Tales From The Johan Cruyff Arena

Ajax vs. Chelsea : 23 October 2019.

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

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

Johan Cruyff.

What a name.

What a player.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Strippers and whores, Ivanovic scores.”

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

All these memories, what lucky souls we are.

2013

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

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

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

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

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

The home areas were full of white and red mosaics.

One huge banner was draped at the opposite end.

“VASTBERADEN.”

Determined.

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

The team, I guess, had chosen itself.

Arrizabalaga.

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Zouma – Alonso

Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Mount – Hudson-Odoi

Abraham

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

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

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

Amsterdam Casuals.

A Stone Island logo.

F-Side.

Perry Boys.

A mod logo.

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

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

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

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

Ajax : red and white.

Feyenoord : red, white and black.

PSV : red and white.

Sparta Rotterdam : red and white.

Utrecht : red and white.

AZ Alkmaar : red and white.

Twente Enschede : red.

Any ideas?

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

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

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

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

We were all stood.

We sang when we could be heard.

Thankfully, the noise from the Southern end was subsiding.

Gary continually took the piss out of Daley Blind.

“You should stick to walking football, Blind.”

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

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

The home fans made a bloody racket alright.

Bollocks.

We were 1-0 down.

But, wait.

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

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

We waited. And waited.

No goal. Offside.

I did not cheer.

Alan and myself just looked at each other.

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

Chris : “You and me both.”

Hundreds did cheer though.

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you go to that Gal?”

“Yeah.”

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

Hitchcock

Hall – Johnsen – Sinclair – Dow

Donaghy – Hoddle – Wise – Peacock

Cascarino – Fleck

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

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

1993

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

Phew.

“COME ON CHELS.”

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

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

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

This is it, we thought.

This is fucking it.

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

Bollocks.

Behind me, an altercation between two fans about Michy.

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

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

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

BOOM.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

The screams from myself and others were wild and unrelenting.

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

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

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

The Chelsea reprised the Bob Marley song.

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

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

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

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

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

2019

Tales From Super Bock City

Sporting Lisbon vs. Chelsea : 30 September 2014.

Monday 29 September 2014.

This was a long-awaited trip to Lisbon in Portugal for our first Champions League away game of 2014-2015. Of course, there were many reasons for this; relaxation, travel, football, comradeship and all of the standard words and hackneyed phrases could be thrown in to the mix. But there was one distinct reason why this “European Away” would be a little bit special; it would be Parky’s first Chelsea away in Europe since the ECWC Final in Stockholm in 1998. Of course, I never knew him then as our paths would cross a few years later. But we’ve become solid mates over the past five or six seasons. It hurts me to say that Parky missed Moscow, Munich and Amsterdam and all other cities too since that memorable night in Sweden over sixteen years ago. This would hopefully be a thoroughly enjoyable trip for him.

I woke at 3am – truly the dead of night – and, in an hour, I was off on another adventure over land and sea. It would be my twenty-ninth away game in Europe with Chelsea.

It was a foggy drive through the dark Somerset and Wiltshire countryside on the twenty-five minute trip to collect Parky. I had decided to call him “Parkao” for this trip and this trip only.

I soon sent a text to Alan in London to let him know that I was on the road.

“Jak Kerouacao.”

He replied “Reg Varney.”

He was on a night bus in order to catch a coach up to Stansted Airport.

Parkao was buzzing as I collected him at 4.30am. We drove through Bath, and then headed up to Bristol Airport for our 7.05am Easyjet flight to Faro. The check-in process was delayed a few moments as Parkao’s metal leg brace set off the security alarms. After several attempts, he was successfully scanned.

He cost £1.72.

Once on the plane, I texted Alan again :

“Freddy Laker.”

He replied “Al Murray.”

He was obviously in the bar at Stansted. We would be all in the same hotel later in the day.

There was a slight delay as we waited for the food for the flight to arrive. The steward lost some credibility when he claimed that they needed the food on the plane to help balance the load. I remarked to Parkao “I’ve never heard a plane crash ‘cus it was missing a few sandwiches.” Eventually, we were up, up and away over Somerset, Devon and then over the channel, France, Spain and Portugal. We grabbed a little sleep. The time soon passed. The only surprise was that there was no other Chelsea on it. We were headed to Faro, on The Algarve, because the only option out of Bristol to Lisbon involved a Sunday to Thursday stay. The plane touched down at a sun-drenched Faro at around 9.45am. We caught the 11am “Vera” coach to Lisbon and we could relax.

I first visited Lisbon on the third of my Inter-Railing trips around Europe by train in 1987. I and two college mates – Ian and Trev – had graduated in the June and had worked a few jobs over the summer in order to get away for three weeks in September. We arrived in Lisbon’s Santa Apolonia station after an overnight train from Madrid. My memory is that we only stayed a couple of hours in the Portugal capital – just passing through on the way to The Algarve – but my diary entry for Tuesday 15 September 1987 informs me that we arrived at 9am, and caught the 2.10pm ferry over the River Tagus to Barreiro, so were in the city for longer than I thought. There was time for a stroll around the streets – the weather was very hot – and also time for a couple of beers in a street side café. I remember being taken aback by the sad sight of beggars without limbs at the station, and several people tried to sell us some hash. I also remember fake Lacoste polo shirts on sale by the ferry terminal, which abutted the main square. The city looked fascinating, with ornate architecture, wide piazzas and there were hints of a rich history. It felt horrible to be only in town for four hours. As the ferry took us over the massive river, I vowed to return one day.

I believe that Chelsea played Benfica in a friendly around fifteen years ago and also – for certain – in the 2011/2012 Champions League season, but I did not attend those games in Lisbon. Of course, our defeat by Atletico Madrid last April meant that there would be no Chelsea trip to Lisbon in May 2014, either. However, I had already booked a flight to Lisbon and hotel in Albufeira and so decided to go over for a few days’ break anyway. Hundreds of other Chelsea fans had exactly the same opinion. My stay in Lisbon in May was even shorter than in 1987. Before catching a train south, I just had time for a few beers in a quiet bar near the slightly run-down area around the Entre Campos station.

As I sat, alone, in that small bar it felt like I should be there for a Chelsea game. It was a very odd sensation. I kept expecting friends to poke their heads around the door to join me for a brew. Little did I know that I would be back in just over four months and that the hotel I would choose would only be half-a-mile away from that very bar.

