Tales From Moscow

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 21 May 2008.

I got back from work on Tuesday at about 5.30pm…a bite to eat, watched “Sky Sports News” – I noted mainly United fans being interviewed in Red Square. Got to bed at 7.30pm…oh dear, too excited…I dozed off after a while, but the alarm woke me at 9.15pm. I packed some “lucky European game” Maynards Wine Gums ( the reason we beat Liverpool in the semis ) plus the scarf my mother bought me after my first ever game in 1974…its last outing was at Stockholm in 1998…I needed all the good luck charms I could muster. I set the VCR to record the game.

Left home at 10pm…past Stonehenge…M3, M25…Gatwick at 12.15am.

My mate Neil had flown in from Guernsey at 7pm and had tried to get some kip at the airport to no avail. My other mates Daryl, Alan and Gary arrived by train from London at 12.30am. We all arrived just at the right time, just ahead of the rush. Our flight was to leave at 3am…the airport wasn’t busy at all. Time for one pint of San Miguel in the departure lounge – I was told that ex-England cricketer Alex Stewart and big Chelsea fan was in the bar. This would be my 55th game of the season…Gary has only missed two Chelsea games this season, dating from the Charity Shield in August…60 out of 62 I think.

We left Gatwick at 3.15am…a four hour flight was ahead of us. Not a great flight – not much sleep, awful food…the bloke I was sat next to was a Southampton fan…he was here with his girlfriend, who had two corporate clients on tow. I heaved a deep sigh. They didn’t even know where their seats were in the stadium. The whole idea of corporates at games makes me sick, so I did well to ignore them all for the rest of the flight.

With the three hour time difference, we touched down in Moscow around 10am…misty rain, low clouds…it hit home that I was in Russia when I clocked the terminal building, with Russian-style balconies and over-elaborate touches here and there. Then the Russian planes with the Cyrillic text. Dorothy, this ain’t Kansas…it ain’t even Croydon. I was loving it – the thrill of a foreign land.

To be fair, we went straight through passport control and were soon heading into Moscow on the free bus, stickered with CFC badges…a nice touch.

Sheremetyevo Airport must be about thirty miles to the NW of Moscow, but the bus trip took us two hours. I noted that a few of the fans caught up on some sleep, but not me…I peered out of the windows, taking it all in. The traffic was horrendous…the road network just isn’t up to the vast increase in cars now present in Moscow. There were massive apartment blocks everywhere, blocking the horizon…everything was on a vast scale…the towering housing blocks, the shopping malls…it was like America on drugs…a brutal cityscape…not pretty. We drove past two old-style Russian markets / bazaars…shanty-towns of products, rickety-shops and bright signs. We drove on and on, the apartment blocks dominating every view. Noted many massive car dealerships – Ford, Mercedes, Toyota…an Ikea…several McDonalds.

Eventually we spotted the Luzhniki – the former Lenin Stadium – home of the Olympics in 1980…Daley Thompson, Alan Wells, Coe and Ovett. We stumbled out of the bus at 12.30pm, not really knowing which side of the stadium we were on. The idea was to head into the centre. We crossed a road…I tried to phone home…we got our bearings. Then, just behind us, we spotted Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti appear from an underpass…I walked over to say “hi” to Ron as he lives near me and we chatted briefly…it then went surreal…out of the underpass appeared Pat Nevin ( my favourite CFC player of all time! ), then Ray Wilkins, then Colin Pates, John Bumstead, Dave Beasant, Clive Walker, David Lee, Steve Finnieston, Clive Wilson, Keith Dublin, Trevor Aylott, Garry Stanley, Gary Chivers. We were on cloud nine. What glorious good luck, to be at that exact point in a city as huge as Moscow…the players had just arrived themselves and were headed into the centre like us. We chatted to a few of them…photos with a few…had a nice little chat with Pat Nevin and I was beside myself with joy. After five minutes of this, the players drifted away and we stood around rubbing our eyes, not really believing what had just happened. We made our way to the nearest subway stop, only to be reunited with them all again as Alan bought our return tickets. I had the impression that Pat – the most Worldly-wise of them all – was sorting out the players’ tickets!

We descended the elevators into the station and I was loving it all. Onto the famous subway train and there was my most admired footballer ever Pat Nevin just five feet away. Bless him – he was wearing jeans and his ruc-sac contained the new Bill Bryson book (“Shakespeare” )…he looked like a mature student, ever the non-typical footballer.

We got to Red Square and up into the daylight, my heart now pumping with anticipation. Daryl had the “spot” of the day…Bryan “Pop” Robson was nearby. Red Square was magnificent, if not as large as I expected…we tried to hoist my Peter Osgood banner, but the Russian police said ”net”. Cathy was nearby in a bar, but I never bumped into her unfortunately…obviously, loads of photos outside The Kremlin and then by St Basils, the colourful cathedral built in around 1570. We spotted a few of the Chelsea players milling around…Ron Harris and the Kremlin, what an amazing sight.

