Tales From The Land Of Fire

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2019.

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

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

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

Sometimes life is like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This stopped me in my tracks for a moment.

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

Will was momentarily speechless.

I could not resist piling in.

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

We all laughed.

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

European royalty? Perhaps Noah was right.

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

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

Sunday 26 May : 10am – Istanbul Airport.

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

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

1 – Arsenal vs. Tottenham.

2 – Chelsea vs. Tottenham.

3 – West Ham vs. Tottenham.

4 – Chelsea vs. Arsenal.

5 – Chelsea vs. West Ham.

6 – Arsenal vs. West Ham.

Anyone disagree with that?

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

Maybe it is a Europa League thing.

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

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

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

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

Stamp.

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

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

It was magical to be back in Baku.

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

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

“I’ll walk from here.”

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

“Progress” I thought.

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

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

Fackinell.

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

Fackinell again.

It was my hotel.

With a name change.

Bloody hell.

Phew.

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

I had made it.

Fackinell.

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

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

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

“Come on Chris, time to get up.”

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

“Want to buy a battleship?”

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

I could be my own boss.

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

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

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

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

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

I was enchanted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any good?”

“Yeah, it’s alright.”

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

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

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

“More tea, vicar?”

Five o’clock.

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

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

“Carl!”

“Chris!”

“Ryan!”

Fackinell.

So funny.

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

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

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

“Good to see you!”

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

Just after, I bumped into Cathy and Dog.

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

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

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

Bless them both.

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

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

Albert – Brisbane.

Nathan – Perth.

Russ – Melbourne.

Shari – Brisbane.

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

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

From Vietnam – Steve.

From Australia to Azerbaijan. Fackinell.

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

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor.

Lyon and to Rome.

Tottenham get battered.

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

I was just surprised Seville wasn’t included.

The song continued on.

“Everywhere they go. Everywhere they go.”

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

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

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

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

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

Er, yes.

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

But Baku?

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

It always was a mad decision.

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

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

Blue – sky

Red – fire

Green – earth

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

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

Sorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The photographs continued.

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

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

I hate modern football.

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

Fireworks on the pitch and from atop the stand.

The pre-match paraphernalia was cleared away.

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

Phew. Here it is then.

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

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

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

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

He was.

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

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

Bollocks.

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

Fucking hell.

What has this become?

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

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

The word “surreal” does not do it justice.

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

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

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

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

But still there was hardly any noise anywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

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

Section 114 was going doolally.

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

GET IN.

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

Ha.

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

FUCKINGGETINYOUBASTARD.

More photographs of pure delirium.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

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

“Let’s have a sip mate.”

“Have it, Chris.”

“Top man.”

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

Snap, snap, snap.

A penalty to Chelsea.

COME ON!

The mood in our section was now of euphoria.

But we waited and waited.

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

Eden drilled it home.

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

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

“Smelling salts please nurse.”

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

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

“Great goal” I said, completely seriously.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 1.

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

We roared again.

Chelsea 4 Arsenal 1.

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

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

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

The last step.

Snap.

Eden was replaced by Davide Zappacosta.

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

We had only bloody won it.

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

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

4-1.

Bloody hell.

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

Regardless, the European trophy was our’s.

It now stood at five.

1971 : Athens.

1998 : Stockholm.

2012 : Munich.

2013 : Amsterdam.

2019 : Baku.

“Our biggest-ever Cup Final win.”

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

“What a second-half.”

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

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

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

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

…”we always score four in Baku.”

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

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

Everyone smiling.

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

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

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

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

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

Outside the stadium, Steve came bounding over.

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

We hugged.

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

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

“Prick.”

We hit all the stations.

Koroglu.

Ulduz.

Narimanov.

Ganclik.

28 May.

Sahil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I could murder a McDonald’s Breakfast.”

It opened at 8am.

“Bollocks.”

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

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

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

“Oh, it’s two hundred manat, sir.”

Gulp.

£100.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit club no history.”

“Arsenal in Baku, this city is red.”

Yawn.

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

Friday 31 May : 11.30am – Gobustan National Park.

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

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

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

Game. Set. Match.

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

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

“This one is seventeen thousand years old.”

I muttered to Will and Noah –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would I still be in Baku?

Yes, probably.

Hopefully.

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

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

“When are you coming back?”

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

“Have good livings.”

“You too, take care.”

And so, the trip was nearing its end.

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

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

Postcards From Baku

One last tale though, held over from Game One.

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

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

Glenn shouted out to him.

“We’re lost!”

The grizzled old farmer’s reply was wonderful.

“No you’re not. You’re here.”

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

We were here.

Panic over.

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

But we were never lost.

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

Altogether now.

Chelsea Four Arsenal One.

Chelsea Won Arsenal Lost.

See you next season.

 

Tales From Sunshine And Schadenfreude

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 12 May 2019.

It seemed quite apt that Chelsea Football Club should end its domestic travels in 2018/19 in a city in the East Midlands which is situated on the River Soar, with a population of 330,000, which hosts cricket, rugby and football teams and is home to the world’s largest crisp factory. Where else could we end up? Our visits to away cities throughout the league campaign, chronologically listed, mirrored the words of a certain song.

“We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea: Huddersfield, Newcastle, London, Southampton, Burnley, London, Wolverhampton, Brighton, Watford, London, London, Bournemouth, Manchester, London, Liverpool, Cardiff, Liverpool, Manchester and Leicester.”

This season, although certainly not the most-loved, has zipped past at a ridiculous rate of knots. Our first game in the sun of West Yorkshire seemed only recent and it seemed implausible that this one was the final game of the season. But game thirty-eight it was. With qualification to next season’s Champions League assured, the game at Leicester City took on a much more relaxed air than we had expected. I collected PD at just after eight o’clock and LP at just after eight-thirty. It was a stunning Sunday morning; not a hint of a cloud, the sun out, and a fine chilled-out air of relaxed anticipation. After travels north, east, south and west, the league fixture list had saved me – possibly – the best to last.

A three-hour drive along the Fosse Way, the old Roman road – straight as a die, from Exeter to Lincoln – is always a treat for me. It didn’t let me down. I thoroughly enjoyed the undulating road as we swept past quintessentially English place names on our way through the Cotswolds.

Stanton St. Quentin, Malmesbury, Cirencester, Ampney Crucis, Bourton-on-the-Water, Upper Slaughter, Stow-on-the-Wold, Moreton-in-Marsh, Stretton-on-Fosse.

We had breakfasted at Melksham. We stopped for a drink in “The Star” at Moreton-in-Marsh. After heading off the Fosse, and after skirting the lost football city of Coventry, through Warwickshire and into Leicestershire, we stopped at another pub “The Hinckley Night” on the outskirts of the town with the same name.

It was quite apt that I had chosen the Fosse Way as our route. Way back in the mists of time, Leicester City were first known as Leicester Fosse.

At about 2pm, after our breaks for sustenance – we watched a little of the Old Firm game at the second pub – I was parked-up. There were clouds in the sky, and we all decided to take jackets “just in case.” Leicester City’s stadium is a mile to the north of the Leicestershire cricket ground and half a mile to the south of Leicester Tigers rugby stadium. While PD and LP popped inside for a top-up, I circumnavigated the stadium, which lies just a couple of hundred yards to the south of their old Filbert Street ground. This old stadium was ridiculously lop-sided with two large stands on adjacent sides and two minuscule ones opposite.

I took in the pre-match atmosphere. This was only my fifth visit to the new place. I was on holiday in the US at the time of our first visit in the FA Cup campaign of 2003/4 and I have missed the two recent cup fixtures too. It’s a relatively neat, yet overwhelmingly bland stadium, with no real distinguishing features. “King Power” is everywhere. On the rear of the north stand is a large image of their former chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who so sadly perished in the helicopter crash at the stadium last October.

I took the usual smattering of photographs. Their new shirt – laced with gold Adidas stripes rather than white – looked neat and tidy.

Inside the stadium, and into the concourse, I soon spotted a few mates.

A standard greeting was “going to Baku?”

I gulped down a soft-drink – no alcohol at all for me on this day – and met up with Alan and Gary in the seats. Bringing a jacket, I soon realised, was being over-cautious. The sun was relentless. I wasn’t the only person who had over-dressed. My jacket was placed on my seat.

The teams soon appeared.

A hand-written banner was held up in the away end:

EDEN HAZARD BLEEDS BLUE.

CHELSEA IS YOUR HOME.

We were in all yellow, and it brought back memories of our huge 3-1 win in 2014/15 when the Fabregas song stole the show. I remembered, too, how the Morata song was a strong memory of last season’s league game. With what has happened since – another song, another place – it is actually hard to believe that fans were singing the “y” word so forcefully and loudly only twenty months ago. Leicester City had reverted to an old-style blue / white / blue. It did look like a neat kit.

