Tales From The Etihad

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 21 September 2014.

I was on the road at 9.30am. It would be another long day in support of Chelsea Football Cub, and my third successive away game in the North-West.

Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Cheshire, Lancashire.

M4, M5, M6, M56, M60.

Leigh Delamere, Michaelwood, Gloucester, Strensham, Frankley, Hilton Park, Stafford, Keele, Sandbach, Knutsford.

West Bromwich Albion, Walsall, Manchester United, Manchester City.

In addition to myself and His Lordship, I was travelling north with Nick and James, two football-mad young’uns from Chippenham. Nick, the Chelsea fan, has been working in the same office as me for a couple of months. When a ticket or two became available for our clash with Manchester City, he jumped at the chance. Nick’s only other Chelsea away game was the League Cup tie at nearby Swindon Town a year ago.

This one was different gravy.

To be honest, it was different pie, chips and gravy.

There wasn’t the maddening traffic on the M6 as for the Burnley and Everton games, but it still took me five hours to park up at the usual place a few hundred yards from The Etihad, formerly the City of Manchester Stadium and formerly Eastlands. On the drive in, I’d given Nick and James – new to this part of England – a whistle stop tour of the area outside Old Trafford.

“Most United fans haven’t been here, lads.”

A few miles away, the sun was shining on the sky blue clad match-goers headed for The Etihad. The area around the stadium is flat and there is a sense of space.  City’s ground, about to be enlarged further after only ten years, has the feel of an American multi-purpose super stadium, with spiral staircases appended to the structure and large car parks adjacent to the bright bulk of the stadium.

Outside the away entrance, a gaggle of familiar faces.

I was able, thankfully, to sort out a couple of spare tickets for Greg, over from San Antonio in Texas for this one game, and his mate Jesse from Australia. I had taken Greg to Old Trafford during the 2006-2007 season, when we had called to see the new gleaming structure of City’s new pad en route to a quick visit to the iconic Salford Lads Club before the game in the red quarter of this city.

I was inside with an hour to spare and relaxed with a pint.

This was, unbelievably really, my tenth visit to City’s new stadium; I had visited Maine Road just three times.

I chatted to The Bristol Four about the possibility of Frank playing against us. There was a general consensus that should he play, his mind might well be muddled with emotion. There was a sense that this might work to our advantage. A couple hoped that he would stay on the bench. I wasn’t sure what to think. There was even some nonsense in the media about us booing him.


Meanwhile, news came through of Manchester United’s incredible capitulation at Leicester City.

“Nice to see Van Gaal has shored up their defence.”


“That might ignite the City fans though.”

Inside the sky blue bowl, the two sets of players were finishing off their pre-match drills. My focus was drawn to a lone figure away in the distance. It was Frank Lampard, knocking balls to an unknown team mate. To be able to see Frank in the flesh, at a Chelsea match, but not part of Chelsea Football Club was a difficult sight to rationalise and make sense of.

The stadium slowly filled to capacity and the first few opening volleys took place between the two sets of supporters.

“Where’s your European Cup?”

“We are the champions, the champions of England.”

We were then treated to a montage of flashing iconic images of Manchester City history on the large TV screens in opposite corners of the stadium – from Paul Dickov to Sergio Aguero, from Dennis Tueart to Shaun Goater, from Mike Doyle to Vincent Kompany, from The Kippax to The Etihad – which was backed by a never-ending passage of ridiculous prose honouring “this city” which was delivered in an increasingly dramatic Mancunian drawl. It was full of emotive hyperbole.

“This is the city that was seemingly defeated after years of life in the shadows, yet we looked defeat squarely in the face and decided enough was enough and we rose as one, to come back to win, time after time, again, and again, and again, and again.”

It left me feeling exhausted.

“Fackninell. Turn it in, guv.”

With the kick-off just minutes away, the PA played “Blue Moon” and the home support grew livelier. Despite my comments to the Bristol Four in the concourse about the Manchester United defeat energising the City fans, the stadium had been relatively subdued until that point.

The Chelsea team contained nine ever-presents in the league campaign thus far. There was the usual mix of names in the seven defensive positions; Courtois in goal, Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta in defence and Matic and Fabregas in midfield. Hazard, one of the three attacking midfielders, had played in all the previous four league games and he would be facing City too. Jose Mourinho has only decided to mix things up this season in the final two positions of our attacking trio. On this sunny afternoon in Manchester, it would be the turn of Willian and Ramires, rather than Oscar and Schurrle, to play alongside Hazard. In attack, the last ever-present Diego Costa was recalled.

Here was a stable Chelsea team.

With City in all sky blue, it seemed to make our all royal blue kit look darker, more menacing. I approved. After the joy of last season – probably only bettered by the day out at Anfield – I was full of hope that we would get at least a point.

However, there is no doubt that the home team were quicker out of the traps. In fact, for the greater part of the first-half, Manchester City enjoyed the greater share of possession, and looked especially dangerous down the flanks. Cesar Azpilicueta, especially, was given the run-around. I was stood next to Gal, and we both sensed that we might concede an early goal. Thankfully, this never materialised. This was mainly due to some staunch defending and some errant City final balls.

We were soon in full voice, singing praise towards one of the home substitutes:

“Super, super Frank.”

Then a dig at City.

“Frankie Lampard – he’s won more than you.”

(It’s a nice story, but sadly City just edge it 13-11.)

The first-half was a feisty affair with referee Mike Dean quickly brandishing yellow cards in an attempt to gain control of the game. One of the early highlights was a physical tussle between Diego Costa and Vincent Kompany away in the distance. Yaya Toure, a player who always seems to dominate City’s play, was at the centre of the action, withholding Chelsea challenges, spraying passes and chipping impudently over our defence to play in others. As the first-half wore on, I was desperate for us to reach half-time unscathed.

However, for all of City’s possession, they rarely threatened our goal. This was a cagey and nervy game and was being played out in an increasingly muted atmosphere. The Chelsea support was split into two tiers, this making a sustained barrage of noise difficult. Last season’s game – the Mourinho master class – was a lot more open.

Our forays into the City half were short-lived affairs. It was almost as if our players were only given a limited supply of oxygen once their bodies had crossed the half-way line, and were soon scurrying back to renew their air supply.

“Come on, move it quicker Chelsea.”

Our midfield was constantly out-muscled and the memories of last season’s game seemed distant.

Only a flurry of late corners towards the end of the first-half gave us much to cheer. An Ivanovic header caused us to roar, but little else brought us any cheer. Down below, I momentarily spotted Nick and James in the second row of the lower tier and wondered what they thought of it all. I had promised them tons of noise in the away end, but I began to doubt myself.

Just before the second-half began, more music to inspire the home supporters; this time “Hey Jude.” How odd that a Liverpudlian band gets star billing at a Manchester stadium. Of course, it’s a song that we have adopted too, so we joined in at the key moments.

“La la la la – Chelsea.”

Chelsea attacked the three thousand away supporters in the second-half. It was still a cagey affair which had yet to fully ignite the passions of both sets of supporters. After fifty-five minutes the surprisingly quiet Sergio Aguero sent a low rasper towards our goal, but Courtois did well to drop his body low and block.

Jose brought on Mikel, who did well in last season’s game, and Schurrle, allowing Fabregas to move forward.

Zabaleta, already booked, tussled with Diego Costa, and in the ensuing debate between the native Argentinian and the native Brazilian – I’m tempted to call it argy-bargy – Mike Dean saw fit to give both a yellow card.

Zabaleta was off.

This stirred the pot nicely.

For the first real time, The Etihad erupted in noise. The stadium has yet to gain a reputation as a cauldron of noise – unlike the din which emanated from the low dark stands of Maine Road – but for a few moments the stadium was alive.

“Here we go, Gal. Let’s get in to them.”

Though – wait a minute. This is a Mourinho team. I imagined the awkwardness now coursing through our manager’s veins. The chance was there, but would he give the order to attack and exploit possible spaces in the City rear guard?

Initially, the signs were not good. With City back-peddling, I grew frustrated at our lack of desire to support each other by running into space. One or two spells of possession stumbled. There was a missing quotient of vitality. Then, the move of the game took us all, if I am honest, by surprise. A lovely passing move found the pacey run of Eden Hazard out on the right. His absolutely perfect ball into the penalty box evaded Joe Hart and super-sub Schurrle arrived to stroke the ball into the net.

Pandemonium in Manchester.

One player up, one goal up, we were winning at City again.

Get in.

For a few moments, both team and supporters were on fire. Diego Costa had been battling hard throughout the afternoon with little opportunity to test Hart. However, a leap and header gave us hope of a second, but the effort was saved. Straight after, our centre-forward wriggled away from a marker to give him enough time to strike a low shot at goal from inside the box. The shot rebounded off the base of Hart’s left post with the England ‘keeper beaten.


The City manager Pellegrini had previously brought on Sagna and Navas, but when a third substitute was seen warming up in front of the technical areas, the away fans did not need much coaxing to start a long and heartfelt song of praise.

“Super, super Frank.

Super, super Frank.

Super, super Frank.

Super Frankie Lampard.”

Yes, Frank was on the pitch and playing against us.

