Tales From A Simple Saturday.

Chelsea vs. Burnley : 27 August 2016.

Oh dear. How soon people forget. It wasn’t long into the journey to Stamford Bridge that – despite our struggles against most teams last season – I was heard to comment that I expected us to easily win our game against Burnley, despite their recent surprising 2-0 win against Liverpool. This was based on the assumption that our manager Antonio Conte had managed to reverse the malaise of the previous campaign, which in itself was based on a handful of pre-season games, a narrow win against Bristol Rovers, and two equally close victories in two league games. Two league games. My – our, the other three Chuckle Brothers shared my view – new found optimism in all things Chelsea was, really, based on our performances in just two league games.

After such a troublesome season in 2015/2016, I wondered if my optimism was misguided. Was I overdosing on positive-thought? Surely, there are no games in the top division these days which should be taken as lightly as I evidently was taking this one? The others had predicted theirs scores, and I don’t usually join in with these parlour games. I jokingly retorted “7-0”, not wishing nor wanting to be taken seriously.

As the day unfolded, I was to find out if all of this new-found confidence in the manager and team was warranted.

There was something strikingly satisfactory about the game against Burnley. It would start up a three-day bank holiday weekend and it was a three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. There is just something about this; the traditional kick-off time for all football games in the United Kingdom before the TV companies got their grubby hands on the TV schedules, sending fans off around the country to witness ridiculous games at ridiculous times in ridiculous places.

3pm, Saturday, simple.

Glenn and myself had our own little pub-crawl before the game. We started off with a quiet drink in the newly re-opened “Wellington” on Haldane Road, tucked away behind the busy North End Road. We recently heard that the landlords at “The Goose” (our regular pub, in the main, since around 1999, apart from a few months of exile in “The Mitre” and the “Fulham Dray”), were to leave at the end of September and I suppose there will be a chance we will move on too, if the new incumbents do not run the pub in the way that we have been accustomed with Lorraine and Reg.

We spoke about the transfer policy of the club, or lack thereof.

I almost feel that everyone within the Chelsea Nation feels – roughly – the same way about all of this, so I have nothing much to gain from sharing my own particular views.

Ake, Bamford, Christensen, plus twenty-three others, an A to Z of confusion and mess.

I just hope that Kurt Zouma – the last on the A to Z, but the first in my mind – recovers as soon as possible this autumn. Most fans recognise that we need extra bodies in defence, but if Kurt can recover soon, and it is the biggest worry that he will not, we might – just might – be able to get through all of this without spending typically silly money on a panic buy. Daryl and myself spoke about this on Tuesday. This was before the promising Ola Aina had a knock.

I mentioned to Glenn it is the strangest thing that with all of our Italian managers, dating back to 1998, we have never bought a tried and tested Italian defender, apart from the short-lived and unsuccessful loan of Christian Panucci in 1999. You would have thought that an Italian manager at Chelsea would love a trusted defender from his own country. They know how to defend, those Italians.

In The Goose, there was a cast of thousands, seeping out from the bar and into the packed beer garden. There was the usual alcohol-induced banter, apart from me, a miserable bastard on “Cokes.” Daryl was knocking out a nice line in new Chelsea badges, while Gary was chatting away to two South London “sorts” and was the subject of much piss-taking.

“They’re from my area, Chris; Croydon.”

“Oh nice – are you talking about chip shops you all frequent?”

Wayne pointed at Gary and said “he’s quite the magnet, isn’t he?”

“Yeah,” I said. “You’ll always find him near a fridge.”

There were a few – around twenty – claret-and-blue clad away fans in the beer garden, minding their own business. We wondered if, given that the most away fans pay for away games is now £30, they would take their full 3,000 allocation.

Glenn and I also called in to “The Malthouse,” just as the team came through on our phones, before continuing our walk to the stadium. We had heard on the grapevine that the “Lillie Langtry” at West Brompton had recently re-opened, and I noticed that the pub on Fulham Broadway previously known as “Brogan’s” has re-opened, or re-branded as they say these days, as “McGettigan’s.” It is a pub that I have only ever visited once and I don’t know of anyone that goes there. Odd. I guess we all have our favourites. If “The Goose” fails to impress, we might need to find alternatives.

As for the starting-eleven, Antonio Conte had kept Oscar instead of Fabregas and this surprised me, especially after his assists at Watford.

Courtois.

Brana – Gary – JT – Dave.

Kante.

Willian – Matic – Oscar – Hazard.

Diego.

There were a few spots of rain as we waited in line at the turnstiles this would soon pass. Inside, a quick glance over to The Shed, and only 1,500 Burnley fans.

Oh well, I have to remember how small the town of Burnley actually is. It has a smaller population – 73,000 – than places such as Bath, Gloucester and Eastbourne.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, Neil Barnett said a few nice words about Ian Britton, who sadly featured in these match reports last season.

I applauded his memory but the vast majority decided not to.

Thankfully there were no flames being thrown up in to the air from in front of the East Stand as the teams emerged. I looked over to see if Roman Abramovich was present. He had watched the Rovers game on Tuesday, with Andre Shevchenko sitting a few seats in front, but he was not able to be spotted for this game.

“Typical JCL, picking and choosing his games.”

It was a perfect afternoon for football.

For the second successive home league game, our opposition was in claret and blue. We hoped that Burnley would go the way of West Ham.

The pre-match drizzle had given the pitch an extra zip, and we were soon celebrating. With the game not even ten minutes old, Nemanja Matic released Eden Hazard inside his own half. He had the entire right flank of Burnley’s defence at his mercy and he drove on in to acres of space. He teased and toyed with his markers, but effortlessly drifted inside with his trademark drop of the shoulder and softly curled a beautiful low shot beyond the dive of goalkeeper Tom Heaton. As the team gathered around him to celebrate, he was soon to thank Diego Costa for a run which took the attention of other defenders away from his own run. It was textbook stuff.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

We were then treated to a period of sumptuous football from Chelsea, if not a little over-indulgent on occasion. Both Willian, stopping, then darting past his marker, on the right, and Hazard, gliding with 2014/2015 ease past everyone, were the main stars going forward, but that man Kante soon impressed me with his energy, work rate and industry. It would turn out to be a masterclass from him.

Burnley were simply not in it.

Hazard again went close. A Gary Cahill volley, which reminded me of that scissor-kick goal from JT at The Shed a few years back, was deflected for a corner. Dave went close. A Terry header was at Heaton.

With Kante anchoring the midfield, Matic was able to move further up the field. He needs to be teased out of his defensive shell. He needs support from everyone to reach his 2014/2015 level, when he was magnificent. Maybe we can help him. Support him. Cheer him on. That’s our job, right?

Fair play to their fans, though. From mid-way through the first-half for a good fifteen minutes, they supported their team well. They sang non-stop, presumably about the hated Blackburn Rovers, and it was a fine performance. I didn’t catch much of it, nor – more to the point – was able to decipher it, save for their most famous song.

“And it’s no nay never.

No nay never no more.

Till we play Bastard Rovers.

No never no more.”

I am sure that all of the other songs and chants uttered in thick Lancastrian were similarly aimed at the fans and players of Blackburn Rovers.

Songs about how the Burnley Womens’ Institute regularly get more gold medals in the Lancashire frock making competition than that of Blackburn. Chants about how the “Pig and Whistle” darts team in Burnley whip the arse of Blackburn’s “Red Rose” pub every year. Ditties extolling the virtues of the fair maidens of Burnley as opposed to the gin-addled whores of Blackburn. It’s a local vibe in that part of East Lancashire, alright.

Fantastic play between Willian and Oscar set up Diego, who shot low, and Heaton was able to parry. There was a little frustration, certainly within me, that our domination – total – was not being rewarded. Thankfully, we were soon to be rewarded with a deserved second goal. Diego had time to play a lateral ball out wide to Willian, who quickly assessed the situation. He moved the defender out of his way with a shake of the hips, then guided a low shot towards Heaton’s far post. It was a beautiful goal. It was what we had deserved.

Bloody lovely stuff, Chelsea.

Burnley – let me say – had been poor and it was not until the forty-second minute that they attempted a shot on goal. Scott Arfield, who had scored against us on that drizzle-filled day in Burnley in 2014 – ah that pass from Fabregas to Schurrle still warms me – banged in a low shot which fizzed past Thibaut Courtois’ far post.

At the break, all was well. We had played some sumptuous stuff at times. It could easily have been 4-0 at the break. Maybe my “7-0” would not be such a stupid remark after all.

As the second-half began, it was more of the same. High intensity everywhere across the midfield, and constant forays into the Burnley defence. Burnley were twisted this way and that. They probably didn’t know what day of the week it was. Diego failed to hit the corners of the goal after a fine passing move found him in the box. Heaton, a fine young goalkeeper, kept thwarting our efforts with a few fine saves. From a pin-point Willian corner, Hazard volleyed at goal, but Heaton saved well, down low, after probably seeing the ball late. John Terry blazed over, from inside the six-yard box, and we all wondered “how.”

Hazard broke in on goal once more, but another fine Heaton save, damn it.

Kante continued to impress during the second-half. It seems sacrilegious to even write these words, but this small, slight player, so much like Makelele in many respects, could even turn out to be a better player than our former midfield legend. I have mentioned it previously, but I love the way he wastes not one second of time in moving the ball on. He covers space, he tackles, he blocks, he hustles, he harries, he chases, he destroys. He is bloody magnificent.

Typically, a mere minute after I said to Alan “Kante has not put a foot wrong all day” he miss-played a simple pass to Diego.

The exception that proves the rule? Possibly.

With the end of the match approaching, I could hardly believe that Burnley had managed to keep it to 2-0. There was the usual flurry of late changes. With Willian having played well all game, he was given a good ovation when he was replaced by Victor Moses. Soon after Michy Batshuayi and Pedro replaced Diego and Hazard; much applause for them too.

Batshuayi made room for himself well, but blasted over, wildly. He needed ice in his veins at that last crucial moment. It looked like a third goal would be elusive.

At the death, I applauded the fact that Mark Clattenburg – never flavour of the month at any time of the year – allowed play to continue after a late challenge on Oscar by Tarkowski. Batshuayi played the ball out to a raiding Pedro. Burnley were wide-open.

“We’ll score here” I whispered to Alan.

A few touches from Pedro, and a perfect ball was played towards the on-rushing Moses, who prodded the ball home perfectly.

Alan and myself, smiles as wide as the gaps in Burnley’s defence, looked at each other with glee.

Three goals, three points and a perfect day.

It seemed that my pre-match concerns about being overly-confident were wide of the mark. Burnley, for all their huff and puff, were poor. They did not have a single effort on target the entire game. Thibaut has surely never had an easier day at the office.

Although the noise from the home sections did not match the quality of football on the pitch, thankfully Chelsea did not bother with that Conte chant from Watford – hopefully resigned to a place in the list of “Chelsea One Hit Wonders” – and Burnley, God bless’em – didn’t do a Billy Ray Cyrus.

There was another feel-good vibe as we slipped back to our car. Parky was even waiting for us on Lillie Road with a pizza for us to share.

Three games, nine points, simple.

Top of the league, having a pizza.

Good times in SW6.

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Tales From Bristol, Bath And London.

Chelsea vs. Bristol Rovers : 23 August 2016.

