Tales From A Huge Loss

Manchester City vs.Chelsea : 8 January 2023.

I have feared that I might have to write this particular match report for a while. Ever since we heard that Gianluca Vialli had left his post with the Italian Football Federation, and was then re-admitted to the Royal Marsden Hospital before Christmas, many of us suspected the worst. Alas, on the Friday morning after our home game with Manchester City, the saddest of news broke.

Gianluca Vialli had died.

I was told the news by a work colleague in our office. I put my hands to my face and sat silent for a few moments.

This was just horrible, horrible news.

I had mentioned Luca only a few days previously in my match report for the Nottingham Forest game; that memory from almost twenty-four years ago, a crowded car-park, a photograph, an autograph, the perfect gent.

In fact, I was rather sparing with my comments about Gianluca Vialli in that report. I sensed that he didn’t have long to live. Pancreatic cancer is an obstinate foe. I erred away from saying too much about the former Chelsea player and manager. I’ll be blunt; I didn’t want to tempt fate.

That I mentioned Gianluca Vialli, though, in my last match report written while he was alive seems right.

And it also seems right that the great man took his last breath in a hospital on Fulham Road, just a few hundred yards from Stamford Bridge.

Luca, how we will miss you.

Being a big fan of Italian football in the ‘eighties, I was aware of the curly-haired striker playing for Sampdoria of Genoa, and watched with interest as he took part in the European Championships of 1988 and the World Cup of 1990. The blues of Sampdoria, with Vialli the leading scorer, won their first and only title in 1991. My first actual sighting of the man took place when I travelled to Turin in May 1992 to see Juventus and Sampdoria eke out a 0-0 draw at the Stadio Delle Alpi. Sampdoria were only a few weeks away from a European Cup Final with Barcelona at Wembley and so put in a rather conservative performance.

Not long after the loss to Barcelona, Vialli moved to Juventus for a world record £12.5M. With Juve being my favourite European team, and with Italian football being shown that season on Channel Four for the first time, I was able to keep tabs on both the progress of him and the team. In 1995, Juve won their first Italian Championship since 1986. In late 1995, I saw Vialli play for Juventus at Ibrox against Rangers in a Champions League group phase game; the visitors won 4-0, with Vialli the captain, and a certain Antonio Conte playing too. I watched in the Broomloan Stand, in a home section, but very close to the travelling away support. The Italians were on fire that night.

At the end of that season, I watched the European Cup Final in a bar in Manhattan as Juventus beat Ajax on penalties in Rome. Just over a week later, I was over on the West Coast – I remember the location, Gaviota State Park – when a ‘phone call home resulted in me learning that Gianluca Vialli had signed for Chelsea.

It truly felt that the stars were aligning.

Gianluca Vialli was to play for Chelsea. Just writing those words twenty-six years or so later still gives me goose bumps.

Of course, that 1996/97 season has gone down in Chelsea folklore for both happy and sad reasons. In addition to Vialli, the summer of 1996 brought new signings Roberto di Matteo and Frank Leboeuf to augment the previous summer’s purchases of Ruud Gullit and Mark Hughes. Our Chelsea team was certainly looking like it could seriously challenge for honours. But first, tragedy, and the death of director Matthew Harding. We all wondered if this would redirect the club’s focus, but not long after, Ruud Gullit signed another top-ranked Italian Gianfranco Zola, and the rest is history.

Ironically, we were stumbling a little before Zola signed. Looking back, I think it is fair to say that Hughes and Vialli were a little too similar in many aspects of their game, and it was the addition of Zola, a play-maker in addition to being a goal scorer, that allowed the team to reach its full potential. Manager Gullit certainly jiggled line-ups around to accommodate all three strikers, and on one memorable occasion, we were able to witness Chelsea alchemy of the very highest order.

Losing 0-2 at half-time at home to Liverpool in the Third Round of the FA Cup in January 1997, Gullit brought on Mark Hughes in place of Scott Minto and the triumvirate of Vialli, Zola and Hughes caused havoc in a scintillating second forty-five minutes. A swivel and turn from Sparky on fifty minutes, a delicious Zola free-kick eight minutes later, then two from Vialli on sixty-three and seventy-six minutes. Stamford Bridge was buzzing and we didn’t want the game to end. It is many Chelsea supporters’ favourite ever game. It often gets mentioned here and I do not apologise for it.

Of course we went on to win the FA Cup Final in the May of that year, our first trophy since 1971, and the appearance of Gianluca Vialli as a very late substitute for Zola resulted in the whole end yelling the great man’s name.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

Things never stay the same, though, at Chelsea and before we knew it, Ken Bates had dismissed Ruud Gullit after just a year and a half in charge, and chose Vialli to take on the role of player-manager. I’ll be honest, I was a little concerned, but I need not have been. In a glorious period supporting my team, Vialli won the 1998 League Cup, the 1998 ECWC, the 1998 UEFA Super Cup, the 2000 FA Cup and the 2000 Community Shield.

There has been greater success since, but I absolutely loved the vibe around the club from 1996 to 2000 – “the Vialli years” –  and it is probably my favourite period supporting the club, although as a one-off season 1983/84 will never be beaten.

We came so close in 1998/99, only trailing eventual champions Manchester United by four points, but finishing third. If only we had won and not drawn our two games against United, we would have been champions, and the barbs aimed at us in 2005 would have been less prolific.

There was a lovely mix of characters at Chelsea in that era. We played some superb football at times. Ruud called it “sexy”, but I think under Vialli it became a little “cheeky” with a mix of expansive football, quick breaks, rapid-fire passing, with quality everywhere. What do I mean by “cheeky”? Think back to October 1999, Chelsea beating Manchester United 5-0, with Wisey winding up Nicky Butt. That’s what I mean.

There was style and swagger, those two Chelsea cornerstones.

As a player, I loved Vialli’s power, technique, movement, work ethic and goal scoring prowess.

As a manager, I loved his cheerfulness, his honesty, his diligence, the way he called the players his “chaps.”

I loved his big Italian tie, his sweatband, his grey pullover, his penchant for wearing a watch over his cuffs.

I’ll admit it.

He was a man’s man.

We all loved him.

Again, Chelsea being Chelsea, nothing stays the same and amidst rumours of player power, Ken Bates sacked Vialli as manager in September 2000.

I had seen the great man’s first game as a Chelsea player at Southampton in 1996 and I had seen his last game as manager at Newcastle in 2000.

Thank you Luca. We had a blast.

Vialli – I believe – continued to live in London after his departure and also had season tickets at Stamford Bridge for some, if not all, of the subsequent years. In doing a little research for this edition, I was able to plunder some photographs from a midweek game at Stamford Bridge against West Bromwich Albion on 12 February 2018. At halftime, Neil Barnett paraded three stars from the late ‘nineties and it was a glorious occasion.

My eyes were set on Gianluca Vialli. I am pretty sure it was the first time that I had seen him since he left us in 2000.

My match report from that night is called “Tales From The Class Of ‘98” and features these words.

“They slowly walked towards us in the MH and I snapped away like a fool. Each were serenaded with their own songs. They lapped it up. My goodness, it is the twentieth-anniversary season of our ECWC triumph in Stockholm, one of my favourite seasons. It is hard to believe in these days of single-strikers and “false nines” that in 1997/1998 we had the considerable luxury of four strikers.

Gianfranco Zola

Gianluca Vialli

Tore Andre Flo

Mark Hughes

And five if we include Mark Nicholls.

Bloody hell, those were the days. A two-man attack. Beautiful. Let’s get to basics here; I’d much rather see two top strikers in a starting eleven for Chelsea rather than two top holding midfielders. Who wouldn’t?

That season, we were certainly blessed. And each of the four had their own qualities, and it was always interesting to see how Ruud, and then Luca, chopped and changed the front two.

Zola –  those amazing twists and turns, those dribbles, that appreciation of space, those passes to others, those goals.

Vialli – those blind-sided runs, the constant movement, the strength of that body, the willingness to run and run.

Flo – surprisingly skilful on the ground for a tall man, his touch was excellent and he weighed in with his share of goals.

Hughes – the last of his three seasons with us, but still useful for his strength in hold-up play, his galvanising effect on the team, and eye for a goal.

Glory days indeed. I loved that team those players.

Gianfranco Zola, Tore Andre Flo, Mark Hughes, Gianluca Vialli, Dan Petrescu, Frank Leboeuf, Graeme Le Saux, Gus Poyet, Dennis Wise, Roberto di Matteo, Steve Clarke, Ruud Gullit.

If anyone had said to me in 1998 that, twenty years on, only one of those players mentioned would get into my team of greatest ever Chelsea players, I would have screamed madness.”

As I looked at other photos from that evening, I gulped when I saw a photo of my friend Glenn and little old me in the hotel before the game with Ray Wilkins, who would pass away less than two months later. That night took on a new resonance for me.

Going in to the FA Cup tie at Manchester City, the focus in my mind shifted. Rather than get obsessed, and down-hearted, about a potentially tough game I realised that the whole day was now about being one of the lucky ones to be able to share our collective love for a much-respected footballer and, above all, man.

And the tributes poured in on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Not one soul said anything negative about Gianluca Vialli. He was truly loved, so loved.

Sunday arrived and I collected PD and LP and a long day lay ahead. I set off from home at just before 9am. By 12.30pm, we were ordering three roast beef Sunday lunches at “The Windmill” pub at the Tabley interchange off the M6. Two hours were spent thinking a little about the game later that afternoon but also about our recent sad loss.

My 1982/83 retrospective features, fittingly, an FA Cup game. On Saturday 8 January 1983 – forty years ago to the day – we played Huddersfield Town from the Third Division at Leeds Road. We eked out a 1-1 draw with much-maligned striker Alan Mayes equalising in the second-half. The gate was a very decent 17,064, which came just after a season-leading gate of 18,438 for a home derby with Bradford City. In those days, FA Cup Third Round gates would often be the largest of the season for many clubs, barring local derbies such as this one. I miss those days when “the Cup” was truly special.

It took the best part of an hour to reach the stadium. The expected rain hadn’t really amounted to much, but on the slow drive past City’s old stomping ground and other familiar sights, the bright winter sun reflected strikingly on the steel of new buildings and the red brick of old. In the distance, dark moody clouds loomed ominously. The quality of light was spectacular.

I dropped off PD and LP outside the away end at around 3.30pm and soon parked up. I made my way over the long footbridge that links the smaller City stadium to the main one. I had previously made a mistake in saying that I had seen only Arsenal at seven stadia. Manchester City tie that record; Stamford Bridge, Maine Road, Wembley, The Etihad, Villa Park, Yankee Stadium, Estadio Dragao. If you count the old Wembley and the new Wembley separately, they take the lead with eight.

Another bloody trophy for them.

As soon as I reached the concourse at Level Three – the top tier – there were shouts for “Vialli.”

I have to say that our support for this game blew my socks off. I originally thought that with the game taking place at 4.30pm on a Sunday, and on the back of us taking over 5,000 to the stadium for a League Cup tie in November, there would be no way that we would sell our allocation of 7,500 tickets.

But sell them we did.

Absolutely fantastic.

I was stood alongside LP in the middle of the top tier, alongside Rob, in front of Pete, close to the Two Ronnies, while PD was in the middle tier. I was just glad to be watching from a different part of the South Stand and to not have hundreds of locals jabbering away at us all game long.

The place filled up. My ticket cost just £25, a good deal.

The team was announced.

Kepa

Chalobah – Humphreys – Koulibaly – Hall

Gallagher – Jorginho – Kovacic

Ziyech – Havertz – Mount

And some new names on the bench too.

City? A mixture of youth and experience, no Haaland.

So, a debut from Graham Potter for young Bashir Humphreys.

Shall I do the inevitable line about the manager asking if he was “free” for the game on Sunday?

Nah.

Kick-off approached, the players took to the field, I soon noted the players assembling on the centre circle.

“Ah, fair play City.”

There was an announcement from a voice saying that “Manchester City was sad to hear…” but I then lost the rest of the message as the Chelsea end applauded and sang.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

There were images of Luca on the two corner screens; black and white images, that cheeky smile.

Bless him.

It is a mark of how I assumed that we would perform in this match that I thought that, all things considered, we had a pretty decent start to the game. Both teams began brightly. But on each of our rare forays into the City half (is it me, or does the City pitch look huge?) we quickly ran out of steam, with no target man to hit.

On nine minutes – as requested – the 7,500 strong away army chanted again.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

Not too long after, a mightily impressive “OMWTM” rang out and I liked the fact that a few old school types sat down at around the “eight” mark. It always was better when we all got up on ten.

The City fans must have looked on in awe.

They then had the audacity to sing “YSIFS” and I groaned.

I wondered if the fixture was reversed and there was a 4.30pm kick-off in London, how many City would come down? Not 7,500 I am sure. In the FA Cup of 2015/16, City had brought barely 2,500 down to London on Sunday 21 February. Get my point?

On the pitch, City gained the upper hand.

After twenty-three minutes played, Rob and I were worried about a City free-kick about twenty-five yards out.

Me : “I don’t like this.”

Rob : “Especially Mahrez.”

Me : “There you go. Great goal.”

Sigh.

I will be honest, I didn’t see the handball from Kai Havertz that led to a VAR decision going City’s way not long after. Julian Alvarez struck from the resultant penalty.

In the back of mind : “at least we won’t suffer the ignominy of losing four consecutive FA Cup Finals this year.”

Sigh.

Chelsea were now chasing shadows.

On thirty-eight minutes, I saw a move cut its way through our defence.

“Oh that’s too easy.”

Phil Foden pushed the ball in from close range.

Game over.

Sadly, many Chelsea fans upped and left. This was my worst nightmare; our away end full of empty seats on national television. At the break, my friend Su from Los Angeles, made her way down to watch the rest of the game with Rob, LP and me.

“It’s character building this. By the time I see you again, you will be twice the woman you are now.”

It could have been more. We were awful and in so many different ways. I felt so sorry for the debutant Humphreys, who must have wished that he was needed in haberdashery or to look after Mrs. Slocombe’s pussy.

At the break, changes.

Denis Zakaria for Kovacic, surprisingly poor.

David Datro Fofana for Ziyech, truly awful.

But there were other appearances too, and my heart began to swell. Virtually all of the Chelsea supporters that had left after the third goal thankfully returned. Unbelievable stuff. Well done each and every one of you.

Proper Chelsea.

Good God, on fifty-five minutes Mason Mount shot at goal, deflecting wide, and I even caught the bugger on film.

On sixty-three minutes, more changes.

Omari Hutchinson for the ever dreadful Ziyech.

Carney Chukwuemeka for Mount.

Hutchinson showed a lot more confidence than on his meek appearance on Thursday. The new Fofana looked decent too.

On seventy-three minutes, another change.

Azpilicueta for Jorginho, the slow-moving and irksome irritant.

I found it hard to focus on anything really. The game seemed an irrelevance. The four of us kept our spirits up with gallows humour. Around us, there were loud songs for Thomas Tuchel and Roman Abramovich.

With five minutes to go, a foul by Kalidou Koulibaly gave City their second penalty of the game.

Manchester City 4 Chelsea 0.

Sigh.

With that, an exodus started but we stayed to the final whistle.

It was, in the end, all rather predictable. However, the mood in the away end was defiant throughout. The shouts in memory of Vialli were loud, and sung with passion, while there was anger and frustration at the current regime.

We left.

A chap with his daughter remained upbeat and suggested a surreal ending to this season and a very strange one in 2023/24.

“We win the Champions League but get relegated this season.”

“Ha” I replied…

”Real Madrid and Bristol City one week, Juventus and Rotherham United the next. Love it.”

On the walk back at our car I overheard a woman – a local City fan – talking to her husband and daughter.

“City fans singing about Chelsea’s support being effing shit…well, it wasn’t was it?”

“Thanks” I said.

She smiled.

I made good time as I wriggled out of the city.

How long did it take me?

“A pasty, two small Double Deckers and half a packet of Fruit Pastilles.”

The rain stayed away as I drove south and I made good time. We didn’t dwell too much on the defeat. But it certainly felt as if we were now supporting a different team and club, almost unrecognisable in fact. And that is not good.

As the reaction to another defeat hit social media, I was reminded that this was our first exit in the Third Round of the FA Cup since that shocking 3-5 defeat by Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in January 1998; our first game since 1970 as FA Cup holders. We were 0-5 down at one stage. But I still loved that 1996 to 2000 team. Oh for some of that spirit in 2023.

I reached home at 11.15pm. It had been a long, emotional, and sad day.

Next up, a local derby at Craven Cottage. See you there.

