Tales From A Night Of Adulation

Chelsea vs. Galatasaray : 18 March 2014.

This was a long day. I was up at 4.45am in order to do a rare 6am to 2pm shift at work. I collected Lord Parky, sorted a few priorities out at home and then set off for London at 4pm. We were beset with the usual traffic problems on nearing London. While others were already enjoying pre-match liveners in The Goose, Lord Parky and his designated driver were battling the M4 motorway. Just after 7pm, we made it into the pub. These midweek jaunts to HQ don’t get any easier. No drinks for me, but I believe Parky wolfed down a couple.

So, was this game all about the returning hero Didier Drogba?

At times, it certainly felt like it.

I tried to focus on the game.

With a little more composure in front of goal out in Istanbul – the story of our season, surely – this Champions League tie would have been over before this second-leg. In truth – although I wasn’t underestimating the threat of Galatasaray, blah, blah, blah – I was positive about our chances. I hadn’t seen too much to worry me in the away leg.

So – Didier Drogba.

What to say? As I have stated before, in many ways I wouldn’t have objected too much if the precious moments of Didier Drogba scoring that header and that penalty in Munich were the last memories that I would have of our former goal scorer and club icon on a football pitch.

What pure moments they were.

As we all know, the Chelsea faithful were given one last chance to see Didier back at his former stomping ground. And that can’t be a bad thing, can it? For those unable to witness our win in Munich live, it would be churlish of anyone to deny them this last chance to say a simple “thank you Didi.” However, as I thought about this game during the preceding few days, I was very aware of Didier’s chequered past in the colours of Chelsea Football Club. For every game where his brutal strength and sheer determination won us countless games, there were games where he sulked and pouted. For every thunderous header, there was the laughable dive after the merest hint of contact. For every smile, there was a scowl. As my mate Daryl said in an exchange towards the end of the 2004-2005 season, “no player has split the Chelsea support over recent years as Didier Drogba.”

And how right he was.

In those first couple of seasons, Drogba was on one hand a laughing stock (a commentator once wondered why a footballer with the physique of a heavyweight boxer could fall to the ground after the slightest of challenges like a ballerina) and on one hand a hero. In those first two years, our number 15 was the conundrum. Then, something happened. From season 2006-2007 on, our number 15 became our number 11 and his attitude visibly improved. The theatrics and the risible play-acting decreased. Instead, all of his energies were channelled towards improving his contribution to the team. The change was magnificent. What was the cause of this? I do not know. However, I have always suspected that John Terry took him out for an evening meal, just the two of them, and a few home truths were shared.

“Didi – you have the chance to be the best striker in world football. You have all the gifts. You have strength, power, speed, touch, energy. Please stop the diving. It is hurting the team. Please stop the histrionics. Please stop the pettiness. Let’s move forward together.”

From 2006-2007, we all noticed a change. The following two years – ironically, with no championships – there was a widening appreciation of Didier. We warmed to him. He gave his all. He became easier to like. Good times.

And then there was Moscow.

Moscow could have been the end of Didier Drogba at Chelsea. I wasn’t the only one who tussled with some mixed up emotions after his selfish implosion against Manchester United in the rain of the Luzhniki Stadium. There were many who wanted to more of him besmirching our name and sabotaging team morale. After John Terry’s penalty miss on that night, one can only wonder what one-to-one chat took place in the changing room that night. Maybe it’s best that we don’t know. With time, Drogba eventually worked his way back into most of our collective hearts. But, no doubt, for some the bridge had been burned. There would be approval of his goals, but no love for the person. Even as recently as the 2011-2012 season, Drogba was serving up a mixed-bag of performances. There was the prima donna one week, the hero the next. There was a general consensus of Drogba being “a big game player.” The Wembley games came and the Wembley goals were scored.

And then there was Munich.

Munich embellished the legend, and maybe the myth, of Drogba. That game alone cemented his place in our history.  Although there were other stellar performances on that momentous night, it was all about Didier.

The equalising header. The foul for the penalty. The match-winning penalty.

His city. His stadium. His cup.

And now it was our chance to say, despite all of his flaws –

“Thank you.”

For those of us who were lucky enough to see the game in Istanbul, we had already experienced that odd sensation of seeing Didier playing against us. And it was strange. To be honest, his performance that night was hardly the stuff of legend; he was kept subdued by our Chelsea defenders. A similar performance at Stamford Bridge would be just fine.

Inside the stadium, it was a riot of colour. The three thousand away fans in the allotted section– brightly clad in Galatasaray orange and red – were surely augmented by thousands of London-based Turks in the home areas. Even before the entrance of the teams, they were bellowing their support. Scarves were lofted – with the names of their two main ultra groups in addition to the team name – and the bouncing began. As is so often the case for European home games, the away fans were going to be as much the focus of my attention as the players on the pitch. We had all been given the usual blue and white flags and these were waved with gusto during “Blue Is The Colour.”  Not by me though; I was too busy pointing my camera through 360 degrees.

The teams entered the pitch. And I have to admit it; all eyes were on Didier. I was happy that I captured the moment that Didier spotted the orange “Drogba Legend” banner, now repositioned in the MHU, and pointed in appreciation. As the teams lined up, the evocative CL anthem echoed around the stadium’s four packed stands. Then, to my left, a new flag…a massive square of royal blue, with the Europa / UEFA Cup picked out in white…it was draped down into the MHL. Then, far away in the opposite corner, the Champions  League / European Cup trophy.

The twin trophies.

Fantastic.

I trust that there will be one coming soon to commemorate Athens and Stockholm too.

The holy trinity.

As the game began, I was relaxed. There was no real fear of us exiting from the competition amid scenes of embarrassment and dismay. There were no frayed nerves. After just four minutes, we took the lead. Neat play from Eden Hazard found Oscar and the ball was played in to Samuel Eto’o. Our striker took just one touch before slamming the ball past the Galatasaray ‘keeper Muslera. Eto’o ran off, gleefully smiling, with The Shed in rapture. A few celebratory leaps and he was then mobbed by his team mates.

“Samuel Eto’o, Samuel Eto’o – Hello, Hello.”

We were up 2-1. Surely there was no way that we’d mess this up.

I was very content with our performance as the first-half progressed. We chased loose balls, put our opponents under pressure and moved the ball intelligently. Galatasaray were quiet. As they were attacking the Matthew Harding, that man Drogba came under scrutiny, but his involvement was minimal. An optimistic overhead kick and a skybound free-kick were the sum of his efforts.

A free-kick from the right by Frank Lampard was met by John Terry, whose perfectly-timed run had surprised us all. Sadly his fine volley narrowly flew over the bar. Of all JT’s goals, most have been close headers and prods from inside the six yard box. We await his first screamer.

Just before the break, a corner from Frank Lampard was again met by a free-running John Terry. His header was saved, but Gary Cahill was on hand to smash the ball in to the roof of the net.

2-0 Chelsea.

More celebrations in front of The Shed. Great stuff. We relaxed a little further.

At the break, the much-loved Tore Andre Flo toured the Stamford Bridge pitch and he received a particularly warm reception. His indiscretion of playing a handful of games for Leeds United has been forgotten. It was great to see him again.

As the second-half began, it was the Galatasaray fans who were – sadly – making all of the noise. They were indeed quite a sight. Rhythmic bouncing, shrill whistling, fervent chanting – they had it all. A quite mesmeric run from Eden Hazard, reminiscent of a piss-taking dribble from Pat Nevin in his prime, went on forever, but the final pass to Oscar was ill-judged. His shot was saved. For a while, the Chelsea crowd were quiet. Then, for no apparent reason except for perhaps the humiliation of being out sung yet again, the home support awoke from its stupor and produced an unexpected and very solid display for a good fifteen minute period.

“We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea – and Leicester.

We all follow the Chelsea.

On to victory.”

A Frank Lampard header from an Oscar cross proved to be one of only a few chances that we carved out. I felt that we were playing within ourselves; why not? Galatasaray were clearly one of the poorest teams we had seen in the latter stages of Europe’s biggest prize for some time. The noise still rang out from the home areas.

We sang a very loud “Carefree.”

This was great to hear.

“And it’s super Chelsea.

Super Chelsea F.C.

We’re by far the greatest team.

The world has ever seen.”

This was as loud as I have known it for quite a while. As far as I am concerned, Chelsea can win all of the trophies in the world and we can suck up millions of new fans far and wide, but if we – as Chelsea fans – aren’t rocking Stamford Bridge to its foundations every fucking game, we’ve failed.

More of the same please.

A few late chances came and went. The highlight of the closing stages was an audacious flicked back-heel from Eden Hazard which allowed Fernando Torres, a late substitute, to shoot. Nando’s effort sadly didn’t match the quality of the pass. Hazard was the star of our show once more, but Willian’s drive and energy again warmed me.

Without really being aware of what I was doing, I joined in with a chorus praising Didier Drogba. Old habits die hard, eh? To be truthful, this was as easy a Champions League game as I can remember. At the final whistle, there was a roar, but deep inside I knew that sterner challenges lie ahead.

As Didier Drogba walked over to the Galatasaray fans with a few team mates, I wondered how he would choose to end his night. He walked towards the centre-circle, stopped and applauded those still in the stadium. We repaid him with warm thanks and sang his name one last time.

Within a few short seconds, he had disappeared down the tunnel.

The night was over.

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Tales From Istanbul

Galatasaray vs. Chelsea : 26 February 2014.

I’m a lucky bugger. I’ve always loved travel. I’ve always loved football. Being able to combine these two passions is perfect. I remember scanning the remaining clubs still participating in this season’s Champions League, ahead of the draw for the “Round of 16,” and highlighting Galatasaray as one the teams that I favoured being paired against. Of all the European cities that I was yet to visit, Istanbul undoubtedly topped the list. Back in 2008, I decided not to travel out to the largest and most exciting city in Turkey when Chelsea was paired with Fenerbahce. It was a decision that I immediately regretted as soon as I heard about the city – and the city’s passion for football – from my friends who had decided to go.

Amid their reports of the city’s hustle and bustle, one comment stayed with me; the noise at the Fenerbahce stadium was the loudest that they had ever experienced. I promised myself there and then that should Chelsea get an away in Istanbul, I’d be having some of that.

