Tales From The International Champions Cup

Chelsea vs. Fiorentina : 6 August 2015.

This was a strange evening and a strange game.

In the current climate, a home friendly is a pretty rare occurrence anyway. With our predilection for foreign climes and summer tours, a warm-up match at Stamford Bridge has been a very rare event over the past decade or so. I didn’t bother with last season’s game with Real Sociedad and, if I am honest, the only reason that I decided to attend the game with Fiorentina was because I had attended our other three “International Champions Cup” games in the US. I set off from work, alone, at 3.30pm to complete the set.

My main concern for the evening was the probable traffic chaos in London likely to be caused by the planned one-day tube strike. I sped as quickly as I could along the M4. At Reading Services, I spotted a father and daughter in Chelsea blue.

“Thought I was the only one daft enough to go tonight.”

“Should be a good game.”

Ah, the game. I hadn’t thought much about it until then.

This would be our first ever match with the viola of Florence. My very first encounter with them was on a muggy Sunday afternoon in late May 1989, when I watched a dull 1-1 draw between Juventus and Fiorentina in the home end at Stadio Communale. Apart from my first-ever sighting of Roberto Baggio – the eventual transfer of him between the two clubs would heighten animosities which exist until this day – my main recollection from that balmy Italian afternoon took place with around fifteen minutes of the game remaining.

Around 1,500 Fiorentina paninari – Timberland boots, Best Company T-shirts, Armani jeans, Burlington socks, Invicta backpacks, Schott bomber jackets, sunglasses, attitude – got a signal from their leaders, or maybe a phone call from their Juve counterparts, and quickly packed up their banners in the away end and left the terraces en masse, intent on disturbing the peace of an Italian summer on their way back to the city’s train station.

Ten years later, I was in Turin again, when Juventus boasted Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry in their team, and watched as Antonio Conte scored a very late winner against Fiorentina. He famously went down in Juve folklore that afternoon by sprinting over to the visiting Viola fans and taunting them with a black and white corner flag.

As a Juve sympathiser, there was a frisson of excitement about seeing them again sixteen years later.

As expected, I did hit some slow-moving traffic, but further out than expected. Ironically, the last section into London stayed relatively clear. At 6.15pm, I was inside The Goose, but in the strangest of circumstances. Nursing my first SW6 pint of Peroni of the season, I soon realised that there was not one single person in the pub that I recognised. I felt like I was in a parallel universe. This was going to be a strange one alright.

Thankfully, a few friends soon arrived.

Mick mentioned that he might have to leave just after half-time because of the expected ninety minute wait at the two closest mainline stations. For once, I was glad that I was driving and the master of my own destiny. The Bristol Four soon arrived and we chatted about the pre-season. We briefly spoke about Kenedy, the Brazilian lad who appeared in our team against Barcelona in Maryland. We all agreed that we could not remember the last time that a “trialist” ever appeared in our team. It’s an odd one. Like something from the amateur days of the pre-war years.

Although I was not too bothered about seeing the introduction of the first team squad to the spectators at 7pm – a full hour before kick-off – I wanted to have a leisurely stroll down the North End Road and Fulham Road. I soon noticed US-style pennants hanging from street-lights celebrating our Championship of last season, with torso shots of all of our players looking all mean and moody, and intent on repeating in 2015/2016.

I approved. It added a little to the streetscape around Stamford Bridge.

It was difficult for me to judge the size of the crowd. I didn’t expect a sell-out, especially in lieu of the London Underground strike. The place seemed busy enough. I didn’t spot any Fiorentina fans outside the stadium. I had decided to purchase a ticket in the East Upper for a change. What with the chances of the modern Stamford Bridge being demolished within the next few seasons, it might turn out to be one of my last visits. I promised myself to take more than my usual share of photographs. A different angle, a different perspective, lovely.

I had a great position in the towering East Stand, in row seven towards The Shed. The place was filling up nicely. Flags had been positioned by each seat. It was soon obvious that there were many more youngsters in attendance than usual. By all accounts the pre-game introductions were a little over the top with their US-style razzmatazz. What next? Players being parachuted in from the skies above next season?

As kick-off approached, the area around myself was full. There were chattering kids behind me, plus many more within sight. The next generation was well represented and it was good to see.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture. I like the fact that each of the four stands are slightly different, with idiosyncrasies, yet there is a common design to all. I am stirred that the new stadium designs echo these slight variances. The usual banners were out, though I noticed a few – Captain, Leader, Legend for example – looking rather faded and forlorn.

Our team contained several surprises.

Begovic – Aina, Zouma, Terry, Traore – Mikel, Loftus-Cheek – Cuadrado, Oscar, Moses – Falcao.

It would be home debuts for four.

I am sure that Ola Aina is in for a fine future at the club, but my main worry is that his name contains too many vowels for a defender.

“Too exotic son. See if you can get yourself some consonants. Work on that and you’ll be fine.”

Am I the only one who thinks our home shirts and shorts are – nicely – a deeper and darker shade of royal blue this season? They are certainly darker than the mid-blue of 2012-2013. Fiorentina, sadly but not surprisingly, showed up in white / white / violet.

