Tales From The Land Of Fire

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2019.

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

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

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

Sometimes life is like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This stopped me in my tracks for a moment.

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

Will was momentarily speechless.

I could not resist piling in.

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

We all laughed.

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

European royalty? Perhaps Noah was right.

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

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

Sunday 26 May : 10am – Istanbul Airport.

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

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

1 – Arsenal vs. Tottenham.

2 – Chelsea vs. Tottenham.

3 – West Ham vs. Tottenham.

4 – Chelsea vs. Arsenal.

5 – Chelsea vs. West Ham.

6 – Arsenal vs. West Ham.

Anyone disagree with that?

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

Maybe it is a Europa League thing.

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

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

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

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

Stamp.

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

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

It was magical to be back in Baku.

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

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

“I’ll walk from here.”

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

“Progress” I thought.

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

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

Fackinell.

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

Fackinell again.

It was my hotel.

With a name change.

Bloody hell.

Phew.

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

I had made it.

Fackinell.

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

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

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

“Come on Chris, time to get up.”

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

“Want to buy a battleship?”

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

I could be my own boss.

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

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

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

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

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

I was enchanted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any good?”

“Yeah, it’s alright.”

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

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

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

“More tea, vicar?”

Five o’clock.

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

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

“Carl!”

“Chris!”

“Ryan!”

Fackinell.

So funny.

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

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

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

“Good to see you!”

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

Just after, I bumped into Cathy and Dog.

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

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

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

Bless them both.

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

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

Albert – Brisbane.

Nathan – Perth.

Russ – Melbourne.

Shari – Brisbane.

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

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

From Vietnam – Steve.

From Australia to Azerbaijan. Fackinell.

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

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor.

Lyon and to Rome.

Tottenham get battered.

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

I was just surprised Seville wasn’t included.

The song continued on.

“Everywhere they go. Everywhere they go.”

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

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

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

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

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

Er, yes.

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

But Baku?

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

It always was a mad decision.

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

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

Blue – sky

Red – fire

Green – earth

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

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

Sorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The photographs continued.

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

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

I hate modern football.

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

Fireworks on the pitch and from atop the stand.

The pre-match paraphernalia was cleared away.

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

Phew. Here it is then.

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

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

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

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

He was.

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

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

Bollocks.

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

Fucking hell.

What has this become?

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

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

The word “surreal” does not do it justice.

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

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

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

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

But still there was hardly any noise anywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

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

Section 114 was going doolally.

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

GET IN.

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

Ha.

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

FUCKINGGETINYOUBASTARD.

More photographs of pure delirium.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

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

“Let’s have a sip mate.”

“Have it, Chris.”

“Top man.”

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

Snap, snap, snap.

A penalty to Chelsea.

COME ON!

The mood in our section was now of euphoria.

But we waited and waited.

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

Eden drilled it home.

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

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

“Smelling salts please nurse.”

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

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

“Great goal” I said, completely seriously.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 1.

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

We roared again.

Chelsea 4 Arsenal 1.

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

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

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

The last step.

Snap.

Eden was replaced by Davide Zappacosta.

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

We had only bloody won it.

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

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

4-1.

Bloody hell.

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

Regardless, the European trophy was our’s.

It now stood at five.

1971 : Athens.

1998 : Stockholm.

2012 : Munich.

2013 : Amsterdam.

2019 : Baku.

“Our biggest-ever Cup Final win.”

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

“What a second-half.”

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

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

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

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

…”we always score four in Baku.”

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

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

Everyone smiling.

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

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

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

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

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

Outside the stadium, Steve came bounding over.

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

We hugged.

I met up with Calvin, who had just been separated from his father, at the long line for the metro. I had been on my feet for a couple of hours and I was starting to tire. Calvin was good company on that painful journey back in to town. Just like in Munich, I think  I was on the last train. In 2017, it was a much easier – and quicker – journey. On that day, with tickets more keenly priced – ours were £4.50 – over 67,000 attended. Crucially, though, we were well ahead at half-time and many left early. But tonight, damn, the movement out and onto the tube took forever.

At about 2.30am, we flopped on the red line into town. We scowled at a lad who was wearing both a Liverpool shirt and scarf.

“Prick.”

We hit all the stations.

Koroglu.

Ulduz.

Narimanov.

Ganclik.

28 May.

Sahil.

Exhausted, we plodded back to Chelsea Central; we reached “The Shakespeare” at about 3am. Back with all the people that I had met over the past few days, this was a magical time. Drinks were consumed, songs were sung, all the old favourites. I loved a Jam and then a Style Council segment at about 4am.

“I was half in mind I was half in need
And as the rain came down I dropped to my knees and I prayed.
I said “oh heavenly thing please cleanse my soul
I’ve seen all on offer and I’m not impressed at all.”

I was halfway home I was half insane
And every shop window I looked in just looked the same.
I said send me a sign to save my life
‘Cause at this moment in time there is nothing certain in these days of mine.

We see, it’s a frightening thing when it dawns upon you
That I know as much as the day I was born
And though I wasn’t asked (I might as well stay)
And promise myself each and every day that is

That when you’re knocked on your back an’ your life’s a flop
And when you’re down on the bottom there’s nothing else
But to shout to the top shout.
Well, we’re gonna shout to the top.”

I had not spotted Luke and Aroha since before the game and when I saw them enter the pub, I shouted over to them. This made the person next to me turn around to see who was shouting. Bloody hell, it was Orlin.

“Bloody hell man, how long have you been stood there?”

We crumpled with laughter. I then spotted Alex and Alan from Moscow, the first Chelsea that I had met on this trip way back in Istanbul. Everyone together. Just right. I did not want this night to end. There are photographs of these hours on the internet and they will become priceless reminders of “that night in Baku.” Eventually, the bar turfed us out at 6am.

“I could murder a McDonald’s Breakfast.”

It opened at 8am.

“Bollocks.”

I made do with my second hot dog of the trip on Fountain Square. I returned to the hotel, but my head was still buzzing. I uploaded some photographs from my camera to share on Facebook. I shared the one of Eden Hazard and Peter Cech on Instagram. I was just glad the wifi had decided to work. At 7.30am I was still chatting to pals all over the world. Eventually, I fell asleep.

Thursday 30 May : 8pm – Qazmac Restaurant, Old City, Baku.

I was out in the evening again, relaxing at my own pace in a lovely restaurant opposite where those antiquated huts used to stand on Kickik Qala. I had chosen a light salad and some mutton kebabs. The waiter suggested some bread – fine – but he also recommended some local butter and some caviar. I thought “why not, when in Rome.” Imagine my surprise when he brought out a sizeable pot of the stuff. I asked him “how much is that?” just at the exact moment that he pierced the top of the sealed container.

“Oh, it’s two hundred manat, sir.”

Gulp.

£100.

“Whooooah, hang on one minute, I’m not paying that.”

I remember having caviar – for the only time in my life – on a little French stick in Vienna in 1987. It was just a taste then, and I had visions of a very small portion this time too. I clearly wasn’t prepared to pay £100 for a great pot of the bloody stuff. Thankfully, the waiter understood and that was that. But I enjoyed my meal. It was wonderful. With a beer and some lovely ice-cream it came to £12.50. Superb. It had been a relaxing day. No surprises, I had slept well. As my father might have said of my bed in room 304, “it has a lot of sleep in it.”

My main objective on this day was to head over to visit the splendour of the Heydar Aliyev Centre. It was an hour’s walk – I was tempted, I Iove a good walk in a foreign city – but as my match ticket enabled me to travel for free on the city’s metro for one further day, I made use of it. Rain was spotting as walked up to Icarisharer tube, but it soon stopped. I spent an hour or so walking around the curves of the building. This structure was also featured in that TV programme about Baku. I felt as if I knew all about it. Sadly, as there was a concert taking place, I was unable to go inside. Along with a visit to the Palace of the Shirvanshahs in the old city, and that odd site of Yanar Dag to the north-east of the city where there is an eternal flame burning non-stop from natural gasses from deep inside the earth, it will have to wait until my next visit to Baku.

On the second day of my 2018/19 season, I found myself walking around the famous curves of the Sydney Opera House. On this second-from-last day of the season, here I was outside the equally sublime and beautiful curves of the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku.

Where next? The iconic lines of Preston Bus Station? Watch this space.

I loved it there. I loved the use of space. The undulating roof of the building is wonderful. And the whole structure sits on top of a gentle incline, and there is subtle use of grass and reflecting ponds. Typically, there was a large replica of the Europa League trophy at the base of the hill. It combined well with a “I Love Baku” sign. On this visit, the sky above was full of brilliantly fluffy clouds. Dotted around the grass lawns were odd concrete casts of snails and rabbits. It was like a surreal dream. It was bloody fantastic. It is no surprise that it is placed right on the main road into the city. It is surely Baku’s most stunning building.

To cap off another memorable day, I dived in to see a few pals – a couple of pints with Dave who was soon to be heading off to Kiev for one night – in “The Shakespeare” and made another trip down for some beers at “Harry’s Bar.” There were warm welcomes in both. I could hear some Arsenal chants from inside “The Red Lion.”

“Shit club no history.”

“Arsenal in Baku, this city is red.”

Yawn.

I’ll be honest. I bumped into two small parties of Arsenal that night – from Amersham, and then from Manchester – and they were fine. They were just so fed up with their team and their club.

Friday 31 May : 11.30am – Gobustan National Park.

On my last day in Baku, I was out on a half-day tour in a little mini-bus, to see the ancient cave etchings of the Gobustan National Park. I had booked this back in England. Imagine the look on my face when I saw Will and Noah waiting outside the travel agency.

“Of all the people we wanted to see. Hello, Chris.”

What a small world, eh? From a plane at Heathrow to a fifteen-seater in Baku. As I clambered aboard the mini-bus, who else should be on the vehicle but Margaret and Roy, two of the most loyal Chelsea supporters ever. They follow all of Chelsea’s teams, not just the first team like me, all over. I remember bumping into Roy at Bristol City’s training ground in around 2009 when we both watched a couple of Chelsea academy games on a Saturday morning. Again, what a small world. It was a four-hour trip. Alongside Will, Noah and myself was a chap called Tommy – an Arsenal supporter, from London – who turned out to be one of the most boring football supporters that I have ever met. I could not help bristling every time he referred to his team as “The Arsenal.” It is a pet hate of my good pal Alan too, and I thought of him every time I heard it. It did make me smile, though, when Tommy admitted to me “I wish we had Abramovich.”

Game. Set. Match.

The tour took us out on an hour drive to the south west of the city. The Gobustan stone carvings were quite fascinating, but it also gave me a chance to see a little of the scenery outside the city. There were oil rigs in the Caspian Sea and new houses being constructed alongside the roads. There was an abandoned Azerbaijani version of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa and an unappetising beach resort. There were oil, water and gas pipelines snaking over the arid landscape, and the inevitable oil refineries. Two companies dominate; BP and Socar. The tour guide was an interesting character; formerly an army captain, formerly an off-shore worker, and a hater of caviar. In his youth, caviar was cheaper than meat and his mother used to feed him it daily. He now can’t stand the stuff.

We were given a tour of the caves. At the end, he led us to the oldest carving of the morning.

