Tales From The Land Of Fire

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 May 2019.

Saturday 25 May : 7.30pm – Heathrow Airport Terminal Two.

It had been a relaxing Saturday thus far. I had driven up to my mate Russ’ house in Shepperton, where my car would be safe for a week, and he then took me over to Heathrow for just after 7pm. The season had, in fact, begun in the very same way; Glenn and I drove to Russ’ place before our jaunt to see Chelsea in Australia back in July. Two things struck me. The game in Perth seemed relatively recent. Yet the away game at Leicester City – what a yawn fest – seemed comparatively distant. It was, perhaps, typical of the strangeness of this season that times and places seemed to be swirling in a bewildering and confusing fashion. This was, undoubtedly, one of the oddest seasons I had ever experienced. Eight goals were conceded in ninety minutes of football in consecutive away games; the second-half at Bournemouth and then the first-half at Manchester City. A generally disliked manager attempted to implement a new brand of football against a baying and increasingly unappreciative support. The league form just about recovered in time as we stumbled to third place and guaranteed Champions League Football next season. And two out of our three cup competitions were to end in final appearances. The jury was out in many minds as to whether or not it had been a “good” season.

My thoughts were : “not enjoyable, but successful.”

Sometimes life is like that.

Russ, with his wife Kim, waved me off as I pulled my two bags towards the terminal. This was a rare departure place for me. My 2016/17 season had begun here with a trip to Vienna for the Rapid friendly, but I could not recollect another T2 / CFC trip. As I crossed the threshold into the departure zone, I looked to my right and just caught sight of a concrete tablet which stated that the terminal was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in late 1955.

I liked that. 1955. An omen. I liked that a lot. I was grabbing at anything. At work the previous day, as before Munich in 2012 and Amsterdam in 2013, I had bought breakfasts for the office team. It was one of a few superstitions that would hopefully play out. There was lucky bird shit on my car too; again a repeat of those two trips.

I was on my own now, for the first time this season. I will be perfectly honest; ever since I had booked my flights and accommodation, fortuitously, and the dream of six days in Baku became real, there was a strong element of guilt inside me. It did not feel right that many close friends – some who had travelled to all other European away games this season – had been priced out of this trip. This feeling was with me for a large part of these first few hours of travel.

Inside the building, there were the usual little tremors of concern that accompany modern travel; had I packed all the essentials, had I overlooked one key ingredient, had I remembered all the chargers, leads and adaptors, had I packed the Nurofen and Imodium?

In the line to check in, I spotted a chap of around my age in an Arsenal shirt from around 1993. In the interests of goodwill – and with a nod to the feeling that, with the final being played so bloody far away from anywhere, we were in some respects “all in this together” I approached him, and his son, and shook their hands. I was wearing a Chelsea polo – rare for me – which enabled them to see straight away that my allegiances were with the other team. We chatted away and instantly clicked. They were from the Isle of Wight, went to a few games each season, but told me of their huge problems, for example, in getting back to their home after midweek games in London. Will, the father, and Noah, the son, soon started asking me about my thoughts about the game, of Baku, of my experiences this season, of my past travels with Chelsea in Europe.

Not long into our chit-chat, Noah – who is fifteen I think – came out with a beautiful line.

“Of course, Chelsea are European royalty aren’t they?”

This stopped me in my tracks for a moment.

“The boy is being tactically naive, there” I thought to myself.

Will was momentarily speechless.

I could not resist piling in.

“Do you two want to close ranks and have a moment? Bloody hell. Should he be saying that in public?”

We all laughed.

European royalty, eh? Bloody hell. Is that how – some – others see us? Of course Arsenal’s last final was in Paris in 2006 and so this was their first one for thirteen years. It might explain why Arsenal had allegedly sold more tickets for Baku than us. Since 2006, we have experienced European finals in 2008, 2012 and 2013.

European royalty? Perhaps Noah was right.

(…mmm, Paris 2006, Arsenal versus Barcelona…they almost became the first London team to win the European Cup, leading 1-0 until very late on…I immediately had trouble remembering the name of Juliano Beletti, who poached the winner, as my memory failed me for a few annoying minutes).

At the check-in, the first scare of the trip. The woman seemed to be struggling with my e-ticket and after a few minutes she shot off to see her supervisor. Panic. Blind panic. For three minutes I was left in limbo, with many gruesome scenarios hurtling through my brain. But all was good. She soon processed my details and even let me off with heavier-than-allowed hand luggage. Phew. I was on my way.

Sunday 26 May : 10am – Istanbul Airport.

The Turkish Airlines flight from Heathrow, due to depart at 10.15pm, eventually left at 11pm. I only had a few moments of fitful sleep. We landed at Istanbul’s swish new airport to the north of the city at 4am. On the bus to the terminal, I chatted to three other Arsenal supporters. We sat and killed time by chatting away. Our flight to Baku was due to leave at 8.15am. Sanjay, who was with his son Chris, was from Crouch End but worked in Tottenham. He had visited the new Tottenham stadium, on a freebie through work, at the end of the season and was brutally honest as he extolled its virtues. It was so noisy. It was such a great stadium. His honesty was refreshing. Over the two or three hours of waiting at the airport, the prospect of “that lot” winning against Liverpool in Madrid was a dark, dark shadow which haunted us all. We all agreed how every team in London hates Tottenham.

The biggest London rivalries, involving the “big four”? Here is my ranking.

1 – Arsenal vs. Tottenham.

2 – Chelsea vs. Tottenham.

3 – West Ham vs. Tottenham.

4 – Chelsea vs. Arsenal.

5 – Chelsea vs. West Ham.

6 – Arsenal vs. West Ham.

Anyone disagree with that?

Sanjay bought me an orange juice. He was another good lad. The other Arsenal supporter was from Northampton, though I did not catch her name. I was outnumbered five to one. We spoke of loyalty points, season tickets, membership schemes, how our two clubs ride roughshod over our emotions. Interestingly, there would be no beam back at Arsenal either. There was ground improvements penciled in for the week. So, beam backs at Liverpool and Tottenham, but not at Arsenal or Chelsea.

Maybe it is a Europa League thing.

Will and Noah departed as they were on their way to Tblisi where they were staying for two nights before getting a coach to Baku. I wished them well, though wondered if I would bump into them again on this trip. At the departure gate, I spotted a young lad wearing a CP top and a Chelsea badge. I smiled and approached him. He was Alex, with his mate Alan, and both from Moscow. It was my first Chelsea interaction of the trip. About bloody time.

Sunday 26 May : 12.45pm – Heydar Aliyev Avenue, Baku.

The flight from Istanbul to Baku, again on Turkish Airlines – no complaints, two great meals on the two flights – took three hours and the last ten minutes will live with me for a while. Approaching from the west, and above the bay, I was able to look out to my left and see the distant, dreamlike, sandy buildings of Baku. The sweep of the bay. The flame towers. The curved peek of the Heyday Aliyev Centre, which beguiled me as we drove past it in a cab on my first visit to Baku in 2017, and which I so wanted to visit in 2019. As the plane swung north, the dry earth of the land below.

We landed on time at midday. There was a little nervousness when I handed over my visa at passport control, but all was fine.

Stamp.

The small arrivals hall was bedecked with UEFA Europa League signage and I made a conscious decision to descend the escalator which was next to the roof column covered in photos of Chelsea players. I was taking no chances. It was the one to the left. I was happy. On my ascent up the stairs of the Matthew Harding, I always keep to the left. Oh those superstitions.

I exchanged some money and easily battled a cab driver down from forty manat to thirty manat. A cab to the city for £15? Perfect. On the way in, on Heydar Aliyev Avenue, I recognised a few landmarks from my early morning cab ride in with my friend Nick in 2017. We glided past the Olympic Stadium. Next up was the flame-like Socar Tower. As I mentioned in my Baku 2017 trip report, the furniture company for whom I work fitted out all forty-two floors back in 2014. Because of the complexities of the accompanying export paperwork, it caused me much grief. It almost saw the end of me if I am honest, as it added a massive workload to my already busy demands. Driving past it once more – on a wide boulevard with lamp posts covered in Chelsea colours – did raise a wry smile.

It was magical to be back in Baku.

Sunday 26 May : 1.30pm, Kichik Qala Street, Old City, Baku.

The cab ride in to the city only took twenty-five minutes. The sun was shining. The traffic grew busier with each passing mile. The cab driver, his mouth full of odd-shaped teeth, had been given my hotel address in the old city, but was struggling with its whereabouts. His driving style was rather erratic. He kept using his mobile phone. He changed lanes constantly. Into the city centre we went, curving south past the modern additions, past the designer shops, onto the boulevard where the Formula One race hugs the Caspian Sea. The city was festooned with the yellow and orange of UEFA. I recognised so much. The Maiden Tower, up the hill, past the glass prism of Icharishahar metro station, and we landed right outside the old Gosha Gala city gates.

“I’ll walk from here.”

Within a few seconds, my spirits had dropped. The row of three or four old-style restaurants, no more than wooden shacks, within one of which I enjoyed a £6 meal in 2017, had been pulled down and it looked like modern versions were taking their place. My heart dropped. It was the one abiding memory of my last visit; a huge stone oven, the smell of smoke, the wooden shutters clattering in the wind. I had planned a return for old time’s sake. Alas it was not possible.

“Progress” I thought.

My hotel was entombed within the old city. The sun was beating down as I pulled my two suitcases up and down Kichik Qala Street. Nobody had heard of my hotel. Up and down I went. I asked many locals. My bags were getting heavier. I immediately thought of our cossetted players – the image of Eden swanning onto the Chelsea plane that took the squad to Boston recently was centre stage in my mind – and wondered if they had any inkling of the tribulations we go through. Eventually, I stumbled across two friendly policemen. One of them ‘phoned my hotel, as had the cab driver en route to the city, but the number was not known.

An invisible hotel and a ‘phone number that does not work.

Fackinell.

The policemen then took me to a nearby hotel, only ten yards away, where I presumed they would ask for directions.

Fackinell again.

It was my hotel.

With a name change.

Bloody hell.

Phew.

My booking, via Expedia, did not immediately feature on the lovely receptionist’s computer – I wanted to marry her there and then – but I have to be honest I suspect that there was a double-booking involved. There seemed to be genuine surprise at my appearance. After five minutes of double-checking, I was shown my room in the adjacent annex.

I had made it.

Fackinell.

Sunday 26 May : 9pm – 360 Bar, Hilton Hotel, Baku.

Being sleep deficient, I crashed out for four hours. I dreamed of work spreadsheets and I dreamed of work routines. The subconscious was not letting me forget work.

I was awoken by an English voice. It must have touched an inner trigger. A shadow of a memory of another time, a whisper from my father –

“Come on Chris, time to get up.”

In fact, my father’s stock waking call was not this at all. It was a standard Royal Air Force line, which my father used to constantly use to get me out of bed on work days. It is a typically quirky and whimsical phrase that RAF pals would utter to others, enjoying deep sleep, and at any time during the night.

“Want to buy a battleship?”

I had no need of battleships in Baku, nor anywhere else, but I quickly came to the conclusion that, by God, I had needed this holiday. Within seconds the feelings of guilt that had been pecking away at me for ages quickly evaporated. Although I would miss the immediate company of my usual laughter buddies, perhaps I needed to be alone – certainly on the first two days of this trip before others would start rolling in – so that I could be left to unwind and relax.

I could be my own boss.

I love the company of others, but my own company is a true joy. I have the best of both worlds.

That first evening, I had one goal; to locate the 360 Bar atop the Hilton.

I was out at 7.30pm. It took me an hour of idle meanderings to reach the hotel, but I was in no rush. I enjoyed the Baku evening and quickly dipped into the fan park next to the Caspian. I couldn’t see many Chelsea from the UK participating at this. It was far too regulated. Far too happy-clappy. We like to hide in the pubs and bars, inside the deepest cracks and fissures of host cities, only emerging at the last minute to head on to the stadium.

I made my way east and soon found my goal. I noted lots of UEFA signage at the hotel reception and I was whisked up to the twenty-fifth floor. I settled in a comfy chair, ordered the first of five local Xirdalan lagers. They were only seven manat – just £3.50 – and were served with some crisps and popcorn. I booked a table for Tuesday when some friends would be in town.

And I relaxed. The revolving bar offered fantastical views of the city. My camera had trouble getting clear images, but my memories remain strong. The Flame Towers were the obvious stars and the lights flickered and danced with varying images…the red, blue and green of the national flag on individual towers, the flames, the Azerbaijani flag over the three towers, three figures waving national flags, sparking stars, and – oddly – the three towers as vessels filling up with water,

I was enchanted.

With wifi, I was able to toast absent friends on Facebook.

I left at midnight, took a cab into town, slowly guzzled three more bottles of lager in a bar called “Room” and relaxed some more. I chatted to a Serb from Belgrade – a Red Star fan – who remembered, and loved, Petar Borota who played for Chelsea from 1979 to 1982 and for Red Star’s great rivals Partizan Belgrade before joining us. It had been a chilled-out evening, just what my brain needed, but I felt that I was just touching the surface of Baku.

Monday 27 May : 7pm – Mugam Club, Old City, Baku.

There was more – beautiful – sleep on Monday. I did not wake early. Thankfully there was just enough cold air emanating from the air-conditioning unit to allow for a pleasant rest. Suffice to say, I missed breakfast.

Over the past year, I have watched “The Art Lovers Guide – Baku” on three occasions. I caught up with it again on iPlayer a few weeks back. The two guides – a troubling mix of excellent informative analysis but awful pretension – visited the “Mugam Club” where indigenous music is played while local food is served. The one song featured briefly in the programme was magical and my interest was piqued. Luckily, this was only five minutes from my hotel. I visited it, and enjoyed it all. Several musicians played. Some local music was mixed in with Western music, which spoilt it a little. A salad, some chicken in pomegranate sauce and some rice, all washed down with a bottle of Xirdalan. A lovely little distraction from the football-themed mayhem that would soon envelope the city.

Outside, my next goal was to get up close and personal with the Flame Towers. On the way, on the main square to the west of the Old City (I have to keep reminding myself how close everything is in Baku, it is a wonderful place to leisurely walk between sites), I spotted a Sky Sports reporter doing a live piece to camera. I chatted to him briefly. He had heard that the players were staying at the nearby Four Seasons Hotel. He also spoke to me about Frank Lampard, who I was sad to see had just lost to Aston Villa at Wembley.

Aston Villa, Norwich City and Sheffield United next season then. Two good trips there. Villa is just a bit tedious.

Monday 27 May – 11pm, Harry’s Bar, Baku.

Alas the funicular railway had closed, so at 9pm I ascended the six-hundred steps to the area by the Flame Towers. I spent a good ninety minutes or so underneath the dancing lights, and I was in my element. On the ascent I had spotted a terraced walkway lit up with pure white lights. A real stairway to heaven. The city was charming me with every turn of the eye. Adjacent to the towers was a beautifully constructed area – Highland Park – with a war memorial, fountains, and with outstanding views of the city. The minuets of the Sehidler Xiyabani Mosque contrasted wildly with the flickering LED of the towers. Baku was beguiling me again.

Very soon I found myself in the heart of the city, and I wandered south of Fountain Square into the quarter of a mile block that holds most of the city centre’s bars.

I passed a cellar bar – “Harry’s Bar” – and an English chap was coming up for air.

“Any good?”

“Yeah, it’s alright.”

It was 11pm. I needed a drink as I was gasping. I enjoyed it so much that I stayed until 8am.

For the most part, there were no more than five or six people inside. I got talking to Bob and his son Chris – from Swindon, Arsenal – and we again had a great laugh. I was still yet to spot another Chelsea supporter in Baku. The pub was next to the “Red Lion” and I kept calling in to see if any friends had yet arrived. They hadn’t. That pub was pretty quiet too. But I was in no mood to travel too far. The first beer I was served was a five manat bottle of Efes, but I soon learned that Bob and Chris were on three manat pints. So I soon joined them. Within ten minutes of my arrival “Blue is the Colour” was booming around the small bar.

The night continued, the beers flowed steadily. We bought beers for the barman and his charming wife. Locals occasionally dropped in but for hours the cast involved just five people. Bob chatted to a local girl – the girl with no name, I would continually bump into her over the next few days – and I just sat at the bar with Chris, drinking away. Three o’clock came and went. Seeing Bob attempt to walk back down the steps into the bar from an excursion into the open air was the funniest thing I have seen for ages. Four o’clock came and went. I was in still no mood to leave.

“More tea, vicar?”

Five o’clock.

There was then a very intense “domestic” between the barman and his wife. Then the bar owner showed up and things started to unravel. There was a tense moment of monies being counted and recounted and it all got a bit heated. It was as if Bob, Chris and I were watching some great Shakespearean tragedy unfold in front of our eyes. At about six o’clock – light outside now of course – and after the two Arsenal lads left, I was alone with a beer.

In walked Carl and Ryan from my old haunting ground of Stoke-on-Trent (last featured in the Barcelona away report from last season, another ridiculous night) and three lads from Gloucester. They were newly arrived in town, and had to kill a few hours before being able to book in.

“Carl!”

“Chris!”

“Ryan!”

Fackinell.

So funny.

