Tales From The Burger Van

Everton vs. Chelsea : 1 May 2022.

Well, that was a bloody long way to go for a curry.

I had always thought that our match at Goodison Park would be a very tough fixture. In fact, leading up to it, I was telling everyone that was interested to know my opinion, and maybe some who weren’t, that I thought that we would lose at Everton. It was set up for it. A notoriously difficult place for us to get results of late, the Frank Lampard thing, an absolutely red-hot atmosphere, the fact that it would be “typical Chelsea”, the entire works. Coming out of Old Trafford on the Thursday, I said to the boys :

“Yeah, we’ve done really well tonight, but it will be much harder at Everton on Sunday.”

Everton harder than Manchester United? An away game against a team in the bottom three would be harder than one chasing a European place?

Oh yeah. Oh definitely.

There was a very early start to my Sunday. The alarm rang at 5am and I picked up PD at 6am and Parky at 6.30am. I planned in a little more slack than usual because, damn it, I was flashed on the way home from Old Trafford on Thursday evening. After years and years of no speeding offences, I was now looking at six points in around four months.

Three after Villa on Boxing Day.

Three – I presumed – after United.

Six points. Ugh. I would need to slow things down for a long time now.

At just after 9am, I navigated my way through the streets of Stafford to make an additional stop. Through my network of mates at Chelsea, an extra ticket in the Chelsea section had become available. It belonged to Alex, a Londoner who I often see in “The Eight Bells” but who has been residing in Stafford for around thirty years. When I heard about the spare, I quickly put two and two together. My pal Burger – aka Glenn – has himself been living in Stafford for almost twelve years since his arrival, with his wife Julie, from Toronto in the summer of 2010. I got to know the two of them on the US tours in 2007 and 2009 and we have become good friends over the years. A couple of texts were exchanged and, yes, Burger was in. I left it to Alex and Burger to sort out the ticket in due course.

I collected passenger number three and immediately called “The Chuckle Bus” an alternative name.

For one day only it was “The Burger Van.”

Lo and behold, there was quite a tale involved in the extra ticket. Burger and Alex had chatted and had arranged to meet up in a local pub. For years I have told Burger about Alex and Alex about Burger.

“You must know him. There can’t be too many Chelsea in Stafford.”

Well, it became apparent that the two of them used to drink – and probably still do – in another Stafford pub. After European aways, Burger would always bring home a friendship scarf from his travels at the behest of the barman. And Alex would always spot that a new scarf had appeared behind the bar and would ask the barman where it came from.

“Oh, from that bloke I told you about. You sure you don’t know him?”

They must have missed each other drinking in that pub on many occasions. They were like shadows haunting the pubs of Stafford. They even lived in the same area for a while. And all along, I had pestered both of them with tales of each other’s existence. Well, at last they had met, and I took a little pride that it had eventually been through me. They were only going to meet up to pass over the ticket over a single drink but they stayed for four.

Proper Chelsea.

On the drive north, we chatted how you never see club colours on show in cars on match days – or any other days for that matter – in England anymore. Tensions have generally cooled since the mad old days and yet you don’t even see a mini-kit on display. Those were all the rage thirty years ago. On this trip, covering almost five hours, I didn’t see one Chelsea nor Everton favour.

PD : “My old car used to be a shrine. By the rear window. Scarves. Cushions. Rosettes.”

It’s an odd one alright.

I was parked up in Stanley Park at around 10.30am with memories of the last league game of 2010/11 at Goodison when I had travelled up with Parky, Burger and Julie. That ended terribly, with Carlo Ancelotti getting the “Spanish fiddler” in the tunnel after the game. I wonder whatever happened to him?

While the three of them headed off to “The Thomas Frost” I began a little wander of my own. My friend Chris – the brother of Chelsea fan Tommie – is an Evertonian from North Wales who now lives near Newcastle. We had been talking about meeting up for a pint before the game in a pub called “St. Hilda’s” which is just a couple of hundred yards from “Thomas Frost”. Chris – and Tommie – gave me invaluable advice for my Buenos Aires trip in early 2020, and we owed each other a meet up. During the week, it dawned on me that this could be my last ever visit to Goodison Park, what with the threat of relegation and a new stadium by the river, and so I was determined to wring every ounce of football out of it. I asked Chris if the church that abuts the ground, St. Luke the Evangelist, was open on match days. I was told that the church hall next to it has an upstairs room devoted to Everton memorabilia. That would be perfect. I even had a working title for the blog worked out.

“Tales From St. Luke’s, St, Hilda’s And The School Of Science.”

The trouble was that Chris was currently waylaid on his cross-Pennine trek, courtesy of inefficiencies of the British rail network. Not to worry, I walked along Goodison Road, underneath the towering blue of the main stand, a path that my dear father may well have chosen on his visit to Goodison for a war-time friendly in around 1942 or so. It would be his only football game before Chelsea in 1974. I reached St’ Luke’s at around 11am and approached a couple of ladies that were seemingly guarding the entrance to the church hall, but were actually pedalling match programmes from a small table. It soon transpired that I had caught the both of them at a bad moment.

“You’ve got a bad mental attitude.”

“No, you have.”

“Let’s go outside.”

I could hardly believe my ears. These frail women were having a proper go at each other. It made me chuckle.

With hindsight, it set the tone of aggression that would mark the entire afternoon in and around Goodison Park.

After the dust settled, I was told that the room upstairs would only be open at 11.30am. I had twenty minutes to kill and so set off for Kirkdale train station? Why? My good friend Alan – another aficionado of Archibald Leitch, the architect of so many iconic football stands and stadia – had noticed a little homage to Leitch’s cross-hatch balcony walls at that station when he caught a train to Southport a few years ago after a game in Liverpool. I owed it to myself to go and take a visit myself.

The only problem was that there was a little drizzle in the air. I zipped up my Paul & Shark rain jacket, flipped the hood and set off. My mind wandered too.

In November 1986, on my second visit to Goodison – my second visit of 1986 in fact – at around that exact same spot where I crossed Goodison Road, a gang of around four scallies – early teens, no more – had begun talking to me well before the game began. They had soon sussed I was Chelsea and started to ask me a few questions. I was, it is true to say, a little wary. However, I must have a non-aggressive demeanour because the lads – after my initial reluctance to engage in a conversation – just seemed football-daft and chatted to me for a while. Thankfully they posed no threat. These weren’t spotters leading me to danger and a confrontation with older lads. We chatted about the game and all other associated topics.

“Where you from mate?”

“Is Nevin playing today?”

“What’s Chelsea’s firm called?”

“You going in the seats at the Park End?”

I remembered that they were from Kirkdale, just a twenty-minute walk from Goodison. I also remembered that these lads were on the prowl for free tickets which, a surprise to me, were sometimes handed out to local lads by Everton officials. A nice gesture.

Yes, I thought of those young lads. They’d be in their late ‘forties by now.

Bizarrely, we played at Anfield in December 1986 and, walking along the Walton Breck Road behind The Kop before the game, the same lads spotted me again and we had a little catch up. I never did find out if they were red or blue, or maybe a mixture of both.

I crossed County Road. This wide road inspired the name of one of Everton’s earliest gangs – “The County Road Cutters” – and the rain got worse as I crossed it. Would I regret this little pilgrimage to Kirkdale in the rain this Sunday morning? I wondered if my father had taken the train to Kirkdale all those years ago and if I was treading on hallowed ground.

I reached the station and headed down to the platform where “The Blue Garden” – sadly looking a little shabby and needing a makeover – was placed. The rain still fell. I took a few photographs.

I retraced my steps. I passed “The Melrose Abbey” pub, itself sadly looking a little shabby and needing a makeover. I was tempted to dive in – I saw a huge pile of sandwich rolls stacked on the bar ahead of the football rush – but decided against it. I was lucky in 1986 with some lads from Kirkdale and although time has moved on, I didn’t want to push my luck thirty-six years later.

On the walk back to Goodson the hulk of the main stand at Anfield could easily be seen despite the misty rain over Stanley Park. I approached Goodison again, a fantastic spectacle, wedged in among the tightly terraced streets of Walton. Ahead, things were getting noisy and getting busy. In the forty-five minutes that I had been away, the area beneath the main stand had become packed full of noisy Evertonians. Some were letting off blue flares. We had heard how some fireworks had been let off outside the Chelsea hotel. And now this. The natives were gearing up for a loud and confrontational day. I guessed that they were lying in wait for the Chelsea coach. I sent an image of the blue flares outside The Holy Trinity statue to Chris, still battling away in Rochdale. His reply suggested he wasn’t impressed.

“Kopite behaviour.”

Pungent sulphurous fumes filled my nostrils. Ex-player Alan Stubbs walked through to the main entrance. The atmosphere was electric blue. I hadn’t experienced anything like this at a game in the UK before apart from a European night or two at the top of Stanley Park. I was hearing Everton songs that I had never ever heard before. The home support was going for broke.

I must admit that it felt so surreal to hear Scousers singing “Super Frank.”

I entered the football exhibition at St’ Luke’s and was met by a black and white photo of Tommy Lawton. He would sign for us after the Second World War. It still baffles me that we bought two of the greatest strikers of the immediate pre and post-war era in Hughie Gallacher and Tommy Lawton yet didn’t challenge in the First Division at all.

Typical Chelsea.

Of course, the greatest of all was William Dean, or simply Dixie. He must have been some player. I snapped a few items featuring him. His statue welcomes visitors to Goodison on match days. I always used to love that he scored sixty goals in the 1927/28 season, just after the other sporting hero of that era Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs for the New York Yankees in 1927. That Dixie Dean should die at Goodison Park during a Merseyside derby just seems, in some ways – as odd as it sounds – just right.

Proper Everton.

I could – and should – have stayed longer in that attic at St. Luke’s but I needed to move on. I sadly realised that I wouldn’t be meeting Chris, not even for a pre-match handshake, so I headed away from the ground again. I battled the crowds outside. There was a line of police – Bizzies – guarding the main stand and it took me forever to squeeze through. I may or may not have said “scuse me mate” with a slight Scouse twang a few times. The songs boomed in my ears.

“The boys from the royal blue Mersey.”

Eventually I was free and raced over to “The Thomas Frost”, one of my least favourite football pubs. There was, according to the steward, no room at the main entrance. I simply walked over to a corner door, chatted to Darren from Crewe, and went in there. I eventually met up with PD, Parky, Burger but also Deano and Dave. The Old Firm match was on. There were plenty of Scottish accents in the crowd and I supposed they were ‘Gers fans down for the game.

Shouts above the noise of a frantically busy pub, pints being consumed, everything so boisterous.

This football life.

Chelsea songs too. To be fair, both sets of fans – Everton and Chelsea – were drinking cheek by jowl with no nastiness. Chelsea tend to side with Rangers. Everton tend to side with Celtic. I had noticed a box of Celtic programmes at St. Luke’s – but no Rangers ones – as if no further proof were needed. A potential tinderbox – Everton, Chelsea, Rangers, Celtic – was passing with no trouble at all.

We left for the ground. I remembered seeing Burger with his father outside Goodison for the away game in early 2015/16, another loss. I had travelled up with just Deano for that one. All these lives intertwined.

I was inside in good time. Yet again our viewing position was awful, shunted way behind the goal line. Since our last visit in December 2019 – guess what, we lost – a mesh had been erected between the two sets of fans between the Bullens Road and the Park End. Everton certainly missed a trick in around 1994 when the simple single tier of the Park End replaced the older two-tiered stand. There is a lot of space behind that stand. It could have been much grander. But I bloody love Goodison and I will be so sad when it is no more.

It’s the antithesis of the old Stamford Bridge, the first ground I fell in love with. Our home was wild and rambling, spread-out, away from the road, a land of its own, a land of undulating terraces, inside and out, of shrubs and trees, of turnstiles, of forecourts, of differing stands, of corrugated iron, of floodlight pylons, of vast stretches of green, of views of Brompton Cemetery, of Earls Court, of London.

Goodison was – and is – cramped, rectangular, uniform, encased and with only St. Luke’s church of the outside world visible from inside.

I loved and love both.

We were at the very front of the top tier.

We waited.

The noise increased.

“And if you know your history.”

It seemed that the whole day was about Everton. Yes, we were chasing a third place but it was all about them. And that was what scared me. I envisioned them fighting for everything, the dogs of war of the Joe Royle team of around 995 revisited.

“Z-Cars.”

Spine-chilling stuff. I closed my eyes and breathed it in.

As the teams entered the pitch from different entrances, flags and banners took over, and the heavy smell of the flares hit my senses once again. I spotted a flag in the Gwladys.

“We Are The Goodison Gang.”

What on earth was that? It sounded like a ‘seventies children’s TV programme.

Thomas Tuchel had chosen an eleven against Frank Lampard’s Everton.

Mendy

Rudiger – Silva – Azpilicueta

Alonso – Loftus-Cheek – Jorginho – James

Mount

Werner – Havertz

Alan : “Not the most mobile of midfield twos.”

There was a mixture of new and old names for Everton. I had heard good stuff about Anthony Gordon.

As for Seamus Coleman, wasn’t it time he retired and fucked off to run a pub in Cork?

Borussia Chelsea in yellow and black. Everton in old-style white socks, la.

I would later learn that Chris got in with five minutes to spare. He works in logistics too.

It was fifty-fifty for much of the first-half and although the Everton fans seemed noisy as hell in the first segment of the game, the noise fell away as the game progressed. I noticed that for virtually the entire first period, the denizens of the Park End to our left were seated.

“Just not good enough. Must do better.”

A save from Edouard Mendy from Demarai Gray was followed by a dipping shot from Mason Mount and this indicated a bright start. But thrills were rare. On eighteen minutes we witnessed an amazing piece of skill from Mount, juggling on the run, flipping the ball up, and bringing it out of defence. Sublime stuff. Just after, sublime play of a different kind when Antonio Rudiger recovered well to make a magnificent run to cover the right-wing thrusts from Everton with a great tackle.

I could not understand the chants from our end for Frank Lampard. We love the bloke, of course, but I thought all that was silly and miss-guided. We were struggling on the pitch. I was not sure how a song about Dennis Wise in Milan was helping the cause either.

Parky was annoyed too : “Is he playing?”

Another shot from Gordon, just wide.

This was dreary stuff.

Only a lovely run from deep from Ruben Loftus-Cheek enlivened the team and the fans. With each stride, he seemed to grow in confidence. It was a graceful piece of play, but one that begged the question “why doesn’t he do it more fucking often?”

There was a fine block from Thiago Silva late on in the half, but – honestly – was that it?

It was.

For the second-half, Tuchel replaced Jorginho with Mateo Kovacic and we hoped for better things.

