Tales From The Land Of Fire

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2019.

Saturday 25 May : 7.30pm – Heathrow Airport Terminal Two.

It had been a relaxing Saturday thus far. I had driven up to my mate Russ’ house in Shepperton, where my car would be safe for a week, and he then took me over to Heathrow for just after 7pm. The season had, in fact, begun in the very same way; Glenn and I drove to Russ’ place before our jaunt to see Chelsea in Australia back in July. Two things struck me. The game in Perth seemed relatively recent. Yet the away game at Leicester City – what a yawn fest – seemed comparatively distant. It was, perhaps, typical of the strangeness of this season that times and places seemed to be swirling in a bewildering and confusing fashion. This was, undoubtedly, one of the oddest seasons I had ever experienced. Eight goals were conceded in ninety minutes of football in consecutive away games; the second-half at Bournemouth and then the first-half at Manchester City. A generally disliked manager attempted to implement a new brand of football against a baying and increasingly unappreciative support. The league form just about recovered in time as we stumbled to third place and guaranteed Champions League Football next season. And two out of our three cup competitions were to end in final appearances. The jury was out in many minds as to whether or not it had been a “good” season.

My thoughts were : “not enjoyable, but successful.”

Sometimes life is like that.

Russ, with his wife Kim, waved me off as I pulled my two bags towards the terminal. This was a rare departure place for me. My 2016/17 season had begun here with a trip to Vienna for the Rapid friendly, but I could not recollect another T2 / CFC trip. As I crossed the threshold into the departure zone, I looked to my right and just caught sight of a concrete tablet which stated that the terminal was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in late 1955.

I liked that. 1955. An omen. I liked that a lot. I was grabbing at anything. At work the previous day, as before Munich in 2012 and Amsterdam in 2013, I had bought breakfasts for the office team. It was one of a few superstitions that would hopefully play out. There was lucky bird shit on my car too; again a repeat of those two trips.

I was on my own now, for the first time this season. I will be perfectly honest; ever since I had booked my flights and accommodation, fortuitously, and the dream of six days in Baku became real, there was a strong element of guilt inside me. It did not feel right that many close friends – some who had travelled to all other European away games this season – had been priced out of this trip. This feeling was with me for a large part of these first few hours of travel.

Inside the building, there were the usual little tremors of concern that accompany modern travel; had I packed all the essentials, had I overlooked one key ingredient, had I remembered all the chargers, leads and adaptors, had I packed the Nurofen and Imodium?

In the line to check in, I spotted a chap of around my age in an Arsenal shirt from around 1993. In the interests of goodwill – and with a nod to the feeling that, with the final being played so bloody far away from anywhere, we were in some respects “all in this together” I approached him, and his son, and shook their hands. I was wearing a Chelsea polo – rare for me – which enabled them to see straight away that my allegiances were with the other team. We chatted away and instantly clicked. They were from the Isle of Wight, went to a few games each season, but told me of their huge problems, for example, in getting back to their home after midweek games in London. Will, the father, and Noah, the son, soon started asking me about my thoughts about the game, of Baku, of my experiences this season, of my past travels with Chelsea in Europe.

Not long into our chit-chat, Noah – who is fifteen I think – came out with a beautiful line.

“Of course, Chelsea are European royalty aren’t they?”

This stopped me in my tracks for a moment.

“The boy is being tactically naive, there” I thought to myself.

Will was momentarily speechless.

I could not resist piling in.

“Do you two want to close ranks and have a moment? Bloody hell. Should he be saying that in public?”

We all laughed.

European royalty, eh? Bloody hell. Is that how – some – others see us? Of course Arsenal’s last final was in Paris in 2006 and so this was their first one for thirteen years. It might explain why Arsenal had allegedly sold more tickets for Baku than us. Since 2006, we have experienced European finals in 2008, 2012 and 2013.

European royalty? Perhaps Noah was right.

(…mmm, Paris 2006, Arsenal versus Barcelona…they almost became the first London team to win the European Cup, leading 1-0 until very late on…I immediately had trouble remembering the name of Juliano Beletti, who poached the winner, as my memory failed me for a few annoying minutes).

At the check-in, the first scare of the trip. The woman seemed to be struggling with my e-ticket and after a few minutes she shot off to see her supervisor. Panic. Blind panic. For three minutes I was left in limbo, with many gruesome scenarios hurtling through my brain. But all was good. She soon processed my details and even let me off with heavier-than-allowed hand luggage. Phew. I was on my way.

Sunday 26 May : 10am – Istanbul Airport.

The Turkish Airlines flight from Heathrow, due to depart at 10.15pm, eventually left at 11pm. I only had a few moments of fitful sleep. We landed at Istanbul’s swish new airport to the north of the city at 4am. On the bus to the terminal, I chatted to three other Arsenal supporters. We sat and killed time by chatting away. Our flight to Baku was due to leave at 8.15am. Sanjay, who was with his son Chris, was from Crouch End but worked in Tottenham. He had visited the new Tottenham stadium, on a freebie through work, at the end of the season and was brutally honest as he extolled its virtues. It was so noisy. It was such a great stadium. His honesty was refreshing. Over the two or three hours of waiting at the airport, the prospect of “that lot” winning against Liverpool in Madrid was a dark, dark shadow which haunted us all. We all agreed how every team in London hates Tottenham.

The biggest London rivalries, involving the “big four”? Here is my ranking.

1 – Arsenal vs. Tottenham.

2 – Chelsea vs. Tottenham.

3 – West Ham vs. Tottenham.

4 – Chelsea vs. Arsenal.

5 – Chelsea vs. West Ham.

6 – Arsenal vs. West Ham.

Anyone disagree with that?

Sanjay bought me an orange juice. He was another good lad. The other Arsenal supporter was from Northampton, though I did not catch her name. I was outnumbered five to one. We spoke of loyalty points, season tickets, membership schemes, how our two clubs ride roughshod over our emotions. Interestingly, there would be no beam back at Arsenal either. There was ground improvements penciled in for the week. So, beam backs at Liverpool and Tottenham, but not at Arsenal or Chelsea.

Maybe it is a Europa League thing.

Will and Noah departed as they were on their way to Tblisi where they were staying for two nights before getting a coach to Baku. I wished them well, though wondered if I would bump into them again on this trip. At the departure gate, I spotted a young lad wearing a CP top and a Chelsea badge. I smiled and approached him. He was Alex, with his mate Alan, and both from Moscow. It was my first Chelsea interaction of the trip. About bloody time.

Sunday 26 May : 12.45pm – Heydar Aliyev Avenue, Baku.

The flight from Istanbul to Baku, again on Turkish Airlines – no complaints, two great meals on the two flights – took three hours and the last ten minutes will live with me for a while. Approaching from the west, and above the bay, I was able to look out to my left and see the distant, dreamlike, sandy buildings of Baku. The sweep of the bay. The flame towers. The curved peek of the Heyday Aliyev Centre, which beguiled me as we drove past it in a cab on my first visit to Baku in 2017, and which I so wanted to visit in 2019. As the plane swung north, the dry earth of the land below.

We landed on time at midday. There was a little nervousness when I handed over my visa at passport control, but all was fine.

Stamp.

The small arrivals hall was bedecked with UEFA Europa League signage and I made a conscious decision to descend the escalator which was next to the roof column covered in photos of Chelsea players. I was taking no chances. It was the one to the left. I was happy. On my ascent up the stairs of the Matthew Harding, I always keep to the left. Oh those superstitions.

I exchanged some money and easily battled a cab driver down from forty manat to thirty manat. A cab to the city for £15? Perfect. On the way in, on Heydar Aliyev Avenue, I recognised a few landmarks from my early morning cab ride in with my friend Nick in 2017. We glided past the Olympic Stadium. Next up was the flame-like Socar Tower. As I mentioned in my Baku 2017 trip report, the furniture company for whom I work fitted out all forty-two floors back in 2014. Because of the complexities of the accompanying export paperwork, it caused me much grief. It almost saw the end of me if I am honest, as it added a massive workload to my already busy demands. Driving past it once more – on a wide boulevard with lamp posts covered in Chelsea colours – did raise a wry smile.

It was magical to be back in Baku.

Sunday 26 May : 1.30pm, Kichik Qala Street, Old City, Baku.

The cab ride in to the city only took twenty-five minutes. The sun was shining. The traffic grew busier with each passing mile. The cab driver, his mouth full of odd-shaped teeth, had been given my hotel address in the old city, but was struggling with its whereabouts. His driving style was rather erratic. He kept using his mobile phone. He changed lanes constantly. Into the city centre we went, curving south past the modern additions, past the designer shops, onto the boulevard where the Formula One race hugs the Caspian Sea. The city was festooned with the yellow and orange of UEFA. I recognised so much. The Maiden Tower, up the hill, past the glass prism of Icharishahar metro station, and we landed right outside the old Gosha Gala city gates.

“I’ll walk from here.”

Within a few seconds, my spirits had dropped. The row of three or four old-style restaurants, no more than wooden shacks, within one of which I enjoyed a £6 meal in 2017, had been pulled down and it looked like modern versions were taking their place. My heart dropped. It was the one abiding memory of my last visit; a huge stone oven, the smell of smoke, the wooden shutters clattering in the wind. I had planned a return for old time’s sake. Alas it was not possible.

“Progress” I thought.

My hotel was entombed within the old city. The sun was beating down as I pulled my two suitcases up and down Kichik Qala Street. Nobody had heard of my hotel. Up and down I went. I asked many locals. My bags were getting heavier. I immediately thought of our cossetted players – the image of Eden swanning onto the Chelsea plane that took the squad to Boston recently was centre stage in my mind – and wondered if they had any inkling of the tribulations we go through. Eventually, I stumbled across two friendly policemen. One of them ‘phoned my hotel, as had the cab driver en route to the city, but the number was not known.

An invisible hotel and a ‘phone number that does not work.

Fackinell.

The policemen then took me to a nearby hotel, only ten yards away, where I presumed they would ask for directions.

Fackinell again.

It was my hotel.

With a name change.

Bloody hell.

Phew.

My booking, via Expedia, did not immediately feature on the lovely receptionist’s computer – I wanted to marry her there and then – but I have to be honest I suspect that there was a double-booking involved. There seemed to be genuine surprise at my appearance. After five minutes of double-checking, I was shown my room in the adjacent annex.

I had made it.

Fackinell.

Sunday 26 May : 9pm – 360 Bar, Hilton Hotel, Baku.

Being sleep deficient, I crashed out for four hours. I dreamed of work spreadsheets and I dreamed of work routines. The subconscious was not letting me forget work.

I was awoken by an English voice. It must have touched an inner trigger. A shadow of a memory of another time, a whisper from my father –

“Come on Chris, time to get up.”

In fact, my father’s stock waking call was not this at all. It was a standard Royal Air Force line, which my father used to constantly use to get me out of bed on work days. It is a typically quirky and whimsical phrase that RAF pals would utter to others, enjoying deep sleep, and at any time during the night.

“Want to buy a battleship?”

I had no need of battleships in Baku, nor anywhere else, but I quickly came to the conclusion that, by God, I had needed this holiday. Within seconds the feelings of guilt that had been pecking away at me for ages quickly evaporated. Although I would miss the immediate company of my usual laughter buddies, perhaps I needed to be alone – certainly on the first two days of this trip before others would start rolling in – so that I could be left to unwind and relax.

I could be my own boss.

I love the company of others, but my own company is a true joy. I have the best of both worlds.

That first evening, I had one goal; to locate the 360 Bar atop the Hilton.

I was out at 7.30pm. It took me an hour of idle meanderings to reach the hotel, but I was in no rush. I enjoyed the Baku evening and quickly dipped into the fan park next to the Caspian. I couldn’t see many Chelsea from the UK participating at this. It was far too regulated. Far too happy-clappy. We like to hide in the pubs and bars, inside the deepest cracks and fissures of host cities, only emerging at the last minute to head on to the stadium.

I made my way east and soon found my goal. I noted lots of UEFA signage at the hotel reception and I was whisked up to the twenty-fifth floor. I settled in a comfy chair, ordered the first of five local Xirdalan lagers. They were only seven manat – just £3.50 – and were served with some crisps and popcorn. I booked a table for Tuesday when some friends would be in town.

And I relaxed. The revolving bar offered fantastical views of the city. My camera had trouble getting clear images, but my memories remain strong. The Flame Towers were the obvious stars and the lights flickered and danced with varying images…the red, blue and green of the national flag on individual towers, the flames, the Azerbaijani flag over the three towers, three figures waving national flags, sparking stars, and – oddly – the three towers as vessels filling up with water,

I was enchanted.

With wifi, I was able to toast absent friends on Facebook.

I left at midnight, took a cab into town, slowly guzzled three more bottles of lager in a bar called “Room” and relaxed some more. I chatted to a Serb from Belgrade – a Red Star fan – who remembered, and loved, Petar Borota who played for Chelsea from 1979 to 1982 and for Red Star’s great rivals Partizan Belgrade before joining us. It had been a chilled-out evening, just what my brain needed, but I felt that I was just touching the surface of Baku.

Monday 27 May : 7pm – Mugam Club, Old City, Baku.

There was more – beautiful – sleep on Monday. I did not wake early. Thankfully there was just enough cold air emanating from the air-conditioning unit to allow for a pleasant rest. Suffice to say, I missed breakfast.

Over the past year, I have watched “The Art Lovers Guide – Baku” on three occasions. I caught up with it again on iPlayer a few weeks back. The two guides – a troubling mix of excellent informative analysis but awful pretension – visited the “Mugam Club” where indigenous music is played while local food is served. The one song featured briefly in the programme was magical and my interest was piqued. Luckily, this was only five minutes from my hotel. I visited it, and enjoyed it all. Several musicians played. Some local music was mixed in with Western music, which spoilt it a little. A salad, some chicken in pomegranate sauce and some rice, all washed down with a bottle of Xirdalan. A lovely little distraction from the football-themed mayhem that would soon envelope the city.

Outside, my next goal was to get up close and personal with the Flame Towers. On the way, on the main square to the west of the Old City (I have to keep reminding myself how close everything is in Baku, it is a wonderful place to leisurely walk between sites), I spotted a Sky Sports reporter doing a live piece to camera. I chatted to him briefly. He had heard that the players were staying at the nearby Four Seasons Hotel. He also spoke to me about Frank Lampard, who I was sad to see had just lost to Aston Villa at Wembley.

Aston Villa, Norwich City and Sheffield United next season then. Two good trips there. Villa is just a bit tedious.

Monday 27 May – 11pm, Harry’s Bar, Baku.

