Tales From Friends Reunited

Chelsea vs. Atletico Madrid : 5 December 2017.

The Chuckle Bus was London-bound once more, headed to Stamford Bridge for a third consecutive game and a Tuesday evening encounter with Atletico Madrid. Here was a lovely match to finish off our autumnal series in the competition that gets us all excited and dreamy. After Champions League clashes with the Mattress Makers in 2009/2010 and 2013/2014 (does anyone remember us playing Atletico at Highbury in the pre-season Makita at Highbury in 1994 too?), this seemed like an evening to re-acquaint ourselves with a familiar adversary and some old friends too.

Step forward Tiago.

Our one-season wonder from 2004/2005 was returning to Stamford Bridge in his capacity as assistant manager to Diego Simeone after finally hanging up his boots last season. I am not really sure why Jose Mourinho sold Tiago on to Lyon after just one championship season at Stamford Bridge. He was a classy player with an eye for goal. His equaliser on a famous night at Old Trafford was a belter. He featured in the semi-finals against us in 2014. He would now sit alongside the Argentinian Simeone, who himself played against us for Lazio in the 1999/2000 season.

Step forward Filipe Luis.

Another one-season wonder under Jose Mourinho, this defender flitted in and out of the Chelsea team of 2014/2015, and returned to Atletico the following season after a disappointing total of games played. He shared the same shocking hairstyle as Alexei Smertin and followed the same fate as the fellow Spanish left-back Asier del Horno who also lasted just one season under Mourinho. Considering Chelsea’s predilection for dispensing the services of Spanish left-backs after a league win, it is quite a surprise that Marcos Alonso is still here.

Step forward Fernando Torres.

Once an Atleti wunderkind, the local boy from Fuenlabrada signed for Liverpool and then joined us in a blockbuster move in the January transfer window of 2011. Although I was always impressed with his work ethic, he struggled to win over many fans. He is remembered fondly by myself for that goal in Barcelona, that corner in Munich and that goal in Amsterdam. The roar which greeted his first-ever goal in the rain against West Ham is one of the loudest I have ever witnessed. I last saw him on the bench at Turf Moor in the first game of 2014/2015. It would be great to see him again.

In addition to Tiago playing against us in 2014, that Atletico team also included Thibaut Courtois and Diego Costa.

I wonder what ever happened to them?

We popped into “The Goose” for one and “Simmons Bar” for a couple. There were the usual familiar Chelsea faces in both pubs. I was pleased to be joined by Eric, still visiting from Toronto, and taking in his third match at Stamford Bridge in seven days and we chatted about his stay in London. We shared a few laughs when we mentioned the heightened expectation from legions of new fans, who only appear to be in it for the trophies. Eric spoke about the respect that he has for us – cough, cough – “old school” Chelsea fans who supported us through thick, thin and thinner.

“You were there when we were shit, right?”

“Well, at the time, I have to say, we all thought that we were alright. Honestly. For the most part, we thought we were doing OK.”

I was half-serious.

Eric understood the joke.

Thoughts turned to the evening’s game. When the draw was made way back in August, a brave man would have bet against Chelsea and Atletico Madrid making it out of the group, yet it was looking pretty likely that Simeone’s men, with just win from their five matches, would be likely to playing in the Europa League, save for a catastrophe for Roma against Qarabag. We were already guaranteed a passage into the knock-out phase in the new year. Whereas others were calculating whether or not it would be best to finish first or second, with likely opposition being compared, I was hoping for a win against Atletico for the sole reason that it would mean that our first game in February or March would be away. It is always advantageous to play away first. And I was thinking of the supporters just as much as the team. For the supporters, let us enjoy an away game first with no chance of a defeat from the first game spoiling our trip. For the players, let them enjoy home advantage in the second game, where extra-time might be needed.

However, as we took our seats in The Sleepy Hollow of the Matthew Harding, there was a certain strangeness to the evening’s mood. The four of us – Lord Parky, PD, Young Jake and me – had decided that we would be forced, reluctantly, to leave the game, regardless of the score, on eighty-five minutes to avoid the horrific traffic congestion caused by the partial closure of the M4 which had blighted our return trip against Swansea City the previous week.

“Let’s go 3-0 up and bugger off home, lads.”

Over in The Shed, the two thousand away fans were a riot of colour, if not noise. I was impressed that so many had travelled despite the miniscule chance of them progressing. Down on the pitch, the Atletico players were going through their drills in front of their fans, while the Chelsea players were doing the same in front of us. The stadium took for ever to fill, but it almost reached full capacity. Apart from a section in The Shed – a gap so that Chelsea fans were not immediately above the visitors – I had to search meticulously for empty seats. In our section, virtually every seat was full.

I commented to Alan –

“£35 for a Champions League game is pretty decent, to be fair.”

Antonio had mixed it up again, and I was surprised that he chose to play Davide Zappacosta out on the left in place of Marcos Alonso. Tiemoue Bakayoko was recalled in the place of Danny Drinkwater. Gary Cahill, the experienced captain, replaced Toni Rudiger.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Bakayoko – Zappacosta

Hazard – Morata

I was pleased to see both Filipe Luis and Fernando Torres starting for Atletico, resplendent in their red and white stripes.

The anthem, the march across the pitch, the handshakes.

It would be lovely, I think, if the march across the pitch for Champions League games could be kept in the new Stamford Bridge stadium. Let’s maintain that Chelsea tradition. It adds an extra lick of drama and anticipation on these wonderful nights. Keep the dressing rooms in the East Stand and keep the dignitaries in the West Stand.

Something to think about, Herr Herzog and Herr de Meuron.

There was a slight wait for the referee’s whistle and then the game began with their star striker Antoine Griezmann kicking-off, or kicking-back, or whatever it is called these days.