Asmir Begovic did well to get down low within the first minute to save a rasping shot from distance after a simple passing move cut into our defence. We then enjoyed long spells of possession and our best twenty-five minutes of the evening. With the sun setting in the north-west corner, lighting up the sky nicely, I was settling down and enjoying this. Victor Moses, one of the stars in the United States, was again showing real promise in his determination and desire. Ruben Loftus-Cheek was impressing with his finesse and strength. We were playing some nice stuff. We were treated to a lovely Rabona from Oscar on the goal-line to my left.

I commented to the young couple to my right “I can do that after seven pints.”

I detected a foreign accent in the chap’s confused response, so I then decided to talk my way through the game with the Shed season ticket holder to my left. We had a good old natter throughout the match.

Mikel had been doing the simple stuff well, but then caused much merriment with an effort on goal which more resembled a defensive tackle.

Fiorentina then gradually took hold of the game. They kept the ball well and our play deteriorated alarmingly. On the half hour, a long raking drive smashed against Begovic’ crossbar. We had been warned. Soon after, Begovic saved well but could not smother the ball leaving an easy tap-in for Rodriguez.

The Fiorentina manager – ex-Juventus player and ex- QPR manager Paulo Sousa – was watching down below from the technical area and was increasingly pleased with his team’s performance. The little knot of away fans, no more than 150 in the bottom corner of The Shed, roared with approval too. They were, surely, mainly ex-pats. There was one “Viola Club Stockport” flag.

Fiorentina gained control and we struggled. The game went flat.

The noise, hardly tumultuous, reduced too.

At the interval, the Chelsea Women – in coats, they must have been feeling the cold – were introduced by Neil Barnett with the recently-won FA Cup.

Mourinho changed the personnel at the break, with Azpilicueta, Cahill and Ivanovic joining Zouma in defence. Matic replaced Mikel. The impressive Moses was sadly replaced by Ramires after the second of two knocks.

In truth, the second-half resembled the second-half at Wembley on Sunday; we enjoyed the majority of the ball, but found it difficult to break the opposition down. The frustration was starting to seep down to the players from the stands. Ivanovic seemed to be, again, a main source of our attacks, but again annoyed me with his final ball. As the game progressed I saw him getting increasingly annoyed with things. On one occasion he turned to the bench and had a proper rant, his face clearly contorted with rage about something or other.

“He had a face like a bulldog licking piss off a nettle” as the saying goes.

The comparison with the cool and calm and seldom-flustered Azpilicueta on the other flank could not be more dramatic.

Jose Mourinho, too, seemed to be increasingly annoyed. There were wholesale changes from both teams on the hour mark – on came Willian, Hazard, Fabregas and Remy – and Mourinho took dislike to the amount of time that Sousa orchestrated a similar amount of team changes too. It turned out to be the longest break for substitutes I can remember.

Joaquin, a visitor to Stamford Bridge with both Real Betis and Valencia in previous years, appeared among the viola substitutes. It was one name that I recognised.

“What do you mean Giancarlo Antognoni doesn’t play for them anymore?”

With more established quality in our ranks, surely a goal – and the inevitable win on penalties – would come now. Chelsea controlled possession but seemed to take forever to get going, and I lost count of the number of times the ball was passed laterally. We did improve when Willian, Hazard and Fabregas linked on a few occasions, but chances were rare. A Gary Cahill header from a Fabregas free-kick went close, and we all wondered how Remy, on for the quiet Falcao, managed to shoot wide from close range.

A rather agricultural – no, bloody clumsy – challenge from Kurt Zouma on a poor Fiorentina player – caused much merriment in the seats around me. It was, quite simply, one of the ugliest tackles that I have seen for a while.

The atmosphere, roused at times, was pretty quiet now, and parents with young families began to leave early on their long and tedious journeys home. I had commented to the Shed Ender to my left that I was impressed with the attendance. It looked to be at the 35,000 mark. Imagine my surprise when a full house of 41,435 was announced. Again, even for a friendly game, tickets sold rather than spectators in seats is used. It’s an odd one. Undoubtedly, there were empty seats around the ground too. Even so, on a night of massive travel disruption, this was a great attendance.

Despite five minutes of extra time, no equaliser was forthcoming.

“We could have played until March and not scored.”

The Shed Ender agreed.

“Sorry for the cliché, but as so often happens in these pre-season games, there are more questions than answers.”

He agreed again.

“My biggest worry is that all three of our strikers might be a knock away from being side-lined for weeks.”

I was a little subdued on my slow exit from a warm and sultry Stamford Bridge. And although I wasn’t – honestly – reading too much in to our rather lacklustre performance against a well-drilled Fiorentina team, I knew full well that out there in cyberspace, thousands of virtual Chelsea fans were throwing themselves off the nearest bridge, building or balcony as we endured another pre-season loss.

How these people would have coped in 1975, 1979 or 1988 beggars belief.

I wanted to get home as quickly as I could. Sadly, the journey home turned into one of farce as the roadworks on the A303 meant that I was severely re-routed, almost as far as Southampton damn it, and didn’t get home until 1.30am. Others, living in London, were still catching one final night bus.

A strange evening indeed.

IMG_2032

Tales From The Tar Heel State

Chelsea vs. Paris St. Germain : 25 July 2015.

The very first time that I visited North Carolina, I was on a bicycle.

Let me explain.

