Tales From A Night With The Magyars

Chelsea vs. Vidi : 4 October 2018.

October had arrived, the leaves had started to change colour, the mornings were getting colder and the evenings were getting darker. It was time for our first home midweek game of the season, and the return to the much-maligned Thursday Night Football with a Europa League match with MOL Vidi, from the town of Székesfehérvár in Hungary.

I had worked an early shift and met up with The Brothers Grim, PD and Parky, at the Milk Churn for a bite to eat at three o’clock. I demolished a bowl of lamb stew, then hopped into the back seat as PD’s Chuckle Bus took the three of us east. What a luxury; I was even able to grab an hour of intermittent sleep as we zoomed up the M4. For a change, we spent almost two hours among old friends in The Goose rather than the usual midweek trot down to Simmons Bar. The two pints of Peroni were sadly served in plastic glasses – an abhorrence – but still went down a treat.

The pub seemed busy, and on the walk down to Stamford Bridge, I commented to the chaps that it felt like there would be a pretty decent turn out for our first-ever UEFA game against a team from Hungary. Of course, the club are to be commended for only charging us £20. There is no doubt that they have learned a lesson from previous campaigns and this seems to be a good pointer that they realise the need to provide competitive pricing for home matches. We all remember the sense of disappointment when just 24,973 saw our Champions League game – Mourinho’s first finale – in 2008. And gates for our last foray into the Europa League were a bit patchy too with games against Steaua Bucharest and Rubin Kazan averaging 30,000 in 2012/13. But although we had purportedly sold virtually all available tickets for the game against Vidi, I was sure that there would be some gaps with fans buying seats just for loyalty points.

Outside the West Stand, the frontage was adorned with Europa League banners.

I am sure a few elitists were thinking “sshh, please don’t advertise the fact”, and there is no doubt that this is undoubtedly UEFA’s secondary competition by some margin, but I am sure that the competition, if we stay in it long enough, will provide a few good trips and a few good stories to accompany them. A return trip to Baku – we half-heartedly watched Arsenal, playing in strange red shorts, win against Qarabag in the pub beforehand – would be a lovely reward at the end of this season, even though the logistics of getting to the game itself might prove both difficult and expensive. Oddly, by the time the “big” (cough, cough) teams drop into the competition in the New Year, it might have lost its allure a little.

Porto. Schalke. Roma.

“You again?”

Last time we played in this competition – a strange jamming together of the old and much missed ECWC and UEFA Cup – the theme colour was red. This time around it is orange. I wondered if FedEx, B&Q, or Terry’s Chocolate Orange were prominent sponsors.

On entering the stadium, there were swathes of empty seats but as kick-off approached, most areas filled up nicely. Behind the Shed goal, I spotted the brand name Hankook, a tyre company that is completely off my radar, and who only enter my consciousness when we dip into the Europa League.

Ah, their corporate colour is orange.

Got it.

 

 

The visitors – I remember them as Videoton – had brought a tidy 1,500 or so. We only took around 400 or so to PAOK a fortnight ago, so this was a good show. There were four Hungarian flags draped over the Shed balcony wall. It felt great to be hosting a Hungarian team at last at Stamford Bridge. Hungary are, or maybe were, one of the great football nations of Europe. They handed England the infamous 6-3 defeat at Wembley in 1953 (England’s first ever defeat at home to “foreign opposition”, excluding teams from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) and handed out a 7-1 defeat to England at the Nep Stadium a year later.

I can still see that drag back by Ferenc Puskas now.

My first memory of Hungary came in England’s campaign to qualify for the World Cup in 1982. I remember England losing in Switzerland in June 1981, but then watching on TV on the following Saturday as we dug out an unexpected 3-1 win, again at the Nep Stadium. As soon as we were drawn against Vidi, and after I had booked flights to Budapest, I soon found myself immersed in nostalgia, re-watching that very game on YouTube that very evening.

The three words “Trevor Brooking, stanchion” will bring smiles to those of us of a certain generation.

Then, in November of that year, I watched at Frome & District Youth Centre as a Paul Mariner goal took England to the World Cup Finals for the first time that I could experience and savour (I was too young to remember 1966 and 1970), back in the days when I cared.

Budapest in December is sure to be a blast. Do not be surprised if I spend a morning ground-hopping Ferencvaros, Ujpest, MTK and Honved’s stadia, although it is a shame that the famous Nep Stadium has gone the way of many of those imposing oval communist super stadia of yore, razed to the ground and rebuilt as a bland nonentity.

Maurizio Sarri had, not surprisingly, changed the personnel for this game.

Arrizabalaga

Zappacosta – Christensen – Cahill – Emerson

Loftus-Cheek – Fabregas – Kovacic

Willian – Morata – Pedro

It was a good enough team, but a team that had obviously not played together before.

The teams entered the pitch. The stadium was pretty full. The advertised gate of 39,925 hid around 4,000 no shows I reckon.

But this was a fine effort.

The match programme mentioned the two friendlies that we played against Hungarian teams Red Banner in 1954 and MTK in 1963.

The 1954 game featured stars of the Hungarian team Nandor Hidegkuti and Ferenc Kovacs. Interestingly, this game took place at 2pm on Wednesday 15 December 1954, and just two days after the more famous visit to Molineux of Honved to play Wolverhampton Wanderers under lights. Odd that the Honved game – so much is made of the game being floodlit – is often cited as a main catalyst for the first European Cup which began the following season (without champions Chelsea damn it), and yet our game against Red Banner is never mentioned.

That Wolverhampton media bias strikes yet again.

Regardless, the 1954 game is a beauty of times past.

Us in our championship season. John Harris. School kids skiving off school. 40,000 on a midweek afternoon. Blokes in ties. Stan Willemse. Cigarette smoke. The North Stand seats packed. The lights for the greyhounds. Frank Blunstone.

Beautiful.

It’s worth a watch.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrlt86APQG4

The Chelsea vs. Vidi game in 2018, sixty-four years after the Red Banner game, and another crowd of around 40,000, was a strange affair.

The visitors created the first real chance from a corner but Emerson was ably positioned to deflect a header over the bar. But, we were soon creating chances inside the Vidi penalty area, with Emerson and a mesmeric slaloming run in the inside left channel, and Kovacic the first to threaten. Soon after, Willian shot wide from well inside the box. Yet again, an opposing team were looking to defend deep and catch us on rare breaks. The away fans, who were not making a great deal of noise in their corner, only raised their levels when an excursion into our half took place.

Pedro was soon to be seen running centrally at some space at the heart of the Vidi defence in that slightly erratic style of his; like the weird kid at the school disco who dances unlike anyone else, limbs flailing in all directions. But he’ like others, was soon running into massed ranks of Hungarian defenders.

On a quarter of an hour, the ball was worked nicely into Morata who had found some space well. The ball fell to his left side, and with the ‘keeper already moving to his left, it seemed obvious to me – I was right in line with the ball and goal – that he should dink it into the net with his left peg. Instead, he chose to touch the ball on to his favoured right foot, and with the ‘keeper having narrowed the angle, the striker was forced to aim at a ridiculously small portion of the goal. He panicked and sliced it wide.

The first of many “fackinells” was heard in the Sleepy Hollow.

Shots and crosses were aimed towards goal with regularity, but their ‘keeper had not really been tested. He came and claimed crosses with ease. There was, as the first-half progressed, the annoying feeling that we were overindulging in too many ostentatious flicks, back heels and feints.

“Just drop your shoulder and hit the fucker” summed up our feelings.

Willian dolly-dropped a free-kick into the path of Morata but he was off balance and fell. I heard The Shed’s moans from one hundred yards away. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, not exactly impressing for most of the first-half, made a storming run into the box, and seemed to be chopped down inside the box. A penalty? Not a bit of it. The crowd were suitably raging. Alan and I spoke, not for the first time, about the goal line officials, or whatever it is they are bloody called. They rarely make a call on anything. I’d like to know how much they get paid for standing next to a pitch for ninety minutes and doing Sweet FA.

Rant over? Not quite.

I have always found it odd that the two goal line assistants – “assistant referees” – always position themselves in the same quadrant of the pitch as the linesmen, rather than the four “off pitch” officials being equally placed around the perimeter. It makes no sense to me, that.

A mix up between Christensen and Arrizabalaga almost allowed Nego to nip in and score, but the shot was poked wide. Vidi again broke into our half on thirty-minutes, with a good move exploiting acres of space in our previously untested defence. Thankfully, the presence of Gary Cahill did just enough to put off Nego who shot meekly at our ‘keeper after easily getting past Emerson. Just after, a poorly timed lunge by Cahill looked to the people sitting close to me – we had a very good view – to be a stonewall penalty. But the moment of concern had passed.

Throughout the first-half, the away fans had not been too involved, which surprised me. Our support was so-so. There was this annoyance that we were over-elaborating in front of goal. And we were certainly taking more touches than usual. But, of course, this team – with Fabregas and Loftus-Cheek involved for the first time together under Sarri – were playing together as a unit for the first time. I suppose it would be wrong to come down too hard. But there was tangible frustration as the first-half ended.

Not long into the second-half, Arrizabalaga managed to palm away a shot from the impressive Nego, and at last the away fans found their collective voices.

I often used to think back to the days when we would tend to put out a “B” team for League Cup games and often Frank Lampard would be rested. And I remembered how many times we would be drawing and so poor Frank was often brought on to provide extra quality. And I thought about our Eden. I thought back to Anfield last week, his substitute appearance changing the game so dramatically. Within a couple of minutes, he appeared on the touchline.

He replaced Pedro.

What an ovation for Eden.

Truly the man of the moment.

The chances still came and went as we tried to pierce the Vidi defence.

Ross Barkley came on for Loftus-Cheek. The jury is still out on our Ruben, from my perspective and that of others I know at Chelsea. I know that body language is not everything but he just looks too languid. Where is the urgency?

As he entered the pitch from under the East Stand, I watched Barkley trot over towards Kovacic, who had been raiding down our left with aplomb, and I observed Barkley make the “switch” gesture with his hands. Kovacic was having none of it, so Ross returned back to the right-hand side. I presume that Sarri had said to the substitute “see if he wants to switch, it is up to you to work it out.” I can’t believe that Kovacic would have blindly refused instructions. I like that; that the manager gives his players a little freedom. I have this fear that football – for so long a free-spirited and spontaneous sport – is getting too similar to gridiron football where every move seems to be choreographed ad infinitum.

Corner after corner, cross after cross. We kept trying. At one stage, it felt like it was like death by a thousand crosses. At one corner, I experienced something new at a Chelsea game. I was almost bored by the thought of another corner drifting aimlessly into the box, to be headed away yet again. The consistency of our misfiring was getting tedious.

But the runs of Kovacic were firing life into us, though, and he was linking well with others. One dribble from Eden was the stuff of pure fantasy. We began pushing more men into forward positions. A fine shot from Barkley raised our spirits. Morata was joined in the box by Hazard, Barkley, Kovacic and Willian. I hadn’t seen so many boys in blue in such a tight area since policemen started sniffing around Fred West’s patio.

