Tales From Six Of The Best

Chelsea vs. Qarabag : 12 September 2017.

European football was back. Parky, PD and myself were parked up earlier than usual for a midweek game. We dipped in to “The Goose” for old times’ sake at about 5.30pm and chatted to a few old friends but it seemed pretty quiet. I had heard that the game against Qarabag from Azerbaijan had sold out, but I was genuinely worried that a sizeable number of supporters had bought tickets for loyalty points only, with the intention of moving tickets on, and there would be gaps throughout the stadium. We also popped into The Malt House for a couple more pints and, over the next hour, my spirits were raised. The pub grew busy. I hoped that there would be a near capacity crowd. When the group phase of the Champions League churns out our three opponents every autumn, I always wonder if our gates will hold up. There is usually a game against a “minnow” team, and – thankfully – our home support has responded well. Ever since the nadir in the autumn of 2007 when only 24,973 turned up for our home game with Rosenborg – Mourinho’s last game of his first spell – we have only once failed to fulfil expectations. Our 2011 group phase game with Bayer Leverkusen only drew 33,820, but all other home gates have reached the 37,000 to 41,000 mark.

On the short walk to Stamford Bridge, I spotted one Qarabag supporter, with an Azerbaijan flag draped over his shoulders. I knew that there would not be many present.

Inside, with a good quarter of an hour to go before kick-off, there were gaps everywhere. I wasn’t hopeful that we would end up with a decent gate. Thankfully, and to my surprise to be honest, the place filled-up quickly. Over in the far corner, around four hundred away fans were spotted in the lower tier of the away section. Baku is 2,500 miles away from Stamford Bridge. I guess it was a fair turnout.

Thoughts turned from our support to the team.

Not surprisingly, Antonio Conte had tinkered with the starting eleven.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Pedro – Batshuayi -Willian

The teams took to the pitch and, after a hiatus of one season, the Champions League anthem rang out around Stamford Bridge. It was a shame, in my mind, that our first game this autumn was not against more prestigious opponents – how I remembered the sense of occasion that accompanied our first-ever game in the Champions League in 1999 against the mighty Milan – but at least a home game against Qarabag would hopefully give us a fine chance for an easy win, with plenty of goals, in a potentially tight group.

In The Malt House, we had honestly admitted that we expected an easy win – 3-0, 4-0, 5-0 – against a team that we knew nothing of.

At kick-off, I scanned the crowd and was very happy. There was hardly a spare seat in the house, save for a block of around four-hundred above the away fans in The Shed. I spotted a new banner on The Shed Balcony wall – “Cahill, He’s Won It All” – and also an outing for one for the manager – “The King Of London.”

Rain started to fall.

As the game began, Alan and myself chatted about the aftermath of the Morata chant at Leicester City. Typically, the programme featured our Spanish striker on the cover. I certainly did not expect the chant to be repeated against Qarabag. Thankfully, it didn’t.

It was a bright opening from both teams. After only five minutes, Willian passed to Pedro, and although he was on the edge of the D, with the path to goal seemingly blocked by many players, his first-time strike zipped past everybody and into the top corner. It was a magnificent strike and the crowd responded with a reassuring roar. Pedro raced towards the Chelsea bench with a joyous hop, skip and a jump. Get in you beauty.

Chelsea dominated play, with some solid performances throughout the team. All eyes were on Michy Batshuayi after his disappointing show against Burnley. We hoped that he would seize his opportunity. A shot from Michy went close. There were rare attacks from Qarabag and I was impressed with the form of Andreas Christensen.

The song for Willian boomed out, as maybe an extra dig at Tottenham, on account of the anti-Spurs chant on Saturday getting such wide condemnation. Soon after, the ever-popular “Stand Up If You Hate Tottenham” rang out too.

On the half-hour mark, Davide Zappacosta received the ball from Thibaut Courtois. As he set off on a gut-busting run up the right wing, I had a nightmare. Rather than watch the new signing rampage past various Qarabag players, my thoughts were focussed on sending a text message to a friend in Chicago, who had helped put together the new Cahill flag. I looked up just as the ball was slammed with his right foot and flew past the away ‘keeper.

Boom. Two-nil.

I jumped up, but felt embarrassed that I had basically missed most of it. However, I had already sussed out that it seemed to be a fluke, rather than a genuine shot on goal. This did not stop Zappacosta, who enthusiastically celebrated down in Parkyville.

From then on, every time the Italian full back was in possession of the ball, sections of the crowd urged him to shoot. We continued to dominate. We did not let Qarabag settle. Our control of the game was very impressive. Thibaut had only had one save to make the entire half.

At the break, I summed things up with Alan.

“2-0 now, I reckon it’ll be 5-0 at full time.”

There was a read of the match programme at the break. I was reminded of our phenomenal home record in UEFA competitions.

Played 110

Won 77

Drew 25

Lost 8

That is just stunning.

There was also a complete list of our opponents in all UEFA games and one team dominated.

Barcelona 15 games

Liverpool 10 games

PSG 8 games

Porto 8 games

Schalke 6 games

Valencia 6 games

Atletico Madrid 5 games

Milan 5 games

I have witnessed nine of those fifteen Barcelona games, and what a set of memories are evoked. Some of my very best days supporting Chelsea – and one or two of the worst – took place against FCB. The Chelsea /Barcelona timeline goes back to the ‘sixties of course, and long may the story continue. Conversely, just three games against Real Madrid seem scant reward. We await our first-ever match at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Maybe this season.

With European football so common these days, it seems crazy that I had to wait a full twenty years – 1974 to 1994 – for my first taste of European football at Chelsea. In truth, my European story began slightly earlier than 1994. My first-ever UEFA game was in Turin in 1987; Juventus vs. Panathinaikos. The memory of the thrill of a noisy and atmospheric evening in a misty Turin is strong to this day. My European debut almost took place a few months earlier. In September 1987, when I was travelling around Europe on the trains with two college mates, we found ourselves in Stuttgart. It was a Wednesday and I spotted in the weekly sports paper that Borussia Dortmund were playing Celtic. We decided, on the spur of the moment, to head up to Dortmund and watch the game. We arrived at the city’s train station with only three quarters of an hour to spare. After quickly depositing our ruc-sacs in the left luggage room, we tried our best at getting directions,  blurting out “fussball stadion” and we even mimed kicking and heading a ball to assist us as we tried to make headway with the bemused locals. At last, we hopped on to the U-bahn train. We were running so late that we didn’t spot any other fans. Outside, I approached a middle-aged woman, and asked her about the stadium.

“Wo is der stadion? Borussia.”

She then said the immortal words –

“The game was yesterday.”

Oh bollocks. What a bastard.

I had, it seems, neglected to spot that the sports paper had detailed the Wednesday fixtures thus :

Borussia Dortmund vs. Celtic (Di)

Di meaning Dienstag meaning Tuesday.

Ugh.

Oh well. In the circumstances, it seems just right that fate was to hand me a Juventus tie for my first-ever UEFA game. Let me explain. Over this summer, after re-watching “The Damned United”, it dawned on me that the very first European game that I ever saw – live – on TV was the Juventus vs. Derby County game from Stadio Communale in Turin in 1973. It was on a Wednesday afternoon, and I have a sustained memory of watching it on our black and white TV with my father after he returned from work. There are solid recollections of the names Pietro Anastasi and Franco Causio for sure. And there is a very strong chance, in fact, that I saw Juventus live on TV before I saw a live match involving Chelsea. The first live Chelsea match would have been, undoubtedly, the away game at Manchester City in 1984 some eleven years later. But, anyway, as for my interest in Juventus, this was where it all began for me.

Ten minutes into the second-half, a free-kick released Cesc Fabregas, who clipped a lovely ball into the box with the outside of his foot and the cross was adeptly headed in by Cesar Azpilicueta, whose little dart into space was timed to perfection. He ran off to the far corner and celebrated with Alvaro Morata, who was warming up in front of the East Lower. I don’t think there is a more popular player at Chelsea than Dave. His joy in scoring was matched by us.

At last, Stamford Bridge responded en masse with a stadium-wide song. It had taken almost an hour, but the place was booming.

“Carefree, wherever you may be, we are the famous CFC.”

My 5-0 was looking good.

Eden Hazard soon replaced Pedro, and then Bakayoko replaced Kante.

Hazard set up Willian and his firm shot slammed against the crossbar. At the other end, Qarabag had a couple of wild shots over the bar.

Alan and myself were scratching our heads when we were awarded a corner – we thought that a Qarabag player did not get a touch – but Hazard played a short corner, received the ball back, and then sent over a low cross into the box. Qarabag failed to clear and the ball fell nicely for Bakayoko to slam home off a defender.

His celebrations were right in front of us – and just beautiful.

Antonio Rudiger replaced Azpilicueta and we kept attacking. We did not let up. We kept going, attacking at will. Although he had endured a quiet game, Batshuayi received the ball from Bakayoko some twenty-five yards out, quickly set his sights, and struck a fine low shot deep into the corner of the Qarabag goal.

OK, there’s the 5-0. Excellent.

We still kept pressing. Fantastic work from Zappacosta on the right forced an error from the shell-shocked left-back and his low cross was bundled in by a mixture of Michy Batshuayi and Qarabag defender Maksim Medvedev.

Chelsea 6 Qarabag 0.

There was still time for a fantastic dribble down below us from Eden Hazard, and I had to chuckle at the look of annoyance on his face – masked with a smile – as an errant touch gave the ball away cheaply. Having him back in the side is such a lift.

In the closing minutes, the Stamford Bridge crowd gathered together again for one last communal chant.

“ANTONIO. ANTONIO. ANTONIO, ANTONIO, ANTONIO.”

The whistle blew and “Blue Is The Colour” rang out.

Qarabag were poor all night long. We gave them a proper caning.

In the other game in our group, Roma drew 0-0 at home to Atletico Madrid, and I was very happy with that.

After only one match in the autumn of 2017, advantage Chelsea.

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Tales From Constant And Quiet Efficiency

Chelsea vs. Everton : 27 August 2017.

What a difference one week makes. Prior to the game at Wembley, I was subdued, fearing the worst. In the pub, a couple of friends sensed that I was so quiet that they asked me if I was OK.

“Yeah, I’m alright.”

And I was alright. I was just concerned about what fate might befall us later on against Tottenham. I need not have worried, eh? What followed was one of the finest away games of recent memory and gave us our fourth consecutive win against Tottenham at Wembley (2012 5-1, 2015 2-0, 2017 4-2, 2017 2-1).

During the week, we then received one of the best-ever Champions League draws, placed in the same group as Atletico Madrid (oh Diego, a recent rival, and a new stadium), Roma (an oh-so familiar city for Chelsea but one of my favourites all the same) and Qarabag (the new country, new city, new team, new stadium and new experience we all crave). Thursday evening was spent booking myself on flights to Italy and Azerbaijan. Two back-to-back trips in late autumn will keep me dreamy-eyed for the weeks ahead. There is nothing like the group phase draw every August (last year excepted, cough, cough). We are so lucky for our football club to drag us to all points of the compass. The trip to Rome in October will be my third with Chelsea (Lazio 1999 and Roma 2008) but I also dropped in there on the way to Naples in 2012. There have also been a few trips in my youth (1986, 1987, 1990) and I love the city, one of the world’s greats. Baku is a different story. It will be a new experience for us all.

