Tales From Underneath The Arch

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 5 May 2012.

During the preceding week, I was trying my best to nurture positive thoughts and the appropriate amount of anticipation ahead of the F.A. Cup Final. I will admit that I was genuinely struggling. For starters, there is no doubt whatsoever that the role of the F.A. Cup Final in the football calendar is at an all-time low. I have commented about the reasons for this on many occasions. Suffice to say, the accelerating importance of both the League and the Champions League, the huge amount of football games on TV these days, the playing of semi-finals at Wembley, the abolition of second replays, the playing of the Final itself before the league season itself has finished and the general mismanagement of The Cup by the Football Association over the years are the main reasons why we are in this current situation.

This current state of affairs leaves fans of a certain age, like me, in a bit of a predicament.

I yearn for the Cup Final Days of my youth when the world – or at least my world – would virtually stop on the second Saturday in May. Those days were wonderful. The first F.A. Cup final I remember was the centenary game of 1972 when a diving Alan Clarke header gave Leeds a 1-0 win over perennial finalists Arsenal. And the memories from the next ten years are still rich to this day. In those days, we only had three TV channels, yet BBC1 and ITV both showed the Cup Final, with saturated coverage starting from around 11.30am through to 5.30pm. It was the only club game shown “live” on TV. It was a football enthusiast’s heaven. I always favoured the BBC’s coverage, but would often channel hop to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. The heady years of Cup Finals in my mind were from 1972 through to 1983 – from the ages of 7 to 18 – and of course, Chelsea were in involved in none of them. The nearest we got to the Twin Towers in that period were the quarters in 1973 (Arsenal) and 1982 (Spurs.)

Those defeats still hurt to this day.

So – anyway – you get the picture. Despite the elation of reaching another Wembley final, part of my psyche was labouring under the burden of the fact that things would never be the same as they were in those heady days of my youth. It was tough going, but I was trying my best to get my head around it all. To be honest, the fear of losing to Liverpool was helping to concentrate my addled mind. I was getting there. I could almost see the crescent of the Wembley Arch.

And then Chelsea Football Club fcuked it up. They completely disrupted my thoughts on the Friday with the news that they (and I use the term “they” wisely) had officially bid for the site of the Battersea Power Station. Now then, I am yet to be totally persuaded that my club needs to vacate our home of 107 years, but that is not the point. The point is that the club announced this massive piece of news on the eve of The Cup Final. My Friday afternoon at work in Chippenham was spent thinking about the pros and cons of Hammersmith & Fulham over Wandsworth, Stamford Bridge over The Samsung Arena, North versus South, District Line over Northern Line, old versus new, home versus new home.

To be honest, I was livid.

But yet – how typical of Chelsea F.C. to misjudge the mood of the moment. The club, the fans and the team needed to be together ahead of the Cup Final with Liverpool, yet here they were – obviously still smarting from the CPO defeat in November – quite relishing the chance to bully a point across. Rather than focussing my mind on the game at Wembley, my mind was poisoned by the thought of myself attending the last ever game at Stamford Bridge in maybe six or seven years.

Oh boy.

Thankfully, when I awoke at around 6.30am on Cup Final Saturday, my mind was clearer and focussed on the day ahead. This was good news indeed. I took a while to decide what to wear; this is always a tough part of each match day for me…all those shirts, all those options…but even more so on Cup Final Day. I opted for the lime green of a Lacoste long-sleeved polo and the muted grey of a CP top. I knew that Parky would be similarly attired. The last time I wore a Chelsea shirt to a Cup Final was in 1994 when I wore – hoping for a repeat – a 1970 replica shirt. But more of 1994 later.

I pulled out of my drive at around 8.45am and a Depeche Mode CD was playing. The closing notes of one song ended…a pause…then –

“When I’m with you baby, I go outta my head – and I just can’t get enough, and I just can’t get enough.”

And then my brain started whirring.

“Just can’t get enough” – yep, that’s about right. I certainly can’t get enough of Chelsea. And then I remembered that Liverpool are one of the several teams who have purloined this song from under our noses and I wondered if I would rue my day beginning in this way. I remember the Scousers singing this at The Bridge in the autumn and I shuddered. A repeat at Wembley? No thanks.

Parky – yellow Lacoste polo and grey Henri Lloyd top – was collected at just after 9am and we were on our way. I had pinned two Chelsea chequered flags to my car and I was keen to see if any other Chelsea cars were similarly attired as we drove up the M4. Surprisingly, on the drive east, we only saw two other Chelsea cars – and a Liverpool mini-bus. A car glided past and I spotted a bloke with an Arsenal replica shirt at the wheel. I smirked and he tried to ignore me. By the way, can anyone explain to me why that Arsenal vs. Norwich game could not have been played on the Sunday, along with all of the League fixtures? We were sharing the billing on just another football Saturday and it wasn’t right, damn it.

We reached Chelsea at 11am and – for some reason – I wanted to drive past Stamford Bridge before parking up. In truth, the place was pretty quiet, save for Bob The T-Shirt’s stall already at work. I imagined the area being full of non-attendees come 5pm.

We began with a quiet pint at “The Prince Of Wales” at West Brompton. There was drizzle outside as we caught the tube to Edgware Road. Nearing Notting Hill, however, Andy Wray sent me a text and advised that he was at “The Victoria” at Paddington. That was perfect timing and we quickly changed our plans. Several pubs in the Paddington area seemed to be overflowing with Liverpool fans. At just after 1pm, we met up with Andy, Ben, Dave Chidgey and a couple more Chelsea fans in the cosy confines of “The Victoria.” I spoke briefly to a Chelsea fan from Vancouver. Poor Ben was suffering with a hangover. I hoped he could recover quickly. Talk was of the new Battersea Stadium and of Munich. We then caught a cab to “The Duke Of York” where the lads were already enjoying a pre-match. The pub seemed quieter than for the semi-final and previous Cup Final visits. Ben commented that the main talk inside the boozer was still of Munich. Notable absentees were Simon, Milo and Daryl – all Munich-bound, and working on Brownie Points for the day. I chatted with Ben and Andy outside. The weather was mixed. I was glad I had my jacket with me. Talk was varied. Ben spoke about the Boston Blues and Andy spoke of The Olde Shippe. It was difficult to track my mood; to be truthful, I just wanted to get up to Wembley ahead of schedule and enjoy the moment.

Andy went off with Alan and Gary at about 3.45pm. Ben came along with Neil, Ed, Parky and little old me just after. We caught the 4.15pm from Marylebone and the packed train was full of Chelsea, united in song. The carriage was rocking. Ben had recovered from his previous night’s carousing with Cathy and Kerry Dixon and was joining in like a veteran. It was great to see him leading a few choice chants. I began one song –

“If you’re standing on the corner…”

We soon pulled into Wembley Stadium and met up with a drunken band of Chelsea fans from Trowbridge, singing songs about slums and dead cats. The rain was holding off. It was a grey and decidedly dull day, though. Unfortunately, there was a horrendous delay at turnstile L at the western side of the stadium. I’m afraid to say that this caused me to miss – again! – the traditional Cup Final hymn “Abide With Me.” Our seats were in block 538, row 24. Up and up we went.

Row 24 was the very back row. Seat 363 was just to the south side of the goal. In truth, we were only around 15 yards from our dead-central position at the 2010 Cup Final.

OK, here we go. A quick scan. The Liverpool balcony was bedecked with red banners and easily out-did our end. Had somebody forgot to bring the eight to ten permanent banners at Stamford Bridge? There were small blue flags by each seat, but not many waved these. I had my cameras at the ready. I was annoyed with myself for missing the build-up, but at least I was in for the entrance of the teams.

With the two teams lined up, the Liverpool fans were still bellowing out “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” I was worried that the old habits of the ‘seventies, when Cup Final teams often sung over the national anthem, might be resurrected. Oh dear, how correct I was.

As “God Save The Queen” began, all that could be heard were the boos from the Liverpool end. However, the Chelsea fans soon out-sung the boos and the stadium was roaring by the time the last few words were being sung –

“Send Her Victorious, Happy And Glorious, Long To Reign Over Us – God Save The Queen.”

Were the boos by the Liverpool fans some sort of retaliation for the “Murderers” chants by some foolish Chelsea fans at the Spurs semi-final? Yes, for sure – but that only tells part of the story. Both Liverpool the city and Liverpool the football club see themselves as some sort of a free-spirited and anti-establishment utopia, railing against the perceived prejudices of the rest of England. They are pro-Liverpool, but anti-everything else. They are no big fans of the London government – especially a Conservative government which they still abhor for the Hillsborough aftermath, the London media, the FA. They evidently see the Royal Family as part of this picture. I have read that the Scousers were not happy that the Royal Family were not more supportive in 1989. And so it goes on. The over-whelming sense of ills being acted out against them.

There was a banner which was held aloft for a few seconds before the game began, which referenced Hillsborough once more –

“Expose The Lies Before Thatcher Dies.”

Into this mix comes Chelsea Football Club. The blue versus the red. The southern club with money but no history. The club with a history of right-wing support . The devil incarnate. Blue rag to a bull.

This Cup Final was always going to be a tinderbox in the stands.

Speaking personally, I did my best to ignore the “Murderers” chants by those around me and decided to support the team in as positive way as I could. This was my eighth cup final and it seems strange, knowing how dominant Liverpool were in my youth, that this was our first one against them. I had a further scan before kick-off and I was dismayed to see a few pockets of unused seats in our end. We had been given 25,000 seats for this game. I briefly thought back to that 1994 Cup Final when we lost 4-0 to Manchester United. We only received 17,000 for that game and yet I can well remember that we didn’t even have 17,000 members in those days. My dear friend Glenn wasn’t a member that season, but had applied for his 1994-1995 membership early. As a result, his name was put into a raffle for the last few Chelsea tickets and was overjoyed when Chelsea called him on the ‘phone to say he had been successful.

It made me realise how far we have come in eighteen years.

Less than 17,000 members in 1994.

More than 25,000 season ticket holders in 2012.

What will we be in 2030? Or – more pertinently – where will we be?

Maybe there is some sanity in Chelsea’s desire to move out of Stamford Bridge.

I put these worrying thoughts to one side as I turned my complete attention to the 2012 F.A. Cup Final. There were no surprises in the Chelsea line-up; Didier was leading the line, ready to add to his phenomenal haul of goals under the arch. I was surprised to see Craig Bellamy in the Liverpool team ahead of Andy Carroll.

Chelsea dominated possession in the first part of the game. This did not surprise me. If we were underdogs for Munich, surely we were the slight favourites for this one? We were the team in form, whereas Liverpool were floundering several places below us in the league table.

We did not have to wait long for a goal. Juan Mata was allowed time and space in the centre of the pitch and played a magnificent ball into the path of the advancing Ramires. It was eerily similar to Camp Nou. This time, there was no chip, but a low drive at Reina’s goal. Before we knew it, we were 1-0 up and the Chelsea end erupted. I was shouting like a loon, but steadied myself to capture a few of the celebrations away down below.

