Tales From Friends Reunited

Chelsea vs. Atletico Madrid : 5 December 2017.

The Chuckle Bus was London-bound once more, headed to Stamford Bridge for a third consecutive game and a Tuesday evening encounter with Atletico Madrid. Here was a lovely match to finish off our autumnal series in the competition that gets us all excited and dreamy. After Champions League clashes with the Mattress Makers in 2009/2010 and 2013/2014 (does anyone remember us playing Atletico at Highbury in the pre-season Makita at Highbury in 1994 too?), this seemed like an evening to re-acquaint ourselves with a familiar adversary and some old friends too.

Step forward Tiago.

Our one-season wonder from 2004/2005 was returning to Stamford Bridge in his capacity as assistant manager to Diego Simeone after finally hanging up his boots last season. I am not really sure why Jose Mourinho sold Tiago on to Lyon after just one championship season at Stamford Bridge. He was a classy player with an eye for goal. His equaliser on a famous night at Old Trafford was a belter. He featured in the semi-finals against us in 2014. He would now sit alongside the Argentinian Simeone, who himself played against us for Lazio in the 1999/2000 season.

Step forward Filipe Luis.

Another one-season wonder under Jose Mourinho, this defender flitted in and out of the Chelsea team of 2014/2015, and returned to Atletico the following season after a disappointing total of games played. He shared the same shocking hairstyle as Alexei Smertin and followed the same fate as the left-back Asier del Horno who also lasted just one season under Mourinho. Considering Chelsea’s predilection for dispensing the services of left-backs after a league win, it is quite a surprise that Marcos Alonso is still here.

Step forward Fernando Torres.

Once an Atleti wunderkind, the local boy from Fuenlabrada signed for Liverpool and then joined us in a blockbuster move in the January transfer window of 2011. Although I was always impressed with his work ethic, he struggled to win over many fans. He is remembered fondly by myself for that goal in Barcelona, that corner in Munich and that goal in Amsterdam. The roar which greeted his first-ever goal in the rain against West Ham is one of the loudest I have ever witnessed. I last saw him on the bench at Turf Moor in the first game of 2014/2015. It would be great to see him again.

In addition to Tiago playing against us in 2014, that Atletico team also included Thibaut Courtois and Diego Costa.

I wonder what ever happened to them?

We popped into “The Goose” for one and “Simmons Bar” for a couple. There were the usual familiar Chelsea faces in both pubs. I was pleased to be joined by Eric, still visiting from Toronto, and taking in his third match at Stamford Bridge in seven days and we chatted about his stay in London. We shared a few laughs when we mentioned the heightened expectation from legions of new fans, who only appear to be in it for the trophies. Eric spoke about the respect that he has for us – cough, cough – “old school” Chelsea fans who supported us through thick, thin and thinner.

“You were there when we were shit, right?”

“Well, at the time, I have to say, we all thought that we were alright. Honestly. For the most part, we thought we were doing OK.”

I was half-serious.

Eric understood the joke.

Thoughts turned to the evening’s game. When the draw was made way back in August, a brave man would have bet against Chelsea and Atletico Madrid making it out of the group, yet it was looking pretty likely that Simeone’s men, with just win from their five matches, would be likely to playing in the Europa League, save for a catastrophe for Roma against Qarabag. We were already guaranteed a passage into the knock-out phase in the new year. Whereas others were calculating whether or not it would be best to finish first or second, with likely opposition being compared, I was hoping for a win against Atletico for the sole reason that it would mean that our first game in February or March would be away. It is always advantageous to play away first. And I was thinking of the supporters just as much as the team. For the supporters, let us enjoy an away game first with no chance of a defeat from the first game spoiling our trip. For the players, let them enjoy home advantage in the second game, where extra-time might be needed.

However, as we took our seats in The Sleepy Hollow of the Matthew Harding, there was a certain strangeness to the evening’s mood. The four of us – Lord Parky, PD, Young Jake and me – had decided that we would be forced, reluctantly, to leave the game, regardless of the score, on eighty-five minutes to avoid the horrific traffic congestion caused by the partial closure of the M4 which had blighted our return trip against Swansea City the previous week.

“Let’s go 3-0 up and bugger off home, lads.”

Over in The Shed, the two thousand away fans were a riot of colour, if not noise. I was impressed that so many had travelled despite the miniscule chance of them progressing. Down on the pitch, the Atletico players were going through their drills in front of their fans, while the Chelsea players were doing the same in front of us. The stadium took for ever to fill, but it almost reached full capacity. Apart from a section in The Shed – a gap so that Chelsea fans were not immediately above the visitors – I had to search meticulously for empty seats. In our section, virtually every seat was full.

I commented to Alan –

“£35 for a Champions League game is pretty decent, to be fair.”

Antonio had mixed it up again, and I was surprised that he chose to play Davide Zappacosta out on the left in place of Marcos Alonso. Tiemoue Bakayoko was recalled in the place of Danny Drinkwater. Gary Cahill, the experienced captain, replaced Toni Rudiger.


Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Bakayoko – Zappacosta

Hazard – Morata

I was pleased to see both Filipe Luis and Fernando Torres starting for Atletico, resplendent in their red and white stripes.

The anthem, the march across the pitch, the handshakes.

It would be lovely, I think, if the march across the pitch for Champions League games could be kept in the new Stamford Bridge stadium. Let’s maintain that Chelsea tradition. It adds an extra lick of drama and anticipation on these wonderful nights. Keep the dressing rooms in the East Stand and keep the dignitaries in the West Stand.

Something to think about, Herr Herzog and Herr de Meuron.

