Tales From The Gang Of Four / 四人帮派故事

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 22 July 2017.

I remember when I first heard about our game in Beijing. We were hopping between some familiar pubs in the West End of London before our home game with Tottenham way back in late November. I was with Glenn, Parky and PD, plus a few Chelsea lads from Kent that we had bumped into en route. The news of the game suddenly popped up on social media. It immediately piqued our interest.

“Beijing. Fancy that Glenn?”

“Too right.”

There and then, Glenn and I mentally signed-up for a trip to China’s capital, secretly hoping that there would be a secondary game – maybe in Shanghai – too.

As the months passed, the game in Beijing dominated our thoughts – I can’t exactly remember when our opposition was announced as being Arsenal, but that seemed almost irrelevant. Eventually, the rest of the Chelsea tour took shape. After our game in China, we would play two games against Bayern Munich and Inter in Singapore. Glenn and myself chatted about options. Although it would be a long way to go for just one game, we soon realised that we were happy with just a Chinese holiday, with a few days in Shanghai after our stay in Beijing for the football. An onward flight to Singapore – another six hours of travel – would have added extra expense and lengthened our holiday. And although I am sure Singapore is a fine destination, it didn’t tick too many boxes for me. It has a reputation for being rather staid and bland, plus supremely expensive, and I wasn’t too enamoured about seeing two games in the same stadium. My dear parents had stayed in Singapore, after a few days in Hong Kong, on their round-the-world trip in 1991, and even they commented that it was a rather sober destination.

Back in March, I took the bull by the horns and booked us on a Finnair flight from Heathrow to Beijing via a small stopover in Helsinki. The price was pretty reasonable. Since then, the holiday took shape, and I loved how excited Glenn was getting with each passing week. We decided, indeed, to head down to Shanghai for three nights after Beijing – travelling by bullet train to save money, but to also add to the sensory experience. I just fancied seeing what China was all about. I booked a day trip to The Great Wall; regardless of the footy, this would make Glenn’s holiday since he has always wanted to visit this famous landmark, one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Hotels were booked, again at very reasonable prices; around £50 per night for single rooms. Lastly, there was the visa application process. A day trip up to London resulted in myself appearing in person at the visa application centre deep in the city, but despite sweaty palms and a beating heart, our completed forms were accepted, and we were on our way.

Our good friend Big John, who sits a few rows in front of us in the MHU, would be attending the game in Beijing too. Every time that we chatted at a game, our conversations would consist of these two phrases :

“How’s Glenn? Excited?”

“Excited? Like a dog with two dicks, mate.”

My mate Foxy, from Dundee, who I last saw at the Middlesbrough away game, just before Beijing was announced in fact, also decided to join us. He too was not bothered about Singapore; he had visited it many times before, but had not visited China. He was happy to join us in Shanghai after the game in Beijing too. Foxy would be able, also, to squeeze in an extra day to visit the famous Terracotta Army in the ancient city of Xi’an.

So, the plans were set in stone.

The days and weeks ticked by.

The League Championship was won. The FA Cup Final was lost. The long dull days of summer reached out in front of us.

My last act was to book the bullet train tickets, which only went on sale three weeks before the date of travel.

China. The mere mention of the word made me slightly light-headed. This would, surely, be one of my most wonderful adventures.

On the way over to Tokyo in December 2012, I had spent five long hours at Beijing airport – deep snow outside, a horrible meal inside – and I suppose that it didn’t realistically count as a proper visit. At the time, though, I remember being highly excited about being locked inside Sir Norman Foster’s huge sweeping terminal, just twenty miles from Tienanmen Square.

In July 2017, I would be able to – gulp – step outside.

In the build-up to the holiday, I bought a couple of guide books to the cities of Beijing and Shanghai. I also purchased a fine piece of travel writing by Rob Gifford called “China Road” which, although published in 2007, contained a lot of pertinent historical information about the changes which have been experienced in the great nation – empire – of China over the years. His book details his travel from east – Shanghai – to west on route 312, and he interspersed his modern day experiences along its length with fascinating sections about China’s rich and interesting past. Within the opening chapter, Gifford referenced “The Grapes Of Wrath” and also “On The Road” and so I immediately knew that I’d be on to a winner. There was so much to take on board though. I felt like I was only skimming the surface of China. Thankfully, help was at hand. In the very last week, we were lucky to see TV programmes devoted to Beijing’s Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army, and a re-run – from 1997 – of a Michael Palin travel documentary involving a rapidly changing China. Memorably, his short stay in Shanghai involved him looking out past the tug boats and barges on the Huangpo River at the new builds across the water in Pudong. In 2017, that same view is much changed and I could not wait to see the updated view in person.

China. This mysterious nation, the world’s most populous at 1.3 billion, and one which was changed by the hard hand of Mao Zedong from 1949 until his death in 1976, and has since been bitten hard by capitalism, but which is still a one party state. This complex behemoth of the east would surely bewitch and beguile me.

Visiting from the far more liberal and relaxed west, I would be an occidental tourist.

The days evaporated. We were on our way.

I collected Glenn in Frome at 5am on Tuesday 18 July. We had a perfect drive up to Heathrow, an easy flight to Helsinki, and a pretty reasonable flight over Finland, Russia, Mongolia and we landed at Beijing International airport at around 7.30am on Wednesday 19 July. I remembered the terminal from my visit in 2012. It was wonderful to be back. We quickly made our way through the immigration checks and hailed a cab to take us to our city centre hotel. It was early morning rush hour. My eyes – not tired – were on stalks. My first observations on that hour long cab ride? –

Road signs in Chinese and also English.

Car registration numbers with western style letters.

