Tales From A Night With The Magyars

Chelsea vs. Vidi : 4 October 2018.

October had arrived, the leaves had started to change colour, the mornings were getting colder and the evenings were getting darker. It was time for our first home midweek game of the season, and the return to the much-maligned Thursday Night Football with a Europa League match with MOL Vidi, from the town of Székesfehérvár in Hungary.

I had worked an early shift and met up with The Brothers Grim, PD and Parky, at the Milk Churn for a bite to eat at three o’clock. I demolished a bowl of lamb stew, then hopped into the back seat as PD’s Chuckle Bus took the three of us east. What a luxury; I was even able to grab an hour of intermittent sleep as we zoomed up the M4. For a change, we spent almost two hours among old friends in The Goose rather than the usual midweek trot down to Simmons Bar. The two pints of Peroni were sadly served in plastic glasses – an abhorrence – but still went down a treat.

The pub seemed busy, and on the walk down to Stamford Bridge, I commented to the chaps that it felt like there would be a pretty decent turn out for our first-ever UEFA game against a team from Hungary. Of course, the club are to be commended for only charging us £20. There is no doubt that they have learned a lesson from previous campaigns and this seems to be a good pointer that they realise the need to provide competitive pricing for home matches. We all remember the sense of disappointment when just 24,973 saw our Champions League game – Mourinho’s first finale – in 2008. And gates for our last foray into the Europa League were a bit patchy too with games against Steaua Bucharest and Rubin Kazan averaging 30,000 in 2012/13. But although we had purportedly sold virtually all available tickets for the game against Vidi, I was sure that there would be some gaps with fans buying seats just for loyalty points.

Outside the West Stand, the frontage was adorned with Europa League banners.

I am sure a few elitists were thinking “sshh, please don’t advertise the fact”, and there is no doubt that this is undoubtedly UEFA’s secondary competition by some margin, but I am sure that the competition, if we stay in it long enough, will provide a few good trips and a few good stories to accompany them. A return trip to Baku – we half-heartedly watched Arsenal, playing in strange red shorts, win against Qarabag in the pub beforehand – would be a lovely reward at the end of this season, even though the logistics of getting to the game itself might prove both difficult and expensive. Oddly, by the time the “big” (cough, cough) teams drop into the competition in the New Year, it might have lost its allure a little.

Porto. Schalke. Roma.

“You again?”

Last time we played in this competition – a strange jamming together of the old and much missed ECWC and UEFA Cup – the theme colour was red. This time around it is orange. I wondered if FedEx, B&Q, or Terry’s Chocolate Orange were prominent sponsors.

On entering the stadium, there were swathes of empty seats but as kick-off approached, most areas filled up nicely. Behind the Shed goal, I spotted the brand name Hankook, a tyre company that is completely off my radar, and who only enter my consciousness when we dip into the Europa League.

Ah, their corporate colour is orange.

Got it.

 

 

The visitors – I remember them as Videoton – had brought a tidy 1,500 or so. We only took around 400 or so to PAOK a fortnight ago, so this was a good show. There were four Hungarian flags draped over the Shed balcony wall. It felt great to be hosting a Hungarian team at last at Stamford Bridge. Hungary are, or maybe were, one of the great football nations of Europe. They handed England the infamous 6-3 defeat at Wembley in 1953 (England’s first ever defeat at home to “foreign opposition”, excluding teams from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) and handed out a 7-1 defeat to England at the Nep Stadium a year later.

I can still see that drag back by Ferenc Puskas now.

My first memory of Hungary came in England’s campaign to qualify for the World Cup in 1982. I remember England losing in Switzerland in June 1981, but then watching on TV on the following Saturday as we dug out an unexpected 3-1 win, again at the Nep Stadium. As soon as we were drawn against Vidi, and after I had booked flights to Budapest, I soon found myself immersed in nostalgia, re-watching that very game on YouTube that very evening.

The three words “Trevor Brooking, stanchion” will bring smiles to those of us of a certain generation.

Then, in November of that year, I watched at Frome & District Youth Centre as a Paul Mariner goal took England to the World Cup Finals for the first time that I could experience and savour (I was too young to remember 1966 and 1970), back in the days when I cared.

Budapest in December is sure to be a blast. Do not be surprised if I spend a morning ground-hopping Ferencvaros, Ujpest, MTK and Honved’s stadia, although it is a shame that the famous Nep Stadium has gone the way of many of those imposing oval communist super stadia of yore, razed to the ground and rebuilt as a bland nonentity.

Maurizio Sarri had, not surprisingly, changed the personnel for this game.

Arrizabalaga

Zappacosta – Christensen – Cahill – Emerson

Loftus-Cheek – Fabregas – Kovacic

Willian – Morata – Pedro

It was a good enough team, but a team that had obviously not played together before.