“This one is seventeen thousand years old.”

I muttered to Will and Noah –

“Yeah, it depicts the Tottenham captain lifting their last league trophy.”

Friday 31 May : 7.30pm – Fountain Square, Baku.

After a meal in a pleasant restaurant – more salad, more kebabs – I was walking back through Fountain Square. I walked past a local father and son. I overheard the young boy mention Chelsea and Arsenal. I turned around and smiled. I intimated that I was Chelsea and gave the boy a thumbs up. The father explained –

“He wants to know of the history of Chelsea.”

I felt like stopping them, marching them into a café, sitting them down, turning on Google-translate, and entertaining them for three hours.

Later that evening, well aware that I had booked a cab to take me to the airport at 2am, I took it easy. There were some more photographs. I took around 1,750 over the week. My camera is my great companion on these trips around the world with Chelsea. There was time for an iconic shot of a roadside poster of the competing teams and UEFA logos right next to the historic, twelfth century Maiden Tower. Hopefully, another winner.

I sat next to some fountains in a little park on the main boulevard on the shore of the Caspian. I sat alone with my thoughts for many a minute.  I tried to take it all in. One moment touched me. A toddler reached out for her mother’s hand and they walked off together. It was a sweet moment, a lovely moment. I have no children and I do not generally harbour regrets. But this little moment obviously stirred me. At that moment, although not life-defining, I did ponder how different my life might have been had I become a father at some stage.

Would I still be in Baku?

Yes, probably.

Hopefully.

I made one last tour of my two favourite watering holes of the trip. I shared some laughs and some drinks – Cokes for me, I wanted to stay fresh – with Martin from Gloucester in “The Shakespeare” which was returning to some sort of normality after the recent madness.

After a quick visit to “Harry’s Bar”, I decided to head back to the hotel at about 11.30pm. The girl with no name raced after me after she saw me walking past “The Shakespeare.”

“When are you coming back?”

“Not sure, maybe when Chelsea play here again.”

“Have good livings.”

“You too, take care.”

And so, the trip was nearing its end.

I would indeed take a cab from the hotel to the Baku airport. There would be a 5am flight to Moscow, a two-and-a-half hour wait at the city’s Sheremetyevo Airport, another Aeroflot flight back to Heathrow. I would land early at just before midday on the Saturday morning and Russ would soon be there to meet me.

It would soon be all over; the trip, the travels, and the season.

Postcards From Baku

One last tale though, held over from Game One.

Tuesday 18 July : 6.00pm – Gulgong, New South Wales, Australia.

Glenn and I had spent three days in Sydney, and had picked up a car on the fourth day of the trip. We set off to see the Blue Mountains, stopping off at the windy town of Katoomba. We were headed later that afternoon towards Coonabarabran, a good four-hour drive. With the light just starting to fade a little, we made the wrong turning in an old-style outpost called Gulgong, and soon found ourselves on what is known in Australia as a corrugated road. It means that it is not tarmac, not asphalt, not concrete, not paved, but simply a dirt track that has become rutted through use. With the fuel tank showing a red light, I was starting to get a little agitated. I had visions of us running out of fuel on a farm track, miles from anywhere. The road conditions deteriorated a little. I was keen to head back to Gulgong, but Glenn was more gung-ho. After about twenty minutes of lonely driving, we spotted a chap – a farmer – on a quad bike, towing some sort of contraption, away to our right in a field full of alpacas. We slowed down and shouted over to him. He bounded over.

Glenn shouted out to him.

“We’re lost!”

The grizzled old farmer’s reply was wonderful.

“No you’re not. You’re here.”

Indeed, we were. His statement made us chuckle, but it reassured us. As long as he knew where we were, we were evidently not lost.

We were here.

Panic over.

And it has certainly seemed that, on many occasions this season that we – Chelsea Football Club in a very broad sense, but its supporters on various levels too – have been “lost.” It has felt like our journey was going nowhere. That we had no leadership at any level. That we were rudderless. And at times beyond hope.

But we were never lost.

We were a top six club, and would end up a top three club. At the end of it all, we would reach two cup finals. We would end up with silverware for the third consecutive season. We would end up with our fifteenth major trophy since 2000.

Altogether now.

Chelsea Four Arsenal One.

Chelsea Won Arsenal Lost.

See you next season.

 

Tales From Two Hours And Penalties

Chelsea vs. Eintracht Frankfurt : 9 May 2019.

A Gamble.

I had been looking at flights to Baku for ages. It was proving to be a tough nut to crack. In the back of my mind – or perhaps at the forefront of it – was the gnawing truth that by attending our second-leg against Eintracht Frankfurt, it would undoubtedly mean that I would not be able to pounce on any standard flights to Baku as soon as the game had ended. The scrum-down would be even worse should Arsenal reach the final. The cheapest flights that I had seen – tying in with my need to get back to work on the Friday – were at the £550 mark.

Remember that I had originally messed up at work. Another colleague had already booked a holiday on the week of the final but thankfully my boss had allowed me three days off. But the thought of travelling to Baku was still very messy.

I was, sadly, looking to rely on an expensive flight with the club or with a travel company. But I guessed that the price for that would be not much shy of £1,000. Moscow in 2008 was around a grand, and with no accommodation. I went with the club to Stockholm in 1998 with one night in a hotel for £450, which seemed obscene at the time. For Baku, I suspected that a club trip would be another “in out” trip with no overnight stay too. That would hardly be fun. I’d be exhausted on the day of the game and also once I returned.

Thoughts of Baku were proving to be irritating rather than pleasurable. This was not how it was meant to be. When I visited Baku in 2017 for the Qarabag match, I only scratched the surface and I would like to see more.

In my match report for that trip, I ended with this comment :

“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.”

But on Tuesday, things changed ever so slightly. At work, I learned of the job-sharing planned for the office staff to cover those four days when two would be off work. It looked like our little team would not be over-exposed.

That night, I opened things up. I looked at the cost of travelling out to Baku on the previous weekend and returning on the Saturday after the game.

I liked what I saw.

Six nights at a “three-and-half” star hotel right in the heart of Baku old town and some favourable flights from Heathrow to Baku via Istanbul – going – and Moscow – returning – would cost £979.

On Wednesday, cap in hand, I explained my thoughts to my manager.

He gave me the Friday off.

I thought again about the cost. But I am not following Chelsea to Boston nor Tokyo in the summer. I’ll probably go through the summer without any extended holiday anywhere. This would effectively be my summer holiday.

It was going to be “Baku or Bust.”

On Wednesday night – nothing like leaving it late, boy – I gambled and booked it all up.

Game Day.

On Thursday, the day of the game, I mentioned my plans to a couple at work, but my lips would be sealed at Stamford Bridge. I honestly did not want to be the ultimate Jonah and jinx it.

In the back of my mind, if we did not reach the final, and if Arsenal made it, I would bugger off to a coastal resort for the Thursday, thus avoiding it all. Should Valencia reach Baku, I would try to get a ticket and go to the final. There had been a personal precedent. Like many, I gambled in 2014 and spent four or five days in Albufeira on The Algarve  – along with two hundred other Chelsea – even though we had not qualified for the Champions League Final in Lisbon.

My mind was set. I assured myself that I had made the right decision.

Andy, a Tottenham fan, commented – “you’ll be fine, you’ll get through tonight.”

I was working a slightly later shift than I would have hoped. PD and Parky had met up for a romantic lunch earlier and, when I set off for London at just past four o’clock, they were travelling separately and so were well on their own way to Stamford Bridge, although not without a scare. I had purchased all three tickets for the game a while back, but Parky had not received his. He had presumed that his ticket had showed up at my house. It hadn’t. Sometimes Chelsea box office sends tickets individually, occasionally to the purchaser. Irritatingly, there is no standard procedure. He would need to pop in to the ticket office, cap in hand, before the game.

My route again took me south – leaving later, I feared horrific congestion on the M4 so I would go in again via the M3 – and my drive began with a little section over Salisbury Plain. It took me back to my time when I worked in Westbury, and to a specific day in April 1998 when Glenn and I drove along the very same road on the way to our European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final second leg against Vicenza. On that day and this one, the weather was wet and the skies were grey.

1995 and 1998.

Of course there was the ECWC semi-final against Real Zaragoza in 1995 – one that rarely gets a mention these days – but in 1998 we travelled to London with a very real chance to progress to our first European final since 1971. In 1995, we had been thumped 3-0 in Northern Spain and we held little hope of progressing. Although we won 3-1 on the night, we narrowly missed out. Had we progressed, we would have met Arsenal in Paris.

But 1998 felt different.

Our team that season was a lot more credible, a lot more fancied. We had narrowly lost 1-0 in Northern Italy – I did not go – but were very confident of turning it around in the second-leg. For the first time, we watched the game in the newly-built Shed End, and we watched as Chelsea did a pre-match huddle for the very first time. We played, oddly, in our yellow away kit. Our team included such Chelsea greats as Dennis Wise, Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli. It was a rotten and wet night, and when Vicenza scored a vital away goal, our spirits dropped. Thankfully, a crucial tap in from Gustavo Poyet just before half-time gave us hope. A fantastic cross from wide on the right wing from Vialli found the head of Zola, whose magnificent leap and header made it 2-2 over both legs, but with Vicenza still ahead. Mark Hughes came on with twenty minutes to go and after just six minutes, his ridiculous header to himself tee’d up the shot which smashed into the goal at the Matthew Harding end.

Everyone quotes the Bruges game in 1995 for the best atmosphere since the stadium was rebuilt, but Vicenza 1998 pushes it close. Only 33,810 were present, but we each played our part. We were euphoric. In those days, and many since, Alan’s lucky wine gums sent us on the way to victory and the subsequent final in Stockholm. We reconvened immediately after in our then local “The Harwood” – for those interested, this pub was featured in “The Football Factory”, or at least the outside scenes, and was also where Raquel Welch stopped for a drink while filming “Bedazzled” in a local film studio in 1967 – and downed a few celebratory drinks.

Our own little song during that evening in The Harwood was “The Self-Preservation Society” from “The Italian Job.” It felt right.

But there is an odd end to the story of our 1998 semi-final victory. The very next day, I was made redundant. It was one of the oddest twenty-four hours of my life. To add to the sadness, my – quite unexpected – redundancy came on the fifth anniversary of my father’s passing. From the highest high on Thursday to the lowest low on Friday.

I would go to Sweden unemployed. It was an odd few weeks in my life.

In the end, my redundancy money funded a few holidays – Chelsea in the main – over the next few seasons, and my career took a very worthwhile tangential leap from quality assurance to logistics.

I have not looked back, apart from in these match reports.

Hello Goodbye.

I drove to London and it was probably my first solo drive to Stamford Bridge since…when?…many years ago. Maybe ten years? I don’t know. The weather was dire. Rain, rain, rain. And the traffic was slow once inside the M25. I texted a few friends to say that I would not be there until seven o’clock, maybe later. My mind continually went over my “Baku or Bust” gamble. Fucking hell Chelsea, don’t let me down.

I convinced myself to purse my lips if anyone asked my about my travel options. I convinced myself that I’d mutter some nonsense and folk would think me odd.

Ugh.

I thought about the game against Frankfurt not once.