No advertisement hoardings along the road sides, nor on street corners, nor anywhere.

Shiny Western cars – Audis, BMWs, VWs – alongside unknown Chinese makes.

Cars weaving in and out, hardly bothering with indicators.

Huge high-rise apartments. Like Moscow. Almost brutal.

A clogging urban haze enveloped the city, making visibility difficult.

Massive skyscrapers – some under construction – in the financial district to the east of the city centre.

Traffic. Traffic. Traffic.

We arrived at our hotel, paid the cab driver – 129 yuan, or around £15, get in – and I practiced the only words of Chinese that I had learned.

“Xiexie” is pronounced like a gentle, soft sneeze, and I thought it was difficult to get it right. The cabbie seemed OK with it.

The hotel was rather dated, but suited our needs. It didn’t seem particularly busy. For this reason alone, I suspect, we were upgraded to a suite apiece on the seventh floor. Downstairs, we bumped into Cathy, who was staying in our hotel too. She had arrived via Warsaw an hour before us. Cathy had already booked a couple of local tours. The three of us hoisted the first beers of the trip – the crisp and tasty Tsingtao – before disappearing upstairs to our suites for some power naps.

In the late afternoon, Glenn and myself slapped some sunscreen and mozzy repellent on, and marched out along Qianmen Street. Unlike in 2012, Tienanmen Square was just a ten-minute walk away. The first few minutes were difficult. The heat was stifling. We walked on. We reached the square at its southern edge, alongside the imposing Mao mausoleum. The square was very impressive and it took my breath away. I could not – honestly – believe that I was there. It is, allegedly, the largest public square in the world. In the middle, a large column, surrounded by red flags. They were not Chinese flags, with gold stars, but plain red ones. The effect was stunning. To the east and west, two huge authoritarian buildings, the one to the west the largest building I think I have ever seen. And to the north, the dark red – almost vermilion – walls of the Forbidden City. In the centre, just about discernible, the face of Mao Zedong.

Gulp.

We were in China. In Beijing. In Tienanmen Square.

Not surprisingly, there were thoughts of that ridiculously iconic image of the lone student protesting against an army tank in 1989. In those protests, hundreds were slain in the very square in which I was stood. The world whirled around me. In my thoughts leading up to this trip, I reached right back to my earliest memories. Before Chelsea even. Pre-1970. My earliest memories. Before I went to school in 1970, my father used to return home from his shop in Frome for lunch every week day – apart from Wednesday, market day – and we used to have lunch (the biggest meal of the day in those days, how times change) while listening to “The World At One” on the radio. Although this takes me back to the age of three or four, I can always remember the exotic sounding names of various places and people to this day and how I used to love the way the announcer pronounced them. For a while, it was something I listened in for.

Mao Zedong.

Chiang Kai-Shek.

Hi Chi Minh.

I was joining up some pretty old dots on my life-journey on this trip for sure.

We took some photos – there would be hundreds more – but the ones from that very first evening in Tienanmen Square will remain very precious to me. On the walk back across the vast space, we kept bumping in to a family from Glasgow and it soon became apparent that the husband was Rangers, and Chelsea. He was visiting his son, who had been studying Mandarin at a local university since September. He loved the city and wished us well. Without a word of warning, he started singing “Blue Is The Colour” and we joined in.

The red flags were flying above us but, for a while, Beijing was blue.

Foxy, newly arrived from Dubai, was booking in as we strode back in to the hotel. It was fantastic to see him again.

That evening, Cathy joined us in the bar for a beer and we ended up across the road in a local restaurant. The portion sizes were huge – oh, and cheap – and we had a fantastic feast. The food was, actually, remarkably similar to the Chinese we are used to back in England. For some reason, I expected marked differences.

Sweet and sour pork, Kung Pao chicken, spicy prawns, fried rice, sweetcorn soup – in a huge bowl – and of course Peking Duck.

And bottles of Tsingtao.

Bang on.

Foxy, Glenn and myself walked a mile or so east and then north and found ourselves in the main shopping street of Beijing – all the Western shops you can think of, plus more – and soon settled for bottles of Yanjing adjacent to a street market. Just a few yards away were stalls selling scorpions, skewered and fried, grubs, and all sorts of oddities. I was glad that I was not hungry. Wanting one last beer, we marched on to an Irish bar, only because it seemed that bars and pubs were very rare in central Beijing. We sat in the dark boozer, sipping at cool beers, and chatted about various things, with the whole of Beijing within our sights. Funnily enough, I had spotted only one sports jersey of any description during the first five or six hours in the city. One Chinese lad was spotted wearing – oddly – an Atletico Madrid shirt. Not only were there no Chinese team jerseys being worn, nor were there any foreign teams’ jerseys. Nor – tellingly – any US team paraphernalia that still seems de rigueur in most cities around the world.

On the Thursday, Foxy, Glenn and myself assembled at around 9am, gulped down a couple of expensive coffees in the hotel and set out on our very own version of Mao’s long march.

We visited Tienanmen Square. We visited the Forbidden City. For each separate part of the vast area – thousands upon thousands of rooms – there were lines for tickets. We decided on just the main courtyard and the Meridian Gate, which overlooked Tienanmen Square to the south. The haze spoiled the view but it did not matter too much. We made sure we hydrated throughout. While seated on a bench within the first courtyard, Foxy tapped me on the shoulder and pointed quickly.

A mother was holding her daughter up as the youngster peed in to a rubbish bin.

“You don’t see that outside Buckingham Palace, Foxy.”