It was a fine, relaxing trip north. The coach was air-conditioned and the scenery – at first the white villas of The Algarve, then the green hills, then the arid farmland – was excellent. We caught up on yet more sleep – maybe an hour at most – before we eventually noticed the suburbs around Setubal. We soon saw the deep red supports of the April 25 Bridge, which majestically spans the River Tagus, then the formidable statue of Christ the King which looks down on humanity from the south bank of the river. It is very similar to the Christ the Redeemer in Rio. We were soon heading over the bridge and our welcome to Lisbon could not have been any more dramatic. The city centre, kissed by a hot afternoon sun, and shimmering to our right, looked magnificent, with hills rising up from the river to the suburbs in the distance. I spotted the iconic Monument to the Discoveries, on the river bank, to my left. With an eye for such things, I soon spotted the spindles of the Belenenses floodlights too. They are the city’s third football team, and if we are to believe, Jose Mourinho’s first love. He played for them many years ago, though not to any great standard. Ahead, was the aqueduct, which I photographed from the train in May. The city was quite beguiling. It was fantastic.

“What a welcome, Parkao.”

We soon located our hotel and had a little chat with the receptionists.

“Are you over here for the football?”

“Yes…Chelsea.”

“Tomorrow, we are with you.”

They were the first of the many Benfica fans that we would encounter during our stay.

A helpful lady assisted in our fumbling attempts to buy metro tickets and we soon alighted at Restauradores in the heart of the city. The sun was beating down and everything looked perfect. We spotted Alan and Gary outside a bar in the corner of Praca Dom Pedro IV. The steins of Superbock – around two pints apiece – were just seven euros. A few familiar Chelsea fans – Brighton Tony and his mates – joined us, then a few others.

“And relax.”

The only negative part of all this was the ridiculous amount of flies which kept buzzing around.

“Maybe there’s a Spurs fan nearby.”

We spent the best part of three hours sat outside in the afternoon sun and it was just brilliant. On the subway back to the hotel, we were a giggling quartet of silliness.

Parkao was in his element.

From Gary and Alan there was an array of double-entendres. The ensuing ribald laughter from all four of us caused a few glances to be aimed our way.

“I hope none of you can speak English” I begged to the others in the compartment.

After a quick shower, we were out on the town at 8.30pm. We headed south again, but had no idea where we would end up. We decided to go for a meal in an Italian restaurant on the large piazza which overlooks the river, and where I undoubtedly visited, albeit briefly, in 1987. We were soon joined by my mate Foxy, who I first met in Tokyo for the 2012 World Club Championships. He was with his good lady Ashley and also Kev, a Hearts and Chelsea supporter from Edinburgh. The banter began again. The restaurant was superb, though quite quiet. It was, after all, only a Monday.

I politely enquired what factors resulted in Kev becoming a Chelsea fan. Foxy supports Dundee United – fine by me, I’ve had a soft spot for them since Peter Bonetti and Eamonn Bannon signed for them in 1979 – and his Chelsea roots are well known to me. I was just intrigued to hear Kev’s story. I’m well aware of the Chelsea/Rangers link, and also the Chelsea/Hearts partnership. You often see Rangers and Hearts flags at our away games. I suppose I wanted to know what inspired Kev to choose us as his other team. His reply pleased me; he mentioned Eamonn Bannon, who we signed from the Jambos in 1979, but also mentioned the name of Tommy Walker, a famous Hearts player, manager and director, who also played for us in the immediate post-war years. Additionally, for seven successive seasons in the ‘forties and ‘fifties, Chelsea played friendlies against Heart of Midlothian at the behest of Tommy Walker; at Tynecastle one year, at The Bridge the next. I mentioned my two visits to Tynecastle – the first way back in 1982 – and we became misty-eyed with the thoughts of those deep terraces, maroon stands, claustrophobic setting amidst the Gorgie tenements and the odorous fumes wafting over the spectators from the nearby brewery.

After another beer with a few more Chelsea fans outside another bar, we decided to take a cab to the lively Bairro Alto to the immediate west of the centre. The cab turned and twisted up steep and narrow streets until we reached the summit. Small sets of traffic lights allowed single-file cars to drive small sections of narrow roads. We peered in to an Irish bar as some Chelsea fans were singing “Willian.” The area was jumping. For a Monday night, it was amazing. Street vendors tried to sell us all sorts of tat. We took refuge in a small bar as it pumped out some dance music. I began with a mojito, and then got stuck into three morangoska cocktails, which were just unbelievable. These were made with strawberries, blackberry juice, sugar and vodka. They were beastly black. They tasted magnificent but were undoubtedly evil.

As the night grew older, there were more giggles bouncing off the buildings of Bairro Alto.

“Having a good time, Parkao?”

“It sure beats Trowbridge on a Monday night, son.”

There were back-packing types, international students, and locals milling around the cobbled streets, filling the night air with alcohol-induced merriment. My memories are unsurprisingly vague…

However, rather disappointingly, the bars closed at 2am and we shuffled along, past a posse of chanting Chelsea fans, towards a cab rank. We reluctantly returned back to the hotel. It will surprise nobody to hear that we did not discuss the game once the whole night.

One photo, sadly deleted in error, showed all four of us in the hotel lift, pointing our tongues out; all were blackberry black.

It had been a top night in Lisbon.

Tuesday 30 September 2014.

At 9am my alarm sounded just as I had dreamt that Andre Schurrle had raced past an opponent, reached the goal-line and pulled back a cross for Bobby Isaac to head home.

Morongoskas will do that to you, I guess.

Surprisingly, I was only a little, er, “delicate” in the morning. I was – thankfully – able to join the boys downstairs for an excellent breakfast. We decided to take Alan’s advice to utilise a hop-on / hop-off Lesbian (sorry – Lisbon) sightseeing bus tour. It only took a few minutes of Portuguese sunshine and fresh air for the last lingering remnants of a hangover to disperse.

Flies.