Tales From The Bridgford Stand

Nottingham Forest vs. Chelsea : 1 January 2023.

I have detailed our season from forty years ago during the current campaign’s match reports and although many performances in 1982/83 were poor, very poor, I am sure that I would have concluded each of the four games that I physically attended in that season from long ago with a spirited round of clapping to show my support of the team, my team.

After the final whistle blew at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground on the first day of 2023, I gathered my belongings – camera, baseball cap – and began shuffling out along the row to the aisle, not wanting to lose any time before exiting the stadium and beginning the long drive home. I just didn’t feel that I could justify even the most basic show of support for the team. I couldn’t even be bothered to see how many players, if any, had walked over to our allotted corner of the Bridgford Stand to thank the fans.

And it brings me no joy to report this either. No joy at all. But it’s a sure sign that I don’t have much of a bond with this current set of players, unlike in days gone by.

My mantra has always been “players play, managers manage and supporters support” and although I still stand by these basic principles, there are occasions in my Chelsea-supporting life when the last part of this “Holy Trinity” of Chelsea fundamentalism becomes oh-so difficult.

Sigh.

Let’s not kid ourselves. That second-half performance at relegation-haunted Forest was dire.

So let’s leave 2023 for the moment and go back in time.

I have a few stories to tell.

The next match from forty years ago to re-tell is the West London derby at Stamford Bridge against Fulham that took place on 28 December 1982. Going in to the game, Chelsea were two thirds of the way down the Second Division in fourteenth place, with a chance of promotion looking very unlikely. Our local neighbours, however, were riding high. They had been promoted from the Third Division in 1981/82 and were a surprise package the following season, and were currently in third place behind QPR and Wolves.

In the mini “West London League” of the 1982/83 Division Two season, dear reader, Chelsea were third of three.

But that didn’t stop the huge sense of anticipation that I felt as I set off with my parents as we made our way up to London for this game. I can remember we stopped off at Hungerford on the A4 for me to buy a newspaper and I was elated with the size of the gates that had attended games the previous day. Now it was Chelsea’s turn.

Back in October, there had been a fine crowd for the visit of Leeds United, but I knew only too well that a sizeable proportion of that crowd had been lured to Stamford Bridge for the thrill and buzz of a potential set-to with the Yorkshire club’s support. For the Fulham game, the allure would be of a purely footballing nature, and I wasn’t sure if that would increase numbers or reduce them.

To be truthful, I can’t remember a great deal about the game. I was in The Shed, my preferred position towards the tea bar but just under the roof, just above the walkway. My parents watched the game from virtually the back row of the towering East Stand having bought tickets on the day. Fulham were in all red, and were backed by a pretty decent following on the large north terrace.

The Chelsea team?

Steve Francis, Joey Jones, Chris Hutchings, Gary Chivers, Micky Droy, Colin Pates, Clive Walker, John Bumstead, David Speedie, Alan Mayes (Mike Fillery), Peter Rhoades-Brown.

My diary notes that it was all one-way traffic in the second-half and we really should have sewn it up. Just like the Leeds game in October, it ended 0-0. But the real star of the show was the attendance figure of 29,797, and this bowled me over.

I have a distinct memory of waiting outside between The Shed and the East Stand for my parents to appear and being mesmerised by the thousands upon thousands of people streaming out of the ground. I waited for ages for my Mum and Dad to finally show up.

29,797.

I can hardly believe it forty years later.

1982 was an odd year for Stamford Bridge attendances. Despite us averaging just 13,133 in 1981/82 and 12,728 in 1982/83 during the Second Division league campaigns, the old ground served up a volley of super gates during that year.

In early 1982, we drew 41,412 for the game against Liverpool in the fifth round of the FA Cup, quickly followed by 42,557 for Tottenham’s visit in the Quarter Finals. Then, in the latter part of the year, Stamford Bridge witnessed 25,358 for the visit of Leeds United in October to be trumped by the huge gate of 29,797 against Fulham.

Many Chelsea supporters of my generation often quote the huge gate at Christmas in 1976 for the home game with Fulham as a quick and easy response to the “WWYWYWS?” barbs of opposing fans. With Chelsea riding high in the Second Division, and with George Best and Bobby Moore playing for Fulham, a massive crowd of 55,003 flocked to Stamford Bridge on 27 December 1976.

It’s some figure, eh?

Yet I think the 29,797 figure in 1982/83 is even more remarkable.

In 1976/77, our average home attendance in the league was a healthy 30,552.

55,003 equated to 1.8 times the average.

Yet in 1982/83, we floundered all season long and our average gate was a lowly 12,728.

Here, the 29,797 gate equated to 2.3 times the average.

Put it this way, if the Fulham gate of 1976 had matched the 1982 coefficient, it would have been a ridiculous 71,524.

Regardless, these were huge numbers, in both years, for Second Division football.

On New Year’s Day 1983, Chelsea travelled to Gay Meadow, the quaint home of Shrewsbury Town and lost 2-0 in front of 7,545.

Oh my bloody God.

1983 was going to be a tough year.

But I still look back upon those times with a lot of fondness. I suspect that the Chelsea players were on four of five times my father’s weekly wage as a shopkeeper, and I certainly felt – undoubtedly – that they were my team. A few of the players were only a few years older than me. There was a bond, no doubt. And I love it that three of the players who lined up against Fulham forty years ago – Pates, Bumstead and Chivers – are still part of the match day scene at Stamford Bridge as hosts for the corporate hospitality crowd.

In forty years’ time I can’t imagine the same being said of any of the current squad, some of whom earn in a week what I earn in several years.

It’s a different ball game, eh?

Fast forward forty years and we find ourselves on New Year’s Day 2023.

My car was full as I made my way north; alongside me in the front was Paul, while in the back seat were Donna, her son Colby and Parky. I had set off from my Somerset village at 9.30am. By 2pm, I found myself edging towards the Trent Bridge county cricket ground, with the floodlights of the City Ground beyond. As I turned right along Radcliffe Road, I spotted the large “Trent Bridge Inn” and my mind raced back to 1987.

On my first-ever visit to Nottingham Forest, in late February, I had travelled by train from Stoke with my football-mad mate Bob, a Leeds United supporter from Bramley in West Yorkshire. And, quite unlike me, I had totally forgotten that we had dived into this pub before the game.

My diary tells of the day.

We had caught the 11.07am from Stoke to Nottingham, changing at Derby, and the fare was only £2.30. Celery was all the rage at Chelsea in those days, and Bob took a photo of myself brandishing a clump of the afore-mentioned “apium graveolens” on Trent Bridge with the City Ground in the background.

We bought £5.50 tickets in the away section of the main Executive Stand and then sunk a few pints in the pub. After a pie at a local chippy, we got in at 2.45pm. I can well remember large piles of celery outside the turnstiles after some supporters were searched and the offending vegetable taken off them. The local police were quite bemused that so many of our away support were bringing the stuff to the game. I must have hidden my stash in my voluminous jacket because I remember throwing the stuff around at key moments once inside. We had around 1,500 in the seats and maybe the same number on the open terrace to my left. I wasn’t impressed with their rather poxy home end, the simple Trent End terrace with its basic roof. My good mate Alan was a few seats in front of me.

It wasn’t a great game, but I made a note that Micky Hazard played well in midfield. A goal from Pat Nevin on sixty-five minutes gave us the points but we had to rely on a fine penalty save from Tony Godden, late on, from Gary Birtles to secure the win. The gate was 18,317.

I caught up with Al on the walk back to the station, but we had to wait a while for the 6pm train to Derby. At Derby, I devoured another pie – and chips – and then Bob and I stopped for a few more pints outside the station before catching the 8.09pm home. On returning to Stoke, we narrowly missed a ruck at our students’ union involving some Blackpool fans, whose team had played at nearby Port Vale that afternoon. Such was life in ‘eighties Britain.

Pies, pints, cheap rail travel, pay-on-the-day football, celery and ad hoc violence lurking like a dark shadow.

Oh the glamour of it all. But I would not have missed it for the world.

I was parked up at my JustPark space on Radcliffe Road at 2.15pm. We walked towards the “Larwood & Voce” pub but this was home fans only. Next up was the “Trent Bridge Inn” but this was home fans only too unlike in 1987. Eventually, we headed over the bridge towards Notts County’s Meadow Lane stadium where their bar was open for away fans. But I didn’t fancy the queues so excused myself and set off on a little mooch around the City Ground. Both of the football stadia and the cricket ground are all with easy reach of each other. It’s a real sporting sub-section of the city.

This would be my first visit to the City Ground since February 1999 and only my third visit ever. I must admit that it felt so odd to be walking around the same area almost twenty-four years after the last time. On that day, with Chelsea very much in the hunt for the league title, I had travelled up to the game with my then girlfriend Judy. On that occasion, we had managed to get served in the “Larwood & Voce” and I remember it being full of Chelsea.

Forest were fighting a losing battle against relegation and Chelsea easily won 3-1 with two goals from Bjarne Goldbaek and one from Mikael Forssell. Pierre van Hooijdonk scored for them. We had seats in the lower tier of the Bridgford End towards the small stand along the side, close to the corner flag. The gate was 26,351.

What I remember most from this game took place in the busy car park after the match had long finished. I had decided to wait for the Chelsea players to board their coach back to London to hopefully take a few photos, and I have to say there were fans everywhere. It wasn’t exactly “Beatlemania” but not far off.

Now then, I have to say that Judy absolutely adored our manager Gianluca Vialli and she was keen to meet him. I snapped away in the melee and took photos of a few players including Marcel Desailly, Frank Leboeuf and Vialli. All of a sudden, I had lost Judy. I then spotted her, next to Vialli, looking all doe-eyed. After a few moments, she walked towards me with a huge grin on her face.

Luca had autographed the back of her hand. She was ecstatic, bless her.

So, as I walked down a little road towards the slight main stand, the colour red everywhere, and across that same car park, my mid cartwheeled back to early 1999, another time but the same place.

There are plans afoot to replace the stand on this side with an impressive new structure. Once built, the stadium will hold 35,000. I could not help but notice Forest’s two stars everywhere. They won the European Cup in 1979 and 1980 in a period when English teams completely dominated football’s main prize.

1977 : Liverpool.

1978 : Liverpool.

1979 : Nottingham Forest.

1980 : Nottingham Forest.

1981 : Liverpool.

1982 : Aston Villa.

With both Chelsea and Forest able to sport two stars apiece, was I hopeful for a high octane four-star game of football?

No, sadly not.

I wolfed down a hot dog with onions, then a quick spin around to the away turnstiles. This time, Chelsea were allocated the side towards the Executive Stand which is now named the Brian Clough Stand. I was standing around twenty-five yards away from where I watched in 1987. I chatted to Jonesy, who did not miss a single match in 1982/83, and still has the mental scars to this day.

I sidled up alongside Gal and John – Al was unable to make it this time – and Parky soon joined us too.

My third ever game at Nottingham Forest and the first game of 2023 was moments away.

Our team was announced.

Kepa

Dave – Silva – Koulibaly – Cucarella

Zakaria – Jorginho – Mount

Pulisic – Havertz – Sterling

Faithless’ “Insomnia” was played before the game began. Additionally, there was a minute of applause for Pele, the World’s greatest ever player.

Rest In Peace.

I was soon distracted by a rather wordy banner on the balcony at the two-tiered Trent End.

“The Garibaldi that we wear with pride was made in 1865.”

I had to enquire to what that referred but I presumed it was the type of shirt. In fact, it was the colour of the shirt. What was it with the people of Nottingham and Italy? Forest choosing the colour of an Italian general and County giving Juventus their black and white stripes.

Chelsea attacked our end in the first-half. That’s not usually the case at away games. It felt odd. We began with much of the ball, with the home team hardly having a sniff. In the first part of the game, many of our moves inevitably involved moving the ball to the two central defenders, Silva and Koulibaly, who dropped aerial bombs into the Forest box.

Silva, I can understand. Koulibaly, not so.

Regardless, there were a couple of half-chances, nothing more.

The home fans were soon singing a dirge that I remembered from 1999 if not 1987.

“City Ground.

Oh mist rolling in from the Trent.

My desire is always to be here.

Oh City Ground.”

This song was from 1977/78 when Forest won the league under Cloughie. The badge from that era still features on their shirt to this day. I am not going to describe it as a design classic, but it’s not far off. It always seemed to be ahead of its time when it debuted as long ago as 1973. It still looks decent to this day, though I still squirm at the lower case “e” being used. It is almost perfection.

On then minutes, right against the run of play, Morgan Gibbs-White sent a ball through for Brennan Johnson but Kepa was able to save his low effort and the follow-up too.

It was a warning against complacency.

A couple more half-chances for us, but nothing concrete.

On sixteen minutes, Mason Mount pushed the ball to Christian Pulisic who chose his moment to pick Kai Havertz at the near post. The ball looped off the shin of a defender up onto the bar but Raheem Sterling was on hand to wallop the ball in from close range.

Get in.

Sulphurous blue smoke rolled in from the Bridgford End.

The rest of the first-half did not produce a great deal of note. Silva, as ever, exuded class throughout and was on hand on a few occasions to snub attacks with consummate ease. Forest defended deep and tried to raid on the occasional counter attack. There were rare shots at goal from Dave and Pulisic.

Our support was only roused occasionally.

It was hardly a classic.

The second-half began and how.

Forest were on the front foot right from the off and Kepa made two decent saves in the first two minutes, the first from Taiwo Awonyi, and again from Johnson, who really should have passed to the free man inside.

On ten minutes, Gibbs-White – a footballer, but also a brand of ‘seventies toothpaste – crashed a shot against Kepa’s bar, with the ball bouncing back up off the line. No goal.

To our dismay, we were letting them run at us at will.

The first substitution and Mateo Kovacic for Zakaria.

Just after, on sixty-three minutes, a corner from down by us, and a scramble at the near post. A header, the ball bounced in the air again, but the Chelsea defenders miss-timed their leaps. The ball was prodded home by Serge Aurier.

Fackinell.

The place erupted.

“Come On You Reds” has never sounded louder.

The Forest fans around us, excitable at the best of times, were now besides themselves.

The substitutions continued with three at once.

Hakim Ziyech for Sterling.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for Mount.

Conor Gallagher for Jorginho, who was apparently still on the pitch in the seventy-third minute. Who knew?

But this was dire stuff, both on the pitch and off it, with our support reduced to a murmur amidst moans of discontent.

Carney Chukwuemaka for Pulisic.

There was one, remarkably late, half-chance, a deep cross from Ziyech – who was criminally under-used during his brief cameo – just evading a Chelsea touch, any Chelsea touch, at the far post.

At the final whistle, groans. But I am sure I detected a few boos too. This was such a dire second-half performance and it almost defies description. Thankfully, our exit out of Nottingham was painless, and I reached home bang on midnight.

We now play the high-flying Manchester City twice in four days.

Oh, and in the West London League of 2022/23, echoes of forty years ago, Chelsea lie third behind Fulham and Brentford. On we go.

1987 : “Pies, pints, cheap rail travel, pay-on-the-day football, celery and ad hoc violence lurking like a dark shadow.”

Tales From The Chelsea Conundrum

Chelsea vs. Real Madrid : 6 April 2022.

So, here we were then. The first visit by Real Madrid to Stamford Bridge in a UEFA competition where spectators were allowed in. Our paths have crossed, very infrequently, in the past and in a variety of locations. Officially there have been five contests under the UEFA umbrella. In 1971, we battled in the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final over two games in Athens. In 1998, we met in the Super Cup in Monaco. And then, infuriatingly, we met last season in the semi-finals of the Champions League at a time when no spectators were allowed.

So far so good. Five games and not a single defeat.

There have been other games too. There was a charity game at Stamford Bridge in 1966 and there have been two relatively recent friendlies in the US; one in Miami in 2013 and another in Ann Arbor in 2016.

But this one was the one we had all been waiting for.

Real Madrid.

At home.

…shudder, just writing those words.

This was the real deal.

But this would be it for me. Unfortunately, I am unable to get time off from our beleaguered office for the equally eagerly anticipated away game. And, should we progress, I am still thwarted in my attempt to see a potential away game in a semi-final against Atletico Madrid due to others being away and others being off sick.

I was pretty ambivalent about it all though. With the Bernabeu getting a refit, it will be around for a long time yet. And let’s hope Chelsea get another stab at the Spanish giants. And I have already visited the stadium on two occasions already. In 1987, two college mates and I paid a ridiculously small fee to have a wander around the stadium. There was no tour, no guide. We were simply let loose on the mainly-terraced stadium. We even made it to the top of that famously high terraced section, even though I am sure we were not meant to. There was simply nobody around to chase us off. In 2009, myself and a few Chelsea mates went on a far more civilised tour of a modernised Bernabeu on a trip that saw us visit Atletico. This time, everything was a lot more swish. The difference between the stadium on the two visits could not have been greater.