China Crisis once mused about “living a newer lifestyle and travelling everywhere.”

Yep. That sums it up for me.

So, going into our match with Everton, all – and I mean all – was right with my world.

There was a new pub for this pre-match. “The Atlas” sits in a quiet side-street, close to West Brompton tube. We once popped in during a pub-crawl in around 1999, but it has been under our radar since then. It was long overdue a visit. It is a gorgeous pub with wooden floors, a dark and cool interior, a great choice of ales and lagers, with a sun terrace. With Glenn driving his Chuckle Bus, I was – at last – able to enjoy the giggles of a pre-match drink for the first time for a while. The sun was beating down, the sky was a big bright and beautiful blue without hindrance of cloud, and a lot of the chat centered on plans for Europe.

But first, the chance to play “football bore” with Calvin.

“Just behind those new flats, no more than a hundred yards away, is where the Lillie Bridge FA Cup Final was played in the nineteenth century.”

Calvin’s eyes soon glazed over.

“Right, who wants a beer?”

It was almost one o’clock and time to move. Away from the shade, the heat of the sun surprised us. Away in the distance were the roof supports of the Matthew Harding.

Inside a sun-kissed Stamford Bridge, I spotted gaps in the away section. Everton had not sold out their three thousand; it was a few hundred shy of capacity. Surprisingly for a Chelsea game taking place during a bank holiday weekend all of the home areas looked absolutely rammed. A very good sign indeed.

With Cesc Fabregas returning, Antonio reverted to the familiar 3-4-3.

Thibaut.

Dave – Dave – Antonio

Victor – Cesc – N’Golo – Marcos

Willian – Alvaro – Pedro

Everton were wearing another terrible away kit. Two tone grey has never looked so uninspiring. Their new signing Gylfi Sigurdsson debuted. Wayne Rooney, the returning hero, unsurprisingly started too.

Our last defeat against Everton in the league at Stamford Bridge was way back in November 1994 and I have seen all of the subsequent fixtures. From the very first few moments of play, it looked very much like that we would be extending this Tottenham-esque unbeaten run to a huge twenty-four games.

We dominated the play early on, not allowing the visitors to settle. The usual protagonists and providers Willian and Pedro were all energy, causing worry within the away ranks. We moved the ball well, eking out a few chances with Everton off the pace. As the minutes passed by – ten minutes, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five – Everton chased shadows. Not only had Everton not threatened our goal, they had hardly crossed the half-way line. Wayne Rooney, always the butt of much abuse, began where he left off playing for Manchester United.

After a little noise as the game began, the away fans became beaten by the torpor of their team’s play and the blistering sun. The home support was quiet, too, though. Only a rousing “Antonio, Antonio” broke the apathetic mood. An optimistic over-head kick from Pedro, complete with face-mask, drew applause after some nice work by Morata. Shots peppered Pickford’s goal. Thankfully, our dominance was rewarded on twenty-seven minutes when a move down our right ended with a well-timed downward header by Morata allowing Fabregas, hemmed in, to poke the ball purposefully past the stranded Everton ‘keeper. At last the home crowd boomed and Fabregas reeled away, happiness personified, and raced over to the south-west corner, where he seemed to be waving to friends or family. The blue flags twirled along the West Stand touchline and all was well with the world.

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

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds, la.”

This was not the mesmerizing show of last autumn, but this was still a fine Chelsea performance. With Everton defending deep, there was less space to exploit, but with Kante winning fifty-fifties, the stranglehold on Everton continued. We had to wait until thirty-three minutes had passed for Everton’s first shot at goal. It ambled miserably wide. Five minutes before the break, we could not fathom why the referee had allowed to play the advantage when a foul inside the box – from our viewpoint – should have been awarded with a penalty. The howls of derision from the stands continued as the move was not allowed to flounder. Dave whipped a ball back across the face of the Everton defence and Morata rose to guide the ball in.

Stamford Bridge boomed again.

The scorer rushed over to the corner. The players’ family and guests are housed in that corner suite behind the Shed Lower. More ecstatic celebrations. The flags twirled once more.

Chelsea 2 Everton 0.

Bearing in mind that the aggregate score in the two games last season was 8-0 to us, we certainly hoped for rich pickings in the second period.

Ex Chelsea and Everton winger Pat Nevin made a brief appearance on the pitch at the break; my favourite-ever player, it is always a pleasure to see him.

A pal had spotted that alongside Antonio Conte’s notes in the match programme, the editor had chosen to illustrate the page with a photograph from the game at Wembley. Lo and behold, there was little old me – face ecstatic, screaming – just yards away from the players, gripping my sunglasses tightly. It just sums up why we all love football so much – that ridiculous release of emotion – and nicely merges with my take on the events of the previous weekend.

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We began the second period as we had ended the first. And yet I was disappointed, still, with the lack of noise. It took us forever to get a loud “CAM ON CHOWLSEA” chant to reverberate around the stands. I looked over at the West Stand. Although the corporate second tier was completely full, the thin line of boxes in the third tier were hardly occupied at all. I squinted to see if Roman was present, just off-centre, in his box. He wasn’t. In fact, save for three or four souls in the front row of his block of seats, it was empty.

I sighed as I spoke to Alan :

“Pretty bad when there is hardly a soul in the owner’s box, eh?”

“Probably on his yacht, somewhere.”

“Yeah, but there should be someone in there all the same.”

Roman, or no Roman, we continued to shine. Pedro stroked one past the post and I had to restrain myself from jumping up and making a fool of myself. On the hour, a lovely low cross from Dave zipped across the box, but Morata seemed to sense that Pickford would reach it. The path of the ball eluded them both.

Bollocks.

Pedro went wide again. Victor Moses shot straight at the ‘keeper. By the time Antonio – surely sweltering in his trademark dark suit – began to ring the changes, we sensed that we were taking our foot off the gas. Everton had offered little offensive threat; for an apparently enriched team over the summer, they had been as grey and lifeless as their kit. The away fans did not utter a single song of anger, or otherwise, throughout the closing half-an-hour.

Bakayoko replaced Pedro.

Batshuayi replaced Morata.

Soon after entering the field, Michy played a ball square to Willian, who had spent the entire afternoon running endlessly, and Willian – quite odd to see – rolled his eyes up to the sky as he summoned up some energy from somewhere to reach the ball.

“FFS Michy, I’m knackered.”

Ha.

Lo and behold, as if apologetically, Everton at last bothered to threaten our goal. Firstly, the bulk of Ashley Williams dolloped a ball over and then one went wide of the post. A finger-tipped save from Courtois from Gueye turned out to be his only save of the entire ninety minutes.

Game twenty-four was won.

1994 seems a long time ago, but – there again – 1990 is even longer ago. Just ask Tottenham.

 

Tales From A Night Of Fun

Chelsea vs. Watford : 15 May 2017.

Friday was bloody magnificent, wasn’t it?

And now Chelsea, after winning the sixth title in our history at The Hawthorns, after a week of rising tension, were following this up with a home game against Watford on Monday. The absolute high from the game at West Brom had not really subsided, but there was a certain strangeness in the air as I drove up to West London with Parky and PD. There was a feeling of inevitable anti-climax, but we took that on the chin. That was certain. It was to be expected. In “The Goose” beforehand – rain clouds overhead dampening the mood a little – there was celebratory talk from Friday with those who had travelled, but the overall feeling was of “after the Lord Mayor’s Show.” In truth, of course, we would not wish to be anywhere else on the planet.

We quickly chatted about the potential team line-up, and I only predicted a few changes.

How wrong I was.

Begovic

Zouma – Terry – Ake

Azpilicueta – Kante – Chalobah – Kenedy

Willian – Batshuayi – Hazard

Compared to our first-choice starting eleven, only two players (N’Golo and Eden) were in their own positions. It seemed like a “B” team. But I wasn’t honestly bothered. With the FA Cup Final looming, I was sure that a strong team would be chosen against Sunderland. It was only right that a few fringe players were picked against Watford.

As I turned the corner and approached the West Stand, I grabbed a programme and soon spotted the new grand signage on the West Stand.

“Home of the Champions.”

It felt good.

Our fifth title in thirteen seasons. Some fans don’t know they are born. Of course, I don’t begrudge the younger element of our support anything; that would be churlish. But it did make me think. If I had seen a Chelsea title in my first season of active support at the age of eight, by the time I was twenty-one, I would have seen a total of five. I find this ridiculous, but for many young Chelsea fans in 2017 this is their actual story.

“Just like the Scousers” as my mate Andy had commentated at The Hawthorns on Friday, referencing their pomp in our shared childhood.

Indeed.

I do not wish to get too maudlin, but I have come to accept – and bizarrely, be thankful for – our championship draught from 1955 to 2004. It has made me appreciate the good times even more. And that is fine with me.

Outside and inside, I greeted a few pals with the same words –

“Alright, champ?”

I had commented to PD that I half-expected a fair few empty seats around the stadium – there had been a lot of spares up for grabs on “Facebook” in the morning – but I was very pleased that the place was filling up nicely. At kick-off, hardly any seats in the home areas were not used. However, Watford only had around 2,000 in their end. The gaping hole in their section was shocking. The “Home of the Champions” signage had been added to the balconies of all the stands too. A nice touch. Just before the teams entered the pitch, “CHAMPIONS” banners were draped from the upper tier of The Shed.

“Park Life” gave way to “The Liquidator” and the Watford team – the starting eleven in white to the right, the subs in red to the left – formed a guard of honour. John Terry, almost certainly for the last time, lead the Chelsea team on to the pitch. Flame-throwers in front of the East Stand blasted orange fingers of fire into the evening air. The noise was thunderous.

Down below, I spotted Cathy, who had been hit with ill-health during the game on Friday. She had come straight from a Middlesex hospital. It was reassuring to see her in her usual seat. Her home record – every game since the mid-seventies – was intact.

Very soon into the match, the surreal tone for the ensuing evening was set when the entire crowd roared “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” and the manager slowly turned a complete circle and clapped all of the four corners of the packed stadium. This often happens, but usually much later. This was within the first two minutes. Just a few seconds after, the Chelsea fans followed this up with a chant aimed at the fellows in second place, a full ten points adrift now.

“Tottenham Hotspur, it’s happened again.”

We began brightly enough and were on the front foot. It was odd to see so many different players on the pitch at the same time. A header back to Begovic by John Terry was loudly cheered, but we soon got used to him. Unlike his previous substitute appearance, not every touch was cheered.

However, that was soon to change.

We had created a few half-chances, and then Willian pumped in a corner from our right. King Kurt rose to head the ball goal wards, and the ball was slammed past Gomes. As the goal scorer reeled away, I soon realised that it was John Terry. Perfect. Oh bloody perfect. He ran towards the fans, jumped up – right in front of Parky, the lucky sod – and was engulfed by his fellow players. A lovely moment. A goal on his last start for Chelsea? Probably.

Chelsea 1 Watford 0.

I looked towards Alan, and waited for him to turn towards me and utter his usual post-goal exclamation. I waited. And waited. And waited. He was watching the match. I glanced over to my left just as Watford forced a very rapid equaliser. I only saw the ball cross the line.

Alan and myself had words.

“I’m blaming you for that.”

We laughed.

