Tales From The Miracle Men

Barcelona vs. Chelsea : 24 April 2012.

Ahead of our game in Barcelona, despite our memorable first-leg win at Stamford Bridge, I was still not too confident of us progressing to the final. After weighing up all of the likely outcomes, I conservatively calculated that our chances of a game in Munich at no more than 25%. We had all seen the miracle at Stamford Bridge. A miracle at Camp Nou, too? I tried to be positive, but was fearful of retribuition on a seismic scale. Of course, Barca were wounded by their arch-rivals Real Madrid at the weekend. This made things worse – much worse – in my mind. Our boys, creaking two months ago, were in for a mammoth fight. I awoke at 3.30 am on Tuesday and tried not to think too much about the game later that day.

My flight was set to leave Bristol Airport at 6.55am and, although I left in good time, I think I broke the World land speed record on my drive up and over The Mendips. At Maesbury, a peacefully still white owl sat in the middle of the road and the sight was unnerving. I drove past, missing it by mere feet. It barely blinked as I passed. It’s face was peacefulness personified. In a shuddering moment, my imagination ran riot and I envisaged the owl thinking to itself –

“Turn back, fool. There is nothing for you in Barcelona.”

I had previously travelled to Italy for the Napoli game from Bristol, my most local airport. On that day in February, despite a later flight, the airport was deathly quiet. Only two other Chelsea supporters – Emma from Bridgewater and Tony from Westbury – were on that flight to Italy. Well, what a difference. The airport was teeming with travellers. I bumped into several Chelsea fans that I knew. However, the vast majority of Chelsea fans were unfamiliar. I heard Welsh voices and accents from the Home Counties.The signs were good; it seemed that we were travelling in formidable numbers. While I enjoyed a “Starbucks” coffee, I noted a famous face nearby; Andy Robinson, the former Bath and England rugby player, now the coach of Scotland. Unlike my chance encounter with Seb Coe on Saturday, a conversation with Robinson was never likely to happen. We had nothing in common, save for being at Bristol airport at the same time. If anything, this reinforced my thoughts about how easy it had been to strike up a Chelsea conversation with Coe three days earlier.

At the departure gate, a semi-familiar face told me that we had sold our full allocation of 4,500 tickets. We guessed that a thousand or two had been inspired by the first-leg win and had decided to travel en masse to Catalonia.

The flight left a little late at around 7.30am and I tried desperately to grab some sleep.

Past trips to Barcelona passed through my mind as we flew over France. I had previously visited Camp Nou on four other occasions.

July 1986 – I called in on Barcelona on one of my train-travelling extravaganzas during my college days. Paris to Biarritz to Barcelona and then on to Rome and Corfu. I spent a day in Barcelona and made a bee-line from the Sants station to the huge edifice of Camp Nou where I paid a few pesetas for a tour. It was all quite magnificent in my eyes. The steep stands were huge and Barca’s home was quite easily the most luxurious stadium in Europe. I was equally impressed with the huge trophy cabinet and the mini-stadium alongside.

September 1987 – Another year, another trip around Camp Nou, this time with two friends on another European adventure. Paris to Biarritz to Madrid (and the crumbling Bernabeu – nowhere near as impressive as it is now) to Barcelona and then on to Rome, Venice, Milan and Munich. Unknowingly, our visit coincided with the day that FCB chose to dispense with the services of manager Terry Venables.

April 2000 – Only 1,500 Chelsea fans were allowed to witness our CL Quarter-Final and I was one of them. I travelled out with Paul and Jonesy and we had a lovely time. Up in the very top of the Camp Nou that night – we were in the very back row – I watched the sun set against the backdrop of those hills to the west of the city. At the time, it was my most memorable Chelsea experience. We almost made it through when Tore Andre Flo made it 2-1 on the night (and 4-3 on aggregate) but a late FCB goal took us into extra-time before two other goals gave Barca a flattering 5-1 triumph. Roberto di Matteo was in our midfield on that night. When we silently descended from the dizzy heights of the stadium, I wondered if I would ever return with Chelsea. What a horrible defeat, but what an amazing experience.