Eventually, at around 7.10pm, I parked up at Queens Club. I briefly popped in to say hello to the troops at “Simmons” one last time this season. I was only there for five minutes. A very brief “hello goodbye” to a few chaps – I had to bite my lip when Daryl asked if I was going to Baku – and out into the evening. Thankfully, the rain was only slightly spitting.

Another European Semi-Final.

We have contended so many in recent years, eh? I have lived and breathed these ones.

1995 – Real Zaragoza, lost.

1998 – Vicenza, won.

2004 – Monaco, lost.

2005 – Liverpool, lost.

2007 – Liverpool, lost.

2008 – Liverpool, won.

2009 – Barcelona, lost.

2012 – Barcelona, won.

2013 – Basel, won.

2014 – Atletico Madrid, lost

Our Opponents.

I made my way to Stamford Bridge, past many Frankfurt fans, many with half-and-half scarves and many without tickets. There were rumours of ten thousand travelling to London. They are one of the big names of German football. They will indelibly be linked with Real Madrid and Hampden Park. But I have been aware that they were recently enjoying the pleasures of the German second tier if only for a few seasons. I found it odd that they have rid themselves of their red and black stripes in favour of an all-black home kit. They lost 6-1 at Bayer Leverkusen at the weekend.

I have no real Eintracht Frankfurt story to tell, apart from this one.

In the summer of 1988, the European Football Championships took place in Germany and while I was over in Germany in the March of that year, I wanted to enquire how tickets for games would be made available. I had a notion of going over to follow England. On one afternoon, with light fading, I made a bee-line for the HQ of the “Deutsche Fussball Bund” – the German FA – which was based a few metres from the old Wald Stadium of Eintracht Frankfurt. I popped in and asked a few questions. I remember a large terraced stadium, surrounded by trees, way out of the city centre. That stadium was replaced for the 2006 World Cup Finals.

Not much of a story. Not much of a 1988 tournament, England lost all three, including a 3-1 defeat to Russia in Frankfurt.

3,965 Kilometres.

By the long wall to the left of the West Stand forecourt, I noted that there was, again, a special Europa League display on show. On it, were the words “Distance to Baku 3,965kms, one match to go, together to Baku.”

What patronising bullshit.

“Thanks for fucking reminding us all how far away it is.”

“Together to Baku? With only a rumoured seven thousand tickets for a club with over twenty-thousand season ticket holders and with forty thousand regulars, how can we all be together?”

The Team.

Kepa Arrizabalaga

Cesar Azpilicueta – Andreas Christensen – David Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Mateo Kovacic – Ruben Loftus-Cheek

Willian – Olivier Giroud – Eden Hazard

Pre-Match.

PD was inside with Al when I reached my seat.

“Doesn’t seem dark enough to be a European night.”

I soon spotted Parky. He was in.

The German supporters were jammed in with fifteen minutes to go. Their banners and flags were out in force. The dominant colour was black, with only occasional hints of red. The teams came on to the pitch. The away end turned white. “The Shed” flag surfed over the heads of our fans in the Shed Upper. The Eden Hazard banner did the same below me. His last-ever game at Stamford Bridge? Almost certainly. We were given blue flags to wave, but the thrill of that has gone.

There was more “Together To Baku” bullshit signage inside Stamford Bridge.

0-45.

The game began. We were in our usual kit. The visitors were in white, white and black. They had the first real chance of the match, a well-claimed header from their star forward Luka Jovic. But we started well, and Olivier Giroud showed some good link up play in the first part of the game. We carved out a couple of chances and were dominating possession. Willian sent in a ball that Giroud miss-controlled at the near post.

The German fans were singing – not super loud, others have been louder – but certainly constant. The upper tier waved their flags, then the lower tier. It was a great sight.

With a quarter of an hour gone, Kepa flung himself to his left and reached and reached. He tipped a fine volley over the bar. It a second stunner in the past two games.

The noise wasn’t fantastic to be honest, but there were outbreaks of Chelsea cheer. The Germans did a full on bouncy with 90% involvement across both tiers. I suggested to Albert who sits in front that our immediate reply of a similar bouncy would be a poor imitation. It was indeed. Our bouncy has had it day. It peeked at Derby County in 2004, it has been poor ever since.

All of our play seemed to be down our left. We had obviously spotted a weakness there. Our pressure grew. Jorginho back healed out of danger in his own penalty box and we gasped. A couple of half-chances, or maybe quarter-chances gave us hope. Another fine move down our left with Hazard linking well. A Willian free-kick was flicked towards goal by a deft David Luiz header but this was scrambled off the line. Our confidence was rising.

On twenty-eight minutes, some lovely trademark twists from Eden and a fine through pass to Ruben allowed our young midfielder to look up and assess the space. Time stood still. He touched the ball purposefully towards the far post and we watched, almost disbelieving, as it rolled over the line and into the net. The crowd gave it our all.

YEEEEESSSSSSSS.

Alan : “THEY WILL HAVE TO COME AT US NOW.”

Chris : “COME ON MY LITTLE SPARKLEGRUBERS.”

I could relax. A little. We never looked in danger during the rest of the first period. But it was still a nervy night. It was as if we were too nervy to sing. We heard that Valencia had taken a lead, but Arsenal had equalised.

Thoughts of Baku.

46-90.

In the first few minutes of the second period, I spotted – or rather heard – a very rare thing at Stamford Bridge. I think it was in answer to a similar song emanating from the away section, but a few souls in the MHL sang one short bust of “Chelsea Til I Due.” Now then dear reader, this was a first in my memory. I’ve never heard it sung at Stamford Bridge before. I know it gets hashtagged to death, but it has never been a Chelsea song.

A song much loved by lower league teams.

Not us.

Just after, Frankfurt waltzed through our defence – a Luiz half-hearted tackle created space – and Jovic blasted home an equaliser.

I blame #ctid.

And my trip to Baku was now looking problematic.

For fuck sake.

We went to pieces. Our high defensive line of the first-half shuffled back fifteen yards. Our confidence left us. Alan used a lovely phrase, aimed at Lovacic or Jorginho or Willian –

“That’s a tickle. Not a tackle.”

The nerves increased fifty-fold.

The game became scrappy. There was frustration and pain in the stands.

I could not help think about Baku. Arsenal were going through. The thought of all those replica-shirt-wearing muppets was making me feel ill. Maybe I could stay in Istanbul, get a cheap hotel or hostel and a cheap flight home from there. I did enjoy Istanbul in 2014.

There were few shots in the second-half. But plenty of annoyance in how our form had dipped. Jorginho, I will say, was holding things together. We obviously missed Kante. Ruben was drifting through the game, not enjoying his previous spark. On the hour, the loudest chant of the entire night. It reached 1998 levels, but soon petered out. Pedro replaced Willian on the hour and rushed around a lot without doing a great deal. Frankfurt themselves threatened our goal. An away goal would kill us. As the clock advanced, I could hardly believe how nerves were taking over my whole brain and body .On seventy minutes, Christensen was replaced by Davide Zappocosta. A real head-shaker. Azpilicueta moved alongside Luiz.Our back four now consisted of three Daves and an Emerson.

To be fair, Zappacosta – more Fiat than Ferrari – did inject a little energy into our team. One long shot soon tested the Frankfurt ‘keeper Trapp.

Giroud turned to the Matthew Harding to rally the supporters.

This was arse about face.

We should have been rallying the players.

We needed to get to ninety minutes. Conceding a goal in these last fifteen, ten or five minutes would be the end. I checked to ensure Andres Iniesta was not on their bench. With five minutes to go, Ross replaced Ruben. A low shot from distance from Giroud tested the Frankfurt goalie, but he was able to gather the rebound.

Five minutes of extra-time were signalled.

Nerves.

We held on.

Phew.

I chatted to a few neighbours.

“This is our chance now. We are at home. We need to drag them over the line. We need to roar them home.”

Our implosion right after the re-start of the game had proved our undoing once again. There is such fragility in our ranks. How the hell have we secured Champions League football for next season? In the break, a stunning song was aired.

“Heroes” by David Bowie.

91-105.

Our fourth substitute of the game – have we ever had four in a competitive game before? – took place as Gonzalo Higuain replaced Giroud, whose early promise had drifted away. So, we attacked The Shed again. Barkley, looking keen, shot from way out but only narrowly missed the target. A break down our right – with me shouting “get closer” – resulted in a low tempting cross being raked across the goal and the ball was poked goal wards by Sebastien Haller. At first, I thought it was going wide. But a scrambled kick off the line from Luiz – excellent one minute, average the next – saved us. Just after, a corner was headed towards goal by the same Frankfurt player and Zappacosta headed it over.

We were hanging on grimly.

And my nerves were fraying by the minute.

Just before the second period of extra time, “Blue Is The Colour” rang out.

“Cus Chelsea…Chelsea is our name.”

105-120.

The players were tired now. Hazard tended to roam, rather than be tied to his usual position, attempting to sniff out areas of weakness and decay in the Eintracht defence. It was tough to watch. It was all Chelsea, but with hardly any real chances being created. A rasper from Zapacosta stung ‘keeper Trapp’s fingers as he tipped it over. My nerves were shot, my heartrate was increasing, my sinews were unravelling. This was just horrible to watch.

With five minutes to go, and from a Hazard cross, Trapp fumbled and Azpilicueta bundled the ball over the line but the referee, rightly, cancelled the goal but not before a nano-second of celebration from me as I saw him point towards our goal.

Penalties.

This was tense as it could ever be.

Tottenham and Liverpool – I hope everyone appreciates how I have not mentioned them until now – and also Arsenal had reached the two end of season European grand finales. England – or some parts of it – was watching to see if we could make it four. Chelsea were being typical Chelsea and going about it the hard away.

I had no real time to think of much. I was pacing around like an expectant father. Nobody was enjoying this. Stern faces in the Matthew Harding Upper. I was beginning to regret no “Maynard’s Wine Gums” had been present.

The penalties were to take place at The Shed.

I set my camera.

“No shaking, Chris.”

Penalty One : Haller – Eintracht – scored, rolled to Kepa’s right.

Penalty Two : Barkley – Chelsea – scored, a confident slice to Trapp’s right.

Penalty Three : Jovic – Eintracht – scored, a roller to Kepa’s right.

Penalty Four : Azpilicueta – Chelsea – saved, a spawling lunge from Trapp to his left.

Hell, Cesar.

My world caved in. Thoughts of Baku, of Arsenal, of Istanbul, but also of Munich when we came back from the dead.

Penalty Five : De Guzman – Eintracht – scored, a confident strike to Kepa’s right.

Penalty Six : Jorginho – Chelsea – scored, that little skip and a chip to the right of Trapp.

At this stage, I had the briefest of thoughts. All three of their penalties had gone to Kepa’s right. Would he go that way? Would he stay still? What the fuck would I do?

Penalty Seven : Hinteregger – Eintracht – saved, straight at Kepa, who just crouched and trapped the ball under his shin.

It was the most ridiculous penalty save that I have ever seen.

Oh now we fucking roared alright.

“COME ON.”

Penalty Eight : Luiz – Chelsea – scored, low and to the ‘keeper’s right again.

The whole stadium on edge now.

