest meal of the day in those days, how times change) while listening to “The World At One” on the radio. Although this takes me back to the age of three or four, I can always remember the exotic sounding names of various places and people to this day and how I used to love the way the announcer pronounced them. For a while, it was something I listened in for.

Mao Zedong.

Chiang Kai-Shek.

Hi Chi Minh.

I was joining up some pretty old dots on my life-journey on this trip for sure.

We took some photos – there would be hundreds more – but the ones from that very first evening in Tienanmen Square will remain very precious to me. On the walk back across the vast space, we kept bumping in to a family from Glasgow and it soon became apparent that the husband was Rangers, and Chelsea. He was visiting his son, who had been studying Mandarin at a local university since September. He loved the city and wished us well. Without a word of warning, he started singing “Blue Is The Colour” and we joined in.

The red flags were flying above us but, for a while, Beijing was blue.

Foxy, newly arrived from Dubai, was booking in as we strode back in to the hotel. It was fantastic to see him again.

That evening, Cathy joined us in the bar for a beer and we ended up across the road in a local restaurant. The portion sizes were huge – oh, and cheap – and we had a fantastic feast. The food was, actually, remarkably similar to the Chinese we are used to back in England. For some reason, I expected marked differences.

Sweet and sour pork, Kung Pao chicken, spicy prawns, fried rice, sweetcorn soup – in a huge bowl – and of course Peking Duck.

And bottles of Tsingtao.

Bang on.

Foxy, Glenn and myself walked a mile or so east and then north and found ourselves in the main shopping street of Beijing – all the Western shops you can think of, plus more – and soon settled for bottles of Yanjing adjacent to a street market. Just a few yards away wer stalls selling scorpions, skewered and fried, grubs, and all sorts of oddities. I was glad that I was not hungry. Wanting one last beer, we marched on to an Irish bar, only because it seemed that bars and pubs were very rare in central Beijing. We sat in the dark boozer, sipping at cool beers, and chatted about various things, with the whole of Beijing within our sights. Funnily enough, I had spotted only one sports jersey of any description during the first five or six hours in the city. One Chinese lad was spotted wearing – oddly – an Atletico Madrid shirt. Not only were there no Chinese team jerseys being worn, nor were there any foreign teams’ jerseys. Nor – tellingly – any US team paraphernalia that still seems de rigueur in most cities around the world.

On the Thursday, Foxy, Glenn and myself assembled at around 9am, gulped down a couple of expensive coffees in the hotel and set out on our very own version of Mao’s long march.

We visited Tienanmen Square. We visited the Forbidden City. For each separate part of the vast area – thousands upon thousands of rooms – there were lines for tickets. We decided on just the main courtyard and the Meridian Gate, which overlooked Tienanmen Square to the south. The haze spoiled the view but it did not matter too much. We made sure we hydrated throughout. While seated on a bench within the first courtyard, Foxy tapped me on the shoulder and pointed quickly.

A mother was holding her daughter up as the youngster peed in to a rubbish bin.

“You don’t see that outside Buckingham Palace, Foxy.”

We took photographs of the vast walls, the golden pagoda roofs, and the innate stillness, despite the crowds. Outside, the surrounding moat thankfully cooled the air. Everywhere were green-shirted army guards and black-shirted security guards. It was a fascinating walk. We walked south and spotted the huge modern curve of the national centre for performing arts. We sought sanctuary from the heat for an hour. Inside, there was a small art gallery. We stopped for a light snack. The main auditorium housed opera. Within an hour we had experienced ancient and modern Beijing. We walked on, heading towards the serene Temple of Heaven, maybe a mile or so to the south. However, we were soon side-tracked.

One of Beijing’s most beguiling features are its hutongs; single-story working class dwellings which surround the central area, and which – I am amazed – have not yet been bulldozed away in the name of progress. We spent an idyllic hour wandering past houses, motorcycle repair shops, grocery stores, cafes, clothes shops, fishmongers, butchers, all the time having to move out of the way of bicycles, tuk-tuks, scooters, mopeds, and some of the most ridiculously small cars on the planet. Overhead electricity cables swayed low over side-alleys.

At the lovely, peaceful Temple of Heaven we were virtually the only Westerners. The deep midnight blue of the roof contrasted well with the white marble of the steps. We were mesmerized by its beauty.

We caved in – I for one was exhausted now – and caught a tuk-tuk back to our hotel. Of course we almost collided with various people on bicycles and scooters, but – hey – nobody was killed. Back at our digs, Glenn reliably informed us that we had walked nine miles during the day. I almost feinted.

That evening, we disappeared over to our local restaurant – “the freak show is back” – and gobbled more local cuisine. I tried the Peking Duck – when in Rome, eh? – and very nice it was too. Not crispy as we have in the UK, but simply roasted. It hit the spot. At around 9pm, the three of us met up with Big John, newly arrived at his hotel, only a ten-minute walk from our accommodation. We began with a beer on the terrace overlooking central – hazy – Beijing, but soon disappeared inside as the rain began to fall. We had a few bottles of Tsingtao, plenty of laughs, and we made plans for the rest of our stay.

The Gang Of Four had finally assembled.

On the Friday, we had arranged to meet up at John’s hotel at 10am. The temperature had decidedly cooled, thank heavens. There was a “McDonalds” next to his hotel, and – let’s be truthful – I soon came to the realisation that I could not survive for nine days of Chinese food only. I dived in for a breakfast. It hit the spot. We dived in to a cab and headed off on the elevated inner ring-road to the east of the city to collect our match tickets. It was a simple transaction, but a relief to have them in our hands.

We then headed further out towards the Danshanzi district. I had highlighted the 798 Art District as a venue that I fancied visiting; I didn’t expect it, but – bless ‘em – the other three fancied it too. It was delightful. The sight of many old military industrial units, factories and warehouses, the whole area now houses a rather off-the-wall arty area featuring galleries, cafes, bars, shops, venues, but also a few businesses; I spotted both a Volkswagen HQ and an Uber HQ abutting its periphery. It was an interesting area. The relics of its industrial past were left to provide a somber backdrop to the modern artworks on show – rusting pipes, darkened towers, tall brick chimneys, red brick buildings. Many of the artworks were funky and humorous. Graffiti was allowed, unlike – presumably – elsewhere in the city. We stopped at two cafes and enjoyed beers in both, along with wide-ranging Chelsea chat. The second café was housed in a former train station – an old-style loco outside – and was named after the Ace Café, formerly a bikers’ café on the North Circular in London, which I had read about on the internet only a couple of months previously. The area was certainly atmospheric. At times it felt that we were walking through an Anton Corbijn photoshoot for a Depeche Mode album. It was as if the Chinese state had detailed this little parcel of land for avant garde expression, well away from the city centre, the masses, the rest of the city.

“Here. You can express yourself here.”

I loved it.

We assembled again – Cathy too – in the evening, and headed north. We had been tipped-off by…um, someone we met wearing an ironic green Mao uniform and smoking a Gauloises cigarette in the 798 District and answering to the name Agent 1905…that the Chelsea team were staying in a hotel adjacent to the Birds Nest Stadium. We dressed accordingly – smart, er, casual – and hoped to be able to meet up, however briefly, for a chat with either the management team or the players. Luckily, our route – never to be forgotten – swept us past a floodlight Forbidden City, with an illuminated Mao looking down on us, and out on one of the five-lane boulevards which then joined up with an elevated expressway, past modern hotel blocks as we zoomed north. The night had now fallen. It was an intoxicating ride. We soon spotted – to our right – the red and gold of the Birds Nest Stadium and the cool blue of The Water Cube, both used during the impressive Beijing 2008 Olympics.

We were deposited right outside the hotel. We spotted barriers to our left, with local Chelsea supporters awaiting the arrival of the team coach from a training session. Inside, in the large lobby, were more Chelsea fans. We waited outside. Nobody approached us; I think we were under the radar. We spotted former England manager Roy Hodgson arrive with a couple of colleagues. We called out his name – he is a decent football man – and he seemed genuinely happy to be spotted. His eyes twinkled. A local lad, wearing an Arsenal shirt was roughly manhandled away from the area. Soon, the Chelsea coach arrived just yards away from where we stood and the players quickly entered the hotel. It was pandemonium inside. Lots of shrieking. I think a fair few players stopped to sign autographs, but we really could not see what was happening. After a while, the security people were forcibly pushing back the frenzied Chelsea supporters. It was all done and dusted within four or five minutes.

Upstairs, in an open area, we spotted the staff signing various items laid out on tables. I seized the moment. I drifted past a hotel worker and slowly – I’d say nonchalantly if I meant it – walked up some wide stairs. A photo of Antonio Conte – boom. Before I was chased away, I edged forward.

“Antonio.”

He looked up and I approached…thinking, “oh bollocks, what shall I say to him?”

“Grazie mille.”

He smiled, almost bashfully, and said – as quiet as you like – “prego.”

With that, a Chelsea club official asked who I was. I suspect that he didn’t know who Agent 1905 was, so I said “just a fan.” He politely asked me to leave. We were to find out, later that evening, that the club were hosting a Q and A with some local supporters – complete with lanyards et al – and I suppose this is par for the course these days. I found it typical that Antonio and the players were signing, in addition to the usual shirts, a couple of Yokohama tyres.

