Tales From The Big House

Chelsea vs. Real Madrid : 30 July 2016.

It could have easily been a typical Saturday morning back home in England. As I lay in bed, the sheets almost covering me completely, I buried my head deep inside the covers and tried to sleep on for a few more minutes, and endevoured to ignore the depressing sound of the rain lashing down outside the window. It sounded bleak. Following Chelsea during the summer in the US wasn’t meant to be like this. I hadn’t packed a jacket for the trip, that’s for sure. And I knew that there was no cover at the huge University of Michigan stadium. With the tightening of stadium security, I also knew that bags were not able to be taken in to the game.  If the rain continued to fall at the same rate over the next few hours, there was a strong chance of the upcoming game against Real Madrid becoming the worst viewing experience of my life. No roof. No jacket. No bag for my camera. Possibly not even my camera; there was an unclear description of the type of camera which would be allowed inside when I had checked on the stadium website earlier.

“Less than six inches.”

On reading this, I had glanced down at my camera and sighed.

“Looks bigger than six inches to me.”

There was, I suppose, if the occasional thunder cracks continued too, even a slight chance of the game being cancelled or postponed and obliterated from the record books.

Bollocks.

I slept on for a few more minutes. The room had top notes of disinfectant, mixed with a slight aroma of marijuana. Its base notes were of misery. I wondered if this would set the tone for the day.

The rain abated slightly and I became a little more optimistic. I showered, chose jeans over shorts, Moncler over Lacoste, Adidas over Nike, and headed out for the time-honoured tradition of a McBreakfast on the morning of a Chelsea match. This one was not in Melksham, or Chippenham, or at Fleet Services, though; this one was at Ann Arbor, Michigan, a lovely college town situated at arm’s length from the urban sprawl of the troubled city of Detroit. As I finished my coffee, I chatted briefly to a father with two teenagers – the girl wearing a Chelsea shirt, the son wearing a Real Madrid one. It was their first Chelsea game. I wished them well. I wondered if we’d get to see Real’s famous all white kit. It would be a shame to come all this way and not be treated to that. Instead, some ludicrous away kit catastrophe. I have only ever seen Real play once before; in Monaco in the 1998 UEFA Super Cup Final. It was all white on the night for them, but more so for us; a Gustavo Poyet goal gave us a 1-0 win, and prompted my good mate Andy to memorably comment :

“Right now, in Madrid, there’s an old bloke in a bar, saying ‘They always beat us, Chelsea.’ “

Of course, we had beaten them in Athens in 1971 too.

Two games, two wins.

Our paths have rarely crossed since; certainly not in official European campaigns.

On the walk past the motel reception, I spotted a lad wearing a Willian shirt. As I ambled past, I couldn’t resist singing “he hates Tottenham, he hates Tottenham” and this drew a wide smile from the Chelsea fan. There was a spring in my step now. This would be a good day.

My friend John, from Ohio, had kindly volunteered to pick me up in his truck and head in to town for pre-match beers. It was fantastic to see him once again. John studied at Reading University for a few months during the winter of 2008/2009 and I was able to get him tickets, usually alongside the Chelsea legend Lovejoy, for some games. He saw the Juve home match and also took in a game at Anfield. I last saw him at the Baltimore match against Milan in 2009; still widely-regarded by many as the best Chelsea matchday-experience in the US of them all.

On the drive in to town, we caught up with each other’s lives, and John spoke to me about the town’s university, and its myriad sports teams. That John was a “U of M” fan, made this game even more worthwhile for him. I had driven in to town myself on a few occasions since arriving on the Wednesday, but the streets and parking lots were so much busier now. The town was gearing itself for an influx of over one-hundred thousand footy fans.

I had flown in to O’Hare Airport in Chicago on the Tuesday afternoon. I had decided to miss the opening tour game in Pasadena against the Scousers. Los Angeles is not my favourite place, and I wanted to stretch out and unwind a little bit rather than rush between three games. The matches in Ann Arbor and Minneapolis would be just fine. There would be no fun, in my eyes, travelling all of the way out to California to see bloody Liverpool.

“LA?”

“No, la.”

I spent Tuesday night with a few good friends in Chicago, where we spent a few hours hitting a few bars, sharing plenty of laughs, eating Mexican food, and reminiscing about the previous time that I had been in town; the memorable weekend of July 2006 – ten whole years ago, good grief – when Chelsea played the MLS All-Stars, the only game of our US tour that year. I had travelled to the US the previous two summers with Chelsea and had mainly kept myself to myself. In 2006, though, because everyone met up in one pub – “Fado” – and because everything was so well organised (a quiz night, an evening with Charlie Cooke, a practice session, a tour around Chicago in three double-decker busses before heading down to the game), everyone made a special effort to socialise. For me, it was a watershed moment. I met so many friends during those three days of Chelsea in Chicago. Not long after, Chelsea In America asked me to write about a trip to Bremen with Chelsea for their monthly newsletter, and I soon began posting ad hoc match reports on their bulletin board. Ten years later, I am still scribing away with thoughts about what supporting Chelsea means to me and many others.

It has been quite a ride.

