Tales From A Crossroads

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 17 February 2020.

There had been a break of sixteen long days between our last league fixture away to Leicester City and our home game with Manchester United. It was such a long break that it enabled me to travel to South America and back, but more of that later. And we were now faced with three top notch home games within the space of just ten days.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur.

Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich.

It felt like the start of the second-half of the season.

And how!

These were three huge matches.

Welcome back everyone.

I worked from 7am to 3pm, and then joined PD – the driver – Lord Parky and Sir Les for the drive to London.

“Bloody hell, lads, how long ago was the last home game? Arsenal, wasn’t it? A month ago? Feels like it, too.”

There were a few questions from the lads concerning my trip to Buenos Aires, but the conversation soon dried up and I took the chance to catch up on some sleep on the familiar drive to London. These Monday evening flits to London are typically tiresome, an imperfect start to the week, a tough ask. I enjoyed an hour’s shut-eye. PD made very good time and we were parked-up at the usual place by 5.30pm.

In “The Goose” – it was so good to briefly see Wycombe Stan who is not in the best of health – and in “Simmons” a few people enquired of my trip to Argentina. I could only utter positives about the whole experience. In fact, as I had initially feared when my trip came to fruition, the only negative about my week in Buenos Aires could well be that the modern day English football experience – watered down, moneyed, sedentary, muted, played-out – would pale, completely and utterly, by comparison.

Little did I know that on this night, against Manchester United, my first game back, there was to be such a brutal and harrowing comparison between the Primera Division in Argentina and the Premier League in England.

Argentina 2020 had slowly evolved over the past few years. Ever since I read the Simon Inglis book “Sightlines” in 2000, Buenos Aires was on my radar. As I explained in a recent tale, this wonderful book – concerning various sporting stadia throughout the world – was underpinned with regular chapters in which the author attempted to visit as many of Buenos Aires’ twenty-five plus professional football stadia in a crazy few days in 1999.

The four chapters were referred to as “Ciudad de los Estadios”.

I took “Sightlines” with me on my trip.

A few passages made me smile, a few passages made me think, a few passages made me question my own sanity, my own credibility.

“Maybe I am a train spotter at heart, ticking off the stadiums for no other reason than to say that I’ve seen them. The words of the American novelist Sinclair Lewis came to mind : ‘He who has seen one cathedral fifty times, knows something. He who has seen fifty cathedrals once knows nothing.’ “

“There are more football grounds in Buenos Aires than in any other city in the world. Not just dozens of ordinary grounds, however, but a whole string of major stadiums, each holding thirty, forty, fifty thousand or more spectators, all within a few square miles of each other. A comment in a Buenos Aires newspaper seemed to confirm as much. It read “we have more stadiums than public libraries. Never has so much knowledge of football been possessed by so illiterate a people.”

“Before I left for the airport, my wife kissed my furrowed brow. ‘Just go with the flow,’ she counselled. ‘It doesn’t matter if you don’t get to them all.’ What did she mean, not get to them all?”

“In 1869, Buenos Aires had 187,000 inhabitants. By 1914, there were over 1.5 million, a figure which would double over the next fifteen years. Most of the immigrants were European, so forming a neighbourhood football club was as natural as unpacking grandma’s pots and pans.”

“There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium. I wish I had written that line. But the Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano got there first.”

“If there is one thing I love more than a good map it is a great stadium at the end of a long bout of map reading.”

With the kick-off at 8pm, there was more than ample time for a few drinks in both pubs, and some chat with some pals. I’d suggest that the inaugural winter break was originally met with the derision when it was announced for this season – “we need our football!” – but a lovely by-product of it was the chance for me to head off to exotic climes (my jaunt to Argentina was my first-ever holiday in search of winter sun in my entire life) and a few pals took the chance to explore other exotic locations. My break, I know, did me the world of good.

However, I did find it typically English that the subsequent FA Cup fifth round games then had to be squeezed into a midweek slot. Less games here, more games here. What a Jackie Brambles

The team news came through.

Still no Kepa.

Michy up front.

With no other options, Pedro and Willian – the old couple – were the wingers.

Caballero

James – Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Kovacic – Kante

Willian – Batshuayi – Pedro

We made our way to Stamford Bridge on a cold night. I bumped into Rick Glanvil, the club historian, outside the West Stand. We briefly mused about Buenos Aires. Quick as a flash, Rick mentioned Chelsea’s South American tour in 1929 when we played eight games in the Argentinian capital.

I was in with around ten minutes to spare. There was the usual dimming of the lights, some electronic wizardry and flames, followed by the derisory chant from the away section of “what the fookin’ hell was that”?

It was almost a year to the day since United beat us 2-0 in last season’s FA Cup. Since then, we drew at Old Trafford in the league last season, lost to them on the opening day of the season at Old Trafford this season and lost to them in the League Cup in October at Stamford Bridge. And they are a poor team. It felt right that we should get some sort of revenge on them. The last time we beat United was at the 2018 FA Cup Final.

Ciudad de los Estadios : Argentinos Juniors vs. Lanus, Friday 7 February 2020

I spotted two new banners.

In the East Stand, one for Frank Lampard : “Player. Manager. Legend.”

In The Shed : “Peter Bonetti, The Cat.”

Proud to say I put a few bob behind the latter one.

I was genuinely surprised that there was no minute’s silence, or appreciation, for Harry Gregg – a survivor of the Munich air disaster in 1958 – before the game began.

As always, we attacked the Shed in the first-half and I was generally rather pleased with our play for most of the first half. Our passing and movement – or movement and passing – was fine, and nobody impressed me more than Mateo Kovacic, whose drive from deep was very heartening. We had a little array of chances early on.

Two things to note.

Nemamja Matic and his shorts. Huge.

Harry Maguire and his boots. Yellow. Fucking yellow. Like fucking Bananaman. Ridiculous.

Sadly, N’Golo Kante pulled up in the first quarter of an hour and was replaced by Mason Mount.

The United fans, usually the noisiest season on season, were discernibly quiet. Maybe they were just as embarrassed about Maguire’s boots as I was.

But then the “Rent Boys” chant began and we all tut-tutted in faux outrage.

There was a bit of noise from us in the first part of the game, but nothing to write home about.

The incident between Maguire and Batshuayi on the far touchline passed me by to be honest. I saw a crunch of bodies, but the fine detail was lost. Up came a VAR moment on the scoreboard, but nothing was given. At the time, I had no clue as to who was the aggressor and who was the aggressed.

A lovely move right from our own box, involving yet more lovely passing and movement had us all purring, but a weak finish from Batshuayi – who had started promisingly – caused the first of a few groans throughout the night.

The Willian yellow card seemed appropriate. It looked like a dive from even one hundred yards away.

United, though not dominating at all, came into the game a little. Anthony Martial wasted their best chance of the game when he tamely shot wide of the far post after easily getting behind a defender.

In the dying embers of the first-half, Aaron Wan-Bissaka twisted Willian into oblivion and his snappy cross was glanced in by Martial, who had edged past his marker.

Bollocks.

Here we go again.

We were crestfallen.

Sadly, Batshuayi did not force a save from De Gea as he scuffed a shot from an angle.

Weak finishing and defensive lapses? Sounds like a broken record, doesn’t it?

Ciudad de los Estadios : Boca Juniors vs. Atlético Tucumán , Saturday 8 February 2020

So, a cruel blow had left us 1-0 down at the break. It seemed that we had been unlucky. We hoped for our luck to improve in the second-half. On came Kurt Zouma for Andreas Christensen, evidently injured in the closing moments of the first period.

Very soon into the second-half, a Willian corner – which cleared the first man! – was headed home by Kurt Zouma, down and low, De Gea no chance. He sped away to the far corner.

GET IN.

Back in it and deservedly so.

But wait. After a few moments, the dreaded VAR was signalled.

What for?

No idea.

We did not know.

After a little wait…”I don’t like this”…no goal.

So, celebrations nullified, the emotions deleted, I stood in a daze.

The annoying thing for me, here, is that the spectators / fans / customers in the stadium were shown a brief repeat of the goal in which I saw a United player sprawl to the floor. But at no time was there a clear and valid reason for the goal being disallowed being shared with those of us in the stadium.

We could only guess.

That cannot be right, can it?

This seemed to harm us, and our play did not flow. The mood among the home fans worsened. I am obviously too naïve to expect the Chelsea supporters to rally behind the team with a barrage of noise, to lift the players and to scare the living daylights out of United. Because it didn’t happen.

And here’s a startling comparison between England and Argentina. Those who read these reports will know that I often make a note of how long it takes for a stadium-wide chant or song to envelope the entire stadium. Often at Chelsea, it can take fifteen minutes – like in this game – or as long as half an hour or even more. In Argentina, in two of the three games, this moment came half an hour before kick-off.

Incidentally, in Argentina, there are songs, often long songs. In Europe we tend to go for short venomous chanting. I prefer the European model.

Ciudad de los Estadios : Racing vs. Independiente , Sunday 9 February 2020

United hit the post from a free-kick and from the ensuing corner, Maguire thumped a header down and past Caballero.

“Definition of a fucking free header, that.”

Bollocks.

These defensive lapses are the trademark of our season. Damn it.

Olivier Giroud, the forgotten man, replaced the miss-firing Michy. Just like with the introduction of Zouma, the substitution seemed to produce an instant hit. Mason shaped to cross from the right and I had spotted the movement of the substitute.

“Go on Giroud, feed him in, feed him in.”

The cross was on the money. An adept stooping header by the substitute, and we were back in it.

GET IN YOU BASTARDS.

Twenty minutes left. We can do this.

We waited for the restart.

Oh no.

Oh no.

VAR.

Fuck this.

A wait.

No goal.

No fucking goal.

We stood silent and still, our emotions having ran their course.

At least, I knew that it was for offside via the TV screen announcement. At least the folk in the stadium had been treated correctly. How nice of them.

In the scheme of things, fair enough.

But for all of these VAR decisions, how much have we lost?

How much?

I’d say nearly everything.

We go to football, not only to support our team, not only to meet up with mates, but for that prospect of losing it when a goal is scored.

That moment. Ecstasy. Limbs. The rush. The buzz. There is nothing like it.

That has been taken away from us in every single game we see.

Many of the spectators around me left. The Bridge seemed dead, lifeless, spent.

Back in Buenos Aires, my new pal Victor had smiled as he said “at least there is no VAR here.”

Even in Argentina, it is hated.

My good friend Rob apologised as he passed me, and would later comment on “Facebook.”

“I’ve never left a game early. Tonight, I realised what I’d worried about all season. Football is dead. I’ve left roughly fifteen minutes early. I didn’t even stand to celebrate Giroud’s goal. I don’t actually want to come to football anymore. VAR has done what my ex-wife tried to do for years. Put me off coming to football.”

My good mate Kev would comment on “Facebook.”

“I honestly believe that if we have a fiasco Saturday, even in our favour, that will be my last game. Munich all paid up, but it won’t matter. It’s not in the spirit of the game. If you’re in the house or the pub, I guess it’s great. If like us you’re match going, it’s diabolical.”

In the last seconds of the game, Mason Mount hit the post but by that time nobody fucking cared.

At the final whistle, or soon after, my comment on Facebook was this.

“Football. But with life drained out of it.”

And that is how I felt, and how many felt. It seems that football is trying its best to kill the golden goose. Football resurrected itself after the troubles of the ‘seventies and ‘eighties – although I miss the passion of those days, I don’t miss the violence – and football has been at the absolute epicentre of our national identity for ever and ever. England’s sport is not cricket, nor rugby, nor tennis, nor horse racing, nor boxing, nor hockey.

It’s football.

With all its flaws.

But VAR is killing it, and not even slowly.

The mood was sombre.

But it was more than that.

I was just numbed by the whole sorry mess.

There was disappointment, obviously, that we had succumbed to a poor United team. There is work to do, as we knew from day one. I’m right behind Frank, nothing has changed, there is no fresh news. I love him to bits. His post-match interview was as intelligent and brutally honest, frank, as ever. I want him to succeed so fucking much. The next two games are as huge as they get.

But the over-riding emotion centered on VAR. And that can’t be right. I hate it with a bloody passion.

Outside the West Stand, under the Peter Osgood statue, I met up with a chap – Ross – to receive a ticket for an upcoming game. Alongside him – blatant name drop coming up – was the Irish novelist Roddy Doyle, he of “The Commitments”, “The Van” and “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.” It was a pleasure to meet him.

We grumbled about VAR.

Roddy quipped about how scoring a goal is always likened to an orgasm, and now with VAR, even that pleasure is being taken away.

Imagine that, eh?

When is an orgasm not an orgasm?

Fackinell.

I replied.

“Well, with VAR and no orgasms, at least there are plenty of clean sheets.”

I walked back to the car.

A cheeseburger with onions at “Chubby’s Grill” and three – fucking three! – bars of chocolate could not dull the pain of VAR.

I slept like a baby on the way home.

It feels like I am at a crossroads. It seems almost implausible that I can even consider giving up football – Chelsea – but I simply cannot stomach another twenty years of VAR. It is as hideous a prospect as I can ever imagine, but I might – might – walk away.

God only knows I loathe much of modern football as it is. I always thought that it would be the dreaded thirty-ninth game in Adelaide, Beijing, Calcutta or Durban that might be the last straw, but the dynamic has changed since August.

Could I live without Chelsea? Of course I will always be a fan, a supporter, but how could I live without the sanctity of going to games? I shudder to think. Already, many mates go for a drink-up at Chelsea but don’t go in. Is that on the cards for me? I don’t know.

What would I do on weekends?

I’d go to see Frome Town.

I’d collect football stadia.

After all, I have stadiumitis and I have it bad.

The Maracana? Yes please.

The Azteca? Yes please.

Atletico Bilbao’s new stadium?

That stadium in Braga with a rock face behind one goal?

I still have a few stadia to see in Budapest.

A return to Buenos Aires? Yes. After all, that art deco tower – pure Flash Gordon – at Huracan warrants a trip all by itself.

Yes. I like this.

But life without Chelsea?

Fucking hell.

If – and it is obviously a massive “if”- I decide to walk away, it will be the right decision and the correct decision…

Don’t cry for me.

If anybody feels as desperate as me, please sign this.

https://www.change.org/p/the-premier-league-remove-the-use-of-the-video-assistant-referee-var-from-premier-league-football?recruiter=false&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=psf_combo_share_initial&utm_term=psf_combo_share_initial&recruited_by_id=21029800-5279-11ea-8486-eb0cd2d9b781&utm_content=fht-19272164-en-gb%3Av13

Tales From High Above And Down Below

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 18 January 2020.

We reached Bristol Airport at 7pm on the Friday and we soon spotted three familiar Chelsea fans nestled together, pints on the go, awaiting the 8.50pm flight to Newcastle. One of them (from Weston – I think they are all from Weston) used to sit right behind me in The Sleepy Hollow for the best part of ten years, but I never got around to asking his name. We got to know the other two on a flight back from Newcastle in 2015, but again never got around to finding out their names. We joined The Weston Three for a last pint before take-off. All six of us were relishing the trip north. Newcastle is the granddaddy of all away trips. If Goodison is my favourite away stadium, Newcastle is everyone’s favourite away town.

