Tales From The Home Of Four European Trophies

Chelsea vs. Atletico Madrid : 30 April 2014.

How frequently did I think about the Chelsea vs. Atletico Madrid second leg during the day at work? Maybe once every five minutes. Maybe once every three minutes. Maybe once every two minutes. Several work colleagues asked me how I was feeling about the evening’s game. To my surprise, I tended to reply that I was “quietly confident” that we would progress. This is unlike me, especially when it comes to Champions League semi-finals. I don’t think that I have ever been “quietly confident” ever before.

This would be Chelsea’s seventh Champions League semi-final in only eleven seasons.

Time for some numbers.

This would be the fourth time that the second-leg would be at home –

2004 : Monaco – drew 2-2, but lost on aggregate.

2008 : Liverpool – won 3-2, and won on aggregate.

2009 : Barcelona – drew 1-1, but lost on away goals.

In the other years, the results were –

2005 : Liverpool – drew 0-0, but went out on aggregate at Anfield.

2007 : Liverpool – won 1-0, but went out on penalties at Anfield.

2012 : Barcelona – won 1-0, and went through on aggregate at Camp Nou.

For a football club that were deprived of European football from the autumn of 1971 until the autumn of 1994, these represent an amazing treasure trove of memories and emotions.

Jesper Gronkjaer, Fernando Morientes, Luis Garcia, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Joe Cole, Jan Arne Riise, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, Andres Iniesta, Didier Drogba, Ramires, Fernando Torres.

More heartache than joy.

In truth, the heartbreak of 2005, 2007 and 2009 are surely some of our most awful memories as Chelsea supporters. Somehow the loss in 2004 – our club’s first semi – seemed quite tame by comparison. After a tough away leg in Monaco, the return was always going to be difficult. We raced into a 2-0 lead, but then…well, you know the story.

As for 2005, 2007 and 2009; well you know those stories too.

After the sublime afterglow of Anfield, I gathered together two of the three troops who accompanied me to Liverpool on the previous Sunday. Lord Parky was collected from the pub opposite where I work in Chippenham and Dennis was collected from the town’s train station.

Let’s go.

I had watched the previous night’s semi-final between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Bayern’s capitulation had surprised me; despite odd successes, their recent Champions League story has predominantly featured misery and not joy.

So, Real Madrid – with our former manager Carlo Ancelotti at the helm – awaited the winner in Lisbon on Saturday 24 May. This pleased me, for numerous reasons. Should we be successful against Atletico, the stage would be set for a simply classic confrontation at Benfica’s Estadio da Luz.

Real Madrid vs. Chelsea.

White vs. Blue.

Carlo Ancelotti vs. Jose Mourinho.

1971 all over again.

I am sure I wasn’t the only Chelsea supporter to let their mind run away with the notion of this. I had gambled on us reaching the final after our win against Paris St. Germain; I had booked flights from Bristol to Lisbon. After the creditable 0-0 at the Vicente Calderon, a hotel room on The Algarve was booked, too.

Personally, there was an extra dimension to all of this.

Should we reach the 2014 Champions League Final, it would be my one thousandth Chelsea game.

In all honesty, this was all too surreal for me to comprehend at times. After the shocking defeat in Moscow, I was convinced that we would never win the European Cup. And yet, just six years later, here we were, with one trophy tucked in our back pockets and another one just 180 minutes away.

Dennis, Parky and I met up with some mates in the beer garden of The Goose. A couple of Atletico fans were inside. There was no hint of bother. Dave – the last of the Anfield Four – was in good spirits; he would be sitting next to me for the game. For once, talk was dominated by the game itself. Simon was “quietly confident” too. This was all very worrying.

News of the team broke and the big surprise was the appearance of Ashley Cole at left-back, presumably forcing Cesar into a midfield role, strikingly reminiscent of Ryan Bertrand’s role in Munich. The absence of Oscar was noted. Fernando Torres was given the start.

As Dennis remarked, it was turning into quite a week for him with visits to his two former homes.

I wanted to get inside the stadium earlier than usual, so I left at around 7pm. It was a perfect evening in London. I was in shirtsleeves and stayed the same the entire evening. At 7.15pm, I was inside. I was initially shocked to see how few fellow supporters were inside. Maybe, on this day of tube strikes, people were forced into a late arrival.

Over in the far corner, a sea of red and white striped shirts.

We waited for the kick-off.

Although the scene before me represented a familiar one; sunny skies, a boisterous away contingent, Champions League logos, familiar names on the advertisements, there seemed to be a lack of anticipation within the home ranks. For a while, all was still. Maybe it was the collective nerves among the home support which made for the quieter-than-expected ambiance.

The TV cameras picked out Diego Maradona and then Claudio Ranieri in the executive areas of the West Stand.

A card had been placed on every seat in the MHU; on it were instructions to hold these cards aloft just before the teams were due to enter the pitch. The overall effect would be of a blue-white-blue-white bar scarf. This was met with unsurprising cynicism from the chaps in the row in front, but I approved. I remember the CISA arranging for the 17,000 Chelsea fans at the 1994 F.A. Cup Final to hold 17,000 blue cards aloft as the players strode across Wembley’s finely manicured lawn, only for the TV cameras to ignore it completely. With around five minutes to go, the hideously embarrassing opera singer wheeled out by the club on European nights sang “Blue Is The Colour” and the usual blue and white scarves, derided by the Scousers at Anfield on Sunday, were waved in the West Lower and the Matthew Harding Lower.

As the teams entered the field, it was our moment. Some 3,000 blue and white cards were held aloft. From the MH balcony, four flags were unfurled.

