Tales From Two Franks And The Jacks.

Chelsea vs. Swansea City : 25 February 2017.

This was going to be Frank Lampard Day at Stamford Bridge. The club had announced that our magnificent midfielder – arguably our finest ever player – would be making an appearance at half-time during our match with Swansea City. There would be a celebratory programme too. It promised to be quite a day. I can well remember his last-ever appearance as a player at Stamford Bridge, in the colours of Manchester City, when he cut such a lonely figure on the pitch at the end of a game in January 2015. He looked desolate. Heartbroken. It would be fantastic to see him once again.

In “The Famous Three Kings” pub at West Kensington, a few of us were remembering another Frank. We had learned on Friday that one of our match-going crew had passed away the previous day. I first met Frank Portingale, a local builder from my town of Frome in Somerset, in the autumn of 1993 when I drove a few of the lads up to a Chelsea vs. Arsenal game. The next time that I remember seeing him was outside Wembley with PD in 1994. He loved his days out at Chelsea and he started going more regularly. From around 1996 to 2007, Frank was one of the gang, and we would take it in turns to drive up from Somerset. For a few years, we took two cars up from Frome. We were a solid bunch; Karen, Dave, Brian, Frank, Glenn, PD and myself. Frank came with us to Stuttgart in 2004 and Barcelona in 2005. He was at Bolton in April 2005 when the other Frank scored a brace to give us our first league championship in fifty years.

During that 2004/2005 campaign, Frank was there for the first and last games; a pre-season friendly at Oxford United’s Kassam Stadium, which coincided with Jose Mourinho’s first game in charge of the team, and a league game at St. James’ Park in Newcastle. These were stunning times to be a Chelsea supporter. It seemed like we were treading alien territory during that era; league titles and a real chance of Champions League glory seemed the stuff of dreams, but we were right in the mix. Heady stuff indeed. In between, there were many others of course. A game alongside the Thames at Fulham, and those games at the Reebok and Camp Nou. And Frank loved it all. The camaraderie, the beers and the laughs.

And there were many laughs with Frank. He would often bring up “Somerset Pasties” from a local Frome butcher for the lads at Chelsea. On that memorable trip to Barcelona, such was his desire to keep them secure, he locked some of his pasties in the hotel room safe. We all had a chuckle at that. Frank gave up his season ticket a few years back – he used to sit along from us in the Matthew Harding Upper – and it was with sadness that we all learned of his passing. He was generous to a fault, bless him, and I remember that he bought us all gold Chelsea rings after a game in 2004. A few years later, Frank built the front porch on my house and I guess there will always be a part of him in my life. Indeed, Frank will always play a role in our collective Chelsea memories.

Parky, PD, Glenn and myself raised our glasses.

“Frank.”

Thoughts slowly turned to the game.

Our little band of brothers have often questioned the desire of managers to play two essentially defensive-minded players at home games against lesser teams. On this occasion, Antonio had decided to relax things a little, pairing N’Golo with Cesc, and Nemanja dropping to the bench. Cesc has delighted us this season with his place in the squad enabling him to dip in and dip out of our line-up, but without complaint. Swansea City would be quite a test for us though; their form had improved over recent weeks. Elsewhere, the team picked itself.

Thibaut – Dave, David, Gary – Victor, N’Golo, Cesc, Marcos – Pedro, Diego, Eden.

With former Chelsea coach Paul Clement now in charge of the visitors – with midfield legend Claude Makelele alongside him – and with former midfielder Jack Cork playing for Swansea too, this was very much a day of reunions in SW6. It was apt that the visit of the Swans coincided with this day of praise for Frank Lampard since he played a handful of games at the old Vetch Field in 1995/1996.

It was an overcast day in London and rain was not far away. Swansea were ably supported by a full three thousand Jacks. A fine turnout in my book; OK, the city of Swansea is not too far away, but they are not known for their large travelling support.

Alan and myself wondered about the intensity that would be given to this one. Swansea were a team that we ought to beat easily. But we were sure that Antonio would fire the team up. It’s all about the league and there are just thirteen games left. It is all about the focus at this stage of the season. For once, I am not missing European football. Whatever will be will be in the FA Cup too. In fact, PD and myself boldly admitted in the car that neither of us would be devastated should we exit that competition at the next stage. Of course we want to beat United, but the league seems all important.

We admitted that the double is certainly “on” though. Heady days again in SW6? Maybe. Just maybe.

The game began.

We were bright in the opening exchanges. Pedro fired over the bar at The Shed End. Swansea seemed competent in moving the ball around but rarely threatened Thibaut at the Matthew Harding. In the middle of all of our creative scheming was the recalled Cesc, who has such a fine touch and an acute eye for a killer pass. Very soon he was picking out the runs of Diego and Eden. I was certainly impressed with our charging down of space, and our desire to get the “second ball.” Again, N’Golo seemed to be everywhere. We were enjoying another lovely game from him; I wonder if Claude was looking on longingly, despite his new affiliation. Once or twice, N’Golo lofted a sublime pass out to the waiting wings.

Claude : “Sigh. I wish I could have done that.”

On nineteen minutes, Eden initiated another move. In all honesty, it was a loose pass in to Diego who had to battle with a Swans defender. Thankfully, the ball was pushed out to Pedro on the right. He picked out the run of Cesc and the ball was bundled in, almost apologetically past the former Gooner Fabianski.

Alan : “THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD.”

Soon after, Fabianski made a superb reflex save from a Cesc volley. It really was sensational. Victor was stretching the game out and occasionally asked questions of the Swans defence. Eden was a little quiet. Pedro buzzed as Pedro does. We were totally dominating. N’Golo was in fine form. The boys were hunting in packs all over the Swansea midfield. In an attempt to avoid boredom, Thibaut hopped up on to the crossbar down below us and went through a fine gymnastic display – a handstand here, a somersault, then a fine tumble and dismount.

Then, after it was announced that a minute would be added on to the first-half for stoppages, N’Golo was wrongly – in my book, but I’m biased – adjudged to have fouled in the centre-circle. From Sigurdsson’s perfectly placed free-kick, Llorente – thinly linked with us last month – was able to jump unhindered past Thibaut. What poor marking.

Bollocks.

The half-time whistle sounded and, for once, there was not a mass exodus. This half-time show would rival anything that the NFL could muster. The Frank Lampard banner was held aloft by around twenty supporters in the middle of the pitch. After a fair wait, Neil Barnett introduced our Frank  to the waiting thousands. Dressed in a dapper black suit – brown shoes – he began a walk around the sacred turf. There was tumultuous applause, as expected.

After completing a circuit, Frank took the microphone from Neil and slowly walked, hand in pocket, looking very relaxed, towards us in the Matthew Harding. I felt privileged that he walked towards us; it was, after all, where he had his most emotional moment at Stamford Bridge. That penalty against Liverpool in 2008 will never be forgotten.

Frank spoke for around a minute, and thanked the club for allowing him this chance to say a few words. He thanked us repeatedly for all of our support. There was a brief moment when his bottom lip momentarily wavered and I am sure that the penalty in 2008 flitted through his mind. It was another emotional occasion to be honest. But Frank battled on and did well. It was another perfect Chelsea moment.

The second-half began. Eden blasted at Fabianski. Just after Diego set up Cesc, whose rising shot struck the bar with a loud thud. Surely a goal would come. But the visitors were providing dogged resistance. I missed the Dave “handball” and was not convinced that the Diego incident warranted a penalty either.

It seemed to be all Chelsea at this stage. I was convinced that we would get a winner, though. There is an innate confidence in the team this season. It’s a beautiful thing. With around twenty minutes’ left, Cesc played the ball to Pedro, who was allowed to run. He struck a tentative shot from around twenty-five yards, and I watched as it curled in at the far post.

Here was the goal we craved. Stamford Bridge erupted.

“GET IN.”

Pedro ran off and celebrated wildly with Cesc. Fantastic.

The main Swansea threat Sigurdsson forced Thibaut to save well from a free-kick. There was a moment of lazy and loose football – involving David and Gary – as the defence took a few sloppy touches. That it warrants a mention in this match reports just shows how rare these occasions are. Antonio surprisingly replaced Pedro with Nemanja, who quickly ran deep in to the Swansea box. His pull back to N’Golo was excellent. The finish was not so great; it was blasted over.

Claude : “As good as me.”

Soon after, Eden took his turn in dancing down the left and pulled the ball back for Diego to slam home. Diego had to adjust on his approach to the ball and it was a fine finish. Diego made a point of signalling over to Eden for pulling the ball back and the two hugged. The rest of the team soon joined in. In the resultant melee, Dave hoisted himself  onto his team mates. Smiles all over. The game was surely over and the three points had been won. Antonio brought on Kurt for Victor and Willian for Eden. Cesc went close at the end, but it stayed at 3-1.

It was another fine Chelsea win.

I turned to Alan :

“That one is for Frank.”

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Tales From Tinsel Town.

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 24 May 2015.

This was it, then. The last game of the season. To be truthful, it was a game in name only. With the league already won, the day was all about one particular moment which would happen at around 5.15pm.

The sun glinting off the Premier League trophy as John Terry lifts it high above his shoulders.

In fact, there was a part of me that wanted to fast forward through the actual match in order to just reach that point. Sure, there would be friends to meet and memories of the season to share along the way, but I just wanted to see the trophy back in SW6.

Best not to wish my time away though. Surely it would be best to relax and enjoy the day as it unfolded before me. That was the plan.

However, it was perhaps inevitable in this most difficult of seasons for myself, what with the recent loss of my mother overshadowing almost everything, that even this most potentially joyous of all days should be tinged with sadness.

On Wednesday, we sadly learned that one of the Bristol group, Clive, had sadly passed away. Although Clive was not in my immediate circle of close Chelsea friends, he was one of the many acquaintances that I have enjoyed talking to over the years, whether it was in The Goose or at any home or away game. That Clive lived in Bristol, relatively close to me in the West Country, meant that there was an empathy with him. He was a fine man, a very loyal Chelsea supporter and, for the want of a better phrase, one of the undoubted “good guys.” He has featured in these tales over the years as one of the un-named members of “the Bristol boys” and, to be honest, his unexpected passing hit me for six. Although the Chelsea family has lost a few well known supporters of late, Clive was the only one that I can honestly say that I knew. That he passed away on 19 May is an irony that was not lost on any of his close Chelsea friends. In the packed beer garden of “The Goose”, I had a quiet few words – a difficult few words – with Clive’s sons Kelvin and Rich. We raised a glass to their father and to my mother.

I had travelled up from the West Country for the final league game of the season with Southern Parky and Northern Dean. At the Chelsea hotel, The Copthorne, we had joined forces with a few good friends from the United States – Kathryn and Tim from DC, Tom from Los Angeles – and had met a first time visitor to Stamford Bridge, Jim, also from the DC area, too. Jim was over with his son CJ, and was supremely happy that I had managed to sort out a spare match ticket for him. On the way to “The Goose” we had stopped off at a ridiculously quiet “Malt House” for a pint and a chat about all things Chelsea. In “The Goose” the atmosphere was predictably boisterous.  The beer garden was rammed. Burger, Julie and Andy, veterans of many a Chelsea US tour, joined the celebrations. It was lovely.

The sun was shining and the championship was ours.

The beer tasted even better than usual. It was perfect, just perfect.

Sadly, we left the pub just a little too late for my liking. There was a typical melee at the turnstiles and I sadly missed the pre game presentation to the crowd of several members of the 2004/2005 championship squad. Alan, who was in early, was able to tell me that even William Gallas, probably the only ex-Chelsea player of recent memory who has received a tough time during his subsequent outings against us, was on show.

I was absolutely elated to see Tom alongside Alan. Tom is in his late ‘seventies and his health has not been too good of late. His presence was one of the high points of the day.

I noted that everyone had been given blue card mosaics and a royal blue flag to hold and wave before the teams had entered the pitch. Sadly, that infamous Chelsea tradition of “one last pint” had backfired further. I had missed all of that too.

Balls.

And so to the game.

