Tales From The Game Of My Life

Juventus vs. Chelsea : 10 March 2009.

“Tales From The Game Of My Life” – what else could I call this?

This was just a brilliant trip to the Piedmont city of Turin. As I sit here with enough memories to last a lifetime, my only concern is getting this report finished before I have to leave to go to the next game.

Let’s get started.

On Sunday afternoon, I re-watched “The Italian Job” ( set in Torino, 1969 ) to get my juices flowing. It was the perfect appetiser.

I left home at 1.30am on Monday morning and made great time heading up to Stansted airport to the north of London. I had only flown from this airport once before – my first ever Chelsea euro away to Viktoria Zizkov in September 1994. On that trip I bumped into Andy and Neil – two Chelsea lads from Nuneaton. I actually began chatting to them on Wenceslas Square in Prague. As fate had it, I had learned that Andy and Neil, plus Jonesy and Jocka, were to be on this flight too. We bumped into each other at the departure gate. Handshakes all round.

Our Ryanair flight to Torino left at 7am. I had already been awake since 12.45am, so tried to nab a little sleep on the plane. As luck would have it, Torino was featured in the in-flight magazine and it highlighted a couple of places I would later visit. Ex-Tottenham manager David Pleat was sat a couple of rows behind. I wondered if he would be visiting Torino’s pavement society. Maybe that would be shrouded in mystery.

Due to high winds, we circled over the hills to the east of the city for about thirty minutes before the pilot getting the nod to land. We caught a few glimpses of the city on a pristine clear morning. We descended and flew over the city from the south and I was able to point out the Lingotto factory featured in “The Italian Job.” We landed at 9.15am and caught a slow moving bus into the city centre. I spotted the roof supports of the Delle Alpi to the west, nestling beneath the stunning snow-capped mountains. To my east, the Superga basilica, high atop a hill, welcomed me to the city once again, like a beacon.

The bus stopped outside the Porta Nuova train station, where I had arrived in Torino for the very first time in 1987. We stayed about 90 minutes in a tiny, cramped bar, drinking a variety of beers, the owner feeding us nuts and crisps. My – it was great to be back. I texted my friend Tullio to say I had arrived. I had collected two tickets at HQ on behalf of Joe from Chicago and he arrived at about 1.30pm so I could hand over the tickets. He looked very happy. Andy and his mates were staying several miles south, but we had time for one more beer in a quiet bar, before we went our separate ways. In those two bars, we spoke about the team, our football this season, our players, our hopes, our concerns…there wasn’t a stone left unturned…a real, intense session, which is quite unlike us really. Towards the end, we chatted about various bands – of our youth – and as I left them at about 3pm on Via Sacchi, Andy bellowed out a Slade song at me.

I walked east over the Po river and located the youth hostel where I was staying for the first two nights. I had stayed there in 1989 for the Juve vs. Fiorentina game, plus one night in 1990 too. I booked in and decided to sleep for an hour. All my mates are experienced euro travellers and we often cat-nap for an hour before hitting the town. I awoke and showered, quite refreshed. I got changed and re-traced my steps into the city. Unfortunately, Andy’s lot had overslept and then took a tram to the wrong station.

Porco Dio.”

While I waited for them to arrive, I scouted out a good pizzeria and decided to head into the foyer of Hotel Roma on Piazza Carlo Felice. Who should be in there but Dutch Mick plus Paul and Trizia. I had a beer and then my mates arrived. We made a beeline for the restaurant on Via Lagrange. I ordered a pizza with gorgonzola and onions, plus beers and more talk about Chelsea and music. Towards the end of the meal, we noticed a gaggle of Italian men get up from their table, quite agitated ( one looked like Bruce Buck )…we realised that they had spotted Momo Sissoko, sitting quietly with his wife and little daughter. This wasn’t a posh place – my pizza was eight euros – so we were gobsmacked. He had hurt his leg in the Toro vs. Juve game ( il derby delle Mole ) on Sunday, so wouldn’t be playing. Jonesy took a photo of him with me. I said to him “sono tifo de Chelsea.” He smiled and was pleasant and affable. We were drinking some Birra Moretti – who knows the significance of this in the story of Chelsea and Juventus?