As the game progressed, we remained dominant. As if in some sort of subtle homage to our captain, the impressive Nathaniel Chalobah chest-passed a ball to a team mate. He loves a chest-pass, does John Terry. With a similar touch to that which set up our first goal at Wembley against Spurs, Michy Batshuayi was able to flick a ball on with a quite beautiful touch. It had the feel of an exhibition match, with tricks and flicks never far away. Willian was especially full of energy. Hazard went close. On thirty-five minutes, a move from our left forced a save from Watford ‘keeper and captain Gomes. It fell to Dave, who slammed the ball hard and low into the net.

Get in.

Chelsea 2 Watford 1.

More wild celebrations over in Parkyville. Flags waving, the crowd roaring. Super stuff.

It had been a fine half of football. It was amazing to see N’Golo eat up space with such desire and win ball after ball. Kenedy – “I didn’t know Bart Simpson was playing” quipped Alan – was looking to get forward at every opportunity. Dave, unfettered now in a wide position, had enjoyed a fine half too. Kurt Zouma, usually so stiff, seemed a lot more relaxed. All was good.

Kerry Dixon was on the pitch at half-time. However, he did not take part in the usual walkabout on the pitch.

Both Alan and myself, at the same time, spoke : “He’s getting back to the bar.”

Soon into the second-half, a short corner eventually broke to Nathan Ake, who played the ball on to Batshuayi. It was an easy chance.

“He always scores against Watford.”

Chelsea 3 Watford 1.

Unbelievably, and to our annoyance, Watford scored again. Janmaat danced through – waltzing past many blue shirts – and curled one past Begovic. It was a fine goal.

Despite this setback, the mood inside the stadium was still light. The MHL began to get the other stands involved.

“West Stand give us a song” – they did.

“Shed End give us a song” – they did.

“Watford give us a song” – they didn’t.

More songs for Antonio, for JT, for Willian. Batshuayi was involved, getting a couple of shots on target. Two shots from Dave too. But then our play became a little disjointed. Watford, aided by some dubious refereeing decisions, were able to move the ball through our tiring midfield. Watford had replaced Niang with Okaka – “who?” from Alan and yours truly – and we were left eating our words when a cross was pumped into our box, the ball fell between Terry and Zouma, and the substitute slammed home, with Chelsea unable to clear. And the previously mute Watford fans sang loud and danced like fools.

“Bollocks.”

Behrami slashed a drive just past the post. Janmaat blasted over.

“Come on Chels, fackinell”

This was turning in to a very odd game. Three-all. Sigh. I was reminded of our 2005/06 title procession, when heading in to Christmas we hardly conceded any goals. I can well remember how we then proceeded to win 3-2 versus Fulham on Boxing Day. At the time it seemed like a ridiculous goal fest. Of course, our defence has been more porous of late, but this still seemed odd.

We had conceded three goals. At home. Against Watford. Oh boy.

This was hardly our worst effort in a championship season of course. In 1954/55, we lost 5-6 to Manchester United. Sorry, I won’t mention it ever again.

Not to worry, as he has done so often this season, Conte pulled some tactical strings. On came Ola Aina for Kenedy. On came Cesc Fabregas for Chalobah. On came Pedro for Michy, who received a lovely reception. Deep down, I was confident that we would spring a late goal. We pressed and pressed. Substitute Cesc forced Gomes to save from a dipping free-kick. The same player then went close at an angle inside the six-yard box. The pressure mounted. With just two minutes remaining, the excellent Willian rolled the ball square to Fabregas, who bobbled a shot low past Gomes.

Chelsea 4 Watford 3.

“Get in.”

What a crazy game.

In the final moments, Prodl was sent off for a second yellow. There was no way back for the visitors.

Phew. The final whistle blew.

Above, fireworks flew up in to the night sky from above the East and West Stands. Blue and silver tinsel streamers fell from the roofs.

“Blue Is The Colour” boomed.

Some fans disappeared into the night, and we should have set off for a quick getaway too, but we saw the players line up to race over to those still in The Shed. PD and myself decided to stay on too. We watched as the players – and Antonio – slowly walked towards us in the Matthew Harding. This was a surprise. Had someone not realised that our final home game was on Sunday? With flames, fireworks and tinsel in evidence for this penultimate game, I honestly wondered what we had in store for the trophy presentation itself.

Anything less than a fly-past by the Red Arrows with billowing jets of blue and white and I will be writing a letter of complaint, Roman.

Antonio was, unwittingly perhaps, the star of the show again, leading the cheers and lapping up the warm adoration from the stands. But my eyes were on John Terry too. What emotions were racing through his mind? The goal must have warmed him. What a satisfying moment. I had always hoped that he would score a net-stretching scorcher from outside the box, but virtually all of his goals have been close range headers and prods from inside the six-yard box. One of his finest goals was a volley – I forget the opposition – at the Shed End when he changed shape mid-air to flick the ball home. Not to worry. This night was his, even though I was to learn that he was at fault for the first equaliser.

Antonio grabbed an inflatable Premier League trophy from a fan behind the goal, and gleefully smiled the widest of smiles. His legendary status grows.

The three of us met up at “Chubby’s Grill” and continued the season-long tradition of “cheeseburger with onions please love.” It had been a fun night to be honest. I won’t dwell on a few deficiencies; it is not the time for silly analysis after such a game.

I began the drive home. It would be the last midweek flit of the season. I was glad that there would be no more. And then I realised that I should not complain. If anything, it made me appreciate the long hours that fans across the country put in week in and week out in support of their chosen teams. Fair play to all of them. The ones who follow mid-table teams, locked in to another season of obscurity, and the ones who support those teams in relegation dogfights are especially worthy of praise. These are the real stars of the football world. This season – as champions – was a relative breeze for me and my trusted Chuckle Bus.

Nevertheless, I would eventually reach home at 1am. I would not, as always, be able to go straight to sleep. I would eventually nod off at 1.45am. Four hours of sleep would leave me exhausted the following day at work.

As I once commented to a work colleague, who admitted that he could never do what I do in support of my team :

“I bloody love it, mate.”

As do many others.

See you all on Sunday.

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Tales From A Night Of Hurt

Chelsea vs. Paris St. Germain : 9 March 2016.

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The second goal killed us. As soon as that ball was played through our defensive line out to Angel Di Maria, cutting us wide open, I had feared the worst. Sure enough, Di Maria’s low cross in to the box was touched home by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and our hopes were extinguished. The sight of the tall Swedish talisman reeling away, arms outstretched, towards the Chelsea fans in The Shed will haunt me for a while. It meant that we now had to win 4-2 to progress. It was an impossible task.

Most Chelsea fans remained silent, hurting inside, and as I looked over at a few PSG players celebrating in front of their contingent, I was hurting too.

However, within seconds of us conceding that killer goal, I spotted one middle-aged gentleman (and when I say middle-aged, let me confirm that this just means “older than me”), who immediately stood up, pulled a rather sour face, “tut-tutted” to his neighbours and headed for the exits.

Perhaps he had just that moment heard that his granddaughter was about to go in to labour and needed to shoot off to take care of his family’s needs. Perhaps he needed to set off at 9.10pm in order to catch the last train back to his home in Preston which left Euston at 10.15pm. Maybe he had felt a twinge of sciatica, that bloody sciatica, and couldn’t face being jostled in the melee for the tube at the end of the game, so needed to leave with time to spare. Maybe he needed to leave at that time in order to get back to his place of work in Croydon in time for the nightshift.

Maybe there were valid reasons for his sudden disappearance into the night.

Or maybe, just maybe, he was a twat.

For even though we had just conceded a goal which had almost certainly sealed our fate against Paris St. Germain, almost a year to the day to our exit in 2015 against the same opposition, there is surely no valid reason for deserting Chelsea Football Club with a full half an hour remaining. What sort of support is that? It made me despair. OK, it was hugely unlikely that we would score three times in the remaining portion of the game, but as fans we needed to stay and watch the match, and be there until the end. We were on TV. Millions would be watching in the UK and elsewhere. What sort of message would it send out if thousands of fans reacted in the same way as him? Seeing this chap leave so early made me question just what sort of Herberts our club attracts these days.

Alongside Alan and myself was my good friend JR, from Detroit, who had flown over on Tuesday and was leaving early on Thursday. His stay in London would equate to around just forty-six hours. Although he had shoe-horned a little trip down to a wet Craven Cottage on Tuesday for the Fulham vs. Burnley game, make no mistake that he was, as the song goes “here for the Chelsea.” Through a little luck which landed in our laps, I had managed to shift tickets around so that he could watch alongside us in the Matthew Harding Upper. As the weeks and then days had evaporated before us, JR’s excitement about watching a Champions League game at Stamford Bridge for the very first time was a joy to witness. He was last over for that fine week of football in 2011 which saw us defeat West Ham United and Tottenham – Torres’ first goal in the puddles and a late Kalou winner – and we have been the best of friends ever since.

Parky and myself had strolled in to The Goose just after 6pm, and it was a joy to see him once more. I had spent a lot of time with JR on the summer tour, especially driving up from Charlotte to DC one memorable Sunday, but Parky had not seen him since 2011. There was a fun pre-match in the pub, though talk of the game was limited. I introduced JR to a few of my Chelsea pals. Everyone was full of praise of his support.

“You’re over for just two days? Bloody hell.”

The San Miguels and the Peronis were hitting the spot.

We headed off early, in order for JR to experience the uniquness of a typical Champions League night in SW6. There was the usual buzz of excitement. We chatted excitedly on the walk down to The Bridge. Unfortunately, Mark Worrall must have just left the “CFCUK” stall; maybe next time. Back in 2011, I remember that I had photographed JR as he turned into the approach to Stamford Bridge – “captured for posterity” – as he set eyes on the stadium for the very first time. Almost five years later, we were walking the same steps.

Inside The Bridge, JR chatted with a few more friends. There were a few photographs. The kick-off was approaching.

Paris had a full three-thousand fans, split one third in the top corner, and two-thirds in the lower tier. They were, pre-match, rather quiet. There were scarves on show, individual flags, but no banners.

It was a relatively mild evening.

The team news was met with approval.

Courtois – Dave, Gary, Brana, Kenedy – Mikel, Fabregas – Willian, Hazard, Pedro – Diego Costa.

“Park Life” by Blur got the crowd singing along. The individual blue flags, mocked by the Scousers, were waved enthusiastically. Then, surprisingly, for the first time for a Champions League game at Chelsea, the lights were dimmed, and that electronic heartbeat boomed out.

BOOM BOOM

BOOM BOOM

BOOM BOOM

BOOM BOOM

What a dramatic sight.

A flag was hoisted in the Shed Upper; a strikingly simple silhouette of our trophy from May 2012.

I am sure that JR was on edge.

Champions League, under the lights, perfect.

And yet.

Among many thousands of other football supporters in the UK, I was saddened to hear of the clandestine meeting which took place recently involving representatives of a few of England’s top clubs with an apparent view to “improve” the current Champions League format. For anyone who knows me, and who gets bored with my dislike for certain aspects of modern football, I suggest you look away now. Although we can’t be sure, exactly, what was discussed in the meeting, two strong rumours soon circulated.

The first involved the guaranteed presence of a number of the largest clubs in Europe of a place each year and every year, regardless of performance the previous season. This makes me heave. It takes away the very essence of what makes European club football the envy of the entire world; that any team, given correct management and stewardship, can rise to the top if they get it right on the pitch. The thought of the same old bloated clubs – we know which ones – showing up every single season in the Champions League, and getting richer, through self-basting, makes me despair. I do not have the words which adequately describe the loathing that I have for Charlie Stillitano’s smug and despicable comment about “the Champions League not needing the likes of Leicester City” and nor should I need to.