Alas the funicular railway had closed, so at 9pm I ascended the six-hundred steps to the area by the Flame Towers. I spent a good ninety minutes or so underneath the dancing lights, and I was in my element. On the ascent I had spotted a terraced walkway lit up with pure white lights. A real stairway to heaven. The city was charming me with every turn of the eye. Adjacent to the towers was a beautifully constructed area – Highland Park – with a war memorial, fountains, and with outstanding views of the city. The minuets of the Sehidler Xiyabani Mosque contrasted wildly with the flickering LED of the towers. Baku was beguiling me again.

Very soon I found myself in the heart of the city, and I wandered south of Fountain Square into the quarter of a mile block that holds most of the city centre’s bars.

I passed a cellar bar – “Harry’s Bar” – and an English chap was coming up for air.

“Any good?”

“Yeah, it’s alright.”

It was 11pm. I needed a drink as I was gasping. I enjoyed it so much that I stayed until 8am.

For the most part, there were no more than five or six people inside. I got talking to Bob and his son Chris – from Swindon, Arsenal – and we again had a great laugh. I was still yet to spot another Chelsea supporter in Baku. The pub was next to the “Red Lion” and I kept calling in to see if any friends had yet arrived. They hadn’t. That pub was pretty quiet too. But I was in no mood to travel too far. The first beer I was served was a five manat bottle of Efes, but I soon learned that Bob and Chris were on three manat pints. So I soon joined them. Within ten minutes of my arrival “Blue is the Colour” was booming around the small bar.

The night continued, the beers flowed steadily. We bought beers for the barman and his charming wife. Locals occasionally dropped in but for hours the cast involved just five people. Bob chatted to a local girl – the girl with no name, I would continually bump into her over the next few days – and I just sat at the bar with Chris, drinking away. Three o’clock came and went. Seeing Bob attempt to walk back down the steps into the bar from an excursion into the open air was the funniest thing I have seen for ages. Four o’clock came and went. I was in still no mood to leave.

“More tea, vicar?”

Five o’clock.

There was then a very intense “domestic” between the barman and his wife. Then the bar owner showed up and things started to unravel. There was a tense moment of monies being counted and recounted and it all got a bit heated. It was as if Bob, Chris and I were watching some great Shakespearean tragedy unfold in front of our eyes. At about six o’clock – light outside now of course – and after the two Arsenal lads left, I was alone with a beer.

In walked Carl and Ryan from my old haunting ground of Stoke-on-Trent (last featured in the Barcelona away report from last season, another ridiculous night) and three lads from Gloucester. They were newly arrived in town, and had to kill a few hours before being able to book in.

“Carl!”

“Chris!”

“Ryan!”

Fackinell.

So funny.

I wasn’t sure who was more surprised to see each other. Chelsea laughs and Chelsea giggles all over. A Chelsea / Gloucester flag was draped from the bar ceiling. At last I had met some Chelsea fans in Baku. The drinking continued – at a slow pace, I hasten to add, I was in no rush – and the night didn’t want to end. Eventually, I made my way back to the hotel with the early morning sun warming my back.

Tuesday 28 May : 11pm – The William Shakespeare, Baku.

My hotel room had “occasional wifi” and I was able to observe during Tuesday how many friends and acquaintances were arriving into town. I trotted down to the centre and it was just so odd to be in Europe with Chelsea yet to hear another English team’s songs echoing around the streets. I aimed for “The William Shakespeare” on the main street for bars in Baku. On the intersection of this street and another, I spotted Will and Noah about to tuck in to some food in a street side café.

“Good to see you!”

They had thoroughly enjoyed Tblisi, but were now relishing the delights of Baku.

Just after, I bumped into Cathy and Dog.

At last, a time for the gathering of the clans.

The “Shakespeare” pub was busy and getting busier by the minute.

Virtually the first people that I met were Andy and his daughter Sophie. I was especially pleased to see them because – I am sure they will not mind me mentioning it – Andy’s wife Karen passed away just after Christmas. If anyone remembers, I heard about it just minutes before the start of our game at Selhurst Park. I was just so pleased that they had been able to make it. I first met Andy – to talk to – on Wenceslas Square in Prague right after our afternoon game in Jablonec twenty-five years ago, although I had recognised him from my train journeys to London from the midlands as way back as 1985. I have known Sophie since she was a very young girl.

Bless them both.

I soon met up with Luke and Aroha and their pals, then Dave and Neil. Then Russ, Albert, Nathan and Shari from Australia. Callum. Eva. Carl and Ryan, the two Stokies. Nick from Weymouth. Martin from Gloucester. Calvin. A few more. I bumped into Orlin, another good lad who has featured in these tales for many years. I first met him before an Arsenal away game in April 2012, ironically in “The Shakespeare Tavern” at Victoria, and we would meet up again in Turin, Tokyo, Bucharest, Istanbul, Porto, Vienna and – er – Sunderland. We very rarely see each other at Stamford Bridge. He lives partly in San Francisco and partly in Serbia. He is a lovely bloke. There were a few fellow Chelsea Bulgaria in the pub. They are quite well known to the regulars at Chelsea. They are good lads.

Respect to the four Chelsea fans based in Australia, who I met out in Perth, who had travelled.

Albert – Brisbane.

Nathan – Perth.

Russ – Melbourne.

Shari – Brisbane.

They would be part of a little band – of ten – who were in Perth and would be in Baku.

From the UK – Cathy, Rich, Scott, Paul, myself.

From Vietnam – Steve.

From Australia to Azerbaijan. Fackinell.

A few of us jumped into cabs and headed off to the 360 Bar for 9pm. My booth was waiting for me. Ruslan, the barman who looked after me on Sunday, welcomed me and we ordered some drinks and a little food. The others – Aroha, Doreen, Luke, Russ, plus three of Luke’s mates – loved it. The views were again stunning. We all then met up at “The Shakespeare” for community singing. We had heard that Arsenal had commandeered two pubs – “Finnegans” and the smaller “Red Lion.” As far as we could tell, we just had “The Shakespeare.” I don’t think this was anything official. It just transpired to be like this. All three pubs were within fifty yards of each other, like the trenches in the First World War. Throughout the evening, there were no police mobbed up outside our pub, unlike many European aways. There was a very laid back – surreal – atmosphere. I am not so sure there would have been the same vibe if Tottenham had been in town. In the pub, one song dominated the night. At one stage, with me trying to order a beer at the bar, it went on for bloody ever.

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor.

Lyon and to Rome.

Tottenham get battered.

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

I was just surprised Seville wasn’t included.

The song continued on.

“Everywhere they go. Everywhere they go.”

There was a fantastic rendition of “Blue Day” too. Everyone singing. Very emotional. Magical. And – of course – “The Liquidator.”

I bumped into, quite unintentionally, four Chelsea fans from the US; Jean, who I had met in “Simmons” at a European game during the season, Robert, James and Paul. Three from Texas and one from new Jersey. Three new acquaintances, and one re-connection. In fact, there was a gentle influx of Chelsea fans from outside the UK. Lots of scarves. Lots of replica shirts. They looked both amazed and bemused at the same time. We moved next-door, and downstairs, to another bar, and I then traipsed over to see how the two bartenders at “Harry’s Bar” were shaping up. All was good, but it was desperately quiet. I wondered how on earth they survived on such little turnover. I bought some pizzas for us and left there at 5am. Bloody hell.

Wednesday 29 May : 5pm – Fan Festival, Baku.

Match ticket in hand, obtained from the Landmark Hotel, I made my way back in to town. I walked in the shade as the sun was still beating down. I met up with Steve down at the Fan Festival. He had popped into the Hilton earlier, had spotted Florent Malouda and Deco, but also the extremely well packaged UEFA Cup (sorry, Europa League Trophy) as it arrived from Nyon in Switzerland. He hoped that the spotting of it was a good sign for him, for Chelsea, for all of us.

I had strolled into the Hilton too, just after the collection of the ticket, and used their wifi again. There were UEFA signs everywhere. I was half-hoping to bump into a famous player from the past, but I saw nobody of note. But you can just imagine what high-level schmoozing had been happening in this building over the past few days. Of course there had been much wailing about the decision to reward Azerbaijan with this year’s final. I have tried to be as objective as possible. Isn’t it right that every member nation within UEFA should host a major final at least once in their existence?

Er, yes.

But then it gets cloudy. I have always advocated the placing of the major finals to be within a central area of Europe, with the majority of host cities to run from Lisbon and Porto in the west to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and up as far as Copenhagen or Stockholm in the north, down through to Warsaw to Budapest in the east and down as far as Rome and Naples in the south. Ninety-five percent of likely finalists would be encompassed within that area. With the emergence of formerly Soviet states and the splintered Balkan states, maybe the odd and occasional flit – as has happened – to Istanbul, Kiev and Moscow.

But Baku?

It is the most easterly outpost of UEFA, not taking into the vast hinterland of Russia which lies east of Moscow.

It always was a mad decision.

But it was all about money, wasn’t it? It was all about Baku fancying itself as a Dubai on the Caspian Sea – oil rich and eager to impress on the global stage –  and UEFA went hand-in-hand with it all. The final straw was UEFA’s awful explanation for the awarding of so few tickets to the finalists. They themselves admitted that it would be a ridiculously difficult place for most fans to reach. It is enough to make anyone want to cry. UEFA might be financially rich but they are morally bankrupt.

I took some photos of the huge Azerbaijan flag which fluttering away like a flame. Its colours are horizontal bars of green, red and blue. Although the colours represent Islam, progress and its Turkic heritage – thank you Wikipedia – my take on it is this.

Blue – sky

Red – fire

Green – earth

In footballing terms, I found it easy to work it all out.

Blue – Chelsea – above red – Arsenal – above green – the pitch.

Sorted.

Back at the hotel, a quick freshen up and out again.

I had, unremarkably, not thought too much about the game at all. The match would take care of itself. If pressed, I would say that we were slight if not firm favourites. There certainly wasn’t the fear of Munich in 2012. The vibe matched that of Stockholm in 1998 and Amsterdam in 2013. I was quietly confident.

The game was at 11pm, and I hit “The Shakespeare” at 7pm. I took it easy. I had enjoyed a few “cokes” during the day. I only had three beers before the game. I had a wry smile at the sight of a few working girls trying to muster up some business in the pub. On the night of a European Cup Final, with the kick-off approaching, they had surely miss-read their customer base? The crowds started drifting towards the stadium. About ten of us – all together, looking after each other – walked the fifteen minutes to Sahil metro station. We were on our way.

Wednesday 29 May : 10pm – Koroghlu Metro Station, Baku.

Out into the warm Baku night, and the stadium, burning with the orange and yellow hues of UEFA’s newest trophy just a few hundred yards ahead, we walked on. There were Arsenal voices and Chelsea voices now. The most voluble ones were from the UK. But of course there were other fans from near and far too. And I began to notice other club shirts. I had seen one or two Eintracht Frankfurt shirts in the city; it was obvious many had gambled, like me, but had lost. But there were Galatasary and Fenerbahce shirts. There were Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona shirts. There were shirts from the local Azerbaijani league. It was all very strange. I walked on, but then excused myself from the others as I tried to capture a few photos of the stadium’s striking exterior. Just eighteen months previously, the stadium’s shell was more delicately coloured with shades of pink, lavender, red, purple and white. On that night, I circumnavigated the stadium alone and took some photos too. I am nothing if not a creature of habit.

Who should walk past me but Orlin, who I had bumped into the previous day just outside my hotel in the old city. It was typical of the week that I would keep seeing the same faces. In addition to the girl with no name, I also kept bumping into a local who I had asked for directions while looking for my hotel, and also a policeman who kept appearing near my hotel. I called them my guardian angels. Orlin had taken the free bus from the muster point near Sahil Park, but had been dropped off a good fifteen-minute walk away from the stadium. He was far from impressed. I think our choice of the metro – free for three days with use of a match ticket – was the better option.

The photographs continued.

Wednesday 29 May : 11pm – Section 114, Row 20, Seat 29, Olympic Stadium, Baku.

I had reached my seat with about fifteen minutes to go. On the pitch, the last few moments of a quite inappropriate musical sequence were taking place. It was all very “Superbowl” and all very tedious. Where is my “go to” comment about modern football? Ah, there it is.

I hate modern football.

The booming noise emanating from the speakers meant that there was simply no point in us even attempting any Chelsea songs and chants. It seemed that the event was bigger than us, far bigger. It felt like we were just pawns rather than kings. I looked around the stadium. There were empty seats everywhere. I glanced over at the Arsenal section. The thin sliver was pretty packed apart from a half-full upper deck, not too far from where we had watched the Qarabag game – getting increasingly colder – not so long ago. There was a mixture of fans in jeans and shorts. It was a warm night and very pleasant, despite the late kick-off slot. I spotted a few familiar faces. Kev from Port Talbot – one of those on the two Thomas Cook flights from Luton – was down below me. Kisses and handshakes for the “Bristol lot” as they walked past me. I had chosen the most expensive seat available – as had many people I know by the look of it – and I was rewarded with a seat in line with the goal line. It would prove to be a treasure, a gift from the footballing Gods.

Fireworks on the pitch and from atop the stand.

The pre-match paraphernalia was cleared away.

Through the smoke of the fireworks, I was just able to take a photograph of the teams on the far side.

Phew. Here it is then.

My game number fifty-six, from Australia to Azerbaijan.

The team was not a surprise, but we were of course greatly relieved to see N’Golo Kante starting. Emerson and not Alonso, a big game for the lad. Giroud upfront, good. Pedro instead of Willian.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

For Arsenal, I was only interested to see if Petr Cech was playing.

He was.

Before the match, before the trip, I had been quite sincere with a prediction of a “0-0 then penalties”.

The game began and I had to make my first decision. Although the section to my left – behind the goal – was standing, most in my section were sat. I saw that Kev and Gary were stood a few rows in front, but it looked like I would be forced to sit. I felt terrible about sitting. It felt like I had lost the battle. I didn’t sit in Stockholm, nor Moscow, nor Munich, nor Amsterdam. I glanced across at the Arsenal section. They all seemed to be standing.

Bollocks.

Not long into the game, I saw a chap wearing a black Manchester United jersey file past me and I could not resist a few words of abuse. In front of me was a bloke in a Galatasaray shirt. To my right, no more than ten seats away, was a bloke in an Arsenal shirt.

Fucking hell.

What has this become?

And how on Earth had these fools managed to get tickets in the 6,000 Chelsea section? I would really love to know that.

A large stadium that was barely two-thirds full. Other team supporters sitting in our section. Chelsea supporters from the UK split up over three tiers. Chelsea fans sitting. Hardly any noise, nor songs, nor chants, nor laughter, nor atmosphere. Because of the factors mentioned, it was a truly agonising first-half. It was horrible. It was one of the worst halves of my footballing life. It was a totally shameful atmosphere. It honestly felt like a summer tour game in the US or Thailand or Australia. I will be honest, the pre-season game against Arsenal in Beijing in 2017 was way louder.

