Tales From Another Chelsea Debut

Chelsea vs. Wigan Athletic : 9 February 2013.

Another Saturday, another Chelsea home game. Except…this was a Chelsea game with a difference. After relinquishing my grip on the 240 game unbroken home run against Arsenal some three weeks ago, the game with Wigan Athletic now represented “Game One” of a new sequence. I don’t expect to go nine years this time, but let’s see how far I can get. Unfortunately, Lord Parky has been suffering with the ‘flu and so was unable to accompany me to Stamford Bridge on this occasion. I hoped that he would be “match fit” once again for the Brentford F.A. Cup replay.

Before I say too much about the events of Saturday 9 February 2013, I feel that I need to share a solemn tale. On Monday, a former Frome Town player was killed in a road traffic accident and, although I did not know him personally, I remembered him from school days when he played in both the school and cricket teams. On Wednesday, I attended a Frome Town game with a few friends and there was a minute’s silence before the match in his memory. Ironically, on my drive out of the Frome area, I needed to top up with diesel at Beckington. It was here, coming home late from a mid-week Chelsea game before Christmas, that I last saw him. As I circumnavigated Warminster on the town by-pass, I drove past the crash site. There was blue and white police tape marking his car’s final resting place. There were bouquets of flowers propped against a fence. Why do I mention this story? I mention it to highlight the fragility of human life. On my travels around the highways and byways of England and Wales, I have had a couple of small-scale accidents. I have been lucky. But this was a deeply sobering incident which has played deeply on my mind over the past few days. The drive past the crash scene was a deeply moving moment. As I headed past Warminster and up on to Salisbury Plain, the solemnity inside my car was all too apparent.

Outside, the weather was murky. As I climbed up onto the A303, snow started to fall. I wondered what sort of weather would be awaiting me once I arrived in London. Thankfully, by the time I had stopped at Fleet in Hampshire for a McBreakfast, the snow had stopped. I spotted a group of four Chelsea fans – unknown to me – at the services and I rolled my eyes to the sky when I saw their appearance. All four were rather rotund and all four were wearing tight-fitting Chelsea shirts – but crucially they were all wearing Chelsea shirts over various sweatshirts and the like. They were all in their mid-‘fifties – not a sin in itself of course, I’ll be there sooner rather than later – but I’ve always thought that tight-fitting football shirts look plain silly on people of a certain age.

I could only imagine what conversation Parky and I might have had in the circumstances.

I made great time and was parked up at 10.50am. I had plans to meet a few friends at the hotel at 11.30am, but had just enough time to pop in to “The Goose” which had recently been closed for refurbishment. Although I didn’t have time for a drink, I greeted a few friends who were already enjoying a few liveners. The place looked excellent, with new leather seats, floor tiles, carpets, wallpaper and fittings. There is even a TV out in the beer garden. As I headed down to The Bridge, I noted that The Malt House had opened-up again, too. No doubt there will be higher beer prices at each locale, but I guess that’s inevitable.

Down at the hotel, there was a gathering of friends from near and far. My guest for the day – Constanza, born only a few miles away from The Bridge – was visiting London for a week from her home in Michigan. She was in town to attend a couple of interviews at colleges in order to get a place for a Master’s degree in the autumn. She had already done the stadium tour and museum earlier in the week, but this was her big day.

Her first ever Chelsea game.

Without wasting much time, I quickly introduced her to Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti, who were sitting in their usual area. Cons’ smile was wide as she shook hands with both of these Chelsea legends. Mike from New York was over for the game – he got out of JFK just before the snow fell on Friday – and was chatting to father and son Jim Senior from NYC and Jim Junior, who now lives in Thailand. Gill and Graeme were also present and we soon posed for a photo with Gill’s “Kent Blues” flag.

Happy days.

It is always a big thrill for me to meet first-time visitors to Stamford Bridge and to show them a few of the sights and share few stories. I’m a very lucky person. With no children of my own, I at least get the chance to play “father” to a few first-time visitors to Chelsea every season and it is something that I treasure. Thankfully, a “meet and greet” with Ron Harris is part of the usual routine now and I am very grateful for that too. Unfortunately for Cons, Ron Harris passed on the news that John Terry wouldn’t playing. His old knee injury had become enflamed again. JT is Cons’ personal favourite, so my heart went out to her.

Cons and I then walked around Stamford Bridge as I explained a few of the sights. Outside the East Stand, we met up with Steve Mantle who was with another first-time visitor from the US; a member of the infamous “OC Blues” in California.