Penalty Nine : Paciencia – Eintracht – saved, a faltering run-up and a shot to Kepa’s right that he saved magnificently.

We roared once again.

Advantage Chelsea.

Drogba in Munich.

Memories.

We waited. Eden Hazard placed the ball where Peter Osgood’s ashes lie.

We waited.

Penalty Ten : Number Ten Hazard – Chelsea – his last-ever kick at Stamford Bridge – scored, a small run-up, a dink to Trapp’s right, the ‘keeper going left.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

To say I was happy would be way off the mark.

I was fucking euphoric.

I shook with joy, I screamed, the boys were going to Baku, the boys were going to Azerbaijan, I was going to Baku, I was going to Azarbaijan, oh my fucking goodness.

While PD and Al bounced and hugged and jumped and screamed, I stood shaking.

My eyes were a little moist.

Chelsea Football Club. I fucking love you.

Tales From Third Place

Chelsea vs. Watford : 5 May 2019.

At around 7.30pm on a clear and sunny but occasionally chilly evening, Glenn dropped me off outside my house. It had been another excellent day out in London with some fine friends. For Glenn, it was sadly his last game of this ridiculous season. I reached over and shook his hand and thanked him for driving for the second home game in a row. We very briefly exchanged thoughts about the manager once more. I thought back to the very first match of the season and I smiled as I said the word “Perth.” How can the campaign be almost over? How can that game that Glenn and I attended in Western Australia in late July seem like it only happened a month ago? Time and life is accelerating away far too damn quickly for me, for all of us.

Glenn had collected me at 7am. PD was already riding shotgun, and Lord Parky joined us soon after.

Both PD and Lord Parky were rather tattered and torn after their European travels in the week. Due to a delayed flight from Cologne, they did not get home until 4.30am on Saturday morning. They were both – as the saying goes – “hanging.” It was such an odd feeling to be watching their activities via Facebook on Wednesday and Thursday, with me being confined to barracks, working the late shift in Melksham. But by forgoing the semi-final – I don’t always make European semi-finals, Madrid 2014 certainly springs to mind – at least I had engineered some time off for the potential trip to Baku for the final.

Yes, it was an odd one alright. PD, Parky and little old me have been joined at the hip for most of this season and it was strange not to be over there in Frankfurt. It reminded me of an occasion, which sticks very vividly in my mind, from my early teen years when my parents, my grandparents and I squeezed into my father’s Renault and drove down to visit relatives in South Somerset. It hadn’t been a particularly long journey. But at the end of, it while my father tried to locate a place to park, my mother – who had been sitting alongside me – got out of the car and walked behind the car as it drove away, in order to pre-warn the relatives that we had arrived. I looked back at my mother, now separate from the main party, and it felt odd. That all happened almost forty years ago. Why do I mention it? I don’t know. It was if a connection had been lost, that my mother was now adrift, that she was on her own.

Forty years on, I never ever thought I would be referencing it to a Chelsea game in Frankfurt, but there you go.

Just before 10am, we entered the now familiar surroundings of “The Eight Bells” once again. The bar staff recognised us. It is soon becoming my local, one hundred miles from home. We were joined by Ollie and Julien from Normandy. I have known Ollie for a few years and we bump into each other at occasional games here and there. He is well known in the Chelsea family. It was lovely to see him again. I had not previously met Julien, his cousin, and it gave me a chance to reel off a few loosely remembered phrases from French “O level” in 1981.

I thanked Ollie for being one of the first few subscribers to this blogarama. We chatted about our love of “old school” stadia and we are both looking forward to the trip to Bramall Lane next season. I’m pretty happy with Sheffield United and Norwich City’s promotion to the top flight. We have already spoken about staying over in those cities next season, depending upon kick-off times. Elsewhere in the Football League pyramid, there were some sobering developments. Somerset’s only Football League team Yeovil Town were returned to non-league football after a spell of sixteen years in the Football League, rising to one single season in the Championship in 2013/14. A sadder tale involves the world’s oldest professional club, Notts County, who joined Yeovil Town in the second relegation spot. It does not seem so long ago that while Chelsea were toiling in the Second Division, Notts County were enjoying a few seasons – 1981/82, 1982/83 and 1983/84 – in Division One. We were last in the same division in 1991/92. A college pal, Craig, went to the Notts game at Swindon Town on the Saturday. I felt for him.

Why mention this?

I remember Notts County getting promoted ahead of us in 1980/81 when our season fell away dramatically after Christmas. And now they will be playing non-league football next season. A lot of newer Chelsea fans have a dig at people like me, always harking back to the days when Chelsea Football Club were under-performing and that these days are, by comparison, nothing to get too overemotional about. But I don’t care. Chelsea’s history in those bleaker years have coloured my opinions over the past twenty-five years of sustained success.

And that ain’t going to change.

We were then joined by John, Kev and Rich, from Edinburgh, all Hearts supporters. I have a lot of time for all three of them. On the Saturday, John had taken his two-year-old grandson to Tynecastle for the very first time. The pictures on Facebook had made me smile. The young lad fared better than the Jambos who lost 1-0 to Steve Clarke’s Kilmarnock. Then the Kent lads showed up. It was all very pleasant. The pints of “Grolsch” were hitting the spot. I laughed as I turned to John and said “bollocks to the football, let’s just stay here.”

Ah, the football. After Tottenham’s calamitous performance against Bournemouth the previous afternoon – two sendings off and a late winner from Nathan Ake – we were now in a position where two more wins would secure us automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League.

Oh what a crazy bloody season.

In previous conversations, we had been worried about getting points at Leicester City, and Watford would hardly be easy pickings. But two wins. Just two wins. It seemed achievable, and yet…

The team?

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

As is the case these days, the last home game of the season gives the commercial team at Chelsea Football Club a chance to display the new home kit for the forthcoming season, despite the fact that we will no doubt revert to the 2018/19 design for the games against Eintracht Frankfurt and Leicester City. As for the potential final in Baku, I am hoping for a repeat of 2012 and 2013 – when kits from those seasons were used – and not 2008, with a kit which was destined to bring back awful memories throughout the following campaign.

So. The 2019/20 Chelsea kit.

Have you got a minute?

I didn’t spot too many supporters wearing the new shirt on the walk to Stamford Bridge. I, like many, have spent the past few weeks fearing the worst, ever since a photograph of a new design was shared on the internet.

My thoughts?

The notion of honouring Stamford Bridge on the home shirt is not a ridiculous idea. Way back in 1995, Umbro took the decision to go for a panoramic shadow print of Old Trafford on the Manchester United home shirt. I wasn’t a huge fan, but it sold by the thousands, and millions. At the time, we all joked that it was the nearest many United fans would get to Old Trafford.

Stamford Bridge has – let’s be honest – rather a hotchpotch selection of stands. The East Stand is probably the most iconic – the most recognisable – but the three newer ones are of varying heights, with differences in sizes, in shape, in impact. So, dear reader, if I was given the brief to design a new Chelsea shirt embodying our home since 1905, I may well have chosen other sights and motifs.

The Peter Osgood statue, on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1970 FA Cup Final triumph – when The King scored in every round – would be a good place to start. A subtle shadow print of a single image over the chest perhaps. Or if the mantra of “less is more” is not adhered to, and the brief was for multiple images, then how about the ivy on The Shed Wall, or the Gatling Gun weather vane from atop the East Stand? How about the “Chelsea Football Club” signage on the wall between The Shed and the West Lower, which in itself is a nod to the wording used on the old Leitch East Stand which welcomed supporters to Stamford Bridge for decades?

Or how about a single panoramic image – as subtle as possible – of that often-referenced sweeping black and white panorama from the ‘twenties?

Well, instead of this, the design team chose – as far as I can muster – repeated images of circular roof trusses, roof supports and side screens.

And not just a few subtle dabs here and there. The ramshackle design covers the entire shirt. It appears that random geometric shapes have been thrown together.

It is – let me be clear here – fucking hideous.

The blue of the shorts looks to me, from my subsequent match photos, to be a slightly darker hue than the main body of the shirt. And although the decision was to, thankfully, maintain the classic white socks, the design seems to be a year late. The current 2018/19 kit design is meant to reflect the 1983/84 kit, but next season’s socks are closer to the 1983/84 style than this season. And whereas both new shirts and shorts are solidly blue – albeit in three different tones – the socks have a red band, therefore not tying it in with either shorts or socks. Oh, apart from an oddly-placed red stripe under the rear of the collar. Additionally, the images of the rectangles and circles that make up the design appear to be smudged. Not crisp. Not clear. As a metaphor for the way parts of the club operates, it is – however – perfect.

It’s a bloody mess.

Why should I care, though?

Well, the sad fact is that I do care. It looks like a dog’s dinner. It looks like the sort of children’s pyjamas that are on sale in the bargain aisle at “Asda.” And, if the reaction of the vast majority of Chelsea supporters that I interact with is to go by, it is rated as one of the worst ever. And that means, ergo, that Nike won’t be getting the desired sales returns that they might have hoped. Which defeats the bloody object of designing a new kit in the first place.

I hate modern football part 259.

On the pitch down below me, Watford surprised us all with their attacking verve in the first-half. They were by far the more enterprising of the two teams. They buzzed about us like proper hornets in their waspish shirts. The highlight from our players was a truly magnificent save from Kepa as he flung himself to his right to tip over a Troy Deeney drive. The away fans in their yellow and black were enjoying their team’s early dominance. We, however, struggled to get a foothold on the game. Sadly, N’Golo Kante was injured within the first ten minutes and we missed his drive in the first-half. He was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Although I did not see the game on Thursday, many mentioned that he was our best player in Frankfurt. Gerard Deulofeu managed to find space to threaten our goal and shots were fired in from outside the box. We really struggled, and rarely carved out chances.

There was, at last, a nice little give and go between Gonzalo Higuain and Pedro. The Spaniard’s drive flashed past the far post.

There was an penalty shout for a foul on David Luiz. I wasn’t convinced.

At the break, although I am sure the people that I bumped into didn’t all offer this blunt, and hardly erudite, opinion, but the general consensus was :

“Fucking shit.”

Thankfully, the second-half was a vast improvement.

I am not normally a huge fan of short corners at all. However, after Eden Hazard forced a save from the Watford ‘keeper Ben Foster, the subsequent corner was played short to Pedro. Hazard clipped the return into the six-yard box and our Ruben rose virtually unchallenged.

A strong downward header, and we were one up.

Hazard blasted at Foster. We were all guns blazing now.

Two minutes later, another Hazard corner on the far side, but this time a direct approach. Another free header though, this time from the head of Luiz.

Two up and coasting.

Those three points were looking good.

This was more like it, Chelsea. With the confidence of a two goal cushion, our play looked a lot more appetising. There was one surging run from our Eden – possibly the last that I will ever capture on film at Stamford Bridge – which had the Watford defence back peddling and questioning their choice of career.

We went close with efforts from Pedro, Loftus-Cheek and Higuain. The dangerous Deulofeu would not be quietened at the other end. He slammed a low shot wide of the far post.

With fifteen minutes to go, Higuain – who had attempted a few tricky passes to others – saw a hint of space and lost his marker. He was set free inside the box by the excellent Pedro, and the Argentinian – we share the same shit barber – dinked a delicate lob over the ‘keeper.