Our team?

Caballero

Zappacosta – Azpilicueta – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Loftus-Cheek – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Willian

I had a look around at those in the away end. For some reason, there seemed to be a disproportionately high number of old replica shirts on show; many more than usual. I even spotted a Chelsea Collection number from 1986/87. I only saw two of the 2019/20 shirts.

Our game began.

And so did all the others.

Three games stole the show; Brighton vs. Manchester City, Liverpool vs. Wolves and Tottenham vs. Everton.

Ross Barkley went close within the first few minutes, after a good ball from Jorginho, but his shot hit Schmeichel. It was a chance that promised good things, but was a false dawn. The home fans to my left – I was only a matter of a few feet from them, were noisy as hell in that first part of the game. They sang of their former owner.

“Vichai had a dream.

To build our football team.

He came from Thailand and now he’s one of our own.

We play from the back.

We counter attack.

“Champions of England.”

You made us sing that.”

Indeed, they do counter-attack. And we smother the ball and pass to ourselves to oblivion. It was a massive difference in style between the two teams. Leicester broke at pace with Jamie Vardy and Youri Tielemans looking useful. We passed the ball here there and everywhere, but did not create too much.

Liverpool went, unsurprisingly, a goal up at Anfield.

Then, a score flash which made us groan.

Brighton had taken the lead at home to City. Then, just as I was passing on the news to a few close friends, a noticeable cheer in the Chelsea end. My spirits were raised.

City had equalised.

On the pitch, there was lots of square passes, with little quality penetration. The banter in the stands was proving to be more entertaining. The Leicester fans alongside us had sung about Eden Hazard leaving for Madrid.

We retorted “He’s won more than you.”

There were schoolyard taunts from them. Then came the killer blow, loud and with venom :

“Eden Hazard. He won it for you.”

Fair play, the Leicester lot clapped that. I winked at a few of them, a “thumbs up” here and there.

Ha.

In the other game of interest, Tottenham had scored a very early goal against Everton. We needed to match that to finish above them. But we had to rely on the out-of-sorts Gonzalo Higuain. He slammed one shot wide of the post on the half-hour mark.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

A Vardy header from a free-kick forced a save from Willy Caballero.

The bloke behind me then cheered me : “City have got a second.”

Phew.

In the closing moments of the first-period, a slip from David Luiz allowed Vardy to race on but his ball through to Tielemans was overhit and the chance went begging.

Then, right before the whistle, Higuain missed from only a few yards out, his brain doing the waltz, his feet doing the samba.

“Fackinell.”

Leicester City 0 Chelsea 0

Brighton 1 Manchester City 2

Liverpool 1 Wolves 0

Tottenham 1 Everton 0

Things were going our way in the title hunt, but not our way in our more local battle with Tottenham.

At the break, I bumped into Alex and Reece.

“Would you keep Sarri, Chris?”

Oh God. Me on the spot. Yes, I would.

“I have never warmed to the bloke. He is so one-dimensional. But has he got his own players to play his system? Not yet. I am full of doubt, but give him a full pre-season, give him time. We have the chance to finish top three. We have reached two cup finals. We would have taken that in August. In February we would have for sure.”

The lads were in agreement, with reservations.

“What do we know, we’re not experts.”

But – oh – the football has been so poor at times this season. It has proven one thing; Chelsea supporters want to be entertained. It is in our DNA.

Neal 1983/84

Gullit 1996/97

Mourinho 2004/5

Ancelotti 2009/10

Conte 2016/17

The best I have known…

The second-half began and my forehead was starting to burn up. Parky arrived back from the bar.

“You haven’t missed anything, mate.”

If the first-half was tepid, the second-half was turgid. Chances – real gilt-edged chances – were so rare. A Leicester volley did not hit the target. Barkley shot wide.

Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass – but without the movement from the players to allow the passes to hurt the tight Leicester defence. Elsewhere, goals were being scored. Manchester City went 3-1 up and eventually 4-1 up, and Liverpool scored a second. The title was City’s.

I hummed “Blue Moon” to myself.

The away end was loving it. We were loving it even more when Everton equalised. And then – to a chorus of “it’s happened again” – we heard that Everton had gone 2-1 up. This was turning into a fantastic afternoon despite the poor game taking place before my very eyes. The noise from the home fans had long since subsided.

There had been, on sixty minutes – and while a player was getting treatment – a minute of appreciation, with white scarves being held aloft by the Leicester supporters in memory of their former chairman. Many Chelsea fans joined in. Good stuff.

Eden Hazard replaced Willian.

His last game in England? Almost certainly.

Mateo Kovacic replaced Barkley.

Olivier Giroud replaced the lackluster and lazy Higuain.

Tottenham scored a second.

Our game petered out.

A Chelsea draw and a Tottenham draw.

“As you were.”

I did not wait around too long to make a move. I saw a few players walking over. There were several – eight? ten? – fans with cardboard signs asking for shirts. There were a few adults among them. One sign was eight-foot long.

I hate modern football.

Outside, I shook hands with many.

“Have a good summer.”

“See you in Baku.”

I don’t think we will sell remotely close to our allotted 5,800 in Azerbaijan. But at least I was cheered to speak to a few that were going. I just have this dread of Arsenal heavily outnumbering us. Of my closest one-hundred Chelsea mates, maybe only fifteen are going. It is a sign of the absurdity of UEFA choosing such a host city. But that is a story for another day.

Outside, I chatted briefly to Long Tall Pete and Liz. We all loved the fact that both Chelsea and Tottenham drew. It was pure comedy gold. All that Tottenham had to do, with hindsight, was to win a home game against Everton and the twats would have finished above us. To think that they were being touted as possible title contenders at Christmas…

Third in a two-horse race in 2015/16.

Fourth in a three-horse race in 2018/19.

“Tottenham Hotspur. It’s happened again.”

Back in the car, it was time to drive south, and complete this story of our 2018/19 league campaign. Huge respect to PD for attending all thirty-eight games, I think for the second time in three seasons. I ended up missing two, the back-to-back games at Wolves and at home to City.

It has been, as the saying goes, emotional. But it has also been excruciating at times. There have only been rare games where I have been genuinely entertained. It has been a grueling slog. I have watched as supporters splinter into pro-Sarri and anti-Sarri factions. I have struggled with it all. I have struggled with this new type of football. I have become bored reading the never-ending appraisals of how – I hate this word, I rarely use it – “Sarribal” is meant to work.

I have lost count of the many deeply earnest and wordy explanations of “Sarribal” on social media that I have studied over the past year. All of a sudden “regista” is a buzz word. After virtually all of these appraisals, I have been so tempted to write “I bet you are fun at parties.” I see a worrying new sub-section of Chelsea followers who are not died-in-the-wool supporters in the most basic sense of the word, but critics and self-appointed “experts.”

Football, to me, is about passion, involvement, support, belligerence, suffering, humour, laughs, beers, a shared kin-ship, a devotion to the cause. And maybe some trophies thrown in for good measure.

OK, rant over, as the kids say.

We stopped at the pub in Hinckley for some nosebag. I continued enjoying the drive home, the spring colours fading as the sun dipped.

Cirencester, Malmesbury, Chippenham, Melksham, Bradford-on-Avon, Frome…home. Just in time to tune in to the highlights on “MOTD2.” Old habits die hard.

I will see some of you next season.

I will see some of you in Baku.

Cheers.

The Star, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire & The Hinckley Knight, Hinckley, Leicestershire.

Tales From Two Hours And Penalties

Chelsea vs. Eintracht Frankfurt : 9 May 2019.

A Gamble.

I had been looking at flights to Baku for ages. It was proving to be a tough nut to crack. In the back of my mind – or perhaps at the forefront of it – was the gnawing truth that by attending our second-leg against Eintracht Frankfurt, it would undoubtedly mean that I would not be able to pounce on any standard flights to Baku as soon as the game had ended. The scrum-down would be even worse should Arsenal reach the final. The cheapest flights that I had seen – tying in with my need to get back to work on the Friday – were at the £550 mark.

Remember that I had originally messed up at work. Another colleague had already booked a holiday on the week of the final but thankfully my boss had allowed me three days off. But the thought of travelling to Baku was still very messy.

I was, sadly, looking to rely on an expensive flight with the club or with a travel company. But I guessed that the price for that would be not much shy of £1,000. Moscow in 2008 was around a grand, and with no accommodation. I went with the club to Stockholm in 1998 with one night in a hotel for £450, which seemed obscene at the time. For Baku, I suspected that a club trip would be another “in out” trip with no overnight stay too. That would hardly be fun. I’d be exhausted on the day of the game and also once I returned.

Thoughts of Baku were proving to be irritating rather than pleasurable. This was not how it was meant to be. When I visited Baku in 2017 for the Qarabag match, I only scratched the surface and I would like to see more.