The European Cup Winners’ Cup : 1971 and 1998.

The Super Cup 1998.

The European Cup : 2012.

The Europa Cup : 2013.

The only British club to win all four. It was a fantastic sight. I noted that, over in the East Middle, the inhabitants had been given 3,000 bar scarves.

Flags, mosaics, scarves.

I know that this kind of “forced-participation” is often frowned upon, but Stamford Bridge looked a picture.

As Dave arrived in time for the kick-off, there was a brief interchange.

Dave : “Great seats, mate.”

Chris : “This is where the magic happens.”

At 7.44pm, Stamford Bridge fell silent momentarily as two of football’s family were remembered.

Tito Villanova RIP.

Vujadin Boskov RIP.

I wasn’t happy that Chelsea were kicking “the wrong way” in the first-half. There are not many times that we attack the Matthew Harding in the first-half these days. Of course, prior to 1994 and the demise of The Shed, this was the norm.

At last, some semblance of noise boomed around the stadium as the few attacks from both sides began. Atletico brought the first heart tremor when a dangerously looping cross out on their left caused panic in our defence. It wasn’t readily apparent what had happened after Koke’s cross bounced off the bar. How could it go off for a corner? There was confusion in our defence and in my head too.

Next up, came a Chelsea chance. Ramires was fouled and we prayed for a goal from the free-kick. I caught a Willian’s effort on film, but it flew wide. Atletico were in this game and we tended to stand off as their mobile players raided. There was nervous tension on the pitch and off it. An overhead kick from David Luiz narrowly missed Courtois’ far post, bouncing safely away.

This was a tight game. Fernando Torres, prone to an indulgent dribble – maybe too eager to impress – was not ably supported by Azpilicueta, Willian and Hazard. For too long in the first half, he foraged alone. I noted a lack of intensity all round; from players and supporters alike. Was it the nerves? On several occasions when Atletico cleared, the ball boys threw balls back quickly, yet Chelsea players were often not paying attention and were unable to unsettle Atletico with a quick break. It was a metaphor for our half. We were just too lackadaisical. Jose would not approve.

The crowd tried to generate some noise.

“Champions Of Europe – We’ve Done it Before.”

With ten minutes to go before the break, a strong run from Willian into the Atletico box stirred us all. He held off two strong challenges – and did well to stay on his feet – and the ball ran free. Dave was supporting our Brazilian dynamo and he picked up the loose ball, and played it back into the path of Torres.

The former Atletico captain swept it into the goal.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

I jumped up and looked over to Nando. He held his hands up, indicating his reluctance to celebrate fully. Elsewhere, we more than made up for it.

We were on our way to Lisbon.

“GETINYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.”

Alan : “They’ll hath to come at uth na-ohhhh.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonth.”

Atletic seized the gauntlet and probed away. Mark Schwarzer, after his fine performance at Anfield, seemed to be coping ably.

Then, on forty-four minutes, misery.

Tiago, our former champion from 2005, swept a ball over to the far post to an unmarked attacker. The ball was knocked back…clenching of muscles…and Lopez struck home.

They had the advantage; that dreaded away goal.

It had been a first-half of few chances; six to us, five to them. At half-time, we presumed that Atletico would sit and protect their narrow advantage. They would, surely, do to us what we did to Liverpool on Sunday.

After the opening few minutes of the second period, Simeone’s game plan was evidently more adventurous. They attacked from the whistle. A Schwarzer save from Turan saved us. At the other end, we gasped in amazement as Courtois dropped to save a John Terry header. Samuel Eto’o replaced Ashley Cole, with Azpilicueta filling in at left-back. He joined up with Torres, with the midfield realigning themselves behind. Then, more calamity.

I was momentarily looking away, so missed Eto’o’s clip which resulted in the Italian referee pointing towards the spot.

Costa struck home.

Game, surely, over.

We now had to score three times to progress.

The away fans were in triumphant mood.

“Leti. Leti. Leti. Leti.”

Chelsea offered moments of hope. David Luiz, strong in tackle, but prone to awful finishing all night, struck a post. Atletico broke away down our right and Turan saw his header crash against the bar. We watched in horror as he easily followed up with a tap in from the rebound.

Stamford Bridge fell flat. It was time to reflect. At least there was no sense of horrendous injustice this time. At least there was no Iniesta-style dagger to the heart. I’d rather take a 3-1 loss than a last minute 1-1 exit. We had met our match, no excuses. Maybe the efforts of the game on Sunday had taken everything. Our one hope, Hazard, had been on the periphery all night. The game fizzled out. Mourinho made some late changes, but an unforgettable recovery was never on the cards. It had been a horrible second-half. We looked second-best. I longed for the whistle to blow.

The Atletico contingent, who had been relatively quiet until their first goal, were now rejoicing. There were songs for their former hero Fernando Torres and for their hated rival Jose Mourinho.

Some home fans had left by the time of the final whistle, but I was heartened by the many Chelsea supporters who stayed to not only thank our players for their efforts throughout the campaign but to applaud the victors.

Top marks.

Rob walked past and tapped me on the shoulder.

“Not tonight, Chris.”

“We’ve lost five out of seven semi-finals, but we’d give it all up for Munich.”

Rob agreed.

At least we have Munich. We’ll always have Munich. And Munich made defeat against Atletico Madrid on a night of harsh reality almost…ALMOST…bearable.

Outside, I waited silently with Dave for Dennis to arrive underneath the statue of Peter Osgood. I looked at his name etched in stone and I looked up at his image. It was a moment for me to give thanks to Ossie, possibly the determining factor in my decision to not only choose Chelsea in 1970 but to stick with the club ever since. After a while, a clearly saddened and emotional Dennis arrived. He was sad we had lost – of course – but was more disgusted by the “fans” around him in the West Lower who had hardly uttered words or songs of support to the team all night.

