Tales From A Love Story

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 14 August 2021.

I don’t think it is too far-fetched to say that there have been few games – few occasions, few spectacles – in the history of Stamford Bridge that have matched our game against Crystal Palace on Saturday 14 August 2021. Sure, the first league games back at the old ground after the Great War and the Second World War must have been emotional affairs. And let’s not forget the gate of more than 100,000 against Moscow Dynamo in 1945 that unofficially signalled the start of a return to football in peaceful times. But this one was different. Everton at home in the early spring of 2020 seemed so distant and never in the history of English football has there ever been such a period of uncertainty and sadness.

Coming not long after my operation in October of last year, the twin games against Leeds United and Krasnodar were out of the question for me in my high-risk state. And I wasn’t really tempted by the home game against Leicester City in May either; I know that many were, and those that went thoroughly enjoyed it. But I wanted my first game back at HQ to be alongside all of my mates, all of my pals, and in a full house. Back with a vengeance, back to normality, back to life.

I returned from Belfast late on the Thursday and battled fatigue in my one day at work – Friday the thirteenth seemed wholly appropriate – but when I woke on Saturday morning, Belfast was still dominating my every thought. It felt as though it hadn’t worked its way out of my system just yet. Belfast was Chelsea game number 1,300 for me and I secretly wished that game number 1,301 wasn’t until the Sunday.

But beggars can’t be choosers, and a Saturday game it was.

I awoke at 6am, ahead of the alarm.

My first task of the new league season was to fill up the fuel tank of my car in a nearby village. As I walked into the shop to pay, I easily spotted a woman who I went to school with as a child. She was – if I am not mistaken – the first girl to ever give me a kiss, possibly when I was around seven years of age, and – again if my memory serves me correctly – this momentous occasion took place on the village recreation ground, in the long grass, no more than a quarter of a mile from where I am typing these notes. I see her around occasionally. I am sure she has forgotten all about me and I can’t say I blame her. The petrol station was, ironically, in the village of my first-ever girlfriend – summer 1982, aged seventeen – and as I set off on the trip to London I smirked about these romantic incursions into the day of me reacquainting myself with the love of my life.

I collected P-Diddy at 7.30am and I collected L-Parky at 8am.

Up the A303, into London, parked up near Queen’s Club at 10.15am.

Bosh.

For those regular readers, my pre-match routine for the opening league game of 2021/22 followed a familiar pattern. We started at “The Eight Bells” at the bottom end of the Fulham Road – Dave from Northamptonshire and Deano from Lancashire soon joined us – before we all decamped to “Simmon’s” at the bottom of the North End Road to join forces with Alan, Gary, Daryl, Ed, Andy and Sophie.

It was the first time that I had seen Alan since that Everton game nigh-on eighteen months ago. I sat alongside him and it felt so good.

On the walk to the second of the two pubs, I had briefly called by the CFCUK stall to say a few words to Marco. On that fateful day in October – with me in the emergency ward at a hospital in Bath – it was Marco, himself having recently suffered heart problems, that kept me going with a series of text messages. We shook each other’s hands and wished each other well. It was super to see him.

I am not going to comment every week on the clown’s clothing that Chelsea Football Club has decided to dress players in this season, but on the walk to the ground it did dawn on me that the 2020/21 shirt – the one that we wore in Porto – was hardly a Chelsea royal blue at all. It just seemed darker than it should be and rather muted with no vibrancy. It never really dawned on me before. I hardly saw anyone wearing this shirt in my home area this past season, and I don’t think I really noticed it in Porto, but it really jarred when I saw it on this particular day.

Maybe next year, we’ll get a clean and crisp royal blue shirt.

Don’t hold your breath.

As far as I could see, nothing had changed too much along the walk to Stamford Bridge, and I noticed that most fans were not wearing face-coverings outside the stadium. My bag was checked, I bumped into a few friends, my COVID19 passport was inspected outside the Matthew Harding and I joined that oh-so familiar queue before using a new style ticket-scanning machine and then…pause for effect…through the turnstiles…click, click, click…and I was in.

I ascended the six flights of stairs to the MHU, keeping to the left – my superstition – as always.

Inside the stand. I was home.

Phew.

Greeting me was Clive, who has taken Glenn’s season ticket.

Glenn finally decided to give it up after twenty-four seasons. But Glenn hasn’t given up completely; he will still go to a game every month or so, depending upon his working patterns and availability of tickets. I have known Clive since around 2003, so he is a familiar face. I last saw him at a New Order gig in Bristol in July 2019.

With the new rail seating in The Shed, everything looked bluer.

I spent a few minutes or more chatting to various folk in The Sleepy Hollow who I had obviously missed the previous year and a half. Albert, who sits directly in front of me, shared an opinion which had great resonance with me. He too has been a ST holder since 1997.

“This football club has been a massive part of my life. But last season, I didn’t really care. Sometimes I’d be watching us play on TV and I would switch channels at half-time but instead of watching our game again, I’d continue to watch the new programme.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

I knew of many season ticket holders who hardly watched us on TV.

It just wasn’t the same.

The teams were announced.

No Romelu Lukaku. Not yet.

Mendy

Chalobah – Christensen – Rudiger

Dave – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Mount – Werner – Pulisic

“Park Life” sounded on the PA. There were no crowd-surfing banners due to COVID19. The players, Chelsea in blue, Crystal Palace in Villareal yellow, entered the pitch but instead of walking over to the West Stand – a Chelsea trademark that I have grown to love – they stood on this occasion in front of the East Stand.

And then the two teams linked arms and stood on the centre circle. We were asked to silently remember those who had lost their lives during the global pandemic. On the TV screen around twenty-five names were listed, in groups of four, of Chelsea supporters who had passed away. At the end, a fleeting phrase flickered onto the screen and then faded as quickly as it had appeared.

BLUES FOREVER

One of the Chelsea supporters was Scott La Pointe. I first met Scott in Charlotte in North Carolina in 2015 when, along with his wife and two children, they joined in with some lovely pre and post-match socialising around the game with PSG. His young son Alex memorably entertained the troops with his endearing version of “Zigger Zagger”. It was clear that Scott was a family man who dearly loved both his family and Chelsea. I met up with them all, and many other from the Detroit supporters group of which Scott was a proud member, at Ann Arbor in Michigan the following summer. The game against Real Madrid – to this day the largest official crowd at any Chelsea game anywhere – must have been so special for Scott’s family. It was like a home game for them all. Sadly, not so long after this game, Scott was diagnosed with ALS / Motor Neurone Disease. Scott battled the disease with great strength and great dignity. This was painful for me since one of my Godparents, my uncle Gerald, died from the same disease in around 1988. Scott held out for Christmas 2020 and – amazingly – for the 2021 European Cup Final in Porto too. He watched from his bed in his house in the Detroit suburbs. I often messaged him on Facebook. His last message to me was on the day after the final.

“I really didn’t think I would be here to see yesterday’s match. I can’t tell you how excited I was for them to win. I love your pictures that you posted. Every time the camera went to the crowd, Jamie and I were looking for you. Cheers my friend!”

Scott sadly passed away not long after his forty-third birthday.

He will live on in the memory of all those who knew him.

He was loved by all.

Scott La Pointe : 6 June 1978 to 22 June 2021.

There were a few empty seats dotted about, but not many. The immediate build-up to the game against Patrick Viera’s Crystal Palace was somewhat overshadowed by the very late announcement that some season ticket-holders would not be able to watch from their usual seat in the MHL due to delays in the rail seating. The club must have known there was going to be a risk of this when they sold all other available seats. Surely they should have kept some to one side just in case.

Insert a comment about Chelsea being a well-run football club here :

Before the game began, we heard that Manchester United had walloped Leeds 5-1 at Old Trafford. My mind immediately raced back to forty years ago, opening day 1981, when Leeds lost 5-1 at newly promoted Swansea City, a result that was wildly celebrated at Stamford Bridge as I saw us beat Bolton 2-0. It was the first game that I had ever travelled to independently.

Forty bloody years ago.

Altogether now everybody : “Fackinell.”

Kudos, by the way, to our benign neighbours Brentford on their fine – very fine – 2-0 win against Arsenal the previous night. Fantastic stuff.

We began positively and absolutely dominated possession. Having not seen Palace play for much of the past eighteen months – I found myself not even bothering with “MOTD” in the latter part of last season – I hardly recognised anyone in the Palace team, which was well changed anyway from the last time I had clapped eyes on them. Former Chelsea prospect Mark Guehi took up a position in their defence. I had seen both of his appearances in our colours in the League Cup of 2019/20.

The crowd was in a boisterous and jubilant mood. The time for venom and heated passion will come against more hated rivals.

There was intelligent use of space and we always seemed to have a spare man to stretch the Palace defence. Chances for Dave and Christian Pulisic hinted at a game of goals. There was a further chance from Mateo Kovacic.

There was a succession of corners from our left with Mason Mount pumping the ball in but with mixed results.

Just as we found an attack being thwarted by a foul on Mount just outside the box, I overheard Alan and Clive in a general discussion about a few players. I memorably heard Al say “Alonso worries me” and I silently smiled as I saw the Spaniard place the ball in readiness for a shot on goal.

“Bloody hell Al, that’s tempting fate. This is Alonso territory.”

With that, I snapped as the ball was whipped up and over the wall, curving perfectly away from Vicente Guaita. I saw the spinning ball, through my lens, nestling in the goal. The ‘keeper did not bother moving.

I jumped to my feet – GET IN – and smiled at Alan.

One-nil to the European Champions.

“THTCAUN.”

“COMLD.”

The noise levels then hit stratospheric levels.

On my feet – “Champions Of Europe. We Know What We Are.”

We were back.

And this was perfect Chelsea weather. Memories of opening day wins in recent years against too many teams to mention.

We seemed to be missing an aerial threat in the Palace box, but no doubt the returning Lukaku would remedy that ailment.

A free-kick from Mason hit the wall, but we extended our lead just before the break. A fine move, with Dave setting up Mount with a fine return pass, which lead to the ball being sent low into the box. The ‘keeper got something on the cross but the ball fell to Pulisic, who twisted his body to prod the ball home.

Two-nil to the European Champions.

A late chance for Timo Werner hit the side-netting and we went into the break well on top. In fact, up to the point of our second goal, I could only remember one very rare Crystal Palace attack that soon fizzled out down below me in the area of the pitch that I will forever call Hazardous.

Never could I remember such a dominant first-half performance or rather such a poor opponent (edit : the first-half against Everton in 2016 was exceptional, but Everton were not so woeful as Palace, surely?)

In the back of my mind I was hoping for at least two more goals – maybe more – in the second-half. A trademark volley from Alonso went close.

I noted that – strangely – the song of the night in Belfast, the Belinda Carlisle ditty, was noticeable by its absence in the Stamford Bridge sun. Its time will come again I am sure.

