Tales From A Lesson In Double Dutch.

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 28 December 2015.

Regardless of the current troubled predicaments of both teams, “United away” is always one of the very best Chelsea trips each season. Some would say it is the best of all. There is just something about visiting Old Trafford that never fails to stir the senses.

North against South.

Manchester against London.

Red against Blue.

As the day got underway, I was relishing the chance to be one of three thousand tightly-packed away fans in that sweeping corner, trying our best to be heard against the four-thousand United followers in the lower tier of “K-Stand” – I’m showing my age here – if not many more in all of the other home areas. It would surely promise to be a visceral treat for those of us who enjoy the noise and passion of a top-notch away fixture as much as the football played before us.

Old Trafford.

“The Theatre Of Dreams” as the advertising executives at Manchester United have called it.

Of course, there have been Chelsea defeats, but it was historically a venue which always used to be a pretty successful hunting ground for Chelsea Football Club in my youth.  Until 1970, it was the scene of our most famous match, our most famous win. And for many years we were undefeated in league games at Old Trafford and it annoys me to this day that I was present to see us relinquish that record on the last day of August in 1987.

From season 1965/1966 to season 1985/1986, we visited the home of Manchester United on thirteen occasions in the league and never lost once.

My first visit was in the spring of 1986, when two goals in front of us in the tightly-packed paddock sent us wild. The atmosphere that night was as visceral as I had ever experienced in my eighty Chelsea games to that point. A late Kerry Dixon winner sent us into ecstasy long before it was a staple drug of delight in Madchester. The natives were not happy that night. I can remember running the gauntlet back to our coach which was parked at the now long-gone Warwick Road train station. Fantastic memories from almost thirty years ago. You always remember your first time, right?

This would be my twenty-first visit to Old Trafford with Chelsea. In the previous twenty, my own personal record is five wins, six losses and nine defeats.

In my mind, it seems a better hunting ground than that. Maybe it is the strong memory of the emotion connected with those five wins (1986, 1986, 2005, 2010, 2013) which have altered my perception.

Regardless, as I collected Glenn and Parky at around 9am, I just knew that a classic day out was waiting for me.

Before we headed north on the busy motorway network, though, we diverted in to Bath for an archetypal post-Christmas spend-up. After a bite to eat, the three of us raided a few shops in the city’s crowded centre for some classic football clobber.

Two pairs of Adidas trainers, a Lyle and Scott Harrington jacket, a Paul & Shark hooded top and a pair of New Balance trainers were purchased between the three of us. I’ve noticed how New Balance are being worn more and more at football these days; a hark back to around 1985/1986 when they shared the limelight with the usual suspects. In one of the shops that we visited, there was a little banter with the two shop assistants.

Shop Assistant One : “Chelsea are not doing too well this season, eh?”

Chris : “Nah. Not too brilliant at the moment.”

Shop Assistant Two : “It could be worse. Could be United.”

Glenn : “We’re off to the game later this evening.”

Shop Assistant Two : “Oh right.”

Chris : “Who do you follow then?”

Shop Assistant Two : “United.”

This little exchange took me back somewhat. Although Chelsea are going through a ridiculously poor run of form, the United fan thought that his club were in a worse predicament.

But then I realised the mind set of many United supporters, who expect – nay, deserve – success.

I would like to think that Chelsea fans like Parky, Glenn and myself are a little more grounded, a little more pragmatic.

Shop Assistant One : “Predictions for tonight?”

Chris : “0-0 I reckon. I’d be happy with that.”

Regardless, purchases all bagged-up, we were on our way to the delights of Mancunia with an added spring in our step.

Sadly, the trip north – M4, M5, M6 and beyond – was yet another in the ever-growing list of horrific away journeys. A trip that should have taken three hours took over five. There were traffic delays every few miles. I had to divert through Stoke to avoid further problems on the M6. In the car, Parky had compiled a Northern Soul tape which was keeping us entertained. This was the stand out track.

“Moonlight, Music and You” by Laura Greene.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OE2H92jGoS0

Heaven.

However, I was getting frustrated with my slow progress.

News came through that Guus Hiddink was to employ a “false nine” in the game which was now getting close. With Diego Costa out through suspension, we presumed that Loic Remy was injured. Getting Radamel Falcao back on the pitch to score a winner at Old Trafford was beyond the stuff of fantasy.

In a similar scenario to that used by Mourinho at Tottenham, Eden Hazard was to be deployed in the furthest forward position. To be fair, the draw at Spurs was one of our most palatable performances of the season. For an old-stager such as me though, there is something decidedly odd about a “false nine.” It seems to rank up there with Peter Kay’s exclamations and protestations of “Cheesecake?” and “Garlic Bread?”

“False Nine?”

“Football with no striker?”

“False? Nine?”

It sounds like something that a transvestite might wear.

As I turned off the M60 and joined the Chester Road on that long familiar approach to Old Trafford, I reluctantly ‘phoned an old college mate, Rick, who had been waiting for me to arrive so that we could have a chit-chat before heading in to the game. Rick is a Manchester United season-ticket holder and lives in nearby Northwich. We had been looking forward to meeting up. Sadly, I advised that he should head on in.

“May the best team win and all that bollocks.”

Although we had left the city of Bath a few minutes before midday, we did not reach our allotted parking place – “a tennoh, please mate”- until around 5.15pm.

We quickly walked across Gorse Hill Park. Out on the Chester Road again, all was eerily quiet. Time was moving on and virtually everyone else was seated, or standing, inside the vastness of Old Trafford. It was a mild night as we walked as quickly as possible.

It seemed that the three of us were alone in the city of Manchester.

The red bricks. The Victorian streets. The car lights. The emptying pubs. The road signs for the neighbouring suburbs. The vast steel supports of the stadium roof. The colour red.

Manchester.

A couple of years ago, I went to see the great punk poet John Cooper Clarke, a native of the neighbouring city of Salford, in my home town of Frome, with a few good friends. Supporting him that evening was the poet Mike Garry, who went down equally well. One of Mike Garry’s most evocative poems is a tribute to the late TV presenter, journalist, and Factory record label owner Tony Wilson. DJ Andy Weatherall recently put this poem – “St. Anthony : an ode to Anthony H. Wilson” – to a dance beat and it has been in my head ever since. As a tribute to a much-revered impresario, the poem hits the spot. Hearing Garry’s emotional words, in a heavy and lazy Mancunian accent, put to music is perfect. Of course, it acts as an ode to Manchester itself. I love it. These football travels, these trips of faith and devotion, take me to some wonderful sporting cities. Surely Manchester is one of those.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LUE9PPiZ7W0

[A tip from this honest hardworking blogger; play this in the background as you read below. Don’t be passive. Engage.]

St. Anthony is the patron saint of things lost, of people missed. Everything about the poem seems very poignant for me and my 2015.

As I walked towards Old Trafford, one more time, Garry’s words resonated.

“Talk to me of Albion, of Anderton and of art.

Of The Arndale.

Alan Turin.

Acid House.

Alexandra Park.”

Past the Bishop Blaize pub, for once devoid of sound. United song master Pete Boyle had left for the game.

“Of Bez, the Buzzcocks, the bouncing bombs.

And the beautiful Busby Babes.”

Past the take-aways and the offies, and in to a very empty Sir Matt Busby Way. The grafters and the fanzine sellers were no more. How odd to be outside a football stadium after kick-off.

“Of Curtis.

Cancer, Christies, Catholicism.

Crack and Curt Cobain.”

We met up with Kev, from Edinburgh, who was waiting on my ticket. We quickly disappeared into the away section underneath the Munich clock. There were other Chelsea fans arriving late. We were evidently not the only ones. For the first time in ages, the away season ticket holders were in the curve, not down below to the left in the South Stand.

We had missed seven minutes. A quick “hello” to Alan and Gary. Apparently, it had been an eventful opening period. I heard how Juan Mata had struck the woodwork, but also how John Terry had gone close with a header. I took a few photographs. I tried to settle in. Everyone standing, everyone shouting. There seemed to be no seat unused as I looked across to the Stretford End, now partly corporate, its heart ripped out years ago, and then the towering North Stand. I looked across to where Rick would be watching, somewhere near the rear of the lower tier as it curved around. A quick run through the teams. I was pleased to see the steadying choice of Mikel alongside Matic, who – from memory – does well at Old Trafford. For the home team, I quickly spotted Bastian Schweinsteiger amid thoughts of that night, that penalty and that foreign city, whose name brings awful memories to this part of Manchester. How odd that one word can elicit such vastly differing emotions.

It was the first viewing of a few of these United players for me. To be frank, it just didn’t seem like a Manchester United team. With the two teams now being overseen by two Dutch managers, I pondered on what was before me. Guus Hiddink was playing without a striker and Louis van Gaal was playing Ashley Young at left-back. I had a feeling that my understanding of all of the traditional footballing rules were being tested.

To be honest, it looked double Dutch to me.

Pure football gibberish.

“Dance, Design, Durutti, Devotto.

Development of a dirty Northern city.

De La Salle.

Dignity.

And how in the end you hated all the pity.”

What then happened over the next ten minutes or so was horrible. We were simply over-run and out-paced and out-played. From Alan’s seemingly reassuring words about a rather reasonable start, it seemed that all of that pent-up angst and anger about their inability to play expansive and thrilling football in “the United way” was being unleashed, and for my eyes especially. Ivanovic, so often the culprit in this car-crash of a football season – but seemingly improved of late – was back to his infuriating form of August and September, allowing Anthony Martial a ridiculous amount of space, then seemed unwilling to challenge. Martial struck a low shot against Courtois’ near post and we watched as it spun across the six-yard box. Thankfully there were no United attackers in the vicinity. The home team continued to dominate, and Rooney shot from distance. Chelsea’s attacking presence was sadly lacking. Our breaks soon petered out. I wondered how on Earth John Terry had forced a save from De Gea while I was still outside in the Manchester night.

Tackles were thundering in from both sets of players.

The Chelsea crowd were in reasonable voice. Yet again I will make the point of how away fans are more prone to creating an atmosphere than the home fans. Old Trafford is no different. The game continued. I just wanted us to get to the break unscathed, so that Hiddink could fine-tune our performance.

At half-time, there were long faces in the Chelsea section. In reality, this was as poor a performance as we had seen all season. Maybe the first-half at Leicester was the worst, but this was not much better.

I wondered what we had lost. I wondered if a prayer to St. Anthony was needed.

“Saint Anthony – Saint Anthony,

Please come around.

Something is lost that can’t be found.

Oh talk to me.

Oh talk to me.

Of Gretton, God, Granada.

Hooky and Hannett.

And how the fighting just got harder.

Hamlet, Ibsen, The IRA.

Jesus Mary and Keith Joseph.

Joy Division.

Judaism.

The importance of the moment.”

I remembered back to my last visit to Manchester, the game with City in August. I reminisced how Parky and I had waited in the foyer of the Lowry Hotel and had observed the Chelsea players walk through to their awaiting coach. At the time they looked focussed. With hindsight, they looked joyless, without a spark. I remember, too, how Mourinho walked to the coach independently, away from the team. Now the separation seems important.

“Something is lost that can’t be found.”

Our team seems to have lost a spark, a sense of vitality, the desire.

It hurts.

“Liam.

London.

Lust for Life.

Louis Louis.

Linnaeus Banks.

Manchester.

Music.

Marijuana.

Majesty.

And Karl Marx.”

Thankfully, Chelsea began with a lot more zest as the second-half began. Eden Hazard set up a chance for Pedro, who forced a fine save from De Gea. The follow-up shot from Azpilicueta was also blocked by De Gea. How we had not taken the lead still escapes me. The away support stepped it up a notch. At the other end, a sublime block by John Terry stopped Wayne Rooney advancing. Throughout the evening, Terry’s control of Rooney was a Chelsea highlight. On the hour, a sublime block from close range by Courtois kept the score goal-less; a cross from the artful Martial on the right had gifted Herrera a wonderful chance to score. With the Stretford End already celebrating, the ball ricocheted off Thibaut. Stupendous stuff indeed.

We were definitely improving as the game wore on. I noted a greater desire amongst our players. With United flooding our half, they left themselves exposed when Pedro played in a bursting Nemanja Matic.

This was our moment.

I brought my camera up to eye-level. With any luck I would capture a game-winner, just as I had memorably captured a Juan Mata strike grazing Phil Jones’ thigh on the way past De Gea in 2013.

I brought the camera up to my eyes. I was aware that Dave was alongside.

Snap.

The ball was struck high and wide.

“Fuck it.”

Another shot from Matic went wide.

Willian was replaced by Ramires with twenty minutes remaining. He had looked tired. Clearly not at his best, he had been consistently fouled all evening. His departure was no surprise. I noted how quiet the United crowd had become. I had expected more disdain, more barracking of van Gaal.

I commented to Gary how poor Wayne Rooney had been, fluffing his lines on two occasions in the second-half and prone to over-hitting some passes. I wondered about Mourinho’s pursuit of him in 2013. I thought that Terry and Zouma had performed well. Further forward, there had been more positive signs as the game progressed. Eden Hazard had proved to be less effective than at Tottenham but I thought that he had tried his best in a very difficult role. At times, he was too distant from a supporting cast. But this always going to be a tough assignment without a Diego Costa or a Loic Remy. Pedro had run his socks off all game. You had to look hard, but there were pluses.

“Tony talk to me of Sex Pistols, the substance, the streets, the sounds.

The sniffed and snorted, stolen, swigged multi million pounds.

And talk to me of the greatest ever Man United team.

Greg

Burns

Jones

Edwards

Robson and Roy Keane

Was it Best

Law

Charlton

Stiles and Eric Cantona?

Unknown Pleasures of the doubles and the trebles

Incantation from the stars.”

At the end of the game, there was a general feeling of relief from Parky, Alan, Gary and myself – stood in a line – and from Glenn, stood several rows in front.

A goal-less draw is what I had predicted and a goal-less draw is what we had witnessed.

We walked back to the car. It was not even 7.30pm. It seemed later. We were caught up in more slow-moving traffic as we joined the red surge around the M60 and then south, homeward bound.

We were now on twenty points.

“Halfway to paradise.”

To complete a full day of friendship and football, we stopped off for a curry in Walsall, not so far away from our League Cup away day a few months ago. The game had been discussed on the motorway. It was now time to relax and enjoy a madras, a jalfrezi, a pathia.

I eventually reached home at around one o’clock. Of course I had enjoyed the day. Others, watching further away, were apparently not so happy. What have we lost? Maybe they need to have a word with Saint Anthony too.

“Guus talk to me.

John talk to me.

Jose talk to me.

Roman talk to me.”

On the third day of January, we reassemble at Selhurst Park. See you there.

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>>Tales : A Lesson In Double Dutch.

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Tales From Yankee Stadium.

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 25 May 2013.

