Tales From The Shores Of The Caspian Sea

Qarabag vs. Chelsea : 22 November 2017.

Sandwiched between two Saturday away league games at West Bromwich and Liverpool was a European away game that had tantalised myself – and many others – ever since the Champions League draw way back in August. Our game in Baku in Azerbaijan against Qarabag represented Chelsea Football Club’s longest ever trip for a UEFA game. Only the two games in the World Club Championships in 2012 in Yokohama, Japan – FIFA not UEFA – were further away from our home in SW6, with friendlies on the west coast of the US, South America and Australia not included.

On the evening of the draw, I booked myself onto an Aeroflot flight to Baku, via Moscow, and it soon became apparent that many good friends had decided to travel too. Only a few were going direct. Most had decided to go via Istanbul, but a fair few had chosen the Moscow route.

I had missed the last minute drama of the Michy Batshuayi winner in Madrid, but was there in Rome five weeks ago to see us lose 3-0. Bizarrely, Qarabag’s draw in Madrid that night dampened the pain of that loss to Roma. A win in Baku would see us through to the knock-out phase. It added a little drama – if it was needed – to this most lengthy of adventures.

Did this trip need a little drama to add a certain piquancy?

I was in two minds.

I have recently begun reading a book written by the revered Paul Theroux – “The Deep South” – which details his travels, experiences and insights of that fabled sub-section of the United States. In one of the first chapters, he details how travel books often engineer some sort of false logistical conflict in order to add a degree of tension and drama to the narrative. I have often thought that this was true of television travel documentaries – probably my favourite type of TV programme if I am honest – and I lay the blame solely at the feet of Michael Palin. His ground-breaking “Around The World In Eighty Days” travelogue from 1988 was enjoyable but there were endless “will I catch the correct plain/train/coach/car?” scenarios which I could not help but think were added to give the series an extra edge and a sense of danger.

Theroux was having none of this and it struck a chord. Certainly travelling within the US – he was to drive by car from the small towns of the Carolinas, through Appalachia and down to the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf of Mexico – there was surely no recognisable conflict. He was wealthy, he owned a good car, the fuel was cheap, the roads were wide and easy to navigate. There was no need to add any drama to his movement through the area.

However, on the day before I was set to leave for Baku, my friend Dutch Mick reported of a nightmarish experience in Moscow. He was not allowed on the waiting plane to take him to Baku. Then, once arrived in Baku – ten hours late – his son had paperwork issues with his Azerbaijani visa and had to wait for a new application, but there were subsequent issues with that too. I was then horrified to read that he commented that Aeroflot often cancel flights to Baku without any notice.

“Oh bollocks.”

Of course there are always usual worries linked to foreign travel – those horrid doubts about having neglected to pack that all important passport, visa, credit card – but as I left work on the Monday, I remembered how one friend had lost both his passport and wallet and another pal had lost his passport in Rome. Then came this extra worry of cancelled flights. I had no margin for error; my flight was only getting in to Baku at 5am on the day of the game. It is fair to say that I felt myself remembering Paul Theroux’ comments about enforced conflicts with a wry smile.

I hoped that the only conflict within this particular edition of my travels with Chelsea would be result-related and not due to any logistical snafu.

The English portion of the trip began well. I set off from my home in Somerset at 9am. At just after midday, I had parked my car in my friend Nick’s driveway in the small Berkshire town of Twyford. Although Nick has been going to Chelsea since that horrible relegation season of 1978/79, our paths have only recently crossed; in China of all places. We were over in Beijing for the Arsenal friendly in July. The Aeroflot flight took us out of London via Gatwick but back in via Heathrow; by parking at his place, potential problems from the English section of the trip were smoothed.

Nick’s wife was able to take us to Wokingham train station, from where we caught the hour long train to Gatwick. On that train journey, Nick and myself chatted relentlessly about our travels around Europe with Chelsea. Interestingly, our team’s performances were rarely mentioned; the buzz was all about foreign cities, unbelievable itineraries, excessive beer intakes, endless laughs and various “characters” that we both knew, of which Chelsea has many. Nick was full of tales and many brought a smile to my face.

He began one story by shaking his head and uttering the immortal words “I was sure I told her.”

One day, Nick received a text from his wife asking if he could pick up his son David from school in the afternoon as she would be busy with work.

He replied –

“I can’t. I’m in Bucharest.”

And he was, for our 2013 Europa League game. Classic.

Bearing this story in mind, plus a few others that reinforced the notion that Nick was as “football daft” as myself, I recalled the look that Nick’s wife gave me when I shook her hand back in Twyford.

“Here’s another bloody idiot.”

This would be my thirty-second trip abroad with Chelsea for a UEFA game. I was able to delve into a few of my personal memories. Off the top of my head, a top ten would be Munich 2012, Tel Aviv 2015, Turin 2009, Stockholm 1998, Barcelona 2012, Seville 1998, Lisbon 2014, Vienna 1994, Istanbul 2014 and Prague 1994.

There was time for a couple of pints at Gatwick. On the four-hour flight to Moscow, there were around twenty other Chelsea supporters. I wondered how many tickets we had sold; I hoped for at least one thousand.

Ah Moscow, bloody Moscow. After the memories of that damp and depressing evening at the Luzhniki Stadium in 2008, I swore never to return. But returning I was, and to the same Sheremetyevo airport too, although the Aeroflot terminal, built in 2010, was vastly superior to the now demolished northern terminal that we used in 2008. There was time for a few beers – Spaten, ah Munich – using some of Nick’s roubles from the Rubin Kazan game in 2013; the surly barman reminded me of the welcome we had from the locals on my only previous visit. Although it was around 11pm, all of the retail outlets were open – manned by bored shop assistants staring blankly at their mobile phones – and I was again reminded of how pervasive US commercial activity has proven to be; “Victoria’s Secret” and “Burger King” among others were peddling their wares in deepest Russia. A gaggle of Maribor players returning to Slovenia after their game against Spartak Moscow brushed past us. An enthusiastic Chelsea fan from Munich regaled us of his train trip from Southern Germany to Moscow for the 2008 Final; sixty hours there, sixty hours back. Suddenly Baku did not seem so far away.

I caught a little sleep on the Moscow to Baku leg. We touched down at bang on 5am. Outside, the night, everything dark and mysterious. We were quickly through the passport and visa check; “phew.” I exchanged some sterling for the local currency. The terminal was eerily quiet. A line of white taxi cabs was parked outside and the drivers seemed a little ambivalent to us. Eventually, we knocked back one driver who wanted 60 manat and finally negotiated a 25 manat cab into the city; this translated to around £12.

It was a quiet cab ride into town. We were both tired. The road was devoid of traffic. We wondered what was lying in wait. Baku seemed a beguiling city from afar. Soon, the cab driver took us straight past the oddly-named Olympic Stadium (I must have missed that one), which certainly reminded myself of the Allianz Arena in Munich; adjacent to the main road in to the city from the airport, and encased in a plastic skin. It looked stunning. The game would kick-off in fifteen hours. As the cab took us deep into the city, the buildings became more impressive.

Back in 2014, the furniture company for whom I work sent around seventy articulated trailers of workstations, chairs and storage cabinets to the city of Baku. We kitted out the twenty-five stories of the impressive Socar Tower. It was a huge project. Socar is the state-owned oil and gas company. Within ten minutes of landing in Azerbaijan, I had spotted my first Socar petrol station. As the cab neared our final destination in the city centre, not far from the promenade which overlooks the Caspian Sea, I was able to spot a large building bearing the name of the furniture installation company – Palitra – who were involved in the project. It brought a shudder; due to the intricacies of the export documentation required for exporting into Azerbaijan, which were an added burden to my already busy workload, the Socar project represented the most stressful time in my working life. I was certainly relieved when the tower was fully furnished and open for business. I so hoped to be able to set eyes on the tower, which is in the shape of a flickering flame, during my thirty-five hours in the city.

At about 6.30am, the cab driver deposited us right in the heart of Baku; Nick’s hotel was a few yards from the city’s “Hard Rock Café.”

My hotel – where my mates Alan and Gary, plus it would transpire, a few others – was not far away but the room was not ready until 2pm, so I crashed on the hard wooden floor of Nick’s hotel room for a couple of hours. At around 10am, I set off to collect my match ticket at the Grand Hotel, which was around a twenty-minute walk away. A Chelsea fan pointed me in the right direction. I wasn’t prepared for the very strong winds which blew leaves up off the roads and pavements. My bag on wheels thudded on the cobbled streets which lead up a slight hill. During those first few moments, my eyes were on stalks, taking it all in. I was impressed with the architecture; strong and formidable. I walked past small shops…clothes shops, fast food joints, small and intimate. The Grand Hotel was on a busy intersection. The cars flew down the hill but I soon noticed that, although lights were absent, cars always stopped once pedestrians stepped on to the zebra crossings.

My match ticket collected – 10 manat, or £4.50 – I was unsure what to do. Alan and Gary were on their way to the collection point too, but my phone was playing up. I decided to head back in to town, and soon spotted a Chelsea fan, Scott, sitting in a café on Fountain Square with another supporter. I joined him for a coffee. Outside, they were setting up stalls for a German-style market. A large Christmas tree overlooked the pale blue huts. Nearby were large KFC, Pizza Hut and McDonalds restaurants. The shops and eateries in this central square seemed very westernised. It reminded me of a small German city. Scott had arrived on the Tuesday; I soon wished that I had done the same.

And I was in a slight quandary. I was well aware that the city’s beers were cheap and the bars welcoming and plentiful. But I was sleep-deficient and I had a long day ahead. I wanted to see something of the city. I didn’t want to be tired and drowsy for the football. I wanted to be up relatively early on the Thursday for more sight-seeing. I pondered my options.

I imagined that if I chose to drop my bag at the hotel room and dive into some bars, my destiny might career out of my hands.

The risk of cheap alcohol was real.

I imagined myself stood next to a wheel of fortune and it spinning around, with an array of worrying options.

  1. Drink too much too early and – without food – become a burden, and manage to lose my wallet and match ticket.
  2. Drink too much, spend too much, lose debit card at an ATM, go back to hotel, sponge money off mates and get to game late.
  3. Drink too much and end up in a bar in the wrong part of town and struggle to get to the game in time.
  4. Drink too much, vomit over my jeans, end up in a dishevelled mess in a shop doorway.
  5. Drink too much, get on the metro, take the wrong train, end up miles from anywhere.
  6. Drink too much, simply go back to the hotel, miss seeing my mates, fall asleep, comatose.
  7. Drink too much, drop my camera, get annoyed, head back to the hotel room to charge up my phone/camera, fall asleep and miss game.
  8. Drink too much, fall asleep, wake up on Friday.
  9. Drink too little, but still get lost en route to the game, get in late.
  10. Drink too much and end up supporting Tottenham.

I decided in the circumstances to play it cool. I had drunk enough in Rome. This would be a chilled-out trip.

A young lad approached me on Fountain Square and interviewed me for either a) an Azerbaijan TV station, audience 5,000,000 or b) his YouTube channel, audience 7.

I briefly spoke about Chelsea, Qarabag and the city. Oh well, I knew about one of the three topics.

I reached the hotel, which was centrally-located on a pedestrianised shopping street with a mixture of local and Western brands. Above there were apartments with balconies. They love their balconies in Baku. Luckily, I was allowed into my room early at around midday. I hooked up my wifi; Alan had messaged me to say that he and Gary were out and about.

I slept, fitfully – I think I was too excited – and then went off on a personal tour of Baku for two and-a-half hours. I headed straight down to the promenade. I passed many high-end shops; Burberry, Boss, Lacoste. The wind was still howling. I crossed the busy road – used by the cars on the F1 circuit – and walked down to the steps which were being buffeted by a few small waves from the slate grey Caspian Sea. To the east were cranes, with new building development visible. To the west, the three flame towers dominated the vista, and they towered over the city. Beyond was the spindle of a TV tower. I headed up the hill – more impressive buildings, the warm yellow stone reminded of the Cotswolds – and edged around the walls of the old town. I dipped inside – I would return, I hoped, at length on the Thursday – and decided on a local meal. Just inside one of the gates, there is a row of around four wooden huts which house ridiculously small and intimate restaurants. Brian and Kev – the Bristol lot – spotted me and we chatted; the luck buggers had been in town since Monday.

I entered a small hut – a massive stone oven was right by the door – and the place was full of the atmospheric smoke from the wood which was being incinerated. I sat in a corner, the wind howling outside and rattling the windows, and ordered the national specialty – “plov” – which consisted of lightly scented boiled rice, tender lamb, tomato, onion and a small flat dumpling. Along with a huge slab of bread and a bottle of the local Xirdalan beer, it came to a mighty 12 manat or around £6. There was only one other person in my little section; a local man of around seventy years of age. I wondered what his life story involved. What was his history? I wonder if he had heard of Chelsea.

I took a leisurely walk back to the hotel, the night falling all around me.

I spotted a lone Chelsea fan. I was the first fellow-fan that he had seen all day. His travelogue was beset with “conflict”; he had been stuck in a two-hour traffic snarl-up in his home town and only just made the first of his two flights out to Baku. On the second flight, one of the passengers died. Bloody hell.

At around 6.30pm, Alan, Gary and myself – plus Pete and Nick – caught a cab to the stadium. The roads were full. Not long into the thirty-minute trip, Nick spotted that there were nine lanes of traffic, all going north. To our left, I spotted the magnificent Socar Tower, with the blue, green and red flames of the company logo flickering on the outside. It was a mightily impressive sight, at present the tallest in Baku.

The wind was blowing even stronger on the wide open approach to the stadium. I unravelled “VINCI PER NOI” and posed with it, making sure to grip it tight. I had visions of it flying off into the night.

There was a security check – bags through X-ray machines, a pat-down – and the surprisingly friendly police examined my banner for a few moments. It was allowed in. As there was an hour to kick-off, I left the others to enter, and I walked all of the way around the impressive stadium. It was certainly impressive alright. Towards our northern side, the light panels were dappled pink, orange and red, like a Cocteau Twins album. During the day, in the city, I had not seen a single Qarabag shirt or scarf. And yet there was an expected 67,000 sell-out expected. I had the distinct impression that the locals were jumping on this and treating it like a match involving a quasi-national team. Qarabag – exiled from a town that simply does not exist anymore in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of western Azerbaijan – usually play in a smaller stadium in Baku, but were playing this season’s Champions League games in this much bigger Olympic Stadium.

Inside, I made my way up to section 307. The lads had saved me a spot in the very front row. The stadium was marvelous, a photogenic delight. Three tiered on two sides, with two tiers behind the goals, it was fully encased. The athletics track meant that we were long way from the pitch, but it just felt like a proper stadium. It had its own design. Its own feel. Its own identity. The thousands of light jade seats soon filled. We spotted Dutch Mick a few rows behind us.

Down below us, a small knot of Qarabag supporters were in early, enthusiastically flying a few blue and white flags, and singing all sorts of songs. Throughout the game, many of them would be faced away from the pitch, encouraging others to sing. Football fans are a varied breed. Below us to our left, a gaggle of supporters wearing red were spotted. Maybe supporters of another team. If my prediction was right, this was a proper gathering of various clans.

The Chelsea team was displayed on the huge screens.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

So, no Alvaro Morata. I envisaged the front three swarming with pace at the Qarabag back line.

Just before the game began, we were treated to a cheesy Qarabag club anthem, and then the spectators in the huge stand to our left unveiled a couple of banners amid a sea of mosaics.

“FAR WAY FROM HOME BUT WHERE YOU BELONG.”

The stadium lit up with mobile phones being held aloft in the home areas, then the anthem and the teams. As the game started, a little rain fell. My jacket was warm but others were struggling. The home team in all black. Chelsea in dirty white.