Wow.

Soon after, Ivanovic did well to block a Bellamy effort which was certainly goal bound. This was a cagey game, though, with few chances. A fine dribble by Salomon Kalou deep in to enemy territory petered out. Long shots from Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Kalou did not worry Reina. We rarely looked in danger, though, and I was very content to see that Luiz Suarez was having a quiet game. Downing and Bellamy were buzzing around, but our defence was in control. In the middle, our trio of Mikel, Lamps and Ramires were covering space and not allowing Gerrard much time to impose himself on the game.

The atmosphere was hardly noisy. It all seemed a little too easy. The Liverpool fans were not singing too loudly either. There was a strange feeling to the evening.

At half-time, our intelligence was insulted with a feeble attempt at entertainment and I won’t even bother explaining it.

As the teams re-entered the pitch, the Liverpool fans held their scarves aloft and sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” but even that felt half-hearted. Parky had disappeared for a beer at the break, but hadn’t made it back. The second-half began with a couple of chances for both teams. Kalou set up Ashley Cole but his shot was blocked. There was ludicrous penalty appeal by Gerrard. However, right after, a fantastic move had us all buzzing. Jon Obi Mikel played in Frank Lampard and he, in turn, slotted in a slide-rule pass into Drogba. He found himself in roughly the same area as against Arsenal in the semi of 2009 and Spurs in the semi in April. A touch, a shot, a goal. The ball was slotted in with fantastic precision at the hapless Reina’s far post and we erupted once more.

Didier has done it again.

He raced over to the far corner and I again steadied myself for snaps. His little victory jig was magnificent. Oh, how he loves playing at Wembley. Four goals in four Cup Finals. Phenominal.

Parky finally re-appeared, having been drinking a beer with Whitey when Didier’s goal had given us a hopefully unassailable lead. He didn’t look sheepish, he didn’t care. Good old Parky.

“And It’s Super Chelsea.
Super Chelsea F.C.
We’re By Far The Greatest Team the World Has Ever Seen.”

Another strong dribble from Kalou, but he shot over. A Lampard free-kick. This was all Chelsea and I was silently dreaming of more goals. Juan Mata set up Didier but he only hit the side-netting. The Chelsea choir was now in full voice. How it must have hurt the Liverpool legions to hear songs of European Cup Finals.

“Che Sera Sera.
Whatever Will Be Will Be.
We’re Going To Germany.
Che Sera Sera.”

It was the loudest Chelsea chant I have heard at new Wembley.

And then the game changed. Bosingwa lost the ball and Downing fed the ball in to Andy Carroll, the Liverpool substitute. Carroll twisted John Terry one way and then the other before rifling the ball high past Petr Cech.

The red East end roared.

Game on.

The last thirty minutes seemed to be all Liverpool. Steven Gerrard, previously marginal, was seeing much more of the ball and Carroll looked a threat. Petr Cech did ever so well to get down low to turn a Suarez shot past the post. Raul Meireles took the place of the tiring Ramires. Then Dirk Kuyt replaced Bellamy. The last throws of the dice. The final fifteen minutes.

Our celebrations were proving to be overly optimistic and premature. This was now an intensely nervous affair. Liverpool moved the ball around and we were shuffling around to repel their advances. In a way, it was Camp Nou all over again, with di Matteo’s Italian heritage putting us in good stead to quash any attacks.

On 81 minutes, Liverpool had a spare man out on the right and a great cross found the head of Carroll. I expected the equaliser. In a sudden blur of activity, we saw the header parried by a falling Cech, but we heard a roar and the subsequent run of Carroll away from the goal, celebrating again. The linesman was running away from the goal-line, his flag low. I was confused; was it a goal? Was it blocked? If it wasn’t a goal, how did it happen?

It wasn’t a goal. It was a miracle. Another Chelsea miracle.

How we love that East goal at Wembley. After the Juan Mata goal versus Tottenham, the Cech save against the Scousers. Football is indeed a matter of inches.

Just amazing.

In the final moments, Liverpool shots were either off target or bravely blocked by Chelsea defenders. It was indeed Camp Nou Mark Two. I couldn’t enjoy this though. Just like in 1973, when I sat on my grandfather’s lap watching Leeds United attack Sunderland’s goal again and again, I was clock-watching like never before. We got to 89 minutes…just like Liverpool to score then, Hillsborough and all.

Five minutes of extra time.

Still we chased and defended bravely.

At last – I watched as Phil Dowd held his whistle to his lips and blew.

Chelsea F.C. – 2012 F.A. Cup Winners.

The Liverpool players looked on as Chelsea gathered together in their half and performed a “Ring Of Roses” dance. Around me, there were smiles. Parky was in tears. The Chelsea players slowly came towards us. Didier, shirtless, led the slow advance but was soon joined by his cavorting team mates. I was relieved and happy. This was Chelsea’s seventh F.A. Cup success. The first one, in 1970, was probably the reason why I became a Chelsea fan, though the real reasons are lost in time. I have been present at all six other wins. We love Wembley and we love this cup.

Magnificent.

The Liverpool players climbed the stairs, but most of their fans had left.

How proud I was to see that line of players in royal blue slowly ascend the steps, then disappear from view…tantalisingly…then arrive on the balcony.

The cup was lifted and we roared again.

Very soon, “Blue Is The Colour” boomed around the echoing Wembley arena.

https://www.facebook.com/video/video…50888885852658

In the last closing bars of the song, I looked up at the scoreboard at the opposite end of the stadium. Just as Ossie, Chopper and co were singing “Cus Chelsea, Chelsea Is Our Name”, the cameraman picked out a young Chelsea fan. He reminded me of me, circa 1972.

Now it was my turn to wipe away the tears.

Down below me, we were in party mode. It was gorgeous.

The champagne, the dancing, the smiles, the joy…the small details.

David Luiz hogging the cup as if it was his own.

Juan Mata grabbing Fernando Torres’ arm and hoisting it up, Torres looking bashful and embarrassed.

John Terry beating his chest.

Frank looking delirious.

The cup looking larger than usual and glinting like never before.

The songs –

“Blue Day.”

“One Step Beyond.”

“The Liquidator.”

“Blue Tomorrow.”

Parky and I were one of the very last to leave the stadium. I was tired and emotionally drained. I had been stood outside the pub, on the train, at the game, my feet were on fire. We met up with Cathy and showed each other a few photos from the day. She had been right down the front, I had been right down the back. In between the two of us, thousands of Chelsea fans, thousands of memories. I spotted Andy and Ben. What stories they would have to tell their friends back home. I commented that we would be running the gauntlet at Anfield on Tuesday night.

We caught the last train out of Wembley Park at 8.30pm with the arch behind us now, lit from below and looking magnificent.

At last I could sit. I was so tired, so drained, but so happy. A Liverpool fan from work sent me a text containing a few words of congratulations, saying that the best team had won, but debated that the Cech save was really a goal. My reply to him?

“Luis Garcia.”

We made our way through central London and alighted at Earls Court. A few minutes later, we were welcomed at “Salvo’s” and were soon toasting Chelsea Football Club on another miraculous victory in this ridiculous season. Salvo mentioned that Roberto di Matteo, visiting with his blind sister back in 1996, once enjoyed a meal at his little restaurant. I reckon that Salvo should erect a plaque – a nice bug blue one – above the entrance to “Dall’Artista”to signify this.

It was now 10.30pm and we needed to return home. As we slowly walked back to the car, a Chelsea post-Cup Final karaoke was taking place in The Tournament. We peered in to see a huddle of fans standing on tables, bellowing out an Elvis Presley classic –

“I’ll guess I’ll never know the reason why
You love me like you do.
That’s the wonder.
The wonder of you.”

A few minutes later on the elevated section of the M4, I couldn’t resist a glance to the north. And there it was – the Wembley arch, illuminated still, signalling the location of our most recent triumph.

Didier’s second home.

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Tales From A Wake-Up Call

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 2 May 2012.

As I drove from Chippenham to London with Parky, I was well aware that there was a feeling of impregnable invincibility in the air. After the flurry of our recent results, the goals and the glory, I honestly felt that we could make a good stab at winning all five of our remaining games in this roller-coaster of a football season. I was confident of winning the next four, at least. The last one, our sixty-sixth game of the season – and my fifty-eighth – might be beyond us, but I was gung-ho about the others. Yes, I know what everyone is thinking; this unfamiliar optimism was most unChelsea, but it is amazing what a run of success brings to the zeitgeist around any football club. Football is surely all about confidence.

This would be my last midweek venture up the M4 motorway this season. I commented to Parky how different the midweek games are compared to the weekend ones. I prefer the weekend games, but I must admit there is no better feeling than heading out of Chippenham on the A350 with the stresses of a working day behind me and Chelsea in my thoughts.

It is very fortuitous that I work in Chippenham. Admittedly, the daily commute is 45 minutes in length, but Chippenham is but a mere ten minutes from junction 17 of the motorway. Once on that road, I can hurtle along and be parked up on a good day in two hours. Just right for a Carling Cup game, a Champions League game or a midweek league game. If I worked 45 minutes to the south or west of my home down in Yeovil or Langport or somewhere, the midweek scramble to Stamford Bridge would be almost impossible. So – I’m a lucky chap.

And this was a good day. I collected Lard Porky at 3.45pm and we strolled into The Goose at 5.45pm. On the drive to London, we briefly chatted about plans for those remaining games of the season. It’s hard to believe that 2011-2012 is nearing completion. It seems only yesterday that we were down at Fratton Park for that celery-ridden friendly back in July.

I was surprised to see a smattering of black and white Newcastle shirts in the boozer, but I wasn’t bothered. I must admit to having a slight soft-spot for Newcastle United and I think I have alluded to this in the past. My first ever Chelsea game took place on a sunny March afternoon in 1974 against The Geordies and our paths seemed to cross all the time in my youth and on into my twenties. Our time in the second division from 1979 to 1984 provided some gorgeous memories (I saw three Chelsea vs. Newcastle games in this period) and set the trend for our magnificent home record against them which has continued on ever since. Our last home league defeat against the Tynesiders was in November 1986.

Although I remember a lot of “Chelsea stuff” without the need of memory aids, let me dip into my diary once again to pick out a few salient points from that Chelsea vs. Newcastle United game on Saturday 22nd November 1986. That particular game was my 91st Chelsea game, but already my 7th game against The Geordies. By the way, Newcastle have only been called The Toon (outside of the North-East, at any rate) since around 1990. Back in those days, they were simply Geordies. It’s funny how nicknames come and go. Insert “The Chels” reference here.