I wasn’t sure who was more surprised to see each other. Chelsea laughs and Chelsea giggles all over. A Chelsea / Gloucester flag was draped from the bar ceiling. At last I had met some Chelsea fans in Baku. The drinking continued – at a slow pace, I hasten to add, I was in no rush – and the night didn’t want to end. Eventually, I made my way back to the hotel with the early morning sun warming my back.

Tuesday 28 May : 11pm – The William Shakespeare, Baku.

My hotel room had “occasional wifi” and I was able to observe during Tuesday how many friends and acquaintances were arriving into town. I trotted down to the centre and it was just so odd to be in Europe with Chelsea yet to hear another English team’s songs echoing around the streets. I aimed for “The William Shakespeare” on the main street for bars in Baku. On the intersection of this street and another, I spotted Will and Noah about to tuck in to some food in a street side café.

“Good to see you!”

They had thoroughly enjoyed Tblisi, but were now relishing the delights of Baku.

Just after, I bumped into Cathy and Dog.

At last, a time for the gathering of the clans.

The “Shakespeare” pub was busy and getting busier by the minute.

Virtually the first people that I met were Andy and his daughter Sophie. I was especially pleased to see them because – I am sure they will not mind me mentioning it – Andy’s wife Karen passed away just after Christmas. If anyone remembers, I heard about it just minutes before the start of our game at Selhurst Park. I was just so pleased that they had been able to make it. I first met Andy – to talk to – on Wenceslas Square in Prague right after our afternoon game in Jablonec twenty-five years ago, although I had recognised him from my train journeys to London from the midlands as way back as 1985. I have known Sophie since she was a very young girl.

Bless them both.

I soon met up with Luke and Aroha and their pals, then Dave and Neil. Then Russ, Albert, Nathan and Shari from Australia. Callum. Eva. Carl and Ryan, the two Stokies. Nick from Weymouth. Martin from Gloucester. Calvin. A few more. I bumped into Orlin, another good lad who has featured in these tales for many years. I first met him before an Arsenal away game in April 2012, ironically in “The Shakespeare Tavern” at Victoria, and we would meet up again in Turin, Tokyo, Bucharest, Istanbul, Porto, Vienna and – er – Sunderland. We very rarely see each other at Stamford Bridge. He lives partly in San Francisco and partly in Serbia. He is a lovely bloke. There were a few fellow Chelsea Bulgaria in the pub. They are quite well known to the regulars at Chelsea. They are good lads.

Respect to the four Chelsea fans based in Australia, who I met out in Perth, who had travelled.

Albert – Brisbane.

Nathan – Perth.

Russ – Melbourne.

Shari – Brisbane.

They would be part of a little band – of ten – who were in Perth and would be in Baku.

From the UK – Cathy, Rich, Scott, Paul, myself.

From Vietnam – Steve.

From Australia to Azerbaijan. Fackinell.

A few of us jumped into cabs and headed off to the 360 Bar for 9pm. My booth was waiting for me. Ruslan, the barman who looked after me on Sunday, welcomed me and we ordered some drinks and a little food. The others – Aroha, Doreen, Luke, Russ, plus three of Luke’s mates – loved it. The views were again stunning. We all then met up at “The Shakespeare” for community singing. We had heard that Arsenal had commandeered two pubs – “Finnegans” and the smaller “Red Lion.” As far as we could tell, we just had “The Shakespeare.” I don’t think this was anything official. It just transpired to be like this. All three pubs were within fifty yards of each other, like the trenches in the First World War. Throughout the evening, there were no police mobbed up outside our pub, unlike many European aways. There was a very laid back – surreal – atmosphere. I am not so sure there would have been the same vibe if Tottenham had been in town. In the pub, one song dominated the night. At one stage, with me trying to order a beer at the bar, it went on for bloody ever.

“They’ve been to Rotterdam and Maribor.

Lyon and to Rome.

Tottenham get battered.

Everywhere they go.

Everywhere they go.”

I was just surprised Seville wasn’t included.

The song continued on.

“Everywhere they go. Everywhere they go.”

There was a fantastic rendition of “Blue Day” too. Everyone singing. Very emotional. Magical. And – of course – “The Liquidator.”

I bumped into, quite unintentionally, four Chelsea fans from the US; Jean, who I had met in “Simmons” at a European game during the season, Robert, James and Paul. Three from Texas and one from new Jersey. Three new acquaintances, and one re-connection. In fact, there was a gentle influx of Chelsea fans from outside the UK. Lots of scarves. Lots of replica shirts. They looked both amazed and bemused at the same time. We moved next-door, and downstairs, to another bar, and I then traipsed over to see how the two bartenders at “Harry’s Bar” were shaping up. All was good, but it was desperately quiet. I wondered how on earth they survived on such little turnover. I bought some pizzas for us and left there at 5am. Bloody hell.

Wednesday 29 May : 5pm – Fan Festival, Baku.

Match ticket in hand, obtained from the Landmark Hotel, I made my way back in to town. I walked in the shade as the sun was still beating down. I met up with Steve down at the Fan Festival. He had popped into the Hilton earlier, had spotted Florent Malouda and Deco, but also the extremely well packaged UEFA Cup (sorry, Europa League Trophy) as it arrived from Nyon in Switzerland. He hoped that the spotting of it was a good sign for him, for Chelsea, for all of us.

I had strolled into the Hilton too, just after the collection of the ticket, and used their wifi again. There were UEFA signs everywhere. I was half-hoping to bump into a famous player from the past, but I saw nobody of note. But you can just imagine what high-level schmoozing had been happening in this building over the past few days. Of course there had been much wailing about the decision to reward Azerbaijan with this year’s final. I have tried to be as objective as possible. Isn’t it right that every member nation within UEFA should host a major final at least once in their existence?

Er, yes.

But then it gets cloudy. I have always advocated the placing of the major finals to be within a central area of Europe, with the majority of host cities to run from Lisbon and Porto in the west to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and up as far as Copenhagen or Stockholm in the north, down through to Warsaw to Budapest in the east and down as far as Rome and Naples in the south. Ninety-five percent of likely finalists would be encompassed within that area. With the emergence of formerly Soviet states and the splintered Balkan states, maybe the odd and occasional flit – as has happened – to Istanbul, Kiev and Moscow.

But Baku?

It is the most easterly outpost of UEFA, not taking into the vast hinterland of Russia which lies east of Moscow.

It always was a mad decision.

But it was all about money, wasn’t it? It was all about Baku fancying itself as a Dubai on the Caspian Sea – oil rich and eager to impress on the global stage –  and UEFA went hand-in-hand with it all. The final straw was UEFA’s awful explanation for the awarding of so few tickets to the finalists. They themselves admitted that it would be a ridiculously difficult place for most fans to reach. It is enough to make anyone want to cry. UEFA might be financially rich but they are morally bankrupt.

I took some photos of the huge Azerbaijan flag which fluttering away like a flame. Its colours are horizontal bars of green, red and blue. Although the colours represent Islam, progress and its Turkic heritage – thank you Wikipedia – my take on it is this.

Blue – sky

Red – fire

Green – earth

In footballing terms, I found it easy to work it all out.

Blue – Chelsea – above red – Arsenal – above green – the pitch.

Sorted.

Back at the hotel, a quick freshen up and out again.

I had, unremarkably, not thought too much about the game at all. The match would take care of itself. If pressed, I would say that we were slight if not firm favourites. There certainly wasn’t the fear of Munich in 2012. The vibe matched that of Stockholm in 1998 and Amsterdam in 2013. I was quietly confident.

The game was at 11pm, and I hit “The Shakespeare” at 7pm. I took it easy. I had enjoyed a few “cokes” during the day. I only had three beers before the game. I had a wry smile at the sight of a few working girls trying to muster up some business in the pub. On the night of a European Cup Final, with the kick-off approaching, they had surely miss-read their customer base? The crowds started drifting towards the stadium. About ten of us – all together, looking after each other – walked the fifteen minutes to Sahil metro station. We were on our way.

Wednesday 29 May : 10pm – Koroghlu Metro Station, Baku.

Out into the warm Baku night, and the stadium, burning with the orange and yellow hues of UEFA’s newest trophy just a few hundred yards ahead, we walked on. There were Arsenal voices and Chelsea voices now. The most voluble ones were from the UK. But of course there were other fans from near and far too. And I began to notice other club shirts. I had seen one or two Eintracht Frankfurt shirts in the city; it was obvious many had gambled, like me, but had lost. But there were Galatasary and Fenerbahce shirts. There were Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona shirts. There were shirts from the local Azerbaijani league. It was all very strange. I walked on, but then excused myself from the others as I tried to capture a few photos of the stadium’s striking exterior. Just eighteen months previously, the stadium’s shell was more delicately coloured with shades of pink, lavender, red, purple and white. On that night, I circumnavigated the stadium alone and took some photos too. I am nothing if not a creature of habit.

Who should walk past me but Orlin, who I had bumped into the previous day just outside my hotel in the old city. It was typical of the week that I would keep seeing the same faces. In addition to the girl with no name, I also kept bumping into a local who I had asked for directions while looking for my hotel, and also a policeman who kept appearing near my hotel. I called them my guardian angels. Orlin had taken the free bus from the muster point near Sahil Park, but had been dropped off a good fifteen-minute walk away from the stadium. He was far from impressed. I think our choice of the metro – free for three days with use of a match ticket – was the better option.

The photographs continued.

Wednesday 29 May : 11pm – Section 114, Row 20, Seat 29, Olympic Stadium, Baku.

I had reached my seat with about fifteen minutes to go. On the pitch, the last few moments of a quite inappropriate musical sequence were taking place. It was all very “Superbowl” and all very tedious. Where is my “go to” comment about modern football? Ah, there it is.

I hate modern football.

The booming noise emanating from the speakers meant that there was simply no point in us even attempting any Chelsea songs and chants. It seemed that the event was bigger than us, far bigger. It felt like we were just pawns rather than kings. I looked around the stadium. There were empty seats everywhere. I glanced over at the Arsenal section. The thin sliver was pretty packed apart from a half-full upper deck, not too far from where we had watched the Qarabag game – getting increasingly colder – not so long ago. There was a mixture of fans in jeans and shorts. It was a warm night and very pleasant, despite the late kick-off slot. I spotted a few familiar faces. Kev from Port Talbot – one of those on the two Thomas Cook flights from Luton – was down below me. Kisses and handshakes for the “Bristol lot” as they walked past me. I had chosen the most expensive seat available – as had many people I know by the look of it – and I was rewarded with a seat in line with the goal line. It would prove to be a treasure, a gift from the footballing Gods.

Fireworks on the pitch and from atop the stand.

The pre-match paraphernalia was cleared away.

Through the smoke of the fireworks, I was just able to take a photograph of the teams on the far side.

Phew. Here it is then.

My game number fifty-six, from Australia to Azerbaijan.

The team was not a surprise, but we were of course greatly relieved to see N’Golo Kante starting. Emerson and not Alonso, a big game for the lad. Giroud upfront, good. Pedro instead of Willian.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

For Arsenal, I was only interested to see if Petr Cech was playing.

He was.

Before the match, before the trip, I had been quite sincere with a prediction of a “0-0 then penalties”.

The game began and I had to make my first decision. Although the section to my left – behind the goal – was standing, most in my section were sat. I saw that Kev and Gary were stood a few rows in front, but it looked like I would be forced to sit. I felt terrible about sitting. It felt like I had lost the battle. I didn’t sit in Stockholm, nor Moscow, nor Munich, nor Amsterdam. I glanced across at the Arsenal section. They all seemed to be standing.

Bollocks.

Not long into the game, I saw a chap wearing a black Manchester United jersey file past me and I could not resist a few words of abuse. In front of me was a bloke in a Galatasaray shirt. To my right, no more than ten seats away, was a bloke in an Arsenal shirt.

Fucking hell.

What has this become?

And how on Earth had these fools managed to get tickets in the 6,000 Chelsea section? I would really love to know that.

A large stadium that was barely two-thirds full. Other team supporters sitting in our section. Chelsea supporters from the UK split up over three tiers. Chelsea fans sitting. Hardly any noise, nor songs, nor chants, nor laughter, nor atmosphere. Because of the factors mentioned, it was a truly agonising first-half. It was horrible. It was one of the worst halves of my footballing life. It was a totally shameful atmosphere. It honestly felt like a summer tour game in the US or Thailand or Australia. I will be honest, the pre-season game against Arsenal in Beijing in 2017 was way louder.

The word “surreal” does not do it justice.

Many times during the first forty-five minutes, I felt that this was the end of the road for me. It was that upsetting.

On the pitch, it was a very quiet start, with lots of shadow boxing. Arsenal had more possession, though, and Aubameyang’s shot flashed wide of Kepa’s post after ten minutes. There were general mutterings of unrest in the seats around me as Arsenal continued to dominate. However, a penalty appeal involving Lacazette as he lept over Kepa never looked like resulting in a penalty, despite the audible howls from the Arsenal section. In that first-half, I could discern a few chants from that end. Our end seemed to be ball watching, not involved, distant. Slowly, Chelsea woke up and began to get involved. Kante, who had worried me in the first quarter of the game with a few odd errors, broke down the right and his cross towards the near post towards Giroud had us on our feet. sadly, the Frenchmen’s feet got tangled and the chance was lost. Pedro had been free just behind him.

Xhaka struck a very fine effort towards goal, and the rising drive clipped the top of our bar.

At last the game was evolving, slowly, into a final worthy of the name.

But still there was hardly any noise anywhere.

Emerson and Hazard were linking up well on the far side. Occasionally, Eden would wander over to the other flank. A turn, a spin and a twist would result in Arsenal defenders reaching for their sat nav. Emerson forced a block from Cech. With five minutes to go before half-time, a fine move involving Jorginho and Hazard ended with the ball at Giroud’s feet. He pushed the ball into space and shot low with his left foot – not a clean strike – but Cech was able to drop to his left and push the ball around the post.

I met up with Kev and Gary at half-time and we formed “The Baku Half-Time Moaners Club.”

You can imagine our chat. Back at my seat, I wondered if we were in for another second-half implosion, our motif of the whole season.

Thursday 30 May : Midnight – Section 114, Row 20, Seat 29, Olympic Stadium, Baku.

The second-half began with Kovacic and Giroud in the centre-circle. A push of the ball backwards and we were away again. Eden was immediately a live-wire and he seemed to suddenly have more space than before. After just five minutes, the ball was played to Emerson, not so far away from me, about ten yards in from the touchline. I snapped my camera as he struck a cross towards the waiting Giroud. The ball was waist high and our striker fell to his knees to meet it, some fifteen yards out, reaching the flight of the ball just before Koscielny could react. His header was perfection. I watched as it flew low into the corner of the net past Cech’s hopeless dive.

Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

My camera did not capture the header but although I was boiling over inside, I remained calm enough to capture the scorer drop to his knees and point both forefingers to the skies, eyes closed. Giroud had found his footballing nirvana.

Section 114 was going doolally.

Team mates swarmed around. Some dropped to their knees too. A kiss from Jorginho for Emerson, the supplier of the killer cross. Photos taken, I was able to punch the air and scream and shout.

GET IN.

It was the Frenchman’s eleventh goal in Europe this year. Thoughts of him being a former Arsenal player fizzed through my mind.

Ha.

It was all Chelsea now. Prompted by Jorginho, Kovacic and Hazard ran at the troubled Arsenal rear guard. The Chelsea section, on life-support in the first-half, was now roaring back to life. And for the rest of the game I stood. This was more like it, Chelsea. Then minutes after the first goal, Hazard was allowed too much time and space in the Arsenal final third – “table for one, sir?” – and spotted Pedro lurking on the edge of the box. He rolled the ball square. Pedro clipped it in.

FUCKINGGETINYOUBASTARD.

More photographs of pure delirium.

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

Pete suddenly appeared next to me, holding two plastic glasses of “Amstel.”

“Let’s have a sip mate.”

“Have it, Chris.”

“Top man.”

Lager never tasted sweeter. I gulped my pint down pronto. I had to, since I was worried about missing another goal and another photo. My very next photo was of Pedro holding off a challenge in the “D”, the next was of him pushing the ball through to Giroud, the next the challenge by Maitland-Niles.

Snap, snap, snap.

A penalty to Chelsea.

COME ON!

The mood in our section was now of euphoria.

But we waited and waited.

Eden Hazard vs. Peter Cech, team mates from 2012 to 2015, squared-up against each other.

Eden drilled it home.

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

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 0.

“Smelling salts please nurse.”

The bloke in front of me commented “your voice has gone” and I smiled. I felt like saying “that is because I have been singing all second-half unlike you, you twat” but I felt better of it. The two gents to my immediate right – from the UK, dressed in the monstrosity of next season’s home shirt – hardly sang all night. Why do these people fucking bother?

Four minutes later, the substitute Iwobi unleashed a fierce rising volley – I was right behind the flight of the ball, it was a stunner – that flew into our goal.

“Great goal” I said, completely seriously.

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 1.

Yet only three minutes later, a wonderful break from Chelsea saw Hazard exchange passes with Giroud in the box – the lofted “dink” from Giroud was world class, the highlight of the match for me – and this allowed Eden to smash the ball home.

We roared again.

Chelsea 4 Arsenal 1.

I photographed the immediate aftermath. I knew straight away that my photo of Hazard, arms spread, and Cech, crestfallen, was a winner. That £121 seat was paying dividends alright. Only from that vantage point could I have taken that photo. I was a happy man.

