Tales From Camp Nou

Barcelona vs. Chelsea : 14 March 2018.

Some moments in time…

Bristol Airport / Tuesday 13 March / 0700.

I had set the alarm for 3am in preparation to collect PD at 4.30am and then Parky at 5.00am. But, in reality, I had woken at 1.45am and could not get back to sleep. I was evidently buzzing with excitement. After picking up the lads, it was obvious that the others were buzzing too. I headed out through Bath and some narrow countryside lanes as day broke. We were parked-up at 6am. Check-in was easy, and we were soon able to relax. We were on our way. Not surprisingly, there were a few Chelsea fans from our part of the world on the same flight as us. A Chelsea fan – I forget his name – from Falmouth. Kev from Port Talbot. Emma from Bridgewater. A few Chelsea supporters from Wincanton. Plus several more, all with West Country accents. There were not as many as on the early-morning flight for the 2012 game, but still a healthy presence. I just knew that “2012” would be on my mind continually over the length of our trip. There was only a small amount of talk about the game on the Wednesday. We had a chance, of course we did. But if I was a betting man my money would have been on the home team. The flight was due to depart at 7.30am. It left around twenty minutes late.

On the flight, I tried to catch up on a little sleep. But I also flicked through a “Lonely Planet” pocket guide to Barcelona to whet my appetite. Additionally, in my build-up to the trip to Catalonia, I had worked my way through Colm Toibin’s “Homage To Barcelona” and although I struggled with the density of prose, it certainly helped me appreciate some of the history of the city. Before my first trip to Camp Nou with Chelsea in 2000, I had devoured Jimmy Burns’ monumental “Barca” and this proved a perfect “hors d’oeuvres” to that trip. This time, I wanted to read a little about the city rather than the football club. The city has at various times enjoyed periods of opulence and then decline as a major port and a centre of commerce. There have been highly-charged politics, and anarchy, throughout its history. There has been stunning architecture. The city has enjoyed a status rivalling Paris as a centre for the arts in the past two centuries. Antoni Gaudi, Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso have called the city their home. As the trip approached, I wanted to devote a little of my forty-eight hours in Barcelona to a little of the city’s history. I had visited Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in 2012 and I had spotted a few of his wonderful and dreamlike buildings on that trip too. We had seen the wide spread of the city’s architecture on a bus top tour prior to our game at Camp Nou in 2005. I fancied something different this time. I delved a little deeper, and centered on Joan Miro. His paintings appealed; I can’t say why. They looked other-worldly. I realised that he had designed the iconic “Espana ‘82” poster for the World Cup of thirty-six summers ago and there was the reference point that I needed. On the Wednesday, I had my itinerary set. For others, I knew that a day of bar-hopping would suffice. But this would be my fourth trip to the city with Chelsea, and sixth in total, and I wanted to try something different. I wanted my visit to Barcelona in 2018 to be “more than a pub.”

Aeroport de Barcelona El Prat / Tuesday 13 March / 1045.

Our mate Foxy, from Dundee, was waiting for us as we swept through the security checks at the arrivals hall. As we walked towards the metro station – quite a walk – my eyes were set on the hills that circled the city. Way north, the peaks were stunning, and a little like the rounded peaks of Montserrat. The view bewitched me.

La Soca 2/ Carrer de Mallorca / Tuesday 13 March / 1600.

There was a metro ride into the city, a couple of beers in a bar while we waited to be allowed in to our apartment of Carrer de Floridablanca, and then a bar-hopping walk to where we needed to collect our match tickets. There were more Catalonia flags draped over balconies than in 2012. Our tickets were rightfully collected. We could relax further. Opposite, we spotted a street-side bar – number four of the day – and decided to order some crisp “Estrellas.” Very soon, we were joined by some good friends; Jason, the two Bobs, and Andy. Others joined us. We had a great natter. I enjoyed it immensely. A proper discussion about the current state of the club with some wise old heads. And yes, of course, the beer was going down well, some would say too well.

Eclipse Bar At W Hotel Barcelona / Tuesday 13 March / 2200.

After our lengthy spell at “La Soca 2” we dived into two more bars on our way back to our apartment. As workers made their way home after completing their duly grind, we must have looked an incongruous sight, laughing and giggling as we walked past them. There was a quick change of clothes at about 7pm, and we then hailed a cab to take us down to a restaurant on a little point of land overlooking one of the city’s beaches. Inside “Pez Vela” the fish soup and mussels were gorgeous, if not particularly filling. We were joined by Kev and Rich from Edinburgh, our partners in crime in Rome, and we then made our way up to the bar high up inside the W Hotel, just above the restaurant, which is shaped like the sail of a ship. There were simply incredible views looking back towards the city, with lights as far as the eyes could see. It was a brilliant moment. The drinks were still flowing, and we were clearly on a mission. We were joined by a couple of Chelsea fans from Stoke. More drinks. There was a certain inevitability that things were going to career out of control as the night continued. We split into three groups, with Foxy and Parky heading back to the apartment, PD and Kev and Rich heading back to the city, while I disappeared into a time vortex with Ryan and Jack from Stoke. The Estrella gave way to gin and tonics. One of the Stokies bought some champagne. Oh my goodness. The alcohol had taken its toll, and while the two Stokies were able to head inside “Pacha”, I was refused entry – the horror of seeing me on the dance floor after a gallon of Estrella was thankfully aborted – and the lads sent me off in a cab to their hotel, since I had given my apartment keys to PD. As nights go, it had certainly been messy.

O’Barazal Restaurant / Carrer de Blasco de Garay / Wednesday 14 March / 1330.

After finding my way back to the apartment at around 10am, there was just time to have a “what the hell happened last night?” post-mortem with the others. Ironically, despite the apartment having four bedrooms, only Foxy and Parky managed to make it back the previous night. Miraculously, I had no hangover. The others soon set off into the city, and I knew that there would be another momentous drinking-session ahead, so I politely declined. I needed to recharge my phone batteries – zero charge – and my own personal batteries too – just over zero. After an hour or so, I set off on a walk south towards the Montjuic hill which overlooks the city. I was enticed into a busy little restaurant and enjoyed a lovely long and leisurely lunch; a hearty tuna salad, some bread and tomatoes, and then some lamb cutlets, chips and grilled vegetables.

Joan Miro Foundation / Wednesday 14 March / 1500.

I made my way up the hill, through a square which reminded me of Montmartre. Yet more Catalan flags. And lots of yellow ribbons tied to trees and streetlamps. I made my way inside the Miro art gallery, and wandered through the various rooms. I so wanted to see the original of the poster from the 1982 World Cup; I was defeated. There wasn’t even one on sale in the shop. But I had a lovely time, and I enjoyed seeing the sculptures outside in the open air which were able to be framed against the cityscape to the north; the houses nestled into the hills, the TV tower at Collserola, the huge church at Tibidabo – the Barcelona equivalent of Turin’s Superga – and the fading sun. From one viewpoint, I was able to locate the mid-grey mass of Camp Nou, its ‘fifties concrete shell topped with a series of fluttering flags. Thoughts of 2012 once more. But also thoughts from 1986, too, when I travelled around Europe on an Inter-Rail pass, and stopped off in Barcelona, primarily to visit the stadium. I remember thinking that there was nothing like it in the world; certainly there was nothing comparable in the United Kingdom. It was huge. And stunning. I was over-whelmed. Of course, it is very much an aged stadium these days. But it is so impressive in size, in mass, in grandness. It just makes my jaw drop every time. On my descent down in to the city, I passed five or six teenagers knocking a football around between them. They were all Spanish. Two of them were wearing Chelsea shirts. I certainly would not have seen this in 1986. I gave the two lads a thumbs up and they smiled back.

The Daily Telegraph / Carrer de Paul Claris / Wednesday 14 March / 1900.

It was time to meet up with the lads, but I wasn’t sure if they were heading back to the apartment to pick up tickets, and change into warmer gear before the game. A text from Kev told of their location and I was on my way. I walked from the apartment through the bustling city as night fell, with many people wearing FCB scarves, and past the sublime floodlit curves of a Gaudi building on the main shopping street of Passeig de Gracia. I spotted the restaurant where I had met up with a former work colleague – a Barcelona socio – before the game in 2012. The memories of that night would not go away. PD and Parky – with Kev, Rich and Gillian – had evidently spent their day on a lengthy drinking session, and as I joined them inside the small and dark pub, I was pleased to see Daryl and Gary with them. There was time for one pre-match beer and a single shot. I was itching to leave and head off to the game. We left at about 7.30pm.

Carrer de la Maternitat / Wednesday 14 March / 2048.

We had taken the subway from Passeig de Gracia, and we had heard whispers that Chelsea supporters should alight at Palau Rieal, which was to the north of the stadium. This surprised me somewhat because the away section sits at the south-east corner of the stadium. At Les Corts, further south and east, we decided to follow many Chelsea supporters and headed out into the night. What followed was three-quarters of an hour of madness. Rather than be allowed to enter at the nearest gate to our section, as in 2012, we were diverted back towards Les Corts, up a quiet side street, around a hospital, and then – after a good twenty-minute detour – we spotted the entrance for Chelsea supporters to the north-east of the stadium. It honestly seemed like we were being diverted in order to cause as much annoyance as possible. On the walk, I passed a bar where I had a post-game beer in 2012. A Chelsea fan told us that Olivier Giroud was playing. This surprised me a little; would we get hurt being a little more expansive? But at least it met with the approval of most. We set off down a narrow street, but were held back for ticket checks on two separate occasions. Here, the blue-clothed police were in charge. There were rising tensions among the group of around seventy Chelsea fans who were pressing to get in. As we walked on, we heard the pre-match Barca anthem filling the air. In front of us, Camp Nou was a huge wall of concrete. It seemed that we would never scale it, neither physically nor metaphorically. Eventually, we made it down to the final barrier, manned by stewards with green tabards. There was a further ticket check. But maybe just three or four turnstiles for the six-thousand fans. What a farce. There were still lots of pushing and shoving – to say nothing of swearing – but to be honest after such a long day spent by many in pubs and bars, the absolute majority of away fans were well-behaved. Thirty years ago, I think there might have been a different story. My camera was allowed in after the briefest of checks.

Just as we were walking through, there was a roar from inside. It was too loud for a Chelsea goal. We were losing one-nil and we weren’t even anywhere near the away section yet. The word came through that Messi had scored. Bizarrely, we now had to scale a rickety bridge in order to reach the ramps of the stadium. My only thought was that its presence allowed the movement of vehicles – cars, but also the emergency services – below it, but I simply wondered why we had to clamber over it. Why could we not have just walked through? My guess was that Spain is not used to six-thousand away fans, and this is the best solution that the mighty FC Barcelona could muster. It was laughable at first. But as we started to ascend the fifteen or twenty steps, the damned structure began rocking. There were maybe fifty fans on it, and we were all in a rush to get inside, and for a split second – with my balance threatened – I honestly thought that I was going to fall. I am sure I was not the only one. Losing 1-0, a huge ramp ahead of us, we walked on. I was with PD, slowly ascending the ramp which – another 2012 memory – we had gloriously descended six years previously. Parky was away in the distance and we lost sight of him.

Camp Nou / Wednesday 14 March / 2100.

Although hundreds were behind us, still clambering up the ramps and steps to the away tier at the top, it seemed – at first – implausible that the two of us would find a spare space to watch the game. The stadium was as I remembered it; we hovered over it, rather than felt part of it. We were so high. Chelsea fans were stood in the aisles. Eventually I spotted the smallest of spaces, around five rows from the rear. We shuffled along. We were in. Phew. So, an echo from 2012. We had conceded an early goal. I scanned around. Andres Iniesta was playing, damn. We were in Real Madrid white. Our support spread out to my left and to my right. It was a highly impressive following. I hoped that everyone who had travelled had got a ticket. Or at least those without tickets had fatefully met those who had tickets but who had chosen to watch the game in city centre bars. A chap next to me told of how Messi had scored his goal from the tightest of angles. I wondered how on earth it was possible. Chelsea seemed to be playing OK in the five minutes that I was able to see. Eden Hazard cut in from the right, but his shock was blocked. With twenty minutes of the match gone – and with us in the stadium itself for just five minutes – we then lost the ball on the halfway line. A couple of challenges did not win the ball back and Messi was able to advance. He drew defenders towards him. I spotted the run on the far side from Ousmane Dembele. And so did Messi. I feared the worst. His shot flew past Thibaut Courtois and we were 2-0 down. Fuck. But this was a pretty similar position that we were in six years ago apart from the fact that we now needed to score two goals to progress and not just one. Courtois kept us in the game, saving well from Luis Suarez. We kept attacking, with a shot from Marcos Alonso drawing a save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen. I lost count of the number of times I imagined a ball to Ramires in the inside-right channel. A shot from N’Golo Kante slithered across the box, but was well wide. Just before the break, Giroud was fouled outside the penalty area, and we waited and waited for Marcos Alonso to strike. Sadly, his pacey effort clipped the outside of the post. We had it all to do in the second-half.

The mood among the Chelsea fans as the team entered the pitch at the start of the second-half was pretty buoyant. As the lads waited for the home team to appear, we serenaded them.

“You are my Chelsea. My only Chelsea. You make me happy when skies are grey. You’ll never notice how much I love you. Until you’ve taken my Chelsea away…”

It was stirring stuff. Courtois then had a brain freeze and passed in error to Suarez. Thankfully, he redeemed himself. But we were far from happy with the lanky Belgian’s performance thus far. But we pressed on, and were rewarded with twenty minutes of impressive football. Willian was our best player by some margin, spinning away from danger, running free, showing great energy, as always. Hazard, it pains me to say it, was not of the same standard. There were few direct runs at the defence, but rather silly flicks and square passes. He did not rise to the occasion. Kante was magnificent in the middle, closing and tackling, giving the ball to team mates. There were contrasting fortunes on the wings. Moses was his usual frustrating self, losing possession too easily, and unable to drift past his man. On the near side down below us, Alonso was given tons of space for some reason and kept bombing on and into pockets of space. But for all of our fine football, time was running out. Bizarrely, three people in the row in front left with half-an-hour to go.

Did they not believe in miracles?

Alonso, on the end of another raid into their box, was just about to pull the trigger when Samuel Umtiti stopped him with a sublime tackle. Just after, the same player was spread-eagled by Gerard Pique after a fine move involving Willian, Hazard and Giroud and the whole away section – that thin slice on top of the concrete bowl – were incandescent with anger. Popcorn, coins and water bottles were thrown up in the air and down towards the Barcelona fans in the tier below. Another shot from Alonso; another block.

“COME ON CHELSEA. COME ON CHELSEA. COME ON CHELSEA.”

The clock ticked on.

A hurried clearance from Andreas Christensen was intercepted by Jordi Alba and his touch found Suarez. Out of nowhere, came an unmarked Messi, and – I absolutely feared the worst now – after a couple of pushes of the ball in to space, a shot was slammed low into our goal. Only on the replay were we able to spot that, like his first goal, the ball had travelled through Courtois’ legs.

Game over.

Our little resurgence had been for nothing. We were out. And hundreds of Chelsea fans, fearful of a lock-in, decided to leave.

Courtois saved from a Paulinho header. There was a double substitution from Antonio Conte; Davide Zappacosta for Victor Moses and Alvaro Morata – heavily booed – for Olivier Giroud. As the game continued, the away sector thinned out further. The introduction of Pedro for Hazard brought the loudest chant of the night from the 92,000 home fans.

“Pedro…Pedro…Pedro…Pedro.”

To be fair to the home fans, apart from the last two or three minutes, they had all stayed late into the game. But this was not a noisy night from them; it very rarely is. Toni Rudger slammed a header against the bar from a corner, but it was soon time for the final whistle.

Barcelona 3 Chelsea 0.

Tuesday had been a messy night.

Wednesday was a Messi night.

We waited and waited in the forlorn hope of spotting Parky. We both sent him text messages, but my worry was that his ‘phone did not have enough charge. PD and I were some of the very last to leave. We began the slow descent back to earth. Not the euphoria of 2012 this time; I was reminded more of the misery of 2000. We had almost reached the last exit ramp when we were brushed aside by many stewards, who we presumed were answering a call for assistance due to some sort of altercation between the two sets of fans. There had been pro-Spain chants on the walk from Les Corts before the game, during the match, and now once more at the end.

“Barcelona. You’ll always be Spain.”

Although it was a rather boorish chant, I am sure that this would generally be classed as “football banter” even in these times. I didn’t sing it, I had no need, but this all seemed too strange for words. Was this the reason for the melee down below us? We weren’t sure. We met up with a father and son who had hinted that some Chelsea fans had held a Spanish flag towards the home fans leaving the stadium. This all seemed rather silly an excuse for the stewards to rush past us. We were only to hear later that those self-same stewards had then decided to batter Chelsea fans – one presumes largely innocent – with batons. To reiterate, we had seen nothing with our own eyes. But I had to wonder, later, why stewards were issued with batons. It was an unsavoury end to the night for sure.