Ah, the game. Yet again, all of the various pre match chats had managed to avoid the game itself. The first big surprise was that Eden Hazard, rumoured to be out due to the lingering side-effects of a dental operation, was playing. We had learned that this would be Didier Drogba’s last ever game for us and he was playing from the start. Also in was Petr Cech; would this be his last game, too? The back line in front of Big Pete was the standard four of 2014/2015, but Jose Mourinho chose Jon Obi Mikel – maybe his last game too? – alongside Nemanja Matic. The attacking three were Hazard, Willian and Cuadrado.

The traditionalist in me was just happy that the men in suits had not decided for our players to jettison the current playing kit for next season’s. It is always a pet peeve of mine. Dare I mention Moscow?

With the Chelsea support in fine form, I soon texted Jim from DC to see how he was doing.

“I’m in heaven.”

With the sun shining – perfect “Chelsea weather” – we began well and Drogba almost touched home a low Cuadrado cross at the near post. The crowd were vibrant and the party was on.

“We want you to staaaaaay. Petr Cech, we want you to stay.”

Two pieces of action involved our rampaging full-back / winger / battering ram Ivanovic. Firstly he tumbled in the box after a challenge but a penalty was not given and then, with a shot mirroring a similar effort against a recent opponent at home, a blistering drive from distance.

Sadly, despite having the majority of the ball, we conceded on twenty-six minutes. A corner was played in to the box and the ball’s path seemed to confuse and bewilder our entire defence. The ball bounced up,  just missing John Terry’s desperate attempt to intercept, allowing Stephen Fletcher to nod the ball down and in past Cech. To say we were stunned would be an understatement. The Mackems in the opposite corner, relatively quiet until that point, roared after a tantalising split second of silence; I suspected that they could not believe it either.

Bollocks.

Next, came a moment of pure theatre. Mourinho signalled for Diego Costa to replace Didier Drogba. The crowd began applauding our hero of Munich – and of course of many other moments too – but then we became aware of something strange. We saw Cech race out of his box and join the rest of his team mates in hoisting Didier up and carrying him, in a blue-shirted chariot, off the pitch. None of us had witnessed anything like this before. It was partly corny, partly magnificent. Didier turned, waved a palm to the stands, then took off his shirt once his chariot ride had finished. An embrace with Diego and Jose and his Chelsea career was over. I am still in two minds about his return to us, but here was a send off fit for a king. I have pictures of his last seconds as a Chelsea player on the Stamford Bridge pitch in 2012.

The pictures from 2015 seem more appropriate.

“Thanks Didier. You take care mate.”

Just after, Cuadrado tempted John O’Shea to lunge as he offered the ball as a prize. The lunge was ill-timed and the referee Lee Mason was left with no option. A penalty.

Diego Costa calmly stroked the ball in.

Unlike in 2005/2006 when our league campaign, after the title-clincher versus Manchester United, ended with two limp defeats, I was convinced that the 0-3 reverse at The Hawthorns would not be followed with another defeat here. We had, after all, another undefeated home record to defend. And there have been a few.

Sadly Cuadrado, enjoying his best game for us – “not hard” I hear you say – was injured and replaced by Loic Remy just before the break.

At the break, there was an air of disbelief around me when we heard that Stoke City were pummelling Liverpool 5-0. Oh dear, Stephen Gerrard, what a shame,  never mind.

We began the second half well, with Remy looking interested. A rare shot from Gary Cahill took us all by surprise. Willian went close too. Then, forty yards out, Hazard turned on a sixpence and ran in that unfettered way of his at Larsson. He gained a few yards and then played in Remy. The ball was moved sideways, then struck firmly. The shot was not particularly hard, but there was enough on it to evade Vito Mannone. I caught this third goal of the game on film too. The crowd roared again.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at wor now like.”

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

With a win now looking more likely, the crowd toasted Chelsea legends past and present. There was also a wave from the bashful owner in the middle tiers of the West Stand.

We heard that Newcastle United had managed to win and so their presence in the top flight would be assured for another season. Newcastle fans have their detractors ( I wonder what they make of Alan Pardew’s fine spell at Crystal Palace) but the Premier League is not the same without them.

Andreas Christensen replaced Mikel. We were coasting now and a bright line of stewards began to line the pitch as the seconds ticked away. We sealed the win when Remy appeared unmarked at the near post to delicately touch home a low cross from Matic. Another goal – the last of the season – on film, captured for posterity.

At the final whistle, hugs from the players.

Another win.

Job done.

The players returned to the sanctuary of the dressing rooms, and we waited. It seemed to take an eternity to construct the special stage on which the trophy was to be presented. Lucky me; not only would this be at our end of the stadium, unlike in 2005, but the players would be facing my way too. My memory card was full, so I spent a few moments deleting some unworthy photographs.

A fair proportion of the Sunderland fans, to their credit, stayed on to watch the post-game pageantry. With their safety assured only within the past week, perhaps they looked on and took some sort of vicarious pleasure in our superbly choreographed celebrations. In the very first few moments of the match, the away supporters in the lower tier had tossed around – if that is the correct phrase in the circumstances – an inflatable penis.  I couldn’t tell if an image of Mike Ashley’s face was added for good measure.

The wives and girlfriends walked on to a strange fenced-off area on the pitch in front of the West Lower. This gave Alan an easy laugh :

“That’s the John Terry area…”want, want, got, got, want, want, want, got…”

The minutes ticked by but eventually the stage was set. With Neil Barnett at the helm, players were announced, and cheers rang out. Although the Barclay’s corporate colour, and that of the stage and assorted props, is of a lighter blue than we normally see at Stamford Bridge, I was not too concerned.

I was hoping for a splash of red in the procedings, though. The presence of a smattering of Chelsea Pensioner scarlet always adds a sense of history and perspective to these occasions at Chelsea. Alas, the Royal Hospital was not represented.

As Jose Mourinho walked towards the platform, he looked towards Roman Abramovich and gave him a prolonged “thumbs up”and an extra wave.

“Thanks for having me back. Waitrose eggs never tasted better.”

There were extra-special cheers for Cech, Fabregas, Hazard, Drogba and Terry. Our captain, of course, was the last in line.

We waited.

With everything set, with the cameras poised, with 40,000 sets of eyes inside the stadium centered on the huge chunk of silver, with millions watching worldwide, with Kathryn, Tim, Andy and Jim watching too, our captain hoisted the 2014/2015 Barclay’s Premier League trophy high.

From above, royal blue and white tinsel cascaded down. There was tinsel in 2005, in 2006, in 2010 and at all of our Wembley cup wins too. It seems that where ever we go these days, blue and white tinsel is not too far away. Long may it continue. Great plumes of orange flame fired into the air from in front of the East Lower. Everywhere there were smiles. Soon, the players reassembled together for obligatory team photographs.

Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap.

And then, Neil Barnett spoke :

“Didier wants a word.”

The crowd hushed as Didier took the microphone.

“I don’t really know what to say…”

He spoke for a minute or so, about his two spells at the club, his thanks to Jose Mourinho, his love of his team mates and of us, the fans. There was also a kind and thoughtful word for Frank Lampard too. It was classy stuff.

I watched, with Dave, Alan, Gary and Tom, as the players walked past us. Their children accompanied them. I took special care in photographing John Terry and Didier Drogba with the trophy. Petr Cech too. Will we see him again in Chelsea orange or yellow or white? Probably not.

The players headed off to The Shed where Parky and others were dutifully waiting. It was a familiar scene this; for the fourth time in my life, the fourth time in eleven seasons, we were parading the championship trophy at The Bridge.

And yet, if I am honest, I was finding it difficult to fully embrace this particular triumph. This has been a tough period of my life. February was the toughest month of all. A lot of my focus over the past three months has been on other far more important matters. The football has been a backdrop to my life rather than the centrepoint. To be blunt, this championship season, running from Burnley in August – game one thousand – through the autumn and in to winter, then out the other side into spring, has been increasingly difficult for me to relate to. If it matters, this one has been the least enjoyable of the four championships that we have won in these past ten years. Yet I am sure that this is no surprise to any. Losing my mother in February has overshadowed everything this season.

But I am sure that I will come back stronger next season. I am already looking forward to a full pre-season in the US in July. There are games in New Jersey, in North Carolina, in DC. It will be the perfect start to a new campaign, with maybe slightly a different focus this time around. I am so looking forward to seeing some good – no, great – friends in all three American cities. I am also looking forward to reminding American fans that there is no real need to wear Chelsea scarves in ninety degree heat in the summer, nor is there any need to refer to Chelsea as “Chels” every five fucking seconds. It will be a great trip. Then there is the Community Shield at Wembley and a home friendly with Fiorentina. By the time of the opening league game of the season, I should already have five games behind me. This season, my mark was just forty-two games. From a high of fifty-eight in 2011/2012, this is a rather low total. Our early dismissals in two cup competitions clearly did not help. By the way, if it matters, our brief foray in the Champions League gave me my most treasured memory this season; drinking Morangoska cocktails in the packed side streets of Lisbon on a magical Monday night alongside some dear friends was truly magnificent, as was, in fact, the entire three days in that historic and charming city.

What of the future, then?

We are in a very strong position here. We have the best manager in England. We have an interested and involved chairman. We have a top-notch academy. We have a great youth team. We are Youth Cup winners again. We will strengthen the squad further in the summer. We seem to be keen to redevelop our Stamford Bridge stadium rather than move to a soul-less stadium elsewhere.

All is good.

What could possibly go wrong?

In closing my reports for 2014/2015, a few words of thanks to our players for keeping the desire to win throughout the season and, of course, thanks to many fantastic mates for supporting me through my dark days.

Thanks also for the support for CHELSEA/esque too.

It is appreciated.

See you in New Jersey.

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Tales From Title Number Five.

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 3 May 2015.

There was a moment a few months ago when I was observing a conversation develop on “”Facebook” – it was one of the oddest things, I felt, about “Facebook” when I first joined, that online chats were now visible to everyone, should you so wish, rather than being kept to selected friends on a private email – between one of my oldest and dearest Chelsea mates and some of his non-believing friends. They were attempting to goad him into admitting that the race for the 2014-2015 title was not as cut-and-dried as was once thought.

My mate was having none of it, but then killed the conversation stone dead by saying :

“After Munich, nothing matters.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

After that most phantasmagorical – seems that this is a real word, my spell checker liked it – night in Germany, when even the most ridiculous dreams of a Chelsea supporter growing up and supporting the team in the grim years were met and surpassed, I have constantly wondered if anything would come close.

It is very unlikely.

Although the other two games which vie for affection in my long history of attending games – Wembley 1997 and Bolton 2005 – were magical moments, Munich blew them out of the water.

And so, there is – in some ways – a gnawing realisation that regardless of how many more pieces of silverware Chelsea Football Club might accumulate over the next decade or more, my enjoyment will sadly pale when compared to the scintillating climax to the 2012 Champions League Final. I remember that I felt the same way in Moscow, just before that miserable game seven years ago.

“This was it then – the zenith of my Chelsea-supporting life. I had thought on the importance of this match for days on end. I realised that, to an extent, there was a certain inherent sadness in this momentous trip. Should we be victorious, this would undoubtedly be the high point, the high water mark, of my Chelsea life…anything else which follows would be therefore of lesser importance, of lesser value…quite a chilling prospect and it haunted me throughout the trip.”

So, as I attempt to unravel the events of Sunday 3 May 2015, I am well aware that things might not turn out as might be expected.

Munich you see. It’s a bugger.

Football is all about journeys and the journey for the championship – er, Premiership – decider began with an alarm call as early as 6.30am. With the early-afternoon kick-off, I wanted to make time to be able to relax and soak the entire pre-match atmosphere up. I collected P-Diddy at just after 7.30am and Lord Parky at bang on 8am. All three of us were in good spirits but we were a little concerned that the weather outside was rainy and miserable. I drove through some depressing and dispiriting weather; it was pretty nasty and tiring driving conditions to be honest. I tried to remember back to 2010.

“Wasn’t it a bit rainy against Wigan five years ago?”

I was grasping for lucky omens. I am sure I was not alone.

As I drove towards London, Parky and I spoke about the game at Leicester. It had been a fine evening and one of the highlights of the season. The three of us then looked ahead to the match against Crystal Palace. Although Alan Pardew, fresh from his unloved tenure at Newcastle United, has managed to get his new team playing some excellent football, with Bolasie and Zaha an identifiable threat, I assured the others that Jose Mourinho would not let the day pass without the team attaining the desired three points.