Surely a goal would come.

With twenty minutes remaining, Eden – now switched over to the right – moved the ball to Barkley who passed to Fabregas. He lofted a great ball towards the run of Willian, whose careful knock-on set up Morata, arriving perfectly, to smash a volley past the Vidi ‘keeper. What a great goal.

Alan and I then, with the both of us laughing and sniggering uncontrollably, carried out the worst “They’ll Have To Come At Us Now / Come On My Little Diamonds” ever.

We had spoken about how strange the Hungarian language is. What the bloody hell does a Hungarian accent sound like?

Alan’s sounded Germanic. Mine sounded Latin.

Oh boy.

Regardless, we were ahead.

Phew.

Victor Moses – who? he? – came on for Willian.

Ross Barkley, impressing me, flicked a header against the bar from a Hazardous free-kick. But in the final ten minutes, Chelsea almost annoyed me. Vidi had shown the occasional threat. And rather than close the game down, we still attacked and attacked.

“Sarri is not your typical Italian manager, is he?”

One barnstorming run by Emerson petered out and we were left exposed. In the final five minutes, our defence looked tired and prone to catastrophe. Arrizabalaga saved down low, clawing away a shot from Kovacs, but for all of our worry, Vidi failed to exploit the tiredness in our ranks. Our defence, I have to admit, had been pretty ragged when tested throughout the night.

There was still time for Morata to miss when set up by Eden.

The whistle blew.

Our second 1-0 win in the competition was met with sighs of relief rather than whoops of joy.

It had been one of those nights.

On Sunday, we are at Southampton and two of the team are going behind enemy lines. Stay tuned for further adventures of The Chuckle Brothers on this station.

 

Tales From Three Days In May

Chelsea vs. Benfica : 15 May 2013.

Tuesday 14 May began with a “who the hell is phoning me at this ungodly hour” call from Les at just after 7.30am. Les lives in nearby Melksham and was already at Bristol airport. He was phoning me to check if I was on the same early-morning flight to Schipol; I told him that I would be on the 3.20pm flight instead. He was just about to board the plane by the sounds of it. This was a good sign. I wasn’t sure how many Chelsea would be in Amsterdam for our Europa League Final with Benfica – surely not the 40,000 at Munich – but the fact that Les was going told me that we would have good numbers out there. Les isn’t a season-ticket holder, so I presumed that he was going without a ticket. He told me that two other lads that we knew – Westbury Mark and Trowbridge Andy – were heading off much later by coach. They were without tickets too, I believed. These lads, and thousands like them, were travelling in blind faith with no guarantee of a match ticket. Fair play to them all.

As I got my things together for my three days in The Netherlands, Munich was dwelling heavily on my mind. I have never thought myself to be too superstitious about football, but as I slowly decided on what items of clothing to pack, my view soon changed.

Timberland shoes – no, I had them in Moscow. A definite ‘no.’

My new Nike trainers – yes, I’ve only worn them twice…at Old Trafford and Villa Park. Two wins. Absolute certainties.

Hugo Boss top – yep, I wore that in Barcelona last year, I’ll wear that on Wednesday for the game.

One significant omission for my pre-Amsterdam planning, sadly, was my friend Glenn who was unable to make it this time. How the two of us revelled on that Friday together; travelling together out to Prague from Bristol and enjoying each other’s company, before joining in with the madness of Munich on the Saturday. Was it really almost a whole year ago?

During last year’s trail to European glory, I was indebted to bird 5hit. Let me explain. Just before I travelled out to Spain for the Barcelona game, I was unwilling to wipe off some birds’ mess which was on my car. Now, this is seen as good luck in the UK, if not elsewhere. I joked with my work colleague Mike about this on my return after a most improbable semi-final victory was secured (…thanks to the birds’ mess, and Messi’s miss). Imagine my worry when I had to turn in my car – which was a hire car – for another one, just before travelling out to Munich. I was all for keeping the car – and, crucially, not washing the mess off. Then, miraculously, on the Friday I spotted fresh birds’ mess on my new car. I texted Mike the good news. The rest, as they say, is history.

After Didier scored the winning penalty in Munich, Mike was soon to text me –

“The bird 5hit worked!”

The relevance of all this…er, 5hit?

As I opened my front door at about 12.30pm in readiness for my quick jaunt to Bristol airport, I quickly spotted the new addition just above the driver’s window.

A fresh dollop.

Oh boy.

Incidentally, just to prove that I can weave any old – er, crap – into a story about Chelsea, I can well remember being in The Shed for the 5-0 thrashing of Derby County in August 1983…yes, you’ve guessed it. A pigeon crapped on me. I am not sure if I considered it lucky at the time, but we went on to win the old second division championship that season.

I was parked at Bristol airport at 1pm. I wondered if Young Dave and Pav would be on the flight, just as they were to Prague in May 2012. I bought a pint of Heineken – of course! – and made my way over to the same part of the lounge area where Glenn and I sat last year. Yes, more superstition. Who should be there but Cookie, a lad from Frome who I used to work with in 1988-1989. He was from the year below me at school, a good footballer; I have often chatted to him at Frome Town this season. He was with another lad from Frome; they were both without tickets, but willing to spend £200 apiece. I chatted to them about our chances in the final. To my immense guilt a few days before the game, I could only name one player from the Benfica team – Cardozo – without referencing the internet. I then remembered a few names, including Nemanja Matic who fleetingly played for us three years ago. We obviously spoke about Munich too; it was never far from my thoughts.

I told Cookie about the amazing story of Pav’s famous home-made VIP pass which enabled him free access to the Allianz Arena last May. I had seen on Facebook before leaving home that Young Dave was helping to finalise Pav’s 2013 version. I wondered how successful Pav would be this year. On lining up at the gate, I spotted Graham – and his wife – from Melksham who were also travelling out with no tickets. I’d guess there were around 25 Chelsea lining up at the gate.

Just as I was about to enter the airplane at the top of the steps, I turned around.

It was Pav. He was right behind me.

“Alright mate!”

As with last year, he was wearing a badge with a lovely picture of his dear mother, who sadly passed away a few months before the Munich final.

“I hear you have made a VIP pass for this year too, Pav.”

“Yes, mate. It’s laminated this time. Very professional.”

The flight from Bristol to Schipol took less than an hour. I was able to read a lovely article about Bobby Tambling in “When Saturday Comes” by the Chelsea fan (and founder of “WSC”) Mike Ticher, who now lives in Australia. Bobby, the antithesis of the boozing and extravagant Chelsea player of the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, has only recently become a Chelsea celebrity by those outside SW6 due to Frank Lampard’s assault on his 202 goals.

Walking through the arrival hall, I realised that my last foreign airport was Beijing in December. I had a little tingle of excitement at that memory; this supporting Chelsea lark sure has its privileges, doesn’t it? Not only the best friends in the world, but an excuse to travel to the four corners of the world too.

Happy daze in Amsterdam.

Pav and I caught a train into Amsterdam and he was able to regale me with the fine details of how the fake VIP passes were planned and printed. At Central Station, he wanted to show them to me; they were excellent. He had one main one, plus a couple of back-ups. Before we went our separate ways, I touched the badge of his Mum for good luck, gave him a hug and wished him well.

As far as superstitions go, things were working out just fine.

Outside the bustling Central Station, I looked around for the correct tram to take me down to Leidseplein where Alan, Gary, Daryl and Ed were waiting for me. I was last in Amsterdam in 2008 on a business trip. Back in the ‘eighties, the area outside the train station was grimy with the whiff of desperate guys trying to sell hash. In 2013, things had improved. Amsterdam was going to be my home for three days and I was buzzing.

I met up with the boys at 6.30pm. They had arrived around midday and had already acclimatised well to their new surroundings. They had ventured out in the misty rain for a leisurely bar crawl, followed by some snap; the highlight being Gary’s demolition of almost three racks of ribs.

We walked down to our cosy hotel, just south of Leidseplein. The central area of Amsterdam consists of concentric streets and canals in a largely “U” shape, with the train station at the top. Heading south, there is Dam Square and then Leidseplein. Our hotel was just at the bottom of the “U.”

We freshened-up, then assembled at 8pm. There is nothing quite like the anticipation of a first night in a foreign city; and nights on the town do not get much better than old Amsterdam. I soon realised that I was wearing the same Valentino shirt that I wore out and about in Seville some fifteen years ago; another nice superstition. We won that game too. That it still fits me is a miracle.

We decided to have a bite to eat in one of the many Argentinian steak houses on Leidsedwarsstraat. Steak and chips for all five of us, washed down with pints of Dommelsch. Bloody luvverly.

The toast, as ever was of “Friendship & Football.”

We caught the tram further into the heart of this intimate, exciting and fascinating city. This was my fifth visit. While at college at Stoke, while on a geography field trip, we visited Rotterdam for three nights and Amsterdam for four nights in April 1986. Fantastic memories. In 1987, two college mates and little old me made a return visit. In March 1988, I returned to attempt to sell some football badges at an Ajax UEFA cup match at the Olympic Stadium; it was my worst-ever night’s business during my badge-selling days. I didn’t sell a single badge; the market was already swamped with English footy memorabilia unlike in Germany and Italy. I find it incredible that it took me 25 years to return, save for that flying visit in 2008, when I only really experienced Amsterdam from behind the wheel of a car on a trip from Schipol down to Venlo and Utrecht.

We caught a cab up to Dam Square, which acts as the heart of the city. We bumped into Beth and Cathy, but continued east. We soon found ourselves in the heart of the red light district which is centred on Voorburgwal. There were Chelsea and Benfica fans at every turn. Inside for a beer, we found ourselves watching the Arsenal vs. Wigan game as the score leapt from 1-1 to 4-1. Andy Wray and Steve Mantle were spotted outside; it was clear that we were going to be bumping into friends at regular intervals in the city centre. We continued walking. The red lights were everywhere. The sights and smells were authentic Amsterdam; windows and windows of working girls of various ages, clad in bikinis, tapping the windows for our attention and the sweet smell of dope which permeated every side street and canal-side path. The mood was of boisterousness, of fun, of football. We passed a corner bar – Café Corso – on Achterburgwal. Inside, a famous Chelsea face was sat at a table, surveying the scene. The General was again in town. We took up residence in this bar…the beer was being sold in plastic glasses, but we didn’t mind. I guess we stayed here for around two hours. Alan happened to look outside just as Fun Time Frankie, Mike Neat and Dave The Hat were outside, chomping into some pizza. They looked up as we appeared at the window.

Don’t worry, they couldn’t afford us.

We had a fantastic time in this bar. There were pints of Heineken, plenty of laughs and – of course – tons of photographs. Supporting Chelsea was made for nights like this. We had a cracking time. The music on the juke box was rich and varied; we even got to witness Alan dancing, holding onto his lapels like a proper cockernee, to an oompah song about “Old Amsterdam.” It was beautiful.