There was a slight wait for the referee’s whistle and then the game began with their star striker Antoine Griezmann kicking-off, or kicking-back, or whatever it is called these days.

Griezmann must have just recently returned from his own stag party in Prague or Benidorm or Amsterdam; his best man must surely have cut his hair with an electric shaver, and it was only now starting to grow again. It looked bloody awful.

The game lacked a little intensity at the start. As players picked out team mates in pretty patterns but without much penetration, I thought back on all of these ridiculous links between Chelsea and Atletico Madrid that have developed in the very recent past. I recalled that in Italy, some clubs – in addition to heated rivalries with some teams – have “friendly” relationships with some clubs too. Napoli get on well with Genoa, I seemed to remember. In Europe, there is a little link up between Chelsea and Rangers, Chelsea and Lazio, Chelsea and Feyenoord, and in the pre-historic days of 1994/1995, a little band of TSV1860 Munich followed us around on our European trail. I wondered if we have witnessed the first tentative steps in a friendship between Chelsea and Atletico over the past few seasons. When they beat us, fairly and squarely, in 2014, I joined in thousands who applauded Atletico off the Stamford Bridge turf.

I remembered the story of how Newcastle United fans invaded the Basque city of Bilbao in the mid-nineties, and how they were taken in by the natives, who joined in with their drinking and carousing, to such an extent that a few Geordies mooted the idea of forming some sort of friendship between the two clubs’ supporters.

Then, it dawned on them.

“Wait a minute lads, they wear red and white stripes.”

A few chances were exchanged, and over the first twenty minutes I would suggest that the away team were marginally ahead on points. Then, we began to turn the screw. As with the game against Newcastle United, Alvaro Morata managed a few efforts on goal. One shot curled just wide of Jan Oblak’s post.

There was a “trademark” heavy-touch – I am being kind – from Torres in our box and the jeers rang out.

A lovely little bit of delicate close control from N’Golo Kante – what is “keepy-uppy” in French? – brought warm applause.

Eden Hazard began to dominate. Just how does he consistently manage to out-fox a marker with those 180 degree turns from a standing position?

Another good save from Oblak, again from Morata.

Hazard set up Zappacosta on the left, who cut back and fired a low shot goal wards. Oblak again pounced to push the ball away.

There was little noise in the stadium. A few chants, but not many. The two sets of fans in The Shed contrasted wildly.

Atletico – standing, participating and colourful, with flags, banners, scarves.

Chelsea – sitting, watching, being the modern English home football supporter to a T.

Although we were now dominating play, this was still a game that lacked any biting tackles nor rugged intensity. It was enjoyable stuff though. No complaints. Griezmann kept coming deep to pick up the ball, but was generally quiet. Sorry for the clichés, but Christensen was cool and calm again. Only Bakayoko looked out of sorts. Advantage Drinkwater at this stage of the season.

In the first few moments of the second-half, a Griezmann free-kick curled around our wall but Thibaut was able to save. Within a minute, a fine Hazard cross from the left was headed goal wards by Christensen who had leapt well. That man Oblak palmed over.

We were then treated to a sensational run from deep from Hazard, his speed and skill leaving defenders in his wake. Oblak saved again. We were playing some great stuff now, and Morata forced another save from the corner. We were raiding at will down the left with Zappacosta adding extra spice, and the ever reliable Moses on the right twisting and pushing to create crosses out of nowhere.

Filipe Luis then lazily guided a fine shot past Thibaut – hearts in mouths – but it rebounded back off the right post. Koke – another quiet one – headed the ball back towards goal but Thibaut was equal to it.

An Atletico corner soon followed.

I found myself saying “don’t let it drop.”

It dropped onto Torres’ header and his flick was headed in at the far post by Niguez.


This goal was undoubtedly against the run of play. We had dominated until then.


Fernando Torres was given an outstanding ovation when he was substituted by Simeone just after the goal was scored. He surely has a soft spot for us.

“The Atletico & Chelsea Supporters Association” : Patron Fernando Torres.

Pedro replaced the disappointing Bakayoko. Our terrier-like winger was soon in the game, fizzing past his marker and smashing a shot goal wards.

Oblak, save, sigh.

Christensen went close.

The intensity was increasing and Stamford Bridge warmed with noise.

It was all out attack now.

I looked across to PD, wondering if we would score before our eighty-five-minute escape hatch would open up.

We went close, with Moses, Hazard, Pedro and Fabregas all creating chance after chance.

Willian replaced Zappacosta.


Pedro moved to wing back, Willian played ahead.

On seventy-five minutes, the ball broke to Hazard after a defensive header, and he accelerated past his marker before slamming a low cross towards the six-yard box. I saw the ball flash into the goal, and missed the deflection from the Atletico defender Savic. It was the slightest of touches.


Eden celebrated down below us. His relief was shared by all of us.


We hardly lose any games at home in Europe. Count’em.

The boys in blue were playing some great stuff now.

Morata headed on – a classic Chelsea counter – for Fabregas and Cesc advanced before squaring the ball back to our number nine, who was being chased by three defenders, but he fluffed his lines and Oblak saved.


Michy replaced Morata.

“Tuck yer shirt in, son.”

Down below us, Eden danced away, and spotted the unmarked Willian. With the goal at his mercy he ballooned the ball over.


With five minutes to go, we left.

“See you at West Ham, Al.”

What a strange sensation. In all of my years of attending games at Stamford Bridge – this would be game number 722 – I had only ever left a game early once before (Bolton at home, 1981, in case anyone is wondering. I needed to return to Earls Court to catch a bus home to Frome at 5pm. Thankfully we were 2-0 in that game.)

The streets were eerie and empty. It was wholly surreal.