“He won’t let this day slide by. He won’t let this slip.”

Without even realising it, I was referencing a game from last season.

I slid into my usual parking place on Bramber Road at 10am exactly. The inclement weather had gradually diminished and the roads had been clear of any substantial traffic. Jackets were selected. We walked to The Goose, though were not too sure if it would be open.

Thankfully, it was. The place quickly filled, and I was able to relax in a corner booth as others joined us. During the next two-and-a-half hours, I was able to chat to a few close mates, including Daryl who was sporting a magnificent T-shirt which paraded our Le Coq Sportif kits from the early-‘eighties with a nod to the much-loved Benetton rugby top of that era.

“United Colors Of Chelsea.”

I remember I once owned a “United Colours Of Chelsea” shirt many years ago – featuring English and British flags – but Daryl’s was much better. I’ll have to bag one over the summer.

Friends from the US floated in to the pub, too and they were, of course, filled with joy that their individual trips to London – most planned months previously – had aligned themselves with such a crucial date in our history.

“Lucky bastards.”

Again, a lot of our foreign fans – without boring everyone – come in for much derision, but please believe me when I say that folks such as Curtis and Karen from Pittsburgh, Brian from Chicago, and Mike, Matt, Brad and Frank from New York do not fit the hackneyed-stereotype of gormless friendship-scarf wearing dolts which some section of our support take great pleasure in deriding.

They know our history. They know our songs. They have heard of Micky Nutton.

It was lovely to see them all again.

The mood in the pub was upbeat and I was able to sink a few pints, knowing that I would not be driving home for hours upon hours.

On the walk down to Stamford Bridge, I was vaguely aware of grafters selling poorly-designed and poorly-printed “Chelsea Champions” T-shirts. There was an innate inevitability about all of this that I found slightly odd. This was not the Chelsea way of old, of lore, of ancient history, and it didn’t rest easy with me.

However, paradoxically, this was something that we have experienced before under Mourinho. The 2004-2005 title was won at Bolton glorious Bolton with three games left. Our win at the Reebok – magnificent and much-loved as it was – was on the back of a run where there seemed like a definite inevitability of triumph. The following season, the clincher against Manchester United, was won with two games spare. Again, it seemed sure that we would win the title from a long way out. The last remaining league win that I had witnessed in person, the Carlo Ancelotti double of 2009-2010, was more like a typical Chelsea triumph; behind for most of the season, a few patchy performances, but a magnificent canter past Manchester United in the final furlong with goals being scored with reckless abandon.

The current campaign has seemed a stereotypically Mourinho-type affair.

Calm, calculated, efficient.

To be honest, compared to our previous one hundred years – before Jose – it has been most un-Chelsea like.

From 1905 to 2005, there has been calamity, disaster, underachievement but also swashbuckling style, entertainment and intermittent glory. It has been anything but calm and calculated efficiency to be honest.

Since 2005, our history, our character, has been updated.

As I made my way to my usual seat, with maybe ten minutes to spare before the kick-off, there was a nice buzz in the air. With just five minutes to go, the sun suddenly burst through the clouds and began to bathe Stamford Bridge in warming sun. On the page devoted to the manager’s pre-match thoughts, there were just ten words.

“THREE MORE POINTS TO BE CHAMPIONS. LET’S DO IT TOGETHER.”

There were rumours that Remy might be available, but Jose named Didier upfront. Courtois replaced Cech as expected. There was a late change however; Ramires was taken ill, to be replaced by Juan Cuadrado. I wondered if he would fill the role of Jiri Jarosik – a bit player and a surprise selection – who played at Bolton when we won the title in 2005.

[cue new fans typing in Jiri Jarosik in “Google.”]

[cue old fans saying “I’d forgotten him.”]

Three thousand away fans, Crystal Palace in yellow and pale blue, the sun overhead, the crowd nervous with anticipation, the wait for the referee’s whistle.

Didier knocked it to Willian and the game began, with Chelsea – unusually – kicking towards me in the first-half.

We began well, but the visitors also enjoyed a spell of dominance with a flurry of corners. We came back again and attempted to carve open the Palace defence. A raking shot from Cuadrado whizzed over. To my dismay, despite some degree of noise at the start, the Stamford Bridge crowd was outsung by the away fans, who took great pleasure in singing –

“Mourinho’s right. Your fans are shite.”

We responded with the dull and predictable :

“Oo the fackinel are yoo?”

Speroni was twice tested in quick succession. The second of two Didier Drogba free-kicks dipped maliciously at the last moment but Speroni was able to hack the ball away after momentarily dropping the ball at his feet. A fine block by John Terry kept Palace at bay on the half-hour . We weren’t playing particularly well to be honest and we waited for things to improve. I commented to Alan –

“We weren’t that special in the first-half at Bolton were we?”

A few half-chances came and went. Palace had certainly matched us. A draw would be a huge anti-climax, for all of us, but especially for Matt, Mike and Frank who were not staying around for any more games. Alan went off for a hot-dog just before the break. I spoke to PD about Eden Hazard, so often the main man, having a relatively quiet game. Within seconds, a lovely back heel from Willian was played in to the path of an advancing Hazard, just inside the box. A challenge, from possibly two defenders, it happened so quick; Hazard falling to the floor.

All eyes were on the referee Kevin Friend.

Penalty.

I was worried that Alan was not back at his seat. Thankfully, I spotted him a few yards away, entranced by the scene below. I waited and waited, camera poised of course, for Eden to shoot.

It was a weak shot. I clicked.

Speroni  easily saved, but thankfully the ball flew up to a reasonable height and Eden nodded the rising ball past the hapless ‘keeper into the far corner.

BOOM.

The crowd roared and I was just so relieved. With my camera in hand, I calmly photographed the run of Eden down to the corner flag below me; how lucky I am to have such fantastic seats, perfectly placed for numerous goal celebrations. It often seems that I am eavesdropping on their private parties. I captured the ensuing huddle and the players’ screams and shrieks of joy. And I screamed too.

“COME ON.”

Altogether now…

“Phew.”

A little time to relax at the break. Michael Duberry on the pitch. Forty-five minutes to go. Forty-five minutes to our fifth league title.

A typical Mourinho move at the break; Mikel, the closer, replaced Cuadrado.

A rasping drive from Branislav Ivanovic flew wide, and then – that rare event – a Mikel shot was grasped by the ‘keeper down low. This seemed to inspire the Chelsea crowd, who for ten minutes serenaded some key personnel in our recent history.

“Roman Abramovich, Roman Abramovich, Roman Abramovich, Roman Abramovich.”

“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”

“Oh Dennis Wise.”

“Born Is The King.”

“Super, Super Frank.”

“Gianfranco Zola, La La La La La La.”

“One Di Matteo.”

“Oh Jimmy Jimmy, Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink.”

“Vialli! Vialli! Vialli! Vialli!”

“He’s Here, He’s There, He’s Every Fuckin’where, Frank Leboeuf, Frank Leboeuf.”

“Eidur Gudjohnsen, Eidur Gudjohnsen.”

Fantastic stuff. The place was alive, thank heavens.

No songs for Mineiro, though.

Then one more –

“WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED.”

After a docile period of play, chances came again, with Palace starting to threaten, but with our defensive five in imperious form. Didier and Willian spurned chances to make the game safe. This was getting to be a predictably nervy end to the game. I dreaded a Palace equaliser. It seemed that the away team had decided to pack all of their attacking punch in to the last five minutes of the game. They had crosses, they had corners, but our defenders stood tall. A block by Courtois near the end was the only real time that he had been caused to make a save of note.

Two minutes of added time.

Phew.

“Blow up ref.”

More Palace pressure. More Chelsea clearances.

The whistle.

Number five was ours.

We were 2014-2015 English champions.

I stood, quite numb, and if I am honest, a little flat. I think that the toll of the last two or three months, losing my mother and coping with the grief, had left me a little distant. On previous games, some quite recent, I had loved the cut and thrust of the title run-in. However, at that exact moment in time, I was just relieved and quietly contented. It was a similar feeling to that which I experienced at Wembley against Tottenham.

Streamers filled the sky, “We Are The Champions” boomed out on the PA. There were whoops of joy all around me, and I gave Alan a warm hug. I knew what he was thinking. The players soon ran down towards The Shed and dived headlong in to history.

There was another loud cheer.

Happy days.

The Chelsea trio of club songs…

“One Step Beyond.”

“Blue Is The Colour.”

“The Liquidator.”

The Stamford Bridge crowd slowly drifted off and out in to the afternoon sun. I knew that I had to have a little quiet time with my thoughts. I thought about my dear mother, who had watched alongside me from my seat on two separate occasions during the 2004-2005 and 2009-2010 seasons, but would not be there to greet me with her usual smile at the end of this victorious campaign.

The Chelsea PA played another song, but this just tipped me over the edge.

“Cos the blue tomorrow gets closer each day.
We will follow the Chelsea.
Til our dying day.”

Alan appeared from nowhere and we hugged again.

I decided to stay on my own for a further few minutes. Alan walked off to join the rest of my mates at the “Lillee Langtree”. The stadium looked a picture. I am often one of the very last to leave at the end of the final home league game each season. This was no different. I was one of the last still there. I sat alone with my thoughts. After another five minutes, I decided to move. I had a quick chat with Darren about my mother as we descended the stairs.

Mum was hardly an avid Chelsea fan, but she loved to see me happy when we had won. Even in the last period of her life, suffering from dementia, Mum was able to reel off the names of a few Chelsea legends.

“Ron Harris”, “Peter Osgood”, “Kerry Dixon”, “Pat Nevin”, “Gianfranco Zolo.”

Bless her.

Outside the West Stand, I pictured the – much-changed – scene that would have greeted me after my first-ever game, in the West Stand, in 1974. It all came back to me in an instant.

I loved this club then and I love it now.

Back at the pub, drinks were overflowing, and there was some singing and chanting going back and forth between those outside the “Lillee Langtry” and those drinking outside the “Prince Of Wales.” There was joy, but it was all very controlled and understated. It was not like the euphoria of 2005, nor certainly 1997 nor – of course – 2012. I was sober, but happy to stay for an hour as the lads continued to drink. I bumped in to a few good friends. It was lovely

Daryl, Simon and I spoke about the season. We spoke about us being off the pace in Europe and wondered if we could have a stab at the biggest trophy at all over the next few seasons. We then focussed on the league. I am sure I oversimplified things, but my take on it was :

“Diego Costa carried us for the first few months. Then Eden Hazard. Then Jose Mourinho.”

It has certainly felt as though this season would be ours from a few months ago, as Mourinho turned the screw and pragmatically reverted to a more conservative style of play. The difference in style in our play before and after the turn of the year has been very noticeable and – sigh – the media has surely salivated on reminding everyone of it. Our last real swashbuckling performance was at Swansea in January. Since then, our formidable defensive qualities have shone, though in some quarters it seems that the football world would wish us to lose the occasion game 5-4 rather than grinding out narrow wins.

I’ll be honest, the entertaining football of the autumn was a joy and it would have been nice to maintain this style throughout the season, but with Mourinho’s safety-first approach, it is no surprise that style gave way to substance as the season reached a climax.

I can almost imagine a brief conversation which might have taken place in Roman Abramovich’s office high in the Stamford Bridge stadium in January.

Roman : “Good morning Jose. Are you well?”

Jose : “Sure, but…”

Roman : “What is the problem?”

Jose : “Well. We spoke after Tottenham. It felt like it was not Chelsea playing that night. Five goals, you know? And we spoke, I am sure you remember, about the need to tighten defensively.”

Roman : “Of course. Of course.”

Jose : “I told you, no I asked you, if you would be happy for me to tighten. I need that reassurance.”

Roman : “It is no problem. This is your team. You win the league your way.”

Jose : “And then we score five at Swansea!”

Roman : “Ha. Yes. That mustn’t happen again.”

Jose : “Ha. No. “No, it won’t.”

Roman : “You see this shirt of John Terry from ten years ago?”

Jose : “I see it.”

Roman : “The team scored 72.”

Jose : “Yes.”