The teams entered the pitch. The stadium was pretty full. The advertised gate of 39,925 hid around 4,000 no shows I reckon.

But this was a fine effort.

The match programme mentioned the two friendlies that we played against Hungarian teams Red Banner in 1954 and MTK in 1963.

The 1954 game featured stars of the Hungarian team Nandor Hidegkuti and Ferenc Kovacs. Interestingly, this game took place at 2pm on Wednesday 15 December 1954, and just two days after the more famous visit to Molineux of Honved to play Wolverhampton Wanderers under lights. Odd that the Honved game – so much is made of the game being floodlit – is often cited as a main catalyst for the first European Cup which began the following season (without champions Chelsea damn it), and yet our game against Red Banner is never mentioned.

That Wolverhampton media bias strikes yet again.

Regardless, the 1954 game is a beauty of times past.

Us in our championship season. John Harris. School kids skiving off school. 40,000 on a midweek afternoon. Blokes in ties. Stan Willemse. Cigarette smoke. The North Stand seats packed. The lights for the greyhounds. Frank Blunstone.

Beautiful.

It’s worth a watch.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrlt86APQG4

The Chelsea vs. Vidi game in 2018, sixty-four years after the Red Banner game, and another crowd of around 40,000, was a strange affair.

The visitors created the first real chance from a corner but Emerson was ably positioned to deflect a header over the bar. But, we were soon creating chances inside the Vidi penalty area, with Emerson and a mesmeric slaloming run in the inside left channel, and Kovacic the first to threaten. Soon after, Willian shot wide from well inside the box. Yet again, an opposing team were looking to defend deep and catch us on rare breaks. The away fans, who were not making a great deal of noise in their corner, only raised their levels when an excursion into our half took place.

Pedro was soon to be seen running centrally at some space at the heart of the Vidi defence in that slightly erratic style of his; like the weird kid at the school disco who dances unlike anyone else, limbs flailing in all directions. But he’ like others, was soon running into massed ranks of Hungarian defenders.

On a quarter of an hour, the ball was worked nicely into Morata who had found some space well. The ball fell to his left side, and with the ‘keeper already moving to his left, it seemed obvious to me – I was right in line with the ball and goal – that he should dink it into the net with his left peg. Instead, he chose to touch the ball on to his favoured right foot, and with the ‘keeper having narrowed the angle, the striker was forced to aim at a ridiculously small portion of the goal. He panicked and sliced it wide.

The first of many “fackinells” was heard in the Sleepy Hollow.

Shots and crosses were aimed towards goal with regularity, but their ‘keeper had not really been tested. He came and claimed crosses with ease. There was, as the first-half progressed, the annoying feeling that we were overindulging in too many ostentatious flicks, back heels and feints.

“Just drop your shoulder and hit the fucker” summed up our feelings.

Willian dolly-dropped a free-kick into the path of Morata but he was off balance and fell. I heard The Shed’s moans from one hundred yards away. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, not exactly impressing for most of the first-half, made a storming run into the box, and seemed to be chopped down inside the box. A penalty? Not a bit of it. The crowd were suitably raging. Alan and I spoke, not for the first time, about the goal line officials, or whatever it is they are bloody called. They rarely make a call on anything. I’d like to know how much they get paid for standing next to a pitch for ninety minutes and doing Sweet FA.

Rant over? Not quite.

I have always found it odd that the two goal line assistants – “assistant referees” – always position themselves in the same quadrant of the pitch as the linesmen, rather than the four “off pitch” officials being equally placed around the perimeter. It makes no sense to me, that.

A mix up between Christensen and Arrizabalaga almost allowed Nego to nip in and score, but the shot was poked wide. Vidi again broke into our half on thirty-minutes, with a good move exploiting acres of space in our previously untested defence. Thankfully, the presence of Gary Cahill did just enough to put off Nego who shot meekly at our ‘keeper after easily getting past Emerson. Just after, a poorly timed lunge by Cahill looked to the people sitting close to me – we had a very good view – to be a stonewall penalty. But the moment of concern had passed.

Throughout the first-half, the away fans had not been too involved, which surprised me. Our support was so-so. There was this annoyance that we were over-elaborating in front of goal. And we were certainly taking more touches than usual. But, of course, this team – with Fabregas and Loftus-Cheek involved for the first time together under Sarri – were playing together as a unit for the first time. I suppose it would be wrong to come down too hard. But there was tangible frustration as the first-half ended.

Not long into the second-half, Arrizabalaga managed to palm away a shot from the impressive Nego, and at last the away fans found their collective voices.