Downstairs, Cathy, John, Glenn, Foxy and myself spent a good few hours chatting about Chelsea and football in general. It was a lovely time, actually. We spotted Carlo Cudicini walk past and take his seat a few yards away alongside several other coaching staff, including Antonio’s assistant Angelo Alessio. I took a photo of Carlo with Cath and Glenn. I spoke to Angelo – can I call him that? – about me being a Juve fan too and seeing him play in Turin in the late ‘eighties. He seemed very amicable. A lovely moment. Around eight of the Chelsea staff were in this little group, and they stayed together for around an hour. Of course, we hoped that Antonio might join them, but he never did. This was at around 10.30pm I guess. The chap that had shooed me away appeared with a bagful of Chelsea 2017 Asia Tour badges. A nice gesture on the face of it, but how nice would it have been for the club to recognise those who had traveled out from the UK on this trip. Just a five-minute session with a few players? That would have been superb. On the US tours, it is only the US based fans who ever get to meet the players at any formal event.

But, it is what it is. For a couple of hours, sharing the same space as a few Chelsea faces, it felt lovely. And I mentioned this to Cathy. That it was lovely how we all still got excited, like kids in a sweet shop, about chatting to Carlo Cudicini, for example. May I never lose that childlike awe of meeting our heroes.

So. What about this season? Prior to setting off for China, the internet was in meltdown about our lack of new signings. Within days, the signings of Rudiger and Bakayoko calmed things. Just before leaving, Morata was snatched from Real Madrid. We chatted a little about the transfer dealings and the much-debated academy process. There are many different opinions here and I have always tried my best to be a fan and a supporter rather than a tedious expert. If I was an expert on football, I wouldn’t spend forty hours a week shipping office furniture around the globe. Opinion is clearly divided. Some lambast our academy – and Emenalo, especially, though many can’t even pronounce his name correctly – and the clear lack of youngsters making the first team whereas others have a different approach, backing the club to an extent, and realising that the academy is there, in the main, to provide a professional career for the lads who come through the ranks. Where do my thoughts lie?

Of course, it would be lovely, bloody lovely, to see a Chelsea team populated with our own academy players. No doubt. There is always a tangible connection with our own boys. But this is not 1977. Our team does not contain the likes of Clive Walker, Tommy Langley, Ian Britton, Ray Wilkins and Gary Locke. In 1977, we were cash-strapped and in the Second Division. Now, in 2017, forty years on, we are cash rich and a buying club.

I tried to put my thoughts into words. I tried to explain things as best I could after a few pints of Stella Artois.

“At this exact moment in time, the manager – perhaps the whole club – has a vision about where the team is going and what style of football it is looking to use, involving an exact mix of various types of players, with various degrees of skills and experience. We have a squad, a base of players. To add to that, do we select from just the relatively young set of academy players we have, which might number just twenty or thirty – at this exact time – or do we look elsewhere, at potentially hundreds of players currently employed by other teams?”

Answers on a postcard.

Roy Hodgson ambled past and, now all of us a little chattier due to the beer intake, posed with him as his colleague took a few photographs of us with him. I like Hodgson. Woefully out of his depth at times, but still a decent man. I told him, boozily I suspect, how his eyes lit up when we had called out to him outside the hotel.

“Blimey, someone recognizes me.”

Foxy asked me to take one last photo of him with Carlo.

“Do you still drive motorcycles?”

“Yes.”

“Which ones?”

“Harley Davidsons.”

It was time to head home. We ordered a cab and returned back to our respective hotels. Glenn, using his phone, provided the soundtrack. On came “The Liquidator”, “Blue Is The Colour” and a smattering of ska and reggae from the ‘seventies. As we whizzed past the lights of the skyscrapers of central Beijing, one song got us all singing, Ken Booth’s “Everything I Own.” It was a surreal few moments. My childhood raced up to meet me once more. A song from 1974. The year of my first Chelsea game.

“If there’s someone you know
That won’t let you go
And taking it all for granted?
You may lose them one day
Someone takes them away
And you don’t hear the words they say.

And I would give anything I own
I’d give up my life, my heart, my own
And I would give anything I own
Just to have you back again
Just to talk to you words again
Just to hold you once again.”

It had been a fine night.

On Saturday 22 July our season was to begin. I thought back to the first game of last season, the completely dire defeat at Rapid Vienna. What a shocker that was. I hoped for a better start in 2017. I had the chance for a little lie-in and did not get up until around 10am. It was a gentle start to the day. Thankfully, the weather was again cooler than Wednesday and Thursday. In many ways, it resembled a typical Chelsea Saturday. But it was a strange mixture of a standard Saturday game with a midweek kick-off time. The game was to start at 7.45pm.

Instead of the Gang of Four consisting of Lord Parky, PD, Glenn and myself and the day beginning with a breakfast in either McMelksham, McChippenham or McFleet, it began with a breakfast in McBeijing. Foxy, Glenn and myself then toured a local shopping mall. Next door to each other, on maybe the third floor, were two shops selling MLB and NHL gear. This really surprised me. This was not some key city-centre shopping mall, but yet here were two US-themed stores. It made me wonder why I had not seen anyone wearing a New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox or Los Angeles Dodgers cap, to say nothing of an NHL team cap. I was still keeping score and, until the day of the game, the number of football shirts spotted thus far had numbered –

Arsenal 3.

Atletico Madrid 3.

Chelsea 2.

Barcelona 1.

We were trying to work out – to put it bluntly – if Beijing was a sports town. We weren’t so sure.

Within the shopping mall, there were Timberland, Fila, Umbro, Kappa, Adidas and Nike stores. The prices were comparable to home, so there was no chance of picking up too many bargains. Outside, on a side street, was a little boutique which sold mainly women’s items, but with a little section for men. We could not resist a peek inside. We poured over a selection by Moncler, Vivienne Westwood, Victorinox and Armani but although the prices were quite reasonable, my goodness the sizes were small. All along, we were chatting about football.

Football and clobber. What Saturdays were made for.

We met up with John at 4pm and again caught a cab. They were so cheap that we did not use the subway throughout our entire stay. We were dropped off right outside the stadium. We were assailed by a number of touts, waving bunches of 100 yuan notes at us. We were not sure if they were buying or selling at the start but we soon realised that they had tickets to sell. I was annoyed to see red shirts in the majority. I then realised that we were probably outside the southern Arsenal end. We spotted a few locals selling Chelsea shirts – at knock-off prices – and we leered over them, taking a couple of photographs. The stall holders must have thought that we were on the lookout for fakes, as they soon bagged their wares and disappeared. I was surprised at the complete lack of a black market economy in Beijing, especially outside the stadium. If only other cities were the same.

We posed with my “VINCI PER NOI” flag in a couple of locations. At the second one, in the middle of a long expanse of open promenade to the west of the stadium, we were told to put the banner away by some very down-at-heal looking security types. I think they were also on litter duty. Talking of which – there might be nine million bicycles in Beijing, but there is certainly no litter. If only other cities were the same. We also posed with Foxy’s lovely “Charlie Cooke’s Flying Squadron” flag, marking the Dundee-based fans who support Chelsea. We enjoyed a nice relaxing wander between the Cube and the Birds Nest. A few beers were taken. John, who is around six feet seven clearly won the prize for “most photographed.” I will never forget the look on a young Chinese boy’s face – no older than three – who looked up at John in stages, his mouth growing wider and wider. A look of comic-book astonishment. So funny. For a few moments, a local TV crew were in attendance and some Arsenal fans began chanting. My guess that this would not be a sell-out. The stadium held 85,000 and there clearly were not 85,000 milling around. We hoped for a reasonable gate. The ticket prices were pretty steep though; £82 for a lower tier seat. After a minimal bag check, we were in.

My camera too – phew.

We were inside at 7pm. Scott and Mark chatted to us at the Chelsea merchandise stall. Punky Al and Stan drifted past. Glenn and I bought a tour t-shirt apiece at 230 or around £26. I was able to utter the immortal phrase –

“230. Chinese dentist.”

Parky would have been proud of me. Glenn groaned.

He soon perked-up : “Gonna be wearing this in the pub first game of the season.”

I have to say that the stadium did not look too full when we first arrived. Arsenal were up the other end. There were not many in the top tier. We guessed at around 40,000 maybe. All of the Chelsea supporters had been issued with the God-forsaken thunder sticks, which many were feverishly bouncing together, in addition to a Chelsea-themed fan – again for clacking together to make noise – the like of which we have had once, just once, at Stamford Bridge.

What’s wrong with just clapping?

Both teams were out doing training drills when we got in. The place filled-up. The lower tier was virtually full at kick-off. From the outside, especially when illuminated from within, the Birds Nest Stadium is stunning. The strips of dull grey steel wrap themselves around the inner shell of the structure, and the effect is wonderful. From the inside, it’s a fine stadium, but an athletics stadium. The pitch is too far from the spectators, a problem that West Ham United are now experiencing in their new pad. But whereas London’s Olympic Stadium is a relatively wide and shallow stadium, Beijing’s version is at least tall, steep and intimidating. The three tiers reach up into the sky and the roof curves high and then low. Of course, Herzog and De Meuron are tasked with designing our new stadium. I am sure that the only thing to say at this stage is that, like the Birds Nest, it will be iconic, unique and designed to the highest standard. I, for one, can’t bloody wait.

“Blue Is The Colour” was played by the PA, and I was impressed that so many locals knew the words. Of course, virtually all were wearing Chelsea gear, fake or not. There were not so many Nike shirts in the stadium. We were then treated to “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer with the Arsenal fans singing along. Is that a Gooner song, now? Bloody hell.

