Tales From A Rhapsody In Blue.

Chelsea vs. Swansea City : 13 September 2014.

At the top of the Premier League table, two teams stood alone, perfect and unblemished. In first place were Chelsea with nine points out of a possible nine. In second place, marginally behind on goal difference, came Swansea City also with nine points out of nine. The fixture between the two sides would pit the best team in England against the best team in Wales. Just before the fixture list became enriched with European adventures, here was a chance for us to move ahead, to keep gathering points before winter, to keep the momentum rolling.

I had left the pub earlier than usual. I approached the West Stand and soon set my gaze on the nearest programme seller. I was warmed to see that the club had decided to adorn the match programme with the jovial face of the late Lord Attenborough. The monthly club magazine, on sale at the same stall, also contained an image of our former Life President on the front cover.

I smiled.

I also smiled when I overheard a Chelsea supporter explain to a friend, in revered tones, how Lord Attenborough had helped deter potential developers from ending Chelsea’s presence at Stamford Bridge by not selling his shares in his beloved club.

It had been a typical Chelsea pre-match. I had travelled up from Somerset with PD and LP. The beer garden in the pub had been heaving with fellow supporters. A friend from the US, Scott, had called in for a couple of pints, a chin-wag, and had left with a couple of small metallic pin badges – two for a fiver – from the young chap who often sells them in a few of the local pubs on match days, and also a couple of Chelsea stickers, which a mate has produced, and which will decorate away ends the length and breadth of UK and beyond in increasing numbers this season.

“Chelsea Football Club – Ruining Football Since 2003.”

There had been genuine surprise in the pub that Frank Lampard was starting for Manchester City in their game at Arsenal. I had previously wondered if he would start any games at all. By the time I had reached the concourse in the MHU, Arsenal and City had shared the points in a 2-2 draw.

“Good result, that.”

I was inside, chatting to Tom, as early as 2.35pm. I was amazed how few spectators were inside. The players, wearing those training tops which bear too much of a resemblance to the jade away shirts from 1986 for my liking, quickly disappeared after a pre-match stretch. I quickly skimmed the programme, and then looked up once more; all of a sudden, the stands had filled. There were around two thousand away fans in the opposite corner. There was just one flag though and it made me chuckle; a blue and white Scotland flag, no doubt showing solidarity with that country’s imminent vote for independence.

Annoyingly, around four rows of some two hundred seats were unused in the Shed Upper; the ones above the Swansea City fans in the extended area of the lower tier. Weird; I always thought that away fans could either have 3,000 or 1,400, not a “sale or return” policy on the larger amount.

There was sun, but clouds too.

I studied the Chelsea team; an unchanged defence, but with two alterations in midfield from the fire-cracker at Goodison.

And what a bench.

Neil Barnett spoke about former players Pat Nevin, Mickey Thomas and Paul Canoville being present in the stadium, and there was a little cheer from the home stands, but the mood of the spectators changed as the players from both sides slowly walked towards the centre-circle.

Images of Lord Attenborough danced on the large TV screen above the Swansea fans as Neil began a short eulogy in memory of one of our finest and most esteemed supporters. Rather than somber silence, which used to be the norm until around ten years ago, the packed stands echoed to the sound of rapturous applause.

And I found myself smiling throughout; here was a life to truly cherish, a life lived to the full, a life of many magnificent accomplishments, a life full of fun, and a life to be praised.

Stamford Bridge will not be the same – Chelsea Football Club will not be the same – without you.

May you rest in wonderful royal blue peace.

The game began and it was the away team, dressed in red and black, who started brightly. After a couple of chances were shared, the impressive Ki Sung-Yeung played in Taylor, whose low ball in to the “corridor of uncertainty” caused a retreating John Terry to stab at the ball in an attempted clearance. We watched in horror as the ball spun into the goal, past Courtois, and JT slammed his forearm down on the turf in exasperation.

1-0 to the Welsh.

“We are topoftheleague, say wearetopoftheleague.”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; why do fans of any team adopt a Geordie accent when they sing this?

Swansea’s early lead was a wake-up call.

“They’ve been threatening” I admitted to PD.

Rather than step up, we struggled. Our midfield continued to gift the confident and precise Swansea team too much space and, for a while, we were clearly second best. Wayne Routledge and new signing Bafetimbi Gomis were the stars for Swansea with their forceful running and intelligent play. For half an hour we laboured under the September sun. Apart from two Matic tackles, I cannot remember any other significant challenge by any of our midfielders. Fabregas, Oscar and Schurrle – especially Schurrle – were hardly involved. After a Chelsea move ended up with the ball going off for a throw-in, the nearest ball boy optimistically placed the ball on the corner quadrant, before being corrected by the referee Kevin Friend. It was almost our best move of the entire half.

Then, a few forays into the Swansea box caused the Chelsea support to finally get behind the team;

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA, CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

A succession of Chelsea corners increased the pressure on Fabianski –who? – in the Swansea goal. With one minute remaining in the half, Cesc Fabregas planted a corner in to the middle of the six yard box. Who else but Diego Costa, starved of service until then, rose to head the ball past the former Arsenal goalkeeper and we were level.

I captured both his goal and subsequent leap – his trademark – on film and his joy was mirrored in the stands.

GET IN!

1-1 and one big almighty “phew” at half-time.

“What’s that now for Costa? Five in three-and-a-half games?”

There was no surprise that Jose Mourinho made a change at the break. On came Ramires in place of Schurrle; no complaints there. Within a few seconds of the restart, Rami made a crunching tackle and the tone was set for the rest of the game.

And what a game it turned out to be. We began much more positively with chances for both Hazard, now more involved, and Costa. After ten minutes, neat play between Hazard and Fabregas down below me cut open the Swansea defence. Fabregas played the ball back to the waiting Diego Costa, having miraculously avoided detection, who slammed the ball high in to the net.

2-1, GET IN!

Six goals for Diego Costa, pass the smelling salts nurse.

Another leap down below us, and the Matthew Harding are in rapture. As the players surged around the scorer, I noted that Diego Costa pointed at Cesc Fabregas, keen to publicly thank our number four for the magnificent pass which set him up.

Although these are very early days in the development of this team – Mourinho’s second Chelsea team, if you will – the symbiotic relationship between our new midfield general and our rampaging striker bodes well for the future. Diego Costa has already fed off a few Fabregas assists. Let’s hope that this on-the-field friendship continues to thrive. It has certainly warmed all of us Chelsea supporters. Let it grow and grow. Let it strike fear within the hearts and minds of all of our future opponents.

Cesc Fabregas to Diego Costa.

Goal.

I’m wondering if this relationship, already – after just four games – will define this season. In fact, it reminds me of a feared combination from another sport and another era. Although much lampooned these days for their lack of success, the Chicago Cubs once possessed a fearsome infield back in the ‘twenties, consisting of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance. It was so common for this trio to work double-plays which nullified opposition bats, that a New York Giants writer once penned a few lines in grim honour of their combined prowess on the baseball diamond.

Baseball’s Sad Lexicon. 

These are the saddest of possible words:

“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”

Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,

Tinker and Evers and Chance.

Ruthlessly pricking our championship bubble,

Making a Giant hit into a double –

Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:

“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”

Maybe there will be a similar version of this in honour of our players.

“Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble; Eden to Cesc to Costa.”

Then, a break up field from Gomis – the Chelsea defence pushed on, too square, guilty of ball-watching – but thankfully the advancing Courtois did enough to nullify the striker’s effort, which dropped wide and out of danger.

With twenty minutes remaining, solid Chelsea pressure resulted in the ball being pushed square to Ramires. His rather scuffed shot was turned in by the lurking Diego Costa. We roared once more.

3-1, Diego Costa seven goals in five.

But no leap this time.

For the middle period of the second-half, we purred. Although Oscar was not heavily involved, he treated us to several impudent back-heels, including one on goal. Eden Hazard was full of fire and fun. The difference compared to our limp first-half show was huge.

Mourinho replaced the hat-trick hero Diego Costa with new signing Loic Remy, who is taller and leaner than I remembered him last season. Obviously, Diego Costa was given a fine sending off as he left the pitch :

“Diego! Diego! Diego!”

Remy soon shot over the bar, but he looked undeterred and confident.

When Gomis was substituted by the Swansea manager Garry Monk, many in the Stamford Bridge crowd clapped him off. I joined in. This is a rare occurrence these days and I think it was great; Lord Attenborough would have approved I am sure.

Eden Hazard then ran and ran and ran at the bewildered Swansea defence before abruptly stopping, then turning, then setting up Oscar to, in turn, play the ball to the substitute Remy. I watched as the ball was met with a confident swing of the right leg. In my mind, after the events of the previous twenty minutes, a goal was a foregone conclusion.

4-1.

You beauty.

There was still time for a final twist, with Chelsea’s defence sleeping and a goal for Shelvey, who neatly rolled the ball past Courtois after a defence-splitting pass from substitute Bony.

What a great game of football. Swansea City are a fine team. I genuinely wish them well this season.

Meanwhile, their fans over in the far corner had the last word as the game entered the last few minutes.

“4-2 and you still don’t sing.”

On the drive home, the three of us were full of cheer after the events of the day; dropped points for City, Arsenal and Tottenham, then three dropped points for Liverpool.

It had been a great day.

The season is only four games old, yet we are already five points up on our strongest rivals, Manchester City, who we meet at The Etihad next Sunday.

But first, Schalke on Wednesday and that Champions League anthem.

See you there.

IMG_9701

Tales From The Unexpected.

Everton vs. Chelsea : 30 August 2014.

It had been another tiresome journey north on England’s injury-hit motorway network, scarred with multiple stretches of road works and speed restrictions. I had collected His Lordship at 10am, and we were parked up, some five hours later, in a multi-story car-park on Liverpool’s waterfront after I decided to sweep down the hill into the city centre rather than park in the usual spot near Anfield. I had decided to forego the usual Everton pre-match in The Arkles, which is very close to Liverpool’s stadium, as I didn’t fancy the oh-so familiar routine of tattered wallpaper, sticky carpets and lager in plastic glasses. I fancied something different and had decided to head back to the area around Albert Dock and the Pier Head, where I have spent occasional pre-matches on Merseyside before.