I’ll admit it.  It felt wrong. So wrong.

Yet we don’t know the exact wording of the contract that our beloved former player signed with New York City FC, nor the conversations that may or may not have taken place leading up to his loan period at Manchester City, nor his thoughts about playing in the Premiership against us.

It just felt so wrong.

Frank took his position in the centre of the field and lost control of a pass.

His next touch would be surreal.

A ball was played in by the terrier-like James Milner and a City player met it sweetly, steering it cleanly into Courtois’ goal, just inside the post. Within a split second, I realised who that player was.

It was Frank Lampard.

I turned away in disbelief.


My first immediate thoughts – instantly – were of the handful of Chelsea supporters who, on internet forums and chat pages – had denounced Frank on his loan move to Manchester City.

In my head, I heard the character in The Simpson’s pointing at us all.

“Ha ha.”

I banished the thought quickly as I saw Frank walk, crestfallen, slowly away from us, engulfed by his new City team mates. It was, of course, a stereotypical Frank Lampard goal.


Then, the arrow to the heart; the City fans mocking us.

“Super, super Frank.

Super, super Frank.

Super, super Frank.

Super Frankie Lampard.”


But then, pride as I joined in the singing of the exact same song.

“Super, super Frank.

Super, super Frank.

Super, super Frank.

Super Frankie Lampard.”

In over forty years of watching Chelsea, there have been no more surreal moments.

The rest of the match was rather a blur. Jose Mourinho brought on Didier Drogba who replaced Diego Costa.  So, Frank Lampard playing for Manchester City and Didier Drogba playing for Chelsea. Just bizarre.

“Only one thing for it now, Gal – Didier to score the winner.”

A wild free-kick, from Didier, was our only chance on goal. It flew high over the bar.

We groaned.

Everyone said, in the car and in the bar, before the game that we would have taken a 0-0 draw. So, in reality, I cannot complain about the outcome of the game. I would have liked a little more expansive play, but Mourinho is the shrewdest of all managers and would have been pleased with the draw, too. We had, after all, limited them to very few chances throughout the game. After the bonanza at Goodison, this was a more Mourinho-esque performance. These thoughts flitted through my mind as I gathered my camera to focus on Frank’s slow and solemn walk towards us.

He clapped the City fans briefly, but saved the best for us. His face was stern, and certainly sad. There were no smiles. He gave us the thumbs up, and waved. How strange that Frank’s last game for us was against Norwich City and his last slow walk around the Stamford Bridge pitch was witnessed by only a few thousand. Now, maybe his last goodbye was in the colours of Manchester City.

Football, eh?

As he turned away from us, I detected some boos from the City fans to my right; I presume they felt that Frank simply should not have done that.

After thirteen seasons, though, he remains one of us.

Outside, Chelsea fans were still in a state of shock. I saw DJ and simply said “well, that was weird.”

“We won 2-0 mate” and he smiled.

I soon met up with Parky, then Nick and James. They had had a fantastic time. As first “real” away games go, it would be hard to find a more memorable one. Outside on the Ashton New Road, a lone City fan was bouncing.

“Who put the ball in Chelsea’s net?

Super Frankie Lampard.”

We walked silently on, but inside we were hurting. I then looked round to see Parky chatting to a City fan and his young lad. Not for the first time at City, I found myself shaking a City fan’s hand and wishing him all the best.

Me : “Hey, listen. If we don’t win it, I hope you do.”

Him : “Same with you, mate.”

Me : “Cheers.”

Him : “It’s yours to lose.”

Me : “I don’t know.”

With the alternatives – Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal – being too horrific to even contemplate, City represent, to me and to a few others, an almost palatable alternative to our fifth championship. Not all fans think the same way, evidently. We remained silent as we walked past a City fan who had been clumped ; he was on the pavement, clutching a bloodied nose.

We soon reached the car.

There was a quick analysis of the game as I headed east, then south, with the bright orange sun lighting up the sky. It was a beautiful evening. We had witnessed a crazy game of football. On the long drive home, there was a nice mix of chat, music and laughter. Nick and James promised to get themselves to more games. Parky – his ability to talk dwindling by the minute with every gulp of cider, so that in the end all that I could decipher were exclamation marks – slowly drifted off to sleep. James and Nick, however, were buzzing.

I reached home at 11.15am, exhausted, but full of thought. It was too late to be too profound though.

Here were the headlines :

Five games in, we stand three points clear at the top of the table.

Life is good.


Tales From A Night Of Nerves And Noise

Chelsea vs. Paris St. Germain : 8 April 2014.

Despite our vivid memories of our “come from behind” triumph against Napoli in the round of sixteen in 2012 – and it was referenced thousands of times around the Chelsea world since the first leg in Paris – I was far from convinced that we would prevail. Throughout the day at work, I was asked if I thought Chelsea would “do it” against Paris St. Germain.

On each occasion, there was the vague “I’m not sure” or the negative “no, I don’t think we will.”

Of course, I lived in hope. We all live in hope. There was just something down, way down, in my being that taught me to do me wary. My view was that I could see us scoring (how? We have no goalscorers?) However, I could also see us conceding (how? We have the best defensive record in the Premier League.) Sometimes, in Planet Football, there is no logic.

Maybe it was the realist in me. Or the pragmatist. Maybe the Chelsea pessimist. I was just wary of too many Chelsea fans getting carried away with our hopes of advancing. I just aimed for a sense of balance. In an attempt to try to put some empirical value on my thoughts, I gave us a 40% chance of getting into the semis. I knew one thing; should my pre-game predictions be way out, I would be in for one of the greatest ninety minutes of football at Stamford Bridge in over forty years.

I collected Lord Parky at 3.30pm and I was able to inform him how I had managed to get him a ticket for the upcoming game in Swansea at the weekend. Parky, unlike me, was more upbeat about our chances against PSG and he took the good news about Swansea to be a fantastic omen for the evening’s game. As I have mentioned before, there is nothing quite like the buzz for a springtime trip to Stamford Bridge for a midweek Champions League knock-out game. With the evenings now lighter, there is a magical feel to the whole proceedings. As I drove east, I revaluated my predictions.

Maybe 42%.

We were delayed by a nasty crash ahead of us around Reading, so our pilgrimage took us a lengthy three hours.

At 6.30pm, we were in The Goose. I spent some time with some of the New York supporters’ group; the lucky five or six who had stayed on from the Stoke City game at the weekend.  After the damp squib atmosphere on Saturday, at least the noise would be a hundred times better against PSG. I was itching to head down to The Bridge and so rounded up the troops and headed south and then east.

The fifteen minute walk was soon over. Frank disappeared to buy half of the contents of all of the stalls on the Fulham Road, while Taryn joined the line for the Upper Tier of the West Upper. This would only be her second game at Stamford Bridge; the Stoke game, on her birthday, was her first. I hoped for great things.

Inside, that “Chelsea Champions League Feeling.”

Just a magical buzz…I could sense the atmosphere building with each minute. Over in the far corner, the three thousand Parisians were adorned with brightly coloured red, white and blue. Noticeably, one section, just above the corner flag, was devoid of scarves, flags and shirts. I presumed this was the PSG version of our executive club.  I wondered if Nicolas Sarkozy and Gerard Depardieu were present – maybe in the West Stand directors’ box – just like in Paris last Wednesday.

The team had been announced while we were in the pub; I guess that it picked itself. The only slight surprise was seeing Frank Lampard. Then, with not long to go, there was the typical pre-game Champions League routine. We had each been given a nylon flag, and some of these were waved as the rather embarrassing opera singer belted out “Blue Is The Colour.” I looked over to the East Middle and noted that the spectators had each been given blue and white bar scarves; the sight, rather than stirring me, made me shudder. I remembered that scarves were similarly given out to spectators in the East Stand for the Internazionale game in 2010. I hoped there would not be a similar result; on that occasion Jose Mourinho was the foe.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, eyes turned towards the balcony of the Matthew Harding Upper. We had already seen the Champions League flag for the first time at the Tottenham game, and it was joined by the Europa League flag against Galatasaray. Now, a third flag – that of the European Cup Winners’ Cup – was unveiled alongside.

Three flags representing four triumphs.

1971 and 1998.



Our European pedigree.

As the game began, I was so heartened to hear loud and passionate support booming around the stadium. Talk before the game was of us getting an early goal. It didn’t happen. With each passing glance at the stadium clock…5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes…we sensed that our golden moment had passed us by. Throughout the first period, the away fans provided constant noise, but without many familiar tunes. A defiant tricolour was constantly held aloft in the Shed Lower. PSG possibly began stronger with Lavezzi showing good involvement, but then Chelsea began to bite back. A few Frank Lampard corners and free-kicks from wide areas were fizzed in, but we were unable to hit targets. Samuel Eto’o was neat in possession, but was often out wide rather than being in the midst of the penalty area. Hazard had shown a few neat touches out on the left, but we were shocked to see him substituted after only around twenty minutes. Without Hazard, our creativity would surely suffer. On came Andre Schurrle. The noise quietened slightly. The nerves began to jangle.