Those who read my thoughts in these match reports surely know how I would react to this.

Of course all of this talk of a restructuring of the Champions League is ironic to me at least, since it was the rumours of the “Big 8” – or whatever it was – forming a European Super League in around 1992 that coerced UEFA to form the current Champions League format, expanded from the much loved and missed European Cup straight knock-out format. The current format, involving more games, and more of a chance of the richest clubs to progress every year, was intended to satiate the desires of the likes of Real Madrid, Milan, Bayern Munich, Manchester United et al.

And yet, it would seem, they are still not happy.

Additionally, Stillitano’s naïve desire to compare the world football model – organic clubs rising and falling, relegation and promotion – to the closed shop nature of his own US system does not wash with me.

What is more beautiful than a Leicester City, a Parma, a Wolfsburg, a Dundee United, and a St. Etienne, climbing up and competing at the very highest of European competition?

That a representative of my club – step forward the loathed Bruce Buck – was at these meetings does not surprise me.

These fuckers know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

The second rumour – possibly even more heinous – of qualifying games taking place in the US (what a surprise Mr. Stillitano) would be the last straw for me.

Although it would tear me apart, I would walk away.

Frome Town would be my team, and I’d probably visit a few European cities and ground hop for a while. I was only recently looking at the city of Budapest and day-dreaming about watching games in that lovely Hungarian city on an extended break. Ferencvaros, Honved and MTK do not need the likes of Charlie Stillitano.

Straight after the Champions League anthem “The Liquidator” boomed around the stadium. The blue flags waved again. The atmosphere was rising.

“The crowd is in fine form” I said to JR.

The match began, and we were immediately wired in to every pass, every kick, every tackle. I could not resist focussing on the wildchild Ibrahimovic, or the wildness of the former idol David Luiz.

I thought we began reasonably well, but then failed to stop the impressive talents of PSG gain momentum. For a while, they dolloped balls into space and at the feet of their attacking players and we were nowhere. Ibrahimovic bundled the ball past Thibaut Courtois, but the German referee had spotted a flag for offside.

Phew.

Then, calamity. PSG pushed the ball out to Ibrahimovic, who had lost his marker Gary Cahill with consummate ease. It was, undoubtedly, a shock to see Cahill all at sea after an impressive run of form. From a wide position, a low cross found Rabiot, who found the net with ease.

We were 3-1 down on aggregate and needed to score twice to draw level – penalties, maybe – or three times to win on aggregate. Harking back to our friendly with PSG in Charlotte in the summer, I joked with JR :

“9-9 on penalties tonight, Thibaut to score the winner.”

Then, thankfully, Chelsea got back in to the game. Diego Costa was the main spark but Pedro made some intelligent runs, and Kenedy really impressed. Willian’s energy was good to see, but elsewhere Fabregas and Hazard struggled to make a difference. Mikel did what Mikel does. Collectively, we were improving.

Just before the half hour mark, the ball was won, and played forward to Diego Costa, who twisted and turned past his marker with a fantastic move of body and mind. He quickly dispatched the ball, with his weaker left foot, past Trapp in the PSG goal.

The Bridge boomed, and I felt JR shudder next to me.

We were back in it for fuck sake.

The noise increased and this was just wild blue heaven.

We played with a better tempo, and with more desire, and in my mind we bossed the last portion of the half. But how we yearned for a second goal. PSG were playing hardball though, and we were livid with some of the tackles going unpunished. The PSG fans were very quiet; surprisingly so. Their level of noise was simply not on the same scale as many other European visitors. We had a few chances – Fabregas, Costa – but a second goal did not materialise. PSG still looked comfortable on the ball, of course, but there were positive signs.

As we edged towards the break, my huge fear was that the momentum that we had built up over the preceding twenty minutes or so would now dissipate into the London air as half-time was reached.

In the second-half, there was an immediate flurry of activity down below us as we stormed the PSG box. In one crazy period of play, shots were blocked by limbs and torsos, and we were left breathless.

Just one goal would set us up for one of the great European comebacks.

Just one goal.

The play eased a little, and we sadly watched as Diego Costa, in discomfort, was forced to leave. Without him – he had been excellent at times – I wondered where on earth a goal would come from. I think everyone else thought the same. Bertrand Traore replaced him.

I thought back on the 1997/1998 European campaign when our strike force consisted of Mark Hughes, Gianfranco Zola, Gianluca Vialli and Tore Andre Flo.

In 2016, our main striker is augmented by Loic Remy and the youngster Traore. Falcao and Pato are not mentioned for obvious reasons. What a mess.

Eden Hazard, obviously injured, showed a little more desire and promise.

“Still half an hour JR, we can still do it. Two more goals, then extra time.”

Sadly, that ball out to Di Maria on sixty-seven minutes put an end to our hopes.

For the last twenty minutes or so, thankfully most spectators stayed to watch, but the war had been won, and there was no fight from players and fans alike. The play deteriorated. We were a pale shadow of the team that had ended the first-half so strongly. Throughout the game, Fabregas and Hazard were poor. For all of Pedro’s scurrying around, very rarely does he create anything. Even Willian was poor. The only bright spot for me was the performance of Kenedy in the first-half. Where Baba is nervous and reticent, Kenedy exudes confidence and spirit. We need to persevere with him.

It was not to be.

We lacked desire, sustained over ninety minutes, and our ailments of autumn came back to haunt us again. The hunger of previous Champions League campaigns – oh for a Terry, a Drogba, a Cole, a Lampard – was missing.

It hurt.

If our plans to relocate and rebuild are met with approval, this may well have been the current Stamford Bridge’s last ever Champions League night.

As we walked out on to the Fulham Road, I told JR to take one last look at it.

With a young baby on the way in the summer, it might be a while before JR returns. His next visit might witness a completely new stadium.

Parky, JR, and two of JR’s UK-based mates, the brothers Dan and Matt, met up with me back at “The Goose” for a pint and a reflection on what might have been. We ended up next-door for some pizza. It reminded me of the quiet and reflective post-mortem that we had over a curry after the loss to Inter in 2010, when we were again joined by visitors from the US.

It was approaching midnight as we said our farewells.

JR – of course – had loved the experience of his first ever Champions League night at Stamford Bridge.

“Safe travels mate, see you soon.”

On the drive home, I was pragmatic. Over the two legs, we were not good enough.

We don’t lose many games at home in European competitions. It used to be a proud boast that, until Lazio in 2000, we had never lost one. Now, sadly, this defeat at the hands of PSG meant that we had now lost eight in our history.

Lazio 2000.

Besiktas 2003.

Barcelona 2006.

Internazionale 2010.

Manchester United 2011.

Basel 2013.

Atletico Madrid 2014.

Paris St. Germain 2015.

I’ve seen them all, and it hurts each time. There were also two draws, against Monaco in 2004 and Barcelona in 2009, which felt like defeats since we went out on away goals on those nights. And there was also the game against Real Zaragoza in 1995, which we won 3-1, but was not celebrated since we had lost the first-leg 3-0. Regardless, a European defeat at Stamford Bridge always feels so damning, so final. It feels especially hurtful in the first knock-out round, after a little break, before we can get a head of steam and push on.

However, Europe in general, has treated us well, despite the seemingly endless procession of bad luck from 2005 to 2009.

We have, after all, won all of the three major trophies.

And I have been blessed enough to have seen eighty-five European games at Stamford Bridge now, and my / our record is an impressive 56-21-8. Of course, I shouldn’t be too picky, but each of those eight defeats leave a memory which haunts.

But our European campaign in 2015/2016 is now over. We know that our final game of the season will either be at home to Leicester City on Sunday 15 May or at Wembley for the F.A. Cup Final on Saturday 21 May. On Saturday, we head up to Goodison Park to try to prolong this very odd season for one more week.

After all, what is the month of May without a Cup Final?

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Tales From Four Games In One Day

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 5 March 2016.

“I just hope that – and it might be just me that thinks this – the whole day doesn’t slide by with people, fans and players alike, more concerned about the game against PSG on Wednesday. This game against Stoke has kinda snuck up on me to be honest and I’m a bit worried. It’s a game we can win, but I just hope we are all focussed.”

These were my words soon into the drive up to London for the visit of Stoke City. Without a doubt, the return leg of our Champions League tie with Paris St. Germain was certainly looming large. I think that the extra week between the two games has added to the sense of drama, and the tie couldn’t be more evenly poised. It promises to be a tremendous occasion.

But the game against Stoke City was in my sights now, and I was hopeful that this would be our main focus.

We had our first snow of the winter overnight, but there was just a residual dusting left on the fields around my home as I set off to collect the two Chuckle Brothers en route to SW6. We had just enjoyed two of the most enjoyable away games for a while, in Hampshire and Norfolk, and we were now set for two games at Stamford Bridge in five days. The games are coming along in bitesize chunks for me at the moment; two home, two away, three home, three away, three home, two away and now two at home.

The games against Stoke City and PSG would certainly be something to get my teeth into.

Elsewhere, three other games were occupying my thoughts. There was the lunchtime North London Derby. A draw was my preferred result for this one, though if there was to be a winner, my choice was going to be with Arsenal. For any game there are three points up for grabs and I always say that between rivals, a draw is always best, since one of the three points disappears into the ether. And of course, I am talking here as an advocate of Leicester City winning the league. A draw between Arsenal and Spurs would be fine by me. A Spurs win would invigorate them again, and – for fuck sake – we do not want to even think about Tottenham winning the league after fifty-five years. Even with an Arsenal win, I couldn’t see them having the mental strength to win the league. So, a draw for me please.

There was also Leicester City’s game at Watford in the evening. We’re all Leicester fans now, and a win there would be bloody superb. Even if we took out the Claudio Ranieri factor, who wouldn’t begrudge the Foxes a first-ever title. It would be the most sumptuous fairy story for decades and decades.

My mind was also on my local non-league team Frome Town and their home game against Biggleswade Town. A much-needed win would boost our chances of surviving in the seventh tier of English football.

So, four games.

And I was worried about focussing on one.

It was the usual busy build-up before the game, with meet ups with Chelsea fans from near and far. Down at the stadium, I picked up a programme, and was pleased with the retro cover, in the style of the 1969/1970 edition, in deference of the anniversary of Peter Osgood’s passing ten years ago. In and around the stadium, I chatted to friends from places as far flung as Atlanta, Edinburgh and Bangkok. It is always a treat to see the look of excitement on the faces of supporters who are not able to see the team quite as often as my usual cronies.  On the way back to The Goose from Stamford Bridge I couldn’t help but notice a swarm of yellow-jacketed stewards demanding that supporters showed them their tickets. I had never noticed this before, and it seemed out of place, almost rude. I couldn’t see the point of it. It was especially galling when touts – with plenty of bloody tickets – were plying their trade a few yards away. I approached a callow youth, entrusted with a loudhailer, and vented :

“Excuse me mate, I think it’s a bit off, asking for genuine supporters to show you their tickets. Why don’t you ask the touts to show you theirs?”

He mumbled something about plain clothes policemen monitoring them, but I simply did not believe a word of it. You can be sure that the same leeches will be out in force on Wednesday night.

