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 siege and riots. The orange revolution and 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.

 

Tales From The Home City Of Puskas, Hidegkuti, Albert And Bozsik

Vidi vs. Chelsea : 13 December 2018.

What with the altered, almost dreamlike, reality caused by the bright neon of the Christmas lights, and the extra-sensory rush of the chilled wintry air, plus the floodlit castles by the river and churches and synagogues and spires of the city, to say nothing of the intoxicating scent of mulled wine and of the tantalising aromas of the hearty food of the Christmas markets, at many times in Budapest it felt like I was in the middle of an Eastern European fairy tale. It truly was a magical time. It was magical enough that I was at last visiting one of the classical European capitals with good friends. That there was football, and Chelsea of course, made it all that much sweeter.

Budapest 2018 was truly wonderful.

The flights and accommodation had been sorted out way back in August. This trip to Hungary, my first-ever visit, was a slow-train coming. It seemed like it would never arrive. As the autumn campaign in the Europa League progressed – a procession for our team – the anticipation rose steadily. I bought a Budapest guide book (a pet peeve of mine; hardly a single mention of football in its two-hundred and seventy pages, and certainly no mention of Ferenc Puskas), and also carried out a little online research. We were lucky in the scrum down of the Virtual Waiting Room, and were sure of match tickets. We knew of many that had not been so fortunate. But many were travelling to Budapest without tickets, lured by the prospects of a proper European city with all of the associated thrills.

Eventually the day came.

The long drive to Stansted began at 3am on the Wednesday, the day before the game. My travelling companions were PD and LP, our third European away game together. Also on the 0830 Ryanair flight out of Stansted were Alan, Gary and Daryl. The flight was bang on two hours in duration. We nabbed a few precious minutes of sleep; we knew it would be a long old day. At the airport, we jumped in a cab and headed towards our apartment on Vorosmarty Utca, about a mile and a half to the north-east of the “Pest” city centre. The skies were clear, with few clouds. Thank heavens there was no rain. As we drove through the roads and streets of this new city, I peered out of the window, eager to take on board all of the new sights.

It looked a quintessential former Eastern bloc city. High rises. Graffiti. Crumbling walls. Old dwellings. But then the brazen modern additions, the hit of capitalism and the gleam of car dealerships, fast food restaurants and roadside billboards. I spotted the four leaning floodlights of Honved, that famous old club, a mile or so to the south. We then zipped past the green tinted steel of the Groupama Arena – the home of Ferencvaros – where the game against Vidi would be played the following day. Over the last few miles, I realised that I had not seen a single shop or bar in the city itself that was open. All had their shutters up. No lights were on in any of the properties.

“Maybe it’s half-day closing.”

It was an odd feeling.

Then, eventually, as we got closer to the centre, a few shops had lights on, and doors were ajar.

I kept looking at the signs, attempting to glean any clue as to what the words meant but there were no familiar Latin or Germanic, or even English, hints. Hungarian is indeed a “stand alone” language.

We had a crash course in famous Hungarians.

Biro and his pen.

Rubik and his cube.

Parky’s mate Laszlo, who I remember wearing the very same blue and white Pringle that I was sporting when I encountered a little gaggle of Chelsea casuals in The Crown in Frome’s Market Place in the summer of 1984.

Puskas, of course.

We pondered if Chelsea had ever had any Hungarian players. We thought not. Apart from the Hungarian heyday of the ‘fifties – more, much more, of that later – the national team has not produced much quality since. Have there been many famous Hungarian players of late? We thought not. At the airport, Daryl had mentioned the former West Brom player Zoltan Gera. The Hungarians have certainly not set the Premier League alight, unlike – say – some Czechs or Serbs that I can mention.

Oh, a special mention for Andrea Temesvari, the blonde tennis player from the early-eighties. I think my love affair with Hungary began with her.

We located our apartment then had a quick lager – Arany Aszok, just over a pound a pint – in a nearby bar. There followed another beer in another bar. Then another. Dave, Glenn and Liam joined us for one. Then some goulash in a fantastic local restaurant. Then a walk to a couple of ruin bars – “Mazel Tov” and then the iconic “Szimpla Kert” – and the meeting up with Alan, Gary, Daryl, and then Andy and Antony, Johnny12 and Jenny12 – all from California, and freezing – and then some more beers and some more and some more. The talk was all of Chelsea and of our fanaticism, but never of the game the following day. We took the piss out of each other. The beers flowed further. It was a great night.

