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 Porto : Part One – The Blue Room And Beyond

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2021.

I had set the alarm on my ‘phone for 12.30am in the very small hours, small minutes even, of Saturday. I had only fallen asleep at around 8.30pm on the Friday. This was going to be a trip that would likely end up with battles against tiredness as the day would draw on. But I wasn’t concerned about that. I had overcome larger battles over the previous eight months. And some smaller ones, of a different nature, over the previous week or so.

I closed my last match report with an open question :

“There is a chance that this might be my last report this season. It depends on how Chelsea Football Club looks after its own supporters’ hopes of reaching the Portuguese city of Porto in a fortnight.”

After what seemed like an agonisingly long wait, Chelsea stepped up to the mark. With the 2021 Champions League Final bumped from Istanbul on the Bosporus to Porto on the Douro, there was a tense wait. With rumours of Porto being used as an alternative to the Turkish city, and the more logical stadia of Wembley and Villa Park, I had originally been tempted to gamble on flights before the Wembley FA Cup Final. But I held firm, and hoped for the club to answer some prayers. With an uncanny knack of timing, most unlike the club these days, on the afternoon of Wednesday 19 May it was announced that there would be club-subsidised day trips to Porto for £199.

Within half-an-hour of the announcement at 3pm, I was in.

The game was a mere ten days away and things were moving fast now. If you blinked, there was the chance of missing key information. As I was on the club’s trip, my application for a match ticket was taken care of by the travel company and Chelsea. I surely had enough points to be sure of one of the 5,800 tickets offered to the club. Independent travellers would be able to apply on the very next day, the Thursday (D-Day minus nine), but it was soon apparent that many were unsuccessful. Of course, for various reasons, others decided not to apply for tickets. There was a mixture of protest against UEFA, of not being able to afford the trip with all of the extra add-ons, of the rigorous tests for the COVID19 virus, and of course the real fear of the virus itself. There was no control on where it might flare up once more.

When I returned home from work on the Thursday, I was elated to see that Sportsbreaks had debited my credit card to the tune of £199 for the flight and £60 for the cheapest match day ticket available.

I was immediately grateful, unapologetically ecstatic and calm at last.

And well done Chelsea. Although Sheik Mansour had paid for a sizeable percentage of City’s supporters to travel to Portugal for nowt, the club dipped into its reserves to subsidize official travel. Thankfully, the rumours of a far-from edifying “bubble” was not going to be in place once we were to land in Portugal, but – there is always a but these days – all supporters had to follow strict guidelines to enable us to attend. It all took a fair bit of deciphering, and I didn’t want to fry my brain with worry immediately, so I gave it a day or two. But it eventually all made sense. We had to have a PCR test to cover our outbound and inbound travel. After a couple of deliberations on the timings, I eventually booked a test for 0900 on Thursday 27 May in the nearby city of Bath. We also needed to book a similar test on our return from Portugal, and to have evidence on our ‘phone – or hard copy – of both. The cost for those two beauties? A cool £315. Wallop. There was also the requirement to complete locator forms for both Portugal and the UK. I kept reading and re-reading all of these instructions. Over and over and over. It was a worry; I am not ashamed to admit.

Against the backdrop of all this activity during the week leading up to our third Champions League Final, the actual football match was at the bottom of my list of priorities of thought. Like everyone, I had to work, and to fit in all of these activities around work patterns. I worked from home for the most part, but then did an early stint on the Friday in the office to ostensibly give me an extra few hours to settle myself before heading away for the game.

But then there was an extra worry. When I visited the Dragao Stadium in 2015 for our game with Porto, my SLR camera was confiscated and I had to rely on my mobile ‘phone for match photos. With much annoyance, the ‘phone battery died and I only took a handful of mediocre snaps that night. For a good ten days, I was mulling over all sorts of plans of smuggling my SLR in, a “Great Escape” in reverse, and I even thought about tunnelling in, with tunnels called John, Frank and Didier.

It was frying my brain. In the official UEFA blurb for the final, it strictly mentioned no cameras with long lenses. Damn, there it was in black and white. And it also stated that only a very small A4-sized bag would be allowed. I needed a Plan B. I didn’t call Maurizio Sarri. I decided to buy a bum bag – how 1989 – for the camera that I had bought especially for my trip to Argentina last season. Then, with disbelief, I could not track down a charger for the camera. This was killing me. I remembered Moscow in 2008 and how my SLR ran out of charge two hours before the game and I again had to rely on sub-standard ‘phone photos. Not a good precedent.

My Plan B involved calling into “Curry’s” in Trowbridge after work on the Friday and purchasing a new camera. In my haste, I overlooked being able to simply take my existing camera in and getting a charger. My brain was clearly frazzled.

Friday arrived. My PCR test was negative. Phew. At the shop in Trowbridge, I spotted a Sony camera that met all the requirements.

“Sorry, it’s not in stock.”

It is mate, there it is there, I can see it.”

“That’s just a display model.”

“Fucksake.”

But there were two in stock in Salisbury. Off I drove to the “Curry’s” in the spired city of Salisbury, an hour away. I quickly purchased it. The assistant was Chelsea, a nice twist. I eventually reached home at about 6pm.

I chilled out a little, prepped my clothes and travel goodies and then prayed for a solid four hours of sleep.

Match day began in deepest Somerset and would end in deepest Portugal. It seemed so odd to be travelling so light. And alone. None of my local usual travelling companions would be going with me. I only knew of one local lad, Sir Les, who would be in Porto. The previous night, I had laid out all of my clothes in the front room, on a sofa, away from the piles of books and magazines on my coffee table in my main living room and away from all the other detritus of day to day living. I wanted a little clarity.

And it suddenly dawned on me how apt this was. Over the past year, my house and garden has undergone a major tidy-up, and a main part of this has resulted in my front room becoming part home office and part Chelsea museum. I have named it The Blue Room. It is my pride and joy. There are framed, signed photographs of various players, framed programmes, photo montages, framed posters, framed shirts.

Immediately above the sofa – blue – where my clothes were placed were three items.

At the top, a canvas print of my photo of Didier’s penalty in Munich. A sacred memento of the greatest day of my entire life.