It seemed that the referee, Pedro Proenca, he of the 2012 Final, seemed to book anyone who moved. The frustrations began to increase. Midway through the first-half, maybe caused by a poor refereeing decision, a new chant was born. Maybe someone deep down in the MHL began singing “Fcuk UEFA – We’ve Seen It Before”, but a new chant soon boomed around Stamford Bridge.


This was immediately the song de jour.


The noise was fantastic. The whole crowd latched on to the song. Love it.

Our play was typical of this season. A fair bit of possession, but we hardly got behind them. The cutting edge, of course, was missing. A Lampard free-kick was whipped in and the ball took a deflection, but Sirigu pulled off a stunning save. Just after – on 32 minutes – a lofty throw-in from Ivanovic was flicked on by David Luiz. The substitute Schurrle was the first to react and he stroked the ball in.


1-0 and the game came alive.

There was the usual interchange between Alan and myself.

“Zey will have to come at us now.”

A pause, a shrug, and a look of insouciance.

“Come on my little diamonds.”

It was far from an early goal, but – bollocks – it was a first-half goal.

Soon after, Schurrle was clearly energised by his goal and wriggled into the PSG box, but was met with the brick wall of a challenge by Verratti. A loud appeal was turned down. The game continued, with more yellow cards being brandished. At times, as PSG attacked us, I felt myself looking away from the pitch. I can never remember doing this with such a regular occurrence ever before.

After all these games, I was reassured that football – no, wait, Chelsea – still means so much.

Two songs at the break –

“Sweet Dreams.”

“Reasons To Be Cheerful – Part Three.”

Off the pitch, positive feelings. On the pitch, Peter Bonetti was given a tour of the Stamford Bridge turf.

Soon into the second-half, a beautiful strike by Andre Schurrle crashed against the bar. Only seconds later, an Oscar free-kick thudded against the exact same portion of woodwork. The groans were desperate. A Cech save from Lavezzi cheered us. In truth, Cech had not been called on too often. Blanc brought on the impressive Cabaye. Mourinho replaced Lampard with Ba, who was soon flicking on balls for others to run on to. It seemed that, at least for a few minutes, Ba played upfront with Eto’o.

The damned clock kept ticking away. I must’ve glanced at it every two minutes. Cavani blasted high. I noted the reoccurrence of a song that I had heard from the Boulogne Boys in Paris – a PSG version of “Flower Of Scotland.” Javier Pastore – yes him, the scorer of that bloody goal – came on for them. PSG peppered our goal with a few efforts.

The clock ticked.

As PSG broke, I looked away once more. Cavani wasted a golden opportunity, firing just high of Cech’s goal once more.

With ten minutes to go, Jose Mourinho played his final card, replacing Oscar with Fernando Torres. Three forwards were now on the pitch and the crowd, like the players supporting them, realised the rarity of this and upped the level of support.

“And It’s Super Chelsea – Super Chelsea Eff Cee.”

The clock ticked.

Alan and I didn’t know whether to stand or sit. We were up and down like West Bromwich Albion. I had decided not to take many photos. My focus was elsewhere. The team needed my support, so I did my best to roar the team on. Throughout the evening, however – despite the noise – at times the nervousness on the stands resulted in a few periods of quiet. Then, out of nowhere, the noise would begin again. Big John played a great role in galvanising our support; on three or four occasions, he thudded against the balcony wall.

Clap clap – clap clap clap – clap clap clap clap :

The Matthew Harding responded –


However, there was no denying it; this was tough. Alan rued –

“That third goal in Paris.”

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

It looked like our European campaign was ending. I momentarily looked back on trips to Bucharest, Istanbul and Paris. It had been a good run. No complaints.

With three minutes remaining, the ball found itself being pin-balled around the PSG box. The ball eventually came out to Dave, who had been excellent all night, and our Spanish right-back come left-back fired the ball in to the box. Miraculously, Demba Ba pounced from close in and the net billowed.



Let It All Out.

We had done it.

I was triumphant, bellowing noise deep from inside my being.

Out of nowhere, Rob bounced down the steps and hugged me and we soon found ourselves bouncing up and down, acting like fools.

“Bonnet de douche you fcuker.”

I turned around and screamed at a few fans right behind me.

Bruges 1995, Vicenza 1998, Barcelona 2000, Barcelona 2005, Liverpool 2008, Liverpool 2009, Napoli 2012, Barcelona 2012 and now PSG 2014.

What a litany of magical nights in deepest gorgeous SW6.

The referee signalled four minutes of extra time and Alan began the countdown on his phone. Again, we didn’t know if we should sit or stand. PSG poured forward and – bless him – Petr Cech was able to repel everything. I am not sure if I was more nervous when we were chasing the second goal or after we had scored it.


My whole body was riddled with fear and worry. Why do we do this? Why does it mean so much? Will I ever know?

I was quiet. I looked at the referee.

He brought his whistle to his mouth.

We were through.

Rob, Gary and Alan bounced to “One Step Beyond” and everyone was exhausted. My smiles were wide, my throat was sore. Then, as the fans slowly left, another song…

“Cus Chelsea…Chelsea Is Our Name.”

We sang as we exited the stadium –

“Portugal, Portugal – We Are Coming.”

As I walked past the Peter Osgood statue, I touched his right boot. It is a little superstition that I have developed on big European nights. More songs walking along the Fulham Road, a few PSG fans sprinkled in among us, but no trouble. I met up with Parky and gloriously headed back to the pub. After a few minutes, Taryn joined us.


I knew what she meant.



Tales From The Riverbank

Fulham vs. Chelsea : 1 March 2014.

Has there ever been a more dramatic contrast between consecutive away games in the history of Chelsea Football Club? On Wednesday, there was the electric and intimidating atmosphere of an encounter against Galatasaray in Istanbul, that alien city on the banks of the Bosphorus, amid acrid fumes from flares and festering vitriol from fans. Then, just three days later, a match against our benign close neighbours Fulham at Craven Cottage, nestled alongside comfortable town houses and the River Thames, just across the water from the chattering middle classes of Putney and Barnes.

It was no surprise that my head had been full of memories from my short spell in Turkey since my return. The vault of recollections was plundered at regular moments; it was a rich seam. The time that I spent in Istanbul will stay with me for a long time. However, time waits for no man in the world of football and the West London Derby was to soon occupy my thoughts.

The drive into London – I took the southern route for a change, which took me past Stonehenge, and then over the hills of Hampshire and through leafy Surrey before zipping past Twickenham and into the centre – was a joyous affair. There were laughs-a-plenty from my co-passengers Brian and Parky. The time flew. Before I had time to blink, I was edging my car through the highly desirable area just south of the snaking Thames. I was parked-up just off the Lower Richmond Road at around 12.15pm. We soon embarked on a little pub-crawl which was centered on the area just to the south of the river in Putney. First up was the familiar Duke’s Head; a regular meeting-point for our forays to Craven Cottage over the past ten years. It’s a fine Victorian boozer. However, the fact that our Peronis were served in plastic glasses was met by frowns. On non-football days, I am sure that the beers and lagers would be served in proper glasses. This attitude annoyed me; there was little likelihood of any trouble “kicking-off” in this pub. There is no place for plastics at football; this extends to beer glasses too.

This would be my seventh trip to Craven Cottage with Chelsea. My very first visit to the ground was way back in 1985, when I was in London visiting a friend from my home town who was at college at Middlesex Poly. Chelsea were elsewhere and I was keen to visit a new football stadium. I steadfastly refused to go to Arsenal and talked my mate into watching the Fulham vs. Charlton Athletic Second Division match. We endured a dour 0-0 draw from the terraces of the home Hammersmith End on that March afternoon twenty-nine years ago. I remember absolutely nothing about the game.

Our paths rarely crossed until Fulham gained promotion to the top flight in 2002. Our dominance over them has continued, though; an infamous 1-0 defeat at Fulham in 2005-2006 is our only defeat at the hands of our pesky neighbours since 1980. On that Sunday afternoon, when Joe Cole was memorably substituted by Jose Mourinho after just twenty minutes, the Fulham fans celebrated as if they had won the league.


Next, we popped into The Spotted Horse; another Peroni, this time – thankfully – in a proper glass. A few familiar Chelsea fans were inside. Our last port of call was The Railway, which was a large public house with bars on two floors. Here, even more Chelsea fans, including many who had been in Istanbul. Alan and Gary were sat towards the rear and we soon joined them. There was a mix of both Fulham and Chelsea fans inside and not a hint of animosity between the two.

As soon as we sat, Alan asked us to raise our glasses –

“Peter Osgood.”

Our legendary centre-forward was taken from us eight years ago to the day. How we miss him.

In the back room of that Putney boozer, Istanbul was fondly remembered and our performance quickly analysed. But we soon moved on. This season is racing past. Alan and Gal were pleased to see Brian once again; Brian used to attend many home games a few years ago, but this would be one of only a small amount of away games that I had attended with him. It would be his first visit to Craven Cottage.

As we left The Railway and walked north, over Putney Bridge – stopping for a few photographs with the Thames behind – Brian’s excitement was palpable. He had recently heard that Fulham were planning to expand their stadium and was keen to visit Craven Cottage before these possible changes might take place. I had remembered seeing these plans a few years ago. Fulham aimed to throw another tier on the Riverside Stand, allied with a very pleasing new walkway abutting the river, bringing the capacity up to around 30,000, but I think plans have stalled.