After I left college in 1987, I wasn’t set on a clear career path, and my main desire in those days was to travel and experience different cultures. I had already criss-crossed Europe on several inter-rail marathons, but needed to expand my horizons. From May 1988 – relegation to the second division, ugh – until August 1989 I worked in the cold store of a local dairy in order to save several thousand pounds to head over to North America with my college mate Ian. We had a rough plan; east to west, ending up at my relatives in Vancouver in time for Christmas 1989. Travel would be by bus, train and bicycle. Yes, that’s correct; we planned to cycle our way around at least a part of the gargantuan continent. We had both cycled as kids, as teenagers, but I had not owned a bike since 1981 when I was sixteen.

What the hell. Cycling would be a cheap mode of transport, it would enable us to see proper America and proper Americans, and it would add a sense of adventure to our stay.

Our adventure in North America began in September 1989. We spent a week in New York, a few days in Washington DC, then bought our bicycles and our camping gear in Richmond, Virginia. After three days of cycling through that state, we crossed in to North Carolina just south of a state park in Clarkesville, where I remember cooking up some bacon and beans on our little camping stove, and sharing a joke with the resident park ranger when she explained how she came to learn that the word “fanny” in English is – ahem – slightly different to its American meaning.

We crossed the state line into North Carolina on route 15, and cycled over sixty miles through rolling countryside on small roads through little villages and towns such as Bullock, Oxford and Creedmoor, before staying the night in another state park, this time in the relatively unknown city of Raleigh.

After that, we headed further south, but our path was severely disrupted by the course of Hurricane Hugo which brought severe destruction and desolation when it hit land at Charleston, South Carolina. We were holed up in a cheap motel just off I-95 in a place called Dunn for two nights, and thankfully missed everything. After cycling further south to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, we ended up cycling 120 miles in order to get through the disaster area.

Our cycling adventure was real. We laughed at the timing of all of it.

“We buy bikes on the Saturday. A week later, a bloody hurricane strikes.”

“What a couple of schmucks.”

However, it has to be said…it was an amazing few days.

Eventually, we ended up cycling around nine hundred miles down that Eastern seaboard of those historic and at times troubled South-Eastern states. We cycled through Georgia, then reached the promised land of Florida just north of Jacksonville. It had been a tough, but magnificent three weeks.

As an aside, and with typical irony, I only saw two Chelsea games in that 1989-1990 season – just before I left for NYC in September – and therefore missed our highest-placed finish since around 1971.

I wasn’t too bothered however. My first experience of the USA – and Mexico, and Canada – more than made up for that.

Almost twenty-six years later, I was again heading south to North Carolina.

After our surprising 4-2 loss to the New York Red Bulls on the Wednesday, I caught a New York Yankees game on the Thursday afternoon – an easy 9-3 win against the Baltimore Orioles – and then set off on my mammoth ten hour drive south to the city of Charlotte and our game against our new and seemingly bitter rivals Paris St. Germain. After five hours of driving through generally busy interstates, I stopped off at a hotel in Martinsburg, West Virginia. I then pushed on, heading south-west on the glorious interstate 81 which runs parallel with the Shenandoah Valley. The views were spectacular. This was a Chelsea road trip on another level. It was slightly longer than my drive from North Carolina to Chicago in 2006 for our game against the MLS All-Stars, which topped out at around 630 miles. I did that in one session though.

This one, from Yankee Stadium, New York to Charlotte, North Carolina would be 660 miles.

Ah, the American road. For those who know me, my love of driving is clear, even on the jam-packed and bottle-necked roads of England. If there is a Chelsea match at the end of it, even better.

As I pulled off I-81 and then headed due south in to North Carolina – “hello again” – it wasn’t long before we descended down from an Appalachian ridge down into the North Carolina piedmont on I-77. The vista, looking out over thousands of acres of greenery, was stunning.

Oh happy days.

Unfortunately, my original planned arrival time in to Charlotte of around 1pm never materialised due to traffic problems leaving New York City, several delays en route, and then further congestion to the north of Charlotte, with its city centre skyscrapers tantalisingly in view.

At around 5pm, I pulled up outside my friend and fellow Chelsea fan Brian’s gorgeous house a few miles to the south of the city centre.

I had arrived.

Phew.

Brian and I go back a few years; maybe a decade. He was, in fact, one of the first – if not the very first – US based Chelsea fan that I ever emailed. As soon as it was announced that our beloved team would be playing in his home city, Brian wasted no time in inviting me to stay with him and his family for a couple of days.

Fantastic.

I met Brian’s wife Jenny, their three lovely children – all Chelsea, all going to the match – and his good friend Leo, who I had met in previous tours. Perhaps I just needed someone to talk to after being alone in my car since 8.30am (please do not tell Parky that I missed him…) that I soon wasted no time in talking about all sorts of football, Chelsea and sport-related subjects. In their huge kitchen, I gabbled away manically like some sort of fool, as I ironed a shirt to wear for the evening’s pre-game activities.

Brian, Leo : I hope it all made sense.

We soon headed in to the city through indescribably picturesque tree-lined streets, and within ten minutes, were being deposited right outside the little park which links the city centre proper and the city’s two sport stadia. The sun was glinting off the towering skyscrapers, the weather was hot, but not unbearable. It was perfect. I was buzzing yet again.

Chelsea were in town.