In the pub, for once, the televised game was getting stacks of attention, although I only occasionally glimpsed at the score of the Tottenham vs. Arsenal match. The reactions of the Chelsea fans in the pub was interesting and a litmus test of loyalties. I entered the pub with Arsenal 1-0 up.

“Oh well, better than Spurs winning.”

While I chatted to Kev and Rich from Edinburgh, no noise at all accompanied Tottenham’s two goals, and I was simply not aware that they had scored on either occasion. Arsenal’s late equaliser, however, was met with a resounding cheer. There was little doubt that we were all thinking the same things.

“A draw, great, come on Leicester, but Tottenham must not – MUST NOT – win the league.”

I was inside Stamford Bridge in good time. Around one thousand Stokies had left their houses in North Staffordshire and were ensconced in the away section. I spotted Brenda, the guest from Atlanta, up above me in the Matthew Harding Upper. I popped over to see her, but she looked petrified.

“I’m scared of heights. I daren’t move.”

I grimaced and replied :

“You’re scared of heights? So are fucking Arsenal.”

As the teams entered the pitch – or just after – a large “Osgood 9” banner appeared in the Shed Upper, with a lengthy banner, draped over the balcony wall, below :

“OUT FROM THE SHED CAME A RISING YOUNG STAR.”

I always went with the other words – “The Shed looked up and they saw a great star” – but top marks for effort.

Guus Hiddink was forced to rest Diego Costa as he had a niggle. Instead, the so-far impressive Bertrand Traore was picked ahead of Loic Remy, who was on the substitute bench along with Alexandre Pato. Matic was picked to play alongside Mikel, but no Fabregas, who Hiddink was presumably resting for Wednesday.

It was rather a cold day in SW6, and I noticed that the stadium took ages to fill up, but even after a good few minutes of play there were occasional gaps. The Shed upper, certainly, had a fair few empty seats dotted around. There were a couple of early renditions of “Born Is The King” but the atmosphere soon quietened to its usual muted levels.

My fears seemed to have been validated, as we lacked focus and really struggled to impose ourselves on the game. Stoke City, with the skilful Shaqiri catching the eye early on, have morphed into a more modern team these days, and do not really on the “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” style of football of Tony Pulis. Arnautovic looks a handful though. We toiled away in the first half, occasionally finding our rhythm, but it was our black-clad visitors who had the best of the chances. Thibaut Courtois saved well from Afellay. Then a fantastic ball from Diouf, with a perfect amount of fade, allowed Arnautovic to play in Diouf, who had supported the attack well, but his touch was heavy and the ball thankfully cleared the bar.

Willian fired wide soon after, but we were hardly threatening Jack Butland in the Stoke goal. Shaqiri, who had given Baba a torrid time in the league game in November, swept a ball in from the right, but Diouf again wasted a fine chance. In my book, we could have been 2-0 down.

With the first-half coming to its conclusion, Betrand Traore – a peripheral figure until then – received a pass from Nemanja Matic, and confidently swept past a defender before leathering it hard and true into the Stoke goal from around twenty yards out. It was a sweet strike, and Stamford Bridge roared its approval.

“Get in.”

At half-time, I read a few of the many pieces devoted to Peter Osgood in the match programme. It seems that my memory of Ossie’s Chelsea trial, recounted previously, was slightly askew, although the main gist was correct. Here are the words, then, of the great man himself :

“I got the forms back saying report to Hendon (Chelsea’s training ground at the time) on a Saturday morning about 11.30am. I said to Dick Foss “I’m Osgood, down from Windsor, is there any way I can play in the first half hour of the trial game because I’ve got a cup game for Spital Old Boys in the afternoon?” and he said “certainly.” And after half-an-hour I came off and it was “can you sign here?” And I’d actually signed for Chelsea. It was as simple as that.”

At half-time I heard that Game Three was going well; Frome Town were winning 2-0.

Into the second-half, and again our intensity was missing. Courtois parried an Arnautovic effort. The same striker then broke through in the inside left channel but was robbed of the ball with an exquisite tackle from Gary Cahill. It was simply sublime. However, just after, Cahill allowed Shaqiri a little too much space and we watched, nervously, as his low shot narrowly missed Courtois’ far post.

Cahill, in the thick of it at both ends, found himself free on the edge of the Stoke box and his fine turn and shot was saved by Butland.

Hiddink replaced Hazard – resting him, eyes on PSG – with Loftus-Cheek, and then Traore with Remy.

We were able to get players in wide positions – Oscar, Baba, Willian, even Mikel – but on many occasions there was nobody in the killing zone of the six yard box. How we missed Diego Costa.

Stoke, however, were constantly stretching us, and I was worried.

Oscar fell to the floor after a clumsy challenge by Muniesa but Clattenburg waved away the howls for a penalty.

Hiddink then caused Alan and myself to scratch our heads. He brought on Fabregas for Matic, and we were certainly not expecting that. It softened our midfield, but also exposed Cesc – surely a starter on Wednesday – to injury.

“Answers on a postcard.”

With the game entering its closing moments, my fears were again confirmed. A cross from the right by Shaqiri, ever-troublesome, was punched inadequately by Courtois. Disastrously for us, Diouf made up for his earlier misses and sent a header back in to the empty net.

Ugh.

The Stokies celebrated and we watched in silent annoyance. With that one equalising goal, Alan soon informed me that we had plummeted from a healthy seventh place to a much more mundane eleventh.

Ugh again.

Fabregas flicked an Oscar corner over from close range, but the final whistle soon blew.

A draw was undoubtedly – and sadly – a fair result.

“Not good enough today I’m afraid.”

Wednesday, evidently, was on everybody’s minds after all.

Back in the car, with Parky and PD, we slowly made our way out of London. I was so pleased to hear that Frome Town had hung on to get three points against Biggleswade. Survival now beckons. We heard snippets of the evening game on the radio as we drove back home. As we passed Reading, we punched the air as a Riyad Mahrez goal sent Leicester City on their way to a hugely important win at Watford. It reminded me so much of a win at Norwich in 2005, on a day when Manchester United only drew at Crystal Palace and we, ourselves, went five points clear of the pack.

Leicester’s goal cheered us no end.

They are now nine games away from history and I, among many millions more, wish them well.

“Anyone but Tottenham.”

On Wednesday, we reconvene again at Stamford Bridge for a potentially historic night of European football.

Under the lights.

A tale of two cities.

London and Paris.

“Let’s Go To Work.”

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Tales From The Road To Milan

Chelsea vs. Porto : 9 December 2015.

Midway through the morning, a work colleague spoke.

“You’re quiet today, Chris.”

A pause…”yep.”

“Are you going to Chelsea tonight?”

“Yep. I think that’s the reason why I’m quiet.”

Here we were again, then. Shades of 2011 and 2012, when we left it – unfashionably – late to determine our progress through to the Champions League knock-out phase. Of course, our fortunes contrasted in both of those seasons. In 2012, we failed to qualify from the group phase for the very first time after we won our last game against Nordsjaeland but Willian’s Shakhtar Donetsk lost 1-0 at home to Juventus.

In 2011, a triumphant win at home to Valencia set us on our way to “you know where.”

Looking back, it’s odd that the last five final Champions League group phase games have all been at home.

2015 : Porto.

2014 : Sporting Lisbon.

2013 : Steaua Bucharest.

2012 : Nordsjaeland.

2011 : Valencia.

Thankfully, we haven’t always left it quite so late to qualify. And Chelsea have a proud Champions League record to uphold. In our thirteen previous campaigns, we have only failed to qualify for the knock-out phase just the once. We have qualified as group winners ten times, as runners-up just twice. It’s a pretty remarkable record.

I yearned for a win against Porto. Not only would it signal our passage through to further European adventures on the road to Milan, and not Basel where the Europa Final would be played, but I hoped that it would give us a much-needed confidence boost to our awful league form.

As the day progressed, my noise levels did not increase. I was truly focussed on the evening game with Porto. After the demoralising loss at home to AFC Bournemouth on Saturday evening, there is no surprise that there was an air of solemnity. These were still edgy times as a Chelsea supporter.

Ah, Bournemouth. Although their manager Eddie Howe called it the greatest result in his team’s history – with sufficient reason – was it really a nadir for Chelsea Football Club? I think not. The troubles of season 1982/1983 surely represented our historical low point. A few games in that season might be awarded the dubious honour of marking our lowest ebb. A 3-0 reverse at fellow strugglers Burnley might signify that. I was not there at Burnley nor many of the other miserable games in 1982/1983. However, the one game that many Chelsea fans quote as “the ultimate low point” actually took place in 1981/1982; the infamous 6-0 loss at Millmoor, the home of Rotherham United. I did not attend that one either. However, on a personal level, Bournemouth away in 1988/1989 represents my personal all-time low. Let me explain. Newly relegated from the top division, our third game that season took us to Dean Court for a game with Bournemouth, in only their second season at that level in their history. I was confident of a win.

We lost 1-0.

It was my “there in person” low point in terms of losing to a team, and club – a small, provincial club – that we ought to have beaten.

No doubt that game will be referenced again when we get to visit Dean Court in April.

In the pub before the game with Porto, there was the usual gathering of mates from near and far. Chris was over again from Guernsey, with his son Nick. They were both in town for the Bournemouth game, too. And get this. Although he has been watching Chelsea games in person for fifteen years, the 1-0 loss at home to Bournemouth was the very first game that he had seen us lose.

“How many games is that then, Nick?”

“Not sure. About fifty.”

“Bloody hell.”

Inside Stamford Bridge, Alan and I compared notes.

Alan : “It took me two games to see us lose.”

Chris : “Three for me. Two wins and a loss.”

Across the stadium, Porto had brought a full three-thousand to Stamford Bridge. They were, of course, still in contention for a passage into further rounds of this year’s competition. Nevertheless, three thousand was a fine showing. It made our 1,100 showing in Porto in September pale by comparison.

This was our fourth Champions League match against Porto at Stamford Bridge. They are our most familiar such opponents, along with Barcelona and Liverpool. There was also a home friendly with Porto in the heady summer of 1995, which marked the home debuts of new signings Ruud Gullit and Mark Hughes.

Jose Mourinho had decided to – eventually – drop Cesc Fabregas and recall Diego Costa. Dave and JT returned, and there was a starting place for Ramires too.

In the Porto team, Iker Casillas made his Stamford Bridge debut – damn it, will we never ever draw his former team Real Madrid? – and old adversary Maicon was captain. There was no place for the remarkably named Andre Andre, whose favourite ‘eighties bands are presumably Duran Duran, The The and Talk Talk.

As the game began, although our sights were focussed on the pitch, the game in Kiev would also be monitored. This was a very tight finish to our group. Although many potential scenarios were spoken about, I am not convinced even now that I truly understood the ramifications should all three teams end up on equal points.

There was an exciting start to the game with a couple of chances exchanged. Alan had brought along his Champions League lucky wine gums. They soon worked their magic. A ball through from Eden Hazard allowed Diego Costa to advance on goal. From an angle, a low shot was parried by Casillas, but the ball bounced back towards the defender Marcano. The ball was goal bound, but seemed to lack “legs.” We watched, time appearing to stand still, as Maicon hacked the ball off the line. We were, of course, at the other end of the stadium. I was not convinced that the ball had crossed the line. A creature of habit, I glanced over to the linesman in front of the West Stand. His flag was down. The crowd were roaring, though. The referee was signalling a goal. I had, of course, neglected to look at the much-abused official behind the goal line.

It was a goal.