We clambered over the rickety scaffold of before and I was saddened to see one elderly lady stricken with terror after her ordeal.

There was still no sight nor sound of Parky.

PD and I traipsed on, past the antiquated building of La Masia, which houses the headquarters of Barcelona’s famed academy. There were Chelsea supporters dotted about in every bar that we passed. No hint of trouble. Everyone drowning their sorrows. We decided to let the crowds disperse and get a cab back to the apartment. But there was still a worry about Parky.

L’abus Restaurant / Carrer de Joan Guell / Wednesday 15 March / 2345.

We spotted a small café, and needing some food, we darted in, saying a quick “hello” to three Chelsea fans by the door. We ordered a bottle of ice-cold “Estrella” apiece, and the taste was sublime. We devoured a plate of ham, eggs and chips apiece. Just the ticket. By some quirk of fate, we were back at Les Corts once again, and we soon hopped into a cab. The journey back to the apartment would only take ten minutes.

When we were only two minutes away from our destination, PD received a surprising call from our friend Mark from Westbury. Mark had just reached his apartment, along with two friends. The sight that greeted him was just amazing. Who should be sat – slumped – outside his apartment door but Parky. Unknown to us, Mark had booked an apartment across the landing from us – a mere eight feet away – and had obviously been startled to see Parky outside it. Even more amazing was that Parky had remembered the apartment address.

We collapsed in a fit of laughter.

We then collapsed in to our beds.

It was time for some sleep.

Tales From The King’s Road Club

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 10 March 2018.

After two tiring – in more ways than one – journeys to Manchester in the previous two games, the home match against Crystal Palace provided a chance for a more relaxing day at football. With our trip to Catalonia now getting very close, here was a nice little pre-cursor. The reason for this upbeat mood? Parky had booked us day return rail tickets which meant that there were no driving duties for me, and there was an added bonus of an elongated pub crawl down the King’s Road before the game.

Bloody perfect.

We caught the 7.56am train from Westbury, and the memories of previous Chelsea trips flooded back. Not much has changed at Westbury over the years. It could easily have been a scene from 1982, 1985, 1988 or 1991. There was plenty of chit-chat between the four of us – PD, Glenn, Parky and little old me – and the familiar stations of Pewsey, Newbury and Reading were reached in what seemed like no time at all. We were joined by another Chelsea supporter on the journey to London, a chap around the same age as us – maybe a little older – who must have spotted PD’s little Chelsea badges, or overheard our Chelsea-related chatter. He sat next to us and we soon got chatting.

“Are you going to the football?” he asked.

“Yeah. Chelsea Palace” I replied.

“Are you Chelsea or Palace?” enquired Glenn.

I smiled and said “he’s too well dressed to be a Palace supporter.”

“Oh, I’m a season ticket holder in the East Stand.”

I had spotted him on the platform at Westbury; waxed Barbour jacket, mustard cords, brogues. I had – erroneously – presumed that he was a rugby fan from his attire. How wrong I was.

“I’m part of a syndicate; three of us share a season ticket” Shane replied.

It transpired that he lives just outside Frome, in a little village called Chapmanslade. I was thrilled that there was another Chelsea season ticket holder from our neck of the woods. I was even more pleased that one of the syndicate lives in Great Elm, a village only one and a half miles away from my house. We chatted away and he told us a little about his past; like Parky he had been in the Army. Parky was in the Grenadier Guards. Shane was in the Coldstream Guards. But whereas Parky went to a local comprehensive, Shane was an Old Etonian. But he was Chelsea and that was good enough for me. And he went up in my estimations when he showed disdain for “egg- chasing.”

“Never judge a book by its cover” I thought to myself.

We chatted about our recent experiences of following our team in the recent weeks and months. There was indeed much to talk about. I am not sure why, but the talk turned to Mo Salah, and Shane asked us the name of “that other Egyptian, who played for Spurs, the one with the big nose.” We struggled to name him.

From the passenger sitting across from Shane – tapping away silently on his laptop – came the word “Mido.”

And I had a little smirk to myself.

I wondered if the chap was a Spurs fan. I wondered if he had been biting his lip during the previous thirty minutes, wanting to interrupt our Chelsea-centric chat, but fearful that he would be shot down in flames as a fan of the team from North London that we always seem to get the better of.

We pulled into Paddington at about 9.30am. The buzz of a day in London was apparent as we walked beneath the arched roofs of the fine old station. After a breakfast of champions, we caught the Bakerloo to Embankment and the District to Sloane Square. The military theme of the day continued as we walked past the former site of Chelsea Barracks, which Parky was familiar with, although during his stay in the army in the early ‘seventies he was based in nearby Pimlico.

I had planned a six-pub crawl, but we exceeded expectations. From just after 11am to around 4.30pm, we visited a total of ten hostelries either along – or just off – the famous King’s Road.

The King’s Road was always linked to the swinging ‘sixties and the swinging football team that went with it, but in all my years of going to Stamford Bridge, I have never walked its length before a game sampling its pubs and boozers. Most Chelsea match day pubs along the King’s Road have historically been located “over the railway bridge” in Fulham and I have very occasionally visited a few of those Chelsea staples, though – again – on very few occasions. Most of my – our – drinking has been in Fulham proper, the North End Road, Fulham Broadway and those pubs near the stadium.

We had spoken about a pub crawl down the most famous street in Chelsea for years. At last we were going to do it justice.

“The Fox & Hounds.”

Much to my annoyance, the first one that I had planned was closed. So although, we visited ten, it was something of a false ten. Or a false nine, maybe? Where have we heard that before?

“The Rose & Crown.”

This pub is described as “unpretentious” and I could not have summed it up better. When I walked into the pub, I was met by a pungent aroma of disinfectant, which is surely not the best of starts. Still, they sold “Peroni” and so I was happy. The boozer had a distinct ‘seventies feel to it. No frills, no thrills, but plenty of spills. I wondered, in all honesty, now such a downmarket boozer could exist in such a high rent location. The toilet door was reassuringly etched with many football scribbles  :

MFC.

Up The Boro.

CHELSEA.

MCFC.

WHUFC.

We moved on, and our route took us close to the Royal Hospital, the home of those famous scarlet tunics.

“The Phoenix.”

This was an unplanned stop, just off the King’s Road on Smith Street, but much-needed after the austerity of the first one. Another “Peroni” and – with Parky and PD sampling an “Estrella” apiece –  there were a few a few thoughts about Barcelona. To our left were three Chelsea supporters from Norway, who mentioned they were looking forward to seeing a Norwegian called Alexander Sorloth play for Palace. I had not heard of him.

“The Chelsea Potter.”

Here was a famous Chelsea pub, one that I have often heard mentioned in despatches. The single saloon was packed, and I would soon learn that it was packed with both Manchester United and Liverpool supporters, awaiting the start of the game from Old Trafford. As luck would have it, my stool at a high table was turned away from the TV screen. I did not bother to watch; I shunned it completely. Another “Peroni” helped numb the pain of United racing to a 2-0 lead. We had hoped for a draw.

“The Trafalgar.”

There are a quirky mix of building styles along this stretch of the King’s Road, and a mix of shops too. Parky was pleased to see that the Curzon cinema was still in business, although the art deco frontage suggested that it is now houses a Habitat department store too. Next door was a large blue-bricked boozer, and we dived into its dark and quiet interior. Yet another “Peroni” and it was only one o’clock or so.

“The Builders Arms.”

We walked north a few hundred yards and plotted up inside the elegant and classy interior of “The Builders Arms.” No “Peroni” so I chanced a pint of “Birra Moretti” which is not as crisp as my favourite. Here we went through the events at Manchester City the previous Sunday. For once, we were talking football. Glenn had watched Antonio’s press conference the previous day and I was pleased to hear that he had seemed, apparently, more relaxed and at ease.

“The Sydney Arms.”

On the short walk to the next pub, we were stunned to see the gorgeous warm stone of the surprisingly huge St. Luke’s Church, a hidden jewel. I had not seen it before. It was a lovely treat. The next pub was packed, and many eyes were watching the Ireland vs. Scotland rugby game from Dublin. Here, it was a pint of “Sagres”. There was a small amount of banter with a couple of Chelsea supporters. But this still didn’t seem like the world outside was aware that Chelsea were playing a mile or so down the road.

Out onto the King’s Road, we caught a cab to the next destination. To our right I spotted the benches on Dovehouse Green which I always remember being the meeting – and posing – place of the punks of my adolescence and beyond. In around 1984, I noted it was Carnaby Street for mods and the King’s Road for punks, though time was moving on for both of those cults.

“The World’s End.”

Any pub crawl down the King’s Road, surely has to encompass this pub. We all remember the iconic black and white photograph of Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti, high on a London double-decker bus, holding aloft the newly-acquired FA Cup with the Worlds End pub behind. Here was a pub that I had visited just once before – the opener against home in 1991 – but is now much changed, and effectively a restaurant and a pub no longer. But the hosts made us feel welcome. During his days in the army, Parky would often walk the length of the King’s Road and would end up in this pub. It was just excellent to be back. I was evidently starting to falter; just a bottle of “Peroni” this time. Just before we crossed the bridge into Fulham, we walked past Slaidburn Street, another location of a famous photograph or two from 1970. Decidedly working class in those days – how times change – this terraced street was festooned with the blue and white banners wishing Chelsea well in the FA Cup Final and a few iconic photographs were taken. I wondered how many residents were Chelsea fans today.

“The Jam Tree.”

Pub number eight was not particularly busy, but it is a boozer that I am sure a few of us visited on an end of season mini pub crawl in 2000. Another pint of “Peroni” please Parky. The game was still over ninety minutes away. I suspect a few of our more local fans – do we have many? – were setting foot outside to make their way to the game. There was talk of this pub featuring in the hideous “Made In Chelsea” TV show.

“The Imperial.”

Another classic Chelsea pub, and visited on a few occasions previously, though each time I visit the bar seems to be in a different place. I was reaching my limit, so went for a bottle of “Corona.” We sat in a quiet corner, but I soon spotted an old workmate from over twenty years ago. Roger now lives in Devon, and I saw him last at that crazy 5-4 League Cup win against Manchester United in the autumn of 2012 when we travelled up together. It was lovely to see him again. He was with his mate Andy, who I last saw in 1997 when he refereed a game at Warminster which involved a Peter Osgood select team including such players as Tommy Langley, Graham Wilkins and Jimmy Case. Where does the time go?

So, nine pubs. Phew. Of course, if I had any sense I would have made sure that we popped into “The Butcher’s Hook” on the club’s one-hundred and thirteenth birthday, to pay homage to where the club was formed.

Maybe next year.

Inside the stadium, I soon spotted Alan and Gary Buchmann who have seats in the same section as us. Sadly, their dear father Joe passed away last Sunday, aged ninety. Joe had been a season-ticket holder for simply decades, and I liked him a lot. I remember he used to give me a Christmas card every year, and on the very first one that he gave me – in December 2004 – he addressed it :

“To Chris and the Chelsea Boys. Chelsea will win the league this season.”

Prophetic words, indeed.

For the best part of twenty seasons we sat with him. We sadly lost our pal Tom in 2015. In 2018, we lost Joe. He was a lovely man, and although he did not attend a game over the past two seasons, he was always in our thoughts. One memory from three years ago is strong. It came after Willian’s last minute winner against Everton in February 2015 :

“I looked over at Joe, a few seats away, past Alan. Joe is around eighty-five and his face was a picture. He too was stood, arms out-stretched, looking straight towards me. We just looked at each other, our faces and our bodies were mirror-images of each other. Wide smiles but arms wider. It was a fantastic and magical moment. Chelsea smiles everywhere.”

I gave Alan and Gary a hug – “your father was a lovely man” – and took my seat.

The early-evening air was mild. There had been no gulps when we learned about Antonio Conte’s team selection, though there was a place for Gary Cahill.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Giroud – Hazard

I was aware that there were a few trans-Atlantic friends visiting and there were mainly watching from The Shed Lower. I hoped that the Ohio Blues, the Atlanta Blues and the New York Blues enjoyed the next ninety minutes.

The crowd assembled, though our dear pal Alan was not with us. He had fallen on his way to work during the week and was housebound. Gut-wrenchingly, he will miss the soiree to Barcelona.

GET WELL SOON T.

Before the match began, there was a minute of applause for a former champion, a star from 1955, the ginger-haired Derek Saunders, who – like Joe – had reached the grand age of ninety.

RIP Derek.

RIP Joe.

After the defensive shackles against Manchester City last Sunday, there was much more – obviously – attacking intent against Crystal Palace. A shot from Kante was almost flicked into the Palace goal by Giroud. A Zappacosta effort caused Wayne Hennessey to drop to his knees to gather. There were two or three “sighters” from Willian. From a Crystal Palace corner, Christian Benteke was left alone behind a gaggle of players in the middle of the box, but he headed tamely over. Palace, of course, had won 2-1 against us in 2015/2016 and in 2016/2017. It was so good to see our man N’Golo back in our starting eleven once more. Maybe if he had played at City, our game plan might have been slightly different. Andros Townsend fired over.

But it was mainly Chelsea.

On twenty-five minutes, Willian collected the ball and moved effortlessly inside. His low shot took a slight nick off the defender Martin Kelly, and we were ahead. I hope that the transatlantic visitors in Parkyville enjoyed Willian’s celebrations.

From Alan : “THTCAUN.”

I replied : “COMLD.”

Not long after, a nice move increased our lead. The ball was swept into the box by Marcos Alonso. Willian hopped over the ball, after presumably receiving a shout from Eden Hazard, who set up Zappacosta to his right. It was hardly Pele to Carlos Alberto, and the shot took a deflection or two off the hapless Kelly, but it was a deserved second-goal. The celebrations from the players seemed a little sheepish, but that did not matter. The crowd roared its approval.

The Matthew Harding started singing :

“One Martin Kelly. There’s only one Martin Kelly.”

There was certainly not the nimble footwork of Gene Kelly from the Palace defender.

Giroud had been involved throughout the first-half and it felt so much better to have a focal point for our play. There had been some fine movement from all of our attacking players. Only a crazy touchline clearance from James Tomkins stopped our new striker from opening his account. Another Zappacosta effort was saved well by the Palace ‘keeper. A Hazard goal was ruled offside. But all was well at the end of the first-half.

We hoped for further goals to build confidence ahead of the game of the season against Barcelona, but the second-half was more arid despite a fair few Chelsea efforts.

In the first noticeable moment of the second-half, the Nowegian Sorlath crashed a shot against the post after a defensive lapse by Andreas Christensen. Willian went close after switching passes with Giroud. A Hazard effort was saved by Hennessey. Willian caused the Palace ‘keeper to scramble to his left to save from a central free-kick. Willian – the main threat – then created for Zappocosta and Giroud.

We were once again treated to some lovely up close and personal trickery from Eden Hazard. One sequence shows his control over ball and defenders alike.

As space opened up, a run down the left flank by Alonso found Giroud, who steadied himself, but his side-footed shot came back off the far post. It seemed his luck was certainly against him. He was replaced by Alvaro Morata with twenty minutes to go. Palace had a goal disallowed via Sorleth, but that was our signal to leave.

We needed to leave the boys to it in order to make sure our train connections worked. We gathered together and headed down to Fulham Broadway. A quick tube up to West Brompton allowed us to connect at Clapham Junction for our train home, which was taking the southern route via Salisbury. While we waited at West Brompton, we heard that Patrick van Aanholt had scored a late Palace goal. We had, apparently, squeaked it 2-1. At Clapham Junction, the narrow passages echoing to “Chelsea”, we raided the Cornish Pasty concession stand. A Palace fan chatted to us and wished us well on Wednesday. Rival football fan in fair-minded and generous comment shock. Whatever next?

Our train connections went well and we reached Westbury at 10.30pm. We soon caught a cab back to Frome.

It had been a fine day.

On Wednesday, Barcelona await.

I will see many of you out there.

 

Tales From Pure Football

Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 20 February 2018.

There is no bloody doubt about it. I simply cannot lie. When I awoke at just before 5am, my first thoughts were of the game against Barcelona, but these were not positive thoughts. I was so worried that our Chelsea – living up to my nickname of The Great Unpredictables this season – might suffer a calamitous humiliation at the hands of Messi, Iniesta, Suarez et al. Let us face the truth; Barcelona are a hugely talented football team.

“I’ll be happy with a 0-0” I told colleagues at work.

As the day progressed, this was my mantra; keep the buggers from scoring an away goal. Keep it tight. Maybe, just maybe, nab a 2012-style 1-0 win.

Ah, 2012.

That game seems so fresh in my mind, but it is almost six years ago. And there have been so many more. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen all our Champions League matches against the Cules from Catalonia at Stamford Bridge.