The last time that I saw Bristol Rovers play was in February 1993 when I was lured to Bath – my nearest city and the place of my birth – to see the visit of Tranmere Rovers and, more specifically, Pat Nevin, in the second tier of English football, which was then called the First Division of the Football League. This was a season when I didn’t attend too many Chelsea games in the latter part of the season, since I was saving for a bumper trip to the US in the autumn of 1993, but I managed to gather enough money together to drive to Bath on a bitterly cold afternoon to watch my favourite ever player play one more time. Since I was supporting Pat, I took my place in the sparsely-populated away end at Twerton Park – Rovers’ home from 1986 to 1996 – among the Tranmere fans, and watched, with my extremities getting colder and colder as the game progressed, with decreasing interest in a game that neither excited me or even mattered too much. The home team won 1-0, thus pleasing the vast majority of the 5,135 crowd, but it did not save them from relegation that season. I looked on, disconsolate, as Pat Nevin struggled against the Bristol Rovers defence and I was left wondering how such a gifted player was now playing in the yellow and green away colours of Tranmere Rovers.

That I was lured to Bath for a Bristol Rovers game all those years ago was pretty typical of many like-minded souls from my local area around that time. When Bristol Rovers were forced out of their traditional Eastville Stadium, their temporary exile in the Roman and Georgian city of Bath at the home of Bath City resulted in many football fans in the Frome area adopting Rovers as a second team, or even a first team. There is no doubt that Rovers’ support – traditionally the northern areas of Bristol and neighbouring parts of Gloucestershire – took on new characteristics in that ten years of alternative domicile. Their demographics definitely shifted east. I know of several local lads who now support Rovers ahead of other, larger, teams, and I think their base in Bath for ten years sparked this. I remember watching a couple of other games at Twerton too; against Middlesbrough in 1986 and Notts County in 1988. It was a poor ground to be honest, but suited Rovers’ needs.

Growing up, the two local football teams to me were Bristol City and Bristol Rovers. My father always contended that City were always a second division team and Rovers, the scrappy underdog, a third division team. I hardly knew any supporters of the two Bristol teams. They must have existed, but it wasn’t until I began middle school in the autumn of 1974 that I met one.

On my very first day at Oakfield Road Middle School in Frome, I happened to sit opposite Dave, a lad from Frome, whose roots were in Bristol. It is very likely that some of the very first words that we said to each other were of our two football teams. I was Chelsea and he was Rovers. I had been to my very first Chelsea game in the March of that year, but I quickly learned that Dave had been to many Rovers games over the previous few seasons. In 1973/1974, Rovers had won promotion to the Second Division – I can still hear Dave extolling the virtues of the “Smash and Grab” striking partnership of Alan Warboys and Bruce Bannister – and he was full of stories of games at the endearingly ramshackle Eastville Stadium, especially involving the rough and tumble which used to accompany football in those days. We used to talk about our two teams. We even used to draw detailed drawings of Eastville and Stamford Bridge – both were oval, both had hosted greyhound racing – and our friendship grew and grew.

In the autumn of 1974, I played in my first-ever 11-a-side football match; it was a house match, Bayard – blue – versus Raleigh – red – and both Dave and myself were in the Bayard team.

We won 2-0, and I opened the scoring with a left-footed volley, while Dave followed up with the second goal as we won 2-0.

As football debuts go, it was damned perfect.

Bayard 2 Raleigh 0.

Chris 1, Dave 1.

Chelsea 1, Rovers 1.

Blue 2 Red 0.

The next season – around March 1976 if memory serves – the two of us were selected, as mere ten year olds, to play in the school team against a team from Bath, the only two from our year to be selected. It was a proud moment for me, yet – looking back with hindsight – it probably represented the high water mark of my footballing career. I would never reach such heights again, eventually dropping to the “B team” by the time I reached the age of fourteen, right at the end of the 1978/1979 season, unsure of my best position, and riddled with a lack of confidence in both myself as a person and as a player. Dave turned out to be a far more rounded footballer – a combative midfielder with a good pass – and played football at a reasonable level for many years. My mazy runs down the wing soon petered out against tougher opposition.

I will say something, though – and I was only speaking to Dave about this a couple of months ago after a “From The Jam” gig in our home town – there was a ridiculous chemistry between the two of us on a football pitch, which probably stemmed from the hours we played with a tennis ball in the schoolyard. I was a right winger and Dave played in midfield. We seemed to be able to read each other’s minds.

I would play the ball to Dave, set off on a run, and he would find me. After a while of this – time after time, game after game – it almost got embarrassing.

Dave agreed.

“Baker – our games master – would say “what is it with you two?””

Good times.

No, great times.

Leading up to our League Cup tie against Bristol Rovers, I was in contact with Dave, though was sorry to hear that he would not be attending. I had to bite my lip from uttering the classic schoolboy line “shall I get you a programme?”

This would – hopefully – be a fun evening for myself, perhaps for Dave, and for the others from my home area who are afflicted with Chelsea and Rovers devotion.

As I caught a glimpse of the local BBC TV news bulletin at 6am on the day of the game, there was a brief mention of the game at Stamford Bridge. The graphic came up on the TV screen :

“Chelsea vs. Bristol Rovers”

I shuddered and had a second look. It brought back immediate memories of when the two clubs were in the same division – the old second division – on a few occasions in my youth. But more of that later.

After another torrid day at work, I collected the Chuckle Brothers and we were on our way. Talk was all about the game at the start of the drive to London. A few friends would be in the Rovers end. News came through that a lot of Rovers’ fans had made a day of it and had been on the ale all day. This was brewing up nicely. A Chelsea game of course, but a game with a lovely local interest for us all. Whisper it, but Glenn often used to go and watch Rovers with his brother and a few other Frome rapscallions from 1986 to 1993, but he has since seen the light and now regards Rovers as an afterthought; a fling which had no long-lasting meaning.

Bristol Rovers. The Pirates. The Gas. The blue half – or maybe quarter – of Bristol, and therefore more palatable to me than Bristol City. Rovers spent most of their existence in the second and third divisions, before cascading down to the fourth division in the early-eighties along with their hated city rivals. Whereas City have enjoyed a little more success of late, Rovers were relegated from the Football League as recently as 2014. It was Dave’s worst ever moment. However, successive promotions have now hoisted Rovers back in to the third tier. Things are looking up for The Gas, a relatively recent moniker from the ‘eighties, which originated firstly as “Gasheads”, a derisory term from the City end of town, since an old gasometer used to stand over Eastville. The Rovers fans have now adopted it as a badge of honour.

Some stories to tell.

Of my first-ever twenty Chelsea games, four were against Bristol Rovers, at Eastville.

Because so much of who I am as a Chelsea supporter stems from my childhood passion for the team, I always say that my first one hundred games are the bedrock of my devotion. I can remember distinct details, most probably, from all of my first one hundred games. And as I am about to demonstrate I can certainly remember oodles from my first twenty.

Game 5 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 29 November 1975.

My first-ever Chelsea away game, and I can distinctly remember waiting outside my grandparents’ house in my local village for a lift to take my mother and I to the game. My father, a shopkeeper, was unable to get time off, but he had arranged for one of his customers, a Rovers season-ticket holder from near Cranmore, to take us to the game, along with his wife and daughter. I can remember the drive to Bristol, and the chat with the attractive blonde girl – a couple of years older, phew – to my right. I always remember she wore a blue satin jacket, edged in tartan.

“Blue for Rovers, tartan for the Bay City Rollers.”

Mum and myself took our seats in the main stand, and I loved being able to see Eastville in the flesh, at last, after all of Dave’s diagrams and related details. Chelsea wore the lovely old Hungarian red, white, green, and we won 2-1, despite Bill Garner getting sent off. I remember the angled flower beds behind the Tote End goal. There were outbreaks of fighting in the stadium. It was a fantastic first away game. The gate was a pretty healthy 16,277. Oh – I also remember a Chelsea fan getting a little too interested in my mother – awkward – and I remember seeing the very same bloke at Ashton Gate later in the season, this time with my father on the scene. My mother and I would have a knowing glance and smile at each other.

Game 9 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 5 October 1976.

I always remember that my parents and I travelled up to see the Chelsea vs. Cardiff City game on the Saturday, and were amazed to read in the programme that our away game at Eastville, originally planned for later that autumn, had been brought forward to the following Tuesday. Tickets were hastily purchased – again in the main stand – and this time it was a full family carload that left my village after my father had picked me up outside my school on the way home from work. Both my parents and, from memory, my grandfather (his only Chelsea game with me) watched us on an autumnal evening in Bristol. I remember Dad got a little lost nearing the ground, but that was the least of our troubles. We lost 2-1 after getting it back to 1-1. Chelsea in red, red, blue. My first midweek game. More crowd trouble. A gate of 13,199. Despite the sad loss, we were promoted at the end of the season,

Game 16 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 23 February 1980.

An iconic game, for all the wrong reasons. On my travels around the country with Chelsea, I bump in to many of our fans from the West of England. It seems that every single one of them, to a man, was at this game. We were riding high in the second division after relegation in 1978/1979, and I was relishing the visit to Eastville to see a good Chelsea team against a mediocre Rovers eleven. I watched from the main stand yet again, and was thrilled to see my friends Glenn – yes, the very same – and his brother Paul, with their grandfather, watching from a few rows behind me. There was untold fighting before the game, with Chelsea in the Tote End, and police horses in the Tote End too. It was pandemonium. On the pitch, a below-strength Chelsea team (Bob Iles in goal, for starters) lost 3-0 to a fine Rovers performance. The crowd was a feisty 14,176. There must have been 4,000 Chelsea there. Debutant Dennis Rofe was sent off. Tony Pulis – yes, him – scored for Rovers. It would eventually cost us our promotion place at the end of the season and we would not recover until 1984. A grim day.

Game 19 : Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea – 14 March 1981.

This was a poor season and this was a poor game. This time, my father and two school friends stood on the small terrace in front of the main stand. We were drifting towards a lowly position in the second division while Rovers were on their way to relegation. The atmosphere, for want of a better word, of the previous season, had dissipated. The stand on the other side of the pitch – where I had watched a couple of speedway matches in 1977 and 1978 – had been burned down the previous summer and the gate was just 7,565. We were woeful. We lost 1-0. I remember Micky Droy playing upfront in the last ten minutes and hitting the bar with a header. A dire afternoon of football.

So, those paying attention will realise that of the last three times I have seen us play Bristol Rovers, we have lost every one.

In 2016, bizarrely, it was time for revenge.

We didn’t see many Rovers fans on the M4. I expected an armada. It was just a trickle. Most were already in the pubs and hostelries of London. A former boss, up for the game with his two sons, texted me to say they had been asked tom leave The Goose. No trouble. Just, I guess, for safety’s sake.

I was parked-up at about 6.30pm. The ridiculously warm London air hit me hard. It was like a sauna. PD, Parky and Glenn had chosen shorts. I wish I had done the same. In The Goose, there were a residual few Rovers fans, but everything was quiet. It was not as busy as I had expected. We had heard that some of the 4,000 were drinking at Earl’s Court, quite a common occurrence these days.

The team news broke.

Begovic – Dave – Cahill – Brana – Aina – Matic – Cesc – Pedro – Moses – Loftus-Cheek – Batshuayi.

A mixture. A chance for some to shine. We presumed Ruben would play off Michy.