We walked through Bishop’s Park alongside hundreds of other match-goers; it is always one of the nicest approaches to any stadium in these isles. On the river, several rowing crews flew past. The starting point of the Oxford vs. Cambridge boat race is at Putney Bridge every Easter.

There was the usual scrum at the red brick turnstiles on Stevenage Road. My timing wasn’t bad; I reached my seat between Alan and Gal a matter of seconds before the game kicked-off. The stadium was virtually full; I noted just a handful of empty seats in the Riverside Stand to my left and two patches of empty seats behind the two roof supports in the Hammersmith Stand opposite. Since my visit in 1985, the stadium has changed, but its ambiance has survived. The cottage – more a pavilion – in the corner to my right is its defining motif. It’s a lovely sight. The Johnny Haynes Stand to my right – I am sure I have mentioned this in every one of my match reports from Fulham – is exactly the same size as the old East Stand at Stamford Bridge which lasted from 1905 to 1972.

Our end – The Putney End – was full of boisterous away fans. There always seems to be a good sing-song at Fulham. The sun shone brightly and there was anticipation for a fine Chelsea performance.

I hoped for good things as the first-half began.

Ha. What a let-down.

Despite some strong vocal support, Chelsea were as poor in the first-half as we have seen this season. I almost feel as if I shouldn’t waste too much time in reporting our failings.

We were dire.

An early chance fell to Fulham – a Clint Dempsey header, from a Kasami cross, but Cech untroubled – and the home team certainly looked the more likely to score as the entire Chelsea team struggled to get a foothold. The support from the away contingent soon fell away and I found myself looking out at the Thames in desperation at our poor showing. Passes were wayward, there was poor movement off the ball, little industry, a lack of width down our right, scant desire and a general malaise which dumbfounded me and plenty of others.

However – this is the worst part. Rather than get behind the team, many Chelsea fans within earshot chose to signal out individual players for personal abuse.

“Oscar – you are shit. You ain’t played well for months.”

“Crap Torres. Get him off.”

“Cech’s past it. Get Courtois back.”

“Matic. Poor.”

“We need two new full backs.”

“Schurrle – rubbish.”

“Ramires – awful.”

“Hazard has been crap since his hat-trick.”

If the football was poor, the atmosphere inside the Putney End was worse. Of course, every spectator who attends Chelsea games has their own take on what supporting Chelsea – on match day – means. I just felt dismayed at the screams of negativity. There were shouts of frustration at every poor pass and wayward shot – I get that – but it just annoys me when fellow fans show a greater willingness to be negative than to be positive.

A couple of shots – one well saved, the other poor – from Torres were the only hints during the entire half that our fortunes might change. In our defence, I thought that Gary Cahill was our best player, closing and blocking well. It had been a half of few chances for either side. A couple of Fulham chances at the end of the break were thankfully spurned.

As the teams slouched off the pitch at the break, my eyes were centered on a quiet and contemplative Jose Mourinho as he walked alone towards the changing rooms beneath the cottage in the corner.

I wondered what our manager might say to the players.

At the break, I slumped in my seat. I looked out at the River Thames again. The waters sped past.

“Well, surely we can’t play as poorly in the second-half.”

The Chelsea crowd sensed a greater drive from our players in the opening few moments of the second period. The volume, thankfully, was a lot better. We were soon rewarded. The talismanic Hazard, showing a lot more verve, spotted the fine run of Schurrle. His lofted ball was perfect. Schurrle steadied himself and slotted past Stekelenburg. I had time too; I captured his goal on film.

The Chelsea support roared.

It was supremely ironic that the one player who had drawn most disdain in the first-half had opened the scoring. Soon after, the buzzing Hazard’s perfect rabona found the leaping Torres but his header spun wide. Within a few minutes, Hazard picked out Schurrle’s subtle run behind the sleeping Fulham defence. The German forward tucked the ball in. And another goal captured by my camera.

Again, a euphoric scream from us all.

Only minutes later, a lofted ball to Torres was nicely played into the path of – guess who? – Schurrle and he adroitly slammed the ball in.


An Andrea Schurrle hat-trick. Unbelievable, eh?

We boomed –


Smiles all over the Putney End. What a transformation. Fulham were chasing shadows during this period, but caused us a little anxiety when Heitinga turned in a corner after we momentarily went to sleep. Sound familiar? Thankfully, we showed enough shape and resilience to resist any further Fulham attacks. At the time of the final whistle, the Chelsea end was buoyant.


And four points clear.

What a strange season. At times, we have struggled. There have been brief flashes of brilliance. In general, there have been periods of dogged pragmatism interspersed with moments of pure joy. Deep down, I still need a little convincing that we might end up winning the league this season. Arsenal are fading fast, as they always do; how we enjoyed their demise at Stoke City. Of course, I still fear Manchester City. And whisper it, Liverpool scare me too. However, two words surely bring optimism to the Chelsea ranks.

Tottenham next.

See you there.


Tales From The Top Of The Hill

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 7 December 2013.

The alarm sounding at 6.30am and no need to use the “snooze button.”

The anticipation of one of my favourite away games of the season.

The simple pleasure of planning it all; the tickets, the timings, the travel plans, the pre-match, the buzz.

The fear of the day being memorable for arctic temperatures at the top of that ridge of land in Stoke-on-Trent.

The selection of the right mix of warm winter clothes.

The realisation that the away end at The Brittania Stadium will resemble “Chris Bonington Meets Milan Fashion Week.”

The Timberland boots, the CP pullover, the Victorinox coat.

The grey sky overhead and the surprisingly mild weather.

The smiles from Parky at 8.30am.

The familiar road north.

The memory of an away game at Stoke City during the promotion campaign of 1988-1989 when I managed to stave off tiredness following a night-shift and Chelsea midfielder Peter Nicholas was sent off after just five minutes but we still went on to win 3-0.

The memory of being in The Black Bull at Chelsea  much later that same season and “Stoke Away” being cited as one of the best away games of that season.

The sight of Liverpool fans at Frankley Services.

The cloudy sky giving way to clear skies just as we passed through Birmingham and, with it, the likelihood of the temperature dropping.

The Brittania Stadium being spotted away on the hill to our right.

The town centre of Stoke.

The familiarity of my old college town.

The shops.

The pubs.

The accents.

The “Wrights Pies” shop.

The “King’s Arms”, now re-opened since the last time that I called by.

The pleasure of visiting my old local from that memorable first year at college in 1984-1985, which nicely coincided with Chelsea’s first season in the top flight since 1979.

The memory of catching early-morning trains down to The Smoke every few weeks and the rush of adrenaline as the train pulled out of Stoke-on-Trent station.

The excitement of away days to Liverpool, Manchester, Leicester, Glasgow, Sheffield, Birmingham, Coventry and all points north, south, east and west.

The first pint of the day in the “King’s Arms” and a toast to Parky, myself and each and every one of the travelling Chelsea army.

The gaggle of locals, obvious match-goers, and the knowing looks exchanged between Parky and myself.

The memory of match days in Stoke when their lads used to gather outside “Charlie Browns” before heading off for scuffles and fights.

The drive up the hill and a second pint in “The White Lion” amidst memories of a night out with some fellow Chelsea student friends on the eve of the Stoke City vs. Chelsea game in May 1985.

The memory of walking back down the hill, after last orders, and singing, shouting, bellowing, Chelsea songs out into the quiet Stoke night almost thirty years ago.

The sight of Ruud Gullit on TV talking passionately and respectfully about Nelson Mandela.

The first few minutes of the game from Old Trafford on TV.

The short drive to our anointed parking place on the slip road of the A500.

The fastening of coats, the wrapping of scarves, the slow trudge up the hill.

The footbridge over the Trent and Mersey Canal.

The “Oatcake” fanzine.

The sleek modern stands of the Brittania, glinting in the winter sun.

The away turnstiles.

The bag search.

The line for beer.

The wait inside for familiar faces.

The traditional “Stoke Away” habit of throwing beer up in the air amidst songs.

The sad realisation that I might be getting too old for all this.

The tedious “Ten German Bombers.”

The news, via text, that The Geordies were winning at Old Trafford.

The obvious and uncontrollable surge of schadenfreude.

The lack of faces that I know; just who are these people?.

The walk up the steps to the rear of the stand to join up with Alan and Gary.

The confirmation that Manchester United had lost at home again.

The dark clouds to my left.

The camera clicking into action.

The boisterous singing of the Chelsea choir overshadowing the home support.

The gaps in the home seats.

The full three thousand in the Chelsea section.

The recognition that a sore throat would probably hamper my singing throughout the afternoon.

The memory of last season’s game; Jonathan Walters.

The entrance of the teams to my left.

The red and white chequered flags of the local youngsters.

The colour, the noise, the spectacle.

The whistle.

The two teams lined-up in the centre of the pitch.

The minute of applause for Nelson Mandela.

The sight of Cesar Azpilicueta – standing alone – having a moment of quiet prayer.