Unfortunately, the bar closed ridiculously early at 1am. We were back walking the streets again. The crowds were now heavier, noisier, the bridges over the canals were bottle-necks. Benfica were out in force and were in fine voice. Chelsea were bantering back-and-forth with them. We decided to head home, or at least for further drinking nearer home, where it wouldn’t be quite so likely to “kick-off.” We wandered south. Daryl, Ed and I hung it out until 3am, supping two more additional pints apiece. I hoped I wouldn’t regret it in the morning. Outside the pub on Leidseplein, I looked up and saw Neil Barnett. I popped over for a quick word; there was talk of the game ahead, but also of New York.

We returned to our hotel. It had been a Dam lovely night.

Wednesday 15 May began with the slightest hangover for me. I had – foolishly, what was I thinking? – set the alarm for 7.30am. I made it down to a lovely breakfast at 9.45am. Unsurprisingly, Gary was there; he had been breakfasting for almost two hours. It was a leisurely start to the day; we were in no rush. Out at 11.30am, we again caught a tram into the centre. Unlike Tuesday, there was no rain and the sun was trying its damnedest to burn through the small amount of cloud cover. A coffee, a wander, a stroll down to Dam square where we met Walnuts, newly-arrived by coach. Benfica fans seemed to again be out in force, though that is probably misleading; they were bedecked in the red of their team, and easily recognisable. Chelsea, typically, tended to be more subtle, so blended in with the surroundings. In fact, during the previous night’s action, I had hardly seen a Chelsea shirt or scarf at all.

We ambled through the red light district once more and settled in at “Café Remember” for an hour. Two lads from the flight recognised me and told me of their successful visit to the stadium that morning in search of tickets. Melksham Graham was in the pub and he was relieved to hear of the good news; he soon departed to the Arena to check out the ticket situation. Next, we met Julie and Burger, the Nuneaton boys, Rob and the Kent boys, in a throng of a few hundred outside Susie’s Saloon. By now, the skies were blue; Chelsea weather. It seemed that the night before had passed with no serious incident, although we heard that two Benfica fans had been thrown into a canal. I’m surprised that it was only two.

Alan, Daryl, Ed and I headed back to the hotel to collect our match tickets, via another couple of beers in Leidseplein. There was bar after bar, cheek by jowl, one after the other. We sat outside in the mid-afternoon sun, under trees heavy with blossom. There was a massive echo from Munich; on that wonderful afternoon, my friends and I spent many hours in a gorgeous beer garden, with petals of blossom falling into our steins of Paulaner. With a lovely coincidence, I ordered pints of “Bavaria” lager. The area was full of noisy Benfica fans, but Chelsea soon responded with a few songs of our own. I quickly chatted to one of forty Benfica fans who had travelled over from Toronto. They are a massive club of course; the biggest in Portugal. I could hardly believe that they had suffered the sadness of six consecutive UEFA final defeats. Our single defeat in Moscow seems ridiculous in comparison. Our tickets collected, we met up with Gary and Walnuts back at Dam Square at about 4pm.

Still almost five hours until the game; lovely.

We wandered north, through the busy shopping area, and chanced upon a local restaurant. We spent the best part of two hours in there, enjoying each other’s’ company, knocking back more ale, laughing at a ridiculous array of silly jokes and stories. Alan and I chose the most wisely when we ordered the food. We had “hache” which is a Dutch beef stew, served with a huge pile of mash and a side order of red cabbage – or “Charlie Babbage” as Alan called it.

Yes, it was good.

With 7pm approaching, we headed up to the Central Station. There was a mix of fans in the train as we headed to Amsterdam’s south-eastern suburbs. Like Munich, the city’s stadium is way out of the centre. Thankfully, whereas the Munich subway trains were infamously slow and over-filled on that evening last year, this journey was fine. I stood the entire time, but it wasn’t a problem. Among the songs being aired, the “We all hate Leeds” song brought the biggest smile from me. The atmosphere in the train was fine; Benfica red and Chelsea blue sparring only through song.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=upZQ4_xKCZQ

The Amsterdam Arena appeared. It was surprisingly tall; it only holds just over 50,000, yet it towers over the buildings nearby. The roof adds extra height of course. We soon bumped into the New York contingent again. I wandered off to take it all in, taking the usual assortment of photographs along the way. The train station was adjacent to the southern end, which was the one allocated to Benfica. I slowly began my clockwise perambulation of the stadium until I reached the north end.

Just like Munich.

The Benfica fans were friendly enough. I had time on my hands. I was enjoying every minute. I bought a five euro beer – I made sure it wasn’t alcohol free, unlike the ones being sold inside – and took it with me on my walk, past the entrance to the Ajax museum, then further on to our end. I bumped into Beth, Wrayman, then a couple of mates from home. A tin of Amstel was thrust into my hands and I supped away. Time was now moving on, though, and I soon got caught up in the rush to get in. I walked in with Jonesy, a friend for almost twenty years. I didn’t bump into him in Munich, so I was doubly-pleased to see him in The Dam. He rarely missed a game back in the ‘eighties. We spoke of how our club has progressed in the past fifteen years. We talked of our joint obsession and, as if to prove the insanity of supporting Chelsea, Jonesy spoke about the trip that he took to Plymouth from his home in Nuneaton – a 450 mile round trip – for a Friday night friendly in around 1988. As he retold the story, it was obvious he could hardly believe that he did it. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. A Chelsea fan showed me the two 70 euro tickets that he couldn’t shift. My pre-match calculations – 10,000 with tickets, 20,000 without – were possibly way off. Maybe around 15,000 Chelsea fans were in Amsterdam; maybe they all got in.

Despite arriving at the Arena with an hour and fifteen minutes to spare, the delay at the gates and a further wait to use the toilets meant that I was struggling to get in on time. I was mirroring – unintentionally – my late arrival at Munich and I reached my seat just before kick-off.

Proper Chelsea.

Sadly, I just missed the flag displays. Just inside, I spotted Les; he had made it in and was smiling wildly. I took my place alongside the boys in the lower tier…furthest away to my right was Daryl, then Ed, then Walnuts, then Alan, then Gary, then myself. Rob arrived fashionably late and sat to my left.

The team is the one that I would have picked; preferring Luiz alongside Frank with Ramires out wide instead of Moses. I was just pleased that Frank was playing. Well done Rafa on that one.

The Benfica fans were easily spotted to the south; they took up the entire lower tier and around half of the top tier. We obviously had the same situation in the north.

Just like Munich, red at the south end, blue at the north end.

In the neutral areas, there seemed to be more blue than red. Excellent work, everyone. Although the sky was a brilliant cloudless blue, inside the stadium was dark. There was a strange feel to the stadium; it was impressive, but the infrastructure for the roof added much height. In reality, the seating tiers were not particularly large. I spent the first few minutes catching up on some photographs. Both teams had brought many flags and banners. Big respect to the fans who brought over the ‘Chelsea Adelaide’ flag; last seen in Tokyo.

The first-half, just like at Villa Park on Saturday, was horrendous. I watched on aghast as Benfica started very strongly, with their passing and movement seeming to bamboozle us. A couple of Benfica chances went begging and I wondered if this game was going to follow the same pattern as in Munich; that of dogged resistance after numerous onslaughts. A rough tackle on Ramires away in the distance went unpunished and the Chelsea fans wailed. We again looked very ‘leggy’ and we spent most of the first period chasing shadows. The Chelsea fans around me were openly frustrated by our players and our songs soon dried up. Shots were blocked inside our box as Benfica continued to dominate. Petr Cech, however, rarely had to make a save.

We had a couple of half-chances, but the mood was still grey. One fan behind me berated Oscar, yelling obscenity after obscenity after him. I turned around, glanced at him, yet turned away. I didn’t fancy a confrontation, but his hatred towards a Chelsea player truly sickened me. Benfica threatened again. A free-kick blocked. A shot over the bar. Yet, Cech remained untested. It was a strange game. I momentarily lost my lens cap – it was my glasses in Munich – and so missed our best chance of the entire game, a dipping shot from Lamps which was well saved by Artur.

I sent a text out at half-time :

“Well. Looking at a repeat of Saturday in the second-half.”

Just after the break, Benfica thought that they had opened the scoring but their collective hopes were dashed; the danger man Cardozo leapt and headed in, with no defender close. I saw the linesman’s flag jolt up so was unfazed.

Ever so slowly, Chelsea began contesting the game in a far more positive manner. The Chelsea fans, eventually, responded.

On the hour, a long throw out from Petr Cech and the ball broke for Fernando Torres. The entire Chelsea end realised that this was his ‘once in a game moment.’ Nando was around ten yards inside the Benfica as he received the ball, twisting away from his marker in a deft movement. He set off for goal and I captured his run on film.

Click : after having fought off the trailing defender Luisao, Nando approaches the goalkeeper just inside the box.

Click : he sways to his right and the ‘keeper moves to his left. The duel is on.

Click : after continuing his movement, Nando has enough strength to push the ball past the ‘keeper’s dive at his feet.

Click : with the ‘keeper on all fours, Nando keeps his feet and slots the ball in from an angle.

The Chelsea end erupted. I secretly hoped that this would be his night. Where were all the folk who said that Fernando Torres doesn’t score important goals.

“GETINYOUFCUKINGBEAUTY.”

I snapped his Usain Bolt-inspired pose down at the corner flag, but the photo was blurred and so was I.

Phew.

Alan leaned across and, in his best Portugeezer accent : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Me, in my worst Portugeezer accent : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Our wonderful lead lasted only a short period, but what a period of dreaming that was. I whispered to Rob that “I hope it stays 1-0” (just so Torres can get some glory).

Just after, Azpilcueta handled inside the box. Oh boy. No repeat of Munich though; that man Cardozo slammed the ball in with Cech diving to he left. A single red flare was lit in the south lower.

Chelsea kept going, however, roared on by our travelling support. I could hardly believe that many hundreds in the lower tier sat the entire game. Torres went down in the box, but no penalty. On 81 minutes, Cardozo walloped a screamer at goal, but Petr Cech did ever so well to fingertip it over the bar. It was his first bona fide save of the entire night. Like I said, it was an odd game.

With three minutes remaining, Lampard was way out. I caught his thumping shot on film, and watched as it dipped and crashed onto the bar. I was amazed at its ferocity. I was amazed that it had gone so close.

Injury-time was being played when a Ramires run won a corner down to my left. Shades of Munich, eh? Juan Mata sent over a high ball. Ivanovic, back-peddling, leapt high. The ball began its upwards and then downwards trajectory. I clicked my camera out of habit than expectation. The ball seemed to take an eternity to drop. To our joy, the net rippled.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!

The north end exploded.

I looked to my right at Alan and we just screamed at each other. A blue flare in front exploded with a huge plume of smoke. Oh, how we sung.