The air was thick and muggy on the walk down the North End Road, along Vanston Place and up the Fulham Road. There were Rovers fans about – in their iconic quarters – but there was no hint of 1980-style nastiness.

Inside Stamford Bridge, I was more than happy with the crowd. Only a few rows at the top of the East Stand remained empty. For some reason, like Liverpool in 2015, the away fans had the western side of the upper tier of The Shed, in addition to the whole of the bottom tier. Only three flags; a poor effort to be honest.

It was clear from the onset – and no real surprise to anyone – that the good people of Frenchay, Easton, Yate, Pucklechurch, Mangotsfield, Kingswood, Fishponds and Bradley Stoke would be making all the noise.

Very soon I heard the familiar sound of the Rovers’ theme tune.

“Irene, Goodnight Irene.

Irene, Goonight.

Goodnight Irene, Goodnight Irene.

I’ll see you in my dreams.”

More bloody silly flames were thrown up in to the air from in front of the East Stand as the teams entered the pitch. For a League Cup game. In August. Do me a favour, sunshine.

Chelsea in blue, Rovers in yellow.

The game began. It was still ridiculously warm.

It was all Chelsea for the first part of the game. With Moses and Pedro out wide, and Ruben alongside Batshuayi, we moved the ball well, and – cliché coming up – the Rovers players were chasing shadows. Chances piled up in the first twenty minutes with shots from all areas. Batshuayi dragged his shot wide after a fine move, and Ruben drove a low drive hard against the far post. In The Shed, the away fans were singing away.

“I’ll see you in my dreams.”

Rovers hardly threatened. They put together a crisp move featuring over twenty passes, but got nowhere.

On the half-hour, Loftus-Cheek played in Matic, and his ball in to the box was deflected towards the waiting Batshuayi; he swivelled and lashed it high past Steve Mildenhall in the Rovers’ goal.

Fred Wedlock : “CHTCAUN.”

Billy Wedlock : “COMLD.”

Soon after, a cross from Dave was played right across the goal and Victor Moses had the easiest job to touch it home.

It was 2-0 to us, and we were well on top.

But, no. Just before the break, Rovers swept in a fine ball from a free-kick in front of the East Stand and Peter Hartley rose to head the ball past Asmir Begovic, who until that point had not been tested.

The Rovers end ignited and, no bias, the version of “Goodnight Irene” that greeted their goal was truly deafening. Good work, my luvvers.

They then aimed a ditty at City and Glenn and myself thought about joining in.

“Stand up if you hate the shit.”

City call Rovers “Gas Heads.”

Rovers call City “Shit Heads.”

It’s all very colloquial in Brizzle.

Ellis Harrison then went close with a header.

Thankfully, we soon restored the lead when Batshuayi turned in a Loftus-Cheek pass, again from close range. It was good to see us getting behind defenders and hitting the danger areas.

We lead, then, 3-1 at the break.

It was still a sultry and steamy evening as the second-half began. It was Rovers, though, who began on the front foot and a deep run by their bearded talisman Stuart Sinclair caused us problems. A clumsy challenge by Pedro – yeah, I know – gave the referee an easy decision. Harrison dispatched the penalty with ease.

Rovers soon started singing Billy Ray Cyrus. Fuck off.

We rather went to pieces, and for the next twenty minutes, the away team held the upper hand. Their reluctance to attack for most of the first-half was cast aside and they caused us a few problems. Moses twisted and turned but shot wide. Then, the loose limbed Harrison unleashed a fine shot from distance which Begovic did well to turn over. It was becoming quite a competitive match.

We slowly got back in to our stride, but our finishing was quite woeful. I watched Ruben Loftus-Cheek as our moves developed, but his movement was non-existent. On more than one occasion, I was begging him to make an angle, to lose his marker, to create space, but he did not do so. I guess that instinct is not inside him.

Dave Francis would have found Chris Axon in 1976, no problem.

Thankfully, Rovers began to tire in the final quarter. By then, almost ridiculously, the manager had brought on Eden Hazard for a poor Pedro, John Terry for Ola Aina – sadly injured – and then Oscar for Loftus-Cheek. Our play was invigorated again, but no further goals followed, despite Michy bundling the ball in after good work from Hazard; sadly he was offside.

The away end was still bristling.

“We’re Bristol Rovers, we’ll sing to the end.”

Batshuayi had impressed me throughout the game. He is strong, does not lack confidence, is mobile and has a good first touch. I have a feeling he will be among the goals this season. It was a pretty reasonable game, save for our second-half dip, and I am sure that the travelling Bristolians enjoyed themselves. I was in contact with Dave throughout the match, and I am sure he was proud of his team, and supporters.

However, for the blue and white quarters – the travelling Gas Heads – it was “Goodnight Vienna.”

We set off home, on the M4, along with thousands of others heading west. At Reading Services, the Rovers fans outnumbered us, but they were in good spirits. After delays at a couple of spots on the journey home, I eventually pulled into my drive at 1.15am. These midweek games, Chuckle Brothers or no Chuckle Brothers, do not get any easier.

It had been thirty-five years since my last Chelsea game against Rovers. I wonder if I will ever see another one.

If so, I’m looking forward to it already.

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Tales From Vicarage Road.

Watford vs. Chelsea : 20 August 2016.

After the euphoria of Monday’s dramatic win against a rather disappointing West Ham United, Saturday could not come quick enough. On the face of it – “although no team should be underestimated blah, blah, blah”- I for one was certainly hoping for another league win to get us off to a solid start to 2016/2017. I was on driving duties again, and picked up PD, Parky and Young Jake en route. The skies threatened with rain a little, but this would surely be a fine day. I was parked in our standard car-park at just after midday. All four of us looked at the skies and decided against jackets. As with last season, the pre-match drink-up was in the ridiculously busy “The Moon Under Water” Wetherspoon’s on Watford High Street. Alan and Gary were soon spotted and, while I slowly sipped on “Cokes” – deep joy – I watched with admiration from afar as the others kept returning from the rammed bar with plastic pint after plastic pint. Many other members of the Chelsea Away Club popped over to say “hello” and the time soon passed. Watford’s High Street is solid with pubs, bars, clubs, restaurant and fast food joints. One lot of Chelsea were over at “The Flag” near the station. And we were in “The Moon Under Water.” Watford fans were present but a minority.

This was Chelsea Central.

It didn’t take long for the place to be reverberating with Chelsea songs. I am sure that many of our foreign fans, possibly still to visit England for a game, have this notion that on every match-day at Stamford Bridge, every single pub is shaking to the rafters as Chelsea song after Chelsea song is bellowed out. It simply isn’t like this. Singing does happen, but it’s quite random and ad hoc. My local “The Goose” is noisy, but pre-match songs are quite rare these days. There is more condensed singing at away pubs – “The Arkell’s” outside Anfield, “The Shakespeare’s Head” on the way to Arsenal and “Yates” in Southampton’s town centre are three easy examples – but a lot depends on numbers. Often, with Chelsea in the minority, there are no songs, often there are no clues who we are. On this particular match day, amid the usual Chelsea standards, I quickly noted a new chant. It could hardly be termed a song, since it was very flat, with hardly a melody. I quickly made a note of the words.

“Antonio Conte. Does it better. Makes me happy. Makes me feel this way.”

The last few words sounded familiar – annoyingly familiar – but because there was no notable tune involved, I was struggling to name the song. It boomed around the pub and although I felt myself subconsciously joining in as I queued for my round, I really wasn’t convinced. Maybe it will grow on me.

After the game on Monday, in the car on the way out of Fulham, I suggested to my friends that Willian’s performance had been the only one that had been a little sub-standard. On the face of it, once the team news had come through on our phones, it seemed that Antonio Conte had agreed with me.

Pedro in for Willian, otherwise unchanged.

I passed this nugget of news to Parky, but he was sodden with cider and just smiled and gave me a big hug.

“Whatever” I said, smiling, “sorry for spoiling your drinking.”

It is a bloody good job that I wrested the troops out of the pub earlier than normal because we were met with a ridiculous wait at the away end. There was building work last season, but no delay. This season, all two thousand Chelsea fans were pushed like cattle towards a double doorway of no more than four feet wide, with four turnstiles located inside the stand. What a farce. Why not have four turnstiles built into the actual perimeter wall? Anyway, we made it inside.

Incidentally, a rather huge Watford fan had waltzed past us, bellowing some chant or another, as we waited rather impatiently to get inside. The Chelsea choir seized the moment and targeted him.

“You ate Dennis Wise, you ate Dennis Wise – you ate Dennis, you ate Dennis, you ate Dennis Wise.”

Unlike last season, shunted way to the left, we had good seats. Vicarage Road is a tidy stadium, and there is infill taking place on all four corners. The corner to our left was a work in progress.

Before I had time to think, the Evertonian “Z Cars” heralded the teams on the pitch, and with the home end opposite a riot of yellow, red and black flags, the scene was set.

Chelsea were in a rather neat all-white kit. It is much better than the sub-standard home kit, with the juvenile lions embedded into the knit, and a hundred times better than the black away kit. Overall, I have not been too impressed with the Adidas kits since they took over from Umbro in 2006/2007. I wonder if the standard 2016/2017 Nike template will continue into next season. It seems that every single one of Nike’s uniforms have the same colour shirts and shorts, with contrasting sleeves and socks. I wonder what horrors we have in store next season. Light blue sleeves maybe? Shudder.

Lacoste Watch.

Parky – white.

Chris – dark grey.

Let’s not deny it, for a very large part of this match, we were quite woeful, and it reminded me so much of some of our soporific performances last season, with little urgency and drive. Our game at Vicarage Road during the last campaign had been poor, although we had slowly improved during the second-half, but this was almost worse. As the game continued, I kept thinking back to my very effusive match report from Monday and wondered if my enthusiasm would now be looked at as rather premature and excessive.

If it was the same 4/1/4/1 as Monday, I would not have known, since Matic seemed unwilling to move from a deep midfield berth. The first-half was truly awful. The singing, which had been strong at the start, drifted away with each passing minute of inactivity on the pitch. Soon into the game, the skies darkened and misty rain gave way to a stronger shower.

“Good job we’ve all forgot our jackets.”

The floodlights flickered on. This was November in August.

To my left, I noticed that many Watford fans had vacated their seats in the Elton John Stand simply because the roof overhead did not fully extend over the seats. What a joke. I guess they watched from inside the concourse on TVs. Pathetic, really.

In the Chelsea dugout, I was transfixed with the animated cajoling of our new manager, who again looked very dapper in his suit and tie.

“A penny for your thoughts, Antonio.”

“And what do you think of the new song?”

“Yeah, me too.”

In all honesty, Watford could have been two-up at the break. A fine save by Thibaut Courtois from an angle kept Watford at bay early on. As the rain continued, play did not flow. Chelsea were ponderous in picking passes and movement off the ball was poor. Watford, without creating too much early on, seemed to be up for the fight more than us. The robust and spirited nature of our play on Monday was sorely lacking. Dare I say it, we looked tired. Kante buzzed around, attempting to bring other players in, but too often Ivanovic’ cross failed to get past the first man, Oscar failed to do anything constructive, Hazard failed to pick out Diego Costa, and Matic was just Matic. To my left, Gary was turning the air blue with every swear word known to mankind.

