Tales From A Slow Start

Rapid Vienna vs. Chelsea : 16 July 2016.

By the time that the Austrian Airlines plane had touched down at Vienna’s Schwechat airport at 9.30am on Saturday 16 July, I had already been awake for nine hours. Day one of season 2016-2017, my forty-fourth year of attending Chelsea games, would undoubtedly be a long one. With Chelsea sadly not competing in either of the two European trophies this season, I was easily persuaded to attend the season-opener a week or so ahead of a trip over to the US later in July. European travel would be sorely missed by myself, and thousands of others, this season, but here – at least – was a chance for me to do what I love best; a couple of days in a foreign city following The Great Unpredictables.

I had woken, ahead of my alarm, at 11.30pm on the Friday night. What a ridiculous time to be waking. I set off at 1.30am on the Saturday and headed east. I had arranged to park my car at my friend Michelle’s house in Bracknell, and then her boyfriend Dane would then drive the three of us to Heathrow ahead of our 6am flight. We were checked in at 4.30am and we spotted a few fellow Chelsea on our flight. We grabbed a coffee and a bacon roll, and were soon on our way. “The Blue Danube” – that soothing Strauss favourite – greeted us as we took our seats on the plane. It set the tone nicely. I settled back in my seat and reminisced about previous visits to the Austrian capital.

Back in my early ‘twenties, newly graduated from college but with no idea of where I wanted my life to be headed, I often travelled around Europe by train on various Inter-Railing adventures. My fourth such trip, in the late autumn of 1987, doubled as a chance for me to make a little money on the side by selling British football badges at some European games. A few weeks were spent zig-zagging – if not zigger-zaggering – between Europe’s great cities, sleeping overnight on the trains, and waking up the next morning with that wonderful thrill of exploring a new city, and possibly – who knows? – even making the acquaintance of a mysterious European female with high cheekbones and low morals. These were my wanderlust years for sure. I had visited Austria for the first time on a family holiday with my parents in 1977 – Seefeld, in the Tirol – but my first visit to Vienna was ten years later. On a cold and misty November morning, I alighted at Vienna’s Westbanhof station and headed off for an early morning visit to the wonderful Schonbrunn Palace. There was a certain dark austerity about those grey streets and I wondered if I was in a city further east, such as Belgrade, Budapest or Prague – still under communist law – rather than the sprightlier and more cheerful Austrian capital. I later visited the stunning buildings of the city centre and was immediately impressed. There was a certain class to the whole city. Vienna had certainly left its mark on me.

I would return some seven years later, and this time with the love of my life.

With Chelsea having qualified for the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994/1995 (despite only finishing FA Cup runners up to double winners Manchester United), and after seeing off Viktoria Zikkov in the first round, we were paired with Austria Memphis. I had attended the Zizkov game in September 1994 – which had taken place in the small town of Jablonec rather than Prague due to concerns about crowd trouble – and I soon booked myself a return visit to that part of central Europe for the game in Vienna in November. A rather fractious first game at Stamford Bridge had ended 0-0 and there was nerves aplenty as I traveled out to the game in Vienna.

One of the nicest memories that I have of that particular trip was the couple of hours that I spent in a quiet bar, adjacent to the canal that cuts through the city of Vienna as an adjunct to the Danube, where I was able to relax with a few beers, and have a really lovely chat with two lads who I had not met before; Ally and Barney. We bought each other some beers, and enjoyed each other’s company, speaking of our love of the club, our personal stories, and how much fun we hoped to have on a potentially long European campaign in 1994/1995. Remember this was Chelsea’s first European adventure since 1971/1972. It was therefore the very first time that the thousands of fans who had been lured to the club after the twin cup triumphs of 1970 and 1971 had ever experienced such extravagance. That often overlooked European campaign of 1994/1995 is fondly remembered by myself and my friends as our great reward for sticking with the club through a dark period of our history. There had been three depressing relegations, financial calamity, the threat of moving away from Stamford Bridge, a flirt with relegation to the Third Division, hooliganism on the terraces, and much gloating from fans of our rivals. As I sat in that bar in Vienna in 1994, laughing with fellow Chelsea fans among the wooden panels and shining beer pumps, with the game taking place just over the canal, just out of sight, in a few hours, the excitement was tangible. It was just a lovely moment in my Chelsea life.

