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.”

IMG_3499

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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Tales From A New Dawn

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 25 August 2012.

My very first Chelsea game was over thirty-eight years ago. The opponents on that life-changing afternoon were Newcastle United. Since then, our paths have crossed with alarming regularity, including some very memorable battles in the old second division. Our third Premiership game of the new 2012-2013 season would be my 31st Chelsea vs. Newcastle United match at Stamford Bridge. I have only seen Liverpool on more occasions at HQ. In those thirty previous games, our record was excellent; just four defeats. Our 2-0 loss to the Geordies in early May was our first league loss to them at home since a 3-1 defeat in November 1986.

There was a sense of revenge in the air. That game will be remembered, of course, for those two wondrous Cisse strikes. Strangely enough, while I was over in New York recently, I got chatting to a Newcastle United fan at the New York Yankees game on my last night. She had been at the game in May, one of the 1,500 away fans who had been rewarded for their support by a rare away win at Chelsea. I told her that there aren’t many times that I want to check out an opponents’ goal as soon as I reach home, but that was one occasion. We haven’t seen a goal like Cisse’s second strike at The Bridge for quite a while. Its trajectory seemed to defy all laws of physics. It was a cracking strike.

After our maximum six points being garnered from our two league matches, and our play improving over the past three games against City, Wigan and Reading I was truly relishing this one. Newcastle United would be a stern test. It had the makings of a classic. And this brought me a great deal of joy; I love the fact that teams outside of the big four or five have their moments. How boring it would be if our only tests each year were the same opponents.

With the evening kick-off, there was no need to leave until lunchtime. Out shopping in Frome in the morning, I bumped into Dave and Karen, fellow Chelsea fans and season ticket holders for around six or seven years. Regretfully, Dave informed me that they didn’t renew for 2012-2013. A few years ago, there used to be six season ticket holders travelling up from Dodge each game; Dave, Karen, Frank, PD, Glenn and myself. Only the latter two remain.

I collected Young Jake from outside Trowbridge train station at 1pm and Old Parky from his house soon after. There was a look of joyful glee on Jill’s face when I collected Parky; she often calls me her respite carer.

“Don’t worry, Jill, I’ll take care of the old bugger today. Send the cheque to my office.”

We chatted away as I headed east. Parky was fortified by a four pint pack of Foster lager. I made use of the new “Starbucks” drive-in at Membury Services near Swindon; another American innovation that has found its way over the Atlantic. The weather was bizarre; fine one minute, rain showers the next. We must have had twenty individual rain showers on the drive in.

As I drove past Slough to the north and Windsor to the south, it was obvious that London was in the middle of a pretty intense rainstorm. The sky was wild and wonderful. A great towering cumulonimbus cloud dominated the vista in the centre, but huge billowing white and grey clouds were everywhere I could look. We spotted occasional lightning forks. It was like a gatefold album cover from some hideous prog rock group in the ‘seventies. I almost expected to see dragons, serpents or bare-breasted Nordic goddesses.

Calm down Parky.

But then it got serious. The rain became heavier. We got drenched as we had a quick pit stop at Heston. The last twenty miles into town were painful. The rain came down in a never-ending deluge and the traffic slowed. The spray made visibility difficult. We drove past Brentford’s Griffin Park and saw that the floodlights were already on, even though it was only 3.15pm. Heading around Hammersmith, the rain bounced back up off the road and we saw great puddles of surface water.

“Honestly can’t see the game taking place, Parks…all this rain, bloody hell.”

The streets and pavements were virtually deserted. The sky was a brooding, dark shade of grey. It felt like a mid-winter evening, not a summer afternoon. The lightning strikes grew more frequent. There were even thunderclaps.

At least there were no text messages to say that the game had been postponed. We spoke about the last time that a match was called-off on the day of the game at Chelsea; we have been lucky, it was as long ago as 1998. Jake needed to meet Mick down at the Copthorne Hotel and so I decided to drive down to Stamford Bridge as the poor tyke would get soaked if he was to walk from The Goose. I turned left at the bottom of the North End Road and onto the Fulham Road. Where was everybody? Again, the streets were deserted.