The team.

The formation.

The defence.

The midfield three.

The recall of Andre Schurrle and Jon Obi Mikel.

The singing.

The packed away stand, everyone standing, everyone involved.

The shouts of encouragement.

The buzz of seeing Eden Hazard after his tantalising display in Sunderland on Wednesday.

The elation of seeing Andrea Schurrle twist one way and then another, teasing his marker into submission, before despatching a perfectly-placed bullet past Begovic in the Stoke goal.

The yelp of pleasure.

The noise from the away end; bollocks to my sore-throat, I’m joining in.

The ease with which Hazard receives the ball and touches it, caressing it, bringing the ball to life.

The piss-taking from the away end; “You’re Going Down With United.”

The movement from our attackers.

The industry of Schurrle.

The aerial battle between Crouch and Walters and Terry and Cahill.

The chances for Ramires, Mata and – almost – Torres.

The ease with which Chelsea dominated the first-half.

The thoughts of another easy win.

The late Stoke rally in the first-half.

The cross.

The Cech error.

The melee.

The scrambled finish from Peter Crouch.

The roar from the home fans.

The triumphant leap from Crouch.

The sense of disbelief in the away end at the break.

The porous nature of our defence at set-plays.

The sight of two middle-aged women – in other words, ten years older than me…at least, honest – in full blue Santa uniforms and those silly player face masks.

The rolling of my eyes.

The comment from Gary: “Did you get their numbers?”

The sight of Walters rampaging down our left and him getting some sort of retribution for his own personal hell last season.

The pass to Stephen Ireland.

The curling shot past Cech.

The phrase “warm knife through butter.”

The roar of the home crowd once more.

The moans in the away end.

The sad sight of Dave getting roasted at left-back.

The lack of cover in front of him.

The continued singing from the away fans.

The click of the camera as Andrea Schurrle despatched a lovely strike into the Stoke goal to level it at 2-2.

The joyous celebration of the goal by player and fans alike.

The image of a rollercoaster.

The industry of Torres and the lay-off for Schurrle and a dipping shot which crashed against Begovic’ bar with the ‘keeper well beaten and begging for mercy.

The substitute Demba Ba for Torres.

The miss of the match so far from Ireland, leaning back, the shot high.

The sight of Mark Hughes – Sparky – moaning at every Chelsea challenge.

The irony.

The home support roaring “Delilah.”

The “Willian Song.”

The black sky.

The double substitution of Eto’o and Lampard.

The passing of time.

The gnawing realisation that the longer it stayed level, the less time we would be able to react to a third Stoke goal.

The awareness that some things are best left unsaid.

The desperation, at times, in our play.

The poor ball retention of Ba.

The continual encouragement for our players.

The nerves torn.

The news that Liverpool had won 4-1.

The free-kick opportunity, with only a few minutes remaining, but the annoyance of it being “too central.”

The week shot by Frank directly at Begovic.

The sense of foreboding as Stoke broke down our left once again.

The sickening sight of Assaidi’s strike bending and zipping past Petr Cech.

The noise once more.

The silence in the away end.

The false hope of five extra minutes.

The final whistle.

The silent walk outside.

The locals happy.

The first Chelsea defeat at Stoke since 1974-1975.

The slow shuffle back across the footbridge over the Manchester to London railway line.

The crescent moon high to my left.

The smoke billowing out of the council incinerator to my right.

The familiarity of a Stoke evening.

The incoming texts.

The drive home.

The sore throat.

The inevitable moans – thankfully largely unseen and unheard – by Chelsea supporters everywhere.

The shrug of the shoulders.

The game against Steaua on Wednesday.

The story continues.


Tales From Kensington And Chelsea

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 27 October 2013.

There was a small but steady flow of fellow match goers walking past the rows of gravestones within the confines of Brompton Cemetery. Most spoke with local accents but there were a few rogue Northerners too. There was the occasional royal blue and white bar scarf of the home team. Just the merest hint that a football match was soon to be taking place nearby. However, the light grey steel of the roof of Stamford Bridge’s East Stand was clearly visible above the western boundary wall and the intrusive sounds of the stadium public address system echoed off the surrounding buildings and disturbed the otherwise quiet calm of a Sunday afternoon in England’s capital city. This approach to the home of Chelsea Football Club was a break from the norm for me; I had only ever walked through this central pathway, flanked by military-like ranks of grey gravestones of various sizes and shapes, on one other occasion. Much to my consternation, I had been unable to locate the gravestone of Chelsea founder Gus Mears when I paid the cemetery a visit on a winter evening in 2006. In 2013, the same stone was proving to be just as elusive. Many of the tombstones had subsided and the script on many had faded. In some ways, the cemetery was frozen in time; apart from a few exceptions – new gravestones with fresh flowers – most were dated from 1875 to 1915. I wondered how many of the resting souls had witnessed football at Stamford Bridge during our inaugural years.

The weather was mild; we had been warned to expect rainstorms and thunderous gales, but the day had not brought forth the expected deluge. The sky was cloudy and grey, but the autumnal air was dry.

Let me explain why my approach to Stamford Bridge involved a slow perambulation past the final resting places of many of West London’s most notable Victorian and Edwardian residents. On Friday and Saturday, I had been laid low with a sudden and searing back pain. I came to the quick conclusion that it would not be beneficial for me to be imprisoned in The Goose before the Chelsea vs. Manchester City game; instead, I wanted to embark on a walk through the streets of London and – hopefully – enable my ailing body to keep supple and to recuperate. The last thing I wanted was for it to seize up, mid-pint, in a packed and claustrophobic pub.

So, I was on my own. I had left Lord Parky, Young Jake and Young Kris to head off to the boozer at 12.45pm, while I slowly walked to Earl’s Court. My travels then took me to Knightsbridge and I dipped into a couple of famous shops. It is a part of London that I know well. Famously, our former chairman Ken Bates often used the tagline that Stamford Bridge was “only one and a half miles from Harrods” in his prolonged fight to keep football at our only home. In short, he meant that Stamford Bridge was London’s most centrally-located football stadium and that this key fact should be cherished and protected. In one of Harrods food halls, I had spotted a young boy wearing a Chelsea shirt and I managed a little chuckle to myself about this particular lad’s pre-match routine compared to the crowded interior of The Goose that I am so familiar with.

I had then left the tourists and the shoppers in my wake as I slowly headed west, my back now healing fast; I had made a wise move, I was improving with every step. I walked past the perfectly maintained town houses of Kensington and Chelsea on my slow march towards Stamford Bridge, located in the adjacent borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. Parts of the two neighbouring boroughs are quite dissimilar.

The North End Road is not Eaton Square.

Finally, on Fulham Road, more spectators appeared and suddenly the buzz was there. This was a match day; a big match day at that. Although results went against us on the Saturday, here was a chance to put ourselves right back into the mix at the very top of the division. On “Match of the Day” the previous evening, I had bristled with excitement when I heard Alan Hansen summarise this season’s championship race.

“Some people say the race is wide open this year. I don’t think it is. I think it’s between Chelsea and Manchester City.”

I had to agree. Although both Arsenal and Liverpool have begun their respective seasons with surprisingly fine results, I simply don’t see their strength of squads being able to withstand a thirty-eight game onslaught for the title. Manchester United, struggling under a new manager, seem uncharacteristically brittle. Tottenham show promise, but there are question marks. Southampton and Everton are fine teams, but way off a title challenge.

Chelsea and Manchester City however, appear to be best set for a sustained title bid.

As I skirted past the programme sellers by the main gates, I knew that City would provide a very stern test for us. They did, after all, have our number in all of the games – all six of them – we played last season. We only had one measly draw (0-0, Benitez’ first game…) to show for our efforts against the light blues of Manchester. Chelsea were treated to nothing but defeats in Birmingham, Manchester, Wembley, St. Louis and New York. Physically strong in midfield, potent in attack, they were formidable opponents. If anything, despite the loss of Tevez, their team has improved since 2012-2013. And yet…and yet…should Chelsea inflict a defeat on Manuel Pelligrini’s team at Stamford Bridge, City would be staring at three defeats out of just nine league games.

I bristled with excitement again.

I was inside the stadium with time to spare. Manchester City had again sold their full allocation of three thousand; it isn’t always the case. As I have said on numerous occasions, I’ve never really had much of a problem with Manchester City. Their old stadium deep in the heart of South Central Manchester, nestled alongside the red brick houses of Moss Side, was a favourite away ground and their supporters, inflatable bananas and all, always seemed to be able to take the piss out of themselves, which is a trait that I admire. It was always Ken Bates’ boast – sorry, him again – for Chelsea to be the Manchester United of the South. However, for many seasons, as Chelsea lunged and lurched from one near-miss to another, I couldn’t help but think that we were more like the Manchester City of the South. Both clubs had massive potential, exuberant fan bases, but limited successes. Both clubs lived in the shadows of others.

In 2013, the two clubs have been twinned once again; new money, an expanding fan base, success.

If I’m honest – brutally honest – I’m finding it hard to develop much of an antipathy for them. Chelsea has obvious long-standing loathing of Tottenham and Leeds, maybe even Arsenal and Manchester United. We have nurtured a relatively new dislike for Liverpool since 2005. Is there room for another club to hate?