In my match report for that trip, I ended with this comment :

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

But on Tuesday, things changed ever so slightly. At work, I learned of the job-sharing planned for the office staff to cover those four days when two would be off work. It looked like our little team would not be over-exposed.

That night, I opened things up. I looked at the cost of travelling out to Baku on the previous weekend and returning on the Saturday after the game.

I liked what I saw.

Six nights at a “three-and-half” star hotel right in the heart of Baku old town and some favourable flights from Heathrow to Baku via Istanbul – going – and Moscow – returning – would cost £979.

On Wednesday, cap in hand, I explained my thoughts to my manager.

He gave me the Friday off.

I thought again about the cost. But I am not following Chelsea to Boston nor Tokyo in the summer. I’ll probably go through the summer without any extended holiday anywhere. This would effectively be my summer holiday.

It was going to be “Baku or Bust.”

On Wednesday night – nothing like leaving it late, boy – I gambled and booked it all up.

Game Day.

On Thursday, the day of the game, I mentioned my plans to a couple at work, but my lips would be sealed at Stamford Bridge. I honestly did not want to be the ultimate Jonah and jinx it.

In the back of my mind, if we did not reach the final, and if Arsenal made it, I would bugger off to a coastal resort for the Thursday, thus avoiding it all. Should Valencia reach Baku, I would try to get a ticket and go to the final. There had been a personal precedent. Like many, I gambled in 2014 and spent four or five days in Albufeira on The Algarve  – along with two hundred other Chelsea – even though we had not qualified for the Champions League Final in Lisbon.

My mind was set. I assured myself that I had made the right decision.

Andy, a Tottenham fan, commented – “you’ll be fine, you’ll get through tonight.”

I was working a slightly later shift than I would have hoped. PD and Parky had met up for a romantic lunch earlier and, when I set off for London at just past four o’clock, they were travelling separately and so were well on their own way to Stamford Bridge, although not without a scare. I had purchased all three tickets for the game a while back, but Parky had not received his. He had presumed that his ticket had showed up at my house. It hadn’t. Sometimes Chelsea box office sends tickets individually, occasionally to the purchaser. Irritatingly, there is no standard procedure. He would need to pop in to the ticket office, cap in hand, before the game.

My route again took me south – leaving later, I feared horrific congestion on the M4 so I would go in again via the M3 – and my drive began with a little section over Salisbury Plain. It took me back to my time when I worked in Westbury, and to a specific day in April 1998 when Glenn and I drove along the very same road on the way to our European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final second leg against Vicenza. On that day and this one, the weather was wet and the skies were grey.

1995 and 1998.

Of course there was the ECWC semi-final against Real Zaragoza in 1995 – one that rarely gets a mention these days – but in 1998 we travelled to London with a very real chance to progress to our first European final since 1971. In 1995, we had been thumped 3-0 in Northern Spain and we held little hope of progressing. Although we won 3-1 on the night, we narrowly missed out. Had we progressed, we would have met Arsenal in Paris.

But 1998 felt different.

Our team that season was a lot more credible, a lot more fancied. We had narrowly lost 1-0 in Northern Italy – I did not go – but were very confident of turning it around in the second-leg. For the first time, we watched the game in the newly-built Shed End, and we watched as Chelsea did a pre-match huddle for the very first time. We played, oddly, in our yellow away kit. Our team included such Chelsea greats as Dennis Wise, Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli. It was a rotten and wet night, and when Vicenza scored a vital away goal, our spirits dropped. Thankfully, a crucial tap in from Gustavo Poyet just before half-time gave us hope. A fantastic cross from wide on the right wing from Vialli found the head of Zola, whose magnificent leap and header made it 2-2 over both legs, but with Vicenza still ahead. Mark Hughes came on with twenty minutes to go and after just six minutes, his ridiculous header to himself tee’d up the shot which smashed into the goal at the Matthew Harding end.

Everyone quotes the Bruges game in 1995 for the best atmosphere since the stadium was rebuilt, but Vicenza 1998 pushes it close. Only 33,810 were present, but we each played our part. We were euphoric. In those days, and many since, Alan’s lucky wine gums sent us on the way to victory and the subsequent final in Stockholm. We reconvened immediately after in our then local “The Harwood” – for those interested, this pub was featured in “The Football Factory”, or at least the outside scenes, and was also where Raquel Welch stopped for a drink while filming “Bedazzled” in a local film studio in 1967 – and downed a few celebratory drinks.

Our own little song during that evening in The Harwood was “The Self-Preservation Society” from “The Italian Job.” It felt right.

But there is an odd end to the story of our 1998 semi-final victory. The very next day, I was made redundant. It was one of the oddest twenty-four hours of my life. To add to the sadness, my – quite unexpected – redundancy came on the fifth anniversary of my father’s passing. From the highest high on Thursday to the lowest low on Friday.

I would go to Sweden unemployed. It was an odd few weeks in my life.

In the end, my redundancy money funded a few holidays – Chelsea in the main – over the next few seasons, and my career took a very worthwhile tangential leap from quality assurance to logistics.

I have not looked back, apart from in these match reports.

Hello Goodbye.

I drove to London and it was probably my first solo drive to Stamford Bridge since…when?…many years ago. Maybe ten years? I don’t know. The weather was dire. Rain, rain, rain. And the traffic was slow once inside the M25. I texted a few friends to say that I would not be there until seven o’clock, maybe later. My mind continually went over my “Baku or Bust” gamble. Fucking hell Chelsea, don’t let me down.

I convinced myself to purse my lips if anyone asked my about my travel options. I convinced myself that I’d mutter some nonsense and folk would think me odd.

Ugh.

I thought about the game against Frankfurt not once.

Eventually, at around 7.10pm, I parked up at Queens Club. I briefly popped in to say hello to the troops at “Simmons” one last time this season. I was only there for five minutes. A very brief “hello goodbye” to a few chaps – I had to bite my lip when Daryl asked if I was going to Baku – and out into the evening. Thankfully, the rain was only slightly spitting.

Another European Semi-Final.

We have contended so many in recent years, eh? I have lived and breathed these ones.

1995 – Real Zaragoza, lost.

1998 – Vicenza, won.

2004 – Monaco, lost.

2005 – Liverpool, lost.

2007 – Liverpool, lost.

2008 – Liverpool, won.

2009 – Barcelona, lost.

2012 – Barcelona, won.

2013 – Basel, won.

2014 – Atletico Madrid, lost

Our Opponents.

I made my way to Stamford Bridge, past many Frankfurt fans, many with half-and-half scarves and many without tickets. There were rumours of ten thousand travelling to London. They are one of the big names of German football. They will indelibly be linked with Real Madrid and Hampden Park. But I have been aware that they were recently enjoying the pleasures of the German second tier if only for a few seasons. I found it odd that they have rid themselves of their red and black stripes in favour of an all-black home kit. They lost 6-1 at Bayer Leverkusen at the weekend.

I have no real Eintracht Frankfurt story to tell, apart from this one.

In the summer of 1988, the European Football Championships took place in Germany and while I was over in Germany in the March of that year, I wanted to enquire how tickets for games would be made available. I had a notion of going over to follow England. On one afternoon, with light fading, I made a bee-line for the HQ of the “Deutsche Fussball Bund” – the German FA – which was based a few metres from the old Wald Stadium of Eintracht Frankfurt. I popped in and asked a few questions. I remember a large terraced stadium, surrounded by trees, way out of the city centre. That stadium was replaced for the 2006 World Cup Finals.

Not much of a story. Not much of a 1988 tournament, England lost all three, including a 3-1 defeat to Russia in Frankfurt.

3,965 Kilometres.

By the long wall to the left of the West Stand forecourt, I noted that there was, again, a special Europa League display on show. On it, were the words “Distance to Baku 3,965kms, one match to go, together to Baku.”

What patronising bullshit.

“Thanks for fucking reminding us all how far away it is.”

“Together to Baku? With only a rumoured seven thousand tickets for a club with over twenty-thousand season ticket holders and with forty thousand regulars, how can we all be together?”

The Team.

Kepa Arrizabalaga

Cesar Azpilicueta – Andreas Christensen – David Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Mateo Kovacic – Ruben Loftus-Cheek

Willian – Olivier Giroud – Eden Hazard

Pre-Match.

PD was inside with Al when I reached my seat.

“Doesn’t seem dark enough to be a European night.”

I soon spotted Parky. He was in.

The German supporters were jammed in with fifteen minutes to go. Their banners and flags were out in force. The dominant colour was black, with only occasional hints of red. The teams came on to the pitch. The away end turned white. “The Shed” flag surfed over the heads of our fans in the Shed Upper. The Eden Hazard banner did the same below me. His last-ever game at Stamford Bridge? Almost certainly. We were given blue flags to wave, but the thrill of that has gone.