During the first segment of our drive to Liverpool, we had gabbled away with excited talk of our trip to Lisbon in around a month’s time for the Champions League game with Sporting. As soon as the group phase games were announced on Thursday, a trip to Portugal’s capital quickly grabbed my attention. Ironically, I was only in Lisbon – very briefly – back in May en route to a few days in Albufeira, but I was very happy to be returning so soon. It is a city that I was longing to be able to visit again. A previous visit in 1987 amounted to no more than three hours. In May, it was around four hours. This time, with a three day trip planned, I’d be able to truly explore the city’s charms. The added bonus would be Parky’s first Chelsea European away since the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final in Stockholm in 1998. It is long overdue.

We had listened to Manchester United’s weak 0-0 draw at Turf Moor on the journey, but as we set off on a little tour around the former dock area, the rest of the afternoon’s results were at the back of our minds. We had an hour or so to kill, and we relaxed a little. The football results would take care of themselves.

There have been many previous visits to Merseyside with Chelsea – Anfield nineteen times and Goodison thirteen times – and I spoke to Parky about how the high numbers of visits have dulled the senses a little.

I always remember coming up to Liverpool for the first time, back in 1985, and everything seemed so alien to a lad from Somerset. In a nutshell, the culture of the city was rich, even if parts of its urban fibre were poor. However, all of the particular idiosyncratic differences – the architecture, the civic buildings, the shops and industry, the character of the locals, the sense of place, the historical legacy – which made the city so unique back then seem to lessen with each returning trip.

However, as I looked back up at the twin cathedrals looking down on the dock area from a ridge of high land – the protestant red brick and the catholic concrete – I suddenly felt a twinge of adrenalin as I remembered spotting these two famous structures for the first time almost thirty years ago. Part of the joy of following my team around the UK and beyond is being able to experience different cityscapes.

Yes, dear reader, even Liverpool.

We spent an enjoyable ninety minutes in and around the Albert Dock, where a wakeboarding competition was taking place. If I had done the correct amount of preparation beforehand, perhaps I would have found time to see the Mondrian exhibit at the Tate art gallery; back in 2008, I had visited a Klimt exhibition on my way to Wigan at the same location. For a while, the storm clouds swept in and shrouded the Liver Building in a curtain of rain. Thankfully it soon passed. I stood on the lip of The Mersey, and was immediately shifted back to previous centuries when immigrants from throughout Europe bade farewell on their voyage to new lands. It is very likely that my great great grandparents departed for Philadelphia from this city in around 1850. An obscenely huge cruise ship was moored a few hundred yards to the north; its size startled me. I wonder if any of the tourists were off to the match. It was approaching four o’clock and so we wondered if we had time for a quick pint in one of the many bars which now reside in the ground floors of the former warehouse buildings.

We popped in to the Pan Am bar and hastily enjoyed a pint of lager.

Compared to being in the crowded and stuffy Arkles, this was a great pre-match.

I soon drove up into football territory. On the approach to Goodison, all of the lamp posts were adorned with blue pennants, in a style very similar to those which I often see outside baseball stadia in the US; marking their territory, as it were.

“We Are Evertonians.”

“We Go The Game.”

“It’s What We Do.”

In the end, I drove past Anfield – right past the away end, ah memories of last May, you may have had Luis Garcia in 2005, but we had Steven Gerrard in 2014 and we’ll always have that on you – and spotted a gaggle of Chelsea lads leaving The Arkles. We were parked up at 4.50pm and the news came through that Manchester City had lost 1-0 at home to Stoke City.

“Get in.”

“A good day for the city of Manchester, then Parks.”

On the walk to Goodison, along the southern edge of Stanley Park, we held our hoods over our heads as the rain fell. We spotted an Evertonian wearing an Eto’o shirt.

“Number five?”

A line of around twenty coaches were parked up, including the Kings Ferry and Ellisons ones from Chelsea.

With ten minutes to kick-off, we approached the famous old stadium – Evertonians lovingly call it “The Old Lady” while Liverpool fans have a more derisory nickname, “Woodison” – and we were soon inside. Parky was down below in the lower tier of the Bullens Road, while I was alongside Gary and Alan in the cramped seats above. It was great to be back. Goodison Park is one of my favourite away venues. I have enthused over its charms many times before. There were memories of last season, when I shook Lukaku’s hand outside the main entrance and when Eto’o made his debut for us. What an irony that both were now in Everton blue. With Torres’ ultimately failed spell as a Chelsea striker over, but with Diego Costa now at full throttle and Drogba back in the mix, it seemed that the game was all about centre forwards, irrespective of shirt number.

The “Z Cars” theme tune welcomed the teams on to the pitch. Chelsea were in a bright all yellow kit, while Everton’s decision to jettison their usual white socks in favour of black meant that the home team were unwittingly paying homage to the Chelsea kit of the inter-war years.

Blue, white, black.

Everton fans are almost defined by who they are not. Unlike at Anfield, scarves are in short supply at Goodison Park.

A quick run through of the team. I was so glad Diego Costa was fit. The midfield five was Ramires and Matic, Hazard, Willian and Fabregas. The Chelsea choir began with a predictable song aimed at Everton’s neighbours at the top of the hill.

“Steve Gerrard, Gerrard.

He slipped on his fucking arse.

He gave it to Demba Ba.

Steve Gerrard, Gerrard.”

A few Evertonians in the Park End applauded this; quite rightly.

Within a minute, Cesc Fabregas had received the ball and had spotted an incisive dart from that man Diego Costa. He steadied himself in front of Tim Howard and calmly despatched it into the net. Goodison was in a state of shock, we were in a state of ecstasy.

“OLE – OLE OLE OLE – CHELSEA – CHELSEA.”

What a start. We could hardly believe it. This was touted as a tough old game; our first real test of the nascent season. And here we were, 1-0 up after a few seconds.

“Take that Luis Saha.”

Another miracle soon followed.

Barely two minutes later, Diego Costa played the ball in from the left. Ramires spotted Ivanovic ahead of him and played a delightful ball to our beloved full-back. Everton appealed for offside, but Brana was unfazed. He slotted the ball past Howard. We all looked across to the linesman, but his flag stayed down.

Everton 0 Chelsea 2.

There was more delirium in the antiquated double-decked tiers of the Bullens Road stand.

Next, there was a contentious moment involving the hapless Howard. A ball was poked through for Eden Hazard to run on to, but the Everton ‘keeper claimed the ball at his feet. From over eighty yards away, it seemed fine, but Hazard’s immediate response was that Howard had handled outside the box. A couple of texts confirmed this.

Then, oddly, strangely, we let our grip on the game loosen. It was Everton’s turn to probe. For me, our midfield conceded far too much territory to the raiding Everton attackers. Nemanja Matic held firm, but did not get much support in return.

“We played better last year and couldn’t score. This year, two shots and two goals.”

From a corner, the ball’s arc was missed by Courtois and Lukaku crashed it against the woodwork. It was a lucky escape. Everton asked questions of our defence, but we withstood their challenges. We attacked on a few occasions, with Costa surprising me my drifting wide on the left. Then, catastrophe, with just a minute left of the first-half remaining. We again allowed Everton to build and the ball was played out to Seamus Coleman. His fine cross was met by the leaping Kevin Mirallas, and we groaned as the ball spun past Courtois into the goal.

The Evertonians roared.

Game on.

At the break, there was obvious concern that we were going to let this slip. My mate Glenn, who was celebrating his birthday, received a text from me:

“Hope that the inevitable Everton comeback won’t spoil your birthday.”

The grey skies over Goodison, brightened by the electronic glare of the floodlights tucked under the main stand roof, gave the match a special atmosphere as the second half began. It felt like November. A few half chances for Chelsea gave us cheer. There was noise in the away section. I kept looking over at the scoreboard in the far corner, and the time was appearing to slow.

“Another half hour of this; we’ll never last, Gal.”

“Next goal is crucial, Chris.”

“Trouble is, mate – we thought we’d won it after three minutes.”

I was worried that Everton, still threatening, would ruin things. The Chelsea fans around me we worried, too. Then, Eden Hazard – very quiet thus far – collected the ball in front of the Chelsea fans below me. We willed him on, and he responded by running deep into the Everton box. I saw Diego Costa running into an already crowded area and I quickly thought to myself –

“Like to see what Hazard does here. Wonder if he’ll reach Costa.”

With the blink of an eye, Hazard’s pass to Costa hit the sliding Coleman and ricocheted, miraculously, into the net, spinning off the far post.

We roared again, but deep down I knew that we had been lucky.

Amidst the triumphant celebrations, a plastic bottle was tossed into the Park End by a Chelsea supporter and our attention was centered upon the pointing, gesturing and faux outrage shown by both Everton and Chelsea fans down below us. Police were repositioned in the walkway between the sets of fans and some even stood in front of us. I don’t mind Everton fans generally, but the ones who inhabit the five-hundred or so seats of the Park Lane nearest the away paddock must be hand chosen for their relentless complaining, restlessness, irascibility and anger. I looked up to see a killer ball played through the heart of our defence and Naismith poked home with a fine finish.

3-2.

“Fackinell.”

“What happened?” asked the chap to my left.

“They scored” I replied.

“Shit defending” said another.

A huge roar from the home stands welcomed Samuel Eto’o on to the pitch. He seemed to be sporting a new, lopsided hairstyle. Maybe he was hoping we wouldn’t recognise him.

We came at them again. The ball was worked into Matic, central, but with defenders looking to throw themselves towards him. He remained calm and worked the ball on to his favoured left foot. He drilled a low shot past Howard and we regained our two-goal advantage.

4-2.

Still the goals came. A Leighton Baines free-kick found the stooping head of Eto’o – who else? – and the ball flew into the Gwladys Street goal, with Courtois unable to scramble back.

4-3.

Within a minute, we broke away and Ramires received a ball from Matic and toe-poked it past Howard from an angle.