In the first few moments, we started on the front foot but were soon shocked by a couple of Qarabag attacks. We watched in horror as the home team sliced through our defence like a hot knife through butter. The shot from Michel slammed against our crossbar with the defenders looking on aghast. Thankfully, the rebound was well wide. It was a real warning sign for sure. A fine block from Dave followed.

A header from David Luiz flew over the Qarabag bar. On twenty minutes, Eden Hazard pushed a ball through for Willian. As he advanced into the box, he was slightly nudged by a Qarabag defender. Down he went. The referee pointed to the spot and to be honest we were so far away that I was not so sure that the push had taken place inside the box. Next, the referee sent off the Qarabag defender, their captain Sadygov. The home fans were in uproar and I could see why. It seemed a soft penalty, and my eyes saw a covering defender too. Regardless, Eden rolled the penalty home.

Alan : “İndi onlar bizə gəlmək məcburiyyətində qalacaqlar.”

Chris : “mənim kiçik brilyantlar.”

Boos boomed around the stadium.

We were in control now. Pedro was busy. A Hazard header was straight at their ‘keeper. The Chelsea fans – officially 912 – struggled to make much noise but one song joined us all together.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

With ten minutes of the first-half remaining, Willian combined beautifully with Hazard. Willian ran at the defence, played a ball to Hazard, who back-heeled the ball back to Willian. He stroked the ball past the luckless ‘keeper.

Game over? It certainly felt like it. Apart from that initial flurry in the first few minutes of the game, Qarabag had been no threat whatsoever. At half-time, thousands upon thousands of home fans – maybe not bona fide Qarabag supporters per se – left the stadium.

The temperatures dropped further as the second-half began. A few Chelsea supporters were spotted drinking pints of lager in the seats behind me; authentic too, not non-alcoholic. In this part of UEFA’s kingdom, normal rules apparently do not apply. Chelsea looked to increase the score and were in control. Pedro went close. Antonio replaced Marcos Alonso with Gary Cahill. Eden Hazard forced a fine save from the Qarabag keeper but was then replaced by Alvaro Morata. The Spaniard himself went very close to scoring, just staying onside but just steering his shot wide. The offside trap worked in Qarabag’s favour as a ball from Willian was touched on by Pedro to Azpilicueta. However, Dave had just wandered into an offside position; the resultant cross and goal from Morata was wiped off.

On seventy-three minutes, another weak penalty in my eyes; a slight tug from a defender brought Willian down. A few old-fashioned looks were exchanged in the away section. Cesc Fabregas needed two attempts to score, but score he did.

So, two pretty weak penalties and a sending-off in or favour. The tiresome Chelsea / UEFA conspiracy theorists might need a rethink.

Danny Drinkwater replaced N’Golo.

With five minutes to go, Willian – the man of the night – shimmied and stroked the ball to his right, making space. His fine shot thundered past the ‘keeper.

Qarabag 0 Chelsea 4

We were kept in for around thirty minutes. A gaggle of maybe fifteen Chelsea fans from Iraq – resplendent in Chelsea replica shirts, how quaint – appeared down below us, with a large banner. I bumped into Brian from Chicago right at the end; from one windy city to another, his trip was surely the longest of the night.

Outside, the gales were howling, but thankfully subsided as we walked around the stadium before catching a metro back to the centre. In our compartment, around six or seven local Chelsea fans were singing songs, if a little out of tune. I guess that there had been little pockets of non-UK based Chelsea fans dotted around the stadium. I would like to think that these took our total to over one thousand. Though I am sure some Chelsea fans would argue that these fans don’t count.

Back to Fountain Square at 12.30am, a kebab, and bed.

For a few lovely hours the following day – Thursday – I spent my time walking around the compact old town. It was a relaxing and chilled-out time. I walked to the top of Maiden Tower which offered fine views of the city, which rises quite dramatically from the shore of the Caspian Sea. I bumped into a few Chelsea fans, all heading back on the same 4.10pm flight as myself.

Down below, within a few square yards, various locals were going about their daily routines. Traders were setting their stalls up for passing custom – honey, confectionery, drinks, cakes, pots and pans, rugs, souvenirs – while four men were standing over a backgammon board, and making a considerable noise as they slapped the pieces down. A couple of young back-packers walked past. A model – ridiculously thin and with over-the-top make-up – was being photographed on one of the dusty streets, while three others waited their turn. Large wooden balconies towered over the scene before me. One of the flame towers peaked from a distance. Cars reversed with meticulous care along narrow streets. Space was at a premium. There was a call to prayer in a local Mosque.

This was Baku.

I darted inside a large restaurant. The friendly waitress guided me through the menu. The waiter looked like Andy Kaufman. I decided on stuffed aubergines, a salad, some lamb wrapped in vine leaves, another Xirdalan.

It was time to call it a day.

I met up with Nick and his mate James outside the Hard Rock Café. They sunk their beers and at 1.30pm we took a cab back to the airport. We had loved our short stay in Baku. It is a horrible cliché to say that the city is a city of contrasts. But it is both an ancient and increasingly modern city. If I was return in ten years, there is no doubt that I would witness a very different one. Oil rich and punching above its weight, Baku will surely become inundated with even more startling architecture as the years pass. A substantial area is already being built to the east of the city. I so hope that the very friendly locals don’t change for the worst.

We caught our flight to Moscow. We were homeward bound.

However, deep in the bowels of Sheremetyevo airport, for around thirty minutes, things became rather tense. I was at the back of the queue at the transfer desk, but did not recognise anyone from our flight. All of the signs were in Cyrillic text. Had I missed an announcement while I took two minutes to powder my nose in the gents? I was not sure of the time in Moscow. My mood grew dark.

Our flight was at 7.50pm. Our boarding time was 7.10pm.

I spotted a woman’s watch. It said 6pm. Phew.

“Is it six o’clock?”

“No, seven o’clock.”

With that, I pushed my way to the front of the transfer desk to force my way through. I looked to my right and around ten Chelsea fans were doing the same. An unsmiling Russian woman stamped my passport and I had made it.

“Thank fuck for that.”

That was enough conflict and drama for me thank you very much.

We landed at Heathrow at 9pm and I was soon hurtling along the M4. It had been a whirlwind trip to the windy city on the Caspian. At around 11.15pm. I found it inconceivable that, even allowing for the time zones, I had only touched down in Baku the previous day. Next time, I will stay longer. You never know, with UEFA’s predilection of pairing us with the same old teams year after year, we might be making a return visit to Baku again.

Over to you Qarabag.

Tales From My Second Home

Chelsea vs. Hull City : 22 January 2016.

Sunday at half-past-four. What a bloody annoying time for a game of football.

The lads had been deposited in The Goose – “see you later” – while I had to pick up some tickets for a couple of future away games down at the stadium. We were in town ridiculously early – midday – but with a little time to kill, I thought I would spend a while with my trusty camera and take a smattering of photographs of Stamford Bridge. This would be our first home game since the announcement that the local council had approved the plans for the rebuild, and it made sense for me to pay homage to Stamford Bridge’s current hotchpotch of stands, irregular angles and unique aspects. The new stadium will be very different of course; there will be one design, one style, one theme, one vision. The current stadium, built between 1972 and 2001, is typical of many stadia in England at the moment. There have been piecemeal additions over the years and although the interior hints at a common design, the overall result – especially from the outside – would suggest otherwise.

As I walked down behind the East Stand, now a grand old lady of forty-three years of age, I was struck with how little room had originally been set aside for extra-curricular activities such as restaurants, bars and corporate suites.  From the rear, it reminded me of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, with all of its skeletal construction, heating pipes, air-conditioning units, roof supports and associated infrastructural necessities all on show. Although this stand won a few architectural awards in its day – London had never seen a three-tiered stand of such size and scale before – it remains rather ugly from the rear. My memory from watching games inside the East Stand – especially the East Upper – is of how cramped everything was behind the scenes. And yet, when the current stadium is razed to the ground in just a few years’ time, I will miss the East Stand more than any other. When I saw my first-ever game at Chelsea in 1974, watching from the wooden benches of the West Stand enclosure, the East Stand was still being built opposite. It dominated Stamford Bridge in those days in a way that is difficult, now, to imagine. It dwarfed all other parts of the ground, and certainly the adjacent low and rambling North Stand terrace and Shed End. I watched football from the East Lower from 1974 to 1980 with my parents – a total of thirteen games – and it will always have a place in my heart.

As I continued my walk around the outside of The Bridge, I remembered “Drakes” on the corner of the Matthew Harding Stand – now re-named the Champions Club – and how it was the sole domain, when it opened up in 1994, of CPO shareholders only, and how Glenn, Alan and myself used to frequent it for a pre-match meal and pint. It used to be remarkably quiet and an enjoyable place to meet-up. In around 1996, it was opened up for club members and suddenly became ridiculously busy, and we soon moved on to The Harwood for our pre-match festivities.

The outside of the West Stand is vastly different to the East Stand. All of its pre-match function rooms are concealed in a huge wall of brick, but I have to say it would hardly win any design awards. It serves a purpose I suppose, but I am not a huge fan. I love the way that the Peter Osgood statue always casts a shadow on its lower reaches.

The Shed End is lost within the guts of the Chelsea offices, the apartment block and the Copthorne Hotel. From the forecourt, Stamford Bridge doesn’t even resemble a football stadium any more.

How everything has changed over the past twenty years. It is one of my big regrets that I didn’t take as many photographs – both outside and inside – of the old Stamford Bridge in its last few years as I ought. How I wish I had captured those little kiosks embedded within the supporting wall of the Shed terrace as it swept its way around to the East Stand. Or those huge floodlight pylons. Or the corrugated iron of the away turnstiles behind the West Stand. Or the dark and moody walkways which ran behind the main body of The Shed terrace. Or the steps leading down from the top of the West Stand to those extra turnstiles within the stand before you reached the benches. Or the unique angled aisles of the old West Stand. Or the Bovril Gate, a gaping hole, in the large Shed terrace. Or that exit walkway that lead down at an angle behind the West Stand. Or those fading advertisements which were etched on to the rear of the shops on the Fulham Road. All of those images, lost and gone forever, but my memory of the old place remains strong.

Stamford Bridge really was – and is, and hopefully shall be in the future – my second home.

There was a couple of drinks in “The Goose” where Daryl and myself chatted with Mick, a fellow-Chelsea supporter who we had not seen for quite a while, possibly for the first time in ten years. We remembered a lovely trip to Rome in 1999 for the Lazio game and how we were drinking brandies in Piazza Venezia at an ungodly hour as early morning risers were coming in for their “wake me up” espressos. After that game, we somehow found ourselves getting a lift back to the centre of Rome on the same coach as Ron Harris and Peter Osgood. I had forgotten, but Mick said that he had sat next to Ossie on the coach and what a lovely memory for him.

We watched on a TV screen as an image of Diego Costa arriving at the stadium was shown. And just like that, Diego was back in the fold, and the China crisis was over. The game had been discussed but only very briefly throughout the day. I think it is very fair to say that three points against Hull City was absolutely expected. On the Saturday, we had been enlivened by Swansea’s surprising lunchtime win at Anfield and then, in the evening, points had been shared between Manchester City and Tottenham. The fact that Manchester United had dropped points at Stoke City seemed inconsequential.

The team was announced.

Courtois.

Cahill, Luiz, Azpilicueta.

Alonso, Matic, Kante, Moses.

Hazard, Diego Costa, Pedro.

Daryl and myself then had another drink in “The Malt House” before heading in to the stadium. I peered into The Broadway Bar & Grill and uttered an obscenity as I saw that Arsenal had taken a 1-0 lead at home to lowly Burnley. On walking towards the MH turnstiles, a fan announced that Burnley had miraculously equalised. I gave him a hug. By the time I had reached my seat, my mood had completed a 180 degree switch; Arsenal had scored a ridiculously late winner.

Not exactly a Carlsberg weekend, but maybe a Carlsberg top weekend.

Within the very first few seconds, Diego Costa raced on to a long ball from David Luiz and belted a low shot just past the Hull post.

It’s hard to believe that Tom Huddlestone is still playing football; he seems to have been around for ages. However, much to my chagrin, he seemed to be at the heart of a lot of Hull’s moves. I was soon getting annoyed at how much space we were giving him.

“Come on. Get on him. He’s their playmaker.”

His shot narrowly missed Thibaut’s post.

Hull City had brought around 1,200 fans, but were hardly noisy. Neither were we. In fact, it was ridiculously quiet.

Not long in to the game, Gary Cahill rose for a high ball, but only connected with Ryan Mason. Both fell to the floor. Both seemed immobile for a while. There was genuine concern as players from both teams swarmed around their two team mates. The minutes ticked by. Thankfully Gary Cahill stood, then walked off to the side line. Ryan Mason had evidently fared worse as a stretcher took him off for attention. The entire stadium rose as one to clap him off. Chelsea fans in laudable behaviour shock.

The extended delay seemed to affect Chelsea more than Hull City, who enjoyed a little spell. Marcos Alonso saw his effort from outside the box take a wicked deflection and dip alarmingly, but the Hull ‘keeper was able to scramble back and tip over. In all honesty, Chelsea were enjoying a lot of the ball, but were finding it difficult to break Hull down. Eden Hazard, very often the main threat, seemed to have a lot of the ball, but kept being forced wide. Pedro was quiet. Moses was often used, but wasn’t at his best. Still the atmosphere was morgue like. At times, I am sure there was complete silence.

Harry Maguire, who sounds like a petty criminal from a ‘sixties film – “I never did nuffink, see” – forced a fine save from Courtois.

This was not going to plan at all.

Bollocks.

A weighty nine minutes of injury time was added to the first-half. Can anyone remember anything longer? Not me.

The silence continued, a few disappeared off for half-time pints.

Sigh.

Then, with time running out, Moses was able to get behind Hull’s defence and send over a low ball. It miraculously ended up at the feet of Diego Costa who calmly slashed the ball home.

Chelsea 1, Hull City 0, thank fuck.

Diego danced over to Parkyville. Of all the people it had to be him. The Chelsea team mates mobbed Diego. What a moment.

Not long in to the half-time interval, Neil Barnett – in hushed tones – spoke of the recent death under highly suspicious circumstances of the Chelsea supporter Carl O’Brien. He spoke of how Carl once worked on the ground staff at Stamford Bridge, and how he attended games at Chelsea for decades. An image of Carl appeared on the large TV screens, and Neil spoke of the planned minute of applause which was to commence on fifty-five minutes. It would mark Carl’s age on his passing. Fifty-five; it is a very Chelsea number, but it represents a terribly young age to be taken from us. Carl was one of probably hundreds of Chelsea supporters who I knew by face only, and who float in and out of my life at various stages, various moments, various games. I remember first spotting him on a terrace in Zaragoza way back in 1995 when the Spanish police decided to baton charge us. He was a tall chap, with long hair; quite distinctive really. I can remember seeing him only a few months ago at Stamford Bridge. According to the eulogies, he was a gentle giant, a lovely man. I just hoped that the minute of applause on the fifty-fifth minute would be well-respected. I also hoped that it wouldn’t get lost in, for example, a cacophony of abuse being aimed at the referee, or maybe even a rousing song or chant, which would cloud the moment.

The two teams exchanged efforts on goal in the first ten minutes of the second-half. Huddlestone was still a main threat for Hull.

On fifty-five minutes, with the ball in a neutral area, Stamford Bridge celebrated the life of Carl O’Brien. Many stood, including myself.

“God bless, Carl, memories of Zaragoza in the sun.”

At the end of the minute, I realised that the Shed had held up a banner in memory of him too.

The game continued, but with the visitors dominating for a while. PD was feeling the frustration of an eerily quiet Stamford Bridge, often joining in alone with chants emanating from other parts of the stadium. I joined in too, but it’s difficult to keep it going when there are only two or three singing in a section of several hundred.

This was turning into a proper struggle, both on and off the pitch.

I must’ve thought “we need a second” many times.