Almost immediately, Benfica attacked and – I found it hard to concentrate but

PLEASE

CHELSEA

DON’T

FCUK

THIS

UP.

The chance was cleared. Oh boy.

The whistle blew.

YES!

Benfica had lost their seventh consecutive UEFA final and we had won our fourth final out of five attempts. Apart from half an inch of Russian wood, it would have been five out of five.

Athens 1971, Stockholm 1998, Munich 2012, Amsterdam 2013.

It had been, let’s not kid ourselves, a below-par Chelsea performance on the night. Our ridiculously long season had eventually taken its toll. We looked tired. There was little to cheer, apart from the two goals of course.

Fernando Torres and Branislav Ivanovic – we salute you.

The Chelsea players cavorted down on the pitch and we sung about being Champions of Europe.

You know how the song goes, eh?

There seemed to be a ridiculously long delay between the end of the game and the moment when our players ascended the steps to receive the medals. Unlike Munich, my telephoto lens captured the moment when Frank lifted the massive trophy – the old much-loved UEFA Cup – high into the Amsterdam night.

Munich 2012 and Amsterdam 2013.

Two steps beyond.

Congratulatory texts soon came in from Manchester United, Liverpool and Barcelona fans. Strangely, no mention of the birds’ mess from Mike.

Now, it was time to watch the players enjoying themselves; it was magical. I was so lucky to be close to where the majority of the action took place. Frank Lampard was alone with the cup for quite some time. John Terry, on purpose I am sure, stayed away from the spotlight. Fernando looked blissed out. Brana hopped up on to the bar – the same spot as Munich – all over again. Frank jumped over the advertisement hoardings and revelled in the adulation, beaming with smiles and looking up at fans in the upper tier. Ramires appeared with his son. The four goalkeepers stood together. David Luiz and his T-shirt, sent out funny faces and hand jives to his fans. Mikel and Moses in their trackie bottoms. Benitez, smiling, looking on. Nathan Ake, one for the future, with the huge trophy. The management team, perhaps unsure of the reaction, waited a while but stood together and hoisted the trophy. There was applause from the stands.

The songs…”Liquidator”, “One Step Beyond” and – strangely – “Blue Tomorrow.”

Then, the daddy of them all…a song that takes me back to 1972 and always leaves me wiping my eyes.

“Blue Is The Colour.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSW9H905RGg

We were giddy and excited as we moved away from our seats, waving to fellow friends, hugging others. Soon outside, we descended the many flights of stairs, singing joyously.

“We’ve won it again, we’ve won it again. Champions of Europe, we’ve won it again.”

Down at ground level, it really was Munich all over again.

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

Happy daze.

Then, a new song.

“Strippers And Whores. Ivanovic Scores.”

We caught a train back to the centre of Amsterdam, shaking hands with many more friends along the way. Munich will never be beaten, but Amsterdam was just so enjoyable. Stockholm meant more – to me, it was magical to replicate the feat of the vaunted 1970 and 1971 teams. At the time, we thought there would be nothing greater than a ECWC win since we all knew that we’d never win the league, nor the Champions League. What did we know? But Amsterdam was bloody fantastic. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Back at Leidseplein, I joined in with the post-game buzz. All of the boys together, the square alive with Chelsea smiles the size of an Amsterdam spliff. There were more familiar faces there too; it seemed that everywhere we went in the city, we saw friends. It was bloody lovely. Brighton Tony held court; he was full of forthright opinions and very good company. He first met Gary as long ago as 1977 when they had season tickets in rows one and two of the East Upper. At 3am, we called it a night. We returned to our hotel with our fourth European trophy tucked into our back pockets.

Thursday 16 May was a rainy day in Amsterdam, but we didn’t care. We breakfasted again, and then went our separate ways. I headed off to visit the Rijksmuseum, but first sat in the busy café to enjoy a cappuccino and have a leisurely read of a paper. There was a picture of Nando on the front.

“Read all about it.”

I decided to avoid the long lines at the Rijksmuseum, instead spending a very enjoyable hour at the Van Gogh Museum where I drooled over a few lovely paintings. I bumped into two Chelsea fans there too. Back at the hotel, we all reconvened before saying our “goodbyes.” I caught the tram up to the centre and met up with the New York contingent for two last pints of Heineken in a crowded bar near the station. I was soon on the train to the airport. And then, home to Bristol. It had been a magnificent time. Hearing from Gill that Frank has signed a one-year deal?

Perfect.

And just like in Athens, in Stockholm and in Munich, there will be a foreign field in Amsterdam that will be forever Chelsea. Additionally, we joined Juventus, Ajax and Bayern Munich as the only teams to have won all three European trophies. And for ten days we are Champions Of Europe and Champions Of Europe Lite.

Did we have a blast?

Dam right.

…and, yes, Pav made it in.

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Tales From Another European Semi-Final

Chelsea vs. Basel : 2 May 2013.

There was a nice, cool vibe leading up to our Europa League semi-final second leg against Basel. For the first time in my spectating life, Chelsea had already done the hardest part by winning the first leg away from home. On all other occasions, things have been a little trickier.

A quick resume of previous semi-final encounters in which we played away first?

Yes, why not.

1994-1995 Real Zaragoza – lost
1997-1998 Vicenza – lost
1998-1999 Real Mallorca – lost
2003-2004 A.S. Monaco – lost
2007-2008 Liverpool – drew
2008-2009 Barcelona – drew

So, this was new ground for me. Uncharted territory, if you will. For many of our hundreds, thousands, millions of new fans, there has only been life at the top table as a Chelsea fan; participation in the Champions League has been second nature for us over the previous ten successive seasons bringing a massive increase in our global recognition. However, for many years, even competing in any type of European football was seen as a holy grail. From an infamous defeat to Atvidaberg in the ECWC in 1971, we waited patiently for the next European night. Thankfully, it finally came against Viktoria Zizkov in 1994, but only after a wait of twenty-three long years.

Put it this way. I was twenty-nine years of age before I saw us play in any UEFA match.

Oh boy.

So, naturally, there has been a certain amount of teeth-grinding by myself at some of the comments aired by some Chelsea fans recently about the trivial nature of the much-maligned Europa League. However, this has been a personal voyage for me since we were knocked out of this season’s Champions League campaign by Shakhtar in December. On that night, when we beat Nordsjaelland but Shakhtar still went through, I was initially upbeat about our participation in the Europa League. Since then, my feelings have waivered a little, but as the final in Amsterdam has loomed nearer and nearer, thoughts have been more positive again. The extra round of games in this competition – the dreaded “Round of Thirty-Two” (which sounds like the biggest round of beers ever) – stretched out this competition further, but after the defeats of Sparta Prague, Steaua Bucharest and Rubin Kazan, only one game remained.

A few weeks ago, I booked up flights from Bristol to Schipol in readiness of Chelsea reaching the final in Amsterdam but took out an “insurance bet” on Basel beating us to minimise my loss if we didn’t make it. In fact, there were so many Chelsea fans betting on Basel to win the tie, I’m surprised that the police weren’t suspicious of illegal betting practices.

The first-leg went our way – we were back on the main ITV channel, Luiz scored a cracker, things were looking good – and so there was a certain amount of relaxation going in to the return leg.

I set off for London town just after 4pm and the voices of Chelsea fans Paul Weller and then David Gahan helped prolong the air of relaxation as I ate up the miles heading east.

I reached The Goose at 6.45pm. Outside in the beer garden, there were friends mingling.

I can imagine Paul Weller writing about the scene which greeted me.

“A police car and a screaming siren.
Pneumatic drill, Napoli Frank’s laughter.
Lord Parky wailing, a stray dog howling.
The clink of glasses and the joy of drinking.
That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment.
A smash of glass, the sunlight fading.
A team photo, the excitement rising.
The boys together, polo shirts and trainers.
The fear of defeat and a kick in the balls.
I say that’s entertainment, that’s entertainment.”

Just time for one pint; my trusted Peroni went down well, too well, but I didn’t fancy risking another one. There was a nice mixture of friends old and new. Orlin from San Francisco, with his fellow Bulgarian Evo – living in Ealing now – was rubbing shoulders with Napoli Frank and Dartford Dave. The Kaminskis from Pittsburgh were also present. These six would be sitting – no, standing of course – in the first row of The Shed Lower.

“I’ll be sure to take of photo of you all.”

Keith, from New Jersey, was also in the beer garden. He was with his friend Fernanda who has been living in England for nine months. This would be her first ever Chelsea game, her first ever football match. With a name like Fernanda, I wondered who her favourite might be.

The walk down to Stamford Bridge was lovely. There was nothing but a clear blue sky overhead. The sun hit the stone of the Hammersmith & Fulham Town Hall and gave it a golden sandy hue. There was noise and colour all around me. I turned to my left and again the sun had highlighted the towering West Stand to perfection. With massive banners from last season’s twin triumphs adorning its yellow stoned walls, it, looked a picture. I’m sure I saw the Peter Osgood statue blink in the sunlight.

Alexander : “Any spare ticket, please…come on Chelsea!”

Sergei : “I want go home Russia. I miss my Babushka.”

Alexander : “We Chelsea now.”

Sergei : “Oh boyski.”

On the wait to ascend the steps leading up to the MHU turnstiles, I found myself alongside Tim Rolls and Rick Glanvil. There was talk of Frank Lampard. Rick seized the moment and asked a trivia question.

“So, Frank has scored 201 goals for Chelsea. How many has he scored against our last four league opponents in the league this year…United, Spurs, Villa and Everton.”

The answer?

A staggering 36.

Amazing.

I made my way up the stairs…always to the left, one of my match-day superstitions, then out into the seats. A near full house, but Basel didn’t completely fill up their 3,000 spots. I can’t grumble though; I didn’t travel to Basel for the first game. In fact, only around 1,000 Chelsea did.

So – team news.

Ryan in for Ash. Brana alongside Cahill. Luiz pushed up alongside Fat Frank. Ramires out right. Moses out left. Torres in for the cup-tied Ba.

I had difficulty in remembering any of the Basel team from the first leg; this was not helped by seven of their team having surnames which began with the letter S.

Shostakovich, Solzenitzen, Socrates, Sinatra, Schumacher, Spielberg and Strauss.

Some team.

In the first chance of the game, Basel – playing in white – almost got off to a dream start when Stella – sorry, Strella – shot wide. At the other end, Lampard reacted quickly but hit the upright. On 17 minutes, Fernano Torres hit a bobbler, but it was saved by the goalkeeper. On 25 minutes, that man Stella – sorry, Strella – raced into the box and beautifully met a perfect cross on the volley. It was a magnificent strike and it whizzed past Cech’s far post. Their big number nine was looking a handful for Cahill…Ivanoviv…Luiz…whoever was closest.