The silver Amtrak train slowly trundled its way along the tracks deep below the streets of Manhattan and eventually came to a halt. I gathered my two cases and patiently waited until it was time to step down onto the platform at New York’s Penn Station. I edged along among the fellow travellers and then took a couple of steps onto the elevator. As I slowly rose, it hit me.

That New York City Subway smell.

It is difficult to define, but once experienced, it is never forgotten. It is a mixture of sickly sweat, of train diesel, of dirt and grime, of car fumes, of urine, of adrenaline, of oil, of body odour, of perfume and aftershave. It is a heady mix. Without any hint of self-censorship, I blurted out –

“I love that smell.”

I was back in New York.

The story of my return to the US at the end of yet another ridiculously entertaining and tumultuous season following Chelsea Football Club is worthy of a separate dissertation all by itself. Here are the bullet points. Like many others, I was at first shocked that Chelsea were returning to the US for two essentially money-making games against Manchester City. After all that the players have been put through, why not let them rest and allow their bodies time to re-charge over the summer? To me and countless others, it seemed illogical and quite pathetic. Personally, I was also surprisingly underwhelmed. Knowing my love of travelling to the US, my ambivalence truly surprised me. In the words of many a football fan, I was clearly not “up” for this crazy addendum to this longest ever season. My initial thought was to boycott it.

In fact, in all honesty, I was happy with a boycott. After almost 12 years of travelling to the US – and elsewhere – every summer following the Yankees or Chelsea, I was looking to try something different during the summer of 2013. I had already ruled out attending the Asia tour, simply because I had only just visited two of the three cities – Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur – as recently as 2011. No, that would be over-egging it. I wanted to spread my wings. I had thoughts about driving down through Italy, maybe seeing Depeche Mode in Milan and Rome. Maybe a relaxing beach holiday – not my scene at all, really, but something different – or maybe swimming with camels in Norway, cycling around the North Pole, learning to plate-spin in Greece, wine-tasting in Glasgow, scuba-diving in Siberia, maybe even something as simple as a week in London, catching up on all the tourist attractions that I never get the chance to witness despite being in London close on thirty days every single year. I just fancied something a little different.

And then Chelsea, as is so often the case, screwed it all up.

The club announced that the match in New York would be in Yankee Stadium.

Oh boy.

I honestly swear that if the venue had been the Red Bulls’ place in Harrison, the new NFL stadium in East Rutherford or the new Mets’ pad in Flushing, I would have said “no.”

But – damn Yankees and damn Chelsea! – I simply couldn’t resist a trip back to the house that George Steinbrenner III built in the Bronx and so I looked at travel options and my mind became infused with New York once again. I saw my first Chelsea game of 2012-2013 at Yankee Stadium and I would see my last Chelsea game of 2012-2013 there too. These twin games would prove to be two incredible bookends for another crazy season. Way back in the early ‘nineties – when I was just starting out on my own personal baseball journey – if someone had mentioned this to me, I think I would have fainted.

Without too much trouble, I soon sorted flights to the US and I was able to include a three-game Yankees series in Baltimore in my plans too. The baseball and footballing Gods were shining down on me once again.

Penn Station plays a small but significant role in my life as a Chelsea supporter. Just as I can remember exactly where I was when I heard that Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli had signed for Chelsea (Westbury, Wiltshire and Gaviota State Park, California), I can well remember where I was when I heard that Frank Lampard had signed for us. I was at Penn Station. I had been in New York for eight days and I ‘phoned my good friend Glenn, who had been keeping an eye on my mother while I was abroad. In a hurried call, he had told me that Claudio Ranieri had bought both Frank Lampard and Emanuel Petit, with others “to follow.” At the time, I was excited that we were splashing the cash, though undecided about Lampard as a player. I needn’t have worried, eh?

A while back, with Frank unsigned for next season, I was worried that my personal Frank Lampard story would start in Penn Station and end in The Bronx, where his last ever game for Chelsea may have taken place. I love my symmetry, but that would have been tough to take.

I made my way up to street level and soon took a cab to Brooklyn. I had lucked out with accommodation for the NYC segment of the trip; my friend Alex had offered me the use of his apartment in Greenpoint while he was away on holiday in Denmark. I was soon hurtling over the Greensboro Bridge, slightly unsure if the cabbie knew where he was going, but just so excited to be back in one of my favourite places on Earth. The view was phenomenal; the East River down below, the Williamsburg Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and, hauntingly, the now almost completed new tower at the World Trade Centre.

Oh lucky man.

Alex evidently lived in a great neighbourhood. Rather than charging me rent, all he wanted was a flagon of scrumpy, which I had given him in London on his recent visit, and a few packs of football trading cards to give to a young relative. Greenpoint was clearly a great place to base myself for a few days. There was a subway stop a hundred yards from Alex’ pad. I would be fine. There was an eclectic mix of Polish shops and other ethnic cafes, although the place was swarming with “trying too hard” hipsters. However, I was entranced by the mix of different accents as I walked the streets of Greenpoint . It was so typical of New York.

Sergei : “What we do here? I want go home Russia.”

Alexander : “We American now. We leave London, big chance in Big Beetroot.”

Sergei : “Big Apple. It’s Big Apple.”

Alexander : “Apple, Schmapple. Whatever.”

Sergei : “Oh boyski.”

In all honesty, this would not be like other trips to the Big Apple. This was a time for me to relax and to chill out at the end of another taxing season. On the plane over, I calculated that this would be my seventeenth trip to the US and my fifteenth time in NYC. There was little that I needed to see. Over the years, I have visited all of the major attractions, most of the main art galleries and museums, all of the sport stadia, all points north, south, east and west.

In a similar vein, Baltimore had been ultra-relaxing. I had landed at 4pm on the Monday and, by 5pm, I was booked in to my hotel a block from the excellent inner harbour and only five blocks from that jewel of a ballpark Camden Yards. By 6pm, I was back at the “Pratt Street Ale House”, which acted as a base for Chelsea fans ahead of our game with Milan in 2009, chatting away to a Baltimore-native and Liverpool fan called Dean. That first evening in Baltimore was magnificent; a lovely time spent high up in the seats beyond third base, chatting to strangers about Baltimore, the Yankees, Chelsea – inevitably – and my love of visiting The States, interspersed with beer and baseball. That I got to see Mariano Rivera successfully close a game in his farewell season was the cherry on the top of the crab cake. The Yankees won 6-4 and I was floating on air. However, after being awake for most of 26 hours, my walk home from “Pickles” – another bar from 2009 – to my hotel is a massive blur. I remember nothing of it.

Tuesday was another relaxing day, which unfortunately ended with a narrow extra-innings loss to the Orioles. On Wednesday, I got my tourist boots on and visited the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum, just a few blocks away from Camden Yards, indulged in a Baltimorean crab cake fantasy, went on a speedboat into the Baltimore harbour and visited the World Trade Center, with fantastic views over the city. In the evening, my good friend Steve – who had travelled down from Philly – met me and we went on a little pub crawl before attending the final Yankees vs. Orioles game of the series. We lost 6-3, but still enjoyed our time thoroughly. In my stay in Baltimore, I had casually bumped into two other Chelsea fans; this simply would not have happened in days gone by. Back in the ‘eighties, I hardly bumped into many Chelsea fans in Frome, let alone Baltimore.

Just like 2009, Baltimore had been a blast.

However, I soon learned that my beloved Yankees had signed a deal with Manchester City to assist in the formation of a new MLS franchise, to come into fruition in 2015. This was a shocker and dismayed me. My initial reaction was that Chelsea had missed a trick; surely helping to foster links between a club in the US, with its links to new players, and a club in Europe was an excellent idea. I almost felt that the Yankees had been going behind our back. I felt cheated. It was a strange feeling. I then also remembered that way back in around 1998; the Yankees signed a commercial partnership with Manchester United to develop each clubs’ branding opportunities in both markets. I was irate then, too. I even phoned the manager of the Yankee clubhouse store on Fifth Avenue to tell him what I thought of it. So, the thought of my Yankees hopping into bed with both of the Manchester teams over the past fourteen years certainly annoyed me. Who says the course of true love runs smooth?

Thursday in New York was a relatively relaxing affair. Typically, I was lured in to Manhattan by the prospect of seeing our game in St. Louis against City on a TV screen in “Legends”, which was the scene of much debauchery last summer. First, though, I popped next door for a few pints in “Foley’s.” The bar was festooned with thousands of pieces of sporting memorabilia, from shirts draped from the ceiling, to old seats from Busch Stadium and Tiger Stadium, to signed baseballs, signed boxing gloves to photos and trophies. I settled in at the end of the bar, ordered a pint of “Blue Moon” – despite its City links – and began talking to a couple from Brighton. Mac and Jo were keen Brighton fans, and still lamenting their loss to arch rivals Palace in the play-offs, but soon became engaged in a long conversation with me about football. I think this pee’d off their American friend, who was soon off to see the New York Rangers play the Boston Bruins at nearby Madison Square Garden. This guy, by the way, chose to wear a NY Rangers shirt over his normal work shirt, like some sort of FIFA2013-addicted Uber Sports Nerd. Why do these people do this? As the evening progressed, Mac told me a few funny stories about football. This was the best one –

…Mac and Jo have been together for fifteen years and during the first few weeks of their courtship, all was rosy. They then decided to travel to Gillingham to watch a Brighton away game. The two of them were stood in the away end, when all of a sudden – and to Jo’s horror – Mac began pointing and gesticulating towards a policeman nearby. After a while, the gestures became ruder and ruder and Mac’s language descended to profanity and derogatory name-calling. Jo thought to herself; “oh great…I thought this guy was lovely…looks like he’s just a typical football hooligan…bloody hell.” This continued all game. Each time, the policeman ignored Mac’s taunts. He had good reason. It was Mac’s brother.

Mac introduced me to the bar-owner and the drinking continued. It was a great time. I was at ease with myself. That I could start talking to complete strangers was lovely, though I know only too well that football – not beer – acted as the great lubricant in this chat. For me, it wasn’t always like this.

Here’s another story. I always remember reading about Joe DiMaggio, probably my second-favourite Yankee of all time behind Don Mattingly, and his comments about how he regarded himself. Despite Joltin’ Joe’s fame, he always remained a very shy person. I remember reading about him commenting to a reporter – probably in the famous baseball bar in Manhattan called “Toot Shor’s” – as he looked on as the more gregarious members of the Yankee team of the day greeted friends and strangers alike with hugs, backslaps and laughter –

“I wish I could be like them.”

For many years, these words struck a chord with me.

And this from a man who bedded Marilyn Monroe.

Oh to be at ease in your own skin. Even you, Joe D.

Our 4-3 loss to Manchester City was a crazy end to Thursday. Even more crazy was the fact that there were only two other Chelsea fans in “Legends” watching the game.

Maybe this trip to New York was going to be a let-down after all. After leaving “Legends” I navigated my way back to Brooklyn and hoped for better things.

I awoke on Friday morning and all was well. A coffee and a bagel in a café on Nassau Avenue set me up for another fantastic day in New York; perhaps one of the best ever. I had a plan. Way back in 2008, I had visited Coogan’s Bluff, that high promontory in Manhattan which overlooks the East River and Yankee Stadium. Down below was the former site of the old Polo Grounds, that odd, horseshoe-shaped bath tub of a stadium which once housed the New York Giants, the New York Yankees and even the New York Mets at various stages. It was a sight which thrilled me. I knew only too well of the sporting tales which had taken place on that piece of real estate down by the river…the “shot heard around the world”, the Willie Mays catch, Babe Ruth’s first few seasons in NYC, the rivalries with the Yankees and the Dodgers…well…next in my sights was the old Brooklyn Dodgers’ stomping ground Ebbets Field, deep in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, only some five miles away, but – in my mind – fifty years away…another time, another place.

I hopped on the subway, changed in the heart of Brooklyn and took a second train to Prospect Park. My nerves were tingling. Let me explain. If the Brooklyn Dodgers were still playing ball, I think they would be my team. Just a week before my very first trip to the US in September 1989, I visited that wonderful bookshop “Sportspages” – sadly no more, damn you internet shopping – and bought a book on baseball stadia called “Take Me Out To The Ballpark.” It was to be my first real introduction to a sport that I just knew that I would get to love over the course of my next year in North America. Those black and white photos of Ebbets Field – Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Leo Durocher, Hilda Chester and her bell, the Abe Stark sign, the Dodgers Symphony, the rotunda, the whole nine yards – really struck a chord with me. The Dodgers were the perennial season after season losers, the stadium a rickety treasure, their fans charismatic. At the time, I regarded Chelsea as perennial underachievers. There would have been a “fit” there. There was another dash of synchronicity; the Brooklyn Dodgers’ and Chelsea’s only championship were both in 1955.

Damn you, Walter O’Malley. It could have been a perfect match.

That I chose the Yankees – or they chose me – in the winter of 1989-1990 is of course well known. I loved New York and I loved it that the Yanks were going through a lean spell. I wanted to earn my stripes – or my pinstripes – in support of this fabled team. I didn’t want to be labelled a glory hunter. They were my team. They are my team. I’ve seen the Yankees play some thirty-six times. I have loved reading and writing about the Yankees ever since; visiting The Bronx is always a journey of wonderment for me. Yet, for me to step out of Prospect Park subway station and to walk those same steps that millions of baseball fans took in the glory years of Brooklyn baseball was truly wonderful.

As I approached the intersection of Sullivan Place and McKeever Place, my mind played tricks on me. I easily visualised those famous old photographs of Ebbets Field, the streets busy with cars, hot dog vendors, souvenir stalls, fans of every creed and colour and the famous rotunda behind home plate. In reality, in 2013, I stared at a monumental block of social housing; brown apartments rising twenty stories or more into the Brooklyn sky. I turned and saw a gentleman of around seventy years of age. I felt I had to say something.

“I’m from England. I’m a Yankees fan. But I just love being here.”

“The Dodgers? I saw them play here.”

That was perfect. I slowly walked anti-clockwise around the former site of Ebbets Field…first base, second base, third base and home. It was magical. It stole my heart.

Why do I mention this? Why am I sentimental about a stadium that I never visited and about a team that died in 1958? In 2011, Chelsea Football Club wanted to buy my pitch owner share and initiate a move away from Stamford Bridge forever. In fifty years’ time, I don’t want football fans alighting at Fulham Broadway and making a similar trip to where football was once played.

Later on Friday, I made my way in from Brooklyn to Manhattan once again. I was hoping for a better turn out from the Chelsea Nation than on Thursday ahead of the game in The Bronx on the Saturday. I made my way into Jack Demsey’s bar, again just along from “Foley’s” and “Legends” on West 34th Street. I arrived at about 6.30pm and stayed way into the night. In truth, the night began slowly, with only a few familiar faces making an appearance. Of course, it was great to see Beth, John, Wobbley, Steve from California, Paul from Ontario and Jamie from NYC again. However, I was expecting more faces. Was this a game too far? Compared to previous pre-game parties, this was definitely a quiet start to the night. I got the beers in and hoped for the best.