It was, without doubt, a very eerie sensation. As I headed past the Hammersmith & Fulham town hall, the rain continued to fall. There was an apocalyptic air to what was before me; these familiar streets, usually so full of brightly coloured pedestrians and football supporters, were virtually devoid of people, save for a few poor souls sheltering under shop fronts and secluded nooks and crannies.

Dark skies, incessant rain, the wind howling and solemn streets devoid of life.

Like a terrible vision from the future.

Is this what Fulham Broadway will be like when Tottenham next win the league?

We dropped Young Jake outside the main entrance -“go, go, go!” – and I then drove around the block, past The Black Bull, The Finborough and up to the Brompton Road. Then, miraculously, the rain eased. By the time I drove past West Brompton tube, the newly-arrived passengers were briskly walking towards the gaggle of pubs as if the thunderstorm had not happened.

I then saw a sight which saddened me and stirred me in equal measure. Chelsea fan Kyle Broadbent tragically passed away during the week. He was just 26. Although I did not know Kyle, the eulogies being posted on Facebook during the week were enough for me to know that he had touched so many lives and was loved by many people in the Chelsea fraternity. Draped over the metal railings of the “Prince of Wales” pub, I spotted a damp, limp flag which simply stated –

“Kyle Broadbent 1986-2012.”

Several of his friends had walked that morning in his honour from Euston Station, some three miles away, to Chelsea. It seems that Kyle often went on wild and wondrous walks at various Chelsea games; it was his thing.

Oh boy. What to say?

Rest in peace, Kyle.

Miraculously, the rain stopped just as I parked up on Bramber Road. A few minutes later, Parky and I were with the usual suspects in The Goose. Another pint of Peroni. I’ll get a new nickname at this rate; “One Pint Axon.” I guess it’s better than “Half Pint Axon.”

The scores were being monitored on the TV screen. The place was packed. A little group of around ten away fans were spotted a few yards away. No malice, times have moved on. However, I don’t think Chelsea have any real problems with Newcastle. Everton fans are sometimes spotted in the pub. West Brom, Blackburn too; no big deal. None of our main rivals would take these same liberties, though.

It simply wouldn’t be allowed to happen.

For once, The Goose was rocking with loud and boisterous singing, no doubt inspired by the presence of the away fans. We all joined in. We couldn’t let the Geordies win that battle. With our trip to Monaco for the UEFA Super Cup coming up, Andy and I spoke about our memorable coach trip to the 1998 game in Monaco when we beat Real Madrid 1-0.

The coach broke down on three separate occasions on that trip; it was, however, a great excursion which was full of many great memories. A few lads from Burnham-on-Sea in my county of Somerset were on the coach and soon got stuck into many flagons of “Rich’s” cider. One of the lads, attending his very first football game, unfortunately bore a striking resemblance to the notorious killer Fred West and his experience on the night of the game proved to be the funniest moment of the whole trip.

Fred West – I can’t remember his name – was out on the Nice seafront in the small hours after the match had long finished, chatting with a few ladies of the night. After things got a little boisterous, one of the street-walkers approached Fred and, to his absolute horror, pulled her skirt down to reveal that “she” was in fact a “he.”

With that, Fred started to recoil in horror, only for the same individual to pull out a shotgun, which was fired into the air.

The image of a startled Fred West sprinting back to the hotel had his friends roaring with laughter. I bumped into one of Fred’s mates at the Reise game at Anfield in 2009; Fred hasn’t been to a football game since.

Ed bought Parky a double Jack Daniels and Coke. I wondered if he should have bought me a shovel, to allow me to scoop Parky out of my car when I would eventually drop him off later that night.

We left the pub just as the Tottenham let in a late – a very late – equaliser.

Happy days.