Jake, PD and I walked briskly back to the car. Parky, bless him, was already there. There had been no loud cheer on our walk down Fulham Road.

It had finished 1-1.

We pulled away at 9.50pm, PD broke the land speed record and, at bang on midnight I was home. There had been no added drama at Stamford Bridge nor on the M4.

Job done.


Tales From The Home Of Four European Trophies

Chelsea vs. Atletico Madrid : 30 April 2014.

How frequently did I think about the Chelsea vs. Atletico Madrid second leg during the day at work? Maybe once every five minutes. Maybe once every three minutes. Maybe once every two minutes. Several work colleagues asked me how I was feeling about the evening’s game. To my surprise, I tended to reply that I was “quietly confident” that we would progress. This is unlike me, especially when it comes to Champions League semi-finals. I don’t think that I have ever been “quietly confident” ever before.

This would be Chelsea’s seventh Champions League semi-final in only eleven seasons.

Time for some numbers.

This would be the fourth time that the second-leg would be at home –

2004 : Monaco – drew 2-2, but lost on aggregate.

2008 : Liverpool – won 3-2, and won on aggregate.

2009 : Barcelona – drew 1-1, but lost on away goals.

In the other years, the results were –

2005 : Liverpool – drew 0-0, but went out on aggregate at Anfield.

2007 : Liverpool – won 1-0, but went out on penalties at Anfield.

2012 : Barcelona – won 1-0, and went through on aggregate at Camp Nou.

For a football club that were deprived of European football from the autumn of 1971 until the autumn of 1994, these represent an amazing treasure trove of memories and emotions.

Jesper Gronkjaer, Fernando Morientes, Luis Garcia, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Joe Cole, Jan Arne Riise, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, Andres Iniesta, Didier Drogba, Ramires, Fernando Torres.

More heartache than joy.

In truth, the heartbreak of 2005, 2007 and 2009 are surely some of our most awful memories as Chelsea supporters. Somehow the loss in 2004 – our club’s first semi – seemed quite tame by comparison. After a tough away leg in Monaco, the return was always going to be difficult. We raced into a 2-0 lead, but then…well, you know the story.

As for 2005, 2007 and 2009; well you know those stories too.

After the sublime afterglow of Anfield, I gathered together two of the three troops who accompanied me to Liverpool on the previous Sunday. Lord Parky was collected from the pub opposite where I work in Chippenham and Dennis was collected from the town’s train station.

Let’s go.

I had watched the previous night’s semi-final between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Bayern’s capitulation had surprised me; despite odd successes, their recent Champions League story has predominantly featured misery and not joy.

So, Real Madrid – with our former manager Carlo Ancelotti at the helm – awaited the winner in Lisbon on Saturday 24 May. This pleased me, for numerous reasons. Should we be successful against Atletico, the stage would be set for a simply classic confrontation at Benfica’s Estadio da Luz.

Real Madrid vs. Chelsea.

White vs. Blue.

Carlo Ancelotti vs. Jose Mourinho.

1971 all over again.

I am sure I wasn’t the only Chelsea supporter to let their mind run away with the notion of this. I had gambled on us reaching the final after our win against Paris St. Germain; I had booked flights from Bristol to Lisbon. After the creditable 0-0 at the Vicente Calderon, a hotel room on The Algarve was booked, too.

Personally, there was an extra dimension to all of this.

Should we reach the 2014 Champions League Final, it would be my one thousandth Chelsea game.

In all honesty, this was all too surreal for me to comprehend at times. After the shocking defeat in Moscow, I was convinced that we would never win the European Cup. And yet, just six years later, here we were, with one trophy tucked in our back pockets and another one just 180 minutes away.

Dennis, Parky and I met up with some mates in the beer garden of The Goose. A couple of Atletico fans were inside. There was no hint of bother. Dave – the last of the Anfield Four – was in good spirits; he would be sitting next to me for the game. For once, talk was dominated by the game itself. Simon was “quietly confident” too. This was all very worrying.

News of the team broke and the big surprise was the appearance of Ashley Cole at left-back, presumably forcing Cesar into a midfield role, strikingly reminiscent of Ryan Bertrand’s role in Munich. The absence of Oscar was noted. Fernando Torres was given the start.

As Dennis remarked, it was turning into quite a week for him with visits to his two former homes.

I wanted to get inside the stadium earlier than usual, so I left at around 7pm. It was a perfect evening in London. I was in shirtsleeves and stayed the same the entire evening. At 7.15pm, I was inside. I was initially shocked to see how few fellow supporters were inside. Maybe, on this day of tube strikes, people were forced into a late arrival.

Over in the far corner, a sea of red and white striped shirts.

We waited for the kick-off.

Although the scene before me represented a familiar one; sunny skies, a boisterous away contingent, Champions League logos, familiar names on the advertisements, there seemed to be a lack of anticipation within the home ranks. For a while, all was still. Maybe it was the collective nerves among the home support which made for the quieter-than-expected ambiance.

The TV cameras picked out Diego Maradona and then Claudio Ranieri in the executive areas of the West Stand.

A card had been placed on every seat in the MHU; on it were instructions to hold these cards aloft just before the teams were due to enter the pitch. The overall effect would be of a blue-white-blue-white bar scarf. This was met with unsurprising cynicism from the chaps in the row in front, but I approved. I remember the CISA arranging for the 17,000 Chelsea fans at the 1994 F.A. Cup Final to hold 17,000 blue cards aloft as the players strode across Wembley’s finely manicured lawn, only for the TV cameras to ignore it completely. With around five minutes to go, the hideously embarrassing opera singer wheeled out by the club on European nights sang “Blue Is The Colour” and the usual blue and white scarves, derided by the Scousers at Anfield on Sunday, were waved in the West Lower and the Matthew Harding Lower.