“Oh – you know Steve-O and Wrayman? My condolences.”

So, Steve and I were doing our little bit for Anglo-American relations.

I asked Steve’s guest how many times she had used the word “awesome”: but she replied “no – just amazing…everything is amazing.”

How wonderful it is to see Stamford Bridge through fresh eyes. It’s easy to get a little disheartened at the ever-diminishing atmosphere and the increasingly disconnected support base at The Bridge, but we mustn’t lose sight of how intimate Stamford Bridge is, nestled amongst the bars and pubs of the Fulham Road. There is nothing like the re-match buzz on match days in deepest SW6.

We continued our walk around The Bridge, stopping off for a photo-call at the Peter Osgood statue, before meeting up with Mike again down at the White Horse on Parson’s Green.

There were reminiscences of Tokyo and also thoughts about the Asia tour in the summer. Once the tour dates for the games in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta were announced on Thursday, I felt the adrenaline start to pulse through my body and within a few hours of checking and cross-checking flights on the internet, I had found some very agreeable prices. However, I explained to Mike that I have since thought hard about the tour and have “stepped back from the edge of the cliff.” I was ready to take the plunge, but I need time to look at all options. In truth, I am a little dismayed that Chelsea has again chosen games in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. These are a couple of fine cities, but it was only eighteen months ago that I visited them in 2011. I was hoping and praying for games in China – Shanghai and Beijing would have been perfect – but I am not sure about returning to BKK and KL so soon after my last visit. It seems that the Chelsea “problem” of getting drawn against teams from familiar cities – Barcelona, Prague, Porto, Rome, Milan, Valencia – in UEFA competitions is now being replicated in Asia.

Another pal – Dave – arrived at around 2pm. He is from London but has been living in New York for seven years. I first met him out in California on the 2007 tour. He is now living back in England – and badly missing New York. He is especially missing the view from his apartment in Brooklyn, overlooking the East River, bridges and all. The view of a pub from his flat in Tufnell Park just doesn’t match up.

Cons was enjoying the pre-match and there was talk of her getting a season ticket for 2013-2014 should her interviews be successful. It warmed me to hear her mention the phrase ‘my Chelsea family” on more than one occasion.

Although I originally wanted to be inside the stadium at 2.30pm to allow Cons the sight of the players’ pre-match routine, I’m afraid that old habits meant that we reached our seats with only five minutes to spare.

Wigan’s away following was unsurprisingly small. For the first time that I can remember, all 200 away fans were encamped in the lower tier, allowing an extra 1,000 Chelsea fans above them in the upper tier. I’ve long been advocating this; good to see. David Luiz partnered Frank Lampard at the base of our midfield five, which meant that Cahill partnered Ivanovic in the defence. I am – of course – not Benitez’ biggest fan, but at least he has spotted the potential of Luiz in the midfield, as a playmaker rather than a destructor.

I thought that Wigan caused us a few problems in the first-half, with old boy Franco di Santo involved. When he came to retrieve a ball from behind the goal line, the MHL gave him a nice reception and he clapped us back; nice to see. A fine Petr Cech save from Shaun Maloney brought us all to our feet.

A through ball from David Luiz, fresh from his captaincy of the Brazilian national team on Wednesday, found Fernando Torres who ably pushed the ball into the path of an advancing Ramires. He thumped the ball past Al Habsi and we could relax a little. A couple of efforts from Fernando Torres – another Cons favourite – promised good things. As the first-half drew on, our dominance increased. A few efforts from fizzed close to the Wigan goal but there was no further addition to the score line. I had already warned Cons of the lack of atmosphere at games these days, but she didn’t seem fazed.

Frank Leboeuf was on the pitch at the break. He hasn’t put on an ounce of fat since he hung up his boots.

Soon into the second half, a rampaging Azpilicueta sent over a great ball which easily found Eden Hazard, unmarked. The finish was cool and clinical. 2-0 and coasting.

But this was Chelsea.

Within two minutes, we conceded. A hopeful punt into space seemed to befuddle Cahill and Ivanovic. Maloney ran on to the ball, rounded Cech and adroitly slotted home from an angle.

I turned to Cons and said “and that’s why I’ve gone grey.”

The crowd were slowly getting into the game. A Lampard shot whizzed past the post. Ramires chased down a defender right down in front of us – it was a great piece if aggressive play – and this single action galvanised the support. Of course, in my mind, this is completely the opposite of what should happen at Chelsea.