February 2005 – Unlike in 2000, over 6,000 Chelsea fans were allowed access to our game against Barcelona in the oddly-named “round of 16.” We went in a large group; Daryl, Neil, Frankie Two-Times, Alan, Gary, Glenn and myself. We had a fantastic time. Glenn and I had bought tickets via a ticket agency when we expected only 1,500 tickets were going to be available. We watched from the middle tier, alongside Barca fans, behind the goal where Maxi Lopez and Samuel Eto’o gave the home side a narrow 2-1 win after none other than Juliano Beletti had gifted us an own goal. Glenn and I always remember that an elderly FCB fan reached over and prodded Glenn with his walking stick when their second goal was scored. He had a look of pure disdain for us two interlopers.

Since then, even more Barcelona vs. Chelsea games have taken place – the group phase game in 2006-2007 and the knock-out games in 2005-2006 and 2008-2009 – but I had not been tempted back. This time was different. I simply had to go.

I peered out of the window just as we were flying over the snow-capped Pyrenees. I had been warned that the weather on the Monday was cold and wet. Thankfully, I saw only blue skies. We landed in Girona at 9.45am and were soon heading towards the sprawling Catalan city of Barcelona on a transfer bus. I spoke excitedly with two friends from Bristol about plans for Munich.

Maybe. Just maybe.

The route in to the city took us past the F1 grand prix circuit and then the FC Espanyol training centre. We arrived at the Barcelona Nord bus station at 11.15am. I had spotted the surreal towers of Antonio Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia a mile or so to the north and so I headed straight towards it. I texted a former work colleague Oscar, who I was meeting for lunch, and he texted back to say “take your time and see you at 12.30pm.”

I spent a blissful hour outside the magnificent cathedral and went predictably mad with my camera. Every footstep, a different viewpoint. The sun was warming the air and I was regretting the warm jacket I was wearing. I didn’t spot a single Chelsea supporter, but is this any real surprise? Along with The Ramblas, the harbour and Parc Guell, the cathedral is one of the main city sightseeing hotspots. Most Chelsea fans would have already visited it in 2000 or 2005 or 2006 or 2009.

Oscar arrived at 12.30pm and we drove into the heart of the city. We both used to work for the same company but had never met; we stayed in contact over the years through our shared love of football and the almost fateful way in that UEFA continuously threw our clubs together. I was able to witness the fluid form of two more Gaudi buildings before Oscar treated me to a fantastic meal at Citrus, a modern restaurant on one of the main thouroughfares. Seafood ravioli and then veal escalopes, washed down with the first two beers of the day. Superb. We spoke about various subjects, but football dominated. I spoke of Villas-Boas, of Abramovich, of di Matteo, of the CPO. Oscar explained how he thinks that Pep Guardiola’s days as manager of FCB are coming to an end. Guardiola is not obsessed about football in the same way that Mourinho is. He is a cultured political man, with many varied interests outside of Barcelona football. But Oscar hinted that he is seeking a fresh challenge; away from the FCB goldfish bowl. A new challenge, eh? It got me thinking. I suggested to Oscar that he would be crazy to leave Barcelona, but who knows? Oscar tellingly said that the president of Barcelona’s grandchild goes to the same school as Guardiola’s child and that the talk amongst (in Oscar’s words) “the mamas and the papas” at the school is that Pep will leave Camp Nou at the end of the season.

I had easily dismissed the chance of the sophisticated Guardiola taking over the reigns at Stamford Bridge. After my meal with Oscar in the heart of Barcelona, I am not so sure.

Oscar dropped me off at my hotel near the Sants train station. Before we said our goodbyes, he told me that “if you win tonight, you must promise me to beat Madrid in Munich.”