I would also visit that same bar on a visit to Vienna in 1997 – this time alone, but still savoring the moment – ahead of a game against Slovan Bratislava, just over the Slovakian border. It was, and still is, one of my favourite bars of any city that I have ever visited.

After checking in to my hotel on the Saturday morning, not so far from where I stayed in 1997 in fact, my first priority was to hunt out that bar, sit and reflect on how far my club has come over the past twenty-odd years, and to raise a toast to Antonio Conte as he took charge of his very first Chelsea game later in the day but also to the memory of Barney, who sadly passed away in 2011. I used to bump in to him quite often at Stamford Bridge and elsewhere – Ally not quite so often – and there would always be an outstretched hand and the “hello son” greeting. He was a nice guy. I miss his cheery smile.

For an hour or so, I searched east and west and then east again, but the bar was proving as elusive to pin down as the racketeer Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s atmospheric post-war classic “The Third Man.” As I roamed the streets, I hummed the film’s classic refrain to myself. I looked hither and thither to the sound of the zither but was so disappointed to realise that the bar was no more. As with many cities, there has been much riverside development in Vienna, and the quaint local bar was nowhere to be seen. I was genuinely dismayed that my first pint of the season – last season it was in Newark, New Jersey – could not be on my third visit to “my bar” in Vienna.

The weather was a little overcast and cloudy as I now turned and headed for the city centre.

I walked past a small neighbourhood bar and peered inside. There were a few locals inside, but also the strong smell of cigarette smoke. I turned to leave, but then looked up to see a large poster of former Rapid Vienna and Austrian international Hans Krankl – quite probably the nation’s most famous footballer of all time.

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I then noticed the photographs of a local, lower league, football team adorning one wall. I spotted the green wallpaper and upholstery, hinting at maybe a Rapid allegiance.

“I think I’m staying.”

I ordered a pint of Weiselburger and relaxed. The locals were amazed that I had traveled over for the game. The bar owner – not present – was the president of the local team featured. The locals were Rapid fans. It was great to chat to them. I love a local bar.

I headed on. The streets were remarkably quiet. Only around St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the main shopping area of the old town were busy. I crossed a road but heard a “Chelsea” song being faintly sung. I turned and spotted a few Chelsea flags draped outside the Match Box bar on Rotenturmstrasse. For an hour or so, it represented base camp. I bumped into a few friends and relaxed some more. After only two months after the last game of 2015/2016, we were back on it again. I suppose there was around twenty of us huddled outside the bar. It was not a huge figure. Some had spent the previous night in Bratislava, and had travelled down the River Danube to Vienna by boat. The talk turned to the game. We had officially been given four hundred tickets for the match, which was to mark the opening of Rapid’s revamped stadium, and a fair few had traveled out without tickets.

A few odd-looking characters suddenly arrived on the scene, obviously not English, wearing Harrington jackets with both “Chelsea Headhunters” crests woven into the backs, and with Stone Island patches on the arms. A couple had “Chelsea Headhunters” scarves draped around their waists.

File under “trying too hard.”

They looked, and sounded, totally unsavory. It was time for me to move on.

I headed off at just before 3pm in order to meet up with Emily, a Chelsea supporter from Atlanta, but who has been living in Vienna for a few years, and George, a Chelsea fanatic from the Czech Republic. Both were “Facebook friends” but there had been much communication between us ahead of the game. I was also hoping to meet up with my good mate Orlin, who often gets mentioned in these dispatches, who was desperate for a match ticket. A few days previously, Emily had sourced a spare for him, but it fell through at the last minute.

I walked in to “Flanagan’s” on Schwarzenbergstrasse and was expecting it to be busy. It was very quiet. If we had four hundred tickets, and four hundred fans, we were certainly spreading ourselves thinly throughout the city. I soon spotted the ever-present Cathy, with Becky and Emma. George, with two Czech mates, soon arrived. Emily too. For an hour and a half, we supped a few ales – Weiselburger and then Stiegl – and chatted about all things Chelsea. A few others arrived – Neil and Dave – and we pondered options of how to reach the stadium, which sits on the western edge of the city. We ended up catching an Uber, and off we went through the city’s streets.

