Tales From The European Trail

Chelsea vs. Atletico Madrid : 21 October 2009.

I generally think that my work / play balance is in pretty good shape. I enjoy my job and thankfully I have been able to attend lots and lots ( too many! ) of Chelsea games since I began working in Chippenham in March 2003. I’m lucky in that the town is only ten minutes from the M4 and my Chelsea parking spot is “only” 97 miles away. I’ve been able to go on a ridiculous run of home games going back to January 2004. The last one I missed was an F.A.Cup replay against Watford ( I was in America, ironically ) and I remember flying back into England on the morning of a Sunday game against Birmingham City. Since then, I have stacked up a run of 162 games (mmm – a baseball season! ), but I have been very busy this week and I did wonder if I would be able to get out early for the Atletico game. I usually drive up with Parky but warned him of my predicament. As a precaution, he decided to play safe and go up by train.

On Monday, I finished work at 7pm, on Tuesday at 5.15pm ( getting better! ) and I thankfully got my last bit of work completed at 4.30pm…this is realistically the time I had set myself. As I pulled onto the M4, I heaved a sigh of relief.

I slapped on a Buzzcocks CD, sipped at a coffee and tried to relax. Thankfully, there were no work phone-calls ( my official finish time is 5.30pm ) and as the sun set behind me, it felt good to be free from the worries of work. I reached Reading in double-quick time, then sped past Windsor. Things were looking good. However, from 6pm to 7.15pm, I travelled just nine miles and I did wonder if I would make the kick-off. The lads were in The Goose, but I had no chance of reaching them. As I tried to find a parking space in Chesson Road at 7.15pm, I was listening to the United vs. CSKA game on the radio ( Pat Nevin was over in Russia – he has a good life, eh? ) and as I parked up, United scored.

Oh great.

I sped past The Goose and headed down the North End Road. I was well aware that there would be the usual queues at the turnstiles. I peered into a few fast food restaurants and simply could not believe the amount of fans chomping away oblivious to the fact that they would be late for the kick-off.

I purchased a programme and cut through the crowds like Wee Pat on a mazy run – “get out of my way!” – and joined the line for the MHU. Two things stuck out. One guy next to me was wearing his work shirt, but had put a Chelsea replica shirt over it.

Ouch. Very stylish, mate!

Then, one fan placed his ticket into the scanner and was met with a red light…he was in the wrong queue ( he needed the MHL ), but began blaming the stewards. Unbelievable.

Thankfully, I reached my seat with two minutes to spare. You beauty! However, I hate this kind of rush, but it is more and more common with every mid-week game these days. Why do I put myself through it? There’s a question. I guess the unbeaten home run has a lot to answer for. Nobody would think anything less of me if I missed the odd game – I have nothing to prove – but I just need to be there. Watching at home on the TV would feel so very strange. The last home game I watched live on TV must be ages and ages ago.

Alan handed me my Madrid away ticket – we chatted excitedly about our plans for the return leg in two weeks. Six of us are going…can’t wait.

As the game began, I received a text from Danny ( Blue Celery ) in LA…

“Kalou for a hat-trick.”

Yeah, right mate – no chance of that.

Let’s not kid ourselves, we began slowly and Atletico had the better of the early exchanges, forcing saves out of Petr Cech in our goal. Diego Forlan, a bit of a flop at United, was lively and involved in most of their forward thrusts. They were making good patterns, moving the ball well. We, by comparison, seemed laboured and slow. The midfield did not seem to be working. We were giving Atletico too much space and, in possession, were unable to create. I noted to Alan that Anelka, when he receives the ball, often takes a touch and slows to a standstill, ensuring that the move loses its impetus. If I am honest, I do the same when I play five-a-side. We then had a goal from that long-distance free-kick ( not sure why ) and Ballack set up Kalou who shot wide.

Danny – are you watching?

Just before the break, we took the lead after great work down the left from Ashley who is in a great run of form at the moment. His cross found Salomon and he couldn’t miss. Alan and myself hugged and I thought of Danny’s pre-match prediction.

The half-time stats told the story of the half…we had more possession, but Madrid had eight shots compared to our five. It was great to see Tom at the game again after his recent sad loss and he seemed chirpy enough. Zac is off to the NFL game at Wembley on Sunday and we discussed this. He is a Miami fan ( he was wearing a Dolphins sweatshirt ) but is not really in favour of regular season NFL games being played outside the US. I made the point that, with only eight ( ? ) home games each season, as a fan of either New England or Tampa Bay, I would be gutted at missing out on a game. I am sure that the FA look at NFL’s colonialism as a shining example of new ways to grow sporting brands. Much more of this from American sport and they will look again at the “39th Game” which so infuriated me a year ago. Danny Granville ( remember him? Stockholm 1998! ) was presented to us at the break. In the programme, Mark Stein was featured in a piece about the Bruges ECWC game in 1995. That was a night when the full house of 28,000 absolutely rocked Stamford Bridge to its foundations. That was a great night and only our third European game since 1971. Since then, European nights have become part of the modern Chelsea story and I do wonder if the group phase games have helped soften the excitement of European games for some. Those early knock-out games against Zizkov, Austria Memphis and Bruges were phenomenal.

We played a lot better in the second period and the Spanish support soon fell quiet. I snapped Frank taking the corner which lead to our second goal. After the first goal, I had texted Danny to say that if Kalou got two more, I would be buying him beer all day when he comes over for the Wolves game.

I texted him again – “Now I’m worried.”

We began playing the ball around better and Madrid tired. After a move down in front of me, the ball zipped across the box and Kalou couldn’t quite reach it. Oh Danny – so near and yet so far. He was surprisingly subbed soon after and got a good reception. Two late goals rather flattered us I thought. The most noise from us was when Joe began warming up on the touchline, but he didn’t enter the fray. In the last quarter of the game, The Bridge fell eerily silent at times.

Oh well.

So, another home game came to an end…number 163 on the trot for me. It wasn’t that great. I have seen us play more expansive and pleasing football, but a 4-0 win mustn’t be sniffed at. I slowly left the seats and left the stadium. Outside, I noted quite a few Spanish fans exiting the pricier parts of the West Stand. It surprised me for some reason. I stopped for a pizza at an Italian near The Goose and drove home through the West London streets and then the Wessex countryside.

The loneliness of a long-distance football follower.

I reached home at 12.45am with thoughts of Blackburn Rovers, game 164, and beyond.

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