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 shit. 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 shit worked!”

The relevance of all this…er, shit?

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.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSW9H905RGg

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.

IMG_0071 IMG_0099 IMG_0283

Tales From The Old Guard

Chelsea vs. Napoli : 14 March 2012.

This was an evening which reconfirmed everything that I love about football. This was an evening in which the busy streets around Stamford Bridge were invaded by thousands of fevered Neapolitans. It was an evening of almost terrifying drama. It was an evening of raw emotion. It was an evening of boozy camaraderie. And it was an evening when the players, and supporters, of Chelsea once again worked together to provide the watching public a devastating game of football.

Make no mistake. The evening of Wednesday 14th March 2012 will go down in our history as one of the magical nights of European football at Stamford Bridge, alongside the “come-back” nights against Bruges in 1971, Bruges in 1995, Vicenza in 1998 and Barcelona in 2005, to say nothing of the ridiculously dramatic games against Liverpool in 2008 and 2009.

The day began in Chippenham. I came in to work a little early and aimed to leave at 4pm. During the afternoon, I needed to be distracted from thoughts about the evening’s game. I emailed a few friends and we chatted about a whole host of subjects – specifically “unChelsea” – in an attempt to stop my wandering mind focus on the game. It has to be said, I was not confident about us being able to turn around the 3-1 deficit from that underwhelming first leg in the crumbling bowl of Stadio San Paolo. I mentioned to a few work colleagues, that if I was a gambling man, my money would be on the visitors.

I collected Lard Porky from The Pheasant car park at just before 4pm. He had already had a few pints on a little pub crawl of his own and was his usual ebullient self. I made superb time on the M4 – probably the best yet – but the traffic drew to almost a standstill around three miles from Chelsea, just as we hit the Hogarth roundabout by Fuller’s Brewery. The Hammersmith flyover is still down to one lane and the last three miles took me an hour. It was a frustrating time as I knew that my mates would already be quaffing a few liveners in the pub.

As we edged along the A4, we listened to BBC Radio Five Live to catch the sports headlines at just after 6pm. To my considerable annoyance, the four or five sports stories did not mention us once. This really annoyed me. I knocked the dashboard with my fists –

“Hello? Remember us? Hello! There’s a game at Stamford Bridge tonight!”

The minutes ticked by and the car was going at a snail’s pace. Funny the things you notice in a stationary car in a street that is usually seen at 40 miles per hour. A pub in a side street – The Black Lion – which appeared to back onto the River Thames (“could go there after, for one, Parky?”), a blue plaque on a house denoting a former residence of black activist Marcus Garvey, the smug face of Jose Mourinho on an advertisement on a London cab.

I pulled into the North End Road at around 6.30pm just as a gaggle of around twenty Napoli fans were being lead away from the direction of the stadium by around ten policemen in high-vis jackets. Although they wore no team colours, they were obviously Italians, with baseball caps, shiny puffa jackets, scarves pulled high around their chins. Parky said that he saw one with a much bloodied nose. We parked up, and then walked past around eight further policemen on the crossroads of Lillie Road and the North End Road. There were no sirens wailing, yet, but I suspected that the streets would be busy with activity before the night fell.

We reached the bar at about 6.45pm and the place was surprisingly quiet. Out in the beer garden, conversations were taking place all over and I rued the fact that Lord Porky and I had arrived late, almost three hours of travelling already behind us. Apparently, a mob of Napoli fans had tried to enter The Goose, but were seen off by a few Chelsea. It seems that Lord Porky and I had just missed the fun. There was talk of a confrontation down by West Brompton tube too.

My mate Alan, who has been out of work for a while, pulled me to one side and told me that he had learned that morning that he has got a job at his old employers, at the Department of Trade & Industry in Victoria, and this was the best news all season. Fantastic stuff.

It was a pleasure to meet up with Jesus once again (since the Stoke game, he had been to Venice and Rome…my goodness, this boy is living the life) and then, over in the corner, was Napoli Frank, who was with Mike and Chopper from New York. Frank is from Queens and I christened him “Napoli Frank” when I first met him in NYC in 2008 when I met up with the NY Blues for a Mets game (which was rained-off, but that’s another story.) Frank’s team is Chelsea – has been for years – but has family from the Naples area. He travelled out to Italy three weeks ago and had a seat in the home areas at the San Paolo. He carefully explained to me how he came in for major grief when a Napoli fan spotted his Frank Lampard wrist-band. Thankfully, his uncle was able to say “he’s with me.” Lard Porky and I only had time for a single beer. I got the impression that a lot of my mates had been in the pub for quite a while. The perils of being a long-distance Chelsea fan hit home again.