At about 11pm, we slowly walked up to the cobble-stoned Piazza San Carlo, Turin’s “Drawing Room, and this is the epicentre of the city…a few neon adverts in one corner, a massive screen in another. The boys weren’t taking much interest in my tour guide comments and wanted some beer. We headed into a very nice pub called “Jumping Jesters” – thankfully devoid of Chelsea. Nice to just be with some locals. The beers were on offer for two for five euros. Bargain. Neil and Jocka were drinking Guinness but didn’t fancy using the “whole in the ground” toilets. It was like a game of human kerplunk! They lasted, despite several pints of the heavy brew, until they got back to their hotel. I texted Cathy, who I knew was arriving late. After a few texts, Cathy and Dog arrived and joined us for a few late night beers. Cathy was full of gorgeous tales from the past, too many to mention.

It felt great – top level Chelsea chat in a foreign city with some Chelsea legends.

We were kicked out at 3am. I dropped into a bar called the “Texas Ranger” on a slow walk back to the hostel. One for the road. Lo and behold, who should be in there but two blokes who were sat in front of me at Coventry, one of whom – Digger – was at Beth’s 50th birthday bash. They were bollocksed. I soon departed. As I crossed over the Po, I phoned Beth and had a boozy chat!

I retired to bed at 4am. I hope I didn’t wake anyone up.

Set the alarm for 9.45am. Game Day! A shower. Thankfully no hangover. Bonus!

I dropped into a café, a familiar haunt from past trips. “Un cappocino, per favore.” How perfect these little cafes are – lots of polished wood, frothing cappocino machines, baskets of Panini and brioche. I was falling in love with the city once again. Alan, Gary, Walnuts and Whitey were coming in from Milano – where they had enjoyed a San Siro tour – and were due in at 11am. I had arranged to meet up with them in their hotel and so hobbled along Corso Vittorio Emanuelle but took a cab from Porta Nuova.

My mate Rob was staying at their hotel too and by 11.30am we had all met up. Handshakes and hugs all round – a special welcome to my mate Walnuts who, like me, has been a Juve fan for many years. The weather was phenomenal – clear skies, the Alps never looking clearer. Rob lead us from the hotel near Porta Sousa through the middle of Torino. We reached Piazza San Carlo, bumped into Chicago Joe and Michelle, saw a few Chelsea dotted about.

Our one aim for the day was to visit the Superga basilica and we caught a tram from Piazza Vittorio Veneto ( the largest square in Europe with no statue, it was hosting the annual Chocolate Festival – the aroma was amazing! ). We reached Sassi, but the funicular railway was shut on Tuesdays. While we waited to catch a bus to the top of the hill, I chatted to a Stone Island wearing Chelsea fan from Halle in the former Eastern Germany. He goes to about 25 games a year – respect!

We spent around 90 minutes high atop the Superga hill. Everyone seemed to appreciate the views, if not the long time it took to reach the summit. We were soon at the site of the Superga air crash which wiped out the 1949 Torino team. The understated memorial, with the script written in Torino burgundy ( or granata / pomegranate to be more precise ), was laden with Torino scarves and wreaths lead close by. I wished I had brought a CFC scarf to lie alongside the other tributes. The air was solemn with respect.

From there, we spent a few minutes taking in the magnificent panorama of Torino below us. The Alps appeared to float above the city. It was a truly wonderful moment. Torino’s grid streets were visible as were a few landmarks including Il Mole Antoniella ( once the tallest building in the world, for which the the Juve vs. Toro derby is named ), Stadio Delle Alpi to the north, Stadio Communale to the south.

My love for Italy is a real story running through my life and it was a joy to be back at Superga. I last visited it in May 1992 and I vividly remember not wanting to leave the summit, a long drive home through France ahead of me. I have that trip on film and there is a real look of sadness on my face as I look out at the city. Seventeen years on, I still didn’t want to leave.

One song was rattling around my head throughout this trip, one by Everything But The Girl, which came out in April 1988, just after I had returned from a month in Italy and it summed up my dilemma at the time. After I had left college, on three occasions I sold football badges outside stadia in Italy. For a while, I contemplated another life, based in Torino, selling badges for a living, but England – or Chelsea – was in my head.