The extra spice of seeing Didier Drogba confused me a little though. There was a bit of me that would have preferred my last memory of Didier on a football pitch to be of that penalty, in that stadium, at the end of that game, on that night.

That moment.

Would seeing him again spoil the purity of that memory?

Flights were booked, a hotel was chosen and a travel guide to Istanbul was purchased…I then waited and waited.

Eventually, it was time to head off to the very edge of Europe.

As I set off for the airport, there was a short text to a small band of friends on the West coast of North America – the only friends still awake – to let them know that I was on the road –

“Jack Kerouaglu.”

The Turkish Airlines flight landed at 5pm at Istanbul Ataturk Airport on Tuesday 25 February and I had soon paid for a 3 Lira “jeton” to travel in to the city on the metro. I had been assisted by a young lad – a Galatasaray fan – who had kindly befriended me as I struggled with the local currency and my route into the centre. I was on my way.

Other friends were already in the city. I longed to be with them, for the madness of Istanbul to begin. While I settled in a seat on the packed train, looking out at the grey murk of a drizzly Istanbul evening, and looking too at the faces of the locals inside, I wondered about a hundred different things. The reputation of the city as an unwelcoming hotbed of partisan football fandom was obviously at the forefront of my mind. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t worried, a little at least, about my safety. But how could I pass up a chance to see Chelsea away in one of the most intense atmospheres of world football?

“It’s what I live for.”

Outside there was rush-hour traffic, tall apartment blocks, neon-lit shops. There was lots of neon, in fact. It contrasted with the rather dowdy and unassuming buildings. Inside, there were locals, packed tightly. I was the only foreigner. At least, I felt like the only foreigner. The faces of the locals fascinated me. I caught quick glimpses of them all. I was wary of my presence amidst strangers and that I was in enemy territory. And yet I clearly did not want to let the city’s fearsome reputation – “Welcome To Hell” said the sign when we played at Galatasaray’s old stadium in 1999 – cloud my interaction with the local Turks. I wanted to forget about supposed preconceived notions of the Turkish race. I kept checking the metro stops; I wanted to make sure that I would alight at the correct one. One chap, with a fantastically huge head, kindly advised me to stop at Aksaray tube station and then take a bus to Taksim Square rather than follow the route suggested to me by the lad at the airport.

I took his advice. However, once I stepped outside into the rainy Istanbul evening, I decided to take a cab instead. The agreed fare was of 25 Lira, or around £8 – and it was worth every penny. Immediately, we zipped through congested and cramped streets of the old city, but then hit main roads which took us over a bridge in the harbour to the headland to the north. Behind me were the illuminated spindly minarets and flattened dome of a large and impressive mosque in the old city.

It was breath-taking stuff.

And I was loving it.

There was minimal conversation with the cab driver – a Besiktas fan – as he climbed slowly up into the city. The steepness of the hills surprised me. My eyes were on stalks. I actually took two large breaths to inhale the city.

“Take it all in, Chris, my son.”

The traffic slowed, and then accelerated away. At the top of a steep ascent, I was deposited on the southern edge of famous Taksim Square.

I had arrived.

Buzzing.

I quickly spotted the Taksim Metropark Hotel , located on a steep hill just to the south of the famous square. I showered and then answered a flurry of text messages from a couple of mates, eager to know of my progress. After getting directions from a helpful fellow at the reception desk – Galatasaray – I set off for the Laviola Café just off the main Istiklal Caddesi shopping street. The streets were busy. There was light drizzle. It was around 7.45pm on a Tuesday night in Istanbul. The fun was about to begin.

I quickly found the small café, hiding in a small side street, and there were many familiar faces inside. Many had arrived on the early-morning flight from Stansted; alongside my usual away day companions Alan and Gary, were around twelve other friends from home, plus a few of the younger element out of sight upstairs.

The first pint of the local Efes lager – 8 Lira or around £2.50 – didn’t touch the sides. While we chatted, we heard of around ten Chelsea being jumped by a far greater number of Galatasaray in a city centre street. A couple of the Chelsea fans were known to us. At least one had been stabbed. And then we heard contrasting stories; maybe Chinese Whispers were at play because we then heard that there had only been the slightest cuts and bruises. Orlin and Rado – part of the sixty-strong Chelsea Bulgaria group – called in.

The Efes were hitting the spot. A few lads tucked into a meal; I was aware that I would need some food at some stage. Mike and Frank from New York and Tim from Philly joined us at around 9.30pm. At around 10pm we set off for the James Joyce Irish pub, a few hundred yards to the south. We gathered together – maybe twenty of us in total – and walked purposefully together. From 10.15pm to around 2am – bloody hell, almost four hours – we enjoyed more Efes in this second pub. There were even more familiar faces in this boozer; it was, in fact, virtually full of Chelsea European Away Loyalists, complete with Lacoste polo shirts, Adidas trainers, Stone Island jackets, Barbour jackets and associated finery. This was a night when club colours were to be left in hotel rooms, or – more to the point – back in Blighty.

The beers flowed. There was, despite the laughter and the banter, an edge to the night. Two of the chaps who had been attacked were in the pub; one had a slight scratch on his face, the other had been slashed in his upper thigh with a knife. During our stay in the pub – I think, it’s a bit blurred – another Chelsea lad was attacked with a bottle outside and ended up with a bandaged hand.

The Olimpiakos vs. Manchester United game was on the TV – kicking off at 9.45pm – but hardly anyone was paying it any attention. Holding court and sharing a few stories with some other fans was the most famous Chelsea “face” of them all.

From The Philippines to Istanbul, he’ll keep the blue flag flying high.

As if out of nowhere, the Canadians Burger and Julie suddenly arrived and I lost count of the number of times that I said to them “what the hell are you doing here?” Burger then pulled a trick on me and bought me a raki, which I then proceeded to attempt to knock back in one.

“Whooooooooaaaaaaaa – slow down. Need to give that a bit more respect, Chris.”

Ah – good times.

At 2am, others wanted to continue the night elsewhere, but Alan, Gary, Burger, Julie and I decided that we would curtail the carousing. We stopped off for a kebab – what else? – and then made our way up the hill to Taksim Square. I was still starving, so dived into the Pehlivan fast food restaurant where I had a confusing concoction which resembled a vegetarian version of a haggis. It wasn’t unpleasant. I wolfed it back.

I was on a roll now. I was tempted by one last local delicacy; 10 Lira worth of hot roasted chestnuts.

I’ve never had roast chestnuts before.

“When in Istanbul.”

I eventually walked – in a zombie-like state – back to my waiting hotel room at around 2.30am.

I slept well. I probably dreamed of roast chestnuts.

It was only the knock on my hotel room door which awoke me on Wednesday; my phone‘s battery had inexplicably run out and the ever hopeful 8am alarm call never materialised. I didn’t feel too ropey in the circumstances; I made breakfast at 9.45am. A few other Chelsea – Brighton Tony and his mates – were staying in the hotel too. I quickly demolished some smoky sausages, scrambled eggs and a few other choice items. I didn’t touch the salad, though.

Never trust a nation which eats lettuce for breakfast.

As the kick-off for the game wouldn’t be until 9.45pm, there was no need to begin my day of sightseeing too early. There would be time to pace myself. With this in mind, and with me being sleep-deficient over the past two nights, I decided to grab an extra hour of sleep. When I finally awoke, the merest hint of a hangover had gone and I was ready to explore.

Out in Taksim Square, there was a political protest taking place and the area was swarming with armed police.

“I just hope you buggers don’t disappear if we need you later on tonight.”

The wind was swirling on top of the hill and a flock of birds, perching on electricity wires and also scavenging for scraps, gave a Hitchcock-esque feel of brooding menace to Taksim Square. As I consulted my map and got my bearings, I realised that Taksim Square was a messy, rambling area, lacking a focus. It had uneven paving stones and the one statue was pushed away to one corner. The square was where two visiting Leeds United fans were stabbed to death before a game against Galatasaray in 2000.

This sad incident was held strongly in the forefront of my mind throughout my stay in the city. A local approached me in the square and asked where I was from; for the first time that I can ever remember, I didn’t say England.

“Brooklyn, New York” came into my head. It was an easy way to dodge any possible nastiness.

“OK. My brother live in California. I have carpet shop over here.”

“No. You’re OK mate” I replied, in an accent that plainly wasn’t that of a Brooklyn native.

I took the funicular railway down to Kabatas. If only I had realised it at the time, but the Besiktas stadium – currently being rebuilt – was only a few hundred yards away. As I waited to catch a tram to the old city, The Bosphorus was within walking distance. Away in the distance, was the bridge to Asia.

My heart jumped.

Asia. Bloody hell.

Of course, Fenerbahce are based on the Asian side of the city of Istanbul, leaving Galatasaray and Besiktas to battle it out on the European side. I remember us losing at home to Besiktas in 2003, but our “away” game was held in Gelsenkirchen due to crowd disturbances in Istanbul. The evening game with Galatasaray would be, therefore, our seventh against Istanbul teams. However, as the tram trundled through the busy streets and then over the Galata Bridge, my mind was full of other worldly things and football was not on my mind.

I alighted at Sultanahmet. Following the rain on Tuesday, thankfully Wednesday’s weather was fine. Within a few minutes, I was heading over to the Blue Mosque – or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque – where I spent a lovely time inside and out, pointing my camera at its iconic roof and towers. Thankfully its interior is able to be visited; I was in awe of the vastness of its great internal space and the ornate blue and white roof tiles. It was a stunning building. There was a stillness inside which captivated me.

Outside, I bought myself a little cup of a local delicacy called sicak salep, which was a rich milky drink containing nutmeg, cinnamon, rose water, flour and coconut. It was gorgeous.

The Hagia Sophia – a former mosque which is now a museum – was close to the Blue Mosque, but I wanted to visit another of the old city’s famous landmarks. I walked further west, past bars, restaurants, hotels – and chaps constantly asking me if I like Istanbul, where am I from and do they know that they have a carpet shop nearby?

I kept quiet. I was on guard. You never know. However, my silence was more to do with my dislike of being harangued by street traders rather than a fear for my safety. In the streets, I did notice many Galatasaray scarves and shirts being worn, however. It acted as a reminder that there would soon be a football match taking place later in the evening; at times I was lost in my thoughts and Chelsea was the last thing on my mind.

