Tales From Old Trafford.

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 26 October 2014.

Bluff And Double Bluff.

During the several days of build-up to the Manchester United vs. Chelsea match at Old Trafford, there seemed to be constant rumours in the media and among fellow Chelsea supporters concerning the fitness of Diego Costa. Would he be fit or would he not? There were fears about his delicate hamstring injury, but some Chelsea fans were of the opinion that this was a smoke screen used by Jose Mourinho and the club in order to stay “one step ahead” of the opposition, with our new striker likely to undergo a Lazarus-like improvement before our game at Old Trafford. There was also a shady report of a stomach bug too. The home match against Maribor on Tuesday, which I missed, provided further problems and confusion. Loic Remy, Diego Costa’s likely replacement at Old Trafford (should his injury prove scare prove to be justified – “wink wink”) managed to injure himself, thus ruling him out of the game in Manchester. Didier Drogba, Remy’s replacement on Tuesday, then played around seventy minutes himself. Would Jose Mourinho have played Didier for such an elongated spell, knowing full well that he would likely be his Hobson’s Choice of a starter on Sunday? From one perspective, it appeared “odds-on” that Diego Costa would be miraculously recover and start against United. On the long and familiar drive north to Old Trafford, the talk in the car was almost devoid of football chat, but on the rare occasions that we mentioned the game ahead, the main talking point was centred on Diego Costa.

“Would he or wouldn’t he?”

Parky and PD, my fellow travellers on the five hour car journey were gung-ho about our chances, but as we swung around the orbital motorway to the south of Manchester, I was a little more pragmatic.

“To be honest, I wouldn’t be too upset with a draw. I just want to avoid defeat.”

Manchester United, top-heavy with summer signings, was a team of unknown risk in my eyes. Sure, their defence was prone to silly errors and could be harmed by our tricky offensive players, but they possessed a combustible cocktail of attacking options themselves.

However, I was surprisingly confident as I drove into Manchester. I’m sure we could cause them problems. Even without Diego Costa.

Under The Munich Clock.

We were parked-up at around 2.30pm. We paid the requisite £10 to a weather-beaten local, who resembled the third Chuckle Brother, to park outside a garage on the road which leads from the Chester Road to Old Trafford cricket ground.

“Are you lads Chel-seh?”

“Yeah, mate.”

“I want you to win today.”

He reached out to shake my hand.

“City?” I asked.

“I’m blue through and through, me.”

Within twenty minutes, we had walked through the park and then past more parking spots, then past The Bishop Blaize pub – with songs from inside – and then past the chippies at the crossroads. These sights – and sites – were oh-so familiar by know. The red brick of the houses, the red scarves of the United fans, the towering white steel of the stadium behind. Down on the forecourt, we waited for a few moments on the off-chance of bumping into some friendly faces. Alan and Gary soon appeared, fresh from the official coach trip which left Stamford Bridge at 9am. There had been trouble on the trains, apparently, with another mate – Dave the Hat – forced to travel up to Sheffield and across from there. Tickets were handed over for future games. The forecourt, as always, was a volatile mix of United and Chelsea. Squabbles only tend to happen after the games at Old Trafford these days, though. With the Munich clock looking down on the hub-bub of activity below, we decided to head inside. It was 3.15pm.

In Previous Episodes.

This would be my twentieth Manchester United vs. Chelsea away game, and my eleventh consecutive away league fixture. It all started, for me, on an electric night at Old Trafford in April 1986, when a Kerry Dixon brace gave us a breath-taking 2-1 win, with four thousand Chelsea fans crammed into the pens in front of “K Stand” – as it was called in those days – with thousands of belligerent United fans right behind us, glowering, gesticulating and screaming support of their team.

Their shrill shouts of “United! United! United!” is a very strong memory, some twenty-eight years later.

Since then there have been tons of memories. Two odd – recent – games are fresh in my mind. In the opening period of the 2011-2012 season, we travelled north under Villas-Boas. Although we lost 3-1, there were lots of positives on that sunny afternoon; I can never remember a game where we had lost, yet the fans had departed the stadium in such a positive mood. Then, last season, we witnessed a very dour performance – from both teams – and a 0-0 draw, with Jose Mourinho electing to play without a recognised striker.

Strange ways in deepest Manchester.

As I waited for an announcement of our team, I wondered if Mourinho would spring a surprise on us again. Last season, Andre Schurrle was the one man asked to run from deep and pose the biggest offensive threat. Who would be asked to lead the line this time?

The South-East Corner.

I took my place, high up in the corner quadrant of the away section. I tut-tutted as I sidled past a family of four, each wearing a half-and-half scarf, calmly sitting and observing.

“Tourists” I mumbled silently to myself.

Of course, as I have said before, Chelsea has thousands of passionate and committed supporters the world over, who truly “get” what Chelsea is all about, but why do so many others who attend in person have to be such divs?

Answers on a postcard.

There was noise from the crowded bar areas below, but all was quiet within the stadium, which seemed to take forever to fill. At last, the Chelsea team appeared – in their jade warm-up gear, how 1986 – and I quickly scanned the ten outfield players.

“No Diego Costa.”

There were looks of dismay on the faces of my companions in the south-east corner.

“Up to you then, Didier, son.”

I was momentarily subdued. Could our returning hero stand up to two games in six days? We would soon find out. As kick-off approached, the stands filled and the noise-levels rose. The United PA tried its best to rouse the locals.

“Dirty Old Town.”

The Chelsea choir dipped into its songbook. The players appeared from the tunnel in the south-west corner. We were ready.

The First-Half.

I was pretty content with our performance in the opening forty-five minutes. From the start, it seemed that we were confident in possession and resolute in defence. I noted that our use of Didier Drogba was now different than in previous years. Before, we would knock balls into channels or over the top and ask our marauding Ivorian to use his speed and strength to strike fear into opposing defences. Now, he was being asked to come deeper and retain the ball in order to set up runners off him. Our play was a little more compact. A lot depended on our midfield three, or five. Eden Hazard was at times unplayable in the first-half. One shimmy dumbfounded two United players in a gorgeous moment of play. Matic harried and blocked and then supported his team mates with a number of surging runs. Oscar and Fabgregas, though, seemed adrift. It was a pleasing first half, but with only two golden chances. The lively Januzaj played in Robin van Persie who found himself in on goal, but Thibaut Courtois blocked superbly. At the other end, in front of the Stretford End, Oscar reached the by-line, and pulled the ball back to Didier Drogba. His low shot was blocked by the legs of De Gea. United had peppered our goal at regular intervals throughout the first period, but we were largely untroubled. It was odd to see Juan Mata in United red, in person, against us.

The North-West Corner.

I had been in contact with a newly-acquainted friend from Orlando in Florida during the day; we had hoped to meet up outside, but Kim and her friend Jenna were firmly ensconced in one of Old Trafford’s hospitality lounges by the time I had arrived at the stadium. They were watching from way up in the north-west corner, in one of the quadrants that were “infilled” around eight years ago. I wondered how Kim was coping in a sea of United. I wondered if she could hear us singing. I wondered how her day was going; I bet she would rather swap her seat to be among us a hundred yards away and a hundred feet lower.

The Second-Half.

We began brightly, with Hazard again leading the charge. At the other end, Fellaini wasted a good chance by skimming a shot wide. Hazard was clean in on goal, but De Gea was able to save. The Chelsea choir looked away disconsolately, but roared the team on as a corner was rewarded. I held my camera still and waited for the ball to reach the box. In a flash, I saw Didier Drogba leap, virtually untroubled, at the near post. I clicked.

The ball crashed into the net and the three-thousand Chelsea fans in the south-east corner screamed in ecstasy. I was knocked sideways, then backwards and I clung on to the chap next to me, not wanting to fall back and injure myself. If the goal was a virtual carbon copy of Didier’s leap and header in Munich, then so too were the celebrations. This time, though, I managed to keep hold of my glasses. The scenes were of pandemonium; away goals in big games are celebrated like no other.

I steadied myself just in time to witness Didier and his team mates celebrating wildly in front of us.

Euphoria.

I had one thought.

“Munichesque.”

I then had a thought about Tuesday night and Didier’s penalty, hit to the left, which so resembled his winning penalty in Munich. I playfully wondered if his role now was to just replay these two historic moments from “that night” on a constant loop for the rest of the season.

“And Drogba, with his twelfth near post header of the season…”

Kim sent me a text; the two of them had screamed with delight at Didier’s goal and were now being treated like Ebola victims in the North-West Upper.

We continued to impress, with Matic being especially dominant.

I received a text from Steve in South Philadelphia :

“On comes Mikel, Mourinho’s closer.”

In baseball, with a team winning late on, a coach brings in a steady and reliable pitcher – “a closer” – to keep things tight and maintain the advantage. Closers tend to have nerves of steel. It was typical Mourinho. He replaced the subdued Oscar.

Juan Mata was clapped by the Chelsea contingent as he too was substituted. Ivanovic, who had enjoyed a physical battle with De Maria all game, broke in to the United box, but his cross come shot flashed past the far post. The impressive Willian, bundles of energy, went close. As the game wore on, we tended to drop deeper and deeper and our energy levels dropped. United kept probing. I had memories of a late equaliser in 1997 at the Stretford End. Ugh.

Schurrle replaced Hazard, then Zouma replaced Willian.

Four minutes of extra time.

Then, a “coming together” of bodies down our right and Ivanovic, already booked, was adjudged to have tripped De Maria. From over one hundred yards away, it looked like Brana had clipped him. He was given a second yellow and was dismissed.

“Come on Chelsea.”

The delivery from the free-kick found the leaping mop of Fellaini, but Courtois blocked. The ball fell advantageously to Van Persie who lashed the ball in.

Fcuk.

Old Trafford roared and I watched, sick to the stomach, as the scorer ripped off his shirt and threw it into the Stretford End as if it was a match winner.

Twenty seconds later, the referee blew.

1-1.

Within seconds, the away fans reminded everyone –

“We’re Top Of The League.”

Outside on the forecourt, there were police horses and scuffles.

We quickly raced back to the waiting car. I was at my pragmatic best. Although it was disappointing to give up a goal in the last twenty seconds, a draw meant that we had gone six points ahead of Manchester City, who remain our closest title rivals. I must admit that I was warmed with the thought of millions of United fans happy to draw at home with us. I edged out into the dark Manchester night and began our five hour drive home. After the familiarity of Old Trafford, we reconvene at a new stadium, Shrewsbury Town, on Tuesday.

I’ll see you there.

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Tales From South London.

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 18 October 2014.

On the drive in to London, as we neared West Drayton or Colnbrook, Parky flicked through a few of the CDs that he had brought along for the day. Once a Squeeze greatest hits selection was chosen, I knew that their songs would provide the backdrop for the day, which would primarily be spent in the band’s back garden of South London. Before we knew it, there was talk of The Sweeney doing ninety ‘cus they’ve got the word to go to catch a gang of villains in a shed up at Heathrow. It all seemed very apt.

