Tales From Half A World Away

Perth Glory vs. Chelsea : 23 July 2018.

It was apt that the news regarding Antonio Conte leaving Chelsea Football Club was announced while I was driving up to London with Glenn ahead of our trip to the other side of the world to watch us play in Perth in the middle of an Australian winter. By the time I had parked my car outside our friend Russ’ house in Shepperton – Russ used to sit in front of us in The Sleepy Hollow at Stamford Bridge – the reign of Antonio Conte was over. It was hardly surprising news. The worst kept secret of the English summer was our courting of Napoli “mister” Maurizio Sarri.

On day one of my personal Chelsea season, I was having to sort out my feelings for one manager and those for another. To be brutally frank, I was underwhelmed by the whole sorry mess. I have not hidden the fact that I liked Antonio Conte a great deal. Despite his wayward moans throughout last season, I would have stuck with him. A serial winner with Juventus as player and then manager, he clearly knew football. But a title in his first season at Chelsea and a cup win in his second was deemed – fuck knows how – a sub-par performance for the people who run Chelsea Football Club.

So, there will be no more twinkling eyes of Antonio Conte at Stamford Bridge. I will miss him. Yes, there were issues with certain players which he perhaps should have managed a lot better, but throughout the closing months of last season, I regarded him as a flag-waver for the Chelsea fans, making a stand against those in power at board level.

In a nutshell, who knows more about top level players, of the ever-changing styles of football, of the inner-machinations of a modern football club, and what it is like to be a footballer, and a football manager.

The ultimate “football man” Conte or the board at Chelsea Football Club?

I know my answer.

But as Glenn and I made our way through the checks at Heathrow’s Terminal Four, we knew that it would be the new man Maurizio Sarri who would be leading a squad – of sorts – out to Australia a few days after us.

With a few hours to go until the first flight which would take us to Abu Dhabi, we settled down for a bite to eat and I toasted good fortune to Antonio Conte.

A few hours later, we boarded a double-deck 380 and were soon soaring over London and we were on our way.

Australia. Bloody hell.

We had known all about our game in Western Australia for quite a while. Chelsea games in Australia are quite rare events. And although I had previously shown no real desire to visit Australia, the lure of seeing Chelsea play in Perth whetted my appetite and, with it, gave me a fine reason to eventually visit the continent on the other side of the world. For a while, it looked like I would be making the trip on my own. And then my long time Chelsea mate Glenn – first spotted my me in The Shed in 1983, everyone knows the story – decided to join me. We both relished seeing the boys in Beijing last summer. But this would be different, a wholly dissimilar adventure. This time, the football section would be surprisingly small. It would all be about Australia. A fortnight in an alien environment for both of us. Glenn loves surfing. There would be beaches. And as the flights were booked, I began to work on an itinerary, encompassing all that Australia had to offer. I wanted to create a holiday of contrasts; cities, countryside, bars, beaches, mountains, and a little football thrown in for very good measure.

As the final months of our 2017/2018 season was played out, Australia loomed heavily. I read a few books, did some research, and put a plan together. I hoped that all of the hard work would pay off.

As the days slid past, I thought long and hard about doing something a little different with this blog for the Australia trip. I seriously considered writing a “day by day” account of my time in Australia, focussing on the holiday and Chelsea in equal measure. But then I thought better of it. Not only would it be something of a burden in having to set aside an hour or so each evening and jot down my thoughts – “I am on holiday for heaven’s sake” – I also thought this might be seen as being rather self-indulgent.

“Who bloody wants to know what I had for breakfast today?”

So, I decided against it.

In the back of my mind too, were the viewing figures from last year’s jaunt to China, when the blog that I penned drew a disappointingly low number of views – much to my surprise to be brutally honest – and so, I closed that avenue of thought.

Last season was the tenth anniversary of these match reports. The first five years were on the much-missed Chelsea In America website, the last five on this site as an entity in itself. I did momentarily think about stopping. Ten years is a long time. But I enjoy writing these. They have become part of my Chelsea match day experience. So, on we go. Here’s to the next ten years.

For those interested, as I have marked ten years of these match reports ( now standing at over five hundred reports, and well over one million words, phew), here is a list of the ten matches with highest views in that period.

  1. 1,804 : Galatasaray vs. Chelsea – 2013/2014
  2. 1,660 : Liverpool vs. Chelsea – 2013/2014
  3. 945 : Chelsea vs. Tottenham – League Cup Final 2014/15
  4. 876 : Chelsea vs. Tottenham – 2015/2016
  5. 800 : Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea – 2016/2017
  6. 648 : Tottenham vs. Chelsea – 2017/2018
  7. 512 : Chelsea vs. Genk – 2011/2012
  8. 490 : Arsenal vs. Chelsea – 2014/2015
  9. 406 : Chelsea vs. Manchester City – 2016/2017
  10. 398 : Arsenal vs. Chelsea – 2015/2016

Rather than detail too much of what happened in the week before and four days after our game in Perth I have decided to go with the adage that a photograph is worth a thousand words. I include a scrapbook of photographs from the trip at the end of this blog.

But there is one story which certainly needs to be told.

My mother’s father, who was born in 1895 in the same Somerset village where I sit typing, had a number of brothers and sisters. I never recollect meeting any of the sisters. I remember meeting Uncle Chris many times. He lived in nearby Trowbridge and would often drive over to our village on his motorbike. He always had a story to tell, and a glint in his eye. He really was a rascal of a character, most unlike my staid and upright grandfather. I remember meeting Uncle Willie – at his house in Southall, he was a former train driver on the GWR – just once. And I never met Uncle Jack, who was once the village baker, who emigrated to Australia with his with Rene in the ‘sixties. Uncle Jack passed away in the early ‘seventies, but I remember Aunt Rene visiting us in 1980 along with her only child Audrey and her husband Brian. Audrey would often send us letters updating us on life in Australia, and often included photographs of their children Paul and Linda. Aunt Audrey and Uncle Brian visited again in 1990 at around the time of the Italia ’90 World Cup.

The next year – 1991 – saw my dear parents embark on a round-the-world trip encompassing Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Fiji, Hawaii, the US and Canada. Memorably, they stayed with Audrey and Brian at their bungalow on The Gold Coast – just south of Brisbane – for a few weeks. At the time, my father had just bought a hefty camcorder, and took it on this most monumental of trips. I have watched clips from that holiday on many occasions – of Mum and Dad in Australia specifically – and the words uttered by my father and Brian, when he took a turn with camera operations, have remained resolutely in my memory.

Visits to Brisbane, to Beaudesert, to Tambourine Mountain, to Coolangatta.

Audrey and Brian visited again in the autumn of 1994. As luck would have it, it tied in with a Chelsea match. One evening after work, I drove down to Bournemouth with my mother, and visited Brian’s brother Peter, with whom they were staying. The ladies stayed at home, while Brian, Peter and I shot off to nearby Dean Court to watch Bournemouth play Chelsea in the second leg of a League Cup tie. Chelsea won 1-0 and the three of us watched on the terraces of the home end. It wasn’t much of a game to be honest, but it felt lovely to have Brian alongside me.

Sadly we were to hear that Audrey – Mum’s cousin – passed away in 2003. I remember taking the phone-call from Brian in the room where I am typing this. That was a horrible shock. I always thought that my mother and Audrey were quite similar. I felt that if they had not all emigrated to Australia en masse, my mother and Audrey would have been the best of friends. They were both only an child. My presumption was that they would have been like sisters.

The years passed, and correspondence from Australia passed me by.

About a year ago, with the trip to Perth in my mind, I tried to search for Paul and Linda on Facebook to no avail. I wondered if I would ever be able to contact them. Their family home was in Ipswich, close to Brisbane, but I almost gave up. Then, at the start of the year, I miraculously uncovered a photograph of Paul’s children Christopher, Daniel and Adam, alongside a couple of girlfriends. I took a leap of faith and entered one of the girlfriends’ names (which was quite rare) alongside Paul’s family name (on the premise that there might have been a marriage) on a Facebook search and – much to my surprise and amazement – I was able to locate the whole family.