This was a typical Champions League pre-match. There was a pint of Peroni in “The Goose” – revamped, refurbished, re-painted and pretty decent – and then the standard two bottles of Staropramen for a fiver in a packed “Simmons”. This bar had also benefited from a slight refit since my last visit in the group phase stage before Christmas. The lights had dimmed, music was playing. In the far corner, the chaps were fully assembled; Nick, Al, Gal, Ed, Parky, PD, Daryl, Chris, Simon and Milo. And me.

Thousands upon thousands of Chelsea games between us all.

Real Chelsea.

Gary made the point that, with music blaring and the beers going down well – laughter booming – it actually felt like a European Away. The eleven of us plotted up in a small bar, enjoying each other’s company, not a care, not a care.

“All Night Long” by Lionel Richie was playing.

With a wink and a snigger, Gal said “ah, they’re playing my song.”

I replied “the only bloody thing you do all night long these days, Gal, is the evening buffet.”

It was time to set off to Stamford Bridge. Sadly, I got drenched on the fifteen-minute walk to the Matthew Harding turnstiles. The rain in Spain was falling mainly in London SW6.

Fackinell.

But I was in with plenty of time before the match was to begin at eight o’clock. Over in the opposite corner, the away fans were massing up. It looked like Los Merengues would be cheered on by around two thousand supporters. I spotted a line of about thirty in the front rows dressed in white tops.

How cute.

Back in the ‘eighties, the Ultras Sur were their hooligan element. Banned in 2014, I glanced over and wondered if any former members had made it over. The atmosphere was bubbling along nicely. This had all the feelings of a top European night. Flickering squares of blue and silver were spotted in our section of The Shed and it was obvious that a pre-match mosaic had been planned.

With the teams appearing from the tunnel, it was time for me to juggle phone camera and SLR at the same time. I spotted Real wearing blue socks. Deep down I was hoping for them to appear in all white but knew this would never happen. At least they showed up in white shirts and socks.

Our team? Back to the more trusted 3-4-3.

Mendy

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

James – Jorginho – Kante – Azpiicueta

Mount – Havertz – Pulisic

Still no Lukaku, no complaints from me.

Right from the off, and from some moments before, the atmosphere was simply excellent. This was more like it. This is what I signed-up for. I never wanted spectators to become experts and critics at games. I simply wanted supporters to stay as, er, supporters. So far my fellow fans were not letting me down.

This was the business.

Compared to Saturday, this was a different ball game.

The contest began, a vibrant start, Real on the front foot, but the first chance came to us, a Mason Mount cross pumped low into the box. I clocked a few of their famous players; Kroos and Modric, Casemiro, Vinicius, Benzema. Oh, the ogre Courtois. The unloved Courtois. We would have a few songs lined up for him later.

In the opening flurry, one song dominated.

“We’ve got super Tommy Tuchel.”

There was a shot from Kai Havertz that flew over at our end. Yes, much to my annoyance, we were attacking the Matthew Harding in the first-half.

The rain lashed down.

A slip from Christensen let in the raiding, and instantly impressive, Vinicius who slammed a shot against the top of the crossbar at The Shed End. A free-kick from Reece James was kept out by Courtois.

The MHL entered stage left :

“Courtois – you’re a cnut, Courtois, Courtois – you’re a cnut.”

On twenty minutes, I needed to go to the loo. I made my way out of the seats. While in the gents, I heard a roar, a load roar. My immediate reaction was :

“Too quiet for a Chelsea goal.”

“Too loud for a Real goal.”

What was it? A penalty shout for us?

I was soon to find out.

Real had scored via Benzema.

Bollocks.

Just a couple of minutes later, at the exact moment that Modric played a cross into the box, I said to Al “we need to shape up.” With that, we watched as Benzema rose, without any real hindrance, and headed the ball back across the goal, well past Mendy. Talk about a perfect header.

Shocking defending.

“Free header, Al. How is that possible?”

Real then dominated and hit a purple period. We struggled to get close to them. They cut through us. Carvajal forced a save from Mendy and Christensen was available to hack the ball away. We then seemed to improve – I know not how – and on thirty-seven minutes, Thiago Silva headed over from a corner.

Alan and I were discussing our plans for Southampton as Jorginho sent in a lovely cross that dropped in to the six-yard box at the exact location for Havertz to plant a strong header past Courtois.

Out of the blue, bosh. We were back in it.

I picked up my camera to capture the post-goal celebrations, screaming into my camera all of the time.

Thinking to myself : “well, I’ve never done that before.”

The Bridge was absolutely rocking again. Yet just before the break, Benzema was put through by Vinicius inside the box and we absolutely expected to go further behind.

Inexcusably, the low shot was scuffed wide.

The first-half ended with renewed hope among the fans close to me. There were moments when, in that middle period of that first-half, when I had visions of a repeat of that 0-3 reverse at home to Bayern in 2020.

There were cheers when we saw Mateo Kovacic taking off his top on the touchline. He replaced Christensen as the shape changed to 4-3-3. Hakim Ziyech replaced Kante. Mount was withdrawn into the midfield three. I was inwardly annoyed that Jorginho stayed on. He just seemed to slow stuff down.

Alas, alas, alas.

The absolute horror show that occurred in front of our eyes in the very first minute shocked us all into stunned silence.

A weak pass from Mendy – so far out – to Rudiger was intercepted, Benzema pounced.

Fucksake.

The game died a little, unsurprisingly. We kept plugging away, and actually enjoyed most of the ball in that second-half. Madrid had no reason to go on the offensive. They had already done a job on us. Their job was to contain us. But they never stopped nibbling at us in possession.

Dave let fly with a firmly hit riser that forced a fine save from Courtois.

The singing continued.

“We all follow the Chelsea.”

On the hour I was pleased to hear a massive “Carefree” envelope the whole stadium. We were all pleading for one goal.

Tuchel made further changes.

Romelu Lukaku for the awful Pulisic.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Jorginho.

On sixty-eight minutes, there were two headers from Lukaku in quick succession. The first one almost went off for a corner but was from a difficult chance. The second one brought huge groans; a leap with no defenders close from a central position just outside the six-yard box and the ball whizzed past the right hand post.

Swearing erupted all around Stamford Bridge.

Just after, Mount let fly and his shot sadly whizzed over. We enjoyed a decent spell. Havertz danced into the box and pushed a shot at Courtois. The chances – half-chances – were mounting up.

On the scoreboard, 18 to 8 attempts in our favour.

There was just time for – almost – another Mendy cock-up, but we kept going.

I spoke to Alan : “well, we haven’t played it into Lukaku’s feet once.”

A drive from Mount forced Courtois to make a fine shot down low. The last attempt of the game was another riser, this time from Ziyech, but this one went both high and wide.

Obviously the Mendy mistake killed us. We were showing signs of getting back into the game. The second-half could have been so different. But Real were a fine team. Of our players, only Havertz and James could really hold their heads up.

The Chelsea conundrum continues.

Tales From Three Stadia In Turin / Racconti Da Tre Stadi Di Torino

Juventus vs. Chelsea : 29 September 2021.

Are you ready to go to the match with me?

“Let’s go. Andiamo!”

It was just after four o’clock. This was a full five hours before the Juventus vs. Chelsea game was due to start at the Allianz Stadium in Continassa to the north of Turin’s city centre. But I was heading south. I had decided that I would undertake a magical mystery tour of the city’s footballing past before our second Champions League game of the autumn. I was ready to immerse myself once more in the city’s footballing heritage and in my football history too. I had sorted out the timings. I was sure it would all work itself out. I would have five hours to soak myself inside Turin’s story.

I was ready.

There was no need for a jacket or top. The weather in the Northern Italian city had been exemplary, a surprising antidote to the increasingly changeable weather back home. I set off out into the warm afternoon wearing the football staples of a polo, a pair of jeans and trainers. In my camera bag, in addition to my Canon SLR and lenses, was the small Sony camera that I had purchased specifically for Porto in May, just in case the stewards at the Juventus stadium were overzealous and would decide that my long lenses were unable to be taken inside. Also inside the bag was my passport, my match ticket and my proof of two vaccinations against COVID19.

My hotel was tucked into the narrow grid of streets to the immediate south and east of Turin’s Porta Nuova train station, and I walked a few hundred yards to the Marconi tube station. The city’s one tube line would serve me well. I caught the train to Lingotto, the site of the famous old Fiat factory with its test-track on the roof, so memorably featured in the wonderful “The Italian Job” from 1969. On my last visit to Turin in 2012, I had enjoyed a very fine meal at the rather posh restaurant on the roof terrace, and had walked around the test-track, a life-time wish fulfilled.

Lingotto was the nearest metro station to my first footballing port of call; Stadio Filadelfia which was around a mile or so to the west. However, when I checked the quickest way to reach this famous old stadium, I was mortified to see that there was no quick walking route from Lingotto.

Bollocks.

It was perhaps typical that my plans had quickly taken a turn for the worse. In the build-up to this away game, there had been much anxiety as I struggled to come to terms with what exactly I needed to do to get myself to Italy. There had been tests, forms, emails, pdf attachments, vouchers, and stress at every turn. For example, when I sat down to take my “pre-flight” lateral flow test at home on the preceding Sunday, I discovered that the liquid within the vial had leaked in transit and so I had to use the kit intended to be used in Turin for my flight home. This would mean that I would need to locate a chemist’s near my hotel to take my second test. What a palaver. Even on the seemingly straightforward drive from deepest Somerset to Stansted in the small hours of Tuesday, there was extra worry. With many garages short of fuel, I became obsessed at how fast my fuel gauge was fading. I was sure that I was OK for the trip to Stansted, but I needed to fill the car with petrol in readiness for my return trip on Friday evening. Four filling stations on the A303 had no fuel. Thankfully, Fleet Services on the M3 were open and fully stocked. There was a heavy sigh of relief. With a section of the M25 closed, I then ludicrously spent twenty minutes following diversion signs that then deposited me back to where I had left the M25 and I found myself heading west and not east. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Thankfully, I arrived at my pre-booked parking spot bang on my allotted start time of 4.45am.

Phew.

Undeterred, I returned to the Lingotto subway station and quickly took a train north – retracing my very recent steps – to Carducci Molinette. From here, the stadium was around a twenty-five-minute walk away. I made haste and sped westwards. My route took me over a wide bridge that rose over the train tracks into the city’s main station.

It was along these very tracks that I would have travelled on my inaugural visit to Turin in November 1987, the city bathed in a grey mist that would not disappear all day. I remember sitting alone in the great hall of the main train station and pinning some British football badges onto a board that I had constructed at home prior to my latest Inter-Railing extravaganza. I had bought several hundred football badges from a company in Blackburn and aimed to sell as many as I could at games in Italy and Germany to help finance my travels in Europe. The Juventus vs. Panathinaikos UEFA Cup game later that evening would be my first opportunity to test the water. I had high hopes for this venture, and was equally as excited about seeing Juve, my favourite European team, for the first time.

Why Juve? A quick re-cap. They were the very first “foreign” team that I remembered seeing on TV, a European Cup game in exotic Turin against Derby County in April 1973. I made friends with Mario on an Italian beach in 1975; a Juventus fan, I had found a kindred spirit. In 1981, at the same beach resort, I met his friend Tullio, also a Juve fan. We have been friends ever since. I last saw Mario in that home town in 2019. I last saw Tullio in London in 2018. But these are just the essentials. Our three lives have intertwined for decades now.

As I walked south on Via Giordano Bruno, I stopped at a small shop to buy a “Coke” as my throat was parched. The previous day had been a long one; up at midnight, a flight at 6.45am, a tiring walk from Porta Sousa train station to my hotel, and then two spells of drinking, the second one long into the night with friends old and new at “The Huntsman” on the main drag. I was awake, in total, for around twenty-five hours. The “Coke” gave me just the kick I needed as I approached Stadio Filadelfia.

This stadium was the home of the all-conquering Torino team of the 1940’s, Il Grande Torino, who were so cruelly killed in the Superga air disaster of 4 May 1949. Growing up in England, I had heard Superga mentioned many times. At first I presumed that Superga was a small town near Turin where the plane, returning from a friendly in Lisbon, had crashed. Only later did I realise that Superga was a hill right on the eastern edge of the city. I then, with a mixture of amazement and horror, realised that the plane had crashed into the rear of a basilica perched right on top of that hill.

I always say it was akin to the successful Arsenal team of the ‘thirties crashing into Big Ben.

On the bus from the Turin airport at Caselle on Tuesday morning, I was telling this story to Pete, who along with my great pal Alan (and a host of other familiar Chelsea faces including a fanzine editor, an erstwhile Chelsea media man, a former Headhunter and a porn star) had been on the same Ryanair flight as myself. Just as I mentioned Superga – “you probably can’t see it in this haze” – Pete immediately spotted it away in the distance.

“Is that it?”

Indeed, it was.

As I approached the stadium, which has recently been painstakingly updated after decades of neglect, the memories of a previous visit to Turin came flooding back. In May 1992, three college friends – Pete, Ian, Trev – and I drove through France to attend a Juventus vs. Sampdoria game at Stadio Delle Alpi. On the day after the game, we drove up to Superga on the forty-third anniversary of the crash. We spent some time there. I remember I took my father’s new, and huge, camcorder on this trip and I shot a few segments of our visit. After, we drove down into Turin and parked up outside Stadio Filadelfia and hoped that we could peek inside. In 1992, the terracing on three sides were still intact, if very overgrown. The old main stand was held up with scaffolding. But we were able to walk onto the famous pitch and we even found a football to kick around for a few joyful minutes. The goal frames were still intact. Goals were scored at La Filadelfia. What fun. We then sat on the east terrace in quiet contemplation; Superga in another haze in the distance, the old Fiat factory nearby, the stadium still surrounded by tight working class flats on three of its sides. I imagined the roar of the crowd in those halcyon days. We took it all in.

Then, out of nowhere, we spotted two middle-aged women appear on the far side underneath the faded burgundy of the antiquated main stand. They were carrying two wreaths, and strode slowly on to the pitch, before stopping at the centre-circle to place the flowers on the turf.

It remains one of my most special football memories.

Torino played at Stadio Filadelfia from 1926 to 1960 and then shared the larger Stadio Communale with Juventus from 1961 to 1990. For many years, as the two teams hopped around stadia in the city, it was hoped that Torino would eventually return to their spiritual home. A while back, I was truly saddened to see it was in a very poor condition. So imagine my elation when I recently found out that a startling metamorphosis has taken place. A new main stand has been constructed, and a new pitch has been sewn. It now houses 4,000, and in addition to housing the club HQ, it also hosts the club museum and the team’s youth teams play games on this most sacred of sites.

As I circumnavigated the stadium, I remembered how decrepit the place had become. Its resurgence since 2015 has been sensational. I chatted to a Toro fan as I walked around and took some photographs. He was even wearing a burgundy – officially pomegranate – T-shirt and I thought to myself –

“You can’t get much more Toro than that.”

There is another Torino story, and one that tends to give the city an air of sadness in terms of football, and specifically with regards to the Torino club. I recently read the excellent “Calcio” book by John Foot. One chapter concerned the life and subsequent death of the Torino player, a real maverick, called Gigi Meroni. He joined Torino in 1964 and soon became the idol of the team’s supporters. A skilful and artistic ball-player in the style of George Best – a flamboyant playboy off the pitch, much admired by both sexes – he was out with a team mate after a Torino home game in 1967. Crossing the road near his flat on Corso Re Umberto, he was hit by two cars. He sadly died later in hospital. Bizarrely, the driver of the first car lived thirteen doors down from Meroni on that very street, and idolised Meroni, even adopting the same hairstyle. Over 20,000 people attended the funeral. In a bizarre twist, in 2000 the Torino club appointed a new president; a native of Turin, an executive at Fiat. His name was Attilio Romero, who just happened to be the driver of the first car that had hit Meroni in 1967. On my walk to my hotel on the previous day, I had stopped by the memorial on Corso Re Umberto to pay my respects. With the Juventus tragedy at Heysel haunting many in the city, Turin certainly has its share of sadness.