A very rare attack was easily stubbed out by the Chelsea defence. They really were poor. I loved the way that the midfield pairing of Jorginho and Kovacic kept things ticking over in the middle of the park. Werner was in his usual “one step forward, two steps back” mode, looking great one minute and then mediocre the next. Pulisic twisted and turned. He needs a run of games, but I have a feeling that Tuchel is going to rotate a few players behind Lukaku this season. It will be interesting to see how Havertz develops. I really have my eye on him.

Just before the hour, the ball was played to Trevoh Chalobah. He had space to run into, and maybe buoyed by the home crowd chanting “shoooot”, he let fly with a sweet and low rocket. I managed to capture this goal too. The shot was aimed to perfection, just clipping the base of the far post before nestling inside the net.

3-0.

Magnificent.

I also caught the players hugging the excited youngster.

Joyous scenes, eh?

I remember my mate Tom, in his home city of Minneapolis for the Milan game in 2016, coming up with the “He’s Chalobah!” (as in “He fell over!”) chant for Trevoh’s brother Nathaniel.

Let’s get it going again.

I was hoping for more goals but the manager – still without a song, in truth we hardly know him – made some substitutions.

James for Dave.

Havertz for Pulisic.

Emerson for Alonso.

A rare Palace attack on goal – the only one? – from the old warhorse Christian Benteke was easily saved by our man Mendy.

The game ended 3-0.

It was a fine performance, hardly any negatives, but it was only Palace.

I’d score myself 7/10; not as overblown with emotion as others, but I did join in with a fair few songs. I think the football came second to seeing everyone again on this particular day. I am sure that football is still trying to win its way back into my heart if I am honest. But I am equally sure that this will improve with each game and I am bloody sure that I will soon be back to my March 2020 groove before long.

I just need a couple of tough away games to sort myself out and to get myself focused.

What’s that I hear you say?

Arsenal away and then Liverpool away?

OK. Let’s go. Mow those fucking meadows.

The Sleepy Hollow : Season 2021/22 – Chris, Alan, Clive, PD & Gary.

Tales From Our Time In The Sun

Chelsea vs. Villareal : 11 August 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

We got more beers in.

Perfect.

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

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

What luck.

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

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

But Monaco 1998. What a trip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1997 FA Cup

1998 Football League Cup

1998 European Cup Winners’ Cup

1998 UEFA Super Cup

After the game, Andy uttered the famous line…

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

“Chelsea. They always beat us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super.

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

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

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

Twenty-three years ago, though.

Fackinell.

Postcards From Monaco.

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

We set off on a walkabout.

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

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

“Are you Leeds?”

“No, Chelsea.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper Chelsea.

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

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

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

I had to quickly run through the team.

Mendy

Rudiger – Zouma – Chalobah

Hudson-Odoi – Kante – Kovacic – Alonso

Havertz – Werner – Ziyech

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

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

Bless’em.

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

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

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

We all knew what it meant.

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

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

Kai Havertz is the best on Earth.

The silky German is just what we need.

He won Chelsea the Champions League.”

It was sung loudly and raucously for minutes on end.

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

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

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

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

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

Get in.

Chelsea 1 Villareal 0.

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

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

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

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

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

Fackinell.

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

Just after the hour, Thomas Tuchel changed the personnel.

Jorginho for Kante.

Mount for Werner.

Christensen for Zouma.

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

It was on the cards. No complaints.

Bollocks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All eyes on the penalty takers.

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

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

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

Gerard the scorer in normal time. Goal.

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

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

Alonso. A slip, but in. Goal.

Estupinan. Goal.

Mount. Goal.

Gomez. Goal.

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

Raba. Goal.

Sudden death now.

Fackinell.

Pulisic. Goal.

Foyth. Goal.

Rudiger. Nerves again. Goal.

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

GETINYOUBASTARDS.

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

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

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

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

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

Athens 1971.

Stockholm 1998.

Monaco 1998.

Munich 2012.

Amsterdam 2013.

Baku 2019.

Porto 2021.

Belfast 2021.

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

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

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

OK, enough of the shitty wordplay.

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

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

It had been a good night.

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

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

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

Thank you Belfast. Thank you Chelsea.

Postcards From Belfast.



Tales From Porto : Part Two – Reach Out, Touch Faith

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2021.

Just as in Moscow in 2008 and Munich in 2012, I travelled the last few miles to the venue of the Champions League Final by tube. In Moscow, the carriage was full of noisy fans of both clubs. In Munich, the stifling air of the U-bahn made singing uncomfortable for the Chelsea fans who almost filled the entire carriage. This time, Charlotte and I stood the few miles in comfort as there was space to both talk and think. Only Chelsea fans were inside this carriage. We were on our way to Combatentes tube station to the west of the Dragao Stadium to the north east of the city centre. The Manchester City support would be heading to a different station. In Moscow, the Chelsea hordes were housed in the southern end of the Luzhniki Stadium. In Munich, we took our place in the three tiers of the Nord Kurv. In Porto, Chelsea would again be located at the northern end.

Charlotte and I, both from Somerset, continued our match day chat and touched on our early memories of going to games. Charlotte’s first game at Stamford Bridge was a 3-1 win over the then European Champions Liverpool in 1978, a game that I attended too. I liked that. We spoke of how Chelsea had become a major part of our lives, and how people “on the outside” probably never come close to understanding the pull that it has on us all. I only met Charlotte for the first time in Kiev in 2019, but have bumped into her and her husband Paul – injured for this final, a broken ankle – at a few games since.

As in the crowds outside the bars near the fan zone, one song dominated the ten-minute journey north. I have often maintained that the football song that stems from the Depeche Mode song “Just Can’t Get Enough” should always have been a Chelsea song long before Liverpool and Celtic, and then others, grabbed hold of it. Band members Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher are big Chelsea fans. It should have been The Shed and not The Kop “do, do, do, do, do, do, do”-ing these past ten years. But this song was now – at last – a new and vibrant part of the Chelsea songbook. Timo Werner is the subject matter of our version and the song was being bellowed out with gusto as the Chelsea faithful exited the train and clambered up the stairs. Tube stations are always fine locations for a pre-match sing-song, the bare walls echoing nicely.

On the coach down to Munich from Prague with Glenn in 2012, one song got inside my brain, the iconic “The Model” by Kraftwerk. We kept singing it to each other. A real ear-worm for that day. By the time we joined up the rest of the lads in a sunny Munich beer garden, Alan had changed the words slightly.

“Gal’s a model and he’s looking good. He loves his main course and he loves his pud.”

Alas neither Alan nor Gary would be in Porto this time around; nor the other members of our Munich tour party, Daryl, Neil, Glenn, Simon and Milo.

Kraftwerk in Munich, Depeche Mode in Porto. A nice progression.

As we reached the top of the stairs, I spoke to Charlotte :

“Never before in the history of football has a song been sung so loudly and so devotedly in honour of a striker who has scored such a paltry number of goals.”

Outside, the air was perfect. We slowly walked east to the stadium which eventually appeared in the distance, it’s large roof trusses discernible through some trees and over some rooftops. This was a well-to-do part of the city. A tree-lined road, with decent houses nearby, steadily dipped down to the stadium. We bumped into Scott, Gerry and a very giggly Paul, who was looking like he had imbibed one too many ports. It was great to see them; they go everywhere. I remember chatting to Scott and Paul in Australia in 2018.

At just before 6pm, it was my big moment. At the turnstiles outside the north-west corner of the stadium, I scanned my match ticket and showed my yellow bracelet, which basically took the place of my printed negative test result email.

I was in.

A little rush of adrenalin. I then moved towards the security guard inside the perimeter of the stadium. While a chap next to me was sounding off about not being allowed to take his “ever so slightly bigger than A4 size” bag in to the stadium, I pushed through. I had my mobile phone in my left jeans pocket and my new camera in my right pocket. The steward brushed them without really being too bothered. He was more concerned for me to open up the three compartments of my newly-purchased CP bag. Inside was my passport, my medication, my glasses, my boarding passes, a pen, some wet wipes and a couple of chargers. He barely looked inside.

My camera was in too.

Another adrenalin rush.

We walked on, and I took a few photographs of the stadium, it’s bright curving stands beneath a perfect Portuguese sun.

It was a gorgeous evening. I had been pleasantly surprised how many Chelsea had taken head of the warning to travel to the stadium in good time. I was inside the grounds of the stadium before 6 o’clock. Too sensible by far. In Munich, we all got in with ten minutes to spare.

I bought myself an espresso and slowly walked down to my seat in block 23.

The stadium opened up before me, the green turf ahead, blocks of concrete, the colour blue, great expanses of steel overhead.

It was as if I was waking from a complete season in hibernation. My alarm clock had sounded very late; it allowed me to watch the FA Cup Final on that wet and dreary Saturday two weekends ago, but there was such insipid performance that day that it soon became distant. That game was so difficult for me to rationalise. In retrospect, that whole day seemed like a dream. In fact, I have almost sleepwalked through the past nine months, aware that my interest in the love of my life was waning with each passing week.

But I was awake now.

As I have said on many occasions recently, the thought of us reaching a European Cup Final and me not being present had haunted me all season long. Others were excited by our European run. I was not so enthusiastic. The thought of me being absent from the final was killing me.

But here I was. In Portugal. In a pandemic. With my face mask and my camera and a head full of emotions to last a lifetime.

I guzzled that coffee and toasted absent friends, sadly too many to mention.

To get my bearings I quickly looked up to my left and spotted the section of the upper tier of the east stand where I watched us play Porto in 2015. I noted that the black netting that spoiled our view six years ago was tied back under the roof for this game.

The stadium looked a picture. Large multi-tiered stands to the side, topped by huge curving roofs. Behind both goals, a single tier but in two sections. The roof above both end stands floated in the air, supported only from the sides and not from the rear. I have rarely seen a stadium with such a feature. The colour scheme of royal blue seats met with my approval, and the deep blue sky above completed a perfect setting.

I stood the entire time and kept a lookout for friends and acquaintances. I soon spotted Ali and Nick from Reading around ten rows behind me. Andy and Sophie too. Aroha, Luke, Doreen close by. Then Big John appeared, dressed in all black, but far from impressed with his seat for the evening. He was located right in the corner, as low as me, but John had paid a higher priced ticket than everyone else in the section. We briefly spoke again how crazy this season had been. And this night in Portugal was typically odd too.

“Surreal, innit?”

Fellow spectators slowly entered the stadium. Music played on the PA. There were a few rare chants. At our seat, there was another Chelsea goody bag. I had already been given a Chelsea badge in the fan zone and here, in a specially logo’d Porto royal blue kitbag was a jacquard Final scarf. A flag was propped up by my seat too. The kit bag soon housed all my goods and chattels. It came in very useful. I dropped my top on the back of my seat and tried to take it all in.