For the next two hours, we toured Lisbon and relaxed. We were driven down majestic streets, flanked by houses of various shades, some with tiles and mosaics, and some with gables and delicate balconies. We were driven through wide piazzas with statues, obelisks and fountains. We were driven up ramps which afforded stunning views of the city centre, baking in the September sun, and equally pleasing vistas of the wide, fast flowing Tagus. Out at Belem, having been driven under the momentous April 25 Bridge, we were driven past the ornate monastery, the quaint Belem Tower, then the piece de resistance; the Monument to the Discoveries. This is a stunning sculpture, depicting the various leading lights from the time when Portugeezers ruled the waves, and it is a statue that I have wanted to see in person for years. We decided there and then to return to Belem on the Wednesday. The bus returned us to the city centre, passing yet more fine houses, but also a funky mixture of more modern buildings, the type of which we never seem to get in the UK.

Flies.

To be truthful, I only half-heartedly listened to the audio guide during the tour – I was too busy taking photographs and chatting to Parkao – but  the overly cheerful Englishman’s voice did not mention sport during the entire two hours. This is a pet peeve of mine. Why do city guides – books, video, audio – continually neglect sport in their range of topics covered? Only a few days before the trip, I had bought a fine guide book on Lisbon, but within the 192 pages, there is just this pathetic entry about football :

“Lisbon’s main football stadiums, built for the 2004 European Football Championships, are Estadio Jose Alvalade and Estadio da Luz. The Portuguese football cup finals are held at the Estadio Nacional-Junior.”

There was no mention of Benfica, nor Sporting Lisbon, nor Eusebio, nor Luis Figo and the golden generation, nor Cristiano Ronaldo, nor Jose Mourinho. Yet two whole pages about music and three whole pages about bloody shopping. For many in Lisbon, football is at the centre of their lives, and the two – sorry, three – clubs within the city are surely worthy of more attention than this.

Flies.

Parkao and I split up from Alan and Gary and we slowly walked down through the centre, stopping off for a bite to eat and a drink at a café, before finding ourselves at the water’s edge, just south of the grand Praca Do Comercio. From here, there is a stunning view of Christ the King, arms outstretched. I wondered if anyone has attempted to put a Benfica or Sporting scarf around the neck. In Glasgow, you can be sure of it…

During the entire day, I had seen just one green and white hooped shirt of Sporting Lisbon. We returned to our hotel to freshen up, and then hopped on to the subway bound for the stadium. At last, there were now some football colours on show. We reached Campo Grande – the stop adjacent the home end of the stadium – and decided to try to get a drink in a nearby bar. Unlike other parts of Europe, there doesn’t appear to be a significantly violent underbelly in Portuguese football, and we were not met with any animosity throughout our stay. Lisbon, it seemed, was proving to be a near perfect city.

We began making our way across a dusty car park, when we stumbled across a chap with an ice box selling cans of Super Bock for 1.5 euros.

“Get in Parkao, son.”

“Superb.”

This was perfect. We then found another vendor selling them for one euro each.

“God bless the black market Parkao, let’s buy two more each.”

Sporting fans drifted past us wearing a variety of shirts, from various vintages. The main two stadia in Lisbon are within a mile of each other and, in both cases, were built adjacent to the original stadia of each club. I suspected that the car park where we were stood once housed the previous Sporting ground.

Estadio Jose Alvalade is brightly coloured outside, with green roof supports, multi-coloured panels, green-tinted windows, and plenty of space for non-football activities. Whereas Benfica’s stadium resembles The Emirates, though slightly bigger, the Sporting Lisbon stadium is only two-tiered, yet seems huge from the outside. We walked around, buoyed by a quick intake of Super Bock, and entered the stadium at the away turnstiles. Sadly, I had to hand my telephoto lens in, but I was assured it would come to no harm. All of the stewards were pleasant. Inside the concourse, both Chelsea and Sporting fans were able to mix, which was a new one on me. Here was another clue that hooliganism wasn’t particularly rife in Portugal.

It was “sit where you want” and so we squeezed in alongside some friends. Gary and Alan were four rows in front. We were behind the corner flag. It was an impressive stadium, the fans in the lower tier were tight behind the goals, but the stands stood way back at the sides. Below, underneath, was a massive moat. The ultras in the home end were already in full voice and many flags and banners were being waved. Hanging from the roof on the far side were large banners depicting the starting eleven of the home team.

As the teams were read out, Nemanja Matic received loud boos, since he of course played for the hated Benfica.

A couple of friends texted me to say that they had spotted Parkao and myself on the TV.

Flies.

As the anthem played, a huge banner was unfurled from the top tier opposite :

“We Are Sporting.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9cz9NbHv7Qs&feature=youtu.be

The teams entered the pitch and we were wearing the all yellow kit of Goodison Park. I ran through the team; Filipe Luis in for Dave, Schurrle for Willian. Oh, and a start for Parkao.

After just one minute, Oscar put Diego Costa clear. We held our breath as he stroked the ball low. Surely we would get off to a dream start. Alas not; we saw the ball deflected wide after a block by the Sporting ‘keeper Patricio. Not to be perturbed, we continued to attack and were clearly on top in the early stages. We were in fine voice too. The lower tier was packed at the front, leading to some great “togetherness.” Copious amounts of Super Bock and Sagres helped too. I kept looking across at Parkao and he was loving it.

In the build up to the game, I wondered if Sporting’s new signing from Dundee United – yes, them again – Ryan Gauld, might play a part during the evening, but there was no place for him neither in the team nor on the bench. Instead, Nani was the one familiar face and it wasn’t long before he was serenaded –

“You’re just a shit Michael Jackson.”

The Ultras – Torcida Verde – at the other end were in good voice too and their chanting was relentless. At one stage, I counted twenty flags being frantically waved, though others appeared and then disappeared throughout the evening.

Andre Schurrle then missed three good chances in three minutes. First he rounded the ‘keeper but hit the side netting from a tight angle. A tame header was then fielded easily by Patricio. Then, a low shot, again easily saved. After his 184 wayward shots on goal during the Bolton game, this was getting all too familiar. A few fans nearby wanted to see him subbed already.

I rolled my eyes.

Next, it would be me rolling my eyes. A great run from Hazard set up Diego Costa, who rolled the ball towards Schurrle. We all growled as he pushed the ball well wide of the Sporting goal.

“At least get it on target.”

Ugh.

Soon after, a free-kick on our left was played deep towards the leaping Nemanja Matic, who rose purposefully and sent a looping, dipping header over the stranded goalie and into the net.

YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.

GET IN MATIC!

THE BENFICA BOY!

Almost immediately, a few fans behind me got going with a new song, at first a quiet murmur, but then growing stronger with each rendition.

“Matic.

In the middle of our pitch, Matic.

In the middle of our pitch, Matic.

In the middle of our pitch, Matic.”

I loved that. Suggs would too.

Nice one.

Then, soon after –

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

There were a few half chances for Lisbon, but we were well on top. A handball appeal against Gary Cahill was waved away and the first-half ended with boos ringing in the ears of the referee as the players and officials left the field.

Boos welcomed the referee back on the pitch at the start of the second-half. The natives were clearly restless.

Down below us, we spotted Rob, who came to spend a few minutes with us. He told a warming story. He pointed down at Chelsea fan Charlie, who was with four Benfica ultras. They had been given tickets in our end as an act of thanks for what they did in honour of a Chelsea fan that sadly passed away ahead of the Chelsea vs. Benfica Europa Cup Final in Amsterdam last year. They had spotted on a Chelsea chat site that Blind Gerry, known to many at our club, had passed away just hours after a game at Stamford Bridge. In his honour, they created a banner in memory of Gerry and flew it in Amsterdam before gifting it to Gerry’s friends.

Class.

It was great to have those four among us.

Nani threatened with a curler, but then wasted a great chance when he flicked the ball to…er…nobody, allowing us to clear. The game was remarkably open. Mourinho must have hated it.

Then, a firm shot from Diego Costa which was blocked. Just after, Filipe Luis dropped a ball over the square Sporting back line and Oscar raced through with just the ‘keeper to beat. He appeared to have too much time, and seemingly froze. The keeper foiled us again.

Nani again was involved at the other end, having two shots on goal, but Courtois was largely untested. We begged for a second goal. This was becoming tense.

Diego Costa, with a tremendous burst of pace, flew past Mauricio, but the Sporting defender cruelly blocked him. Costa looked hurt, but it was the defender who was stretchered off. It was a moment which seemed to derail Lisbon for a few moments. However, their fans still sang heartily throughout the second-half. At one point, with them singing their version of “Fields of Athenry” and with their fans holding their scarves aloft, you could easily be mistaken for thinking the game was being played in the East End of Glasgow. I even saw a U2 “Boy” flag.

Willian replaced the hard-working but wasteful Schurrle, then Mikel took over from Oscar. With Mourinho now using Matic and Mikel as a shield, surely our defence would hold firm. Fabregas pushed up.

Diego Costa hit the side netting, and then shot wide after a delightful defence-splitting ball from Matic had set him free. Filipe Luis broke free down in front of us, but his ball into the six yard box evaded everyone. How we begged for another goal. Sporting had a curler which went just wide. In the final five minutes, the Chelsea support roused itself magnificently with the loudest rendition of “Amazing Grace” that I can remember hearing at a European Away. It was stirring stuff. The home team kept the pressure on us as the minutes ticked by.

“Come on Chels, hang on.”

On ninety minutes, Fabregas fed Mo Salah – who had replaced Hazard – and he advanced on the ‘keeper. Yet again, Patricio made a magnificent save to deny us.

“Oh, those three one on ones, Parkao.”

At the final whistle, I roared. This was an enjoyable game of football – thankfully not defensive and dour like so many European aways – and the relief that came with the win was immense. After the draw with Schalke, it was so important that we came away with a win. We soon heard that Maribor, bless ‘em – had eked out a draw in Gelsenkirchen.

Nice one.

Jose slowly walked over to shake the hands of the Sporting goalkeeper who had kept us from winning 4-0. We then clapped as our players walked towards us.

I had thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

In fact, the drama made the game. Had we won by a greater score line, the sense of relief would not have been so great. The support wasn’t massive – maybe 1,600 or so – but it was loud and passionate. Who needs thousands more when we can get by on 1,600 loyalists.

As Alan remarked : “Quality over quantity.”

I soon collected my camera and we walked off, with a quasi-police escort, to Telheiras tube station. There is always something quite joyful, yet eerie, about being given the streets of a foreign city to walk through, all to ourselves, especially after victory. It didn’t quite match Camp Nou in 2012, but it wasn’t bad.

We were deposited in the centre of town – the subway train did not stop until the last three stops – and we met up at our “local” in Praca Dom Pedro IV for two more steins of Super Bock. Foxy, Ashley and Kev joined us, then Brighton Tony, then Charlie with two of the Benfica lads. Parkao was smiling.

“Although it’s been a great trip, the win made it, mate.”

“Yep. Bloody brilliant, Parkao.”

Wednesday 1 October 2014.

We were up, bright and breezy, for breakfast at around 9am. We said our goodbyes to Alan and Gary, then headed down to Belem once again. We spent a few moments at the Belem Tower, which was once positioned in the River Tagus itself, but which is now adjoined to the riverbank after extensive land reclamation. We made our way to the Monument to the Discoveries, built to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death in 1960, and I was in photographic heaven. The white of the stone contrasted well with the blue sky above. The figures depicted in stone – Henry the Navigator, Vasco de Gama, Fernao Magellen and others – were wonderful subjects for my trusty camera.

Snap, snap, snap.

The floodlights of Belenenses were just a mile or so away. Mourinho entered my head again.

In my Lisbon guide book, I read with interest that Henry the Navigator – the one at the front of the statue – never actually sailed the seas during Portugal’s age of discovery. I drew a parallel with Jose Mourinho, who hardly set the world alight as a player, but who has successfully navigated many teams to success as a manager.

Mourinho as navigator?

“You bet. Hey, listen, after three morangoska cocktails on Monday night, you’re lucky to get that as a footballing paradigm, I’m telling you.”

We relaxed down by the river with a few drinks. It was a calming end to our short spell in delightful Lisbon.

The coach then took us all of the way south to Faro once more, where Parkao and I enjoyed a meal in a restaurant overlooking the town’s marina. The sun slowly dropped behind a palm tree to the west – a palm tree on a Chelsea away trip, whatever next? – and the setting sun turned the sky orange and then lavender. We raised one final Super Bock to one of the best Chelsea European aways yet.

Obrigado, Portugal.