In the middle, a much-loved present from relatives in around 1980, a pub-style mirror featuring our total trophy haul up to that point; the 1955 League Championship, the 1965 League Cup, the 1970 FA Cup and the 1971 European Cup Winners’ Cup. For years upon years I used to gaze up at it and wonder if my club would ever win a damned thing in my lifetime. I became a supporter in 1970, remember nothing of that final nor the 1971 one, so in my mind I had never seen us win a bloody trophy. I was thirty-one years of age in 1997. New fans will never understand how magical that day was. Many new fans now want a fourth place finish over FA Cup glory. It seemed that Thomas Tuchel was of the same opinion a fortnight ago.

At the bottom is a photograph of myself with my favourite-ever footballer, Pat Nevin. The photo was taken pre-match in Moscow in 2008 and is signed by the good man. I have recently started reading his very entertaining autobiography. Not only was he a winger for Chelsea, he loves the Cocteau Twins and went out with Clare Grogan. The holy trinity in my book. However, when I read – open-mouthed – that at the age of eight he was able to do ten thousand keepy-uppies, I just hated him. My record is 246. How could he do that bloody many at eight? Git.

So beneath these three images, I dressed and made sure everything was packed. As a superstition, I decided to take a light top that I wore on that magical night in Barcelona in 2012. I needed something to protect my fair arms from the sun. My light beige Hugo Boss top served me well high up in Camp Nou. I hoped for a similar outcome in Porto. I also took a New York Yankees cap for a similar reason; my thatched roof is getting thinner and thinner these days. I wore a New York Yankees cap in Moscow in 2008, but fear not. This was a new one, not the unlucky one of thirteen years previous. The old one was lost in Bucharest on CL duty in 2013.

Superstitions, there were two more.

The first was easy.

Before the European finals in 2012, 2013 and 2019 I had bought breakfasts the day before travel for the office team at work. I continued the tradition this year.

The other one is a little more bizarre.

In 2012, on the Thursday, my car was absolutely spattered with bird shit. Remembering that if this horrible substance lands on you personally, it is regarded as a good luck charm, I decided not to wash it off. It’s worth a gamble, right? I memorably was hit by a pigeon in The Shed during the first game of the 1983/84 season – the famous 5-0 clobbering of Derby County – and I took this as my CFC reference point. 1983/84 is still my favourite-ever season. In 2013, guess what? Splattered again. Before my jaunt to Baku two years ago, my car also took a direct hit. This is no surprise; seagulls nest in and around our premises. Once a month a chap with a hawk appears and tries to scare the buggers away. On Friday, I popped out to my car mid-morning to make a call. Imagine my elation and amusement when my bonnet and lower windscreen had appeared to have been drenched by a pot of Dulux. Ha.

So, yeah – breakfasts and bird shit. Covered.

I set off – “Jack Kerouac” – at 1.45am. I turned the radio on as I backed out of my driveway.

“I wonder what song it will be? Wonder if it will sum up my thoughts, or be a sign for the day.”

“Even Better Than The Real Thing” by U2 assaulted my shell-likes, and I quickly turned it off. But the words “the real thing” struck home. After a year of ersatz training-game football, this was indeed the real thing, no doubt. As I mentioned in the FA Cup Final report, I have really struggled with watching us on TV this season. At last, here was a game I could witness in person with all of the accompanied involvement and sense of belonging. The FA Cup Final was OK but I struggled acclimatising myself with live football after fourteen months away. I hoped for a better feeling in Porto. Maybe it really would be better than the real thing.

I made really good time en route to Gatwick. Passing over Salisbury Plain for the first time in ages, I passed an owl perched on a roadside post. I imagined it thinking –

“Ah, Mister Axon. I have been expecting you.”

The roads were clear. Hardly anything as I drove past Stonehenge and then onto the deserted A303 and M3. Even the M25 was devoid of much traffic. I pulled in to the car park at Gatwick North just a few minutes before four o’clock.

Four AM. Fackinell.

There were already masses of Chelsea folk in the departure area. I joined the queue. “Hellos” to a few faces – Luke, Aroha, Doreen – then John and Maureen, all on the same 0700 flight. But familiar faces were in short supply. I hardly recognised anyone. To my chagrin, a few were sporting the 2021/22 Zig Zag monstrosity. I was eternally grateful the club chose not to repeat wearing it for this final. Another good decision, Chelsea. This will have to stop; you’ll be ruining your reputation. Many lads chose the bum bag option. Many were in shorts. The usual assortment of Stone Island patches, Lacoste, Gant, Ralph, CP, Adidas trainers a-go-go. But there was a proper mix; more replica shirts than usual for a European trip.

I handed over my passport and the various forms to the official and there were no exclamations nor questions. It was satisfactorily smooth, there had been no balls-ups from my underpaid PA and I was checked in. Inwardly, I did a somersault of joy.

Panic over.

Others had a customary pre-match bevvy. I met up with some good friends; Charlotte and Donna completed the Somerset Section. Rachel from Devon. Rob from Chester. An “A Squad” of European travellers no doubt. I spent a good few minutes chatting to Charlotte who is the same age as me. Charlotte was diagnosed with cancer a while back, has since undergone chemotherapy and is on the road to recovery. We traded health updates. Everyone was pleased to see that I was doing well after my heart attack in October. I wandered a little, spotted a few faces, a chat here and there.

On reaching Gate 49, I spotted Andy and Sophie, father and daughter, good friends from Nuneaton. I famously first met Andy to talk to on Wenceslas Square in Prague after the Zizkov game in 1994 although he was always a face I would spot everywhere including in Glasgow for a Rangers versus Motherwell game in 1987. Andy and Sophie were in Baku, that final being exactly two years ago to the day. I was in Baku for six days two years ago. I would be in Porto for sixteen hours in 2021.

Another anniversary for 29 May.

Heysel Stadium 1985.

Never forgotten.

More of that later.

I wasn’t too happy that TUI’s corporate colour was City sky blue but was just happy to be en route to Porto now. There would be a light breakfast, but also the chance for a small sleep. Every minute counts on breaks like these. While waiting for clearance on the runway, I was just drifting off but I heard my name being called out.

“Chris Axon.”

“Oh God, what have I done now?”

The CFC steward was handing out match tickets, alphabetically, and I was one of the first to be mentioned. Stadium seating plans were studied. I was down in a corner behind the goal in row three, just like at Wembley against Leicester City. A bad omen? Possibly.

I chatted to the two lads to my right. We were seated in the very last row. None of us were too confident. I reckoned our chances to succeed to be around 33%, maybe the same mark as against Bayern in 2012. Against United in 2008 it was bang on 50% from memory. I posted a photo of the ticket on Facebook, turned the phone off and waited.

Flight TOM8400 took off at 7.30am.