Soon there would be talk of Wandsworth and Clapham.

London – or at least the Southern part of it – stretched out before me as I climbed up on to the Hammersmith flyover. After a two week hiatus, it was good to be back in town. And my thoughts of the day would eventually be recorded here on paper; my chills and thrills and spills.

After a swift pint in the “Prince of Wales”, we caught the over ground train at West Brompton, which then took us tantalisingly close to Stamford Bridge, before stopping at Imperial Wharf. One of the alternatives to our new stadium plans of 2011, the area is now overflowing with new apartment blocks. We crossed the River Thames at Chelsea Harbour.

The trip to Selhurst Park last spring was still fresh in my mind; it made me wince. It was, in my mind anyway, our worst performance of 2013-2014, as limp and disjointed a showing as I can remember. With rumours of Diego Costa being absent for the afternoon’s rematch, I briefly wondered if our attack would be equally ineffective this time.

We changed trains at Clapham Junction and caught the 1.11pm to Thornton Heath. There were vivid memories of my trips to Chelsea in 1988-1989, when I used to stay with mates in Woking and travel in by train. Very often, my mates – friends from college, lured to London for employment, – would often join me for a post-game pub crawl around the West End. We would catch the train back from Waterloo around midnight, and as soon as we pulled in to Clapham Junction, one of us – it was usually me – would serenade the carriage accordingly:

I never thought it would happen
With me and the girl from Clapham
Out on the windy common
That night I ain’t forgotten.
When she dealt out the rations
With some or other passions.
I said “you are a lady”
“Perhaps” she said. “I may be.”

We alighted at Thornton Heath in order to prise Andy and Darren out of “The Railway Telegraph”, before heading up to Norwood Junction to meet other friends. The pub was full of Chelsea, with a healthy cluster of OB settled outside, keeping their beady eyes on proceedings. Andy, the leader of the OC Hooligans (yep, them once more) was in town for one game and one game only. It was a pleasure to see him once more. Once away from the pub, I asked a policeman for directions to Thornton Heath. We envisaged a fifteen minute walk.

We moved in to a basement 
With thoughts of our engagement
We stayed in by the telly 
Although the room was smelly.
We spent our time just kissing
The Railway Arms we’re missing
But love had got us hooked up
And all our time it took up.

The four of us began our walk to Norwood Junction. The weather was overcast but horribly muggy. We soon started to boil. As we walked on and on, we canvassed opinions from a local. It became obvious that the policeman should not have been trusted. We headed back on ourselves, amid consternation from Andy – from Los Angeles – who just wasn’t used to the English habit of walking.

I got a job with Stanley
He said I’d come in handy
And started me on Monday
So I had a bath on Sunday.
I worked eleven hours
And bought the girl some flowers
She said she’d seen a doctor 
And nothing now could stop her.

Lo and behold, we found ourselves at Selhurst station, and we sighed. Our detour had wasted twenty minutes of our valuable pre-match drink up. Darren tried to soothe our minds by saying that it was better to have a crap pre-match and a great game than vice-versa. With thoughts of the game in March, I agreed. Still, Norwood Junction was out of view. We trundled on.

I worked all through the winter 
The weather brass and bitter
I put away a tenner 
Each week to make her better.
And when the time was ready 
We had to sell the telly
Late evenings by the fire
With little kicks inside her.

While I was on holiday in Albufeira last May, I bumped into some Crystal Palace youth players and I promised myself to buy the match programme – for once – to see if I could spot any names and faces. One of the lads was a Chelsea supporter, from Sutton, and I wondered if he was experiencing mixed emotions on this particular match day. I wondered where his loyalties were lying. I presumed that as he was on the books of Crystal Palace, there would be a tremendous upsurge in confidence around the whole club, at every level, should they defeat the league leaders. But I tried not to think about that.

This morning at four fifty 
I took her rather nifty 
Down to an incubator
Where thirty minutes later
She gave birth to a daughter
Within a year a walker.
She looked just like her mother
If there could be another.

Eventually, we caught the number 75 bus to take us the last half a mile. It was about 2.15pm. This would be a very quick “hello goodbye.”

And now she’s two years older
Her mother’s with a soldier
She left me when my drinking
Became a proper stinging.
The devil came and took me
From bar to street to bookie
No more nights by the telly
No more nights nappies smelling.

At last, the bus stopped and we bundled off. As we approached the boozer, we noted a few friendly faces heading towards Selhurst Park. At least there would be more room in the pub for us. At last we stepped inside “The William Stanley.” We were almost an hour late, but we had arrived. We could relax.

Alone here in the kitchen
I feel there’s something missing
I’d beg for some forgiveness 
But begging’s not my business
And she won’t write a letter
Although I always tell her
And so it’s my assumption 
I’m really up the junction.

The four of us guzzled pints of Kronenburg, and then met up with Alan, Gary, Daryl and Cath. The pub was emptying. Within ten minutes, we were on the short walk to Selhurst Park.

Once inside the stadium, it was obvious that most of the away supporters had spent more than our ten minutes inside various boozers. The mood was raucous. The hoolifans (copyright Martin King) were out in force. Amid the stadia’s old-fashioned features and cramped gangways, the buzz was tangible. Home games at Chelsea might attract a wide range of social strata, but away games remain the predilection of our traditional working class hard-core of old.

Especially Crystal Palace away.

My seat was at the very rear of the lower section of the Arthur Waite Stand. Back in the ‘eighties, the lower section was standing only. In truth, the lower section would be standing only in 2014 too, albeit with the added intrusion of plastic seats getting in the way. The stand was dark and cavernous; good acoustics, though. Sadly, the rake of the terraces remained shallow and it meant that I spent some of the game on tip-toes as I strained to watch the game unfold. At times, I was unable to see any of the action in the far left corner, down where the Palace Ultras provide a noisy backdrop to the games at Selhurst.

There was a near capacity crowd as the teams lined up. Chelsea were in all yellow again. I quickly scanned the team. Diego Costa was indeed out, to be replaced by Loic Remy. The league ever-presents in 2014-2015 now stood at eight; Courtois, Brana, Dave, JT, Gary, Matic, Cesc and Hazard.

There was a lively start to the game with Campbell forcing a low block from Courtois within the first two minutes. At the other end, a free-kick was awarded to us and there was a little delay as the referee moved the wall back. This, as always, heightened the sense of drama. Oscar clipped the free-kick up and over the wall and it spun across Speroni’s goal before nestling in the far corner.

We were 1-0 up after just six minutes and Alan gave me a massive bear hug.

“Come on my little diamonds” I gasped.

A blue flare was let off around ten rows in front and the fumes were a vivid reminder that we were back in business. However, Gary Cahill was soon showing the same geographical awareness that we had shown on our lengthy walk from Thornton Hearth to Norwood Junction, allowing Campbell to lob over. With Matic covering a lot of ground, he was making up for his woeful performance last season. Fabregas was picking passes into supporting team mates. We were playing some lovely stuff. Willian fired over.

A fine run from Bolasie reminded us that Palace were an occasional threat. Thankfully his shot was screwed wide.

The Chelsea choir were in fine voice, with the “Steve Gerrard” song being chanted with gusto. Ah, that 3-3 draw at Selhurst Park followed our 2-0 win at Anfield. I was surprised no Palace fans joined in. Their main song gathered momentum –

“CPFC. CPFC. CPFC, CPFC, CPFC.”

After a few refereeing decisions went our way, this changed to –

“Shit referee. Shit referee. Shit referee, shit referee, shit referee.”

As far as lyrics go, Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford needn’t worry.

A Chelsea song was aimed at other rivals further north and further east -

“We hate those bastards in claret and blue.”

Of course, Crystal Palace used to wear these colours too, way back in the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies. In fact, few clubs have had as many kit changes as Palace over the years.

Now it was our turn to use the same tune to goad Palace -

“Shit football team. Shit football team. Shit football team, shit football team, shit football team.”

Our position of comfort seemed in jeopardy when a silly lunge by Azpilicueta scythed down Jedinak right in front of the referee. The Palace fans whooped as he was shown the red card. Mourinho re-jigged, replacing Willian with Filipe Luis. Incredibly, Palace were then reduced to ten men when Delaney was given a second yellow for holding back Remy.

Ten versus ten.

The Chelsea support, concerned that our lead would be jeopardised, roared.

We had heard that Manchester City had walloped Tottenham 4-1, so we just needed us to hang on to the win. The first-half had been mainly positive, with a few fine periods of play, though there was an annoying doubt in my mind that Palace might threaten in the second period.

We looked at ease in the opening minutes of the half, and a fine move through the heart of the Palace defence resulted in a series of one-twos, which finally fed in Fabregas who slotted home.

2-0.

It was a stunning goal.

We roared again.

I watched as Fabregas raced towards the baying three thousand supporters in the Arthur Waite. It was party time once more. Hazard went close, but our weighty possession didn’t provide too many other scoring chances. A perfectly-timed tackle by Cahill was one of the highlights of the game. In the stands, with ten minutes left to play, it was time for us to nick the song of the day and to give it new life.

“We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league.”

This lasted five minutes, then six minutes, then seven minutes, then eight minutes. When Palace cut through our defence to score, we hardly paused.

“We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league.”

Thankfully, the merest hint of an embarrassing draw was averted and we held on. The singing continued as the players thanked us for our support. Only four walked towards us though; must do better. John Terry, Chelsea captain for the five-hundredth time, walked right up to us, though. It was a lovely moment.

We walked back to Norwood Junction and – with great relief – I slumped in a seat on a train headed for London Bridge. Until that point, I had been on my feet for around five hours. Our route back in to the centre of London took us past The Den. At London Bridge station, under the iconic Shard skyscraper, around seventy riot police formed a formidable sight on the station concourse. Had there been an act of terrorism, or was an apocalypse close? No, Millwall had just played at home. I guess such scenes at London Bridge are common on Saturday afternoons.

Our lengthy meanderings continued as we made our way back west, via Westminster, and a pint in The Zetland Arms at South Kensington.  As we got back on the District Line train, headed for Earl’s Court, we passed two inebriated Chelsea fans – faces familiar, names unknown – who bellowed once more –

“We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league. We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league.”

It had been another good day.

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Tales From The Butcher’s Hook.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 5 October 2014.

After an enjoyable European Away, there often seems to be a sense of anti-climax leading up to the next game. In London parlance this is often termed “after the Lord Mayor’s Show.” Not so on this occasion. A home derby against our oldest London rivals Arsenal, with memories still fresh in our minds of the 6-0 drubbing we gave them last spring, was enough to get the pulses racing.