The teams were announced.

Antonio Conte had chosen a very strong starting eleven.

Courtois.

Dave. Luiz. Cahill.

Moses. Kante. Cesc. Alonso.

Pedro. Batshuayi. Willian.

Arsenal included Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mertesacker, Ramsey, Monreal, Xhaka, plus new boy Laazette. If it matters. Which it doesn’t.

For some reason, there were plenty of boos for Kenedy. We had no idea why. No idea at all. Did he play for a team in China at some stage in his career? We were completely flummoxed. The Arsenal fans – thunder sticks too – produced two crowd-surfing flags. Our two were bigger. Before the game began, Carlo and Hilario paraded the League trophy, while at the other end the FA Cup was on show. The weather was great; it wasn’t sticky at all.

The game, and our season, began.

We began very brightly indeed, attacking the southern goal away in the distance. The Chelsea fans around us were well-involved, chanting from the start. Cathy, who was sat next to me, waited for her moment. There was a sudden lull.

“10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.”

“Zigger Zagger – Zigger Zagger.”

“OI OI OI.”

“Zigger Zagger – Zigger Zagger.”

“OI OI OI.”

Cathy was away, and Glenn, John and myself joined in. Surprisingly, not many turned around to look. Cathy continued on.

“Zigger.”

“OI.”

“Zagger.”

“OI.”

“Zigger Zagger – Zigger Zagger.”

“OI OI OI.”

We continued to play well, full of energy. Arsenal looked sluggish. This was such a difference to Rapid Vienna last summer. Pedro was full of tricks on the left. We were dominating and carving out a few chances. A Moses shot was saved by Ospina. The locals in our end were going for it, no doubt aided by those bloody thunder sticks.

“Clap clap – clap clap clap – clap clap clap clap – Chelsea.”

Willian drove hard into the heart of the Arsenal box but his shot flew past the far post. Our support was certainly into the game. They loved cheering us on when we attacked. At times the whole lower tier seemed to be chanting together. I turned to Cathy and whispered :

“Hate to say it, but they’re noisier than in the US.”

Michy Batshuayi, with a trim haircut, went close on two occasions.

The new kit looked wonderful, although we were spared a complete 1970 re-boot because of the blue socks. I noticed – as did many – how much the pitch was cutting up. Quite poor, really.

Midway through the first-half, the ball was pumped forward for Pedro. From memory, the ball fell in no man’s land, but Ospina clattered into Pedro. It immediately reminded me of Schumacher’s horrific foul on Battiston in the 1982 World Cup. He was down for some time, but was replaced by Jeremie Boga, a forgotten man. He looked eager.

We continued to dominate. There seemed to be lots of shots but mainly weak finishes. Batshuayi struck but the goal was ruled offside. The Chelsea players seemed annoyed at that.

On thirty-one minutes, the Chelsea fans – or a small section of them – donned Antonio Conte face masks and, in unison, started singing “Antonio Antonio Antonio.” Again, we were completely flummoxed. We were to later learn during the night that this was to celebrate the manager’s birthday on 31 July.

“OK.”

John commented : “the noise is good, they just need to work on the melody.”

As the first-half continued, and despite occasional Arsenal attacks, Thibaut Courtois did not have a save to make really.

The lively Willian controlled the ball wide on our left and danced into the box. As he struck a right-footed curler, I snapped. I watched as the ball evaded the lunge of the ‘keeper and we went 1-0 up. There was a loud roar. Soon after, a lovely solo goal from Batshuayi gave us a wholly deserved 2-0 lead. On the rare occasions that Arsenal threatened, they over passed. I remember an excellent block by Gary Cahill – who lead the team out – plus there was the usual solid stuff from David and Dave. Kante was his usual smothering self. This was great stuff indeed. At last, right at the end, Thibaut made a save.

Only Willy Caballero came on at the break.

We were now attacking our end and this seemed to enthuse our support even more. Although the fans were limited to a few songs, the whole end was singing together.

“CHAMPIONES – CHAMPIONES – OLE OLE OLE.”

“CHELSEA – CLAP CLAP CLAP.”

It was still all us. There was tons of play down our left. After a pass from Fabregas, there was a fine pull back from Alonso to Michy on the edge of the box. His crisp swipe flew past the ‘keeper. Oh, how he enjoyed that one.

3-0 and game over. We were surprised that there were still no immediate subs. Antonio Conte was as animated as per usual on the side-lines. He is worth the admission money alone, these days.

The local fans began singing in unison, but the chant did not register with us.

“What are you singing?”

“Subio” – or something similar – was the word being sung and it translated as “one more (goal).”

“CHAMPIONES – CHAMPIONES – OLE OLE OLE.”

Arsenal came into the game a little, but we were never really under threat. Conte rang some changes as the game continued.

Kalas, Christensen, Clarke-Salter, Tomori, Scott, Pasalic, Kenedy – more booing – Baker and Remy all played.

Pre-season is an odd-time. A sighting of Remy here, a sighting of Kalas there. Will they play a part in our future?

Answers on a postcard.

The all royal blue kit ended up virtually navy blue with the perspiration of the players.

The boos for Kenedy seemed to affect him; he looked rattled and struggled to get involved. Boga, among the other subs, looked pacey. One for the future, maybe?

Lewis Baker produced a fine effort right at the end from a free-kick – I’m tempted to say Arsenal’s wall was far from great – but the shot was well saved.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

Job done.

Glenn, especially, looked so thrilled to have witnessed this, his first Chelsea game outside of Europe. It had been a pleasure to be there with him. There seemed to be some sort of presentation at the end of the game, and the players certainly looked pleased with their endeavors as they slowly walked down to our end to applaud the fans.

It was again surreal to see and hear so many Chinese supporters singing along to “Blue Is The Colour” at the end of the game.

We slowly walked outside. We were all very happy with the performance and result. We looked fit. We looked hungry. All positives really. The only negative was Pedro’s injury. The official crowd was given as 55,000; we were pretty pleased with that. I’d say the split was around 50/50.

50% Chelsea, 50% knobheads.

Outside, the stadium was lit from underneath with warming orange and red. It looked simply stunning. I wonder if our new pad will be lit similarly with blue (suggestion – only when we win).

We waited for Foxy, who along with his flag, had watched from the other side of our half.

Avoiding the immediate rush for cabs, we retired back to a local restaurant. It seemed that nobody spoke English, but we were thankfully aided by a lad from the US who had recently graduated from a university in South Dakota but who was visiting to set up his own travel guide company. He had been at the game too. He helped us order some lamb and chicken skewers, rice and noodles but only 2.6 percent beer. We all agreed that it had been a perfect evening. Apart from the 2.6 percent beer.

At around midnight, we caught a cab back to our hotel, the roads clearer, the buildings still immense, the city huge, the holiday not even halfway through.

Ahead, there would be a simply unforgettable trip to The Great Wall Of China, a memorable bullet train, the historic city of Shanghai, with its history of trade and commerce – a different beast to the more conservative Beijing – and the towering skyscrapers of Pudong.

But that is another story.

 

 

Tales From Goodison Park

Everton vs. Chelsea : 30 April 2017.

I know that it seems quite ridiculous and implausible now, but there might have been the slightest of chances that my team would turn out to be Everton and not Chelsea. Until I started school in the spring of 1970, I had not shown much of a liking for football, or so my parents were to admit to me later. However, at the village school, after only a few weeks if memory serves, I chose Chelsea. I have told this story many times before so I won’t waste much time on this but this was possibly on the back of our FA Cup Final win against Leeds United. It might have been because some school pals had mentioned that Chelsea were a good team. It might have been because I just liked the name. Let’s face it, Chelsea is such a warm and lovely word, isn’t it? It might have been because the first football game that I played in during the lunchtime kick about was for the Chelsea team. The exact reasons are lost in the mists of time and the midst of time. However, one thing is absolutely certain. My interest in football had been piqued in April and May 1970 and my life – a thunderous orchestral crescendo please – would never be the same again. But, think about it. Everton won the league in 1970. I wonder if they ever entered my consciousness?

As I get older and look back on a life of Chelsea support, I often think back on those early months and years. I am always looking for clues as to why Chelsea hit me and hit me hard. And I have since tried, on here and elsewhere, to piece it all together.

I always remembered that I ended up with a couple of booklets, given away in packets of cereal, which detailed a couple of football teams in the early-seventies. The teams? Chelsea and Everton. I remember opening out the booklets and pouring over the snippets of information, though I am sure that I must have had to ask for assistance from my parents with reading some of the longer words.

Chelsea were my team by then, of course – no turning back – but I can distinctly remember looking at the word Everton, maybe spelling it out and writing it in my thirst for knowledge. Chelsea and Everton. I wonder where it all could have ended. For decades, I presumed that these feint memories of these giveaway booklets would be just that. Then, amazingly, to mark our centenary in 2005, Chelsea brought out a memorabilia pack featuring many facsimile replicas of items from our history, including programmes, cigarette cards, club documents, and – yes, you have guessed it – a full colour copy of that little booklet from the early ‘seventies. I immediately recognised it – oddly, Ian Hutchinson was on the cover – and I was transported right back to my childhood.