In the build-up during the previous week, I had mentioned to a few friends that in 2012 it seemed that we were a well-established team, long in the tooth when it came to the Champions League. It seemed that 2012 was “the last chance saloon” for many; for Drogba, for Terry, for Cech, for Cole, for Lampard. In reality we really should have won the biggest prize in world club football in any year from 2005 to 2010.

So 2012 came along at just the right time. And how.

Since then, despite Amsterdam in 2013 and Baku in 2019, I had admitted to myself that we simply would not win the European Cup again, or at least not in my lifetime. Going into this season I certainly felt that. Last season, as youngsters, we were torn apart by a hugely impressive Bayern ensemble.

This season? It has been sensational. First, Frank getting us out of the group phase. Secondly, Thomas navigating the stormy waters of the knock-out phase, which included a couple of games against Porto – of all teams – in Seville.

But here is the sad fact. I never felt close to this team. I never felt that involvement. I was emotionally distanced from it all. Until Wembley, I had never seen Timo Werner, nor Ben Chilwell, nor Kai Havertz, nor Edouard Mendy, nor Thiago Silva, nor Hakim Ziyech. Not in Chelsea blue anyway.

None of them.

What a fucking mess.

It felt that this team was only just beginning. It was in its formative stage. A baby turning into a toddler, no more. Yet here we were at a Champions League Final. Whisper it, but it almost didn’t seem right to me. I have been saying for a few months “we’re not even a team” insomuch as apart from a couple of sure-fire starters – N’Golo, Mason – not many Chelsea fans would be even able to name their favourite eleven. We never had this problem in 1983/84, 2004/5 nor 2016/17.

And there was a considerable feeling of personal guilt too. It would appear that thousands of Chelsea fans were more involved than me this season. Yet here I was in Porto at the Champions League Final. What right did I have to be here?

Champions League Final Wanker? Quite possibly.

I knew only this; I had to be in Portugal, in Porto, at Estadio do Dragao, in the north terrace, in section twenty-three, in row three, in seat fourteen for my sanity.

At around ten minutes to seven, two UEFA officials brought the Champions League trophy – daintily decked in one royal blue ribbon and one sky blue ribbon – to the adjacent corner flag. It was placed atop a clear plastic plinth. The press photographers nearby took a photo as did many fans. The photographs that I took, on my new Sony camera and my Samsung phone, were sadly not great quality. Maybe I panicked.

One thought raced through my head.

“I can almost reach out and touch it.”

Then my mind re-worked it.

Reach out.

Reach out, touch faith.

Faith. This football lark is all about faith isn’t it?

I uploaded my phone photo to Facebook, with the simple caption.

“Reach Out, Touch Faith.”

I stood and checked that it had uploaded. Within maybe sixty seconds, my ears detected an oh-so familiar electronic beat on the stadium PA.

The jarring of synthesisers and the pounding of a drum machine…

“Feeling unknown and you’re all alone, flesh and bone by the telephone.”

My brain fizzed, my senses sparkled.

“Things on your chest, you need to confess, I will deliver, you know I’m a forgiver.”

Oh my bloody goodness.

“Reach out, touch faith.”

At that moment, at that fucking moment, I knew that we would win the 2021 European Cup Final. Depeche Mode had come to the rescue and “Personal Jesus” boomed around the stadium. Now, let’s get serious, it would take a bloody fool to openly declare Chelsea Football Club as some sort of sporting personal Jesus to many of us : to cheer, to bring sustenance, to provide warmth, to bring succour, to provide nourishment, to add depth to our lives.

I am that bloody fool.

Football. Fackinell.

The Chelsea team was announced, and was met with cheers from the ever growing band of supporters.

Mendy.

Dave. Silva. Rudiger.

James. Jorginho. Kante. Chilwell.

Mount. Havertz. Werner.

It was the team that I would have selected. Maybe Kovacic for Jorginho. But I wanted Havertz to start.

I mentioned to two lads to my left : “Everyone is talking about Werner having a big night tonight, but I think Havertz is the man. He has an edge.”

From 7.15pm to 7.30pm, the players trotted on to the pitch and went through a few drills to warm their bodies up further. The messy training top that they were wearing was less hideous than both the 2019/20 kit and the 2021/22 kit.

The minutes passed by.

I had presumed that the stadium would be split down the middle; northern section Chelsea, southern section City. However, not only was the entire top section of the stand to my left City but there were City fans mixed in with Chelsea fans in the presumably CFC section of the lower tier too. We all know that City sold 5,800 but we had only sold 5,000 (rumours of Chelsea unable to move the extra 800 to independent travellers due to stringent UEFA rules were yet to be ratified), but City seemed to have more than an extra 800. It worried me. I hated the thought of this being their final, their evening.

But we had spoken about all of this during the day. This was City’s biggest ever game. Someone had likened their boisterousness in the city during the day to our type of support when we took over Stockholm in 1998. We must have had 25,000 in the 30,000 crowd against Stuttgart. It was the biggest airlift out of the UK since World War Two, but was sadly beaten by United in Barcelona the following year.

In recent years, we have enjoyed UEFA finals in 2008, 2012, 2013 and 2019. Without sounding like knobheads, or being blasé, we were used to this. But I hoped our support would match City’s which was starting to call the shots in the stadium.

Two songs on the PA : “Blue Moon” first and then “Blue Is The Colour”.

I sang along to every word.

…”cus Chelsea, Chelsea is our name.”

At around 7.45pm, a firework show took over the pitch and the Champions League anthem roared via the PA. Both the City and Chelsea support booed throughout, but I am not so sure the result was particularly loud nor noticeable to those watching at home and the executive areas. My real wish was for both sets of fans to come together with a loud and constant chant during the game.

Two sets of four letters.

Have a guess.

The teams entered the pitch; two hues of blue under a sensual sky.

Flags were enthusiastically waved in distinct parts of the stadium; City in the top deck to my left, City in the far end of the lower tier to my left, Chelsea to my right in our end.

The players met the dignitaries, the huge silver trophy glinting in the distance.

The City team didn’t really interest me. I knew who to look out for. Both teams were playing without a centre-forward and a sizeable part of my brain struggled with the basic concept of this, but then jerked back into life as I imagined experts talking about “pockets of space” and “creating space” and maybe even “space the final frontier.” Football is supported by more and more nerds these days after all.

The 2021 Champions League Final began.

There was a lively start to the game, and within the first fifteen minutes it seemed that we had enjoyed more strikes on goal than in the entire final in Munich. I immediately liked the look of young Mason Mount as his energy shone. And Timo Werner was making those trademark runs out wide, taking players with him. Ben Chilwell really caught my eye throughout the opening quarter, staying tight to Mahrez and Walker, robbing both of the ball, flicking the ball on to team mates, showing great skill and tenacity. Thiago Silva – his name sung probably more than any other Chelsea player at the start – looked in control.

I glanced at the two coaches. Tuchel, at last not festooned in royal blue, and looking smart in black. Guardiola, so slight, but a master tactician too.

The City support had been dominant in the city and also in the half-an-hour leading up to kick-off. Their noise boomed out in the first quarter of an hour of the game too.

“Blue Moon, You Saw Me Standing Alone.”

“City, City, The Best Team In The Land And All The World.”

“We’re Not Really Here.”

The first real chance of the match followed a laser-like missile from the boot of the City ‘keeper Ederson, dressed in all pink, and my muscles tightened as Raheem Sterling edged past Reece James but our right back recovered well and robbed the winger of a worthwhile strike on goal. It was a warning for sure.

At the other end, Kai Havertz played in Werner but this resulted in a shank, an air-shot, a fluff. City countered and a Sterling chance was blocked by that man Chilwell. Then, the tide seemed to turn a little. Within a few minutes, Werner had two chances. The first although straight at Mr. Pink, at least hit the target. His second slithered against the nearside netting.

At around this time, the Chelsea support grew.

One song dominated and was our call to arms.

“He’s Here. He’s There. He’s Every Fucking Where. Joey Cole. Joey Cole.”

He had to be in the stadium I surmised.

“Carefree, Wherever You May Be.”

The old stalwart.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

A nice touch. Do we even have a song for Thomas Tuchel? See what I mean about a team that is not yet a team?

“Oh Dennis Wise.”

This song continued for a while, longer than usual, I wondered if he too was in the stadium.

I turned to the two lads to my left (I realise I will never recognise them if I see them again because they, like me, were mask-compliant) and said that the City support had quietened.

“The beer buzz is gone.”

But I sensed that they were far from happy that we were now dominating play. A rare break, a shot by Phil Foden and a sublime block by Toni Rudiger only emphasised the rarity of their attacks.

Kante found himself dribbling inside the box and set up Havertz but his shot was smothered.

Chelsea were letting City have it from both barrels now.

“Your support is fucking shit.”

It had certainly quietened, no doubt.

“You’re only here on a freebie.”

Love it.

There had been a worry when Thiago Silva stopped not once but twice, in pain with what looked like a strain of some description. Sadly, with around ten minutes of the first-half remaining, he could carry on no more. I felt for him. He covered his head with his shirt. There must have been tears.

Chelsea in adversity, but we have found a way past that imposter in previous European triumphs. Andreas Christensen joined the fray.

Not so long after this substitution, I looked up to see a ball touched inside to Mount. He was in space, but so too was a rampaging Havertz. The ball that Mount played through to our young German was inch perfect. The City defence, loitering towards the halfway line as is their wont, were asleep.

They weren’t really there.

One touch from Havertz.

I was able to move slightly to my left – ah, the joy of being able to move on a terrace – to see him move on past Ederson, and knock the ball in to an empty net. I was in line with the ball. I saw the net bulge.

That glorious sight.

I turned to the lads to my left, my two forearms stretched out, tight, my muscles tense, and I screamed.

“Fucking, yeeeeees.”

The lad in the front row looked at me, pointed to me :

“You called it. Havertz.”

I turned to my right and snap, snap, snapped as fans tumbled down to the front row.

Limbs everywhere.

Off the scale.

Fackinell.

Euphoria.

Joy.

Relief.

Pandemonium in the North Stand.

I updated Facebook.

“THTCAUN.”

Garrett in Tennessee was the first one to reply correctly :

“COMLD.”

Noice one, shun.

I had a little laugh to myself…

“Manchester City 0 Adversity 1.”

The half-time whistle soon came. What a magnificent time to score a goal. Beautiful. There was an air of bewildered disbelief at the break, but also one of joy and hope. I spoke to a few friends :

“Savour these moments. They don’t come around too often.”

I dreamed of a second goal.

The half-time break shot past.

I soon realised, and it was regardless of the goal, that I was back. Football had got me. The months of wandering in the wilderness was over. My first game against Leicester City was difficult. I couldn’t concentrate, I was too easily distracted, and I didn’t know the players. On this night, in lovely Porto, I was kicking every ball, watching the movement of the players, singing songs, laughing and joking with nearby fans, listening for new chants.