It was approaching 5pm now and I walked a few blocks west. Next up was Stadio Olimpico, formerly Stadio Communale, and the current home of Torino. The two stadia are only a quarter of a mile apart. I walked past a bar where two friends and I had visited in 1989. This was another trip into Turin for a Juventus game with college friends. We caught a bus down to have a mosey around the stadium on a sunny Saturday morning before the game with Fiorentina on the Sunday and spent a couple of hours chatting and drinking and basically enjoying each other’s company. I was twenty-three, we had just won the Second Division Championship, and I was off to the US in the September. At the time, it seemed like a dream weekend in the middle of a dream summer, and it does even more so now. Bob was Leeds, Pete was Newcastle, I was Chelsea. But for that weekend we were all Juventus. I remember we all bought Juventus polos in the ridiculously small Juve store within a central department store.

Memories were jumping around inside my head now. I walked along Via Filadelfia and the years evaporated.

On my first visit in 1987, I arrived outside the home turnstiles as thousands of Juventus fans were singing and chanting a full three hours before they made their way inside the preferred home end of the Curva Filadelfia. I set up shop outside and sold around thirty badges – Chelsea and Liverpool the best sellers – before then plotting up outside the Curva Maratona, selling a few more, then heading inside to see Ian Rush and Juventus defeat Panathinaikos 3-2, but sadly get eliminated due to away goals. I remember the pink flares before the game, I remember the noise of the passionate bianconeri, I remember I was positioned in the very back row of the Maratona, right next to the main stand, Gianni Agnelli and all. Antonio Conte’s right-hand man Angelo Alessio scored one of the three Juventus goals that evening. It is a night I will never forget, my first European night, and my first visit to the home of Juventus, a sprawling stadium with those iconic curved goal stanchions, and the team with those baggy white shorts.

I remembered March 1988 and the visit of Internazionale, their masses of fans packing out the Maratona, while I proudly stood on the Filadelfia for the first time. Two banners in the Maratona : “WIN FOR US” and “RUSH – YOUR WIFE IS FUCKING.” Juve won that game 1-0 with a Marino Magrin penalty.

A visit in November 1988, my first flight into Europe for football, and I watched with my friend Tullio on the distinti as Napoli – with Diego Maradona at the very heart of its team in light blue shirts – defeated Juventus by the ridiculous score of 5-3. Tullio, aware that his Napoli friend Giorgio was in the Maratona, memorably wanted to leave at half-time when the visitors were already 3-1 up.

The game against Fiorentina in 1989, and the memory of piles and piles of the magazine “Guerin Sportivo” lying at the base of the Curva Filedelfia, intended to be claimed by home fans and then torn up as the teams entered the pitch. Instead, I gathered three different copies to take away from the game and to add to my collection. In those days, I would often buy “La Gazzetta” in Bath or “Guerin Sportivo” in London to keep up-to-date with Italian football. In 1988/89, I could probably rattle off most starting elevens of the dominant teams in Italy. In 2021/22, I struggle with the starting elevens of the main English teams.

I guess I have seen too much.

Also from that game, Roberto Baggio, of Fiorentina, getting sent-off in a 1-1 draw, but also the 2,000 strong visiting Fiorentina fans leaving early, possibly to avoid an ambush or perhaps to carry out an ambush en route back to the main station.

As with the scene that greeted me in 1987, there was masses of graffiti adorning the wall opposite the turnstiles. In 2021, all football related, and undoubtedly inflammatory against certain teams. In 1987, graffiti of a more political nature; the names Pinochet and Hess hinted at the rumoured right-wing bias of some dominant Juve supporter groups.  The old adage was Juve, Lazio and Inter right, Torino, Roma and Milan left though those rules seem to have diluted and changed in the subsequent years.

I turned the corner and peaked inside at the main stand. From our 1992 visit, I remember the four of us had sidled into the Stadio Communale unhindered – our version of “The Italian Job” – and had scrambled over to the main stand as easy as you like. The stadium was deserted, it was used occasionally for athletics, and I remember I even spent a few minutes sitting in the old directors’ box, possibly the seat used by either the owner Agnelli or the president Giampiero Boniperti.

As I turned north, with the turnstiles to the Curva Maratona in view, I remembered my very last visit to the stadium, in March 2009, with Chelsea. As you can imagine, what with my Juventus side-line, the meeting of the two teams was pretty much my dream tie. I remember I had gambled on Bristol to Turin flights – £37 – and I well remember my old boss coming into a meeting one morning to tell me “Juventus” when the draw was made. My gamble had paid off. While the unloved Delle Alpi was being demolished and then the new Juventus Stadium rebuilt on the same site, both Turin teams decamped to their former home, now remodelled and upgraded for the 2006 Winter Olympics. Now with a roof, and a deeper distinti – but bizarrely looking smaller than the Communale – around 3,000 Chelsea loudly supported the boys on a fantastic evening in Turin, a 2-2 draw enough for us to advance on away goals. It was, indeed, the game of my life.

By the way, the Juventus manager that night? Claudio Ranieri. I wonder what happened to him.

It was now around 6.30pm and I needed to move on. But I liked the view of the Stadio Olimpico from the north. The marathon tower, which I believe was once known as the Mussolini Tower – the stadium was once known as Stadio Benito Mussolini – looks over the roofed stadium and there are huge sculptures by Tony Cragg, similar to those that I saw outside that wonderful art gallery in Baku in 2019. On my hurried walk back to Carducci Molinette – past joggers and cyclists and power-walkers, and folk practising tai-chi – I walked alongside a park that I remembered from my very first visit in 1987, saddened with Juventus’ exit from the UEFA Cup and not sure where – on what train – I would be sleeping that night.

Who would have possibly thought that thirty-four years later, I would be preparing myself for my third Juventus vs. Chelsea game of my life? Certainly not me. That season, Chelsea were relegated to Division Two.

We’ve come a long way baby.

And this was the crux of this whole trip. Despite this trip to Turin coming too soon in a COVID-confused autumn – the first away trip of the campaign – and with the pandemic still active throughout Europe, with all of the allied concerns and stresses, it was the lure of Chelsea playing Juventus that did it for me. I am not bothered about going to Malmo. A trip to St. Petersburg in December would be superb, but maybe too expensive and too “involved”. But Juventus? I just had to be there.

At around 7.10pm, I was headed into the city on the subway and the evening’s game was now in my sights. At every station, I expected more fans to join. But there were hardly any. Admittedly, the attendance would be clipped at around the 20,000 mark – we had allegedly sold 500 of our allotted 1,000 – but I just expected more fans to be on their way north. It was all very odd.

At around 7.30pm, I exited at Bernini station. Here, we had been told on the official Chelsea website, to take a shuttle bus to the stadium. Again, hardly any match-going fans were in the vicinity. The stadium was a good two and a half miles away. I began to worry. What if there was no bus? I toured around all points of the compass and eventually spotted a few likely match-goers at a bus stop. Phew. The bus took maybe twenty-five minutes to finally reach the stadium. Three young Chelsea lads in full replica-shirt regalia were sat close by.

Too noisy. Too full of it. Too eager. Too annoying.

God, I am getting old.

Just after 8pm, the bus deposited us at the northern end of the stadium and I made my way past a few street vendors selling fast food, panini, hot dogs, crisps, wurst, drinks, and also various Juventus trinkets. Outside the away turnstiles, a ring of police guarded our entrance. Ahead stood the two “A” frame supports that are effectively the sole remnants of the old Delle Alpi stadium which stood on the site from 1990 to 2009.

My first visit here was during that 1992 trip; we watched high up along the western side in the upper tier towards the home Curva Scirea. Sadly, the game with Sampdoria – Gianluca Vialli in attack – was a poor 0-0 draw. A couple of years earlier, of course, the stadium witnessed Gazza’s tears amid the tumultuous England vs. West Germany World Cup semi-final.

My only other game at the old Delle Alpi came on a Sunday after Tullio’s wedding to Emanuela on a Saturday in May 1999. Rather bleary-eyed from the excesses of the wedding reception, I caught a cab to the stadium and arranged with the cab driver to pick me up right after the game with Fiorentina, yes them again, and whip me up to Caselle to catch the flight home. Juventus had just lost to Manchester United in the Champions League semi-final the previous midweek, and the mood was a little sombre. I nabbed tickets in the other side stand, again near the Curva Scirea, and watched as Juventus – Zinedine Zidane et al – beat the hated Viola 2-1 with a very late goal from none other than Antonio Conte. Our former manager went into Juventus folklore that afternoon. After scoring, he ran towards the 1,000 or so away fans located, stranded, in the middle tier, and taunted them by pulling out the corner flag and waving it at them in a show of braggadocio.

The time was drawing on and there was a crowd waiting to enter the Allianz Stadium.

“Good job we have time on our side.”

I patiently waited in line, and spotted a few friends amid the Chelsea faithful. This was where it could have gone all so wrong. After I had picked up my match ticket at the city centre hotel at around 3pm – a police van parked outside just to keep us company – I returned to my hotel room. I almost put my passport to one side – “won’t need that again” – but then remembered that in Italy a passport is required at the turnstiles. Time was moving on but the line didn’t seem to be diminishing too quickly. Tempers were getting a little fraught. Just three stewards checking five-hundred passports. Police spotters – Goggles and his cronies – were loitering, and a few unidentified persons were filming our every move. It did feel a little intimidating.

A familiar voice :

“Hurry up. Only two euros.”

Eventually, I made it to the front of the huddle.

The first check married up my passport with my COVID19 pass, and then there was a temperature check.

OK so far.

Then a passport check against my match ticket.

OK.

Then a quick pat down and a very quick check of my camera bag.

OK.

Then, further inside, another passport and match ticket check.

OK.

I walked on, up the steps, a quick visited to use the facilities and I was inside at around 8.35pm.

“Good job I work in logistics.”

I made my way into the sparsely populated lower tier and chatted to a few friends. A quick word with Ryan from Stoke, with whom I had enjoyed some mojitos the previous night.

“Good night, wannit, Ryan?”

“Was it? Can’t remember getting in.”

I soon spotted Alan and Pete and made my way over to see them. We would watch the match from almost the same position as the November 2012 game.

At the time of that visit, the Allianz Stadium was known as the Juventus Stadium and had only opened in 2011. It was a horrible night, Chelsea suffered a lame 0-3 loss, and the game signalled the end of Roberto di Matteo’s short reign as Chelsea manager. I remember the sadness of the following morning and a text from a work colleague that informed me of the sudden news. Nine years later, I remember little of the game. I know we played with no real striker, a false nine, and Juventus were well worth their win. The loss would cost us our place in that season’s competition.

Oh well. We just sailed full steam ahead and won the Europa League in Amsterdam instead.

First thoughts?

It is a decent stadium. But it was odd to see it at half-strength. I had forgotten that there are odd corner roof supports that rise up and cause an irritating intrusion to an otherwise fine view of the pitch. The stands rise steeply. There are more executive areas on the far side, the East Stand, than on the adjacent West Stand. Down below us, the goal frame where – approximately – Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle saddened us in 1990 and where Antonio Conte scored in 1999 stood tantalisingly close.

The colour scheme is, of course, black and white, and there are three yellow stars – denoting Juventus’ 36 title wins – picked out in the seats of the southern Curva Scirea.

The trouble I have with the new pad is that it is still jettisoned out on the northern reaches of the city away from – in my mind – the club’s historical roots to the south of the city. I first fell in love with that amazing team of the ‘seventies of Zoff, Scirea, Gentile, Tardelli, Bettega, Causio, Cabrini et al…then Boniek, Platini, Laudrup, those Ariston shirts, the Stadio Communale, the old lady, the old team, the old club. Juventus at the Allianz Stadium – all flash, all corporate boxes, all show – just seems all rather false.

Modern football, eh?

My visits to the stadia of Turin was now updated.

Stadio Communale : 4 games, 1 visit inside on a non-match-day and 1 visit outside on a non-match day.

Stadio Delle Alpi : 2 games.

Juventus Stadium : 1 game.

Allianz Stadium : 1 game.

Stadio Olimpico : 1 game and 1 visit outside on a non-match day.

Stadio Filadelfia : 1 visit inside on a non-match day ( and at least 1 goal…) and 1 visit outside.

Five stadia, but only three sites. It’s a confusing story, isn’t it?

But there’s more. I helped to arrange a delivery of office chairs to Juventus on Corso Gaetano Scirea a few years ago. And only on the day before I left for Turin, I learned that a company that I use for express vans around Europe takes care of delivering VAR equipment around Europe for UEFA and had just delivered to Juventus.

Small world, eh?

The clock quickly approached the nine o’clock kick-off time. Just as the Juventus anthem was starting to be aired – “La Storia Di Un Grande Amore” – Alan whispered to me.

“Don’t want you singing along.”

I smiled.

“I know the words.”

“I know you do!”

As I changed lenses on my camera, I could not help lip-synching a little. Both teams appeared in blue tracksuit tops. The Champions League anthem played. I was surprised to see a few folk wearing Chelsea replica shirts in the home area to my left, beyond the plexi-glass. They were soon moved along, or out, I know not which.

As the game began, I could hardly believe the amount of Juventus fans wearing replica shirts. There has certainly been a sea change in Italian terrace fashion in the years that I have been attending games in Turin. Just as in England in the late ‘eighties and early ‘nineties, hardly anyone bothered with team shirts. In Italy, more than in the UK, it was all about the scarves in those days. Trends change, and there are more replica shirts on offer than ever before these days, yet a huge section of match-going regulars in the UK refuse to be drawn in. For the English connoisseur of football fashion, many look upon the Italians – “Paninaro, oh, oh, oh” – as excellent reference points in the never-ending chase for style and substance. Yet here we all were, a few of us decked out in our finery – Moncler, Boss and Armani made up my Holy Trinity on this warm night in Turin – yet the locals were going 180 degrees in the opposite direction and opted for replica shirts with players’ names.

Et tu Brute? Vaffanculo.

The Chelsea team?

We had heard that King Kante had succumbed to the dreaded COVID, while Reece James was injured. The manager chose an eleven that we hoped would fare better than in the miserable capitulation to Manchester City a few days previously.

Mendy.

Christensen – Silva – Rudiger

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Ziyech – Havertz

Lukaku

The match began and we started decently enough. There was a stab at goal from inside the box by Roemelu Lukaku from a corner by Marcos Alonso but this did not cause the former Arsenal ‘keeper Wojciech Szcezsaczsaeisniey any anxiety. Soon into the game, the Chelsea loyalists in the tiny quadrant decided to go Italian and honour some of our former Italian greats.

“One Di Matteo, there’s only one di Matteo.”

“Gianfranco Zola, la, la, la, la, la, la.”

“Vialli! Vialli! Vialli! Vialli!”

There wasn’t even a flicker from the black and white fans to my left.

Then a memory from a night in Milan.

“Oh Dennis Wise scored a fackin’ great goal in the San Siro with ten minutes to go.”

We lost possession via Kovacic and Chiesa broke away in the inside right channel, but his speculative shot from an angle was well wide of the far post.

Chelsea enjoyed much of the possession in that first-half. Whereas City had been up and at us, pressurising us in our defensive third, Juve were going old school Italian, defending very deep, with the “low block” of modern parlance. And we found it so hard to break them down. It became a pretty boring game, with few moments of skill and enterprise.

I spoke to Alan.

“There’s not much space in their penalty box. In fact, there’s even less space when Lukaku is in it.”

Despite Romelu’s weight loss from his days at Manchester United, he still resembles the QE2 with a turning circle to match.

It just wasn’t going for us. Very rarely did we get behind the Juventus back line. Balls were played at Lukaku, rather than to him, and the ball bounced away from him on so many times. It seemed that he often had three defenders on him.

He was full of De Ligt.

At the other end, Federico Chiesa looked to be Juventus’ main threat, and a shot flashed wide. He followed this up with another effort that did not trouble Mendy one iota. A rising shot from Rabiot was well over. The former Chelsea player Juan Quadrado rarely got involved. Juventus were easily leading in terms of efforts on goal.

At our end, there were hardly quarter chances let alone half chances.

“CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA. CAM ON CHOWLSEA.”

The players couldn’t hear us. This was a dull game, and getting poorer by the minute. At half-time, I received a text from Tullio, now living in Moncalieri, a few miles south of Turin, but watching in a Turin pub with friends :

“Boring.”

Tuchel replaced Alonso with Ben Chilwell at the break.

It is my usual modus operandi to mainly use my zoom lens once the action starts, but I often take a few panorama shots with my wide angle lens just at the start of the second-half just to vary things a little. Thus, once the Spanish referee instigated the restart, I lifted my camera and took one and then two shots of the stadium with the game being played out below it. The first photograph was of a Juventus break; the second photograph was of a Juventus goal.