It didn’t create the emotional release of other goals due to its rather messy nature, but it was a goal nonetheless. Ironically, Alan and I had just bemoaned the presence of the fifth and sixth officials, who rarely get involved in any decisions whatsoever.

On around twenty minutes, I was fuming as Diego Costa needlessly, and stupidly, tripped Casillas as he had collected the ball and was looking to distribute the ball. It was just so annoying. Just like our season – one step forward, one step back – Diego Costa seems to confuse and infuriate me.

His efforts lead to a goal, but he then followed that up with a baffling trip.

Idiot.

Chances were otherwise rare in the first forty-five minutes. A sweet strike from Oscar was deflected narrowly wide. Just before the break, Courtois saved well and then Diego Costa was through one-on-one, but shot wide of the goal.

Ramires was a major plus during the first-half. His energy and running, his tackling and blocking, seemed to be a breath of fresh air. He seemed to invigorate us and drew good applause from the Stamford Bridge crowd.

It had been a competent showing in the first-half but my pre-match prediction of “a 1-0 lead from early on resulting in a nervous match all of the way through to the final whistle” looked like being correct.

In Kiev, the home team were beating Maccabi. No surprises there.

Porto began the second-half on the front foot. It was in their best interests to attack. Two efforts on goal signalled their new vigour. However, after just six minutes, a fine interchange between Diego Costa and Eden Hazard found Willian, who slammed the ball low past Casillas. It reminded me of his match-winner against Everton at the start of 2015. His run towards the far corner was the identical.

Hopefully, we could now relax a little.

I was able to sit back and appreciate the intricacies of our play. Porto continued to move forward and we were content to let them do so. They had to score. We just needed to keep it tight. Our attacking reverted to that of old-style counter attacks. I lost count of the number of times that we broke away at speed. On one occasion, Diego Costa ran through, tussling shoulder to shoulder with Maicon, but fell to the floor way too easily.

At the other end, fine tackles from our two centre-halves were perfectly executed.

Porto continued to push forward, but I thought that they suffered from the same malaise as us on Saturday; plenty of crosses played in to the danger areas, but nobody able to get on the end of them. The away fans appeared to be resigned to a defeat, a third-place finish and demotion to the maligned Europa League.

While we had dreams, however outlandish and fanciful, of Milan and the San Siro, Porto’s route to European glory would now be diverted to the Swiss city a few hundred miles to the north of the Lombardy capital.

Our counter attacks continued, and Eden Hazard went close.

A few spirited tackles from Oscar drew applause. Matic, ambling around but in control, was able to soak up Porto pressure. Hazard was not involved as much as I would have liked but was neat and rarely gave the ball away. It was reassuring to see Dave back.

One moment, involving Diego Costa, annoyed me further though. At the end of a great move, the crucial killer ball evaded him. He ended up in the goal mouth, turning his back to play. Although the ball was still “live”, rather than chase it down and keep pressure on Porto, he slowly walked back on to the field. Whereas other players had shown more of the old Chelsea spirit, it was annoying to see Costa still not 100% focussed on the team ethic which Mourinho so espouses.

“One step forward, one step back.”

Mourinho made some late changes.

Pedro for Oscar : lots of applause for the Brazilian.

Mikel for Diego Costa : this signalled an exodus from the stands, the game was safe now surely, Mikel was closing the sale.

Remy for Hazard : the poor bugger, surely he deserved more than a few minutes.

We were through. The road to Milan continues.

IMG_4718

 

Tales From The Holy Land

Maccabi Tel Aviv vs. Chelsea : 24 November 2015.

This was a unique game for me. For the first ever time, I had decided to attend more than just one of the autumnal group phase away games. Until now, my forays in to foreign lands have been limited to one game before Christmas – due to financial constraints and annual leave limitations – but on the evening of the Champions League draw in August, I soon followed up an EasyJet booking to Porto with one to Tel Aviv.

Games like this do not come our way too often.

As the weeks passed, my sense of anticipation grew steadily, although there were several moments of self-doubt, too. I would be attending a game in Israel, a country which has had a history of internal strife with different factions inside its borders and external conflict with its immediate neighbours. Conversations took place with trusted friends – fellow travellers – and these issues were discussed. Yes, there were concerns, but at no point did I think about staying at home. Then came the events in Paris on the evening of Friday 13 November, and my mind became agitated with all sorts of worries for my safety. I am sure that I was not the only one. My worries, thankfully, slowly decreased again.

In the pub before the game with Norwich City at the weekend, my good friend Alan mentioned that he had booked himself on a day tour of Jerusalem and Bethlehem for the day after the game. I quickly followed suit.

I was going to Israel. I was going to Tel Aviv, to Haifa, to Jerusalem, to Bethlehem.

This would surely be one of the trips of my lifetime.

Three days of work (Chelsea in Haifa), rest (the beaches of Tel Aviv) and play (the Holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem).

This would be one for the ages.

My trip to the Holy Land began in the small hours of Tuesday 23 November, the day of the game. I had booked myself on the 7am flight out of Luton, which would get me in to Ben Gurion airport at 2pm. This is not normal for me; I usually have a night in a foreign city to acclimatise, but I would be staying on after until Thursday evening to compensate. As I drove west through neighbouring counties, with the rain lashing down outside, all was surprisingly calm. I think that I was subconsciously trying to put my security and safety fears to one side. Thoughts flitted in and out of my mind.

I thought about our only ever previous trip to Israel, which came only a month or so after the awful attacks in the United States in the September of 2001. On that occasion, several first-team regulars chose not to fly to Israel, and came under considerable scrutiny. My view at the time was that I had great empathy with those who chose not to fly out. For the players that were husbands and fathers, I could understand why they felt they should not go. Marriages could have been threatened if a player and his wife disagreed on this. It was a tense time. Other Chelsea fans were not so forgiving. As far as I can recollect, a very small away contingent – around 150 – followed the team out for the game against Hapoel Tel Aviv, which we lost 2-0.

On a personal level, there was a story too.

My dear father, who I have often mentioned in these tales of my Chelsea life, was in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. Back in the celebrated 2011/2012 season, I managed to involve part of my father’s wartime history during two match reports. For the away game at Everton in the February of 2012, I wrote about my father’s training at RAF West Kirby on The Wirral at the very start of his RAF career. For the away game in Naples, just ten days later, I wrote about my father’s stay in Naples in 1944, when he was billeted at the San Carlo Opera House for six months. In the space of ten days, I had covered two landmark locations in my father’s wartime story. There were other locations that my father visited, including Algeria and Malta, but my father’s very first overseas posting was – yes, you have guessed it – in the city of Jerusalem in July 1944. Not for the first time in my Chelsea travels, I would be walking in my father’s footsteps.

Like myself, Dad was an avid photographer and as I look back on his life and the many wonderful memories that I can easily recollect, one of the biggest gifts that he has been able to provide me with is a small photograph album which contains an image of his squadron badge on the inside cover – Squadron 283 “Attende Et Vigila” – and around one hundred of his war time photographs, taken in locations as diverse as Maison Blanche in Algeria, Taormina in Sicily and Marseilles in France.

Prior to my departure to Israel, I easily hunted out this precious set of photographs and focussed on the ones at the very start of Dad’s story, when he was just twenty-one years of age.

The album contains fascinating photographs of the garden of Gethsemane, the Dome of the Rock, the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Rock, Arch of Ecce Homo, St. David’s Tower, the Wailing Wall, Via Dolorosa, Damascus Gate, the tomb of Jesus, the Temple area and a panoramic view of the whole city. Interestingly, also, there is a fabulous photograph of my father and his eventual best man Hank, sitting on the roof of the Abyssinian Consulate, in RAF regulation shorts, but bare-chested and seemingly enjoying the view, with their smiles wide.

There is also a single photograph of my father, with Hank and three other friends, at Hadera in the September of 1944. Hadera is near the cost, between Tel Aviv and Haifa and I therefore deducted that my father would have entered and exited Israel – or Palestine as it was called until 1948 – through the ancient port of Haifa.

By October 1944, the photographs were of Naples and my father had moved on.

One photograph among those mentioned piqued my interest.

Via Dolorosa.

Maybe because of the Italian sounding name. Maybe because it was a named street – in Dad’s pen, beneath the photograph – rather than just a “street in Jerusalem.”

It stayed in my mind.

At Luton Airport, I soon met up with Kev from Edinburgh, who was with us in Porto not so many weeks ago. He too had booked himself on to the tour of the holy cities on the Wednesday. It was around 5am on a cold winter morning in Bedfordshire, and we would soon be jetting off to a sunny city on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. However, both of us were suddenly a little confused and ill at ease.

“Why are we doing this?”

“I dunno mate.”

“Me neither.”

The flight lasted around four and a half hours. There were only a few fellow Chelsea supporters on the trip. We were greatly outnumbered by many orthodox Jews, in their distinctive black hats, skull caps, black jackets and white shirts, some travelling alone, some with their families. Here was proof that this would be a Chelsea away like no other. With my eyes getting tired, I was thankfully able to catch up on some sleep. We flew over Germany, Hungary and beyond. Refreshed, I was then also able to read sections of the guide book to Israel that I had bought a fortnight previously, but which had been untouched until now.

Of course, the book confirmed several thoughts about Israel. I was reminded of its complex and confusing political history. I tried to understand the geography. My guide book focussed on Israel, with only a minimal mention of the Palestinian lands of the West Bank and the infamous Gaza Strip. And then there was the religious aspect. If any city can claim to represent the cradle of religious beliefs it is Jerusalem. But as soon as I thought that I was getting to grips with a particular train of thought, the words on the page in front of me would flow away on some bizarre tangent and I would have to go back and re-read the section again. Many a moment was spent trying to understand the complexities of the Jewish religion. I was still trying to unravel the notion of the Jews as a race or a religion, or both, when I was met with the conundrum of secular Jews. And then there was the equally baffling notion that not all Arabs living in Israel were Muslim (only 83%, with 9% Christian and 8% Druze.) This was getting all too confusing, but made me all the more excited to think that I would soon be able to see all of this for myself. Then things got a little strange.

I looked up and noted that the chap in front of me was wearing a Manchester United skull cap. I sighed. Then I noted that the Jewish woman to my left was breastfeeding her infant.

There was a tit in front of me and now one to the left.

Oi vey.

I resumed a little sleep and woke with only an hour to go. The flight had zoomed by. At Ben Gurion airport, passport and custom checks were quick and easy. Kev and I hopped in to a waiting cab. We were on our way in to Tel Aviv. The immediate scenery did not look to dissimilar to a city in Southern Spain at first glance, with modern roads and high-rise apartments. As we delved into the city, though, things became more alien.

“Kev, why are we here, mate?”

A pause.

A solemn answer.

“Not sure.”

My first thoughts about the city of Tel Aviv were of contrasts. Modern shops and cars, but shabby buildings. We drove on. Suddenly, the atmosphere changed significantly. Buildings were more modern, the shops sleeker. We spotted the Mediterranean Sea to our left. We reached our hotel, overlooking the city’s small marina, at around 3pm. We soon met up with Alan, who had travelled out the previous day. A serious drinking session had taken place among those Chelsea fans already in town, but I knew that this would be a day of few drinks, such were the time constraints involved. I freshened up, then set off for a local bar, overlooking the sandy beach.

We placed our sunglasses on as we slowly walked past towering palm trees towards the twin bars of “Jessica’s” and “Mike’s Place.”