In the same way that I knew virtually nothing of the city of Raleigh in the autumn of 1989, I am ashamed to say that I knew little of the city of Charlotte as this summer tour approached this year. I had visited its large airport twice before, in 2004 and 2006 on visits to see my friend Roma and her family in the mountains of North Carolina to the west, but Charlotte itself was virgin territory. I mentioned to Brian and Leo that, to be truthful, Charlotte is an almost unknown American city to us over in England. I was stunned to read that it is the ninth most populous city in the US. And yet, I would suggest, people in England would be hard-pressed to say which state it is in, let alone tell of its history and character. It would be a major disappointment on this trip that I would only be in town for three days.

During the hour or so that we spent chatting in the kitchen, I was reminded that the big college rivalry within North Carolina, despite being in the football-obsessed south-east, is in the sport of college basketball. Brian smiled when I explained that I have owned, in the past, a couple of items in support of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. Their rivalry with the despised Duke is intense.

Elsewhere in Charlotte, the NFL Panthers – a relatively new franchise – and the NBA Hornets – now returned after exile in New Orleans – battle for affection. There is also a soccer (there, I said it) team called Charlotte Independence which competes at the sub MLS level.

As we walked to the little knot of pubs and bars opposite Romare Bearden Park, Charlotte looked just perfect.

This was going to be a great night.

And so it proved.

From around 7pm to midnight, and beyond, the small courtyard which hosted several bars, became increasingly full of Chelsea supporters from various parts of the United States, plus a few of us from England.

Songs, beer, handshakes, laughter, smiles, piss-taking…fun.

The Bayou City Blues from Houston and their charismatic leader Jesus.

The Chicago crew.

The ex-pats Simon and Tuna from Atlanta.

A little group from Jacksonville, Florida; kind enough to give me one of their very stylish chapter scarves.

Familiar faces everywhere.

Andy from Detroit.

Rick and Beckie from Iowa.

The Bobster from Fremont, California.

Beth. Always Beth.

Sam, Phil and Chris from Iowa.

Samantha and Larry from New Jersey.

Tim from Philly.

Charles from Texas, so thrilled at meeting Paul Canoville for the first time.

Steve from New Orleans.

Natalie from Kansas City.

Mark, David, Cathy from home.

Danny and a few of the infamous OC Hooligans.

Bobby Tambling.

Mario Melchiot.

JR from Detroit.

Pete from Florida.

Hoss from Oklahoma.

The beers were flowing. It was superb. This night was rivalling Baltimore in 2009 for the best Chelsea piss-up in the US. I dotted in and out of the packed bars, taking photographs, chatting away. It was lovely to receive a few words of genuine appreciation from many folk who I had never met who thanked me for my efforts in posting my thoughts on this website.

I was touched.

[Parky’s voice from three thousand miles away : “who by, you fucker?”]

I darted off for a pizza, and sat outside chatting with Steve from New Orleans, Robert from London and Neil Barnet. Brian and Leo called by. Chelsea talk dominated.

I dropped back over to the bar area around 1pm but people had drifted away. There were just a few left. I caught a $10 cab and headed home.

Out on the porch, until 4am, Brian, Leo, Leo’s brother Vince and I chatted away.

The Cocteau Twins played in the background.

“Heaven or Las Vegas?”

I’d take Charlotte anytime.

I slept well, from 4am to 11am, and amazingly woke without the merest hint of a hangover.

Due to the fact that I needed to keep on top of these match reports – and with three games against Arsenal, Fiorentina and Swansea City coming up in rapid succession on my return home – I spent a while writing up “New Jersey.”

It was early afternoon on game day. While others decided what Chelsea shirts to wear, I reverted to type. Brian smiled.

Lacoste Watch.

Chris – white.

Brian’s parents, with his father wearing a Chelsea away shirt from 2004-2005, a fine vintage, arrived and we set off in two cars for the local train station. On the short ride in to town – how English – the train compartment comprised of around fifteen Chelsea supporters and two PSG. This ratio was a good pointer for the rest of the day.

At around 4pm, we reappeared at the scene of devastation the previous evening. There had been reports of a little altercation earlier in the day. There had been a blue-smoked flare let off. The local police were in evidence. I again met up with the usual suspects. The notable arrivals were the New York Blues, unchained for a weekend on the loopy juice.

Mike, Frank, Lawson, Eliot, Julian – top lads one and all.

As I had a long drive ahead of me on the Sunday, my “intention” was to keep it light.

A couple of cans of “Blue Moon” later, I wasn’t so sure.

One special group of Chelsea supporters arrived at around 4.30pm.

Roma, her daughter Vanessa, hair dyed Chelsea blue especially, her son Super Shawn, plus Ness’ new boyfriend Dave and their friend Justin – who I remember as a three year old in 2004 – had driven in from their homes on the Tennessee and North Carolina border.

Just a three hour drive for them.

It was fantastic that Chelsea should be playing so close.

We waited for JR’s mother – her first Chelsea game – to arrive and then walked over to the stadium, the corporately-named Bank Of America Stadium, which is a typical NFL structure, with two tiers, and little charm.

Outside the main entrance, two statues of snarling panthers about to pounce, were the only feature which seemed to worthy of note. It was a modern and efficient stadium, but oh so bland. Thankfully the new Stamford Bridge, God-willing, will set new standards in design.