I was suitably thrilled when I sent messages to Paul and Linda, and they both replied.

I was especially pleased – no, that doesn’t do it justice – to hear that Uncle Brian was still alive at the grand old age of eighty-five.

Suddenly, the trip to Australia took on a whole different meaning.

I corresponded with Paul and learned the detail of the photograph.

Apparently, Paul – along with his wife Margret and Uncle Brian – had called in to see my mother in 2008. I had no recollection of this. My mother was already suffering slightly with dementia, but I am sure she would have remembered the visit. I racked my brain to remember if my mother had said anything. The photograph, evidently, was from that visit.

And then Paul shared some lovely news. Paul was born in England – in Bournemouth, in 1958 – and had never really supported a football team of any description. But Paul was so bowled over by my fanaticism for Chelsea Football Club, as explained to him by my mother on that visit in 2008, that he decided to adopt Chelsea as his team.

When I heard this, I just exploded with joy.

Paul also explained that his son Christopher was a Chelsea fan too.

Bloody perfect.

In May, a flag from the FA Cup Final and a Cup Final T-Shirt were sent out to Australia for Christopher’s young daughter Bobbi.

So, although three days in Sydney and three days of travelling through the Blue Mountains to The Gold Coast were quite magical, my focus all along was meeting up with my distant relatives. Unfortunately, Paul’s sister Linda and her husband Scott were not able to make it, but it was just wonderful to meet Paul and Margret for the first time, and – of course – to see Uncle Brian once more, for the first time in twenty-four years.

Paul had warned me that his father’s memory was not great, and I wondered if his apartment in Southport was sheltered accommodation.

Not a bit of it.

Not only does Brian have his own apartment overlooking the Pacific Ocean, but he takes care of himself, does his own cooking, does a little oil painting in his studio, drives a car – and even has a girlfriend.

“Bloody hell, Brian, you have a better lifestyle than me.”

We smiled and laughed.

That evening, we enjoyed a wonderful meal at a nearby restaurant, and shared some great stories, with Paul and myself taking it in turns to fill in some gaps. Because I have seen photographs of Paul throughout his life, it felt like I had known him for years. I have rarely enjoyed four hours more than those four hours in the company of my relatives from Australia.

I promised to send them some more Chelsea goodies once I returned to England. I fear that there might be a battle for Bobbi though. Although Paul sent me a photo of her in full Chelsea kit, I have since seen her dressed head to toe in both a West Ham (please God, no) and a Bournemouth kit. The Bournemouth I can understand. Brian told us at the restaurant that his father would cycle from his house to watch Bournemouth & Boscombe Athletic games in his youth, and Brian often used to watch The Cherries play too. So, there is some history there.

Meeting Brian, Margret and Paul was the highlight of the trip for me.

But it was now time to start thinking about football.

On the Sunday, we caught a Virgin Australia flight from Sydney to Perth and landed at around 5pm. We quickly caught a bus in to town, but we were dismayed to see that it had been raining in Perth. Until then, the weather had been dry and favourable. We quickly checked-in to our central hotel, and were quickly met in the foyer by Steve, who had flown in from his home in Vietnam on the Saturday, and who I had last bumped into in Liverpool a couple of seasons ago. All three of us caught a cab to the Crown Towers, where the team were staying, to take part in a Chelsea “Question & Answer” evening. We met up with Ray from Watford, who cunningly managed to drop in to Perth for the game after some business meetings in Singapore. Cathy and Rich from England were there. Plus a few Australian friends who I had befriended over the previous few months and who had greatly assisted my planning.

You know who you are. Thank you!

Unlike in Beijing the previous year, when the five of us from the UK were not allowed to take part in the local supporters’ evening at the team hotel, this was a far more welcoming event. Around three hundred Chelsea fans were given lanyards, flags and retro silk-scarves (Bobbi is getting one, obviously) and there was a nice feel to the evening.

Cesc Fabregas and Tammy Abraham were first up and they spoke well about Chelsea and their hopes for the new season. Then, Mark Schwarzer and Bruce Buck answered a few questions. I am not still unsure about Bruce Buck. It is as if he is trying too hard at times. There was a raffle, and prizes were given out. The club then presented pennants to the five Australian supporter groups.

Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.

The biggest cheer was for the Melbourne contingent.

“They’re the drinkers” I thought.

Bruce Buck had asked for the raffle to be made by the youngest child present and, after the last of the tickets had been chosen, the lad was given a round of applause. Bruce Buck then said that he would personally arrange for the youngster to be sent a signed Eden Hazard shirt.

“…mmm, it’ll be a Real Madrid one” I whispered to Ray.

A few of us then retired to the nearby casino – a horrible and gaudy cave of a building – for further liquid refreshments. But it wasn’t a late night.

On the day of the game, Glenn and I surfaced at around 10am and had a nearby McBreakfast before going on a little tour of the immediate area of the quayside. We bumped into Jayne and Jim, from Spain, who I last saw in Ann Arbour two summers ago. They had just spent a few fine days on the Great Barrier Reef. Given an extra week in Australia, I would have spent a few days split between there and Ayers Rock.

We joined up with the other Chelsea supporters at “The Globe” pub – spacious and airy, just right – and stayed there from around midday to about 6.30pm. It was a fine time. The beers flowed and chit-chat followed along behind. I spoke to a few Chelsea supporters based in Australia. Pride of place must surely go to Bill, who saw all of our home games in our first championship season of 1954/1955. Only around twelve Chelsea fans from the UK made it over to this one. I spotted Paul and Scott in the boozer too. It was great to see familiar faces so far from home. Glenn reported that a chap had spotted him as one of The Chuckle Brothers from my recent match reports and I think that made his whole holiday.

Bless.

More beers, more laughs.

I don’t honestly know where the time went.

We caught a free bus to the stadium, which sits on a spur of land on the Swan River. The previous evening, there had been an open practice at the WACA – the famous old cricket stadium – but everyone got drenched. I wasn’t sorry that I had missed that. Future test matches will now be played at the Optus Stadium, but the WACA is to remain for other cricket games. Night had now fallen of course, and we walked over a pedestrianised bridge towards the illuminated stadium.

The stadium looked half-decent. Bronze and golden panels made up most of the outside shell, with clear panels at the top. We arrived with not too long to wait, taking our positions just under the overhang of the tier above. Our tickets – in the lowest level – were $39 or just £25. The stadium took a few minutes to fill up. Being a multiuse stadium – cricket, Aussie Rules Football – the pitch sits in a large grass area, not dissimilar to West Ham’s much-maligned stadium. This would be the first ever football game hold at the stadium. Perth Glory play their games over the Swan River at the much smaller stadium. There are three tiers on three curves of the oval, but five tiers – including three tiers of boxes – on one side. The seats are all neutral grey, similar to St. James’Park.

We were treated to a darkening of the stadium lights, and then fireworks and strobe lights. All very modern. We have similar stuff at The Bridge these days. And then it got a little weirder. Phone torch lights were turned on and the stadium resembled a very starry night. I half expected Sir Patrick Moore to stumble out onto the pitch.

Although we were the away team, we were allowed our home colours. It clearly was all about us on this occasion. The Chelsea badge and colours dominated scoreboards and touchline displays.

The teams entered from the right hand side.

Suddenly, the football was minutes away.

The new manager Maurizio Sarri had chosen the best eleven from the depleted squad. A surprise was the goalkeeper. I had not heard of him.

The much vaunted 4-3-3 lined up.

Bulka

Zappacosta – Luiz – Ampadu – Alonso

Fabregas – Jorginho – Barkley

Pedro – Morata – Hudson-Odoi

The Perth Glory team contained names which seemed to characterise Australia’s immigrant population, almost to the point of caricature.