There was a song for Gianfranco Zola and he responded with a wave from the bench.

In the last part of the game, Maurizio Sarri made some changes. Just before our fourth goal, Willian replaced Pedro. Then Ross Barkley came on for Kovacic. Willian twice went close with efforts, Cech saved from Hazard. Eden was then fouled, he looked injured, and he was substituted. I captured virtually every step of his last few seconds as a Chelsea player. A hug from Willian, an embrace from Giroud.

The last step.

Snap.

Eden was replaced by Davide Zappacosta.

With the local time at 00.50am, the referee from Italy blew the final whistle.

We had only bloody won it.

Thursday 30 May : 1.30am – Section 114, Row 20, Seat 29, Olympic Stadium, Baku.

The cup was lifted at 1.05am. There was no Wembley-style ascent to a balcony that happened in Munich and Amsterdam, but the same on-the-pitch presentation of Stockholm. Dave and Gary – how English, like two van drivers – lifted the iconic trophy. It really is a beauty. Dave then spent the next twenty minutes kissing the trophy and I was tempted to shout “get a room.” These were joyous times in deepest Baku.

4-1.

Bloody hell.

We usually squeak by in Cup Finals. Four bloody one. Unbelievable. We heard that Eden was, quite rightly, the man of the match. They all played well. Special mentions for Kovacic, Jorginho, and even David Luiz did well. I just bathed in the glory of it all. These nights do not come around too often. After that odd first-half, in which we gradually became stronger, we just exploded in the second-half. We were afforded so much space in the middle of the pitch and in the attacking third. Jorginho was in the middle of all of it, and once balls were released to our runners, I could not believe the ease with which we found each other. Arsenal seemed unwilling to challenge, or – to be blunt – even compete. At times we were miles too good for them. Maybe, here in Baku, almost three thousand miles from home, we had seen the season’s high water mark of our beleaguered manager’s playing style.

Regardless, the European trophy was our’s.

It now stood at five.

1971 : Athens.

1998 : Stockholm.

2012 : Munich.

2013 : Amsterdam.

2019 : Baku.

“Our biggest-ever Cup Final win.”

“And Arsenal don’t get Champions League football next season.”

“What a second-half.”

In my mind I was thinking all sorts of odd things.

…”bloody hell, I have never seen Chelsea play in Ipswich, but I have seen us play in Baku twice.”

…”God, that first-half was awful, though.”

…”thinking of Parky and PD and Gal and Al and Glenn and Daryl and Ed.”

…”we always score four in Baku.”

…”God, how many photos am I going to have to sift through from that game?”

I took blissful snaps of Kev and Gary, Dave, Leigh and JD.

Everyone smiling.

At last the players walked over to the Chelsea section. They massed by the curving area behind the goal then – again, so lucky – chose to hoist the cup once more right in front of myself and others in section 114. I was a lucky man once more. It will surprise nobody to hear that I was one of the last out of the stadium. At 1.30am, I took a single photograph of my seat in Baku and collected my, unused, souvenir flag, and stuffed it in my camera bag. I made my way to the exits, I was a happy man.

Incidentally, the attendance would be announced as 51,000 in a 67,000 capacity stadium.

A ridiculous figure really. It should have been packed to the rafters.

However, chew on this. At Liverpool’s first-ever European Cup Final in Rome in 1977, involving Borussia Mönchengladbach, the attendance was just 52,000 in a 65,000 stadium.

Thursday 30 May : 5am – The William Shakespeare, Baku.

Outside the stadium, Steve came bounding over.

“I told you seeing the cup at The Hilton was a sign.”

We hugged.

I met up with Calvin, who had just been separated from his father, at the long line for the metro. I had been on my feet for a couple of hours and I was starting to tire. Calvin was good company on that painful journey back in to town. Just like in Munich, I think  I was on the last train. In 2017, it was a much easier – and quicker – journey. On that day, with tickets more keenly priced – ours were £4.50 – over 67,000 attended. Crucially, though, we were well ahead at half-time and many left early. But tonight, damn, the movement out and onto the tube took forever.

At about 2.30am, we flopped on the red line into town. We scowled at a lad who was wearing both a Liverpool shirt and scarf.

“Prick.”

We hit all the stations.

Koroglu.

Ulduz.

Narimanov.

Ganclik.

28 May.

Sahil.

Exhausted, we plodded back to Chelsea Central; we reached “The Shakespeare” at about 3am. Back with all the people that I had met over the past few days, this was a magical time. Drinks were consumed, songs were sung, all the old favourites. I loved a Jam and then a Style Council segment at about 4am.

“I was half in mind I was half in need
And as the rain came down I dropped to my knees and I prayed.
I said “oh heavenly thing please cleanse my soul
I’ve seen all on offer and I’m not impressed at all.”

I was halfway home I was half insane
And every shop window I looked in just looked the same.
I said send me a sign to save my life
‘Cause at this moment in time there is nothing certain in these days of mine.

We see, it’s a frightening thing when it dawns upon you
That I know as much as the day I was born
And though I wasn’t asked (I might as well stay)
And promise myself each and every day that is

That when you’re knocked on your back an’ your life’s a flop
And when you’re down on the bottom there’s nothing else
But to shout to the top shout.
Well, we’re gonna shout to the top.”

I had not spotted Luke and Aroha since before the game and when I saw them enter the pub, I shouted over to them. This made the person next to me turn around to see who was shouting. Bloody hell, it was Orlin.

“Bloody hell man, how long have you been stood there?”

We crumpled with laughter. I then spotted Alex and Alan from Moscow, the first Chelsea that I had met on this trip way back in Istanbul. Everyone together. Just right. I did not want this night to end. There are photographs of these hours on the internet and they will become priceless reminders of “that night in Baku.” Eventually, the bar turfed us out at 6am.

“I could murder a McDonald’s Breakfast.”

It opened at 8am.

“Bollocks.”

I made do with my second hot dog of the trip on Fountain Square. I returned to the hotel, but my head was still buzzing. I uploaded some photographs from my camera to share on Facebook. I shared the one of Eden Hazard and Peter Cech on Instagram. I was just glad the wifi had decided to work. At 7.30am I was still chatting to pals all over the world. Eventually, I fell asleep.

Thursday 30 May : 8pm – Qazmac Restaurant, Old City, Baku.

I was out in the evening again, relaxing at my own pace in a lovely restaurant opposite where those antiquated huts used to stand on Kickik Qala. I had chosen a light salad and some mutton kebabs. The waiter suggested some bread – fine – but he also recommended some local butter and some caviar. I thought “why not, when in Rome.” Imagine my surprise when he brought out a sizeable pot of the stuff. I asked him “how much is that?” just at the exact moment that he pierced the top of the sealed container.

“Oh, it’s two hundred manat, sir.”

Gulp.

£100.

“Whooooah, hang on one minute, I’m not paying that.”

I remember having caviar – for the only time in my life – on a little French stick in Vienna in 1987. It was just a taste then, and I had visions of a very small portion this time too. I clearly wasn’t prepared to pay £100 for a great pot of the bloody stuff. Thankfully, the waiter understood and that was that. But I enjoyed my meal. It was wonderful. With a beer and some lovely ice-cream it came to £12.50. Superb. It had been a relaxing day. No surprises, I had slept well. As my father might have said of my bed in room 304, “it has a lot of sleep in it.”

My main objective on this day was to head over to visit the splendour of the Heydar Aliyev Centre. It was an hour’s walk – I was tempted, I Iove a good walk in a foreign city – but as my match ticket enabled me to travel for free on the city’s metro for one further day, I made use of it. Rain was spotting as walked up to Icarisharer tube, but it soon stopped. I spent an hour or so walking around the curves of the building. This structure was also featured in that TV programme about Baku. I felt as if I knew all about it. Sadly, as there was a concert taking place, I was unable to go inside. Along with a visit to the Palace of the Shirvanshahs in the old city, and that odd site of Yanar Dag to the north-east of the city where there is an eternal flame burning non-stop from natural gasses from deep inside the earth, it will have to wait until my next visit to Baku.

On the second day of my 2018/19 season, I found myself walking around the famous curves of the Sydney Opera House. On this second-from-last day of the season, here I was outside the equally sublime and beautiful curves of the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku.

Where next? The iconic lines of Preston Bus Station? Watch this space.

I loved it there. I loved the use of space. The undulating roof of the building is wonderful. And the whole structure sits on top of a gentle incline, and there is subtle use of grass and reflecting ponds. Typically, there was a large replica of the Europa League trophy at the base of the hill. It combined well with a “I Love Baku” sign. On this visit, the sky above was full of brilliantly fluffy clouds. Dotted around the grass lawns were odd concrete casts of snails and rabbits. It was like a surreal dream. It was bloody fantastic. It is no surprise that it is placed right on the main road into the city. It is surely Baku’s most stunning building.

To cap off another memorable day, I dived in to see a few pals – a couple of pints with Dave who was soon to be heading off to Kiev for one night – in “The Shakespeare” and made another trip down for some beers at “Harry’s Bar.” There were warm welcomes in both. I could hear some Arsenal chants from inside “The Red Lion.”

“Shit club no history.”

“Arsenal in Baku, this city is red.”

Yawn.

I’ll be honest. I bumped into two small parties of Arsenal that night – from Amersham, and then from Manchester – and they were fine. They were just so fed up with their team and their club.

Friday 31 May : 11.30am – Gobustan National Park.

On my last day in Baku, I was out on a half-day tour in a little mini-bus, to see the ancient cave etchings of the Gobustan National Park. I had booked this back in England. Imagine the look on my face when I saw Will and Noah waiting outside the travel agency.

“Of all the people we wanted to see. Hello, Chris.”

What a small world, eh? From a plane at Heathrow to a fifteen-seater in Baku. As I clambered aboard the mini-bus, who else should be on the vehicle but Margaret and Roy, two of the most loyal Chelsea supporters ever. They follow all of Chelsea’s teams, not just the first team like me, all over. I remember bumping into Roy at Bristol City’s training ground in around 2009 when we both watched a couple of Chelsea academy games on a Saturday morning. Again, what a small world. It was a four-hour trip. Alongside Will, Noah and myself was a chap called Tommy – an Arsenal supporter, from London – who turned out to be one of the most boring football supporters that I have ever met. I could not help bristling every time he referred to his team as “The Arsenal.” It is a pet hate of my good pal Alan too, and I thought of him every time I heard it. It did make me smile, though, when Tommy admitted to me “I wish we had Abramovich.”

Game. Set. Match.

The tour took us out on an hour drive to the south west of the city. The Gobustan stone carvings were quite fascinating, but it also gave me a chance to see a little of the scenery outside the city. There were oil rigs in the Caspian Sea and new houses being constructed alongside the roads. There was an abandoned Azerbaijani version of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa and an unappetising beach resort. There were oil, water and gas pipelines snaking over the arid landscape, and the inevitable oil refineries. Two companies dominate; BP and Socar. The tour guide was an interesting character; formerly an army captain, formerly an off-shore worker, and a hater of caviar. In his youth, caviar was cheaper than meat and his mother used to feed him it daily. He now can’t stand the stuff.

We were given a tour of the caves. At the end, he led us to the oldest carving of the morning.

“This one is seventeen thousand years old.”

I muttered to Will and Noah –

“Yeah, it depicts the Tottenham captain lifting their last league trophy.”

Friday 31 May : 7.30pm – Fountain Square, Baku.

After a meal in a pleasant restaurant – more salad, more kebabs – I was walking back through Fountain Square. I walked past a local father and son. I overheard the young boy mention Chelsea and Arsenal. I turned around and smiled. I intimated that I was Chelsea and gave the boy a thumbs up. The father explained –

“He wants to know of the history of Chelsea.”

I felt like stopping them, marching them into a café, sitting them down, turning on Google-translate, and entertaining them for three hours.

Later that evening, well aware that I had booked a cab to take me to the airport at 2am, I took it easy. There were some more photographs. I took around 1,750 over the week. My camera is my great companion on these trips around the world with Chelsea. There was time for an iconic shot of a roadside poster of the competing teams and UEFA logos right next to the historic, twelfth century Maiden Tower. Hopefully, another winner.

I sat next to some fountains in a little park on the main boulevard on the shore of the Caspian. I sat alone with my thoughts for many a minute.  I tried to take it all in. One moment touched me. A toddler reached out for her mother’s hand and they walked off together. It was a sweet moment, a lovely moment. I have no children and I do not generally harbour regrets. But this little moment obviously stirred me. At that moment, although not life-defining, I did ponder how different my life might have been had I become a father at some stage.

Would I still be in Baku?

Yes, probably.

Hopefully.

I made one last tour of my two favourite watering holes of the trip. I shared some laughs and some drinks – Cokes for me, I wanted to stay fresh – with Martin from Gloucester in “The Shakespeare” which was returning to some sort of normality after the recent madness.

After a quick visit to “Harry’s Bar”, I decided to head back to the hotel at about 11.30pm. The girl with no name raced after me after she saw me walking past “The Shakespeare.”

“When are you coming back?”

“Not sure, maybe when Chelsea play here again.”

“Have good livings.”

“You too, take care.”

And so, the trip was nearing its end.

I would indeed take a cab from the hotel to the Baku airport. There would be a 5am flight to Moscow, a two-and-a-half hour wait at the city’s Sheremetyevo Airport, another Aeroflot flight back to Heathrow. I would land early at just before midday on the Saturday morning and Russ would soon be there to meet me.

It would soon be all over; the trip, the travels, and the season.

Postcards From Baku

One last tale though, held over from Game One.

Tuesday 18 July : 6.00pm – Gulgong, New South Wales, Australia.

Glenn and I had spent three days in Sydney, and had picked up a car on the fourth day of the trip. We set off to see the Blue Mountains, stopping off at the windy town of Katoomba. We were headed later that afternoon towards Coonabarabran, a good four-hour drive. With the light just starting to fade a little, we made the wrong turning in an old-style outpost called Gulgong, and soon found ourselves on what is known in Australia as a corrugated road. It means that it is not tarmac, not asphalt, not concrete, not paved, but simply a dirt track that has become rutted through use. With the fuel tank showing a red light, I was starting to get a little agitated. I had visions of us running out of fuel on a farm track, miles from anywhere. The road conditions deteriorated a little. I was keen to head back to Gulgong, but Glenn was more gung-ho. After about twenty minutes of lonely driving, we spotted a chap – a farmer – on a quad bike, towing some sort of contraption, away to our right in a field full of alpacas. We slowed down and shouted over to him. He bounded over.

Glenn shouted out to him.

“We’re lost!”

The grizzled old farmer’s reply was wonderful.

“No you’re not. You’re here.”

Indeed, we were. His statement made us chuckle, but it reassured us. As long as he knew where we were, we were evidently not lost.

We were here.

Panic over.

And it has certainly seemed that, on many occasions this season that we – Chelsea Football Club in a very broad sense, but its supporters on various levels too – have been “lost.” It has felt like our journey was going nowhere. That we had no leadership at any level. That we were rudderless. And at times beyond hope.

But we were never lost.

We were a top six club, and would end up a top three club. At the end of it all, we would reach two cup finals. We would end up with silverware for the third consecutive season. We would end up with our fifteenth major trophy since 2000.

Altogether now.

Chelsea Four Arsenal One.

Chelsea Won Arsenal Lost.

See you next season.

 

Tales From Two Hours And Penalties

Chelsea vs. Eintracht Frankfurt : 9 May 2019.

A Gamble.

I had been looking at flights to Baku for ages. It was proving to be a tough nut to crack. In the back of my mind – or perhaps at the forefront of it – was the gnawing truth that by attending our second-leg against Eintracht Frankfurt, it would undoubtedly mean that I would not be able to pounce on any standard flights to Baku as soon as the game had ended. The scrum-down would be even worse should Arsenal reach the final. The cheapest flights that I had seen – tying in with my need to get back to work on the Friday – were at the £550 mark.

Remember that I had originally messed up at work. Another colleague had already booked a holiday on the week of the final but thankfully my boss had allowed me three days off. But the thought of travelling to Baku was still very messy.

I was, sadly, looking to rely on an expensive flight with the club or with a travel company. But I guessed that the price for that would be not much shy of £1,000. Moscow in 2008 was around a grand, and with no accommodation. I went with the club to Stockholm in 1998 with one night in a hotel for £450, which seemed obscene at the time. For Baku, I suspected that a club trip would be another “in out” trip with no overnight stay too. That would hardly be fun. I’d be exhausted on the day of the game and also once I returned.

Thoughts of Baku were proving to be irritating rather than pleasurable. This was not how it was meant to be. When I visited Baku in 2017 for the Qarabag match, I only scratched the surface and I would like to see more.

In my match report for that trip, I ended with this comment :

“It had been a whirlwind trip to the windy city on the Caspian. At around 11.15pm. I found it inconceivable that, even allowing for the time zones, I had only touched down in Baku the previous day. Next time, I will stay longer. You never know, with UEFA’s predilection of pairing us with the same old teams year after year, we might be making a return visit to Baku again.”

But on Tuesday, things changed ever so slightly. At work, I learned of the job-sharing planned for the office staff to cover those four days when two would be off work. It looked like our little team would not be over-exposed.

That night, I opened things up. I looked at the cost of travelling out to Baku on the previous weekend and returning on the Saturday after the game.