The weather was fantastic. That first beer would go down well.

“Chelsea away. Love it.”

We bumped in to a few familiar faces at “Jessica’s” and sat inside for a couple of “two for one” dark Tuborg ales. The sun, a huge ball of flame, was setting over the sea – it disappeared so quickly – and we just revelled in the moment.

This was just perfect.

In all honesty, I could have stayed there for a few more hours, but we needed to move on. Big John, who was staying in a hotel around a mile to the south, had arranged for a coach to take around forty of us up to Haifa.

On the walk to the hotel, we spotted Millsy and two mates, shorts on, sandals on, beach towel over their shoulders, licking at ice-creams. It was a surreal sight, and not one that usually accompanies Chelsea in Europe. They were heading off to get the train north to Haifa.

We set off a little later than planned, at around 5.30pm, by which time night had almost fallen, and we were snared in rush hour traffic for a while. The coach was full of familiar faces, but there was little chat or revelry as we slowly moved north. It was so quiet, in fact, that it almost seemed like we were on our way back from a game. The dark evening outside and whispered conversations inside. I don’t think that this was because we were nervous; more likely that the sustained drinking session of the previous night was still affecting some.

The game didn’t kick-off until 9.45pm local time. It seemed that we were going to arrive in Haifa way too early. However, a journey which should have taken an hour took two. We were deposited outside the sleek and photogenic Sammy Ofer Stadium in the southern outskirts of Haifa at around 7.30pm. Around fifteen of us were still without match tickets though. After a little walk out to the main road, Kev and I managed to flag down a cab and we hopped in. The taxi driver hardly spoke a word of English and there were a few moments of concern as we tried to tell him where the Chelsea ticket collection hotel was based. Thankfully, his GPS kicked in and we were headed in to town on a twenty minute ride which would cost us eighty shekels or around £15.

Once the cab driver realised that we were in town for the football, he began annoying us both.

“Chelsea bad (smile), yes?”

“Arsenal good (smile), yes?”

“Chelsea not so good (smile), yes?”

“Leicester good (smile), yes? Jamie Vardy good!”

“Ferguson good (smile), yes?”

“Wenger good (smile), yes?”

“Mourinho not so good (smile), yes?”

I whispered to Kev…”the fucker ain’t getting a tip at this rate.”

As we neared the city centre, we drove past a throng of local Chelsea fans, all bedecked in all types of royal blue, with Israeli Chelsea Supporters banners and scarves on show. I thought that I recognised my mate Dom from New York who was in town for the game. With our tickets firmly in our hands – phew – at around 8.15pm, we walked back to the bar where the locals had been spotted. Bizarrely, the place was like a bar after a gunslinger had visited. They had all just left.

We backtracked to another bar, where we quickly sipped another dark Tuborg with Kev, from London, who sits near me in the MHU. The three of us then caught a cab – no football chat from the cab driver this time, thank heavens – and back to the environs of the stadium. The place was heaving with the yellow and blue of the team from Tel Aviv. With a capacity of 30,000 I presumed that it was chosen as a venue ahead of Maccabi’s own Bloomfield Stadium, which holds half that number.

Kev summed it up.

“It’s like Hearts playing at Celtic Park. Different city, main rivals. Crazy.”

There were about forty-five minutes to the kick-off, so we had a little time to take it all in. I love the hustle and bustle of match-going crowds, especially in foreign lands, and Israel was no different. There was little chanting outside, but I could tell that the locals were exhilarated to host the English Champions. We each bought a couple of – straight, not circular – bagels for ten shekels, but they were a tough chew. Outside the stadium, there is a rather graceful statue of a young woman in flowing robes holding a dove, and the night lights reflected off its shiny metallic surfaces. In the distant, spotlights shone high in to the night, and a full moon shone down on the stadium, which is shrouded in old gold metallic cladding. It is a stunning sight. My camera whirled into action.

We approached the turnstiles by the away sector. I was dreading a repeat of Porto, when my camera was not allowed entry. Thankfully, after a very quick glance in to my camera bag – “no bottles”? – and a cursory pat down, we were in.

A hot dog with sauerkraut, ketchup and mustard went down well, and we took up our seats in the lower tier. Although sleek and visually appealing outside, the two-tiered stands were quite mundane once inside. It was “sit/stand” where you like, so Kev and I shuffled up next to Alan and Raymondo – who had spent their pre-match at a bar in a local shopping centre – alongside Brighton Tony’s group. Above me, a set of familiar flags were draped over the balcony wall.

Ontario Canada (Burger and Julie).

Hastings Chelsea (Mark).

Hayes Chelsea (Kenny).

Studham Loyal (Ronnie).

Badgercrack Nebraska (Sergei and Dmitry).

Down at the front, easily spotted due to their near unanimous wearing of Chelsea replica shirts (not really our “thing” on tour in Europe), were a gaggle of around forty young local fans. To our immediate right was a larger section of local fans too.

Skull caps and Chelsea scarves.

One chap even had a Chelsea / Tottenham half-and-half scarf.

The irony.

We had apparently sold around one thousand tickets for this game, but my take was that around a third of these were to Israelis.

It was a warm night, and designer polos with shorts were the order of the day. On the far side, the more vociferous home fans were making a din. Fair play to them, this was their big night. The teams entered the pitch and the whole stadium held up plastic yellow and blue mosaics. It was a fine sight. The Champions League anthem was played, and a middle-aged chap to our left held up a Tottenham Hotspur scarf towards us.

Fuck off.

Two banners were on show at the north end.

“Ultras Tel Aviv.”

“Maccabi Fanatics.”

I was reminded of how the two common names of Maccabi and Hapoel came in to fruition in Israel. Nothing as simple as “United” or “City” in Israel; these two addendums derived from the political stance of the clubs at their inception. Teams featuring Maccabi stem from the Liberal party, those with Hapoel from the Labour party. Of the fourteen teams in the Israeli first division, all but three contain either of these two words.

There was also a banner crying out for attention.

“Europe Wake Up! Zionism Is Not A Crime!”

All of a sudden, the game was upon us.

Begovic.

Azpilicueta – Terry – Cahill – Baba.

Matic – Fabregas.

Willian – Oscar – Hazard.

Diego Costa.

Within the first few minutes, an unmarked Maccabi player – Iglebor – evaded all defenders and headed over from a central position inside our box. In truth, he should have scored. It was soon apparent that the pitch was cutting up very easily and divots soon started appearing all over. We seemed to enjoy attacking down our right, with Dave heavily involved. This suited me since this is where the Chelsea fans were settled.

Snap, snap, snap.

We enjoyed the majority of the ball, as ever, but we wondered if our shot shy attacker Diego Costa would cause the Tel Aviv ‘keeper much activity.

On twenty minutes, Willian sent over a corner. Gary Cahill rose high, possibly using a defender as a step ladder, and headed goal wards. Radkovic reacted incredibly well but could only push the ball on to a post. Cahill’s momentum carried him forward and he stabbed the ball home.

Get in.

His run towards us was captured on film and it was lovely to see all of the team join him.

We continued to dominate the game. Again we could be accused of over-passing, though. That incisiveness, so missing this season, is still not with us. Eden Hazard, on the back of a warming performance against Norwich City, seemed lost. We had a few attempts on goal. A shot from Fabregas, and one from Willian. An extravagant bicycle kick from Diego, a ball played in to Hazard but his jump and stretch mistimed. On one memorable occasion, with Chelsea attacking hard, Baba was further up the left flank than Diego Costa.

“Get in the box, Costa!”

We were winning, but the mood in the away end was hardly euphoric. There wasn’t too much noise either, save from a few rousing verses of “Willian.”

In the closing moments, the lump of Israeli rock that is Tal Ben Haim kicked out at Diego Costa – I was unsighted – and the ridiculously young looking referee from Turkey produced the red card. Ben Haim – I can never remember warming him to him as a Chelsea player – slouched off the field, his misery complete.

If I am honest, once the second-half began, I found myself losing interest. Chelsea were now attacking the far goal, and I was starting to get increasingly tired. I occasionally sat in my seat and rested my legs. I started to think of how many hours sleep that I would be getting ahead of our trip to Jerusalem on the Wednesday, when we would be leaving our hotel at 7.15am. I was so glad that I had not been drinking.

“Leave here at midnight, maybe 12.30am, a two hour journey, back at 2.30am, maybe sleep at 3.00am, up at 6.00am. Three hours. Bollocks.”

A fine save from Begovic was warmly applauded by the Chelsea ranks. A close-range volley from Dave was well saved, and then Begovic was at his very best again. Despite the one man advantage, Chelsea were far from impressive. As the night drew on, I began dreaming of my hotel bed.

The home fans put on a fine show, with both ends taking it in terms to rally behind their teams, as shouts of “Maccabi” bounced back to and forth.

Pedro replaced a very lacklustre Hazard.

“No more than 4/10 tonight. You can be one of the top ten players in the entire world, but if your confidence is shot, it means nothing” I said to a chap nearby.

Sadly, John Terry crumpled to the floor and was stretchered off. I watched him as he left the field; I could tell he was in pain. There was no clenched fist salute to the away fans, a sure sign that he was troubled.

“God, just what we need with Tottenham on Sunday.”

He was replaced by Kurt Zouma.

A free-kick in “Willian Territory” had us all hoping and praying. He did not disappoint. A curling effort dipped over a weak wall and in to an unguarded net.

2-0.

The game was safe now and we could relax.

In Portugal came the surprising news that Kiev were winning.

Shortly after, a fantastic deep cross from the somewhat maligned Baba Rahman was headed home by Oscar. Towards the end of the game, I eventually met up with Dom, from NYC, albeit for just a few words. He had travelled over with no ticket waiting for him, but one of the local Israelis had sorted him out.

Our victory was complete when Kurt Zouma headed easily past Rajkovic from an Oscar header.

4-0.

It matched the result in the home leg.

If Willian made all of the headlines with another excellent goal allied to a typically bullish performance, I thought that Cesar Azpilicueta was also outstanding, combining a fine defensive display with many forceful runs at his opposing full-back. Diego Costa was as frustrating as ever, but – overall – this was a decent enough showing.

Job done troops.

However, I was a little dismayed that only two or three of the players made much of an effort to thank the travelling Chelsea supporters for our efforts. Only Gary Cahill and Asmir Begovic appeared to go out of their way to walk a few steps towards us.

This wasn’t Watford. Or Leicester. Or Southampton.

This was Tel Aviv, for fuck sake, boys.

Disappointing.

Thankfully, the coach driver made great time on the return trip. I was back in my bed just after 1.30am. It had been a long, long day.

I dropped off to sleep.

On the Wednesday, I stumbled out of bed after just over four hours’ sleep. A shower soon revitalised me. With the work behind us, it was now time to rest and play. While the team no doubt headed home to Blighty straight after the game, and some fans were not far behind them, I still had two days left. A quick breakfast at the hotel was followed by a mini-bus calling to take us to Jerusalem and then Bethlehem. It would be a day that would be the highlight of the trip; who says it is only about the football? Not me.