I often used to think back to the days when we would tend to put out a “B” team for League Cup games and often Frank Lampard would be rested. And I remembered how many times we would be drawing and so poor Frank was often brought on to provide extra quality. And I thought about our Eden. I thought back to Anfield last week, his substitute appearance changing the game so dramatically. Within a couple of minutes, he appeared on the touchline.

He replaced Pedro.

What an ovation for Eden.

Truly the man of the moment.

The chances still came and went as we tried to pierce the Vidi defence.

Ross Barkley came on for Loftus-Cheek. The jury is still out on our Ruben, from my perspective and that of others I know at Chelsea. I know that body language is not everything but he just looks too languid. Where is the urgency?

As he entered the pitch from under the East Stand, I watched Barkley trot over towards Kovacic, who had been raiding down our left with aplomb, and I observed Barkley make the “switch” gesture with his hands. Kovacic was having none of it, so Ross returned back to the right-hand side. I presume that Sarri had said to the substitute “see if he wants to switch, it is up to you to work it out.” I can’t believe that Kovacic would have blindly refused instructions. I like that; that the manager gives his players a little freedom. I have this fear that football – for so long a free-spirited and spontaneous sport – is getting too similar to gridiron football where every move seems to be choreographed ad infinitum.

Corner after corner, cross after cross. We kept trying. At one stage, it felt like it was like death by a thousand crosses. At one corner, I experienced something new at a Chelsea game. I was almost bored by the thought of another corner drifting aimlessly into the box, to be headed away yet again. The consistency of our misfiring was getting tedious.

But the runs of Kovacic were firing life into us, though, and he was linking well with others. One dribble from Eden was the stuff of pure fantasy. We began pushing more men into forward positions. A fine shot from Barkley raised our spirits. Morata was joined in the box by Hazard, Barkley, Kovacic and Willian. I hadn’t seen so many boys in blue in such a tight area since policemen started sniffing around Fred West’s patio.

Surely a goal would come.

With twenty minutes remaining, Eden – now switched over to the right – moved the ball to Barkley who passed to Fabregas. He lofted a great ball towards the run of Willian, whose careful knock-on set up Morata, arriving perfectly, to smash a volley past the Vidi ‘keeper. What a great goal.

Alan and I then, with the both of us laughing and sniggering uncontrollably, carried out the worst “They’ll Have To Come At Us Now / Come On My Little Diamonds” ever.

We had spoken about how strange the Hungarian language is. What the bloody hell does a Hungarian accent sound like?

Alan’s sounded Germanic. Mine sounded Latin.

Oh boy.

Regardless, we were ahead.

Phew.

Victor Moses – who? he? – came on for Willian.

Ross Barkley, impressing me, flicked a header against the bar from a Hazardous free-kick. But in the final ten minutes, Chelsea almost annoyed me. Vidi had shown the occasional threat. And rather than close the game down, we still attacked and attacked.

“Sarri is not your typical Italian manager, is he?”

One barnstorming run by Emerson petered out and we were left exposed. In the final five minutes, our defence looked tired and prone to catastrophe. Arrizabalaga saved down low, clawing away a shot from Kovacs, but for all of our worry, Vidi failed to exploit the tiredness in our ranks. Our defence, I have to admit, had been pretty ragged when tested throughout the night.

There was still time for Morata to miss when set up by Eden.

The whistle blew.

Our second 1-0 win in the competition was met with sighs of relief rather than whoops of joy.

It had been one of those nights.

On Sunday, we are at Southampton and two of the team are going behind enemy lines. Stay tuned for further adventures of The Chuckle Brothers on this station.

 

Tales From A Long Hot Summer

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 5 August 2018.

Picture the famous opening sequence of “The Simpsons” and the scene where we see Bart in detention and writing on the chalkboard. Ahead of this match report, I am Bart Simpson and I am writing :

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

“I must not get too bothered about the Community Shield. It is just a glorified training session.”

In the build-up to this game, there were the same feelings that I had experienced in recent years’ Community Shield games. In a nutshell, I was supremely underwhelmed by the prospect of having to schlep over to Wembley yet again for this seemingly regular curtain raiser. I remember getting pretty excited about my first one, way back in 1997 when – guess what? – we lost on penalties to Manchester United. And then we went to more and more and more and more. I can’t say I even enjoyed the few we have won too much.

We had set off early. Glenn’s mate from Berlin, Ulf, was with us, and as Glenn drove up the M4, I explained to him about the history of the Charity Shield and Community Shield. I told him that it hadn’t always played between the previous season’s champions and cup winners. In its early years, it was played between amateurs and professionals; what a novel concept. I had a vague recollection of Stamford Bridge holding a few of the first ones. I remember seeing photographs of us parading the FA Cup before the 1970 Charity Shield against Everton at Stamford Bridge. Images of our 1955 win are rarer. Our record is hardly one of legend :

1955 : won

1970 : lost

1997 : lost

2000 : won

2005 : won

2006 : lost

2007 : lost

2009 : won

2010 : lost

2012 : lost

2015 : lost

2017 : lost

Our thirteenth shield was one in which I felt an over-riding sense of duty to attend. I would have been riddled with guilt had I not bothered with it. At least it was just £20. But, really, it was all about seeing the chaps again and slowly, slowly getting back in to the swing of things.