We roared again.

5-3.

Next, we were in adoration of an amazing piece of skill from our young Belgian goalkeeper. A Mirallas shot was goal bound, but Courtois flung his hand out to push the thunderous strike onto a post.

In the away end, we were gasping, trying to make sense of all of it.

“Oh, Mourinho will hate this.”

“I’m only surprised Lukaku ain’t scored yet.”

Filipe Luis came on, replacing the overall quiet Hazard, for his Chelsea debut. Then, in the last moment of an incredible match, another substitute – the much derided Mikel – was able to break, keep his composure and nonchalantly back heel a pass in to space for Diego Costa. Our new goal scoring hero still had much to do, but pushed the ball wide, created an angle, skipped past a sad challenge from Distin and slammed it past Howard.

6-3. Bloody hell.

Diego Costa was overjoyed, and he pumped his arms before jumping in delirium towards the baying fans in the corner.

At the final whistle, there was a proper mix of emotions in the away end. As the players slowly walked towards us – all eleven of them, as it should be – the little band of brothers who I had watched the game with agreed that it had been a mixed-bag of a performance. Outrageous raids on the Everton goal, but also ragged defending.

Half-jokingly, I exclaimed “I’ve never seen us play so badly and score six.”

Smiles all around.

I had a vision of the players and management team striding triumphantly into the small, cramped away dressing room, only to find a pale Jose Mourinho, holding his arms around his waist, sat on the floor, rocking.

“Leave him be. Let him have a few moments alone, lads.”

We all remember his comments back in 2004 when he was dumbfounded by a high-scoring North London Derby, which finished 5-4 to Arsenal.

“That wasn’t a football match.”

I met up with Parky outside on the corner of a terraced street opposite the away turnstiles, just as a bevy of noisy Chelsea fans began a new chant –

“Diego Costa – He’ll Win Us The League.”

The journey home was easy in the circumstances. Driving two hundred miles after such an astonishing game of football – it was only the third time that I have witnessed nine goals in a single game – is not a chore. I eventually reached home at 12.15am, but I knew that I’d be awake for a while yet, attempting to relive and perhaps rationalise the insanity of Goodison Park 2014.

IMG_9583

Tales From The Chelsea Square Mile.

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 23 August 2014.

So, the 2014-2015 home opener against Leicester City on the Saturday of the August Bank Holiday weekend. A time to meet up with a few more Chelsea mates; I bumped into quite a few among the four thousand at Burnley on Monday, but here was a chance to chat to a few more. Monday’s game showed glimpses of a fine season to come. There were plenty of plusses, no more so than from the new starters Thibaut Courtois, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa. Leicester City, another of the promoted teams, would be full of fight but, surely, most Chelsea supporters would be hoping for a maximum six points from our first two league matches. Let’s begin strong. Let’s try to amass as many points against the lesser teams before we lock horns against the big four, five, six or seven.

It would be time for me to continue to get my juices flowing for the season too. I have to be honest though; the final home game of last season, against Norwich City, was so lackluster, with a disappointingly subdued atmosphere too, that my memory of it left me wondering if I’d have trouble in getting “up” for the home opener of 2014-2015.

This is a familiar theme here, isn’t it?

I can only tell this Chelsea story from my perspective.

Whatever will be will be, as the song goes.

After the tiring pilgrimage to Burnley on Monday, my mate Glenn took a turn to drive for the Leicester match. It was a quick and easy drive east. We were soon parked up on Greyhound Road, just a mile or so to the north of Stamford Bridge. It is a strange fact that although I attend around twenty-five matches at The Bridge every season, my meanderings on match days do not extend far beyond a square mile of terra firma centered on the green sward of Stamford Bridge. From the North End Road heading south towards Fulham Broadway – the old Walham Green – then east along Fulham Road, past the stadium, up to Redcliffe Gardens, on to Old Brompton Road – just touching the southern boundary of Earl’s Court – and then west along Lillee Road, past the cluster of pubs around West Brompton.

This marks the territory of my usual Chelsea match day experience.

And it would be the path that I would take on this particular match day Saturday.

At 12.45pm, I was patiently waiting at the bar in The Goose, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to my left and saw Eric, with his good lady Megan. They are both from Detroit and in town for the best part of a week. Eric is a keen footballer and plays regularly. Crucially, he has been a Chelsea fan for a number of years. I first met him in New York City ahead of our game with PSG in the summer of 2012. Thankfully our extended Chelsea family was able to secure a match ticket for the game. We retired in to the beer garden which was predictably busy on this sunny lunchtime.

Our usual gaggle of Chelsea devotees stood in a small circle, sipping lagers, chatting, sharing jokes, laughing at Parky. It was a typical scene. It was just lovely to be sharing it all with Eric, who – I am sure – was looking forward to a Goose pre-match just as much as the main event at 3pm.

My good friend Andy was able to regale the two Detroit natives of his visit to the city way back in 1987. I must visit Detroit one day – home to the Motor City Blues, of which Eric is a member – as it is one of the few major North American cities, along with Montreal, Phoenix, Nashville, Memphis, St. Louis and Badgercrack, Nebraska, that I am yet to visit. Eric and Megan had been enjoying a fine time in London since their arrival on Wednesday. On their first evening, despite being undoubtedly tired with jet lag, they embarked on a bespoke tour of a half a dozen gin bars, which took them through several different parts of the capital city.

“Yeah. We have a similar scene in Somerset. Gravy bars. A bit different.”

Visits followed to Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and the Churchill War Rooms below Whitehall. These are just the sort of attractions that I could or maybe should be visiting on my London excursions. While Eric would be watching the boys play, Megan was off shopping.

We met up with Darren outside the CFCUK stall and the all-important ticket was handed over to Eric. He had a prime seat; second row of the Matthew Harding Upper, right behind the goal. Despite our plans to get Eric in to the stadium in good time, so he could experience a little of the pre-match atmosphere, we still found ourselves outside the MH turnstiles at 2.55pm.

“Typical Chelsea.”

Eric laughed.

I was in, alongside Alan, Glenn, Tom and Joe, with a couple of minutes to spare. Stamford Bridge, with a sky full of small bursts of white cloud and stands full of sun-kissed spectators, looked a picture. It wasn’t easy to tell where home fans met away fans in The Shed. A thin line of stewards marked the boundaries. Leicester City would be backed by a healthy three thousand. Not too many were wearing replica shirts. I remember three specific games against Leicester City at The Bridge; the Erland Johnsen game in the 1996-1997 F.A. Cup run, a last-minute blooter from Frank Leboeuf in 1997 and Steve Guppy killing our championship campaign with another last minute goal in 1999.

I had bought a match programme on the walk past the towering West Stand and the cover, design and layout is generally unchanged from previous years; well, since 2004-2005 anyway, when a new design was used. I’d suggest a new look. I’m getting bored with it. Throughout this season within the pages of the programme, there will be a retrospective on that 2004-2005 season.

Was it really ten years ago that we assembled at Stamford Bridge to see how the new manager Mourinho would begin his Chelsea career in that game versus Manchester United? How time flies when you are winning trophies. Come April, it will be a decade since Bolton. Oh my. Incidentally, during that summer of 2004, I watched my five-hundredth Chelsea game (the Gianfranco Zola testimonial versus Real Zaragoza) and it had taken me a full thirty years to reach that mark. In the following decade, ten seasons, I squeezed in a further five hundred. Realistically, I doubt if my support for Chelsea will ever again reach such heights of fanaticism; these have been my roaring forties. It’s been magnificent.

The first-half was a rather frustrating affair. Despite home advantage, the finer players, the more experienced manager, the most expensive signings, Leicester City – the new team at the top table – matched us. As the first period wore on, the exuberant Chelsea support began to quieten. And this disturbed me. I always wonder how many of the thousands at home games are first time visitors, like Eric, who have been drawn to our football and Chelsea in particular by the promise of a white hot atmosphere and associated boisterousness, only to be saddened by the quietness in the stands. It is always a concern. I’d hate every person’s first experience of a Chelsea match day to be underwhelming. I felt for Eric as the game progressed. Our play was not only slow and without focus, but Stamford Bridge was in one of its “can’t be arsed” moods.

Despite the continued probing of Cesc Fabregas, who constantly attempted to thread a variety of balls in towards our attackers, and the earnest runs of Andre Schurrle, and the physical presence of Diego Costa, it was the away team who had just as much of the ball and just as many attempts on goal. Would this be the day that would be remembered for the individual performances of the two ‘keepers Courtois and Schmeichel? A fantastic tackle by John Terry on Mahrez was almost the most memorable moment of the first thirty minutes. Diego Costa began to be rewarded for his movement with a couple of half-chances, but his efforts were thwarted.

As the half-time whistle blew, I envisaged Jose Mourinho waiting in the home dressing room with his smart phone and eleven ice bucket challenges.

Certainly there was a need for a concentrating of mind and body. Mourinho needed to inspire and cajole, or – at worst – give the team a bollocking.

At half time, John Spencer, our little Lion of Vienna, was walked around the pitch with Neil Barnett. What a night that was; when Spenno’s little legs dashed seventy yards before dispatching the ball past the Austria Memphis ‘keeper. That was almost twenty years ago. Another “oh my.” He was given a fine reception:

“One Johnny Spen-cah, there’s only one Johnny Spen-cah!”

At half-time, whispered words with my mate Rousey. One of his friends, Nick – who watched a mere ten feet away from me – had passed away a mere three weeks ago. His was a face that I recognised, though we never ever said more than a few words to each other. He will be missed by me and others.

The second-half was a different story, thankfully. There was a more vigorous approach from the off. Soon into the half, a fine effort from the previously subdued Oscar rattled the woodwork, and then the forceful Ivanovic forced a fine save from Schmeichel. Schurrle was scythed down, but referee Lee Mason didn’t see red. Our World Cup Winner then came close. Approaching the hour mark, the home support was buoyed by this greater urgency and rewarded the team with a wall of noise from the Matthew Harding. At last! I hoped that Eric’s nerves were tingling.