Chelsea 3 Watford 0.

Game over. Almost.

Watford hit the bar. They deserved a goal to be fair.

Olivier Giroud came on for Higuain and contrived to bugger up a couple of chances. In the very last minute, Dave gave the captain’s armband to Gary Cahill, who replaced David Luiz. His season has been a painful one. It was lovely to see him in Chelsea blue one last time.

He’s won it all, you know.

A last jink from Eden and a last shot on goal.

It did not matter. A three-nil win was the final result.

Meanwhile, up in Huddersfield, the home team had – somehow – managed to hold Manchester United to a 1-1 draw. On the way home, all but the driver caught up on some sleep, and as we woke we heard that Brighton had drawn 1-1 at Arsenal.

That was it. The others had committed hari kari and Chelsea Football Club were guaranteed Champions League football in 2019/20.

What a bloody crazy season.

On Thursday, we take on Eintracht Frankfurt and some of their ten thousand-strong travelling army.

I will see some of you there.

I’ll be the one not wearing pyjamas.

Tales From Camp Nou

Barcelona vs. Chelsea : 14 March 2018.

Some moments in time…

Bristol Airport / Tuesday 13 March / 0700.

I had set the alarm for 3am in preparation to collect PD at 4.30am and then Parky at 5.00am. But, in reality, I had woken at 1.45am and could not get back to sleep. I was evidently buzzing with excitement. After picking up the lads, it was obvious that the others were buzzing too. I headed out through Bath and some narrow countryside lanes as day broke. We were parked-up at 6am. Check-in was easy, and we were soon able to relax. We were on our way. Not surprisingly, there were a few Chelsea fans from our part of the world on the same flight as us. A Chelsea fan – I forget his name – from Falmouth. Kev from Port Talbot. Emma from Bridgewater. A few Chelsea supporters from Wincanton. Plus several more, all with West Country accents. There were not as many as on the early-morning flight for the 2012 game, but still a healthy presence. I just knew that “2012” would be on my mind continually over the length of our trip. There was only a small amount of talk about the game on the Wednesday. We had a chance, of course we did. But if I was a betting man my money would have been on the home team. The flight was due to depart at 7.30am. It left around twenty minutes late.

On the flight, I tried to catch up on a little sleep. But I also flicked through a “Lonely Planet” pocket guide to Barcelona to whet my appetite. Additionally, in my build-up to the trip to Catalonia, I had worked my way through Colm Toibin’s “Homage To Barcelona” and although I struggled with the density of prose, it certainly helped me appreciate some of the history of the city. Before my first trip to Camp Nou with Chelsea in 2000, I had devoured Jimmy Burns’ monumental “Barca” and this proved a perfect “hors d’oeuvres” to that trip. This time, I wanted to read a little about the city rather than the football club. The city has at various times enjoyed periods of opulence and then decline as a major port and a centre of commerce. There have been highly-charged politics, and anarchy, throughout its history. There has been stunning architecture. The city has enjoyed a status rivalling Paris as a centre for the arts in the past two centuries. Antoni Gaudi, Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso have called the city their home. As the trip approached, I wanted to devote a little of my forty-eight hours in Barcelona to a little of the city’s history. I had visited Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in 2012 and I had spotted a few of his wonderful and dreamlike buildings on that trip too. We had seen the wide spread of the city’s architecture on a bus top tour prior to our game at Camp Nou in 2005. I fancied something different this time. I delved a little deeper, and centered on Joan Miro. His paintings appealed; I can’t say why. They looked other-worldly. I realised that he had designed the iconic “Espana ‘82” poster for the World Cup of thirty-six summers ago and there was the reference point that I needed. On the Wednesday, I had my itinerary set. For others, I knew that a day of bar-hopping would suffice. But this would be my fourth trip to the city with Chelsea, and sixth in total, and I wanted to try something different. I wanted my visit to Barcelona in 2018 to be “more than a pub.”

Aeroport de Barcelona El Prat / Tuesday 13 March / 1045.

Our mate Foxy, from Dundee, was waiting for us as we swept through the security checks at the arrivals hall. As we walked towards the metro station – quite a walk – my eyes were set on the hills that circled the city. Way north, the peaks were stunning, and a little like the rounded peaks of Montserrat. The view bewitched me.

La Soca 2/ Carrer de Mallorca / Tuesday 13 March / 1600.

There was a metro ride into the city, a couple of beers in a bar while we waited to be allowed in to our apartment of Carrer de Floridablanca, and then a bar-hopping walk to where we needed to collect our match tickets. There were more Catalonia flags draped over balconies than in 2012. Our tickets were rightfully collected. We could relax further. Opposite, we spotted a street-side bar – number four of the day – and decided to order some crisp “Estrellas.” Very soon, we were joined by some good friends; Jason, the two Bobs, and Andy. Others joined us. We had a great natter. I enjoyed it immensely. A proper discussion about the current state of the club with some wise old heads. And yes, of course, the beer was going down well, some would say too well.

Eclipse Bar At W Hotel Barcelona / Tuesday 13 March / 2200.

After our lengthy spell at “La Soca 2” we dived into two more bars on our way back to our apartment. As workers made their way home after completing their duly grind, we must have looked an incongruous sight, laughing and giggling as we walked past them. There was a quick change of clothes at about 7pm, and we then hailed a cab to take us down to a restaurant on a little point of land overlooking one of the city’s beaches. Inside “Pez Vela” the fish soup and mussels were gorgeous, if not particularly filling. We were joined by Kev and Rich from Edinburgh, our partners in crime in Rome, and we then made our way up to the bar high up inside the W Hotel, just above the restaurant, which is shaped like the sail of a ship. There were simply incredible views looking back towards the city, with lights as far as the eyes could see. It was a brilliant moment. The drinks were still flowing, and we were clearly on a mission. We were joined by a couple of Chelsea fans from Stoke. More drinks. There was a certain inevitability that things were going to career out of control as the night continued. We split into three groups, with Foxy and Parky heading back to the apartment, PD and Kev and Rich heading back to the city, while I disappeared into a time vortex with Ryan and Jack from Stoke. The Estrella gave way to gin and tonics. One of the Stokies bought some champagne. Oh my goodness. The alcohol had taken its toll, and while the two Stokies were able to head inside “Pacha”, I was refused entry – the horror of seeing me on the dance floor after a gallon of Estrella was thankfully aborted – and the lads sent me off in a cab to their hotel, since I had given my apartment keys to PD. As nights go, it had certainly been messy.

O’Barazal Restaurant / Carrer de Blasco de Garay / Wednesday 14 March / 1330.

After finding my way back to the apartment at around 10am, there was just time to have a “what the hell happened last night?” post-mortem with the others. Ironically, despite the apartment having four bedrooms, only Foxy and Parky managed to make it back the previous night. Miraculously, I had no hangover. The others soon set off into the city, and I knew that there would be another momentous drinking-session ahead, so I politely declined. I needed to recharge my phone batteries – zero charge – and my own personal batteries too – just over zero. After an hour or so, I set off on a walk south towards the Montjuic hill which overlooks the city. I was enticed into a busy little restaurant and enjoyed a lovely long and leisurely lunch; a hearty tuna salad, some bread and tomatoes, and then some lamb cutlets, chips and grilled vegetables.

Joan Miro Foundation / Wednesday 14 March / 1500.

I made my way up the hill, through a square which reminded me of Montmartre. Yet more Catalan flags. And lots of yellow ribbons tied to trees and streetlamps. I made my way inside the Miro art gallery, and wandered through the various rooms. I so wanted to see the original of the poster from the 1982 World Cup; I was defeated. There wasn’t even one on sale in the shop. But I had a lovely time, and I enjoyed seeing the sculptures outside in the open air which were able to be framed against the cityscape to the north; the houses nestled into the hills, the TV tower at Collserola, the huge church at Tibidabo – the Barcelona equivalent of Turin’s Superga – and the fading sun. From one viewpoint, I was able to locate the mid-grey mass of Camp Nou, its ‘fifties concrete shell topped with a series of fluttering flags. Thoughts of 2012 once more. But also thoughts from 1986, too, when I travelled around Europe on an Inter-Rail pass, and stopped off in Barcelona, primarily to visit the stadium. I remember thinking that there was nothing like it in the world; certainly there was nothing comparable in the United Kingdom. It was huge. And stunning. I was over-whelmed. Of course, it is very much an aged stadium these days. But it is so impressive in size, in mass, in grandness. It just makes my jaw drop every time. On my descent down in to the city, I passed five or six teenagers knocking a football around between them. They were all Spanish. Two of them were wearing Chelsea shirts. I certainly would not have seen this in 1986. I gave the two lads a thumbs up and they smiled back.

The Daily Telegraph / Carrer de Paul Claris / Wednesday 14 March / 1900.

It was time to meet up with the lads, but I wasn’t sure if they were heading back to the apartment to pick up tickets, and change into warmer gear before the game. A text from Kev told of their location and I was on my way. I walked from the apartment through the bustling city as night fell, with many people wearing FCB scarves, and past the sublime floodlit curves of a Gaudi building on the main shopping street of Passeig de Gracia. I spotted the restaurant where I had met up with a former work colleague – a Barcelona socio – before the game in 2012. The memories of that night would not go away. PD and Parky – with Kev, Rich and Gillian – had evidently spent their day on a lengthy drinking session, and as I joined them inside the small and dark pub, I was pleased to see Daryl and Gary with them. There was time for one pre-match beer and a single shot. I was itching to leave and head off to the game. We left at about 7.30pm.

Carrer de la Maternitat / Wednesday 14 March / 2048.

We had taken the subway from Passeig de Gracia, and we had heard whispers that Chelsea supporters should alight at Palau Rieal, which was to the north of the stadium. This surprised me somewhat because the away section sits at the south-east corner of the stadium. At Les Corts, further south and east, we decided to follow many Chelsea supporters and headed out into the night. What followed was three-quarters of an hour of madness. Rather than be allowed to enter at the nearest gate to our section, as in 2012, we were diverted back towards Les Corts, up a quiet side street, around a hospital, and then – after a good twenty-minute detour – we spotted the entrance for Chelsea supporters to the north-east of the stadium. It honestly seemed like we were being diverted in order to cause as much annoyance as possible. On the walk, I passed a bar where I had a post-game beer in 2012. A Chelsea fan told us that Olivier Giroud was playing. This surprised me a little; would we get hurt being a little more expansive? But at least it met with the approval of most. We set off down a narrow street, but were held back for ticket checks on two separate occasions. Here, the blue-clothed police were in charge. There were rising tensions among the group of around seventy Chelsea fans who were pressing to get in. As we walked on, we heard the pre-match Barca anthem filling the air. In front of us, Camp Nou was a huge wall of concrete. It seemed that we would never scale it, neither physically nor metaphorically. Eventually, we made it down to the final barrier, manned by stewards with green tabards. There was a further ticket check. But maybe just three or four turnstiles for the six-thousand fans. What a farce. There were still lots of pushing and shoving – to say nothing of swearing – but to be honest after such a long day spent by many in pubs and bars, the absolute majority of away fans were well-behaved. Thirty years ago, I think there might have been a different story. My camera was allowed in after the briefest of checks.

