Tales From The Arkles

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 25 November 2017.

This was our third away game in just eight days. After visits to the Black Country and Azerbaijan, it was now the turn of Merseyside. With a tea-time kick-off at 5.30pm, I was able to enjoy the luxury of a little lie-in before driving the Chuckle Bus north. I collected PD, then Glenn, then Parky. The weather worsened as we headed north on the M5 and then the M6. This would be my twenty-third trip to Anfield with Chelsea. Bizarrely, it would be my first-ever trip with Glenn, my oldest Chelsea mate. His last visit to Anfield was way back in November 1985; that famous 1-1 draw, with 1,000 Rangers fans in their own special section on the Kemlyn Road. On that occasion, he traveled-up from Somerset with the Yeovil supporters on their coach. I had arrived by train from Stoke. We had both been at the game in May 1985 too. Again, he traveled up by coach from Frome and I trained it from my college town.

…all those years ago…we were only twenty and eighteen…yet here we were, repeating the same steps in 2017.

We had parked-up on Utting Avenue, that wide road which shoots off from the city’s ring road, Queens Drive, to the Anfield citadel at the top of the hill. We were headed for “The Arkels” – one of the most famous “away pubs” on our travels with Chelsea – where I had arranged to meet up with a few chaps. There was not the wicked wind of Baku, but it was still a cold afternoon. The rain had momentarily stopped, but a Turner-esque storm cloud was looming in the distance, the fading yellow sun offering a last blast of light as the night fell.

I was reminded of a photograph that I took of the same pub after my very first visit to Anfield in that May 1985 game, which ended with a 4-3 win for the reigning league champions.

The same pub, thirty-two years apart.

We slipped inside “The Arkels” at around 3.15pm. It was frantically busy. It is not an “away fans only” pub – both Liverpool and Chelsea fans rubbed shoulders, but it was the away fans making all of the noise. The landlord welcomed the away fans to his boozer using a microphone.

“Enjoy your visit lads, sing some songs, but please don’t stand on the furniture.”

Although things often used to get a little tense at Liverpool over the years, this particular pub is always welcoming. The locals watched with strained ambivalence as the Chelsea lads sang song after song. I am not convinced that United fans are given equal billing as us. A little gaggle of lads from our home area were already there and The Chuckle Brothers joined them. I spotted my mate Rob and also three good pals from the US. Brian from Chicago was back from his travels to Baku and he was joined by J12 and his wife, and also Cruzer and his wife and daughter.

J12, Jenny, Cruzer, Abigail and Ava all live in Los Angeles.

From La La Land to La Land.

We were in the little room to the left of the bar. It brought back a memory from January 1992 where, on my first ever visit to “The Arkels”, I had found myself drinking at the exact same table. I retold the events of that day to the visitors from across the pond.

I’d like to think that it is worth sharing again here.

I was with my old school mate Francis for the Liverpool versus Chelsea game and it would be a seismic weekend for him; a Liverpool fan, this would be his first ever visit. On the Friday night, we had stayed with friends – my college mate Pete and his Evertonian wife Maxine – and then enjoyed a couple of beers in a local pub on the Saturday lunchtime before setting off for the ground. I already had my ticket, procured during the previous few weeks direct from Chelsea. In those days, I am sure that you could show your membership card at Stamford Bridge, pay your money, and get handed an away ticket. No internet. No loyalty points. It was as easy as that. On the previous Wednesday, Liverpool had beaten Arsenal and – all of a sudden – had found themselves back in the hunt for the league championship behind Manchester United and Leeds United. Francis, Pete and I were dropped off near Anfield at around 2.15pm; the plan was for Pete and Francis to stand on The Kop.

However, the streets around Anfield were milling with people. Bizarrely, we bumped into an old college acquaintance – a Scouser with the unforgettable name of Johnny Fortune – and our heart sank when he barked at Pete with incredulity :

“The Kop’s full.”

I could hardly believe it either. Our plans had been hit by a wave of optimism by the Liverpool fans, enticed to Anfield in vast numbers after the midweek win. Not a spare ticket was to be had anywhere.

“Bollocks.”

Without dwelling on it, I quickly thrust my ticket for the away section in the Anfield Road into Francis’ hands.

“Take it.”

There was no way that I was going to allow Francis to miss out on his first ever Anfield game. Fran was almost stuck for words, but I shooed him away and told him to enjoy the match. Pete and I, once we had realised that there was no way in for us, retreated back to “The Arkels”, where we took our seats in the same corner where we were standing and sitting in 2017, drank a lager apiece and half-halfheartedly watched an England rugby international.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry when the news came through that Vinnie Jones had put Chelsea ahead. Liverpool then equalised. With half-time approaching, Pete and I finished our pints and walked past the Kemlyn Road Stand and found ourselves on the Walton Breck Road behind The Kop. The idea was to get some chips. At the half-time whistle, we suddenly noticed that one gate behind The Kop was opened and several – ten, maybe fifteen – Liverpool fans exited the stadium, crossed the road, bought some chips, then returned back inside the stadium.

Pete looked at me. I looked at Pete. No words were needed. We approached the gate. For those who knew the old Anfield, the gate was by the ship’s mast, in the south-west corner. Pete knocked on the gate.

“Alright, lads?”

In we went. In we fucking went. We silently ascended the steps and soon found ourselves among 15,000 Scousers on The Kop. I looked at Pete, smirking.

“Fucking get in.”

Anfield was not a friendly place, neither on nor off the pitch. And here I was, stood right among the enemy on the famous Kop. On the pitch, our form at Anfield was shocking. Save for a lone F.A. Cup win at Anfield in around 1965, Chelsea had not won at the home of Liverpool Football Club since 1937.

Yep, that’s right : 1937.

Fifty-five sodding years.

I watched from The Kop and Francis, the Liverpool fan, watched from the Chelsea section as a Dennis Wise goal gave us a 2-1 win. When Dennis scored, a low shot from an angle, my heart exploded but I – of course – stayed silent. What indescribable joy. We even missed a late penalty too. The locals were far from happy. I can remember one grizzled old chap spitting out a few words of consternation:

“Come on Liverpool. We can beat dese. It’s only Chelsea.”

Inside, I purred with happiness. And I was, deep down, supremely happy to have stood on the old Kop – even though it only amounted to only forty-five minutes – before it was bulldozed two years later.

At the end of the game, Pete and I raced around to meet up with Francis by the Shankly Gates and my first words were –

“We got in.”

I think it is very safe to say that Francis was very relieved.

“Our first win since 1937 and we got in for free.”

Ironically, in the circumstances, Francis had thoroughly enjoyed himself despite his team’s loss. He commented that the Chelsea fans never stopped singing, never stopped cheering. On more than one occasion, he found himself singing along too; I guess that he was caught up in the emotion of it all. One Chelsea supporter kissed him when Wisey scored. Also – fantastic this – Fran was deeply moved by Micky Greenaway’s urging of fellow fans to get behind the team with his demonic “Zigger Zagger” chant as he walked back and forth. It had been, Francis exclaimed, an incredible afternoon.

The years have flown past since.

I limited myself to two pints of San Miguel, sadly served in plastic glasses. The pub was bouncing with noise from around thirty Chelsea youngsters in the far room. I shared another couple of other stories with the US visitors. I told how my father had watched his only game of football – that is, before his trip to Chelsea with me in 1974 – during his WW2 training on The Wirral at Goodison Park, the equally impressive stadium at the bottom of Stanley Park, no more than a fifteen-minute walk away. I then whispered to J12 and Jenny about that infamous aspect of football on The Kop which the locals termed “a hotleg.”

The pub was thinning out. I re-joined The Chuckle Brothers in the back bar. A few idiots were standing on the sofas. At about 4.45pm, we set off, past the four of five police vans parked right outside the boozer.

I remembered how I had shaken hands with the then England manager Fabio Capello before our 2007 CL semi-final as we crossed the road, past the souvenir stalls, past the tight terraced streets.

The Kemlyn Stand of 1985 became the Centenary Stand in 1992. It is now the Kenny Dalglish Stand in 2017. There is now a car park behind the Anfield Road, where once there were houses, and only just recently a fan-zone. There are, I believe, plans to enlarge Anfield further at this end.

Inside, the Chelsea team were already on the pitch, going through their drills.

The team?

A very solid 3-5-2.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Drinkwater – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Hazard – Morata

The three in the middle – the former Leicester City champions plus the new boy Tiemoue – were chosen to dampen the threat of Liverpool’s attacking options. The creativity would have to come from Eden Hazard.

“No pressure.”

The minutes ticked by. A large flag floated over the heads of the Scousers in the lower tier to my left. No end of flags and banners waved in The Kop.

A bittersweet flag – “Iron Lady” – caught my eye. It honoured the memory of the late Anne Williams and her relentless fight for justice after her son Kevin was killed at Hillsborough in 1989.

Thankfully, I am pleased to report only a very short blast of the loathsome “Murderers” chant from the away section all day.

The teams entered the pitch.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

I expected a lot more noise. It was four times as loud at the infamous Champions League encounter in 2005; that match had, I am sure, the loudest atmosphere at any game that I have witnessed in the UK.

To my immediate right, a Chelsea banner was held aloft. A blue flare was set off and the smoke drifted up towards the mountainous new main stand to my right.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

Philippe Coutinho kicked-off.

Game on.

As so often happens, Liverpool dominated the first twenty minutes. Every game at Anfield seems to start in this fashion. Yet they rarely score. This game was no different. In previous seasons, it is so often Coutinho who impresses, but it was Mo Salah who caught the eye. His nimble footwork seemed to dazzle me, if not our defenders, who were more than able to close him down and stop him making a killer pass to others.

A few Liverpool passes zipped into our box, but we defended well, without any signs of panic or concern.

As the minutes ticked by, I gazed up at the rather old-fashioned scoreboard – no flashy TV screens at Anfield, nor Old Trafford – and commented to Gary :

“Over the years, I don’t think I have consistently watched the time pass on a scoreboard more than the one here.”

Gary agreed.

Tick tock, tick tock.

Liverpool struggled to make any real progress despite having much of the ball. At the other end, Eden began a dribble into a danger zone which was eerily similar to his goal at the end of the 2015/2016 season. A shot from outside the box similarly followed. On this occasion, Mignolet scrambled the ball away for a corner. Not so long after, a simply sublime 180 degree turn on a sixpence and a trademark dribble set up Danny Drinkwater, who could not quite get enough of the ball as Mignolet raced out.

Elsewhere, there were mixed performances. Sadly, Bakayoko really struggled to get in to the game at all. Davide Zappacosta seemed a little overawed. But Andreas Christensen was cool and magnificent. N’Golo Kante was N’Golo Kante; enough said. Hazard was the star though. He was on fire. There were a few Hazard and Morata link-ups, but nothing like at West Brom the previous Saturday.

Eden then set up Zappacosta with a teasing lay-off reminiscent of Pele and Carlos Alberto for Brazil in 1970. Unfortunately, the Italian’s rising shot was palmed over. From the corner which followed, an almighty scramble resulted – penalty box pinball – and there were a few swipes at the Liverpool goal without an end result.

For the record, Daniel Sturridge was having a very quiet game. It is hard to believe that he was a Chelsea non-playing substitute on that night in Munich. How things change.

A free-kick from Alonso flew past a post.

Just before the break, that man Salah shimmied, and curled one just past Courtois’ far post. It had me worried, anyway. It was Liverpool’s only worthwhile effort thus far.

At the break, Glenn shouted up to me from row two.

“We won’t lose this.”

“Nah.”

Hazard tangled with James Milner – the world’s most tedious footballer – on the edge of the box. No decision from Oliver the referee.

Oliver had given us a laugh when he had slipped and stumbled on the halfway line. The Chelsea choir did not waste much time.

“Are you Gerrard in disguise?”

Generally, though, the crowd were quiet. The home fans especially. And although everyone on The Kop was standing, as were the Chelsea fans, the Liverpool fans alongside us in the Annie Road were seated quietly.

Sigh. The lack of noise genuinely surprised me.

Sturridge had a weak effort in front of The Kop. Liverpool had begun better in the second period, but the raiding Zappacosta put in a couple of testing crosses from the right. No Chelsea player was able to connect, save for a ball which bobbled up on to Morata’s chest and flew wide.

“John Terry would have scored that.”

He loved a chest pass, did JT.

Courtois saved well in front of The Kop.

Away to our right, Antonio asked Willian, Fabregas and Rudiger to warm up.

On sixty-five minutes, Liverpool worked the ball in to our box and an attempted clearance from Bakayoko only teed up Oxlade-Chamberlain who touched the ball to Salah.