And just like that, crash, bang, wallop, we were losing 1-0.

Fackinell.

The goal was conceded after just eleven seconds of play in the second-half. It was a wicked smash and grab raid by that man Chiesa. The goal shocked and silenced the away fans. In reality, I doubted very much that Juventus, with Bonucci on the pitch and Chiellini waiting in the wings, would let this slip.

We still created little.

On the hour, more substitutions.

Jorginho, Dave and Ziyech off.

Chalobah, Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi on.

Juventus, mid-way through the half, really should have put the game to bed when a long ball was cushioned by Cuadrado into the path of Bernardeschi, but his heavy touch put the ball wide.

The final substitution with a quarter of an hour to go.

Barkley on for Christensen.

We had all the ball but never ever looked like scoring. I just willed Callum to get his head down and get past his man but he rarely did. There was a lame header from Lukaku, and after Barkley – showing some spirit and a willingness to take people on – tee’d up Lukaku, the Belgian striker fluffed his chance close in on goal.

“We won’t score, mate.”

Late on, a lazy header from Havertz only bothered the ball boys and press photographers at the Curva Scirea.

It was, again, a rotten night in Continassa.

In the last few minutes, Chelsea supporters in the top tier had decided to throw beer on the Juve fans to my left, but ended up soaking myself and a few fellow supporters.

For fuck sake.

We made our slow, silent way out to the waiting fleet of around seven buses that took us back to the centre of the city. Sirens wailed as we were given a police escort, with blue lights flashing.

Did I imagine it, or did someone spray “Osgood Is Good” on one of the buses?

I chatted with a bloke who I had not seen before. He told me that of his seventeen trips to Europe with Chelsea, he had seen just three wins. I begged him to stay away in future.

It was, after the stresses of getting out to Turin in the first place, such a disappointing game. We all walked en masse back into the pubs and hotels of Turin. I chatted briefly to Neil Barnett as we slouched along Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, and we agreed –

“That was a hard watch.”

A chat with Cal.

“Fancy joining us for a beer at The Shamrock?”

“Nah mate. My hotel is just around the corner. I am off to bed.”

It was approaching 12.30am. I darted into a late night café and devoured a kebab, washed down with two iced-teas. It was my first real meal of the day.

It was time to call it a night.

My trip to Turin stretched into Thursday and Friday. On Thursday, there was a quick “tampone rapido” test at a nearby chemist, and thankfully I was negative. I met up with my work colleague Lorenzo and his wife Marina. Although they are both natives of Milan, this was their first ever visit to Turin, despite being in their late ‘fifties. I remarked to Lorenzo, an Inter fan, that it’s “because of Juventus isn’t it?” and he was forced to agree. That Inter / Juve “derby d’Italia” animosity runs deep.

We met up with Serena, who works for a furniture dealership in Turin, and she gave us a super little tour of a few of the palaces and piazzas of the city centre. We visited Palazzo Reale, the former royal palace of the governing Savoy family, and enjoyed an al fresco lunch in the September sun. We later visited Superga – of course – and Lorenzo loved it, despite the sadness. One last photo call at Monte Dei Cappuccini, and he then drove me back to my hotel.

In the evening, saving the best to last, Tullio collected me outside my hotel and picked up his mother en route to an evening meal at Tullio’s apartment in Moncalieri. Sadly, Tullio lost his father last year, so the evening was tinged with a little sadness. But it was magical to see his family again. His daughters Sofia and Lucrezia are into canoeing and rowing. At seventeen, Sofia – who practices on the nearby River Po – is a national champion in the under-23 age group.

We reminisced about our past and remembered the times spent on the beach in Diano Marina in those lovely days of our youth.

Ah, youth.

Juventus.

Maybe that’s it.

On Friday, it was time to leave Turin. It had been, “assolutamente”, a simply superb four days in the sun. At Caselle airport, there was time for one last meal – gnocchi, my favourite – and one last bottle of iced tea. There was a quick chat with a couple of the Juventus women’s team en route to an away game against Roma. And there was time for a raid on the Robe Di Kappa shop, that famous logo reminding me so much of the Juventus kits of yore. There was even a photo of Roberto Bettega in his prime behind the till.

I walked a few yards across the tarmac to board the waiting 3.30 plane home, and I spotted Superga away on the hill in the distance.

Until next time, Turin, until next time.

Stadio Filadelfia

Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino

Allianz Stadium

Postcards From Turin

Tales From Our Time In The Sun

Chelsea vs. Villareal : 11 August 2021.

There was a moment in The Harp bar in Belfast’s historic and beguiling Cathedral Quarter that will live with me for a while. Parky and I had met up with our good friends from Edinburgh Gillian, Kev and Rich at just after 2pm on the day of the game. We were then joined by old friends Daryl, Ed, Gary and Pete in our favourite Belfast bar. We loved the décor, the attentive staff, the choice of beers – including draft Peroni – and the excellent music. We had crowded around a couple of tables for a few hours and had been predictably catching up with each other after almost a year and a half apart. There was the usual flow of stories, jokes and laughter but also – in these rather odd times in which we have found ourselves – a few sobering tales of health issues, of how we tried to overcome the stresses of lockdown and a few fleeting mentions of Chelsea Football Club where time permitted. The time, of course, absolutely flew past. The kick-off between Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea and Unai Emery’s Villareal was at 8pm. We had decided to leave for Windsor Park at around 6pm, but I was hoping for some sort of suspension of time so that we could just enjoy this wonderful pre-match for a few precious moments more.

And then things improved further still. One of the bar staff decided to open the concertina windows that fronted onto the narrow street outside. The sunlight suddenly shone into the bar, and the late afternoon air immediately hit us.

It seemed that after our yearlong hibernation from watching Chelsea, we were now catapulted into a warm – and warming – future.

“After those dark, bleak months away from Chelsea, this is our time in the sun boys.”

It really was sheer bliss. We were all livened by the sun’s rays.

We got more beers in.

Perfect.

There was a time when the city of Belfast in Northern Ireland would have been a no-go for me. Even as recently as twenty years ago, it seemed a rather intimidating place, as it endeavoured to escape the shackles of its sectarian past. When I started travelling around Europe independently and also with friends, Belfast was simply a place too far. I can remember being genuinely scared of the city, a result of watching all of those awful images on TV in the ‘seventies of bombs and desolation. For a while, it seemed that every time I stayed up late on a Saturday night in the early ‘seventies to watch “Match Of The Day”, there would be harrowing film of a city under siege on the preceding news on BBC1. Names such as the Falls Road, the Shankhill Road, the Crumlin Road and Divis Flats have stayed in my consciousness from early those days.

Thankfully, times have changed. For a few years I have been promising myself a trip to Belfast – EasyJet run cheap flights from nearby Bristol – so there was a sense of real joy when it became apparent that Belfast would be hosting the 2021 UEFA Super Cup Final. I love the way that Chelsea has dragged me to some of the cities that I have always wanted to visit; Moscow, Jerusalem, Tokyo, Beijing…St. Petersburg is waiting in the wings.

What luck.

Not long after our – still – surprising journey to this Champions League Final and subsequent victory against Manchester City, it did not take me long at all to book flights and a hotel to Belfast. I managed to coerce Parky to join me. We would be in town for three long days. Compared to the stresses of last summer, this year has been a relative breeze at work but I have to admit the thought of a lovely Chelsea-fuelled break in Belfast has kept me going when things darkened a little.

I was, deep down, hoping to be something of a lucky charm for Chelsea. I have only ever attended one UEFA Super Cup before, the only one where we have been victorious; our first one in Monaco in 1998. I did not travel again to Monaco in 2012, nor Prague in 2013 nor Istanbul in 2019.

But Monaco 1998. What a trip.

As winners of the European Cup Winners’ Cup against Joachim Low’s Stuttgart, Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea were assured of a place in the subsequent Super Cup match against Guus Hiddink’s Real Madrid – winners of the European Cup against Juventus – in Monaco in August. Of course, in those days both finals were held on Wednesdays. We won in Stockholm on 13 May, then had to wait a week to see who we would be playing. It will surprise nobody that I was hoping that Juventus would be our opposition in Monaco. It would have been my dream matchup, even though we would have been ridiculously out-numbered by the Italians with Turin only a few hours away.  But just as we won in Sweden with a single goal from Gianfranco Zola, it was the Castilians who triumphed by the same score in Amsterdam with a goal from Predrag Mijatovic.

At the time of the game in Sweden, I was famously unemployed; I had lost my job the previous month. But by the time that August came around, I had moved into a very satisfying job in logistics, although those first few months were pretty frantic. But my employer granted me time off at the end of the month, so all was well. A company called Millwest – a Manchester sports travel firm, formerly Universal – had advertised a four-day coach trip to the South of France that included a night in nearby Nice for a decent price of £129. The match ticket was extra.

My mate Andy – who travelled to Porto with me in May this year – was the only one of my close Chelsea mates that fancied it. The season was two games old. I didn’t attend the opening 1-2 loss at Coventry City, but was at the following weekend’s 1-1 draw at home to Newcastle United. New players included Brian Laudrup, Pierluigi Casiraghi, Albert Ferrer and Marcel Desailly. It was a considerable upgrade to our squad.

Andy and I met up at a pub near Victoria around lunchtime on the Thursday ahead of the game in Monaco on the Friday evening. We boarded the coach and started talking to our travel companions. I think we semi-recognised a few from The Harwood Arms which was one of the hardcore pubs around that time. I remember a gaggle of lads from Highbridge in Somerset who had brought along a few flagons of the local “Rich’s” cider. One lad – Jamie – I see on odd occasions to this day. One of his crew was a lad who wasn’t really into football, attending his first-ever game, and bore an uncanny resemblance to serial killer Fred West. I remember a lad who was Tommy Langley’s cousin on the coach. Most were blokes. Virtually all in fact. Once in France, we stopped at the “Eastenders” wholesale drinks warehouse and stocked up on beer and cheese. The banter among new friends slowly faded away as we all fell asleep on the ten-hour drive south. We all occupied double seats. There was plenty of room.

Not long after waking on the Friday morning the coach broke down on the wide approach towards the coast. We were only shy of our destination by around twenty miles.  After a couple of nervous hours on the side of the motorway, we eventually limped into Nice. We sensed that the relationship between the drivers, an American and a Canadian, was already strained. Our surprisingly good quality hotel was on the western end of Promenade D’Anglais, the main road that hugged the beach. We were suitably impressed.

A quick change around lunchtime and then a bus into the town centre. Typically, we bumped into Jonesy from Andy’s home town of Nuneaton. We plotted up at a table and enjoyed some beer and pizza.

We later found ourselves outside a bar at the main station at Nice, where a decade or so earlier I had slept al fresco on my travels around Europe as I waited for an early morning train into Italy. Andy spotted Hicky in the distance, the first time I had seen him since the ‘eighties, a visitor from Thailand and at one time the nation’s most infamous football hooligan. We hopped on a train for the short twenty minute into Monaco.  The stadium is a stone’s throw from the train station.

The pre-match was memorable for Andy’s altercation with the Labour MP and Chelsea supporter Tony Banks outside the VIP entrance.

Previously, the Super Cup had been played over two legs.

1998 was the first year of it being played in Monaco where it resided until 2012. It was always held on the same weekend as the UEFA draws and I believe most draws were made in Monaco during that era.

Of course, the Monaco stadium is an odd creation. The pitch is famously above several stories of facilities including a basketball arena and a car park. It holds 16,000 but the gate on that night in 1998 was 11,589. My guess is that no more than one thousand Chelsea supporters were present. We were allocated the open away end with its nine high arches at the rear of the yellow seats.

It was a case of “sit where you like” and Andy and I chose to stand behind the goal.

Chelsea played in all blue, which was considered unlucky by many until we won the league at Bolton in 2005 in that colour combination.

I remember little of the game. I think the pitch was pretty bumpy and didn’t play true. Real Madrid had many more supporters than us at the opposite end; maybe four thousand. Real’s team included Roberto Carlos, Christian Panucci, Fernando Hierro, Clarence Seedorf and Raul. They were no mugs for sure. But we won it with a solitary goal from Gus Poyet in the eighty-third minute, a low strike at our end. I remember our new signing Brian Laudrup made his debut for us just after our goal.

At the time, it seemed we were invincible in the cup competitions.

1997 FA Cup

1998 Football League Cup

1998 European Cup Winners’ Cup

1998 UEFA Super Cup

After the game, Andy uttered the famous line…

“In a bar in Madrid right now, there’s an old Real Madrid fan who is saying” –

“Chelsea. They always beat us.”

We hopped onto a waiting train, triumphant. We enjoyed a few more beers before calling it a night.

In the morning, we were to learn that out on the promenade in the small hours of Saturday morning, Fred West had an altercation of his own with a woman who revealed herself to be a transvestite and then, if that wasn’t enough a shock for our Fred – after a little provocation from what I remember – drew a pistol and fired a few shots into the air. Fred West raced back to the safety of the hotel and according to Jamie when I saw him a few years back has not been seen at a game since.

On the Saturday, we dipped into Nice again for a few more beers and a bite to eat. These were simply super times. The Chelsea stories came thick and fast. This was all a bit like the second coming of Chelsea; we were all in love with the 1970/71 team and here we were witnessing a repeat in 1997/98.

We caught a cab back to the hotel and I can remember this moment as if it was yesterday.

A little boozy, light-headed with beers, the window open, laughter from my new-found friends alongside me, the Mediterranean sky overhead, the warm air brushing my cheeks, high on life, high on Chelsea, high on everything.

It was my time in the sun, and one that I was to repeat twenty-three years later.

Super.

But this was to be the briefest of away trips in reality. We left for the long return trip home during early afternoon on the Saturday.

Sadly, the coach broke down again near Marseille. A few lads needed to be back in the UK on the Sunday so got off and caught a cab to Marseille airport. There followed another frustrating wait for a few hours. Eventually we got going. I slept fitfully. I remember sitting in a French service station eating a dodgy sandwich around midnight when the news broke that one of the coach drivers had stormed off in a moody fit. I can recollect seeing him walking away with his little bag on wheels being towed behind him. We pleaded with him to return. One driver would not be able to get us to Calais in light of the driving regulations. Eventually he relented. On the approach to Calais there was a further fuel leak and the coach limped home. On the motorway back in Blighty, we pulled into a services and changed coaches. We arrived back in London at around 5pm on the Sunday, a good five hours later than planned.

It was, as we joked, a character-building trip and one that always brings a smile of happiness when Andy and I remember it.

Twenty-three years ago, though.

Fackinell.

Postcards From Monaco.

The trip to the 2021 Super Cup had begun for me with an early alarm at 2am in the small hours of Tuesday, the day before the game. I collected Parky at 4am. By 5am we had arrived at Bristol Airport. It was no surprise that we saw a gaggle of familiar Chelsea faces from the West of England on our 7am flight to Belfast International Airport. There were around thirty Chelsea on the flight which lasted less than an hour. Friends Foxy from Dundee and Rich from Edinburgh were waiting for us outside the terminal and we soon hopped into a cab to take us into the city. We were joined by Jason from Newport, who decided to swap his accommodation in favour of the last room that was available at our – cheaper – hotel just south of the city centre.

We set off on a walkabout.

Foxy had visited Belfast on many occasions and so walked and talked us through the city centre. Parky had first visited the city with the British army on two tours in the early ‘seventies. After an Ulster Fry breakfast in the Cathedral Quarter, we decided to head down to Sandy Row, something of a loyalist stronghold, and we dived into a pub called “The Royal” at just after 11am. It was packed, and packed with some very familiar faces. We supped the first beers of the trip and bumped into Daryl and Ed quite by chance. There were nearby murals of George Best, of Hurricane Higgins, of local factory workers, of normal Belfast folk, but also of Joe Bambrick – Linfield and Northern Ireland – who also played for us in the 1930’s. Playing for Linfield, he scored a staggering 286 goals in 183 games. We returned to the city centre for another beer in “Fibber Magees.”

Parky and I then embarked on a pre-paid black cab tour of the city. Our guide – a cabbie called Kieran – was wearing a Leeds United away shirt and was full of smiles when I noticed it.

“Are you Leeds?”

“No, Chelsea.”

The tour was supposed to last an hour, but it lasted two and a quarter hours. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The photographs show some of the sights that we visited. It was – of course – rather eerie to find myself walking along the Falls Road and the Shankhill. More learned and erudite students of the history of this particular part of the world are far better placed than myself to comment on Belfast’s sectarian past. Suffice to say, that afternoon will live long in my memory.