I made haste and left the boozer at 7.10pm. I overheard many Italian accents. This was turning into just the sort of night I had expected. Lots of noise, tons of atmosphere and a little menace thrown in for good measure. As I passed The Slug And Lettuce, more puffa jackets, more Neapolitan swagger. A line of around twenty police dogs were facing the tube station in front of the town hall. This was indeed a rare sight. My pace quickened as I turned and bought a programme on the West Stand forecourt. Yet more Italian accents. I smuggled my camera in to the ground, despite the painful attention of a steward.

I was inside at about 7.30pm. Despite the hundreds of Napoli fans outside the stadium, I was pretty amazed that the away section was full to bursting. With that, I received a couple of texts which said that there were, indeed, many ticket-less away fans outside the stadium and in various pubs. I quickly scanned the balcony for Napoli flags and saw many small ones, rather than a couple of large ones. I spotted a Confederate flag; a common sight in many football stadia throughout Europe, along with the skull and crossbones, the mod symbol, the flag of St. George and the celtic cross.

Napoli fans as rebels, the underclass, the outsiders, the vagabonds? I can see that. That makes sense.

The new banner – “Chelsea FC – London Is Ours” – had been moved from the NE corner to The Shed and had essentially swapped positions with the “Born Is The King” banner. I was well aware that this game was live on national TV in the UK. We needed to make a big impression in the minds of the viewing nation. This was almost as important as the team’s performance in my mind. I wanted us to create an old-style Chelsea atmosphere. I wanted people talking about us.

Banners, songs, flags, noise.

The playing of “Blue Is The Colour” signaled the mass-waving of thousands of blue and white chequered flags. I’m in too minds about this. Half of me thinks that it is cheesy and naff. Half of me thinks that it adds great colour to the match day experience. The problem I have is that the flags are imposed upon us by the club. I’d much rather we were given free reign to bring our own adornments. I didn’t wave mine; I was too busy filming.

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The Mantle twins let loose the massive flag in the upper tier. It floated over the smaller flags and it was a pretty impressive sight.

The teams strode past the large Champions League flag which was being waved on the centre-circle. Napoli were wearing a mucky grey kit. Our kit looked pristine in comparison. At the playing of the anthem, a hundred or so Napoli fans held their phones aloft, with the light mode on. Ah, that must be their “thing.” Worryingly, I saw a few lights in the home sections of The Shed and the West Stand, too. Maybe the Napoli fans had staged a massive undercover operation and were hiding in every section of The Bridge.

Roberto chose his team and there were no complaints from me. In the Napoli team, all eyes were on the Three Tenors; Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik. At the kick-off, I was still not buoyed with any new-found confidence, though. In the back of my mind, I had the notion that a single goal mid-way through both halves would it be just fine. Nothing rushed, nothing manic. Just a night of calm pressure. Well, I could not have been more wrong.

The game was a classic. The advantage lurched from one team to another, leaving me ecstatic, worried and breathless in equal measure.

At the kick-off, the home support was roaring but Napoli enjoyed the better of the first quarter. By the fifteenth minute, first Hamsik, then Cavani, then Lavezzi made breathtaking raids on our goal, but a mixture of bad finishing and instinctive saves from Petr Cech ensured we did not concede. In retrospect, the opening twenty minutes resembled the Manchester City game before Christmas when we were completely out-passed and out-classed.

Our midfield was giving the Napoli team far too much room to move the ball at their will. Upfront, chances were rare. Drogba was not firing on all cylinders. I was deeply worried. However, our fortunes were soon to change in a most dramatic piece of play.

Didier’s flying header from a Ramires cross was as magnificent as it was unexpected. The ball flew into the Shed End goal and The Bridge erupted. I jumped to my feet and went dizzy for a few seconds. All around me, euphoria. There was that goal mid-way through the first-half I had dreamt of. Our play improved and shots from Essien and Luiz started troubling the Napoli ‘keeper.

At the break, I rued how we had ridden our luck, but had shown a growing degree of resilience to withstand the attacks against us. Dennis Wise and his (now) 12 year old son Henry appeared on the pitch with Neil Barnett. Ah, memories of the last F.A. Cup Final at the grand old Wembley. The Simple Minds’ anthem “Alive And Kicking” boomed out on the PA; very apt.

Soon into the second-half, a corner on the far side and Big John chose this moment to bang the balcony hoarding with his hand; a familiar part of the Stamford Bridge routine over the past few seasons. Frank lofted the ball in, slightly over the head of Didier, but – as I snapped with my camera – John Terry leapt. I just saw the ball fly into the top corner of the net and that was it; The Bridge erupted again as the captain ran over to that far corner, where Frank was still stationed. Advantage Chelsea. If no more goals ensued, we would progress.