Meanwhile, in a bar a few miles away, the importance of Saturday’s game at Yankee Stadium was being discussed.

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Hey, you see they’re playing soccer at Yankee Stadium again tomorrow?”

Big Johnny Leotardo : “What tha fcuk! Again? That grass is gonna be messed up. Who they got playin’?”

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Two English teams.”

Big Johnny Leotardo : “Who?”

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Chelsea.”

Big Johnny Leotardo : “Sounds like a girl’s name. Who else?”

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Man City.”

Big Johnny Leotardo : “Sounds like a gay nightclub.”

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Forget about it.”

As the night drew on – and on – more faces appeared and I was able to relax in the company of good friends. Brothers David and Scott arrived from their respective home cities, still dressed in their suits, straight from work; a lovely surprise. Nick and Shawn, the two Boston Blues, made a much heralded appearance at around midnight and it was great to see them. Mike and Fun Time Frankie arrived from St. Louis and more beers were quaffed. James, Pablo, Matt, Samantha, Lynda and Jaymee joined the throng and we had a blast. The beers were going down well. It was lovely. In truth, we didn’t talk too much about the team or the players. We just stood around, taking the piss out of each other.

Proper Chelsea.

Before I knew it, the time was 3.30am. Oh boy. It was time to say “goodnight.” A few of us slithered into Fun Time Frankie’s motor and he drove us home.

Unlike my usual commute of 110 miles to see a Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge, my very last football trip of season 2012-2013 was of just six miles and around forty minutes on a couple of NYC subway trains. On the first of these trains, from Nassau Avenue to Court Street, I spotted two US Bayern Munich fans. It came as a jolt. I had forgotten all about the Champions League Final which was taking place in London in a few hours’ time. Of course, I couldn’t resist saying a few words to them –

“You won’t like me. I was in Munich last year. I’m a Chelsea fan.”

They smiled. I explained that I hoped that Bayern would be successful. Historically, I have never cared too much for them, but the warm welcome given to 40,000 Chelsea last May will not be forgotten. My vote was for Bayern – for Robben, for Schweinsteiger the pigfcuker, for Lahm, for Ribery, for my friend Michaela – though, in truth, I wasn’t bothered.

Eventually I reached “Legend’s” at just before 1pm, a little later than I had hoped. The place was already heaving with bodies. Downstairs, in Jack Keane’s “Football Factory” there was a riot of Chelsea and Adidas royal blue. I had a quick poke around – a “hello” to a few familiar faces – but then came up for air in the top bar, which was full of Bayern, Dortmund and neutrals. Interestingly, there was a precedent to this; in 1996, while in town for a three game Yankees vs. A’s series, I watched my beloved Juventus beat Ajax in Rome in that year’s Champions League Final. On that occasion, I watched in a small bar near Columbus Circle. I think I was the only one watching. How times change.

I spent most of my time with Steve from Philadelphia, who was chatting to Rick, also from Philly. I had met Rick in The Goose a season or so ago. Thankfully, my friend Roma and her youngest daughter Jenny – who I last saw in Los Angeles for the Galaxy game in 2007 – soon arrived. Roma had driven up from her home in Tennessee on the Friday with Jenny, her son Shawn, her mother Mary and their friend Missy, who was in NYC for the first-ever time. Only Roma and Shawn would accompany Steve and I to the game; the other three were left to explore the sights and sounds of Manhattan. I last saw Mary at that Galaxy game in 2007, too. It was smashing to see them all again. Roma, who dotes on Frank Lampard, has been present every Chelsea tour in the US since 2004. This would be her ninth Chelsea game in the US, her tenth lifetime. In July, her other daughter Vanessa, was with Roma and Shawn for the game against PSG.

Shawn seemed to be more interested in spotting Spiderman leaping between skyscrapers as we walked to the subway stop, but I approved of the Chelsea T-shirt – formerly Jenny’s – that he was wearing. We were soon hurtling north, beneath the streets of Harlem, and we soon found ourselves back in The Bronx. I commented to Steve that I hadn’t seen the area around Yankee Stadium so quiet on a match day since my first ever visit back in 1990. Seeing the white, pinstriped Yankee shirts on sale made me double-take. Was this a Chelsea game or a Yankee game? Who cares, get the beers in.

We called in at “Stan’s” for a “Rolling Rock” and it was so good to be back. It is my favourite bar in America, perhaps the world. The owner Lou wasn’t present but a couple of the bartenders, plus the bouncer, recognised me from previous visits. That gave me a real buzz. Bayern scored a goal at Wembley and I was happy with that. We then popped into “The Dugout” where the main Chelsea pre-game party was in full-flow. On the short walk from “Stan’s”, we heard another roar…this was Dortmund’s equaliser. I had never visited “The Dugout” before; it was quite cavernous, and full of Chelsea. There were even a few City fans dotted about. Roma and Shawn departed to take their seats in the stadium, while I chatted to a few other friends who I have made the acquaintance of over the years. It was lovely to see Chopper, Tommy, Steph and Steve from Connecticut again. Steve and I gulped down a last can of Pabst Blue Ribbon – there was no draught beer left – and we hurried to our seats, since there was only ten minutes to go until the game was due to start at 5.30pm.

As we walked through the Great Hall, we stopped to admire the Yankee greats whose photographs adorn every square inch. Although I am no real fan of the new ballpark, the Great Hall is its best feature. In truth though, I’d rather have the claustrophobic tunnels and alleyways of the original House That Ruth Built. The new stadium will grow on me I am sure, but I still think it has a few design faults. There is far too much exposed dull grey steel, the upper deck should be higher, deeper, without a mid-level break, the old stadium was just so dramatic, the new one is tame. The worst feature, though? The words “Yankee Stadium” high on the outfield wall behind the left-field bleachers.

We fcuking know its Yankee Stadium.

Unlike the game in July, our section was in the mid-level mezzanine – section 212. I was happy with the view. I was well aware that the tickets had not been selling well for this game. Despite the tremendous 48,000 sell out in St. Louis, I feared that around 20,000 to 25,000 would attend this one. I knew that a friend had picked up two for $60 out on the street. The gate for the PSG game in July was given as 38,000. I thought that was rather optimistic. On this cold and grey evening in The Bronx – typical English weather – the stadium was sparsely populated. As the teams did their drills out on the pitch, it was clear that there were far more Chelsea than City fans present. The City section away in left field was hardly full; there were even Chelsea shirts in it. I’d suggest that barely 20,000 spectators had bothered to attend the game. The published gate of 39,000 made me chuckle.

The 5.30pm kick-off never materialised. It was nearer 6pm when Fernando Torres led the Chelsea team out onto the Yankee Stadium turf. For many US fans, this would be the first sighting of Torres, plus quite a few others. Despite Chelsea’s team containing Nathan Ake, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Anders Christiansen, the team that Benitez chose did contain quality through its ranks. The Manchester City team, though, looked impressive. This would be our sixth game against them this season; they were our only real nemesis, on a one versus one basis, throughout 2012-2013 and I wondered if we would be able to match them.

As Rafa Benitez walked to the bench in shallow right field, I wondered what was going through his mind. I never really warmed to the bloke since his appointment in November. It was always going to be a tough relationship between him and us. I was present for his first game against City, I was there to usher him out after his last game against City.

In reality, we found this a tough old game. A goal from Gareth Barry, the world’s most boring footballer, on just three minutes gave City the advantage and a second from Samir Nasri on the half-hour gave City a 2-0 lead at the break. In between, we created a few chances, but the finishing was poor. Despite City’s lead, I heard no City songs. Perhaps they weren’t really here after all. Our section was in relatively good voice, with songs being aired at regular intervals. Our section resolutely ignored the “wave” which circled the stadium on a few occasions.

The “Come On Chelsea” chant just sounded odd, to my ears…it sounded flat, with no intent.

At home, it’s “COME ON, Chelsea” with encouragement in the first two syllables.

At Yankee Stadium, it was “Come On Chel-SEA” and sounded monotone and flat.

Just before the break, Paolo Ferreira came on to replace Loftus-Cheek. He received a magnificent reception from the royal blue hordes.

A goal from Ramires soon into the second-half gave us hope, but Milner – the second most boring footballer in the world – struck low past Petr Cech to give them a 3-1 lead. I was pleased that the New York fans were able to see Juan Mata play; he replaced David Luiz on the hour. Another goal from Ramires made it 3-2 and then Nasri scored to make it 4-2. This was now turning into a very cold evening in The Bronx and I felt for Roma, alongside me, wearing sandals. A delightful free-kick from Juan Mata, captured on film, the last of a long season of goal photos, gave us hope at 4-3, only for Dzeko to seal the 5-3 win late on. There was still time for me to let out a rasping “Zigger Zagger” and the fine fellows around me responded magnificently.

At the end, a few moments to reflect upon.

In the row behind me, a US fan was ranting about the poor performance by the team. In truth, he had been moaning all game. I had a go back at him.

“This is the last game in a long season, mate. Give them a break. It means nothing.”

“They’re a disgrace.”

“No, mate – you’re a disgrace.”

Another chap…an expat…never seen him before, was equally scathing about Chelsea’s performance. Tellingly, he chose to refer to Chelsea as “they” all the way through his tirade. Philly Steve was stood alongside me and could tell I was bristling. I had to jump in.

“You mean “WE” not “THEY” don’t you?”

It irritates me still, the use of “they” in talking about Chelsea. Almost as much as the inappropriate use of “Chels.”

“Ah, fcuk him” I thought…I let him rant away…I was too tired for further confrontation. His argument petered out after being met with indifference from myself and Steve.

At the end of the game, old blue eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, sang “New York New York” and I wiped away the tears of joy. I love this town.

“Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today.
I want to be a part of it – New York, New York.
These vagabond shoes, are longing to stray.
Right through the very heart of it – New York, New York.
I wanna wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep.
And find I’m king of the hill – top of the heap.
These little town blues, are melting away.
I’ll make a brand new start of it – in old New York.
If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.
It’s up to you – New York, New York.”

Back in Stan’s, we had met up with Andy Wray and were enjoying more “Rolling Rocks.” The place was full of happy Chelsea fans; who cares we lost? However, it was sadly time to say goodbye to Roma and Shawn and they made their way back to meet Mary, Jenny and Missy. A couple of Belgian Chelsea fans joined us, and we then ventured down into the adjacent subway.

There were already around fifteen Chelsea fans down on the platform, along with a Manchester City couple, and so – after a team photo – we decided to start singing. The acoustics were magnificent and we were in great voice. For ten minutes or more, we sang and sang and sang. Almost every song in the Chelsea songbook was aired – “One Man Went To Mow” managed to get the locals particularly interested – and the singing continued on the subway train south. Throughout all this, the two City fans were looking on, silent and bemused. I bet they were thinking –

“Wow. That’s impressive.”

Andy Wray suggested we sang “We Won In Munich, Munich” and I foolishly joined in. After a long day of singing, that one is a real rasper. Oh boy. I have to say, after the away section in Chester for the All-Star Game, the trips to Turin, Tokyo and Amsterdam, a chat with Roman, the wins at Old Trafford, White Hart Lane and The Emirates, that subway ride was one of the highlights of the season.

Back at “Legends” it was all Chelsea, the Bayern and Dortmund fans having long since disappeared. I chatted to more friends and the beers continued to flow. Steve set off for home at midnight, but the residual few – you know who you are – kept going until 3am. It turned into a crazy night and it turned into a crazy morning.

I didn’t get home until 5.30am.

On the Sunday, I treated myself to a nice meal in a steakhouse in Brooklyn, with Sinatra still singing in the background. Fun Time Frankie picked me up in Greenpoint and took me through Queens and out to Rockaway – a glimpse of the Atlantic, that body of water that bizarrely connects England and America – before dropping me off at JFK. There was talk of The Ramones, of John Gotti, of the Yankees, of the Mets, of football. We stopped for a slice of pizza at a roadside joint in Ozone Park and looked forward to our next meeting. It was the perfect end to a fantastic few days in New York.

Forget about it? Impossible.

And so, season 2012-2103 has finished. Another eventful campaign has passed. It has been – cough – interesting. There are tours in the summer to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and then, crazily, even a return to the US. Not for me. I need a rest.

I’m done.

…signing-off.

Chris, Sunday 2 June 2013.

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Tales From The Top Three.

Chelsea vs. Everton : 19 May 2013.

Room 907.
Brookshire Suites.
East Lombard Street.
Baltimore, MD.

Tuesday 21 May 2012.

Dear all,

I realise that this is the only match report of some 250 plus that I have written for the Chelsea In America website while actually in the US. Hope you like it. If not, don’t blame me. Blame Rafa.

I travelled up to the last league game of the season with Glenn, my oldest Chelsea mate. We’ve known each other since 1977. We’ve been travelling up to games together since 1983 (when we beat Newcastle United 4-0, since anyone is wondering) and it was a pleasure to have his company again. His last game was the 8-0 mauling of Villa in December. Although we never expected anything like the amount of goals against Everton, deep down I thought we’d get the requisite win to ensure a third place finish. It’s some time since we lost a last league game of the season at Stamford Bridge; a 3-1 defeat against Villa in 2002 if memory serves. These games are usually played out in lovely sunshine, we usually get a win and we usually have Cup Finals to anticipate. I can remember well the closing game last season against Blackburn Rovers and JT’s rallying call of “see you in Germany.”

No Cup Final to anticipate this year…that box was already ticked on Wednesday in The Dam.

So, all should have been sweetness and light as I drove up the A303 with Glenn alongside me.

However, there was of course the niggling spectre of the play-off against Arsenal at Villa Park on Sunday 26 May. Should we draw 0-0 and Arsenal win 2-1 at Newcastle, my season would end in complete tatters. I would be in the US, there for the game with Manchester City in NYC, but that would be cancelled. I’d be three thousand miles away for a Chelsea game that would be cancelled and unable to get back in time for the last game of the season.

It didn’t bare thinking about. So I tried not to.

I just hoped for the dream scenario…

3. Chelsea
4. Arsenal
5. Tottenham Hotspur

Not only top dogs in London, but able to relegate Spurs again to a fifth place finish.

At Fleet Services, the place was crawling with the green and white of “little old” Yeovil Town; their supporters knee deep in flags, scarves, banners, curly wigs and air-horns. They were off to Wembley for their play-off game with Brentford. Newly-promoted to the league in only 2003, they were looking to play Championship football. I wished a few of their fans well. Superb stuff. A mini-bus full of Spurs fans from Weymouth were not given such treatment; I had my trademark withering stare of disdain for them.

For those who know these reports well, they may want to fast forward at this point.

This will be my “meet up with an ex-player at the hotel, chat to several US Stamford Bridge ‘virgins’ and head down to The Goose” section.