Let’s wander down memory lane.

5 April 2000 : This was a fine Chelsea team, but we were under performing in the league, and would go on to finish fifth. In the pub beforehand – in the front part of The Goose for a change, I can remember it to this day – we were pragmatic at best and pessimistic at worst. We seriously doubted our progress over the two legs of this quarter final. But what did we know? We stormed into a stunning 3-0 lead with all goals in an eight-minute spell during the first-half.  I remember racing up the steps behind my seat when the third one went in to expel some energy. Two came from from Tore Andre Flo and one from Gianfranco Zola. A goal from Luis Figo midway through the second-half took the smile off our collective faces. Fackinell, Chelsea. But what a night. The atmosphere crackled all night long. Superb.

8 March 2005 : We were 2-1 down from the first-leg and this was as good a game as any I have witnessed in forty-four years of Chelsea games. We repeated the feat of 2000, accelerating away to a 3-0 lead, but such was our dominance that all goals came in the first twenty-minutes. Stamford Bridge was again shaking thanks to goals from Eidur Gudjohnsen, Frank Lampard and Damian Duff. And then the game turned against us. A Ronaldinho brace – a penalty and then that gut-wrenching toe-poke – before the break meant it was advantage Barca. We roared the team on. A towering John Terry header from a corner (pictured) gave us the win and the place erupted. There have been few nights at Chelsea like that one.

22 February 2006 : The two clubs were drawn together in the knock-out phase, and this game was a tetchy affair. This was our first viewing of Lionel Messi – just eighteen – and the Argentine’s scuffle with Asier del Horno over in the corner of the Matthew Harding and the East Stand resulted in our full-back getting sent-off early in the game. But we re-grouped well and went ahead when Thiago Motta headed an own-goal from a Frank Lampard free-kick (pictured). Sadly, this was cancelled out by a John Terry own goal. Samuel Eto’o then headed a late winner. In the return leg in Catalonia, the two teams drew 1-1 and out we went.

18 October 2006 : We were becoming regular foes by now. This time, the two teams met in the autumnal group phase set of matches. A stunning solitary Didier Drogba goal gave us a narrow 1-0 win, and our striker celebrated in fine fashion down below us (pictured). After injuries to both Petr Cech and Carlo Cudicini at Reading four days earlier, this was a game in which Hilario started. To be fair to him, he pulled off a few great saves to see us hang on to the win.

6 May 2009 : We held out for a gutsy 0-0 in the first leg of the semi-final at Camp Nou, and travel plans were afoot among our little group of friends in the pub before the game. It felt like we were favourites to progress. We took the lead through a stunning Michael Essien volley after just ten minutes into the first-half. We held off Barcelona and their constant probing with a fantastic performance. Then came calls of conspiracy after penalty appeal after penalty appeal were turned down. The referee waving away the hand-ball against Gerard Pique sent me into meltdown. Barcelona were reduced to ten men with Eric Abidal sent-off for a clumsy challenge on Nicolas Anelka. We were heading to our second successive Champions League Final against Manchester United, this time in Rome. And then Andres bloody Iniesta scored with virtually their only shot on target with seconds remaining. This was heartbreak. Gut-wrenching, nauseous, sickening heartbreak. It felt like we would never ever win the Champions League.

18 April 2012 : Another heady night at Stamford Bridge. This was turning out to be the most bizarre of seasons, with us faltering in the league under Ande Villas-Boas before finding our feet under new gaffer Roberto di Matteo. But this was still a stunning Barcelona team, and our squad seemed to be aging together. We were blowing hot and cold. I held out little hope of us reaching the final if I am truthful. In another never-to-be-forgotten night at Stamford Bridge, Didier Drogba swept in a cross from Ramires at the near post just before half-time and the stadium exploded. We held on for the narrowest of wins, and with the return leg in Barcelona less than a week away, we began to dream.

In a bar before the game, there was a typical mix of Chelsea faces from near and far. The usual suspects – Parky, PD, Daryl, Chris, Simon, Calvin, Milo, Ed, Duncan, Lol – were gathered around one table. Andy and Antony from California were back from their mini-tour of Europe and were joined by Sean from New York and Steve from Dallas. Friends from near and far. A spare ticket was given a good home. The banter was rife. After a good hour or so, Andy whispered in my ear :

“You realise that nobody is talking about the match?”

I smiled.

As I have said before : “the first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.”

There was simply too much other stuff to talk about, especially how many we would take to the away leg in three weeks. I had expected a sell-out of 4,850 but sales had allegedly been slower than expected. Maybe some supporters were waiting to see how the first-leg would pan out. In 2012, we took that number, but it was a semi-final. As ever, I regarded the away game as a test for us, a test to see how far we had come as a club.

By the way, the cynical me had a little thought for the millions of new Chelsea fans the world over who chose us primarily because our club could “guarantee” – probably their words and not mine – them Champions League football each season.

“This game’s for you.”

The bar was full for this game. Stood quietly at the bar for a while was former player Alan Hudson. A fine footballer for us in the early ‘seventies, he rarely finds anything good to say about us these days. I nodded a “hello” to him which he reciprocated, but that was about it. Most fellow fans were blissfully unaware who he was, or were going down the same path as myself. I remember seeing him in a pub in Stoke around ten years ago. To be fair to him, after a spell of ill health, at least he looked healthier than the last time I saw him.

There were groans of discontent when news of the starting eleven came through on mobile phones.

“No centre forward, fackinell.”

It was indeed a surprise.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

Sadly, Mike from New York was caught up in a personal battle to secure match tickets and was unable to join us. Andy was worried since whenever Andy and Mike meet up for a game, we always win.

I was inside the stadium with a good twenty minutes to go. I need not have worried about not seeing Mike from NYC; he was sat just ten feet away from me.

The away section would fill to only around two thousand, which was a huge surprise for arguably a club which are one of the biggest three clubs in the world. They usually bring three thousand, no questions asked. There seemed to be an absence of colour this time around too. Maybe the scarves and shirts were hidden under the darker coats and jackets. Not so many puffa coats as the Italians. Only a few flags on show. The stadium filled.

There were blue flags on every seat with blue and white bar scarves for those in the East Middle; nice to see the eight Chelsea Pensioners wearing them.

Red. White. Blue.

“Blue Is The Colour” played with ten minutes to go and the flags were waved…not by me, nor too many around me for that matter. The highest percentage of flag wavers were in the West Lower, maybe due to the dynamics of the demographic of that particular sub-section of support; a higher percentage of young’uns, a higher percentage of tourists, but a far lower percentage of cynical bastards like us in the MHU.

The teams entered the pitch.

In 2012, Cesc and Pedro were among the opposition.

Now we had to contend with Suarez, Rakitic, Ter Stegen, Umtiti, Roberto, Alba and Paulinho who were first time visitors to Stamford Bridge. Messi, Busquets, Iniesta and Pique were returning to SW6 once more.

Barcelona were in an untidy camouflage kit of burgundy. At least there was no bright yellow to remind me of 2009. I noted Lionel Messi and Eden Hazard embrace and maybe share a word.

“You stay here, Eden. Real Madrid are SHITE.”

The game began.

I snapped away like a fool as the game began but soon realised that I needed to slow down, and enjoy the football. The first few minutes were very promising for us, and the atmosphere was equally fine.

“ANTONIO” rang out and the manager showed his appreciation.

After a few minutes, Eden Hazard let fly with a rasping and rising shot which certainly energised the crowd. The noise was hitting fine levels. There were songs for Frank Lampard and John Terry; see my comments for the Hull City match. In the early period, it was Iniesta who was seeing more of the ball, and I wished that we could close him down. Rudiger went close with a header from a corner. This was a very bright start from us and I could not be happier. At the other end, Paulinho headed meekly wide from a Messi cross.

Ah, Lionel. I could not help but focus on the little man. His shirt seemed too large for him, and he shuffled around when not in possession, but I could not take my eyes off him.

After twenty minutes though, Barca had recovered and were now enjoying much of the ball. But there was resolute defending from everyone in royal blue. Messi was unable to find Suarez, nor anyone else. Willian burst from deep – the crowd roaring him on – before getting clipped. Alonso for once did not score from the centrally-located free-kick. This was fascinating stuff and I was loving it.

I popped down to have a quick word with Big John who sits a few rows in front of me. I told him that I had a bet on how long it would take him to shout :

“Come on Chelsea. They’re fucking shit.”

Alan was handing out the Maynards wine gums – always a lucky charm on these European Nights – and he was wearing his lucky Ossie badge on The King’s birthday. We had a fine spell of play on the half-hour and the crowd responded well. Hazard found Willian, who moved the ball on to his right foot and unleashed a gorgeous effort which slammed against a Barcelona post.

Head in our hands time.

But this was a lovely game and a pleasure to witness.

On forty minutes, the crowd sang “The Shed looked up and they saw a great star” – God Bless you, Ossie – and as the song continued, Willian struck the other post with another venomous effort.

Fackinell.

The support was now hitting the high volumes.

“Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.”

In the pub, Calvin and I had warned Texas Steve that the atmosphere at The Bridge is poor these days, but there are always games when we can rank with the best of them. Over in the far corner, the Cules were quiet. A Fabregas free-kick was cleared and Hazard volleyed over. We were playing so well – as a team – and I was so relieved. All this talk of the manager losing the dressing room and of players “downing tools” – my most hated, my most reviled phrase of the past two seasons – seemed just silly and just wrong.

The half-time whistle blew. Alan, quite correctly, noted that no trainer had been on the pitch, there had been few bad tackles, so that the assistant linesman had not signaled a single minute of added time. I think I have never seen that before. This was testament itself to the quality of football being played before our eyes.

Pure football.

And I bloody loved it.

Fine vibes at half-time. We should, undoubtedly, been ahead. Fantastic.

Soon into the second period, that man Andres Iniesta let fly from around the same patch of terra firma that produced heartache in 2009. The shot flew wide.

“Not this time sunshine, not this time.”

Luis Suarez – booed, of course – then went wide and forced a finger-tipped save on the floor from Courtois. It was a miracle that nobody was present in the six-yard box to pounce. The away team were enjoying tons of the ball but our defending was still a match for the trickery of Messi and the intelligence of Iniesta. N’Golo Kante was having a particularly fine game, and top marks for Antonio Rudiger too, who was enjoying a storming match.

Suarez – the villain for this match and many more – was the subject of a loud personal attack from the home support.

“Suarez – you’re a cunt.”

Quite.

The game continued.

There was half an hour remaining when Hazard, out wide, picked out the central Willian. He stopped the ball still. He then flashed away from his marker – such ridiculous acceleration – and thumped the ball low into the net.

Pandemonium in Stamford Bridge.

Magical, magical scenes.

Alan : “Hauran d’arribar a nosaltres ara.”

Chris : “Vine als meus petits diamants.”

Oh my oh my. The Great Unpredictables were at it again.

Now the noise really got going. I stood and roared. “Carefree wherever you may be we are the famous CFC.” This was surely the loudest so far this season. Fantastic.

“He hates Totnum and he hates Totnum.”

On the game went. Barcelona with the ball, Chelsea covering space and defending. A lot of their attacks were at virtually walking pace; it was all about moving the ball early. When they lost possession, they hunted in packs to retain it. I remember a ball being pushed into the path of Eden with four Barcelona players haring after him. Quite an image.

Sadly, with a quarter of an hour to go, a Chelsea defender deep in Parkyville chose to play the ball across the box.  We gasped. We feared the worse. It reached Iniesta. He played it back to Messi. The ball was slammed low into our goal.

Chelsea 1 Barcelona 1.

Bollocks.

Messi looked ecstatic and celebrated wildly in front of the hordes from Sabadell, Sant Cugat del Valles, Montcada I Reixach, Cornella de Llobregat and Vilassar de Dalt.

All the Chelsea nerds deleted their “Messi still hasn’t scored against Chelsea” memes.

There was a quick most mortem.

“Who played the ball across the box?”

“Dunno. Alonso?”

“Schoolboy error, fucking hell.”

The away support were still not too loud, but their upper tier was one bouncing mass.

A text from Glenn in Frome :

“Christensen FFS.”

Ugh.

Alvaro Morata came on for Pedro. Danny Drinkwater replaced Cesc Fabregas.

Unlike in 2009, thank high heavens there was no last minute heartache from Iniesta, nor anyone else. The assistant referee signaled three minutes, and these passed with no incident. This was indeed a lovely game of football. We had gone toe-to-toe with one of the finest teams of the modern era and we  – let’s again be honest – surely deserved the win. For all their possession, Barca had hardly caused Thibaut any worries. There was that daisy-cutter from Suarez, but little else. He had claimed a few high crosses, but had not been really tested. Willian had enjoyed a wonderful match, and on another day could have returned to his flat with the match ball. Every player had performed so well. Huge respect to the manager too. I hope Roman, watching from his box, took heed.

We assemble again, deep in Catalonia, and high at the Nou Camp, in three weeks.

“Anem a trebellar.”

Tales From The Beautiful South

Chelsea vs. Hull City : 16 February 2018.

During the pre-match chat ahead of the West Brom game on Monday, all was going well until I was reminded that we were playing Barcelona at home on the following Tuesday. Bloody hell, that made me gulp. As at 7.59pm on Monday, we were a team and club that appeared to be low on confidence. Antonio Conte’s honest admission that his team lacked “personality” at Watford seemed to sum things up succinctly for me. Thankfully, we brushed the hapless Baggies away without too much fuss on Monday, and we looked forward to a second home win of the week against Hull City in the FA Cup as the week progressed. However, there is no doubt that the looming shadow of Barcelona dominated my thoughts for a few days. On Thursday, we had to apply for tickets for the Camp Nou game.

Tickets were purchased. Roll on Tuesday 20 February – another gulp – and Wednesday 14 March – and another.

We will be there.

The working week finished, I was a relaxed and smiling soul as I met up with Parky and PD in the pub opposite work. I was not initially a fan of Friday games – all that travelling after a hard week at work seemed a nightmare at first – but as I drove the lads to London, the realisation that I could have a lie-in on Saturday morning was a lovely thought. Outside, it was a sunny and crisp afternoon. There was a nice vibe in The Chuckle Bus. The traffic slowed a little on the M4 and it took me a little shy of three hours to reach London.

I met up with Andy and Antony from Los Angeles, and a handful of a few more locally-based faces, in “Simmons Bar” at just before 6pm. It was a lovely pre-match. Everyone seemed so relaxed, but maybe it was just me. It’s always a pleasure to meet up with Andy, who helped form the famous or – infamous – “Orange County Hooligans” (who knew Americans could be ironic?) a decade or so ago. I have met his pal Antony at a couple of stateside shindigs. I first met Andy in Santa Monica in the summer of 2007. I had arrived at LAX with Cathy for our series of three games in Palo Alto and Los Angeles, and the plan was for Cathy, Beth, Andy and me to head a few miles inland to watch Hollywood United play in the evening. That was the plan. Sadly, we managed to get a little lost on the freeways of LA, and only arrived as the second-half was starting. We had just missed Frank Leboeuf playing the first forty-five minutes, which was particularly galling. I do remember a Hollywood United strike from distant being one of the best goals that I have ever seen. Thankfully, Leboeuf joined us all for a boozy question-and-answer session at the Chelsea pub a week later.

Andy and Antony were over for the Hull City and Barcelona home games – a whirlwind trip to Prague and Brussels was planned between the two matches – and Andy informed me that the Hull City match was his fifty-ninth Chelsea games, a superbly impressive figure.

“When I get to one hundred, I’ll retire” he said, far from convincingly.

I picked up a copy of the match programme, and in-keeping with other cup games this season, the front cover was based on a previous encounter with the opponents. This time, the season featured was 1981/1982. The memories flooded back; this was a season which marked going to games by myself for the first time, aged just sixteen. I remember one school friend being quite shocked that I was OK to head up to London by train on my Tod. I might have been a rather quiet and shy youngster, but travelling alone never scared me. In season 1981/1982, I subscribed to the home programme for the first time and I would always wait with great anticipation on the Monday or Tuesday for the programme to drop through the letter box. Invariably, I would devour every part of it. I always used to enjoy reading the pages from our past which were magnificently penned by Scott Cheshire. From these pages, I learned about players such as Tommy Law, Hughie Gallacher, Ken Armstrong, John Harris, Tommy Lawton and Vic Woodley, and my interest in our history was re-ignited.

Inside Stamford Bridge, I wondered again if the attendance would hold up. Clearly, as with West Brom on Monday, the away section was far from full. But generally, there was a good show. Only the top seven or eight rows of the East Upper – at the top corners – were not used. Deep down, what with our run of midweek games of late, I wondered if we would struggle to sell 32,000 to 35,000 tickets.

Another good show from our support.

With it being a Friday might game, there were many more children dotted around our area and it was great to see.

“I’d best tone down the swearing tonight.”