At about 10.30pm, I received a text from Foxy, newly arrived from Dundee via Copenhagen. The instructions about how to enter the apartment were not working. And our phones were running out of charge. We exchanged a few frantic texts. We left Andy and Antony in a bar, excused ourselves, and hopped into a cab. Meanwhile, Foxy had hopped into a cab to meet us. Our cabs possibly passed each other. I had visions of us being stranded outside in the cold. And my phone was now on zero charge. It was a fraught ten minutes or so. We scrambled out of the cab. I entered the code onto the keypad as I had been instructed by the Russian girl eight hours earlier. No luck. I turned on my phone and, out of nowhere, I had three percent charge left. I quickly dialed the letting agency and spoke to a girl, who informed me that the Russian girl had told me the wrong code.

Oh bloody hell.

“7395 – enter.”

“BUZZZZZ.”

We were in.

YES!

“Bloody hell, we’re in.”

To celebrate, we popped around the corner to the first bar we had visited ten hours earlier and ordered two or three more pints apiece. The smiling barmaid had recognised us from before. The bar stayed open past its usual midnight closing slot. The barmaid brought us a round of apricot schnapps on the house. Some seriously inebriated locals befriended us. Laughter, laughter, laughter. We left there at 1am. I had been awake for almost twenty-four hours, minus a very brief power nap on the plane.

We scoffed down some food from a shop that was thankfully open. LP and PD called it a night but Foxy and I chatted away until 2am. He had recently visited Madrid for the Copa Libertadores and we were in full-on “football raconteur” mode. We spoke about how our generation, sadly, might well be the last bastion of old-school football support; the singers, the drinkers, the dreamers. Remembering the last lingering whiff of the terraces, hanging on desperately to the notion of supporting teams at as many games as possible. We feared the future where the predominant football supporting experience might be via a TV or streaming site.

Maybe we got a bit too self-important. But I don’t think we did.

It was a bloody long day, and night, though. Our ramblings drifted off into the night…

The bed hit us at 2am.

Game day arrived and we had a chilled-out and relaxing start in our top-floor apartment – I hesitate to call it penthouse, but this is exactly what it was, sun terrace and all – as we were in no rush to get moving. After a while, we set out for the Novotel on the main street in Budapest, Rakoczi Ut, where we easily picked-up our match tickets. We saw a few familiar Chelsea faces. We then embarked on a slow walk south-west, taking in a few of the sights along the way. Central Budapest was a little weather-beaten at times, but it certainly kept my eyes occupied. It was not as grand as Vienna, maybe its sister city along the Danube in the days of the Austria-Hungarian empire, but it was a lot tidier and beguiling than Bucharest, the only similar city of the former Eastern-European bloc that I have visited. This would be my thirty-sixth game on continental Europe with Chelsea, and I know of many who are up to a hundred or more. Their fanaticism is to be applauded.

We had heard that many Chelsea were plotted up at “Pointer Pub” near the river. We headed for there, and arrived – with perfect timing – just as Happy Hour between 2pm and 5pm began. There must have been two hundred Chelsea in there. We got stuck into the pints of “Hunter” lager – not bad – and had a lovely and relaxing time. Great to see Mr. & Mrs. Burger once again; I remember being with them in Rome ahead of their very first Chelsea away in Europe at Napoli in 2012. This was a relaxing time to be honest. And we still didn’t talk about the game. After a bite to eat, five of us bundled into a four-seater yellow cab. As we turned a rising corner, the cab grounded out. Sadly, one of the occupants – Andy from Kent – would not even attempt to get in to the stadium; he had a ticket but not in his name. Once he saw the lines of interrogation, he returned to the city centre.

The cab had dropped us off right outside the main entrance and the steel of the Ferencvaros eagle welcomed us. It was a fantastic sculpture. We edged our way past a side stand, clearly full of corporate hospitality bars and suites. We lined up at the south-west corner and waited for the passport check. One song dominated.

“We’re on our way. We’re on our way.

To Baku, we’re on our way.

How we’ll get there, I don’t know.

How we’ll get there, I don’t care.

All I know that Chelsea’s on our way.”

Our passport and match ticket were checked twice by stewards and police standing two feet apart, then the ticket again, then a bag search. Despite gambling with both lenses, there was no issue with my camera.