On the drive up to London, we were only in the car for around thirty minutes when I became embroiled in a series of text messages regarding match tickets for future games. From that perspective, I was back into it. I love nothing more than planning away days, sorting out hotels, snapping up spare tickets and suchlike. Coming up, we have overnight stays in Huddersfield and Newcastle coming up.

It gets me out of the house, eh?

Glenn made good time. We were parked up at Barons Court at 11am. However, disruption of the Circle and District Lines messed up our plans to head up to Paddington for an abbreviated pub crawl. In the end, we took a cab from South Kensington. At least, it meant that we were able to give Ulf a little tour of West London. Our route took us right through Hyde Park. As we neared the Royal Albert Hall, I was reminded of my first ever visit to that wonderful venue back in June, just as the summer was warming up, when I saw Echo And The Bunnymen on a sultry Friday night. It was a fine gig – yet again one of my match reports includes music and football – and I even bumped into a Chelsea mate, quite unannounced, halfway through it. After the gig, I was slowly making my way back to the nearest tube when a couple of chaps who had been to the gig were chatting about where to go for a drink. I mentioned that there was a pub tucked away behind a main road, and – without really thinking – joined them as they crossed the road. I fancied one more pint for the road, but as I entered the pub, there was a moment of clarity when I realised the difference in football and music, or at least music on this particular occasion. With Chelsea, after a game, if I had bounced into a pub with two strangers we would have bought each other drinks and nothing would have been made of it. Here, there was a distinct difference. It would have felt odd joining these two strangers at the bar. I did an about turn and headed back to my hotel.

Just an example of the kinship that exists at Chelsea – and nothing else in my life is really comparable.

“Discuss.”

Our first stop was “The Sussex Arms”, much-loved by Chelsea fans from Reading, Swindon, Bristol and all-stations west who use Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s magnificent terminus as their gateway into London. A quick pint there and a chat with a few Chelsea season ticket-holders from my neck of the woods; a couple of villages in the shadow of the Mendips, Kilmersdon and Clutton. Then chat with Paul from Swindon and Paul from Reading, who spoke about his brief appearance on Arsenal Fan TV en route to Dublin.

From there, we marched up to a pre-Wembley favourite, “The Victoria” where I enjoyed the first domestic Peroni of the season. Outside, I chatted to Dan and Cliff. We had heard that we had sold virtually all of our 30,000 tickets but City had only sold around 20,000 of theirs. But it is what it is. I was sure that if the game had been held at Old Trafford, as a geographical equivalent, we would have struggled to sell 10,000. Cliff and I remembered the 2006 Community Shield at Cardiff against Liverpool when the red half was packed, and we barely had 15,000 in the stadium.

From there, a quick walk up to “Fountains Abbey” where Alan, Gary and Ed were drinking. Handshakes all round. The team were back together again. I spent a little time with my mate Jim, who I have got to know over the past few seasons, and who remains one of the wittiest people I know…on Facebook and in real life. He spoke of his growing Chelsea programme collection and of his long-suffering girlfriend Lisa.

I am not sure what the collective noun is for a group of fifty-year old blokes in polo shirts and shorts – a “stretch” maybe? – but in the heat it was the only way to go. And mighty fine we looked too.

From there, Parky, PD, Ed and I had time to pop in to the famous “Sports Bar” at Marylebone Station, where we bumped into five or six of The Usual Suspects – aka “the drinkers” – outside in the afternoon sun. I suspected that a few of them might struggle to make the match.

We caught the 2.27pm train, and I bumped into Rich who I last saw in Perth.

On the drive up to London, I promised not to mention Wembley Stadium and 1966 too much.

We were inside, high up above the south-east corner flag but thankfully out of the sun, with around five minutes to go. The timings were virtually the same as for the Cup Final in May.

Yes, it was a hot one alright. Ironically, Glenn and I had missed the height of the English summer while we were enjoying a very pleasant Antipodean Winter, but it has certainly been a very hot one this year. It was a summer, though, where I – somewhat predictably – failed to warm too much to the World Cup, for reasons that are probably well known by most. Was I thrilled by England’s progress to the semi-finals? If I am perfectly honest, “no, not really.” I generally gave the tournament a wide berth, though I did enjoy a few games. But wasn’t the Russian World Cup (and the one in Qatar) meant to be the one that a lot of people were dead against when the decision was announced in 2010?