Away in the opposite corner, the Basel fans were in good voice. Elsewhere, the Chelsea faithful were sporadic inn their support. This clearly didn’t feel like one of “those” magical European nights. I joked with Alan that next Wednesday’s encounter with Tottenham was more likely to be akin to a Champions League semi-final than a run-of-the-mill league game.

Gary Cahill made a quite magnificent tackle as Basel again threatened. At The Shed End, Ramires shot at the goalkeeper from only six yards out after good work from Moses down the left. This wasn’t a great Chelsea performance. There was a disjointed feel to our play and we missed the intelligence of Juan Mata. I lost count of the number of crosses which ended up in acres of space at the far post, away from any Chelsea players. The six visitors in the front row of The Shed would have had good sightings of all this. Our choice of ball in the final third was poor. Basel broke though again, only for Petr Cech to make a fantastic save from Sinatra – sorry, Salah.

Just before the break, Fernando Torres did ever so well to come inside from his inside-left position, only to hit a shot high and wide.

Oh boy.

Our profligacy would cost us. Right on the very stroke of half-time, Socrates – sorry, Stocker – played in Sinatra – sorry, Salah – who stroked the ball past a stranded Cech. We had been caught sleeping. The Basel fans bounced in unison; a very fine sight. To be honest, Basel had probably edged it in the first-half. At the break, the scoreboard told the story of the game thus far –

Chelsea – 8 shots
Basel – 10 shots

“Never mind, Al. I’m sure that the Chelsea fans will decide to stand all of the way through the second half and roar the team on.”

“Yeah, in a parallel universe, mate, millions of light years away.”

“It’s a bit like Vicenza in 1998, mate. 1-0 down, we need to bounce back.”

Ah, Vicenza, April 16th 1998. It was one of the greatest nights that I have enjoyed as a Chelsea supporter. We had lost the away leg on a rainy night in northern Italy 1-0. In the return game – with Chelsea deciding to play in all yellow – we went a further goal down on the night. It was looking awfully bleak. Then, miraculously, a goal from Gus Poyet gave us hope before half-time. In the second-half, with the 34,000 capacity crowd roaring us on (comparable to Bruges 1995), a fantastic cross from Vialli was headed home by Zola and then Mark Hughes turned and volleyed in a low shot to send as absolutely delirious.

It truly was heart-stopping stuff.

Those were the days…

Colin Pates was Neil Barnett’s guest at half-time. He was on the pitch with his two sons. Neil started to say a few words about our much-loved former captain.

“When Colin retired from football…”

(He should have said…”he played for Arsenal”)

…”he became sports master at Whitgift School. And who was his star centre-forward? Victor Moses.”

I had read about Victor Moses’ life story during the summer…how he had witnessed both of his parents being killed in Nigeria, then came to England as an asylum-seeker, settling in South London with relatives, then playing football with Patesy at Whitgift.

It is some story.

I bet Colin is so proud.

The second-half began and I was pragmatic. I said to Alan ; “we always play better in the second-half at home.”

I was to be proved right.

After 49 minutes, Eden Hazard went on a fantastic run deep into the heart of the Swiss defence. The ball found Frank Lampard who blasted towards the goal. The Basel custodian saved, but couldn’t gather the ball. The on-rushing Torres was able to pounce and fired the ball high into the net. Parity on the night was restored, but we were ahead on aggregate.

It was Fernando Torres’ twentieth goal of the season.

Only three minutes had passed when Victor Moses was able to follow up his own shot after it was initially saved to make it 2-0 on the night and 4-2 on aggregate. There is nothing like two quick goals to stir the emotions; such was the case on this night in SW6. The crowd were now back in this game and the songs rang out.

“We know what we are. We know what we are. Champions of Europe. We know what we are.”

The most memorable piece of skill on the night caught us all unawares. Frank Lampard pushed the ball on to David Luiz. Although he was some thirty yards out, he looked up and decided to unleash a dipping, curling masterpiece. I followed its trajectory as it flew goalwards. As the net rippled, the stadium erupted. It was another Luiz masterstroke.

“Getinyoufcukingbeauty.”

I pulled my camera up to my head and quickly shot a succession of photographs of the ecstatic Luiz as he ran towards us in the north-west corner.

Eyes bulging.

Hair flying.

Heart racing.

Screaming.

And that was just me.

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

We were now 5-2 up and surely Amsterdam-bound.

Just after Luiz’ stunner, Frei unleashed an incredible shot which rattled against Cech’s bar and drew applause from those around me in the MHU. Cech saved again, then Hazard’s delicate lob caused concern for Basel. It was, in all honesty, a fine game.

The Basel fans were in good voice, still. Although they are based in the German-speaking section of Switzerland, the antics of their fans was more akin to the Italian ultras. They bounced, they sang, they held their scarves aloft. They then had a lovely dig at us, singing in perfect English –

“Sing when you’re winning. You only sing when you’re winning.”

We chuckled at that. Top marks.

With the game now irretrievably lost, the Swiss fans had one last treat in store for us. They unfurled a large blue and red striped banner – almost Barcelona-esque – and then lit several pink and blue flares. It was a magnificent sight. Their fans were hidden among the billowing smoke; something that I always think looks wonderful.

Like something from another world.

The Chelsea faithful had a response, though.

Seeing the seven or eight bright candle-like flares burning bright, the MHL bellowed –

“Happy birthday to you.
Happy birthday to you.
Happy birthday dear Basel.
Happy birthday to you.”

In the last few minutes, Nathan Ake made his home debut. I had a little chuckle to myself; my nickname for many years among school friends was Acky.

At last, Acky plays for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

With the game won, several left the stadium before the end of the game. It wasn’t like this in the Champions League.

At the final whistle, I momentarily punched the air, but – I can’t fool myself – I knew that it wasn’t the same. However, we had deserved the win on the back of our second-half show and I wasn’t complaining. Of course, we are so spoiled these days. Coming right after the biggest night in our history, there is no doubt that this cup run has felt a little underwhelming. And yet, we all know that if we had gone even five years without silverware, we would be ecstatic about reaching a major final.

Ask Arsenal.

“One Step Beyond” boomed out and I smiled. We had another European final – only our fifth in 108 years – to celebrate.

Good times.

“Amsterdam, Amsterdam, We Are Coming.”

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Tales From The Only Place To Be Every Thursday Night

Chelsea vs. Rubin Kazan : 4 April 2013.

Our Europa League Quarter Final against Rubin Kazan was game three of four games in nine days. This was our busiest Easter week for years. No complaints from me, though. We have a hunt for silverware on three fronts. Not even Manchester United can boast that.

I set off for London just after 4pm; alas, no Lard Porky once again. If this has been a tough season for all of us, it has been especially tough for him. As I drove past Swindon, a few light flurries of snow started to fall. The snow lasted until Reading, though it showed no sign of pitching. Snow in April. Whatever next? Tottenham in the Champions League? Let’s hope not. The snow made me think of only one thing, of one person; Julie had just flown in from the sunnier climes of Southern California and would be watching her first game at Stamford Bridge for two-and-a-half years. We had arranged to meet up in the pub; I hope her jet lag hadn’t hit her hard and that she’d be able to make it. The traffic, like the snow, was light, and I was parked up on Bramber Road in less than two hours.

Outside, the weather was unforgiving and cold.

Inside the pub, which I try to use as a barometer for the attendance at Stamford Bridge these days, things were quite busy. It was busier than the game against Steaua, in any case. I still thought that the gate might be as low as 25,000 though. I briefly spoke to Tim and Kev – two of the loyal Bristol contingent – about their trip to Moscow for the return leg. They are the only Chelsea folk who I know that are going. Fair play to them. I’m lead to believe that the main reason for Tim going is the fear of missing Frank’s 202 and 203 goals.

Chelsea makes us do irrational things, eh?

I soon saw Julie’s smiling face as she made her way towards the back part of the bar. Yes, she was freezing. It truly was a cold night outside. We had a good old chat about Chelsea, but also of her plans for her ten day visit to London Town. Julie is here for the Sunderland game, but leaves just before the semi-final at Wembley. We briefly mentioned the two games in the US in May. By the end of the 2012-2013 we will have played the two Manchester teams a total of eleven times.

United. City. Familiarity. Contempt.

Julie was not overly keen to leave the warm coziness of The Goose; every time I asked her if she wanted to leave, there was a muted response. At about 7.30pm, I eventually prised her away. We quickly walked down the North End Road, past the newly refurbished – but decidedly quiet – Malt House. For the last two hundred yards, Julie hardly paused for breath as she talked excitedly about Chelsea. Her enthusiasm was infectious. We made tentative plans to meet up on Sunday before disappearing our separate ways. I veered left to the Matthew Harding, Julie turned right to The Shed. There was a bigger line at the gate than for the Steaua game which was pleasing.

Inside, it was clear to see that the crowd was higher than I had expected. However, away in the opposite corner there was a mass of empty blue seats, save for the smallest pocket of away supporters I have ever seen at Stamford Bridge. The travelling army of Rubin Kazan supporters amounted to around forty-five, who were watching from the front rows of the lower tier.

It looked quite pitiful.

Yet, to be honest, I wondered if we would take half as many to the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow in a week’s time. From anecdotal evidence, I’d guess than a maximum of twenty or thirty Chelsea – if that – are travelling over from the UK. Maybe our ranks will be bolstered by our large Russian fan base and by those Levski Sofia fans from Bulgaria, but be prepared for some hauntingly sparse support in that large bowl of mustard coloured seats in Moscow.

Ugh. I had a flashback to 2008. That’s another reason I’m not going to Russia.

It was great to have Alan back alongside me. There had been many congratulatory handshakes for him in the boozer; after a fifteen year courtship with Sue, they are now engaged.

“Yeah, I wanted to get to know her first…” he joked.

To be honest, I remember little of the first twenty minutes of the game. Alan and I were catching up and chatting about all sorts. The game was being played down below us, but we weren’t paying too much attention. Often at Frome Town games, two mates and I chat constantly throughout the game. Sometimes it’s just nice to use football as a chance to catch up.

Rubin Kazan resembled Sparta Prague, all dressed in Torino-style burgundy.

Benayoun was buzzing around in the first few moments of the game, but then faded a little. It was good to see Juan Mata starting. With Ba cup-tied, I began to understand a little how Benitez may have approached these last three games. Torres had to play against Rubin Kazan. Three days earlier, Ba got the start against United. Two days earlier, Torres got the start against Southampton. Is that not a reasonable response to fixture congestion? The alternative was for Ba to play twice in three days. That approach may have worked, too, of course. We’ll never know.

Somebody was moaning about Benitez in the pub earlier. My response?

“Ignore him. He’ll soon be gone. Support the team.”

The first real chance fell to Fernando, still wearing the mask, but his shot was embarrassingly wide.

Soon after, a long ball into the penalty area was aimed at Torres. This isn’t his game really and I didn’t fancy his chances against the leaping defender. The ball evaded them both, but fell between the two of them, by which time Torres had fallen to the floor. He somehow managed to hook the ball in while sitting on the grass.