Our loud and partisan support should galvanise the team.

The two highlights of the second-half were two perfectly played passes from Lampard, with perfect weight, direction and “fade.” However, Wigan threatened again, causing Benitez to change the personnel. Juan Mata replaced the impressive Oscar. He was soon involved. A Hazard pass found Mata. He played the ball back towards Lampard, who took aim and slotted the ball low past Al Habsi. With great pleasure, I photographed the goal – number 198 – and the resultant celebratory leap, before Frank returned back to thank Mata for the perfect pass.

3-1. Phew.

The crowd found its voice towards the end of the game and Cons was joining in.

Job done.

Some more changes. Benayoun for Cahill, Luiz back into defence. Marin for Hazard.

Another rampaging run from Azpilicueta took him in to a central position. He fired in a dipping shot, which the Wigan ‘keeper could only parry. The ball flew out to Marko Marin who flung himself at the ball. He appeared to head it – like a youngster, unsure of the best way – with eyes shut and head down, the ball thumping against the top of his head. In truth, he did well to contort his neck to meet the ball in the first place. I snapped away as he celebrated amongst a few exultant fans in the MHL. In truth, the score line flattered us. There were no anti-Benitez chants throughout the game, which I regard as a positive. All things considered, a good – albeit quiet – day at the office.

After the game, Cons joined me for the first Supporters Trust meeting in the Fulham CIU club, just a few yards down from the old So Bar. I was happy that she was able to witness a key moment in the history of our club. Although the meeting was rather chaotic, a few key statements were announced and there was a good vibe in the crowded bar. I would heartily recommend that any Chelsea supporter – in the UK, in the USA, in Thailand, in Indonesia – join up. It only costs £5.

Outside, Cons and I said our goodbyes, but with a promise that we’d do it all again soon.

I walked back to the car, past a busy Goose, and set off for the return home. A strange thing happened, however, at Fleet Services. As I sat inside the services, eating a brie, lettuce and grape sandwich, refuelling myself for the next hour’s drive, I suddenly had a moment of concern. A moment of clarity.

It was 8pm on a Saturday night. I was all by myself. I was at a service station in Hampshire. It was a cold night outside. What on Earth was I doing? Without Parky – or Glenn – or any of the friends who used to travel up from Frome for home games – the return drive back to Somerset appeared to be a rather sad journey.

I sighed. I haven’t felt like that for years and years. I then smiled.

“Don’t knock it Chris…millions of Chelsea fans around the world would love to be in your shoes.”

The rest of the drive home was uneventful, save for some foggy weather as I tentatively made my way past Stonehenge. This slowed my progress, but on this particular occasion, after the events of the past week, I was more than happy to take it easy. I peered in to “The Cornerhouse” pub as I made my way through Frome and imagined conversations taking place.

“Do anything today?”

“Stayed in. Watched the rugby.”

“Went shopping.”

“Nothing much.”

“I see Lampard scored again.”

That moment of concern which I had encountered at Fleet services an hour or so before, was put into perspective.

“Yep, Lampard scored again. I was there.”

The home run had begun again.
IMG_8184

Tales From The Bukit Jalil Stadium

Malaysia XI vs. Chelsea : 21 July 2011.

Day One : Lift Off.

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

Foreign fields, new experiences, chasing some magical moments.

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

I’m a lucky man.

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

The eleven hours…ahem…flew past.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Welcome To Malaysia.”

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

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

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

Snap, snap, snap.

Another of those moments.

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

This world is shrinking fast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m only here for the Chelsea.”

Day Three : The Practice.

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

“I’m on holiday.”

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

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

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

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

“No, you’re OK, mate.”

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

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

Day Four : Relaxing.

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

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

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

“John Terry, John Terry!!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, Cathy and I chatted about that.

“The bigger picture” Cathy called it.

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

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

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

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

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

Day Five : The Game.

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

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

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

“We Are The Famous, The Famous Chelsea.”

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

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

“Plenty of seats at the back, mate.”

And that was the polite version.

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

At last, the game.

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

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

A Tottenham cockerel.

Mark it up – the first Spurs fan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It had been one of those nights.

IMGP3317

Tales From Celery World

Portsmouth vs. Chelsea : 16 July 2011.

Eight weeks.