“So here we are in Italy
With a sun hat and a dictionary.
The air is warm, the sky is bright
Your arms are brown, you’re sleeping well at night.
But England calls.”

And so it continues – in moments of quiet contemplation, I often wonder what would have happened if I had decided to live in Italy. Well, I wouldn’t be up to 700 Chelsea games, that’s a fact.

I returned back to the hostel, showered, changed into my game wear, recharged my camera batteries, picked up my ticket and headed out into the clear evening air.

This is it Chris.

As I crossed the Po once again – let’s freeze that moment in time – I realised what a lucky man I was.

“The meet” was going to be at “The Huntsman” near the station, but I heard singing from outside “Café Lumiere.” All of the World and her Dog was there…Rob, Alan, Walnuts, Gary and Whitey had just arrived. I popped in to get a 5 euro beer and noted loads of Chelsea faces, all old school, battle-worn veterans, the old school on tour…I had to laugh when I saw Rosey Cheeks chatting to an ex-Headhunter as if they were the best of friends. Dutch Mick was there. Up Norf Malcolm. Rousey. Stan and Mo. Cathy was throwing crostini at me. The bar had laid on free nibbles. The bouncy was going on in the bar.

By some strange coincidence, the date of the game was the twenty-fifth anniversary of a pivotal game in Chelsea’s 1983-84 promotion campaign, but also a pivotal moment in my life. My good friend Glenn and myself travelled up on the Chelsea special for the away game against Newcastle United on March 10th. 1984. Despite a few away games in Bristol, this was my first “proper” Chelsea away game. My parents drove us up to London – they disappeared off to the Ideal Home Exhibition for the day – and we caught the train from Kings Cross at 9am. This was to be a phenomenal away game – Glenn and myself had been looking forward to it for ages. I always remember walking through the centre of Newcastle en masse, feeling part of something, part of something bigger than I had ever witnessed. Police cars were jammed up against pubs to stop locals getting at us. What a feeling.

Memories of the game? We went ahead through David Speedie and the 5,000 Chelsea went berserk. I was quite near the front and climbed the fence, gesturing my elation towards the home fans, but was pulled down by a fat Geordie copper who pushed me against the fence. I was a bit shaken, but OK. Newcastle equalised through McDermott and the Geordie fans erupted. Never have 36,000 fans made more noise. Another clear memory was of about 100 Chelsea casuals perched on top of that fence, a row of beige Pringle pullovers, yellow, blue and white Tacchini tracksuit tops and many Nike Wimbledon trainers. Wedge haircuts. Attitude. Just brilliant.

The train was bricked on the way out of Newcastle and it broke down at York. However, on the journey south, a very important event took place. I was dozing and Glenn went off to the buffet. He came back, bouncing, and said he had met some Chelsea fans from Brighton.

Fast forward – the next home game against Fulham and these lads were sat in front of us on the benches. Their names? Alan and Paul ( aka Walnuts ). We have been friends ever since. I told this story to Alan and Walnuts and they remembered meeting Glenn and couldn’t believe it was twenty-five years ago.

Just like in 1984, March 10th 2009 threw up another Black And White away game.

I was buzzing. Tullio was on his way and I was so excited.

As he approached, I shook his hand and then we embraced. I turned, opened my arms towards the scene behind me, and said “Welcome To My World.” Tullio was able to meet – and personally thank – Cathy for getting him his ticket. It was in the expensive seats and he was overjoyed. He met Alan and the boys, but it was soon time to make our way to the stadium. We all made our separate ways. Tullio and myself avoided the “Chelsea Coaches” and caught a bus and a tram to the stadium. As luck would have it, Tullio bumped into his Juve mate Mimo, who had been at the game at The Bridge. That was Mimo’s first euro away game since the sadness of Heysel in 1985. Mimo was a typical Juve fan – he came from the South and it was a pleasure to meet him.

At 8pm, we arrived at the ground and we took some team photos. “Ciao” to Tullio and Mimo. I didn’t go straight in, but wanted to savour every last minute of all of this. I headed for the road adjacent to the home end – the old Curva Filadelfia – where I had first sold badges at the Juve vs. Panathinaikos game in November 1987. I bought a scarf. I could hear the Juve tifosi singing inside the ground and I fought away some tears of happiness. Get a grip, man.