Talk soon turned to previous trips and to mutual friends, and the usual smorgasbord of football banter. Not for the last time on this three-day trip to Tyneside would we be chatting about how we just can’t stop this addiction to travel, to watching live football – the drinking, OK the drinking – and the camaraderie. I mentioned that to many younger fans, football is watched on TV and tablet, in pub or at home, and the nearest involvement some get to active participation is by betting on accumulators.

Not for us. We love being balls-deep in live football. But compared to some, we are novices. Some fans seemingly take it to ridiculous extremes.

One of the Weston Three mentioned that he got to know a rabid Coventry City supporter, sadly now living in a hospice with not long to go, whose trips around England and Europe in search of live football took obsession to a new level. Very often this chap would find himself driving through the night in order to link up games, to meet kick-offs, to get grounds ticked-off the list. In order for this to take place as smoothly as possible, he had three cars parked at strategic places around England to help facilitate quick movement between airports and train stations.

“Bloody hell. I thought I had it bad.”

Parky, PD and I could hardly believe it.

It made my simple collection of the two of them in Frome at just after 6pm that evening pale by comparison.

The easyJet flight left on time, and we landed at Newcastle twenty-five minutes early at 9.30pm. We soon jumped into a sherbet dab, we were soon headed south, soon headed to the wonderful city on the Tyne.

It was superb to be heading over the Tyne Bridge once more.

We were back. At 10.15pm we were booked in.

“It’s bloody magic to be sat here in a lovely hotel in Newcastle on a Friday night, after a good week at work, with good mates, with a cracking weekend to look forward to. Cheers boys.”

To be honest, it felt extra special. I loved the fact that for once my driving only totalled an hour, up over the Mendips, so easy. And now it was time to relax. We could relax further when our pal Foxy, newly-arrived from Dundee, eventually joined us. It was the first time that we had seen him since Budapest in 2018. Since then his hair colour has changed from Russ Abbot ginger to Eminem blonde. It is always a joy to see him no matter where we are. He was down for the corresponding fixture last season too.

The “Becks Vier” was flowing nicely. But we wanted to keep it relatively “light” as we knew we had a heavy day of drinking ahead of us. Again talk was dominated by football fandom rather than plain football itself. Foxy is well-travelled, and he has a little jaunt over to – as he put it – see his “great Uncle Bulgaria” in a few weeks.

He has a Levski vs. CSKA derby lined-up, one of the hottest games in European football. He is going with a lad we both know at Chelsea, who we would later discover was staying in the very same hotel on the southern banks of the River Tyne. It was in fact, just a hundred yards from the apartment where we stayed for the last league game of 2017/18.

Talk of football games, of football cities, of football people, mutual friends, of excessive alcohol intakes.

A year or so back, Foxy and I were talking about going over to East Belfast to see a Glentoran game. Foxy has been a few times, and has even sponsored a game at their Oval ground.

“It’s braw, eh? Nae more than eighty pound. Food. And ye can get blootered. But it’s rough, eh? Efter the gemme, eh hed tae walk through a crime scene tae get tae the chippy.”

He had me howling.

Good old Foxy.

We were up at about 9am on the Saturday and after a leisurely breakfast, we walked over the Millennium Bridge from Gateshead on the south side to Newcastle on the north side. The idea was to hit a few pubs – maybe some new ones – before getting a cab up to St. James’ Park. My camera went into overdrive.

As with our last two visits we settled at “The Slug & Lettuce.”

Newcastle is set on two levels. The Bigg Market and the football stadium at the top of the hill, The Quayside way down below. It works as a city on more than these two levels, though. It has history in abundance, a real working class vibe cuts through it, cracking architecture, the night life is legendary, the locals almost too friendly.

I have said it before…”if I wasn’t a Chelsea fan.”

At bang on 11am, we got the first round in. We settled in a corner at the front of the spacious pub overlooking the river and the famous Tyne Bridge, and then waited for troops to arrive.

We spotted a couple who were sat in the row in front on the plane up. She was a Newcastle supporter, it was her birthday – her uncle was Ollie Burton, a name I can remember from my 1972/73 bubble gum cards, a Newcastle United and Wales player – and we had a giggle.

The day was off to a fine start.

We were then hit with an overwhelming bout of inertia. Different sets of pals from all over the Chelsea Kingdom – and beyond – came to spend time with us and we just decided to stay in the one boozer.

“So much for the pub crawl.”

Eck and his son from Glasgow, Julie from Stafford, Fiona from Bedfordshire, Mark and his family from Westbury, Luke and Aroha from Ruislip, Andy from Trowbridge, his Newcastle mate Russ – featured last season – from Swalwell, Gillian, Kev and Rich from Edinburgh, Kim and Andy from Kent, Sean from New York, Andy from California, Neil from Belfast, bloody hell it was never-ending.

In the middle of all this was an Everton supporter. Chris lives locally, but is a native of North Wales. He travelled up to a Sunderland vs. Everton game many years ago, met a local girl on the way to the game, fell in love and has remained ever since. I had not met him before. But he is the brother of my great Chelsea pal Tommie, who still lives in Porthmadog. Both Chris and Tommie have travelled to watch football in Buenos Aires in the past two years. And Chris has been giving me valuable insights – and his still usable Buenos Aires travel card from 2018 – over the past two months. It was a pleasure to see him, and to listen to his tales from Argentina.

“My first game was Chacarita Juniors. Everyone warned me not to go. Well rough. But I went. Didn’t regret it. Came out of the train station. And there’s a line of police with sub machine guns. And remember there are no away fans. I just kept my head down and avoided eye contact. I asked a local “stadio?” and he said “solo?” pulling a face as if to say “are you mad?” but it was OK. I got a ticket, I got in.”

Midway through the sesh, I realised I needed to slow down a little. Almost six hours of necking lager could easily leave me too light headed to be of use to anyone.

But damn those “Peronis” were hitting the spot.

The pub was quiet at 11am, by 4.30pm it was full.

Geordie lasses.

Say no more, like.

We caught two cabs up to St. James’ Park. A quick walk past the Alan Shearer statue, underneath the huge Milburn Stand, around to the lift. Up we went. I was clicking away as I walked, eager to capture the small pieces which help to build the whole picture.

The weather was cold but not unbearable. We were three thousand strong, as ever. With Rangers playing on the Friday night, there would no doubt be a few “Weegies” – as Foxy termed them – in our ranks.

This was my twelfth visit to St. James’ Park. A low number compared to many. But until the cheap flights turned my eye a few years back, this was often a game too far for me. It’s a dramatic stadium all right. The roof above seems to be floating in space. Everywhere is cool grey, maybe like the Earl Grey statue at the top of that fine Victorian street in the town centre.

The team lined up as below :

Arrizabalaga

James – Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Kante – Mount

Willian – Abraham – Hudson-Odoi

It kind of picked itself I guess.

“Local Hero” is so evocative, so Newcastle, it always brings a smile. I like the way it has entwined itself into the St. James’ Park match day experience.

The game began.

As always, we attacked The Gallowgate in the first-half. Early on we were dominating and this is how it stayed. But this was all too familiar. Tons of possession, but with very few real chances of note. At times the frustration of Jorginho and Kante, looking for runners, was mirrored by the frustrations among the standing three-thousand behind the Leazes End goal. We were dominating play, but there seemed – already – no way through the massed ranks of Newcastle defenders.

The noise wasn’t great. I’ve never known the Geordies to be so quiet.

Unlike in the past two visits, at least all – or damned near – of the seats were occupied. The protests have seemed to have waned as Steve Bruce has cajoled his team into eking out results in a very pragmatic way.

Then, out of nowhere, Newcastle enjoyed a little spell of possession, and I wondered if our defenders might be caught out, such was their lack of prior engagement.

A punch from Kepa foiled one attack, the crossbar was the saviour soon after.

“Fucksakes Chelsea.”

A high shot from Tammy drew moans from our support. We all want him to succeed, but he just needs to work on the physical side of his game. He needs to toughen up. To ask questions of his markers.

Maybe he just hasn’t got it in his locker.

After a great pass by Reece James, a chance for Kante came to nothing, a weak shot at Dubravka.

And that was that.

My half-time notes on my mobile ‘phone were rather brief.

Reece James had showed willing, N’Golo Kante was full of running, but elsewhere it seemed that we were lacking drive and desire. And St. James’ Park was as quiet as fuck.

Some in our midst had sloped off for a cheeky half-time pint and would not return.

The second-half began, and Willian seemed to dominate the focus of my camera – always a photogenic target with his stops, starts, twists and shots – if not the game itself. As often, his dribbles and runs came to nothing. A few tentative shots whistled past defenders’ legs but also past posts. We were again dominating play, but hardly grinding them down to submission. They were hardly on the ropes.

It was, bluntly, a bloody rotten game of football.

And it was so quiet.

On seventy-minutes, Ross Barkley replaced the very poor Mason Mount. He kept the ball well, and for a few minutes it looked like that he might be able to unlock the door to the defence. I was really disappointed with the wing-play, or lack of it, from Callum Hudson-Odoi.

I lost count of the times I bellowed “get past yer man.”

A chance, of sorts, came Tammy’s way down below us but his off-balance stab ended up as a comical aside.

Reece James hobbled off, Emerson replaced him.

The ball was pumped into the box from out wide and Azpilicueta rose well to cushion a header into Tammy, but his lunge at the ball resulted in a brave save from Dubravka.

I would have liked to have seen Michy alongside Tammy, just to change things a little, but instead there was a straight swap.

By now, everything was grim.

One last chance maybe? A quick break, the ball fell to Emerson. A clear run, a clear sight of goal, but the powerful effort was always going wide.

Bollocks.

The home team had a rare effort on goal as the ninety minutes approached, but Joelinton miscued. It was, I am sure, their only chance of note in the entire second-half.

A 0-0 draw looked the obvious conclusion, the result of a dire ninety-minutes.

“No punch upfront, Gal. No zip. No runners. Nothing.”

Four added minutes were signalled.

I subconsciously began thinking about my first post-game pint.

Callum at last broke through a crowded box to the left of the goal as I watched, but crashed it over.

On ninety-four fucking minutes, fucking Newcastle won their fucking very first fucking corner of the entire fucking match.

Willian headed it out. It came in again.

Slow…motion…the cross…a leap…no Chelsea challenge…the ball was in…

Ninety-four minutes.

Newcastle United 1 Chelsea 0.

Fucking hell.

I was numb, as numb as I have felt for ages at football. How had we lost that? How was that bloody possible? They had defended well, but had created very little all game. It was as cruel a finish to a match that I can ever remember.

Ninety-four minutes.

Good grief.

I stood silent for what seemed too long. I could not comprehend it. I was wallowing in the misery of it all.

[inside my head : “at least it means I still care, I haven’t reached the dreaded next stage just yet.”]

Sigh.

A big sigh.

Others drifted away. I was shell-shocked, bamboozled, Loony-Tooned.

Fackinell.

I soon met up with Parky, with PD, with Foxy. By the time we had eventually descended the fourteen flights of stairs that took us to street level, it seemed that we were some of the last to leave the stadium. We found ourselves walking behind the old East Stand – I am that old that I can remember it as the most modern of the stands at St. James’ Park – and we eyed-up a burger van. While PD and Parky got their orders in, I took advantage of the lack of fellow spectators and took a few mood shots of the iconic concrete supports, which I have been meaning to photograph for a while. For all of Newcastle’s fine Victorian buildings, it is also infamous for its fair share of brutalist ‘sixties and ‘seventies architecture. Think “Get Carter” and the car parks and high-rises still visible today. The concreted pillar supports – like the unique concrete crush barriers of the old Gallowgate terrace – tie in with that era.

Back in the day, as the kids say, the little rat run from “The Strawberry” up to the away end, past those pillars, used to be termed “Suicide Alley.”

I can see why.

We made our way slowly down into the town, down into The Bigg Market.

The hamburger was superb by the way; £4 and the best of the season thus far.

The drinking continued, and after a few pints in three more gorgeous pubs in the heart of the infamous Bigg Market – “Filthy’s”, “The Beehive” and “Pumphrey’s” – we were back on track.

I even managed, God knows how, to get the number of a local girl, a local heroine maybe, but there was – just like with Chelsea Football Club at this moment in time – no instant gratification.

Some things don’t happen overnight.

The work in progress continues.

On Tuesday, Arsenal await.

I will see some of you there.

BLUE SKIES HIGH ABOVE THE QUAYSIDE

UP IN THE GODS AT ST. JAMES’ PARK

WAY DOWN BELOW

UNDERNEATH THE EAST STAND

Tales From A New Decade

Brighton And Hove Albion vs. Chelsea : 1 January 2020.

Another decade, another game.

Another game at a snotty kick-off time.

Last season, right after getting back from Budapest, I drove from Somerset to East Sussex and parked at Lewes train station and took the free train in to Falmer where Brighton play their games. It was a perfect arrangement. Talking to my good mate Mac – a long-standing Brighton season ticket holder – at our league game at Stamford Bridge in the early autumn, we found out that Mac and his mates drink in Lewes before games. It looked a fantastic little town. A nice mix of pubs in a good setting. We made plans for a lovely pub crawl before the away game on New Year’s Day. And then the knobheads got involved and ballsed it right up.

The kick-off was changed to 12.30pm.

I hate modern football.

Sigh.

“Maybe next season.”

Brighton is a pretty hefty away trip for The Chuckle Brothers. As a result, New Year’s Eve was a very quiet one for PD, Glenn, Parky and little old me; we all stayed in ahead of the 7.30am start on the first day of 2020.

We were up Brighton Early.

And this represented the first away game that all four Chuckle Brothers would be attending since the season opener at Old Trafford in August.

The roads were super-quiet as I dropped down over Salisbury Plain, past Stonehenge, through Salisbury and its wonderful spire, past the football cities of Southampton and Portsmouth, past Chichester, past Arundel and its impressive castle – where the cricket season always used to start with a game between a Duke of Norfolk XI and a touring team, not sure if it still does these days – and then towards the undulating South Downs and the coastal towns of Littlehampton, Goring, Worthing, Lancing, Shoreham and Hove. I kept peering to my right to see if I could catch a glimpse of the sea, but everything was out of sight, elusive, mist and sea fog combining to paint everything a subtle grey.

Our game at Luton Town on New Year’s Day in 1980 was drawing a few references on Facebook according to Glenn as I ate up the one hundred and forty miles.

“3-3 draw, right?”

Forty years ago.

“When we were young.”

And I realised that these games of my youth seemed to hold greater resonance than other, recent, games. And I didn’t even go to that one.

Any others worth remembering?

The game on New Year’s Day in 1991; at home to Everton, a 1-2 loss with Pat Nevin playing for the visitors. The importance of this? The last game that both of my parents and myself attended together. We were in the West Stand seats, not so far away from the first game together in 1974.

The one five years ago; that horrific 3-5 loss at White Hart Lane which surely put an end to Jose Mourinho’s more attack-minded ideas in the first part of the 2014/15 season. Lessons were learned that day, and apart from a goal fest at Swansea, our football became tighter and less expansive for the rest of that season. Mourinho. Wonder what ever happened to him?