Alas, we imploded after just two bloody minutes.

Oh Dave.

Our captain dithered and Richarlison pounced.

Everton 1 Chelsea 0.

Bollocks.

A little voice inside my head : “yep.”

Howls from the Chelsea sections of the Bullens Road. Yet again a moment of huge indecision in our defence had cost us dearly. When Tuchel came in last season, our defensive errors seemed to magically disappear. The current trend is so worrying.

Just after, Everton really should have been two goals to the good but Vitalii Mykolenko shot high and wide at the Gwladys Street.

We tried to get back into the game but the movement upfront was negligible. But, to be honest, there was more room on the Goodison Road at 12.30pm than there was in the Everton final third. We were met with block after block, tackle after tackle. They harried and chased like their lives depended on it. Which they probably did.

There seemed to be more than normal amounts of time-wasting. Richarlison went down for cramp twice, as did others. The away fans howled some more.

On the hour, we howled again as a Marcos Alonso cross picked out Havertz who did well to head on to Mount. His shot not only hit both posts but the follow up from Dave was saved – magnificently, I cannot lie – by Pickford.

From the resulting corner, a header was knocked on and Rudiger raced in to smash the ball goal wards but the ball hit Pickford’s face.

Fucksake.

The Evertonians seemed to relish a new-found love of England.

“England’s Number One, England’s, England’s Number One.”

We kept going, but I wasn’t convinced that we’d break them down. Two headers in quick succession from Kai and Timo amounted to nothing.

Tuchel made some substitutions.

Christian Pulisic for Dave.

Hakim Ziyech for Werner.

There was a little injection of skill from Pulisic, wriggling away and getting past a few challenges but there was no end product. We enjoyed another barnstorming run from Ruben, even better than the one in the first, but we lacked invention. Everton appeared to take time-wasting to a new level. A scally in the paddock on the far side simply shoved a ball up his jumper rather than give it back.

A hopeful but hapless blooter from Rudiger.

A rising shot from Ruben after a neat run again.

A shot from Gray was smashed just over the bar up the other end. I envisioned seeing the net bulge on that one.

The noise was loud now alright.

Seven minutes of extra time were played but we could have played all night long without getting a goal.

A scuffler from Kovacic proved to be our last effort but Pickford collapsed easily at the near post to smother.

The home crowd erupted at the final whistle and we shuffled out along the wooden floorboards.

Everton are still not safe.

I wonder if I will ever return to Goodison Park?

We met up outside and I summed up the game and the season.

“No cutting edge.”

I overheard an Evertonian from South Wales talking, rather exuberantly, to a friend as we walked back to the car.

“Best game I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been to a few.”

He was about the same age as me too, maybe a tad younger.

Bloody hell, mate.

I made good time getting out of Stanley Park, Queens Drive, then onto the motorways. I dropped Burger home and then headed, once more, to “The Vine” at West Bromwich. We were joined by Michelle, Dane, Frances and Steve, Chelsea supporters all.

I had honey and chilli chicken, chilli chips and a peswari naan.

It was indeed a bloody long way to go for a curry.

Next up, Wolves at home.

See you there.

This Is Goodison.

The Blue Garden.

Flags And Flares.

History, La.

Pre-Match.

The Game.

Tales From A Tough One

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 20 April 2022.

After the away game at Southampton, there was football everywhere. Sadly, however, I was not involved in all of it.

On the Tuesday came our away match at Real Madrid in the Bernabeu. I watched this one at home, alone. I hate watching us in pubs. What a performance. I can rarely remember a more spirited show from us in recent years. It was a game for the ages, a high-energy tactical joy. And we almost pulled it off.

A couple of things to say.

I could not but help notice that there seemed to be a definite difference in the reactions – OK on Facebook, my main reference point – between those commenting on our performance between those in the UK and those elsewhere. In the UK, there was an immense sense of pride in the team and management, stated by virtually everyone. Outside the UK there seemed to be a different story. I often spotted fingers being strongly pointed at certain players and it made me gasp. This seemed particularly mean-spirited.

Massive kudos to two friends – from outside the UK, but I am sure they were full of pride too – who travelled vast distances to attend the game in Madrid. Well done to Shari from Australia’s Gold Coast and well done to Bob from Northern California. They both travelled over to Spain for just that one game. Respect.

On the Saturday, I travelled to South Gloucestershire to see Frome Town play – and win 2-0 – against Slimbridge. It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon in the sun. This was a fine performance after a few patchy results and one that really pleased me. The team solidified its place in the play-off positions now that Plymouth Parkway have edged into pole position for automatic promotion.

On the Sunday, I travelled with Glenn, PD and Parky to London for the FA Cup semi-final against Crystal Palace. Alas, I was not allowed into Wembley because I was carrying my usual SLR camera and lenses. I pleaded with security that the self-same camera had been allowed in on well over twenty previous occasions but this fell on deaf ears. I trudged back to the train station and made my way back to where Glenn’s van was parked at Barons Court. I was pretty demoralised. Sigh.

On the Bank Holiday Monday, there came salvation in the guise of Frome Town. For the game against local rivals Paulton Rovers, a few friends and I were sponsoring the match. Glenn was a guest of mine too. Ironically, the club’s official photographer had hurt his back and was unable to attend and so I was asked to slip into his shoes, and gleefully accepted. It was another fine day at Badgers’ Hill. Frome won 2-1 in front of a massive 731 gate and I was happy with my photographs. I snapped all three goals and, after “camera gate” at Wembley, this proved to be a really cathartic experience.

Good old Frome.

Next up was Arsenal at home.

At work, I mentioned to a colleague “I fancy us to win 4-0.”

Again, PD drove up with Parky and little old me. Just as we approached “The Goose” I spotted Raymondo and it was a joy to see him. He is well-loved at Chelsea and this was his first game since before lock-down in the Spring of 2020. Superb. Down at “Simmons” I met up with Johnny Twelve Teams from LA and also Ben and Christina from Louisiana in addition to all the usual suspects.

We all agreed that it would be so weird to see The Bridge well below capacity against the Gooners. We expected a gate of around 28,000. Team news filtered through. We weren’t too enamoured with the defensive set up.

In Tuchel we trust.

Before the game, Stamford Bridge was bathed in the glow of a pink and orange sunset beyond the West Stand. The yellow brickwork of The Shed End was warm with colour. The steel of the East Stand roof was a delicate pink. What with the empty seats – though not as many as I had expected – there seemed to be a surreal feel to the evening. Stamford Bridge – those familiar stands, the spectators, the flags and banners – often feels the same at most games, especially during the dull winter days. On this evening, I sensed a different vibe, one that is difficult to describe. Sometimes the old place can feel different and I often sense this during the first evening game in the light of Spring. This was one of those occasions.

Alongside Alan, PD and myself was Simon, a work colleague. There were three thousand away fans. One of them, Noah, was a guy I met up with on the long haul to Baku in 2019. We don’t often chat, but he told me that he’d be in attendance.

Arsenal, eh? It seemed that they have enjoyed the upper hand a little recently, but this isn’t really true. Sure, there had been the FA Cup losses in 2017 and 2020, but we had beaten them heavily in Azerbaijan and our last loss that I had witnessed at Stamford Bridge was the 3-5 reverse in 2012. The 0-1 defeat last May is only vaguely remembered. There were a few good wins at their place too.

Over on the balcony wall in their section of The Shed, there were a few Arsenal flags on show.

The “E.I.E.” one raised a smile. There is a possibly apocryphal story about that and how it all started involving an enthusiastic member of The Herd and a meat pie.

So, our team?

Mendy

Sarr – Christensen – James

Alonso – Kante – Loftus-Cheek – Azpilicueta

Mount

Lukaku – Werner

Very soon into the evening, the away fans seized the moment.

“Just like the old days, there’s nobody here.”

One-nil to The Arsenal. Sigh.

Chelsea responded with the same tune :

“Champions of Europe. You’ll never sing that.”

…thinking to myself :

“…mmm, how can a chant be constructed that describes Arsenal’s published attendances always showing 60,000 yet with often a third of the seats being empty?”

That’s a tough one.

I looked around. Despite the limited ticket sales – season tickets, corporate sales and away fans, right? – the stadium looked pretty decently filled. The Matthew Harding looked full. The Shed too. Yes, there were empty seats in the upper wings of the East and West Stands, and large gaps in the family sections of the East Lower, but it looked more than the expected 28,000. I couldn’t work it out.

Chelsea in our awful kit, Arsenal in their homage to Ajax or something.

The game began and it was off to a hectic start. Chances came and went in that opening ten minutes or so, with Chelsea dominating. A rare Arsenal attack saw a half-chance from Granit Xhaka saved by Edouard Mendy. There was an effort from Romelu Lukaku at The Shed End that flew past a post.

Sadly, on an unlucky thirteen minutes, there was a case of déjà vu down below. A boot up field from Nuno Tavares – “he looked like more than a woman to me” – was looking to be gobbled up by Andreas Christensen, drifting right. In a scene sadly reminiscent of the defensive howler against Real Madrid, his intended back pass to Mendy fell short and Eddie Nketiah intercepted and tidily finished.

Fackinell.

“One nil to The Arsenal” sang the away fans.

Only four minutes later, Ruben Loftus-Cheek won a ball and played it out to Timo Werner. His little run at the Arsenal defence resulted in a shot that appeared to be quite scuffed from over one hundred yards away, but his shot bobbled in.

The goal surprised me so much that I hardly celebrated and that worried me. But I then saw that Timo’s reaction was equally muted and my worries subsided. Football is a funny old beast, right?

Anyway, we were back in it. The replay on the TV screen showed a slight scuff, but a deflection and a bobble as it passed Aaron Ramsdale.

We had a little spell with a few lively attacks, but seemed obsessed with hitting them down our left. On more than one occasion, Dave was full of space on the right but unused. Maybe we had been told not to use him too much as his engine isn’t what it was and we were trying not to get him caught out high up the pitch. With Reece James inside, it seemed the two of them were in the wrong positions.

But who knows, I am no expert.

A riser from Mason Mount was off the target.

“Come on Chels.”

On twenty-seven minutes, the ball was worked in by Arsenal from their right and our defenders seemed shy in making a challenge; were they waiting for a fucking written invitation to tackle? A cool finish from the accountant Emile Smith-Rowe nestled in a corner. I resisted to waste any photographs of the fuckers celebrating down below me.

This goal was against the run of play.

Yet just five minutes later, a lovely cross from Mount on the left was played into a danger zone and Dave – “fuck this standing around, I’m going in” – magnificently swept the ball in past the Gooner goalie.

His celebrations in front of the away fans made my heart sing.

Good old Dave.

This was a messy first-half, but breathless too. Arsenal grew stronger as the first period neared its conclusion, and Marcos Alonso – outwitted far too often in defence – was unable to keep a trademark volley down after excellent work by Werner and Mount.

It was quite a half.

Phew.

So much for my 4-0 prediction.

So far it was a Bishop Desmond, with more goals very likely.

We saw Thiago Silva arrive pitch-side and we presumed that Chistensen was off. We were correct. Reece and Dave switched positions.

The second-half began.

We enjoyed a sudden burst of energy and spirit at the start of the second period. But then, all of a sudden, instead of being invigorated by the pep-talk at the interval, we suddenly looked tired and leggy.

On fifty-seven minutes, another Chelsea calamity.

Arsenal broke and attacked. A Silva tackle was to no avail. Inside our packed box, we had the chance to clear, but a hapless series of miss-timed challenges and horrible deflections allowed Nketiah to poke it past Mendy.

Fackinell.

On came Kai Havertz for the quite hopeless Lukaku. His body language was terrible all night long. I remember one header that he bothered to win. On several occasions, he just couldn’t be arsed.

We were still looking leggy, with Ruben never once going on a trademark dribble. Even the once indomitable Kante looked to be running on ether.

Miraculously, we did conjure up a couple of half-chances, but that elusive equaliser never really looked like materialising as the evening grew a little colder.

I heard Cath do a spirited “Zigger Zagger” down below me but it drew a lukewarm response from those around her.

With ten to go, Hakim Ziyech replaced Alonso and I couldn’t even be bothered to see how he fitted into the team. He hardly got a touch anyway.

The home support was drifting out into the London night.

I looked over to PD.

“Arsenal have done a job on us here. They’ve been the better team.”

They had chased us down, had put us under pressure, had stopped us.

Of all people, the once lampooned Timo Werner was the only player that could honestly escape criticism.

In extra-time, a final twist of the knife. Dave and Bukayo Saka tussled and tumbled inside the box. From my vantage point, it looked a penalty. With that, thousands left.

“Thanks, then.”

Sako converted and the Arsenal lot celebrated like they had won the World Club Championship.

As fucking if.

The whistle blew.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 4.

The Chelsea conundrum was continuing still.

And then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, and after three decent performances and three wins, the knives were out for our manager in many parts of cyberspace, and from undoubtedly within the UK this time too. Additionally, some players were being called the most horrific names.

This admittedly shambolic show was indeed all very difficult to comprehend.

And yet, and yet.

Just five league defeats all season. Third place almost guaranteed in my eyes. Two domestic Cup Finals. A manager that was being vaunted as one of the very best in the world after the game at the Bernabeu. An obviously tired squad. Out of a maximum of sixty-six games that we could possibly play this season, we will be playing sixty-three.

As I have said all season long…we have a team just starting out, a team that needs to develop, a team that needs to grow, a team that needs to find the right blend. Let’s get Gallagher and Broja back next season and see what that does.

I am hopeful that a few of the perpetrators of the bile that was aimed at some of our squad on Wednesday evening woke up on Thursday morning with the dull pain of regret.

Next up, Lymington away on Saturday and West Ham at home on Sunday.

I will see the lucky ones there.

Tales From Our Time In The Sun

Chelsea vs. Villareal : 11 August 2021.

There was a moment in The Harp bar in Belfast’s historic and beguiling Cathedral Quarter that will live with me for a while. Parky and I had met up with our good friends from Edinburgh Gillian, Kev and Rich at just after 2pm on the day of the game. We were then joined by old friends Daryl, Ed, Gary and Pete in our favourite Belfast bar. We loved the décor, the attentive staff, the choice of beers – including draft Peroni – and the excellent music. We had crowded around a couple of tables for a few hours and had been predictably catching up with each other after almost a year and a half apart. There was the usual flow of stories, jokes and laughter but also – in these rather odd times in which we have found ourselves – a few sobering tales of health issues, of how we tried to overcome the stresses of lockdown and a few fleeting mentions of Chelsea Football Club where time permitted. The time, of course, absolutely flew past. The kick-off between Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea and Unai Emery’s Villareal was at 8pm. We had decided to leave for Windsor Park at around 6pm, but I was hoping for some sort of suspension of time so that we could just enjoy this wonderful pre-match for a few precious moments more.