That horrible moment when you just bloody well know that a goal will be conceded.

“Bollocks.”

Salah guided the ball past Thibaut.

“Bollocks.”

To his credit, our former player did not celebrate.

After an age, Conte made a change. We struggled to work out why it was Drinkwater and not the very poor Bakayoko who was replaced by Fabregas. However, a lot more creativity immediately warmed us. Morata suddenly looked livelier. A few wonderful passes almost paid off.

Pedro replaced Tiemoue.

Tick tock, tick tock.

We stepped it up. I kept saying to the lad with a Mancunian accent to my left –

“We’ll get a goal.”

The away support was warmed by our increased urgency. Another cross from Zappacosta was zipped in. Right in front of me, Alonso met the ball at knee height with a volley. I snapped my camera as his effort flew over. It could have been the best goal that he would ever score. It could have been the best photograph that I would ever take. In the end, both shots were consigned to the delete folder.

Sigh.

With seven minutes remaining, Willian replaced Zappacosta. We kept pushing, with Hazard and Fabregas the main assailants. The Chelsea support roared the team on.

With five minutes to go, Willian received the ball in the inside-right channel. He had a man outside, but pushed on. He chose to send over a teaser towards the far post. The ball seemed to hang in the air for ever. I watched, mesmerized, by the spinning ball. It fell out of the night sky, above the clawing hand of Mignolet, and into the top corner of the goal. As it rippled the net, some nameless photographer at The Kop end snapped his camera.

My mouth is open. My eyes are wide.

No words are necessary.

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Pandemonium in the Annie Road.

GETINYOUFUCKER.

A scream and a shout. Arms everywhere. I clambered onto my seat – “please do not stand on the furniture” – and caught the blissful celebrations just yards away. What a moment. The goal was nothing more than we deserved.

In the final moments, a magnificent save from Courtois from Salah was met with thunderous applause.

The final whistle blew.

It was our third consecutive 1-1 at Anfield.

I suppose we should have no complaints, but I cannot help but think that if the game had continued for another five minutes, we would have found a winner from somewhere.

It had taken forever to drive up to Anfield – a few minutes’ shy of five hours – and it took an equally long time to retrace our steps. There was slow-moving traffic on Queens Drive, heavy rain on the M6, and a 50 miles per hour speed limit too.

At a Balti House in West Bromwich, we enjoyed some curries while watching our game on “Match Of The Day.”

“Willian, did you mean to shoot?”

“Of course.”

We weren’t so sure.

After setting off at 9.45am, I was back home at 2am. It wasn’t as far as Azerbaijan, but bloody hell it felt like it.

On Wednesday, we return home to Stamford Bridge to play Swansea City.

See you there.

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Tales From A Game And A Half

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 8 November 2014.

6.30am on a Saturday morning. Outside, there was darkness and silence. The rest of the world was asleep. However, the invigorating feeling which greeted the thought of a Chelsea away day was coursing through my veins. Not just any away game of course.

It was our return to the scene of the crime.

The afternoon of Sunday 27 April 2014 will live long in our collective memories.

In Liverpool, it is a date that they wish to forget.

Our 2-0 win, a stirring and resolute performance in the face of a local population that had seemingly crowned Liverpool as Champions with games still to play and with allied fawning from the media, derailed the Anfield team’s bid for their first League Championship since 1990.

It was, I’m sure, most Chelsea supporters’ most cherished memory of last season.

Schadenfreude never tasted so good.

However, during the first two months of the 2014-2015 season, the fortunes of the two protagonists had changed immeasurably; Chelsea were now dominant league leaders, Liverpool were dishevelled chasers. Although I was confident of a strong Chelsea performance, there was still a nagging and niggling doubt that there might be revenge in the air, as distant as it might have seemed to some, perhaps in the guise of a dish served cold’; perhaps like a bowl of cold scouse.

I collected Lord Parky at 7am and headed north once again; I soon realised that we would be completing our four league away days in Manchester and Merseyside within the first eleven games of the season. I expected the result at Anfield to be closer to the 1-1 draws recorded in Manchester than the 6-3 shellacking that we gave Everton.

At 11am, I was driving through familiar streets around Liverpool’s stadium. Just like at Old Trafford, street parking had tightened and there were “permits only” signs wherever I looked. In the end, I chose to pay £10 and parked in a secure site a few yards from Goodison Park. There were lovely memories of that Saturday afternoon in August.

Six goals. Phew.

The heavens opened on the short walk through Stanley Park, no longer the site of a proposed new Liverpool stadium. At the top of the steady incline, the Anfield floodlights were already on. We dived into a crowded “Arkels” and soon met up with around ten Chelsea faces from our part of the world. They had driven up in a mini-bus. Soon, the atmosphere became rowdier, with Chelsea songs to the fore. The closest pub to the away section, this pub has long been the “away” pub at Anfield, though home fans are admitted too. At times the atmosphere is a little tense, but I’ve rarely seen tempers flare. The locals seemed brow-beaten in the face of so much Chelsea noise.

They needed no reminding, but one song kept repeating…

“Steve Gerrard, Gerrard…”

I first visited “The Arkels” way back in 1992. It is a story worth re-telling.

In 1991-1992, Chelsea was struggling under Ian Porterfield and a decent run before Christmas had soon petered out. On the first day of February, I drove up to Liverpool on a ridiculously foggy Friday evening with my mate Francis for the Liverpool versus Chelsea game on the Saturday afternoon. I had visited Anfield on four previous occasions – a draw and three defeats – but this would be a seismic weekend for Francis; a Liverpool fan, this would be his first ever visit. On the Friday night, we stayed with friends in the city and then enjoyed a couple of beers in a local pub before setting off for the ground. I already had my ticket, procured during the previous weeks from Chelsea. On the previous Wednesday, Liverpool had beaten Arsenal and – all of a sudden – had found themselves back in the hunt for the league championship behind Manchester United and Leeds United. Francis, my mate Pete and I were dropped off near Anfield at around 2.15pm; the plan was for Pete and Francis to stand on The Kop.

However, the streets around Anfield were milling with people. Bizarrely, we bumped into an old college acquaintance – a Scouser with the unforgettable name of Johnny Fortune – and our heart sank when he barked at Pete :

“The Kop’s full.”

I could hardly believe it. Our plans had been hit by a wave of optimism by the Liverpool fans, enticed to Anfield in vast numbers after the midweek win. Not a spare ticket was to be had anywhere.

“Bollocks.”

Without dwelling on it, I quickly thrust my ticket for the away section in the Anfield Road into Francis’ hands.

“Take it.”

There was no way that I was going to allow Francis to miss out on his first ever Anfield game. Fran was almost stuck for words, but I shooed him away and told him to enjoy the game. Pete and I, once we had realised that there was no way in for us, retreated back to “The Arkels”, where we took our seats in a corner, drank a lager apiece and half-halfheartedly watched an England rugby international.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry when the news came through that Vinnie Jones had put Chelsea ahead. Liverpool then equalised. With half-time approaching, Pete and I finished our pints and walked behind the Kemlyn Road Stand and found ourselves on the road behind The Kop. The idea was to get some chips. At the half-time whistle, we suddenly noticed that one gate behind The Kop was opened and several – ten, maybe fifteen – Liverpool fans exited the stadium, crossed the Walton Breck Road, bought some chips, then returned back inside the stadium.

Pete looked at me.

I looked at Pete.

No words were needed.

Pete approached the gate. For those who knew the old Anfield, the gate was by the ship’s mast, in the south-west corner. Pete knocked on the gate.

“Alright.”

In we went.

In we fucking went.

We silently ascended the steps and soon found ourselves among 15,000 scousers on The Kop. I looked at Pete.

“Fucking get in.”

Anfield was not a friendly place, neither on nor off the pitch. And here I was, stood right among the enemy on the famous Kop. On the pitch, our form at Anfield was shocking. Save for a lone F.A. Cup win at Anfield in around 1965, Chelsea had not won at the home of Liverpool Football Club since 1937.

Yep, that’s right : 1937.

Fifty-two sodding years.

On that Saturday in February 1992, I watched from The Kop and Francis, the Liverpool fan, watched from the Chelsea section as a Dennis Wise goal gave us a 2-1 win. When Dennis scored, a low shot from an angle, my heart exploded but I – of course – stayed silent. What joy. We even missed a late penalty too. The locals were far from happy. I can remember one grizzled old chap spitting out a few words of consternation:

“Come on Liverpool. We can beat dese. It’s only Chelsea.”

Inside, I purred with happiness.

At the end of the game, Pete and I raced around to meet up with Francis by the Shankly Gates and my first words were –

“We got in.”

Francis was relieved.

“Our first win since 1937 and we got in for free.”

Ironically, in the circumstances, Fran had thoroughly enjoyed himself despite his team’s loss. He commented that the Chelsea fans never stopped singing, never stopped cheering. On more than one occasion, he found himself singing along too; I guess that he was caught up in the emotion of it all. I’m sure he said one Chelsea supporter kissed him when Wisey scored. Also – fantastic this – Fran was deeply moved by Micky Greenaway’s urging of fellow fans to get behind the team with his demonic “Zigger Zagger” chant. It was, Francis exclaimed, an incredible afternoon.

I agreed.

At 2.15pm, I left Parky, Cooky, Ash, Andy, Sir Les, and the other members of the Trowbridge Chelsea crew, and walked the three hundred yards to take my place in the Anfield Road. I was surprised how few were inside; 1992 it was not.

Alan and Gary, fresh from their enjoyable trip to Slovenia, soon joined me in row 22, high above the goal. The Chelsea players were soon on the pitch, going through a few set drills. Long gone are the days when the players would appear on the pitch for ten minutes and nonchalantly ping balls to each other. These days every routine is planned and precise.

I spotted Diego Costa.

Phew.

I was quietly confident. Chelsea was flying high. Liverpool was the opposite.

Let’s go to work.

None other than Gianfranco Zola, commentating on the game, walked in front of the main stand and was rightfully serenaded by the three thousand faithful. I can well remember a game I attended at Anfield in 2002 when our little magician was playing out on the wing on the touchline by the Centenary Stand. A ball was booted high into the air and he killed it with one sublime touch; even the Scousers applauded it. The man was a genius.

The time seemed to suddenly race by and the stands filled-up in the blink of an eye. The teams entered the pitch behind two members of the British Army. I wondered if there would be time for the usual Liverpool anthem. Sure enough, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” rattled around Anfield, though not with as much noise and fervour as in other visits. Then, thankfully, there was an impeccably observed minute of silence for the fallen.

The referee’s whistle.

Mario Balotelli touched the ball to a team mate.

Game on.

There was an initial period of free-running from the midfielders of both teams. Emre Can, a face I bluntly did not recognise, tested Thibaut Courtois with a shot which was deflected wide. I remember that Liverpool began the game in April very brightly, but failed to pierce our defence. This time around, they scored with only eight minutes gone. Liverpool were gifted too much space and the ball was played to Can once again. His speculative thump from twenty-five yards was headed for goal – I was right behind its flight – but the ball deflected off a Chelsea defender ( I was unsure if it was John Terry or Gary Cahill) and therefore wrong-footed Courtois. The ball nestled in the net and Anfield erupted.

“Rather they scored now than in the last ten minutes, Gal.”

Chelsea responded magnificently. A spell of pressure in front of The Kop. Two corners. On the second one, John Terry rose unhindered and headed towards goal. Mignolet parried but only knocked the ball in to the path of a blue-shirted assailant. Everything happened so quickly, but I saw the ‘keeper make a diving attempt to keep the ball from going over the line. The Chelsea fans around me roared, but I was unsure. I could only truly celebrate when I saw the referee and then the players running back towards me.

My immediate thought?

“Luis Garcia. Same part of the goal. Revenge. Get in. Come on you blue boys.”

Liverpool then threatened; a Balotelli goal was offside, a block by Gary Cahill. Coutinho, who always looks threatening, forced a save from Courtois. But, in an open game, Chelsea continued to move the ball well. Matic, as ever, was covering huge amounts of ground and our play was intelligent and forceful. Liverpool were getting stretched. Diego Costa shot over. A couple of Eden Hazard’s shots were blocked. There was a slight hint of Chelsea’s play being overly-elaborate.

Very often a call came up from the away section : “shoot!”

Total domination from Chelsea in the closing section of the first-half sadly brought no further goals. I was still confident though. It had been a fine first-half.

In the second-half, yet more impressive running from Hazard set up the rampaging Diego Costa, whose overhead kick flew over. Then a chance for Liverpool in front of The Kop; Sterling forcing a save, down low, from the reliable Courtois. Hazard’s turn again to run at a bewildered Liverpool defence, but we felt he held on to the ball a little too long; it is a flaw of his play. Eden needs to know when to release the ball. The resulting shot was blocked.