“Result.”

With Vidi playing at the Groupama Arena rather than their home stadium, they were treated to the exposed steel of the neat stands being lit in red and blue. Once inside the away section, we slowly made our way to the top rows. It is a rule of thumb for European aways that everyone sits where they want. There have only been three exceptions to this rule as far as I can remember; Moscow 2008, Munich 2012, Amsterdam 2013. I chose to wear my newly-acquired red, green and white retro away scarf, what with the Hungary team of the ‘fifties being the inspiration for the kit in the first place. I was expecting more fellow fans to be wearing the scarf. Out of over 1,200 Chelsea fans, I only saw two others wearing it, and one of them was my usual match day companion Alan.

“Good work, mate.”

The stadium is single-tiered and plain, but perfect for a team like Ferencvaros, whose old Albert Florian Stadium sat on the exact same site until 2013. There were executive boxes at the rear of the steep stand to our immediate left. All the seats were green. It reminded me a lot of Rapid Vienna’s new stadium.

We were in with a quarter of an hour to spare. After missing the rotten show at Wolves and the euphoria, and then media-led meltdown, of the City game due to ill-health, this was my first game since Fulham.

The team?

Caballero

Zappacosta – Ampadu – Christensen – Emerson

Loftus-Cheek – Fabregas – Barkley

Willian – Morata – Hudson-Odoi

We had already qualified as group winners. Vidi were in with a chance of getting through too. The mist had rolled in from the Danube, and it was cold, but not as cold as at Burnley two seasons ago. The game began; Chelsea in “tangerine and graphite”, Vidi in Genoa-style red and blue halves.

There was a little singing from Chelsea, but nothing too loud. There was nothing at all from the home sections. Vidi only play to about 1,500 fans at their home games, and I suspect that the crowd had been bolstered by a few neutrals from the city’s other teams. The Hungarian flag was visible in several locations. The team’s former name appeared on one. Another said “Team Hungary.” Although not on the same scale as Qarabag playing in Baku last season, here was another example of the locals rallying around another city’s team.

“United Colors Of Videoton” anyone?

Chelsea, as predicted, dominated possession during the first ten and twenty minutes. The home team were quite happy to sit back and defend en masse. We kept trying to work openings, but it was an uneventful opening period. The singing in the away section had declined, and we were stood, hands in pockets awaiting something to cheer. Right on the half-hour, Willian – who had enjoyed a couple of lung-bursting sorties down the left-wing, was chopped down outside the box. He grabbed the ball, and we waited for his free-kick. He curled a fantastic effort over the wall and we were a goal to the good. The players celebrated down below.

Alongside me, PD was happy.

“First European away goal I have seen, Chris.”

Sadly, PD was cursing shortly after. A Vidi corner curled in towards the near post and an attacker headed it on. Ethan Ampadu, attempting to divert it, could only head it past Caballero. Nego, who had already forced a save from Wily earlier, then struck a shot which our ‘keeper turned past the post at full stretch. The mood in the away end was of grumbling frustration. We were not playing particularly well, with most of the players under performing.

After a Chelsea move petered out, Alvaro Morata injured himself and Olivier Giroud replaced him.

It was noticeable that some – not many – Chelsea fans left at half-time, presumably to head back to the bars of the city centre. I just do not get it. I hope they didn’t bump into any Chelsea fans who had not been blessed with match tickets in the first place. I noted that virtually the entire stand to our left emptied at half-time as the match-goers headed back inside for the warmth of the hospitality areas.

Into the second-half, Stopira was left completely unmarked at the back stick, but headed over.

On fifty-six minutes, a fine move from Vidi resulted in a floated cross from Milanov being smashed in – on the volley from an angle, in front of us – by Nego. The crowd roared and even I had to admit “great goal.” The Vidi players celebrated right in front of us, the buggers.

We then dominated possession again, but it a lot of our play fell apart due to poor touches or a lack of concentration. Giroud went close from inside the six-yard box. The Frenchman then peeled away at the far post and his sweet volley, in the style of Nego, rose as it left his foot and ended up clearing the bar.

Pedro, who had been energetically warming up in front of us, replaced Willian and immediately spurred us on.

With a quarter of an hour left, Fabregas was fouled and we were rewarded with a centrally-placed free-kick. Barkley stepped over the ball, but it was Giroud who clipped the ball over the wall and into the goal.