And then things improved further still. One of the bar staff decided to open the concertina windows that fronted onto the narrow street outside. The sunlight suddenly shone into the bar, and the late afternoon air immediately hit us.

It seemed that after our yearlong hibernation from watching Chelsea, we were now catapulted into a warm – and warming – future.

“After those dark, bleak months away from Chelsea, this is our time in the sun boys.”

It really was sheer bliss. We were all livened by the sun’s rays.

We got more beers in.

Perfect.

There was a time when the city of Belfast in Northern Ireland would have been a no-go for me. Even as recently as twenty years ago, it seemed a rather intimidating place, as it endeavoured to escape the shackles of its sectarian past. When I started travelling around Europe independently and also with friends, Belfast was simply a place too far. I can remember being genuinely scared of the city, a result of watching all of those awful images on TV in the ‘seventies of bombs and desolation. For a while, it seemed that every time I stayed up late on a Saturday night in the early ‘seventies to watch “Match Of The Day”, there would be harrowing film of a city under siege on the preceding news on BBC1. Names such as the Falls Road, the Shankhill Road, the Crumlin Road and Divis Flats have stayed in my consciousness from early those days.

Thankfully, times have changed. For a few years I have been promising myself a trip to Belfast – EasyJet run cheap flights from nearby Bristol – so there was a sense of real joy when it became apparent that Belfast would be hosting the 2021 UEFA Super Cup Final. I love the way that Chelsea has dragged me to some of the cities that I have always wanted to visit; Moscow, Jerusalem, Tokyo, Beijing…St. Petersburg is waiting in the wings.

What luck.

Not long after our – still – surprising journey to this Champions League Final and subsequent victory against Manchester City, it did not take me long at all to book flights and a hotel to Belfast. I managed to coerce Parky to join me. We would be in town for three long days. Compared to the stresses of last summer, this year has been a relative breeze at work but I have to admit the thought of a lovely Chelsea-fuelled break in Belfast has kept me going when things darkened a little.

I was, deep down, hoping to be something of a lucky charm for Chelsea. I have only ever attended one UEFA Super Cup before, the only one where we have been victorious; our first one in Monaco in 1998. I did not travel again to Monaco in 2012, nor Prague in 2013 nor Istanbul in 2019.

But Monaco 1998. What a trip.

As winners of the European Cup Winners’ Cup against Joachim Low’s Stuttgart, Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea were assured of a place in the subsequent Super Cup match against Guus Hiddink’s Real Madrid – winners of the European Cup against Juventus – in Monaco in August. Of course, in those days both finals were held on Wednesdays. We won in Stockholm on 13 May, then had to wait a week to see who we would be playing. It will surprise nobody that I was hoping that Juventus would be our opposition in Monaco. It would have been my dream matchup, even though we would have been ridiculously out-numbered by the Italians with Turin only a few hours away.  But just as we won in Sweden with a single goal from Gianfranco Zola, it was the Castilians who triumphed by the same score in Amsterdam with a goal from Predrag Mijatovic.

At the time of the game in Sweden, I was famously unemployed; I had lost my job the previous month. But by the time that August came around, I had moved into a very satisfying job in logistics, although those first few months were pretty frantic. But my employer granted me time off at the end of the month, so all was well. A company called Millwest – a Manchester sports travel firm, formerly Universal – had advertised a four-day coach trip to the South of France that included a night in nearby Nice for a decent price of £129. The match ticket was extra.

My mate Andy – who travelled to Porto with me in May this year – was the only one of my close Chelsea mates that fancied it. The season was two games old. I didn’t attend the opening 1-2 loss at Coventry City, but was at the following weekend’s 1-1 draw at home to Newcastle United. New players included Brian Laudrup, Pierluigi Casiraghi, Albert Ferrer and Marcel Desailly. It was a considerable upgrade to our squad.

Andy and I met up at a pub near Victoria around lunchtime on the Thursday ahead of the game in Monaco on the Friday evening. We boarded the coach and started talking to our travel companions. I think we semi-recognised a few from The Harwood Arms which was one of the hardcore pubs around that time. I remember a gaggle of lads from Highbridge in Somerset who had brought along a few flagons of the local “Rich’s” cider. One lad – Jamie – I see on odd occasions to this day. One of his crew was a lad who wasn’t really into football, attending his first-ever game, and bore an uncanny resemblance to serial killer Fred West. I remember a lad who was Tommy Langley’s cousin on the coach. Most were blokes. Virtually all in fact. Once in France, we stopped at the “Eastenders” wholesale drinks warehouse and stocked up on beer and cheese. The banter among new friends slowly faded away as we all fell asleep on the ten-hour drive south. We all occupied double seats. There was plenty of room.

Not long after waking on the Friday morning the coach broke down on the wide approach towards the coast. We were only shy of our destination by around twenty miles.  After a couple of nervous hours on the side of the motorway, we eventually limped into Nice. We sensed that the relationship between the drivers, an American and a Canadian, was already strained. Our surprisingly good quality hotel was on the western end of Promenade D’Anglais, the main road that hugged the beach. We were suitably impressed.

A quick change around lunchtime and then a bus into the town centre. Typically, we bumped into Jonesy from Andy’s home town of Nuneaton. We plotted up at a table and enjoyed some beer and pizza.

We later found ourselves outside a bar at the main station at Nice, where a decade or so earlier I had slept al fresco on my travels around Europe as I waited for an early morning train into Italy. Andy spotted Hicky in the distance, the first time I had seen him since the ‘eighties, a visitor from Thailand and at one time the nation’s most infamous football hooligan. We hopped on a train for the short twenty minute into Monaco.  The stadium is a stone’s throw from the train station.

The pre-match was memorable for Andy’s altercation with the Labour MP and Chelsea supporter Tony Banks outside the VIP entrance.

Previously, the Super Cup had been played over two legs.

1998 was the first year of it being played in Monaco where it resided until 2012. It was always held on the same weekend as the UEFA draws and I believe most draws were made in Monaco during that era.

Of course, the Monaco stadium is an odd creation. The pitch is famously above several stories of facilities including a basketball arena and a car park. It holds 16,000 but the gate on that night in 1998 was 11,589. My guess is that no more than one thousand Chelsea supporters were present. We were allocated the open away end with its nine high arches at the rear of the yellow seats.

It was a case of “sit where you like” and Andy and I chose to stand behind the goal.

Chelsea played in all blue, which was considered unlucky by many until we won the league at Bolton in 2005 in that colour combination.

I remember little of the game. I think the pitch was pretty bumpy and didn’t play true. Real Madrid had many more supporters than us at the opposite end; maybe four thousand. Real’s team included Roberto Carlos, Christian Panucci, Fernando Hierro, Clarence Seedorf and Raul. They were no mugs for sure. But we won it with a solitary goal from Gus Poyet in the eighty-third minute, a low strike at our end. I remember our new signing Brian Laudrup made his debut for us just after our goal.

At the time, it seemed we were invincible in the cup competitions.

1997 FA Cup

1998 Football League Cup

1998 European Cup Winners’ Cup

1998 UEFA Super Cup

After the game, Andy uttered the famous line…

“In a bar in Madrid right now, there’s an old Real Madrid fan who is saying” –

“Chelsea. They always beat us.”

We hopped onto a waiting train, triumphant. We enjoyed a few more beers before calling it a night.

In the morning, we were to learn that out on the promenade in the small hours of Saturday morning, Fred West had an altercation of his own with a woman who revealed herself to be a transvestite and then, if that wasn’t enough a shock for our Fred – after a little provocation from what I remember – drew a pistol and fired a few shots into the air. Fred West raced back to the safety of the hotel and according to Jamie when I saw him a few years back has not been seen at a game since.

On the Saturday, we dipped into Nice again for a few more beers and a bite to eat. These were simply super times. The Chelsea stories came thick and fast. This was all a bit like the second coming of Chelsea; we were all in love with the 1970/71 team and here we were witnessing a repeat in 1997/98.

We caught a cab back to the hotel and I can remember this moment as if it was yesterday.

A little boozy, light-headed with beers, the window open, laughter from my new-found friends alongside me, the Mediterranean sky overhead, the warm air brushing my cheeks, high on life, high on Chelsea, high on everything.

It was my time in the sun, and one that I was to repeat twenty-three years later.

Super.

But this was to be the briefest of away trips in reality. We left for the long return trip home during early afternoon on the Saturday.

Sadly, the coach broke down again near Marseille. A few lads needed to be back in the UK on the Sunday so got off and caught a cab to Marseille airport. There followed another frustrating wait for a few hours. Eventually we got going. I slept fitfully. I remember sitting in a French service station eating a dodgy sandwich around midnight when the news broke that one of the coach drivers had stormed off in a moody fit. I can recollect seeing him walking away with his little bag on wheels being towed behind him. We pleaded with him to return. One driver would not be able to get us to Calais in light of the driving regulations. Eventually he relented. On the approach to Calais there was a further fuel leak and the coach limped home. On the motorway back in Blighty, we pulled into a services and changed coaches. We arrived back in London at around 5pm on the Sunday, a good five hours later than planned.

It was, as we joked, a character-building trip and one that always brings a smile of happiness when Andy and I remember it.

Twenty-three years ago, though.

Fackinell.

Postcards From Monaco.

The trip to the 2021 Super Cup had begun for me with an early alarm at 2am in the small hours of Tuesday, the day before the game. I collected Parky at 4am. By 5am we had arrived at Bristol Airport. It was no surprise that we saw a gaggle of familiar Chelsea faces from the West of England on our 7am flight to Belfast International Airport. There were around thirty Chelsea on the flight which lasted less than an hour. Friends Foxy from Dundee and Rich from Edinburgh were waiting for us outside the terminal and we soon hopped into a cab to take us into the city. We were joined by Jason from Newport, who decided to swap his accommodation in favour of the last room that was available at our – cheaper – hotel just south of the city centre.

We set off on a walkabout.

Foxy had visited Belfast on many occasions and so walked and talked us through the city centre. Parky had first visited the city with the British army on two tours in the early ‘seventies. After an Ulster Fry breakfast in the Cathedral Quarter, we decided to head down to Sandy Row, something of a loyalist stronghold, and we dived into a pub called “The Royal” at just after 11am. It was packed, and packed with some very familiar faces. We supped the first beers of the trip and bumped into Daryl and Ed quite by chance. There were nearby murals of George Best, of Hurricane Higgins, of local factory workers, of normal Belfast folk, but also of Joe Bambrick – Linfield and Northern Ireland – who also played for us in the 1930’s. Playing for Linfield, he scored a staggering 286 goals in 183 games. We returned to the city centre for another beer in “Fibber Magees.”

Parky and I then embarked on a pre-paid black cab tour of the city. Our guide – a cabbie called Kieran – was wearing a Leeds United away shirt and was full of smiles when I noticed it.

“Are you Leeds?”

“No, Chelsea.”

The tour was supposed to last an hour, but it lasted two and a quarter hours. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The photographs show some of the sights that we visited. It was – of course – rather eerie to find myself walking along the Falls Road and the Shankhill. More learned and erudite students of the history of this particular part of the world are far better placed than myself to comment on Belfast’s sectarian past. Suffice to say, that afternoon will live long in my memory.

I leave this section of my Belfast story to the lead singer of Stiff Little Fingers, Jake Burns, to sum it all up :

“Well it’s lasted for so long now
And so many have died
It’s such a part of my own life
Yet it leaves me mystified
How a people so intelligent
Friendly, kind and brave
Can throw themselves so willingly
Into an open grave.”

Later that evening, we reassembled in the Cathedral Quarter – the area that we were to grow to love – at around 5pm.

We met Gillian, Kev and Rich in “The Dirty Onion” – hugs. We were all together last in Newcastle in January 2020. It seemed so recent but also a lifetime away. From there, to “The Harp” and from there to “The Duke Of York” where we spotted the first of the yellow-clad supporters of Villareal. Daryl, Gary, Pete and Nick briefly dropped in, but exited after – like us – being rather annoyed with how long it was taking to get served. It was even poorer service in “The Morning Star” – a favourite of many – but as I joked with Rich, it was funny how my spirits had been lifted by just a few swigs of lager. We then stood outside a cracking pub – “Bittles Bar” – which reminded me of The Minerva in Hull, Belfast’s answer to The Flatiron in Manhattan. We then ended up at “Franklins Sports Bar” where the drinking continued long into the night. My pal Stephen – originally from Belfast – but living in New Orleans for twenty years called in with his wife Elicia and her parents.

Then the others drifted off and I was the last man standing.

There was a reunion with a few good friends, some Chelsea songs, some flag-waving.

At about 1am we were turfed out and I managed to find my way back to the hotel.

Outside the hotel, there was more chat with a couple of Chelsea lads and I then stumbled next-door to raid the adjacent chicken joint.

At 2am – awake for twenty-four hours – I called it a night.

Unfortunately, the scene that greeted me on Wednesday morning – game day – was of drizzle in the Belfast streets below my room on the sixth floor. In the distance, pinched between some tall buildings, the slopes of Black Mountain could be seen, but they were shrouded in cloud. Parky and Foxy were up before me, but I eventually met Parky in reception at around 11am. We put on rain jackets and ambled off to pick up our match tickets at the Europa Hotel. As every Chelsea fan in Belfast 2021 now knows, it is the world’s most bombed hotel (43 times according to yer man Kieran).

We inevitably bumped into many Chelsea faces in the fifteen minutes that we were at the Europa. Parky and I then sheltered in a restaurant – another fry up for me – and a lovely pub “The Spaniard” before our get-together in “The Harp” at 2pm.

Peroni, laughs, Peroni, banter, Peroni, chat.

We admitted to each other that we were just so relieved that Villareal had reached the final and not Manchester United. Belfast is a United stronghold. The Manchester club has had a certain affiliation with the Catholic community in the past – though not as strong as Celtic – and so the thought of United and Chelsea with its links to Rangers and, to a lesser degree Linfield, drinking in the same compact city centre drew gasps from us all.

As the afternoon grew older, we looked on as little groups of Villareal fans – their vivid yellow so prominent – stopped for photos beneath the neon signs opposite. It certainly was a photogenic hotspot. We then joked that it was the same fans on some sort of sponsored walk and that when we reached the stadium there would only be fifty inside.

After four hours or so of sublime Chelsea chat, we split up. Sadly, Gillian and Kevin were unlucky to get tickets in the UEFA ballot. Foxy and Rich had been luckier. But so much for heading off to the stadium at 6pm. We eventually left at around 6.30pm. It took us a few nervous minutes to get hold of a cab. But the cabbie was only able to take Rich, Parky and little old me as far as Sandy Row, which looked like a scene from the apocalypse with debris and broken glass littering the street. A good time had certainly been had by all. A police car blocked the road south.