The team was a mix of fringe players, first team regulars and youngsters.

Willy

Toni – Ethan – Gary

Davide – Danny – Cesc – Emerson

Willian – Olivier – Pedro

In a repeat of Monday, the lights were dimmed and the teams then appeared. Hull City had around eight-hundred supporters.

The game began with a perfect start. A Hull City move broke down and Olivier Giroud pushed the ball on to Willian. Maybe a top-tier team would not back off, but Willian was able to shuffle the ball between his two feet and gain a clear view of the goal. He adeptly curled a fine shot into the goal. It was such a fine strike.

Only two minutes were on the clock.

The Hull accent is neither particularly well known, nor easy to do. Apart from the locals using “I nerr” – for “I know” – all the time, it has little distinguishing features. But Alan and me had a little stab at it.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

It was a perfect start, happy days.

The singing was good at the start, but I inwardly tut-tutted every time I heard the tedious “Steve Gerrard / Demba Ba” chant and the equally tiresome “Frank / 200“chant. Shouldn’t we be singing about current players? Certanly not about Liverpool players. I suspected, actually, that Lampard and Gerrard had been spotted in the TV studio above the MHL.

Willian was on fire in the first part of the match. The next chance fell to Giroud, staying onside, after Pedro shovelled a lovely over-the-top dink to him. He slammed the ball over. We were well on top, moving the ball well. As usual the crowd yelled our support of the manager, and the man in black was soon clapping us for our support. Let’s all hope that recent horrible blip will act as a stimulus for positive change. The debutant Emerson had begun well, showing an ability to seek out space down the left.

I wondered if his middle name was “Lake.”

Emerson Lake Palmieri.

I’ll get my coat.

On twenty-seven minutes, Cesc Fabregas received the ball from Giroud inside our half and played an inch-perfect lob ahead of the on-rushing Pedro. He caressed the ball with a lovely touch, bringing it down, and then steering it low into the goal. What another lovely goal. Superb.

Five minutes later, we built another attack, and again Giroud was involved. He passed to Willian, raiding at will, and he raced at the back-peddling Hull defence.

“They can’t live with us, Al.”

Indeed, they couldn’t.

Willian steered a low shot into the goal, just clipping the far post en route.

Alan had mention that he had bumped into Andy from Trowbridge on the walk to the stadium and Andy had said that he had us to win 4-0.

“Bet he’s getting excited now.”

Lo and behold, just before half-time, a poor Gary Cahill shot was not cleared and the ball fell to Emerson, who did well to send over a low cross towards the near post. Giroud was on hand to deftly tap home. Get in. It had been a fine show of finishing, and Hull had been blitzed.

“Andy is probably thinking we need to declare now.”

I wondered what was in store for us in the second-half. Alan was hoping that Callum Hudson-Odoi would play a large part in the proceedings. He was happy to see that the manager agreed. He replaced Pedro. As the second period began, I realised that Callum’s shirt number – 70 – was as good as it gets for a player called Hudson.

I have to say that the resulting forty-five minutes was a pale imitation of the first forty-five.  Hull began far brighter than us at the start of the second period. Ethan Ampadu was forced to clear off the line, but a braindead foul by Cesc inside the box gave Hull City a penalty.

All thoughts were on Andy and his 4-0 bet.

After a little delay, David Meyler slammed the ball at goal. Willy Caballero flung himself to the right and saved. The hero from the Norwich marathon had done the job once more. Alan and I cheered and smiled.

The bet was still on.

On the half-hour, youngster Kyle & Scott replaced Fabregas. Bloody hell, the kid looked young, with the frailest of frames and a haircut from the ’eighties or modern North Carolina.

“He looks about twelve, Alan.”

The youngster looked at ease though, showing no real signs of nerves at all.

I announced to Alan that “I’m going to call him Kyle & Scott.”

Alan smirked.

Silently, I wondered if he was good in the air.

The voice inside my head replied : “Yep, he’s a nice jumper.”

I’ll get my other coat.

Hull threatened our goal again, who were by far the better of the two teams in the first fifteen minutes of the second-half. Hudson-Odoi raced away and played the ball to Zappacosta, who had the chance to shoot, but instead chose to pass to Willian. His deliberation allowed defenders to recover and his shot was blocked. As the ball then spun loose, Zappacosta forced a low save from the Hull ‘keeper Marshall.

The bet was still on.

As the game drifted past, Alan and I waffled.

Alan : “I’ve seen it all now. The Hull ‘keeper wearing all green. Whatever next?”

Chris : “Not only that, the referee in all black. Stop the madness.”

We then realised that Willy Caballero was wearing all orange, thus clashing rather spectacularly with Hull’s predominantly amber kit. We remembered how such topics were feverishly debated by Brian Moore on “The Big Match”, often eclipsing any talk of tactics and styles of play. I blame Brian Moore for both Alan’s and my continued annoyance with kit clashes.

The minutes ticked by. Hull’s little period of possession had passed now, and we were again in the ascendancy.

I loved the way that with every Willian corner, two young lads sitting behind me were yelling at him, almost feverishly. It was great to see and hear. The noise had been pretty good in the first-half, but had lessened in the second.

With twenty minutes remaining, Olivier Giroud was replaced by Alvaro Morata. The former Hipster Gooner Knobhead was given a fine reception. He is well on his way along the Mickey Thomas path of redemption and acceptance. Danny Drinkwater kept a rising ball down and the driven shot was saved. I found it hard to believe that the score was still 4-0. The last chance of the game – very late on – fell to the game’s most lively player Willian, who advanced and curled a shot towards the goal. The ball spun off the far post, with the ‘keeper well beaten. Alan and I sighed, but soon laughed. Andy, I am sure, punched the air with joy.

Funny game, football.

The bet was won.

The game ended, and there was a hearty roar.

The PA announced that we had reached the FA Cup quarter finals for the thirteenth time in seventeen seasons. As I left the MHU, I realised how much we have owned this competition since 2007. It is time we won it again.

We had all witnessed a fine evening of football.

London 4 Hull 0.

It had been a beautiful night in The Beautiful South.

 

Tales From Six Of The Best

Chelsea vs. Qarabag : 12 September 2017.

European football was back. Parky, PD and myself were parked up earlier than usual for a midweek game. We dipped in to “The Goose” for old times’ sake at about 5.30pm and chatted to a few old friends but it seemed pretty quiet. I had heard that the game against Qarabag from Azerbaijan had sold out, but I was genuinely worried that a sizeable number of supporters had bought tickets for loyalty points only, with the intention of moving tickets on, and there would be gaps throughout the stadium. We also popped into The Malt House for a couple more pints and, over the next hour, my spirits were raised. The pub grew busy. I hoped that there would be a near capacity crowd. When the group phase of the Champions League churns out our three opponents every autumn, I always wonder if our gates will hold up. There is usually a game against a “minnow” team, and – thankfully – our home support has responded well. Ever since the nadir in the autumn of 2007 when only 24,973 turned up for our home game with Rosenborg – Mourinho’s last game of his first spell – we have only once failed to fulfil expectations. Our 2011 group phase game with Bayer Leverkusen only drew 33,820, but all other home gates have reached the 37,000 to 41,000 mark.

On the short walk to Stamford Bridge, I spotted one Qarabag supporter, with an Azerbaijan flag draped over his shoulders. I knew that there would not be many present.

Inside, with a good quarter of an hour to go before kick-off, there were gaps everywhere. I wasn’t hopeful that we would end up with a decent gate. Thankfully, and to my surprise to be honest, the place filled-up quickly. Over in the far corner, around four hundred away fans were spotted in the lower tier of the away section. Baku is 2,500 miles away from Stamford Bridge. I guess it was a fair turnout.

Thoughts turned from our support to the team.

Not surprisingly, Antonio Conte had tinkered with the starting eleven.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Pedro – Batshuayi -Willian

The teams took to the pitch and, after a hiatus of one season, the Champions League anthem rang out around Stamford Bridge. It was a shame, in my mind, that our first game this autumn was not against more prestigious opponents – how I remembered the sense of occasion that accompanied our first-ever game in the Champions League in 1999 against the mighty Milan – but at least a home game against Qarabag would hopefully give us a fine chance for an easy win, with plenty of goals, in a potentially tight group.

In The Malt House, we had honestly admitted that we expected an easy win – 3-0, 4-0, 5-0 – against a team that we knew nothing of.

At kick-off, I scanned the crowd and was very happy. There was hardly a spare seat in the house, save for a block of around four-hundred above the away fans in The Shed. I spotted a new banner on The Shed Balcony wall – “Cahill, He’s Won It All” – and also an outing for one for the manager – “The King Of London.”

Rain started to fall.

As the game began, Alan and myself chatted about the aftermath of the Morata chant at Leicester City. Typically, the programme featured our Spanish striker on the cover. I certainly did not expect the chant to be repeated against Qarabag. Thankfully, it didn’t.

It was a bright opening from both teams. After only five minutes, Willian passed to Pedro, and although he was on the edge of the D, with the path to goal seemingly blocked by many players, his first-time strike zipped past everybody and into the top corner. It was a magnificent strike and the crowd responded with a reassuring roar. Pedro raced towards the Chelsea bench with a joyous hop, skip and a jump. Get in you beauty.

Chelsea dominated play, with some solid performances throughout the team. All eyes were on Michy Batshuayi after his disappointing show against Burnley. We hoped that he would seize his opportunity. A shot from Michy went close. There were rare attacks from Qarabag and I was impressed with the form of Andreas Christensen.

The song for Willian boomed out, as maybe an extra dig at Tottenham, on account of the anti-Spurs chant on Saturday getting such wide condemnation. Soon after, the ever-popular “Stand Up If You Hate Tottenham” rang out too.

On the half-hour mark, Davide Zappacosta received the ball from Thibaut Courtois. As he set off on a gut-busting run up the right wing, I had a nightmare. Rather than watch the new signing rampage past various Qarabag players, my thoughts were focussed on sending a text message to a friend in Chicago, who had helped put together the new Cahill flag. I looked up just as the ball was slammed with his right foot and flew past the away ‘keeper.

Boom. Two-nil.

I jumped up, but felt embarrassed that I had basically missed most of it. However, I had already sussed out that it seemed to be a fluke, rather than a genuine shot on goal. This did not stop Zappacosta, who enthusiastically celebrated down in Parkyville.

From then on, every time the Italian full back was in possession of the ball, sections of the crowd urged him to shoot. We continued to dominate. We did not let Qarabag settle. Our control of the game was very impressive. Thibaut had only had one save to make the entire half.

At the break, I summed things up with Alan.

“2-0 now, I reckon it’ll be 5-0 at full time.”

There was a read of the match programme at the break. I was reminded of our phenomenal home record in UEFA competitions.

Played 110

Won 77

Drew 25

Lost 8

That is just stunning.

There was also a complete list of our opponents in all UEFA games and one team dominated.

Barcelona 15 games

Liverpool 10 games

PSG 8 games

Porto 8 games

Schalke 6 games

Valencia 6 games

Atletico Madrid 5 games

Milan 5 games

I have witnessed nine of those fifteen Barcelona games, and what a set of memories are evoked. Some of my very best days supporting Chelsea – and one or two of the worst – took place against FCB. The Chelsea /Barcelona timeline goes back to the ‘sixties of course, and long may the story continue. Conversely, just three games against Real Madrid seem scant reward. We await our first-ever match at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Maybe this season.

With European football so common these days, it seems crazy that I had to wait a full twenty years – 1974 to 1994 – for my first taste of European football at Chelsea. In truth, my European story began slightly earlier than 1994. My first-ever UEFA game was in Turin in 1987; Juventus vs. Panathinaikos. The memory of the thrill of a noisy and atmospheric evening in a misty Turin is strong to this day. My European debut almost took place a few months earlier. In September 1987, when I was travelling around Europe on the trains with two college mates, we found ourselves in Stuttgart. It was a Wednesday and I spotted in the weekly sports paper that Borussia Dortmund were playing Celtic. We decided, on the spur of the moment, to head up to Dortmund and watch the game. We arrived at the city’s train station with only three quarters of an hour to spare. After quickly depositing our ruc-sacs in the left luggage room, we tried our best at getting directions,  blurting out “fussball stadion” and we even mimed kicking and heading a ball to assist us as we tried to make headway with the bemused locals. At last, we hopped on to the U-bahn train. We were running so late that we didn’t spot any other fans. Outside, I approached a middle-aged woman, and asked her about the stadium.

“Wo is der stadion? Borussia.”

She then said the immortal words –

“The game was yesterday.”

Oh bollocks. What a bastard.

I had, it seems, neglected to spot that the sports paper had detailed the Wednesday fixtures thus :

Borussia Dortmund vs. Celtic (Di)

Di meaning Dienstag meaning Tuesday.

Ugh.

Oh well. In the circumstances, it seems just right that fate was to hand me a Juventus tie for my first-ever UEFA game. Let me explain. Over this summer, after re-watching “The Damned United”, it dawned on me that the very first European game that I ever saw – live – on TV was the Juventus vs. Derby County game from Stadio Communale in Turin in 1973. It was on a Wednesday afternoon, and I have a sustained memory of watching it on our black and white TV with my father after he returned from work. There are solid recollections of the names Pietro Anastasi and Franco Causio for sure. And there is a very strong chance, in fact, that I saw Juventus live on TV before I saw a live match involving Chelsea. The first live Chelsea match would have been, undoubtedly, the away game at Manchester City in 1984 some eleven years later. But, anyway, as for my interest in Juventus, this was where it all began for me.

Ten minutes into the second-half, a free-kick released Cesc Fabregas, who clipped a lovely ball into the box with the outside of his foot and the cross was adeptly headed in by Cesar Azpilicueta, whose little dart into space was timed to perfection. He ran off to the far corner and celebrated with Alvaro Morata, who was warming up in front of the East Lower. I don’t think there is a more popular player at Chelsea than Dave. His joy in scoring was matched by us.

At last, Stamford Bridge responded en masse with a stadium-wide song. It had taken almost an hour, but the place was booming.

“Carefree, wherever you may be, we are the famous CFC.”

My 5-0 was looking good.

Eden Hazard soon replaced Pedro, and then Bakayoko replaced Kante.

Hazard set up Willian and his firm shot slammed against the crossbar. At the other end, Qarabag had a couple of wild shots over the bar.

Alan and myself were scratching our heads when we were awarded a corner – we thought that a Qarabag player did not get a touch – but Hazard played a short corner, received the ball back, and then sent over a low cross into the box. Qarabag failed to clear and the ball fell nicely for Bakayoko to slam home off a defender.

His celebrations were right in front of us – and just beautiful.

Antonio Rudiger replaced Azpilicueta and we kept attacking. We did not let up. We kept going, attacking at will. Although he had endured a quiet game, Batshuayi received the ball from Bakayoko some twenty-five yards out, quickly set his sights, and struck a fine low shot deep into the corner of the Qarabag goal.

OK, there’s the 5-0. Excellent.

We still kept pressing. Fantastic work from Zappacosta on the right forced an error from the shell-shocked left-back and his low cross was bundled in by a mixture of Michy Batshuayi and Qarabag defender Maksim Medvedev.

Chelsea 6 Qarabag 0.

There was still time for a fantastic dribble down below us from Eden Hazard, and I had to chuckle at the look of annoyance on his face – masked with a smile – as an errant touch gave the ball away cheaply. Having him back in the side is such a lift.

In the closing minutes, the Stamford Bridge crowd gathered together again for one last communal chant.

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

The whistle blew and “Blue Is The Colour” rang out.

Qarabag were poor all night long. We gave them a proper caning.

In the other game in our group, Roma drew 0-0 at home to Atletico Madrid, and I was very happy with that.

After only one match in the autumn of 2017, advantage Chelsea.

IMG_8990

 

Tales From The Miracle Men

Barcelona vs. Chelsea : 24 April 2012.

Ahead of our game in Barcelona, despite our memorable first-leg win at Stamford Bridge, I was still not too confident of us progressing to the final. After weighing up all of the likely outcomes, I conservatively calculated that our chances of a game in Munich at no more than 25%. We had all seen the miracle at Stamford Bridge. A miracle at Camp Nou, too? I tried to be positive, but was fearful of retribuition on a seismic scale. Of course, Barca were wounded by their arch-rivals Real Madrid at the weekend. This made things worse – much worse – in my mind. Our boys, creaking two months ago, were in for a mammoth fight. I awoke at 3.30 am on Tuesday and tried not to think too much about the game later that day.

My flight was set to leave Bristol Airport at 6.55am and, although I left in good time, I think I broke the World land speed record on my drive up and over The Mendips. At Maesbury, a peacefully still white owl sat in the middle of the road and the sight was unnerving. I drove past, missing it by mere feet. It barely blinked as I passed. It’s face was peacefulness personified. In a shuddering moment, my imagination ran riot and I envisaged the owl thinking to itself –

“Turn back, fool. There is nothing for you in Barcelona.”