FIFA collusion, Russian hooliganism, racism in the stands. I never ever really bought into it from the start. As for Qatar, and with it the disruption of the European leagues before and after, the horrible working conditions of many of the immigrants being used to build the stadia, and the fact of games being played in ridiculous conditions, well I am certainly boycotting that one in 2022.

Oh, and another thing FIFA. How come England are never mentioned as a host nation. Since 1966, Mexico will have held the competition three times (1970, 1986, 2026), the USA twice (1994,2026 – not bad for a country that has only really woken up to the World’s favourite sport in the past two decades) and Germany twice (1974 and 2006).

Feel guilty, FIFA?

No. I thought not.

Anyway, to sum it all up, in Sydney on the evening of Saturday 14th July 2018, while England played Belgium in the third/fourth place play-off, it was being shown in a crowded Irish pub, and both Glenn and I hardly watched more than ten seconds of it.

Club over country, or at least club over FIFA every time for me.

Down below us, I felt for the thousands of Chelsea supporters in the lower tiers, exposed to the bleaching sun. away to my left, there was a huge expanse of empty seats in the upper tier. Down below were the sky blue shirts of the City fans. The teams entered the pitch. Two flags were passed around the lower tiers.

The Chelsea team?

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger – Alonso

Fabregas – Jorginho – Barkley

Pedro – Morata – Hudson-Odoi

We enjoyed the larger portion of the ball in the first-half, though found it difficult to get either behind Manchester City or between them. We held the ball well and picked out passes. But it was soon evident that City were happy to soak up the pressure as we struggled to find killer balls in the scorching heat.

There was no noise from anyone in the Chelsea end. Everyone was sat. There was no sense of occasion or any discernible enjoyment either. I looked over at Ulf – “I’m not really a football fan” – and wondered what on Earth he made of it all.

The track suited Sarri – with his belly stretching the Nike training top – reminds me of the Kray Twins gone pub casual, and it is quite a harrowing image. Alongside him, Guardiola looked like his son, back from a night out with the lads.

City started with Riyad Mahrez. He would have been a good addition to our team. Oh well.

After just a quarter of an hour, we gave up possession way too easily and backed off from Sergio Aguero, allowing him to pick his spot and drill a low one past Caballero.

The first “bollocks” of the season.

We still had most of the ball – pass, pass, pass – but Caballero was called into action to rob Sane when he was clean through.

On the half-hour, Callum Hudson-Odoi, clearly one of our more eager performers, curled a shot over. He followed it up soon after with another shot. All eyes were on him. We see him as a great hope for this season.

“No pressure, son.”

The torpor was evident in the stands all around me. I had reached half-time without joining in with a single song, although to be honest, I can hardly remember a song in the first place.

At the age of fifty-three, I was turning into the football fan that I had always hated.

Sitting, not standing, silent not singing.

I kept saying to myself “it’ll be different in Yorkshire next Saturday.”

And of course it will be.

It was the Willy Caballero show in the second-half as a number of agile stops, blocks and saves stopped Manchester City from adding to their tally. However, on around the hour mark, a clinical pass found that man Aguero again and he was able to steer another low shot past Caballero to make it 2-0.

The City fans roared, and we slumped further into our seats.

On the hour, on came Danny Drinkwater and Willian (who had been serenaded during his warm up with virtually the first Chelsea song of note the entire day) in place of Fabregas and Hudson-Odoi.

Tammy Abraham replaced the lacklustre Morata, but in all fairness the Spaniard had received hardly any service the entire match.

At last a rare Chelsea song, the horrible “We’ve Won It All “ dirge.

And then, the inevitable –

“Champions Of Europe, You’ll Never Sing That.”

Victor Moses replaced Pedro.

At the death, Tammy went close, and then our boy Willy denied Aguero once more.

On another day, it could have been 4-0.

2018 : lost

Outside, waiting for the train at Wembley Stadium station, the sun was relentless. I can only imagine how horrific the playing conditions must have been. There had been several drink breaks during the game (as indeed there was for us before it).

Back at Marylebone, I chatted first to Neil Barnett, just back from a trip over to the US, and then Clive Walker, who still looks as fit and trim as ever.

Neil and I were both philosophical after a disjointed performance. But we knew that we have seen such riches in recent years, that it is not hard to feel that “after Munich, so what?”

“Doesn’t matter to me. I’ll still be there next week” I said.

Clive mentioned that he thought the game against Lyon would be vital to get more practice in before Huddersfield and the new league programme. But I have a feeling that the Sarri project might take a while to come to fruition.

Do we have the players to make it work? Watch this space.

See you all in West Yorkshire.