Vidi 2 Chelsea 2

“Phew.”

We had most of the ball in the final period, but as the temperature fell, I just wanted to return to the city and thaw out. The whistle went. It had been an uninspiring game, but contained three super goals. The Chelsea fans slowly tumbled out of the steep away end and into the night.

Almost immediately after the game, I spotted that there had been a reporting of “anti-Semitic” songs during the match.

This startled and confused me. What songs? I had not heard any. What was this all about?

I trawled through a few posts on Facebook and it seemed that Dan Levene, on Twitter Twatter, had reported – soon into the game – that a song about Tottenham had been sung which contained the second part to “Barcelona, Real Madrid.”

Now then. I did not hear that song at the game. If it was sung, it could surely not have been very loud. I usually keep my eyes and ears open for any songs being sung at a given game. At the Pointer Pub in the afternoon, however, I did hear the song, in its entirety, being sung by a group of Chelsea upstairs. I often sing that song – it has been sung at Chelsea for decades – but never finish it. I used to finish it. I used to sing a lot of things. But not those words, now, not any more, no longer. Tottenham can sing it and do sing it. That is their problem.

I stop abruptly at “Barcelona, Real Madrid” just as the Buzzcocks’ “Love You More” ends with the words “razor cuts.”

I had to wonder why this song had suddenly been reported. It did not take long to work out. The media had overblown the Raheem Sterling incident. That Chelsea fan had not said those words. The media still needed to prolong their agenda against us. We were in their crosshairs. The shots were taken.

The world was on our case once more.

Sometimes, I hate football.

We walked a few hundred yards along Albert Florian Ut – a famous player from Ferencvaros’past – and caught a taxi cab in to town. After a couple of beers in a gorgeous curved bar on Kiraly Ut, we returned back to the first bar that we frequented the previous day, but we only had time for a single pint before the place closed at midnight.

We slept well.

On the Friday, I had my own magical mystery tour planned. I left the others to their own devices, and caught a tube into the city centre and then out to the south-eastern suburbs to the area of Kispest, home to the fabled Honved Football Club. There was simply no way that I was going to let a trip to Budapest slip by without an attempt to take a few photographs of the former playground of Ferenc Puskas and his famous team mates.

At Kobanya-Kispest station, I still had a forty-five-minute walk ahead of me. It was a cold morning, with a frost, but I set off with a smile. My little mission reminded me of my youth travelling around Europe, heading off to see a city’s football stadium rather than its art galleries and museums. Kispest is a decidedly grubby and working class suburb, full of graffiti’d houses, towering blocks, small shops, tram lines and churches. After half an hour, I spotted two of Honved’s leaning floodlight pylons and my heart leapt. It was a beautiful sight. I waited at a crossing as a train passed, then approached the Bozsik Jozsef Stadium. I was soon learning that in Hungary, the surname always comes before the “first” name. The stadium was guarded by a gate and a security guard did not allow me in to take photographs.

“Bollocks.”

I noted a nearby plaque in memory of Puskas Ferenc, and a wreath. The turnstiles were dilapidated but they spoke of a million memories. I walked away from the stadium, and took some snaps of its heavily iconic leaning floodlights.

So Eastern European.

I wandered along a very quiet road, and was just pondering my next move when a miracle happened in deepest Kispest.

On the other side of the road, walking along the pavement by the perimeter wall of the stadium was Sam. Sam is a fellow Chelsea supporter. We do not know each other well, but we “nod” every time we see each other. As I crossed the road, we both exclaimed “what are you doing here?”

Sam was with Dan, a Chelsea fan from London, whose father’s family are from Budapest. Sam was staying with Dan’s family. And here is where things got interesting. Dan’s father – Kalman, another fan I “nod” to when I see him – had arranged for the two of them to meet an employee of Honved. So, we walked back to the security guard, and after a phone-call, all three of us were allowed in. My camera was primed.

We met Vince, who is the director of Honved’s youth academy, and we were given a twenty-minute tour of the academy building, where one hundred boys live and study, and then the entrance hall to the main stand and the stadium itself. I was in my element. What luck. What beautiful luck.

Vince explained that Jozsef Bozsik was the first Hungarian player to gain one hundred international caps. I found it endearing that Honved’s stadium was named in honour of him and not the more famous Puskas. Vince told us that Puskas’ house was within spitting distance of the stadium.