Griezmann must have just recently returned from his own stag party in Prague or Benidorm or Amsterdam; his best man must surely have cut his hair with an electric shaver, and it was only now starting to grow again. It looked bloody awful.

The game lacked a little intensity at the start. As players picked out team mates in pretty patterns but without much penetration, I thought back on all of these ridiculous links between Chelsea and Atletico Madrid that have developed in the very recent past. I recalled that in Italy, some clubs – in addition to heated rivalries with some teams – have “friendly” relationships with some clubs too. Napoli get on well with Genoa, I seemed to remember. In Europe, there is a little link up between Chelsea and Rangers, Chelsea and Lazio, Chelsea and Feyenoord, and in the pre-historic days of 1994/1995, a little band of TSV1860 Munich followed us around on our European trail. I wondered if we have witnessed the first tentative steps in a friendship between Chelsea and Atletico over the past few seasons. When they beat us, fairly and squarely, in 2014, I joined in thousands who applauded Atletico off the Stamford Bridge turf.

I remembered the story of how Newcastle United fans invaded the Basque city of Bilbao in the mid-nineties, and how they were taken in by the natives, who joined in with their drinking and carousing, to such an extent that a few Geordies mooted the idea of forming some sort of friendship between the two clubs’ supporters.

Then, it dawned on them.

“Wait a minute lads, they wear red and white stripes.”

A few chances were exchanged, and over the first twenty minutes I would suggest that the away team were marginally ahead on points. Then, we began to turn the screw. As with the game against Newcastle United, Alvaro Morata managed a few efforts on goal. One shot curled just wide of Jan Oblak’s post.

There was a “trademark” heavy-touch – I am being kind – from Torres in our box and the jeers rang out.

A lovely little bit of delicate close control from N’Golo Kante – what is “keepy-uppy” in French? – brought warm applause.

Eden Hazard began to dominate. Just how does he consistently manage to out-fox a marker with those 180 degree turns from a standing position?

Another good save from Oblak, again from Morata.

Hazard set up Zappacosta on the left, who cut back and fired a low shot goal wards. Oblak again pounced to push the ball away.

There was little noise in the stadium. A few chants, but not many. The two sets of fans in The Shed contrasted wildly.

Atletico – standing, participating and colourful, with flags, banners, scarves.

Chelsea – sitting, watching, being the modern English home football supporter to a T.

Although we were now dominating play, this was still a game that lacked any biting tackles nor rugged intensity. It was enjoyable stuff though. No complaints. Griezmann kept coming deep to pick up the ball, but was generally quiet. Sorry for the clichés, but Christensen was cool and calm again. Only Bakayoko looked out of sorts. Advantage Drinkwater at this stage of the season.

In the first few moments of the second-half, a Griezmann free-kick curled around our wall but Thibaut was able to save. Within a minute, a fine Hazard cross from the left was headed goal wards by Christensen who had leapt well. That man Oblak palmed over.

We were then treated to a sensational run from deep from Hazard, his speed and skill leaving defenders in his wake. Oblak saved again. We were playing some great stuff now, and Morata forced another save from the corner. We were raiding at will down the left with Zappacosta adding extra spice, and the ever reliable Moses on the right twisting and pushing to create crosses out of nowhere.

Filipe Luis then lazily guided a fine shot past Thibaut – hearts in mouths – but it rebounded back off the right post. Koke – another quiet one – headed the ball back towards goal but Thibaut was equal to it.

An Atletico corner soon followed.

I found myself saying “don’t let it drop.”

It dropped onto Torres’ header and his flick was headed in at the far post by Niguez.

“Bollocks.”

This goal was undoubtedly against the run of play. We had dominated until then.

“Bollocks.”

Fernando Torres was given an outstanding ovation when he was substituted by Simeone just after the goal was scored. He surely has a soft spot for us.

“The Atletico & Chelsea Supporters Association” : Patron Fernando Torres.

Pedro replaced the disappointing Bakayoko. Our terrier-like winger was soon in the game, fizzing past his marker and smashing a shot goal wards.

Oblak, save, sigh.

Christensen went close.

The intensity was increasing and Stamford Bridge warmed with noise.

It was all out attack now.

I looked across to PD, wondering if we would score before our eighty-five-minute escape hatch would open up.

We went close, with Moses, Hazard, Pedro and Fabregas all creating chance after chance.

Willian replaced Zappacosta.

“COME ON CHELS.”

Pedro moved to wing back, Willian played ahead.

On seventy-five minutes, the ball broke to Hazard after a defensive header, and he accelerated past his marker before slamming a low cross towards the six-yard box. I saw the ball flash into the goal, and missed the deflection from the Atletico defender Savic. It was the slightest of touches.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Eden celebrated down below us. His relief was shared by all of us.

“Phew.”

We hardly lose any games at home in Europe. Count’em.

The boys in blue were playing some great stuff now.

Morata headed on – a classic Chelsea counter – for Fabregas and Cesc advanced before squaring the ball back to our number nine, who was being chased by three defenders, but he fluffed his lines and Oblak saved.

“Bollocks.”

Michy replaced Morata.

“Tuck yer shirt in, son.”

Down below us, Eden danced away, and spotted the unmarked Willian. With the goal at his mercy he ballooned the ball over.

“Bollocks.”

With five minutes to go, we left.

“See you at West Ham, Al.”

What a strange sensation. In all of my years of attending games at Stamford Bridge – this would be game number 722 – I had only ever left a game early once before (Bolton at home, 1981, in case anyone is wondering. I needed to return to Earls Court to catch a bus home to Frome at 5pm. Thankfully we were 2-0 in that game.)

The streets were eerie and empty. It was wholly surreal.

Jake, PD and I walked briskly back to the car. Parky, bless him, was already there. There had been no loud cheer on our walk down Fulham Road.

It had finished 1-1.