Willian, on for Ramires, found the advancing Cear Azpilicueta, who danced past Coutinho on the far touchline and took my advice to “get in the box Dave.” He flicked the ball in to the danger area and after Mignolet could only partially parry, the ball fell enticingly in to the path of the waiting Diego Costa.

I was right behind the path of this one too.

Our new goal-scoring icon slammed the ball low.

The net rippled.

2-1.

YEEEEEEESSSSSSSS.

The Chelsea crowd reacted brilliantly. For a few seconds, we all lost it. Arms pumping, faces gurning, hearts pumping, voices loud.

Alan : “Dey’ll ‘ave to come at us now……”

Chris : “Come on my little diamondsssssssss.”

It was no more than Diego Costa deserved. He was a constant thorn in Liverpool’s side all afternoon. One turn and run in front of the Centenary Stand, fighting off the challenge of two defenders, was a pure joy to watch. Liverpool’s home support, rather than attempting to cheer their team on, remained quiet. Our defence remained in control. I lost count of the number of times that balls were headed clear. Towards the end of the game, both Liverpool players and Liverpool fans alike responded loudly when a goal-bound shot seemed to strike a Chelsea defender. I was one hundred yards away. I was none the wiser.

In the last period, mindful of Robin Van Persie’s late equaliser at Old Trafford, the Chelsea support grew edgier and edgier. I kept looking at the old fashioned clock in the corner of The Kop. The minutes ticked by. Didier Drogba came on. Finally, Filipe Luis came on. The final kick of the game was a failed clearance from Mignolet which spun off for a Chelsea corner. The referee then blew.

A roar from the Chelsea section of the Anfield Road.

This was another enormously professional Chelsea performance. There were smiles aplenty all around me. Lovely stuff.

I soon met up with Parky and we bounced our way through Stanley Park, past the down –beaten Liverpool fans waiting for their coaches to take them back to Worcester, Bristol, North Wales, Birmingham and beyond.

“They must hate us up here, Parky.”

In 1992, we had to wait fifty-two years for a league win at Anfield.

In 2014, we have enjoyed two in seven months.

Good times in darkest Liverpool.

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Tales From Wiltshire

Swindon Town vs. Chelsea : 24 September 2013.

Chelsea’s Capital One Cup game at Swindon Town’s County Ground was always going to be a special one for me. It would be our first competitive match at Swindon for almost twenty years but, more importantly, it also represented the nearest that I would get to a “home” game – of sorts – during this season and, probably, for many a season to come. From my place of work in Chippenham, right on the A4 – on the path of the old Roman road which linked Bristol and London – to the County Ground in Swindon is a journey of just over twenty miles. After countless midweek jaunts up the M4 to London, this was almost too good to be true.

The county of Wiltshire is not known for its footballing heritage. For many years, though, it was 1-0 up over my home shire of Somerset. Swindon Town’s presence in the Football League ensured that the rural county of stone circles and chalk horses stayed ahead in the local football bragging rights. Only since the emergence of Yeovil Town in the past decade has Somerset equalised; both counties now have a Football League team. Maybe my home county wins though; it has a county cricket team, while Wiltshire doesn’t. I have lived my entire life in Somerset – save for my college years and the three years of wanderlust which followed – but I have always worked over the border in Wiltshire; my twenty-three years of employment has taken place in the small towns of Westbury, Trowbridge and Chippenham. During my childhood in Frome the local teams, supported by a few school friends, were always the City and Rovers of Bristol; Swindon Town was definitely off the radar. Since working in Wiltshire though, I’ve encountered more followers of Swindon. It must be a county thing.

As soon as the draw was made, it was obvious that this match would entice many of my local Chelsea friends to attend. A hefty “gathering of the clans” from my surrounding home area was guaranteed. However, the game at Swindon turned out to be an extra-special “local” game for one friend in particular, even although her home is on another continent.

The plans for the game at Swindon came together over a few days. I nabbed my ticket at the earliest opportunity. After a few days of waiting, Parky thankfully acquired his ticket too. We made tentative plans to meet up with Mark from Westbury at the Red Lion pub in the midst of the historic stone circles of Avebury on the way to the game. There was quite a local “buzz” about the game. A few Swindon fans from work had tickets; it would be their biggest home game for years. Then, out of leftfield – or at least outside the penalty box – came a bolt from the royal blue. My friend Karen, from Connecticut, contacted me and explained that she would be in Swindon, of all places, on a work visit on the day of the Chelsea game. Talk about serendipity. Although I promised to try to attain a ticket for her, I wasn’t sure any remained. At the very least, we could meet up for a pint. I had first met Karen, surreally, on a yellow school bus, which was used to ferry bevvied-up Chelsea fans from a pub in central Philadelphia to nearby Chester for the MLS All-Star in the summer of 2012. We had chatted about Chelsea in between swigging warm beer and singing a few old favourites. I had briefly bumped into Karen at Yankee Stadium last May, too.

Miraculously, the very next morning more tickets went on sale.

I was able to get hold of one.

Karen was a lucky girl.

Ticket requests from a few friends continued, but I had given up hope of getting hold of any extras. However – quite fortuitously – at the Fulham game on the Saturday, two more tickets became available; one for Les from Melksham, one for Glenn from Frome. Things were falling into place. This was going to be a great night of football.

Then, the good luck continued. Bristol Tim informed me that he had heard that the Chelsea team were staying at the very same hotel, just off the M4, that – yes, you’ve guessed it – Karen was staying in.

I quickly texted Karen the news and I am supremely confident that her reaction was –

“Awesome.”

I was actually surprised that the team would be staying in a hotel, just 80 miles from London, on the night before a League Cup game. It made me stop and think how professional this game of football now is. Rather than travel down on the afternoon, Chelsea had obviously thought that it was important to get a base in Swindon to fully prepare for the match. I had visions of team meetings, reminders of tactical plans, videos of the opponents and exercises in the hotel gym, but also of monotonous hours spent in anonymous hotel rooms, games on lap-tops, idle banter and possible boredom.

On the day of the game, I thankfully managed to wriggle away from work at a good time. I collected Glenn and Parky and, with chatter between the three of us making the twenty minutes seem like twenty seconds, soon found myself pulling into the Swindon Hilton (yeah, that just sounds funny doesn’t it?) bang on time at 5.45pm. Lo and behold, I soon spotted that the sleek black Chelsea coach was parked right outside the entrance. I screeched into the car park and we hopped out, with my trusty camera in hand. Gary Staker and Eva Carneiro were standing next to the coach, but it was soon evident that the players were yet to emerge. I soon spotted Karen, full of smiles, and we both agreed that this was “perfect timing.” Within just a few seconds, the blue track suited players appeared. I took a few photos. There was a small group of well-wishers nearby, but most players walked straight on to the coach. Kudos to Juan Mata and David Luiz, plus one or two more, for stopping by to sign autographs.

Jose Mourinho was close by and so I gathered my nerve and approached him. As I held out my hand, I wished him “good luck for tonight” but for a horrible moment I was sure that he would blank me. He looked as miserable as sin – I felt like saying “come on mate, Swindon can’t be that bad” – but thankfully he shook my hand, albeit rather dismissively. Glenn wished him well, too. Karen, I think, was near to fainting. As we walked back to the car, I wondered why Parky was nowhere to be seen.

The answer? In my haste to rush off to see Karen and the players, I had unfortunately locked him inside the car.

Not so perfect.

Karen was bubbling as I drove into the town centre. During the afternoon, she had found herself alongside Doctor Eva on the running machines in the gym; they had exchanged words and, once Eva found out that Karen was a CFC supporter, had offered her a ticket.

That’s lovely.

Within a few minutes, we were parked up in a side street, just minutes from the County Ground. The evening was gorgeous; blue skies, warm, no hint of clouds, no hint of rain, the business. As we walked through the rather down-at- heel streets, which reminded me of the area around Fratton Park, Glenn and I spoke about our last visit to Swindon Town. In the summer of 1996, we played at Swindon in a testimonial on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I believe that it marked Frank Leboeuf and Roberto di Matteo’s Chelsea debuts. We won 2-0 in front of a healthy gate of 13,881. The game was unremarkable and dull. It was notable for one reason only; for a year or so, Glenn’s German girlfriend at the time had fancied seeing Chelsea play. Glenn’s rather antiquated view of “football being no place for a woman” was jettisoned for one game, but Anke hated the experience of live footy. In truth, it was a poor game, with virtually no atmosphere to speak of. The look on all three of our faces must have been a picture. Glenn and I vowed never to go to another meaningless pre-season friendly ever again. As we reminisced about that day some seventeen years ago, we joked –

“Anke left you to it from then on, Glenn.”

“Too right, Blue.”

We decided to have a couple of drinks at the adjacent cricket ground, which adjoins the football ground to the north. The rather antiquated, but still ornate, white pavilion housed a small bar and we soon ordered a round of lager and cider. Within seconds, the queue at the bar was formidable; again, we had arrived just at the right time. Outside, there was chat with a few friends as we made our way out into the gorgeous evening as the sun slowly faded to our right. Karen was enjoying the cider as I explained a few things about football in England and how it differs in so many ways from the US sport scene; there’s a book there, or maybe an encyclopaedia, waiting to be written. We chatted with Big John, who sits just a few seats away from us at HQ, about all things Chelsea. Karen was amazed at our collective weight of support for the club and team. Karen asked John if he went to all the games.

“No” replied John, almost apologetically, “most seasons I miss a couple.”

Karen yelped “a couple?!?!”” as if it was beyond belief that someone could be so devoted.

I smiled. Karen was in good company.

This would be Karen’s fifth Chelsea game. Her first one was Juan Mata’s debut at home to Norwich in 2011. After numerous visits to Swindon with work, Karen was still pinching herself that Chelsea were in town and she had a ticket.

Good times.

The night fell and we made our way to the ground. I told Karen to be sure that the next time a rogue Manchester United supporter back in the US confronted her about being a glory hunter, Karen should be sure to respond with the two key words “Swindon away.” Glenn and Parky made their way to the open Stratton Bank – where I stood with a Newcastle  United mate in 1993 as Andy Cole made his Geordie debut – while Karen and I lined up for the seats in the main stand. We bumped into a few lads from Trowbridge and I think Karen was slightly surprised how many people I knew.

“Going away with Chelsea is like going away with a mad extended family, though – everyone knows each other.”

The ground hadn’t changed one iota since 1996. To my left, the Stratton Bank, proper old school, open to the elements. To my right, the small covered Town End. Opposite, the single tiered Don Rogers Stand, which had replaced the idiosyncratic Shrivenham Road Stand in the early ‘nineties. The Shrivenham Road Stand consisted of a small terrace underneath a single tier of seats which had originally been part of the parade ground where the Aldershot Miliary Tattoo took place. It was so antiquated and flimsy that it seemed that a gust of wind would tear it asunder. That it survived so long is a miracle.

It took me back to 1988. On a cold midweek evening in January of that year, we played Swindon Town in the Simod Cup. My father had battled hard against the evening traffic and then found parking almost impossible. He dropped me off and I rushed to the away section, right underneath the upper tier of the old stand. I arrived about five minutes late and, by then, Chelsea were already 2-0 down. My parents were hoping to get tickets for the main stand. Our turn out was about 1,200; not bad for a midweek game in a ludicrously unimportant match. My mate Leggo had informed me – as was the way in those days – that a mob of Swindon had charged some Chelsea chaps back at the train station. At the time, Swindon were a Second Division team. We eventually lost 4-0. I remember gallows humour throughout, but also chants of “Hollins Must Go” too.

At the end of the game, with dogs barking outside and the police trying to ensure that the locals had been dispersed, we were kept inside for around ten minutes. I looked down to my left and there, to my disbelief, were my parents. I had to rub my eyes. My parents – my Dad in his work suit and a sheepskin coat I am sure – in amongst the hoodlums of the Chelsea away pen.

I sauntered down to see them. I was in shock.

Evidently, all seat tickets had been sold – the gate was 12,317 – but my parents were allowed entry into the home turnstiles at half-time for a half-price £2, and were then escorted around the pitch by stewards and taken to the away pen.

Too surreal.

Even now, that makes me laugh.

As the teams entered the pitch, the TV cameras picked out Mourinho on the bench. His image was shown on the large screen to my left. He was looking pensive and still quite miserable.