I turned to TBBM (“the bloke behind me”) and sighed “I’ve got this all season.”

Cahill did well to block a Watford shot. There was a call – from me anyway – for a back-pass after Gomes picked up the ball under pressure from Costa after a Watford defender seemed to have got a touch after the much-barracked former Tottenham ‘keeper initially spilled it.

A game of few chances and little joy, at half-time there were yawns the size of underground tunnels in the away end.

There were no positives from the first forty-five minutes to be honest. After the optimism of Monday evening, there was a noticeable deadening of our spirit. The singing had almost petered out completely.

It wasn’t good.

It wasn’t good at all.

With Chelsea attacking the away support, we hoped for better things as the game re-started. Eden Hazard fired wide, and we seemed to liven up a little. Sadly, after just ten minutes of the second-half gone, we were caught napping when Guedioura – who? – was able to cross from the Watford right. As three Chelsea defenders rose to head the centre away – all missing the flight of the ball completely – I immediately spotted danger as the ball dropped invitingly to a completely unmarked Watford player beyond the frame of the goal.

I uttered the immortal words “here we go” with a knowing sigh, and watched as Capoue brought the ball down and volleyed it high past Courtois.

Watford were one-up. Oh bollocks.

After the Watford celebrations and flag-waving had died down, we heard the home support for possibly the only time during the whole afternoon, as they sang in praise of their goal scorer.

Yep, you guessed, it – the Billy Ray Cyrus song. Fuck off.

The Antonio Conte song struggled to get going. It needs to change, somehow, for it to become more palatable.

We seemed to marginally improve, in terms of chances on goal, with Hazard and Matic going wide, but there was still a dullness to our body language. Watford turned overly physical in their efforts to hold on for the win. Frustrations boiled over on a number of occasions. An unlikely attacker almost created an opening when Ivanovic tempted Gomes out of his six-yard box, but the resulting cross in to the danger zone was cleared for a corner. A handball appeal, which I missed, was waved away.

With twenty minutes remaining, Antonio Conte replaced Pedro with Victor Moses. No complaints there.

Immediately, our play seemed to be more direct, more intense.

Moses enjoyed a spirited run down the left, which was met by a song from a few years back.

The Victor Moses “Pigbag” was sung with far more gusto than the Antonio Conte “Chaka Khan” (for it was her song “Ain’t Nobody” which had been butchered that afternoon in Watford.)

Oscar, who had drifted over to the right wing, was then replaced by Michy Batshuayi.

Things improved further and the fans around me realised this. The support grew stronger.

The final change and Cesc Fabregas replaced the woeful Nemanja Matic. I turned to Alan –

“Bloody hell, that’s an attacking line-up alright.”

After only two minutes on the pitch, Fabregas daintily picked out Hazard outside the box. He moved the ball laterally and then unleashed a low shot on target. The much-maligned Gomes made a mess of his attempted save, only feeding the ball towards Batshuayi who was on hand to tuck the spilled ball into the net.

GET IN.

Our new young striker reeled away in ecstasy and we were back in it. Playing with two up had borne dividends. We had an extra striker in the six-yard box. It seems simple, but how often has this simple fact been ignored over recent seasons? I again turned to Alan.

“Mourinho would often change personnel, but he very rarely changed the shape. Credit to Conte. Game on.”

Everyone around me sensed a more adventurous Chelsea now. It seemed we were genuinely on top. We pressed forward, urged on by a support that had finally found its voice.

“Antonio Conte. Does it bet-tah.”

Ivanovic came close. It was all Chelsea. The noise cascaded down towards our heroes on the pitch.

A rare Watford attack broke down, and the ball fell to Cesc Fabregas. He instantly looked up and spotted an advanced Diego Costa, about to set off on a run into the Watford half. His clipped pass was perfect, dropping right between two bamboozled and befuddled Watford defenders, allowing Costa a clear run on goal. He aimed for goal and steadied himself. A touch to set himself up. I was on my toes now, awaiting the strike. He shot low. It flew in through the legs of Gomes.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.

Watford 1 Chelsea 2.

Pandemonium in the away end, pandemonium everywhere. Bodies flying this way and that. I steadied myself to photograph Diego’s beautiful celebrations – his second late match winner in two games –  but Parky grabbed hold of me and shook me hard. I managed to release myself to snap the team’s celebrations, and immediately after the away end was reverberating to a song about a Spaniard and his magic hat.

Beautiful.

I am not sure how we had done it, but we were winning a game in which, for a good seventy minutes, we had looked second-best. Over on the touchline, Conte had masterminded another masterstroke. I was full of admiration. Five minutes of extra-time were signalled but we would not let this slip. The team remained strong, energised, together. I was really impressed with Batshuayi and the striker could have made it 3-1 but his very neat turn and shot crashed back off the Watford bar.

The whistle went.

Phew.

Two wins out of two.

Phew.

On the walk back to the car, we were full of praise for the way that our Italian manager had changed things, in almost a carbon copy of the game on Monday. It is early days, of course, but it seems that we are all in for a fine time this season. Thankfully, we narrowly avoided a few spots of rain, which started up just after we reached the car, and again on the way back west along the M4. There would be no raining on our parade on this fine day of Chelsea glory. At Reading Services, we again avoided getting wet as we called in to collectively re-charge our batteries with our assault on “Fifty Shades Of Greggs” (OK, three – a sausage roll, a tandoori chicken baguette and a Philly Steak lattice; three down, forty-seven to go, watch this space, with no European travels this season, we have to find excitement where we can). Who should walk around the corner but two local lads that PD and myself know who had watched my local team Frome Town play at nearby Kings Langley, drawing 2-2. Frome have begun the season well, and I have seen them play twice already. Like Chelsea, Frome Town are in fourth place in their respective league, and I wished a few of the players well as they appeared from their coach on their way to refuel.

It capped off a fine day.

On Tuesday, we play Bristol Rovers in the latest incarnation of the League Cup, in what promises to be a noisy affair with four-thousand Bristolians taking over The Shed. I am sure that by the end of the evening, I will be sick to the death of “Goodnight Irene” being sung on a constant loop but I am relishing the chance to see a local team to me at Stamford Bridge for the very first time. There will be, undoubtedly, memories of games against them at Eastville flitting in and out of my head, and the resulting match report, all night.

I will see a few of you there.

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Tales From A Night Of Ignition.

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 15 August 2016.

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

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

“The Italian flag, mate” replied Alan.

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

An homage to our new manager Antonio Conte.

I approved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the focus was certainly on Conte.

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

“Quietly spoken but with eyes of steel.”

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

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

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

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

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHotoVK13T4

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

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

God knows we missed these qualities last season.

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

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Terry – Cahill – Ivanovic.

Kante.

Willian – Matic – Hazard – Oscar.

Costa.

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

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

Eight o’clock was approaching fast.

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

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

A little coincidence there, for those that like them.

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

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

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

Zola.

Tambling.

Ulster Blues.

Tim Rice.

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

Three colours green.

Three colours white.

Three colours red.

“I tricolori.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Touch, move, pass.

One, two, three.

Keeping the momentum going.

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

We got in to the game.

Another Ivanovic shot was hardly worthy of the name.

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

Fuck off.

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

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

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

Eden versus his man. What will he do next?

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

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

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

All level at the break.

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

We teased the away fans :

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

No complaints at the interval.

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

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

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

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

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

Reggie : “Come on my little diamonds.”

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

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

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

“He scored two hundred.”

It was lovely stuff.

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

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

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

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

Payet, the danger man, came on.

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

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

Bollocks.

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

Ugh.

1-1.

Their first effort on goal.

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

“Arseholes, bastards, fucking cunts and pricks.”

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

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

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

Damn.

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

“Getinyoufuckingbeauty.”

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

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

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

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

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

The whistle blew and we yelled our joy.

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

Ha.

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

Thanks Antonio, thanks boys.

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

See you all at Watford on Saturday.

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Tales From A Twin City.

Chelsea vs. Milan : 3 August 2016.

I drove from Ann Arbor in Michigan to Minneapolis in Minnesota in one ridiculous hop. It totaled out at 672 miles, took me over eleven hours and became the longest car journey of my life. There have been some long road trips for me watching Chelsea in the US (North Carolina to Pittsburgh, North Carolina to DC, North Carolina to Chicago, LA to Palo Alto, New York City to Charlotte, Charlotte to DC), but this one was the grand-daddy of them all. I only stopped four times – once for fuel, once for lunch, once for a drink and once at the Minnesota welcome centre – and thankfully the time went OK. I didn’t feel tired at all. The American Road kept me happy. I delved into a selection of FM radio stations to reduce the boredom, but you can only hear Chicago and Peter bloody Cetera so many times without going insane. I therefore hopped around some different stations a bit when things got tedious. I stayed clear of “Culvers” butter burgers, and all was fine.

The landscape was pretty flat around Michigan, but I noted many vineyards and wineries, which surprised me. I then swept wide and west past the suburbs of Chicago, my first port of call on this, my nineteenth trip to the USA. The Sears Tower, or whatever incarnation it is known by these days, was away in the distance. After I stopped at a down-at-heal “Hardees” for a burger and fries – can’t get more American than that – in Roscoe, Illinois, the scenery slowly changed and became more stimulating. The hills broadened, the fields turned greener, the sky opened up a little. Even the clouds looked more interesting. It became a lovely car trip.

I crossed the state line in to Minnesota as the rush-hour traffic was beginning to fade. My final approach seemed to electrify me. I shot past the little nest of downtown skyscrapers of St. Paul, the lesser of the two Twin Cities, and then continued on a further ten miles towards the far more impressive skyline of Minneapolis.

I genuinely knew little of the city to be honest. Cathy and myself had stopped for a few hours at the city’s airport on our long flight to Los Angeles in 2007, but I had not visited it in its own right. It was the home of Prince, bless him. It was the home of the Minnesota Twins, who were the opponents for my very first New York Yankees game in 1990. It was home to the Minnesota Vikings NFL team. The area was settled by many Scandinavians. There was a huge shopping mall in its suburbs. The city had skyways to keep people off the cold streets of winter and the scalding streets of winter. That was it.

For a geography graduate, I should have known more.

Ah, but there was also an Everything But The Girl song called “Twin Cities” from their 1991 album “Worldwide” and I loved it to death. It came out just after I had visited the US for the first time. This particular song was an ode to travel throughout that vast continent. It seemed to strike a chord for me. That particular band often wrote about travel, of foreign cities, of wanting to be elsewhere, and a few of their songs get me dreaming of foreign lands.

“And now I’m standing in a city that’s as pretty as an ocean in the night.

And we are twin cities. And we are that ocean. From the standing still. We are set in motion.”

At about 6.45pm, Minneapolis opened up before me and I-94 threw me right into the heart of the city. As I took a broad curve down over the river, the incredible black irregular block of brick, steel and glass of the US Bank Stadium greeted me. It was a definite jaw-dropping moment. Of course, I had done my homework – I knew we were opening it up, as we did with Dallas’ new pad in 2009 – and I had studied images of it from inside and out. But the stadium looked incredible. Its irregular surfaces defied rational description. Was this a mere stadium, or some sort of space-ship about to take off into the night?

For the second time in five days, I had a feeling that a stadium would prove to be the star of the show.