We took photographs of the vast walls, the golden pagoda roofs, and the innate stillness, despite the crowds. Outside, the surrounding moat thankfully cooled the air. Everywhere were green-shirted army guards and black-shirted security guards. It was a fascinating walk. We walked south and spotted the huge modern curve of the national centre for performing arts. We sought sanctuary from the heat for an hour. Inside, there was a small art gallery. We stopped for a light snack. The main auditorium housed opera. Within an hour we had experienced ancient and modern Beijing. We walked on, heading towards the serene Temple of Heaven, maybe a mile or so to the south. However, we were soon side-tracked.

One of Beijing’s most beguiling features are its hutongs; single-story working class dwellings which surround the central area, and which – I am amazed – have not yet been bulldozed away in the name of progress. We spent an idyllic hour wandering past houses, motorcycle repair shops, grocery stores, cafes, clothes shops, fishmongers, butchers, all the time having to move out of the way of bicycles, tuk-tuks, scooters, mopeds, and some of the most ridiculously small cars on the planet. Overhead electricity cables swayed low over side-alleys.

At the lovely, peaceful Temple of Heaven we were virtually the only Westerners. The deep midnight blue of the roof contrasted well with the white marble of the steps. We were mesmerized by its beauty.

We caved in – I for one was exhausted now – and caught a tuk-tuk back to our hotel. Of course we almost collided with various people on bicycles and scooters, but – hey – nobody was killed. Back at our digs, Glenn reliably informed us that we had walked nine miles during the day. I almost feinted.

That evening, we disappeared over to our local restaurant – “the freak show is back” – and gobbled more local cuisine. I tried the Peking Duck – when in Rome, eh? – and very nice it was too. Not crispy as we have in the UK, but simply roasted. It hit the spot. At around 9pm, the three of us met up with Big John, newly arrived at his hotel, only a ten-minute walk from our accommodation. We began with a beer on the terrace overlooking central – hazy – Beijing, but soon disappeared inside as the rain began to fall. We had a few bottles of Tsingtao, plenty of laughs, and we made plans for the rest of our stay.

The Gang Of Four had finally assembled.

On the Friday, we had arranged to meet up at John’s hotel at 10am. The temperature had decidedly cooled, thank heavens. There was a “McDonalds” next to his hotel, and – let’s be truthful – I soon came to the realisation that I could not survive for nine days of Chinese food only. I dived in for a breakfast. It hit the spot. We dived in to a cab and headed off on the elevated inner ring-road to the east of the city to collect our match tickets. It was a simple transaction, but a relief to have them in our hands.

We then headed further out towards the Danshanzi district. I had highlighted the 798 Art District as a venue that I fancied visiting; I didn’t expect it, but – bless ‘em – the other three fancied it too. It was delightful. The sight of many old military industrial units, factories and warehouses, the whole area now houses a rather off-the-wall arty area featuring galleries, cafes, bars, shops, venues, but also a few businesses; I spotted both a Volkswagen HQ and an Uber HQ abutting its periphery. It was an interesting area. The relics of its industrial past were left to provide a somber backdrop to the modern artworks on show – rusting pipes, darkened towers, tall brick chimneys, red brick buildings. Many of the artworks were funky and humorous. Graffiti was allowed, unlike – presumably – elsewhere in the city. We stopped at two cafes and enjoyed beers in both, along with wide-ranging Chelsea chat. The second café was housed in a former train station – an old-style loco outside – and was named after the Ace Café, formerly a bikers’ café on the North Circular in London, which I had read about on the internet only a couple of months previously. The area was certainly atmospheric. At times it felt that we were walking through an Anton Corbijn photoshoot for a Depeche Mode album. It was as if the Chinese state had detailed this little parcel of land for avant garde expression, well away from the city centre, the masses, the rest of the city.

“Here. You can express yourself here.”

I loved it.

We assembled again – Cathy too – in the evening, and headed north. We had been tipped-off by…um, someone we met wearing an ironic green Mao uniform and smoking a Gauloises cigarette in the 798 District and answering to the name Agent 1905…that the Chelsea team were staying in a hotel adjacent to the Birds Nest Stadium. We dressed accordingly – smart, er, casual – and hoped to be able to meet up, however briefly, for a chat with either the management team or the players. Luckily, our route – never to be forgotten – swept us past a floodlight Forbidden City, with an illuminated Mao looking down on us, and out on one of the five-lane boulevards which then joined up with an elevated expressway, past modern hotel blocks as we zoomed north. The night had now fallen. It was an intoxicating ride. We soon spotted – to our right – the red and gold of the Birds Nest Stadium and the cool blue of The Water Cube, both used during the impressive Beijing 2008 Olympics.

We were deposited right outside the hotel. We spotted barriers to our left, with local Chelsea supporters awaiting the arrival of the team coach from a training session. Inside, in the large lobby, were more Chelsea fans. We waited outside. Nobody approached us; I think we were under the radar. We spotted former England manager Roy Hodgson arrive with a couple of colleagues. We called out his name – he is a decent football man – and he seemed genuinely happy to be spotted. His eyes twinkled. A local lad, wearing an Arsenal shirt was roughly manhandled away from the area. Soon, the Chelsea coach arrived just yards away from where we stood and the players quickly entered the hotel. It was pandemonium inside. Lots of shrieking. I think a fair few players stopped to sign autographs, but we really could not see what was happening. After a while, the security people were forcibly pushing back the frenzied Chelsea supporters. It was all done and dusted within four or five minutes.

Upstairs, in an open area, we spotted the staff signing various items laid out on tables. I seized the moment. I drifted past a hotel worker and slowly – I’d say nonchalantly if I meant it – walked up some wide stairs. A photo of Antonio Conte – boom. Before I was chased away, I edged forward.

“Antonio.”

He looked up and I approached…thinking, “oh bollocks, what shall I say to him?”