Just eight weeks have passed since the last Chelsea game: that dour, depressing and unrewarding performance at Goodison Park which was immediately followed by the hurtful sacking of Carlo Ancelotti, just hours after the final whistle. It was a sad end to a frustrating season for us and the treatment of Carlo by the club certainly left a sour taste in my mouth for some time after.

Since then, I have been on a self-titled “Chelsea Detox.” I have been laying low, keeping still and quiet, calming myself, re-energising for the trials and tribulations for the highs and lows of the new season ahead. If it is at all possible, I’ve been trying not to think too much about football and Chelsea in particular.

This way of life so devours me during the season itself that I really do need this two month break from it all. Of course, the internet – the damn internet – does not help. Various sites have been full of various scurrilous and wayward rumours about certain players with whom Chelsea are allegedly linked. Over the summer, I realised that I have grown tired of all this. The last time I was genuinely elated about a Chelsea signing was in the Gullit, Vialli and Zola years. Since then, without sounding too blasé, I’ve seen them come and I’ve seen them go.

The managers too. Hoddle, Gullit, Vialli, Ranieri, Mourinho, Grant, Scolari, Hiddink, Ancelotti…and now the new guy Andre Villas-Boas. Seen ‘em come. Seen ‘em go.

Welcome to the club Andre. I wish you well.

I remember my good friend Rob (who, like me, is not so keen on the “Chels” epithet) commenting one day in The Goose :

“I don’t really care…this player, that player. I’m at the stage now where I’m not too bothered. It doesn’t make much difference to me. This is Chelsea – drinking with your mates, looking after each other, the away trips, the banter. The players come and go. This is what matters.”

This is a mantra I have been preaching too. As the years pass, the football almost becomes irrelevant. I have even said that my Chelsea goes from pre-match drinking session to the next, rather than game to game. The games in between the sessions give us something to talk about, but the drinking and socialising is the crux of all this. When the football wasn’t so great (let’s say 1991-1992 for example, though there have been others…), the pre-match meet-ups were what kept me coming back to Chelsea season after season.

…and you will hear variations of this ethos throughout my many various match reports during the coming year ahead. I guess you all had best get used to it. Wink.

The constant drone of 24/7 football overkill with salacious rumours and gossip seem to be the norm these days, but I remember times when the summer was a more restful time. When I was younger, my family and I used to get daily newspapers and there used to be a reduction in football news from the end of May through to the start of July. The sporting sections of papers would be full of Test Match cricket, Wimbledon and golf and, at times, football might only warrant a few scant paragraphs.

Those days seem a lifetime away to me now.

I remember the summer of 1983 in particular. I remember being in Frome on a Friday afternoon, the day before I was due to travel up by train for the league opener with Derby County at The Bridge. In those days, virtually the only football magazines that were on offer were the ones aimed at early teens…”Shoot” and “Match Weekly.” I had been getting “Shoot” since I was seven and I was now eighteen. And I was probably embarrassed to buy it, but it was always good for mail order products like football programmes and replica kits. Anyway, on this particular afternoon, I remember buying a “Match Weekly” and not only seeing our new Le Coq Sportif shirt for the first time, but also reading, with increasing disbelief, that we had recently purchased Kerry Dixon, Pat Nevin, Joe McLaughlin, Nigel Spackman, Eddie Niedzwiecki, John Hollins and Alan Hudson. Not only was I excited and amazed, but I was also dumbfounded that these signings had passed me by. I can only surmise that we had stopped getting daily ‘papers that summer as we sometimes couldn’t afford them, if the truth be known. Living in the south-west, without access to the London TV and national press, I guess I was out of the loop. Also, Chelsea were a struggling Second Division Two team at the time. Maybe we just weren’t newsworthy enough for these signings to reach me in deepest Somerset.

So – imagine that. A Chelsea fanatic like myself not knowing we had bought “The Magnificent Seven” during the summer of 1983. It’s hard to fathom, isn’t it?

How the times have changed.