I liked what I saw.

Six nights at a “three-and-half” star hotel right in the heart of Baku old town and some favourable flights from Heathrow to Baku via Istanbul – going – and Moscow – returning – would cost £979.

On Wednesday, cap in hand, I explained my thoughts to my manager.

He gave me the Friday off.

I thought again about the cost. But I am not following Chelsea to Boston nor Tokyo in the summer. I’ll probably go through the summer without any extended holiday anywhere. This would effectively be my summer holiday.

It was going to be “Baku or Bust.”

On Wednesday night – nothing like leaving it late, boy – I gambled and booked it all up.

Game Day.

On Thursday, the day of the game, I mentioned my plans to a couple at work, but my lips would be sealed at Stamford Bridge. I honestly did not want to be the ultimate Jonah and jinx it.

In the back of my mind, if we did not reach the final, and if Arsenal made it, I would bugger off to a coastal resort for the Thursday, thus avoiding it all. Should Valencia reach Baku, I would try to get a ticket and go to the final. There had been a personal precedent. Like many, I gambled in 2014 and spent four or five days in Albufeira on The Algarve  – along with two hundred other Chelsea – even though we had not qualified for the Champions League Final in Lisbon.

My mind was set. I assured myself that I had made the right decision.

Andy, a Tottenham fan, commented – “you’ll be fine, you’ll get through tonight.”

I was working a slightly later shift than I would have hoped. PD and Parky had met up for a romantic lunch earlier and, when I set off for London at just past four o’clock, they were travelling separately and so were well on their own way to Stamford Bridge, although not without a scare. I had purchased all three tickets for the game a while back, but Parky had not received his. He had presumed that his ticket had showed up at my house. It hadn’t. Sometimes Chelsea box office sends tickets individually, occasionally to the purchaser. Irritatingly, there is no standard procedure. He would need to pop in to the ticket office, cap in hand, before the game.

My route again took me south – leaving later, I feared horrific congestion on the M4 so I would go in again via the M3 – and my drive began with a little section over Salisbury Plain. It took me back to my time when I worked in Westbury, and to a specific day in April 1998 when Glenn and I drove along the very same road on the way to our European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final second leg against Vicenza. On that day and this one, the weather was wet and the skies were grey.

1995 and 1998.

Of course there was the ECWC semi-final against Real Zaragoza in 1995 – one that rarely gets a mention these days – but in 1998 we travelled to London with a very real chance to progress to our first European final since 1971. In 1995, we had been thumped 3-0 in Northern Spain and we held little hope of progressing. Although we won 3-1 on the night, we narrowly missed out. Had we progressed, we would have met Arsenal in Paris.

But 1998 felt different.

Our team that season was a lot more credible, a lot more fancied. We had narrowly lost 1-0 in Northern Italy – I did not go – but were very confident of turning it around in the second-leg. For the first time, we watched the game in the newly-built Shed End, and we watched as Chelsea did a pre-match huddle for the very first time. We played, oddly, in our yellow away kit. Our team included such Chelsea greats as Dennis Wise, Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli. It was a rotten and wet night, and when Vicenza scored a vital away goal, our spirits dropped. Thankfully, a crucial tap in from Gustavo Poyet just before half-time gave us hope. A fantastic cross from wide on the right wing from Vialli found the head of Zola, whose magnificent leap and header made it 2-2 over both legs, but with Vicenza still ahead. Mark Hughes came on with twenty minutes to go and after just six minutes, his ridiculous header to himself tee’d up the shot which smashed into the goal at the Matthew Harding end.

Everyone quotes the Bruges game in 1995 for the best atmosphere since the stadium was rebuilt, but Vicenza 1998 pushes it close. Only 33,810 were present, but we each played our part. We were euphoric. In those days, and many since, Alan’s lucky wine gums sent us on the way to victory and the subsequent final in Stockholm. We reconvened immediately after in our then local “The Harwood” – for those interested, this pub was featured in “The Football Factory”, or at least the outside scenes, and was also where Raquel Welch stopped for a drink while filming “Bedazzled” in a local film studio in 1967 – and downed a few celebratory drinks.

Our own little song during that evening in The Harwood was “The Self-Preservation Society” from “The Italian Job.” It felt right.

But there is an odd end to the story of our 1998 semi-final victory. The very next day, I was made redundant. It was one of the oddest twenty-four hours of my life. To add to the sadness, my – quite unexpected – redundancy came on the fifth anniversary of my father’s passing. From the highest high on Thursday to the lowest low on Friday.

I would go to Sweden unemployed. It was an odd few weeks in my life.

In the end, my redundancy money funded a few holidays – Chelsea in the main – over the next few seasons, and my career took a very worthwhile tangential leap from quality assurance to logistics.

I have not looked back, apart from in these match reports.

Hello Goodbye.

I drove to London and it was probably my first solo drive to Stamford Bridge since…when?…many years ago. Maybe ten years? I don’t know. The weather was dire. Rain, rain, rain. And the traffic was slow once inside the M25. I texted a few friends to say that I would not be there until seven o’clock, maybe later. My mind continually went over my “Baku or Bust” gamble. Fucking hell Chelsea, don’t let me down.

I convinced myself to purse my lips if anyone asked my about my travel options. I convinced myself that I’d mutter some nonsense and folk would think me odd.

Ugh.

I thought about the game against Frankfurt not once.

Eventually, at around 7.10pm, I parked up at Queens Club. I briefly popped in to say hello to the troops at “Simmons” one last time this season. I was only there for five minutes. A very brief “hello goodbye” to a few chaps – I had to bite my lip when Daryl asked if I was going to Baku – and out into the evening. Thankfully, the rain was only slightly spitting.

Another European Semi-Final.

We have contended so many in recent years, eh? I have lived and breathed these ones.

1995 – Real Zaragoza, lost.

1998 – Vicenza, won.

2004 – Monaco, lost.

2005 – Liverpool, lost.

2007 – Liverpool, lost.

2008 – Liverpool, won.

2009 – Barcelona, lost.

2012 – Barcelona, won.

2013 – Basel, won.

2014 – Atletico Madrid, lost

Our Opponents.

I made my way to Stamford Bridge, past many Frankfurt fans, many with half-and-half scarves and many without tickets. There were rumours of ten thousand travelling to London. They are one of the big names of German football. They will indelibly be linked with Real Madrid and Hampden Park. But I have been aware that they were recently enjoying the pleasures of the German second tier if only for a few seasons. I found it odd that they have rid themselves of their red and black stripes in favour of an all-black home kit. They lost 6-1 at Bayer Leverkusen at the weekend.

I have no real Eintracht Frankfurt story to tell, apart from this one.

In the summer of 1988, the European Football Championships took place in Germany and while I was over in Germany in the March of that year, I wanted to enquire how tickets for games would be made available. I had a notion of going over to follow England. On one afternoon, with light fading, I made a bee-line for the HQ of the “Deutsche Fussball Bund” – the German FA – which was based a few metres from the old Wald Stadium of Eintracht Frankfurt. I popped in and asked a few questions. I remember a large terraced stadium, surrounded by trees, way out of the city centre. That stadium was replaced for the 2006 World Cup Finals.

Not much of a story. Not much of a 1988 tournament, England lost all three, including a 3-1 defeat to Russia in Frankfurt.

3,965 Kilometres.

By the long wall to the left of the West Stand forecourt, I noted that there was, again, a special Europa League display on show. On it, were the words “Distance to Baku 3,965kms, one match to go, together to Baku.”

What patronising bullshit.

“Thanks for fucking reminding us all how far away it is.”

“Together to Baku? With only a rumoured seven thousand tickets for a club with over twenty-thousand season ticket holders and with forty thousand regulars, how can we all be together?”

The Team.

Kepa Arrizabalaga

Cesar Azpilicueta – Andreas Christensen – David Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Mateo Kovacic – Ruben Loftus-Cheek

Willian – Olivier Giroud – Eden Hazard

Pre-Match.

PD was inside with Al when I reached my seat.

“Doesn’t seem dark enough to be a European night.”

I soon spotted Parky. He was in.

The German supporters were jammed in with fifteen minutes to go. Their banners and flags were out in force. The dominant colour was black, with only occasional hints of red. The teams came on to the pitch. The away end turned white. “The Shed” flag surfed over the heads of our fans in the Shed Upper. The Eden Hazard banner did the same below me. His last-ever game at Stamford Bridge? Almost certainly. We were given blue flags to wave, but the thrill of that has gone.

There was more “Together To Baku” bullshit signage inside Stamford Bridge.

0-45.

The game began. We were in our usual kit. The visitors were in white, white and black. They had the first real chance of the match, a well-claimed header from their star forward Luka Jovic. But we started well, and Olivier Giroud showed some good link up play in the first part of the game. We carved out a couple of chances and were dominating possession. Willian sent in a ball that Giroud miss-controlled at the near post.

The German fans were singing – not super loud, others have been louder – but certainly constant. The upper tier waved their flags, then the lower tier. It was a great sight.

With a quarter of an hour gone, Kepa flung himself to his left and reached and reached. He tipped a fine volley over the bar. It a second stunner in the past two games.

The noise wasn’t fantastic to be honest, but there were outbreaks of Chelsea cheer. The Germans did a full on bouncy with 90% involvement across both tiers. I suggested to Albert who sits in front that our immediate reply of a similar bouncy would be a poor imitation. It was indeed. Our bouncy has had it day. It peeked at Derby County in 2004, it has been poor ever since.

All of our play seemed to be down our left. We had obviously spotted a weakness there. Our pressure grew. Jorginho back healed out of danger in his own penalty box and we gasped. A couple of half-chances, or maybe quarter-chances gave us hope. Another fine move down our left with Hazard linking well. A Willian free-kick was flicked towards goal by a deft David Luiz header but this was scrambled off the line. Our confidence was rising.

On twenty-eight minutes, some lovely trademark twists from Eden and a fine through pass to Ruben allowed our young midfielder to look up and assess the space. Time stood still. He touched the ball purposefully towards the far post and we watched, almost disbelieving, as it rolled over the line and into the net. The crowd gave it our all.

YEEEEESSSSSSSS.

Alan : “THEY WILL HAVE TO COME AT US NOW.”

Chris : “COME ON MY LITTLE SPARKLEGRUBERS.”

I could relax. A little. We never looked in danger during the rest of the first period. But it was still a nervy night. It was as if we were too nervy to sing. We heard that Valencia had taken a lead, but Arsenal had equalised.

Thoughts of Baku.

46-90.

In the first few minutes of the second period, I spotted – or rather heard – a very rare thing at Stamford Bridge. I think it was in answer to a similar song emanating from the away section, but a few souls in the MHL sang one short bust of “Chelsea Til I Due.” Now then dear reader, this was a first in my memory. I’ve never heard it sung at Stamford Bridge before. I know it gets hashtagged to death, but it has never been a Chelsea song.

A song much loved by lower league teams.

Not us.

Just after, Frankfurt waltzed through our defence – a Luiz half-hearted tackle created space – and Jovic blasted home an equaliser.

I blame #ctid.

And my trip to Baku was now looking problematic.

For fuck sake.

We went to pieces. Our high defensive line of the first-half shuffled back fifteen yards. Our confidence left us. Alan used a lovely phrase, aimed at Lovacic or Jorginho or Willian –

“That’s a tickle. Not a tackle.”

The nerves increased fifty-fold.

The game became scrappy. There was frustration and pain in the stands.

I could not help think about Baku. Arsenal were going through. The thought of all those replica-shirt-wearing muppets was making me feel ill. Maybe I could stay in Istanbul, get a cheap hotel or hostel and a cheap flight home from there. I did enjoy Istanbul in 2014.

There were few shots in the second-half. But plenty of annoyance in how our form had dipped. Jorginho, I will say, was holding things together. We obviously missed Kante. Ruben was drifting through the game, not enjoying his previous spark. On the hour, the loudest chant of the entire night. It reached 1998 levels, but soon petered out. Pedro replaced Willian on the hour and rushed around a lot without doing a great deal. Frankfurt themselves threatened our goal. An away goal would kill us. As the clock advanced, I could hardly believe how nerves were taking over my whole brain and body .On seventy minutes, Christensen was replaced by Davide Zappocosta. A real head-shaker. Azpilicueta moved alongside Luiz.Our back four now consisted of three Daves and an Emerson.

To be fair, Zappacosta – more Fiat than Ferrari – did inject a little energy into our team. One long shot soon tested the Frankfurt ‘keeper Trapp.

Giroud turned to the Matthew Harding to rally the supporters.

This was arse about face.

We should have been rallying the players.

We needed to get to ninety minutes. Conceding a goal in these last fifteen, ten or five minutes would be the end. I checked to ensure Andres Iniesta was not on their bench. With five minutes to go, Ross replaced Ruben. A low shot from distance from Giroud tested the Frankfurt goalie, but he was able to gather the rebound.

Five minutes of extra-time were signalled.

Nerves.

We held on.

Phew.

I chatted to a few neighbours.

“This is our chance now. We are at home. We need to drag them over the line. We need to roar them home.”

Our implosion right after the re-start of the game had proved our undoing once again. There is such fragility in our ranks. How the hell have we secured Champions League football for next season? In the break, a stunning song was aired.

“Heroes” by David Bowie.

91-105.

Our fourth substitute of the game – have we ever had four in a competitive game before? – took place as Gonzalo Higuain replaced Giroud, whose early promise had drifted away. So, we attacked The Shed again. Barkley, looking keen, shot from way out but only narrowly missed the target. A break down our right – with me shouting “get closer” – resulted in a low tempting cross being raked across the goal and the ball was poked goal wards by Sebastien Haller. At first, I thought it was going wide. But a scrambled kick off the line from Luiz – excellent one minute, average the next – saved us. Just after, a corner was headed towards goal by the same Frankfurt player and Zappacosta headed it over.

We were hanging on grimly.

And my nerves were fraying by the minute.

Just before the second period of extra time, “Blue Is The Colour” rang out.

“Cus Chelsea…Chelsea is our name.”

105-120.

The players were tired now. Hazard tended to roam, rather than be tied to his usual position, attempting to sniff out areas of weakness and decay in the Eintracht defence. It was tough to watch. It was all Chelsea, but with hardly any real chances being created. A rasper from Zapacosta stung ‘keeper Trapp’s fingers as he tipped it over. My nerves were shot, my heartrate was increasing, my sinews were unravelling. This was just horrible to watch.

With five minutes to go, and from a Hazard cross, Trapp fumbled and Azpilicueta bundled the ball over the line but the referee, rightly, cancelled the goal but not before a nano-second of celebration from me as I saw him point towards our goal.

Penalties.

This was tense as it could ever be.

Tottenham and Liverpool – I hope everyone appreciates how I have not mentioned them until now – and also Arsenal had reached the two end of season European grand finales. England – or some parts of it – was watching to see if we could make it four. Chelsea were being typical Chelsea and going about it the hard away.

I had no real time to think of much. I was pacing around like an expectant father. Nobody was enjoying this. Stern faces in the Matthew Harding Upper. I was beginning to regret no “Maynard’s Wine Gums” had been present.

The penalties were to take place at The Shed.

I set my camera.

“No shaking, Chris.”

Penalty One : Haller – Eintracht – scored, rolled to Kepa’s right.

Penalty Two : Barkley – Chelsea – scored, a confident slice to Trapp’s right.

Penalty Three : Jovic – Eintracht – scored, a roller to Kepa’s right.

Penalty Four : Azpilicueta – Chelsea – saved, a spawling lunge from Trapp to his left.

Hell, Cesar.

My world caved in. Thoughts of Baku, of Arsenal, of Istanbul, but also of Munich when we came back from the dead.

Penalty Five : De Guzman – Eintracht – scored, a confident strike to Kepa’s right.

Penalty Six : Jorginho – Chelsea – scored, that little skip and a chip to the right of Trapp.

At this stage, I had the briefest of thoughts. All three of their penalties had gone to Kepa’s right. Would he go that way? Would he stay still? What the fuck would I do?

Penalty Seven : Hinteregger – Eintracht – saved, straight at Kepa, who just crouched and trapped the ball under his shin.

It was the most ridiculous penalty save that I have ever seen.

Oh now we fucking roared alright.

“COME ON.”

Penalty Eight : Luiz – Chelsea – scored, low and to the ‘keeper’s right again.

The whole stadium on edge now.

Penalty Nine : Paciencia – Eintracht – saved, a faltering run-up and a shot to Kepa’s right that he saved magnificently.

We roared once again.

Advantage Chelsea.

Drogba in Munich.

Memories.

We waited. Eden Hazard placed the ball where Peter Osgood’s ashes lie.

We waited.

Penalty Ten : Number Ten Hazard – Chelsea – his last-ever kick at Stamford Bridge – scored, a small run-up, a dink to Trapp’s right, the ‘keeper going left.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

To say I was happy would be way off the mark.

I was fucking euphoric.

I shook with joy, I screamed, the boys were going to Baku, the boys were going to Azerbaijan, I was going to Baku, I was going to Azarbaijan, oh my fucking goodness.

While PD and Al bounced and hugged and jumped and screamed, I stood shaking.

My eyes were a little moist.

Chelsea Football Club. I fucking love you.

Tales From The Jacksonville Five

Chelsea vs. Slavia Prague : 18 April 2019.