IMG_0105

Tales From Three Days In May

Chelsea vs. Benfica : 15 May 2013.

Tuesday 14 May began with a “who the hell is phoning me at this ungodly hour” call from Les at just after 7.30am. Les lives in nearby Melksham and was already at Bristol airport. He was phoning me to check if I was on the same early-morning flight to Schipol; I told him that I would be on the 3.20pm flight instead. He was just about to board the plane by the sounds of it. This was a good sign. I wasn’t sure how many Chelsea would be in Amsterdam for our Europa League Final with Benfica – surely not the 40,000 at Munich – but the fact that Les was going told me that we would have good numbers out there. Les isn’t a season-ticket holder, so I presumed that he was going without a ticket. He told me that two other lads that we knew – Westbury Mark and Trowbridge Andy – were heading off much later by coach. They were without tickets too, I believed. These lads, and thousands like them, were travelling in blind faith with no guarantee of a match ticket. Fair play to them all.

As I got my things together for my three days in The Netherlands, Munich was dwelling heavily on my mind. I have never thought myself to be too superstitious about football, but as I slowly decided on what items of clothing to pack, my view soon changed.

Timberland shoes – no, I had them in Moscow. A definite ‘no.’

My new Nike trainers – yes, I’ve only worn them twice…at Old Trafford and Villa Park. Two wins. Absolute certainties.

Hugo Boss top – yep, I wore that in Barcelona last year, I’ll wear that on Wednesday for the game.

One significant omission for my pre-Amsterdam planning, sadly, was my friend Glenn who was unable to make it this time. How the two of us revelled on that Friday together; travelling together out to Prague from Bristol and enjoying each other’s company, before joining in with the madness of Munich on the Saturday. Was it really almost a whole year ago?

During last year’s trail to European glory, I was indebted to bird 5hit. Let me explain. Just before I travelled out to Spain for the Barcelona game, I was unwilling to wipe off some birds’ mess which was on my car. Now, this is seen as good luck in the UK, if not elsewhere. I joked with my work colleague Mike about this on my return after a most improbable semi-final victory was secured (…thanks to the birds’ mess, and Messi’s miss). Imagine my worry when I had to turn in my car – which was a hire car – for another one, just before travelling out to Munich. I was all for keeping the car – and, crucially, not washing the mess off. Then, miraculously, on the Friday I spotted fresh birds’ mess on my new car. I texted Mike the good news. The rest, as they say, is history.

After Didier scored the winning penalty in Munich, Mike was soon to text me –

“The bird 5hit worked!”

The relevance of all this…er, 5hit?

As I opened my front door at about 12.30pm in readiness for my quick jaunt to Bristol airport, I quickly spotted the new addition just above the driver’s window.

A fresh dollop.

Oh boy.

Incidentally, just to prove that I can weave any old – er, crap – into a story about Chelsea, I can well remember being in The Shed for the 5-0 thrashing of Derby County in August 1983…yes, you’ve guessed it. A pigeon crapped on me. I am not sure if I considered it lucky at the time, but we went on to win the old second division championship that season.

I was parked at Bristol airport at 1pm. I wondered if Young Dave and Pav would be on the flight, just as they were to Prague in May 2012. I bought a pint of Heineken – of course! – and made my way over to the same part of the lounge area where Glenn and I sat last year. Yes, more superstition. Who should be there but Cookie, a lad from Frome who I used to work with in 1988-1989. He was from the year below me at school, a good footballer; I have often chatted to him at Frome Town this season. He was with another lad from Frome; they were both without tickets, but willing to spend £200 apiece. I chatted to them about our chances in the final. To my immense guilt a few days before the game, I could only name one player from the Benfica team – Cardozo – without referencing the internet. I then remembered a few names, including Nemanja Matic who fleetingly played for us three years ago. We obviously spoke about Munich too; it was never far from my thoughts.

I told Cookie about the amazing story of Pav’s famous home-made VIP pass which enabled him free access to the Allianz Arena last May. I had seen on Facebook before leaving home that Young Dave was helping to finalise Pav’s 2013 version. I wondered how successful Pav would be this year. On lining up at the gate, I spotted Graham – and his wife – from Melksham who were also travelling out with no tickets. I’d guess there were around 25 Chelsea lining up at the gate.

Just as I was about to enter the airplane at the top of the steps, I turned around.

It was Pav. He was right behind me.

“Alright mate!”

As with last year, he was wearing a badge with a lovely picture of his dear mother, who sadly passed away a few months before the Munich final.

“I hear you have made a VIP pass for this year too, Pav.”

“Yes, mate. It’s laminated this time. Very professional.”

The flight from Bristol to Schipol took less than an hour. I was able to read a lovely article about Bobby Tambling in “When Saturday Comes” by the Chelsea fan (and founder of “WSC”) Mike Ticher, who now lives in Australia. Bobby, the antithesis of the boozing and extravagant Chelsea player of the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, has only recently become a Chelsea celebrity by those outside SW6 due to Frank Lampard’s assault on his 202 goals.

Walking through the arrival hall, I realised that my last foreign airport was Beijing in December. I had a little tingle of excitement at that memory; this supporting Chelsea lark sure has its privileges, doesn’t it? Not only the best friends in the world, but an excuse to travel to the four corners of the world too.

Happy daze in Amsterdam.

Pav and I caught a train into Amsterdam and he was able to regale me with the fine details of how the fake VIP passes were planned and printed. At Central Station, he wanted to show them to me; they were excellent. He had one main one, plus a couple of back-ups. Before we went our separate ways, I touched the badge of his Mum for good luck, gave him a hug and wished him well.

As far as superstitions go, things were working out just fine.

Outside the bustling Central Station, I looked around for the correct tram to take me down to Leidseplein where Alan, Gary, Daryl and Ed were waiting for me. I was last in Amsterdam in 2008 on a business trip. Back in the ‘eighties, the area outside the train station was grimy with the whiff of desperate guys trying to sell hash. In 2013, things had improved. Amsterdam was going to be my home for three days and I was buzzing.

I met up with the boys at 6.30pm. They had arrived around midday and had already acclimatised well to their new surroundings. They had ventured out in the misty rain for a leisurely bar crawl, followed by some snap; the highlight being Gary’s demolition of almost three racks of ribs.