Roman : “But conceded just 15.”

Jose : “You remembered.”

Roman : “Do the same this season. Tighten. No problem.”

Jose : “Understood. Thank you.”

Outside the pub, with the sun now heating us all up, the drinks were being quaffed by others. The songs continued.

In a quiet moment, I whispered to Daryl –

“Of course you realise that our global fan base has just increased by a million the past two hours.”

He looked at me; no words were spoken but a lot was said.

At just before 6pm, I drove out of Bramber Road, and headed west with another league championship title to my name. The traffic was thin, the driving relatively easy. In the last few miles, with a drowsy Parky having been poured out of my car and no doubt asleep on his couch, PD and I reviewed the incredible path that our club has taken since 1997. We both remembered how delighted we were to reach the, ultimately disastrous, FA Cup Final of 1994. So much has happened to us all since then.

It has been a magnificent journey.

By 9pm I was at home and devouring all things Chelsea-related on the internet. At the end of a tough time for me, I could relax and watch “MOTD2” and enjoy a few peaceful moments of pride and joy.

We were champions.

No, it wasn’t as good as Munich, but – for the time being – it will do very nicely thank you.

We now stand seventh in the list of champions of England.

Manchester United – 20

Liverpool – 18

Arsenal – 13

Everton – 9

Aston Villa – 7

Sunderland – 6

Chelsea – 5

We are climbing nicely.

Who knows where this magnificent journey will end?

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Tales From Montmartre.

Paris St. Germain vs. Chelsea : 2 April 2014.

Paris St. Germain vs. Chelsea was a hot ticket. In all of my time of travelling to Europe with Chelsea Football Club, I can very rarely remember a game which had elicited so much worry and concern – and then either joy or despair – about the distribution of tickets. There was the annoyance that a stadium that holds around 45,000 only had an away section which held 2,200. The irony was that Stamford Bridge held less, but would house 3,000 PSG fans for the return leg. I was content with the draw. To be honest I can’t remember a stronger last eight in the Champions League in recent years. The obvious exception was the underperforming Manchester United; all other remaining clubs were of top notch pedigrees. PSG – formed in 1970 and therefore a  relatively new club in the grand scheme of things but now boosted by new money and designs on a glittering future – were undoubtedly a fine team, but I clung to the belief that they were relatively inexperienced in the latter stages of the tournament. I was hoping for Paris’ only major football club to choke.

While other friends were arriving in Paris by planes, trains and automobiles, I had a leisurely day away from work on the Tuesday. I was desperate to join them, though. My flight was from Bristol at 4.10pm. I was itching to leave.  Just after 2pm, I texted a few mates to let them know that my journey had begun.

After Jack Kerouacu for Bucharest and Jack Kerouaglu for Istanbul, there was no surprise that for Paris I simply texted –

“Jacques Kerouac.”

I have been steadfastly listening to a New Order album in my car of late and, just as I slowly drove through the lanes, edged with daffodils, of my Somerset village, I turned back to the first track.

“Regret.”

How appropriate.

Paris’ most famous songstress Edith Piaf once sang a similar song.

The flight only took fifty minutes; surprisingly I was the only Chelsea fan on-board. Although I have visited Paris on several occasions (it was often the starting point of my Inter-Rail adventures in my youth), I have never flown into the city. Looking out of the windows of the plane as we approached Charles de Gaulle, I spotted some of the many apartment blocks that infamously house some of the disaffected youth of the French capital. On the train into the city, I have never seen so much graffiti. I took this to be a further sign the city’s edginess. The journey in took around forty minutes; I was in my element. A foreign city, even one which I have visited maybe ten times before, was going to be my home for seventy-two hours and my enthusiasm held no bounds.

I was full of joie de vivre, or at least bonnet de douche, Rodney.

Gare du Nord, such an impressive station inside and out, presented me with immediate memories of my last visit, when three friends and I arrived for the Champions League game in 2004, almost ten years ago. That game marked Jose Mourinho’s first European game as Chelsea manager. On that occasion, we easily won 3-0. A certain Didier Drogba – loudly booed throughout for his Marseille past – scored his first Champions League goal that night. Little did we know then of the circumstances that would mark his last. In 2004, the Chelsea fans arriving at Gare du Nord were met by hundreds of French police in full-on riot gear. It was a mightily disturbing sight; the message was clear.

“You are being watched here. Do not misbehave.”

Chelsea in Paris in 2004 was a fine time for Alan, Gary, Daryl and I. However, many Chelsea fans had a less wonderful stay. We soon heard that many PSG ultras had attacked Chelsea fans on their walk from the metro station towards the south of the stadium to the away section to the north. Thankfully, the four of us had seen no violence; we had used the northern, Port d’Auteuil, stop instead.

At the station there was no welcoming committee from the police this time. As time was of the essence, I quickly caught a cab to Montmarte, where our hotel was located. I was even able to converse to the cab driver in a few minimalist sentences of French. The traffic was heavy around the station, but we soon sped away, the evening sun lighting up the bright signs above shops, the trees lining the roads casting shadows, the locals busy, the jazz on the cab radio most welcome.

Ahead, I glimpsed the famous windmill of the Moulin Rouge. My heart skipped a beat. Our hotel was only one hundred yards away from this most iconic of French landmarks.

After only five hours and ten minutes since leaving my quiet Somerset village, I had bought my first pint of beer in a small bar at the base of the hill that rises up towards the peak of Montmartre. The bar had been busy with the noisy chat from around twenty Chelsea fans for several hours. This, I was convinced, was going to be a great night. Alongside me were Alan, Gary, Andy, Rob, Fiona, Ronnie, Barbara, Pauline, Steve, Peter, Digger and Bob. Bob deserves special mention; newly arrived from San Francisco and over for a week or two of friendship and football. It was the first time that I had seen him since the game in Philly in 2012. An accordion player serenaded us all and Ronnie bought Fi a birthday rose. Behind us, in the bar – out of eyesight but not earshot, were Des and his mates. In a small part of Montmartre, here was Chelsea central. This was emphasised when a car pulled up and “Goggles” – the head of football intelligence at Fulham OB – got out to pay the bar a visit.

“Evening all.”

A second beer and then a third beer. This was heaven.

Feeling famished and in need of some sustenance ahead of a night of more alcohol, I devoured a huge plate of steak with a Roquefort sauce, chips and a salad. It was bloody superb. We then ambled down the hill to O’Sullivans, a large pub right next to the Moulin Rouge.

Let the fun commence.

For over five hours, the beers flowed and the laughs roared. A few more Chelsea fans arrived, including the two Robs – I can’t call them the two Bobs – and joined the fun. Andy and I reminisced about a ridiculously incident packed trip by coach to Monaco in 1998 for the Super Cup Final. There was talk of unruly coach drivers, multiple coach breakdowns, transvestites with shotguns and lots and lots of cheese. A few in the bar were distracted by the Manchester United vs. Bayern Munich game on TV; not me. I simply couldn’t be bothered. Two lads who we chatted to at Palace on Saturday – that seemed like ages ago – sauntered in with some mates. It was quite uncanny that they had chosen this bar. Down in the centre of Paris, they had tried five or six bars but had not encountered any Chelsea at all. Here, it overflowed with Chelsea fans. A few songs were sung. A band played a wide variety of music and then the area at the front of the bar filled up with a younger crowd. As the dance music boomed, a few of the Chelsea faithful showed them how it was done. Beers gave way to shorts. I remember dancing with a rose clenched between my teeth. It seemed like a fine idea at the time. The young New Zealand girl with whom I shared a few square feet of dance floor didn’t object anyway. At one point, the DJ tempted the girls in the bar with free shots if they – er – showed their assets.

“Gary – put your shirt back on son.”

The time flew past. The drinks were not cheap, but who was counting? Eventually, I had to call it a night. At just after 3am, I left the carousing to others. I climbed the hill to the hotel and drifted into an alcohol-fuelled slumber.

C’etait une bonne nuit.

On the day of the game, the Wednesday, it was a predictably slow start for me. The excesses of the previous night had left me a little fragile. At midday, Bob and I set off for a little tour of Paris. Firstly, I paid homage to one of my favourite French films “Amelie” by visiting the café, just a few doors down from our hotel in Rue Lepic, where some of the scenes were shot. I remember watching this magical film a few days before the Paris trip of 2004; it set things up wonderfully. Now that I have visited one of its locations, I must watch it again.

In a repeat of the route that I took on my very first visit to Paris in 1985, we visited the L’Arc de Triomphe at the very top of the Champs Elysees, before walking south to the always impressive Eiffel Tower. On the way, we dipped into the “Sir Winston” pub – as in 1985, but also in 2004 too. I remember my first impressions of Paris in 1985 like it was yesterday; the scorching sun, the still air, sun, the smell of the metro, the thousands of back-packers, the impressive architecture, the aloofness of the Parisians, the wonder of it all. We had heard that Alan and Gary were drinking down in the centre, just off Rue St. Denis. Bob and I caught a cab to join them. From around 3pm to 7pm, it was a tale of two pubs. Firstly, at the ridiculously-named “Frog et Rosbif” (which, when I first heard it, thought was a joke), we sat inside and chatted to several familiar faces. To be truthful, I was a little quiet; I needed a second wind. I was still tired from the night before and – if I am honest – rather apprehensive of the game ahead. This is most unlike me; I usually make a point of enjoying the moment and not even contemplate the upcoming football match. This time, I know not why, I was worried. I was fearful, if I am honest, of Cavani, Lavezzi, Ibrahimovic.

Former Chelsea player Robert Isaac came over to say “hi” and it was a pleasure to meet him. I can well remember his run in the team back in my – our – youth, especially a game against Arsenal in 1986. The Shed took him into their hearts that day –

“One Bobby Isaac, there’s only one Bobby Isaac.”

The pub was on an intersection of streets and a crowd of around two hundred were outside singing and chanting. The police kept a close eye on proceedings. There was no sign of any trouble. At last, after a few pints, I felt a lot more “with it.” After a quick bite to eat, Bob and I re-joined Alan, Gary, Robert and his wife just outside The Thistle bar, which was just across the way from the first pub. For an hour or so, we saw the crowd double in size. I recognised a few faces. There were a few boisterous songs but there was nothing untoward. In the back of mind though, I had memories of 2004 and the need, therefore, for the Chelsea fans to stay together. Among the assembled crowd outside The Thistle bar, there were some Chelsea characters of yore. The tensions began to rise. After a sudden rush of some fans to my left – with associated shouts and noise – we presumed that some PSG fans had been spotted. In truth, calm was restored within twenty seconds. Now we were all nudged together by a growing line of police with riot shields, who had basically corralled us all together. There was a sudden noisy outburst of song from our murky past. I rolled my eyes to the skies.

After about twenty minutes of steadily rising and then falling tension, the police drifted off and allowed us to walk en masse to the Ettiene Marcel metro stop. Bob and I travelled to the game and thankfully encountered none of the nastiness of 2004. To be honest, I had seen hardly any PSG fans in and around the city. This almost reiterated my personal view that Paris isn’t really a football city, not in the way that Marseille or Bordeaux are. Paris is one of the three or four main cities in the whole of Europe, but has PSG ever really made its presence felt? They have only won the French League on three occasions. As a child, St. Etienne were the most famous football team in France, then Marseille enjoyed a lot of success under Bernard Tapie in the ‘nineties. In my mind, Paris dominates France economically, spiritually and culturally but its sole team hasn’t dominated France’s football landscape. Paris St. Germain still remains one of Europe’s underachievers. Additionally, PSG has had a troublesome past with respect to its hooligan element. I remember reading a while back that the Boulogne Boys – which housed a far-right sub-culture – had been forced to disband, while the other group of fans Ultras Auteuil were allowed to continue for a few seasons before being disbanded too.

Back in 2004, there were sulphurous flares in the Auteuil end, while the Boulogne Boys laughably goaded us with a mention of William The Conqueror And 1066, a flag which said “The Queen Is A Bitch” and – surreally – a banner which called us “Hot Water Drinkers.”