Steadfastly English names – maybe from Manchester and Salford – such as (LS?) Lowry, (Phil? Gary? Neville?) Neville and (Anthony H.?) Wilson.

Croatian names Djulbic and Franjic.

Bog standard Irish names Kilkenny and Keogh.

And the Italians Chianese and – as if it wasn’t bloody obvious – Italiano.

Perth Glory in a muted grey away kit.

Chelsea in blue / blue / white.

The shirt for this season looks great from afar. From about three miles. Up close, it is horrific.

Chelsea worked the ball out to Callum Hudson-Odoi on the Chelsea left and he created a half a yard of space in order to turn the ball in to a packed penalty area. But the youngster had adeptly spotted Pedro, and the Spaniard met the cross with a volleyed prod at goal. The pace of the ball beat the Perth ‘keeper and we were 1-0 up.

It was certainly enjoyable to see David Luiz back in the team – a Doug Rougvie style tackle on a home player brought howls from the Perth fans – and he was soon spraying the ball about with ease. Ross Barkley kept the ball well and looked fit and healthy. There was the usual endeavour from Davide Zappacosta and Marcos Alonso. Pedro was constant motion. Jorginho had tons of possession. But the star of the first-half was probably the youngster Hudson-Odoi. The rain returned to Perth midway in to the first-half, but I was watching in my shirt sleeves, sheltered from the rain, and enjoying the view from virtually the back row of the lower tier. The singing section – Melbourne in the main – to my right were getting soaked.

Both Cathy and I did a couple of “Zigger-Zaggers” in an attempt to get some noise generated. The noise wasn’t great to be honest. Many fans in our section showed no willingness to get involved, despite a little banter from Glenn, Ray, Steve and little old me.

Perth Glory looked a poor team to me.

The first-half was a breeze for Chelsea. The only negative was the performance of Alvaro Morata, whose play was generally sloppy.

At the break, there were changes.

Emerson Palmieri replaced Marcos Alonso. Timeoue Bakayoko took over from the new boy Jorginho. Mario Pasaloc replaced Hudson-Odoi.

Soon into the second-half, close control and a nimble turn from Barkley resulted in him scuffing a shot against a post. Fabregas – the captain for the day – hit a long shot and saw the ball hit the same post as Barkley. Perth only rarely threatened our goal.

Further substitutions followed.

Ola Aina for Zappacosta.

Tomas Kalas for Ampadu.

Tammy Abraham for Morata.

Lucas Piazon for Pedro.

Charley Musonda for Barkley.

Towards the end of the game, with the Chelsea end rarely able to put together a coherent series of songs or chants, we were treated to a further indignity.

A wave.

A bloody wave.

Around and around it went.

It will surprise nobody to hear that none of what I would call the Chelsea “hardcore” joined in.

The game ended. We were more than worthy winners. Perth were simply not at the races. But it is all about getting games in at this early part of the season. Apparently Sarri had planned six training sessions in the three days that he had available in Perth. Our fitness looked fine. But it was, let us not forget, just a glorified training session.

We made our way back to the casino for the second night in a row, and some of the group fell out with some of the heavy-handed security staff. At about midnight, or maybe a bit later, we called it a day. A cab back to the centre and the first win of the season – on what was my 1,200th Chelsea game – in our back pocket.

I was just happy with the win. It would certainly have been a bastard long way to go to see us lose.

After Perth, there were a further four days of wonderful sights and sounds of Western Australia. In total, we ended up driving 2,400 miles as we took two fairly sizeable chunks out of both sides of the continent. The football counted for a small portion of this particular holiday.

So, thanks Chelsea Football Club for getting me to Australia at long last.

Did I enjoy it?

Strewth. Too bloody right I did.

It was ripper. It was bonzer.

It was fair dinkum, mate.

 

Tales From A Night Of Capital Punishment

Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers : 25 September 2012.

There was a fleeting moment during the first few days of September when my fingers hovered over the keyboard of my PC at work. I had opened up the “buy tickets online” option on the official Chelsea website for the game with Wolves. I quickly weighed up the chances of myself closing the screen down with no purchase taking place. I gave it all a few seconds’ thought. In fact, my indecision took me by surprise. Did I really want to attend the game? Amidst the plethora of games taking place before Christmas, did I really want to pay £26.50 for a low profile League Cup game against Wolves? If I was brutally honest, I probably wasn’t too bothered.

It probably all boiled down to one thing.

If it wasn’t for my unbroken home sequence – the last game I missed was a League Cup game against West Ham in late 2004 – it is quite likely that I would not have gone ahead with the purchase of my seat.

Oh well. This run will come to and end some when. It might happen this season. Maybe not. The run might just stretch to ten years. We’ll see. I certainly know that a League Cup (or Capital One Cup as it is currently known), game is likely to be the one that will be the first to fail. It’s certainly the least important of our domestic competitions and I find it hard to get too enthusiastic about the early stage games.

I collected Gunner Parkins at 4pm. He had been in two minds about attending, too, by the sounds of it. The trip east was unremarkable. At Reading services, I spotted a mini-bus which was festooned with Swansea City flags and Welsh St. David flags. They were on their way to Crawley Town, south of London down past Gatwick airport.

I joked with Parky if the passengers were the same little band of Swansea wannabe hooligans who were memorably featured in a late night TV programme several seasons ago. What a classic tale of questionable navigation skills, poor logistical planning, loutish behaviour, fake Burberry scarves, infighting and general ignorance.

Sit back and laugh –

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Y2Gj…eature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgBzt…feature=relmfu

Were the legendary Johnny The Brains, Tank and Chunky and their little band of Herberts inside the dirty white van? We’ll never know. If they were inside, from previous experience, it is highly likely that they never reached Crawley.

There were warning signs of traffic delays between junctions 7 and 4b and the flow indeed slowed at around 5.30pm. My teeth were grinding together at the thought of being stuck in a traffic jam for an hour or so, then missing the kick-off.

“All because of that bloody run.”

Thankfully, the traffic cleared at around Heathrow. Parky slurped on cans of “Fosters” lager while I consumed two “Starbucks” double-espressos. A lot of road accidents occur in the early evening – eyes tired after a day at work – and I knew I needed artificial stimulation. While we listened to the classic “Never Mind The Bollocks” by the Sex Pistols, I contemplated how big the gate would be. I had seen on the website that tickets were still on sale. I tendered that the attendance would range from 32,000 to 37,000. I expected 3,000 away fans to bolster the ranks; the tickets, after all, were virtually half the price of league games.

The sky above London at Brentford, as I curled around on the elevated section of the M4, was a picture. The fading sun was catching great towers of cloud to the south. Ahead, the skyscrapers of the city were just visible. I still get excited about driving into the nation’s capital even after all these years.

We made it into The Goose at 6.30pm and I maintained my reputation of “One Pint Axon.”

Talk was of the team that the manager would field. We ran through some options. It was clear that, on paper, we could field a pretty formidable “B” team if required involving Romeu, Bertrand, Moses, Marin, Azpilicueta, Cahill and Sturridge.

The team came through via a message on Gary’s ‘phone and there were a couple of surprises; notably John Terry, fresh from his trial, and Fernando Torres. It was clear that di Matteo was persevering with Torres, although, in truth – without the still injured Studge – we had no real choice. I hope we don’t rue the loan of Lukaku to Wolves’ great rivals West Brom. The midfield was again set up to feed Torres; Moses, Mata and Piazon were to be the providers. With Wolves the opposition I enthusiastically commented to Daryl –

“I smell goals.”

His look suggested that my optimism was rather wide of the mark, like a Torres strike, maybe.