IMG_0100

 

Tales From The Phony War

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 8 August 2010.

My home for most of my life has been a small Somerset village, some 110 miles from HQ, and this has been the starting point for the vast majority of my Chelsea journeys. During the week I had worked out that I had travelled – roughly, and including air miles – 275,000 miles in support of Chelsea since my first game in 1974 and the amount knocked me for six. I disbelieved this figure and so I recalculated, but it remained the same. That equates to a vast amount of travelling time, petrol, oil, tyres, driving hours, Depeche Mode songs, post-game post-mortems, tins of Red Bull, lines at passport control, cups of coffee, motorway service station comfort breaks, train tickets and British Rail buffet stops.

My home village has the limestone Mendip Hills to the west, the Roman city of Bath and The Cotswolds of Gloucestershire to the north, the market town of Frome and the stark chalk uplands of Salisbury Plain to the east and the undulating Somerset farmland to the south, with the Dorset beaches beyond. It’s hardly a football hotbed.

Apart from inside my head.

The World was sleeping as I awoke and I soon gathered my thoughts for the first trip of the new campaign. The weather looked uncertain and mirrored my thoughts of the game ahead…this would be my fifth Chelsea vs. Manchester United Community Shield game and all have been at Wembley. We were tied at 2-2 and this one would be the decider. We had struggled to find our form in the few games of the pre-season, but United seemed to be more advanced in their preparations. I liked the look of their new player Hernandez

At 7.45am, my car left the sleeping village behind and I set off for my Game One of Season 2010-2011. No pre-season games for me this summer.

Echo And The Bunnymen were on the car CD player as I headed through the old mill town of Bradford On Avon to collect Lord Parky, his step-daughter Claire and her boyfriend Kris.

“Stab a sorry heart
With your favourite finger
Paint the whole world blue
And stop your tears from stinging
Hear the cavemen singing
Good news they’re bringing.”

I travelled up the A4 as Claire and Kris flicked through the “hard copy” version of my online photographs, detailing the events of the previous season. I had noted that the album had begun with a simple photograph, taken outside The Duke Of York pub in August 2009, of a pint of Staropramen and the Chelsea vs. Manchester United Community Shield match ticket resting against it. The last photo in the album was a half-full glass of Staropramen, again taken outside the same pub, but after the F.A.Cup Final in May 2010. I’m heavy on metaphors these days, but it seemed to sum up last season perfectly…at times it was difficult to believe, but our glass really was half-full – rather than half-empty – all of the way through last season.

I was a soon parked and we caught the tube from West Brompton, with the steel supports of the Matthew Harding Stand roof in the distance. The smell of the tube always takes me back to my childhood, on those first few wondrous visits to Chelsea with my parents. This time, though, we headed away from The Bridge, north on the district line to Notting Hill Gate, then a change on the central to Marble Arch. By 11am we were tucking into the first fry-up of the new season and, by 11.30pm, we were back at a sun-kissed Duke Of York once again.

We spoke about our respective summers and, to be honest, my one has been strangely muted. The time has flown past and yet, looking back at the months of June and July, I don’t seem to have done anything special. Of course, this is always a period of my year when my credit card heaves a sigh of relief after some intensive spending in the name of Chelsea Football Club and I generally try to keep my expenditure to a minimum. There will be home and away games, hopefully in a few far flung locales, to pay for over the coming season.

The euphoria of the closing weeks of 2009-2010 is still vivid in my mind and it seems that last season still hasn’t drained out of my system yet. Maybe that’s a good thing, since I don’t ever want to forget the joy I felt at Wembley or on the parade the following day, two trophies to the good. They were truly magical times in my Chelsea life. I can still feel the buzz I felt walking out of Anfield, one win away from being champions, three months on. There was a sense, too, of not wanting this summer to end, since I couldn’t face the possible eroding of our title by a resurgent Manchester United or us getting knocked out of the FA Cup. I guess I wanted to prolong the spell of us being – big breath – Double Winners. The summer of 2010 has been the first time we could boast such an honour. These are heady times which should not be easily relinquished.

Can we not stay forever in a perpetual close-season with my beloved Chelsea at the very pinnacle of English football? A ground-hog summer.

So, there has certainly been a sense during the past month or so that I am not yet quite ready for the commencement of yet another season…that I haven’t yet reached the stage where I am feverishly awaiting Game One. This troubled me, but I came to the conclusion that this is natural…this would be, after all, my 38th season of watching Chelsea in the flesh, so to speak. I haven’t felt jaded exactly, but something was amiss.

A strange feeling.

With a double in our locker, where else can this club go? Would I only be satisfied, come May, with a treble, or at very least a Champions League trophy?

Questions, questions.