So, out into the now seriously warm evening sun. We embarked on a thirty-minute walk down to Windsor Park which sits a mile or so to the south of the city centre. I enjoyed this. There was a certain old-time feel to it all, walking past decidedly working class terraced houses, the crowd being drawn to the football stadium as in times of yore.

We turned into Donegall Avenue, under a road bridge, a row of police watching us, yet more echoes of a distant past, and then the security checks. Thankfully, no issues with either the COVID19 passport nor my ticket. More familiar faces. Good people. Plenty of old school Chelsea. But then a silly altercation with a fellow fan who was sat in my seat. This all meant that despite waking up at around 10am, and the kick-off some ten hours away, I was only in position for the kick-off at 7.55pm.

Proper Chelsea.

I was behind the eastern goal in row G, but where was Parky? Maybe Chelsea in their infinite wisdom had decided to keep us apart despite me getting our tickets together in the same transaction. Who knows? Answers on a postcard.

Windsor Park holds 18,000 but its limit for this game was 13,000. Chelsea were given 2,000 tickets, Villareal had 1,500. Now I know this club comes from a city with a population of just 50,000 but that split doesn’t seem fair in this day and age. Surely all UEFA Finals should have an even spilt. The side stands – home to the UEFA ballot tickets – were predominantly Chelsea. In the end, it looked like slightly over 1,000 Villareal fans had made the journey. They were residing in half of the western end and in the two tiers of the side stand too. I remember the old Windsor Park. I remember England returning there in 1977 after a spell of Northern Ireland always playing their Home International games away from Belfast during The Troubles. For many years it was a ramshackle stadium, the double tiered north stand being the only modern structure. It has now been totally modernised, with white, blue, light green and dark green seats. It has rather ugly raised executive areas in the main south stand and an even uglier arrangement in – our – eastern end. But it suited UEFA for this game. I remember the Cardiff City stadium hosted Real Madrid and Sevilla in 2014.

So, I predictably missed all of the pre-game pageantry.

I had to quickly run through the team.

Mendy

Rudiger – Zouma – Chalobah

Hudson-Odoi – Kante – Kovacic – Alonso

Havertz – Werner – Ziyech

Villareal’s team included Capoue, ex-Tottenham, and Moreno, ex-Liverpool.

It seemed like every single one of their fans were wearing yellow.

Bless’em.

It is worth noting that in none of the bars and pubs, in none of the conversations among close friends and distant acquaintances did anyone…not one person…mention a “high press.”

So here we all were. The Chelsea away club transplanted to the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park. A row of Chelsea flags along the unused seats at the front of the east stand. Chelsea flags sporadically placed on balcony walls.

The simple efficiency of one that bore the words “Two Steps Beyond.”

We all knew what it meant.

The game began and Chelsea were immediately on top, and its fans too. The first segment of the game was played out in front of a noisy backdrop and one song dominated.

“Oh Roman do you know what that’s worth?

Kai Havertz is the best on Earth.

The silky German is just what we need.

He won Chelsea the Champions League.”

It was sung loudly and raucously for minutes on end.

Chelsea attacked the colourful Villareal fans in the western end. Behind them, the dull outline of the hills that surround Belfast squeezed in between the steel of the stands. A setting sun behind it all.

When the Spanish fans began to familiarise themselves with the sights of Belfast, perhaps they took solace in the bright yellow of the twin cranes of the Harland & Wolf shipyards. Was yellow the key colour of the moment? There was that rather oddly misaligned yellow piping on the Chelsea shirt and then shorts after all.

After five minutes, an in swinging corner from the slight Hakim Ziyech on our right found the predatory Timo Werner on the far post. He connected late, almost between the legs of his marker, and brought a great instinctive save from Asenjo in the Villareal goal. We were finding players in good wide positions and after a sweeping ball in from that man Havertz, the ball was won back by N’Golo Kante, the captain on the night, who thundered the ball wide.

Where was Parky, though? Couldn’t see him anywhere.

We were well on top. Kante was everywhere. Villareal were kept camped inside their half. On twenty-six minutes, after steady Chelsea pressure, the ball was played by Marcos Alonso out to Havertz on the left. His first time cross was hit low towards Werner, but was picked up by Ziyech behind him. He swept the ball fortuitously into the net, bouncing up and in, as if in slow motion.

Get in.

Chelsea 1 Villareal 0.

The players celebrated over in the opposite corner with the noise booming around Windsor Park.

Not long after, a rare Villareal break enabled players to find space inside our box but Dia was foiled by Edouard Mendy, who did well to block the effort on goal.

A Ziyech cross from the left found Alonso, but his snap shot was clawed out by Asenjo at the near post. Then a Ziyech free-kick caught Villareal out. It was perfectly played, dropping at the far post but the outstretched leg of Kurt Zouma just sent the ball crashing over the bar.

The goal scorer Ziyech went down after a challenge and was replaced by Christian Pulisic.

Right on the half-time whistle, a very good Villareal move enabled the ball to be hooked back towards the far post where Moreno met the ball with a thunderous volley. We gasped as the ball crashed against the bar, and bounced down a foot or so from the line.

Fackinell.

At the start of the second-half, Havertz went close at our end. But then Mendy slipped as he cleared and the ball fell to Moreno. Mendy thankfully redeemed himself, touching the ball onto the base of the far post. But the warning signs had been sounded and Villareal dominated much of the possession in the second half. The Chelsea fans grew nervy and quieter.

Just after the hour, Thomas Tuchel changed the personnel.

Jorginho for Kante.

Mount for Werner.

Christensen for Zouma.

Mendy saved at the near post from Estupinan. On seventy-two minutes, the Yellow Submarine cut through our rather static defence and Gerard Moreno slammed the ball in after a nice ball played back to him by Dia. The Villareal players celebrated in the yellow corner.

It was on the cards. No complaints.

Bollocks.

Right in front of me, in the inside left channel, Alonso received a ball, nestled it on his thigh, turned and volleyed. The ball only troubled the side netting. It was the last chance of the ninety minutes.

We moved rather reluctantly into an extra thirty minutes and I suspected that the extra pints that had been gleefully taken throughout the days drinking in the many city centre pubs may have had an adverse effect on the Chelsea support.  

In truth, the extra half an hour provided little thrills. Pulisic stumbled as he prodded a ball towards the Villareal goal and the ball apologetically bounced wide. In the second period, a twist and a shot from Mason Mount inside the box brought another fine save from the Villareal ‘keeper.

Just before the end of the extra thirty minutes, we looked over to the touchline and saw that Kepa was lining up to replace Mendy.

There was a mixed reaction in the Chelsea end. There were moans when we realised that the penalties were to be taken at the Villareal end.

So. The game continued, the night continued. All was dark above Windsor Park now.

All eyes on the penalty takers.

First-up Chelsea. Our support tried to put the fear of God into the Villareal players.

“We know what we are. Champions of Europe. We know what we are.”

Havertz. The hero of Porto. The new hero. An easy save. Bollocks.

Gerard the scorer in normal time. Goal.

Dave. A big penalty. A sweet strike. Goal.

Mandi. Saved not by Mendy, but by Kepa. Get in you bastard.

Alonso. A slip, but in. Goal.

Estupinan. Goal.

Mount. Goal.

Gomez. Goal.

Jorginho. Lots of nerves from us all. Would he hop and go right? No, a hop and left. Goal. Get in.

Raba. Goal.

Sudden death now.

Fackinell.

Pulisic. Goal.

Foyth. Goal.

Rudiger. Nerves again. Goal.

Albiol. My camera was poised. A strike. The Chelsea players blocked my view. I heard a roar. Saved.

GETINYOUBASTARDS.

The players ran towards Kepa in the yellow corner. The submarine was sunk in Titanic’s home city.

I looked for Jonesy, a veteran from Monaco, and we shared a special moment. We had been present at all of the “modern” European Chelsea victories in all those far flung places.

Monaco and Belfast, though; the most unlikely of twinned cities.

There was the usual post-game sequence of the modern age. The rather odd two-stage presentation of the cup. Firstly, the handing over of the cup to Dave and then a walk to the platform to join the waiting team mates.

The hoist, the silver ticker-tape, the screams of delight.

Athens 1971.

Stockholm 1998.

Monaco 1998.

Munich 2012.

Amsterdam 2013.

Baku 2019.

Porto 2021.

Belfast 2021.

Count’em up. Eight. Two of each. I like a bit of symmetry.

It’s lovely that the badge that I grew up with, the lion rampant and the two stars – celebrating 1970 and 1971 – now has an even deeper meaning.

And if the win in Monaco in 1998 was Realy super, the win in Belfast in 2021 was Villarealy super.

OK, enough of the shitty wordplay.

Outside, I met up with Rich. We waited for Parky to emerge from the crowds but soon gave up. We were to eventually find him tagged on to the end of a queue for hot dogs and hamburgers on the Donegall Road.

We walked back, slowly, to the busy area near our hotel, an area that was known as the Golden Mile in the dark days of the ‘seventies, just beyond the high-security of the city centre. A cheap and cheerful pizza, with Chelsea shouts and songs in the distance, and then bed.

It had been a good night.

On the Thursday, there was a visit to the area near the Titanic Museum, a hop-on and hop-off bus tour of the city and even a quick flit over to East Belfast to cram in another football stadium. The Oval is home to Glentoran, Linfield’s main rivals, nestling underneath Samson and Goliath, the twin cranes of the nearby dock area. It is so different to Windsor Park, but I loved it.

It was a perfect end to a magnificent three days in Belfast.

We caught the 10pm flight home and I was able to look down on the lights of the city as we soared high above. The memories will stay a long time.

Thank you Belfast. Thank you Chelsea.

Postcards From Belfast.



Tales From Porto : Part Three – Tears

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2021.

It was 9.54pm. As the referee’s whistle eventually blew after seven tortuous minutes, I snapped the view that confronted me in the north terrace of the Dragao Stadium. I wanted to capture the exact moment of us becoming European Champions, just like I had done in Munich in 2012, and also when we became English Champions at Bolton in 2005 too. An image of our fans captured for eternity. The roar that accompanied this moment was surely not as fierce as the one in the Allianz Arena just over nine years ago, but the emotions were similar.

We had done it.

The photo taken, I clambered down off the seat and started to whimper, my bottom lip succumbing to the emotion of the moment, and then I could not hold it any longer. I brought my hands to my face and wept for a few fleeting seconds. My emotions genuinely surprised me. In Munich I had slumped to the floor, absolutely overcome with daft joy and relief. There were tears for sure. Hell, even in Moscow – just before John Terry’s infamous penalty – I trembled too. In Porto, the tears were real, but I soon dried my eyes.

There was a slight thought about my own particular story since 10 October 2020.

I had recovered well from a series of mild heart-attacks. I was now witnessing the second most important moment in the history of Chelsea Football Club – Munich will never be eclipsed, surely? – and it was all too bloody crazy to rationalise.

Football. Fackinell.

All through this craziness, since the semi-finals, the one thought that had been spurring me on throughout the stress and worry of reaching Porto was this :

“If the fans of Arsenal, Tottenham and West Ham – the others don’t count – were pissed-off when we won the European Cup once, imagine what they’ll be like if we win it twice.”

Mister 33% was way off the mark.

In reality it was a breeze, a sweet-scented breeze of Portuguese delight softly sweeping up over the terracotta tiled houses from the Douro River.

My fellow fans were running down towards the pitch. There was a lovely melee in the area where I had been stood for three hours. I was soon joined by Luke and – such is the immediacy of the modern life – I wanted to share my moment of joy with the world. Aroha was nearby, and I asked her to take a photograph of the two of us. I think that the photo is worth a thousand words.

I posted the picture on “Facebook” at 9.59pm. The accompanying message was this :

“We’re The Only Team In London With Two European Cups”.

I then joked with Luke that we could now look Nottingham Forest in the eye. And we could at last look down on Villa.

My immediate thought, next, was of Aroha; carrying Luke’s baby. What a story, what a moment of joy for them both, knowing that their child – due in late July – was there in Porto when our club won our second European Cup.

A brief thought of the scorer.

It was all very apt. Kai Havertz, the COVID Kid, hit hard by the virus in the autumn – so much so that his first few appearances for us promised little, if anything – would be the one whose goal had been decisive, wearing number 29 on 29 May.

Perfect.

For ten minutes, everything was pretty much a Blue Blur. I was aware that the Chelsea players had run towards the fans in the western section of the north stand, between the goal frame and the corner flag. Fans were clambering over the seats to get to the front. I was again stood on the seat in front. I could not be any nearer the pitch. A few of us tried to free the official Champions League banner from its moorings but it was fastened solid.

I didn’t even notice the Manchester City players collecting their medals.

At 10.10pm, the victors stood in a line and slowly walked towards the waiting trophy. In Munich, the presentation was up in the main stand – I prefer that – but here the final act of the 2020/21 Champions League campaign took place on the pitch. I stood with my camera poised, making sure that I had a clean and uninterrupted view.

At 10.11pm, Cesar Azpilcueta hoisted the huge trophy into the air.

Blue and white tinsel – correction, royal blue and white tinsel – streamed everywhere. Fireworks flew into the sky. White smoke, not of surrender, but of glory drifted skywards.

A perfect scene.

The City fans had virtually all left the stadium, just as I did after the final whistle in Moscow. I did not relish their trip home to Standish, Stockport, Didsbury and Harpurhey.

It was time for some music.

“One Step Beyond” was especially poignant. We all remember how City mocked us by playing this tune after a victory against us at Eastlands in around 2010.

“We Are The Champions” of course. I am afraid to admit that this was the first single that I ever bought in early 1978. I grew to absolutely detest Queen as I became older, but this song does bring back a nice childhood memory; my blue house team won the school football tournament that year and our team sung this song after the final triumphant game against the red team.

In Porto, it had a new twist.

“We are the Champions…again.”

But oh those high notes that followed. Ouch.

“Blue Tomorrow” and a memory of our victory in the 2000 FA Cup.

For twenty minutes, we watched as the Chelsea players cavorted on the other side of the pitch. We begged them to bring the trophy over to us in our corner. We watched as the players indulgently took selfies of themselves with their wives and partners. We sang “over here, over here, over here” but it was all to no fucking avail. We were ignored.

At 10.30pm, Aroha, Doreen, Luke and myself set off for home. I took one final photograph of the scene and left the stadium.

I have always loved walking out of various football stadia with a win tucked in our back pockets. An away win on foreign soil cannot be beaten. Often the local police have closed, or blocked-off, roads so that we have a free march in the middle of deserted streets. I can especially recollect a lovely walk back to the nearest subway station on a balmy night in Lisbon in 2015.