“Grazie mille.”

He smiled, almost bashfully, and said – as quiet as you like – “prego.”

With that, a Chelsea club official asked who I was. I suspect that he didn’t know who Agent 1905 was, so I said “just a fan.” He politely asked me to leave. We were to find out, later that evening, that the club were hosting a Q and A with some local supporters – complete with lanyards et al – and I suppose this is par for the course these days. I found it typical that Antonio and the players were signing, in addition to the usual shirts, a couple of Yokohama tyres.

Downstairs, Cathy, John, Glenn, Foxy and myself spent a good few hours chatting about Chelsea and football in general. It was a lovely time, actually. We spotted Carlo Cudicini walk past and take his seat a few yards away alongside several other coaching staff, including Antonio’s assistant Angelo Alessio. I took a photo of Carlo with Cath and Glenn. I spoke to Angelo – can I call him that? – about me being a Juve fan too and seeing him play in Turin in the late ‘eighties. He seemed very amicable. A lovely moment. Around eight of the Chelsea staff were in this little group, and they stayed together for around an hour. Of course, we hoped that Antonio might join them, but he never did. This was at around 10.30pm I guess. The chap that had shooed me away appeared with a bagful of Chelsea 2017 Asia Tour badges. A nice gesture on the face of it, but how nice would it have been for the club to recognise those who had traveled out from the UK on this trip. Just a five-minute session with a few players? That would have been superb. On the US tours, it is only the US based fans who ever get to meet the players at any formal event.

But, it is what it is. For a couple of hours, sharing the same space as a few Chelsea faces, it felt lovely. And I mentioned this to Cathy. That it was lovely how we all still got excited, like kids in a sweet shop, about chatting to Carlo Cudicini, for example. May I never lose that childlike awe of meeting our heroes.

So. What about this season? Prior to setting off for China, the internet was in meltdown about our lack of new signings. Within days, the signings of Rudiger and Bakayoko calmed things. Just before leaving, Morata was snatched from Real Madrid. We chatted a little about the transfer dealings and the much-debated academy process. There are many different opinions here and I have always tried my best to be a fan and a supporter rather than a tedious expert. If I was an expert on football, I wouldn’t spend forty hours a week shipping office furniture around the globe. Opinion is clearly divided. Some lambast our academy – and Emenalo, especially, though many can’t even pronounce his name correctly – and the clear lack of youngsters making the first team whereas others have a different approach, backing the club to an extent, and realising that the academy is there, in the main, to provide a professional career for the lads who come through the ranks. Where do my thoughts lie?

Of course, it would be lovely, bloody lovely, to see a Chelsea team populated with our own academy players. No doubt. There is always a tangible connection with our own boys. But this is not 1977. Our team does not contain the likes of Clive Walker, Tommy Langley, Ian Britton, Ray Wilkins and Gary Locke. In 1977, we were cash-strapped and in the Second Division. Now, in 2017, forty years on, we are cash rich and a buying club.

I tried to put my thoughts into words. I tried to explain things as best I could after a few pints of Stella Artois.

“At this exact moment in time, the manager – perhaps the whole club – has a vision about where the team is going and what style of football it is looking to use, involving an exact mix of various types of players, with various degrees of skills and experience. We have a squad, a base of players. To add to that, do we select from just the relatively young set of academy players we have, which might number just twenty or thirty – at this exact time – or do we look elsewhere, at potentially hundreds of players currently employed by other teams?”

Answers on a postcard.

Roy Hodgson ambled past and, now all of us a little chattier due to the beer intake, posed with him as his colleague took a few photographs of us with him. I like Hodgson. Woefully out of his depth at times, but still a decent man. I told him, boozily I suspect, how his eyes lit up when we had called out to him outside the hotel.

“Blimey, someone recognizes me.”

Foxy asked me to take one last photo of him with Carlo.

“Do you still drive motorcycles?”

“Yes.”

“Which ones?”

“Harley Davidsons.”

It was time to head home. We ordered a cab and returned back to our respective hotels. Glenn, using his phone, provided the soundtrack. On came “The Liquidator”, “Blue Is The Colour” and a smattering of ska and reggae from the ‘seventies. As we whizzed past the lights of the skyscrapers of central Beijing, one song got us all singing, Ken Booth’s “Everything I Own.” It was a surreal few moments. My childhood raced up to meet me once more. A song from 1974. The year of my first Chelsea game.

“If there’s someone you know
That won’t let you go
And taking it all for granted?
You may lose them one day
Someone takes them away
And you don’t hear the words they say.

And I would give anything I own
I’d give up my life, my heart, my own
And I would give anything I own
Just to have you back again
Just to talk to you words again
Just to hold you once again.”

It had been a fine night.

On Saturday 22 July our season was to begin. I thought back to the first game of last season, the completely dire defeat at Rapid Vienna. What a shocker that was. I hoped for a better start in 2017. I had the chance for a little lie-in and did not get up until around 10am. It was a gentle start to the day. Thankfully, the weather was again cooler than Wednesday and Thursday. In many ways, it resembled a typical Chelsea Saturday. But it was a strange mixture of a standard Saturday game with a midweek kick-off time. The game was to start at 7.45pm.

Instead of the Gang of Four consisting of Lord Parky, PD, Glenn and myself and the day beginning with a breakfast in either McMelksham, McChippenham or McFleet, it began with a breakfast in McBeijing. Foxy, Glenn and myself then toured a local shopping mall. Next door to each other, on maybe the third floor, were two shops selling MLB and NHL gear. This really surprised me. This was not some key city-centre shopping mall, but yet here were two US-themed stores. It made me wonder why I had not seen anyone wearing a New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox or Los Angeles Dodgers cap, to say nothing of an NHL team cap. I was still keeping score and, until the day of the game, the number of football shirts spotted thus far had numbered –

Arsenal 3.