I leave this section of my Belfast story to the lead singer of Stiff Little Fingers, Jake Burns, to sum it all up :

“Well it’s lasted for so long now
And so many have died
It’s such a part of my own life
Yet it leaves me mystified
How a people so intelligent
Friendly, kind and brave
Can throw themselves so willingly
Into an open grave.”

Later that evening, we reassembled in the Cathedral Quarter – the area that we were to grow to love – at around 5pm.

We met Gillian, Kev and Rich in “The Dirty Onion” – hugs. We were all together last in Newcastle in January 2020. It seemed so recent but also a lifetime away. From there, to “The Harp” and from there to “The Duke Of York” where we spotted the first of the yellow-clad supporters of Villareal. Daryl, Gary, Pete and Nick briefly dropped in, but exited after – like us – being rather annoyed with how long it was taking to get served. It was even poorer service in “The Morning Star” – a favourite of many – but as I joked with Rich, it was funny how my spirits had been lifted by just a few swigs of lager. We then stood outside a cracking pub – “Bittles Bar” – which reminded me of The Minerva in Hull, Belfast’s answer to The Flatiron in Manhattan. We then ended up at “Franklins Sports Bar” where the drinking continued long into the night. My pal Stephen – originally from Belfast – but living in New Orleans for twenty years called in with his wife Elicia and her parents.

Then the others drifted off and I was the last man standing.

There was a reunion with a few good friends, some Chelsea songs, some flag-waving.

At about 1am we were turfed out and I managed to find my way back to the hotel.

Outside the hotel, there was more chat with a couple of Chelsea lads and I then stumbled next-door to raid the adjacent chicken joint.

At 2am – awake for twenty-four hours – I called it a night.

Unfortunately, the scene that greeted me on Wednesday morning – game day – was of drizzle in the Belfast streets below my room on the sixth floor. In the distance, pinched between some tall buildings, the slopes of Black Mountain could be seen, but they were shrouded in cloud. Parky and Foxy were up before me, but I eventually met Parky in reception at around 11am. We put on rain jackets and ambled off to pick up our match tickets at the Europa Hotel. As every Chelsea fan in Belfast 2021 now knows, it is the world’s most bombed hotel (43 times according to yer man Kieran).

We inevitably bumped into many Chelsea faces in the fifteen minutes that we were at the Europa. Parky and I then sheltered in a restaurant – another fry up for me – and a lovely pub “The Spaniard” before our get-together in “The Harp” at 2pm.

Peroni, laughs, Peroni, banter, Peroni, chat.

We admitted to each other that we were just so relieved that Villareal had reached the final and not Manchester United. Belfast is a United stronghold. The Manchester club has had a certain affiliation with the Catholic community in the past – though not as strong as Celtic – and so the thought of United and Chelsea with its links to Rangers and, to a lesser degree Linfield, drinking in the same compact city centre drew gasps from us all.

As the afternoon grew older, we looked on as little groups of Villareal fans – their vivid yellow so prominent – stopped for photos beneath the neon signs opposite. It certainly was a photogenic hotspot. We then joked that it was the same fans on some sort of sponsored walk and that when we reached the stadium there would only be fifty inside.

After four hours or so of sublime Chelsea chat, we split up. Sadly, Gillian and Kevin were unlucky to get tickets in the UEFA ballot. Foxy and Rich had been luckier. But so much for heading off to the stadium at 6pm. We eventually left at around 6.30pm. It took us a few nervous minutes to get hold of a cab. But the cabbie was only able to take Rich, Parky and little old me as far as Sandy Row, which looked like a scene from the apocalypse with debris and broken glass littering the street. A good time had certainly been had by all. A police car blocked the road south.

So, out into the now seriously warm evening sun. We embarked on a thirty-minute walk down to Windsor Park which sits a mile or so to the south of the city centre. I enjoyed this. There was a certain old-time feel to it all, walking past decidedly working class terraced houses, the crowd being drawn to the football stadium as in times of yore.

We turned into Donegall Avenue, under a road bridge, a row of police watching us, yet more echoes of a distant past, and then the security checks. Thankfully, no issues with either the COVID19 passport nor my ticket. More familiar faces. Good people. Plenty of old school Chelsea. But then a silly altercation with a fellow fan who was sat in my seat. This all meant that despite waking up at around 10am, and the kick-off some ten hours away, I was only in position for the kick-off at 7.55pm.

Proper Chelsea.

I was behind the eastern goal in row G, but where was Parky? Maybe Chelsea in their infinite wisdom had decided to keep us apart despite me getting our tickets together in the same transaction. Who knows? Answers on a postcard.

Windsor Park holds 18,000 but its limit for this game was 13,000. Chelsea were given 2,000 tickets, Villareal had 1,500. Now I know this club comes from a city with a population of just 50,000 but that split doesn’t seem fair in this day and age. Surely all UEFA Finals should have an even spilt. The side stands – home to the UEFA ballot tickets – were predominantly Chelsea. In the end, it looked like slightly over 1,000 Villareal fans had made the journey. They were residing in half of the western end and in the two tiers of the side stand too. I remember the old Windsor Park. I remember England returning there in 1977 after a spell of Northern Ireland always playing their Home International games away from Belfast during The Troubles. For many years it was a ramshackle stadium, the double tiered north stand being the only modern structure. It has now been totally modernised, with white, blue, light green and dark green seats. It has rather ugly raised executive areas in the main south stand and an even uglier arrangement in – our – eastern end. But it suited UEFA for this game. I remember the Cardiff City stadium hosted Real Madrid and Sevilla in 2014.

So, I predictably missed all of the pre-game pageantry.

I had to quickly run through the team.

Mendy

Rudiger – Zouma – Chalobah

Hudson-Odoi – Kante – Kovacic – Alonso

Havertz – Werner – Ziyech

Villareal’s team included Capoue, ex-Tottenham, and Moreno, ex-Liverpool.

It seemed like every single one of their fans were wearing yellow.

Bless’em.

It is worth noting that in none of the bars and pubs, in none of the conversations among close friends and distant acquaintances did anyone…not one person…mention a “high press.”

So here we all were. The Chelsea away club transplanted to the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park. A row of Chelsea flags along the unused seats at the front of the east stand. Chelsea flags sporadically placed on balcony walls.

The simple efficiency of one that bore the words “Two Steps Beyond.”

We all knew what it meant.

The game began and Chelsea were immediately on top, and its fans too. The first segment of the game was played out in front of a noisy backdrop and one song dominated.

“Oh Roman do you know what that’s worth?

Kai Havertz is the best on Earth.

The silky German is just what we need.

He won Chelsea the Champions League.”

It was sung loudly and raucously for minutes on end.

Chelsea attacked the colourful Villareal fans in the western end. Behind them, the dull outline of the hills that surround Belfast squeezed in between the steel of the stands. A setting sun behind it all.

When the Spanish fans began to familiarise themselves with the sights of Belfast, perhaps they took solace in the bright yellow of the twin cranes of the Harland & Wolf shipyards. Was yellow the key colour of the moment? There was that rather oddly misaligned yellow piping on the Chelsea shirt and then shorts after all.

After five minutes, an in swinging corner from the slight Hakim Ziyech on our right found the predatory Timo Werner on the far post. He connected late, almost between the legs of his marker, and brought a great instinctive save from Asenjo in the Villareal goal. We were finding players in good wide positions and after a sweeping ball in from that man Havertz, the ball was won back by N’Golo Kante, the captain on the night, who thundered the ball wide.

Where was Parky, though? Couldn’t see him anywhere.

We were well on top. Kante was everywhere. Villareal were kept camped inside their half. On twenty-six minutes, after steady Chelsea pressure, the ball was played by Marcos Alonso out to Havertz on the left. His first time cross was hit low towards Werner, but was picked up by Ziyech behind him. He swept the ball fortuitously into the net, bouncing up and in, as if in slow motion.

Get in.

Chelsea 1 Villareal 0.

The players celebrated over in the opposite corner with the noise booming around Windsor Park.

Not long after, a rare Villareal break enabled players to find space inside our box but Dia was foiled by Edouard Mendy, who did well to block the effort on goal.

A Ziyech cross from the left found Alonso, but his snap shot was clawed out by Asenjo at the near post. Then a Ziyech free-kick caught Villareal out. It was perfectly played, dropping at the far post but the outstretched leg of Kurt Zouma just sent the ball crashing over the bar.

The goal scorer Ziyech went down after a challenge and was replaced by Christian Pulisic.

Right on the half-time whistle, a very good Villareal move enabled the ball to be hooked back towards the far post where Moreno met the ball with a thunderous volley. We gasped as the ball crashed against the bar, and bounced down a foot or so from the line.

Fackinell.

At the start of the second-half, Havertz went close at our end. But then Mendy slipped as he cleared and the ball fell to Moreno. Mendy thankfully redeemed himself, touching the ball onto the base of the far post. But the warning signs had been sounded and Villareal dominated much of the possession in the second half. The Chelsea fans grew nervy and quieter.

Just after the hour, Thomas Tuchel changed the personnel.

Jorginho for Kante.

Mount for Werner.

Christensen for Zouma.

Mendy saved at the near post from Estupinan. On seventy-two minutes, the Yellow Submarine cut through our rather static defence and Gerard Moreno slammed the ball in after a nice ball played back to him by Dia. The Villareal players celebrated in the yellow corner.

It was on the cards. No complaints.

Bollocks.

Right in front of me, in the inside left channel, Alonso received a ball, nestled it on his thigh, turned and volleyed. The ball only troubled the side netting. It was the last chance of the ninety minutes.

We moved rather reluctantly into an extra thirty minutes and I suspected that the extra pints that had been gleefully taken throughout the days drinking in the many city centre pubs may have had an adverse effect on the Chelsea support.  

In truth, the extra half an hour provided little thrills. Pulisic stumbled as he prodded a ball towards the Villareal goal and the ball apologetically bounced wide. In the second period, a twist and a shot from Mason Mount inside the box brought another fine save from the Villareal ‘keeper.

Just before the end of the extra thirty minutes, we looked over to the touchline and saw that Kepa was lining up to replace Mendy.

There was a mixed reaction in the Chelsea end. There were moans when we realised that the penalties were to be taken at the Villareal end.

So. The game continued, the night continued. All was dark above Windsor Park now.

All eyes on the penalty takers.

First-up Chelsea. Our support tried to put the fear of God into the Villareal players.

“We know what we are. Champions of Europe. We know what we are.”

Havertz. The hero of Porto. The new hero. An easy save. Bollocks.

Gerard the scorer in normal time. Goal.

Dave. A big penalty. A sweet strike. Goal.

Mandi. Saved not by Mendy, but by Kepa. Get in you bastard.

Alonso. A slip, but in. Goal.

Estupinan. Goal.

Mount. Goal.

Gomez. Goal.

Jorginho. Lots of nerves from us all. Would he hop and go right? No, a hop and left. Goal. Get in.

Raba. Goal.

Sudden death now.

Fackinell.

Pulisic. Goal.

Foyth. Goal.

Rudiger. Nerves again. Goal.

Albiol. My camera was poised. A strike. The Chelsea players blocked my view. I heard a roar. Saved.

GETINYOUBASTARDS.

The players ran towards Kepa in the yellow corner. The submarine was sunk in Titanic’s home city.

I looked for Jonesy, a veteran from Monaco, and we shared a special moment. We had been present at all of the “modern” European Chelsea victories in all those far flung places.

Monaco and Belfast, though; the most unlikely of twinned cities.

There was the usual post-game sequence of the modern age. The rather odd two-stage presentation of the cup. Firstly, the handing over of the cup to Dave and then a walk to the platform to join the waiting team mates.

The hoist, the silver ticker-tape, the screams of delight.

Athens 1971.

Stockholm 1998.

Monaco 1998.

Munich 2012.

Amsterdam 2013.

Baku 2019.

Porto 2021.

Belfast 2021.

Count’em up. Eight. Two of each. I like a bit of symmetry.

It’s lovely that the badge that I grew up with, the lion rampant and the two stars – celebrating 1970 and 1971 – now has an even deeper meaning.

And if the win in Monaco in 1998 was Realy super, the win in Belfast in 2021 was Villarealy super.

OK, enough of the shitty wordplay.

Outside, I met up with Rich. We waited for Parky to emerge from the crowds but soon gave up. We were to eventually find him tagged on to the end of a queue for hot dogs and hamburgers on the Donegall Road.

We walked back, slowly, to the busy area near our hotel, an area that was known as the Golden Mile in the dark days of the ‘seventies, just beyond the high-security of the city centre. A cheap and cheerful pizza, with Chelsea shouts and songs in the distance, and then bed.

It had been a good night.

On the Thursday, there was a visit to the area near the Titanic Museum, a hop-on and hop-off bus tour of the city and even a quick flit over to East Belfast to cram in another football stadium. The Oval is home to Glentoran, Linfield’s main rivals, nestling underneath Samson and Goliath, the twin cranes of the nearby dock area. It is so different to Windsor Park, but I loved it.

It was a perfect end to a magnificent three days in Belfast.

We caught the 10pm flight home and I was able to look down on the lights of the city as we soared high above. The memories will stay a long time.

Thank you Belfast. Thank you Chelsea.

Postcards From Belfast.



Tales From The Long Game

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 30 November 2019.

I was awake at 5am – yes as early as that – and I just knew that I would not be able to get back to sleep. Once I had checked my phone for any important social media occurrences – there weren’t – I was resigned to the fact that I had best get up well before my planned alarm call at 6.15am. This was not due to a ridiculously giddy, juvenile excitement induced by the thought of the West Ham home game. No, those days are – sadly? – gone. I’m fifty-four years old. I see Chelsea games every week. The simple fact was that I just couldn’t get back to sleep.

The reason for myself waking up, though, might be worth mentioning. I was in the middle of a dream, possibly one which was turning into a nightmare, with me on the way to meet a mate on our way to an airport ahead of a trip abroad, but one in which I had totally messed-up the timings. I was out by a couple of hours. I got an earful from my pal.

No wonder I woke up.

I spend my working day making sure that transport collections and deliveries are done on time and I devote much of my leisure time driving to and from cities, and a sizeable chunk of the remainder planning ahead for future trips, away days, holidays. For someone who fell in love with maps at an early age, has a degree in Human Geography and works in logistics, the notion of me missing a flight by a large margin was reason enough for me to wake in a cold sweat.

Fackinell.

I put the kettle on, and drank a leisurely coffee.

Eventually, the time came to leave my sleeping Somerset village.

On the way in to Frome to collect Simon and PD, the sky was still dark; black all but for a small slither of burnt orange above the Longleat estate to my west.

There was no Lord Parky for this trip; he was otherwise engaged.

Within the first five minutes of the two-and-a-half hour drive to London, we had vented about the game on Wednesday in Valencia. The penalty decision. The ridiculous booking for Kante. VAR. Always VAR. The air turned blue.

The air turned royal blue later on, at various stages in the journey, when we chatted briefly about the upcoming game.

“With no Tammy, Frank will obviously play Michy. Giroud has not got a look in this season. He obviously rates Michy over him.”

“Looks like Pedro is well out of it at the moment. Our two wide men, now – and for the foreseeable – are Pulisic and Willian.”

“At least we won’t be playing a false nine.”

I reached London at 10am.

On the short walk to West Brompton tube, I spotted a distant Stamford Bridge, or at least the roof supports of the Matthew Harding, enveloped in a wintry mist. It looked quite beguiling. Five hours later, I would be sat right underneath that very same section of roof. While I waited for the District Line train to take me down to meet up with Simon and PD (I had parked the car while they shot off to get the drinks in), I looked down the track, again a misty view and again very atmospheric, and saw it bend slightly to go through the tunnel. That same track would have taken me to Fulham Broadway on my very first game in 1974. I had a little moment to myself and remembered the joy of that very first visit.

The pre-match was totally spent within the very cosy confines of “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge as is so often the case these days. And as so often happens – to the point of cliché, right? – we were joined by pals from near and far; London, Stafford, Lancashire, Edinburgh, Toronto, Minneapolis, Los Angeles.

Before I knew it, Simon was swapping phone numbers with the Minneapolis contingent ahead of a possible trip to the US next summer with a mate who loves Prince. I told him the story of when Chelsea opened-up the glass and steel superstructure of the new Minnesota Vikings stadium in 2016 against Milan, and that when we scored the first goal of the game, “Let’s Go Crazy” was played. A nice touch.