The word “surreal” does not do it justice.

Many times during the first forty-five minutes, I felt that this was the end of the road for me. It was that upsetting.

On the pitch, it was a very quiet start, with lots of shadow boxing. Arsenal had more possession, though, and Aubameyang’s shot flashed wide of Kepa’s post after ten minutes. There were general mutterings of unrest in the seats around me as Arsenal continued to dominate. However, a penalty appeal involving Lacazette as he lept over Kepa never looked like resulting in a penalty, despite the audible howls from the Arsenal section. In that first-half, I could discern a few chants from that end. Our end seemed to be ball watching, not involved, distant. Slowly, Chelsea woke up and began to get involved. Kante, who had worried me in the first quarter of the game with a few odd errors, broke down the right and his cross towards the near post towards Giroud had us on our feet. sadly, the Frenchmen’s feet got tangled and the chance was lost. Pedro had been free just behind him.

Xhaka struck a very fine effort towards goal, and the rising drive clipped the top of our bar.

At last the game was evolving, slowly, into a final worthy of the name.

But still there was hardly any noise anywhere.

Emerson and Hazard were linking up well on the far side. Occasionally, Eden would wander over to the other flank. A turn, a spin and a twist would result in Arsenal defenders reaching for their sat nav. Emerson forced a block from Cech. With five minutes to go before half-time, a fine move involving Jorginho and Hazard ended with the ball at Giroud’s feet. He pushed the ball into space and shot low with his left foot – not a clean strike – but Cech was able to drop to his left and push the ball around the post.

I met up with Kev and Gary at half-time and we formed “The Baku Half-Time Moaners Club.”

You can imagine our chat. Back at my seat, I wondered if we were in for another second-half implosion, our motif of the whole season.

Thursday 30 May : Midnight – Section 114, Row 20, Seat 29, Olympic Stadium, Baku.

The second-half began with Kovacic and Giroud in the centre-circle. A push of the ball backwards and we were away again. Eden was immediately a live-wire and he seemed to suddenly have more space than before. After just five minutes, the ball was played to Emerson, not so far away from me, about ten yards in from the touchline. I snapped my camera as he struck a cross towards the waiting Giroud. The ball was waist high and our striker fell to his knees to meet it, some fifteen yards out, reaching the flight of the ball just before Koscielny could react. His header was perfection. I watched as it flew low into the corner of the net past Cech’s hopeless dive.

Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

My camera did not capture the header but although I was boiling over inside, I remained calm enough to capture the scorer drop to his knees and point both forefingers to the skies, eyes closed. Giroud had found his footballing nirvana.

Section 114 was going doolally.

Team mates swarmed around. Some dropped to their knees too. A kiss from Jorginho for Emerson, the supplier of the killer cross. Photos taken, I was able to punch the air and scream and shout.

GET IN.

It was the Frenchman’s eleventh goal in Europe this year. Thoughts of him being a former Arsenal player fizzed through my mind.

Ha.

It was all Chelsea now. Prompted by Jorginho, Kovacic and Hazard ran at the troubled Arsenal rear guard. The Chelsea section, on life-support in the first-half, was now roaring back to life. And for the rest of the game I stood. This was more like it, Chelsea. Then minutes after the first goal, Hazard was allowed too much time and space in the Arsenal final third – “table for one, sir?” – and spotted Pedro lurking on the edge of the box. He rolled the ball square. Pedro clipped it in.

FUCKINGGETINYOUBASTARD.

More photographs of pure delirium.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

Pete suddenly appeared next to me, holding two plastic glasses of “Amstel.”

“Let’s have a sip mate.”

“Have it, Chris.”

“Top man.”

Lager never tasted sweeter. I gulped my pint down pronto. I had to, since I was worried about missing another goal and another photo. My very next photo was of Pedro holding off a challenge in the “D”, the next was of him pushing the ball through to Giroud, the next the challenge by Maitland-Niles.

Snap, snap, snap.

A penalty to Chelsea.

COME ON!

The mood in our section was now of euphoria.

But we waited and waited.

Eden Hazard vs. Peter Cech, team mates from 2012 to 2015, squared-up against each other.

Eden drilled it home.

Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

“Smelling salts please nurse.”

The bloke in front of me commented “your voice has gone” and I smiled. I felt like saying “that is because I have been singing all second-half unlike you, you twat” but I felt better of it. The two gents to my immediate right – from the UK, dressed in the monstrosity of next season’s home shirt – hardly sang all night. Why do these people fucking bother?

Four minutes later, the substitute Iwobi unleashed a fierce rising volley – I was right behind the flight of the ball, it was a stunner – that flew into our goal.

“Great goal” I said, completely seriously.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 1.

Yet only three minutes later, a wonderful break from Chelsea saw Hazard exchange passes with Giroud in the box – the lofted “dink” from Giroud was world class, the highlight of the match for me – and this allowed Eden to smash the ball home.

We roared again.

Chelsea 4 Arsenal 1.

I photographed the immediate aftermath. I knew straight away that my photo of Hazard, arms spread, and Cech, crestfallen, was a winner. That £121 seat was paying dividends alright. Only from that vantage point could I have taken that photo. I was a happy man.

There was a song for Gianfranco Zola and he responded with a wave from the bench.

In the last part of the game, Maurizio Sarri made some changes. Just before our fourth goal, Willian replaced Pedro. Then Ross Barkley came on for Kovacic. Willian twice went close with efforts, Cech saved from Hazard. Eden was then fouled, he looked injured, and he was substituted. I captured virtually every step of his last few seconds as a Chelsea player. A hug from Willian, an embrace from Giroud.

The last step.

Snap.

Eden was replaced by Davide Zappacosta.

With the local time at 00.50am, the referee from Italy blew the final whistle.

We had only bloody won it.

Thursday 30 May : 1.30am – Section 114, Row 20, Seat 29, Olympic Stadium, Baku.

The cup was lifted at 1.05am. There was no Wembley-style ascent to a balcony that happened in Munich and Amsterdam, but the same on-the-pitch presentation of Stockholm. Dave and Gary – how English, like two van drivers – lifted the iconic trophy. It really is a beauty. Dave then spent the next twenty minutes kissing the trophy and I was tempted to shout “get a room.” These were joyous times in deepest Baku.

4-1.

Bloody hell.

We usually squeak by in Cup Finals. Four bloody one. Unbelievable. We heard that Eden was, quite rightly, the man of the match. They all played well. Special mentions for Kovacic, Jorginho, and even David Luiz did well. I just bathed in the glory of it all. These nights do not come around too often. After that odd first-half, in which we gradually became stronger, we just exploded in the second-half. We were afforded so much space in the middle of the pitch and in the attacking third. Jorginho was in the middle of all of it, and once balls were released to our runners, I could not believe the ease with which we found each other. Arsenal seemed unwilling to challenge, or – to be blunt – even compete. At times we were miles too good for them. Maybe, here in Baku, almost three thousand miles from home, we had seen the season’s high water mark of our beleaguered manager’s playing style.

Regardless, the European trophy was our’s.

It now stood at five.

1971 : Athens.

1998 : Stockholm.

2012 : Munich.

2013 : Amsterdam.

2019 : Baku.

“Our biggest-ever Cup Final win.”

“And Arsenal don’t get Champions League football next season.”

“What a second-half.”

In my mind I was thinking all sorts of odd things.

…”bloody hell, I have never seen Chelsea play in Ipswich, but I have seen us play in Baku twice.”

…”God, that first-half was awful, though.”

…”thinking of Parky and PD and Gal and Al and Glenn and Daryl and Ed.”

…”we always score four in Baku.”

…”God, how many photos am I going to have to sift through from that game?”

I took blissful snaps of Kev and Gary, Dave, Leigh and JD.

Everyone smiling.

At last the players walked over to the Chelsea section. They massed by the curving area behind the goal then – again, so lucky – chose to hoist the cup once more right in front of myself and others in section 114. I was a lucky man once more. It will surprise nobody to hear that I was one of the last out of the stadium. At 1.30am, I took a single photograph of my seat in Baku and collected my, unused, souvenir flag, and stuffed it in my camera bag. I made my way to the exits, I was a happy man.

Incidentally, the attendance would be announced as 51,000 in a 67,000 capacity stadium.

A ridiculous figure really. It should have been packed to the rafters.

However, chew on this. At Liverpool’s first-ever European Cup Final in Rome in 1977, involving Borussia Mönchengladbach, the attendance was just 52,000 in a 65,000 stadium.

Thursday 30 May : 5am – The William Shakespeare, Baku.

Outside the stadium, Steve came bounding over.

“I told you seeing the cup at The Hilton was a sign.”

We hugged.

I met up with Calvin, who had just been separated from his father, at the long line for the metro. I had been on my feet for a couple of hours and I was starting to tire. Calvin was good company on that painful journey back in to town. Just like in Munich, I think  I was on the last train. In 2017, it was a much easier – and quicker – journey. On that day, with tickets more keenly priced – ours were £4.50 – over 67,000 attended. Crucially, though, we were well ahead at half-time and many left early. But tonight, damn, the movement out and onto the tube took forever.

At about 2.30am, we flopped on the red line into town. We scowled at a lad who was wearing both a Liverpool shirt and scarf.

“Prick.”

We hit all the stations.

Koroglu.

Ulduz.

Narimanov.

Ganclik.

28 May.

Sahil.

Exhausted, we plodded back to Chelsea Central; we reached “The Shakespeare” at about 3am. Back with all the people that I had met over the past few days, this was a magical time. Drinks were consumed, songs were sung, all the old favourites. I loved a Jam and then a Style Council segment at about 4am.

“I was half in mind I was half in need
And as the rain came down I dropped to my knees and I prayed.
I said “oh heavenly thing please cleanse my soul
I’ve seen all on offer and I’m not impressed at all.”

I was halfway home I was half insane
And every shop window I looked in just looked the same.
I said send me a sign to save my life
‘Cause at this moment in time there is nothing certain in these days of mine.

We see, it’s a frightening thing when it dawns upon you
That I know as much as the day I was born
And though I wasn’t asked (I might as well stay)
And promise myself each and every day that is

That when you’re knocked on your back an’ your life’s a flop
And when you’re down on the bottom there’s nothing else
But to shout to the top shout.
Well, we’re gonna shout to the top.”

I had not spotted Luke and Aroha since before the game and when I saw them enter the pub, I shouted over to them. This made the person next to me turn around to see who was shouting. Bloody hell, it was Orlin.

“Bloody hell man, how long have you been stood there?”

We crumpled with laughter. I then spotted Alex and Alan from Moscow, the first Chelsea that I had met on this trip way back in Istanbul. Everyone together. Just right. I did not want this night to end. There are photographs of these hours on the internet and they will become priceless reminders of “that night in Baku.” Eventually, the bar turfed us out at 6am.

“I could murder a McDonald’s Breakfast.”

It opened at 8am.

“Bollocks.”

I made do with my second hot dog of the trip on Fountain Square. I returned to the hotel, but my head was still buzzing. I uploaded some photographs from my camera to share on Facebook. I shared the one of Eden Hazard and Peter Cech on Instagram. I was just glad the wifi had decided to work. At 7.30am I was still chatting to pals all over the world. Eventually, I fell asleep.

Thursday 30 May : 8pm – Qazmac Restaurant, Old City, Baku.

I was out in the evening again, relaxing at my own pace in a lovely restaurant opposite where those antiquated huts used to stand on Kickik Qala. I had chosen a light salad and some mutton kebabs. The waiter suggested some bread – fine – but he also recommended some local butter and some caviar. I thought “why not, when in Rome.” Imagine my surprise when he brought out a sizeable pot of the stuff. I asked him “how much is that?” just at the exact moment that he pierced the top of the sealed container.

“Oh, it’s two hundred manat, sir.”

Gulp.

£100.

“Whooooah, hang on one minute, I’m not paying that.”

I remember having caviar – for the only time in my life – on a little French stick in Vienna in 1987. It was just a taste then, and I had visions of a very small portion this time too. I clearly wasn’t prepared to pay £100 for a great pot of the bloody stuff. Thankfully, the waiter understood and that was that. But I enjoyed my meal. It was wonderful. With a beer and some lovely ice-cream it came to £12.50. Superb. It had been a relaxing day. No surprises, I had slept well. As my father might have said of my bed in room 304, “it has a lot of sleep in it.”

My main objective on this day was to head over to visit the splendour of the Heydar Aliyev Centre. It was an hour’s walk – I was tempted, I Iove a good walk in a foreign city – but as my match ticket enabled me to travel for free on the city’s metro for one further day, I made use of it. Rain was spotting as walked up to Icarisharer tube, but it soon stopped. I spent an hour or so walking around the curves of the building. This structure was also featured in that TV programme about Baku. I felt as if I knew all about it. Sadly, as there was a concert taking place, I was unable to go inside. Along with a visit to the Palace of the Shirvanshahs in the old city, and that odd site of Yanar Dag to the north-east of the city where there is an eternal flame burning non-stop from natural gasses from deep inside the earth, it will have to wait until my next visit to Baku.

On the second day of my 2018/19 season, I found myself walking around the famous curves of the Sydney Opera House. On this second-from-last day of the season, here I was outside the equally sublime and beautiful curves of the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku.

Where next? The iconic lines of Preston Bus Station? Watch this space.

I loved it there. I loved the use of space. The undulating roof of the building is wonderful. And the whole structure sits on top of a gentle incline, and there is subtle use of grass and reflecting ponds. Typically, there was a large replica of the Europa League trophy at the base of the hill. It combined well with a “I Love Baku” sign. On this visit, the sky above was full of brilliantly fluffy clouds. Dotted around the grass lawns were odd concrete casts of snails and rabbits. It was like a surreal dream. It was bloody fantastic. It is no surprise that it is placed right on the main road into the city. It is surely Baku’s most stunning building.

To cap off another memorable day, I dived in to see a few pals – a couple of pints with Dave who was soon to be heading off to Kiev for one night – in “The Shakespeare” and made another trip down for some beers at “Harry’s Bar.” There were warm welcomes in both. I could hear some Arsenal chants from inside “The Red Lion.”

“Shit club no history.”

“Arsenal in Baku, this city is red.”

Yawn.

I’ll be honest. I bumped into two small parties of Arsenal that night – from Amersham, and then from Manchester – and they were fine. They were just so fed up with their team and their club.

Friday 31 May : 11.30am – Gobustan National Park.

On my last day in Baku, I was out on a half-day tour in a little mini-bus, to see the ancient cave etchings of the Gobustan National Park. I had booked this back in England. Imagine the look on my face when I saw Will and Noah waiting outside the travel agency.

“Of all the people we wanted to see. Hello, Chris.”