The Leicester ‘keeper was enjoying a fine game; his finger-tipped save from a rasping drive from Ivanovic, now very involved, was exceptional.

Then, our hearts were in our mouths, as David Nugent – who seems to have been around for ever – broke with the entire Chelsea defence caught short. Miraculously, his low shot was deflected wide by the outstretched shin of Courtois, who had quickly advanced off his line as soon as he realised the severity of the situations. His angles were perfect. As the shot flew off for a corner, we roared.

A penalty shout was waved away, and Schmeichel foiled a Fabregas effort. Our chances were piling up. Ivanovic was again involved with a bursting advance down the right. He found Diego Costa lurking centrally on the edge of the six yard box. A quick touch to bring the ball down and then a delicate prod past Schmeichel. I jumped up on to the steps to my left and roared. I don’t always do this; only for a “big” goal. Here was proof that this one was important. This was no run of the mill goal. This might just win us the points.

GET IN!

Diego Costa was two out of two and he reeled away down below me with his arms outstretched. I instinctively grabbed my camera and snapped as he was engulfed by his new, thankful, team mates. As they eventually untangled themselves, I caught his double point to the skies. I noticed Didier doing this at Burnley after his fine touch and volley. It must be the new craze. I hope we see a lot more of this.

Ramires and Willian came on for Schurrle and Oscar. What a squad we have this season. Leicester City, although clearly second best in this half, were still threatening. I told Alan that we needed a second to make it safe. With that, Eden Hazard, weaved in from the left down below me and hit a low shot towards goal. It was a move that we have witnessed on a few times before. I snapped a photo as he shot. A slight deflection sent it past the Leicester ‘keeper. Another roar. I watched as Hazard jogged over towards the Chelsea bench in that square-on style of his.

2-0. Phew.

With the game safe – I checked and Steve Guppy wasn’t playing – Jose had a little treat up his sleeve. With ten minutes to go, the crowd roared as Didier Drogba replaced Diego Costa. I’m still trying my best to rationalise the reappearance of Didier in the royal blue after two years away. I joked with Alan :

“How about next May, in Berlin, he scores another penalty and then leaves for good?”

“I’ll go with that.”

 Willian, as willing as ever, tested man of the match Schmeichel one last time.

The whistle blew.

We were top.

“See you at Goodison, Al.”

Outside at the Peter Osgood statue, Eric was all abuzz. I could tell that he had experienced a magical afternoon. He wasn’t physically shaking, but he wasn’t far off it.

“Buzzin’, man.”

The night was still young and so we set off on a mini pub-crawl after picking up Dave and Jake. We called in for a drink at The Finborough Arms after a quick shower of rain and then The Pembroke, before we met up with Megan, post-shopping, for some pizza and Peronis at Salvo’s. On the adjoining table were ten Chelsea fans from Sweden. We all watched aghast as Arsenal equalised late on against Everton.

Parky, however, hit the nail on the head.

“Fcuk’em.”

There was just time for one last pub and one last pint; The Imperial, just along from West Brompton underground station, where the post-Chelsea home game ska night was coming to a close, but where a smattering of a few famous and infamous Chelsea faces would be drinking long in to the night.

“Definitely a part, now, of the Chelsea match day experience these days, Eric.”

“Fantastic.”

We said our goodbyes. It had been a fine day.

Dedicated to the memory of Sir Richard Attenborough.

IMG_9454

Tales From No Nay Never Land.

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 18 August 2014.

My first ever Chelsea game took place in 1974. I’ve detailed that match on a few occasions before. I don’t think it’s being too pompous for me to say that it changed my life. On that day in West London, I became part of Chelsea Football Club. The abiding memory of Ian Hutchinson’s high leap at the North Stand end and scoring past the Newcastle ‘keeper is a strong one.

IMG_9399

I occasionally wear the “Chelsea the Blues” scarf that my mother bought me after the game. I still occasionally flick through the tattered 5p programme. That game was a key moment in my life.

As the last few months of last season progressed, I kept calculating – and recalculating – if I would reach my one thousandth Chelsea game before the end of the 2013-2014 campaign. Sadly, we fell one match short. We just ran out of games. Our defeat against Atletico Madrid – match number 997 – meant that there would be no Champions League Final in Lisbon for me to celebrate my landmark moment. Games against Norwich City – 998 – and Cardiff City – 999 – left me hanging, stranded over the summer, awaiting news of our 2014-2015 fixture list. I wasn’t tempted with any of the pre-season friendlies. There would be European trips in the Champions League to savour instead. I’d best save my money for those. I didn’t fancy hitting one thousand against Real Sociedad in a home friendly either. Nope, I’d wait for the league opener. Our first league game of 2014-2015 would be it.

Number one thousand.

I silently hoped for a home match. I love my synchronicity and a game against Newcastle United – our opponents on 16 March 1974 – would have been perfect.

Alas not.

Burnley away it was and Burnley away it would be.

Not exactly Lisbon is it?

As the summer meandered by, with the World Cup in Brazil an enjoyable distraction (but nothing more than that) my focus gradually turned towards the opening weekend of the new season. Fate had dealt us travelling fans a rough hand. Our game – over two hundred miles from HQ – was to take place at 8pm on a Monday evening.

Sigh.

I booked a half-day as soon as the fixture change was announced, and waited.

Thoughts about the new season centered on our new players. How would they settle in? Which of the new acquisitions would we immediately “take to” and fully embrace as Chelsea players. For some reason, we regard some of our players as “more Chelsea” than others. Is there any fathomable reason for this? Is it due to personality rather than talent? Is there some secret unquantifiable element to some players’ psyche which endears them to us more than others? I wanted the new season to begin; I wanted to assess Diego Costa’s body language, Cesc Fabregas’ demeanour, Luis Filipe’s passion and Thibaut Courtois’ personality in addition to their playing strengths.

The summer of 2014 was imbued with a healthy dose of positivism in the Chelsea camp. There was a general feeling of hopeful optimism among the Chelsea ranks, both locally in the UK and elsewhere. There was a feeling that a fine new team was taking shape, with a healthy competition in all positions. Prolonged debates were held over the relative merits of our twin goalkeeping giants. Some loanees were brought back to the fold. Others were passed over. Meanwhile, Chelsea fans in Nerdistan were getting all sweaty at the thought of Didier getting his number 11 shirt back.

Predictions? I kept telling friends that we had a great chance to win the title for the first time in five years. My guess was that it would be between us and the new powerhouse in Manchester.

“Between us and City. Too close to call. But those two teams will be clear of the rest.”

Elsewhere, I was wondering if my passion – for the want of a better word – for football was subsiding a little. I always have these troublesome worries every summer; that the next season could be the one where football loosens its grip and I go off and live a more sedentary lifestyle. For example, I had already written off the twin games in the North-East this winter…too far, too much money, within one week of each other. I was thinking about knocking Man City on the head too; 4pm on a Sunday, stuff that. Due to a change in my working hours, plus the need to assist with the care of my mother who has dementia and arthritis, European and domestic midweek games might take a hit this year too. After all these years, there has to be a moment when Chelsea means that little bit less, doesn’t there?

Doesn’t there?

We’ll see.

A few weeks ago, I saw one of my favourite bands Stiff Little Fingers in Bath. I enjoyed it, of course. However, I had only seen them in Exeter in April and I explained to my mate Pete that I was having trouble getting “up” for the gig. Two SLF gigs in four months had resulted in me questioning myself, and inevitably comparing my ability to get “up” for football. In a nutshell, I don’t ever want Chelsea to be a chore. Let’s see how this season goes.

At 2pm on Monday 18th August, I set off from my home town in Somerset. Alongside me were Glenn, PD and Parky. I allowed four-and-a-half hours to reach Turf Moor, sheltering beneath the bare moorlands of The Pennines. After only a few miles, PD selected one of a few compilation CDs that he had brought for the trip. Parky slipped it in the CD player. The first track?

“One Step Beyond.”

The others knocked back some ciders.

We were on our way.

In truth, it was a dreadful trip. Just shy of Birmingham, the signs on the M5 warned of slow-moving traffic ahead. For two hours, the traffic slowed. It was a grim trip North.

Accelerate – brake – slow down – stop – wait – moan – accelerate – brake – slow down – stop – wait – moan – accelerate– brake – slow down – moan – stop – wait – accelerate – brake – slow down – stop – wait – accelerate – brake – slow down – stop.

With each passing mile, I could see the pained expressions on my fellow travellers worsening and worsening.

“I can see why I don’t do too many away games now.”

We sighed when “I Don’t Like Mondays” was played not once, but twice, on two consecutive CDs.

Bristol Tim was ten miles ahead of us and advised us to avoid the M62 around Manchester. This always was my plan. Thankfully, the traffic quietened after the signs for Liverpool and then Wigan. I veered off on to the M65, past Blackburn, and the sudden release of a clear road resulted in me venting my pent-up frustration on my accelerator pedal. I almost took off on a brow of a hill. The music CDs were from the punk / ska / mod revival days of the ‘eighties and I wondered if a Stiff Little Fingers – yeah, them again – song would appear before Burnley.

They didn’t let me down. Racing past Accrington, I sang along to “At The Edge” and I smiled…

“It’s exams that count not football teams.”

I’ve only ever visited Burnley once before; that 1-0 win back in 2009-2010, when a John Terry header created headlines just as the Vanessagate story surfaced. In all honesty, that solitary trip to the heart of Lancashire was one of my favourite trips of that season. Our paths have rarely crossed in the league. Those two encounters in 2009-2010 have been our only games against Burnley since 1982-1983. Glenn and PD were yet to visit Turf Moor. Parky had been once.

At 7.30pm, I eventually parked up. It had been a tedious journey; if I’m honest, one of the worst in those forty-odd years.