Then, Dennis spoke and his emotive words made me smile.

“I just need a few moments with The King.”

Outside on the Fulham Road there was an air of quiet reflection of the better team having won as the Chelsea faithful made their way home. Back in The Goose, Dennis – the visitor from over six thousand miles away – was philosophical and humbly grateful. He stood with a pint of lager in his hand and said –

“I’m just happy to be at this latitude and this longitude, right here, right now.”

We all knew what he meant.

As for me, there will be no grand finale in Lisbon. That landmark will have to wait.

Image

Tales From A Visit Of Old Friends

Chelsea vs. Juventus : 19 September 2012.

What a lovely gift from the football Gods. The first game in our defence of the Champions League trophy, which we all hold so dear, would be against the Italian champions Juventus. As many people know, I have always had a massive soft spot for the Bianconeri and so my heart was filled with joy when the two clubs were drawn together in the same pot. Despite my funds being earmarked this autumn for the mind-boggling trip to Tokyo in December, I promised myself that I would go to one of only two European cities in this autumn’s group phase; Glasgow (Celtic) and Turin (Juventus). These two trips could not be missed.

As I watched the draw unfold on my PC at work on Thursday 23 August, I just knew that fate would assure that I would be heading back to Turin once more. True enough, Ruud Gullit helped draw Chelsea and Juve in the same group.

Perfect.

The trip to Turin in November was duly booked.

First, though, the home game.

Alongside me in the Matthew Harding Upper was Marco, the son of my good friend Salvo. I had bought the ticket for Salvo, who owns a restaurant near Earls Court, but he decided to pass the ticket on to his Juve-mad son. Salvo was worried that when he accompanied me to the Chelsea vs. Juventus game in 2009, a Didier Drogba goal had resulted in a Chelsea win and a Juventus defeat. Maybe a mixture of Catholic guilt and football superstition had colluded for this decision.

Either way, Marco and I were getting along famously. On the walk to the stadium from The Goose, we had already swapped several Juventus stories, and it also transpired that Marco was a fan of baseball too; his team being the Detroit Tigers.

We didn’t get in until 7.40pm. I had a quick glimpse down at the three thousand tifosi in the away section. Daz asked for my assistance in lifting the massive flag over the heads of the spectators in the upper tier. Once completed, I was able to head back to my seat and capture the pre-match ritual which is so iconic now.

The entrance of the two teams, the slow walk across the pitch, the players’ route taking them to the right of the black and white flag on the centre circle, the Champions League anthem, the handshakes.

In amongst the Juve fans, around a hundred fans held up their mobile phones and a hundred bright lights lit up that particular corner of The Bridge. Tellingly, I spotted around twenty similar lights in the upper tier of the adjoining East Stand. This was no surprise; though not in the same numbers as the Neapolitans who swamped HQ in March, I always knew that there would be Juventus supporters mixed in to the home areas. Hell, there was even one sitting next to me.

The big news was that Oscar was making his home debut for us. A big night for him.

The other big news, personally, was that Juve were playing in the famous black and white. It was an irritant that they chose to wear the muted gold shirts in 2009.

This was the real deal.

Chelsea in blue and white.

Juventus in black and white.

My two teams.

Of course, we all know the real story. Chelsea are my team. Chelsea are the team that I follow over land and sea, the team that has had a vice-like grip on my emotions since I was a young boy. The team which has brought me sadness one moment and happiness the next. In comparison, Juventus are a more frivolous object of desire. My history with them is still sizeable, though and Marco was getting snippets of “my Juventus story” throughout the evening.

The time I met Momo Sissoko in a Torinese restaurant. The time I saw Maradona at the Stadio Communale. The time Antonio Conte scored a last-minute winner at the Delle Alpi against Fiorentina and infamously picked up the corner flag and taunted the seething Viola fans. The time I received a Roberto Bettega signed photograph. The time I saw Vialli and Ravanelli at Ibrox.

This game would be my 904th. Chelsea game and my 10th. Juventus game.

I can well remember asking some friends a while back about the various sports teams which they support and asking them to rate the importance of the teams. If I was to add my other major love, the New York Yankees, I can remember that my results were –

Chelsea 95%
New York Yankees 4%
Juventus 1%

This game would be my 904th Chelsea game and my 10th. Juventus game.

For comparison, I’ve seen the Yankees play 32 times.

Quite bizarrely, these numbers mirror my percentage points rather well.

946 games in total.

Chelsea 95%
New York Yankees 4%
Juventus 1%

How weird is that?

Over in the far corner, I did my best to scan the banners which were fighting for space on the balcony wall. It surprised me that I didn’t recognise any of them. There was one from a town – Trezzano sul Naviglio – where my client’s warehouse is based. Down in the lower tier, six juventini wore T-shirts spelling out the word “Drughi.”

Drughi are one of the many Juve fan groups which have evolved since the mid-seventies. They are named after the “droogs” which are featured in the iconic film “A Clockwork Orange.” There was also another Juve group –since disbanded – called “Arancia Mecanica” – and I remember a famous photograph of these quasi-hooligans in a police escort in Milano wearing bowler hats to a game at San Siro.

The history of the various Juve fan groups and their rivalries for prominence warrants an encyclopaedia all by itself. Dig a little and you will be rewarded. I have a book, which I bought at that Fiorentina game in 1999, which painstakingly tells of some of these groups in a series of breathtaking photographs.

The Juve fans were soon in good voice.