At “the stall” I had a quick chat with a few acquaintances. Mark W had lost a lot of the new edition of “CFCUK” during the deluge’ leaving Dave to try to hawk a few dry copies of the August edition. Cliff A gave me a flier about a “test the water” meeting to look at setting up a Chelsea Supporters’ Trust. The meeting is scheduled to take place after the Stoke game; watch this space. I accompanied Steve M on the walk to the ground; we spoke about the great time we had in the States.

Despite the torrential downpour which had hit south-west London, the pitch looked stunning. There was no surface water at all. Well done the ground staff. Neil Barnett introduced the new signings Victor Moses and Cesar Azpilicueta before the game. There were team changes from Wednesday; the big surprise was Raul Meireles partnering Mikel at the base of our newly-evolving midfield.

The game was indeed a cracker.

Despite the concerns over the summer about the new players taking a while to settle, we produced a very mature performance, with all players interacting well, against one of the fancied teams of the division.

The Bridge was soon rocking to the newest song of the moment. Out on the pitch, our play flowed in a way that was missing for vast tracts of last season. We simply purred. We began the livelier, with a few chances being carved out, with only sporadic Newcastle retaliation. In the 22nd minute, Fernando Torres spun into space and prodded the ball past a Newcastle defender. An outstretched leg, a fall, a penalty.

Three games, three penalties.

With Lamps side-lined, we pondered the options. Mata has missed a few penalties of late and so it was no surprise when Eden Hazard stood up.

A short run, a confident finish.

1-0 to the European Champions.

Alan and I had our “YHTCAUN – COMLD” exchange in a Geordie accent and, indeed, spoke in Geordie accents for the vast majority of the game.

The 1,500 away fans in the corner were clearly not impressed with the volume of our support and hit us, predictably, with the boring “Your Support Is F***ing S***.”

We yawned.

Fernando Torres, clearly now enjoying his permanent role at the front of our team, touched the ball past Coloccini and fell. Much to our horror, not only was a free-kick not awarded, but the Spaniard was booked.

Revenge came soon after. Although Alan was full of moans about Phil Dowd’s decision to allow five minutes of extra time at the end of the half, we were smiling in the 50th minute. A quite delightful move, which resulted in a Hazard back-heel into the path of an on-rushing Torres, ended with a delicate flick from the outside of Torres’ right boot. The ball simply flew into the net and The Bridge erupted.

Two goals in two games; Fernando Torres, you know what you are.

We all agreed how well we had played amidst our half-time chat. Out on the pitch, Neil Barnett was with former striker Joe Allon – famous for his jump over the Shed End advertising hoardings during a 2-2 draw with Wimbledon in 1991…but not much else.

Newcastle came at us in the first part of the second period. Our flow had been interrupted by the half-time break and the visitors’ new found thrust. But, in all honesty, we were hardly troubled the entire game. Ryan Bertrand hardly put a foot wrong. Both Mikel and Meireles covered a lot of ground and were the unsung heroes.

Three moments to cherish from the second period.

As the heavens opened again, a delightful back heel from Eden Hazard which almost reached Torres. I think we can expect similar moments of inspiration from our new Belgian as the season progresses. I noted that he has a very low centre of gravity – always an advantage for a dribbler – and, once he sets off on a forward run, he almost hugs the turf.

Fernando Torres was a man reborn and often ran at the Newcastle defence. His close control is one of his brightest assets. When he was on the edge of the Newcastle box, he fooled everyone by crossing the ball with his right foot from behind his standing left foot. Lovely stuff.

Eden Hazard, now full of running, teased Coloccini down below me and left him for dead over ten scintillating yards. His change of pace was amazing.

Newcastle had two or three goal scoring chances at the Shed End. We were slightly edgy, knowing that a goal from the visitors would bring them right back into it.

We held on. It had been a lovely game, which augers so well for the rest of the season.

With no trip to Monaco for me next weekend, I now have to wait three whole weeks for my next game; a feisty trip to our neighbours at Loftus Road. Who knows, by the time we reconvene there, we might still be top.