On the evening before our game at Goodison Park, I dipped into the memorabilia pack once more, and turfed out the booklet. It dated from 1971. I did a Google search. Within a few clicks, my childhood had returned again. The booklets were featured in packs of Shredded Wheat. And there, right before my eyes, was the cover of the Everton one, with Alan Ball on the front. Eight teams were in the series, oddly named “Cup Soccer 71”; Arsenal, Chelsea, Derby County, Everton, Leeds United, Liverpool, Manchester United and Newcastle United.

And it got me thinking all over again about Chelsea and Everton. Around the time that the booklets were published, presumably before the FA Cup Third Round of January 1971, Peter Osgood had further embedded my love for Chelsea, but a year earlier it might have been oh-so different. If only my father had mentioned to me, in detail, that his only visit to a football stadium had been to Goodison Park during his World War Two training, my life might have turned out to be quite different.

But Chelsea I was in 1970 and Chelsea I am now.

And our game at Goodison Park on the last day of April in 2017 would be a real test. Someone somewhere – TS Elliot, which team did he play for? – once labelled April the cruellest month. April 2017 has certainly been a busy month, with seven Chelsea games, starting on the first day of the month and ending on the final day. For a while it looked suitably cruel. It began with two league defeats in four games against Crystal Palace and Manchester United. Then came salvation with two victories against Tottenham and Southampton.

With Tottenham still breathing down our necks, the thought of our game against Everton made me excited and nervous in equal measure.

Worry, worry, worry.

In The Chuckle Bus on the long four-hour drive to Merseyside, Glenn was very laid back, almost to the point of annoyance.

“We can only win our games. Don’t worry about them.”

I felt like slapping him around the noggin. Surely this approach, by not worrying about Tottenham and their threat to our sixth league title, is not how it should be done. To get maximum elation from any potential title win, surely one has to acknowledge all worst case scenarios? Glenn’s approach surprised me. Or maybe, me being me, I was taking this all way too bloody seriously.

I had made good time. I had started my collection of the boys at 8am. Just after midday, we stopped off at a Toby Carvery on Queens Drive and soon funnelled £8.95 worth of a Sunday Roast down our throats. At 1pm, I was parked up in Stanley Park, with both of the city’s football stadia close by. The huge new stand at Anfield dominated the skyline, but the equally dominant main stand at Goodison Park was just visible at the bottom of the gentle slope north.

The team?

As strong as it gets.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill.

Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso.

Pedro, Costa, Hazard.

I bloody love Goodison, again for reasons well documented in these match reports for many a season. With news that the club are to move to a new 50,000 capacity stadium at Bramley Moore Dock, a few miles to the north of the city centre, I may only have a few more visits left. There will be sadness on my last visit. A link to my father’s personal story will be extinguished.

Inside, up in the wooden floor boarded upper tier, Goodison looked very familiar. Back in 1971, I always remembered the semi-circles cut out behind both goals to stop rowdy spectators throwing objects at the players. Or – at least – making it more difficult for them to hit anyone should they chose to do so. The first Everton team that I ever remember – playing in white socks, which were brought back only recently – included players such as Howard Kendall, Gordon West, Jimmy Husband, Joe Royle and Alan Whittle.

With a few minutes to spare, I was able to pin my well-travelled “Vinci Per Noi” banner to the balcony wall, covering some of those famous Archibald Leitch cross-struts in the process. My plan was for Antonio Conte to spot it during the game, make a bee-line for it at the end of the match – with us victorious, obviously – and to point madly at it. He would hunt me down, phone me, arrange to meet up before the next home game at the Chelsea Harbour Hotel, and we would soon become close friends. I would holiday at his summer villa on the shores of Lake Como. We would talk about his time at Juventus. The 1996 Champions League Final in Rome. That goal against Fiorentina in 1999. We’d sip Peronis. We’d laugh at Jose Mourinho. He’d advise me on hair transplants. We’d have a right old giggle.

Alternatively, the banner would fall at the first gust of wind, be trampled on by those underneath, and would be ruined beyond repair.

You’re right. I do worry too bloody much.

The kick-off, at the odd time of 2.05pm, soon came around. There was a muted response from the Everton fans to the pre-match “Grand Old Team” which is sung in the style of Lily Savage, and even “Z Cars” seemed quieter than before. However – no surprises – the Chelsea fans around me and below me were in fine voice. We all knew how important this one was. We were all, unequivocally, up for it. Someone had mentioned that Everton had won their previous eight home games.

Worry, worry, worry.

We spotted the Everton supporters struggle to drape a large banner of Alan Ball – him again – from the top tier of the Gwladys Street. The display marked the ten year anniversary of his passing in April 2007.

Goodison Park has been a tough old venue for us of late, with only that crazy 6-3 win in 2014 to give us any joy. There have been four league losses and one FA Cup loss too.

There was hardly an empty seat in the house.

Everton in 1971 blue, white and white. Chelsea in 2017 black, black, black.

The game had a crazy first few minutes. Ross Barkley moved the ball to Dominic Calvert-Lewin (what is it with double-barrelled names in football these days?) and he rattled the base of Thibaut’s near post. The ball bounced up and thankfully Gary Cahill was able to beat Romelu Lukaku to the ball. Less than sixty seconds had passed. We then enjoyed a little pressure, with Cahill hitting a low raking shot from distance. Stekelenburg fumbled, but nobody was close enough to pick up the pieces. It was certainly a lively opening.

Lukaku chose to wander over to the right, which meant that Dave had the onerous task of marking him. His physique demanded that I kept focussing on him. He is such a size. But Dave stuck close to him.

Eden Hazard was the next Chelsea player to go close, but after collecting a pass from Diego, he was forced wide by the Everton ‘keeper. His snatched shot rippled the side netting. We were definitely on top, and the Chelsea crowd were roaring the boys on. All three of our forward players were taking it in turns to run into space. Alonso on the left was often involved but had trouble in picking out players from out wide. Moses on the right was underused. There was a tendency to over-pass, but we were on top. Diego was holding the ball well.

The challenges were going in hard from both sides. After a Chelsea tackle was met with howls of anger from the Everton players close to the action, there was a classic from Gary :

“More fucking appeals than Blue Peter.”

Nemanja Matic strode forward and unleashed a low shot at the Everton ‘keeper.

Then, the next chance for Lukaku but his shot was dragged wide.

At the other end, Diego set himself up with a header, which bounced high off his head. The whole world seemed to momentarily stop as the ball came down. Unmarked, Diego snatched at it and ballooned it high into the packed stands.

Everton had their moments. I liked the look of Barkley but his impact was nulled by some great tackling from N’Golo Kante and Matic.

At the break, I was able to check that my banner was still in situ. Phew.

During the entire first-half, there had not been a single peep out of the Everton supporters.  I know that they are not known for their volume, but this was a pitiful showing. For a top seven club, not one single song. Shocking.

As always at Goodison, we attacked the Park End – ironically, the newest stand but easily the blandest– in the second-half. We were able to see how ridiculously close Eden Hazard was being marked by Idrissa Gueye. There was a lovely short corner – a Chelsea original – but Moses scuffed wide. Down below us, our raids were becoming more daring. There was nice play between Alonso, Hazard and Pedro. An hour had passed. At last, an Everton song. We plugged away.

A lone voice behind me :

“Don’t worry, it’s coming.”

I replied :

“So is Christmas.”

On sixty-five minutes, Pedro collected a ball from Matic. He turned and shifted the ball on to his left foot. From thirty yards out, he let fly. We watched and prayed that the white netting would bulge.

It bulged.

GET FUCKING IN.

Inside, I was boiling with joy, but I remained cool and snapped away, and hoped that the resulting flurry of photographs were not as blurred as I felt. I caught the pitch invader, mid jump, with Pedro, and snapped away as the ecstatic scorer – and the entire team – raced down to celebrate in front of the lower tier of the Bullens Road. I have not witnessed scenes of complete and unadulterated mayhem like that for ages.

Stay still my beating heart.

There were songs about winning the league, but Alan and I – at least – did not join in.

Lukaku curled a shot high and wide from a free-kick after a foul by Hazard on Barkley.

Hazard was able to eke out inches of space on the left, and he drew a foul from Gueye. We watched – me with my camera poised – as he whipped in a low cross. The Everton ‘keeper, perhaps distracted by those around him, could only fumble again. Captain Gary Cahill bundled the ball over. We erupted once more.

GET IN.

Again, I snapped away like a fool. Gary’s run was almost as euphoric as Pedro’s. There was no pitch invasion this time, but the wild scenes were the same. Cahill’s wonderful smile was captured on film by TV camera and by my camera alike.

There was a little worry as David Luiz fell to the floor after a previous knock took its toll. Not long after, the manager brought on Nathan Ake for Luiz, with Pedro being replaced by Fabregas at the same time.

Willian then replaced Hazard.

On eighty-six minutes, a pass from Diego Costa found Cesc Fabregas who picked out Willian inside the box, and the substitute effortlessly guided the ball into a virtually empty net. Now the game was certainly safe. The Chelsea section roared once more. I clicked away again.

The last photograph taken, I roared unhindered.

The lower tier down below me was a bubbling mass of humanity. Such scenes are a joy to behold.

At the final whistle, a triumphal roar, and then my eyes were focussed on Antonio Conte. He hugged all of the Chelsea players, and slowly walked over to join his men down below us, only a few yards away from the touchline. With just four games remaining, and our lead back to seven points, the joy among the team and supporters was palpable. Conte screamed and shouted, his eyes bulging. He jumped on the back of Thibaut Courtois. His smiles and enthusiasm were so endearing.