As we were in the pub so early – 10.30am – I decided to allow myself some “Birra Moretti” before moving on to the standard “Cokes.” They were a nice treat. It was lovely to see everyone getting on famously, despite many having never met previously. Cesar from Los Angeles laughing with PD. Simon chatting to Eric from Toronto. Dean chatting with Ralph from Los Angeles. Cesar chatting to Kev from Edinburgh.

Around this time last year, Cesar and his son Sebastian flew over for the 0-0 draw at home with Everton but due to the complexities of that trip, we were not able to meet up. He was making up for it this time. Cesar just wanted to spend time in an authentic London boozer and “The Eight Bells” fitted this requirement perfectly well. He was knocking back pints of “London Pride” and ordered some fish and chips too. On this visit, he was with his wife and daughter too, but this is where the story travels along a strange tangent. His wife Lucy and daughter Kira are Manchester United supporters – a split family – and were keen to head up to the game at Old Trafford on the Sunday of this footballing weekend. After a few messages across the Atlantic, my good friend Rick, a United season ticket holder, was able to sort out two tickets for them, sitting together, just a few seats away from him via a mate who would not be attending the game.

That, everyone, is what football should be all about.

While Cesar – I’ll just call him Dave – was chatting to myself, his wife and the two children were outside, sitting at the pub’s bench seats on the pavement, along with some friends. Cesar and Lucy had travelled over with a couple, with their two boys, who are not Chelsea but who were with them for the holiday’s duration. Ralph and his wife and their two boys were going to the game too. They were enjoying the London sun. But I felt for them. From Southern California sun to an English winter. But they were wrapped up well.

In the pub, some lads were constantly singing a new song.

“We’ve got Super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

A solid 7/10 from me.

On the CFC website, there had been warnings about Chelsea supporters singing about “Pikeys.”

I’ll be honest; the first time that I had ever heard this word, which references the travelling community, was when we played Gillingham at home in the FA Cup in 2000. In my part of the world – there is a Gypsy camp just outside Frome, on Gyspy Lane no less – we used other words. And to be quite honest, they were always used in an equally derogatory manner. So perhaps it is right that the club has made this statement.

Times change, eh?

The team line up was announced and there were a few gulps.

Arrizabalaga

James – Zouma – Tomori – Emerson

Jorginho

Kovacic – Barkley

Pedro – Giroud – Pulisic

Our collective comments about players on the drive to London were evidently off the mark.

“What Do We Know Part 862.”

Inside the stadium, there was not too much of a London Derby vibe. There were the usual three thousand away fans, but the only public display of club colours that I could spot were on the two West Ham flags draped over the Shed balcony wall. There was the usual predominance of dark coats and navy jackets, with only occasional hints of claret and blue on rare scarves and jackets. And a decidedly similar story in all the home areas but with maybe a few more scarves.

I spotted a new banner on the hotel wall above The Shed. It was of the old Shed, maybe from the mid’- eighties or just after, and a better photo than the blurred image of spectators in The Shed from a similar date that was present until recently.

Flames and fireworks. The teams entered the pitch.

West Ham have a pretty decent home shirt this season, a reference to their 1976/77 shirt which I first remember seeing when they reached the 1976 European Cup Winners’ Cup final, a 2-4 loss to Anderlecht. But I think that the kit would have been improved with crisp white shorts. Anyway, it is better than ours, which hurts me to admit.

The game?

Do I have to?

Hold on to your hats. This won’t be enjoyable.

Admittedly, we began the game in reasonably fine fettle. We dominated the ball. West Ham rarely threatened. There had been an early cross from the left but a stretching Antonio skied his chance well over. Mason Mount, we think, probably shot a little too soon when presented with the ball in a good position on the edge of the box. His effort was tame and debutant David Martin easily saved. Within a few seconds of play we conjured up two efforts on the West Ham goal. Firstly, a cross from Reece James on the right deflected up and struck the near post and then a header from a leaping Kurt Zouma skidded down and wide from the header that followed.

After twenty minutes, Alan commented that West Ham had hardly entered our half, let alone offer a chance to test Kepa in the goal down below us at the Matthew Harding. However, a fine cross from the West Ham right from Fredericks evaded everyone and found the head of that man Antonio. His close header was right at Kepa but our often maligned ‘keeper reacted well to palm it away.

Throughout the first-half, the West Ham fans were constantly yelling about “Chelsea Rent Boys.”

Rent Boys. Pikeys.

I didn’t know whether to be outraged by it all or bored by it all.

At the other end, at The Shed, a hopeful shot from Kovacic bouncing bombed its way through to the West Ham ‘keeper who saved the initial shot and then kept out follow-ups from both Giroud and Pedro.

The first-half sputtered on.

It had decreased in quality as the forty-five minutes progressed. And the atmosphere was just rotten. Kovacic looked busy, but in the way that Arkwright is busy; dusting his shop counter, rearranging his tins of soup, re-writing shop signs and getting Granville to fetch his cloth, but without actually fucking selling anything.

There was an excellent cross from James that was right on the money but it evaded both Giroud and Pulisic. At that moment in time I found myself thinking “the Chelsea of old would have scored that” whether it be via the head of Drogba or the boot of Costa.

Ah, Olivier Giroud – yes I know he did not have much service – but the man hardly moved the entire half. He didn’t seem too keen to test his marker, to create space for others, to give himself to the team. Perhaps he expected it all to be gift-wrapped for him. It was a deeply frustrating performance from him and most of the others. Only James on the right looked up to the task of stretching play.

There was a feeling of “ho hum” at half-time.

Soon into the second-half, a West Ham move developed. I happened to mention “how is Robert Snodgrass still playing for a Premier League team?” when the player moved the ball from wide right into the middle, with West Ham gifted all the space they needed. The ball was pushed out to a raiding Aaron Creswell on their left. I immediately sensed danger.

“Here we go.”

With that, he turned past James way too easily, and slotted a low shot in at the far post.

Chelsea 0 West Ham United 1.

Fackinell.

It seemed impossible that we were behind. It had been a poor game but we had edged the chances, slim that they were. We kept huffing and puffing but did not look at ease in our own skin. From a corner, Kepa had to stretch and keep out a Fabian Balbuena header. It was another excellent save.

For the first time of the entire match, the Matthew Harding got our act together and sang as one. I looked up at the clock.

59 minutes.

Not fucking good enough. We are meant to be supporting Frank this season. But this does mean that we just defend him in discussions at work, among colleagues, with strangers, on the internet, in fucking cyber-space, but it also means that we are meant to support him at games too.

I repeat. Not fucking good enough.

On sixty-three minutes, Frank pulled the strings.

N’Golo Kante for Jorginho.

Willan for Pedro.

There was, however, another catastrophe at The Shed End. A cross from the West Ham right from Snodgrass evaded Zouma and Antonio bundled it home.

Oh bloody hell.

But then we learned that VAR was being used.

A good time for me to use the facilities. Off I trotted.

I heard a loud roar.

No goal.

I did not react.

On returning to my seat, I heard from Alan that there had been a handball.

Fair enough.

With twenty minutes to go, off came Giroud, but instead of Michy Batshuayi, on came Callum Hudson-Odoi.

A definite head scratcher that one, eh?

We were playing a “kinda” false-nine.

Our pre-match chat in the car on the way up had proved fucking worthless.

“What Do We Know Part 863.”

The away fans were still going.

“Come on you Irons.”

The mood around me was getting tetchy, at best, angry at worst. I was saddened to hear a few calling our players by the “C” word.

Sigh.

In truth, we did improve in the last twenty minutes and the industry of Kante was the main catalyst. What a player he is.

But never in the last portion of the game did I feel that we would grab an equaliser. A shot from Callum was hit high. We seemed to be over-stacked with options on the right but Willian and James spent too much time passing to each other rather than launching missiles into danger areas. When balls were played across, false nines and invisible targets were not hit. With each poor pass, the moans increased in volume.

“That helps, eh?”

The last chance of the ninety minutes fell to Pulisic who was set up by Kante, and his first touch seemed to give just the right amount of space to smash the ball in. We got our celebrations tee’d up. Alas his shot mirrored the mood of the afternoon. He slashed it wide.

Five minutes of extra time was signalled. A few people had begun drifting away before then. The extra minutes did not treat us well. We kept going but were met by a resolute wall of claret.

I thought to myself “we have not lost to these at home for ages” and my mind back-peddled. The last time was in fact in September 2002, but I was not present; I was on holiday in the Great Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. I can remember logging on to a friend’s computer to hear that we had lost 3-2. The last game in which I had witnessed a defeat in person against West Ham was the infamous 1-0 “Paul Kitson” game in 1998/99 which was our third and final loss of the season and seemed to feel like the end of our title challenge. In truth, we rallied again but an equally catastrophic 2-2 with Leicester City – “Steve Guppy” – put an end to our title challenge. However, if we had won both of those games, we would still not have been champions, as an inferior goal difference to Manchester United would have proved our undoing.

But 1998/99. Just three losses but no title. It seemed we would never get closer.

I digress.

With over four minutes of the five minutes played, and the ball in our half – and with my camera tucked away in its bag already – Alan, Simon, PD and I edged our way out. For the first time in hundreds of home games, I left before the final whistle, albeit no more than three seconds.

There were grumbles-a-plenty on the descent down to ground level.

Outside, I overheard a young bloke wail “I took a day off for that shit.”

Fucking diddums.

We trotted back to the car; the extra few minutes meant that we were ahead of the curve on getting out of the packed West London streets. I pulled out of Barons Court onto the A4 and I cleared the Chiswick roundabout by 6pm.

The drive home took two hours and was mainly in silence.

Simon and PD periodically snoozed. There was an occasional traffic-jam but I made good time. The M3 was OK despite the partial closure of the M4 – it’s sister road – and it was a relatively clean escape.

All really was quiet.

We knew that we had not played well. There was no need for a huge post mortem.

But my head churned things over as I drove. I searched for some positives.

The aim this season has always been one of sustained growth. And we really should not judge everything on one game, nor possibly even a handful.

I thought some more.

One of the “in” phrases of late is “game management”; the killing of the game in its final period once ahead, or “seeing teams off” as it was known in the days of old.  Frank’s brief all along has been geared to “season management.” I see this as the management of all resources throughout the season to the best of his abilities.

“The long game.”

That was our brief too, right? As fans, to be supportive, to give him time, to lay off the heavy criticism. How often did I see the phrase “I don’t care if we finish tenth this season.”

And yet some fans are throwing the “C” word around in November with us in the top four, comfortably the top six? Do me a favour.

It’s not a one game show this. It has to be about managing the whole season, bringing in players at various times, looking at options, weighing up strengths and weaknesses, assessing each player’s abilities and attributes. It’s simply not about playing the same eleven players every game.

As I drove on, I knew full well that the internet would be full of supporters over-reacting, as is the way of the world these days, and airing self-inflated opinions. Once home, I did not bother delving too deeply into such tripe. It had been a long day. I didn’t need all that.  I simply uploaded some photos of the day – my camerawork was off too, it was one of those days – and then fell asleep, probably just as well, before our game was aired on “MOTD.”

There is a short video which was released by Chelsea Football Club just after the game, pitch side, and in it Frank Lampard spoke about the game.

This was my brief comment :

“For all those having a bit of a moan, listen to the man speak. Valid comments throughout. He will learn from his mistakes. Frank is intelligent and focused, rarely have I been more impressed listening to a football man talk about the game…”

I am already looking forward to the game on Wednesday at home to Aston Villa.

I trust that the club won’t go overboard with the return of John Terry. And I hope that the fans’ reactions strike the right tone.

On we go, on this franktastic journey.

See you there.

 

Tales From A Perfect Ten

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 8 April 2019.

On the day before our game with West Ham United – the Sunday – I was getting stir crazy at home and so decided to head out on a short drive to try out a new pub and a new Sunday Roast. My route south took me on a road that always reminds me of several trips that I used to take with my father. I soon found myself heading towards the village, ten miles away, of Maiden Bradley. My father used to be a shopkeeper, of menswear, in the local town of Frome. He would work six days a week, but Thursday was always “half-day closing” (Thursdays were always a favourite day of the week for me because Dad would always be at home when I returned from school, unlike his appearance at 5.30pm or so on all other days). On some Thursdays, Dad would announce to me that he was off “on his rounds” and this inevitably meant that during the school holidays, right after lunch, I would accompany him as he visited one or two customers who could not get in to town as often as they would normally hope. One such customer was Mrs. Doel who lived in Maiden Bradley. My father was a very safe driver, and I suppose this really means that he was a slow driver. He was never ever caught speeding. He would potter around at forty miles per hour on most roads. I suspect that the desire to save money by not eating up fuel was a main factor. However, as a special treat on these visits to Maiden Bradley, and where the road is particularly long and straight, with excellent visibility, he would – as a treat for me – get the car up to the seemingly blistering speed of fifty miles per hour. After the slower speeds that I was used to, fifty miles per hour seemed supersonic.

“Do fifty, Dad” I would plead.

And off we would go. It was even more enjoyable when I had my own plastic steering wheel to stick on to the plastic dashboard of his green Vauxhall Viva. I’d grip it, stare out of the windscreen and watch the trees and hedgerows, and oncoming cars, fly past.

It was one of my favourite father and son moments from my early childhood.

Of course, over the following years, fifty miles per hour was reached with increasing regularity, if not by my father, then certainly by myself. I often reach fifty miles per hour in the country lanes around my village without even thinking about it.

The thrill has long gone.

And on Sunday, as I thought ahead to the match on the following evening, I realised that the thrill of playing West Ham United had long gone too.

It wasn’t the same in 1984/85 and 1985/86, seasons that marked the first two occasions of seeing our rivals from the East End of London for the very first time. In those days, the identity of football clubs seemed to be stronger; West Ham were a tightly-knit club, with a very local – and famously violent – support, and their whole identity was wrapped up within the structure of an East End football club, the tightness of Upton Park, those ridiculously small goal frames in front of the packed and occasionally surging terraces, local players, Billy Bonds and all, pseudo-gangsters in the ICF, the whole nine yards. These days, their team consists of mainly foreign players – like most – and they play in a vapid and bland “super” stadium. When did the thrill wear off? Not so sure. I still – always – get “up” for a Tottenham game. But not necessarily a West Ham one. The game on Monday 8 April 2019 would, after all, be my twenty-fifth Chelsea vs. West Ham game at Stamford Bridge and my thirty-ninth in total. After that many games, in which we have generally had the upper hand, the thrill has dwindled.

And then Everton beat Arsenal 1-0 at Goodison Park late on Sunday afternoon and my interest levels increased. I quickly did the maths. We all did. Believe it or not, if we were to beat West Ham the following day, we would end up – and God only knows how – in the heady heights of third place.

Game – most definitely – on.

This was turning into a typically bloody ridiculous season even by Chelsea’s standards. We had lost games – Tottenham in the League Cup – where we had come away in a very positive frame of mind and we had won games – Fulham at home, certainly Cardiff City away – where we felt as though we had lost.

It was turning into another emotional roller-coaster.

And then at work, on Monday, I had my personal roller-coaster too. I realised that a co-worker had not only booked the week off in which the Europa League semi-final first leg was to be played – potential trips to Lisbon or Frankfurt – but also the week of the bloody final too. My mood plummeted. We have a small team and I feared the worst.

Why the hell had I not booked the week of the final off in August or September?

It spoiled my pre-match if I am honest.

Talking of holidays, on the drive up to London with the usual suspects, Glenn and I reminisced about our trip to Australia last summer. We wondered how on earth it has taken Maurizio Sarri until April to start Callum Hudson-Odoi in a league game. Callum had laid on the cross for Pedro to score against Perth Glory back in July and seemed to be the talk of that rain-sodden town. His emergence into the first team ranks has been a slow process, eh?

There were drinks in the usual places with the usual faces. I told a few people of my “holiday problem” and although the saying is “a problem shared is a problem halved” I don’t think it helped. I just disliked myself twice as much for not booking the time off earlier. But it was a great pre-match. As often happens, Parky had the best line. On my way back from the gents, I managed to stumble a little as I headed up the stairs to re-join the lads.

Parky : ““That’ll be the biggest trip you’ll be going on over the next two months.”

We made our way to Stamford Bridge. On the cover of the match day programme was a photograph of Eden Hazard, a mixture of quiet confidence and a little coyness, his head bowed, not sure if he really wanted to be the focus of attention. It would turn out to be a prophetic choice of cover star.

The team?

I was generally in favour of the one that the manager picked. Glenn and I had wondered if he would prioritise the game in Prague on Thursday. It was difficult to tell. Our two bright hopes, Ruben and Callum were in. Excellent.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Higuain – Hazard

We guessed that the more Euro-savvy Alonso, Barkley, Pedro and/or Willian would start against Slavia.