“Only if City are successful” I hear the cry.

My usual match day companion Alan was on holiday in Spain and so I chatted to Tom, who was concerned for my safe passage back to Somerset later in the day in light of the threat of gales and rain.

The teams entered the pitch. After Tuesday in Gelsenkirchen, it was no surprise that Fernando Torres got the call. Elsewhere, Juan Mata had missed out in favour of Andre Schurrle. At the back, Gary Cahill continued to partner John Terry. Jose Mourinho again favoured Ramires and Sir Frank. It was reassuring to witness the return of Ashley Cole.

City’s team of superstars included the excellent Toure, Aguero and Silva.

Game on.

We were forced to attack the Matthew Harding in the first-half.

We began well and Gary Cahill squandered a great chance within the first few minutes, but Manchester City soon rose to the challenge. After a while, the youngsters Kris and Jake sidled in next to me.

“Good time in the pub, boys?”

“Oh yes.”

Throughout the match, I was constantly annoyed to see that Toure was afforded yards of space. His was a brooding presence, pacing around the midfield, waiting to pounce like only he can do.

Then, Torres had a couple of chances to strike. Although he looked offside on the second one, he shot wildly over with only Joe Hart to beat. Instead of yells of abuse, the crowd were seemingly sympathetic.

In the far corner, the City fans were quiet, rousing only occasionally.

“We’re Not Really Here.”

I have to be honest, despite a 4pm kick-off (code for “more beers”) and a top-of-the-table clash, the atmosphere was pretty quiet. Then, the game changed. Torres picked up the ball around thirty-five yards out and decided to run at Clichy. On some occasions, Nando appears to be running in quick sand. On others, he glides past players. With his turn of pace catching Clichy on the back foot, he easily outpaced the former Arsenal left-back. He drilled a low ball across the six yard box and the trailing Demechelis was unable to stop the ball reaching the onrushing Andre Schurrle.

1-0 Chelsea and The Bridge awoke in a crescendo of noise. Schurrle pumped his fists towards the MHL and then pointed towards Torres. It had been a superb run. Torres’ earlier miss was soon forgotten.

Next, Torres on fire, down below me, teasing a City defender before striking a rasping shot which curled enticingly on its trajectory toward goal. The ball thundered against the bar. It was a fantastic shot. How unlucky. City issued a warning signal in the dying moments of the half as Aguero shot at Cech from an angle but our ‘keeper fought away the strike with the minimum of effort.

It had been an interesting game of football in the first-half. I sensed that it had been bubbling along nicely and that, as so often is the case, the game would provide more adventure in the second period.

Sadly, Manchester City soon struck in the second-half. Samir Nasri sent through a slide-rule pass to Aguero, with our defence unable to match his movement. With hardly any back lift, the striker unleashed a bullet which beat Cech at his near post.

1-1.  Game on, again.

Although I think we edged the first-half, Manchester City now seemed to step up a gear and were on the front foot. Our defence, previously well-marshalled by the excellent Terry in the first-half, appeared vulnerable. In midfield, there was little bite. However, with the indefatigable Ivanovic charging up and down the right flank with all of his old spirit, we managed a foot hold in the game. A header from Torres was aimed straight at Hart and a Terry effort was touched over. Cech saved superbly from Silva. This was brewing up to be quite a game. The mood inside the stadium was of nervous concern though; here was evidence enough that the home supporters viewed City as an accomplished team. The atmosphere again struggled to get going.

Mourinho rang the changes. A clearly tiring Lampard was replaced by the steadying calm of Mikel and Schurrle was replaced by Willian. A few chances were exchanged and then Samuel Eto’o was chosen to replace Hazard. I was still nervously expecting a City goal at any moment. A free-kick from Willian flew past the far post at The Shed End.

The minutes ticked by.

Then, with not long to go before the final whistle, a Willian header was lofted high into the City half. Nastasic was being chased by Torres and headed the ball goalwards, but his touch was heavy and cleared the on-rushing Hart.

The stadium gulped.

We watched, breathlessly, as Torres continued his run and then stabbed the ball in from an angle.

Mayhem. Absolute mayhem.

2-1 Chelsea.

The place was pumping now alright.

Torres raced over to the corner and was soon mobbed by team mates. I was so pleased for him. Please God let him enjoy these moments of salvation. Under the astute man management skills of Mourinho, there is a bright future ahead. I’ve certainly noticed a greater show of strength from Torres this season; he looks more robust, his chest seems more muscular, his body more tuned for the rigours ahead. If his head stays positive, goals will follow.

In the ensuing thirty seconds, I still expected City to score.

We all did, right?

The ball was pumped into the Chelsea box one last time.

It was cleared.

All eyes were on the much maligned Howard Webb. I punched the air as he signalled the end of the game.

Manchester City – one of the title favourites – had now lost three out of nine league games.

Chelsea – on a roll – were up to second place.

The future looks fine.

And back ache? What back ache?


Tales From The Internationalists

Steaua Bucharest vs. Chelsea : 1 October 2013.

There was a moment during the breaking hours of Monday, as I circumnavigated the M25 from the M3 to the M1, when I was lost in thought, already planning my next travel burst. Even though I was headed out for a first-ever visit to Romania for our game with Steaua Bucharest the following evening, here was proof that I am never happier than letting my mind wander and allowing it to flit from city to city, dreaming of possible itineraries, buoyed by the knowledge that another destination will soon be awaiting me. I suppose this is the definition of wanderlust; always wanting to be elsewhere, the constant preoccupation with other lands, other cities, other experiences. If life is a journey, does this mean that I am unhappy with my own journey, since I am forever willing myself to new lands? Who knows? Not me. Especially at 5.30am on a drab Monday morning.

Back to basics; for now, Bucharest was my destination.

I had left home at just after 4am and there was the inevitable text to a few night owls in the US to let them know that I was “On The Road.”

“Jack Kerouacu.”

All of my goods and chattels had been forced rather strenuously into a 42cm x 30cm x 25cm Karrimor ruck-sac. It was the maximum size allowed for an item of hand luggage for my Wizz Air flight from Luton to Bucharest Coandi airport. In truth, my trusty camera and lenses took up around 40% of this space; there was no room for a pullover. I might be freezing in Bucharest, but at least I’d be able to record it all on film.

Stonehenge looked even more spooky than usual as I shot past it on the A303. I dropped into Fleet Services for a coffee. All was quiet. On the M25, I glanced across at Heathrow’s Terminal Five and, with memories of that building being the starting point of a trip to Philadelphia with my dear mother in 2010, came a cavalcade of yearnings to be elsewhere. That my craving for foreign lands has been partially-satiated by the international travels of Chelsea Football Club, of course, is one of the joys of my life. The trip to Bucharest would be my twenty-sixth Chelsea game in mainland Europe .

I reached Luton airport at 6.30am. On the bus from the long term car park to the small terminal building, with me unable to stifle the early-morning yawns, I spotted the first Chelsea fan of the trip (“face familiar, name unknown”) and I knew there would be more as the morning progressed.

It is one of the great annoyances of following Chelsea in European competitions that we always seem to get drawn against teams that we have already met. How is it possible for us to continually meet Porto, Valencia, Barcelona, Schalke, Juventus, Lazio et al? In this year’s CL Group Phase, UEFA had tucked us up even further; not only have we played all three group members before, but we only met Steaua and Basel last spring. Have they never heard of wanderlust, damn it?

At the gate, I noted a few Chelsea fans – FFNU – but then spotted a trio of very familiar faces; Rob, Callum and DJ. Here were three members of the very loyal band of Chelsea supporters who – quite literally – follow Chelsea over land and sea, and Bucharest. Only a couple of friends had travelled out to see us take on Steaua in the Europa League last March – I believe we only took around 200 to 300 – but their comments about the city made me choose Romania over Germany and Switzerland in 2013. Although a German trip is always brilliant, a previous visit to a grim Gelsenkirchen in 2007 easily dissuaded me. Basel? No. Bucharest it was.

The flight lasted around three hours; thankfully I was able to catch up on some sleep. The rest of the trip was spent chatting about various flights, travel options and prices of current trips and of previous escapades following Chelsea. There is no doubt that Chelsea supporters – like those of the other clubs in England who have been blessed with European competition – are masters in the art of winkling out the cheapest route from the UK to any given city in Europe. It seems that certain fans know the schedules of Ryanair, Easyjet, Wizz-Air and others off by heart. Often, routes are quite bizarre.

London to Berlin, then to Madrid.

London Gatwick to Bergamo, then to Bucharest, but returning via another airline via Vienna to London Heathrow.

London to Porto, then train to Lisbon, but back via a train to Faro then home.

All to save £20 here and £20 there.

Top marks to everyone. Top marks to the Chelsea Internationalists, the masters of budget air travel. In fact, among the talk of flight combinations and ridiculous routes, there is almost a hidden agenda to come up with the most tortuous itinerary of all, but only if a cash saving is to be had.