I travelled up to West London with Lord Parky and Bournemouth Steve. Before the match, I needed to do some scurrying around to meet up with a few transatlantic supporters in a couple of pubs. For once, I would not make it to my usual base camp, The Goose. Parky joined me for a quick pint with some good friends from Southern California – some of the infamous OC Hooligans – at the Prince of Wales at West Brompton. John, Tom, Matt and Phil are “hooligans” in name only; they are some of the nicest bunch of supporters that the US has to offer. It’s always a pleasure to meet up with them. I collected a spare ticket and bade them a fond farewell. I then needed to head off down to the stadium, and my route took me past three pubs which we have frequented in the past; “The Atlas”, “The Harwood” and “The Lazy Fox” aka “The Fulham Dray.” I made a bee-line for “The Butcher’s Hook” and pushed through the crowded front bar.

Towards the rear of the pub, I met up with Leigh-Anne from Toronto, her boyfriend John and his brother Kevin. I had briefly met Leigh-Anne and John in NYC in 2012. I was able to assist in getting tickets for two of the three, while another of their acquaintances procured the third. They were suitably buzzing. Leigh-Anne and John had been in Barcelona during the week, and Kevin had been visiting a mate from Croatia in Milan. We live in a golden age of travel for sure. We’re lucky buggers.

It was lovely to be back in “The Butcher’s Hook” before a game. In addition to being the very location where our club was formed in 1905 – in the room above – it also brought back a lovely memory from 2004-2005. For our game against Birmingham City, my friend Glenn and I attended the match with two very special people; his grandmother and my mother. Before the match, we had enjoyed a lovely pre-match meal in “The Butcher’s Hook” and I was reminded of that very special day. It was wonderful that my mother, aged 75, was able to see Chelsea play in person during our first championship campaign in fifty years. We had all met Peter Osgood in the megastore too. It was a cracking day out.

I guzzled down another pint amidst rapid-fire conversation with the three Canadians about all things Chelsea. Before we knew it, kick-off was approaching fast. I warned Leigh-Anne, John and Kevin to finish off their drinks. It would be a shame to miss the start. Outside the weather was splendid; the gentle autumn sun meant that most were in shirt-sleeves.

At the turnstiles for the MHU, there was a large queue to enter. While we were in line, the stadium PA announced that due to “an incident” the game would be delayed for fifteen minutes. What luck for the three Canadians. I sent them a text; there was no need to rush.

“Start delayed 15 minutes due to an incident. Parky bought a round.”

There were a few rumours about flares being let off outside, but nobody was sure. So, possibly our first and only 2.20pm kick-off.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture. For some reason, I was reminded of the famous oil painting by Charles Cundall of the stadium for the Chelsea vs. Arsenal Division One match in 1935, a game which happened to host our largest ever “official” attendance of 82,905. The club constructed a special platform for the artist above the vast terracing above the north-west corner flag and the panorama depicted – or at least the view and the angle of the pitch – was quite similar to my particular view in 2014.

I have waxed lyrical about the charms of the old ellipsoid Stamford Bridge in the past. For all of its idiosyncratic awkwardness, with odd stands and crazy angles, I still miss it badly. The current Stamford Bridge, housing almost exactly half of the 82,905 of 1935, is obviously a fine stadium. There is something quite Chelseaesque about its four misaligned stands.  Chelsea has never been about conformance. There had always been an edgy dimension to us, even our stadium.

Ah, our stadium.

It has warmed me immensely to hear that the board of Chelsea Football Club, in addition to testing the waters of the local populace, businesses and council of Hammersmith & Fulham with regard to possible expansion of Stamford Bridge, have allegedly contacted the RFU with a tentative request to use Twickenham while The Bridge undergoes possible improvement.

This is very pleasing to hear. Stamford Bridge is our spiritual home; it makes us who we are in my honest opinion. It defines us. I am heartened that the board has acknowledged this. I wish them every success in redeveloping Stamford Bridge. Let the unpleasantness of the “CPO Autumn” of 2011 be a distant memory.

Who knows, maybe those plans for a 60,000 Stamford Bridge, first mooted by a smiling Brian Mears in 1972, might eventually come to fruition. And, intriguingly, maybe that 82,905 attendance record might just be eclipsed at the home of rugby union. Twickenham currently holds 82,000. Interesting times ahead, let’s hope.

At last the teams appeared. The nine “league ever-presents” were supplemented by Schurrle and Oscar. Arsenal, wearing a very light red, chose to attack the Matthew Harding and for a few seconds, my mind played tricks on me. It seemed like it was the second-half already. Arsenal were supported by three thousand away fans and, although I am unsure, I thought I heard chants from them suggesting that Cesc Fabregas should go away and fornicate.

Classy stuff.

No doubt about it, Arsenal dominated the first quarter of the game. They looked steady and composed in possession, while we struggled to put more than three passes together. We looked edgy and nervous. After a quarter of an hour, however, there were no shots on goal from either side. The memory of last season’s rout was suddenly fading. Arsenal looked a lot more at ease. The first real chance fell to Alexis Sanchez, but a brave Courtois block quelled any danger. Arsenal maintained the advantage. Then, slightly delayed, Courtois fell and sought medical attention. The Chelsea medical team attended our young keeper, while Chelsea fans in Nerdistan fell in love with Eva Carneiro all over again. After a few minutes of concern, Courtois was replaced by Petr Cech.

He received a magnificent reception.

I took a “comfort break” just as the heated exchange between the two managers took place on the touchline. I’m sure everyone enjoyed that, though.

…er, the pitchside scuffle, rather than the thought of me turning my bike ‘round.

On twenty six minutes, Eden Hazard set off on a mazy run which Alberto Tomba would have been proud. He slalomed his way into the box and a wild stab by Laurent Koscielny sent him tumbling. It was an obvious penalty.

Eden Hazard took his time and stroked the ball past Wojzciecjzh Szczszcesesncy.

1-0, get in.

I’ll be honest, the goal was slightly against the run of play, but we cared not. The Bridge roared with approval. Jack Wilshere tested Petr Cech with a run on goal but lost control just as our ‘keeper raced out to smother the ball.

There had been few clear chances in the first forty-five minutes. We were obviously content with a lead, but hoped for more Chelsea chances after the break.

In the interval, Bobby Tambling received his usual magnificent reception from one and all, apart from the 3,000 Arsenal fans, who serenaded him with “you were here when you were shit.”

Classy stuff.

Just after the break, Cazorla drilled a low shot just past Cech’s left post. I momentarily held me head in my hands.

Phew.

Chances were still at a premium. On the hour, Eden Hazard advanced and sent a low cross towards goal, only for Flamini to stab at it and deflect it on to the near post. Chelsea continued to close down space, pester the Arsenal player on the ball, and stifle their passing game. There was special praise for Oscar, not always the flavour of the month, who put in a tireless display. His relentless running, tackling – “nibbling” – and blocking set the tone for the rest of the team.

As the last quarter approached, the manager replaced Schurrle – again, off the pace – with the steadying influence of Jon Obi Mikel. Next, Diego Costa set off on an invigorating run which resulted in a crisp pass to Hazard, who had supported the marauding centre-forward, but whose shot flew over the bar. For all of Arsenal’s possession, they very rarely tested Cech.

The atmosphere was not brilliant, though there were times when the home faithful did their job. The “ole, ole, ole, ole” and the “Jose Mourinho” chants seemed to galvanise the support. With just over ten minutes remaining, Fabregas took control in the middle of the pitch and lofted a high ball over the sleeping Arsenal backline. Who else but Diego Costa darted free and just…just!…reached the ball before the Arsenal ‘keeper could clear. He chested it down and in one movement delicately lofted it over the beaten Szsczszceseszsncy.

Stamford Bridge went into orbit.

GET IN, 2-0.

I snapped away as he jumped and screamed in pleasure down in Parkyville. I hope that the North Americans were able to snap a few too.

Superb.

It was Diego’s ninth goal in seven league games.

And it was game over.

Ah, the absolute joy of being able to sing “One Team In London” without fear of being incorrect.

There was even disbelief and then sudden merriment as Diego da Silva Costa blazed over from six yards after a fine move down the right; the linesman thankfully, in the circumstances, ruled him offside.

At the end of the game, I met outside the Peter Osgood statue in order to sort out yet more tickets for other friends. By doing so, I had unwittingly missed a few scuffles down at Fulham Broadway which had resulted in a few punches being thrown between a few Arsenal and Chelsea followers.

So, let’s re-cap.

Seven games played.

Five points clear.

And…the international break.

Damn you.

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Tales From Super Bock City.

Sporting Lisbon vs. Chelsea : 30 September 2014.

Monday 29 September 2014.

This was a long-awaited trip to Lisbon in Portugal for our first Champions League away game of 2014-2015. Of course, there were many reasons for this; relaxation, travel, football, comradeship and all of the standard words and hackneyed phrases could be thrown in to the mix. But there was one distinct reason why this “European Away” would be a little bit special; it would be Parky’s first Chelsea away in Europe since the ECWC Final in Stockholm in 1998. Of course, I never knew him then as our paths would cross a few years later. But we’ve become solid mates over the past five or six seasons. It hurts me to say that Parky missed Moscow, Munich and Amsterdam and all other cities too since that memorable night in Sweden over sixteen years ago. This would hopefully be a thoroughly enjoyable trip for him.

I woke at 3am – truly the dead of night – and, in an hour, I was off on another adventure over land and sea. It would be my twenty-ninth away game in Europe with Chelsea.

It was a foggy drive through the dark Somerset and Wiltshire countryside on the twenty-five minute trip to collect Parky. I had decided to call him “Parkao” for this trip and this trip only.

I soon sent a text to Alan in London to let him know that I was on the road.

“Jak Kerouacao.”

He replied “Reg Varney.”

He was on a night bus in order to catch a coach up to Stansted Airport.

Parkao was buzzing as I collected him at 4.30am. We drove through Bath, and then headed up to Bristol Airport for our 7.05am Easyjet flight to Faro. The check-in process was delayed a few moments as Parkao’s metal leg brace set off the security alarms. After several attempts, he was successfully scanned.

He cost £1.72.

Once on the plane, I texted Alan again :

“Freddy Laker.”

He replied “Al Murray.”

He was obviously in the bar at Stansted. We would be all in the same hotel later in the day.

There was a slight delay as we waited for the food for the flight to arrive. The steward lost some credibility when he claimed that they needed the food on the plane to help balance the load. I remarked to Parkao “I’ve never heard a plane crash ‘cus it was missing a few sandwiches.” Eventually, we were up, up and away over Somerset, Devon and then over the channel, France, Spain and Portugal. We grabbed a little sleep. The time soon passed. The only surprise was that there was no other Chelsea on it. We were headed to Faro, on The Algarve, because the only option out of Bristol to Lisbon involved a Sunday to Thursday stay. The plane touched down at a sun-drenched Faro at around 9.45am. We caught the 11am “Vera” coach to Lisbon and we could relax.