There was more “Together To Baku” bullshit signage inside Stamford Bridge.

0-45.

The game began. We were in our usual kit. The visitors were in white, white and black. They had the first real chance of the match, a well-claimed header from their star forward Luka Jovic. But we started well, and Olivier Giroud showed some good link up play in the first part of the game. We carved out a couple of chances and were dominating possession. Willian sent in a ball that Giroud miss-controlled at the near post.

The German fans were singing – not super loud, others have been louder – but certainly constant. The upper tier waved their flags, then the lower tier. It was a great sight.

With a quarter of an hour gone, Kepa flung himself to his left and reached and reached. He tipped a fine volley over the bar. It a second stunner in the past two games.

The noise wasn’t fantastic to be honest, but there were outbreaks of Chelsea cheer. The Germans did a full on bouncy with 90% involvement across both tiers. I suggested to Albert who sits in front that our immediate reply of a similar bouncy would be a poor imitation. It was indeed. Our bouncy has had it day. It peeked at Derby County in 2004, it has been poor ever since.

All of our play seemed to be down our left. We had obviously spotted a weakness there. Our pressure grew. Jorginho back healed out of danger in his own penalty box and we gasped. A couple of half-chances, or maybe quarter-chances gave us hope. Another fine move down our left with Hazard linking well. A Willian free-kick was flicked towards goal by a deft David Luiz header but this was scrambled off the line. Our confidence was rising.

On twenty-eight minutes, some lovely trademark twists from Eden and a fine through pass to Ruben allowed our young midfielder to look up and assess the space. Time stood still. He touched the ball purposefully towards the far post and we watched, almost disbelieving, as it rolled over the line and into the net. The crowd gave it our all.

YEEEEESSSSSSSS.

Alan : “THEY WILL HAVE TO COME AT US NOW.”

Chris : “COME ON MY LITTLE SPARKLEGRUBERS.”

I could relax. A little. We never looked in danger during the rest of the first period. But it was still a nervy night. It was as if we were too nervy to sing. We heard that Valencia had taken a lead, but Arsenal had equalised.

Thoughts of Baku.

46-90.

In the first few minutes of the second period, I spotted – or rather heard – a very rare thing at Stamford Bridge. I think it was in answer to a similar song emanating from the away section, but a few souls in the MHL sang one short bust of “Chelsea Til I Due.” Now then dear reader, this was a first in my memory. I’ve never heard it sung at Stamford Bridge before. I know it gets hashtagged to death, but it has never been a Chelsea song.

A song much loved by lower league teams.

Not us.

Just after, Frankfurt waltzed through our defence – a Luiz half-hearted tackle created space – and Jovic blasted home an equaliser.

I blame #ctid.

And my trip to Baku was now looking problematic.

For fuck sake.

We went to pieces. Our high defensive line of the first-half shuffled back fifteen yards. Our confidence left us. Alan used a lovely phrase, aimed at Lovacic or Jorginho or Willian –

“That’s a tickle. Not a tackle.”

The nerves increased fifty-fold.

The game became scrappy. There was frustration and pain in the stands.

I could not help think about Baku. Arsenal were going through. The thought of all those replica-shirt-wearing muppets was making me feel ill. Maybe I could stay in Istanbul, get a cheap hotel or hostel and a cheap flight home from there. I did enjoy Istanbul in 2014.

There were few shots in the second-half. But plenty of annoyance in how our form had dipped. Jorginho, I will say, was holding things together. We obviously missed Kante. Ruben was drifting through the game, not enjoying his previous spark. On the hour, the loudest chant of the entire night. It reached 1998 levels, but soon petered out. Pedro replaced Willian on the hour and rushed around a lot without doing a great deal. Frankfurt themselves threatened our goal. An away goal would kill us. As the clock advanced, I could hardly believe how nerves were taking over my whole brain and body .On seventy minutes, Christensen was replaced by Davide Zappocosta. A real head-shaker. Azpilicueta moved alongside Luiz.Our back four now consisted of three Daves and an Emerson.

To be fair, Zappacosta – more Fiat than Ferrari – did inject a little energy into our team. One long shot soon tested the Frankfurt ‘keeper Trapp.

Giroud turned to the Matthew Harding to rally the supporters.

This was arse about face.

We should have been rallying the players.

We needed to get to ninety minutes. Conceding a goal in these last fifteen, ten or five minutes would be the end. I checked to ensure Andres Iniesta was not on their bench. With five minutes to go, Ross replaced Ruben. A low shot from distance from Giroud tested the Frankfurt goalie, but he was able to gather the rebound.

Five minutes of extra-time were signalled.

Nerves.

We held on.

Phew.

I chatted to a few neighbours.

“This is our chance now. We are at home. We need to drag them over the line. We need to roar them home.”

Our implosion right after the re-start of the game had proved our undoing once again. There is such fragility in our ranks. How the hell have we secured Champions League football for next season? In the break, a stunning song was aired.

“Heroes” by David Bowie.

91-105.

Our fourth substitute of the game – have we ever had four in a competitive game before? – took place as Gonzalo Higuain replaced Giroud, whose early promise had drifted away. So, we attacked The Shed again. Barkley, looking keen, shot from way out but only narrowly missed the target. A break down our right – with me shouting “get closer” – resulted in a low tempting cross being raked across the goal and the ball was poked goal wards by Sebastien Haller. At first, I thought it was going wide. But a scrambled kick off the line from Luiz – excellent one minute, average the next – saved us. Just after, a corner was headed towards goal by the same Frankfurt player and Zappacosta headed it over.

We were hanging on grimly.

And my nerves were fraying by the minute.

Just before the second period of extra time, “Blue Is The Colour” rang out.

“Cus Chelsea…Chelsea is our name.”

105-120.

The players were tired now. Hazard tended to roam, rather than be tied to his usual position, attempting to sniff out areas of weakness and decay in the Eintracht defence. It was tough to watch. It was all Chelsea, but with hardly any real chances being created. A rasper from Zapacosta stung ‘keeper Trapp’s fingers as he tipped it over. My nerves were shot, my heartrate was increasing, my sinews were unravelling. This was just horrible to watch.

With five minutes to go, and from a Hazard cross, Trapp fumbled and Azpilicueta bundled the ball over the line but the referee, rightly, cancelled the goal but not before a nano-second of celebration from me as I saw him point towards our goal.

Penalties.

This was tense as it could ever be.

Tottenham and Liverpool – I hope everyone appreciates how I have not mentioned them until now – and also Arsenal had reached the two end of season European grand finales. England – or some parts of it – was watching to see if we could make it four. Chelsea were being typical Chelsea and going about it the hard away.

I had no real time to think of much. I was pacing around like an expectant father. Nobody was enjoying this. Stern faces in the Matthew Harding Upper. I was beginning to regret no “Maynard’s Wine Gums” had been present.

The penalties were to take place at The Shed.

I set my camera.

“No shaking, Chris.”

Penalty One : Haller – Eintracht – scored, rolled to Kepa’s right.

Penalty Two : Barkley – Chelsea – scored, a confident slice to Trapp’s right.

Penalty Three : Jovic – Eintracht – scored, a roller to Kepa’s right.

Penalty Four : Azpilicueta – Chelsea – saved, a spawling lunge from Trapp to his left.

Hell, Cesar.

My world caved in. Thoughts of Baku, of Arsenal, of Istanbul, but also of Munich when we came back from the dead.

Penalty Five : De Guzman – Eintracht – scored, a confident strike to Kepa’s right.

Penalty Six : Jorginho – Chelsea – scored, that little skip and a chip to the right of Trapp.

At this stage, I had the briefest of thoughts. All three of their penalties had gone to Kepa’s right. Would he go that way? Would he stay still? What the fuck would I do?

Penalty Seven : Hinteregger – Eintracht – saved, straight at Kepa, who just crouched and trapped the ball under his shin.

It was the most ridiculous penalty save that I have ever seen.

Oh now we fucking roared alright.

“COME ON.”

Penalty Eight : Luiz – Chelsea – scored, low and to the ‘keeper’s right again.

The whole stadium on edge now.

Penalty Nine : Paciencia – Eintracht – saved, a faltering run-up and a shot to Kepa’s right that he saved magnificently.

We roared once again.

Advantage Chelsea.

Drogba in Munich.

Memories.

We waited. Eden Hazard placed the ball where Peter Osgood’s ashes lie.

We waited.

Penalty Ten : Number Ten Hazard – Chelsea – his last-ever kick at Stamford Bridge – scored, a small run-up, a dink to Trapp’s right, the ‘keeper going left.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

To say I was happy would be way off the mark.

I was fucking euphoric.

I shook with joy, I screamed, the boys were going to Baku, the boys were going to Azerbaijan, I was going to Baku, I was going to Azarbaijan, oh my fucking goodness.