We walked down to our cosy hotel, just south of Leidseplein. The central area of Amsterdam consists of concentric streets and canals in a largely “U” shape, with the train station at the top. Heading south, there is Dam Square and then Leidseplein. Our hotel was just at the bottom of the “U.”

We freshened-up, then assembled at 8pm. There is nothing quite like the anticipation of a first night in a foreign city; and nights on the town do not get much better than old Amsterdam. I soon realised that I was wearing the same Valentino shirt that I wore out and about in Seville some fifteen years ago; another nice superstition. We won that game too. That it still fits me is a miracle.

We decided to have a bite to eat in one of the many Argentinian steak houses on Leidsedwarsstraat. Steak and chips for all five of us, washed down with pints of Dommelsch. Bloody luvverly.

The toast, as ever was of “Friendship & Football.”

We caught the tram further into the heart of this intimate, exciting and fascinating city. This was my fifth visit. While at college at Stoke, while on a geography field trip, we visited Rotterdam for three nights and Amsterdam for four nights in April 1986. Fantastic memories. In 1987, two college mates and little old me made a return visit. In March 1988, I returned to attempt to sell some football badges at an Ajax UEFA cup match at the Olympic Stadium; it was my worst-ever night’s business during my badge-selling days. I didn’t sell a single badge; the market was already swamped with English footy memorabilia unlike in Germany and Italy. I find it incredible that it took me 25 years to return, save for that flying visit in 2008, when I only really experienced Amsterdam from behind the wheel of a car on a trip from Schipol down to Venlo and Utrecht.

We caught a cab up to Dam Square, which acts as the heart of the city. We bumped into Beth and Cathy, but continued east. We soon found ourselves in the heart of the red light district which is centred on Voorburgwal. There were Chelsea and Benfica fans at every turn. Inside for a beer, we found ourselves watching the Arsenal vs. Wigan game as the score leapt from 1-1 to 4-1. Andy Wray and Steve Mantle were spotted outside; it was clear that we were going to be bumping into friends at regular intervals in the city centre. We continued walking. The red lights were everywhere. The sights and smells were authentic Amsterdam; windows and windows of working girls of various ages, clad in bikinis, tapping the windows for our attention and the sweet smell of dope which permeated every side street and canal-side path. The mood was of boisterousness, of fun, of football. We passed a corner bar – Café Corso – on Achterburgwal. Inside, a famous Chelsea face was sat at a table, surveying the scene. The General was again in town. We took up residence in this bar…the beer was being sold in plastic glasses, but we didn’t mind. I guess we stayed here for around two hours. Alan happened to look outside just as Fun Time Frankie, Mike Neat and Dave The Hat were outside, chomping into some pizza. They looked up as we appeared at the window.

Don’t worry, they couldn’t afford us.

We had a fantastic time in this bar. There were pints of Heineken, plenty of laughs and – of course – tons of photographs. Supporting Chelsea was made for nights like this. We had a cracking time. The music on the juke box was rich and varied; we even got to witness Alan dancing, holding onto his lapels like a proper cockernee, to an oompah song about “Old Amsterdam.” It was beautiful.

Unfortunately, the bar closed ridiculously early at 1am. We were back walking the streets again. The crowds were now heavier, noisier, the bridges over the canals were bottle-necks. Benfica were out in force and were in fine voice. Chelsea were bantering back-and-forth with them. We decided to head home, or at least for further drinking nearer home, where it wouldn’t be quite so likely to “kick-off.” We wandered south. Daryl, Ed and I hung it out until 3am, supping two more additional pints apiece. I hoped I wouldn’t regret it in the morning. Outside the pub on Leidseplein, I looked up and saw Neil Barnett. I popped over for a quick word; there was talk of the game ahead, but also of New York.

We returned to our hotel. It had been a Dam lovely night.

Wednesday 15 May began with the slightest hangover for me. I had – foolishly, what was I thinking? – set the alarm for 7.30am. I made it down to a lovely breakfast at 9.45am. Unsurprisingly, Gary was there; he had been breakfasting for almost two hours. It was a leisurely start to the day; we were in no rush. Out at 11.30am, we again caught a tram into the centre. Unlike Tuesday, there was no rain and the sun was trying its damnedest to burn through the small amount of cloud cover. A coffee, a wander, a stroll down to Dam square where we met Walnuts, newly-arrived by coach. Benfica fans seemed to again be out in force, though that is probably misleading; they were bedecked in the red of their team, and easily recognisable. Chelsea, typically, tended to be more subtle, so blended in with the surroundings. In fact, during the previous night’s action, I had hardly seen a Chelsea shirt or scarf at all.

We ambled through the red light district once more and settled in at “Café Remember” for an hour. Two lads from the flight recognised me and told me of their successful visit to the stadium that morning in search of tickets. Melksham Graham was in the pub and he was relieved to hear of the good news; he soon departed to the Arena to check out the ticket situation. Next, we met Julie and Burger, the Nuneaton boys, Rob and the Kent boys, in a throng of a few hundred outside Susie’s Saloon. By now, the skies were blue; Chelsea weather. It seemed that the night before had passed with no serious incident, although we heard that two Benfica fans had been thrown into a canal. I’m surprised that it was only two.

Alan, Daryl, Ed and I headed back to the hotel to collect our match tickets, via another couple of beers in Leidseplein. There was bar after bar, cheek by jowl, one after the other. We sat outside in the mid-afternoon sun, under trees heavy with blossom. There was a massive echo from Munich; on that wonderful afternoon, my friends and I spent many hours in a gorgeous beer garden, with petals of blossom falling into our steins of Paulaner. With a lovely coincidence, I ordered pints of “Bavaria” lager. The area was full of noisy Benfica fans, but Chelsea soon responded with a few songs of our own. I quickly chatted to one of forty Benfica fans who had travelled over from Toronto. They are a massive club of course; the biggest in Portugal. I could hardly believe that they had suffered the sadness of six consecutive UEFA final defeats. Our single defeat in Moscow seems ridiculous in comparison. Our tickets collected, we met up with Gary and Walnuts back at Dam Square at about 4pm.

Still almost five hours until the game; lovely.