As the teams entered the field, it was our moment. Some 3,000 blue and white cards were held aloft. From the MH balcony, four flags were unfurled.

The European Cup Winners’ Cup : 1971 and 1998.

The Super Cup 1998.

The European Cup : 2012.

The Europa Cup : 2013.

The only British club to win all four. It was a fantastic sight. I noted that, over in the East Middle, the inhabitants had been given 3,000 bar scarves.

Flags, mosaics, scarves.

I know that this kind of “forced-participation” is often frowned upon, but Stamford Bridge looked a picture.

As Dave arrived in time for the kick-off, there was a brief interchange.

Dave : “Great seats, mate.”

Chris : “This is where the magic happens.”

At 7.44pm, Stamford Bridge fell silent momentarily as two of football’s family were remembered.

Tito Villanova RIP.

Vujadin Boskov RIP.

I wasn’t happy that Chelsea were kicking “the wrong way” in the first-half. There are not many times that we attack the Matthew Harding in the first-half these days. Of course, prior to 1994 and the demise of The Shed, this was the norm.

At last, some semblance of noise boomed around the stadium as the few attacks from both sides began. Atletico brought the first heart tremor when a dangerously looping cross out on their left caused panic in our defence. It wasn’t readily apparent what had happened after Koke’s cross bounced off the bar. How could it go off for a corner? There was confusion in our defence and in my head too.

Next up, came a Chelsea chance. Ramires was fouled and we prayed for a goal from the free-kick. I caught a Willian’s effort on film, but it flew wide. Atletico were in this game and we tended to stand off as their mobile players raided. There was nervous tension on the pitch and off it. An overhead kick from David Luiz narrowly missed Courtois’ far post, bouncing safely away.

This was a tight game. Fernando Torres, prone to an indulgent dribble – maybe too eager to impress – was not ably supported by Azpilicueta, Willian and Hazard. For too long in the first half, he foraged alone. I noted a lack of intensity all round; from players and supporters alike. Was it the nerves? On several occasions when Atletico cleared, the ball boys threw balls back quickly, yet Chelsea players were often not paying attention and were unable to unsettle Atletico with a quick break. It was a metaphor for our half. We were just too lackadaisical. Jose would not approve.

The crowd tried to generate some noise.

“Champions Of Europe – We’ve Done it Before.”

With ten minutes to go before the break, a strong run from Willian into the Atletico box stirred us all. He held off two strong challenges – and did well to stay on his feet – and the ball ran free. Dave was supporting our Brazilian dynamo and he picked up the loose ball, and played it back into the path of Torres.

The former Atletico captain swept it into the goal.


I jumped up and looked over to Nando. He held his hands up, indicating his reluctance to celebrate fully. Elsewhere, we more than made up for it.

We were on our way to Lisbon.


Alan : “They’ll hath to come at uth na-ohhhh.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonth.”

Atletic seized the gauntlet and probed away. Mark Schwarzer, after his fine performance at Anfield, seemed to be coping ably.

Then, on forty-four minutes, misery.

Tiago, our former champion from 2005, swept a ball over to the far post to an unmarked attacker. The ball was knocked back…clenching of muscles…and Lopez struck home.

They had the advantage; that dreaded away goal.

It had been a first-half of few chances; six to us, five to them. At half-time, we presumed that Atletico would sit and protect their narrow advantage. They would, surely, do to us what we did to Liverpool on Sunday.

After the opening few minutes of the second period, Simeone’s game plan was evidently more adventurous. They attacked from the whistle. A Schwarzer save from Turan saved us. At the other end, we gasped in amazement as Courtois dropped to save a John Terry header. Samuel Eto’o replaced Ashley Cole, with Azpilicueta filling in at left-back. He joined up with Torres, with the midfield realigning themselves behind. Then, more calamity.

I was momentarily looking away, so missed Eto’o’s clip which resulted in the Italian referee pointing towards the spot.

Costa struck home.

Game, surely, over.

We now had to score three times to progress.

The away fans were in triumphant mood.

“Leti. Leti. Leti. Leti.”

Chelsea offered moments of hope. David Luiz, strong in tackle, but prone to awful finishing all night, struck a post. Atletico broke away down our right and Turan saw his header crash against the bar. We watched in horror as he easily followed up with a tap in from the rebound.

Stamford Bridge fell flat. It was time to reflect. At least there was no sense of horrendous injustice this time. At least there was no Iniesta-style dagger to the heart. I’d rather take a 3-1 loss than a last minute 1-1 exit. We had met our match, no excuses. Maybe the efforts of the game on Sunday had taken everything. Our one hope, Hazard, had been on the periphery all night. The game fizzled out. Mourinho made some late changes, but an unforgettable recovery was never on the cards. It had been a horrible second-half. We looked second-best. I longed for the whistle to blow.

The Atletico contingent, who had been relatively quiet until their first goal, were now rejoicing. There were songs for their former hero Fernando Torres and for their hated rival Jose Mourinho.

Some home fans had left by the time of the final whistle, but I was heartened by the many Chelsea supporters who stayed to not only thank our players for their efforts throughout the campaign but to applaud the victors.

Top marks.

Rob walked past and tapped me on the shoulder.

“Not tonight, Chris.”

“We’ve lost five out of seven semi-finals, but we’d give it all up for Munich.”

Rob agreed.

At least we have Munich. We’ll always have Munich. And Munich made defeat against Atletico Madrid on a night of harsh reality almost…ALMOST…bearable.