What a small world, eh? From a plane at Heathrow to a fifteen-seater in Baku. As I clambered aboard the mini-bus, who else should be on the vehicle but Margaret and Roy, two of the most loyal Chelsea supporters ever. They follow all of Chelsea’s teams, not just the first team like me, all over. I remember bumping into Roy at Bristol City’s training ground in around 2009 when we both watched a couple of Chelsea academy games on a Saturday morning. Again, what a small world. It was a four-hour trip. Alongside Will, Noah and myself was a chap called Tommy – an Arsenal supporter, from London – who turned out to be one of the most boring football supporters that I have ever met. I could not help bristling every time he referred to his team as “The Arsenal.” It is a pet hate of my good pal Alan too, and I thought of him every time I heard it. It did make me smile, though, when Tommy admitted to me “I wish we had Abramovich.”

Game. Set. Match.

The tour took us out on an hour drive to the south west of the city. The Gobustan stone carvings were quite fascinating, but it also gave me a chance to see a little of the scenery outside the city. There were oil rigs in the Caspian Sea and new houses being constructed alongside the roads. There was an abandoned Azerbaijani version of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa and an unappetising beach resort. There were oil, water and gas pipelines snaking over the arid landscape, and the inevitable oil refineries. Two companies dominate; BP and Socar. The tour guide was an interesting character; formerly an army captain, formerly an off-shore worker, and a hater of caviar. In his youth, caviar was cheaper than meat and his mother used to feed him it daily. He now can’t stand the stuff.

We were given a tour of the caves. At the end, he led us to the oldest carving of the morning.

“This one is seventeen thousand years old.”

I muttered to Will and Noah –

“Yeah, it depicts the Tottenham captain lifting their last league trophy.”

Friday 31 May : 7.30pm – Fountain Square, Baku.

After a meal in a pleasant restaurant – more salad, more kebabs – I was walking back through Fountain Square. I walked past a local father and son. I overheard the young boy mention Chelsea and Arsenal. I turned around and smiled. I intimated that I was Chelsea and gave the boy a thumbs up. The father explained –

“He wants to know of the history of Chelsea.”

I felt like stopping them, marching them into a café, sitting them down, turning on Google-translate, and entertaining them for three hours.

Later that evening, well aware that I had booked a cab to take me to the airport at 2am, I took it easy. There were some more photographs. I took around 1,750 over the week. My camera is my great companion on these trips around the world with Chelsea. There was time for an iconic shot of a roadside poster of the competing teams and UEFA logos right next to the historic, twelfth century Maiden Tower. Hopefully, another winner.

I sat next to some fountains in a little park on the main boulevard on the shore of the Caspian. I sat alone with my thoughts for many a minute.  I tried to take it all in. One moment touched me. A toddler reached out for her mother’s hand and they walked off together. It was a sweet moment, a lovely moment. I have no children and I do not generally harbour regrets. But this little moment obviously stirred me. At that moment, although not life-defining, I did ponder how different my life might have been had I become a father at some stage.

Would I still be in Baku?

Yes, probably.

Hopefully.

I made one last tour of my two favourite watering holes of the trip. I shared some laughs and some drinks – Cokes for me, I wanted to stay fresh – with Martin from Gloucester in “The Shakespeare” which was returning to some sort of normality after the recent madness.

After a quick visit to “Harry’s Bar”, I decided to head back to the hotel at about 11.30pm. The girl with no name raced after me after she saw me walking past “The Shakespeare.”

“When are you coming back?”

“Not sure, maybe when Chelsea play here again.”

“Have good livings.”

“You too, take care.”

And so, the trip was nearing its end.

I would indeed take a cab from the hotel to the Baku airport. There would be a 5am flight to Moscow, a two-and-a-half hour wait at the city’s Sheremetyevo Airport, another Aeroflot flight back to Heathrow. I would land early at just before midday on the Saturday morning and Russ would soon be there to meet me.

It would soon be all over; the trip, the travels, and the season.

Postcards From Baku

One last tale though, held over from Game One.

Tuesday 18 July : 6.00pm – Gulgong, New South Wales, Australia.

Glenn and I had spent three days in Sydney, and had picked up a car on the fourth day of the trip. We set off to see the Blue Mountains, stopping off at the windy town of Katoomba. We were headed later that afternoon towards Coonabarabran, a good four-hour drive. With the light just starting to fade a little, we made the wrong turning in an old-style outpost called Gulgong, and soon found ourselves on what is known in Australia as a corrugated road. It means that it is not tarmac, not asphalt, not concrete, not paved, but simply a dirt track that has become rutted through use. With the fuel tank showing a red light, I was starting to get a little agitated. I had visions of us running out of fuel on a farm track, miles from anywhere. The road conditions deteriorated a little. I was keen to head back to Gulgong, but Glenn was more gung-ho. After about twenty minutes of lonely driving, we spotted a chap – a farmer – on a quad bike, towing some sort of contraption, away to our right in a field full of alpacas. We slowed down and shouted over to him. He bounded over.

Glenn shouted out to him.

“We’re lost!”

The grizzled old farmer’s reply was wonderful.

“No you’re not. You’re here.”

Indeed, we were. His statement made us chuckle, but it reassured us. As long as he knew where we were, we were evidently not lost.

We were here.

Panic over.

And it has certainly seemed that, on many occasions this season that we – Chelsea Football Club in a very broad sense, but its supporters on various levels too – have been “lost.” It has felt like our journey was going nowhere. That we had no leadership at any level. That we were rudderless. And at times beyond hope.

But we were never lost.

We were a top six club, and would end up a top three club. At the end of it all, we would reach two cup finals. We would end up with silverware for the third consecutive season. We would end up with our fifteenth major trophy since 2000.

Altogether now.

Chelsea Four Arsenal One.

Chelsea Won Arsenal Lost.

See you next season.

 

Tales From Holloway Road

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 19 January 2019.

Chelsea together? Hardly. During and after this game, it certainly seemed like Chelsea divided. This is going to be another difficult one to write. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Looking ahead to the game at Arsenal, I always feared the worst. Bizarrely, I have positive vibes about the Tottenham game at Stamford Bridge on Thursday – don’t ask me why, football is not an exact science, I just have a hunch – whereas the Arsenal match filled me with dread. They were on the “up” – generally speaking – but we were stalling.

This was another 5.30pm game. Just two of us travelled up from the west of England for this one. I picked up PD at 10.30am, and we approached London via the “southerly” route of the A36, the A303 and the M3. I was at Barons Court at 1pm. On the drive up – the misty rain cleared, eventually – I mentioned to PD “I’ll take a draw, now.”

I spoke about how I had enjoyed the game against Tottenham in the League Cup at Wembley. It was a game that we had lost, but not without a fight. We had shown a great deal of vim and vigour – it surprised me to be honest – and I felt involved all of the way through. Conversely, the win at home to Newcastle United a few days after had left me cold. The performance was dull, the atmosphere worse. I had thus enjoyed a Chelsea loss, but not a win. What did I say about football not being an exact science?

We had been tipped off to make our way to a new boozer for this match. I have mentioned before how I loathe large and cavernous pubs. Therefore, I did not mind one iota that the huge “Shakespeare’s Head” at Holborn was thus swerved, and we headed instead for a much more intimate pub near Highbury & Islington station. After bumping into Alan and Gary, we set off. On the walk to this new destination, we spotted one pub called “The Library” and this raised a chuckle. We met up with Daryl, who was the first to arrive, and the pub looked like ticking all the boxes, although it was awkwardly borderline-hipster. There were high tables and craft ales, but no knobhead Arsenal fans, and we settled down for a good two hours of Chelsea chat and a few pints. It had been the venue that had hosted Madness, The Specials and The Stranglers in the dim and distant. I definitely approved.

At 4.45pm, we set off for The Emirates. We were walking up part of the A1, and this became Holloway Road at Highbury Corner. It brought back a fragile memory from 1983 when I attended an open day at the then North London Poly, before my “A Levels” and with thoughts of attending that particular institution for a three-year geography degree. On that day, I was well aware of how close the campus was to Highbury, Arsenal’s venerable stadium. Maybe it was the thought of spending three years in the shadow of Arsenal that resulted in me fucking up my “A Levels.”

There were no surprises at all with the team that Maurizio Sarri chose. There was neither room for Alvaro Morata, so shorn of confidence, nor Olivier Giroud, so lacking in playing time and also goals.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

I was inside with about five minutes to spare. There did not seem to be too many empty seats anywhere, unlike the last few months of the Wenger regime. I soon spotted two Chelsea supporters to my immediate left wearing the hated and infamous half-and-half scarves. I tut-tutted once again. You have to wonder about the mentality of some of our “fans”. Surely these people must know how we dislike these damned things. Many of my US fans acknowledge how ridiculous these scarves are. Surely nobody among our rank and file buys them. What I can’t understand is if a friendship scarf is purchased as a memento, why bloody wear it, and if it is worn, why not just show the Chelsea half? Virtually all friendship scarves are worn with both halves on show – both teams on show – draped vertically and limply around the neck. Don’t these people know how to tie a scarf?

It does my nut.

We were just a few rows back from the corner flag. In front of us several fans held up a banner –

“THANK YOU PETR – CHELSEA LEGEND.”

So, The Emirates. On many counts, a magnificent stadium, but on other counts it still leaves me cold.

Even though we knew that a win would put us a mighty nine points clear of our North London opponents, I was hardly going dizzy with the thought of that coming into fruition. I am nothing but a realist.

Up close, I realised how truly awful both kits were. Those flecks on our shirts and a very odd block of red on their jerseys.

Arsenal were like greyhounds out of the traps. It is some time since I have seen an opposing team create so many chances with such gusto in the first five, then ten minutes. We were suitably shell-shocked, and – for the want of a better footballing cliché – were chasing shadows. There were errors everywhere, with a wayward pass from David Luiz signalling the first of much wailing which took over the three-thousand loyalists in the south-eastern corner with growing regularity throughout the evening.

They were all over us like a bloody rash.

Shots and crosses rained in on us. Aubameyang shot wide from close in, then Sokratis headed wide from point blank range. Kepa was rather lucky to see a header from Koscielny hit him on the chest. In the midst of all this Arsenal pressure, a meek shot on a rare attack from Eden Hazard did not test the Arsenal ‘keeper Bernd Leno.

On fourteen minutes, a corner on the far side was worked to the menacing Lacazette, who danced past a ridiculously half-hearted challenge from Marcos Alonso, and from a tight angle, the ball was lashed high into the net, beating Kepa at the near post.

Fuck.

Kepa then managed to block an effort from Aubameyang. This was hurting.

But I have to say the noise levels at the Emirates were poor. Despite their lead, the home fans hardly raised the roof. Our support was sporadic at best. There were more groans and grumbles and moans and mumbles from us than a defiant wall of noise.

Then, out of nowhere, a sublime long ball from David Luiz to Pedro – a replica of sorts of the first goal against the Geordies last week – but Peds’ chip dropped just outside the frame of the goal. To be honest, we enjoyed a little resurgence, but this was relative. In the first twenty minutes, we had been merely spectators. There appeared to be an abundance of space on our right which we continually failed to take advantage of. That man Aubameyang went close with an acrobatic flourish, and this was a hint of further damage. A ball was played into our box with too much ease and Koscielny jumped at the ball, and we watched as the ball looped up and over Kepa.

Fuck.

Again, a roar from the home fans, but they then went back to knitting, playing with their I-Pads, and lining up for half-time coffees.

By now, the mood in our section was rife with shouts and screams at players and manager alike.

Jorginho – never flavour of the month at Chelsea right now – was getting pelters from many.

Two chaps to my left were heavy on criticism, but not so eager to sing and shout in support of the team.

Willian was the centre of attention for one of them.

I had to speak out again, just like at Spurs in November.

“He’s not a cunt though, is he, mate?”

Just before Anthony Taylor blew up for half-time, a Willian header was met full on by a leap from Marcos Alonso which edged against the far post and went off for a goal kick.

It had been a grim old half of football.

At half-time, I wandered around the concourse for a few minutes, almost punch drunk from the onslaught that we had suffered in the first opening period, and spoke to more than a couple of good Chelsea people. A common line was “bloody hell, we could be 4-0 down” – or maybe more. None of us were relishing the second forty-five minutes. But I shuffled back to my standing position next to PD, Gal and Alan in row seven, and waited for the Arsenal players to join up with the Chelsea players who had been sent out of the dressing room early.

If nothing else, in the second-half at least we stemmed the flow of goals. But it was another frustrating forty-five minutes. At no stage was I confident that we would even score one goal. N’Golo Kante was his usual self, or rather his usual 2018/19 self and effectively this means several notches below his 2016/17 self and his 2017/18 self. Eden Hazard looked disinterested at times. Mateo Kovacic huffed and puffed but did little to change things. Pedro was keen and full of running, but often by himself and without runners alongside him. It was Peds who had an early chance from a set up by Willian on the left in front of us, but he skied it with his shin.

Mateo Kovacic was replaced by Ross Barkley.

Altogether now “like for like.”

But nobody liked this.

Why not bring on Olivier Giroud? Answers on a postcard.

What upset me most was that we were not creating space off the ball. Too often we were loath to lose our markers, and create a little pocket of space for a positive pass. We kept moving the ball around and Arsenal surprisingly let us play. The home team were well on top. They defended in a great shape and were first to too many fifty-fifties. I was slightly surprised that they did not push on and endeavour to score more goals, but I have an inkling that they wanted us to have the ball and stifle ourselves, rather than let us have space to counter.

It’s a rum old state of affairs when the opposing manager knows our strengths and weaknesses, and not our own manager.

At last the manager introduced Giroud, who came on for the poor Willian.

We were still shot-shy. The moans increased. Only occasionally was there a sustained chant from the away crowd.

Pass, pass, an Arsenal tackle.

Pass, pass, an Arsenal block.

When we were within shooting distance, I kept shouting “buy a raffle ticket!”

The ball was being moved along the same lines, between the same players.

In a cartoon chase, remember how the background was repeated every few seconds?

A tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate, a tree, a telegraph pole, a shed, a rock, a fence, a gate.

At the Emirates, the ball saw the same players ad infinitum.

Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Hazard, Pedro, Barkley, Kante, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso.

The bloke in front of me shouted “shoot!” and a voice behind him whispered “shoot the fucking manager.”

Ah, the manager. Do we give him the benefit of a massive amount of doubt and wait until he gets his players in during the summer? We should do, right? We would plead for time on any other occasion. But it grates with me that for all of his fanciful philosophy, I would love to see him adapt to his current squad and arrange his team to the benefit of our stars, no names and no pack drill.

At last Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced Pedro wide on the right but he was not really involved too much. It was more of the same, more of the same, is anyone bored yet?

I said to PD “I bloody hope their ‘keeper isn’t on piece work. He hasn’t made a save.”

As if to prove the ineptness of our play, substitute Giroud swung and missed when only ten yards out.

Fackinell, Chelsea.