At 11am, I arrived on time in Lewes. It was just as I remembered it; Tudor houses on the high street, a smattering of cosy pubs, cobbled alleyways, cramped streets, even the train station looked like something out of an Ealing Comedy-era film. I half-expected a steam train to pass through the multi-platformed station. I yearned for a pub crawl.

“Maybe next season.”

We soon alighted at Falmer; it is barely a five-minute journey from Lewes. PD and LP headed off to the away end. Glenn and I made a beeline for a bar outside the East Stand. We met up with Mac and one of his mates bought us pints.

“Top man, cheers.”

I like that Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club is all about community. The bar outside the stadium – as is the bar in the away end – sells solely “Harvey’s” lagers and ales. Their brewery is in Lewes. A fine touch. It was grand to share some chat with Mac and his pals again. Unfortunately, as is so often the case these days, the talk was largely dominated by VAR.

Bleurgh.

We mentioned the 1970 replica shirt that Chelsea would soon be selling as an acknowledgement of the fiftieth anniversary of the second most iconic game in our history. I loved that one of Mac’s friends – I am sure that he will not mind me saying that he must be in his ‘seventies – commented that replica shirts should only be worn by players on the pitch.

“I knew I liked you.”

I commented that many of my mates, hardly any of whom buy replica shirts, have highlighted the blue with yellow-striped shorts as key purchases for holidays in Spain, Turkey, Florida and Thailand this summer. They will fly off the shelves, no doubt. I love the idea, as do many evidently, of a plain T-shirt (not cheap, just plain, you know the score) and football shorts in Majorca, Bodrum, Orlando and Koh Samui. For English football fans of a certain disposition, this is classic bar clobber.

The “elderly” Albion fan reminded us all that Brighton had never beaten Chelsea, in league nor cups. I replied that in the two league games that I had seen at their new stadium in 2017/18 and 2018/19, Brighton had generally played well and had been rather unlucky to lose both.

Mac mentioned that the al fresco bar was open as early as 9am.

Glenn warned me : “God, don’t tell the others. We would have to have left at 5.30am.”

I laughed.

“Right, time to go Mac. Stay up, let’s plan for Lewes next season.”

Inside the away end, many were guzzling pints of “Harvey’s.”

I made my way to our seats. Another great location; we were in the second row. After my Arsenal photographs, I was hoping for some half-decent ones this time too.

For the third visit in a row, the stadium was enveloped in mist. This muted the blue of the stadium. But I was reminded how much I like this new build; each stand is linked, but each stand is different. Sloping roofs, different tiers, various levels, curved roof trusses, quirky viewing platforms, infilled corners. It’s a joy.

The teams entered the pitch and the locals heartily joined in with “Sussex By The Sea.”

“So put your best leg forward, my lads.
And time each ball you see.
If you sing the old song.
Well you can’t go wrong.
Of Sussex By The Sea.”

It’s not as stirring as “Z Cars” at old-style Goodison but it does have a certain charm.

I ran through our starting eleven.

Arrizabalaga

James – Zouma – Rudiger – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Kante – Mount

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

There were more than a few spares knocking about on Facebook leading up to this game, and there were a few seats unoccupied near us as the game began. I know that it was New Year’s Day and all, but we should be packing Brighton away 100%. It’s so close to our heartland.

Chelsea in the black and orange.

Mmm. I just hoped that the players were easier to pick out by their team mates on this misty and murky – graphite? – afternoon than I could manage. At least the tangerine socks were a reference mark.

Murkiness or not, I soon spotted Mac in his seat behind the Brighton bench with a couple of the lads we had met before the game.

The match began with us attacking the home fans at the northern end.

We looked confident, and played the ball with ease, but it was the home team that enjoyed the first effort on goal with a shot that rattled wide of Kepa’s post. Heading into the tenth minute, and after we had toyed with the Brighton defence on a couple of forays down our left, we won a corner on our right. Willian dropped a cross on to Kurt Zouma’s head – it was a fine leap – and his knock-down allowed Tammy to stab at the ball. His effort was blocked by Aaron Mooy but Captain Dave was on hand to swipe at the ball from very close range.

GET IN.

I caught his leap on film, easy.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Our next chance fell to a raiding Tammy Abraham, but with Willian pleading for the ball, he chose to shoot. The effort was deflected off target. I nabbed that shot on film too, easy pickings.

Brighton’s towering defender Dan Burn looked in huge discomfort after a challenge with young Reece James and was stretchered off.

We seemed to dominate the game but with few clear chances. I liked the directness of Christian Pulisic, who returned to the fray after missing a couple. These Christmas games – I am counting the Tottenham one – are tiring for fans and players alike, so it is no wonder there has been a little squad rotation. Kante looked good, Mount not so. Zouma and Rudiger coped with everything that was thrown at them, though Toni had a right old go at Kurt after the latter decided to head a deep cross out for a corner. We didn’t hear a shout and we were yards away. A bit naughty that, Toni. I don’t think Kurt did anything wrong at all.

And it was quiet enough to hear a shout. By God was it quiet. Not only from the home fans but from us too. We had 3,000 there – more or less – and there were a couple of noticeable instances during that first-half when it seemed the entire stadium was taking part in a sponsored silence.

During the second sustained silence, I couldn’t take it any longer.

I bellowed “COME ON CHELSEA” and people probably heard me in Glyndebourne, Rottingdean, Ditchling and Walmington On Sea.

It certainly caused the colony of seagulls that were permanently perched high on the roof truss to my right no end of fluster. Four of them flew off and into each other, three others fell off their perch, and two others shat on the spectators in the tiers below.

Truly, the lack of noise was shocking. When I finally decide to give up in “X” years’ time – the cumulative effect of the “drip, drip” negatives of ridiculous kick-off times, knobhead fans, VAR bullshit, 39th game rumours, World Cups in Qatar, players on weekly wages that I could possibly retire on, et-bloody-cetera – the first-half at Falmer will be nestled in there somewhere.

I just looked around and wondered how so many fans, supporters, devotees, loyalists could make such little noise.

Inside my head : “Estudiantes versus Defensa Y Justicia in Del Plata can’t come fucking quick enough.”

On the pitch, a rare shot on goal from the home team caused us to worry.; a swipe from distance from Leandro Trossard was one-handed away by Kepa.

Phew.

Pulisic kept running at the home defence and I remember a couple of efforts in that first-half.

As the game re-started, Pulisic again looked eager and dangerous, twice running directly at the home defence and causing problems. A Reece James effort was deflected for a corner. The industrious Kante – one blind-sided run was fantastic but not spotted – struck at goal but did not trouble Mat Ryan, and for a while it looked that we would increase our lead.

I noticed the similarity between Lewis Dunk and the really stupid one – Neil – from “The Inbetweeners.”

After a beer or two at half-time, and with Chelsea attacking us, thankfully the noise increased a little.

“Here for the Chelsea.”

Another bloody chant I can’t stand.

“We’ve won it all.”

Ditto.

“You’re just a shit Crystal Palace.”

The fact that this hints that there is a good Crystal Palace out there somewhere makes this chant redundant.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea. Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

On the pitch, the minutes ticked by and we began to fade, while Albion grew stronger. We were begging for a second goal to make it safe.

On sixty-five minutes, the manager surprisingly replaced Pulisic with Callum Hudson-Odoi and not long after, Mount was replaced by Mateo Kovacic. It seemed that we were going for the point; pragmatic football, how Mourinho. Whatever did happen to him?

A Brighton free-kick way out on the right was hit low into the box, and after a couple of bobbles, the ball ended up six yards out with a Brighton player about to pounce.

“This is it. Bollocks.”

Thankfully the shot from Aaron Connolly was miraculously clawed away by Kepa, who tends to specialise in these low swoops to his left and right. It was a top class save and was warmly applauded.

With six minutes of time to go, and with many around me whispering concerns that we were deteriorating badly, and very likely to concede, a corner was lobbed into the box. Dunk rose in a similar position to Zouma in the first-half but the header ended up further out, and bouncing. Substitute Alireza Jahanbakhsh rose to the challenge and carried out a ridiculous bicycle lick which surprised everyone and flew into the net.

Bollocks.

The home support made a right racket.

A raiding Hudson-Odoi lifted a curler just over the bar and we groaned three thousand groans. Tammy was having a mixed game, playing well in patches, as if his confidence ebbs and flows at will. His hold up play can be good at times, but he needs to build on that. I liked the look of Reece James, and he will get much better. We kept trying to score a second, but it was Kepa who saved our blushes with another excellent save late on from Neal Maupay, this time stopping a shot with his left boot.

Phew.

At the end, there was applause for the team but everything was muted, and toned down a little. Toni Rudiger noticeably shooed away our applause with a palm raised as if to say “not worthy” (pictured).

But this was a fair result. I have to be honest, I quite enjoyed it, and I am not honestly sure why. We seldom played as well as in parts of recent games, yet I still loved the experience of an away game, the thrill of an early goal, the cut and thrust, the closeness to the pitch.

After, we killed time with a beer or two in the roomy away concourse to let the train station queues die down. The consensus was certainly “fair result”. I never really get too involved on “social media” immediately after a game but a comment by a Chelsea supporter in which the performance was termed a “debacle” certainly stirred me to comment.

You can guess my thoughts, eh?

A new decade, but no debacle.

At about 3.45pm, we caught the train back to Lewes. On the drive home, we stopped at Arundel for a leisurely – two hours, how European – meal with a drink or two. There was a little chat about the game, in the train, in the car, in the pub. This project is still on course, Frank is learning as he goes, just as we had known from day one. There will be mistakes, but this is to be expected. Frank is no fool. I am confident.

“Nothing to see here.”

Of course, we loved it that Tottenham lost at Southampton, and we did not mind one iota that Manchester United lost at Arsenal.

We ended the day in fourth place and five points clear of the rest.

As the other three slept, I drove on and on and on. I reached home, eventually, at just after 9pm. We had all agreed that it had been a top day out.

Next up, Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup and thoughts of 1970, where it all began for many of us.

See you there.

 

Tales From The Temperance

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 26 December 2019.

At just before seven o’clock in the morning, I made my way into the darkness. I stood, alone with my thoughts, hood up on my jacket, a light drizzle in the air. I was waiting for Glenn, the day’s designated driver, to arrive to pick me up ahead of the Boxing Day game against a slightly rejuvenated Southampton. I heard the village church bell’s strike seven. I wondered what was in store for us.

Glenn duly arrived, with PD alongside him. We soon picked up Lord Parsnips and were on our way. As we headed east, the rain increased making driving difficult for him. I had not seen Glenn for a while; the last time was on the aborted away game against the same opposition in early October. With Glenn driving, this allowed me to indulge in a few drinks – OK, a sesh – for the first time at Stamford Bridge all season. The stretch of largely non-alcoholic home games stood at fourteen. There had been the odd pint here and there, but nothing too wild.

Fourteen games. Bloody hell. That has to be a record.

So, I had been relishing this for a while.

I had awoken early, at 4.30am, and knew that I wouldn’t be getting back to sleep again. My early morning thoughts, evidently, were about pints as well as points.

The rotten rain continued all of the way to London. At just before ten o’clock, Glenn dropped us off at West Brompton tube station and we soon caught a train to Putney Bridge. I had arranged to meet some friends from Germany at “The Eight Bells” and as the train left Parson’s Green, I looked ahead to the compartment in front and there they were.

Ben, Jens and Walt.

The day was off to a good start. Both Ben and I work in logistics. It was perfectly logical, therefore, for us to be on the same train.

I have known Ben for a good six or seven years. He used to work for a company that assists with getting our office furniture delivered in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. I managed to get tickets for the three of them for the Stoke City game just after Christmas in 2017, and Ben and Jens bumped into us after the Crystal Palace away game during the Christmas break last season. It was great to see them again. For this game, a friend had come up trumps for three tickets together in the Matthew Harding Lower.

At about 10.10am, I was the first one to enter “The Eight Bells.”

It felt good to be able to get the beers in.

We soon settled in our corner and the drinking, and not too much thinking, began. Jason Cundy popped in before his busy day ahead working for the Chelsea media team. I quickly pulled up his photo from 1991/92 to show the visitors. On this trip, the lads were again going to the darts on the Friday, and they had picked the West Ham United vs. Leicester City game on the Saturday. Ben supports Borussia Mönchengladbach, Jens supports Hamburg and Walt supports Bayern Munich. I did edge towards asking the three of them which English team they follow but Walt’s answer “not Arsenal” was good enough for me. We were joined by Mark from The Netherlands and his sister Kelly from High Wycombe, who we had not arranged to meet, but who often pop in. Next in were three from the US; Mehul and Neekita from Michigan, Matt from Illinois.

So, modern day Chelsea; England, Germany, The Netherlands and the United States. During the game, I would bump into a mate from Thailand who comes over once or twice a season.

All of us together, all sharing a beer, all having a laugh.

Good times.

I know that overseas supporters often get a rough ride at Chelsea – and elsewhere – but I get bored reading about it. I know plenty of passionate and clued-up foreign supporters of our club. The problem, at Stamford Bridge specifically, are the tourists – not Chelsea fans – who add us to the list of things to do in London without doing any research or background checks on what is likely to occur at games. That said, it still saddens me that many of the fans from overseas supporters’ clubs still buy game day scarves; surely they are aware of the hatred of these monstrosities?

In February, the boot will be on the other foot.

Let me explain.

I recently booked a flight to Buenos Aires to catch as many games as I can – but no darts, cough cough – and it will be interesting to see how I am treated by the locals.

Why Argentina? Why Buenos Aires?

It is no secret that I love visiting different football stadia, and I am a big fan of Simon Inglis, who has been the doyen of football architecture in the UK for decades. His book “Sightlines” (2000) featured stadia around the world and not just football; stadia devoted to baseball, cricket, rugby union among others are painstakingly detailed. However, underpinning the entire book – every couple of chapters – is the author’s attempt to visit as many of Buenos Aires’ twenty-five professional football stadia as he can in a crazy few days. This entranced me all those years ago, and I recently re-read it all again. And it started a train of thought.

I wanted to experience South America and I wanted to experience, for sure, South American football.  I craved Argentina. It is, undoubtedly, one of the last remaining countries where passionate, to the point of irresponsible and bordering on violent, support still exists. I wanted to delve deep into Buenos Aires but I soon realised that their season runs concurrently with ours and so that would be difficult. I couldn’t realistically plan to miss a few Chelsea games, although I have done so in the past.

This Chelsea thing. I’ve got it bad, right?

So, thoughts turned to Brazil and Rio de Janeiro. Theirs is a summer season. I tentatively looked at going over to see Flamengo or Fluminense or Botafogo or Vasco da Gama this summer, but Baku took over.

And then, it dawned on me that for the first time ever, there would be a winter break in English football in 2019/20. This meant that there would be a window of opportunity to visit Argentina. I looked at the dates. I preliminarily booked two weeks off in February to cover all eventualities. Around ten days ago, the TV games were firmed up for the Premier League reaching into February, and our free weekend would come between an away game against Leicester City and a home game with Manchester United.