Altogether now – “phew.”

The songs continued as we slowly made our way out into the street. A message came through from my good friend Steve in Philadelphia –

“Chris, the image that just flashed on my screen was beautiful. A shot of a cheering Antonio Conte, cheering the away fans, with the Vinci banner in the background. Absolutely perfect shot.”

We reached the car, still bouncing, and I began the long drive home. It had been a fantastic afternoon at Goodison. We had inched closer. We discussed the game. All players had fought tooth and nail for the three points. Pedro had been excellent. Diego had held the ball up well, ran the channels, and had been his usual bundle of tricks. Captain Cahill was excellent. It had been a well-rounded performance after a few scares in the first-half. In the end, Everton were well beaten.

We listened to the Tottenham versus Arsenal game as we headed south, battling some typically slow traffic on the M6. Just north of Stoke-on-Trent, Spurs scored two quick goals. We sighed and we swore. The fuckers won’t go away will they?

With the lead back to four points again – “cat and mouse” – we now have to wait until Monday 8 May for our next game. By then, the lead could be just one point.

During the next week, the worrying will start all over again.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

IMG_5049

Tales From A Wembley High

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 22 April 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh here we go. This could be them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry.”

That made me smile.

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

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

Wow.

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

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

Overhead, a mixture of sun and cloud.

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

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

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

The scene was set.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ugh.

Game, as they say, on.

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

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

“Get in.”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

“Bollocks.”

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

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

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

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

GET. FUCKING. IN.

Our end boomed.

A quarter of an hour remained.

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

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

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

Smack.

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

Our end roared once again.

Chelsea 4 Tottenham Hotspur 2.

Oh my bloody goodness.

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

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

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

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

“Sing Chelsea everyone.”

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

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

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

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Tales From The Clarence

Chelsea vs. Peterborough United : 8 January 2017.

In the pub, there was only the briefest most-mortem of the loss at Tottenham on the previous Wednesday. A few of us had been present at the game; others had watched on the TV. We all agreed that we hadn’t been atrocious. We all agreed that Tottenham hadn’t ripped us to shreds. In the circumstances, a run-of-the-mill 2-0 loss at one of our toughest away venues of the season was met with a gentle acceptance. A few mentioned that Marcos Alonso – I honestly could not remember him from his spell in England with either Bolton or Sunderland – has not performed too well of late, and I had to agree. There was a slight mention of the transfer window, but nobody had too much to say about that. Where does our squad need strengthening? Maybe a left-back, then, and maybe another striker. With Kurt Zouma about to return against Peterborough United later in the day, and – presumably – with Andreas Christensen due to return from his very successful spell at Borrusia Moenchengladbach in the summer – there is surely no need for the club to sign a central defender, despite the constant rumours linking us with Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci, in the January window.

Around ten of us were trying out a new pub for the first time. After the demise of The Goose – it’s still frequented by some, but some of us fancy fresh pastures – we are still trying out new options. On this occasion, it was the turn of The Clarence. Heading north along the North End Road from The Goose, are three similar old-style pubs; The Elm, The Old Oak and The Clarence. These are small parlours and are strikingly similar in many ways. Old-fashioned décor, tired carpets, darkened wooden panels, fixtures from the ‘seventies, no frills and thrills, faded framed paintings and packets of crisps as the only bar snack. There was a time when all match-day pubs were like this. Our old haunt The Harwood Arms – 1995 to 1999 – certainly was.  The Seven Stars is no more, but that used to line the North End Road too, just opposite The Clarence. Then up at West Kensington is The Famous Three Kings. Since The Clarence housed only around twenty customers on this particular pre-match, we surmised that this pub just about marked the most north-westerly outpost of Chelsea drinkers on match days. It was OK. At least the beers were served in glass pints. To be honest, it filled a need but it was anything but posh.

I had spotted only a handful of Peterborough United supporters on my pre-amble to the boozer. They were to be six thousand strong, but I didn’t see any of them in any of the pubs around the stadium. I suspect a lot of them were doing their drinking around Earls Court. There had been a brief chat with some usual suspects at the CFCUK stall about the game at White Hart Lane – “I’d prefer this to be a league game to be honest, let’s get back in to the routine and get some points in the bag” – alongside talk of Adidas trainers and the imminent new stadium planning presentation to the local council on Wednesday evening.

That will surely prove to be one of the most historic nights in our history.

I spotted a new selection of royal blue pennants lining Fulham Broadway and Fulham Road. There were images of our silverware, along with pennants showing the words to two Chelsea standards; “Blue Is The Colour” and “The Blue Flag.”

Inside the stadium, the six thousand away fans took up the entire Shed End. Parky had been pushed to a seat in the West Lower, the poor bugger.

I approved of the retro-style programme cover which mirrored that of our 1965 FA Cup Quarter Final against Peterborough United; a nice touch.

We had been told that both Kurt Zouma and Michy Batshuayi would start against The Posh. In the pub, the starting eleven chosen by Antonio Conte, puzzled us a little. We found the thought of Branislav Ivanovic as a starting wing-back too weird for words. And Pedro, too, for that matter. Who would ever have thought that these two players would be playing the same role in a Chelsea starting eleven? We live in tactically-interesting times, eh?

Begovic.

Zouma, Terry, Cahill.

Ivanovic, Fabregas, Chalobah, Pedro.

Loftus-Cheek, Batshuayi, Willian.

It was obviously lovely to see King Kurt back after a very lengthy spell out. I wasn’t sure about Ruben playing in a wide position, but it gave him a chance to impress.

We played Peterborough United in the same round of the competition in 2001 and won 5-0. On that occasion, the visitors wore a lurid lime green kit. This time, it was a lurid yellow. The game began, and I was a little disappointed that the away fans seemed quiet from the off. Despite a bright start from their home town heroes, they mainly stayed seated. There were no FA Cup balloons, another dying tradition.

Our first chance came from a near post flick from Gary Cahill after a low Willian corner, which caused an immediate scare in the away end. The ball bounced back into the arms of the ‘keeper – lurid pink – off the post. At the other end, a scare for us. A fine cross into our box was met by a lunge from a Peterborough striker. Asmir Begovic’ point blank stop looked exceptional, though this was just a save brought about by exceptional positioning than dynamic ability. A volley from John Terry ended up being planted straight at the Posh keeper’s stomach, and then Peterborough threatened Begovic again. It was quite a start for them.

Zouma reached row Z of The Shed with one effort, and then Willian reached row W with another. It was a very bright opening.

Following a shot from Chalobah which was palmed back out by the ‘keeper McGee, Pedro controlled the loose ball, lost his man with a deft shimmy, and smacked the ball in – high – at the far post.

Get in.

Pedro made a point of running down past the away fans to the far corner. Somebody obviously failed to tell him that The Shed wouldn’t be housing any home fans on this occasion. He looked a bit sheepish.

We put the Peterborough goal under pressure, with efforts from Batshuayi and Loftus-Cheek. Pedro, in a copycat move, slammed the ball high, but this time the ball crashed against the bar.

Just before the break, a fine move involving a hooked past from Willian to an advanced Ivanovic, resulted in Batshuayi calmly slotting home after a delicate lay-off from Loftus-Cheek.

Coasting now, 2-0, but I whispered to PD and his son Scott : “remember Bradford City in 2015.”

Willian had enjoyed an excellent first-half, full of running and intelligent passing.

It felt odd watching JT, the returning war horse. I watched on, seeking to praise him at every opportunity, in the same way that I would a youngster from the ranks. In this, surely his last season, I do not want to see him embarrassed again in the same way as he was at West Ham in the League Cup.

At the break, misty rain appeared. Neil Barnett introduced winger Bert Murray from that 1965 game, which we won 5-1.

Not long in to the second period, we broke with ease up the left flank. A marvellous pass from Cesc to Pedro who pushed it on to Willian. A touch inside his marker, and the ball was adeptly dispatched low past McGee. There was a lovely little celebratory dance with Kurt Zouma.

I turned to PD : “there will be no Bradford City today.”

We kept pressing at every opportunity. However, I had to admire how everyone chased and harried once the opponents threatened. I lost count of the number of times that Pedro ran at pace at defenders one minute, but was then seen deep in our own penalty area clearing an attack, or making a timely tackle. If it had been Willian’s first-half, it was surely Pedro’s second. There was one run which I captured on film – click, click, click – which featured a ridiculous high-speed step-over. I almost fell over just watching it. He is surely having one of the best seasons.

Ola Aina – perhaps unlucky not to start – replaced Gary Cahill on the hour.

A rare Peterborough break then caught John Terry unawares. Angol pushed the ball past him, and Terry lunged. It looked awfully messy, but my immediate thought was that, although a red card was possible, Ivanovic was covering. The roar from the away fans put paid to that notion.

A red card for John.

In a reshuffle, Dave replaced Loftus-Cheek, who had been steady rather than spectacular. Of the other youngsters, Zouma looked a little rusty. Batshuayi held the ball up well and a goal for him will boost his confidence. Chalobah was fine.

Against the run of play, Peterborough worked the ball down our left-flank and a low cross was turned past Begovic by Nicholls.

A slight Bradfordesque tremor? Not really. Conte played a strong card from the bench, replacing the excellent Willian by the redoubtable N’Golo Kante. Aina pushed the ball up to Batshuayi, who set up the waiting Pedro. The man of the match quickly slotted the ball home, low past McGee.