A little mob of Drughi were still outside…I edged past them. I noted what appeared to be a pool of blood on the road – there had been a couple of ambulances leaving the scene as I arrived. We later learned two Chelsea had been stabbed. I was blending in though, no colours.

“Axon!”

I turned around and Jocka, Andy, Neil and Jonesy were behind me. They had seen the blood too. Time to get in. No body searches at the gate – I was in at 8.30pm.

The scene which greeted me was spectacular. I filmed my entrance to the Chelsea section on my phone and soon decided to position myself atop some steps at the front of the middle tier. After a few moments, I realised Les from Melksham was near and he came down to stand next to me all of the game. Right down below me, Chicago Joe and Michelle. Cathy and Dog came in and watched right from the front. Chelsea fans brought in a Lazio and a Toro flag to wind up the locals. The fans in the Curva Nord to my right had been issued with Italian flags. At the other end, I noticed two massive sections of green and red shiny mosaics. As the CL anthem played, the tifosi in the home end, got to work, unfurling three massive banners which said “YES WE CAN.” However, much to my amusement, the last flag got caught up and so was never fully exposed. Felt like singing “No You Can’t.” As it turned out, this failed unfurling proved to be a metaphor for the night.

At 8.45pm, The Game Of My Life began – Juventus vs. Chelsea. Just seeing those two words together makes me go all goose-pimply. After a few minutes, Andy and Smithy arrived behind me…bizarrely, Smithy got in without having to show a ticket. This was great as I saw him in Rome but he had been delayed and so missed the game. Poetic justice! To be honest, I thought we were pretty poor in the first period. That opening goal from Iaquinta was on the cards and our World crumpled. Don’t do this to me! My worst fears were starting to come to life. Juve moved the ball around well but we defended OK. We just couldn’t seem to create anything, though. I remember one wild shot from Ballack, who was particularly poor.

The first-half ended in a blur of confusion and then elation. Please excuse my memory, but I may have got these moments all a bit messed-up. With the seconds ticking away, that Drogba free-kick ( ? ) looked to be saved by Buffon, but then a roar, a Chelsea player near the goal with arms raised and we went wild. Much celebration, but then – wait – we saw that the game was continuing. What happened? Dunno. What seemed like a minute after, a scramble in the Juve goal – did it come back off the bar? – and Essien poked it home, but I wasn’t sure it was in.

It was. GET IN. From my viewpoint at the front of the middle tier, I watched as the Chelsea fans in the lower deck ( the more “wild” of the 1,700 ) go amok, running towards the Juve fans to my right…or rather the plexiglass screen. Much singing, shouting, arms pointing. The Juve fans responded with a bizarre mixture of arm signals.

Juve now had to score three to go through. My evening was now looking good, very good in fact. We played better in the second-half, with Frank very busy. Chiellini was sent off half-way into the second period but then Juve seemed to dominate. We were all impressed with the substitute Giovinco. A Belletti handball presented Del Piero with a penalty which he coolly slotted away.

It was now “Game On.” The Juventus fans to my right were at it again. One fan in particular – a man in his late fifties, very much like Claudio Ranieri – was very graphic. In one memorable moment he seemed to suggest that, with a tremendous show of agility with his tongue, that we were all fans of oral sex.

Mate – who isn’t?

The game continued on a knife edge. However, throughout the game, I did find it hard to concentrate on the action. On many occasions, I found myself drifting back to my four previous visits to the stadium between 1987 and 1989. The stadium was 80% all standing in those days and even lie unused from 1990 to 2006. I continually read all of the black and white Juve banners which adorned every inch of balcony space. I found it hard. It was too incredible for words.

Late on, a fine move down in front of me and Juliano found Drogba with an inch perfect pass. Seeing the net bulge was a pure moment of joy. I was filled up, but remained calm enough to take about ten shots of the resultant celebration. The scream, the leap, the players joining in…the Chelsea fans down below me going crazy, climbing the fence, so reminiscent of that game in 1984.

We were in full voice.

“We Are Chelsea In Turin.”

“We Hate Tottenham In Turin.”

“We Are Bouncy In Turin.”