Outside, I waited silently with Dave for Dennis to arrive underneath the statue of Peter Osgood. I looked at his name etched in stone and I looked up at his image. It was a moment for me to give thanks to Ossie, possibly the determining factor in my decision to not only choose Chelsea in 1970 but to stick with the club ever since. After a while, a clearly saddened and emotional Dennis arrived. He was sad we had lost – of course – but was more disgusted by the “fans” around him in the West Lower who had hardly uttered words or songs of support to the team all night.

Then, Dennis spoke and his emotive words made me smile.

“I just need a few moments with The King.”

Outside on the Fulham Road there was an air of quiet reflection of the better team having won as the Chelsea faithful made their way home. Back in The Goose, Dennis – the visitor from over six thousand miles away – was philosophical and humbly grateful. He stood with a pint of lager in his hand and said –

“I’m just happy to be at this latitude and this longitude, right here, right now.”

We all knew what he meant.

As for me, there will be no grand finale in Lisbon. That landmark will have to wait.


Tales From Plaza Major

Atletico Madrid vs. Chelsea : 3 November 2009.

After a busy week at work – plus an equally frantic period for Chelsea with six games in eighteen days – I couldn’t wait to get myself to Gatwick and on the plane to Spain.

I set off from my home in the small hours of Monday and it was fantastic to be off on my travels again. Meanwhile, Game Four of the World Series was taking place in Philadelphia and I needed to know how my Yankees were doing. Good job I have friends in California – the only ones in the US still awake – and so I texted Bob and Danny and, by the time I had parked up at a mate’s house in South London, I was very pleased to hear that the Yankees had won. One game away from winning it all. I texted Danny to say “my two teams could win the World Series and the Champions League Final in Madrid.”

With my thoughts returning to football, I added up – and lost count a few times – of the number of Chelsea European aways I had done and I worked out it was eighteen…Madrid would be number nineteen. A roll-call, from 1994 to date…Prague, Vienna, Zaragoza, Bratislava, Seville, Stockholm, Monaco, Oslo, Rome, Barcelona, Stuttgart, Paris, Barcelona, Bremen, Gelsenkirchen, Moscow, Rome, Turin and now Madrid.

Enough memories to last a lifetime really. The best three? I’d go for Turin, Seville and Stockholm…even Moscow was magnificent. The worst – by a mile – was Zaragoza.

I must be one of the few Englishmen who has never been on a standard package holiday to a Spanish beach resort. My childhood holidays were always in Italy ( 5 times from 1975 to 1981 ) and I have always felt more “at home” in Italy than Spain. My only ever visit to the city of Madrid was in September 1987 on an Inter-Rail adventure with two mates…we arrived at Chamartin station in the morning and we spent 12 hours walking the city streets until we departed from Attocha station, en route to Lisbon, at night. I don’t remember too much about Madrid…I remember I bumped into a girl who recognised me from my school in Frome ( small world, eh? ) but the main image from that day all those years ago is of a massive, but crumbling Bernabeu Stadium. I think we paid a few pesetas for a tour of the stadium, but this involved rampaging all over the terraces with no guide, no security and basically being able to go wherever we pleased. Later on that trip we visited Camp Nou in Barcelona and I was far more impressed with that grander stadium. All of these memories flitted in and out of my consciousness as I drive through the night.

I met up with Alan, Gary and Neil on a train at Purley at 5.25am. Our Easyjet flight to Madrid Barrajas airport left at about 8am. There were a few familiar Chelsea faces on the plane, including a chap I first met in a bar in Vienna for the Austria Memphis game in 1994.

I caught a small amount of sleep on the plane and we were soon circling the parched Spanish landscape around Madrid. The sky was picture-perfect blue and England suddenly seemed pale and grey by comparison. In a second, I understood why Arjen Robben chose to leave London for Madrid in 2007. We landed at 11.15am.

Our two mates Daryl and Rob were on a slightly later flight from Stanstead. They would soon be with us. Alan provided the first big laugh of the trip as we used the airport toilets. I wasn’t aware he was next to me, but I heard his voice bellow out –

“Just seen Torres outside, looking confused. He doesn’t know which one to go in.”

And before we knew it, the Stanstead Two arrived and we were all together, on a rumbling metro line headed for the centre.

Let the fun begin.

Our hotel was very close to the city centre ( whisper it, but we have provisionally booked it for The Final in May, too ) and the six of us spent from about 1pm to 5.30pm on a very enjoyable walk around the area by Plaza Del Sol and Plaza Mayor. My goodness, that sun was hot. We popped into a few bars and sunk a few Mahou beers. We were relaxing together and I felt the worries of work leaving me with each drink. We sat outside a beautifully tiled restaurant / bar and got stuck into some tapas, followed by a main course and it was all gorgeous stuff. We finished off our spell at the restaurant with a couple of liquors ( one on the house ) which came in chocolate coated wafer cups…the business. On the trot back to our hotel, we dipped into a couple more bars. We spotted quite a few faces in “Moores,” including the famous Chelsea fan Blind Gerry, who was over with Charlie and Nick. Gerry was actually sporting a Chelsea In America T-shirt. I had a chat with Nick and he told me a few funny incidents involving Gerry, who has been a fan of the club for ages. He told me that they gave Gerry the window seat on the flight over.

I’m sure Gerry made the most of it.

Charlie sometimes provides match commentary for Gerry and he once commented ( in all seriousness ), after a beautiful passage of Chelsea play –

“Ooh – you should have seen that, Gerry.”