Just before the entrance to the Grand Bazaar, I stumbled across a Jewellery Quarter. Here was Istanbul in a nutshell; on street level, glittering silver and gold on display in bright shop windows, but above flaking plaster and decrepit buildings.

A city of contrasts? You bet.

Inside the Grand Bazaar, another world.

I slowly walked through the huge covered market and was simply enthralled. At every turn, there were small shops, stores, boutiques, stalls and street traders selling everything and anything; spices, herbs, tea, pomegranates, oranges, lemons, the ubiquitous carpets, lights, lamps, sweets and deserts, Turkish delight, posters, tacky souvenirs. The colours were intense; from vibrant red to deep gold, from a delicate turquoise to subtle cream. The smells of the spices intermingled with the sweet smokiness of tray after tray of roast chestnuts. The traders begged conversation but I moved silently on. Perhaps on a different day, I might have been more willing to haggle and buy; not today.

Outside of the bazaar there was a further labyrinth of cobbled streets, shops, pedestrians and street traders. Occasionally, the tall minaret of a local mosque would appear in view. I eventually made my way back to the harbour by the Galata Bridge. Here, I stayed a while. There was a row of around ten shoeshine stalls – the most decadent I’ve ever seen – and yet more street traders hawking their goods. Over by the bridge were three fast food restaurants – the food was being cooked on small barges, bobbing up and down on the water – while the locals sat at small stools and tables and hurriedly ate various snacks consisting of freshly-caught fish, in bread, liberally doused with salt and lemon juice. The smell was overpowering. Elsewhere, more roast chestnuts, but also sweetcorn too. The smoke wafted around and it was a heady mix of fragrances. Over on the bridge, fishermen were lined up, their lines limply hanging down into the grey harbour.

With some sadness I left the old city – it had been a vibrant, intoxicating few hours. Over the water was the steep ascent to Taksim via the more modern shopping streets. For the first twenty minutes, I slowly walked up the ridiculously steep cobbled path which took me right past the Galata Tower. In a restaurant, I rested and enjoyed a lamb kebab with pistachios, plus a mixed salad. My calves were burning; I needed that rest.

By 4.30pm, the temperature had dropped considerably. Outside, more and more Galatasaray colours. The only Chelsea item I had seen all day was a Fenerbahce / Chelsea scarf from 2008; no doubt which team that lad would be supporting in a few hours.

I met Mike, Frank and Tim in the hotel lobby at around 6.45pm and by 7.20pm, we were on one of the scheduled buses which were being used to ferry Chelsea fans to the Turk Telekom Arena, some eight miles to the north. Thankfully, there had been no hint of trouble on our walk across the square. The bus ride reminded me so much of a similar ride through the sprawling city of Naples in 2012. If anything, Istanbul was even hillier, the valleys deeper, the high-rise apartments mightier, the traffic faster; the journey was certainly quicker.

By 7.45pm, we had parked up outside the stadium, which appeared to sit on a considerable hill, and the boys bought match scarves.

There was still two hours until kick-off. I realised that I hadn’t had a beer all day; I wouldn’t be having one at the stadium either. Once past the relatively easy security check, we slowly ascended the concrete stairs to our entrance. First, another kebab and a Coke.

Inside at around 8.30pm, the stadium was only 10% full. However, the 5,000 ultras behind the far goal were making enough noise for 25,000. I couldn’t wait to hear what it would be like once full to bursting. Our little section, up in the top tier, behind persplex glass and netting, slowly filled. We had 2,500 tickets of which we sold maybe half. It felt like an away crowd of just over a thousand; more than Naples in 2012, for sure.

I noted lots of Chelsea flags – and some new.

Away in the distance were three Chelsea Bulgaria flags.

Around twelve fans were here from Mongolia and they had a large flagged draped on the back fence alongside the New York Blues flag, one from Rayners Lane, a Gothenburg Loyal flag, a Swadlincote flag and that lovely flag featuring a mother who sadly passed away in 2008. Elswhere, a Lebanon flag and the Tim Rice RIP flag.

Then, a monstrosity…a large blue flag, with Mourinho’s face, but the hideous phrase “The MOUnster.”

Fcuk off.

Just as the home fans began to get some songs going, Martin did a loud and defiant “Zigger Zagger.” We were booed, so they must’ve heard us. The minutes ticked by. With around ten minutes to go before the entrance of the teams, the PA system helped orchestrate some activity from the Galatasaray supporters. The music which is used for Atlanta Braves’ fans – I only know it, please forgive me, as a Native American chant – boomed out on the loud-speakers. It seemed every single fan lofted a scarf, swayed quickly from one side to the other, and joined in.

The atmosphere was rising.

We spotted a Millwall flag flying to our right; maybe some Galatasaray stole it and thought it might intimidate us a little.

“Yeah, right.”

Then, a chant especially for us –

“Fcuk you Chel-zeee, fcuk you Chel-zeee, ole, ole, ole.”

We replied –

“We Are Chelsea, Istanbul.”

Then, the teams entered the pitch.

As the teams lined up and the CL anthem played, hundreds of phone lights were switched on.

Then, around ten orange flares were ignited in the upper tier to our right.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ss18H9Pz6EA

The sulfurous aroma filled my nostrils.

Fantastic. This is what European Away Days should be like.

Our team –

Cech, then Dave, JT, Gary, Brana, with Frank and Ramires holding, then Willian, Hazard and Schurrle and Torres up front.

For them –

Number 11 – Didier Drogba, plus ten others.

The game began and the noise was predictably fierce. Every time that we had possession, the whistling began, and only ceased when Galatasaray retrieved the ball. Our first chance fell to Willian who chose to loft the ball over a stranded Muslera, but the ‘keeper headed the ball outside of his area and we watched as the ball bounced wide and the open goal stayed intact. However, our early dominance paid dividends when Azpilicueta exposed Eboue’s failings down our left after a pass from Schurrle. The home ‘keeper again chose to come out, only for Dave to neatly pass inside to Fernando Torres to slip the ball past some covering defenders and into an unguarded net.

The 1,200 inhabitants in the upper corner went into frenzy mode.

YESSSSSSSSSSS!

What a joyous moment.

There was a hope that we could take the home fans “out” of the game with that goal. At an away game in Europe, that’s half the battle. I immediately remembered that the other three English teams had lost their respective games 2-0…positive thinking I know, but surely we wouldn’t lose this one now?

It was our turn to sing now, albeit with a chant dripping with irony –

“Your Support Is Facking Shit.”

In truth, Galatasaray were poor in that first-half. They left vast gaping gaps in their defence and it was only a mixture of poor choices and poor finishing which stopped us from a deserved 2-0 or 3-0 lead. Torres was especially profligate, choosing to run past players when a first-time shot or pass was the better option. Our chances mounted up but the score stayed at 1-0. To be honest, with the crowd getting quieter than ever, it seemed that this would be an easy passage into the quarters.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue And White Army – WE HATE TOTTENHAM.”

Jonesy, standing between Alan and me, made the comment that virtually everyone in the 52,000 crowd was standing.

“It makes a mockery of all-seaters, Chris.”

Then, a bizarre few seconds. A Galatasaray attack broke down and the ball went off for a throw-in. What happened next is still a blur, but two balls ended up on the pitch. However, the Galatasaray number 17 Burak slammed one of the balls past Cech from an angle, while the original ball was still bouncing around the pitch.

Former world boxing champion Darren Barker – Chelsea – stood nearby for a few minutes towards the end of the first-half. Maybe I could employ him as a minder for the bus ride home. At the break, I didn’t want to tempt fate too much, but commented to many that “we’re doing well here, we should be winning this 3-0.”

As is so often the case, the impetus changed in the second-half. Admittedly, Fernando Torres had a gilt-edged chance to double our lead early on, but his firm shot was parried. However,  Galatasaray, buoyed by an increasingly involved home crowd, dominated possession for much of the second period. Didier Drogba appeared to be out of sorts for most of the game and was well marshaled by both John Terry and Gary Cahill. However, just after the hour, he easily won a header from a corner and the downward flight of the ball was knocked against the post by Inan. Then, Drogba won a corner. Sneijder, surprisingly quiet, whipped in a ball which bamboozled the entire Chelsea defence. Cech came and stalled, JT lost his man and Chedjou slammed the ball in from inside the six-yard box.

Although I managed to get a rather blurred photograph of Torres’goal, regretfully the photo I have of their goal is flawless.

Pah.

Our legs were tiring and Galatasaray could smell blood. Thankfully, aided by some substitutions, we defended well. However, since their goal, the noise levels increased. The whistling was intense. Evert time, Chelsea had the ball, the stadium resonated to the shrill piercing sound of whistling.

It must’ve been so difficult for the players to concentrate; it must’ve resembled playing in a hornets’ nest.

It was so loud, it almost hurt.

The Chelsea fans learned fast; rather than compete with this, we chose to sing when they had the ball.

In particular, the old favourite – to the tune of “Amazing Grace” – bellowed out defiantly:

“Chelsea, Chelsea – Chelsea, Chelsea – Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea!”

Despite some hairy moments when Mikel threatened to continually lose possession, we held on. When the referee finally blew up, after five long minutes of added time, we yelled our pleasure.

Just like after Napoli, we waited patiently for the fleet of buses to take us back to Taksim Square after the game had long finished. We eventually reached there at 1.15am. There were many Galatasaray fans exiting the metro station, but we kept together and had time to dip into a McDonalds along with a few other Chelsea before heading back to the stillness of our hotel.

At the end of the game, I almost immediately thought of four scores –

Manchester City 0 Barcelona 2.

Arsenal 0 Bayern Munich 2.

Olimpiakos 2 Manchester United 0.

Galatasaray 1 Chelsea 1.

How I love to be able to sing “One Team In Europe” every spring.

This year might be no exception.

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Photographs From Istanbul :

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152283815067658.1073741837.561202657&type=1&l=474796a83f

Tales From The Confidence Game

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 23 December 2012.

This game was all about getting back in to the groove again. After my fantastical flight of fancy to Tokyo, there was a chance that the game with Aston Villa might be a test of my dedication, or at least my enthusiasm. However, this would be my oldest CFC mate Glenn’s first game since Munich, so it was all about getting him back in the groove, too.