Glenn accompanied me to the hotel, and we arrived at the doors just as Beth and a gaggle of eager CIAers were leaving to go down to a pub called “The Rose” off the Kings Road. We just missed Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti, unfortunately, but it was lovely to be able to meet Bobby Tambling once again. Glenn, Parky and I had spent a lovely evening in the company of Bobby, Peter and Ron around two years ago in a Wiltshire pub. The photo I have of the six of us in a row is, I think, one of my absolute favourites. Bobby, despite the recent problems, remains as cheery as ever and it was lovely to be able to put my hand on his shoulder and wish him words of encouragement.

Gill and Graeme then arrived full of smiles and full of talk about the game at Yankee Stadium. Their visit will be even more “whirlwind” than in the summer…they arrive at lunchtime on the Saturday and leave Sunday. For me, the games in NYC will provide the most ridiculous bookends of a season ever. My first game of this long and tumultuous season was in Yankee Stadium…my last game will be. Hopefully. Fingers crossed.

3. Chelsea
4. Arsenal
5. Tottenham Hotspur.

I managed to get a photograph of myself with Wednesday match winner Branoslav Ivanovic as he drifted through to a meeting room with JT. That was perfect. His smile was beaming as I thanked him for Wednesday. Top man.

Glenn headed back to The Goose, while I rushed down to The Rose. This was a first-time visit for me. I have only visited the Kings Road pubs on match days on a few occasions. It was a lovely pub, if not a bit pricey, with a gorgeous beer garden. It felt strange though – very strange, in fact – not to recognise anyone. The CIA section was spread over three tables. I sat next to the Beltway Blues section and enjoyed a pint of Peroni – £4.85! – and a chat about all things Chelsea. I was particularly keen to meet Kathryn and Tim, who I chanced to meet on one of the yellow school buses which took us from Philly to Chester way back in the summer. This was their first visit to London, but Kathryn had previously travelled extensively around Europe in her youth.

“Saving the best to last, then.”

Kathryn had first become a Chelsea fan way back in 1988, so I tipped my hat to her. We had a good old chat about her trip so far; she was still buzzing from the CPO fundraiser on the Friday, where a cool and relaxed Frank Lampard was the guest. It seems that Jason Cundy, the host, managed to elicit some particularly “frank” answers from our much-beloved midfielder.

I collected Jason from the table of North Texas Blues and we headed up to The Goose, with me babbling away – sometimes coherently – about various sights and sounds that we encountered on the way, making sure that every second of Jason’s first-ever match at HQ was full or memories for him. We called into the stall and a copy of “CFCUK” was purchased. I first met Jason back in the summer too. I could tell he was bristling with excitement. We reached The Goose and it was predictably overflowing with match-day buzz. Unlike The Rose, here I knew many. There were handshakes and laughs from the moment I entered. In the far corner there was a flag honouring the life of Blind Gerry, who so sadly died a few hours after the 2-2 draw with Spurs. Without wishing to be overly-sentimental or mawkish, I hope he was able to look down on the Amsterdam Arena on Wednesday and witness our latest European triumph in full Technicolor glory. Bless him. Fiona and Rob arranged a collection and a raffle for his widow. It was a pleasure to fleetingly meet Hugh Hastings out in the packed beer garden; he was the club’s official photographer in the ‘eighties.

Glenn was enjoying back in the bosom of the club again. We have missed him.

We heard that Yeovil were winning 2-1. Good stuff.

Jason was pleased to have made it to The Goose. Another box ticked for his first Chelsea game at The Bridge. We walked down the North End Road and it was a strange feeling. This particular part of London has been such a part of my life these past nine months, yet this would be my last walk along these familiar streets for three months. Jason had a ticket in the West Lower, so we bade our farewell outside.

All of us were inside early in order to see the pre-match presentation involving Bobby Tambling and Frank Lampard. That Frank should break Bobby’s record at this particular time is perfect; Bobby, I am sure has loved the attention and the love which has been shown towards him. I think it has acted as a perfect tonic for him. It was a lovely moment.

Yeovil had won at Wembley. Fantastic. I might be tempted by a game or two down there next season.

For once, Everton brought down the full three thousand away fans. Even before the game began, a couple of blue flares were thrown onto the pitch. Much to my chagrin, the club had marked this last game of the season – and effectively the final game in which fans could bask in the glory of Munich – by giving us all “noisemakers.” Now, I’m all for encouraging fan participation, but I wasn’t happy that we have now fallen in line with teams like Fulham, who themselves have these bloody irritating noisemakers. They have thundersticks too. I scowled at the sight of our fans “clapping” the cardboard together and had a few jokey words with a few supporters.

“Noisemakers. For Chelsea fans who just can’t be arsed to clap.”

Of course, Alan and I were taking great delight in the fact that Glenn, the perennial six year old, loved them.

Glenn : “They’re cool.”

Alan : “Thing is Chris, you know what it’s like with kids. If a parent doesn’t like something, they’ll just do it more.”

Chris : “Oh boy.”

On the card, was written the totemic words –

“WE KNOW WHAT WE ARE.”

It’s ironic that a phrase first used by Chelsea fans to subtly mock Anton Ferdinand out on a cold night in Genk in 2011 was now being embraced by the club in 2013. There were a few supporters wearing the new shirt, but not many. To be honest, I was surprised that we chose not to wear it for the game. I like the new kit, mainly because the blue is of a more traditional hue than the current one.

For once, Benitez started with Ba and Torres. Thankfully, the noisemakers were only used on rare occasions. Typically, the usually quiet sections of the West Upper were the ones who chose to use them most. And that, I think, just about sums it all up.

The first-half was an even affair. Everton wore an exact negative of our colours; white, white, blue. I caught the Ba shot on film and I caught the follow-up from Juan Mata too. One-nil up and we heaved a sigh of relief.

3. Chelsea
4. Arsenal
5. Tottenham Hotspur.

Everton then worked a fine goal after a David Luiz mistake. Naismith finished off a nice move and the away fans roared, lighting up several more flares in the process. And then, the worry started. With us drawing 1-1, if Arsenal won 3-2, the game at Villa Park was “on.”

“Don’t do this to me, Chelsea.”

The highlight of the first-half was a perfectly-timed Gary Cahill tackle. Who says there is not beauty in destruction? At the break, things took a turn for the worse when around twenty Delta Airlines cheerleaders appeared on the pitch and did a routine. Big John, noisemaker in hand, looked up at me and smiled –

“It’s all gone wrong, Chris.”

To be honest, the gyrations a high-kicking of the cheerleaders were ceremoniously ignored by most of the spectators. I really don’t know why clubs bother.

We played better in the second-half, with Oscar playing a little better than of late. Nathan Ake played very well alongside Frank. It was very heartening. The kid with the number 57 on his back looked full of beans. The substitute Yelavic missed an absolute sitter for Everton. Arsenal were winning, Spurs were drawing. The nerves were fading. We scored with a fine move. Victor Moses cushioned a ball down in to the path of Torres, who smashed the ball in with a dismissive slash of his right foot.

“YES!”

Yep, I captured this one on film too…that’s five in a row now…Lampard at Villa, Torres and Ivanovic in Amsterdam and Mata and Torres versus Everton. It was, of course, Torres’ 22nd goal for us this season. I hope he is with us next season and scores 25. Paolo Ferreira came on as a late substitution and he received a lovely reception. It is an over-used expression, but he really has been a model professional.

At the final whistle, relief.

3. Chelsea
4. Arsenal
5. Tottenham Hotspur

It was, in time-honoured Chelsea fashion, party-time. Firstly, Paolo appeared with the UEFA Cup – sorry, the Europa League Trophy, old habits die hard. That was a lovely touch by the club. Then, Frank appeared with the trophy, with his two daughters flitting around him. Then JT and the twins. With everyone on the pitch – the players, their children – Frank, John and Paolo said some nice words for us supporters.

Many of the young children raced down to score goals at the Matthew Harding end. The sons of Ross Turnbull and Fernando Torres were especially good. What fun.

“Sign them up, Roman.”

There was a loud chorus of “Jose Mourinho” during the past-game party, but no Benitez boos. That Benitez did not participate in the post-game celebrations was probably a wise move. I don’t hate anyone, but I am just grateful that Benitez will soon be no more than a mere foot-note in our 108 year history.

2012-2013 has been another emotional ride. It has been tough going at times, but some of our play under Di Matteo and – yes – Benitez has been simply wonderful. I have one game left.

Thankfully, it will be at Yankee Stadium.

I’ll see some of you there.

Cheers,

Chris.

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Tales From Three Days In May.

Chelsea vs. Benfica : 15 May 2013.

Tuesday 14 May began with a “who the hell is phoning me at this ungodly hour” call from Les at just after 7.30am. Les lives in nearby Melksham and was already at Bristol airport. He was phoning me to check if I was on the same early-morning flight to Schipol; I told him that I would be on the 3.20pm flight instead. He was just about to board the plane by the sounds of it. This was a good sign. I wasn’t sure how many Chelsea would be in Amsterdam for our Europa League Final with Benfica – surely not the 40,000 at Munich – but the fact that Les was going told me that we would have good numbers out there. Les isn’t a season-ticket holder, so I presumed that he was going without a ticket. He told me that two other lads that we knew – Westbury Mark and Trowbridge Andy – were heading off much later by coach. They were without tickets too, I believed. These lads, and thousands like them, were travelling in blind faith with no guarantee of a match ticket. Fair play to them all.

As I got my things together for my three days in The Netherlands, Munich was dwelling heavily on my mind. I have never thought myself to be too superstitious about football, but as I slowly decided on what items of clothing to pack, my view soon changed.

Timberland shoes – no, I had them in Moscow. A definite ‘no.’

My new Nike trainers – yes, I’ve only worn them twice…at Old Trafford and Villa Park. Two wins. Absolute certainties.

Hugo Boss top – yep, I wore that in Barcelona last year, I’ll wear that on Wednesday for the game.

One significant omission for my pre-Amsterdam planning, sadly, was my friend Glenn who was unable to make it this time. How the two of us revelled on that Friday together; travelling together out to Prague from Bristol and enjoying each other’s company, before joining in with the madness of Munich on the Saturday. Was it really almost a whole year ago?

During last year’s trail to European glory, I was indebted to bird 5hit. Let me explain. Just before I travelled out to Spain for the Barcelona game, I was unwilling to wipe off some birds’ mess which was on my car. Now, this is seen as good luck in the UK, if not elsewhere. I joked with my work colleague Mike about this on my return after a most improbable semi-final victory was secured (…thanks to the birds’ mess, and Messi’s miss). Imagine my worry when I had to turn in my car – which was a hire car – for another one, just before travelling out to Munich. I was all for keeping the car – and, crucially, not washing the mess off. Then, miraculously, on the Friday I spotted fresh birds’ mess on my new car. I texted Mike the good news. The rest, as they say, is history.

After Didier scored the winning penalty in Munich, Mike was soon to text me –

“The bird 5hit worked!”

The relevance of all this…er, 5hit?

As I opened my front door at about 12.30pm in readiness for my quick jaunt to Bristol airport, I quickly spotted the new addition just above the driver’s window.

A fresh dollop.

Oh boy.

Incidentally, just to prove that I can weave any old – er, crap – into a story about Chelsea, I can well remember being in The Shed for the 5-0 thrashing of Derby County in August 1983…yes, you’ve guessed it. A pigeon crapped on me. I am not sure if I considered it lucky at the time, but we went on to win the old second division championship that season.

I was parked at Bristol airport at 1pm. I wondered if Young Dave and Pav would be on the flight, just as they were to Prague in May 2012. I bought a pint of Heineken – of course! – and made my way over to the same part of the lounge area where Glenn and I sat last year. Yes, more superstition. Who should be there but Cookie, a lad from Frome who I used to work with in 1988-1989. He was from the year below me at school, a good footballer; I have often chatted to him at Frome Town this season. He was with another lad from Frome; they were both without tickets, but willing to spend £200 apiece. I chatted to them about our chances in the final. To my immense guilt a few days before the game, I could only name one player from the Benfica team – Cardozo – without referencing the internet. I then remembered a few names, including Nemanja Matic who fleetingly played for us three years ago. We obviously spoke about Munich too; it was never far from my thoughts.

I told Cookie about the amazing story of Pav’s famous home-made VIP pass which enabled him free access to the Allianz Arena last May. I had seen on Facebook before leaving home that Young Dave was helping to finalise Pav’s 2013 version. I wondered how successful Pav would be this year. On lining up at the gate, I spotted Graham – and his wife – from Melksham who were also travelling out with no tickets. I’d guess there were around 25 Chelsea lining up at the gate.

Just as I was about to enter the airplane at the top of the steps, I turned around.

It was Pav. He was right behind me.

“Alright mate!”

As with last year, he was wearing a badge with a lovely picture of his dear mother, who sadly passed away a few months before the Munich final.

“I hear you have made a VIP pass for this year too, Pav.”

“Yes, mate. It’s laminated this time. Very professional.”

The flight from Bristol to Schipol took less than an hour. I was able to read a lovely article about Bobby Tambling in “When Saturday Comes” by the Chelsea fan (and founder of “WSC”) Mike Ticher, who now lives in Australia. Bobby, the antithesis of the boozing and extravagant Chelsea player of the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, has only recently become a Chelsea celebrity by those outside SW6 due to Frank Lampard’s assault on his 202 goals.

Walking through the arrival hall, I realised that my last foreign airport was Beijing in December. I had a little tingle of excitement at that memory; this supporting Chelsea lark sure has its privileges, doesn’t it? Not only the best friends in the world, but an excuse to travel to the four corners of the world too.

Happy daze in Amsterdam.

Pav and I caught a train into Amsterdam and he was able to regale me with the fine details of how the fake VIP passes were planned and printed. At Central Station, he wanted to show them to me; they were excellent. He had one main one, plus a couple of back-ups. Before we went our separate ways, I touched the badge of his Mum for good luck, gave him a hug and wished him well.

As far as superstitions go, things were working out just fine.

Outside the bustling Central Station, I looked around for the correct tram to take me down to Leidseplein where Alan, Gary, Daryl and Ed were waiting for me. I was last in Amsterdam in 2008 on a business trip. Back in the ‘eighties, the area outside the train station was grimy with the whiff of desperate guys trying to sell hash. In 2013, things had improved. Amsterdam was going to be my home for three days and I was buzzing.

I met up with the boys at 6.30pm. They had arrived around midday and had already acclimatised well to their new surroundings. They had ventured out in the misty rain for a leisurely bar crawl, followed by some snap; the highlight being Gary’s demolition of almost three racks of ribs.

We walked down to our cosy hotel, just south of Leidseplein. The central area of Amsterdam consists of concentric streets and canals in a largely “U” shape, with the train station at the top. Heading south, there is Dam Square and then Leidseplein. Our hotel was just at the bottom of the “U.”