I first visited Lisbon on the third of my Inter-Railing trips around Europe by train in 1987. I and two college mates – Ian and Trev – had graduated in the June and had worked a few jobs over the summer in order to get away for three weeks in September. We arrived in Lisbon’s Santa Apolonia station after an overnight train from Madrid. My memory is that we only stayed a couple of hours in the Portugal capital – just passing through on the way to The Algarve – but my diary entry for Tuesday 15 September 1987 informs me that we arrived at 9am, and caught the 2.10pm ferry over the River Tagus to Barreiro, so were in the city for longer than I thought. There was time for a stroll around the streets – the weather was very hot – and also time for a couple of beers in a street side café. I remember being taken aback by the sad sight of beggars without limbs at the station, and several people tried to sell us some hash. I also remember fake Lacoste polo shirts on sale by the ferry terminal, which abutted the main square. The city looked fascinating, with ornate architecture, wide piazzas and there were hints of a rich history. It felt horrible to be only in town for four hours. As the ferry took us over the massive river, I vowed to return one day.

I believe that Chelsea played Benfica in a friendly around fifteen years ago and also – for certain – in the 2011/2012 Champions League season, but I did not attend those games in Lisbon. Of course, our defeat by Atletico Madrid last April meant that there would be no Chelsea trip to Lisbon in May 2014, either. However, I had already booked a flight to Lisbon and hotel in Albufeira and so decided to go over for a few days’ break anyway. Hundreds of other Chelsea fans had exactly the same opinion. My stay in Lisbon in May was even shorter than in 1987. Before catching a train south, I just had time for a few beers in a quiet bar near the slightly run-down area around the Entre Campos station.

As I sat, alone, in that small bar it felt like I should be there for a Chelsea game. It was a very odd sensation. I kept expecting friends to poke their heads around the door to join me for a brew. Little did I know that I would be back in just over four months and that the hotel I would choose would only be half-a-mile away from that very bar.

It was a fine, relaxing trip north. The coach was air-conditioned and the scenery – at first the white villas of The Algarve, then the green hills, then the arid farmland – was excellent. We caught up on yet more sleep – maybe an hour at most – before we eventually noticed the suburbs around Setubal. We soon saw the deep red supports of the April 25 Bridge, which majestically spans the River Tagus, then the formidable statue of Christ the King which looks down on humanity from the south bank of the river. It is very similar to the Christ the Redeemer in Rio. We were soon heading over the bridge and our welcome to Lisbon could not have been any more dramatic. The city centre, kissed by a hot afternoon sun, and shimmering to our right, looked magnificent, with hills rising up from the river to the suburbs in the distance. I spotted the iconic Monument to the Discoveries, on the river bank, to my left. With an eye for such things, I soon spotted the spindles of the Belenenses floodlights too. They are the city’s third football team, and if we are to believe, Jose Mourinho’s first love. He played for them many years ago, though not to any great standard. Ahead, was the aqueduct, which I photographed from the train in May. The city was quite beguiling. It was fantastic.

“What a welcome, Parkao.”

We soon located our hotel and had a little chat with the receptionists.

“Are you over here for the football?”

“Yes…Chelsea.”

“Tomorrow, we are with you.”

They were the first of the many Benfica fans that we would encounter during our stay.

A helpful lady assisted in our fumbling attempts to buy metro tickets and we soon alighted at Restauradores in the heart of the city. The sun was beating down and everything looked perfect. We spotted Alan and Gary outside a bar in the corner of Praca Dom Pedro IV. The steins of Superbock – around two pints apiece – were just seven euros. A few familiar Chelsea fans – Brighton Tony and his mates – joined us, then a few others.

“And relax.”

The only negative part of all this was the ridiculous amount of flies which kept buzzing around.

“Maybe there’s a Spurs fan nearby.”

We spent the best part of three hours sat outside in the afternoon sun and it was just brilliant. On the subway back to the hotel, we were a giggling quartet of silliness.

Parkao was in his element.

From Gary and Alan there was an array of double-entendres. The ensuing ribald laughter from all four of us caused a few glances to be aimed our way.

“I hope none of you can speak English” I begged to the others in the compartment.

After a quick shower, we were out on the town at 8.30pm. We headed south again, but had no idea where we would end up. We decided to go for a meal in an Italian restaurant on the large piazza which overlooks the river, and where I undoubtedly visited, albeit briefly, in 1987. We were soon joined by my mate Foxy, who I first met in Tokyo for the 2012 World Club Championships. He was with his good lady Ashley and also Kev, a Hearts and Chelsea supporter from Edinburgh. The banter began again. The restaurant was superb, though quite quiet. It was, after all, only a Monday.

I politely enquired what factors resulted in Kev becoming a Chelsea fan. Foxy supports Dundee United – fine by me, I’ve had a soft spot for them since Peter Bonetti and Eamonn Bannon signed for them in 1979 – and his Chelsea roots are well known to me. I was just intrigued to hear Kev’s story. I’m well aware of the Chelsea/Rangers link, and also the Chelsea/Hearts partnership. You often see Rangers and Hearts flags at our away games. I suppose I wanted to know what inspired Kev to choose us as his other team. His reply pleased me; he mentioned Eamonn Bannon, who we signed from the Jambos in 1979, but also mentioned the name of Tommy Walker, a famous Hearts player, manager and director, who also played for us in the immediate post-war years. Additionally, for seven successive seasons in the ‘forties and ‘fifties, Chelsea played friendlies against Heart of Midlothian at the behest of Tommy Walker; at Tynecastle one year, at The Bridge the next. I mentioned my two visits to Tynecastle – the first way back in 1982 – and we became misty-eyed with the thoughts of those deep terraces, maroon stands, claustrophobic setting amidst the Gorgie tenements and the odorous fumes wafting over the spectators from the nearby brewery.

After another beer with a few more Chelsea fans outside another bar, we decided to take a cab to the lively Bairro Alto to the immediate west of the centre. The cab turned and twisted up steep and narrow streets until we reached the summit. Small sets of traffic lights allowed single-file cars to drive small sections of narrow roads. We peered in to an Irish bar as some Chelsea fans were singing “Willian.” The area was jumping. For a Monday night, it was amazing. Street vendors tried to sell us all sorts of tat. We took refuge in a small bar as it pumped out some dance music. I began with a mojito, and then got stuck into three morangoska cocktails, which were just unbelievable. These were made with strawberries, blackberry juice, sugar and vodka. They were beastly black. They tasted magnificent but were undoubtedly evil.

As the night grew older, there were more giggles bouncing off the buildings of Bairro Alto.

“Having a good time, Parkao?”

“It sure beats Trowbridge on a Monday night, son.”

There were back-packing types, international students, and locals milling around the cobbled streets, filling the night air with alcohol-induced merriment. My memories are unsurprisingly vague…

However, rather disappointingly, the bars closed at 2am and we shuffled along, past a posse of chanting Chelsea fans, towards a cab rank. We reluctantly returned back to the hotel. It will surprise nobody to hear that we did not discuss the game once the whole night.

One photo, sadly deleted in error, showed all four of us in the hotel lift, pointing our tongues out; all were blackberry black.

It had been a top night in Lisbon.

Tuesday 30 September 2014.

At 9am my alarm sounded just as I had dreamt that Andre Schurrle had raced past an opponent, reached the goal-line and pulled back a cross for Bobby Isaac to head home.

Morongoskas will do that to you, I guess.

Surprisingly, I was only a little, er, “delicate” in the morning. I was – thankfully – able to join the boys downstairs for an excellent breakfast. We decided to take Alan’s advice to utilise a hop-on / hop-off Lesbian (sorry – Lisbon) sightseeing bus tour. It only took a few minutes of Portuguese sunshine and fresh air for the last lingering remnants of a hangover to disperse.

Flies.

For the next two hours, we toured Lisbon and relaxed. We were driven down majestic streets, flanked by houses of various shades, some with tiles and mosaics, and some with gables and delicate balconies. We were driven through wide piazzas with statues, obelisks and fountains. We were driven up ramps which afforded stunning views of the city centre, baking in the September sun, and equally pleasing vistas of the wide, fast flowing Tagus. Out at Belem, having been driven under the momentous April 25 Bridge, we were driven past the ornate monastery, the quaint Belem Tower, then the piece de resistance; the Monument to the Discoveries. This is a stunning sculpture, depicting the various leading lights from the time when Portugeezers ruled the waves, and it is a statue that I have wanted to see in person for years. We decided there and then to return to Belem on the Wednesday. The bus returned us to the city centre, passing yet more fine houses, but also a funky mixture of more modern buildings, the type of which we never seem to get in the UK.

Flies.

To be truthful, I only half-heartedly listened to the audio guide during the tour – I was too busy taking photographs and chatting to Parkao – but  the overly cheerful Englishman’s voice did not mention sport during the entire two hours. This is a pet peeve of mine. Why do city guides – books, video, audio – continually neglect sport in their range of topics covered? Only a few days before the trip, I had bought a fine guide book on Lisbon, but within the 192 pages, there is just this pathetic entry about football :

“Lisbon’s main football stadiums, built for the 2004 European Football Championships, are Estadio Jose Alvalade and Estadio da Luz. The Portuguese football cup finals are held at the Estadio Nacional-Junior.”

There was no mention of Benfica, nor Sporting Lisbon, nor Eusebio, nor Luis Figo and the golden generation, nor Cristiano Ronaldo, nor Jose Mourinho. Yet two whole pages about music and three whole pages about bloody shopping. For many in Lisbon, football is at the centre of their lives, and the two – sorry, three – clubs within the city are surely worthy of more attention than this.

Flies.

Parkao and I split up from Alan and Gary and we slowly walked down through the centre, stopping off for a bite to eat and a drink at a café, before finding ourselves at the water’s edge, just south of the grand Praca Do Comercio. From here, there is a stunning view of Christ the King, arms outstretched. I wondered if anyone has attempted to put a Benfica or Sporting scarf around the neck. In Glasgow, you can be sure of it…

During the entire day, I had seen just one green and white hooped shirt of Sporting Lisbon. We returned to our hotel to freshen up, and then hopped on to the subway bound for the stadium. At last, there were now some football colours on show. We reached Campo Grande – the stop adjacent the home end of the stadium – and decided to try to get a drink in a nearby bar. Unlike other parts of Europe, there doesn’t appear to be a significantly violent underbelly in Portuguese football, and we were not met with any animosity throughout our stay. Lisbon, it seemed, was proving to be a near perfect city.

We began making our way across a dusty car park, when we stumbled across a chap with an ice box selling cans of Super Bock for 1.5 euros.

“Get in Parkao, son.”

“Superb.”

This was perfect. We then found another vendor selling them for one euro each.

“God bless the black market Parkao, let’s buy two more each.”