Just as we were walking through, there was a roar from inside. It was too loud for a Chelsea goal. We were losing one-nil and we weren’t even anywhere near the away section yet. The word came through that Messi had scored. Bizarrely, we now had to scale a rickety bridge in order to reach the ramps of the stadium. My only thought was that its presence allowed the movement of vehicles – cars, but also the emergency services – below it, but I simply wondered why we had to clamber over it. Why could we not have just walked through? My guess was that Spain is not used to six-thousand away fans, and this is the best solution that the mighty FC Barcelona could muster. It was laughable at first. But as we started to ascend the fifteen or twenty steps, the damned structure began rocking. There were maybe fifty fans on it, and we were all in a rush to get inside, and for a split second – with my balance threatened – I honestly thought that I was going to fall. I am sure I was not the only one. Losing 1-0, a huge ramp ahead of us, we walked on. I was with PD, slowly ascending the ramp which – another 2012 memory – we had gloriously descended six years previously. Parky was away in the distance and we lost sight of him.

Camp Nou / Wednesday 14 March / 2100.

Although hundreds were behind us, still clambering up the ramps and steps to the away tier at the top, it seemed – at first – implausible that the two of us would find a spare space to watch the game. The stadium was as I remembered it; we hovered over it, rather than felt part of it. We were so high. Chelsea fans were stood in the aisles. Eventually I spotted the smallest of spaces, around five rows from the rear. We shuffled along. We were in. Phew. So, an echo from 2012. We had conceded an early goal. I scanned around. Andres Iniesta was playing, damn. We were in Real Madrid white. Our support spread out to my left and to my right. It was a highly impressive following. I hoped that everyone who had travelled had got a ticket. Or at least those without tickets had fatefully met those who had tickets but who had chosen to watch the game in city centre bars. A chap next to me told of how Messi had scored his goal from the tightest of angles. I wondered how on earth it was possible. Chelsea seemed to be playing OK in the five minutes that I was able to see. Eden Hazard cut in from the right, but his shock was blocked. With twenty minutes of the match gone – and with us in the stadium itself for just five minutes – we then lost the ball on the halfway line. A couple of challenges did not win the ball back and Messi was able to advance. He drew defenders towards him. I spotted the run on the far side from Ousmane Dembele. And so did Messi. I feared the worst. His shot flew past Thibaut Courtois and we were 2-0 down. Fuck. But this was a pretty similar position that we were in six years ago apart from the fact that we now needed to score two goals to progress and not just one. Courtois kept us in the game, saving well from Luis Suarez. We kept attacking, with a shot from Marcos Alonso drawing a save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen. I lost count of the number of times I imagined a ball to Ramires in the inside-right channel. A shot from N’Golo Kante slithered across the box, but was well wide. Just before the break, Giroud was fouled outside the penalty area, and we waited and waited for Marcos Alonso to strike. Sadly, his pacey effort clipped the outside of the post. We had it all to do in the second-half.

The mood among the Chelsea fans as the team entered the pitch at the start of the second-half was pretty buoyant. As the lads waited for the home team to appear, we serenaded them.

“You are my Chelsea. My only Chelsea. You make me happy when skies are grey. You’ll never notice how much I love you. Until you’ve taken my Chelsea away…”

It was stirring stuff. Courtois then had a brain freeze and passed in error to Suarez. Thankfully, he redeemed himself. But we were far from happy with the lanky Belgian’s performance thus far. But we pressed on, and were rewarded with twenty minutes of impressive football. Willian was our best player by some margin, spinning away from danger, running free, showing great energy, as always. Hazard, it pains me to say it, was not of the same standard. There were few direct runs at the defence, but rather silly flicks and square passes. He did not rise to the occasion. Kante was magnificent in the middle, closing and tackling, giving the ball to team mates. There were contrasting fortunes on the wings. Moses was his usual frustrating self, losing possession too easily, and unable to drift past his man. On the near side down below us, Alonso was given tons of space for some reason and kept bombing on and into pockets of space. But for all of our fine football, time was running out. Bizarrely, three people in the row in front left with half-an-hour to go.

Did they not believe in miracles?

Alonso, on the end of another raid into their box, was just about to pull the trigger when Samuel Umtiti stopped him with a sublime tackle. Just after, the same player was spread-eagled by Gerard Pique after a fine move involving Willian, Hazard and Giroud and the whole away section – that thin slice on top of the concrete bowl – were incandescent with anger. Popcorn, coins and water bottles were thrown up in the air and down towards the Barcelona fans in the tier below. Another shot from Alonso; another block.

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

The clock ticked on.

A hurried clearance from Andreas Christensen was intercepted by Jordi Alba and his touch found Suarez. Out of nowhere, came an unmarked Messi, and – I absolutely feared the worst now – after a couple of pushes of the ball in to space, a shot was slammed low into our goal. Only on the replay were we able to spot that, like his first goal, the ball had travelled through Courtois’ legs.

Game over.

Our little resurgence had been for nothing. We were out. And hundreds of Chelsea fans, fearful of a lock-in, decided to leave.

Courtois saved from a Paulinho header. There was a double substitution from Antonio Conte; Davide Zappacosta for Victor Moses and Alvaro Morata – heavily booed – for Olivier Giroud. As the game continued, the away sector thinned out further. The introduction of Pedro for Hazard brought the loudest chant of the night from the 92,000 home fans.

“Pedro…Pedro…Pedro…Pedro.”

To be fair to the home fans, apart from the last two or three minutes, they had all stayed late into the game. But this was not a noisy night from them; it very rarely is. Toni Rudger slammed a header against the bar from a corner, but it was soon time for the final whistle.

Barcelona 3 Chelsea 0.

Tuesday had been a messy night.

Wednesday was a Messi night.

We waited and waited in the forlorn hope of spotting Parky. We both sent him text messages, but my worry was that his ‘phone did not have enough charge. PD and I were some of the very last to leave. We began the slow descent back to earth. Not the euphoria of 2012 this time; I was reminded more of the misery of 2000. We had almost reached the last exit ramp when we were brushed aside by many stewards, who we presumed were answering a call for assistance due to some sort of altercation between the two sets of fans. There had been pro-Spain chants on the walk from Les Corts before the game, during the match, and now once more at the end.

“Barcelona. You’ll always be Spain.”

Although it was a rather boorish chant, I am sure that this would generally be classed as “football banter” even in these times. I didn’t sing it, I had no need, but this all seemed too strange for words. Was this the reason for the melee down below us? We weren’t sure. We met up with a father and son who had hinted that some Chelsea fans had held a Spanish flag towards the home fans leaving the stadium. This all seemed rather silly an excuse for the stewards to rush past us. We were only to hear later that those self-same stewards had then decided to batter Chelsea fans – one presumes largely innocent – with batons. To reiterate, we had seen nothing with our own eyes. But I had to wonder, later, why stewards were issued with batons. It was an unsavoury end to the night for sure.

We clambered over the rickety scaffold of before and I was saddened to see one elderly lady stricken with terror after her ordeal.

There was still no sight nor sound of Parky.

PD and I traipsed on, past the antiquated building of La Masia, which houses the headquarters of Barcelona’s famed academy. There were Chelsea supporters dotted about in every bar that we passed. No hint of trouble. Everyone drowning their sorrows. We decided to let the crowds disperse and get a cab back to the apartment. But there was still a worry about Parky.

L’abus Restaurant / Carrer de Joan Guell / Wednesday 15 March / 2345.

We spotted a small café, and needing some food, we darted in, saying a quick “hello” to three Chelsea fans by the door. We ordered a bottle of ice-cold “Estrella” apiece, and the taste was sublime. We devoured a plate of ham, eggs and chips apiece. Just the ticket. By some quirk of fate, we were back at Les Corts once again, and we soon hopped into a cab. The journey back to the apartment would only take ten minutes.

When we were only two minutes away from our destination, PD received a surprising call from our friend Mark from Westbury. Mark had just reached his apartment, along with two friends. The sight that greeted him was just amazing. Who should be sat – slumped – outside his apartment door but Parky. Unknown to us, Mark had booked an apartment across the landing from us – a mere eight feet away – and had obviously been startled to see Parky outside it. Even more amazing was that Parky had remembered the apartment address.

We collapsed in a fit of laughter.

We then collapsed in to our beds.

It was time for some sleep.

Tales From Pure Football

Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 20 February 2018.

There is no bloody doubt about it. I simply cannot lie. When I awoke at just before 5am, my first thoughts were of the game against Barcelona, but these were not positive thoughts. I was so worried that our Chelsea – living up to my nickname of The Great Unpredictables this season – might suffer a calamitous humiliation at the hands of Messi, Iniesta, Suarez et al. Let us face the truth; Barcelona are a hugely talented football team.

“I’ll be happy with a 0-0” I told colleagues at work.

As the day progressed, this was my mantra; keep the buggers from scoring an away goal. Keep it tight. Maybe, just maybe, nab a 2012-style 1-0 win.

Ah, 2012.

That game seems so fresh in my mind, but it is almost six years ago. And there have been so many more. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen all our Champions League matches against the Cules from Catalonia at Stamford Bridge.

Let’s wander down memory lane.

5 April 2000 : This was a fine Chelsea team, but we were under performing in the league, and would go on to finish fifth. In the pub beforehand – in the front part of The Goose for a change, I can remember it to this day – we were pragmatic at best and pessimistic at worst. We seriously doubted our progress over the two legs of this quarter final. But what did we know? We stormed into a stunning 3-0 lead with all goals in an eight-minute spell during the first-half.  I remember racing up the steps behind my seat when the third one went in to expel some energy. Two came from from Tore Andre Flo and one from Gianfranco Zola. A goal from Luis Figo midway through the second-half took the smile off our collective faces. Fackinell, Chelsea. But what a night. The atmosphere crackled all night long. Superb.

8 March 2005 : We were 2-1 down from the first-leg and this was as good a game as any I have witnessed in forty-four years of Chelsea games. We repeated the feat of 2000, accelerating away to a 3-0 lead, but such was our dominance that all goals came in the first twenty-minutes. Stamford Bridge was again shaking thanks to goals from Eidur Gudjohnsen, Frank Lampard and Damian Duff. And then the game turned against us. A Ronaldinho brace – a penalty and then that gut-wrenching toe-poke – before the break meant it was advantage Barca. We roared the team on. A towering John Terry header from a corner (pictured) gave us the win and the place erupted. There have been few nights at Chelsea like that one.

22 February 2006 : The two clubs were drawn together in the knock-out phase, and this game was a tetchy affair. This was our first viewing of Lionel Messi – just eighteen – and the Argentine’s scuffle with Asier del Horno over in the corner of the Matthew Harding and the East Stand resulted in our full-back getting sent-off early in the game. But we re-grouped well and went ahead when Thiago Motta headed an own-goal from a Frank Lampard free-kick (pictured). Sadly, this was cancelled out by a John Terry own goal. Samuel Eto’o then headed a late winner. In the return leg in Catalonia, the two teams drew 1-1 and out we went.