Glenn collected me at 11am. This was to be a treat for me; a door-to-door collection and delivery service which would enable me to get a few beers down my neck.

With Lord Parky having an extended leave of absence (he was unable to travel due to a few ailments rearing their ugly head once more), this was just like the old days for Glenn and myself. As he headed over Salisbury plain and past Stonehenge, we chatted about my experiences in the Far East. And we chatted about the past. I have known Glenn since 1977 and started going to football with him in 1983. With a house and mortgage to pay for, he stopped going regularly in 1986 and it was a couple of years before our paths would cross, excepting a few boozy conversations in various Frome hostelries.

In November 1988, with Chelsea starting to find our feet after relegation to the old second division, I was up in London for the game with Sunderland. I was working in the cold store of a local dairy in order to save some money to embark on a lengthy holiday in North America (starting point unknown) but was still going to a Chelsea game every four weeks or so. I had travelled up on the train to Paddington by myself, and was on my way to Fulham Broadway to meet my college mate Ian, who would eventually accompany me on my jaunt around the US and Canada in 1989. It would have been around midday and I was on the southbound district line train, just south of Earls Court. I looked up and who should be standing opposite, no doubt clocking the talent in the train carriage, but Glenn.

“Hello mate. What are you doing here?” I said ironically.

Well, what a surprise. Brilliant. Glenn had travelled up with the folks from his work – a carpet factory – who were off to see the Lord Mayor’s Show. It was a free coach and Glenn took advantage; he, meanwhile was off to see Chelsea. How lucky that our paths would cross on that tube train. It was our first game together since Spurs away in late August 1987. We had a couple of beers at the “Kings Arms” before Ian joined us. We then shot over to “The Black Bull” where Alan was drinking. I was soon off to see Juventus vs. Napoli, so the talk was varied as we caught up with each other’s lives. Alan had season tickets in the front row of the East Upper in those days, but Ian, Glenn and I watched from The Shed. In truth, it was a poor game watched by 19,000. It ended-up 1-1. I always remember that Sunderland went ahead with a fine strike by Marco Gabbiadini. The Geordies used to have a special song for him –

“He is an itsy bitsy, teenie weenie Mackem bastard Gabbiadini.”

Kevin Wilson equalised, but it was a poor game. After the game, Ian and I met up with another mate in the West End and we embarked on a pub-crawl – as was often the case in that 1988-1989 season – before heading back to their gaff in Woking on a late train from Waterloo.

Good times.

Twenty-four years later, Alan, Glenn and I would be drinking and laughing again.

Great friends.

In The Goose, everyone was thrilled to see Glenn once again. As it happened, there was a more than healthy turnout from friends all over England. The Nuneaton posse were well represented. Simon, fresh from the filming of his biggest feature “Still,” was back in circulation along with his son Milo. The filming has gone very well and it is “in the can” awaiting the laborious process of editing. Simon promised us all places at the premier. I can’t wait for that.

Glenn was all smiles as he hopped around the tables, chatting away to the folks who make our Chelsea so special. I know it is the festive season, the time for over-sentimentality, but we are both truly blessed to know so many “top geezers” at Chelsea.

The game was hardly mentioned as we walked down to The Bridge.

I saw that Villa had a block of around 100 seats that they couldn’t sell out of their 1,400 allocation. At least we wouldn’t have to endure their “Have you won the European Cup?” ditty on this day and subsequent others.

Elsewhere, it was another sell-out. I quickly had words with John, Kev and Anna about Tokyo.

“This is all a bit hum drum, innit?”

Anna brought me back a pack of “Chelsea” butterscotch from Japan. I remember that Alan brought us all back the same product from one of his work jaunts to Tokyo around ten years ago.

I suppose that the big talking point was the pairing of David Luiz with Frank Lampard in the defensive midfield positions. Although Luiz is by nature a defender and Frank is more attack-minded, we hoped that this would work. I’d be happy to try out a more attack-minded formation such as this at home games. The pairing of Romeu with Mikel – to use another option – hasn’t worked too well.

Glenn was sat next to Tom – both dressed in light blue jackets, like two peas in a pod – and Alan was next to me. The boys back together once again.

In the first few minutes, David Luiz was charging up field like an unleashed stallion. However, a few errant passes caused Alan to utter –

“Come on Luiz. That’s too sloppy and casual.”

“Like Glenn in the ‘eighties” I responded.

We didn’t have to wait too long for further reason to smile. After only two minutes, Azpilicueta sent over a perfect cross for Fernando Torres to meet it a good 15 yards out. With a header which Didier Drogba would have been proud, the ball was sent crashing into the Aston Villa goal, with Guzan unable to react. It was Torres’ 26th. goal in Chelsea colours. As he raced away to the south-west corner flag to celebrate, I snapped away. In those photographs, there is joy on the face of Torres and his team mates alike. There is no reason to believe that there is “distance” between him and his team mates, despite the rumours amongst our support of him being disinterested and selfish.

Sure, Torres went through a horrible spell over the past month or so, but so did the whole team. But before that, he was working hard and scoring the occasional stunner, such as the goals against Newcastle and at Arsenal. I’m sure that the Torres of around five years ago, when Liverpool largely played a counter-attacking game – even at home – under Benitez, is long gone. Think of how many times Torres broke through to latch on to long balls from Mascherano, Alonzo and Gerrard and the ball ended up in the Kop net before anyone could blink. Those days are gone. Chelsea have, ironically, too much possession for that style of play to aid Torres. Our build-up is involves more touches. However, Benitez was absolutely correct to say that we need to get the ball up to him quicker.

It makes me chuckle to hear the legions of pro-Drogba / anti-Torres “supporters” in our midst as they complain about Torres’ lack of involvement, lack of desire and selfish and sulky behaviour.

Such derogatory comments were continually-levelled at Didier Drogba throughout every one of his eight seasons with the club.

When Drogba couldn’t be bothered in a game, there was nobody worse. He was the ultimate self-centred prima donna. In his early years, too, he was forever falling over himself and looking for free-kicks. At times, he was an embarrassment to the club. I am sure that a couple of senior professionals took him to one side after the 2005-2006 season and told him sternly “this has to stop.”

From 2006-2007, the diving abated. The petulance and moody behaviour didn’t, but that was Drogba.

In comparison, the shy Torres – a different beast completely – needs support.

And that’s where we come in.

It can’t be easy to be the absolute focus of a team’s endeavours, especially with a £50M price tag and the horrible start he had in Chelsea colours. But let’s continue our support of him. After all, he is a Chelsea player.

It’s obvious to me that Torres lacks self-confidence, but we can help rebuild that. It’s a two-way process. But that confidence is so brittle. At Sunderland, his confidence was at an all-time high when he positively took the ball and struck home a penalty. A week later in Tokyo, he looked like his confidence was shot away completely after missing that one-on-one with the Corinthians ‘keeper.

Let’s rebuild that confidence.

I can well remember a moment in my life as a young footballer when I suffered badly. I was a starter in the Frome College Third Year team of 1978-1979, playing as a right-winger, sending crosses over for a variety of centre-forwards. I thought I did OK. I scored a few goals. Only towards the end of the season did I lose my place and I subsequently played a couple of games for the “B” team. A month or so later, came my report card, which included a damning appraisal of my time in the school football team. Our sports master began by saying “Chris has virtually no confidence in his ability. He has the technique to beat a man, but far too often chooses not to…”

I was mortified. The sad thing is that throughout that entire season, the PE teacher – a Kevin Keegan lookalike called Mr. Freeman who still resides in the town – never ever came up to me to give me a pep talk or to offer advice. A show of support would have worked wonders for me I am sure. The clichéd arm was never put around my shoulder. In 1979-1980, and the subsequent few years, I played for the B team and never regained my place in the first team. My confidence was shot.

Let’s all put our arm around Torres’ shoulder, plus any other player who is suffering through a loss of that vital commodity, confidence. This has always been my view. I don’t go to Chelsea to berate players unnecessarily. Sure, I get exasperated at times, but I just wish fellow fans would offer whole-hearted support at games, rather than become 40,000 critics.

A Luiz free kick seemed to bamboozle the Villa ‘keeper and we were 2-0 up. A scramble from a corner was headed home by Ivanovic and we lead 3-0 at the break. Although there had been a minute of applause for Roberto on 16 minutes, there had been no anti-Rafa noise throughout the first-half.

We live in interesting times.

We played some lovely football in the second-half as Villa’s resistance simply melted away. I caught Frank’s low drive from thirty-yards on film and how we celebrated that. He was replaced shortly after by Ramires and received the loudest bout of adulation all season.

“Super, Super Frank…”

Villa amazingly caused Cech to deflect a shot onto his crossbar, but Chelsea simply carved out more and more chances, too numerous to catalogue here.

I missed the Ramires goal as I was outside on a comfort break, but more goals soon followed.

First, a penalty from Oscar.

6-0.

My personal favourite was the delightful piece of wizardry from Eden Hazard, a few yards in front of me. His skills were lighting up the early evening and his strong dribble into the Villa box was followed up with a strong strike high into the goal.

7-0.

At this point, the Chelsea faithful, who had been watching with growing bemusement and befuddlement, chose to ridicule the away supporters.

“Gone Christmas shopping. You should have gone Christmas shopping.”

Lucas Piazon, making his league debut, was fouled and it was another penalty. After Luiz, Ramires and Oscar, would he become the fourth Brazilian to score? Alas, his strong penalty was tipped over by Guzan.

Amazingly, there was still time for one more goal, when Ramires slotted home after a lovely ball from Oscar.

8-0.

Phew.

After the game, a few of us reconvened over at the Lillie Langtry at West Brompton where we tried our best to quantify what we had just witnessed.

To be honest, we tried and failed.

We surely live in interesting times.

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Tales From Wigan In The Rain

Wigan Athletic vs. Chelsea : 19 August 2012.