I honed in on the Primera Division games planned for the weekend of Saturday 8 February, knowing that there would be a spread of games over four or five days.

I threw caution to the wind and booked my flights and I booked a hotel.

With superb timing, the very next day – Christmas Eve – that weekend’s games were confirmed and it meant that I would, hopefully, get to see four games, probably five, during my stay.

Friday : Estudiantes vs. Defensa Y Justicia.

Saturday : Lanus vs. Newell’s Old Boys.

Sunday : Independiente vs. Arsenal Sarandi and River Plate vs. Banfield.

Monday : Huracan vs. Aldosivi.

And it got me thinking about football tourism. I began to question why the Premier League seems to be the main destination for visitors outside our national boundaries. Is it because of our historical role as the birthplace of the sport? Is it because of the way the Premier League is marketed? Is it because of the language? Everybody speaks English, right? Is it because, by and large, we are a friendly lot? I do not know of the figures, but English football has always attracted visitors from Europe, but it seems to be the main footballing destination for visitors outside Europe too. Yet, for me, there are valid alternatives for visitors from Brisbane, Beijing, Bangkok and Baltimore. Certainly for a more visceral experience, visitors from distant lands might be better placed to visit the leagues of Germany and Italy or even the former communist countries of the old Eastern Bloc. The noise and intensity. The real deal. Not some watered down version. Because I will say it, yet again. Apart from away games, following Chelsea these days gets quieter and quieter with every passing season. And fans at Old Trafford, The Emirates and other venues say the same.

How about a Belgrade derby, a match in Moscow or a Legia Warsaw vs. Widzew Lodz battle?

Thought not. I think those games might be just a little outside many peoples’ comfort zones. I am keen to hear if Borussia Dortmund supporters are getting slightly weary of all the football tourists heading over to be part of “The Yellow Wall” which has to be a bit of a cliché by now. And what of the thoughts of Barcelona and Real Madrid fans? There must be just as many football tourists who plot up at the Nou Camp and the Bernabeu as at Old Trafford, Anfield and Stamford Bridge these days?

Of course it could be a double-edged sword all of this. A quick immersion in to the passionate and noisy nature of Argentinian football might make me realise how anaemic our football has become. A couple of mates, seasoned travellers themselves – Tommie from Porthmadog in North Wales and Foxy from Dundee in Scotland – have assisted in my plans for Buenos Aires, and two others, who I have not yet met, have both declared that it is the best place to watch football these days.

Watch this space.

We popped over the road to “The Temperance” and the drinking continued. Mark, who is local to the area despite having lived in The Netherlands for ages, spoke of how the pub used to be a snooker hall, and how he remembers playing there many years ago.

The Temperance.

What a great name for a boozer. None of us fancied joining any latter day temperance movement, though, and the drinking continued at a pace.

On the drive to London, we had briefly touched on Southampton. Not so long ago, it seemed that Southampton, Norwich City and Watford were certs for relegation, but the Saints had shown a sudden resurgence under Ralph Hassenpfefferstadenschnitzelheimerhuttel. None of us were making grandiose comments about a sure fire win, despite the magnificence of our play at Tottenham.

This was Chelsea, after all.

On the final few hundred yards to the stadium, the rain had stopped but the skies were dull and full of cloud.

OK, the game…once again : “do I have to?”

Please bear in mind that this was a very poor match from start to bloody finish and I had been knocking back “Birra Moretti” and “Peroni” since 10am, so this one isn’t going to win any prizes.

Here goes.

My guess after Tottenham was that the 3/4/3 might well be replaced for the standard 4/3/3 but Rudiger, Zouma and Tomori kept their places.

We lined up as below –

Arizzabalaga

Rudiger – Zouma – Tomori

Azpilicueta – Kante – Jorginho – Emerson

Willian – Abraham – Hudson-Odoi

The Sleepy Hollow lined up as below –

Chris – Alan – Glenn – PD

The old team were back together again for the first time since Brighton in September.

Southampton had a full three thousand, an easy away game for them. Rather than their usual red and white stripes, they showed up in a waspish black and yellow. The “Munich Two” were involved, with Ryan Bertrand starting but Oriel Romeu only on the bench.

Chelsea again dominated possession early on but were met with a solid wall of deep-lying midfielders and a solid defence. It was clear that we needed a little intuition and some pace out wide to get through the massed ranks of Southampton players. They were solid and defended tenaciously. It was like trying to manoeuvre a way through a variant of The Terracotta Army.

“They shall not pass.”

Soon into the game a beam of sunlight lit up a small section of the East Upper, but this also exposed the fact that there were pockets of empty seats throughout the stadium. And the absent foreign supporters from all over the world surely couldn’t be held totally responsible for every single one of those.

Our build up play was slow and ponderous, and it took an age for our first shot on target of note. My camera was hardly used in the first part of the game, but I miraculously caught Callum Hudson-Odoi’s swipe at the ball which was deflected wide.

The game struggled to get out of first gear.

Ten minutes later, a Southampton attack down our left flank resulted in Michael O’bafemi  – the young Irish lad – being allowed to twist into space and we watched as he ripped a fine effort high past Kepa to give the visitors a surprising lead, and a blow to us.

Bollocks.

The Southampton players celebrated down below us, the gits.

Was there a reaction?

Not really.

The crowd stood and sat in some sort of Turkey, roast potatoes, Brussel sprouts, parsnips, peas and carrot induced torpor, and the players looked out of sorts too. It was brewing up to be another frustrating match at Stamford Bridge. The moans and grumbles continued throughout the first half as we struggled to break down the resolute defence.

I took a photo of my pal Rob, sitting a few rows behind me, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his very first game at Stamford Bridge; Chelsea vs. Southampton, 1969.

He was with his son Joe.

Well done Rob. Fantastic stuff.

Down below us on the Stamford Bridge pitch, there was stagnation. It was all very dull and all very predictable. There was no spark. It was shocking stuff. We hardly caused the Southampton ‘keeper to make a save in anger. There was a real reluctance to shoot on target and the extra wide men simply did not deliver.

Sigh.

At the start of the second-half, Frank reverted to a 4/3/3 as Mason Mount came on to replace Kurt Zouma. We hoped for some forward runs, some penetration, and soon into the second period, my infrequently-used camera miraculously captured our second real attempt on goal. Tammy Abraham was set free but lashed wide from an angle, only bothering the side netting.

Southampton became a little more adventurous and then Hudson-Odoi struck from outside the box, but the ball touched the top of the net, and the Saints ‘keeper was untroubled. By now, the mood in the home camp was deteriorating.

My very first Boxing Day game at Stamford Bridge came along as late as 1992. Until then, with no car and few local Chelsea mates that I knew, and with my parents solidly staying at home on every Boxing Day, and with no train service to London, I had been unable to attend a single game on all other Boxing Days. When I eventually did attend a game, it felt as if I was attending some sort of “Londoners only” event, a special match for invited guests only. It felt lovely. On that occasion – I have written about it before – I managed to smuggle my father’s bulky camcorder into the East Upper and my over-riding memory of that day – enhanced by playing the ten minutes of film that I shot – was the real increase in noise (clapping, shouts, voices from the crowd, encouragement) as the ball was sent into the Southampton half. In those days, it was a massively different style of football and much of it involved midfield battles. But as soon as there was a sniff of an attack, the crowd were on it and involved. Even in the East Upper.

In 1992, the gate was 18,344 but it felt as though everyone present was there to support the team. We had won nothing in twenty-one years and a trophy was still five years away, but it felt as though we were all in it together.

On Boxing Day in 2019, any fan involvement was not worthy of the name.

The game continued in front of a quickly worsening atmosphere.

Christian Pulisic came on for a very poor Hudson-Odoi.

Nathan Redmond should have made it 2-0 but Kepa saved well after a quick break.

Groans.

With twenty minutes or so remaining, the dangerous Redmond finished off a long Southampton move with a delicate touch past Kepa.

Chelsea 0 Southampton 2.

Fackinell.

Pedro replaced Willian late on.

Pulisic created the final shot on goal, but typically off target, screwing a low shot past the right hand post.

By this time, the atmosphere around me was caustic and abrasive.

I wanted to go home.

Sadly, this was another woeful performance. Whereas a couple of months ago, match-going fans were supremely positive with the way things were going, now many have changed their tune. Fair enough, each to their own. But this is still a long term project and we need to stick with it. And I’d like to see a more positive atmosphere at Stamford Bridge, but that’s just me.

Postscript 1 :

Glenn would later tell me that while he was waiting in the concourse with Les from Melksham before our match, the Tottenham vs. Brighton game was on TV. As Tottenham scored a second goal, a voice – a Chelsea fan, from England – was heard cheering. Les reprimanded him, rather strongly.

“What are you doing?”

“He’s in my fantasy team.”

I hate modern football.

Postscript 2 :

On the two other recent occasions of Chelsea losing at home to poor teams – West Ham United and Bournemouth – at least wins on both occasions for Frome Town helped raise my spirits slightly. On this occasion, no such luck; a 4-1 loss at Les’ Melksham Town.

Postscript 3 :

In the after game interview, involving Jason Cundy pitch side with Frank, there were no punches pulled. But Frank took everything on the chin. He answered all of the questions honestly and without serving up silly excuse after silly excuse. I totally admire his approach in these interviews. I am longing for us to turn the corner. For him, for all of us.

Postscript 4 :

At the halfway stage in the league season, we are in fourth place.

See you at Arsenal.

 

Tales From A Lilywhite Christmas Present

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 22 December 2019.

On the drive to London, PD and I were not confident at all about our chances of drawing, let alone winning, at Tottenham Hotspur’s glistening new stadium, that they have decided to name – showing amazing intuition and originality – the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. We were on a dismal little run of games and “that lot” had – heaven knows how – managed to score goals for fun under their new manager Jose Mourinho, picking up wins in most of the games under his tutelage.

The signs did not look good.

I had spent the previous afternoon at Badgers Hill watching a Betvictor Southern League Division One South game between Frome Town and Thatcham Town. I had met up with a pal in the town centre, bustling with Christmas shoppers, for a pre-match drink and had assembled at the Frome ground with close on four hundred others for a top of the table clash, pitting my local team against the team in second place. Despite blustery and difficult conditions, Frome Town flew into a deserved 2-0 lead at the break, but the recent rain had left areas of mud all over the pitch. With around twenty minutes remaining, a crunching tackle took place in a particularly sticky and dangerous patch of mud, for which the word quagmire could well have been invented, and the referee brandished a yellow card, and had no real option but to abandon the game.

It was the first game in my match-going life that had been abandoned during play.

My mind had whirred into gear :

“…mmm, I wonder if I will be wishing for an abandonment at Tottenham tomorrow?”

Deep down, I wondered if the abandonment was a foretaste of gloomier things on the Sunday.

Some more bad news; Parky was unable to come with us. Not only was he unwell, his village was unreachable, isolated by flooded country lanes. So, a double whammy.

As I drove towards Stonehenge I saw a tailback and wondered if my finely-tuned journey to London was about to be disrupted and that the gloom would continue. There were police cars ahead.

“What’s this PD? Hunt saboteurs?”

No, I was quickly reminded of the date. The Winter Solstice. Within a minute or so, we were flagged through by the police as they then returned to their task of funneling the revellers away from their designated car park.

I continued on.

At least the weather was fine. The roads were clear. There was a hint of winter sun. I was grasping at positives.

“Should be a clear drive in, mate.”

PD and I chatted about the Champions League draw, and our plans for getting to Munich. I won’t bore everyone this far out, but it will be a carbon copy of 2012; flights from Bristol to Prague, a night in Prague, coach to and from Prague to Munich, a night in Munich. That’s still three months away. It will take ages to finally arrive. But it is a lovely “gift” at the end of a potentially cold winter spell.

At around 10.45am, we stopped for a bite to eat at a “Greggs” on the A303, and then I drove straight in to London, the roads ridiculously clear of traffic. At midday – exactly as I had planned – we were parked-up outside Barons Court tube station.

Inside my head : “at least this was a perfect start to the day.”

We made our way in to town. Throughout all the years of going to Tottenham, there has never been a set routine. I know that a lot mob up at Liverpool Street at “The Hamilton Hall” or “Railway Tavern” but on the one occasion that I did that, it did not look an awful lot of fun; packed pubs, loons chanting, the OB filming everyone. Not for me.

I had other plans.

We had a few hours to kill.

Leading up to my planning for this game, I remembered a pub crawl that I had sorted for the lads for our home game with Manchester City last season; it was centered on Whitehall. Sadly, I was too ill to attend, so the pub crawl never happened. Bearing in mind that we won – against all odds – that day, the superstitious part of me decided to have another stab at it.

So, from 12.30pm to around 2.45pm, PD and I visited “The Clarence”, “The Old Shades”, “The Silver Cross” and “Walkers of Whitehall”, all of which are within one hundred yards of each other. It was a lovely and relaxing time, away from the madness of Liverpool Street.

We toasted absent friends – not just Parky, there were friends that had missed out on tickets for this, the most sought-after away game in years and years – and chatted about European games past, European games present and European games future.

One thing struck me.

“Still not seen any Tottenham fans, nor Chelsea fans for that matter.”

London would be full of 61,000 match-goers, but we had seen not one of them the entire day, or at least nobody sporting club favours, more to the point.

As we walked from one glorious boozer to the next, pub two to pub three – a full six yards – PD moaned.

“I do wish you wouldn’t make me walk so far between pubs, Chris.”

Our drinking over – I was mixing my drinks, lagers and cokes, the designated driver – we moved on. We walked to Charing Cross station and then caught the Northern Line to Tottenham Court Road. From there, the Central Line to Liverpool Street.

“Still no Tottenham. Still no Chelsea.”

At Liverpool Street, up on the concourse, I looked around and saw a familiar face.

Les from Melksham, but no club colours of course.

We hopped onto the 3.30pm train with only a few seconds to spare.

Perfect timing.

On the train – at last a few Tottenham scarves – we sat with Les and some Chelsea mates, no colours. We ran through the team.

“Three at the back, then.”

“Alonso.”

“Mason.”

This train seemed to take forever.

At just before 4pm, it slowed and we pulled into White Hart Lane station, which – in order to cope with an extra 25,000 match-goers every fortnight – had undergone a fine upgrade.

In the distance, high above the shop fronts on the High Road, a first glimpse of the steel and glass of their new gaff.

We approached the stadium, time moving on now, ten past four, but realised that there was no noticeable signage for away fans. We were shooed north, through a supermarket car park – ambush anyone? – and out on to Northumberland Park. Another glimpse of the outer shell of the stadium, and then the approach to the away section. But here, it seemed that the planners had realised way too late that the away turnstiles were several feet higher than pavement level, resulting in some short steep steps being required to lift fans the final few yards.

An odd arrangement. I have no doubt that the Tottenham stadium is better than the Arsenal one, but it certainly seems cramped. There is not the space nor sense of space that you encounter at The Emirates.

Amid all of this rush to get in, I needed to collect tickets for future games.

Twenty past four.

Thankfully, I spotted one friend – “three for Southampton” – right at the top of the steps from the pavement.