After a while, the seatbelt signs were turned off and there ensued a rampage to join the queue for toilets situated right behind us. But the male air steward wanted to start serving breakfast.

“Please go back to your seats, there is no room for so many in the queue. I can’t get past.”

There was no reaction. Eye contact was avoided. Quiet murmurings of discontent. English people queue for fun, and especially for comfort – or discomfort – breaks, nobody was moving.

“Please can you all go back?”

With that, the steward began pushing his trolley down the aisle. The passengers backed off.

I turned to the lads next to me :

“Fucking hell, Chelsea ran by a trolley dolly.”

The flight soon passed. We landed at Porto’s Francisco Sa Carneiro airport at 9.30am. There was a fair wait at passport control. Social distancing simply did not take place. But we all were negative, so I guess it was irrelevant. I handed over my passport and forms. I was in. Another great moment. Andy and Sophie were waiting for me. We had agreed to spend some time together before the day got going. I made a quick visit to the busy gents. While I was turning my bike around, there was an almighty explosion taking place in one of the cubicles behind me. One wag joked :

“Bloody hell, somebody has smuggled someone else in.”

I replied :

“Yeah, a Tottenham fan.”

We were given yellow wristbands on boarding a coach to take us into the city. This would act as evidence of our negative test result and meant we did not have to show security at the fan zone or stadium our forms. A good move, although one friend would later comment that it signalled to the outside world that we had tickets and might be the target for pickpockets. In 2015 on our visit, a few friends were pick-pocketed including my dear friend Alan and Wycombe Stan.

There was cloud overhead but the rising sun soon burned through. We were dropped off at the fan zone on Avenue dos Aliados. It wasn’t far from our hotel in 2015. We decided to enter and kill some time. It was pleasant enough. Andy and Sophie had a beer. But I promised to be tee-total all day long. I had not dropped a touch of alcohol since the first day of September. And the thought of me drinking even a few pints under a burning sun scared me. I wanted to be completely in charge of my senses on this day, especially should there be any sort of plea-bargaining regarding my camera at the stadium.

There was music, a few sideshows, and I met my friends Kenny and then Leigh, lovely Chelsea folk. My good friend Orlin from Sofia appeared outside but did not have his identity wristband so was denied access. We chatted, farcically, through the barricades…we would keep in touch and see each other later no doubt.

Andy spotted Billy Gilmour’s parents, with his two lookalike younger brothers. Billy’s parents looked relaxed and were drinking beer too. As we decided to move on, we walked past them just as Leigh presented Billy’s mother with a “Scottish Iniesta” sticker. I had stopped and decided to say a word or two to Mrs. Gilmour.

“I am sure you are as proud of your son as we are. I hope he goes right to the very top” and gave her a fist-bump. She was lovely.

“Awe, thanks very much.”

Outside, the three of us stood outside a small bar. Beers and Cokes. Andy spotted Michael Gove walk past. Regardless of any political persuasion, he surely has to have the most slappable face in Westminster. A friend back home reminded me that we once saw him walk past “The Three Kings” in West Ken on a match day a few years back. Apparently his son supports us. I reminded Andy how he – much to the bemusement of Sophie – berated former MP Tony Banks, and Chelsea fan, outside the Monaco stadium at the Super Cup game in 1998.

“Leave it out mate, I am here for the football.”

We giggled.

Andy and I have seen some things. We remembered how he said in Monaco “there’s a Real fan in Madrid right now saying…”

I continued “Chelsea always beat us.”

We wondered what he thought about the semi-finals this year.     

Andy and I travelled together to Stockholm and Monaco in 1998. We were both in Moscow in 2008, Munich in 2012, Amsterdam in 2013. I saw him in Baku in 2019. We had heard that City were all mobbed up down by the waterfront. This top part of the town centre was all Chelsea. Everything was pretty quiet to be honest. A few sporadic shouts. We saw Pat Nevin on the stage inside the fan zone.

…mmm, I saw him in Moscow, but not in Munich. Was that a bad sign? Time would tell.

Sophie had heard from two friends who were further south so we trotted down the street to meet up with them. I was waiting to hear from Orlin, who had promised to bring along a power pack for me to charge up my quickly dwindling moby. The City shirts now outnumbered Chelsea ones. Porto tumbles down to the Douro, it is a lovely city, and the streets looked quite familiar. Orlin, who I bumped in to in Porto in 2015, texted me to say he was at a restaurant. We walked on, with City jeers of “Rent Boys” aimed at Chelsea fans every fifty yards or so. We walked into a small square and Andy and Sophie’s friends shouted out from a table outside a restaurant. Lo and behold, who should be sat four yards away but Orlin. What luck. The three of us joined them for lunch at 1.30pm. I was sat with several of the Chelsea Bulgaria contingent. Their flag was near me at Wembley. Two of Orlin’s friends are on the UEFA Away ST Scheme so were sure of tickets. Orlin had to search the black market for his.

It was magical to spend time with him again. We updated each other; travels, health, mutual friends, a little talk about football. He was a lot more confident than me. I always call him “Mister 51%” because he says he is more of a Chelsea fan now, in preference to Levski, his boyhood team.

I remained as Mister 33%.

I had the briefest of words with two City fans in the restaurant itself, the only ones I would talk to all day.

“Good luck tonight. I have no problem with City. We have both had a similar history really. Second Division and all that.”

“Third Division for us. Cheers mate.”

Another fist bump.

I soon realised that we were sat outside on exactly the same table where Parky, Kev and I had an equally enjoyable meal on match day in 2015. Shit, we lost that time. I enjoyed a meal of grilled vegetables and flat breads. Not only no alcohol but a vegetarian meal.

“You’ve changed.”

We said our goodbyes and I needed a little time to myself. It was three o’clock and as I descended to Praca da Ribeira – City Central – some fears enveloped me. There seemed to be way more City in the city than us. This area was mobbed with every City shirt imaginable; like us they have had some shockers. All of this was eerily similar to United dominating Moscow in 2008.

This was my worst case scenario pre-departure from England :

“I won’t meet any close friends, I’ll get sunburned, the bars will be too packed, I won’t enjoy it, my camera will get confiscated again, we’ll concede an early goal ten minutes in, we’ll have to chase the game, City will rip us apart, I think we will get pummeled, delays at the airport, misery in masks.”

Mister 33% for sure.