The Parc des Princes, the former home of both the French football and rugby teams, has hosted a few European finals; I remember Leeds United losing to Bayern Munich in 1975, Liverpool beating Real Madrid in 1981 and Real Zaragoza beating Arsenal in 1994. It is hardly a picturesque stadium. Its dull grey concrete exterior is hideous. Inside, it is cavernous and dark with just two tiers of seats. The Chelsea fans in 2004 were housed in the north end. In 2014, we were in the opposite end. In both years, I was in the lower tier. I was surprised at the minimal security checks. We were soon inside.

“Have you heard the team? No striker.”

I groaned. Would this be a repeat of Old Trafford, which was one of the most tedious games of the recent past? My sense of worry increased.

As the teams went through their pre-match drills, I was aware that the home supporters had been given plastic flags to wave. I wondered if this would be augmented by flares and mosaics from whatever remained of the old ultra-groups. On the roof, a large sign proclaimed –

“ICI C’EST PARIS.”

It was a phrase which would be often repeated by the highly excitable announcer all evening.

The PA system was mightily involved in the pre-match heightening of noise and atmosphere. It almost acted like a cheerleader. The teams were read out. There were boos for our players. For PSG, there was the typical European routine of the announcer saying the first name and the crowd bellowing the surname –

“Edinson – CAVANI!”

“Zlatan – IBRAHIMOVIC!”

“Ezequiel – LAVEZZI!”

A squad of around thirty riot police stood right between the Chelsea fans and the pitch. They didn’t block our view, but I found their presence to be rather pointless and provocative.

Meanwhile, on the internet, we heard that there were reports of hundreds of Chelsea hooligans rampaging through central Paris.

What?

The music blared, the crowd were whipped into a frenzy.

“ICI.”

“C’EST PARIS.”

The entrance of the teams. Chelsea in that lovely all-white kit. The anthem. No flares this time. Just lots of flags being waved – red in the upper tier, blue in the lower tier – and hundreds of phone lights in the Auteuil end.

Game on.

“COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.”

After just three minutes, and with the home team on top, Matuidi crossed into the box. John Terry stretched to head clear but we all watched aghast as his poorly-directed header fell to Lavezzi, who wasted no time in belting the ball high past Cech.

The home fans roared and a lone flare was ignited to my left. However, rather than put us under continual pressure, PSG allowed us to get a foothold. To my eyes, we enjoyed a fair bit of possession. We worked the ball in to our midfielders – all six of them, playing without a real spearhead – but found it difficult to create any chances. Our support was trying hard to battle the 43,000 home fans.

“UNTIL YOU’VE TAKEN MY CHELSEA AWAY…”

It was reassuring to hear the home fans whistling us.

“At least that means that they can hear us, Bob.”

Ramires was booked for a silly challenge. This is becoming a more and more common occurrence. How often does Rami rule himself out of games after being booked in the first twenty minutes? A surreal turn from Luiz allowed him to get a shot in, but only a weak effort ensued. This was a fascinating game with so many great individuals on show. Gary Cahill did ever so well to shepherd the impressive Lavezzi away from goal.

Then, a breakthrough. Willian played the ball into Oscar’s path and was soon bundled over by Thiago Silva. The fall looked almost too pure. I hoped it wasn’t a dive. It wasn’t; the referee pointed to the spot.

Clenched teeth and clenched fists.

“Yes.”

I steadied my aim with my camera just after Hazard steadily aimed his penalty kick into Serigu’s goal.

What a cool finish.

My reaction was anything but cool.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAASSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

This time, our end went crazy. A blue flare. Blue noise.

“WE ARE CHELSEA – IN PARIS.”

A shot from Lavezzi. A backward header from Dave cleared by Brana. Then, on a breathless Paris night, a Hazard cross shot thudded against Sirigu’s far post. We groaned.

At the break, a chat with Jonesy.

“Doing fine mate. No problems. Thought that even before we scored we were coping OK. An away goal too.”

Well, what do we know eh? Although we usually tend to play with better togetherness and urgency in second halves, this game was an exception. We gave up possession way too easily and looked more and more disjointed as the game progressed. Our support quietened too. PSG had a few half-chances and were then rewarded a free-kick out wide. That man Lavezzi swung the ball in and the ball ended-up in the net from close in. Nobody was really sure what had happened. It was announced as a David Luiz own goal. There certainly seemed to be chaos in the six yard box.

We were 2-1 down.

Mourinho chose to replace Schurrle with Fernando Torres. At last we had a spearhead, but the attack was seemingly blunted after Torres’ appearance. I have tried desperately to stay on Torres’ side these past three years – it has been difficult – but his performance in Paris was shocking. Another striker – Ibrahimovic – hadn’t enjoyed the best of evenings and this meant that when he was substituted due to injury with twenty minutes to go, PSG did not miss his presence.

Lampard replaced the quiet Oscar.

The two sets of fans goaded each other.

“Where were you in World War Two?”

I spotted a PSG gesturing a quenelle at a Chelsea fan.

Oh boy.

I watched the clock tick.

85 minutes.

89 minutes.

I remember watching the stadium clock reach 90 minutes.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

Then, disaster.

Complete and utter disaster.

Javier Pastore scrambled past two – or was it four? – defenders on the touchline and slammed the ball low past Petr Cech at the near post. My heart sunk. I turned around and shook my head. A quick glimpse to my left confirmed what I knew; the PSG fans were jumping around like lunatics. They were sure that they had just qualified for the semis.

We sat in disbelief for what seemed like ages. We sat silently. I couldn’t speak.

Eventually, after about a forty minute wait inside the stadium, we sloped off into the night. There were not many conversations. We all knew. At 2-1, we had a superb chance to progress. That third goal has made it so more difficult. Everyone soon mentioned Napoli of course. The presence of Lavezzi and Cavani reignited memories of that night at The Bridge in 2012.

We dropped in for a single beer near our hotel, but I was in no mood for either a moody post-mortem or another session. I called it a night.

After breakfast on the Thursday, I bade a fond farewell to Andy, Woody, Al, Gal and Bob at the hotel; they were off home in the early afternoon. I stayed in the hotel for a few moments and picked up the paper.

The headline said it all –

“Le but qui change tout.”

My plane wasn’t set to leave until 7pm, so I had promised myself a good few hours of local sightseeing. For a couple of hours, I patrolled the slowly curving cobbled streets in and around Montmartre, an area of the city that I had never yet visited. Despite my displeasure at the denouement of the game, I had a lovely time. I took way too many photos – of course! – but was so pleased to have been able to spend a relaxing time by myself, enjoying such a ridiculously picturesque environment.

I ended up in the iconic Place du Terte, a square which was crammed full of dazzling artists, surrounded by cafes and overlooked by the Sacre Couer. I even had a bowl of onion soup and a chocolate crepe in a small and intimate creperie.

When in Rome.

I then travelled by metro into the centre, took a few steps towards the River Seine, and then caught a train near the always impressive Pompidou Centre to the airport. I had enjoyed Paris. Did I have any regrets?

Non…je regrette rien.

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Tales From The Hunger Game.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 23 December 2013.

Although it would be foolish to call the Arsenal vs. Chelsea encounter a “championship decider” – surely there were no fans of either club so intoxicated with pre-Christmas cheer to let their red or blue optimism rise that high – this always felt like a massive game.

Our biggest match of the 2013-2014 season thus far? Probably.

Pre-match thoughts were mixed. Our form has been patchy of late. The lack of a killer punch in front of goal, defensive frailties, an unsettled starting eleven, much chatter from the drinking classes; November and December 2013 had seen a derailment of our earlier form of September and October. August seemed distant.

I’ll be honest. I feared the worst. If things went against us, this one could turn out to be a heavy defeat. Thank heavens that Arsenal’s much talked-about ability to implode after a heavy defeat was part of the equation too. Six goals against at Manchester City was just the fillip that I needed to balance my negativity.

Against this back-drop of concern for our chances in North London later in the day, the worsening weather conditions added to my worry. A text from Parky suggested that the game might even be called-off due to the expected heavy rain and high winds.

At 3pm, on the last full day of work before the Christmas shut-down, I left the office and collected Parky from the rain-lashed pub car park opposite. The extra hour to travel up the M4 to London would hopefully mean that the journey would be as stress-free as possible.

I often describe this journey to the nation’s capital in these reports with colourful passages of prose; to do so on this occasion will not take long. Suffice to say, the two hour trip was very tiring. The rain fell, the gusts of wind rocked my car, the spray made concentration difficult, the winter gloom enveloped my car. Grey, grey, grey.

The Scots have a word for it; dreich.

I have a word for it; shite.

The Piccadilly Line would be our mode of transport from Acton in West London to Highbury in North London. We actually had tons of time to spare; we alighted at Earl’s Court and had a drink at “The Courtfield” pub opposite the tube station.

“Merry Christmas, mate.”

“And you, sir.”

The pub was quiet, save for a few tourists, sightseeing over for the day, enjoying a pint and a meal. I love London pubs; this one had an old-time feel, with a high ceiling and mirrors behind the bar. It was a perfect staging post for our trip further north.

However, in the back of my mind, there was the constant churning over of our current ailments of this season. Wait a moment :

“Ailments? Bloody hell, win tonight and we’ll be equal top at almost the half-way point of the season.”

Quite. And yet this negativity was typical. Maybe I’ve been a Chelsea fan for too damn long. Maybe it’s part of my psyche to become fearful where no threat exists or to over-analyse perceived faults when none are real.

The table can’t lie can it? We were in fifth place, right in the mix, ready to strike hard in the congested Christmas period.

And yet, and yet…even the most ardent and devoted Mourinho disciple would surely admit that our form has stumbled of late. I’m certainly no expert on tactics, formations and suchlike and so I won’t tarry too long describing all of that. I’ll leave that to others.

It is clear to me, though, that Mourinho has clearly inherited a different mix of players in 2013 compared to the all-conquering squad of 2004. In some respects, he is blessed, in others he is hampered. Straight comparisons are so difficult though.

A young Terry versus an old Terry?

A young Lampard versus an old Lampard?

Carvalho versus Luiz?

A cool and steady Paolo Ferreira versus a tough and physical Ivanovic?

Gallas versus Cahill?

Duff versus Willian?

An unfettered Robben versus a raw Schurrle?

A show-boating Joe Cole versus a show-boating Eden Hazard?

Makelele versus Mikel?

A young and erratic Drogba versus a troubled Torres?

Petr Cech.

We have to give Jose Mourinho time to sort this all out. It’s ironic that in one sentence us Chelsea supporters collectively say “we will give him time” (meaning in essence that we might have to take a step back before several forward) and yet in the next are up in arms immediately bemoaning a loss.

I guess this is the nature of the beast.

I guess that we need to re-learn patience.

I’ll be honest, I’m dining out on Munich 2012 for the next five years; if we win nothing for the next few seasons, I won’t be moaning.  I’d be disappointed if we won nothing until 2020, but my vision won’t be clouded by the need for constant gratification.

In the meantime, let’s hope that we can rally behind the manager. Let’s hope he can find that magical mix of personnel to take us forward; a combination of tenacity, guile, physical prowess, belief, confidence, fight, skill, adaptability and flair.

One more word.

Hunger.

Without that hunger – definitely present during that first Jose summer of 2004 – the team will flounder. Hunger should be what drives every squad member to success.

I’ll drink to that.

At 6.30pm, we left Earls Court – what a grand old station it is, hardly changed since I stood on the District Line platform for the very first time in March 1974 – and we descended deep beneath the wet London streets. Back onto the waiting Piccadilly Line train, the carriages full of Arsenal, then the short ride to our destination.

At Arsenal tube station, I always think back to my very first visit – August 1984 and “all that” – and a few of the subsequent others.

At Highbury, I never saw us beat Arsenal. At The Emirates, I’ve seen all three of our league triumphs.

Highbury was a lovely old stadium, especially in its pre-Taylor Report version with two large terraces at each end and two art deco masterpieces to the side. I loved the way that it blended in perfectly with the neighbouring terraced streets. The Emirates, despite what many say, is also a great stadium, but for different reasons. It’s major failing is the lack of identity, the lack of character, the lack of a reminder of Arsenal’s past.

“This could be anywhere.”

Oh, the Arsenal fans don’t help. A more pompous set of self-obsessed whiners I am yet to encounter on my travels the length and breadth of these isles. Additionally, they had the chance to rid the club of its Highbury “library” connotations and turn The Emirates into a hot bed of noise. They have failed.