We pulled away at 9.50pm, PD broke the land speed record and, at bang on midnight I was home. There had been no added drama at Stamford Bridge nor on the M4.

Job done.

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Tales From The Shores Of The Caspian Sea

Qarabag vs. Chelsea : 22 November 2017.

 

Sandwiched between two Saturday away league games at West Bromwich and Liverpool was a European away game that had tantalised myself – and many others – ever since the Champions League draw way back in August. Our game in Baku in Azerbaijan against Qarabag represented Chelsea Football Club’s longest ever trip for a UEFA game. Only the two games in the World Club Championships in 2012 in Yokohama, Japan – FIFA not UEFA – were further away from our home in SW6, with friendlies on the west coast of the US, South America and Australia not included.

On the evening of the draw, I booked myself onto an Aeroflot flight to Baku, via Moscow, and it soon became apparent that many good friends had decided to travel too. Only a few were going direct. Most had decided to go via Istanbul, but a fair few had chosen the Moscow route.

I had missed the last minute drama of the Michy Batshuayi winner in Madrid, but was there in Rome five weeks ago to see us lose 3-0. Bizarrely, Qarabag’s draw in Madrid that night dampened the pain of that loss to Roma. A win in Baku would see us through to the knock-out phase. It added a little drama – if it was needed – to this most lengthy of adventures.

Did this trip need a little drama to add a certain piquancy?

I was in two minds.

I have recently begun reading a book written by the revered Paul Theroux – “The Deep South” – which details his travels, experiences and insights of that fabled sub-section of the United States. In one of the first chapters, he details how travel books often engineer some sort of false logistical conflict in order to add a degree of tension and drama to the narrative. I have often thought that this was true of television travel documentaries – probably my favourite type of TV programme if I am honest – and I lay the blame solely at the feet of Michael Palin. His ground-breaking “Around The World In Eighty Days” travelogue from 1988 was enjoyable but there were endless “will I catch the correct plain/train/coach/car?” scenarios which I could not help but think were added to give the series an extra edge and a sense of danger.

Theroux was having none of this and it struck a chord. Certainly travelling within the US – he was to drive by car from the small towns of the Carolinas, through Appalachia and down to the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf of Mexico – there was surely no recognisable conflict. He was wealthy, he owned a good car, the fuel was cheap, the roads were wide and easy to navigate. There was no need to add any drama to his movement through the area.

However, on the day before I was set to leave for Baku, my friend Dutch Mick reported of a nightmarish experience in Moscow. He was not allowed on the waiting plane to take him to Baku. Then, once arrived in Baku – ten hours late – his son had paperwork issues with his Azerbaijani visa and had to wait for a new application, but there were subsequent issues with that too. I was then horrified to read that he commented that Aeroflot often cancel flights to Baku without any notice.

“Oh bollocks.”

Of course there are always usual worries linked to foreign travel – those horrid doubts about having neglected to pack that all important passport, visa, credit card – but as I left work on the Monday, I remembered how one friend had lost both his passport and wallet and another pal had lost his passport in Rome. Then came this extra worry of cancelled flights. I had no margin for error; my flight was only getting in to Baku at 5am on the day of the game. It is fair to say that I felt myself remembering Paul Theroux’ comments about enforced conflicts with a wry smile.

I hoped that the only conflict within this particular edition of my travels with Chelsea would be result-related and not due to any logistical snafu.

The English portion of the trip began well. I set off from my home in Somerset at 9am. At just after midday, I had parked my car in my friend Nick’s driveway in the small Berkshire town of Twyford. Although Nick has been going to Chelsea since that horrible relegation season of 1978/79, our paths have only recently crossed; in China of all places. We were over in Beijing for the Arsenal friendly in July. The Aeroflot flight took us out of London via Gatwick but back in via Heathrow; by parking at his place, potential problems from the English section of the trip were smoothed.

Nick’s wife was able to take us to Wokingham train station, from where we caught the hour long train to Gatwick. On that train journey, Nick and myself chatted relentlessly about our travels around Europe with Chelsea. Interestingly, our team’s performances were rarely mentioned; the buzz was all about foreign cities, unbelievable itineraries, excessive beer intakes, endless laughs and various “characters” that we both knew, of which Chelsea has many. Nick was full of tales and many brought a smile to my face.

He began one story by shaking his head and uttering the immortal words “I was sure I told her.”

One day, Nick received a text from his wife asking if he could pick up his son David from school in the afternoon as she would be busy with work.

He replied –

“I can’t. I’m in Bucharest.”

And he was, for our 2013 Europa League game. Classic.

Bearing this story in mind, plus a few others that reinforced the notion that Nick was as “football daft” as myself, I recalled the look that Nick’s wife gave me when I shook her hand back in Twyford.

“Here’s another bloody idiot.”

This would be my thirty-second trip abroad with Chelsea for a UEFA game. I was able to delve into a few of my personal memories. Off the top of my head, a top ten would be Munich 2012, Tel Aviv 2015, Turin 2009, Stockholm 1998, Barcelona 2012, Seville 1998, Lisbon 2014, Vienna 1994, Istanbul 2014 and Prague 1994.

There was time for a couple of pints at Gatwick. On the four-hour flight to Moscow, there were around twenty other Chelsea supporters. I wondered how many tickets we had sold; I hoped for at least one thousand.