I was in my element.

Throughout the second period, I watched the clock in the far corner and announced to the bloke to my left when a five-minute period had elapsed. It helped the time pass quicker, no doubt.

“Five minutes.”

“Ten minutes.”

“Fifteen minutes.”

Of course City enjoyed most of the possession. But did they really enjoy it? I don’t believe their fans enjoyed it at all. Their silence was deafening.

And their players did not create too much at all. My abiding memory of the second-half is of an array of truly awful crosses into our box from various City players. Rudiger seemed to head every single one of them away. Reece James kept Sterling at bay with an absolutely brilliant display of cool and resolute defending. N’Golo Kante just got better and better and better all game. I was convinced that with City on the attack, he would pinch the ball on the half-way line and play the ball in to Havertz a la Claude Makelele and Frank Lampard at Bolton in April 2005. To say Kante was everywhere would not be too much of a ridiculous over statement.

I did not see the challenge by Rudiger on De Bruyne. But I was more than happy when he exited the field. I certainly saw the rising shot from Sterling that struck Reece on the chest in the penalty box. No penalty and quite right too.

“Carefree” rung out.

We really were loud now. I was so happy. To be truthful, when the gate of almost 15,000 was announced, I could hardly believe my eyes. It certainly seemed so much more. And yet an empty stadium, with empty seats echoing the noise away rather than the fabric of clothes muffling it, surely helped.

“Twenty minutes.”

“Twenty-five minutes.”

I watched with a mixture of hope and panic as a City shot was miraculously scooped high over the bar by Dave. I remembered, exactly at that moment, a similar clearance – under his bar – by a lad called Wayne Coles in a Frome College game against a team from Chateau-Gontier, a twin town, in the spring of 1979, with me watching from the centre-circle. Both were astounding.

Christian Pulisic for Timo Werner.

“Thirty minutes.”

Our best, perhaps only, chance of a tight second-half fell to Pulisic, raiding the City half and put through by Havertz, but his dinked lob dropped wide of the far post.

“Thirty-five minutes.”

Mateo Kovacic for Mason Mount.

“Forty minutes.”

The nerves were starting to bite now. Please God, no fucking Iniesta – Spanish or Scottish – moment now.

“Forty-five minutes.”

But by now an awful seven minutes had been added. I stopped counting. I was focussed on the game, but needed to expel some energy.

“Carefree Wherever You May Be, We Are The Famous CFC.”

Seven minutes…tick, tock, tick, tock.

The last chance, very late, fell to Mahrez. His tired shot never looked like troubling Mendy, who – apart from reaching a few crosses – hardly had to stretch for a shot all night.

In the last minute, I clock-watched again. I wanted to photograph the exact moment that the referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz blew his whistle. But I wanted to capture the fans, who had serenaded the team all night long, in the north stand. I wanted them – us – to be the Final stars. I stood up on the seat in front of my row. Arms aloft. Camera poised. The fans still sung. A quick look to the field. Another City attack. I saw the referee bring a hand up to his mouth.

Tales From Porto : Part One – The Blue Room And Beyond

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2021.

I had set the alarm on my ‘phone for 12.30am in the very small hours, small minutes even, of Saturday. I had only fallen asleep at around 8.30pm on the Friday. This was going to be a trip that would likely end up with battles against tiredness as the day would draw on. But I wasn’t concerned about that. I had overcome larger battles over the previous eight months. And some smaller ones, of a different nature, over the previous week or so.

I closed my last match report with an open question :

“There is a chance that this might be my last report this season. It depends on how Chelsea Football Club looks after its own supporters’ hopes of reaching the Portuguese city of Porto in a fortnight.”

After what seemed like an agonisingly long wait, Chelsea stepped up to the mark. With the 2021 Champions League Final bumped from Istanbul on the Bosporus to Porto on the Douro, there was a tense wait. With rumours of Porto being used as an alternative to the Turkish city, and the more logical stadia of Wembley and Villa Park, I had originally been tempted to gamble on flights before the Wembley FA Cup Final. But I held firm, and hoped for the club to answer some prayers. With an uncanny knack of timing, most unlike the club these days, on the afternoon of Wednesday 19 May it was announced that there would be club-subsidised day trips to Porto for £199.

Within half-an-hour of the announcement at 3pm, I was in.

The game was a mere ten days away and things were moving fast now. If you blinked, there was the chance of missing key information. As I was on the club’s trip, my application for a match ticket was taken care of by the travel company and Chelsea. I surely had enough points to be sure of one of the 5,800 tickets offered to the club. Independent travellers would be able to apply on the very next day, the Thursday (D-Day minus nine), but it was soon apparent that many were unsuccessful. Of course, for various reasons, others decided not to apply for tickets. There was a mixture of protest against UEFA, of not being able to afford the trip with all of the extra add-ons, of the rigorous tests for the COVID19 virus, and of course the real fear of the virus itself. There was no control on where it might flare up once more.

When I returned home from work on the Thursday, I was elated to see that Sportsbreaks had debited my credit card to the tune of £199 for the flight and £60 for the cheapest match day ticket available.

I was immediately grateful, unapologetically ecstatic and calm at last.

And well done Chelsea. Although Sheik Mansour had paid for a sizeable percentage of City’s supporters to travel to Portugal for nowt, the club dipped into its reserves to subsidize official travel. Thankfully, the rumours of a far-from edifying “bubble” was not going to be in place once we were to land in Portugal, but – there is always a but these days – all supporters had to follow strict guidelines to enable us to attend. It all took a fair bit of deciphering, and I didn’t want to fry my brain with worry immediately, so I gave it a day or two. But it eventually all made sense. We had to have a PCR test to cover our outbound and inbound travel. After a couple of deliberations on the timings, I eventually booked a test for 0900 on Thursday 27 May in the nearby city of Bath. We also needed to book a similar test on our return from Portugal, and to have evidence on our ‘phone – or hard copy – of both. The cost for those two beauties? A cool £315. Wallop. There was also the requirement to complete locator forms for both Portugal and the UK. I kept reading and re-reading all of these instructions. Over and over and over. It was a worry; I am not ashamed to admit.

Against the backdrop of all this activity during the week leading up to our third Champions League Final, the actual football match was at the bottom of my list of priorities of thought. Like everyone, I had to work, and to fit in all of these activities around work patterns. I worked from home for the most part, but then did an early stint on the Friday in the office to ostensibly give me an extra few hours to settle myself before heading away for the game.

But then there was an extra worry. When I visited the Dragao Stadium in 2015 for our game with Porto, my SLR camera was confiscated and I had to rely on my mobile ‘phone for match photos. With much annoyance, the ‘phone battery died and I only took a handful of mediocre snaps that night. For a good ten days, I was mulling over all sorts of plans of smuggling my SLR in, a “Great Escape” in reverse, and I even thought about tunnelling in, with tunnels called John, Frank and Didier.

It was frying my brain. In the official UEFA blurb for the final, it strictly mentioned no cameras with long lenses. Damn, there it was in black and white. And it also stated that only a very small A4-sized bag would be allowed. I needed a Plan B. I didn’t call Maurizio Sarri. I decided to buy a bum bag – how 1989 – for the camera that I had bought especially for my trip to Argentina last season. Then, with disbelief, I could not track down a charger for the camera. This was killing me. I remembered Moscow in 2008 and how my SLR ran out of charge two hours before the game and I again had to rely on sub-standard ‘phone photos. Not a good precedent.

My Plan B involved calling into “Curry’s” in Trowbridge after work on the Friday and purchasing a new camera. In my haste, I overlooked being able to simply take my existing camera in and getting a charger. My brain was clearly frazzled.

Friday arrived. My PCR test was negative. Phew. At the shop in Trowbridge, I spotted a Sony camera that met all the requirements.

“Sorry, it’s not in stock.”

It is mate, there it is there, I can see it.”

“That’s just a display model.”

“Fucksake.”

But there were two in stock in Salisbury. Off I drove to the “Curry’s” in the spired city of Salisbury, an hour away. I quickly purchased it. The assistant was Chelsea, a nice twist. I eventually reached home at about 6pm.

I chilled out a little, prepped my clothes and travel goodies and then prayed for a solid four hours of sleep.

Match day began in deepest Somerset and would end in deepest Portugal. It seemed so odd to be travelling so light. And alone. None of my local usual travelling companions would be going with me. I only knew of one local lad, Sir Les, who would be in Porto. The previous night, I had laid out all of my clothes in the front room, on a sofa, away from the piles of books and magazines on my coffee table in my main living room and away from all the other detritus of day to day living. I wanted a little clarity.

And it suddenly dawned on me how apt this was. Over the past year, my house and garden has undergone a major tidy-up, and a main part of this has resulted in my front room becoming part home office and part Chelsea museum. I have named it The Blue Room. It is my pride and joy. There are framed, signed photographs of various players, framed programmes, photo montages, framed posters, framed shirts.

Immediately above the sofa – blue – where my clothes were placed were three items.

At the top, a canvas print of my photo of Didier’s penalty in Munich. A sacred memento of the greatest day of my entire life.

In the middle, a much-loved present from relatives in around 1980, a pub-style mirror featuring our total trophy haul up to that point; the 1955 League Championship, the 1965 League Cup, the 1970 FA Cup and the 1971 European Cup Winners’ Cup. For years upon years I used to gaze up at it and wonder if my club would ever win a damned thing in my lifetime. I became a supporter in 1970, remember nothing of that final nor the 1971 one, so in my mind I had never seen us win a bloody trophy. I was thirty-one years of age in 1997. New fans will never understand how magical that day was. Many new fans now want a fourth place finish over FA Cup glory. It seemed that Thomas Tuchel was of the same opinion a fortnight ago.

At the bottom is a photograph of myself with my favourite-ever footballer, Pat Nevin. The photo was taken pre-match in Moscow in 2008 and is signed by the good man. I have recently started reading his very entertaining autobiography. Not only was he a winger for Chelsea, he loves the Cocteau Twins and went out with Clare Grogan. The holy trinity in my book. However, when I read – open-mouthed – that at the age of eight he was able to do ten thousand keepy-uppies, I just hated him. My record is 246. How could he do that bloody many at eight? Git.

So beneath these three images, I dressed and made sure everything was packed. As a superstition, I decided to take a light top that I wore on that magical night in Barcelona in 2012. I needed something to protect my fair arms from the sun. My light beige Hugo Boss top served me well high up in Camp Nou. I hoped for a similar outcome in Porto. I also took a New York Yankees cap for a similar reason; my thatched roof is getting thinner and thinner these days. I wore a New York Yankees cap in Moscow in 2008, but fear not. This was a new one, not the unlucky one of thirteen years previous. The old one was lost in Bucharest on CL duty in 2013.

Superstitions, there were two more.

The first was easy.