To be fair to ourselves, I was really pleased – and proud – that very few of our support left until the last five or ten minutes, and even then it was a trickle and not a rush. There was a mighty six minutes of extra time but I had decided that we would not score in a month of Saturdays and Sundays and packed my camera and lenses away for the day. At the final whistle, we were put out of our misery.

And it had been a dire performance.

We shuffled out.

PD and I decided to wait for the queues to die down and so we popped into a Chinese restaurant on Holloway Road for a bite to eat. The food was good, but the conversation soon dried up. We were now only three points ahead of the twin threats of Arsenal and Manchester United, with many a tough game on the horizon. As we made our way across London – due south, then due west – we heard that the manager had publicly lambasted his players, which surprised me.

“Keep all that in house, Sarri.”

There was talk of the current squad being unresponsive to his ideas.

I wonder if a common response from any one of our players might be this –

“What have you won? We’ve won the league twice in four years. You dress like a regular at William Hill and you eat cigarettes.”

On Thursday, we have to fucking beat Tottenham.

See you there.

Tales From Hammersmith Bridge To Stamford Bridge

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 18 August 2018.

Even though I had set my Saturday morning “first home game of the season” alarm as early as 6.30am, and even though I caught the first of two trains to take us up to Paddington from Frome station at 8.07am and although I left the last of four pubs that we chose to visit at just before 5pm, I still managed to miss the bloody kick-off.

That takes some doing, eh?

It would, if I was pressed, be something that I might term “Proper Chelsea.”

I remember that even on our greatest night in our history, I still only arrived at my seat in the Nord Kurv of Munich’s Allianz Stadium with barely more than five minutes to go until kick-off.

I usually manage to time it just right, often slipping into my seat a few minutes before the teams enter the pitch. Not on this occasion. There had been another fantastic pre-match pub crawl, but then a little delay at Earl’s Court, and then again as we climbed the steps at Fulham Broadway, when tempers ran a little high between both sets of fans. At just before 5.30pm, I grabbed a programme, shook Kerry Dixon’s hand outside the West Stand – he appeared to be in just as much a rush as I was – and made my way up to the Matthew Harding Wraparound.

Just after kick-off, I was in.

I had missed the pre-game show. Alan showed me the banner that had surfed over the supporters in The Shed Upper, a celebration of Roman’s fifteen years in charge and of the fifteen major trophies within that time span.

Other teams – no names, no pack drill – could only dream of such success.

I was back at Stamford Bridge for my forty-fifth season of match-going Chelsea support.

And it felt great.

As always, there was a quick scan of the Chelsea team – “same as at Huddersfield” – and a scan of the away support – “same as always Arsenal, more than the usual amount of replica shirts in their three thousand compared to, say, Spurs or West Ham.”

The ridiculous “Thrilling Since 1905” had thankfully disappeared from the signage at Stamford Bridge.

We were left with “The Pride Of London” and I can’t find fault with that.

I had mentioned to Glenn on the train journey to London that I fancied a Chelsea win. There was no real scientific theory behind this – the season is far too early for any real prognosis of our overall chances just yet – but I just had this feeling that we would be sending Arsenal away with their second successive league defeat of the season. The morning train ride into London had been a real pleasure. There were thoughts of the game, but also – of course – thoughts of meeting up with some good Chelsea people along the way too.

After a breakfast on Praed Street, we caught a train down to Hammersmith. Not for the first time, we had planned a pub crawl by the side of the River Thames. At just after midday, we met up with Kim and Dan, then settled in at The Old City Arms, right on Hammersmith Bridge, its green wrought iron just outside the pub windows. Andy and Phil joined us, and then Dave. The counties of Somerset, Wiltshire, Kent and Northampton shire were represented.

And we were then joined by the state of Michigan.

Erica and Victor – on a whirlwind European tour including a wedding (not theirs I hasten to add) in Frankfurt, and quick visits to Valencia and Paris – were in town for Chelsea and Chelsea only. I had met them both in Ann Arbor for the Chelsea vs. Real Madrid game in 2016 and we had stayed in touch ever since, and especially since they told me of their imminent visit to these shores. It was a pleasure to welcome them to our little tour party. In a week when La Liga announced its intention to play regular season games in the United States in the near future, it was fitting that Erica and Victor, bless ‘em, had travelled over land and sea to London to watch us. Another friend, Russ – who I had met for the first time in Perth in the summer – was also in town especially for Chelsea from his home in Melbourne.

And this is the way it should be.

For those of you who have been reading these match reports the past ten years, my views on all of this are well known. Like many Chelsea supporters in the UK – and I am basing this on those who I know, who are mainly match-goers, I don’t know many Chelsea who do not go to football – the idea of Chelsea playing a league game outside of our national, and natural, borders both saddens and repulses me.

My message is crisp and clear.

“You want to want to watch English football?”

“That’s great. Come to England.”

Of course, Richard Scudamore and his money-chasers at the Football Association originally proposed the “39th Game” in 2008, and – thankfully – the idea was shot down in flames by supporter groups the length and breadth of the country. This cheered me no end. I felt that the football community had said “no” in a forceful and coherent way. Of course, since then, all manner of US regular league games have been played out in the UK – er London, does any other English city exist in the minds of the average American? – and with each passing NBA and NFL game which takes place in our capital city, my spirits weaken. I have no doubt that the FA look on and rub their hands with glee. It will surprise nobody, I hope, to know that I am already boycotting the New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox baseball series at The Oval next June.

It would not feel right for me to attend. That’s just my personal choice. I’ve seen the Yankees play thirty times in The Bronx and nine times on the road. But the thought of seeing the Yankees playing in some sort of ersatz environment (I dread to think, I dread to think…) does nothing for me, and it would be supremely hypocritical.

Major League Baseball got the ball rolling with this concept – “sporting colonialism” – around twenty years ago with regular season games in Japan and then Mexico. It has been the American way. I made the point to Erica and Victor that US teams seem to hop around from one city to another at the drop of a hat (or at the hint of a new stadium), and so there seems to be an immediate disconnect between teams and supporters. There is an ambivalence to the fans. I do not seem to see too many NFL season ticket holders, for example, in the US campaigning against the loss of home games to London.

In England and in the UK, supporters are a lot more tribal, more political, more strident, and I bloody hope it continues.

My secret wish is that a couple of our football clubs – let’s name names, Liverpool and Manchester United – who have very politicised support bases and pressure groups (“The Spirit Of Shankly” and the “Manchester United Supporters Trust” to name two) will lead the way in fighting against any new proposals for “overseas games.”

I have always said that if the FA, and if Chelsea are implicit in their plans, decide to play a regular season game outside of England and Wales, then that will be the last straw for me.

An idle threat?

I am not sure. It would be a heart-breaking decision for me to turn my back on the love of my life, but nobody enjoys getting the piss taken out of them.

We will wait and see.

Down on the River Thames, we hopped from The Old City Arms to The Blue Anchor and then to The Rutland.

The pints were, of course, going down rather well. The time raced past.

Erica and Victor were staying near Earl’s Court, and they had tried to pop into a local pub during the morning. From their story, I believe that the pub was “The Courtfield”, which stands right opposite the tube station, and is one of the main “away” pubs at Chelsea. Victor was wearing a 2010/2011 home shirt, and he was advised by a policeman to avoid going in to the boozer as it was full of Arsenal. This totally shocked Erica and Victor. In the US, home and away fans in team colours mix easily and freely outside stadia and in nearby pubs. The cultural differences between sport in the UK and the US were spoken about once more. Victor, forced into a corner somewhat and maybe fearing all sorts of mayhem at Stamford Bridge, chose to wear a grey pullover over the Chelsea shirt instead.

There then ensued a little chat with Erica and Victor about “the cult with no name” and our ongoing predilection for designer clobber at football. As we stood overlooking the River Thames, watching rowers and paddle boarders, I gave the two visitors a crash course in the casual movement from 1977 to date. I looked over at the lads in our tour party and, quite fittingly, everyone was wearing football schmutter. In fact, we could not have been more colour-coordinated. But not a single Chelsea shirt, scarf or favour, save from a couple of very small pin badges.

“Less is more.”

But I then commented to Erica that if any other football fan – “in the know” as we say – were to walk past, they would immediately know that we were all going to football.

More beers, more stories, more Tales From The Riverside.

The idea was to head up to “The Dove” – the best pub of the lot – but time was against us. We caught the tube to West Kensington, and dived into “The Famous Three Kings” which was awash with Juventus Club Londra fans watching their game against Chievo.

I could not resist.

“Forza Juve, Vinci Per Noi.”

So, that was the pre-match. The big thrill for me was to see Erica and Victor enjoying themselves so much, and sharing jokes and laughter with my mates. In the four hours that they were with us, they sampled a great range of alcohol too; cider, bitter, lager, “Guinness”, and even a “Pimms”.

I hope they remembered the match.

In the opening salvos of the game, honours were pretty even. A couple of chances for us, and a couple for them. David Luiz, wearing plain black boots – weirdo – tried to lob Cech, but was unsuccessful. Thankfully, we did not have too long to wait. A beautifully weighted through ball from Jorginho picked out the run of Marcos Alonso down our left. He soon spotted the figure of Pedro to his right, in oodles of space, and his pass was perfection itself. Right in front of the Arsenal support, Pedro slipped a low ball past Petr Cech, the man in black.

One-nil to The Chelsea.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

I admired the touch and movement of Ross Barkley in the first moments of the game. He seems to have grown in stature over the summer; in self-confidence, in presence. He may yet be a fantastic buy. I always liked him in his first few seasons at Everton.

Aubameyang forced a save from Kepa Arrizabalaga.

I’ll just call him “Save.”

Then, a ridiculously easy chance for Aubameyang again, but he ballooned the ball over from a very central position. Our defence, it seemed, had not been introduced to each other before the game. Then, another rapid break into the Arsenal half. A long ball from Dave was played beyond the Arsenal line and Alvaro Morata was able to race away, twist past his marker and wrong foot Peter Cech. His finish looked easier than it was. He raced away to Parkyville and wildly celebrated.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

I must admit that I found it odd to see N’Golo Kante in a more forward position; it is a role that we are not used to see. How often have we seen him over the past two seasons patrolling that central section of the park, and causing a massive hindrance to opposing players? It is his role, his position.

On his day, he gets as close to his opponent as a wet shower curtain.

And now, within the manager’s new plan, he is asked to change his game, and I am not sure if we will see the best of him. In our old system of 3/4/3, I would imagine that a midfield “two” of Jorginho and Kante would have been ideal. But what do I know?

Next, another gilt-edged chance for Arsenal but another line fluffed. Mkhitarian repeated Aubameyang and the ball flew high over our bar.

“Phew.”

This was open a game as I had seen for a while.

Maurizio Sarri, bedecked in head to toe royal blue, was not as animated as the previous manager, but he studiously watched from the technical area and the bench. If you squint, and think “sepia”, he looks a little like Billy Birrell, our spectacled manager from both sides of the Second World War.

Morata forced a save from Cech.

While my concentration was devoted to demolishing a chicken katsu pie, its contents as hot as molten lava, I looked on as Mkhitarian popped a low shot past Arrizabalaga from outside the box after we gave up possession rather too easily. Then, horror upon horrors, a ball was whipped in from our left and Iwobi struck from close-in. Our defenders were not even close. It reminded me of the low crosses from which Manchester United often used to punish us twenty years or so ago.

So, all even at the break and many a scratched head in the Matthew Harding.

I popped down for a very brief chat with Big John in the front row.

“So, if we play a league game in the US, is that it for you, John?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

“It’s a pact then.”

We laughed.

The second-half began. With us attacking the Matthew Harding, the play stagnated a little. Ross Barkley broke through but Cech saved well. We needed an extra push. On the hour, Sarri decided to shake things up.

Mateo Kovacic for Ross Barkley (a shame, I though Barkley had been fine) and Eden Hazard for Willian.

We were treated, almost immediately, to some pure sparkle from Eden Hazard. He immediately looked the part. Mateo Kovacic instantly impressed too. In fact, I can rarely remember a more impressive home debut as a second-half substitute, Joe Allon excepted (you had to be there.)

He was all energy, full of movement, skillful in tight areas, and a lovely awareness of others.

OK, I was joking about Joe Allon.

Marcos Alonso and Eden Hazard lined up alongside David Luiz as a free-kick was awarded, but the Brazilian’s effort was saved by Cech.

On seventy-five minutes, Olivier Giroud replaced Alvaro Morata.

We seemed to tighten our grip on the game.

A chance for N’Golo. Over.

Throughout the game, Alan – bless him – had been tough on the defensive frailties of Marcos Alonso, who had often been caught out of position or ball-watching. With ten minutes remaining, an exquisite burst from Eden Hazard enabled him to drift easily past his marker and drill a low cross right into the box. Who else but Alonso arrived just at the right time to flick the ball through Peter Cech’s legs.

“Nuts.”

The Stamford Bridge crowd erupted as one. I jumped up and punched the air, then quickly looked back at Alan and we found ourselves smiling and pointing at one another.

The joy of the moment.

A late winner.

Against Arsenal.

Marcos Alonso.

Fackinell.

We were, believe it or not, top of the league.

We exchanged a few last chances but Arsenal disappeared off into the West London evening with no points in their first two games under their new manager. Yes, we had ridden our luck in the first-half, but thank heavens for Eden Hazard. Arsenal do not have anyone like him, and nor do many others. Let’s keep him for life.

We began the day with a breakfast at Praed Street and we finished it with an Indian on Praed Street.

We caught the 9.30pm train home, and the beers had taken their toll over the day, and a couple of us, ahem, rested our eyes.

We finally reached Frome at midnight.

It had been a top day.

See you at Newcastle next Sunday.

Tales From Two Halves

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 24 January 2018.

It has taken me a while to realise it, but I have an aversion to large and impersonal pubs. From now on, I am going out of my way to avoid them. The prices of the ales, ciders and lagers might be cheaper at a “Wetherspoons”, “Walkabout” or a “Yates”, but everything else about them leaves me cold. Many are on the site of former large shops and banks. Many of these “super pubs” are blandness personified; rectangular voids with no charm and no fun. And I realise that we have frequented a few of them in recent seasons; “The Moon Under Water” in Watford, “The Shakespeare’s Head” for Arsenal, “The Admiral of The Humber” in Hull, “The Thomas Frost” at Everton. The list goes on. I’m not a fan. So it was with a bounce in my step that I ascended the steps at Piccadilly Circus tube station at around 5.30pm. I had completed my homework and had hand-picked a traditional London pub for our pre-match drinks for the League Cup semi-final against Arsenal. Three weeks ago, we had alighted at the same stop and chosen “The Duke’s Head” on Denman Street. This time, we walked a minute further up Sherwood Street and turned into “The Crown.” It immediately took my fancy; busy, dark, a little cramped, but full of atmosphere and with attentive bar staff. We shuffled through the main bar and found a spare corner, and relaxed on some old leather seats under some dark wooden wall panels. The four of us – Young Jake, Oscar Parksorious, P-Diddy and I – settled in for an hour and-a-half of drinks and giggles. I’d be doing no driving this night; there would be the chance for a few pints of “Peroni.” We had already run through our opinions and thoughts about the upcoming game.