We wandered north, through the busy shopping area, and chanced upon a local restaurant. We spent the best part of two hours in there, enjoying each other’s’ company, knocking back more ale, laughing at a ridiculous array of silly jokes and stories. Alan and I chose the most wisely when we ordered the food. We had “hache” which is a Dutch beef stew, served with a huge pile of mash and a side order of red cabbage – or “Charlie Babbage” as Alan called it.

Yes, it was good.

With 7pm approaching, we headed up to the Central Station. There was a mix of fans in the train as we headed to Amsterdam’s south-eastern suburbs. Like Munich, the city’s stadium is way out of the centre. Thankfully, whereas the Munich subway trains were infamously slow and over-filled on that evening last year, this journey was fine. I stood the entire time, but it wasn’t a problem. Among the songs being aired, the “We all hate Leeds” song brought the biggest smile from me. The atmosphere in the train was fine; Benfica red and Chelsea blue sparring only through song.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=upZQ4_xKCZQ

The Amsterdam Arena appeared. It was surprisingly tall; it only holds just over 50,000, yet it towers over the buildings nearby. The roof adds extra height of course. We soon bumped into the New York contingent again. I wandered off to take it all in, taking the usual assortment of photographs along the way. The train station was adjacent to the southern end, which was the one allocated to Benfica. I slowly began my clockwise perambulation of the stadium until I reached the north end.

Just like Munich.

The Benfica fans were friendly enough. I had time on my hands. I was enjoying every minute. I bought a five euro beer – I made sure it wasn’t alcohol free, unlike the ones being sold inside – and took it with me on my walk, past the entrance to the Ajax museum, then further on to our end. I bumped into Beth, Wrayman, then a couple of mates from home. A tin of Amstel was thrust into my hands and I supped away. Time was now moving on, though, and I soon got caught up in the rush to get in. I walked in with Jonesy, a friend for almost twenty years. I didn’t bump into him in Munich, so I was doubly-pleased to see him in The Dam. He rarely missed a game back in the ‘eighties. We spoke of how our club has progressed in the past fifteen years. We talked of our joint obsession and, as if to prove the insanity of supporting Chelsea, Jonesy spoke about the trip that he took to Plymouth from his home in Nuneaton – a 450 mile round trip – for a Friday night friendly in around 1988. As he retold the story, it was obvious he could hardly believe that he did it. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. A Chelsea fan showed me the two 70 euro tickets that he couldn’t shift. My pre-match calculations – 10,000 with tickets, 20,000 without – were possibly way off. Maybe around 15,000 Chelsea fans were in Amsterdam; maybe they all got in.

Despite arriving at the Arena with an hour and fifteen minutes to spare, the delay at the gates and a further wait to use the toilets meant that I was struggling to get in on time. I was mirroring – unintentionally – my late arrival at Munich and I reached my seat just before kick-off.

Proper Chelsea.

Sadly, I just missed the flag displays. Just inside, I spotted Les; he had made it in and was smiling wildly. I took my place alongside the boys in the lower tier…furthest away to my right was Daryl, then Ed, then Walnuts, then Alan, then Gary, then myself. Rob arrived fashionably late and sat to my left.

The team is the one that I would have picked; preferring Luiz alongside Frank with Ramires out wide instead of Moses. I was just pleased that Frank was playing. Well done Rafa on that one.

The Benfica fans were easily spotted to the south; they took up the entire lower tier and around half of the top tier. We obviously had the same situation in the north.

Just like Munich, red at the south end, blue at the north end.

In the neutral areas, there seemed to be more blue than red. Excellent work, everyone. Although the sky was a brilliant cloudless blue, inside the stadium was dark. There was a strange feel to the stadium; it was impressive, but the infrastructure for the roof added much height. In reality, the seating tiers were not particularly large. I spent the first few minutes catching up on some photographs. Both teams had brought many flags and banners. Big respect to the fans who brought over the ‘Chelsea Adelaide’ flag; last seen in Tokyo.

The first-half, just like at Villa Park on Saturday, was horrendous. I watched on aghast as Benfica started very strongly, with their passing and movement seeming to bamboozle us. A couple of Benfica chances went begging and I wondered if this game was going to follow the same pattern as in Munich; that of dogged resistance after numerous onslaughts. A rough tackle on Ramires away in the distance went unpunished and the Chelsea fans wailed. We again looked very ‘leggy’ and we spent most of the first period chasing shadows. The Chelsea fans around me were openly frustrated by our players and our songs soon dried up. Shots were blocked inside our box as Benfica continued to dominate. Petr Cech, however, rarely had to make a save.

We had a couple of half-chances, but the mood was still grey. One fan behind me berated Oscar, yelling obscenity after obscenity after him. I turned around, glanced at him, yet turned away. I didn’t fancy a confrontation, but his hatred towards a Chelsea player truly sickened me. Benfica threatened again. A free-kick blocked. A shot over the bar. Yet, Cech remained untested. It was a strange game. I momentarily lost my lens cap – it was my glasses in Munich – and so missed our best chance of the entire game, a dipping shot from Lamps which was well saved by Artur.

I sent a text out at half-time :

“Well. Looking at a repeat of Saturday in the second-half.”

Just after the break, Benfica thought that they had opened the scoring but their collective hopes were dashed; the danger man Cardozo leapt and headed in, with no defender close. I saw the linesman’s flag jolt up so was unfazed.

Ever so slowly, Chelsea began contesting the game in a far more positive manner. The Chelsea fans, eventually, responded.

On the hour, a long throw out from Petr Cech and the ball broke for Fernando Torres. The entire Chelsea end realised that this was his ‘once in a game moment.’ Nando was around ten yards inside the Benfica as he received the ball, twisting away from his marker in a deft movement. He set off for goal and I captured his run on film.

Click : after having fought off the trailing defender Luisao, Nando approaches the goalkeeper just inside the box.

Click : he sways to his right and the ‘keeper moves to his left. The duel is on.

Click : after continuing his movement, Nando has enough strength to push the ball past the ‘keeper’s dive at his feet.

Click : with the ‘keeper on all fours, Nando keeps his feet and slots the ball in from an angle.

The Chelsea end erupted. I secretly hoped that this would be his night. Where were all the folk who said that Fernando Torres doesn’t score important goals.

“GETINYOUFCUKINGBEAUTY.”

I snapped his Usain Bolt-inspired pose down at the corner flag, but the photo was blurred and so was I.