In Roman Abramovich – and his architectural design team – we trust.

As game time approached, the heat was still intense. I took respite in the dark and cavernous concourse. I walked past a merchandise store and it was unbelievably manic. Both Chelsea and PSG goods were on sale. The lines at the tills were ridiculously long. Maybe I would buy a tour T-shirt in DC. Not today. Too busy. All around me, folk in Chelsea shirts darted past me. Further evidence yet again of how our global reach has touched so many.

Again, to go back.

When I travelled up to Pittsburgh with Roma and Vanessa and a few others in 2004 – and when I printed up seven “North Carolina Blues On Tour” T-shirts, the Chelsea section was no more than 150. The gate in Pittsburgh was no more than 15,000, despite more tickets being sold, hence the 25,317 official figure. This game would be around the 60,000 mark.

Stunning.

To see so many Americans wearing Chelsea shirts blew my mind.

The PSG tagline for their tour was quite clever.

“PARIS LOVES US.”

In to the stadium and the team were going through their drills. However, as often happens, my focus was 180 degrees opposite and I observed the massed ranks of the Chelsea fans behind me. My camera clicked. I was sat just behind Bobby Tambling and his wife Val. Fantastic.

It was clear that there were many more Chelsea fans than those of PSG. There appeared not to be any specific PSG section. We were in Block 122, right behind the goal, with the New York Blues. Other supporters groups were behind me and to my left. There then seemed to be a general level – general sale, not Chelsea only – in 121, before some recognisable faces appeared in 120. This was Chelsea central then. If there were – what? – 50,000 folk favouring Chelsea in the sky-blue stadium of the Carolina Panthers, the hard core behind the goal numbered a couple of thousand.

But this is not black and white, nor even blue and white. For example, right in front of Bobby Tambling were two chaps wearing Arsenal jerseys, and one of them had “Fabregas” on the back.

Work that out.

In the stadium, other English jerseys were spotted, notably – and with no surprise – Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City. In this sky blue state, the colours of the Panthers and the Tar Heels, maybe Brian will see an upturn in City shirts.

Even in our Chelsea section, there were sporadic shouts of “PSG” during the game. More of that later.

The teams walked out on to the pitch several minutes later than intended. The US national anthem was played, people stood, caps were removed. I am not one for the bluster of nationhood, but even I joined in.

“…and the home of the brave.”

The game started around ten minutes late.

Roma and Shawn had witnessed the Chelsea and PSG game at The Bridge in March. Who would have possibly thought that we would be all here together in Charlotte only four months later? Shawn, still sporting his David Luiz locks, is one lucky boy.

Jose fielded a very strong team, though Asmir Begovic was selected ahead of Thibaut. In came Matic, in came Hazard,in came Diego.

Begovic – Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta – Mikel, Matic – Moses, Fabregas, Hazard – Diego Costa.

All eyes were on David Luiz – once a hero, now a figure of fun, but sadly booed by many in our ranks in the first-half – and also the talismanic Ibrahimovic.

Chelsea began reasonably well, but as the first-half progressed, PSG tended to enjoy more of the ball. We began probing from out wide, but a lack of quality in to the box was present. PSG, however, looked a more rounded outfit.

The Chelsea support, in pockets, rather all together, was trying their best.

After about ten minutes, with things quiet, I struck.

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

(I always try and do eight…I was counting them up…ugh…keep going son…I was smiling towards the end)

“ZIGGER”

“OI.”

(Slowing right down now…)

“ZAGGER”

“OI.”

(Phew…one last one.)

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER.”

“OI OI OI.”

My job was done.

Smiles all round.

Sadly, my endeavours were not rewarded on the pitch.

Twenty-five minutes in, Mikel sadly lost possession and Augustin snapped a fierce shot against Begovic’s right post, but to our dismay the ball rebounded to the feet of Ibrahimovic, who slammed the ball into a virtually empty net.

That hurt.

There were – bizarrely – cheers from within the Chelsea sections. I cannot explain that.

America…over to you.

Right from the offset, everything about this game seemed to be much more important and relevant than our game on Wednesday. These were two massive clubs, with a recent history of animosity.

This one counted.

Diego Costa crashed a shot against the woodwork, but our chances fell away.

Sadly, PSG continued to dominate as the first half continued on. The rest of the half will be remembered for three stunning saves – all different – from Begovic. He received resounding applause from us as he walked away at the break.

At half-time, a beer, and a cool down in the concourse.

The noise thus far had been patchy. I hoped for greater things from both players and supporters alike in the second-half. At least we would be attacking our end.

On came Courtois, Zouma, Ramires.

There had been strong challenges throughout the first-half and this continued as this tale of two cities continued. After Cesc Fabregas took too many touches, dallied and saw his shot blocked, Vanessa – who thinks Cesc is gorgeous – remarked –

“He’s always nervous around me.”

Oh, that made me smile.

Nice one Vanessa.

For a few moments, we were treated to the “Let’s Go Chelsea, Let’s Go” chant.

Awesome.

Nobody in the central core sung this.

The NYBs continued to sing a huge variety of songs, but with not many people confident enough to join them..

I sang “We Are Blue, We Are White, We Are Fackin’ Dynamite” to a sea of blank faces. For an odd few moments, there was an odd game of pinball between the two factions of support in the stadia, initiated by the other three stands I hasten to add.