While PD and Al bounced and hugged and jumped and screamed, I stood shaking.

My eyes were a little moist.

Chelsea Football Club. I fucking love you.

Tales From Third Place

Chelsea vs. Watford : 5 May 2019.

At around 7.30pm on a clear and sunny but occasionally chilly evening, Glenn dropped me off outside my house. It had been another excellent day out in London with some fine friends. For Glenn, it was sadly his last game of this ridiculous season. I reached over and shook his hand and thanked him for driving for the second home game in a row. We very briefly exchanged thoughts about the manager once more. I thought back to the very first match of the season and I smiled as I said the word “Perth.” How can the campaign be almost over? How can that game that Glenn and I attended in Western Australia in late July seem like it only happened a month ago? Time and life is accelerating away far too damn quickly for me, for all of us.

Glenn had collected me at 7am. PD was already riding shotgun, and Lord Parky joined us soon after.

Both PD and Lord Parky were rather tattered and torn after their European travels in the week. Due to a delayed flight from Cologne, they did not get home until 4.30am on Saturday morning. They were both – as the saying goes – “hanging.” It was such an odd feeling to be watching their activities via Facebook on Wednesday and Thursday, with me being confined to barracks, working the late shift in Melksham. But by forgoing the semi-final – I don’t always make European semi-finals, Madrid 2014 certainly springs to mind – at least I had engineered some time off for the potential trip to Baku for the final.

Yes, it was an odd one alright. PD, Parky and little old me have been joined at the hip for most of this season and it was strange not to be over there in Frankfurt. It reminded me of an occasion, which sticks very vividly in my mind, from my early teen years when my parents, my grandparents and I squeezed into my father’s Renault and drove down to visit relatives in South Somerset. It hadn’t been a particularly long journey. But at the end of, it while my father tried to locate a place to park, my mother – who had been sitting alongside me – got out of the car and walked behind the car as it drove away, in order to pre-warn the relatives that we had arrived. I looked back at my mother, now separate from the main party, and it felt odd. That all happened almost forty years ago. Why do I mention it? I don’t know. It was if a connection had been lost, that my mother was now adrift, that she was on her own.

Forty years on, I never ever thought I would be referencing it to a Chelsea game in Frankfurt, but there you go.

Just before 10am, we entered the now familiar surroundings of “The Eight Bells” once again. The bar staff recognised us. It is soon becoming my local, one hundred miles from home. We were joined by Ollie and Julien from Normandy. I have known Ollie for a few years and we bump into each other at occasional games here and there. He is well known in the Chelsea family. It was lovely to see him again. I had not previously met Julien, his cousin, and it gave me a chance to reel off a few loosely remembered phrases from French “O level” in 1981.

I thanked Ollie for being one of the first few subscribers to this blogarama. We chatted about our love of “old school” stadia and we are both looking forward to the trip to Bramall Lane next season. I’m pretty happy with Sheffield United and Norwich City’s promotion to the top flight. We have already spoken about staying over in those cities next season, depending upon kick-off times. Elsewhere in the Football League pyramid, there were some sobering developments. Somerset’s only Football League team Yeovil Town were returned to non-league football after a spell of sixteen years in the Football League, rising to one single season in the Championship in 2013/14. A sadder tale involves the world’s oldest professional club, Notts County, who joined Yeovil Town in the second relegation spot. It does not seem so long ago that while Chelsea were toiling in the Second Division, Notts County were enjoying a few seasons – 1981/82, 1982/83 and 1983/84 – in Division One. We were last in the same division in 1991/92. A college pal, Craig, went to the Notts game at Swindon Town on the Saturday. I felt for him.

Why mention this?

I remember Notts County getting promoted ahead of us in 1980/81 when our season fell away dramatically after Christmas. And now they will be playing non-league football next season. A lot of newer Chelsea fans have a dig at people like me, always harking back to the days when Chelsea Football Club were under-performing and that these days are, by comparison, nothing to get too overemotional about. But I don’t care. Chelsea’s history in those bleaker years have coloured my opinions over the past twenty-five years of sustained success.

And that ain’t going to change.

We were then joined by John, Kev and Rich, from Edinburgh, all Hearts supporters. I have a lot of time for all three of them. On the Saturday, John had taken his two-year-old grandson to Tynecastle for the very first time. The pictures on Facebook had made me smile. The young lad fared better than the Jambos who lost 1-0 to Steve Clarke’s Kilmarnock. Then the Kent lads showed up. It was all very pleasant. The pints of “Grolsch” were hitting the spot. I laughed as I turned to John and said “bollocks to the football, let’s just stay here.”

Ah, the football. After Tottenham’s calamitous performance against Bournemouth the previous afternoon – two sendings off and a late winner from Nathan Ake – we were now in a position where two more wins would secure us automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League.

Oh what a crazy bloody season.

In previous conversations, we had been worried about getting points at Leicester City, and Watford would hardly be easy pickings. But two wins. Just two wins. It seemed achievable, and yet…

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

As is the case these days, the last home game of the season gives the commercial team at Chelsea Football Club a chance to display the new home kit for the forthcoming season, despite the fact that we will no doubt revert to the 2018/19 design for the games against Eintracht Frankfurt and Leicester City. As for the potential final in Baku, I am hoping for a repeat of 2012 and 2013 – when kits from those seasons were used – and not 2008, with a kit which was destined to bring back awful memories throughout the following campaign.

So. The 2019/20 Chelsea kit.

Have you got a minute?

I didn’t spot too many supporters wearing the new shirt on the walk to Stamford Bridge. I, like many, have spent the past few weeks fearing the worst, ever since a photograph of a new design was shared on the internet.

My thoughts?

The notion of honouring Stamford Bridge on the home shirt is not a ridiculous idea. Way back in 1995, Umbro took the decision to go for a panoramic shadow print of Old Trafford on the Manchester United home shirt. I wasn’t a huge fan, but it sold by the thousands, and millions. At the time, we all joked that it was the nearest many United fans would get to Old Trafford.

Stamford Bridge has – let’s be honest – rather a hotchpotch selection of stands. The East Stand is probably the most iconic – the most recognisable – but the three newer ones are of varying heights, with differences in sizes, in shape, in impact. So, dear reader, if I was given the brief to design a new Chelsea shirt embodying our home since 1905, I may well have chosen other sights and motifs.

The Peter Osgood statue, on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1970 FA Cup Final triumph – when The King scored in every round – would be a good place to start. A subtle shadow print of a single image over the chest perhaps. Or if the mantra of “less is more” is not adhered to, and the brief was for multiple images, then how about the ivy on The Shed Wall, or the Gatling Gun weather vane from atop the East Stand? How about the “Chelsea Football Club” signage on the wall between The Shed and the West Lower, which in itself is a nod to the wording used on the old Leitch East Stand which welcomed supporters to Stamford Bridge for decades?

Or how about a single panoramic image – as subtle as possible – of that often-referenced sweeping black and white panorama from the ‘twenties?

Well, instead of this, the design team chose – as far as I can muster – repeated images of circular roof trusses, roof supports and side screens.

And not just a few subtle dabs here and there. The ramshackle design covers the entire shirt. It appears that random geometric shapes have been thrown together.

It is – let me be clear here – fucking hideous.

The blue of the shorts looks to me, from my subsequent match photos, to be a slightly darker hue than the main body of the shirt. And although the decision was to, thankfully, maintain the classic white socks, the design seems to be a year late. The current 2018/19 kit design is meant to reflect the 1983/84 kit, but next season’s socks are closer to the 1983/84 style than this season. And whereas both new shirts and shorts are solidly blue – albeit in three different tones – the socks have a red band, therefore not tying it in with either shorts or socks. Oh, apart from an oddly-placed red stripe under the rear of the collar. Additionally, the images of the rectangles and circles that make up the design appear to be smudged. Not crisp. Not clear. As a metaphor for the way parts of the club operates, it is – however – perfect.

It’s a bloody mess.

Why should I care, though?

Well, the sad fact is that I do care. It looks like a dog’s dinner. It looks like the sort of children’s pyjamas that are on sale in the bargain aisle at “Asda.” And, if the reaction of the vast majority of Chelsea supporters that I interact with is to go by, it is rated as one of the worst ever. And that means, ergo, that Nike won’t be getting the desired sales returns that they might have hoped. Which defeats the bloody object of designing a new kit in the first place.

I hate modern football part 259.