There was a flurry of annoying late emails at work but, at just after 3pm, I left the office. I exhaled deeply. A four-day break was just starting and what better way for it all to begin than with a Chelsea game? I drove over to meet up with PD and Parky in the car park opposite work. We now try to avoid the usual delays on the M4 on these midweek bursts to London and, instead, head south-east towards Stonehenge and then in to London on the A303, M3 and the A316. PD made good time and we were parked up at about 5.30pm.

This was my fiftieth game of the season. Should we reach Baku, the season will top out at fifty-six, a total only bettered in the two other recent “European Final” seasons of 2011/12 and 2012/13. To confirm, I will not be able to attend the Europa League semi-final, but I am free for the final – should we make it – in Baku. I owe my manager – “United” – a big favour for that. Phew.

The Goose seemed quite quiet.

There was time for a single pint of “Peroni” and more time to relax. Although there were signs on the windows of the pub of “Home Fans Only”, a lone Slavia sticker had been planted to the wall inside the gents’ toilets. Something about “Slavia Destiny” was written with the cartooned shapes of ultras. Standard fare I guess.

We stood in the beer garden and spoke with a few friends and European travel was the obvious topic.

Rob : “I love the buzz of these trips, getting good flights, good deals. I often enjoy it more than the games these days.”

Parky : “We have our hearts set on Lisbon via Bristol.”

Kev : “Baku will be a nightmare if Arsenal get there too. You’re talking a grand.”

Brian : “I’d expect the club to run some trips. And there will be agencies chartering flights. But remember the Scousers were moaning about £900 trips to Kiev last time. And that was just to Kiev. Baku is almost twice as far.”

Chris : “Imagine going all that way and seeing those bloody Gooners over there. All those replica shirts and hipster beards. Nightmare. I hope Napoli stuff them. King Carlo in the final. Lovely.”

Brian : “And the Super Cup is in Istanbul. On a Wednesday.”

Chris : “Istanbul? Bollocks. Nice and easy for all of us then. Wankers. What was wrong with a Friday night? Nice flight in on the day of the game, back on the weekend. Just one day off work. But a Wednesday is at least two days off work. Fucking hell. UEFA. They just don’t care.”

There was little chat about the evening game. Glenn and I had watched the tedious – and ultimately very lucky – game from Prague at a pub in Frome the previous Thursday. It was grim stuff. But as I walked down the North End Road, I mentioned the away goal and we expected an easy passage into the semi-finals.

In “Simmons”, the usual suspects were gathered together, but I spent most of the time with a gaggle of five Chelsea supporters from Jacksonville – America’s most populous “unknown” city – in Northern Florida. I had met Jennifer and Brian in Charlotte in 2015, and again on their first-ever visit to Chelsea last season for the West Ham United game.

“How can that be over a year ago? Seems like last month.”

I asked the three stock questions – “let’s get these out of the way, then we can relax”- to Jennifer and Brian.

When did you get in?

“This morning.”

Are you jet-lagged?

“No. Red Bull.”

Where are your tickets?

“Shed Upper.”

Jennifer and Brian were with three other Chelsea fans from Jacksonville – “the first coast” – and I immediately forgot all their names. Let’s call them Danny, Danny and Danielle. I chatted with Danny One how my first night in Florida in September 1989 was spent in a tent on the side of a road in Jacksonville (Heckscher Drive – he knew it well) outside a fish bait store. My mate and I had simply run out of steam after a lengthy cycle ride from our previous night in Georgia. We needed somewhere to flop. Not for us the glitzy hotels of Walt Disney World or the comfortable motels in Orlando and Kissimmee.

Our first night in Florida? A tent by the side of the road. No food and drink close by. We were bitten by mosquitoes that night. Living the dream, eh?

I spoke with Danny Two and how he was originally from Bosnia, and how he got into watching us on TV in the US in around 2003. I am always intrigued how foreign fans find us. I am glad that it wasn’t through FIFA. It helped that his is team back home – Zeljeznicar – played in blue too. These three visitors from the Sunshine State were having a blast. Their enthusiasm was priceless. This would be their first game at Stamford Bridge. Their first-ever Chelsea game ever, I think.

They were having a lovely time.

And then they met Parky.

We knocked back a few bottles of “Staropramen” – how apt on this night – but it was, alas, soon time to move on.

I took a few photographs outside the West Stand. I noted that there was signage for something called “The Europa Lounge” at the main entrance to the West Stand. A few “welcoming” personnel in Chelsea blazers and a couple of rather ridiculous roped “VIP” barriers gave the area much more importance than it really warranted. But we all know the score. The Europa League isn’t the Champions League no matter how anyone butters it up. This was an ersatz version of the real deal. I had visions of the guests drinking the 2019 equivalents of Kestrel Lager, White Lightning and Panda Pops.

Inside the stadium, the away fans were virtually all in. Slavia are one of the great old names of European football. I remember talking to a work colleague in Prague over a decade ago who was an avid Slavia fan. He always told me that they were the older, established club of his home city and he hated Sparta who were the newly-moneyed upstarts.

It was a warm evening in London. A little muggy. My camera tried to take photographs of the Jacksonville Five – and the Slavia crowd – in the distant Shed but everything was a little misty, grey, the details blurred. I couldn’t spot them.

Andreas Christensen was in for the injured Rudiger. Eden Hazard was starting. N’Golo Kante was in, Jorginho was out. Olivier Giroud was up front.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Kovacic

Barkley – Kante

Pedro – Giroud – Hazard

A full moon rose over the Shed as the teams entered the pitch. Another – almost – full house was in attendance. These £30 tickets for Thursday nights are perfectly pitched. The bright blush of red on the Slavia tracksuit tops stood out. Their kit was an odd one. A Feyenoord-style shirt, red and white halves, with white shorts. Crisp so far. But with insipid light blue socks, which they also wore in the home leg.

We were quick out of the traps and other clichés.

On just five minutes, we watched a lovely move unfold. We kept possession well. Pedro was heavily involved and sprinted in from the right to play a perfect “one-two” with Olivier Giroud. Pedro’s dink over the Slavia ‘keeper Kolar was excellent and we were 1-0 up on the night.

A mazy run from Hazard – a photograph I took ended up being titled “The Hunted” on Facebook – ended up with a block.

Just four minutes after the first goal, we watched a really lovely move down our left with Hazard pushing the ball on to Giroud, who held the ball well before feeding the run of Hazard. The cross across the box was aimed at that man Pedro. From our vantage point over one hundred yards away, it looked like his second goal and he reeled away in delight. It was, in fact, an own goal, but we did not care one iota.

We were 2-0 up on the night.

The away fans, a mob of red and white, were quiet. Alan had told me that their ultras were banned from the home leg which is why those two large, and lovely, banners of two former players took up so much space in their home end in Prague. Tonight, there were a few sings and banners, and most were for their ultras.

On seventeen minutes, a beautiful pass into space from Kante found – guess who? – Pedro who selflessly knocked the ball square to an unmarked Giroud who calmly tapped home.

Chelsea 3 Slavia 0.

Four up on aggregate. This was too easy.

With Frankfurt and Benfica at 0-0, this was looking good for PD and Parky, who were relishing the thought of a few days in the Portuguese capital. With the game surely in the bag, I eased off. I let my mind wander a little. Eventually, I was able to spot Jennifer, Brian and the three Dannys in The Shed.

And then Slavia got into the game a little. Kepa kept out a header in a rather unorthodox fashion, the ball fortuitously hitting him on the knee. From the resulting corner, the ball was drilled into an open area and Soucek – completely unmarked, Anfield, cough, cough – headed it firmly in.

“You scored one? We’ll do the same.”

Barely a minute later, Hazard broke down the left and played the ball out to the overlapping Emerson. His low cross, right on the money, was pushed goal wards by Giroud. The ‘keeper fumbled the ball out and Pedro was on hand to slam it in. Pedro was having quite a game. He was involved in all four of our goals. I took a photo of the Floridian visitors celebrating in The Shed. My job was done.

Over in Frankfurt, we heard that the hosts had scored against Benfica.

In Naples, Arsenal were 1-0 on the night.

Bollocks.

The rest of the first-half came and went. At half-time, all was well. The only annoyance was the away fans, who had found their voices, and were singing their sodding version of “Allez, Allez, Allez” ad infinitum. It obviously reminded me of the noise at Anfield and I moaned to JD about it.

“Anfield has been erased from my memory. Thanks for bringing it up.”

Talk moved to The Europa Final and the thought of us having to share a beautiful European city with twenty thousand Arsenal fans.

I said “Moscow was bad enough with United.”

JD : “That has been erased too.”

I replied “OK. Got it. I’d best fuck off right now.”

The game restarted. If I had tended to drift off at times in the first-half, it was the turn of the players to do the same in the second-half. What a bloody mess. On fifty-one minutes, I captured the shot – from just outside the box – from Sevcik that, somehow, maybe it swerved, ended up beating Kepa at the near post. His view, admittedly was blocked by both Kovacic and the Luiz lookalike Kral.

It was now 4-2 and my thoughts wandered back to the Viktoria Zizkov game in 1994. Our first UEFA game since 1971 against another Czech team had ended-up with that same score line.

It got worse.

Just three minutes later, the same player – with the away fans marking each pass with an “ole” – unleashed an unstoppable drive across Kepa and into the top far corner.

Fackninell.

Chelsea 4 Slavia 3.

What a bloody mess.

In pubs, in living rooms, in bars, on the internet, at Stamford Bridge, the same question was asked :

“What does Sarri fucking talk about at half-time?”

We went to pieces, and the support grew unsurprisingly restless.

For PD and Parky, it got worse. Eintracht had scored again. They held the advantage. Lisbon was looking unlikely.

A lightning break down our right ended up with a ball being drilled into the box. That man Sevcik – in acres of space – had his own Devon Loch moment and lost his footing just as he was about to connect with yet another effort on goal from the inside right channel. Kepa sprinted out to gather the loose ball. This was ridiculous. I only remember a bungled volley from Giroud as our sole effort on goal in that awful second period.

By now, Willian had replaced Hazard. Jorginho had replaced Barkley, and quite how Kovacic remained on the pitch is a mystery to me.

There was a fair bit of applause for Sevcik – from me, for sure – as he was substituted. On came Miroslav Stoch, our former winger, and he was given a warm welcome back at The Bridge. I expected great things from him way back in 2008/9 and he scored some screamers for Fenerbahce. He’s twenty-nine now, and looks older. Luiz, back-peddling, headed the ball back to safety but in doing so, the ball hit his arm. A free-kick seemed really harsh. Stoch took aim with a free-kick but thankfully blasted it against the leg of Willian.

Callum Hudson-Odoi made a cameo appearance in the last five minutes, replacing the first-half hero Pedro.

We held on.

But it was far from clever. This must rank as our least convincing run to a European semi-final ever. This was a 4-3 European game that surely didn’t match the previous night’s encounter in Manchester.

We won ugly.

It seemed that this one match had encapsulated – distilled – the one-hundred and fourteen year history of Chelsea Football Club. The good and the bad. Comedic defending. Periods of pleasure. Long periods of pain. Lady luck. Goals. Ultimately a victory.

Oh boy.

I am sure that the guests from Florida loved it – those first-half goals right in front of them for sure – but it was really painful. It is – stating the bloody obvious once again – proving to be a ridiculous season. After Fulham and Cardiff City, here was yet another win that seemed like a loss. And yet those two League Cup defeats at Wembley seemed like wins.

Oh my poor brain.

The news came through that the nearly men of European football Benfica had lost 2-0 in Germany.

We would meet Eintracht Frankfurt in the semi-final.

On Monday, we reassemble for the battle for league points with the visit of Burnley. We have another pub-crawl planed. The Floridians have been told to bring their drinking boots.

See you in the pub.

 

Tales From A Perfect Ten

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 8 April 2019.

On the day before our game with West Ham United – the Sunday – I was getting stir crazy at home and so decided to head out on a short drive to try out a new pub and a new Sunday Roast. My route south took me on a road that always reminds me of several trips that I used to take with my father. I soon found myself heading towards the village, ten miles away, of Maiden Bradley. My father used to be a shopkeeper, of menswear, in the local town of Frome. He would work six days a week, but Thursday was always “half-day closing” (Thursdays were always a favourite day of the week for me because Dad would always be at home when I returned from school, unlike his appearance at 5.30pm or so on all other days). On some Thursdays, Dad would announce to me that he was off “on his rounds” and this inevitably meant that during the school holidays, right after lunch, I would accompany him as he visited one or two customers who could not get in to town as often as they would normally hope. One such customer was Mrs. Doel who lived in Maiden Bradley. My father was a very safe driver, and I suppose this really means that he was a slow driver. He was never ever caught speeding. He would potter around at forty miles per hour on most roads. I suspect that the desire to save money by not eating up fuel was a main factor. However, as a special treat on these visits to Maiden Bradley, and where the road is particularly long and straight, with excellent visibility, he would – as a treat for me – get the car up to the seemingly blistering speed of fifty miles per hour. After the slower speeds that I was used to, fifty miles per hour seemed supersonic.

“Do fifty, Dad” I would plead.

And off we would go. It was even more enjoyable when I had my own plastic steering wheel to stick on to the plastic dashboard of his green Vauxhall Viva. I’d grip it, stare out of the windscreen and watch the trees and hedgerows, and oncoming cars, fly past.

It was one of my favourite father and son moments from my early childhood.

Of course, over the following years, fifty miles per hour was reached with increasing regularity, if not by my father, then certainly by myself. I often reach fifty miles per hour in the country lanes around my village without even thinking about it.

The thrill has long gone.

And on Sunday, as I thought ahead to the match on the following evening, I realised that the thrill of playing West Ham United had long gone too.

It wasn’t the same in 1984/85 and 1985/86, seasons that marked the first two occasions of seeing our rivals from the East End of London for the very first time. In those days, the identity of football clubs seemed to be stronger; West Ham were a tightly-knit club, with a very local – and famously violent – support, and their whole identity was wrapped up within the structure of an East End football club, the tightness of Upton Park, those ridiculously small goal frames in front of the packed and occasionally surging terraces, local players, Billy Bonds and all, pseudo-gangsters in the ICF, the whole nine yards. These days, their team consists of mainly foreign players – like most – and they play in a vapid and bland “super” stadium. When did the thrill wear off? Not so sure. I still – always – get “up” for a Tottenham game. But not necessarily a West Ham one. The game on Monday 8 April 2019 would, after all, be my twenty-fifth Chelsea vs. West Ham game at Stamford Bridge and my thirty-ninth in total. After that many games, in which we have generally had the upper hand, the thrill has dwindled.

And then Everton beat Arsenal 1-0 at Goodison Park late on Sunday afternoon and my interest levels increased. I quickly did the maths. We all did. Believe it or not, if we were to beat West Ham the following day, we would end up – and God only knows how – in the heady heights of third place.

Game – most definitely – on.

This was turning into a typically bloody ridiculous season even by Chelsea’s standards. We had lost games – Tottenham in the League Cup – where we had come away in a very positive frame of mind and we had won games – Fulham at home, certainly Cardiff City away – where we felt as though we had lost.

It was turning into another emotional roller-coaster.

And then at work, on Monday, I had my personal roller-coaster too. I realised that a co-worker had not only booked the week off in which the Europa League semi-final first leg was to be played – potential trips to Lisbon or Frankfurt – but also the week of the bloody final too. My mood plummeted. We have a small team and I feared the worst.

Why the hell had I not booked the week of the final off in August or September?

It spoiled my pre-match if I am honest.

Talking of holidays, on the drive up to London with the usual suspects, Glenn and I reminisced about our trip to Australia last summer. We wondered how on earth it has taken Maurizio Sarri until April to start Callum Hudson-Odoi in a league game. Callum had laid on the cross for Pedro to score against Perth Glory back in July and seemed to be the talk of that rain-sodden town. His emergence into the first team ranks has been a slow process, eh?

There were drinks in the usual places with the usual faces. I told a few people of my “holiday problem” and although the saying is “a problem shared is a problem halved” I don’t think it helped. I just disliked myself twice as much for not booking the time off earlier. But it was a great pre-match. As often happens, Parky had the best line. On my way back from the gents, I managed to stumble a little as I headed up the stairs to re-join the lads.

Parky : ““That’ll be the biggest trip you’ll be going on over the next two months.”

We made our way to Stamford Bridge. On the cover of the match day programme was a photograph of Eden Hazard, a mixture of quiet confidence and a little coyness, his head bowed, not sure if he really wanted to be the focus of attention. It would turn out to be a prophetic choice of cover star.

The team?

I was generally in favour of the one that the manager picked. Glenn and I had wondered if he would prioritise the game in Prague on Thursday. It was difficult to tell. Our two bright hopes, Ruben and Callum were in. Excellent.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Higuain – Hazard

We guessed that the more Euro-savvy Alonso, Barkley, Pedro and/or Willian would start against Slavia.

For the first time that I can ever remember, Alan and Glenn had swapped seats. I was next to my mate from Perth; I was sat next to Glenn in the Sleepy Hollow.

It was the usual pre-match; “Park Life”, “Liquidator” and the flames and fireworks of twenty-first century football. “The Shed” flag crowd-surfed at the other end. By an odd quirk, it was an exact year since the Chelsea vs. West Ham game in 2017/18, but on that occasion the banners in The Shed sadly commemorated the life and death of Ray Wilkins.