“CHELSEA / PSG / CHELSEA / PSG / CHELSEA / PSG.”

A little similar to the “UNITED / SHIT / UNITED / SHIT” chant of old.

With Chelsea getting back in to the game, Fabregas picked out the movement of Victor Moses, who volleyed home from close range. There was a massive roar – GET IN! – and who says these pre-season games do not count. Victor’s somersault was spectacular. We bathed in his glory. It was magnificent.

Radamel Falcao was introduced to the proceedings and the roar was heartfelt. Chelsea grew in confidence and chased the winner. Willian, Oscar and Cuadrado entered the fray. A shot from fellow sub Loic Remy was pushed away. We roared them on. Sadly, amongst all this, the wave wrapped itself around the stadium for a few minutes.

Sigh.

This was excellent stuff, with the Chelsea fans around me full of smiles and encouragement. A few half chances were all we had to cheer, however. The last meaningful action of the game was a fine save up the other end from Courtois.

At least we didn’t lose.

Then, to all of our amazement, it was announced that there would be penalties, in a strange hark-back to the NASL days when no game ended in a tie.

“Damn, let’s take a draw and head back to the boozer” I thought.

We had a little think in our section.

Would this be our first penalty shootout since Munich?

I thought so.

I watched, calmly, and photographed the ensuing drama through my camera lens. I watched some penalties on the huge HD TV screen behind the goal.

As Cuadrado stepped up…”he’ll miss.”

Others agreed.

He missed.

Thankfully, that man Thibaut saved twice from Baheback and then, during sudden death, against Thiago Silva. Before we had time to think, we saw the tall figure, head to toe in 1987 jade, place the ball on the spot and smash the ball high into the goal.

GET FUCKING IN.

Oh boy, such a bizarre feeling, but one which was heartfelt.

We did it.

A win is a win is a win.

I sadly lost contact with Team Roma; they had to shoot off to their homes as they had to work in the morning. I slowly walked back past the post-game crowds. I was alone with my thoughts.

Rather tired, rather exhausted, my throat hurting after those rasping “Zed zeds” but supremely happy with my lot.

I bought another can of “Blue Moon” and waited for friends to arrive. I spotted Bob, then JR. The atmosphere was lovely. Charlotte had been very good to us. Then, out of nowhere, three lads from the Chelsea Fans Channel – one of whom I had met in New York on Tuesday – enticed JR and myself for a few opinions on our performance.

Here we go :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=vqCX3E4Tbcw&app=desktop

As soon as we had finished, I commented to JR “I called us schmucks. I never use that word.”

“You’ve been in New York too long.”

“Not used that expression for years. Maybe not since Hurricane Hugo.”

We returned back to a lovely restaurant under the towering central skyscrapers for a good old Carolina BBQ.

Great times.

Thank you Charlotte.

Your city, your stadium, our club.

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Tales From The Tortuous Mediocrity

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 29 March 2014.

At last, here was a change to my typical match day routine. This trip to London South had been planned a few weeks ago. By car, Crystal Palace is notoriously difficult to reach. So, we had decided to travel up by train. It was an easy decision. I was relishing this one. It was a chance for me to travel to a game without pounding the tarmac. And it was a chance to unwind and let other worries, which have been quite considerable over the past two months, subside.

This match – placed just before the soiree to Paris – was going to be a good one.

We caught the 8.37am from Melksham and changed at Swindon. The journey to Paddington would only take a further hour and thirty minutes. While Parky launched into a four-pack of lager, I enjoyed a cappuccino. Old habits, I guess, die hard. I have, if I’m honest, never been a fan of drinking too early on a Saturday morning. As we hurtled through the Wiltshire and Oxfordshire countryside, I was reminded of a time when my Chelsea trips were dominated by train travel. I thought back to the years from 1981 to 1991. Apart from occasional trips to Stamford Bridge in my father’s car, football meant train travel. Ah, 1981 to 1991…the years when I cut my teeth as a Chelsea fan, following the team whenever I could. In those ten years, I went from sixth form to college to sporadic unemployment and poorly-paid employment and eventually I was able to afford a car at the relatively late age of twenty-six.

I used to love going by train to be honest. If it wasn’t so expensive these days, I would do so more often. This was my first trip to London by rail, I think, since the F.A.Cup Semi-Final in 2009. We laughed as we remembered what had happened on the Paddington platform after the game; Parky had a disagreement with a Millwall fan. Let’s leave it there. In his youth, Parky often managed to get embroiled in other similar “disagreements” with other fans too. There was further laughter when he re-told (for maybe the twentieth time) the story of a “disagreement” with some Cardiff fans in around 1970 and Parky hiding for a few minutes in a skip full of mail bags.

First class.

As we darted past Reading, I got all misty-eyed as I remembered my first-ever girlfriend who disastrously moved away from Frome after seeing me for only three weeks (“was it something I said?”) when her father changed jobs. On every Chelsea trip in the 1982-1983 season, and those after it, the train took me within a mile of her house in the village of Charvil, but I just looked on, disconsolate and with a lump in my throat, from the train window.

“So near and yet so far.”

Anyway, she was more of a rugby fan. She didn’t have a clue about football. It would never have worked out.