On the pitch down below me, Watford surprised us all with their attacking verve in the first-half. They were by far the more enterprising of the two teams. They buzzed about us like proper hornets in their waspish shirts. The highlight from our players was a truly magnificent save from Kepa as he flung himself to his right to tip over a Troy Deeney drive. The away fans in their yellow and black were enjoying their team’s early dominance. We, however, struggled to get a foothold on the game. Sadly, N’Golo Kante was injured within the first ten minutes and we missed his drive in the first-half. He was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Although I did not see the game on Thursday, many mentioned that he was our best player in Frankfurt. Gerard Deulofeu managed to find space to threaten our goal and shots were fired in from outside the box. We really struggled, and rarely carved out chances.

There was, at last, a nice little give and go between Gonzalo Higuain and Pedro. The Spaniard’s drive flashed past the far post.

There was an penalty shout for a foul on David Luiz. I wasn’t convinced.

At the break, although I am sure the people that I bumped into didn’t all offer this blunt, and hardly erudite, opinion, but the general consensus was :

“Fucking shit.”

Thankfully, the second-half was a vast improvement.

I am not normally a huge fan of short corners at all. However, after Eden Hazard forced a save from the Watford ‘keeper Ben Foster, the subsequent corner was played short to Pedro. Hazard clipped the return into the six-yard box and our Ruben rose virtually unchallenged.

A strong downward header, and we were one up.

Hazard blasted at Foster. We were all guns blazing now.

Two minutes later, another Hazard corner on the far side, but this time a direct approach. Another free header though, this time from the head of Luiz.

Two up and coasting.

Those three points were looking good.

This was more like it, Chelsea. With the confidence of a two goal cushion, our play looked a lot more appetising. There was one surging run from our Eden – possibly the last that I will ever capture on film at Stamford Bridge – which had the Watford defence back peddling and questioning their choice of career.

We went close with efforts from Pedro, Loftus-Cheek and Higuain. The dangerous Deulofeu would not be quietened at the other end. He slammed a low shot wide of the far post.

With fifteen minutes to go, Higuain – who had attempted a few tricky passes to others – saw a hint of space and lost his marker. He was set free inside the box by the excellent Pedro, and the Argentinian – we share the same shit barber – dinked a delicate lob over the ‘keeper.

Chelsea 3 Watford 0.

Game over. Almost.

Watford hit the bar. They deserved a goal to be fair.

Olivier Giroud came on for Higuain and contrived to bugger up a couple of chances. In the very last minute, Dave gave the captain’s armband to Gary Cahill, who replaced David Luiz. His season has been a painful one. It was lovely to see him in Chelsea blue one last time.

He’s won it all, you know.

A last jink from Eden and a last shot on goal.

It did not matter. A three-nil win was the final result.

Meanwhile, up in Huddersfield, the home team had – somehow – managed to hold Manchester United to a 1-1 draw. On the way home, all but the driver caught up on some sleep, and as we woke we heard that Brighton had drawn 1-1 at Arsenal.

That was it. The others had committed hari kari and Chelsea Football Club were guaranteed Champions League football in 2019/20.

What a bloody crazy season.

On Thursday, we take on Eintracht Frankfurt and some of their ten thousand-strong travelling army.

I will see some of you there.

I’ll be the one not wearing pyjamas.

Tales From The Jacksonville Five

Chelsea vs. Slavia Prague : 18 April 2019.

There was a flurry of annoying late emails at work but, at just after 3pm, I left the office. I exhaled deeply. A four-day break was just starting and what better way for it all to begin than with a Chelsea game? I drove over to meet up with PD and Parky in the car park opposite work. We now try to avoid the usual delays on the M4 on these midweek bursts to London and, instead, head south-east towards Stonehenge and then in to London on the A303, M3 and the A316. PD made good time and we were parked up at about 5.30pm.

This was my fiftieth game of the season. Should we reach Baku, the season will top out at fifty-six, a total only bettered in the two other recent “European Final” seasons of 2011/12 and 2012/13. To confirm, I will not be able to attend the Europa League semi-final, but I am free for the final – should we make it – in Baku. I owe my manager – “United” – a big favour for that. Phew.

The Goose seemed quite quiet.

There was time for a single pint of “Peroni” and more time to relax. Although there were signs on the windows of the pub of “Home Fans Only”, a lone Slavia sticker had been planted to the wall inside the gents’ toilets. Something about “Slavia Destiny” was written with the cartooned shapes of ultras. Standard fare I guess.

We stood in the beer garden and spoke with a few friends and European travel was the obvious topic.

Rob : “I love the buzz of these trips, getting good flights, good deals. I often enjoy it more than the games these days.”

Parky : “We have our hearts set on Lisbon via Bristol.”

Kev : “Baku will be a nightmare if Arsenal get there too. You’re talking a grand.”

Brian : “I’d expect the club to run some trips. And there will be agencies chartering flights. But remember the Scousers were moaning about £900 trips to Kiev last time. And that was just to Kiev. Baku is almost twice as far.”

Chris : “Imagine going all that way and seeing those bloody Gooners over there. All those replica shirts and hipster beards. Nightmare. I hope Napoli stuff them. King Carlo in the final. Lovely.”

Brian : “And the Super Cup is in Istanbul. On a Wednesday.”

Chris : “Istanbul? Bollocks. Nice and easy for all of us then. Wankers. What was wrong with a Friday night? Nice flight in on the day of the game, back on the weekend. Just one day off work. But a Wednesday is at least two days off work. Fucking hell. UEFA. They just don’t care.”

There was little chat about the evening game. Glenn and I had watched the tedious – and ultimately very lucky – game from Prague at a pub in Frome the previous Thursday. It was grim stuff. But as I walked down the North End Road, I mentioned the away goal and we expected an easy passage into the semi-finals.

In “Simmons”, the usual suspects were gathered together, but I spent most of the time with a gaggle of five Chelsea supporters from Jacksonville – America’s most populous “unknown” city – in Northern Florida. I had met Jennifer and Brian in Charlotte in 2015, and again on their first-ever visit to Chelsea last season for the West Ham United game.

“How can that be over a year ago? Seems like last month.”

I asked the three stock questions – “let’s get these out of the way, then we can relax”- to Jennifer and Brian.

When did you get in?

“This morning.”

Are you jet-lagged?

“No. Red Bull.”

Where are your tickets?

“Shed Upper.”

Jennifer and Brian were with three other Chelsea fans from Jacksonville – “the first coast” – and I immediately forgot all their names. Let’s call them Danny, Danny and Danielle. I chatted with Danny One how my first night in Florida in September 1989 was spent in a tent on the side of a road in Jacksonville (Heckscher Drive – he knew it well) outside a fish bait store. My mate and I had simply run out of steam after a lengthy cycle ride from our previous night in Georgia. We needed somewhere to flop. Not for us the glitzy hotels of Walt Disney World or the comfortable motels in Orlando and Kissimmee.

Our first night in Florida? A tent by the side of the road. No food and drink close by. We were bitten by mosquitoes that night. Living the dream, eh?

I spoke with Danny Two and how he was originally from Bosnia, and how he got into watching us on TV in the US in around 2003. I am always intrigued how foreign fans find us. I am glad that it wasn’t through FIFA. It helped that his is team back home – Zeljeznicar – played in blue too. These three visitors from the Sunshine State were having a blast. Their enthusiasm was priceless. This would be their first game at Stamford Bridge. Their first-ever Chelsea game ever, I think.

They were having a lovely time.

And then they met Parky.

We knocked back a few bottles of “Staropramen” – how apt on this night – but it was, alas, soon time to move on.

I took a few photographs outside the West Stand. I noted that there was signage for something called “The Europa Lounge” at the main entrance to the West Stand. A few “welcoming” personnel in Chelsea blazers and a couple of rather ridiculous roped “VIP” barriers gave the area much more importance than it really warranted. But we all know the score. The Europa League isn’t the Champions League no matter how anyone butters it up. This was an ersatz version of the real deal. I had visions of the guests drinking the 2019 equivalents of Kestrel Lager, White Lightning and Panda Pops.

Inside the stadium, the away fans were virtually all in. Slavia are one of the great old names of European football. I remember talking to a work colleague in Prague over a decade ago who was an avid Slavia fan. He always told me that they were the older, established club of his home city and he hated Sparta who were the newly-moneyed upstarts.

It was a warm evening in London. A little muggy. My camera tried to take photographs of the Jacksonville Five – and the Slavia crowd – in the distant Shed but everything was a little misty, grey, the details blurred. I couldn’t spot them.

Andreas Christensen was in for the injured Rudiger. Eden Hazard was starting. N’Golo Kante was in, Jorginho was out. Olivier Giroud was up front.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Kovacic

Barkley – Kante

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

A full moon rose over the Shed as the teams entered the pitch. Another – almost – full house was in attendance. These £30 tickets for Thursday nights are perfectly pitched. The bright blush of red on the Slavia tracksuit tops stood out. Their kit was an odd one. A Feyenoord-style shirt, red and white halves, with white shorts. Crisp so far. But with insipid light blue socks, which they also wore in the home leg.