I had previously travelled to Italy for the Napoli game from Bristol, my most local airport. On that day in February, despite a later flight, the airport was deathly quiet. Only two other Chelsea supporters – Emma from Bridgewater and Tony from Westbury – were on that flight to Italy. Well, what a difference. The airport was teeming with travellers. I bumped into several Chelsea fans that I knew. However, the vast majority of Chelsea fans were unfamiliar. I heard Welsh voices and accents from the Home Counties.The signs were good; it seemed that we were travelling in formidable numbers. While I enjoyed a “Starbucks” coffee, I noted a famous face nearby; Andy Robinson, the former Bath and England rugby player, now the coach of Scotland. Unlike my chance encounter with Seb Coe on Saturday, a conversation with Robinson was never likely to happen. We had nothing in common, save for being at Bristol airport at the same time. If anything, this reinforced my thoughts about how easy it had been to strike up a Chelsea conversation with Coe three days earlier.

At the departure gate, a semi-familiar face told me that we had sold our full allocation of 4,500 tickets. We guessed that a thousand or two had been inspired by the first-leg win and had decided to travel en masse to Catalonia.

The flight left a little late at around 7.30am and I tried desperately to grab some sleep.

Past trips to Barcelona passed through my mind as we flew over France. I had previously visited Camp Nou on four other occasions.

July 1986 – I called in on Barcelona on one of my train-travelling extravaganzas during my college days. Paris to Biarritz to Barcelona and then on to Rome and Corfu. I spent a day in Barcelona and made a bee-line from the Sants station to the huge edifice of Camp Nou where I paid a few pesetas for a tour. It was all quite magnificent in my eyes. The steep stands were huge and Barca’s home was quite easily the most luxurious stadium in Europe. I was equally impressed with the huge trophy cabinet and the mini-stadium alongside.

September 1987 – Another year, another trip around Camp Nou, this time with two friends on another European adventure. Paris to Biarritz to Madrid (and the crumbling Bernabeu – nowhere near as impressive as it is now) to Barcelona and then on to Rome, Venice, Milan and Munich. Unknowingly, our visit coincided with the day that FCB chose to dispense with the services of manager Terry Venables.

April 2000 – Only 1,500 Chelsea fans were allowed to witness our CL Quarter-Final and I was one of them. I travelled out with Paul and Jonesy and we had a lovely time. Up in the very top of the Camp Nou that night – we were in the very back row – I watched the sun set against the backdrop of those hills to the west of the city. At the time, it was my most memorable Chelsea experience. We almost made it through when Tore Andre Flo made it 2-1 on the night (and 4-3 on aggregate) but a late FCB goal took us into extra-time before two other goals gave Barca a flattering 5-1 triumph. Roberto di Matteo was in our midfield on that night. When we silently descended from the dizzy heights of the stadium, I wondered if I would ever return with Chelsea. What a horrible defeat, but what an amazing experience.

February 2005 – Unlike in 2000, over 6,000 Chelsea fans were allowed access to our game against Barcelona in the oddly-named “round of 16.” We went in a large group; Daryl, Neil, Frankie Two-Times, Alan, Gary, Glenn and myself. We had a fantastic time. Glenn and I had bought tickets via a ticket agency when we expected only 1,500 tickets were going to be available. We watched from the middle tier, alongside Barca fans, behind the goal where Maxi Lopez and Samuel Eto’o gave the home side a narrow 2-1 win after none other than Juliano Beletti had gifted us an own goal. Glenn and I always remember that an elderly FCB fan reached over and prodded Glenn with his walking stick when their second goal was scored. He had a look of pure disdain for us two interlopers.

Since then, even more Barcelona vs. Chelsea games have taken place – the group phase game in 2006-2007 and the knock-out games in 2005-2006 and 2008-2009 – but I had not been tempted back. This time was different. I simply had to go.

I peered out of the window just as we were flying over the snow-capped Pyrenees. I had been warned that the weather on the Monday was cold and wet. Thankfully, I saw only blue skies. We landed in Girona at 9.45am and were soon heading towards the sprawling Catalan city of Barcelona on a transfer bus. I spoke excitedly with two friends from Bristol about plans for Munich.

Maybe. Just maybe.

The route in to the city took us past the F1 grand prix circuit and then the FC Espanyol training centre. We arrived at the Barcelona Nord bus station at 11.15am. I had spotted the surreal towers of Antonio Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia a mile or so to the north and so I headed straight towards it. I texted a former work colleague Oscar, who I was meeting for lunch, and he texted back to say “take your time and see you at 12.30pm.”

I spent a blissful hour outside the magnificent cathedral and went predictably mad with my camera. Every footstep, a different viewpoint. The sun was warming the air and I was regretting the warm jacket I was wearing. I didn’t spot a single Chelsea supporter, but is this any real surprise? Along with The Ramblas, the harbour and Parc Guell, the cathedral is one of the main city sightseeing hotspots. Most Chelsea fans would have already visited it in 2000 or 2005 or 2006 or 2009.

Oscar arrived at 12.30pm and we drove into the heart of the city. We both used to work for the same company but had never met; we stayed in contact over the years through our shared love of football and the almost fateful way in that UEFA continuously threw our clubs together. I was able to witness the fluid form of two more Gaudi buildings before Oscar treated me to a fantastic meal at Citrus, a modern restaurant on one of the main thouroughfares. Seafood ravioli and then veal escalopes, washed down with the first two beers of the day. Superb. We spoke about various subjects, but football dominated. I spoke of Villas-Boas, of Abramovich, of di Matteo, of the CPO. Oscar explained how he thinks that Pep Guardiola’s days as manager of FCB are coming to an end. Guardiola is not obsessed about football in the same way that Mourinho is. He is a cultured political man, with many varied interests outside of Barcelona football. But Oscar hinted that he is seeking a fresh challenge; away from the FCB goldfish bowl. A new challenge, eh? It got me thinking. I suggested to Oscar that he would be crazy to leave Barcelona, but who knows? Oscar tellingly said that the president of Barcelona’s grandchild goes to the same school as his child and that the talk among (in Oscar’s words) “the mamas and the papas” at the school is that Pep will leave Camp Nou at the end of the season.

I had easily dismissed the chance of the sophisticated Guardiola taking over the reigns at Stamford Bridge. After my meal with Oscar in the heart of Barcelona, I am not so sure.

Oscar dropped me off at my hotel near the Sants train station. Before we said our goodbyes, he told me that “if you win tonight, you must promise me to beat Madrid in Munich.”

I soon met up with two good friends, Mike and Frank – from NYC – who were also staying in the Expo Hotel. We spent a few moments on the hotel roof terrace where the city sprawled all the way around us. To the north-east, the new Torre Agbar, a skyscraper which is very similar to London’s Gherkin. To the south-east, the hill of Montjuic, where the Olympic Stadium from 1992 stands behind the palace. FC Espanyol, the second team in Barcelona, no longer play at the stadium and now reside to the south. It’s all about Madrid in Barcelona; FC Espanyol are a hindrance to Barca, not a rival. Did somebody mention Fulham and Chelsea? To the west, the top of the Camp Nou east stand was just visible, though not as dominant as might be expected. Like many stadia, the pitch is below street level and although cavernous inside, the stadium is quite unobtrusive from the exterior. To the west and north, the hills which circle the city.

We caught a cab down to the area at the base of the famous Ramblas, which is overlooked by the statue of Christopher Columbus pointing to the sea.

From 4.30pm to 7.30pm, we had the time of our lives. We bought cans of Estrella from harbourside kiosks and wandered past the marina, chatting away about the great Chelsea obsession. Fellow fans were occasionally spotted. The skies were clear, there was an onshore breeze and the early-evening ambience was superb; in truth,we all wanted time to stand still.

Walking with good friends in a foreign city, drinking and laughing, why do we have to ruin it by going to a game? Let’s suspend time. No need to play the game. We’ll always be in the semi-finals. No need to worry. Forever in Europe, forever on tour.

It was a quite brilliant hour or so.

We briefly joined up with a few friends who had gathered with around five hundred Chelsea fans in a small square outside “Flaherty’s” bar. Chelsea flags were pinned to walls, shirts were worn around waists, songs were sung. There was no feeling of malice, just a good buzz. I had no doubt that all of the 4,500 tickets on offer had been picked up by Chelsea loyalists from all stations east, west, north and south. Although Frank, Mike and I had not spoken about the match at all, deep down my feeings of doubt about our progress to the final were being eroded by the site of all the blue-clad hordes. However, the lines for beer inside the bar were ridiculous, so we made the quick decision to vacate the area and find somewhere with more character, a little more sedate and with a little less people. We soon found a superb little bar on Las Ramblas and dived in. Several pints of San Miguel and a few shots for good measure, too. To my amazement, it was only 6pm. Plenty of time. More beers, please.

A group of old school Chelsea faces joined us and the merriment continued, with obscure songs being sung and jokes exchanged. Frank had met some of the chaps at the tapas bar on the Kings Road a year or so ago. Frank, who has an infectious character, seemed bewildered that he should know somebody in a foreign city. I assured him that this was quite normal when supporting Chelsea. Frank was full of praise of the New York chapter and even uttered the immortal words –

“This club has changed my life.”

The beers were going down well and I was enjoying being able to relax without the worry of having to drive home. I was unleashed and on the lash.

Still no talk of the game though.

“The first rule of fight club is that no one talks about fight club.”

I sent a text out –

“A toast to absent friends.”

It was time to move. We hopped into a cab and were on our way to Camp Nou. Despite an attendance of almost 100,000 assembling, we found it easy to enter. I lost contact with Frank and Mike but bumped into a few familiar faces. Looking out on the streets below, an old friend Mark commented –

“Fucking hell – I’ve been here more times than Reading.”

I made my way inside the very top tier, way up in the heavens. To be honest, Camp Nou is beyond words. It is quite phenomenal. I took my place alongside thousands of others and tried my best to concentrate. I have rarely had more than three pints at games this season but I had certainly made up for it in Catalonia. The mixture of alcohol and the incredible sense of occasion was making me light-headed. The view below me – way below me – was breathtaking.

The sun began to set to the west. The lights of the city were flickering. I was part of the stadium, but part of the city at the same time. We were on the very rim of the massive bowl, able to peer in, able to peer out.

It reminded me of my feelings in 2000.

“There ain’t no better place to watch a game anywhere, Chris.”

During the period leading up to the entrance of the teams, I tried to juggle my two cameras and my mobile phone, throwing out texts to friends near and far, taking video-film of the crowd, taking photos of the sun disappearing from view, taking photos of the multi-tiered Barca fans. That beer was taking hold and I was finding it hard to concentrate.

“You give me beer, you give me ten flights of stairs to walk up, you put me on the edge of a precipice, you put me among four thousand noisy fans, you make the pitch so small, you make the players so small and you want me to concentrate?”

It seemed an impossible task.

And yet, the photos were taken. The shots of the Catalan flags being waved frantically by the thousands upon thousands of Barca fans. The video film of the Barca club anthem.

“Blaugrana al vent.
Un crit valent.
Tenim un nom, el sap tothom.
Barça!, Barça!, Barça!”

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v…type=2&theater

The team line-ups. The mountains. The inside. The out. The up. The down.

Oh boy.

There were no surprises in the manager’s choice of players for this game. It was the team that had performed so resolutely at The Bridge less than a week previously.

The first part of the match involved me taking yet more photos, sending and receiving yet more texts and trying my utmost to try to stay with the game. We were so ridiculously high up that I had might as well have been watching from the moon. By the time I had managed to focus on the game down below me, we had lost Gary Cahill. This was not a good start. The Barcelona players swarmed around the Chelsea penalty area and the white defenders scrambled to keep close to the raiding attackers. Messi, who had already slashed a shot against the side netting, was again the centre of our attentions.

Fabregas set up Messi with a delightful back-heal, but the little man’s shot was blocked by Petr Cech’s outstretched leg.

But, way up in the lofty heights, I was struggling. The alcohol was now taking grip and I soon realised that – as I tried to stay with the movement of the players – I was seeing double. I squinted to focus on the Chelsea players, but as soon as I relaxed, we suddenly had 22 players on the pitch.

No wonder Barcelona were unable to break us down.

A couple of Drogba half chances gave us hope. However, a typical Barca move with the ball being zipped around the box, ended in Busquets giving the ball a gentle prod from close in. The Barca fans, who had been pretty quiet, awoke with rapturous acclaim.

Then, madness. Did we see John Terry’s foul? No, of course not. I was even struggling to see anything. Our captain was dismissed and a series of texts from England and America were full of disdain. My friend Glenn, watching at home in Frome, explained that he had knee’d Alexis Sanchez in the back of the leg. The away section was stunned. We were punished almost immediately as Messi played in Iniesta, the demon from 2009, to calmly slot home from an angle.

Things were desperate.

That 25% chance of reaching Munich was appearing to be blindingly astute.

We were at a low ebb, but were soon to be cheered. Frank Lampard played a perfectly-weighted ball through for the rampaging Ramires. It seemed impossible that we would be rewarded with a goal-scoring chance so soon after conceding again. The whole Chelsea section strained to watch as Ramires pushed the ball once and then lobbed Valdes with a breathtaking chip. I was right behind the flight of the ball and I gasped as I saw the ball drop into the waiting net.

We were soon jumping around like fools. The terraces were steep with individual barriers and it was a good job. Oh, how we celebrated. The buzz at half-time was superb.

We were losing 2-1 in Barcelona but, with a precious away goal, we were ahead overall.

I met up with Jonesy – the same Jonesy who had been with me at the 5-1 defeat some twelve years previously – and his mate Neil, both from Nuneaton. Their smiles lit up the dark Catalonia sky.

The match re-started and there was more drama. I must admit to not witnessing the foul by Didier which lead to the penalty decision. I was probably texting somebody or taking yet another photo of the packed terraces below me. I did, however, gather my senses in order to take a photo of Lionel Messi’s penalty attempt.

Snap.

I saw the ball fly high and up onto the bar and away. The Chelsea crowd uttered a guttural roar once again.

Maybe the footballing Gods were on our side after all.

Our support grew louder with each minute. The texts from home continued to fly in to my phone. There was a growing sense of belief among us all. The remainder of the game was a further blur. Chelsea defended deep and with a passion which was quite amazing to witness at first hand. Our belligerent players must have frustrated every Barca attacker. They came at us in waves, but our players matched them. It seemed that every shot was blocked.

A rare Lampard corner, around three miles below me, was directed towards the strong leap of Ivanovic and our great Serbian should have scored with his header. It was to be a very rare threat on Valdes’ goal.

Fernando came on for Didier.

Late on, Barcelona managed to get the ball in our goal. To my great pleasure, the majority of the 95,000 crowd had failed to see the bright yellow of the linesman’s flag signalling “offside.” Luckily for me – and my heart – I had spotted it early. A Messi shot scraped the near post. The home fans only had one song – the club anthem – and we all sensed they were not helping to support their team. The spectators grew edgier, the Barca players grew frustrated and it was a beautiful feeling.

We were almost there.

The clock kept ticking.

“Come on boys, hold on.”

Then, a Barca attack broke and the ball was cleared upfield. Miraculously – and it was a miracle – Fernando Torres had decided to drift upfield when he perhaps ought to have held further back. He controlled the ball as it fell at his feet and the Chelsea fans were all eyes.

The lone figure of Torres, with nobody in pursuit, set off.

We inhaled.

Our eyes bulged.

We watched.

Torres took a touch past Valdes and slotted the ball home.

Pandemonium in Catalonia.

I do not know if the tears were immediate or if they came when the final whistle was blown.

Again – a blur. A big blue beautiful blur.

Way atop the Camp Nou, over four thousand Chelsea fans were roaring and singing like never ever before. Down below, the minuscule heroes in white came towards us. I soon met up with Jokka, Jonesy and Neil, Neil’s brother Nigel. We hugged and we laughed.

“How did we do that?”

“Best away game ever, Jonesy – best away game EVER.”

The texts came in. Not just from fellow blues, but from Liverpool fans, Manchester United fans, Cardiff City fans, Frome Town fans, Juventus fans, Sheffield United fans, Barcelona fans…

It was too much. I probably made a fool of myself for a few seconds, but I was wailing with joy. I didn’t care. I wasn’t the only one. How long were we kept inside the stadium? I have no idea. The songs were never-ending, but one was sung continually –

“Che sera sera.
Whatever will be will be.
We’re going to Germany.
Che sera sera.”

The Chelsea songbook got a great airing.

“He scores when he wants, he scores when he wants. Fernando Torres – he scores when he wants.”

“We’re not going home, we’re not going home, we’re not going, we’re not going, we’re not going home.”

We then sang the “One Step Beyond / Nutty Boys In Barcelona Mix.”