In addition to around 2,000 fans on the Stratton Bank, Chelsea had around 1,400 in the corner section of the main stand; I was stood right next to the docile home fans, right next to a line of police, though there would be no trouble tonight surely? My mate Simon – from 1984 – came down to sit next to me and I soon retold the story of my parents being led around the pitch in 1988. If only I had my camera with me then.

It was a full house; over 14,000. I hoped that the Chelsea fans would put on a special show for Karen but, in the main, we went through the motions. Only on sporadic occasions did the 3,400 roar as one. Soon into the game, the home fans confirmed who their biggest rivals were :

“Oxford United – We Fucking Hate You.”

It was lovely to see Michael Essien back; he did well throughout. Elsewhere, there were mixed performances. I thought that Willian had a very quiet first-half and did not try anything adventurous. The van Ginkel injury – not far from where I was stood – looked serious and it was with sadness that he was replaced so soon. Ramires entered the fray and his energy gave us a little more vibrancy. A David Luiz free-kick whizzed through the air and the Swindon ‘keeper Foderingham did well to save.

The away fans sang about Dennis Wise and the San Siro and I soon realised that our former captain – and for a short period, Swindon manager – was in the Sky TV studio in the far corner, just where I had stood in 1988. He waved at the Chelsea fans and they roared again. There were pockets of away fans singing, but nothing worth noting.

When my local team Frome Town played the wonderfully named Swindon Supermarine a few seasons ago, the Frome Ultras – yes, really – taunted the away support with the surprisingly witty chant of –

“Inbreds and  Roundabouts.”

Swindon is inundated with roundabouts. I’ll get back to you all on the inbreeding.

Fernando Torres was clean through after a Juan Mata touch, but the Swindon goalie flung up an arm and batted his effort away. Right after, Ramires set up Mata whose effort was parried only for Torres to touch in at an acute angle. He celebrated quietly in front of the home fans who had just recently taunted him. Quickly, a second goal, with a sublime ball from Torres allowing Ramires to deftly chip over the ‘keeper. Swindon, with the diminutive Pritchard at the heart of their attacks, offered a few efforts on goal, but Mark Schwarzer was largely untroubled.

John Terry replaced Rami at the break. Our captain was actually applauded by the home fans as he entered the pitch; this made a refreshing change. I guess that the locals were just happy to see a famous player on their home turf. A Swindon goal was disallowed for offside. De Bruyne, clean through, was unable to finish. Swindon perhaps should have scored after a great cross caught us flat-footed at the back. Torres looked as though he was keen to impress and showed neat footwork on a number of occasions, but his finishing was lacking. Next, a wasted Willian chance. Demba Ba, who replaced De Bruyne, then curled a shot narrowly wide. Lastly, another strong Torres run ended up with over-elaboration and frustration when Willian stabbed at the ball instead of allowing Nando to finish.

On another night, we could have scored five.

The four of us reconvened back at the cricket pavilion. Karen had met a few more Chelsea fans during the night and it was clear that she was integrating herself well into the Chelsea Family. We all agreed that it had been a so-so game of football, but everything else had been perfect. There was time for one last drink back at the Swindon Hilton (admit it, it still sounds odd) and time for reflections on the past few hours. Oh, and time for some typically crap jokes from Lord Parky.

“All part of the Chelsea experience, Karen.”

Until next time.

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Tales From Bad Saturday

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 30 March 2013.

It was somewhat typical in this strangest of seasons that as soon as Chelsea hit a little bit of form – a life-affirming draw at Old Trafford plus home wins over Steaua and West Ham at The Bridge – we were then hit with a dreaded international break. Our momentum was stalled, therefore, for a full two weeks. The England games came and went with little interest from myself. I lasted around twenty-five minutes in each game before falling to sleep. I was last genuinely captivated by the national team in 1996, maybe 1998. After forty years of heartbreak – I remember the Poland game at Wembley in 1973 – I just can’t get excited by the national team these days. My views on the pitiful atmosphere at Wembley for England games have been voiced before, so I won’t bore anyone further.

But, strangely, the visit to St. Mary’s for the second time in 2013 didn’t excite me too much. Maybe my momentum was upset too. I knew one thing; Southampton would prove a bigger threat to Chelsea Football Club than in the F.A. Cup game in January when many of their first team were rested.

I set off for Hampshire at 10.45am. The weather was grey and miserable. It was colder than in January. I had purchased the new Depeche Mode album in town an hour previously and as I reversed out of my drive, the first track boomed throughout the car.

“Welcome To my World.”

How very apt. Despite my work and my home life, despite my friends and travels, my other hobbies and past times, this indeed was my life…setting off on a Saturday morning, coffee to hand, music blaring, heading off to watch my boyhood idols once more. This would be game number 939.

“Welcome To My World Part 939.”

I struggled to muster enthusiasm for the day ahead, though, as I headed through Frome and Warminster and down through the thatched-roof villages on the A36. I breathed a sigh of relief when, not far from home, I saw that Southampton was just 48 miles away. It is easily my nearest game. I had a little chuckle to myself when I found myself indicating to turn left just after passing through Warminster.

Not today, Chris. There’s no trip to London today, mate. No need to turn left and head across Salisbury Plain today. It was if my car was thinking for me. I was on automatic pilot. I had to manually intervene –

“Keep going, straight ahead, Southampton is this way.”

Oh boy.

As Salisbury neared, I struggled again with the rest of the season. It was still a bloody mess. Our schedule of games, which are stretching out until May, are never-ending. Some games have been re-arranged, some games are squashed together – three in six days coming up – and some games are waiting to happen. An F.A. Cup semi-final? Maybe. A Europa league semi-final? Maybe. An F.A. Cup final? Maybe. A Europa League final? Maybe. Two trips abroad to plan and finance? Maybe. And then, ludicrously, there was the sudden announcement of the jaunt to the USA for the second time this season. For someone who likes to plan ahead, my brain was frazzled in attempting to evaluate it all. To be honest, I simply couldn’t justify a trip over to the US in May, especially since it might follow a game in Amsterdam so quickly. But then…the ultimate twist of the knife…there were growing rumours of a second game in New York, my second-home, the home of the Yankees. For me to miss out on a Chelsea game in New York just seemed so wrong.

Fcuk it.

To be honest, I hoped that the drive down to Southampton – me alone with my thoughts – might allow me the requisite personal time to evaluate if I could stomach my second trip to the US in the same footballing season.

I failed. It was never going to be that easy. Watch this space.

I was enjoying the album – a few tracks were immediately memorable. The CD began its second “loop” as I hit Salisbury.

I hardly ever listen to the CIA Podcast, but I remembered Campy imitating me a few weeks back –

“…yeah, so there I was…on the road to yet anuver away game following Chowlsea and would you Adam and Eve it, this Depeche Mode song came on and…well…it got me finking…about that Chowlsea game in 1995…I remember like it was yesterday…”

Welcome To My Tales, Danny.

The traffic stalled, as it always does, through the medieval city of Salisbury.

Slow.

At least it allowed me to admire the lovely view of Salisbury Cathedral as I edged along the elevated city-by pass. Now I’m no history buff. Geography is more my game. But I guess the two subjects are indelibly interlinked. My father was the history man. He used to read masses of books on the kings and the queens of England, the archbishops and the cardinals, the cavaliers and the roundheads, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Jarrow Marchers, the Magna Carta and the Doomsday Book, Judge Jeffreys and the Bloody Assizes. We used to visit Salisbury quite often in my childhood – gammon and pineapple at the Berni Inn, what a treat – and we would always visit the magnificent cathedral which dates from the thirteenth century. The cathedral has a huge knave, but its spire is the tallest in England. It still takes my breath away to this day. As I slowly drove past, I was in awe of its magnificence.

Depeche Mode were playing still as I drove on. I’m always reminded of one of my favourite ever days when I listen to their music. Right after our game in Palo Alto in 2007, I drove to Las Vegas in one session and Depeche Mode provided the musical backdrop as I drove past Bakersfield and Barstow and through the magnificent scenery approaching Vegas. It was if I was in my own personal Anton Corbijn video.

Heaven.

Southampton was reached at about 12.45pm. I again parked at the train station. Outside, the weather was indeed cold. I buttoned up my Barbour and donned my Yankee cap. The boys were in “Yates” a mere fifteen minutes away. The site of Southampton’s lovely old stadium, The Dell, was around ten minutes to the north. I only ever visited The Dell on three occasions with Chelsea – 1994 to 1996 – and I miss it. It was their home from 1897 to 2001. It was an idiosyncratic and cosy old place. Peter Osgood, of course, graced it with his presence after he left Chelsea in 1974. I remember when it was terraced on four sides and gates of around 30,000 squeezed in, but it only held 15,000 towards the end of its existence.

One of my friends, Neil, grew up with the Southampton and England player Matthew Le Tissier on the island of Guernsey. For the two games in 1996, Neil was able to get tickets for a few of us, in the home seats, from Matthew. For the game in February 1996, Neil arranged for us to meet Matt briefly before the game. We met up in a nearby pub, and then walked over to the match day office. The Dell was very compact, squashed between four roads in the shape of a parallelogram; that is, the two end stands were oddly shaped triangles. Everything about the place was quaint, quintessentially English – and cramped.

We met Matt Le Tissier and posed for a few photographs in a ridiculously small hallway. There were four of us; Neil, his brother Daryl, plus Glenn and myself. It was great to see Neil just chatting away to his old school friend. We looked on in awe. The late Chelsea director Matthew Harding always had a massive crush on Le Tissier and tried desperately to get him to sign for us in around that time. It was rumoured that he always carried a Le Tissier sticker in his wallet. Although a boyhood Spurs fan, Le Tissier loved life at Southampton and was not tempted. He played his entire at Southampton and credit to him for it. ( I would strongly advise any new Chelsea fans to Google his goals; you won’t be disappointed.) This story took an inevitable twist, however, when the Chelsea team suddenly appeared in this most ridiculously small hallway. Before we knew it, we were rubbing shoulders with our heroes as they made their way into the changing rooms. Fair credit to the players, though – we were still able to get our photographs taken with a few of them. They took the time for us and we really appreciated it.

There are photographs of us with Dennis Wise, John Spencer, David Lee and – wait for it – Ruud Gullit.

Chelsea went on to win 3-2, with Wisey scoring two and – if memory serves – Ruud getting the winner after a lovely break with the scores level. I think we tried to restrain ourselves when the winner went in – we were amongst home supporters remember – but I’m sure we gloriously failed. One of the loveliest away games of that Glenn Hoddle era was completed when the four of us stayed the night at Ron Harris’ hotel and bar in Warminster.

Lovely times.

“Yates” was heaving with Chelsea – on two floors – and I eventually found Alan and Gary, along with a gaggle of other away day regulars. There was time for just one pint. I spoke with friends about the priorities for the season. I again uttered disdain that Chelsea has prioritised finishing fourth – and maybe elimination from next year’s Champions League after a single tie – ahead of winning the F.A. Cup Final in May.

Yes…I know…”must get Champions League football, must generate money, must tempt quality new players, must get Champions League football, must generate money, must tempt quality new players…”

That’s all well and good. But I don’t see “Finishing Fourth” in our honours section yet.

Of course, joking aside, this clamour for a Champions League spot every season is not the fault of Chelsea Football Club but the fault of UEFA and their buggering-up of the old established European Cup which served everyone one so well from 1956 to 1992.

And I hate them for it.

We made our way to St. Mary’s, no more than a twenty-minute walk to our east. After Saints moved out of The Dell in 2001, the first game in the league at St. Mary’s was the visit of Chelsea. Surrounded by several gasometers, industrial units and a large cement works, the setting is far from salubrious and far from the residential charm of The Dell.

I was in the seats in good time. I popped down to take several shots of the team warming up. I chatted briefly to Gill and Graeme who were as non-plussed about the game in Missouri as me.

“Foreign tours should be at the start of the season when everyone is fresh and eager and full of enthusiasm.”

I spotted that Fernando Torres was wearing a face-mask. A chap next to me was moaning.

“Bloody ridiculous. You wouldn’t get Peter Osgood wearing a face mask.”

He clearly had it in for Torres, but I am afraid I was not quick-witted enough to mutter –

“Or Demba Ba.”

The team was announced and there were mutters of discontent. There were wholesale changes, but we heard rumours that Mata was ill. We always miss his intelligent play. Hazard – the form player – was on the side-lines. Elsewhere, in came Moses and Marin.

The M and M boys.

Maris and Mantle, they ain’t.

“Well, Benitez – prepare yourself for some flak if we mess this up.”

The game, in the end, was a shocker.