We were quick out of the traps and other clichés.

On just five minutes, we watched a lovely move unfold. We kept possession well. Pedro was heavily involved and sprinted in from the right to play a perfect “one-two” with Olivier Giroud. Pedro’s dink over the Slavia ‘keeper Kolar was excellent and we were 1-0 up on the night.

A mazy run from Hazard – a photograph I took ended up being titled “The Hunted” on Facebook – ended up with a block.

Just four minutes after the first goal, we watched a really lovely move down our left with Hazard pushing the ball on to Giroud, who held the ball well before feeding the run of Hazard. The cross across the box was aimed at that man Pedro. From our vantage point over one hundred yards away, it looked like his second goal and he reeled away in delight. It was, in fact, an own goal, but we did not care one iota.

We were 2-0 up on the night.

The away fans, a mob of red and white, were quiet. Alan had told me that their ultras were banned from the home leg which is why those two large, and lovely, banners of two former players took up so much space in their home end in Prague. Tonight, there were a few sings and banners, and most were for their ultras.

On seventeen minutes, a beautiful pass into space from Kante found – guess who? – Pedro who selflessly knocked the ball square to an unmarked Giroud who calmly tapped home.

Chelsea 3 Slavia 0.

Four up on aggregate. This was too easy.

With Frankfurt and Benfica at 0-0, this was looking good for PD and Parky, who were relishing the thought of a few days in the Portuguese capital. With the game surely in the bag, I eased off. I let my mind wander a little. Eventually, I was able to spot Jennifer, Brian and the three Dannys in The Shed.

And then Slavia got into the game a little. Kepa kept out a header in a rather unorthodox fashion, the ball fortuitously hitting him on the knee. From the resulting corner, the ball was drilled into an open area and Soucek – completely unmarked, Anfield, cough, cough – headed it firmly in.

“You scored one? We’ll do the same.”

Barely a minute later, Hazard broke down the left and played the ball out to the overlapping Emerson. His low cross, right on the money, was pushed goal wards by Giroud. The ‘keeper fumbled the ball out and Pedro was on hand to slam it in. Pedro was having quite a game. He was involved in all four of our goals. I took a photo of the Floridian visitors celebrating in The Shed. My job was done.

Over in Frankfurt, we heard that the hosts had scored against Benfica.

In Naples, Arsenal were 1-0 on the night.

Bollocks.

The rest of the first-half came and went. At half-time, all was well. The only annoyance was the away fans, who had found their voices, and were singing their sodding version of “Allez, Allez, Allez” ad infinitum. It obviously reminded me of the noise at Anfield and I moaned to JD about it.

“Anfield has been erased from my memory. Thanks for bringing it up.”

Talk moved to The Europa Final and the thought of us having to share a beautiful European city with twenty thousand Arsenal fans.

I said “Moscow was bad enough with United.”

JD : “That has been erased too.”

I replied “OK. Got it. I’d best fuck off right now.”

The game restarted. If I had tended to drift off at times in the first-half, it was the turn of the players to do the same in the second-half. What a bloody mess. On fifty-one minutes, I captured the shot – from just outside the box – from Sevcik that, somehow, maybe it swerved, ended up beating Kepa at the near post. His view, admittedly was blocked by both Kovacic and the Luiz lookalike Kral.

It was now 4-2 and my thoughts wandered back to the Viktoria Zizkov game in 1994. Our first UEFA game since 1971 against another Czech team had ended-up with that same score line.

It got worse.

Just three minutes later, the same player – with the away fans marking each pass with an “ole” – unleashed an unstoppable drive across Kepa and into the top far corner.

Fackninell.

Chelsea 4 Slavia 3.

What a bloody mess.

In pubs, in living rooms, in bars, on the internet, at Stamford Bridge, the same question was asked :

“What does Sarri fucking talk about at half-time?”

We went to pieces, and the support grew unsurprisingly restless.

For PD and Parky, it got worse. Eintracht had scored again. They held the advantage. Lisbon was looking unlikely.

A lightning break down our right ended up with a ball being drilled into the box. That man Sevcik – in acres of space – had his own Devon Loch moment and lost his footing just as he was about to connect with yet another effort on goal from the inside right channel. Kepa sprinted out to gather the loose ball. This was ridiculous. I only remember a bungled volley from Giroud as our sole effort on goal in that awful second period.

By now, Willian had replaced Hazard. Jorginho had replaced Barkley, and quite how Kovacic remained on the pitch is a mystery to me.

There was a fair bit of applause for Sevcik – from me, for sure – as he was substituted. On came Miroslav Stoch, our former winger, and he was given a warm welcome back at The Bridge. I expected great things from him way back in 2008/9 and he scored some screamers for Fenerbahce. He’s twenty-nine now, and looks older. Luiz, back-peddling, headed the ball back to safety but in doing so, the ball hit his arm. A free-kick seemed really harsh. Stoch took aim with a free-kick but thankfully blasted it against the leg of Willian.

Callum Hudson-Odoi made a cameo appearance in the last five minutes, replacing the first-half hero Pedro.

We held on.

But it was far from clever. This must rank as our least convincing run to a European semi-final ever. This was a 4-3 European game that surely didn’t match the previous night’s encounter in Manchester.

We won ugly.

It seemed that this one match had encapsulated – distilled – the one-hundred and fourteen year history of Chelsea Football Club. The good and the bad. Comedic defending. Periods of pleasure. Long periods of pain. Lady luck. Goals. Ultimately a victory.

Oh boy.

I am sure that the guests from Florida loved it – those first-half goals right in front of them for sure – but it was really painful. It is – stating the bloody obvious once again – proving to be a ridiculous season. After Fulham and Cardiff City, here was yet another win that seemed like a loss. And yet those two League Cup defeats at Wembley seemed like wins.

Oh my poor brain.

The news came through that the nearly men of European football Benfica had lost 2-0 in Germany.

We would meet Eintracht Frankfurt in the semi-final.

On Monday, we reassemble for the battle for league points with the visit of Burnley. We have another pub-crawl planed. The Floridians have been told to bring their drinking boots.

See you in the pub.

 

Tales From Two Shades Of Blue

Chelsea vs. Malmo : 21 February 2019.

We were back in town again for the second time of the working week. After the disappointment of the United game on the Monday, Malmo offered a different test on a Thursday evening Europa League tie. The games were starting to ramp up now. And we were in the middle of an odd sequence of matches which were following this pattern :

Sunday / Thursday / Monday / Thursday / Sunday / Wednesday / Sunday.

Maybe in the near future a child will ask of their parents : “they used to play on Saturday, didn’t they?”

We were also continuing our ridiculously Jekyll & Hyde sequence of a win, a loss, a win, a loss. I wonder what Chelsea would show up on this occasion. What shade of blue?

All was quiet when we walked into “Simmons” at about 6pm. Unlike Monday there was room to breathe, and room to chat in a more relaxed way with a few good friends. Gillian and Kev were down from Edinburgh again. Special mention for Chris from Guernsey who was in the middle of three trips to London in a week, all for Chelsea; the second of a Holy Trinity of cup games in three different competitions. There was an inevitable revisiting of the game on Monday. It had been a totally depressing evening. We briefly rummaged through the debris of a pretty shambolic performance. There were more questions than answers. To sum up our state of bewilderment at the manager’s modus operandi, I made a comment which I think holds water.

“There can’t be a single Chelsea supporter anywhere – anywhere in the world – who thought that the Zappacosta for Azplicueta substitution was laudable and fine.”

The boys agreed.

“Not one.”

We heard on the grapevine that the visiting Swedes were enjoying themselves up at The Courtfield at Earl’s Court. We were not surprised. This was a cheap trip for them after all. The lads that visited Malmo last week reported high drink prices; the boot was on the opposite foot now.

And their boots were being filled.

Fair play.

There was a predictable – and hilarious, cough, cough – punfest in the bar as we quoted football-relevant Abba songs.

I shan’t bore you.

Malmo first came into our common consciousness in the UK back in 1979 when they reached – I know not how – the European Cup Final. They were the underdogs against Cloughie’s Nottingham Forest and they fell to a John Robertson shimmy and cross and a Trevor Francis lunge at the far post in the final in Munich. I remembered their Manchester City-style light blue kit. They have been on my radar ever since. AIK Stockholm, Gothenberg and Malmo are the three names in Swedish football that resonate for me. I saw Malmo play once before, in odd circumstances. I was over in Dublin on a mate’s Stag Weekend in March 1991 and after a heavy night on the ale, we woke on the Sunday to discover that the local team St. Patrick’s Athletic were playing a friendly against Malmo at the nearby Dalymount Park. Some of the party decided not to go and I think they were probably wise. But four of us watched, sitting on a crumbling terrace which was overgrown with weeds, but were far from enamoured by the experience. The crowd was of about five-hundred and the game ended 1-1.