“I suppose Arsenal will be favourite. They’re at home after all.”

“Hope we play 3/4/3.”

“At least Sanchez has left. Always does well against us it seems.”

“Just hope there’s no extra time and penalties.”

Indeed. With a little foresight and planning, I had taken care of that most unloved of outcomes. Fearing the worst, and remembering well from the extended Norwich City replay the preceding week, I had taken some precautions. If the game at The Emirates would go to extra-time and then penalties, the game would likely finish at 10.45pm. We would not be back to the car until around midnight. A two-hour trip back to Melksham. A further thirty minutes to my house. I’d not get to bed until 2.30am. And I’d need to be up at 5am for work.

Screw that.

I had booked myself into the hotel opposite work for the night and looked forward, whatever the result, to an extra hour in bed. With the football only costing a tenner, I figured I could easily justify it. At times my life of late has involved only sleep, work and football. This would certainly be no exception.

This would be Young Jake’s first trip to The Emirates. I’ve only missed one; the time we took nine-thousand up there for the League Cup game in 2013. On this occasion, we were taking 5,500, and all four of us had been given tickets in Section 25, which would normally be a home area. I wondered if the facilities in the concourse would offer an improvement to the pokey confines of the away sector. The drinks were going down well. The pre-match banter was a fine antidote to further stresses at work. I shared some insider knowledge about the pub.

“Mozart played here when he was nine. In this very pub.”

For once, there was silence from The Chuckle Brothers.

“Anyway. Moving on.”

At seven o’clock we caught the tube north. It was, of course, a familiar ride now. We had travelled the same journey three weeks earlier. It annoyed me that there was an announcement that “this train will not be stopping at Holloway Road, next stop is The Arsenal.”

The Arsenal. I could hear Alan moaning at the mere mention of it.

“The Arsenal. Like it’s some sort of bloody institution.”

On the walk up through the rabbit warren at Arsenal tube, there were a few chants from both sets of fans. I spotted a Chelsea supporter with a blue “Patagonia” rain jacket. I was reminded of the catchy “Brightonia” banner at “The Amex” that I spotted last weekend, using the same font and logo.

There were a few – hardly loud – chants of playing football “the Arsenal way” but I was far from convinced. For all of their crisp-passing under the early Wenger years, the spectre of decades of dull and boring football has not drifted from my consciousness.

“Arsenal. Bloody hell. The only time they have been entertaining was when Eric Morecambe sneezed or coughed.”

The lights of The Emirates soon came into view. No doubt it will soon be named after some other corporate-brand; not even “The Reebok” is “The Reebok” anymore. Why Arsenal could not have at least used “Arsenal Stadium” in lights on the façade – some sort of permanent statement – is beyond me. Beneath “Emirates Stadium” were large graphics of Arsenal players from across the ages inter-locking arms. I suppose this was conceived as a nice idea, but I just saw a load of arses.

We were inside with about ten minutes to spare. So much for more space behind section 25; there was a huge line for the gents. It would have to wait until half-time. There was a dimming of the lights and a half-arsed light show. I looked around at all the empty seats in the upper tier.

Pauline and Mick were stood behind me.

“Bloody hell, a tenner and they still can’t fill it.”

I was to eat my words as it all filled-up after a while.

But I certainly realised that new spacious stadia thrill me as much as “super pubs.” Give me “The Crown” and Highbury – what a stadium – ahead of “Spoons” and “The Emirates” any day, any season, any year.

The team was missing Courtois and Morata, and the manager went with a 3/4/3 variant; no Michy Batshuayi, but Eden Hazard to play in a central but surely drifting role.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

The Three Amigos

The players entered the pitch. Behind the teams at the opposite end, an Arsenal flag bearing the rebranded gun emblem – now pointing to the right after decades of pointing to the left, bloody hell I need to get out more – moved slowly above the heads of the Arsenal hardcore. A flag featuring Charlie George was spotted. What a lanky dullard he was. He was no Peter Osgood for sure. In fact, he was the antithesis of Peter Osgood; North London dull and North London gormless. Proper Arsenal. In later life, he managed to cut off a finger while mowing his lawn. Don’t ask.

There are banners everywhere on the balconies at The Emirates, all signalling various degrees of self-love.

The game began and we began well despite a shot from Tiemoue Bakayoko which was well off target. Just after, a trademark lofted ball from Dave and a finely placed header from the diminutive Pedro beat David Ospina, but I had spotted an offside flag. We were well on top, and Arsenal had hardly offered an attack. On seven minutes, Kante played the ball to Pedro who in turn touched in to the path of Eden Hazard. His easy finish summed up our domination.

There were wild celebrations in Sections 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 and 25.

GET IN.

We were one up and playing well.

Sadly, our lead soon disappeared in the mild North London air. A corner dropped right onto the head of Nacho Monreal, but his header then unluckily struck Marcos Alonso, and from there the footballing Gods were not on our side. The ball ricocheted onto Toni Rudiger’s forehead and in. I looked around at the gurning Goons in the corporate tier above me and I felt sick.

But we still dominated, retaining the ball well and moving it crisply. Willian dragged the ball wide of the far post. A special word for Bakayoko who I thought performed very well throughout a dominant first-half. He put his foot in, he retained the ball, he moved it on, he pushed forward when space opened-up. Well done to him.

On the half-hour, Willian had a knock and sadly had to be substituted. Nobody had been warming up of course, but Ross Barkley was chosen to enter the fray for his Chelsea debut. I watched as he entered the field of play. I mused that there haven’t been many signings from Everton over the years. Only Duncan McKenzie and the great Tommy Lawton came to mind. I hoped that Barkley would not suffer the same fate as Lawton – much lauded and a stratospheric transfer at the time –  who was transferred to Notts County after just three seasons. His first few moments did not bode well. Xhaka went close with an angled free-kick after a Barkley foul on Koscielny. Worse was to come.

I rolled my eyes at the awful chant that the away supporters had up their collective sleeves :

“Viva Ross Barkley, viva Ross Barkley. He left the Scouse ‘cus they robbed his house, viva Ross Barkley.”

Well done. Well bloody done. I’m sure as a Scouser he would appreciate that one.

It’s like us singing something for Antonio Conte which takes the piss out of Italians.

He’s one of us now, lads. He’s one of us. Support him.

While I’m at it…

“We’ve won it all.”

Bloody hate that one too.

Elsewhere, we were edging it, with Rudiger and Christensen strong and dominant. However, the pondering Victor Moses was frustrating the absolute hell out of all of us. There were extra, and heavy, touches every time he received the ball. At the break, everyone around me was relatively happy. Arsenal had grown stronger as the half had developed but I think we had shown enough for us to be confident of progression. I wanted Eden to be involved more. But I was happy.

At half-time, the queue at the gents was still ridiculous. The khazi was smaller than in the away end. So much for a high quality and spacious stadium.

I suggested to Big John that “we’re the only team in London with a European Cup” ought to be replaced by “we’re the only team in London with some spacious fucking bogs.”

Well, the second-half.

Must I?

What a let-down.

Eden had a couple of bursting runs through the middle – on one occasion, slipping when it appeared that he had been tripped – but Arsenal were soon moving the ball around and causing problems. We seemed listless and without much direction. After twenty tiring minutes of playing second fiddle, the ball was worked through the Arsenal inside right channel. I looked up at the large scoreboard to my left just to check who was the Arsenal number twenty-nine when the very player – Xhaka – tucked home. I only saw the celebration, I only heard the roar.

BOLLOCKS.

On the TV replay, it appeared that we were undone by another bloody deflection, off the back leg of the hapless Rudiger.

Oh boy.

The second-half of woe continued. We were all stood of course, but there were only pockets of song. I expected more from 5,500 of our beered-up loyalists. I was well aware throughout the second period as I was watching, hands in pockets, bellowing out encouragement, joining in with song when I could, that I was watching the game with the combined weight of the clichéd opinions and criticisms of all of social media in all its glorious forms hanging heavy in my mind and on my shoulders. And all of the negative stuff seemed to dominate my thoughts. In days of yore, we just got behind the team and shared our thoughts with a few close friends. If there was a little negativity, it was tempered by a little humour and some gallows humour. These days I now have the sour-faced, overly-grave, doom-laden – and deadly bloody serious and truly bloody tedious – opinions of Loudmouth from Sidmouth, Knobhead from Knoxville, Tosser from Osset, Jackass from Jacksonville and Cocksocket from Nantucket ringing in my ears.

All that bloody negativity. Football was never meant to be like that. Not for a club that has enjoyed so much success in the past fifteen or twenty years.

I could not help but feel that there are just too many Chelsea fans in the world today and not enough Chelsea supporters.

I see nothing wrong with objective criticism. Why would I? But so much of it now just hints at spoiled and new – but not entirely – fans throwing toys out of prams at the merest hint of a sub-par performance.

It does my fackin’ head in.

Sigh.

But on the night, we had to face facts. Despite the constant prompting along the touchline from the always involved manager, Arsenal bossed us and they bossed the game. There was one memorable burst of energy down the right from Ross Barkley. Caballero saved with his leg in a typically unorthodox way from Iwobi. There was added spirit from substitute Zappacosta, in place of the poor Moses, and a few flashed crosses, but elsewhere we were lacking. Michy Batshuayi had replaced Pedro, but he did not get much service. And he still has the annoying tendency to turn into trouble.

What were we told at school?

“Play the way you are facing.”

Unless your name is Eden Hazard of course.

Michy isn’t. He needs to play to his strengths.

There was a rushed free-kick from Marcos Alonso and the ball is still circling above Heathrow waiting for clearance to land. We howled our agony. The Arsenal fans, so quiet in the close 2-2 draw on the third day of 2018, were making an uncharacteristic din.

We kept singing until the end, but it was not to be.

We met up outside and slouched out. We began our slow walk down the Holloway Road where I had once attended an open day at North London Poly in 1983. Studying at a college just a mile from Highbury? What was I bloody thinking? We walked on. The best cheeseburger of the season thus far lifted some of the gloom, and – thank heavens – we made good time on our return to Barons Court. PD headed west and I drifted off to sleep and even Parky’s incessant prattling could not stop me.

By 1.30am, I had fallen into a deep sleep in my hotel room, with the Chelsea subsection of the internet no doubt going into meltdown once again.

On Sunday, we gather together for another stab at Wembley.

See you there.

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Tales From The Chelsea Stadium Mystery

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 10 January 2018.

If I ever needed evidence to support the notion that us Chelsea fans are gluttons for punishment, it came in the form of the “viewing figures” of my last two match reports on this site. Last week, there was a competitive away game in the league at Arsenal in which there was an incident-packed second half and a roller-coaster of emotions. On Saturday, there was an FA Cup tie – a much-maligned competition these days – at Norwich City, but the game was a true snore fest. And yet, twice as many people clicked to read the Norwich game as the Arsenal match.

You are a bloody odd bunch, aren’t you?

Next up in this ridiculously busy period – nine games in December and eight games in January – was the first-leg of our League Cup Semi-Final against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. Over the course of the two games, I did not fear them. I believed us to be the better team, no doubt. As I left the office at 2pm, a work colleague asked how I thought the game at The Bridge might go.

“7-0” I replied.

One can but dream.

PD took charge of the reigns once more and The Chuckle Bus headed east on a crisp and clear January afternoon. On the drive to London, I predicted that the retro programme theme of this season’s League Cup run would continue with a replica of the cover from the 1997/1998 season when the same two teams met at the same stage. I drifted back to that tie. In the first-leg, we were very poor at Highbury, but a late Mark Hughes goal gave us a lifeline. A week or so later, after a league defeat at Arsenal, manager Ruud Gullit was given the push. Next up was the return leg of the League Cup tie at HQ. On a very emotional night, new boss Gianluca Vialli famously assembled the players together in the dressing room before the game, poured champagne into glasses and toasted a bright future. A resounding 3-1 gubbing of Arsenal followed. It was a fantastic night at Chelsea. Back to 2018 – twenty years on, good grief – we wondered if Antonio Conte would choose our strongest team; we expected so. What would be the point of fielding two consecutive “B Teams”? Arsenal have a history of fielding youngsters in their recent League Cup history. I speculated if they would do the same in 2018. I thought back to the 5-0 thumping we gave them at Highbury in 1998/1999 when – let’s not kid ourselves – their team was very raw.

All these games against Arsenal. They are a very familiar opponent. Prior to the game, I read somewhere that this would be our one hundred and ninety-fifth game against them in our history, not including friendlies. I did some digging, and realised that it would be my sixtieth game out of that total. Almost a third. It caught me unawares. Am I that bloody old?

League – 47

FA Cup – 6

League Cup – 3

Community Shield – 3

Champions League – 1

The usual routine was followed for midweek games; drinks at both ends of the North End Road in two different hostelries. We met up with my old friend from Frome, Russ, and he mentioned the “champagne moment” from 1998. Back in 1994, we took him to his very first Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge when he was a fourteen-year-old schoolboy. It was his first game for a while and it was a pleasure to see him once more. He asked me who my player of the year was thus far.

“Good question.”

I thought for a few seconds.

“Maybe Christensen.”

PD suggested Dave.

“Yeah, good shout.”

In the pub, the team news game through.

“Strong team lads. Probably our strongest.”

The manager had gone with a 3-5-2

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Fabregas – Drinkwater – Alonso

Hazard – Morata

I spotted the odd – very odd – Arsenal favour being worn by a few folks on our walk to The Bridge. They would have around 4,000 in The Shed. We were inside at about 7.45pm for the slightly later 8pm kick-off. I was right about the programme. It did show a 1998 cover. I did my usual sweep of the balcony and its away flags and banners. One caught my eye.

“The Arsenal. This isn’t a franchise.”

What typical Arsenal pomposity and what typical Arsenal attempted one-upmanship. But think again. Not a franchise? Tell that to the people of Woolwich, where the club once played before upping sticks and relocating to North London. I have read that in terms of travel time using the mode of transport available at the time, the move from Woolwich to Highbury in 1913 was very similar to that of from Merton to Milton Keynes in 2004.

Arsenal were the MK Dons of the early twentieth century and Tottenham Hotspur have never forgotten it.

Somewhere among the 4,000 away supporters were the loons of Arsenal TV, ready to implode at any moment.