I travelled down by train from Stoke-on-Trent to London on that November morning. At Euston, I noted that a mob of Manchester City casuals jumped over the barriers at the tube station down below the mainline station en route to Highbury. Although City’s firm were called “The Guvnors” back in those days, I’m pretty sure they used to have a splinter faction called “The Maineline.” It was often the fashion for followers of teams in the north-west to travel down to London on trains with no train tickets and attempt to “blag” their way south. The bundling over the tube barriers was just a manifestation of this. Pre-match was typically spent wandering around the clothes and record shops of the West End. On this particular day, I spotted a new Cocteau Twins album and I purchased a lime green Marc O’Polo sweatshirt from their flagship store at Covent Garden. Marc O’Polo, a German company, was well-favoured by the football lads around this time. It died out at football around 1990, but I’m always tempted to get some more of their gear. Who wants to join me? Football fashion had gone from lurid sportswear in 1983-1984 to a more mature look in 1984-1985. In 1986-1987, it was all black leather jackets, Reebok trainers, Hardcore jeans (remember them?) and Armani pullovers.

Pre-match was spent in “The Crown & Sceptre” near “Harrod’s” and I then walked down the Fulham Road before a pint in the more working class “George” at Chelsea. I chatted to a few members of the Yeovil supporters’ group before meeting up with Alan. He too had seen the new Cocteau Twins’ album. It must’ve been the “Victorialand” album; a more ambient sound, subtler, gentle and soothing. Alan and I watched from The Benches, along with our friend Leggo, who sadly doesn’t go anymore, and Mark, who does (he got a mention in the Barcelona report last week.) The gate of 14,544 included around 1,000 Geordies. Gordon Durie gave us a 1-0 lead, but Newcastle came back strongly to win 3-1. The crowd were baying for the demise of manager John Hollins at the end and Alan’s opinion was that he would resign. He lasted until the Spring of 1988, in fact. Alan, Mark and I have lasted considerably longer.

Little did we know that the 3-1 defeat handed out to us by the likes of Peter Beardsley and co on that day in 1986 would be the last league defeat for years and years and years…

No wonder I like Newcastle United.

Parky and I grabbed some pints and wandered off into the beer garden in search of some mates. For the first time that I can recall, a bloke was set up to sell T-shirts and friendship scarves for the European Cup Final in Munich. Amongst the little gaggle of friends, Munich was unsurprisingly garnering all of the attention. One chap from Bristol – Clive – had already collected his ticket from the box office; he opened up his wallet to allow me a slight peek. Unlike the red of the Moscow ticket, I am heartened by the blue, white and yellow of the 2012 edition. It got me thinking about Munich. Bayern are not the only team in the city. The suburban team of Unteraching have recently played in the Bundesliga, but the “other” team in the Bavarian city is TSV1860, a famous old team, who share the Allianz Arena with Bayern, just as they used to share the Olympic Stadium previously. TSV’s colours of light blue and white match the colours of the Bavarian flag and I well remember that during our over-achieving ECWC campaign of 1994-1995, a few 1860 fans followed Chelsea to stadia in the Czech Republic, Austria, Belgium and Spain. On one of my two visits to Munich’s magnificent Oktoberfest, I remember chatting in very broken German to an old Polish guy from Munich who was an 1860 fan. Ironically, I think this alcohol-fuelled chat took place in the Lowenbrau tent and, of course, the Lowenbrau logo features the blue and white diamonds of the Bavaria crest too. Daryl has already carried out some reconnaissance work on Munich for 19 May and we spoke briefly about a beer hall which could act as our base camp for the day’s activities.

Two guests from across the pond soon arrived. Chris Cruz – aka captdf – and Ben Horner – aka NUhusky13 – spent a very enjoyable hour or so with us in the beer garden. I had met Chris in 2008-2009 and Ben in 2010-2011 and it was a pleasure to welcome them back into the bosom of Chelsea Football Club. Chris explained how his daughter Ava had enjoyed her first ever match at The Bridge – the humiliation of QPR on Sunday – and that it is a wonderful feeling to witness the attractions of a foreign city through the eyes of a child. I will no doubt feel the same with Glenn in Munich.

“Look Chris – a big glass of beer!”

“Look Chris – a hot dog!”

Ben, newly arrived from Boston mid-morning, was holding up well in spite of a little jet lag. There was the usual pre-match banter, but typically no talk whatsoever of the game.

“I respect the etiquette” said Ben, who was sporting a natty Boston Blues / CIA top.

The time flew past and it was 7pm. I had to shoot down to meet Steve outside the tube. I waited for him by the CFCUK stall and I spotted more red and blue scarves for Munich. Bizarrely, Mark had a replica of the European Cup on his stall. Steve soon arrived and we were off.

It was a pretty mild evening, but with horrible drizzle and a blustery wind. Inside The Bridge, there were 1,500 away fans and two away flags. Newcastle, despite some legendary numbers in that 1983-184 season, have not brought more than 1,500 down to a league game at Chelsea for ages. I always note away followings. I think it is a true sign of the size of a club, perhaps more so than home attendances. Who regularly fills out the maximum 3,000 at Chelsea? The usual suspects. Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and West Ham United. No more than these, season after season. Aston Villa? Everton? Manchester City? Leeds United? Sunderland? Forget it. They only bring 1,400 or 1,500. And yet I’d suggest that Chelsea regularly take maximum amounts to 90% of our away venues. I’d say that we are up there alongside United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs as the top five supported clubs in England away from our home stadia.

And I love that. I love our away support. It helps define us as a club, more so than the thousands who turn The Bridge into a morgue at times. I remember the abuse that Evertonians and Manchester City fans gave us this season when we didn’t fully fill our 3,000 allocations. And yet, as I have pointed out, when was the last time either of those “massive” clubs ever brought the maximum down for a league game? City may win the league this year, but they only brought down 1,500 in December.

And these things count to me and people like me.

Football is all about showing up.

Another 41,500 showed up for this game and we were hopeful that di Matteo’s team changes would result in another win, a few more goals and another three points.

To be truthful, Newcastle United – still smarting from their heavy defeat at Wigan – were excellent and caught us off-guard, out of shape, lacking in desire and bereft of attacking nous. The insipid first-half was pretty dire, despite a strong start from the Boys In Blue From Division Two. A couple of half-chances for Chelsea and then a bicycle kick from Demba Ba threatened our goal. Ba impressed me for West Ham a year ago, but his season has been eclipsed by the arrival of Papiss Cisse, the Senegalese striker. The skilful Ben Arfa set up Cisse on 19 minutes and the Toon Goal Machine walloped the ball past Cech from 15 yards. It was a fine goal. He celebrated down in front of us and I was beginning to re-assess my friendliness towards Newcastle United.

Chelsea laboured against a resolute Newcastle defence and the crowd were not happy. It took until the 37th. minute for our next real chance when the always industrious Torres advance down the right and sent in a superb whipped cross towards the head of Florent Malouda, but the effort whistled past a post. From the resultant corner, Meireles lofted the ball into the six yard box but Ivanovic thundered the ball over from a position almost under the bar.

Then it was Newcastle’s turn. Ba wriggled away from his marker and struck low, but the lunging Cech managed to get a fingertip to the ball and divert it past the far post. Just before the half-time whistle, Ba hit the crossbar. This was clearly a tough Newcastle team and we were in for a massive fight to even get a draw, let alone a win. With so many team changes, our play struggled to flow. Malouda and Sturridge were especially poor.

At the half-time whistle, I listened for the boos and one fellow fan did not disappoint. The mean white haired bloke in his early ‘fifties who sits and bellows behind Gary could be heard booing as the teams traipsed off the pitch. He then mouthed an obscenity and I just looked at him with despair. I have mentioned him once before this season and I popped down to mention him to Big John and Young Dane. They both were aware of him. One of these days he’ll get a mouthful from all three of us.

He was a picture of festering displeasure and he acts as a totem for all that is wrong with our spoilt and blasé support in 2012. My late gran would comment, I am sure, that he had a face “like a hen’s ass.” He had the scowl that would curdle milk.

And one of these days, he’s going to get it.

Gus Poyet – he of two F.A. Cup semi-final goals against Newcastle in 2000 – was the guest at the break. I loved Poyet, but still haven’t fully forgiven him for moving to Tottenham, kissing their badge against us and then coaching at Tottenham.

Juan Mata came on for the woeful Sturridge at the break and we lived in hope. After a quiet opening, Malouda was replaced by Didier. Di Matteo was making all the right moves. An amazing “reverse-cross” from Torres was the first talking point of the half, but nothing came of the ball into the box. The impressive Tiote fell awkwardly from a jump alongside Mikel and there was concern when he stayed on the pitch for many minutes. It is always sad to see a stretcher appear. He was warmly applauded as he was taken off the field.

All eyes were on the scoreboard as updates from the Wigan vs. Spurs game came through, but with each goal, more moans. Fourth place was looking as likely as a Mikel goal. Another change; Frank Lampard for Raul Meireles. Meireles was undoubtedly one of the heroes in Catalonia but was now reduced to chasing shadows in SW6. The crowd were buoyed by the presence of the three big substitutions, but we still struggled. Hardly any effort of note troubled Tim Krull, who was eventually booked for continual time-wasting at goal kicks. In the 87th minute, a towering JT header from a corner was goal bound but Santon managed to head clear.

The fourth official signified a further ten minutes in light of the injury to Tiote. With Tottenham now enjoying a 4-1 win, our league season plunged into darkness when that man Cisse struck a swerving, dipping shot past the dumbfounded Petr Cech and into the Shed End goal. It was an amazing goal and I almost…almost…applauded it.

With that, thousands of Chelsea fans shamefully did a Tottenham and vacated their seats.

The Geordies were now in full voice.

“ E I E I E I O – Up the Premier League we go.”

“With an N and an E and a Wubble-You C, an A and an S and a T, L, E – U, N, I, T,E, D – Newcastle United FC.”

“Ah me lads, ye shud only seen us gannin’,
We pass’d the foaks upon the road just as they wor stannin’;
Thor wes lots o’ lads an’ lasses there, all wi’ smiling faces,
Gawn alang the Scotswood Road, to see the Blaydon Races.”

So – our first home league defeat to Newcastle since I was 21.

Only John Terry really bothered to applaud us at the end. It had been a lack-lustre performance by the boys for sure and Newcastle deserved the win. It will surely act as a reference point for our game with Liverpool on Saturday. No win is gained without due attention and effort. We must improve and surely will.

Outside, the supporters made a subdued walk past the hot dog stands and the souvenir stalls.

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The mood was somber, but with no real malice. We had bigger fish to fry this season.

After a slow trudge along the North End Road, Parky was waiting for me by the car. The rain fell as I ate up the miles on my return trip to the shires of Wiltshire and Somerset. I eventually reached home at 1pm and I soon searched the internet for footage of Cisse’s second goal.

Oh my.

It was often said, in jest, with irony, with sarcasm, that whenever Chelsea were knocked out of the FA Cup each year, we could at least “concentrate on the league.”