Sporting fans drifted past us wearing a variety of shirts, from various vintages. The main two stadia in Lisbon are within a mile of each other and, in both cases, were built adjacent to the original stadia of each club. I suspected that the car park where we were stood once housed the previous Sporting ground.

Estadio Jose Alvalade is brightly coloured outside, with green roof supports, multi-coloured panels, green-tinted windows, and plenty of space for non-football activities. Whereas Benfica’s stadium resembles The Emirates, though slightly bigger, the Sporting Lisbon stadium is only two-tiered, yet seems huge from the outside. We walked around, buoyed by a quick intake of Super Bock, and entered the stadium at the away turnstiles. Sadly, I had to hand my telephoto lens in, but I was assured it would come to no harm. All of the stewards were pleasant. Inside the concourse, both Chelsea and Sporting fans were able to mix, which was a new one on me. Here was another clue that hooliganism wasn’t particularly rife in Portugal.

It was “sit where you want” and so we squeezed in alongside some friends. Gary and Alan were four rows in front. We were behind the corner flag. It was an impressive stadium, the fans in the lower tier were tight behind the goals, but the stands stood way back at the sides. Below, underneath, was a massive moat. The ultras in the home end were already in full voice and many flags and banners were being waved. Hanging from the roof on the far side were large banners depicting the starting eleven of the home team.

As the teams were read out, Nemanja Matic received loud boos, since he of course played for the hated Benfica.

A couple of friends texted me to say that they had spotted Parkao and myself on the TV.

Flies.

As the anthem played, a huge banner was unfurled from the top tier opposite :

“We Are Sporting.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9cz9NbHv7Qs&feature=youtu.be

The teams entered the pitch and we were wearing the all yellow kit of Goodison Park. I ran through the team; Filipe Luis in for Dave, Schurrle for Willian. Oh, and a start for Parkao.

After just one minute, Oscar put Diego Costa clear. We held our breath as he stroked the ball low. Surely we would get off to a dream start. Alas not; we saw the ball deflected wide after a block by the Sporting ‘keeper Patricio. Not to be perturbed, we continued to attack and were clearly on top in the early stages. We were in fine voice too. The lower tier was packed at the front, leading to some great “togetherness.” Copious amounts of Super Bock and Sagres helped too. I kept looking across at Parkao and he was loving it.

In the build up to the game, I wondered if Sporting’s new signing from Dundee United – yes, them again – Ryan Gauld, might play a part during the evening, but there was no place for him neither in the team nor on the bench. Instead, Nani was the one familiar face and it wasn’t long before he was serenaded –

“You’re just a shit Michael Jackson.”

The Ultras – Torcida Verde – at the other end were in good voice too and their chanting was relentless. At one stage, I counted twenty flags being frantically waved, though others appeared and then disappeared throughout the evening.

Andre Schurrle then missed three good chances in three minutes. First he rounded the ‘keeper but hit the side netting from a tight angle. A tame header was then fielded easily by Patricio. Then, a low shot, again easily saved. After his 184 wayward shots on goal during the Bolton game, this was getting all too familiar. A few fans nearby wanted to see him subbed already.

I rolled my eyes.

Next, it would be me rolling my eyes. A great run from Hazard set up Diego Costa, who rolled the ball towards Schurrle. We all growled as he pushed the ball well wide of the Sporting goal.

“At least get it on target.”

Ugh.

Soon after, a free-kick on our left was played deep towards the leaping Nemanja Matic, who rose purposefully and sent a looping, dipping header over the stranded goalie and into the net.

YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.

GET IN MATIC!

THE BENFICA BOY!

Almost immediately, a few fans behind me got going with a new song, at first a quiet murmur, but then growing stronger with each rendition.

“Matic.

In the middle of our pitch, Matic.

In the middle of our pitch, Matic.

In thee middle of our pitch, Matic.”

I loved that. Suggs would too.

Nice one.

Then, soon after –

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

There were a few half chances for Lisbon, but we were well on top. A handball appeal against Gary Cahill was waved away and the first-half ended with boos ringing in the ears of the referee as the players and officials left the field.

Boos welcomed the referee back on the pitch at the start of the second-half. The natives were clearly restless.

Down below us, we spotted Rob, who came to spend a few minutes with us. He told a warming story. He pointed down at Chelsea fan Charlie, who was with four Benfica ultras. They had been given tickets in our end as an act of thanks for what they did in honour of a Chelsea fan that sadly passed away ahead of the Chelsea vs. Benfica Europa Cup Final in Amsterdam last year. They had spotted on a Chelsea chat site that Blind Gerry, known to many at our club, had passed away just hours after a game at Stamford Bridge. In his honour, they created a banner in memory of Gerry and flew it in Amsterdam before gifting it to Gerry’s friends.

Class.

It was great to have those four among us.

Nani threatened with a curler, but then wasted a great chance when he flicked the ball to…er…nobody, allowing us to clear. The game was remarkably open. Mourinho must have hated it.

Then, a firm shot from Diego Costa which was blocked. Just after, Filipe Luis dropped a ball over the square Sporting back line and Oscar raced through with just the ‘keeper to beat. He appeared to have too much time, and seemingly froze. The keeper foiled us again.

Nani again was involved at the other end, having two shots on goal, but Courtois was largely untested. We begged for a second goal. This was becoming tense.

Diego Costa, with a tremendous burst of pace, flew past Mauricio, but the Sporting defender cruelly blocked him. Costa looked hurt, but it was the defender who was stretchered off. It was a moment which seemed to derail Lisbon for a few moments. However, their fans still sang heartily throughout the second-half. At one point, with them singing their version of “Fields of Athenry” and with their fans holding their scarves aloft, you could easily be mistaken for thinking the game was being played in the East End of Glasgow. I even saw a U2 “Boy” flag.

Willian replaced the hard-working but wasteful Schurrle, then Mikel took over from Oscar. With Mourinho now using Matic and Mikel as a shield, surely our defence would hold firm. Fabregas pushed up.

Diego Costa hit the side netting, and then shot wide after a delightful defence-splitting ball from Matic had set him free. Filipe Luis broke free down in front of us, but his ball into the six yard box evaded everyone. How we begged for another goal. Sporting had a curler which went just wide. In the final five minutes, the Chelsea support roused itself magnificently with the loudest rendition of “Amazing Grace” that I can remember hearing at a European Away. It was stirring stuff. The home team kept the pressure on us as the minutes ticked by.

“Come on Chels, hang on.”

On ninety minutes, Fabregas fed Mo Salah – who had replaced Hazard – and he advanced on the ‘keeper. Yet again, Patricio made a magnificent save to deny us.

“Oh, those three one on ones, Parkao.”

At the final whistle, I roared. This was an enjoyable game of football – thankfully not defensive and dour like so many European aways – and the relief that came with the win was immense. After the draw with Schalke, it was so important that we came away with a win. We soon heard that Maribor, bless ‘em – had eked out a draw in Gelsenkirchen.

Nice one.

Jose slowly walked over to shake the hands of the Sporting goalkeeper who had kept us from winning 4-0. We then clapped as our players walked towards us.

I had thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

In fact, the drama made the game. Had we won by a greater score line, the sense of relief would not have been so great. The support wasn’t massive – maybe 1,600 or so – but it was loud and passionate. Who needs thousands more when we can get by on 1,600 loyalists.

As Alan remarked : “Quality over quantity.”

I soon collected my camera and we walked off, with a quasi-police escort, to Telheiras tube station. There is always something quite joyful, yet eerie, about being given the streets of a foreign city to walk through, all to ourselves, especially after victory. It didn’t quite match Camp Nou in 2012, but it wasn’t bad.

We were deposited in the centre of town – the subway train did not stop until the last three stops – and we met up at our “local” in Praca Dom Pedro IV for two more steins of Super Bock. Foxy, Ashley and Kev joined us, then Brighton Tony, then Charlie with two of the Benfica lads. Parkao was smiling.

“Although it’s been a great trip, the win made it, mate.”

“Yep. Bloody brilliant, Parkao.”

Wednesday 1 October 2014.

We were up, bright and breezy, for breakfast at around 9am. We said our goodbyes to Alan and Gary, then headed down to Belem once again. We spent a few moments at the Belem Tower, which was once positioned in the River Tagus itself, but which is now adjoined to the riverbank after extensive land reclamation. We made our way to the Monument to the Discoveries, built to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death in 1960, and I was in photographic heaven. The white of the stone contrasted well with the blue sky above. The figures depicted in stone – Henry the Navigator, Vasco de Gama, Fernao Magellen and others – were wonderful subjects for my trusty camera.

Snap, snap, snap.

The floodlights of Belenenses were just a mile or so away. Mourinho entered my head again.

In my Lisbon guide book, I read with interest that Henry the Navigator – the one at the front of the statue – never actually sailed the seas during Portugal’s age of discovery. I drew a parallel with Jose Mourinho, who hardly set the world alight as a player, but who has successfully navigated many teams to success as a manager.

Mourinho as navigator?

“You bet. Hey, listen, after three morangoska cocktails on Monday night, you’re lucky to get that as a footballing paradigm, I’m telling you.”

We relaxed down by the river with a few drinks. It was a calming end to our short spell in delightful Lisbon.

The coach then took us all of the way south to Faro once more, where Parkao and I enjoyed a meal in a restaurant overlooking the town’s marina. The sun slowly dropped behind a palm tree to the west – a palm tree on a Chelsea away trip, whatever next? – and the setting sun turned the sky orange and then lavender. We raised one final Super Bock to one of the best Chelsea European aways yet.

Obrigado, Portugal.

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Tales From Three Types Of Magic.

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 27 September 2014.

I didn’t go to the Capital One Cup tie with Bolton Wanderers on Wednesday. This was only the fourth time in almost ten years that I had not been present for a Chelsea home game. However, this one was a little different; for the other three, there were extenuating circumstances (Celtic friendly in 2006 – I was on holiday in the US, Arsenal league in 2013 – snowbound, Hull City league in 2013 – my mother was in ill) but this was the first time since a League Cup game against West Ham United in the autumn of 2004, that I had chosen not to attend a first team game at Stamford Bridge.

Instead, I watched on my laptop at home and the experience was, not surprisingly, odd. I felt quite distanced from the proceedings to be honest. When I attend in person, I get totally wrapped up in the game. On Wednesday, save for a little exultation and a small fist pump when Oscar carefully placed the winner inside the Bolton goal, I watched in bored silence. Bolton hardly attacked us and the shots rained in on their goal. It didn’t seem like a proper game of football. With my good friend Alan also absent – he was in Albufeira with his good lady – Stamford Bridge was without the two of us for the first time in years and years.

Don’t worry, this won’t too often – I hope – in either the near or distant future. I am, however, not attending the Maribor game either. Why? The main reason is a change in working hours which means I need to be awake at 5.45am each day. On these midweek games, I rarely get to sleep before 2am. Do the maths.