“Yeah, I travelled out on a flight to Paris for only £20, but I knew that there was a budget coach going to Milan every second Tuesday in the month for just £5. I hopped on that. From Milan, I caught a train to Como using my Italian mate’s rail season ticket and then cycled, like James Coburn in “The Great Escape,” over the border into Switzerland. Job done, son.”

The rumours were true; it was raining in Bucharest as our flight landed at 1.30pm. The airport looked bleak; tired concrete buildings and associated fittings. Rob and I managed to get ourselves on a bus into the city for a ridiculously cheap price. Patiently waiting on the bus, just arrived from Heathrow on a Tarom flight, were Alan, Gary, Tom and a few other familiar Chelsea fanatics. Good stuff. The bus ride in to the city reminded me of the journey into Moscow in 2008; rain beating down on the windows, slow-moving traffic, but vast warehouses, garages and superstores lining the road.

Carrefour, Ikea, Porsche, BMW, Harley Davidson.

We passed the Romanian version of the Arc de Triomph and continued along the main artery into the city. We alighted at the end of the line at Piata Unirii, the large central square, surrounded by large shops to one side, the hint of the old town to another, and the vast open space of the east-west Bulevardi Unirii to the south. It was teeming with rain. Tom, Alan and Gary made their way to their hotel in the old town, while I headed off in another direction, with my pronunciation of a street name drawing nothing but consternation from a local policeman.

I reached my hotel on Strada Mantuleasa at 3.30pm. On the twenty minute walk from Piata Unirii, the rain hadn’t stopped. It was time to have a shower, dry my clothes and take a power nap. It was going to be a long night ahead.

At 7pm, I met up with a work acquaintance, Elena, who I have been communicating with on email and the occasional phone call, for the past seven years. She works, just a few miles to the north, right next to the Dinamo Bucharest stadium in fact, for an office furniture company. We hopped next door in to the adjoining restaurant and spent an hour or so chatting about work, Bucharest, her personal family history under the old communist regime, and the particular circumstances that brought me to her home city on an autumnal day in 2013. It was, of course, fascinating to hear her speak of the old regime and, I am ashamed to say, made me realise how little I knew – or know now, even – of the countries in the former Eastern bloc and how they all existed before the walls came tumbling down, quite literally, in the late ‘eighties. Elena spoke of her parents who both worked at a factory making engines. I made the stupid mistake of asking the name of the company. Of course, there was no company; her parents were working for the state. In that exact moment, my mind did cartwheels attempting to understand what it must have been like in the old regime where poor productivity was hidden, where objectives and goals were masked in a cloud of bureaucracy and where the fear – in Romania especially, one of the most terrifying communist states – of being investigated by the state was omnipresent.

In truth, I could only imagine. And I was sad that I would just be brushing the surface of Bucharest on this trip. There was a long day ahead on the Tuesday, but – if the rain continued to fall – I wondered how much of the city I would actually manage to see.

At 8.15pm, Elena kindly deposited me on the eastern edge of the old town, with the flashing neon of the advertisements in Piata Unirii, a hundred yards to the south. Within a minute, I had stumbled upon Base Camp Bucharest 2013.

The “Old City” bar had been used by the Chelsea expeditionary force during the visit in 2012-2013. A return visit in 2013-2014 was a necessity. The owner, Cristian, had again decorated his bar with Chelsea flags and a few of his female friends were wearing blue Chelsea T-shirts. The girls weren’t working behind the bar; they just welcomed us in at the front door and posed for photographs.

Lovely jubbly.

Just inside the door, I soon stumbled into a bevy of good friends; the ever-present Alan and Gary, but also Rob, Tom and Pauline, everyone already deep into beer and vodka. They had been enjoying the warm welcome from the bar staff since around 4pm. The night was already rocking.

“Fasten your seatbelts, Chris, my son, this is going to be a good one.”

Within a few seconds, that Chelsea stalwart “The Liquidator” was booming throughout the long, narrow bar, deep in the heart of Bucharest’s old town; a cramped hotchpotch of cobbled streets, lined with bars, restaurants, ice-cream parlours and fast-food stalls.  Outside, the rain was falling and the streets were near-deserted. Inside, it was noisy and the songs continued.

“Stop dreaming of the quiet life, ‘cos it’s the one you’ll never know.”

There was talk of a myriad number of topics, but laughter was the one constant. The music pounded. At the opposite end of the bar, Chelsea fans in their ‘fifties – all FFNU – were stomping.

“We’re going down the pub.”

Tom soon acquired a navy blue cap from one of the local constabulary and flitted from friend to friend with the look of someone who was enjoying a second – or third or fourth – childhood. His face was a picture. The songs, from my youth, were continuing and we were shouting out the lyrics.

“Echo Beach, far away in time, Echo Beach far away in time.”

Goggles, one of the Fulham OB especially assigned to keep an eye on the Chelsea supporters on our European adventures, was in the bar, chatting to a few faces. What a crazy life for the Chelsea Internationalists.

“It’s just gone noon, half-past monsoon on the banks of the River Nile.”

My good mate Orlin – San Francisco via Sofia – soon arrived with three mates with ridiculously unpronounceable names and joined in the fun. In March, our support in Bucharest was bolstered by Chelsea fans from Sofia and Varna. Orlin told me that around sixty Chelsea fans from his home town of Sofia would be in town for Tuesday’s game.

“When I’m with you baby, I go out of my head.”

Out of nowhere, two Chelsea fans decided to do a streak through the bar.

“I am an anti-Christ, I am an anarchist.”

As the night rolled on, the local Ciuc beer (7 lei for a pint or around £1.30) gave way to vodka and Red Bull.

“Poor old Johnny Ray.”

The crowds grew and the singing increased.

“London calling to the faraway towns.”

Then, Alan and I camping it up good and proper.

“I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar.”

It was 1985 all over again. Rob, Gary and Alan then, predictably, hit the amaretto.

The crowds eventually began to drift away; maybe at 2.30am, maybe at 3am. Then a sudden influx of a few late guests and an impromptu song contest involving some very rare Chelsea songs. At around 3.45am, I teetered out of the bar, the rain still falling, and set off on a walk back to my hotel.

“Get to the main square, Chris, and then it’ll be easy.”

Oh boy.

After walking for around twenty minutes or so, I remember being tempted by an all-night petrol station on the opposite side of the road. My receipt for a sausage strudel indicates it was 4.12am. On exiting, my powers of self-navigation had evidently been upturned. I had no idea where I was and no idea of how I had approached the filling station. I was lost. In Bucharest. I yelled out a shriek of pain. I continued walking. The rain got worse. Passing traffic splashed rain water from the kerbside puddles onto my already soaked jeans. My socks were saturated. I shouted again.


At a relatively busy road junction by a garage, I flagged down a yellow cab. I hopped inside. I mentioned the name of my hotel, but the cab driver looked befuddled. I tried to remember the name of the street. My mind was blank. There was a moment of silence. He looked at me. I looked at him. He spoke no English. I spoke no Romanian. This was ridiculous. I exited the cab and slammed the door behind me. For around twenty minutes, I sheltered in a bus shelter. I couldn’t have been wetter if someone had thrown me into a swimming pool. At last another cab; let’s try again. Thankfully, this cabbie – a far friendlier bloke – was equipped with GPS and the back-up of a tablet…he soon pumped in my hotel name. Thankfully, it registered.

“Strada Mantuleasa?”

“Yeah, that’s it!”

What relief.

The cab ride was just 20 lei – around £4 – so I couldn’t have been too far from the hotel; maybe a mile or so. At around 5.30am, I entered the foyer of the hotel; it had been an eventful – for the want of a better word – end to the night.

I slept like a baby, not waking until 11.45am. Miraculously, the ten beers and five vodkas (again the bar receipts tell a story) from the previous night had no effect. I had no hangover, nor the merest hint of one. It was the Miracle of Mantuleasa Street. I showered, checked out and…then what?

It was just after midday. The game was almost ten hours away. Despite no hangover, boy was I tired. Despite the lure of heading back to the Old City bar, I resisted. I wanted to see, at least, a little of the city. I walked a few blocks in search of a coffee house in which to shelter from the rain which was still falling. Not only is Bucharest devoid of bars, except in the old town, it is also deficient in cafes and restaurants. I walked along uneven pavements, with flagstones at every angle possible, avoiding further puddles (there are a lot of puddles in Bucharest) and was dismayed to witness only fast food outlets with no room to sit inside; just a serving counter onto the pavement.

“Bloody hell.”

From 2pm to 3.30pm, I sheltered in a “Subway.” The wind was howling outside. The trees which lined the street were being blown to the left and to the right. The rain – God, the rain – still fell. In truth, it reminded me of travels in distant cities in my youth when I had time to kill, little money, and when I waited for the next train connection – to Verona, to Stuttgart, to Genoa – in a local café and observed the locals. It was OK.

Then, typical me. I emptied the chest pocket of my still wet jacket; although it was rather sodden, there was the Bucharest city map that I had deposited before I set off the previous evening.

Oh boy.

If only I had remembered; my lonely traipsing of the streets of Bucharest would have not happened.

I growled.