If I am honest, it made me remember my personal feelings during the summer of 1997, when – for the first time ever – I found myself supporting a Chelsea that had just won a major trophy for the first time in my supporting-life. It felt that my relationship with my club – the great under-achievers, the misery-makers, the perpetual losers – had changed and I scrabbled around, trying to evaluate who I was now in a relationship with…that unloved, ugly duckling was now a coveted princess and it feel odd.

Andy, Ronnie and Fiona were outside the boozer and all three had been in South Africa for a few games. However, we hardly spoke about the World Cup. We certainly didn’t waste much time chatting about England’s inadequacies. I found the tournament pretty boring. It was a joy to see the South African nation – or at least the footy fans in the townships – so overjoyed to have the World’s top teams on their doorsteps, even though the grounds seemed to be devoid of these very same fans. In my mind, this was a very odd World cup, in terms of the spectators inside the stadia. Fans of competing nations seemed not to be allocated designated areas, which negated the noise they were able to generate, which of course was further reduced by the constant drone of those hideous vuvuzelas. And it drove me crazy – my own personal football hell in fact – to see the TV cameramen honing in on every ludicrously attired “fan” ( not only facepaint, but stupid hats and even “comedy” glasses ). This reached a low point when I spotted two English fans, not long from the end of the Germany debacle, attired in replica kits and face paint, seeing each other on the stadium screen and suddenly bursting into smiles and laughter, waving at the camera, not a care in their simple worlds.

England were 4-1 down…my face was as long as a Tottenham league trophy drought…and these loons were smiling and giggling like pre-pubescent schoolgirls. Quite sickening.

Yet again I was reminded that football these days attracts a different breed…that some fans that I grew up with – passionate, devoted, loyal – have been flushed out of a lot of football stadia.

Midway through the tournament, I replayed a tape of a documentary of England’s crazy assault on the World Cup in the summer of 1990. It portrayed a mad few weeks involving 5,000 loyalists living in dodgy campsites on Sardinia surviving on Italian beer and English hope, getting treated like idiots, but smiling through regardless, the team of Peter Shilton, David Platt and Des Walker, images of Gazza’s tears, Sir Bobby Robson, Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle, the terrace anthem of “Let’s All Have A Disco” and that iconic New Order song “World In Motion”, coolly crossing the football / music divide. I longed for those days…when football was followed by football fans alone, not people drawn in by a variety of other reasons. Hardly any corporates, no wannabee wags, no hangers-on.

In contrast, South Africa seemed plastic and alien to me. On too many occasions, I looked at the reactions on the faces of the spectators after goals were scored and I very rarely saw people “losing it” – that rabid shriek of joy which so often has been uttered by football fans through the years, followed by wild ungainly leaps, often into the arms of strangers, then hugs and kisses, then the panting afterglow. In 2010, I noted polite applause from people who looked like they had just gate-crashed a wedding only to find they had missed out on the buffet and were now fighting over cold leftovers.

The Staropramen was going down well. We were clustered in small groups on the pavement, re-acquainting ourselves after three months “off.” Rob had been on a diet and was looking good, Parky was jabbering away to anyone who would listen, the sun was beating down and I could feel my forehead heating up. Lots of laughs with old friends. The conversation was varied. Not only about football. Fred Perry polo shirts and old-school Adidas trainers were to the fore. I noticed that it was much quieter than May’s Cup Final though. A few of my mates – The Bada Bing Firm – were still on holiday. Gill’s friend Gerry, complete with his trusty guide-dog was sat in the group, too. Four United replikids showed up, but they didn’t stay long…there was no animosity but they were soon flushed out and they left us in peace.

Lacoste Watch

Walnuts – peach

We set off for Marylebone and caught the mainline train up to Wembley Stadium, the carriage rocking with song. As we ascended the steps at the station, I first spotted Dog and then Cathy a few feet ahead…last August, we had caught the same train too.

On the short walk from the station to the stadium, we sensed an altercation a few yards away – some glares, a few words, a stand-off, then a brutal attack leaving a United fan on the road, blood gushing from his forehead. We witnessed something similar on this exact same stretch of road against Villa in April, yet no police to be seen. I was just glad that no young children had witnessed it. To be truthful, the attack was swift and lots of people may not have noticed, but it was a reminder that the dark side of football is always there.

Yet again the soul-less interior of Wembley Stadium saddened me as we ascended the elevators. I’ve commented before about the complete lack of décor inside the walkways and forecourts where food is served and souvenirs sold. It’s all so bland – like the inside of an airport, not our national stadium. There is no clue as to where you are – no photos from previous games, no unique signs, nothing. I’ve just begun re-reading a book about the building of Baltimore’s Camden Yards and it acted as a counterpoint to Wembley. The Orioles’ ball park is quirky, homely, finely-detailed, well-planned and ultimately loved…I just find Wembley so disappointing aesthetically.