We crossed the River Thames a few times and were soon headed into London. Going back to thoughts about the early-‘eighties, as I approached Paddington station – Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s mighty terminus at the end of his glorious Great Western Railway – I remembered some graffiti which was sprayed on a brick wall under the Westway.

“I am an angry passionate soul crying out in the midst of this tortuous mediocrity.”

In those years of teenage angst, unrequited love, school day malaise and Second Division Football, those words struck a chord with me. I always used to look out for it. There was genuine sadness when I looked for it, yet it was no more, in maybe around 1986.

“Another rebel bites the dust.”

However, the way things work out, the writer of said graffiti is probably a stockbroker or a financial analyst in the city these days.

I, of course, am still an angry passionate soul.

We arrived at Paddington at 10.40am. Although we were playing Crystal Palace later in the afternoon, I had another game on my mind. My first task of the day was to head down to Stamford Bridge to collect seven tickets for myself and various friends for the game at Parc des Princes on Wednesday. We caught the District Line and whereas Parky alighted at West Brompton, I stayed on until Fulham Broadway. Despite a sadly predictable tense few moments at the ticket window in which the club official made me feel uncomfortable as I handed over the seven completed declaration forms (“do you know all these people?”, “do you have their addresses?”, “you could have found these forms on a train”, “have you got their season ticket cards?”), I was eventually handed seven tickets.

Phew. I could relax. I texted my six mates –

“Tickets in hand.”

I bounced back to West Brompton. There was time for a couple of pints at the “Prince of Wales” with Lord Parky and Dave (“We’ll Just Call You Azpilicueta.”) We were joined by two young Chelsea lads – Max and James – who had also just collected tickets for Paris. The five of us then caught the over ground train down to Clapham Junction, where we changed trains again. As we crossed the River Thames for the third time of the day, there was a frisson of excitement. Even for a seasoned traveller like me, an unexpected view of London very often cheers me. There was a mix of Palace and Chelsea fans on the train. Some Palace fans advised us to alight at Selhurst and not Thornton Heath. We spoke briefly with a chap from New York, who was attending the game with a Chelsea-supporting mate. He admitted to being a little wary of talking to us; we weren’t wearing colours of course, so he wasn’t sure if we were Palace or Chelsea. Maybe he was expecting some sort of “Green Street” scenario. We invited him to come and join us for a few bevvies, but he decided against it. We walked through the sunny South London streets, the stands of Selhurst Park playing hide-and seek to our left. Just after 1pm, we reached our target; the William Stanley at Norwood Junction. The pints were soon flowing. The pub was mainly Chelsea and the pub was soon playing host to a few choice songs.

“We Are The Chelsea So Fcuk All The Rest.”

All of the usual suspects were there.

I had visited this boozer on one occasion before, for a pre-season game against Palace in the summer of 2003. It was, I think, the first game in the UK of the Roman Abramovich era. Thousands of Chelsea descended on the quiet streets of South London that day; it was, in fact, my last visit to Selhurst Park. On that occasion, we won 2-1. I remember a Geremi free-kick, but little else apart from the blistering summer sun. I didn’t attend our last visit to Selhurst; a win during the first few weeks of the Mourinho era. Although I am rapidly approaching a thousand Chelsea games, I have only visited Selhurst Park on five previous occasions. Strangely, more games have featured Crystal Palace’s two tenants Charlton Athletic and Wimbledon, than Palace themselves.

My very first visit to Selhurst was in August 1989; a midweek game against Charlton Athletic, in the days when their Valley stadium was unable to be used. We had begun the 1989-1990 with a couple of wins and a draw. I was soon off to the US for a year’s travel, and decided at the last minute to attend. It was going to be my big send-off. There was an added dimension to this game; should we win, we’d go top. How big a deal was this? Well, in all of my time of supporting Chelsea Football Club, I had never ever seen us at the top of the Football League. I travelled to London that day, almost a quarter of a century ago, in hope that I would be leaving England for America with us in first position.

On that Tuesday night, we lost 3-0 to a Charlton Athletic team which included our former defensive tandem Joe McLaughlin and Colin Pates, and I was crestfallen.

So much for a big send-off.

Now – that was Proper Chelsea.

Goodbye England.

In the William Stanley, there was much talk of Paris, but not much of Palace. Rob adapted their “We’re Palace, we’re Palace” chant.

“We’re on our way to Paris.

To Paris.

To Paris.

We’re on our way to Paris.

To Paris.

To Paris.

Whooooooooaaaaaaooooowwww – whooooooooooaaaaaaoooowwww.”

I was enjoying this. Drinking at football. I should do this more often.

Then, bizarrely, just after 2pm, the pub closed.

“What?”

As we left, we serenaded the locals –

“Portugal, Portugal We Are Coming.

Portugal, Portugal I Pray.

Portugal, Portugal We Are Coming.

We Are Coming In The Month Of May.”

Max popped over the road and bought some tinnies for our slow ascent up the hill towards Selhurst Park. Although the terrain is different, the immediate area is similar to Highbury; humdrum terraced houses, quite plain, with little hint of a sport stadium nearby. We found ourselves amid a noisy group of Chelsea fans and a police escort soon arrived. We edged away, and then found ourselves behind a baiting mob of Palace fans.

“We are the Holmesdale.”

There was only posturing and no hint of violence.