Perfect.

I spotted lines of stewards all lined up, patting people down, and with tables for bag searches too. I had no time for that. I gazed into the distance, avoided eye-contact and shimmied past about eight stewards, with body swerves that JPR Williams would have been proud. Not one single search. Get in. I flashed my ticket against the sensor and I was inside.

The first person that I saw in our cramped concourse was the other friend – “Brighton away” – and I was sorted.

A double dose of “perfect.”

Twenty-five minutes past four.

Chelsea were banging on the metallic panels of the concourse, kicking up a mighty fine racket. I needed to use the little boys’ room. Rush, rush, rush.

Phew.

As I entered the seating bowl, I saw the Chelsea players break from the line-up and race over to us.

Chelsea in all blue. Love those red, white and blue socks.

We had made it.

Two minutes to go.

Perfect.

More positivity.

Initial thoughts about the stadium?

Impressive.

They have obviously learned from Arsenal’s mistakes (seats too far from the pitch, a shallow rake in the lower tier, corporate tiers that get in the way of a continuous wall of noise) and – bloody hell – that single tier at the South End reaches high into the sky. It is very impressive.

(A note to the fools who still blather on about a similar single tiered Shed End at a revamped Stamford Bridge – where are we going to get the room to do that, then?)

I really do not know why the place isn’t still called White Hart Lane though. If anything, the new stadium is nearer the street by the same name by a good fifty yards.

Naming rights, I guess.

I Hate Modern Football Part 519.

Everyone – apart from Parky – was in, and the 3,000 away fans in our section around the north-east corner flag seemed more.

We were ready.

But first, a moment to remember a hero from 1966, Martin Peters, who sadly passed away the previous day. I am not old enough to remember Peters as a West Ham player, but I certainly remember him as a Tottenham player alongside Chivers, Gilzean, England, Jennings and all. He is a strong link to my childhood, so he is another one will who be sadly missed.

There was warm applause from both sets of fans.

RIP.

The game began, and how.

In the first two minutes it was all Chelsea, in the first five minutes it was all Chelsea, in the first ten minutes it was all Chelsea.

It was as if we were the home team.

And I’ll say this. I was expecting great things from the wall of support from the opposite end – after all, they hate us right? – but the lack of noise from the Tottenham fans really surprised me. They had been right on it at Wembley in 2008, and at virtually every game at the old White Hart Lane around that era, but this was a very poor show.

On the pitch, everyone shone, confidently passing to each other, with the wide full-backs stretching play nicely. There were a couple of half-chances from us and yet nothing from Tottenham. From my lowly position – row seven – I did not have a great view of our attacks down the left, but it was from this area that provided some early cheer.

A corner played short by Willian to Kovacic was returned to him. The Brazilian received the ball, fleet-footed it into space and in prime territory, curled a shot (I was right behind the course of the ball once again) past Paulo Gazzaniga into the goal in front of seventeen thousand of the fuckers.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

Just before the goal, a fan had tapped me on the back to tell me that Andy from Trowbridge had spotted me; he had prime seats above the exit to my right. I seized the moment and snapped Andy’s euphoric celebrations.

And then it was time for me to smile, to scream, to celebrate.

Good on you, Willian.

Braziliant.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Phew.

This was a dream start.

We continued on in the same vein for the next portion of the game; always in control, always looking to puncture the Tottenham defence with incisive passing, always determined to halt any approach by the home team. We had chances throughout that first-half, with Tammy looking vibrant, but they had to wait for their first one.

On the half-hour, Harry Kane skied a chance from close in, and not long after Son Hueng Min walloped a shot high too, though from a tighter angle.

The three defenders looked in control and relaxed. This might not be our standard formation for much of the remainder of this season but here it worked a treat.

Tomori. Zouma. Rudiger.

“Young, gifted and at the back.” (…thanks for the inspiration John Drewitt, the cheque is in the post.)

Tottenham – damn, another cliché – really were chasing shadows.

They were simply not in it.

At all.

Chelsea were in fine voice. One song dominated.

“We’ve got Super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

And it repeated and repeated. I am sure the watching millions heard it on TV because it was deathly silent in all of the 58,000 seats of the home areas.

Another tried an tested chant was aired :

“Champions of Europe. You’ll never sing that.”

On the balcony walls between the tiers, electronic messages flashed.

“THE GAME IS ABOUT GLORY.”

Snigger snigger.

“THIS IS MY CLUB, MY ONE AND ONLY CLUB.”

Yes, and you are fucking welcome to it.

“COME ON YOU SPURS.”

Fuck off you Spurs.

There was a worrying moment when Kepa hesitated to reach a ball into the box and he was clattered by Moussa Sissoko. Just after, there was a kerfuffle involving Kovacic, Kane, Rudiger, Zouma and Delle Ali. It was clear that tensions were rising.

Over on the far touchline, Frank Lampard was the more animated of the two managers by far, constantly cajoling and encouraging his players whereas Jose Mourinho looked unresponsive.

Some in the Chelsea end roared “Fuck off Mourinho” but that chant was not for me.

Forty-five minutes were up, but the first-half was far from finished. Willian lobbed the ball in to the box but the Tottenham ‘keeper bizarrely, and dangerously, chose to claim the ball with a ridiculously high challenge (reminiscent of Schumacher versus Battiston in 1982) and almost decapitated Alonso. For reasons known only to the referee Anthony Taylor, he awarded a free-kick to Tottenham.

We were rightly incandescent with anger.

“His legs were up before Alonso even got close. For fuck sake.”

Then, VAR.

I made a pact with myself – as did Alan, two seats along – not to cheer if the decision went our way.

VAR – penalty.

All eyes on Willian. A halt in his run, but his shot was to the ‘keeper’s left as was the first goal.

GET IN.

What a half of football.

The referee blew up and the Chelsea faithful roared. It had been, make no mistake, a beautiful half of football. At half-time, as I gleefully trotted through the away seats and out to the concourse, shaking hands with a few, and hugging a few more, and I can rarely remember such a joyous bunch at half-time anywhere. And it was great to see a few old stagers present – you know who you are – who had managed to beg, steal or borrow to get in.

Good times.

On the way up in the car, we had highlighted Son as probably Tottenham’s most influential player, but Christian Eriksen was surely not far behind. It was a surprise that Mourinho had not picked him to start, but he replaced Eric Dier as the second-half began.

There were two early attempts on goal from Tammy, and as the game continued it was the away team who still dominated.

Inside my head : “bloody hell, we can do this.”

Willian was bundled off the pitch, and found himself way below the pitch behind the goal. Just like at Old Trafford, there is a marked “fall-off” from the pitch to the surrounds of the stands. I was reminded that there was a retractable NFL – another reason to hate the twats – pitch under the grass pitch for football at this new stadium.

Inside my head : “and below that, a fucking full size circus ring.”

At around the hour mark, my visibility not great, I was vaguely aware of the “coming together” of Son and Rudiger down on the Spurs left. I honestly did not see anything, and perhaps my mind was elsewhere.

Out of nowhere, VAR became involved. Nobody around me really knew what was going on. The TV screen displayed “possible violent conduct” but we were clueless. After a good minute or so, probably more, came the message :

“Decision Red Card. Violent Conduct.”

And Taylor brandished the red to Son.

Oh my days.

Could life get any better?

In the aftermath of this incident, we spotted a few Tottenham fans getting up from their seats and it appeared that they were doing one of three things :

Heading off to try one of the craft ales on sale at the “Moustachioed & Bearded Hipster” bar.

Heading off to buy some Christmas presents at one of the ninety-seven retail outlets at the new stadium.

Heading home.

I suspect the latter, don’t you?

There were a couple of long announcements about “racist chanting” on the PA, but I did not think that this was in any way related to any one incident that had just taken place. I only learned about this while heading back in to London long after the game had finished. For the record, there was only a barely audible “Y” word at the end of the “Barcelona, Real Madrid” chant from the Chelsea contingent, most people deciding not to join in, and many deciding to “sssshhhhh.”

The game continued. It was eleven against ten, we were 2-0 up at the home of our bitterest rivals on our first-ever visit to their new gaff.

Oh, and our Frank was having the best of it against a formerly-loved, but now derided, manager.

“We used to love you Jose, but you’re a bit of a twat really aren’t you?”

Although there was not the high quality of the first-half, everywhere I looked there were sublime performances. Kante was his usual self, winning virtually all the 50/50 battles. One strong run was the stuff of legend. Mount ran and ran and ran, his energy just fantastic. Willian was sublime, the man of the match by far. One piece of control on the far side was worth the admission money alone. Special praise for Marcos Alonso too, a game that reminded me of his special role in 2016/17. I loved the spirited Azpilicueta too. I admired how he stretched – and reached – for a high ball that was going off for a throw-in, thus keeping the ball “live.”

Inside my head : “if I had tried that, I would have sprained seven different muscles, two of which weren’t even mine.”

Jorginho for Kovacic.

A Kante swipe from distance went close.

Reece James for Azpilicueta.

Michy Batshuayi for Abraham.

Fresh legs.

We dominated still. Tottenham were now launching balls high from deep.

“Hoof.”

Or “Huth” to be more precise. Remember Mourinho playing him upfront a few times? I think we should have seen that as a warning sign way back in 2005.

Eight minutes of added time were signalled.

Oh boy.

There was still time for a couple of lightning breaks – Willian usually involved – and Michy went close with a left-footed strike from outside the box. At the other end, the stadium now full of empty seats, Kane – who? – forced Kepa to make his very first save of the entire game.

I watched as the referee blew up and a forest of Chelsea arms flew into the air.

There was a little lull…a feeling of “I can’t believe this” permeated the mild North London air, and then the players and managers walked over towards us. I clambered up on to my seat (I noted that there are horizontal retaining bars above the back of each seat, almost paving the way – I suppose – for safe standing…well done Tottenham) and waited. I then photographed the frenzy of smiles, laughs, hugs and fist punches.

Then, ridiculously, the Tottenham PA chose to play the de facto Christmas song from my childhood (I can vividly remember sitting around the lunch table at my primary school in December 1973 when Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody” took over the number one slot).

“Are you hanging up a stocking on your wall?
It’s the time that every Santa has a ball.
Does he ride a red-nosed reindeer?
Does a ton-up on his sleigh?
Do the fairies keep him sober for a day?

So here it is, Merry Xmas.
Everybody’s having fun.
Look to the future now.
It’s only just begun.”

It wasn’t quite ten thousand Jocks singing “Rocking All Over The World” at half-time at Wembley in 1996, but it felt good enough.

What a giggle.

Frank was a picture. Look at the evidence below.

No words.

Outside, PD and I darted into “Sam’s Chicken” on the High Road to let the crowds subside. The food warmed us, and the dead man’s stare of many a Tottenham fan made me giggle some more.

We had not let them play, and they had been oh-so poor. It was a lovely Christmas present from them on our first-ever visit to their new home.

We caught a train back to Liverpool Street at about 7.30pm. Who should scuttle past me on the platform but Dan Levene? I would soon learn about the “racist chanting” and I wondered what spin he would put on it all.

Inside the train compartment, I spotted the actor Matthew Horne who plays Gavin in the excellent “Gavin & Stacey” comedy series on the BBC. He is a Tottenham fan in the show and I knew that he was a Tottenham fan in real life too. He was with his girlfriend so I left him alone. He was, oddly, combining a white and navy bar scarf with a Stone Island jacket.

Inside my head : “typical Tottenham.”

I overheard him say :

“We just didn’t show up today.”

That raised a giggle too.

After changing tube lines a few times, we eventually reached Barons Court at 9pm. It was a quiet but peaceful ride home and we reached Frome at 11pm.

It was, after all the initial worry, a bloody perfect day out.

Next up, Southampton at home on Boxing Day.

See you in the pub. Don’t be late.

Tales From The Long Game

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 30 November 2019.

I was awake at 5am – yes as early as that – and I just knew that I would not be able to get back to sleep. Once I had checked my phone for any important social media occurrences – there weren’t – I was resigned to the fact that I had best get up well before my planned alarm call at 6.15am. This was not due to a ridiculously giddy, juvenile excitement induced by the thought of the West Ham home game. No, those days are – sadly? – gone. I’m fifty-four years old. I see Chelsea games every week. The simple fact was that I just couldn’t get back to sleep.

The reason for myself waking up, though, might be worth mentioning. I was in the middle of a dream, possibly one which was turning into a nightmare, with me on the way to meet a mate on our way to an airport ahead of a trip abroad, but one in which I had totally messed-up the timings. I was out by a couple of hours. I got an earful from my pal.

No wonder I woke up.

I spend my working day making sure that transport collections and deliveries are done on time and I devote much of my leisure time driving to and from cities, and a sizeable chunk of the remainder planning ahead for future trips, away days, holidays. For someone who fell in love with maps at an early age, has a degree in Human Geography and works in logistics, the notion of me missing a flight by a large margin was reason enough for me to wake in a cold sweat.

Fackinell.

I put the kettle on, and drank a leisurely coffee.

Eventually, the time came to leave my sleeping Somerset village.

On the way in to Frome to collect Simon and PD, the sky was still dark; black all but for a small slither of burnt orange above the Longleat estate to my west.

There was no Lord Parky for this trip; he was otherwise engaged.

Within the first five minutes of the two-and-a-half hour drive to London, we had vented about the game on Wednesday in Valencia. The penalty decision. The ridiculous booking for Kante. VAR. Always VAR. The air turned blue.

The air turned royal blue later on, at various stages in the journey, when we chatted briefly about the upcoming game.

“With no Tammy, Frank will obviously play Michy. Giroud has not got a look in this season. He obviously rates Michy over him.”

“Looks like Pedro is well out of it at the moment. Our two wide men, now – and for the foreseeable – are Pulisic and Willian.”

“At least we won’t be playing a false nine.”

I reached London at 10am.

On the short walk to West Brompton tube, I spotted a distant Stamford Bridge, or at least the roof supports of the Matthew Harding, enveloped in a wintry mist. It looked quite beguiling. Five hours later, I would be sat right underneath that very same section of roof. While I waited for the District Line train to take me down to meet up with Simon and PD (I had parked the car while they shot off to get the drinks in), I looked down the track, again a misty view and again very atmospheric, and saw it bend slightly to go through the tunnel. That same track would have taken me to Fulham Broadway on my very first game in 1974. I had a little moment to myself and remembered the joy of that very first visit.

The pre-match was totally spent within the very cosy confines of “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge as is so often the case these days. And as so often happens – to the point of cliché, right? – we were joined by pals from near and far; London, Stafford, Lancashire, Edinburgh, Toronto, Minneapolis, Los Angeles.

Before I knew it, Simon was swapping phone numbers with the Minneapolis contingent ahead of a possible trip to the US next summer with a mate who loves Prince. I told him the story of when Chelsea opened-up the glass and steel superstructure of the new Minnesota Vikings stadium in 2016 against Milan, and that when we scored the first goal of the game, “Let’s Go Crazy” was played. A nice touch.