Before the European finals in 2012, 2013 and 2019 I had bought breakfasts the day before travel for the office team at work. I continued the tradition this year.

The other one is a little more bizarre.

In 2012, on the Thursday, my car was absolutely spattered with bird shit. Remembering that if this horrible substance lands on you personally, it is regarded as a good luck charm, I decided not to wash it off. It’s worth a gamble, right? I memorably was hit by a pigeon in The Shed during the first game of the 1983/84 season – the famous 5-0 clobbering of Derby County – and I took this as my CFC reference point. 1983/84 is still my favourite-ever season. In 2013, guess what? Splattered again. Before my jaunt to Baku two years ago, my car also took a direct hit. This is no surprise; seagulls nest in and around our premises. Once a month a chap with a hawk appears and tries to scare the buggers away. On Friday, I popped out to my car mid-morning to make a call. Imagine my elation and amusement when my bonnet and lower windscreen had appeared to have been drenched by a pot of Dulux. Ha.

So, yeah – breakfasts and bird shit. Covered.

I set off – “Jack Kerouac” – at 1.45am. I turned the radio on as I backed out of my driveway.

“I wonder what song it will be? Wonder if it will sum up my thoughts, or be a sign for the day.”

“Even Better Than The Real Thing” by U2 assaulted my shell-likes, and I quickly turned it off. But the words “the real thing” struck home. After a year of ersatz training-game football, this was indeed the real thing, no doubt. As I mentioned in the FA Cup Final report, I have really struggled with watching us on TV this season. At last, here was a game I could witness in person with all of the accompanied involvement and sense of belonging. The FA Cup Final was OK but I struggled acclimatising myself with live football after fourteen months away. I hoped for a better feeling in Porto. Maybe it really would be better than the real thing.

I made really good time en route to Gatwick. Passing over Salisbury Plain for the first time in ages, I passed an owl perched on a roadside post. I imagined it thinking –

“Ah, Mister Axon. I have been expecting you.”

The roads were clear. Hardly anything as I drove past Stonehenge and then onto the deserted A303 and M3. Even the M25 was devoid of much traffic. I pulled in to the car park at Gatwick North just a few minutes before four o’clock.

Four AM. Fackinell.

There were already masses of Chelsea folk in the departure area. I joined the queue. “Hellos” to a few faces – Luke, Aroha, Doreen – then John and Maureen, all on the same 0700 flight. But familiar faces were in short supply. I hardly recognised anyone. To my chagrin, a few were sporting the 2021/22 Zig Zag monstrosity. I was eternally grateful the club chose not to repeat wearing it for this final. Another good decision, Chelsea. This will have to stop; you’ll be ruining your reputation. Many lads chose the bum bag option. Many were in shorts. The usual assortment of Stone Island patches, Lacoste, Gant, Ralph, CP, Adidas trainers a-go-go. But there was a proper mix; more replica shirts than usual for a European trip.

I handed over my passport and the various forms to the official and there were no exclamations nor questions. It was satisfactorily smooth, there had been no balls-ups from my underpaid PA and I was checked in. Inwardly, I did a somersault of joy.

Panic over.

Others had a customary pre-match bevvy. I met up with some good friends; Charlotte and Donna completed the Somerset Section. Rachel from Devon. Rob from Chester. An “A Squad” of European travellers no doubt. I spent a good few minutes chatting to Charlotte who is the same age as me. Charlotte was diagnosed with cancer a while back, has since undergone chemotherapy and is on the road to recovery. We traded health updates. Everyone was pleased to see that I was doing well after my heart attack in October. I wandered a little, spotted a few faces, a chat here and there.

On reaching Gate 49, I spotted Andy and Sophie, father and daughter, good friends from Nuneaton. I famously first met Andy to talk to on Wenceslas Square in Prague after the Zizkov game in 1994 although he was always a face I would spot everywhere including in Glasgow for a Rangers versus Motherwell game in 1987. Andy and Sophie were in Baku, that final being exactly two years ago to the day. I was in Baku for six days two years ago. I would be in Porto for sixteen hours in 2021.

Another anniversary for 29 May.

Heysel Stadium 1985.

Never forgotten.

More of that later.

I wasn’t too happy that TUI’s corporate colour was City sky blue but was just happy to be en route to Porto now. There would be a light breakfast, but also the chance for a small sleep. Every minute counts on breaks like these. While waiting for clearance on the runway, I was just drifting off but I heard my name being called out.

“Chris Axon.”

“Oh God, what have I done now?”

The CFC steward was handing out match tickets, alphabetically, and I was one of the first to be mentioned. Stadium seating plans were studied. I was down in a corner behind the goal in row three, just like at Wembley against Leicester City. A bad omen? Possibly.

I chatted to the two lads to my right. We were seated in the very last row. None of us were too confident. I reckoned our chances to succeed to be around 33%, maybe the same mark as against Bayern in 2012. Against United in 2008 it was bang on 50% from memory. I posted a photo of the ticket on Facebook, turned the phone off and waited.

Flight TOM8400 took off at 7.30am.

After a while, the seatbelt signs were turned off and there ensued a rampage to join the queue for toilets situated right behind us. But the male air steward wanted to start serving breakfast.

“Please go back to your seats, there is no room for so many in the queue. I can’t get past.”

There was no reaction. Eye contact was avoided. Quiet murmurings of discontent. English people queue for fun, and especially for comfort – or discomfort – breaks, nobody was moving.

“Please can you all go back?”

With that, the steward began pushing his trolley down the aisle. The passengers backed off.

I turned to the lads next to me :

“Fucking hell, Chelsea ran by a trolley dolly.”

The flight soon passed. We landed at Porto’s Francisco Sa Carneiro airport at 9.30am. There was a fair wait at passport control. Social distancing simply did not take place. But we all were negative, so I guess it was irrelevant. I handed over my passport and forms. I was in. Another great moment. Andy and Sophie were waiting for me. We had agreed to spend some time together before the day got going. I made a quick visit to the busy gents. While I was turning my bike around, there was an almighty explosion taking place in one of the cubicles behind me. One wag joked :

“Bloody hell, somebody has smuggled someone else in.”

I replied :

“Yeah, a Tottenham fan.”

We were given yellow wristbands on boarding a coach to take us into the city. This would act as evidence of our negative test result and meant we did not have to show security at the fan zone or stadium our forms. A good move, although one friend would later comment that it signalled to the outside world that we had tickets and might be the target for pickpockets. In 2015 on our visit, a few friends were pick-pocketed including my dear friend Alan and Wycombe Stan.

There was cloud overhead but the rising sun soon burned through. We were dropped off at the fan zone on Avenue dos Aliados. It wasn’t far from our hotel in 2015. We decided to enter and kill some time. It was pleasant enough. Andy and Sophie had a beer. But I promised to be tee-total all day long. I had not dropped a touch of alcohol since the first day of September. And the thought of me drinking even a few pints under a burning sun scared me. I wanted to be completely in charge of my senses on this day, especially should there be any sort of plea-bargaining regarding my camera at the stadium.

There was music, a few sideshows, and I met my friends Kenny and then Leigh, lovely Chelsea folk. My good friend Orlin from Sofia appeared outside but did not have his identity wristband so was denied access. We chatted, farcically, through the barricades…we would keep in touch and see each other later no doubt.

Andy spotted Billy Gilmour’s parents, with his two lookalike younger brothers. Billy’s parents looked relaxed and were drinking beer too. As we decided to move on, we walked past them just as Leigh presented Billy’s mother with a “Scottish Iniesta” sticker. I had stopped and decided to say a word or two to Mrs. Gilmour.

“I am sure you are as proud of your son as we are. I hope he goes right to the very top” and gave her a fist-bump. She was lovely.

“Awe, thanks very much.”

Outside, the three of us stood outside a small bar. Beers and Cokes. Andy spotted Michael Gove walk past. Regardless of any political persuasion, he surely has to have the most slappable face in Westminster. A friend back home reminded me that we once saw him walk past “The Three Kings” in West Ken on a match day a few years back. Apparently his son supports us. I reminded Andy how he – much to the bemusement of Sophie – berated former MP Tony Banks, and Chelsea fan, outside the Monaco stadium at the Super Cup game in 1998.

“Leave it out mate, I am here for the football.”

We giggled.

Andy and I have seen some things. We remembered how he said in Monaco “there’s a Real fan in Madrid right now saying…”

I continued “Chelsea always beat us.”

We wondered what he thought about the semi-finals this year.     

Andy and I travelled together to Stockholm and Monaco in 1998. We were both in Moscow in 2008, Munich in 2012, Amsterdam in 2013. I saw him in Baku in 2019. We had heard that City were all mobbed up down by the waterfront. This top part of the town centre was all Chelsea. Everything was pretty quiet to be honest. A few sporadic shouts. We saw Pat Nevin on the stage inside the fan zone.

…mmm, I saw him in Moscow, but not in Munich. Was that a bad sign? Time would tell.

Sophie had heard from two friends who were further south so we trotted down the street to meet up with them. I was waiting to hear from Orlin, who had promised to bring along a power pack for me to charge up my quickly dwindling moby. The City shirts now outnumbered Chelsea ones. Porto tumbles down to the Douro, it is a lovely city, and the streets looked quite familiar. Orlin, who I bumped in to in Porto in 2015, texted me to say he was at a restaurant. We walked on, with City jeers of “Rent Boys” aimed at Chelsea fans every fifty yards or so. We walked into a small square and Andy and Sophie’s friends shouted out from a table outside a restaurant. Lo and behold, who should be sat four yards away but Orlin. What luck. The three of us joined them for lunch at 1.30pm. I was sat with several of the Chelsea Bulgaria contingent. Their flag was near me at Wembley. Two of Orlin’s friends are on the UEFA Away ST Scheme so were sure of tickets. Orlin had to search the black market for his.

It was magical to spend time with him again. We updated each other; travels, health, mutual friends, a little talk about football. He was a lot more confident than me. I always call him “Mister 51%” because he says he is more of a Chelsea fan now, in preference to Levski, his boyhood team.

I remained as Mister 33%.

I had the briefest of words with two City fans in the restaurant itself, the only ones I would talk to all day.

“Good luck tonight. I have no problem with City. We have both had a similar history really. Second Division and all that.”

“Third Division for us. Cheers mate.”

Another fist bump.

I soon realised that we were sat outside on exactly the same table where Parky, Kev and I had an equally enjoyable meal on match day in 2015. Shit, we lost that time. I enjoyed a meal of grilled vegetables and flat breads. Not only no alcohol but a vegetarian meal.

“You’ve changed.”

We said our goodbyes and I needed a little time to myself. It was three o’clock and as I descended to Praca da Ribeira – City Central – some fears enveloped me. There seemed to be way more City in the city than us. This area was mobbed with every City shirt imaginable; like us they have had some shockers. All of this was eerily similar to United dominating Moscow in 2008.