We reached our seats and Gianfranco Zola, plus United’s Bobby Charlton, were being presented to the two teams. We had tickets high up in row 23 of the upper deck, six of us in a row…myself, Parky, Rob, Tom, Gary and Alan.

I noted quite a few empty seats and not so many flags as in previous Wembley appearances. United sported a flag which was virtually the same as a Liverpool one from around 1993, aimed at Manchester when United won their first title in 26 years –

“Form Is Temporary, Class Is Forever.”

This time, I guess, it was United having a pop at us.

In the first few minutes, United booed our three English lions, so we reciprocated by cheering all of our boys with every touch. I soon spotted that Frank Lampard was playing with the waistband of his shorts flipped over – this time exposing a belt of red – in the same style as the Umbro shorts from 2003-2005 when he always appeared to play with a white belt.

The game began with thrusts from both sides and Rooney seemed to be buzzing around, his bald head getting more pronounced with each passing season. Scholes was playing deep, out of the reach of our midfielders, and he was having a lot of the ball. Then a cross and Ivanovic threw himself at the ball but Van Der Sar saved brilliantly. It seemed we had most of the possession, but chances were even. Gary was his usual passionate self, his tirades of abuse aimed at Scholes drawing many old-fashioned looks from his new neighbours, presumably unused to such venom.

The singing began reasonably OK, but soon subsided. At times, the atmosphere was deathly. Still lots of empty seats, including the Club Wembley section.

Then a Scholes pass, a Rooney cross and our defence was wide-open. Valencia slammed it in and the United end, bathed in sunshine, came to life.

Groans all around, but I felt a goal would come in the second period. I thought it had been an open game, with most of our purposeful attacks coming through Ashley Cole and Florent Malouda. Frank was playing deep and wasn’t too involved.

At half-time, no surprises to hear the programmes had sold out. Another great performance from the FA. Back in my seat for the rest of the break, I noted two hideous twenty foot mascots being paraded behind each goal, but these were met with admirable indifference by both sets of fans. I soon received a text message from Burger, now living on this side of the Atlantic, and I soon spotted his large flag.

The second half developed along similar lines, but with the crowd showing even less willingness to create any noise. Maybe it was the warm summer sun. Shots from Essien and Malouda whizzed past United’s goal, but our approach play seemed to be more laboured. Anelka was dropping deep, as his wont, but he really needed to be leading the line. I still felt a goal would come, though.

Then, another rapid United break and we found ourselves 2-0 down, that man Hernandez causing the United end to roar with approval. Lots of Chelsea left and that annoyed me.

The pass of the day – from Yuri? – carved open the United defence but Sturridge shot tamely. We dug in and played with more conviction. Yossi Benayoun came on – I noted Burger’s flag in the background from the TV feed on the giant screen – and he looked lively. We had a few half-chances and eventually a goal came once a Sturridge shot had been parried into the path of Kalou. Parky’s crutches flew into the air and I dived for cover.

“Come On Chels.”

I then fancied our chances to equalise, but the depressing figure of Berbatov The Undertaker sealed a 3-1 win for United with a deft flick over Hilario.

I didn’t think it was a 3-1 game, but perhaps I’m ever the optimist. There were certainly negative comments being aired on the return to the pub, but I tried my best to remain philosophical amongst the sour words. We didn’t appear 100% match fit, but let’s hope all is resolved by next weekend. We need Drogba firing on all cylinders, we need the strangely subdued Lampard in the thick of it, we need Essien fitter. I thought Ashley Cole was up and down the flank like his life depended on it and seemed to be highly energised. Ivanovic never disappoints, does he? It was a 6/10 performance from Chelsea overall.

And the only vuvuzela I heard was from the United end.

I think that the first month of the season often feels like a phoney war, with teams fighting to get players healthy, with new formations being tested, with the international break upsetting the rhythm of the early weeks and the weather being tough on everyone. I always say we need a month – by the middle of September – for players and fans alike to be back up to 100%. By then, we ought to have a clearer idea.

We won’t be far away.

We called in for a couple or drinks at the pub, then made our way back to West Brompton and home. The first Red Bull of the season was downed and we were on our way back west.

Irritatingly, Sky TV have recently chosen Eric Cantona to headline their new promotional campaign ( a logical choice given half of United’s fan base only stretch their “support” of their club to more than a Sky prescription ), and it was his face which seemed to be on every advertising poster on the drive out of London.

…now that’s just rubbing it in.

I got home at 9.30pm after another 220 miles on the clock…and my spirits were lifted when I read on Sky Sports News that Jose Mourinho had called off his lusty chase of Ashley Cole.

Next week the season starts for real.

Let’s go to work.

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