As we descended the many concrete steps down to street level, I bumped into complete strangers,old friends, good mates and many many more. It did not matter. We were all together. That walk out of Camp Nou – blissful, euphoric but still full of wide-eyed wonder and disbelief – will live with me forever. I dropped into a bar and then caught a cab back to the hotel, where I was soon joined by a clearly euphoric Frank and Mike. I am sure we could have stayed there all night, but – unlike the current Chelsea team – I knew my limits.

After the briefest of sleeps, the alarm sounded at 6.30am and I was soon up and away, on the bus to Girona and on the plane home. Thoughts were scrambling around in my poor head in an attempt to rationalise what I had witnessed in Catalonia. And then there were thoughts of how best to tackle the problem of getting to Munich for the final on May 19th.

Nobody need worry. After a frantic hour or so, I booked flights for myself and my oldest Chelsea mate Glenn – who I first started going to Chelsea with in the autumn of 1983 – to take us from Bristol to Prague in the Czech Republic on the Friday. We will then take a train to Munich on the day of the game. The last game of the season, the last kick of the ball…

“…we’re going to Germany..che sera sera.”

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Tales From Victoria

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 21 April 2012.

Throughout the build-up to the game with Arsenal, my thoughts had been full of past games. Should we prove to be triumphant at The Emirates, I’d wager that the trio of wins within seven days would represent our greatest ever week. The only other week that was comparable – and one that sticks in my mind for some reason – was from April 2000. On April Fool’s Day 2000, Chelsea won 1-0 at Leeds United when Leeds were a top four team. On the following Wednesday, Barcelona were humbled 3-1 in the Quarter Finals of the Champions League. On the following Sunday, Chelsea beat Newcastle United 2-1 in a great F.A. Cup Semi-Final. Three massive wins, one massive week. Following our momentous double of Tottenham and Barcelona, could we surpass these three wins from 2000? It was the main train of thought in my mind as I collected Parky at 8am.

Well, I’m lying.

My head was full of the second-leg at Camp Nou. I don’t apologise for this – I am sure I am not the only one prioritising the return leg on Tuesday. Images of 95,000 crammed into the multi-tiered layers of the Catalan edifice, with 3,000 Chelsea fans clinging on for dear life in the very top corner. Images of a Chelsea team in Real Madrid white taking on FCB in red and blue. Images of a Barcelona team, riddled with feelings of revenge, putting us to the sword. The occasional image – flickering, out of focus – of us nabbing an improbable draw…or win. Images of pure joy in the lofty heights of Camp Nou. Images of quite easily the best away game ever. Images of a mad scramble for flights to Germany – Munich, Stuttgart, Berlin, anywhere.

But first – Arsenal.

We’d surely field a team of players who would, generally, not feature in Catalonia. Parky and I may have mentioned a few of di Matteo’s options as we drove to London, but the Depeche Mode CD soon quashed much talk of football. I made great time and I was parked up at Barons Court – for a change – at 10am. As we approached the station, I noted that a young lad who sits in front of me at Chelsea – Dane from Bracknell – had just arrived at the station, too. We exchanged “hello mates” and then Parky and I set off for a pre-match meet at Victoria.

At 10.30am, Parky and I strode into The Shakespeare Tavern and ordered two pints of “Becks Vier.” It made a really pleasant change for us to have a change of scene on a match-day in London. This was a first-time visit for me, but I was well aware of its role in Chelsea lore. This pub, just outside Victoria train station, was the anointed meeting place for the Chelsea firm back in the ‘eighties, when it was known by the typically ‘eighties moniker “Shakes.” I’d imagine that Chelsea fans regard Victoria as base camp on match days; it is the station where vast swathes of our support head for, before going off on a pub-crawl down the Kings Road, or catching tubes into Earls Court, West Brompton, Fulham Broadway or Parsons Green, the four tube stops which services Stamford Bridge on match days.

Victoria, Pimlico, Kensington and Chelsea – our heartland.

We had arranged to meet a little posse of Chelsea fans. Steve Neat, from Staten Island, was the anointed leader but he came with four others. Andrew used to live in NYC but now lives in Kent. Paul and his son Jeff are from the US (though, if I am honest, I am not sure where) and a new face – Orlin – is from San Francisco. Andrew reminisced about a lot of the old pubs at Chelsea which have gone by the way-side since the ‘eighties. I’ve never really spent much time on The Kings Road on match days, but it always used to house the de-facto Chelsea Pub Crawl, from the Chelsea Potter down to The Worlds End and further south to the Hand and Flower. This was Parky’s old stomping ground of course.

I really enjoyed chatting to Orlin, who remembers me from a few “Zigger Zaggers” at the Club America game at Palo Alto in 2007. We spoke about the San Francisco pub “Mad Dog In The Fog” which I know sometimes houses the SF Chelsea fans. Orlin’s story fascinated me. He is originally from Bulgaria and was a boyhood Levski Sofia supporter. He told me that Chelsea is well-supported in Bulgaria and I wondered if it was linked to Chelsea’s games against Levski’s arch-rivals CSKA in the 1971 ECWC campaign. It seems that a lot of Levski’s fans aligned themselves with Chelsea. Levski also play in blue. Of course, we played Levski Sofia on two occasions over the past ten years. He told me how drawn he was when his two teams competed against each other; he realised he was referring to Levski as “we” and that was his brutal awakening to who he feels closest to.I understand that, no worries. I referred to him as “Mr. 49%” for the rest of the chat. He comes over to England 5 or 6 times each season and was at the Leverkusen away game. I loved to hear his emotional story of how he missed the 2008 Champions League Cup Final in Moscow because his daughter Victoria (if only, eh?) was born the day before. Her birthday is the day after this year’s final in Munich and he owes himself a CL Final trip. Watch this space.

Jesus, sporting a beard which is getting more prominent each game, arrived at 11.30am, fresh from picking up his Barcelona away ticket. I reckon Jesus isn’t shaving until we win the CL Final in Munich. So there we have it, in a corner of a pub in Victoria, Chelsea fans from all over the world, gathered together.

Parky, Andrew and Chris – England.
Steve, Paul and Jeff – USA via England.
Orlin – USA via Bulgaria.
Jesus – England via Mexico.

We sped off to catch the tube up to Arsenal. I noted that Jesus was wearing a little Chelsea pin-badge on his shirt, the only sign of allegiance to Chelsea, thus mirroring the dress code of Parky and myself.

We cut it fine, but reached Arsenal tube, just a hundred yards from the old Highbury stadium – one of my favourites – at 12.25pm. Every time I slowly walk up the steep incline at Arsenal tube, I am always reminded without fail of my first ever visit in August 1984. It was one of our most famous ever away games – and one of my most cherished memories. It was such a seminal game that Mark Worrall wrote a whole book about it.

This was Steve’s first visit to Arsenal’s new pad and he was suitably impressed. It is, of course – putting club loyalty to one side – a magnificent stadium. I must admit that I wish it was called Arsenal Stadium – like the signs on the art deco East Stand at Highbury – since I know Emirates will one day withdraw their funds. I also like the large images of current and former players adorning the high walls of the stadium, arms linked; Tony Adams, Cliff Bastin, Thierry Henry, George Armstrong.

Quite effective.

I reached the away segment in the south-east corner at 12.44pm; perfect timing. I was stood next to Alan and Gary, but it soon became apparent that the group of four Japanese tourists behind me were very annoyed that everyone was standing. At one stage, the mother – sitting right behind me – sat still, with her eyes closed. I guess she would rather be at Harrods or the Hard Rock. I wondered how they got ticket; one of life’s great mysteries. They left with five minutes to go; no surprise there.

The game was something of nothing. The Chelsea team was essentially a “B” team, with only Petr Cech, Gary Cahill and The Captain likely to start on Tuesday in Barcelona. It was, of course, lovely to see Oriel Romeu back on the pitch after his extended absence. The sky was a brilliant blue, the stadium large and almost full. I noted more Arsenal banners than on previous visits; they have obviously taken a leaf out of our book. As the teams came onto the pitch, a large flage was hanging over the north stand – I don’t suppose it is referred to as the North Bank – which said –

London Our City.

With 13 league championships, 10 F.A. Cups and 2 European trophies, I guess they have a point. They are a large club and it would be foolish to think otherwise. However, I’ve always regarded their fans to me the most pompous and boring of all London’s clubs. Arsenal fans could never sing anything as beautifully obscure as “If she don’t come, I’ll tickle her bum…”

I spotted one banner was ridiculously infantile –

“We Don’t Need Batman – We’ve Got Robin.”

Of course, all of this boasting by Arsenal will account for nothing if we become the first London club to bring home the European Cup on Saturday 19th. May.

The game was a stinker to be honest and neither team deserved three points. Arsenal themselves seemed decidedly out-of-sorts and I expected more from them. I know it is a well-worn cliché, but how 57,000 fans can make so little noise is a mystery of the modern era. Our woodwork saved us on two separate occasions in the first-half, but Arsenal rarely got behind us. Those three goals against from last December were never likely to be repeated.

The Chelsea fans seemed subdued, too and the noise only really got going occasionally. The three favourite songs of the day were –

“She said no, Robin, she said no.”

“Seven years – you’ve won fcuk all.”

“We won 5-1, Wembley.”

I had no complaints with the back-line of Bertrand, Cahill, Terry and Bosingwa. I have nothing but praise for Gary Cahill; he has adapted to life in SW6 so well. A bright future in blue beckons. Ryan Bertrand looks like he has an equally secure place in our hearts, too. The midfield two of Essien and Romeu were steady, but it was the forward four of Malouda, Kalou, Sturridge and Torres which caused most anxiety. Of the four, Torres’ hold up play was the only bright spot. The other three were at times quite woeful. Sturridge worries me; his choices are usually the wrong ones. I guess he is suffering with a lack of games. Confidence can’t be switched on and off like a tap.

At half-time, I had a quick chat with Beth about the games in the US in July. Jason Cundy was spotted amongst the 3,000 Chelsea fans.

Did we have any real chances? I remember a towering header from John Terry from a Malouda corner in the first period but little in the second-half. By that time, the wayward runs of Sturridge had contrived to frustrate the hell out of all of us. Van Persie was clearly not himself – he was kept at bay by Cahill and Terry – and rarely troubled Cech. A sublime interception by the substitute Mikel was magnificent, just as it looked like Arsenal had eventually breached our rear-guard.

Mata came on but offered little. Cole entered the fray and triggered a noisy reaction from the snoozing Goons.

The game petered out and I – for one – was happy with a draw.

The players slowly walked over as the Chelsea fans showed support.

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Three points from the B Team would have been stretching it even for us in this week of weeks.

I met up with Parky and Jesus and we slowly trudged alongside the home fans on the way back to the Highbury & Islington tube station. I had received several texts from friends which said that both of them had been spotted on TV. Jesus, bless him, was amazed that anyone anywhere knew what he looked like.

I spotted small pennants adorning the lampposts on the perimeter of the walls surrounding the stadium. They were of photos of various Arsenal fans, with a brief description of their story. I thought this was another nice touch. I spotted one fan – I think his name was David Smith – who has not missed a home or away game for 50 years. I immediately thought of our Cathy – 35 years of unbeaten support to her name – and raised my eyebrows. And then I felt a tinge of sympathy for Mr. Smith. As his beloved Arsenal have never experienced league football outside the top flight – how boring of them – I realised that he had yet to experience league visits to Shrewsbury, Bristol Rovers, Bournemouth or Rotherham United.

And it is that aspect of Arsenal’s support which so grates; their support has never been tested. They squeal about a lack of trophies but I often wonder if they would simultaneously combust should their club ever suffer the embarrassment of relegation. Manchester United, West Ham United, Leeds United, Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United and Chelsea have all been relegated in living memory. Should Arsenal ever suffer the same fate (unlikely, I know), expect suicides off the top tier of The Emirates.

We slowly edged down the Holloway Road, where I once went for an interview at North London Poly in 1983 – what was I thinking? We eventually slipped onto the waiting tube train and we were away.

We serenaded Jesus with a song on the tube south –

“You’re not going home.
You’re not going home.
You’re not going.
You’re not going.
You’re not going home.”

Two QPR fans were on the tube, heading west to see the game versus Tottenham. I wished them all the best. We may dislike QPR, but we hate Tottenham.I was feeling weary by the time we had eventually reached Barons Court tube station. I popped next-door to a lovely little café and ordered a Panini and a double-espresso. Who should enter the café right after me, but Sebastian Coe – or Lord Coe to give him his full title? This is weird because I was only mentioning Seb Coe to two friends at work on Wednesday, when I was re-calling the time I bumped into him along the North End Road after the Barcelona game of 2005. Seb is, of course, a bona-fide Chelsea fan of many years standing. I remember seeing him being introduced to the crowd at the home opener in 1981, a mere 24 hours after breaking yet another world record. He wrote the introduction to the “Chelsea Story” (1982) book which was lovingly written by the recently departed John Moynihan. In that introduction, he used a phrase which I often thought was wonderful –

“Following the club could be as frustrating as chasing split mercury across a laboratory table.”

In September 1982, I knew exactly what he meant.

While I waited for my espresso and Seb waited for his two teas, we spoke about the day’s game. He was clutching a match programme. I know it sounds silly, but we chatted away like old friends. We both said we were happy with the draw. We both mentioned the joyous defeat of Spurs on Sunday. Regarding the game we had just witnessed, he commented –

“Arsenal are a bloody miserable bunch, aren’t they?”

If I had met Lord Coe, away from a match day, in an airport or somewhere, I expect I may have been stuck for words, but our Chelsea bond made the conversation flow. Parky asked him if he was running in the London Marathon on the Sunday –

“No, I’m too old.”

I asked him if he was going to Spain on Tuesday –

“No, I’m too busy.”

And in that moment, I felt a tinge of sadness for Sebastian Coe.

We stopped off for a drink at Beckhampton, between the market towns of Marlborough and Devizes – a pint for Parky, another coffee for me – before eventually returning home. QPR had indeed beaten Tottenham – good – but Newcastle had won again – very bad. Our challenge for a fourth place finishes is starting to falter now. However, our thoughts now turn to the Champions league.

There is no time to stop and think now. There is no time to breath. Barcelona awaits and who knows? As I said earlier, it has the potential to be the best away game in 107 years.

Let’s go.

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Tales From The Black And The Blue

Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 18 April 2012.

There is a delicious irony in Chelsea’s recent love affair with the Champions League over the past ten years. Way back in 1955, just after our first ever Football League Championship, Chelsea could have been the very first winners of the inaugural European Cup which was played during the 1955-1956 season. However, for whatever reason, the out-of-touch octogenarians in the English F.A. strongly advised the club to forego participation. Instead, Real Madrid won the first ever European Cup (and the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth) in 1956 and Chelsea had to wait until 1999-2000 to participate again. There have been few games which have produced the same “buzz” of anticipation than that first ever game against Milan in September 1999; a pulsating 0-0 draw at The Bridge was a classic.

If only we knew then what we know now; we have since taken to the competition like the proverbial duck to aqueous solution. We reached the quarter-finals in that first season before losing to (guess who?) Barcelona. Since then, we have been one of European football’s top performers in the World’s premier cup competition. Our semi-final against Barcelona this season would be our sixth since 2003-2004. These have been heady days. Spring time at Chelsea has recently involved football on multiple fronts. It’s a beautiful period in our history; breath it in, let it fill up your senses, these days will not last for ever.

…but oh, the memories.

2004 – a defeat by AS Monaco, fresh on the heels of that game at Highbury in the previous round. Claudio Ranieri at his infuriating worst, tinkering to distraction, just to prove a point to the club management who had already hinted he would be leaving the following season.

2005 – a nauseating defeat to Liverpool. The result of Mourinho not “going for it” in the home leg, the result of the Luis Garcia “ghost” goal at Anfield. We were the best team in Europe that season, having discarded FCB in the quarters.

2007 – another hateful defeat to Liverpool, this time on penalties at Anfield after Joe Cole and Daniel Agger goals gave both teams 1-0 home wins. Again, Mourinho failed to attack Liverpool sufficiently. Would we ever get to the final?

2008 – joy unbounded as we drew 1-1 at Anfield and then won 3-2 at a pulsating Stamford Bridge on one of the most emotional nights that English football has ever witnessed. Frank Lampard inspired us and we were on our way to Moscow.

2009 – a resolute performance by Chelsea at Camp Nou and a 0-0 draw. A despicable performance by a certain Norwegian referee at The Bridge. Michael Essien scored his best ever goal, but Iniesta equalised with virtually Barca’s only shot on goal. Pure, unadulterated sadness.

Our record in the Champions League semi-finals is therefore 1-4. Throw in our ridiculously close defeat in the final in 2008 and has ever a team come closer to winning the World’s greatest club competition, yet failing, than Chelsea?