Ah Moscow, bloody Moscow. After the memories of that damp and depressing evening at the Luzhniki Stadium in 2008, I swore never to return. But returning I was, and to the same Sheremetyevo airport too, although the Aeroflot terminal, built in 2010, was vastly superior to the now demolished northern terminal that we used in 2008. There was time for a few beers – Spaten, ah Munich – using some of Nick’s roubles from the Rubin Kazan game in 2013; the surly barman reminded me of the welcome we had from the locals on my only previous visit. Although it was around 11pm, all of the retail outlets were open – manned by bored shop assistants staring blankly at their mobile phones – and I was again reminded of how pervasive US commercial activity has proven to be; “Victoria’s Secret” and “Burger King” among others were peddling their wares in deepest Russia. A gaggle of Maribor players returning to Slovenia after their game against Spartak Moscow brushed past us. An enthusiastic Chelsea fan from Munich regaled us of his train trip from Southern Germany to Moscow for the 2008 Final; sixty hours there, sixty hours back. Suddenly Baku did not seem so far away.

I caught a little sleep on the Moscow to Baku leg. We touched down at bang on 5am. Outside, the night, everything dark and mysterious. We were quickly through the passport and visa check; “phew.” I exchanged some sterling for the local currency. The terminal was eerily quiet. A line of white taxi cabs was parked outside and the drivers seemed a little ambivalent to us. Eventually, we knocked back one driver who wanted 60 manat and finally negotiated a 25 manat cab into the city; this translated to around £12.

It was a quiet cab ride into town. We were both tired. The road was devoid of traffic. We wondered what was lying in wait. Baku seemed a beguiling city from afar. Soon, the cab driver took us straight past the oddly-named Olympic Stadium (I must have missed that one), which certainly reminded myself of the Allianz Arena in Munich; adjacent to the main road in to the city from the airport, and encased in a plastic skin. It looked stunning. The game would kick-off in fifteen hours. As the cab took us deep into the city, the buildings became more impressive.

Back in 2014, the furniture company for whom I work sent around seventy articulated trailers of workstations, chairs and storage cabinets to the city of Baku. We kitted out the twenty-five stories of the impressive Socar Tower. It was a huge project. Socar is the state-owned oil and gas company. Within ten minutes of landing in Azerbaijan, I had spotted my first Socar petrol station. As the cab neared our final destination in the city centre, not far from the promenade which overlooks the Caspian Sea, I was able to spot a large building bearing the name of the furniture installation company – Palitra – who were involved in the project. It brought a shudder; due to the intricacies of the export documentation required for exporting into Azerbaijan, which were an added burden to my already busy workload, the Socar project represented the most stressful time in my working life. I was certainly relieved when the tower was fully furnished and open for business. I so hoped to be able to set eyes on the tower, which is in the shape of a flickering flame, during my thirty-five hours in the city.

At about 6.30am, the cab driver deposited us right in the heart of Baku; Nick’s hotel was a few yards from the city’s “Hard Rock Café.”

My hotel – where my mates Alan and Gary, plus it would transpire, a few others – was not far away but the room was not ready until 2pm, so I crashed on the hard wooden floor of Nick’s hotel room for a couple of hours. At around 10am, I set off to collect my match ticket at the Grand Hotel, which was around a twenty-minute walk away. A Chelsea fan pointed me in the right direction. I wasn’t prepared for the very strong winds which blew leaves up off the roads and pavements. My bag on wheels thudded on the cobbled streets which lead up a slight hill. During those first few moments, my eyes were on stalks, taking it all in. I was impressed with the architecture; strong and formidable. I walked past small shops…clothes shops, fast food joints, small and intimate. The Grand Hotel was on a busy intersection. The cars flew down the hill but I soon noticed that, although lights were absent, cars always stopped once pedestrians stepped on to the zebra crossings.

My match ticket collected – 10 manat, or £4.50 – I was unsure what to do. Alan and Gary were on their way to the collection point too, but my phone was playing up. I decided to head back in to town, and soon spotted a Chelsea fan, Scott, sitting in a café on Fountain Square with another supporter. I joined him for a coffee. Outside, they were setting up stalls for a German-style market. A large Christmas tree overlooked the pale blue huts. Nearby were large KFC, Pizza Hut and McDonalds restaurants. The shops and eateries in this central square seemed very westernised. It reminded me of a small German city. Scott had arrived on the Tuesday; I soon wished that I had done the same.

And I was in a slight quandary. I was well aware that the city’s beers were cheap and the bars welcoming and plentiful. But I was sleep-deficient and I had a long day ahead. I wanted to see something of the city. I didn’t want to be tired and drowsy for the football. I wanted to be up relatively early on the Thursday for more sight-seeing. I pondered my options.

I imagined that if I chose to drop my bag at the hotel room and dive into some bars, my destiny might career out of my hands.

The risk of cheap alcohol was real.

I imagined myself stood next to a wheel of fortune and it spinning around, with an array of worrying options.

  1. Drink too much too early and – without food – become a burden, and manage to lose my wallet and match ticket.
  2. Drink too much, spend too much, lose debit card at an ATM, go back to hotel, sponge money off mates and get to game late.
  3. Drink too much and end up in a bar in the wrong part of town and struggle to get to the game in time.
  4. Drink too much, vomit over my jeans, end up in a dishevelled mess in a shop doorway.
  5. Drink too much, get on the metro, take the wrong train, end up miles from anywhere.
  6. Drink too much, simply go back to the hotel, miss seeing my mates, fall asleep, comatose.
  7. Drink too much, drop my camera, get annoyed, head back to the hotel room to charge up my phone/camera, fall asleep and miss game.
  8. Drink too much, fall asleep, wake up on Friday.
  9. Drink too little, but still get lost en route to the game, get in late.
  10. Drink too much and end up supporting Tottenham.

I decided in the circumstances to play it cool. I had drunk enough in Rome. This would be a chilled-out trip.

A young lad approached me on Fountain Square and interviewed me for either a) an Azerbaijan TV station, audience 5,000,000 or b) his YouTube channel, audience 7.

I briefly spoke about Chelsea, Qarabag and the city. Oh well, I knew about one of the three topics.