Chelsea 4 Peterborough United 1.

We still kept going, searching for more goals. There is no mercy rule in English football, and why should there be? Goals breed confidence, and despite no more ensuing goals, there was certainly a feel-good atmosphere bouncing around Stamford Bridge at the final whistle.

On Saturday evening, it’s back to the league campaign with an away trip to Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City.

Just champion.

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Tales From New Year’s Eve

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 31 December 2016.

On the last day of 2016, Chelsea Football Club were going for our thirteenth consecutive league win. A run that began way back on the first day of October at Hull City has surprised, entertained and thrilled us along the way, and now the red-and-white striped shirts of Stoke City were our next opponents. A game on New Year’s Eve is a relatively rare event. In over forty years of going to games at Chelsea, this would only be my fourth such game. All of these have been at Stamford Bridge. The last one was a dreadful 1-3 defeat at the hands of Aston Villa in 2011.

It was a miserable end to that particular year. Who could have possibly guessed how that 2011/2012 season would end?

None of us.

The pre-match routine for the Stoke City game mirrored that of the Boxing Day match with Bournemouth. Parky, Glenn, PD and myself. Me driving. Pints in “The Chelsea Pensioner” and then outside “The Fox & Pheasant.” Banter. Drinks. Songs. Laughs along the way with pals from both sides of the Atlantic. Whereas there had been clear, crisp skies on Boxing Day, here was a more typical winter’s day in London; dampness, greyness and cloying fog. It was as if it was made to order for the visiting Americans.

As for the team, we knew that Pedro would be out, and that Kante and Costa would undoubtedly return. We pondered about Fabregas. Antonio Conte decided to retain him.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Cahill.

Moses – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso.

Willian – Costa – Hazard.

The tried and tested 3-4-3. It’s hard to believe that we toyed with playing a 4-4-2 variant at the start of the season. This 3-4-3 seems to have been with us forever such is how natural it all seems.

Unsurprisingly, Stoke City brought only 1,500 down from The Potteries. Neil Barnett made a point of welcoming back both Mark Hughes and Eddie Niedzwiecki, players from two of the most-loved Chelsea seasons of them all (Sparky in 1996/1997 and Eddie in 1983/1984). There was also a mention for former blue Glen Johnson and former Matthew Harding season-ticket holder Peter Crouch. There was a rare start for Crouch. With him alongside the diminutive Xherdan Shaqiri, it brought back memories of a game decades ago when Micky Droy stood alongside Ian Britton for photographic effect.

Shaqiri – so small that his arse rubs out his footprints – looks out of place on the pitch. But he is a lovely footballer. Elsewhere in the Stoke team were familiar foes Charlie Adam, Joe Allen and Ryan Shawcross.

And Stoke certainly had more of the game in the first-half, at least to my eyes. Their biggest threat came via corners and free-kicks, and we had to be at our best to keep them at bay. With Eden Hazard relatively quiet, our play lacked a little sparkle. We had a few pot-shots at goal, but nothing of note. The stadium needed wakening. It was pretty quiet.

I loved the way that David Luiz, charging out of defence to cut out a lofted ball, was able to replicate a John Terry trademark chest pass. The ball landed right at the feet of a team mate. Lovely stuff.

Stoke still caused us problems, with Shaqiri and Adam going close. Our play was a little slower than usual. Where there had been players taking a couple of touches, now the same players were taking extra touches. It slowed our play down. Victor Moses was often alone out on the right wing in acres of space. Our play tended to develop down our left. It often felt that Moses’ role was just to stretch the Stoke defence out, regardless of whether or not he received the ball. He must’ve felt like a spare prick at a wedding.

Just after half-an-hour, Cesc Fabregas thumped a corner into the box and Gary Cahill was able to jump high and head in. It was, ironically, a goal more synonymous with that of our visitors.

1-0, phew.

Mark Stein was introduced to the crowd at the break, and he was warmly applauded by both sets of fans, having played for both teams in his career. In the match programme, there was a feature on “Steino” and he recollected the red-hot atmosphere at Stamford Bridge for our famous victory against Bruges in 1995. Never had 28,000 – our then capacity – made so much noise at The Bridge.

There was also a simply fantastic photograph of Stoke City’s visit to Stamford Bridge in 1963, featuring 48 year old Stanley Matthews and 18 year old Ron Harris. The gate? Only 66,199. Another Second Division attendance too.

File under “Debunking The Chelsea Were Never A Big Club Theory.”

The second-half began, and in the most dramatic of ways. A ball was pumped into our box, that man Crouch headed down, and Martins Indi somehow managed to react the quickest of all, stabbing home despite being surrounded by three or four Chelsea players. Now that was a typical Stoke City goal.

1-1.

Game on.

At last the Chelsea crowd got involved, realising that the team needed a helping hand. Shots started to pepper the Stoke City goal.

As the ball was worked out to Victor Moses, I found myself commentating.

“Go on Victor, get past him, get behind him my son, whip it in.”

Whip it in he did. Hazard cushioned the ball for Willian to hit home.

2-1, phew.

Win thirteen?

Steady on.

Five minutes later, the stubborn visitors caused us problems in our box, and when the ball was played out to Diouf, I immediately sensed fear. Lo and behold, the ball was whipped into the box and Peter Crouch stabbed it home.

2-2, bollocks.

This was breathless stuff now, and within a minute, Cesc Fabregas played in Willian with a beautiful ball, and our Brazilian livewire ruthlessly blasted high past Grant in the Stoke goal. He again ran over to the far corner to celebrate with fans and team mates. Celebrations were equally manic in my little section of the stadium.

Smiling faces, pulses racing, eyes wide in ecstasy, fists pumping, shouts of joy.

I had to grab on a nearby barrier.

“Bloody hell, felt myself going there.”

Ha.

3-2, back on top once more.

Antonio Conte replaced Fabregas with Nemanja Matic, with a nod to tightening things, but the game still continued to entertain. A super break involving the twin threats of Willian and Hazard allowed Diego Costa a clear shot on goal, but he surprisingly blasted over. It had been another wonderful performance from Diego; chasing lost causes, hounding defenders, holding off challenges, touching the ball to team mates, leading the line.

Branislav Ivanovic replaced Victor Moses, who had been much more involved in the second-half. Nathaniel Chalobah took over from Willian.

There was still time for one last hurrah. A seemingly innocuous throw-in was chased down by Diego Costa, who caused mayhem for Shawcross and Martins Indi. Showing fantastic strength, he held off a challenge, and slammed the ball into the net with a left-footed swipe. It was a goal of his own making. It was all his.

It was a pure unadulterated Diegoal.

Now it was his turn to fist pump, and for his eyes to explode with joy. He ran towards the corner flag and replicated Pedro’s Kung Fu kick from Boxing Day before being mobbed by all of his nine other outfield players. It was a lovely picture of solidarity and togetherness.

4-2, just beautiful.

So, this amazing run continues.

Thirteen.

Just magnificent.

At the half-way stage of the season, everything is looking rosy.

1. Chelsea – 49 points.

2. Liverpool – 43 points.

3. Arsenal – 40 points.

4. Tottenham Hotspur – 39 points.

5. Manchester City – 39 points.

6. Manchester United – 36 points.

There is then a ridiculous nine point gap to Everton, but then the other thirteen clubs are differentiated by just fifteen points. The numbers do not lie. It’s looking good, but we are only halfway to paradise.

The Chuckle Bus returned back to the shires of Wiltshire and Somerset. The four of us all had New Year’s Eve drinking to be done. My evening was spent at Frome Town Football Club, where I saw my first-ever football match way back in the autumn of 1970, a full four years before my first Chelsea game. It seemed appropriate. It was a great night and it ended a roller-coaster year for me, for us all.

As 2017 begins, there are two eagerly-awaited away games to attend. On Monday, Frome Town play at local rivals Chippenham Town, and then on Wednesday – on a different scale this one – Chelsea visit the N17 badlands to play Tottenham. They will be up for revenge after our last two games – remember them, ha? – but I’d like to think that we have a little revenge in store too.

Remember that 5-3 defeat on the very first day of 2015?

Yes, so do I.

Let’s go to work.

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Tales From A Day Of Sobriety

Hull City vs. Chelsea : 1 October 2016.

A few years ago, it was announced that the city of Kingston-Upon-Hull was to be awarded the title of UK City of Culture of 2017. This is a relatively new award, with the city of Londonderry in 2009 wining the inaugural competition. It is not to be confused with the European City of Culture, which encompassed Glasgow in 1990 (I can still remember Rab C. Nesbitt’s thoughts about that) and Liverpool in 2008. When Chelsea visited the home of Hull City during the 2013/2014 season, the natives were full of self-deprecation, chanting at us that we were only “here for the culture.” With 2017 approaching, I remained a little oblivious to the events planned for the city on the River Humber, er Hull, but presumed that events were taking shape to give the much-maligned city – once voted the UK’s most boring town –  a boost for their big year.

Then, back in the summer, a news story gathered pace over a weekend which brought the city back into the limelight. Photographer Spencer Tunick was up to his old tricks again, enticing thousands of people to assemble at daybreak on a Saturday morning in July, disrobe, and daub themselves in subtle shades of blue paint, in order for Tunick to capture several photographs around the quiet city centre. The resulting photographs were stunning.

After our recent games – two sad losses – against Liverpool and Arsenal, all eyes were on our manager and players. The pressure was on Chelsea to reshape, to re-group and to bounce back.