I was inside the away end in good time on this occasion. I soon met up with Alan and Gary, fresh from work, and we waited for the stadium to fill up. There were familiar faces everywhere. Above me, the several layers of Goonerdom looked down upon us.

Replica shirt : check.

Red and white scarf : check.

“Arsenal, Arsenal, ra ra ra.”

It was clearly apparent that the weather had put many off. Opposite in the lower tier of the west stand, there were many empty seats. Around all sections of the stadium – even a few in the away corner – there were similarly unoccupied seats. However, even when thousands of seats remain empty at The Emirates, Arsenal still publishes full houses to the world.

Soon into the game we sang “your ground’s too big for you.”

Fernando Torres was chosen to be the lone striker, but the players in the midfield caused me a few moments of thought to work out positions and formations.

“With Ramires, Lampard and Mikel, is he playing 4-3-3?”

It wasn’t clear.

Were Willian and Hazard playing in midfield too? Was this a 4-5-1? From my low-lying position in row 16, I gave up on formations and became engrossed in the game. I had been feeling very tired while sitting in the warmth of the pub, but I was wide awake and focussed now. Football does that.

In the first few minutes, Mesut Ozil enjoyed a little early possession alongside Tomas Rosicky. In my mind, we were giving them a little too much space.

“Come on midfield, close’em down.”

I wanted to see that hunger to harry and chase, nullify and contain, then break with pace and vigour.

As the first-half continued, the Arsenal midfield looked less likely to cause us much damage as, thankfully, we denied them much space to work the ball in that old Arsenal way of old. It was clear that this would be a physical battle. Thankfully, the Chelsea team were clearly “up” for it.

A few Arsenal attacks were ably resisted. A Willian cross from wide right found a leaping Ramires, but his header looped over the Arsenal cross bar.

The home areas were supremely quiet. Our section tried its best; at times we were noisy with song, at others disjointed.

With chances at an absolute premium, we then came closest to scoring. A divine ball over the last line of defence by Eden Hazard into the path of a bursting Frank Lampard made us all inhale a breath of expectation. Frank’s fine volley crashed against the bar, then bounced down, but not in. We were unable to scramble in the loose ball. The away fans roared and Chelsea enjoyed a period of domination. Torres, ably winning a string of headers, but quiet in front of goal, at last produced a save from Szcsesny.

Willian and Walcott “came together” inside the box, but Mike Dean wasn’t convinced.

In the closing period of the half, towering headers from Torres and Ivanovic helped contain the Arsenal threat. Gary Cahill was excellent alongside John Terry.

A fine break down our left resulted in Willian shooting weakly at Szczesny after good work from Hazard; there were Chelsea players unmarked in the box. It was a poor choice from Willian. But, at least we were producing chances.

At the break, the fans that I spoke to were positive. It dawned on me that Ozil, their star man, had been quiet. This performance from the boys was more like it. Big games always help us focus our minds.

“We’re in this lads.”

I roamed around for a few minutes during the break, hoping to bump into some mates from afar. A rousing “Zigger Zagger” from Cath was still ringing in my ears as I stood alongside Alan and Gary as the second-half began.

The rain still fell.

The second-half began quietly. Arsenal struggled to get a foothold. Chelsea broke occasionally. A booking for Ramires. This was turning into a physical battle and I wondered if Dean would be soon handing out more cards at Christmas. Fernando Torres leaped high and cushioned a ball for Frank, but his low shot didn’t threaten the Arsenal goal.

At the other end, the Chelsea defence were standing firm. At times, it didn’t look pretty but block after block from Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta and Ivanovic were grimly effective. I lauded their efforts. The tackles still crashed in. The rain still fell. Mikel broke up Arsenal’s play and it was a pleasure to hear the Chelsea fans around me applauding him.

As soon as I had commented to Gary “Mourinho must be happy, there have been no subs” a change took place.

Andre Schurrle for Eden Hazard, then Oscar for Willian.

Ramsey fed Giroud, both quiet on the night, but his shot didn’t trouble Petr Cech. As the away fans sensed that a point was likely to be the outcome, celery was tossed towards the Arsenal fans in the overhanging tier. The Arsenal fans grew frustrated. There was a lack of belief in the Arsenal team throughout the game; as I suspected, the memory of conceding six in Manchester was difficult to erase.

Another chance for Giroud, but Cech foiled him.

We were sternly hanging on.

David Luiz replaced the tireless Torres, and then soon had a chance to send us into Blue Heaven. A free-kick, thirty yards out, Luiz territory. We hoped and prayed. Sadly, his shot was straight at the defensive wall.

A 0-0 draw? I happily took it. It looked to me, at least, that the hunger was back.

A last chance to wish a “Merry Christmas” to a few good friends as we ambled out into the dark North London sky.

I met up with Parky outside the away end and we began the slow walk back to Highbury and Islington tube. Hoods up, we walked. Everyone was drenched. The Arsenal fans, I could tell, were frustrated

A moral victory to the boys in blue?

You bet.

We reached my car at around 11.15pm and embarked on a slow and painful drive west back into the still raging storm.

I dropped Parky off at around 1.30am.

From there, things soon descended into farce.

I eventually reached home at 4.30am, very tired and very weary. This was long after my car had been caught in rising flood water on a quiet Wiltshire road, abandoned, unable for me to push it safe. I was given a lift back to the outskirts of Frome by a kindly policeman in a 4×4, who himself miraculously appeared – a modern day Christmas miracle – just after I had stepped out of the shelter of another car which had been stranded and then recovered. We then almost got caught in a flooded road as we edged through a ridiculously narrow country lane, with main roads blocked by floods. At 3.30am, I walked through the deserted streets of my home town, my jeans soaked to the skin, my feet freezing, but thankfully the rain now stopped.  Lastly, another lift home in another 4×4, this time our journey included a few nervous seconds underneath the branches of a fallen tree, the scene of desolation quite surreal. And all the way through this, I kept thinking to myself –

“All this for football?”

See you all at Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day.

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Tales From High Noon.

Chelsea vs. Brentford : 17 February 2013.

After encouraging wins against Wigan Athletic and Sparta Prague, we were looking for our third consecutive victory in our F.A. cup replay against Brentford. The first game at Griffin Park took place three Sundays ago; somehow, it seemed even further in the past than that. At times, it has been difficult to keep track of what is happening in 2012-2013. This season seems to be lurching along, victories here, defeats there. The whole campaign seems to be as downright tortuous and convoluted as I can remember. Our involvement in seven individual competitions then became eight as we were eliminated from the Champions League and entered the Europa League. We took part in the World Club Championships, playing football in Asia during a regular season for the first time, but breaking up the flow of the league campaign. There have been two managers. There have been cup runs. Extra games everywhere we looked. In the Europa League, a potential seven further games wait should we get past Sparta. We have played in cities from Seattle in the west to Tokyo in the east. There was a visit to Monaco for the Super Cup. Should we reach the Europa Final in Amsterdam, we might well have to visit that stadium twice within two months.

It’s turning into a right old mess of a season

I set off for Stamford Bridge at 8am on a crisp, cold, foggy morning. This was another solo-trip east. I wasn’t worried. With coffee to hand and music on the CD player, I set off across Salisbury Plain. At times, the visibility was terrible. The fields were frosted; the fog and mist almost enveloped me as I drove through the thatched-roof villages of Chitterne and Shrewton. As I drove past Stonehenge, suddenly bathed in early morning sunshine and looking quite sublime, I received a quick phone call from The Fishy Boy himself, the Right Honourable Lord Tuna. He was over for a couple of weeks, staying in Northamptonshire, but on his way down to London with my mate Andy, one of the Nuneaton bunch.

I quickly realised that of all the Chelsea characters from the USA who I have been lucky enough to meet over the past eight years, Tuna was the very first. Way back in 2004, I attended the Chelsea vs. Roma game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. On that very memorable trip, I travelled up from North Carolina with some friends and, to be quite honest, we kept ourselves to ourselves. We watched the game from behind a goal, away from the main bulk of the Chelsea support, which was based along the sideline. Looking back at a photograph of the 150 – at very most – Chelsea fans in that section, it seems like a different era already. From that little group of enthusiasts, our support in the US – and elsewhere – has grown exponentially and it is difficult to put it all into some sort of perspective. Amongst that group, there were around 10-15 folk who I have got to know very well over the ensuing years. Tuna is one of them. I bumped into him on the walk out of the stadium; we only shared a few words at the time, happy with our 3-0 win. I remember thinking, confused by his mid-Atlantic accent, “is this guy an Englishman who has been living in the US for a while or is this American putting on a London accent?” I bumped into Tuna the next year outside “Nevada Smiths” in Manhattan and we have been friends ever since.

Looking back – I may have told this story before – I only really became involved with the CIA people just before the Chicago trip in 2006. Things have steamrollered since then. Friendships have been strengthened. Further trips to the US have been enjoyed. My horizons have been broadened and I’m very thankful. Amongst it all, there is a notch of friends who I know will be my friends for life.

You know who you are.

These days, writing “Tales” seems as natural to me as buying a match ticket, meeting up in The Goose, taking photographs of the match day experience or verbally abusing Lord Parky.

“It’s what I do.”

Anyway, enough of the life story bollocks, let’s talk about Chelsea.

By the time I had reached London, the fog had lifted and it was a beautiful sunny winter’s day. As I went “up and over” the antiquated Chiswick flyover I made a point of spotting the high arch of Wembley Stadium a few miles to the north. It appeared, fleetingly, just above row upon row of red chimney pots on the roofs of the terraced houses of Chiswick.

Wembley Stadium was the goal, of course.

The F.A. Cup Final will be played out beneath its crescent of white steel in May. It still remains an iconic venue, despite losing a lot of its historical mystique during its reconstruction between 2000 and 2007. However, since the eventual opening of the new Wembley, it is without a hint of exaggeration, our second home.

2007 F.A. Cup Final
2007 F.A. Community Shield
2008 League Cup Final
2009 F.A. Cup Semi-Final
2009 F.A. Cup Final
2009 F.A. Community Shield
2010 F.A. Cup Semi-Final
2010 F.A. Cup Final
2010 F.A. Community Shield
2012 F.A. Cup Semi-Final
2012 F.A. Cup Final

Of the eleven visits, only the defeat to “those whose name need not be mentioned” in 2008 brought me any real sadness. The two Community Shield defeats against United were nothing in comparison.

At 10.30am, I strode into the already busy and noisy pub. I half expected a few rogue away fans, but they were elsewhere. I soon spotted Tuna clasping a pint of Guinness at the end of the bar. I eventually talked him into attending the game at Manchester City the following Sunday; Gill had a couple of spares. Job done. Chatter amongst my friends was mainly dominated by tales of Prague. Alas, I had not ventured to the beautiful city in the heart of Bohemia on this occasion, but everyone reported back with lovely anecdotes, mainly involving the crisp and pristine beer of which the Czech nation is famous.

Sadly, I had to make do with a pint of chemically-infested “Carlsberg.”

On the TV above the bar, we learned that Demba Ba was starting. The time passed way-too quickly. At 11.30am, Tuna and I set off for The Bridge.

Of course we are all used to Sunday (and Monday, and Thursday) football these days, but I can well remember that Sunday football was a novelty way back in the ‘seventies. In fact, in the programme for my first-ever Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge in 1974, several letters from fans were aired, discussing the relative merits of Sunday football. There was quite a considerable “no” lobby, with people concerned that the religious “day of rest” was being used for un-Godly acts, that families would not benefit from games tearing the fabric of their life apart, that it would start the end of civilisation as we know it.

Joking apart, I wish that there was less Sunday football. It still – even after all these years – doesn’t feel the same as “Saturday 3pm football.”

Old habits and all that.

The six thousand Brentford fans were settled in The Shed by the time I took my seat alongside Alan, still tired from the excesses of Prague, in the MHU.