18 October 2006 : We were becoming regular foes by now. This time, the two teams met in the autumnal group phase set of matches. A stunning solitary Didier Drogba goal gave us a narrow 1-0 win, and our striker celebrated in fine fashion down below us (pictured). After injuries to both Petr Cech and Carlo Cudicini at Reading four days earlier, this was a game in which Hilario started. To be fair to him, he pulled off a few great saves to see us hang on to the win.

6 May 2009 : We held out for a gutsy 0-0 in the first leg of the semi-final at Camp Nou, and travel plans were afoot among our little group of friends in the pub before the game. It felt like we were favourites to progress. We took the lead through a stunning Michael Essien volley after just ten minutes into the first-half. We held off Barcelona and their constant probing with a fantastic performance. Then came calls of conspiracy after penalty appeal after penalty appeal were turned down. The referee waving away the hand-ball against Gerard Pique sent me into meltdown. Barcelona were reduced to ten men with Eric Abidal sent-off for a clumsy challenge on Nicolas Anelka. We were heading to our second successive Champions League Final against Manchester United, this time in Rome. And then Andres bloody Iniesta scored with virtually their only shot on target with seconds remaining. This was heartbreak. Gut-wrenching, nauseous, sickening heartbreak. It felt like we would never ever win the Champions League.

18 April 2012 : Another heady night at Stamford Bridge. This was turning out to be the most bizarre of seasons, with us faltering in the league under Ande Villas-Boas before finding our feet under new gaffer Roberto di Matteo. But this was still a stunning Barcelona team, and our squad seemed to be aging together. We were blowing hot and cold. I held out little hope of us reaching the final if I am truthful. In another never-to-be-forgotten night at Stamford Bridge, Didier Drogba swept in a cross from Ramires at the near post just before half-time and the stadium exploded. We held on for the narrowest of wins, and with the return leg in Barcelona less than a week away, we began to dream.

In a bar before the game, there was a typical mix of Chelsea faces from near and far. The usual suspects – Parky, PD, Daryl, Chris, Simon, Calvin, Milo, Ed, Duncan, Lol – were gathered around one table. Andy and Antony from California were back from their mini-tour of Europe and were joined by Sean from New York and Steve from Dallas. Friends from near and far. A spare ticket was given a good home. The banter was rife. After a good hour or so, Andy whispered in my ear :

“You realise that nobody is talking about the match?”

I smiled.

As I have said before : “the first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.”

There was simply too much other stuff to talk about, especially how many we would take to the away leg in three weeks. I had expected a sell-out of 4,850 but sales had allegedly been slower than expected. Maybe some supporters were waiting to see how the first-leg would pan out. In 2012, we took that number, but it was a semi-final. As ever, I regarded the away game as a test for us, a test to see how far we had come as a club.

By the way, the cynical me had a little thought for the millions of new Chelsea fans the world over who chose us primarily because our club could “guarantee” – probably their words and not mine – them Champions League football each season.

“This game’s for you.”

The bar was full for this game. Stood quietly at the bar for a while was former player Alan Hudson. A fine footballer for us in the early ‘seventies, he rarely finds anything good to say about us these days. I nodded a “hello” to him which he reciprocated, but that was about it. Most fellow fans were blissfully unaware who he was, or were going down the same path as myself. I remember seeing him in a pub in Stoke around ten years ago. To be fair to him, after a spell of ill health, at least he looked healthier than the last time I saw him.

There were groans of discontent when news of the starting eleven came through on mobile phones.

“No centre forward, fackinell.”

It was indeed a surprise.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Hazard – Pedro

Sadly, Mike from New York was caught up in a personal battle to secure match tickets and was unable to join us. Andy was worried since whenever Andy and Mike meet up for a game, we always win.

I was inside the stadium with a good twenty minutes to go. I need not have worried about not seeing Mike from NYC; he was sat just ten feet away from me.

The away section would fill to only around two thousand, which was a huge surprise for arguably a club which are one of the biggest three clubs in the world. They usually bring three thousand, no questions asked. There seemed to be an absence of colour this time around too. Maybe the scarves and shirts were hidden under the darker coats and jackets. Not so many puffa coats as the Italians. Only a few flags on show. The stadium filled.

There were blue flags on every seat with blue and white bar scarves for those in the East Middle; nice to see the eight Chelsea Pensioners wearing them.

Red. White. Blue.

“Blue Is The Colour” played with ten minutes to go and the flags were waved…not by me, nor too many around me for that matter. The highest percentage of flag wavers were in the West Lower, maybe due to the dynamics of the demographic of that particular sub-section of support; a higher percentage of young’uns, a higher percentage of tourists, but a far lower percentage of cynical bastards like us in the MHU.

The teams entered the pitch.

In 2012, Cesc and Pedro were among the opposition.

Now we had to contend with Suarez, Rakitic, Ter Stegen, Umtiti, Roberto, Alba and Paulinho who were first time visitors to Stamford Bridge. Messi, Busquets, Iniesta and Pique were returning to SW6 once more.

Barcelona were in an untidy camouflage kit of burgundy. At least there was no bright yellow to remind me of 2009. I noted Lionel Messi and Eden Hazard embrace and maybe share a word.

“You stay here, Eden. Real Madrid are SHITE.”

The game began.

I snapped away like a fool as the game began but soon realised that I needed to slow down, and enjoy the football. The first few minutes were very promising for us, and the atmosphere was equally fine.

“ANTONIO” rang out and the manager showed his appreciation.

After a few minutes, Eden Hazard let fly with a rasping and rising shot which certainly energised the crowd. The noise was hitting fine levels. There were songs for Frank Lampard and John Terry; see my comments for the Hull City match. In the early period, it was Iniesta who was seeing more of the ball, and I wished that we could close him down. Rudiger went close with a header from a corner. This was a very bright start from us and I could not be happier. At the other end, Paulinho headed meekly wide from a Messi cross.

Ah, Lionel. I could not help but focus on the little man. His shirt seemed too large for him, and he shuffled around when not in possession, but I could not take my eyes off him.

After twenty minutes though, Barca had recovered and were now enjoying much of the ball. But there was resolute defending from everyone in royal blue. Messi was unable to find Suarez, nor anyone else. Willian burst from deep – the crowd roaring him on – before getting clipped. Alonso for once did not score from the centrally-located free-kick. This was fascinating stuff and I was loving it.

I popped down to have a quick word with Big John who sits a few rows in front of me. I told him that I had a bet on how long it would take him to shout :

“Come on Chelsea. They’re fucking shit.”

Alan was handing out the Maynards wine gums – always a lucky charm on these European Nights – and he was wearing his lucky Ossie badge on The King’s birthday. We had a fine spell of play on the half-hour and the crowd responded well. Hazard found Willian, who moved the ball on to his right foot and unleashed a gorgeous effort which slammed against a Barcelona post.

Head in our hands time.

But this was a lovely game and a pleasure to witness.

On forty minutes, the crowd sang “The Shed looked up and they saw a great star” – God Bless you, Ossie – and as the song continued, Willian struck the other post with another venomous effort.

Fackinell.

The support was now hitting the high volumes.

“Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.”

In the pub, Calvin and I had warned Texas Steve that the atmosphere at The Bridge is poor these days, but there are always games when we can rank with the best of them. Over in the far corner, the Cules were quiet. A Fabregas free-kick was cleared and Hazard volleyed over. We were playing so well – as a team – and I was so relieved. All this talk of the manager losing the dressing room and of players “downing tools” – my most hated, my most reviled phrase of the past two seasons – seemed just silly and just wrong.

The half-time whistle blew. Alan, quite correctly, noted that no trainer had been on the pitch, there had been few bad tackles, so that the assistant linesman had not signaled a single minute of added time. I think I have never seen that before. This was testament itself to the quality of football being played before our eyes.

Pure football.

And I bloody loved it.

Fine vibes at half-time. We should, undoubtedly, been ahead. Fantastic.

Soon into the second period, that man Andres Iniesta let fly from around the same patch of terra firma that produced heartache in 2009. The shot flew wide.

“Not this time sunshine, not this time.”

Luis Suarez – booed, of course – then went wide and forced a finger-tipped save on the floor from Courtois. It was a miracle that nobody was present in the six-yard box to pounce. The away team were enjoying tons of the ball but our defending was still a match for the trickery of Messi and the intelligence of Iniesta. N’Golo Kante was having a particularly fine game, and top marks for Antonio Rudiger too, who was enjoying a storming match.

Suarez – the villain for this match and many more – was the subject of a loud personal attack from the home support.

“Suarez – you’re a cunt.”

Quite.

The game continued.

There was half an hour remaining when Hazard, out wide, picked out the central Willian. He stopped the ball still. He then flashed away from his marker – such ridiculous acceleration – and thumped the ball low into the net.

Pandemonium in Stamford Bridge.

Magical, magical scenes.

Alan : “Hauran d’arribar a nosaltres ara.”

Chris : “Vine als meus petits diamants.”

Oh my oh my. The Great Unpredictables were at it again.

Now the noise really got going. I stood and roared. “Carefree wherever you may be we are the famous CFC.” This was surely the loudest so far this season. Fantastic.

“He hates Totnum and he hates Totnum.”

On the game went. Barcelona with the ball, Chelsea covering space and defending. A lot of their attacks were at virtually walking pace; it was all about moving the ball early. When they lost possession, they hunted in packs to retain it. I remember a ball being pushed into the path of Eden with four Barcelona players haring after him. Quite an image.

Sadly, with a quarter of an hour to go, a Chelsea defender deep in Parkyville chose to play the ball across the box.  We gasped. We feared the worse. It reached Iniesta. He played it back to Messi. The ball was slammed low into our goal.

Chelsea 1 Barcelona 1.

Bollocks.

Messi looked ecstatic and celebrated wildly in front of the hordes from Sabadell, Sant Cugat del Valles, Montcada I Reixach, Cornella de Llobregat and Vilassar de Dalt.

All the Chelsea nerds deleted their “Messi still hasn’t scored against Chelsea” memes.

There was a quick most mortem.

“Who played the ball across the box?”

“Dunno. Alonso?”

“Schoolboy error, fucking hell.”

The away support were still not too loud, but their upper tier was one bouncing mass.

A text from Glenn in Frome :

“Christensen FFS.”

Ugh.

Alvaro Morata came on for Pedro. Danny Drinkwater replaced Cesc Fabregas.

Unlike in 2009, thank high heavens there was no last minute heartache from Iniesta, nor anyone else. The assistant referee signaled three minutes, and these passed with no incident. This was indeed a lovely game of football. We had gone toe-to-toe with one of the finest teams of the modern era and we  – let’s again be honest – surely deserved the win. For all their possession, Barca had hardly caused Thibaut any worries. There was that daisy-cutter from Suarez, but little else. He had claimed a few high crosses, but had not been really tested. Willian had enjoyed a wonderful match, and on another day could have returned to his flat with the match ball. Every player had performed so well. Huge respect to the manager too. I hope Roman, watching from his box, took heed.

We assemble again, deep in Catalonia, and high at the Nou Camp, in three weeks.

“Anem a trebellar.”

Tales From Diamonds In The Mist

Brighton And Hove Albion vs. Chelsea : 20 January 2018.