Our pre-season was behind us. Chelsea obviously struggled over the six games, winning just the first one against Seattle Sounders. A draw against PSG was followed by defeats against the MLS All-Stars, Milan, Brighton and Manchester City. My pre-season involved the long, wondrous, descent from the heights of Munich-based euphoria to preparations for the US Tour and even for Tokyo in December. The US Tour brought new players, but my focus was on meeting friends and enjoying the craic. The football was a sideshow. However, I felt a rapid increase in my enthusiasm immediately before and then after the Community Shield match. My mind was all geared up for another assault on silverware, another campaign of tortuous journeys around England and Wales and the familiar way in which the club takes over my life from August to May each year. Of course, it has always been like this. Once August kicks off, every Chelsea game counts. From the wretched days of the Second Division in February 1983 to the Champions League Finals of May 2008 and May 2012, every game matters. There was a part of me, however, that toyed with the idea of discontinuing my match reports after Munich; how could any story beat that one? After four years of “Tales” – and well over half a million words – I began to wonder if I would be able to continue. From a personal level, it was the hardest part of my pre-season. Should I stop or should I press on regardless?

Well, here I am.

My Saturday was the perfect pre-cursor to my drive north on the Sunday. I juggled doing some chores throughout the day with three football incursions. When I’m at home, I never miss the BBC’s lunchtime preview show “Football Focus.” Typically, we were hardly mentioned, but my biggest complaint was the way in which the host and the two guests meekly dismissed the importance of the shocking decision by Cardiff City’s new Malaysian owners to change the team’s primary colours from blue to red. Imagine if Roman’s first move as Chelsea chairman was to kit us out in red? I would have been apoplectic.

Mark Lawrensen’s reaction was “if the team starts winning, it won’t be a problem.”

I am sure Cardiff’s hardcore don’t share this opinion.

I find it quite shocking for so-called “experts” to pontificate on subjects on which they appear clueless. The TV world is full of them. No – I’ll amend that statement. The world is full of them.

On Saturday afternoon, I paid my first visit of the season to watch my local team Frome Town play pre-season favourites AFC Totton, who hail from down near Southampton. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Frome’s team was full of new players and went 1-0 down not long into the game. However, two knock-ins from close range gave The Robins a 2-1 lead at the break. A superb goal mid-way through the second-half wrapped-up the points, despite a Frome player getting sent off. I went to nine games last season and virtually all were pretty dire. I just saw Frome win once. This game was better than all of them. It was a lovely afternoon, watching under a perfect sky with a few school mates. During the game, talk drifted around all sorts of subjects, as they always do at Frome Town. I mentioned that the Chelsea game on the Sunday at Wigan would be my 900th game. Talk turned to the next milestone; my 1,000th game. I have promised myself a nice celebration for that game, which will hopefully be at HQ. In fact, I wondered if I would be tempted to engineer a home game rather than a tiring trip up north.

“Chris – going to Everton on Saturday?”

“Uh – no.”

“Why’s that, mate?”

“Didn’t fancy it – see you the following Wednesday against Juventus.”

What a lovely array of results on the opening day of the Premiership season too; defeats for Tottenham and Liverpool, an embarrassing home defeat for QPR and no goals for Arsenal. My Saturday was completed when I watched the highlights from all of these games on “Match of the Day” in the evening. Watching “MOTD” on a Saturday night just seems the perfect way to end the day.

I should know. I’ve been doing it since 1972.

I awoke on the Sunday with my head full of plans for the day ahead. Unfortunately, Parky wasn’t accompanying me on my drive north. At 8.45am, I set off for Wigan. The weather was murky outside. I had prepared for the worst; it may be August, but rain was predicted in Lancashire.

Without Parky sitting alongside, my mind was left to wander. Rather than concentrating on new players and new formations, I set off on a train of thought which saw me loosely planning away trips for later in the autumn.

I quickly chose the music for the first hour’s travel; New Order’s 2001 album “Get Ready.”

Pretty apt.

Next up were Stiff Little Fingers and then The Style Council. The rain started to fall as I passed Stoke-on-Trent but the traffic was flowing well. The 200 miles from Somerset to Lancashire took me three-and-a-half hours. It was a pretty relaxing time. The music was helping me kick back and relax.

Don’t Worry About A Thing.

I looked down at the passenger seat and spotted that the ticket for the day’s game was just £20. The low price amazed me. It had cost me £10 to see Frome Town play the day before.

Just twenty quid to see Chelsea play? Get in.

Surprisingly, I hadn’t seen a single Chelsea car on my solitary drive north. As I slowly edged along the last few miles of my journey, I spotted a Sunday football match taking place to my left. Young mothers pushed prams and teenagers darted in and out of the rain against a back-drop of typical red-brick terraced houses. It did not seem feasible that the European Champions were due to play less than a mile away in an hour’s time. It seemed that the town of Wigan was turning its back on us.

I parked-up and soon spotted four friends from Yate, just outside Bristol, making their way to the DW Stadium. Tim was wearing the classic British summer combo of shorts with rain jacket. The weather was horrible; it was muggy and still raining. I had to wear a rain jacket and baseball cap to defeat the elements.

This was my ninth straight visit to Wigan’s neat, but rather bland stadium; eight in the league, one in the F.A. Cup. It seems that we either play them on our very first game of the season (2005 and 2012), our first away game (2008 and 2010) or in the depths of winter. This is probably just as well; by the time April and May come around, the pitch seems to be pretty ropey, since Wigan Warriors play rugby league on the pitch, too. With four previous trips to Wigan already described in these match reports – including a history of Northern Soul, rugby league and Wigan’s often-lampooned support – there was nowhere else to go. However, I have myself to blame; in all of these trips to Wigan, I have never ever ventured into the town centre since the easily-accessible stadium is on the western approach to the town.

One day I’ll make it.

Despite my 900th game, there were no celebratory alcoholic drinks for me. I made my way into the steep stand, set to house over 4,500 travelling supporters. It didn’t take long for Alan and Gary to arrive. Alan handed me my QPR ticket.

Wigan – £20.
QPR – £55.

Pah.

I quickly popped down to chat with Gill and Graeme in the front row. Gill and I agreed that, since Munich, nothing – really – matters any more.

“We’ve seen the best Gill. Whatever happens, happens. It doesn’t matter. It’s all good.”

And this has long been my approach; enjoy the moment, enjoy the journey, support the team, rally the troops, savour every last fcuking second of it.

As with every trip to Wigan, the match DJ was spinning some quality soul classics during the pre-match kick-in. The team was announced with Ryan Bertrand included on the left, with Eden Hazard moving over to the right to replace the missing Ramires.

Our 2012-2013 began with the massed ranks in the north stand reminding the world of Chelsea Football Club’s amazing achievement of the previous campaign.

“Campiones, campiones, ole, ole, ole.”

“We are the Champions, the Champions of Europe.”

My pre-season had put me in good stead; my voice was roaring with deep resonance. All that croakiness in New York had toughened me up.

As the singing continued, a delightful turn on a sixpence from Eden Hazard was followed by a fine through ball for Branislav Ivanovic to take in his stride. A touch to his right and then a low drive at the near post, similar to Ramires’ effort in the F.A. Cup Final.

1-0 to the European Champions and not even two minutes had passed.

I roared and turned towards an equally exuberant Alan. As one, we blurted out –

“They’ll have to come at us now. Come on my little diamonds.”

Within five more minutes, we were 2-0 up. Eden Hazard was manhandled, not once but twice, in the box and Frank Lampard struck from the resultant penalty. It wasn’t a brilliant kick; far too close to the diving Al Habsi, but Frank rarely misses.

Phew.

The Chelsea support roared the team on and the Wigan fans looked crestfallen.

In truth, we didn’t really threaten the Wigan goal on many more occasions in the first-half. Wigan themselves proved to be the more aggressive. They certainly had the better of the second quarter. Old Chelsea boy Franco di Santo – their player of the year last season – had numerous heading duels with Ivanovic, going close with one effort. On 37 minutes, Chelsea target Victor Moses cut inside and unleashed a flashing shot which zipped across the box, but Petr Cech managed to deflect it for a corner.

Nice to hear a song for the hero of Munich.

“Didier Drogba – tra la la la la.”

He now joins the ranks of previous players who have songs sung about them at games, along with Dennis Wise, Peter Osgood, Gianfranco Zola, Tommy Baldwin and – er – Robert Fleck.

The Chelsea choir then turned our attention to a possible new signing –

“We’ll see you next week. We’ll see you next week. Victor Moses – we’ll see you next week.”

Classic.

Wigan’s pressure continued and a failed block by David Luiz set up di Santo, but he seemed to take an extra touch as he bore in on goal. Petr Cech was able to narrow the angles, spread his body and block. It is, actually, a trademark move from Big Pete. He is still a fantastic ‘keeper.

There was consistent fouling from the home team during the first-half, but Luiz was the first to be booked. I thought Mikel did well in the first period; breaking up play, but then keeping possession, unlike at Villa Park the previous week. Wigan’s Shaun Maloney looked lively. In truth, he is just the sort of player that I am always drawn to.

Small, waif-like, a dribble here, a body swerve there.

Did someone mention Pat Nevin?

At half-time, I descended into the concourse below the seats and was hit by a wall of heat. It was like a sauna. Beers were being consumed, songs were being sung. The Munich honeymoon, halted previously, was back in full flow.

Soon into the second half, the song of the afternoon was aired for the first time. It hinted at the infamous song in Genk, but now flourished with new words and new meaning.

“We know what we are.
We know what we are.
European Champions.
We know what we are.”

Oh, how I loved that. We sang it clearly. We sang it magnificently, with perfect cadence and diction.

Good work, troops.

Two chances came and went. An Ashley Cole effort was ballooned high and wide. Then, Fernando Torres ran onto a lovely ball, but appeared to be tugged from behind just as he poked out a toe to send the ball goal wards beyond the on-rushing Al Habsi. We begged the ball to cross the line, but a towering Wigan defender recovered to kick the ball away. Torres lay distraught in the box for a few seconds, but we immediately rewarded him with instant acclaim.

“Torres! Torres! Torres! Torres!”

The new boy Oscar replaced Eden Hazard; God, he looks young. Not long into the game, Torres ably set up our new Brazilian with a fine cushioned header into his path. Oscar struck the ball early, but the low drive was narrowly wide. For the rest of the game, he struggled, but we’ll give him time.

Ryan Bertrand – despite his Munich appearance, he hardly featured in many fans’ starting XIs over the pre-season – grew in confidence as the game progressed. He hardly put a foot wrong. His performance was one of the plus points from the game.