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Tales From The Sticky Black Tarmac

Everton vs. Chelsea : 22 May 2011.

At 8.30am, I left my village. For the last time of the season, I sent a text to Alan –

“Jack Kerou’Whack.”

On passing through Bradford-On-Avon, I had to slow down to accommodate several cyclists on a Sunday morning race. It was a little reminder that the summer was on its way and that there were other sporting pursuits taking place. To be honest, it has felt that the football season had already finished, especially since we had the “lap of appreciation” after the Newcastle game. On this last day of the season, the focus was elsewhere; the relegation dogfight, played to its nail-biting conclusion for the fans of Birmingham City, Blackburn, Blackpool, Wigan and Wolves. I collected Parky and we were on our way north for the final time of season 2010-2011.

This would be my eleventh trip to Goodison Park and it remains one of my favourite away stadia. The reasons for this have been well detailed before, but it’s quite simple really; a historic stadium, with two stands from the early part of last century still intact, a cramped inner city location, with an atmosphere all of its own, rich with tons of memories of past games.

We chatted away on the drive north and the time flew past. We spent a while talking about the football / music crossover which has been such a feature of the game in Britain. And at Chelsea in particular. From the songs from West Indian ska bands of the late sixties, beloved by Ben Sherman-wearing youths on the terraces of The Shed, to punks and skins of the late’seventies (Kings Road posing in the morning, football in the afternoon), soul boys in the early eighties (wedge haircuts and skintight jeans), through to the house music phenomenon of the late ‘eighties, all baggy jeans, bright colours, ecstasy in the dance clubs and on the terraces.

There just isn’t anything similar for any other sport in the UK. Music and football – the perfect combination. It’s just a magnificent celebration of working class culture. This relationship, in my mind, reached its zenith in the summer of 1990 with the New Order / England song “World in Motion.” We then had the Chelsea vs. Manchester City battle-royal between Blur and Oasis during the Brit Pop years, with laddish attitudes evident in every song, borne from the terraces, and enthralling a nation. At Chelsea games this season, we still see “London Calling” and “One Step Beyond” banners. And no team has as many pop star fans as us, from Suggs and Woody from Madness, Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher of Depeche Mode, to Damon from Blur and Gorillaz…the beat goes on.

At 11am, we called in to collect Julie and Burger from their home in Stafford. Time for a quick coffee and then onwards to Merseyside, whack. They are both busy with work, but still loving life in the heart of the Midlands. We managed to spirit two tickets for them out of the ether and they were happy to be aboard The Axon Express for the final game of the season. A few alcoholic beverages were shared between Burger and Parky and Julie spent a little time looking through the CIA book of my match reports from last season.

At 12.30pm, bang on time, I pulled into the car park of the Stoneycroft pub on the Queens Drive. A pint of Becks Vier. A relaxing time, with good people. Andy, Woody and Rob – travelling up from Nuneaton – soon joined us and we sat down for a Sunday carvery, with food piled high on our respective plates. The chatter subsided as we got stuck into the mountains of nosh in front of us.

“Bloody hell, it’ll take me twenty minutes until I reach the meat.”

“Bolton” said Andy.

“Best carvery in the Premiership.”

He then spent a few moments rekindling his love affair with the Toby carvery at Sunderland. Burger bought some Amarettos for the non-drivers. We all agreed that it felt strange to be at a game which was effectively meaningless. I guess we were all there for the craic though – nothing different, there.

We then drove on up to the Liverpool FC car park on Stanley Park and quickly found ourselves inside The Arkles pub. The pub was pretty full and I spent a little time with the other Nuneaton lads.

Lacoste watch –

Chris – lavender.
Chopper – sky blue.
Neil – royal blue.

WeroLoco from Calexico in California had been in touch and we eventually met outside. I had told him to look out for my travelling companion, identified by his trusty crutches.

“Are you Lord Parky?”