Turf Moor was reached in around ten minutes. The weather had been changeable en route. At least the rain held off as we raced to meet Gary, who had tickets for Glenn and PD, outside the away end. Burnley, a small town of around 75,000, could well be the stereotypical northern town. Its grey stone buildings exude weather-beaten bleakness. Its mills have closed and it faces unemployment and austerity. Racial tensions have blighted the area’s recent social history. However, at the heart of the city, possibly binding it together is Burnley Football Club, league winners in 1920-1921 and 1959-1960. On the wall outside Turf Moor is a collage of former players. Just along from the away turnstiles is a fuzzy photo of ex-Chelsea midfielder Ian Britton, caught in an ecstatic pose after scoring a goal which helped keep the team in the Football League when they faced relegation in 1987. Ian Britton, after Peter Osgood left, became my favourite Chelsea player as a child and he is well respected by my generation. Meeting him after an old boys’ game in 2010 was a real thrill. Today he lives in Burnley and is fighting a battle against prostate cancer. Everyone at Chelsea wishes him well.

Gary was full of moans because the match programmes had all gone. He too, like hundreds of others, was snarled up on the M6 too. I said “hi” to a few mates and headed inside with only minutes to spare.

Despite the evening kick-off, some four thousand Chelsea foot soldiers had battled work commitments, family pressures and the motorway network.

We were there in force.

We had the entire David Fishwick Stand; a single-tiered structure dating from the early ‘seventies, full of surprisingly wide wooden seats. Parky and I were right behind the goal in the front row. I looked around and spotted a few mates. A nod here and there.

The Chelsea choir were in fine voice.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, from a corner this time, rather than from the centre of our stand as in 2010, the home fans in the opposite stand held up claret and light blue mosaics:

“OUR TURF – BFC.”

The clouds were gathering overhead and the evening was turning murky.

Within seconds, the teams appeared.

The big news was that Thibaut Courtois was starting ahead of Petr Cech.

Elsewhere, Cesar Azpilcueta held off the challenge of Filipe Luis and started at left-back.

Cesc Fabregas lined up alongside Nemanja Matic, with a “three” of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Andre Schurrle, whose last competitive game was the World Cup Final.

From the Maracana to Turf Moor.

Upfront was the swarthy Diego Costa, our new number nineteen, looking trim and no doubt eager to impress.

To be honest, the pleasure of the first sightings of all these new Chelsea players was balanced by the realisation that my mate Alan, my away match companion for years now, was not at the game. He was unable to get time off work. He doesn’t miss many. It felt odd not seeing him.

It also made me feel sad for me to report to Parky that I did not know a single Burnley player. Long gone are the days when I could reel off the starting eleven of most teams in the top division, maybe even a few in the old second division. The Burnley team of my childhood featured players such as Leighton James, Frank Casper, Peter Noble and Bryan Flynn. They were a cracking team. I think I almost had a soft spot for them.

I have strong memories of that old open terrace at Turf Moor, packed with spectators, with those bleak moors behind. It is a shame that modern football stadia now separate the game and spectators from the immediate setting of the club. I always enjoyed seeing the buildings which abutted old Stamford Bridge, or the trees over in Brompton Cemetery. They added to the character of a stadium.

The game began. My view of the match was through the nets of the near goal. Despite the close proximity of several stewards I was able to snap away with impunity. A little drizzle fell.

Chelsea were roared on by the away contingent, virtually all standing.

A couple of chances were exchanged before the home team took the lead. Our defence was caught flat-footed and a ball was played into the box where the waiting Scott Arfield, given time to take a touch by the closest defender, drilled a rising ball hard past a possibly unsighted Courtois. I was right behind the path of the ball. The net rippled a mere fifteen feet away.

Turf Moor boomed.

This was not good. This was not how this was meant to be.

“Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea. Come on Chelsea.”

The home support, with memories of an opening day victory over Manchester United in 2009, was laughing, but they were not laughing for long.

Within minutes, an attack resulted in Ivanovic drilling in a low cross which bizarrely evaded everyone, before rebounding off the base of the far post. Luckily for us, it fell right at the feet of the waiting Diego Costa who slashed it high into the net.

Phew.

Our new striker couldn’t have wished for a better start to his league career at Chelsea. The thoughts of Fernando Torres at this exact juncture would have been interesting to hear.

A blue flare was set off to my right.

Within minutes, another Chelsea goal.

Eden Hazard, afforded time and space, ran at the home defence before setting up Ivanovic. His pass in to the waiting Cesc Fabregas was met on the volley by our new Spanish midfielder. His fantastically weighted ball into the onrushing Andre Schurrle made me gasp. It was simply magnificent. It disrupted the time space continuum. It was sublime.  Schurrle slotted in and we were 2-1 up. In the away stand, we erupted.

I turned to a chap behind me:

“Whatafackinball.”

So mesmerised were the Burnley players by this incredible feat of fantasy football, which defied all spatial logic and temporal reasoning, that they suddenly found themselves in the 1930’s wearing heavy cotton shirts, chasing shadows in blue, and calling each other names such as Grimsdyke, Ogglethorpe, Sidebottom, Blenkinsopp, Eckersley, Butterworth, Snotter and Crump.

Never mind his Arsenal past; in one special moment, Cesc Fabregas had arrived.

For a while, we purred.

Diego Costa was then booked for a dive in the box, according to the referee, after he broke free.

Alan, watching in South London, texted me.

“Penalty that!”

Not to worry, a third goal was soon scored by a dominant Chelsea. A Fabregas corner evaded everyone and Ivanovic prodded in from close range.

3-1 and coasting.

The Chelsea choir aired an old favourite from the late ‘eighties.

“OLE, OLE, OLE, OLE – CHELSEA, CHELSEA.”

With the team on top, the noise continued with loud songs of support for heroes past and present; Frank Lampard, Dennis Wise, Peter Osgood, Willian, Diego Costa.

With the new ‘keeper in earshot…”Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut!”

 A quick nervous wave was cheered by the away fans.

The oddest moment of the entire night was the continued sight of the blue-shirted number 8 playing for Chelsea; the slight body of Oscar. On many occasions, my mind quickly saw Frank Lampard, so engrained is he in my football memory.

I met up with a few of the usual suspects at the break.

“A few more goals, boys?”

“I’m confident.”

Parky had predicted a 4-1 win.

“I fancy six.”

“Definitely more goals to come.”

Sadly, the second-half was a let-down. The undoubted highlight was the fine leap and finger-tipped save from our young ‘keeper which stopped Blenkinsopp from scoring. The noise fell away and at times Turf moor was silent. Jose Mourinho rang the changes with Willian and Mikel replacing Oscar and Schurrle.

The two sets of fans exchanged a volley of antagonistic, lame and predictable chants at each other as the game wore on.

“Where were you when you were shit?”

“Here for the Chelsea, you’re only here for the Chelsea.”

“We support our local team.”

“You’ve had your day out, now fcuk off home.”

“Your support is fookin’ shit.”

It was abuse by numbers and the home fans soon gave up, preferring to turn their attention to their most hated, local, rivals.

“And it’s no nay never.
No nay never no more.
Till we play bastard Rovers,
No nay never no more.”

Didier Drogba had sprinted past me – a mere ten feet away – at the start of the second-half and the sight of him, so close, thrilled me. Indeed, all eyes were on our returning hero throughout his warm-up and subsequent appearance as a late substitute for Eden Hazard. One sublime touch and volley wide was a hint of his prowess, though if I am honest, I was as surprised as anyone to see him return to Chelsea.

At the final whistle, I watched as the management team, with the substitutes, walked across the pitch. They acknowledged our support. There was a shake of the hand from Mourinho for Diego Costa. Torres and Costa shared a joke. Petr Cech, smiling too, bless him. Didier threw his shirt in to the crowd and there was a mad scramble.

Outside, we assembled.

“We’re top aren’t we?”

“Yeah, top, deffo.”

We walked back to the waiting car amidst subdued locals. Ahead, another long journey was waiting.

Thankfully a sudden downpour on the M6 amounted to nothing. My spirits dived when I saw a sign for Birmingham (not even half-way home) :

100 miles.

The roads were quiet. Only fools – and Chelsea fans – are out in the small hours of Tuesday mornings.

Eventually I reached home at 3am.

Here’s to game 1,001.

The Story So Far : 

Played – 1,000

Won – 578

Drew – 227

Lost – 195

For – 1,817

Against – 934

IMG_9359

Tales From The Dock Of Tiger Bay.

Cardiff City vs. Chelsea : 11 May 2014.

One final game, one final trip, one final tale.

For all intents and purposes, it had felt like season 2013-2014 had already ended. Our home campaign had concluded in a rather meek fashion. The loss against Atletico Madrid and the draw against Norwich City had meant that there would be no silverware for only the third time in ten seasons.

So, whereas our season-ending foray across the Severn Estuary was, until only recently, viewed as a potential championship-deciding occasion, it was now of little real relevance. Not to worry; it would be one last chance to support the team up close and personal in this season of meandering intent interspersed with odd moments of blinding excitement.

I called for Parky at around 10am. Not long into the trip, he realised that the all-important match ticket was not on his person. Back at his house, there was the sudden rush of panic when he couldn’t remember the ticket arriving by post. This was turning out to be a fated season. I missed the first game and now Parky was about to miss the last one. After a few minutes of silence from within, Parky emerged holding a white envelope.

“Get in.”

We both beamed. I punched the air. We were on our way to Wales.

This would be my forty-seventh game of the season; considerably down on the last two campaigns. Looking back, it’s difficult to see where the shortfall came from. I’ve only missed one home game in the league; that home opener against Hull City. I’ve only missed two away; Sunderland and West Brom. Oh well, I do what I can do. I’m happy with 35/38 league games. I’ve been rather obsessed with numbers of late. I recently celebrated the fortieth anniversary of my very first Chelsea match. As I reviewed the games, the years, the dates of my active support, it dawned on me that good – significant – things happen every ten years.

1974 : This was the year of my first Chelsea game. As I have said before, my life would never be the same – ever – again.  I don’t think that my parents could ever imagine how grateful I would be for that first magical journey from Somerset to London. I was overwhelmingly smitten by Stamford Bridge on match day. Everything became real. Everything made sense. I wanted to be part of it. The journey had begun.