I reached the hotel, which was centrally-located on a pedestrianised shopping street with a mixture of local and Western brands. Above there were apartments with balconies. They love their balconies in Baku. Luckily, I was allowed into my room early at around midday. I hooked up my wifi; Alan had messaged me to say that he and Gary were out and about.

I slept, fitfully – I think I was too excited – and then went off on a personal tour of Baku for two and-a-half hours. I headed straight down to the promenade. I passed many high-end shops; Burberry, Boss, Lacoste. The wind was still howling. I crossed the busy road – used by the cars on the F1 circuit – and walked down to the steps which were being buffeted by a few small waves from the slate grey Caspian Sea. To the east were cranes, with new building development visible. To the west, the three flame towers dominated the vista, and they towered over the city. Beyond was the spindle of a TV tower. I headed up the hill – more impressive buildings, the warm yellow stone reminded of the Cotswolds – and edged around the walls of the old town. I dipped inside – I would return, I hoped, at length on the Thursday – and decided on a local meal. Just inside one of the gates, there is a row of around four wooden huts which house ridiculously small and intimate restaurants. Brian and Kev – the Bristol lot – spotted me and we chatted; the luck buggers had been in town since Monday.

I entered a small hut – a massive stone oven was right by the door – and the place was full of the atmospheric smoke from the wood which was being incinerated. I sat in a corner, the wind howling outside and rattling the windows, and ordered the national specialty – “plov” – which consisted of lightly scented boiled rice, tender lamb, tomato, onion and a small flat dumpling. Along with a huge slab of bread and a bottle of the local Xirdalan beer, it came to a mighty 12 manat or around £6. There was only one other person in my little section; a local man of around seventy years of age. I wondered what his life story involved. What was his history? I wonder if he had heard of Chelsea.

I took a leisurely walk back to the hotel, the night falling all around me.

I spotted a lone Chelsea fan. I was the first fellow-fan that he had seen all day. His travelogue was beset with “conflict”; he had been stuck in a two-hour traffic snarl-up in his home town and only just made the first of his two flights out to Baku. On the second flight, one of the passengers died. Bloody hell.

 

At around 6.30pm, Alan, Gary and myself – plus Pete and Nick – caught a cab to the stadium. The roads were full. Not long into the thirty-minute trip, Nick spotted that there were nine lanes of traffic, all going north. To our left, I spotted the magnificent Socar Tower, with the blue, green and red flames of the company logo flickering on the outside. It was a mightily impressive sight, at present the tallest in Baku.

The wind was blowing even stronger on the wide open approach to the stadium. I unravelled “VINCI PER NOI” and posed with it, making sure to grip it tight. I had visions of it flying off into the night.

There was a security check – bags through X-ray machines, a pat-down – and the surprisingly friendly police examined my banner for a few moments. It was allowed in. As there was an hour to kick-off, I left the others to enter, and I walked all of the way around the impressive stadium. It was certainly impressive alright. Towards our northern side, the light panels were dappled pink, orange and red, like a Cocteau Twins album. During the day, in the city, I had not seen a single Qarabag shirt or scarf. And yet there was an expected 67,000 sell-out expected. I had the distinct impression that the locals were jumping on this and treating it like a match involving a quasi-national team. Qarabag – exiled from a town that simply does not exist anymore in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of western Azerbaijan – usually play in a smaller stadium in Baku, but were playing this season’s Champions League games in this much bigger Olympic Stadium.

 

Inside, I made my way up to section 307. The lads had saved me a spot in the very front row. The stadium was marvelous, a photogenic delight. Three tiered on two sides, with two tiers behind the goals, it was fully encased. The athletics track meant that we were long way from the pitch, but it just felt like a proper stadium. It had its own design. Its own feel. Its own identity. The thousands of light jade seats soon filled. We spotted Dutch Mick a few rows behind us.

Down below us, a small knot of Qarabag supporters were in early, enthusiastically flying a few blue and white flags, and singing all sorts of songs. Throughout the game, many of them would be faced away from the pitch, encouraging others to sing. Football fans are a varied breed. Below us to our left, a gaggle of supporters wearing red were spotted. Maybe supporters of another team. If my prediction was right, this was a proper gathering of various clans.

The Chelsea team was displayed on the huge screens.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Luiz – Rudiger

Zappacosta – Kante – Fabregas – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

So, no Alvaro Morata. I envisaged the front three swarming with pace at the Qarabag back line.

Just before the game began, we were treated to a cheesy Qarabag club anthem, and then the spectators in the huge stand to our left unveiled a couple of banners amid a sea of mosaics.

“FAR WAY FROM HOME BUT WHERE YOU BELONG.”

The stadium lit up with mobile phones being held aloft in the home areas, then the anthem and the teams. As the game started, a little rain fell. My jacket was warm but others were struggling. The home team in all black. Chelsea in dirty white.

In the first few moments, we started on the front foot but were soon shocked by a couple of Qarabag attacks. We watched in horror as the home team sliced through our defence like a hot knife through butter. The shot from Michel slammed against our crossbar with the defenders looking on aghast. Thankfully, the rebound was well wide. It was a real warning sign for sure. A fine block from Dave followed.

A header from David Luiz flew over the Qarabag bar. On twenty minutes, Eden Hazard pushed a ball through for Willian. As he advanced into the box, he was slightly nudged by a Qarabag defender. Down he went. The referee pointed to the spot and to be honest we were so far away that I was not so sure that the push had taken place inside the box. Next, the referee sent off the Qarabag defender, their captain Sadygov. The home fans were in uproar and I could see why. It seemed a soft penalty, and my eyes saw a covering defender too. Regardless, Eden rolled the penalty home.

Alan : “İndi onlar bizə gəlmək məcburiyyətində qalacaqlar.”

Chris : “mənim kiçik brilyantlar.”

Boos boomed around the stadium.