Conte replaced the ineffectual Hazard with Cesc Fabregas and Pedro with Willian with twenty minutes to go. I struggled to see if there was a slight adjustment to our formation and after trying to see where Fabregas fitted in I gave up. To be fair, both additions revitalised us a little.

Willian was upended after a fine run down below me. We waited for Cesc to take the free-kick. His delivery was Postman Pat perfect and Gary Cahill rose unhindered inside the six-yard box to head home.

There was that second goal.

Phew.

Gary ran over to our corner, fell to the floor, and was then mobbed by his team mates.

The joy was palpable.

Just after, Fabregas – running the show now – fed a sublime ball through for Diego. We expected a third goal, but his shot was blocked by the ‘keeper.

Michy Batshuayi then replaced Diego, and the Stamford Bridge crowd rose again.

At last there was some noise worthy of the occasion.

“Diego! Diego! Diego! Diego!”

This was clearly not a memorable Chelsea performance, but if ever we needed to win ugly, with Diego Costa we certainly have the man to do it.

And with points being dropped by three of our main rivals, our hard-fought win had put us eight points clear.

Catch us if you can.

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Tales From Winter On Wearside

Sunderland vs. Chelsea : 14 December 2016.

This was the longest trip of the season. I had set off from deepest darkest Somerset at 6am, with PD and LP keeping me company for the long – 320 miles – drive north. After around seven hours battling the traffic, we finally arrived. We checked into our hotel, no more than a mile from the Stadium of Light. The stadium in fact was clearly visible from my room on the fifth floor. There were clear skies overhead. Winter on Wearside didn’t appear to be as bleak as I had originally thought. Our good friend Kevin, from Edinburgh, soon arrived and joined us for a pint at the hotel bar. The plan was to travel by train to Newcastle – a far more interesting and photogenic city a few miles to the north – but we soon decided to cut our losses and stay in Sunderland. On the walk in to the centre, we spotted a few half-decent pubs. We popped in to the first one – “Vesta Tilley’s” – and were suitably impressed that four pints cost just over a tenner.

Over the road, we popped into “The Dun Cow” and I immediately fell in love with it. It was a fantastic find. Outside, it was an architectural gem, with intricrate stone carvings above its bay windows, ornate roof gables and even a clock tower. Inside, it was a classic old-fashioned pub, with mirrors, stained-glass, wooden panels, shiny beer pumps, a plethora of ales, and a very warm atmosphere.

The four of us spotted a free table in the “snug” at the rear of the pub.

A “Birra Moretti” never tasted better.

I quickly toasted Everton Football Club, who had miraculously defeated Arsenal 2-1 the previous night. This simply meant one thing; if we won our game against Sunderland later that evening, we would be six points clear at the very top of the most competitive league in the world. And it would mean that we would stretch our consecutive win streak to a mighty ten games.

We chatted about the season so far, and a host of other topics. Two lads from Stockport – Mike and Liam, both Chelsea – were sat close by, and soon into the introductions it transpired that Liam had sat right next to Kevin in the home seats at Porto last September. What a bloody small world. Quite ridiculous.

My good friend Orlin – from first Sofia and then San Francisco – arrived with his two pals Ivan and Plamen, and it was a pleasure to see them. Orlin, evidently keen to experience as many new football experiences in England as he can, had dropped in to Elland Road on the previous night for Leeds United’s game with Norwich City. He had enjoyed it. The rawness of it all. The fervour of the home support. The noise. The passion. I reminded him of Leeds’ last league game against us, at Stamford Bridge in May 2004, when I remember the South Yorkshire legions claiming – with certainly a hint of truth – “if it wasn’t for the Russian you’d be us.” Peter Ridsdale and Ken Bates had gambled on spending big and gambling on immediate success, but there was no sugar daddy to step in at Leeds.

Orlin, though still disliking Leeds United, came away from their game with a little respect, and I think it shocked him.

Fellow season ticket holder Ian, with a few mates, and then Pete arrived. This was clearly becoming a base camp for many.

Kev’s two pals from Edinburgh John and Gary then joined us and the beers flowed at a more rapid pace. All three are Hearts fans first, and I had an enjoyable chat with them about my visits to Tynecastle in 1982 and 1997, Scottish football in general, and our differing opinions of Pat Nevin. This was obviously turning out to be a fantastically enjoyable pre-match. The four hours raced past.

“Bloody hell, it’s seven o’clock.”

We buttoned our jackets and bounced outside into the night, and over the oxidised green iron Wearmouth Bridge, looking rather beguiling in the evening light, with the rail bridge – ancient and green too – just a few yards to its left. There is something quite wonderful about supporters walking towards a football stadium, lights shining in the distance, our pace quickening as we get close to the ground. I never ever made it to the old Roker Park and it is a shame. It was a mile from the site of the current stadium, towards the North Sea, planted among the terraced streets of Roker. The Stadium of Light stands alone, high on the exposed banks of the Wear as it wriggles its ugly way into the sea.

I quickly gobbled down a cheeseburger with onions. Past the Bob Stokoe statue – Leeds again, ha – and I made my way up the many steps to the away deck.

We were inside the stadium with about ten minutes to spare. It meant that we had missed out on those special moments involving Sunderland supporter Bradley Lowery, the brave five-year-old lad who has been given a few more months to live, and who has captured the hearts of many. As the teams entered the pitch down below, the hearty Chelsea following of almost three thousand roared our support.

The news that Eden Hazard had not travelled to Sunderland had been the breaking story of the morning. We had wondered if Willian would come in for him; it was no surprise to see him in the starting line-up. A bigger surprise, no doubt, was the inclusion of Cesc Fabregas at the expense of Nemanja Matic. Elsewhere there were familiar faces.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill.

Alonso, Kante, Fabregas, Moses.

Pedro, Costa, Willian.

Our seats were virtually in the same position as our visit in May. On that day – when we had meekly lost 3-2 – we were concerned that we had probably witnessed John Terry’s last-ever game for us. Who would have thought that he would get an extra season, yet we would not be unduly worried that his absence from our team over the past two months would cause little concern? It is a mark of his professionalism that he has quietly supported the team from the side-line, knowing that a winning team is paramount. Nine wins in a row without John Terry? Who would have ever thought it?

Sunderland’s team included three former Chelsea players; Patrick Van Aaanholt, Papy Djilobodji and Fabio Borini. I had bright hopes for two of those, but never the other. On the side-lines were our man Antonio Conte and their man David Moyes. The football world had bright hopes for Moyes at one stage. How his star has fallen since leaving Goodison Park.

The stadium was pretty full, but there were sections of empty seats in the upper tier to our right, beyond the packed Chelsea section.

The game was in its first few nascent stages when both sets of fans acknowledged brave Bradley. A number five shirt – Lowery – was displayed on the TV screen – and we all clapped, the noise ringing around the stadium. Very soon we joined in with a song.

“One Bradley Lowery. There’s only one Bradley Lowery. One Bradley Lowery.”

Lovely stuff.

Lovely apart from one boorish fan behind me who decided to sing “one Matthew Harding” instead. I turned around, shook my head and glowered at him. I won’t mention him by name, but he’s a prominent face – and famously ugly – at all Chelsea games, and he has always struck me as a tedious fucker. And that moment just proved it.

Chelsea enjoyed much of the early possession, but Adnan Januzaj had the first effort on goal. I was proud of the way we got behind the team. It was clear that not only our little group of Chelsea followers had enjoyed the hospitality and cheap prices of the boozers of the North-East. We were keeping the ball well, moving it quickly, and we tried our best to carve out a chance. Sunderland had the occasional effort, but Courtois was in commanding form. A chance fell to Diego, bit his volley was well off target. In a packed box, Pedro was found, and he drew a fine save from Sunderland’s Jason Pickford. A David Luiz free-kick tested the Sunderland ‘keeper. We were turning the screw. With five minutes of the half remaining, a fine move through the middle resulted in a lovely one-two between Cesc and Willian. I was able to watch the path of the ball as Fabregas calmly stroked the ball past the home ‘keeper and in to the goal.

How we roared.

And how we celebrated, with the players down below us enjoying it equally as much as us.

GET IN.

Whisper it, but our tenth win in a row was on the cards.

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

Chris : “Come on wo’little diamonds.”

The away end soon sung praise to the scorer.

“He’s got a magic hat.”

Diego headed weakly over and then Willian went close with a free-kick from just outside the box.

There were positive vibes at the break. The drinkers in our support topped up their alcohol levels and the noise continued as the game continued.

In virtually the first move of the second-half, the ever-troublesome Jermaine Defoe attacked us at the heart of our defence and played in Januzaj. His low shot was flicked away by Courtois’ outstretched left leg. It was a fine save.

For virtually the rest of the game, it was all Chelsea. Willian set up Moses who blasted wide. Willian’s shot was deflected on to the bar. It seemed that a second goal was only a heartbeat away. A fine run and shot from Costa. Moses flashing wide, then Willian, both after losing markers with a shimmy this way and that. It was all Chelsea.

“We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league.”

Alonso at Pickford. Willian at Pickford. For some reason the second goal just would not come. A single thought flashed through my mind –

“Bloody hell, how disappointing it will be if we conceded a goal and we only drew.”

Nemanja Matic replaced Pedro, and the domination continued.

A run from deep from Costa and their ‘keeper scrambled to save at his feet before he could pull the trigger. A delightful dink from Costa to Fabregas but his volley was well wide.

Chalobah for Willian. Ivanovic for Moses.

Sunderland then caused us to rue all of our missed chances when they pumped a few high balls into our area. After one clearance was knocked out to Van Aanholt on the edge of the box, we watched – agonising stuff – as the ball seemed to be flying into the goal. Thibaut leaped to his right, flung his arm up, and clawed it away.

It was a stunning save.

The away end erupted as if a goal had been scored.

“Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut!”

Phew. It should have been 3-0, maybe 4-0. It could have been 1-1.

We had done it.

Ten league wins in a row.

I quickly posted an image of Bo Derek on “Facebook” and I felt sure more than a handful of fellow fans would “get it.” Down the stairwell, the noise bounced off the walls.

“Antonio, Antonio, Ten In A Row.”

Outside, we strode back in to town, and it seemed that the majority of home support had buggered off early, leaving our path clear. We met up with Daryl and Simon, who along with Alan and Gary had travelled up on the discounted club train. There was a long and tiring journey for them to look forward to. I, for one, after a long drive, eight pints and a tense game of football, was supremely happy that I had a bed just ten minutes away.

A kebab and chips on the walk back to the hotel was followed by a gin and tonic in the hotel bar.

It had been a long day and now it was time for slumberland in Sunderland.

Our third game in seven days takes place at Selhurst Park on Saturday.

Let’s make it eleven.

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Tales From A Heavy Loss And A Heavy Win

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 2 April 2016.

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I sometimes wonder what on Earth I am going to find to write about in these match reports, which now number over four hundred. What story? What angle? What back-story? With an upcoming game at Villa Park coming up, after a two-week break, I began thinking about possible subject matter. I was tempted to head off on a tangent and rant about my growing dissatisfaction with the way that certain parts of the football world is headed. I thought about several options. I was going to quote a few words from the recent edition of “When Saturday Comes” about the sense of a shared footballing history that people of my generation have, but does not seem to be prevalent today. And then, late on Wednesday evening, I spotted something on “Facebook” that turned my thought-processes upside down. I read that Ian Britton, one of my favourite all-time players – who I knew was battling prostate cancer – was in a poor way. The next few words struck me down.

“He’s not got very long.”

Oh my. How very sad. Thoughts whirled around in my head, and I must admit that there were a few tears. I braced myself for some imminently sadder news.

The very next day, the last day of March, we all learned that Ian Britton had passed away.

As we all get older, and as we all advance in years, it is an unavoidable truth that more of our idols, our peers, our friends, our close family members will pass.

In my time as a Chelsea supporter, I can remember the sadness of the Matthew Harding tragedy in October 1996 and the sudden death of Peter Osgood in March 2006. Of course, other players – and just as importantly fellow fans – have passed away too. It was only in November that we lost Tom, who sat next to us from 1997.

But the sadness that I felt on hearing that Ian Britton had died was as deep as any Chelsea loss. This one felt very personal. It hit me sideways.

It brought back memories of my childhood, when I was Chelsea daft, and doted on players. They were my absolute idols and my heroes. I can remember the very first time that Ian Britton came in to my consciousness. During the 1973/1974 season, I used to get “Shoot!” magazine and would always hope that there would be Chelsea players featured. One week, there was an article about two young Scottish youngsters – Ian Britton of Chelsea and Jim Cannon of Crystal Palace – finding their feet in the English game. I cut the article out and stuck it with drawing pins on the wall beside my bed, along with other Chelsea photographs. There was something about the photograph of the cheeky grin of the nineteen-year-old from Dundee that struck a chord. Those early recollections are slightly hazy. Ian’s debut had been against Derby County in December 1972, and although I have recently seen footage from that game, which involved a sparkling goal from Peter Osgood and a horrific miss from Derby’s Roger Davies, which I can remember, I have no recollection of Ian Britton’s substitute appearance.

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In truth, it took me a while for Ian Britton to become a common name. The fact of the matter is that in those days, my only exposure to Chelsea Football Club was via rare highlights on TV – when Ian would not always appear – and magazines such as “Shoot!” In my grandparents’ “Sunday Express” not every Chelsea game was featured since we ended up with the West of England edition, focussing on the Bristol teams and Plymouth Argyle.

Living in Somerset, I was in the Chelsea wilderness.

So, that “Shoot!” article proved totemic. As the 1972/1973 season gave way to the 1973/1974 season, I guess I became more and more aware of the young lad from Dundee, only five feet five inches tall, and with his trademark hair, and as my first Chelsea hero Peter Osgood departed early in 1974, I surely hoped that Ian Britton would play in my very first game in March 1974. Alas, he didn’t. At the start of the 1974/1975 season, Ian Britton was now my personal favourite. Again, he didn’t play in my next game against Tottenham, but I was very happy to see him play in my third-ever game against Derby County on a wet Saturday in March 1975.

Alas we lost 2-1, but I was excited to have seen my new favourite play.

The relegation team of 1974/1975 stalled in the Second Division in 1975/1976 but Ian was now a regular. I can remember being on holiday in Wareham, Dorset in August 1975 and being horrified to read on the back page of a Sunday tabloid that Manchester United were putting in a £600,000 joint bid for “starlets” Ray Wilkins and Ian Britton. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

In 1976/1977, Ian was a star as we took the Second Division by storm and gained promotion behind Wolves. I remember being upset – “gutted” in modern parlance – that Ian didn’t play in two of the three matches that I saw that season.

He was such an energetic and honest player. I loved his work rate and his attitude. He played wide, and had a lovely pass. He scored his fair share of goals. He was always so neat and tidy. For such a small player, he scored a fair few headers. I remember how giddy I was hearing him speak – yeah, I know, we were all football daft at one stage – on “The Big Match”, answering questions from Brian Moore about an Achilles injury.

He played through another relegation, then starred in 1979/1980 as we came so close to automatic promotion. I was so thrilled to see Ian score a match winner against Orient in March of that season, watching in the East Lower alongside my parents.

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As we became mired in the Second Division, other players caught my eye…Clive Walker, Mike Fillery…but Ian Britton was still a favourite. I last saw him play against Wrexham in October 1981. He left us in 1982 after 263 games in royal blue and signed for his childhood team – which I knew from that “Shoot” article in 1974 – of Dundee United. At that time, Dundee United had signed a few former Chelsea players – Peter Bonetti, Eamonn Bannon, Jim Docherty – and they became my Scottish team. While Chelsea were battling relegation to the old Third Division over Easter and then in to May of 1983, I was exhilarated to watch from afar as Dundee United won the Scottish Championship for the only time in their history.

It felt just right that Ian Britton had played a part. He played a couple of games for Arbroath, then played 106 games for Blackpool before finishing his career at Burnley, playing 108 games. At Turf Moor, he became a Burnley legend.