Bouncing, bubbling, striding triumphantly, the occasional chant, the occasional song, the swagger of success, locals cowering – or so we hoped – behind windows.

In Porto, as triumphant as it all was, the walk back to the coach was tough. I had made a schoolboy error of wearing a new pair of Adidas trainers for the day and although I had worn them around the house and on a few shopping trips, I had not fully worn them in. My walk – uphill, damn it – back to our waiting coach was a nightmare. My feet were on fire. I hobbled along like Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.”

I took my seat in the coach, turned my phone on, and answered as many messages of congratulations as I could.

There was a sweet air of contentment, and an overwhelming feeling of befuddled bemusement.

I soon shared the astounding news that we were the first – and we will forever be the only – team to double up on wins in the European Cup (2012 and 2021), the Europa League (2013 and 2019) and the now discontinued European Cup Winners’ Cup (1971 and 1998).

I spoke to a couple of supporters about my mate Jaro’s take on the game.

In the few days before the match, he was adamant we’d win.

The first time? 19/05.

The second time? 29/05.

I guess that means that we will need to wait for the Gregorian calendar to be replaced by a new version so we can win it a third time on 39/05.

People were tired. People were weary. Eventually the coach set off for the airport. At 11.45pm, I shared my last photo of the day; the blue-lit interior of our coach on its thirty-minute drive back to the airport. There was complete silence. Not a sound.

I guess we reached the airport at just after midnight. We spotted a few disconsolate City fans milling around. Thankfully, the security checks did not take long. I loaded up on those gorgeous Portuguese custard tarts – pasteis de nata – and gobbled down some Gummi Bears for a quick sugar buzz. We waited until it was our turn to board.

I bumped into Andy and Sophie again, down by Gate 18.

Andy started talking :

“Chris, there’s a bloke, tonight – right – in Madrid…”

And I stopped him in his tracks.

I corrected him.

“Andy. There’s a bloke in a flat in Levenshulme. And he’s saying…Chelsea, they always beat us in Cup Finals.”

From the Full Members Cup at Wembley in 1986 – away you go, new fans, start Googling – to the European Cup Final at Estadio do Dragao in 2021. Artistic licence allows me to forget the League Cup in 2019. Right?

We walked out to the waiting plane and it suddenly made sense. I need not have been too bothered about TUI’s colour scheme.

TUI – two-ey…if ever there was a clue that we were going to end up with our second European Cup, there it was.

The other company that covered Chelsea’s chartered flights was Jet2.

Say no more.

It was – to coin a phrase – written in the stars.

Our flight home lifted off at 2am.

I caught a little sleep, as did many. I had not eaten much the entire day, so I soon wolfed down the roast chicken dinner. The friendly air-hostess even gave me two extra puddings and that, sadly, is not a euphemism.

As I spoke to her about the day, I realised that my voice was deep and croaky. It was clear that I had been singing my heart out that evening. A silly sign that I had been immersed in the game, but it was further proof that I was now back.

We landed at Gatwick bang on 4am.

I had spent around sixteen hours in the spectacular city of Porto. Along with Athens, Stockholm, Munich, Amsterdam, Baku – and Monaco – our list of foreign fields that will be forever Chelsea continues to grow.

And get this.

Chelsea Football Club has now won more European trophies than the rest of London combined.

I was quickly through passport control, there was no baggage carousel, I caught the bus back to the car park. I made tracks at 5am. I stopped at Cobham Services on the M25 – a mere mile or so from our training centre – and demolished an espresso. A handful of Chelsea had similar ideas.

“European Champions only please.”

It was a chilled out drive home. I enjoyed a powernap for around forty minutes as I stopped at another services on the A303 at around 7am.

Not long after, I updated my “Facebook” status once more.

“Driving home, nearing Stonehenge. Absolute Radio on. “Teardrop” by Massive Attack.

Gone.

The perfect denouement to thirty hours of following Chelsea Football Club.”.

I called in to see Glenn, then Parky, then my Liverpool-supporting mate Francis. I eventually made it home at around midday.

I joked to all three of them :

“Bollocks to it, I’m only bothering with Cup Finals from now on.”

There was a brief mention of a potential Super Cup in Belfast in August. I had gambled on cheap flights from Bristol a month ago and the decision to go ahead would be with UEFA.

Season 2020/21 was the maddest ever. It was – overall – undoubtedly my least favourite season thus far. I had only seen us play twice. And yet, I had seen us in two Cup Finals. I had seen us win the biggest prize of all for the second time in our history.

But this will be the craziest part of all.

We will all assemble, God-willing, in mid-August to see our team play once again. For the vast majority of fans, people will see Thomas Tuchel in the flesh for the very first time. Normally there would be mutterings of “I hope the new coach gets off to a good start.”

And yet he has already won the bloody European Cup.

And Finally :

Two photos.

One from Porto in 2015 and a nod to the many fine folk who were sadly unable to travel to the game. This photo shows Gary, Alan, Kev and Parky alongside me on that fine bridge that dominates the central area and affords such a splendid view of the city. It has been my screensaver on my home laptop for many years.

One from my friend Donna. It’s probably one of the few photos that I have shared on here that I have not taken myself. It’s self-explanatory really. At last players and supporters as one.

Chelsea Football Club, Frank Lampard and Thomas Tuchel, its players and loyal supporters : I salute us all.

Very lastly, I have to mention that as I sat down in The Blue Room – where else? – on Monday evening to begin writing Part One, I grabbed a Depeche Mode CD and pressed play. It was one of three CDs in a set from 2004. I had no idea what track would be played first. You’ve guessed it. “Personal Jesus.”



Reach Out. Touch. Faith.

Tales From Game 66/200

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 21 January 2020.

The bookends to the week were the two trips to the north, to the river cities of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Kingston-upon-Hull. Tucked in the middle was the home game with a team from North London. Islington-upon-Woolwich anyone?

If anything, the Chelsea vs. Arsenal game could have come a day later. My head was still full of the fun memories of three days and two nights in Newcastle in the way that such trips take over our thoughts and minds for a while. The Tuesday evening game came a little too soon for me. On the journey into London I admitted to PD, Parky and Simon “good job this is against Arsenal, a match with a much lesser team would leave me rather underwhelmed.”

A lot was being made on all of Chelsea Football Club’s social media sites about it being the two hundredth game between the two sides. I quickly did some research, I delved into “the spreadsheet” and discovered that the game would be my sixty-seventh such game, though that included the pre-season friendly in Beijing in 2017, so I am sure that the club were not counting that one.

So it would be “officially” match number sixty-six out of two-hundred.

That made me gulp. But I am sure I must know of fellow fans who must be close to 100 of the 200 games. Fantastic stuff.

So, sixty-six Chelsea vs. Arsenal matches with games at Highbury, Stamford Bridge, Cardiff, Wembley, The Emirates and Baku.

Six venues. The most that I have ever seen us play another team.

The first game? Easy. That season opener in 1984. It was so famous that a book has been written about it.

Game sixty-six followed the usual midweek pattern.

Pub one, pints of lager, pub two, bottles of lager, game.

The kick-off time for this match was 8.15pm. Another “I hate modern football” moment coming up. This is 2020 – and 2015 in 2020 – and not many football fans live close to their home stadia these days. This isn’t 1930 when most of Chelsea’s match-going fans lived a short distance away, and Stamford Bridge was reachable by foot, by bus, by tube. In the pubs, we had spoken to friends from Wiltshire, from Warwickshire, from all points of the compass.

8.15pm, fucking hell. I wouldn’t be home until 1.30am.

Altogether now.

“Ugh.”

We were in with a few minutes to spare. I spotted the appearance of a new – I think – crowd-surfing banner drifting along in The Shed Upper.

“PRIDE OF LONDON” with cups a-plenty.

Six of them.

A beautiful sight.

A quick run through of the team.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Christensen – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Willian – Abraham – Hudson-Odoi

Arsenal were their usual assortment of bit players with the letter Z in their surnames…Luiz, Lacazette, Ozil, Guendouzi, Martinez…like the last players to be picked at school football maybe?

A relatively cold night, people were wrapped up, some with quite hideous and ill-fitting headwear.

“Fuck me, it’s not that cold” I thought to myself on many occasions.

After the heartache of the last minute loss at St. James’ Park, one thing was agreed in car and pub.

“We gotta win this one tonight.”

Three thousand away fans and I could not spot a single flag nor banner.

I bet they could not be Arsed.

We began well.

The first player to catch the eye – and it pleased me – was Callum Hudson-Odoi on the right. He was playing with tons more confidence, tons more urgency, tons more energy. It was if he had been given a kick up the arse. He looked a different player to the reticent one on Saturday.

“We need to feed him.”

It was all Chelsea in the first fifteen minutes with a few raids and chances created. It was a promising start. Efforts from Kovacic, Christensen and Abraham threatened Leno in the Arsenal goal. Then, a lofted “dink” from Hudson-Odoi from an angle fell on top of the bar. We were not completely sure that he meant it. But it was certainly a bright start.

I wasn’t particularly happy with all the boos that David Luiz was receiving from a sizeable section of the home support.

Munich 2012.

But then it seemed that he became the focus for a few minutes, involved in a couple of rugged challenges.

I commented to Simon alongside me “he’s going to implode tonight.”

And then Arsenal came into it the game and enjoyed a little spell.

On twenty-five minutes, a ball was pumped up early for Tammy to run onto. Mustafi made a hash of a back-pass, and our centre-forward pounced. His first touch took him past Leno, and it appeared that he just had to keep his composure and stroke it in to an unguarded net. He knocked it wide, took one or two touches but was then flattened from behind by David Luiz.

An easy penalty.

And a red card to the player in red.

All of a sudden the Chelsea choir changed tunes.

“Oh David Luiz, you are the love of my life…”

We waited.

Would Jorginho keep to form and hop his way towards the ball, stop, then punch the ball to Leno’s left.

This is exactly what happened.

Leno had done his homework, but Jorginho’s placement was perfect. The dive was strong, but the ball won.

Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0.

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

Chris, though : “Come on my little diamonds, fam.”

Very soon, a new song.

“David Luiz. He’s one of our own.”

The Bridge had not exactly been a riot of noise, but at last the home support was stirred.

“Super Frankie Lampard.”

…mmm, we haven’t heard that for a while, eh?

A well-worked one-two between N’Golo Kante and Hudson-Odoi, but the volley was just too near Leno. Efforts from Rudiger and Kovacic did not trouble the Arsenal ‘keeper further.

Just before half-time, Arsenal made me chuckle.

“Is this a library?”

Fucking hell, talk about irony.

It would have been a lot funnier if they had followed it up with “is this The Emirates”?

At the break, there was the time-honoured worry about us only being 1-0 up despite having dominated. It just felt that a list of half-chances had gone to waste. But there were a fair few positives in that first-half. Kante was sublime, and Kepa was untroubled.

The second-half began. There was a typically errant piece of distribution from Kepa but it ironically set off a ridiculously long piece of possession that seemed to go on and on for ever. At last the move petered out. In fact, many of our moves did the same. Lots of possession, the ball being passed around on the edge of the box, but sadly no end product. The natives began to get restless.

It was, after all, eleven men against ten.

On the hour, and from a Chelsea corner down below us from Willian, the ball was headed out and Arsenal began a counter. Martinelli raced past Emerson, but just as the last man Kante was moving into position there was a fateful slip. The Arsenal forward had a clean route on goal. Inside the box he calmly side-footed past Kepa, bollocks.

Was it their first shot on goal?

Bollocks again.

A red flare was set off inside the away section of the Shed Lower.

I decided to stand for much of the rest of the game. It felt that I needed to expel some energy, some nerves, and – you know what? – I find that hard to do when I am meekly sat on a seat.

It just ain’t football to be sat for ninety minutes.

I needed to move my limbs, to get a bit agitated, to step up and down, to feel as though I would be better placed to join in with a song of support should the need arise. I wanted to head every cross, to kick every ball.

“Come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea.”

This was not a top quality game of football, but it had emotion and a drama, a little needle, and for once Stamford Bridge felt like a fucking football stadium once again.

Ross Barkley replaced Kovacic, and Mason Mount replaced N’Golo Kante.

We produced a few efforts on goal. Jorginho lofted the ball in to a packed box and a twisting leap from the substitute Barkley produced a header that deserved more. It was, sadly, well saved by Leno at his near post. The Arsenal custodian was by far the busier of the two goalkeepers.

“Come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea.”

Michy Batshuayi replaced Willian with ten to go.

“Two up front, good. Frank must have read my Newcastle blog.”

With only three minutes remaining, Tammy did ever so well to chase down a long ball and put an Arsenal defender under enough pressure to give away a corner.

I was certainly stood up now.

“Come on!”

The corner was played short by Mason to Hudson and his low cross was aimed at a bevy of players inside the six-yard box. It was all a jumble of limbs, but Dave prodded home. Huge scenes, huge joy, and my immediate thoughts were of a strike from the same player in a similar position late in the Ajax game, and his ecstatic run towards our corner flag. I snapped away just like I did in November. After a while, I spotted Alan standing quietly…

”Oh no.”

Seeing his face dulled my emotions for a moment.

“VAR”?

From what I remembered, Dave was onside. Surely not.

Not.

Phew.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 1.

And then, and then…with time running out, I watched as an Arsenal move developed. The ball was played to Hector Bellerin who shuffled towards the box. Two Chelsea players made half-hearted attempts to close down space, but one was the limping Tammy Abraham. I watched, disbelieving, as Bellerin stroked the ball through the space inside our penalty area. The ball rolled in slow-motion towards the far post. Just like at Newcastle on Saturday, I was in perfect line with the movement of the ball.

Inside my head : “this is going in.”

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 2.

Their second shot on goal?

Fuck it.

Bizarrely, we still had one last chance to win it. A sublime cross on the right from Hudson-Odoi was played right in to the danger zone but Michy shanked it and the ball flew past the near post. It was a rare quality ball into the box. Throughout the night, during the second-half especially, our crossing was not up to much. Emerson again frustrated the hell out of me.

And again, we were up against ten men. They were playing with a man short for an hour. It was another frustrating night for sure, and there have been many this season.

No need for boos at the end though, eh?

After the midweek games, we would find ourselves six points clear in fourth place on forty points.

But no need for boos.

It’s Liverpool’s title. Leicester City and Manchester City are shoe-ins for an automatic Champions League place. We are ahead of the chasing pack.

Ah, the chasing pack. Not much of a pack, eh?

Manchester United are in fifth place on thirty-four points, just four points ahead of Newcastle United who are in fourteenth place.