Before the kick-off, the lights faded and we were treated to another light show at Stamford Bridge. I’m in two minds about all this. It does look pretty dramatic, but it still seems like the club are trying to take over the atmosphere on our behalf. Maybe too cynical? I don’t know. Regardless, I could not resist a few photographs. From the lights of thousands of mobile phones, I was not the only one.

There were some familiar names in the Arsenal team, though not as flooded full of bona fide stars as our starting eleven. The portents were good.

As the game began, there was noise.

Thank God.

There must be a formula for the amount of noise generated at football games which includes such variants as rivalry between the two teams, geographical proximity of the two teams, number of hours available before the game for alcohol consumption, recent form of teams, the return of a formerly hated manager, the return of a formerly hated opponent, the memory of the threat of real or perceived violence off the pitch in previous years between both sets of fans, the proportion of the ticket sales given to newbies and/or tourists, the proportion of ticket sales given to loud and leery teenagers, the importance of the match, with a super-loaded quotient if the game involves Tottenham or if the game is a Champions League knock-out game.

I think that has covered it.

The “noise level” at the start continued for a while, maybe ten minutes, as the teams tested each other with small periods of possession. In the first few Chelsea attacks, Alvaro Morata looked hungry and was full of movement, no doubt wishing to atone for recent misdemeanours. One shot hit the side netting at The Shed End. That ‘orrible little runt Jack Wilshere was involved quite often for Arsenal. Eden Hazard was heavily marked, often finding three Arsenal players around him.

On twenty minutes, the best chance of the game thus far, but Lacazette – clean through after a lofted pass from Wilshere – slashed wildly over.

This was an even game.

Russ : “Typical cup tie. Cagey.”

Victor Moses cut inside his marker in front of the Goons in the West side of The Shed, but his shot was claimed by Ospina.

After an Arsenal attack was smothered down below us, Andreas Christensen did ever so well to bring the ball under his control and take a few touches. Thankfully, he did not hear the advice given to him by a fellow sitting a few rows behind me.

“Get rid of it, you c**t.”

I have to ask myself, what sort of a human being uses such language so effortlessly in his alleged “support” of a fine, young and well-liked Chelsea footballer?

I thought to myself : “only one c**t in this stadium, mate.”

The move developed and it was a joy to watch. Kante took the ball on, breaking with pace. He received it back from a team mate, and the ball was eventually played over to Marcos Alonso on the far side of the Arsenal penalty area. His low shot was not too far wide of the far post. It had been the move of the match, but sadly did not draw the applause or approval that it really merited.

Another shot from Moses and an Ospina save. This was followed by a Danny Drinkwater which was ballooned high – very high – over the bar. On this occasion, DD didn’t work wonders. This was a game itching to get going, but it remained rather one paced. Containment was the key. Space was rare. The home fans began to get behind the team again, or rather, have a dig at the away fans.

“We’ve won it all” (asterisk – apart from the World Club Championships, let’s not get too much up our own arse).

The away fans quickly countered : “You’ve bought it all.”

Yes, quite, indeed we have. Let’s call it karma for all the years – one hundred of them – when we were the fifth-best supported team in England and yet won virtually fuck all.

Our response in the Matthew Harding was typical.

“CHAMPIONSOFEUROPEYOULLNEVERSINGTHAT.”

On thirty-eight minutes, Thibaut Courtois saved so well after an Alex Iwobi shot flew at him.

Just after, a rough challenge by Moses on Iwobi was met with a minute or so of nonsense as the Arsenal fans chanted “VAR! VAR! VAR! VAR” like a load of schoolkids, referee Martin Atkinson put his hand to his ear, the game stalled and we looked on like fools.

Oh boy. The future of football. What a load of old shit.

Before we know it, “VAR” will be part and parcel of our once breathless game. There will be breaks in play. Momentum will be lost. Television companies will be wanking off advertising executives as they try to sell in-game commercial segments for those highly-profitable delays. Referees will debate questionable off sides and dodgy handballs with a bloke called Kevin in front of a TV monitor. Games will take longer to conclude. Night buses will be missed. Trains will be missed. Everyone will get home from night games that little bit later. A strange future awaits.

A header from Fabregas from a lovely cross from Dave did not bother Ospina.

Just before the break, the pass of the night from Fabregas was played into space for Eden to reach – just near the Peter Osgood penalty spot – but his heavy first touch meant that Ospina easily gathered.

So, what of the first-half? Cagey, indeed. It wasn’t necessarily a bad game, but there was a spark missing. There wasn’t the intensity of previous semi-finals.

At the break, Neil Barnett introduced a number eight for the future and a number ten of our recent past. Ross Barkley, in a Chelsea blue trackie, was introduced to the Stamford Bridge crowd. He received a good reception. Then, with a Peaky Blinders cap the size of a deflated medicine ball, Joe Cole. Lovely to see him again.

The second-half began with added intent from Chelsea, and the crowd reacted with extra noise. A Kante shot was thundered in, but was blocked by Christensen. Our young defender then got underneath a cross and headed over.

After this miss, I whispered to Russ :

“I can see this ending 0-0.”

Morata, struggling still with the physicality of the game, slammed a shot from outside the penalty area, but the Arsenal ‘keeper saved once more. He then went close from a very acute angle, the ball shaving the post. We were well on top, but chances were rare. The noise had dampened as the night grew colder. A Moses shot, another Christensen header. The game continued, with the fans around me deciding not to “bring the boys home” with an endless cacophony of noise. How different from the League Cup Semi-Final from 2015 against Liverpool – admittedly a second-leg – when there was constant and relentless noise from all stands from start to finish.

It is a constant mystery to me how our support sometimes lets us down at Stamford Bridge.

A typical example of a certain lack of intensity or concentration was typified when Alonso gave away a throw-in, but lackadaisically turned his back to the throw-in. The lad is enjoying a fine season, maybe it seems churlish to pinpoint a little negativity but it seemed a typical motif of the night’s game.

Antonio replaced DD with Willian. Our substitute rasped a shot close from distance.

Eden Hazard was replaced by Tiemoue Bakayoko and 845,649 keyboard warriors around the globe went into overdrive.

In the last five minutes or so, Michy Batshuayi replaced Morata, who just before was derided for lacking control on the touchline.

Sadly, it was Arsenal who looked the stronger in the last few moments, buoyed by their substitute Alexis Sanchez.

After ninety minutes, the referee signalled five whole minutes of added time, though I thought that the “VAR” delays should have merited more. In a nervous finale to a humdrum game, we managed to repel a couple of late Arsenal bursts.

It stayed 0-0.

Our second goal-less performance.

Our third draw in a row.

The keyboard warriors would be at it again.

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Tales From The Piccadilly Line

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 3 January 2018.

On London Underground trains and station platforms on the Piccadilly Line, there is a graphic poster – maybe not as stylish as those wonderful ones from the ‘thirties – extolling the virtues of that particular line, which wends its way from out in the west through London, heading east and then north-east and then north to its eventual resting place. It shows a train disappearing underground at Hammersmith, with all of the major tourist attractions to be seen en route annotated on a map, and it is evidence of that particular line – “the purple one” – hitting many of the main tourist areas.

On the Hammersmith to Kings Cross section, especially from South Kensington to Leicester Square, there are certainly some sights to be seen.

Museums, department stores, royal palaces, theatres, squares, cinemas, parks and more. It is the very centre of an increasingly visited London.

Of course, just beyond Earls Court lies Stamford Bridge – on the District Line, “the green one” – while a few miles north of the stations of Kings Cross and St. Pancras, on into the darkness of North London, lies the Arsenal tube station, and with it not only Highbury, the former home of our opponents on the third day of 2018, but their gleaming new stadium too.

The Chuckle Bus – the PD Line, “the white one” – had picked me up from work at 2pm and, by 4pm, it was parked in a side-street adjacent to Barons Court. The four of us – PD, Parky, Scott and I – waited in the coolness of the early-evening air and were soon sent hurtling underground as the Piccadilly Line train took us into town. The game was not until 7.45pm. There would be time for a little pre-match revelry, which is not always possible for a London midweek away game. The weather in the West of England had been spiteful during the day, with showers and strong gusts of winds. Throughout the day, the weather had been bleak enough to remind me of the infamous game at Arsenal in December 2013 which had resulted in my car – my Chuckle Bus, “the blue one” – getting stranded in several feet of water with me having to walk a few miles to reach home at 5am the following day, Christmas Eve.

We soon reached our staging post. Piccadilly Circus was an electronic dream. Christmas lights strewn across Regent Street, floodlit shops, huge neon advertisements, excited tourists with cameras clicking. It was nothing compared to Times Square in New York or Shinjuku in Tokyo of course, but still pretty mesmerizing. I met up with Kyle from LA, who was still in town, giddy with excitement for more Chelsea football.

At about 4.30pm, the five of us entered “The Queens Head” just to the north of Piccadilly Circus. The pub was snug and warm, a typical old-style London boozer. Pints of lager were ordered. I could relax. I had not enjoyed the first couple of days back at work after a ten-day interlude. Here was a chance to unwind. Just opposite was the site of a former pub – “The Devonshire Arms” – which I remember well from a Chelsea game against West Ham in 1987. I had traveled down from Stoke with a college mate, Bob, whose pal Kev was a barman in the pub. As luck would have it, it was Kev’s last day of serving in the boozer, and he started pouring us free beers. By the time we left the pub to head over to Stamford Bridge, we were bollocksed. At the time, it was the most drunk that I had ever been at football, and the game was a huge blur.

Kyle had loved his Chelsea experience on Saturday. He watched from directly behind the goal and to quote him, had experienced “sensory overload.” I suspect it was quite a shock to be so near to the action. It would be akin to me watching my first ever baseball game at Yankee Stadium just four yards behind the catcher’s mitt.

At 5pm, I headed back outside into the London evening. My friend of over thirty-six years Tullio – often featured in these reports – was in town with his wife Emanuela and their two daughters Sofia and Lou Lou. We had arranged to meet up, albeit only for a few minutes. My Italian friends had enjoyed a long day of walking around the sights but were full of smiles. It was bloody magnificent to see them again; the last time had been in their apartment in Moncalieri, just to the south of Turin, ahead of our infamous 2012 Champions League game.

I quietly whispered to Tullio, with my head subtly nodding in the direction of “The Queen’s Head”, about him joining us for a quick pint.

He whispered back.

“Boh – I am a married man now.”

“Boh” is one of my favourite Italian phrases. It means that there is no answer to whatever question has been asked, and even if there was an answer, there would be no point in saying, whatever is done is done.

In the ten minutes that we were together, football dominated our chat, and the three girls looked on in awe at our ability to talk football under any circumstances.

Tullio : “What do you think of Conte?”

Chris : “We love him. A good man. You remember I went to the Juve versus Fiorentina game in 1999 the day after your wedding?”

Tullio : “I forget.”

Chris : “I am not surprised. Well, Conte scored the winning goal and taunted the Viola fans with the corner flag.”

Tullio : “Yes!”

Chris : “I met Conte very briefly in Beijing in the summer. I wanted more time so I could explain that to him.”

Tullio : “But he would not understand English. He barely understands Italian.”

We laughed.

I also mentioned that if Tullio had told me of his plans, I could have tried to get him a ticket for the Arsenal vs. Chelsea game.

But his reply did not surprise me :

“No. Tonight is Juve /Toro.”

We laughed again and soon said our goodbyes. It was lovely to see him and his family once more.

Back in the pub, there was time for more “Peroni” and a lot more laughs. This was a lovely time, another sweet spot, another great Chelsea moment. At just before 6.45pm, we set off for the last section of the journey. As we disappeared into the underground, I noted that Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” was being played by a nearby busker.

“Seems appropriate, Kyle.”

Kyle mentioned its appearance in Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange” and, just as we walked through the into the ticket hall, I had nightmarish visions of being accosted by some “droogs”. I also had an equally nightmarish vision of having my eyes forced open to watch the dour and defensive Arsenal team of the early ‘nineties on a constant loop.

On the train, the chuckling continued.

“Did Kyle enjoy the Arsenal game?”

“He never made it. He is still curled up on the Piccadilly Line laughing at the name Cockfosters.”

Parky piped up –

“Cockfosters. That’s what happens when you have too much lager, innit?”

I replied –

“Oh God. That’s the end of the line for you mate.”

At Holborn, on the platform, we spotted a few Chelsea faces.

“Runs down the wing for me…”

At Arsenal tube, there were random shouts of support for Chelsea but nothing from the Gooners. I had warned Kyle that the tube at Arsenal was like a rabbit warren, so much unlike the airy Fulham Broadway. Every time I revisit this particular stop I am reminded of my first-ever visit.

August 1984.

Ah. What a day.

I quickly gave Kyle the quickest of history lessons as we sped up to take a few photographs outside the still impressive façade of Highbury on Avenell Road. He was mesmerized by it all. The closeness of one of our great, huge, stadiums, to run-of-the-mill terraced houses. The clean lines of the stand. The sense of place.

We then hot-footed it to the larger, but hardly greater, Emirates Stadium. After a bag search and a trial to find my place, I reached Alan, Gary and Parky with a few minutes gone.

A quick check of the team.

“Packing the midfield, Cesc playing, Hazard behind Morata.”

I noticed that all was quiet. Very quiet.

After a few minutes, a few Chelsea were singing “empty seats, empty seats” but I didn’t see many.

For a few horrible seconds, I had a flashback to September of 2016; God, it seems so long ago now. Our beloved Chelsea team was completely over-run and out-played, especially in the first forty-five minutes. In hindsight, of course, the game marked the turning point in our season. It was a huge game in our history. Few defeats have ever been doted on as lovingly as that one.

I turned my attention to the game.

“You haven’t missed much, Chris” said Gal.

I have to admit, what with a combination of getting in late, a very low viewing position – row two – and the gnawing pain of knowing that I would be waking up at 4.45am in the morning for work after the drive home, I struggled to get to grips with the game in the opening moments of the first-half.

But Arsenal appeared to be in control, attacking down Victor Moses’ flank in front of us at will. I lost count of the amount of times that Alexis Sanchez was allowed to drift in and attack space on our right. Mezut Ozil too, looking even more gaunt than ever, was often breaking into our box. It was as if we were allowing a special little show of Arsenal prowess just for the away fans only.

I hated it.

I also hated the continuing – and eerie – quietness which had enveloped the stadium. I simply did not hear a single Arsenal song nor chant during the entire first-half. And that is truly shocking. I know I berate our own fans at Stamford Bridge for long periods of quiet, but this was on a different scale. How was it possible for nigh on sixty thousand people to make so little noise?

After constant Arsenal probing – ooh, matron – the ball broke for Alvaro Morata in the inside left channel, and we held our breath as he sprinted clear.

“Go on ma sahn.”

He inexplicably steered it past the far post. On the replay on the huge screen behind me, it looked even worse.