Empty seats in the East Stand greeted my arrival in The Sleepy Hollow. Down below, there were further unoccupied seats in the corners of the MHL. There was a huge segregation gap of some 2,000 empty seats in The Shed. In the West Stand corners, more of the same. The Wolves support numbered just 1,000. I immediately thought back to the loud and noisy 6,000 Burnley fans that had travelled down from Lancashire for a League cup game in 2008. Of course, there was a good reason for this; it was Burnley’s first visit to The Bridge in around 25 years. Wolves, however, were here last season.

Just before the kick-off, there was a hearty rendition of” One England Captain” and John Terry turned to acknowledge the Matthew Harding. The song would be continually repeated throughout the evening. What a disgrace that John’s role in the England team has been undermined by the toe-curlingly vindictive fools in Soho Square.

The game was virtually all over after just seven minutes.

I watched as Gary Cahill peeled away from his marker in the six yard box, but then reappeared in acres of space at the far post. It certainly helped that Juan Mata’s pacy free-kick was inch perfect. A great start. Gary is scoring goals for Chelsea with the same regularity as John Terry; a good sign.

1-0.

Oriel Romeu’s firm low strike brought a save from the Wolves custodian, but the ball was soon played back into the path of the waiting Ryan Bertrand, who took no time to despatch the ball goal wards. It was a fine finish.

2-0.

The song of the season soon followed.

We knew what we were.

However, a word of warning. I have the distinct feeling that this song, so perfect at the moment, may well suck all the life out of our hunt for new songs. It is now the default Chelsea song instead of “Carefree.” I’m not saying that we’ll get bored with it. I’m just saying that other songs will need to wait their turn.

What a delightful “one-two” from Torres to set up Juan Mata inside the box.

3-0 and coasting. The performance of the debutants Lucas Piazon and Cesar Azpilicueta was excellent. It was a stirring forty-five minutes of near constant Chelsea possession.

Frank Sinclair was on the pitch with Neil Barnett at the half-time break.

From my viewpoint in the wraparound, I thought that Victor Moses certainly made the most of the challenge from the Wolves’ keeper. When I saw the referee approach, I actually presumed that Moses would be booked for simulation. Imagine my surprise when we were given a penalty. Many fellow fans in my section were as surprised as myself.

Oriel Romeu, not Torres, took the penalty and slammed it home.

4-0.

A Mata corner was met by the clear leap of Torres at the near post and the ball flashed into the net.

5-0.

I’ve still seen every single one of Nando’s goals for Chelsea. He is now up to sixteen. He’s getting there, slowly. I must say that I hate the “he scores when he wants” chant.

The attendance was given as 32,000. This was our lowest gate for a League Cup game at home in ten years. Food for thought Mr. Buck and Mr. Gourlay. 32,000 in a 60,000 stadium would look ridiculous.

I must say that I liked the look of Marko Marin, the other debutant, during his time on the pitch after his appearance as a substitute. He was full of endeavour and skill. His run set up Oscar – another substitute – to cross for Moses to head down for our sixth goal of the night.

6-0.

It looks like we can add Moses and Marin to the list of creative support players whose main role will be to create chances for Fernando Torres. Moses again pleased me. Apart from all six goals coming from six different players, I was also warmed by the great appetite shown by all of our players during the game. We showed great application and tremendous enthusiasm right up to the final whistle.

Well done Chelsea.

I took a while to leave the stadium. Outside, I tried my hardest to take a few photographs of the Peter Osgood statue, a cool dark grey in the evening light, with the moon high above. I couldn’t quite get the setting on my new camera correct and I will need to go back to have another stab at that. There were voices of many tourists milling around as I left the forecourt to the West Stand. With the ivy and the lights on the old Shed wall to one side and the montage of past players and fans on the wall on the other, it is an area which is developing a character all of itself. The Osgood statue, of course, is the understated focal point of the whole area. With the West Stand façade now adorned with many banners from Wembley and Munich, the sense of place which the area projects is near perfect.

I raced home – a Red Bull to add to my cocktail of stimulants this time – and, after dropping His Lordship off, I was back in Somerset by 12.30am.

Thoughts about the next round? A local away jaunt to Swindon Town, a mere 30 minutes away from where I work, would be just perfect.

Of course, Brains, Tank and Chunky could be waiting for us too.

If they can find their way back to Wales.

IMG_0067

Tales From A Night Of Song

Birmingham City vs. Chelsea : 6 March 2012.

From the league game at The Hawthorns on Saturday afternoon to the cup replay at St. Andrew’s on Tuesday evening – a distance of under six miles – it had been a dramatic time for Chelsea Football Club; three tumultuous days and millions of words of self-analysis by Chelsea fans all over The Blue Planet. Everybody has chipped in with opinions and I have tried to keep an even, objective approach to the latest shenanigans along the Fulham Road. It hasn’t been easy as I tried to weigh up all of the contrasting views. There was an over-riding feeling of gross ineptitude by the directors of our club.

If the club is of the opinion that their approach will be one of “slash and burn” / “hire and fire” – and there is certainly a little validity in the notion that teams and managers become stale after two years and so a change is beneficial – then I think I might be able to buy into this. However, every time the club makes a bold decision and hires a new manager – specifically Scolari, Ancelotti and Villas-Boas – the fans are told of the need for stability and long-termism.

Instead, sackings follow at Earth-shattering speed and the club stumbles from crisis to crisis, with no apparent plan, like a drunk searching for dregs in pint glasses at the end of an all-day bender.

It makes us look amateurish and inept.

It has reached the stage where I would honestly feel sorry – and actively discourage – any promising young manager from the UK or elsewhere to apply for a job at Chelsea Football Club.

What a sad indictment.

Abramovich, Buck, Tenenbaum and Gourlay should be ashamed of themselves.

The last few days have made me contemplate my relationship with our players, our fellow fans, the out-going manager, the in-coming manager, the directors and “the club” – as a distinct entity by itself – and it is clear that there is a monumental difference in my support of Chelsea Football Club and that of its directors. I’ll follow Chelsea whenever, wherever and forever.

But I can’t stomach most of the decisions that the club’s directors make.

I had arranged to leave work at 4pm and Parky had made his way over from his village via a series of buses. The connections worked well and he arrived way ahead of schedule at The Pheasant pub opposite at 2.30pm. This was grave news for me; several pints of lager would be quaffed and he would, I was sure, be even more chatty than normal. I girded my loins for a noisy trip to Birmingham.

“Four pints mate” he said as he sat in the front seat of my car.

Oh great.

“Here – have some mini pork pies, Porky. After Saturday’s lack of pork scratchings, you’ll enjoy these, mate.”

As Parky scoffed them, all was beautifully quiet. I had disturbing visions of myself force-feeding Parky – like one of those worrying types on an Alabama trailer park who wants his overweight girlfriend to become the world’s heaviest woman – in an attempt to silence him.

“Finished, mate? Here – have some more marshmallows, onion rings and doughnuts.”

We touched on the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas as we headed along the M4, but by the time we had joined the M5, Parky was off on a never-ending soliloquy involving a ridiculous array of topics including geese, churches, cheeses, bikers and pasties. It was quite a performance.

Birmingham’s rush hour traffic was less-taxing than London’s. I pulled into the car park of the Ibis Hotel on Bordesley Circus at 6.30pm. The car park was officially full – residents only were allowed in – and so I had to push a £5 note into the hand of the attendant. Jesus, who had travelled up by train and had taken a cab to the hotel, was waiting for us outside. Fair play to Jesus; he has only been in the UK about a month, but has seen numerous Chelsea games, plus games at Wembley, Charlton, Crystal Palace and Brentford. He clearly loves his football. I’m sure he’ll even roll up at Frome Town one day.

There was a smattering of friends and faces in the hotel bar. Despite tickets for this game only costing a very competitive twenty quid, the place wasn’t as busy as on previous visits. I chatted with a few mates. There was a quick synopsis of our current woes but there was no real crisp and clean consensus. Some were in favour of Mourinho returning, some weren’t. The team line-up came through on a few ‘phones and there was a general air of befuddlement. No qualms with the defenders which Roberto chose, but the midfield three of Mikel, Ramires and Meireles caused a few grimaces. With no Essien and Lampard, this could easily have been an AVB midfield. The recalled Kalou garnered a few caustic comments, as always. We were generally underwhelmed.