We made plans for Sunday and walked to Stamford Bridge.

I was only slightly interested in the reaction of the crowd to the manager and players after Monday. I hoped for not too much negativity. I had, if I am honest, not the stomach for any of that. I just wanted us to get behind the team.

Ah, the team.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Christensen – Emerson

Kovacic

Kante – Barkley

Hudson-Odoi – Giroud – Willian

No complaints with that.

Inside the stadium, there were gaps but these soon filled. I was very pleased indeed with the resultant attendance. Yes, the tickets were only £25, but people still had to make the effort to get off collective arses and travel. Of course, the away half of The Shed was full of light-blue. They had made a right old din in Sweden and London was a dream trip for them. They would undoubtedly be “up for it.”

This would be another game, the second in a week, when we would be undoubtedly out-sung by the away contingent.

It was good to see Mark – a foot soldier from the days of when we used to meet up at the old “Black Bull” in the promotion campaign of 1988/89 – who was with his son and sitting close by. It was half-term in London and elsewhere and a lot more children were in attendance than normal.

Flags were waved, the teams came on, the crowd was almost at capacity, no negativity thus far. Over on The Shed balcony wall, the invading Swedes had draped many flags and banners between the two tiers.

For the first time that I can remember since our kit-change back in 1991, we wore an all blue kit at home. It just did not look right. We presumed that the Malmo kit man had neglected to do his research. They were in a Manchester City copy of light blue, white and light blue. One of their players resembled Kevin de Bruyne. The football Gods were not letting us forget the 6-0 loss at the Etihad easily.

The game began.

It was a bright start from the visitors. The Chelsea support had raised a few songs at the start in a genuine attempt to provide a positive vibe, but as our play stumbled and fumbled, the noise fell away. The visiting supporters kept their noise levels high. Pre-match there had been en masse bouncing. It had been impressive. And they must have been warmed by their players who looked a yard quicker than our players. There was a cross and a header early on which hinted at a worrying evening. Malmo definitely had the best of the first quarter. We looked lacking in confidence, a team of disjointed players. A university thesis could be written on why Mateo Kovacic was playing the deep-lying role and not N’Golo Kante. It was a puzzle to most of us. The manager’s golden child Jorginho was on the bench, and his personal toils throughout this season could spawn a bookshelf of theories about modern day football.

The football nerds call him a regista.

Regista?

Fucking hell, Arkwright’s cash register had more bite.

On the pitch there was little urgency, little shape, no clue.

There was, shamefully, not a great deal of running off the ball, which is surely an integral part of Sarriball (…oh dear, I feel dirty – ugh – this is the first time that I have used it in these reports I think, it won’t happen again, sorry). And I found it odd that, bearing in mind we were so nervy, we were continuing to pass the ball out from defence, almost inviting an error as Malmo were putting us under a high press (ditto, it’s the buzz word of the season, eh?).

On twenty-five minutes, the Malmo support got going with a loud chant. The second part of it seemed like “Fuck off Chelsea” but I am not sure that it was. Regardless, this got the Matthew Harding riled and there was a “Fuck off Malmo” response. This was followed by a loud and resonant “Carefree”, the loudest of the night. Good stuff. Well, I am not totally sure if the relationship between a noisy support and an upturn in a team’s play has ever been proven, but there definitely seemed like a ten minute or so of improved Chelsea play. At last Callum Hudson-Odoi was given the ball, and there was room ahead of him in which to run. He was the catalyst for our improvement I think. He looked the business, a rare spark of light in what had been a grey game thus far.

But then it seemed to die again. And the play worsened.

In that dire first-half, I can only remember occasional efforts on goal. A Barkley drive. A chance for Giroud close in. Not worth talking about.

At the break, I chatted to a few friends.

“That was awful.”

And it was. Bloody awful.

“It’s a bloody concern when our least adept central defender on the night has touched the ball more than any other Chelsea player.”

Every Chelsea move seemed to go through Toni Rudiger.

“Atvidaberg were Swedish, weren’t they?”

If you don’t know, “Google” it. 1971 and all that. Shudder.

Just as the Chelsea players came back on to the Stamford Bridge pitch, the away fans lit up The Shed with some white, and one red – he didn’t get the memo – flare. I’ll be honest, it looked bloody magnificent. The most flares ever seen at Chelsea? European football is meant to be like this.

Take a bow, Malmo.

As the first-half began, the clouds of smoke billowed around the southern end of the stadium and up under the lights of the East Stand. It was quite a sight. It brought back memories of a London before the clean air act when Stamford Bridge often became enveloped in a low fog on match days.

I could not resist an easy line :

“Put your fags out, Sarri.”

There was an odd, one-man, pitch invasion soon into the second period.

“Well, that’s one way to avoid seeing us play. A five-year ban, bosh. Idiot.”

Thankfully, after fifty-five minutes of tedium, the game came to life. Malmo were stretched after a move broke down. Our little prince N’Golo carried the ball at speed right through the heart of the Malmo defence, then easily spotted the run of Willian to his left, and the resulting cross was pushed home by Giroud from close in.

GET IN.

Bjorn : “De måste komma till oss nu.”

Benny : ” Kom på mina små diamanter.”

I had a gleeful smirk to myself. ”Damn that counter-attacking football.”

We were now 3-1 up on aggregate, and I hoped for no more scares. Our play, now a lot more confident, certainly improved. Barkley had an effort ruled offside. We were well on top. The away fans would not be dulled though, and their noise continued, and we were given a rare sight in The Shed – it was more common in the ’seventies – of hundreds of scarves being held aloft, but thankfully no accompanying Rodgers and Hammerstein dirge. It reminded me of Napoli at Juventus in 1988, and certainly Napoli away in 2012 (a game that took place seven years ago to the exact day and time, any bloody excuse to mention the Champions League run of 2012).

Malmo were visibly tiring and our wing play was causing them the jitters. This was more like it Chelsea. Emerson was fouled and the miscreant Bengtsson was given a second yellow. From the free-kick, Ross Barkley struck a so-sweet curler past the Malmo goalkeeper, who obviously failed to react to the advice given to him by a Chelsea supporters in the MHL.

”Move over, Dahlin.”

Ross enjoyed that goal and his run towards us in The Sleepy Hollow was one of joy. Phew. Five minutes later, the manager made two subsitutions.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for N’Golo Kante.

Jorginho for Ross Barkley.

There were audible boos for Joginho.

How utterly utterly pathetic.

Ethan Ampadu replaced Cesar Azpilicueta.

It would have been funnier if Dave had been replaced by Gonzalo Higuain. That would have raised an ironic giggle, right?

We were assured of another fixture in this season’s competition. I had thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Baku last season, and I certainly thought that it would be a one-off ”once in a lifetime” experience. We might – just might – be returning. But as I said to Big John at half-time, Baku is not Munich or Amsterdam, or even Moscow. It is bloody miles away. Would we sell fifteen or twenty thousand tickets for the final? Answers on a postcard.

As the game continued I dreamed of where Chelsea Football Club would take me next. We were hopeful of rejoining the Europa League trail in the next round, just over a fortnight away.

In the last five minutes, Hudson-Odoi did well to drift past his man on the right and drill a low shot past the ’keeper to make it 3-0.

Phew.

I had hated the first-half, but the second-half was a lot better.

It had been a good night.

Our sequence was now –

Won 3-0

Lost 0-4

Won 5-0

Lost 0-6

Won 2-1

Lost 0-2

Won 3-0

What of Sunday and the League Cup Final? In the car on the drive home – happier than on Monday – I simply told LP and PD that we tended not to lose finals. I did some arithmetic. Since 1994, but including that game, we had reached nineteen finals – I have discounted the 2012 World Club Championships and the three Super Cups – and our record in that time span is quite excellent. We have won fourteen and lost just five. That’s a fine batting average.

See you at Wembley.

 

Tales From The Shores Of The Caspian Sea

Qarabag vs. Chelsea : 22 November 2017.

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

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

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

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

I was in two minds.

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

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

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

“Oh bollocks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He replied –

“I can’t. I’m in Bucharest.”

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

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

“Here’s another bloody idiot.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The risk of cheap alcohol was real.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chelsea team was displayed on the huge screens.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

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

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

“FAR WAY FROM HOME BUT WHERE YOU BELONG.”

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

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

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

Alan : “İndi onlar bizə gəlmək məcburiyyətində qalacaqlar.”

Chris : “mənim kiçik brilyantlar.”

Boos boomed around the stadium.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danny Drinkwater replaced N’Golo.

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

Qarabag 0 Chelsea 4

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

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

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

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

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

This was Baku.

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

It was time to call it a day.

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it six o’clock?”

“No, seven o’clock.”

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

“Thank fuck for that.”

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

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

Over to you Qarabag.