Our tour guide, a chap who lived on a kibbutz in a winery called Ossi, was soon detailing facts about Tel Aviv, Israel, and then Jerusalem as we drove east and up towards the hills. We were caught in a little traffic on the busy road, which was occasionally lined with the metal shells of army vehicles, no doubt in remembrance of lives lost in previous periods of conflict. We stopped for a much needed coffee just as all three of us were starting to nod off. It revived us instantly. A Chelsea fan from Hillingdon, Suk, was on our mini bus and we had a little chat about the game. He had been one of the few at the 2001 game in Tel Aviv. I was honestly surprised at how many minarets, indicating the site of mosques, were visible on the drive in to the city. Up to 20% of the population of Israel are Muslims, and here was the proof. Before we knew it, we were heading past the 9/11 monument on the outskirts of Jerusalem before heading in from the north, past the impressive British Military Cemetery. We were soon parked up on Mount Scopus, which affords a magnificent panoramic view of the seven hills of Jerusalem. What is it about cities built on seven hills? Rome is the same. They say that Bath, my place of birth, is too.

Jerusalem looked spectacular.

I spoke to Kevin, reminding him of the conversation that we had shared on several occasions on the previous day regarding our visit to Israel.

“Right. That is why we are here.”

We looked down on the city once more.

I was in awe.

The shining gold semi-circle of the Temple Mount dominated the vista before me, but this would be off limits on this trip, as non-Muslims are not allowed to enter. My father, in 1944, had visited it, but times had changed since then. I gazed down at the various locations as Ossi pointed out their part in the complex and interesting story of Jerusalem. For the first of many moments throughout my stay, I began questioning what I was hearing. The Temple Mount is allegedly where Mohamed ascended from earth to heaven, a fact that was alien to me before this trip. So, in addition to being the city where Jesus Christ was crucified and rose again – the epicentre of all Christianity – this was Mo Town, too.

And yet, my thoughts on all of this were swirling around me.

I have never mentioned my faith, nor my religious thoughts, in these Chelsea tales ever before – why should I? – and I very rarely talk about such topics with anyone but my very closest friends. But on a visit to the Holy Land, it seems churlish for me to keep my thoughts to myself. My parents took me to church every Sunday throughout my childhood and although I rarely attend these days, I usually pray each night…a few words…and so I guess that I would be called a Christian. I’m certainly spiritual.

However, my rational nature always tends to disrupt my thoughts concerning religious fundamentalism and I can see through the vast majority of the religious bombast which sadly dominates some areas of various faiths.

I knew that my travels through Jerusalem might make me feel uneasy as the day progressed.

Back in the coach, we glimpsed the arid bleakness of the Sinai Desert to the east. I could have stayed looking out at its ethereal bleakness for ages. Then, sadly, the time just went too quickly for me to take everything in. In only ten minutes, the coach drove past the Garden of Gethsemane, the Kidron Valley, the city of David, various churches, a huge Jewish cemetery, all interspersed with a rapid fire commentary. By the time that we had stopped to park near the Jaffa Gate to the west of the ancient walled city, I was in need of a few moments to take it all in.

But there was no time to rest. We began our walking tour of the cramped ancient city.

At times my memories of bible studies at primary school and Sunday school fought with images and lines from “The Life Of Brian.”

“Now you listen here. He’s not the Special One. He’s a very naughty boy.”

We spent around four hours in Jerusalem. We visited the Armenian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter, and finally the Jewish Quarter. Soon into the tour, we were taken down narrow cobbled streets, with shops selling all kinds of wares and souvenirs. As I spotted a few tacky T-shirts (“Guns & Moses”) I was reminded of my father’s comments about Jerusalem. He was expecting a spiritual enlightening, but instead was dismayed at the amount of “tat” being peddled. Seventy-one years later, it was a lot worse.

I kept looking out for Via Dolorosa. Ossi kept mentioning it. As the day unfolded, it came to light that this was the route taken by Christ as he carried his cross to the site of his crucifixion at Calvary. More of that later.

We passed a little enclave of Ethiopian Jews, and visited their very small church, then stopped at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is where – it is alleged – Christ was crucified. My father had visited here in 1944. This is odd, because I always presumed that Calvary – “there is a green hill far away without a city wall” – was some distance from Jerusalem, but here it was, right in the heart of the old city.

I was overwhelmed by the various facts which Ossi regaled us with. We saw a slab of marble which was used as a resting place for the body of Christ. People were stooping to kiss it and touch it. I wasn’t so sure. My faith was being sorely tested.

All the time my camera was recording these amazing images.

Then, outside, a piece of pure drama.

While Kev, Alan and myself rested outside the large and imposing church, and while we had a little discussion about our beliefs, or lack of them, a microphone was broadcasting a call to Islamic prayer. Then, a little group of Jewish pilgrims carried a cross into the little square and a rabbi began saying a few words too.

Muslim and Jewish prayers were taking place simultaneously outside the church where it is alleged that Jesus Christ was crucified.

Some moment.

Our tour continued around and down, through increasingly small and cramped streets. We entered the Muslim Quarter. Shops seemed busier, the pathways narrower. At last, we entered Via Dolorosa. Ossi spoke about the fourteen Stations of the Cross which marked the half a mile or so that Christ carried his cross, and which today is marked by Via Dolorosa, although the original street would have been many feet below the current level.

So, this is why my father was so specific.

I had kept an image of my father’s photograph of Via Dolorosa on my camera’s memory card. As we walked down, I kept referring to it. I wanted to replicate that image. I would soon be rewarded.

So, here were two images taken by my father and by myself, some seventy-one years apart.

Dad was 21 and I am 50.

71.

Spooky, eh?

As we continued along Via Dolorosa, Ossi came to a point where pilgrims were placing their hands on a stone on a wall to our right. Ossi didn’t sound too convincing as he explained that this is where Jesus Christ touched this very wall. And yet the original street was several feet below us. Call me agnostic on that one. It suddenly dawned on me that I was far less excited about walking the same street as Jesus Christ as walking the very same street that my father had visited in 1944.

We found ourselves at the base of the hill. We were asked to place our goods and chattels through a metal detector and then found ourselves outside the Western Wall. Again, my father had visited here. Alan, Kev and myself donned special souvenir “kippahs” and walked towards the holy wall, which actually abuts the Tomb of the Rock.

It was surreal to visit such a famous and spiritual location.

I honestly can’t remember if I prayed for a win at Tottenham on Sunday.

We made our way back up the hill, through the Jewish Quarter, which tended to contain a greater proportion of newer buildings, before stopping for a bite to eat. While eating, one of our tour party spotted my Chelsea US Tour T-shirt and commented that he was present at our MLS All-Star Game in Chicago in 2006. I responded that I was there, too. What is it I have said about Chelsea World being ridiculously small?

There was one final look over the rooftops of Jerusalem’s sacred centre, and we then retraced our steps up to the Jaffa Gate.

Our little mini-bus then headed south, passing a variety of more modern, and rather sturdy, buildings before things started to get a little tense. We were headed for Bethlehem, which is situated just inside the West Bank. Call me naïve, but I stupidly presumed that Ossi would stay on the bus and we would disappear into Bethlehem for an hour or so before returning to Jerusalem.

It soon became evident that I was wide of the mark, like a Radamel Falcao volley.

Oh no, nothing as easy as that.

Our mini-bus would park on the Israeli side of the security wall, constructed in 2000, and the ten of us were to walk over to the West Bank, where we were to be met by a Palestinian.

Ossi : “Yes, you will meet your guide there. His name is Osama.”

Inside the mini-bus, you could have heard a pin drop.

“Fackinell.”

Ossi : “I will not join you. I will go back to the Western Wall to pray for your safe return.”

He turned to us and smiled. He was likable chap, in his ‘seventies, with a splendid comb-over which resembled a skull-cap, but on this occasion he was laughing alone. We fidgeted a little, then set eyes on the thirty foot security wall which wended its way for quite a considerable way in to the distance.

Gulp.

Ossi pointed us towards a metal fence and we passed through a series of walkways before walking across an expanse of concreted open land. In to the next set of gates, then down a narrow path, to be greeted by a smiling Osama. The ten of us quickly darted into two waiting vehicles, which then drove us – rather quickly – through the narrow streets of Bethlehem. There was a vastly different vibe here. Osama, who was only the driver and not the guide, pointed out two young boys in front of us.

“These Palestinian boys are bad. They throw stones at Israeli police cars.”

We were met by a fantastic guide called George – a Palestinian Christian – who guided us through the various chambers and rooms of the Church of the Nativity, which is a conglomeration of three churches on the very spot, allegedly, where Jesus Christ was born. There was no stable, only caves. We were way underground and mired in Christianity; up to our eyes in the most famous story of them all. To be frank, George was a more compelling and believable guide than Ossi and he listed a whole host of – possible, only possible – pieces of evidence which backed up the notion of a holy birth on that exact spot over two thousand years ago.

Again, my religious side was battling my rational side and I wasn’t sure which would come out on top.

After the visit was over, we darted into a souvenir shop, then sped back towards the security fence. Bethlehem is ridiculously hilly and the buildings perch precariously on the hill tops. Osama walked us up to the gates and pointed us onward. As we crossed “no man’s land”, many Palestinian migrant workers were heading back after a day’s toil in Jerusalem. What happened next, was pure farce.

We found ourselves in a hall, maybe a holding area, and were met with some unmanned turnstiles. There was no way to get through. We spotted a large sliding door, and after a little deliberation, pulled it back, not quite expecting what would greet us. It was another holding area. And more unmanned turnstiles. One chap decided to push his way through, but there seemed to be no way through. And he was stuck. We were all stuck. We had no idea what to do. Go back? What would greet us? After about three or four minutes, at last a voice called out and we piled through the last turnstile, putting our cameras and wallets through a security scanner. More migrant workers walked past. I avoided eye contact, just for safety sake. At last, we spotted Ossi.

We scrambled into the waiting van, and headed back in to Jerusalem.

“Out of my comfort zone there, boys. Don’t mind admitting it. Away games at Tottenham and West Ham will be easy compared to that.”

We were back to the relative comforts of Tel Aviv by 5.45pm.

“Tell you what, Tel Aviv looks bloody normal compared to what we have seen today.”

Back at our hotel, the three of us met up with Tony – now living in my home town of Frome – and we set off for a meal and some beers. Who should spot us but Suk, and we aimed for “Mike’s Place.” We enjoyed a great meal and chatted about Chelsea, Israel and all sorts. I had forgotten, but Suk reminded us that “Mike’s Place” was attacked by a suicide bomber – from Britain – in 2003, and three unfortunate souls were killed. We moved on to another bar, with the laughter flying around, before calling it a night at around midnight.

Alan and Kev were off to the airport in the morning and so, after another fine breakfast, I had some time to kill. I changed into some shorts and headed down to the beach. It was just after 10am, but the sun was already warm. I swam in the Mediterranean Sea and relaxed on the beach. Never before had there been a Chelsea trip quite like this one. The water was lapping at the sandy beach behind me as I remembered all of the family holidays that I had enjoyed with my parents in various Italian resorts, and the sound of the water slowly rolling over the sand brought back a host of memories.

A light lunch was followed by a relaxing time back at the hotel as I waited patiently for four other friends – Pauline, Digger, Fiona, Ronnie – to return. Together, we took two cabs to the local train station before heading back to the airport. Before I knew it, I was looking down on the lights of Tel Aviv, and they slowly disappeared from view as we headed west over the Mediterranean.

The football had only taken up a small part of my three days in The Holy Land. However, I was just so thankful that the football – no, Chelsea – had taken me to see such a scintillating part of our world.

Thank you Israel.

Shalom!

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