1984 : This was the time of my life. We were the boys in blue from Division Two. A year in which my love for Chelsea helped me defeat some personal demons in my life and when several long-standing friendships were formed. It was a year of geographical landmarks too. My first away game in the north – Newcastle – and my first game outside England – Cardiff – and my first away game in the top flight – Arsenal.

1994 : This was the year that dear old Chelsea changed. There was the sheer disbelief of our first F.A. Cup Final in twenty-three long years and, with it, the utter excitement of European football returning to Stamford Bridge. There was my first game outside the United Kingdom – the away game in Jablonec in the Czech Republic. My attendance rocketed from fifteen games in 1993-1994 to twenty-nine games the next season.

2004 : This time, it’s all very personal. My Aunt Julie, bless her, passed away and left me a few thousand pounds in her will. This enabled me to take my Chelsea story to the next level. That summer, I saw Chelsea play outside Europe for the first time – Pittsburgh. It would be the starting point for a succession of incredible experiences, following Chelsea worldwide, but making new friends from thousands of miles away too.

2014 : Maybe Chelsea will announce a pre-season tour of Saturn, Mars and Venus. I’d best book some holiday.

Both Parky and myself were rather miffed that Cardiff City had managed to get themselves relegated in this their first season in the top flight for five decades; I’ve always liked visiting Cardiff and – of course – it is only an hour and a half away by car or train. This was another reason why the day was set up to be rather bittersweet.

“Ah, Cardiff – we hardly know you.”

We drove over the brown muddied waters of the River Severn.

“Second largest tidal range in the world, Parky. Second only to the Bay of Fundy in Canada.”

Oh dear. I had turned into the Severn bore.

We were soon in Wales. There were immediate memories of our recent visit to Swansea, but also of previous soirees to the Welsh Capital with Chelsea. From 2002 to 2006, Chelsea played five matches at the city’s fine Millennium Stadium. We won three (the 2005 and 2007 League Cup Finals against Liverpool and Arsenal, the 2005 Community Shield versus Arsenal) and lost two (the 2002 F.A. Cup Final versus Arsenal and the 2006 Community Shield against Liverpool). The over-riding memory is of a magnificent stadium, right next to the city centre, tons of noise, proper support, a great laugh. I would vote for Cardiff and Old Trafford to host F.A. Cup semi-finals ad infinitum, leaving the mystique of Wembley for the final itself.

As I drove in to the city on a long bridge over the recently rejuvenated dock area, with the high land of Penarth behind me, I was able to take in the full sweep of the city. The city centre – a few tower blocks, the roof supports of the Millennium Stadium – seemed distant. Beyond, there were the brooding Brecon Beacons and the valleys to the north. I was quite taken aback at the considerable amount of bay side redevelopment. I parked-up in a multi-storey and we walked over to Mermaid Quay.

Cardiff was once a hugely busy port. The coal from the mines of the valleys was shipped around the globe from the Cardiff Docks, or Tiger Bay as it was colloquially known. As we walked past shining steel buildings, high-rise offices and headed towards a lively oasis of pubs, restaurants and cafes, I tried to imagine the docks in their hey-day. Due to international trade back in the nineteenth century, Cardiff was one of Britain’s earliest and most cosmopolitan cities. It had a similar immigrant mix to Liverpool.

Of course, I am always reminded of an Ian Dury song…

“In the dock of Tiger Bay.

On the road to Mandalay.

From Bombay to Santa Fa.

Over hills and far away.”

As we neared a pub on the quay called “Terra Nova” (how appropriate – there would soon be a new ground for me to experience), the sense of the area’s sea-faring past was enhanced by the sight of a brass rendering of a poem from my schooldays.

“Cargoes” by John Masefield.

“Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.”

In football terms, the dirty British coaster need not worry. It is well-loved by others. This game would be attended in person by visitors to these shores and would be watched the whole world over by lovers of the British game.

We ordered pints of “Sagres” and waited for Dave and Lawson (visiting from NYC) to join us; newly-arrived by train from London. They were joined by Robert, last seen in Paris on one of the great away trips of the season. With the weather fine and the beer tasting finer, we enjoyed a lovely hour or so overlooking the waters of good old Tiger Bay. Here was an away game I could quite easily repeat again and again. Damn you Cardiff City, why did you have to get relegated?

I parked up about ten minutes to the south of Cardiff City’s spanking new stadium, just across from the former site of Ninian Park on Sloper Road, last visited by Chelsea some thirty years ago.

Ah, back we go to 1984 again.

I remember the trip to Cardiff so well. We were travelling by train from Frome and I had arranged to meet Glenn at the Wallbridge Café opposite the station. As I walked in, I scanned the busy scene. Glenn was there with Winnie, a Leeds fan from my year at school, but so too were three of the town’s known ne’er-do-wells…two of them weren’t even Chelsea…they had obviously come along for a bundle.

“Oh great.”

I remember that I had purchased my very first first casual garment, a Gallini sweatshirt, around that time – a yellow, grey and navy number from “Olympus” in Bath. However, it wasn’t really a known name…although I had seen a few Gallini items at Chelsea, it wasn’t on the same scale as the other names of the time. At least it was a start.

I met a mate from Frome at the station in Cardiff – he was a Pompey fan who was at college in the “delightful” valley town of Pontypridd. He was lured into Cardiff for the game, but for some reason chose to watch from the Bob Bank, the large home terrace. We avoided going into any pubs as we were sitting targets. We made a bee-line for the ground. As I remember it, I was the first Chelsea fan who went through the turnstiles onto the uncovered away terrace…I was with Winnie and Glenn. The other chaps from Frome had splintered away from us by then. Good luck to them, I thought.

Well – believe it or not, we played awfully. Cardiff were no great shakes, but they raced to a 3-0 lead. This was not on the cards at all. This was going to be our worse defeat of the season by a mile. There must have been around 5,000 Chelsea in the 13,000 crowd and during the last quarter of the game, the lads in the front were pulling the fences down. I was watching from the rear in the middle. There had been outbreaks of trouble in the main stand too.

With six minutes to go, we pulled a goal back to make the score a bit more respectable. Then Kerry scored a second…game on! The Chelsea support urged the team on and in the last minute of the game we were awarded a penalty.

Nigel Spackman slotted it home and our end went mental…hugs, kisses, shouts, screams, arms thrusting heavenwards, our voices shouting and singing roars of triumph.

As we marched out onto the bleak Cardiff streets, we were invincible.

What a team. My team. Nothing could stop us.

On the train back to Frome, we regrouped, but two of our party were missing. Dave and Glyn had been arrested for something or other. It had to happen. They were dressed in boots and jeans – sitting ducks for the Welsh OB…me and Glenn were a bit more street-wise. On that train home, I met Paul ( aka “PD” ) for the first time and he was a fearsome sight…real Old School Chelsea…and I remember him looking into our small compartment as the Frome lads serenaded him –

“Daniels is our leader, Daniels is our leader.”

Despite the well-publicised trouble at the 2010 F.A. Cup game against Cardiff, we saw no hint of trouble throughout the day. We bumped into a few of those international visitors from afar outside the away end; Joe and Michelle from Chicago, Beth and BJ from Texas. I was inside just before kick-off. I soon bumped into five lads from Trowbridge; it is very likely that they were on the same train home from Cardiff as me in 1984.

The Cardiff City Stadium is not one of the worst new stadia, but it has no unique feature to enamour itself to visitors. It is a little similar, inside, to Reading’s stadium. There are single tiers behind the goal, two tiers to one side, but with an extension already going up opposite. However, I find it hard to believe that it will host August’s UEFA Super Cup.

Cardiff City, the bluebirds, in a stadium of blue and white, with blue seats, now play in red and black. The jarring sight of their kit is difficult to take in. Vincent Tan, their idiot chairman, needs to find a buyer for Cardiff City and go elsewhere. The sight of hundreds of home fans holding up blue and white bar scarves was a triumphant “fuck off” to Tan and his cronies. I felt for the home fans. This must have been, undoubtedly, a difficult season for them. Relegation – I suspect – was easier to stomach than the sickening rebranding carried out by the club’s demonic chairman.

If they don’t get promoted quickly, there is a chance that Cardiff City will stay half-blue, half-red, marooned forever.

However, proving that football fans are able to poke fun at the most unfortunate of circumstances, Chelsea then proceeded to taunt the City fans with many songs about their new club colours. Oh, and a song about the Welsh being sheepshaggers.

I bet Cardiff never heard that one before.

With JT and Lamps out, Ashley Cole wore the captain’s armband. We wondered if this might be his last game. I wondered if it might be Fernando Torres’ last game.

We squandered chance after chance in the first-half, with Torres, Oscar and Salah the main culprits. The Chelsea fans, in good voice at the start, were silenced when a Craig Bellamy shot was deflected by Cesar Azpilicueta past the stranded Mark Schwarzer.

“1-0 to The Championship.”

We groaned.

At least Liverpool were losing. There had been – I didn’t want to think too hard about this – the horrid thought of City losing and Liverpool…well, you know. As it turned out, we had no reason to worry. In fact, the afternoon turned into quite a Demba Ba / Steven Gerrard / Brendan Rodgers songfest.

Midway through the half, I remembered that Eden Hazard was playing; his involvement had been minimal. Our chances came and went.

There were only mocking songs to bring smiles to the Chelsea away support.

“You sold your soul and you’re going down.”

Jose Mourinho decided to bring on Andre Schurrle for Mikel after yet more Chelsea possession had yielded nothing more than shots without precision. Schurrle was immediately in the game, running effectively at the Cardiff defence. Thankfully, with less than twenty minutes remaining, a cross from Oscar was met by a stooping header from Dave. Marshall saved and Dave spun to fire the rebound against the bar. As it fell, Schurrle struck.

1-1.

Very soon after, Azpilicueta – one of my favourites this season – pushed a ball in from the right. The ball bobbled about, but Torres calmly struck home. It was his easiest Chelsea goal by some margin; he looked embarrassed and hardly celebrated.

2-1.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now, boyo.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds, emeralds, amythysts, topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.”