It’s a lack-lustre season all round.

But no need for boos.

To be honest I am getting bored with many fans’ opinions about Chelsea Football Club these days. But here is the thing. The ones who are moaning about Frank, his naivety, his lack of nouse, his tactics, our dearth of quality strikers, our poor play…well, they are usually the ones that I find moaning on social media about TV programmes, about pot holes, about celebrities, about their work, about their play, about music, about schools, about youngsters, about the price of petrol, about current affairs, about modern life, about politics, about Brexit, about fucking everything.

Football used to be a release from the burdens and troubles of modern life.

Now it seems as if it is just a tedious part of it.

Fucking hell.

Come the revolution.

See you all at Hull.

Postscript.

Chelsea & Arsenal.

Played 66

Won 23

Drew 22

Lost 21

For 93

Against 84

Tales From A New Decade

Brighton And Hove Albion vs. Chelsea : 1 January 2020.

Another decade, another game.

Another game at a snotty kick-off time.

Last season, right after getting back from Budapest, I drove from Somerset to East Sussex and parked at Lewes train station and took the free train in to Falmer where Brighton play their games. It was a perfect arrangement. Talking to my good mate Mac – a long-standing Brighton season ticket holder – at our league game at Stamford Bridge in the early autumn, we found out that Mac and his mates drink in Lewes before games. It looked a fantastic little town. A nice mix of pubs in a good setting. We made plans for a lovely pub crawl before the away game on New Year’s Day. And then the knobheads got involved and ballsed it right up.

The kick-off was changed to 12.30pm.

I hate modern football.

Sigh.

“Maybe next season.”

Brighton is a pretty hefty away trip for The Chuckle Brothers. As a result, New Year’s Eve was a very quiet one for PD, Glenn, Parky and little old me; we all stayed in ahead of the 7.30am start on the first day of 2020.

We were up Brighton Early.

And this represented the first away game that all four Chuckle Brothers would be attending since the season opener at Old Trafford in August.

The roads were super-quiet as I dropped down over Salisbury Plain, past Stonehenge, through Salisbury and its wonderful spire, past the football cities of Southampton and Portsmouth, past Chichester, past Arundel and its impressive castle – where the cricket season always used to start with a game between a Duke of Norfolk XI and a touring team, not sure if it still does these days – and then towards the undulating South Downs and the coastal towns of Littlehampton, Goring, Worthing, Lancing, Shoreham and Hove. I kept peering to my right to see if I could catch a glimpse of the sea, but everything was out of sight, elusive, mist and sea fog combining to paint everything a subtle grey.

Our game at Luton Town on New Year’s Day in 1980 was drawing a few references on Facebook according to Glenn as I ate up the one hundred and forty miles.

“3-3 draw, right?”

Forty years ago.

“When we were young.”

And I realised that these games of my youth seemed to hold greater resonance than other, recent, games. And I didn’t even go to that one.

Any others worth remembering?

The game on New Year’s Day in 1991; at home to Everton, a 1-2 loss with Pat Nevin playing for the visitors. The importance of this? The last game that both of my parents and myself attended together. We were in the West Stand seats, not so far away from the first game together in 1974.

The one five years ago; that horrific 3-5 loss at White Hart Lane which surely put an end to Jose Mourinho’s more attack-minded ideas in the first part of the 2014/15 season. Lessons were learned that day, and apart from a goal fest at Swansea, our football became tighter and less expansive for the rest of that season. Mourinho. Wonder what ever happened to him?

At 11am, I arrived on time in Lewes. It was just as I remembered it; Tudor houses on the high street, a smattering of cosy pubs, cobbled alleyways, cramped streets, even the train station looked like something out of an Ealing Comedy-era film. I half-expected a steam train to pass through the multi-platformed station. I yearned for a pub crawl.

“Maybe next season.”

We soon alighted at Falmer; it is barely a five-minute journey from Lewes. PD and LP headed off to the away end. Glenn and I made a beeline for a bar outside the East Stand. We met up with Mac and one of his mates bought us pints.

“Top man, cheers.”

I like that Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club is all about community. The bar outside the stadium – as is the bar in the away end – sells solely “Harvey’s” lagers and ales. Their brewery is in Lewes. A fine touch. It was grand to share some chat with Mac and his pals again. Unfortunately, as is so often the case these days, the talk was largely dominated by VAR.

Bleurgh.

We mentioned the 1970 replica shirt that Chelsea would soon be selling as an acknowledgement of the fiftieth anniversary of the second most iconic game in our history. I loved that one of Mac’s friends – I am sure that he will not mind me saying that he must be in his ‘seventies – commented that replica shirts should only be worn by players on the pitch.

“I knew I liked you.”

I commented that many of my mates, hardly any of whom buy replica shirts, have highlighted the blue with yellow-striped shorts as key purchases for holidays in Spain, Turkey, Florida and Thailand this summer. They will fly off the shelves, no doubt. I love the idea, as do many evidently, of a plain T-shirt (not cheap, just plain, you know the score) and football shorts in Majorca, Bodrum, Orlando and Koh Samui. For English football fans of a certain disposition, this is classic bar clobber.

The “elderly” Albion fan reminded us all that Brighton had never beaten Chelsea, in league nor cups. I replied that in the two league games that I had seen at their new stadium in 2017/18 and 2018/19, Brighton had generally played well and had been rather unlucky to lose both.

Mac mentioned that the al fresco bar was open as early as 9am.

Glenn warned me : “God, don’t tell the others. We would have to have left at 5.30am.”

I laughed.

“Right, time to go Mac. Stay up, let’s plan for Lewes next season.”

Inside the away end, many were guzzling pints of “Harvey’s.”

I made my way to our seats. Another great location; we were in the second row. After my Arsenal photographs, I was hoping for some half-decent ones this time too.

For the third visit in a row, the stadium was enveloped in mist. This muted the blue of the stadium. But I was reminded how much I like this new build; each stand is linked, but each stand is different. Sloping roofs, different tiers, various levels, curved roof trusses, quirky viewing platforms, infilled corners. It’s a joy.

The teams entered the pitch and the locals heartily joined in with “Sussex By The Sea.”

“So put your best leg forward, my lads.
And time each ball you see.
If you sing the old song.
Well you can’t go wrong.
Of Sussex By The Sea.”

It’s not as stirring as “Z Cars” at old-style Goodison but it does have a certain charm.

I ran through our starting eleven.

Arrizabalaga

James – Zouma – Rudiger – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Kante – Mount

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

There were more than a few spares knocking about on Facebook leading up to this game, and there were a few seats unoccupied near us as the game began. I know that it was New Year’s Day and all, but we should be packing Brighton away 100%. It’s so close to our heartland.

Chelsea in the black and orange.

Mmm. I just hoped that the players were easier to pick out by their team mates on this misty and murky – graphite? – afternoon than I could manage. At least the tangerine socks were a reference mark.

Murkiness or not, I soon spotted Mac in his seat behind the Brighton bench with a couple of the lads we had met before the game.

The match began with us attacking the home fans at the northern end.

We looked confident, and played the ball with ease, but it was the home team that enjoyed the first effort on goal with a shot that rattled wide of Kepa’s post. Heading into the tenth minute, and after we had toyed with the Brighton defence on a couple of forays down our left, we won a corner on our right. Willian dropped a cross on to Kurt Zouma’s head – it was a fine leap – and his knock-down allowed Tammy to stab at the ball. His effort was blocked by Aaron Mooy but Captain Dave was on hand to swipe at the ball from very close range.

GET IN.

I caught his leap on film, easy.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Our next chance fell to a raiding Tammy Abraham, but with Willian pleading for the ball, he chose to shoot. The effort was deflected off target. I nabbed that shot on film too, easy pickings.

Brighton’s towering defender Dan Burn looked in huge discomfort after a challenge with young Reece James and was stretchered off.

We seemed to dominate the game but with few clear chances. I liked the directness of Christian Pulisic, who returned to the fray after missing a couple. These Christmas games – I am counting the Tottenham one – are tiring for fans and players alike, so it is no wonder there has been a little squad rotation. Kante looked good, Mount not so. Zouma and Rudiger coped with everything that was thrown at them, though Toni had a right old go at Kurt after the latter decided to head a deep cross out for a corner. We didn’t hear a shout and we were yards away. A bit naughty that, Toni. I don’t think Kurt did anything wrong at all.

And it was quiet enough to hear a shout. By God was it quiet. Not only from the home fans but from us too. We had 3,000 there – more or less – and there were a couple of noticeable instances during that first-half when it seemed the entire stadium was taking part in a sponsored silence.

During the second sustained silence, I couldn’t take it any longer.

I bellowed “COME ON CHELSEA” and people probably heard me in Glyndebourne, Rottingdean, Ditchling and Walmington On Sea.

It certainly caused the colony of seagulls that were permanently perched high on the roof truss to my right no end of fluster. Four of them flew off and into each other, three others fell off their perch, and two others shat on the spectators in the tiers below.

Truly, the lack of noise was shocking. When I finally decide to give up in “X” years’ time – the cumulative effect of the “drip, drip” negatives of ridiculous kick-off times, knobhead fans, VAR bullshit, 39th game rumours, World Cups in Qatar, players on weekly wages that I could possibly retire on, et-bloody-cetera – the first-half at Falmer will be nestled in there somewhere.

I just looked around and wondered how so many fans, supporters, devotees, loyalists could make such little noise.

Inside my head : “Estudiantes versus Defensa Y Justicia in Del Plata can’t come fucking quick enough.”

On the pitch, a rare shot on goal from the home team caused us to worry.; a swipe from distance from Leandro Trossard was one-handed away by Kepa.

Phew.

Pulisic kept running at the home defence and I remember a couple of efforts in that first-half.

As the game re-started, Pulisic again looked eager and dangerous, twice running directly at the home defence and causing problems. A Reece James effort was deflected for a corner. The industrious Kante – one blind-sided run was fantastic but not spotted – struck at goal but did not trouble Mat Ryan, and for a while it looked that we would increase our lead.

I noticed the similarity between Lewis Dunk and the really stupid one – Neil – from “The Inbetweeners.”

After a beer or two at half-time, and with Chelsea attacking us, thankfully the noise increased a little.

“Here for the Chelsea.”

Another bloody chant I can’t stand.

“We’ve won it all.”

Ditto.

“You’re just a shit Crystal Palace.”

The fact that this hints that there is a good Crystal Palace out there somewhere makes this chant redundant.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea. Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

On the pitch, the minutes ticked by and we began to fade, while Albion grew stronger. We were begging for a second goal to make it safe.

On sixty-five minutes, the manager surprisingly replaced Pulisic with Callum Hudson-Odoi and not long after, Mount was replaced by Mateo Kovacic. It seemed that we were going for the point; pragmatic football, how Mourinho. Whatever did happen to him?

A Brighton free-kick way out on the right was hit low into the box, and after a couple of bobbles, the ball ended up six yards out with a Brighton player about to pounce.

“This is it. Bollocks.”

Thankfully the shot from Aaron Connolly was miraculously clawed away by Kepa, who tends to specialise in these low swoops to his left and right. It was a top class save and was warmly applauded.

With six minutes of time to go, and with many around me whispering concerns that we were deteriorating badly, and very likely to concede, a corner was lobbed into the box. Dunk rose in a similar position to Zouma in the first-half but the header ended up further out, and bouncing. Substitute Alireza Jahanbakhsh rose to the challenge and carried out a ridiculous bicycle lick which surprised everyone and flew into the net.

Bollocks.

The home support made a right racket.

A raiding Hudson-Odoi lifted a curler just over the bar and we groaned three thousand groans. Tammy was having a mixed game, playing well in patches, as if his confidence ebbs and flows at will. His hold up play can be good at times, but he needs to build on that. I liked the look of Reece James, and he will get much better. We kept trying to score a second, but it was Kepa who saved our blushes with another excellent save late on from Neal Maupay, this time stopping a shot with his left boot.

Phew.

At the end, there was applause for the team but everything was muted, and toned down a little. Toni Rudiger noticeably shooed away our applause with a palm raised as if to say “not worthy” (pictured).

But this was a fair result. I have to be honest, I quite enjoyed it, and I am not honestly sure why. We seldom played as well as in parts of recent games, yet I still loved the experience of an away game, the thrill of an early goal, the cut and thrust, the closeness to the pitch.

After, we killed time with a beer or two in the roomy away concourse to let the train station queues die down. The consensus was certainly “fair result”. I never really get too involved on “social media” immediately after a game but a comment by a Chelsea supporter in which the performance was termed a “debacle” certainly stirred me to comment.

You can guess my thoughts, eh?

A new decade, but no debacle.

At about 3.45pm, we caught the train back to Lewes. On the drive home, we stopped at Arundel for a leisurely – two hours, how European – meal with a drink or two. There was a little chat about the game, in the train, in the car, in the pub. This project is still on course, Frank is learning as he goes, just as we had known from day one. There will be mistakes, but this is to be expected. Frank is no fool. I am confident.

“Nothing to see here.”

Of course, we loved it that Tottenham lost at Southampton, and we did not mind one iota that Manchester United lost at Arsenal.

We ended the day in fourth place and five points clear of the rest.

As the other three slept, I drove on and on and on. I reached home, eventually, at just after 9pm. We had all agreed that it had been a top day out.

Next up, Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup and thoughts of 1970, where it all began for many of us.

See you there.

 

Tales From A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Match

Chelsea vs. Ajax : 5 November 2019.

I was born in 1965. I was therefore alive when England won the World Cup in 1966, and even though I am well known for my memory, it would be impressive if I could recollect seeing that one. 1970 seemed to pass me by, and I have no recall of that tournament nor that final. The first one that I can fully remember seeing – and being part of, which is what it is all about – is the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. We were used to just one club football match per year on TV in those days – the FA Cup Final – and also the yearly England vs. Scotland match in The Home Internationals. But there was the odd international game too. I can certainly remember watching the England vs West Germany qualifier for the European Championships on 29 April 1972. I am positive that this is the first football match that I can ever remember seeing on TV. This narrowly beats the 1972 FA Cup Final between Leeds United and Arsenal on 6 May 1972.

The 1974 World Cup Finals – England failed to qualify after memorably, and infamously, drawing 1-1 with Poland on 17 October 1973, I remember seeing that one too – were shown on TV at reasonable viewing times and I loved every minute of it. It was a magnificent time. In those days, it seemed OK to want Scotland to do well. They were the United Kingdom’s only qualifiers. I remember that they were drawn against Brazil and The Netherlands in their group. Although I had heard of the Ajax team of around that time – European Champions in 1971, 1972 and 1973 – I had not been exposed to many of their actual games on TV. So, the World Cup in 1974 would open my eyes to Dutch football, and to the many Ajax players involved. A quick scan of the Dutch players who lost the 1974 final to West Germany brings back some rich memories.