Atletico Madrid 3.

Chelsea 2.

Barcelona 1.

We were trying to work out – to put it bluntly – if Beijing was a sports town. We weren’t so sure.

Within the shopping mall, there were Timberland, Fila, Umbro, Kappa, Adidas and Nike stores. The prices were comparable to home, so there was no chance of picking up too many bargains. Outside, on a side street, was a little boutique which sold mainly women’s items, but with a little section for men. We could not resist a peek inside. We poured over a selection by Moncler, Vivienne Westwood, Victorinox and Armani but although the prices were quite reasonable, my goodness the sizes were small. All along, we were chatting about football.

Football and clobber. What Saturdays were made for.

We met up with John at 4pm and again caught a cab. They were so cheap that we did not use the subway throughout our entire stay. We were dropped off right outside the stadium. We were assailed by a number of touts, waving bunches of 100 yuan notes at us. We were not sure if they were buying or selling at the start but we soon realised that they had tickets to sell. I was annoyed to see red shirts in the majority. I then realised that we were probably outside the southern Arsenal end. We spotted a few locals selling Chelsea shirts – at knock-off prices – and we leered over them, taking a couple of photographs. The stall holders must have thought that we were on the lookout for fakes, as they soon bagged their wares and disappeared. I was surprised at the complete lack of a black market economy in Beijing, especially outside the stadium. If only other cities were the same.

We posed with my “VINCI PER NOI” flag in a couple of locations. At the second one, in the middle of a long expanse of open promenade to the west of the stadium, we were told to put the banner away by some very down-at-heal looking security types. I think they were also on litter duty. Talking of which – there might be nine million bicycles in Beijing, but there is certainly no litter. If only other cities were the same. We also posed with Foxy’s lovely “Charlie Cooke’s Flying Squadron” flag, marking the Dundee-based fans who support Chelsea. We enjoyed a nice relaxing wander between the Cube and the Birds Nest. A few beers were taken. John, who is around six feet seven clearly won the prize for “most photographed.” I will never forget the look on a young Chinese boy’s face – no older than three – who looked up at John in stages, his mouth growing wider and wider. A look of comic-book astonishment. So funny. For a few moments, a local TV crew were in attendance and some Arsenal fans began chanting. My guess that this would not be a sell-out. The stadium held 85,000 and there clearly were not 85,000 milling around. We hoped for a reasonable gate. The ticket prices were pretty steep though; £82 for a lower tier seat. After a minimal bag check, we were in.

My camera too – phew.

We were inside at 7pm. Scott and Mark chatted to us at the Chelsea merchandise stall. Punky Al and Stan drifted past. Glenn and I bought a tour t-shirt apiece at 230 or around £26. I was able to utter the immortal phrase –

“230. Chinese dentist.”

Parky would have been proud of me. Glenn groaned.

He soon perked-up : “Gonna be wearing this in the pub first game of the season.”

I have to say that the stadium did not look too full when we first arrived. Arsenal were up the other end. There were not many in the top tier. We guessed at around 40,000 maybe. All of the Chelsea supporters had been issued with the God-forsaken thunder sticks, which many were feverishly bouncing together, in addition to a Chelsea-themed fan – again for clacking together to make noise – the like of which we have had once, just once, at Stamford Bridge.

What’s wrong with just clapping?

Both teams were out doing training drills when we got in. The place filled-up. The lower tier was virtually full at kick-off. From the outside, especially when illuminated from within, the Birds Nest Stadium is stunning. The strips of dull grey steel wrap themselves around the inner shell of the structure, and the effect is wonderful. From the inside, it’s a fine stadium, but an athletics stadium. The pitch is too far from the spectators, a problem that West Ham United are now experiencing in their new pad. But whereas London’s Olympic Stadium is a relatively wide and shallow stadium, Beijing’s version is at least tall, steep and intimidating. The three tiers reach up into the sky and the roof curves high and then low. Of course, Herzog and De Meuron are tasked with designing our new stadium. I am sure that the only thing to say at this stage is that, like the Birds Nest, it will be iconic, unique and designed to the highest standard. I, for one, can’t bloody wait.

“Blue Is The Colour” was played by the PA, and I was impressed that so many locals knew the words. Of course, virtually all were wearing Chelsea gear, fake or not. There were not so many Nike shirts in the stadium. We were then treated to “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer with the Arsenal fans singing along. Is that a Gooner song, now? Bloody hell.

The teams were announced.

Antonio Conte had chosen a very strong starting eleven.

Courtois.

Dave. Luiz. Cahill.

Moses. Kante. Cesc. Alonso.

Pedro. Batshuayi. Willian.

Arsenal included Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mertesacker, Ramsey, Monreal, Xhaka, plus new boy Laazette. If it matters. Which it doesn’t.

For some reason, there were plenty of boos for Kenedy. We had no idea why. No idea at all. Did he play for a team in China at some stage in his career? We were completely flummoxed. The Arsenal fans – thunder sticks too – produced two crowd-surfing flags. Our two were bigger. Before the game began, Carlo and Hilario paraded the League trophy, while at the other end the FA Cup was on show. The weather was great; it wasn’t sticky at all.

The game, and our season, began.

We began very brightly indeed, attacking the southern goal away in the distance. The Chelsea fans around us were well-involved, chanting from the start. Cathy, who was sat next to me, waited for her moment. There was a sudden lull.

“10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.”

“Zigger Zagger – Zigger Zagger.”

“OI OI OI.”

“Zigger Zagger – Zigger Zagger.”