For the first time that I can ever remember, Alan and Glenn had swapped seats. I was next to my mate from Perth; I was sat next to Glenn in the Sleepy Hollow.

It was the usual pre-match; “Park Life”, “Liquidator” and the flames and fireworks of twenty-first century football. “The Shed” flag crowd-surfed at the other end. By an odd quirk, it was an exact year since the Chelsea vs. West Ham game in 2017/18, but on that occasion the banners in The Shed sadly commemorated the life and death of Ray Wilkins.

One year ago.

Where does the time go?

RIP Butch.

Right from the kick-off, there was a sense of purpose in our play and we seemed to be able to move the ball ten percent quicker and twenty percent more intelligently. We didn’t seem to be over-passing. We seemed to be moving it at the right time. West Ham were, typically, still singing about the blue flag, from Stamford Bridge to Upton Park, and all that bollocks. They really need to update that one. Our shouts of encouragement were much better than against Brighton the previous Wednesday, but – for a London derby – not at stratospheric levels.

“Do fifty, Dad” seemed to fall on deaf ears.

There was an early free-kick for Emerson, who has never let himself down in his sadly limited starts thus far, but he arced it high and wide of Fabianski’s goal. There were passages of play which delighted us, with Kante and our Callum forming a good relationship on the right. A shot from N’Golo was fired over.

With around twenty-five minutes of the match played, Ruben played the ball square to Eden Hazard around fifteen yards inside the West Ham half. He set off for goal, a direct line, right into the heart of the box, no fear. We watched – mesmerised? dumbfounded? enraptured? – as his side-stepping dribble took him past a couple of floundering West Ham players, who hardly caught a sniff of his aftershave let alone a sight of the ball. There were seven or eight touches, no more, but the ball was moved with ridiculous speed. One final touch took him free – legs and limbs from the East End arriving so late to the party – and he clipped the ball in with a swipe of the left boot.

Oh my.

What a goal.

I watched as he raced towards the West Ham fans, and I was able to take a few photographs. I originally thought that Eden brought his forearms up to his face, mocking them and their “irons” trademark, but he was simply cupping his ears. His run mirrored that of Frank Lampard in late 2012/13.

Ronnie : “They’ll have to come at us nah.”

Reggie : “Cam on my little diamonds.”

It was a perfect crime from our perfect ten.

We were on song, on and off the pitch. Soon after, Eden found the run of Gonzalo Higuain with a fantastic ball but his fierce shot from an angle was tipped onto the post by the West Ham ‘keeper. In truth, his first touch allowed the ball to get away from him that extra few feet. But our chances were starting to pile up. Eden, from deep, played a long but piercing ball into Callum who skipped and shimmied in from the right wing – acres of space – and his equally strong shot was parried by Fabianski who was by far the busier ‘keeper. On the side-lines, Manuel Pellegrini – death warmed-up – looked even greyer if that is at all possible. The last chance of the half worthy of note fell to Higuain again. From a Kante cross, he brought the ball down to hit rather than attack the ball with his head. That extra half a second allowed a West Ham defender to block. Higuain looked shy of confidence. But it was a thoroughly impressive performance from us in the opening period.

Into the second-half, we prayed for a second goal to make it safe. West Ham have sometimes, only sometimes, provided moments of misery at Stamford Bridge – that hideous 0-4 defeat in 1986, the horror of hearing Julian Dicks’ scream as he scored against us in 1996, that gut-wrenching Paul Kitson goal in 1999 – and I was so aware of the fragility of a slender 1-0 lead.

Eden was the focal point of all our attacks and the centre of attention for those defenders whose job it was to stop us. I have a couple of photographs where he is being hounded by four defenders. How on earth does that feel, when four people are trying to stop a person doing their job? Oh wait a second. Trying to get a load of office furniture despatched when the trailer is running late, there are product shortages, the warehouse team are under-manned and the client is still deliberating about where they want the goods delivered? I guess that comes close.

Eden shimmied into space down below us and slammed a ball across the face of the goal. We “oohed” and “aahed”. It was a real pleasure to see Eden on fire. I commented to Glenn about his ridiculously broad shoulders and short legs. He is Maradona-esque in stature – “like a little eel, little squat man” as Bryon Butler memorably described him, another number ten – and one of the most sublime dribblers of the modern game.

Throughout the second-half, Ruben came into the game more and more. He has great strength in holding off defenders – a little like that man Mikel – and there were a few trademark runs right through the middle. Again, not a Sarri play, but still effective. Callum, on the other hand, tended to disappear a little as the game continued.

The crowd were nervy rather than loud. The evening continued.

West Ham carved a couple of chances down at The Shed as the rain started to fall. Lanzini forced a save from Kepa. The shot was at a comfortable height for our ‘keeper to easily save. Anderson then forced a save too. There was a weak finish at the other end from our Ruben. But then a weak defensive header from Rudiger – hearts in our mouths now – allowed the ball to sit up nicely and a powerful volleyed-drive from Cresswell narrowly missed its intended target.

“Inches” I said to Glenn.

A deep cross found Arnautovic but his goal-bound header was fortuitously headed on, and wide, by Emerson.

Nerves?

Oh yes.

“COME ON CHELS.”

The substitutes appeared.

70 : Ross Barkley for our Ruben.

76 : Olivier Giroud for Higuain.

85 : Pedro for our Callum.

Barkley to Giroud. A low shot at Fabianski. The ball ballooned over.

One more goal. Please.

Unlike the previous home game, virtually everyone was still in the stadium on ninety minutes. Just as it should be, eh?

In the very last minute, Barkley spotted that man Eden in a little space in the box and lofted a lovely ball right to him. I captured both the pass and the low shot from Eden on film. His drilled drive easily zipped past the West Ham ‘keeper.

Chelsea 2 West Ham United 0.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Game over. Third place was ours.

The night was all about Eden Hazard who, undoubtedly, was the star by some ridiculous margin. Rarely have I seen a more mature and pivotal performance from him.

He is the real deal.

Sadly, the Real deal will surely take place over the next few months.

On the drive home, the night continued to improve as I heard positive news from my manager regarding my future holiday plans. I am going to forgo the potential semi-final trip to either Germany or Portugal. But the final in Azerbaijan is on. We just need Chelsea to get there.

Next up, aways in Prague and Liverpool.

Safe travels to those going to Czechia.

I will see some of you on Merseyside.

Tales From The Cup

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 13 March 2017.

Here was my mindset for this game.

“An evening game on a Spring weekday. This almost feels like a European home game. We are so used to those in March, April and May. Manchester United at home in the FA Cup. But it’s all about the League this season. This game feels odd. Whisper it and with caution, but it almost feels like an inconvenience. It’s not my fault that the FA Cup has lost its gloss. Blame the FA for that. Semi-finals at Wembley. The final being played during the season. The final being played on the same day as league games. The final being played at 5.30pm. Wembley Stadium has lost its appeal and it has lost its mystique. Wembley being used for the play-off finals. Wembley hosting Arsenal and Tottenham’s European games. We can also blame the Champions League and the shift in prestige to that competition. We can blame the FA for belittling the FA Cup with sponsorship and commercialism. We can even blame Chelsea too. We have won it in four of the new Wembley’s ten finals. The rush of adrenalin that used to accompany those 1997, 2000 and 2002 FA Cup runs seem an ancient memory. Blame our success.”

But this was Manchester United and Jose Mourinho. Plenty of anticipation there, right?

“Yes, of course.”

This game almost seemed more about beating United – and Mourinho – than the FA Cup.

After a torrid day at work, there was the release of getting away, and driving to my freedom. But the worry of work, I will freely admit, stayed with me throughout the evening. I had been swamped at work the previous Monday, and it was the sole reason why I was reluctantly forced to miss my third game of the season against West Ham United.

Our pre-match was well away from Stamford Bridge, in The Colton Arms near Queens Club. I remembered that our one previous visit was before the crazy 3-3 with United on an icy day in early 2012, with Villas-Boas (remember him?) still in charge. Two pints of “Birra Moretti” went down well. The pub was cosy and it was good to momentarily unwind for a while. There were brief memories of other FA Cup games with United at Stamford Bridge. The horrid memory of being 0-5 down to them in 1998 still haunts me to this day.

We bumped into some pals on the walk to the stadium.

“Seen any United?”

“None.”

“Wonder where they are drinking. Up in town, maybe. Six thousand of the buggers. They will be noisy tonight, alright.”

The four of us made our way in to the stadium.

PD, Alan, Walnuts and myself.

As we reached our seats, there were plumes of dry ice wafting around the touchlines.

“Fuck knows what all that is about.”

I looked towards The Shed, and there they all were. The dark wall of United’s away support, with only occasion hints of scarlet. The banners were out in force.

“Edinburgh Reds.”

“Bring On United.”

“Mockba 2008.”

“Buxton Reds.”

“Jose Mourinho’s Red Army.”

“I may be a wage slave on Monday but I watch United when they play.”

I knew of course that they would be in good voice. Even the truest bluest Chelsea supporter, blue-tinted spectacles and more, must surely acknowledge that United’s away support ranks right up there in terms of noise, variety of songs and balls out swagger. The massed ranks of United from near and far were already making a din. I recalled previous eras. The Red Army of the ‘seventies. The Cockney Reds and the Inter City Jibbers of the ‘eighties. The Men in Black. The whole story. On a night of Conte and Kante, six thousand similarly-named fuckers were making their presence felt in The Shed. There is, of course, a great irony when Chelsea fans around the world take the piss out of United fans not living in Manchester. I knew of at least three Chelsea fans from the US who were in the stadium. I used to dislike – is hate too terrible a word? – United more than any other, but other clubs nurture strong feelings of contempt too, and for different reasons.  But although I still have little time for United fans who watch only from their living rooms, I have a grudging respect for those who go, support, sing and bawl.

The news of the team had filtered through to us. A strong team for sure. A team based on the League campaign. But no room for Pedro nor Cesc.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill – Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso – Willian, Costa, Hazard.

There was no Ibrahimovic and that was a good thing. Although he has surprised me with his prowess this season, I still loathe him and it irritates the bejesus out of me when fellow Chelsea supporters call him “Zlatan” or “Ibra”. Less of the sycophancy you fucknozzles. He is not our player.

Rashford was playing up front instead and 35,000 Chelsea fans yawned at another Mourinho mind game.

There was the now familiar darkening of the lights and the Stamford Bridge lighting technicians put on a show for the sell-out crowd and the watching millions – we hoped – at home.

I remembered back on the Chelsea vs. Manchester United match in October when – long in to the game – I suddenly realised that I had not purposefully looked over to Jose Mourinho once. On this occasion, soon into the game, I watched both managers in their technical areas, and I realised how our affections have done a 180 degree turn as dramatic as those of Eden Hazard.

The king is dead, long live the king.

There is something classic about the blue, blue, white and the red, white, black of a Chelsea versus United game. In all their visits, I have never known United to wear anything else. Both of the Adidas kits were festooned with the biggest numbers seen on sports jerseys since the 1970’s Irish rugby team.

In the opening quarter, United seemed on top. They were more dynamic, more focussed. They moved the ball well. A very early chance for Rojo was headed over. Then Mkhitaryan went wide. The fans around me were on edge.

The United fans were standing and singing.

There was a “Na na hey hey” from them – not heard that one before – and a “Hey Jude” from us.

It was up to our creative genius to single-handedly get us involved. A sublime turn – on a sixpence – from Eden Hazard left Smalling wondering why and how he ever left Fulham. Eden sprinted away, with defenders fearful of diving in, and he skipped deep in to the box. His low drive was ably finger-tipped away by De Gea. The noise followed as the dormant Stamford Bridge crowd awoke.

“What a run.”

From Willian’s corner, Gary Cahill did well to change shape to connect. The ball seemed destined to go in, but De Gea again clawed it away. It was a stunning save.

We were back in this now, and our play vastly improved. There was a beguiling battle between the lofty Pogba and Kante, our diminutive destroyer of dreams, if only in terms of physicality. It seemed Kante was on top throughout.

United seemed to be intent on fouling our men whenever the chance arose. Herrera was booked, but the tackles still came thick and fast.

Eden Hazard fired over. He was our main threat. United knew it.

Jones crashed into Hazard, and we were amazed that a booking did not follow. With the crowd still baying, Herrera then quickly fouled Eden from behind, and the noise level increased. The referee Michael Oliver had clearly had enough and the second yellow for Herrera was quickly followed by a red.

“Off you go, knobhead.”

The Stamford Bridge crowd roared.

I looked over at Mourinho, and there was that familiar false smile as if to say “I know what you are all doing, it’s all a big conspiracy.”

There had been loud cries of “Fuck Off Mourinho” from the home areas already in the game. I cringed when I heard that to be honest. He’s not our favourite grouchy Portugueser right now, but that was not warranted.

Mkhitaryan was replaced by Fellaini. Walnuts bellowed “Hair Bear Bunch” and I giggled. It’s something when you are known for your hairstyle rather than your footballing abilities. Isn’t that right, Paul Pogba?

This was turning into a compelling game of football, but even during the match, work concerns kept flitting in to my head.

“Concentrate on the football you twat.”

The half ended with us well in control but I wondered if the reduction in their numbers would make United even more difficult to break down, as is so often the case. Courtois had hardly been forced to make a save. Moses was full of running and Willian full of ingenuity.

In the concourse, I watched a TV screen to see that Frank Lampard, among others, was discussing Mourinho and Conte coming together after the sending off. It felt odd that Frank was so close, but yet so far away.

I watched as Peter Houseman was remembered during the half-time break – it would soon be the fortieth anniversary of his tragic death – as his sons and grandsons walked the pitch. I remembered their last appearance; was it really ten years ago?

“One Peter Houseman, there’s only one Peter Houseman.”

I always thought that he never ever looked like a footballer. In the age of sideburns and moustaches, long hair and fringes, Peter Houseman looked like a librarian, a draughtsman or a geography teacher, bless him.

Not long in to the second-half, with Chelsea attacking the Matthew Harding, N’Golo Kante – finding himself involved in an attacking position quite frequently now – steadied himself and, although with Pogba close by, rattled a low strike past De Gea’s dive. The ball nestled in the corner and we went doolally.

“YES.”

We bristled with fine play for a while, moving the ball from wing to wing, intent on tiring United.

Then, a potential calamity. David Luiz jumped and mistimed a clearance, leaving Rashford with acres of space. He advanced, steadied himself, and I was convinced that he would level it. His low shot was blocked by Thibaut.

“Fantastic save.”

Chelsea created chance after chance as the half progressed. We were relentless. Dave had two long-range efforts. Willian went close. Costa headed wide from close-in. At one stage I had to remind myself that Pogba was even on the pitch. United were – cliche warning – chasing shadows by now, but I was very wary that one goal would change things dramatically. With another hard day at work on the Tuesday, I obviously feared extra-time, penalties, then getting home at 2am.

United created nowt.

Everyone in the media seems to be fawning over Mourinho’s United of late – I would say that, wouldn’t I? – but there doesn’t seem to be too much identity in the United team at the moment. And there doesn’t seem to be too much steel nor too much style either. It is a very sub-par United team compared to the ones of previous eras such as those of 1994, 1999 and – fuck – 2008.

Conte replaced Willian with Cesc Fabregas. We hoped he could open up the close spaces in and around the United box. There was one United attack of note remaining; Fellaini rose to an insane height and headed down, but Pogba could not pounce.

Conte replaced the tireless Moses with Zouma, and then Costa with Batshuayi. The four minutes of injury time only delayed United’s exit.

The final whistle went and we were through to our twelfth FA Cup semi-final in the past twenty-four seasons.

In the first of those (Wolves 1994, detailed only recently), we invaded the pitch and were euphoric. In 2017, we clapped, put our hands in our pockets, and exited.

Sigh.

Not far down the Fulham Road, we learned that we had been paired with Tottenham in the semi-finals.

My immediate thoughts were of dread – “imagine losing to that lot, is hate too strong a word?” – but then I let reality sink in.

“We’re by far the best team in English football this season. Why worry?”

After a customary cheese burger with onions at “Chubby’s Grill”, I grabbed PD by the arm and said –

“On to Saturday, now, and a bigger game. Stoke away in the league.”

Suddenly, the league became the important focus again.

I reached home at 1am, and briefly watched a post-match interview with the Manchester United manager, who – in all seriousness, with no hint of irony – claimed that Paul Pogba had been, unequivocally, the best player on the pitch.

Well, well, well.

I just had one solitary thing to say to that :

“Fuck off, Mourinho.”

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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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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.

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