We stumbled back to the hotel and arranged to meet up in about an hour. I forgot to change the time on my phone, so my alarm went off late…I joined up with the boys, rather sheepishly, at about 8.15pm. They had been joined by some other lads – chaps I went to Turin with – who were at our hotel, too. Woody was well oiled already and was wearing a multicoloured Mohican head-dress which he had obtained from a street vendor. I went off to get a beer as he fell off his seat. We bumped into a few other semi-familiar faces throughout the night and bar-hopped around Plaza Mayor. We had yet more tapas at about 11pm. Not sure what the conversations were about, but the laughter flowed as well as the beer. I met up with Dominic – from NYC – in a packed pub called “The Dubliners” and gave him his match ticket. It was manic in there – loads of Chelsea. I had last seen Dominic in Baltimore and he was so grateful to get his hands on a ticket. We dipped into a couple more bars and – sitting outside one – serenaded the world with a couple of Depeche Mode songs. We back-tracked and entered “O’Neills” in search of more fun.

Amidst all this, Game Five of the World Series was taking place. This was a historic time for Daryl and myself. I only got to know Daryl, in 1991, through our joint love of baseball – or the Yankees in particular. Daryl used to edit a Yankee fanzine for us UK-based fans. Only a year later, when he saw my name in the late lamented “Chelsea Independent” did he realise that we were both Chelsea fans. And that’s how our particular friendship blossomed. Anyway, we live 150 miles apart and had never once watched a baseball game together…certainly not in the US, nor even on TV in the UK. I have lost count of the times we have pondered trips to The Bronx together. They usually always ended –

“One day, mate – one day.”

However, there – like a mirage, was a large TV screen with the baseball. Daryl and myself smiled and toasted our team.

One win away from the Series, I wore a small gold NYY badge on my dark blue pullover and hoped the Yanks could overturn a 1-3 deficit. The coverage was then turned off for some reason. We then heard from Rob – who had disappeared – that the World Series was being shown in “The Dubliners.”

As I entered the pub, Cathy shouted out my name and I went over to have a brief word…the pub was full of Chelsea and the songs were loud. There was a crunch of sticky broken glass underfoot…the pub had obviously seen some heavy action that evening.

There were a few Rangers and Hearts fans in too – they often show up to see us in Europe.

We saw the Phils go 6-1 up and I wondered how long I could last. The beers were starting to have an effect.

The baseball coverage stopped at about 3.45am as the pub closed. I left most of my last pint as I knew I had reached saturation level. We meandered home, shards of glass stuck to my shoes, making me sound like a tap dancer. We reached the hotel at around 4am and tentatively all arranged to meet up in the hotel lobby at 10am.

At 11am I was the only one up! Eventually we all assembled and the eleven of us met up for a coffee in a nearby square.

Lacoste Watch

Chris – lavender
Jocka – light blue
Andy – racing green
Neil – mid blue

My goodness, the heat was strong again. Mirroring my visit in 1987, we then caught a couple of busses up to the Real Madrid stadium…while we waited for the second bus, next to the Madrid Hard Rock Cafe, we saw Ray Wilkins and Gary Staker walking towards us. We were able to get a few photos with Butch and we engaged him in a brief conversation.

Daryl asked him if there would be a full first team out and he replied “well – we’ve got a couple of crafty changes up our sleeve” and he then reconfirmed that “Sunday is a much bigger game.”

The Bernabeu Stadium is located a couple of miles to the north of the city in an area that could be called “plush.” It is set next to a business district full of blue-chip companies and a high-rent residential area and even the shops opposite are top-end boutiques. It is a quite abnormal location for a football stadium. It was once said – back in the mid-seventies, when talking of our un-reached potential – that Chelsea had the best location of any club in Europe, except that of Real Madrid. I was reminded of this when Daryl mentioned the setting of Stamford Bridge as being the best in London and the one stadium comparable to Real Madrid’s pad.

We spent about 90 minutes at The Bernabeu and we loved it. Since 1987, how it has changed. It has now easily leap-frogged Camp Nou in terms of quality. We paid 15 euros for a tour and it was well worth it. The first thing on the tour involved a lift up the outside of the stadium, overlooking the streets below, which reached the top tier in a few seconds. From there, the view was spectacular. The skies were clear blue and mirrored the blue of the seats. The iconic white roof hovered over the steep stands and the scene was just beautiful. Throughout the tour, my mind was doing various permutations of what could happen over the next six months. Would Chelsea be paired with Real in the knockout phase? If we reached the final, who would we play? How spectacular it would be if it was to be Real Madrid. Or – tantalisingly suggested by Daryl – how about Barcelona? The whole of Madrid would be behind us. We would be drinking for free!

The tour consisted of viewing the stadium from several levels, from the upper tiers all of the way down to pitch level by the tunnel. I took lots of photos. There is a museum, featuring old artefacts, game-worn jerseys from as far back as 1902, photos of previous stadia, potted histories of a their famous players and then there is the trophy room, which is superb. There is a wall containing photos of thousands of players. We concluded that there are six players who have played for both teams…Arjen Robben, Christian Panucci, Geremi, Claude Makelele, Lassana Diarra and Nikolas Anelka.

They clearly are an ultra-successful club.

However – for anyone with just a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish football, all of this success hasn’t exactly come as a result of just the honest toil from the players on the pitch. Real has achieved their successes partly via the murky transfer of players, funds from politicians and businesses, decisions from dodgy referees, patronage of the state, favours from every direction, subjugation of others ( a certain team in Catalonia to name but one ) and the like.

When they claim they are the most successful club of the 20th Century, it is almost as if there needs to be an asterisk hovering nearby.

I never have liked Real Madrid, Franco’s club, the fascist Ultra Sur hooligans, the galacticos et al. I remember the booing of SWP and other black players on England duty at the Bernabeu in around 2005, something that certainly shocked me. The fact that Leeds United rebranded themselves in the ‘sixties to copy the all-white kit hasn’t helped either.