This was my worst case scenario pre-departure from England :

“I won’t meet any close friends, I’ll get sunburned, the bars will be too packed, I won’t enjoy it, my camera will get confiscated again, we’ll concede an early goal ten minutes in, we’ll have to chase the game, City will rip us apart, I think we will get pummeled, delays at the airport, misery in masks.”

Mister 33% for sure.

I left City behind me and slowly ascended a few tight streets. It was close and humid down by the river but nice and airy further north. I popped into a deserted café for a gorgeous fishcake and another Coke. Blue skies overhead. As I slowly walked towards Chelsea Central, I saw a Chelsea Belgium flag draped over a balcony. I inevitably took a few photographs of this highly photogenic city. I loved its trademark blue and white tiled houses. Like Wedgewood or Delft pottery.

Snap, snap, snap.

I met up with the “A Squad” again and bought myself an iced-tea from a nearby shop. The shops around the fan zone were stocked with Super Bock and were doing a fine trade. A large group of around three hundred Chelsea were in good voice…I joined in. We were starting to get our vocal chords prepared. Donna was interviewed for a live piece on “Sky News.” Luke was nicely buoyed by Super Bock. His lovely wife is seven months pregnant. How lovely if we could win tonight so their first-born could claim being present at a European triumph.

My oldest friend Mario sent through a photo of his youngest son Nelson in a Chelsea training top and my heart leapt. Mario lives in Germany and his local team is Bayer Leverkusen. Two of his three boys are Leverkusen fans. Mario and Nelson are ST holders. Nelson met Kai Havertz at a training session a year or so ago. Mario also supports Juventus – he is Italian – and on this date in 1985 he was meant to be in Section Z at Heysel, but had too much school work that week so it was decided he would not attend. And thank God.

On 29 May 1985, I was in England and supporting Juventus in a European Cup Final.

On 29 May 2021, Mario and Nelson were in Germany and supporting Chelsea in a European Cup Final.

Football. Fackinell.

Time was moving on now. Charlotte and I had decided that we would leave earlier than the rest. Chemo has tired Charlotte a little. We needed to allow ourselves plenty of time to travel by subway and then the final mile or so by foot to reach the stadium. I was more than happy to leave. I had thoroughly enjoyed my day thus far. The negative vibes were starting to subside though I had not dwelt on the game at all. We left the others behind at 5.15pm. A subway stop was just a few yards away. We had been given a subway card on the coach with our match ticket; a nice touch.

We walked down the steps into Aliados station just as a huddle of Chelsea fans had the same idea.

We were on our way.

Tales From The Final Tie

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 15 May 2021.

Since We Last Spoke.

My match report for the home game against Everton in March of last year – a really fine 4-0 win – ended with a typical few words.

“Right. Aston Villa away on Saturday. See you there.”

Then, as we all know too dearly, life – and football – changed. The corona virus that had first been spoken about just after Christmas in 2019, almost in a semi-humorous way at the start, took hold and started claiming victims at an alarming rate. A global pandemic was on our hands. Very soon the United Kingdom was placed in lockdown, a situation that none of us could have ever envisioned witnessing in person during our lives.

Suddenly and without too much thought, football seemed of little real relevance to me.

The trials and tribulations of Chelsea Football Club in particular seemed small compared to the news appearing on my TV screen, on my phone and laptop. As friends found their own way of coping with the surreal nature of lock down, and then being furloughed from work, I quickly realised that football, Chelsea in particular, was way down my list of priorities.

I simply had other, more serious, issues to deal with. And this is how my thought process, my coping mechanism, remained for weeks and weeks. While others pushed for football to return I simply asked myself :

Why?

It was irrelevant, for me, to concern myself with millionaires playing football.

Eventually after a prolonged break, when the football season began again in the middle of June, I had become emotionally distanced from the sport and from Chelsea too. I had simply turned inwards, as did many; working from home, travelling as little as I could manage and trying not to impact – socially – on the outside world. I joked that I had been practising for this moment my entire life. Earlier in my life, I was the ultimate shy boy.

But the noisemakers in the game and the media were adamant that it would be a major moral boost for the nation to see football return.

How?

It just didn’t sit well with me, this notion of football to be seen as the great saviour. Other priorities seemed to overshadow it. I just could not correlate what I was hearing in the media about football and what I was feeling inside.

I will not lie, I absolutely hated watching the games on TV, with no fans, in silence, and I became more and more distanced from the sport that I had loved with each passing game. I watched almost with a sense of duty, nothing more. What had been my lifeblood – to an almost ridiculous level some might say, and with some justification – just seemed sterile and distant. I have very few memories of those games in the summer.

The FA Cup Final seemed particularly difficult to watch. On a hot day in August, I mowed the lawn, and even did some work in my home office for an hour or two, and then sat alone to see us score an early Christian Pulisic goal but then be over-run by a revitalised Arsenal team. That result hurt of course, and I was annoyed how some decisions went against us. The sad injury to Pedro – a fine player for us over five years – in the last kick of the game seemed to sum up our horrible misfortune that day. However, and I know this sounds funny and odd, but I was pleased that I was hurting. That I still cared.

But by the evening, the loss was glossed over.

Football still didn’t seem too important to me.

The one positive for me, and one which combines my own particular brand of OCD – Obsessive Chelsea Disorder – married with a possible smidgeon of shallowness, was the fact that I didn’t have to delete the games I had witnessed in 2019/20 from both my games spreadsheet and – gulp – this blog site.

A small victory for me, and I needed it.

Off the field, work was becoming particularly stressful for me. In August I came oh-so close to handing in my notice. The workload was piling up, I was battling away, and I was getting some worrying chest pains again.

In mid-September, the new season began and I openly hoped for a new approach from me. There was nothing up in the air here; we knew games would be played behind closed doors, we knew the score from the start. I renewed my NOWTV package to allow me to see most of our games. We began the league campaign at Brighton. For some reason, I didn’t see the game, I can’t remember why not. The first match I witnessed on TV was the home defeat to Liverpool.

It was no good. I could not deny it. I was as distanced as ever. The hold that Chelsea Football Club had on me for decades was under threat.

Conversely – at last some fucking positivity – as soon as my local team Frome Town started playing friendlies and then league games, I was in football heaven. I especially remember a fantastic pre-season friendly against Yeovil Town two days before Chelsea’s game at Brighton. A warm Thursday evening and a capacity 400 attendance, a fine game with friends, just magnificent. In September and October, I attended many a Frome Town game including aways at Mangotsfield United in Bristol – it felt so good to be back home in my living room uploading photos just an hour after the game had finished, a real positive – and on a wet night in Bideford in North Devon. Home gates were significantly higher than the previous season. There was a magnificent sense of community at the club. There had even been a tremendous crowd-funder to raise £25,000 in April to keep the club going. We even had a little FA Trophy run – before being expelled for refusing to play an away tie in an area with a high infection rate. Soon after, the club’s records for a second successive season were expunged and that early season flourish was put on hold until 2021/22.

But for a month, I was felling inexorably closer to Frome Town than to Chelsea. It seemed that my entire world was turning in on myself.

Was the world changing?

On Saturday 10 October it certainly did. For the second time in a few days I experienced chest pains. There had been a similar attack in my bed and breakfast in Bideford on Thursday morning. That drive home was horrible. I wanted to be brave enough to phone for a doctor. On the Saturday, I knew I had to act. I phoned the emergency services and – to cut a very long story to a quick few lines – I was whisked into a local hospital in Bath. On the Sunday, I was told that I had suffered a mild heart attack, and on Monday I underwent an operation to have two stents fitted into my heart. My Tuesday afternoon, I was home again.

I remained off work for five weeks, and slowly returned in stages. A half-day here, a half-day there. I remained calm throughout these weeks. I knew, deep down, that something had been wrong but being a typical bloke, decided to let things slide and hope for the best. Since then, I have improved my lifestyle; decaffeinated coffee – boo! – and healthier food, more exercise and all of the associated improvements that go with it.

With all this going on, Chelsea seemed even more remote. I was momentarily cheered when fans were allowed back inside Stamford Bridge, and that for a few hours we were top of the table after Leeds United were despatched. For a fleeting moment, it seemed that Frank Lampard, who had teased a very creditable fourth place finish in July out of his youngsters, was now able to similarly nurture his new signings too. But there had been failings in 2020/21 too. Our defence was at times calamitous. But I was solidly behind Frank all of the way. I really felt for him. Back in March, with Billy Gilmour the new star, we had enjoyed quite wonderful wins over Liverpool and Everton. There was positivity, hope and the future looked utterly pleasing.

Then the pandemic struck. Damn you COVID19.

In December and early January our form dipped alarmingly. I watched Frank’s interviews through my fingers. It was not pleasant viewing. It saddened me that so many rank and file Chelsea supporters, across all demographics – from old school fans in England to younger ones abroad – had seen fit to kindly forget the “I don’t care if we finish mid-table for a couple of seasons, let’s build a future with our youngsters” mantra in August 2019.

It got to the stage where I didn’t want Chelsea to simply win games but to simply win games for Frank.

I had returned full-time to work in mid-January. To their credit my employer has been first rate throughout my ordeal. While I was in the office on a day in late January, it was sadly announced that Frank Lampard had been sacked. I was numbed yet not at all surprised. I firstly hated the decision for reasons that are probably not difficult to guess. So much for long termism, eh Chelsea?

My interest in the exploits of Chelsea Football Club probably reached an all-term low. Or at least since the relegation season of 1978/79 when we were shocking throughout and I was being pulled away from football with a new interest in music and other teenage distractions.

Thomas Tuchel?

A nerdy-looking chap, skeleton thin, probably a diamond with Powerpoint and with a marginally worse hairstyle than me? I wished him well but football again seemed distant.

Our form improved but the football itself seemed sterile. I was still struggling.

On a Saturday in March, I debated whether or not I had time to go off on a ten mile walk to a local village and get back in time to watch play at Elland Road. I considered binning the football in favour of my new found enjoyment of walks in the surrounding winter Somerset countryside. In the end I compromised; I went for a walk on the Sunday.

I know what I found most enjoyable.

Of late, our form has really improved. Again, I haven’t seen every game. But we look a little more coherent, defensively especially. Apart from an odd blip, to be honest, the results since the new manager took over have been sensational even if many of the ways of getting those results have lacked a certain “I know not what.”

Pizazz? Style?

I’m being mean. The bloke has done well. I like his self-effacing humour, his humble approach. He has started to grow in me (Parky : “like a fungus”).

Of late, our progress in the latter stages of the Champions League has been the most impressive part of our recent resurgence. And yet this competition has been haunting me all season long. In a nutshell, the thought of us reaching our third European Cup Final and – being selfish here, I know it – me not being able to attend is a nightmare.

(OK, not a nightmare. I know. I know 127,000 people have lost their lives due to COVID19. That is the real nightmare. I realise that. This is just football. Just football.)