I drove from Chicago – sad it was just a fleeting visit – to Ann Arbor on Wednesday. I made the big mistake of stopping by at “Culvers” for a butter burger. It is not a good sign for my future health that the sound effect that accompanied me biting down in to the burger was “squelch.”

But I loved the trip to Ann Arbor on the American road. I find it quite beguiling. The scale of everything is so different to back home.

On Thursday, I drove over to visit my friends Erin and JR, and their three-month old boy Harry, who was born just a few hours after our game at Anfield at the close of last season. It was lovely to see them again. It’s such a shame that simple geography keeps me apart from so many of my closest Chelsea mates. We headed in to Detroit for a few hours. Of course, everyone knows how that city has suffered over recent decades, but I was encouraged to see green shoots of renewal in the city centre, which seemed very chilled and relaxed. I love the way that the city’s sport stadia have remained right in the middle of everything. We relaxed at a great little restaurant. I just fancied a “light snack” and so asked for a Reuben sandwich. However, I was presented with a slab of food so huge that if it had been served in the UK, it would have needed planning permission. JR had shrimp tacos, while Erin had a very healthy salad and rice bowl. The server, a particularly irritating fellow who enjoyed regaling us with a far-too detailed description of the menu, made a point of asking Erin if she required “any protein” with her salad. Perhaps he thought she might soon wither away without added nutrients.

He turned to me and asked if I wanted any fries.

The fucker.

On Thursday night, in Ann Arbor, the Chelsea portion of my holiday kicked-in. Sometimes, I find it a little difficult to focus on events at the start of each season. Because I have witnessed so many games, and have seen us win so much – “things I never thought that I would hear myself say #542” – I usually take a while to get going each season. In “Conor O’Neils” in Ann Arbor, meeting up with a few friends, plus former players Garry Stanley and Gary Chivers, gave me the kick-start that I needed. We spoke about the current team, but also about little parcels of our history. I see Gary Chivers at Stamford Bridge quite often as he works on the corporate hospitality these days. I last saw Garry Stanley at Ian Britton’s funeral in Burnley. We watched Didier Drogba score against Arsenal in the MLS All-Star Game.

Too funny.

Jesus, Brian, Beth and Carlo from Texas were there. The omnipresent Cathy, with Becky, too. Neil Barnett ran through his player ratings – not many high scores, I have to say – from the Liverpool match, which I was unable to track in my motel room, but which we won 1-0. I had my photo taken with Garry and Gary. These were good times.

On the Friday, despite a slow start, the afternoon turned into an evening of additional Chelsea fun. I walked over to the pub at around midday, and spotted two mates – Tuna from Atlanta and Simon from Memphis – who I see on the US tours and also back home at games. They were outside enjoying a pint and a breakfast. They would be the first of many old friends – and a smattering of new – that I would happily meet over the weekend. We had taken over the whole pub – large, cool, roomy – and I spent my time chatting away with many Chelsea faces, clutching a bottle of Corona, and occasionally taking a few photographs to capture the mood. For a while, those outside the pub sang a selection of Chelsea songs, and this resulted in many locals using their cameras to record the moment. I don’t think Ann Arbor was prepared for it. The city centre is a quaint mix of antique shops, brew pubs, eateries, diners, pubs and shops. It is a very typical college town. For a couple of days, Chelsea fans invaded it like a plague of locusts, drank beer, and turned the air blue.

At around 12.30pm on the day of the game, John parked his truck in a multi-story opposite “Conor O’Neils” and we dived into the pub. The rain soon returned, and the University of Michigan store opposite had a run on ponchos. More beers were guzzled, and the pub absolutely roared to Chelsea chants. On the drive in to the city from my motel three miles to the south, the number of Chelsea shirts greatly outnumbered those of Real Madrid. This was a very positive sign indeed. At just after 2pm, thankfully the rain cleared and we began the twenty-five-minute walk south to the stadium. It was very pleasant indeed. The rain had freshened things up a little. We were allocated the northern end of the stadium, and it soon appeared before us. Touts – or scalpers – were doing their best to get rid of spares. Knock-off kits, virtually all Madrid, were being hawked on grass verges. Time was moving on, and the line at the gates were long. I thrust my telephoto lens down into my pocket and hoped for the best. Thankfully, there was a very minimal search and I was in.

“And relax.”

In time-honoured Chelsea tradition, the call of “one last pint” (or in this case “one last poncho”) had been honoured without jeopardising our ability to get in on time.

The stadium, which holds around 110,000, sits on a hill, but does not look large from the outside. Like so many stadia though, the entrances are towards the top of the vast bowl, and the pitch is down below. As I walked in, I was blown away by the scale of it all. It is immense. It is not called “The Big House” without reason. There are rows upon rows of blue metallic bleachers which wrap themselves around on one never-ending single tier. The very last twenty rows are a relatively recent addition. Along the sides are two huge edifices – darkened glass, quite sinister – which house hundreds of executive and corporate suites.

Our section was right down the bottom and it took a while to reach it.

I located my seat, alongside Brij, an Ann Arbor student from San Jose attending his first-ever Chelsea match, and Neil, who was with me in Vienna, just as the national anthem was being played on a trumpet.