I left City behind me and slowly ascended a few tight streets. It was close and humid down by the river but nice and airy further north. I popped into a deserted café for a gorgeous fishcake and another Coke. Blue skies overhead. As I slowly walked towards Chelsea Central, I saw a Chelsea Belgium flag draped over a balcony. I inevitably took a few photographs of this highly photogenic city. I loved its trademark blue and white tiled houses. Like Wedgewood or Delft pottery.

Snap, snap, snap.

I met up with the “A Squad” again and bought myself an iced-tea from a nearby shop. The shops around the fan zone were stocked with Super Bock and were doing a fine trade. A large group of around three hundred Chelsea were in good voice…I joined in. We were starting to get our vocal chords prepared. Donna was interviewed for a live piece on “Sky News.” Luke was nicely buoyed by Super Bock. His lovely wife is seven months pregnant. How lovely if we could win tonight so their first-born could claim being present at a European triumph.

My oldest friend Mario sent through a photo of his youngest son Nelson in a Chelsea training top and my heart leapt. Mario lives in Germany and his local team is Bayer Leverkusen. Two of his three boys are Leverkusen fans. Mario and Nelson are ST holders. Nelson met Kai Havertz at a training session a year or so ago. Mario also supports Juventus – he is Italian – and on this date in 1985 he was meant to be in Section Z at Heysel, but had too much school work that week so it was decided he would not attend. And thank God.

On 29 May 1985, I was in England and supporting Juventus in a European Cup Final.

On 29 May 2021, Mario and Nelson were in Germany and supporting Chelsea in a European Cup Final.

Football. Fackinell.

Time was moving on now. Charlotte and I had decided that we would leave earlier than the rest. Chemo has tired Charlotte a little. We needed to allow ourselves plenty of time to travel by subway and then the final mile or so by foot to reach the stadium. I was more than happy to leave. I had thoroughly enjoyed my day thus far. The negative vibes were starting to subside though I had not dwelt on the game at all. We left the others behind at 5.15pm. A subway stop was just a few yards away. We had been given a subway card on the coach with our match ticket; a nice touch.

We walked down the steps into Aliados station just as a huddle of Chelsea fans had the same idea.

We were on our way.

Tales From The Final Tie

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 15 May 2021.

Since We Last Spoke.

My match report for the home game against Everton in March of last year – a really fine 4-0 win – ended with a typical few words.

“Right. Aston Villa away on Saturday. See you there.”

Then, as we all know too dearly, life – and football – changed. The corona virus that had first been spoken about just after Christmas in 2019, almost in a semi-humorous way at the start, took hold and started claiming victims at an alarming rate. A global pandemic was on our hands. Very soon the United Kingdom was placed in lockdown, a situation that none of us could have ever envisioned witnessing in person during our lives.

Suddenly and without too much thought, football seemed of little real relevance to me.

The trials and tribulations of Chelsea Football Club in particular seemed small compared to the news appearing on my TV screen, on my phone and laptop. As friends found their own way of coping with the surreal nature of lock down, and then being furloughed from work, I quickly realised that football, Chelsea in particular, was way down my list of priorities.

I simply had other, more serious, issues to deal with. And this is how my thought process, my coping mechanism, remained for weeks and weeks. While others pushed for football to return I simply asked myself :

Why?

It was irrelevant, for me, to concern myself with millionaires playing football.

Eventually after a prolonged break, when the football season began again in the middle of June, I had become emotionally distanced from the sport and from Chelsea too. I had simply turned inwards, as did many; working from home, travelling as little as I could manage and trying not to impact – socially – on the outside world. I joked that I had been practising for this moment my entire life. Earlier in my life, I was the ultimate shy boy.

But the noisemakers in the game and the media were adamant that it would be a major moral boost for the nation to see football return.

How?

It just didn’t sit well with me, this notion of football to be seen as the great saviour. Other priorities seemed to overshadow it. I just could not correlate what I was hearing in the media about football and what I was feeling inside.

I will not lie, I absolutely hated watching the games on TV, with no fans, in silence, and I became more and more distanced from the sport that I had loved with each passing game. I watched almost with a sense of duty, nothing more. What had been my lifeblood – to an almost ridiculous level some might say, and with some justification – just seemed sterile and distant. I have very few memories of those games in the summer.

The FA Cup Final seemed particularly difficult to watch. On a hot day in August, I mowed the lawn, and even did some work in my home office for an hour or two, and then sat alone to see us score an early Christian Pulisic goal but then be over-run by a revitalised Arsenal team. That result hurt of course, and I was annoyed how some decisions went against us. The sad injury to Pedro – a fine player for us over five years – in the last kick of the game seemed to sum up our horrible misfortune that day. However, and I know this sounds funny and odd, but I was pleased that I was hurting. That I still cared.

But by the evening, the loss was glossed over.

Football still didn’t seem too important to me.

The one positive for me, and one which combines my own particular brand of OCD – Obsessive Chelsea Disorder – married with a possible smidgeon of shallowness, was the fact that I didn’t have to delete the games I had witnessed in 2019/20 from both my games spreadsheet and – gulp – this blog site.

A small victory for me, and I needed it.

Off the field, work was becoming particularly stressful for me. In August I came oh-so close to handing in my notice. The workload was piling up, I was battling away, and I was getting some worrying chest pains again.

In mid-September, the new season began and I openly hoped for a new approach from me. There was nothing up in the air here; we knew games would be played behind closed doors, we knew the score from the start. I renewed my NOWTV package to allow me to see most of our games. We began the league campaign at Brighton. For some reason, I didn’t see the game, I can’t remember why not. The first match I witnessed on TV was the home defeat to Liverpool.

It was no good. I could not deny it. I was as distanced as ever. The hold that Chelsea Football Club had on me for decades was under threat.

Conversely – at last some fucking positivity – as soon as my local team Frome Town started playing friendlies and then league games, I was in football heaven. I especially remember a fantastic pre-season friendly against Yeovil Town two days before Chelsea’s game at Brighton. A warm Thursday evening and a capacity 400 attendance, a fine game with friends, just magnificent. In September and October, I attended many a Frome Town game including aways at Mangotsfield United in Bristol – it felt so good to be back home in my living room uploading photos just an hour after the game had finished, a real positive – and on a wet night in Bideford in North Devon. Home gates were significantly higher than the previous season. There was a magnificent sense of community at the club. There had even been a tremendous crowd-funder to raise £25,000 in April to keep the club going. We even had a little FA Trophy run – before being expelled for refusing to play an away tie in an area with a high infection rate. Soon after, the club’s records for a second successive season were expunged and that early season flourish was put on hold until 2021/22.