How ironic then, that as our faltering pursuit of the cash cow that is fourth place comes to an end, we can now utter the words – and truthfully, too :

“Oh well – we can now concentrate on the cups.”

Four games left. Two Cup Finals.

Who are we? We are Chelsea. Let’s go to work.

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Tales From Cloud Six

Chelsea vs. Queens Park Rangers : 29 April 2012.

I had been floating on clouds – or possibly way above the clouds – since Barcelona on Tuesday. It was now time to reconvene back at The Headquarters for the more prosaic game against our local neighbours and irritants Queens Park Rangers. I will waste no time in trying to excuse my lack of relative enthusiasm for this match; no amount of self-imposed hype would manage to lift this game up in my estimations. After Tottenham at Wembley and then a double dose of Barca Fever, this was decidedly hum drum.

For the second time this season, in fact, an encounter with QPR was making me feel a little anxious. I wasn’t concerned about our performance on the pitch. I was more concerned about the actions of a small but noisy fragment of our support who might – I did not doubt – spoil the day with some chants (well, one in particular) aimed at Anton Ferdinand.

You know which one.

I was hoping that our supporters would replicate the fine show of wholesome support for the team which we witnessed in the FA Cup game at Loftus Road. No silliness. No ammunition for the massed ranks of the Chelsea haters in the media to have a pop at us. I was hopeful. Or at least until I remembered the nasty shouts made by some of our supporters at Wembley during the Hillsborough silence.

I just hoped for our fans to show true support not only for the club but for John Terry, too. But without any bile or unpleasantness.

Throughout this season – and if I am truthful, before it began – I have sensed that this might be a season in which I might develop a different relationship with my club. I’m not sure why. Maybe the new manager. Maybe a season of treading water. Maybe a season in which my support might be tested. Maybe even a year in which I lose that desire. As much as these match reports have been a record of Chelsea’s successes and failures on the pitch this season, they have also possibly tried to demonstrate how sometimes my strength of support and feeling for the club has sometimes varied. I’ve also tried to think more objectively about what I get out of the match day experience. I’ve tried to push my boundaries. I’ve constantly asked questions of myself.

“Why do I want to drive to Norwich on a bleak winter day?”
“Why do some sections of our support rile me?”
“What is my relationship with the club?”
“Do I often get more fun out of the social side of football than the actual football?”
“What would I do if I lost that desire to go to games?”

I’ve stuck with it this season. It hasn’t always been easy. I’ve made mistakes along the way; maybe I came down on the wrong side of the AVB debate. Maybe I should have trusted the club more. Maybe I should have trusted the club less.

Questions. Questions.

Throughout it all, I’ve almost been expecting a cataclysmic event which might prompt me to take a step back and take a long look at it all; the obsession, the craziness, the support, the whole nine yards. Well, I needn’t have worried. The early season promise under AVB gave me hope. The CPO share offer galvanised our support and made me so proud to be a Chelsea supporter. I stuck with AVB and tried my very best to support him. I even tried to understand the forces at work within the camp which lead to a players’ revolt. It has been a crazy season but I’ve stuck with it.

And here we all are everyone. We are gasping from an incredible two week period, the like of which our football club has rarely seen before. Not only is this changing Chelsea team heading to Wembley for our fourth FA Cup Final in six seasons, but we are also heading to Munich for our second Champions League Final in five years.

It really is incredible.

Glenn collected me at 8.45am and was full of stories about local roads being flooded after the high rainfall and high winds which have battered this land of ours of late. Glenn collected Parky at 9.15am and we were London-bound. For the second successive Chelsea game, I was able to relax and have a few drinks before the game. Talk was of the two cup finals, but mainly of Munich. I get a deep warm glow just thinking about it. The traffic was atrocious nearing Hammersmith and Glenn wasn’t parked up until 11.45am. There was a sizeable line outside The Goose, awaiting the doors to open at midday. On the walk to the pub, a passing car had soaked us with water from a deep puddle in the road. I have no doubt the driver was a bitter Fulham fan. It was typical that my designated drinking day had coincided with only an hour’s worth of supping time. Oh well. After Tuesday, maybe it was just as well. Two lads from Bristol soon commented –

“You were pi55ed in Barcelona, weren’t ya?”

Guilty.

The whirlwind hour involved three pints of Peroni and a typically frantic period spent chatting to various mates. I chatted to Mike and Frank – my partners on that merry pre-match on Tuesday in Barcelona – and also several other NYBs. Some old friends, some new friends. Things were so rushed. It wasn’t as enjoyable as I had hoped due to the time constraints. I chatted briefly to my mates in The Bing and Munich was the centre of attention. Tell me if I am boring you. A few mates wryly commented that “we’re playing in the Cup Final in six days and yet everyone is talking about Munich.” In our parlance, there is still only one cup final that can rightly be called “the” Cup Final.

Alas, one friend was notable by his absence. On Saturday, Jesus had travelled back to his home on the Mexico / US border and he will be missed. He has enjoyed the time of his young life these past three months and I only wish he could have found a way to stay – and get tickets – for the two finals. I spoke to him on Friday and we planned to meet up at some juncture on the impending US Tour.

I left Parky at the bar to order “one last pint” and departed for The Bridge. The drizzle had continued but my main concern was getting in on time. At the bottom of the steps for the Matthew Harding Stand, the supporters were faced with a wait. Drat.

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My watch was ticking. We had heard the last strains of “The Liquidator” and we then fell silent in the knowledge that we had missed the kick-off. It doesn’t happen very often.

Then, a roar out of nowhere and it was obvious that a goal had been scored. The noise, though, seemed relatively subdued and we all wondered if – horror! – the away fans were the ones celebrating. By the time I had reached my seat, I had heard the name “Sturridge” mentioned a few times and so I could relax. Phew.

Glenn was sat next to Alan and me again for the first time in ages and it felt right. I was keen to ask Alan if there had been any nonsense from Chelsea fans in the pre-game routines involving Anton Ferdinand. Thankfully, apart from a few schoolboy jeers, there was no racist stuff – implied or otherwise. Alan did say, though, that dear Anton made a point of jogging down to our corner and gesturing to the crowd. I guessed this was done to get a reaction, but nothing untoward apparently happened.

Top marks, Chelsea.

What then happened in that first half just typified our incredible self-confidence and joie de vivre at the present time. There had been talk in the pub of the derby with QPR being a massive let-down; the phrase “after the Lord Mayor’s Show” was used more than once. We couldn’t have been more wrong. What a goal fest in the rain. Fernando Torres loves the rain in April doesn’t he? He loves getting his socks grey with mud, he loves the puddles and he loves plundering goals against soon-to-be-relegated London rivals.

But first, a John Terry header, close in from a corner. John doesn’t miss from there. As he celebrated, running calmly towards us in the corner, he patted his chest and gestured to the adoring fans. I first took this to mean “calm down, don’t let the Anton Ferdinand stuff take over here” but it could just as easily have meant “so sorry for Barcelona – I can’t smile when I know I have let you down.” Maybe it was a mixture of the two.

And then, the Fernando Torres Show.

I was chatting to Alan about Munich (…sorry) during the sweet build up to our third goal. A sublime pass from Sturridge found an on-rushing Nando who adeptly rounded Paddy Kenny and slid the ball home. It was a super move and the crowd were in heaven. Soon after, an almighty faux-pas from Kenny presented Torres with a guilt-edged chance to score again. With a natural extension of his right leg, he whipped the ball into the net and we screamed once more. This time, The Kid celebrated down below…snap, snap, snap.

Chelsea 4 QPR 0 and only 25 minutes had been played.

The drizzle gave way to periods of sun…this was proving to be a lovely, lovely day.

At half-time, Neil Barnett paraded ex-Chelsea and Aston Villa player Kenny Swain to the four stands. Swain and I share something very special. On Saturday 16 march 1974, Ken Swain made his Chelsea debut as a substitute in the Newcastle United game. On that spring day over 38 years ago, I made my debut too. Swain was a good player for us, often playing upfront alongside Steve Finnieston in the 1976-1977 promotion campaign. He was latterly used at right back by Aston Villa, where he won back-to-back League Championship and European Cup medals. By the West Stand, Neil asked for all spectators to sit down and I wondered “where’s he going with this…” He announced that a Chelsea fan called Daniella from Ireland was on her hen party, dressed in a bridal gown, and asked her to stand up to receive some applause. She not only received some applause, but some choruses of “Celery” too.

As Neil led Ken Swain past the QPR fans, they typically shouted “Who are ya? Who are ya? Who are ya?” and Neil, for once, was on the money –

“He’s won the European Cup – and you don’t know who he is? I don’t know…”

In the second-half, it was just a party. A further Torres goal was the icing on Daniella’s Wedding Cake. A fantastic ball from Mata was played into space and Torres nimbly timed his run to beat the offside trap. His slow and studied finish was a classic Torres goal and reminded me so much of his many strikes in Liverpool red. His celebrations took him on a run down past the inhabitants of Parky Land in the south-west corner.

Alan pointed towards Torres and said :

“See that monkey running down the tunnel? He’s just hopped off of Torres’ back.”

“That same monkey could have got a place in Geoff Hurst’s team, Al.”

“Blimey. Don’t mention Danny Blanchflower. He would have been captain.”

I howled with laughter.

By now, some of the Rangers fans had gone back to each others’ sisters houses in Ealing and Greenford. It was time for the songs to be sung –

“Anton – what’s the score?”

“We’re going to Germany – you’re going to Barnsley.”

“Fcuk off – to the Championship.”

“He’s got bird 5hit – on his head.”

“One di Matteo.”

Frank came in for a little stick as he took a succession of second-half corners, but he just seemed to be laughing. QPR tried to annoy him by suggesting that Christine Bleakley exhibited equine characteristics.

What a load of pony.

This was a great Chelsea performance on an energy-sapping pitch. Full marks to Michael Essien, who put in his best performance for ages. Credit too, for Jose Bosingwa who has found a new lease of life at centre-back. Alan couldn’t resist a laugh though –

“It looks like he’s marking the centre-forward, but his positional sense is so bad, he’s actually marking the left winger.”

The appearance as substitute of Sam Hutchinson provided another good news story on an enjoyable day in the Chelsea story of this season.

The last Chelsea goal was pummelled home by Florent Malouda.

Cisse – he of the ridiculous hair cut – nabbed a consolation goal and we even sarcastically applauded it.

Another Chelsea win, another three goals for Fernando Torres, another Blue Day.

Next Up : Newcastle on Wednesday, Liverpool on Saturday, Liverpool on Wednesday, Blackburn on Saturday, Bayern on Saturday…five games to go. The end is in sight, but let’s relish these moments. I know I said all of these things two years ago, but these really are the times of our life.

Let’s enjoy every minute of them.

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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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Tales From Victoria

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 21 April 2012.