Most incredible of all, Vince told us that in January, the club will play its last game at the current stadium before it is demolished and a new stadium is built on the same site. The current one, a very low bowl with a capacity of 15,000, will be replaced by a new one of just 8,000. We gasped when we heard it was going to be that small.

But Hungary does not have a strong league these days. And Budapest is rich in football clubs. I suppose the club knows its support. In the meantime, Honved are going to share with another club in the city. My work colleague Marton, who runs a company in Budapest, detailed his take on the city’s football landscape in an email to me a while back, once he heard I was visiting. He does not support one team, but has had spells supporting a few of the teams, mainly due to friendships along the way. He even helped form a team which plays in the lower leagues. He admitted that Ferencvaros has the aura and history.

He then summed things up.

“But Ferencvaros are supported by Nazis. Honved are supported by communists. MTK by Jews.”

He did not mention the support base of Ujpest Dosza. Nor Vasas Budapest.

The visit to Honved over, I said my goodbyes to Sam.

“Amazing, Chris. See you in Brighton.”

With that, I hopped into a cab which had just stopped a few feet away.

“MTK Stadium please.”

I was on my way again.

Within twenty minutes, I was stood outside the utilitarian and ultra-modern Hidegkuti Nandor Stadion. This was hugely different to the archaic charm of Honved. The old MTK stadium stood on the same site – it is where that God-awful “Escape To Victory” was filmed – but this new structure was rebuilt in 2016. Sadly, I could not enter, but I took a few photographs as the cold wind chilled me. If I had stepped inside, I would not have liked what I would have seen. The new stadium only holds 5,500 and there are only concrete walls behind both goals. If this is post-modern football, then count me out. Hidegkuti was a team mate of Puskas and part of the fabled Hungarian team that humbled England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and 7-1 in Budapest a year later. I believe that MTK were known as Red Banner when they played Chelsea in a midweek friendly at Stamford Bridge in 1954. Hidegkuti certainly played in that match.

Alongside the brutal angles of the MTK stadium, I recognised the older and more ornate sandy coloured brickwork of the day’s third stadium.

BKV Elore play in the national third division, and do not have any famous players. But they surely have one of the most beautiful stands left in Europe. I had read about its charms on a fellow WordPress site last summer and was now able to see it in person. I made my way past the entrance – open to the public – and fell in love with the dark brown of the wooden roof, the angled staircases, the viewing platforms, the innate beauty of it all. On the other three sides of the pitch, there is nothing, just a yellow and blue perimeter fence. There seemed to be a bar tagged on to the stadium, and I ventured in from the street side. Down below at the bottom of some stairs, ten plates of biscuits were laid out on a table. I wondered what on earth was going on. This didn’t look like a bar to me. Maybe it was part of a fundraising event. I stepped outside again.

Originally, I had plans to travel north to visit Ujpest’s stadium too, but time was against me now. I walked back in to town so that I could waltz past the Puskas Ferenc Stadium – formerly the Nep Stadion – which is being rebuilt, but access was impossible. The photographs I took of that stadium are not worthy of sharing. If I ever return to Budapest, I’ll need to visit this new national stadium, plus maybe Ujpest and Vasas too.

But I did OK on this trip to Budapest.

Four stadia in two days.

I met up with the boys at the Pointer Pub again and we laughed our way through five more pints.

In the morning, Budapest was covered in snow as a cab picked us up one final time and took us from our digs on Vorosmarty Utca to the airport.

With a heavy heart, we left this quite stunning city, rich in history and rich in football.

I would love to return.

 

Tales From The Long Road To Baku

Chelsea vs. PAOK : 29 November 2018.

As we set off for the game, with PD driving alongside Lord Parky, and yours truly in the backseat, I spoke to my travelling companions.

“You have to wonder why we’re going tonight, don’t you? We’re already through. It’s hardly an important game.”

PD soon took the bait.

“Yeah, but we love our football, Chrissy.”

Indeed we do.

Indeed we do love our football.

Guilty as charged.

PD battled the evening traffic and some appalling weather as I relaxed in the rear seats. I drifted off to sleep on a couple of occasions. I had been awake since 5.30pm. By the time we reached our usual parking spot at around 6.30pm – three hours after we had left – I was suitably refreshed.