However, perhaps they have never liked us…we beat them in Athens in 1971 and in Monaco in 1998. I wonder when the third meeting will be.

You see how are minds were working? We were playing Atletico, but The Final and Real Madrid were always lurking in the background.

We enjoyed a pre-match meal in a quiet central bar / restaurant and caught the subway down to the game. As we approached the stadium, which remained hidden behind tower blocks for some time, we joined a slow-moving group of fans. This is where I needed to keep my wits about me. There were Atletico fans drinking nearby and a few Chelsea fans were singing a few yards away. I kept my eyes on Daryl, Rob, Alan, Neil and Gary to make sure we were all together. We walked past groups of police and I sensed an atmosphere. At last, the concrete walls of the stadium approached and the road widened, souvenir stalls in front and to the side. We walked around to the northern end and via a quick security check, we were in.

Virtually the first person we saw inside was Cliff and he was in the wars again…he had been hit by a bottle on the forehead, thrown indiscriminately into the Chelsea fans as they passed a bar. His shirt was bloodied but he was OK.

As we reached the top tier ( the 3,000 Chelsea visitors were in two tiers ) we heard from many that we had just missed a baton charge by the Spanish police in which women and even a teenage girl were hit. This is clearly disgraceful. I am not sure what the provocation was, but it highlighted how near we came, perhaps, to being attacked. I was struck by a police baton in Zaragoza in 1995 and was doing no more than watching my team. It was a case of “sit where you like” in the top tier and I was right on the end of a row, overlooking the outside of the main stand, which is quite an oddity. The Madrid ring road, next to the Mazanares River, runs right beneath its support columns. I had three or four policemen stood next to me for the entire game and a few mouthy Chelsea youths were prodded and poked throughout the game. Because away travel is virtually non-existent in Spain, I have this theory that Spanish police get freaked out by 3,000 away fans. Still no excuse though.

The Estadio Vicente Calderon is a simple bowl, in two tiers, with a single row of executive boxes perched on the rim – clearly a recent addition. The main stand – which was blocked from my view by a large scoreboard – sits apart from the other three sides though. The top deck is in the colours of the Atletico shirts ( red and white ) while the lower tier is blue, matching the normal blue shorts. I guess they played in red shorts to avoid a clash with us. The stadium was spartan – bare concrete everywhere and was a poor second to the majesty of the Bernabeu.

Banners at the opposite home end signalled two of their ultra groups – Red & White Inferno and El Frente Atletico. As the teams entered the pitch, their fans in the lower tier held their scarves aloft and waved a few flags. This was clearly the hotbed of their support. Elsewhere, the home fans didn’t really get involved.

I looked around at the fans in our support and soon realised that there were not many women and virtually no kids. In fact, 75% of our support were aged 40-55…perhaps more. I have heard stories from many fans that they don’t bother with domestic aways these days and only turn out for Europe.

I can see the attraction…maybe one day. Maybe after I have visited Bolton another ten times.

It was a strange game and we didn’t really impress for most of it. Strange to see Kalou starting and he was his usual frustrating self. Despite a couple of silky flicks, Joe Cole was very quiet and didn’t appear match fit. Alex patrolled the pitch with great conviction and often chased and closed attackers down as if his life depended on it. I liked Ashley’s contribution too.

A delightful move ended with Frank – otherwise quiet – shaving the post and Drogba hit the post in the second half.

Our support, split into two tiers, was sporadic.

Of course, that failed defensive header from JT gifted Aguerro with a goal on the hour and the home support roared their approval. They did a massive bouncy and it was pretty impressive. We came back into it when Malouda sent over an inch-perfect cross for Didi to head home…great celebrations…we just about deserved a point and we’d take it. Then, a superb break from Drogba, fending off two defenders, resulted in a goal when his initial shot was parried.

We went crazy.

Screams. Fists punching the air. Yes!

We couldn’t believe it really. Did we deserve three points? No.

Then, of course, the denouement…the sub Aguerro spun a wicked fee-kick past Cech and our elation turned to dust.

Again the Atletico fans roared.

At the final whistle, a shrug and the realisation that we had reached the last sixteen quickly over-rode any sadness.

The Spanish OB kept us in for about 25 minutes. We had a few songs. A few laughs. We assembled outside and had a partial police escort until they lost interest about fifteen minutes away from the stadium. There was no “afters.” We dived into a bar for a quite exceptional Mahou, served in an iced glass, then caught a cab to the centre.

After a couple of beers and yet more tapas, we called it a night.

On the Wednesday, we all got up late again and walked the short distance to the royal palace. It was an impressive building and we took a few snaps. We didn’t see much of Madrid to be honest, but it was all about male bonding and “being there” more than anything else. As we left the centre, en route back to the airport, I couldn’t help but think that it felt like it was a dry run, a “practice” for May.

Fingers crossed – let’s hope so.


Tales From The European Trail

Chelsea vs. Atletico Madrid : 21 October 2009.

I generally think that my work / play balance is in pretty good shape. I enjoy my job and thankfully I have been able to attend lots and lots ( too many! ) of Chelsea games since I began working in Chippenham in March 2003. I’m lucky in that the town is only ten minutes from the M4 and my Chelsea parking spot is “only” 97 miles away. I’ve been able to go on a ridiculous run of home games going back to January 2004. The last one I missed was an F.A.Cup replay against Watford ( I was in America, ironically ) and I remember flying back into England on the morning of a Sunday game against Birmingham City. Since then, I have stacked up a run of 162 games (mmm – a baseball season! ), but I have been very busy this week and I did wonder if I would be able to get out early for the Atletico game. I usually drive up with Parky but warned him of my predicament. As a precaution, he decided to play safe and go up by train.