In 1986/1987, the Football League decided to move on from the much derided voting system for admitting non-league teams in to the league, and on the final day of the season, Burnley – Football League Champions in 1960 – were facing the prospect of being the first club to be automatically relegated from the league. Ian Britton scored – with a header – as Burnley overcame promotion hopefuls Orient. Burnley went 2-0 up with his goal, but let Orient back in at 2-1. History books will show that it was Ian Britton’s goal which kept Burnley safe.

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I can well remember seeing a huge photograph of Ian Britton from that game in 1987 as part of a mural on the main stand as I visited Turf Moor for the very first time in 2010. During that game, Ian made the half-time draw and he waved over to us, with that endearing cheeky smile of his. We responded with a chant from the ‘seventies –

“Ian – Ian Britton – Ian Britton on the wing.”

Later in 2010, I travelled down to Eastleigh with my mother to watch a Southampton Old Boys team take on the Chelsea Old Boys. Not only did I see Ian Britton play one last time, I also got to meet him for the very first time in the bar afterwards, and I do not mind admitting that I was uncomfortably giddy – for a forty-four-year-old man – as I chatted to Ian for a few moments. It was one of my Chelsea highlights. I found him to be very friendly and I really appreciated that he called me “Chris.” It meant a lot. That he was so personable. It was a lovely memory to take away from that day. I mentioned Dundee United. It was a lovely few moments.

As the sad news swept around the Chelsea family on Thursday and Friday, one thing became clear.

Nobody ever had a bad word to say about Ian Britton.

I made a vow to try to attend his funeral, even if it would mean that I would only stand outside the church or crematorium. These players – these special players, these special people – touch our lives in ways that people outside the football world can only vaguely understand.

So, with all of this Burnley claret and blue flowing around in my thoughts, I drove to Villa Park and was met with more of the same.

There was not a great deal of enthusiasm for this game with the doomed Villains. As Parky and Young Jake – his first game this year, his first trip to Villa Park – dropped in to the Witton Arms, I had decided upon a different pre-match. I have been visiting Villa Park since my first game in 1986, but for some reason I had yet to take a look at the nearby seventeenth century Aston Hall, which sits on a small hill overlooking Villa Park, and is but a ten-minute walk away. With Aston Villa’s future looking rather bleak, I wondered if this would be my last visit for a few seasons. It was high-time I paid a visit, however fleeting.

Whereas it might be debated about Aston Villa being a big club, despite their rich history, there is no doubt that Villa Park is a grand dame of English football stadia. There is red brick everywhere at Villa Park. On the walk to the away turnstiles on Witton Lane, I passed an old tramway shed, with another red brick building opposite. As I walked past the bleak concrete of the North Stand – which housed our support in the 2002 semi against Fulham – I was struck with how much room Villa have behind that goal. Should they ever wish to expand, unlikely at the moment, they could build a huge stand at that end, perhaps mirroring the huge Holte End to the south. When it was built, the Villa North Stand was the latest in modernity with its darkened executive boxes. At the time of my first visit, Villa Park was a very piecemeal stadium. The low Witton Lane, the huge Holte End terrace, the classic and ornate Trinity Road, the ultra-modern North Stand. Since then, all three stands have been altered and the North Stand is now the antique. Although there was an outcry from Villa fans when the unique Trinity Stand was bulldozed, at least Villa have kept the red-brick motif in the new builds.

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Back in 1991, when this photograph was taken, who new how the Taylor Report would systematically change how people thought about new stadia? Out with terraces, in with seats and executive areas. The charming Trinity Road entrance did not stand a chance.

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Ah, 1991. This was our last game of the season and I had traveled up by train for the game. It was memorable for being Bobby Campbell’s last game in charge. It had been another season of underachievement but the Chelsea hordes were going to make a day of it. I took my position in on the terraces, which had been recently seated. I remember seeing white socks again for the first time in six long years and hoping that this would be repeated in 1991/1992. The old Trinity Road Stand – with those lovely curved balconies – really was a treasure.

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At the end of the game, which we drew 2-2, a few Villa rapscallions raced on to the pitch, but Chelsea – there in huge numbers – soon chased them off. At the height of the rave culture, the pitch was awash with baggy Joe Bloggs jeans, Chipie sweatshirts, baggy pullovers and Umbro Chelsea shirts. Bobby Campbell, ironically I felt, was chaired off. It was a crazy day.

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The entrance to the Holte End brought back memories of our 1996 semi-final against United, when the Chelsea fans descended on Villa Park with balloons and banners and – in fact – I had not visited this south side of the stadium since. The steps, the stained-glass windows and the gables bow their heads in a nod towards the old Trinity Road stand.

Up the hill, and outside Aston Hall – a lovely structure built between 1618 and 1635 – I was able to take it all in. It really was a fine view, a gracious Villa vista. Aston Hall is constructed of red brick too. Everything blends in so well. I will no doubt be taking an increasing interest in various types of bricks over the next few seasons, on visiting stadia near and far, since our new proposed stadium is said to be using particular London brick – various shades, but generally a warm yellow – on all of its outside surfaces. I could not help notice that I have been approaching mighty Villa Park from completely the wrong direction in all of these years. For ease of access to the M5, I park to the north and head in past terraced streets and shops. It’s all rather tawdry. From the south, however, with Aston Hall and its pleasant park to the left, and with the Edwardian splendour of the large Holte pub ahead, Villa Park looks fearsome and yet aesthetically pleasing at the same time. It is just a shame that acres of ugly grey cladding blot the stand roofs.

But I think the new Stamford Bridge will be fine. No cladding there.

I sorted out some tickets outside the away turnstiles. As kick-off approached, I spotted Peter Bonetti over the road, looking good at seventy-four bless him. The troops arrived and we ascended the steps.

Last season, I missed our narrow win at Villa Park as my mother had been taken ill that morning. There was an air of melancholy inside me. There were haunting thoughts of that particular day. I remembered how my mother’s father had a soft spot for Villa, though I am sure that he had never visited Villa Park.

Villa Park was hardly half-full. Sure, we had sold our three thousand tickets, but elsewhere there were thousands of claret and sky blue seats clearly visible. I know their team are going through a really rough spell, mismanaged from board level down, but even so. The poor crowd really shocked me. I am sure that the advertised gate of 31,120 included thousands of “no shows.”

Guus Hiddink, I am sure, surprised many with his team selection. At last the kids, were being given their chance to shine. A Chelsea debut was given to the American Matt Miazga. I envisioned the Chelsea chatter boards among the various supporter groups in the US going into meltdown.

“Awesome” – Nate, New Jersey.

“Awesome” – Ian, Idaho.

“Awesome” – Calvin, California.

“Way To Go” – Grant, Georgia.

“Awesome” – Micky, Minnesota.

“Awesome” – Phil, Pennsylvania.

“Awesome” – Bubba, ‘Bama.

Courtois – Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Miazga, Baba – Mikel, Fabregas – Pedro, Loftus-Cheek, Kenedy – Remy.

Scott Sinclair did not even make the Villa starting eleven. What a waste of a once promising career. I wonder if I will eventually see him playing alongside his brother Jake for my local team Frome Town.

The morning rain had stopped and the pitch was soon bathed in sunshine. Villa, heaven knows how, tested Thibaut with a few efforts, but we soon got in to a groove. Pedro, looking our liveliest player, tested Guzan then was offside soon after.

An injured Loic Remy was substituted by the forgotten man Alexandre Pato. The appearance of the Brazilian instilled a little life into the rather subdued Chelsea support. There was a little ironic cheering. I was just intrigued to see what he had to give the team.

Soon after, a lovely move gave us the lead; Mikel kept possession well and released Azpilicueta, who played in Loftus-Cheek. His low shot swept pass Guzan. Mikel’s fine play soon warranted his own chant from the travelling hordes.

A bizarre chance for Villa next, when Courtois saved from Gill, and then again as the ball bounced back off Ayew. Villa then kept their momentum going, but our defence coped well, with Miazga only rarely out of position. Baba drove in on goal but shot weakly. Kenedy promised much but, like Pedro at times, chose to either hang on to the ball or slipped on the wet surface.

Pato was bundled to the ground and the referee had no option but to give us a penalty.

Fair play to Pato for having the balls to step up and take it. His strong shot evaded the ‘keeper’s dive. He looked overjoyed as he ran away, jumping in the air in front of the half-empty Holte End.

The Chelsea support had an easy response to this :

“We were there when Pato scored.”

Awesome.

At the break, Oscar replaced Kenedy. We soon broke down the Villa left and Pato played in Oscar, who slid the ball to Pedro. It was a very fine goal. Gary remarked to Alan that it was very similar to Frank’s record breaker in 2013.

Villa, it has to be said, were bloody awful by now. They were demoralised and pathetic.

Their fans, those in the stadium, seemed to be a mixture of anger and disconsolation. Throughout, they bellowed “Villa Till I Die” – almost as if they were warming up for The Championship, since it is a proper Championship song, bellowed by the likes of Barnsley and Derby and Forest for years – and the Chelsea fans, to my surprise to be honest, applauded them.

Alan wondered if there would be a protest.

“Maybe they will stage a walk-in on seventy minutes.”

Ha.

Joleon Lescott was the target for much of the Villa fans’ ire, in light of a horrible piece of gloating a while back.

“Joleon Lescott – he’s got a new car.”

I piped up –

“Joleon Lescott – he wants a new face.”

Pato forced a save from Guzan, but Pedro slotted home from the tightest of angles. His kung-fu kick on the corner flag showed how excited he was. Who says our players do not care?

4-0 and I hoped for more. There was still half an hour to go.

The Chelsea crowd bellowed “catch the ball” to Courtois after he flapped at a high ball and I noted a rising air of disquiet among our ranks about our young ‘keeper’s attentiveness. I have noticed it too, of late. Too often he seems to resemble a fielder at third man, idling by his time thinking about tea, rather than being on his toes in the slips.

This was becoming an odd game though. Villa were so poor. And rather than push on, we seemed to be happy to play within ourselves. Another debutant, Jake Clarke-Salter, came on for Baba, who was pushed forward. He went close as the game dragged on.

Villa fans held up small placards with the words “Proud History, What Future?” but they honestly looked like white flags.

Alan Hutton was dismissed for a second yellow.

It was not Villa’s day or season.

Miazga had looked competent all game and Pato showed a neatness which I found gratifying. Elsewhere, Loftus-Cheek put in a sound performance. And Pedro too.

As I drove away, I didn’t take too much comfort in our win. A four goal triumph surely should have elicited greater joy?

No. It was only Villa.

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Tales From Planes, Trains And Cable Cars

Porto vs. Chelsea : 29 September 2015.

Our troublesome season was continuing and, after away games in the West Midlands and the North East, I was on my travels again. It was a heady time following The Great Unpredictables. There were three away games in rapid succession in the space of seven days in three different competitions. It was another case of “planes, trains and automobiles” in my support of the team and I was loving it. Chelsea and I were almost as one. In fact, on two consecutive nights, I slept in Newcastle and Porto. Never before have my sleeping arrangements been so intrinsically linked to the fixture list of Chelsea Football Club.

After returning from Newcastle on the afternoon of Sunday 27 September, I met up with Parky in the departure lounge of Bristol airport. We toasted our return visit to Portugal, almost exactly a year after our last one, with a pint of lager, and chatted to a few Chelsea fans that had been in Newcastle too. Bristol airport had acted as home for less than four hours.

Sunday was spent in Newcastle, Bristol and Porto, with no time to breathe in between. It had been one of the oddest days of my life.

The flight was slightly delayed, but the pilot made good time. We landed with a rather disconcerting bump at Porto’s Francisco Sa Carneiro (yes, really) airport at around 8pm. Outside there was mist and fog. We quickly caught a cab into town, not wishing to waste any time. After checking in to the Dom Henrique hotel – just to the north of the immediate city centre – we met up with Kev, who had been alongside me in Newcastle, and who had travelled out from his Edinburgh home earlier in the day. He had completed a quick “reccy” of the waiting city.

“Not much around here. The centre has lots of bars. And it’s all uphill from the city back to here.”

Throughout the trip, there would no doubt be frequent comparisons between the cities of Lisbon and Porto, especially since the three of us were together in Lisbon in September 2014. There were immediate similarities in my mind. Both on the north bank of a river. Both with historic centres. Both with many interesting tourist attractions. Both football cities. Both with modern stadia. Both with a famous footballing heritage.

Benfica, Sporting, Belenenses, Porto and Boavista.

As we tumbled down through ornate squares, past historic churches and civic buildings, it had the feel of a cramped version of Lisbon. There were notoriously narrow streets, with barriers and traffic lights, which mirrored those in the Portuguese capital. At the epicentre of the city, the small square on the river, Praca da Ribeira, we exited the cab. As we walked towards the river, the sight which greeted us was jaw-droppingly spectacular. Away to our left was the illuminated Ponte Luis I bridge, yellow-tinted and wonderful, with a monastery, also illuminated, above. The river gorge was deeper than I had expected. On the other side of the river were the reflections of several of the wineries which housed barrels upon barrels of the city’s famous port, waiting for consumption by the visiting Chelsea away support.

We sat in the small square, ordered some beer – Super Bock yet again, Lisbon all over again – and I quickly ate a plate of calamari.

We chatted, we laughed, we toasted a few fine days away from the daily toil. We saw no other Chelsea fans. It did not matter. On the walk away from the square, at just after midnight, we dropped in to a small bar, and decided to sample some of the city’s most famous product.

“Three ports, please.”

I immediately knew the error of my ways. This silly request is akin to going in to a pub and asking for “three drinks” or a supermarket and asking for “some food please.” We were given a small port apiece, with a waiter keen to widen our knowledge of the drink on one hand and rip us off spectacularly with the other. The first one – I am not sure if it was tawny, rose or ruby – was stronger than I expected. I called it smoky and fumy. The second one was crisper and lighter. We were in our element, giggling away.

Kev : “I’m getting blackberries. Tobacco.”

Chris : “I’m getting wet leather. Gravy browning.”

Parkao : “I’m getting…pissed.”

At the end, when we asked for our bill, we stopped laughing.

It was thirty-eight euros for just six small drinks.

“Fackninell.”

However, it had been a laugh. One of the waiters was a keen Porto fan and he spent a few colourful moments recreating the glory years under Jose Mourinho, the returning hero. His view was that Porto had seen the best aspects of Mourinho’s notoriously difficult character – imagine the complexities in texture, aroma and taste of one of the city’s stronger ports – while fans in London, Milan and Madrid had witnessed the more unpalatable nature of it.

One thing was certain in the eyes of the waiter.

Wherever he goes, it will always be about Mourinho.

A final nightcap in the hotel bar rounded off a fantastic first night in the city on the banks of the River Douro.

On the Monday, we had a whole day of leisure. The two other main protagonists from Lisbon 2014, Alan and Gary, were not arriving until the morning of the game on the Tuesday. This took the pressure of having to arrange a place to meet up later. Kev, Parkao and myself hunted out the nearest metro station, Trindade, and purchased a three day “Andante” pass for just fifteen euros. Each of the city’s train stations are ultra-modern blocks of concrete, sleek and stylish, and they contrast with the city’s older dustier buildings.

It was quickly evident that Porto was a beguiling and dramatic city, with an enchanting mix of old and new buildings tumbling down to the dramatic Douro River. We caught the metro over to the southern bank of the Douro, and the train passed over the top of the dramatic Pont Luis I bridge, designed by a partner of Gustave Eiffel, with the semi-circular arch so reminiscent of the tower in Paris.

Down below, the city was as dramatic as any that I have seen, with the wide river disappearing off to the ocean to the west and the ridiculously photogenic – “Portogenic”- city centre to the north, full of towers, tiled houses, churches, and a bewildering mix of pastel shaded buildings blinking in the sun. There was, of course, pure blue skies overhead. There were no clouds. It was already heating up. We caught a cable car down to the riverside, while I snapped away with my trusty camera to capture the ever-changing vista all around me. Down below were acres of wine warehouses, with EasyJet orange roof tiles, helping to create a tantalising mix of colours and forms.