Southampton – just as they did in the cup game in January – were faster out of the traps and their players were evidently more at ease than us. Their passing and movement was causing our defence early problems, with the central pairing of John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic seemingly ill-prepared for the raids of Lambert and Rodriguez. Two early blocks from Ivanovic kept us in the game, but the portents were not good.

Midway through the first-period, disaster struck. A fine move from Southampton found Rodriguez breaking into the box. I almost looked away, so convinced was I that he would score. He neatly tucked the ball past Petr Cech and the home crowd erupted. This was no more than the home team deserved. We hoped for an F.A. Cup style recovery. Our play suggested that we were in for a tougher battle this time around, though.

Then, a Moses cross was deflected for a corner. The diminutive Marin sent over a cross. I snapped a photograph of John Terry rising unhindered and heading easily into the Southampton goal. The defence was nowhere. The simplicity of the goal astounded me.

Soft touch.

Our relief was short-lived. Two minutes later, a Ricky Lambert free-kick from around twenty-five yards out was sent spinning and curving over the wall and past a late dive from Cech. I unfortunately captured that on film, too.

Bugger.

The mood in the Chelsea end was of growing annoyance with the team and manager alike. I chatted to Alan about the resting of players ahead of Monday’s big game with United. Surely Benitez’ resting of Hazard and Cole – the obvious examples – suggested that he was thinking ahead to Monday. Of course, some fans want the best team to play in every game, others claim rotation is the key to success.

What is my opinion? I don’t know. Give me another forty years to work it out and I’ll tell you.

After a few barbed exchanges between the two sets of supporters based on our winning of the Champions League, a Southampton chant made me chuckle amongst the gloom.

“The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy – You’ll Never Win That.”

The first-half finished with Southampton back on top and causing us many headaches. Torres – apart from having a goal called back for offside – wasn’t in the game. Oscar was nowhere to be seen. Marin ran into defenders. The play completely by-passed Frank Lampard. Our defence looked brittle. There were, to sum up, no positives.

During a toilet-break at half time, I heard that the Southampton announcer was barking some nonsense about fans racing from one penalty box to the other in a half-time contest. I groaned. During the race, the theme to the Benny Hill Show was played.

How bloody apt.

Our players had been running around like comedians all game.

The second-half was similarly dire. Our play was slow and our movement poor. At last a touch of skill from Torres, who danced past several challenges, but the move then broke down. A pass from Azpilicueta set up Moses, who blasted over.

On the hour, Benitez changed it, replacing Marin with Hazard. We were surprised that Oscar stayed on to be honest; such was his lack of involvement. A few Southampton chances came and went. Despite a few strong blocks, Ivanovic seemed constantly out of position. Even Terry looked troubled. Azpilicueta often found himself in a good position but his crossing was awful. Ryan Bertrand often looked lost. The Chelsea support was quiet. I haven’t sung so little at an away game for ages.

I commented to Al, with a pained expression on my face –

“There’s nobody talking to each other, nobody encouraging each other.”

With the Chelsea support getting ever more frustrated, Hazard at last showed his class, breaking into the box and flashing the ball across the box where a ball back to Lampard was the better option. Ramires added a little more thrust in place of Mikel. We wanted Ba to enter the game so that Benitez could play Torres and Ba together. Instead, his last roll of the dice was Benayoun for the lacklustre Oscar. Benayoun is not the worst player to play for Chelsea – I’ll admit he was a fair player in the past – but he is clearly disliked with a passion by the Chelsea support. One burst from him almost silenced the critics.

I was watching the clock continually and hoped for salvation. A Lampard free-kick flew over the bar. He had been awful all day long. The miss did not surprise me.

The whistle blew. In truth, a draw would have been unfair on Southampton.

We were dire and we knew it.

The fans knew it.

The players knew it.

What a bloody season.

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Tales From Munich : Part Two – Arms Were Linked

Bayern Munich vs. Chelsea : 19 May 2012.

The walk to the Allianz Arena on the evening of Saturday 19th. May 2012 probably took around fifteen minutes. At the start, we were together as a group, but occasionally we splintered away to talk to a few fellow fans, faces from home, as we marched north. I spotted many fans – of both teams – holding rather pathetic looking home-made cards with phrases such as “Need Ticket Please” on them. I brushed past them, feeling no guilt. There were Chelsea fans singing still. Bayern were relatively quiet. I then realised that most of the Bayern support was probably already within the stadium a few hundred yards away.

Onwards we marched. Glenn was still struggling with the basic concept of putting one foot in front of the other and he occasionally lurched and swayed to the left and right. It was time for me to have words with him. In the absence of an adjacent naughty step, I grabbed him by the arm and read him the riot act. I had visions of him being pulled at the gate by an over-zealous policeman.

“Listen mate, sober up. We’ve come this far. You have your ticket. Don’t fcuk it up at the last minute.”

Not every Chelsea fan was in colours. Amongst our little group, only the John Bumstead T-shirt being worn by Daryl and the black and orange Chelsea gear being worn by Gal gave a clue to our allegiance. Elsewhere there was the usual smattering of new Chelsea shirts, current Chelsea shirts, old Chelsea shirts and retro Chelsea shirts. Packs of lads without colours – typically the faces I see at most away games – were similarly attired as us. The forty-something dress code of trainers, jeans, polo shirts, designer tops and occasional baseball caps. Most Bayern fans were wearing replica shirts, though an alien from another planet might have been bemused by the obvious variety of colour schemes adopted by Bayern over the years. I always think of the classic Bayern team of the mid-seventies – Maier, Breitner, Beckenbauer, Muller – wearing the all red Adidas kit. This is how it stayed for years until the design gurus at Bayern decided to foist all sorts of strange designs on FC Hollywood’s fan base. The first bizarre kit to appear featured a red and blue striped shirt and I think this was a nod to the blue of the Bavarian flag. For a connoisseur of football kits like me, this was a bizarre choice. Since then, Bayern have had a variety of kits and even special Champions League variations. Some of the most recent variants have been red and black shirts and also red and white hooped shirts.

It made me wonder what Adidas have in store for us.

I spotted Dutch Mick and shouted across the grass verge. He was wearing the new shirt and I wondered if Chelsea would do the same for this last game of the season. We wore a new shirt in Moscow remember; I didn’t want us to follow suit.

Callum raced past and we shook hands. He was buzzing and said something to the effect of “the night is ours.”

As we neared the stadium, I heard Alan talk to Cathy and so I reeled around and had a very quick word while Alan took our photograph.

“It’s a long way from the Rum Jungle, Cath.”

I had enjoyed Cathy’s company in Kuala Lumpur way back in July on our Asia tour. Of course, in reality, it seemed like last week. These football seasons certainly race by.

Ahead, a young lad was perched on his father’s shoulders, and they were carrying a fifteen foot pole, bending under the weight of a large St. George’s Cross flag, with two smaller chequered Chelsea ones above and below. I took an iconic photograph of them with the pristine white of the stadium now only fifty yards or so away in the background. It was a defiant statement of intent and captured the mood precisely.

This was the ultimate away game. Let me run through some numbers. Here we were, an English team in Germany; plenty of history there. This was arguably our biggest game ever in 107 years. It was supposedly a neutral venue but fate had conspired for this to take place in the home stadium of our opponents. Sure, we took around 25,000 to the Rasunda Stadium in Stockholm in 1998. Sure we took 25,000 to Old Trafford for the 2006 F.A. Cup semi-final against Liverpool. We have taken similar numbers to Cup Finals at Wembley. But, despite the folly of a neutral venue, make no mistake; this was an away game. This was our biggest ever show of strength for an away game since we swamped Highbury in August 1984, when close on 20,000 squeezed into the Tick Tock and hundreds more took residence in the home stands. In addition to the 17,500 in the stadium, Munich was being swelled to the tune of an extra 10,000, maybe 15,000, maybe 20,000 auxiliaries. We were a Chelsea army in Germany for the biggest prize in World football.

In 107 years, there has never been an away game like it and perhaps there never will.

The Allianz Arena stands at the northern end of a ridge of land, bordered by train lines and autobahns. Access is only at the southern end; the Bayern end. We hurriedly entered at the gate – there was a minimal search and I immediately rued my decision to leave my trusty zoom lens at home. We were in. I hugged Glenn and then began the short walk up to the Nord Kurv. I stopped to take a photo of the setting sun, disappearing behind clouds to the west.

Daryl stopped to have the quickest of chats with Terry, who was originally going to be sat alongside us, but had since wangled a seat in the press box. Terry is one of Chelsea’s iconic names from a distant past. I last saw him in Moscow.

We aimed for the gate to section 341. It was now 8.30pm and kick-off was but fifteen minutes away. There was a long ascent up a hundred or more stairs; these wrap themselves around the stadium but are hidden from view by the translucent plastic shell which gives the stadium its unique identity. My limbs were aching by the time I had reached the upper level. Behind me, several Chelsea fans were singing about Auschwitz. Ahead of me, I battled the crowds to force my way into the concourse and then the gents’ toilets.

An incoming text at 8.33pm – “atmosphere?”

I replied – “still not in yet. Typical Chelsea.”

And this was typical Chelsea. We are so used to leaving it late at home games – the ubiquitous mantra of “one more pint” was made for the pubs which envelope Stamford Bridge – and here we were, leaving it late in Munich.

Typical Chelsea.

I quickly found my way to my seat as the home fans were unfurling their impressive banner of the Champions League trophy in the Sud Kurv. Their end was a riot of red. In row 10, there was a nasty altercation between Glenn and a fellow Chelsea fan and I had to act as peacemaker. A few words were exchanged. The plan was for Glenn to sit alongside Alan and myself, but Glenn – still wobbly with alcohol – was despatched to the other end of our row. Although Daryl bought tickets for ten of us, such is the ineptitude within the Chelsea box office, Simon and Milo’s tickets were not with the rest of ours.

Blue flags were waiting at our seats and the Champions League anthem was echoing around the stadium.

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From the left; Alan, Glenn, Gary, Daryl, Neil, Ed, Chris.

The magnificent seven.

Simon and Milo was ten yards behind us. Callum and Dunc were spotted. Dutch Mick too.

In the rush to get ourselves inside, hardly a thought had been paid to the game. The rumours were true; Ryan Bertrand was playing out wide. I immediately thought back to Danny Granville at Stockholm in 1998. Clearly, di Matteo was taking a risk on the youngster but I did not have time to dwell on this. Thank heavens the two centre-backs were playing.

So, what were my thoughts as kick-off approached? There was no doubt that we had reached the final due to a healthy share of luck, especially against Barcelona when woodwork and a missed penalty aided our formidable rear guard performance. I was in no doubts that this luck could easily run out – if only due to the laws of probability – and I can remember quietly warning Gary in that serene Munich beer garden that “you do realise we could get thumped here?” He was in agreement.

And yet. And yet there was a positive air in the Chelsea end. In the back of my mind, there was unrelenting belief that – yes – despite the odds, or maybe because of them, we would prevail in this most hostile of situations. In our 107 years, there has never been a more unlikely story than our assault on this magical trophy. A team in disarray in early March, a team in decay, a team divided, now only ninety minutes from glory.

Without time to dwell, the teams appeared down below me and I spent a few minutes trying my best to juggle photos, texts and songs of support. It will surprise nobody to know that I had no plans to sit. In Moscow, I had stood for – what was it? – six hours, from bar to tube to stadium, to game, to bus. I envisioned the same in Munich.

The scene was set. The stadium seemed huge and yet compact at the same time. I was a fan. The cool grey concrete steps of the concourse and the aisles were mirrored by a similar colour for the seats. If only Wembley had decided on something similar – a cool cream maybe – rather than a brash ugly red. The Chelsea end was keen to cheer the boys on but I knew we would be in for a tough battle to be heard over the tumultuous support being handed out by the Bayern faithful. I spotted pockets of Chelsea blue in the lower tier to my left, but the neutral areas were predominantly red. There were three rows of unused seats in front of the line of TV studios in the east stand. To my right, I noted a ridiculous number of seats in the press box; maybe 3,000 strong. This was a sure sign that football was eating itself. Elsewhere in this lovely city, 100,000 fans were without tickets yet 3,000 seats were being used by gentlemen of the press. Beyond, in the corporate areas of the stadium, pink and yellow lights were shining in the many restaurants and suites. The blades of a solitary wind turbine, high on a hill, were able to be seen in the thin slither of sky. Bayern flags hung on every square inch of balcony. Chelsea flags countered.

I quickly spotted one which is often seen, away to my right –

“If I Had Two Lives I’d Give Them Both To You. Forever Chelsea.”

The 2012 Champions League Final began.