One year ago.

Where does the time go?

RIP Butch.

Right from the kick-off, there was a sense of purpose in our play and we seemed to be able to move the ball ten percent quicker and twenty percent more intelligently. We didn’t seem to be over-passing. We seemed to be moving it at the right time. West Ham were, typically, still singing about the blue flag, from Stamford Bridge to Upton Park, and all that bollocks. They really need to update that one. Our shouts of encouragement were much better than against Brighton the previous Wednesday, but – for a London derby – not at stratospheric levels.

“Do fifty, Dad” seemed to fall on deaf ears.

There was an early free-kick for Emerson, who has never let himself down in his sadly limited starts thus far, but he arced it high and wide of Fabianski’s goal. There were passages of play which delighted us, with Kante and our Callum forming a good relationship on the right. A shot from N’Golo was fired over.

With around twenty-five minutes of the match played, Ruben played the ball square to Eden Hazard around fifteen yards inside the West Ham half. He set off for goal, a direct line, right into the heart of the box, no fear. We watched – mesmerised? dumbfounded? enraptured? – as his side-stepping dribble took him past a couple of floundering West Ham players, who hardly caught a sniff of his aftershave let alone a sight of the ball. There were seven or eight touches, no more, but the ball was moved with ridiculous speed. One final touch took him free – legs and limbs from the East End arriving so late to the party – and he clipped the ball in with a swipe of the left boot.

Oh my.

What a goal.

I watched as he raced towards the West Ham fans, and I was able to take a few photographs. I originally thought that Eden brought his forearms up to his face, mocking them and their “irons” trademark, but he was simply cupping his ears. His run mirrored that of Frank Lampard in late 2012/13.

Ronnie : “They’ll have to come at us nah.”

Reggie : “Cam on my little diamonds.”

It was a perfect crime from our perfect ten.

We were on song, on and off the pitch. Soon after, Eden found the run of Gonzalo Higuain with a fantastic ball but his fierce shot from an angle was tipped onto the post by the West Ham ‘keeper. In truth, his first touch allowed the ball to get away from him that extra few feet. But our chances were starting to pile up. Eden, from deep, played a long but piercing ball into Callum who skipped and shimmied in from the right wing – acres of space – and his equally strong shot was parried by Fabianski who was by far the busier ‘keeper. On the side-lines, Manuel Pellegrini – death warmed-up – looked even greyer if that is at all possible. The last chance of the half worthy of note fell to Higuain again. From a Kante cross, he brought the ball down to hit rather than attack the ball with his head. That extra half a second allowed a West Ham defender to block. Higuain looked shy of confidence. But it was a thoroughly impressive performance from us in the opening period.

Into the second-half, we prayed for a second goal to make it safe. West Ham have sometimes, only sometimes, provided moments of misery at Stamford Bridge – that hideous 0-4 defeat in 1986, the horror of hearing Julian Dicks’ scream as he scored against us in 1996, that gut-wrenching Paul Kitson goal in 1999 – and I was so aware of the fragility of a slender 1-0 lead.

Eden was the focal point of all our attacks and the centre of attention for those defenders whose job it was to stop us. I have a couple of photographs where he is being hounded by four defenders. How on earth does that feel, when four people are trying to stop a person doing their job? Oh wait a second. Trying to get a load of office furniture despatched when the trailer is running late, there are product shortages, the warehouse team are under-manned and the client is still deliberating about where they want the goods delivered? I guess that comes close.

Eden shimmied into space down below us and slammed a ball across the face of the goal. We “oohed” and “aahed”. It was a real pleasure to see Eden on fire. I commented to Glenn about his ridiculously broad shoulders and short legs. He is Maradona-esque in stature – “like a little eel, little squat man” as Bryon Butler memorably described him, another number ten – and one of the most sublime dribblers of the modern game.

Throughout the second-half, Ruben came into the game more and more. He has great strength in holding off defenders – a little like that man Mikel – and there were a few trademark runs right through the middle. Again, not a Sarri play, but still effective. Callum, on the other hand, tended to disappear a little as the game continued.

The crowd were nervy rather than loud. The evening continued.

West Ham carved a couple of chances down at The Shed as the rain started to fall. Lanzini forced a save from Kepa. The shot was at a comfortable height for our ‘keeper to easily save. Anderson then forced a save too. There was a weak finish at the other end from our Ruben. But then a weak defensive header from Rudiger – hearts in our mouths now – allowed the ball to sit up nicely and a powerful volleyed-drive from Cresswell narrowly missed its intended target.

“Inches” I said to Glenn.

A deep cross found Arnautovic but his goal-bound header was fortuitously headed on, and wide, by Emerson.

Nerves?

Oh yes.

“COME ON CHELS.”

The substitutes appeared.

70 : Ross Barkley for our Ruben.

76 : Olivier Giroud for Higuain.

85 : Pedro for our Callum.

Barkley to Giroud. A low shot at Fabianski. The ball ballooned over.

One more goal. Please.

Unlike the previous home game, virtually everyone was still in the stadium on ninety minutes. Just as it should be, eh?

In the very last minute, Barkley spotted that man Eden in a little space in the box and lofted a lovely ball right to him. I captured both the pass and the low shot from Eden on film. His drilled drive easily zipped past the West Ham ‘keeper.

Chelsea 2 West Ham United 0.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Game over. Third place was ours.

The night was all about Eden Hazard who, undoubtedly, was the star by some ridiculous margin. Rarely have I seen a more mature and pivotal performance from him.

He is the real deal.

Sadly, the Real deal will surely take place over the next few months.

On the drive home, the night continued to improve as I heard positive news from my manager regarding my future holiday plans. I am going to forgo the potential semi-final trip to either Germany or Portugal. But the final in Azerbaijan is on. We just need Chelsea to get there.

Next up, aways in Prague and Liverpool.

Safe travels to those going to Czechia.

I will see some of you on Merseyside.

Tales From The Yellow And Blue

Dynamo Kiev vs. Chelsea : 14 March 2019.

Full length murals on the sides of grimy apartment blocks. Raised wooden walkways. Flowers on recent roadside memorials. Soaring residential buildings brutally blotting out the sky. Clusters of ornate gold-topped domes. The wide expanse of the Dnipro River. The striking faces of tall young women. The wrinkled faces of crouching old men. The awkwardly ornate buildings circling Independence Square. Statues and monuments. Cellar bars open twenty-four hours. Prostitutes walking the pavements. The storied governmental buildings of Kreschtayk Street. The “D” of the local football team. The pride of the city. The Cyrillic alphabet. Fading memories of recent sieges and riots. The orange revolution with snipers on the streets. Steep cobbled roads. Men pestering for photographs with monkeys. Outlines in white paint marking where innocents fell in 2014. The yellow and blue of the national flag. The sadness of strife.

This was Kiev.

And another magical trip to a far-flung part of Europe with the love of my life.

Back in the autumn of 2015, I didn’t attend our 0-0 draw in the Champions League in Kiev against Dynamo as had I elected to go to the other two group phase games in Portugal and Israel instead. Those who went to Ukraine reported back that it was a historical city, with some great sights, but it had been rather dicey in places. I easily remembered that some innocent Chelsea supporters in a city centre bar were attacked by local hooligans on the night before the game – I distinctly recollect searching for the location of the bar on Google Earth on my home PC that evening – and there was talk that several mates were very thankful that a heavy army and police presence was available to escort the away hardcore to the stadium.

But this time, in 2019, I simply had to attend. The lure of an edgy, historic city was just too much to resist.

Flights – with Air France from Heathrow via Paris CDG – and accommodation in an apartment on Independence Square were booked. Car parking at LHR was booked. Match tickets – the ridiculous sum of £1.50 – were bought. It was a great price; it worked out at £225 for three nights.

The fun began at 2am on the morning of Wednesday 13 March. I collected PD, then Parky soon after. The M4 had a closure, so I changed track onto the A303 before hitting the M3 and M25. We reached our parking spot at Terminal Four at around 4.15am. It had been a breeze. The flight left at 6.25am. At Paris, we bumped into two brothers from Stockton-On-Tees who I first met in Stockholm in 1998. The five of us were the only Chelsea on the flight. I caught up on some shut-eye on the three-hour flight to Kiev’s Boryspil airport. We touched down to clear blue skies bang on time at 1.55pm. I soon bumped into Steve and Neil, who had just flown in via Warsaw. Our cab was waiting outside to take us to the apartment.

I was buzzing.

Here we were.

In Ukraine.

In my pre-trip thoughts and daydreams, I had already conjured up a phrase that might turn out be relevant to describe the city. I had surmised that Kiev might well be grubby, and not just around the edges, but in the centre too. As we clambered into a dirty cab – its windows needing a clean, the aroma of its upholstery rather piquant – and as we drove into the city on a wide and dusty main road, I wondered if grubbiness might well dominate the entire trip. In retrospect, this initial impression turned out to be wide of the mark; although Kiev was to show signs of battle fatigue, its streets and pavements were ridiculously litter-free and the locals were smart dressers.

The cab ride, which took about forty-five minutes, gave us a scintillating introduction. The scale of the city exhilarated me. Many new apartment blocks were being built on the eastern side of the Dnipro River, and everything reminded me of Moscow in 2008. The residential blocks were simply huge. We careered over the massive river, then caught a glimpse of the large and impressive statue of the Motherland Monument, passing right underneath it. Soon there would be the first of many domes of churches and cathedrals. We hugged the river. There were cobbled streets. The sun shone. Kiev was charming me. Then, a real treat. We turned left down another cobbled street and I soon spotted the architectural joy of the white columns marking the entrance to Dynamo Kiev’s own stadium – right in the city centre – which the club uses alongside the larger Olympic Stadium a mile or two further south. It is named after the former Dynamo Kiev and Russia – before partition – team manager Valeriy Lobanovskyi. Five minutes later, up a steep hill – more cobbles – and then down to our apartment. It was perfect.

A quick change and we were out at just before 5pm. We had spotted a couple of cafes near our digs, but chose a bar on the corner of our block which intimated that it was open twenty-four hours. In we went. In this cellar bar – “Copper Bar” – we soon spotted Scott and Paul, who I remember bumping into in Baku last season, and we sat down at a table with them for a good two hours or so. Six pints of “Lvivske 1715” later, we were well on the way. We had a good old natter about all things Chelsea. Scott rarely misses a game. There was talk of the game in Boston in May that Paul and Scott are attending, but that will be a game too far for me. They were both in Perth in July, so their travels this season will see Chelsea play on three continents, or four if we get to Baku. Respect.

They then had to go off and meet others for a meal in the city and we tentatively agreed to meet up with them at a restaurant outside the metro stop at the stadium at 5pm on the following day. Stan from High Wycombe then duly arrived with two other Chelsea lads, and the chit-chat continued. Luke and Aroha then showed up. Things were warming up nicely.

At about 8pm or so, we clambered into a cab and were soon climbing up the hill behind the square. I had ear-marked the best rooftop bar in Kiev – “B Hush” which sits on top of the Intercontinental Hotel – and this turned out to be a fine diversion. The five of us settled in to a quiet corner and three more beers soon followed. There was the beat of music in the background. This was as chilled as it gets. It was so relaxing. Outside, the night was cold, but we did not care. The V shaped roof-terrace overlooked a square which housed St. Michael’s Cathedral and a large governmental building with pillars, both floodlit, to the left. To our right, a building was lit with the yellow and blue of the national flag, with the ornate tower and domes of St. Sophia’s Cathedral floodlit beyond. In the distance, a myriad of lights, shapes, blocks. It seemed like we had the whole of the terrace to ourselves, and perhaps even the city. All really was quiet outside, but my heart was beating.

I was in my element.

I found myself out on the terrace a second time, alone with my thoughts and a glass of lager, and I stood there in my polo shirt and jeans, the cold night air biting at me. Luke came out to check on me and we just stood, looking out, disbelieving that we were there, in Kiev, at that moment, with friends, with Chelsea. Luke is quite a traveller with both club and country and he visited Russia for two or three World Cup games last summer. He loves foreign fields. But we both agreed how wonderful this European club football can be.

We were mesmerized by it all. The view. The history. The architecture. The lights. The city. The night.

“A million sparking lights, a million sparking stars, a million sparking lives.”

We had heard that some other friends – Dave and Liam – were drinking in a pub called the “Just Beer Bar” and we jumped into two cabs and shot off into the guts of the city. Ten minutes later, we arrived, soon to be joined – quite by chance – by Alan and Gary and Lucio and Pete, in addition to Dave and Liam. We had lost Aroha and Luke on the way, but their places were taken with new recruits. By this time – around 11.30pm, and without food since a meal on the plane over France, we were getting slowly, or quickly, pissed and things were getting blurred, just like the photographs. This bar – quite quiet to be honest, and themed with a nod to Americana – was not far from the Olympic Stadium, and near to the others’ accommodation. It seemed that in Kiev the Chelsea support was either housed near the stadium or Independence Square. Three more bottles of beer were quaffed, but thank heavens we stayed clear of the shorts and shots.

Just after midnight, we hailed a cab and returned back to our apartment, just finding enough time to shovel a horrible cold meat baguette into our respective mouths at a stand in Independence Square.

It had been – undoubtedly – a fine evening.

We enjoyed a little lie-in on the day of the game, and chose a late breakfast in a Crimean restaurant. But I felt a little tired. I felt a little low. I wanted to get a second wind. We soon bumped into Charlotte and Paul, also from Somerset, on the walk to pick up match tickets at the Premier Palace Hotel on Pushinska Street, which was no more than a twenty-minute walk away. This gave us the chance of a leisurely stroll along the sweeping curve of the impressive Kreschtayk Street. We walked past protestors outside a governmental building. The architecture was stunning, surprisingly so. I expected everything to be bleaker, grubbier. We collected match tickets – so good to see Dog, with Cath, at his first European away in around eight seasons – and continued on. We had decided to walk to the stadium. At 1.30pm, we dived into another cellar bar – another one which was open all day and all night – called the “Fat Lion” bar. Bars were scarce in Kiev. But we did well to spot a few. Three beers were quaffed. I loved this bar. There were a few Kiev fans enjoying a pre-match meal. The beer was excellent. The barmaid was stunning. I had my second wind.

Around a corner, a craft ale bar in a building which resembled a potting shed. This was really quiet. The IPA was tough to stomach.

On we went. We dived into the third cellar bar of the trip, and chatted to a Kiev fan underneath a Ukrainian flag. This lager had an odd, soapy taste.

We reached the metro outside the stadium bang on 5pm, but struggled and then failed to spot Scott, Paul and the others. We spotted a local restaurant – so busy – and enjoyed a fantastic, cheap and tasty meal, washed down with a couple of varying lagers. The beer definitely tasted better the previous night in the first pub on Independence Square. Opposite us were three Dynamo fans, demolishing plates of food, glasses of lager and a bottle of vodka like their life depended on it.

“England?”

“Yes. Chelsea.”

“Ah. Chel – see – eh.”

One was wearing a scarf. He intimated that he was troubled why we were not wearing a Chelsea scarf.

I felt like replying “so we don’t get slapped by your fucking ultras, mate” but I suspect it would have been lost in translation.

Outside, the night had fallen and there were bustling crowds outside the metro stop. The temperature had only dropped slightly, thank heavens. I had previously had visions of a shivering night inside the concrete of the Olympic Stadium. We began walking towards the lights of the stadium, which was no more than a hundred yards away. In the shadows, we were lucky to bump into a few Chelsea including Leigh from Basingstoke. He quickly reminded us that – as per the Chelsea website instruction that I had clearly forgotten – we were to divert away from the immediate vicinity, past some restaurants, up a dimly lit hill and finally into a narrow walkway which was not signposted at all. It wasn’t a huge and frustrating diversion away from the ground as at Barcelona this time last season and although the authorities, I am sure, insisted on this approach was for our own benefit, it still seemed a risky walk. There were no police close by and there was the threat of “ambush” in the air. Thankfully we made it into the compound of the stadium. We soon spotted lots of familiar faces.

We were safe and among friends.

The Olympic Stadium – an expansive roof added over its two tiers in 2011 – hosted last season’s Champions League Final. It’s an impressive stadium. Its seats mirror the Ukrainian national colours; two shades of yellow, two shades of blues – plus one shade of white for contrast – and although there is a random placing of these colours, the bottom tier is predominantly yellow and the top tier is predominantly blue, mirroring the two bars of the national flag. It’s a pleasing look.

We picked a row and took our spots. We didn’t have as many as the one thousand two-hundred in Budapest. The younger element was missing. The figure of five-hundred or so from the UK seemed right. This was augmented by a few hundred supporters from Ukraine, Belarus and other nearby countries. These foreign fans could easily be spotted; these were the ones wearing Chelsea scarves and tops, waving flags, clambering onto the fences at the front of our enclosure and generally being far too happy.

The UK supporters stood, as is our wont, with our hands in our pockets, comparing pre-match drinking adventures and grumbling about everything within sight.

It’s our way.

It’s what we do well.

The stadium took ages to fill up. I severely doubted that it would be anywhere near its 70,000 capacity. In the ‘sixties, it held over 100,000.

The team news had come through earlier.

Arrizabalaga

Zappacosta – Rudiger – Christensen – Alonso

Kovacic

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Willian – Giroud – Hudson-Odoi

Willian was the captain for the night.