1-0 to Chelsea.

Alan and I did our “THTCAUN – COMLD” routine, but the accents were way off; more Germanic than Russian.

Ryan Bertrand, ensured a little run of games with Ashley Cole out, had a cracking run down the left but his shot was blocked. Not long after, a Moses header was clawed out spectacularly by the Russian ‘keeper but Torres chased down the loose ball before turning the ball back into the box. The ball eventually reached a waiting Victor Moses who fired high into the net.

2-0 to Chelsea.

There had been a few long shots from the visitors, but this was a poor team. A two goal cushion at the break was a nice score. Let’s kill this tie off at Stamford Bridge. However, on a rare foray into our half, a shot struck John Terry. I wasn’t sure it was a penalty. Alan pulled a face to suggest it was. John Terry was livid. The referee was hardly going to change his mind. Natcho converted the penalty.

2-1 to Chelsea.

Oh dear. The dreaded away goal.

As Tommy Baldwin was introduced to the crowd at half-time, I realised that our run in the Europa League in 2013 was one which was being endured rather than enjoyed. Oh well. So be it. I’d hope I’m not that much of a football snob to bemoan it.

It is what it is.

If we’re in it, let’s win it.

The good news was that Tottenham were losing at home to Basle. Both Alan and I wanted them out. The reasons are perhaps too complex to fully discuss here, but the thought of losing to them in a major final is too horrendous to comprehend. There would be bag loads of trouble too, surely; I’m not sure the club needs any more negative publicity these days. Newcastle were drawing. I’m sure they were trying to win the trophy; their last trophy of any kind was way back in 1969.

At one point in the first-half, we could hear their chant of “Rubin! Rubin! Rubin!” Our support wasn’t great. I worried that Julie might be dismayed by the lack of noise. I wondered what the tiny contingent of Russians was thinking…

Alexander : “Is there line at kiosk?”

Sergei : “No. You want beer?”

Alexander : “I want beer. I always want beer.”

Sergei : “You not like this beer. It no alcohol.”

Aleaxander : “Beer with no alcohol. You are crazy man.”

Sergei (laughing) : “I like London. No line. Not like Kazan. Line for beer. Line for potato. Line for beer and potato. Line for potato beer.”

Alexander (shouting) : “But better now. You remember the beetroot shortage of 1977?”

Sergei : “Yes. Was bad. My mother line up for beetroot for thirty hours.”

Aleaxander : “Your mother stupid. In wrong line for thirty hours. She get cabbage.”

Sergei : “I eat cabbage for ten days.”

Alexander : “You the cabbage.”

Sergei (shouting) : “Rubin! Rubin! Rubin! Rubin! Rubin! Rubin!”

Alexander (singing) : “Oh, Kazan is wonderful. Oh Kazan is wonderful. It is full of potato, beetroot and cabbage. Oh Kazan is wonderful.”

Sergei : “You need work on lyrics.”

Chelsea continued their dominance during the second-half. Alan and I spoke about the amazing save which Cech had made against Chicarito on Monday. I rated it as possibly the best ever. I remember a similar one which Eddie Niedzwiecki made at Stoke City in 1985. Alan and I both recollected the Carlo Cudicini save from a Jamie Redknapp free-kick at Three Point Lane in which the ball moved at the last moment. Top stuff.

We had a few chances as the game progressed. I have to say that Ramires was by far the better of the two deep-lying midfielders. The game was again passing Frank by, despite the presence of Julie in The Shed. How I wished he had scored for her in the first-half. I wondered how she was coping with the cold. At least she had a small walk to her hotel; she was staying right behind The Shed in the Copthorne hotel.

On sixty-nine minutes, a nice move found Juan Mata in a little space down below me. I not only managed to photograph the cross, but I was able to snap the leap from Torres which resulted in the goal. It was a fine cross, a finer finish.

3-1 to Chelsea.

I continued photographing as Torres – or “Zorro” as I called him – was clearly relieved. This was his seventeenth and eighteenth goals of the season. The Chelsea players swarmed around him. I have a great vantage point for these celebrations. I’m a lucky man.

The crowd had been announced as a few shy of 33,000. This was clearly a pretty good attendance in the circumstances; a cold night and the second of three home games in seven days. Just like the United game, these tickets were only £30. Considering it costs £10 to see Frome Town and £20 to see Bristol Rovers, £30 is a fine price for these Chelsea cup games. However, one wonders how 33,000 would look in a 60,000 stadium out at Old Oak Common, though. In the closing part of the game, Oscar replaced Mata and Marin replaced Benayoun. Whisper it, but Yossi received a pretty good reception from the Chelsea faithful.

A late effort from Ramires was the last real effort on target.

Would a 3-1 lead be enough for us to take to Moscow? Would it be enough to see us progress to our tenth European semi-final since 1995? I think so.

Out in the cold London night, the Russians were on their way out of Stamford Bridge.

Alexander : “You hear blonde girl? She on phone to mother in California. She says London cold.”

Sergei : “Cold?!? Ha! She know nothing.”

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Tales From Thursday Night Football

Chelsea vs. Steaua Bucharest : 14 March 2013.

I wasn’t one of the 150 or so Chelsea who ventured out to the Romanian capital last week for the first leg of this Europa Cup tie. From what I have heard, it was one of the best European trips for a while. Because there were so few travelers, everyone kept together and a boozy time, aided by ridiculously cheap alcohol, resulted in a fine trip. The game, as is so often the case, was the least enjoyable part of the trip. In The Goose before the return leg, I briefly chatted to Mick, who had been one of the 150. The strangest thing during his short stay was being greeted by a family of locals who were sleeping in the lobby of the apartment he had rented for the three days. By the time he had awoken in the morning, they had disappeared. Mick shrugged it off. I wondered if this sort of thing was common…in Liverpool.

Parky and I had reached The Goose in good time, but I soon realised how quiet the pub seemed to be. My good friend Orlin, the Bulgarian who now lives in San Francisco, was in town en route to Sofia and soon joined us. We had managed to wangle a spare ticket for a mate of his too, so everything was looking rosy. I noted that the Chelsea website mentioned that ticket sales for the game had been suspended, which obviously indicated that tickets had still been on sale. I was asked during the day what I thought the gate might be. I really had no clue, though the figure of 32,000 stuck in my head.

Daryl mentioned that it was exactly one year to the day since that amazing 4-1 victory over Napoli. Our greatest ever journey started that night. In comparison, the game with Steaua seemed to be something of an afterthought. Personally speaking, a lot of my focus was still on the F.A. Cup tie with Manchester United. However, going into the game, I had no real fears about us exiting the competition to Steaua. They were for the taking, despite the woeful performance in Bucharest.

Alan had sold my ticket for the game in Romania to one of around twenty Chelsea supporting Bulgarians from Varna. I mentioned this to Orlin, who was one of the leading lights in setting up the oft-seen Chelsea/Bulgaria Supporters Club. As I have mentioned before, Orlin’s club of birth is Levski Sofia; he still holds a season ticket at the stadium. The price? A whopping £35. Parky and I almost spat our drinks out when we heard that. Anyway, Orlin mentioned the various friendships that exist between clubs in Sofia and further beyond in the old communist bloc. For example, Levski’s main rival is CSKA Sofia, the old army team. It seems that supporters of the three “army” clubs of Bulgaria, Romania and the former Yugoslavia (CSKA Sofia, Steaua Bucharest and Dynamo Belgrade) often cross borders to attend each other’s games. Additionally, there are many Levski / Chelsea fans. Therefore, for the game in Bucharest, Orlin explained that many Levski fans travelled to Romania to support Chelsea and many CSKA fans travelled to support Steaua.

With that, I looked up and spotted a “Bulgaria Spurs” banner at the San Siro.

What does this all prove? Maybe that the standard of Bulgarian football is not so great and football fanatics will travel vast distances to get their fix.

From Bulgaria to Tottenham, though? Oh boy.

Of course, Chelsea has their own little band of allies in Rangers, Hearts, Linfield, Feyenoord and Lazio. We spoke briefly about the chances of meeting Spurs in the final in Amsterdam. Tottenham, of course, has a link with Ajax, the old Jewish club of Amsterdam, so the thought of a Chelsea versus Tottenham in Amsterdam, with a side portion of Ajax versus Feyenoord thrown in for good measure brought wry looks from the two of us.

Orlin’s mate arrived just in time to see William Gallas put through his own net to tie things at the San Siro. The pub exploded with glee. To see that lot go out would set things up nicely before we set off for the match. We crossed our fingers as we set off for the stadium. It was another cold night in SW6. There were many Romanians outside Stamford Bridge, obviously without tickets. A chap was using a tannoy to dissuade away fans from entering the forecourt. There were more police than usual on show.

Outside the turnstiles, all was quiet. Deathly quiet. There was no line, no queue. I wondered how low this attendance could possibly be. Please don’t embarrass me, Chelsea.

Once inside, I glanced across at the East Stand and it was just over half-full.

Oh boy…

Thankfully, the other stands were in better shape. The three thousand Romanians in the opposite corner were in good voice already. As the teams entered the pitch, I spotted many away fans holding up their phones and there were many doing the same in the designated home areas. Our home areas had obviously been infiltrated by Steaua fans. We could be in for an interesting evening.

Alongside me, Alan – like myself – was suffering with a cold and a chest infection. He excused himself from singing too much. He had said that the noise created by the home fans in Bucharest was very impressive. I wasn’t so sure we’d be able to generate one tenth of that, to be honest.

Soon into the game, I texted a few friends to say that I predicted a gate of 28,000.

What did I know of Steaua? Very little. Our paths almost crossed in early 1988 when I sold some English football badges outside the San Siro when they played Milan in a friendly. Only 14,000 were at that Sunday game some 25 years ago, but I was not one of them. I chose to stay outside and attempt to sell some more badges to late-comers and early-leavers. I made £40 that afternoon; enough for a few more meals as I travelled by train between friends in Germany and Italy. Unbeknown to me at the time, the game foretold the 1989 European Cup Final when a Milan team including Ruud Gullit defeated a Steaua team including Dan Petrescu. There was, in fact, a nice interview with Dan Petrescu – what a lovely player he was – in the programme.

The first real chance of the game took place when Mikel lost possession and a ball was pumped through for Rusescu. I thought that there was a hint of offside, but – not to worry – the shot was easily saved by Petr Cech. A couple more away efforts on Cech’s goal signalled that this would be no walk in the park. We were treated to two rare Jon Obi Mikel shots on goal midway through the first period, but the ‘keeper was untroubled. Then, thankfully a breakthrough. Ramires threaded in Mata, who danced a few more steps inside the box and nudged the ball goal wards. It almost apologetically limped over the line.

Phew.

Torres blasted wide, and then the lively Hazard shot at the ‘keeper. However, just on half-time, a Steaua corner was not cleared and Chiriches blasted high into the net from only a few yards out.

Hell.