We were in control now. Pedro was busy. A Hazard header was straight at their ‘keeper. The Chelsea fans – officially 912 – struggled to make much noise but one song joined us all together.

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

With ten minutes of the first-half remaining, Willian combined beautifully with Hazard. Willian ran at the defence, played a ball to Hazard, who back-heeled the ball back to Willian. He stroked the ball past the luckless ‘keeper.

Game over? It certainly felt like it. Apart from that initial flurry in the first few minutes of the game, Qarabag had been no threat whatsoever. At half-time, thousands upon thousands of home fans – maybe not bona fide Qarabag supporters per se – left the stadium.

The temperatures dropped further as the second-half began. A few Chelsea supporters were spotted drinking pints of lager in the seats behind me; authentic too, not non-alcoholic. In this part of UEFA’s kingdom, normal rules apparently do not apply. Chelsea looked to increase the score and were in control. Pedro went close. Antonio replaced Marcos Alonso with Gary Cahill. Eden Hazard forced a fine save from the Qarabag keeper but was then replaced by Alvaro Morata. The Spaniard himself went very close to scoring, just staying onside but just steering his shot wide. The offside trap worked in Qarabag’s favour as a ball from Willian was touched on by Pedro to Azpilicueta. However, Dave had just wandered into an offside position; the resultant cross and goal from Morata was wiped off.

On seventy-three minutes, another weak penalty in my eyes; a slight tug from a defender brought Willian down. A few old-fashioned looks were exchanged in the away section. Cesc Fabregas needed two attempts to score, but score he did.

So, two pretty weak penalties and a sending-off in or favour. The tiresome Chelsea / UEFA conspiracy theorists might need a rethink.

Danny Drinkwater replaced N’Golo.

With five minutes to go, Willian – the man of the night – shimmied and stroked the ball to his right, making space. His fine shot thundered past the ‘keeper.

Qarabag 0 Chelsea 4

We were kept in for around thirty minutes. A gaggle of maybe fifteen Chelsea fans from Iraq – resplendent in Chelsea replica shirts, how quaint – appeared down below us, with a large banner. I bumped into Brian from Chicago right at the end; from one windy city to another, his trip was surely the longest of the night.

Outside, the gales were howling, but thankfully subsided as we walked around the stadium before catching a metro back to the centre. In our compartment, around six or seven local Chelsea fans were singing songs, if a little out of tune. I guess that there had been little pockets of non-UK based Chelsea fans dotted around the stadium. I would like to think that these took our total to over one thousand. Though I am sure some Chelsea fans would argue that these fans don’t count.

Back to Fountain Square at 12.30am, a kebab, and bed.

 

For a few lovely hours the following day – Thursday – I spent my time walking around the compact old town. It was a relaxing and chilled-out time. I walked to the top of Maiden Tower which offered fine views of the city, which rises quite dramatically from the shore of the Caspian Sea. I bumped into a few Chelsea fans, all heading back on the same 4.10pm flight as myself.

Down below, within a few square yards, various locals were going about their daily routines. Traders were setting their stalls up for passing custom – honey, confectionery, drinks, cakes, pots and pans, rugs, souvenirs – while four men were standing over a backgammon board, and making a considerable noise as they slapped the pieces down. A couple of young back-packers walked past. A model – ridiculously thin and with over-the-top make-up – was being photographed on one of the dusty streets, while three others waited their turn. Large wooden balconies towered over the scene before me. One of the flame towers peaked from a distance. Cars reversed with meticulous care along narrow streets. Space was at a premium. There was a call to prayer in a local Mosque.

This was Baku.

I darted inside a large restaurant. The friendly waitress guided me through the menu. The waiter looked like Andy Kaufman. I decided on stuffed aubergines, a salad, some lamb wrapped in vine leaves, another Xirdalan.

It was time to call it a day.

I met up with Nick and his mate James outside the Hard Rock Café. They sunk their beers and at 1.30pm we took a cab back to the airport. We had loved our short stay in Baku. It is a horrible cliché to say that the city is a city of contrasts. But it is both an ancient and increasingly modern city. If I was return in ten years, there is no doubt that I would witness a very different one. Oil rich and punching above its weight, Baku will surely become inundated with even more startling architecture as the years pass. A substantial area is already being built to the east of the city. I so hope that the very friendly locals don’t change for the worst.

We caught our flight to Moscow. We were homeward bound.

However, deep in the bowels of Sheremetyevo airport, for around thirty minutes, things became rather tense. I was at the back of the queue at the transfer desk, but did not recognise anyone from our flight. All of the signs were in Cyrillic text. Had I missed an announcement while I took two minutes to powder my nose in the gents? I was not sure of the time in Moscow. My mood grew dark.

Our flight was at 7.50pm. Our boarding time was 7.10pm.

I spotted a woman’s watch. It said 6pm. Phew.

“Is it six o’clock?”

“No, seven o’clock.”

With that, I pushed my way to the front of the transfer desk to force my way through. I looked to my right and around ten Chelsea fans were doing the same. An unsmiling Russian woman stamped my passport and I had made it.

“Thank fuck for that.”

That was enough conflict and drama for me thank you very much.

We landed at Heathrow at 9pm and I was soon hurtling along the M4. It had been a whirlwind trip to the windy city on the Caspian. At around 11.15pm. I found it inconceivable that, even allowing for the time zones, I had only touched down in Baku the previous day. Next time, I will stay longer. You never know, with UEFA’s predilection of pairing us with the same old teams year after year, we might be making a return visit to Baku again.

Over to you Qarabag.

 

Tales From Roman’s Legion

Chelsea vs. Roma : 18 October 2017.