The sun-bleached frontage of the Schonbrunn Palace was spotted to my left and I wondered if I would have time to visit it again on this trip. I had recently seen a concert from its grounds a few weeks earlier and it certainly brought back memories of my childhood. Often my father would tune in to some classical music on the radio and he especially liked the music of Strauss. I think his favourite was the Radetzky March. I had been reminded of another memory from the game in 1994; the day after the match, I enjoyed a leisurely walk in the autumn sun. I happened to chance upon a band playing music in celebration of the Austrian president Thomas Klestil’s birthday. For a few moments, I watched as the music whirled around in the Viennese morning air. I had lost my father only eighteen months earlier and I do not mind admitting that the sounds of some of his favourite tunes made my eyes moist. It was a lovely moment for me.

Outside the stadium, we soon spotted a bar, so we quickly decided to have another beer before the game.

With another Italian in charge of the team once more, I was keen to welcome Antonio Conte to our club with my “Vinci Per Noi” banner, which I hand-crafted some twenty summers ago in celebration of the twin signings of Gianluca Vialli and Roberto di Matteo. At the time, who could have possibly have guessed that those two players would go down in Chelsea legend as the managers of twin European triumphs in Stockholm and Munich?

I hastily gathered some troops and we had a photograph.

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Time was moving on.

Emily had a ticket in the home end, so we went our separate ways. With typical Chelsea protocol, I only made it in to the stadium with mere minutes to spare. The away end didn’t seem particularly full. We had been allocated the corner section, and it was clear to see that many locals – or at least non-English, if not wholly Austrian – were in our section. If I was expecting to see many familiar faces among the “400” (now seeming a mythical figure invented by Chelsea), I was to be disappointed. I bumped into Les from nearby Melksham, and maybe a few more, but there were strange faces everywhere. I didn’t spot my good pals Alan and Gary, who would be staying over for the second game in Klagenfurt. There was an odd feel to the mix of supporters. Of course, the big clue that not too many were from England was the predominance of Chelsea shirts in the away end. Emily, George and myself had touched on this subject in the bar beforehand; that Chelsea, specifically at away games, simply do not wear club colours to any great extent.

I made my way to the very last row, overlooked by a row of a bored dozen Austrian policemen. Alas there was nowhere to pin “Vinci.”

The home fans were in the midst of displaying a huge banner announcing “Weststadion” as opposed to the official, and ultra-corporate Allianz Stadium. Like the Allianz Stadium in Munich, I spotted a hill outside, wooded, and with houses.

“Tales From The Vienna Woods” anyone?

OK, the game.

Do I have to?

Clearly, Antonio Conte has only been at the club for a ridiculously short time, and was unable to select a free choice of players since some were still on an extended break. Nevertheless, the team looked like a Chelsea team from a parallel universe, or maybe even last year’s odd start. It could easily have been the team that played Walsall last September. It was a mixture of old favourites and fledgling youth.

Begovic.

Ivanovic.

Terry.

Djilobodji.

Rahman.

Mikel.

Matic.

Willian.

Loftus-Cheek.

Moses.

Diego Costa.

It seemed to be the tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 of recent memory. It was lovely, at least, to see John Terry still with us after the conjecture of the last week of the previous campaign.

Like so many fellow Chelsea fans, I was impressed with Antonio Conte during the recent European Championships. He is quietly spoken, but has eyes of steel. He is plainly a passionate man. It remains to be seen whether or not he can repeat that sense of camaraderie and teamwork so evident in his Italian team, overachieving through togetherness, at our club, which has been beset with power struggles and divisions within the changing room over the past few years. My good friend Mario, the Juventus supporter, told me that he is more of a leader of men through his emotional bond with his players, rather than through his tactical nous. This goes against the quickly-gained view by many in France that Conte is a fine tactician. If I heard the phrase “tactical masterclass” emanating from the media and fellow fans alike, I must have heard it a hundred times.