“OI OI OI.”

Cathy was away, and Glenn, John and myself joined in. Surprisingly, not many turned around to look. Cathy continued on.

“Zigger.”

“OI.”

“Zagger.”

“OI.”

“Zigger Zagger – Zigger Zagger.”

“OI OI OI.”

We continued to play well, full of energy. Arsenal looked sluggish. This was such a difference to Rapid Vienna last summer. Pedro was full of tricks on the left. We were dominating and carving out a few chances. A Moses shot was saved by Ospina. The locals in our end were going for it, no doubt aided by those bloody thunder sticks.

“Clap clap – clap clap clap – clap clap clap clap – Chelsea.”

Willian drove hard into the heart of the Arsenal box but his shot flew past the far post. Our support was certainly into the game. They loved cheering us on when we attacked. At times the whole lower tier seemed to be chanting together. I turned to Cathy and whispered :

“Hate to say it, but they’re noisier than in the US.”

Michy Batshuayi, with a trim haircut, went close on two occasions.

The new kit looked wonderful, although we were spared a complete 1970 re-boot because of the blue socks. I noticed – as did many – how much the pitch was cutting up. Quite poor, really.

Midway through the first-half, the ball was pumped forward for Pedro. From memory, the ball fell in no man’s land, but Ospina clattered into Pedro. It immediately reminded me of Schumacher’s horrific foul on Battiston in the 1982 World Cup. He was down for some time, but was replaced by Jeremie Boga, a forgotten man. He looked eager.

We continued to dominate. There seemed to be lots of shots but mainly weak finishes. Batshuayi struck but the goal was ruled offside. The Chelsea players seemed annoyed at that.

On thirty-one minutes, the Chelsea fans – or a small section of them – donned Antonio Conte face masks and, in unison, started singing “Antonio Antonio Antonio.” Again, we were completely flummoxed. We were to later learn during the night that this was to celebrate the manager’s birthday on 31 July.

“OK.”

John commented : “the noise is good, they just need to work on the melody.”

As the first-half continued, and despite occasional Arsenal attacks, Thibaut Courtois did not have a save to make really.

The lively Willian controlled the ball wide on our left and danced into the box. As he struck a right-footed curler, I snapped. I watched as the ball evaded the lunge of the ‘keeper and we went 1-0 up. There was a loud roar. Soon after, a lovely solo goal from Batshuayi gave us a wholly deserved 2-0 lead. On the rare occasions that Arsenal threatened, they over passed. I remember an excellent block by Gary Cahill – who lead the team out – plus there was the usual solid stuff from David and Dave. Kante was his usual smothering self. This was great stuff indeed. At last, right at the end, Thibaut made a save.

Only Willy Caballero came on at the break.

We were now attacking our end and this seemed to enthuse our support even more. Although the fans were limited to a few songs, the whole end was singing together.

“CHAMPIONES – CHAMPIONES – OLE OLE OLE.”

“CHELSEA – CLAP CLAP CLAP.”

It was still all us. There was tons of play down our left. After a pass from Fabregas, there was a fine pull back from Alonso to Michy on the edge of the box. His crisp swipe flew past the ‘keeper. Oh, how he enjoyed that one.

3-0 and game over. We were surprised that there were still no immediate subs. Antonio Conte was as animated as per usual on the side-lines. He is worth the admission money alone, these days.

The local fans began singing in unison, but the chant did not register with us.

“What are you singing?”

“Subio” – or something similar – was the word being sung and it translated as “one more (goal).”

“CHAMPIONES – CHAMPIONES – OLE OLE OLE.”

Arsenal came into the game a little, but we were never really under threat. Conte rang some changes as the game continued.

Kalas, Christensen, Clarke-Salter, Tomori, Scott, Pasalic, Kenedy – more booing – Baker and Remy all played.

Pre-season is an odd-time. A sighting of Remy here, a sighting of Kalas there. Will they play a part in our future?

Answers on a postcard.

The all royal blue kit ended up virtually navy blue with the perspiration of the players.

The boos for Kenedy seemed to affect him; he looked rattled and struggled to get involved. Boga, among the other subs, looked pacey. One for the future, maybe?

Lewis Baker produced a fine effort right at the end from a free-kick – I’m tempted to say Arsenal’s wall was far from great – but the shot was well saved.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

Job done.

Glenn, especially, looked so thrilled to have witnessed this, his first Chelsea game outside of Europe. It had been a pleasure to be there with him. There seemed to be some sort of presentation at the end of the game, and the players certainly looked pleased with their endeavors as they slowly walked down to our end to applaud the fans.

It was again surreal to see and hear so many Chinese supporters singing along to “Blue Is The Colour” at the end of the game.

We slowly walked outside. We were all very happy with the performance and result. We looked fit. We looked hungry. All positives really. The only negative was Pedro’s injury. The official crowd was given as 55,000; we were pretty pleased with that. I’d say the split was around 50/50.

50% Chelsea, 50% knobheads.

Outside, the stadium was lit from underneath with warming orange and red. It looked simply stunning. I wonder if our new pad will be lit similarly with blue (suggestion – only when we win).

We waited for Foxy, who along with his flag, had watched from the other side of our half.

Avoiding the immediate rush for cabs, we retired back to a local restaurant. It seemed that nobody spoke English, but we were thankfully aided by a lad from the US who had recently graduated from a university in South Dakota but who was visiting to set up his own travel guide company. He had been at the game too. He helped us order some lamb and chicken skewers, rice and noodles but only 2.6 percent beer. We all agreed that it had been a perfect evening. Apart from the 2.6 percent beer.

At around midnight, we caught a cab back to our hotel, the roads clearer, the buildings still immense, the city huge, the holiday not even halfway through.