On Monday, I finished work at 7pm, on Tuesday at 5.15pm ( getting better! ) and I thankfully got my last bit of work completed at 4.30pm…this is realistically the time I had set myself. As I pulled onto the M4, I heaved a sigh of relief.

I slapped on a Buzzcocks CD, sipped at a coffee and tried to relax. Thankfully, there were no work phone-calls ( my official finish time is 5.30pm ) and as the sun set behind me, it felt good to be free from the worries of work. I reached Reading in double-quick time, then sped past Windsor. Things were looking good. However, from 6pm to 7.15pm, I travelled just nine miles and I did wonder if I would make the kick-off. The lads were in The Goose, but I had no chance of reaching them. As I tried to find a parking space in Chesson Road at 7.15pm, I was listening to the United vs. CSKA game on the radio ( Pat Nevin was over in Russia – he has a good life, eh? ) and as I parked up, United scored.

Oh great.

I sped past The Goose and headed down the North End Road. I was well aware that there would be the usual queues at the turnstiles. I peered into a few fast food restaurants and simply could not believe the amount of fans chomping away oblivious to the fact that they would be late for the kick-off.

I purchased a programme and cut through the crowds like Wee Pat on a mazy run – “get out of my way!” – and joined the line for the MHU. Two things stuck out. One guy next to me was wearing his work shirt, but had put a Chelsea replica shirt over it.

Ouch. Very stylish, mate!

Then, one fan placed his ticket into the scanner and was met with a red light…he was in the wrong queue ( he needed the MHL ), but began blaming the stewards. Unbelievable.

Thankfully, I reached my seat with two minutes to spare. You beauty! However, I hate this kind of rush, but it is more and more common with every mid-week game these days. Why do I put myself through it? There’s a question. I guess the unbeaten home run has a lot to answer for. Nobody would think anything less of me if I missed the odd game – I have nothing to prove – but I just need to be there. Watching at home on the TV would feel so very strange. The last home game I watched live on TV must be ages and ages ago.

Alan handed me my Madrid away ticket – we chatted excitedly about our plans for the return leg in two weeks. Six of us are going…can’t wait.

As the game began, I received a text from Danny ( Blue Celery ) in LA…

“Kalou for a hat-trick.”

Yeah, right mate – no chance of that.

Let’s not kid ourselves, we began slowly and Atletico had the better of the early exchanges, forcing saves out of Petr Cech in our goal. Diego Forlan, a bit of a flop at United, was lively and involved in most of their forward thrusts. They were making good patterns, moving the ball well. We, by comparison, seemed laboured and slow. The midfield did not seem to be working. We were giving Atletico too much space and, in possession, were unable to create. I noted to Alan that Anelka, when he receives the ball, often takes a touch and slows to a standstill, ensuring that the move loses its impetus. If I am honest, I do the same when I play five-a-side. We then had a goal from that long-distance free-kick ( not sure why ) and Ballack set up Kalou who shot wide.

Danny – are you watching?

Just before the break, we took the lead after great work down the left from Ashley who is in a great run of form at the moment. His cross found Salomon and he couldn’t miss. Alan and myself hugged and I thought of Danny’s pre-match prediction.

The half-time stats told the story of the half…we had more possession, but Madrid had eight shots compared to our five. It was great to see Tom at the game again after his recent sad loss and he seemed chirpy enough. Zac is off to the NFL game at Wembley on Sunday and we discussed this. He is a Miami fan ( he was wearing a Dolphins sweatshirt ) but is not really in favour of regular season NFL games being played outside the US. I made the point that, with only eight ( ? ) home games each season, as a fan of either New England or Tampa Bay, I would be gutted at missing out on a game. I am sure that the FA look at NFL’s colonialism as a shining example of new ways to grow sporting brands. Much more of this from American sport and they will look again at the “39th Game” which so infuriated me a year ago. Danny Granville ( remember him? Stockholm 1998! ) was presented to us at the break. In the programme, Mark Stein was featured in a piece about the Bruges ECWC game in 1995. That was a night when the full house of 28,000 absolutely rocked Stamford Bridge to its foundations. That was a great night and only our third European game since 1971. Since then, European nights have become part of the modern Chelsea story and I do wonder if the group phase games have helped soften the excitement of European games for some. Those early knock-out games against Zizkov, Austria Memphis and Bruges were phenomenal.

We played a lot better in the second period and the Spanish support soon fell quiet. I snapped Frank taking the corner which lead to our second goal. After the first goal, I had texted Danny to say that if Kalou got two more, I would be buying him beer all day when he comes over for the Wolves game.

I texted him again – “Now I’m worried.”

We began playing the ball around better and Madrid tired. After a move down in front of me, the ball zipped across the box and Kalou couldn’t quite reach it. Oh Danny – so near and yet so far. He was surprisingly subbed soon after and got a good reception. Two late goals rather flattered us I thought. The most noise from us was when Joe began warming up on the touchline, but he didn’t enter the fray. In the last quarter of the game, The Bridge fell eerily silent at times.

Oh well.

So, another home game came to an end…number 163 on the trot for me. It wasn’t that great. I have seen us play more expansive and pleasing football, but a 4-0 win mustn’t be sniffed at. I slowly left the seats and left the stadium. Outside, I noted quite a few Spanish fans exiting the pricier parts of the West Stand. It surprised me for some reason. I stopped for a pizza at an Italian near The Goose and drove home through the West London streets and then the Wessex countryside.

The loneliness of a long-distance football follower.

I reached home at 12.45am with thoughts of Blackburn Rovers, game 164, and beyond.