It was clear from the first few moments of play that Bayern were going to have most of the possession. It was galling to see Arjen Robben having so much of the ball. There was a consensus when he left Chelsea in the summer of 2007 that, due to his glass ankles, we had seen the best of him. Would he now have the last laugh? I feared the worst. Ribery, of course, was the other major threat and it was clear to me that the game may well be won or lost in the wide areas. It was key for Kalou and Bosingwa on the right and Bertrand and Cole on the left to close space. I soon realised, and it shames me to admit it, that I was not au fait with many of the Bayern players. The wide men Robben and Ribery, Gomez, Schweinsteiger, Nauer, Lahm, Boeteng…who were the others? I had little idea.

At least I was in control. Unlike Barcelona, fuzzy through alcohol, I was able to take everything in. It was my biggest fear that I would be drunk beyond words in Munich, unable to play a significant role in supporting the boys. Despite many beers in the afternoon, I was fine…it had been perfect. I looked over several times to check on Glenn; phew, he was still standing, not slumped in his seat.

Bayern dominated the first half with only rare advances by Chelsea into the Bayern defence. In truth, we were playing a wholly subservient role in this game. Our plan was of containment. Wayward shots from a number of Bayern players rained in on Petr Cech’s goal and I began wondering if our luck was going to hold out once more. The first “heart in the mouth” chance fell to Robben way down below, but Cech managed to deflect his shot onto the woodwork for a corner. Bosingwa then fluffed an easy clearance, only for the spinning ball to end up in an area devoid of red-shirted attackers. Lady Luck was in the building and sporting Chelsea colours.

All eyes were on the clock.

15 minutes.

30 minutes.

In a rare attack – our best of the game – the ball was worked to Salomon Kalou, but his shot hardly tested Nauer at the near post.

In the closing minutes of the first period, a Bayern chant petered out, but its familiar melody was picked up by the Chelsea hordes.

“Oh Dennis Wise
Scored A Fcuking Great Goal.
In The San Siro.
With Ten Minutes To Go.”

It was easily our loudest chant of the evening and I was comforted that we, as fans, could impact upon the night’s atmosphere.

A text from the US confirmed this –

“Heard the Dennis Wise song loud and clear on the TV coverage in the US!”

Just before the teams re-entered after the break, around ten red flares were let off in the top tier of the Bayern end. It was an impressive sight for sure. The smoke drifted to the east, then hung in the air for ages. The second half told a similar story. Tons of Bayern possession with Chelsea players – all defenders now – scurrying around and closing space. I was particularly enamoured with Mikel, whose stature rises with each big match appearance. Elsewhere, Cahill, Cole and Lampard were magnificent. Luiz caused me a few worries. Bosingwa had his moments too. Juan Mata, the one midfielder who had the tools to unlock any defence, was struggling. Didier Drogba’s main job was to continually head away corner after corner; a job he has done so well in these last eight amazing seasons.

Ribery’s goal was flagged for offside and thankfully I wasn’t perturbed. What is the German for “calm down?” Bayern shots rained in on our goal, but our brave defenders threw themselves at the ball and blocks were made.

60 minutes.

Bayern’s support was now getting frustrated at the quality of their finishing and the Chelsea support grew and grew. Songs of old rolled around the three tiers of the Nord Kurv. I was heartened by the noise. It clearly galvanised the team. Still Bayern shots missed the target. Was I the only one thinking that a force field had been set up around Cech’s goal frame?

Ryan Bertrand, non-existent offensively, gave way for the much-maligned Florent Malouda. We stood and watched. We sung. We hoped. A few half-chances way down below gave us renewed sustenance. The songs continued. I was so proud of our support.

On 83 minutes, our world collapsed. A cross from the left and a leaping Bayern player – Muller, a name from the glory years –out jumped our defenders. In one of those moments that happens in football, time seemed to slow to a different speed. The ball bounced down. The ball bounced up. The ball flew past a confused Cech. The ball hit the underside of the crossbar.

The ball was in.

The previously quiet Sud Kurv bellowed and roared. It was a horrendous sight. We stood silent. What could we do? The PA announcer then, shamefully in my opinion, announced the scorer to the spectators in a rousing tirade which seemed to last for ever. For a supposedly neutral venue, I thought this was a poor show…he ended his belligerent outburst with the word “Thomas…”

…and the Bayern fans responded “Muller!”

That sickened me almost as much as the goal.

We were losing 1-0 and Lady Luck had seemed to have packed up her belongings in a suitcase and was heading out of town. My thoughts were of sadness; that this iconic Chelsea team, forged under Ranieri, fine-tuned under Mourinho, cajoled by many managers since, were now going to disband over the summer without that most desired of prizes, a Champions League victory. For this, make no mistake, was their – our – last chance. There would be no return for a while. I sighed.

Callum – you were wrong mate and I was foolish enough to believe you.

Immediately, di Matteo replaced the ineffective Kalou with Fernando Torres.

Torres, with a thousand points to prove despite his goal in Barcelona, seemed to inspire us. His darting movements breathed new life into our attack. In turn, the Chelsea support responded. It was his endeavour down in the corner which gave us a corner. It was our first of the entire game. Juan Mata trotted over to collect the ball. I lifted my trusted camera from around my chest and zoomed in as best I could. I held the camera still – constantly focused, the button half-depressed – and waited for the corner. I looked up and trusted that my camera would do its job.

88 minutes had been played. This was it, Chelsea.

Death or glory.

Juan Mata blazed the ball in towards the near post. In a moment that will live with me forever, two players in blue rose to meet the ball.

I clicked.

The ball cannoned into Nauer but then flew into the roof of the net.

The Nord Kurv thundered. I clenched my fists and roared from deep inside my body. Tears of joy soon started flowing. We were back in it.

Chelsea – I fcuking love you.

I was soon aware that my glasses had flown off and so I tried to steady myself and search for them, but I felt my head spinning, imploding with joy. I feared a blackout. It happened when Torres scored his first goal last season. Steady Chris, steady.

I tried my best to find my glasses – but they were gone.

The Chelsea fans were yelling, shouting, clambering onto seats, pointing. I looked down and in to the row in front. There, miraculously perched on a seat, were my glasses. I reached down to retrieve them just before a lad stepped on them.

Six seats away, Alan had smashed his sunglasses at this moment. There was carnage in the Chelsea end, but devastation in the Bayern end.

Advantage Chelsea. Bayern had already taken off Muller. The home fans were on the ropes. We were going to do this.

We were going to win.

My head was still spinning, the Chelsea end was buzzing, my world was perfect.

In the short period of time before the extra period of thirty minutes began, we roused the team by singing “The Blue Flag.”

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Our confidence took a battering soon into the first period of extra time when Didier Drogba, back defending, tripped Franck Ribery inside the box.

Oh Didier.

I just turned my back to the game and sighed. This was virtually a carbon copy of the penalty he gave away in Barcelona. Didier messed up our chance in Moscow. He redeemed himself in Munich. And now this.

We stood and hoped. Cech looked large and impressive. Robben approached the penalty spot. I wasn’t sure if I should tempt fate by taking a photograph of a potentially match-losing moment.

What the hell.

Robben shot.

I clicked.

Cech saved, then gathered the loose ball.

Destiny.

It was going to be our night.

Much to our joy, Ribery was substituted. Good work Didier, I take it all back.

The rest of the period of extra time was truly a blur, though. Torres had a few runs at the Bayern defence. Luiz and Cahill miraculously held out. Our players were strong. As the minutes ticked, I was happy for the game to be decided on penalties.

My main reasons were probability and destiny.

We lost on penalties in Moscow.

We’ll win on penalties in Munich.

It’s our night.

Simple as that.

We weren’t sure about the rules for determining the ends at which the all decisive penalties were to be taken, but there was a certain grim inevitability that, like in the Luzhniki Stadium in 2008, they would be at the other end.

I wasn’t sure if I should take any photographs.

I took a photo of Philip Lahm scoring past Petr Cech, with the other players, arms linked in the centre circle.

I didn’t take a photo of Juan Mata. His penalty was poor – too close to Nauer – and we fell silent.

I had my hands in my pockets, I was still stood. So here we go, Chelsea – another loss on penalties. How brutal this game of football can be. I consoled myself that at least I would not be as distraught as in Moscow. Nothing, surely, could be as bad as that.

Mario Gomez made it 2-0 to Bayern. The home fans roared.

David Luiz took a ridiculously long run up. Death or glory. I had horrible visions of his shot not only clearing the bar, but the third tier. His hair bounced as he raced towards the ball. Goal. A gasp of relief from Chelsea.

To our surprise, the goalkeeper Nauer took his turn and he scored to make it 3-1. I felt the weight of probability slipping away.

Frank Lampard simply had to score. Memories of all the others. Liverpool 2008. Go on Frank. Get in.

Frank scored.

Then it was the turn, not of Ribery, but of the substitute Olic. He looked nervous. I sensed that this could all change in an instant. Probability versus practice.

He still looked nervous. I sensed he would miss. A poor penalty was swatted away by the diving Cech and we were back in it. The whole stadium was on edge now. A tightrope. Sudden death. Sudden life.

Ashley Cole – a scorer in Moscow – was next up. The Chelsea fans were buoyant now. We sensed the momentum had changed. Ashley dispatched the perfect penalty.

Back in the beer garden, Gary had asked Michaela if Schweinsteiger meant “pig fcuker” but Michaela had dismissed this as a myth. It meant “pig climber.”

I didn’t care. I saw him place the ball on the spot and saw his Germanic features on the TV screen. In my mind I called him a pig fcuker. He again looked nervous. His approach proved this. He stopped, mid-run, and I again sensed a miss. His shot was hit low, but it hit the base of the diving Cech’s post.

Oh boy.

Advantage Chelsea.

The Nord Kurv, the watching thousands in the city centre, the fans at Fulham Broadway, in Malaysia, in Nigeria, in Australia, in Singapore and in North America were one kick away from glory.

Who else but Didier Drogba? It had to be him.

I got the call from Ed.

Arms were linked.

Alan linked arms with Glenn, who linked arms with Gal, who linked arms with Daryl, who linked arms with Neil, who linked arms with Ed, who linked arms with me, who linked arms with Steve in Philly, who linked arms with Mario in Bergisch Gladbach, who linked arms with Parky in Holt, who linked arms with Danny in Los Angeles, who linked arms with Rick in Kansas City, who linked arms with Walnuts in Munich, who linked arms with Tullio in Turin, who linked arms with Bob in San Francisco, who linked arms with my mother in Somerset, who linked arms with JR in Detroit, who linked arms with Dog in England.

I took a photo of us together; the magnificent seven.

I turned the camera towards the pitch.

Wide angle.

Approaching midnight in Munich.

Didier placed the ball on the spot.

A small run up.

No fuss.

Impact.

I clicked.

I saw Neuer move to the right.

I saw the ball go to the left.

It was in.

Pandemonium ain’t the word for it.

The Earth tilted off its axis for a split second.

We were European Champions.

In a split second I turned the camera to my left and clicked again; I caught a blurred mass of unreal and simply unquantifiable happiness.

It was no good.

I was overcome with emotion and I crumpled to the floor.

For what seemed like ages – it was probably no more than ten seconds – I sobbed tears of pure joy, alone in a foetal position.

A football position.

For that moment, I was alone with only my thoughts, my emotion, my journey, my life.

Seat 18 in row 10 of section 341 in the Nord Kurv of Munich’s Allianz Arena will always be mine.

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Tales From The Old Guard

Chelsea vs. Napoli : 14 March 2012.

This was an evening which reconfirmed everything that I love about football. This was an evening in which the busy streets around Stamford Bridge were invaded by thousands of fevered Neapolitans. It was an evening of almost terrifying drama. It was an evening of raw emotion. It was an evening of boozy camaraderie. And it was an evening when the players, and supporters, of Chelsea once again worked together to provide the watching public a devastating game of football.

Make no mistake. The evening of Wednesday 14th March 2012 will go down in our history as one of the magical nights of European football at Stamford Bridge, alongside the “come-back” nights against Bruges in 1971, Bruges in 1995, Vicenza in 1998 and Barcelona in 2005, to say nothing of the ridiculously dramatic games against Liverpool in 2008 and 2009.

The day began in Chippenham. I came in to work a little early and aimed to leave at 4pm. During the afternoon, I needed to be distracted from thoughts about the evening’s game. I emailed a few friends and we chatted about a whole host of subjects – specifically “unChelsea” – in an attempt to stop my wandering mind focus on the game. It has to be said, I was not confident about us being able to turn around the 3-1 deficit from that underwhelming first leg in the crumbling bowl of Stadio San Paolo. I mentioned to a few work colleagues, that if I was a gambling man, my money would be on the visitors.