Light blue skies, faded orange roofs, tiled walls and the deep blue of the river.

Get the picture?

We were falling in love with the city.

We followed this up with an hour-long river boat tour, which took us under several bridges of various shape and character to the inland east, then out to the rougher waters towards the Atlantic, where a sand bar could be spotted on the horizon. On the south bank, there were large signs announcing the various port wineries.

Sandeman.

Calem.

Taylor.

Grahams.

Cockburns.

And the sun beat down.

We slowly walked along the riverside. It was an intriguing area. Souvenir stalls, leather goods, pottery, roasting chestnuts, port wineries, an Art Deco building looking rather the worse for wear, trees casting shadows, port boats bobbing up and down in the river, the water lapping at the river wall.

For three hours, we simply sat back in deck chairs outside a bar, and took it all in. Across the river, the city of Porto rested in the afternoon heat. It was a magnificent site. It will be, quite possibly, one of the sites of the season. Although obviously different in scale, it was almost as if Lisbon had been compacted, tipped on its side and gravity allowed to take its course, with all of the city’s important buildings now on show, teetering on the edge of the river. There was almost some sort of forced perspective. It was almost as if the view that we enjoyed of Porto was only in two dimensions. That there was no depth. That everything that Porto had to offer was now on show. It was as if there was simply nothing left of the city to see that could not already be seen. I almost expected to see the concrete of the Estadio Do Dragao peeping over the Archbishop’s Palace, keen to join in.

We dipped in to a cool restaurant above Praca da Rebeira and enjoyed some tapas with a beer in a frosted glass.

Black pudding, apple chutney, potatoes with chilli.

We returned to our hotel, and met up at around 7.30pm in the magnificent bar on the seventeenth floor. We sipped on lagers as we watched the night fall in every direction. The city’s lights were blinking at us. We could even see the distant ocean. It was a beautiful sight indeed.

The moon slowly rose into the night sky.

Super Moons and Super Bocks.

After alighting at Sao Bento metro station, we quickly dipped into a bar before descending further down towards the centre. We spotted a few familiar faces outside “Ryan’s Bar” and so dropped inside for one. It is one of the great ironies, and has been for many a year, that despite an antipathy among certain elements of our support towards Ireland – anti Irish, anti-Celtic, anti-Catholic, anti-Irish Republicanism – the rowdier elements of our travelling army in Europe always tend to congregate in Irish bars.

We bumped into Chicago Michelle and Chicago Joe, and headed down to the bars in the central square. We settled at a table outside and spoke of Newcastle and there were laughs as we discussed all things Chelsea. The heaters outside were on, and the air was getting chillier. There were few other Chelsea fans in the city. Brighton Tony and his crowd, but not many more.

Back at “Ryan’s Bar” the place had filled up with more Chelsea. We chatted away in to the night. I was intrigued by a new song, unheard of until then.

“When we find ourselves in trouble, Jose plays the 4-3-3. He’s not quite Makelele, Jon Obi, Jon Obi.

Jon Obi, Jon Obi, Jon Obi, Jon Obi.

He’s not quite Makelele, Jon Obi, Jon Obi.”

Boozy photographs ensued, but this was a quiet night. I’d guess only around seventy were in “Ryan’s Bar” – Chelsea Central – on the night of Monday 28 September.

We returned back to our hotel at around 2am.

Game Day was a fine day indeed.

After a lovely breakfast, Parkao and I headed over to the designated hotel where we were required to show up with our “ticket voucher” and passport in order to collect our sacred match ticket. We headed up past a line of art deco buildings – lovely, most unexpected – and spotted a few Chelsea fans encamped outside a bar at the bottom of the hill. None other than Alan and Gary, newly arrived, joined us. We had heard that Chelsea had sold 1,100 tickets. Not a bad show, to be honest, though slightly less than against Sporting in 2014.

A grand total of around twelve – twelve! – suited Chelsea officials met us in the hotel lobby and we were soon handed our tickets.

“Phew.”

Kev was on the lookout for a match ticket, and we constantly reassured him that there would be touts at the stadium at least.

We then spent the rest of our time at leisure – and pleasure – in the charming central area. A drink outside Sao Bento, then a walk down to the Pont Luis I once again, where more photographs of the city ensued.

The area by the river was now far livelier than on the Monday. Chelsea flags were draped over walls and from balconies. A few Chelsea shirts were worn, but in the main it was the usual Chelsea dress code of polo shirts, Adidas trainers, Stone Island badges, various shades of Lacostery, and suchlike. We bumped into what seemed like hundreds of friends. There were Chelsea songs, and these drew inquisitive looks from tourists, if not locals, who are surely used to their bars being taken over on European matchdays.

There were songs in praise of former players and the mood was of great fun and enjoyment. Bottles of Super Bock were able to be purchased for just one euro. Alan purchased a small bottle of port and we all had a small nip.

“Under the hot sun, Englishmen drinking lager and port. What could possibly go wrong?”

Tons of laughs and giggles. There had not been a single mention of the game by anyone (and woe betide anyone who did.)

A few battle-hardened Chelsea fans could not resist harking back to the 1940’s with a couple of dirges. Why the local populace had to be treated to “if it wasn’t for the English, you’d be Krauts” is beyond me.

An elderly woman had volunteered to tie a Chelsea flag – John, Ben, Charlie and the wonderfully titled “Micky Foreskin” – to her high balcony overlooking us all, and at the end of the afternoon, she was asked to lower a basket from her vantage point. In it, the Chelsea fans below placed a bottle of port for her, as a token of thanks.

This was a lovely time. The hours sadly raced by.

Kev, Parkao and myself needed sustenance so excused ourselves.

Steak for Parkao, chicken for Kev, chicken for me. Beers for all of us.

Heaven.

Porto and Chelsea. Two clubs undeniably linked and only, really, since Jose Mourinho swapped clubs in 2004. I thought back on players that had played for both sides.

Carvalho, Ferreira, Maniche, Deco, Quaresma.

Was that it?

Kev and Parkao were stumped.

A friend in the US texted me with some more.

Falcao….oh dear, of course…Bosingwa…Hilario.

Quite a few in only eleven years.

At around 6.30 pm, we headed up to the stadium, the air cooling, and thoughts of the match beginning to emerge. We changed trains at Trindade. At the next stop – Bolhao – more Chelsea fans boarded the already crowded train. There was a large push from outside and a commotion. A familiar face from many a Chelsea game, Wycombe Stan, suddenly appeared in front of me, no more than two feet away. Next, a few shouts.

“They took my wallets.”

There was an almighty commotion and a couple of Chelsea fans gave chase. Then, a heart-breaking moment.

Stan exclaimed “they took my wallet too, and passport.”

I felt sick.

The doors closed before Stan could move. We told him to report the robbery to the local police as soon as possible. The mood had changed. The locals were devastated that we had been abused in their city. We were gutted for Stan and the two others. At the stadium, at around 7pm, we had quickly heard that one of the Chelsea fans had successfully caught up with one of the assailants and had even rescued Stan’s passport. I tried to get a message to him. Within ten minutes, we had heard that the passport was with Goggles, one of the Fulham Police who accompanies us on away escapades.

We had a moment to ourselves.

Of course, in the drunken fumes on a foreign metro, a football fan in an alien city, distracted, is an easy target for those who haunt the subway stations in search of easy prey. I was lucky. Both my passport and wallet was in my back pocket, too. It could so easily have been me. Though I am not belittling the infamous Paris metro incident in any way, I knew that the robbery that I had just witnessed at close hand would not be reported in any newspaper anywhere in the world the following day.

It did not help, let’s admit it, that many Chelsea fans similarly traveled around Porto with passports in back pockets throughout the day, since the new collection procedure required passports to be shown. This is unfortunate, at least, and quite worrying for future pick-ups in Kiev and Tel Aviv, where British passports are surely gold on the black market.

Something for Chelsea Football Club to think about for sure.

Outside the clean and light concrete curves of Porto’s fine stadium, Kev spotted a ticket office. While we chatted to fellow fans about the metro incident, Kev disappeared. He returned so quickly that I presumed that he had been quickly knocked-back. But no. He presented us with a fifty euro ticket, in the northern home end, job done.

“Superb, mate. Makes a complete mockery of us having to show passports to pick up our tickets though, eh?”

At the line to enter the stadium, an over-zealous steward spotted my camera. I quickly remembered that in Lisbon, I was allowed to take my wide angle in, but had to leave my zoom lens at an office. In Porto, despite pleading, I was not so lucky. I had to hand everything in.

Bollocks.

Inside, we were located in the upper deck of the stand opposite the main stand. Sadly my phone died after just three photographs. The last time that I was at a game and without a camera? Moscow in 2008 (…the battery died) and I quickly realised that there was a bad vibe about this.

I had also forgotten to bring my glasses (originally there was a plan to head back to the hotel, but the drinking session on the banks of the Douro put paid to that…) and the scoreboards were out of sight. I was left to work out the team by myself.

Begovic.

Ivanovic, Cahill, Zouma, Azpilicueta.

Mikel, Ramires.

Willian, Fabregas, Pedro.

Diego Costa,

So, no John Terry. I was amazed to be honest. Surely the manager realised that the defence needed to be shored up with the presence and wise head of our captain? And no Eden Hazard, either. Nor Nemanja Matic, the hero in Lisbon.

The usual mosaics before the game and long shouts of “Pooooorto.”

With the ends open to the elements – though under a high roof – the city below could be seen in the huge space between fans and roof support at the south end.

The Chelsea support was in fine form all of the way throughout the first half with heavy rhythmic clapping accompanying the constant “Matthew Harding’s Blue And White Army – We Hate Tottenham.”

Chances were not too plentiful but we enjoyed a fair share of the ball and matched Porto for goal attempts. However, with only around five minutes of the first-half remaining, Brahimi toyed with the back-peddling Ivanovic. The under-fire Serbian seemed reluctant to challenge, allowing a rising shot to be struck goal wards. Begovic did well to get a strong palm to it, but the ball fell to the ridiculously named Andre Andre. Where is Micky Foreskin when you need him?

I turned and shouted “Ivanovic. Again.”

We reacted well, though. The effective Ramires was cut down outside the box. I was right behind the flight of the ball as Willian, also impressive, struck a curler past the motionless Casillas.

The away support roared.

It was the last action of the first-half. At half-time, the mood on the concourse was suitably buoyant. We had deserved a share of the points. The Willian song was being repeatedly sung, along with some impromptu dancing from a few. I don’t think they noticed that their lagers were alcohol free. It is one of the strangest ironies that Heineken are one of the Champion League’s biggest sponsors, yet cannot be consumed on match days. I was concerned, though, that I had not managed to spot Alan and Gary anywhere within our ranks.

The second-half was a different story. We soon conceded a weak second when Maicon rose to meet a low corner at our near post. It silenced us and our support. For the rest of the game, as we watched from high as Chelsea struggled everywhere, our singing slowed to almost a stop.

A fine strike from Diego Costa rattled the bar, and this was tough to see. A goal then would have spurred us.

Hazard replaced Mikel and soon went close.

Matic and Kenedy came on for Ramires and Pedro.

Porto, to be fair, looked more like scoring and a header hit our woodwork with Begovic beaten. Our play was slow and Porto easily matched us. Agonisingly, a last minute move found Kenedy roaring through, but his stretched touch was defected away. The final whistle blew right away.

How disappointing it had been.

At the end of the game, a few minutes after the last of the Chelsea players had disappeared in to the tunnel opposite, I meandered down to the concourse under our section. The mood was quiet and sombre. At half-time, the mood had been much different. I bumped into a few friends – Tim from Bristol, Orlin from Bulgaria – and we shared a few bleak words. Then, I heard some singing and chanting from those supporters that had remained in the seats. From their words, it was obvious that John Terry, the exile from the night’s battle, was out on the pitch. I immediately wondered if others were warming down alongside him. I clambered back up the dozen steps, with the songs ringing his praises continuing. What greeted me was a rather odd, surreal and peculiar sight.

Alone in the vast emptiness of the Dragao, a lone figure dressed in 1986 Chelsea Collection jade jogged slowly inside the nearest penalty area, then stopped to stretch by the goal. John Terry was there, alone with his thoughts for several minutes. There were no home fans left; I had commented to Parkao how quickly they had left once the celebrations had ended. There was only 50,000 empty blue seats, a man in a light green tracksuit top, and around one thousand Chelsea supporters, high above. The songs continued.

“John Terry, John Terry, John Terry.”

“And the shit from the Lane have won fuck all again. John Terry has won the double.”

And then this one :

“We want our captain back.”

I watched intensely to see if our captain would acknowledge this telling statement from the Chelsea hard-core. In a way, it did not surprise me that John chose not to wave or clap, though I am sure he heard us.

My immediate thought was that his acknowledgement of our song demanding to see him return to our starting eleven would be incorrect in the current climate. It would create an extra dimension to the possible rift between him and the manager. I admired him for that.

Instead, he continued his stretching, with no show of emotion.

I have no idea why JT chose to go through his post-match stretches out on the vast pitch, alone. Had there been words with other players? Did he chose to do so out of the way of the immediate post-mortem taking place in the changing room? Did he want to be close to the fans and not anyone else? Had there been an almighty tiff with Mourinho? I was puzzled.

As John Terry turned to head inside, there was a final singing of his name. He jogged away from us. I was left with my thoughts. Was there nothing to worry about here? Was this the simple act of John Terry choosing to go through his stretches away from those who had been taking part in the game, not wishing to get in the way? Or was this a stage-managed “I am the victim” moment from our captain, chosen for impact, like a Chelseaesque version of the famous Princess Diana photograph of her on that marble bench outside the Taj Mahal in 1992?

I suspected that the truth would eventually materialise at some stage over the next few days, weeks, months.

We were not kept waiting inside the cool concrete of the stadium for too long. I collected my camera and we slowly walked down to the adjacent metro station, past a line of police standing under the now waning super moon. We had spoken about heading back to Praca da Ribeira, but our mood had changed. Instead, we alighted at Trindade, and slowly retraced our steps to our hotel. There was time for a couple of ice cold beers and a bite to eat up in the stunning bar on the seventeenth floor, with Porto’s beguiling orange lights providing a magnificent panorama all around us. There was, in a moment honouring the fun that was had almost exactly a year ago in Lisbon, time for a morangoska cocktail.

I summed things up.

“Porto is a great city, very dramatic, but Lisbon is grander and I give it the edge. It has it all. But Porto is a fine city, we have enjoyed it, but – if nothing else – we won in Lisbon and we lost in Porto. So, Lisbon for me. And the morangoska cocktails were better in Lisbon.”

The day after the game, we were up early. We enjoyed one final breakfast and Parkao bought a couple of famous Pastel de Nata custard tarts in a nearby café. We caught the subway out to the airport and met up with a couple of others who were on the same flight back to Bristol. The post mortems continued. Our four day escapade in Porto was coming to an end. We were going home.

As soon as we landed at Bristol, my phone brought some very sad and disappointing news. There was a reason why my usual match day companions Alan and Gary had not been spotted at the stadium. In the rush to get up to the stadium from the riverside, Alan had been robbed, with the assailant taking his wallet and both of their match tickets. My heart sunk. For a few moments, my view of Porto deteriorated further.

In the ranking of all of these great European cities that I have visited with Chelsea over the years – I think that my current favourites are Prague, Seville, Munich, Lisbon and Turin – Porto was losing ground quickly.

“You could have been a contender, Porto, you could have been a contender. But you blew it.”

Lisbon 2014 was definitely better.

Especially on the pitch.