I set off to take a few photographs of the Palace of the Parliament, the massive edifice constructed under the guidelines of the ruthless dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in the ‘eighties. The building is huge. I had to take some photographs of it while in Bucharest, if nothing else. Ceausescu, who was shot during the uprising in 1989, never lived to see it finally completed. It remains the largest civilian building in the World. At Piata Unirii, there was a feeling of complete bleakness. The wide boulevard to my left and to my right, and the wide open void of the square, just made me contemplate the absolute greyness of life in the old regime. I took a few atmospheric wide angle shots with my camera as the rain fell and cars flew past. Away to my left, the Palace beckoned me; I walked slowly towards it, the rain still falling. Although Bucharest was known as Little Paris in the inter-war years, with wide streets and pleasing architecture, it was clear to me that this was not one of Eastern Europe’s jewels. This was not Budapest, nor Prague, nor Krakow, each with charismatic architectural treasures and beauties. This was Bucharest, tarnished with the brush of communism and struggling to acclimatise to a new world.  I had noted a few ornate churches, but the city centre had shown little to charm me.

At the western end of Bulevardi Unirii stood the imposing monument to Ceausescu. Its subtle and delicate light brickwork belied the building’s dark secrets. I pointed my camera, shielding it from the rain, and snapped some photographs. I sheltered on the steps of an adjacent governmental building, under the yellow, red and blue of the Romanian flag and let my imagination run away with me for a few short moments; what secrets could these buildings tell? During the days of the communist bloc, my sole foray behind the iron curtain took place in 1976 when, on a family holiday to Italy, we paid a visit to some impressive caves in the former Yugoslavia. I remember my father informing me at the time that Yugoslavia was probably the most welcoming of communist states. Not so Romania under Ceausescu. A trip to Romania for football thirty years ago would not have been anything like a visit in 2013.

With that sobering thought, I headed back into the old town, where I knew that a warm welcome awaited me. At the bottom of Strada Selari, I sat in The Bankers pub for a while, but the place was empty. As I headed north, past more bars, Chelsea fans were conspicuous by their absence. I wondered just how many fans were in town.

At the top of the cobbled street, the Old City was overflowing with Chelsea fans. As so often happens on foreign trips, this was evidently “the” Chelsea pub. Inside, the place was rammed, and I sat quietly in a corner, happy to watch on as others continued on at the same pace as the previous night. The Bristol boys arrived. Orlin and the Bulgarians were over in the far corner. The five blue-clad Chelsea girls were again happy to pose with photographs. A TV crew were present and Pauline made a couple of appearances. One of the bar girls hopped up on to the bar and did an impromptu dance routine. The owner had clearly done his research; his CD of Chelsea songs even included the rarely heard Cup Final song from 2000 : –

“Now the blue tomorrow gets closer each day.
We will follow the Chelsea
Til our dying day.
Just look over your shoulder
See the army dressed in blue.
We’ll go where you go.
And fight every fight with you.”

There was talk of buses taking us over to the stadium from 7pm. The game was to be played at the National Arena, a new structure which hosted the 2012 Europa League Final. Steaua – the team of the army in the old regime – have their very own stadium to the west of the city. For big games, they decamp to the larger national stadium. I can remember the stadium’s predecessor which was typically named “August 23 Stadium” from an England game in 1979. I remember the stereotypical shallow banks of terracing, but especially the central platform, or loggia, where dignitaries watched the games. It was like nothing I had seen at a football stadium before or since.

Four buses took the Chelsea fans from the city centre out to the stadium at around 8.15pm. Our bus featured around twenty of the Bulgarian chapter; it was they alone who were singing on the way to the game. Everyone else was quite subdued; I guess we had seen it all before.

I commented to Alan : –

“I hope they are singing good things about us. Or, at least, bad things about Tottenham.”

We were deposited right outside the stadium. With the lights shining from underneath the roof, the new structure certainly looked impressive. Its main feature was the roof itself; hoisted high on supports, adding height to the structure from inside and out. We were, unbelievably, searched an incredible seven times, involving seven different people, on our way in to the stadium.

One – a ticket check.

Two – a full body tap down.

Three – a full body tap down and bag search.

Four – a check of our upper body.

Five – a check of our pockets.

Six – a check of our legs.

Seven – at the turnstile, a full body and bag search once more.

With the rain still falling, we just wanted to get inside the stadium. Although there was no unpleasantness from the police and the security, this was surely being overzealous? I was just glad I was allowed to take my camera inside. We assembled high on the upper tier, a little knot of Chelsea fans in the cavernous stadium.

If we had 200 at the game in March, I’d guess we had 400 at this one. The Bulgarians lead the chanting as the players went through their drills down below. In truth, I was still feeling the effects of my sightseeing; although my jacket was slowly drying out in the cold wind, my socks were still soaking. All around me, fellow fans stood, shuffling from one foot to the other in an attempt to keep warm. The crowd appeared quite sparse. The stadium only looked half-full. In March, Alan had said it was virtually a full house. We couldn’t work it out, although Alan mentioned that the price of tickets for the game in March was half the price of the 90 lei demanded for this one.

The local kick-off time was 9.45pm. The players took to the field, with the tarpaulin of the large roof keeping the night sky out of sight and giving the stadium a strangely surreal feel. The Chelsea players looked smart in the new white / white / blue.

At the northern end, many flags were constantly waved by one group of Steaua ultras in the lower tier. Down below us, another group of ultras were clapping and cheering throughout the game, with capos at the front leading the orchestration. The Bulgarians in our section taunted them. What pleasantries were exchanged is not known.

“Romanian cheese tastes sour and is overated.”

“That’s nothing; Bulgarian cheese tastes like my grandfather’s socks.”

Who knows?

This was clearly a “must win” game after our surprising defeat against Basel. Our early play, in which Andre Schurrle out on the left wing was heavily used, promised that this would be a good night of football. All of our possession was met with a wall of whistling from the home fans. After a few raids, we were all sad to see Fernando Torres replaced by Samuel Eto’o. We were unsure of his injury. A rare Steaua attack was thwarted. We opened the scoring on 19 minutes after another break from Schurrle, who passed to Eto’o. He lost control but Ramires was on hand to stab the ball home. The net bristled and the Chelsea fans cheered in relief rather than an outpouring of elation. Soon after, we sung “Jose Mourinho” and our manager, looking smart himself in trademark coat and scarf, waved back.  Our chances kept coming with the German Schurrle still standing out with his direct runs at his marker. Elsewhere in the midfield, Mata and Oscar kept probing away. Ramires and Lampard, playing deeper, were not afraid to support the forwards. There was little cheering or singing in the away section; the shuffling continued.

Cech saved well down below us, thwarting a cross shot with his left hand.

Just before the break, Mata played in Eto’o. We held our breath as he aimed. His shot was parried by the ‘keeper but the rebound struck the hapless Georgievski.

2-0 at the break. Easy.

During half-time I asked Alan if, during the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, he could ever imagine himself seeing Chelsea play in Bucharest twice within six months. He looked wistfully across at home fans in the other half of the stadium and smiled.

Both teams exchanged chances soon into the second-half, but we added a third goal when more diligent work from Schurrle on the left flank was rewarded when his pass found Oscar, who played in an advancing Ramires. His shot was struck hard past the home ‘keeper.

3-0. Cruising.

Juan Mata smacked a ball against the near post. The home fans’ whistling had now subsided. We were well on top. Some Chelsea fans left on the hour; the lure of a warm bar was too much. At the other end, Steaua’s Tanase struck at goal; Cech back peddled and flung his hand up to push the ball over the bar. We watched on, horrified, as he crashed into his left post. It looked quite horrific. He stayed down. After a few minutes of concern, he rose to his feet and we were mighty relieved.

Shots from Schurrle and Eto’o caused the Steaua ‘keeper to save again. In the last minute, substitute Willian was found by Eto’o and he set up Frank Lampard who calmly struck a low shot past a crowd of players in the box. The ball grazed the far post and crept in.


More songs for Mourinho. He again waved.

Job most definitely done.

At the end of the game, long after the Chelsea players had applauded us as they had walked off, the home players, although clearly disconsolate, walked slowly right up to within yards of both of their ultra groups at opposite ends of the stadium and applauded them. I thought this was a lovely gesture. Even the Chelsea fans applauded the Steaua team off.

We feared that we would be kept inside for ages after the game, but the wait was not long. In fact, even the rain had stopped once we slowly exited. The buses were waiting for us. With a police escort, we were returned to the city centre. There was a mood of cool relief at the outcome of the game. A Chelsea fan from Abu Dhabi, in Romania especially for the game, chatted to us about his fanaticism for the team. He had been present at the game in Barcelona in 2012 too. His enthusiasm was heartening.

“It’s a religion” he exclaimed.

Chelsea truly is an international club these days; off it as well as on. I had inadvertently bumped into a lad from Sweden during the game too. England, Bulgaria, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates. Our appeal knows no bounds and no geographical boundary.

Truly over land and sea.

As my flight home was to take off at the ungodly hour of 6.15am, there was simply no point in paying for a second night in a hotel. I took a bus back to the airport at 1.30am, past the illuminated Arcul de Triumf, and waited patiently in the terminal building for the return to England.

At least I was dry.