But for a month, I was felling inexorably closer to Frome Town than to Chelsea. It seemed that my entire world was turning in on myself.

Was the world changing?

On Saturday 10 October it certainly did. For the second time in a few days I experienced chest pains. There had been a similar attack in my bed and breakfast in Bideford on Thursday morning. That drive home was horrible. I wanted to be brave enough to phone for a doctor. On the Saturday, I knew I had to act. I phoned the emergency services and – to cut a very long story to a quick few lines – I was whisked into a local hospital in Bath. On the Sunday, I was told that I had suffered a mild heart attack, and on Monday I underwent an operation to have two stents fitted into my heart. My Tuesday afternoon, I was home again.

I remained off work for five weeks, and slowly returned in stages. A half-day here, a half-day there. I remained calm throughout these weeks. I knew, deep down, that something had been wrong but being a typical bloke, decided to let things slide and hope for the best. Since then, I have improved my lifestyle; decaffeinated coffee – boo! – and healthier food, more exercise and all of the associated improvements that go with it.

With all this going on, Chelsea seemed even more remote. I was momentarily cheered when fans were allowed back inside Stamford Bridge, and that for a few hours we were top of the table after Leeds United were despatched. For a fleeting moment, it seemed that Frank Lampard, who had teased a very creditable fourth place finish in July out of his youngsters, was now able to similarly nurture his new signings too. But there had been failings in 2020/21 too. Our defence was at times calamitous. But I was solidly behind Frank all of the way. I really felt for him. Back in March, with Billy Gilmour the new star, we had enjoyed quite wonderful wins over Liverpool and Everton. There was positivity, hope and the future looked utterly pleasing.

Then the pandemic struck. Damn you COVID19.

In December and early January our form dipped alarmingly. I watched Frank’s interviews through my fingers. It was not pleasant viewing. It saddened me that so many rank and file Chelsea supporters, across all demographics – from old school fans in England to younger ones abroad – had seen fit to kindly forget the “I don’t care if we finish mid-table for a couple of seasons, let’s build a future with our youngsters” mantra in August 2019.

It got to the stage where I didn’t want Chelsea to simply win games but to simply win games for Frank.

I had returned full-time to work in mid-January. To their credit my employer has been first rate throughout my ordeal. While I was in the office on a day in late January, it was sadly announced that Frank Lampard had been sacked. I was numbed yet not at all surprised. I firstly hated the decision for reasons that are probably not difficult to guess. So much for long termism, eh Chelsea?

My interest in the exploits of Chelsea Football Club probably reached an all-term low. Or at least since the relegation season of 1978/79 when we were shocking throughout and I was being pulled away from football with a new interest in music and other teenage distractions.

Thomas Tuchel?

A nerdy-looking chap, skeleton thin, probably a diamond with Powerpoint and with a marginally worse hairstyle than me? I wished him well but football again seemed distant.

Our form improved but the football itself seemed sterile. I was still struggling.

On a Saturday in March, I debated whether or not I had time to go off on a ten mile walk to a local village and get back in time to watch play at Elland Road. I considered binning the football in favour of my new found enjoyment of walks in the surrounding winter Somerset countryside. In the end I compromised; I went for a walk on the Sunday.

I know what I found most enjoyable.

Of late, our form has really improved. Again, I haven’t seen every game. But we look a little more coherent, defensively especially. Apart from an odd blip, to be honest, the results since the new manager took over have been sensational even if many of the ways of getting those results have lacked a certain “I know not what.”

Pizazz? Style?

I’m being mean. The bloke has done well. I like his self-effacing humour, his humble approach. He has started to grow in me (Parky : “like a fungus”).

Of late, our progress in the latter stages of the Champions League has been the most impressive part of our recent resurgence. And yet this competition has been haunting me all season long. In a nutshell, the thought of us reaching our third European Cup Final and – being selfish here, I know it – me not being able to attend is a nightmare.

(OK, not a nightmare. I know. I know 127,000 people have lost their lives due to COVID19. That is the real nightmare. I realise that. This is just football. Just football.)

I shrugged off last August’s FA Cup Final. I coped remarkably well with that. I soon decided that I could even stomach missing a second-successive one this year. But the thought of us lifting the big one for a second time and me – and others – not being there is bloody purgatory.

So, it was with a heady mix of genuine pride and impending sadness that accompanied the glorious sight of us beating a hideously poor Real Madrid side over two-legs to reach the final.

But that spectacle, or debacle, needs another chapter devoted to it. And it doesn’t seem right to talk too much about that at this time. In fact, going into the weekend I assured myself that I would not dwell too much about the 2021 European Cup Final. Let’s be honest here; the twin crushing of the hated European Super League and the farcical and immoral desire of UEFA to send 8,000 UK citizens to Portugal in the midst of a global pandemic warrants a book, a Netflix series even, all by themselves.

Let’s talk about the FA Cup.

For those readers of this blogorama who have been paying attention, I have been featuring the visit of my grandfather Ted Draper to Stamford Bridge for the 1920 FA Cup Final between Aston Villa, his team, and Huddersfield Town. This is a work of fiction since I only know that my grandfather once visited Stamford Bridge, but was never able to remember the game. Suffice to say, in the report of the home game against Liverpool last March, I continued the story.

After a break of fourteen months, a re-cap.

On Saturday 24 April 1920, on this very same site, if not this very same stadium – but certainly one which was in situ for the 1982 game, those lovely packed terraces – my grandfather stood on the great slug of the West terrace with his old school friend Ted Knapton alongside him. It was half-time, and the score between the two teams – Aston Villa, who he favoured, and Huddersfield Town – was 0-0. It had been an exhilarating game of football for my grandfather, though the spectacle of seeing fifty-thousand spectators in one sports ground had proved to be the one abiding memory that he would take away with him.

Fifty thousand people.

And virtually all were men, and so many had fought in the Great War.

My grandfather was twenty-five years old. He silently gazed out at the main stand on the far side, the open terraces behind each goal, and looked behind him at row after row of fellows in caps and hats, some with the colourful favours of the two competing teams. A claret and blue rosette here. A light blue hat there.

Fifty-thousand men.

It struck home.

My grandfather had just that week spotted a local girl, a few years younger than him, who was beginning work in the manor house of his home village. She was a young cook, with a lovely smile, and had caught his eye.

My grandfather was a rather quiet man. He looked out at all those faces. He did not speak to his friend Ted, but he – at Stamford Bridge on Cup Final day 1920 – had decided that the stadium, indeed the whole of England was full of men, and the thought of one of them asking the young cook out before he had a chance to utter a shy “hello” ate away at him.