I met up with a few friends down at the anointed pub – “Brits” – on Monday and Tuesday evening, and it was a pleasure to bump into a few old friends for the first time on this trip. On the way to the pub on the Tuesday, I had spotted a young lad with a Chelsea shirt in my hotel and so I spoke to him and his mother about the game. They were from Kansas and this would be their first Chelsea match. Soon after, we were sharing a cab down to “Brits” and Erica and Cooper – only seven – were soon meeting up with a roomful of Chelsea fans from all over the US. However, not long into the night, with Neil Barnett and both Garry Stanley and Gary Chivers turning the air blue with some of their tales from the past, I noticed that the two of them had disappeared outside in the warm summer evening air. I hope that we had not scared them away.

On both nights, I didn’t get back to my hotel, no more than a five-minute walk away from the stadium, until 2.30am. Thankfully, on the mornings after, there was no hint of a hangover.

Minneapolis seemed a fine town, but devoid of too many pedestrians. I suspect that the skywayss have a lot to answer for. I noted a fair bit of quirky architecture and the usual smattering of corporate skyscrapers.

On the day of the game, I started off with a pint of Leinenkugel’s summer shandy in a bar near my hotel. It was 1.30pm. There were still seven hours until kick-off.

“Blimey, that’s like me having a pint at 8am on a Saturday matchday.”

I’d enjoyed a similar grapefruit shandy from the same company at the Detroit Tigers vs. Houston Astros game on the Sunday. What a refreshing drink. The summer shandy was cloudy and not half as refreshing. I walked to “Brits” and bumped into ex-pat Kev / Clive (old joke, ask Parky) on the way. He had travelled by 650cc motorbike from Detroit for the game and we swapped stories. Things were pretty quiet in “Brits” to be honest. I met up with Bob and Danny, both from California, and Phil from Iowa. A few more pints went down well. Bob and myself moved on to another bar called “Cuzzys” which was a fantastic place. Its floors sloped, and its walls were festooned with dollar bills hanging from every surface. It reminded me of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bar in Key West “Sloppy Joe’s.”

Back at my hotel, we met up with Danny, Mike, Tim and Eugene, lads that I have met over the years on my travels around the US. More beers, and a few more laughs. Time was moving on and so at just before 8pm, we walked towards the spanking new stadium. Throughout the past few days, we had hardly seen any Milan shirts. There was also a gnawing realisation that the good people of Minneapolis were out in force to witness the opening of the stadium rather than to see a football match. In a few bars, we had even seen fans – presumably going to the game – with the violet of the Vikings jersey on show. We envisaged another quiet night in the Chelsea section and the stadium as a whole.

There seemed to be a little confusion about access into the stadium and the most direct way was unable to be followed due to fences blocking our path. This was evidence that the stadium’s immediate areas were still requiring attention. Bob and myself took a lift to a quiet, air-conditioned, carpeted walkway – a skywalk, I suppose – which took us into the stadium midway up. In all honesty, at this stage, it all seemed a little too alien for me. It did not seem like a sports stadium. It seemed like an airport. There were wide concourses, and signs pointing here, there and everywhere. It did not seem right.

Then, we came out onto a viewing area – again, lots and lots of space – and we were able to see inside the stadium for the first time. Outside, the irregular shape of the stadium is said to resemble a Viking long-boat (for some reason, I used to love drawing those at school) with its angled lines and suchlike. Inside, the stadium appears huge, almost too huge, or at least too high. It was another jaw-dropping moment for me.

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I have been inside a few NFL stadia over the years – though I am yet to attend a game, no surprise there – and the last one that I visited which was equally stunning was the Dallas Cowboys Stadium. This one in Minneapolis though seemed almost perfect. At the Cowboys stadium, there are layer after layer of executive boxes where the corporate world can watch in air-conditioned isolation, but this leaves less seats for the common fan (if one exists in the NFL – it certainly seems a working class sport attended by the rich middle-class). This one seemed to have a larger proportion of general seating, even though the seats at the very rear of both side stands seemed to be so high as to be needing oxygen masks. It certainly ranks as the highest stadium I have seen. Probably higher than Dallas, probably higher than Camp Nou, certainly higher than the North Stand at Old Trafford.

At each end were massive TV screens. Everywhere, the violet / purple of the Vikings.

We took an elevator down a level and found our seats among the Chelsea section in the western side of the stadium, directly behind the goal. I looked around; just beyond our section, which continually stood for the duration of the game, there was the usual mixture of Real / Milan / Juve / Inter / Barca / Arsenal / Manchester United shirts. However, Chelsea was in the majority.

Back in 2005 – at the old Giants Stadium in New Jersey – I attended another Chelsea vs. Milan game, but on that occasion, Chelsea were outnumbered by four or five to one. I know the demographics of the New York area are so different to that of Minnesota, but that just shows how far we have traveled in such a short period of time.

I spotted a few familiar faces in our ranks. Gary Chivers and Garry Stanley were a few rows below me.

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The players finished their pre-match routines and the clock ticked-down. The US flag fluttered as a tattooed girl sung the national anthem. The teams entered the now jam-packed arena. The players appeared so close to us.

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Antonio Conte’s team was again strong.

Courtois.

Aina.

Terry.

Cahill.

Azpilicueta.

Matic.

Fabregas.

Willian.

Traore.

Costa.

Moses.

The 4/4/2 aligned Costa and Traore for the first time.

It was good to see Diego back in the team.

Milan – playing in virtually an all-black kit – attacked the end where the Chelsea supporters, numbering possibly no more than five hundred at most, in a little tight block, were stood. Of course, there were Chelsea fans elsewhere, but this was the equivalent of an away section, the notion that movers and shakers in charge of these tours are only vaguely acquainted.

My friend Steve Rea, from New Orleans – who writes blogs on the official website – had asked me about my thoughts about my travels over to the US for these tours. I shared a few things with him, and included a moan about “other” fans getting tickets in apparently Chelsea-only sections. Things can often get a little tetchy in some cases. I remember getting annoyed by some Barcelona fans standing right in front of me in DC last summer. My closing comment to Steve for his article was – knowingly controversial – “sometimes segregation is a good thing.”

It didn’t surprise me that this line was cut from the final edit.

But certainly, for football games, it is surely key.

Who wants to be stood next to opposing fans?

Get us all together, one block, one voice, one song.

Us and them.

Make some noise.

Milan were the first to cause problems when Abate was able to ghost in at the far post to connect with a cross, after drifting inside a dozing Dave. Milan looked quite sharp and I hoped for better things from us.

We had torn shirts as Traore and then Diego were manhandled. Diego headed over from a Traore cross. Milan then broke well and we had to rely on a fine Courtois block, with his legs, to avoid us conceding.

The noise in the Chelsea section was not great and I had rolled my eyes as a couple of “waves” were attempted around the stadium. Thankfully, they did not get far, unlike at Ann Arbor on Saturday. On that particular afternoon, I found it so ironic that the only section of fans not joining in with this loathsome and tiresome activity were the ones that had been trying to sing all afternoon. Sometimes I come away from games in the USA and think “yes, you’re getting it” but on that day, in The Big House, I marked America down.

After one wave faltered, I thought “enough of this shite” and bellowed out twelve “Zigger Zaggers” (a personal best, thank you very much) and the Chelsea support around me rallied a little.

Chelsea played a little better and had a few attacks on goal. Victor Moses, as is his wont during these games, had a forceful run out left. Another of his runs ended with a shot which rebounded nicely for Bertrand Traore to head home from close range.

Chelsea 1 Milan 0.

It pleased Minneapolis-native Tom, standing in-front of me, that the PA played “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince to mark the first goal scored in his city’s sparking new stadium.

Dave drove hard at the Milan goal but his shot breezed past the far post. We seemed in control.

Sadly, before the break, we conceded a free-kick just outside the box, and Bonaventura – pet detective – curled a stunning shot over the wall and past Thibaut.

Chelsea 1 Milan 1.

Milan started a little stronger at the start of the second-half. By now, the Chelsea support was quite pitiful. Hardly any songs were heard. The manager then shook things up a little, bringing on N’Golo Kante for his Chelsea debut – how small he looks, so reminiscent of Claude Makelele – and then there was a huge cheer for the introduction of Eden Hazard. They replaced Moses and Traore. It was lovely to see Kante dart around, but first he posed for a photo. Bless him. Welcome to Chelsea, N’Golo.

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Hazard was immediately involved. Willian’s shot was well saved by the Milan ‘keeper. Thankfully, the Chelsea support got behind the team a little more.

More changes ensued, with Ivanovic, Oscar and Batshuayi in for Aina, Fabregas and Costa.

The songs continued and we urged the team on.

A silly handball by a Milan defender allowed Oscar to fire the resulting penalty home.

“Getinyoufuckingbeauty.”

Chelsea 2 Milan 1.

Eden seemed to be elbowed in the jaw and stayed on the floor for a while. His new jersey did not display a number and the Chelsea fans in Nerdistan were excited to the point of collapse.

Chalobah and my mate Cuadrado were introduced late on.

We lustily sang a chorus of “fackemall, fackemall – United, West Ham, Liverpool” and one middle-aged woman turned around in an adjoining section and gave us the dirtiest of looks.

In front of me, Tommy had his finest moment.

To the old chant of “She fell over!” he sang “He’s Chalobah!” and gained a few credibility points.

That deserves to catch on next season.

You heard if first in Minnesota.

Four minutes from the end, we added to our lead when my boy Cuadrado did ever so well to supply an onrushing Oscar with a deft pass. He tucked it home well.

Chelsea 3 Milan 1.

This was a much better performance from us and I hope and pray we can build on it in Bremen on Sunday.

At the end of the game, it was lovely to see JT head over to sign some shirts before clapping us and heading up the tunnel. I said my goodbyes to a few and at that point my plan was going to head on back to “Brits” for a couple of hours. There were five of us left – Brian (Texas), Danny (California), Josh (Minnesota), Tommy (California) and me (Nebraska) – and we were some of the very last to leave. We posed with my “Vinci Per Noi” banner and left the stadium.

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And what a stadium it had been.

Sadly, the lure of my hotel bed, a mere five-minute walk away, proved too tempting.

It was time for me to call it a night.

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Tales From The Big House.

Chelsea vs. Real Madrid : 30 July 2016.

It could have easily been a typical Saturday morning back home in England. As I lay in bed, the sheets almost covering me completely, I buried my head deep inside the covers and tried to sleep on for a few more minutes, and endevoured to ignore the depressing sound of the rain lashing down outside the window. It sounded bleak. Following Chelsea during the summer in the US wasn’t meant to be like this. I hadn’t packed a jacket for the trip, that’s for sure. And I knew that there was no cover at the huge University of Michigan stadium. With the tightening of stadium security, I also knew that bags were not able to be taken in to the game.  If the rain continued to fall at the same rate over the next few hours, there was a strong chance of the upcoming game against Real Madrid becoming the worst viewing experience of my life. No roof. No jacket. No bag for my camera. Possibly not even my camera; there was an unclear description of the type of camera which would be allowed inside when I had checked on the stadium website earlier.

“Less than six inches.”

On reading this, I had glanced down at my camera and sighed.

“Looks bigger than six inches to me.”

There was, I suppose, if the occasional thunder cracks continued too, even a slight chance of the game being cancelled or postponed and obliterated from the record books.

Bollocks.