I shrugged off last August’s FA Cup Final. I coped remarkably well with that. I soon decided that I could even stomach missing a second-successive one this year. But the thought of us lifting the big one for a second time and me – and others – not being there is bloody purgatory.

So, it was with a heady mix of genuine pride and impending sadness that accompanied the glorious sight of us beating a hideously poor Real Madrid side over two-legs to reach the final.

But that spectacle, or debacle, needs another chapter devoted to it. And it doesn’t seem right to talk too much about that at this time. In fact, going into the weekend I assured myself that I would not dwell too much about the 2021 European Cup Final. Let’s be honest here; the twin crushing of the hated European Super League and the farcical and immoral desire of UEFA to send 8,000 UK citizens to Portugal in the midst of a global pandemic warrants a book, a Netflix series even, all by themselves.

Let’s talk about the FA Cup.

For those readers of this blogorama who have been paying attention, I have been featuring the visit of my grandfather Ted Draper to Stamford Bridge for the 1920 FA Cup Final between Aston Villa, his team, and Huddersfield Town. This is a work of fiction since I only know that my grandfather once visited Stamford Bridge, but was never able to remember the game. Suffice to say, in the report of the home game against Liverpool last March, I continued the story.

After a break of fourteen months, a re-cap.

On Saturday 24 April 1920, on this very same site, if not this very same stadium – but certainly one which was in situ for the 1982 game, those lovely packed terraces – my grandfather stood on the great slug of the West terrace with his old school friend Ted Knapton alongside him. It was half-time, and the score between the two teams – Aston Villa, who he favoured, and Huddersfield Town – was 0-0. It had been an exhilarating game of football for my grandfather, though the spectacle of seeing fifty-thousand spectators in one sports ground had proved to be the one abiding memory that he would take away with him.

Fifty thousand people.

And virtually all were men, and so many had fought in the Great War.

My grandfather was twenty-five years old. He silently gazed out at the main stand on the far side, the open terraces behind each goal, and looked behind him at row after row of fellows in caps and hats, some with the colourful favours of the two competing teams. A claret and blue rosette here. A light blue hat there.

Fifty-thousand men.

It struck home.

My grandfather had just that week spotted a local girl, a few years younger than him, who was beginning work in the manor house of his home village. She was a young cook, with a lovely smile, and had caught his eye.

My grandfather was a rather quiet man. He looked out at all those faces. He did not speak to his friend Ted, but he – at Stamford Bridge on Cup Final day 1920 – had decided that the stadium, indeed the whole of England was full of men, and the thought of one of them asking the young cook out before he had a chance to utter a shy “hello” ate away at him.

He had survived the Great War. He lived in a great village and now this great spectacle had stirred him in a way that he had not expected.

“You had better get your act together, Ted Draper. On Monday at lunch time, I think I will ask Blanche if she would like to accompany me to next weekend’s village dance. I can’t be second in that race.”

I was so annoyed that I could not continue this story last season. The team did their part, defeating Manchester United in a semi-final, but of course there was no Cup Final Tale in which I could tie up rather conveniently tie up the end of my 1920 story on the centenary.

Thankfully, good old Chelsea, the team defeated Manchester City in this season’s semis to enable me to continue and to honour my grandfather again.

The quality of the play down below on the surprisingly muddy Stamford Bridge pitch deteriorated throughout the second-half. But Ted Draper, along with his friend Ted Knapton, were still enthralled by the cut and thrust of the two teams. The players, wearing heavy cotton shirts, went into each tackle with thunderous tenacity. And the skill of the nimble wide players caught both of their eye.

“Ted, I wonder what the crowd figure is here today. There are a few spaces on the terracing. I suspect it would have been at full capacity if Chelsea had won their semi-final against the Villa.”

“I think you are right. What’s the capacity here? I have heard it said it can hold 100,000.”

“Bugger me.”

“Trust Chelsea to mess it up.”

“Yes. Good old Chelsea.”

The crowd impressed them. But they were not too impressed with the swearing nor the quite shocking habit of some spectators to openly urinate on the cinder terraces.

“To be honest Ted, I haven’t seen any lavatories here have you?”

“I’m just glad I went in that pub before we arrived.”

The play continued on, and the crowd grew restless with the lack of goals. The programme was often studied to match the names of the players with their positions on the pitch. With no goals after ninety-minutes, there was a short break before extra-time, and more liquid cascaded down the terraces.

“Like a bloody river, Ted.”

After ten minutes of the first period of extra-time, Aston Villa broke away on a fast break and the brown leather ball held up just in time for the inside-right Billy Kirton to tuck the ball past Sandy Mutch in the Huddersfield goal.  There was a mighty roar, and Ted Draper joined in.

The Aston Villa supporters standing nearby flung their hats into the crowd and many of the bonnets and caps landed on the sodden floor of the terracing.

“Buggered if I’d put those things back on my head, Ted.”

There then followed a period of back-slapping among the Villa die-hards, and Ted Draper was very pleased that his team had taken the lead. The game stayed at 1-0, with both teams tiring in the last part of the match. The crowd stayed until the end, transfixed. There was just time to see the Aston Villa captain Andy Ducat lift the silver trophy on the far side. The teams soon disappeared into the stand.

With a blink of an eye, the game was done, the day was over, and Somerset was calling.

As the two friends slowly made their way out of the Stamford Bridge stadium, Ted Knapton – who favoured no team, but had picked the Huddersfield men for this game – spoke to my grandfather.

“That goal, Ted.”

“What of it?”

“It looked offside to me.”

“Not a chance, not a chance Ted. The inside-right was a good half-inch onside.”

“Ah, you’re a bugger Ted Draper, you’re a bugger.”

On Cup Final Day 2021, I was up early, a good ninety minutes ahead of the intended 8am alarm clock. One of my first tasks was to swab my mouth and nose. Now there’s a phrase that I never ever thought that I would utter on a Cup Final morn. Part of the protocol for this game, the biggest planned event to take part in the UK since lockdown in March 2020, was that all attendees should take a lateral flow test at an official centre from 2.15pm on Thursday 13 May. I was lucky, I was able to work a late shift on the Friday and I travelled to Street for my test. The negative result soon came through by email. We also were advised, though not compulsory, to take a test at home on the morning of the game and five days after the event in order for data to be gathered. A small price to pay.

This felt odd. To be going to a game after so long. I took some stick from a few people that saw me comment that my love of football was being rekindled.

“Chelsea get to two cup finals and all of a sudden Chris Axon loves football again.”

I laughed with them.

The joy of football had been rekindled because I was now able to see a live game. There are many ways for people to get their kick out of football. By playing, by writing, by watching on TV, by refereeing, by betting, by coaching, by fantasy leagues. By I get my kick through live football.

It has been my life.

I posted the carton with the vial containing my swab at Mells Post Office just after I left home at 10.30am. I was genuinely excited for the day’s events to unfold. Outside the same post office a few days earlier, I had announced to two elderly widows of the village – Janet and Ann – that I was off to the FA Cup Final a few days earlier.

“I have missed it badly.”

They both smiled.

And I realised that this final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup represented a final tie to my childhood – I am known around the village as a Chelsea supporter – and it also represented a nod to the tie that Chelsea Football Club has on me.

But did it really represent one last chance to bring me back in from the cold?

I know that I needed something to help me regain my love of the game before my dislike of VAR, obscenely-overpaid players, ever-changing kick-off times, blood-sucking agents, the continuing indifference to game-going fans despite the limp platitudes that might suggest otherwise, the threat of the thirty-ninth game, knobhead fans, the disgraceful behaviour of UEFA and FIFA in so many aspects of their stance on so many things (I have already decided I am not watching a single second of the Qatar World Cup) all combine in one horrible mixture to turn me away even more.

I have aired all this before. As well you know.

No pressure, Chelsea.

Vic Woodley.

On my way to collect Lord Parky, my sole companion on this foray back to normality, I passed near the village of Westwood. Until recently, I was unaware – as were many – that this is the final resting place of our former ‘keeper Vic Woodley. There is a group on Facebook that actively try to locate the graves of former players and on occasion headstones are purchased if there are unmarked graves. It is an admirable cause. Two Saturdays ago, I placed some blue and white flowers on the grave. Although it is open to debate, I would suggest that until 1955, Vic Woodley was our most successful player at Chelsea.

Hughie Gallacher was probably our most famous player, George Smith had played more games and George Mills had been our record goal scorer.

But Woodley had played 252 games for Chelsea and 19 for England. He was in our team for the Moscow Dynamo game in 1945 too.

I vote for Vic Woodley.

I soon passed The Barge pub, on the outskirts of Bradford on Avon where he was a landlord in later years.

We must pay a visit when normality returns.

Parky soon reminded me that he had heard of his Uncle Gerald, a Derby County fan, talk about Vic Woodley – who played thirty times for Derby before moving to Bath City – living locally when Parky was younger. Parky also recounted meeting a chap in nearby Melksham who had been at that Moscow Dynamo game just after the Second World War.


1994 And 2021.

I had collected Parky at 11am. His first task had been to replicate a photo of me setting off outside Glenn’s house in Frome before the drive to the 1994 FA Cup Final. I wanted a little comparison. Me at 28 and me at 55.

This would be my eleventh FA Cup Final that I will have attended. The twenty-eight year old me what have laughed at such a notion.

We had a lovely natter on the way up. We hardy stopped chatting. Sadly, neither Glenn nor PD could make it up but we promised to keep them in our thoughts. Our route took us towards High Wycombe before we doubled back on the M40. This was quite appropriate since a very well-known and popular supporter at Chelsea, Wycombe Stan, had recently passed away. He was well-loved by all and will be sadly missed at Chelsea. Stan has featured in these reports a few times. A smashing bloke.

RIP Wycombe Stan.

I had purchased a pre-paid parking slot for £20 only a ten-minute walk from the stadium. Traffic delays going in meant that we didn’t arrive much before 3pm, but it felt good, for once, to not have to race like fools to get in to a Cup Final. Those “last pints” on Cup Final day are legend.

The environs around modern Wembley Stadium are much different than as recently as 2007, the first final at the new place. Flats and hotels abound. It is very much a retail village first, a sporting venue second. We bumped into two Chelsea fans on the walk to the stadium. Gill B. said that the place was full of Leicester, that there were hardly any Chelsea present yet. I knew of two Leicester City season ticket holders who were attending the final and one had said that most of their fans were arriving on an armada of coaches. Gill R. wasn’t planning on meeting up with anyone, but as we turned a quiet corner, she shouted out : ”Chris!”

It was so lovely to see her. We chatted for quite a while, talking about the surreal nature of the past year, the sad departure of Frank, the whole nine yards. We both admitted we had not missed football as much as we had expected. Strange times.