We’ll see.

I certainly wish him well.

“Win For Us” indeed.

Chelsea were in all blue – I still dislike seeing us in blue socks after all these years – with Rapid Vienna strangely choosing away stripes.

The game was dire. We let in a soft goal, allowing a nice one-two to cut us open on just seven minutes as Joelinton rounded Asmir Begovic before coolly side-footing home, and then celebrated down in front of us. Green flares were set off, and the home fans – wearing a lot of scarves despite it being the middle of summer – made a lot of noise. It was quite a din from their sections throughout the game.

We struggled to put anything of note together and – let us not be surprised – looked several yards off the pace against a team that seemed to be at a further advanced stage in their pre-season.

A few shouts of Chelsea support at the start soon gave way to periods of quiet in the away end as the game continued.

Suddenly, Emily appeared next to me. She had explained that she was a Chelsea fan to a steward in the home areas and had been allowed to join us. That she found me so easily was proof that our end was not full.

Willian buzzed around and Diego narrowly shot narrowly wide, but the Chelsea fans in the away section were not impressed.

“Shite, eh?”

At halftime, I made my way downstairs to purchase some beers. It was one of those games where beer was certainly a welcome addition. We were even allowed to bring them back to our seats.

It was more painful stuff in the second-half. Changes were made, with Aina, Oscar, Chalobah, Traore, Kenedy, Atsu and Remy all coming on.

We shuffled the ball from one side of the field to the other, but with little thrust or incision into the Rapid area.

It was slow.

Out of nowhere, Orlin appeared below me. He too had been lucky and had found, miraculously, a ticket. This was all very strange though. There were gaps in our section throughout the game, yet Chelsea had sold four hundred. Answers on a postcard.

Ola Aina played a ball in from the inside-left position, aiming for some onrushing attackers, but the ball avoided everyone before hitting against the left-hand post. The keeper was beaten, but watched as the ball rebounded away to safety. That this unintentional strike on goal would be our best attempt on goal the entire game summed it all up.

Sigh.

With ten minutes left, a defensive error between Ivanovic and Terry allowed the home team to strike. The ball was played out wide, and a shot on goal followed. An attempted clearance only set things up for Tomi to follow up.

Rapid Vienna 2 Chelsea 0.

Bollocks.

More flares and flags.

The game ended.

We shuffled off, with our hands in our pockets, and with faces being pulled.

“Bloody hell, that was crap.”

I suppose I am spoilt. I have seen so many enthralling and entertaining games with Chelsea over the years. This was just a friendly, just the first in a long season, just a training session in reality.

Outside in the drizzle of a Viennese evening, we waited for transportation.

“Bloody hell, this seems like Wigan in the rain in November not Vienna in July.”

Our spirits had taken a bit of a knock, but I must admit to being so pleased to have made new friends with some good people.

George kept shouting “Vinci Per Noi” and I smiled.

We caught two trams back to the centre of Vienna, and I grabbed a couple of slices of pizza. It would be my only sustenance since the bacon roll at Heathrow. I chatted, solemnly, to Emily and aired a concern that I have had, and shared here, for a few years; that my passion is waning, that things might never reach the heights of – when? Vienna 1994? Wembley 1997? Stockholm 1998? Bolton 2005? Munich 2012? – but then I smiled as the thought of another campaign entered my head. We dropped in to “Flanagan’s” once more but my lack of sleep and the first glut of beer of the season suddenly took its toll. At around 9.30pm – yes, probably as early as that – I made my way back to the hotel. I was so tired.

For me, at least, it was a solemn case of “goodnight, Vienna.”

I awoke on the Sunday, miraculously with no hangover. My flight back to Blighty was not until 8pm, so there was plenty of time to explore Vienna on day two.

The first part of my day would be a personal homage to that game in 1994 against Rapid Vienna’s cross-town rivals. Vienna’s two main teams have monopolised the trophies in Austria, with Rapid winning 32 championships and Austria Vienna 24. Back in 1994, Austria Vienna were known as Austria Memphis, after a short-lived sponsorship deal with a cigarette manufacturer. There is a third team, First Vienna, but they have suffered in recent years. Another club, even smaller, Wiener Sport Club, played us in the Fairs Cup in 1965.