This would only be our third ever league game at Brighton and Hove Albion. The other two matches were during our now distant dips into the old Second Division in 1983 and 1989. Now, newly-promoted into the top tier for the first season since 1982/1983, Brighton were about to host the current champions. On the face of it, this was another fantastic away game, and I hoped that the early kick-off– 12.30pm – would not spoil my enjoyment of the day; alas, there would be no chance of a pre-match or post-match get-together at a local boozer. Additionally, due to the awkward location of the stadium, we would need to plan our day with a great deal of care. But we’re good at that sort of thing. As Saturday approached, all was planned.

Parky and I attended our pre-season game at the Amex in August 2012, which marked the team’s first game in England since the glories of Munich and also the first appearance of Eden Hazard on these shores. To be honest, the game wasn’t fantastic. We went 1-0 up, only to lose 3-1, and it perhaps signalled that our season as European Champions would be no procession. On that day, around four thousand Chelsea supporters were given the top tier of the main three-tiered stand, and I was taken by the home team’s new stadium which had opened the previous season. At the time, a top tier was being added to the stand opposite. Once completed, I knew that it would look fantastic. As we set off for Sussex at 7am, I was certainly looking forward to seeing the updated stadium, now increased to a tidy thirty-thousand capacity. Back in 2012, there was panoramic views of the stadium and the rolling hills of the South Downs to the north.

In 2018, we would be locked in to the stadium – low down behind a goal – but I was sure that I’d enjoy the view.

There was so much damned negativity swarming around the team over the past few weeks, that I was just happy to be able to attend the game, try to ignore the moaning millions, and get right behind the team. And there was the added bonus of – virtually – a new stadium. This away trip would tick lots of boxes. I couldn’t wait.

It was Glenn’s turn to drive the Chuckle Bus and, no surprises, he made good time despite the grey and murky weather outside.

Past Warminster, through Salisbury, past Southampton and Portsmouth, past Chichester, then Arundel. We were parked-up in Patcham – just a couple of miles from the stadium – at our mate Walnuts’ bungalow. As in 2012, his wife Sue would drop us off at the stadium, and collect us too. Located at the site of the city’s university at Falmer which is a few miles to the north of the city centre, there is limited parking space at Brighton’s stadium.

On my infrequent visits to Brighton, I have always liked its charms. Pleasant housing estates are scattered over some surprisingly steep hillsides as they tumble down to the coast. The architecture is grand in some areas, yet quirky and eccentric in others. It’s a typical British seaside town with a definite twist. For decades, Brighton has always had a slightly decadent air. Think of “Brighton Rock” featuring our very own Richard Attenborough as “Pinky.” Think of businessmen taking mistresses away for a weekend of fun in Brighton. There certainly remains a laissez-faire attitude to this day. Nudist beaches by the marina, and a certain pride in its sexual freedoms. Politically, there is no place like it in modern Britain.

There was a memorable night out in Brighton on the Saturday before the history-making league game with Liverpool in 2003. Many of my current Chelsea mates were involved and we went down for the weekend. Some of us took the train to the horse racing at Lingfield Park on the Saturday afternoon – I had two winners – while others chose to visit the myriad of attractions by the beach. We then hit the town in the evening. What followed was a deeply memorable night of beers which included some impromptu fun and games with a couple of hen parties.

The bride to be : “I have a list of forfeits. One of them is to get a pair of underpants.”

Me : “Blimey. This is all very sudden.”

The bride to be : “Ha.”

Me : “I’m going to be missing some underwear though. I think we should swap.”

The bride to be : “Deal.”

It was with some deal of pleasure that the bride-to-be’s thong was acquired. In light of the importance of the Chelsea vs. Liverpool game on the following day – the winner taking the all-important fourth Champions League place – I christened it a “thong for Europe.”

In our bed and breakfast the next morning, Alan suggested that I should wear it as some sort of “good luck” charm.

I was ahead of him. I already was.

What a laugh.

Good old Brighton. I am still yet to have a wander around the town’s compact and eclectic central streets. I hope they stay up this season, so I can truly explore the area on future visits. There is certainly unfinished business in Brighton. For starters, I need to locate a missing pair of underpants.

Just like in 2012, there was light drizzle as we approached the stadium on a long slow walk, past the train station and with university buildings in every direction.

There was a large photograph of former goal-scoring hero Peter Ward on the curved façade of the main stand. The stadium was as I remembered it; crisp, clean, spacious.

I spotted the Bristol Crew and could not waste the opportunity for a rant.

“All the negativity around the club does my head in. For fuck sake, we’re a good team, let’s get behind the team and enjoy the moment.”

They assured me there would be no negativity from them.

“Proper job, my babbers.”

Inside, I soon started snapping away from my vantage point in the front row, right in line with one of the goalposts. The stadium is indeed excellent. I like the way that the corners have been infilled with quirky viewing galleries, and corporate boxes tucked into every spare space. The three-tiered main stand is surprisingly tall. It just looks the part. It’s no identikit stadium this one. The seats were padded, not that the three-thousand Chelsea would be sitting. The lads soon arrived; Alan, then Gary, then Parky. Just along the row were fellow Chucklers PD and Glenn. Gary reminded me that he had worked inside some suites within the main stand several years ago in his job as a French polisher.

Alan : “You polished some wooden tables, some wooden wall panels, some wooden cabinets, and you polished off hundreds of packets of biscuits.”

I watched as the players went through their routines. There was the first sighting of Ross Barkley in match-day uniform. I wondered if we would see his Chelsea debut. The away end slowly filled. The drizzle continued.

The team news surprised nobody, save for the goalkeeping change forced by a late knock to Thibaut. We were so pleased that Antonio Conte chose the 3/4/3 variant.

Caballero – Azpilicueta / Christensen / Rudiger – Moses / Kante / Bakayoko / Alonso – Willian / Batshuayi / Hazard.

There was a rousing “Sussex By The Sea” and the teams entered the pitch. In the away end, just behind me, a new bright yellow “crowd-surfing” banner – “Chelsea Here, Chelsea There” – made its first ever appearance. The iconic striker Cyrille Regis was remembered before the game began, just as much for his ground-breaking legacy as his footballing prowess I suspect, and there is nothing wrong with that. There was warm applause for the former England international.

A couple of seagulls soared inside the stadium. Perfect.

Despite a misty old day in Falmer, we wore the murky grey camouflage kit. There was still slight drizzle as the game began, and the roof above did not keep us remotely dry. I took a few early photos, and could not believe how monochrome everything looked. I hoped that our players could pick each other out.

I need not have worried at all. After just three minutes, Victor Moses advanced inside the box and played the ball back to the waiting Eden Hazard, who touched the ball to his right and lashed the ball home, across the Brighton ‘keeper Ryan.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

After another three minutes, the ball was played into Willian, who smacked a firm shot just inside the post. Being so low, I could not really appreciate the intricate passing which lead to the goal – there was a text from a pal in the US lauding its beauty – but I certainly knew from the moment that Willian struck the ball that a goal would result; I was right behind the trajectory of the shot. We were 2-0 up and purring. What a relief after our constipated efforts to score of late.

But to be fair to Brighton, they did not cave in. They didn’t crumble. Despite virtually no discernible support from the home areas – there were no empty seats in the house – the home team launched a series of attacks on our defence.

A wild Wily Caballero challenge on Ezequel Schelotto was waved away by referee Moss. The way that he vacated his six yard box, racing out, the keeper was more like Wile E. Coyote.

Brighton certainly stretched us in the wide areas, and there were a number of crosses which were zipped into our box. Our defending, certainly in the central areas, was of top quality. There was fine positional play, plenty of blocks, and calmness under pressure.

Schelotto was proving to be a troublesome presence and when he pushed the ball past Tiemoue Bakayoko, the Chelsea midfielder stretched out a leg. I certainly thought that a penalty was going to be given, as did those around me. Moss again waved it away. This annoyed Schelotto, who was booked for dissent. As the referee beckoned the Brighton right-back towards him, the player intimated that the referee should walk towards him. I’ve never seem that before.

“Send him off for that ref.”

I repeated a request from the Norwich City cup replay on Wednesday as Schelotto teased Marcos Alonso :

“Don’t let him fucking cross.”

Alas, there was no hint of a tackle or block from Alonso and a fine cross. Thankfully, there was a sensational save from Caballero under his bar from the head of Tomer Hemed.

We all shouted out to him.

“Nice one Wily, son.”

The drizzle continued. Our support was so-so. Perhaps my position in the front row meant that any noise did not reach me, but I have known noisier away days.

But this was certainly a fine game, open and enjoyable. We went close with a few efforts at the other end. Eden Hazard was our catalyst, our diamond, and his close control was at times sensational. He was ably assisted by Willian, himself a box of tricks. It was lovely to see Bakayoko enjoy a steady game alongside N’Golo Kante. If I was to be critical, it would be of the two wide wing-backs who were gifting some space to the Brighton attackers.

Still, there were smiles at the break.

“Good stuff lads.”

The second-half began. There was a clash of heads involving Andreas Christensen who stayed down for a while. Brighton did not let up with their willingness to attack us, and we all thought that towering centre-back Davy Propper had scored with a firm header. The ball caromed back off the post with nobody in striking distance to touch home.

After his knock, Christensen had to be substituted. He was replaced by David Luiz.

Willian struck a magnificent free-kick – which everyone thought Luiz had taken with his first touch – and I managed to capture this on film. I was celebrating another fine goal, only to see ‘keeper Ryan saving superbly. It was indeed a stunning stop. At the other end, Caballero spread himself to block an effort from Schelotto. Brighton still came at us, though without the pace of the first-half. A word about Michy Batshuayi; strong in some areas, weak in others, it was a typical Michy performance. But – thankfully, rejoice! – there was no barracking of any player. Top marks to all.

With fifteen minutes to go, Davide Zappacosta replaced Alonso. Soon after, Willian picked out his partner in crime Hazard, who set off on a merry dance. He waltzed past several players and it looked to me that he soon realised that the only way for a goal to be scored was for him to continue on and on until he came within range. His run continued, before he decided to cut the ball back into the opposite corner. That was it, the game was won.

GET IN.

He danced over to the corner and a little leap was followed by a beaming smile. His play had been just magnificent all day long.

With ten minutes to go, and with the home crowd starting to thin a little, Charly Musonda replaced Willian. He looked up for it and was soon involved in Willian’s position wide on the right. With just one minute of normal time remaining, he picked out the run of Moses with a fantastic lofted ball. The ball was brought under immediate control and touched home. A slide from Victor and the away support were jumping.

Brighton & Hove Albion 0 Chelsea 4.

Blimey, it did not seem like a 4-0 win. I have to concede that the home team had battled well, and certainly did not deserve such a thumping. I fear for their survival this season, but I for one hope they survive. Like so many promoted teams of recent years, they lack a proven goal scorer. As for us, we rode our luck a little – it is a well-repeated phrase of mine that it is perhaps better to be lucky than it is to be good – but surely we deserved the win. Our play was at times fantastic.

And, let us not forget, another clean sheet too.

With its decadent charms, clean sheets are still a rarity in Brighton.

IMG_4041 (3)

 

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 left-back Asier del Horno who also lasted just one season under Mourinho. Considering Chelsea’s predilection for dispensing the services of 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.

IMG_2074