As we were in the pub so early – 10.30am – I decided to allow myself some “Birra Moretti” before moving on to the standard “Cokes.” They were a nice treat. It was lovely to see everyone getting on famously, despite many having never met previously. Cesar from Los Angeles laughing with PD. Simon chatting to Eric from Toronto. Dean chatting with Ralph from Los Angeles. Cesar chatting to Kev from Edinburgh.

Around this time last year, Cesar and his son Sebastian flew over for the 0-0 draw at home with Everton but due to the complexities of that trip, we were not able to meet up. He was making up for it this time. Cesar just wanted to spend time in an authentic London boozer and “The Eight Bells” fitted this requirement perfectly well. He was knocking back pints of “London Pride” and ordered some fish and chips too. On this visit, he was with his wife and daughter too, but this is where the story travels along a strange tangent. His wife Lucy and daughter Kira are Manchester United supporters – a split family – and were keen to head up to the game at Old Trafford on the Sunday of this footballing weekend. After a few messages across the Atlantic, my good friend Rick, a United season ticket holder, was able to sort out two tickets for them, sitting together, just a few seats away from him via a mate who would not be attending the game.

That, everyone, is what football should be all about.

While Cesar – I’ll just call him Dave – was chatting to myself, his wife and the two children were outside, sitting at the pub’s bench seats on the pavement, along with some friends. Cesar and Lucy had travelled over with a couple, with their two boys, who are not Chelsea but who were with them for the holiday’s duration. Ralph and his wife and their two boys were going to the game too. They were enjoying the London sun. But I felt for them. From Southern California sun to an English winter. But they were wrapped up well.

In the pub, some lads were constantly singing a new song.

“We’ve got Super Frankie Lampard. He knows exactly what we need. Tomori at the back. Tammy in attack. Chelsea’s gonna win the Champions League.”

A solid 7/10 from me.

On the CFC website, there had been warnings about Chelsea supporters singing about “Pikeys.”

I’ll be honest; the first time that I had ever heard this word, which references the travelling community, was when we played Gillingham at home in the FA Cup in 2000. In my part of the world – there is a Gypsy camp just outside Frome, on Gyspy Lane no less – we used other words. And to be quite honest, they were always used in an equally derogatory manner. So perhaps it is right that the club has made this statement.

Times change, eh?

The team line up was announced and there were a few gulps.

Arrizabalaga

James – Zouma – Tomori – Emerson

Jorginho

Kovacic – Barkley

Pedro – Giroud – Pulisic

Our collective comments about players on the drive to London were evidently off the mark.

“What Do We Know Part 862.”

Inside the stadium, there was not too much of a London Derby vibe. There were the usual three thousand away fans, but the only public display of club colours that I could spot were on the two West Ham flags draped over the Shed balcony wall. There was the usual predominance of dark coats and navy jackets, with only occasional hints of claret and blue on rare scarves and jackets. And a decidedly similar story in all the home areas but with maybe a few more scarves.

I spotted a new banner on the hotel wall above The Shed. It was of the old Shed, maybe from the mid’- eighties or just after, and a better photo than the blurred image of spectators in The Shed from a similar date that was present until recently.

Flames and fireworks. The teams entered the pitch.

West Ham have a pretty decent home shirt this season, a reference to their 1976/77 shirt which I first remember seeing when they reached the 1976 European Cup Winners’ Cup final, a 2-4 loss to Anderlecht. But I think that the kit would have been improved with crisp white shorts. Anyway, it is better than ours, which hurts me to admit.

The game?

Do I have to?

Hold on to your hats. This won’t be enjoyable.

Admittedly, we began the game in reasonably fine fettle. We dominated the ball. West Ham rarely threatened. There had been an early cross from the left but a stretching Antonio skied his chance well over. Mason Mount, we think, probably shot a little too soon when presented with the ball in a good position on the edge of the box. His effort was tame and debutant David Martin easily saved. Within a few seconds of play we conjured up two efforts on the West Ham goal. Firstly, a cross from Reece James on the right deflected up and struck the near post and then a header from a leaping Kurt Zouma skidded down and wide from the header that followed.

After twenty minutes, Alan commented that West Ham had hardly entered our half, let alone offer a chance to test Kepa in the goal down below us at the Matthew Harding. However, a fine cross from the West Ham right from Fredericks evaded everyone and found the head of that man Antonio. His close header was right at Kepa but our often maligned ‘keeper reacted well to palm it away.

Throughout the first-half, the West Ham fans were constantly yelling about “Chelsea Rent Boys.”

Rent Boys. Pikeys.

I didn’t know whether to be outraged by it all or bored by it all.

At the other end, at The Shed, a hopeful shot from Kovacic bouncing bombed its way through to the West Ham ‘keeper who saved the initial shot and then kept out follow-ups from both Giroud and Pedro.

The first-half sputtered on.

It had decreased in quality as the forty-five minutes progressed. And the atmosphere was just rotten. Kovacic looked busy, but in the way that Arkwright is busy; dusting his shop counter, rearranging his tins of soup, re-writing shop signs and getting Granville to fetch his cloth, but without actually fucking selling anything.

There was an excellent cross from James that was right on the money but it evaded both Giroud and Pulisic. At that moment in time I found myself thinking “the Chelsea of old would have scored that” whether it be via the head of Drogba or the boot of Costa.

Ah, Olivier Giroud – yes I know he did not have much service – but the man hardly moved the entire half. He didn’t seem too keen to test his marker, to create space for others, to give himself to the team. Perhaps he expected it all to be gift-wrapped for him. It was a deeply frustrating performance from him and most of the others. Only James on the right looked up to the task of stretching play.

There was a feeling of “ho hum” at half-time.

Soon into the second-half, a West Ham move developed. I happened to mention “how is Robert Snodgrass still playing for a Premier League team?” when the player moved the ball from wide right into the middle, with West Ham gifted all the space they needed. The ball was pushed out to a raiding Aaron Creswell on their left. I immediately sensed danger.

“Here we go.”

With that, he turned past James way too easily, and slotted a low shot in at the far post.

Chelsea 0 West Ham United 1.

Fackinell.

It seemed impossible that we were behind. It had been a poor game but we had edged the chances, slim that they were. We kept huffing and puffing but did not look at ease in our own skin. From a corner, Kepa had to stretch and keep out a Fabian Balbuena header. It was another excellent save.

For the first time of the entire match, the Matthew Harding got our act together and sang as one. I looked up at the clock.

59 minutes.

Not fucking good enough. We are meant to be supporting Frank this season. But this does mean that we just defend him in discussions at work, among colleagues, with strangers, on the internet, in fucking cyber-space, but it also means that we are meant to support him at games too.

I repeat. Not fucking good enough.

On sixty-three minutes, Frank pulled the strings.

N’Golo Kante for Jorginho.

Willan for Pedro.

There was, however, another catastrophe at The Shed End. A cross from the West Ham right from Snodgrass evaded Zouma and Antonio bundled it home.

Oh bloody hell.

But then we learned that VAR was being used.

A good time for me to use the facilities. Off I trotted.

I heard a loud roar.

No goal.

I did not react.

On returning to my seat, I heard from Alan that there had been a handball.

Fair enough.

With twenty minutes to go, off came Giroud, but instead of Michy Batshuayi, on came Callum Hudson-Odoi.

A definite head scratcher that one, eh?

We were playing a “kinda” false-nine.

Our pre-match chat in the car on the way up had proved fucking worthless.

“What Do We Know Part 863.”

The away fans were still going.

“Come on you Irons.”

The mood around me was getting tetchy, at best, angry at worst. I was saddened to hear a few calling our players by the “C” word.

Sigh.

In truth, we did improve in the last twenty minutes and the industry of Kante was the main catalyst. What a player he is.

But never in the last portion of the game did I feel that we would grab an equaliser. A shot from Callum was hit high. We seemed to be over-stacked with options on the right but Willian and James spent too much time passing to each other rather than launching missiles into danger areas. When balls were played across, false nines and invisible targets were not hit. With each poor pass, the moans increased in volume.

“That helps, eh?”

The last chance of the ninety minutes fell to Pulisic who was set up by Kante, and his first touch seemed to give just the right amount of space to smash the ball in. We got our celebrations tee’d up. Alas his shot mirrored the mood of the afternoon. He slashed it wide.

Five minutes of extra time was signalled. A few people had begun drifting away before then. The extra minutes did not treat us well. We kept going but were met by a resolute wall of claret.

I thought to myself “we have not lost to these at home for ages” and my mind back-peddled. The last time was in fact in September 2002, but I was not present; I was on holiday in the Great Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. I can remember logging on to a friend’s computer to hear that we had lost 3-2. The last game in which I had witnessed a defeat in person against West Ham was the infamous 1-0 “Paul Kitson” game in 1998/99 which was our third and final loss of the season and seemed to feel like the end of our title challenge. In truth, we rallied again but an equally catastrophic 2-2 with Leicester City – “Steve Guppy” – put an end to our title challenge. However, if we had won both of those games, we would still not have been champions, as an inferior goal difference to Manchester United would have proved our undoing.

But 1998/99. Just three losses but no title. It seemed we would never get closer.

I digress.

With over four minutes of the five minutes played, and the ball in our half – and with my camera tucked away in its bag already – Alan, Simon, PD and I edged our way out. For the first time in hundreds of home games, I left before the final whistle, albeit no more than three seconds.

There were grumbles-a-plenty on the descent down to ground level.

Outside, I overheard a young bloke wail “I took a day off for that shit.”

Fucking diddums.

We trotted back to the car; the extra few minutes meant that we were ahead of the curve on getting out of the packed West London streets. I pulled out of Barons Court onto the A4 and I cleared the Chiswick roundabout by 6pm.

The drive home took two hours and was mainly in silence.

Simon and PD periodically snoozed. There was an occasional traffic-jam but I made good time. The M3 was OK despite the partial closure of the M4 – it’s sister road – and it was a relatively clean escape.

All really was quiet.

We knew that we had not played well. There was no need for a huge post mortem.

But my head churned things over as I drove. I searched for some positives.

The aim this season has always been one of sustained growth. And we really should not judge everything on one game, nor possibly even a handful.

I thought some more.

One of the “in” phrases of late is “game management”; the killing of the game in its final period once ahead, or “seeing teams off” as it was known in the days of old.  Frank’s brief all along has been geared to “season management.” I see this as the management of all resources throughout the season to the best of his abilities.

“The long game.”

That was our brief too, right? As fans, to be supportive, to give him time, to lay off the heavy criticism. How often did I see the phrase “I don’t care if we finish tenth this season.”

And yet some fans are throwing the “C” word around in November with us in the top four, comfortably the top six? Do me a favour.

It’s not a one game show this. It has to be about managing the whole season, bringing in players at various times, looking at options, weighing up strengths and weaknesses, assessing each player’s abilities and attributes. It’s simply not about playing the same eleven players every game.

As I drove on, I knew full well that the internet would be full of supporters over-reacting, as is the way of the world these days, and airing self-inflated opinions. Once home, I did not bother delving too deeply into such tripe. It had been a long day. I didn’t need all that.  I simply uploaded some photos of the day – my camerawork was off too, it was one of those days – and then fell asleep, probably just as well, before our game was aired on “MOTD.”

There is a short video which was released by Chelsea Football Club just after the game, pitch side, and in it Frank Lampard spoke about the game.

This was my brief comment :

“For all those having a bit of a moan, listen to the man speak. Valid comments throughout. He will learn from his mistakes. Frank is intelligent and focused, rarely have I been more impressed listening to a football man talk about the game…”

I am already looking forward to the game on Wednesday at home to Aston Villa.

I trust that the club won’t go overboard with the return of John Terry. And I hope that the fans’ reactions strike the right tone.

On we go, on this franktastic journey.

See you there.

 

Tales From A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Match

Chelsea vs. Ajax : 5 November 2019.

I was born in 1965. I was therefore alive when England won the World Cup in 1966, and even though I am well known for my memory, it would be impressive if I could recollect seeing that one. 1970 seemed to pass me by, and I have no recall of that tournament nor that final. The first one that I can fully remember seeing – and being part of, which is what it is all about – is the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. We were used to just one club football match per year on TV in those days – the FA Cup Final – and also the yearly England vs. Scotland match in The Home Internationals. But there was the odd international game too. I can certainly remember watching the England vs West Germany qualifier for the European Championships on 29 April 1972. I am positive that this is the first football match that I can ever remember seeing on TV. This narrowly beats the 1972 FA Cup Final between Leeds United and Arsenal on 6 May 1972.

The 1974 World Cup Finals – England failed to qualify after memorably, and infamously, drawing 1-1 with Poland on 17 October 1973, I remember seeing that one too – were shown on TV at reasonable viewing times and I loved every minute of it. It was a magnificent time. In those days, it seemed OK to want Scotland to do well. They were the United Kingdom’s only qualifiers. I remember that they were drawn against Brazil and The Netherlands in their group. Although I had heard of the Ajax team of around that time – European Champions in 1971, 1972 and 1973 – I had not been exposed to many of their actual games on TV. So, the World Cup in 1974 would open my eyes to Dutch football, and to the many Ajax players involved. A quick scan of the Dutch players who lost the 1974 final to West Germany brings back some rich memories.

Jan Joengblood – FC Amsterdam

Wim Suurbier – Ajax

Wim Rijsbergen – Feyenoord

Arie Haan – Ajax

Ruud Krol – Ajax

Wim Jansen – Feyenoord

Johan Neeskens – Ajax

Wim Van Hanegem – Feyenoord

Johnny Rep – Ajax

Rob Rensenbrink – Anderlecht

Johan Cruyff – Ajax

The venerated Ajax Amsterdam therefore provided six of the starting eleven, with their arch rivals Feyenoord three. I always thought it odd that the wonderful winger Rensenbrink plied his football in Belgium and it is only through research for this report that I found out that the ‘keeper Joengblood played for a lesser team.

But they were a magical team. The World was bowled over by them in 1974, and in my village school their players captivated us all. How ironic that there were six Ajax players, and four called Wim.

[Shit joke coming up. You know it’s coming.]

No wonder they wiped the floor with most teams.

And now, at long last, the famous Ajax were playing at Stamford Bridge for the very first time.

I could not wait.

On the drive to London in PD’s car I mentioned that I really hoped that they would show up in their famous red and white kit. Of all the sporting kits in the world, none can be more – and I am sorry for using an overworked word – iconic than that of Ajax. Back in the early ‘seventies it really captured my imagination.

I was inside Stamford Bridge at about 7.45pm ahead of the 8pm kick-off. There had been an emergency scare, with an ambulance, outside the West Stand and so I was asked to walk all of the way around Stamford Bridge and access the Matthew Harding from right behind the stand rather than the usual entrance on the corner of the West Stand. I was worried that the delay would make me late, but all was well. I walked under the illuminated Shed Wall, and past “the away entrance” to The Shed near the East Stand. Except there would be no away fans on this night. They had been banned, en masse,  from attending. We had even been warned, via email, that we needed to bring photo ID to the game to ensure that we were valid spectators. Quite how this might have affected my pals Mark, Paul and Mick who live in The Netherlands is not known.

Anyway, I was in.

The Shed was all Chelsea, save for a gap in the lower tier where around eight hundred seats that had originally been set aside for Ajax were left unused.