On Friday, I left work with a smile on my face. After an arduous few weeks, I was off for six whole days, with the highlights undoubtedly being Chelsea games in London and Lisbon. Although I knew that there would be a lot of painful “catching up” to attend to on my return to work, all I could think of was my six days’ away from the daily grind.

I then realised that four of these would be spent in the company of Lord Parky.

Insert punchline here.

Bless him, I can’t be too harsh. This will be His Lordship’s first “European Away” since Stockholm in 1998, and the old fool has been buzzing the past few days. At last there will be new stories from Europe for him to regale us with for the next few – er – decades.

We were in the beer garden of The Goose for 12.15pm and the weather was warm and humid. There was a little talk of Lisbon as we waited for a few friends to arrive. Alan was still in Portugal with Sue. He, in fact, returns back home on Sunday, before turning tail and heading back out to Lisbon on Monday with Gary. This surely has to be the long-distance traveller version of “making sure your girlfriend gets home OK.”

We’ll all be staying in the same hotel in Lisbon.

To see Lord Parky at the bar, downing some Super Bock, will surely be a highlight of this season.

Some faces rolled up – Dave, then Rob, then Woody and Seb, then Andy, then Chris and Nick. The Peroni was hitting several spots. At around 2.15pm, Cons arrived, a little the worse for wear after a night out on Friday, but happy to be attending another Chelsea home game. I first met Cons in the spring of last year when she was in London to attend interviews at various colleges. Originally from the Detroit area, she had since enjoyed a year at college in The Smoke and had just attained her Master’s Degree on Friday; hence the hangover. What better way to celebrate than with a Chelsea game. Her last match was the friendly with Inter in Indianapolis last summer. It was good to see her. Meanwhile, PD was turning purple and almost exploding after several minutes of gut-busting laughter with Lord Parky and Dave the Hat.

On the way up in the car, PD and I had spoken briefly about the upcoming game at Shrewsbury in the Capital One Cup. We touched on the days when our club used to play the likes Shrewsbury in the old second division and it triggered some memories of attending football back in our youth; the raw pleasure of independence, not long out of school, meeting up with mates, dressing in the correct manner, making sure your trainers were clean and your polo shirt ironed, the pre-batch revelry, the uncertainty of not knowing the result, the added uncertainty of not knowing if you might encounter some rough-and-tumble during the day, the sense of camaraderie, the thrill of a day on the edge.

In an instant I was transported back to a different age.

Coming in by train, stepping out on to a platform in a foreign town, and joining in the rush to get to the ground unharmed, along with hundreds of similar followers of fashion and football – a mix of surly youths intent on trouble, but also a heavy presence of normal lads overdosing on Pringle pullovers, wedge haircuts, Diadora Elite trainers, Sergio Tacchini tracksuit tops and Lois jumbo cords – and a rush of adrenalin and a sense of danger. Following the team.

Following your team.

The warm feeling that you got when you followed a club in the second division with a massive away following through thick and thin, while your school mates who followed the more popular teams hardly ever went to see their lot play. We were like some unknown army, existing below the radar, carving out reputations.

They were magical times for me.

With the time quickly passing, there was a massive roar inside The Goose when Everton bagged a late equaliser against Liverpool.

On the walk down to Stamford Bridge, it was still humid and muggy. At the Matthew Harding, one of the five turnstiles was not working and so PD, Cons and I were delayed getting to our seat. We missed the first five minutes.

I quickly settled and glanced at the eleven players down on the pitch; again, the nine ever-presents, this time supplemented by Willian and Oscar.

Lo and behold, our first attack yielded dividends. Branislav Ivanovic played a fantastic ball through to Willian, whose shot rebounded back to him. He had the presence of mind to lay the ball back to Oscar who swept the ball in, low, past Guzan. Cons and I turned to each other and yelped.

How nice of the team to wait until we were inside the stadium before they opened the scoring.

I had been reliably informed by a Villa-supporting work colleague that they had only enjoyed around 32% possession in their games so far this season. The play for the rest of the half backed-up this fact. We had tons and tons of possession as we moved the ball across all areas of the pitch and tried to expose gaps in the Villa defence. Over in the far corner, the Villa support were berating us.

“Your support is fcuking shit.”

How boring.

“Dear Aston Villa Football Club,

It has come to my attention that your supporters believe that the backing given to Chelsea by its supporters is rather lack-lustre. May I remind you that away teams are entitled to three-thousand tickets at Stamford Bridge. Until your supporters bring that full amount to Chelsea Football Club may I suggest that they wind their collective necks in.

Thank you.”

With Cesc Fabregas instrumental in our attacking endeavours – one slide rule pass to Brana had us all purring – we continually moved the ball well. Our chances started to stack up with only rare attacks from the away team. It seemed that every Chelsea shot ended up in the Shed Upper. As the first-half came to a close, the Stamford Bridge crowd became quieter and quieter. We were desperate for a second goal to kill the game off, calm our nerves and also re-energise the support.

At half-time, Neil began to introduce the half-time guest player with a few clues about his time at Stamford Bridge. I had an idea straight away, but the big clue was that he played right-back in Athens in 1971.

Yes, it was Johnny Boyle, our under-appreciated Jack-of-all-trades from our early ‘seventies pomp. As he walked around the pitch with Neil, I realised that he is sadly overlooked when supporters look back on that lovely period in our history. He often used to play in times of injury to others and he was often named as substitute. I never saw him play. Whereas others in that vaunted team were household names, Johnny Boyle would forever be the Private Sponge of the early ‘seventies Chelsea team – just outside the main troupe, with few speaking parts – leaving others to take on the roles of Captain Mainwaring, Sergeant Wilson, Corporal Jones, Godfrey, Pike, Walker and Frazer.

I spoke to Tom, alongside me, now 78 years old and we shared a few words about Josh McEachran. He also chatted to Cons about his first game in 1947. In those days, he attended a school over the water in Wandsworth and he explained that midweek games would kick-off at 2pm. Absenteeism was therefore rife on certain Wednesdays, with a good portion of the boys sidling off to cheer on the blues. At assemblies the next morning, the headmaster would often say –

“So, I see Chelsea were at home yesterday.”

For Tom, magical times.

A few chances were exchanged in the second half and Diego Costa came close. Eden Hazard, possibly showing off – not sure if Mourihno approved at just 1-0, but I’ll forgive him – attempted a lovely rabona. Soon after, a delightful passage of play involving several players set up a pinpoint cross from Dave which Diego Costa headed powerfully past – or rather through – Guzan.

“Fantastic goal.”

That was the second goal that we so needed. It was time to relax a little. Oscar almost nabbed a second, while yet more sublime trickery from Hazard resulted in a whipped cross which narrowly avoided Deigo Costa’s stoop. With an eye on Lisbon, Mourinho soon took off Hazard. I was hoping for Drogba to replace Diego Costa, just so that he could shadow Senderos for twenty minutes and try to turn him into a quivering wreck.

“Remember me?”

To be honest, I was surprised that Jose left Diego Costa on until late.

On eighty minutes, however, a strong run by our new golden scorer, involving a sublime dummy, resulted in a shot being blasted at the Villa ‘keeper. The rebound fell nicely for Willian who bundled the ball in from very close range. It capped a great all round performance by Diego Costa, who now has eight goals in six games.

So, 3-0 and an easy win.

Magical times for Cons.

At the final whistle, many of the Villa fans had begun their journey home.

I was obviously pleased with this result, ahead of a potentially awkward game on Tuesday. There were no injuries and our team continues to gel. A clean sheet was an added bonus and I hoped that the quite ridiculous noise among certain sections of our support doubting Courtois’ capabilities would quieten. A defence lets in goals, not just a goalkeeper.

Sixteen points out of eighteen – and a full nine points ahead of Liverpool, for example – and an excursion to Portugal on Monday ahead of our game against Sporting Lisbon on Tuesday.

I suppose that these are the most magical times of all.

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Tales From The Etihad.

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 21 September 2014.

I was on the road at 9.30am. It would be another long day in support of Chelsea Football Cub, and my third successive away game in the North-West.

Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Cheshire, Lancashire.

M4, M5, M6, M56, M60.

Leigh Delamere, Michaelwood, Gloucester, Strensham, Frankley, Hilton Park, Stafford, Keele, Sandbach, Knutsford.

West Bromwich Albion, Walsall, Manchester United, Manchester City.

In addition to myself and His Lordship, I was travelling north with Nick and James, two football-mad young’uns from Chippenham. Nick, the Chelsea fan, has been working in the same office as me for a couple of months. When a ticket or two became available for our clash with Manchester City, he jumped at the chance. Nick’s only other Chelsea away game was the League Cup tie at nearby Swindon Town a year ago.

This one was different gravy.

To be honest, it was different pie, chips and gravy.

There wasn’t the maddening traffic on the M6 as for the Burnley and Everton games, but it still took me five hours to park up at the usual place a few hundred yards from The Etihad, formerly the City of Manchester Stadium and formerly Eastlands. On the drive in, I’d given Nick and James – new to this part of England – a whistle stop tour of the area outside Old Trafford.

“Most United fans haven’t been here, lads.”

A few miles away, the sun was shining on the sky blue clad match-goers headed for The Etihad. The area around the stadium is flat and there is a sense of space.  City’s ground, about to be enlarged further after only ten years, has the feel of an American multi-purpose super stadium, with spiral staircases appended to the structure and large car parks adjacent to the bright bulk of the stadium.

Outside the away entrance, a gaggle of familiar faces.

I was able, thankfully, to sort out a couple of spare tickets for Greg, over from San Antonio in Texas for this one game, and his mate Jesse from Australia. I had taken Greg to Old Trafford during the 2006-2007 season, when we had called to see the new gleaming structure of City’s new pad en route to a quick visit to the iconic Salford Lads Club before the game in the red quarter of this city.

I was inside with an hour to spare and relaxed with a pint.

This was, unbelievably really, my tenth visit to City’s new stadium; I had visited Maine Road just three times.

I chatted to The Bristol Four about the possibility of Frank playing against us. There was a general consensus that should he play, his mind might well be muddled with emotion. There was a sense that this might work to our advantage. A couple hoped that he would stay on the bench. I wasn’t sure what to think. There was even some nonsense in the media about us booing him.

What?

Meanwhile, news came through of Manchester United’s incredible capitulation at Leicester City.

“Nice to see Van Gaal has shored up their defence.”

“Incredible.”

“That might ignite the City fans though.”

Inside the sky blue bowl, the two sets of players were finishing off their pre-match drills. My focus was drawn to a lone figure away in the distance. It was Frank Lampard, knocking balls to an unknown team mate. To be able to see Frank in the flesh, at a Chelsea match, but not part of Chelsea Football Club was a difficult sight to rationalise and make sense of.

The stadium slowly filled to capacity and the first few opening volleys took place between the two sets of supporters.