It was, of course, pleasing to see our Ruben and our Callum in the starting line-up. I had forgotten what our Davide looked like.

The teams came on, and our kit mirrored that of the stadium seats, but blue down below and yellow up top.

It was clear that the Kiev ultras were facing us at the opposite end, to the right of the access tunnel. They formed a dark and densely-packed mob, easily distinguishable from the rest of the home spectators. As the teams walked onto the pitch to the sound of the Europa League anthem (titled “Thursday Night Ersatz”) the ultras hoisted mosaics which formed an amalgam of the Ukranian flag and their club colours.

I was in a row alongside PD and Parky, then Lucy and Gary, Aroha and Luke, with Paul and Spencer from Swindon a few rows in front. Behind us, Scott and Paul. To my left, Kev, Tom and Russell. Alan, Gary and Raymondo a few rows behind. Other faces dotted around.

Chelsea in Kiev.

The game began.

There were a few Chelsea songs to mark the start of the match. Luke led the way with a barrage of ditties.

The home team – playing in all white for this one – attacked early but we coped with the danger. Over in the “north curve” a selection of eight or nine flags was waved with gusto, including a subtle black and white image of that man Lobanovskyi.

On just five minutes, we won a corner on our right. Willian struck the ball into the heart of our box, Ruben headed the ball on – and crucially down – into a few spare feet of space in front of the goal for Olivier Giroud to easily readjust his feet and guide the ball past Boyko.

I screamed with pleasure, the tie was safe now.

Dynamo Kiev 0 Chelsea 1

Not long after, Ruben wriggled in from the left after a fine series of passes but his daisy-cutter was palmed away by the Kiev ‘keeper.

To our right, above us in the home section, we spotted a few locals wearing the red, white and black bar scarves of Manchester United. A banner was quickly hoisted but I was not quick enough to spot the wording before it was forced to retire. A small United flag stayed throughout the match.

“Bit pathetic, that” I thought.

Behind me there was a running gag with Scott.

“We need one more. We’ll be safe if we get to five-nil on aggregate.”

“Yeah, they’d have to score six.”

Smiles.

Scott had met up with a few other Chelsea at a restaurant just around the corner from us. He had enjoyed a lovely rib eye. I told him that I had opted for a Chicken Kiev.

“Oh, and I had some borscht for a starter. Very nice. Only trouble was, I had to queue up for it for two hours.”

We controlled the game. The Chelsea songs came and went. Thankfully the temperature was fine and this was no bitter night in Kiev. A few crosses into their box tested their ‘keeper who was already having a busy game. They had a free-kick which didn’t cause us any harm. A break on their left ended up with a shot being placed past Kepa by Garmash but the Kiev player was clearly offside as the ball was played.

Next up from the ultras was a show of colour with hundreds of blue and white scarves held up over heads, and very effective it was too. I was surprised that there were no flares on display, but they were determined to put on a good show for us despite trailing heavily.

I thought to myself : “Fair play. That’s the embodiment of support. Making a racket. Making some noise. Always.”

On the half-hour, Ruben withstood some challenges and played the ball forward from deep to a raiding Alonso. With the entire defensive back-line backing off, the left-back slipped in a perfect ball into the path of Giroud who had an easy one-touch finish.

Dinamo Kiev 0 Chelsea 2

“Still need one more. They’ll need to score seven, then.”

A fine clipped corner from Willian found a leaping Giroud at the near post but his header was over. It could, and perhaps should, have been a perfect first-half hat-trick…left foot, right foot, header. Just before the half-time whistle, another fine move allowed Callum to race onto a fine through ball from Giroud to set up Alonso from close-in.

Dinamo Kyiv 0 Chelsea 3.

It had been a perfect first-half. The home team had been so poor, though. They just could not cope with our movement. And they looked so rusty. But the running gag continued.

“We still need another. I can see them getting eight.”

A few Chelsea left at half-time.

Answers on a postcard please.

Kiev had us all in stitches early into the second-half when Sydorchuk followed up Kepa’s fine save from himself with a rushed effort against the post with the whole goal gaping. Immediately after, another offside decision ruled out another Garmash goal.

“Bloody hell, they’re crap.”

As the hour approached, I spotted clusters of white lights in the home areas. Phone torches had been turned on.

“What’s this, a bloody Barry Manilow concert?”

The lights lit up most of the home areas, although I admired the fact that the solemn block of three-thousand ultras did not participate.

“Good on them.”

I noted that several half-hearted attempts from the home fans above us to instigate a “wave” didn’t ever materialise. This crowd were clearly split into two. The ultras and the rest. But although parts of the home support were visually impressive, there was not great booms of noise. No thunderous racket. It was no Istanbul. To be honest, the single chant of “Dee-nah-moh” was rather meek.

With the torch lights still on, Willian waited to take a free-kick down below us in the corner. His fantastic cross was met with a magnificent header from Giroud. There was his perfect hat-trick.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

D KNIB 0 Chelsea 4.

Although, it has to be said, the marking was again non-existent. I reckoned that half the defence had buggered off to start queuing up for some beetroot soup. A swipe from the foot of Alonso at a free-kick forced a magnificent save, arching back, by the overworked ‘keeper Boyko. Next up from the ultras was something that Leeds United used to do at half-time around fifteen years ago; the stripping off of shirts and jackets. Over in the far quadrant, there were several hundred skins.

I pictured an image of David Brent : “Ooh. You’re hard.”

Jorginho came on for Kante.

Dave came on for an injured Davide.

Pedro replaced Willian, who handed the armband to Captain Dave.

On seventy-eight minutes, a lovely through-ball from Giroud played in Callum, who raced through and calmly slotted past the hapless Boyko.

Chickens 0 Lions 5

Scott tapped me on the shoulder.

“That’s it. We’re safe. They won’t score nine.”

The joke had run its course and so had the tie.

Chelsea 3 Dynamo Kiev 0.

Dynamo Kiev 0 Chelsea 5.

This was my biggest ever away win in Europe.

It had worked out at 30p per goal.

Bargain.

The gate was announced as a very healthy 64,830. And the vast majority stayed until the end. At the final whistle, the Kiev ultras were still holding their scarves aloft. They had provided us with quite a show. Our players walked over towards us, with Olivier Giroud clutching the match ball. To be honest, we had never really moved out of second gear the entire night. Kovacic and Willian had done well. Giroud had scored three nice goals. It was as easy a night in Europe as we have ever had. We applauded them, and they applauded us.

As we waited for around twenty minutes or so for the home legions to be cleared, I admitted to anyone that might be listening “the trouble is, we haven’t honestly played anyone in this thing yet.”

The boisterous foreign fans – Chelsea Ukraine scarves, Chelsea Belarus flags – then began to serenade each other with the “Chelsea Alouette” and caused the UK fans to giggle. You had to admire their passion.

I was one of the very last supporters to leave the entire stadium. I had gone down to take some shots of the empty bowl from the bottom of our section. It was still a mild night. I slowly walked to the top of the away section, and I was the very last Chelsea fan to leave. As I walked out of the gates, around fifty police walked with me, their employment for the night over.

That’s what I call a police escort.

I bought a cheap Dynamo fridge magnet from a cheery local woman out on the main approach. I was certainly surprised how relatively empty the streets were. Certainly all other Chelsea had disappeared into the night.

It did not take long for the three of us to hail a cab and head back towards Independence Square.

In the last match report, the home game with the Wanderers of Wolverhampton, I had mentioned “Sliding Doors” which had begun with a scene or two at the old Fulham Broadway tube station.

Intrigued?

The cab driver asked for our destination.

I remembered that I had slipped a map of Kiev, picked up at the Chelsea ticket collection point, into my back pocket. I retrieved it and pointed to Independence Square.

“Ah. Maidan.”

This was the local name. We sped through the city and were deposited right outside our apartment. It was only a five-minute drive. As soon as we set foot on the pavement, a couple of Hungarian Chelsea fans walked past us and, soon realising that we were Chelsea, and from England, told us that they were headed to a pub called “O’Briens.” I had remembered this pub from a chat that I had had with our main client in Ukraine who, at one stage, was keen to meet up with us on our stay. Keen to visit as many bars as possible during our stay, we followed them up the hill. It was only a five-minute walk. The pub was surprisingly quiet. I am not a huge fan of Irish pubs – apart from in Ireland – but this one was passable. The barman spoke great English and we enjoyed a relaxing hour or so.

The Hungarian fans, from the lovely city of Budapest – this season’s Europa League adventure keeps looping back on itself – were good company. Two lads, two girls, though not couples. Just in Kiev for the Chelsea. They were just amazed how cheap everything was in Kiev.  I told them how much we had enjoyed their city in December. Also in the pub, quite randomly, were two Slavia Prague fans, this time a couple, and the bloke laughed about how he wanted to visit London in the next round, but his girlfriend was not keen on the idea. There was a little banter between the people from Prague and Budapest – local histories, rivalries – and the three of us from Somerset and Wiltshire just sat back, bemused.

“Another pint?

At around 1am, we left the pub – “see you in the next round” – and walked back down to our digs. On the corner of the square, right outside the “Copper Pub” we spotted a few police.

There was nothing to see really, so we turned in.

It had been a fantastic end to a very fine day.

The cab driver asked for our destination.

I uttered the words “Independence Square.”

He looked blankly at me. I looked blankly at him. I needed to bring my geographical skills into operation. I had a pretty good notion of which way we needed to go, so I pointed ahead. At a junction, quite close to the “Fat Lion”, I inadvertently chose the wrong road. For around ten minutes, we veered slightly away from where I knew we needed to be headed and we ended up taking a few more wrong turns. We found ourselves up on the high area to the east of Independence Square, but we eventually reached a little area off Kreschtayk Street. We slowly walked under the still busy road, using the eerie underpass, and made our way up to our apartment. We looked at the “Copper Bar” and uttered the words “nightcap”. At the top of the stairs, I spotted a few security staff. Inside, the bar was a mix of Chelsea and a few locals. We sat at the bar, and ordered more “1715.” A Chelsea fan then stunned us with the words “there’s fifty of them up in the square.” I found this hard to believe as we had seen no Kiev fans anywhere since we had left the stadium. On our gentle stroll through Independence Square, there had been no Kiev fans, hooligans or ultras waiting in shadows or anywhere else. I dismissed it as a silly rumour.

Ten minutes later, there was a commotion in the other bar – more a walkway – and then around six or seven Dynamo Kiev fans appeared in our bar, no more than four yards away. I remained calm, but inside my head was spinning. How many were upstairs and on their way in? Did they have weapons? Was this going to be a horrible repeat of 2015? Their main man, horrible eyes, a grin on his face, looked around. He shouted.

“Hooligans!”

He was flanked by mere kids. He threw something across the bar, hitting one or two. There was a commotion, a rush of bodies. The sound of glasses being smashed. The Kiev fans were chased out. Parky, PD and I had not moved from the bar. It was all over within a few seconds.

We remained in the bar, calmed each other, and others, and finished our drinks. At around 1am we called it a day. Outside the pub, thankfully we spotted a few police.

There was nothing to see really, so we turned in.

It had been a very odd end to a very fine day.

Friday was a day of rest, relaxation, a little sightseeing, a few more beers, and then some more beers. We had another lie in, and breakfasted locally at a Parisian-style restaurant. The food, and coffees – much needed – were superb. The three of us headed over to check out the Dynamo stadium, and in the ten-minute walk, using the underpass again, we soon spotted memorials to locals who had fallen during the demonstrations and battles of Maidan in 2014. Images were etched onto stone. There were flowers. Some of the fallen were young. On a few occasions we noticed the painted outlines of bodies, marking the location of where innocent people were gunned down by the army as they protested the Ukrainian’s prime minister’s wishes to become closer to Russia. It was a cold and sobering moment.

The stadium, glistening in the late-morning sun, improved the mood a little. I loved the pillars, the iconic “D” of the Dynamo badge, the magical statue of Lobanovskyi – on his bench – looking over at Independence Square.

A penny for his thoughts.

Alas, we couldn’t enter the stadium, but we walked up a leafy walkway and I was able to take a few panoramic photographs. The floodlights were pure Eastern Bloc. The trees added a natural touch. The blue of the seats were so vivid. It was a stunning setting for a football stadium. I am pleased that the club still regard it as its base.

I continued a walk through the immediate area, then met up at the “Copper Bar.” We soon learnt that we were to play Slavia Prague in the quarter finals. We decided to give it a miss, then hope for Benfica – cheap flights from Bristol – rather than Frankfurt. Although from memory, that stadium is nicely nestled in some woods too. Either city would be a joy.

I left the boys to some more drinking as I headed up to the historic area of the Golden Gate, St. Sophia’s and St. Michael’s. I took plenty of photographs and I lost myself for an hour and a half, away from the madding crowd, away from the beers, and I enjoyed every second of it. On returning to the bar at about 5pm, the Bristol lot – Julie, Tim, Kev, Brian, Pete and Sam – had dropped in. This was their third visit to Kiev, after a flying visit en route to Donetsk in 2012 and again in 2015. Tim tellingly reported that there was devastation around Maidan / Independence Square on the second visit, with evidence of buildings being fire damaged. The area has certainly seen some action over the past few years.

Later that night, with the other two returning to the apartment early, I had the whole night to myself. There were a few beers in “Blues Bar” with a local duo playing some fine music. When they heard I was from London, they wanted to take a selfie with me. I found that odd, but touching. I returned to “B Hush” for a few more beers and some lovely food.  I was alone with my thoughts once again.

The night continued on.

Kiev had been a wonderful host city.

I would return in a heartbeat.

Tales From The London Lions

Chelsea vs. Dynamo Kiev : 7 March 2019.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Dynamo Kiev, nor even how to spell their name. Was it Dynamo or Dinamo? And should I go all native and plump with Kyiv, or stick with the anglicised version? I knew that they had only just recommenced their league season after a lengthy winter break of over two months. I knew that they were a famous name from the days of the old Soviet League, when their team included the powerful and iconic striker Oleg Blokhin. When the Ukrainian League itself began after the splintering away from the old regime, there was the nimbler Andrei Shevchenko. I wondered whatever happened to him? I recollected, of course, that we had played them in the group stages of the 2015/2016 Champions League. I vaguely remembered a home win in that competition. But I knew next to nothing of their current team or form.

On the drive up to London – PD was doing the honours once again for this midweek fixture – all the talk was of the upcoming trip to the Ukrainian capital. I had booked the three of us onto flights within forty-five minutes of finding out that we would be playing the famous team from the Ukraine (or just Ukraine, as it now calls itself) and over the past few weeks it has been a hectic time. For one thing, there was the slight worry of a new passport but that was returned to me in double-quick time. An apartment on the main square was booked for a very competitive price even though it was worryingly close to where some innocent Chelsea fans were attacked the night before the game in 2015. Everything else fell into position too. Match tickets were purchased at the princely sum of £1.50 apiece. I booked some parking at Heathrow. Everything was good. When we realised that we had Everton away on the Sunday, arrangements were made for that too. We would not be getting home until around 10pm on the Saturday and would be leaving for Liverpool at 8am the next day. So, we decided to stay Sunday night in Liverpool. Six days of football. Or rather six days of Chelsea. Heaven on Earth.

And a two-centre holiday, of sorts, in Kiev and Liverpool.

Insert punchline here.

It was the usual midweek routine.

“The Goose” to meet one set of friends, and “Simmons” to meet some others.

Some of the US supporters from Fulham on Sunday had surprised me though; a healthy group of around eight from Ohio were drinking at a table in “The Goose” when we arrived at about 5.45pm. I flitted between this group – which included a couple of Facebook friends, Billy and Kristen, that I was meeting for the very first time – and the more local friends that reside in that pub. From Brian, Kev and Pete – the Bristol Posse – there was the surprising news that, allegedly, just one hundred Chelsea supporters from the UK had bought tickets for Kiev. I expected many more.

“I expect I know half of them.”

In truth, I expect I will know three-quarters of them at least.

Alan, Gal, Pete, Nick, JD, Welsh Kev, Cathy and Dog – his first euro away since 2011/2012, fantastic – Luke and Aroha, Dave, Brian, Kev, Pete, Julie and Tim, Rich, Pauline, Nick and Ali, Closey, Neil, Cal, Parky, PD and little old me. There are twenty-five or so certs for starters.

Next Thursday, they will be announcing the supporters’ line-up to the team.

Down at “Simmons” the place was filling nicely. As on Sunday in “The Duke’s Head” in Putney, Jim from Oxfordshire had joined the usual suspects. But Jim had a special guest with him, our former midfield dynamo – or dinamo – John Boyle who played for us with distinction from 1964 to 1973. It was a real pleasure to meet John for the very first time. John is a friend of mine on Facebook and it is a wonderful to see him interacting with so many on social media – he is quite prolific – and also with some good friends in the bar. Two other Facebook friends who I had not yet met – Robert from Helsinki and Jean from Houston – arrived too. It was quite an evening for meeting new friends.

There was a lovely comment from John.

“In my mind, there are more legends supporting this club than players playing for it.”

Bless him.

He also reminded me of this fact.

“Callum Hudson-Odoi is the second youngest Chelsea player to play in the Football League Cup Final. Do know the youngest?”

I looked at John and said “I think it was Susan Boyle’s brother” and he smiled and laughed.