During the day, I pondered our chances for 2012 against the mesmeric talisman Lionel Messi and his Barcelona team mates. Not even our stupendous win against Tottenham on Sunday could dispel many of my very real worries and concerns. My biggest fear was that of humiliation. This has been a strange old season; our team was creaking under Villas-Boas, but has been rejuvenated under Roberto di Matteo. Our form has returned, yet we are still an old team in transition. In my mind, there was a real chance that this would turn out to be one game too far for the battle-scarred veterans. After our fortuitous refereeing decisions against Wigan and Spurs, I was also aware that all of our Lady Luck Tokens had been used for this season. And yet, I can easily recall a conversation that a few friends and I had in The Goose before that 2000 game against Barcelona; we had performed miracles during that CL season and we decided that we were realistically not going to progress further. That Barcelona team, including Figo and the like, was a class act. What did we know? On that incredible night we stormed into a 3-0 lead and produced a breath-taking performance. A late Figo goal took the edge off the night, but it had taught me not to write off Chelsea Football Club.

I hoped for a similar response in 2012. However, I was still uneasy. In an email to some friends, I summed-up our chances on the night as follows –

Barcelona win 50%
Chelsea win 25%
Draw 25%

I added that I thought that we had a 20% chance to progress to the final over both legs.

These were my thoughts before the trip to London.

I pulled out of Chippenham at 4pm. Parky and I were headed east once more. It was a drizzle-filled Wiltshire evening. I wondered if the extra zip to the pitch in London would assist Barcelona’s quick passing.

As I approached Reading, my thoughts on the night’s game were waylaid; my friend Rob, who had been tasked to collect my ticket for the away game in Catalonia, called me on my phone. He was very agitated and told me that the Chelsea box office had no record of my purchase.

“What?”

Surely I applied for my ticket last week?

“Oh fcuk.”

For thirty minutes, I tried to recollect if I had bought the £73.50 ticket. It has been a busy old spell, with many match tickets needing to be purchased; maybe I had, indeed, forgotten to get one? I tried to call the box office, but they were closed. I mulled over my options. I realised that I could pop into the internet café opposite The Goose and apply there. Rob confirmed that the box office would be open for thirty minutes after the evening’s game for collections. I could relax.

Phew.

I parked up at 6.45pm. By 6.55pm, I had purchased my away ticket and Parky had bought me a pint of Peroni in The Goose. I thanked Rob for his efforts and he handed me back the form I had filled out detailing my travel details; I would need that to claim my ticket. I met up with Alex, a work colleague, who had asked me if I had the chance of getting him a ticket as soon as we had beaten Benfica. Alex works for one of the hauliers that my company uses to move our client’s products in Europe; he is from Vienna and has been working in England for a year or so. We had spoken on the ‘phone, but had never met before. He has no team in Austria; Chelsea is his team. He is typical of the new type of supporter our club has attracted of late; not from Ashford, but Austria, not from Cheam, but from California, not from Gravesend, but from Germany. He was clearly ecstatic to be able to see only his second ever Chelsea game. He was off back to Vienna in May. It was great to see him so happy.

I was in a rush to head down to The Bridge as I wanted to get some banners up in good time. I was in so much of a rush that I sped off with Parky’s match ticket still in my bag. He caught up with me, but then disappeared into The Maltsters for “just one more pint.”

Alex and I rushed down to The Bridge; the half-and-half scarves sellers had been busy. I can understand the allure of a friendship scarf for European games; in fact, Parky often gets one for Jill. The St. George flag on the FCB badge always looks great in my mind. Monday is St. George’s Day, of course, and a few Chelsea fans will be celebrating our patron saint’s day deep in the heart of Catalonia.

We reached our seats at 7.35pm just as Neil Barnett announced “the anthem”; the recording of “Blue Is The Colour” by an opera singer. I personally wish they would stick with the original 1972 recording to be honest; this new version is slightly too slow, slightly too forced. Alex and I scrambled up to the back row of the MHU and we pinned my two banners up.

“Vinci Per Noi” dates from the summer of 1996.

“Peter Osgood” dates from March 2006.

The blue and white flags had been handed out once again and were being waved furiously as the last few bars of “Blue Is The Colour” gave way to “The Liquidator.” Then, the two teams strode out onto the wet turf, past the Champions League flag, on to the west side of the pitch.

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What a rushed pre-match. However, as I took my seat next to Alan and Tom, I took off my jacket and tried to settle down just for a few moments. I worked out who was playing for Chelsea a few moments into the game. The only surprise was Meireles; this just signifies how far Michael Essien is off his game.

Chelsea were in blue, Barcelona were in black.

In the far corner, the 3,000 away fans presented a vivid and varied scene. Not only were the FCB colours of blue and claret represented, but also the Catalonia colours of red and yellow. Lots of replica shirts, lots of scarves, lots of colourful banners draped over the balcony wall.

Let battle commence. Let the nerves be tested. Let us play. Let us pray.

Despite our wishful thoughts about us “taking it” to Barcelona, it soon became apparent that the away team simply took over the game, strangling us with possession, for us to enjoy any real periods of dominance. All eyes were on Lionel Messi, the World’s greatest footballer, who was there in person, no more than twenty yards away from me at times. I was transfixed by this little man – quiet, unobtrusive, walking around the pitch, head low. How could such a benign looking figure have the potential to cause us so much heartache? It all seemed to be about him. I followed his movement in and amongst our players, his movement at times no more than a slow walk. We would have to stifle his every move. Elsewhere, there were familiar faces, all equally-placed to cause anxiety to defenders and fans alike. Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas.

The Barcelona players pushed the ball around at will and the passes were usually inch perfect. Short passes were common, but even cross-field balls were inch perfect. In contrast, Chelsea chased and harried, closing down space, avoiding rough tackles. I got the impression that we were being slightly too reverential. I longed for a 50-50 challenge – not a dirty foul, no need to draw a booking – but a hard, strong tackle that would let Barca know we were serious. It would also help to involve the crowd. When I play five-a-side, I am not great a great tackler – I am more a nibbler, someone who can get a toe in to rob the opponent of the ball, someone who can read a pass and intercept.

However, when the need arises and I can sense a pure 50-50, there is no greater feeling that hitting the ball and player’s leading foot together with a strong tackle.

Slam.

I longed for Chelsea to do the same.

The first chance of the game fell to the men in black. Andres Iniesta picked out the on-rushing Sanchez, who nimbly beat the offside trap and delicately lobbed the ball over the ghostly figure of Petr Cech.

“Here we go” I thought.

We waited to see where the ball would end up – time stood still, that old cliché – and were mighty relieved to see the ball drop against the bar. Soon after, Messi’s first real involvement took him in to the penalty area with one of his breath-taking runs, the ball seemingly no more than six inches from his toes throughout. A Chelsea challenge could easily have sent another Barcelona player tumbling, but to his enormous credit, the little Argentinian stayed on his feet. He passed to Iniesta but his close-range shot was wonderfully parried by Cech. The rebound seemed to take Fabregas by surprise and we sighed again.

On 19 minutes, a rare Chelsea chance resulted in Juan Mata slashing over the bar.

Soon after, Barcelona were awarded a corner down below me. As Messi slowly walked towards the corner flag and stooped to collect the ball, more than a few Chelsea fans in the MHU clapped his appearance and I was suitably impressed. We don’t usually do this sort of thing in England – apart from inside cricket grounds where opposing “boundaries” are often clapped by opposing fans – and this was a sure sign that the Chelsea public recognised talent when they saw it. Messi – so young, but so great – is already knocking on the door of Pele and Maradona.

As Barcelona’s possession mounted, I really wondered if we could keep up this constant defending for ninety minutes. Barcelona’s away support was relatively quiet; the only three chants I heard were “Bartha, Bartha, Batha”, “Meeeeee-si” and the club anthem which ends “ Bartha, Bar-tha, Baaaaaaaar-tha.”

Drogba was putting in a typical performance; strong in the air and winning defensive headers one minute, rolling around like he was the victim of a sniper’s bullet the next. He was clearly disrupting Barca’s flow, though whether he had been told to do this by club management is a moot point. I suspect not; I suspect it comes natural to him. I had hoped he could channel the frustration he felt after the 2009 “it’s a fcuking disgrace” game in the right way. However, despite his physical strength, he wasn’t a threat offensively and we were getting a little annoyed with his antics during the game.

The sky filled with misty rain as Barca passed the ball at will. The otherwise dependable Mikel lost possession amidst growls of discontent and the mercurial Messi set up Fabregas. His goal bound effort flew past Cech but slowed slightly, allowing the excellent Ashley Cole to back-pedal, re-adjust at the last minute, and hack the ball to safety with his favoured left peg.

Phew.

At 8.30pm, I received this text from Del, a Liverpool fan from work –

“Be nice to see you nick one. Reckon your boys have set up pretty well, great shape and rode your luck a couple of times. Only downside is that useless prick up front – twenty two and a half minutes on the deck, the other twenty two and a half offside.”

Within twenty seconds of receiving this text, Lampard robbed Messi on the half-way line and quickly pushed the ball to the rampaging Ramires. This was our chance and we knew it. I snapped a photo as the little Brazilian switched feet to play in a ball towards the six yard box. That man Didier arrived to sweep the ball in to the net, just missing the despairing dive of Valdes and we were 1-0 up. Despite a rush of blood, I remained calm enough for five seconds to snap the ensuing huddle down near where Parky resides. After, I bellowed a euphoric “YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSS!”

And then, at 8.32pm – a text to Del.

“You were saying?”

Oh boy…one shot on goal, one goal, one delirious Stamford Bridge.

At the break, Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink was on the pitch, and Journey were on the PA.

“Don’t Stop Believing” is a totally incongruous song to be played at a football ground in England; it certainly says nothing at all about our life as UK Chelsea fans. But I can understand why the club chose to play it.

“Don’t Stop Believing” indeed.

The second-half performance by Chelsea will go down in the annals of our club as one of the most resolute and brave performances the spectators at Stamford Bridge has ever seen.

Barcelona began again strongly. Adriano drew a superb save from Cech. Sanchez shot inexplicably wide of Cech’s post. Alves blasted over. Block after block – Cahill, Terry, Mikel – stopped Barcelona’s goal-bound efforts. Despite his detractors, even Meireles was putting in a solid shift. The only player under-performing was Juan Mata, but he is not built for defensive duties and can hardly be blamed for the game passing him by. Barcelona enjoyed several centrally-placed free-kicks, but shots were either blocked (Messi) or ballooned over (Xavi). This was proving to be almost too difficult to watch; it was certainly too tense to enjoy. I was still in my shirt-sleeves. I avoided putting my jacket on as I superstitiously thought it would jinx things.

“We scored with my jacket off, let’s leave it off.”

When I was a kid, watching games with my parents, I had the same superstition with chewing gum. If we were winning, I’d keep the same piece of gum in my mouth. If we were losing, I’d discard it.

Old habits die hard.

The noise levels grew throughout the match as the crowd sensed that the boys needed our help. “Amazing Grace” was re-worked once again and this Proper Chelsea classic provided the backdrop to the second-half master class in defending –

“Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.”

The crowd did the boys proud. We didn’t neglect the watching Tottenham fans at home, either –

“We won 5-1,Wembley.”

“Harry For Tottenham.”

I was amazed how quickly I felt the time was going…60 minutes, 65 minutes, 70 minutes. The manager replaced Kalou for Mata – fresh legs. The Barcelona pressure continued. Our only chances in the second period involved a Frank Lampard corner, whipped in, but avoiding the trio of Chelsea players at the far post and a break involving a great pass from Drogba finding Kalou who dinked over Valdes’ bar.

Tick…tick…tick…

Another Messi free-kick with five minutes remaining. He chipped the ball in towards Puyol, who flicked the ball on with the deftest of touches. I was right in line with the flight of the ball as it bounced up towards the goal. It was surely the equaliser. Out of nowhere, Cech scrambled across to turn the ball away for a corner.

Superb. The save of the match.

Bosingwa on for the magnificent Ramires – more fresh legs.

The assistant linesman signaled just three minutes of time to be added on. I looked at my phone and it was 9.33pm.

9.36pm and we’re halfway to paradise.

Time for one last agonising moment as Messi moved the ball out to Pedro. He was well outside the box, at an angle, but his low drive avoided all players in the packed penalty area and struck Cech’s far post with a dull thud. The ball rebounded out to Busquets, who ballooned it high into the Chelsea fans in The Shed Upper.

It was 9.36pm.

The referee blew.

The Bridge roared and Alan, Alex and I smacked each other’s backs. I, for one, could not believe it. I had just witnessed a miracle. Of course, we had ridden our luck, but what a gutsy performance. I lost count of the number of blocks which our defenders used to thwart Barca. I was breathless and almost light-headed as the players clapped the crowd from the centre-circle. There was no overblown triumphalism from the team at the end. They knew we were only half-way there. But we have a foothold in this tie and we will, I am sure, go out to Barcelona with a plausible reason to be optimistic of our chances.

“One Step beyond” got us all bouncing.

I skipped past the Peter Osgood statue – I made the point of touching his leg as I passed – and quickly joined the line of around 100 fans collecting Barcelona away tickets. With great relief, I was handed my ticket. I met up with Steve from the NYBs, who was close to tears with emotion.

“That’s the best noise I’ve ever heard at Chelsea.”

The London night was now dirty and wet with rain, but inside our heads we were drugged-up with Chelsea. We met up with Parky and Jesus in The Goose to let the traffic subside. Rob and Les from nearby Melksham were enjoying “one last pint” and these two scallywags will be on the same 6.55am flight from Bristol as me on Tuesday.

What a beautiful night in Catalonia that could be.

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Tales From An April Evening

Chelsea vs. Benfica : 4 April 2012.

Chelsea went into the return leg with Benfica nursing a 1-0 lead from the first game the previous week. The advantage was clearly with us. However, during the day, I commented to a few friends that I was strangely subdued about the game in the evening. We were clearly in a great position to advance to the semi-final, but maybe it was the daunting task of facing the Barcelona colossus which was weighing heavy on my mind. I was also uneasy with us being in a relatively good position. We are usually faced with greater struggles on the path of that elusive first-ever Champions League trophy. I commented that it would certainly be a very odd evening if, for example, we glided into an early lead and then added another security goal in the second-half. As a Chelsea fan used to hardships and heartbreaks, that sort of scenario would be most surprising. I even had a title for my match report worked out; “Tales From UnChelsea.”

Well, I needn’t have worried. If ever there was a “typical Chelsea” performance, this was it.

I collected Parky from The Pheasant car park just before 4pm, just as a passing rainstorm had deposited a few drops of rain. He quickly scrambled inside, we shook hands – “here we go again, son” – and we departed. Parky was clearly under the weather; he had a bad cold and was suffering. There was even a slight risk of him not attending.

We chatted relentlessly on the drive east and the trip to HQ followed a typical pattern. We made good time until the approach into London, but then the traffic slowed. I eventually pulled in at 6.45pm. It had taken us almost three hours to travel 95 miles.

Inside The Goose, things were relatively quiet, but my closest Chelsea mates were gathered together. Time for a single pint. Jesus arrived late but we had just enough time for a small chat. I set off ahead of the rest as I wanted to get in to pin up the “VPN” banner. As I passed Fulham Broadway at 7.30pm, there was a lovely match day buzz taking place, with paces quickening, voices chattering. There were a few stray Benfica fans darting in and out of the moving mass of Chelsea supporters, but nowhere near the number of Napoli supporters in the previous round.

The façade of the West Stand was adorned with two large Champions League banners and, down below in a central position, the statue of Peter Osgood was standing out clearly.

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There was no line at the MHU turnstiles; remember the capacity of this stand is cut by around 4,000 for Champions League knock-out games. I sidled past a young couple and overheard the girl say in a broad London accent –

“Oh, I hate these scanners. I had trouble with them when I went to The Arsenal.”

I turned around just as her bloke gave her an old-fashioned look. I rolled my eyes and commented –

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.”

I got to my seat at 7.40pm and I scrambled up to the back wall of the upper tier to pin up “Vinci.” Steve gave me a hand and then went down to assist Daz with the unleashing of the flag. I reached my seat just as the teams appeared onto the pitch. We were all given free flags again and for a few fleeting moments, Stamford Bridge was a picture. Benfica’s fans were bristling with noise and colour in the opposite corner. I noted how bright the Benfica shirts were; almost a pink hue to their shirts. Benfica brought more flags than most other European teams to The Bridge. There was a Union Jack and a flag of St. Georges; clearly the London branch of their supporters club was out in force. I took a few photos; Champions League Nights are so photogenic, what with the teams walking past the fluttering CL flag and then the formal line-up, the stands rippling with colour. The balconies were festooned with Chelsea flags and banners; we had clearly made a special effort. The game was live on national television and we needed to make an impression. The match kicked off and I quickly scanned the line-up; I presumed we were keeping the 4-2-3-1 formation. Brana fit, Lamps in, Kalou in, Torres alone up front.