“Where’s your European Cup?”

“We are the champions, the champions of England.”

We were then treated to a montage of flashing iconic images of Manchester City history on the large TV screens in opposite corners of the stadium – from Paul Dickov to Sergio Aguero, from Dennis Tueart to Shaun Goater, from Mike Doyle to Vincent Kompany, from The Kippax to The Etihad – which was backed by a never-ending passage of ridiculous prose honouring “this city” which was delivered in an increasingly dramatic Mancunian drawl. It was full of emotive hyperbole.

“This is the city that was seemingly defeated after years of life in the shadows, yet we looked defeat squarely in the face and decided enough was enough and we rose as one, to come back to win, time after time, again, and again, and again, and again.”

It left me feeling exhausted.

“Fackninell. Turn it in, guv.”

With the kick-off just minutes away, the PA played “Blue Moon” and the home support grew livelier. Despite my comments to the Bristol Four in the concourse about the Manchester United defeat energising the City fans, the stadium had been relatively subdued until that point.

The Chelsea team contained nine ever-presents in the league campaign thus far. There was the usual mix of names in the seven defensive positions; Courtois in goal, Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta in defence and Matic and Fabregas in midfield. Hazard, one of the three attacking midfielders, had played in all the previous four league games and he would be facing City too. Jose Mourinho has only decided to mix things up this season in the final two positions of our attacking trio. On this sunny afternoon in Manchester, it would be the turn of Willian and Ramires, rather than Oscar and Schurrle, to play alongside Hazard. In attack, the last ever-present Diego Costa was recalled.

Here was a stable Chelsea team.

With City in all sky blue, it seemed to make our all royal blue kit look darker, more menacing. I approved. After the joy of last season – probably only bettered by the day out at Anfield – I was full of hope that we would get at least a point.

However, there is no doubt that the home team were quicker out of the traps. In fact, for the greater part of the first-half, Manchester City enjoyed the greater share of possession, and looked especially dangerous down the flanks. Cesar Azpilicueta, especially, was given the run-around. I was stood next to Gal, and we both sensed that we might concede an early goal. Thankfully, this never materialised. This was mainly due to some staunch defending and some errant City final balls.

We were soon in full voice, singing praise towards one of the home substitutes:

“Super, super Frank.”

Then a dig at City.

“Frankie Lampard – he’s won more than you.”

(It’s a nice story, but sadly City just edge it 13-11.)

The first-half was a feisty affair with referee Mike Dean quickly brandishing yellow cards in an attempt to gain control of the game. One of the early highlights was a physical tussle between Diego Costa and Vincent Kompany away in the distance. Yaya Toure, a player who always seems to dominate City’s play, was at the centre of the action, withholding Chelsea challenges, spraying passes and chipping impudently over our defence to play in others. As the first-half wore on, I was desperate for us to reach half-time unscathed.

However, for all of City’s possession, they rarely threatened our goal. This was a cagey and nervy game and was being played out in an increasingly muted atmosphere. The Chelsea support was split into two tiers, this making a sustained barrage of noise difficult. Last season’s game – the Mourinho master class – was a lot more open.

Our forays into the City half were short-lived affairs. It was almost as if our players were only given a limited supply of oxygen once their bodies had crossed the half-way line, and were soon scurrying back to renew their air supply.

“Come on, move it quicker Chelsea.”

Our midfield was constantly out-muscled and the memories of last season’s game seemed distant.

Only a flurry of late corners towards the end of the first-half gave us much to cheer. An Ivanovic header caused us to roar, but little else brought us any cheer. Down below, I momentarily spotted Nick and James in the second row of the lower tier and wondered what they thought of it all. I had promised them tons of noise in the away end, but I began to doubt myself.

Just before the second-half began, more music to inspire the home supporters; this time “Hey Jude.” How odd that a Liverpudlian band gets star billing at a Manchester stadium. Of course, it’s a song that we have adopted too, so we joined in at the key moments.

“La la la la – Chelsea.”

Chelsea attacked the three thousand away supporters in the second-half. It was still a cagey affair which had yet to fully ignite the passions of both sets of supporters. After fifty-five minutes the surprisingly quiet Sergio Aguero sent a low rasper towards our goal, but Courtois did well to drop his body low and block.

Jose brought on Mikel, who did well in last season’s game, and Schurrle, allowing Fabregas to move forward.

Zabaleta, already booked, tussled with Diego Costa, and in the ensuing debate between the native Argentinian and the native Brazilian – I’m tempted to call it argy-bargy – Mike Dean saw fit to give both a yellow card.

Zabaleta was off.

This stirred the pot nicely.

For the first real time, The Etihad erupted in noise. The stadium has yet to gain a reputation as a cauldron of noise – unlike the din which emanated from the low dark stands of Maine Road – but for a few moments the stadium was alive.

“Here we go, Gal. Let’s get in to them.”

Though – wait a minute. This is a Mourinho team. I imagined the awkwardness now coursing through our manager’s veins. The chance was there, but would he give the order to attack and exploit possible spaces in the City rear guard?

Initially, the signs were not good. With City back-peddling, I grew frustrated at our lack of desire to support each other by running into space. One or two spells of possession stumbled. There was a missing quotient of vitality. Then, the move of the game took us all, if I am honest, by surprise. A lovely passing move found the pacey run of Eden Hazard out on the right. His absolutely perfect ball into the penalty box evaded Joe Hart and super-sub Schurrle arrived to stroke the ball into the net.

Pandemonium in Manchester.

One player up, one goal up, we were winning at City again.

Get in.

For a few moments, both team and supporters were on fire. Diego Costa had been battling hard throughout the afternoon with little opportunity to test Hart. However, a leap and header gave us hope of a second, but the effort was saved. Straight after, our centre-forward wriggled away from a marker to give him enough time to strike a low shot at goal from inside the box. The shot rebounded off the base of Hart’s left post with the England ‘keeper beaten.

Ugh.

The City manager Pellegrini had previously brought on Sagna and Navas, but when a third substitute was seen warming up in front of the technical areas, the away fans did not need much coaxing to start a long and heartfelt song of praise.

“Super, super Frank.

Super, super Frank.

Super, super Frank.

Super Frankie Lampard.”

Yes, Frank was on the pitch and playing against us.

I’ll admit it.  It felt wrong. So wrong.

Yet we don’t know the exact wording of the contract that our beloved former player signed with New York City FC, nor the conversations that may or may not have taken place leading up to his loan period at Manchester City, nor his thoughts about playing in the Premiership against us.

It just felt so wrong.

Frank took his position in the centre of the field and lost control of a pass.

His next touch would be surreal.

A ball was played in by the terrier-like James Milner and a City player met it sweetly, steering it cleanly into Courtois’ goal, just inside the post. Within a split second, I realised who that player was.

It was Frank Lampard.

I turned away in disbelief.

Unbelievable.

My first immediate thoughts – instantly – were of the handful of Chelsea supporters who, on internet forums and chat pages – had denounced Frank on his loan move to Manchester City.

In my head, I heard the character in The Simpson’s pointing at us all.

“Ha ha.”

I banished the thought quickly as I saw Frank walk, crestfallen, slowly away from us, engulfed by his new City team mates. It was, of course, a stereotypical Frank Lampard goal.

Ugh.

Then, the arrow to the heart; the City fans mocking us.

“Super, super Frank.

Super, super Frank.

Super, super Frank.

Super Frankie Lampard.”

Ugh.

But then, pride as I joined in the singing of the exact same song.

“Super, super Frank.

Super, super Frank.

Super, super Frank.

Super Frankie Lampard.”

In over forty years of watching Chelsea, there have been no more surreal moments.

The rest of the match was rather a blur. Jose Mourinho brought on Didier Drogba who replaced Diego Costa.  So, Frank Lampard playing for Manchester City and Didier Drogba playing for Chelsea. Just bizarre.

“Only one thing for it now, Gal – Didier to score the winner.”

A wild free-kick, from Didier, was our only chance on goal. It flew high over the bar.

We groaned.

Everyone said, in the car and in the bar, before the game that we would have taken a 0-0 draw. So, in reality, I cannot complain about the outcome of the game. I would have liked a little more expansive play, but Mourinho is the shrewdest of all managers and would have been pleased with the draw, too. We had, after all, limited them to very few chances throughout the game. After the bonanza at Goodison, this was a more Mourinho-esque performance. These thoughts flitted through my mind as I gathered my camera to focus on Frank’s slow and solemn walk towards us.

He clapped the City fans briefly, but saved the best for us. His face was stern, and certainly sad. There were no smiles. He gave us the thumbs up, and waved. How strange that Frank’s last game for us was against Norwich City and his last slow walk around the Stamford Bridge pitch was witnessed by only a few thousand. Now, maybe his last goodbye was in the colours of Manchester City.

Football, eh?

As he turned away from us, I detected some boos from the City fans to my right; I presume they felt that Frank simply should not have done that.

After thirteen seasons, though, he remains one of us.

Outside, Chelsea fans were still in a state of shock. I saw DJ and simply said “well, that was weird.”

“We won 2-0 mate” and he smiled.

I soon met up with Parky, then Nick and James. They had had a fantastic time. As first “real” away games go, it would be hard to find a more memorable one. Outside on the Ashton New Road, a lone City fan was bouncing.

“Who put the ball in Chelsea’s net?

Super Frankie Lampard.”

We walked silently on, but inside we were hurting. I then looked round to see Parky chatting to a City fan and his young lad. Not for the first time at City, I found myself shaking a City fan’s hand and wishing him all the best.

Me : “Hey, listen. If we don’t win it, I hope you do.”

Him : “Same with you, mate.”

Me : “Cheers.”

Him : “It’s yours to lose.”

Me : “I don’t know.”

With the alternatives – Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal – being too horrific to even contemplate, City represent, to me and to a few others, an almost palatable alternative to our fifth championship. Not all fans think the same way, evidently. We remained silent as we walked past a City fan who had been clumped ; he was on the pavement, clutching a bloodied nose.

We soon reached the car.

There was a quick analysis of the game as I headed east, then south, with the bright orange sun lighting up the sky. It was a beautiful evening. We had witnessed a crazy game of football. On the long drive home, there was a nice mix of chat, music and laughter. Nick and James promised to get themselves to more games. Parky – his ability to talk dwindling by the minute with every gulp of cider, so that in the end all that I could decipher were exclamation marks – slowly drifted off to sleep. James and Nick, however, were buzzing.

I reached home at 11.15am, exhausted, but full of thought. It was too late to be too profound though.

Here were the headlines :

Five games in, we stand three points clear at the top of the table.

Life is good.

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Tales From A House Divided.

Chelsea vs. Schalke 04 : 17 September 2014.