Ahead, there would be a simply unforgettable trip to The Great Wall Of China, a five hour journey on a bullet train, the historic city of Shanghai, with its history of trade and commerce – a different beast to the more conservative Beijing – and the towering skyscrapers of Pudong.

But that is another story.

 

Tales From A Fool’s Paradise

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 1 April 2017.

We had whispered a final farewell to winter and spring was upon us. The clocks had sprung forward during the previous weekend, which was amid the most recent tedious international break, and the sun was shining down on a perfect Stamford Bridge. Just as in those black and white French films which seemed to feature regularly on BBC2 in the ‘eighties, when there was an extended period of complete blackness between one scene and another – signifying a time for reflection on what had just been witnessed – it seemed that Stamford Bridge was awakening from an enforced slumber and we were waking with it. A stretch here. A yawn there. A remembrance of the toils of winter before a final push towards the days of destiny in April and May.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture, as it often does in the first blush of spring.

It looked like paradise.

The pre-match had been busy.

Due to a section of the M4 being closed, I chose to divert via a more southerly route, and came in via Stonehenge, the A303, the M3 and past Twickenham. From BA11 it to SW6 it took me three and a quarter hours. Not to worry, The Chuckle Bus was providing laughs-a-plenty throughout. The game against Crystal Palace was the first of three games in a week. Travel plans had occupied our thoughts for a while. After Manchester City’s visit on Wednesday, we are staying the night in Bournemouth – just like a huge section of the Chelsea away support – and there are then away games at Manchester United and Everton to get excited about. Sandwiched in among these league matches, we have the FA Cup semi-final against “that lot”; Parky has us all booked-up for train tickets for that one. A rare break for me and I can’t bloody wait. There have also been long and sustained thoughts of foreign travel.

Part serious, part-whimsical, I told the boys on the drive up :

“You know what, I’m more focussed on our first European away game together in the autumn than I am about us being champions.”

How we have missed Euro aways this season; they are surely at the pinnacle of my experiences following this team over the past twenty-five years.

At just before midday, I joined the usual suspects at “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington. Our mate Bob was over from California and Dave was over from France. I quickly knocked down two pints of Peroni. But time was marching on.

We walked down the North End Road and briefly popped in to “The Cock Tavern” to quickly say “hello/goodbye” to a few friends over from various parts of the US. It was fantastic to see them all again – too many names, too little time – but I took great pleasure in seeing Dave meet up with several New York Blues again, since he used to live in that great city for a good few years. Clearly his smiles and laughter were mine too. Bloody fantastic.

In the packed pub – an old haunt of mine, it was the very first pub I had a beer at Chelsea – there were supporters from New York, Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Elsewhere, fans from Chicago and Fresno were around and about.

Many of the supporters’ groups within the US have set off on a life of their own, attempting to absorb Chelsea fan culture as best they can, but ultimately many cities always seem to have developed an overwhelming American twist. One supposes that this is to be expected. In some respects, the last thing that anyone wants to see is anyone trying too hard to fit in to a perceived notion of what it is to be a Chelsea fan.

But it’s the subtle things that I notice. I like to see US fans meeting us halfway; or at least attempting to learn of our history, our rituals, our style.

With the New York group, I always feel that there are enough ex-pats involved to still provide a distinct cultural backbone to their fandom, whether it be behaviour, attitude, humour, songs, clobber, or a general Chelsea sense of self-deprecation induced by many years of suffering. When the New York Blues show up at tour stops in the US, they get the beers in and they know the score. As an added plus for this particular Chelsea fan, I like it that not all of them are ritually bedecked in Adidas tat nor Chelsea scarves ad nauseam. I like the New York Blues. I have a lot of time for them.

Just before I left, I bumped into Frank from Queens. We always share some ribald banter each other with our support of the Italian teams Napoli – Frank – and Juventus – myself – and I couldn’t resist passing on a little morsel of news from my work. Over the next month or so, we have to plan to deliver four of five artics of office furniture to none other than Juventus Football Club.

Frank’s response – “awesome!” – was quickly followed by a big hug.

Love it.

The next stop took in “The Malt House.” I promise not to bore the living daylights out of everyone between now and the end of the season with talk of the summer tour, but four of us had a little chitchat about the trip to Beijing in July. Bob, Glenn and myself were able to meet up with Big John, and we had a fruitful thirty minutes. The flights, hotels and match tickets have been paid for. Next on the agenda is the visa application and plans for a visit to The Great Wall.

OK – enough!

Amid the busyness and business of this particular pre-match, I had not heard about the team news.

There was only one change in the starting eleven; in came Cesc Fabregas for Victor Moses, but obviously this was not a straight swap. Pedro was shifted to wing back, with Cesc pushed up to a place in the front three.

The away fans were initially the centre of our attention. They had arrived with many a flag and banner draped over the balcony. Most notably of all, around one hunded– mainly young – black-clad supporters (the self-styled Holmesdale Road Ultras) were placed right above the banners at the epicentre of their block. Alan and myself pondered why a club like Crystal Palace could easily designate a block of away tickets to a distinct set of fans yet Chelsea Football Club continually finds this simple task beyond their ken. Countless times over the past few seasons, members of the away season ticket scheme have ended up in poor areas at various stadia all over the country.

The ultras, if not everyone within the block of three-thousand, were soon making a racket. Their favourite was a chant that took me right back to my night with two thousand Leverkusen fans at Wembley last November.

“La la – la la la – la la – Crystal Palace.”