He had survived the Great War. He lived in a great village and now this great spectacle had stirred him in a way that he had not expected.

“You had better get your act together, Ted Draper. On Monday at lunch time, I think I will ask Blanche if she would like to accompany me to next weekend’s village dance. I can’t be second in that race.”

I was so annoyed that I could not continue this story last season. The team did their part, defeating Manchester United in a semi-final, but of course there was no Cup Final Tale in which I could tie up rather conveniently tie up the end of my 1920 story on the centenary.

Thankfully, good old Chelsea, the team defeated Manchester City in this season’s semis to enable me to continue and to honour my grandfather again.

The quality of the play down below on the surprisingly muddy Stamford Bridge pitch deteriorated throughout the second-half. But Ted Draper, along with his friend Ted Knapton, were still enthralled by the cut and thrust of the two teams. The players, wearing heavy cotton shirts, went into each tackle with thunderous tenacity. And the skill of the nimble wide players caught both of their eye.

“Ted, I wonder what the crowd figure is here today. There are a few spaces on the terracing. I suspect it would have been at full capacity if Chelsea had won their semi-final against the Villa.”

“I think you are right. What’s the capacity here? I have heard it said it can hold 100,000.”

“Bugger me.”

“Trust Chelsea to mess it up.”

“Yes. Good old Chelsea.”

The crowd impressed them. But they were not too impressed with the swearing nor the quite shocking habit of some spectators to openly urinate on the cinder terraces.

“To be honest Ted, I haven’t seen any lavatories here have you?”

“I’m just glad I went in that pub before we arrived.”

The play continued on, and the crowd grew restless with the lack of goals. The programme was often studied to match the names of the players with their positions on the pitch. With no goals after ninety-minutes, there was a short break before extra-time, and more liquid cascaded down the terraces.

“Like a bloody river, Ted.”

After ten minutes of the first period of extra-time, Aston Villa broke away on a fast break and the brown leather ball held up just in time for the inside-right Billy Kirton to tuck the ball past Sandy Mutch in the Huddersfield goal.  There was a mighty roar, and Ted Draper joined in.

The Aston Villa supporters standing nearby flung their hats into the crowd and many of the bonnets and caps landed on the sodden floor of the terracing.

“Buggered if I’d put those things back on my head, Ted.”

There then followed a period of back-slapping among the Villa die-hards, and Ted Draper was very pleased that his team had taken the lead. The game stayed at 1-0, with both teams tiring in the last part of the match. The crowd stayed until the end, transfixed. There was just time to see the Aston Villa captain Andy Ducat lift the silver trophy on the far side. The teams soon disappeared into the stand.

With a blink of an eye, the game was done, the day was over, and Somerset was calling.

As the two friends slowly made their way out of the Stamford Bridge stadium, Ted Knapton – who favoured no team, but had picked the Huddersfield men for this game – spoke to my grandfather.

“That goal, Ted.”

“What of it?”

“It looked offside to me.”

“Not a chance, not a chance Ted. The inside-right was a good half-inch onside.”

“Ah, you’re a bugger Ted Draper, you’re a bugger.”

On Cup Final Day 2021, I was up early, a good ninety minutes ahead of the intended 8am alarm clock. One of my first tasks was to swab my mouth and nose. Now there’s a phrase that I never ever thought that I would utter on a Cup Final morn. Part of the protocol for this game, the biggest planned event to take part in the UK since lockdown in March 2020, was that all attendees should take a lateral flow test at an official centre from 2.15pm on Thursday 13 May. I was lucky, I was able to work a late shift on the Friday and I travelled to Street for my test. The negative result soon came through by email. We also were advised, though not compulsory, to take a test at home on the morning of the game and five days after the event in order for data to be gathered. A small price to pay.

This felt odd. To be going to a game after so long. I took some stick from a few people that saw me comment that my love of football was being rekindled.

“Chelsea get to two cup finals and all of a sudden Chris Axon loves football again.”

I laughed with them.

The joy of football had been rekindled because I was now able to see a live game. There are many ways for people to get their kick out of football. By playing, by writing, by watching on TV, by refereeing, by betting, by coaching, by fantasy leagues. By I get my kick through live football.

It has been my life.

I posted the carton with the vial containing my swab at Mells Post Office just after I left home at 10.30am. I was genuinely excited for the day’s events to unfold. Outside the same post office a few days earlier, I had announced to two elderly widows of the village – Janet and Ann – that I was off to the FA Cup Final a few days earlier.

“I have missed it badly.”

They both smiled.

And I realised that this final tie of the Football Association Challenge Cup represented a final tie to my childhood – I am known around the village as a Chelsea supporter – and it also represented a nod to the tie that Chelsea Football Club has on me.

But did it really represent one last chance to bring me back in from the cold?

I know that I needed something to help me regain my love of the game before my dislike of VAR, obscenely-overpaid players, ever-changing kick-off times, blood-sucking agents, the continuing indifference to game-going fans despite the limp platitudes that might suggest otherwise, the threat of the thirty-ninth game, knobhead fans, the disgraceful behaviour of UEFA and FIFA in so many aspects of their stance on so many things (I have already decided I am not watching a single second of the Qatar World Cup) all combine in one horrible mixture to turn me away even more.

I have aired all this before. As well you know.

No pressure, Chelsea.

Vic Woodley.

On my way to collect Lord Parky, my sole companion on this foray back to normality, I passed near the village of Westwood. Until recently, I was unaware – as were many – that this is the final resting place of our former ‘keeper Vic Woodley. There is a group on Facebook that actively try to locate the graves of former players and on occasion headstones are purchased if there are unmarked graves. It is an admirable cause. Two Saturdays ago, I placed some blue and white flowers on the grave. Although it is open to debate, I would suggest that until 1955, Vic Woodley was our most successful player at Chelsea.

Hughie Gallacher was probably our most famous player, George Smith had played more games and George Mills had been our record goal scorer.

But Woodley had played 252 games for Chelsea and 19 for England. He was in our team for the Moscow Dynamo game in 1945 too.

I vote for Vic Woodley.

I soon passed The Barge pub, on the outskirts of Bradford on Avon where he was a landlord in later years.

We must pay a visit when normality returns.