“Tutta La Curva!” (meaning, in theory, “We are the curve”, or the home end.)

“Forza Ragazzi!” (meaning “Come On, Boys.”)

During the first-half, just for a split second, with the Juve fans singing loud, I was transported back to an evening in November 1987 when I saw my first-ever Juventus game. It was a UEFA Cup match against Panathinaikos and I was watching high up on the Curva Maratona – the opposite end to the home Curva Filadelfia – at the Stadio Communale. The stadium was a cauldron of cacophonous noise, full of Italian passion, full of memories which would last forever.

It was a major stepping stone in my football journey.I had been bitten by the glamour and buzz of European football and – twenty-five years on – it still has the power to exhilarate and humble me in equal measure.

I exchanged “good luck” texts with my two Italian – and Juventus – pals Mario and Tullio and quickly got into the game. And what a fine game it was.

We began brightly and I noticed that the three support players – Hazard, Oscar and Ramires – were hitting Torres early. I sat and hoped that tonight would be his night. And then, with each passing minute, Juventus started making more and more inroads into our half.

Andrea Pirlo, playing deep, was the main worry and my gaze was kept being drawn towards him. This was my first sighting of this respected player, whose stock seems to rise with each passing year. I’m surprised that Milan let him go in 2011 and to a major rival, too. This, however, is typical of Italy. How often do major players flit between the main Italian teams? I can think of many examples. Marco’s personal favourite Roberto Baggio played for Milan, Inter and Juve for example.

Another story from my Italian past. In September 1987, two friends and I were in Venice and had finished a whirlwind sightseeing tour. I bought a copy of the pink sports paper “La Gazetta Della Sport” and saw that Inter were playing newly promoted Empoli. Without much thought, we made plans to hop on a train to Milano and catch the game. I remember that an article in the ‘paper about the Inter player Aldo Serena brought a few quizzical frowns from myself. His career to date had seen him play for Inter (three times), Milan, Torino and Juventus. That a player would play for these rival teams really shocked me. Can anyone imagine Joe Cole – say – play for Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal?

Incredibly, Serena then went on to eventually play once again for Milan.

Such is Italy.

Upfront, Vucinic (who played against us for Roma in 2008 ) and the diminutive Giovinco (who played against us in 2009) were creating a few good chances, ably abetted by Marchisio and Vidal. I thought Pirlo had a relatively quiet game. As far as I could remember, only Chiellini and Buffon remained from Juventus’ last visit to SW6.

Mid-way through the first-half, Juve were edging it. I always knew they would be tough opponents, coming off a completely unbeaten league season in 2011-2012. Anyone who thought that this group would be relatively easy was deluded. To be honest, I had visions of us being hit for a few goals.

Over in the far corner, the Juve fans were memorably producing a new twist on the ubiquitous “I Just Can’t Get Enough” chant, the Depeche Mode song from 1981, which has travelled around Europe like a virus.

Not exactly “sotto voce” and “fortissimo”, but certainly with two differing tones.

Nobody does football songs like the Italians.

On thirty minutes, the ball broke to our young Brazilian number eleven and he let fire from outside the box. I was right in line with the shot. It was deflected away from Buffon and into the corner of the goal.

The crowd roared and I went very light-headed.

Get in!

It was against the run of play, possibly, but we were ahead.

Two minutes later, we witnessed one of the greatest Chelsea goals of the past twenty-five years. The ball was played into Oscar, with his back to goal. He pushed the ball away from the goal, at a bizarre angle, and seemed to move in a mysterious way as if he was unable to be seen by the defenders close by. The ball reappeared at his feet, but he was still facing away from the goal. Instinctively, he thumped the ball goal wards and we watched with open-mouthed amazement.

The ball spun up, the ball spun out, the ball spun down, the ball spun in.

2-0 and the Stamford Bridge spectators were awestruck.

What a home debut from Oscar. I imagined the headlines being typed out already.

Our amazing lead was sadly short-lived. A neat move found Vidal who slotted past Petr Cech.

It was 2-1 at the break. In the match programme, there was a nice article and three great photographs from the match in Turin in 2009. What a trip that was. Apart from Munich, it is probably my favourite ever European jaunt. If the trip this November is half as good, I’ll be very happy. There was also a photograph in the programme of Kev from Bristol, who was celebrating his 1,000th game that night. Staggeringly, he is only 31. Amazing.

Soon into the second half, I fed more Juventus stories to Marco as the game progressed.

I asked Marco’s views on the pronunciation of the word “Juventus.” Of course, long gone are the days when ill-educated English fans pronounced it with a “J.” My question was aimed at the second of the three syllables. I have often thought that Italians “almost” (and I underline the word “almost”) pronounce the “v” as a “w.”

In my mind at least (and especially when I am with Mario and Tullio), I perhaps subconsciously pronounce the word “You-when-tus.” Or at least with the slightest hint of a “w.”

Thankfully, Marco agreed.

And further, I’d suggest that it has three and a half syllables.

EE’OO-WHEN-TUS.

I mentioned to Marco that there was a strange comfort to these group stage games and especially the first of the six. They certainly have a different feeling to the do-or-die knockout games. The tension just isn’t there. Will it matter too much if any team – Chelsea included – drew the first one rather than won it? The tension tends to build in these autumn fixtures and 2011-2012 was a perfect example. By the time we met Valencia in December, the tension was as taught as a violin string.

The second-half was again rather even. Chances came and went, but both goalkeepers were not often tested. A penalty claim on Hazard was waved away. A Lampard free-kick thumped against Buffon’s body. Mata, the substitute, shot wide. Torres was always involved, but role seemed to be more of a support player. Of the two holding players, Mikel was the more impressive, forever blocking Juve’s forward thrusts. I’m surprised that Frank played ninety minutes, on the back of two full games for England and the one against QPR; he didn’t have his best game in Chelsea colours.