However, they soon fell silent. A gorgeous long range pass from Fabregas allowed Eden Hazard to gather and reach the goal-line in front of the Palace fans. He seemed to be gifted too much time to skip past his marker and pick out a team mate. I had spotted Diego Costa supporting the attack, so imagine my surprise when I saw Cesc arrive with Lampardesque timing to touch the ball high past Hennessey.

Only five minutes had passed and we were one-up.

Get in.

Not long after, just as I was extolling the virtues of our team ethic as Pedro charged down a ball and then David Luiz cleared – chatting away to Alan, but watching the play – I then suggested it would just be our bloody luck that, after all this praise, we would concede. We both watched, aghast, as Wilfried Zaha twisted among several Chelsea defenders and struck a fine shot past Thibaut to equalise.

Just as my words floated off into the afternoon air, Alan was able to say “like that.”

Bollocks.

Only two minutes later, we watched as Palace broke with pace and we were cruelly exposed. The once lampooned Christian Benteke ran at David Luiz, with N’Golo Kante too far away to challenge. After a poorly-timed Luiz nibble, the ball broke fortuitously for that man Zaha to play in Benteke, with our defenders at sixes, sevens, eights, nines and tens. With Courtois scrambling out to block, Benteke craftily lifted the ball over our ‘keeper and into the net.

One-nil up, two-one down, we were a terrace chant gone wrong.

In the away section, a red flare appeared behind the flags. The ultras were making even more noise now. If I am honest, it was an impressive sight. They might be lampooned by some, but I can’t fault their desire to make some vibrant noise in support of their team. There is a distinct possibility that they are more famous than their players these days, just in the same way that the social misfits who appear on Arsenal Fan TV are more famous than the Arsenal players at the moment. I know who I favour.

We were 2-1 down.

But only eleven minutes were on the clock; surely more goals would follow?

We enjoyed much of the ball during the rest of the half. We had tons of possession. Oodles of it. But there seemed to be a noticeable lack of incisiveness. I lost count of the number of times that a diagonal was played wide left to Marcos Alonso. This might have been part of Conte’s game plan, but it honestly felt like we were painting by numbers, without individual thought. I was too far away to spot a potential penalty appeal in our favour. Diego tried his best but was not finding space. A Luiz free-kick was wasted. Alonso fizzed a ball across the box but nobody was near. I brought my hands up to my head; it was a reaction that would be repeated again and again as the game progressed. Dave smashed over, Matic forced a finger-tip save from Hennessey, Luiz again wasted a free-kick. Pedro was up and down the right flank like a demon, perhaps – actually – covering too much ground. Elsewhere the bite was missing. Hazard was a little peripheral.

But Palace were defending well.

At the break we were 2-1 down. Damn.

Sadly, there wasn’t a great deal of noise at Stamford Bridge. There were pockets of song, but in general our supporters were losing too.

At the break, a few supporters were presented with their CPO shares and we were treated to a walk around by Celestine Babayaro, who graced our team from 1997 to 2005. He formed a great left-wing alliance with Graeme Le Saux for a few seasons.

We found it inconceivable that the first player to be booked by referee Craig Pawson was Diego Costa. Palace had been swiping at our players throughout the first-half. Diego stretched to reach a ball, but Hennessy reached the ball just before he could get a touch. Diego then had a shot blocked by Scott Dann, who stayed down for an eternity. He was eventually carried off.

Conte replaced Matic with Willian and we went to a four at the back. I bet Pedro never ever thought that he would play right-back when he joined us last year.

Despite us dominating the ball, Palace broke down our right and Zaha, their star player, forced a great save from Thibaut. They had a little period when they caused us a few worries. We kept attacking, moving the ball between our players, but again without a killing pass. I thought our final ball in to the box, from Marcos Alonso especially, was very poor. Balls were swept in low, but defenders cleared. Lofted balls were played deep, but with nobody in Chelsea blue near. A clear chance fell to Diego from a Hazard cross. His header not only lacked power but direction too. It landed, pathetically, yards wide.

The pass of the day from Fabregas between the centre-back and the right-back was a thing of beauty but it amounted to nothing.

The time passed. I had a little chat with Alan, thinking back to previous home games against Palace.

“Bloody hell mate, have we ever lost to Palace in the league in our memory? I remember the FA Cup game in 1976, but have they ever beaten us here?”

PD looked over and said “last season.”

“Oh bloody hell. Yes. Of course.”

Had I shoved the trauma of last season so far in to my memory that I had forgotten that 2-1 reverse?

Evidently so.

Michy Batshuayi entered the fray as a replacement for Alonso. Balls from out wide were continually whipped-in, but Palace players blocked everything.

At last – on about the eightieth minute – the whole of Stamford Bridge eventually united in a single song.

“About bloody time.”

Shots from Willian, Cesc and Pedro were saved by Hennessey, who was having a storming game. As the referee’s assistant signalled a massive seven minutes, we willed the team on. But, unlike in previous games, when I felt that a goal would definitely come, on this occasion I wasn’t convinced.

The seven minutes soon passed. In our last attack, we urged Thibaut to join the attack as we awarded a corner. He did so. Dressed in black, he lined up to challenge for the ball among the blues and yellows. It is always the oddest of sights. Typically, Hennessy punched the ball clear.

At the whistle, at least there were no boos. That would have been the last straw.

So, on April Fool’s Day, we had dropped a clanger. This was a very surprising defeat. After we had all met up back at the car, it did not take long for us to thrash through our thoughts of the game. It wasn’t as if any player had performed particularly poorly, it was just that not enough had enjoyed those little moments of top quality.

I was the fool for thinking that our big week of football would begin with three easy points.

And I won’t be making that mistake again in a hurry.

On Wednesday, we face Manchester City at home in a game that could define our season; a Chelsea win, and our position will look a little more secure.

See you there.

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