I set off for Fratton Park at 11.30am and Parky, my travelling companion for 75% of my Chelsea trips, was alongside me once again. I haven’t seen too much of him in that eight week period, so we spent quite a while updating each other on all of the gossip. A sizeable segment of the first hour was spent running through my travel plans for the Asia tour and how I wish Parky and a few more friends could accompany me. I’m such a lucky so-and-so to be off on my travels once again. Other topics were discussed and news of mutual friends exchanged. The tickets for the game at Portsmouth were just £15 and we wondered how many tickets were sold. I guess we expected a full Chelsea allocation of around 3,000 in an attendance of around 15,000. I went to a pre-season game at Fratton once before, in 2002, and sat in the rickety old Leitch stand above the half-way line. It was a great view to be fair. Everyone knows how much I love my stadia architecture and I have a definite soft-spot for raggedy-arsed Fratton. I get quite depressed when fellow Chelsea fans lambast it. I for one will miss it when it is redeveloped or bulldozed and Pompey play in a sterile bowl on the city boundaries.

The traffic was horrendous as we passed through the quaint Wiltshire city of Salisbury and this held us up. The weather forecast was for rain, rain and more rain. At least there is a roof on the away terrace at Fratton these days. Eventually, we left the cathedral city of Salisbury behind and ploughed on, eventually parking up outside the Good Companion pub at 2pm.

Inside, it didn’t take us long to meet up with our closest Chelsea companions; Alan, Gary, Daryl, Rob, Whitey and also Barb, Burger and Julie. How on Earth could it be eight weeks ago that I left Burger and Julie’s house in Stafford after that Everton match? When I said “goodbyes” to them that night, Carlo was still the manager…

Time moves fast in Chelsea World.

I bought His Lordship a pint and a Coke for myself. My alcohol intake over the summer has reduced to just a trickle and I am wondering how I’ll cope once I get on the beers in Kuala Lumpur and Bangok. Things could get a little messy. I had a good old chat with Rob and then Burger and Julie, who had decided to book the night in a city centre hotel. At 2.45pm, we left the now empty pub and walked the short distance to Fratton. This was a first-time visit for Burger and Julie and I acknowledged their gasps of astonishment at the down-at-heel entrance to the away stand.

Good old Fratton.

Ironically, my PFC-supporting mate Rick was visiting his parents in Frome and there is a fair chance that we may have passed each other on the A36.

Parky and myself had tickets in the very back row of section M. We reached our seats just as the teams entered the pitch. We have that “Drinking + Walking + Admission” equation worked out perfectly these days.

Ah, the first game back.

A quick scan around. Paolo the captain, looking more tanned than usual. Torres with his Liverpool-style haircut and Alice band.

Chelsea in blue, Pompey in a new black away kit.

I only had the pleasure of seeing our new away kit once during the entire time at Fratton. And, frankly, that was once too many.

It was on a 50-something year old bloke and it looked awful.

I saw a few Chelsea home shirts, but the crowd in that packed Milton End mainly wore that usual eclectic mix of English football threads. Parky and I, overlooking the rear walkway, noted a few nice tops.

“Nice colour Fred Perry there, mate.”

And it was – a subtle yellow with deep orange trim. Good work.

The game quickly began and I snapped away like mad. I wanted to capture a few images from the game and I could then relax. I looked at the players on show and tried to piece together the formation. I soon spotted the new manager over to my left, in white, alongside the much-loved Roberto Di Matteo. It didn’t take long for the boisterous Chelsea crowd to acknowledge our former mid-fielder;

“One Di Matteo, There’s Only One Di Matteo, One Di Matteo.”

It dawned on me that this song was sung so quickly in order to fill the void of where a song for Andre Villas-Boas should be. Still haven’t mastered his name, still haven’t mustered a song…but we are working on it.

Then, a crazy period of football and support, intertwined.

A fan had evidently smuggled in some bags of celery, right down below us, and frantically pelted it everywhere…it was the biggest show of celery at an away game for years and it was a joy to behold. We pelted some stewards and someone managed to hit a female steward, who picked the celery up and threw it back. It was a great piece of comedy. Many pieces of the yellowy-green vegetable had made their way onto the pitch. With that, a young lad did a hearty Zigger Zagger and we all joined in. I had trouble concentrating on the game as the support in our section was boiling over. However, the ball was played out to Fernando Torres out on the Chelsea right. I spotted Studge making a run into the middle, but the ensuing cross was nimbly headed into his own net by a Portsmouth defender.

I’ll be honest – I think Parky was too busy filming the celery and missed it.

Amidst the laughter caused by the celery flying in every direction, now laughter at an own goal. It was a great moment.

We had most of the ball in the first-half and Paolo, especially, found himself wide on the right on a number of occasions. Sturridge looked confident and was full of sweeping runs. One lone Pompey fan, in a white baseball cap and a snide Stone Island jacket, was coming in for bundles of abuse from the Chelsea section nearest the Pompey North stand. An attempt to get his fellow fans to sing fell on deaf ears and we roared –

“On Your Own, On Your Own, On Your Own.”