These are strange times at the moment. As many Chelsea supporters said to me in Portugal, “something is definitely up.” The problem is that nobody is really sure what. On Saturday, against a tough Southampton team, we will continue the search for the answers.

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Tales From Super Bock City

Sporting Lisbon vs. Chelsea : 30 September 2014.

Monday 29 September 2014.

This was a long-awaited trip to Lisbon in Portugal for our first Champions League away game of 2014-2015. Of course, there were many reasons for this; relaxation, travel, football, comradeship and all of the standard words and hackneyed phrases could be thrown in to the mix. But there was one distinct reason why this “European Away” would be a little bit special; it would be Parky’s first Chelsea away in Europe since the ECWC Final in Stockholm in 1998. Of course, I never knew him then as our paths would cross a few years later. But we’ve become solid mates over the past five or six seasons. It hurts me to say that Parky missed Moscow, Munich and Amsterdam and all other cities too since that memorable night in Sweden over sixteen years ago. This would hopefully be a thoroughly enjoyable trip for him.

I woke at 3am – truly the dead of night – and, in an hour, I was off on another adventure over land and sea. It would be my twenty-ninth away game in Europe with Chelsea.

It was a foggy drive through the dark Somerset and Wiltshire countryside on the twenty-five minute trip to collect Parky. I had decided to call him “Parkao” for this trip and this trip only.

I soon sent a text to Alan in London to let him know that I was on the road.

“Jak Kerouacao.”

He replied “Reg Varney.”

He was on a night bus in order to catch a coach up to Stansted Airport.

Parkao was buzzing as I collected him at 4.30am. We drove through Bath, and then headed up to Bristol Airport for our 7.05am Easyjet flight to Faro. The check-in process was delayed a few moments as Parkao’s metal leg brace set off the security alarms. After several attempts, he was successfully scanned.

He cost £1.72.

Once on the plane, I texted Alan again :

“Freddy Laker.”

He replied “Al Murray.”

He was obviously in the bar at Stansted. We would be all in the same hotel later in the day.

There was a slight delay as we waited for the food for the flight to arrive. The steward lost some credibility when he claimed that they needed the food on the plane to help balance the load. I remarked to Parkao “I’ve never heard a plane crash ‘cus it was missing a few sandwiches.” Eventually, we were up, up and away over Somerset, Devon and then over the channel, France, Spain and Portugal. We grabbed a little sleep. The time soon passed. The only surprise was that there was no other Chelsea on it. We were headed to Faro, on The Algarve, because the only option out of Bristol to Lisbon involved a Sunday to Thursday stay. The plane touched down at a sun-drenched Faro at around 9.45am. We caught the 11am “Vera” coach to Lisbon and we could relax.

I first visited Lisbon on the third of my Inter-Railing trips around Europe by train in 1987. I and two college mates – Ian and Trev – had graduated in the June and had worked a few jobs over the summer in order to get away for three weeks in September. We arrived in Lisbon’s Santa Apolonia station after an overnight train from Madrid. My memory is that we only stayed a couple of hours in the Portugal capital – just passing through on the way to The Algarve – but my diary entry for Tuesday 15 September 1987 informs me that we arrived at 9am, and caught the 2.10pm ferry over the River Tagus to Barreiro, so were in the city for longer than I thought. There was time for a stroll around the streets – the weather was very hot – and also time for a couple of beers in a street side café. I remember being taken aback by the sad sight of beggars without limbs at the station, and several people tried to sell us some hash. I also remember fake Lacoste polo shirts on sale by the ferry terminal, which abutted the main square. The city looked fascinating, with ornate architecture, wide piazzas and there were hints of a rich history. It felt horrible to be only in town for four hours. As the ferry took us over the massive river, I vowed to return one day.

I believe that Chelsea played Benfica in a friendly around fifteen years ago and also – for certain – in the 2011/2012 Champions League season, but I did not attend those games in Lisbon. Of course, our defeat by Atletico Madrid last April meant that there would be no Chelsea trip to Lisbon in May 2014, either. However, I had already booked a flight to Lisbon and hotel in Albufeira and so decided to go over for a few days’ break anyway. Hundreds of other Chelsea fans had exactly the same opinion. My stay in Lisbon in May was even shorter than in 1987. Before catching a train south, I just had time for a few beers in a quiet bar near the slightly run-down area around the Entre Campos station.

As I sat, alone, in that small bar it felt like I should be there for a Chelsea game. It was a very odd sensation. I kept expecting friends to poke their heads around the door to join me for a brew. Little did I know that I would be back in just over four months and that the hotel I would choose would only be half-a-mile away from that very bar.

It was a fine, relaxing trip north. The coach was air-conditioned and the scenery – at first the white villas of The Algarve, then the green hills, then the arid farmland – was excellent. We caught up on yet more sleep – maybe an hour at most – before we eventually noticed the suburbs around Setubal. We soon saw the deep red supports of the April 25 Bridge, which majestically spans the River Tagus, then the formidable statue of Christ the King which looks down on humanity from the south bank of the river. It is very similar to the Christ the Redeemer in Rio. We were soon heading over the bridge and our welcome to Lisbon could not have been any more dramatic. The city centre, kissed by a hot afternoon sun, and shimmering to our right, looked magnificent, with hills rising up from the river to the suburbs in the distance. I spotted the iconic Monument to the Discoveries, on the river bank, to my left. With an eye for such things, I soon spotted the spindles of the Belenenses floodlights too. They are the city’s third football team, and if we are to believe, Jose Mourinho’s first love. He played for them many years ago, though not to any great standard. Ahead, was the aqueduct, which I photographed from the train in May. The city was quite beguiling. It was fantastic.

“What a welcome, Parkao.”

We soon located our hotel and had a little chat with the receptionists.

“Are you over here for the football?”

“Yes…Chelsea.”

“Tomorrow, we are with you.”

They were the first of the many Benfica fans that we would encounter during our stay.

A helpful lady assisted in our fumbling attempts to buy metro tickets and we soon alighted at Restauradores in the heart of the city. The sun was beating down and everything looked perfect. We spotted Alan and Gary outside a bar in the corner of Praca Dom Pedro IV. The steins of Superbock – around two pints apiece – were just seven euros. A few familiar Chelsea fans – Brighton Tony and his mates – joined us, then a few others.

“And relax.”

The only negative part of all this was the ridiculous amount of flies which kept buzzing around.

“Maybe there’s a Spurs fan nearby.”

We spent the best part of three hours sat outside in the afternoon sun and it was just brilliant. On the subway back to the hotel, we were a giggling quartet of silliness.

Parkao was in his element.

From Gary and Alan there was an array of double-entendres. The ensuing ribald laughter from all four of us caused a few glances to be aimed our way.

“I hope none of you can speak English” I begged to the others in the compartment.

After a quick shower, we were out on the town at 8.30pm. We headed south again, but had no idea where we would end up. We decided to go for a meal in an Italian restaurant on the large piazza which overlooks the river, and where I undoubtedly visited, albeit briefly, in 1987. We were soon joined by my mate Foxy, who I first met in Tokyo for the 2012 World Club Championships. He was with his good lady Ashley and also Kev, a Hearts and Chelsea supporter from Edinburgh. The banter began again. The restaurant was superb, though quite quiet. It was, after all, only a Monday.

I politely enquired what factors resulted in Kev becoming a Chelsea fan. Foxy supports Dundee United – fine by me, I’ve had a soft spot for them since Peter Bonetti and Eamonn Bannon signed for them in 1979 – and his Chelsea roots are well known to me. I was just intrigued to hear Kev’s story. I’m well aware of the Chelsea/Rangers link, and also the Chelsea/Hearts partnership. You often see Rangers and Hearts flags at our away games. I suppose I wanted to know what inspired Kev to choose us as his other team. His reply pleased me; he mentioned Eamonn Bannon, who we signed from the Jambos in 1979, but also mentioned the name of Tommy Walker, a famous Hearts player, manager and director, who also played for us in the immediate post-war years. Additionally, for seven successive seasons in the ‘forties and ‘fifties, Chelsea played friendlies against Heart of Midlothian at the behest of Tommy Walker; at Tynecastle one year, at The Bridge the next. I mentioned my two visits to Tynecastle – the first way back in 1982 – and we became misty-eyed with the thoughts of those deep terraces, maroon stands, claustrophobic setting amidst the Gorgie tenements and the odorous fumes wafting over the spectators from the nearby brewery.

After another beer with a few more Chelsea fans outside another bar, we decided to take a cab to the lively Bairro Alto to the immediate west of the centre. The cab turned and twisted up steep and narrow streets until we reached the summit. Small sets of traffic lights allowed single-file cars to drive small sections of narrow roads. We peered in to an Irish bar as some Chelsea fans were singing “Willian.” The area was jumping. For a Monday night, it was amazing. Street vendors tried to sell us all sorts of tat. We took refuge in a small bar as it pumped out some dance music. I began with a mojito, and then got stuck into three morangoska cocktails, which were just unbelievable. These were made with strawberries, blackberry juice, sugar and vodka. They were beastly black. They tasted magnificent but were undoubtedly evil.

As the night grew older, there were more giggles bouncing off the buildings of Bairro Alto.

“Having a good time, Parkao?”

“It sure beats Trowbridge on a Monday night, son.”

There were back-packing types, international students, and locals milling around the cobbled streets, filling the night air with alcohol-induced merriment. My memories are unsurprisingly vague…

However, rather disappointingly, the bars closed at 2am and we shuffled along, past a posse of chanting Chelsea fans, towards a cab rank. We reluctantly returned back to the hotel. It will surprise nobody to hear that we did not discuss the game once the whole night.

One photo, sadly deleted in error, showed all four of us in the hotel lift, pointing our tongues out; all were blackberry black.

It had been a top night in Lisbon.

Tuesday 30 September 2014.

At 9am my alarm sounded just as I had dreamt that Andre Schurrle had raced past an opponent, reached the goal-line and pulled back a cross for Bobby Isaac to head home.

Morongoskas will do that to you, I guess.

Surprisingly, I was only a little, er, “delicate” in the morning. I was – thankfully – able to join the boys downstairs for an excellent breakfast. We decided to take Alan’s advice to utilise a hop-on / hop-off Lesbian (sorry – Lisbon) sightseeing bus tour. It only took a few minutes of Portuguese sunshine and fresh air for the last lingering remnants of a hangover to disperse.

Flies.

For the next two hours, we toured Lisbon and relaxed. We were driven down majestic streets, flanked by houses of various shades, some with tiles and mosaics, and some with gables and delicate balconies. We were driven through wide piazzas with statues, obelisks and fountains. We were driven up ramps which afforded stunning views of the city centre, baking in the September sun, and equally pleasing vistas of the wide, fast flowing Tagus. Out at Belem, having been driven under the momentous April 25 Bridge, we were driven past the ornate monastery, the quaint Belem Tower, then the piece de resistance; the Monument to the Discoveries. This is a stunning sculpture, depicting the various leading lights from the time when Portugeezers ruled the waves, and it is a statue that I have wanted to see in person for years. We decided there and then to return to Belem on the Wednesday. The bus returned us to the city centre, passing yet more fine houses, but also a funky mixture of more modern buildings, the type of which we never seem to get in the UK.

Flies.

To be truthful, I only half-heartedly listened to the audio guide during the tour – I was too busy taking photographs and chatting to Parkao – but  the overly cheerful Englishman’s voice did not mention sport during the entire two hours. This is a pet peeve of mine. Why do city guides – books, video, audio – continually neglect sport in their range of topics covered? Only a few days before the trip, I had bought a fine guide book on Lisbon, but within the 192 pages, there is just this pathetic entry about football :

“Lisbon’s main football stadiums, built for the 2004 European Football Championships, are Estadio Jose Alvalade and Estadio da Luz. The Portuguese football cup finals are held at the Estadio Nacional-Junior.”

There was no mention of Benfica, nor Sporting Lisbon, nor Eusebio, nor Luis Figo and the golden generation, nor Cristiano Ronaldo, nor Jose Mourinho. Yet two whole pages about music and three whole pages about bloody shopping. For many in Lisbon, football is at the centre of their lives, and the two – sorry, three – clubs within the city are surely worthy of more attention than this.

Flies.

Parkao and I split up from Alan and Gary and we slowly walked down through the centre, stopping off for a bite to eat and a drink at a café, before finding ourselves at the water’s edge, just south of the grand Praca Do Comercio. From here, there is a stunning view of Christ the King, arms outstretched. I wondered if anyone has attempted to put a Benfica or Sporting scarf around the neck. In Glasgow, you can be sure of it…

During the entire day, I had seen just one green and white hooped shirt of Sporting Lisbon. We returned to our hotel to freshen up, and then hopped on to the subway bound for the stadium. At last, there were now some football colours on show. We reached Campo Grande – the stop adjacent the home end of the stadium – and decided to try to get a drink in a nearby bar. Unlike other parts of Europe, there doesn’t appear to be a significantly violent underbelly in Portuguese football, and we were not met with any animosity throughout our stay. Lisbon, it seemed, was proving to be a near perfect city.

We began making our way across a dusty car park, when we stumbled across a chap with an ice box selling cans of Super Bock for 1.5 euros.

“Get in Parkao, son.”

“Superb.”

This was perfect. We then found another vendor selling them for one euro each.

“God bless the black market Parkao, let’s buy two more each.”

Sporting fans drifted past us wearing a variety of shirts, from various vintages. The main two stadia in Lisbon are within a mile of each other and, in both cases, were built adjacent to the original stadia of each club. I suspected that the car park where we were stood once housed the previous Sporting ground.

Estadio Jose Alvalade is brightly coloured outside, with green roof supports, multi-coloured panels, green-tinted windows, and plenty of space for non-football activities. Whereas Benfica’s stadium resembles The Emirates, though slightly bigger, the Sporting Lisbon stadium is only two-tiered, yet seems huge from the outside. We walked around, buoyed by a quick intake of Super Bock, and entered the stadium at the away turnstiles. Sadly, I had to hand my telephoto lens in, but I was assured it would come to no harm. All of the stewards were pleasant. Inside the concourse, both Chelsea and Sporting fans were able to mix, which was a new one on me. Here was another clue that hooliganism wasn’t particularly rife in Portugal.

It was “sit where you want” and so we squeezed in alongside some friends. Gary and Alan were four rows in front. We were behind the corner flag. It was an impressive stadium, the fans in the lower tier were tight behind the goals, but the stands stood way back at the sides. Below, underneath, was a massive moat. The ultras in the home end were already in full voice and many flags and banners were being waved. Hanging from the roof on the far side were large banners depicting the starting eleven of the home team.

As the teams were read out, Nemanja Matic received loud boos, since he of course played for the hated Benfica.

A couple of friends texted me to say that they had spotted Parkao and myself on the TV.

Flies.

As the anthem played, a huge banner was unfurled from the top tier opposite :

“We Are Sporting.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9cz9NbHv7Qs&feature=youtu.be

The teams entered the pitch and we were wearing the all yellow kit of Goodison Park. I ran through the team; Filipe Luis in for Dave, Schurrle for Willian. Oh, and a start for Parkao.

After just one minute, Oscar put Diego Costa clear. We held our breath as he stroked the ball low. Surely we would get off to a dream start. Alas not; we saw the ball deflected wide after a block by the Sporting ‘keeper Patricio. Not to be perturbed, we continued to attack and were clearly on top in the early stages. We were in fine voice too. The lower tier was packed at the front, leading to some great “togetherness.” Copious amounts of Super Bock and Sagres helped too. I kept looking across at Parkao and he was loving it.

In the build up to the game, I wondered if Sporting’s new signing from Dundee United – yes, them again – Ryan Gauld, might play a part during the evening, but there was no place for him neither in the team nor on the bench. Instead, Nani was the one familiar face and it wasn’t long before he was serenaded –

“You’re just a shit Michael Jackson.”