Throughout the build-up to the game with Arsenal, my thoughts had been full of past games. Should we prove to be triumphant at The Emirates, I’d wager that the trio of wins within seven days would represent our greatest ever week. The only other week that was comparable – and one that sticks in my mind for some reason – was from April 2000. On April Fool’s Day 2000, Chelsea won 1-0 at Leeds United when Leeds were a top four team. On the following Wednesday, Barcelona were humbled 3-1 in the Quarter Finals of the Champions League. On the following Sunday, Chelsea beat Newcastle United 2-1 in a great F.A. Cup Semi-Final. Three massive wins, one massive week. Following our momentous double of Tottenham and Barcelona, could we surpass these three wins from 2000? It was the main train of thought in my mind as I collected Parky at 8am.

Well, I’m lying.

My head was full of the second-leg at Camp Nou. I don’t apologise for this – I am sure I am not the only one prioritising the return leg on Tuesday. Images of 95,000 crammed into the multi-tiered layers of the Catalan edifice, with 3,000 Chelsea fans clinging on for dear life in the very top corner. Images of a Chelsea team in Real Madrid white taking on FCB in red and blue. Images of a Barcelona team, riddled with feelings of revenge, putting us to the sword. The occasional image – flickering, out of focus – of us nabbing an improbable draw…or win. Images of pure joy in the lofty heights of Camp Nou. Images of quite easily the best away game ever. Images of a mad scramble for flights to Germany – Munich, Stuttgart, Berlin, anywhere.

But first – Arsenal.

We’d surely field a team of players who would, generally, not feature in Catalonia. Parky and I may have mentioned a few of di Matteo’s options as we drove to London, but the Depeche Mode CD soon quashed much talk of football. I made great time and I was parked up at Barons Court – for a change – at 10am. As we approached the station, I noted that a young lad who sits in front of me at Chelsea – Dane from Bracknell – had just arrived at the station, too. We exchanged “hello mates” and then Parky and I set off for a pre-match meet at Victoria.

At 10.30am, Parky and I strode into The Shakespeare Tavern and ordered two pints of “Becks Vier.” It made a really pleasant change for us to have a change of scene on a match-day in London. This was a first-time visit for me, but I was well aware of its role in Chelsea lore. This pub, just outside Victoria train station, was the anointed meeting place for the Chelsea firm back in the ‘eighties, when it was known by the typically ‘eighties moniker “Shakes.” I’d imagine that Chelsea fans regard Victoria as base camp on match days; it is the station where vast swathes of our support head for, before going off on a pub-crawl down the Kings Road, or catching tubes into Earls Court, West Brompton, Fulham Broadway or Parsons Green, the four tube stops which services Stamford Bridge on match days.

Victoria, Pimlico, Kensington and Chelsea – our heartland.

We had arranged to meet a little posse of Chelsea fans. Steve Neat, from Staten Island, was the anointed leader but he came with four others. Andrew used to live in NYC but now lives in Kent. Paul and his son Jeff are from the US (though, if I am honest, I am not sure where) and a new face – Orlin – is from San Francisco. Andrew reminisced about a lot of the old pubs at Chelsea which have gone by the way-side since the ‘eighties. I’ve never really spent much time on The Kings Road on match days, but it always used to house the de-facto Chelsea Pub Crawl, from the Chelsea Potter down to The Worlds End and further south to the Hand and Flower. This was Parky’s old stomping ground of course.

I really enjoyed chatting to Orlin, who remembers me from a few “Zigger Zaggers” at the Club America game at Palo Alto in 2007. We spoke about the San Francisco pub “Mad Dog In The Fog” which I know sometimes houses the SF Chelsea fans. Orlin’s story fascinated me. He is originally from Bulgaria and was a boyhood Levski Sofia supporter. He told me that Chelsea is well-supported in Bulgaria and I wondered if it was linked to Chelsea’s games against Levski’s arch-rivals CSKA in the 1971 ECWC campaign. It seems that a lot of Levski’s fans aligned themselves with Chelsea. Levski also play in blue. Of course, we played Levski Sofia on two occasions over the past ten years. He told me how drawn he was when his two teams competed against each other; he realised he was referring to Levski as “we” and that was his brutal awakening to who he feels closest to.I understand that, no worries. I referred to him as “Mr. 49%” for the rest of the chat. He comes over to England 5 or 6 times each season and was at the Leverkusen away game. I loved to hear his emotional story of how he missed the 2008 Champions League Cup Final in Moscow because his daughter Victoria (if only, eh?) was born the day before. Her birthday is the day after this year’s final in Munich and he owes himself a CL Final trip. Watch this space.

Jesus, sporting a beard which is getting more prominent each game, arrived at 11.30am, fresh from picking up his Barcelona away ticket. I reckon Jesus isn’t shaving until we win the CL Final in Munich. So there we have it, in a corner of a pub in Victoria, Chelsea fans from all over the world, gathered together.

Parky, Andrew and Chris – England.
Steve, Paul and Jeff – USA via England.
Orlin – USA via Bulgaria.
Jesus – England via Mexico.

We sped off to catch the tube up to Arsenal. I noted that Jesus was wearing a little Chelsea pin-badge on his shirt, the only sign of allegiance to Chelsea, thus mirroring the dress code of Parky and myself.

We cut it fine, but reached Arsenal tube, just a hundred yards from the old Highbury stadium – one of my favourites – at 12.25pm. Every time I slowly walk up the steep incline at Arsenal tube, I am always reminded without fail of my first ever visit in August 1984. It was one of our most famous ever away games – and one of my most cherished memories. It was such a seminal game that Mark Worrall wrote a whole book about it.

This was Steve’s first visit to Arsenal’s new pad and he was suitably impressed. It is, of course – putting club loyalty to one side – a magnificent stadium. I must admit that I wish it was called Arsenal Stadium – like the signs on the art deco East Stand at Highbury – since I know Emirates will one day withdraw their funds. I also like the large images of current and former players adorning the high walls of the stadium, arms linked; Tony Adams, Cliff Bastin, Thierry Henry, George Armstrong.

Quite effective.

I reached the away segment in the south-east corner at 12.44pm; perfect timing. I was stood next to Alan and Gary, but it soon became apparent that the group of four Japanese tourists behind me were very annoyed that everyone was standing. At one stage, the mother – sitting right behind me – sat still, with her eyes closed. I guess she would rather be at Harrods or the Hard Rock. I wondered how they got ticket; one of life’s great mysteries. They left with five minutes to go; no surprise there.

The game was something of nothing. The Chelsea team was essentially a “B” team, with only Petr Cech, Gary Cahill and The Captain likely to start on Tuesday in Barcelona. It was, of course, lovely to see Oriel Romeu back on the pitch after his extended absence. The sky was a brilliant blue, the stadium large and almost full. I noted more Arsenal banners than on previous visits; they have obviously taken a leaf out of our book. As the teams came onto the pitch, a large flage was hanging over the north stand – I don’t suppose it is referred to as the North Bank – which said –

London Our City.

With 13 league championships, 10 F.A. Cups and 2 European trophies, I guess they have a point. They are a large club and it would be foolish to think otherwise. However, I’ve always regarded their fans to me the most pompous and boring of all London’s clubs. Arsenal fans could never sing anything as beautifully obscure as “If she don’t come, I’ll tickle her bum…”

I spotted one banner was ridiculously infantile –

“We Don’t Need Batman – We’ve Got Robin.”

Of course, all of this boasting by Arsenal will account for nothing if we become the first London club to bring home the European Cup on Saturday 19th. May.

The game was a stinker to be honest and neither team deserved three points. Arsenal themselves seemed decidedly out-of-sorts and I expected more from them. I know it is a well-worn cliché, but how 57,000 fans can make so little noise is a mystery of the modern era. Our woodwork saved us on two separate occasions in the first-half, but Arsenal rarely got behind us. Those three goals against from last December were never likely to be repeated.

The Chelsea fans seemed subdued, too and the noise only really got going occasionally. The three favourite songs of the day were –

“She said no, Robin, she said no.”

“Seven years – you’ve won fcuk all.”

“We won 5-1, Wembley.”

I had no complaints with the back-line of Bertrand, Cahill, Terry and Bosingwa. I have nothing but praise for Gary Cahill; he has adapted to life in SW6 so well. A bright future in blue beckons. Ryan Bertrand looks like he has an equally secure place in our hearts, too. The midfield two of Essien and Romeu were steady, but it was the forward four of Malouda, Kalou, Sturridge and Torres which caused most anxiety. Of the four, Torres’ hold up play was the only bright spot. The other three were at times quite woeful. Sturridge worries me; his choices are usually the wrong ones. I guess he is suffering with a lack of games. Confidence can’t be switched on and off like a tap.

At half-time, I had a quick chat with Beth about the games in the US in July. Jason Cundy was spotted amongst the 3,000 Chelsea fans.

Did we have any real chances? I remember a towering header from John Terry from a Malouda corner in the first period but little in the second-half. By that time, the wayward runs of Sturridge had contrived to frustrate the hell out of all of us. Van Persie was clearly not himself – he was kept at bay by Cahill and Terry – and rarely troubled Cech. A sublime interception by the substitute Mikel was magnificent, just as it looked like Arsenal had eventually breached our rear-guard.

Mata came on but offered little. Cole entered the fray and triggered a noisy reaction from the snoozing Goons.

The game petered out and I – for one – was happy with a draw.

The players slowly walked over as the Chelsea fans showed support.

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Three points from the B Team would have been stretching it even for us in this week of weeks.

I met up with Parky and Jesus and we slowly trudged alongside the home fans on the way back to the Highbury & Islington tube station. I had received several texts from friends which said that both of them had been spotted on TV. Jesus, bless him, was amazed that anyone anywhere knew what he looked like.

I spotted small pennants adorning the lampposts on the perimeter of the walls surrounding the stadium. They were of photos of various Arsenal fans, with a brief description of their story. I thought this was another nice touch. I spotted one fan – I think his name was David Smith – who has not missed a home or away game for 50 years. I immediately thought of our Cathy – 35 years of unbeaten support to her name – and raised my eyebrows. And then I felt a tinge of sympathy for Mr. Smith. As his beloved Arsenal have never experienced league football outside the top flight – how boring of them – I realised that he had yet to experience league visits to Shrewsbury, Bristol Rovers, Bournemouth or Rotherham United.

And it is that aspect of Arsenal’s support which so grates; their support has never been tested. They squeal about a lack of trophies but I often wonder if they would simultaneously combust should their club ever suffer the embarrassment of relegation. Manchester United, West Ham United, Leeds United, Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United and Chelsea have all been relegated in living memory. Should Arsenal ever suffer the same fate (unlikely, I know), expect suicides off the top tier of The Emirates.

We slowly edged down the Holloway Road, where I once went for an interview at North London Poly in 1983 – what was I thinking? We eventually slipped onto the waiting tube train and we were away.