A hundred or so Steaua fans in the West Lower danced with glee, but were oddly not escorted out.

We now had to score two more goals to advance.

The second-half began slowly, but came to life when we were given a free-kick near the corner flag down below me. I captured Juan Mata’s kick on film. Alan shouted – “Go on JT. Get your head on this, son.”

I then just caught John Terry’s perfect leap to meet the ball and send it crashing down and into the Steaua goal.

The crowd roared and the captain reeled away in delight.

No time to waste. Let’s get another.

Chelsea were now enjoying more and more of the ball as the opposition tired. Their fans, who had spent the first-half noisily whistling every time we were in possession, grew quieter. On several occasions, Eden Hazard was just a blur. One rapier-like sprint into the Steaua box was the most exciting piece of play of the entire match. When he is on fire, he is lovely to watch. However, a fine one-handed save from Petr Cech kept us in the game.

On seventy minutes, Hazard played in Fernando Torres and the whole of the Matthew Harding held their breath. One touch, then a split second to steady himself.

Torres thought of ice cubes, of a bitterly cold wind, of liquid nitrogen, of absolute zero.

It worked.

Rather than a heated, flustered finish, his body froze and he only thought of one thing. He coolly and calmly used his weaker left foot to score, slipping the ball past the ‘keeper at the far post.

Again, the crowd erupted. I watched through my lens as he celebrated with team mates at the corner flag only a few yards away.

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

Only Petr Cech and John Terry did not clamber all over him.

Phew.

Was this the match winner? It looked like it.

Just after, Szukala appeared to clip Torres as he raided the penalty box again. The referee’s assistant behind the goal line was incredibly well placed but – surprise! – elected not to give anything. I am yet to see these officials actively engage in any game I have attended. What a waste of time. Torres must have been clipped as he lay on his front for ages. He was taken off, re-appeared with a shirt which did not have a number, then had to go off to get that replaced. His bloodied nose was not obvious to me.

With five minutes to go, a desperate lunge at the excellent Hazard and the referee rewarded Chelsea with a penalty. I watched as Torres took the ball and – with memories of Sunderland – we all hoped for a similar result.

I chose to photograph the moment of impact.

Snap.

I looked up to see the ball smack against the bar.

Torres in a nutshell…one step forward, two steps back.

A couple more Chelsea chances came and went. The referee blew for the end of the game and we all heaved a sigh of relief. As I walked away, I saw the Steaua team in one extended huddle. They had acquitted themselves well over the two legs and really should have sewn it up in Bucharest. I made my way out into the cold of a London night. Outside the back of the Matthew Harding, a small group of Chelsea fans were singing about Rafa Benitez. I suddenly realised that it was the very first such song that I had heard the entire evening. Outside on the Fulham Road I spotted even more Romanians. It was clear that many had not made it inside.

Before I knew it I was back inside in my car and headed home, sneezing away like a good’un, my cold now making life quite unpleasant.

It was a long and weary drive back to Somerset.

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Tales From 24 Photographs From The Round Of 32

Chelsea vs. Sparta Prague : 21 February 2013.

On the evening of Thursday 21st. February, I took 58 photographs at the Chelsea vs. Sparta Prague game. I uploaded 24 of these to my latest Chelsea album on Facebook. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. Here are a few words about these photographs.

Photograph 1 : 8.01pm.

A close-up shot of the Europa League banner. This had been placed on the Stamford Bridge pitch in front of the West Stand, awaiting the arrival of the two teams. The Europa League represents a new competition for Chelsea Football Club although we took part in its predecessor, the UEFA Cup, in 2000-2001, 2001-2002 and 2002-2003. In the pub beforehand, my mate Daryl commented that he was tempted to miss the night’s game, but he has attended every single one of Chelsea’s European home games since our return in 1994, so felt compelled to buy a ticket. I’ve missed a few; the last one was, ironically, against Sparta Prague in November 2004, when I was tied down at work. I think I’ve missed five home games over the years; Vaalerenga, Hapoel Tel Aviv, MSK Zilina, Helsingborgs, Sparta Prague.

Photograph 2 : 8.03pm.

The two teams standing in a line. A TV cameraman is taking those up-close-and-personal shots of the players. Chelsea in their kit, Sparta wearing tracksuit tops. It was great to see John Terry back in the line-up.

Photograph 3 : 8.03pm.

A photograph of the yellow and burgundy Europa League flag. While the unfamiliar Europa League anthem was played, the flag was being fluttered in the centre-circle by a dozen UEFA clad helpers. With a new colour scheme – no more Chelsea blue and white on European midweek games for now – and with unfamiliar advertising hoardings around the circumference – Hankook, HTC – the night seemed strange from the off-set, like a game being played in a parallel universe. During the anthem, the away section lit up with a hundred or so mobile phone lights – like Napoli last season – and I noticed a few Sparta fans in other parts of the stadium too.

Photograph 4 : 8.04pm.

Another shot of the two teams, the Europa League banner in view. Although the first game at the Letna Stadium was poor, Sparta didn’t offer too much of a threat to Chelsea. I expected a comfortable passage to the next round – the awkwardly titled “Round of Sixteen” – and I had even gambled on flights to Amsterdam, expecting both Chelsea and Ajax to progress.

Photograph 5 : 8.04pm.

A close-up photograph of the Sparta Prague players shaking hands with the Chelsea team. I wondered what the Sparta “game-plan” would be. Contain or attack? Stick or twist?

Photograph 6 : 8.05pm.

A close-up shot of the away fans. In the pub before the game, there were around ten Czech fans, quietly chatting and drinking around a table. A couple were wearing Torino-esque pomegranate coloured Sparta scarves, but their match-day attire was understated and normal. There was even a couple of classically “high-cheek boned” Czech girls in the group. I approved.

Photograph 7 : 8.05pm.

Another close-up of the Czech fans. As soon as I had walked into the stadium, I noticed an orange glow emanating from the away corner. This surprised me since I knew that the Sparta kit colours were – like Roma – burgundy, white, black. After zooming in on the away section, the reason for the orange glow was apparent. Virtually every single one of the three thousand Sparta fans was wearing blue, yellow and red woollen hats. I had never seen this at a game before. Top marks to them. The Sparta crest is blue, yellow and red. Overall, the away end looked orange. What with the Europa League banners in the stadium too, this was turning out to be quite a new visual experience.

Photograph 8 : 8.05pm.

A photograph of the upper tier of the away section. More ski-hats, more colour. Of the three-hundred fans in the photo, there is only one without the hat. Typically, a few “half-and-half” scarves but, as this was a game between teams from two different leagues I saw no problem with that. It was a bitterly cold night in SW6 and everyone was wrapped up in warm jackets. A few wre wearing their Sparta shirts over their outer jackets; maybe their mothers weren’t around this morning to dress them properly. There was an absence of shiny puffer jackets, much beloved by the Italians. Maybe they haven’t reached Prague yet.

Photograph 9 : 8.15pm.

A shot of eight Chelsea pensioners, resplendent in their rich scarlet overcoats sitting at the rear of the East Middle. In front, there was an array of unoccupied seats. I had noted during the day that the Chelsea website had declared the match “sold-out.” This both pleased me and surprised me; the last thing that I wanted was the football world poking fun at Chelsea’s possibly spoiled fan base turning their collective nose up at the Europa League. However, although the rest of The Bridge was full, this corporate area – of some 2,000 seats – was predominantly unoccupied. The question to ask here is; did the corporates decide that this game was not worthy of their presence or did Chelsea get their pricing structure wrong?

Photograph 10 : 8.32pm.

A photograph just before the point of contact of Juan Mata’s boot as he aims a free-kick goal wards goal. The Sparta wall is just about to leap. By this stage in the game, despite a promising start with Torres squandering two good chances, Sparta had gone ahead via a quick free-kick and a goal from Lafata.

Photograph 11 : 8.34pm.

A photograph of the action inside the Chelsea penalty area from a Sparta corner. The ball is just about to be headed clear by Gary Cahill. Despite Chelsea dominating possession during the first-half, Sparta were clearly not just sitting back. The tie was now level and a Sparta away goal would put them at a huge advantage.

Photograph 12 : 8.44pm.

The Prague ‘keeper Vaclik, who had a poor first game, is photographed catching the ball from a Juan Mata corner. Just before the break, Fernando Torres headed over. It clearly was not going to be his night.

Photograph 13 : 9.19pm.

A photograph of the photographers. Dressed in Sparta burgundy, they are poised with their long lenses to capture that elusive Chelsea equaliser at the north end of the stadium. The second-half had begun with Oscar, now showing what a well-rounded and accomplished midfielder looks like – strong in the tackle, good balance, tremendous close skill, great vision – dancing through the Sparta defence with a tremendous run. His ball found Ramires whose shot on goal was deflected onto a post. A lovely turn from Torres was not matched by the finish. He found himself one on one with the ‘keeper but his attempted flick over – with all of ready to celebrate – was amazingly swatted away by Vaclik.

Photograph 14 : 9.21pm.

Push and shove inside the Sparta penalty area. Juan Mata’s cross is out of shot, but players of both teams are moving in every direction possible to elude each other. John Terry is seen pulling a sleeve. One defender is facing away from the ball, creating a block for Mikel. I really wonder why the much-lampooned goal-line officials bother showing up; when have they ever spotted any of these illegal activities during a match? As the second-half developed, the Chelsea fans – already out-shouted by the away fans – began getting more abusive. On the hour, there was a loud shout of “Jose Mourinho” from the Matthew Harding Lower.

Photopraph 15 : 9.23pm.

The ball is headed away by a Prague defender, with Ryan Bertrand challenging. I commented to Alan that Ryan needed a good game; if I’m honest he hasn’t developed particularly well since his surprising involvement in the game in Munich. Ah, Munich. Just the word sends me dizzy.

Photograph 16 : 9.35pm.

John Terry in attack, heading back across goal from another Mata corner. By now, we had wasted many free-kicks in and around the box and Sparta had threatened on a few forays up field. Benitez replaced Oscar – our best player in my book – with Eden Hazard. The dice were being thrown.

Photograph 17 : 9.35pm.

A photo of the Prague fans in the Shed Lower raising their scarves above their head. With their constant chants of “Sparta! Sparta! Sparta!” sounding similar to “Barca! Barca! Barca!” and their yellow and red of Catalonia plus the burgundy and blue of Barcelona, I wondered if there might be an Iniesta-like strike to send us packing. An away goal now and it would be Czech, mate.

Photograph 18 : 9.35pm.

Eden Hazard, in extreme close-up, down below me, shaping to zip a free-kick goal wards. Our domination continued but Torres’ poor night was summed up when a Ramires effort hit him in the chest.

Photograph 19 : 9.50pm.

Juan Mata caught taking yet another free-kick. One after another they came. The frustration rose with every missed opportunity. Ramires wide. A Hazard free-kick was parried by Vaclik. Ramires kicked and missed.

Photograph 20 : 9.53pm.