We freshened-up, then assembled at 8pm. There is nothing quite like the anticipation of a first night in a foreign city; and nights on the town do not get much better than old Amsterdam. I soon realised that I was wearing the same Valentino shirt that I wore out and about in Seville some fifteen years ago; another nice superstition. We won that game too. That it still fits me is a miracle.

We decided to have a bite to eat in one of the many Argentinian steak houses on Leidsedwarsstraat. Steak and chips for all five of us, washed down with pints of Dommelsch. Bloody luvverly.

The toast, as ever was of “Friendship & Football.”

We caught the tram further into the heart of this intimate, exciting and fascinating city. This was my fifth visit. While at college at Stoke, while on a geography field trip, we visited Rotterdam for three nights and Amsterdam for four nights in April 1986. Fantastic memories. In 1987, two college mates and little old me made a return visit. In March 1988, I returned to attempt to sell some football badges at an Ajax UEFA cup match at the Olympic Stadium; it was my worst-ever night’s business during my badge-selling days. I didn’t sell a single badge; the market was already swamped with English footy memorabilia unlike in Germany and Italy. I find it incredible that it took me 25 years to return, save for that flying visit in 2008, when I only really experienced Amsterdam from behind the wheel of a car on a trip from Schipol down to Venlo and Utrecht.

We caught a cab up to Dam Square, which acts as the heart of the city. We bumped into Beth and Cathy, but continued east. We soon found ourselves in the heart of the red light district which is centred on Voorburgwal. There were Chelsea and Benfica fans at every turn. Inside for a beer, we found ourselves watching the Arsenal vs. Wigan game as the score leapt from 1-1 to 4-1. Andy Wray and Steve Mantle were spotted outside; it was clear that we were going to be bumping into friends at regular intervals in the city centre. We continued walking. The red lights were everywhere. The sights and smells were authentic Amsterdam; windows and windows of working girls of various ages, clad in bikinis, tapping the windows for our attention and the sweet smell of dope which permeated every side street and canal-side path. The mood was of boisterousness, of fun, of football. We passed a corner bar – Café Corso – on Achterburgwal. Inside, a famous Chelsea face was sat at a table, surveying the scene. The General was again in town. We took up residence in this bar…the beer was being sold in plastic glasses, but we didn’t mind. I guess we stayed here for around two hours. Alan happened to look outside just as Fun Time Frankie, Mike Neat and Dave The Hat were outside, chomping into some pizza. They looked up as we appeared at the window.

Don’t worry, they couldn’t afford us.

We had a fantastic time in this bar. There were pints of Heineken, plenty of laughs and – of course – tons of photographs. Supporting Chelsea was made for nights like this. We had a cracking time. The music on the juke box was rich and varied; we even got to witness Alan dancing, holding onto his lapels like a proper cockernee, to an oompah song about “Old Amsterdam.” It was beautiful.

Unfortunately, the bar closed ridiculously early at 1am. We were back walking the streets again. The crowds were now heavier, noisier, the bridges over the canals were bottle-necks. Benfica were out in force and were in fine voice. Chelsea were bantering back-and-forth with them. We decided to head home, or at least for further drinking nearer home, where it wouldn’t be quite so likely to “kick-off.” We wandered south. Daryl, Ed and I hung it out until 3am, supping two more additional pints apiece. I hoped I wouldn’t regret it in the morning. Outside the pub on Leidseplein, I looked up and saw Neil Barnett. I popped over for a quick word; there was talk of the game ahead, but also of New York.

We returned to our hotel. It had been a Dam lovely night.

Wednesday 15 May began with the slightest hangover for me. I had – foolishly, what was I thinking? – set the alarm for 7.30am. I made it down to a lovely breakfast at 9.45am. Unsurprisingly, Gary was there; he had been breakfasting for almost two hours. It was a leisurely start to the day; we were in no rush. Out at 11.30am, we again caught a tram into the centre. Unlike Tuesday, there was no rain and the sun was trying its damnedest to burn through the small amount of cloud cover. A coffee, a wander, a stroll down to Dam square where we met Walnuts, newly-arrived by coach. Benfica fans seemed to again be out in force, though that is probably misleading; they were bedecked in the red of their team, and easily recognisable. Chelsea, typically, tended to be more subtle, so blended in with the surroundings. In fact, during the previous night’s action, I had hardly seen a Chelsea shirt or scarf at all.

We ambled through the red light district once more and settled in at “Café Remember” for an hour. Two lads from the flight recognised me and told me of their successful visit to the stadium that morning in search of tickets. Melksham Graham was in the pub and he was relieved to hear of the good news; he soon departed to the Arena to check out the ticket situation. Next, we met Julie and Burger, the Nuneaton boys, Rob and the Kent boys, in a throng of a few hundred outside Susie’s Saloon. By now, the skies were blue; Chelsea weather. It seemed that the night before had passed with no serious incident, although we heard that two Benfica fans had been thrown into a canal. I’m surprised that it was only two.

Alan, Daryl, Ed and I headed back to the hotel to collect our match tickets, via another couple of beers in Leidseplein. There was bar after bar, cheek by jowl, one after the other. We sat outside in the mid-afternoon sun, under trees heavy with blossom. There was a massive echo from Munich; on that wonderful afternoon, my friends and I spent many hours in a gorgeous beer garden, with petals of blossom falling into our steins of Paulaner. With a lovely coincidence, I ordered pints of “Bavaria” lager. The area was full of noisy Benfica fans, but Chelsea soon responded with a few songs of our own. I quickly chatted to one of forty Benfica fans who had travelled over from Toronto. They are a massive club of course; the biggest in Portugal. I could hardly believe that they had suffered the sadness of six consecutive UEFA final defeats. Our single defeat in Moscow seems ridiculous in comparison. Our tickets collected, we met up with Gary and Walnuts back at Dam Square at about 4pm.

Still almost five hours until the game; lovely.

We wandered north, through the busy shopping area, and chanced upon a local restaurant. We spent the best part of two hours in there, enjoying each other’s’ company, knocking back more ale, laughing at a ridiculous array of silly jokes and stories. Alan and I chose the most wisely when we ordered the food. We had “hache” which is a Dutch beef stew, served with a huge pile of mash and a side order of red cabbage – or “Charlie Babbage” as Alan called it.

Yes, it was good.

With 7pm approaching, we headed up to the Central Station. There was a mix of fans in the train as we headed to Amsterdam’s south-eastern suburbs. Like Munich, the city’s stadium is way out of the centre. Thankfully, whereas the Munich subway trains were infamously slow and over-filled on that evening last year, this journey was fine. I stood the entire time, but it wasn’t a problem. Among the songs being aired, the “We all hate Leeds” song brought the biggest smile from me. The atmosphere in the train was fine; Benfica red and Chelsea blue sparring only through song.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=upZQ4_xKCZQ

The Amsterdam Arena appeared. It was surprisingly tall; it only holds just over 50,000, yet it towers over the buildings nearby. The roof adds extra height of course. We soon bumped into the New York contingent again. I wandered off to take it all in, taking the usual assortment of photographs along the way. The train station was adjacent to the southern end, which was the one allocated to Benfica. I slowly began my clockwise perambulation of the stadium until I reached the north end.

Just like Munich.

The Benfica fans were friendly enough. I had time on my hands. I was enjoying every minute. I bought a five euro beer – I made sure it wasn’t alcohol free, unlike the ones being sold inside – and took it with me on my walk, past the entrance to the Ajax museum, then further on to our end. I bumped into Beth, Wrayman, then a couple of mates from home. A tin of Amstel was thrust into my hands and I supped away. Time was now moving on, though, and I soon got caught up in the rush to get in. I walked in with Jonesy, a friend for almost twenty years. I didn’t bump into him in Munich, so I was doubly-pleased to see him in The Dam. He rarely missed a game back in the ‘eighties. We spoke of how our club has progressed in the past fifteen years. We talked of our joint obsession and, as if to prove the insanity of supporting Chelsea, Jonesy spoke about the trip that he took to Plymouth from his home in Nuneaton – a 450 mile round trip – for a Friday night friendly in around 1988. As he retold the story, it was obvious he could hardly believe that he did it. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. A Chelsea fan showed me the two 70 euro tickets that he couldn’t shift. My pre-match calculations – 10,000 with tickets, 20,000 without – were possibly way off. Maybe around 15,000 Chelsea fans were in Amsterdam; maybe they all got in.

Despite arriving at the Arena with an hour and fifteen minutes to spare, the delay at the gates and a further wait to use the toilets meant that I was struggling to get in on time. I was mirroring – unintentionally – my late arrival at Munich and I reached my seat just before kick-off.

Proper Chelsea.

Sadly, I just missed the flag displays. Just inside, I spotted Les; he had made it in and was smiling wildly. I took my place alongside the boys in the lower tier…furthest away to my right was Daryl, then Ed, then Walnuts, then Alan, then Gary, then myself. Rob arrived fashionably late and sat to my left.

The team is the one that I would have picked; preferring Luiz alongside Frank with Ramires out wide instead of Moses. I was just pleased that Frank was playing. Well done Rafa on that one.

The Benfica fans were easily spotted to the south; they took up the entire lower tier and around half of the top tier. We obviously had the same situation in the north.

Just like Munich, red at the south end, blue at the north end.

In the neutral areas, there seemed to be more blue than red. Excellent work, everyone. Although the sky was a brilliant cloudless blue, inside the stadium was dark. There was a strange feel to the stadium; it was impressive, but the infrastructure for the roof added much height. In reality, the seating tiers were not particularly large. I spent the first few minutes catching up on some photographs. Both teams had brought many flags and banners. Big respect to the fans who brought over the ‘Chelsea Adelaide’ flag; last seen in Tokyo.

The first-half, just like at Villa Park on Saturday, was horrendous. I watched on aghast as Benfica started very strongly, with their passing and movement seeming to bamboozle us. A couple of Benfica chances went begging and I wondered if this game was going to follow the same pattern as in Munich; that of dogged resistance after numerous onslaughts. A rough tackle on Ramires away in the distance went unpunished and the Chelsea fans wailed. We again looked very ‘leggy’ and we spent most of the first period chasing shadows. The Chelsea fans around me were openly frustrated by our players and our songs soon dried up. Shots were blocked inside our box as Benfica continued to dominate. Petr Cech, however, rarely had to make a save.

We had a couple of half-chances, but the mood was still grey. One fan behind me berated Oscar, yelling obscenity after obscenity after him. I turned around, glanced at him, yet turned away. I didn’t fancy a confrontation, but his hatred towards a Chelsea player truly sickened me. Benfica threatened again. A free-kick blocked. A shot over the bar. Yet, Cech remained untested. It was a strange game. I momentarily lost my lens cap – it was my glasses in Munich – and so missed our best chance of the entire game, a dipping shot from Lamps which was well saved by Artur.

I sent a text out at half-time :

“Well. Looking at a repeat of Saturday in the second-half.”

Just after the break, Benfica thought that they had opened the scoring but their collective hopes were dashed; the danger man Cardozo leapt and headed in, with no defender close. I saw the linesman’s flag jolt up so was unfazed.

Ever so slowly, Chelsea began contesting the game in a far more positive manner. The Chelsea fans, eventually, responded.

On the hour, a long throw out from Petr Cech and the ball broke for Fernando Torres. The entire Chelsea end realised that this was his ‘once in a game moment.’ Nando was around ten yards inside the Benfica as he received the ball, twisting away from his marker in a deft movement. He set off for goal and I captured his run on film.

Click : after having fought off the trailing defender Luisao, Nando approaches the goalkeeper just inside the box.

Click : he sways to his right and the ‘keeper moves to his left. The duel is on.

Click : after continuing his movement, Nando has enough strength to push the ball past the ‘keeper’s dive at his feet.

Click : with the ‘keeper on all fours, Nando keeps his feet and slots the ball in from an angle.

The Chelsea end erupted. I secretly hoped that this would be his night. Where were all the folk who said that Fernando Torres doesn’t score important goals.

“GETINYOUFCUKINGBEAUTY.”

I snapped his Usain Bolt-inspired pose down at the corner flag, but the photo was blurred and so was I.

Phew.

Alan leaned across and, in his best Portugeezer accent : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Me, in my worst Portugeezer accent : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Our wonderful lead lasted only a short period, but what a period of dreaming that was. I whispered to Rob that “I hope it stays 1-0” (just so Torres can get some glory).

Just after, Azpilcueta handled inside the box. Oh boy. No repeat of Munich though; that man Cardozo slammed the ball in with Cech diving to he left. A single red flare was lit in the south lower.

Chelsea kept going, however, roared on by our travelling support. I could hardly believe that many hundreds in the lower tier sat the entire game. Torres went down in the box, but no penalty. On 81 minutes, Cardozo walloped a screamer at goal, but Petr Cech did ever so well to fingertip it over the bar. It was his first bona fide save of the entire night. Like I said, it was an odd game.

With three minutes remaining, Lampard was way out. I caught his thumping shot on film, and watched as it dipped and crashed onto the bar. I was amazed at its ferocity. I was amazed that it had gone so close.

Injury-time was being played when a Ramires run won a corner down to my left. Shades of Munich, eh? Juan Mata sent over a high ball. Ivanovic, back-peddling, leapt high. The ball began its upwards and then downwards trajectory. I clicked my camera out of habit than expectation. The ball seemed to take an eternity to drop. To our joy, the net rippled.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!

The north end exploded.

I looked to my right at Alan and we just screamed at each other. A blue flare in front exploded with a huge plume of smoke. Oh, how we sung.

Almost immediately, Benfica attacked and – I found it hard to concentrate but

PLEASE

CHELSEA

DON’T

FCUK

THIS

UP.

The chance was cleared. Oh boy.

The whistle blew.

YES!

Benfica had lost their seventh consecutive UEFA final and we had won our fourth final out of five attempts. Apart from half an inch of Russian wood, it would have been five out of five.

Athens 1971, Stockholm 1998, Munich 2012, Amsterdam 2013.

It had been, let’s not kid ourselves, a below-par Chelsea performance on the night. Our ridiculously long season had eventually taken its toll. We looked tired. There was little to cheer, apart from the two goals of course.

Fernando Torres and Branislav Ivanovic – we salute you.

The Chelsea players cavorted down on the pitch and we sung about being Champions of Europe.

You know how the song goes, eh?

There seemed to be a ridiculously long delay between the end of the game and the moment when our players ascended the steps to receive the medals. Unlike Munich, my telephoto lens captured the moment when Frank lifted the massive trophy – the old much-loved UEFA Cup – high into the Amsterdam night.

Munich 2012 and Amsterdam 2013.

Two steps beyond.

Congratulatory texts soon came in from Manchester United, Liverpool and Barcelona fans. Strangely, no mention of the birds’ mess from Mike.