We serenaded Jesus with a song on the tube south –

“You’re not going home.
You’re not going home.
You’re not going.
You’re not going.
You’re not going home.”

Two QPR fans were on the tube, heading west to see the game versus Tottenham. I wished them all the best. We may dislike QPR, but we hate Tottenham.I was feeling weary by the time we had eventually reached Barons Court tube station. I popped next-door to a lovely little café and ordered a Panini and a double-espresso. Who should enter the café right after me, but Sebastian Coe – or Lord Coe to give him his full title? This is weird because I was only mentioning Seb Coe to two friends at work on Wednesday, when I was re-calling the time I bumped into him along the North End Road after the Barcelona game of 2005. Seb is, of course, a bona-fide Chelsea fan of many years standing. I remember seeing him being introduced to the crowd at the home opener in 1981, a mere 24 hours after breaking yet another world record. He wrote the introduction to the “Chelsea Story” (1982) book which was lovingly written by the recently departed John Moynihan. In that introduction, he used a phrase which I often thought was wonderful –

“Following the club could be as frustrating as chasing split mercury across a laboratory table.”

In September 1982, I knew exactly what he meant.

While I waited for my espresso and Seb waited for his two teas, we spoke about the day’s game. He was clutching a match programme. I know it sounds silly, but we chatted away like old friends. We both said we were happy with the draw. We both mentioned the joyous defeat of Spurs on Sunday. Regarding the game we had just witnessed, he commented –

“Arsenal are a bloody miserable bunch, aren’t they?”

If I had met Lord Coe, away from a match day, in an airport or somewhere, I expect I may have been stuck for words, but our Chelsea bond made the conversation flow. Parky asked him if he was running in the London Marathon on the Sunday –

“No, I’m too old.”

I asked him if he was going to Spain on Tuesday –

“No, I’m too busy.”

And in that moment, I felt a tinge of sadness for Sebastian Coe.

We stopped off for a drink at Beckhampton, between the market towns of Marlborough and Devizes – a pint for Parky, another coffee for me – before eventually returning home. QPR had indeed beaten Tottenham – good – but Newcastle had won again – very bad. Our challenge for a fourth place finishes is starting to falter now. However, our thoughts now turn to the Champions league.

There is no time to stop and think now. There is no time to breath. Barcelona awaits and who knows? As I said earlier, it has the potential to be the best away game in 107 years.

Let’s go.

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Tales From The Black And The Blue

Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 18 April 2012.

There is a delicious irony in Chelsea’s recent love affair with the Champions League over the past ten years. Way back in 1955, just after our first ever Football League Championship, Chelsea could have been the very first winners of the inaugural European Cup which was played during the 1955-1956 season. However, for whatever reason, the out-of-touch octogenarians in the English F.A. strongly advised the club to forego participation. Instead, Real Madrid won the first ever European Cup (and the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth) in 1956 and Chelsea had to wait until 1999-2000 to participate again. There have been few games which have produced the same “buzz” of anticipation than that of that first ever game against Milan in September 1999; a pulsating 0-0 draw at The Bridge was a classic.

If only we knew then what we know now; we have since taken to the competition like the proverbial duck to aqueous solution. We reached the quarter-finals in that first season before losing to (guess who?) Barcelona. Since then, we have been one of European football’s top performers in the World’s premier cup competition. Our semi-final against Barcelona this season would be our sixth since 2003-2004. These have been heady days. Spring time at Chelsea has recently involved football on multiple fronts. It’s a beautiful period in our history; breath it in, let it fill up your senses, these days will not last for ever.

…but oh, the memories.

2004 – a defeat by AS Monaco, fresh on the heels of that game at Highbury in the previous round. Claudio Ranieri at his infuriating worst, tinkering to distraction, just to prove a point to the club management who had already hinted he would be leaving the following season.

2005 – a nauseating defeat to Liverpool. The result of Mourinho not “going for it” in the home leg, the result of the Luis Garcia “ghost” goal at Anfield. We were the best team in Europe that season, having discarded FCB in the quarters.

2007 – another hateful defeat to Liverpool, this time on penalties at Anfield after Joe Cole and Daniel Agger goals gave both teams 1-0 home wins. Again, Mourinho failed to attack Liverpool sufficiently. Would we ever get to the final?

2008 – joy unbounded as we drew 1-1 at Anfield and then won 3-2 at a pulsating Stamford Bridge on one of the most emotional nights that English football has ever witnessed. Frank Lampard inspired us and we were on our way to Moscow.

2009 – a resolute performance by Chelsea at Camp Nou and a 0-0 draw. A despicable performance by a certain Norwegian referee at The Bridge. Michael Essien scored his best ever goal, but Iniesta equalised with virtually Barca’s only shot on goal. Pure, unadulterated sadness.

Our record in the Champions League semi-finals is therefore 1-4. Throw in our ridiculously close defeat in the final in 2008 and has ever a team come closer to winning the World’s greatest club competition, yet failing, than Chelsea?

During the day, I pondered our chances for 2012 against the mesmeric talisman Lionel Messi and his Barcelona team mates. Not even our stupendous win against Tottenham on Sunday could dispel many of my very real worries and concerns. My biggest fear was that of humiliation. This has been a strange old season; our team was creaking under Villas-Boas, but has been rejuvenated under Roberto di Matteo. Our form has returned, yet we are still an old team in transition. In my mind, there was a real chance that this would turn out to be one game too far for the battle-scarred veterans. After our fortuitous refereeing decisions against Wigan and Spurs, I was also aware that all of our Lady Luck Tokens had been used for this season. And yet, I can easily recall a conversation that a few friends and I had in The Goose before that 2000 game against Barcelona; we had performed miracles during that CL season and we decided that we were realistically not going to progress further. That Barcelona team, including Figo and the like, was a class act. What did we know? On that incredible night we stormed into a 3-0 lead and produced a breath-taking performance. A late Figo goal took the edge off the night, but it had taught me not to write off Chelsea Football Club.

I hoped for a similar response in 2012. However, I was still uneasy. In an email to some friends, I summed-up our chances on the night as follows –

Barcelona win 50%
Chelsea win 25%
Draw 25%

I added that I thought that we had a 20% chance to progress to the final over both legs.

These were my thoughts before the trip to London.

I pulled out of Chippenham at 4pm. Parky and I were headed east once more. It was a drizzle-filled Wiltshire evening. I wondered if the extra zip to the pitch in London would assist Barcelona’s quick passing.

As I approached Reading, my thoughts on the night’s game were waylaid; my friend Rob, who had been tasked to collect my ticket for the away game in Catalonia, called me on my phone. He was very agitated and told me that the Chelsea box office had no record of my purchase.

“What?”

Surely I applied for my ticket last week?

“Oh fcuk.”

For thirty minutes, I tried to recollect if I had bought the £73.50 ticket. It has been a busy old spell, with many match tickets needing to be purchased; maybe I had, indeed, forgotten to get one? I tried to call the box office, but they were closed. I mulled over my options. I realised that I could pop into the internet café opposite The Goose and apply there. Rob confirmed that the box office would be open for thirty minutes after the evening’s game for collections. I could relax.

Phew.

I parked up at 6.45pm. By 6.55pm, I had purchased my away ticket and Parky had bought me a pint of Peroni in The Goose. I thanked Rob for his efforts and he handed me back the form I had filled out detailing my travel details; I would need that to claim my ticket. I met up with Alex, a work colleague, who had asked me if I had the chance of getting him a ticket as soon as we had beaten Benfica. Alex works for one of the hauliers that my company uses to move our client’s products in Europe; he is from Vienna and has been working in England for a year or so. We had spoken on the ‘phone, but had never met before. He has no team in Austria; Chelsea is his team. He is typical of the new type of supporter our club has attracted of late; not from Ashford, but Austria, not from Cheam, but from California, not from Gravesend, but from Germany. He was clearly ecstatic to be able to see only his second ever Chelsea game. He was off back to Vienna in May. It was great to see him so happy.

I was in a rush to head down to The Bridge as I wanted to get some banners up in good time. I was in so much of a rush that I sped off with Parky’s match ticket still in my bag. He caught up with me, but then disappeared into The Maltsters for “just one more pint.”

Alex and I rushed down to The Bridge; the half-and-half scarves sellers had been busy. I can understand the allure of a friendship scarf for European games; in fact, Parky often gets one for Jill. The St. George flag on the FCB badge always looks great in my mind. Monday is St. George’s Day, of course, and a few Chelsea fans will be celebrating our patron saint’s day deep in the heart of Catalonia.

We reached our seats at 7.35pm just as Neil Barnett announced “the anthem”; the recording of “Blue Is The Colour” by an opera singer. I personally wish they would stick with the original 1972 recording to be honest; this new version is slightly too slow, slightly too forced. Alex and I scrambled up to the back row of the MHU and we pinned my two banners up.

“Vinci Per Noi” dates from the summer of 1996.

“Peter Osgood” dates from March 2006.

The blue and white flags had been handed out once again and were being waved furiously as the last few bars of “Blue Is The Colour” gave way to “The Liquidator.” Then, the two teams strode out onto the wet turf, past the Champions League flag, on to the west side of the pitch.

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What a rushed pre-match. However, as I took my seat next to Alan and Tom, I took off my jacket and tried to settle down just for a few moments. I worked out who was playing for Chelsea a few moments into the game. The only surprise was Meireles; this just signifies how far Michael Essien is off his game.

Chelsea were in blue, Barcelona were in black.

In the far corner, the 3,000 away fans presented a vivid and varied scene. Not only were the FCB colours of blue and claret represented, but also the Catalonia colours of red and yellow. Lots of replica shirts, lots of scarves, lots of colourful banners draped over the balcony wall.

Let battle commence. Let the nerves be tested. Let us play. Let us pray.

Despite our wishful thoughts about us “taking it” to Barcelona, it soon became apparent that the away team simply took over the game, strangling us with possession, for us to enjoy any real periods of dominance. All eyes were on Lionel Messi, the World’s greatest footballer, who was there in person, no more than twenty yards away from me at times. I was transfixed by this little man – quiet, unobtrusive, walking around the pitch, head low. How could such a benign looking figure have the potential to cause us so much heartache? It all seemed to be about him. I followed his movement in and amongst our players, his movement at times no more than a slow walk. We would have to stifle his every move. Elsewhere, there were familiar faces, all equally-placed to cause anxiety to defenders and fans alike. Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas.

The Barcelona players pushed the ball around at will and the passes were usually inch perfect. Short passes were common, but even cross-field balls were inch perfect. In contrast, Chelsea chased and harried, closing down space, avoiding rough tackles. I got the impression that we were being slightly too reverential. I longed for a 50-50 challenge – not a dirty foul, no need to draw a booking – but a hard, strong tackle that would let Barca know we were serious. It would also help to involve the crowd. When I play five-a-side, I am not great a great tackler – I am more a nibbler, someone who can get a toe in to rob the opponent of the ball, someone who can read a pass and intercept.