In addition to the choice of Demba Ba in attack, complete with Zorro mask, there were other changes too. John Terry returned to the heart of the defence, with Gary Cahill alongside him. Ivanovic, as so often is the case, shuffled over to the right in place of Azpilicueta. David Luiz – another central defender – was alongside Frank at the base of the midfield five. Victor Moses, fresh from the Africa Cup of Nations triumph, was deployed alongside Oscar and Mata. It was a very strong Chelsea team. With David Luiz now playing more and more in his midfield role, we now have four very able players fighting for those two defensive-midfield positions; Mikel, Luiz, Lampard and Ramires. On another day, in a parallel universe, those four would make a pretty formidable midfield four, in a 4-4-2, in their own right. Our squad is OK at the moment. Adding Ba and playing Azpilicueta has given us more options. Generally speaking – taking away the grief of Benitez and all of that negativity – there are reasons to be cheerful about this transitional season. Benitez seems reluctant to change from his trusted 4-2-3-1 during a game, and lacks creativity in his substitutions, but I have to be honest and say that the same could have been said of Di Matteo, too.

We were treated to a couple of early exchanges from both teams in the first quarter of an hour. I was very impressed with Brentford in the first game – a match, let’s be honest, that they should have won – and they twice threatened Petr Cech’s goal. As is always the case when lower league teams visit Stamford Bridge, the first few forays by Brentford into our half were enthusiastically roared on by the 6,000 away fans. It was quite endearing really. I remember the days when Chelsea – as underdogs at home against Liverpool in 1982, for example – were similarly roared on every time the ball was played into the opposition’s half. These days, we hardly even clap, unless there is a dramatic one versus one break taking place and the match is tied and going into the last minute of extra-time.

Against a lower level team, I wondered if it really was necessary to play with two defensive midfielders. However it was soon apparent that although Luiz and Lampard were based in front of the defence, both were looking to play the long ball or raid individually via penetrative runs from deep.

Headers from Ivanovic and Ba went close, but a loose shot from Luiz soared high on its way towards Battersea. A falling Oscar managed to guide his shot towards the goal, but the bouncing shot struck the outside of a post. We were treated to a huge slice of good fortune when a Luiz foul on Forshaw was called back by the referee even though the Brentford attack kept going and the ball was struck past Cech. The resulting free-kick struck the wall. Lampard uncharacteristically fumbled a shot from close in. We could hardly believe our eyes. These days, I feel cheated if Frank doesn’t score during a match that I attend. It was, in truth, a mediocre first-half. The Brentford fans, though not as loud as the northerners of Scunthorpe United or Huddersfield Town in similar cup games, out sung us throughout. Victor Moses was out of sorts and Ba hardly touched the ball. There were a few – only a few – boos at half-time.

The banana skin was still there.

Thankfully, we only had to wait eight minutes into the second-half for a breakthrough. A long punt up field from Cech was aimed at Ba. The ball broke to Juan Mata a good twenty yards out. He quickly unpacked his theodolite and rapidly surveyed the terrain, consulted his compass, took measurements of the prevailing weather conditions, did a quick geological assessment, including grass moisture content, and then cleaned his boots. As the ball bounced, he caressed the ball once and then struck it firmly, with an exact aim, right into the corner of the goal.

1-0 to the F.A. Cup holders and Juan Mata raced away to the far corner, smiling in that impish way of his.

Phew.

Our play was a little more pleasing to the eye in the second period, but the crowd still struggled to get behind the team. A great move resulted in our second goal of the game. Eden Hazard had replaced the lacklustre Moses and soon stole the ball from a Brentford midfielder who was obviously caught thinking about what he was going to have for tea later that evening. He spotted the magnificent lung-busting run from Ivanovic and the ball was played perfectly for our charging Serbian to run onto. His perfect pull back was aimed at Oscar. He executed a Zola-esque flick with his trailing foot to guide the ball towards goal. The ball crept in between the legs of a mesmerized Brentford defender, who was obviously wondering “steak and chips or a Chinese take-way” to himself.

2-0.

Phew again.

Alan emphasised what a magnificent run Ivanovic had made in order to create an option for Hazard. I had to agree. It was quite magnificent. Ivanovic is a much-loved part of our team these days. Those two errors against Swansea are long forgotten. We love him to bits.

Five minutes later, a nice move down the left resulted in Juan Mata – always involved – spotting the onrushing Frank Lampard who took great delight in smashing in goal number 199. My only dismay is that I didn’t catch the strike on film, unlike number 198 against Wigan Athletic. At least I caught his joyous celebrations on film immediately after.

3-0.

The icing on the cake – or the salt on the celery – was the fourth goal. A magnificent cross from the increasingly formidable Oscar found the head of John Terry, whose perfect leap dumbfounded both keeper and defender (as they were both going out for an Indian with their respective wives, they were just discussing whose turn it was to drive). I snapped away as John rushed over to the far corner and embarrassed himself with a cringe-worthy celebratory jig. It was, if my memory serves, not unlike the jig that he chose to celebrate his first-ever goal way back in 2000 against Gillingham (and for which he was lampooned amongst his team mates at the time.) At least the ensuing leap and punch was a bit more acceptable.

4-0.

Gary Cahill almost made it a nicely-rounded 5-0 but his shot was blocked by at least nineteen Brentford players a mere eight yards out.

As I drifted out of the stadium, the Brentford fans were applauding their players, but folding up their flags. It was not to be their day. John Terry was soaking up the adulation from the Matthew Harding. “Blue Is The Colour” was being played on the stadium PA system. The shoot-out at high noon had resulted in Chelsea advancing to the fifth round yet again.

Job done.

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Tales From The Miracle Men.

Barcelona vs. Chelsea : 24 April 2012.

Ahead of our game in Barcelona, despite our memorable first-leg win at Stamford Bridge, I was still not too confident of us progressing to the final. After weighing up all of the likely outcomes, I conservatively calculated that our chances of a game in Munich at no more than 25%. We had all seen the miracle at Stamford Bridge. A miracle at Camp Nou, too? I tried to be positive, but was fearful of retribuition on a seismic scale. Of course, Barca were wounded by their arch-rivals Real Madrid at the weekend. This made things worse – much worse – in my mind. Our boys, creaking two months ago, were in for a mammoth fight. I awoke at 3.30 am on Tuesday and tried not to think too much about the game later that day.

My flight was set to leave Bristol Airport at 6.55am and, although I left in good time, I think I broke the World land speed record on my drive up and over The Mendips. At Maesbury, a peacefully still white owl sat in the middle of the road and the sight was unnerving. I drove past, missing it by mere feet. It barely blinked as I passed. It’s face was peacefulness personified. In a shuddering moment, my imagination ran riot and I envisaged the owl thinking to itself –

“Turn back, fool. There is nothing for you in Barcelona.”

I had previously travelled to Italy for the Napoli game from Bristol, my most local airport. On that day in February, despite a later flight, the airport was deathly quiet. Only two other Chelsea supporters – Emma from Bridgewater and Tony from Westbury – were on that flight to Italy. Well, what a difference. The airport was teeming with travellers. I bumped into several Chelsea fans that I knew. However, the vast majority of Chelsea fans were unfamiliar. I heard Welsh voices and accents from the Home Counties.The signs were good; it seemed that we were travelling in formidable numbers. While I enjoyed a “Starbucks” coffee, I noted a famous face nearby; Andy Robinson, the former Bath and England rugby player, now the coach of Scotland. Unlike my chance encounter with Seb Coe on Saturday, a conversation with Robinson was never likely to happen. We had nothing in common, save for being at Bristol airport at the same time. If anything, this reinforced my thoughts about how easy it had been to strike up a Chelsea conversation with Coe three days earlier.

At the departure gate, a semi-familiar face told me that we had sold our full allocation of 4,500 tickets. We guessed that a thousand or two had been inspired by the first-leg win and had decided to travel en masse to Catalonia.

The flight left a little late at around 7.30am and I tried desperately to grab some sleep.

Past trips to Barcelona passed through my mind as we flew over France. I had previously visited Camp Nou on four other occasions.

July 1986 – I called in on Barcelona on one of my train-travelling extravaganzas during my college days. Paris to Biarritz to Barcelona and then on to Rome and Corfu. I spent a day in Barcelona and made a bee-line from the Sants station to the huge edifice of Camp Nou where I paid a few pesetas for a tour. It was all quite magnificent in my eyes. The steep stands were huge and Barca’s home was quite easily the most luxurious stadium in Europe. I was equally impressed with the huge trophy cabinet and the mini-stadium alongside.

September 1987 – Another year, another trip around Camp Nou, this time with two friends on another European adventure. Paris to Biarritz to Madrid (and the crumbling Bernabeu – nowhere near as impressive as it is now) to Barcelona and then on to Rome, Venice, Milan and Munich. Unknowingly, our visit coincided with the day that FCB chose to dispense with the services of manager Terry Venables.

April 2000 – Only 1,500 Chelsea fans were allowed to witness our CL Quarter-Final and I was one of them. I travelled out with Paul and Jonesy and we had a lovely time. Up in the very top of the Camp Nou that night – we were in the very back row – I watched the sun set against the backdrop of those hills to the west of the city. At the time, it was my most memorable Chelsea experience. We almost made it through when Tore Andre Flo made it 2-1 on the night (and 4-3 on aggregate) but a late FCB goal took us into extra-time before two other goals gave Barca a flattering 5-1 triumph. Roberto di Matteo was in our midfield on that night. When we silently descended from the dizzy heights of the stadium, I wondered if I would ever return with Chelsea. What a horrible defeat, but what an amazing experience.

February 2005 – Unlike in 2000, over 6,000 Chelsea fans were allowed access to our game against Barcelona in the oddly-named “round of 16.” We went in a large group; Daryl, Neil, Frankie Two-Times, Alan, Gary, Glenn and myself. We had a fantastic time. Glenn and I had bought tickets via a ticket agency when we expected only 1,500 tickets were going to be available. We watched from the middle tier, alongside Barca fans, behind the goal where Maxi Lopez and Samuel Eto’o gave the home side a narrow 2-1 win after none other than Juliano Beletti had gifted us an own goal. Glenn and I always remember that an elderly FCB fan reached over and prodded Glenn with his walking stick when their second goal was scored. He had a look of pure disdain for us two interlopers.

Since then, even more Barcelona vs. Chelsea games have taken place – the group phase game in 2006-2007 and the knock-out games in 2005-2006 and 2008-2009 – but I had not been tempted back. This time was different. I simply had to go.

I peered out of the window just as we were flying over the snow-capped Pyrenees. I had been warned that the weather on the Monday was cold and wet. Thankfully, I saw only blue skies. We landed in Girona at 9.45am and were soon heading towards the sprawling Catalan city of Barcelona on a transfer bus. I spoke excitedly with two friends from Bristol about plans for Munich.

Maybe. Just maybe.

The route in to the city took us past the F1 grand prix circuit and then the FC Espanyol training centre. We arrived at the Barcelona Nord bus station at 11.15am. I had spotted the surreal towers of Antonio Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia a mile or so to the north and so I headed straight towards it. I texted a former work colleague Oscar, who I was meeting for lunch, and he texted back to say “take your time and see you at 12.30pm.”

I spent a blissful hour outside the magnificent cathedral and went predictably mad with my camera. Every footstep, a different viewpoint. The sun was warming the air and I was regretting the warm jacket I was wearing. I didn’t spot a single Chelsea supporter, but is this any real surprise? Along with The Ramblas, the harbour and Parc Guell, the cathedral is one of the main city sightseeing hotspots. Most Chelsea fans would have already visited it in 2000 or 2005 or 2006 or 2009.

Oscar arrived at 12.30pm and we drove into the heart of the city. We both used to work for the same company but had never met; we stayed in contact over the years through our shared love of football and the almost fateful way in that UEFA continuously threw our clubs together. I was able to witness the fluid form of two more Gaudi buildings before Oscar treated me to a fantastic meal at Citrus, a modern restaurant on one of the main thouroughfares. Seafood ravioli and then veal escalopes, washed down with the first two beers of the day. Superb. We spoke about various subjects, but football dominated. I spoke of Villas-Boas, of Abramovich, of di Matteo, of the CPO. Oscar explained how he thinks that Pep Guardiola’s days as manager of FCB are coming to an end. Guardiola is not obsessed about football in the same way that Mourinho is. He is a cultured political man, with many varied interests outside of Barcelona football. But Oscar hinted that he is seeking a fresh challenge; away from the FCB goldfish bowl. A new challenge, eh? It got me thinking. I suggested to Oscar that he would be crazy to leave Barcelona, but who knows? Oscar tellingly said that the president of Barcelona’s grandchild goes to the same school as Guardiola’s child and that the talk amongst (in Oscar’s words) “the mamas and the papas” at the school is that Pep will leave Camp Nou at the end of the season.