It was a very mild evening in SW6. Way before the Champions League game with Roma kicked-off at 7.45pm, I had made a bee line for the ticket-office to hand in our declaration forms for the away leg in under a fortnight. There was a nice pre-match vibe already. I had spotted a few Italians around Stamford Bridge; an Italian accent here, a deep red here. The giallorossi would be out in force in SW6. Maybe not the numbers of Napoli in 2012, but a strong presence all the same. Of course, on an evening of autumnal Champions League football in one of Europe’s most famous cities, between teams from two of the continent’s major capitals, not just English and Italian accents could be heard. Walking around the West Stand forecourt, taking it all in for a few moments before meeting up with mates in a local boozer, I soon heard German accents, the Dutch language, French and Spanish, indiscernible Eastern-European accents, voices from Asia, and North America too. On European nights, the irony not lost on me, Stamford Bridge is invaded by tourists in greater numbers than normal league games. And, again, I draw the distinction between tourists – in the capital on work or pleasure, taking in a game – and overseas supporters – in London for Chelsea. But in those twenty minutes of fading light and the creeping buzz of pre-match anticipation, there was one sight which, sadly, predictably, wound me up. Out on the approaches to the stadium, the “match day scarf” sellers were doing a roaring trade. More than a couple of sellers had even managed to source flags with a completely incorrect shade of Roma red, but the punters were still lapping it all up. As I was preparing to take a photograph of Kerry Dixon on The Shed Wall, five young lads – they weren’t from England, it was easy to tell – were all wearing the risible half-and-half scarves. It made me stop and think. These people, these tourists – it almost feels like a dirty word at Chelsea among some supporters these days – flock to games, but are seemingly blissfully unaware of the rank and file’s dislike of these modern day favours. We bloody hate the damned things. And every time that I see one, it winds me up. I feel like approaching each and every one of them.

“You ever heard of the internet? It’s pretty popular these days. Ever delved into UK football culture? Do you know it exists? Ever heard of the common dislike for all seat-stadia, the gentrification of support, the alienation of the traditional working class support, the nonsense of thunder sticks, jester hats, face paint and noisemakers? Ever wonder why many match going fans avoid replica shirts like the plague? Ever thought that buying half-and-half scarves annoys local Chelsea fans to high-heaven? Ever thought how preposterous it looks to buy an item combining both bloody team’s colours and badges? Do you enjoy looking like a prick? Ever thought that a far more discreet pin badge might do just as well?”

In the boozer, there was a gathering of the clans, with familiar faces everywhere I looked. I can walk around my local town centre for half-an-hour without seeing anyone I know, yet I had already bumped into five or six people on my walk to the stadium without even trying. At the bar, nursing a pint of lager, was my friend Jim, who was in London for a rare game. I first met Jim at a Paul Canoville / Pat Nevin / Doug Rougvie event in Raynes Park in 2014 after chatting on Facebook for a while. Like me, he dotes on the 1983/84 season. I had forgotten, but his parents used to look after the members’ area in the East Lower in those days. I mentioned that my mate Jake, who had travelled up to London with PD, Parky and myself, was thrilled at the prospect of seeing a Champions League game at Chelsea for the first-time ever. To my surprise, Jim replied that this was his first CL game too. His last European night was the ECWC semi versus Vicenza in 1998. What a night that was. For a few moments, we reminisced. I remember watching with Alan, Glenn and Walnuts in The Shed Upper. The drama of going a further goal behind. Poyet’s close-range equaliser. Zola making it 2-2, but with us still needing another, the explosion of noise which greeted Mark Hughes’ winner. I was reminded that it was a strange time for me.

“It was five years to the day that my father passed away. There were tears from me in The Shed that night. Then, the very next day – with me on a high about going to the final in Stockholm – I was made redundant at work. Talk about a roller coaster of emotions.”

Jim watched the drama unfold in the “open to the elements” West Lower. We wondered why Chelsea wore the yellow and light blue away kit that night. Jim just remembers the emotion and the noise. As was so often the case in those days, he sung himself hoarse. While I was getting made redundant on the Friday, Jim recounted how he had an eventful day at work too.

“I was working for British Rail at Marylebone at the time. They were a man down. The bloke who announced the train times hadn’t showed up. I had never done it before, but they asked me to do it. I could hardly speak.”

Jim would be watching the Chelsea vs. Roma game in 2017 in the East Stand Upper, for the very first time since the annihilation of Leeds United on “promotion day” in 1984.

Yes. That season again.

I was right. There were three thousand Roma fans in the away quadrant. They were virtually all male – 99% easily – and they seemed to be of a younger demographic than that of a typical Chelsea away crowd in Europe. Plenty of banners, plenty of flags, and plenty of shiny puffer jackets. I spotted many banners using the stylised font which was prevalent in the Mussolini era of the 1930’s, which can still be seen in many locations in Rome.

Alan and myself spoke briefly about our plans for Rome on Halloween.

“Well, all I know is that we should easily out-do our away following in 2008. We only had about five hundred there that night.”

The memory of a wet night in Rome, a hopeless 3-0 defeat, and being kept in the Olympico for ninety minutes after the game haunted me. Apart from the game itself, it was a cracking trip though. Rome never disappoints. The return to the eternal city can’t come quick enough. We have 3,800 tickets. We should take a good 2,000 I reckon. I know of loads who are going.

I had not seen the team; too busy chatting, too busy enjoying a drink. PD had driven up, allowing me a couple of lagers, and a chance to relax a little.

Alvaro Morata was playing. We all hoped that he hadn’t been rushed back too soon.

The shape had shifted and Luiz was playing as a deep-lying shield in front of the defence as at Wembley against Spurs. Hazard was playing off Morata. In defence, Zappacosta replaced the hamstrung Moses. In the middle, the impressive Christensen was alongside Cahill to his left and Dave to his right.

It was odd to see a Roma team with no Francesco Totti. The Mohican of Nainggolan stood out in a team of beards.

Especially for Jake and Jim, the Champions League anthem rung out. There was hardly an empty seat in the house. Stamford Bridge was ready.