I quickly met WeroLoco’s mother, sister and girlfriend. His mother and sister were not planning on going to the game, but we advised them to pick up the two spare tickets which were being offered up by a Chelsea fan. We then sped off across Stanley Park, a force ten gale blowing, and reached Goodison Park just at the right time, with ten minutes to spare.

I made my way into the cramped Bullens Road stand and a large sign inside said “Everton Welcomes Visiting Supporters.” I had a seat in the upper tier and I was reminded of the first time I had seats in that particular section. This was a game in December 1998 and was memorable for being my girlfriend Judy’s boy James’ first ever football game. Now James is – and was then – a United supporter, but I had decided that it was high time that he got to see my team play. He was only ten. To be truthful, the game was poor (no goals, but a double-sending off, first Dennis Wise and then Richard Dunne), but it was lovely to take football-mad James to a game. I don’t have any kids of my own, so this was a very special moment. Despite his allegiance to United, I loved it when James joined in with a few Chelsea songs. It was my privilege to take James a year later to Old Trafford for the very first time. Don’t worry, he was with us in the Chelsea section and I even caught him chanting “Chelsea” at that game, too.

Just before I made my way to my seat, alongside Alan and Gary, my mate Ajax gestured to me and pointed out an actress from Coronation Street – I don’t watch the show, so didn’t recognise her – Brooke Vincent, who is seeing Scott Sinclair (according to Gary…again, I didn’t know.)

We had seats 1-3 in row L, so we were right in the corner, not too many seats away from the game in 1998. In with just a couple of minutes to spare.

Ah, Goodison – the wooden floorboards, the mammoth main stand opposite, the blue paintwork, the detail of the Leitch stands, the Toffee Girls, the “Z Cars” theme.

So, no Drogba, but Torres upfront with Anelka and Malouda.

“I’ve never seen us lose here, Gal.”

And when I said it, Gal’s look said it all.

The game began in bright sunshine and the wind had thankfully subsided. I was well aware that many seats in the Chelsea section were not occupied; I’d imagine several hundred had decided not to travel. Behind us, in the top corner, tens of seats were unoccupied.

The game was played out before me, but this was not appetising fare. An Everton corner was swung in from the far side and a header thudded against the bar. We had been warned. Soon into the game, a healthy chant echoed around the away section –

“We want you to stay. We want you to stay – Ancelotti, we want you to stay.”

And then, not so loud – “Carlo! Carlo!” – and a brief wave.

We struggled in the first period and Leighton Baines was in typical raiding form down the left. A woeful finish from Beckford and a strong Everton penalty claim were Everton’s highlights. A bursting Alex found support from Torres and the ball was played into Anelka but his shot was blocked by Klunk. Generally speaking, we were our usual slow and sluggish selves and only a couple of long distance Anelka shots late on were our further comforts.

At times during the first-half, the whole stadium was silent.

The sending off livened-up the second-half and, at least, the game seemed to be a little more feisty and engaging. I caught John Terry’s nice strike on goal on film – this rattled the left-hand post. His first Chelsea goal from “distance” still awaits.

The Everton goal was a joke, but nobody was laughing. Beckford just waltzed through from deep and shimmied past the convergence of four – it could have been nine – Chelsea defenders.

“After you Paolo.”

“No, after you JT.”

“Your ball, Alex.”

“Micky Droy’s ball.”

“Chopper’s ball.”

“My ball.”

“Sorry Marcel.”

“John Sillett!”

“Get him, Frankie Sinclair!”

“Hack him down, Berge.”

Goodison Park erupted. Our hearts sunk and our support got quieter. I’d say that only JT showed any spirit. Frank Lampard was absolutely woeful – and I’m genuinely concerned for him. I have a fear that his form, so dependent on his vitality and energy, could continue its rapid decline. Torres was looking disinterested and I was begging for him to lose his markers and spin his markers occasionally. We clearly need to change to accommodate him. Mikel – slow and ponderous. Malouda – hiding.

Pass, pass, pass – to infinity.

We had to wonder who had the spare man. It couldn’t have been us.