At 7.20pm, Jesus, Parky and I walked the 400 yards up the hill to the away entrance. I could hardly believe that a street stall was selling blue and white scarves celebrating a recent “Birmingham City 6 Millwall 0” win. Talk about small time. I’ve been to St. Andrew’s a few times and it’s one of my least favourite venues. It is one of the few stadia in the UK that I have not chosen to circumnavigate. This is most unlike me; I usually like to take a tour of stadia in search of quirky buildings, club shops, pubs or car parks. It helps me to fully appreciate the setting.

At Birmingham City, I have only ever headed into the tangled mess of stand supports at the old Railway End and quickly take my place in the large lower tier, which has a slightly curved rake. St. Andrews sits on a plateau of high land and, on the last few yards before the turnstiles and bag search, there is a reasonable view of the Birmingham city centre, which is dominated by the old British Telecom Tower, the Rotunda and the space-age Selfridges building.

My seat was high up and central. There were thousands of empty seats all over the stadium. Our away end seemed to pretty full; we had 3,000 tickets. Before I had a chance to take a breath, the away support were in song –

“You’re not welcome here. You’re not welcome here. Fcuk off Benitez – you’re not welcome here.”

This was met with my immediate approval; that, everyone, would be a bitter pill to swallow.

Fact.

Chelsea, in the all white with navy and yellow trim, resembled Tottenham and I disapproved. Birmingham City’s blue kit was washed out and insipid. Soon into the game, we sung an old favourite –

“One di Matteo, there’s only one di Matteo.”

To be followed by a more recent chant –

“Jose Mourinho – Jose Mourinho – Jose Mourinho.”

In all honesty, the first-half was poor and none of us enjoyed it. After a Mata shot was saved in the first minute, our play reverted to type with slow approach play and tons of sideway passes. It took us until 17 minutes for the next memorable shot, a blast from Ramires, to cause the home team any concerns. The two lads in front of me were the leaders in the “Ivanovic – Chelsea’s Number Two” chant which went on for a few minutes. A few sticks of celery were thrown in the air, with the necessary musical accompaniment. These distractions took our minds of the football, which was hardly enthralling. It was a typical performance of late.

And then came the most cringe worthy song of the season –

“Roman Abramovich – He sacks who he wants.”

I could hardly believe that hundreds of Chelsea fans were joining in this asinine chant. This was thoroughly embarrassing. There is no doubt that despite our thousands of fine fans, we have attracted some of the most brain dead fools in England.

Birmingham City had a couple of chances which threatened Petr Cech in the Railway End goal down below me, but in general, our defence was well marshaled with Luiz and Cahill performing well. The midfield was bumbling along…our attacks were sporadic. A break found Fernando Torres in the inside left position, but his weak left-footed shot went wide of the far post. The home fans howled their pleasure.

There were moans as the half-time whistle sounded. It was the same old Chelsea of late. I chatted to a few more at the break. The news that Arsenal had roared into a 3-0 lead against Milan hardly improved things.

Sigh.

With Chelsea now attacking us in the second period, we hoped for greater penetration and goals. It was hard to believe that our last win of any description was the narrow 1-0 win at QPR in the previous round.

We only had ten minutes to wait for our salvation. There was a crazy scramble just outside the six yard box. Players from both teams attacked the bouncing ball, with their feet and legs stabbing wildly in a drunken homage to “Riverdance.” Eventually the ball landed at the feet of Juan Mata and the ball was slashed home. We heaved a massive sigh as the players wheeled away to the corner flag.

https://www.facebook.com/video/video…50715413002658

The two lads in front were singing again –

“Super Juan Mata, he drinks Sangia…”

Before we knew it, a loose ball was walloped home by the lurking Raul Meireles and we were 2-0 up. It was a fine thump and I saw it all of the way from its inception to its net-billowing conclusion. I was stood right behind its rising trajectory. Meireles hardly celebrated, just choosing to walk away. The other players were all over him. Meireles began his time in a Chelsea shirt rather well, but has since lost his way. I hope his confidence returns and his form improves.

The two lads in front –

“Raul Meireles, Raul Meireles – He’s got 5hit hair, but we don’t care, Raul Meireles.”

Juan Mata had a couple of chances either side of the second goal. We were playing better. Mikel was becoming more dominant. Ivanovic was forever raiding the right flank. A great run by Torres on the right resulted in a defender clearly tripping him. We bellowed –

“Torres! Torres! Torres! Torres!”

Instead, Juan Mata took the ball, but shot weakly. Three-nil would have been perfect; we would have been safe. Instead, the Chelsea fans around me were still completely convinced that we would weather a late Birmingham storm. Torres was now seeing more of the ball and a great cross from his boot was whipped in. It fell to the substitute Daniel Sturridge, but he inadvertently stepped on the ball only six yards out. It was almost Nando-esque.

Marlon King appeared as a substitute for the home team and was the instant victim of some pointed abuse from the travelling Chelsea fans.

“She said no, Marlon, she said no.”

Thankfully, the lone chance which King was presented with was dispatched straight at Petr Cech.

The Chelsea choir serenaded Roberto di Matteo during the closing minutes – Eddie Newton, too – and it made me realize how many of that iconic 1997 Chelsea team went on to become managers and coaches. Step forward Dan Petrescu, Steve Clarke, Dennis Wise, Roberto di Matteo, Gus Poyet, Mark Hughes, Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli. We held on for a win and I was just relieved. I hadn’t particularly enjoyed the evening if I am honest. It had felt rather like a one game repeat of the entire 1988-1989 season; the game should have been finished in the first leg and we just needed to get the job done. In 1988, we shouldn’t have been relegated and the following season was purgatory, with only occasional moments of joy. I bumped into Burger and Julie on the way out. They had witnessed Parky’s crutches being launched into the air after the first goal. Let’s hope those same crutches are launched skywards after the Leicester City game in the next round, too.

Ah…Leicester…1997 again…Erland Johnsen, where are you know?

As an added bonus, we heard that Milan had held on to go through at Arsenal’s expense. As we filtered out of the away end and in to the cold night air, time for just one more song –

“One team in Europe – there’s only one team in Europe.”

The wayward bus has been righted after a few months in the wilderness. Let’s hope the journey continues against Stoke City and Napoli.

All aboard.

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Tales From The Banks Of The Chao Phraya River

Thai Premier League All Stars vs. Chelsea : 24 July 2011.

Day One : The Madness.

From Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok …my flight landed at around 1.15pm on Friday 22nd. July. No time to dwell too much on the muted team performance the previous night in the cauldron of the Bukit Jalil stadium. Another city to explore and, on Sunday, another Chelsea match. But first, some fun.

I quickly made my way through customs at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport – sleek, slick and functional – and I soon met up with my mate Adie, who had just arrived on a domestic flight from his home city of Chiang Mai. Adie was in the same year as me at Frome College from 1978 to 1983 and was one of the stars of the school team. Adie played with distinction as a covering centre-back in a back four and had lovely positional awareness, close control and tackling ability. I played on the right wing in the 1978-1979 season, but soon fell out of the first team the following year. Adie went on to play many games for the school first eleven, but my football career fell away as my support for Chelsea grew and grew. Adie went out to Thailand in 1996 as a VSO worker, met his wife Waraya (who was his Thai language teacher) in Bangkok and moved north to Chiang Mai a few years ago. Adie visited Frome last year just as our championship season was concluding and attempted to sway me into visiting his new home in the near future. Well, as we all know, our tour of Asia was announced a while back and so I quickly decided to go ahead and book flights to encompass football and friends. Rather than follow the team on to Hong Kong, I wanted to visit Adie and Waraya in Chiang Mai instead.

