Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 6 May 2009.
Our club has reached five Champions League Semi-Finals in the last six years – this is a phenomenal achievement. Let’s not lose track of how far we have travelled. I have been detailing our exploits 25 years ago to give some idea of contrast to the current season and, I have to say, such accomplishments back in those days would have been scoffed at. It would have been totally unbelievable. Utter craziness to even think about it.
During the day, I exchanged a few emails and texts with a few mates who had Rome in mind. Yet again, the Mancs had got to the flights first, leaving us with the scraps. A day trip was looking like £450, so we had a plan of flying to Nice, a train to Milan ( passing through my old haunt of Diano Marina ) and a train to Rome…around £250.
I tried not to think about the game too much during the day, but I knew that nerves would eventually get the better of me.
I tried to get away for 4pm, but was only able to leave at 4.20pm…these minutes make all the difference on the congested M4. Parky was accompanying me yet again – his payment would be a dozen eggs from his chickens and two pints of lager in The Goose. There was the usual constant batter about football and music as we headed east. To be fair, we made good time and made the pub at 6.30pm…just enough to say all we had to say to the boys, who were in a little corner of the beer garden. Burger had collected his brace of tickets from Alan and had left for the ground for some pre-match atmosphere. I am sure he wasn’t disappointed.
Parky got the beers in – The Goose still provides outstanding value…he bought a pitcher of four pints of Carling for just £7.50. The beer went down well. Our group was about ten strong and I noted that four of us were wearing classic Lacoste polos.
Walnuts – pink
Blow Monkey – racing green
Rob – mid blue
Myself – navy blue
To complete the picture – Parky had a black Lacoste baseball cap and Ed had a navy Lacoste pullover.
I stood on the table and took a photo of The Bing, all smiling confidently…for the moment. To be fair, talk was more of travel to Rome than of the game ahead, but I was now getting very nervous. I had predicted, in an email to a guy from a supplier ( Chelsea fan ) during the day that the score would be 1-1. Overall, others were more confident than me.
We left the boozer at 7.15pm and the area around the ground was heaving. I had the distinct impression that a lot of fans had travelled in to watch in the adjacent pubs, of which there are a good twenty-five within ten minutes of the stadium. Good vibes walking in behind The West Stand…I took some snaps of the CL banners adorning the area. Parky was watching down below me in the MHL. I reached my seat at 7.30pm – easy! – and spent a good few minutes walking around nervously, chatting to faces that I have got to know since my season-ticket era began in 1997. Everyone was edgy and my view was that “it could go either way…very tight, they could score three, we could too.”
As “Blue Is The Colour” was heartily sung by us all, the place looked a picture. The 3,000 away fans had their yellow and red Catalonia flags and their distinctive deep red and navy FCB scarves. Elsewhere, the Chelsea support waved the white and blue flags…and down below in the MHL, the iconic “Pride Of London” flag floated along. It was a wonderful sight. The Champions League “ball” in the centre circle was waved, the anthem began and the teams strode onto the green turf. The fading sun seemed to tint the back wall of the hotel a subtle pink colour.
I stood the entire game. For the first time that I can remember, a large section of The Shed Upper did the same.
First impressions were that Barca were continuing in the same fashion as the first leg. I noticed Messi was being deployed in the middle of their attack. Barca were full of crisp passing. The Chelsea support were doing a good job and I noted lots of people close by who normally sit in silence joining in. Good signs. I thought back to my school days, circa 1973, and here I was at a Chelsea game…at an actual game…”Chelsea – clap, clap, clap, Chelsea – clap, clap, clap.” It made me proud. Here I was – being part of it.
Then, a high ball came out to Michael Essien.
We all stood in awe as the ball ( hit with his left foot! ) crashed goalwards…it smacked the bar and bounced down. We waited…we waited for what seemed like ages for the ball to bounce back up…we waited…until it hit the netting and the place erupted.
YES! Get in! Get in! I punched the air…I stood on my little platform to my right ( how many goals have I celebrated there! ) and then had a moment of awareness…we were winning…I took a deep breath and roared again. My voice has never been more loud. I looked down at Alan and we motioned towards each other –
“They’ll have to come at us now.”