However, I wondered if my trip to Hull would result in Chelsea Football Club’s very own homage to Spencer Tunick.

Was the football world about to be horrified by the sight of many blue arses being exposed and solemnly embarrassed in a public place?

We hoped not. We bloody hoped not.

This was always going to be a long day. I set off early at 6am, the night still shrouding everything in darkness. I collected PD first, then Young Jake and Old Parky. We wolfed down a McBreakfast on the hoof, and then the long drive north began in earnest. The sun crashed through towering banks of cloud as I drove along the Fosse way, through the Cotswolds and its charming countryside. I was last on this famous old Roman road a mere two weeks previously, when I was tempted to Stratford-Upon- Avon to watch Frome Town play. We skirted Coventry on a new city by-pass, and we soon found ourselves on the M1. This was my fourth visit to see Chelsea play at Hull City, and there had been three victories out of three. I made great time, and the weather was exceptional. I drove into Hull, past the large and impressive Humber Bridge, at bang on 10.30am, and bang on time.

We made a bee-line for a drink in the large and impersonal Wetherspoon’s in the city centre. “The Admiral Of The Humber” would be base camp until we would leave for the game later in the day. We were last there in March 2015, and PD soon spotted a local chap who he and Parky chatted to on that occasion. Parky went over to say “hi” and he soon recognised us. He was wearing an old retro amber Hull City shirt from years ago. I am quite fond of their club colours; very effective. We chatted away to him and he told us a few home truths about the recent events at his club in recent months. It seems that discounted season tickets are no more, and everyone pays the same price, even if they are pensioners or youngsters. In fact, season tickets in general are no more. Now, everyone has to be a member, with home games having to be bought – ad infinitum – via direct debit. The club owner Assem Allam is hardly flavour of the month in Hull. His desire to rebrand Hull City as Hull Tigers caused outrage a few years back, and he continues to upset many. Steve Bruce, a decent enough manager, left during the summer, seemingly tired of the politics. The gates thus far into the new season have not reached capacity. Despite a promotion campaign last season, I sensed that all was not well.

The Hull City fan spoke about a visit of Newcastle United, when the very same pub was mobbed by visiting Geordies. They very soon started singing a song, aimed at him, based on the fact that his grey beard and glasses made him resemble an infamous person in Britain’s recent past.

“One Harold Shipman, there’s only one Harold Shipman.”

He smiled as he re-told the story of how he remonstrated with them, and how this resulted in the Geordies buying him drink after drink.

“I love that about football, the banter” he joked.

I popped out for an hour, but my little tour of the city was disrupted by a sudden downpour. The city centre seemed to be in a state of disruption, with virtually every pavement getting re-laid, presumably in preparation for 2017. I spotted a couple of colourful “bugs” on the walls of buildings and wondered if this was the Hull equivalent of Liverpool’s “Super Lamb Banana” sculptures in 2008, Bristol’s “Gromits Unleashed” in 2013 and Dundee’s current “Oor Wullie” trail. There will be a time when every city in the UK is overrun with comic sculptures and what a fine time that will be. I popped into “The Mission” – a converted building, once ecclesiastical, now a place for revelry – to get out of the rain.

No beer for me though, being the driver, and with a tiring drive home ahead of me. In fact, the superstitious part of my nature came to the fore on this day in Hull; in all of the previous domestic games this season, Chelsea were unbeaten when I had gone without a beer, whereas the two occasions when I had enjoyed a pre-match beer had resulted in losses.

I was taking one for the team.

No beers for me.

Outside the rain stopped.

Kingston-Upon-Hull was full of Saturday shoppers and it went about its way, oblivious to the two-thousand Chelsea fans that had descended upon it. I once described Hull as the UK’s unknown city and it remains so. It does not have the clout of others. It is not famous. In Elvis Costello’s famous song, the boys from the Humber did not even make the shortlist. I inwardly wished the city well in its year in the spotlight in 2017. Many might deride the decision to award Hull the title of City of Culture, but I suppose that the whole point is to use it as a stepping stone to some sort of rejuvenation to the area, to give the locals something to invoke some civic pride, and to celebrate the area’s culture, however it manifests itself. Past Everything But The Girl and The Housemartins, I was struggling to pin down some cultural reference points but I am sure there are others. Do Hull Kingston Rovers count?

Back in the boozer, the boys recounted a funny story. A few Chelsea fans had heard that some others were in a pub called the New King Edward. A six-seater taxi was booked and it pulled up outside. The six Chelsea fans piled in.

“Right, where do you want to go?”

“The New King Edward.”

The driver reversed ten yards. The pub was next door.

Ha.

The place was heaving with Chelsea now, and the large pub was reverberating with song. We watched, sadly, as Liverpool came from behind to beat Swansea 2-1.

Also in town were some Salford rugby league fans, playing at Hull KR, but we did not bump into any of them, save for one who seemed to think it would be mayhem later in the evening with three thousand Mancunians in town. We gave him a wide berth.

At about 2.15pm, we hopped into a cab outside the railway station, and were soon dropped-off right outside the renamed KCOM Stadium.

The team news had filtered through. We already knew that John Terry was out with an injury, and the news that Gary Cahill was the stand-in captain was met with a few disdainful comments. Elsewhere, Victor Moses was handed a start for the first time since the days of Rafa Benitez.

I found myself shunted further around the corner at the KCOM stadium. Back in 2007, I watched behind the goal, towards the west stand, and since then the away end has moved further east with each season. Parky, Alan, Gary and I were in row E, PD and Jake were in row B. It made a lovely change to be so close to the action. Thankfully, after hundreds of no shows at Swansea, virtually every seat was filled in the cramped away corner. And the Chelsea fans were in good voice for sure. I spotted a few patches of empty seats around the home areas, including a large block of the upper tier opposite. I like Hull’s stadium. Low on three sides, it rises dramatically on the western side. It’s a little different. I approve.

The game began, and it seemed that the home team started with a little more bite than us. Robert Snodgrass – one of the few City players I recognised – was heavily involved. Very soon into the match, it was a fine free-kick from the former Leeds United and Norwich City midfielder which forced an equally fine save from Thibaut Courtois.

For once, the home fans decided not to play the role of gobby Northerners, and their reluctance to make much noise surprised me. Maybe the malaise within the club is deeper than even I imagined. Whereas the Chelsea supporters were making some noise, we struggled to get going on the pitch. With Marcos Alonso playing in a very advanced position on the left, it gradually became apparent that Conte was playing a three at the back for the first time. David Luiz had Gary Cahill to his left and Cesar Azpilicueta to his right. On the right flank, Victor Moses was up and down like a yo-yo.

To be fair, there were no boos, nor negative noise, aimed at Gary Cahill. I approved. At a time when football clubs seem to be increasingly followed by a nerdy tribe of experts and critics, it is time for the match-goers to revert to the role of supporters, cheering the players on, and thus creating a platform for them to perform.

Chances for us were at a premium. I remembered our last visit in 2015 when we were abysmal but still eked out a win. Mbokani looked a bit of a handful up front for attack. We tried to get in to the game, but Hazard – playing a little more central than usual – was peripheral, and Moses lacked a quality final ball despite all of his resourceful forays down the far flank. But Moses was soon getting applauded by us.

A Chelsea winger who goes past defenders? Whatever next.

A Cahill shot bothered the home fans in the south stand rather than Marshall in the Hull goal.

A few half-chances, but nothing of note.

Just before the half-time whistle, Hull City broke but Courtois did well to save from Mason.

There was a fair amount of doom and gloom at the interval.

Sigh.

I commented to Gary : “Apart from coming for crosses, the Hull ‘keeper has hardly touched the ball.”

During the break, around a thousand flag-waving, blue track-suited City of Culture volunteers walked around the perimeter of the pitch. They were virtually all pensioners. A veritable army of Doreens, Normans, Norahs and Brians – we saluted them. Thankfully there was no Spencer Tunick moment on the centre-circle.

Soon into the second-half, it was easy to spot an added desire in our play. That man Conte had obviously spoken a few “bon mots” in the interlude. First Alonso threatened, and then a classic dribble, body shake, and shot from Eden brought us renewed hope. The rasping shot from Hazard was spectacularly tipped-over by Marshall.

“It’s all Chelsea, Gal.”

Then, a dynamic run by Diego Costa, out-muscling two defenders, and rounding the ‘keeper, but his firm shot hit the post. The ball fell to N’Golo Kante, but we were gobsmacked as his effort flew over.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.”

On the hour, after more Chelsea pressure. Willian worked his way into a little pocket of space inside the box and carefully curved an effort past Marshall and into the goal. It was a divine effort and one which was met with wild approval in the Chelsea quadrant.

Lovely to see the players celebrate so wildly. A hug from Willian from David Luiz.

Braziliant.

Willian dropped to his knees, pointed to the sky and no doubt silently whispered a word of dedication for his ailing mother.

More Chelsea pressure. A shot from Diego Costa. A shot from Nemanja Matic was blocked, but it fell conveniently at the feet of Costa. He automatically, without having time to doubt himself, curled the ball wide of the Hull ‘keeper. It was a pretty good copy of Willian’s goal.

Hull City 0 Chelsea 2.

Phew.

Moses, hardly similar to his aged namesake, and certainly without the need of a mobility scooter, kept racing past his foes. He had a great game. We could hardly believe that Willian was not awarded a penalty after having his legs clipped.