There was slight drizzle outside as we quickly hopped into a – wow – pink taxi cab. In the 45 minute drive to our hotel in downtown Bangkok, we soon updated each other with news from both our lives. Over to our right, I spotted the curves of the Rajamangala Stadium where the game against the Thai League All-Stars would be played on Sunday. I quickly realised that Bangkok was on a different scale to that of Kuala Lumpur. KL had its share of skyscrapers, for sure, but they were in that condensed area of the Golden Triangle. Bangkok’s skyscrapers were all around. Adie pointed out the tallest one as we sped west. We curled round, off the elevated freeway, then down into the craziness of the city itself.

Our hotel – the Ibis Riverside – was nestled in a curve of the Chao Phraya River as it flowed south through the western part of central Bangkok. We checked in and I pulled the curtains in our room back.

“Oh wow.”

The view that greeted me allowed me another one of those “moments.”

Below me was the fast-flowing river, visible over tropical tree tops, and there were several small boats navigating their courses. On the eastern bank, there were several high-rises to complete the scene. It was a real jaw-dropper. It was another sight which will be saved forever in my memory bank of images. I could have stayed there, nose pressed against the window, for hours, or at least until Nando scored again. Adie was the person to thank – or rather his wife Waraya, who had booked the room on the back of her previous stay at the hotel as a VSO employee.

At 4pm, we headed out, the whole night in Bangkok ahead of us.

Here we go.

We managed to locate a small ferry boat to take us across the river. While we were lining up at the ferry pier – which was typically surrounded by a fast food and drink stall – Adie pointed down to the ground, just to my right.

It was a pig, sleeping in the afternoon sun.

“Bloody hell, mate. A pig!”

We made our way across the river on a little flat boat and the fare was just 7 baht, or just 15p. I snapped away like a fool, capturing every riverboat we passed. I didn’t want to miss anything. We had heard that Chelsea were to stay at the Shangri La Hotel – just across the river from us – and so our first port of call was in this hotel. Two beers, some nuts, plus more chat about our personal lives. Adie had visited Frome back in April, but there is always gossip to share. No sightings of any CFC personnel, so we decided to move on. We were headed into town on the monorail. However, just as we were queuing up for our tickets at the Saphan Taksin stop, Adie quickly advised me to stop talking and to stand still. The Thai national anthem is played over tannoys at every public space at 8am and 6pm and so we stood still for thirty seconds, along with everyone else on that platform.

Another “moment” for sure.

Three stops away, we alighted at Sala Daeng and I was ready to breath in whatever Bangkok had to throw at me. For thirty minutes or so, we wandered the close streets of Patpong 1, 2 and 3, right in the epicentre of the fabled Bangkok show bar area. Street stalls, open air cafes, fake DVDs, fake designer gear, locals eating noodles and rice, fake football shirts, noise, colour and a little sleaze, with a few chaps hustling us to enter the various show bars which opened up onto the streets. I peered inside and wondered “shall I, shan’t I?” I bought a “Clockwork Orange” T-shirt for just 200 baht from a busy stall under the monorail. I spoke to Adie about one of Juve’s firms being called “Arancia Meccanica” and the real world, the football world and my world overlapped once again.
And still the street hustlers wanted us to pay a visit to the local delights…

“One Night In Bangkok” indeed.

Adie fancied some food and so from about 7pm to 9pm, we sheltered in the relative calm of an Irish pub – “O’Reilly’s” – and had three pints of Singha…they are Chelsea’s beer sponsors after all. We ordered some food – chicken in satay sauce and some spring rolls – and had a great time. We spoke about our school days and our time in the same school and cricket teams. A few other topics were aired, but we kept coming back to football, the game that ties so many of my mates together. We spoke about Asia’s particular love of English footy, way ahead of any other league, way ahead of Serie A, La Liga and the Bundesliga. Adie kept asking me why English football was so loved and I did my best to respond. I guess I used the words “history, passion, humour, noise and tribalism.” Dotted around the bar were several western male tourists “of a certain age” sitting with local Thai boys. The pub was busy and I half-expected a familiar Chelsea face to appear…maybe Saturday night. Sitting in a bar in a foreign land, I was reminded of one of my favourite jokes, which I shared with Ade : –

“An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman were shipwrecked and found themselves on a deserted island. Within a few weeks, the Irishman had found a way to ferment the local fruit to make alcohol and had opened a pub. The Scotsman had got into a fight with the Irishman and had been banned from the pub. And the Englishman was waiting to be introduced.”

Next up was the appearance of The Better Band, a local Beatles tribute band, and they played many Beatles’ songs. In their wigs and suits circa 1964, they did a good job to be fair. Paul McCartney even sang with a slight Scouse accent, which I guess is no mean feat. I spoke to Ade about the reports that I have been writing for CIA and we tossed a few ideas about what the Bangkok edition should be called. Adie suggested “Tales From The Big Mango” in lieu of the city’s modern nickname. It would certainly be better than “Tales From The City Of Angels, The Great City, The Residence Of The Emerald Buddha, The Impregnable City (Of Ayutthaya) Of God Indra, The Grand Capital Of The World Endowed With Nine Precious Gems, The Happy City, Abounding In An Enormous Royal Palace That Resembles The Heavenly Abode Where Reigns The Reincarnated God, A City Given By Indra And Built By Vishnukarn”. Bangkok has the longest place name in the world, allegedly. Feeling on top form, we then continued our walkabout and we ended up outside, and then inside, “The Finlandia” show bar. Twenty minutes later – and after just one beer, costing a couple of quid – we were back in the crowded streets and our lives were richer with another Bangkok moment.

For the record – ‘cus I know you all want to know – there were no table tennis balls but just 30 pretty bored Thai girls a-dancing on stage.

It had to be done, though. Tick that box, so to speak.

Next up, some more food and Adie sat us down at a cheap and cheerful café, with me just kicking back, enjoying some banter and aiming plenty of puns at poor Adie. We had a few local delicacies, including a crab which had been fragranced with a selection of Thai spices. I haven’t eaten too many crabs in my life and I was getting more and more frustrated as I toiled away, attempting to get as much flesh out of the little sucker as possible. At least the Singha beer was going down well. As I finished the meal, I spotted a local Thai gentleman in a Liverpool shirt and so I quickly showed him video film on my phone from the 3-1 game at Anfield in 2008. He growled and so I blew him a kiss and his little group of friends roared with laughter.

We crossed the roared and flagged down a tuk tuk, that funky three-wheeled vehicle which is such an iconic part of Asian life, and gave the driver instructions on how to reach our next attraction. I had pinpointed the open air bar on the 63rd. floor of the State Tower as a “must-see” attraction on this first night. Well, the tuk tuk drive was magnificent, a real adrenalin rush, with the exhaust roaring behind us and the traffic whizzing past. Waves to fellow tuk-tukkers, smiles to cab drivers.

“One Night In Bangkok.”

As we stepped out onto the roof terrace, my mind went ga-ga. What a sight – a clear dark night, starlit, with the illuminations of a million city lights stretched out to the horizon. Car lights, street lights, hotel rooms, reds, yellows, whites. We stepped into the crowded circular Sky Bar, itself illuminated, and tentatively ordered a couple of expensive beers. The barman was an Italian and so I decided to introduce myself –

“Sono tifo di Chelsea.”

He then told me that Didier Drogba and a few other Chelsea players had been up at the bar two hours earlier. If anything, that validated us being there, two mere mortals from Frome. We took it all in. Deep breathes. Photos of the vibrant Bangkok night down below. We sipped at the beers, wanting them to last forever. It really was a magnificent end to my first night in the Thai Capital. Pigs, river boats, Thai Beatles, Pat Pong’s vices, beer and Thai food, the city below from the Sky Bar above.

Chelsea in town.

There was still time for one more surprise.