Since last season’s midweek forays east on the M4 to Stamford Bridge, my working day has changed to 7am to 3.30pm. This basically means that I have more time, and hopefully a less stressful drive, to reach The Goose – er, Stamford Bridge – but it means I’ll be lucky to get four hours’ sleep before the alarm rings the following morning. I guess this can be called taking the smooth with the rough.

The journey, with LP and PD alongside me for the second time in five days, still took three hours though; damn the traffic. We were in the pub for 6.30pm; time for a couple. It was pleasing to see several faces from back home for the second successive home game. In addition to PD and myself from Frome, there were Parky, Andy and Cooky from Trowbridge, Graham and Rob from Melksham and Mark from Westbury. Rob smiled as he told me:

“I’ve only stepped out into the beer garden, but I’ve ended up in the West Country.”

While we were supping our lagers, the news came through that Didier Drogba was playing.

Big surprise.

I was informed of the rest of the starting eleven and my honest, immediate, reaction was this:

“Drogba? The weakest link.”

Although it seems like a sacrilegious act writing those four words, it was a commonly held view. My immediate mates had a little pow-wow. Like many, we had presumed that the manager might rest the in-form Diego Costa ahead of the league game at Manchester City on Sunday, but I’d imagine that most were expecting to see Loic Remy starting, especially since he impressed on his brief goal-scoring debut on Saturday. There were puzzled looks in the pub. Maybe the manager knew something that we didn’t.

[a shout from off-stage : “of course he fucking does, he’s the Chelsea manager, you tit!”]

I pondered it all further. Ever since the re-signing of Didier, my mind has been far from satisfied as I tried to evaluate the pros and cons of the move. He was certainly a once feared striker, certainly a strong character in the dressing room, certainly an experienced head and certainly a modern Chelsea legend. But something jarred. Again I’ll be blunt and honest; I would have much preferred our last ever remaining memory of Didier to be that penalty in Munich.

Never go back.

Unlike the legions of Chelsea fans that only saw the positive aspects of Didier’s game, I also remembered the negatives. The pathetic diving in order to gain free-kicks in the first few seasons, the attitude, the pouting and the posturing and the half-hearted approach in some of the lesser games towards the end of his career. Here was a complex conundrum for me to understand. After jettisoning Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard – both unable to entice contracts from the club – why was Didier Drogba given the green light to return?

His return troubled me then, and it troubled me still. I guess, in Mourinho’s defence, Drogba was seen as a reliable third striker – “been there, done that” – in a period when our striking options seemed to be built on sand. Was Lukaku staying? Was Torres staying? Was Ba staying? Who could we get as cover for the seemingly injury-prone Diego Costa? Could the youngsters be trusted?

We left the pub on a warm September evening and hoped that Drogba would bag a hat-trick and send us all home with our collective tails between our legs, eating humble pie and promising to never again question Jose Mourinho.

After all of these European campaigns, there is still something special about Champions League nights in SW6, even though the experience now seems to include more and more tourists who happen to find themselves at a football match without understanding or buying in to the widely-held view that supporters are there to participate rather than just attend. Outside the West Stand, underneath the Peter Osgood statue, there was a cast of thousands; a broad spectrum of well-heeled voyeurs, with programmes clutched to their chests, friendship scarves hanging around their necks, and with tickets being scrutinised for validity. Chelsea Football Club enjoys the support of thousands of passionate fans in all parts of the world. It is a sad fact of life that many of the overseas visitors to Stamford Bridge cannot be mentioned in the same breath.

I raced by, and soon found myself among more familiar faces in the brief line for the MHU.

Up in my seat, I took stock. I immediately spotted the new floodlights, rather awkwardly placed on the roofs of both end stands. They shone bright, but they were ugly. They disrupted the norm. I took an immediate dislike to them.

This was the third time that we had played the blue and whites from Gelsenkirchen in eight seasons. Last season, in November, we had beaten them 3-0 at The Bridge the day after Guy Fawkes’ Night. I remember walking away from that game feeling rather bored by the whole evening, despite the resounding win. I hoped for a better post-game feel in 2014. The German fans, many holding Nord Kurv scarves, were already in fine voice and I just knew, damn it, that it would be the visitors from The Ruhr who would be singing throughout the game.

Marie-Chantal from Lyon, Jan from Oslo, Kevin from Baltimore, Paolo from Brindisi, Roz from Cape Town, Kyong from Seoul and Pablo from Valencia just wouldn’t be able to compete.

It was another good show from Schalke. Even though they had visited us less than twelve months ago, they still brought around 1,400.

Another near capacity stadium, save for a few hundred empty seats – again – in the “no go” zone in The Shed. Filipe Luis in for Dave, and the midfield jiggled again. Schalke included the vaunted Draxler and the valuable Huntelaar.

The anthem.

It was brilliant to have the Champions League with us once more.

I quickly commented to Alan;

“They’re sponsored by Gazprom, right?”

There were Gazprom advertisement boards surrounding the pitch.

“Yep.”

We gave each other an old-fashioned look, and images of UEFA’s top brass, business executives, hotel rooms and brown envelopes flitted momentarily in to view.

The Germans, wearing the same muted green and black as in 2013, were under immediate pressure from a forceful Chelsea. After only eleven minutes, a lovely pass from Eden Hazard found an advancing Cesc Fabregas, who slotted the ball home. The Stamford Bridge faithful roared while Marie-Chantal, Jan, Kevin and co, stood and clapped, awkwardly looking around to ascertain the correct code of conduct.

There was an immediate chant from the terraces;

“Are you watching Arsenal?”

Defeated in The Ruhr the previous night, the Gooners were now being taunted about the one that got away.

For the next twenty minutes, Chelsea had most of the ball, but didn’t cause the Schalke defence too much concern. A Drogba header here, a Hazard shot there. I felt that we weren’t going for the jugular; that we were playing within ourselves. Then, on thirty-six minutes, the best move of the game thus far. Ivanovic, playing further up field this season in my mind, reached the by-line and hooked the ball back towards a waiting, and unmarked, Fabregas, but his shot was wild and flew over the bar. There was a collective groan from the home support, while in the West Upper, there was a groan from Roz when she realised alcohol is not served at Champions League games.

Despite being behind, the away fans were relentless in their support for their team. Our support was shocking, despite both the spectators in the MHL and The Shed Lower standing the entire half, which is usually a sure sign that they were collectively “up” for it. Occasionally, the fans in these areas attempted a song, but the others were generally reluctant to follow their lead. Not a single song was heard from the two side stands.

There were hushed comments about Drogba’s performance; it was average at best.

Courtois was asked to produce a fine save from Boeteng. Then as the first-half closed, Draxler was allowed to run unhindered past several Chelsea defenders – “after you Fritz” – before sending a low shot past the post. There was a look of pure anguish on his face as he realised how close he had been to equalising.

I read the programme during the break; the 1994/1995 European campaign is set to be featured throughout this season’s UEFA home programmes. We’d best have a long run; we reached the semi-final in the ECWC that season.

Bloody hell. Twenty years ago. This was the season when we were but Chelsea European novices and every away game was a huge adventure; Jablonec, Vienna and Zaragoza for yours truly.

What fantastic times.

The second-half began. It was more of the same from an apparently jaded Chelsea. Chances were rare. Hazard blazed over. There was growing concerns that the Germans were edging back in to the game. John Terry was booked for shooting at goal after the referee had given a free-kick for an apparently loose challenge, amidst boos from the home support.

On the hour, Didier was narrowly wide.

Then, a rapid Schalke break, with Chelsea all at sea, and players and fans feeling aggrieved for a foul on Fabregas in the build-up. I sensed danger throughout the advance.

My comments to PD as Huntelaar was played in were succinct;

“They’ll score here…told ya.”

Then, something that warmed me. An immediate, loud and passionate response from the Matthew Harding.

“Carefree, wherever you may be.”

The Bridge was shaking with noise for a few blissful moments.

“That’s more like it” I thought.

“Wow” exclaimed Marie-Chantal.

“Awesome” shouted Kevin.

With Drogba looking a shadow of himself, we inevitably started to discuss his performance. It was almost inevitable that I would end up taking extended, studious and contemplative looks at his play throughout the night. He looked slower than the Drogba of old, and it was obvious that his general play was missing several attributes of Drogba in his prime. It felt absurd at times to be talking so bluntly about a loved player – for that is what he is – after just one game but we knew that our views were shared by many.

As he was subbed, I admitted to Alan;

“Drogba, no more than four out of ten tonight.”

And it felt wrong again.

Sigh.

Mourinho, now chasing for a winner, had replaced Ramires with Oscar, now brought on the fifth cavalry in the form of Diego Costa and Remi. Alongside Drogba, Willian was substituted. Almost immediately, Costa looked hungry and involved. Remy’s header was cleared off the line. We were begging for the winner. Two dropped points against Schalke could prove costly. In Maribor, Sporting Lisbon were 1-0 up.

Damn it.

Things were getting desperate. The crowd urged the team on. On two separate occasions, Mourinho had to run and scramble after the ball after it had left the field of play; Jose as ballboy.

Hazard shot over after good work from Diego Costa. Then, a cross from wide found a stretching Eden Hazard, completely unmarked, but his prod was remarkably saved by Neustadter in the Schalke goal. In was quite a final onslaught – too little too late – but a couple of headers in the last few moments did not worry the German goal.

At the final whistle, there was thankfully no boos, but there was many a grumble from the spectators in and around me. On the walk out into the London night, I overheard many share comments similar to the ones expressed by Alan, PD and myself. I cringed as I felt myself agreeing with them.

“Remy should have played.”

“Drogba’s past it.”

“Didn’t attack’em enough.”

“Two dropped points.”

“Blame Mourinho for that.”

I searched for positives. I grasped at the idea of this being a wake-up call ahead of the trip to Manchester City on Sunday.

“This will hopefully bring us down a peg and help to concentrate our minds.”

“At least it sets up the away game at Lisbon. Adds a bit of bite to it.”

“At least they only drew.”

Outside a chip shop, Andy from Trowbridge spotted PD and me, and we must have been looking decidedly glum. He called out and imitated Mourinho at Arsenal in 2007 –

“Chin up, come on, chin up, remember that? Chin up! Remember Cambridge and Rotherham and Swansea. Come on!”

We met up with Parky back at the car. He was seething at the lack of support from the people in his section of The Shed.

“All bloody tourists. Nobody sang. Crap.”

So, the evidence from Parky’s Shed End backed up the commonly held view among Chelsea’s hardcore that on Champions League nights, there is a real chasm between the regulars and the once or twice a lifetime visitors. I take no pleasure in reporting this. And I’m not being particularly xenophobic, either. A silent one from Guildford is just as prevalent as a silent one from Gothenburg these days. Either way, a divided house is not good.

It’s not good at all.

With road works on the M4, it was another tiring three hour journey home.

Mile after mile, mile after mile.

Home at 1.30pm, sleep at 2am.

The alarm clock would soon be ringing.

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