Bodies in the box. Victor Moses is photographed attempting to latch onto a loose ball. The Prague defenders heads clear. By this stage, we had heard that Ajax was losing 1-0. My flight to Amsterdam was looking in jeopardy. A Gary Cahill block stopped a crucial Sparta goal.

Photograph 21 : 9.55pm.

The captain John Terry is photographed booting the ball goal wards. He had already come close with an impudent flick from close in. At the other end, a Sparta Prague break had caused me to look away – I hardly ever do that – but an effort from Kadlec was zipped wide. That chance really should have sealed the tie. Apilicueta shot high from an angle. Penalties were looming large.

Photograph 22 : 9.58pm.

Eden Hazard is engulfed by ecstatic Chelsea players down below me. In extra-time, the substitute had cut inside a defender, using that lovely low centre of gravity body swerve and worked the ball onto his left foot. A thunderbolt flew past the redoubtable Vaclik and, although I at first thought that Hazard’s thunderstrike had rippled the side-netting, the roar from the Stamford Bridge crowd told me otherwise. I continued snapping the players’ celebrations below.

Photograph 23 : 9.58pm.

A close-up of Torres, Ramires, Mikel, Moses, Hazard and Bertrand. Beside me Alan was shouting for joy – and relief. Phew. It was virtually the last kick of the game. We were through. Phew again.

Photgrapho 24 : 10.01pm.

A photograph of the Sparta Prague team, lined-up, arms around each other, basking in the warm applause of the colourful three-thousand away fans. Soon after, the entire away end was bouncing in joyous abandon. This had clearly been an enjoyable night for them in London. Their players’ performance had been very brave; they almost pulled off the unexpected. The Sparta supporters’ performance was even better. I take my hat off to them.

The 24 Photographs –

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?…1&l=87464ec3a7

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Tales From London And Donetsk

Chelsea vs. Nordsjaelland : 5 December 2012.

So, the day of destiny had arrived. I’m not sure how many days of destiny the average Chelsea supporter faces in his or her life, but this was the latest one. I had travelled up to London, alas, without Lord Porky once again. For the last hour of the journey, my thoughts had been not of the imminent game, nor the consequences of elimination from this season’s Champions League, but of my imminent trip to Japan. In truth, I really haven’t thought too much about it until just recently. Flights and hotels were booked during the summer, but my usual meticulous planning hadn’t really advanced too much. Ironically, I received a disturbing email during the day which told me that one of my connecting flights (from Beijing to Tokyo) had been cancelled.

What?

Thankfully, a phone call later and I had been booked onto a slightly later flight. Sorted.

So, to sum up my feelings as I neared central London; I had already “moved on.” I didn’t really have much hope of Shakhtar beating Juventus. In truth, I just wanted the game to come and go – regardless of the result – and for there to be as little “bad atmosphere” at the Bridge as could be hoped. Our chances of progressing (involving Chelsea and Shakhtar wins) was personally ranked by myself at 10%.

As I slowly edged around Hammersmith roundabout, the evening commuters swarmed all around me. I quickly made the connection; I immediately thought of the thousands of pedestrians who habitually use the iconic Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, underneath acres of shimmering neon. In ten days I would be one of those pedestrians. I caught a little buzz of excitement, and then continued on my safe passage around the busy roundabout, navigating it safely before hitting the Fulham Palace Road and my final approach into home territory.

It was another bitter night in London. The wind chilled me to the bone. I needed warming and so I popped into my old favourite, The Lily Tandoori, and enjoyed a king prawn bhuna while I defrosted. The place was virtually empty. I chatted with the Fulham-supporting waiter about the state of play at my club. Was it me, or did he slightly resemble Rafa Benitez?

Oh dear, I think I was losing the plot. On leaving, I said “I usually come in here after a Champions League game. Should a miracle happen tonight and we go through, expect me in here ordering king prawn bhuna for the rest of this season before each Champions League game.” My comment drew a hearty laugh from the other two customers – Chelsea – in the restaurant.

Over in The Goose, things were quiet and subdued. There were rumours of plenty of “spares” for the night’s game. Out into the night, there was the usual volume of football-going traffic along the Fulham Road. Inside the stadium, thankfully the crowd looked pretty reasonable. This was to be another near full-house. I spoke with John and we both shared the same sentiments –

“Let’s just get this over with, whatever the result.”

I briefly chatted to Kevin and Anna, who will both be in Tokyo. Like me, they took some convincing to do the trip, but are really looking forward to it. No doubt our paths would cross in Japan.

Despite the cold weather, Pensioner Tom was sat alongside Alan. All credit to him for endeavouring to drive up from Sutton on such an inclement night for football. The game began and Chelsea attempted to inflict some early damage on the Danish visitors. However, on a clearly odd evening, the Chelsea support in the Matthew Harding Lower had one eye on events in the Ukraine. On more than one occasion, we supported another team.

“Come on Shakhtar, come on Shakhtar, come on Shakhtar, come on Shaktar.”

We managed to get the ball played into the opposing penalty area on a number of occasions, but our luck was not with us. Chances for Torres and Hazard went begging. At times, I lamented the lack of movement in our midfield. I was reminded of the great Tony Hancock line –

“I thought my mother was a bad cook but at least her gravy used to move about.”

At times our gravy was solid.

Then, a Nordsjaelland attack and Gary Cahill handled. Oh fcuk.

Thankfully, Stokholm’s penalty was struck at a good height for Petr Cech to move to his right and save. As in Munich, he had come to our rescue once again. The crowd roared and Alan commented that maybe this was just what the crowd needed in order for some noise to be generated. It had been another quiet evening. There had been a small amount of booing as the TV screens showed Benitez taking to his seat at the start of the game. I had clapped throughout the sixteenth minute, but there was thankfully not much negative noise. The Chelsea fans are still trying to find their feet – a common ground – after the calamitous events since Black Tuesday in Turin.

Soon after, we were awarded a penalty, but Eden Hazard’s low shot was saved too.

Oh boy.

Bizarrely, another penalty was awarded to us for yet another handball, but this time David Luiz confidently struck home, the ball tearing a path high into the net. We breathed a massive sigh of relief.

Alan and I went through our usual post-goal routine, with accents coloured with a Scandinavian lilt. In the last kick of the first-half, Torres broke and poked a ball home after seeing his initial effort saved. It was a fine piece of intuitive goalscoring, so sadly missing from Torres’ play of late. It was his twentieth goal for Chelsea and – yes, here I go again – I’ve seen every one of the buggers.

20/20 vision.

Pat Nevin was on the pitch, briefly, at half-time and commented about the three penalties. He couldn’t resist a self-deprecating dig at himself, mentioning this beauty from 1985.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0u4lTUl39I

Proper Chelsea.

In Donetsk, it was still 0-0.

After just twenty seconds into the second period, our visitors broke down our left and Cech was beaten by a crafty lob.

Soon after, I asked Alan –

“With the way things have gone here with the three penalties, do you get the feeling this could be one of those crazy nights of football?”

I was clearly grasping at straws.

A Gary Cahill header – looping up and in and over the line – from a Mata free-kick restored our two-goal cushion. Surely our game was won. Soon after, a strong run down the left down below me from Hazard and the ball was pulled back from the bye-line for Torres to prod home. Get in.

21/21.

However, I soon received a text from Tullio in Turin. It ruined my celebrations.

“0-1.”

We were virtually out and in to the Europa League.

A nice move involving Ramires, Hazard and Mata gave us our fifth goal after Mata followed up after his initial shot was parried. There was tons of Chelsea possession in the second half and some of it was lovely to watch. Flicks and turns, albeit against secondary opposition, at least warmed me a little. Eden Hazard even attempted to play a ball back to Oscar by turning and letting it him firmly between the shoulder-blades.

Prowling in the Chelsea technical area was the figure of Rafa Benitez, but I largely chose to ignore him. This is how I am dealing with all of this at the moment. There have been two vaguely similar scenarios to the di Matteo sacking in my memory; the Vialli sacking in 2000 and the Mourinho “mutual agreement” in 2007. Both were horrible affairs, both bring me moments of pain in remembering them.

I loved Vialli as a man, as a Chelsea player and as a Chelsea manager. In his place came the unknown figure of Claudio Ranieri. It took ages for me – and other Chelsea fans – to warm to him. I can well remember a horrible trip to The Valley (some new fans might have to Google this stadium) in November 2000 when we lost 2-0 and the Chelsea support was wailing in displeasure. Didn’t Dennis Wise play wing back for a period in this game? I don’t know. It was a bleak old time. Ranieri’s predilection for playing Slavisa Jokanovic (remember him?) really infuriated the support at the time. Jokanovic was Ranieri’s man and we never warmed to him. The poor bloke was the most hated player of that odd 2000-2001 season.

We then experienced the move from the sublime to the ridiculous in September 2007 when the idolised Jose Mourinho was replaced by the shambolic figure of Avram Grant. Dark days again. It’s no bloody wonder us Chelsea fans sometimes have to throw our hands up to the footballing gods and yell “what the hell is going on?”

In the current climate, Chelsea fans are split into various factions. Some support the team, but boo Benitez. Some support the team but stay silent on the manager. Some support the team at games, but want the team to lose in order for Benitez to be sacked as quickly as possible. Some support the board and the team regardless. Some stay silent. Some even boo players.

A common ground will eventually be found, but – in my mind – not for a while. This could well turn out to be the ultimate winter of discontent.

At 5-1, I spotted a gaggle of tourists in the corner of the Shed Lower continually attempt to initiate the loathed “wave.” Thankfully, it never made it past a third of the way down the lower tier of the West Stand. We don’t do waves in England. It shows utmost disrespect for the players on the pitch and it detracts from the reason why supporters attend games. I pulled my telephoto lens up to my eyes just in time to see a Chelsea lad remonstrate with the entire section and I can easily imagine what words were spoken. I have the bemused reaction of the “happy clappy” tourists on film.

This match report is dedicated to that lone Chelsea fan. Good work son.

On the pitch, Oscar side-footed home to make it 6-1. Mata was replaced by Paolo Ferreira and both players were given a great reception. More chances came to Chelsea, who were now hitting the visitors hard. I captured a perfect rabona by Fernando Torres down below me on film. Torres’ confidence has taken a massive hit since those halcyon days of – when? – October (ha!) but I hope he recovers and recovers quickly. His play, let’s be honest, in the past month has been shocking.

The game ended with a 6-1 win, but we were out of the Champions League. I stared in disbelief at the end, but I soon ended up being annoyed with myself. I had clearly been guilty, in our embroilment with the Champions League since 1999, to have been rather dismissive of the other trophies on offer. The Europa League is the second most prestigious prize in the UEFA portfolio. Back in 1977 or 1983 or 1990 or 1993 I would have given the world to take part in any European competition. Let’s win the Europa League in Amsterdam.

As for the Champions league, at least we had Munich.

We’ll always have Munich.

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