We began the match attacking “my” end, the Matthew Harding Stand, and it again felt strange. Benfica began strongly. However, a lovely volley from a lurking David Luiz was smashed in from an angle, but a Benfica defender blocked it. We hoped that further attacks would be soon cascading down on the Benfica goal. Just after, Juan Mata was clearly offside before he shot home and I really couldn’t believe how many fans in close proximity had cheered the goal. I quickly checked on the linesman, raising his flag, when I saw Mata break . Who are these people?

On twenty minutes, Ashley Cole raced on to a lofted ball, deep in the Benfica box, and was sent sprawling. Ashley threw up his arms in protest, but I wasn’t convinced from my angle. It looked like a confluence of bodies to me. My friend Alan had already taken an immediate dislike to the Slovenian referee, but we were both smiling when we saw him purposefully point to the penalty spot. As always, I thought back to the “four penalties that weren’t” against Barcelona and had a little chuckle to myself.

Amidst protests from the Benfica players, there was a long delay. The ‘keeper made a point of not retreating to his line and had a little staring duel with Frank Lampard, the anointed penalty taker. Frank dispatched the ball and the net rippled once more. He very rarely lets us down on Champions League nights from that penalty spot, does he?

David Luiz attempted a typically elaborate turn just inside his own half, but an extra touch lost him the ball amidst groans and jeers from the watching thousands. I pictured the scene in living rooms throughout the UK, from Penzance to Peterhead, from Bexleyheath to Barrow, with millions of armchair viewers berating our Brazilian centre-half.

On the half hour, a well-worked Benfica free-kick resulted in a John Terry clearance off the line. We take this sort of behaviour for granted at times – our captain’s positional sense has always been one of his very strongest skills – but it is always wonderful to see his blue shirt appear at the right place at the right time again and again. We breathed a massive sigh of relief as Brana hacked away the loose ball.

Benfica were in the ascendency, no doubts. I was too busy taking a photograph to see the “studs-up” challenge by Pereira on Mikel. The crowd were soon letting the referee know it was his second yellow and off he went. So much for the “UEFA Hate Chelsea” conspiracy-theorists, we had been given a penalty and Benfica were now down to ten men. Amongst all this, the noise wasn’t great; we could sense that Benfica were still capable of scoring. However, in the closing seconds of the first-half, Ramires sent over a tempting cross which avoided the ‘keeper, but also missed the run of Torres by a few feet. It was only one of a few chances we had crafted in that first forty-five minutes.

At half-time, Alan and I chatted about the half. We had been out-shot by Benfica and had ridden our luck. We spoke about an incident which had taken place mid-way through the half. Juan Mata had been strongly-tackled and the ball ran out for a throw-in, but Mata had been sent sprawling down below us. The crowd roared for a free-kick and Mata stared hard at the referee. It seemed to me that the referee didn’t really think it was a foul, but bowed to crowd pressure and the earnest reaction of Mata, who is not a diver, and gave us the free-kick. It was an insightful piece of play which taught me how difficult it must be to ref at such a high intensity game. Rather them than me.

At the break, Neil Barnett posed a conundrum. The half-time guest was a player, a centre-back, from the early-sixties who had since gone on to manage Benfica. I was stumped. I knew that Alan Harris had been with Terry Venables at Barcelona, but didn’t know he had been involved with Benfica.

It was John Mortimore, who briefly appeared on the pitch for a rousing reception.

Neil Barnett 1 Chris Axon 0.

The second-half began with a superb save from Petr Cech after Cardozo’s effort was heading towards a top corner. The artistry and athleticism from our great ‘keeper in that one moment was just amazing to watch at close quarters. Aimar was narrowly wide just after.

At the other end, the previously quiet Kalou sent a low ball across which was met by an unrushing Ramires. From my vantage point, some 100 yards away, all I saw was a blue shirt and the ball then somehow bouncing away from the goal. My immediate thought was –

“Oh God, that wasn’t Torres was it?”

A Benfica player speculatively struck a lob from way out which didn’t trouble the Chelsea goal. At the other end, Fernando Torres nimbly turned and worked the ball so he could caress the ball in to the left-hand side of the goal. We held our breath, but the shot was deflected for a corner. Just after, a nice little move involving Mata playing a “one two” with another Chelsea player but the shot was saved.

John Terry was substituted by Gary Cahill. Like for like.

Benfica still enjoyed a lot of the ball and had a flurry of chances. Sturdy challenges and well-timed blocked from the Chelsea rear guard stopped an equaliser. Kalou missed a great chance. We grew tense.

The Benfica fans were not the loudest European visitors, but I noted a chant midway through the second-half which struck a chord. I couldn’t, of course, decipher the chant completely, but the words “Michel Platini” rang out clear. I filled in the dots…I guessed that it was something like “Michel Platini – You Got Your Wish” or “Michel Platini – You Only Like Big Teams.” It seems that Platini is disliked by fans all over Europe. It made me smile when I realised that Benfica felt aggrieved too. Platini ranks as one of the very best European players of all time; he was certainly a magical touch player at Juventus, wearing that number 10 shirt, helping to define the role of a “Number Ten” player in fact. However, despite his strengths as a player, he is clearly disliked these days; I still laugh when I think of my Juventus mate Tullio now calling him a “son of a bitch” in his UEFA role.

I commented to Alan that I could rarely remember the time dragging like this one. Sixty minutes played…seventy minutes played…we were a man up, but it certainly seemed that Benfica were playing with a spare man. The clock ticked slowly on…Meireles on for Mata.

On 84 minutes, that man Cech stretched again to prevent Djalo scoring, but the resultant corner ended with a goal. The ball was swung in and Garcia ran unmarked to leap unhindered from a central position. It was a truly shocking goal to concede. The Bridge grew nervier still. Going out was now a distinct possibility and we all felt our emotions being intensified. I leaned forward and concentrated further.

“Come On Boys.”

At last there was noise. The Bridge responded with great bellows of “Chelsea Chelsea Chelsea Chelsea.”

Didier Drogba replaced Fernando Torres. If only he had been on the pitch to head away that corner as so often is his role. There was a very nervy moment when Benfica broke through the offside trap on 87 minutes – it looked offside to me – but a weak shot didn’t trouble Petr Cech.

Deep inside stoppage time, the ball was cleared towards Raul Meireles. I watched his dramatic run from deep through the lens of my camera…I took two snaps as his strong run continued and as he unleashed a goal bound strike, I snapped again. I hardly saw the ball slam into the net, but I certainly heard the roar.

Get In!

I saw Meireles run towards Parky Corner and the Chelsea players joined him. Around us, we were roaring.

We were safe.

That run must rank alongside the cherished John Spencer run and goal against Austria Memphis in the autumn of 1994. It was truly a phenomenal strike. It reminded me, in its timing and execution, of the famous Geoff Hurst goal in 1996 too.

“It Is Now.”

There was a lovely feeling as I bounced down the Fulham Road. We darted into The Goose to celebrate with Jesus, from Mexico, and Rob, from Wiltshire. The air of contentment was tempered slightly by the fact that we were now due to face our old Catalan foes FCB once more. Parky was still feeling ropey but finished off his pint as Rob and his mates chatted about flights to Barcelona. Jesus’ face was a picture; he’s a lucky lad. He’ll be there in Barcelona.

We meet Tottenham on the Sunday and we play Barcelona on the Wednesday. My immediate view would be for us to prioritise the Spurs game. We have a 50% chance of beating Spurs. I’d say we have a 20% chance of beating Barca. In a nutshell, I can stomach losing to Barca, but I cannot – and will not – contemplate losing at Wembley to Tottenham. If di Matteo is mulling over his team selection options for Wembley, my advice to him would be to play his strongest eleven against Spurs. With any luck, Spurs will struggle and we’ll easily dismiss them. Then, on the Wednesday, play whoever is fit and up for it…don’t plan for two games Robbie; plan for Tottenham, then see what state of fitness and mind we are in for the Champions League game.

But then again, who am I? I’m not the manager.

We made great time on the return home to a sleeping West of England. Although Parky was still very groggy, we chatted about our crazy season. Never in my wildest dreams, back in August, did I think we would reach the Champions League semi-finals this year. For our games with Barca, we need a repeat of our performances against Valencia and Napoli. If anything, our faltering performance against Benfica should at least remind us all that we must not be complacent.

It’s a tough ask, isn’t it? I’m just glad we are at home first and I hope we can scramble together a foot-hold in the tie. If we were to play away first, maybe the tie would be all over too soon.

We return to the seemingly mundane league over the Easter Weekend with two games in three days at venues just two miles apart. I have a feeling that our collective minds will be elsewhere, but six points will do very nicely.

Let’s go.

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Tales From The Heart

Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 6 May 2009.

Our club has reached five Champions League Semi-Finals in the last six years – this is a phenomenal achievement. Let’s not lose track of how far we have travelled. I have been detailing our exploits 25 years ago to give some idea of contrast to the current season and, I have to say, such accomplishments back in those days would have been scoffed at. It would have been totally unbelievable. Utter craziness to even think about it.

During the day, I exchanged a few emails and texts with a few mates who had Rome in mind. Yet again, the Mancs had got to the flights first, leaving us with the scraps. A day trip was looking like £450, so we had a plan of flying to Nice, a train to Milan ( passing through my old haunt of Diano Marina ) and a train to Rome…around £250.

I tried not to think about the game too much during the day, but I knew that nerves would eventually get the better of me.

I tried to get away for 4pm, but was only able to leave at 4.20pm…these minutes make all the difference on the congested M4. Parky was accompanying me yet again – his payment would be a dozen eggs from his chickens and two pints of lager in The Goose. There was the usual constant batter about football and music as we headed east. To be fair, we made good time and made the pub at 6.30pm…just enough to say all we had to say to the boys, who were in a little corner of the beer garden. Burger had collected his brace of tickets from Alan and had left for the ground for some pre-match atmosphere. I am sure he wasn’t disappointed.

Parky got the beers in – The Goose still provides outstanding value…he bought a pitcher of four pints of Carling for just £7.50. The beer went down well. Our group was about ten strong and I noted that four of us were wearing classic Lacoste polos.

Walnuts – pink
Blow Monkey – racing green
Rob – mid blue
Myself – navy blue

To complete the picture – Parky had a black Lacoste baseball cap and Ed had a navy Lacoste pullover.

I stood on the table and took a photo of The Bing, all smiling confidently…for the moment. To be fair, talk was more of travel to Rome than of the game ahead, but I was now getting very nervous. I had predicted, in an email to a guy from a supplier ( Chelsea fan ) during the day that the score would be 1-1. Overall, others were more confident than me.

We left the boozer at 7.15pm and the area around the ground was heaving. I had the distinct impression that a lot of fans had travelled in to watch in the adjacent pubs, of which there are a good twenty-five within ten minutes of the stadium. Good vibes walking in behind The West Stand…I took some snaps of the CL banners adorning the area. Parky was watching down below me in the MHL. I reached my seat at 7.30pm – easy! – and spent a good few minutes walking around nervously, chatting to faces that I have got to know since my season-ticket era began in 1997. Everyone was edgy and my view was that “it could go either way…very tight, they could score three, we could too.”

As “Blue Is The Colour” was heartily sung by us all, the place looked a picture. The 3,000 away fans had their yellow and red Catalonia flags and their distinctive deep red and navy FCB scarves. Elsewhere, the Chelsea support waved the white and blue flags…and down below in the MHL, the iconic “Pride Of London” flag floated along. It was a wonderful sight. The Champions League “ball” in the centre circle was waved, the anthem began and the teams strode onto the green turf. The fading sun seemed to tint the back wall of the hotel a subtle pink colour.

I stood the entire game. For the first time that I can remember, a large section of The Shed Upper did the same.

First impressions were that Barca were continuing in the same fashion as the first leg. I noticed Messi was being deployed in the middle of their attack. Barca were full of crisp passing. The Chelsea support were doing a good job and I noted lots of people close by who normally sit in silence joining in. Good signs. I thought back to my school days, circa 1973, and here I was at a Chelsea game…at an actual game…”Chelsea – clap, clap, clap, Chelsea – clap, clap, clap.” It made me proud. Here I was – being part of it.

Then, a high ball came out to Michael Essien.

A shot.

We all stood in awe as the ball ( hit with his left foot! ) crashed goalwards…it smacked the bar and bounced down. We waited…we waited for what seemed like ages for the ball to bounce back up…we waited…until it hit the netting and the place erupted.

YES! Get in! Get in! I punched the air…I stood on my little platform to my right ( how many goals have I celebrated there! ) and then had a moment of awareness…we were winning…I took a deep breath and roared again. My voice has never been more loud. I looked down at Alan and we motioned towards each other –

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

Soon after, I said to Alan “don’t get the lucky wine gums out – save them for Rome” just at the exact moment he took them out of his pocket to offer me one. Superstitions, eh? Last season for the CL semi, I wore a Yankees jacket and cap…this year, they were in my bag. Alan held his lucky Osgood badge the entire game.

Phew. We were winning. A few texts came in from Planet Chelsea. Barca continued to pass the ball around us, but Messi only really had one mesmeric dribble through the middle…balls were played too high, too wide…they were wasting all of their possession. The noise quietened as Barca continued their dominance. They were using a delicate scalpel to cut us open. We used a hammer. Midway through the half, I bumped into a guy who I had first met in Vienna for the Chelsea game in 1994. Even that seemed like light years away. In 1994, we were naïve Euro novices…in 2009, we were the real deal. I spotted “Tubes” from “Soccer AM” too.

I captured JT’s great leap and header on film. We had a few chances, but not many.

The two first-half “penalties” were down the other end to us. I didn’t get a clear view of the Malouda one, but the Drogba one looked borderline…I think Didier’s reputation preceded him though. On the TV screens at the break, both challenges looked like more certain penalties and the crowd booed their disapproval.

The second-half continued in much the same way as the first. Lots of Barca pressure with Iniesta and Xavi seeing so much of the ball. Our defence was magnificent, but I felt the midfield surrendered too much space to the influential Barca playmakers. Cole was shackling Messi. Malouda was tracking back well and offering good movement going forward. He is the club’s most improved player since March.

Within a manic period, Drogba shot at the Barca keeper and Frank blasted wide.

Oh boy.

The support roused itself, but then the nerves took over. Pockets of support all over the ground tried their best to get it going, but the result wasn’t coherent. Barca obviously sang, but we didn’t hear them over the general hubbub.

Anelka was through on goal and a rough challenge…a red card! It surprised me as another defender was close by. Things were looking good, but we didn’t seize the chance. We didn’t stretch them.

Twenty minutes to go…a Barca goal, I had to keep reminding myself, would kill us. I watched the clock like never before. Still Chelsea’s midfield gave up too much space.

Work!

Anelka through on goal right down below us and Pique handles. This is the one – this is the one where the conspiracy theorists will go to town. It was a penalty, referee…it was a penalty.We screamed our abhorrence.

Ten minutes to go. I daren’t talk to Alan. I daren’t upset the karma.

Five minutes to go…86…87…88…89…Come on boys.

“We’re going to Rome, we’re going to Rome …F your history, we’re going to Rome.” What a city to win the Big One….

The PA announced “four minutes of extra time.” I glanced at my phone and it was 9.33pm. By 9.37pm, it would be all over. All was quiet…I kept glancing at Alan, not knowing what to say.

Then, a flat ball in to the edge of the “D” and a wild swipe at the ball from that man Iniesta.

“No!”

It looked a goal as soon as it left his foot. It seemed to spin further away from the stretching Cech…it hit the back of the net and I stood, mouth open, still…motionless…disbelieving…for five or ten seconds. My body did not move. My eyes acknowledged the away support falling over themselves.

Then – a few spectacularly odd and random thoughts crashed into my mind.

We’re out.

Not this year.

Never.

Not like this please!

Not after the two Liverpool defeats in 2005 and 2007.

No trip to Rome.

No added expense.

More money for America.

No need for holiday cover at work.

Guilt for thinking these things.

Sadness.

Self pity.

All those plans for Rome.

Snap out of it Chris – COME ON!

An inner smile.

More guilt.

Blow up ref – put us out of our misery.

Then – a corner…camera poised for the Greatest Goal Ever Bar None. Cech raced upfield. A delay added to the tension.

One last chance. The corner kick, and a scramble, click, click, click…a shot…handball!

The agony of the referee not blowing for the penalty.

The sadness.

I slowly and quietly left the stadium, bumping into a few mates on the way back to the car.

“We’re making a bloody habit of this aren’t we?”

Gallows humour.

I was OK – I was numb really. I think I was OK.

Parky and myself talked through the shared experience of yet another CL semi defeat as I drove west…we came out with some home-spun philosophy on the way home. We were fine. We’d seen worse, much worse.

We were Chelsea.

As I dropped him off at 12.45am…”take care, mate…see you Sunday.”

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