I slept on for a few more minutes. The room had top notes of disinfectant, mixed with a slight aroma of marijuana. Its base notes were of misery. I wondered if this would set the tone for the day.

The rain abated slightly and I became a little more optimistic. I showered, chose jeans over shorts, Moncler over Lacoste, Adidas over Nike, and headed out for the time-honoured tradition of a McBreakfast on the morning of a Chelsea match. This one was not in Melksham, or Chippenham, or at Fleet Services, though; this one was at Ann Arbor, Michigan, a lovely college town situated at arm’s length from the urban sprawl of the troubled city of Detroit. As I finished my coffee, I chatted briefly to a father with two teenagers – the girl wearing a Chelsea shirt, the son wearing a Real Madrid one. It was their first Chelsea game. I wished them well. I wondered if we’d get to see Real’s famous all white kit. It would be a shame to come all this way and not be treated to that. Instead, some ludicrous away kit catastrophe. I have only ever seen Real play once before; in Monaco in the 1998 UEFA Super Cup Final. It was all white on the night for them, but more so for us; a Gustavo Poyet goal gave us a 1-0 win, and prompted my good mate Andy to memorably comment :

“Right now, in Madrid, there’s an old bloke in a bar, saying ‘They always beat us, Chelsea.’ “

Of course, we had beaten them in Athens in 1971 too.

Two games, two wins.

Our paths have rarely crossed since; certainly not in official European campaigns.

On the walk past the motel reception, I spotted a lad wearing a Willian shirt. As I ambled past, I couldn’t resist singing “he hates Tottenham, he hates Tottenham” and this drew a wide smile from the Chelsea fan. There was a spring in my step now. This would be a good day.

My friend John, from Ohio, had kindly volunteered to pick me up in his truck and head in to town for pre-match beers. It was fantastic to see him once again. John studied at Reading University for a few months during the winter of 2008/2009 and I was able to get him tickets, usually alongside the Chelsea legend Lovejoy, for some games. He saw the Juve home match and also took in a game at Anfield. I last saw him at the Baltimore match against Milan in 2009; still widely-regarded by many as the best Chelsea matchday-experience in the US of them all.

On the drive in to town, we caught up with each other’s lives, and John spoke to me about the town’s university, and its myriad sports teams. That John was a “U of M” fan, made this game even more worthwhile for him. I had driven in to town myself on a few occasions since arriving on the Wednesday, but the streets and parking lots were so much busier now. The town was gearing itself for an influx of over one-hundred thousand footy fans.

I had flown in to O’Hare Airport in Chicago on the Tuesday afternoon. I had decided to miss the opening tour game in Pasadena against the Scousers. Los Angeles is not my favourite place, and I wanted to stretch out and unwind a little bit rather than rush between three games. The matches in Ann Arbor and Minneapolis would be just fine. There would be no fun, in my eyes, travelling all of the way out to California to see bloody Liverpool.

“LA?”

“No, la.”

I spent Tuesday night with a few good friends in Chicago, where we spent a few hours hitting a few bars, sharing plenty of laughs, eating Mexican food, and reminiscing about the previous time that I had been in town; the memorable weekend of July 2006 – ten whole years ago, good grief – when Chelsea played the MLS All-Stars, the only game of our US tour that year. I had travelled to the US the previous two summers with Chelsea and had mainly kept myself to myself. In 2006, though, because everyone met up in one pub – “Fado” – and because everything was so well organised (a quiz night, an evening with Charlie Cooke, a practice session, a tour around Chicago in three double-decker busses before heading down to the game), everyone made a special effort to socialise. For me, it was a watershed moment. I met so many friends during those three days of Chelsea in Chicago. Not long after, Chelsea In America asked me to write about a trip to Bremen with Chelsea for their monthly newsletter, and I soon began posting ad hoc match reports on their bulletin board. Ten years later, I am still scribing away with thoughts about what supporting Chelsea means to me and many others.

It has been quite a ride.

I drove from Chicago – sad it was just a fleeting visit – to Ann Arbor on Wednesday. I made the big mistake of stopping by at “Culvers” for a butter burger. It is not a good sign for my future health that the sound effect that accompanied me biting down in to the burger was “squelch.”

But I loved the trip to Ann Arbor on the American road. I find it quite beguiling. The scale of everything is so different to back home.

On Thursday, I drove over to visit my friends Erin and JR, and their three-month old boy Harry, who was born just a few hours after our game at Anfield at the close of last season. It was lovely to see them again. It’s such a shame that simple geography keeps me apart from so many of my closest Chelsea mates. We headed in to Detroit for a few hours. Of course, everyone knows how that city has suffered over recent decades, but I was encouraged to see green shoots of renewal in the city centre, which seemed very chilled and relaxed. I love the way that the city’s sport stadia have remained right in the middle of everything. We relaxed at a great little restaurant. I just fancied a “light snack” and so asked for a Reuben sandwich. However, I was presented with a slab of food so huge that if it had been served in the UK, it would have needed planning permission. JR had shrimp tacos, while Erin had a very healthy salad and rice bowl. The server, a particularly irritating fellow who enjoyed regaling us with a far-too detailed description of the menu, made a point of asking Erin if she required “any protein” with her salad. Perhaps he thought she might soon wither away without added nutrients.

He turned to me and asked if I wanted any fries.

The fucker.

On Thursday night, in Ann Arbor, the Chelsea portion of my holiday kicked-in. Sometimes, I find it a little difficult to focus on events at the start of each season. Because I have witnessed so many games, and have seen us win so much – “things I never thought that I would hear myself say #542” – I usually take a while to get going each season. In “Conor O’Neils” in Ann Arbor, meeting up with a few friends, plus former players Garry Stanley and Gary Chivers, gave me the kick-start that I needed. We spoke about the current team, but also about little parcels of our history. I see Gary Chivers at Stamford Bridge quite often as he works on the corporate hospitality these days. I last saw Garry Stanley at Ian Britton’s funeral in Burnley. We watched Didier Drogba score against Arsenal in the MLS All-Star Game.

Too funny.

Jesus, Brian, Beth and Carlo from Texas were there. The omnipresent Cathy, with Becky, too. Neil Barnett ran through his player ratings – not many high scores, I have to say – from the Liverpool match, which I was unable to track in my motel room, but which we won 1-0. I had my photo taken with Garry and Gary. These were good times.

On the Friday, despite a slow start, the afternoon turned into an evening of additional Chelsea fun. I walked over to the pub at around midday, and spotted two mates – Tuna from Atlanta and Simon from Memphis – who I see on the US tours and also back home at games. They were outside enjoying a pint and a breakfast. They would be the first of many old friends – and a smattering of new – that I would happily meet over the weekend. We had taken over the whole pub – large, cool, roomy – and I spent my time chatting away with many Chelsea faces, clutching a bottle of Corona, and occasionally taking a few photographs to capture the mood. For a while, those outside the pub sang a selection of Chelsea songs, and this resulted in many locals using their cameras to record the moment. I don’t think Ann Arbor was prepared for it. The city centre is a quaint mix of antique shops, brew pubs, eateries, diners, pubs and shops. It is a very typical college town. For a couple of days, Chelsea fans invaded it like a plague of locusts, drank beer, and turned the air blue.

At around 12.30pm on the day of the game, John parked his truck in a multi-story opposite “Conor O’Neils” and we dived into the pub. The rain soon returned, and the University of Michigan store opposite had a run on ponchos. More beers were guzzled, and the pub absolutely roared to Chelsea chants. On the drive in to the city from my motel three miles to the south, the number of Chelsea shirts greatly outnumbered those of Real Madrid. This was a very positive sign indeed. At just after 2pm, thankfully the rain cleared and we began the twenty-five-minute walk south to the stadium. It was very pleasant indeed. The rain had freshened things up a little. We were allocated the northern end of the stadium, and it soon appeared before us. Touts – or scalpers – were doing their best to get rid of spares. Knock-off kits, virtually all Madrid, were being hawked on grass verges. Time was moving on, and the line at the gates were long. I thrust my telephoto lens down into my pocket and hoped for the best. Thankfully, there was a very minimal search and I was in.

“And relax.”

In time-honoured Chelsea tradition, the call of “one last pint” (or in this case “one last poncho”) had been honoured without jeopardising our ability to get in on time.

The stadium, which holds around 110,000, sits on a hill, but does not look large from the outside. Like so many stadia though, the entrances are towards the top of the vast bowl, and the pitch is down below. As I walked in, I was blown away by the scale of it all. It is immense. It is not called “The Big House” without reason. There are rows upon rows of blue metallic bleachers which wrap themselves around on one never-ending single tier. The very last twenty rows are a relatively recent addition. Along the sides are two huge edifices – darkened glass, quite sinister – which house hundreds of executive and corporate suites.

Our section was right down the bottom and it took a while to reach it.

I located my seat, alongside Brij, an Ann Arbor student from San Jose attending his first-ever Chelsea match, and Neil, who was with me in Vienna, just as the national anthem was being played on a trumpet.

I looked around and took it all in.

The guy with the Willian shirt at the hotel in the morning was stood right behind me.

What a small bloody world.

Mosaics were planned and with a great deal of condescension, the announcer painstakingly explained what the spectators needed to do. Thousands of multi-coloured paper panels were held aloft, but I found it odd that the folks in and around me in the Chelsea section held up cards depicting the Real Madrid crest, whereas over in the southern side, the Chelsea crest was visible. Actually, the sections were not cut and dried. To my annoyance, the Chelsea sections of 33,34 and 35 were populated by not only Chelsea supporters, but by those of Real Madrid and many other teams too. The lower sections housed those from the various supporters’ clubs though – New York Blues, Shed End Dallas, Chicago Blues, Beltway Blues, Motor City Blues, Shed End Seattle, Atlanta Blues, Badgercrack Blues – and this lower level housed the bedrock of our support. However, a pet peeve of mine, noted here before, is that it would have been much better to allocate a solid block of one thousand or two thousand just to Chelsea. Over the course of the game, getting the disparate sections, split up and spread more thinly than I would have liked, to sing together was almost impossible.

Elsewhere, there were colours of many teams. If the opposite end was officially the Real Madrid end, there were no noticeable hardcore sections among it. There were no banners, no flags, no “capo” stuff. In fact, if I am blunt, the only section in the whole stadium that tried to get anything going the entire game was in the lower sections of our end.

Real Madrid were in all white, but it was Chelsea that had let me down.

It was black and white, not blue and white, this time.

Antonio Conte had chosen a strong team.

Begovic.

Azpilicueta.

Terry.

Cahill.

Aina.

Matic.

Oscar.

Willian.

Pedo.

Loftus-Cheek.

Traore.

I am so used to seeing a 4-2-3-1 that it took me a while to adjust.

The match began and the support around tried desperately to get behind the boys.

I got my rasping “Zigger Zagger” out of the way early – on around six minutes – and it left me gasping for a sip of beer at the end. I almost didn’t make it. The last “ZZ” almost caused my head to explode in the warm Michigan sun. I turned to Neil and said –

“That’s it. That’s me done.”

As I said, sections of those in blue did their very best to get things going but it wasn’t great.

Sadly, the first-half was truly awful.

Willian had a free-kick which failed to live up to its hype. An ill-judged back-header from Matic caused Begovic to scramble and save. Real Madrid started to dominate.