However, when the need arises and I can sense a pure 50-50, there is no greater feeling that hitting the ball and player’s leading foot together with a strong tackle.

Slam.

I longed for Chelsea to do the same.

The first chance of the game fell to the men in black. Andres Iniesta picked out the on-rushing Sanchez, who nimbly beat the offside trap and delicately lobbed the ball over the ghostly figure of Petr Cech.

“Here we go” I thought.

We waited to see where the ball would end up – time stood still, that old cliché – and were mighty relieved to see the ball drop against the bar. Soon after, Messi’s first real involvement took him in to the penalty area with one of his breath-taking runs, the ball seemingly no more than six inches from his toes throughout. A Chelsea challenge could easily have sent another Barcelona player tumbling, but to his enormous credit, the little Argentinian stayed on his feet. He passed to Iniesta but his close-range shot was wonderfully parried by Cech. The rebound seemed to take Fabregas by surprise and we sighed again.

On 19 minutes, a rare Chelsea chance resulted in Juan Mata slashing over the bar.

Soon after, Barcelona were awarded a corner down below me. As Messi slowly walked towards the corner flag and stooped to collect the ball, more than a few Chelsea fans in the MHU clapped his appearance and I was suitably impressed. We don’t usually do this sort of thing in England – apart from inside cricket grounds where opposing “boundaries” are often clapped by opposing fans – and this was a sure sign that the Chelsea public recognised talent when they saw it. Messi – so young, but so great – is already knocking on the door of Pele and Maradona.

As Barcelona’s possession mounted, I really wondered if we could keep up this constant defending for ninety minutes. Barcelona’s away support was relatively quiet; the only three chants I heard were “Bartha, Bartha, Batha”, “Meeeeee-si” and the club anthem which ends “ Bartha, Bar-tha, Baaaaaaaar-tha.”

Drogba was putting in a typical performance; strong in the air and winning defensive headers one minute, rolling around like he was the victim of a sniper’s bullet the next. He was clearly disrupting Barca’s flow, though whether he had been told to do this by club management is a moot point. I suspect not; I suspect it comes natural to him. I had hoped he could channel the frustration he felt after the 2009 “it’s a fcuking disgrace” game in the right way. However, despite his physical strength, he wasn’t a threat offensively and we were getting a little annoyed with his antics during the game.

The sky filled with misty rain as Barca passed the ball at will. The otherwise dependable Mikel lost possession amidst growls of discontent and the mercurial Messi set up Fabregas. His goal bound effort flew past Cech but slowed slightly, allowing the excellent Ashley Cole to back-pedal, re-adjust at the last minute, and hack the ball to safety with his favoured left peg.

Phew.

At 8.30pm, I received this text from Del, a Liverpool fan from work –

“Be nice to see you nick one. Reckon your boys have set up pretty well, great shape and rode your luck a couple of times. Only downside is that useless prick up front – twenty two and a half minutes on the deck, the other twenty two and a half offside.”

Within twenty seconds of receiving this text, Lampard robbed Messi on the half-way line and quickly pushed the ball to the rampaging Ramires. This was our chance and we knew it. I snapped a photo as the little Brazilian switched feet to play in a ball towards the six yard box. That man Didier arrived to sweep the ball in to the net, just missing the despairing dive of Valdes and we were 1-0 up. Despite a rush of blood, I remained calm enough for five seconds to snap the ensuing huddle down near where Parky resides. After, I bellowed a euphoric “YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSS!”

And then, at 8.32pm – a text to Del.

“You were saying?”

Oh boy…one shot on goal, one goal, one delirious Stamford Bridge.

At the break, Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink was on the pitch, and Journey were on the PA.

“Don’t Stop Believing” is a totally incongruous song to be played at a football ground in England; it certainly says nothing at all about our life as UK Chelsea fans. But I can understand why the club chose to play it.

“Don’t Stop Believing” indeed.

The second-half performance by Chelsea will go down in the annals of our club as one of the most resolute and brave performances the spectators at Stamford Bridge has ever seen.

Barcelona began again strongly. Adriano drew a superb save from Cech. Sanchez shot inexplicably wide of Cech’s post. Alves blasted over. Block after block – Cahill, Terry, Mikel – stopped Barcelona’s goal-bound efforts. Despite his detractors, even Meireles was putting in a solid shift. The only player under-performing was Juan Mata, but he is not built for defensive duties and can hardly be blamed for the game passing him by. Barcelona enjoyed several centrally-placed free-kicks, but shots were either blocked (Messi) or ballooned over (Xavi). This was proving to be almost too difficult to watch; it was certainly too tense to enjoy. I was still in my shirt-sleeves. I avoided putting my jacket on as I superstitiously thought it would jinx things.

“We scored with my jacket off, let’s leave it off.”

When I was a kid, watching games with my parents, I had the same superstition with chewing gum. If we were winning, I’d keep the same piece of gum in my mouth. If we were losing, I’d discard it.

Old habits die hard.

The noise levels grew throughout the match as the crowd sensed that the boys needed our help. “Amazing Grace” was re-worked once again and this Proper Chelsea classic provided the backdrop to the second-half master class in defending –

“Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.”

The crowd did the boys proud. We didn’t neglect the watching Tottenham fans at home, either –

“We won 5-1,Wembley.”

“Harry For Tottenham.”

I was amazed how quickly I felt the time was going…60 minutes, 65 minutes, 70 minutes. The manager replaced Kalou for Mata – fresh legs. The Barcelona pressure continued. Our only chances in the second period involved a Frank Lampard corner, whipped in, but avoiding the trio of Chelsea players at the far post and a break involving a great pass from Drogba finding Kalou who dinked over Valdes’ bar.

Tick…tick…tick…

Another Messi free-kick with five minutes remaining. He chipped the ball in towards Puyol, who flicked the ball on with the deftest of touches. I was right in line with the flight of the ball as it bounced up towards the goal. It was surely the equaliser. Out of nowhere, Cech scrambled across to turn the ball away for a corner.

Superb. The save of the match.

Bosingwa on for the magnificent Ramires – more fresh legs.

The assistant linesman signaled just three minutes of time to be added on. I looked at my phone and it was 9.33pm.

9.36pm and we’re halfway to paradise.

Time for one last agonising moment as Messi moved the ball out to Pedro. He was well outside the box, at an angle, but his low drive avoided all players in the packed penalty area and struck Cech’s far post with a dull thud. The ball rebounded out to Busquets, who ballooned it high into the Chelsea fans in The Shed Upper.

It was 9.36pm.

The referee blew.

The Bridge roared and Alan, Alex and I smacked each other’s backs. I, for one, could not believe it. I had just witnessed a miracle. Of course, we had ridden our luck, but what a gutsy performance. I lost count of the number of blocks which our defenders used to thwart Barca. I was breathless and almost light-headed as the players clapped the crowd from the centre-circle. There was no overblown triumphalism from the team at the end. They knew we were only half-way there. But we have a foothold in this tie and we will, I am sure, go out to Barcelona with a plausible reason to be optimistic of our chances.

“One Step beyond” got us all bouncing.

I skipped past the Peter Osgood statue – I made the point of touching his leg as I passed – and quickly joined the line of around 100 fans collecting Barcelona away tickets. With great relief, I was handed my ticket. I met up with Steve from the NYBs, who was close to tears with emotion.

“That’s the best noise I’ve ever heard at Chelsea.”

The London night was now dirty and wet with rain, but inside our heads we were drugged-up with Chelsea. We met up with Parky and Jesus in The Goose to let the traffic subside. Rob and Les from nearby Melksham were enjoying “one last pint” and these two scallywags will be on the same 6.55am flight from Bristol as me on Tuesday.

What a beautiful night in Catalonia that could be.

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Tales From A Perfect Sunday

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 15 April 2012.

The stakes were high. Chelsea versus Tottenham in the semi-final at Wembley. In our lives as Chelsea supporters, they really do not get much bigger than this. There were sub-plots aplenty for this game, but the simple truth was that revenge and retaliation was in the air. With our dominance over Spurs in the league since 1990, it is hard to believe that there is any revenge left to seek, but scratch the surface and there is plenty.

Let’s talk about the F.A. Cup Final of 1967; the first (and incorrectly dubbed) “Cockney Final” and a 2-1 loss. Of course, none of my friends were present at that one, but the memory is there in our collective psyche. There is 1982; the Quarter Final this time. Chelsea were a struggling second tier team and Spurs were the F.A. Cup holders, full of top players and swagger. A Micky Fillery goal gave us hope before the break, but the visitors agonisingly came back to beat us. I remember listening at home to the action on the old BBC Radio Two, staring at the swirls on the living room carpet, living every horrible minute of Spurs’ gut-wrenching come-back. It was as horrible a defeat as I can remember. And then there was 2008 and the Carling Cup Final defeat. This match was horrendous; a Drogba free-kick against the run of play, but then the eventual Spurs comeback and a 2-1 loss. Spurs out-sung us completely on the day; and it is that memory that haunts me. I actually hated vast swathes of our support on that Sunday afternoon. It left me wondering about my connection with the club, the fans, the whole nine yards.

How can I support the same team as so many Chelsea supporters who simply don’t live by the same rules?

I was up early – just after 7am. The sun was out, there was a slight frost. There was an incredible air of anticipation.

This seemed like the F.A. Cup final itself.

I collected Young Jake and then Lord Parkins by 10.30am. Stiff Little Fingers were the band of choice on the drive to London. The volume was cranked up and the raucous rasp of Jake Burns was knocking the cobwebs out of our bodies. I saw SLF in Bristol a few weeks back; still churning out the post-punk tunes of yesteryear, still tugging at my heartstrings, still taking me back to my youth. Songs about teenage angst, songs of rebellion, songs to make your blood bump. There was every danger that my vocal chords would be ruined even before I reached London, let alone Wembley. The words to “Roots, Radicals, Rockers And Reggae” were yelled at the passing traffic on the M4 –

“I said don’t fight against no colour, class nor creed.
For on discrimination does violence breed.”

“Equal rights and justice for one and all.
Cos only through liberty freedom shall form.”

I wondered if the Stiff Little Fingers’ mantra could be suspended for a few hours as we renewed hostilities with Tottenham.

We safely parked near The Lillee Langtry at West Brompton and caught the tube to Edgware Road. We reached The Duke Of York at about 1.30pm and a few of the lads were already there. We stayed three hours. We have been frequenting this corner pub since that Carling Cup game in 2008 (the defeat obviously didn’t deter us) and we usually sit outside, soaking up the sun’s rays. On this occasion, we were all inside; there was a bitter chill to the air. I limited myself to two pints of Kronenburg and found it hard going. I have driven to all but one of the games this season and I had reached frustration point; I longed to be able to free the shackles and dive in to more lagers, but knew I had to limit my intake. The F.A. had set the 6pm kick-off time and I had a long night ahead. As the others gulped their lagers, I sipped mine.