Down to the river, a walk past the southern wall of The Kremlin…I treated the boys to a hot dog and a drink…the hot dog was awful actually. Mike from New York was in town, but try as we might, we never managed to meet up – a shame. We headed into Arbatskaya, one of the main streets for bars in Moscow…my mate Mark from Westbury, a nearby town to my home in Somerset, shouted out to me and we joined him for a beer…in fact five beers…he was sat with a Chelsea crew from Trowbridge and Salisbury. We were then joined by the Worcester Boys ( Burger will remember these chaps from Villa Park last year…good lads ) I pinned my Ossie banner up…it felt good.

The rain had come by this stage, though, and it was getting a bit cold. I bought a black Russian hat ( with hammer and sickle ) for 300 roubles ( £6 ) and I was told by the lads “that looks good on you, mate.” I still don’t know if they were serious! Opposite us was a Sbarro and sitting in the front was Specials front man Terry Hall ( big United fan )…he was looking pretty miserable actually and Alan and Daryl told him this when they got photographed with him as he left!

We decided to get some food at Sbarro too…and what followed was typical Russia…we waited for about twenty minutes to get served because the cashier had run out of change! I kid you not. By the time Alan and myself had been served, our pizza was getting cold…we sat down in the front by the pavement to be met by Daryl throwing plastic cups at some ravenous crows which had descended to pick up some scraps. It was like a scene from The Birds.

At about 7pm we walked up through Arbatskaya, past a pub full of United fans, and dropped into the John Bull pub…half and half Chelsea and United. The United fans were the more vociferous it has to be said…they were also the most drunk. It helps. To be fair to United, they really do have an amazing array of songs – fair play to them. I feared that this song would be whizzing around my head for the rest of the evening…

“Viva Ronaldo, viva Ronaldo, running down the wing, hear United sing, Viva Ronaldo.”

I hate it when that happens. Bloody hate it.

We caught the subway, outnumbered and out sung by United on our train…I commented to Daryl that as United’s support is so massive, then the 21,000 present are by nature bound to be the most vociferous of its support…our 21,000 would be more mixed, more representative of our ( mainly middle-class ) smaller support as a whole. Something I have realised these past few years. Our support ain’t bad though…when we’re in the mood we can put on a good show.

I noted many Russians wearing Chelsea scarves and shirts. It was noticeable that we spotted a Chelsea / Adidas billboard with the slogan “Impossible Is Nothing” at many locations in Moscow. Maybe we do have ten million fans in Russia! Took a few photos outside, including the iconic statue of Lenin, cape flying in the wind. The stadium was set in its own separate area, surrounded by trees, all very ordered, all very utilitarian…the stadium was functional rather than beautiful…its roof ( an addition since 1980 ) gave it a certain style and an extra visual impact. I bought some match programmes.

Into the stadium at about 9.15pm…unfortunately missed out on a place to pin up my Ossie flag.

We had reasonable seats, lower section, row 15, by the far corner flag. The food outlets were busy, but the food on offer looked ropey. Bizarrely, I opted on a big bucket of popcorn for 200 roubles…should we win, it would be popcorn at every game for the rest of my days!

This was it then – the zenith of my Chelsea-supporting life. I had thought on the importance of this match for days on end. I realised that, to an extent, there was a certain inherent sadness in this momentous trip. Should we be victorious, this would undoubtedly be the high point, the high water mark, of my Chelsea life…anything else which follows would be therefore of lesser importance, of lesser value…quite a chilling prospect and it haunted me throughout the trip.

As the stadium filled up, I needed some time alone. I went out into the area beneath the stands. Up until that point, since being out sung by United on the tube, I had negative vibes about the game… would our support rise to the occasion, would the team? My mind was muddled. I needed some clarity.

I stood by myself, overlooking a lower-level entrance onto the pitch, just as the red and gold clad performers were assembling below. I thought back on all the games I had been to, I thought of my parents taking me to that first game, for igniting my passion for this wonderful club…I was just so grateful to be there, to be in Moscow…my feelings at this moment are difficult to put into words. My vibes were improving. I bumped into Dutch Mick, who was in Chicago in 2006, and took a photo of him and his mate Gary with two Russian soldiers. Just this simple act – meeting a good friend so far from home, amongst 21,000 fellow fans, made me feel great and I bounced back into the stadium.

TV presenter Jonny Gould ( he hosts the live baseball each week on Channel Five ) was spotted five rows behind. I had a quick chat…”was watching the Yankee game on Sunday, heard you say you’d be here, been a Yankee fan for twenty years” – he told me to email the show. Good stuff.