I’m afraid one moment was not met with my approval. A 50 year old old-school Chelsea “face” mimicked the fans getting crushed at Heysel to the viewing Juve fans. To all those that glory in our shared hooligan history, a wake up call. This was not clever.

At the final whistle – relief and euphoria. We were now in great voice. The players came over and we serenaded them. Joe was loving it down below me. We gave Tiago a brilliant reception and he looked visibly moved. He was the last off the pitch. I met up with Alan, Walnuts, Rob, Gary and Whitey just as Dave Johnstone was getting some stick as he tried to sell his fanzine.

“It’s A Euro In Turin.”

“Hurry Up In Turin.”

So – into the last eight and out into the Turin night. We caught buses back to the city centre. Skinhead John was on our bus and was wearing a Torino shirt. He demanded that I help tie up a Toro flag to taunt the Juve fans. He’s quite a formidable character – I wasn’t going to argue. Thankfully the police got it taken down. I was right next to the flag – didn’t fancy getting stoned on the way back to the centre.

A few groups of Toro fans applauded us as we flew through the streets, police car lights flashing.

We regrouped at the same restaurant – a Sicilia pizza with anchovies this time – and were joined by Fiona and Ronnie ( Scooby Doo at the Coventry game ). No Sissoko, but the same gaggle of Italians ( including Bruce Buck! ) were there. We shook their hands as they left. Nice times. We again stayed at the “Jumping Jesters” until 3am…nice and easy, though, nothing mad.

Back to the hostel at 4am again. Phew.

The last day was another perfect one. I breakfasted at my little café on Corso Fiume again, this time with a copy of the pink “La Gazzetta Dello Sport” and tried my best to evaluate the Italian synopsis of the game. I walked over to Piazza Vetorio Veneto and waited for the boys to arrive. I had a gorgeous piece of chocolate cake from one of the stalls of the Chocolate Festival. The boys arrived at about 11.30am and a coffee. Gary, Walnuts, Alan and Whitey soon left for Milano, but I stayed with Rob for the rest of the day.

More blue skies. We sat at the café for three hours, more coffee, a coke, some gnocchi. It was heaven. Ronnie and Fiona joined us, but Rob and myself had one last bit of sightseeing to do.

We visited Il Mole Antoniella and this was a great way to view the city. A lift rushed us up within the shell of the building and we were soon overlooking the red roofs and grid-like streets of the city. Just spectacular.

We then walked – or rather hobbled in my case, my football injury was getting worse – back to the hotel. I stopped off to get some stuff from the Juve shop on Via Garibaldi. Rob was taking a late flight that night, so I wished him well.

“See you Sunday.”

There was one more treat in store for me. Tullio picked me up from the hotel at 6pm and I was soon in his new apartment, to the south near Moncalieri. I met his wife Emanuela again, but also his daughters Sophia and Lucrezia for the first time. Sophia presented me with a Juve scarf. We had a few appetisers as the sun set behind the Alps. Magnificent.

We dropped in to see Tullio’s parents for a few moments – I was just so very pleased to be able to see them again and we spoke of the old times in Diano Marina. More appetisers. Tullio spoke of his grandfather’s love for Juve. He apparently saw Juve’s first ever game at Campo d’Armi, a stadium just to the north of Stadio Olimpico.

Tullio and myself then searched for a place to park before going into a lovely Piedmontese restaurant for a great meal. Talk about work, our families, our plans to meet again. The meal was rounded off with a perfect chocolate pudding.

When in Torino.

Tullio remembers me saying to him in around 1988 that it would be my dream to one day see Chelsea play Juventus. Deep down I knew this was never going to happen. What did I know, eh?

We bade our farewells to each other back at the hotel. We hugged. My last words to Tullio were –

“I’ve seen your team play many times before, for you to eventually see my team play means the World to me.”

“CIAO CIAO.”

After a peaceful night’s sleep at a hotel near Porta Sousa, I awoke early and was soon knocking back some coffee at around 6.45am in the hotel breakfast bar. The hotel radio jumped to life with a song which was coming to its end and it just made me smile. It was Louis Armstrong and “What A Wonderful World.”

Perfetto.

As I walked out to catch the airport bus at about 7am, I just wanted to put my arms around the city one last time. The Alps still looked stunning to the west and there was Superga, to the east, ready to welcome me back next time.

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