I collected Lard Porky from The Pheasant car park at just before 4pm. He had already had a few pints on a little pub crawl of his own and was his usual ebullient self. I made superb time on the M4 – probably the best yet – but the traffic drew to almost a standstill around three miles from Chelsea, just as we hit the Hogarth roundabout by Fuller’s Brewery. The Hammersmith flyover is still down to one lane and the last three miles took me an hour. It was a frustrating time as I knew that my mates would already be quaffing a few liveners in the pub.

As we edged along the A4, we listened to BBC Radio Five Live to catch the sports headlines at just after 6pm. To my considerable annoyance, the four or five sports stories did not mention us once. This really annoyed me. I knocked the dashboard with my fists –

“Hello? Remember us? Hello! There’s a game at Stamford Bridge tonight!”

The minutes ticked by and the car was going at a snail’s pace. Funny the things you notice in a stationary car in a street that is usually seen at 40 miles per hour. A pub in a side street – The Black Lion – which appeared to back onto the River Thames (“could go there after, for one, Parky?”), a blue plaque on a house denoting a former residence of black activist Marcus Garvey, the smug face of Jose Mourinho on an advertisement on a London cab.

I pulled into the North End Road at around 6.30pm just as a gaggle of around twenty Napoli fans were being lead away from the direction of the stadium by around ten policemen in high-vis jackets. Although they wore no team colours, they were obviously Italians, with baseball caps, shiny puffa jackets, scarves pulled high around their chins. Parky said that he saw one with a much bloodied nose. We parked up, and then walked past around eight further policemen on the crossroads of Lillie Road and the North End Road. There were no sirens wailing, yet, but I suspected that the streets would be busy with activity before the night fell.

We reached the bar at about 6.45pm and the place was surprisingly quiet. Out in the beer garden, conversations were taking place all over and I rued the fact that Lord Porky and I had arrived late, almost three hours of travelling already behind us. Apparently, a mob of Napoli fans had tried to enter The Goose, but were seen off by a few Chelsea. It seems that Lord Porky and I had just missed the fun. There was talk of a confrontation down by West Brompton tube too.

My mate Alan, who has been out of work for a while, pulled me to one side and told me that he had learned that morning that he has got a job at his old employers, at the Department of Trade & Industry in Victoria, and this was the best news all season. Fantastic stuff.

It was a pleasure to meet up with Jesus once again (since the Stoke game, he had been to Venice and Rome…my goodness, this boy is living the life) and then, over in the corner, was Napoli Frank, who was with Mike and Chopper from New York. Frank is from Queens and I christened him “Napoli Frank” when I first met him in NYC in 2008 when I met up with the NY Blues for a Mets game (which was rained-off, but that’s another story.) Frank’s team is Chelsea – has been for years – but has family from the Naples area. He travelled out to Italy three weeks ago and had a seat in the home areas at the San Paolo. He carefully explained to me how he came in for major grief when a Napoli fan spotted his Frank Lampard wrist-band. Thankfully, his uncle was able to say “he’s with me.” Lard Porky and I only had time for a single beer. I got the impression that a lot of my mates had been in the pub for quite a while. The perils of being a long-distance Chelsea fan hit home again.

I made haste and left the boozer at 7.10pm. I overheard many Italian accents. This was turning into just the sort of night I had expected. Lots of noise, tons of atmosphere and a little menace thrown in for good measure. As I passed The Slug And Lettuce, more puffa jackets, more Neapolitan swagger. A line of around twenty police dogs were facing the tube station in front of the town hall. This was indeed a rare sight. My pace quickened as I turned and bought a programme on the West Stand forecourt. Yet more Italian accents. I smuggled my camera in to the ground, despite the painful attention of a steward.

I was inside at about 7.30pm. Despite the hundreds of Napoli fans outside the stadium, I was pretty amazed that the away section was full to bursting. With that, I received a couple of texts which said that there were, indeed, many ticket-less away fans outside the stadium and in various pubs. I quickly scanned the balcony for Napoli flags and saw many small ones, rather than a couple of large ones. I spotted a Confederate flag; a common sight in many football stadia throughout Europe, along with the skull and crossbones, the mod symbol, the flag of St. George and the celtic cross.

Napoli fans as rebels, the underclass, the outsiders, the vagabonds? I can see that. That makes sense.

The new banner – “Chelsea FC – London Is Ours” – had been moved from the NE corner to The Shed and had essentially swapped positions with the “Born Is The King” banner. I was well aware that this game was live on national TV in the UK. We needed to make a big impression in the minds of the viewing nation. This was almost as important as the team’s performance in my mind. I wanted us to create an old-style Chelsea atmosphere. I wanted people talking about us.

Banners, songs, flags, noise.

The playing of “Blue Is The Colour” signaled the mass-waving of thousands of blue and white chequered flags. I’m in too minds about this. Half of me thinks that it is cheesy and naff. Half of me thinks that it adds great colour to the match day experience. The problem I have is that the flags are imposed upon us by the club. I’d much rather we were given free reign to bring our own adornments. I didn’t wave mine; I was too busy filming.

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The Mantle twins let loose the massive flag in the upper tier. It floated over the smaller flags and it was a pretty impressive sight.

The teams strode past the large Champions League flag which was being waved on the centre-circle. Napoli were wearing a mucky grey kit. Our kit looked pristine in comparison. At the playing of the anthem, a hundred or so Napoli fans held their phones aloft, with the light mode on. Ah, that must be their “thing.” Worryingly, I saw a few lights in the home sections of The Shed and the West Stand, too. Maybe the Napoli fans had staged a massive undercover operation and were hiding in every section of The Bridge.

Roberto chose his team and there were no complaints from me. In the Napoli team, all eyes were on the Three Tenors; Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik. At the kick-off, I was still not buoyed with any new-found confidence, though. In the back of my mind, I had the notion that a single goal mid-way through both halves would it be just fine. Nothing rushed, nothing manic. Just a night of calm pressure. Well, I could not have been more wrong.

The game was a classic. The advantage lurched from one team to another, leaving me ecstatic, worried and breathless in equal measure.

At the kick-off, the home support was roaring but Napoli enjoyed the better of the first quarter. By the fifteenth minute, first Hamsik, then Cavani, then Lavezzi made breathtaking raids on our goal, but a mixture of bad finishing and instinctive saves from Petr Cech ensured we did not concede. In retrospect, the opening twenty minutes resembled the Manchester City game before Christmas when we were completely out-passed and out-classed.

Our midfield was giving the Napoli team far too much room to move the ball at their will. Upfront, chances were rare. Drogba was not firing on all cylinders. I was deeply worried. However, our fortunes were soon to change in a most dramatic piece of play.

Didier’s flying header from a Ramires cross was as magnificent as it was unexpected. The ball flew into the Shed End goal and The Bridge erupted. I jumped to my feet and went dizzy for a few seconds. All around me, euphoria. There was that goal mid-way through the first-half I had dreamt of. Our play improved and shots from Essien and Luiz started troubling the Napoli ‘keeper.

At the break, I rued how we had ridden our luck, but had shown a growing degree of resilience to withstand the attacks against us. Dennis Wise and his (now) 12 year old son Henry appeared on the pitch with Neil Barnett. Ah, memories of the last F.A. Cup Final at the grand old Wembley. The Simple Minds’ anthem “Alive And Kicking” boomed out on the PA; very apt.

Soon into the second-half, a corner on the far side and Big John chose this moment to bang the balcony hoarding with his hand; a familiar part of the Stamford Bridge routine over the past few seasons. Frank lofted the ball in, slightly over the head of Didier, but – as I snapped with my camera – John Terry leapt. I just saw the ball fly into the top corner of the net and that was it; The Bridge erupted again as the captain ran over to that far corner, where Frank was still stationed. Advantage Chelsea. If no more goals ensued, we would progress.

However, Alan lent towards me and sad –

“I don’t want to appear picky, but we’ve scored that too soon.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

Lo and behold, a ball wasn’t cleared and I watched on, aghast, as a sweet strike from Inler flew into the bottom corner of Cech’s goal. In my seat in the MHU, I was right in line with its path. Oh, that hurt. This was now a pulsating game of football and was now in Napoli’s favour.

Did anyone really think we would keep a clean sheet?

Fernando Torres substituted the increasingly disappointing Daniel Sturridge. His fresh impetus inspired us. We now enjoyed a fine period of play. A fine Drogba swivel and shot flashed past the post. At the other end, Napoli attacked, but our defenders often stuck out legs to block goal ward shots. It was a superb game.

What relief when, after a massive shout for handball, the referee quickly pointed to the spot, touching his arm at the same time. After all of those infamous penalty appeals against Barcelona in 2009, what joy to receive a penalty in our favour. The sense of anticipation was amazing. The chap in front of me turned away and couldn’t bare the tension. I held my camera up and waited for Frank to strike.

Click.

Strike.

Roar.

The net billowed and Frank reeled away down to “his corner” and I clicked again. A point skywards to the heavens but his face showed a business-like resilience. He wasted no time in waiting for adulation, but simply raced back to the half-way line for the re-start.

It was now level again. Let’s see how Napoli reacts again. To be honest, the rest of the game is a blur.

Ninety minutes of play ended and we took a momentary pause. The PA system at The Bridge jumped to life in the brief period of rest until the extra-time period began. First, “Three Little Birds” and then “Blue Is The Colour” and there were hundreds of Chelsea fans joining in.

I couldn’t immediately get back “into” the game as it restarted. I had felt that I had already experienced too much emotion for one night, thank you very much. Play was nervy and cagey. I struggled to get “up” for the game again. My mind wasn’t working. It was a strange feeling.

Then, the tumultuous fourth.

An advance from Drogba on the right and he sent a low ball towards the penalty spot. Brana slammed the ball high into the Napoli net and The Bridge exploded once again. Despite my emotions running wild, I caught the sliding Brana and the immediate celebrations on film; I never know how I manage to do that.

We held firm. Luiz was superb, Torres too. The midfield grew stronger as the game progressed. Even the addition of the two lesser lights Malouda and Bosingwa didn’t work against us. Chances came and went at both ends; a few half-chances for the industrious Torres would have sealed the night for us all. With two minutes of extra time to play, I had awful recollections of Iniesta in 2009. A similar denouement in this game would have been too much for any of us to cope with. It was nerve-tingling stuff. Every thwarted attack was met with pained exultations of joy. I lost count of the number of times I held my head in my hands.

At last it was over.

“One Step Beyond.”

Bounce, bounce, bounce.

The texts started arriving and continued in to the night. The Chelsea family was together, as one.

Alan, Gary and I were some of the last to leave the Matthew Harding. Gary showed typical kleptomaniac form and gathered together around ten flags from the seats around us; I said to Alan that Gary would be making leisure shirts out of them for the next game. Outside, yet more Italian voices. The place was swarming with Napoli fans; not sure if they were London-based Neapolitans, or whether a substantial volume had travelled from Naples minus tickets, intent on getting tickets from touts or maybe more mischievous means. I wondered if the girl we met on the train from Naples to Rome had made it.

Many fans began chanting various Chelsea songs as we slowly walked down past the tube station. A little group of puffa jacket wearers were being interviewed by a TV crew. There was a mood of ecstatic bewilderment along the North End Road. I was slightly numbed by the evening’s football. My previous experiences of life as a Chelsea fan had prepared me for this to be a night of great calamity and disappointment. The fact that we had overturned a 3-1 reverse had totally surprised me. I met up with Parky at 10.45pm and we soon realised that we just had enough time to call into the “Black Lion” for a drink before I battled fatigue and the fog on my weary way back to deepest Wessex. Porky was in fine form and so was I; it was a fun trip back, full of nonsense and stupid jokes.

I eventually reached home at 1.45am.

It’s difficult to piece together how we managed to prevail against a clearly skillful and talented Napoli team. The old guard was certainly at the core of our triumph. We rolled back the years against Napoli and the night had me blinking my eyes at the stellar performances from Didier, Frank, JT, Ess and Ashley. I’m wise enough to know that this core may not be able to raise their games in similar fashion during the rest of this year’s competition. To advance further will be very difficult. To win it, will be a miracle. If nothing else, I’m a realist. However, as soon as United and City fell by the wayside this year – and then Arsenal joined them – I really wanted Chelsea to be the last man standing from these shores in the Champions League this season. On a superb night of football, we achieved that goal.

Job done.

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Tales From Planet Chelsea

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 15 May 2011.