Parky soon reminded me that he had heard of his Uncle Gerald, a Derby County fan, talk about Vic Woodley – who played thirty times for Derby before moving to Bath City – living locally when Parky was younger. Parky also recounted meeting a chap in nearby Melksham who had been at that Moscow Dynamo game just after the Second World War.


1994 And 2021.

I had collected Parky at 11am. His first task had been to replicate a photo of me setting off outside Glenn’s house in Frome before the drive to the 1994 FA Cup Final. I wanted a little comparison. Me at 28 and me at 55.

This would be my eleventh FA Cup Final that I will have attended. The twenty-eight year old me what have laughed at such a notion.

We had a lovely natter on the way up. We hardy stopped chatting. Sadly, neither Glenn nor PD could make it up but we promised to keep them in our thoughts. Our route took us towards High Wycombe before we doubled back on the M40. This was quite appropriate since a very well-known and popular supporter at Chelsea, Wycombe Stan, had recently passed away. He was well-loved by all and will be sadly missed at Chelsea. Stan has featured in these reports a few times. A smashing bloke.

RIP Wycombe Stan.

I had purchased a pre-paid parking slot for £20 only a ten-minute walk from the stadium. Traffic delays going in meant that we didn’t arrive much before 3pm, but it felt good, for once, to not have to race like fools to get in to a Cup Final. Those “last pints” on Cup Final day are legend.

The environs around modern Wembley Stadium are much different than as recently as 2007, the first final at the new place. Flats and hotels abound. It is very much a retail village first, a sporting venue second. We bumped into two Chelsea fans on the walk to the stadium. Gill B. said that the place was full of Leicester, that there were hardly any Chelsea present yet. I knew of two Leicester City season ticket holders who were attending the final and one had said that most of their fans were arriving on an armada of coaches. Gill R. wasn’t planning on meeting up with anyone, but as we turned a quiet corner, she shouted out : ”Chris!”

It was so lovely to see her. We chatted for quite a while, talking about the surreal nature of the past year, the sad departure of Frank, the whole nine yards. We both admitted we had not missed football as much as we had expected. Strange times.

At the southern end of what is now normally called “Wembley Way” – but was really called “Olympic Way” – the rather unsightly access slope has been replaced by steps, which I must admit remind me of an old style football terrace. But it is rather odd to see steps there. One supposes that crowd control has improved since the Ibrox disaster of 1971, but the straight rails, with no cross rails to stop surges, did bring a tremor to my memory banks. At least the steps do not immediately start near the stadium.

At the base of the steps, we scanned our match ticket and showed our test result email to Security Bod Number One.

In. Simple.

We neared the turnstiles at the eastern end – not our usual one – at around 3.30pm. Hardly anyone was around. We went straight in.

Thankfully, Security Bod Number Two didn’t react negatively to the sight of my camera and lenses.

Result. In.

For an hour and a half – the equivalent of a match – and by far the most enjoyable ninety minutes of the day, we chatted to many friends who we had not seen for fourteen months. I was driving, of course, so was not drinking. In fact, as I never drink at home, my last alcoholic intake was way back in September. But Parky, himself almost teetotal since June, was off the leash and “enjoying” the £6 pints. I updated many friends with the latest news regarding my health. I summed it up like this :

“I’ve had a good six months.”

There had been rumours of the whole game being played under constant rain. We were low down, row three and right behind the goal. If anyone was going to get wet, we were.

It was soon 5pm. A quick dash to the loo, things have improved since 1920. Within seconds I was spotting more familiar faces and I added to the gallery.

A Chelsea Gallery.

The Game.

The Cup Final hymn – Abide With Me – was sung and I sang along too. It is always so moving.

A quick look around. Most people in the lower tier. Team banners all over the south side of the top tier. A few people dotted around the middle tier and the north side of the top tier. Altogether surreal. Altogether strange. We had been gifted a Chelsea flag and a small blue bag was placed beneath the seat too. I didn’t bother to look in for a while. Time was moving on. I was starting to gear up for my first Chelsea game of the season and, possibly – only possibly – my last. Some fireworks, some announcements, the entrance of the teams. I spotted Prince William, a good man, and snapped away as he was introduced to the two teams.

“Oh bollocks. The teams. Who’s playing?”

I had been so busy chatting in the concourse that my mind had not given it a moment’s thought.

James in the middle three, Kepa in goal, Ziyech? Oh dear. I was amazed that Havertz was not playing. I was reminded last week that the young German’s first ever appearance at Wembley was in late 2016 against Tottenham. He came on as an eighty-sixth minute substitute for Bayer Leverkusen as they won 1-0. It was memorable for me too; I was there, tucked away among the Leverkusen hordes with my childhood friend Mario.

So, yes, the team.

Kepa.

James. Silva. Rudiger.

Dave. Kante. Jorginho. Alonso.

Mount. Werner. Ziyech.

I always say that I need a few games at the start of each season to get used to watching football again. To learn the habits, strengths and weaknesses of new players. To pace myself. To try to take it all in. Sadly, such a staggeringly low viewing position was of no use whatsoever. Everything was difficult. There was no depth. I really struggled.

And I really struggled with the latest dog’s dinner kit that the wonder kids at Nike have foisted upon us.

Does anybody like it?

To be honest, with players in motion the bizarre chequered pattern is not too discernible. It is only when players are still that the mess is fully visible. That the nasty pattern is continued onto the shorts without the merest hint of an apology makes it twice as bad. After getting it so right – sadly for one game – in 2020, the Nike folk thought that the yellow trim was obviously worth repeating.

Right. Enough of that. I’m getting depressed.

With only 12,500 fans of the competing clubs in the vastness of Wembley, it was so difficult to get an atmosphere going. For the first time in fourteen months, my vocal skills were tested. I joined in when I could. But it was all rather half-hearted.

The game began and we edged the opening spell quite easily with Mason Mount busy and involved. A couple of very early attacks down the right amounted to nothing. The rain was just about staying off.

Our loudest chant in the game thus far had been the statistically inaccurate “We’ve won it all”, a comment that Corinthians of San Paolo will note with a chuckle, as will the Saints of Southampton.

After a full quarter of an hour, an optimistic effort from Toni Rudiger flew tamely wide of the Leicester goal. A rare foray into our half saw a cross from Timothy Castagne for Jamie Vardy but Reece James blocked well. Chances were rare though. Mount advanced well but shot wide. An effort from Timo Werner replicated the curve of the arch overhead as his shot plopped into the area housing the Leicester fans.