I soon met up with two good friends, Mike and Frank – from NYC – who were also staying in the Expo Hotel. We spent a few moments on the hotel roof terrace where the city sprawled all the way around us. To the north-east, the new Torre Agbar, a skyscraper which is very similar to London’s Gherkin. To the south-east, the hill of Montjuic, where the Olympic Stadium from 1992 stands behind the palace. FC Espanyol, the second team in Barcelona, no longer play at the stadium and now reside to the south. It’s all about Madrid in Barcelona; FC Espanyol are a hindrance to Barca, not a rival. Did somebody mention Fulham and Chelsea? To the west, the top of the Camp Nou east stand was just visible, though not as dominant as might be expected. Like many stadia, the pitch is below street level and although cavernous inside, the stadium is quite unobtrusive from the exterior. To the west and north, the hills which circle the city.

We caught a cab down to the area at the base of the famous Ramblas, which is overlooked by the statue of Christopher Columbus pointing to the sea.

From 4.30pm to 7.30pm, we had the time of our lives. We bought cans of Estrella from harbourside kiosks and wandered past the marina, chatting away about the great Chelsea obsession. Fellow fans were occasionally spotted. The skies were clear, there was an onshore breeze and the early-evening ambience was superb; in truth,we all wanted time to stand still.

Walking with good friends in a foreign city, drinking and laughing, why do we have to ruin it by going to a game? Let’s suspend time. No need to play the game. We’ll always be in the semi-finals. No need to worry. Forever in Europe, forever on tour.

It was a quite brilliant hour or so.

We briefly joined up with a few friends who had gathered with around five hundred Chelsea fans in a small square outside “Flaherty’s” bar. Chelsea flags were pinned to walls, shirts were worn around waists, songs were sung. There was no feeling of malice, just a good buzz. I had no doubt that all of the 4,500 tickets on offer had been picked up by Chelsea loyalists from all stations east, west, north and south. Although Frank, Mike and I had not spoken about the match at all, deep down my feeings of doubt about our progress to the final were being eroded by the site of all the blue-clad hordes. However, the lines for beer inside the bar were ridiculous, so we made the quick decision to vacate the area and find somewhere with more character, a little more sedate and with a little less people. We soon found a superb little bar on Las Ramblas and dived in. Several pints of San Miguel and a few shots for good measure, too. To my amazement, it was only 6pm. Plenty of time. More beers, please.

A group of old school Chelsea faces joined us and the merriment continued, with obscure songs being sung and jokes exchanged. Frank had met some of the chaps at the tapas bar on the Kings Road a year or so ago. Frank, who has an infectious character, seemed bewildered that he should know somebody in a foreign city. I assured him that this was quite normal when supporting Chelsea. Frank was full of praise of the New York chapter and even uttered the immortal words –

“This club has changed my life.”

The beers were going down well and I was enjoying being able to relax without the worry of having to drive home. I was unleashed and on the lash.

Still no talk of the game though.

“The first rule of fight club is that no one talks about fight club.”

I sent a text out –

“A toast to absent friends.”

It was time to move. We hopped into a cab and were on our way to Camp Nou. Despite an attendance of almost 100,000 assembling, we found it easy to enter. I lost contact with Frank and Mike but bumped into a few familiar faces. Looking out on the streets below, an old friend Mark commented –

“Fucking hell – I’ve been here more times than Reading.”

I made my way inside the very top tier, way up in the heavens. To be honest, Camp Nou is beyond words. It is quite phenomenal. I took my place alongside thousands of others and tried my best to concentrate. I have rarely had more than three pints at games this season but I had certainly made up for it in Catalonia. The mixture of alcohol and the incredible sense of occasion was making me light-headed. The view below me – way below me – was breathtaking.

The sun began to set to the west. The lights of the city were flickering. I was part of the stadium, but part of the city at the same time. We were on the very rim of the massive bowl, able to peer in, able to peer out.

It reminded me of my feelings in 2000.