For the first time that I can remember – maybe because of the clear, cloudless sky – I particularly noticed the lights on the passing planes. For those unaware, Stamford Bridge is right on the flight path of Heathrow. I often see planes fly overhead. Back in the ‘eighties, it was often a welcome attraction from the dire football on the pitch.

On this occasion, I particularly noticed the green and red lights on the plans’ wings, in addition to the white light at the cockpit.

Green. White. Red.

The colours of the Italian flag.

Ominous? You bet.

With ten minutes remaining, Mikel gave the ball away and Stamford Bridge groaned. There was a dull ache of inevitability when Quagliarella was fed in and nimbly slotted home.

The Bianconeri erupted in the south-east corner. Marco grabbed my arm and I had the slightest of contradictory emotions flash through me.

Was I happy?

Maybe 1%.

As the game came to its end, I soon received two incoming text messages.

From Mario in Bergisch-Gladbach – a friend since 1975 – “A nice game.”

From Tullio in Turin – a friend since 1981 – “So, we are still friends.”

And so the defence of our trophy has begun. This indeed will be a tough group. I am convinced that the two games that we will have, back to back in October and November, against Shakhtar Donetsk will be all-important. However, one thing is certain. Throughout these games, plus our excursion to Denmark, I feel that the tension will be mounting all of the way through until we make a return visit to the Piedmont city of Turin on November 20th?

Am I excited about that?

100%.

IMG_9898

Tales From Curva A

Napoli vs. Chelsea : 21 February 2012.

There is no doubt that Italy is my favourite European destination; I have been a huge fan of its charms since my first visit in June 1975. Despite numerous trips – 5 family holidays, 6 Inter-Rail trips, 3 Juventus trips and 3 Chelsea trips – I was more than happy that Chelsea were drawn against SSC Napoli in the quarters of this season’s Champions League competition.

I have some history with Napoli.

Way back in the summer of 1981, on holiday on the Riviera di Ponente, I treated myself to a superb magazine which reviewed the 1980-1981 football season. The publication – a thorough review of all games, goals and goalscorers – contained hundreds of action photographs and I can remember being enthralled at the sight of exotic players and stadia alike. At the time, I was well aware of the top teams in Italy; Serie A was dominated by the northern teams Juventus, Torino, Milan and Inter, plus the two Rome powerhouses Roma and Lazio. I was aware of Fiorentina, Sampdoria and Genoa. But one team intrigued me. The photographs of Napoli, playing in front of vast crowds in their mammoth stadium struck a chord. The team had no “scudetto” to their name, yet regularly drew crowds of 50,000 and above. The Dutch master Ruud Krol was their most famous player in that team. Their stadium resembled the Maracana. I daydreamed of how intense the match day experience would be in the heat of that infamous Italian town.

When the club signed Diego Armando Maradona in 1984, I knew only too well that the locals would idolise the little Argentinian maestro, who was still smarting from two largely unremarkable seasons with Barcelona. In Maradona’s third season – 1986-1987 – Napoli won their first ever championship. I can well remember the fleeting glimpses of a troubled city celebrating a league win like nobody else. The TV footage showed a cauldron of fanaticism I had hardly witnessed before. I was suitably impressed.

While travelling around Italy in 1987 and 1988 by train on month long Inter-Rail passes, I saw a game in Milan and two in Turin. However, in November 1988, I flew out to Turin for my first ever trip to Europe for a football match and a football match alone.

Juventus vs. Napoli.

One of the vivid memories of this trip took place thousands of feet above Turin. I had just woken from a short nap. The plane was turning and circling around on its approach into the airport at Caselle. A piece of Italian classical music was playing on the plane’s radio. Down below, the lights of the city’s grid-pattern streets were shining. It was a moment that has lasted to this day. To say I was excited would be a massive understatement.

My good friend Tullio and I joined the ranks of the bianconeri on the distinti terrace in the old Stadio Communale. Although I was – and am still – a follower of Juve, there is no doubt that I was lured to Turin on this particular occasion to witness Maradona in the flesh. Juventus boasted Michael Laudrup, Luigi D’Agostini, Rui Barros and Alexander Zavarov, but the little Argentinian was the main attraction. One of the vagaries of Italian football is that teams do not go through their pre-match routines on the pitch. They perform their pre-game rituals and drills in the changing rooms, away from the madding crowd. This heightened the sense of drama for me. With five minutes to go before kick-off, the caterpillar-like tunnel was extended out in front of the baying Juventini in the Curva Filadelfia.

The two teams appeared.

And there he was. Diego Maradona. I was in awe.

At the time, Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan team was changing the way that football was being played in Italy. The defensive stranglehold of catennaccio was slowly giving way to a more liberal form of football, but goals were still a premium in Italy. Games tended to end 0-0, 1-0 and 2-0.

Much to Tullio’s consternation and my shock, the result of the game on that day 24 years ago ended Juventus 3 Napoli 5. It was a stunning result. Napoli were 3-0 up at half-time and Tullio wanted to go home. Thankfully, I made him stay and Juve got it back to 2-3, before the game went away from them. Away to our right, in the Curva Maratona, thousands of Napoli fans held their light blue scarves aloft. Another one of those memories.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhE0voYR-uU

I visited Naples, albeit very briefly, either side of that game in Turin. In March 1988, I used it as a stopping-off point on the way down to Pompei . On a wet and cold afternoon, I virtually had all of Pompei to myself. It was one of those moments when I was able to let my imagination run riot, fantasising about life in a Roman town centuries ago. On my return into Naples, I remember having a very quick walk around the cramped Neopolitan streets, taking a grainy photograph of Mount Vesuvius and grabbing a slice of pizza. Then, in September 1990, there was even more of a fleeting glimpse of Naples as I changed trains on a journey from Reggio de Calabria north to Rome and beyond. On that occasion, I think I only ventured a few yards from the Naples train station.