Chelsea in blue, blue, white.

Roma in white, white, burgundy. OK it’s not burgundy. Torino is burgundy, or officially pomegranate. And although the Roma club are known as the “yellow and reds”, the Roma colour is not really a simple red. It’s the hue of a chianti, a deep red, almost a claret.

It was a bright opening, and the away fans – another moan, you knew it was coming, I am nothing if not consistent – were making most of the noise. They have that song that United sing, a rather mundane one, but it went on and on.

After an early chance for Morata, Roma began to ask questions of our re-shuffled defence. Perotti ran at ease – “put a fucking tackle in!” – but shot over. With Edin Dzeko leading the line, they dominated possession and moved the ball well. However, rather against the run of play, Luiz played an unintentional “one-two” with Jesus – blimey – and he stroked the ball past the diving Roma ‘keeper Becker and into the bottom corner. It was a bloody lovely strike. We howled with joy. Over in Parkyville, Luiz ran towards the corner and dived onto the wet grass. Stamford Bridge was a happy place.

Alan : “Havtocom atus now.”

Chris : “Cumonmi lit uldi mons.”

We enjoyed a spell and Zappacosta began to put in a barnstorming performance on our right. There is a directness and an eagerness about his forward runs that I like. Hazard, running free, dragged a low shot wide. Roma struck at our goal, but all efforts were at Courtois, thankfully. A fine block from Nainggolan was the highlight. David Luiz, loose, and unfettered was like a stallion charging around the park, trying to close space and set others on their way. The desire was there, if not the finished product.

On the half hour, Morata carried the ball into the Roma half, and shot towards the Shed goal. A lucky deflection saw the ball arch up from Beard Number One and aim straight towards Hazard, who had burst forward to support the number nine. His first-time volley crashed past Becker.

Thirty-love.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

We had ridden our luck and were 2-0 up. Blimey.

Despite the fact that we were leading – OK, luckily – only once did it really feel like the Stamford Bridge of old (Vicenza, 1998) with the stands reverberating and making me proud to be Chelsea.

With five minutes of the first-half remaining, our lead was reduced. Kolarov burst in from the left – a surging chance of pace surprising us all – and smashed a ball high into the net. It was a fine goal. Roma were back in it, and probably it was just about what was deserved.

The reaction of the Roma fans surprised me. The roar was phenomenal and they were soon jumping all over each other. It wasn’t even an equaliser. Fucking hell. Fair play to the buggers. That’s what I love to see, Tons of passion. Tons of noise.

“Bella bella.”

And then they let me down. It seems that West Ham’s shocking use of “Achy Breaking Heart” has been mirrored by the Italians. A city of history and splendor, a city of culture and style, the city of Bernini and Fellini, of “La Dolce Vita” and of an unmistakable elegance had been ignored and its travelling hordes were now impersonating a redneck nation living in trailer parks, wearing Nascar baseball caps, shagging their cousins, worshiping guns and shopping at Walmart.

“Et tu, Brute?”

At half-time, Scott Minto was on the pitch, reminiscing about his Chelsea debut; the Viktoria Zizkov game in 1994, our first European game since 1971, and also my first Chelsea European game too. It was noisy as fuck that night, despite a gate of barely 22,000.

The first-half had finished, I noted, with Chelsea possession at the 39% mark. It felt like it too.

Roma continued their domination into the second period. We were struggling all over. Fabregas was hardly involved. A rare run from Morata – not 100% fit in our book – resulted in a half-chance but his shot from wide was well-wide with the ‘keeper out of his goal.

On the hour, Pedro replaced Luiz, who had taken a knock earlier. We spotted that he had handed a piece of A4 to Cesc Fabregas, a message of instruction from Antonio.

Soon after, Beard Number Two sent over a fantastic cross towards the far post and Dzeko thrashed a stupendous volley past Thibaut. It was a stunning goal. I didn’t clap it, but I patted Bournemouth Steve on the back as if to say “fair play.”

And how the Romanisti, the CUCS, the legion of away fans, celebrated that. It was a den of noise.

“Bollocks.”

Alonso weakly shot over. Bakayoko gave away a cheap free-kick on seventy minutes and the free-kick from Kolarov was headed in, without so much as an excuse-me, by that man Dzeko. He again raced over to the away fans, and it was a tough sight to see. The away fans were a mass of limbs being flung in every direction. Bloody hell, they were loud.

A third consecutive win was on the cards. Conte was safe though, right? Who bloody knows these days. Against these Romans, perhaps Roman’s thoughts were wavering.

Thank heavens, a fine Pedro cross from the right was adeptly headed towards goal by Eden Hazard. The ball dropped into the goal. It was our turn to yell and shriek.

“YES.”

His little run down towards Cathy’s Corner was a joy to watch.

Rudiger for Zappacosta. Willian for Hazard.

I was surprised that Morata stayed on.

Still more chances for Roma. Nainggolan went wide, Dzeko made a hash of an easy header. I noted that the away support deadened after our equaliser. There was not much of a peep from them for a while. Two late headers from Rudiger, and the heavily bandaged Cahill, were off target. A winner at that stage, though, would surely have taken the piss. We knew it, we all knew it, we had been lucky to nab a point. How we miss N’Golo Kante. Despite the numbers in midfield, our pressing was not great. We look a fragile team at the moment, and at the back especially. We all knew that we would miss John Terry, right?

However, we certainly have three winnable games coming up; Watford, Everton, Bournemouth. Three wins and we will be back on track.

And as for the draw with Roma, at least it sets up the away leg in just under a fortnight.

That will be a fantastic occasion. All roads lead to Rome, and Roman’s Chelsea legionnaires will be there in our thousands.

Andiamo.

IMG_9716

 

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.

IMG_8990

 

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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