The Ultras – Torcida Verde – at the other end were in good voice too and their chanting was relentless. At one stage, I counted twenty flags being frantically waved, though others appeared and then disappeared throughout the evening.

Andre Schurrle then missed three good chances in three minutes. First he rounded the ‘keeper but hit the side netting from a tight angle. A tame header was then fielded easily by Patricio. Then, a low shot, again easily saved. After his 184 wayward shots on goal during the Bolton game, this was getting all too familiar. A few fans nearby wanted to see him subbed already.

I rolled my eyes.

Next, it would be me rolling my eyes. A great run from Hazard set up Diego Costa, who rolled the ball towards Schurrle. We all growled as he pushed the ball well wide of the Sporting goal.

“At least get it on target.”

Ugh.

Soon after, a free-kick on our left was played deep towards the leaping Nemanja Matic, who rose purposefully and sent a looping, dipping header over the stranded goalie and into the net.

YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.

GET IN MATIC!

THE BENFICA BOY!

Almost immediately, a few fans behind me got going with a new song, at first a quiet murmur, but then growing stronger with each rendition.

“Matic.

In the middle of our pitch, Matic.

In the middle of our pitch, Matic.

In the middle of our pitch, Matic.”

I loved that. Suggs would too.

Nice one.

Then, soon after –

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

There were a few half chances for Lisbon, but we were well on top. A handball appeal against Gary Cahill was waved away and the first-half ended with boos ringing in the ears of the referee as the players and officials left the field.

Boos welcomed the referee back on the pitch at the start of the second-half. The natives were clearly restless.

Down below us, we spotted Rob, who came to spend a few minutes with us. He told a warming story. He pointed down at Chelsea fan Charlie, who was with four Benfica ultras. They had been given tickets in our end as an act of thanks for what they did in honour of a Chelsea fan that sadly passed away ahead of the Chelsea vs. Benfica Europa Cup Final in Amsterdam last year. They had spotted on a Chelsea chat site that Blind Gerry, known to many at our club, had passed away just hours after a game at Stamford Bridge. In his honour, they created a banner in memory of Gerry and flew it in Amsterdam before gifting it to Gerry’s friends.

Class.

It was great to have those four among us.

Nani threatened with a curler, but then wasted a great chance when he flicked the ball to…er…nobody, allowing us to clear. The game was remarkably open. Mourinho must have hated it.

Then, a firm shot from Diego Costa which was blocked. Just after, Filipe Luis dropped a ball over the square Sporting back line and Oscar raced through with just the ‘keeper to beat. He appeared to have too much time, and seemingly froze. The keeper foiled us again.

Nani again was involved at the other end, having two shots on goal, but Courtois was largely untested. We begged for a second goal. This was becoming tense.

Diego Costa, with a tremendous burst of pace, flew past Mauricio, but the Sporting defender cruelly blocked him. Costa looked hurt, but it was the defender who was stretchered off. It was a moment which seemed to derail Lisbon for a few moments. However, their fans still sang heartily throughout the second-half. At one point, with them singing their version of “Fields of Athenry” and with their fans holding their scarves aloft, you could easily be mistaken for thinking the game was being played in the East End of Glasgow. I even saw a U2 “Boy” flag.

Willian replaced the hard-working but wasteful Schurrle, then Mikel took over from Oscar. With Mourinho now using Matic and Mikel as a shield, surely our defence would hold firm. Fabregas pushed up.

Diego Costa hit the side netting, and then shot wide after a delightful defence-splitting ball from Matic had set him free. Filipe Luis broke free down in front of us, but his ball into the six yard box evaded everyone. How we begged for another goal. Sporting had a curler which went just wide. In the final five minutes, the Chelsea support roused itself magnificently with the loudest rendition of “Amazing Grace” that I can remember hearing at a European Away. It was stirring stuff. The home team kept the pressure on us as the minutes ticked by.

“Come on Chels, hang on.”

On ninety minutes, Fabregas fed Mo Salah – who had replaced Hazard – and he advanced on the ‘keeper. Yet again, Patricio made a magnificent save to deny us.

“Oh, those three one on ones, Parkao.”

At the final whistle, I roared. This was an enjoyable game of football – thankfully not defensive and dour like so many European aways – and the relief that came with the win was immense. After the draw with Schalke, it was so important that we came away with a win. We soon heard that Maribor, bless ‘em – had eked out a draw in Gelsenkirchen.

Nice one.

Jose slowly walked over to shake the hands of the Sporting goalkeeper who had kept us from winning 4-0. We then clapped as our players walked towards us.

I had thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

In fact, the drama made the game. Had we won by a greater score line, the sense of relief would not have been so great. The support wasn’t massive – maybe 1,600 or so – but it was loud and passionate. Who needs thousands more when we can get by on 1,600 loyalists.

As Alan remarked : “Quality over quantity.”

I soon collected my camera and we walked off, with a quasi-police escort, to Telheiras tube station. There is always something quite joyful, yet eerie, about being given the streets of a foreign city to walk through, all to ourselves, especially after victory. It didn’t quite match Camp Nou in 2012, but it wasn’t bad.

We were deposited in the centre of town – the subway train did not stop until the last three stops – and we met up at our “local” in Praca Dom Pedro IV for two more steins of Super Bock. Foxy, Ashley and Kev joined us, then Brighton Tony, then Charlie with two of the Benfica lads. Parkao was smiling.

“Although it’s been a great trip, the win made it, mate.”

“Yep. Bloody brilliant, Parkao.”

Wednesday 1 October 2014.

We were up, bright and breezy, for breakfast at around 9am. We said our goodbyes to Alan and Gary, then headed down to Belem once again. We spent a few moments at the Belem Tower, which was once positioned in the River Tagus itself, but which is now adjoined to the riverbank after extensive land reclamation. We made our way to the Monument to the Discoveries, built to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death in 1960, and I was in photographic heaven. The white of the stone contrasted well with the blue sky above. The figures depicted in stone – Henry the Navigator, Vasco de Gama, Fernao Magellen and others – were wonderful subjects for my trusty camera.

Snap, snap, snap.

The floodlights of Belenenses were just a mile or so away. Mourinho entered my head again.

In my Lisbon guide book, I read with interest that Henry the Navigator – the one at the front of the statue – never actually sailed the seas during Portugal’s age of discovery. I drew a parallel with Jose Mourinho, who hardly set the world alight as a player, but who has successfully navigated many teams to success as a manager.

Mourinho as navigator?

“You bet. Hey, listen, after three morangoska cocktails on Monday night, you’re lucky to get that as a footballing paradigm, I’m telling you.”

We relaxed down by the river with a few drinks. It was a calming end to our short spell in delightful Lisbon.

The coach then took us all of the way south to Faro once more, where Parkao and I enjoyed a meal in a restaurant overlooking the town’s marina. The sun slowly dropped behind a palm tree to the west – a palm tree on a Chelsea away trip, whatever next? – and the setting sun turned the sky orange and then lavender. We raised one final Super Bock to one of the best Chelsea European aways yet.

Obrigado, Portugal.

IMG_0105

Tales From The Bukit Jalil Stadium

Malaysia XI vs. Chelsea : 21 July 2011.

Day One : Lift Off.

I left my home village in Somerset at about 7.30am on Sunday 17th. July. I would be heading east once more but this excursion would be taking me well past Portsmouth, the location of the Chelsea game the previous day. For a change, I chose a classical music CD and so had a cool and calm drive up the A303 and beyond. I sent a quick little text to the only friends who I knew would be awake. Four fellow Chelsea fans out in California were the recipients of the simple “Jack Kerouac” text, my way of saying that I was on the road. Quite fitting really – Kerouac, heading west in that iconic road novel, eventually found his home in Northern California, where three of those recipients were residing. For me, the excitement was palpable. After five summer tours to America with Chelsea, I was turning 180 degrees and heading east, following the club to Malaysia and Thailand.

Foreign fields, new experiences, chasing some magical moments.

I dropped my car at my mate Russ’ house in Shepperton. Russ and his two mates Frank and Steve sit two rows in front of us at HQ and it was with some sadness that he told me that none of them would be renewing their season tickets in 2011-2012. That’s a real shame. The grim realities of football pricing out fans once more. Russ quickly drove me the five miles to Heathrow, where Terminal Three was waiting for me. Back in around 1971, a Canadian relative stayed with us for about a week and we took her back to LHR for her to return home to Toronto. My Dad had a little treat for me that day; an hour or so perched up in the airport observation deck, watching the planes coming in and taking off. It is a memory which is still very clear, forty years on. Who would have guessed that my love of foreign travel, plus the obvious love of Chelsea Football Club, would constantly intertwine themselves, enabling me to combine these two passions so perfectly?

I’m a lucky man.

The flight to Bangkok was as near perfect as I could ever have hoped. Fine food and fine company. I soon got chatting to a young Australian lad, Brett, who had been in Europe for two months. He was a budding pro-golfer and had just been watching the Open at Sandwich. Brett was an avid sports fan though and we spent several hours discussing Australian rugby, Aussie rules football, the Australian national team, English football, London rivalries, the New York Yankees and American sport in general. Brett was a keen baseball player, too, and had met the Australian pitcher Graeme Lloyd (NYY 1996) on a few occasions. He was a fan of the Anaheim Angels, or whatever they are called these days. Brett had visited Kuala Lumpur a few times and was able to give me some travel tips, too. So, with all of these common interests to talk about, I was amazed I managed to fit in four of five hours of quality sleep on the plane.

The eleven hours…ahem…flew past.

Day Two : This One Didn’t Want To End.

Touchdown at Bangkok airport early on Monday morning and a three hour wait for the onward flight to KL. One international airport is much the same as the next – adverts for HSBC everywhere, Starbucks, the English language on signs…one world, one world. I waited for the flight to Kuala Lumpur.

As we lifted off into the sky, my window seat afforded me a sight which knocked me sideways. Down below were fields upon fields, acres upon acres, of flooded paddy fields and I quickly realised that I was a long way from home. The view down to my left would live with me forever. It would be one of the moments of my life, just like my first sightings of Rome as I approached on an Italian train in 1986 or the views of Manhattan as our plane circled before landing at JFK in 1989. The view was stunning. As we lifted further, we flew over the bay to the south of Thailand, with the sea full of container ships and barges being pulled by ridiculously small tug boats. Another amazing vista. I spotted the resort of Pattaya, and I knew that Cathy was down there somewhere, staying at a hotel near the fabled “Dogs Bollocks” bar, once owned by probably the most infamous Chelsea fan of them all.

Cathy would be meeting up with me in KL on Tuesday, ahead of the practice session.

The two hour flight from BK to KL was fine. I caught a little sleep, but was soon wide awake, peering through the ridiculously cute and fluffy clouds at the lush green mountains below us.

On arrival at Kuala Lumpur, I quickly collected my checked baggage (always a potentially tense moment) and I had a little chat with the immigration official on the passport desk about Chelsea Football Club. His smile warmed my soul.

“Welcome To Malaysia.”

Then, the 35 ringit (£7) express train to KL Central station and another of those moments. My nose was pressed to the train window as we ripped through Malaysian countryside…plantations of massive palms…and then into suburban KL. Lots of tall apartment buildings, lots of wealth. My preconceptions of Asia were changing with each new sight. I kept looking out of the window, scanning left and right, my head not stopping for one second. My obsessive desire to note everything reminded me of the final contestant on the “Generation Game” who had 60 seconds to remember everything they had seen on the famous conveyor belt.

“Hotel complex, palm trees, mountains, overhead cables, a BMW dealership, a six lane freeway, road signs, more palm trees, tower blocks, pastel coloured housing blocks, shops, malls, natives out in their back gardens, poor houses, more palm trees.”

And then, away in the distance, the first sighting of the twin Petronas Towers, with the less famous KL Tower too.

Snap, snap, snap.

Another of those moments.

At KL Central, I left the mollified air of the air-conditioned train and paced across the tidy station forecourt. I was expecting a wall of heat to hit me, but the temperature was bearable. I spotted the first fake Manchester United shirt and I knew there would be more. Into a waiting red cab and the short 13 ringit drive to my hotel. There was an American country song on the cab radio and all around me were western logos, brands and products. The cab driver said he was a Chelsea fan.

This world is shrinking fast.

Now, I’m usually happy to stay at the cheaper end of the spectrum when it comes to holiday accommodation; hostels, budget hotels, places to lay my head…in my wanderlust years in the ‘eighties, I slept on trains and at train stations so I know how to rough it. Kuala Lumpur would be different. We had heard whispers that the team would be staying at the Shangri La in Bangkok, so I gambled on staying at the Shangri La in KL. To be fair, it was only £85 a night and I paid that on the North End Road in Fulham last November.

I checked in amidst scented air conditioning, girls in reception in lovely silk dresses and hotel quality that I am simply not used to. My room on the seventh floor (memories of the Squeeze song “Goodbye Girl”) was fantastic and I quickly unpacked and showered. Heaven. On Facebook, I spotted that a local Malaysian fan had posted pictures of the Chelsea team booking in at their hotel and I quickly realised it wasn’t the Shangri La. Drat. No to worry – maybe our paths would cross later.

At 4.45pm, I set off on a comprehensive three hour and four mile circumnavigation by foot around the city centre. Those who know me will know my camera was going into overdrive. From the hotel, I headed south-east past the western-style hotels on Jalan Sultan Ismail. Every so often, the glistening silver of the Petronas Towers would appear, then disappear again behind another tall hotel. I followed the route of the monorail down to the Bukit Bintang area, the rowdy and commercial area of KL, full of shopping malls, street vendors, noise and colour. I noted some massage parlours along Jalan Bukit Bintang. From there, a right turn into Jalan Pudu and a quick succession of various architecture styles, from classic art deco, to modern blocks, from mosques to skyscrapers. My senses were reeling. The heat was bearable still and I was so relieved. I headed down to the old ancient part of the city, where I knew there were a few colonial gems from the days of the British Empire. I quickly found myself headed towards the famous Petaling Street, where Chinese street vendors are packed into a vibrant area. Here, my senses went into overdrive and I was so joyful to be able to see such a cauldron of life. Fake goods were everywhere of course – no surprises there – but it was the unknown fruit on sale which left a special impression.

I followed my instincts through to the Central Market – and the buildings in these few blocks are remnants of the colonial era. Flaking pastels, tattered windows, at times a little depressing. But then, ahead, the clean lines of the art deco Central Market and all was good with the world. A beautiful building and a real treasure. Lots of arts and craft stalls inside there, but I kept moving. I headed across the river and onto Merdeka Square, a lovely open space, lined with Malaysian flags to one side and a mock Tudor building to the other, the famous Royal Selangor Club. There was a feeling of calm amidst the noise. I noted that there was a large TV screen in the south-west corner showing action from the Copa America, but nobody was paying too much attention.

The last part of my early evening stroll took me through the Islamic quarter, full of carpet shops and tobacconists. As I crossed the road by a massive mosque, the wailing on the loudspeaker of a cleric calling for the locals to join in prayer was mildly hypnotic and took me, momentarily, to another place. For a few seconds, my mind took a tangential leap and I was lost in thought.

There were days when I would have been overjoyed that my hotel room contained a TV or maybe pay-per-view film channels. In Kuala Lumpur in 2011, I was very contented that I had access to an ironing board. The passage of time, eh? The changing priorities. Shirt and linen trousers ironed, out into town. I stopped at a “TGI Fridays” and watched a quick press CFC conference on the TV above the bar. The only problem was that a pint of Paulaner was £8. Ouch. From there, the rest of the night was spent in a variety of bars (Paradize – deserted, Sky Bar – expensive, but unbelievable view of the Petronas Towers, Rum Jungle – relaxing and fun, Beach Club – noisy dance music, a mixed crowd of westerners, locals, and working ladies from Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Mongolia.)

On the short walk back to the hotel, several ladies made themselves known to me, but I was not interested.

“I’m only here for the Chelsea.”

Day Three : The Practice.