Now, it was time to watch the players enjoying themselves; it was magical. I was so lucky to be close to where the majority of the action took place. Frank Lampard was alone with the cup for quite some time. John Terry, on purpose I am sure, stayed away from the spotlight. Fernando looked blissed out. Brana hopped up on to the bar – the same spot as Munich – all over again. Frank jumped over the advertisement hoardings and revelled in the adulation, beaming with smiles and looking up at fans in the upper tier. Ramires appeared with his son. The four goalkeepers stood together. David Luiz and his T-shirt, sent out funny faces and hand jives to his fans. Mikel and Moses in their trackie bottoms. Benitez, smiling, looking on. Nathan Ake, one for the future, with the huge trophy. The management team, perhaps unsure of the reaction, waited a while but stood together and hoisted the trophy. There was applause from the stands.

The songs…”Liquidator”, “One Step Beyond” and – strangely – “Blue Tomorrow.”

Then, the daddy of them all…a song that takes me back to 1972 and always leaves me wiping my eyes.

“Blue Is The Colour.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSW9H905RGg

We were giddy and excited as we moved away from our seats, waving to fellow friends, hugging others. Soon outside, we descended the many flights of stairs, singing joyously.

“We’ve won it again, we’ve won it again. Champions of Europe, we’ve won it again.”

Down at ground level, it really was Munich all over again.

“We Are The Champions, The Champions Of Europe.”

Happy daze.

Then, a new song.

“Strippers And Whores. Ivanovic Scores.”

We caught a train back to the centre of Amsterdam, shaking hands with many more friends along the way. Munich will never be beaten, but Amsterdam was just so enjoyable. Stockholm meant more – to me, it was magical to replicate the feat of the vaunted 1970 and 1971 teams. At the time, we thought there would be nothing greater than a ECWC win since we all knew that we’d never win the league, nor the Champions League. What did we know? But Amsterdam was bloody fantastic. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Back at Leidseplein, I joined in with the post-game buzz. All of the boys together, the square alive with Chelsea smiles the size of an Amsterdam spliff. There were more familiar faces there too; it seemed that everywhere we went in the city, we saw friends. It was bloody lovely. Brighton Tony held court; he was full of forthright opinions and very good company. He first met Gary as long ago as 1977 when they had season tickets in rows one and two of the East Upper. At 3am, we called it a night. We returned to our hotel with our fourth European trophy tucked into our back pockets.

Thursday 16 May was a rainy day in Amsterdam, but we didn’t care. We breakfasted again, and then went our separate ways. I headed off to visit the Rijksmuseum, but first sat in the busy café to enjoy a cappuccino and have a leisurely read of a paper. There was a picture of Nando on the front.

“Read all about it.”

I decided to avoid the long lines at the Rijksmuseum, instead spending a very enjoyable hour at the Van Gogh Museum where I drooled over a few lovely paintings. I bumped into two Chelsea fans there too. Back at the hotel, we all reconvened before saying our “goodbyes.” I caught the tram up to the centre and met up with the New York contingent for two last pints of Heineken in a crowded bar near the station. I was soon on the train to the airport. And then, home to Bristol. It had been a magnificent time. Hearing from Gill that Frank has signed a one-year deal?

Perfect.

And just like in Athens, in Stockholm and in Munich, there will be a foreign field in Amsterdam that will be forever Chelsea. Additionally, we joined Juventus, Ajax and Bayern Munich as the only teams to have won all three European trophies. And for ten days we are Champions Of Europe and Champions Of Europe Lite.

Did we have a blast?

Dam right.

…and, yes, Pav made it in.

IMG_0071 IMG_0099 IMG_0283

 

Tales From A Day Of History.

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 11 May 2013.

Chelsea’s game at historic Villa Park was our last domestic away match of the season. Our encounter was the only Premier League game taking place on Saturday 11 May. The F.A. Cup Final between Manchester City and Wigan Athletic was set to kick-off at 5.15pm but, for some ridiculous reason, our game was not shifted with the rest of the programme to a Sunday. I can’t even begin to understand the reasoning for this; in fact, I have long given up on the FA’s ability to organise football in this country. I am sure that they would cite the Champions League Final being played on Saturday 25 May as reason enough to slot the Cup Final into a normal league programme, but why we had to share the billing with the Wembley final I do not know.

Despite a 12.45pm kick off in deepest Birmingham, I didn’t have to leave home too early. Unfortunately, Parky was still unable to accompany me to an away game. This has been a lonely old season for me on my travels around England for Chelsea’s away games. I have missed his company I must say. His last game outside of SW6 was the Community Shield game in August, ironically at Villa Park, when we lost to City. Since then, I have attended fourteen of the allotted nineteen away league games. I missed the games at Newcastle United, Sunderland, Norwich City, Everton and Liverpool. This would be my 54th. game of the season. It has been another arduous trek; I can’t say I have enjoyed it as much as I would have liked. I am sure none of us have. The away games at Arsenal and Tottenham in that gorgeous autumnal afterglow of Munich, with us four points clear, seem like they took place in another season altogether.

The road since the sacking of Roberto di Matteo in November has been rocky and there have seemed to have been hundreds of diverting and destabilising sub plots along the way. Having Rafa Benitez at the helm has been difficult. I have coped, in the main, by ignoring him.

Of course, at times our play has been breath-taking. Just think of some of the scores…eight against Villa, six against Wolves and Nordsjaelland, five against Manchester United, Leeds and Southampton. Our tricky trio of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar have given us sustenance in times of draught. Their play has been magnificent. Eden Hazard, after a slow start, has certainly come to life in the past three months. There have been many positives.

And so – here we were. After the disappointment of three dropped points against Tottenham on Wednesday – in which, ironically, we strengthened our league position by going two points clear of Arsenal and three clear of Spurs – we faced two remaining league matches in order to grind out the requisite three points to secure that modern Holy Grail, Champions League qualification.

As I set off at 9.30am, there was no over-riding feeling of Armageddon or Doomsday about our lunchtime encounter with Villa. I ate up the miles as I headed north to Birmingham. I turned off the M5 and drove past The Hawthorns, where a placard told the story of the next game to take place at West Bromwich Albion’s neat stadium.

Manchester United – Sunday 19 May.

I found it ironic that the graveyard for Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto di Matteo’s Chelsea stewardship will also witness the denouement of another manager’s club career.

It was midday and the traffic then stalled as I drove through the dowdy residential areas of Handsworth and Perry Bar. I received a text from Andy out in California, informing me that it was 4am and he was “on the road” to the Olde Ship in Santa Anna where his crew would watch the game. It re-emphasised how lucky I was to be able to attend in person.

“Don’t ever take all of this for granted, Chrissy-Boy.”

Thankfully, I was parked up on Willmore Road at 12.15pm and I then walked the fifteen minutes to Villa Park, with memories of drizzle last August when the area was over-run with the sky-blue followers of Manchester City.

I hadn’t dwelt too much on the make-up of the team which Benitez might chose, but one question dominated my thoughts –

“Will Frank Lampard start?”

I walked alongside a few Villa fans and I always find it interesting to “ear-wig” comments from other fans about Chelsea. I could tell that they were nervous. One son soon reeled off the Chelsea team that he thought might start to his father and I was suitably impressed. It proved that our players in our team are well known among the football world. Could I, in comparison, name many of the Villa players?

No. Quite clearly, no.

I had plans to take time out and photograph the red brick façade of the Holte End – which took its inspiration from the famous old stairs on the old Trinity Road Stand – but time was running out. I rushed pass the souvenir stalls and the fanzine sellers…”CFCUK” and “Heroes & Villains”…and there was a busy line at the away turnstiles. Thankfully, I was soon inside. Villa Park is one of the grand dames of English football stadia. Due to its central location it has often hosted F.A. Cup semi-finals. Chelsea played two consecutive semis at Villa Park in the ‘sixties, losing to Sheffield Wednesday in front of 61,000 in 1966 but beating Leeds United in front of 62,000 the following year.

This would be my fourteenth visit to Villa Park. We have enjoyed mixed fortunes over the years. Despite the size and scale of the stadium, it is not a particularly favourite away ground. I find the Villa fans to be ever so slightly too full of themselves.

I made my way up into the upper deck of the Doug Ellis Stand, formerly the single tiered Witton Lane stand, where I first ventured during two visits in 1986-1987.

There was drizzle at the start of the game; just like in August against City if memory served me correctly. I hoped for a different outcome. Alan was already in the seats; Gary arrived just before kick-off. We were right next to the wooden panels which divided the home and away spectators. The stadium seemed to be near capacity with only the executive seats in the mammoth main stand unfilled.

We took to the field in those awful black and yellow kits once more.

“OK boys, here we go.”

Of course, the sad truth is that we were pretty woeful in the first-half.

From the moment that Baker crudely tackled Juan Mata early on, it was clear that Villa were desperate for the three points. The Chelsea fans derided the home support.

“It’s so quiet, Villa Park.”

Chelsea were content to play the passing game, while Villa were looking to exploit the pace of their forwards and the apparent stiffness of our defenders. Agbonlahor – one of the few home players that I recognised – set off on a run at John Terry way down below us and the Chelsea captain just did enough to quell the danger. I didn’t fancy too many repeats of that, though.

On a quarter of an hour, Delph played the ball through to the physically impressive Benteke. I uttered the words “he’s the one to watch” just as he brushed past Cahill and deftly beat Petr Cech at the near post.

The Villa Park faithful roared.

It was their turn to mock us. The fellow residents of the Doug Ellis, mere yards away, turned towards us and chided us –

“It’s so quiet, over there.”

A claret flare was set off in the North Stand enclosure and the sulphurous fumes soon reached us. The Villa fans were in their element. After the Chelsea supporters begged of them to “speak fackin’ English” they responded.

“You all talk fanny over there.”

At least they can never ever taunt us with –

“Have you won the European Cup?”

On nineteen minutes, we stood and clapped along with the Villa fans in support of Stiliyan Petrov.

Down on the pitch, we were really struggling. Ramires was booked, Delph came close and Villa were in control. We looked tired, so tired. The isolated Demba Ba was only given scraps. However, a lofted ball from Mata found Ba inside the penalty box – alone, having evaded the offside trap, with only Guzan to beat – but his touch was heavy and the chance passed.

There was frustration and, at times, derision, in my midst. Although the Chelsea support was in good form at the start, at times during the first-half it was the quietest for some time. The rain gave way to bright sunshine, but our play was tepid and dull. Moses, especially, seemed to be lacking focus.

Then, a half-chance as Frank Lampard unleashed a free-kick at goal after Hazard was fouled. The shot was knocked onto a post by Guzan but was gathered before a Chelsea player could follow-up. These were testing times. It was also a physical battle. Referee Lee Mason brandished a yellow to Benteke for an assault on Azpilicueta. Then, a yellow card for Terry. Our thoroughly rotten first-half continued as Ramires – stupidly – tackled Agbonlahor with a high boot. His second yellow meant that we were down to ten men.

At the half-time break, all was doom and gloom in Birmingham. I personally saw no way out of this. It looked like it would be “5hit or bust” against Everton next Sunday.

“There’s no way we’ll win this, Gal.”

“The only way back into this is if they get a player sent-off too, Chris.”

We couldn’t even enjoy Amsterdam in the expected manner with the threat of a fifth-place finish on our minds. I thought of David Moyes’ awful away record against Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and United; how typical for him to get a first win in over forty games against these four teams in his very last Everton match.

Pah.

Thankfully, Benitez replaced the woeful Moses with David Luiz at half-time.

Villa – attacking the Holte End – began with several half-chances. With their pace, I really wondered if our rear-guard would hold firm. Our support was still quiet. I heard a bird sing in Aston Park.

Then, salvation. A raised foot by Benteke on Terry and – YES! – Mason showed the Villa frontman his second yellow.

“Not only are they down to ten men, Al; he’s their main threat.”

Game most definitely on.

Soon after, the ball was worked to Frank Lampard who was loitering just outside the box. He pushed the ball square – making life difficult for him, I thought – but crashed a left-footed screamer past Guzan in the Villa goal.

There is nothing better than seeing the net ripple.

It was goal 202.

It was the equaliser, in more ways than one.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

In the melee that followed, I was able to capture his run, his point skywards, his smiles, his moment. The Chelsea fans roared all around me; we were now unleashed. We were ecstatic to get the equaliser, but beside ourselves with elation for Frank to see his destiny fulfilled.

Bobby Tambling 202.

Frank Lampard 202.

With half an hour still to play, we roared the team on. With the fresher legs of David Luiz seeming to energise the players around him, we looked fresher and more confident. Villa, though, still had the occasional chance. After a Gary Cahill shot was blocked, Demba Ba followed up but the ball was again cleared from the goal line. To my eyes, some fifty yards away, I wasn’t convinced that the whole ball had crossed the line. Incoming texts – biased, of course – indicated that the ball was over, but it really was too close to call.

I fancied the day to end in our favour. I turned to Gary and said –

“Frank Lampard. Penalty. Five minutes to go.”

In truth, I was a little dismayed that I hadn’t captured Frank’s goal on film. A penalty would allow me to capture number 203 for sure.

John Terry collapsed on the floor and was clearly in pain. As he was stretchered off, I was truly saddened by the applause and cheers cascading down from the home sections of Villa Park. In all of my time watching live football, I don’t think I have ever seen a badly injured player being booed and jeered as he lay on a stretcher. We turned to the hundreds of nearby Villa fans and vented our dismay at their cruel and callous actions.

I turned to the bloke behind me, incredulous: “We never do that at Chelsea do we?”

That was it. I hoped we would score and send them down.

The chances came and went. Frank headed a chance well over and he looked very frustrated. Free-kicks from Mata and Luiz were poor. The minutes ticked by. Maybe we would have to hope for Stoke to beat Spurs on Sunday for Champions league qualification to be realised. Fernando Torres replaced Demba Ba. The last roll of the dice?

Then, the moment.

Luckily, I pulled my camera up to my eyes as Ashley Cole played the ball to Eden Hazard who skipped deep into the Villa box. I clicked as he pulled the ball back towards the onrushing Frank Lampard. With a rush of adrenalin which happens every so often at football, I watched through my lens as Frank swept the ball home.

I clicked again.

The net rippled.

The away section of Villa Park shook.

The 3,000 Chelsea fans uttered a guttural roar and I continued clicking as Frank was joined by Torres and Mata down below me. The rest of his team joined him and then many Chelsea fans jumped over the advertisement hoardings and engulfed our heroic scorer.

Frank had done it.

203.

It was an amazing turnaround to a game – and possibly a season – that was drifting away from us. How typical for Frank to single-handedly rescue our game in such breathtakingly dramatic style. That the record-breaking two goals should mean so much to our club was – perhaps, whisper it – written in the stars. They were two archetypal Lampard goals too; the blast from outside the box which swerved past the hapless ‘keeper and the classic run, perfectly timed, to meet the ball and sweep home.

The rest of the game was – as they say – a blur. Seven minutes of extra time added to the drama. Unfortunately, Eden Hazard was injured and was taken off. We were down to nine men. We withstood a late Villa rally.

It was time for one last rallying-call –

“We Know What We Are, We Know What We Are – Champions Of Europe, We Know What We Are.”