In the busy “Simmons Bar” at the southern end of the North End Road, I met up with some friends from near and far. It was good to see Neil from Guernsey again for the first time in a while. He was with his brother Daryl, alongside Gary, Alan, Duncan, Lol and Ed and all seemed to be making good use of the two bottles of “Staropramen” for a fiver deal. On the exact anniversary of his first ever game at Stamford Bridge, Eric from Toronto soon appeared and we bought each other a bottle of “Peroni.” He is over for a few games. His enthusiasm was boiling over and he was met with handshakes and hugs from my little gaggle of mates. Prahlad, now living temporarily in Dusseldorf, but originally from Atlanta, was present too, and it was fantastic to see him once more. The Chuckle Brothers first met him for a good old pre-match in Swansea two seasons ago. He was with his wife; her first game, I am sure. Brenda, who runs the Atlanta Blues, was in the pub too, with another Atlantan, Ryan; his first game at Stamford Bridge for sure.

Everyone together.

Chelsea fans from England; South London, Essex, Somerset, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire. From Guernsey. Chelsea fans from Canada. Chelsea fans from the US.

These foreign visitors are not tourists in my book. They are Chelsea supporters. Tourists – that most derided of all at Chelsea and other football clubs in this day and age – happen to find themselves in London and decide to go to a game at Chelsea as part of the London experience. Another box ticked. Buckingham Palace. The Houses of Parliament. Oxford Street. The Tower of London. The Fullers Brewery. Harry fucking Potter. An “EPL” game. Check, check, check, check, check, check, check.

Eric joked with me; “See I am assimilating nicely. Not wearing a Chelsea shirt this time.”

We laughed.

Prahlad was assimilating nicely too. As he said his goodbyes, I tapped him on the shoulder –

“Nice Moncler jacket, mate. You thought I didn’t notice, didn’t you?”

It was his time to laugh.

Off we trotted to the game. We had heard warnings of many away fans travelling over without tickets – something that Chelsea will be doing when we visit Budapest in a fortnight – but I didn’t see any Greeks outside Stamford Bridge. As I walked with Eric past the touts and the souvenir stalls and the general hubbub of a match day, I heard voices from almost a century ago; my grandfather walking the exact same steps –

“Shall we get a rosette, Ted?”

“I’d rather have a pint of beer, Ted.”

There was a quick bag check and we were in. Eric had a ticket in the West Lower. I’d see him at the Fulham game and the one at Wolves too.

Inside the stadium, the three thousand visitors were stood, and were hoisting banners and flags ahead of the game. There were yawning gaps in the top corners of the East Upper, and similar gaps in the West Upper too. After 39,000 gates against BATE and Vidi, this one might not reach those heights.

But these tickets were only twenty quid. Here was a good chance for our local fans to attend a match at Stamford Bridge; to be bitten by the bug, for peoples’ support to be raised a few notches.

But I was sure that there would be moans about “tourists” the following morning…

For a few moments before the teams entered the pitch, I moved over to the seats to my right, which look down on the West Lower, and which give a slightly different perspective. In my desire to photograph every square foot of Stamford Bridge, it allowed me a few new shots.

The teams took to the pitch and I returned to my usual seat in The Sleepy Hollow.

The team was basically a “B Team.”

Arrizabalaga

Zappacosta – Christensen – Cahill – Emerson

Barkley – Fabregas – Loftus-Cheek

Pedro – Giroud – Hudson-Odoi

This was a chance to see how a couple of our youngsters might shape up. In the first-half, our Callum was right over in the opposite corner to me; in the second-half, he would be closer. After seeing him play in Australia, and then again at Wembley in the Community Shield, here was a rare start.

We began with all the ball, and on just seven minutes, our position improved further still. With Olivier Giroud chasing a loose ball, a PAOK defender lunged awkwardly at the ball. Giroud tumbled and the referee from Estonia flashed a red. Off went Yevhen Khacheridi. Sadly, Cesc Fabregas shot meekly from the resulting free-kick.

There were attempts on goal from Hudson-Odoi and Giroud. Very soon into the match, Fabregas began sending a few lovely balls from deep towards our forwards. Of course, Jorginho and Fabregas – although both playing right in the middle – are wildly different players, but it was a real pleasure to see Cesc pinging a few beauties to Giroud and Pedro. Pedro took one down immaculately and forced a fine save from their ‘keeper Paschalakis.

A chance fell for Loftus-Cheek and his effort was tipped wide.