Kick-off was approaching.

The team was the same as against Watford, apart from Alonso for Emerson.

Arrizabalaga

Apilicueta – Zouma – Rudiger – Alonso

Jorginho – Mount – Kovacic

Pulisic – Abraham – Willian

Thankfully I spotted the famous red and white Ajax kit as the players emerged from the tunnel. I honestly felt cheated in 2009 when Juventus showed up in SW6 wearing a bronze shirt.

Over in The Shed, somewhere, was my friend Dennis and his wife Kazuko, who live in Virginia. They had met us for a few drinks in “The Goose” and had followed us down to “Simmons” where we treated them to a Chuckle Brothers pre-match. On the walk down the North End Road, the night fizzed with fireworks on Bonfire Night. I assured Dennis that this didn’t happen every night, nor was it a special Chuckle Brothers welcome for them both. I met Dennis on the 2015 US Tour and this was his first-ever visit to England, to London, to Stamford Bridge. Thankfully he didn’t follow Chelsea because of playing FIFA.  Top marks to Dennis who didn’t seem to have a problem, unlike some US visitors – no names, no pack drill – in understanding the concept of “rounds.”

My pre-match beers went down well, a rare treat these days.

Just before kick-off, I spoke to PD.

“Part two, mate.”

The game began, and how. I had just finished uploading one of my customary photographs on to Facebook –

“Ajax. In their classic kit. Priceless. Let’s go to work. Chelsea Football Club, 8.01pm, London.”

And then the bastards scored. After one poxy minute. Ajax had taken a free-kick down below me in The Sleepy Hollow. I had just slipped my ‘phone back in my pocket to see the ball crashing towards the net. As the Ajax players celebrated right below us, the stadium was eerily quiet. But it annoyed me that there was a little knot of around two-hundred Ajax fans in the corporate tier of the West Stand. It was a real metaphor for modern football. The normal rank and file were banned, but their Executive Club were allowed in. I can understand club officials being allowed in; directors, squad players, doctors. But not two-hundred of them. Shameful really.

Anyway, we had succumbed to a Tammy Abraham own goal, apparently.

Bollocks.

We’ll have to go at them now.

Thankfully, just a few minutes later, we worked the ball through to Christian Pulisic and he was clipped just inside the box (pictured) by Joel Veltman. It looked a sure penalty.

It was.

“Jorginho. Jorginho. Jorginho, Jorginho, Jorginho.”

We waited.

A hop on his approach, and a fine penalty (pictured).

It was 1-1 after just five minutes.

…little did we know.

In the Matthew Harding, an attempt at humour.

“Your support is fucking shit.”

I spotted that one of the electronic hoardings behind The Shed mentioned the phrase “Intelligent Mobility” and it flashed-up right in front of where Parky was stood.

Good old Parky.

Highly intelligent. Highly mobile.

Cough, cough.

The images of the Heineken logo brought back memories of the away game.

Ajax looked more of a threat at Stamford Bridge than the away match. They certainly impressed me with their passing and movement in the first quarter of the game. They looked technically sound and they kept the ball with the minimum of fuss. But we were the next to threaten. Kovacic passed forward to Tammy, who looked offside (pictured) and he seemed to look across at the linesman such was his guilt. He finished impeccably but – yes – it was offside.

Bollocks.

Ajax continued to drift in to decent areas, and carved out some good chances. On twenty minutes, there was another free-kick in a wide position, this time on our left. Noussair Mazraoui (“what a fine assemblage of vowels”) whipped-in a sublime cross into the danger area. I always thought that a corridor of uncertainty was an ill-lit alleyway in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, but it could certainly be used to describe this cross. It was exceptional, played in with pace and curve between ‘keeper and stranded defenders. Quincy Promes stooped to conquer and then came over to celebrate below us, his shorts pulled up as he jigged away.

He was met with some abuse.

I said to PD : “well, we can’t concede again.”

However, this was becoming a good tussle with both teams moving the ball well. I did feel that, despite our midfield trio seeing much of the ball, we were missing some killer passes in the final third. Sadly, with ten minutes of the first-half remaining, we became unstuck once again. Another delivery from wide – on our left again – caused our undoing. A free-kick, not far from the corner flag, was whipped in towards the goal. With painful precision, I captured the ball just before it cannoned off the far post and Kepa’s face before making the net bulge.

Fuck.

Chelsea 1 Ajax 3.

At the time, nobody realised that the ball had hit Kepa.

But the madness was starting.

Two Chelsea own goals.

We kept prodding away with shots at the Ajax ‘keeper, playing in front of banners which said “Keep The Blue Flag Flying High” over the empty seats in the Shed Lower. Willian and Alonso tested him.

I said to PD, and Big John at half-time, “it’ll be 5-5 tonight” and I was only half-joking. To be honest, despite our pitiful defending, I had enjoyed the first-half. I thought that Ajax were good – very good – and it felt like a traditional European game, despite the lop-sided support. Big John and I chatted about Tammy. We both love him to bits, but we agreed that – constructive criticism here, not moans for the sake of it – Tammy needs to toughen up still, be more physical. I used the phrase about him using his body as a shield. John said that he needed to learn “the dark arts.”

“Yep. Agreed.”

So, two goals to the worse at half-time, but Ajax had not completely dominated the game. I hoped that another goal in our favour would help to turn the tide.

Reece James replaced Marcos Alonso, with Dave swapping flanks to allow the substitute a run at the Ajax left. Soon after the re-start we were treated to a ridiculous run from deep from Kurt “Total Football” Zouma. He raced through, striding like a mad man, right into the heart of the Ajax defensive half, then third. A couple of ridiculously good step overs had us all wondering if we were about to witness the best goal ever at Stamford Bridge from a central defender. He took aim and the ball ended up in the MHU. As shots go, it was a great defensive clearance.

But the madness had started.

And the noise too,

The volume kept going up and up and up.

I was rightly proud.

Tammy twice threatened the Ajax goal as we looked a far more decent team. A header down (pictured) was an easy save. And he then forced a one-handed save from Andre Onana in the Ajax goal but really should have done better. The raiding of Reece James on our right certainly added a fresh dimension to our play. The crowd were invigorated.

But ten minutes into the second-half, the game took another twist. Ajax, against the run of play, broke away and a cross from our left was turned in with the minimum of fuss by Donny Van de Beek.

Chelsea 1 Ajax 4.

“This will be our heaviest home defeat in Europe. Bollocks.”

In the other game, Valencia were creeping ahead of Lille.

This was going pear-shaped.

But we kept going and the crowd too.

Frank made another positive change.

Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced Mason Mount.

On sixty-three minutes, a fine run into the box from Pulisic – in and out of the game, but always dangerous – resulted in a low cross into the danger area. The course of the ball was deflected slightly by Tammy, and Captain Dave pounced to touch the ball over the line (pictured).

There was a slight delay for a VAR moment.

Offside? Surely not.

The goal stood.

Was the comeback on?

The crowd seemed to think so.

We roared the boys on.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

On seventy-minutes, the night turned into one of pure drama. Fireworks had been lighting up the sky all over the UK, but nowhere was filled with more wide-eyed excitement and awe than at Stamford Bridge. Daley Blind was adjudged to have tackled late on Tammy but the referee – fair play – let play continue. He then spotted that a shot from Callum hit a defender’s hand inside the box. In a surreal moment, the referee blew up, raced over to red card Blind, and then pointed at the spot.

By now the place was electric.

But it got so much better. The referee brandished a red card again and in that nano-second, I just thought that he was re-emphasising the Blind sending-off. But no, Veltman was sent packing too. For dissent? We did not have a fucking clue but we did not fucking care.

Ajax were down to nine men, we had a penalty to make it 4-3 and there were still twenty-minutes on the clock.

Fackinell.

“Jorginho. Jorginho. Jorginho, Jorginho, Jorginho.”

We waited.

A hop on his approach, and a fine penalty (pictured).

Chelsea 3 Ajax 4.

GET IN.

“Fasten your seat belts, lads.”

More MHumour : “you’re not singing anymore.”

Just three minutes later, a corner from our right was met with a high leap under pressure from Zouma (pictured) and his powerful header rebounded back off the bar. With our hearts in our mouths – and other cliches – we watched, mesmirised, as substitute James slotted the ball in with consummate ease.

Chelsea 4 Ajax 4.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

My head was boiling over but I managed – heaven knows how – to capture Reece’ run and slide on film, although only a few photographs are of sufficient quality to share.

Stamford Bridge had rarely seen a night like it.

I leaned forward and spoke to Albert.

“Remember the 4-4 with Liverpool in the Champions League? That was a mad one. But not many people talk about that. I guess because it followed that 3-1 win at Anfield. There was always a cushion.”

I spoke to the bloke beside me.

“My 5-5 might still might happen.”

It seemed that, unbelievably, we were now favourites to win. Fifteen minutes, plus stoppage time, were still to be played. Understandably, the noise was the best all season.

It was just beautiful.

Heaven knows what was going through Dennis’ mind.

In the pub, he had spoken about future travel plans for the next year and probable trips to Mexico City and back to Japan where he met his wife while serving for the US Marines. I replied “nah, after one game at Chelsea, you’ll scrub those plans and be back at Stamford Bridge within six months.”

Just four minutes after the equaliser, an attack developed down the Chelsea left. I shouted “spare man.” Callum received the ball and ran. He played in Dave, the spare man, overlapping and not spotted, with a deft flick. A near-post cross. The ball was pushed towards goal. There was a scramble and the ball was booted away. Jorginho let fly outside the box. A headed clearance. The ball flew back out. Dave pounced. A shot. Pictured.

FUCKING PANDEMONUM IN SOUTH-WEST LONDON.

The next few moments were mad, mental, mesmerising, magnificent.

The photographs tell the story

But they are greyed-out because, alas, VAR stopped our celebrations and after a horrible wait…tick tock, tick tock…the referee ruled that there had been a handball somewhere.

I have thought long and hard about including these photographs. My rule is usually to not bother if a photographed goal is disallowed. But I have to include these. They are a huge part of the night’s story.

The minutes, sadly, raced past.

Ajax, to their credit, kept attacking and Kepa repeated his heroics at Vicarage Road with another fine save to his left to deny the Dutch masters a horrible fifth.

I lost count of the chances that we had in the final minutes. Michy Batshuayi replaced the excellent Kovacic on eight-seven minutes as Frank went for a top-heavy formation. And it was Michy who, undoubtedly, had the best chance, turning to shoot low, but Onana dropped to his left and saved magnificently. I remember a lame header from Tammy that went well wide, but it was all a blur.

Scandalously, the referee decided that only four extra minutes were to be added to the night’s play.

How? Why? What? Who? When?

This was plainly wrong.

If we have to endure VAR…sigh…OK.

But don’t fucking short-change us.

I hate modern football.

At the final whistle, I was light-headed. It was no surprise. It had indeed been mad, mental, mesmerising, magnificent and more.

This game had it all.

PD shot off to get a head start on the walk back to the car. I gathered my thoughts, let the crowds disperse and shook hands with a few mates. I packed away my camera.

“I got a few tonight.”

Down in the basement of the Matthew Harding Stand, I heard a bloke dissing Tammy but, alas, with a little bit more venom and nastiness than Big John and I had chosen to use at half-time, but I thought to myself “I’ll hear him out.” But I then had the misfortune to float past – it honestly felt like I was floating – the same bloke a few minutes later and I heard the same geezer moaning about another player.

Sigh.

Some people are never bloody happy, eh?

We are going through a rather enjoyable learning experience at the moment – it has taken everyone by surprise, and how wonderful it all is – yet some in our midst seem to avidly enjoy the negatives.

Does my nut.

I thought this season was all about giving everyone time and space…to let Frank bed all this down.

Seems not.

Among the overjoyed at Fulham Broadway, I treated myself to a cheeseburger and onions at “Chubby’s Grill” to cap off a bloody magnificent evening in SW6. I know how to live.

Next up Crystal Palace.

See you there.

 

Tales From The Johan Cruyff Arena

Ajax vs. Chelsea : 23 October 2019.

It had been a surprisingly long and tedious journey to the stadium from Amsterdam’s Central Station – standing room only, everyone pushed together, all of us getting warmer by the minute, around fifty minutes all told including a change of trains en route – and at last the towering roof of the stadium appeared to my left. I was with PD, who I had travelled out with from Bristol the previous morning, and Alan and Gary too. The train stopped. We exited en masse. We were back at the site of our Europa League Final victory against Benfica in 2013. It was just after five o’clock in the evening and night was yet to fall.

There was the usual rush of adrenaline that accompanies the arrival at a stadium, especially a foreign stadium, especially the home stadium of Ajax, one of the most revered clubs of the European scene. We clambered down the steps and escalators at the station and were soon out into the cool of the evening. Everything was well signposted. Ajax straight ahead. Chelsea to the left. I stopped to take a few long distance shots of the stadium – some twenty-three years old now – and my gaze focused on the image of Johan Cruyff that welcomed all. The stadium was simply called the Amsterdam Arena in 2013, but since the passing of the Dutch master in 2016, the place has been re-named in his honour.

Johan Cruyff.

What a name.

What a player.

Cruyff, along with Netzer and Muller and Beckenbauer and perhaps Eusebio, was one of the very first European players that had caught my eye in the early ‘seventies. These players, revered by the football commentators and TV pundits of the day, stirred our senses. The Ajax team, which provided many of the Dutch side, were simply in a class of their own. They oozed style. Their football was fluid. The long-haired maestros played liquid football. Everything was so seamless. Those of a certain vintage will remember Cruyff guesting at Stamford Bridge in the autumn of 1978/79 when we played New York Cosmos. Cruyff also pitted his skills against us when we played the Los Angeles Aztecs in 1979/80. And he also guested for the little-known team DS79 in 1980/81. I had mentioned the DS79 game to my friends Mark and Paul – from England, now living in The Netherlands – when they took time out of their day to meet the four of us for a pint on Rembrandt Corner, away from the masses, earlier that afternoon. It was a game that most will have forgotten. His appearance at Stamford Bridge during three consecutive seasons was one of the oddities of those years. His name, perhaps because of this, was often linked with our club.

Back in those years – oh we were awful in 1978/79, millions of the new fans of today would not have touched us with a barge pole – I was always amazed that we were linked with Johan Cruyff, and Kevin Keegan of Hamburg too, even though we were playing in the Second Division. I suppose it illustrates the point that we have always been a glamour club, and have always been linked with some of the great players. When Keegan announced that he was leaving West Germany for Southampton in 1980, I am sure I wasn’t the only Chelsea supporters who felt snubbed.

I let the others walk on as I took it all in. After I had taken a couple of photos, I showed my ticket at the security check, but was then forced to hand in my SLR. My far from comparable phone camera would have to suffice for the game.

I met up with the others again and they told me that we were getting the lift up to the upper tier where the 2,600 Chelsea were to be housed. A female steward had seen PD limping and had walked straight over, bless her. We walked through some security gates, and took the lift up to the seventh floor. She told the funny story of how a few of the Ajax stewards had travelled to Lille a few weeks back, but had been met with hostility when the local police saw their yellow tabards.