At the southern end of what is now normally called “Wembley Way” – but was really called “Olympic Way” – the rather unsightly access slope has been replaced by steps, which I must admit remind me of an old style football terrace. But it is rather odd to see steps there. One supposes that crowd control has improved since the Ibrox disaster of 1971, but the straight rails, with no cross rails to stop surges, did bring a tremor to my memory banks. At least the steps do not immediately start near the stadium.

At the base of the steps, we scanned our match ticket and showed our test result email to Security Bod Number One.

In. Simple.

We neared the turnstiles at the eastern end – not our usual one – at around 3.30pm. Hardly anyone was around. We went straight in.

Thankfully, Security Bod Number Two didn’t react negatively to the sight of my camera and lenses.

Result. In.

For an hour and a half – the equivalent of a match – and by far the most enjoyable ninety minutes of the day, we chatted to many friends who we had not seen for fourteen months. I was driving, of course, so was not drinking. In fact, as I never drink at home, my last alcoholic intake was way back in September. But Parky, himself almost teetotal since June, was off the leash and “enjoying” the £6 pints. I updated many friends with the latest news regarding my health. I summed it up like this :

“I’ve had a good six months.”

There had been rumours of the whole game being played under constant rain. We were low down, row three and right behind the goal. If anyone was going to get wet, we were.

It was soon 5pm. A quick dash to the loo, things have improved since 1920. Within seconds I was spotting more familiar faces and I added to the gallery.

A Chelsea Gallery.

The Game.

The Cup Final hymn – Abide With Me – was sung and I sang along too. It is always so moving.

A quick look around. Most people in the lower tier. Team banners all over the south side of the top tier. A few people dotted around the middle tier and the north side of the top tier. Altogether surreal. Altogether strange. We had been gifted a Chelsea flag and a small blue bag was placed beneath the seat too. I didn’t bother to look in for a while. Time was moving on. I was starting to gear up for my first Chelsea game of the season and, possibly – only possibly – my last. Some fireworks, some announcements, the entrance of the teams. I spotted Prince William, a good man, and snapped away as he was introduced to the two teams.

“Oh bollocks. The teams. Who’s playing?”

I had been so busy chatting in the concourse that my mind had not given it a moment’s thought.

James in the middle three, Kepa in goal, Ziyech? Oh dear. I was amazed that Havertz was not playing. I was reminded last week that the young German’s first ever appearance at Wembley was in late 2016 against Tottenham. He came on as an eighty-sixth minute substitute for Bayer Leverkusen as they won 1-0. It was memorable for me too; I was there, tucked away among the Leverkusen hordes with my childhood friend Mario.

So, yes, the team.

Kepa.

James. Silva. Rudiger.

Dave. Kante. Jorginho. Alonso.

Mount. Werner. Ziyech.

I always say that I need a few games at the start of each season to get used to watching football again. To learn the habits, strengths and weaknesses of new players. To pace myself. To try to take it all in. Sadly, such a staggeringly low viewing position was of no use whatsoever. Everything was difficult. There was no depth. I really struggled.

And I really struggled with the latest dog’s dinner kit that the wonder kids at Nike have foisted upon us.

Does anybody like it?

To be honest, with players in motion the bizarre chequered pattern is not too discernible. It is only when players are still that the mess is fully visible. That the nasty pattern is continued onto the shorts without the merest hint of an apology makes it twice as bad. After getting it so right – sadly for one game – in 2020, the Nike folk thought that the yellow trim was obviously worth repeating.

Right. Enough of that. I’m getting depressed.

With only 12,500 fans of the competing clubs in the vastness of Wembley, it was so difficult to get an atmosphere going. For the first time in fourteen months, my vocal skills were tested. I joined in when I could. But it was all rather half-hearted.

The game began and we edged the opening spell quite easily with Mason Mount busy and involved. A couple of very early attacks down the right amounted to nothing. The rain was just about staying off.

Our loudest chant in the game thus far had been the statistically inaccurate “We’ve won it all”, a comment that Corinthians of San Paolo will note with a chuckle, as will the Saints of Southampton.

After a full quarter of an hour, an optimistic effort from Toni Rudiger flew tamely wide of the Leicester goal. A rare foray into our half saw a cross from Timothy Castagne for Jamie Vardy but Reece James blocked well. Chances were rare though. Mount advanced well but shot wide. An effort from Timo Werner replicated the curve of the arch overhead as his shot plopped into the area housing the Leicester fans.

We were clearly dominating possession but after a reasonable start we became bogged down with keeping the ball and trying to force our way in to Leicester’s well-drilled defence. I could almost hear the commentators describing the play. And it’s maybe a subtle new type of play too, possibly a side-effect of having no fans at games for over a year.

Watching on TV, and I admit I get so frustrated, I get bored to death of teams sitting back and letting teams pass in and around them. I watched some old footage from the ‘eighties recently, highlights of the 1982 and 1988 Scottish Cup Finals, and from the kick-off the teams were at each other. It was like watching a different sport. It was breathless, maybe not tactically pleasing, but it had me on edge and dreaming of another era.

Today there is just so much I can take of commentators talking about “the press, a low press, a high press, a high block, a low block, between the lines, transition, the counter, little pockets, passing channels.”

It seems that football is – even more – a sport watched by experts and critics rather than supporters. Yes, everyone seems more educated in tactics these days, but the repetition of some key phrases surely grates on me.

For the high priests of the high press, I sometimes wonder if they are even aware of how often they use this phrase during a normal match.

Players have always closed space and targeted weak spots, just as teams have in the past been happy to soak up pressure when needed. It just seems that teams do it all the time now. In every bloody game. And with no supporters in the stadium to inject some passion and intensity, I get drained watching training game after training game on TV.  

A few long crosses and corners from the right did not trouble Schmeichel in the Leicester goal. His father was in the Manchester United goal in 1994. It infamously rained that day and just around the half-way mark of the first-half, the heavens opened. The omens were against us. My camera bag got drenched, my jacket was getting drenched. The blue cardboard bag from Chelsea was getting drenched.

Someone asked: “what’s in the goody bag?”

I replied “a return air ticket to Istanbul.”

Tuchel hurried back to the bench to get a blue baseball cap from his goody bag. Not sure if he had a metal badge too, though.

For twenty minutes, my photos stopped. I couldn’t risk my camera getting waterlogged. Leicester had a few rare forays towards us at the eastern end. I liked the look of Thiago Silva. Bizarrely, of course, these were my first sightings of Werner, Ziyech and Silva in a Chelsea shirt.

The rain slowed and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was in no mood for a “Burnley 2017.” Around me, the rain had dampened the fervour of our support. Leicester were beginning to be heard.

“Vichai had a dream. He bought a football team.

He came from Thailand and now he’s one of our own.

We play from the back.

And counter attack.

Champions of England. You made us sing that.”

Thankfully no mention of a high press.

The last real chance of the half, a poor-half really, fell to Caglar Soyuncu but his effort dropped wide of the far post.

At half-time, there were mutterings of disapproval in a Chelsea support that had quietened down considerably. Throughout that first-half, neither team had managed a shot on goal. But I tried to remain positive. I was buoyed by the pleasing sight of blue skies in the huge rectangular window above us…I hoped the clouds would not return.

No changes at the start of the second-half. I prayed for a winner at our end, just yards away from me.

The first effort of the second-half came from the head of Marcos Alonso, a surprising starter for many, who rose to meet a cross from N’Golo Kante but headed too close to Schmeichel. Leicester showed a bit of life, some spirit, but it was dour football.

Sadly, this was to change. Just after the hour, the ball was pushed square to Youri Tielemens who advanced – unchallenged, damn it – until he was around twenty-five yards out. As soon as the ball left his boot, from my vantage point, I knew it was in. Not even Peter fucking Crouch could have reached it. The Leicester end erupted.

Bollocks.

Five minutes later, Christian Pulisic for Hakim Ziyech and Ben Chilwell – loud boos – for Marcos Alonso. Pulisic immediately added a little spice and spirit. He seemed positive. Two more substitutions, Callum Hudson-Odoi for Azpilicueta and Kai Havertz, the slayer of Tottenham, for Jorginho. Our attack had stumbled all game but with fresh legs we immediately looked more interested.

The Leicester fans were in their element, raucous and buoyant. We tried to get behind the team.

“COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA, COME ON CHELSEA.”

It didn’t exactly engulf the Chelsea end in a baying mass of noise.

Kante was strangely finding himself engaged as a supplier of crosses and one such ball was met by Chilwell but his strong downward header, coming straight towards me, was palmed on to his post by a diving Schemichel.

I was right in this game now; it had taken so long for us to get any momentum, but with time running out my eyes were on stalks, watching the ball and the players running – or not – into space.

“COME ON YOU BLUE BOYS.”

With eight minutes’ left, The Charge of the Light Brigade as Olivier Giroud raced on to replace a very disappointing Werner. It was the fastest any Chelsea player had run all game.

The Chelsea pressure increased. I didn’t even think about the stresses that might be induced should we score a late equaliser. But that’s good. I felt fine. No problems.

A delicate cross from James was knocked back to our Mase. He steadied himself momentarily and then let fly with his left foot. I was about to leap in joy. But Schmeichel flung himself to his left and clawed it out.

I called him a very rude name. Twice. Just to make sure he heard me.

In the closing minutes, a lofted ball – into space, what joy – found a rampaging Ben Chilwell. He met it first time, pushing it into the six-yard box. In the excitement of the moment, I only saw a convergence of bodies and then…GETINYOUFUCKER…the net bulge. I tried my damnedest to capture him running away in joy, but I needed to celebrate. I brushed past Parky and found myself in the stairwell. King Kenny virtually slammed me into the fence at the front – ha – but I kept my composure and snapped away. The results are, mainly blurred. A second or two later, I looked back and Kenny was screaming, his face a picture of joy, and the scene that I saw me was a virtual copy, with less people, of the aftermath of Marcos Alonso’s winner in 2017, a mere thirty yards further south.

I heard a voice inside my head.

“Fucking hell, Chris, we’ve done it.”

And then. Someone mentioned VAR. At first, I thought someone was being a smart-arse. Didn’t seem offside to me. Nah. And then I realised as I looked up at the large scoreboard above the Leicester City fans that the awful truth was for all to see.

A red rectangle…

VAR : CHECKING GOAL – POSSIBLE OFFSIDE.

My heart slumped. How often do these end up with the advantage being given to the attacking side?

Ironically, on the car drive in to London, both Parky and I quoted a recent game when Harry Kane’s toe was deemed to be offside and we both admitted that we felt for the bloke. When Chelsea fans are upset with a VAR decision is given against Tottenham, something is definitely up.

A roar from the other end, no goal.

King Kenny wailed : “what has football become?”

I had no answer.

Has anyone?

There is a chance that this might be my last report this season. It depends on how Chelsea Football Club looks after its own supporters’ hopes of reaching the Portuguese city of Porto in a fortnight.