Then, an Arsenal chance for the effervescent Sanchez and a goal seemed assured. Remarkably, his effort was saved by Courtois onto his near post and we watched, hating every second of it, as the ball struck the far post and then rolled back, mesmerizingly, into his arms.

“Phew.”

A sublime save by Coutois from Lacazette followed, and it was undoubtedly one of the best this season so far. Stupendous stuff.

Chelsea were under the cosh, but a rare break resulted in a strike from Bakayoko and a save from Petr Cech.

The Chelsea support, three-thousand strong, behind me and to my left and right, were surprisingly quiet for a London derby. I have noted similar quiet away atmospheres at the new Arsenal stadium on a few occasions now. There is never as much noise, I feel, as at White Hart Lane on our visits. Maybe we are quietened by the osmosis of watching among so many Goons.

A yellow card by Jack Wilshere on Cesc Fabregas brought howls. A couple of half-chances were exchanged. Marcos Alonso’s free-kick in prime territory sadly did not test Cech. Just before half-time, a nice interplay involving Hazard and Fabregas resulted in the former Arsenal midfielder ballooning the ball high and wide. The first-half had not been much to write about, but it could have ended 2-2.

At half-time, I wondered if my pre-match prediction of a 1-1 draw might prove to be right.

We certainly began the livelier in the second-half. Hazard, after a nice run and set-up by Morata, went close. An Alonso header too. We were looking more focussed.

After ten minutes of play, the manager replaced Moses – a little under-the-weather – with Davide Zappascosta.

A little Arsenal pressure followed, but I was full of praise of our three defenders, throwing their bodies at everything and hounding those carrying the ball. From my vantage point, it looked like Gary Cahill had cleared off the line. In front of the defence, Kante was magnificent, Bakayoko not so. A few more chances were exchanged. A Hazard shot straight at Cech.

Just after the hour, a ball ran through to Wilshere and the ‘orrible little runt slammed the ball in.

“Bollocks.”

The stadium jumped to life at last. Until that point, I had still not heard a song, God’s honest truth.

“One nil to the Arsenal.”

I looked around and I bloody hated them.

Just four minutes later, Hazard danced into the Arsenal box down in our own special viewing gallery corner. He was up against Bellerin. His first cross was blocked but as he stretched to control the rebound, Bellerin caught his leg.

Penalty.

Eden slammed it in.

We were level. There was my prediction.

The game continued with us now looking the more confident and assured. A chance for Morata went begging, lifting the shot wide.

Danny Drinkwater replaced Fabregas. A show of solidity.

Oddly I felt, Willian came on for Hazard.

Salvation came on eighty-four minutes when fantastic diligence from Zappacosta out wide after a great pass by Willian allowed him to slam the ball low into the danger area. To everyone’s surprise, it was the wing back Alonso who arrived – Lampardesque – to touch the ball past Cech.

Euphoria at The Emirates.

Our left-back ran towards us and was jumped upon by his team mates. It was a happy and glorious pile of blue in front of our corner of the Clock end. The away end was now the ones singing, and how.

“Runs down the wing for me…”

The minutes ticked by.

Ninety minutes were up.

“Blow up, ref.”

Down in the corner, Willian had a chance to hoof it away, but meekly cleared. Eventually the ball was played into the box and Bellerin slammed home after a header was knocked towards him.

“Oh fuck.”

Amazingly, in the very last moments of the game, the ball was pumped behind the Arsenal back line and we watched again as Morata was one on one with Petr Cech. His unconvincing shot was smothered among cries of pain in the away end. The ball broke to Zappacosta. His heavy drive crashed against the bar.

“FUCK!”

A draw, in all honesty, seemed a fair result. We had all said that a draw would have been fine before the game. We headed off into the night, with the feeling of what could have been. There was one word on every body’s lips.

“Morata.”

My lasting memory of the game, though, will be of the long periods of quiet in the Arsenal areas for the hour before their goal. And, I will say again, our support was far from noisy. For me, the lack of atmosphere really had a negative effect on the game. It is a common saying that “football without fans is nothing” but just as true is that “football without an atmosphere is nothing.” I can never remember an important away game against huge rivals being so bloody quiet, with a distinct lack of “crackle” that surely should go hand-in-hand with games under lights. It just didn’t seem to be that much of a spectacle. I found it difficult to get emotionally involved in it.

It was a very odd night.

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Tales From Game 5/38

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 17 September 2017.

In the build-up to this game, it felt like the majority of my thoughts about Arsenal could be filed under a “familiarity breeds contempt” headline. Not only would this be my fourth Arsenal game in nine matches – Wembley, Beijing, Wembley, Stamford Bridge – but there is just something about them. In reality, there has always, been contempt for them, it’s just that the regular sight of them every other game since May has just sharpened things a little. But there is also, thankfully – and just like their North London rivals, I forget their name right now – something about Arsenal these days which always, without fail, manages to raise a laugh.

From Wenger’s one thousandth Arsenal game resulting in a 6-0 win for us, to the sight of thousands of empty seats at Arsenal home games, to the beyond-parody morons on Arsenal Fan TV, to the annual capitulation after Christmas, to the obsession with fourth place, to the train-spotter tendencies of their fan base to Wenger’s steely resolve not to buy players in areas of the team that blatantly need strengthening, there is always something laughable happening in N5.

I’ve written in excess of twenty Chelsea vs. Arsenal match reports over the past ten seasons, and just when you think that there is nothing left to ridicule, they come up with a stonker. Seeing thousands upon thousands of Cologne fans doing as they pleased in all areas of the Emirates on Thursday was comedy gold.

“After you Hans.”

“Thanks Claude.”

On the drive to London, the four Chuckle Brothers were pretty confident of a home win. Our last few matches have produced warming performances, whereas Arsenal have shown only mid-table form. Wenger’s band of undesirables did not seem to pose too much of a threat. We thought about the team. We presumed that Eden Hazard would start. We guessed that Antonio Conte would chose the London derby experience of Victor Moses over the bullish ex-Torino right back Zappacosta. I expected Fabregas to start. And although there was an argument to leave Antonio Rudiger in the team, I was convinced that the manager would start with Gary Cahill. He is, after all, the club captain.

After the terrorist attack on the District Line at Parsons Green – just a few hundred yards south of Stamford Bridge – on Friday, the last thing that I wanted to see on the North End Road was police tape and police cars, and a street bereft of pedestrians. Although the threat of another attack had not really been on my mind as the game had approached, some doubts started to roll in. However, we soon learned that there had recently been a fatal road accident on that familiar stretch of road. Even though we were headed, again, to The Atlas, our old haunt of The Goose was forced to close.

The usual suspects were on the raised terrace at The Atlas, knocking back lagers, and finding ways to laugh at Arsenal.

The support among my friends for a place in the team for Gary Cahill was thin.

Over Stamford Bridge, a helicopter was spotted and it brought back memories of high-profile games in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties when hooliganism was the main threat on a match day. Whenever other London clubs visited Stamford Bridge, a whirring police helicopter hovering over the stadium was a vivid memory. As I walked down to the stadium, the terrorist threat briefly entered my mind once again. Outside the Fulham Town Hall, two police vans were blocking the road, as they have done for every game this season and for some games last season.

It would be the first game, that I can remember, to be played under a critical terrorist warning.

There were the usual bag searches outside the stadium, and I was inside with probably the best part of half-an-hour to spare. Rather than worry and concern, here were smiles and excitement ahead of the game.

“Keep calm and carry on.”

You bet.

The team news was announced. No Eden Hazard, despite cameos at Leicester and on Tuesday. Upfront, Willian would play. Fabregas over Bakayoko. Moses over Zappacosta. And – tellingly – Cahill over Rudiger.

Arsenal? The usual assortment of physically dyslexic defenders, bearded metrosexuals and foreign bit-part players that I am only vaguely familiar with.

Thankfully, the excellent Sanchez was only on the bench.

Over in the distance, the away section was filling up, fronted by – surprisingly – a Football Lads Alliance flag. Dotted in and around the away end were little clusters of Arsenal fans wearing replica shirts. It is quite a rare sight at Chelsea, especially with London teams. It was almost as if the replikids were herded together by some bizarre force field. Four together in the second row. Three together there. Three together there. I was just surprised that not many red and white bar scarves were on show.

“Proper Arsenal.”

Ha.

The stadium soon filled.

The last time we lost at home to this lot was in the autumn of 2011 in the days of Villas-Boas; a Van Persie hat-trick and a 5-3 loss. We didn’t expect anything like that in 2017.

The game began and, not long into it, the home supporters howled at the away fans.

“Where were you on Thursday night?”

As an aside, what a wonderful sight it was on Thursday. Thousands of passionate, noisy and raucous away fans enjoying themselves, without much bother nor hooliganism nor violence. They were intimidating – every away fan loves the “wow” factor – but well-behaved. It’s surely a blueprint for the way football supporters should be allowed to support their team.

Chelsea began sprightly enough and for the first ten to twelve minutes, we completely dominated. We advanced on Petr Cech’s goal and caused concern in the Arsenal defence. A couple of efforts from close-in were hacked away. Everything was well with the world.

I spotted a suited John Terry in one of the boxes in the middle tiers of the West Stand. Try as I might, I couldn’t see Roman in his box.

As Alvaro Morata chased a ball over on the far side, an image of Peter Osgood – tall, slim and with dark hair – wearing a similar kit, the royal blue, the number nine, the white stripe on the shorts, came to mind.

Lo and behold, not more than thirty seconds later, Glenn leaned over and whispered to me –

“Morata looks a bit like Osgood, doesn’t he, in that kit?”

We laughed.

Then, from nowhere, Arsenal broke through our defence at will and, in a couple of minutes, threatened Thibaut’s goal on two occasions, both with breaks down our left by Bellerin. Welbeck rose to glance a header wide of the far post. Lacazette struck at Courtois.

Arsenal, pushing forward now, had a fine spell and Klasinac fired low at Courtois. The away fans, never the loudest at Chelsea, were making all the noise now.

“Shall we sing a song for you?”

We responded :

“WTOTILWAEC.”

On twenty minutes, Fabregas played in Pedro in a central position. He was clean through on goal. Sometimes Pedro looks like he wants to move in every direction when he receives the ball, and as he set off towards Cech, I wasn’t convinced that he would keep cool. He took an extra touch and Cech was able to beat the ball away.

It was to be our best – possibly only – chance of the first-half. Arsenal definitely grew stronger. Throughout the team there seemed to be hesitancy in possession, no more so than in the back three, where our natural movement of the ball was lacking. Gary Cahill looked nervous and awkward. The crowd sensed we were fading. Even the tireless Kante found it difficult to get a foothold in midfield. There were too many silly back-flicks from Willian, who was getting muscled off the ball. Morata, full of movement at first, ploughed a lone furrow upfront.

Another chance for Arsenal with Aaron Ramsey advancing into our third and swiping a shot which cannoned back off the far post. With Thibaut scrambling, Lacazette thankfully shanked it over from only six or seven yards out.

At the break, we could easily have been 2-0 or 3-1 down.

With the Arsenal fans making – surprisingly – a fair bit of noise in the first-half, I was reminded of a couple of tales which were joyfully passed on to me by my mate JR in Detroit. Now, we all know that Arsenal are not known for their volume and variety of songs. This trait has reached the US too. A few years back, the local Chelsea and Arsenal supporters’ groups in the Detroit metropolitan area used to share the same pub. The Arsenal set of fans were predictably known for their reluctance to join in with songs and banter across the bar. On one occasion, in maybe around 2012, JR printed off some Arsenal song sheets – with bona fide and legitimate Arsenal songs such as “She wore a yellow ribbon” and “1-0 to The Arsenal” – and handed them out, stony-faced, to the Gooners.

They failed to get the joke. Nor were humiliated into a witty response. What a surprise.

JR also told the story of the difference between the two sets of fans on a morning when the two teams played at separate times. Chelsea – the Motor City Blues – were full of song in the first TV game, but as JR stayed on to watch the televised Arsenal game, he noted with glee that the Arsenal fans all showed up with their laptops, hardly spoke to each other during the game, and spent the duration tapping away on their laptops, presumably sharing some hideous FIFA chit-chat with similarly-minded geeks.

What an image.

However, I have a horrible feeling that lurking out there among our global fan base are thousands of Chelsea fans who exhibit similar habits on match days.

God, I hope I am wrong.

Antonio changed things a little for the second-half. Off went Pedro and on came Tiemoue Bakayoko. Fabregas was pushed forward to play behind Morata and alongside Willian. Petr Cech received a fine round of applause from the Matthew Harding. As Alvaro Morata drifted over to our side of the pitch, I spoke to Alan and Glenn :

“That boy needs to grow some sideburns.”

David Luiz was booked for an overhead attempt on goal. Sigh. However, we were at least creating chances, and Willian released a shot which Cech easily saved. Morata, chasing long balls, was treated poorly by the referee Oliver, and received a booking for what looked like a shoulder charge.

Bakayoko had a fine second-half, and he reminded me of Michal Essien in his prime; winning the ball, pushing away from tackles and striding forward.

Now, a worry. Alexis Sanchez replaced Lacazette.

Then, relief, Antonio brought on Eden Hazard for the lack-lustre Willian. Over in the south-west corner, a pristine new flag was flying proudly; in the black, yellow and red of his national flag, the “Garden Of Eden” looked fantastic. I wondered if its debut would signal an Eden match winner. I am so lucky to witness most of Eden’s attacking moves right in front of me in the north-west corner. He soon had us salivating.

Throughout the game, and in the second-half especially, David Luiz was excellent, reading the play so well, putting his foot in, winning headers, bringing others in to the game. Stirring stuff.

On seventy-five minutes, a free-kick from Zhaka was headed in by Mustasfi, but the goal was disallowed for offside. How poor to be flagged offside at a corner. In a pub in Detroit, laptop lids covered in Star Wars stickers were slammed shut.

We laughed as a Gooner raced on to the pitch to celebrate, and was carted off by the stewards.

A weak shot from Fabregas did not threaten. Eden went on a mesmerizing run and after pushing the ball into a central position, shot straight at Cech.

That was the chance.

On the far side, a 50/50 ball in front of the managers, and Luiz swiped at Kolasinac.

“Oh, that’s a bad tackle” I said to Alan.

Off he went.

Fuck.

Thankfully, we held on for the point.

What a strange feeling as we left Stamford Bridge. It felt like a loss, and I suppose that is only natural. We finished first last season, they finished fifth. The players were far from their best and the atmosphere was flat. Oh for a noisy London derby. Can we play Tottenham next week?

Altogether now :

“Sigh.”

We avoided the Manchester United vs. Everton game on the radio.

“Everton always lose there. They’d might as well give United the points by direct debit, and save everyone the bother.”

The two Manchester teams are at the top of the division. However, after five games, we sit in third place with the whole season ahead of us.

“Keep calm and carry on.”

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