“Chris Axon – what the fcuk are you doing here?”

I quickly turned around and a work colleague bounded across the bar to greet me with an outstretched hand.

“Batty – what the fcuk!”

Batty has worked with me at Herman Miller for eight years and, unbeknown to me, had just arrived in town the night before with his girlfriend Jo. He had spent a few minutes on the other side of the circular bar working out “is that Chris Axon???” The penny suddenly dropped…”must be him – Chelsea are in town.” Well, what a small world…what a cliché, but how true. We spent the next thirty minutes rubbing our eyes, sharing a few stories and wallowing in the absurdities of this crazy world. He had just visited Hong Kong and was only in Bangkok for three days. That our paths should cross in a bar 63 stories up in the Bangkok sky is surely a magnificent impossibility.

But, no – nothing is impossible in Chelsea World.

We called another tuk tuk – though it’s all a little blurred – and we raced back to the Ibis, our backsides only a foot or so from the ground, across the bridge over the Chao Phraya River and we collapsed into our beds at about 2am.

Day Two : The Tourist.

Adie was clearly not used to such an alcohol intake and was rather delicate first thing. I felt fine and, after a lovely buffet breakfast, we were out and about at just after 10am. The day was spent fizzing up and down the Chao Phraya River, visiting a few of Bangkok’s must-see sights. Of course, it had to happen; we bumped into Batty, not once, but twice on the Saturday…once on the ferry boat as we headed up to the Grand Palace and once inside the temple which housed the famous Emerald Budha.

“See you in about two hours, then.”

The Grand Palace was magnificent. It was another jaw-dropper. I was surrounded by gold-leaved temples and chedis, or pagodas, and while I snapped away, Adie secretly took a few photos of me. Adie loves his photography, like me, and taught me a few tricks about the art while I was with him. Being surrounded by all of that gold, especially on such a hot day, was almost hypnotic. For a few moments, I experienced what it must be like to be Roman Abramovic. We had to take off our shoes and caps to enter the revered temple of the Jade Buddha and for a few reflective moments, I sat in silence.

We then aimed for the temple which housed the Reclining Buddha or Wat Pho. This was another mesmeric sight. This Buddha is around 50m in length and is again gilded in gold. The toes are festooned in mother or pearl. It’s quite magnificent. With all of this gold around, I dubbed my visit to Bangkok a “gilt trip” and Adie groaned once more.

Death by a thousand puns.

Outside, more street markets; DVDs, Budha mementoes, second-hand toys, second-hand books, sex aids, plastic flowers, fresh fruit, pineapples and bananas, wooden phalluses, dried fish, coconuts, fake T-shirts, fake handbags, tat of every description, West Ham season tickets.

We caught the ferry boat back to the pier by the Shangri La Hotel and I decided to see if any players were hanging around. I waited in the reception area for a good hour or so. I spoke with an ex-pat, who had travelled down to Bangkok from Northern Thailand. He told me that he had paid the equivalent of £35 to attend the so called “High Tea With Chelsea FC” at the hotel on the Friday. He was far from impressed as he was one of around 250 fans and only the manager and four players attended, away on the top table. It was a bit of a farce, according to him. Bruce Buck and his wife arrived and I slowly walked over and greeted him with a memory from last season –

“The last time I saw you was at Frankley Services on the M5 after Stoke away.”

He looked a bit guarded and his response surprised me –

“Did you abuse me?”

I laughed it off and said “no, not at all.” We chatted a little and I asked his wife to take a photo…I had my trusty Yankees cap pinned to my belt and he noted it and patted his chest, saying “ah, close to my heart.”

Soon after, a minibus dropped Josh, Alex and Graeme Le Saux off and I had the smallest of chats with Berge as he raced through the foyer. I knew that the Chelsea squad were off to the stadium at around 5pm for some public training. I spotted Cathy and a few others arrive, back from a hot day visiting the sights. They had plans to visit the training session, but I was giving it a swerve. I lounged around and spotted a few CFC personnel – names unknown – and wondered what their roles were in the grand scheme of things. What were their names? What were their roles? Their motivations? Their qualifications? Their impressions of Andre Villas-Boas? Were they enjoying the trip? Were they missing their loved ones? It made me think. I asked one of them about the team’s departure time for the training session and the fact that he was an American surprised me. Not sure why, though.

I got the nod that the team would be boarding the coach from a tucked-away service bay to the side. For about 45 minutes, with rain clouds threatening, I hung around in the hope of getting some good photographs of the players as they boarded the coach. In the end, the photos were disappointing and I questioned my sanity on more than one occasion. I felt, ridiculously, like a school kid at a pop concert and was tempted to head back to the Ibis. I stuck it out though – and was rewarded when I spun around to get a good shot of JT giving me the thumbs up from his seat. I also made him chuckle when I said “Beth from America says hi!”

On the ferry back across the Chao Phraya, the rain cascaded down and I hoped that Cathy et al had decided to forego the training session.

Saturday night was quieter than Friday – I swam in the hotel pool, while the rain came down and there was occasional sheet lightning which lit up the sky. The boats on the river were still floating past and it was another lovely moment. The rain lashing down on my skin, the swimming pool warm, the smile on my face constant. The rain increased in intensity and it was gorgeous.

“I’m going to swim underwater, Adie – I’m getting wet here.”

Day Three – The Game.

Of all my time supporting Chelsea Football Club, attending games and watching my heroes, the pre-match of Sunday 24th. July 2011 was unlike no other. We were up nice and early and began the morning with a pre-breakfast swim at around 7am. After a hearty breakfast – nice to know that pork sausages, fried eggs, fried potatoes and baked beans have found their way to Thailand – we set off for a walk around the Chinatown area of downtown BK. Across the river once more, then up a few miles on the ferry boat. From about 10.30pm to around 2pm, we slowly walked through street after street, bazaar after bazaar, delicately avoiding oncoming traffic and pedestrians alike.

I knew that I was in for a treat when Adie lead me down a slight passageway which got narrower and narrower until we turned a corner and ended up almost entering somebody’s house. There was a blurring of space – “Adie, is this a shop, a private kitchen, or a shared area between several families?” – and it felt like I had entered another world.

In fact, of course, this is just what I had done.

Every spare inch of alleyway was devoted to commercial pursuits. Here comes another list of products, but this could go on forever; food of every description, including raw and cooked fish, exotic fruits of every shape, colour and size, textiles, mobile phones, walking sticks, electric drills, fishing rods, bags, fake DVDs, radios, car engine parts, batteries, toys, shoes, fake designer gear, nuts, vegetables, magazines, old toy cars, bags of fried fish stomachs, hats, caps, jewelry, furniture, mirrors, incense sticks, electronic goods, dried flowers, football shirts, car stickers, anything, everything.

And every few yards, locals were sat on the floor, crouching over little stoves cooking their meals. Bowls and bowls of rice, meat, noodles, fish, vegetables, fruit and a thousand variations. There was a blurring again of what I saw before me; is this a stall selling food, or just simply a worker cooking up their own food?

Adie had taught me a new way to photograph, slowing to a standstill, spotting a subject and shooting from the hip. I took several photos like this and the results were OK. I remember the intense look of concentration of one very small Chinese gentleman who was delicately folding pieces of gold to make intricate origami displays. The look of a bored young girl texting a friend while sat behind textiles and ribbons. A woman devouring some food. A chap sat at a café, smiling with a passer-by.

With every step, a hundred different sights. With every breath, a different aroma.

I said to Adie – “and in four hours time, we’ll watch some millionaires play football.”

We stopped off at a couple of street-side cafes and guzzled some drinks in the heat of the day; an iced cappuccino, a lime cordial, a lychee yogurt smoothie.

And the streets got narrower and narrower. At times it was impossible to move as the people slowed to gaze at the goods on sale. I don’t suffer from claustrophobia, but at times I just wanted to break free and find some clear space.