We were clearly dominating possession but after a reasonable start we became bogged down with keeping the ball and trying to force our way in to Leicester’s well-drilled defence. I could almost hear the commentators describing the play. And it’s maybe a subtle new type of play too, possibly a side-effect of having no fans at games for over a year.

Watching on TV, and I admit I get so frustrated, I get bored to death of teams sitting back and letting teams pass in and around them. I watched some old footage from the ‘eighties recently, highlights of the 1982 and 1988 Scottish Cup Finals, and from the kick-off the teams were at each other. It was like watching a different sport. It was breathless, maybe not tactically pleasing, but it had me on edge and dreaming of another era.

Today there is just so much I can take of commentators talking about “the press, a low press, a high press, a high block, a low block, between the lines, transition, the counter, little pockets, passing channels.”

It seems that football is – even more – a sport watched by experts and critics rather than supporters. Yes, everyone seems more educated in tactics these days, but the repetition of some key phrases surely grates on me.

For the high priests of the high press, I sometimes wonder if they are even aware of how often they use this phrase during a normal match.

Players have always closed space and targeted weak spots, just as teams have in the past been happy to soak up pressure when needed. It just seems that teams do it all the time now. In every bloody game. And with no supporters in the stadium to inject some passion and intensity, I get drained watching training game after training game on TV.  

A few long crosses and corners from the right did not trouble Schmeichel in the Leicester goal. His father was in the Manchester United goal in 1994. It infamously rained that day and just around the half-way mark of the first-half, the heavens opened. The omens were against us. My camera bag got drenched, my jacket was getting drenched. The blue cardboard bag from Chelsea was getting drenched.

Someone asked: “what’s in the goody bag?”

I replied “a return air ticket to Istanbul.”

Tuchel hurried back to the bench to get a blue baseball cap from his goody bag. Not sure if he had a metal badge too, though.

For twenty minutes, my photos stopped. I couldn’t risk my camera getting waterlogged. Leicester had a few rare forays towards us at the eastern end. I liked the look of Thiago Silva. Bizarrely, of course, these were my first sightings of Werner, Ziyech and Silva in a Chelsea shirt.

The rain slowed and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was in no mood for a “Burnley 2017.” Around me, the rain had dampened the fervour of our support. Leicester were beginning to be heard.

“Vichai had a dream. He bought a football team.

He came from Thailand and now he’s one of our own.

We play from the back.

And counter attack.

Champions of England. You made us sing that.”

Thankfully no mention of a high press.

The last real chance of the half, a poor-half really, fell to Caglar Soyuncu but his effort dropped wide of the far post.

At half-time, there were mutterings of disapproval in a Chelsea support that had quietened down considerably. Throughout that first-half, neither team had managed a shot on goal. But I tried to remain positive. I was buoyed by the pleasing sight of blue skies in the huge rectangular window above us…I hoped the clouds would not return.

No changes at the start of the second-half. I prayed for a winner at our end, just yards away from me.

The first effort of the second-half came from the head of Marcos Alonso, a surprising starter for many, who rose to meet a cross from N’Golo Kante but headed too close to Schmeichel. Leicester showed a bit of life, some spirit, but it was dour football.

Sadly, this was to change. Just after the hour, the ball was pushed square to Youri Tielemens who advanced – unchallenged, damn it – until he was around twenty-five yards out. As soon as the ball left his boot, from my vantage point, I knew it was in. Not even Peter fucking Crouch could have reached it. The Leicester end erupted.

Bollocks.

Five minutes later, Christian Pulisic for Hakim Ziyech and Ben Chilwell – loud boos – for Marcos Alonso. Pulisic immediately added a little spice and spirit. He seemed positive. Two more substitutions, Callum Hudson-Odoi for Azpilicueta and Kai Havertz, the slayer of Tottenham, for Jorginho. Our attack had stumbled all game but with fresh legs we immediately looked more interested.

The Leicester fans were in their element, raucous and buoyant. We tried to get behind the team.

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

It didn’t exactly engulf the Chelsea end in a baying mass of noise.

Kante was strangely finding himself engaged as a supplier of crosses and one such ball was met by Chilwell but his strong downward header, coming straight towards me, was palmed on to his post by a diving Schemichel.

I was right in this game now; it had taken so long for us to get any momentum, but with time running out my eyes were on stalks, watching the ball and the players running – or not – into space.

“COME ON YOU BLUE BOYS.”

With eight minutes’ left, The Charge of the Light Brigade as Olivier Giroud raced on to replace a very disappointing Werner. It was the fastest any Chelsea player had run all game.

The Chelsea pressure increased. I didn’t even think about the stresses that might be induced should we score a late equaliser. But that’s good. I felt fine. No problems.

A delicate cross from James was knocked back to our Mase. He steadied himself momentarily and then let fly with his left foot. I was about to leap in joy. But Schmeichel flung himself to his left and clawed it out.

I called him a very rude name. Twice. Just to make sure he heard me.

In the closing minutes, a lofted ball – into space, what joy – found a rampaging Ben Chilwell. He met it first time, pushing it into the six-yard box. In the excitement of the moment, I only saw a convergence of bodies and then…GETINYOUFUCKER…the net bulge. I tried my damnedest to capture him running away in joy, but I needed to celebrate. I brushed past Parky and found myself in the stairwell. King Kenny virtually slammed me into the fence at the front – ha – but I kept my composure and snapped away. The results are, mainly blurred. A second or two later, I looked back and Kenny was screaming, his face a picture of joy, and the scene that I saw me was a virtual copy, with less people, of the aftermath of Marcos Alonso’s winner in 2017, a mere thirty yards further south.

I heard a voice inside my head.

“Fucking hell, Chris, we’ve done it.”

And then. Someone mentioned VAR. At first, I thought someone was being a smart-arse. Didn’t seem offside to me. Nah. And then I realised as I looked up at the large scoreboard above the Leicester City fans that the awful truth was for all to see.

A red rectangle…

VAR : CHECKING GOAL – POSSIBLE OFFSIDE.

My heart slumped. How often do these end up with the advantage being given to the attacking side?

Ironically, on the car drive in to London, both Parky and I quoted a recent game when Harry Kane’s toe was deemed to be offside and we both admitted that we felt for the bloke. When Chelsea fans are upset with a VAR decision is given against Tottenham, something is definitely up.

A roar from the other end, no goal.

King Kenny wailed : “what has football become?”

I had no answer.

Has anyone?

There is a chance that this might be my last report this season. It depends on how Chelsea Football Club looks after its own supporters’ hopes of reaching the Portuguese city of Porto in a fortnight.