Great times.

I soon introduced the fans from Ohio to John Boyle and he was soon regaling them with tales of his time in the old NASL with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in their championship season of 1975, a team that our own Joe Cole played for between 2016 and 2018. They got a buzz to be chatting with John, who became our first-ever substitute when they were allowed – but for only replacing injured players, not for tactical reasons – in 1965.

The team was announced and Daryl was incandescent with rage that our Callum was not featured.

Arrizabalaga

Zappacosta – Christensen – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Barkley – Kovacic

Pedro – Giroud – Willian

It was an odd mish-mash of a team. A mix of bona fide A team starters, but then squad players.

In Sarri we trust? Not so sure.

The two pubs had been full. On the walk to the ground, there were the usual crowds. In 2012/2013, our Europa League gates had ranged from 28,817 to 39,403. I hoped for a figure nearer the second of those two numbers. Once inside, I looked over to check how many away fans were present. It was around one-and-a-half thousand and I suspected that many were UK-based. We soon saw that Arsenal were losing 1-3 in Rennes.

“Good old Arsenal.”

I spoke to JD, who was relishing a return trip to Kiev.

“It’s great. What looks good is a trip to Chernobyl.”

I wasn’t convinced.

“It’s like Middlesbrough” chirped John.

The opposition were sporting colours of white / white / blue that were the direct opposite to ours. Their New Balance kit had a broad stripe down the sleeves which reminded me of the Puma kits of the mid-to-late ‘seventies. The iconic diamond badge featured a “D” which was exactly the same to that of Moscow Dynamo, but they don’t like to talk about Russia in Ukraine. Let’s move on.

There were noticeable gaps in the corporate middle tier of the East Stand, but everywhere else was well occupied. I soon spotted the Ohio contingent in the Shed Lower, no more than twenty seats along from Parky. The away fans, like the team, were very quiet. It was as if both team and fans really were coming out of hibernation. I guess I don’t know how cold it can get in a Ukrainian winter.

In the first fleeting moments of the match, Pedro was as lively as anyone. I usually have my camera to hand at key moments, but I sadly missed the opening goal. I was not in my seat. Without putting too fine a point on it, when Pedro slotted in from a sublime Giroud pass at The Shed End, I wasn’t holding my camera.

Again, let’s move on.

Quickly.

In what would become a familiar story during a dominant first-half, Pedro wasted a great chance soon after with a shot straight at the Kiev ‘keeper Boyko. We were purring against a very reserved Kiev team, who hardly threatened at all, and were honestly not too bothered about putting us under too much pressure. Please note that I am trying my damnedest not to over-use the verb “to press” in these match reports. It is the most-quoted word in football these days. Pedro and Giroud combined again, but the Spaniard could not get his shot in.

It took just under half-an-hour for me to hear a chant from the Ukrainians, and it was overly simple.

“Dee-nah-mo. Dee-nah-mo. Dee-nah-mo. Dee-nah-mo.”

A defence-splitting ball from David Luiz, captain on this night, set up Pedro with another chance, but this again went begging. I can’t honestly remember a half in which we had been so dominant. They had not tested Kepa, who was half-way through a Thibaut Courtois word search puzzle book left over from last season. One dominant run from deep by an anonymous Kiev midfielder was their only moment that stood out in the first-half. Long bombs from Luiz and scooped chips from Jorginho were the special moves from us. Surely more goals would follow.

There was a half-hearted “bouncy” from the away fans towards the end of the first period. In general, things were quiet. Our lot were hardly creating a din. I was surprised that Willian was not booed, remembering his time with their arch rivals Shakhtar Donetsk.

There was still time for another Pedro effort, his fifth of the game thus far.

At the break, I hoped for more goals. Or at least one that I would actually see.

But it was a time for quiet reflection.

The match programme sadly contained an obituary for Janet Rainbow-King. On this evening of meeting Facebook friends in person for the first time, this was an awful reminder of the fragility of life. Janet, who worked tirelessly for the club a few decades ago, became a Facebook friend a few years back. I only ever met Janet once when she sat with her husband Colin a few rows behind me for the famous Arsenal 6-0 thrashing in 2014. I thanked her for having to deal with the rascal Ken Bates and Janet got a kick out of that.

Janet, who lived – and died – in Malta certainly loved Chelsea. I was so sad to hear of her passing last week. When I received my Chelsea Pitch Owner certificate in 1993, it was counter-signed by Janet. I will regard that as a fine memorial to a wonderful Chelsea servant. Janet was only sixty. Our club is a poorer place without her.

RIP.

The game restarted.

Guess what? Another Pedro effort. This was getting quite ridiculous now. Kiev were there for the taking. We found it difficult to break them down though. On the hour, there were changes.

N’Golo Kante and Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Jorginho and Ross Barkley – I was surprised that he had started two consecutive games to be honest – with Kovacic moving in to the Jorginho role.

“Yeah, I know.”

Ruben was soon fouled outside the box.

We waited an eternity, but Willian took the ball, stepped back, sized up the options, looked again, then despatched a majestic curler over the wall and into the goal. This time, I captured it all.

GET IN.

Chelsea 2 Dynamo Kiev 0.

Phew.

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

We had been here before.

From my 2015 match report, that time a late winner.

“The ball was placed behind a semi-circular flash of shaving foam.

The referee spent a while pacing out ten yards.

Another flash of foam.

The wall retreated.

We waited.

Willian waited.

I had my camera poised. I kept focusing and re-focusing.

“Concentrate you bastard, concentrate.”

I clicked as Willian struck. I looked up to follow the beautiful flight of the ball as it was whipped up and over the redundant wall and watched – these wonderful moments – as it flew into the waiting goal.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

The Bridge burst.

The noise was immense.”

We were 2-0 up in 2019. But would it be enough? I wasn’t sure and neither was Alan. Oddly, this second Chelsea goal awoke Dynamo from their slumbers and a speculative effort from the boot of Sydorchuk rose and rose before hitting someone in the rear rows of The Shed Upper.

Sarri then replaced Willian with our Callum, whose name had been sung loudly for quite some time.

Kiev threatened a little more in the closing fifteen minutes and things became a more nervous than it really should be. We knew a rogue Kiev goal would change the complexion of the tie completely. Then came a lovely move – the Chelsea of old, memories of Frank Lampard on the counter – which resulted in Ruben and Callum linking with Pedro who fired over. Pedro had also had a goal disallowed for offside in the second period.

At the other end, a header underneath The Shed did not hit the target.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

Nerves were tightening for sure now. In these closing periods of European games, I always think of Iniesta in 2009.

Thankfully, right on ninety minutes, another fine move resulted in our Ruben setting up our Callum to strike from inside the box.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

It was a good reflection of a match in which our foreign opponents were oh so reticent.

London Lions 3 Kiev Chickens 0.

Game over, and the tie – surely – too.

Next up, the old gold of Wolverhampton Wanderers visit Stamford Bridge on Sunday.

See you there.

 

Tales From Two Shades Of Blue

Chelsea vs. Malmo : 21 February 2019.

We were back in town again for the second time of the working week. After the disappointment of the United game on the Monday, Malmo offered a different test on a Thursday evening Europa League tie. The games were starting to ramp up now. And we were in the middle of an odd sequence of matches which were following this pattern :

Sunday / Thursday / Monday / Thursday / Sunday / Wednesday / Sunday.

Maybe in the near future a child will ask of their parents : “they used to play on Saturday, didn’t they?”

We were also continuing our ridiculously Jekyll & Hyde sequence of a win, a loss, a win, a loss. I wonder what Chelsea would show up on this occasion. What shade of blue?

All was quiet when we walked into “Simmons” at about 6pm. Unlike Monday there was room to breathe, and room to chat in a more relaxed way with a few good friends. Gillian and Kev were down from Edinburgh again. Special mention for Chris from Guernsey who was in the middle of three trips to London in a week, all for Chelsea; the second of a Holy Trinity of cup games in three different competitions. There was an inevitable revisiting of the game on Monday. It had been a totally depressing evening. We briefly rummaged through the debris of a pretty shambolic performance. There were more questions than answers. To sum up our state of bewilderment at the manager’s modus operandi, I made a comment which I think holds water.

“There can’t be a single Chelsea supporter anywhere – anywhere in the world – who thought that the Zappacosta for Azplicueta substitution was laudable and fine.”

The boys agreed.

“Not one.”

We heard on the grapevine that the visiting Swedes were enjoying themselves up at The Courtfield at Earl’s Court. We were not surprised. This was a cheap trip for them after all. The lads that visited Malmo last week reported high drink prices; the boot was on the opposite foot now.

And their boots were being filled.

Fair play.

There was a predictable – and hilarious, cough, cough – punfest in the bar as we quoted football-relevant Abba songs.

I shan’t bore you.

Malmo first came into our common consciousness in the UK back in 1979 when they reached – I know not how – the European Cup Final. They were the underdogs against Cloughie’s Nottingham Forest and they fell to a John Robertson shimmy and cross and a Trevor Francis lunge at the far post in the final in Munich. I remembered their Manchester City-style light blue kit. They have been on my radar ever since. AIK Stockholm, Gothenberg and Malmo are the three names in Swedish football that resonate for me. I saw Malmo play once before, in odd circumstances. I was over in Dublin on a mate’s Stag Weekend in March 1991 and after a heavy night on the ale, we woke on the Sunday to discover that the local team St. Patrick’s Athletic were playing a friendly against Malmo at the nearby Dalymount Park. Some of the party decided not to go and I think they were probably wise. But four of us watched, sitting on a crumbling terrace which was overgrown with weeds, but were far from enamoured by the experience. The crowd was of about five-hundred and the game ended 1-1.

We made plans for Sunday and walked to Stamford Bridge.

I was only slightly interested in the reaction of the crowd to the manager and players after Monday. I hoped for not too much negativity. I had, if I am honest, not the stomach for any of that. I just wanted us to get behind the team.

Ah, the team.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Christensen – Emerson

Kovacic

Kante – Barkley

Hudson-Odoi – Giroud – Willian

No complaints with that.

Inside the stadium, there were gaps but these soon filled. I was very pleased indeed with the resultant attendance. Yes, the tickets were only £25, but people still had to make the effort to get off collective arses and travel. Of course, the away half of The Shed was full of light-blue. They had made a right old din in Sweden and London was a dream trip for them. They would undoubtedly be “up for it.”

This would be another game, the second in a week, when we would be undoubtedly out-sung by the away contingent.

It was good to see Mark – a foot soldier from the days of when we used to meet up at the old “Black Bull” in the promotion campaign of 1988/89 – who was with his son and sitting close by. It was half-term in London and elsewhere and a lot more children were in attendance than normal.

Flags were waved, the teams came on, the crowd was almost at capacity, no negativity thus far. Over on The Shed balcony wall, the invading Swedes had draped many flags and banners between the two tiers.

For the first time that I can remember since our kit-change back in 1991, we wore an all blue kit at home. It just did not look right. We presumed that the Malmo kit man had neglected to do his research. They were in a Manchester City copy of light blue, white and light blue. One of their players resembled Kevin de Bruyne. The football Gods were not letting us forget the 6-0 loss at the Etihad easily.

The game began.

It was a bright start from the visitors. The Chelsea support had raised a few songs at the start in a genuine attempt to provide a positive vibe, but as our play stumbled and fumbled, the noise fell away. The visiting supporters kept their noise levels high. Pre-match there had been en masse bouncing. It had been impressive. And they must have been warmed by their players who looked a yard quicker than our players. There was a cross and a header early on which hinted at a worrying evening. Malmo definitely had the best of the first quarter. We looked lacking in confidence, a team of disjointed players. A university thesis could be written on why Mateo Kovacic was playing the deep-lying role and not N’Golo Kante. It was a puzzle to most of us. The manager’s golden child Jorginho was on the bench, and his personal toils throughout this season could spawn a bookshelf of theories about modern day football.

The football nerds call him a regista.

Regista?

Fucking hell, Arkwright’s cash register had more bite.

On the pitch there was little urgency, little shape, no clue.

There was, shamefully, not a great deal of running off the ball, which is surely an integral part of Sarriball (…oh dear, I feel dirty – ugh – this is the first time that I have used it in these reports I think, it won’t happen again, sorry). And I found it odd that, bearing in mind we were so nervy, we were continuing to pass the ball out from defence, almost inviting an error as Malmo were putting us under a high press (ditto, it’s the buzz word of the season, eh?).

On twenty-five minutes, the Malmo support got going with a loud chant. The second part of it seemed like “Fuck off Chelsea” but I am not sure that it was. Regardless, this got the Matthew Harding riled and there was a “Fuck off Malmo” response. This was followed by a loud and resonant “Carefree”, the loudest of the night. Good stuff. Well, I am not totally sure if the relationship between a noisy support and an upturn in a team’s play has ever been proven, but there definitely seemed like a ten minute or so of improved Chelsea play. At last Callum Hudson-Odoi was given the ball, and there was room ahead of him in which to run. He was the catalyst for our improvement I think. He looked the business, a rare spark of light in what had been a grey game thus far.

But then it seemed to die again. And the play worsened.

In that dire first-half, I can only remember occasional efforts on goal. A Barkley drive. A chance for Giroud close in. Not worth talking about.

At the break, I chatted to a few friends.

“That was awful.”

And it was. Bloody awful.

“It’s a bloody concern when our least adept central defender on the night has touched the ball more than any other Chelsea player.”

Every Chelsea move seemed to go through Toni Rudiger.

“Atvidaberg were Swedish, weren’t they?”

If you don’t know, “Google” it. 1971 and all that. Shudder.

Just as the Chelsea players came back on to the Stamford Bridge pitch, the away fans lit up The Shed with some white, and one red – he didn’t get the memo – flare. I’ll be honest, it looked bloody magnificent. The most flares ever seen at Chelsea? European football is meant to be like this.

Take a bow, Malmo.

As the first-half began, the clouds of smoke billowed around the southern end of the stadium and up under the lights of the East Stand. It was quite a sight. It brought back memories of a London before the clean air act when Stamford Bridge often became enveloped in a low fog on match days.

I could not resist an easy line :

“Put your fags out, Sarri.”

There was an odd, one-man, pitch invasion soon into the second period.

“Well, that’s one way to avoid seeing us play. A five-year ban, bosh. Idiot.”

Thankfully, after fifty-five minutes of tedium, the game came to life. Malmo were stretched after a move broke down. Our little prince N’Golo carried the ball at speed right through the heart of the Malmo defence, then easily spotted the run of Willian to his left, and the resulting cross was pushed home by Giroud from close in.

GET IN.

Bjorn : “De måste komma till oss nu.”

Benny : ” Kom på mina små diamanter.”

I had a gleeful smirk to myself. ”Damn that counter-attacking football.”

We were now 3-1 up on aggregate, and I hoped for no more scares. Our play, now a lot more confident, certainly improved. Barkley had an effort ruled offside. We were well on top. The away fans would not be dulled though, and their noise continued, and we were given a rare sight in The Shed – it was more common in the ’seventies – of hundreds of scarves being held aloft, but thankfully no accompanying Rodgers and Hammerstein dirge. It reminded me of Napoli at Juventus in 1988, and certainly Napoli away in 2012 (a game that took place seven years ago to the exact day and time, any bloody excuse to mention the Champions League run of 2012).

Malmo were visibly tiring and our wing play was causing them the jitters. This was more like it Chelsea. Emerson was fouled and the miscreant Bengtsson was given a second yellow. From the free-kick, Ross Barkley struck a so-sweet curler past the Malmo goalkeeper, who obviously failed to react to the advice given to him by a Chelsea supporters in the MHL.

”Move over, Dahlin.”

Ross enjoyed that goal and his run towards us in The Sleepy Hollow was one of joy. Phew. Five minutes later, the manager made two subsitutions.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek for N’Golo Kante.

Jorginho for Ross Barkley.

There were audible boos for Joginho.

How utterly utterly pathetic.

Ethan Ampadu replaced Cesar Azpilicueta.

It would have been funnier if Dave had been replaced by Gonzalo Higuain. That would have raised an ironic giggle, right?

We were assured of another fixture in this season’s competition. I had thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Baku last season, and I certainly thought that it would be a one-off ”once in a lifetime” experience. We might – just might – be returning. But as I said to Big John at half-time, Baku is not Munich or Amsterdam, or even Moscow. It is bloody miles away. Would we sell fifteen or twenty thousand tickets for the final? Answers on a postcard.

As the game continued I dreamed of where Chelsea Football Club would take me next. We were hopeful of rejoining the Europa League trail in the next round, just over a fortnight away.

In the last five minutes, Hudson-Odoi did well to drift past his man on the right and drill a low shot past the ’keeper to make it 3-0.

Phew.

I had hated the first-half, but the second-half was a lot better.

It had been a good night.

Our sequence was now –

Won 3-0

Lost 0-4

Won 5-0

Lost 0-6

Won 2-1

Lost 0-2

Won 3-0

What of Sunday and the League Cup Final? In the car on the drive home – happier than on Monday – I simply told LP and PD that we tended not to lose finals. I did some arithmetic. Since 1994, but including that game, we had reached nineteen finals – I have discounted the 2012 World Club Championships and the three Super Cups – and our record in that time span is quite excellent. We have won fourteen and lost just five. That’s a fine batting average.

See you at Wembley.