The final whistle and it was over.

I had my camera at the ready and hoped to take a few photos of the boys down below us. Maybe even one of Carlo. Malouda was playing wide left and Ashley Cole, too. They applauded us. But the only three players who walked over to applaud us were – go on guess, it is obvious – John Terry, Frank Lampard and Petr Cech.

Respect to them.

In a poignant moment, I watched as JT stooped to take off his two boots and shirt. He clapped us, but looked very disappointed. He walked towards the fans in the lower tier and presented the boots and the shirt to fans down below. He pounded his chest with his right palm, and then slowly walked across the Goodison Park turf. One man with his thoughts.

The Everton fans were scowling and he pounded his chest once more.

As I walked down the stairs, I noted the rather nice working of the Everton motto “Nil Satis Nisi Optimum / Nothing But The Best” on a large sign. I mused that the Chelsea performance was far from it.

We met up outside the away end, the Evertonians buoyant, the Chelsea fans silent.

After a while to get out of the car park, we eventually edged onto Queens Drive at 7pm. The post-game discussion was brutal but brief. We had already put the game behind us. On the way home, I briefly glimpsed the hills beyond Manchester and wondered what sort of celebrations were going on at Old Trafford. The relegation equation was finally resolved and we were all sad to see Blackpool relegated.

A few Everton cars passed us – and quite a few had “Nil Satis Nisi Optimum” rear window stickers (they looked classy to be honest) but I came up with a different translation –

“Forever Seventh.”

We dropped off The Burgers at 7pm and we had another coffee in their delightful rear garden, the sun slowly fading. We wished each other all the very best for the summer, with the season in August not so far away. There is the friendly at Fratton Park, my two games in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, plus the Rangers game too. Lots to relish, lots to look forward to.

As we left Stafford, at about 7.30pm, I received a text from my oldest Chelsea friend Glenn, deep in rural Somerset.

“Carlo sacked.”

We fell silent for a few seconds and I had that awful dry feeling in the back of my throat that seems to appear whenever my mind and soul encounter sad news.

My initial reaction was : typical Chelsea, typical classless PR.

Poor Carlo.

For a while, Parky and I were quietly mulling over the future and the spectre of Roman’s obsession with the Champions League. In Roman we trust? I’m not so sure.

Confused. Sad. Tired. Frustrated.

The last junk food refill of the season at Strensham and the last Red Bull. It is just as well that Bruce Buck didn’t pull up alongside me on this occasion. I may not have been so pleasant as after the Stoke city game a month or so back.

We raced south and we listened to a Jam album. I’ve never met a Chelsea fan who doesn’t like The Jam – and it seemed appropriate for us to be belting out the lyrics to this most English of bands on this most typical of Chelsea evenings.

“A police car and a screaming siren
Pneumatic drill and ripped up concrete
A baby wailing, a stray dog howling
The screech of brakes and lamplights blinking

That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

A smash of glass and the rumble of boots
An electric train and a ripped up phone booth
Paint splattered walls and the cry of a tom cat
Lights going out and a kick in the balls

I say that’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

Days of speed and slow time Mondays
Pissing down with rain on a boring Wednesday
Watching the news and not eating your tea
A freezing cold flat and damp on the walls

I say that’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

Waking up at 6 a.m. on a cool warm morning
Opening the windows and breathing in petrol
An amateur band rehearse in a nearby yard
Watching the telly and thinking ’bout your holidays

That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

Waking up from bad dreams and smoking cigarettes
Cuddling a warm girl and smelling stale perfume
A hot summers day and sticky black tarmac
Feeding ducks in the park and wishing you were far away

That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

Two lovers kissing amongst the scream of midnight
Two lovers missing the tranquillity of solitude
Getting a cab and travelling on buses
Reading the graffiti about slashed seat affairs

I say that’s entertainment, that’s entertainment.”

I dropped off Lord Parky at 10.45pm and I was home at 11.15pm.

And next season, we’ll do it all again.

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