I had easily dismissed the chance of the sophisticated Guardiola taking over the reigns at Stamford Bridge. After my meal with Oscar in the heart of Barcelona, I am not so sure.

Oscar dropped me off at my hotel near the Sants train station. Before we said our goodbyes, he told me that “if you win tonight, you must promise me to beat Madrid in Munich.”

I soon met up with two good friends, Mike and Frank – from NYC – who were also staying in the Expo Hotel. We spent a few moments on the hotel roof terrace where the city sprawled all the way around us. To the north-east, the new Torre Agbar, a skyscraper which is very similar to London’s Gherkin. To the south-east, the hill of Montjuic, where the Olympic Stadium from 1992 stands behind the palace. FC Espanyol, the second team in Barcelona, no longer play at the stadium and now reside to the south. It’s all about Madrid in Barcelona; FC Espanyol are a hindrance to Barca, not a rival. Did somebody mention Fulham and Chelsea? To the west, the top of the Camp Nou east stand was just visible, though not as dominant as might be expected. Like many stadia, the pitch is below street level and although cavernous inside, the stadium is quite unobtrusive from the exterior. To the west and north, the hills which circle the city.

We caught a cab down to the area at the base of the famous Ramblas, which is overlooked by the statue of Christopher Columbus pointing to the sea.

From 4.30pm to 7.30pm, we had the time of our lives. We bought cans of Estrella from harbourside kiosks and wandered past the marina, chatting away about the great Chelsea obsession. Fellow fans were occasionally spotted. The skies were clear, there was an onshore breeze and the early-evening ambience was superb; in truth,we all wanted time to stand still.

Walking with good friends in a foreign city, drinking and laughing, why do we have to ruin it by going to a game? Let’s suspend time. No need to play the game. We’ll always be in the semi-finals. No need to worry. Forever in Europe, forever on tour.

It was a quite brilliant hour or so.

We briefly joined up with a few friends who had gathered with around five hundred Chelsea fans in a small square outside “Flaherty’s” bar. Chelsea flags were pinned to walls, shirts were worn around waists, songs were sung. There was no feeling of malice, just a good buzz. I had no doubt that all of the 4,500 tickets on offer had been picked up by Chelsea loyalists from all stations east, west, north and south. Although Frank, Mike and I had not spoken about the match at all, deep down my feeings of doubt about our progress to the final were being eroded by the site of all the blue-clad hordes. However, the lines for beer inside the bar were ridiculous, so we made the quick decision to vacate the area and find somewhere with more character, a little more sedate and with a little less people. We soon found a superb little bar on Las Ramblas and dived in. Several pints of San Miguel and a few shots for good measure, too. To my amazement, it was only 6pm. Plenty of time. More beers, please.

A group of old school Chelsea faces joined us and the merriment continued, with obscure songs being sung and jokes exchanged. Frank had met some of the chaps at the tapas bar on the Kings Road a year or so ago. Frank, who has an infectious character, seemed bewildered that he should know somebody in a foreign city. I assured him that this was quite normal when supporting Chelsea. Frank was full of praise of the New York chapter and even uttered the immortal words –

“This club has changed my life.”

The beers were going down well and I was enjoying being able to relax without the worry of having to drive home. I was unleashed and on the lash.

Still no talk of the game though.

“The first rule of fight club is that no one talks about fight club.”

I sent a text out –

“A toast to absent friends.”

It was time to move. We hopped into a cab and were on our way to Camp Nou. Despite an attendance of almost 100,000 assembling, we found it easy to enter. I lost contact with Frank and Mike but bumped into a few familiar faces. Looking out on the streets below, an old friend Mark commented –

“Fucking hell – I’ve been here more times than Reading.”

I made my way inside the very top tier, way up in the heavens. To be honest, Camp Nou is beyond words. It is quite phenomenal. I took my place alongside thousands of others and tried my best to concentrate. I have rarely had more than three pints at games this season but I had certainly made up for it in Catalonia. The mixture of alcohol and the incredible sense of occasion was making me light-headed. The view below me – way below me – was breathtaking.

The sun began to set to the west. The lights of the city were flickering. I was part of the stadium, but part of the city at the same time. We were on the very rim of the massive bowl, able to peer in, able to peer out.

It reminded me of my feelings in 2000.

“There ain’t no better place to watch a game anywhere, Chris.”

During the period leading up to the entrance of the teams, I tried to juggle my two cameras and my mobile phone, throwing out texts to friends near and far, taking video-film of the crowd, taking photos of the sun disappearing from view, taking photos of the multi-tiered Barca fans. That beer was taking hold and I was finding it hard to concentrate.

“You give me beer, you give me ten flights of stairs to walk up, you put me on the edge of a precipice, you put me among four thousand noisy fans, you make the pitch so small, you make the players so small and you want me to concentrate?”

It seemed an impossible task.

And yet, the photos were taken. The shots of the Catalan flags being waved frantically by the thousands upon thousands of Barca fans. The video film of the Barca club anthem.

“Blaugrana al vent.
Un crit valent.
Tenim un nom, el sap tothom.
Barça!, Barça!, Barça!”

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The team line-ups. The mountains. The inside. The out. The up. The down.

Oh boy.

There were no surprises in the manager’s choice of players for this game. It was the team that had performed so resolutely at The Bridge less than a week previously.

The first part of the match involved me taking yet more photos, sending and receiving yet more texts and trying my utmost to try to stay with the game. We were so ridiculously high up that I had might as well have been watching from the moon. By the time I had managed to focus on the game down below me, we had lost Gary Cahill. This was not a good start. The Barcelona players swarmed around the Chelsea penalty area and the white defenders scrambled to keep close to the raiding attackers. Messi, who had already slashed a shot against the side netting, was again the centre of our attentions.

Fabregas set up Messi with a delightful back-heal, but the little man’s shot was blocked by Petr Cech’s outstretched leg.

But, way up in the lofty heights, I was struggling. The alcohol was now taking grip and I soon realised that – as I tried to stay with the movement of the players – I was seeing double. I squinted to focus on the Chelsea players, but as soon as I relaxed, we suddenly had 22 players on the pitch.

No wonder Barcelona were unable to break us down.

A couple of Drogba half chances gave us hope. However, a typical Barca move with the ball being zipped around the box, ended in Busquets giving the ball a gentle prod from close in. The Barca fans, who had been pretty quiet, awoke with rapturous acclaim.

Then, madness. Did we see John Terry’s foul? No, of course not. I was even struggling to see anything. Our captain was dismissed and a series of texts from England and America were full of disdain. My friend Glenn, watching at home in Frome, explained that he had knee’d Alexis Sanchez in the back of the leg. The away section was stunned. We were punished almost immediately as Messi played in Iniesta, the demon from 2009, to calmly slot home from an angle.

Things were desperate.

That 25% chance of reaching Munich was appearing to be blindingly astute.

We were at a low ebb, but were soon to be cheered. Frank Lampard played a perfectly-weighted ball through for the rampaging Ramires. It seemed impossible that we would be rewarded with a goal-scoring chance so soon after conceding again. The whole Chelsea section strained to watch as Ramires pushed the ball once and then lobbed Valdes with a breathtaking chip. I was right behind the flight of the ball and I gasped as I saw the ball drop into the waiting net.

We were soon jumping around like fools. The terraces were steep with individual barriers and it was a good job. Oh, how we celebrated. The buzz at half-time was superb.

We were losing 2-1 in Barcelona but, with a precious away goal, we were ahead overall.

I met up with Jonesy – the same Jonesy who had been with me at the 5-1 defeat some twelve years previously – and his mate Neil, both from Nuneaton. Their smiles lit up the dark Catalonia sky.

The match re-started and there was more drama. I must admit to not witnessing the foul by Didier which lead to the penalty decision. I was probably texting somebody or taking yet another photo of the packed terraces below me. I did, however, gather my senses in order to take a photo of Lionel Messi’s penalty attempt.

Snap.

I saw the ball fly high and up onto the bar and away. The Chelsea crowd uttered a guttural roar once again.

Maybe the footballing Gods were on our side after all.

Our support grew louder with each minute. The texts from home continued to fly in to my phone. There was a growing sense of belief among us all. The remainder of the game was a further blur. Chelsea defended deep and with a passion which was quite amazing to witness at first hand. Our belligerent players must have frustrated every Barca attacker. They came at us in waves, but our players matched them. It seemed that every shot was blocked.

A rare Lampard corner, around three miles below me, was directed towards the strong leap of Ivanovic and our great Serbian should have scored with his header. It was to be a very rare threat on Valdes’ goal.

Fernando came on for Didier.

Late on, Barcelona managed to get the ball in our goal. To my great pleasure, the majority of the 95,000 crowd had failed to see the bright yellow of the linesman’s flag signalling “offside.” Luckily for me – and my heart – I had spotted it early. A Messi shot scraped the near post. The home fans only had one song – the club anthem – and we all sensed they were not helping to support their team. The spectators grew edgier, the Barca players grew frustrated and it was a beautiful feeling.

We were almost there.

The clock kept ticking.

“Come on boys, hold on.”

Then, a Barca attack broke and the ball was cleared upfield. Miraculously – and it was a miracle – Fernando Torres had decided to drift upfield when he perhaps ought to have held further back. He controlled the ball as it fell at his feet and the Chelsea fans were all eyes.

The lone figure of Torres, with nobody in pursuit, set off.

We inhaled.

Our eyes bulged.

We watched.

Torres took a touch past Valdes and slotted the ball home.

Pandemonium in Catalonia.

I do not know if the tears were immediate or if they came when the final whistle was blown.

Again – a blur. A big blue beautiful blur.

Way atop the Camp Nou, over four thousand Chelsea fans were roaring and singing like never ever before. Down below, the minuscule heroes in white came towards us. I soon met up with Jokka, Jonesy and Neil, Neil’s brother Nigel. We hugged and we laughed.

“How did we do that?”

“Best away game ever, Jonesy – best away game EVER.”

The texts came in. Not just from fellow blues, but from Liverpool fans, Manchester United fans, Cardiff City fans, Frome Town fans, Juventus fans, Sheffield United fans, Barcelona fans…

It was too much. I probably made a fool of myself for a few seconds, but I was wailing with joy. I didn’t care. I wasn’t the only one. How long were we kept inside the stadium? I have no idea. The songs were never-ending, but one was sung continually –

“Che sera sera.
Whatever will be will be.
We’re going to Germany.
Che sera sera.”

The Chelsea songbook got a great airing.

“He scores when he wants, he scores when he wants. Fernando Torres – he scores when he wants.”

“We’re not going home, we’re not going home, we’re not going, we’re not going, we’re not going home.”

We then sang the “One Step Beyond / Nutty Boys In Barcelona Mix.”

As we descended the many concrete steps down to street level, I bumped into complete strangers,old friends, good mates and many many more. It did not matter. We were all together. That walk out of Camp Nou – blissful, euphoric but still full of wide-eyed wonder and disbelief – will live with me forever. I dropped into a bar and then caught a cab back to the hotel, where I was soon joined by a clearly euphoric Frank and Mike. I am sure we could have stayed there all night, but – unlike the current Chelsea team – I knew my limits.

After the briefest of sleeps, the alarm sounded at 6.30am and I was soon up and away, on the bus to Girona and on the plane home. Thoughts were scrambling around in my poor head in an attempt to rationalise what I had witnessed in Catalonia. And then there were thoughts of how best to tackle the problem of getting to Munich for the final on May 19th.

Nobody need worry. After a frantic hour or so, I booked flights for myself and my oldest Chelsea mate Glenn – who I first started going to Chelsea with in the autumn of 1983 – to take us from Bristol to Prague in the Czech Republic on the Friday. We will then take a train to Munich on the day of the game. The last game of the season, the last kick of the ball…

“…we’re going to Germany..che sera sera.”

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