We walked through the home concourse – an odd feeling – and joined up with our own.

I was more than happy that we were in the upper tier. For our game in 2013, we were stood in the lower tier behind the goal. At least we were watching the game from a different viewpoint. Memories of Fernando Torres and Branislav Ivanovic came flooding back. It was never on the same scale as Munich the previous season, but it was still a mighty fine night out in Europe.

I remembered one song from that night which never stood the test of time :

“Strippers and whores, Ivanovic scores.”

The “we won in Munich, Munich” chant never lasted too long either.

All these memories, what lucky souls we are.

2013

The stadium was as I remembered it. Two simple tiers, but a towering and presumably ridiculously heavy roof. Under the trusses were banners illustrating the many trophies that Ajax had won over the years. It was quite a haul.

I was aware that they had played at the much smaller De Meer stadium for the period of their huge successes in the ‘seventies. I had almost seen Ajax play for the first time in 1988 when I was on one of my badge-selling circuits around Europe. I plotted up at the Olympic Stadium, which PD and I had passed in a taxi from Schipol on the Tuesday morning, for the Ajax game with Young Boys Bern, but did not sell a single bloody badge. There were other stalls selling British football badges; the niche market that I had exploited in Italy was nowhere to be seen. I was gutted. Had I sold some, I might have chanced getting a ticket. As it was, I returned back into town with my tail firmly between my legs.

The younger element aired a relatively new, if not overly original, song.

“Tammy’s on fire. Your defence is terrified. Tammy’s on fire.”

As kick-off neared, the stands filled to bursting. There were hardly any seats not in use. There was the dimming of the lights, then a dramatic use of spotlights focused on the Champions League logo. It was time for both sets of fans to perform. The noise in the Chelsea end had been sporadic, but as the yellow “Chelsea Here Chelsea There” flag was hoisted over the heads of us in the central area, the chanting increased. I took a few photos through the flag. One shot, for some reason, turned the flag green. It was as if the haze of marijuana that had followed us around central Amsterdam was now clawing at us in the stadium.

The home areas were full of white and red mosaics.

One huge banner was draped at the opposite end.

“VASTBERADEN.”

Determined.

The teams entered the pitch. Chelsea would be wearing the all black kit, with a touch of Dutch – orange trim – for good measure.

The team, I guess, had chosen itself.

Arrizabalaga.

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Zouma – Alonso

Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Mount – Hudson-Odoi

Abraham

I looked around and spotted a few familiar faces, but there were many people that I did not recognise. Many had come over without tickets, lured by the city of Amsterdam and all of its usual charms and pleasures. PD and I had spent a leisurely few hours on a gentle pub-crawl around our hotel in the Vondel Park part of the city on the Tuesday. We had visited three bars, and in the second one, close to the Rijksmuseum, we chatted to the barman who was an Ajax season ticket holder and who would be at the game. He produced a photograph of Johan Cruyff on a visit to the pub. It seemed that we simply could not escape his presence. In the first bar that we visited in the city centre on the Tuesday night, there was an iconic photo of Holland’s greatest son in the classic kit. There was even an image of Cruyff welcoming visitors to the city’s “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.” Later that night, I had met up with plenty of the usual suspects in the Red Light District. The drinking continued long into the small hours. I am not saying it turned into a crazy night but I did witness Wycombe Stan buying a round. Good times.

The game began with Chelsea attacking our end, the North Stand. The noise from the Ajax fans, especially those in the South Stand, was impressive.

In front of the lower tier, there were other banners illustrating the sub-culture of European football.

Amsterdam Casuals.

A Stone Island logo.

F-Side.

Perry Boys.

A mod logo.

I loved the goal nets; white with a central red stripe.

The Ajax kit has to be one of the greatest ever.

Talking of kits, I posed a question to Mark and Paul during our afternoon meet-up.

“Why do virtually all of the top Dutch teams have red and white kits?”

Ajax : red and white.

Feyenoord : red, white and black.

PSV : red and white.

Sparta Rotterdam : red and white.

Utrecht : red and white.

AZ Alkmaar : red and white.

Twente Enschede : red.

Any ideas?

Mark and Paul struggled to name any team in The Netherlands that plays in blue. You would think, with its reputation, that Amsterdam might have at least one blue team. Well, I have managed to find one. We played DWS Amsterdam back in the Fairs Cup in 1967/68 – losing on the toss of a coin – and they play in white and blue stripes, albeit in a very low league these days.

It was a very lively start to the match. Before the game, we had all uttered “we’ll take a draw now” and as the play flowed from end to end, it felt that it would be a night of goals. An early handball shout against Marcos Alonso was waived away, and we then got stuck into the game with Mason Mount looking loose-limbed and lively as he brought the ball out through the midfield on a few lovely bursts. One shot from him forced a low save from Andre Onana at his near post.

Fikayo Toomori looked a little edgy at the start of the game but certainly grew as the first-half continued.

On many occasions, Callum Hudson-Odoi found himself in favourable positions, running into parcels of space in the inside-left channel, but on nearly every occasion he seemed to choose the wrong option. He either held on to the ball too long, took an extra stride before shooting, played a ball to an unsuspecting team mate or poorly controlled a simple ball. His shooting was off too. With each error, we saw his frustration rise. That little patch of around twenty square yards of space at the angle of the penalty box seemed to be his very own, horrible, Bermuda Triangle. The frustration was shared by the fans in the away section.

We were all stood.

We sang when we could be heard.

Thankfully, the noise from the Southern end was subsiding.

Gary continually took the piss out of Daley Blind.

“You should stick to walking football, Blind.”

The game ebbed and flowed. I was not overly impressed with Ajax’ defence. They looked neither tight nor awake. Their attacks often petered out too. In the middle, Kovacic impressed me with his quick runs and intelligent passing.

With ten minutes of the first-half remaining, a cross from the Ajax right took a deflection and the Chelsea defence seemed unable to recover. The ball squirmed through to the six-yard box – “oh no” I uttered – and Quincy Promes prodded in. I must admit I quickly glanced over to see if the linesman on the far side was going to raise his flag but it stayed down.

The home fans made a bloody racket alright.

Bollocks.

We were 1-0 down.

But, wait.

After a while, we realised that there was going to be a Godforsaken VAR moment.

I will be honest, as honest as I can be. At that moment in time, such is my hatred of all things VAR that I remember thinking to myself “let it stand, for fuck sake, let it stand, I can’t be having with this nonsense impinging on so much of football.”

We waited. And waited.

No goal. Offside.

I did not cheer.

Alan and myself just looked at each other.

Alan : “I’m never going to cheer a VAR decision in our favour.”

Chris : “You and me both.”

Hundreds did cheer though.

Soon after, Dave made a beautiful tackle – the epitome of guts and timing – to thwart Promes. This drew marvellous applause from the away contingent. He may have endured a difficult start to this season but this was evidence that he still has a place to play during the current campaign.

The stats at the end of the first-half showed Ajax dominating possession by 56% to 44% but we had carved out more chances.

It was goal-less at the break, and we wondered how. Just before the game recommenced, “Three Little Birds” was played on the PA. This Ajax song was adopted by us in the latter stages of 2009/10 and it always takes me back to a hideously rainy night at Fratton when we won 5-0 and the away end sung it. Great memories.

“Cus every little thing…is gonna be alright.”

As the second-half began, I mentioned to Gary that I had seen Ajax play Chelsea once before; way back in the summer of 1993 in the Makita Tournament at White Hart Lane.

“Did you go to that Gal?”

“Yeah.”

It was, in fact, the first time that I had ever seen Chelsea play a foreign team. It was also Glenn Hoddle’s first game in charge. I had travelled up with Glenn from Frome, had met up with Daryl, and we watched as Chelsea drew 1-1 in normal time before winning 4-2 on penalties. The Chelsea team that day seems from another age.

Hitchcock

Hall – Johnsen – Sinclair – Dow

Donaghy – Hoddle – Wise – Peacock

Cascarino – Fleck

The Ajax team included Edwin van der Sar, Frank de Boer, Edgar Davids, Ronald de Boer, Finidi George and Marc Overmars. Within two years they would be European Champions under Louis van Gaal. It was a joy to see the Tottenham fans squirm as Glenn Hoddle played for us. It was the first of a two-game set on the Saturday, but while Glenn and Daryl stayed on to see Tottenham beat Lazio in the second game, I shot off to see Depeche Mode at Crystal Palace that evening. It was a perfect Saturday for me.

Oh, we beat Tottenham 4-0 in the final on the Sunday, but I suppose that is a given knowing our history with “that lot.”

1993

The second-half continued. The intensity wasn’t at the previous levels, but it was still a good enough game. On the hour, a low corner down below us was met with a diving header from Edson Alvarez and we watched in horror as his effort grazed the far post.

Phew.

“COME ON CHELS.”

There was less attacking intent than in the first-half.

On sixty-six minutes, Christian Pulisic replaced Willian, who had toiled all night long. I remembered one phenomenal gut-busting run from deep to support an attack which left me breathless let alone him. Then Michy Batshuayi replaced Tammy Abraham who had not had the best of service. We did think that Callum was lucky to avoid being substituted.

With twenty minutes remaining, Pulisic gathered the ball and ran confidently at the Ajax defence. He cut in and sized up his options. His shot from outside the box was deflected up and right into the path of Batshuayi.

This is it, we thought.

This is fucking it.

His wild shot ballooned up over the bar and probably ended up in one of the city’s concentric canals.

Bollocks.

Behind me, an altercation between two fans about Michy.

“He should be burying them chances if he wants a place on the team.”

“Give him a break, he has only been on the pitch for ten minutes.”

Pulisic, looking lively on the left, again advanced with pace and intent. His pass to Batshuayi was returned to him, but he dragged the ball wide. With just four minutes remaining, we again worked the ball down the left flank. Mount to Pulisic, and a fine piece of skill to carve out a yard of space. His low cross was dummied by Alonso and the ball was rifled high – but not too high – by Michy into the roof of the Ajax net.

BOOM.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

The screams from myself and others were wild and unrelenting.

We yelled and yelled, it seemed that we were all as one, the same body shape, the same fists up punch.

The euphoria of a late winner in Europe. What can beat that?

The final whistle was met with wild applause from us all.

The Chelsea reprised the Bob Marley song.

“Cus every little thing…is gonna be alright.”

This was our equivalent of Manchester City playing “One Step Beyond” every time they beat us at their gaff.

This was a fine team performance. I was especially impressed with the four defenders, who looked in control and played as a unit, but kudos to all. All of a sudden, after losing our first game at home to Valencia, we now look to be favourites to go through with two of our last three games at Stamford Bridge.

They kept us in for a good thirty minutes or so, and the return trip to the city was interrupted by a few delays. But we were back in the claustrophobic hub of the city soon enough.

It had been, surely, one of our greatest nights in Europe.

2019

Tales From The Land Of Fire

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2019.

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

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

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

Sometimes life is like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This stopped me in my tracks for a moment.

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

Will was momentarily speechless.

I could not resist piling in.

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

We all laughed.

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

European royalty? Perhaps Noah was right.

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

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

Sunday 26 May : 10am – Istanbul Airport.

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

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

1 – Arsenal vs. Tottenham.

2 – Chelsea vs. Tottenham.

3 – West Ham vs. Tottenham.

4 – Chelsea vs. Arsenal.

5 – Chelsea vs. West Ham.

6 – Arsenal vs. West Ham.

Anyone disagree with that?

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

Maybe it is a Europa League thing.

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

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

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

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

Stamp.

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

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

It was magical to be back in Baku.

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

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

“I’ll walk from here.”

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

“Progress” I thought.

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

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

Fackinell.

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

Fackinell again.

It was my hotel.

With a name change.

Bloody hell.

Phew.

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

I had made it.

Fackinell.

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

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

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

“Come on Chris, time to get up.”

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

“Want to buy a battleship?”

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

I could be my own boss.

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

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

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

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

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

I was enchanted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any good?”

“Yeah, it’s alright.”

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

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

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

“More tea, vicar?”

Five o’clock.

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

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

“Carl!”

“Chris!”

“Ryan!”

Fackinell.

So funny.

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

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

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

“Good to see you!”

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

Just after, I bumped into Cathy and Dog.

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

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

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

Bless them both.

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

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

Albert – Brisbane.

Nathan – Perth.

Russ – Melbourne.

Shari – Brisbane.

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

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

From Vietnam – Steve.

From Australia to Azerbaijan. Fackinell.

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

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor.

Lyon and to Rome.

Tottenham get battered.

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

I was just surprised Seville wasn’t included.

The song continued on.

“Everywhere they go. Everywhere they go.”

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

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

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

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

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

Er, yes.

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

But Baku?

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

It always was a mad decision.

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

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

Blue – sky

Red – fire

Green – earth

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

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

Sorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The photographs continued.

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

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

I hate modern football.

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

Fireworks on the pitch and from atop the stand.

The pre-match paraphernalia was cleared away.

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

Phew. Here it is then.

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

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

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

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

He was.

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

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

Bollocks.

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

Fucking hell.

What has this become?

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

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

The word “surreal” does not do it justice.

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

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

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

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

But still there was hardly any noise anywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

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

Section 114 was going doolally.

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

GET IN.

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

Ha.

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

FUCKINGGETINYOUBASTARD.

More photographs of pure delirium.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

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

“Let’s have a sip mate.”

“Have it, Chris.”

“Top man.”

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

Snap, snap, snap.

A penalty to Chelsea.

COME ON!

The mood in our section was now of euphoria.

But we waited and waited.

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

Eden drilled it home.

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

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

“Smelling salts please nurse.”

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

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

“Great goal” I said, completely seriously.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 1.

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

We roared again.

Chelsea 4 Arsenal 1.

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

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

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

The last step.

Snap.

Eden was replaced by Davide Zappacosta.

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

We had only bloody won it.

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

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

4-1.

Bloody hell.

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

Regardless, the European trophy was our’s.

It now stood at five.

1971 : Athens.

1998 : Stockholm.

2012 : Munich.

2013 : Amsterdam.

2019 : Baku.

“Our biggest-ever Cup Final win.”

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

“What a second-half.”

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

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

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

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

…”we always score four in Baku.”

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

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

Everyone smiling.

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

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

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

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

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

Outside the stadium, Steve came bounding over.

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

We hugged.

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

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

“Prick.”

We hit all the stations.

Koroglu.

Ulduz.

Narimanov.

Ganclik.

28 May.

Sahil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I could murder a McDonald’s Breakfast.”

It opened at 8am.

“Bollocks.”

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

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

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

“Oh, it’s two hundred manat, sir.”

Gulp.

£100.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit club no history.”

“Arsenal in Baku, this city is red.”

Yawn.

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

Friday 31 May : 11.30am – Gobustan National Park.

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

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

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

Game. Set. Match.

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

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

“This one is seventeen thousand years old.”

I muttered to Will and Noah –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would I still be in Baku?

Yes, probably.

Hopefully.

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

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

“When are you coming back?”

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

“Have good livings.”

“You too, take care.”

And so, the trip was nearing its end.

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

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

Postcards From Baku