However, Alan lent towards me and sad –

“I don’t want to appear picky, but we’ve scored that too soon.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

Lo and behold, a ball wasn’t cleared and I watched on, aghast, as a sweet strike from Inler flew into the bottom corner of Cech’s goal. In my seat in the MHU, I was right in line with its path. Oh, that hurt. This was now a pulsating game of football and was now in Napoli’s favour.

Did anyone really think we would keep a clean sheet?

Fernando Torres substituted the increasingly disappointing Daniel Sturridge. His fresh impetus inspired us. We now enjoyed a fine period of play. A fine Drogba swivel and shot flashed past the post. At the other end, Napoli attacked, but our defenders often stuck out legs to block goal ward shots. It was a superb game.

What relief when, after a massive shout for handball, the referee quickly pointed to the spot, touching his arm at the same time. After all of those infamous penalty appeals against Barcelona in 2009, what joy to receive a penalty in our favour. The sense of anticipation was amazing. The chap in front of me turned away and couldn’t bare the tension. I held my camera up and waited for Frank to strike.

Click.

Strike.

Roar.

The net billowed and Frank reeled away down to “his corner” and I clicked again. A point skywards to the heavens but his face showed a business-like resilience. He wasted no time in waiting for adulation, but simply raced back to the half-way line for the re-start.

It was now level again. Let’s see how Napoli reacts again. To be honest, the rest of the game is a blur.

Ninety minutes of play ended and we took a momentary pause. The PA system at The Bridge jumped to life in the brief period of rest until the extra-time period began. First, “Three Little Birds” and then “Blue Is The Colour” and there were hundreds of Chelsea fans joining in.

I couldn’t immediately get back “into” the game as it restarted. I had felt that I had already experienced too much emotion for one night, thank you very much. Play was nervy and cagey. I struggled to get “up” for the game again. My mind wasn’t working. It was a strange feeling.

Then, the tumultuous fourth.

An advance from Drogba on the right and he sent a low ball towards the penalty spot. Brana slammed the ball high into the Napoli net and The Bridge exploded once again. Despite my emotions running wild, I caught the sliding Brana and the immediate celebrations on film; I never know how I manage to do that.

We held firm. Luiz was superb, Torres too. The midfield grew stronger as the game progressed. Even the addition of the two lesser lights Malouda and Bosingwa didn’t work against us. Chances came and went at both ends; a few half-chances for the industrious Torres would have sealed the night for us all. With two minutes of extra time to play, I had awful recollections of Iniesta in 2009. A similar denouement in this game would have been too much for any of us to cope with. It was nerve-tingling stuff. Every thwarted attack was met with pained exultations of joy. I lost count of the number of times I held my head in my hands.

At last it was over.

“One Step Beyond.”

Bounce, bounce, bounce.

The texts started arriving and continued in to the night. The Chelsea family was together, as one.

Alan, Gary and I were some of the last to leave the Matthew Harding. Gary showed typical kleptomaniac form and gathered together around ten flags from the seats around us; I said to Alan that Gary would be making leisure shirts out of them for the next game. Outside, yet more Italian voices. The place was swarming with Napoli fans; not sure if they were London-based Neapolitans, or whether a substantial volume had travelled from Naples minus tickets, intent on getting tickets from touts or maybe more mischievous means. I wondered if the girl we met on the train from Naples to Rome had made it.

Many fans began chanting various Chelsea songs as we slowly walked down past the tube station. A little group of puffa jacket wearers were being interviewed by a TV crew. There was a mood of ecstatic bewilderment along the North End Road. I was slightly numbed by the evening’s football. My previous experiences of life as a Chelsea fan had prepared me for this to be a night of great calamity and disappointment. The fact that we had overturned a 3-1 reverse had totally surprised me. I met up with Parky at 10.45pm and we soon realised that we just had enough time to call into the “Black Lion” for a drink before I battled fatigue and the fog on my weary way back to deepest Wessex. Porky was in fine form and so was I; it was a fun trip back, full of nonsense and stupid jokes.

I eventually reached home at 1.45am.

It’s difficult to piece together how we managed to prevail against a clearly skillful and talented Napoli team. The old guard was certainly at the core of our triumph. We rolled back the years against Napoli and the night had me blinking my eyes at the stellar performances from Didier, Frank, JT, Ess and Ashley. I’m wise enough to know that this core may not be able to raise their games in similar fashion during the rest of this year’s competition. To advance further will be very difficult. To win it, will be a miracle. If nothing else, I’m a realist. However, as soon as United and City fell by the wayside this year – and then Arsenal joined them – I really wanted Chelsea to be the last man standing from these shores in the Champions League this season. On a superb night of football, we achieved that goal.

Job done.

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