In truth, we faded fast in the last quarter and Wigan looked the better team again. Ivanovic, especially, seemed to be caught out of position on a few occasions. We had a few nice moves, but it would have been no surprise to me if Wigan had scored in the closing minutes. In the end, we hung on.

Poor Wigan. They really must hate us. Apart from their 3-1 win in September 2009, they always give us a hard game and yet usually end up with nothing. All of these away games – all nine of them since 2005 – are starting to blend into one.

I got soaked on the fifteen minute march back to the car. I was soon on the M6, listening to The Smiths, then The Killers, then Depeche Mode. At Stafford, the clouds cleared and the sun appeared. Over a section of a few miles, the M6 took me right into the heart of the English countryside, with bales of hay neatly stacked in one field, sheep grazing in another. It was an idyllic agrarian landscape. It was as if the motorway had played tricks on me and had escorted me back to the mid eighteenth century. The rest of the drive south was very enjoyable. The sun brought out the best of the late summer evening.

Back home in Somerset, it was still shining as I pulled into my drive at 7.45pm.

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Tales From Munich : Part Three – Beyond Words

Bayern Munich vs. Chelsea : 19 May 2012.

At 11.30pm in the north of Munich, Chelsea had miraculously become European Champions. In the final analysis, the season’s competition was decided by four penalty kicks, taken within four minutes of each other. Two Bayern misses and two Chelsea hits. In 2008, we missed the ultimate prize by a couple of inches. How fitting that our triumph four years later should be via penalties.

In truth, these facts were condensed into a nano second of thought as I stumbled to my feet. It is impossible for me to retell my innermost feelings during this most emotional and bewildering of moments.

All around me, fellow fans – followers of the royal blue – were screaming our delight.

BOOM.

The Nord Kurv was a cacophonous cauldron of noise.

BOOM.

Moscow was remembered briefly and then forgotten forever.

BOOM.

Chelsea, as overwhelming underdog in a foreign city, had triumphed.

BOOM.

Another miracle.

BOOM.

Destiny.

BOOM.

My beloved Chelsea had won the European Cup.

There were hugs for Ed, for Neil, and also for Glenn’s tormentor to my right. I shuffled to my left and hugged, Daryl, Gal, Glenn and Alan.

“We fcuking did it boys – we fcuking did it.”

I looked to my right and saw Simon and Milo scurrying down the terraces to be with us.

Everyone together.

I was aware that the players were rampaging towards us down below and so I started to take some photographs of the scene of carnage on the pitch and in the stands. The Chelsea faithful then bellowed a song of adulation and honour – one which was sung for each of our three domestic titles – but which now felt properly at home in this foreign field.

“Campiones, campiones – ole, ole , ole.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5c1AT…hannel&list=UL

The scene was of wild delirium. Glenn wiping tears from his eyes, Simon and Milo bouncing and hugging each other, Alan with the widest ever grin on his face. I clambered up on to the seat and just tried to take it all in.

I looked at my phone and saw that there were some texts awaiting my attention. I didn’t want to read them just yet; it was all about the moment. I needed to concentrate on what was happening all around me. These precious minutes after the final penalty were my lifeblood.

I was aware that the Bayern fans were slowly leaving the arena. There would be no fifth title for them.

It was all about us.

The PA soon helped us celebrate further.

“Blue Is the Colour, Football Is the Game…”

How I love this song from my childhood. Memories of listening to Ed “Stewpot” Stewart’s “Junior Choice” programme on Radio One on Saturday mornings. This song was in the charts over forty years ago – to commemorate our 1972 Wembley appearance – and it still affects me every time. As a listening seven year old, it was just enough for me to hear the name “Chelsea” on the radio to send me wild with a paroxysm of delight. That Chelsea should have a pop record was just too much. Football and music is often intertwined, but for me it all began in the Spring of 1972. Chelsea in the charts? It amazed me back then. It was ridiculously perfect.

And I stood on my seat, singing along to every word, knowing full well that if I let the moment get to me, I would be wailing again.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ZlYa…&feature=g-upl

“Cus Chelsea…Chelsea Is Our Name.”

I then looked through my incoming texts.

There were messages of congratulations from fans of Liverpool, from fans of Juventus, from fans of Manchester United, from fans of Newcastle United and, of course, from fans of Chelsea.

There was even a little message – a smile, a kiss – from my former girlfriend Judy.

Fantastic.

Down below, the players were cavorting like school kids, but the moment soon came for them to assemble on the pitch, in front of the stairs which led to the balcony where the glittering prize was waiting. How I wished I had my telephoto lens with me. The heavy-legged Bayern players summoned enough strength to ascend the flight of steps. Like the new Wembley, the players momentarily disappeared from view, and then became visible to all.

I had a bemused smirk to myself. What now for the Chelsea fans who had been so convinced that UEFA would never allow us to win football’s biggest prize? What now for those conspiracy theorists? What now for the paranoid ones in our midst? I for one never bought this theory. I never bought the theory that UEFA instructed Tom Henning Ovrebo to gift Barcelona that match in 2009. Ovrebo made four supremely horrendous decisions in that game; that is beyond question. But if he had been so besotted in making life as easy as possible for Barcelona, why did he send Abidal off with ages to go in the game and Chelsea 1-0 up? If UEFA had cooked the books – and if one single person had let the cat out of the onion bag – UEFA’s credibility would be zero and, more importantly, its commercial partners would have dropped the Champions League in an instant.

Never worth the risk.

And here’s the proof – Chelsea were European Champions.

The players – forming a beautiful line of blue against the dark suited inhabitants of the corporate lower tier – made their way to the balcony. My mind was racing now…I wanted this moment to last forever but I so wanted to see that mammoth trophy hoisted by the Chelsea team. All around me, there seemed to be a quietening of song and a concentration of thought.

I had my camera poised for the moment.

Somewhere in the midst was Michel Platini. Somewhere in the midst was Frank Lampard, the captain on the night. Somewhere in the midst was John Terry, captain fantastic.

A delay…then a sudden thrust skywards of the magnificent trophy.

Click, click, click.

A tumultuous roar.

Wembley 1997 was magnificent. Bolton 2005 was historic.

Munich 2012 was the best ever.

It was the greatest night of my life on the greatest weekend of my life.

We were happy and glorious.

From Drogba’s final kick of destiny, we stayed in the stadium for about an hour. It was a gorgeous hour full of tears and laughter, merriment and pride.

Just to see my heroes holding that huge silver cup. Oh my. What an image.

Chelsea songs were played on the PA…”Liquidator”, “Blue Day”, “One Step Beyond”, “London Calling” – and then, strangely “Mr. Blue Sky” by ELO.

The players still cavorted on the pitch…a momentary period of calm when the official team photo took place, but then madness. It really was, one step beyond –

Fernando Torres with the Spanish flag, Petr Cech being hoisted high on team mates’ shoulders and the cup way in the air, Drogba running towards the Chelsea in the lower tier of the east stand…players as kids, fans as proud parents.

Magical times.

In truth, I probably stayed relatively quiet. Sometimes, the moment just takes hold. A full hour after victory, I sent out my first text to a few friends –

“Beyond Words.”

We were, typically, some of the last to leave, but the players were still enjoying themselves in the north goalmouth when the nine of us reluctantly left the arena. We were all gasping for a drink and, as there is no alcohol served at UEFA games, the nine of us had our own little celebration party on the concourse outside gate 341. We dutifully lined up and bought ice cold Sprites.

I swear that the first mouthful was the finest tasting drink of all time.

We stood in a little circle. We sipped Sprite, but tasted champagne. We were pumped with adrenalin, euphoric with pleasure – befuddled, bewildered, besides ourselves.

It is a moment I will always remember.

“What was the first thing you did after you won the European Cup, Chris?”

“I drank some Sprite, mate.”

“Ah, of course, of course.”

A few faces drifted past – I shook hands with Callum. He was right after all. It was never in any doubt.

Unfortunately, amongst the crazy drift of Chelsea fans heading south to the tube stop, Glenn and I lost contact with Alan and the boys. All of a sudden, the Chelsea lexicon of songs had been augmented by a few new editions.

“We won in Munich, Munich. We won in Munich, Munich.”

“We’ll be running ‘round Tottenham with a European Cup.
We’ll be running ‘round Tottenham with a European Cup.
We’ll be running ‘round Tottenham, running ‘round Tottenham.
Running ‘round Tottenham with a European Cup.
Singing I’ve got a trophy haven’t you?
Singing I’ve got a trophy haven’t you?
Singing I’ve got a trophy, I’ve got a trophy, I’ve got a trophy haven’t you?”

And then, a song which doesn’t get aired too often. A song which I always attribute to Leeds United (remember them?) after they lost to Bayern Munich(ditto) in the European Cup Final of 1975. Although, Leeds lost, they lost under suspicious circumstances – a good Peter Lorimer goal was cancelled out due to a dubious offside call – and so the Leeds fans sang this for years after, in defiance of the actual result –

“We Are The Champions – The Champions Of Europe.”
“We Are The Champions – The Champions Of Europe.”
“We Are The Champions – The Champions Of Europe.”
“We Are The Champions – The Champions Of Europe.”

It was my song of the night, despite Kraftwerk still echoing in my mind.

“I’d like to take her home, that’s understood.”

There was an air of elation, but of sustained bewilderment too, as we walked around the stadium. Glenn was wearing his “lucky” lime green Napapijri polo shirt and I was wearing a royal blue Lacoste; the colours, in fact, used as the colour scheme of the final. The tickets were printed in these colours. The stadium, now shining bright at 12.30am, was also lit in these twin hues. The stadium looked perfectly photogenic and I took many snaps of it as we slowly walked south.

I contacted Andy Wray – whose hotel room Glenn and I were crashing in – to see where he was headed.

“The Shakespeare, near the train station.”

It was 12.45am. I was hoping to bump into Alan and the boys, but our paths never crossed again. At just after 1am, we hopped into one of the very last trains to leave the stadium. It was another nightmare journey, taking around an hour. Several Chelsea were so hot and tired, they got off to get a taxi…Glenn and I decided to stay on board. We chatted to two Chelsea ex-pats from Holland.