On the Saturday evening, I met up with two of my oldest friends for a few pints and a curry in Frome. I’ve known Pete since our paths crossed in my first ever “proper” football game in autumn 1974 and I’ve known Adie since 1978, when we both played for the school team. Talk was of various memories from schooldays, current news and updates, but football undoubtedly dominated our conversation. Pete supports United, Adie supports Leeds. They love their football, but they don’t touch my levels of devotion. That’s not me being boastful – that’s just the way it is. Neither Pete nor Adie have been to Old Trafford or Elland Road; they still admire the game, but – I guess – don’t buy into the tribal nature of the game. This is the aspect that I find most appealing of all. Take away that and football becomes just a sport.

I think they regard me as some kind of Chelsea obsessive and I guess they are right. Amongst my Chelsea mates – Daryl, Gary, Alan, Andy, Neil, Glenn, Simon – I’m just normal, though. Just one of the lads. One of the team.

Pete and I always have a laugh when we are together, but our friendship was tested in 2005 when the phrase “you bought the title” was used by Pete. I got a bit defensive and we batted many emails back and forth over that summer. We’re the very best of mates though – football won’t get in the way of that. At the Indian restaurant, we raised our pints of Kingfisher lager and I congratulated him on Manchester United’s title.

Adie is more laid back in his support of Leeds. He exudes calmer character traits and I am sure he would be amazed at how wound up and passionate I get at Chelsea games. He’ll see it in the flesh over the summer, though, as he will be with me in Bangkok for our game on July 28th. Adie has been living in Thailand since 1996 and – at last – I am going to be able to take him up on his offer to visit him. We had briefly run through my itinerary at the bar before Pete arrived and I promised to call in on him with guide books and maps for a fuller discussion of my holiday over the forthcoming week or so. He was heading back to Chiang Mai, his current home in northern Thailand, at the end of May.

At 11pm, I left them drinking in the ultra-posh “Archangel” pub in Frome’s historic town centre and I headed home; I had a drive to London on Sunday and needed some sleep.

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United – always an evocative game for me. My first ever Chelsea game was against The Geordies way back in 1974. 836 games later, we were to meet again. This would be my 29th Chelsea vs. Newcastle United game (and we’ve lost just three times), a fixture second only to the visit of Liverpool (34 games). Despite our loss to them in the League Cup last autumn, we have a phenomenal record against them. You have to go way back to 1986 for the last time that Chelsea lost to the Geordies in the league at home. Since then, the goals have rattled in. Oh boy. There have been some lovely highlights over the years, in fact.

October 1980.

I travelled up with my father, his former boss, and my two school friends Pete (yes, him again) and Kev (a Spurs fan.) We were mired in the old second division, but were beginning to find some form. On a memorable afternoon, Chelsea walloped the previously fancied Geordies 6-0, with Colin Lee nabbing three. My two mates, only seeing their second or third football games, were suitably impressed with the whole day; the East stand seats, close to the action, the noise of The Shed, the size of the old stadium and the attacking verve of that Chelsea team, which included the two flying wingers Peter Rhoades-Brown and Phil Driver. I remember that I had written in to the Chelsea match day DJ Pete Owen for a record request as a mark of thanks for my father who had been so kind to drive me up for my allotted “two games per season” since 1974. My mate Pete was suitably impressed when Pete Owen prefaced my request with the words “and now a request from one of our regulars, Chris Axon.” My mother would usually write in to Pete Owen’s “Pre-Match Spin” on our visits and it was a common occurrence for me to hear my name being read out at Chelsea. For a kid of ten or eleven, imagine the thrill of that. It brings back goose bumps now, to be honest. Lovely memories.

On the Saturday night, at the curry house, Pete had spoken about an instance from that game in fact. We had seats in the East lower, right behind the Newcastle bench. Towards the end of the game, with us scoring at will, the Chelsea crowd were giving the Newcastle manager, Arthur Cox, some stick. Amongst the hoopla, Pete began shouting –

“Cox out! Cox out!

After a micro-second, he realised what he was saying and glanced across to see if my father had heard. I suspect he had, but I suspect he had a little chuckle to himself and let it pass. I always remember thinking that Pete had enjoyed himself so much that he might have turned his affections towards us. I remember him saying, rather sheepishly –

“Nah, United are my team, but I’ll have a soft spot for Chelsea, with them playing in the second division…they’ll be my second team.”

I should have asked Pete if he still feels that same way.

April 1995.

Before our game with Newcastle United, my friend Glenn was presented with his CPO certificate by none other than Dennis Wise. I was allowed into the tunnel area to watch and it was fantastic to be down in that most sacred of areas. I remember Dennis was either suspended or injured at the time, so he wasn’t kitted out. We had to assemble down by the tunnel at about 2.30pm and, while we were waiting, we found ourselves right next to the Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan. Even though it was close to kick-off, he was more than happy to pose for a quick photograph with me and it was a brilliant moment. Growing up in the ‘seventies, Keegan was a big hero of mine. Then, Dennis Wise appeared and chatted to Glenn for a few moments before Neil Barnett called us forward and Glenn strode out onto the pitch. Another lad from Frome being announced on the PA. Another brilliant memory. After that, the day was a bit of a blur. We quickly dashed around to join up with some mates in the North stand and saw the two teams eke out a dull 1-1 draw. But some nice memories of the pre-match for sure.

November 1995.

Newcastle were unbeaten and flying high, playing some scintillating football with players such as Les Ferdinand, David Ginola and Peter Beardsley in the team. They were at the top of the table and firing on all cylinders. We were just changing to a wing-back system with new signings Terry Phelan and Dan Petrescu filling the wide positions. This was a brilliant game of football and new signing Dan Petrescu gave us a deserved win with a bullet at the North stand end. We were watching in the temporary seats at the South end and the place was rocking. It was a fantastic Chelsea performance, but the best was to come after the game had ended. In 1994, a book called “Blue Is The Colour” was written by Khadija Buckland, a native of West London, now living in Chippenham. Glenn and myself got to know her via her friendship with Ron Harris (in those days, we always used to call in on Ron at his pub in Warminster after games at Chelsea) and, after a while, we arranged to take Khadija up to Chelsea so she could sell her book in the executive areas of the East stand. Anyway, to cut to the chase, as a reward for taking her up, she had arranged for Glenn, my Geordie mate Pete and me to gain entrance to the players’ bar after the game with Newcastle. We shuffled around by the entrance to the tunnel and waited by a door. I remember that pop star Robbie Williams quickly left the bar and we were then escorted in by Khadija.

Wow. Talk about the inner sanctum.

In a small room behind the old changing rooms (which I am sure no longer exists, what with the enlarging of the home dressing room area), we stood at the cosy bar, while Dennis Wise, his girlfriend and mother were chatting in a small group. A few players flitted in and out. I always remember Mark Hughes; arriving quietly, standing at the bar alone, silently sipping a lager. I went over to ask him to sign the programme and I was genuinely awestruck.

Some very special memories.

May 2011.

After swerving to avoid a pheasant and then a deer as I sped out of my sleepy Somerset village, I collected Glenn and Parky and we were on our way. There was sadness in the air due to this being our last pilgrimage to SW6 of the season, but also a shared joy of being able to travel up together, have a laugh, have a chat, have a giggle. Glenn and I had recently been out for a few beers around Frome too and one of the bars which we frequented – “The Old Bath Arms” – had a very special guest a few days ago. Johnny Depp has bought a house in the town – OK, just outside – and he had called in for a quiet pint. Apparently, a local ended up explaining the “leg before wicket” rule in cricket and I would have like to have witnessed that.

“Sorry, man, say that slower.”

By 11.30am, we had joined up with Cathy, Dog, Rob, Daryl, Neil and Alan in the beer garden of The Goose. Cokes for me, lager for the boys. Photos of the lads – one last glorious photocall for the season. A classic array of Fred Perry, Fila, Lacoste, Hackett, Napapijri and Ben Sherman. In the background, a few supporters were sporting the new Chelsea shirt and we didn’t have many positives to say about it. Too much white, too busy, why bother?

I had a chat with Cathy about our plans for Thailand and Malaysia. Only two months to go now; can’t wait.

The Snappy Dressers.

Neil – royal blue.
Lord Parky – purple.
Chris – mint green.

It was a usual pre-match and for those of you who have witnessed The Goose, you’ll know that it was laden with jokes and laughter.

With the news that Rangers were three up at Killie after just five minutes of play, we clinked a few glasses. Though I am way less enthusiastic than in the past, Rangers always get my approval in Scotland. Rangers were “my Scottish team” as a child, though if I am honest, Dundee United certainly came into my affections in the early ‘eighties due to the fact that several ex-Chelsea players went on to play for them (Peter Bonetti, Jim Docherty, Eamonn Bannon, Ian Britton) and the fact that I had a crush on a girl from Dundee while on holiday in Italy in 1979.

Carla B. – where are you now?

We made our way to Stamford Bridge for the last time this season. All the usual sights we know so well. To be honest, there weren’t too many fans wearing the new shirts. I still can’t believe that the club has the audacity to change the kit every bloody season.

The big news was that young Josh was starting his very first league game. I noted plenty of empty seats in The Shed Upper, even though the game was a “sell-out.” The 1,500 Newcastle fans were in good voice, but that’s no surprise. They are a good set of lads. I well remember during that 1995-1996 season, they were everybody’s favourite second team and it actually hurt when they imploded and handed the title to the hated Manchester United. Since then, I’ve grown less fond of them, due to their rather lofty opinions of themselves, but – generally speaking – as a few friends have said, I’d rather spend a few hours with a Geordie, rather than a cocky Mancunian or a sneaky Scouser. They don’t take themselves too seriously and I quite like that.

I won’t dwell too much on the game as we all know that it was sub-standard fare. Frank’s corner, for once whipped in with just the right amount of venom, was ably glanced on by the forehead of Torres and Brana nimbly volleyed in past Krul.

I knew what was coming –

“They’ll have to come at wu’now.”

“Come on wor little diamonds, like.”

Josh – playing quite deep – played some lovely balls in behind the Newcastle full back for Ashley Cole to run onto. This is clearly going to be his trademark ball. I look forward to seeing it more and more next season. Just after I made the comment to Alan that “I can’t really see them causing us many problems”, JT foolishly fouled an attacker and a free-kick was awarded. The shot deflected off Gutierrez and they were level.

Lee Mason, the referee, seemed to have it in for us. I rarely berate or bemoan the officials, but even I was joining in with the loud booing he was receiving. It honestly felt like we were playing against twelve Geordies.

At half-time, Neil Barnett introduced our most loved former player and he came onto the pitch for a few minutes, waving his stick, loving the attention.

“Roy Bentley – 87 on Tuesday.”

The second half came and went. Tons of possession but very few threats on goal. Carlo made a triple substitution on 64 minutes, with Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Florent Malouda coming on. It was a poor game and we all knew it. The Bridge was quiet, roused only to boo the referee. On 74 minutes, Drogba set up Ashley Cole with a very delicate flick but – for some unfathomable reason known only to him – Cole played it back towards Didi when he really ought to have laced it with his left foot. The look on Drogba’s face was priceless –

“Why you do that?????”

On 83 minutes, a free-kick from the right and I had my camera poised at the melee in the box. I snapped as the ball evaded Krul and Alex nodded home.

Relief. Phew.

Then, a last minute corner to them and the saddest sight; a poorly defended cross and Steven Taylor completely unmarked to head home. The Newcastle directors were up and celebrating in the West middle – Ashley was grinning, the horrible git – and the Newcastle players ran over to celebrate with the Toon Army.

The whistle went soon after…and a few souls booed.

It was with great sadness that I watched, open-mouthed, as 90% of the supporters drifted out of Stamford Bridge before the Chelsea players went on a slow lap of appreciation. After quite a wait, the players followed John Terry, with his twins, out onto the pitch. Carlo got a good – if not great – reception and I noted Drogba waving back at the MHL as he walked past our corner. A wave of goodbye? Who knows? Torres, holding two very small children, was very quiet. He’s quite a shy lad, isn’t he?

The star – by far – was the blonde haired son of Branislav Ivanovic. He was constantly dribbling the ball…first up towards the Shed, then back towards us. By this stage, both of the nets had been taken down by the groundstaff. However, they hastily erected the nets at the Matthew Harding end and – cheered on by around 1,500 souls in the Lower tier – the lad dribbled and poked the ball into the goal.

A massive roar. He pumped the air with his fist and then ran back and jumped into his father’s arms. It was a lovely moment and Branislav was clearly overjoyed. It was wonderful to witness this delightful moment between father and son. We all agreed there and then, that this was the best moment of the entire day. He then did it twice more.

The roars and cheers echoed around the stadium for the last time this season.

It was time to go home.

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