The chat swirled around me and more mates arrived. We talked briefly, and fitfully, about the game. There wasn’t a mood of optimism in the camp. Ed was realistic; the game could swing either way. Rick Glanvil, the respected club historian, briefly appeared and mentioned that a couple of Spurs mates were equally sombre about the game. This was reassuring; it reminded us that they hadn’t been performing as well as earlier in their season. Daryl mentioned that Tottenham had lost their last five F.A. Cup semi-finals and this brought a further moment of cheer. However, we spoke about the Barcelona game too; there was not a glimmer of hope for that one. We all knew it. We’re not stupid.

We set off at 4.30pm and caught the 4.55pm train at Marylebone. The train was packed with Chelsea, arriving from the south, and the carriage was soon rocking with noise.

I had a few moments to myself outside the stadium. The skies were clear and the sun lit up the shining steel of the stadium. I walked around to the front, underneath the Sir Bobby Moore statue. I took the inevitable batch of photographs of the glinting steel arch which dominates the surroundings. The Chelsea and Tottenham fans were boisterously walking up towards the stadium from the Wembley Park tube station to the north. This was our tenth visit to the new Wembley and we were allocated the east end for only the third time; again memories of 2008.

I ascended the elevators and was met with a packed concourse doing “The Bouncy” amid a sea of beer. We had seats behind the goal, just two rows from the rear. The stadium took an age to fill up, but what a sight it was. The tiers rose up to the sky and the pitch seemed ridiculously small. The new Wembley lacks something though; I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe it just lacks charm.

To my right; Parky, Milo, Simon, Rob, Daryl, Ed, Alan and Gal.

The tickets only cost £30 – no complaints there.

To my left were Steve and Darren Mantle. Mick the Autograph King was in the row in front.

As the kick-off time approached, I surveyed the scene. To my annoyance and embarrassment, it was clear that we hadn’t sold all of our tickets. A large block of around 300 were completely empty down to my left. There were odd areas dotted around the Chelsea section unused. This sickened me.

Again, I conjured up thoughts about our size as a club. Steve and I chatted about Chelsea and Spurs. When I was growing up, Arsenal and Spurs were the two biggest clubs in London. Despite our in-roads of late, I would still contend that Arsenal have the biggest fan base of all the London teams. Whereas I think that Chelsea have a bigger global name than Spurs (we have ridden the internet at a key time), I still think that Chelsea lag behind Spurs in the south-east. The evidence in front of me could not be ignored.

I received an email recently from the club asking about my opinions about a few topics, but the questions were quite clearly hinting at our thoughts about a move to a new stadium. What a surprise. Well, I fully expect that the club will announce shortly that – “following a random sample of season-ticket holders and members” – the majority of Chelsea fans back a move to a new 60,000 stadium. Excuse my cynicism, but that would be a nimble piece of marketing by Chelsea, pushing through more propaganda in their desire to “up sticks” from our beloved stadium. Well, I will say one thing; it is a shame that more of the same fans couldn’t be bothered to fill 31,500 seats at Wembley.

Not many Spurs flags. More Chelsea ones.

Dare I mention the silence for the Hillsborough victims?

Notwithstanding Liverpool’s wish to avoid playing on the 23rd. anniversary of Hillsborough which then forced the F.A. to schedule us at a ludicrous time on the Sunday before a CL semi-final against the best team on the planet…notwithstanding all that…there was simply no reason for a few fools to besmirch the memory of the 96 fans who lost their lives all those years ago.

I glowered at two imbeciles in the row behind me, faces contorted with drunken rage, shouting obscenities.

Now is not the time to write about the events of that horrific day in Sheffield in 1989 – and Liverpool fans were not without blame – but it truly saddened me that a minority of Chelsea fans behaved in such a way in 2012.

Jose Bosingwa in. Didier Drogba in. Mikel in.

Let’s go.

The first-half was played out in front of a fading sun, with Chelsea only occasionally breaking into strong positions. A few players were soon the target of a few mates’ ire. Gary is not backward in coming forward in moments like these and his caustic comments brought a mixture of anger and mirth to the occasion –

“Fcuking ‘ell Kalou – your boots are worth more than you are.”

Of the two sets of fans, Spurs seemed more audible, though not up to their 2008 levels. The dirge-like “Oh When The Spurs” echoed around the west end, but we couldn’t respond. Our little group of mates, ably supported by a few others in the vicinity, tried our damnedest to get things moving, but we were met with opposition.

There were only a few chances in the first quarter for both teams. We were sounding each other out. I feared Modric, but also the pace of Bale and Lennon. Drogba was booked for a senseless challenge and I wondered if we would rue this later. Kalou broke on the left before playing in Juan Mata, but his weak effort was easily saved by Carlo Cudicini, the much-loved former Blue.

A Van der Vaart header was cleared off the line by John Terry down below us. In a nervy few minutes, Spurs ought to have gone ahead when a Van der Vaart ball towards the lurking Adebayor bounced up and rebounded off the far upright. Cech was beaten. Had Adebayor reached the ball, we would have been behind.

The Chelsea end eventually warmed up and our little gang of rebel-rousers initiated a “Carefree” which rolled around the upper tier; good work, boys.

With half-time approaching, the ball was played up to the previously subdued Didier Drogba in a central position. In a piece of classic Drogba action, he spun the ball past William Gallas and pushed the ball to his left. He unleashed a devastating shot past Carlo and the net rippled, sending us into a state of euphoria. Only Drogba could do that. How he loves Wembley. How we celebrated.

Miraculously, we were winning. Good old Chelsea.

More “Bouncy Bouncy” in the concourse at the break, but I wondered why the same fans felt so inhibited inside the stadium.

The second-half began with a flurry of Chelsea chances. Juan Mata soon forced a superb save from Carlo Cudicini and the ‘keeper parried a Luiz header from the corner which followed. There then followed a moment of infamy which will be talked about for ages. The ball bounced back towards Juan Mata who prodded the ball towards goal. The ball seemed to hit a cluster of players on the line and before any of us reacted, Mata celebrated and the referee was running back towards the centre-circle. I quickly glanced towards the linesman, but his flag was not raised.

Goal.

More manic pandemonium in the upper east end. Oh you beauty. We could hardly believe this. I noted that more than a handful of Chelsea fans, enjoying half-time refreshments, had missed this goal; fools.

Within what seemed like a few moments, Spurs had pulled a goal back. A ball from Scott Parker, the scowling former Chelsea midfielder, played in Adebayor. A clumsy challenge from Petr Cech but the ball rolled out to Bale who neatly turned the ball in to the empty net. The west end roared; that was more like it Chelsea, things were going too bloody well.

Unfortunately, David Luiz, who had been reasonable, had been injured during his attempt to block and was sadly stretchered off. Gary Cahill replaced him. Chelsea then enjoyed lots of the ball, moving the ball very well and keeping possession.

“That’s it boys, tire the fcukers out.”

The midfield were great – pass, pass, pass. We stretched them out if we could, Ramires especially doing well. Cahill did ever so well to track back and put in a sublime tackle on the raiding Bale. This was clearly a great game now. I watched on with a nervous resilience.

Juan Mata spotted Ramires’ fine run and, as Carlo advanced, the little Brazilian dinked a gorgeous chip over the advancing Number 23. The ball dropped in to the goal and bodies all around me were flying everywhere.

Get in!

Soon after, Gallas (yes, him) fouled his nemesis Drogba and Frank Lampard placed the ball. From my viewpoint, the distance seemed too far for a shot on goal, but I had my camera at the ready in any case. Surely he wouldn’t go for goal?

Frank took a swipe.

Snap.

The ball flew past Carlo and we were 4-1 up.

Yes, 4-1.

More mayhem.

Thousands of Spurs fans left en masse and I couldn’t resist taking many photographs of this perfect picture postcard scene; the scoreboard plainly stated Tottenham 1 Chelsea 4, the setting sun was disappearing behind the upper reaches of the west end and with it, Spurs season. The west end turned red.

We were roaring now…”Your support is – well, you know…”

Florent Malouda and then Fernando Torres came on as late substitutions and more chances appeared as we caught Spurs flat-footed at the back again. In the fourth minute of extra-time, with the Spurs support down to around 2,000, further joy. That man Mata, below his best these past few weeks, clipped the ball through for the onrushing Malouda who calmly stroked the ball below the hapless Cudicini.

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Chelsea 5.

It was almost cruel now…

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

“Who the fuck are Barcelona? Who the fuck are Barcelona?”

We – of course – couldn’t believe it. This was as an unexpected win as I have ever known in over 38 years of attending matches. Before the match if someone had said that the result was going to be 5-1, there is a very strong chance that I may have expected a Spurs win. I was not present at the 6-1 win at 3PL in 1997, so this represented the biggest ever Chelsea win against Tottenham. Oh boy.

We said our goodbyes – “see you Wednesday” – and we joined in the songs on the triumphant walk down the many flights of stairs.

“We won 5-1, we won 5-1, we won 5-1, Wembley – we won 5-1, we won 5-1, we won 5-1, Wembley.”

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There was a definite case of “we don’t believe it” as we exited the stadium, shaking hands and hugging friends, almost delirious with glee. The joy continued as we slowly trudged along Wembley Way. I kept looking behind to see the illuminated arch lighting up the darkening sky. This was a lovely sight, witnessed by myself for the first time – I have not been a fan of new Wembley – but this iconic sight struck a chord.

The clear night sky, beaming Chelsea faces, the cold April evening, the arch towering over all.

Superb.

Parky, Jake and I headed back into town. I was absolutely starving as I hadn’t had anything to eat all day long…we ended up, predictably, at Earls Court where Salvo entertained us with the perfect denouement to the day’s action; an Americano pizza with extra anchovies and a single ice cold Peroni.

I eventually reached home at 12.45am – it had been a magnificent day in London. Easily one of my top ten favourite matches of all time. For Tottenham, it was their sixth consecutive semi-final defeat. I joked with Parky on the way home that even though we sing “we hate Tottenham”, I am sure that they hate us more.

Let’s keep it like that.

We now play Liverpool at our second home on Saturday 5th. May – our fourth F.A Cup Final in six seasons.

Tottenham, meanwhile, look wistfully on.

Us.

1994 – Luton Town – won
1996 – Manchester United – lost
1997 – Wimbledon – won
2000 – Newcastle United – won
2002 – Fulham – won
2006 – Liverpool – lost
2007 – Blackburn Rovers – won
2009 – Arsenal – won
2010 – Aston Villa – won
2012 – Tottenham Hotspur – won

Them.

1993 – Arsenal – lost
1995 – Everton – lost
1999 – Newcastle United – lost
2001 – Arsenal – lost
2010 – Portsmouth – lost
2012 – Chelsea – lost

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