Two relatively similar goals were scored by Marcelo as our defence opened up before him. This was not going to plan. A third goal from Diaz, whipped in, dipping, but almost straight at Begovic, left us all with concerned faces. I had visions of a 6-0, a cricket score. I had visions of folks back home, at work, waiting to pounce.

“Bloody hell, mate. You went all that way and your lot lost 6-0.”

Neil disappeared at halftime in search of beer, but was never seen again, until later, much later, in the pub.

The manager made widespread changes at half-time.

On came Courtois, Chalobah, Cuadrado, Batshuayi.

Things genuinely improved a little in the second-half.

“Not difficult” I hear you say.

I liked the look of Cuadrado down below me on the wing. At last he looked a little more confident on the ball, and his first touch seemed to be fine. He looked “up for it” and I have a feeling that the manager might well be regarding this as his “special project” this season. He saw him play in depth for Juventus last season. Maybe he can coax something out of his frail shell.

Shots from Chalobah and Batshuayi went close.

The Real ‘keeper Casilla raced out of his area to gather a ball, but Traore pounced, only to see a defender block his shot.

There was a pitch invader, and I – perhaps with a little too much heavy satire – said “shoot him.”

Brij, next to me, told me that there were snipers in the stadium. He pointed up to the two opposing top corners of the roofs of the sky boxes. There were two darkened figures.

I actually felt a shiver go down my spine.

Is this crazy world of ours spiralling out of control so much that we require snipers on stand roofs? I wondered back to the days of the police observation area in the old West Stand in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. I bet in those days, the only things on display were a pair of binoculars and a cheese and pickle sandwich.

Real Madrid made massive changes and the game drifted on.

Victor Moses, back for his annual pre-season run, was fouled and Hazard went close.

Soon after, with eighty minutes on the clock, Hazard gave the score line a little more respectability when he latched on to a Chalobah ball and rounded replacement ‘keeper Yanez to slot home. My boy Cuadrado looked good, and created a few chances down below us. With an almost copy of his first goal, Eden Hazard was played in by Batshuayi and again rounded the ‘keeper to score a second. As bizarre as it sounds, we all thought that we might salvage an unwarranted draw. We had a little spell right at the end, but with the ball out for a corner, the referee blew up.

3-2 is a lot better than 3-0, but this was not great.

I will make the same comments, though, as I did against Rapid Vienna.

These are just games for us to get our fitness levels back and for the manager to look at options.

Time is moving on though.

We need to improve.

After a slow walk back to the bar, I said a sad farewell to John. After a few more beers, in the bar, we were all chilled and the result was glossed over. The drinking continued. On Wednesday, the locusts descend on Minneapolis.

I will see some of you there.

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Tales From A Slow Start.

Rapid Vienna vs. Chelsea : 16 July 2016.

By the time that the Austrian Airlines plane had touched down at Vienna’s Schwechat airport at 9.30am on Saturday 16 July, I had already been awake for nine hours. Day one of season 2016-2017, my forty-fourth year of attending Chelsea games, would undoubtedly be a long one. With Chelsea sadly not competing in either of the two European trophies this season, I was easily persuaded to attend the season-opener a week or so ahead of a trip over to the US later in July. European travel would be sorely missed by myself, and thousands of others, this season, but here – at least – was a chance for me to do what I love best; a couple of days in a foreign city following The Great Unpredictables.

I had woken, ahead of my alarm, at 11.30pm on the Friday night. What a ridiculous time to be waking. I set off at 1.30am on the Saturday and headed east. I had arranged to park my car at my friend Michelle’s house in Bracknell, and then her boyfriend Dane would then drive the three of us to Heathrow ahead of our 6am flight. We were checked in at 4.30am and we spotted a few fellow Chelsea on our flight. We grabbed a coffee and a bacon roll, and were soon on our way. “The Blue Danube” – that soothing Strauss favourite – greeted us as we took our seats on the plane. It set the tone nicely. I settled back in my seat and reminisced about previous visits to the Austrian capital.

Back in my early ‘twenties, newly graduated from college but with no idea of where I wanted my life to be headed, I often travelled around Europe by train on various Inter-Railing adventures. My fourth such trip, in the late autumn of 1987, doubled as a chance for me to make a little money on the side by selling British football badges at some European games. A few weeks were spent zig-zagging – if not zigger-zaggering – between Europe’s great cities, sleeping overnight on the trains, and waking up the next morning with that wonderful thrill of exploring a new city, and possibly – who knows? – even making the acquaintance of a mysterious European female with high cheekbones and low morals. These were my wanderlust years for sure. I had visited Austria for the first time on a family holiday with my parents in 1977 – Seefeld, in the Tirol – but my first visit to Vienna was ten years later. On a cold and misty November morning, I alighted at Vienna’s Westbanhof station and headed off for an early morning visit to the wonderful Schonbrunn Palace. There was a certain dark austerity about those grey streets and I wondered if I was in a city further east, such as Belgrade, Budapest or Prague – still under communist law – rather than the sprightlier and more cheerful Austrian capital. I later visited the stunning buildings of the city centre and was immediately impressed. There was a certain class to the whole city. Vienna had certainly left its mark on me.

I would return some seven years later, and this time with the love of my life.

With Chelsea having qualified for the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994/1995 (despite only finishing FA Cup runners up to double winners Manchester United), and after seeing off Viktoria Zikkov in the first round, we were paired with Austria Memphis. I had attended the Zizkov game in September 1994 – which had taken place in the small town of Jablonec rather than Prague due to concerns about crowd trouble – and I soon booked myself a return visit to that part of central Europe for the game in Vienna in November. A rather fractious first game at Stamford Bridge had ended 0-0 and there was nerves aplenty as I traveled out to the game in Vienna.

One of the nicest memories that I have of that particular trip was the couple of hours that I spent in a quiet bar, adjacent to the canal that cuts through the city of Vienna as an adjunct to the Danube, where I was able to relax with a few beers, and have a really lovely chat with two lads who I had not met before; Ally and Barney. We bought each other some beers, and enjoyed each other’s company, speaking of our love of the club, our personal stories, and how much fun we hoped to have on a potentially long European campaign in 1994/1995. Remember this was Chelsea’s first European adventure since 1971/1972. It was therefore the very first time that the thousands of fans who had been lured to the club after the twin cup triumphs of 1970 and 1971 had ever experienced such extravagance. That often overlooked European campaign of 1994/1995 is fondly remembered by myself and my friends as our great reward for sticking with the club through a dark period of our history. There had been three depressing relegations, financial calamity, the threat of moving away from Stamford Bridge, a flirt with relegation to the Third Division, hooliganism on the terraces, and much gloating from fans of our rivals. As I sat in that bar in Vienna in 1994, laughing with fellow Chelsea fans among the wooden panels and shining beer pumps, with the game taking place just over the canal, just out of sight, in a few hours, the excitement was tangible. It was just a lovely moment in my Chelsea life.

I would also visit that same bar on a visit to Vienna in 1997 – this time alone, but still savoring the moment – ahead of a game against Slovan Bratislava, just over the Slovakian border. It was, and still is, one of my favourite bars of any city that I have ever visited.

After checking in to my hotel on the Saturday morning, not so far from where I stayed in 1997 in fact, my first priority was to hunt out that bar, sit and reflect on how far my club has come over the past twenty-odd years, and to raise a toast to Antonio Conte as he took charge of his very first Chelsea game later in the day but also to the memory of Barney, who sadly passed away in 2011. I used to bump in to him quite often at Stamford Bridge and elsewhere – Ally not quite so often – and there would always be an outstretched hand and the “hello son” greeting. He was a nice guy. I miss his cheery smile.

For an hour or so, I searched east and west and then east again, but the bar was proving as elusive to pin down as the racketeer Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s atmospheric post-war classic “The Third Man.” As I roamed the streets, I hummed the film’s classic refrain to myself. I looked hither and thither to the sound of the zither but was so disappointed to realise that the bar was no more. As with many cities, there has been much riverside development in Vienna, and the quaint local bar was nowhere to be seen. I was genuinely dismayed that my first pint of the season – last season it was in Newark, New Jersey – could not be on my third visit to “my bar” in Vienna.

The weather was a little overcast and cloudy as I now turned and headed for the city centre.

I walked past a small neighbourhood bar and peered inside. There were a few locals inside, but also the strong smell of cigarette smoke. I turned to leave, but then looked up to see a large poster of former Rapid Vienna and Austrian international Hans Krankl – quite probably the nation’s most famous footballer of all time.

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I then noticed the photographs of a local, lower league, football team adorning one wall. I spotted the green wallpaper and upholstery, hinting at maybe a Rapid allegiance.

“I think I’m staying.”

I ordered a pint of Weiselburger and relaxed. The locals were amazed that I had traveled over for the game. The bar owner – not present – was the president of the local team featured. The locals were Rapid fans. It was great to chat to them. I love a local bar.

I headed on. The streets were remarkably quiet. Only around St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the main shopping area of the old town were busy. I crossed a road but heard a “Chelsea” song being faintly sung. I turned and spotted a few Chelsea flags draped outside the Match Box bar on Rotenturmstrasse. For an hour or so, it represented base camp. I bumped into a few friends and relaxed some more. After only two months after the last game of 2015/2016, we were back on it again. I suppose there was around twenty of us huddled outside the bar. It was not a huge figure. Some had spent the previous night in Bratislava, and had travelled down the River Danube to Vienna by boat. The talk turned to the game. We had officially been given four hundred tickets for the match, which was to mark the opening of Rapid’s revamped stadium, and a fair few had traveled out without tickets.

A few odd-looking characters suddenly arrived on the scene, obviously not English, wearing Harrington jackets with both “Chelsea Headhunters” crests woven into the backs, and with Stone Island patches on the arms. A couple had “Chelsea Headhunters” scarves draped around their waists.

File under “trying too hard.”

They looked, and sounded, totally unsavory. It was time for me to move on.

I headed off at just before 3pm in order to meet up with Emily, a Chelsea supporter from Atlanta, but who has been living in Vienna for a few years, and George, a Chelsea fanatic from the Czech Republic. Both were “Facebook friends” but there had been much communication between us ahead of the game. I was also hoping to meet up with my good mate Orlin, who often gets mentioned in these dispatches, who was desperate for a match ticket. A few days previously, Emily had sourced a spare for him, but it fell through at the last minute.

I walked in to “Flanagan’s” on Schwarzenbergstrasse and was expecting it to be busy. It was very quiet. If we had four hundred tickets, and four hundred fans, we were certainly spreading ourselves thinly throughout the city. I soon spotted the ever-present Cathy, with Becky and Emma. George, with two Czech mates, soon arrived. Emily too. For an hour and a half, we supped a few ales – Weiselburger and then Stiegl – and chatted about all things Chelsea. A few others arrived – Neil and Dave – and we pondered options of how to reach the stadium, which sits on the western edge of the city. We ended up catching an Uber, and off we went through the city’s streets.

The sun-bleached frontage of the Schonbrunn Palace was spotted to my left and I wondered if I would have time to visit it again on this trip. I had recently seen a concert from its grounds a few weeks earlier and it certainly brought back memories of my childhood. Often my father would tune in to some classical music on the radio and he especially liked the music of Strauss. I think his favourite was the Radetzky March. I had been reminded of another memory from the game in 1994; the day after the match, I enjoyed a leisurely walk in the autumn sun. I happened to chance upon a band playing music in celebration of the Austrian president Thomas Klestil’s birthday. For a few moments, I watched as the music whirled around in the Viennese morning air. I had lost my father only eighteen months earlier and I do not mind admitting that the sounds of some of his favourite tunes made my eyes moist. It was a lovely moment for me.