“There ain’t no better place to watch a game anywhere, Chris.”

During the period leading up to the entrance of the teams, I tried to juggle my two cameras and my mobile phone, throwing out texts to friends near and far, taking video-film of the crowd, taking photos of the sun disappearing from view, taking photos of the multi-tiered Barca fans. That beer was taking hold and I was finding it hard to concentrate.

“You give me beer, you give me ten flights of stairs to walk up, you put me on the edge of a precipice, you put me among four thousand noisy fans, you make the pitch so small, you make the players so small and you want me to concentrate?”

It seemed an impossible task.

And yet, the photos were taken. The shots of the Catalan flags being waved frantically by the thousands upon thousands of Barca fans. The video film of the Barca club anthem.

“Blaugrana al vent.
Un crit valent.
Tenim un nom, el sap tothom.
Barça!, Barça!, Barça!”

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The team line-ups. The mountains. The inside. The out. The up. The down.

Oh boy.

There were no surprises in the manager’s choice of players for this game. It was the team that had performed so resolutely at The Bridge less than a week previously.

The first part of the match involved me taking yet more photos, sending and receiving yet more texts and trying my utmost to try to stay with the game. We were so ridiculously high up that I had might as well have been watching from the moon. By the time I had managed to focus on the game down below me, we had lost Gary Cahill. This was not a good start. The Barcelona players swarmed around the Chelsea penalty area and the white defenders scrambled to keep close to the raiding attackers. Messi, who had already slashed a shot against the side netting, was again the centre of our attentions.

Fabregas set up Messi with a delightful back-heal, but the little man’s shot was blocked by Petr Cech’s outstretched leg.

But, way up in the lofty heights, I was struggling. The alcohol was now taking grip and I soon realised that – as I tried to stay with the movement of the players – I was seeing double. I squinted to focus on the Chelsea players, but as soon as I relaxed, we suddenly had 22 players on the pitch.

No wonder Barcelona were unable to break us down.

A couple of Drogba half chances gave us hope. However, a typical Barca move with the ball being zipped around the box, ended in Busquets giving the ball a gentle prod from close in. The Barca fans, who had been pretty quiet, awoke with rapturous acclaim.

Then, madness. Did we see John Terry’s foul? No, of course not. I was even struggling to see anything. Our captain was dismissed and a series of texts from England and America were full of disdain. My friend Glenn, watching at home in Frome, explained that he had knee’d Alexis Sanchez in the back of the leg. The away section was stunned. We were punished almost immediately as Messi played in Iniesta, the demon from 2009, to calmly slot home from an angle.

Things were desperate.

That 25% chance of reaching Munich was appearing to be blindingly astute.

We were at a low ebb, but were soon to be cheered. Frank Lampard played a perfectly-weighted ball through for the rampaging Ramires. It seemed impossible that we would be rewarded with a goal-scoring chance so soon after conceding again. The whole Chelsea section strained to watch as Ramires pushed the ball once and then lobbed Valdes with a breathtaking chip. I was right behind the flight of the ball and I gasped as I saw the ball drop into the waiting net.

We were soon jumping around like fools. The terraces were steep with individual barriers and it was a good job. Oh, how we celebrated. The buzz at half-time was superb.

We were losing 2-1 in Barcelona but, with a precious away goal, we were ahead overall.

I met up with Jonesy – the same Jonesy who had been with me at the 5-1 defeat some twelve years previously – and his mate Neil, both from Nuneaton. Their smiles lit up the dark Catalonia sky.

The match re-started and there was more drama. I must admit to not witnessing the foul by Didier which lead to the penalty decision. I was probably texting somebody or taking yet another photo of the packed terraces below me. I did, however, gather my senses in order to take a photo of Lionel Messi’s penalty attempt.

Snap.

I saw the ball fly high and up onto the bar and away. The Chelsea crowd uttered a guttural roar once again.