Victor Moses was given a fine reception, and his personal “Pigbag” song had a thorough airing, when he was replaced by Pedro. There were further appearances, off the bench, for Pedro and Nathaniel Chalobah.

When Tom Huddlestone came off the bench for the home team, Gary was soon to comment.

“Fackinell, you’ll never get past him. He’s like a barrage balloon.”

After a poor first-half, but a much better second-half, we exited the tight stands of the KCOM Stadium in good spirits.

I left the City of Culture 2017 at 6pm. The sun was soon to set. The road south seemed endless.

At Goole, we stopped off for some good honest Northern food from a chippy.

“Have we ever lost to Hull City?”

“Nah. Not in my memory.”

“Great chips.”

“Yeah, great chips.”

I reached home at 11.30pm.

It had been a good day.

Our next game is in two week’s time against Leicester City.

Do I have a beer or not? Let me think on that.

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Tales From The Road To Milan

Chelsea vs. Porto : 9 December 2015.

Midway through the morning, a work colleague spoke.

“You’re quiet today, Chris.”

A pause…”yep.”

“Are you going to Chelsea tonight?”

“Yep. I think that’s the reason why I’m quiet.”

Here we were again, then. Shades of 2011 and 2012, when we left it – unfashionably – late to determine our progress through to the Champions League knock-out phase. Of course, our fortunes contrasted in both of those seasons. In 2012, we failed to qualify from the group phase for the very first time after we won our last game against Nordsjaeland but Willian’s Shakhtar Donetsk lost 1-0 at home to Juventus.

In 2011, a triumphant win at home to Valencia set us on our way to “you know where.”

Looking back, it’s odd that the last five final Champions League group phase games have all been at home.

2015 : Porto.

2014 : Sporting Lisbon.

2013 : Steaua Bucharest.

2012 : Nordsjaeland.

2011 : Valencia.

Thankfully, we haven’t always left it quite so late to qualify. And Chelsea have a proud Champions League record to uphold. In our thirteen previous campaigns, we have only failed to qualify for the knock-out phase just the once. We have qualified as group winners ten times, as runners-up just twice. It’s a pretty remarkable record.

I yearned for a win against Porto. Not only would it signal our passage through to further European adventures on the road to Milan, and not Basel where the Europa Final would be played, but I hoped that it would give us a much-needed confidence boost to our awful league form.

As the day progressed, my noise levels did not increase. I was truly focussed on the evening game with Porto. After the demoralising loss at home to AFC Bournemouth on Saturday evening, there is no surprise that there was an air of solemnity. These were still edgy times as a Chelsea supporter.

Ah, Bournemouth. Although their manager Eddie Howe called it the greatest result in his team’s history – with sufficient reason – was it really a nadir for Chelsea Football Club? I think not. The troubles of season 1982/1983 surely represented our historical low point. A few games in that season might be awarded the dubious honour of marking our lowest ebb. A 3-0 reverse at fellow strugglers Burnley might signify that. I was not there at Burnley nor many of the other miserable games in 1982/1983. However, the one game that many Chelsea fans quote as “the ultimate low point” actually took place in 1981/1982; the infamous 6-0 loss at Millmoor, the home of Rotherham United. I did not attend that one either. However, on a personal level, Bournemouth away in 1988/1989 represents my personal all-time low. Let me explain. Newly relegated from the top division, our third game that season took us to Dean Court for a game with Bournemouth, in only their second season at that level in their history. I was confident of a win.

We lost 1-0.

It was my “there in person” low point in terms of losing to a team, and club – a small, provincial club – that we ought to have beaten.

No doubt that game will be referenced again when we get to visit Dean Court in April.

In the pub before the game with Porto, there was the usual gathering of mates from near and far. Chris was over again from Guernsey, with his son Nick. They were both in town for the Bournemouth game, too. And get this. Although he has been watching Chelsea games in person for fifteen years, the 1-0 loss at home to Bournemouth was the very first game that he had seen us lose.

“How many games is that then, Nick?”

“Not sure. About fifty.”

“Bloody hell.”

Inside Stamford Bridge, Alan and I compared notes.

Alan : “It took me two games to see us lose.”

Chris : “Three for me. Two wins and a loss.”

Across the stadium, Porto had brought a full three-thousand to Stamford Bridge. They were, of course, still in contention for a passage into further rounds of this year’s competition. Nevertheless, three thousand was a fine showing. It made our 1,100 showing in Porto in September pale by comparison.

This was our fourth Champions League match against Porto at Stamford Bridge. They are our most familiar such opponents, along with Barcelona and Liverpool. There was also a home friendly with Porto in the heady summer of 1995, which marked the home debuts of new signings Ruud Gullit and Mark Hughes.

Jose Mourinho had decided to – eventually – drop Cesc Fabregas and recall Diego Costa. Dave and JT returned, and there was a starting place for Ramires too.

In the Porto team, Iker Casillas made his Stamford Bridge debut – damn it, will we never ever draw his former team Real Madrid? – and old adversary Maicon was captain. There was no place for the remarkably named Andre Andre, whose favourite ‘eighties bands are presumably Duran Duran, The The and Talk Talk.

As the game began, although our sights were focussed on the pitch, the game in Kiev would also be monitored. This was a very tight finish to our group. Although many potential scenarios were spoken about, I am not convinced even now that I truly understood the ramifications should all three teams end up on equal points.

There was an exciting start to the game with a couple of chances exchanged. Alan had brought along his Champions League lucky wine gums. They soon worked their magic. A ball through from Eden Hazard allowed Diego Costa to advance on goal. From an angle, a low shot was parried by Casillas, but the ball bounced back towards the defender Marcano. The ball was goal bound, but seemed to lack “legs.” We watched, time appearing to stand still, as Maicon hacked the ball off the line. We were, of course, at the other end of the stadium. I was not convinced that the ball had crossed the line. A creature of habit, I glanced over to the linesman in front of the West Stand. His flag was down. The crowd were roaring, though. The referee was signalling a goal. I had, of course, neglected to look at the much-abused official behind the goal line.

It was a goal.

It didn’t create the emotional release of other goals due to its rather messy nature, but it was a goal nonetheless. Ironically, Alan and I had just bemoaned the presence of the fifth and sixth officials, who rarely get involved in any decisions whatsoever.

On around twenty minutes, I was fuming as Diego Costa needlessly, and stupidly, tripped Casillas as he had collected the ball and was looking to distribute the ball. It was just so annoying. Just like our season – one step forward, one step back – Diego Costa seems to confuse and infuriate me.

His efforts lead to a goal, but he then followed that up with a baffling trip.

Idiot.

Chances were otherwise rare in the first forty-five minutes. A sweet strike from Oscar was deflected narrowly wide. Just before the break, Courtois saved well and then Diego Costa was through one-on-one, but shot wide of the goal.

Ramires was a major plus during the first-half. His energy and running, his tackling and blocking, seemed to be a breath of fresh air. He seemed to invigorate us and drew good applause from the Stamford Bridge crowd.

It had been a competent showing in the first-half but my pre-match prediction of “a 1-0 lead from early on resulting in a nervous match all of the way through to the final whistle” looked like being correct.

In Kiev, the home team were beating Maccabi. No surprises there.

Porto began the second-half on the front foot. It was in their best interests to attack. Two efforts on goal signalled their new vigour. However, after just six minutes, a fine interchange between Diego Costa and Eden Hazard found Willian, who slammed the ball low past Casillas. It reminded me of his match-winner against Everton at the start of 2015. His run towards the far corner was the identical.

Hopefully, we could now relax a little.

I was able to sit back and appreciate the intricacies of our play. Porto continued to move forward and we were content to let them do so. They had to score. We just needed to keep it tight. Our attacking reverted to that of old-style counter attacks. I lost count of the number of times that we broke away at speed. On one occasion, Diego Costa ran through, tussling shoulder to shoulder with Maicon, but fell to the floor way too easily.

At the other end, fine tackles from our two centre-halves were perfectly executed.

Porto continued to push forward, but I thought that they suffered from the same malaise as us on Saturday; plenty of crosses played in to the danger areas, but nobody able to get on the end of them. The away fans appeared to be resigned to a defeat, a third-place finish and demotion to the maligned Europa League.

While we had dreams, however outlandish and fanciful, of Milan and the San Siro, Porto’s route to European glory would now be diverted to the Swiss city a few hundred miles to the north of the Lombardy capital.

Our counter attacks continued, and Eden Hazard went close.

A few spirited tackles from Oscar drew applause. Matic, ambling around but in control, was able to soak up Porto pressure. Hazard was not involved as much as I would have liked but was neat and rarely gave the ball away. It was reassuring to see Dave back.

One moment, involving Diego Costa, annoyed me further though. At the end of a great move, the crucial killer ball evaded him. He ended up in the goal mouth, turning his back to play. Although the ball was still “live”, rather than chase it down and keep pressure on Porto, he slowly walked back on to the field. Whereas other players had shown more of the old Chelsea spirit, it was annoying to see Costa still not 100% focussed on the team ethic which Mourinho so espouses.

“One step forward, one step back.”

Mourinho made some late changes.

Pedro for Oscar : lots of applause for the Brazilian.

Mikel for Diego Costa : this signalled an exodus from the stands, the game was safe now surely, Mikel was closing the sale.

Remy for Hazard : the poor bugger, surely he deserved more than a few minutes.

We were through. The road to Milan continues.

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