The sun eventually broke out from behind the clouds and it was becoming a pleasant, though blustery, afternoon. The Chelsea songs continued throughout the first half, even when Pompey had a little spell of possession just after the half-hour mark.

“Don’t Worry…About A Thing…’Cus Ev’ry Little Thing’s…Gonna Be Alright.”

“One Man Went To Mow.”

Just before the break, the much-maligned Pompey fan left his seat and took yet more abuse from the away fans. As he danced up the terrace steps, heading off for a half-time drink but loving the attention, I shouted –

“Milk and two sugars, mate.”

At half-time, the management team decided to hold the half-time preparations on the pitch and out came my camera to record the shuttle runs, the tactical talks and the fans serenading the substitutes – especially JT, Frank, Drogba and Nico. Songs for each of them. It was a lovely period, actually. I wondered if we would see some of the players in a Chelsea shirt ever again in the UK…Anelka must be a favourite to move on, I would guess. Andre Villas-Boas is a slight figure and he quietly spoke to a few players in turn. Di Matteo, however, was in control of a folder which he flicked through with various players. Lots of chat, lots of gestures. The players looked attentive and primed.

With the re-start came wholesale changes from Villas-Boas, but more Chelsea songs to wind up the home fans –

“When John Went Up To Lift The FA Cup, You Went Home, You Went Home.”

The play on the pitch wasn’t fantastic, but what do people expect? We had a lot of the ball, but found it difficult to work openings. A delightful Josh turn here, a lovely Kalou dribble there, a run from Drogba, neat control from Anelka…but not much threat. To be honest, it was Hilario’s half. He scythed down a Pompey attacker, but then threw himself to his left to save the resultant penalty. We then endured two almost identical pieces of horrendous defending caused by Hilario’s poor communication with his defenders. How we never conceded goals on each of those occasions, I will never know. Only a piece of super-human defending from JT on the second instance kept our goal intact.

By this stage, we were urging every player to “Shoot!” but the shots were as rare as polish being used in the Arsenal trophy room. Still the wind ups came –

“Oh When The Saints Go Marching In…”

No more goals ensued and the final whistle was met with a half-hearted cheer from us in the packed Milton End. It hadn’t been a great game, but so what? Today was all about showing up in our thousands – which we did – meeting up with friends – which we did – out singing the home fans – which we did – throwing celery at everyone – which we did – and showing some love to our players – which we did. Anything else, surely, would have been a bonus.

We quickly galloped back to the car and I made great time heading north up the A36. The music kept us buoyant – Joe Jackson, Tom Robinson, The Skids, The Undertones, The Pretenders and The Members – and I dropped Parky off at just before 7pm. With a four week gap now, until the home opener, it will be a while before I see him again.

And here I am.

I’m on the edge of the biggest leap yet in support of my team and my club, with a flight to Kuala Lumpur just 14 hours away.

I think it’s time to reflect for a moment on what Chelsea Football Club has become.

The loveable old under-achievers of my youth, supported by rapscallions and hooligans, celebrities and eccentrics, working class lads from inner London and die-hards all over the UK, have evolved into a 21st Century footballing powerhouse of national and international prominence.

It gives me a moment in time for me to hold a mirror up and comment on what I see. To paraphrase my old geography lecturer at North Staffs Poly : Who is Chelsea? What is Chelsea? Where is Chelsea? Why is Chelsea? And what of it?

This trip out East might aid me in answering these questions.

Apart from the football – see my earlier comments – this trip is going to give me a great opportunity to appreciate how other nationalities perceive us and for me to try to get to grips with what being a member of the Chelsea Family means to the good people of Malaysia and Thailand. I’m particularly anxious to hopefully dispel some myths about our overseas support. There is a growing and tedious trend at Chelsea – or at least amongst the less enlightened members of some chat forums – to think that foreign fans have no right to support Chelsea. That they are all JCLs. That you have to go to 50 Chelsea games a season to be a true fan. Well, I already know from my travels in the USA that this view is way off the mark. So, as is the case with a lot of the games that I have witnessed in America, whereas others will be watching the action on the pitch, I might well be centering my gaze on the supporters and fans off it.

To say I am excited would be a ridiculous understatement.

Now, where did I put that celery?

IMGP2873