It was time to return.

At 9am on the Monday, I headed over the Mendip Hills towards Bristol Airport. For the first time ever, I would be beginning a European trip from my most local airport. From there, I was flying to Rome, and then catching a train down to Naples on the day of the game. My friends Alan and Gary were already on their way to Rome from Heathrow. The Mendip Hills were mined for various minerals during the Roman occupation of these shores and the area is traversed with roads which owe their existence to the Romans. With Glastonbury Tor visible to the south, atop a hill in the tranquil Vale of Avalon, I drove along several long straight stretches of old Roman road.

What is it they say about all roads leading to Rome?

The flight from Bristol to Rome Fiumcino airport lasted around two-and-a-half hours and enabled me to relax and ponder the attractions that awaited me. I bumped into two Chelsea fans, Emma and Tony, who were as surprised as me to see other Chelsea fans on the flight. The EasyJet magazine taught me two things; kissing in public in the city of Naples used to result in the death penalty in the sixteenth century and the term “tifosi” comes from the typhoid-like fervour of the Italian football fans. I remember Northern Italian teams’ fans taunting the Napoli fans in the ‘eighties when an outbreak of cholera hit the city.

The simple chant of “Cholera! Cholera!” shamed the Neapolitans. No doubt they had a response, though.

I was last in the Italian capital for our game with Roma in late 2008. I quickly caught the city-bound train and soon found myself passing through the murky hinterland of the Rome suburbs. I was reminded of how much the locals seem to admire the early-eighties style graffiti which originated in New York. The weather was overcast. It was raining. The surprisingly bleak weather saddened me. I hoped that my brief spell in Italy would not be spent dashing in and out of the rain.

At 5pm, I knocked on the door of room 302 of the Yes Hotel on Via Magenta. This was the same hotel we used in 2008. Alan welcomed me to Italy with a bottle of Peroni. I was given the middle bed of three and I couldn’t resist a joke about myself waking in the middle of the night, imagining that I was Franz Klammer, the great downhill skier. Alan and Gary roared with laughter. The jokes continued all evening and we tried not to talk about the football. We caught a cab down to Piazza Barberini where we met up with Julie and Burger, the CL away trip virgins. We decamped into a quiet bar and caught our breath. Thankfully the rain had stopped. The evening was mild. The beers started to flow and the laughter, too. We spoke briefly about the on-going CPO debacle, but then Burger bought a round of amaretto. The football talk soon subsided. Julie spoke of how much she was enjoying her first ever visit to Italy. I managed to lock myself in the toilet.

We moved into Via Sestini and enjoyed a lovely meal. Another beer. We were roaring with laughter all of the way through it. Davie from Scotland, who I ironically first met in Rome in 2008, joined us and we ended the evening in an Irish pub off Via del Corso. More beers, a limoncelo, some strawberry vodkas. On Peter Osgood’s birthday, we toasted the great man. It is hard to believe that it is six years since that saddest of days.

I can well remember the visit to Rome I took with several Chelsea mates in late 1999 – the goalless draw with Lazio. On that occasion, none other than Ron Harris and Peter Osgood were amongst the 2,000 Chelsea fans in the Curva Sud that night. After the game, we were allowed on to Ron and Ossie’s coach back to the city centre. In the hotel lobby, we kept ourselves to ourselves, not wishing to pester either of them. That was a Rome memory to last an eternity, though.

It was 1.30am and time to get to bed. It had been a great night. We caught a cab back, past the imposing Vittorio Emanuele monument, and arranged to meet at the Termini station the next day.

“I’m off to get some beauty sleep” said Alan.”I’ll wake up in August.”

After a filling breakfast, we all met up on the platform of the main station a mere 500 yards away. Davie had spent until 5.30am in a nightclub, just as he had in 2008. On that occasion, he awoke outside on a roundabout.

Thankfully, he awoke in his own bed this time. The train to Naples left at 9.50am. Thankfully, clear skies greeted us. While Alan and Gary tried to get some shut-eye, Davie and I chatted about our love for Chelsea, but for football in general. Like me, Davie shares the opinion that we are here for the people and the camaraderie rather than the mind-numbing pursuit of silver wear and glory. We spoke of games past, of childhood heroes, of the Dundee United team of 1983, the Highbury game in 2004, of the 1982 World Cup. We spoke about the game in Naples.

Davie : “It could go one of two ways. Could be the best away trip ever. Could be an absolute nightmare.”

Chris : “It just feels right for us to be going in to this as the underdog. Chelsea as the underdog is our role in things.”

Although a self-confessed Chelsea nut, Davie has not visited The Bridge for two years. Like many of us, he is fed up of the current vibe at home games; full of silent dolts. Davie much prefers the rough and tumble of the away enclosure.

Outside, the Appenine Hills were flying past. I took plenty of photographs of many a hilltop village, perched upon light grey rock. Above, peaks were dusted in snow. The sky was blue.

Italy. Ti amo.