The away fans, dressed predominantly in black, and overwhelmingly male and under the age of thirty-five, made a constant din throughout the opening period of the half. They were not the loudest away fans that I had ever heard at Chelsea – I seem to remember Olympiakos, their countrymen, making more noise – but this lot were non-stop. It was stirring stuff.

On twenty-seven minutes, another magnificent ball from Fabregas found Pedro, who controlled magnificently. He spotted Giroud outside him, and he rolled the ball to his right. The finish from Giroud, struck with instinct with his left foot, was perfectly placed into the PAOK goal.

Stavros #1 : “They’ll have to come at us now, peeps.”

Stavros #2 : “Come on my little diamonds, innit.”

Hudson-Odoi went close just after, his curler from distance dropping into the bar with the ‘keeper beaten. There had been a solid effort from Ross Barkley too. Ten minutes after his opener, Giroud doubled our lead. Another Fabregas ball dropped at Giroud’s feet, but his finish was made to look easier than it must have been. Another first-time finish, volleyed home at the far post, the ball squeezed in between the frame of the goal and the luckless ‘keeper.

Amid some fine quality, there was time for a wild shot from Davide Zappacosta which went off for a throw-in.

PAOK’s attacks were rare. A sublime block from Gary Cahill nulled the best chance of their half.

The half-time whistle blew and we were well worth the 2-0 lead. On every seat back, a sticker advertising “The Fifth Stand” had been applied. It seemed that a private game had been taking place in the row behind me; our mate Rousey – he was oblivious – had been “stickered” by many. He even had one sticker stuck on his ski hat. The back of his coat was covered.

I whispered to Alan :

“Not the first time Rousey is going to end up with a lot of sticky residue on his jacket.”

“I dare to think about it” replied Alan.

The match programme, a better read this season I think, produced a few interesting morsels. The news of our game in the summer in Japan was detailed. I won’t be going; Tokyo in 2012 for the World Club Championships was a pristine, sublime and wonderful memory. I won’t be going back. It would only pale, I think, in comparison. But I am keen to see where else we are headed in the summer. This was our one-hundredth and seventeenth home game at Stamford Bridge in all European competitions, and we have lost just eight. I always remember the sadness of our unbeaten record going against Lazio in 2000. But eight out of one hundred and sixteen is phenomenal. I have – sadly? Is that the correct word? – been at all of the defeats. Throughout all the defeats, though, nothing hurts more than the Iniesta goal in 2009 and the resulting draw. There were nice profiles of Tommy Baldwin and Peter Houseman, players from my childhood, and who played in the first two games that I saw way back in 1974.

Into the second-half, and our dominance continued. The away team, so obviously lacking the class to combat us, would have found it hard to prise open a vacuum-packed packet of feta cheese, let alone our defence. But their fans were still making tons of noise.

A fine run from Loftus-Cheek – looking loose and confident – forced another good save from the PAOK ‘keeper. Then, the ball was played out to Hudson-Odoi by Fabregas. He took a quick touch and then shimmied a little before striking, the ball being whipped in at the near post with Paschalakis beaten. I just missed “shooting” his shot, but I caught his joyful celebratory run into our corner.

This was just lovely to see. The players swarmed around him. I have to pinch myself to think that our Callum is just eighteen years of age.

Ethan Ampadu replaced Zappacosta and took his place in front of Maurizio Sarri and the towering East Stand.

Willian replaced Pedro.

The away fans still sung.

Olivier Giroud – a great performance – was replaced by Alvaro Morata.

After only three minutes, Cahill pushed the ball towards Hudson-Odoi. He soon spotted the presence of Morata in the box, and his cross was simply faultless. Morata jumped and timed his leap to perfection, even though he was sandwiched between two defenders. It was a classic header – why does his heading ability remind me of Peter Osgood? – and the net was soon rippling.

Chelsea 4 PAOK 0.

Perfect.

Against the bubbles, we hardly squeaked it.

The away supporters among the 33,000 crowd were still singing. Their performance throughout the night was very commendable. As a comparison, I have to sadly report that this was the first Chelsea game that I can ever remember in which I did not sing a single note. However, I wasn’t the only one. It was a sad sign of the times.

With a midday kick-off coming up on Sunday, I am not overly hopeful that the atmosphere will be much better, London derby or not.

But I’ll be there.

I’ll see you in the pub.