Jan Joengblood – FC Amsterdam

Wim Suurbier – Ajax

Wim Rijsbergen – Feyenoord

Arie Haan – Ajax

Ruud Krol – Ajax

Wim Jansen – Feyenoord

Johan Neeskens – Ajax

Wim Van Hanegem – Feyenoord

Johnny Rep – Ajax

Rob Rensenbrink – Anderlecht

Johan Cruyff – Ajax

The venerated Ajax Amsterdam therefore provided six of the starting eleven, with their arch rivals Feyenoord three. I always thought it odd that the wonderful winger Rensenbrink plied his football in Belgium and it is only through research for this report that I found out that the ‘keeper Joengblood played for a lesser team.

But they were a magical team. The World was bowled over by them in 1974, and in my village school their players captivated us all. How ironic that there were six Ajax players, and four called Wim.

[Shit joke coming up. You know it’s coming.]

No wonder they wiped the floor with most teams.

And now, at long last, the famous Ajax were playing at Stamford Bridge for the very first time.

I could not wait.

On the drive to London in PD’s car I mentioned that I really hoped that they would show up in their famous red and white kit. Of all the sporting kits in the world, none can be more – and I am sorry for using an overworked word – iconic than that of Ajax. Back in the early ‘seventies it really captured my imagination.

I was inside Stamford Bridge at about 7.45pm ahead of the 8pm kick-off. There had been an emergency scare, with an ambulance, outside the West Stand and so I was asked to walk all of the way around Stamford Bridge and access the Matthew Harding from right behind the stand rather than the usual entrance on the corner of the West Stand. I was worried that the delay would make me late, but all was well. I walked under the illuminated Shed Wall, and past “the away entrance” to The Shed near the East Stand. Except there would be no away fans on this night. They had been banned, en masse,  from attending. We had even been warned, via email, that we needed to bring photo ID to the game to ensure that we were valid spectators. Quite how this might have affected my pals Mark, Paul and Mick who live in The Netherlands is not known.

Anyway, I was in.

The Shed was all Chelsea, save for a gap in the lower tier where around eight hundred seats that had originally been set aside for Ajax were left unused.

Kick-off was approaching.

The team was the same as against Watford, apart from Alonso for Emerson.

Arrizabalaga

Apilicueta – Zouma – Rudiger – Alonso

Jorginho – Mount – Kovacic

Pulisic – Abraham – Willian

Thankfully I spotted the famous red and white Ajax kit as the players emerged from the tunnel. I honestly felt cheated in 2009 when Juventus showed up in SW6 wearing a bronze shirt.

Over in The Shed, somewhere, was my friend Dennis and his wife Kazuko, who live in Virginia. They had met us for a few drinks in “The Goose” and had followed us down to “Simmons” where we treated them to a Chuckle Brothers pre-match. On the walk down the North End Road, the night fizzed with fireworks on Bonfire Night. I assured Dennis that this didn’t happen every night, nor was it a special Chuckle Brothers welcome for them both. I met Dennis on the 2015 US Tour and this was his first-ever visit to England, to London, to Stamford Bridge. Thankfully he didn’t follow Chelsea because of playing FIFA.  Top marks to Dennis who didn’t seem to have a problem, unlike some US visitors – no names, no pack drill – in understanding the concept of “rounds.”

My pre-match beers went down well, a rare treat these days.

Just before kick-off, I spoke to PD.

“Part two, mate.”

The game began, and how. I had just finished uploading one of my customary photographs on to Facebook –

“Ajax. In their classic kit. Priceless. Let’s go to work. Chelsea Football Club, 8.01pm, London.”

And then the bastards scored. After one poxy minute. Ajax had taken a free-kick down below me in The Sleepy Hollow. I had just slipped my ‘phone back in my pocket to see the ball crashing towards the net. As the Ajax players celebrated right below us, the stadium was eerily quiet. But it annoyed me that there was a little knot of around two-hundred Ajax fans in the corporate tier of the West Stand. It was a real metaphor for modern football. The normal rank and file were banned, but their Executive Club were allowed in. I can understand club officials being allowed in; directors, squad players, doctors. But not two-hundred of them. Shameful really.

Anyway, we had succumbed to a Tammy Abraham own goal, apparently.

Bollocks.

We’ll have to go at them now.

Thankfully, just a few minutes later, we worked the ball through to Christian Pulisic and he was clipped just inside the box (pictured) by Joel Veltman. It looked a sure penalty.

It was.

“Jorginho. Jorginho. Jorginho, Jorginho, Jorginho.”

We waited.

A hop on his approach, and a fine penalty (pictured).

It was 1-1 after just five minutes.

…little did we know.

In the Matthew Harding, an attempt at humour.

“Your support is fucking shit.”

I spotted that one of the electronic hoardings behind The Shed mentioned the phrase “Intelligent Mobility” and it flashed-up right in front of where Parky was stood.

Good old Parky.

Highly intelligent. Highly mobile.

Cough, cough.

The images of the Heineken logo brought back memories of the away game.

Ajax looked more of a threat at Stamford Bridge than the away match. They certainly impressed me with their passing and movement in the first quarter of the game. They looked technically sound and they kept the ball with the minimum of fuss. But we were the next to threaten. Kovacic passed forward to Tammy, who looked offside (pictured) and he seemed to look across at the linesman such was his guilt. He finished impeccably but – yes – it was offside.

Bollocks.

Ajax continued to drift in to decent areas, and carved out some good chances. On twenty minutes, there was another free-kick in a wide position, this time on our left. Noussair Mazraoui (“what a fine assemblage of vowels”) whipped-in a sublime cross into the danger area. I always thought that a corridor of uncertainty was an ill-lit alleyway in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, but it could certainly be used to describe this cross. It was exceptional, played in with pace and curve between ‘keeper and stranded defenders. Quincy Promes stooped to conquer and then came over to celebrate below us, his shorts pulled up as he jigged away.

He was met with some abuse.

I said to PD : “well, we can’t concede again.”

However, this was becoming a good tussle with both teams moving the ball well. I did feel that, despite our midfield trio seeing much of the ball, we were missing some killer passes in the final third. Sadly, with ten minutes of the first-half remaining, we became unstuck once again. Another delivery from wide – on our left again – caused our undoing. A free-kick, not far from the corner flag, was whipped in towards the goal. With painful precision, I captured the ball just before it cannoned off the far post and Kepa’s face before making the net bulge.

Fuck.

Chelsea 1 Ajax 3.

At the time, nobody realised that the ball had hit Kepa.

But the madness was starting.

Two Chelsea own goals.

We kept prodding away with shots at the Ajax ‘keeper, playing in front of banners which said “Keep The Blue Flag Flying High” over the empty seats in the Shed Lower. Willian and Alonso tested him.

I said to PD, and Big John at half-time, “it’ll be 5-5 tonight” and I was only half-joking. To be honest, despite our pitiful defending, I had enjoyed the first-half. I thought that Ajax were good – very good – and it felt like a traditional European game, despite the lop-sided support. Big John and I chatted about Tammy. We both love him to bits, but we agreed that – constructive criticism here, not moans for the sake of it – Tammy needs to toughen up still, be more physical. I used the phrase about him using his body as a shield. John said that he needed to learn “the dark arts.”

“Yep. Agreed.”

So, two goals to the worse at half-time, but Ajax had not completely dominated the game. I hoped that another goal in our favour would help to turn the tide.

Reece James replaced Marcos Alonso, with Dave swapping flanks to allow the substitute a run at the Ajax left. Soon after the re-start we were treated to a ridiculous run from deep from Kurt “Total Football” Zouma. He raced through, striding like a mad man, right into the heart of the Ajax defensive half, then third. A couple of ridiculously good step overs had us all wondering if we were about to witness the best goal ever at Stamford Bridge from a central defender. He took aim and the ball ended up in the MHU. As shots go, it was a great defensive clearance.

But the madness had started.

And the noise too,

The volume kept going up and up and up.

I was rightly proud.

Tammy twice threatened the Ajax goal as we looked a far more decent team. A header down (pictured) was an easy save. And he then forced a one-handed save from Andre Onana in the Ajax goal but really should have done better. The raiding of Reece James on our right certainly added a fresh dimension to our play. The crowd were invigorated.

But ten minutes into the second-half, the game took another twist. Ajax, against the run of play, broke away and a cross from our left was turned in with the minimum of fuss by Donny Van de Beek.

Chelsea 1 Ajax 4.

“This will be our heaviest home defeat in Europe. Bollocks.”

In the other game, Valencia were creeping ahead of Lille.

This was going pear-shaped.

But we kept going and the crowd too.

Frank made another positive change.

Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced Mason Mount.

On sixty-three minutes, a fine run into the box from Pulisic – in and out of the game, but always dangerous – resulted in a low cross into the danger area. The course of the ball was deflected slightly by Tammy, and Captain Dave pounced to touch the ball over the line (pictured).

There was a slight delay for a VAR moment.

Offside? Surely not.

The goal stood.

Was the comeback on?

The crowd seemed to think so.

We roared the boys on.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

On seventy-minutes, the night turned into one of pure drama. Fireworks had been lighting up the sky all over the UK, but nowhere was filled with more wide-eyed excitement and awe than at Stamford Bridge. Daley Blind was adjudged to have tackled late on Tammy but the referee – fair play – let play continue. He then spotted that a shot from Callum hit a defender’s hand inside the box. In a surreal moment, the referee blew up, raced over to red card Blind, and then pointed at the spot.

By now the place was electric.

But it got so much better. The referee brandished a red card again and in that nano-second, I just thought that he was re-emphasising the Blind sending-off. But no, Veltman was sent packing too. For dissent? We did not have a fucking clue but we did not fucking care.

Ajax were down to nine men, we had a penalty to make it 4-3 and there were still twenty-minutes on the clock.

Fackinell.

“Jorginho. Jorginho. Jorginho, Jorginho, Jorginho.”

We waited.

A hop on his approach, and a fine penalty (pictured).

Chelsea 3 Ajax 4.

GET IN.

“Fasten your seat belts, lads.”

More MHumour : “you’re not singing anymore.”

Just three minutes later, a corner from our right was met with a high leap under pressure from Zouma (pictured) and his powerful header rebounded back off the bar. With our hearts in our mouths – and other cliches – we watched, mesmirised, as substitute James slotted the ball in with consummate ease.

Chelsea 4 Ajax 4.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

My head was boiling over but I managed – heaven knows how – to capture Reece’ run and slide on film, although only a few photographs are of sufficient quality to share.

Stamford Bridge had rarely seen a night like it.

I leaned forward and spoke to Albert.

“Remember the 4-4 with Liverpool in the Champions League? That was a mad one. But not many people talk about that. I guess because it followed that 3-1 win at Anfield. There was always a cushion.”

I spoke to the bloke beside me.

“My 5-5 might still might happen.”

It seemed that, unbelievably, we were now favourites to win. Fifteen minutes, plus stoppage time, were still to be played. Understandably, the noise was the best all season.

It was just beautiful.

Heaven knows what was going through Dennis’ mind.

In the pub, he had spoken about future travel plans for the next year and probable trips to Mexico City and back to Japan where he met his wife while serving for the US Marines. I replied “nah, after one game at Chelsea, you’ll scrub those plans and be back at Stamford Bridge within six months.”

Just four minutes after the equaliser, an attack developed down the Chelsea left. I shouted “spare man.” Callum received the ball and ran. He played in Dave, the spare man, overlapping and not spotted, with a deft flick. A near-post cross. The ball was pushed towards goal. There was a scramble and the ball was booted away. Jorginho let fly outside the box. A headed clearance. The ball flew back out. Dave pounced. A shot. Pictured.

FUCKING PANDEMONUM IN SOUTH-WEST LONDON.

The next few moments were mad, mental, mesmerising, magnificent.

The photographs tell the story

But they are greyed-out because, alas, VAR stopped our celebrations and after a horrible wait…tick tock, tick tock…the referee ruled that there had been a handball somewhere.

I have thought long and hard about including these photographs. My rule is usually to not bother if a photographed goal is disallowed. But I have to include these. They are a huge part of the night’s story.

The minutes, sadly, raced past.

Ajax, to their credit, kept attacking and Kepa repeated his heroics at Vicarage Road with another fine save to his left to deny the Dutch masters a horrible fifth.

I lost count of the chances that we had in the final minutes. Michy Batshuayi replaced the excellent Kovacic on eight-seven minutes as Frank went for a top-heavy formation. And it was Michy who, undoubtedly, had the best chance, turning to shoot low, but Onana dropped to his left and saved magnificently. I remember a lame header from Tammy that went well wide, but it was all a blur.

Scandalously, the referee decided that only four extra minutes were to be added to the night’s play.

How? Why? What? Who? When?

This was plainly wrong.

If we have to endure VAR…sigh…OK.

But don’t fucking short-change us.

I hate modern football.

At the final whistle, I was light-headed. It was no surprise. It had indeed been mad, mental, mesmerising, magnificent and more.

This game had it all.

PD shot off to get a head start on the walk back to the car. I gathered my thoughts, let the crowds disperse and shook hands with a few mates. I packed away my camera.

“I got a few tonight.”

Down in the basement of the Matthew Harding Stand, I heard a bloke dissing Tammy but, alas, with a little bit more venom and nastiness than Big John and I had chosen to use at half-time, but I thought to myself “I’ll hear him out.” But I then had the misfortune to float past – it honestly felt like I was floating – the same bloke a few minutes later and I heard the same geezer moaning about another player.

Sigh.

Some people are never bloody happy, eh?

We are going through a rather enjoyable learning experience at the moment – it has taken everyone by surprise, and how wonderful it all is – yet some in our midst seem to avidly enjoy the negatives.

Does my nut.

I thought this season was all about giving everyone time and space…to let Frank bed all this down.

Seems not.

Among the overjoyed at Fulham Broadway, I treated myself to a cheeseburger and onions at “Chubby’s Grill” to cap off a bloody magnificent evening in SW6. I know how to live.

Next up Crystal Palace.

See you there.

 

Tales From Modern Football

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 22 September 2019.

I really don’t want to mention VAR every bloody week, but…

It comes to something when a Chelsea supporter such as myself feels genuinely aggrieved when Tottenham get a good goal chalked off when one of their players is adjudged to be offside by around twenty millimetres.