Phew.

Alan leaned across and, in his best Portugeezer accent : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Me, in my worst Portugeezer accent : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Our wonderful lead lasted only a short period, but what a period of dreaming that was. I whispered to Rob that “I hope it stays 1-0” (just so Torres can get some glory).

Just after, Azpilcueta handled inside the box. Oh boy. No repeat of Munich though; that man Cardozo slammed the ball in with Cech diving to he left. A single red flare was lit in the south lower.

Chelsea kept going, however, roared on by our travelling support. I could hardly believe that many hundreds in the lower tier sat the entire game. Torres went down in the box, but no penalty. On 81 minutes, Cardozo walloped a screamer at goal, but Petr Cech did ever so well to fingertip it over the bar. It was his first bona fide save of the entire night. Like I said, it was an odd game.

With three minutes remaining, Lampard was way out. I caught his thumping shot on film, and watched as it dipped and crashed onto the bar. I was amazed at its ferocity. I was amazed that it had gone so close.

Injury-time was being played when a Ramires run won a corner down to my left. Shades of Munich, eh? Juan Mata sent over a high ball. Ivanovic, back-peddling, leapt high. The ball began its upwards and then downwards trajectory. I clicked my camera out of habit than expectation. The ball seemed to take an eternity to drop. To our joy, the net rippled.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!

The north end exploded.

I looked to my right at Alan and we just screamed at each other. A blue flare in front exploded with a huge plume of smoke. Oh, how we sung.

Almost immediately, Benfica attacked and – I found it hard to concentrate but

PLEASE

CHELSEA

DON’T

FCUK

THIS

UP.

The chance was cleared. Oh boy.

The whistle blew.

YES!

Benfica had lost their seventh consecutive UEFA final and we had won our fourth final out of five attempts. Apart from half an inch of Russian wood, it would have been five out of five.

Athens 1971, Stockholm 1998, Munich 2012, Amsterdam 2013.

It had been, let’s not kid ourselves, a below-par Chelsea performance on the night. Our ridiculously long season had eventually taken its toll. We looked tired. There was little to cheer, apart from the two goals of course.

Fernando Torres and Branislav Ivanovic – we salute you.

The Chelsea players cavorted down on the pitch and we sung about being Champions of Europe.

You know how the song goes, eh?

There seemed to be a ridiculously long delay between the end of the game and the moment when our players ascended the steps to receive the medals. Unlike Munich, my telephoto lens captured the moment when Frank lifted the massive trophy – the old much-loved UEFA Cup – high into the Amsterdam night.

Munich 2012 and Amsterdam 2013.

Two steps beyond.

Congratulatory texts soon came in from Manchester United, Liverpool and Barcelona fans. Strangely, no mention of the birds’ mess from Mike.

Now, it was time to watch the players enjoying themselves; it was magical. I was so lucky to be close to where the majority of the action took place. Frank Lampard was alone with the cup for quite some time. John Terry, on purpose I am sure, stayed away from the spotlight. Fernando looked blissed out. Brana hopped up on to the bar – the same spot as Munich – all over again. Frank jumped over the advertisement hoardings and revelled in the adulation, beaming with smiles and looking up at fans in the upper tier. Ramires appeared with his son. The four goalkeepers stood together. David Luiz and his T-shirt, sent out funny faces and hand jives to his fans. Mikel and Moses in their trackie bottoms. Benitez, smiling, looking on. Nathan Ake, one for the future, with the huge trophy. The management team, perhaps unsure of the reaction, waited a while but stood together and hoisted the trophy. There was applause from the stands.

The songs…”Liquidator”, “One Step Beyond” and – strangely – “Blue Tomorrow.”

Then, the daddy of them all…a song that takes me back to 1972 and always leaves me wiping my eyes.

“Blue Is The Colour.”

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We were giddy and excited as we moved away from our seats, waving to fellow friends, hugging others. Soon outside, we descended the many flights of stairs, singing joyously.

“We’ve won it again, we’ve won it again. Champions of Europe, we’ve won it again.”

Down at ground level, it really was Munich all over again.

“We Are The Champions, The Champions Of Europe.”

Happy daze.

Then, a new song.

“Strippers And Whores. Ivanovic Scores.”

We caught a train back to the centre of Amsterdam, shaking hands with many more friends along the way. Munich will never be beaten, but Amsterdam was just so enjoyable. Stockholm meant more – to me, it was magical to replicate the feat of the vaunted 1970 and 1971 teams. At the time, we thought there would be nothing greater than a ECWC win since we all knew that we’d never win the league, nor the Champions League. What did we know? But Amsterdam was bloody fantastic. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Back at Leidseplein, I joined in with the post-game buzz. All of the boys together, the square alive with Chelsea smiles the size of an Amsterdam spliff. There were more familiar faces there too; it seemed that everywhere we went in the city, we saw friends. It was bloody lovely. Brighton Tony held court; he was full of forthright opinions and very good company. He first met Gary as long ago as 1977 when they had season tickets in rows one and two of the East Upper. At 3am, we called it a night. We returned to our hotel with our fourth European trophy tucked into our back pockets.

Thursday 16 May was a rainy day in Amsterdam, but we didn’t care. We breakfasted again, and then went our separate ways. I headed off to visit the Rijksmuseum, but first sat in the busy café to enjoy a cappuccino and have a leisurely read of a paper. There was a picture of Nando on the front.

“Read all about it.”

I decided to avoid the long lines at the Rijksmuseum, instead spending a very enjoyable hour at the Van Gogh Museum where I drooled over a few lovely paintings. I bumped into two Chelsea fans there too. Back at the hotel, we all reconvened before saying our “goodbyes.” I caught the tram up to the centre and met up with the New York contingent for two last pints of Heineken in a crowded bar near the station. I was soon on the train to the airport. And then, home to Bristol. It had been a magnificent time. Hearing from Gill that Frank has signed a one-year deal?

Perfect.

And just like in Athens, in Stockholm and in Munich, there will be a foreign field in Amsterdam that will be forever Chelsea. Additionally, we joined Juventus, Ajax and Bayern Munich as the only teams to have won all three European trophies. And for ten days we are Champions Of Europe and Champions Of Europe Lite.

Did we have a blast?

Dam right.

…and, yes, Pav made it in.

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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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