The PA played “Take Me Home Country Road”, the United song, adapted to include the more appropriate “United Road” and the United fans were loud and vociferous.

Then our turn – and “Blue Is The Colour”, sung heartily by the blue hordes in the south terrace. I captured this all on my phone.

The pre-match festivities continued with the on-field antics of the dancers, the release of the red and gold balloons.

The teams entered the arena, the Champions League theme tune sounded.

We were ready.

It seems pointless for me to regurgitate the entire game, since you all saw it and you all shared the highs and lows.

All I can do is mention my perspective from Row 15, Tribune 1 in the South-East section of The Luzhniki. I was sat next to Neil, he was next to his brother Daryl…across the way were Gary and Alan…two seats down was Andy, a good friend from Nuneaton. So good to be so close. Three Russians were stood infront.

I replaced my Russian hat ( it felt massive! ) with my Yankees cap – this was a good luck charm from Anfield and The Bridge semi-finals, so I needed the help of that, too.

Caps, scarves, wine gums – if you must know, blue socks and underpants too. OK – I know…too much information.

It’s worth commenting on that our starting XI was the one which I predicted as did the rest of the lads. We can debate this until the cows come home, but it doesn’t say much for Paolo Ferreira’s confidence, does it?

Since we left the bar on Arbatskaya at 7pm, we were on our feet from then until we eventually sat on the bus which took us to the airport at around 2am…seven hours on our feet. Apart from a few pockets, the Chelsea support stood as one the entire game. The United massed ranks did too.

Of course, just before the game began, we waved our flags furiously…United’s show was quite clever…red mosaics, with the word “Believe” picked out in white…but the “i” was in the shape of the cup…when it first appeared I thought that it said ”Belveve” to my weary eyes.

I think for our Champions League appearance in Rome next May we should do something similar, but the word should be “Celery.” That could confuse the Romans and the rest of Europe come to that. Alternatively “Vinci Per Noi” has a nice ring to it.

Our main chant for the night was “We’re in Moscow, we’re in Moscow, “F” your history, we’re in Moscow.”

The game was magnificent wasn’t it? At last a great CL Final. But we were fearing the worst as half-time approached…Essien wasn’t playing close enough to Ronaldo…their midfield was dominating.

Great goal from Ronaldo, but oh that hurt. Only noted a few United fans in the neutral section to my right. United were then in full voice for twenty minutes…one chant in particular ( relying on United’s antagonism towards England…they surely are the closest of cousins to the Scousers )…

“He goes to the left, he goes to the right – that boy Ronaldo made England look shite.” The whole of the north end was swaying one way and then the next…impressive…sickeningly so.

Then a ball into the box, the ball broke…I said to Neil “we’ll score here” and a nano-second later, Lamps equalised…much against the run of play, but our end erupted…gave Neil a hug and just briefly glanced at Daryl, losing it, as I climbed up onto the seat behind me. We screamed our support.

Our second-half performance ( in which we quietened United’s support to a whisper) was the stuff of legends…on many occasions, with me singing myself hoarse, the whole Chelsea end as one organic unit, at one with the team, I just felt that it was as good as it will ever get.

Mesmerising.

The game continued on…it was an epic…or at least it felt like it. The wine gums were getting eked out – I needed to save some for extra-time, then penalties.

The low point of the whole night for me was Drogba’s typically selfish walk down the tunnel. I was saddened, truly saddened, that he was so self-absorbed that he didn’t even bother to watch with his manager and team mates from the bench. Words fail me.

Let’s cut to the chase. When Ronaldo tried to be clever, when Big Pete saved, the rush we all experienced was amazing. I clambered onto my seat and paraphrased United.

“He goes to the left, he goes to the right – that boy Ronaldo – he is fucking shite.” Oh boy – the antichrist has missed…GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

Frank scored – bless him, God Bless Pat – and I think it was at this stage that I began welling up, my hands coming up to my face, trembling, my whole upper torso shaking. I remember thinking “Christ, if I’m like this now, what will I be like when we win” and I was very self aware that I might well soon be collapsing in a heap, tears flowing.

“Get a grip, Chris.”

United and Chelsea traded pens. I captured Anderson’s ( ? ) penalty on my mobile…MISS, MISS! No luck.

Then Penalty Number Five. JT…we stood and we remained still.

Disbelief – utter disbelief. The feeling of euphoria soon evaporated and United sensed our fear. Anelka’s penalty miss was academic I thought – I knew we’d never recover from JT’s miss.

We turned away, silent.

Fifteen minutes later, we were scrambling around outside the back of the stadium, trying to dodge the rain and the massive puddles…I heard “I vow to thee, my country” being played on the stadium PA ( the quintessential English hymn ) and then…with us a good five minutes away…the roar from the United hordes as the cup was lifted.

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