Maybe the footballing Gods were on our side after all.

Our support grew louder with each minute. The texts from home continued to fly in to my phone. There was a growing sense of belief among us all. The remainder of the game was a further blur. Chelsea defended deep and with a passion which was quite amazing to witness at first hand. Our belligerent players must have frustrated every Barca attacker. They came at us in waves, but our players matched them. It seemed that every shot was blocked.

A rare Lampard corner, around three miles below me, was directed towards the strong leap of Ivanovic and our great Serbian should have scored with his header. It was to be a very rare threat on Valdes’ goal.

Fernando came on for Didier.

Late on, Barcelona managed to get the ball in our goal. To my great pleasure, the majority of the 95,000 crowd had failed to see the bright yellow of the linesman’s flag signalling “offside.” Luckily for me – and my heart – I had spotted it early. A Messi shot scraped the near post. The home fans only had one song – the club anthem – and we all sensed they were not helping to support their team. The spectators grew edgier, the Barca players grew frustrated and it was a beautiful feeling.

We were almost there.

The clock kept ticking.

“Come on boys, hold on.”

Then, a Barca attack broke and the ball was cleared upfield. Miraculously – and it was a miracle – Fernando Torres had decided to drift upfield when he perhaps ought to have held further back. He controlled the ball as it fell at his feet and the Chelsea fans were all eyes.

The lone figure of Torres, with nobody in pursuit, set off.

We inhaled.

Our eyes bulged.

We watched.

Torres took a touch past Valdes and slotted the ball home.

Pandemonium in Catalonia.

I do not know if the tears were immediate or if they came when the final whistle was blown.

Again – a blur. A big blue beautiful blur.

Way atop the Camp Nou, over four thousand Chelsea fans were roaring and singing like never ever before. Down below, the minuscule heroes in white came towards us. I soon met up with Jokka, Jonesy and Neil, Neil’s brother Nigel. We hugged and we laughed.

“How did we do that?”

“Best away game ever, Jonesy – best away game EVER.”

The texts came in. Not just from fellow blues, but from Liverpool fans, Manchester United fans, Cardiff City fans, Frome Town fans, Juventus fans, Sheffield United fans, Barcelona fans…

It was too much. I probably made a fool of myself for a few seconds, but I was wailing with joy. I didn’t care. I wasn’t the only one. How long were we kept inside the stadium? I have no idea. The songs were never-ending, but one was sung continually –

“Che sera sera.
Whatever will be will be.
We’re going to Germany.
Che sera sera.”

The Chelsea songbook got a great airing.

“He scores when he wants, he scores when he wants. Fernando Torres – he scores when he wants.”

“We’re not going home, we’re not going home, we’re not going, we’re not going, we’re not going home.”

We then sang the “One Step Beyond / Nutty Boys In Barcelona Mix.”

As we descended the many concrete steps down to street level, I bumped into complete strangers,old friends, good mates and many many more. It did not matter. We were all together. That walk out of Camp Nou – blissful, euphoric but still full of wide-eyed wonder and disbelief – will live with me forever. I dropped into a bar and then caught a cab back to the hotel, where I was soon joined by a clearly euphoric Frank and Mike. I am sure we could have stayed there all night, but – unlike the current Chelsea team – I knew my limits.

After the briefest of sleeps, the alarm sounded at 6.30am and I was soon up and away, on the bus to Girona and on the plane home. Thoughts were scrambling around in my poor head in an attempt to rationalise what I had witnessed in Catalonia. And then there were thoughts of how best to tackle the problem of getting to Munich for the final on May 19th.

Nobody need worry. After a frantic hour or so, I booked flights for myself and my oldest Chelsea mate Glenn – who I first started going to Chelsea with in the autumn of 1983 – to take us from Bristol to Prague in the Czech Republic on the Friday. We will then take a train to Munich on the day of the game. The last game of the season, the last kick of the ball…

“…we’re going to Germany..che sera sera.”

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