When I left that bar in 1994, I walked over the river towards the Ernst Happel Stadium and memorably heard shouts of “Carefree” from the huge Ferris wheel – the Wiener Reisenrad – at one end of the Prater park. In 2016, I rode on the Ferris wheel for the first time. It is a fantastic experience, and offers lovely panorama views of the whole city. I remembered a famous scene from “The Third Man” between the two main characters which took place on the wheel. As in 1994, there is an amusement park at the Prater, and I recreated my long walk that evening twenty-two years ago, ending up underneath the stadium. There has been a new roof canopy slung on top of the concrete bowl since 1994, but being there brought back lovely memories. It has hosted some memorable European finals in its day. Back in 1994, it was used for our game rather than Austria Memphis’ smaller Favoriten stadium. It was recently the home of Rapid, too, while their new stadium was built. I was able to peer in and spot that the seats were now Rapid green, rather than the multi-colours of yesteryear.

There is something very dramatic, in my mind, about a resting football stadium.

My mind raced back to 1994.

Such were the rules with UEFA then, that only two or three “foreigners” were allowed in the ECWC. With injuries to other players, this meant that manager Glenn Hoddle’s hand was tied. His team selection on that memorable night tells its own story –

Kharin.

Hall.

Barness.

Johnson.

Spackman.

Newton.

Rocastle.

Myers.

Shipperley.

Spencer.

Wise.

I remember Nigel Spackman was forced to play as a central defender. Young Neil Shipperley lead the line. I had a seat, among home fans, but with other Chelsea too, along the side, with an army of around four thousand away fans in the middle tier of the end to my right. It was one of the greatest nights of my life until that point. We went ahead in the second-half after a memorable breathless run by John Spencer – it seemed to go on forever – resulted in him dropping his shoulder, edging wide of the ‘keeper and slotting home.

“Get in.”

What wild celebrations.

I remember falling arse over tit on the Vienna fans next to me.

I was so new to European football, that even when the home team equalised, it took me a few seconds to realise that we still held advantage. The Chelsea fans were in great form that night; it was a proper old school following, and the songs echoed around the half-full stadium. I remember “God Save The Queen” and even “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” – a rugby song – being sung with gusto. At the end of the game, with Chelsea through to the next round on a brilliant European night, I bounced out of the stadium and walked south to the nearest U-bahn station, almost too excited for words.

It was one of the very greatest of feelings.

At last, at the age of twenty-nine, I had a European adventure all of my own to tell fellow friends about.

Chelsea were back.

It was fucking brilliant.

I took a few photographs of the Ernst Happel Stadium, then retraced my steps south again.

Throughout this trip, 1994 would be forever on my mind.

“Vienna. 1994. It meant something to me.”

Later in the day, I visited the palatial majesty of the Belvedere Palace – a mini Schonbrunn – and met up with Emily once more. We sat in the al fresco bar outside the Palace and spoke about all things Chelsea. Emily was keen to hear some of my stories and some of my tales. There was talk of US tours, football fan culture, rivalries, past games, the entire works. It transpired that one of Emily’s relatives – her grandmother’s first cousin – played for Manchester United in the 1940’s, and I laughed that many United fans living in the UK would give their right arm for that kind of lineage to Manchester. If you ask them why they are United fans, you often get them looking away, avoiding eye contact, before they utter some unconvincing tripe about their relatives coming from Manchester. What a load of old rot. Emily has visited Stamford Bridge twice before, 2011, and promised to make a return visit as soon as she could. I look forward to that.

I walked back to the hotel – time for one last curry wurst – and I met up with Michelle and Dane before we returned to the airport.

It had been a long two days in the Austrian capital.

We heard that there would be another pre-season game in Bremen, another lovely city, on a spare Sunday in August. That would be for others, though, not for me. My next game is in Ann Arbor, college-town USA, against Real Madrid.

I will see some of you there.

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