Eventually we broke free of Chinatown and headed north, over a canal and towards the Golden Mountain, which was another golden temple on the highest piece of land in central Bangkok. We quickly ascended the steps, took a few photographs and spotted a few skyscraper landmarks. Time was moving on and we needed to head over to the game. We caught a cab – thank heavens for air-conditioning – and soon witnessed another taxi ploughing into a poor woman and her cart of fresh fruit, sending them sprawling onto the road.

On the thirty minute cab ride out west, we sped past a massive advertisement for Singha beer, which used the tagline “Spirit Of Champions” with four Chelsea players’ faces and the CFC badge. It was a remarkable sight, thousands of miles from West London. As we approached the stadium, the traffic slowed, Chelsea shirts were beginning to be spotted and the expectation levels began to rise with each minute.

We were dropped off outside the main – and as far as we could ascertain, the only – entrance to the stadium. The heat was now getting more intense, but my Yankee cap was doing a fine job. After a little confusion about choosing the correct line at the busy ticket booth, I quickly picked up our three tickets. I spotted Aggie from the Cyprus Blues and had a little chat. Thankfully, Cathy, Jim and Jayne soon arrived and I could relax. We decided to head inside and get out of the sun. Cathy and I posed with my “Vinci Per Noi” flag once again. The atmosphere outside was of excitement, but it was quieter than Kuala Lumpur. There were a few tents nearby containing various products, including a Chelsea FC stall, a Coke stall and a local radio tent, with a loud DJ creating a din. The game was dubbed the Coke Super Cup and there was a twenty foot tall Coke “running man” statue outside the stadium. Quite a few locals appeared to be selling tickets and I wondered if the gate might fall way short of a full house. Adie had seen Leeds, Arsenal, Manchester United, Barca, Real and Brazil over the years at the stadium…I hoped and prayed that we would fill it.

Thankfully, we had great seats under the cover of the sweeping roof of the west stand. Middle tier, right on the halfway line. These tickets were 2,000 baht or around #45. There was a cooling breeze and we were fine. Opposite, on the east terrace, thousands of Chelsea fans were sweltering in the late afternoon sun and I noted hundreds of multi-coloured umbrellas sheltering the poor souls. It was time to play spot the Chelsea flag. The lads from Weymouth were sat a few rows in front of us and I am sure their flag was close by. Opposite, we spotted the two Bletchley Blues flags, a Walton On Thames flag, a Pattaya Blues flag, an Indonesia Blues flag, a Singapore Blues flag, a Melbourne flag and a Rising Sun flag. It was a good show. VPN was missing – I couldn’t be bothered with the hassle.

The Chelsea players came onto the pitch and went through their choreographed pre-match routines.

The Snappy Dresser –

Chris – pink.

Again, thousands of CFC flags had been draped over some seats and these were waved with gusto. The stadium took a while to fill up. Still the sun beat down.

There were fireworks during the pre-game show and then a Thai couple appeared high above the north terrace on a platform. They were suspended from two cables and slowly made their way to the running track, as if floating on air. Let’s see something similar at Chelsea next season, with maybe Cathy and Dog floating down from the West Stand roof with five minutes to go before kick-off.

The teams appeared down below us and the crowd roared. Difficult to gauge the attendance, but – like KL – the crowd kept arriving deep into the game.

Great to see Petr back between the sticks for the first time this season.

The game began but it was a poor opening thirty minutes or so, with the Thai team showing more spirit and know-how than the Malaysian team a few days earlier. Soon into the game, all was quiet in our section and I shouted out –

“Come On Chelsea!”

…and, much to my amusement, this was met with a few “oohs” and “aahs” and even a few claps from the locals around me. Cathy and I spoke about doing some ZZs later.

Cech did well to get down and block a Thai shot on 31 minutes. That man Torres, still looking leggy and distant, skewed wide on 37 minutes and we all groaned. At times, the atmosphere was very quiet. Then, the ball broke to Frank Lampard and he adroitly despatched the ball low into the goal from over 25 yards out. It was a typical Fat Frank Goal and the crowd roared their approval.

Cathy disappeared at half-time and didn’t re-appear until later in the second-half. I suspect that she was off on the hunt for some Strongbow. Adie asked me how I thought the top six would finish up in 2011-2012 and he was quite shocked when I predicted that the title would go to Manchester United. My top six were: Manchester United, then Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham.

I caught both of the next two goals on film. Jose Bosingwa’s cross-cum-shot evaded the despairing, and comical, efforts of the Thai ‘keeper and bounced in off the far post. Soon after, a burst through the middle of the park by Ivanovic and a lovely ball through by Young Josh. He kept his cool and dispatched the ball with aplomb and the entire World and his Dog made cynical comments along the lines of “good job it wasn’t Torres.”

One of the highlights of the game for me was a crunching tackle by John Terry on a Thai player and I suspect that the said player is still having recurring nightmares about it. Josh looked busy and impressed. The star of the show was Hilario, on for Petr at the break, who made a succession of fine saves around the hour mark. Top marks. Ivanovic charged around all over the place and didn’t seem to be affected by the heat, though I am sure it was very humid and draining. Rather them than me.

The place was still quiet, though.

My “Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea” chant didn’t stir the locals and so I left it at that. A couple in front of Adie and I were annoying the hell out of me. They virtually ignored the game and instead kept taking photographs – and sickly ones at that – of each other. It was just as well that Cathy wasn’t around to witness such a pathetic sight. Just after Cathy returned to her seat, Florent Malouda lashed high into the net and it was 4-0 to Chelsea.

Job done.

JT looked rather embarrassed to collect another cup, but all thoughts were quickly forgotten as a glittering array of fireworks lit up the Bangkok night. It was a spectacular end to the night’s entertainment and provided a fitting end to my two Chelsea games in Asia. This was a much better performance than the game in KL and the team looked more at ease. I hoped that the man with the clipboard was starting to make an impact.

Adie and I let the crowds subside and were some of the last to leave the stadium.

I collected twenty plastic cups from the terraces which were all logo’d up with “Coca Cola Super Cup Thailand 2011” and had the images of Didier, Frank, JT and Nando on them. They will go to a few close friends.

Outside, the crowds were still to disperse. There was a noisy atmosphere out in the streets, with buses and cabs racing past us as we walked a few miles west to get away from the congested area. Adie also pointed out motorbike taxis, but that would have to be a Bangkok experience for next time. Lots of smiles with fellow Chelsea fans as Adie and I marched on, walking at pace away from the stadium. It felt, actually, just like a walk away from a game in Europe. Maybe Rome or Barcelona. Lots of shouts, lots of noise, lots of colour. I had to keep reminding myself that – no – this was Bangkok.

I said to Adie “at least there’s no chance of getting whacked out here.”

I also commented that although Bangkok was a wilder city than Kuala Lumpur, the atmosphere was not half as good.

At around 9am, sirens wailed behind us and the Chelsea team coach – also logo’d up in the colours of Coca Cola – raced by. I punched the air as the coach drive by and realised what a lucky soul I had been. The next time I would see the boys play would be in Stoke, but that seemed a lifetime away.

We dipped into a 7-Eleven for a bottle of ice-cold green tea and then luckily nabbed a cab back to our hotel. Time was running out for a Thai buffet, so instead, I devoured a burger and fries, along with two bottles of Singha. Not until now do I realise that these were the only beers that I had to drink the entire day. And what a day. That wonderful day in Chinatown and Chelseatown.

That wonderful day in Bangkok.

Postscript :-

After Bangkok, I had a relaxing time in Chiang Mai and one moment brought a smile to my face. On the last day, I was busy visiting a last few sights and was just about to leave a temple when a local lady in her ‘sixties approached me. I think she was aiming to get me sign up for a local tour. She asked me where I was from and as soon as I said “England” she was keen to ask me another question.

“Ah – which football team do you support?”

It made me laugh…one world, one game, one team anyone?

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