The referee eventually blew.

Everyone around me hugged and shook hands. Our joy was stratospheric.

Quickly, the players walked over to us…first Ash, then Nando, then Frank. The sun was bathing everyone in glorious light.

I snapped away as Frank smiled and laughed, spotting familiar fans in the lower tier, hugging his team mates. He was clearly relieved and overjoyed. I was so pleased for him.

Petr Cech hoisted Frank high on his shoulders and, as I continued snapping away, I fought back a tear.

How wonderful that Frank eventually beat Bobby Tambling’s Chelsea goal haul at the very ground where Bobby scored five for Chelsea against Villa way back in 1966.

Frank – a few words.

You have given me so many wonderful moments as a Chelsea supporter over the years, from the goals at Bolton for that first title in fifty years in 2005, to the emotional penalty against Liverpool in the Champions League semi-final in 2008, to the F.A. Cup Final winner in 2009, to the free-kick against Spurs at Wembley last season, to a penalty in Munich, to goals 202 and 203 at Villa Park in 2013. Your professionalism, your dedication, your spirit and your strength are much admired by us all.

We love you to bits.

On the drive home, I was blissfully happy. We had qualified for the Champions League – sure. But the over-riding feeling was of pride in Frank Lampard’s dramatic achievement on yet another momentous day in the club’s history.

…202…203…how about 204 in Amsterdam?

See you out there, Frank.

IMG_9778

Tales From Twenty-Three Years.

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 8 May 2013.

In the packed Goose beer garden before the game, Rob was able to hand over my ticket for the Europa League Final in Amsterdam. It was great to have it in my own mitts. The worse thing that we can all do is take this game for granted, especially since it follows on the coat tails of last May’s triumph in Munich. This will only amount to Chelsea Football Club’s fifth European Final in 108 years. I personally can’t wait. To be truthful, the evening game against Tottenham felt like a European match. One chap likened it to the famous Chelsea vs. Liverpool match in May 2003. I was certainly aware of what was at stake. However, it wasn’t all about Champions League football in 2013/2014. We had our unbeaten home run in the league against Tottenham to protect.

…December 1 1990…a cracking game of football involving a Spurs team which included Italia ’90 superstars Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne for Tottenham and Italia ’90 squad members Dave Beasant and Tony Dorigo for Chelsea. Chelsea triumphed 3-2, Lineker blasted a penalty over the bar and I watched from the old West Stand.

On the walk down to the stadium, there was a proper big game feel to the atmosphere. I was in my seat with a good ten minutes to spare. The stadium seemed to take forever to fill up. Over in the far corner were 3,000 Spurs fans. Not one single flag or banner, though.

…11 January 1992…I watched from The Shed as a poor Spurs team were easily beaten with former Tottenham striker Clive Allen and Dennis Wise giving us an easy 2-0 win.

We had heard that both John Terry and Frank Lampard were not playing. However, a quick scan of the line-up didn’t cause me too much anxiety. This was a strong starting eleven, no doubt. I would have preferred JT in the defence, but I have to say that he looked decidedly shaky against Swansea City on a few occasions. Frank had put in one of his best performances of the season at Old Trafford, but it was no surprise that he was rested. So much for his and our dreams of scoring 202 against our most hated London rivals.

…20 March 1993…with David Webb in temporary charge, Tony Cascarino gave us an equaliser in a 1-1 draw. I remember Peter Osgood being on the pitch at half-time; his first appearance at Stamford Bridge for years and years. I watched from the lower west side of The Shed.

Neil Barnett quickly introduced last year’s management team before the game and there was a mixed reaction. Some booed. Some clapped. Most stayed silent. I think I clapped three times…”that’s enough.”

…27 February 1994…I didn’t attend this one unfortunately. An incredible game, which ended up 4-3 in our favour with a last-minute Mark Stein penalty. The attendance was a shockingly bad 16,807.

Juan Mata blazed over on 6 minutes but we did not have long to wait for a more pleasing effort on goal. A Mata corner dropped into the six yard box where Gary Cahill jumped pogo-like to nod the ball on to the far post where Oscar headed easily in. I had managed to capture his header on film and caught the subsequent celebrations deep in Parkyland on film too.

Get in!

Alan and I exchanged our usual pleasantries and the world was smiling.

…11 February 1995…I watched from the new North Stand as Dennis Wise stooped low to head in an equaliser. Phew.

We enjoyed more of the ball than Tottenham with Mata again going close. The busy Holtby was brilliantly tackled by Eden Hazard just as the Spurs midfielder was about to pull the trigger. However, much against the run of play, some sloppy Chelsea defending allowed Emmanuel Adebayor too much time to painstakingly guide a shot up and over the stranded Petr Cech. To be honest, I could barely believe my eyes as the net rippled. Unfortunately, I captured this shot on film too.

…25 November 1995…This game took place in the midst of the great Ken Bates vs. Matthew Harding “stand-off.” Matthew was famously banned from the Directors’ Box and so watched from the front row of the stand which he had personally financed. This was a very poor game. I watched from the temporary green seats at The Shed End and both teams were lucky to get 0.

Adebayor was proving to be quite a handful for the defensive pairing of Cahill and Ivanovic. Holtby was a bundle of energy. He reminded me of Bjarne Goldbaek. Remember him?

…26 October 1996…One of the most emotional games ever. Matthew Harding, who died on the Wednesday, was remembered on a very sombre day at Stamford Bridge. Goals from Roberto di Matteo, Ruud Gullit and David Lee gave us a 3-1 win. We watched from the North Stand, which was soon to be re-named. The image of a pint of Guinness on the centre-spot before the game was as poignant as it ever gets.

Although Spurs were back in the game, their support rarely varied from their two choice songs; “Come On You Spurs” and “Oh When The Spurs Go Marching In.”

…11 April 1998…With Jurgen Klinsmann back with Spurs for an end-of-season loan, we watched as goals from Tore Andre Flo and Gianluca Vialli gave us an easy 2-0 win. I was now watching games from my own seat in the Matthew Harding Upper. These were great times to be a Chelsea supporter.

On 39 minutes, Fernando Torres – now playing without his Zorro mask – managed to evade the opposition in a tight area on the right wing. He showed great control to turn and then adeptly play a superb ball in to the path of Ramires. Our little Brazilian hit the ball early, catching Loris off guard. His toe-poke easily hit the target. It was time to yell once more.

“YEEEEEES!”

…19 December 1998…This was another 2-0 win with goals from Gus Poyet and Tore Andre Flo. This pre-Christmas treat was even more enjoyable because it meant that the win put us top of the league for the first time in eight years. Yes, eight years. I think this match was the game where Spurs only wanted 1,500 tickets. They refused the other 1,500.

We were back in the ascendency and Champions League football was looking good for next season. One aspect of our play in the first-half which I found pleasing was the runs from Cesar Azpilicueta. On several occasions, his run took the covering left-back Assou-Ekotto with him, enabling either Mata, Hazard, Torrres, Oscar or Ramires more space to cut inside. Well done Dave.

A Kyle Walker shot flashed wide of cech’s goal just before the break, but it had been a pleasing Chelsea performance. The summary of match stats on the TV screens at the break told the story of the half; Chelsea 12 attempts, Spurs 6 attempts.

…12 January 2000…George Weah arrived from Milan in the afternoon, came off the bench in the last twenty minutes and headed home a late winner at the Shed End. This was getting too easy.

John Dempsey – he of the wildest ever football comb-over – was on the pitch with Neil Barnett at the break. Our hero in Athens was visiting Chelsea with his granddaughter who was the Chelsea match mascot. We gave both a warm reception.

…28 October 2000…Two goals from Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink and one from Gianfranco Zola gave us an easy 3-0 win, but I remember nothing of this one. After all, it was only Tottenham.

With ten minutes played of the second-half, it was all Chelsea. This was evolving into quite a spectacle with, for once, both sets of supporters trading songs at full volume.

…13 March 2002…Following our 4-0 win at Three Point Lane on the Sunday, this Wednesday night match was memorable for the magnificent hat-trick from Hasselbaink. A right foot thunderstrike, a bullet header and a left-foot curler. I will never see a more astounding “perfect” hat-trick. A goal from Frank Lampard gave us the fourth goal. I watched, mesmerized, in the East Upper. One of the great Chelsea versus Tottenham games.

We came close on three occasions. Fernando Torres failed to get a good connection inside the box and the effort was blocked. Azpilicueta sent in a curling effort from out wide which narrowly sailed over the far post. Eden Hazard cut inside after a trademark dribble, but – leaning back – blazed over. We wondered if we would rue those chances.

…1 February 2003…Spurs went ahead but Gianfranco Zola scored another magnificent goal, sending his free-kick curling in at the very top right hand corner of the Spurs goal. It was as perfect a free-kick as anyone could possibly imagine. This draw broke the Spurs’ losing sequence of six consecutive losses at Chelsea.

On the hour, Ramires was played in with a ball from inside his own half. The Stamford Bridge crowd roared him on. What a feeling that must be…breaking forward, with 40,000 people cheering you on. I guess we will never know. Sadly, he slipped inside the box, much to the disappointment of us all. He seemed to hit his head as he fell. Our chances were coming…but sadly going too.

…13 September 2003…I missed this game too, but not to worry. Chelsea won 4-2 in only Roman’s third home game as the new Chelsea owner.

As John Terry warmed-up over on the other side of the pitch in front of the family section, I wondered if his main role these days was to wind-up various sets of away fans in the far corner. At least it elicited a third song from the Tottenham fans. These are tough days for JT and for us fans alike. It is tremendously sad to see such a well-loved servant of the club clearly losing an edge to his game. Does he still have a role to play for us? Oh yes.

…19 September 2004…This was Jose Mourinho’s first-ever taste of a Chelsea versus Spurs derby and it will be remembered for how he chose to describe their approach to the game. The bus was parked. It was a dire 0-0 draw. Enough said. We hate Tottenham.

The game was opening up now, with our midfielders seemingly getting more distant from their opposite numbers. There were tired legs everywhere. In the programme, it mentioned that this was the 39th consecutive week that our players had either a Chelsea or national team midweek game. The last “free” week was in August.

…11 March 2006…Peter Osgood had sadly passed away ten days earlier and the game with Tottenham was the first home game since we lost our much beloved hero. This was another emotional day at Stamford Bridge. I took my Ossie banner to show my love for my childhood hero. We scored first through Michael Essien, only for Spurs to draw level. In the very last few minutes, William Gallas latched on to a loose ball and struck a venomous bullet into the Spurs goal. Stamford Bridge exploded like never before or after. For anyone there, they will never forget it.

With the game flowing back and forth, something struck me. Although it was proving to be a thoroughly entertaining – if not exhausting – game, I commented to Alan that Jose Mourinho would not allow a team of his to be chasing more goals while already leading in such a crucial match. With thirty minutes to go, he would have realised that the win would have secured Champions League football. He would have saved more goals for the Aston Villa and Everton games. He would have, quite simply, “shut up shop.” He would have asked his players to keep possession, tire Spurs out, and maybe make some defensive adjustments. How often did we see Chelsea winning 1-0, 2-0 or 2-1 at home or away under Mourinho and the ball being played across the back four? It was a very common tactic. But no, not this time. I wondered if Benitez had told the players to keep attacking relentlessly (is attack the best form of defence?) or if the players, unfettered and free in this new attacking regime, were simply acting under their own impulses. The fans certainly wanted more goals. However, crucially, I think that once the players had started to tire, the message should have been to conserve energy. Benitez should have strengthened up the defence, too.

…7 April 2007…I remember little of this game apart from the wonder strike from Lord Percy himself, Ricardo Carvalho, which sealed a 1-0 win.

Villas-Boas made two substitutes, and Benitez eventually countered by bringing on Moses on 73 minutes. However, he looked tired after only a few minutes on the pitch. Even I was losing my patience with him.

”Go past your man!”

…12 January 2008…I don’t remember much of this game. I remember Juliano Belletti scoring a screamer. I don’t remember Shaun Wright-Phillips’ goal. Yes, that’s right; even Shaun Wright-Phillips scored. Oh boy.

On 77 minutes, I glanced at the clock on the TV screen above the Spurs fans.

”God, there’s ages to go yet.”

…31 August 2008…This was a poor game. Belletti again scored for us but Darren Bent equalised on half-time. We hate Tottenham.

On eighty minutes, a Tottenham move carved through our defence and substitute Sigurdsson slotted in at the far post. The Tottenham fans exploded to life. It was a horrible sight but I always find myself inexplicably drawn to look at away fans celebrating a key goal. Oh boy.

It was again level. Fasten your seatbelts.

…20 September 2009…With Scolari in charge, we romped to an easy 3-0 victory with goals from Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack and Ashley Cole.

On 84 minutes, Benitez brought on Yossi Benayoun. The reaction of the home support was predictable but I found it annoying. Where there should have been encouragement and support, there was derision, dissention and hatred. Benitez is off in a few games time, Benayoun too; why can’t we just support the fcuking team in these last crucial four games?

…30 April 2011…This was a lovely time to be a Chelsea fan. We had beaten West Ham one Saturday and we played Tottenham the next. In between, we had the Royal Wedding and an extra day’s holiday. Sandro scored with a long-range effort in the first 20 minutes, but Frank Lampard “just” edged the ball over the line at The Shed End in first-half stoppage time. Salomon Kalou – an unlikely hero – got the winner for us in the very last minute. Again, the old place was rocking. We hate Tottenham.

I didn’t enjoy the last ten minutes. In fact, I think I watched a large proportion of it with both my hands clasped behind the back of my head; surely my body language was showing signs of nervous frustration. I imagined a Sky TV camera picking me out and the commentator mocking me –

“The Chelsea fans look worried now.”

…24 March 2012…This was a 0-0 draw. What can I remember from it? Nothing. We hate Tottenham.

What amazing drama in the last minute. Gareth Bale was fouled some thirty yards out. The crowd took a collective breath of apprehension. What a season the Monkey Man has had; every time I checked on Spurs’ progress in games, Bale seemed to have scored a late winner. And here we were…in the last minute of the biggest game of the season so far, with the Spurs saviour setting himself up.

It was in the perfect position for him, slightly to the right. Chelsea made a wall and Petr Cech took a position to his right. From where I was sitting, hands behind my head, the goal seemed to be too easy to miss. Surely he would lift a curving ball over the wall into the goal…my right, Cech’s left. They would win 3-2 (just like the bastards did in 1982), our league campaign would be in tatters and I would have to observe 3,000 Spurs fans jumping around like fools.

Oh boy.

We held our breath.

He approached. He struck. It flew high.

Petr Cech saved.

The referee signalled the end of the game. There were mixed emotions on the way out of the stadium. I heard somebody say “it felt like a loss.” I was saddened that we hadn’t clinched our Champions League berth, but I remember saying that I would not have been too unhappy with a draw on the walk to the ground.