Youngsters Nathan Ake (I’m disappointed that Mourinho has not played him this season) and John Swift – the debutant – appeared in the closing segment. The points were won and the game dwindled on.

It was now time to serenade Ashley Cole. We begged him to take a last minute free-kick. At the end of the game, all of our attention was on him. He walked over to us and clapped the three thousand. I guess this is the last we will see of our Ashley. He has been, surely, our greatest ever left-back. I looked too, at Torres, taking a back seat in what could have been his final match in Chelsea blue.

It had been a rather flat afternoon. No surprises, I suppose. With Liverpool and City winning, we stayed third, ahead – as always – of Arsenal…and Tottenham…always Tottenham.

I was thankful to be able to say “have a great summer” to many of my match-going accomplices at half-time and after the final whistle.

We stopped off for two final pints on the way home – one in Caldicot, Wales, one in Bath, England – and the final day of 2013-2014 was over.

With a pint of Peroni in each of our hands we shared a toast :

“To next season.”

Image

 

 

 

 

 

Tales From An Alcoholic Afternoon.

Chelsea vs. Norwich City : 4 May 2014.

The Gang of Three was on the road again, aboard “The Chuckle Bus” for the last home match of season 2013-2014. With Parky sitting in the rear of Glenn’s VW camper, and yours truly alongside the driver in the front, we were all looking forward to seeing how the day’s events would unfold.

For once, chat between Glenn and I was all about football. This might seem a strange statement, but it is of course one of the great contradictions about our football life that although Chelsea is the reason why we have all found each other, very often it is all of the other things in our lives which dominate our conversations on match days.

Maybe it was our exit out of the Champions League on the previous Wednesday which stimulated our desire for footy chat; defeats and losses always seem to generate debate rather than victories and triumphs.

Glenn posed the question : “Looking back over the season, what is your main memory?”

I thought for a few minutes and answered.

“Apart from the wins at Manchester City and Liverpool, plus the wins against Arsenal and Tottenham, I think it was trying to fathom out Jose Mourinho throughout the season, trying to see where he is taking the club, trying to analyse his comments, trying to get inside his head.”

Although we admire the current batch of Chelsea players and although Roman controls the purse strings, this season it has felt that this is Jose’s club once again. From his initial “happy one” statements in the summer to his controlled reticence in the autumn, downplaying our chances throughout, to his occasional barbs at foes in the media, to his sudden outbreaks of surliness, to his comments about his players, his presence has been the overwhelming feature of this season. Sometimes he makes me cringe, sometimes he makes me smile. He is the master of the scripted sound bite, the whimsical aside, but also of the petrifying stare at those who have crossed him. He is fascinating character to have at the epicentre of our club.

Parky commented too.

“Just glad to be back, after missing so much of last season.”

Indeed. It seems like ages ago, but Parky hardly accompanied me on any away trips last season. It has been lovely to have him back in the fold.

It was Glenn’s turn.

“It’s our club again…after last season. There was fighting in the stands. Unrest. Jose has created unity.”

There is no denying that. Although the football hasn’t always been exciting to watch, there has been a genuine feeling of some sort of linear growth in 2013-2014.

So, we were back in SW6 yet again. With Glenn taking care of driving duties, I was able to relax and enjoy a few bevvies. In essence, I was Parky for one day. Shudder. Our first port of call was the bar in the Copthorne Hotel. Dennis, living life to the full during his week in England, joined us for a pint. The bar area was relatively quiet. I tut-tutted at the sight of a couple of Chelsea supporters wearing Star Wars face masks…well, no, I was rather more forthright.

“What the fcuk is that all about?”

Dennis quickly explained…”today is May the Fourth.”

I shook my head…”oh bloody hell.”

As we left the hotel, Glenn spotted Roy Bentley being ushered out in to the sunny May afternoon. He was with his family, celebrating his 90th. birthday a week or so early as a guest of the club. As Roy is originally from Bristol, I briefly mentioned the sad news about the relegation of Bristol Rovers from the Football League. A photograph of Roy with Dennis, Parky and Glenn was taken and we wished him well. I love the fact that Chelsea plays host to many of our ex-players each week.

Our next destination was “The Pelican”, but we were shocked at how quiet the place was. It was about 1.30pm, but the large bar only had around twenty customers. It is so strange how pubs wax and wane in popularity.

Next up “The Malt House” (aka “The Jolly Malster”) and this was dead, too. This established Chelsea boozer underwent a makeover – like many more in the immediate hinterland of Stamford Bridge – a few years ago, but now seemed to be full of diners rather than drinkers.

“The Goose” was a completely different story. The large bar and beer garden were crammed full of Chelsea supporters. Outside, the usual suspects were mid-session. The drinking continued under blue skies. A round of amaretto brought the inevitable “Alouette”

“Amaretto – Chelsea Amaretto.”

On the walk down to the ground, Parky, Dennis and I popped into “The Barrow Boy” (previously “The Hobgoblin” and “The Victualler” and “The Fulham Tap” – where the inaugural start-up meeting of the CST was held last season) for another shot of the almond-scented liquor.

As we walked past the entrance to the Fulham Broadway tube station, I happened to spot another Chelsea old-boy. It was Paul Canoville. The three of us have an evening with Canners – plus Pat Nevin and Doug Rougvie – lined-up in a couple of weeks down in Raynes Park and so it was lovely to see him ahead of that, to tell him how much we are relishing that night. We may not have a European final this season, but that will be a wonderful evening to see off season 2013-2014.

Inside Stamford Bridge, there seemed to be a post-Champions League hangover among the assembled masses. Even before the game began, there was a soporific air to the afternoon. The apparent fall-out between Mourinho and Hazard had resulted in our number seventeen being relegated to the bench. Demba Ba got the nod in attack.

Schwarzer, Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Cole, Lampard, Matic, Schurrle, Willian, Salah, Ba.

This was an altogether tedious affair; at least what I remember of it.

In the first-half, Andre Schurrle struck a firm effort against the far post, but all other chances are lost in the mists of time and fumes of alcohol. I remember being dismayed about the lack of support for the team in a game which we had to win to stand any chance of winning the league should both Liverpool and Manchester City falter in the final run in.

At the break, Mourinho replaced Frank Lampard and Mohamed Salah with David Luiz and Eden Hazard. Soon into the second-half, Brana tee’d up Luiz, who took aim at Ruddy’s goal. The Brazilian’s shot dipped and swerved, only for the ball to come crashing back into play off the bar. Soon after, Hazard appeared to be taken out of the game inside the Norwich box, but an offside decision was given instead. With each passing minute, there was growing concern that we wouldn’t be able to break Norwich down.  The frustration among the fans must have filtered down on to the pitch. Despite overwhelming possession, we found it difficult to get behind the Norwich defence. At the other end, on a very rare break, a sublime block from Gary Cahill came to the rescue as Snodgrass shot.

Mourinho added Fernando Torres in to the mix; he replaced Matic. A few late chances were exchanged in the final few minutes, but almost out of sympathy for the watching thousands. It had been a very flat afternoon of football.

There had been a few boos as the teams left the pitch at the interval and, sadly, there were more at the final whistle too. Worse was to come. After a pause of around ten minutes, the Chelsea players returned for the usual “lap of appreciation.” I had stood and watched, with sadness, as thousands upon thousands of supporters decided to leave; as the players emerged, I felt so sad. I wanted to apologise. It was a horrible sight. There were row upon row of empty seats. The players, with their replica-kitted children following on, clapped us and although I returned the favour, I felt disjointed, apart, unsettled, and adrift.

Sigh.

Outside, Glenn and I met up with Parky and Dennis.

We dipped into “The Harwood” – where we used to do our drinking from 1995 to 2000 – and the game was soon forgotten. Dennis was in line for more Chelsea history.

“After the F.A. Cup Final in 1997, we all came back to Fulham Broadway for a celebratory drink, but the police had closed virtually every pub. This place was one of the very few open. Thankfully, we were served. There’s a photo of us – exhausted, euphoric, blissful – right where we are stood now. Fantastic memories.”

We joined up with the others for one last hurrah at “The Lillee Langtry.” One final beer, one final laugh, one final moan…

For some, this would be the final get-together of 2013-2014.

For a few, one game remains.

Over the bridge to Cardiff.

See you there.

Image

Tales From The Home Of Four European Trophies.

Chelsea vs. Atletico Madrid : 30 April 2014.

How frequently did I think about the Chelsea vs. Atletico Madrid second leg during the day at work? Maybe once every five minutes. Maybe once every three minutes. Maybe once every two minutes. Several work colleagues asked me how I was feeling about the evening’s game. To my surprise, I tended to reply that I was “quietly confident” that we would progress. This is unlike me, especially when it comes to Champions League semi-finals. I don’t think that I have ever been “quietly confident” ever before.

This would be Chelsea’s seventh Champions League semi-final in only eleven seasons.

Time for some numbers.

This would be the fourth time that the second-leg would be at home -

2004 : Monaco – drew 2-2, but lost on aggregate.

2008 : Liverpool – won 3-2, and won on aggregate.

2009 : Barcelona – drew 1-1, but lost on away goals.

In the other years, the results were –

2005 : Liverpool – drew 0-0, but went out on aggregate at Anfield.

2007 : Liverpool – won 1-0, but went out on penalties at Anfield.

2012 : Barcelona – won 1-0, and went through on aggregate at Camp Nou.

For a football club that were deprived of European football from the autumn of 1971 until the autumn of 1994, these represent an amazing treasure trove of memories and emotions.

Jesper Gronkjaer, Fernando Morientes, Luis Garcia, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Joe Cole, Jan Arne Riise, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, Andres Iniesta, Didier Drogba, Ramires, Fernando Torres.

More heartache than joy.

In truth, the heartbreak of 2005, 2007 and 2009 are surely some of our most awful memories as Chelsea supporters. Somehow the loss in 2004 – our club’s first semi – seemed quite tame by comparison. After a tough away leg in Monaco, the return was always going to be difficult. We raced into a 2-0 lead, but then…well, you know the story.