Gary, Alan, Davie and I hopped into a cab at Naples main train station to take us to our respective hotels. The first thing I noticed was that the cabbie’s Neapolitan accent was thicker and richer than that of the north of Italy. I guess, actually, that it was a dialect and not an accent. As I looked out at the densely packed streets, all of my memories of Naples came crashing back to me. The cabbie gave us a drive to remember; carving other drivers up, tooting his horn, talking on his phone and pointing his cab head first into ridiculously small spaces. As we neared our hotel on Via Melisurgo, he almost collided with a mother pushing a pram. He began shouting at her and I am convinced that the little bambino raised a finger.

Welcome to Naples.

We had a thoroughly enjoyable pre-match in Naples. We spent around three hours walking around the immediate area of our hotel, which was close to Castel Nuovo. Of course, Mount Vesuvius, across the bay, totally dominates any view of Naples. I took many photographs of its looming presence. One can only imagine the horror of the eruption which caused such devastation on Pompei and Herculaneum in AD79. We walked past the little bar which was full of Chelsea day-trippers on the official club trip. A few familiar faces. Most had taken heed of the club’s advice to eschew club colours. During the day, I only saw a handful of idiots who were brazenly wearing Chelsea shirts.

Our walking tour took us from the waterside, past the Castel Nuovo and up to the Royal Palace. The skies were still blue and the weather was lovely. As we walked up the slight incline of Via San Carlo, I became lost in my own little world. Let me explain.

My father was in the RAF during the closing years of the Second World War. His experiences were explained to me on many occasions and he was wise enough to capture a lot of his travels on film. Maybe I have inherited my love of travel photography from him. His first posting overseas, in 1944, was to Jerusalem, but he spent most of his active service in North Africa, in Tripoli and Algiers. He was a wireless operator in Wellington bombers, serving in coastal command. As the war ended, he spent time in Malta and then travelled up through Italy before returning home in 1946 or so. However, for six months, my dear father was billeted in the San Carlo Opera House in Naples. I would imagine that hotel rooms were very scarce and so the RAF commandeered the large theatre, stripped out the seats and filled the auditorium with bunk beds. What Dad’s role was during this time is not really known. I would imagine that he fulfilled an administrative role, perhaps helping to get the war-stricken natives back on the road to recovery. There are photographs in his album of trips, with his pals, to Taormina on Sicily and to Pompei.

At the top of the hill, the grand bulk of the San Carlo Opera House was visible to my left. Alan took a few photographs of me outside. During a quiet few moments, I walked into the booking hall of the theatre and peered inside at the cool marble steps leading up to the doors to the auditorium. For a few fleeting moments, I easily imagined Dad walking down those steps, in shirtsleeves and sunglasses, suntanned, heading out for a day’s sightseeing with a couple of his friends.

“Ah, this is the life, Half Pint” gleamed Hank.

“Yes, indeed it is. RAF West Kirby seems a long way away” replied Reg.

“Pompei here we come” bellowed Jock.

From RAF West Kirby on The Wirrall to the San Carlo Opera House in Naples took Dad four years during the Second World War. It had taken me a mere ten days.

In the Plaza del Plebiscito, we bumped into Mark and Nick, Charlie and Pete. There had been news of a Chelsea fan getting stabbed down at the main station. We were lucky; this was the posh end of the city and I didn’t feel at risk. While Alan and Gary chatted to the lads, I wandered around the gently sloping piazza, spotting a new vista of Vesuvius, taking it all in. I was sure that Dad would have walked on these cobbles, witnessed these views. I wanted to position myself right in the centre of the square in order to get a symmetric view of the Royal Palace. I spotted a manhole cover and realised that it cut the piazza in half. I stood on it and took a photo looking east and a photo looking west.

Perfect.

I then happened to glance down at the manhole and spotted that there was a year embossed upon it.

1993.

I lost my father on April 17th 1993 – into my thoughts he came again.

It was 2.45pm and we were in need of sustenance. Alan, Gary and I dipped into a lovely little pizzeria on Via Chiala. We ordered some ice cold Peroni – bliss! – and then a pizza apiece. I opted for the Diavolo (devil) pizza and it was only five euros. The buffalo mozzarella was so creamy, the tomato sauce was so fresh, the pizza base was so perfect. The single chilli which gave the pizza its name was red hot. It was the best pizza ever. The locals were smiling. They knew who we were. As we left we said –

“Grazie mille e forza Chelsea.”

They smiled again.

We walked back down the hill, the evening chill now hitting hard. I picked up my match ticket and my passport from my hotel room, then joined Alan and Gary opposite in a small bar, full of Chelsea fans. We chatted to a few familiar faces – Pauline, Mick, Digger, Shaun, Pete, Eva, Neil – and had a couple more beers. We pondered our chances.

The mood was not great. There was a feeling that we could be in for a hiding.

We walked over to the assembly point at 6.45pm. The day trippers had departed earlier – maybe around 5pm. Good job we hung back a little. We sat on the bus for 45 minutes. Eventually we set off. The stadium is not far from the city centre, but the route we took lasted about an hour. Around ten coaches set off. There was a heavy police escort, not surprisingly. The coach hugged the road by the port and then climbed up onto the elevated expressway which circumnavigated the city. Although we were not to know it until after, we were taken east, then north, then west, then south. The stadium was due west. The locals would not get a chance to ambush us. The city looked on as our coach drove high on elevated bridges, and then delved deep into long tunnels. Apartment blocks were everywhere. The dark shadowy mass of hills appeared and then disappeared. Vesuvius, unseen in the distance, but looming still. Trizia of the CSG and I chatted about Naples and its team. I spoke to her of Maradona in 1988. I made the point that as I saw Maradona playing for his club team, doing his 9 to 5 job, then this made that particular experience all the more real. We had heard about the leaked team sheet and I wondered if it was a Mourinho-esque ploy to confuse the locals. Shades of Jose against Barca in 2005 in fact. As we drove on, I kept describing the city as a sprawling mess. I’m sure there is no place like it in Europe. Sure it is crime-ridden, it is strewn with the detritus of modern life, its walls are covered in graffiti, the houses are cramped, the washing dries on overhead lines, the traffic is noisy, the place is dirty.