Outside the stadium, we soon spotted a bar, so we quickly decided to have another beer before the game.

With another Italian in charge of the team once more, I was keen to welcome Antonio Conte to our club with my “Vinci Per Noi” banner, which I hand-crafted some twenty summers ago in celebration of the twin signings of Gianluca Vialli and Roberto di Matteo. At the time, who could have possibly have guessed that those two players would go down in Chelsea legend as the managers of twin European triumphs in Stockholm and Munich?

I hastily gathered some troops and we had a photograph.

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Time was moving on.

Emily had a ticket in the home end, so we went our separate ways. With typical Chelsea protocol, I only made it in to the stadium with mere minutes to spare. The away end didn’t seem particularly full. We had been allocated the corner section, and it was clear to see that many locals – or at least non-English, if not wholly Austrian – were in our section. If I was expecting to see many familiar faces among the “400” (now seeming a mythical figure invented by Chelsea), I was to be disappointed. I bumped into Les from nearby Melksham, and maybe a few more, but there were strange faces everywhere. I didn’t spot my good pals Alan and Gary, who would be staying over for the second game in Klagenfurt. There was an odd feel to the mix of supporters. Of course, the big clue that not too many were from England was the predominance of Chelsea shirts in the away end. Emily, George and myself had touched on this subject in the bar beforehand; that Chelsea, specifically at away games, simply do not wear club colours to any great extent.

I made my way to the very last row, overlooked by a row of a bored dozen Austrian policemen. Alas there was nowhere to pin “Vinci.”

The home fans were in the midst of displaying a huge banner announcing “Weststadion” as opposed to the official, and ultra-corporate Allianz Stadium. Like the Allianz Stadium in Munich, I spotted a hill outside, wooded, and with houses.

“Tales From The Vienna Woods” anyone?

OK, the game.

Do I have to?

Clearly, Antonio Conte has only been at the club for a ridiculously short time, and was unable to select a free choice of players since some were still on an extended break. Nevertheless, the team looked like a Chelsea team from a parallel universe, or maybe even last year’s odd start. It could easily have been the team that played Walsall last September. It was a mixture of old favourites and fledgling youth.

Begovic.

Ivanovic.

Terry.

Djilobodji.

Rahman.

Mikel.

Matic.

Willian.

Loftus-Cheek.

Moses.

Diego Costa.

It seemed to be the tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 of recent memory. It was lovely, at least, to see John Terry still with us after the conjecture of the last week of the previous campaign.

Like so many fellow Chelsea fans, I was impressed with Antonio Conte during the recent European Championships. He is quietly spoken, but has eyes of steel. He is plainly a passionate man. It remains to be seen whether or not he can repeat that sense of camaraderie and teamwork so evident in his Italian team, overachieving through togetherness, at our club, which has been beset with power struggles and divisions within the changing room over the past few years. My good friend Mario, the Juventus supporter, told me that he is more of a leader of men through his emotional bond with his players, rather than through his tactical nous. This goes against the quickly-gained view by many in France that Conte is a fine tactician. If I heard the phrase “tactical masterclass” emanating from the media and fellow fans alike, I must have heard it a hundred times.

We’ll see.

I certainly wish him well.

“Win For Us” indeed.

Chelsea were in all blue – I still dislike seeing us in blue socks after all these years – with Rapid Vienna strangely choosing away stripes.

The game was dire. We let in a soft goal, allowing a nice one-two to cut us open on just seven minutes as Joelinton rounded Asmir Begovic before coolly side-footing home, and then celebrated down in front of us. Green flares were set off, and the home fans – wearing a lot of scarves despite it being the middle of summer – made a lot of noise. It was quite a din from their sections throughout the game.

We struggled to put anything of note together and – let us not be surprised – looked several yards off the pace against a team that seemed to be at a further advanced stage in their pre-season.

A few shouts of Chelsea support at the start soon gave way to periods of quiet in the away end as the game continued.

Suddenly, Emily appeared next to me. She had explained that she was a Chelsea fan to a steward in the home areas and had been allowed to join us. That she found me so easily was proof that our end was not full.

Willian buzzed around and Diego narrowly shot narrowly wide, but the Chelsea fans in the away section were not impressed.

“Shite, eh?”

At halftime, I made my way downstairs to purchase some beers. It was one of those games where beer was certainly a welcome addition. We were even allowed to bring them back to our seats.

It was more painful stuff in the second-half. Changes were made, with Aina, Oscar, Chalobah, Traore, Kenedy, Atsu and Remy all coming on.

We shuffled the ball from one side of the field to the other, but with little thrust or incision into the Rapid area.

It was slow.

Out of nowhere, Orlin appeared below me. He too had been lucky and had found, miraculously, a ticket. This was all very strange though. There were gaps in our section throughout the game, yet Chelsea had sold four hundred. Answers on a postcard.

Ola Aina played a ball in from the inside-left position, aiming for some onrushing attackers, but the ball avoided everyone before hitting against the left-hand post. The keeper was beaten, but watched as the ball rebounded away to safety. That this unintentional strike on goal would be our best attempt on goal the entire game summed it all up.

Sigh.

With ten minutes left, a defensive error between Ivanovic and Terry allowed the home team to strike. The ball was played out wide, and a shot on goal followed. An attempted clearance only set things up for Tomi to follow up.

Rapid Vienna 2 Chelsea 0.

Bollocks.

More flares and flags.

The game ended.

We shuffled off, with our hands in our pockets, and with faces being pulled.

“Bloody hell, that was crap.”

I suppose I am spoilt. I have seen so many enthralling and entertaining games with Chelsea over the years. This was just a friendly, just the first in a long season, just a training session in reality.

Outside in the drizzle of a Viennese evening, we waited for transportation.

“Bloody hell, this seems like Wigan in the rain in November not Vienna in July.”

Our spirits had taken a bit of a knock, but I must admit to being so pleased to have made new friends with some good people.

George kept shouting “Vinci Per Noi” and I smiled.

We caught two trams back to the centre of Vienna, and I grabbed a couple of slices of pizza. It would be my only sustenance since the bacon roll at Heathrow. I chatted, solemnly, to Emily and aired a concern that I have had, and shared here, for a few years; that my passion is waning, that things might never reach the heights of – when? Vienna 1994? Wembley 1997? Stockholm 1998? Bolton 2005? Munich 2012? – but then I smiled as the thought of another campaign entered my head. We dropped in to “Flanagan’s” once more but my lack of sleep and the first glut of beer of the season suddenly took its toll. At around 9.30pm – yes, probably as early as that – I made my way back to the hotel. I was so tired.

For me, at least, it was a solemn case of “goodnight, Vienna.”

I awoke on the Sunday, miraculously with no hangover. My flight back to Blighty was not until 8pm, so there was plenty of time to explore Vienna on day two.

The first part of my day would be a personal homage to that game in 1994 against Rapid Vienna’s cross-town rivals. Vienna’s two main teams have monopolised the trophies in Austria, with Rapid winning 32 championships and Austria Vienna 24. Back in 1994, Austria Vienna were known as Austria Memphis, after a short-lived sponsorship deal with a cigarette manufacturer. There is a third team, First Vienna, but they have suffered in recent years. Another club, even smaller, Wiener Sport Club, played us in the Fairs Cup in 1965.

When I left that bar in 1994, I walked over the river towards the Ernst Happel Stadium and memorably heard shouts of “Carefree” from the huge Ferris wheel – the Wiener Reisenrad – at one end of the Prater park. In 2016, I rode on the Ferris wheel for the first time. It is a fantastic experience, and offers lovely panorama views of the whole city. I remembered a famous scene from “The Third Man” between the two main characters which took place on the wheel. As in 1994, there is an amusement park at the Prater, and I recreated my long walk that evening twenty-two years ago, ending up underneath the stadium. There has been a new roof canopy slung on top of the concrete bowl since 1994, but being there brought back lovely memories. It has hosted some memorable European finals in its day. Back in 1994, it was used for our game rather than Austria Memphis’ smaller Favoriten stadium. It was recently the home of Rapid, too, while their new stadium was built. I was able to peer in and spot that the seats were now Rapid green, rather than the multi-colours of yesteryear.

There is something very dramatic, in my mind, about a resting football stadium.

My mind raced back to 1994.

Such were the rules with UEFA then, that only two or three “foreigners” were allowed in the ECWC. With injuries to other players, this meant that manager Glenn Hoddle’s hand was tied. His team selection on that memorable night tells its own story –

Kharin.

Hall.

Barness.

Johnson.

Spackman.

Newton.

Rocastle.

Myers.

Shipperley.

Spencer.

Wise.

I remember Nigel Spackman was forced to play as a central defender. Young Neil Shipperley lead the line. I had a seat, among home fans, but with other Chelsea too, along the side, with an army of around four thousand away fans in the middle tier of the end to my right. It was one of the greatest nights of my life until that point. We went ahead in the second-half after a memorable breathless run by John Spencer – it seemed to go on forever – resulted in him dropping his shoulder, edging wide of the ‘keeper and slotting home.

“Get in.”

What wild celebrations.

I remember falling arse over tit on the Vienna fans next to me.

I was so new to European football, that even when the home team equalised, it took me a few seconds to realise that we still held advantage. The Chelsea fans were in great form that night; it was a proper old school following, and the songs echoed around the half-full stadium. I remember “God Save The Queen” and even “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” – a rugby song – being sung with gusto. At the end of the game, with Chelsea through to the next round on a brilliant European night, I bounced out of the stadium and walked south to the nearest U-bahn station, almost too excited for words.

It was one of the very greatest of feelings.

At last, at the age of twenty-nine, I had a European adventure all of my own to tell fellow friends about.

Chelsea were back.

It was fucking brilliant.

I took a few photographs of the Ernst Happel Stadium, then retraced my steps south again.

Throughout this trip, 1994 would be forever on my mind.

“Vienna. 1994. It meant something to me.”

Later in the day, I visited the palatial majesty of the Belvedere Palace – a mini Schonbrunn – and met up with Emily once more. We sat in the al fresco bar outside the Palace and spoke about all things Chelsea. Emily was keen to hear some of my stories and some of my tales. There was talk of US tours, football fan culture, rivalries, past games, the entire works. It transpired that one of Emily’s relatives – her grandmother’s first cousin – played for Manchester United in the 1940’s, and I laughed that many United fans living in the UK would give their right arm for that kind of lineage to Manchester. If you ask them why they are United fans, you often get them looking away, avoiding eye contact, before they utter some unconvincing tripe about their relatives coming from Manchester. What a load of old rot. Emily has visited Stamford Bridge twice before, 2011, and promised to make a return visit as soon as she could. I look forward to that.

I walked back to the hotel – time for one last curry wurst – and I met up with Michelle and Dane before we returned to the airport.

It had been a long two days in the Austrian capital.

We heard that there would be another pre-season game in Bremen, another lovely city, on a spare Sunday in August. That would be for others, though, not for me. My next game is in Ann Arbor, college-town USA, against Real Madrid.

I will see some of you there.

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