“Come on my little diamonds.”
Soon after, I said to Alan “don’t get the lucky wine gums out – save them for Rome” just at the exact moment he took them out of his pocket to offer me one. Superstitions, eh? Last season for the CL semi, I wore a Yankees jacket and cap…this year, they were in my bag. Alan held his lucky Osgood badge the entire game.
Phew. We were winning. A few texts came in from Planet Chelsea. Barca continued to pass the ball around us, but Messi only really had one mesmeric dribble through the middle…balls were played too high, too wide…they were wasting all of their possession. The noise quietened as Barca continued their dominance. They were using a delicate scalpel to cut us open. We used a hammer. Midway through the half, I bumped into a guy who I had first met in Vienna for the Chelsea game in 1994. Even that seemed like light years away. In 1994, we were naïve Euro novices…in 2009, we were the real deal. I spotted “Tubes” from “Soccer AM” too.
I captured JT’s great leap and header on film. We had a few chances, but not many.
The two first-half “penalties” were down the other end to us. I didn’t get a clear view of the Malouda one, but the Drogba one looked borderline…I think Didier’s reputation preceded him though. On the TV screens at the break, both challenges looked like more certain penalties and the crowd booed their disapproval.
The second-half continued in much the same way as the first. Lots of Barca pressure with Iniesta and Xavi seeing so much of the ball. Our defence was magnificent, but I felt the midfield surrendered too much space to the influential Barca playmakers. Cole was shackling Messi. Malouda was tracking back well and offering good movement going forward. He is the club’s most improved player since March.
Within a manic period, Drogba shot at the Barca keeper and Frank blasted wide.
The support roused itself, but then the nerves took over. Pockets of support all over the ground tried their best to get it going, but the result wasn’t coherent. Barca obviously sang, but we didn’t hear them over the general hubbub.
Anelka was through on goal and a rough challenge…a red card! It surprised me as another defender was close by. Things were looking good, but we didn’t seize the chance. We didn’t stretch them.
Twenty minutes to go…a Barca goal, I had to keep reminding myself, would kill us. I watched the clock like never before. Still Chelsea’s midfield gave up too much space.
Anelka through on goal right down below us and Pique handles. This is the one – this is the one where the conspiracy theorists will go to town. It was a penalty, referee…it was a penalty.We screamed our abhorrence.
Ten minutes to go. I daren’t talk to Alan. I daren’t upset the karma.
Five minutes to go…86…87…88…89…Come on boys.
“We’re going to Rome, we’re going to Rome …F your history, we’re going to Rome.” What a city to win the Big One….
The PA announced “four minutes of extra time.” I glanced at my phone and it was 9.33pm. By 9.37pm, it would be all over. All was quiet…I kept glancing at Alan, not knowing what to say.
Then, a flat ball in to the edge of the “D” and a wild swipe at the ball from that man Iniesta.
It looked a goal as soon as it left his foot. It seemed to spin further away from the stretching Cech…it hit the back of the net and I stood, mouth open, still…motionless…disbelieving…for five or ten seconds. My body did not move. My eyes acknowledged the away support falling over themselves.
Then – a few spectacularly odd and random thoughts crashed into my mind.
Not this year.
Not like this please!
Not after the two Liverpool defeats in 2005 and 2007.
No trip to Rome.
No added expense.
More money for America.
No need for holiday cover at work.
Guilt for thinking these things.
All those plans for Rome.
Snap out of it Chris – COME ON!
An inner smile.
Blow up ref – put us out of our misery.
Then – a corner…camera poised for the Greatest Goal Ever Bar None. Cech raced upfield. A delay added to the tension.
One last chance. The corner kick, and a scramble, click, click, click…a shot…handball!
The agony of the referee not blowing for the penalty.
I slowly and quietly left the stadium, bumping into a few mates on the way back to the car.
“We’re making a bloody habit of this aren’t we?”
I was OK – I was numb really. I think I was OK.
Parky and myself talked through the shared experience of yet another CL semi defeat as I drove west…we came out with some home-spun philosophy on the way home. We were fine. We’d seen worse, much worse.
We were Chelsea.
As I dropped him off at 12.45am…”take care, mate…see you Sunday.”