But what energy the place exudes.

I crave different experiences in my support of Chelsea these days; Naples fits the bill tenfold.

Eventually, we were underneath the shadows of the stadium. Out in into the drizzle of a Neapolitan night. We marked our territory by having a mass toilet break against a nearby wall. We were given a brief search by the police and we were inside the stadium. Despite its size – it once held 80,000 – the place was very shabby. I half expected lumps of concrete to fall during the game when the ultras began jumping. I could already hear them bellowing their songs.

Underneath the entrance to the away section, Alan and Gary had stopped for a word with Tom. Alongside him was the almost mythical figure of Icky, resplendent in green bomber jacket, baseball cap, jeans and boots. He had travelled from the Phillipines for this one. I took a classic photo of Tom, Gary and Alan against a backdrop of Italian police, riot shields to the fore.

The stadium now holds 60,000, but there were many empty seats in the small lower tier. The Napoli fans were making a din, though – waving their flags, bellowing songs, whistling when we had the temerity to show support of our team. Our section filled up slowly. Initially, I guessed at around 1,000 had braved the ferocity of the locals. In the end, I guess it was nearer 1,500. Despite a few youngsters and a few women, the bulk of our support was male and was aged 40 to 55. Solid old school. Faces from our hooligan past. Faces from the good old bad old days. Faces from away trips up and down the length of England. One family of Chelsea die-hards. Don’t step on us.

We began to spot hundreds of cigarette lighters flickering at both ends of the stadium; Curva A, which we shared to the south end of the stadium, and Curva B, to the north. The choreography and the anthem, the flares and the cheers of the Napoli ultras.

This is it.

https://www.facebook.com/video/video…50688829162658

I wanted to avoid an early goal – but I feared the worst.

Away in the north curve, I spotted a massive banner – striscione – which I struggled to decipher.

“Come Pioggia Scende Al Cuore Copisce Come Un Leone Ruggisce.”

Pioggia means rain. It was raining. Surely the fans who had written the banner don’t leave it until the very last minute to decide on a pertinent phrase for each game. However, knowing the organisational skill of the capos among the ultras, then nothing would surprise me.

Mata’s neat finish sent us all into a jumping, bounding, leaping frenzy. What a quite magnificent moment.

How we sang.

“We are the Chelsea and we are the best…”

Maybe Davie was right – this would be the best away game ever.

Befuddled AVB, at odds with the senior players, somehow managing to outthink the attacking prowess of the Napoli team?

Think again.

Two goals in the last ten minutes of the first-half caused us much pain. Lavezzi’s curler just eluded Petr Cech and Cavani appeared like a ghost at the far post to squeeze the ball in. The sight of Cavani running towards the moat which encircles the running track, tugging at his shirt, his face contorted with ecstasy will live with me, unfortunately, for years.

After each goal, a thunderous roar. Flares behind each goal.

If only Ramires had not thundered over at 1-1. If only Brana’s wonder run had resulted in a shot. If only Luiz’ header had gone in.

If only.

At the break, I was confused. I wasn’t sure if we should go for it and attack or aim for damage limitation. Before the game, I would have been very contented with a 2-1 reverse. But here, in the shadows of the San Paolo, I was worried that more goals would cascade into our goal.

Chances were spurned at both ends in the second-half, but lamentable defending gifted Lavezzi an easy second.

It was Napoli 3 Chelsea 1.

And still chances came. Thank heavens that Ashley Cole cleared from the goal line. At the other end, Drogba spurned a late chance. My God, 3-2 would give us a huge chance in the return leg. The substitutes Lampard and Essien offered little.

The whistle blew and the Napoli fans knew exactly what to do next. They hoisted their blue and white scarves and the club song echoed around the cavernous stadium. Parts of the anthem sounded too close to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for comfort, so we all soon descended into the area below. We stood and chatted. A few moments of gallows humour, but glum faces. I chatted to five from Bristol; Tim’s wife had been swiped on her back with a belt buckle just a few yards from the stadium. Such attacks were thankfully rare. We had met up with Rob at half-time and he rode with us on the hour long coach ride back to the centre. We were dropped off at the port just before 1am, some two and a half hours or so after the game had ended.

The Chelsea fans fled from the coaches into the Neapolitan night. The bar opposite our hotel was closed and so we decided to get some sleep.

On the train trip back to Rome, we shared our compartment with a Neapolitan girl, returning to her university in Rome. She was a Napoli fan – you get the impression that all Neapolitans support Napoli –but had been at Stamford Bridge in April for the Chelsea vs. Tottenham game. She said that her boyfriend was a Chelsea follower. I am so pleased that she didn’t say that she favoured Tottenham.

That, my friends, would have been too much.

She helped me translate the striscione. It went something like –

“As rain falls … strikes at the heart … like a roaring lion.”

As the train headed north, an itinerant salesman was peddling Napoli souvenirs and he tried to get us to buy his wares. Not only was I upset about the previous evening’s game, I remembered 1988 too. On my European travels, I often get souvenirs of the clubs that I visit. In this case, I was happy to make an exception.

Naples was indeed a sprawling mess of a city.

At the moment, it feels that we are a sprawling mess of a football club.

Ah, just like the old days.

Come On You Blue Boys.

DSCN5627