At 1.45am, the train pulled in to Marienplatz, the most central of central locations in the city of Munich. At street level, we crunched the glass of hundreds of beer bottles. In truth, we never really experienced what the pre-game atmosphere was like in the centre. Now, the Bayern fans quiet with sadness, still dominated, but pockets of Chelsea provided huge contrasts in mood.

“Campiones, campiones…”

Thankfully, despite vast quantities of alcohol being consumed all day, we did not see a hint of trouble. It was one of my fears, that should we have lost, the old Chelsea stereotype may have reared its unwanted head.

“…we’re a right bunch of bastards when we lose.”

Glenn and I collected our bags from the train station, stepping over hundreds of snoozing Bayern fans, in town for the night with no hope of being able to return to Nurnburg, Hamburg, Dusseldorf or Frankfurt until the morning. The hauptbanhof was as I remembered it from my last visit for the Oktoberfest of 1990, when I – like hundreds of others – slept like babies on the station forecourt.

We tried to track down The Shakespeare. Just as I thought about giving up, we bumped into Cathy and Barbara who were able to point us in the right direction. Finally, at 2.30am, we turned a corner to find what seemed like the only boozer open in the entire city.

“The Shakespeare – there it is Glenn!”

Inside, I spotted three familiar faces…first Andy Wray, then Steve Mantle, then his twin brother Daz.

Hugs and clenched fists, smiles and back slaps.

After that Sprite, came the real deal.

Beer has never tasted better.

“Champion.”

“The Shakespeare” was a tiny pub, with its clientele spilling out onto the road. While I was supping at the bottle of beer, who should walk right by but Mike Neat – the leader of the NYBs – and three of his troops; Alex, Napoli Frank and Matt. What a small world. We hugged – and Mike gave me a ridiculously long kiss on my neck. I looked up – and there was Susan Harvey, who I first met in Chicago in 2006, then Palo Alto in 2007.

“Great to see you!”

Cathy then turned up a few minutes later.

Icky – The General – was also in attendance. He had flown over from The Phillipines, but had been unable to get a ticket. I asked him where he had seen the game and he replied that he had watched it in an open air park somewhere. He joked with Cathy that he has never seen us win in Europe; our success that night was all down to him. I wasn’t going to argue.

So there we all were – drinking in Munich in the small hours, our smiles making our cheeks ache, our rapid fire comments and laughter never ending. There was an overwhelming sense of pride and joy. It is very likely that the phrases uttered by us in Munich were uttered, in various guises, by thousands upon thousands of Chelsea fans all over the globe.

Mike – “We did it. I don’t know how. We played shit, but we did it.”

Chris – “The ultimate away game mate.”

Frank – “Incredible, Chris. Just incredible.”

Chris – “The first London team to win it!”

Andy – “Drogba!”

Susan –“Oh…what about Tottenham!”

Chris – “Ha! What about Tottenham? Could it possibly get any better?”

Mike – “We were beaten. Two minutes to go. Incredible.”

Andy – “1905…19/05.”

Chris – “And what about Cech saving Robben’s penalty!”

Susan – “Written in the Gods.”

Chris – “And of all the people to miss a penalty, that fcuker Schweinsteiger.”

Mike – “We never win on penalties.”

Chris – “We did tonight, son!”

By now, Glenn was sleeping on the pavement, his head propped against his Quiksilver back-pack. He was OK. Just tired. I had a couple more beers. Photos with the last ones standing. It seemed like our little group, right there and then, was the epicentre of Chelsea Football Club.

I stamped my foot right down in the middle of our little group.

“The very hub of this club. Right here.”

Mike smiled.

I said to him – “and my next Chelsea game? At Yankee Stadium!”

We laughed.

“Life is good mate.”

I remember writing a three part piece about my experience in Moscow after the game in 2008. I remember that my whole day in Moscow was blighted by the fact that I knew that, should Chelsea win, my match going experience as a Chelsea fan would have reached its zenith. Anything which followed, by nature, would be of lesser value. It would always pale in comparison.

In Munich 2012, I simply didn’t care.

We were European Champions.

At 4am, I scooped Glenn up from the kerb and we said our goodbyes. We wearily tried to locate a cab to take us back to Andy’s hotel two miles to the east.

At 5am, Glenn was asleep but I was listening to the dawn chorus. My mind was still racing. It had been the most perfect of days, the most perfect of nights. Andy eventually rolled in at 7am and the three of us amalgamated to win the Chelsea Fans In Germany Synchronised Snoring Competition.

On the Sunday, I was up at 10.30am. Glenn soon followed. We said our goodbyes to Andy. He was to stay on for one more day. In the hotel’s reception, we spoke with a Chelsea fan from Brisbane, Australia who had travelled without a ticket just to be in the city. The saddest story I had heard involved my good mate Pete from San Francisco. His ticket was stuck in customs in New York and he had no way of expediting them before he was due to depart. He also travelled to Munich without a ticket – and didn’t get in. At the game, a few fans in the row behind us had stormed the gates after the game had begun. With strength in numbers, this was always an option for some.

Outside, the weather was blisteringly hot. On the U-bahn to the main station, a pragmatic Bayern fan told us ruefully –

“English teams know how to take corners.”

We smiled.

We travelled back to Prague, blissfully happy. The amazing thing was that I was 100% devoid of a hangover.

Oh Munich – I love you and I love your beer.

Twenty minutes into the trip north, just before we got stuck in some horrendous traffic near the airport, we drove past the Allianz Arena once more. In the bright afternoon sun, it looked divine.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zg3NraIDPa4

“There she goes. We are the Champions. The Champions of Europe.”

At Prague airport, we bumped into Young Dave, who looked as happy as me, but five times as tired. His mate Pav, bless him, had an amazing story to tell. Without a match ticket, he resorted to desperate measures. He arrived at the stadium, dressed in smart clothes, with a Ford lanyard and a handmade Champions League pass around his neck. The Ford lanyard was handed out at a Champions League corporate event at Stamford Bridge a few years back. He pieced together some printed matter from a Chelsea magazine to give the impression that he was one of the corporate guests of Ford. Believe it or not, it worked. He chose his moment and got past the first ticket check. Once inside, he blagged his way in to the seating bowl. He was close to welling up when he told us this story.

“I had my Mum with me. I knew I’d get in.”

He showed me the card that he had used and I unfolded it. Part of the text – hidden from view – mentioned this –

“Win one of 14 VIP tickets for the CL Final.”

Indeed. Simple as that.

We howled with laughter.

“That’s not what it meant, Pav!”

We had one last dark Czech beer at Prague airport. We were still smiling on the return flight home as we reviewed the previous 48 hours of history-making. For me, it was the last flight of a long season. From Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok to Leverkusen to Naples to Barcelona to Munich, glorious Munich. Dave and Pav were sitting opposite. Talk was of Monaco and Tokyo. The banter was still flying around. Glenn always has an eye for the ladies and I caught him eyeing up the bespectacled air hostess. I knew what was coming.

Glenn : “I would.”

Chris: “I know you would.”

Glenn : “Would you?”

Chris : “It would go to penalties, but – yeah – I would too.”

We landed back at Bristol and by midnight, I was home.

It had been, without exception, the most perfect of weekends. Simply everything had gone our way; from the timings to the travel, from flight prices to hotels, from the weather to the food and drink…the stadium, the football, the friendships…the goals, the penalties, the drama.

The European Cup.

Bloody hell.

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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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7OkWI…&feature=g-upl

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 Lap Of Honour

Chelsea vs. Blackburn Rovers : 13 May 2012.

After ten months of – cliché warning – highs and lows, the 2011-2012 season was approaching its inevitable conclusion. The game against relegated Rovers was always going to be a strange game and I drove over into Wiltshire to collect Young Jake and Old Parky with a mixture of happiness and sadness. Happy to be paying our respects to the team, at home, before the mammoth game in Bavaria. Sad to be travelling the well-worn path up to Chelsea Town for the last time for a few months.

After opening with a flurry of songs by Stiff Little Fingers, we were soon hurtling east to the sounds of Chelsea fans Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher.

“I’m taking a ride with my best friend.”

Another picture-perfect day. The sky was dotted with white clouds, the sun was out and the green fields of Wiltshire and then Berkshire were awakening from the dull months of winter. We spoke a little about the denouement of this crazy Premiership season. No question who I wanted to triumph.

“I just hope City win it, lads…in the most dramatic and heart-breaking way possible for United.”

We sped past the Madejski Stadium at Reading, then Windsor – Ossie’s town – and then in to London. The Shard was visible way in the distance and the Wembley Arch to the north. The roads were strangely quiet. As I sped in past Fullers’ Brewery at Chiswick, it felt like I was taking part in a city-centre grand prix. The road ahead was completely clear of traffic.

I parked up to the sounds of Depeche Mode’s funky version of “Route 66.”

“Well it winds from Chicago to LA.”

No mention of Beckington, Trowbridge, Melksham, Chippenham, Swindon, Reading, Slough, Brentford and Hammersmith, though.

At 12.45pm, we were inside The Goose and the first person I bumped into was Mark Coden, who some of you know from previous U.S. tours. Unfortunately, he was still without a ticket for Munich, but was going regardless. I wished him well and then met up with a gaggle of mates out in the sunny beer garden. Unsurprisingly, the talk was virtually all devoted to Munich. Most of the people I spoke to were Bavaria-bound and the sense of anticipation was tangible. Everyone wanted to know which route Glenn and I were taking. Everyone seemed to be going their own separate way.

East Midlands to Zurich.
Manchester to Munich.
Stanstead to Stuttgart.
Heathrow to Stuttgart
Bristol to Prague

We all agreed that the next four days of work would be the longest four days of all time. We just wanted to get to Munich and let the party begin. There were a few comments backing up the widely held view that this had been the most unlikely of Chelsea seasons. I always remember two contrasting moments.

Walking through Bristol airport in February on my return from Naples, we were 3-1 down and most likely heading out of Europe.

“Wonder when my next Champions League trip with Chelsea will be?”

At that same airport around two weeks ago, I had a bounce in my step as I covered the same ground. We were off to Munich in the Champions League Final.

Staggering. Stupendous. Ridiculous. Magnificent. Bewildering.

All of these words.

If I was an American, I would no doubt use just one.

Awesome.