A lazy morning, overcoming the alcohol, the late night and the jet-lag. I was in no rush to vacate my plush five-star King sized bed.

“I’m on holiday.”

I uploaded some photos on FB in the afternoon and then met Cathy in reception at around 4pm. We needed to use the monorail to get down to the Bukit Jalil stadium, around ten miles out of town to the south. The trip was a breeze, the trains were air conditioned and it was great to chat to a familiar face. I told Cathy how odd it felt at Pompey, knowing that she was in Dubai, watching with some Chelsea ex-pats. I shook hands with the first two Chelsea fans I saw, but soon gave up on that idea when I saw how many replica-kitted out locals were alighting at the stadium stop. The immediate area between the station up to the stadium was full of souvenir and local food stands. Lots of air horns and damned vuvuzelas were on sale, plus souvenirs of the Malaysian team, too.

We had a couple of hours ahead of the session. We took a few photos of the scene outside the impressive stadium, then headed inside to pin up Cathy’s Kalou flag, a gift from the Feyenoord firm in 2006. We spoke to a few locals, then took our seats in the lower tier and waited for the Chelsea team to appear. The self-proclaimed “Malaysian Blues Army” was over in the green gate section, making some noise and waving some impressive home-made banners. We were sat next to a couple with their 7 year old daughter, a big Frank Lampard fan. They shared some sunflower seeds with Cathy and I, but it seemed a lot of effort with little in return. Maybe akin to an Arsenal midfielder feeding in Nicolas Bendtner.

The players came on to the pitch at about 7.30pm and stayed for an hour. A few games involving one-touches, teams of four attackers against four defenders and Villas-Boas at the centre of attention, clipboard by his side, stopping to talk to players every few minutes. One game was played involving the entire width of the pitch, but only half the length. Two normal goals, but two small “hockey” goals out on the wings. I can only surmise that it was two points for a normal goal, one point in the unguarded small goals. I’ve never seen this before and I guess it hints at the emphasis on the importance in width in our play next season. It was odd, though, seeing Anelka dribble past a small goal (they were positioned 5 yards from the goal line) and then put in a low cross. Like something out of the NHL, maybe. I can confirm that Fernando Torres volleyed in a great goal during this practice session, but just missed snapping it. Double drat. Would be worth a few bob, that.

Around 6-8,000 fans were in attendance, but there was no real chanting apart from the MBA on the far side and a solitary “ZZ” from some locals. I so wanted to start singing, but Cathy advised me to “save it for the game.” After the session, I stumbled into Cathy’s nemesis, Chelsea fan-liaison officer Graham Smith, bedecked in CFC casual wear and handing out tour programmes. I told him that Cathy wasn’t far away and suggested that I bring her over for a few words.

“No, you’re OK, mate.”

Well, by the time I had rescued the Kalou flag from the fence, Cathy and the afore-mentioned Mr. Smith were in deep conversation and I know Cath loved that.

We then headed back to Jalan Ramlee and stayed in the Rum Jungle for three hours, knocking back some Carlsberg and a few sambucas. It was only going to be a quiet night, but I don’t think Cath knows the meaning of the word. In a large fish tank above the bar, two baby sharks were swimming and I christened the one with the biggest fin Colin Pates.

Day Four : Relaxing.

After the late night – getting to sleep at 4am – I realised my body clock was still on UK time. Another lie in, but I spent a lovely relaxing time out in the shaded hotel pool area. Time to catch up on some diary days, a read of the paper and to collect my thoughts. There were photos of Chelsea players in the local “Strait Times” (as opposed to what? Wink) and also a very good article about Sir Alex Ferguson. The impression I was getting in Malaysia was that the locals loved their football and the English version especially. On that very first day, I noted that I spotted around eight pieces of Manchester United clothing and one Chelsea…no others. Since then, I had still to see a Spurs shirt and this pleased me. Back up in my room, I belatedly spotted that the MBA had organised a Chelsea gathering by the fountains outside the Petronas Towers, but this had not been pre-advised at all. This annoyed me a little. I had brought over 20 old Chelsea programmes – the same ones I took to the US in 2007 in fact – and I would have liked to have spoken to some of the local Chelsea fans about lots of things. Show them the programmes, dating back to 1947, talk about the tour, talk about KL, maybe even talk about the team. A chance lost. I compared this to the intense planning that went with the CFC USA tours since 2004 and wished that a little Western organisation could have been in evidence. Oh, I also spotted that Chelsea had arranged a “meet and greet” at their One World Resort Hotel on the Tuesday and – of course – nobody in the UK knew about this. How easy would it have been for CFC to politely post on the CFC website that UK fans heading to KL (and let’s be honest, we numbered around 15 to 20) could apply for a pass to this event. A little payback for our efforts. I bet nobody at Chelsea even thought of this as an option.

I spent an hour or so atop the KL Tower – rather similar to Seattle’s Space Needle – which was conveniently located just a few minutes’ walk from my hotel. Again, tons of photos as the sun set to my west, out over the mountains. I located Merdeka Square a mile or so to the south-west and was amazed at the volume of skyscrapers nestled in the central area. As the night fell, all eyes were centered on the Petronas Towers and yet more photographs were taken.

From there, a cab ride into the Bukit Bintang area. I was deposited in Jalan Alor and what a sight. Open air cafes, street vendors, every colour known to mankind, pigs roasting, flumes of smoke wafting across the street, the clamour of street-hawkers. I decided to sit down and have a three course Chinese meal and a large bottle of Carlsberg. The Szechuan hot and sour soup was the star of the show. This all came to 99 ringit or about £23…not cheap, but who cares? It was a fantastic meal and the Chinese waitress was impressed that I had eaten almost everything. I then walked a block onto Jalan Bukit Bintang and paid 25 ringit for a 30 minute foot massage (incidentally, while semi-watching the Uruguay vs. Peru Copa America game above the head of the masseuse next to me). Well, the massage was fantastic, if at times a little painful, and I was impressed that the two nearest masseuses had heard of Chelsea Football Club.

“John Terry, John Terry!!”

I then caught a cab to the Rum Jungle and awaited for Cathy to arrive at just after 11.15pm. We had a great night and were the centre of attention once it became apparent that our waiter was a Chelsea supporter. I showed him video clips of various Chelsea games on my antiquated Sony Ericson phone and Cathy started waving her small CFC flag. The locals wanted their photos taken with us and it was all just lovely. The DJ was an Arsenal fan, from just around the corner from Cathy in Wood Green.

“A big shout out to the Chelsea fans in the house tonight, all the way from London.”

Even a Milan fan from Italy wanted his photo taken with us.

The night wore on – lagers, sambucas and even neat vodka. It was a blast.

In a quiet moment though, Cathy and myself talked business. The business of Chelsea Football Club. It’s easy to poke fun at our legions of fans out in the exotic countries of Asia. I think most of them love the players with a passion that would shame us cynical British. Their enthusiasm at the practice was amazing. I commented to Cathy about Chelsea’s raison d’etre for these tours to far flung places. It has been said that football support within the UK has reached saturation point, everyone one has chosen a team, the colours have been tied to the mast. For heavens’ sake, even people who clearly don’t like football in the UK even get caught up supporting England in tournaments. And these people then get hooked into supporting teams and it’s usually Manchester United. You know the score.

Look how many people are in the UK – maybe 60 million. This isn’t a huge figure. There are billions worldwide. Billions and billions. With the internet and media world getting even slicker by the minute, I am sure there will be a time when the button will be flicked for pay-per-view live streaming of games and new TV contracts. Chelsea wants to be at the very forefront of that race. Hence the desire to – and I apologise for using the phrase – “grow the global brand.” But here, in Kuala Lumpur, here was a city where global brands were on every street corner…McDonalds, Samsung, BMW, TGI Fridays, Hard Rock Café, Manchester United, Burger King, Starbucks, Chelsea Football Club. And make no mistake, we have surfed the internet boom more than most over the last ten years. Without the internet, Chelsea’s support in these exotic locales might well be limited to ex-pats and not the flesh blood of today.

So, Cathy and I chatted about that.

“The bigger picture” Cathy called it.

So, as Chelsea Football Club is supported by hundreds and thousands of new fans with each new Premier League game across the five continents, where does that leave the fans in the UK?

I remember the crazed egotist Silvio Berlusconi saying back in the days when he was just the owner of a new TV company, just setting foot in the corridors of power as Milan chairman, that there would be a time when football clubs would actually pay fans to fill their stadia each week. His point was that 99% of club revenue would come from commercial pursuits and specifically pay-per-view TV. However, the supporters in Singapore, Seattle and Sydney would not want to watch a football game if the local fans had been priced out, resulting in low crowds and little atmosphere. To many, the game is not the whole story. This certainly hit home when I attended my first ever Chelsea game in 1974.

So, think on that, Chelsea. By all means grow the brand, capitalize on the camaraderie and sense of belonging that us UK fans bring to the name of Chelsea Football Club, but please look after your own. If you price us loyal fans out – the singers, the shakers, the celery takers – you might end up with a sanitised Stamford Bridge which does not fit the model that the overseas fans expect. They expect noise and colour, they expect passion, they expect integrity. Not a stadium full of tourists and moneyed middle-classes.

With that, Cathy took a cab back to The Equatorial and I walked 50 yards to the Shangri La, happily avoiding a Lady Boy who resembled Freddie Starr on an off-day.

I chatted on Facebook and went to sleep at 6am. I was still on UK time.

Day Five : The Game.

I rose from my heavy, alcohol imbued, slumber at 2.30pm and headed down to the pool again. Another swim, another read of the paper. Aguero to Manchester City (oh dear) and Eidur to AEK Athens. A comment from JT saying that AVB has inspired him to become Chelsea manager one day.

It is reassuring to know that it took me just as long to decide what to wear to the game in Kuala Lumpur as it does on a normal match day in dear old Blighty; I eventually chose a light cream polo. Down to meet Cathy outside the hotel and she had chosen a light colour too, with her trusty CFC flag tied over her shoulders. We changed trains at the Hang Tuah monorail station and, of course, the trains were flooded with Chelsea fans. I suddenly realised that I had not spotted one single North American baseball cap of any type (NFL, MLB, NHL, MLS, NCAA, NASCAR) in my four days in Kuala Lumpur. It ratified my view that there is truly only one global sport. We had been informed that the game was an 84K sell out – bearing in mind Liverpool drew this figure on Saturday – and all thoughts were now on getting to the stadium and getting hold of the match tickets. We alighted at Bukit Jalil at 6pm and I was sent off on a goose chase to locate the ticket pick-up booth. I spotted a familiar face as I navigated my way between vuvuzela blasting locals and souvenir sellers: a chap from Weymouth with two mates and he proudly displayed his famous “Chelsea Dorset” flag for a quick photo.

Tickets thankfully secured, I walked back to join Cathy, who had been joined by two chirpy members of the CYF. They had visited the local “7 Eleven” and offered me an ice-cold beer. Cathy and I posed with “VPN” and tried to get the locals to join in with –

“We Are The Famous, The Famous Chelsea.”

The kick-off was at 8.45pm and we had a long walk to get to the correct turnstile entrance. We bumped into Jayne and Jim from Spain, friends of Cathy’s from way back. A miniscule bag check and we were in. We had tickets for the unreserved seating area of the middle tier, on the premise that we could – if needed – chose to move around a little. We quickly pinned the Kalou and Vinci Per Noi flags up to the fence and took our seats in row one. This plan back-fired because we were forever politely and then not-so-politely asking fans to move on out of our way. It was a hot and humid evening, my shirt was clinging to me and there were people everywhere. When we entered the stadium at 7.30pm, the stadium was barely half-full and my immediate thought was “oh dear – embarrassing.” I had read in the paper that Liverpool had drawn 35K to their practice session, whereas we had drawn less than 10K. I wanted to see a packed Bukit Jalil. I wanted to at least tie Liverpool’s attendance.

The Bukit Jalil stadium was a three-tiered super structure. The stands were far from the pitch and it had the feel of a Maracana. I have heard that it can hold a cool 100,000. There were a few Chelsea flags dotted around – the MBA flag was up – and the Indonesia group had a big flag, too. Our seats were above the corner flag to the right. Chelsea had arranged for those blue and white chequered flags to be placed on seats and these were waved with gusto. The colours of the Malaysian team – yellow and black – were in evidence. There was a group of fans way down to my right with drums. Air horns and vuvuzelas. The constant flow of spectators walking past us.

“Plenty of seats at the back, mate.”

And that was the polite version.

In truth, spectators kept arriving all through the game. Around us, every aisle and every walkway was full, people sitting on steps, people standing, cigarette smoke, noise, the humidity causing me to gasp.

At last, the game.

It was difficult to concentrate. I was exhausted, hot and bothered. There were people in my way. The balcony fence had horizontal bars which made taking photographs a little difficult. Lots of fans nearby were wearing Chelsea shirts and scarves. Ah, the scarf. That symbol of European football loyalty. Do you really need to wear one in Kuala Lumpur with temperatures soaring? A few other shirts of note – Real, Barca, Inter, Milan…even one Newcastle fan breezed by (no doubt on a look out for a pie.) Thankfully hardly any United or Liverpool shirts. Not tonight anyway.

A young lad – 8 years old – was sat in the aisle no more than two feet away from me…clad in a complete Chelsea kit, with “El Nino – 9” on his shirt. His Dad took a call on his moby and at the end, there it was – his screen saver…

A Tottenham cockerel.

Mark it up – the first Spurs fan.

The game, with two completely different Chelsea teams in each half, was not memorable. Yossi Benayoun – the Jew amongst a country of Muslims – was booed every time he touched the ball. Still no Petr Cech. Torres had a couple of half-chances but skewed them wide. Malaysia did not appear to be a threat. Every time they managed to move the ball over the halfway line, the crowd roared their approval. I imagined how manic it would be should they actually score. The best move of the first half, down our right, and a little ball played into Frank, who just couldn’t quite get his toe to it. It reminded me of Gazza against Germany in 1996. How those football memories get replayed time and time again. The ball was bouncing ridiculously high on the bone hard pitch. Tough conditions. Patrick Van Aanholt, I think, crashed a shot against the upright. I noted that Kalou and Malouda, the wide players, swapped over midway into the first period.

There were no songs from Cathy and I. Our cries would have been lost in the constant din.

More of the same in the second period. Sturridge was clean through, but shot at the goalkeeper. A rip-roaring run down from their nippy winger down the Malaysian right got the decibel levels rising, but the move petered out. A few Chelsea shots, a couple of towering John Terry headers.

Then, a free-kick thirty yards out and cameras poised.

Kick. Snap. I caught the exact moment Didier connected.

The ball curled goal wards, hit the post, hit the goalie, the crowd roared, the goalie shoveled the ball out and I didn’t think the whole ball had crossed the line. I quickly glanced at the linesman and his flag was raised. Thank the Lord. The shame of a 0-0 draw was avoided. Very fortuitous, though. In the closing moments, a Malaysian broke through – one on one with Ross Turnbull – but he dragged the shot wide and will probably regret that moment for the rest of his life. By now, many fans had decided to leave and the stadium’s coloured seats were now peeking through.

At the final whistle, relief we had no players injured. Not a good performance, but let’s give everyone time. A moral victory to the Malaysian team, in my book.

As we slowly descended the ramp from the seating bowl, we overlooked a TV studio and there was Graeme Le Saux, no more than 15 feet away, analysing the poor performance for CTV, no doubt. We then breezed past security and waited outside the press-conference in order to quickly snap a subdued AVB. I blagged an official match programme and Cathy blagged two. Then, out into the noisy KL night. We were approached by two chaps and we did an impromptu radio interview for them. We spoke of the club, the trip the city but then became unstuck; the reporter asked Cathy and I to rattle off a few choice words in Malay, but that proved pretty difficult.

I ended my piece by saying “celery, celery” and not even I knew what I was talking about.

It had been one of those nights.

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