Our American friend would have been fine.

Selhurst Park has changed, as have most of London’s football theatres, over the years. I can vividly remember open terraces at each end in the early ‘seventies, though only a few years earlier, there were only grassy banks. The main stand has remained mainly unchanged since the ‘twenties and other stands been built, one at a time, quite unrelated. It isn’t a particularly classy stadium. It fits in well among the nondescript houses which surround it. The Crystal Palace TV tower, on the hill to the north, is the sole landmark of note. Incidentally, the location of several F.A. Cup Finals at the turn of the twentieth century is a mile or two to the north; the site in fact, of the Crystal Palace athletics arena.

Inside the Arthur Wait Stand – dark and cramped – the three thousand Chelsea fans were in good voice before the arrival of the teams. It was a fine sunny day. I was stood with Alan and Gary, as always. This was a very local game for both. Alan, from Anerley, lives just two miles to the north-east. Gary, from Norbury, lives just two miles to the north-west.

Crystal Palace, then, is their local team.

Gary : “I hate this lot more than Tottenham.”

I didn’t believe him…

London has so many teams of course. It is too simple and too easy to say that Arsenal and Tottenham have the north, West Ham has the east and Chelsea have the south. Rivalries, boundaries and catchment areas overlap. I’ve always viewed Chelsea’s old heartland to be Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea to the north of the river and Battersea, Tooting, Wandsworth and Clapham to the south. As Londoners moved to the suburbs and satellite towns, our support is now more likely to come from Reading, Slough, Wembley, Kingston-on-Thames, Crawley, Guildford, then Brighton, Oxford, Northampton and Swindon.

I’ve only ever met two Crystal Palace fans; I’d imagine their support is more local. I have no axe to grind with them; they have been a minor irritant over the years. Only an F.A. Cup defeat in 1976 and a League Cup defeat in 1993 sticks in my craw.

However, add the afternoon of Saturday March 29th 2014 to this list.

I am not going to dwell too long on the failings of Chelsea against Crystal Palace. Just like some of the supporters, was the focus on the imminent game in the Champions League? We wondered this after the poor performance against Aston Villa when our minds might have been clouded with thoughts of Galatasaray. If so, inexcusable. We knew that Tony Pulis’ team of journeyman would be up for the battle. They have slowly improved since he took over from Ian Holloway. In my mind, my thoughts were mixed. I expected us to win, though I couldn’t eradicate a haunting vision of a defeat to a Palace team, which would greatly reduce our chances of another league title.

The team appeared to be strong; surely David Luiz and Nemanja Matic would provide strength to our midfield?

The rather odd sight of a dozen or so lycra-clad cheerleaders welcomed the two teams onto the pitch. Just before, an eagle had swooped from goalmouth to goalmouth. How very American. Our friend would definitely have approved.

The game began. We struggled to get a foothold. Long balls were played forward, but passes were poor and our ball retention worse. We struggled to get Eden Hazard involved. The Palace team were over us like a rash. Our support appeared to wane. After a quarter of an hour, I looked around at my fellow supporters and was dismayed to see only around one in five joining in with a chant. However, a fine Gary Cahill tackle brought a raucous response from the away support and I hoped for better things. Alas, chances were at a premium. It was sad to see Frank Lampard playing so poorly.

There was only sporadic noise from the away end.

“Attack! Attack! Attack, attack, attack!”

At half-time, I disappeared off for a beer; I needed an artificial stimulant to keep me buoyed. The fare that we had served thus far was very poor. Down in the toilets, one young Chelsea fan uttered the immortal lines –

“I’ve only seen us lose two games.”

A few of us replied –

“What – this season?”

“No –ever.”

This was met with a barrage of light-hearted abuse.

I bumped into Parky and we chatted. The second-half began and I chatted to a couple more friends. Noticeably, in the one hundred Chelsea fans who were guzzling the last few dregs of their halftime beers, only one was wearing a replica shirt.

Proper Chelsea.

Then, a groan. News soon came through that we had conceded a goal. With a heavy heart, I took my place alongside Alan and Gary, the local lads.

“John Terry – own goal.”

There had been the introduction of Oscar for Luiz at the break, and Salah came on for Lampard. Our support quietened further. We found it so difficult to break Palace down and we didn’t use our flanks at all. At times, our play was tortuous and mediocre. Our support didn’t rally.

A John Terry header flew over the bar. It was a rare chance.

Demba Ba replaced Andre Schurrle. Speroni foiled Hazard. Torres wasted another opportunity. There was dwindling hope among the away support. Instead, irritation and frustration, then a horrible realisation that we were going to lose and our league title hopes were going to die in the South London sun. It was a horrible, dull feeling. Bizarrely, Palace could have increased their lead in the final ten minutes. Jerome, breaking, hit the post. A second goal would not have flattered them. At the end of the game, we quietly exited. Outside, words were exchanged among a few friends.

Parky, Dave and I were then denied entrance to a couple of pubs – “regulars only” – and so we jumped on a train back to civilisation. We chatted over a beer in a pub at Victoria – north of the river, Chelsea Land, home – and were our usual pragmatic selves. After all these games, I don’t find it too difficult to stay as realistic as I can after another testing defeat. Despite the loss, it was a fine day out.

And next week, at least we’ll have Paris.

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