I looked around and took it all in.

The guy with the Willian shirt at the hotel in the morning was stood right behind me.

What a small bloody world.

Mosaics were planned and with a great deal of condescension, the announcer painstakingly explained what the spectators needed to do. Thousands of multi-coloured paper panels were held aloft, but I found it odd that the folks in and around me in the Chelsea section held up cards depicting the Real Madrid crest, whereas over in the southern side, the Chelsea crest was visible. Actually, the sections were not cut and dried. To my annoyance, the Chelsea sections of 33,34 and 35 were populated by not only Chelsea supporters, but by those of Real Madrid and many other teams too. The lower sections housed those from the various supporters’ clubs though – New York Blues, Shed End Dallas, Chicago Blues, Beltway Blues, Motor City Blues, Shed End Seattle, Atlanta Blues, Badgercrack Blues – and this lower level housed the bedrock of our support. However, a pet peeve of mine, noted here before, is that it would have been much better to allocate a solid block of one thousand or two thousand just to Chelsea. Over the course of the game, getting the disparate sections, split up and spread more thinly than I would have liked, to sing together was almost impossible.

Elsewhere, there were colours of many teams. If the opposite end was officially the Real Madrid end, there were no noticeable hardcore sections among it. There were no banners, no flags, no “capo” stuff. In fact, if I am blunt, the only section in the whole stadium that tried to get anything going the entire game was in the lower sections of our end.

Real Madrid were in all white, but it was Chelsea that had let me down.

It was black and white, not blue and white, this time.

Antonio Conte had chosen a strong team.

Begovic.

Azpilicueta.

Terry.

Cahill.

Aina.

Matic.

Oscar.

Willian.

Pedo.

Loftus-Cheek.

Traore.

I am so used to seeing a 4-2-3-1 that it took me a while to adjust.

The match began and the support around tried desperately to get behind the boys.

I got my rasping “Zigger Zagger” out of the way early – on around six minutes – and it left me gasping for a sip of beer at the end. I almost didn’t make it. The last “ZZ” almost caused my head to explode in the warm Michigan sun. I turned to Neil and said –

“That’s it. That’s me done.”

As I said, sections of those in blue did their very best to get things going but it wasn’t great.

Sadly, the first-half was truly awful.

Willian had a free-kick which failed to live up to its hype. An ill-judged back-header from Matic caused Begovic to scramble and save. Real Madrid started to dominate.

Two relatively similar goals were scored by Marcelo as our defence opened up before him. This was not going to plan. A third goal from Diaz, whipped in, dipping, but almost straight at Begovic, left us all with concerned faces. I had visions of a 6-0, a cricket score. I had visions of folks back home, at work, waiting to pounce.

“Bloody hell, mate. You went all that way and your lot lost 6-0.”

Neil disappeared at halftime in search of beer, but was never seen again, until later, much later, in the pub.

The manager made widespread changes at half-time.

On came Courtois, Chalobah, Cuadrado, Batshuayi.

Things genuinely improved a little in the second-half.

“Not difficult” I hear you say.

I liked the look of Cuadrado down below me on the wing. At last he looked a little more confident on the ball, and his first touch seemed to be fine. He looked “up for it” and I have a feeling that the manager might well be regarding this as his “special project” this season. He saw him play in depth for Juventus last season. Maybe he can coax something out of his frail shell.

Shots from Chalobah and Batshuayi went close.

The Real ‘keeper Casilla raced out of his area to gather a ball, but Traore pounced, only to see a defender block his shot.

There was a pitch invader, and I – perhaps with a little too much heavy satire – said “shoot him.”

Brij, next to me, told me that there were snipers in the stadium. He pointed up to the two opposing top corners of the roofs of the sky boxes. There were two darkened figures.

I actually felt a shiver go down my spine.

Is this crazy world of ours spiralling out of control so much that we require snipers on stand roofs? I wondered back to the days of the police observation area in the old West Stand in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. I bet in those days, the only things on display were a pair of binoculars and a cheese and pickle sandwich.

Real Madrid made massive changes and the game drifted on.

Victor Moses, back for his annual pre-season run, was fouled and Hazard went close.

Soon after, with eighty minutes on the clock, Hazard gave the score line a little more respectability when he latched on to a Chalobah ball and rounded replacement ‘keeper Yanez to slot home. My boy Cuadrado looked good, and created a few chances down below us. With an almost copy of his first goal, Eden Hazard was played in by Batshuayi and again rounded the ‘keeper to score a second. As bizarre as it sounds, we all thought that we might salvage an unwarranted draw. We had a little spell right at the end, but with the ball out for a corner, the referee blew up.

3-2 is a lot better than 3-0, but this was not great.

I will make the same comments, though, as I did against Rapid Vienna.

These are just games for us to get our fitness levels back and for the manager to look at options.

Time is moving on though.

We need to improve.

After a slow walk back to the bar, I said a sad farewell to John. After a few more beers, in the bar, we were all chilled and the result was glossed over. The drinking continued. On Wednesday, the locusts descend on Minneapolis.

I will see some of you there.

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