As for 2005, 2007 and 2009; well you know those stories too.

After the sublime afterglow of Anfield, I gathered together two of the three troops who accompanied me to Liverpool on the previous Sunday. Lord Parky was collected from the pub opposite where I work in Chippenham and Dennis was collected from the town’s train station.

Let’s go.

I had watched the previous night’s semi-final between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Bayern’s capitulation had surprised me; despite odd successes, their recent Champions League story has predominantly featured misery and not joy.

So, Real Madrid – with our former manager Carlo Ancelotti at the helm – awaited the winner in Lisbon on Saturday 24 May. This pleased me, for numerous reasons. Should we be successful against Atletico, the stage would be set for a simply classic confrontation at Benfica’s Estadio da Luz.

Real Madrid vs. Chelsea.

White vs. Blue.

Carlo Ancelotti vs. Jose Mourinho.

1971 all over again.

I am sure I wasn’t the only Chelsea supporter to let their mind run away with the notion of this. I had gambled on us reaching the final after our win against Paris St. Germain; I had booked flights from Bristol to Lisbon. After the creditable 0-0 at the Vicente Calderon, a hotel room on The Algarve was booked, too.

Personally, there was an extra dimension to all of this.

Should we reach the 2014 Champions League Final, it would be my one thousandth Chelsea game.

In all honesty, this was all too surreal for me to comprehend at times. After the shocking defeat in Moscow, I was convinced that we would never win the European Cup. And yet, just six years later, here we were, with one trophy tucked in our back pockets and another one just 180 minutes away.

Dennis, Parky and I met up with some mates in the beer garden of The Goose. A couple of Atletico fans were inside. There was no hint of bother. Dave – the last of the Anfield Four – was in good spirits; he would be sitting next to me for the game. For once, talk was dominated by the game itself. Simon was “quietly confident” too. This was all very worrying.

News of the team broke and the big surprise was the appearance of Ashley Cole at left-back, presumably forcing Cesar into a midfield role, strikingly reminiscent of Ryan Bertrand’s role in Munich. The absence of Oscar was noted. Fernando Torres was given the start.

As Dennis remarked, it was turning into quite a week for him with visits to his two former homes.

I wanted to get inside the stadium earlier than usual, so I left at around 7pm. It was a perfect evening in London. I was in shirtsleeves and stayed the same the entire evening. At 7.15pm, I was inside. I was initially shocked to see how few fellow supporters were inside. Maybe, on this day of tube strikes, people were forced into a late arrival.

Over in the far corner, a sea of red and white striped shirts.

We waited for the kick-off.

Although the scene before me represented a familiar one; sunny skies, a boisterous away contingent, Champions League logos, familiar names on the advertisements, there seemed to be a lack of anticipation within the home ranks. For a while, all was still. Maybe it was the collective nerves among the home support which made for the quieter-than-expected ambiance.

The TV cameras picked out Diego Maradona and then Claudio Ranieri in the executive areas of the West Stand.

A card had been placed on every seat in the MHU; on it were instructions to hold these cards aloft just before the teams were due to enter the pitch. The overall effect would be of a blue-white-blue-white bar scarf. This was met with unsurprising cynicism from the chaps in the row in front, but I approved. I remember the CISA arranging for the 17,000 Chelsea fans at the 1994 F.A. Cup Final to hold 17,000 blue cards aloft as the players strode across Wembley’s finely manicured lawn, only for the TV cameras to ignore it completely. With around five minutes to go, the hideously embarrassing opera singer wheeled out by the club on European nights sang “Blue Is The Colour” and the usual blue and white scarves, derided by the Scousers at Anfield on Sunday, were waved in the West Lower and the Matthew Harding Lower.

As the teams entered the field, it was our moment. Some 3,000 blue and white cards were held aloft. From the MH balcony, four flags were unfurled.

The European Cup Winners’ Cup : 1971 and 1998.

The Super Cup 1998.

The European Cup : 2012.

The Europa Cup : 2013.

The only British club to win all four. It was a fantastic sight. I noted that, over in the East Middle, the inhabitants had been given 3,000 bar scarves.

Flags, mosaics, scarves.

I know that this kind of “forced-participation” is often frowned upon, but Stamford Bridge looked a picture.

As Dave arrived in time for the kick-off, there was a brief interchange.

Dave : “Great seats, mate.”

Chris : “This is where the magic happens.”

At 7.44pm, Stamford Bridge fell silent momentarily as two of football’s family were remembered.

Tito Villanova RIP.

Vujadin Boskov RIP.

I wasn’t happy that Chelsea were kicking “the wrong way” in the first-half. There are not many times that we attack the Matthew Harding in the first-half these days. Of course, prior to 1994 and the demise of The Shed, this was the norm.

At last, some semblance of noise boomed around the stadium as the few attacks from both sides began. Atletico brought the first heart tremor when a dangerously looping cross out on their left caused panic in our defence. It wasn’t readily apparent what had happened after Koke’s cross bounced off the bar. How could it go off for a corner? There was confusion in our defence and in my head too.

Next up, came a Chelsea chance. Ramires was fouled and we prayed for a goal from the free-kick. I caught a Willian’s effort on film, but it flew wide. Atletico were in this game and we tended to stand off as their mobile players raided. There was nervous tension on the pitch and off it. An overhead kick from David Luiz narrowly missed Courtois’ far post, bouncing safely away.

This was a tight game. Fernando Torres, prone to an indulgent dribble – maybe too eager to impress – was not ably supported by Azpilicueta, Willian and Hazard. For too long in the first half, he foraged alone. I noted a lack of intensity all round; from players and supporters alike. Was it the nerves? On several occasions when Atletico cleared, the ball boys threw balls back quickly, yet Chelsea players were often not paying attention and were unable to unsettle Atletico with a quick break. It was a metaphor for our half. We were just too lackadaisical. Jose would not approve.

The crowd tried to generate some noise.

“Champions Of Europe – We’ve Done it Before.”

With tem minutes to go before the break, a strong run from Willian into the Atletico box stirred us all. He held off two strong challenges – and did well to stay on his feet – and the ball ran free. Dave was supporting our Brazilian dynamo and he picked up the loose ball, and played it back into the path of Torres.

The former Atletico captain swept it into the goal.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

I jumped up and looked over to Nando. He held his hands up, indicating his reluctance to celebrate fully. Elsewhere, we more than made up for it.

We were on our way to Lisbon.

“GETINYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.”

Alan : “They’ll hath to come at uth na-ohhhh.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonth.”

Atletic seized the gauntlet and probed away. Mark Schwarzer, after his fine performance at Anfield, seemed to be coping ably.

Then, on forty-four minutes, misery.

Tiago, our former champion from 2005, swept a ball over to the far post to an unmarked attacker. The ball was knocked back…clenching of muscles…and Lopez struck home.

They had the advantage; that dreaded away goal.

It had been a first-half of few chances; six to us, five to them. At half-time, we presumed that Atletico would sit and protect their narrow advantage. They would, surely, do to us what we did to Liverpool on Sunday.

After the opening few minutes of the second period, Simeone’s game plan was evidently more adventurous. They attacked from the whistle. A Schwarzer save from Turan saved us. At the other end, we gasped in amazement as Courtois dropped to save a John Terry header. Samuel Eto’o replaced Ashley Cole, with Azpilicueta filling in at left-back. He joined up with Torres, with the midfield realigning themselves behind. Then, more calamity.

I was momentarily looking away, so missed Eto’o’s clip which resulted in the Italian referee pointing towards the spot.

Costa struck home.

Game, surely, over.

We now had to score three times to progress.

The away fans were in triumphant mood.

“Leti. Leti. Leti. Leti.”

Chelsea offered moments of hope. David Luiz, strong in tackle, but prone to awful finishing all night, struck a post. Atletico broke away down our right and Turan saw his header crash against the bar. We watched in horror as he easily followed up with a tap in from the rebound.

Stamford Bridge fell flat. It was time to reflect. At least there was no sense of horrendous injustice this time. At least there was no Iniesta-style dagger to the heart. I’d rather take a 3-1 loss than a last minute 1-1 exit. We had met our match, no excuses. Maybe the efforts of the game on Sunday had taken everything. Our one hope, Hazard, had been on the periphery all night. The game fizzled out. Mourinho made some late changes, but an unforgettable recovery was never on the cards. It had been a horrible second-half. We looked second-best. I longed for the whistle to blow.

The Atletico contingent, who had been relatively quiet until their first goal, were now rejoicing. There were songs for their former hero Fernando Torres and for their hated rival Jose Mourinho.

Some home fans had left by the time of the final whistle, but I was heartened by the many Chelsea supporters who stayed to not only thank our players for their efforts throughout the campaign but to applaud the victors.

Top marks.

Rob walked past and tapped me on the shoulder.

“Not tonight, Chris.”

“We’ve lost five out of seven semi-finals, but we’d give it all up for Munich.”

Rob agreed.

At least we have Munich. We’ll always have Munich. And Munich made defeat against Atletico Madrid on a night of harsh reality almost…ALMOST…bearable.

Outside, I waited silently with Dave for Dennis to arrive underneath the statue of Peter Osgood. I looked at his name etched in stone and I looked up at his image. It was a moment for me to give thanks to Ossie, possibly the determining factor in my decision to not only choose Chelsea in 1970 but to stick with the club ever since. After a while, a clearly saddened and emotional Dennis arrived. He was sad we had lost – of course – but was more disgusted by the “fans” around him in the West Lower who had hardly uttered words or songs of support to the team all night.

Then, Dennis spoke and his emotive words made me smile.

“I just need a few moments with The King.”

Outside on the Fulham Road there was an air of quiet reflection of the better team having won as the Chelsea faithful made their way home. Back in The Goose, Dennis – the visitor from over six thousand miles away – was philosophical and humbly grateful. He stood with a pint of lager in his hand and said –

“I’m just happy to be at this latitude and this longitude, right here, right now.”

We all knew what he meant.

As for me, there will be no grand finale in Lisbon. That landmark will have to wait.

Image