It was imperative that Spurs didn’t win.

They didn’t.

They never do at Chelsea.

The unbeaten run – just as important as reaching the top four this season in my mind – goes on…

Parky and I dropped in to the “Fox & Pheasant” for a second-successive post midweek game drink. One fan made a great point; with a win against Tottenham, the manager could have eased off against Aston Villa on Saturday, thus saving energies for the Final in Amsterdam on Wednesday. Now, his hands are tied. He has to play his strongest teams in, potentially, all three remaining games this season.

The old adage of “taking one game at a time” now becomes very relevant.

See you all at Villa Park.

Dedicated to the memory of Chelsea fan Blind Gerry, who was at this game but tragically passed away later that night.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUIh-XCSu9s

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vw7PxD21ZKs

RIP.

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Tales From Fergie Town.

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 5 May 2013.

Manchester is possibly my favourite musical city. I make no apologies for this. The Smiths and New Order are right up there in the upper echelons of any list of my most revered bands. Add in The Buzzcocks, a dash of Joy Division, plus a smattering of bands from the Madchester era – James, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets – and it’s a quite formidable selection. For some unfathomable reason, I was never in to the Stone Roses – I should be – or the more eclectic The Fall. Magazine was a good punk band, though. So, ahead of my trip to Manchester for our massive game with the newly-crowned Champions, I was well aware of the whole trip turning into a personal voyage into my musical history.

John Cooper Clarke, a native of Salford – that strange city within a city – rode the punk rollercoaster back in the late ‘seventies and early ‘eighties. He was the poet of punk, sporting big black-rimmed glasses and mountainous back-combed hair. I was aware of his stuff, but – like Mark E. Smith and The Fall – found it too difficult for my ears. I then saw him recite one of his most famous poems in the film “Control” and was taken aback at its style and resonance. For me, it summed up the greyness of Manchester in those days of unemployment, recession and urban blight.

“The bloody cops are bloody keen.
To bloody keep it bloody clean.
The bloody chief’s a bloody swine.
Who bloody draws a bloody line.
At bloody fun and bloody games.
The bloody kids he bloody blames.
Are nowhere to be bloody found.
Anywhere in chicken town.

The bloody scene is bloody sad.
The bloody news is bloody bad.
The bloody weed is bloody turf.
The bloody speed is bloody surf.
The bloody folks are bloody daft.
Don’t make me bloody laugh.
It bloody hurts to look around.
Everywhere in chicken town.
The bloody train is bloody late.
You bloody wait you bloody wait.
You’re bloody lost and bloody found.
Stuck in fcuking chicken town.

The bloody view is bloody vile.
For bloody miles and bloody miles.
The bloody babies bloody cry.
The bloody flowers bloody die.
The bloody food is bloody muck.
The bloody drains are bloody fcuked.
The colour scheme is bloody brown.
Everywhere in chicken town.

The bloody pubs are bloody dull.
The bloody clubs are bloody full.
Of bloody girls and bloody guys.
With bloody murder in their eyes.
A bloody bloke is bloody stabbed.
Waiting for a bloody cab.
You bloody stay at bloody home.
The bloody neighbours bloody moan,
Keep the bloody racket down.
This is bloody chicken town.

The bloody pies are bloody old.
The bloody chips are bloody cold.
The bloody beer is bloody flat.
The bloody flats have bloody rats.
The bloody clocks are bloody wrong.
The bloody days are bloody long.
It bloody gets you bloody down.
Evidently chicken town.
The bloody train is bloody late.
You bloody wait you bloody wait.
You’re bloody lost and bloody found.
Stuck in fcuking chicken town.”

Stirring stuff, eh?

“Evidently Chicken Town” was also used in a closing scene of an episode of The Sopranos.

I just love it.

United away is one of the games of the season. A trip to either Merseyside or Manchester always stirs the memories, evoking past trips, past matches, past battles. It is also a chance for me to observe how the other-half – the Northern half – live. There’s definitely a northern culture. And this has permeated to the football world over the years. I like to think that I might occasionally spot a couple of well-turned out old-school Perries from Crumpsall and Urmston, sporting Berghaus rain jackets, Paul & Shark pullovers and Adidas Trimm Trabs. What I usually end up with is a bus load of United divs from Cornwall, Belfast and Dublin wearing replica shirts, friendship scarves and gormless Megastore expressions. I remember reading a United fanzine a few years ago in which one of the regular contributors lamented the passing of legions of well-turned out United supporters; he always used to stand on the forecourt and size up the away fans to see if any new “look” was on the horizon. A new label here, a new pair of trainers there. These days, seeing a new “North Face” jacket is the best we can hope for.

So, United Away. I wanted to make sure I was suitably attired. A Lacoste polo – as old school as it gets – was chosen along with some Levis and a new pair of white and midnight blue canvas Nikes, which I had been saving for an important occasion. Should we win – I was obviously thinking ahead – they might make the trip to The Netherlands. I threw a navy Lacoste rain jacket into the back seat of my car, remembering that the weather forecast was of typical grey clouds in Mancunia, and set off at 10am.

The kick-off was at 4pm and I wanted to be parked-up at my usual place by 2pm. I guzzled a can of Starbuck’s double espresso and pointed my car north, way north. The Depeche Mode CD from Thursday night was still in situ and this took me into Bristol. A Morrissey album accompanied me further north, past the green fields of Gloucestershire and then Worcestershire. I stopped at Strensham and, among the AON clad hordes of “Uni’ed” fans from the West Country, I walked past a chap wearing a classic green “The Queen Is Dead” T-shirt. I had a little smile to myself.

I had only just recently updated my “Facebook” cover with a photograph of myself outside the iconic Salford Lads Club, which I visited before a game at Old Trafford a few years back.

“The Queen Is Dead Boys And It’s So Lonely On A Limb.”

The Buzzcocks accompanied me as I headed north past Stoke-on-Trent. The vibe was good; I was losing myself in the moment, not thinking too much about the game – that would take care of itself – but just kicking back and loving the buzz of travel in itself.

“It’s what I do.”

At Sandbach, it was time for a McDonalds coffee. In the service station, I chatted to The Bristol Four. Talk was of travel to Amsterdam but also of the day’s game. I wasn’t sure of our chances. I felt, for some reason, that the amount of games that we have played this season could haunt us and United could “dick” us. Kev called it right though; it all depended on United’s mind-set really. If they weren’t focused and fired up, we could steal a win. No doubts.

“OK, safe travels, see you in there.”

For a change, I drove in to Manchester via Altrincham and Sale on the A56, rather than navigate the motorway past Manchester Airport. Altrincham were once one of the biggest non-league teams in the country, but the automatic promotion process treated them unkindly. In the time of their pomp, non-league teams needed to be voted in to the Football League. By the time of promotion from the conference to the league eventually came in 1987, Altrincham’s time had passed. Cult Northern comedian Frank Sidebottom – he of the papier mache head – was the Robins’ most famous fan. Sale was the home town of a college acquaintance – Rick – who was both a United fan and Smiths aficionado. His claim to fame was sleeping through the infamous battle between United and West Ham fans on the English cross-channel ferry – the Koningen Beatrix – way back in 1986.

The A56 sped me through the leafy suburbs of Sale and I was soon in familiar territory. The floodlights of the Lancashire cricket ground were spotted and I had a glorious flashback. I saw Morrissey in 2004 here, my favourite gig of all time.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xXwIOvICyVs

Outside the chip shops at the intersection of the Chester Road and Sir Matt Busby Way, The Bristol Four were tucking into chips, peas and gravy. I quickly zipped around to the base of the North Stand – renamed the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand – and took a couple of photos. The statue is rather tucked away, far from the Munich clock, the Munich memorial, the Sir Matt Busby statue and the United Trinity statue. Make no mistakes, though, this is still Fergie Town. The Mancunian lead grey skies were reflected behind him in the panels of the stand.

It was 3.15pm and time to head inside. I met up with a few of the boys – The Bristol Four, Alan, Gary and Alan – and had a couple of bottles of Singha. With four league games left, two wins would effectively be enough to secure a top four finish. If we finished level on points with Tottenham, our far superior goal difference would see us through.

In such circumstances, Spurs fans would be quite baleful I am sure.

Inside Old Trafford, we took our seats in row 24, in the side section where the 500 or so away season-ticket holders were allocated. There were familiar faces everywhere. Sadly, I soon spotted a section of around four-hundred seats in the away section which had not been sold. I have never known us not to sell our three thousand seats at Old Trafford ever before. It made me angry.

“The fcuking seats are fcuking red.
The fcuking fans are home instead.
The fcuking seats are full of air.
The fcuking seats are fcuking spare.”

As sad a sight as this was, I spoke to Alan about a recently publicised article by Manchester police in which it stated that hundreds, if not thousands, of seats at Old Trafford are empty for games this season. The new habit of clubs announcing tickets sold, and not simply those attending, has meant that games are generally several thousand below capacity. This happens at The Bridge too. Soon into the game, I spotted hundreds of empty seats dotted around all areas of Old Trafford.

I scanned the teams. Robin van Persie was playing but no Chicarito, Wellbeck or Rooney to support him. There was no Rio Ferdinand. We were without John Terry, but Ba was in, playing ahead of Moses, Mata and Oscar. Lampard was paired with Ramires. Along the backline, we looked strong. I hoped for a strong performance from Luiz alongside Brana. It was fantastic to have Ash back.

This was our fifth game against United this season; hell, it was only eight weeks since our amazing second-half comeback at the same stadium in the F.A. Cup. It seemed like five minutes ago.

We began the game well. Within the first fifteen or so minutes, we had amassed four worthwhile attempts on the United goal. The best effort was a delicate effort from Oscar, in the inside-right channel, which Lindegaard touched onto his near post. United seemed to be very lethargic. Cech was only called into action sporadically. Mata cut inside and passed back to Moses, but his shot was high and wasteful.

The Chelsea choir, split into two sections, were in very fine voice. Mixed in with songs about Munich and Amsterdam were ditties about Robin van Persie and several Coronation Street actors who have recently come under scrutiny for the most horrible of reasons.

“Ken Barlow – He’s One Of Your Own.”

A Ba shot fizzed past the far post and Cech was called in to action to swat away a number of crosses from wide positions. This, however, was not the United of old. They seemed to be a shadow of themselves. It was a full thirty minutes into the game that I honestly heard a loud chant from the Stretford End. The best chance of the entire half, though, went United’s way. An inch-perfect pass from the artisan Giggs found the forward run of van Persie. His delicate touch, with what appeared to be the side of his left boot, steered the ball oh-so close, but just evaded the goal.

We heaved a massive sigh of relief.

A late effort from Oscar gave us hope for the second-half.

Downstairs at the break, we agreed that we would be happy with a point, just to keep the momentum going, just to keep the pressure on Arsenal and Tottenham, who had both managed two narrow 1-0 wins on the Saturday.

We again began brightly and, every time that the ball was played up to our attackers, I lifted my trusty camera to my eyes. I was therefore able to see, through my zoom lens, the tug on David Luiz’ shirt by Ryan Giggs. Alas, no foul – penalty or otherwise – was called. The game was a strange one. We enjoyed most of the ball and United’s players seemed wasteful; poor control here, a miss-placed pass there.

Phil Jones broke through our defence, sprinting forward like a gazelle, but his final ball was neither a shot nor a cross to the waiting van Persie. How often have we seen the prolific Dutchman slam those in? The ball dropped past the far post and out of play.

Tombsie was in loud and rumbustious form in the row in front of Alan, Gary and myself.

“Fourteen days to go. Fourteen days of Rafa. Fourteen days of that fat cnut. Fourteen days of Rafa.”

Buttner and Rooney entered the fray, but Benitez, typically, did not fancy changing our personnel. As the game drifted on with chances at a premium, some of our players seemed to tire. We needed fresh legs. Eventually, Benitez made a change, replacing Moses with Fernando Torres, who drew a few boos from the denizens in the United section of the East Stand. Lampard played in a superb ball towards Juan Mata, but he was just unable to get his head to the ball. Instead, it hit Jones and went off for a corner. Three corners in succession then ensued, but we never troubled the United ‘keeper.

A frustrating free-kick from David Luiz was sent wide and we thought that might be our last chance. Tombsie, plus a few others, surprisingly left.

With the game fizzling out, Ramires broke away from the halfway line. I caught his run on film. I also caught his delicate back-heel into the path of Oscar, who had arrived just behind him. We had the extra man. Oscar played in Juan Mata out wide. As our little Spanish magician struck, I clicked my camera. It is very likely that I still had my camera up to my eye when I saw the ball almost apologetically stumble in to the goal off the far post.

The Chelsea section roared.

YEEEEEEES!

I glanced at Alan, who was screaming, his cheeks red, his face ecstatic. I spotted Juan Mata sprint down to the corner flag. It was his moment to tease, torment and tantalise. I clicked away…I was surprisingly cool. After taking around ten photos, my time had come. I clambered onto the seat in front and screamed.

YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES! GET IN!

That was it. It was time for some bombastic, triumphant chanting.

“Amsterdam. Amsterdam. We Are Coming.
Amsterdam. Amsterdam. I Pray.
Amsterdam. Amsterdam. We Are Coming.
We Are Coming In The Month Of May.”

Our battle song of 2013.

The Chelsea fans around me were full of smiles and joy and I stood on the seat in front for the next few minutes. I was only vaguely aware of the late red card for Raphael as I was still full of song. I felt my throat getting sore, but this was no time to relent.

“Champions Of Europe. We Know What We Are.”

Despite a few last-ditch United chances, we held on. This was my eighteenth visit to Old Trafford with Chelsea and only the fifth victory. It wasn’t comparable to the pivotal win in 2009-2010, but it was a close second.

I raced back to the waiting car with the United fans moaning away all around me. I listened to “606” on the drive through Sale and Altrincham and Dave Johnstone’s voice was the sole Chelsea voice to be heard. Many United fans were phoning in. A couple of Spurs fans too.

They weren’t happy.

How dare “United” lose a match!

To be honest, I could hardly believe my ears at the ruthlessness of some Manchester United fans. They were irate with Ferguson for playing a second-rate team (I hadn’t noticed) and one chap was so fed up with Fergie’s dictatorial nature that he wasn’t renewing his season ticket next year.

Oh boy.

I drove on. Thankfully, the traffic was remarkably light for a Manchester United home game. I passed a coach with a “Surrey Reds” flag flying in the back seat. I again chuckled to myself.

“Enjoy your trip home, boys. Enjoy your United bedspreads, United fridge magnets, United alarm clocks and United pencil cases.”

I eventually reached home at 10pm, just in time to see the highlights of the game on “MOTD2.”

It had turned out to be quite a day following in the footsteps of the team. After our spirited draw at Old Trafford on Sunday 10 March 2013 and our win at Old Trafford on Sunday 5 May 2013, I was more than happy for every day to be like Sundays like these.

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