Conversations were abuzz all around me. Special mention for two friends; Milo 15 and Ed 22. The trip to Munich, with their fathers Simon and Daryl, will be their first ever away games in Europe. They know how lucky they are. They are great lads and it will be a pleasure to drink with them next Saturday. Our plan will be to assemble in a secret location – a beer hall – far away from the crowded city centre and then see how the mood takes us. We all agreed that we would rather spend four hours in the company of some friendly locals rather than three hours amongst the divs singing “Ten German Bombers” ad nauseum in the Marienplatz. Regretably, Parky isn’t going to Bavaria. This would be his last game of the season and he was celebrating it by throwing pint after pint of lager down his throat.

Andy from Nuneaton is going to Munich with several others of his mates, but he is the only one with a ticket. I wonder how many Chelsea will be heading to Germany without a match ticket? Five thousand? Ten thousand? Maybe more?

Breaking the protocol, Simon and I even spoke about Roberto’s possible team selection for the game in Munich. I ran through my personal thoughts. Hopefully, the twin central defenders Gary Cahill and David Luiz will be fit. If not, we will struggle against the crosses from the flanks aimed at Mario Gomez. I’d pick the speed of Bosingwa over the experience of Paolo. Fingers crossed on that one.

Peter Cech, Jose Bosingwa, Gary Cahill, David Luiz, Ashley Cole.

Holding, there are no other options apart from Jon Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard. Michael Essien is past his best – and it hurts for me to write this – and Oriel Romeu is too inexperienced.

Then, the three attacking players.

I’d go with the pace and honest endeavor of Salomon Kalou, the touch and guile of Juan Mata (our kingpin) and then the spirit and skill of Fernando Torres. I can see Kalou and Torres doubling back to thwart the threats of Ribery and Robben. I can’t see Florent Malouda or Daniel Sturridge putting in that same level of commitment, Champions League Final or not.

Up front, Didier Drogba.

If the centre-backs are doubts, one supposes that either of Bosingwa or Ferreira would have to shuffle in to the middle.

It was 2.30pm and time to leave for the last domestic game of 2011-2012. It was simply exhilarating to be able to utter the magical words –

“See you in Munich.”

On the walk down to the stadium, the streets seemed ridiculously quiet. In Vanston Place, we again met up with Scott and Andy from Trowbridge. There are five or six of them going to Munich from Trowbridge, but with no tickets between them.

“We’ll be there, Chris.”

Further along Vanston place, a piece of classic Parky. On the pedestrianised cobble-stones, there are occasional bollards to stop vehicular access. Parky called out to Jake just as he was approaching a previously unseen bollard. Suffice to say, Jake will never be a father.

On the approach into the stadium, there was still a lack of hustle and bustle. Where were the missing fans? Were they already inside The Bridge? I was puzzled. I made it to my seat just before the kick-off. My good mate Alan presented me with two tickets for Munich and it was fantastic – at last – to get my sweaty mitts on them.

First thoughts about the new Chelsea kit were very favourable. Very smart. Very minimalist. Classy. It reminds me so much of the Umbro kit from 2005-2006. Memories of Crespo, of del Horno, of Maniche.

Roberto’s selection was very interesting. Maybe I was getting ahead of myself, but I was intrigued that there were no players from “my” Munich XI playing against Blackburn. Was Roberto thinking the same as me? It was great to see Sam Hutchinson starting a game, of course, and I hoped that Romelu Lukaku would shine in a central location. Over in the far corner, there were more Blackburn fans that I had actually expected; maybe around 400. There was the predictable “Venky Scum Out” banner.

The planned applause in honour of Didier Drogba’s (possible…probable?) last ever game at The Bridge on eleven minutes was pretty disappointing. It only really got going at around the 11 minutes 45 seconds mark. I had to explain it to the lads in front. To be honest, bearing in mind that we were only six days away from the joint second biggest game in 107 years, the atmosphere was surprisingly quiet. I spotted many empty seats all around the stadium. Even after the two well taken goals around the half-hour mark, the place remained docile. Maybe everyone was saving themselves for Munich.

They were two nice goals. A great cross from Lukaku was headed in by John Terry. A strong dribble, away from the goal line – confusing us all – by Michael Essien resulted in the ball being tee’d up for Raul Meireles to toe-poke in. This was yet another goal that I was right in line of. Amongst these two goals, there was the usual exchange between Alan and myself, said in a broad Lancastrian burr, that “they will have to come at us now” and the usual “come on my little diamonds” response. Let’s hope we will be saying this in a German accent next Saturday.

On the TV screen at The Shed End, the tickertape-style updates from other games seemed to be the centre of attention for us all. It seemed that all was quiet and calm at The Bridge, while there was a maelstrom of activity taking place all around us. I likened it to be in the eye of the storm, with other clubs and other issues whirring around in every direction. Blackburn Rovers were already relegated. We were guaranteed a sixth place finish. Two other games were dominating our thoughts – the ones involving the two Manchester teams.

United 1-0 up. Drat.

City drawing.

Arsenal losing. Always good.

City 1-0 up. Good. This might mean QPR will get relegated.

Stoke 1-0 up.

And so it continued. Every five minutes or so, our attention would drift up to the south-east corner as scores were updated. There was genuine shock and then sadness when the news came through that QPR had not only equalized at Eastlands but had miraculously gone 2-1 up. And with ten men. FFS.

Poor old City. What a way to lose it. Always in their shadows. Remember when they won the league in 1968? On the following Wednesday, United won the European Cup. Always in their shadows. Would they ever recover from this?

Down on the pitch, chances were at a premium, but we let Blackburn back in the game when JT was out jumped by Dann, before Yakuba stooped to get a finishing touch. Lukaku had been replaced by Didier Drogba, who was roundly applauded as he entered the fray. What a talisman he has been for us since his arrival from Marseille in 2004. Ramires then hit the bar with a delicate chip. In the last minute, Didier swung in a corner and Sturridge – as frustrating as ever – decided to chest rather than head the ball in from close range.

To be honest, this was a mediocre performance, but nobody was too bothered. I noted with interest that both Torres and Drogba were on the pitch for the last segment. Was RDM thinking along the same lines as me for Munich? It seemed that every part of my being was focusing on the game at the Allianz Arena.

So, the final whistle and the season had finished. Bolton were relegated; no more visits to The Reebok (2005 and all that) for a year or two perhaps. Wins for Arsenal and Spurs had provided them with top four finishes. Well, for Arsenal, anyway. Tottenham needs an asterisk next to it. I was gutted that United had pipped their neighbours to the title. In this amazing season, City had beaten United twice. Their players had lit up the season.They had surely deserved the title. Yet, typical City; just like them to mess up right at the end. The Chelsea players disappeared down the tunnel and I sensed an air of anti-climax. In preparation for a lengthy lap of honour by the playing staff, I disappeared out into the toilets.

And then – a roar.

A mate joked “don’t say City have won 3-2!”

Within a split second, another fan blurted out – “City have won 3-2.”

Well, I erupted with a smile and raced back to see Alan and Jake. City may not be everyone’s cup of tea and I suppose we should be worried that their league title will entice further stars to join their “project” but I for one was very pleased. At last, City managed to trump United – and how. The news of the two injury time goals filtered through and I was transported straight away to Eastlands (hysteria) and the Stadium of Light (mysery), trying to even imagine what the supporters of those two bitter rivals would be experiencing. Give me the City fans and their self-deprecating wit and gallows humour over United’s glory-hunting legions of non-attendees any day of the week.

Good old City.

It seemed that the majority of the Chelsea crowd was in agreement. There would have been no roar had United come from behind in such a manner to defeat City. Just a gnawing pain. I immediately relished the chance to witness the frame-by-frame coverage of the games in Manchester and Sunderland on “MOTD2” when I would reach home later that evening.

But now, it was time for the Chelsea supporters to thank the Chelsea players and management team for their sterling efforts over the past three months. We all love these end-of-season laps of honour. A fair few fans, though, had decided to leave, but I was relieved that most stayed behind. I snapped away as the players and their children slowly strolled around the pitch. The wives and girlfriends watched on from in front of the players’ tunnel; designer handbags and huge Sophia Loren sunglasses to the fore.

First, the triumphant boys with the F.A. Youth Cup, victors against Blackburn Rovers. Not their day, was it?

Then, Neil Barnett introduced Roy Bentley to the crowd; now walking with a stick, but still a joy. After a hug from John Terry, he lapped up the applause cascading down from all four stands. One minute, he was using his walking stick as a conductor’s baton, the next as a snooker cue, the next as a golf club. What a character. Proper Chelsea. The first of the players’ children to raise a cheer were Georgie and Summer; JT’s twins raced towards the near goal and continually scored goals, pushing the balls past the line. Petr Cech’s son was next up and the look of determination on his face was fantastic. Over in the distance, Ramires Junior seemed to be dwarfed by the matchball. Frank’s children were more subdued. On the walk past, everyone was smiling, everyone was applauding the fans. Didier waved to someone in the West Stand and I wondered if it was Gill. Fernando posed with his children at The Shed End goalmouth, enabling the doting fans in the lower tier to take some photographs. I wonder if he knows that I have big plans for him in Munich?

Rather embarrassingly, Neil Barnett suddenly appeared with the F.A. Cup and he hurriedly presented it to Roberto di Matteo. With the focus on next Saturday, had the club simply forgot to schedule the F.A. Cup as part of the day’s proceedings?

The microphone was then thrust into John Terry’s hands and he thanked the fans with a few words.

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“Frew the ups and the dans…”

As with Wembley the previous weekend, I was one of the last to leave the stadium. We stopped for a refreshing drink in The Goose and then headed home. It was a glorious English evening, the sun slowly fading, the shadows lengthening and the music on the CD player stirring my senses.

“Don’t turn this way, don’t turn that way.
Straight down the middle until next Thursday.
Reverse to the left, then back to the right.
Twist and turn till you’ve got it right.
Get the balance right.
Get the balance right.”

I said my goodbyes – for the current season – to Parky and Jake. It has been a tumultuous ten months. We will need to raise ourselves for one last time, for one massive challenge, for one ultimate goal and for one final push. Just like Manchester United in 1968, we need to steal the thunder from Manchester City by winning the biggest prize of all.

Five days and counting…

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