As I watched “Match of the Day” on the Saturday night, ahead of our game with Liverpool on the Sunday, I saw Manchester City dismantle a hapless Watford by eight goals to nil. But I knew that the Leicester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur game might well wrestle more attention. I had heard that VAR had played an integral role in that game as the scores dripped into my consciousness during Saturday afternoon and early evening. I watched as a Leicester City goal was called back for offside and, although I am generally against VAR, I thought to myself “fair play with that decision, I can’t complain at that.”  However, it was the Tottenham goal that made me see red. I watched the goal being scored and wondered where on Earth the offside had occurred. I couldn’t see it at first glance. And then, good grief, it was shown that a Tottenham player was marginally – see above – offside. Yeah, we don’t like Tottenham, we love seeing Leicester City – if not us – beat them, but for fuck’s sake.

Modern football, eh?

Everyone knows my thoughts.

Saturday evening and Saturday night turned to Sunday morning. There was an early start as we wanted to be up in London early enough to secure a table at “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge. I collected PD at eight o’clock, collected Glenn’s season ticket, and then picked up Young Jake – he’s getting on a bit now, he’s thirty-one – and headed east. The weather seemed to pose a conundrum. It was going to be warm but with a threat of rain. Rain jackets were selected.

The pre-match ran to plan. Three pubs, a Sunday Roast, chat with friends from near and far, plenty of giggles. It was glorious. Although there were moments when the sky was dark and brooding, the rain had mainly held off.

Inside Stamford Bridge, though, my light jacket was placed on my seat back. It was certainly not needed. It was warm and muggy – a bit sticky – and not particularly pleasant.

Here we were, then.

As many friends had commented, Liverpool presented us with a real test. In the car and pub, we had all agreed that we’d be more than happy with a draw against the league leaders. There had been a couple of wilder projections involving a Chelsea win, but I was not in that camp.

I wasn’t getting carried away.

There was good news in Frank Lampard’s team selection. N’Golo Kante was in, as was Mason Mount. Alas, Toni Rudiger was not available. But this was a good enough team for sure.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Christensen – Emerson

Kovacic – Jorginho – Kante

Willian – Abraham – Mount

We had briefly discussed Liverpool; a very able defence, a quick and nimble front three, but a seemingly average midfield. It was, we surmised, a team that was greater than the sum of its individual parts. Previous Liverpool teams, God knows, had certainly possessed greater individual players. But here was a team that certainly worked to a plan with great determination.

I commented to Alan “I’ll take a 0-0 now.”

Prior to the teams entering the pitch, we had embarrassingly witnessed the Eden Hazard flag float over the heads of the spectators below us in the MHL. That wasn’t a good sign; somebody must have made an error. We hoped and prayed that the manager’s choices were better.

There were, of course, three thousand away fans in the far corner, but hardly a flag or banner to accompany them. What? No six stars to be seen anywhere? Others had made poor flag choices too, it seemed.

The game began. It was a lively start. Liverpool probably edged possession, and we were on the back foot a little. We did have periods of positive play. However, with approaching a quarter of an hour played, Liverpool were presented with a little too much space in the middle of our half and the ball was played through to Sadio Mane who was chopped down by Andreas Christensen.

I was comforted by the fact that the position of the free-kick seemed too central to get an angle past the wall, and too close to goal to chip the ball over and down. Sadly, we watched as a well-constructed free-kick saw a Mo Salah back-heel set up Trent Alexander-Arnold to smash the ball past Kepa. The silence all around me was deafening and other clichés. I didn’t like the way that he ran towards the Chelsea supporters to celebrate. Git.

There was a tedious reply from the home stands : ”Murderers.”

I thought we’d all moved on. I hadn’t heard it at a Chelsea / Liverpool game for a while.

There was, however, a rasping “Carefree” soon after and we did our best to get behind the team.

An enforced substitution took place, with Marcos Alonso taking over from Emerson at left-back. We kept plugging away. Now that Tammy Abraham has secured his place as Frank Lampard’s preferred striker, I have mentioned to friends that we can now concentrate on meshing him into the team, playing to his strengths, and perhaps releasing him early as he gets to understand how his team mates work around him. Indeed, there was a signal from Tammy to a midfielder to release the ball into the inside-right channel but as the ball was played he momentarily paused. It was a chance lost. However, not long after, a carbon copy ball was played from deep by Christensen, and the striker’s run into space was perfect. He advanced but annoyingly shot straight at Adrian.

Approaching the half-hour mark, we worked the ball down our left and a cross from Willian hit the danger area. Abraham made a lunge at the ball, and after the effort hit Fabinho, Adrian clawed it off the line. The ball was begging to be pounced upon. Dave swept it in and we screamed our pleasure.

GET IN.

I watched the captain’s joyous run down towards the corner flag, and he was soon mobbed by his team mates. The Bridge was jumping. There were photos aplenty.

Lovely.

And then, a sword to the heart. We spotted on the TV screen above the Micky Mousers that there was a VAR review.

“Why?”

“What for?”

We waited.

We held our breath, what an odd sensation.

Strangely, the away fans seemed to be celebrating before an announcement was made. This wasn’t good. This wasn’t good at all.

The TV screen told the story : “NO GOAL.”

A little part of me died again. But what could I do? I stood silent, surprisingly calm, but in truth I was just weak with what had just happened.

If I was Spanish, I might have reached for a white handkerchief.

Not long after, what looked like an innocuous challenge between Dave and a Liverpool player – the ball was hanging in the air, both players jumped – went against us and the resultant free-kick was swept in towards the six yard-box. Roberto Firmino rose unhindered and powerfully headed past Kepa.

We were now 0-2 down and seemingly out of it. What a rotten few minutes for us and for Honest Dave especially. I really felt for him.

The rest of the first-half is pretty much a blur. We were deflated, players and supporters alike. It was a horrible sensation.

The Liverpool supporters aired an old song, and if it was because of the VAR incident, they exhibited far more intelligence than they are usually credited.

“Luis Garcia, he drinks sangria.”

Memories of that bastarding night at Anfield in 2005, that ghost-goal, The Kop, and no goal-line technology, the sardonic bastards.

Fuckers.

Just before half-time there was another enforced substitution; Kurt Zouma on for the injured Christensen.

“It gets worse” I thought.

At half-time, VAR dominated our thoughts and our conversations. Information eventually reached us. The incident leading up to our “goal” that was adjudged to have been offside involved an early pass to Mason Mount, quite some time before the goal was turned in. Of course, us spectators in the stadium are, ironically, the last to know about all of this.

I vented to a few people.

It seems to me that there is a huge discrepancy between how VAR is judged by fans that go to games (JD opined “I don’t know anyone who likes it”) and those who tend to watch at home or in bars and pubs on TV. It seems that the chasm between match-goers and those who consume football via TV has grown even wider thanks to VAR.

And that is a shame. The football family should be as one.

My views on all this have been well documented over the past ten years or more. I was even against goal-line technology because I knew damned well that this would just be the tip of the iceberg. I knew full well that before long there would be intrusive video replays holding up the flow of the game. But even I could not have foreseen the madness that has developed this season.

Chaos theory ain’t half of it.

Sigh.

It almost seems that VAR was created for those watching at home. It almost seems that VAR has been brought in under the guise of “fairness” but is just a thinly-disguised extra for the watching millions. I have long said that very soon we will have commercial breaks during VAR hold-ups. It happens in North America, where the native sports tend not to have the sense of flow of our national sport. I can see it happening during the 2022 World Cup, for sure.

The mood at half-time was rotten.

In other seasons, that ball to Mount would have passed without incident. There would have been no appeal for offside, just as there was no appeal by any Liverpool players on this occasion. The moment, that split second, would have been lost in the ether of time. But on this day, the move was deemed illegal, the goal was cancelled, our celebrations quashed.

Some tedious fuckers might whine that “well, actually, he was offside.”

But these little moments are being given far too much weight, far too much importance.

VAR produces decisions which – and here is my final word, for now – seem to be against the spirit of the game.

We’re on a slippery slope here, and some of us are losing the will to stay on our feet.

At the break, losing 0-2, I was reminded of a similarly grave situation at half-time against the same opposition in the Cup in 1997. Losing 0-2, we witnessed one of the most amazing come-backs as we won with style and guts, eventually winning 4-2.

Into the second-half, I truthfully hoped for damage limitation above anything else. We were soon on the back-foot, and only a sublime stop at full stretch from Kepa stopped that man Firmino from increasing the Scousers’ lead. It was a bloody magnificent save. A similarly excellent save soon followed, but an offside flag had ruled out any real concerns. Kepa was at last showing that he had strong wrists.

We then started playing, and the crowd responded. A cross from Dave on the right was delicately touched forward by Abraham, but we watched as it drifted well wide. Before I knew it, it suddenly dawned on me that we were totally dominating possession and Liverpool’s attacks had almost petered out.

With twenty minutes to go, Kante collected the ball centrally. I bellowed for his team mates to move into space, to offer options, but our little prince did not require assistance. He turned into a little parcel of space, cut through with a Hazard-esque shimmy and struck a shot – almost a toe-poke, certainly no back-lift, shades of Ronaldinho at the same end in 2005 – and we watched as it floated beautifully past Adrian.

GETINYOUBASTARD.

The manager replaced Tammy with Michy.

The crowd roared and roared.

On one occasion, with what seemed like the entire crowd as one, a “Carefree” united us all and it was spine-chilling stuff.

Bollocks to VAR.

This is fucking football.

We raided again and again.

Headers from Alonso – drifting wide, losing a marker, but ultimately offside – and then from Batshuayi – just past the far post – brought hope but also agony.

Another effort from Michy, a back-to-goal flick. Wide.

But this was how football should be played. Honest, with determination, with integrity. It was becoming a pulsating match to be part of.

“Liverpool fans are dead quiet, Al.”

We hadn’t heard from them throughout the second period.

We kept coming.

There was one moment when we knocked in a ball, and Liverpool were all over the show, collectively ball-watching, hopeless.

There for the taking.

COME ON CHELSEA.

Right on ninety minutes, Alonso – who was becoming an increasingly important and involved player on the left, often a spare man, a welcome addition to our attack – played in Mount. His first-time effort was snatched and flew high over the bar.

Oh we groaned.

We begged for another goal and kept trying.

It was a fine effort, a great game.

Alas, the whistle blew.

As I filed out – “see you Wednesday” – I could not help but be touched and moved as the home support clapped the manager and players, who – along with the nearby Liverpool players – were applauding back. We were not fooled. We knew that this emerging team had given its all. We were taught a lesson in the first-half, but once we found our feet, we produced a thoroughly pleasing performance. It was beautiful to see us supporting the team despite the loss.

Well done everyone.

On the walk back to the car, there were a few conversations.

To Duncan and Lol : “Fucking hell. It comes to something when I am genuinely upset that Spurs had a perfectly good goal cancelled.”

To Louise, Denise and Stacey : “We know what Frank is doing. We’re together. We’re on the same page.”

To Mark : “VAR is killing football, mate. Seems like the TV viewers need to be entertained. But we don’t go to football to be entertained. We go to support our team. We spend our money and we travel God knows how many hours getting to games and we just want to lose ourselves watching football.”

On Wednesday night, I’ll try to lose myself once more.

Stay tuned to this channel for our game with Grimsby Town.

Cheers.

 

Tales From The Land Of Fire

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2019.

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

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

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

Sometimes life is like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This stopped me in my tracks for a moment.

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

Will was momentarily speechless.

I could not resist piling in.

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

We all laughed.

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

European royalty? Perhaps Noah was right.

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

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

Sunday 26 May : 10am – Istanbul Airport.

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

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

1 – Arsenal vs. Tottenham.

2 – Chelsea vs. Tottenham.

3 – West Ham vs. Tottenham.

4 – Chelsea vs. Arsenal.

5 – Chelsea vs. West Ham.

6 – Arsenal vs. West Ham.

Anyone disagree with that?

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

Maybe it is a Europa League thing.

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

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

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

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

Stamp.

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

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

It was magical to be back in Baku.

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

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

“I’ll walk from here.”

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

“Progress” I thought.

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

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

Fackinell.

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

Fackinell again.

It was my hotel.

With a name change.

Bloody hell.

Phew.

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

I had made it.

Fackinell.

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

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

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

“Come on Chris, time to get up.”

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

“Want to buy a battleship?”

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

I could be my own boss.

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

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

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

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

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

I was enchanted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any good?”

“Yeah, it’s alright.”

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

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

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

“More tea, vicar?”

Five o’clock.

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

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

“Carl!”

“Chris!”

“Ryan!”

Fackinell.

So funny.

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

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

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

“Good to see you!”

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

Just after, I bumped into Cathy and Dog.

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

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

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

Bless them both.

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

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

Albert – Brisbane.

Nathan – Perth.

Russ – Melbourne.

Shari – Brisbane.

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

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

From Vietnam – Steve.

From Australia to Azerbaijan. Fackinell.

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

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor.

Lyon and to Rome.

Tottenham get battered.

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

I was just surprised Seville wasn’t included.

The song continued on.

“Everywhere they go. Everywhere they go.”

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

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

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

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

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

Er, yes.

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

But Baku?

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

It always was a mad decision.

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

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

Blue – sky

Red – fire

Green – earth

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

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

Sorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The photographs continued.

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

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

I hate modern football.

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

Fireworks on the pitch and from atop the stand.

The pre-match paraphernalia was cleared away.

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

Phew. Here it is then.

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

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

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

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

He was.

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

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

Bollocks.

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

Fucking hell.

What has this become?

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

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

The word “surreal” does not do it justice.

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

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

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

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

But still there was hardly any noise anywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

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

Section 114 was going doolally.

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

GET IN.

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

Ha.

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

FUCKINGGETINYOUBASTARD.

More photographs of pure delirium.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

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

“Let’s have a sip mate.”

“Have it, Chris.”

“Top man.”

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

Snap, snap, snap.

A penalty to Chelsea.

COME ON!

The mood in our section was now of euphoria.

But we waited and waited.

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

Eden drilled it home.

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

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

“Smelling salts please nurse.”

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

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

“Great goal” I said, completely seriously.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 1.

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

We roared again.

Chelsea 4 Arsenal 1.

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

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

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

The last step.

Snap.

Eden was replaced by Davide Zappacosta.

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

We had only bloody won it.

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

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

4-1.

Bloody hell.

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

Regardless, the European trophy was our’s.

It now stood at five.

1971 : Athens.

1998 : Stockholm.

2012 : Munich.

2013 : Amsterdam.

2019 : Baku.

“Our biggest-ever Cup Final win.”

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

“What a second-half.”

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

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

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

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

…”we always score four in Baku.”

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

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

Everyone smiling.

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

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

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

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

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

Outside the stadium, Steve came bounding over.

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

We hugged.

I met up with Calvin, who had just been separated from his father, at the long line for the metro. I had been on my feet for a couple of hours and I was starting to tire. Calvin was good company on that painful journey back in to t